What is color blindness?

Contrast between normal and color blind vision of Indian Summer scene

The other day I was at a party, making friendly but uninspired small talk with the host’s son. Most attendees, including the two of us, had been struggling to start interesting conversations, as we all didn’t know each other very well. At one point, the color of something or other came up. I mentioned that I’m not good with colors, because I’m color blind, and our conversation livened up. The host’s son knew a thing or two about color blindness, because his dad is color blind too, and he wanted to know how my vision compared to his dad’s.

This instance reminds me of a former coworker who is deaf in one ear. When she mentioned this to people, she would get much the same reaction. People ask what it is like and what problems it poses in daily life. I don’t know about being deaf in one ear—I think it takes more effort to deal with than color blindness—but I know what it’s like to be color blind.

What it is like to color blind

As you might expect, color blind people tend to figure out at a young age that they are color blind. Or maybe someone figures it out for them, such as their primary school teacher, who realizes that Little Peter often grabs the pink pencil when he’s supposed to be coloring in blue.

Sadly, I don’t remember when I found out that I have color blindness. It may very well have been when I was a poorly coloring toddler. But I do remember that one day in primary school I did an Ishihara test. You may have seen it before: it’s the test where someone asks you to look at a circle consisting of many smaller, colored circles and to tell them what number you see in the big circle. For instance, some of the smaller circles may be blue, and others—in the form of the numeral six, say—may be purple. People with normal color vision would see the number six, while a color blind person who cannot see red would see zip. If I didn’t know I was color blind before that day, I knew then.

An Ishihara plate
An Ishihara plate. I don’t see any numbers. What do you see?

Color blind people experience a variety of problems, but fortunately they tend to be relatively mild. Perhaps the most serious effect is that color blind people can’t hold certain jobs. For instance, in many countries, a color blind person cannot become a commercial pilot, because there are important red/green signals in aviation and many color blind people cannot distinguish between them. You don’t want your pilot thinking it’s safe to land when an indicator light tries to tell him that the landing gear is stuck.

Color blind people also generally do not make good electricians, because electrical wiring is often color-coded. In fact, many things in life are color-coded. If you pay attention to color coding for a day, you might be surprised how much humans rely on color.

Then there are the effects on daily life that I would describe as mildly annoying. For example, it can be difficult to buy clothing whose colors “match” according to people with normal color vision. And on a basic level, color blind people simply cannot enjoy color as much. Are we in the season of Indian Summer? All the leaves still look green/brown to me, as they always do. Thankfully, this particular problem may be solved in my lifetime—more on that later.

Left: an Indian Summer scene. Right: a simulation of the way a person with protanomaly would see the scene, by the Coblis color blindness simulator.

Other examples of the effects of color blindness in daily life include:

  • When I charge my e-reader, a charging light comes on. Supposedly the light changes color when the device finishes charging, but I can’t tell. I simply let the device charge for a few hours and assume that will be enough.
  • Some public toilets indicate whether they are occupied or available only with a circle that is red or green, and I often can’t distinguish between the two. Toilets in airplanes are the worst offenders.
  • When I’m in the grocery store buying bananas, I have no idea what I’m doing. My significant other claims I always buy the green ones, which in a way is impressive, because I can’t tell green bananas from yellow ones.

How color blindness works

People often ask me, “If you’re color blind, which colors don’t you see?” The answer is a little more complicated. Our eyes include receptors, the so-called cones, that can perceive light with wavelengths in a certain range. There are three types of cones, called the short (S), medium (M), and long (L) cones, named for the range of wavelengths of light they are sensitive to. For instance, short cones are (mostly) sensitive to light with a short wavelength. The wavelength of light determines what color we judge the light to be, so each type of cone can “see” a certain range of colors.

And there are many forms of color blindness. In the most common forms, one of the three types of cones is absent, producing dichromacy, or functions poorly, causing anomalous trichromacy. I have protanomaly, which is a form of anomalous trichromacy. It affects roughly one percent of men and it is not the most common form of color blindness, but it also isn’t rare. Fortunately for me, protanomaly is a relatively mild form of color blindness.

In the eyes of people with protanomaly, the L cones, which are supposed to be the best at perceiving red light, don’t function well. So you can think of it as me having a hard time seeing the red component of colors. For instance, if you show me a blue shirt and a purple shirt, I might not be able to distinguish between the two, because purple consists of a mix of blue and red. Or I might be able to distinguish between them only based on the shirts’ brightness, but not based on their hue. It depends on the exact colors. Dichromats, whose red receptors are absent entirely, have the same problem, but worse.

Another popular question is whether I, or other color blind people, can see any color at all. I can, and so can most color blind people, but there is a small minority of monochromates, who see only 50 shades of grey. I kid, I kid. They see infinite shades of grey. But they don’t see any color, so to them life appears as a picture on a black-and-white television. This type of color blindness is very rare and makes life difficult.

The incidence rate of color blindness

Color blindness is less common than other vision problems, such as nearsightedness. But around eight percent of Northern European men carry some form of color blindness, so you will likely know some color blind people. The rate among women is lower: on the order of one percent. So in total, color blind people account for four to five percent of the population.

Color blindness is more common among men than among women because most forms of color blindness are hereditary in such a way that men are more likely to receive color blindness genes. In particular, the genes that cause the most common types of color blindness are passed on through X-linked recessive inheritance. That means color blindness genes reside on the X chromosome, of which men have one and women have two. When a man receives an X chromosome with a color blindness gene from his parents, he will be color blind.

But when a woman receives one X chromosome with a color blindness gene (or “defect”) from her parents, she will not automatically be color blind. She will only be color blind if her other X chromosome also has that defect. The odds of both X chromosomes having the same color blindness defect are smaller than the odds of only one X chromosome having such a defect, so women are less likely to be color blind.

Graphic demonstrating X-linked recessive inheritance
An illustration of X-linked recessive inheritance. Modified version of a graphic by the National Institutes of Health.

Mitigating color blindness

What can we do to mitigate the effects of color blindness? When one in 25 people can’t see whether a toilet is occupied or available, that’s a design failure. Yet this type of red/green signal is everywhere. To help color blind people, you can and you should avoid using “green means good, red means bad” indicators. Instead, use a combination of blue and red, or blue and yellow. The vast majority of color blind people can see blue well and will be able to distinguish between these pairs of colors. Of course, not relying on colors at all is an even better design choice.

People who are color blind routinely remedy these minor inconveniences. For instance, I ask my significant other whether this or that shirt goes with such and such pants. I know the red traffic light is the one at the top, and when I play board games with friends, we try to pick pieces with colors that I can easily distinguish. But we color blind people would appreciate if designers helped us out.

What about the underlying issue? Can we improve color blind people’s ability to see color in the first place? A few years ago, a California company called EnChroma made progress on this front. The company developed glasses that partially correct color blindness for people who have trouble seeing reds and greens. Their glasses cut out some wavelengths of incoming light in such a way that after the color blind person’s eyes process the light, the color is closer to what a person with normal color vision would see. This idea isn’t new—a friend of mine thought this up years ago, and I’m sure others have too. But EnChroma made it work.

How well did they make it work? You can find videos of people putting on a pair of EnChroma glasses for the first time and bursting out into tears, claiming they can see colors they have never seen before. Those videos are great marketing, but do they accurately reflect what the glasses would do for most color blind people? It’s unclear.

EnChroma’s technology is new and not nearly as effective as the lens technology that helps your grandpa read the newspaper. For instance, EnChroma estimates that there is a 75 percent chance that their glasses will noticeably improve color vision for people with protanomaly, such as me.

The company’s glasses are much more effective in broad daylight than indoors. They work well when you’re walking through the forest in Indian Summer. That’s because EnChroma’s technology cuts out some light, so it helps for the incoming light to be bright—there needs to be light left for you to see. Sadly, for the same reason, everybody’s color vision, including that of color blind people, is better outdoors and worse indoors. So the glasses help least when we need the most help.

Still, EnChroma’s efforts are a good start and I am grateful that the company is developing glasses for color blind people. I am inclined to wait for their technology to improve before I give it a shot; I want EnChroma glasses version 2.0, so to speak. But I hope they come soon.

How much sleep is enough?

Sleeping dachshund

Everyone has an opinion on how much sleep they need. I need around eight hours of sleep per night to feel energetic and cheerful. Others claim they function well on as little as six hours. Are our sleep needs really that different? Maybe people think they don’t need much sleep, while in reality their performance suffers. Rather than continuing to speculate, I set out to collect some basic facts on sleep.

I asked simple questions. Why, biologically speaking, do we sleep at all? Do some people need more sleep than others? What happens when you don’t sleep enough? And how much sleep do experts recommend we get, anyway?

It turns out that only the last of those questions has a clear answer. The United States National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults between the ages of 26 and 64 sleep seven to nine hours per night, and that adults over 65 sleep seven to eight hours per night. For adults, they write, a sleep duration between six and seven hours or between nine and ten “may be appropriate”. Kids and young adults need substantially more sleep. And so do professional athletes. Isn’t that a clue that being a top performer requires plenty of sleep?

Beyond recommendations for sleep duration, though, the science of sleep is in its infancy. For instance, scientists aren’t sure what sleep is for. Some researchers have recently shown that a mouse’s brain cleans itself during sleep, removing waste products. That could be the case in humans too. Sleep’s other possible functions include improving wound healing and strengthening certain neural connections to essentially organize information. But we just don’t know for sure. In 2010, William Dement, a prominent sleep researcher, summarized the state of research on the purpose of sleep as follows:

As far as I know, the only reason we need to sleep that is really, really solid is because we get sleepy. (Via National Geographic.)

I think we can all agree that’s a good reason to sleep.

Aside from feeling sleepy, not getting enough sleep can have serious consequences. Even mild sleep deprivation, say sleeping a few hours less per night than is optimal, can affect your judgment or reaction time. Chronic sleep deprivation could increase your chance of developing diabetes and can increase your stress level, according to Russell Foster, a British sleep researcher. He emphasizes that “there’s a whole raft of things associated with sleep loss that are more than just a mildly impaired brain, which is where … most people think that sleep loss resides”.

So how can you determine whether you’re getting “enough” sleep? Start by looking for telltale signs: do you always need an alarm clock to get up? Do you yawn throughout the day? Do you fall asleep at work or—God forbid—while driving? (If falling asleep while driving sounds dangerous, it is! Unfortunately, 1 in 25 U.S. drivers reported having fallen asleep at the wheel in the previous 30 days and “drowsy driving” caused 72,000 car crashes in the United States in 2013 alone!) If you need coffee throughout the day to stay alert, that’s another sign you’re not sleeping enough.

I am lucky in that I can usually immediately tell when I didn’t sleep enough. When that happens, all of life suddenly seems more difficult than usual, and I find myself banging into furniture and omitting words while writing. But it may not be as clear to you whether you’re sleeping enough to perform optimally. How can you find out?

Try this. For two weeks, record how you feel when you wake up. Keep track of how you feel during the day, too, and how you feel in the evening. And collect objective information: are you yawning? Did you nod off during a meeting? Also measure how much you slept, perhaps using an app such as Sleep Cycle or Sleep as Android.

Then, for the next two weeks, sleep one more hour than you usually would. Again, record how you feel and collect objective information.

At the end of the four weeks, compare your notes. Did you feel better when you slept more? If you can compare your productivity in some objective way, that’s even better. Maybe you’ll find that the extra hour of sleep increases your performance, even if you thought you were performing well before. If so, rinse and repeat!

I left one question for the end. Within an age bracket, do some people need more sleep than others? The answer is yes. Some people have a gene called DEC2, which reduces their need for sleep to four to six hours per night, with no apparent side effects.

Unfortunately, odds are you do not have DEC2—scientists estimate that it is present in perhaps one percent of the population. Maybe you are one of the lucky ones, but most likely, you’ll just have to get your seven to nine hours of sleep.

Review: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

Cover of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

At heart, Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck is a book about values. In particular, the author wants to help you identify good values to live by. Or, in his parlance, to help you decide what to “give a fuck” about. You cannot care about everything, he argues, so you must pick a few things to care about, and you must pick wisely.

Manson, a “star blogger” according to the book’s jacket, tells the story of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese soldier stationed on a Philippine island in World War II. After the Japanese Empire surrendered in 1945, Onoda continued guerrilla warfare from the jungle, sometimes killing innocent civilians. For years, he ignored search parties and leaflets imploring him to stop fighting and come home, because he thought they were Allied propaganda.

After three decades, much of which Onoda spent alone in the jungle, someone found him and convinced him that the war had ended long ago. You might think the Japanese soldier would be relieved that he could leave the jungle to return to Japan and, after so many years, see his family again. But no.

When Onoda returned to Japan, the country’s westernized culture disgusted him. He valued honor and self-reliance and he had taken his duty to defend his country extremely seriously. Onoda realized he had spent much of his life trying to protect a country that no longer existed the way he knew it.

What Onoda cared about, Manson suggests, was simply incompatible with post-war Japanese society. In 1970s Japan, Onoda could not live according to his values, so he could not be happy. In fact, the soldier suggested that he had been happier living in the Philippine jungle. His time there gave his life meaning.

Onoda’s case is extreme, but does illustrate Manson’s point that your values, the things you choose to care about, go a long way in determining whether you can live a fulfilling life.

Manson argues this point convincingly. But oddly, the book’s title suggests the book will teach you how not to care about things; it suggests it will help you cultivate indifference. That’s not Manson’s message. In fact, in the very beginning of the book, the author goes out of his way to tell you that he does not advocate indifference, leaving me to wonder whether the publisher chose a book title that Manson knew might give a false impression of his message. Instead of advocating indifference, Manson argues that you should carefully choose a few values—not too many—that you care about, and then make every effort to live by them.

As you’d also suspect from its title, Manson’s book comes with copious amounts of profanity. The abundance of “fucks” did not do anything for me, but also did not bother me. Maybe the swearing is there to catch the reader’s attention. Either way, once I started reading, Manson did not need profanity to keep me interested.

That’s because Manson is a good writer. Maybe he realized this too, because he swears less as the book goes on. In high school, I learned that rule number one for writing is to “write concisely and precisely” and Manson sticks to this rule throughout the book. He confronts the reader, but not because of the profanity. It’s because he writes clearly and asks good questions.

Manson also does a great job of throwing the reader for a loop when he wants to. At one point, he discusses the meaning of problems and the importance of choosing how you view a given situation. “What is objectively true about your situation”, he writes, “is not as important as how you come to see the situation, how you choose to measure it and value it.”

So when he starts a subsequent section with a story about some guy who got thrown out of a band, you think you know what’s going to happen: getting thrown out of that band will be the best thing that’s ever happened to this guy. You read on and Manson tells you that this guy is Dave Mustaine, who started a new band and worked his butt off to get revenge against his old band. And his new band, Megadeth, has sold 50 million records to date! You predicted correctly: Mustaine got his revenge.

But no: Mustaine, Manson writes, admitted in an interview that he still sees himself as a failure, because his goal was to sell more records than his old band. Unfortunately, 50 million records didn’t do the trick, because the band he got kicked out of is Metallica, which has sold over 110 million records. Outselling your old band, Manson writes, is an example of a poor metric by which to measure your happiness.

The author sprinkled in plenty of other stories to illustrate his arguments, which help make the book a page-turner. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck is entertaining yet serious and is a quick read despite asking the reader thoughtful questions. I can only recommend it.

And what became of the Japanese soldier Onoda? He emigrated to Brazil, returning to Japan mostly to set up camps to teach kids about self-reliance, one of his old values.

How to form a new habit

Meditating person sitting in front of the Sun

Over the past year or so, I’ve formed many new habits. Some formed naturally; others took effort. I’m particularly pleased that I now meditate every weekday and that habit certainly took effort.

For those habits that don’t come naturally, I’ve compiled some tips on habit forming. I used these recently to start my meditation practice and I’m using them now to form my newest habit.

1. Get immediate feedback

I like to meditate using a guided meditation app. The one I use is Andy Puddicombe’s Headspace. Andy has a soothing voice and frequently reminds me that it’s okay if focusing on my breath is difficult.

Headspace also gives me immediate feedback: the app tracks how many days in a row I’ve meditated.

For instance, after my Wednesday meditation session, Headspace will point out that I’m on a three-day streak. It’s just a small text bubble on my phone, but it motivates me. I want to see that bubble again the next day, celebrating my four-day streak.

2. Schedule your new habit early in your day

There are two reasons this works. First, your willpower is highest in the morning. It depletes as the day goes on, when you use it to deal with life.

Second, when you follow through with your habit-in-the-making early in the day, you can be proud of yourself for the remainder of that day. Your pride will encourage you to continue the habit.

3. Don’t work on your new habit at the expense of sleep

Too many people advise you to get up early to do something that is otherwise a good idea, such as working out or studying. Unfortunately, losing sleep to form your new habit is self-defeating.

When I’ve slept poorly, I find it much more difficult to sit down to meditate and, while sitting, to focus on my breath. And in fact, everything is more difficult when you don’t get enough sleep.

In particular, when you don’t sleep enough, you’ll have less willpower. So schedule your new habit early in your day (before doing too many other things) but not necessarily early in the day (say, at 5 a.m.) unless you’re willing to go sleep earlier too.

4. Start small

Let’s say you eventually want to meditate for 30 minutes a day. Should you try to sit down for 30 minutes from day one? No.

When I began to meditate, I did so without guidance and I scheduled ten-minute sessions. Frankly, that was too ambitious.

I couldn’t stop thinking, “Has it really not been ten minutes yet?” If you want to learn to meditate without guidance, start with three- or five-minute sessions instead. Once you can complete those consistently, add a minute or two to your practice.

An alternative is to break your practice up in smaller chunks. Andy Puddicombe, the Headspace narrator, chimes in more frequently in the first few days of practice. That way, sitting for a total of ten minutes on day one is easier.

When you start small—in this case, with shorter sessions—you are more likely to complete each session. You’ll feel good about completing your sessions, which will motivate you to continue.

Start small, then work your way up. And schedule your increases to avoid having to decide in the moment how big or small you’ll make your practice today.

5. Tell others about your new habit

Do this even when your new habit is still forming. I’ve mentioned my meditation habit often on my blog, for instance, and I’ve mentioned it to friends and family. It helps because other people might ask you about your new habit, reminding you to stick to it, and it also pressures you a bit.

Peer pressure can be helpful in small doses. You don’t want people to push you so hard that you’ll come to resent them, making you less likely to listen to them. But in the long run, you’ll thank a friend who pushes you through your resistance to working on your new habit.

6. Know what you’re giving up

Your new habit will take some time out of your day, even if it’s just a little bit of time. That’s time you cannot spend doing something else. If you meditate when you would otherwise mindlessly browse Reddit, you might accept that easily. But sometimes your new habit has a meaningful opportunity cost.

Perhaps the opportunity cost is not being able to read the newspaper in the morning. Maybe it is going to sleep 15 minutes earlier, or getting to work a little later. Each of these options would be difficult. Decide in advance what you will give up to accommodate your new habit, to make it easier to accept the cost in the moment.

My newest habit

The new habit I am forming now is writing daily at a set time. Every weekday for four weeks, I will try to write from 8:30 a.m. to at least 10:00 a.m. And I’m using all these tips to make my new habit a success:

I’m writing blog posts, so I can get immediate feedback when I publish a post. I start at 8:30 a.m., soon after I wake up. I know what I’m giving up—being able to sleep in—and I am going to bed earlier to compensate. I am also starting small: eventually I’d like to write for four hours a day, but I want to consistently hit one-and-a-half hours to begin with. And finally, I’m telling you and others about my new daily writing habit.

I wish you luck in forming your new habit. And in case you wondered, my other top-two favorite habit is getting enough sleep.

Spending the night at Starbucks

Empty airport terminal

Sometime in 2008 I visited a friend in Providence, Rhode Island. We went to high school together in Hong Kong and we were both now studying in America. I had a good time seeing my friend for the first time in a while, but on my way home I hit a snag.

I knew my flight back to Philly was scheduled for 8 p.m., so I made it to the airport by 6:30. I like to leave plenty of time at the airport in case there are long lines for check-in or security. And this day there was a long line at check-in.

Soon after I got there, airline personnel were shouting to the people in line, which included me. “Passengers for PHILADELPHIA, departing at SEVEN P.M., please come to the front of the line. Passengers for PHILADELPHIA AT SEVEN, please come to the front of the line.” It seemed unusual that passengers for one particular flight got to jump the line, but these people had less than half an hour to go before their flight, so it made sense. Then again, who would arrive at the airport only half an hour before their flight? Anyway, I was on the 8 p.m. flight to Philly, so I stayed put.

By the time I had reached the front of the line, and the airline people had shouted in my direction a few more times, I started to worry. I considered myself punctual and I rarely screwed up something like a flight departure time. But the commotion set off some alarm bells in my head. Was I really on the 8 p.m. flight? I checked my ticket and panicked. Of course, there was no 8 p.m. flight.

I scrambled. Having checked in quickly, I ran to the line for security screening. I had minutes before the gate doors would close: enough time to run to the gate, but not enough to wait in line for security and run to the gate. So I asked those in front of me whether I might (please) skip the line.

Everyone said it was fine for me to skip ahead, except for the lady right in front of me. You see, her flight was departing in half an hour, so she was in a rush too. I explained that half an hour was plenty of time to reach her gate, so would she (please!) let me go first? She wouldn’t budge. So I waited and waited until everyone in front of me made it through security and then I passed through as quickly as I could. I sprinted towards the gate.

A flight attendant closed the gate moments before I made it there. Another flight attendant looked at me sympathetically and apologized. They couldn’t re-open the gate door after closing it, she said, but she was happy to rebook me for the next flight to Philly. I thanked her and thought about what to do next. It was late and my next flight would depart early the next morning, so I decided to stay at the airport.

Providence’s T.F. Green Airport turned out to be fascinating at night. Around 11 p.m. or so the last flight departed and the terminal emptied out. I was literally the only person there. There were no airline staff, no guards, no food vendors, and no other passengers. Normally airports are busy places, with people running around to catch their flights, with overhead announcements, and maybe with some children crying. Without any of that, I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there.

It wasn’t until 2 a.m. that a security guard appeared. He said he’d be closing the terminal and asked me to stay land side. Air side, there had been some chairs comfortable enough to sleep in for a few hours. Land side, I had no such luck. I walked around for a while until I spotted a wooden bench long enough for me to lie down on, near stacks of napkins and coffee cup holders.

And that’s how I learned not to assume you’re so good at something that you can ignore your common sense, or you might find yourself spending the night at Starbucks.

Does your unconscious help you solve problems?

Newspaper with a visible crossword puzzle

How often do good ideas strike you while you shower? It happens to me all the time. The more complex a problem, the tougher a decision I need to make, the more likely the solution will “hit me” while showering—or while I’m doing something else that doesn’t require my full attention. The solution seems to come out of the blue.

Of course, the solution did not really come out of the blue. Thoughts don’t materialize out of nowhere: they’re a result of some process in the brain. But is the solution a result of a conscious brain process or the result of an unconscious one?

Intuitively, the process appears to be unconscious. Ap Dijksterhuis, a psychologist who researches unconscious thought, points out that many famous thinkers and artists have noted how inspiration or the solution to a complex problem suddenly struck them. My favorite example from one of Dijksterhuis’s recent papers is that of the mathematician Henri Poincaré:

[He] only worked on math 4 hr a day (from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., and from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.), convinced that for the rest of the time his unconscious was thinking and that, at some point, his unconscious would present a solution to the problem he was studying.

If it’s true that the brain unconsciously works on problems and creates ideas, we could change how we work to allow plenty of time for the unconscious to do its thing—we could work like Henri Poincaré. And psychologists have tried to determine, experimentally, whether unconscious thinking helps solve problems. Sadly, the experimental evidence disappoints.

Dijksterhuis and some of his colleagues popularized Unconscious Thought Theory in a 2006 paper. This theory postulates that the brain is better at solving complex problems unconsciously than consciously, possibly because the brain can process more information per second when working unconsciously than when working consciously. Dijksterhuis and others ran experiments to test the theory, with setups such as the following:

Researchers present students with a few hypothetical apartments (let’s say four) that each have a large number of characteristics (let’s say a dozen). The researchers first allow the students to review each apartment’s characteristics (so 48 features in all). Then students in the control group get a few minutes to consciously think about the apartments. Students in the treatment group, by contrast, must solve a puzzle during that time, to distract the brain from the apartment choice problem. Afterwards, researchers ask the students to identify the “best” apartment.

If unconscious thought is better at making complex decisions, researchers hypothesized, we would expect the students who were not consciously thinking about the apartment choice—because their attention was focused on solving a puzzle—to pick the “best” apartment more often. (Normally the hypothetical apartments, or the other objects to be compared, are created so that one has substantially more positive attributes than the others, so that given enough time to compare, it is reasonably clear which choice is “the best”.)

At first, in such experiments, students who had been distracted with a puzzle to solve seemed to make better choices. That is, a higher percentage of them identified the “best” choice. But other studies found no such effect. And alas, a 2015 meta-analysis of all prior studies that ran such experiments finds no convincing evidence that unconscious thought is better at solving the problems put before participants in the experiments:

[T]here exists no reliable support for the claim that a momentary diversion of thought leads to better decision making than a period of deliberation.

Yet the intuition that unconscious thought helps us solve problems is strong. Maybe a “momentary diversion of thought” is not enough for the unconscious brain to get going. Or maybe we consciously think about problems without realizing it, so that the conscious brain is responsible after all.

But wait—is it even possible to think consciously about something without paying attention to it? Dijksterhuis writes:

Whether people can be conscious of something without paying attention to it is the object of an interesting debate …

Either way, the fact that unconscious thinking does not result in better decisions in the case of momentary distractions does not deter Dijksterhuis and his colleagues from asking when unconscious thought does have a role, if ever. They cite neuroscientific research as a promising way of determining whether a person’s brain can work on certain problems while that person attends to something else—and if so, whether such unconscious thought leads to better decisions.

For now though, the scientific literature does not establish whether unconscious thought helps us make decisions or provides us creative insights. But the research is ongoing. And I, for one, would love to find out how unconscious thought helps my thinking—or, if it doesn’t, what else accounts for sudden inspiration or clarity in decision making.

Dijksterhuis concludes that “[i]n the forthcoming years, it will most likely become clear exactly which cognitive operations can be done unconsciously.”

I’ll stay tuned.

Deep work

Cover of Cal Newport's Deep Work

Just before the holiday season, I read the book Deep Work, which claims to provide “rules for focused success in a distracted world”. Having been distracted and having written little in the weeks prior, my discovery of the book was timely. I finished the book in two days, reading with more focus than I’ve been able to muster for a non-fiction title in a long time. By the time I had finished the book, I had accumulated pages of notes on how I wanted to change my work habits to write more. Knowing I’d have a busy holiday season, I chose the first weekday in the new year—today, Monday, January 2, 2017—to put my new habits into practice.

When I found myself struggling to prioritize writing, I decided to head to my favorite bookstore to look for books with advice on how to be more productive. That’s how I came across Deep Work: it was prominently displayed in the self-help section. It’s a popular self-help book written by computer science professor Cal Newport. Most self-help books are full of vague writing and obvious ideas, so when I picked this book off the shelf, I was not expecting to buy and read it. But leafing through the book, it seemed surprisingly down-to-earth and full of interesting advice. I read the first chapter on a bench in the bookstore and the rest of the first part of the book at home later that day. The next day, I finished the book.

What did I learn from Deep Work? The book itself is divided into two parts. The first part explains what deep work is and why it is important. The second part suggests rules you might follow to achieve deep work, which Cal Newport defines as follows:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

For me, these activities include writing. Writing the best pieces I can, without distraction, is exactly what I wanted to do but had been struggling with. How does Newport suggest we can get deep work done? He offers some rules, some of which he sees as essential and others that he lists only as inspiration.

One of Newport’s suggestions is to schedule deep work and to treat scheduled deep work like you would treat an appointment. When you schedule a couple of deep work sessions for a given day, you can then plan the rest of your day around those sessions. Contrast that with reacting to what happens during your day—answering emails as soon as they come in, reading some news articles when you fancy a distraction—and then hoping you’ll naturally be left with time during which you can focus on important work. When you’re proactive, you control how much work you do; when you stay passive, you leave it up to chance.

Another of Newport’s suggestions is to set rules for your deep work. He sees Internet use as a major distraction, so he suggests banning Internet use during a deep work session. I know from experience that this works, so I can only encourage you to try it. I also like to set my nearby devices to “do not disturb” mode so notifications that come in while I’m working won’t catch my attention.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be trying to work according to Newport’s advice. I’ve created a schedule for deep work and rules to follow when I work deeply and when I schedule future deep work sessions. It will probably take the better part of a month to figure out whether this new work habit works—you’ll be able to tell by how much I write. I don’t only write for this blog, but if all goes well, I should be publishing more articles here in January 2017 than in any previous month. Consider it an experiment.

If I succeed, I’ll detail my deep work schedule and deep work rules in a future post. If I fail, I’ll tell you why.

In the meantime, I wish you all a happy and healthy 2017!

Tracking my sleep and more

Sleep Cycle sleep quality chart

For the past month or two I’ve been using the Sleep Cycle app. The app monitors your sleep and each morning generates a graph to show you how you slept. You can see many sleep cycles you went through and the app will estimate your “sleep quality”. If you want to, you can also set the app’s alarm to wake you at that point in a certain time interval when the app predicts you’ll be sleeping the lightest, so you wake up less groggy.

I had first tried Sleep Cycle years ago, when the app could measure your sleep using the phone’s gyroscope. That means you had to place your phone beneath your pillow and it would measure your body movement by the tilt of the phone. I wasn’t a fan of keeping my phone beneath my pillow, because the phone would get hot and I was worried I might throw it off the bed in my sleep.

Today Sleep Cycle can still measure your sleep by monitoring your body movement if you want it to. But the default and recommended option is that you allow the app to use your phone’s microphone to measure noise levels. Using the microphone mode, you place your phone on your night stand and Sleep Cycle uses the microphone to measure noise levels, which correlate with your sleep cycles. (When you’re in the REM phase of sleep, you don’t move around much as many of your muscles are paralyzed.) Keeping my phone on my night stand means I’m not worried about throwing it off the bed in my sleep and also means the phone doesn’t get hot.

This new iteration of Sleep Cycle has impressed me. As far as I can tell, it measures my sleep cycles well. I can see those moments in the middle of the night when I woke up because of something or other and I generally (but not always) agree roughly with the “sleep quality” that the app calculated. I wouldn’t say I’ve been sleeping more or better since I’ve started using the app, but I am starting to use it to see how drinking an extra cup of coffee, or having exercised on a given day, affects my sleep quality. That might help me sleep better in the future.

Now, normally I’m wary of using devices to track me in too many ways. I value my privacy. I’m also wary of keeping my phone in my bedroom at night, because it might tempt me to browse Twitter one more time before I head in for the night. But I will continue to use Sleep Cycle, as it is relatively unobtrusive and helps me understand my sleep, which is important because everything is easier when you get enough sleep. I encourage you to try the Sleep Cycle app as well.

In the meantime, because I’ve been so happy with Sleep Cycle, I’ve been thinking about using an app to track something else: just how much time I spend sitting. Like many people, I spend big chunks of time with my butt planted on a chair. I sit when I eat, I sit when I write, I sit when I ride the bus, I sit when I work on a spreadsheet, I sit when I visit family—in short, I spend a lot of time sitting.

And I have read too many articles about how bad too much sitting is for one’s health to ignore it. Of course, after sitting for a long time, my body tells me to get up too, for example when my shoulders get stiff.

It’s not as if I’m a couch potato, by the way: between bouldering several times a week, biking around town, fitness in the swimming pool once a week, and my morning exercise routine, I spend quite a bit of time moving. But I should be standing or walking rather than sitting more often.

That brings me back to technology. The developers of the Sleep Cycle app created a new app called Life Cycle. Where Sleep Cycle aims to track your sleep, Life Cycle aims to track your life. It wants to use your phone’s various sensors to determine what you do and when, and then it wants to record that information. That requires, of course, that you have your phone on you all the time.

That level of tracking is too much for me, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in using an app such as Life Cycle to track exactly how much time I spend sitting.

In the meantime, I will take any tips on how to sit less.

How I use OmniFocus

I’ve raved about OmniFocus before. It is my favorite piece of software and it is the one app that I would hate—have hated—to do without. I use it to keep track of everything I want to do and I would like to share my OmniFocus setup with you.


First, what is OmniFocus? I think of it as a project management system. There are many projects in my life, some of them ongoing and others one-off. For instance, when my partner and I are constructing a piece of furniture, that is a one-off project because it ends when the piece of furniture is finished. By contrast, I periodically check whether the fire alarms in our apartment work, which falls under an ongoing “housekeeping” project. So I see OmniFocus as a system for keeping track of projects.

Why do I need help with keeping track of projects? Because like most people, I sometimes forget things if I don’t keep write them down. And if I forget things, I might worry about forgetting more. Most importantly, then, a project management system helps me worry less.

Let’s translate the goal to worry less into specific things a good project management system should do. It should:

  1. Reduce the chance that I’ll forget to do something (on time)
  2. Organize the things that I want or need to do
  3. Remind me when I can start a task and when it is due soon
  4. Help me decide which tasks to work on today

If a project management system does these things for me, odds are I’ll like it. OmniFocus achieves all of these goals easily, with a pleasant interface to boot. So I love it!


The basic unit of a project management system is the task: something that you have to do and that you can complete. Let’s say the task is to file my (U.S.) tax return. It’s an annual task and fortunately OmniFocus supports recurring tasks. It’s also a task that I can’t start working on until the tax year is over. For instance, I can’t file my 2016 taxes until January 1, 2017 at the earliest—although in practice I end up filing in February, when some important tax forms come in.

Still, I certainly don’t want to see this task before January 1 of next year. It would clutter up my screen. To accommodate tasks that I can’t start until some time in the future, OmniFocus lets me set a deferral date. Before the date, the task won’t show unless I specifically go looking for it. Nice and clean.

Many tasks also have a due date, of course. U.S. taxes are due April 15, so the “file taxes” task has a due date of April 15, 2017. When I complete the task, OmniFocus automatically generates the same task for the next year.


As I said, I have ongoing projects as well as one-off projects. OmniFocus technically has three types of projects, but in practice the software also distinguishes between ongoing projects on the one hand and one-off projects on the other.

Most of the time, I use a single-action project. Such a project can never be completed—in other words, it is ongoing. For instance, I have a single-action project called “housekeeping” that contains tasks such as cleaning the kitchen counter, polishing my shoes, and oiling the cutting board. Often these are recurring tasks, but sometimes they are one-off tasks such as repairing an appliance. Either way, housekeeping will never be “done”. Which is a shame, of course.

Then there are the one-off projects. All projects consist of tasks that can be completed, but one-off projects themselves can also be completed. OmniFocus has two types of projects that are one-off and the first of these is the sequential-action project, which consist of tasks that must be completed in a certain order. For instance, “Renovate the kitchen” might be a sequential-action project. It requires setting a budget, choosing materials, sketching the design, etc.—more or less in that order. It does not make sense to choose materials before you set a budget, because if you do you might end up choosing granite countertops when you can’t afford them. I use this type of project occasionally.

The second type of one-off project is the parallel-action project, which can also be completed, but consists of tasks that can be completed in more than one order. Think of a project like “Highlight my latest work on social media”. It could involve writing an article on LinkedIn, posting updates on Facebook, and uploading photos to Instagram. In that case, it doesn’t matter which you do first. These tend to be fun and engaging projects such as “set up a new website”, “write a book”, or “get a scuba dive certification”. I use this type of project quite a bit.

Any project management system should let you organize your tasks into projects. OmniFocus does it well. But organizing tasks isn’t enough for me. I also want useful ways of looking at the tasks I have added to the system. Seeing all tasks, even sorted by project, is not useful. Many tasks are not due for a long time and others require that I complete other tasks first. And some tasks are simply more important than others. This is where contexts and perspectives come in.

Contexts and perspectives

A context is a freewheeling way to organize your tasks, separate from organizing by project. You can assign each task a context and then browse your tasks by context. I use four contexts to denote the type and quantity of effort a task requires. They are:

  1. Short dashes: tasks that I can complete in one go and that do not require much thinking. For instance, sweeping the floor.
  2. Full attention: tasks that will require my full attention. For instance, writing a report.
  3. Tough decisions: for instance, should I allocate a portion of my investment portfolio to bond funds?
  4. Brain dead: tasks that I can complete when I want to get something done but have no mental energy left. For instance, scanning and filing receipts.

To be honest, I don’t browse by context often. It would not surprise me if most OmniFocus users never assigned contexts at all. But I still like to assign a context to each task because it reminds me of how much effort the task will take.

While contexts allow you to organize tasks however you like, perspectives allow you to view your tasks however you like. For instance, one perspective might show all tasks due soon. (You can define what you want “soon” to mean.) Another might show all tasks that are available, meaning they do not depend on you completing another task first and they are not deferred until a future time.

OmniFocus offers built-in perspectives and lets you create custom ones. I use both built-in and custom perspectives daily. My favorite perspectives are the ones I’ve named the Planning perspective and the Today perspective.

My Planning perspective

I’ve set up the Planning perspective to show all tasks that are available for me to work on. I use it in the morning to pick tasks I’d like to complete that day. For this I use the flag feature. A flag is similar to a context in that you can use a flag to arbitrarily mark certain tasks, although flags are a binary marker, while you can create many contexts. I use flags to represent tasks I’ve picked to work on today.

But the list of tasks I plan to work on today isn’t set in stone. Often I change my mind about which tasks I want to work . When this happens, I sometimes go back to the Planning perspective to flag tasks or to un-flag them.

My Today perspective

My Today perspective is a custom one. It shows two types of tasks:

  1. Tasks that are due “soon” (meaning due in four days or sooner)
  2. Tasks that I have flagged (meaning I plan to do them today)

You can think of these types as reflecting tasks that I should complete today (tasks that are due soon) and tasks that I want to complete today (flagged tasks). This is the most fun OmniFocus screen, because this is where I get to check off tasks when I complete them. Check! Dopamine release. Check! Dopamine release.

Try it!

I’ve described how I set up OmniFocus and how I use it daily. But if you try OmniFocus, you will probably want to set it up differently, at least eventually. Luckily, OmniFocus is flexible enough to allow you to do that.

Either way, I encourage you to give OmniFocus a shot. If you have an iOS device and you want to worry less about the things you have to do, just try it. Spend some time setting it up. See if you can find a way to organize your projects and tasks in the way that you organize them in your head. If the way I set up OmniFocus doesn’t make sense to you, take a look at some other people’s workflows.

And if you do try OmniFocus, let me know how you like it.

Your reason isn’t going anywhere

Statue of Marcus Aurelius on a horse

This past week, I bought a book. Actually, I bought three books—I’ve written about how dangerous bookstores are for my wallet—but I want to tell you about one of them. I have not read this book yet, but it contains a nugget of wisdom that convinced me to buy it.

This book was not originally a book, but rather a series of personal writings. The writer is the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, a stoic, and when the writings are published in book form today, they usually carry the title Meditations. I placed the book on my list of books to read after I read a collection of letters from Seneca, another ancient stoic. The philosophy of stoicism appeals to me for the same reason that I meditate often now: it promises calm and steadiness with regular practice.

But I do not intend to tell you what little I know of stoicism or meditation. Instead, I want to share with you Marcus Aurelius’s nugget of wisdom that spurred me to buy Meditations. The emperor wrote:

“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”

Sometimes I worry about a future decision I’ll have to make. Other times, I worry about whether something will go “right” or “wrong”. And sometimes I worry about how much I worry—I once heard Alan Watts say that that is the definition of anxiety.

When I worry, or when I feel anxious, I like to think about the emperor’s advice. It calms me. I hope it can offer you some calm too, when you need it.