There was a time not too long ago in my life where I thought that working as hard as I could on whatever I cared about would lead to success. This is what I was taught — this what we’re all were taught. Invariably, I didn’t work as hard as I’d expected and figured I didn’t care enough. This was a pattern that emerged both in short and long arcs of my life, revealed in my hobbies, my relationships, my studies, my health. I’d want to sleep more consistently, but I’d sleep less. I’d want to do better in class, but I’d slack off on Reddit more. I wanted to work out, but instead I’d snack throughout the day. My will was fickle and feckless. It’d spite me with reckless abandon, gushing in gloriously one night and eluding me for weeks. Eventually (and incorrectly), I figured that I didn’t really care about anything. Interests were flings. Hobbies were fads. Passions were fake. Rarely, was I choosing where I wanted to go and actually going there.
The past few years, I’ve undergone a mental transformation where I’ve started becoming successful by my own and societal measures. I eviscerated the ill-conceived notion of knowing myself, in favor of a keen, aware approach of observing myself and introducing small processes or habits to modify my behavior. Science is all about making observations and building theories to explain those observations and future observations. Viewing your brain as a black box is the key to turn yourself into science. People may come to understand themselves naturally, but usually it comes in serendipitous moments of reflection or crisis, rather than on purpose. However, once you become your own guinea pig, you can conduct tests that affect the inputs to the black box, and observe the results. It’s a fun way of getting to know yourself.
There are three criteria to the black box framework:
- You are a black box. Acknowledge that you don’t know yourself as much as you’d like to think, thus predicting your future behavior is difficult.
- You can study yourself. Test habits, introduce processes, or change environments to input to black box and observe the output. Rinse and repeat.
- You can hack yourself. By building an understanding of your existing behavioral processes, addictions, instincts, you can shape processes that work for you. This is the engineering after the science part.
You are a black box
There are boundless articles, papers, and books that illuminate this phenomena. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman fuels each chapter with experiments showing how easily we fool ourselves. For example, when asked for the probability of some critical event happening before such an event, and then recalling the probabilities that the individual had assigned apriori, the group would vastly overestimate their probabilities in favor of the event that actually occurred. For example, before the OJ trial, a participant would assign a probability to OJ being ruled guilty, and then after the trial was over, they would be asked to remember that probability. In nearly all cases, they would overstate the probability of the event that actually happened, even if they had predicted it to begin with.
Let’s reframe this experiment in our daily lives. Let’s create a set of possible events for this coming Saturday afternoon: wasting time on the internet, reading a book, working on a hobby or project, hanging out with friends/family, grocery shopping & cooking, sleeping in. If you’ve spent enough time observing yourself, your probabilities will be pretty close to what actually happens over time. If not, they’ll probably overweight the productive events, and underweight unproductive events. Test it out by writing it and observing yourself.
The fitness community has already come to terms with the body being a black box. Rarely, are there individuals who are determining how to get stronger, or bigger from their own volition. The most successful weight lifters are apt at treating their bodies like a black box, and follow established practices for how often to go to the gym, what to do at the gym, what and how much to eat on a daily basis. People who try to gain 40 lbs of muscle and shed excess body fat through sheer will often fail, myself included.
Yet in the cognitive analogous to attaining top fitness shape, we tend to cowboy it through the gym, trying a bit of this and that, taking far too many water breaks for our attention. Many of us rarely make it to the cognitive gym in the first place. Many of our jobs live in the cognitive realm and yet, we run these cognitive marathons at work without proper coaching and training. What if we started training ourselves by asking questions like how our activities from the weekend affected the start of next week? Or how the conversation with our parents early in the morning affected our ability to focus at the 9 AM call?
Personally, one of my favorite things about this framework is how it unwound a knot of stress from my life. For example, in my first job, I’d get stressed out somedays about how little progress I made on the important projects, because I was called upon so many times on tinier, insignificant questions or concerns. I’d be answering emails or bug fixing 80 % of my time and coding less than 20 %. As the months rolled by, I felt almost an existential amount of stress. I started thinking escape hatch thoughts.
Maybe software engineering isn’t my thing
I should just move to China and teach English
I’m not good enough for this
I’ll never build this complex behemoth of a system on my own
These were just a few of the thoughts that developed during those months. I had actually gone ahead and started coordinating a 6 month trip to China, talking with a homestay program and blocking off dates on the calendar. While this was a genuinely exciting prospect, upon review, I realized it was a coping mechanism to deal with enormous amounts of self-inflicted stress. What’s crucial to understand here, is that day to day I was completely flummoxed as to why I didn’t get much done, but shuffle a few messages or lines of code here and there. Gradually, things outside my job started to look more attractive, and I gravitated towards that. Most likely, if I had gone to China, it would no doubt be a great experience, but I’d start to gravitate towards the advantages of the work life and social life I had back in the States.
Viewing myself as a black box unhooked me from the stress of the day-to-day. It gave me the chance to say to myself “This work that I’m doing (or lack of work) isn’t who I am. It doesn’t define me. It doesn’t bind me”. Instead of hating myself for not getting enough done today, I thought about what I could change to make things better. I started seeing my work as a complex set of interactions between my environment, my coworkers, and myself. And then, instead of willing myself to accomplish my goal and failing, I was able to implement small, meaningful changes that freed me up to focus on the important stuff.
You can observe yourself
The greatest process I’ve learned is mindfulness meditation, or in other words, the daily practice of acutely observing the mind, body, and present. Realizing the thoughts that flow by weren’t in my possession, aren’t tied to my identity, bound to my soul liberated me from all kinds of stressors. Within a few weeks of practice, certain recurring thought patterns and behaviors emerged leading me to wonder why I didn’t see them before. Seeing the rapid twists and turns of thoughts showed me how wild and foreign my brain really was. It was no different than being put in the jungle, completely out of my comfort zone. Here are some of the thoughts I had after snapping out of each thought.
Did I really spend the last 10 minutes thinking about the consequences a single interaction from yesterday at the office?
Why do I keep thinking about that person I met several weeks ago in such detail?
How important is the need to reflexively Google the name of the actor from that random show I watched once?
What makes me need to trim my beard all of a sudden?
The thoughts that flowed through my brain weren’t always irrational or unrelated, but it was clear that the environment shaped them and they habitually fed off each other without regard to my goals for the day. I wanted to get a few things done that day, but if my brain had it’s way with me untapped, I’d probably collapse into a phone-consuming sloth. Certain structures and processes needed to be put in place for me to get shit done. Otherwise, my expectations of what I wanted of myself would easily get overrun by the hoard of wild thoughts. For many people, that structure is a job, school, or other external responsibilities.
BJ Fogg, a professor at Stanford, has been observing human behavior for over 20 years and described in humans a “motivation wave” — where a person’s will to do anything ebbs and flows as naturally as the waves on the ocean. This reframing does wonders. It’s perfectly normal for anyone to have low points of the day where nothing gets done. Yet in periods where motivation is high, it makes sense to capitalize on this and do the difficult tasks you wanted to do.
In other words, you can hack yourself
If you listen carefully to the words of people who have accomplished their ambitious goals, most of them have found workarounds for core nature. They can make progress despite their defects. Aziz Ansari shared on a podcast about how he was able to write Master of None; he had to hole himself up in a cafe, not bring his phone, and not connect to the wifi. If he by chance learned the wifi info, that’s it. He was done working at that cafe. He had to dip and find another cafe.
Aziz, one of the most successful comedians of his generation, has not only managed to release his own comedy specials and perform at places like Madison Square Garden and host SNL, but he’s also written, produced, and acted for numerous shows, including his own show Master of None. The way he makes progress is to put himself in an environment and follow processes that maximizes his efforts towards the things he cares about.
Jerry Seinfeld uses a calendar process on his wall to pressure himself to write. Once he does his daily writing task, he marks a big red X on the wall for that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.” Seinfeld implemented a system to take advantage of his own psychological vulnerabilities, and it’s one of the key elements of his prolific career.
Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, defines deep work in comparison to shallow work through the level of attention and engagement needed by the brain to make progress on the task. He discourages passive habits that can have lasting effects on your attention, such as constantly checking your phone, and encourages habits such as timing and planning your tasks, with breaks in between. These are meta-habits to implement that could accelerate progress towards any goal.
Some of the habits I’ve built up for myself have dramatically changed my life. Perhaps the most effective one is to work for roughly 2 hours straight right after I have my morning coffee on the most difficult, important task I have for the day. My mind is lithe and creative in the morning — I find myself designing solutions and finding bugs exponentially faster in the morning than in the evening. Habits are built by reward systems and the reward of this habit is getting the biggest thing done (usually) first thing in the morning. However, the habit goes further than that. The coffee acts both as a trigger for my work habit, but as a reward for the habit before that, meditation (Thanks Andrea for sharing Tiny Habits with me!). From the Coursera course Learning How to Learn, I picked up the Pomodoro technique to regulate the switching between focused mode and diffuse mode. There have been others habits I’ve created and subsequently dropped because they haven’t worked as well for me. It’s a continuous work in progress.
In many ways, this is nothing new
Athletes and weight-lifters have been evolving fitness techniques for centuries, carefully logging their own performance, and adjusting to suit their body, environment, and goals. Spaced repetition is a technique that many people use to memorize vast amounts of knowledge at an astonishing retention rate. Some people live in cities and others live in suburbs to better serve their needs and goals. One of my friends recently moved into a more expensive studio apartment so that he focus on his music without getting distracted with roommates. For everyone one of those people, there are others of us a bit more lost.
Most of us have vague aspirations of how we work, what we want to do in life, and who we want to be. Some of us even have more concrete goals of what to do in the immediate future. However, the path to these goals is often treacherous and slippery. Our psyche can be our greatest strength or achilles heel. Viewing yourself as a black box can shed light on both of those situations. In Learning How to Learn, there was one lesson in particular that stuck with me. Professor Oakley said it over and over again:
“Focus on the process not the product”.
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