10 things I learned from tracking my habits

For the first 6 months of 2015, I tracked several health habits every day. Tracking a streak is a psychological trick that makes you increasingly resistant to breaking it. I have a streak of writing new fiction every day for about 2.5 years now, so I figured I could track health stuff pretty accurately. Also, I wanted to see how many days I really did eat vegetarian, how many days I actually exercised, etc.

Here’s how I did:

Longest streak (days)

Success rate

No bread

5

27%

Meditate (at least 5 minutes)

12

41%

Exercise (climbing 9 flights of stairs counts)

26

43%

No Poultry

8

60%

No red meat

24

88%

No cake

32

88%

Eat fruit

31

92%

No french fries

93

99%

No cookies

83

97%

No chocolate

93

96%

No potato chips

181

100%

No soda

181

100%

Eat veggies

181

100%

Lessons from doing this tracking:

  1. Avoiding foods is tough out there in American society. Birthday cake? Meat entree for dinner? Whatcha gonna do? Say no like a poozer? This is harder with cake and poultry than it is with red meat and sugary drinks. People will watch you eat that cake like a pro, but they don’t notice if you drink water.
  2. I like bread. Many a bread streak was busted because I wanted toast with my baked bean breakfast. And I had that toast. And I enjoyed it.
  3. I had trouble deciding how much meditation counted. Daydreaming? Spacing out? Focused meditation? For at least 5 minutes?
  4. Got the veggie eating thing down.
  5. I wasn’t tracking other important things: hugging my kids, kissing my wife, being thankful/grateful for something.
  6. I was avoiding any documentation of my night-time bouts of tortilla chip addiction. The crunch, the salt, the seltzer! It is my only unhealthy vice.
  7. I am definitely post-soda, post-lemonade, post-sugary drinks. I don’t track my green tea consumption, which is about 3 cups a day, and I don’t see any point in doing so.
  8. Exercise included climbing 9 flights of stairs at my DC office, with about 8lbs of backpack, at a rapid pace. No, it’s not a real cardio workout, but I’m breathing hard at the end and it’s 9 freaking flights, so I’m counting it.
  9. My growing desire to eat vegan more often means tracking eggs/dairy in addition to meat.
  10. Tracking all this stuff wasn’t as hard as I thought, but on the other hand, I don’t think it has changed any habits for better or worse.

Why did I only track 181 days (6 months)? Because I realized I wanted to track different things, and have started doing so at the year’s halfway point (my birthday). Eating veggies and avoiding soda and potato chips weren’t too hard. So I’ve added and subtracted to the list and restarted counting. Now I’m tracking this stuff for my 42nd year.

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10 Signs You’re Just Getting By at Work

Writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch recently blogged about an epiphany she had about people who get by at work and those who do so much more. Her epiphany resulted from realizing that a lesson she learned at day jobs (waitress, editing, publishing, etc.) over the years applies to writing. Specifically, she has found that writing is just as filled with get-by workers as any other field.

Based on her observations and my own, I present the 10 signs you may be a ‘get by’ worker:

  1. Expect recognition for effort or time investment
  2. Talk a good game but have a poor track record
  3. Miss deadlines or other expectations regularly, but always for a good reason
  4. Wait for the boss to assign work/stretch work to fill up the day
  5. Dodge sticks and carrots to improve your performance
  6. Do the minimum necessary to avoid being fired
  7. Do the maximum necessary to avoid more responsibility
  8. Expend a lot of energy acting busy
  9. Convince others to do your work for you
  10. Feel threatened by automation, efficiency, or a perceptive boss

There are get-by workers in every organization, from construction sites to management teams to writers. I’m not completely sold on the idea that they are all bad and that society needs drive them from the work force. I’m fairly sold on the idea that many of them have given up on the job, themselves, or life in general and may be one inspiration away from passing by rather than getting by. Oh, and without them, hard workers wouldn’t look nearly as great by comparison.

10 things I learned from Steve Jobs’ life

In my recent pillaging of the public library, I couldn’t turn down the chance to read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I had read many accounts of Steve Job’s life and work, at least up to about the time of the iMac. This biography went much further and much later in his life (it was published shortly after his death in 2011). It was an excellent book and Isaacson is an expert biographer. I couldn’t stop reading it and highly recommend it.

Here are the things that I learned:

  1. Jobs’ superpower was pushing for the best in design, simplicity, and beauty, by marrying technology to art. He knew this one thing, and developed that skill into a form of magic.
  2. His attention to detail, as evidenced by his super-polished presentations, was his second superpower. The return on investment seems limitless. Watch his 2005 Stanford commencement speech which may be one of the best ever.
  3. He was horrible to other people. He parked in handicapped spaces. He screwed over early Apple employees’ stock options. He drove without license plates. He was cruel and demeaning. He thought rules were for other people. He sounds like the guy Dennis Leary described in his hit song “Asshole.”
  4. He seemed to have little use for women. He surrounded himself with men at Apple and seemed to avoid all women but his wife, including brushing off his three daughters. Strange and probably misogynist.
  5. He lied his ass off. Asserting facts that weren’t true. Claiming ideas that weren’t his. Charming people he hated. Committing to things he had no intention of doing. That level of dishonesty is just disgusting to me.
  6. Rich folks, movers and shakers, are so few in number that they inevitably end up knowing each other. Steve Jobs ran with the who’s who of famous people: Bono, Bill Clinton, George Lucas, Joan Baez, Al Gore, Larry Ellison, Bill Gates, Bob Dylan, just to name a few.
  7. If Jobs just had some of the gentleness and humility of Steve Wozniak or Neil Gaiman, he could have been so much more successful. (Neil Gaiman also gave an amazing commencement speech which has been turned into its own illustrated book.)
  8. Why is Jony Ive not running Apple? He seems to be the spiritual son of Jobs’ melding of technology, design, art, and ease of use.
  9. Deep down, control freaks dislike and distrust others. Steve Jobs categorized people into A and B players, geniuses or idiots. It’s clear to me that, reading between Isaacson’s lines, Jobs had a low opinion of people, even the A players he regularly belittled. He was hardcore about the integration of hardware and software, but it was an excuse to impose his artistic sense on others. I don’t mind the beauty, the design, and the simplicity, Steve, but let me do what I want with my computing device, okay?
  10. I wouldn’t have worked for him and would probably have detested him if I knew him personally. I think Steve Jobs would argue that life is too short to put up with a boss like Steve Jobs. But, damn, the world is worse off without him.

Adjustments, 2015 edition

I don’t make resolutions, I make adjustments.

Publishing: Last year, I tried to publish 3 books and only published 2. This year, I adjust the goal to publish 2 books: Chokepoint (Kagent Series: #3) and The Obesity Conspiracy. If I get 3 published, great.

Writing: I’m splitting up tracking of writing to new fiction and editing. Too many days most of my writing came from rewriting, which I was happy to count at the time, but that’s really not the spirit of the thing. Last year I wrote over 300,000 words of fiction, but less than 200,000 of that was on new projects.

That’s always how it happens, right? You measure something for the first time, take your best guess on how to measure it, and then are disappointed/horrified by the results. You realize that you chose the wrong metric, or you need to dig a lot deeper to be accurate.

So, the goal for 2015 new fiction writing is 200,000 words, about 550 words a day. I have an entire trilogy of novels to be written from almost scratch (I have about 15,000 words of rough draft going into 2015). The other two Obesity Conspiracy books and the space pirates trilogy are in the pipeline to be edited and published after 2015. 550 words/day is a lot less than the 824 words/day I aimed for, and exceeded, in 2014.

I’m also stepping up the number of chapters I edit per week. (I tried measuring words edited last year and stopped because measuring words edited is stupid.) I don’t have a numerical goal for chapters edited, because some chapters are harder than others to edit. Some need rewriting, some only have typos, and most fall in between.

Marketing: Yes, there may be a smidge more this year. I’ll build on the email newsletter. I will try to sell some short stories to increase discoverability. But the main thrust is still to produce more books. I’ve seen a lot of authors, traditional and independent, doing lots of marketing of various kinds, and no one seems to have any idea if it works. Even getting interviewed on NPR doesn’t seem to move books, according to authors who have experienced it.

Other stuff about me you may want to know:
  1. Video games: Ha, no goals, adjustments or anything here. I finally finished Mass Effect 3 a week or so ago, so I’m taking a breather before I dive into (Uncharted 1 & 3). (I still have LA Noir and Lego Marvel to finish). I may get a PS4, and I may not.
  2. Vacations include New York/Jersey and cruising the Alaskan coast.
  3. The Lair: Lego sorting will be finished and I’ll begin building my own unique Lego sets. I may add some more standing desk furniture, so I can write/draw/Lego-build on my feet.
  4. This blog: I am behind on some big-think post follow-ups from 2014. I also want to do shorter posts that highlight cool stuff I see elsewhere.
  5. Tracking: I’m doing the Jerry Seinfeld technique of building streaks of things I want to do or avoid. The idea is that as you build a streak of consecutive days of not missing whatever the goal is (for Jerry, it’s writing jokes) you pressure yourself not to ruin the streak. I have written new fiction every single day, without missing, for over 2 years now. For 2015, so far I’ve had no red meat, no soda, no fries, no potato chips, no cookies, no milk chocolate, and eaten veggies every day. Meditation, exercise, and eating fruit have been spotty or I’ve only missed once or twice since 2015 began.

Accomplishments, 2014 edition

Writing:

  1. I published two novels: Crashpoint and Twistpoint. I was trying to publish 3 books in one year, but Chokepoint didn’t make it. It will be out early this year, I hope.
  2. I learned a lot about working with freelance editors, book publishers, scheduling and timelines. If I can only publish 2 novels instead of 3 per year, that drastically extends my schedule of book publishing until I’m about 60.
  3. I achieved my goal of writing over 300,000 words. About 192,000 were original fiction, the rest were editing/rewriting of books in the editing stages. That includes 3 novels and a handful of short stories.
  4. Craft-wise, there are a number of things I learned about myself that I’m either trying to capitalize on or correct. Excessive use of pronouns, proofreading, flat characters, and shrugging are things to correct. Dialogue, how I build a story layer by layer, and work ethic are things I feel pretty good about.
  5. Business-wise, this year was a learning year. I’ve never published a book before or handled the business aspects of doing so. I learned things like you need to send 2 copies of your print book for copyright, the e-book is not sufficient.
  6. Marketing-wise, I did almost none. I’m not paying attention to number of copies sold, or pushing the book. They are not bestsellers and I haven’t made more than the weakest of attempts to market them. There are a number of reasons for this that are intentional. Marketing will come later, when at least Chokepoint is published. So far I haven’t found much in the way of marketing that works better than writing the next book.

Reading:

I read a lot of books (I didn’t track how many), a mix of fiction and non-fiction, not just sci-fi. I have tried to read more efficiently, and faster, especially when it comes to non-fiction. You could say that I am practicing badly at speed-reading. Also, I toss away all reading plans, and the TBR list when I enter a public library. I can’t help myself, it’s however many I can carry out of the damn building. And I finally read To Kill A Mockingbird, at my daughter’s insistence. Surprisingly, it’s not a how-to guide, and has nothing to do with Hunger Games.

Day job and family:

Not going to talk about them. This isn’t that kind of blog, and there are plenty of parties in both of those realms that don’t want me to say anything, good or bad, about them. Suffice it to say that both realms are just fine and there’s much I am thankful for and happy about.

Other stuff about me that you may want to know. In 2014, I:

  1. Visited Spain, France, and Italy.
  2. Upgraded the Lair a little (mostly lighting, also added another toy Enterprise).
  3. Developed a fierce green tea habit (3-5 cups a day, usually sencha green tea).
  4. Built a ton of Star Wars and superhero Lego sets.
  5. Finished a few video games (but not Total War: Napoleon).
  6. Saw a bunch of movies, Guardians of the Galaxy being the best.
  7. Ran in the cold (<55 degrees) and my lungs didn’t become frozen sponges.
  8. Didn’t get to some blog posts about wonky stuff that I planned.
  9. Eased past the first half of my expected life span of 82 years.

What about 2015?

I’ll outline my New Year’s Adjustments in a future post.

So good you can’t ignore it

I am a big fan of Cal Newport’s side job of researching better ways to study. I say side job because he is a computer science professor at Georgetown University. In addition to his blog, Study Hacks, he has published several books about performing efficiently in high school, college, and career.

I recently finished his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which deals with the last thing: career. He has long-espoused not following your passion, but learning a set of skills so well that they… you can figure out the rest. The book follows him looking for his first post-PhD job (he’s not terribly old) in a depressed economy that is full of under- or un-employed PhD wannabe academics, which is interesting for other reasons.

The book lays out a number of strategies:

  • Skills trump passion, and for career-planning, it should proceed passion (because it can generate passion).
  • Adopt a craftsmen mindset instead of a passion mindset (what you can offer the world vs. what the world can offer you)
  • Rely on deliberate practice (improving skills in an efficient manner)
  • Avoid the ‘control trap’ where you get so good your employer tries to control you
  • Leverage your skills to gain autonomy (so good they can’t afford to lose you)

This is interesting to me from two vantage points: personally and sociologically. Personally, I have seen this approach work over and over, often accidentally. People become stars in a workplace because of specific skills they have. People with a lot of passion, not a lot of skills, who are looking to check the box and follow the hot projects, drift away, often without reward. Students who use deliberate practice are the ones who seem like they ‘never have to study.’ They aren’t geniuses for memorizing their chemistry textbook, they have figured out how to go about studying it efficiently.

And happiness? Yes, career satisfaction, happiness, etc. all seem to flow from a stronger place when you have skill mastery, and people recognize you for such, than from being in the throes of inexperienced vocational passion. For the throngs of people who don’t have a passion to follow, focusing on acquiring skills could be a better approach psychologically.

Sociologically, I wondered what if we taught kids this from an early age? We toss a lot of substance at them in school, which is good, but very little in the way of skills for how to excel at school. No classes in how to study, how to learn a skill, how to become efficient and productive.

What if most people followed this skills-approach, instead of stumbling upon it, or never discovering it? How much more happy, employed, and productive would the workforce be? Probably immensely more than they are now.

Finally, Cal posted recently wondering if knowledge workers should work like novelists. I feel eminently qualified to answer this one (not). Actually, if he did a poll, I am willing to bet $20 that the majority of novelists would say that they have the worst productivity of any group of workers. They wait for the muse, they fart around on the internet, they do ‘research’, they complain about their writing, etc. In short, most novelists could learn a lot by studying Cal’s habits rather than the other way around. However, those that have taken a craftsmen approach are the amazingly prolific and terrifically good ones that other writers wonder how the hell they can do it.