Marathons vs. sprints

Is your work always frantic?

Some people chronically race through their work. Everything must be done quickly. Go go go. Sprint!

But not all work lends itself to moving quickly. And you can’t keep sprinting for long.

If you’re working on software, it might make sense to treat the development of a new feature as a sprint. You put in a lot of effort in a short period and you get results quickly. Then you ask people how they like what you created and you iterate.1

But if you’re a lawyer working on a case, you might burn out if you try to sprint through the whole thing. Perhaps you can work with a lot of focus and energy for one day, or two days, or even for a week. I doubt you can give 100% effort for a month, though.

In the same way, you would probably be better off treating the writing of a novel as a marathon. Pace yourself by writing a bit every day and eventually you’ll end up with a novel.2

If you sprint for too long, your health will suffer.

Would you be better off treating your next big project as a marathon instead of as a sprint?

Yours,

— Peter

Useless meetings

You know that feeling when you’re attending a meeting and it’s a giant waste of time?

I bet you do.

There are so many meetings you don’t need to be a part of. And many more meetings that shouldn’t happen at all.

Why not say: “I don’t think my attendance would add any value, so I don’t plan to join.” If you were wrong, the person who invited you will tell you.

Or during a meeting, cut your losses. Say: “I don’t think I need to be in this meeting anymore. Why don’t you continue without me?”

You have a say in whether you should attend any particular meeting.

Sure, many meetings are useful. You might be building personal relationships when you meet face-to-face. Then again, you probably don’t need a formal meeting for that.

In your lifetime, how many useless meetings would you guess that you have attended? (Define “useless” however you like.)

For me, I’d guess hundreds. Is your number higher or lower?

Yours,

— Peter

How to train your brain to work on command

Walter Isaacson has written popular biographies of Leonardo Da Vinci, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and others. He is a university professor and he has also been CEO of CNN and managing editor of Time.

He is an accomplished man.

Before he became managing editor of Time, Isaacson was a journalist at that organization. And during his time as a journalist, Isaacson managed to write a well-received 864–page book on the side.

How? Using a peculiar work habit. As related by one of Isaacson’s friends at the time:

[Walter] could retreat up to the bedroom for a while, when the rest of us were chilling on the patio or whatever, to work on his book… he’d go up for twenty minutes or an hour, we’d hear the typewriter pounding, then he’d come down as relaxed as the rest of us… the work never seemed to faze him, he just happily went up to work when he had the spare time.

(From Cal Newport’s Deep Work, emphasis mine.)

When I first read this account of Isaacson’s work habit, it astounded me. How could someone shift into and out of doing such hard, mentally tasking work so quickly?

Then, by coincidence, I discovered that you and I can do this too. You just have to train your brain a bit.

Our brains are pattern-recognizing machines. The same way you can train a dog to sit on command, you can train your brain to get ready for doing hard work on command.

As you might know, I’ve been writing daily for around a month now. Initially, I thought writing daily would be difficult:

Where would I find the time each day? What if I lacked inspiration one day? If I didn’t write immediately after breakfast, would I end up pushing the writing off entirely?

But it turns out that writing daily is much easier than writing occasionally. Paradoxically, it is even easier to write daily than to write regularly but less frequently, such as writing once a week, or writing every Tuesday and Thursday.

These days, when I sit down to write, my brain tends to shift into writing mode quickly: I don’t let my fear of writing terribly stop me from starting. I simply put some words on the page. I tune out distractions and I enter a state of flow.

In essence, in under a month, I’ve trained my brain to write on command.

Now, if you are a journalist, this may be old news to you. You’ll have long learned to write on command.

But you are probably not a journalist—and you may have something you’d like to do regularly, but that you are having trouble motivating yourself to do.

Let’s say your goal is to become a web developer. You plan to get there by learning to use a framework such as React or Angular. And that means working through a lot of tutorials and practicing by programming.

You could try to fit in your learning by sleeping less, by exercising less, or by eating junk food to save time on cooking. But these are self-defeating strategies, particularly for something as mentally tasking as learning.

What if you instead took Walter Isaacson’s approach? Try doing a little bit of learning whenever you have 20 minutes or more to spare.

After a while, you’ll train your brain to shift into and out of the learning mode more quickly. And you’ll make progress on your goal without having to free up lots of time from your schedule.

You might not immediately see results—it’ll probably take a few weeks. But as you build confidence that you can do or learn something useful even in short periods of spare time, you’ll get better at switching brain “modes”.

And who knows, maybe you’ll end up writing a 864-page book on the side in the next year or two.

Yours,

— Peter

Not under your pillow

Do you have some money to spare? Are you spending less than you earn?

If so, good work! 👊🏻

Once you’re saving some money, though, you might wonder where to keep it.

First: do you have an emergency fund? By that I mean: do you have a year’s worth of your living expenses readily available to spend?

It doesn’t have to be a year’s worth of your ideal expenses. But it’s prudent to have an emergency fund that can cover a year’s worth of your expenses if you don’t buy a new phone, don’t go on expensive trips, and so on.

If not, build that emergency fund first. You never know when you’ll lose your job or a big client, or when you’ll need to pay out of pocket for unexpected medical care.

After you build that emergency fund, what can you do?

To build wealth for the long run, buy stock index funds. If you’re a bit older, mix in some bond index funds too.

That’s it! Build an emergency fund, then buy (and hold) index funds.

There are many details to the “how”, of course. But if you are just starting to save some money and you’re trying to figure out what to do with it, these are the two basic steps.

Yours,

— Peter

P.S. If you live in the United States, I recommend buying index funds with Vanguard. And for my Dutch friends: use Meesman.

Try caring less

What do meditation teachers, business coaches, and psychologists have in common?

The ones who I’ve run into tend to stress the importance of detachment.

Detachment, in this context, means not letting the results of what you’re doing affect your self-worth.

Put differently: Can you give substantial effort without needing a certain result? Can you feel proud simply for putting in the effort?

Or do you need a positive outcome to allow yourself to feel good?

Paradoxically, sometimes you’ll achieve better results by caring less.

Yours,

— Peter

How to motivate yourself instantly

What’s your go-to method for motivating yourself to get started with something?

Surely the most popular method is to drink coffee. A cup of coffee motivates you pretty quickly because the caffeine “wakes up” your brain a little more.

But when you’re at work and you need some motivation, you might not want to drink an extra cup of coffee. Too much coffee, or coffee in the late afternoon or evening, will mess with your sleep. And that will just make things worse tomorrow.

Sleeping well will do the trick, too, whether at night or when you take a nap.1 But you might not be able to take a nap at work. And even if you are able to, taking a mid-day nap might be a bad idea.2

So when a nap isn’t an option, try this: move your body.

Walk around the office. Stretch your limbs. Pace back and forth. It doesn’t matter much how you move, as long as you do it.

Erik Scherder, a charismatic professor of clinical neuroscience, bangs the drum for moving your body to improve your brain function. The neuroscience on this topic is fascinating.

For example, Professor Scherder explains that your prefrontal cortex works better when you move your body (in Dutch). Because the prefrontal cortex is responsible for planning and decision-making, moving around will increase your motivation.

I’ve had my share of trying to think myself into feeling motivated. You know, when you sit down and you think “I really should get started with this now”.

It doesn’t work.

Instead, when you need motivation, just get up and move around. You’ll find the motivation you want quickly.

Yours,

— Peter