Why I left Facebook, and reading recommendations

I deactivated my Facebook account during my hermit experiment. I thought I would miss Facebook, because my Facebook friends suggested lots of good reading material and because it enabled me to keep in touch with people I don’t see anymore. After a week without Facebook, I realized that neither of these reasons was good. First, on reading material: I have a lot of reading material from my RSS feed; these blogs recommend more articles and books than I can ever read, and I think that ignoring Facebook’s recommendations improved the quality of what I read. Here are the blogs I subscribe to via RSS:

And I’ve read or started some great books (not all before leaving Facebook):

  • Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, by Sudhir Venkatesh. A sociologist spends a decade in Chicago’s housing projects and reports back on the lives of some of Chicago’s poorest people and the organizational structure of a gang. I’m about halfway through and find this book entertaining but too full of personal anecdotes and too light on results; I should have just read Venkatesh’s academic work.
  • Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz. This book gives an overview of the history of marriage that gradually narrows its scope from the entire ancient world to today’s middle class white Americans. Coontz shows that marriage’s history is more nonlinear than often thought. For example, “In England between 1500 and 1700 the median age of first marriage for women was twenty-six, which is higher than the median age of marriage for American women at any point during the twentieth century.” Our perceptions of this era may be skewed because “The age of marriage was sometimes much lower for the very wealthy, especially for aristocrats.” She also shows that marriage for love is a truly modern luxury that creates a new set of problems.
  • Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, by Charles Murray. Murray argues that America’s founding virtues of religiosity, family, industriousness, and honesty are much less common than they once were in poor areas, that the loss of these virtues matters, and that income inequality and residential segregation have greatly exacerbated these trends, which have scarcely touched the upper-middle-class.
  • Paying for the Party, Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton. Two sociologists (more sociologists?!) move into a freshman dorm in a large state university and track the women of the floor for five years. They find that a Greek-dominated social scene and poor advising mean that the university serves wealthy out-of-state students far better than more disadvantaged but harder-working in-state students, leading to decreased mobility.
  • On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, Alice Goffman. Another sociologist moves into a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia, where many of the men are constantly evading the police.

As for the second reason I left Facebook, I’m not sure how much it actually helped me stay in touch with people. There are some old friends I interact with on Facebook that I don’t see in person, e-mail, or text, but when I’ve run into an old friend that I’ve “kept in touch” with through Facebook, it isn’t clear that Facebook helped. We have to catch up on everything and straighten out the details (“Did you get a new job or something like that?”). I walked past at least one frequent Facebook contact without recognizing her until too late, then was suddenly unsure whether she’d be interested in talking to me. I like to find out when someone moves or gets married, but these things are rare and I’ll surely find out these things whenever they become relevant to me. It’s also important to have some way of contacting people, but by this point in my life I have a phone number or email address for anyone I might conceivably want to contact.

There is one reason I regret leaving Facebook, which is that without it no one except my mom will read my blog. You can subscribe via email (with the Follow button) or RSS, though!

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Reorganizing my social life: Quality and quantity

Near the beginning of this semester, I ran a ten-day experiment in being a hermit. I worked in places where I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew, avoided groups of people I knew, kept spontaneous conversations brief, didn’t go on organized runs with strangers, and in general only interacted with people when it had been scheduled before the experiment. [1] I deactivated my Facebook account. During that time I felt as if I had a lot more free time and was much more relaxed, and I only felt a little bit lonely. I realized that the social interactions I had been skipping weren’t really valuable.

Friends are useful. They provide entertainment, advice, insight, and sometimes material support. In addition, since I becoming a grad student I had been very cognizant of the fact that since colleagues are important to career success, it mattered a lot whether people knew me and saw me as competent and pleasant to be around. So during most social interactions with people in my department, I focused entirely on maximizing what the other person got out of the interaction and left feeling as if I’d earned another point in Forming Relationships. [2] This is tiring, and my hermit experiment revealed that if that’s what being social is like, social interactions don’t make me happier at all. Networking is useful, and many social interactions are enjoyable, but stepping away from unnecessary interactions made it clearer to me which of these I am doing and what I get out of it.

Close friends add much more to my life than not-close friends. When I think about the times I’ve been glad to have friends, I think about these things like these [3]:

No, wait. Having read several articles speculating that social media causes unhappiness because people present their joys and successes but not their failings and make others feel inadequate, I’m hesitant to publish a list of “reasons my friends are awesome and I love having them!” My friends are cool and I do love having them, but the sort of event I’m about to list is pretty rare, and it took me a while to write this, so I hope you don’t feel socially inadequate.

  • Walking around Somerville or going on long drives with Amirah and talking about love. Do all hopeless crushes eventually die? How sure does she have to be that there’s no future with him before she breaks up with him? Should I get married?
  • Sitting around a failed campfire with two old friends and one I had only recently gotten to know, talking about what was awful and wonderful about our parents and whether we can really blame them for how we are now.
  •  Making it feasible to do activities that are difficult or risky without a partner, like hiking, rock climbing, or buying furniture on Craigslist.
  • Knowing that if something happens to me, financially or medically, there are people who will lend me money keep me from dying.
  • Spontaneous dorm conversations: Hours talking about race relations in the US and what it’s like to enter the mainly-white American upper middle class from somewhere very different. Working out what we owe to where where we’re from and what we owe to the rest of the world.
  • Comparing experiences with people from different backgrounds.
  • Riding a bus with a woman I had met earlier that evening, who asked about my life and my research and was encouraging and caring with a genuineness I hadn’t encountered in ages. (Thank you, Marya. I went home and cried, either because I was happy or because there aren’t more of you.)
  • Walking back from dinner with Diana as she talked about how her life felt disarrayed whenever she moved or changed jobs, and realizing that I hadn’t had that feeling since I moved in with my boyfriend.
  • Being grounded by people who know me very well, who can either explain things to me or make fun of me in a way that makes clear that  I’m dealing with an issue differently than most people would (and that I can probably worry less about it).
  • Making it comfortable to do activities that are unusual to do alone, like eating in restaurants.
  • Any conversation that results in learning: Even if I’m not participating, I like to hear smart people talk about whatever they find interesting.

In short, I like deep conversations, new information, and activity partners. With the exception of the last two bullet points, having many casual social interactions and adding to my list of acquaintances doesn’t do many of the good things that friendship does for me.

After my hermit experiment, I started trying to cut back on low-quality interactions and increase high-quality interactions. [4] I am a big fan of spending a few hours alone (or alone in public) with someone. I’m generally afraid that it’s way too weird to ask someone to join me in the park for 2.5 hours for an interesting conversation [5], so I tend to ask people to dinner, even though this is expensive and constrains scheduling. I find that dinners with someone I’m not already very close with have a bimodal distribution of outcome quality. Sometimes we end up having a quiet and pleasant but mildly awkward meal while talking about work. Often I end up learning many interesting things about someone I thought I knew well, learning more about the world from their perspective, or bonding over our deepest hopes and fears. Having more than two people reduces both the mean and variance.

I suspect there are better ways of instigating interesting and serious discussions. Although one-on-one meetings tend to naturally lead into great conversations, there is a serious barrier in that I can’t just “ask out” someone I’m not close to without making them (and maybe me) uncomfortable. One of my friends in college ran a “relationship support group”, which mainly covered romantic relationships but also had special editions like “parent problems day”. Anyone could come. I could organize something similar, like a “how to stay sane in grad school support group”. Leah Libresco invites her friends over to debate a particular topic. I’m not too interested in touching hot political issues, but I could invite people to my place with some formally stated topic planned in advance. (“What do we owe to society? Nothing? Everything? Come by at 3 pm for tea and conversation. Bring only yourself and your opinions.”) [6]

It just occurred to me that this is exactly what church youth groups and young adult groups do: gathering disparate people together in a safe space to discuss difficult topics. I’ve participated in some non-religious discussion groups, but despite the high quality of the conversations, the people in them didn’t easily become friends. I think this was because they didn’t know each other outside the discussion groups, so that doing something else with the person felt like a big step, and because the discussions were formal and sometimes adversarial. The people in those groups didn’t feel at all like people I could come to for advice outside the context of the discussion group or share personal issues with. A church discussion group is valuable in that it brings together people who are already friendly and inclined to trust each other.

Next part: Why I’m not on Facebook anymore

Footnotes
[1] I kept hanging out with my boyfriend.
[2] I’m not that good at making other people like me. On further reflection, I think this sort of other-oriented behavior is good for coming across as a generally pleasant but boring person and is good for ensuring that no one strongly dislikes you but bad for forming close friendships.
[3] Names randomly generated to protect privacy.
[4] It’s tempting to eliminate meeting new people, since I generally don’t like new people, but since my friends will gradually move out of the city I’m in and I will eventually move myself, this is not a good long-term strategy. Meeting people should be thought of as an investment — it doesn’t pay off if I’ll never see them again.
[5] Want to sit in the park for 2.5 hours and have interesting conversations? I’m down. We can let the conversation flow where it will, or you can suggest a topic (tell me all your problems, please!), or I can bring conversation-starter flashcards.
[6] Since writing this blog post, I organized a dinner rotation, which I think is going quite well.

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The best vegan-friendly places to eat in Cambridge and Somerville

Lists of vegan- or vegetarian-friendly restaurants often have serious omissions since they draw mainly on places that specifically advertise themselves as veg-friendly; they overlook ethnic eateries that draw on mainly vegetarian traditions and places that serve mainly non-vegetarian food but have one or two amazing veggie options. After living in this area for five years in MIT, Cambridgeport, Inman, Harvard/Porter, and Teele, I’m attempting a better list. Items are formatted as “name of restaurant – location – category – number of restaurants I’ve been to recently in Cambridge or Somerville in this category”. For example, you can see from the Rod Dee listing that I picked it from 8 Thai restaurants. The last number should help you decide when to trust me. For instance, I can’t comment confidently on upscale restaurants since I haven’t been to many, and I seem to be too easy on food trucks since half of the ones I’ve been to made the list.

I generally don’t ask servers exactly what’s in my food, so it is possible that some of these places don’t actually have food that is 100% vegan, but they should be pretty close.


Great places to eat in Cambridge and Somerville:

  •  Rod Dee – Porter – Thai – 8. I like to recommend Rod Dee to people whose food preferences I’m not familiar with, since everyone seems to like Thai food. There are a lot of mediocre Thai places around here, but Rod Dee is really good.
  • Amsterdam Falafel – Davis – falafel – 4. At Amsterdam Falafel you assemble your own pita or falafel bowl from a variety of toppings that are far more delicious than the toppings offered a typical falafel place.
  • True Bistro – Teele – upscale vegan – 1. Seasonal vegetables, ingredients you can’t pronounce, “Can I grind you some pepper?”, etc.
  • Punjabi Dhaba – Inman – Indian – 12. I used to get takeout from Punjabi Dhaba after a long run or for TV night, so I never really paid attention to the food. But everyone else says it’s great.
  • Guru – Teele – Indian – 12. Guru is more of a take-out place with a small amount of seating, but you can eat there.
  • Dosa ‘n’ Curry – Somerville Ave – South Indian/fusion – 1. All vegetarian and about half vegan, and the menu very clearly marks vegan dishes.
  • Felipe’s Taqueria – Harvard – Mexican – 4. Cheap, fast, delicious burritos.
  • Bon Me – Harvard  – food truck (Vietnamese-ish) – 6.
  • Savory Food Truck (“the Chinese food truck”) – Harvard – food truck – 6.
  • Momogoose – MIT – food truck (“Asian”) – 6. Many options! Lots of food! Delicious! $5!
  • JP Licks – Harvard and Davis – ice cream – 4. The only ice cream place that consistently has vegan ice-cream-like offerings instead of just sorbet. Sorbet is lame.

Places that would have easily made the list if I had been there more than once:

  • Kebab Factory – Inman/Harvard – Indian – 12.
  • Fasika – East Somerville – Ethiopian – 2.

Overrated or overpriced places:

  • Clover – MIT/Harvard/Inman – food truck. The portions are too small. I always have to get another lunch afterwards.
  • Anything in Harvard Square that is not Felipe’s or a food truck.
  • Life Alive – Central – food that is good for you and for the planet. Everyone loves Life Alive, but everything I’ve eaten there has been boring. People insist that I’ve just been ordering the wrong things.
  • Fire and Ice – Harvard – pick-your-ingredients-and-watch-it-get-made. This tourist trap is for people who haven’t figured out that it’s best to let highly trained professionals judge what ingredients go well together, because you will just invent something weird.

Places that serve good food and are quiet and calm enough to leave space for great conversations:

  • House of Tibet – Teele – Tibetan.
  • 9 Tastes – Thai – Harvard.
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Writing that has influenced me

Most of these pieces seemed surprising and weird the first time I read them. Instead of being forgotten, they seemed more and more true as they percolated through my mind until I can hardly remember that they once seemed odd. I would like to say these are essays that made me smarter and more moral, but most of you will probably identify these as having made me more resolutely eccentric. Paul Graham is overrepresented because his website makes it very easy to find essays I liked.

  • The Acceleration of Addictiveness“, Paul Graham. “Already someone trying to live well would seem eccentrically abstemious in most of the US. That phenomenon is only going to become more pronounced. You can probably take it as a rule of thumb from now on that if people don’t think you’re weird, you’re living badly.”
  • What You Can’t Say“, Paul Graham. “If you believe everything you’re supposed to now, how can you be sure you wouldn’t also have believed everything you were supposed to if you had grown up among the plantation owners of the pre-Civil War South, or in Germany in the 1930s– or among the Mongols in 1200, for that matter? Odds are you would have. [….] What can’t we say? One way to find these ideas is simply to look at things people do say, and get in trouble for. […] If a statement is false, that’s the worst thing you can say about it. You don’t need to say that it’s heretical. And if it isn’t false, it shouldn’t be suppressed. So when you see statements being attacked as x-ist or y-ic (substitute your current values of x and y), whether in 1630 or 2030, that’s a sure sign that something is wrong. When you hear such labels being used, ask why.”
  • Leah Libresco’s covenant marriage series.  I’ll attempt a possibly-inaccurate summary. Libresco promotes defining marriage as an institution “centered on responsibility and commitment, rather than on rights and affection”, and focusing more on what a married person can give to his or her parter and especially the broader community rather than what she receives.

It’s easy to abandon morals you once held, and it’s hard to notice morality drift. Libresco writes about marriage as a sort of commitment device: attach yourself to someone who shares your morals, and you won’t stray. I think this is a great idea, but I don’t think it recommends covenant marriage (which is harder to extricate oneself from) over regular marriage, since a marriage that one person wants to leave but can’t is unlikely to be morally edifying.

Reading this two years ago, I didn’t understand why this idea was specific to marriage rather than to friendship. I still don’t, but I’ve found that my boyfriend is very useful for making me a more moral person, and most people are not. My boyfriend is willing to criticize me and make constructive suggestions, has thorough knowledge of what beliefs I hold, and is close enough to agreement that we can have productive discussions. I try (and usually fail) to be open about my beliefs with my friends and invite them to criticize me when appropriate, but being the angel on someone else’s shoulder is a job few will take on. [1]

There are ethical commitment devices besides friendship and marriage. My boyfriend and I are members of Giving What We Can, whose members commit to donate some percentage of their income, or all of their income above some amount, to cost-effective charities.

  • The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle“, Peter Singer. What do we owe to other people? To whom do our obligations extend?
  • Aaron Swartz on productivity.
  • The Pervocracy on social skills: You can learn social skills. Being friendly, observant, and willing to listen goes a long way.
  • squid314 on creepiness: There’s a series. Google “squid314 creepiness”. Some general ideas: We write off men who ask women out in the “wrong” way with the crushing term “creepy”, but a lot of these men are well-intentioned but clueless about what actions make women uncomfortable. The standard advice for learning a new social skill is “do it wrong until you get it right and nothing bad will happen”, but men aren’t afforded space to learn to ask women out the right way through trial and error. Asking someone out is terrifying; let’s not make it harder.

Another point: Maybe “Burning Life-Consuming Crushes” are common. [2] “But if women make a policy of excluding guys who show strong feelings for them, then logically they will end up with either guys who have only a vague and temporary preference for them, or Machiavellian liars.”

I’ve been asked out exactly once in my life and hit on exactly once (by a super-drunk guy on the subway) so it’s not like I go around shaming men for hitting on me in a “creepy” way, but reading this series was a good exercise in compassion and understanding.

[1] If anyone wants a friend to help them be more ethical, I’m willing to try to do this. Maybe we could discuss what you believe and in what circumstances I should tell you off for violating your principles?

[2] I think these are somewhat common among my very close friends. I extrapolate that hopelessly intense and persistent crushes are also common among people who are not close to me.

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143 days of training for the Wapack

Preamble

Through my first semester of grad school this fall, I ran less and less, since I hadn’t figured out how to fit running into a schedule that involved classes that went far into the evening. The problem worsened the sun set earlier and earlier. However, it wasn’t until the end of December, when I started collecting data on my daily habits, that I noticed that I hadn’t been running much at all.

I had been running about ten miles a week, doing my thirty minute round trip bike commute several times a week, and doing a lot of Blogilates videos. I wasn’t sedentary or unhealthy, but I wanted my exercise to feel less directionless,  and I wanted to eliminate nights in which I had to choose between running two miles at 10 pm and staying home. So I signed up to run Wapack trail race* on May 10. I ran the 21.5 mile version of the course; a fifty mile race took place on the same day. You can read about the trail and see some pictures here: The trail is very rocky and is “very hilly”, slightly short of “mountainous”. The course record is somewhere around 3 hours 20 minutes; even very, very good runners walk a large fraction of the uphills.

That's me. The trail was pretty wet.

That’s me. The trail was pretty wet.

Amble

Around mid-January I decided to to get serious about my running training, but running is dangerous.  I’ve read that about 50% of runners suffer from overuse injuries in any given year. A review article says that the only reliable way to reduce injury risk is to run less, and studies on beginning runners show that the more slowly runners increase their mileage, the less likely they are to become injured. So my plan to get into shape for running a long way couldn’t involve a lot of running.

A rule of thumb says not to increase one’s running mileage more than 10% a week. I increased my mileage by about 10% a week, with a slight decrease every fourth week. If I had just been running this would have been a frustratingly low level of mileage, and I would have gotten bored, run too much, and gotten injured. So I cross-country skiied, swam, and went to the gym to lift weights twice a week.

Image

Serious strength training was the most unconventional part of this plan. Runners don’t generally do a lot of that, and often only focus on their legs if they do, but the two studies that have been done suggest that all-body strength training can lead to huge efficiency gains even in well-trained distance runners.  I suspected that lifting weights would be especially useful for mountain running; going uphill takes strong hamstrings and glutes, rocky trails take strong leg and core stabilizing muscles, and rushing downhill takes strong quads. I’m pretty sure that this helped a lot, as my running form improved, the hills in my city stopped feeling like hills, and running with a backpack got a lot easier.

Despite the gradual increase, this was a pretty aggressive training plan.

  • I averaged a 9% increase in miles per week from December 26, 2013, to May 2, 2014. (That’s including the big dip in the graph around day 110, the result of an unfortunate digestive mishap that left me in bed for 37 hours straight and feeling sick for several days longer.) When people say 10% a week, I don’t think they really mean endless exponential growth.
  • I did five long runs of 10 to 17 miles, which averaged 49% of my weekly miles on the weeks I did them. Those were big runs compared to what I had been doing, and they were typically on more difficult terrain.
  • I did seven track workouts, about one every two or three weeks.
  • Going to the gym twice a week and working pretty hard meant that I was sore almost all the time.

The most surprisingly pleasant aspect of this plan was that having a plan made me much more motivated and made it much easier to get regular exercise. This may have gone a little too far by the end:

Boyfriend: You’re tired and busy. Why are you going to the gym after our run?

Me: It’s Monday.

Boyfriend: That doesn’t make sense, and your calf hurts.

Me: It’s Monday. I go to the gym on Monday. It says so on my spreadsheet.

 

Having a schedule had helped me so much that it was hard to abandon it on the one or two days I should have, although I did significantly pull back my mileage while I was sick.

Scramble

Spotted at the race.

Spotted at the race.

By race day, I felt pretty prepared. UltraSignup.com assigned me a “target” time of 5 hours, 50 minutes. I knew that if I ran at the same pace I ran the 18 mile fall Wapack Trail Race I would finish in five hours flat, but since that course doesn’t include the two biggest climbs I didn’t think that was a realistic target. I wound up finishing in 4:58, good for 23rd out of 80 entrants and 4th our of 18 women. I’m thrilled with that.

Some big things went right during the race:

  • My hamstrings and glutes, the muscles doing the most work in this race, didn’t start to hurt until close to the end.
  • My abs and back muscles didn’t hurt either; my back was a serious problem when I ran a trail marathon last spring. My shoulders are just a little sore after holding my arms out (or flailing them around) for balance on the downhills.
  • I have enough experience with long distances to know which physical sensation corresponds to what I need top put in my mouth. I drank enough water without getting hyponatremic, fixed cramps with a salt pill, and fixed sudden waves of tiredness with sugary GU gels. I ate a little bit at each rest stop. I never “bonked” or “hit the wall”. I would guess I took in 500 or 600 calories.

Some small things went wrong:

  • I started too fast. In fact, I ran instead of walking up the first and biggest climb. I felt fine going up that mountain, but it probably took a lot of out me, and I needed to walk most of the rest of the steep ascents. The nice thing about a race this hilly means that burning out your uphill muscles means you still have your flat and downhill muscles left!
  • My calves hurt. I hadn’t practiced walking uphill, which uses the calves a lot more than running uphill does. This is probably a general risk of substituting training on mountains with strength training in the gym: You might miss something big, and one weak muscle group can ruin a race.
  • My stomach was upset for most of the race. I don’t know why. I had to run off the trail and “go to the bathroom” around mile 16, but my stomach still hurt. I patched it over with ibuprofen.
  • The race started foggy and drizzly. The sun came out around mile 12, and I got moderately sunburnt on my shoulders and upper back. I should have put sunscreen on, but I would have had to put it on about four hours earlier, so I’m not sure it would have helped.

Post-Ambulatory

After past races I’ve felt exhausted and my whole body hurt. This time, my legs hurt but I otherwise felt great. I find that the more I eat after a race like this, the faster I recover**; in that spirit, my boyfriend (who placed third in the race!) and I ordered a ton of food  from the wonderful Guru and ate it while watching Game of Thrones. We then made brownies and ate them with sorbet. I highly recommend this plan.

It’s currently 1 pm on the day after the race. My legs hurt, but I’m feeling pretty good, rather hungry, and ready to get back to work. I’m excited to train for another long race, although I can’t imagine voluntarily running up another mountain in the near future. I hate being in a car so I have a personal rule that I won’t do a race where I’ll spend more time in the car than running. Let me know if you know of a trail race, 20-35 miles, that fits the bill!

* It’s actually called the “Wapack and Back Trail Race”. Runners in the 50 mile version run the entire Wapack (Watatic to Pack Monadnock) trail, turn around and run the other way, then run a bit more. Runners in the 21.5-mile race I did park at the end, get bussed to the start, and then run back.

** I felt like I was running at a significantly harder effort level than 9 minute miles, and trail running uses more of your body than road running does, so let’s say the calories I burned are equivalent to running 9 minute miles for 5 hours. That would mean I burned 2,700 calories during the race while eating about 500. My previous experience with this sort of thing is that my body will keep yelling at me and not wanting to move until I fix the calorie deficit.

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Productivity Hacks Part 2: Increasing Willpower and Promoting Clear Thinking

A follow-up to Productivity Hacks I’ve Discovered Since College Part 1: Commitment Devices. Here are habits that have helped me make better decisions.

Setting budgets to make trade-offs more intuitive.

It’s hard to decide what is a worthwhile expense and what isn’t. Is eating out tonight worth spending an extra $10? What’s $10 worth, anyway? One reason this sort of question is so hard to answer, as suggested in Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s book  Scarcity, is that it’s unclear what exactly I’ll have to give up if I spend $10 today. It will chip into my savings and mean that I’ll have less to spend in the future, or maybe it will increase the risk that if a health catastrophe hits, I won’t be able to pay for the medical care I need. These costs are abstract and far away, so it’s hard to make smart tradeoffs. [2]

After graduating college, I figured out how much I would need to spend on rent and taxes, allocated 10% of my income to charity and $5,000 a year to savings, and subtracted how much I estimated I would spend on food and necessary home and school supplies. What was left over was for “fun”. I initially allocated myself a “fun budget” of $100 per month, and dropped this number to $70. [3] Up to $70, I spend money as if it doesn’t cost me anything except using up my “fun budget”, and over $70 I’m done.

Over time, it became much more clear which activities have high funness per dollar. I now know what I would do with a marginal fun-directed dollar, which helps realistically evaluate the costs of the tradeoffs I face. Seeing a $5 comedy show? That is much better than spending $5 on anything else I can think of. $18 for a few hours of rock climbing? That’s a few delicious meals. A trip to visit my cousin in Providence… now that buys a lot of falafel!

Costs and cognitive constraints

The main drawback of this policy is that I can’t budget optimally. Some months I don’t have much use for spending money on fun, but I spend it anyway. Some months I could use a lot more fun money, but I don’t have it. Large expenses are nearly impossible. I do permit myself to borrow and save between months, but I try to avoid it: $70 per month is much easier to think about than $8,400 decade, so I think about it on a monthly basis.

Planning in advance and writing everything in a place I look at frequently

I put everything on my Google Calendar on Sunday nights, print the calendar, and carry it around with me for the rest of the week. Now I almost never miss appointments; in the past I missed at least half of the appointments I scheduled that didn’t happen repeatedly.

I also keep a to-do list, which I have been doing for years. However, it’s not very helpful because I haven’t been able to get into the habit of frequently looking at my list the way I frequently check my calendar. When I need to remember something really important I write it on my hand, but it’s amazing how often I don’t notice that something is written on my hand. It’s more amazing how long I can walk around without anyone going “Hey, Liz, what’s that on your hand?”

Setting exercise goals to increase motivation

I exercise because it usually enjoyable, makes me feel better, and will extend my life. Accordingly, I used to exercise however and whenever I felt like it. I was a competitive athlete in high school and was on several teams in college, but for the last few years I’ve avoided taking exercise too seriously, constantly reminding myself that it is only useful insofar as it makes me happier or more productive.

This year, I signed up for a difficult trail race (May 10!) and started training for it. At the beginning of January, I had only been running ten or fifteen miles a week since I was recovering from an injury, so I made a plan to slowly build up to the 40 miles a week I wanted to be at a couple weeks before the race. I planned how how my weekly mileage and long run distances should increase, and I planned to periodically run intervals, hill repeats, sprints up Harvard Stadium, and lift weights in the gym. I wrote down what I did and how I felt every day. I started out motivated, and having a plan to follow and data to track has kept me motivated. On the rare days that I’d rather stay inside, thinking about placing well in the race gets me out the door.

The moral of this story is, pretending that sports is important makes me feel like it’s important, and feeling like it’s important makes it more fun.

(Aside: I’m eight weeks into slowly and reasonably increasing my running mileage. I’m not injured, I’m up to 25 miles a week with a 12 mile long run, and I barely notice hills that used to feel hard. I’m four weeks into lifting weights twice a week. I’m a lot stronger and can do thirty-five consecutive nose-to-the-ground push-ups. You serious athletes can snicker, but I’m proud of myself.)

Failures and Unsolved Problems

These are discussed at greater length above, but I think it’s worth pointing out that “life hacks” have costs and that not everything I try works.

  • I don’t remember to look at my to-do list. I write things on it and then don’t do them.
  • When I initially started setting a “go home and go to bed” alarm, I set it too late by about 40 minutes. Once I got home, I wouldn’t have time to hang out with my boyfriend or even chat with him while getting ready for bed, and I would leave dishes unwashed. Setting the alarm earlier fixed this, but neither the problem nor the solution was immediately obvious.
  • My monthly “fun budget” is inflexible and means that I will basically never go on an airplane for anything other than work or a family emergency.
  • My apartment is usually messier than I want it to be. I feel like I clean it all the time, but I guess that doesn’t happen as fast as it gets messier.

And a final caveat:

  • The fact that everything has been going well for me at once makes me worry that some other variable than good organizing is driving all this.

[2] This is an example of the absence of scarcity and is not really what the book is about.

[3] For people on the same stipend as me following along at home, I overestimated my taxes by a lot. This number could be higher and I’m going to rebudget after I find out exactly how much I’ll pay in taxes this year.

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Productivity Hacks I’ve Discovered Since Graduating College Part 1: Commitment Devices

I maintain a regular sleep schedule and almost never procrastinate. This is a huge improvement. I struggled for years to make this happen with willpower (hey, self, get off Reddit! go to sleep!) and was mostly unsuccessful. Over the past year, I’ve used external tools to turn me in the right direction. Sometimes they work by making the “right thing” much easier to do than the “wrong thing”, and sometimes they block me entirely from doing the “wrong thing”.

A theoretical framework: Discounting and time inconsistency.

Say that you have to choose between getting a marshmallow today and two marshmallows a year from now, and you choose the marshmallow today. Then say you have a choice between one marshmallow in five years and two in six years, and you choose two. If I wait five years and again ask you the “now or a year from now” question and you say you want one today, you’re being inconsistent: That decision reverses your choice from the initial “one in five years or two in six” question. This is the quick version of David Laibson’s model of quasi-hyperbolic discounting, which describes a person who treats the present as if it is special, but doesn’t value the future dramatically higher than the slightly-farther future.

I used to think about problems like procrastination as if I have two different preferences at the same time. I want to look at funny pictures of cats, but what I really want is to get my essay done early, and then have free time to look at funny pictures of cats. [1] The quasi-hyperbolic discounting model proposes something different: I only have one preference at a time. In the future, I want myself to be a good student and get essays done early. But right now, the benefits of another five minutes goofing off seem well worth the costs of cutting out five minutes somewhere else.

This way of looking at inconsistent behavior suggests a natural solution: If I know that I and my future self won’t agree on what she can do, I should try to constrain her actions. A way of constraining my future actions is a “commitment device”. Here are a few commitment devices that help me.

Leaving my laptop at school overnight.

I used to spend way too much time on my laptop in the evenings: In between tasks I would get distracted by a New York Times article that looked really important, checking the weather, or answering emails. I would get to bed much later than intended and was much less efficient than if I had tackled necessary tasks earlier and left unnecessary ones to a time when would be more alert.

Now, before I leave for home at the end of the day, I check the next day’s weather, print anything I need to, and jot down a plan for the next day. Then I leave my laptop in my locker and go home. This hasn’t just saved me from inefficient end-of-day laptop use; I also get cooking and cleaning done more quickly once I’m home.

Setting an alarm to remind me to go to bed.

This one is a reminder, not a rule. I figured out what time I would need to leave work in order to be able to get up at 7 am each day and set an alarm for that time. Then I head home once I wrap up what I’m working on and get everything organized for the next day.

Melatonin for healthy sleep habits.

The best way to be alert in an 8:30 am class is to regularly go to bed eight hours before the time I need to get up for my 8:30 class. If I go to bed early but am not used to going to bed that early, I will sleep poorly and feel groggy in the morning. When I need to be alert in the morning but haven’t been maintaining an early sleep schedule, I take 1 mg of melatonin, the hormone your body makes at night, about half an hour before bed. I will wake up about seven or eight hours later feeling quite peppy. It is also helpful for the first few days of shifting to an earlier sleep cycle. The drawback is that if I take melatonin and am woken up too early, I will feel bad until I can go to sleep again.

This one goes under “commitment devices” because once I’ve taken melatonin, I will become very sleepy and dysfunctional within an hour, so I have to head to bed without procrastinating or trying to get more work done. However, aside from the transition off Daylight Savings Time, I haven’t needed to use melatonin as a commitment device since I’ve started leaving my laptop at home.

Blocking distracting websites.

I block Reddit and Facebook using the Firefox add-on LeechBlock. It allows these sites only between 9 pm and 9:30 pm. I customized it so that I can’t easily disable the app, and uninstalled Chrome since, last time I checked, Chrome doesn’t have a productivity app that is difficult to disable.

CSA share as a vegetable commitment device.

I get lots of vegetables from Enterprise Farm every week. In addition to being fun and teaching me about what grows in my area in different seasons, this forces me to eat vegetables since I’ve paid for them ahead of time and would have to pay a lot more to eat something else.

Using friends to stay on task

I make a point of telling people my plans: “I’m going to go for a run and then work on the micro p-set, so let me know if you want to talk about that. I’ll be here tomorrow afternoon by 1 pm.” This is usually enough by itself to get me to follow the plan, since I don’t want to look like a flake or let someone down. I’ve also told some of my friends that they should feel free to chastise me when I don’t look like I’m using my time well. Most of them are too polite, but feeling like the productivity police are nearby helps me anyway.

[1] I think that the model of having two preferences at once has some truth to it, but it hasn’t been useful for me in generating suggestions to improve my behavior. But here’s a technique from Paul Graham that implicitly uses the “multiple preferences model”: “If you have two choices, choose the harder. If you’re trying to decide whether to go out running or sit home and watch TV, go running. Probably the reason this trick works so well is that when you have two choices and one is harder, the only reason you’re even considering the other is laziness. You know in the back of your mind what’s the right thing to do, and this trick merely forces you to acknowledge it.”

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