Category Archives: Kaizen

what would you miss?

Yesterday I completed my one year scan. It was both anti-climactic and stressful all the same.

If this comes back with results similar to the last test then I’m in good shape. If it doesn’t then I’ll need to see where things stand. At minimum there would be another biopsy involved with a round of interpretation and all that entails. Has it transformed into something scarier? Is it growing? …?

This time I had the appointment scheduled at Kaiser Oakland. Thankfully it didn’t involve a trailer. I learned by asking the tech that Kaiser outsourced their PET/CT services to a third party, hence the trailer and somewhat variable service in the past. The Oakland offices were downright plush.

I was anxious all day. Too anxious to even write this post. I ended up doing some small tasks that needed to get done, and many others that required little brain power. After several failed attempts to be productive I gave up. I decided instead to make a jar of homemade Ghee and play with the kids. As I scooped the frothy milk solids from the top of the melting butter I was reminded how the small pleasures never really make it to the top of the priority queue. But they are mighty important. A focus on craft, toward elusive perfection, transcends any given activity. Perfection is more a state of being, less an output. Making that Ghee was probably the most satisfying part of my day.

Find as many opportunities to practice perfection as you can – regardless how seemingly meaningless the task. Actually, the more menial activities might be better because there’s no pressure. I’ve been lately trying to build in as many of these moments as possible to combat my natural tendency to do things just good-enough. I think I created this pernicious habit in misguided attempts to squeeze ever more into short days… which may achieve that aim. I can tell you that this comes at the cost of satisfaction! This habit of focusing on perfection is a good antidote. The trick is to choose those areas of focus wisely.

What is it you would miss if your time was cut short?

That was the main question I sat with in the darkness, as the radioactive isotopes mixed with my blood and organs. It’s easy to get caught up in nonsense when pondering the big ideas. This question cuts through most of the cruff. And good answers here seem a solid input to pipe into the bigger, more ambiguous questions such as, what do I really care about?

While I aspire to more the truth is today I’m trying to remain calm while waiting for these results. Frankly, I’m not doing a very good job of it. But I did make some pretty great Ghee.

Test results by Friday.

Ghee whiz

Do Less

We flew back from Boston a few days ago. I’ve encountered my share of turbulence on planes but this was the worst I had ever experienced. The metallic rattling of luggage in the overheads was sickening. I imagined getting torn to bits at 30k feet. I looked down at Lev, my boy, in the next seat. I noticed his thick wavy hair, freckled cheeks – pure boyishness! He was calmly staring at the seat ahead. And I thought that if this really was the end, our last moments, that I would just want to appreciate all that he is and tell him I love him. Not much else would matter.

It’s hard to find that level of focus in the daily grind. Too many tasks and details, always humming in the background. Often I’ve found that making a game of things can help. There can be a certain pleasure in doing mundane things. Some of these things really need to get done and are unavoidable. But too many others are the result of our own confusion/tendencies; it would be virtuous to recognize when we’re adding unnecessary complexity to our lives and to ruthlessly weed that out.

Last month I did a Pareto analysis on my 2019, identifying the 20% of activities that drove 80% of benefits. I basically went through my calendar, weekly notes/goals and photos, and picked out whatever drove the most impact and personal satisfaction. Given how much I sorted through (and how short the list was!) suggested I should be doing less! For example one activity I found satisfaction in (and missed when I didn’t do it) is writing. As a result I’ve committed to doing more of this in 2020.

I’ve always thought a great measure of whether one is focused on the right things comes from Nietzche’s Demon, basically: if given the choice, when this day is over, would you want to repeat it? Would you want to do it all again? If it’s a resounding yes then you’ve done well. If not, well, that might be worth exploring.

It’s important to keep in mind that the trajectory matters more than the instance. I prefer to think of this as the area under the curve vs. the instantaneous blip; it might be bumpy but that might also mean it’s really worth doing (i.e., large area). Some days we just don’t feel like doing whatever the obligation is. That’s very different than feeling like one’s actual arc is off-course, that they’re sailing on the wrong ship. One might not have loved the day they just had but consistency, professionalism and discipline are essential and non-negotiable. That should smooth out over time.

I think a good way to address this challenge is to extend the time horizon to a month or quarter and run the visualization/thought experiment prospectively: if given the choice when this <quarter> is over, would I want to repeat it? Personally I’ve found this to be quite a useful approach.

The other way to do this is to track daily satisfaction and analyze the trends retrospectively. One way to do this is with a daily tracker: Rank your overall emotional satisfaction on some scale (I use: -2 to +2, 0 being ‘meh‘) and monitor over a quarter. If the score is below some level of acceptability (the bar) then it’s probably time to change it up.  

Pursuing Solace

Solace. Where do you find it?

As a kid I was shy, skinny and lived in fear way more than I’d care to admit. One of the things I particularly hated was middle school swim practice. Not only were my awkward limbs on full display in a speedo, but I had bad asthma too (I used an inhaler multiple times a day). So what would happen is during swim practice I would get slapped on my feet, sometimes even grabbed and pulled back like the counterweight in a horizontal elevator system, accelerating the puller. 

At the start of practice there were moments of free swim during which we, kids, could ostensibly have some fun. Mostly this time manifested in various creative forms of meanness. That wasn’t so memorable. But the escape from it was. 

I found great relief under the water. Here, the cacophonous harsh surface of land animals gave way to silence and grace. My racing brain could slow down and take in the moment. Bliss. Here I learned to calm myself, realizing I could stay underwater longer that way with my otherwise skimpy lung sac capacity. Though conventional wisdom says we should breathe to calm ourselves, it was actually the absence of breath that got me there. From behind my blue-tinged goggles I would see dissociated limbs from those horrible kids carving smooth shapes beneath the surface. It was great.

Today I find solace in activities that I think of as ‘deep work’ or flow activities. It still feels like going under water to me. Always. The noise of the world falls away, leaving that same serenity. It’s in these activities: writing (e.g., this post!), coding, analysis, running etc. that the magic happens. 

Having tracked this off and on for years I find that actually there is something of a dose-response curve here: the dose is hours of focused work per week, the response is emotional well being. Without a minimum dose of weekly ‘flow’ (about 12 hours/week) my emotional state suffers.

In a very real way keeping this blog is like an insurance policy towards preserving sanity. So thank you for reading!

2020, already 37% better

This will be a year of new beginnings and greatness. That’s so easy to say at the beginning of the journey, right? But don’t be fooled. If you’ve been doing the work all along then the journey is of course a continuation of the past, it’s just marked with a somewhat arbitrary timestamp. 

Take this morning. I dropped into the gym for an early workout. I’ve been trying to fix a nagging knee issue for some time as I try to up my weekly running mileage. I did some treadmill work since it’s a bit easier on the knee than running outside. I was about to leave but decided to throw in a few squats just because I felt like it. The squat is a really hard move for me, always has been for whatever reason. I planned to do one set for a handful of reps just to test my strength. First set felt good. Then the second. Then a third. I kept adding plates. By the 6th set I was squatting literally 37% more than last week (which I calculated based on 1 rep max to normalize). 

That’s not because “2020 is sooo amazing!”. It’s because I’ve been working my butt off (literally, my glutes are the weak part of the chain, causing the knee issue) for the past 2 months and today was a breakthrough. That’s how this game works, like adding fire to a pot of water: looks like nothing happening, then suddenly, magic, it boils! This would not have been nearly so interesting, or notable, if I didn’t have a baseline of hard workouts and self-doubt behind me (I f-ing hate squats and I’m not built to do them, etc.). 

I realized that I’ve gotten accustomed to getting good at the slog without a feeling of payoff for so long that I almost forgot that in fact there can be breakthroughs and progress, highs associated with winning. Not that this example is anything particularly impressive or awesome in the grand scheme, but it was one of those little personal wins that affirms that progress is possible. 

So where’s the limit? How far can this go? I’m not sure but this morning I was handed a lofty assignment – see the video (1:30 onward if you’re in a rush).

Here’s to 2020 being a year for asking bigger questions…and maybe even answering some of them!

the space between sets

If you asked me as a teenager I would have told you the payoff of workouts was in the primal aspects of the activity, the immediate feelings. It was about seeing how hard I could push the body. All that adolescent aggression had to get channelled somehow. This was easy and satisfying. It was about adrenaline, the ‘pump’.

Later it was about the effects of the workout, over a longer time period, seeing the progress of lifting x yesterday, x+1 today. Or running a 400 lap at some pace, then shaving seconds off of it next time. Or running a race faster year over year. That is, the results were the focus.

It’s still about all those things. But during treatment, and ever since, I’ve noticed something interesting; the main benefit, and frankly the key motivator, is in the space between sets, in the process itself.

Generally how it works is some maximal exertion, like heavy deadlifts, is followed by a quick 1-2 minute sit on the floor – usually with a notebook to capture random ideas or plan the day. I try my best to fill the whitespace with something useful – which includes just feeling good. The key though is bringing my awareness to these moments (they were, of course always there!). I’ve shifted my focus and it makes a difference.

So if I workout lasts 45 minutes and did 15 sets of strength training (allowing for transitions etc.) that’s still a solid 15+ minutes of clear-headed thought. There’s an after-effect as well that seems to last a good part of the day. That’s more than I would get in a typical ‘sit’ and actually feels much more energizing. It’s probably the clearest thinking I do.

I’ve been trying to ask this of myself lately: what might I notice and appreciate in the whitespace of everyday experience?