Living Slower: Increasing Variance

As I try to live slower this year I’m also faced with increasing pressure to get more done at work & at home.

At first I thought these were opposing forces, but as I’ve been contemplating on it I no longer believe that has to be the case.

When we talk about pace we often think about the mean (average). The thing that doesn’t take into account is variance – the spread between the data points that make up that average.


Here is a great illustration of variance that shows two cases – each with the same total & same mean. The one that is more spread out in its distribution has more variance.variance

For me, life started to feel a bit like that dark green cluster – always moving at a similar pace. Low variance.

At work I have a lot to get done, then I come home and have a lot to get done and when I find some free time, knowing it was limited, I’d try to do a bunch of things I really wanted to do. After doing that for long enough you start to slow down & get worn out. Your fastest pace is no longer as fast and since you always feel behind your slowest pace can never be as slow.

I’m now considering how I can in fact move my mean pace down while still getting a lot more done. I believe I can do this by leveraging variance.

What that means is less time at the average and more time at the extremes. Like case 2 below.



To me that means working hard until I am no longer effective and then resting.

The trick for me is forcing those low paces. A lot of things I like to do for fun actually feel like work. Most of it is on the computer. (Writing this is no exception.)

Ironman Training & Variance

This isn’t a foreign concept to me. It is actually exactly how I trained for my Ironman last year. If you haven’t trained for a race ever you might think you do it by going out and running a bit every day as fast as you can handle. In fact, the best practice, and the training plan I followed, called for the opposite.

On half of the days I would do short workouts where I would go really fast and push myself. The other half of the days I would take as a rest day, going slower for a bit longer of a distance to let my body recover.

This variance in training produced great results. It helped me mentally because as tough as things were on the hard days, I knew they would be over soon and a rest day would be up next. It also helped prevent physical burnout.

Living Slowly Through Variance

As I think about things that I consider rest today there are a whole lot that aren’t actually that restful.

Some things I would classify as a 3 or 4 on a pace scale. Reading things online often falls into that category for me. I feel a need to pay attention to everything and to research things I don’t know much about and then after an hour of it I feel more exhausted than when I started but didn’t really accomplish anything.

I’ve even vacationed so hard before that I came back exhausted – I was supposed to be taking a break and was cranking a 6 or 7 the whole time.

Then there are the things that feel productive but that aren’t really.

A few items that might be a 5 or 6 include sending emails & large meetings. They seem like they should be counted as work time, but often aren’t really moving anything forward.

Then there are the countless hours people waste at work logging time in the office because most managers are still not able to quantify productivity, so they default to measuring time-in-seat.

Living with variance is looking for more 1s and 10s.

10s are those hours where you’re dialed in the zone: writing code, drafting documents, brainstorming like a boss, hammer-to-nails. Those time where you crank through items on your todo list. Specifically items on a well filtered and intentional todo list.

1s are those times where you feel yourself recharging: sleeping, reading a book, staring at a fire, laying on the grass outside.

So my goal is to drop the mean a bit but increase the throughput. Drop everything in the middle and replace it with real rest. Then add more high quality & fast paced productivity with some of the remaining energy.

Living Slower: The First Hour of the Day

In 2015 I have committed myself to the theme of living slower. This involves me spending time thinking about what that means, putting it into practice and sharing my learnings. This is the first update in that theme.

Good Morning

The first hour of the day sets the tone for each that follows it. In seeking to live slowly, the way we approach the moments after we wake are among the most important.

For many of us, our days start with a jarring introduction of the infinite. The moment after our eyes open, they turn to a glowing screen that waited patiently for us while we slept. We begin to catch up – reading emails, text messages and social updates, before we’ve gotten out of bed, and as such we dive into the day’s issues like a plunge into icy water.

It is hard to find peace in the morning once you’ve welcomed with open arms the problems and challenges the day had in store for you.

Why We Check

Nonetheless, that urge to instantly wire in is real. It isn’t isolated or unique. According to a recent study, nearly 80% of smartphone owners check their phones within the first 15 minutes of waking up.

I suspect that for some, and I know it is true for myself, often this urge has roots in our ego. It strokes our pride to think that we are important enough that our attention is needed as soon as possible.

Perhaps for others the desire grows out of a fear of the unknown. The lack of control felt by not knowing that there is nothing important outweighs the comfort of not knowing either way.

But for all of us, part of that early morning attraction comes from the mere fact that there is something there. We have become accustomed to an overconsumption of information. We wake up craving the empty calories of scrolling pixels.

A Good Morning

My favorite mornings are camping mornings. Though at home I am normally a late riser, when I’m camping I am always the first up. My morning ritual involves trying to get the fire started using only the heat from the buried embers of the previous nights fire as the sun slowly rises above peaks and trees. As the morning progresses I am usually slowly greeted by a few other early risers. We sit calmly, not talking much, watching the fire start back up again. Eventually other rise and the majority of the group is up, the fire now in full force is ready to heat breakfast.

Those mornings are slow and those morning aren’t very much like my normal mornings.

Warming Up for a Race

The reason athletes warm up before a competition is to prepare their body for the intense performance they are about to demand of it by slowly introducing it. This helps prevent injury and increase performance. It isn’t unique to one sport – runners, football players and dancers alike all have a warm up routine – though each is specific to their activity.

On race day, as a runner, I start with a light jog. As my blood begins flowing and my muscles wake up I pick up the pace a bit. Once I’ve hit a decent pace, I then pause and take time to stretch, focusing on areas that are tight and listening to the signals my body is putting out. I then finish with a few race effort bursts and technique drills. Once I finish that, my body is prepared to compete.

That routine has been reliable for me in all of my races over the past 15 years. On the rare days where I have been rushed and didn’t have time to properly warm up, I found I wasn’t able to achieve the performance I wanted to. But when I properly prepare, I help prevent injury and ensure success.

Warming Up for the Day

Why should we not approach the day with the same intentionality? If we would not dive right into the strain of a race with cold, unprepared muscles why should we dive right into the strain of a day with a cold, unprepared mind/body/soul?

Each day presents challenges of its own. We face tough decisions, unexpected circumstances and trying interpersonal interactions. We need to enter the day prepared for those challenges. We need to prepare our mind, body & soul.

It isn’t even that the information we consume on a smartphone early in the morning is harmful. It just isn’t helpful. It isn’t the best way we can spend the first hour of the day in order to prepare for the challenges that face us.

How Should We Then Wake?

This month I am working on better spending the first hour of my day. I invite you to join me.

Rather than rushing headlong into a stream of updates and news – information I can certainly wait for and probably do without – I am going to use my mornings to better prepare myself for the day.

I’ve found the best mornings start with an early night. When we’re not fighting the clock there is much more time to focus on the task at hand.

I’ve also found it helpful to charge my phone in the living room so it isn’t right next to me when I wake up. That means I have to rely on an old school alarm clock. (By which I mean my 10 month old son)

Recently I’ve been enjoying trying to stretch out the time between when I wake up and when I leave the bed. This is only possible if you aren’t a high risk case for falling back asleep, but it makes for a nice slow progression from awake, to thinking, to moving.

Another practice I’m building better habits around is reading things that realign my soul with my core beliefs. For me this is a devotional and some scripture. It refocuses me on the beliefs that are most important to me and sets the tone for the rest of the day. For you that might be different but it should be personal. If you’ve been able to identify the core values and driving principles in your life, then it should be things that focus you to those. If you haven’t, then it could be things that help you to identify what those are for you.

Finally, I want to take time to listen to how I’m feeling and when necessary, modify my day based on those signals. Before a race I pay attention to my muscles and how they feel – if one is tight or sore, I might work on stretching it – if it is bad enough I might decide not to race.

Similarly, if I wake up overtired and short tempered, I need to take some time to correct my attitude so that I don’t unknowingly take it out on anyone else. And if the problem is big enough, the right call might be to skip the day. PTO isn’t only for head colds. If I’m nearing burnout, wrestling with heavy personal issues or otherwise unable to be productive – the best thing to do for everyone might be to take the morning or day off, properly address those issues and only then return to my normal workload.

Final Thoughts

These are some of the practices I am putting in place to better spend the first hour of my day. My goal is to use that time more intentionally to prepare for the remainder of the day. To set the tone that I do not need to be rushed. That true effectiveness comes from a properly-running machine heading in the right direction – even if it gets started slowly. That speed can not compensate for a misguided course or broken engine.

2015: Goal, Theme & Challenge

For the last two years I’ve blogged about a efforts I’ve decided to take on during the new year. I’ve enjoyed this activity. It helps me strive to complete things that I think are important or interesting but more importantly it give me focus by allowing me to say ‘no’ to other things.

After two years of this process I’ve learned a few things that I want to account for in my third year.

  1. This will dramatically impact how I spend my year. In 2014 I decided to train for an Ironman. That ended up being how I spent almost all of my free time. In some regards this is great because it allowed me to focus for a single year and achieve a solid result. I couldn’t have done that if I had split my time between multiple activities. But, now that I realize this, it is important for me to take it into account as I set goals.
  2. I can do amazing things in a year. In 2014 I went from never having done a triathlon (or a cycling or swim race) to finishing in the top 15% of an Ironman race. I am now confident in my ability to focus for a year and move into the 80th percentile at most activities.
  3. Watch for escalation. In 2013 I surfed Mavericks. In 2014 I completed an Ironman. As I started thinking about 2015 a few ideas crossed my mind: double-Ironman, climb Everest, run a 100 mile race, etc. Though striving for larger goals is often a good thing – I don’t want to escalate myself into oblivion. Not every challenge needs to be more time intense, dangerous or costly than the one before it.

Here are definitions for the three categories of efforts I undertake.

Goal – Something I want to accomplish that is measurable and relatively continual. eg. exercise X times per week or decrease sugar consumption by X percent. These are often habits I want to build into my life an my hope is that by doing it for a year, it will stick.

Theme – A central topic for the year – something I can spend time thinking about and take a few concrete efforts towards. eg. build community or rethink what health means. These are often abstract ideas that are hard to measure but important to spend time focusing on.

Challenge – Something I want to conquer. Crossing an item off my bucket list. eg. climb Mr. Everest or learn to tight rope walk. These are binary, I either complete them or I don’t.

2015 Goal: Read 26 Books

If at first you don’t succeed, set a harder goal and try again.

Last year my goal was to read 24 books and I only got to 17. That said I had a great December in which I finished 5 books. I’d like to keep that trend going so I’m making reading my goal for 2015 as well. I’ll just up the ante by 2 to make it an even 1/2 book per week.

I am going to add two parameters though. Books on tape don’t count and only half of them can be non-fiction.

Books on tape are a great way to consume information but for me miss one of the key benefits of reading. I mentioned this last year when setting my initial goal – reading a paper book allows me to dive deeply into a single topic, to pause to think and to relax more. I was originally contrasting that with reading articles from a computer but I found in my experience last year that audiobooks don’t produce the same effect either.

As for fiction vs non-fiction. I tend towards reading non-fiction. Typically business books, biographies or informational guides to something I’m newly interested in. It isn’t that I don’t like a good story, lately I’ve just been consuming most of my fiction in the forms of movies & video games. There is plenty of good fiction out there though and this year I’m going to focus on diving into more of it.

2015 Theme: Live Slower

This is a lesson I never seem to learn. I always try and fit more in to the limited time I have.

Next year I want to reflect more on what it means to slow down and savor life. I then want to put this into practice in various ways.

To me this means both doing fewer things and also doing things of a deeper nature.

This might look like replacing 30 minutes of scrolling through Facebook news feed updates from hundreds of people with a single 30 minute conversation with one person. This might look like more time just sitting and doing nothing to unwind at the end of the day.

Like cooking meat, I think life is best when done at a lower temperature for a long time. That is how you get the juiciest bite with the most flavor.

2015 Challenge: Summit Mt. Whitney

Mt. Whitney is the tallest mountain in California and in the contiguous United States. Standing at 14,505 ft tall, the altitude at the summit is enough that most climbers suffer a bit of sickness upon reaching it.

By Cullen328 Jim Heaphy (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
I picked this challenge because it was the easiest one on my bucket list. Specifically, it was the least time & money intensive. Last year’s challenge in contrast was quite intense in regards to both of those. I intentionally looked for something more moderate for this year as to stop testing the patience of those around me – not the least of which are my wife & son.

Since I live within driving distance from Mt. Whitney and already have 90%+ of the gear I’ll need, this should be pretty straight forward.

The toughest part will be getting a permit and the physical challenge of the hike. If I can’t get a permit for the main trail during the calm summer months, I might end up having to do a longer hike or waiting until the winter. Either of which could make things a bit more interesting.