I smoked tobacco from age 15 to age 24.
I was never a heavy smoker, but I felt stupendously cool in my teens cutting class and hanging out at a cafe playing Chess, having coffee or chai tea, and rolling loose-leaf tobacco into hand-rolled cigarettes, or, cash permitting, Marlborough Reds.
Despite it being incredibly stupid with hindsight, I remember it being a pretty good time.
One of the other kids I played Chess with went on to become an International Master in Chess (right below Grandmaster) and went on to study at Harvard. He smoked, too, though I'm pretty sure he quit after only a couple years of teenage rebelliousness.
Gradually, other types of tobacco became interesting to me. I think I first smoked steamed tobacco -- shishia -- from an Arabic-style hookah, for the first time, when I was 17 years old. My girlfriend was a graduate student -- I always got along better with people older than me -- and she got me into it. We'd smoke shisha and talk about philosophy and computers a lot.
Cigars came along around age 20 or 21. If you want to feel max-cool while max-killing-yourself, cigars are the way to go.
Oh my goodness. If you can manage to not get sick from a cigar (harder than it sounds), well, cigars look max-cool. Ever see Jay-Z smoke a cigar? Jay-Z was the thing back in the early 2000's, and who could forget him with a big ol' cigar in the music video, and throwing money around? The imagery is of course very appealing to teenage suburban boys, which I guess is the point.
For what it's worth, I haven't smoked a single time in 7 years and this post isn't about tobacco, but it'll serve as a useful lens.
II. DIFFERENT NATURAL STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
We all have areas of our lives that come easier or hard to us.
Some people find money management coming easily and intuitively to them. They always have enough spare cash in their checking account, they claim all the relevant tax deductions, they put some money away in a retirement account every year, their net worth grows every year.
For other people, money is a great mystery and a great source of pain and aggravation. For whatever reason, they're not sure where their money goes and they keep running out of it. This happens often enough to people making mid-five-figures USD and up, who have no major surprise expenses, and no major commitments.
Some people find it easy to navigate nutrition, eating well, and keeping the physique and health levels where they want. They never think about it and it just happens.
For other people, it's a mighty struggle and there's lots of failures along the way.
Some people can easily negotiate and ensure they get good pay, good roles and authority when they take a new job, and see their career on a constant upward trajectory.
Other people don't even counteroffer the first pay offer when it's expected to do so, get stuck with a set of roles and duties that don't challenge them, and their career is often stagnating and aggravating.
There's dozens of other skills and skillsets of around this importance. Friendships, taking good leisure, recharging, sleeping well, planning, ensuring you're doing your most important work regularly, and a whole host of other things.
And it's strange. Often, for whatever reason, one person might have great money management, but struggle mightily with diet. Someone might have their fitness on lockdown, but hate their career and feel stuck and stagnant.
III. BULLHEADEDNESS APPLIED TO ONE'S WORST AREAS
This post is about separating the learning of fundamental mechanics from applying learned mechanics to make gains in a difficult area of your life.
That might sound like a simple sentence, but I actually believe it's one of the great keys to life.
It's not everything, but it's a very big piece of the puzzle.
Most people do not "practice the fundamentals" in areas that come easily and natural to them. They only research and design training programs in areas where they're struggling. I believe this is a mistake.
Someone with excellent money management skills will often not study and tune-up in that area, because it's already "above the bar" for them -- they're happy with that area. If they're struggling with diet, they'll try to make meal plans and nutrition logs and whatever -- all good stuff, really -- but keep falling off and failing.
The person who naturally eats well and struggles with money does the opposite. They don't go deep into nutrition and eating, because they're happy there. Meanwhile, they keep trying to put together budgets, track spending, pay more attention to money -- all good stuff, really -- but keep falling off and failing.
I recommend you do the opposite: learn fundamentals of self-management, tracking, learning, and improvement in an easy and naturally-skilled area for you first.
Then, and only then, do you apply your newly mastered self-management skills to the most difficult area.
IV. QUITTING TOBACCO
I'd been ruining my health in my early 20's, and one day I realized it. We need not get into why epiphanies and realizations happen -- it's beyond the scope of this post -- but sooner or later, they tend to happen. We get fed up and want to make improvements.
Here's the thing: I genuinely liked tobacco.
I used to smoke four types of tobacco: commercial cigarettes (Marlboroughs), hand-rolled cigarettes from loose-leaf tobacco, shisha, and cigars.
I'm not sure I designed this plan intentionally -- I kind of bumbled into it -- but looking backwards, I quit in a way that made a lot of sense for me.
I quit smoking commercial cigarettes in 2006, but kept smoking hand-rolled tobacco, shisha, and cigars.
Around 2008, I quit cigars. In 2009, I finally tossed out shisha. I haven't smoked since.
The rationale went something like this: I never liked commercial cigarettes as much as loose-leaf tobacco anyways. It cost more, and I enjoyed rolling cigarettes. Commercial cigarettes also have more additives that are bad for you.
So I quit cigarettes. I could still smoke as much as I wanted, and it wasn't a sacrifice. If I wanted max-pleasure or max-coolness, I could smoke shisha or cigars (which are actually the worst of all, but I didn't smoke cigars too often).
Sooner or later, I quit hand-rolling cigarettes too. I then had two options: I could smoke the steamed-not-burnt shisha, which is slightly healthier. And if I wanted to really be indulgent, I could have a cigar.
At no point did I really suffer in this process; I kept cutting the least enjoyable type of tobacco for me.
The hierarchy of how much I enjoyed tobacco had been,
Commercial cigarettes --> hand-rolled cigarettes --> cigars --> shisha.
I quit them in that order. It wasn't actually hard. Shisha was the hardest -- I genuinely enjoyed it -- but wasn't all that hard.
V. GAINING THE "GRADUATED QUITTING SKILL"
The skill that I'd built, without fully realizing it, was the "graduated quitting skill."
I still eat some junk food. I don't particularly like it, and am moving away from it.
So I sat and thought about it.
My favorite type of junk food is, by far, ice cream.
The type of junk food I eat the most often, by far, is ice cream.
Now, many people, if they wanted to quit junk food, would start by trying to quit... their favorite thing.
And they'd fail, and hate themselves for it, and wonder why it happened.
Earlier this year, I decided to start slowly culling junk food entirely from my diet.
The idea came to me when I read about Dwayne Johnson ("The Rock") saying he remembered the last pack of candy he ever ate, 15 years ago or something. That was the flash of inspiration.
I said: "Huh! Ok! I can do that."
So the last few months, I've been looking for moments to quit... my least favorite types of junk food, forever.
I don't like cookies very much at all. I figure, I'd always prefer to eat ice cream over cookies, every single time. If I'm going to eat junk food, cookies are a waste for me. I just don't like them very much.
Here's (presumably) the last cookie I'll ever eat, on 31 April 2016 --
I photographed it and really ate it slowly, enjoying it. It was nice.
Since then, cookies have become anathema to me -- like cigarettes, even. I just won't ever eat them again. (I'll have an ice cream, though, maybe.)
I'm in no hurry to quit more things. I want to acclimate and get used to things in this way.
But sure enough, every time I got a tiny little cookie on a saucer plate with a coffee, I'd take it and throw it away.
The worst was when I was going to a little cafe in the Balkans and had struck up a friendly relationship with them, and they brought me a selection of beautiful cookies. I really hated having to refuse those, but I did. Cookies became like cigarettes for me.
You know what I like even less than cookies?
Every time I eat a pastry, I feel yucky. They're not satiating. I just... don't like them very much.
On 22 May 2016, I figured, this would be a good final pastry to ever have --
And I strongly suspect I'll never eat a pastry again.
I'm not in a hurry to quit anything else.
Pizza will probably be next, but we'll see.
V. LEARNING THE MECHANICS AT LOW-RISK, LOW-COST, ON EASY STUFF
Quitting your favorite food is hard.
At least, it's harder than quitting a food you don't like anyways.
But I dare say, "always saying no" to a particular type of food is a skill, independent from the food you're actually quitting.
If you absolutely hated turkey, for instance, how hard would it be to swear an oath that you'd never eat turkey again?
You'd really only have two times it'd be an issue.
The first is when the only food around was turkey, and you were hungry. I can imagine a few scenarios where that would happen. Not many, but a few. (There's only turkey sandwiches left at some event you went to, and you hadn't eaten all day, for instance.)
And then, if you're American, you'd have to find a way to navigate Thanksgiving.
That'd be the big problem one.
But right there, as you see, are three of the core skills required for successful dietary adherence --
1. Preparation: keeping a good supply of food choices you like around, so you're never forced into the "bad food or hunger" decision.
2. Ability to tolerate hunger / fast for a limited time: when you do (rarely) wind up in the "turkey or hungry" situation, ability to just say "No, I've quit turkey forever, I won't eat it" -- and be hungry for a few more hours. It won't kill you.
3. Ability to navigate social pressure and social conventions: perhaps the skill for dietary adherence. How do you tell Aunt Selma you're not eating the turkey she slaved over? How could you possibly impose on Aunt Selma and Uncle Ben to ask them if they'd prepare another type of meat? How can you handle the awkwardness of smuggling in a couple protein bars to Thanksgiving dinner? This one is the killer.
But again, these three skills are independent of which food you're quitting.
It's far easier to quit a food you don't like very much than to quit a food you love.
But doing so -- quitting something you don't like -- also teaches the fundamental mechanics of food preparation, tolerating hunger, and navigating social conventions.
VI. BAD AT PLANNING AND PROCRASTINATING YOUR LIFE'S MOST IMPORTANT CREATIVE WORK?
You already know what I'm going to say.
Let's say you've got some life's work that's important to you.
Let's call it writing a novel.
Let's say there's two big reasons the novel isn't getting written.
1. You're planning poorly, your mornings are stressed and frantic, and you're tired in the evenings. You don't set aside enough time to work on your novel, and it doesn't happen. This is true on most days; probably 6 days out of 7, you planned the day poorly and it's frantic.
2. When you do have time to work on your novel, you're terrified and/or uncreative, or for whatever reason, you procrastinate writing the novel.
You already know what I'm going to say.
Work on the planning skill independently from the novel.
I know that sounds stupidly obvious when I put it this way, but it's not what most people actually do.
Most people (1) have missing skills and missing fundamentals, and (2) have areas that they struggle to make progress in.
Learn the mechanics independently of the "hard areas."
In the "novel is hard to write, and I'm bad at planning" territory, start clearing more free space and planning time... for something that's incredibly easy for you to do.
Maybe you're one of those people who has no problem keeping their inbox at zero all the time.
If so, you might try waking up early enough before work and answering email to zero before the day gets underway.
Thus, you learn to wake early and work on the thing you chose to work on firsthand, on something that's easy for you.
(If answering email is hard for you, substitute something that's easy and no sweat for you.)
In doing this, you learn the mechanics of clearing time and space in the mornings for doing what you want.
Once you've got that locked down, and can reliably clear space in the mornings, then you can start working novel-writing into that time.
VII. BEATING YOU OVER THE HEAD WITH THE MAIN IDEA
I'm just going to repeat myself again, because it's important.
There's a whole lot of skills and sub-skills that are critically important.
Most of them, in isolation, are not very hard to learn.
You very likely don't have all of them on lockdown, just because, most of us don't.
Learn those skills in a domain that's easy for you.
Then transfer those skills over to the domain that's hard for you.
Practice quitting stuff you dislike anyways. There are core skills involved in quitting things that transfer over between domains.
Practice planning, setting up your environment, communication, workflows, managing resources, self-management, working hard, concentrating, etc -- on areas you're already pretty good at, and like to do.
This means you get skill gains and the morale-enhancing benefits of winning regularly, instead of the vicious spiral of failure, backsliding, and wondering what happened.
Separate out "learning fundamental mechanics" from the "hard areas for you."
I dare say it's life-changing.
You probably already know I have a free newsletter:
A lot of people think it's pretty good. One long-form essay on practical lessons from history, every Thursday. 100% free.
If you're interested in the productivity stuff, care to join us for three weeks of perfect habits in July? --
Know any talented undergraduates? Free leadership and entrepreneurship training at GiveGetWin Summer Camp in UChicago if they qualify --
*Fitness: http://strengtheory.com/ and http://rippedbody.jp/ -- both masterful sites
*History: Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland; intro drags, rest is great
*Business: When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead by Jerry Weintrab; terrific memoir by the Ocean's 11 producer about his rise in the entertainment world
WHAT ARE OPERATIONS?
My definition of Operations, which I think is sound, is "the coordination of tactics over time."
It starts, actually, with philosophy -- implicit or explicit.
Philosophy: What's important and worth working towards, on the highest levels? What's worth living for?
So you decide, let's say, that "beauty" is important to you. You want to live in a beautiful world, philosophically speaking.
Progression: Yours free on Amazon
Hello blog reader!
Obviously, most of my writing these days happens at thestrategicreview.net -- but on the off chance you're not subscribed there, I wanted to let you know that Progression is out today, and is free for 72 hours.
On the night of 4th May 2016, I was departing on the night train from Athens to Thessaloniki at 11:55PM.
The night train was divided into “cabins” that most likely were originally designed to be sleeper cars, but had been converted to more “bus-like” seating designed to fit six people facing each other.
The seats were in close together, three facing forwards in the train’s direction, three people directly across from them facing backwards. It was a narrow space; an adult man’s knees would be almost touching the knees of the man in front of him in the space.
I was seated facing “backwards” – away from the train’s direction – by the window. Directly across from me was an Athenian student-scientist – doing the Greek equivalent of a Masters degree in chemistry and materials science at Thessaloniki’s main university.
Before we get started, a couple announcements --
The first Ultraworking Work Weekend was a huge success.
We're having another one on 14 May and 15 May.
You can read more about the concept here. Starts at Noon Eastern Time on Saturday and Sunday 14/15 May. $140 to join if you're not currently a member at Ultraworking. Includes two 1-on-1 consulting calls and a 3 month membership to the Adherence League. You can sign up at this link.
If you're curious about Ultraworking, we've also fleshed out the concept of what we're trying to do more -- you can see it at the Ultraworking website.
Oh my goodness, I'm so excited to finally announce this publicly.
My good friend and oft-collaborator Kai Zau started building a new company, Ultraworking, back in December of last year.
With Ultraworking, we're looking to fill a gap in the lives of people who are highly driven, highly analytical, achievement-oriented.
We're making technology, community, and content for our type of people.
This is perhaps the most challenging balancing act when you're looking to do more.
Let's say you're tracking your productivity on important stuff, you're doing your weekly review, and you realize that when you're in a loud environment, you get less work done.
So you realize that. Maybe you never realized it before, but now you realize it's true.
And you notice it keeps holding true, even when you try to concentrate through it.
This puts you at a very tricky crossroads.
Want a fun, profitable, healthy experiment to run for a month?
Try drinking only water.
I've switched onto "Water Only" a few times in my life. I'm running it right now. It's terrific.
The merits of the policy:
-- No liquid calories and all the downsides that come with those: unless you're playing sports or doing heavy manual labor, liquid cals basically come in two forms: bad and worse. Merely bad liquid calories are things like juice that have some other micronutrients. Why are they bad, then? Because you're missing out on all the fiber and satiety that comes from eating that apple instead of drinking apple juice, and -- again if you're not getting lots of fitness -- the spike in blood sugar, followed by insulin, leads to a crash. And that's juice, which isn't all that bad. The "worse" is Coca-Cola and similar stuff that really ought not to be put in the human body if you're aiming for mental and physical performance.
Two months ago, I offered a streamlined test consulting service called "Get Your Next Project On Rails" -- and I got to see some tremendous results and growth from people who participated.
One of the women who participated has been very gracious in allowing me to publish her experience as a case study. She said I could share her experience in full, as long as her name and location are omitted. So we'll call her "Alice" for this case study; she can chime in if she wants to take credit for her achievements.
In this post, there's some nice actionable and universal lessons on behavior change and I'm grateful that Alice is letting us share this.
Time is really important — perhaps the only completely non-renewable resource for an individual.
Kai Zau and I are running a group training improving this over the next 4.5 weeks.
The Basic Idea
We all have 24 hours per day. We all spend some of those hours in ways we are greatly happy we spend them, and we waste and feel dumb about how we spend some of those hours.
We want to improve on that. We’ll do two things —