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.

On social anxiety

Woman in a crowd

Sometimes people invite me to an event where I won’t know many people. When this happens, I’m typically excited to go—initially. As the event date draws near, I often find myself not wanting to go. What if people won’t want to chat with me? What if the conversations will be boring? Worst of all: will I be an outsider because everyone already knows each other?

You might think such worries mean that I don’t like talking with strangers or that I’m bad at it. In fact, friends tell me the opposite: they say I approach strangers easily and that I can strike up a conversation with almost anyone. I know this to be true, but it doesn’t feel true when I’m dreading going to an event. Yet when I do go and meet those people I didn’t know before, my anxiety vanishes the instant I start a conversation.

You see, the mind isn’t always rational. I should know that the odds are, overwhelmingly, that I will enjoy a social gathering. But when an event with unfamiliar people approaches, I seem to forget about my past experience. My body tenses up and my mind fabricates excuses for why I shouldn’t go.

The process is a sequence of initial excitement (about meeting people), then growing anxiety (about how it could go horribly wrong), and finally relief (when it goes very well). Observing this excitement–anxiety–relief sequence has taught me that my mind does not respond to the same set of circumstances in the same way every time.

Leo Babauta of the blog Zen Habits refers to what happens in your head in a situation like the one I described as telling stories. When I’m excited about an event, I tell myself the story that I might make a new friend. When I’m anxious, I tell myself the story that I will probably end up standing in a corner of the room by myself. And on the way home, I tell myself that it is silly to be anxious about meeting people and that I should stop it.

It’s all right to tell stories: we do it all the time and it helps us make sense of the world. But when you realize you’re telling yourself a story, or that you have been, you can start to look for the flaws in your story. The flaw in my anxiety story is that I assume the worst-case scenario. What are the flaws in your stories?

Password managers

1Password screen

A few weeks ago, one of the long-time administrators of an organization I volunteer for was showing me around some spreadsheets. He needed to find an old email, but when he access his inbox, he couldn’t remember his password. He searched through the many papers scattered around his desk, then gave up looking, and tried a few passwords from memory until he hit on the right one. Then the website required him to change his password because he had been using it for so long. Maybe, he thought, he could add a dollar sign ($) or an exclamation mark (!) to the end of his previous password?

I bet this is a familiar situation, for you or for someone you know. If you don’t have a system set up to manage your passwords, odds are you forgot one sometimes. You can’t use the same password everywhere, because passwords requirements differ from one site to another. And you probably have hundreds of accounts for services ranging from your energy provider’s online billing system to Facebook.

Some people use different passwords for different types of services: one password for banking websites, one password for social accounts, one for their work logins, and so on. That’s better, but inevitably your work computer requires you to change your password, or you run into a banking website that doesn’t accept your default banking password and you’re forced to keep track of all the small variations in your passwords.

And while it’s better to use a few different passwords than (a variation of) just one password, it’s safer to use a different password for every single account.

That’s because each year, attackers steal hundreds of millions or even billions of online records. In the first half of 2016 alone, there were 974 publicly disclosed data breaches accounting for 554 million data records. On average, that comes down to three million stolen records per day. Given how frequent and how large data breaches are, odds are good that some information about you might have been stolen too.

When hackers steal data, they might have stolen your username and password combination. If they did, they can then try to access your other online accounts, assuming you use the same password in multiple places. This isn’t such a big deal if they log on to your YouTube account and post comments posing as you, or if they use your account to play Minecraft. But it is a big deal if the attackers access your bank account and transfer money out of it.

So good security practice requires you to use a different password for each service. Unless you have an exceptionally good memory, you won’t be able to remember that many passwords. And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that good passwords must be difficult to guess, which means they’re usually even more difficult to remember.

Enter the password manager. It’s usually an app for your phone and a plug-in for your browser that stores your username and password combinations for all web services you use. It then encrypts your passwords and allows access to them only if you enter a “master password”. The master password becomes the only password you have to remember, because if you know it, you can view all your other usernames and passwords.

Password managers usually install a browser extension. When you encounter a registration form that asks you to pick a password, the password manager can generate a complex, difficult-to-guess, and therefore secure password for you—and will automatically save the username and password to its database so you can look them up later. When you want to log in to a website, the password manager will automatically fill in username and password fields after you enter your master password.

I’ve tried three password managers: 1Password, Dashlane, and LastPass. They’re all good. I prefer 1Password, but you would do yourself a favor by trying out any of the three. It will take some time to set up and it might cost some money, but it’s worth it.

Can you be alone with your thoughts?

Woman alone in a mountainous area

Have you ever noticed others assuming you always need “something to do”? Last week, I was in a salon’s waiting room. The salon owner asked me whether I would be all right waiting by myself. Did I want some magazines to read? The wait would be half an hour or so, and I think the owner wanted to make sure I had “something to do”. She might have assumed that I would not like being alone with my thoughts for half an hour. It’s a reasonable assumption, because the prospect of being alone with your thoughts can be terrifying.

Let’s say you recently did something you regret. You’re waiting on the subway and you remember what you regret. The memory is painful, so your mind scrambles for a way to escape the pain. A distraction seems the surest way to forget the pain, so you open YouTube on your phone and watch a funny cat video. In the moment, the video captures your attention and lets you escape the pain of regret. But the escape also begins or continues a habit of running away from discomfort.

I often notice myself setting up a source of distraction ahead of a moment when I would otherwise be alone with my thoughts. For instance, I might turn on a podcast or an audio book before I step onto my yoga mat for my morning mobility and stretching routine. Or I might play a video of a press conference with the Philadelphia Eagles head coach while I prepare my lunch. And I like to watch TV while ironing. Sometimes I deliberately set up the distraction, but other times I seem to do it automatically.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with listening to something or watching something while you’re doing something else. But if you’ve made a habit of it, you might learn something by asking why you try, deliberately or subconsciously, to avoid going without external stimuli. And is being alone with your thoughts doing nothing, anyway? I bet you could find a Buzzfeed, Forbes, or Quartz article proclaiming the Seven Surprising Benefits of Staring Out the Window.

As it happens, I spent my time in the salon waiting room setting up a password manager app on my phone. Could I have spent the time alone with my thoughts? That time, yes. Some other time, maybe not. I need more practice being alone with my thoughts. What about you?

The importance of contrast

Contrast between leaves in foreground and blue sky in background

On a recent trip to Bali, I decided to take a few beginner surf lessons. After two weeks on the island I had already spent plenty of time relaxing and sightseeing and I figured surfing would be a good way to burn some energy. The Lonely Planet guidebook described Bali’s Kuta Beach as ideal for learning to surf and suggested a surf school, so off I went.

After half an hour of theory about waves and proper positioning on the surf board, our group of instructors and students headed to the beach. We waded into the ocean and, one by one, lined up to catch a wave, then paddled frantically to try to stay in front of it. On my first few tries, the instructor gave me a good push to help me gain speed.

The first time I caught a wave and managed to stand up was awesome. The wave pushed me toward the beach much faster than I’d expected. I won’t pretend I was sweeping left and right and doing back flips, but even the few seconds that I stood on the board riding the wave were incredibly fun. How come I had never tried this before?

I wanted more. Two lessons later I was catching bigger, unbroken waves that propelled me toward the beach at tremendous speeds. After six or seven hours of personal instruction I felt I had at least some skill. I asked myself, “Why shouldn’t I spend a good chunk of my life doing this, riding the waves, which is clearly so much more fun than typing away at a computer screen?”

It struck me that a substantial portion of my fun surfing came from how different it is from what I usually do. It’s the contrast. It’s why I bet you ate some of the best food you’ve ever tasted when you were quite hungry. It’s why, after surfing, I just wanted to get out of the sun for a bit, even though the availability of sun and beaches was a big reason I was in Bali to begin with.

The bigger lesson for me is that I should appreciate the role of things that aren’t fun. Writing, mopping the floor, physical exercise―they set the stage for properly appreciating the written product, the clean floor, and the healthy body. Spending plenty of time in front of a computer screen set the stage for how much I enjoyed surfing.

And now that I’ve written this post, I’m sure I will properly appreciate the great novel I’m reading.

What I did week 35, 2016

At a recent family barbecue, a cousin asked me “What do you do all day now that you’re not working?” I didn’t have a good answer. That bugged me, because I feel that I spend my time doing a mix of enjoyable and productive things. I decided that I wanted to be able to answer the question more objectively, so I tracked everything I did Monday through Friday of week 35, 2016. Here’s what I did.

From midnight on Sunday, August 28, to midnight on Friday, September 2, there were 5 × 24 = 120 hours. I kept track of what I did during this time in 15-minute increments. To protect my privacy and that of those around me, I won’t list every single activity. But don’t worry: I will share the embarrassing amount of time I spent watching TV and reading online articles.

The bits I’m proud of

To start with the most important figure: I spent 46 hours sleeping or trying to fall asleep. That’s 9.2 hours per day, on average! As I’ve written, sleeping enough makes life easier. This week I had some restless nights, including a middle-of-the-night fight with a mosquito. So while I didn’t sleep for 46 hours, I am encouraged that I tried to sleep that much. For much of this week, I hit my target of sleeping eight hours a night.

Next up is physical activity. I spent 2.5 hours bouldering at my local bouldering gym. I tend to boulder three times a week, so this was pretty average. My gym is a 15-minute bike ride from home, so if you add in the time it takes me to travel there and back, to pack my bag, and to shower afterwards, we’re looking at five hours or so. Speaking of biking, I like to bike to get places and in total I spent 5.5 hours on my bike during these five days.

Most weeks I also spend 45 minutes on “aqua power”, which is a form of aerobics in a pool. I then combine that with a visit to family for dinner. But week 35 was during the Dutch summer holidays, so the pool was closed.

On top of the bouldering and biking, I spent 1.5 hours doing mobility exercises and stretching and I spent 40 minutes meditating. I do the exercises every morning and usually I meditate for ten minutes every weekday, but on Friday I forgot to meditate. Between preparing and eating a healthy breakfast, these exercises, stretching, and meditating, I have an awesome morning routine.

Over to food. I spent 2.75 hours cooking, by which I mean preparing breakfast or cooking dinner. I didn’t count preparing lunch, which would bring the total up to 3.5 hours or so. I also spent 1.75 hours getting groceries. The groceries during the week consist mainly of buying fruit and freshly baked bread. I do the main grocery shopping for the week during the weekend.

The bits I’m not so proud of

I was most disappointed realizing that I spent nine hours watching TV during these five days. Ouch. That’s a lot more TV than I’d like to watch in any given week. Fortunately, this was unusual; in a typical week I probably watch only half that amount.

I was also disappointed that I spent only two hours blogging. Ideally, I would spend at least an hour per weekday writing. Then again, talk is cheap. I think I spend a little more time blogging in an average week, but usually not more than three or four hours. I do journal too and sometimes I work on a book that I would like to publish eventually.

As for reading, I spent 4.75 hours reading online articles. The articles I read cover many topics, but many are about my favorite NFL team, the Eagles, and about financial independence. This week, I also read a lot about Linux, Ubuntu, and GNOME. I enjoy reading online articles, but spending close to five hours on reading articles is a bit much.

Fortunately, I also spent 3.75 hours reading books. Ideally, though, I’d spend more time reading books than online articles. Then again, I did also spend an hour browsing books in the library. So let’s call the “random articles” vs. book reading split 50-50. By the way, take a look at my Goodreads profile to see which books I’m reading and which I’ve recently read.

Odds and ends

This week, I spent quite a bit of time trying to improve my productivity. I love working in cafes or in the library, because I find it easy to concentrate there. By contrast, I’m still working out how to set up my work environment at home so that I can be equally productive there. That’s why, for instance, I spent 15 minutes this week rearranging my desk.

One of my productivity challenges is figuring out a way to keep track of things I want to do. Last week I worked on that by reading about and trying out Taskwarrior, a command line task manager. So far, I like it, although I’m still getting used to managing tasks on the command line rather than using a graphical user interface. I’m still evaluating Taskwarrior and will probably discuss my findings in a future post.

At home, I also spent 1.75 hours cleaning the apartment. Some of the cleaning happens on the weekend, so 1.75 hours is pretty typical for how much time I spend cleaning during the week.

Another sizeable chunk of time went to exploring a new operating system. A little over a month ago, I told you that I started using Linux on my home computer. I’ve enjoyed using Linux, but I wanted to see whether I could find a better distribution than Linux Mint. This week I spent quite a bit of time checking out Ubuntu GNOME. So far, I’ve loved using it. It’s well-designed and suits the way I like to navigate around my computer. In all, during these five days I spent 4.5 hours installing, setting up, and exploring Ubuntu GNOME.

In the (distant) past, I’ve spent far too much time playing video games. I don’t anymore, but I do still play occasionally, especially with friends. During these five days, I spent 4.75 hours playing video games, the majority of which was with my friends. How much I play differs substantially week to week. 4.75 hours is on the high side. In an average week, I estimate that I play for one or two hours.

There were miscellaneous items too. For instance, I spent an hour on the phone chatting with various family members, I spent half an hour volunteering for UWC The Netherlands, and I spent 45 minutes recycling an Ikea cabinet by taking it to the local recycling center.

Final observations

I liked keeping track of my time for a few days and recommend the exercise to anyone. Simply being aware of some of my habits helps me make better decisions and that might be true for you too.

For instance, by logging my time as I went along, I realized just how often I multi-tasked and how often I switched tasks rapidly. In one 15-minute block, I “woke up; checked websites; [and] chatted with a friend”. There was probably also a bathroom visit in there. Often it was difficult to categorize what I did in a given 15 minutes.

I’d like to repeat this exercise in the future. Maybe I’ll do it again in half a year or a year or so. Hopefully, by then I’ll be spending more time writing and less time watching TV. I’m curious to hear what you think of how I spent my time and what you spend your time on. Do share!