Personal

Investment and love

Dan Ariely on why we love our kids so much (and more than others):

Kids really come with no instructions. Very tough to deal with, difficult, complex, but incredibly involving and time consuming and I think the love that comes out of it is an example of the effect of a tremendous investment.

Big man power

Conor Dunne, patron saint of tall cyclists, shows what it would take for me to ride in the WorldTour:

“The average rider would do well to be able to hold 390w for five minutes,” he adds. “For Conor to be able to sustain that for over four and a half hours in this bike race shows you how much you have to have in the tank to compete at this level.”

Micro-activities

Since becoming a father I’ve had trouble fitting in all the things I’d like to do, so I’m always on the lookout for ways to combine two activities together, or to squeeze one in between two others. A few examples of these “micro-activities” that have worked out well:

  • Meditate while falling asleep
  • Pushups as I roll out of bed
  • Bodyweight exercise on playground equipment while the kids play
  • Mindful breathing while waiting for them to finish things (brushing teeth, putting away toys, etc)
  • Squat stretch while brushing teeth
  • Naps during lunch break (and related, lunch during meetings)
  • Squats and stretches while riding the elevator (alone =)

The way these work best is when the activities are in two separate cognitive or physical categories. I haven’t been able, for instance, to listen to a podcast while working (which both require cognitive attention), or to intersperse pushups with cooking (both require your hands). But a physical activity while doing a mental one can work (e.g. pullups while watching the kids).

Mindfulness in particular is well suited for this. Besides the fact that a single 20-minute session is hard to stay focused for anyway, spreading bits of meditation throughout the day has a nice regulating effect on my mood and attention. Chade Meng Tan encourages people to practice just a single breath at a time, finding that produces a large benefit; I agree.

Notes from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

This book surprised me by actually living up to its title. I expected a collection of “life hacks” and instead found a crisp new philosophy of focus and priority.

The Big Idea

The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.

Decide which things in your life bring you true joy, and get rid of the rest. If something used to bring you joy, or you think it could bring you joy in the future, thats not good enough. Joyless items not only fail in their core duty of improving your life, but also block and distract from the things that do bring you joy.

This of course applies to physical items, but can be extended to relationships, jobs, and activities. Ruthlessly discard joyless things!

5 Favorite Quotes

  • When you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order, too. As a result, you can see quite clearly what you need in life and what you don’t, and what you should and shouldn’t do.

  • When we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.

  • The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.

  • The best way to find out what we really need is to get rid of what we don’t.

  • Human beings can only truly cherish a limited number of things at one time.

Next Steps

I’m going to “tidy up” next week!

Like human-powered flight

My sentiments exactly:

Riding bikes is the closest any of us can come to human-powered flight, and the fact that we just happen to still be connected to the ground doesn’t diminish from the sensation.

Teach courage, not caution

As far as the education of children is concerned, I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but a love of one’s neighbor and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.

Anything and everything

Carson tonight, from under a towel:

Dad, I can’t see anything! I can only see everything.

He must have been reading William Blake and Wallace Stevens.

Six steps to sorry

Love this framework from Charley Scandlyn on how to apologize:

  1. I did this (Acknowledgement)
  2. It was wrong (Understanding)
  3. I’m sorry (Remorse)
  4. Please forgive me (Request)
  5. I commit to new behavior (Repentance)
  6. I will do the work I need to do to repair the damage I have caused (Restoration)

Selfishness and happiness

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe…(2) we’re separate from the universe…and (3) we’re permanent. Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving…

And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE. If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit.

A lovely and probably quite surprising graduation speech by writer George Saunders. The most interesting part of becoming a parent to me was certainly how explicit the choice was between my (continued) selfishness and their happiness.

Thoughts on a year of Headspace

As I mentioned in my 2015 wrapup, this past year I practiced mindfulness meditation with Headspace. I wrapped up another “pack” this morning and thought it would be useful to collect some thoughts on the various approaches I’ve learned and the experience overall.

  • My main insight was that training the mind really is like training the body. It benefits from consistent practice, varied techniques, planned routines, and even interval training (alternating periods of focus and relaxation). Similarly, the mind can become detrained without regular training, and I noticed a real difference in my mental state after just a few days without practicing.
  • That said, I wasn’t very consistent with my practice, averaging a little less than one session every two days, and sometimes going up to two weeks between sessions (often caused by travel or illness disrupting my routine). Contrast that with some people who mention online that they’ve had a streak of 90 or even 365 days straight, and I wonder how their experience differs. I managed to maintain an overall sense of peace that persists even after a few days off, but some of the more advanced techniques and benefits didn’t stick around.
  • The only way I was able to fit this into my day is by waking up earlier. If I start my day with meditation (after a few wakeup stretches), I’m much better at staying focused. Once I’ve done much of anything else, my mind is too distracted to have a successful session.
  • Meditating on the breath always seemed to me an arbitrary choice–why not on a concept or a sound (like “om“). However, I gradually came to appreciate it, as your breath is always with you (and if it’s not, you have bigger problems than mindfulness), and doesn’t require conscious effort to maintain. When the goal is to clear away distracting conscious thoughts, the breath is a handy aid.
  • I was initially skeptical of the “pack” approach unique to Headspace, but it too proved itself over time. It’s nice to break down what could be a lifelong practice into manageable chunks, giving you a tangible goal every 10 or 30 days. And while I started each pack wondering how meditation was supposed to improve a skill like creativity or generosity, every time there was indeed a helpful insight or new practice. A few examples and reviews:
    • Focus was the first pack I tried. What stuck with me is the sense that sustainable focus isn’t something static and fixed, but rather the ability to steer your attention to different things at will–a dynamic experience. I wrote about how my son exhibits this trait naturally, but it was a new (or renewed?) practice for me. I continue to use the visualization of a glowing sphere moving through the parts of the body when I’m cycling, especially during hard efforts, to keep my overall attention on the body’s performance and prevent my mind from wandering.
    • Anxiety was next, and while this was a natural emotion for meditation to help, the approach was again surprising. The technique instructs you to first name, and then categorize, whatever stressful thoughts enter your mind. You might think of a difficult project at work, for example, which you could then give a title, mark as “negative”, and label as a “thinking” anxiety. The simple act of acknowledging the thought can be enough for your mind to let it go, a bit like how writing down an important todo item lets you relax mentally–it’s no longer your mind’s responsibility to keep track of it.
    • Appreciation was a nice shorter one and quite related to Generosity. In both cases you’re instructed to think about who and what makes you the happiest and most fulfilled, and the goal is to cultivate that feeling (rather than, say, translate into direct action). I found Generosity more valuable overall, as you extend that feeling toward others and into the world.
    • Creativity was a bit of a slog. 30 sessions, and again the goal was mostly to recognize the “feeling” of being creative. It introduced one nice technique though, the idea of rapidly alternating between focus on the breath and “letting go of the mind”, which trains you in the art of smoothly entering into a focused state at a moment’s notice. During this series I found myself better able to do “micro-meditations” throughout my regular day.
    • I’ve only tried 10 days of Headspace Pro, the packs with less guidance and no particular theme. I did find them more challenging, and less motivating, than the themed packs, and haven’t been back recently. Hopefully more consistent practice will make them accessible again.

I continue to find new benefits from Headspace, even after a year and over 150 sessions. Here’s to another year of mindfulness!