Last night at the gym I went back to the squat rack after several weeks. I did a warm up set, followed by three sets of 5, 3, and 2 reps respectively. After the 2-rep set, Thomas told me to unload the bar. We were moving on to the next exercise.
“So, only one set of two reps is sufficient to develop strength or something?” I asked.
“No, that was just a test. I wanted to know if you could still manage the heaviest load you’d lifted before.” He said.
He then explained that he is trying to optimize my output by not spending unnecessary effort to maintain my strength level. “We just want to do enough so we allow ourselves time to work on other aspects of your fitness.”
That got me thinking. That line of thought is what often occupies my mind: return on investment. ROI. Optimize, improve productive capacity, declutter, experiment in the perennial battle against time.
And I’ve noticed a few things about my capacity to concentrate and get things done.
On any given day, my ability to focus decreases with the passage of time. After a good night of sleep, I have access to higher levels of intelligence for a good 5 to 6 hours. After that, typically after lunch, things deteriorate. I can always get a second wind by using certain hacks (cold shower, 1-mile sprint, or a quick nap) but they never take me back to the morning peak. (I’m writing this post at 10pm).
It’s as if I had a finite number of attention tokens with different values that are spent throughout the day. I have more tokens at my disposal in the morning and I get to use the higher value ones. In the afternoon and evening, I am left with the dimes and nickles and, later on, I only have pennies left and I find myself watching Casey Neistat and Vsauce on YouTube.
I guess that it follows that, to manage my tokens wisely, I should use them to buy value-add items: time, peace of mind, well-being, fitness, revenue, fun stuff.
But then, to maximize those items, I am always inclined to invest in learning about productivity tricks, mind hacks, health and fitness experiments…
… the more I learn, the more packed my day gets with tips, tricks, hacks and experiments. And once my day is filled, I continue writing tricks and hacks in a mental to-do list to complete on an “ideal day,” “when I get there”. The ideal day then never comes, and I feel anxious.
The overload makes me useless.
So, I had to come up with three guidelines to get some positive “R” on the “I”:
- Don’t try more than two or three new experiments at a time. This idea hinges on the concept of finite attention tokens. Even though each experiment may be beneficial in isolation, I shouldn’t spend all my tokens in multiple experiments at the same time because their benefits end up diluted in cognitive overload. The other bonus of this guideline is its FOMO-disarming effect: no anxiety about not using this or that other seemingly amazing secret mind hack.
- Eliminate redundancy. There are certain activities that provide the benefits of other activities, therefore, I shouldn’t worry about having to complete both on the same day. Case in point is trail running and meditation. I went on a 7-mile trail run last weekend in Malibu Creek in the morning, it’s been raining for the last several weeks and the trails are muddy and devoid of humans. Running in nature for an hour, listening to no music other than the sound of the water had the effect of purifying my brain pathways. My mind remained clean and clear for the rest of the day. Sitting down to meditate would have been redundant.
Other examples I can think of are: writing a blog post vs. writing a journal post, they have different outcomes but the effect is the same in a very fundamental way: develop new mental circuits, rewire the brain… the same goes for writing down 10 ideas a day vs. taking notes while reading a book… and how about sleeping vs. exercising? Are they redundant? Some say yes.
- Declutter. I shouldn’t be afraid of eliminating habits or routines once they no longer work, stopped being fun, or have been rendered obsolete by other habits. For example, I used to go to the chiropractor every two weeks and, between driving, chatting, and being treated, I’d spend a good hour. Now the chiro is no longer needed (knock on wood) due to the comprehensive fitness regime I started over nine months ago. Tennis… I grew up playing and living it purposefully, but it hasn’t been the same since I moved to the U.S. 15 years ago. After a decade of resistance, I finally took an indefinite hiatus last year. Gotta learn to let go and move on.
Note to self: have a check point every three months to take inventory on habits, reflect on the 3 guidelines and see if there are candidates for elimination, substitution, or if there is room to experiment new things.