x Things That ______ People Do Every Day

From time to time, I go on Facebook. It’s this new website you might have heard of, where people post thoughts, opinions, links, and play various time-wasting games. When I go on this “Facebook”, I occasionally run into a link someone has posted, which is titled in this format: “10 Things To do before ____” or “14 Things You Shouldn’t Do When ____” or “11 Things _____ People Do”. I suspect this naming scheme originates from the popular self-help business book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, and on principle, I agree with the concept. The basic idea is this: I want to be more like people who do this, so I should examine what those people do, how they do it, and why, and then I should emulate their behaviour. This is the sort of literary endeavour that requires research, interviews, plenty of rumination, and a fair bit of craftiness to distil the habits these people have amassed over the years into the irrelevant (e.g. separating their food before eating it) and the relevant (e.g. waking up early, using lots of post-its, eating only vegetables.) This is not the sort of thing that one can write – properly, that is – in an hour that would otherwise be spent browsing Reddit, except you haven’t posted on your blog in a while.

What really set me off on this topic was an article that boldly claimed to be a list of some number of “Mistakes Not to Make During your 20’s”. Like most articles of this nature, it contained short, glib paragraphs proffering advice about what to and what not to do during your 20’s in order to be a “successful” person. Ashamed as I am to say it, I read the article, and took some of its advice to heart. One heading in the article that stuck with me particularly strongly, claimed that it was a mistake to “believe you deserve a break.” Weeks later, when I was tired, overworked, and slacking off, the article would pop into my brain, and I would think about how maybe I shouldn’t let my self take a break. It bothered me; if this person who made it through their 20’s told me that this was a mistake, should I not do it? But I’m exhausted and my brain doesn’t work; do I just keep pushing?

One day I realized that was stupid advice. Of course you need – and yes, even deserve – a break sometimes. When you’ve spent two weeks straight doing useless busy work for a University degree that you may or may not use, and that certainly won’t give you the professional skills that you need for a real world job, sometimes you need a break. When you’re frustrated and tired and annoyed, sometimes you need to do nothing for a while, and that’s ok.

Articles like this really stick in my craw because they’re so misleading. It’s easy to take the advice of our elders (even if the “elders” in this case probably aren’t much older than we are), as fact, or at least to wonder if their suggestions will turn out to be accurate. When giving advice, it’s important to consider that you’re giving advice to a person with different ambitions, a different past, and a different future. Sure, it’s easy to look back and what you did when you were their age and say, “You know, I did this, and it really helped me: you should do it to” or “I didn’t do this and I’ve regretted it; don’t make the same mistakes I did.” But it’s far harder to realize that each of us is a different person with our own challenges, and sometimes that advice can do more harm than good.

More than that, however, I find it incredibly presumptuous of a person on the Internet to claim that they know exactly what mistakes I should and shouldn’t make in my 20’s. Mistakes are a valuable learning experience. And who knows, maybe something that didn’t work for them will work for me. As useful as advice can be sometimes, when it comes down to it, we each have to find our own way through this world.

So that is to say, when you really take advice to heart, maybe it shouldn’t be from Buzzfeed. Maybe you should do some research about the author of the article or book, and make sure that they did some research. And maybe you should think about what they’re saying and – more importantly – why, before really accepting it. Or maybe not; it’s up to you.

No Resolutions 2013

Every year, it seems, I write a blog post about how I’m not making New Years Resolutions. It’s getting a bit old, a bit monotonous, and I feel like I’m repeating myself. I feel like I’m berating my readers with the same drivel over and over again… but I’m doing it again this year, so suck it up!

Month: January, Year: 2013, Resolutions: None. Not one. Let’s review. The main reasons I don’t do make New Year’s Resolutions are because 1) if I need to make changes in my life, I make them in “real time;” that is, as soon as I realize there is a problem. 2) I think people use New Year’s Resolutions as an excuse. How’s that? Most people don’t follow through with New Year’s Resolutions. Sure, they go to the gym for a few days, maybe even weeks, but eventually they stop. There are a variety of reasons for this, but for the purposes of this discussion, what’s important is that most people don’t follow through. I think people use that as an excuse. Stopped going to the gym? So did a bunch of other people. Stopped “eating healthy?” You’re not alone. Still drinking too much coffee? Next year…

This is not to say that I don’t believe in making lifestyle changes at certain intervals, it’s just that I don’t think the first day of the New Year is a good day to start, especially when there are so many other people to fail with. I set goals at the beginning of semesters, especially after the summer break. After the semester is over, I’m in a better place to sit back and think about what I want to do in the coming term. What do I want to improve on? How am I going to do it? How will I know I have improved? Then I implement, and hope for the best. If it doesn’t work, I try again next term, or later in the same term.

Those two bold questions are important. Motivation research (and common sense) shows that specific goals with specific measurements are more likely to lead to success, and that most people set fuzzy goals with no measurement of success. Many people, for example, set the goal of “eating better.” What does that mean? If you eat one less burger in 2013 than 2012, you have technically eaten “better” according to some arbitrary standard. If you fail to bring fork to mouth one less time in 2013 than in 2012, you have – by some standard – succeeded in eating more skilfully (i.e. “better”) than you did in 2012. Congratulations. A specific goal is this: “Eat meals comprised mostly of vegetables three times a week.” Even that’s a bit fuzzy. How about this: “Eat white carbohydrates less than two times a week.” That’s a great goal. That’s a goal you can monitor. That’s a goal you just might be able to stick to.

Now that I’ve done my pedantry bit, let’s talk about my goals for this term. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know that I’ve been working on discipline. I’m pleased to say that I’ve done well. One of my specific goals last term was to get two A’s. I did not meet that goal. I did, however, boost my grades compared to previous terms. This semester, same goal: two A’s. Second goal: do all the assignments. My weak point in school is that at some point during the semester, I get frustrated and bored, and I stop doing assignments. I don’t just do them half way, I stop doing them altogether. That changed last semester, and in all but one of my classes, I turned in all or most of the assignments. This semester, ALL the assignments. Everything I am assigned, I will turn in. And not only will I turn it in, I will do it right. How will I do that? (Forming a plan of action for achieving your goal is also important.) I’ll do the assignments early, and I’ll check my answers. The details of this goal are still in the making, since I’m still fitting into my schedule, but that’s ok. Another goal was to brush and floss my teeth every single night. I used to brush most nights, and floss frequently, but I wanted to do it every night. Done. I think I’ve missed one day since a week before the start of last semester. This semester, I’m adding a morning brushing to that goal.

Those are a few goals I’m continuing to work on and I’ve added another: meditation. I want to be more disciplined, and more focussed. Meditation does just that sort of thing. There are lots of ways to meditate, but the one I’m going to focus on is the one found here. From what I’ve read, this type of meditation strengthens the pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of your brain that delivers willpower. So I’m going to meditate this way every night before I go to sleep. So far, I have meditated every night this semester, and I’m still going strong. I started out with 5 minutes, then 10, and I think I’m going to kick it up a notch and go for 20 tonight. It’s tough, but that’s what I’m looking for.

Finally, I do have some fuzzy goals. There are some things I want to do that I don’t really care to define properly, because they’re things that I want to work on, but that I don’t want to interfere with my other goals. If you pick too many goals, all of them suffer, and the three goals I’ve mentioned here are more important and concrete. I want to encourage my curiosity. Instead of just reading about a concept – mead making, say – and glossing over it, I want to immerse myself in it. I want to dig in, and learn some cool things about it. If someone were to come up to me after I read an article about mead, and ask me what I learned, I want to be able to tell them something cool, not just say, “Uh… well…” That’s just a waste of time. I also want to keep my room cleaner, do the dishes more frequently (which I’ve been doing,) and go to sleep earlier.

And yes, I want to blog more often. I’ve been neglecting my blog again, but some day I hope to get back to it. My life has been changing a lot lately, and blogging didn’t really fit in my mind. Now, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to focus on it a bit more. But who knows. One reader suggested that I add a donate button to my site, and I think I may well do that. I don’t want you to feel pressured to donate, and I won’t add it unless I start blogging more often, but it would certainly encourage me to blog more often (and contribute to the Help Me Pay My Rent And Things fund) if people threw some change my way every once in a while. If you have thoughts or opinions on this (or any) subject, please do leave them in the comments.

Also, if there are things you want me to talk about (or not talk about) in 2013, please let me know.

Discipline Week: Hindsight

To be honest, I’ve been rather dreading writing this post. The biggest failure of Discipline Week was my lack of blogging, and while there were many successes, the fact that I haven’t blogged in around three months has been weighing on me. Sometimes I feel like the segments of our lives have a theme. If you could put years of your life in a folder, you might label these years after something you learned to do, and these months after someone you were dating, and this week after one idea that completely changed your way of thinking. This semester’s theme has definitely been “Motivation” or, as a friend of mine might call it, “Learning to School.”

In learning how to school, I have learned not only about motivation, but also about priorities, forgiveness, and ardor. I use the word ardor in reference to a quote I read a while ago: “Learning is not attained by chance; it must be sought for with ardor, and attended to with diligence.” – Abigail Adams. When I copied this quote and taped it above my desk early in the semester, I knew it was significant, but it took me a while to learn exactly how it was significant. To me, seeking learning with ardor means that you have to use whatever means are at your disposal to complete your work. If that means staying up late, or asking a friend how to do a problem, or even skipping class, then so be it. It’s not enough to simply be at school, you have to fight for the knowledge you want.

Prioritizing is sometimes part of fighting for knowledge. I have skipped many a Linear Algebra assignment this semester, but I’ve done all but two of my assignments in every other class. In two of my classes, the assignments are worth 10% to 12.5% of my grade, and in another class, I know that I’ll get very far behind if I don’t do the assignments. Given a limited time – for whatever reason – I have to choose which assignment to do based on which is more important.

I’ve also learned to forgive myself. I can’t expect myself to study as diligently as some of my peers – at least not at the moment. After a while, I shut down, and I’m not able to continue studying. Once in a while, I’ll realize that I just can’t study, and I’ll put everything down and watch TV. And I’ve learned to tell myself that that’s ok sometimes.

Scheduling is also important. I’ve realized that most of the time I’ll plan to work on something “later” and not really allocate any time for it. Then “later” arrives, and the assignment is already past due. I have to give myself a time and a place in which to study: at home, at my table, with a pot of tea, at 4:30pm. Now I stack up my day in my mind, like a stack of dishes that need to be done. Sometimes I realize I won’t have time for all of them, and I re-prioritize.

Finally, one of the most important things: I’ve gotten rid of my “smart complex.” I read an article a while ago about how children who are told they are “smart” tend to give up more easily on intellectual challenges, and I realized that describes me to a tee. It sounds like an excuse or a an attempt at diagnosing an imaginary affliction, but I think it’s a useful tool for analyzing myself. If your parents told you all your life that you were stupid, chances are you would start to believe them after a while, and you would relegate yourself to a life of intellectual boredom. So what happens when your parents constantly tell you that you’re smart?

I think you start to believe it in just the same way. You do well in school, because maybe you are smart, until you reach a point where smart doesn’t cut it anymore; now you have to do real work, and you’ve never had to do that before. That’s when the identity crisis hits. You start looking for a way to reconcile the idea that you’re “smart” and the fact that you’re performing poorly in school. “Maybe I’m not cut out for this,” you think to yourself, “maybe I’m in the wrong program,” “I’m not enjoying this, so maybe this isn’t my subject.” When grades don’t agree with your vision of the world, you start comparing yourself to other people, trying to see where you stand on the intellectual spectrum. But it’s all in vein, because intellect doesn’t matter here: work is what matters, and you’ll get nowhere until you realize that.

The trick is to realize that you cannot afford yourself the luxury of being smart. Smart does not exist in this scenario, for all intents and purposes, and the sooner you can force yourself to realize that, the sooner you can start working on the real problem: how to do the work. Pushing “smart” out of your mind will help you succeed.

It took me a few days to stop comparing myself to other people, and to stop thinking about how my performance reflected on my intellect. For a while I was even annoyed with some of my friends who I perceived to be “smarter” than I, because I was the smart kid once. Soon, I realized that they merely have more self-discipline than I do. This problem is by no means fixed, and I’m still getting a feel for how to deal with it. But I am dealing with it.

For those who would like to read more about what I have called the “smart complex,” here is the article: http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/

My Starving Brain

This morning, as I ate my breakfast, I realized I was way too tired to go running. In fact, after staring out the window for about ten minutes, I realized that what I needed was a nap. The morning nap is a double edged sword. Sometimes I really need a nap in the morning, but the price of napping early in the morning is that, unless I’m super crazy tired, I’ll become groggy, and spend the rest of the day as a coffee zombie. Today, I was not quite as tired as I thought I was, and I turned into a coffee zombie.

After my nap, I got up, did some work, cleaned, read for a while, Googled my professors for next semester’s classes (I’m taking a class from one of the guys who invented quantum teleportation.… yeah, I know,) and then went to meet a friend for coffee… half an hour late. I’m rarely late for things, mainly because I know that I naturally tend toward lateness. I overcome this tendency by being compulsively early to appointments, classes, meetings, and outings with friends. Today, I was late because – although I knew we were meeting at 4:30 – in my mind I was supposed to leave at 4:30.

Combined with the fact that yesterday I forgot my violin when I left for my violin lesson, I was starting to worry about my mental health. All sorts of possibilities ran through my mind – not enough sleep, too much sleep, the new vitamins I’m taking – and then I realized what the most likely culprit was. I thought about what I’d eaten today: eggs and lentils for breakfast, a bowl of lentils, ham, and sauerkraut for lunch. That’s it. According to my calculations, that’s about 1600 Calories, most of it protein. It sounds about right, for having eaten a third of my allotted food for the day, but when you consider that 1) the Calorie is a ridiculous way of gauging food value*, and 2) eating since has made me feel more awake and like my brain is working, I think it wasn’t enough.

As soon as I got home from missing coffee, I bought a sugary mocha frappucino and a rice crispy square, and I felt like my brain went from around 30% efficiency to 80%. Yes, the caffeine helped, but I had two cups of coffee this morning, and it did very little for me. I’m pretty sure it’s the carbs.

So it seems there are two ways to fix this. First, I could pound down lentils like there’s no tomorrow. I’d guess I would need to double my lentil consumption to get enough carbs. Second, I could start eating some foods with a higher glycemic index (rice, for one.) Either way, I think altering my diet to include more carbs will help.

I think it’s safe to say that today’s segment of Discipline Week was rough, but it was not a failure. Why wasn’t it a failure? After all, I didn’t run, I hardly woke up at 7, and I didn’t accomplish any of the other cornerstones of Discipline Week 2 that I’ve run into so far. It was a success because I learned something. This isn’t just about practising discipline, this is about learning how to be more disciplined. It’s about learning to control my urge to put things off, learning to increase my concentration, and improve my life and studies. Learning that I need to alter my diet in order to stick to my goals is just as valuable – if not more so – than sticking to them in the first place.

Sometimes a failure is even more valuable than a success. When you succeed, you might not necessarily know why. If you can duplicate those circumstances in the future, maybe you can even succeed again. But when you fail, examine your failure, tweak some variables, and try again, you learn more about the problem as a whole. And once you know enough about the problem as a whole, you can manipulate it to your favour.

I’m thinking about converting my morning run into a morning walk. A morning run seems like a big, huge step toward a life goal, and while it’s exciting, I don’t think it’s realistic to jump into it right away. Running at night is fine, but especially this week while my aunt is visiting from Chicago, I know I’m not going to get to sleep in time for a 7:30am run. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.

 

*I’m no biochemist, but protein, carbohydrates, fat, and fibre are all broken down by the body differently. To try and assign a scalar value to the energy they produce in the human body, or to try and estimate their value seems pretty silly. Also, different people seem to use different nutritional components differently, so to assume that everyone needs X amount of protein, fat, and carbs seems silly as well. Come at me, nutrition majors.

The Student Diet: Lose Weight, Eat Wrong, and Get Out of Shape

There are lots of silver bullet diet blog posts out there, but as we all should know by now, silver bullet cures don’t exist. However, I recently discovered a MIRACLE DIET CURE that will help you LOSE WEIGHT and LOOK GOOD and all that. Here it is.

It’s called the “Student Diet,” or as I frequently refer to it, the “I’m too lazy and/or busy to get up and get food” diet. It’s a simple diet, and all you have to do is follow these basic principles:

  1. You are here. Food is there. Do you really want to get up out of your chair and go get it? No. No, you don’t. You want to keep browsing Reddit. So by all means, continue.
  2. Food is Expensive. The average per-capita monthly food expenditure in Canada is around $205 per month. That is entirely too much. That’s money you could spend on a new phone, books, movies, music, vacations, rent, or anything else that isn’t food. So the next time you look in your fridge, don’t see a delicious buffet of delectable treats: see a lot of money that’s about to be converted into people-dung.
  3. Stop complaining and drink your caffeine. It’s a well-known fact that caffeine boosts your metabolism, but most people forget that caffeine also makes you more tired later. The more tired you are, the lazier you are, and the lazier you are, the less you feel like getting up to eat. So drink your coffee*. Also I read somewhere that coffee prevents Alzheimer’s, though for the life of me I can’t remember where**.
  4. Transportation is expensive, so hoof it, weakling. Gas, bus fairs, train tickets, rental cars, taxis – they all have one thing in common: they’re expensive. Know what’s not expensive? Your feet. Back in the days before cars, people who wanted to get places had to walk. Embrace your roots and get moving. If you must, save up your money and buy a bike. This should cost you a few months of bus fairs, one train ticket, or two tanks of gas. Yeah, gas is expensive***.
  5. Beans are life, Beans are happiness, Beans are easy to cook. Ok, so you’re really lazy, but you’re pretty hungry. You want to save money, but you have to eat something eventually. What do you eat? Beans. Dried beans, more specifically. You can buy dry beans in – like – 15 lb bags, and one bag should last you for a few months. They take an hour to reconstitute, they’re super cheap, and they have a lot of fiber and nutrients and things doctors say you need to eat and that don’t cause cancer. And remember: Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart, the more you eat…
  6. Sleep it off. Apparently a lack of sleep can cause weight retention. Now, I might have trouble getting myself to go out and lift weights or run, but one thing I can always do is sleep. Having a rough night? Sleep in until 1 tomorrow. Getting bored at the party? Go home and sleep, even though it’s only 9pm. I like to get a good 10 hours of sleep once or twice a week during finals. Also, you dream more the longer you sleep (this is actually true,) so if you want to spend more time in crazy dreamland, sleep more. Finally, it’s a true fact that when you’re sleeping, you’re not eating, unless you’re eating spiders which are high in protein and low in fat (i.e. they’re good for you; eat more spiders.)

Many of you are probably following this diet already, since I imagine that most of my reading audience is made up of students. The great thing about the student diet is that it takes advantage of your lower nature: the desire to spend less energy doing less, and save money while you’re doing it. Harness your inner couch potato, sleep more, do less, and start losing weight today!

Also, this is a horrible idea, don’t actually do it.

 

*It’s worth noting that if you drink too much coffee, you’ll be dead, and then you’ll lose weight like CRAZY. But you’ll also be dead, so maybe take it easy on the caffeine.

**This is such an obvious joke, I know, but I seriously can’t remember; it was a few years ago. Which probably means that by now “scientists” have published another study showing a correlation between coffee and increased incidence of Alzheimer’s, because publish or perish dictates that you should publish whatever research you have, even if it’s stupid and counterproductive.

***And don’t start whining about “winter” and “ice” and “snow.” Ever heard of snow shoes? Know what they’re for? Get some; use them.

Being a Kid

Ever since I turned 19 or so, I’ve been fascinated with the idea that being an adult allows me to be more of a kid than I ever was before. It really started with this xkcd comic, but the idea grew in my mind, and eventually the artistic side of my personality got a hold of it. Over time, that idea has turned into an artistic fascination with merging the world of children’s entertainment (crayons, colored pencils, kids’ toys,) with the adult world of art and science (research, installation art, fine art.) What I find really interesting is juxtaposition that emerges by combining the two worlds: drawing a beautiful piece of art with crayons or markers, using a child’s toy as a tool for research into human-machine interaction or as the platform for a piece of installation art. And while it might seem weird, I like the idea that I can do things now that I only dreamed of as a kid. I mean, I get payed to program robots to learn; I would have gone nuts over that as a kid, and I don’t ever want to lose that excitement at doing something cool.

The most important philosophical reason that I want to explore the mixture of these two worlds, however, is that I think we grow up too much and too fast. In a world where we really don’t have that much to worry about, we spend a lot of time worrying about things that our ancestors would have shrugged off. All that time we could be spending enjoying life is wasted on taxes or getting a better CV or impressing the boss. And those things are important, but you can’t do them all the time. It’s easy to get so caught up in what you’re going that you don’t realize how insignificant the consequences of taking a day or two off really are.

So that being said, I challenge you to take the day off from being an adult, and try being a kid for a day – shirk responsibility, go fly a kite, draw something with the most imprecise implement you can find, buy a huge box of crayons, eat desert first, build a potato canon – whatever it takes to get you to feeling that young fascination and enjoyment of the world again. Sometimes the simple things are more interesting than the complex ones.

Note: You may have guessed that this post relates to the recent eBay purchase I talked about in Twitter. You would be correct. I’ll explain, hopefully, in my next post. I’m building a lot of suspense around something that doesn’t really deserve it, but I don’t want to share my purchase until I can explain it properly.

An Apology to the Blogosphere

This post was brought to you, in part, by a delicious cup of coffee.

This is a sort of apology. It’s an apology to you, the reader, but it should be more of an apology to me, or the universe, or whatever force it is that holds me to my word. Forgive me Blogosphere: I have sinned.

I haven’t posted in a whole week, which means that I’ve missed two posts, and I missed one immediately before my last post. Now, depending on how seriously or regularly you read my blog, this may or may not be a big deal to you. But it’s a huge deal to me. For a little over seven months I posted regularly, and then I had to go and mess it all up over these few weeks. The irony is that I actually wrote a blog post for every day that I’ve missed, and if you count the drafts that I started and abandoned, I’ve actually written more than enough to meet my quota. I just didn’t publish them because they were either boring or whiny, and I try really hard not to whine on my Twitter feed or blog. No one wants to read my rants about how my day was boring, or how I have to do work that I don’t want to do, or how I’m tired – that’s not what the internet is for. The internet is for exchanging interesting and stimulating information, not for “Oh man, my day sucked.” Ok, so maybe once in a while it helps to tell the world just how awful your day was, but I try really hard not to abuse that privileged.

So with that in mind, what is there for me to blog about? Excellent question. That’s exactly the question I’ve been asking myself since my last post: what should I write about. The past month has been spent mostly in front of my computer or in class. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I leave class at 11:30, do whatever administrative things I might need to do at school (~10 minutes on average,) hop on the bus, eat food when I get home, and sit down to work. Do I usually get my work done? No. What do I do? Another excellent question. My time isn’t being sucked into Facebook or Twitter or YouTube, since I’ve kept them blocked on my computer, and I don’t really get that many e-mails, so I’m not sure what I waste my time doing. I’ve written a few bash scripts, I wrote my first program in assembly the other day, but other than that I’m not sure. It seems like a relatively common problem today that computers suck time from people like black holes suck stellar matter from stars, the wasted time spiraling into the computer screen like a whirlpool of minutes that have been neglected and allowed to perish by their former owner.

In short, I’ve been wasting a lot of time, and that time wastage has led to a poorly maintained blogging schedule. I’m sorry to you, and to me, and to the blogging deities in the skies above us. There will be a new post on Wednesday come hell or high water. … Ok, actually, either hell or high water would cause a significant delay in posting, but short of those two, I’ll be back to my regular schedule starting this week.