Game of Patterns

When I look back at my life, I can see a few interesting patterns in the ways I have lived so far. If you are reading this, here is a fun game for you. Tick the checkboxes and we can have a similarity score (visible at the bottom of this list once you have selected some line)

When there is a well target defined with a well-defined path, I can power through, and get good (sometimes very good) results. (For me, getting into a top school, success in getting good grades in college, success in cracking many leetcode-style job interviews, etc. are good examples of these.)

But when the goal or the journey is ambiguous, I miserably fail. (Failed products that I developed in the past which never were completed, new shiny technical skills I tried learning which I later abandoned, my guitar and piano in the corner of the house, etc. are all big examples of these.)

I have achieved the best results when either my ego was involved, or I had skin in the game with no other way out.

I never had, and do not still have, the risk-taking appetite to leave a full-time job to try starting something on my own. And since I had a job acting as a net to fall back to, I was never really motivated to finish the products I started developing.

On the same line of thought, motivation has never worked for me. I have started various projects and activities with a bang and ended with a fizzle once or twice every year in the last 20 years of my life. I have learned a lot of things in the process, so I will give it well-deserved credit though.

Discipline does not stick with me either, especially if I am working alone. I absolutely love competition, lack of which kills my interest pretty soon. But, I only love competition as long as I feel there is a chance of winning. A lot of times have I found myself in situations where the opponent was too strong for me to even continue, let alone think about winning.

If I keep winning, I eventually will get bored and quit. If I keep losing, I will quit, but sooner.

I am also a sore loser initially, but am able to introspect and learn from failures well.

Procrastination is a big problem for me when it comes to doing ambiguous tasks. It is hard to get started and find a good direction.

On the topic of ambiguous tasks, I find myself utterly under-creative before getting started but buzzing with ideas and plans after kick-starting things.

Already covered, but again to reiterate. Things without goals or with moving goals never materialize.

I love creating plans. So much that I almost always quit during implementation, and jump on to creating new "better" plans.

I love creating lists. Too many to keep track of them. I now have more lists created and lost than I have tabs open in my browser.

I keep too many "I will read it later" articles open in my browser, both on my laptop and on phone. Eventually, the browser crashes, and I lose them all. And the cycle starts again.

I have a poor short term memory and a poorer long term memory. Yet, I do not put consistent effort in spaced repetition, even though it has worked for me before.

I have a decently good CPU (decent brain with good problem solving), but I have a pathetic memory (RAM and disk) and a huge problem with context switching (my attention span is abysmal). Sorry for the poor computer analogy here.

I depend heavily on external factors like competition, praise, and rewards as fuel to keep me achieving results.

It is hard for me to lead in presence of another strong leader. But I lead well when I am the only one looked up to for leadership.

Related to the above point, in hindsight, I just avoid confrontation to the point of going moot, or quitting.

I want to be data-driven, but dread the time investment needed to gather data and make sense out of it. Or I simply procrastinate.

Again, related to the previous point, I sometimes get lost in details, and then it becomes hard for me to stand back and see the large picture.

Yet again related to the previous two points, while I operate well in various levels of abstraction, what drags me down is operating across multiple layers of abstraction at the same time, or frequent context switching between the levels.

Boredom and/or distraction causes me to zone out in meetings very often, but whenever I have forced myself to pay attention, I have always found the discussion or knowledge worth it.

I do not, fortunately, find myself struggling with coming up with a "perfect" solution to problems, but readily accept the good solutions.

But I, unfortunately, have many times overlooked very good obvious solutions because I was too keen to accept an OK solution. It has resulted in a lot of hurt ego and red-faced discussions.

Trust me, I have tried reading many self-help books. I read them and then forget about them, after trying their suggestions for a few days. My brain talks me into thinking it is all futile, or simply forgets about the learnings. Much later, when I look back I see that few things actually would have worked if I just had stuck with them.

I do not often invest in long term success, and mostly prioritize urgent over important actions, and short/medium term wins over long term ones.

I get caught in doing too many things at the same time, and not completing anything at all.

I am bad at making new friends but have a strong "professional" network, and few friends to stand by me when I need them.

I realized long ago to not invest too much time into thinking about things that do not matter in long term. The amount of brainpower spent in thinking about an issue should be proportional to the cost and long term benefit of the issue. Often I use this philosophy well, but sometimes trivial issues eat my brain for days.

I find it hard to be decisive in the face of conflicting data and evidence, or when it comes to assessing the situation qualitatively rather than quantitatively.

I am a hypocrite when it comes to religion. While in my darkest days, I have found solace in religion and stoicism, yet I have never accepted the forms of gods and religion practiced by us humans. It is a controversial topic, and best left out of this post.

Introspection

As I head towards the 4th decade of my life, I often find myself wondering what to change to live a more balanced, fulfilling, relatively stress-free, and happy life. The bigger question here definitely is what will my life look like when I am 50, and then 60, and then 70, and even after that. But when I go around trying to answer this question and then trying to plan my days, months, and years, the daunting reality of life being unpredictable and plans so ahead in the future rarely amounting to anything comes crashing down. It is actually hard to create practical goals and actions for very long term plans. It is harder to change and align yourself with such a long-term vision since details can easily get lost in grandiose hopes and expectations from life.

On vision and planning

I think is good is to have long-term hope and vision (say, for each decade of my life) on a few things like education, career, and finance. And it is better to have medium-term hope and plan (say, per year plan for next 5 years) on things like relationships, children’s education, city/country of residence, learning musical instruments, and next-level (or two) promotions at work. And it is best to have short term (say, monthly and quarterly) plan and habit for things like health and exercise, products I want to create, languages I want to learn, impact I want to have on society and environment, and so on.

Once I have these, it makes it easier to plan my day, week, and months and fill it with actions that align with where I want to be in my life when I am 40, 50, 60, and beyond. The key here is to realize that everything needs to be broken down into short term goals, and plans, and habits, and then trying to ensure short term actions keep me moving in the right direction. Also, it is important to realize that life can throw punches at me that I never expected, and that I have to course-correct and keep moving forward.

On success and quick wins

Something that I have realized is that even when trying to be very productive and efficient in life, it is too easy to get caught in chasing and celebrating quick wins in life and losing sight of the bigger picture and the efforts needed daily for a larger success in future. What I would love to have in my life is to be happy most of the days, but not make “small wins” be the only source of my daily dose of happiness. To give you an example, winning daily battles but losing the war is still a loss. When creating a castle, I definitely want to celebrate small wins of laying bricks perfectly every day with my family, friends, and team, but I also want to create a deep foundation, solid beams, thick walls, and a strong roof in the process.

It also ties to our ability to stand back and question if we are often trading urgent with important.

On character traits and change

If I look at the points mentioned in “Game of patterns”, I realize there are many things in my life I am not happy with and would love to change. If you wonder why I want to change things in my life, the answer is a mix of “having ambitions to do great things in my career”, “keeping my family and friends happy and be there for them”, “securing enough finances for my future”, “leading a relatively stress-free life”, “being fit and healthy now and in future”, and “being proud of myself when I look back in future”.

The truth is change is not easy, especially when I have been developing and repeating these patterns over three and a half decades. Change starts with the ability to identify a need for change, be willing to change, coming up with an action plan and resources to this effect, being willing to put in the hard work needed for the change, and then actually sticking with the plan with conviction, but also course correcting when things are not working as expected.

So far, I have mostly tried acting on my own to identify and drive changes. Books, videos, and blog articles which target the concept of self-help, or metacognition, or make us aware of our place in the world and universe have been somewhat helpful for me being able to identify a need for change. I have had some success with mentors as well for identifying blind spots I could not see (blind spots, duh!). Because I love planning, I have found myself creating elaborate plans (that too often at night) to change my behavior, but I have never really stuck with them long enough to create an impact. I have often found myself running after a better tool, a better approach, or a better aim.

Developing Conviction and Habits: the last leg in the journey

While there are a lot of things I would like to change, it was easy for me to start with low hanging fruits, and work my way upwards. Identifying non-ambiguous goals and making actionable plans seemed a very good way to start. And actually, it might be really hard for me to change things like being more decisive in absence of concrete evidence, but I am sure I will get to the likes of these once a few basics habits are in order.

So looking back, there were few core things in life wanted to tackle first

  1. health and fitness, which also contributes to my overall happiness and sense of success at the end of the day.
  2. spending time with family and friends, which also contributes to my sanity.
  3. putting constant effort dedicated to learning (mixing depth, breadth, and variety in topics)

I have tried fixing these before, but have often abandoned the effort. When I used to do weight training back in the day and was able to deadlift double my weight, or when I was able to run 10KM without much sweat, I found it easy to overlook small improvements that lead to me being able to do these things. When I started on my fitness journey, I had asthmatic symptoms and couldn’t run even a hundred meters without huffing and puffing like a wolf. It took years of practice and daily, small improvements. But I stopped when I was at my peak, mostly because these daily improvements plateaued, I lost sense of improvements I had made over the years, and missing one day did not seem like a huge loss. And from there on it, all went downhill, when one day turned to two days, which turned to one week, and one month and the effort stopped.

It was a tough start again, and I always blamed my lack of motivation. I tried various ways to motivate myself, but it did not work. Then I learned that discipline was better, and I started trying too hard to be disciplined. It was exhausting and easy to slip-up. Then I read Thinking, fast and slow, and it made more sense. Then I learned developing habits are better since they, by definition, should stick. It is then a matter of identifying positive habits and incorporating them into daily routine, and identifying negative habits and trying to get rid of them. Positive habits would be the ones that align with one’s life vision, goals, and plans. Negative habits would be the one which acts as a deterrent in this journey or take us away from our vision and goals.

So far, the one book I have found that has been very effective for me is Atomic Habits. I have read it twice and will read it again a few times till the learnings from the book become second nature. But I have also been developing plans and taking concrete steps to convert actions identified in the plan into habits.

Also, the only tool that I have found myself going back to is a good old excel sheet for tracking habits, and text/markdown files for taking notes and making to-do lists (but now working with emacs and using org-mode).

Few other “mantras” I have accumulated over a period which I find myself going back to are listed below. Please read them with a grain of salt, since your mileage may vary.

  1. Being honest with yourself is the first step to improvement.
  2. Focus on long term planning and execution, and devote some energy daily towards it.
  3. Making and managing a professional and a personal network, and finances, have a huge impact overall.
  4. Frameworks, frameworks, frameworks. Create frameworks for various situations in life.
  5. Manage your reputation. It becomes a basis of the trust others put in you.
  6. Managing time and energy efficiency is very important.
  7. Friendship in a professional situation is good but may come back to bite you. Stay cautious.
  8. Being proactive and responsive are way more important than being reactive (unless you are on-call).
  9. Being decisive is often more valuable than being right. Decisions should come from data, and not feelings.
  10. Always have a long term iterative delivery plan when it comes to projects. Visibility and velocity are important, and also give people time to course-correct if needed.
  11. Have LOTs of ideas when discussing with leaders in the team. Try to stand out as a visionary with a pragmatic approach.
  12. It is very important to be an extreme owner.
  13. Understand your zones of influence and the languages that are spoken in each of the zones. Speak it louder than others in those zones. If you are a developer, nothing is more important than understanding code and tech stack and when you talk to other developers, your mastery over these earns you respect. But the product manager in the team also is in your zone of influence, so keep the discussion customer focussed when you talk to her.
  14. Be crisp in your discussions and thoughts.
  15. Work with a mentor on specific skills.
  16. Everything compounds. Learning, good habits, bad habits, etc.
  17. Manage your health. Very few things in life are more valuable than your health.
  18. Regret minimization framework is a pretty good framework for evaluating the day, week, month, and year.
  19. Knowledge is power. Invest in accumulating it, and invest in keeping it as well.
  20. Be opinionated and vocal about things at work. Develop your opinions based on data and experience, not feelings, and anecdotes.
  21. Be calm at home.
  22. Always be working on the most important thing. Avoid working on sideline things.
  23. Always be asking about the problem statement, a clear definition of success, and the measures of achieving it.
  24. At the end of the day, measure your impact, and understand how your work aligns with long term success.
  25. Earning the trust of others is very important in every aspect of life.
  26. Mental health is very important. Do not get burned out.
  27. Read a lot, and write a lot.
  28. Try not to drop balls; earn and respect the trust others have put in you.
  29. Focus on balanced growth among all areas of implementing, thinking, leading, learning, etc.

Working with habits

I won’t go into details of the book Atomic Habits itself, and I will not be able to do justice to the book even if I try. But here are the three most salient points I have found useful:

  1. Don’t break the chain. But if you do, never miss twice.
  2. Remember: Positive habits compound benefits. Negative habits pull you down in a similar way. Getting 1% better every day (or every week) goes a long way.
  3. Breaking things into actionable chunks is very important.

Framework for developing habits

Trying to get my life in order, and focussing on the core things I wanted to improve, I created an excel sheet which I successfully used for the last one month, and I am satisfied with the results. Here is what the template looks like (and is based on my tracking in Dec-2020), and I am sure you would be able to come up with a variation of it that works better for you. If you feel something would benefit other readers as well, please share with me at hi[AT]littleblah[DOT]com, and I would be happy to incorporate it in the template.

Let me explain the template before I get into details of the results so far.

Sheet “Time Tracker” This is used to track the time of activity in minutes (except for Intermittent Fasting, which is in hours). Each activity (column A) in that sheet has an associated “weight” (column B) showing its importance for me in the day, maximum time I would like to dedicate to that activity for a balanced life (column C), maximum points that can be earned by doing that activity (column D), and remaining columns (E to AI) are used to track time dedicated to each activity per day, in minutes. This is the only sheet that needs filling manually.

Time Tracker

Sheet “Point Tracker” This is used to track two things: chain, and 1% improvement daily. The habits that you see in RED are the ones where I want to maintain a chain. An activity is shown in green, and so an unbroken chain is shown as a green line. The points in this sheet are calculated automatically. The last two rows show the points accumulated during the day, and what should the next day look like with regards to total points.

Point Tracker

“Printable Sheet” is for those who want to print the tracker for simple, low tech, checkboxes.

Printable Sheet

“Next Focus” is for topics that I would like to be included in future months in the tracker. The idea is to create and freeze the tracker for the month at the beginning of the month, and the habits, their weights, and maximum time do not change in that month. This mentality blocks temptation to keep “iterating” and “planning”, and forces actions. The freeze period was one month for me, but you can decide the time frame that works for you.

Next Focus

Result so far

Taking a look at the sheet after the month has ended, here are some observations

  1. “Tracking Habit” has the highest weight (column A) and the highest total points (column D), showing that it is the most important activity since I plan to develop that as a habit.
  2. This is the most I have exercised in a long time, and I plan to continue that chain unbroken. Most of the days, I exercised sixty minutes, but when I could not, I exercised for at least ten minutes.
  3. I was able to finish three books.
  4. Goodhart’s law is very visible in “Play Piano”, where I only played for 10 minutes almost every day and did not make any real progress, except for maintaining the chain. When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.
  5. I wrote at least some code every day. I wanted to do more, but here even 10 minutes every day was good enough to maintain the context.
  6. I wanted to diligently continue other habits in the list as well (like intermittent fasting, learn something, etc.), but I could not get to them. I was often tempted to change priorities in between the month, but I resisted since it would disrupt other habits and chains.
  7. The sheet clearly shows me areas where I want to improve, but do not put any effort.
  8. It also clearly shows there is only a finite number of things I can do in a day. Maybe I need a better strategy for other things (like doing them on alternate days). This is an experiment for the future after I have gotten my basic habits in place.

What happens next

  1. For January-2021, I will re-adjust priorities to focus more on learnings and other things that are not on the list.
  2. Exercise, calorie tracking, and intermittent fasting will also go higher. Writing ideas, and Anki will also come in.
  3. For Jan, I will reduce the weight of “Tracking Habits”.
  4. For abstract traits and patterns, I want to improve which could not make it in the list, I realize I need to convert them to concrete actions. Again, something for the future.

Conclusion

Hopefully, by focussing on the right traits and habits, and working on them regularly, I will be able to turn my life around (or steer it in the direction I want it to go). Hopefully, I will be able to stick with this newly adopted method long enough for it to be impactful. I hope I will be able to re-read “Atomic Habits” enough times to internalize the learnings. Finally, I hope I will be able to use this blog to post my progress and learnings.

If you have suggestions on how can I improve this method, feel free to email me at hi[AT]littleblah[DOT]com. If you found this post helpful and want to adopt parts or whole of it, I would strongly recommend starting with “Atomic Habits”, and then come back to this blog again to make the most of it.