Health: Finding My Limits

When optimizing, the goal is always to maximize the output for a specific investment of inputs. Those inputs are typically things like money, time, effort, materials, space, etc. We want to get more bang for our buck, results for time put in, etc.

No optimization problem operates in a vacuum though. There are always constraints – limits that keep the equation from scaling linearly forever.

These might be hard constraints that stop you in your tracks. Perhaps the constraint is the number of available outputs. If you’ve already trained enough to win a race, you can’t double-win it.

Or perhaps they are soft constraints. that create strange non-linear scale, either in a positive or negative manner. Perhaps the first 100 units of output can be achieved at a ratio of 1:1 input to output, but the next 100 require 3:2 input to output. This means that over time you have diminishing returns. In fact, in reality, this is almost always how it works.

I’ve been thinking about constraints a lot lately. I am hitting my limits.

I’m trying to do a lot these days. It often feels like time is the limiting factor. I have pretty well prioritized what I do, but even so I have a ton I want to accomplish. Most days I wake up and immediately start working or taking care of babies, the day is essentially non-stop (mostly pre-booked on my calendar) until I go to bed. When I go for a run, it is often at 8 or 9 PM since that is the first open slot I have. It certainly feels like I need more time.

That is of course a fallacy. In fact I have just as much time as I’ve ever had. Every single day I’ve been alive I’ve have completed 24 hours of activities (daylight savings and cross-timezone travel non-withstanding).

The limiting factor must be energy then. I could get a lot more done if I could operate at 100% output all of the time. Most of my 24 hours I’m operating at a lower % than that. Shoot, I’m sleeping for 25% of the day. If I didn’t require sleep every night but could instead operate at 100% capacity during that time, I could get much more done. Energy is the culprit – kilojoules (kJ) per day (or calories for you non-metric folk). We often hear about counting calories in terms on losing weight, but I mean this more in the sense of how a car burns fuel. A car will keep driving as long as you keep pumping that sweet petroleum energy into it. That is all I need, more calories in, and I can keep operating at high output.

Of course not. The limit here is something else. It doesn’t scale that way. Eventually I break down – and by me I mean my body, specifically my mind and my immune system. When I ask too much of my input systems, I get sick. I either get a physical sickness, like a cold, and have to slow it down for a bit (usually in bed). Or I get a mental sickness, like burnout and have to slow it down for a bit (preferably on a beach).

But the great thing about the body is it adapts. It can be stretched and it can be optimized. Most people do this without thinking about it in such upfront terms. They just do more and more over time and eventually adapt. Like a person that enjoys running and eventually runs a marathon without ever starting an official training plan, they ease their way into it.

Of course without training properly the chance of injury increases. Some people don’t properly train for a marathon and injure themselves. Some people do the same with trying to get more done. They think they’ve found a secret but in reality they are building up debt in some system that eventually collapses – be it high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, emotional breakdown, etc.

That is why we follow a training plan, why we research, why we measure ourselves over time to make sure we aren’t breaking down as we build up. We get a coach and setup feedback loops. We improve how we improve ourselves.

In 2016 I am thinking about health. Physical and mental health will be two of the topics I spend time exploring. From the writing above I think you can gather that my ideas of heath are currently pretty utilitarian and somewhat nontraditional. This year I will be exploring those ideas a bit more.

Living Slower: Selecting Activities Intentionally

As I’ve spent this year thinking about living slower, one recurring theme is the selection of activities that I spend my time on. I wrote some previously about how I wanted to spend more of my life towards the extremes of either being productive or resting. The question then arises, which activities best optimize for each of those.

As I start to think about how to select tasks, the first thing that stands out to me is that there are many types of activities to account for. There isn’t one single ‘productive’. For each of the different aspects of myself there are ways to be productive. Exercising is productive to the body just as conversation is productive to the relationship.

But how many different aspects are there?

The Aspects of A Person

For about a decade I’ve been tracking how I spend my time in one week samples. Over this period I’ve developed a categorization system that contained the following buckets. I think this is a good place to start.

  • Survival
  • Labor
  • Social
  • Family
  • Spirit
  • Mind
  • Expression
  • Body
  • Distraction

To me these are buckets I need to keep full. Though each is a different size and each requires a very different type of activity to fill, they essentially all compete for the same 168 hours and a limited pool of kWhs.

Not only will these buckets be different for each person, but they will change for a person over time. Now that I have a wife and two kids, family time requires much more investment than it did a few years ago when I was a bachelor.

Though I can sometimes skimp on one for a short time, I’ve found that continually underinvesting in any of them results in an imbalance. That will always surfaces itself in a negative way – appropriate for its type. Ignore the body and you will be sick. Ignore the family and you will be alone.

Filling Buckets

As I look then at my week and how to fill my time, I know that I have a number of buckets to fill and only a certain amount of time an energy. So I can best optimize by selecting activities that are of high density and multi-purpose.

Running with friends puts something in both the ‘body’ and ‘social’ buckets. Where as running or hanging out with friends would only each put something into one.

With this mentality, activities are reduced to their building blocks. Adding a habit becomes a question of which blocks are needed. (We are putting blocks into buckets in this metaphor – can you tell I have a 2 year old?) This is non-coincidentally how I think about food as well. When asked what I want for lunch my common answer is ‘about 800 calories’, though I know I need to balance the building blocks of protein, carbs & fat while ensuring I get enough vitamins and minerals.

Selecting Activities

So under this approach, when debating if I should start watching a new TV show I ask myself, do I really need 2 hours a week of indoor, non-physical, alone, distracting time?

Maybe I do. But maybe instead I see that it would be great if I could find 2 hours of outdoor, family, non-physical time. From there I can brainstorm activities that are built from those blocks. Perhaps taking the boys to the park on Saturday morning and sitting there watching them play while intentionally not thinking about anything serious.

Thinking of it like that also lets me start to fiddle with other activities to tweak them slightly in order to ensure no bucket is left under-filled or overstressed. Biking to work lets me get in some extra outside time (being in a car doesn’t count as outside) while still getting where I need to go and in basically the same amount of time.

It also lets me redeem activities that I might have once considered useless. Mowing a lawn with a non-electric mower might seem like a waste in many regards – the electric mower is faster & hiring a lawn crew is better from a value of time perspective. But using the non-electric mower transforms that time into physical and mental blocks – which you were probably going to have to find that week anyways, likely by paying to be at the gym while you paid someone to mow your lawn. In this way the same task is completed and the same personal buckets invested in – but without additional financial costs.

Final Thoughts

Under this new approach I’ve noticed myself be able to live more in certain moments that I would have previously tried to rush out of or supplement with something else. Slowly walking around the neighborhood with my son is a worthy task that now has time set aside. There are conversations that I drink in not for the task they achieve but for the conversation itself. Those things might not seem strange to you, but they used to be for me.

I won’t have time to do it this year, but my next steps will be to take a rev at the system I use to track my time. I’m going to move out of a one dimensional system into something a bit more robust and then work to set target weights using some data. There will be charts and it will be awesome.

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.