The Four Seasons of Lifehacking

by Venkat on August 5, 2014

Seattle is the farthest north I’ve ever lived, at 47.61 degrees. At this latitude, the longest day is about 16 hours and the shortest is about 8.5 hours, a range of 7.5 hours. Late summer months can get quite hot. Previously, the farthest north I’d lived was Rochester, NY (43 degrees). There, the day length varied from 15.5 to 9 hours, a range of 6.5 hours.

The extreme variation in day length makes it hard to stick to a single routine through the whole year. That extra hour in the variation range, coupled with my completely flexible schedule, make it significantly harder than even Rochester, where having a regular job made it much easier. Global warming hasn’t helped either, since that seems to have added to the unpredictability of the weather variations around seasonal norms.

I am sure it’s even worse further north in Canada and Alaska. A routine adapted for a harshly lit 16 hour day, with several hours of blazing heat simply does not work six months later for a gloomy eight hour day.

So one of the adaptations I’ve had to make, since moving to Seattle, is becoming a very seasonal creature.

Surprisingly, being forced to adopt a routine that varies through the year has made me much better at lifestyle hacking overall. High day-length variations force you to actually think and solve your routine problems. Fumbling through with an unchanging all-year routine might work at lower latitudes, especially if you have a fixed paycheck job schedule. But sufficiently far from the equator, with a sufficiently flexible schedule, life becomes impossible if you don’t go consciously and intelligently seasonal.

Over the last year, I’ve been making a special effort to go consciously seasonal in my lifestyle (or rather, consciously recognize and fine tune my instinctive adaptations), so I figured I’d share what I’ve learned so far.

Outdoor Time

The key to becoming an effective seasonal creature, I’ve realized, is to plan your day around your outdoor activity time as the anchor element. If there’s no outdoor time in your schedule, you’ve got a bigger lifestyle problem. Outdoor time subsumes workout time, and is more important, since it applies even to those who are physically unable to work out. It becomes particularly critical far from the equator (for Vitamin D production, keeping seasonal affective disorder at bay, and to keep the body clock calibrated properly).

Even if I work out at the gym, I count that as “outdoor time” for planning purposes, since the psychological effects are similar for me.

I like to run outdoors when I can, and take long walks  when it is too cold/rainy or I don’t feel like running. Besides one longish outdoor activity per day, I try to build in short outdoor walks or errands throughout.

I am also an owl, and though I can sometimes work early, I’ve never been able to exercise early in the day. This means, my best seasonal outdoor-time windows are as follows:

Outdoor Time Windows

  • Winter: 2-4 PM
  • Spring and Fall: 4-7 PM
  • Summer: 7-9 PM

You have very little control over these in most parts of the world (not counting the Mediterranean, California and Hawaii perhaps). Outdoor time is only pleasant when it is neither too hot/sunny, nor too cold (cloudy and even rainy is fine though).

Once you nail down outdoor time. The next thing to nail down for me (and, I suspect, most people) is sleep.

Sleep

I am a poor sleeper at night (I know this because I tracked my sleep for a while with the now defunct Zeo device). Where most people  get 4-5 full REM cycles (about 70-100 minutes) and an hour or more of deep sleep, I tend to get only about 3 cycles and only about 30-45 minutes of deep sleep even on good days.

Unlike most people, I don’t try to manage my night sleep much because there’s just too many variables messing with it, not all within my control. I tend to go to bed somewhere between 11 Pm and 1 AM, and wake up around 7:30 – 8:30 AM, but that’s a typical outcome, not a planned behavior.

Of the many sleep hacks I’ve tried to improve my sleep, daytime naps provide the most bang for the buck, especially if I can squeeze in a full REM cycle’s worth of napping (which means a 70-100 minute nap). The only thing that works even better is sleeping late on the weekends (even for free agents like me, it’s hard to break out of a weekday/weekend rhythm, though lately I’ve been trying a hack called “taking my Saturday on Friday,” which works surprisingly well).

Though I haven’t done the monitoring, I think I get more deep sleep during naps.  I fall asleep much faster and sometimes wake up more rested than in the morning.

But if you nap at the wrong time, the rest of your day can be rendered useless. Building out further around my outdoor routine, the best windows seem to be as follows:

Nap windows

  • Winter: 1-3
  • Spring and Fall: 2-4
  • Summer: 4-7 (this sounds weird until you try it).

It’s no accident that I tend to try and nap before my exercise window. It’s hard to do brain work right after a nap, but with a cup of coffee, running, taking a walk or going to the gym works well.

I don’t nap every day, but it’s an option I like to keep open, to use or not depending on how well I slept the night before, how well the morning work session went, and how lunch hit me. I end up napping perhaps 3-4 days out of 7. More when things are going poorly, less when they are going smoothly.

In high school, I had a rather opinionated biology teacher who insisted that napping was bad and that you ought to limit yourself to twenty minutes if you did nap. There was also a ritual admonishment in my family against evening naps (when I was a kid, my parents liked to assert that only demons napped at dusk).

This sort of largely unfounded one-size-fits-all advice is, in my experience awful. Sleep is one thing that you have to manage in as individualized a way as possible. Some people don’t seem to need naps at all, and get by on 6 hours of sleep indefinitely. At the other extreme, there are those polyphasic sleep types who seem to grab their eight hours in two-hour chunks.

Listening too much to others, or feeling the need to justify your sleep patterns to others, especially if you are a poor sleeper, is a recipe for walking through life like a sleep-deprived zombie.

The only generalization you can make is this: your sleep schedule will necessarily be constrained by the social structure of your work day. One of the big advantages of being a flextime privileges is that you can manage your sleep properly. Sleep is important enough that I think it’s worth arranging your work schedule around the objective of getting good sleep.

Food

Finally, you have to build out your food habits around your exercise and sleep habits. Here I have an average-schmoe attitude, since I have no grand ambitions like climbing Everest or acquiring a six-pack. Being healthy enough to work as much I want to, without discomfort or pain, is my primary fitness goal.

This means nutrition considerations are secondary because they are long-term. The primary concern is making sure my eating patterns don’t make my  exercise, sleep and work patterns impossible. Once you have the day under control, you can worry about diet and long-term health. I tend to make slow gains on the long-term front when things are going well and my daily routine is stable, and endure sudden sharp losses when my daily routine falls apart (as happens during extended, busy travel).

For me, at the moment, this translates to a high-protein breakfast, and as light and veggie-heavy a lunch as I can manage. The timing of lunch is unpredictable for me, and varies widely depending on the morning work session. I tend to eat when I either finish or give up on whatever I was trying to get done. That translates to the 12 PM – 3:30 PM window.

Dinner is the most unconstrained meal because it has to be. Depending on how well your day went, you’ll be able to exercise more or less control. I can generally tell how well I am managing my life by how good my decision-making around dinner is. Very good or very bad days lead to poor dinner choices like pizza and beer. Mediocre days tend to lead to mediocre choices. Nothing reliably leads to good choices. I’ve made my peace with it. You pick your battles. My noble striving is reserved for breakfast and lunch. Dinner is for the devil.

For most people, dinner is also the meal that is most likely to be a social one, where others’ preferences and constraints come into play. Moving to the United States from India, dinner was the biggest routine shock for me. In India, dinner time is consistently around 8 PM. In the US, it can be as early as 5:30 PM (Midwest) and as late as 7 PM (coasts), but rarely later. I have come to prefer the American pattern because it fits better with the greater day-length variation. In India, I lived in tropical latitudes, where day length is pretty consistently around 11-12 hours, and sunrise/sunset times vary by around an hour.

Again, the effectiveness of the day depends on where you put dinner relative to what’s already in place.  The big decision is whether to put dinner before or after your workout. Where possible, I try to put it after, because the chances of dinner derailing your intention to work out are something like 80%. I can usually manage a good walk after dinner, but going for a run is more miss than hit. This is an issue primarily in late summer, when it is too hot to run before around 7:30 PM, which means you either have to eat too early or too late. Anyway, this works out to:

Dinner windows

  • Winter: around 5:30 – 6:30  PM, after workout
  • Spring and Fall: 6:30 – 8 PM, after workout
  • Summer: Either 5:30 – 6:30 before workout or 8:30 – 10 after workout

I have no well-formed views on snacking. It’s not something I try to manage too much, since it doesn’t seem to overly affect anything else at the day level. I think it has much more of an impact on long-term health. Snacks by definition are typically too small to seriously derail your day. But in aggregate, snacking behavior impacts long-term health.

The First Work Session

I am amazed at people who approach their day planning starting with work. I think that’s only possible if you do either very routine/predictable punch-clock work, or what Paul Graham calls “manager work” — which is demanding, but done in small chunks of an hour or so, mostly in meetings with others.

For anyone doing work involving creativity, it’s basically stupid to attempt to manage work without first managing, or at least becoming aware of the effects of, exercise, sleep and food.

For me, work is by definition maker work — creative work that produces some sort of tangible, accumulating output. As Paul Graham notes, the minimum length of a maker work session is around 4 hours.  I’ve come to see accumulation as the true sign of maker work. Especially compounding accumulation. But that’s a story for another day.

For me, mornings are the most reliable maker-work windows, and I try to avoid scheduling meetings or phone calls before lunch. I don’t mind asynchronous distractions like email or Facebook, which I can work around, but meeting people typically derails me completely.

The first maker session for me begins sometime between 8:30 to 10, depending on how well I slept, and ends 4-6 hours later. If I am in the mood to try a lark day, or if I get woken up early and can’t go back to sleep, I sometimes begin as early as 7. The last time I got any work done before 7 AM was during a miraculous period in 2005. I have given up pretending that I could be a true lark if I wanted to. Maybe one day when I am rich and early-retired in Hawaii with a beachfront house.

I like to think of the first maker session as the main “work harvest” period of the day. I am generally good for at least one harvest per day. Something gets done, usually a significant chunk of writing or editing, some significant piece of analysis or brainstorming, and occasionally, a bit of coding or math (a rare luxury these days).

The harvest metaphor highlights something important: you may “produce” during your maker session, but the rest of the day matters as well. Thinking you can maximize work periods without paying attention to the rest is like thinking you can continuously harvest through the year without doing anything else to make harvests appear.

Second Session and Beyond

Very few regions in the world are capable of sustaining two harvests (India is one of them). For me, very few days are capable of sustaining two harvests, by which I mean a second maker session.

This is one reason lunch is unpredictable for me. Because I know a strong second session is an uncertain bet, I try to extend the first one as much as I can.

Second harvest windows

  • Winter: around 7:30  PM to bedtime (very low probability)
  • Spring and Fall: 1-5 PM (medium-high probability)
  • Summer: Either 1-5 PM (medium probability) or 5-8 PM (low probability)

Spring and Fall are when I seem mostly likely to get to two sessions. If I can’t get work done during the second session, I try to get email, paperwork or meetings done.

Once every couple of weeks, when I am in the zone, I can work 12-16 hour days for 2-3 days back to back, across 3 maker sessions each day. These end up being my heavy-lift sessions. Such bursts of work account for most of my actual production, but I’ve learned I can’t trigger them without the build up for 7-10 days before each burst.  It’s usually a matter of the content of the work being in a sufficiently ready state to snowball.

Such bursts leave me exhausted and I have to take a day or two off immediately after. One of my wishful dreams is to get to a steadier tempo where more gets done outside of the bursts.

Seasonal Switching, Daily Switching

There is no meaningful way to switch decisively and successfully between seasonal patterns, I’ve found. Seasonal start/end rituals are fun, but don’t actually seem to help much in switching mental states.

In the US, the switch to and from daylight savings time is often the only useful external trigger, because your mind suddenly encounters a sensory shock of a different light pattern.

The only thing that works for me, to achieve seasonal context switches, is to move the outdoor activity session. Or attempt to. Since that’s the anchor activity of the day, moving that successfully tends to rearrange everything else.

Switching within the day is mostly a matter of recognizing that you are going through your day via discrete moments of context-switching. The worst thing you can do is slide mindlessly from one activity to the next, one context to the next, without even being aware of what you’re doing.

Even though I wrote quite a bit about context switching in TempoI still discover new things about it.

The quality of your day comes down to how you manage (or choose not to manage) context switches. The two critical things to recognize are the following:

  • The easiest way to switch context well is to change locations. Moving from one location to another is often 90% of the battle in switching from one mental state to another. This is one of the big reasons I am a believer in nomadism at all spatial scales from continental to city-block-level.
  • It is critical to define your work in terms of the actual physical activity involved, rather than content, meaning or outcome.  And doing so at a detailed level. It is not enough to distinguish between walking and typing at your laptop. You have to be sensitive to whether you’re typing on the couch or at a desk, and whether you’re doing so at home with the TV going, at work alone, or in a coffee shop with background chatter.

So daily context switching is quite simple. When you hit a wall, get up and move somewhere else. Pay attention to here you’re going and what activity you’re switching to.

Should you attempt to control the switch? Depends.

Variability and Control

It is important to note that managing your rhythms in a seasonal way, at both day and seasonal level, is an exercise in statistical quality control aimed at maximizing the “yield” of harvest-work activities. You’re trying to do certain things within certain windows, switch between psychologically distinct parts of the day/activities with a certain degree of control, and discover/push your limits gradually.

This means there’s a whole lot of variability in how days actually play out. Resisting variability is both futile and counter-productive. The key is to lower variability where it hurts, and accept it where it doesn’t matter or is actually valuable. For me, the most important pieces to preserve are outdoor time and the morning first-harvest session of at least 4 hours. Preferably 6. I can get quite prickly and even downright mean when those two elements are threatened.

For the rest, I tend to steer with a light touch or not at all.

The patterns I’ve described above sort of emerged for me after moving to Seattle from Las Vegas (a big context switch), and I paved the cowpaths where I figured I was instinctively doing smart things. This means not resisting certain impulses. For a while, for instance, I was resisting the urge to nap in the evening during summer, but once I recognized that it was an adaptive behavior based on day length, I accepted it.

There’s usually no point trying to force a particular pattern through “will power.” It works for non-creative work, but not for creative work.  Trying to force creative work leads only to frustration. All you can do is establish a routine within which it is more likely to take place, and surrender to the creative impulse if it appears.

That doesn’t mean you should always follow the path of least resistance. But you should pick when you choose to exercise control versus when you choose to surrender to the path of least resistance.

Control, Surrender and Derailment

It is very useful to exercise some control over non-creative work. This control authority is highest when switching between activities. So almost all your control of your day comes down to control over decisions where you’re choosing between two or more non-creative actions. In a typical day for me, that’s about a dozen discrete moments at the most.

I’ve come up with this rule of thumb for uncreative forks: I go with the one whose outcome is more unpredictable. For instance, if I have a simultaneous urge to go for a nap and go for a walk, I go for a walk, because my mental state at the end of a walk is usually less predictable than after a nap. The chances are higher that something good will come of a walk. The heuristic works because non-creative activities are more predictable, but not in a good way: they tend to predictably put you in a worse (more entropic) state, from where you can do less. They exhaust you physically and emotionally, in a state of dysphoria. Creative work by contrast, might exhaust you physically, but tends to leave you mentally stimulated and euphoric.

Non-creative activities tend to create/bleed optionality on average, so to speak, depending on how energizing/de-energizing they are. While there’s always a chance you’ll exit any activity in a better frame of mind than you entered it, the more energizing the activity, the higher the chances. Options emerge to occupy the potential of the energy created, basically.

This heuristic is my variant of the idea “do what makes you most uncomfortable.” I think this idea is basically dumb machismo. It doesn’t work for creative tasks and it is misleading for non-creative tasks. But choosing activities with unpredictable outcomes is a smarter alternative.

You can interpret this as optionality. Do what is likely to make more options available after you’re done.

Some days though, something derails the ritual completely. It’s important to recognize and accept when your day has been irretrievably derailed and switch into pure improv mode.  Derailment is good. It’s the phenomenon that reveals the most to you for future lifestyle tweaking.

For me, about 1 day a week gets irretrievably derailed. I think that’s the right level for my circumstances.

I’ve been through rough patches where every single day was getting derailed. That’s thrashing.

I’ve fortunately never settled into a rut where derailments happen less than once a month. Less than once every two weeks becomes intolerably boring for me, and I invariably find myself gravitating to more uncertain regimes of work to drive up the derailment rate.

Feasting on Downtime

I don’t get people who view downtime as wasted time. Energizer bunnies who try to efficiently pack as much as possible into every day annoy me.

Downtime is good. And I don’t mean downtime as in doing yoga followed by a session of meditation and eating carrot sticks. I mean crashing on the couch with a drink and a bag of chips in your hands and the remote by your side, and no thought to the correct, ergonomic posture for couch-slouching.

If maker time is harvest time, downtime is the feast.

Downtime is a period of surrender to the most de-energizing activities in your behavioral repertoire: watching TV, idly browsing the web, or reading trashy detective fiction. Letting go control this way is to me one of the high-points of being alive.

Downtime is by definition the most surrendered activity in your day. In fact it isn’t even an activity. It’s a passivity. A state of comfortable non-being and non-agency, where life happens to you instead of you happening to life. Of course, this means, you have to be in a safe and comfortable place before you surrender to a downtime impulse. It isn’t a good idea to shut down in the middle of an important meeting.

Your base energy state might be different (and significantly above my base energy state of “TV and junk food”), but the key is to reboot periodically through periods of wakeful non-being and non-agency, where you’ve surrendered to a secure and comfortable environment. While health and fitness levels might determine your base energy state somewhat, I don’t believe they matter too much. It’s primarily a personality thing. How deeply can you let yourself not-be without falling asleep?

It’s good idea to notice and sort of give yourself permission to slide into downtime when you’re doing so. Not doing so can mean you’re burying unprocessed feelings of guilt. That affects the quality of the downtime and the completeness of the reboot.

The best time for downtime is when you feel you are very unlikely to have an energy/creative uptick unless you go through a sort of reboot cycle.

For me, napping after a draining, unproductive work session is often a good way to reboot. And of course, the classic American post-dinner TV session before going to bed.

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