The Daily Ugly

by Venkat on May 21, 2012

The Russian proverb, morning is wiser than evening (MWTE) is one of my favorite ideas about tempo management at the daily level. It makes a more abstract idea (avoid making decisions when you are tired or depressed) more evocative.

MWTE is a simple tempo management heuristic that works for most people, most of the time. If you are a typical sort, and you use it systematically, you’ll slightly improve your decision-making quality by introducing a timing bias. Most of the time. Sometimes, you are smarter at night-time. And there are people who are always wiser in the evening. Good heuristics have this robustness. Even if you proselytize them with no qualifications, on balance you’ll do more good than harm. Really robust heuristics can even handle being rhetorically exaggerated into absolutes (“If you practice MWTE, you will succeed, guaranteed!”). They are also very forgiving: if you execute partially, you get partial results. There is no all-or-nothing effect.

The 24-hour  circadian rhythm is usually the easiest one to work with when you first start to practice tempo management. This is the reason take it one day at a time is such a robust heuristic for tough times. The world of motivational speakers and self-improvement gurus is choked with circadian advice. It is useful to sort out the torrent of circadian tips this world throws at us. A decent classification is good, bad and ugly heuristics. It is the last category that determines the quality of your daily life.

Good, Bad and Ugly Circadian Heuristics

Here is a sampling of good, bad and ugly circadian heuristics. Good ones have robustly positive effects. Bad ones have robustly negative effects. Ugly ones are positive if properly qualified, but go negative easily if misunderstood or understood simplistically.


  1. Keep a notepad by your bed and write down thoughts that keep you awake
  2. Exercise every day
  3. Don’t watch more than an hour of TV a day
  4. An apple a day keeps the doctor away (most people are likely to liberally interpret this as “get some fruit and vegetables in your daily diet)


  1. Make a list of things to do every day, and do them (works for a minority of people, but for most people, this is far more likely to backfire)
  2. Do the toughest thing on your to-do list first thing in the morning (the “Eat that Frog” strategy. In theory, getting a minor tactical win should fuel you up with motivation for the rest of the day. In practice, you are just as likely to fail or do a poor job due to not being a morning person, and killing the rest of your day).


  1. Don’t check email first thing in the morning: I want to like this idea, but I find it very inconsistent in its effects. Many kinds of work require an email pass to develop situation awareness. Many lifestyles rely on the minor spike of social energy that can come from email. I once knew a guy who’d wake up at 5 AM and do a couple of hours of solid creative work and then an hour of yoga before letting email (and “real life”) hit. The minority of people who can set up their lives to make this happen is miniscule.
  2. Designate one day a week when you can eat whatever you want: this one often accompanies diets. Unfortunately, emotional eating is a fact of life, and it doesn’t just cover feeling better when you are depressed. You may binge on pizza and beer on a day when you are attempting a marathon work session (such as during a heavy lift). Being doctrinaire about an important self-control variable like food is never a good idea.

The Game of Daily Ugly 

When a heuristic is ugly, it means you have to think about whether to use it on a given day. Even if you have a default position about it (either using it or not using it), exception days are nearly as frequent as days when you let the default ride.

So thinking about whether to use a given ugly heuristic on a given day creates a game of daily tactical maneuvering based on whether necessary/sufficient conditions are met or not. If you don’t play this game well,  daily life dissolves into chaos.

I call this the game of “Daily Ugly.” It is exhausting.

It is better to adopt a few good daily heuristics, and limit your use of ugly heuristics, so you don’t have to play the game of Daily Ugly everyday. But it is important to increase your use of ugly heuristics gradually, because they generally cover more complex situations than the good or bad ones. No pain, no gain. If you only use good heuristics, you’ll stabilize at happy mediocrity.

Daniel Lemire May 22, 2012 at 6:10 am

I’ve had great luck with the daily to-do list, and I feel that the approach is very robust.

The key is that you must not commit to the list, and you must be allowed to edit it, even retroactively (at the end of the day). That is, if you want to view as something you commit to, then make sure you can always win, as long as you et something done. Or better yet: the to-do list is just there to provide guidance as in “what could I be doing that’s important?”.

What’s the point in editing the list as you go? Well, it is a recognition that whoever drafted the list (the earlier you) is a different person. You should not try to be a slave to your earlier self,

I ought to make a blog post about it.

Jordan Peacock May 22, 2012 at 9:52 am

As a Discordian Pope, I reserve the right to invoke infallibility at any time, including retroactively.

On the Good vs. Ugly I would add diet/diet. Diet in the sense of the tempo of what you eat, sustainably, is good, even great. Diet in the sense of some sort of massive, temporary project to “fix” your weight or health tends to be extremely ugly. And the focus on calories/gluten/carbohydrates/what have you tends to obscure the more holistic necessities of a *good* diet.

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