How does Focus work?

If you’re interested in personal performance like me, no doubt you’ve read a lot about focus and energy management the last few years. New Studies claim that focus and willpower is like a tank of gas that runs dry if you use it to much during the day. Other New Studies shows that meditation (the practice of focusing and refocusing for short periods of time) increases focus.

So which is it? How does focus work? I think their both right.

Focus seems to work very much like a muscle, if you deliberately practice it, you can focus deeper and with more control (i.e. it gets easier to start and stop focusing). But it also seems to work a lot like endurance, the more time you spend focused, the less mental energy you’ll have at the end of the day.

Which is why I try to focus deliberately, constantly nudging myself when I get distracted, and take resting very seriously. You can’t work with perfect focus forever. You might be able to effect how much you can focus, but always be aware of your limits. When I step beyond my limits, I get annoyed, cranky, feel frustrated about not getting anywhere, and spend even more energy that I don’t have. It’s a slippery slope.

How do you manage your focus?

Blood clot watch

In January on 2019 I was shocked to find myself with a foot long blood clot in my upper thigh to lower abdomen. Deep vein thrombosis usually affects people in their senior years, and correlates pretty well with being overweight and smoking.

I’m fitness athlete thin and I’ve never smoked. I was 34.

I’ve been on blood thinners ever since, and my body is supposed to solve the issue without any direct intervention. Since the blood clot is a partial blockage of a vein, we apparently don’t measure the clot itself, that would be too costly for the free healthcare system of Sweden. Instead we measure the circumference of the leg. The swelling should correlate pretty accurately with the remaining size of the clot.

Being the person I am, I naturally measured my leg every morning to track any progress. I figured it’s worth sharing. This is my blod clot watch, updated daily. When the blue line hits the bottom of the chart, I should be back to normal. The red line is a trailing average of 7 days to help show the progress.

What are you optimizing for?

A thought struck me today while rushing from the my doctors appointment to my office. I was listening to a podcast and checking out the stock market. I was distracting myself from a pretty dreary subway ride. But I was also using the time to be productive, plan out my tasks for the afternoon so that I could optimise my time.

Todo lists. Email. Quick meetings. Lunch at your desk. 6 minute abs. Fast Food. It’s all about optimising our time. Finding a way to cram more stuff into our days.

The thought that struck me was; what am we optimizing for?

One day you will be scanning the headlines and listening to a podcast in 2x the speed, and that will be it. That was life. Optimised to the extreme. Forcedly pushed into ever longer caffeinated days. But optimised for what?

I think I’ll take my dog for a slow walk. After that I might have a glass of wine with the love of my life. Maybe call my mom. But whatever I do tonight, it will be because I wanted to, and unoptimised.

Blood clot

During Christmas break I ate too much and drank too much. Like most people in Sweden, Christmas is a time for gluttony. And being a recovering compulsive eater, I’m not exactly holding back.

To counter the unhealthily lifestyle I hit the gym a lot as well. Nothing makes extra room for cookies and chocolate like a few sets of heavy deadlifts.

This year though, I felt over exerted. I felt drained come New Years. And when I woke up on New Year’s Day with a throbbing right hip and thigh I sort of shrugged it off and knew I’d get back to normal in a few days. Coming back to healthy food and rest would solve it. It always had.

Only this time. It didn’t.

This time, my right leg swelled up to cartoonish proportions. I still assumed this was due to over exertion, and just did a bit of stretching and took it easy. Three days in though, my life partner Agnes started getting worried. She convinced me to call the health hotline, and in less than an hour we were waiting at the emergency room. A blood test later and I was injected with blood thinners, told to take a taxi home for the night and be back early for an ultra sound of my thigh.

Turns out I have a 20-25cm blood clot through my thigh into my hip, and possibly a malformed vein in my hip. I’m now on blood thinners and trying to come to terms with the fact that this will change my short term life dramatically.

Normally blood clots affect people at 60 to 80 years of age, with more risk if they smoke and are over weight.

Not really that common in 34 years olds who eat fitness diets and lift heavy weights as a lifestyle.

But I guess I beat the odds on that one.

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2018 in review

2018 was a life changing year for me. In the last days of 2017 I met Agnes, whom I instantly fell hopelessly in love with. Something I’ve never experienced before.

I quickly changed my plans for 2018, cancelled trips, got a year long consultancy. I’d be staying in Sweden for 2018. And I haven’t regretted it, though I dislike the cold intensely.

A year is hard to boil down, so I’ve split this review into three sections, enjoy.

Timeline of Events

What I learned

Fitness & Health

Timeline of Events

Spring

January was a blur of rapid changes. Setting myself up to be with Agnes. I also gave a talk on the Ethics of Design at a major networks offices in Stockholm. It was well received.

February was spent celebrated my mothers 70th birthday and working like mad to put my own projects on hold, while getting to grips on my client project.

In March I was the sole witness to my friends wedding, they wanted a small one, and I’m incredibly grateful to have been there.

April my client took off to Rome for a conference, Agnes joined us for the last day and a half. It’s my second time in Rome and I love it. The history nut in me is excited about everything, and the food is fabulous.

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Summer

The summer of 2018 was generally considered to be the best summer in Sweden for a hundred years. I’ve certainly never experienced anything like it. For a solid four months we had sun and warmth. It was epic, but it also lead to overheating offices and a lot of summer colds. Agnes spent our two week vacation in a fever.

In May some friends from 500 startups visited Stockholm, it was great to reconnect and hear about life inside the US startup world again.

In June Sweden is never really dark, it’s a magical time. I did a lot of great work when everyone else was trying to find refuge from the heat, and we even managed to go sailing. Something I’ve been yearning to get back to.

July was a furnace of heat, which we spent living on the balcony. Walking the dog as early and late possible so he wouldn’t over heat, and visiting the archipelago.

When August rolled in and the evenings started darkening again I could hardly believe how much fun I’d had over the summer. We lived on that balcony until it was cool enough to go to sleep for almost two months. it was beautiful.


Fall

As the shadows lengthened work picked up speed again in Sweden. The fall was a lovely cavalcade of colors, and in September we spent some time in the archipelago enjoying autumn and feeding the little dog too many hotdogs. I did a Netcast about the Future with a couple of friends of mine.

On our first date, we talked about Oktober Fest in Munich. So when oktober rolled around, we went and had an absolute blast. We made sure to visit Neuschwanstein when we were in the area. If you haven’t seen Bavaria in the late summer or early fall… You should. It’s like a fairytale.


Winter

I don’t like the cold and the dark. In fact I get colds easily and slightly depressed. Thankfully Agnes kept me awake and excited about Christmas. Which was amazing (the dog did not like it though). I also had the opportunity inn November to visit Marbella for a workshop with a Swedish startup. That was a very welcome respit from the dark.


What I learned

Over the year I’ve discovered many ideas and had several insights that I’d like to share. Some of them are rediscoveries, which is both amusing and slightly worrying. I’ve detailed most of them on my life strategies page. This is the broad strokes summary:

Consumption and wasting time is extremely comfortable. But mostly time we will regret spending. Most consumption will not create memories for life, but rather just tick some minutes away. Stepping back from consumption completely can show which is which. And give you time to create, which is my next point.

Creating is always scary. More than anything else, I spend a ton of time trying to prepare myself for the real work. This is simply just procrastination. You cannot be prepared to create, or do real work. You just have to do it. I’m going to try to be aware of this during 2019, and really ship work.

Learning is fun. And anything that is fun can be used to distract yourself from the real work. Are you sure you need to learn more before doing the thing you’re putting off? More often than not, the answer is no. Just do it.

Love is rare so enjoy it. Beauty is not, so enjoy that too. Life does not need to be a grind. Anything can be beautiful and we can even learn to love the hardest work.


Fitness & Health

If you’ve followed me over the years, you’ve probably noticed that I spend a lot of time and energy on fitness. I used to be heavily overweight in my teens and have had problems with food and health ever since. But in 2018 I can proudly say I’ve been both healthier and fitter than ever before. The journey is never over, and I’m excited about 2019 in this regard too.

Five day media fast

The week before Christmas I decided to try a radical experiment. I was rereading an old book on productivity that recommended a week long total media fast. And for some reason, I put the book down and did it.

The fast is designed like a media diet. For 5 days, you are only allowed to consume music and less than one hour of fiction in book form (perfect for me as I read when going to bed). That is no TV, no shows, no podcasts, no audiobooks, no Facebook nor Twitter. Nothing readable at all, except directly related to any work you are doing right at that moment. No research. No distractions. The idea is to force yourself to completely give up mindless consumption of information.

I honestly didn’t think this would be very difficult since I didn’t consume much TV, don’t really listen to music all that much, and see very few shows. Turned out I was massively underestimating how much media I consumed.

The first few days felt… wierd (for want of a better word). I had to stop myself putting on my headphones several times, there was nothing to listen to. I spent many long minutes just looking at people while waiting. Waiting for the subway. Waiting for my coffee. Waiting for some website to load.

On day three it started becoming difficult. I went home that night and didn’t do anything.
Nothing.
For hours.
Eventually I started reciting lines from old movies and books just to distract myself. I wrote down thoughts like I was pitching someone. And I’m pretty sure I started to stress my girlfriend out. In a phrase, I was bored. Incredibly bored, but not tired. Which came as a huge surprise!

I was more productive than usual. I got more done in less time. But the interesting thing is that was less mentally drained from work. Even doing taxes took less willpower than it ever has before.

I’m not sure I can continue living without media. And I am pretty sure the benefits will wear off if this was to become the new normal. But having experienced the difference has been eye opening.

I recommend you try this media diet. It’s only 5 days. And you might learn a lot about how you spend your mental energy.

Etching patterns into your mind

Playboy: Why is the computer field dominated people so young? The average age of Apple employees is 29.

Jobs: It’s often the same with any new, revolutionary thing. People get stuck as they get older. Our minds are sort of electrochemical computers. Your thoughts construct patterns like scaffolding in your mind. You are really etching chemical patterns. In most cases, people get stuck in those patterns, just like grooves in a record, and they never get out of them. It’s a rare person who etches grooves that are other than a specific way of looking at things, a specific way of questioning things. It’s rare that you see an artist in his 30s or 40s able to really contribute something amazing. Of course, there are some people who are innately curious, forever little kids in their awe of life, but they’re rare.

We have to actively work on etching effective patterns. And we can never stop.

A handfull of great ideas for a better life

Some time ago Tynan wrote a list of life rules for Zen Habits. Perfectly in line with my current project of trying to discover what strategies or principles I should live by. This is a great post in it's entirety, just see this excerpt: 

1. When you say you’re going to do something, do it. I believe that without his word, a man is nothing. This rule applies to things I tell others I will do as well as things I tell myself I’ll do.

[...]

5. Walk out of movies, stop reading books, leave parties. If I’m participating in some sort of entertainment and I realize that it’s not going to be worth the additional time spent, I leave. The fact that I paid $10 and watched half of the movie is irrelevant. The real decision at hand is: how do I want to spend the next hour of my life.
— Tynan

Optimisation your life away

I've thought a lot about optimisation of the last decade, always looking for better tools, productivity systems, and efficient ways of doing many, many, things. Until a few years ago when I started thinking about over-optimisation instead.

I now believe I've been using optimisation as a crutch, to procrastinate from doing the important, but scary, things in life. 

Optimising up front is usually a bad idea, it's a worse idea for every day life. Optimising should have a clear outcome of freeing up time.  If it doesn't, maybe you shouldn't be spending your time on that?
Maybe that time is better spent on the real work, or life?

Leo said it better.

(Update: This is a life strategy worthy idea.)

Reaching any goal

Have you reached every goal you have? No? Than something isn't working, and that something is you. To do something you've never done before, you have to do things differently than you have before.

Losing weight, starting a business, being creative, everything demands a change of routines and lifestyle. You have to change.

Don't be afraid to throw out who you are. When something doesn't get us what we want, change is the only way we can get it, so embrace it fearlessly. Here's how:

  1. Disregard how you usually do something (or how you are, that's nonsense).
  2. Read about or talk to people who have done something.
  3. Try it.
  4. Do it all over until you succeed, or want to do something else.

This post is a part of my 6 month experiment of discovering strategies for life.

How to plan well

Today there are so many things to do that most of us are running just to keep up. So many obligations and so many things we want to do. There's just never enough time.

Minimalism and Stoicism has the answers apparently. But it's hard to find the time to get around to them.

This way to live our lives isn't working. Not really. We're constantly breaking plans and coming up late on deadlines. The truth is that we can't do it all. We can do anything, but not everything.

It's time to apply that knowledge to planning:

Don’t plan more than you have the energy for on your worst day. Stop trying to make it your best day.

Is it that easy? I think it may be. I've added it to my set of life strategies, and will try it out for 6 months.

Strategies for a successful life

If you are anything like me, you've read a ton of great books and articles about how to live well. Learned tips and tricks from masters about how to achieve what you want in life. But honestly, I've probably forgotten more good ideas than I remember. Some idea I've had to relearn more than once. Some would've made my life much easier if I had just remembered them. Which is why I'm so inspired by Derek Sivers idea of Directives.

Derek takes notes while he reads, when he finishes something, he summaries it. Then he takes what he's learnt and adds it to a Do's and Dont's list. The list becomes an ever evolving set of strategies to live a better life. I think this is a great idea.

As one his directives is to shamelessly imitate, I'll take that advice and start doing the same thing. Starting today, I'll post everything I learn and keep a running list of Do's and Dont's. I'll tell you how it pans out in 6 months.

The Cult of Enthusiasm

We live in age of overwhelming optimism.  Everyone’s life is maical, and every experience awesome. You can’t buy cereal without being promised a soul uplifting and life affirming spiritual experience of purest joy. And yet, people are unhappy. Why is this?

Optimists are right in being wary of negativity. Most negativity simply hides fear, it creates barriers where there are none, making sure we don’t try something because it can’t be done or because what would people think? Negativity is a sneaky way for us to make ourselves victims. Pessimism is useless, we should never be victims.

But at the other end of the spectrum is the almost maniacal optimist. The person who’s so enthusiastic at all times it’s is simply beyond reason.  Well, what’s wrong with that?

Forcing enthusiasm has two major issues, as the journalist Oliver Burkeman outlines in his excellent best seller The Antidote.

Fail at Life

Firstly it sets you up to fail. How we talk to ourselves about things has a very real influence on how we feel. It sets expectations on the situations we find ourselves in, and life will simply never be a barrage of awesome and amazing experiences. It can not be, because the human mind isn’t made to handle that. It would simply stop registering the good things. How many times have you been reminded to count your blessings, only to realize life isn’t so bad? By expecting daily life to be amazing, we’ll constantly face being let down or surrounded by haters. Not because the world is actually like that, but because we‘ve created an impossible expectation. 

Use it or lose it

Secondly it seems we actually lose the ability to experience real joy and happiness when we’re constantly forcing the simulacrum of those emotions. According to burkeman “fake it til you make it” is not just incorrect, but is actually the opposite of how your mind is built to work.  Counter-intuitively looking at things from a negative point of view, a bit sceptically or even critically, you’ll set yourself up to be positively surprised often. And prepared for the situations when you’re not. 

We should never limit ourselves with artificial barriers of negativity and fear. But if we want to experience real happiness, we also shouldn’t buy into the cult of enthusiasm. Don’t force enthusiasm, look critically at the world and enjoy the ride. 

Why social media is dying

I’ve witnessed and anguished over the decline of my favorite social media, Twitter, for years. Now it seems everyone is talking about the implosion of Facebook and all the algorithmic feed platforms like Instagram.

Today I realized just how much people crave chronological feeds of what people wish to say. I’m sure you’ve seen stories like this:

It’s the traditional social media feed. The chronological text update from someone.  reinvented in the “disappearing story’s” popularized by Snapchat.

It’s the traditional social media feed. The chronological text update from someone.  reinvented in the “disappearing story’s” popularized by Snapchat.

It turns out that while social media is dying. The reason it exists in the first place is still just as valid:

 “Ultimately the bond of all companionship, whether in marriage or in friendship, is conversation...” — Oscar Wilde

Whatever made these companies think it was ever about anything else?

 

Why minimalism is a meta skill

Cultivating a selective focus is the only way to make real progress towards your goals in life. This is an excellent article by James Clear based around investment advice by Warren Buffet. Advice doesn't get much better than this.

The key point is this:
Your odds of success improve when you are forced to direct all of your energy and attention to fewer tasks.
— James Clear