Confinement in Space

Confinement In Space

Space is vast. The size of space is mind-warping and hard to comprehend. Our brains are able to understand feet and miles (or meters and kilometers) here on Earth, but once we get outside of Earth’s atmosphere and the distances of space shift to lightyears, it is a bit overwhelming and hard to picture. That is why it is so strange that space exploration, for the humans who have been to space, is often dominated by tight confinement within cramped spacecraft. The void outside the ship is enormous, but the space inside, where humans mostly experience space travel, is tiny.
In her book Packing for Mars, Mary Roach explores the tight spaces of space travel and what it means to live and work with other people in such confinement. She describes the lengthy selection process for astronauts for space programs and the physical and mental considerations that selection committees make. It is not enough to be a brilliant scientist, engineer, or pilot, you have to work well with others in isolation, you have to have the right gut to handle the food, and you certainly can’t have bad breath. Writing about the selection process and isolation chamber tests, Roach writes,
“In the previous isolation-chamber test, one applicant was eliminated because he expressed too much irritation and another because he was unable to express his irritation and acted it out passively. [JAXA psychologists Koji] Tachibana and [Natsuhiko] Inoue look for applicants who manage to achieve a balance. NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson strikes me as a good example. On NASA TV recently, I heard someone at NASA tell her that he could not find a series of photographs that she or some member of her crew had recently taken. If I’d spent the morning shooting photographs and the person I’d shot them for then misplaced them, I’d say look again, lamb chop. Whitson said, without a trace of irritation, that’s not a problem. We can do them over.”
The confinement of space exploration means that people have to be comfortable working and living with the same people without a chance to escape them for a long period of time. The success of expensive science experiments, the continued functioning of space equipment, and possibly the lives of everyone onboard are dependent on a good working relationship between each crew member. Small things, such as gross hygiene habits and passive aggressive behaviors could be disastrous. In an environment where physical space is overwhelmingly large, our successful exploration is defined by incredibly cramped spaces, and that changes what personal characteristics are necessary for success.
Improve Your Posture - Joe Abittan - Vices Of The Mind - Cassam

Improve Your Posture

In the book Vices of  the Mind, Quassim Cassam compares our thinking to our physical posture. Parents, physical therapists, and human resources departments all know the importance of good physical posture. Strengthening your core, lifting from your legs and not your back, and having your computer monitor at an appropriate height is important if you are going to avoid physical injuries and costly medical care to relive your pain. But have you ever thought about your epistemic posture?
Your epistemic posture can be thought of in a similar manner as your physical posture. Are you paying attention to the right things, are you practicing good focus, and are you working on being open-minded? Having good epistemic posture will mean that you are thinking in a way that is the most conducive to knowledge generation. Just as poor physical posture can result in injuries, poor epistemic posture can result in knowledge injuries (at least if you want to consider a lack of knowledge and information an injury).
Cassam writes, “The importance of one’s physical posture in doing physical work is widely recognized. The importance of one’s epistemic posture in doing epistemic work is not. Poor physical posture causes all manner of physical problems, and a poor epistemic posture causes all manner of intellectual problems. So the best advice to the epistemically insouciant and intellectually arrogant is: improve your posture.”
Improving our epistemic posture is not easy. Its not something we just wake up and decide we can do on our own, just as we can’t improve our walking form, the way we lift boxes, or easily adjust our workspace to be the most ergonomic all on our own. We need coaches, teachers, and therapists to help us see where we are going through dangerous, harmful, or imbalanced motions, and we need them to help correct us. These are skills that should be taught from a young age (both physically and epistemically) to help us understand how to adopt good habits maintain a healthy posture throughout life.
Thinking in ways that build and enhance our knowledge is important. It is important that we learn to be open-minded, that we learn how not to be arrogant, and that we learn that our opinions and perspectives are limited. The more we practice good epistemic posture the better we can be at recognizing when we have enough information to make important decisions and when we are making decisions without sufficient information. It can help us avoid spreading misinformation and disinformation, and can help us avoid harmful conspiracy theories or motivated reasoning. Good epistemic posture will help us have strong and resilient minds, just as good physical posture will help us have strong and resilient bodies.
Focus on Process

Focus on Process

Recently, Tyler Cowen released a podcast interview he did with Annie Duke, someone I remember from the days when my brother watched tournaments for the World Series of Poker.  A line from the interview really stood out to me and is something I think about in my life all the time, but haven’t stated as eloquently as Duke. In the interview she says, “The way to happiness is to focus on process. Then the winning becomes secondary to that. It becomes a way to keep score on how you’re doing on the process piece. And to really focus on that as opposed to focusing on the end result.”

 

I really like the way that Duke thinks about life, happiness, and process. So often in our lives we look at the end results. We ask ourselves if our house is big enough, if our car is fancy enough, if we have a good enough job, and if we took a good enough vacation this year. The problem, however, is that these are end results that we use to judge ourselves. They are lag measures, not lead measures, and as a result they only tell us how we are doing long after we have a chance to make improvements and adjust our approach. The second problem with thinking about the end results is that the end result we pick is arbitrary and in many cases our chances of achieving our desired end result are often beyond our control. There are so many random variables that can determine how successful you become and exactly where you end up. In poker, the randomness and chance within the game is part of its appeal, and sometimes whether you walk away with the most chips or with none is as much a matter of luck on a single hand as it is a matter of skill and intelligence.

 

Similarly, in Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “When one is busy and absorbed in one’s work, the very absorption affords great delight; but when one has withdrawn one’s hand from the completed masterpiece, the pleasure is not so keen.” This quote from Seneca highlights the importance of maintaining good process. We are happy when we are engaged and active in our pursuit of a goal. Achieving our goal and no longer have work to do in pursuit of our goal is actually less fulfilling than the process to obtain the goal itself.

 

When we consider the quotes from both Seneca and Duke we see how important it can be to think about our daily habits, routines, and processes. If we can focus on goals related to process then we can have something meaningful to engage with that is unlikely to disappear and leave us feeling empty once reached. For a poker player, walking away from the table with a large stack of chips is what the game appears to be all about, but it is in playing poker, discussing strategy, and focusing on one’s abilities and weaknesses that professional poker players find the most enjoyment. Those are the pieces the player can control and engage with, and if the player focuses on process, they will improve and reach their end goals to ultimately be successful in the game. Focus on the process to build success and to enjoy the path toward continued success and excellence.
Technology & Pain

Questioning Our Confidence in Technological Solutions

Sam Quinones interviewed Alex Cahan, a pain medicine specialist in New York, for his book Dreamland. He is quoted in the book talking about the approach that most people have toward pain and alleviating their pain. Many people want an immediate solution that comes from technology and allows them to continue living their life as they always have.

 

Quinones writes, “Cahana saw stuff [Author Note: unproven medical treatments, more surgeries, more pills, etc…] as the problem. Our reverence for technology blinded us to more holistic solutions.” The holistic approach is not one of mystic arts or managing ones energy, but is an approach focused on how we live and what health habits we have. Smoking, minimal exercise, and living with stress that we can’t regulate are all parts of our life that can make the physical pain that we experience much worse, or can lead to worsening health and pain developing from other real medical conditions. An approach to pain medicine that doesn’t consider our actual lifestyle cannot help address the root of our pain.

 

Quinones continues with a quote from Cahana, “We got to the moon, invented the internet. We can do anything. It’s inconceivable to think there are problems that don’t have a technological solution. To go from I can do anything to I deserve everything is very quick.” 

 

Cahan’s argument is that our technological innovations and the stories we tell about our scientific progress blinds us from the reality of the human body. We are not machines, we are not our own technological innovations, even if we like to believe that we can all be Iron Man. The reality is that we have to think about how we live, about the things we do, and about what could be changed, adapted, or included in our lives to help us be more healthy and experience less pain. We don’t have to believe in a mystical energy around our bodies. We don’t have to turn to medical treatments that are not proven to be safe or effective. But we do have to think about what is important in our lives, what values we hold, and how we can make changes that help us align with  those values in a healthy and reasonable way. Once we have seen where we can make changes in our actual lives and what habits can help us improve our health and reduce our pain, it is up to us to live accordingly, not up to technology to instantly solve our problems.
spend time on autopilot

Spending Our Days on Autopilot

“We spend much of our day on autopilot – not giving much thought to what we’re doing with our time,” writes Cal Newport in his book Deep Work. “This is a problem. It’s difficult to prevent the trivial from creeping into every corner of your schedule if you don’t face, without flinching, your current balance between deep and shallow work.”

 

Good habits are everything, but they are hard to develop without deliberate, conscious effort. Bad habits, on the other hand, spring out of nowhere and are always ready to creep into your life. When we spend time on autopilot and fail to recognize how much time we lose to TV, to our smartphones, or to the snooze button, we start to allow bad habits more space to creep into our lives. Living on autopilot encourages us to do easy things, and to default toward limited action rather than put effort into things that take effort but in the end provide more value.

 

Newport’s solution to our autopilot days is to literally, “schedule every minute of your day.” We can schedule time for deep work, we can schedule time to do the important things around the house that need to get done, and we can schedule time for TV or scrolling through the internet on our phones. If we try to schedule out what we are doing and when, we can start to think about how we spend our time and begin to redirect ourselves toward more meaningful activities. Scheduling our full day, not just our workday, will give us a chance to jump out of autopilot, to stop moving through the motions each day, and to use our time meaningfully.

 

This isn’t to say every minute of the day has to be productive, but it gives us a framework to keep distractions and low value tasks and activities away from the times when we are trying to focus and get important things done. If we find that we have bad habits that waste a lot of time in the morning or early afternoon, we can schedule activities during those times that get us away from the distractions, helping us be more engaged and intentional with the world. Planning is everything if we want to get away from spending our days on autopilot, and if we want to find a balance between excitement, important work, and mindless leisure.

Focus on the Few Major Items

Cal Newport writes, “in many cases, contributions to an outcome are not evenly distributed,” in his book Deep Work. Across many different domains, several of which Newport mentions in his book, we find an 80/20 split emerge terms of relationships between important things. Newport states that 80% of computer program crashes are caused by just 20% of the known bugs, and in other areas of science and society, we see similar 80/20 splits.

 

Newport believes that this 80/20 split also applies to the goals in our lives, and considers how we should approach our lives is we believe that 80% of our outcomes will be based on 20% of what we do. He writes, “many different activities can  contribute to your achieving these goals. The law of the vital few, however, reminds us that the most important 20 percent or so of these activities provide the bulk of the benefit.”

 

We do a lot of different things throughout the day, but a lot of what we do is relatively short and doesn’t have a really large impact on the outcome of our life. There are really just a handful of things that we actually do that really make a big difference. Exercising, fighting off the desire to eat pie for breakfast, engaging with some type of productive hobby, and doing something meaningful with our family have large impacts on the outcomes we see in life. The millions of small things we do, pick out socks, play cards, scroll through social media, and drive to work, fill in the rest. They might be important in some way, but they are not the key factors that determine the outcomes of our lives.

 

What we should do, Newport argues, is think about those handful of thing that really make a difference. We should prioritize those moments, and make sure they have our full focus and attention, so that we maximize the areas that truly matter. We can then divert our energy away from the things which don’t matter, cut out any unnecessary clutter in our routines, and do our best at managing the big factors which have the biggest influence on the outcomes we see in life.
Doing Hard Things Consistently

Doing Hard Things Consistently

We live in a world where there are a lot of opportunities to default to something easy and we constantly have the ability to take a quick break to pass a few minutes with mindless distractions. We can fill any quiet moment with music or a podcast, scroll through Facebook in line at the grocery store, and pop over to a blog really quick when we are bored or stuck on a problem at work. Distraction and easy alternatives to hard work are everywhere.

 

But if we want to get stuff done, if we want to produce something meaningful, and if we want to cultivate an ability to focus for long stretches to be our best selves, then we need to find ways to get beyond these easy distractions. We have to find a way to set ourselves up so that doing hard things consistently is not a mountain moving challenge.

 

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport helps us think through this. For Newport, it is all about creating habits and routines that can unlock our potential and help us achieve the things we want. As he writes, “An often-overlooked observation about those who use their minds to create valuable things is that they’re rarely haphazard in their work habits.” 

 

The quote above is specifically about knowledge workers and creative types who produce work in our modern age. Yet it shows us the importance of creating a structure and developing a routine to do what we do. Bouncing around and doing some work for a few minutes here and there won’t cut it if we actually want to produce results. We can’t be haphazard in our approach to work, we have to be deliberate and develop methods that encourage focus and concentration.

 

Newport also shares a somewhat famous story of a comedian who asked Jerry Seinfeld for advice relatively early in both men’s careers. Seinfeld’s advice was to write jokes every day, and to get a big calendar to use to cross out the date for every day that the comic wrote a joke. Newport describes this as the chain method and uses it to highlight the importance of rhythmic habits for consistently doing hard things. “The goal, in other words, is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep.” 

 

If you always have to pick between various activities and choices, you will rarely choose to do the deep work necessary to produce something meaningful. Instead, the laundry on the guest bed, the sink full of dishes, those emails you keep forgetting about, and checking back on Tyler Cowen’s blog will become your default activities when you don’t have a plan for what to work on and when to work on it. The only way to consistently drive to do meaningful deep work is to develop a space, a time, and a routine in which you do deep work. Making it a habit and endowing it with special rituals to help you ease into the work can unlock your focusing potential, and help ensure that each day you find a way to engage with the deep and meaningful work that you want to do, but that can be hard to consistently engage with.
Developing Willpower Muscles

Developing Willpower Muscles

My last post wrote about the idea that our willpower is limited, and that as we become tired and move through different points of the day, we find ourselves with varying levels of willpower. This post continues on that idea with more thoughts from Cal Newport in his book Deep Work.

 

“Your will, in other words,” Writes Newport, “is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; Its instead like a muscle that tires.”

 

We can try our best to improve our willpower, but like any muscle, our willpower can only do so much for us. Perhaps through continual practice and focus we can improve our willpower in certain ways, but it is likely that we are going to fail often in our demand of our own willpower. What is important, is how we structure our world to be successful in the times that demand strong willpower. Newport continues,

 

“The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.”

 

If we think about willpower like a muscle, we can see that the proper techniques, approaches, and tools are necessary for us to build the right strength. If we are lifting, we might need the right dumbbells for an exercises. If we are stretching, we need to make sure we put our body in the right position to stretch the right muscles. If we are working on focused concentration and willpower to support it, we must build the right environment for the mind.

 

A specific routine makes it easier for us to set into a long stretch of unbroken attention on a single item. If we ritualistically end our day in reflection, writing down what we accomplished and where we will pick up the following day, it makes it easier for us to start our day with productive focus, demanding less of our willpower to avoid or pull away from social media. If we have a habit of reading for a long stretch, then not reading during that time and feeling distracted will be abnormal and uncomfortable, where the state of concentration will feel normal, increasing our willpower to avoid the distractions in the first place.

 

Thinking about improving our willpower isn’t just a matter of intention and deciding to be better. It is a matter of setting ourselves up for success, and developing the right environments, habits, and rituals to make the process easy.

Trying to Improve Others?

We spend a lot of time criticizing other people and trying to change those around us, and that energy might be misplaced. Instead of spending so much time thinking about others, worrying about their decisions and choices, and trying to get them to act differently, we should look inward, and consider if we are living up to the standards we are trying to set for someone else.

 

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie writes, “Do you know someone you would like to change and regulate and improve? Good! That is fine. I am all in favor of it. But why not begin on yourself? From a purely selfish standpoint, that is a lot more profitable than trying to improve others-yes, and a lot less dangerous.”

 

Carnegie seems to suggest that we should be thinking about how we can help other people become better versions of themselves, but that we should first focus on making ourselves the best version of who we are. The gains that we will see in life will be greater if we focus on self-improvement rather than trying to change others. By focusing on ourselves we can improve our effectiveness, ensure we are engaging in the world in a meaningful way, and become more self-aware of the things we could do better. All of the gains in these areas will help us be the kind of role model that other people can look to when they try to make their own lives better.

 

It is through starting with ourselves that we can have an impact in the lives of others. Once we have made meaningful changes in who we are and what we do, once we have established habits of greatness, we can share what we have learned with others and provide them with advice regarding the things we have done to become successful, more engaged in the world, and more connected to the people around us. This will help us to change people and further the positive impact we have on the world. It all starts, however, with changing ourselves first.

Peak, Trough, Rebound

Dan Pink’s book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing includes a lot of interesting information about time, how we think about time, and about how humans and our societies interact with time. The book is one of the books I recommend the most because it includes a lot of interesting ideas that Pink does a good job of combining in ways that can really help with productivity and organizing one’s day. We all deal with time and never have enough of it, and Pink helps us think about how to best manage and use our time.

 

One interesting study that Pink shares has to do with mood and affect throughout the day. A study of twitter showed a striking pattern among people across the globe. For most people, excluding night owls, we tend to have our peak of the day about 3 to 4 hours after we wake up. From there, we slowly trend downward until we hit the middle of our trough in the mid-afternoon. But, we rebound and our mood and affect improve in the late evening. Pink writes, “Across continents and time zones, as predictable as the ocean tides, was the same daily oscillation – a peak, a trough, and a rebound. Beneath the surface of our everyday life is a hidden pattern: crucial, unexpected, and revealing.”

 

The study Pink references shows that we are not simply continuously in the same mood and attitude throughout the day. We have a point where we are at our zenith, and best able to tackle the challenges that come at us. However, our energy drains, and our mood and attentiveness diminish. We become irritable and easily distracted, and we can see this happen through the adjectives and emotion included in people’s social media posts. Through breaks, and the end of the workday, however, our energy levels come back and we rebound, becoming happier and more creative. We get through the low part of our day and can be functioning human beings again. This isn’t just something that we sometimes feel, it is a clear pattern that is common to humans across the globe.

 

What I find so interesting about Pink’s book and why I have recommended it so much is that timing is everything for us. So much of our lives is impacted by the way we relate to time, but very few of us ever think about it. There are patterns all around us relating to time, but usually these patterns are hidden and unknown to us. When we look at them and understand them, we can start to adjust our days and how we schedule things that we do.

 

I find it incredible that we can look at people on twitter, and see their mood based on the adjectives and words used in their posts. What is even more incredible, is that we can watch the mood and attitude of a region change through a day, and change in a rhythmic pattern. If we want to be effective, and want to help others to be effective, we should think about these patterns and organize our days and activities in a way that corresponds to these patterns. I have tried to do that in my life, and find it helpful to set up my day so that I am doing particular activities in line with the peak, trough, rebound flow of my days. Timing is important, and should be a purposeful part of our days.