Written by Christopher Kelly
Jan. 31, 2020
Simon: I think it's a struggle that we all have. Probably most of us believe in some shape or form that it's only us that are dealing with this very specific challenge. No one can really relate to the sorts of lives that we have or that I have. And there's a lot of guilt and frustration that comes with that as well and underlying that is that I want to be able to fit more into my day but I'm struggling to. And forgetting, of course, that we are, for the most part, architects of our own day.
There are some things that are imposed on us that we don't have much control over at all but I think where most people fall foul is that they've convinced themselves that they have no control over something but they actually do. One aspect of this is trying to uncover -- I guess, not uncover but trying to make clear what is underlying that struggle between I want to do something or I ought to do something but I'm struggling with it or I find it hard.
This is the battle, the internal battle that psychologists and therapists and stuff have struggled with for years and different authors and writers give different names to these different voices or these dissenting voices, one of which comes whether it's the chimp brain or the limbic system or reptilian brain. I know that and my rational thinking brain. And most of can intellectualize our health really well.
We know what we should be doing. We know we don't need to -- okay, there might be some little technical aspects of which brand of supplement over the other is beneficial and it's just that I lack the scientific understanding or knowledge to be able to do that. But most of the common health complaints that we have or challenges don't fall into that category. They fall into something a lot more fundamental which is trying to reconcile the apparent discrepancy between what I think I should be doing and what I actually feel like doing.
This is that in David Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow analogy, Nobel Prize winning author, about this self, the self one, the emotional automatic very quick intuitive self, part of our self, and self two, the very rational calculated logical. That underlying these challenges that we have, diet, exercise, I want to get better sleep, I want to do or be a better this, but I find it hard or it's difficult really represents the struggle between those two selves.
And so understanding a little bit about what's keeping you from doing this is part of the solution. That requires a little bit of self-excavation, psychologically speaking. Not that you're being taken back to childhood experiences although often we can find out some of the reasons why we procrastinate or avoid things or we end up being the placators or the peacekeepers can often be because of some of those experiences. That doesn't help us move forward and make a decision tomorrow.
So, trying to understand some of that is really important. And then all of that, and we can talk a lot more about some of the knots and bolts of that in the moment.
But we also have a tendency to overcomplicate things. We can over think. And this is some of the psychologists saying this. We have the tendency to spend somehow by devoting time thinking about it whilst helping me think through choices and options and planning doesn't actually help me at all do. And so we often talk about the difference between, for example -- this gets into the slightly related field of motivation.
But when it comes to time management, if we talk about the motivation to change and the commitment to change, and those two being quite fundamentally different concepts, motivation being the inner desire, what I know I want to do or should do, and then the commitment, what are you actually doing to do that? And the complication part, the over complication part is when we somehow spend so much time ruminating and worrying about what we can't do, what we should do and really we could be making it a simple as an action that we take even if it's on a very tiny level.
What single thing could I do tomorrow that's going to take me two minutes to make me one step further towards having that routine, schedule, lifestyle that I want? Motivation and commitment play quite key roles in unpacking this conflict.
Christopher: What do you think about people doing too much? We've definitely work with some clients -- and I'm guilty of this as well, actually, the idea of making a millimeter progress in a million direction. So, the book that I've seen you recommend to our clients, which I think is just fantastic, Essentialism by Greg McKeown, can you talk about that?
Simon: There's lots of philosophies around how do we de-clutter our lives. I don't mean de-clutter literally in the sense that we're getting rid of objects although that would be part of it.
Christopher: That may be helpful too that's why I get the two things confused, minimalism and essentialism, because they're related concepts.
Simon: Yeah. That's the minimalism part. But the essentialism is how do we distil down the way that we spend our time? How are we making sure that what we are spending our time in is really things that we feel passionate about, that we really are in love with doing? One of the key themes of this work is that if you think of your life as metaphorical closet that we stuff with clothes that we don't wear anymore and there are other people putting stuff into our closets because this is something that we all want you to do but you don't really want to do it, when you look at the things on your plate and you think of each of them in terms of a scale of ten, about how in love with this thing that you need to do you are, there are some things in there that are nines and tens and these are the things that really we talk about passionate about or that we just love doing.
We don't need any external reward or reinforcement to do. This is the truly intrinsically enjoyable things that we want in life. And then ideally, we'd want a life only to be of those things. But the reality is that we can't do that. Many of us are doing jobs we don't like. Some of us are in relationships we don't like. Some of us have to deal with things that frankly we could do less of.
What's interesting about essentialism, it isn't the sort of things in our closet that are the ones and twos out of ten that gets us in trouble, taking out the garbage or having to lead a team where you don't really want to or something. It's the seven and eights that get us in trouble, the things that we've convinced ourselves that are absolutely critical for the world to keep turning in our own world. Someone's got to do it and if not me, who?
We end up stocking our closets with lots of seven and eights and really one of the goals is to say, "Listen, there's going to be ones and twos that we have to do but we want to try and make sure that we've got enough nines and tens to keep us sustained and enjoyable and excited about life." And the culling part, the getting rid of stuff that you don't want starts with those sevens and eights or sixes and sevens.
That's a challenge and not many people think about things in their life along those dimensions. One of the big criticisms, of course, is that it's just like a huge luxury of people who have the financial ability or the time or the resources to be able to suddenly just get rid of things. But when you're working two jobs, you've got three kids, and one of them is going into college and you've got some medical bills, it's very easy to sit back and say, "Yeah, all well and good to say drop those things but there are many things in life that I have to do that I just cannot simply get out from under."
I think the rationale of essentialism is not to marginalize or to say that, "Oh, to be so naïve that people aren't living in those circumstances," but it's to say, "Listen, you have to have a sense of agency of a life. You're trying to engineer the life that you want." And it doesn't mean that you suddenly start to become negligent in your obligations and responsibilities but you have to have some sense of agency, some sense of--
Christopher: I was going to say could you define the word agency?
Simon: Yeah. You have to be proactive in taking steps, actions that get you closer to the kind of life that you want to live. This doesn't mean that you jump fall into, you get rid of the job, you become negligent as a parent.
But there are always things that you can do on a daily basis that prioritize or get you one step closer to the life that you want to lead. That could be simply something modifying how you prepare for sleep. It could be the fact that you change, if you need to have some exercise, you want to improve your exercise habits, how can I start to introduce habits in my life that I'm not trying to add something? I'm simply substituting or switching or double dipping.
So, using commuting as an opportunity to get exercise in. That would previously be just so I don't have much time for that because that's when I travel to and from here. How can you start to think about your life that is the substitutability of your time rather than just simply addition, subtraction?
Christopher: So, you could try meditating whilst driving to work.
Simon: You can get your text messaging done while you're driving, for example. I think the time management part is that we have to somehow get out from under the things that are stopping us at because this notion of -- Psychologists talk about self determination, which is a really fancy way of saying that one of the things that's really motivating to individuals is the fact that we are in control of our own lives.
Many of us don't feel in control. Many of us feel out of control with many parts. There's so many external forces, external constraints or restrictions based on our time or demands on them. But we all have parts of our lives that we definitely do have some self, we are self determined for. How do I try and either get more of those or the opportunities that I have that are more externally constraining? How do I make those have a stronger flavor of self determination? How do I make those things more enjoyable or more intrinsically motivating?
Christopher: One of the main things that people complain about not having enough time for is -- can you guess it?
Christopher: No, sleep. I think there's an inherent problem here in that most people start work a very specific time but their time at which you go to bed is up to you really, isn't it? I think based on the data that we have a lot of people are struggling to find time to sleep. What would you recommend? Say that I was one of your clients and I was saying I'm really struggling to get to bed on time, what kind of questions would you ask?
I mean, I know you don't really give advice. You always talk about -- In fact, maybe this is a good time to ask you about your role as a coach at NBT. You're not someone that hands down advice. You describe yourself as a lubricant which I love that metaphor, by the way. Talk about that.
Simon: That sounds a terrible metaphor now that you said it out, a human lubricant. You start by understanding people's routines. You find out what the natural cadence of their life looks like and you ask about things that they've tried and not tried. We all have preconceived ideas about what will work and what won't work based on our experiences and memories of things.
If you, for example, if you're recommending a certain mindfulness training or meditation in the hour before you go to sleep and unbeknownst to you they've tried this in the past and they hated it and you never know that because you never asked them about that, it changes the way that you introduce some of these concepts to them or you're explaining the rationale for why you'd want to do them.
But sleep is an interesting one because, as you correctly identified, the time when you wake up in the day is like the fuse has been lit. Time to sleep. How much time do you have left before you go into bed? That is an ever decreasing resource. The time that you have left in the day is reducing and what happens is that the mind is incredibly biased when it comes to anticipating how long things will take.
We always underestimate the time that things will take. Actually, we end up adding things, substituting things, run over, that compression of time increases throughout the day. You know that you have wiggle room. Usually, this is why people end up working late into the evening or taking work home with them. But everything gets squished into the only discretionary time, the discretion that they think they have which is when they get home.
Of course, it's not truly discretionary time in the sense that it's time that you believe is for you if you have the luxury of that, having time when you get home for you. That becomes the negotiating, the time that you can substitute things that other demands on. You end up filling things that for your own self care, your own self management, you stuff it full with things that couldn't get done in the day.
And so it's no surprise then that as the day runs out and you're eating and then you have to do a bit of work on your laptop before you go to bed and then there's really little or not much time left for anything. This stuff comes back to boundaries. This is one of the co-principles of essentialism. How do I start setting boundaries between time that I become very precious that I protect at all cost, this is putting your own mask on before helping others analogy in an airplane.
How do I protect time and how do I make certain time that I devoted for me sacrosanct and how do I make that not infringed upon at any cost? And unfortunately, most of us are not very good at that.
Christopher: Defending those boundaries.
Christopher: I mean, the typical scenario. What I can somewhat relate to and I can tell you about how I've solved the problem. I'm not saying that's the right solution for everyone but people struggle to get the kids in bed. Maybe we have dinner and then it's time for the kids to go to bed and it's an absolute nightmare. You're chasing them around the house and it seems to be their peak energy moment. And then finally you get them to go to sleep and then you've got that window of opportunity where you can do something and that might be exercise, it might be reading, it might be watching the TV, it might be catching up from some work email, but it's that period where you feel like you've got an opportunity to do something.
For me, it was -- I mean, we hear this all the time from clients and people who answered our survey. But for me, the way that I fix that is to not even go there in the first place. So, we will go to sleep at the same time. We do everything together. I appreciate that might not be practical for everyone but we all go to sleep about 8:30, 9:00 at night. And it's late for Ivy who is only four years old and it's early for me but that problem just never comes up. We all just go to sleep. This is what we're doing right now.
I think maybe a lot of the conflict between the parent and the child is coming from the fact that they know you're going to go and do something fun right now and so I don't really want to go to bed but I do.
Simon: Yeah, this is setting boundaries again and trying to intervene or help families control unruly children at bedtime becomes a question of undoing or unlearning all of the habits and reinforcements that got to the point where that becomes a problem. It's a real challenge. I think most families struggle with this on some occasion. They may not, in the sense that your situation seems quite unusual, but it's a challenge for most people.
I would say that once what we know a little bit about the science and willpower, when we're trying to do things that we find challenging or difficult, our ability to do those things declines precipitously throughout the day. When you plot willpower or impulse control, from the moment you get up to the moment you go to bed, it's like a ski jump slope with no lip at the end.
And we know neurologically a little bit about why that is. But suffice to say that willpower is like a finite resource during the day and it's ever declining. And it isn't just the traditional or the classical notion of impulse control, willpower resisting tempting things that you want. Any time that you have to make a decision and have to weigh up things, alternatives, before you actually choose takes willpower. It's a check that you've just written on that bank account that is ever decreasing.
What this tells is that if the harder things are challenging motivationally or commitment wise, the earlier that you could do them the better. So, not many people struggle with trying to fit exercise in first things in the morning. But I'll tell you what's harder is when you make the decision to put it off and then do it later after work. It becomes even harder.
In fact, one of the most challenging windows of time when we're most vulnerable to make bad decisions or decisions that are just compromising bigger goals that we have with our health is during the evening, right? The witching hour for many adults is 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. where we are most likely might have just eaten or we're most likely to do things that are just the easier option because our bank account of willpower is pretty much now almost overdrawn at that point.
So, anything that is asked of us that's challenging or difficult is going to be difficult. So, we give in. Whether that applies to giving in to when a child wants to go to bed, giving in when it comes to whether I have that second glass or third glass of wine, giving in whether I want that my cravings are high for some sugary treat and I've deserved it, I want a reward and I had a long stressful day, and so and so, you're fighting some basic biology then as well by trying to do difficult things.
As hard as it might seem to do difficult things first thing in the morning like exercise, that's about habit formation. Of course, it's difficult to begin with and that's the hardest thing. We talked about this in the previous podcast. The hardest thing is to start a difficult habit. But recognize it's never as hard as it feels now, once you can get that snowball rolling.
The first few times that you try and get up at 5:30 a.m., if you're not used to it or you're trying to steal that 90 minutes before, it feels like the hardest thing in the world but it gets easier because your brain gets used to it. The energy levels that it gives you. And there's also a level that you're not feeling, you're not carrying with you those negative emotions throughout the day of guilt, of frustration and all the things that are like -- There's a certain level of smugness that you can get when you have already accomplished all things. And this goes for things you do at work as well.
We have a tendency to procrastinate things that are hard or very difficult to do. We put it off. We like to tackle the easier things first. It eases our way into difficult day. And actually, we're fighting what we know about our brain's capacity to cope with difficult situations. You're far better off doing the absolute hardest thing on your to do list, doing it first, or at least trying to take off, bite off a little chunk of that to do that hard thing and trying to tackle that first.
Christopher: I'd just been listening to Tommy interview Satchin Panda on the other podcast and I realize you can't really tease apart. People think of Satchin Panda as a circadian biology researcher but he did something really interesting when he introduced early time restricted feeding which is he put a bright line around when you're going to eat.
So, after 5:00 p.m. or whatever the eight to ten hour window ends at, I'm not doing anything, I'm not putting anything into my mouth after that time. Of course, that's the moment when everybody's willpower is depleted and they're going to the freezer for that second type of Haagen-Dazs ice cream. Is it all about circadian biology or has Satchin Panda just stumbled -- I mean, he may even know about this. That's when people's willpower is depleted and so that's when they're making the worst food choices.
Simon: It's also just a -- if you look at the natural architecture of people's time, is that most people are out in the morning fairly early to work or to do something. They're otherwise engaged throughout the day. When they get home, the little discretionary time that they have to play with is open season for making some decisions. Most of our behaviors, what we call habituate to our environment.
We're creatures of habit. So, when you're in the same environment between 6:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. every single time, you're likely to slip into routines that are remarkably consistent whether you know that you're doing this or not. If we put a little a video camera in the corner you'll follow almost to a T every night, have a little pattern around your kitchen which caverns you'll look into, how often you open the refrigerator, the way you sit on the couch, how you turn the TV off, the way you kick your shoes.
We're remarkable creatures of habit. In fact, some of the behavioral or the environmental psychologists say that when you just simply manipulate that environment your behavior changes without you really knowing it. And people know this. People struggled with alcohol cravings or they're trying to cut down their alcohol consumption and they put themselves into different environment.
They go over to their friend's house or they're away with work or they're just in a new environment. Their cravings change for alcohol as well. Because most of those behaviors, they're triggered by things in our environment that we enter into this little routine and then we get the payoff at the end which is feeling good or temporarily sort of emotional harmony is restored and you feel good until the next morning when it starts to repeat. You're repeating the cycle all over again.
Christopher: You just reminded me that it's nearly lunch time and I still haven't eaten any chocolate and it's because I'm with you in person in San Diego. I'm not at home. I definitely would have eaten some chocolate by now. It's just that, yeah, exactly, those environmental cues that--
Simon: And I've eaten four boxes because I live here.
Christopher: One of the things that I've heard Tommy talk about and I agree with him is what could be more important than sleep? Why would you want to spend time on anything other than sleep? I totally agree with him. what could be more self-indulgent than sleep? A couple of years ago I interviewed a doctor and sleep researcher Kirk Parsley and he said selling sleep should be like selling sex. I think he was right. Why is it do you think that people would rather make time to do anything other than sleep?
Simon: Culturally, we have a funny relationship with sleep as well. The norms of success and the cultural norms of working hard, when you listen to people, it's almost like a badge of honor, being able to survive on less and less sleep. People don't talk about their sleep habits as something that they shy over or embarrassed about. They often talk about as a sign I'm more productive.
Sleep, as we know, duration and quality is linked to a whole host of health outcomes. Quality of sleep -- I think sleep is having a little bit of resurgence in terms of how central it is to our health. We know that diet and exercise, our eating habits and exercise habits are critical or stress but sleep is this lurking behavior that seems to people don't really -- It's something that they don't really think about in terms of a health habit.
That's changing because it's becoming not just more our ability to know the quality of our sleep is improving because there are a whole host of little small wearables now that are giving us some feedbacks and new studies showing how sleep is related to a whole host of things not just while you're asleep. It's becoming more and more popular.
Unfortunately, it's still regarded as discretionary time. We can eat into it by the time we get up or the time we go to bed because of all the stuff that we're trying to cram in because we haven't set boundaries and how we set sleep time are so precious to us. Some people who have trouble sleeping or they have difficulty with their sleep hygiene is one of the few behaviors that the more that we worry about it makes the problem worse.
There are very few health behaviors that, okay, we can procrastinate with diet and exercise by worrying about it but it doesn't actually impact your ability to do the behavior that much by thinking about it. But sleep is not that way.
Christopher: I would argue that everything becomes easier when you've had a better night of sleep. We've got these topics, motivation, time management, energy levels, consistency, exercise, all of those become easier once you had a good night of sleep. Try making good food choices when you're surrounded by bad food and you've just had a night of terrible sleep. It's almost impossible. Surely, sleep has to become the priority.
Simon: Most of us are living in a chronic sleep deficit, of course. There's notion that you accumulate sleep loss and over time that builds up and that has having an adverse effect on your health. And so I often think about sleep deficits as a bit like aging. When you look in the mirror you don't look at how old you -- some people might but you don't really notice how old you look or whatever.
But if you look at a picture of yourself five years ago, you do. You notice it. It's because it creeps up on you. It's because you get so used to living in that state that you forget what it feels like to have great sleep. And unfortunately, with sleep deficits, that's the case. Just having one ten-hour night sleep after having five or six hours will make you feel better in the short term but it's not eliminating your chronic sleep deficit because we know the health effects of not getting enough sleep or sleep insufficiency built up over time.
Until you can start to see the benefit of what it feels like to come out of sleep deficit and actually start to have a regular sleep, it can be transformational for some people. It's a part of our routine that many people struggle with, carving out time and protecting it just as they would other aspects of their life that they see is so critical.
Christopher: We've definitely worked with some clients that won't sleep because they can't sleep. It's really not fun to spend time in bed if you can't sleep. That's the most awful thing in the world. When we work with clients one on one we do some deep investigations as to why that might be the case. It could be as simple as inappropriate light exposure, as we talk about on the podcast before, not getting enough bright light during the day and then too much light in the evening.
It could be something metabolic. My own personal example was I woke up at 2:00 a.m. religiously and I was starved and hungry. I absolutely have to eat something in order to get back to sleep. Now, that seems unthinkable. Like I just can't imagine getting up in the middle of the night to eat anything. I was not hungry at that time.
Simon: Lesley is the case. Your hunger will wake yourself up out of sleep because she has a little pack of Medjool dates next to her bedside and the moment she has that she is straight back to sleep. Most people can relate to her some time in their life, staring at the ceiling trying to get to sleep. It feels miserable and it doesn't feel good and then a whole host of sleep therapists, outside of sleep hygiene, just making sure temperature, darkness and blue light exposure and all the things that we know.
But many people try all of those things and still struggle. So, underlying biology, chronic elevated cortisol, adrenaline, stress response is going to contribute to poor sleep. Depression as well. As we know, one of the symptoms of people who have undiagnosed depression is that they wake up early out of sleep. It's not just sort of they have frequent periods of wakefulness during their sleep or they're sleeping late and see how long it takes them to finally nod off is a problem, but just waking up consistently at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. and not being able to get back to sleep is one of symptoms of depression.
There is no doubt underlying psychobiology behind it as well and sort of trying to treat or diagnose sleep problems just as you would any other biological problem or disease or illness. It's exactly the same with sleep.
Christopher: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I feel like my job hasn't really changed since I was an electronics engineer. I used to spend a lot of time trying to find faults in circuit boards and then I became a software engineer and I found I spent a lot of time trying to find faults in software. We call that debugging. Now, with humans, I do much the same work and it's a biological system rather than an electronic one. I really don't see that there's a difference in the methodology for finding those faults.
If any of the things that we're talking about are resonating with you then please feel free to come to the forum, forum.nourishbalancethrive.com. As a Patreon, you have access to that forum. Tell us about your experiences. Tell us about the things that you're struggling with and sometimes you'll find some solutions if you search on the forum. Some of these things have already been discussed before and you might find a quick win there.
But if not, then please do post and we'll do our best to get you a proper answer to your question. Simon, you talked about defining the value of an activity and is this a hell, yes or is this a no, to use Derek Sivers' terms?
How would you go about doing that as a practical concern? I had one idea while you were talking about that. Would I want to outsource this? Would it be helpful for me to sit down with my wife and show her what I'm spending my time on? And maybe we need to double blind it. I'm going to write a number, a priority next to the time of this activity and then maybe she should do this -- Really, it's like speaking off the cuff here, but do you have any practical tools that you use when you're working with clients that could help them?
Simon: Yes. So, time-use diaries or trying to take a little bit of a systematic view of how we spend our time are incredibly important partly because the clichéd message of self monitoring is the cornerstone of behavior change.
Christopher: It's only clichéd in your world. No one else says that. Yeah, exactly. I definitely use that term since I heard it from you but I don't think I've heard it anywhere else.
Simon: It's the principle 101 of behavior change, is be aware of what the problem is.
Christopher: Right. Track your time.
Simon: Track your time. Because our own brains cannot be relied upon to record, certainly retrospectively record how we spend our time because of a whole host of other cognitive biases that relate specifically to time like telescoping and hindsight bias and all these other wonderful acrobatics that we do that convince us that we've done one thing and we'd actually done another.
So, we're not very good at describing how we've spent our time. Trying to keep a time-use diary is really helpful. That's one of the things when you try and help people with job analysis or task analysis is like how long should this take or will it take. People who are doing it, you do that. You find out every minute of my day, I'm going to record what I'm doing. And then you start to look at the landscape or the cadence of your own life.
You find that, well, much of there, so much efficiency in there, there's so much -- There might be whole blocks where you find just because of what we know about human attention and concentration, is that expecting to spend very focused time on something that's cognitively or mentally demanding and you're having uninterrupted time to do that for periods longer than 20 minutes. We know it's really difficult. And so if you try and focus on something that's cognitively demanding for long periods on end you'll find that your brain is craving a little time out. And so that you'll find go into the water fountain or going to the -- you're just wandering around or checking into old Facebook or you're finding yourself doing this. You can sort of rather than let those things bubble up to the surface, you can engineer them.
For example, one of the great time management strategies particularly for periods where you have to spend a lot of time focus is only really ever let yourself do that for 20 minutes at a time before you give yourself a two-minute break. Your time in the long term will be far more efficient than slugging away for 90 minutes or two hours and really all of that only half an hour is really valuable. It's really difficult to do. But yet time-use diaries are really helpful. And technology can help that now. There are apps to help you to do that.
Christopher: That was going to be my question. Do you think there's any chances of us reporting that accurately? It's the same problem with our favorite topic, nutritional epidemiology, where people are just not accurately reporting what they're eating. And so they tend to under report on the things they think they shouldn't be eating and over report on the things that they think they should.
What you think about whether or not you should be eating that then becomes quite difficult to tease out what the hell just happened. I wonder if I was to do that, I would probably under report the amount of time that I spend chatting to you guys on Slack. Slack has become my new Facebook. Maybe prior to that, it was Slashdot. I'm going to show my age now as a computer programmer. It used to be Slashdot and then reddit.com is another one.
Although these Instagram, everybody knows, all these platforms that are really quite -- they're designed to be addictive. Am I just going to under report the things that I think I shouldn't be doing and then over report the things that I should be doing?
Simon: Absolutely, you will.
Christopher: How do I stop that from happening?
Simon: Well, the first is to -- I think a lot of people are reluctant to do time-use. One, it takes time to do that. But also--
Christopher: Which is the one thing you don't have.
Simon: The one thing you don't have. It's also the implications of what you're going to find out because most people are concerned you're going to find out that I dick about. That's what people's concern. They fear they're going to be found to be inefficient, they're going to be time wasting, and no one likes to feel as though they are not using their time properly particularly if this is the impetus or this is coming from an employer or someone who is having some sort of hierarchy or oversight about how you spend your time.
People are really -- they conceal, they deceive. Not maliciously but subconsciously they do this. Many of these cognitive biases might contribute to that. But once you start to look -- if you look at any of the time management or any productivity books, like David Allen is a great example, The Art of Stress Free Productivity, time-use studies in general whether it's of exercise, of diet, of work habits, never really what you want to do is to sample days but sort of random days across a period, a month or a week, rather than three consecutive days or so.
The reason for that is that, one, the act of recording what you're doing changes what you're doing. There's reactivity bias. That's the first problem. And then also when you start to -- if you're going to keep a time-use diary for this week, I'm going to do Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday, Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday might not really be typical not just within that week but in the context of this month because I'm just in this part of the season or this part of tax preparation part of my year or stuff is going on that might not be typical.
And this just comes for diet recall, activity recall. The strength of the method is when tell me what you're doing right now. I'm going to ask you that question very, very regularly and I'm going to build up a distribution of cases of what you're doing right now and that represents overall what you might do. And this is behind--
Christopher: Can you get software to do that?
Simon: You can. In fact, the measure itself or the methodological strategy for that is called ecological momentary assessment, EMA. What are you doing -- Stop right now. What are you doing just as the beep came in? Whether it's a software app or something you just describe it. And you might think on the face of it that asking me what I'm doing up and doing over the last minute and you don't ask me again until tomorrow morning and then you don't ask me again.
But if I do this hundred times, a thousand times across six months, the dash or the distribution of those instances, those episodes actually start to look like what it is, how you spend your time. It seems to be -- because most people can tell you with pretty good accuracy what I was doing at the moment you asked me or just before but they're not very good at saying, "Okay, what did you have for lunch last Tuesday?"
Christopher: [0:36:51] [Indiscernible].
Simon: Yeah. And that's not just because people have poor memories because the way that people consume food doesn't lend itself to estimating portion size or macronutrient composition. It's because if I'm looking a lasagna on my plate I'm trying to estimate how many portions of cheese. I can't tell you that because it's a made food. It's not like I've got a portion of fist size of chicken and vegetable. My plate is not partitioned in that way to lend itself to easily estimating that.
We can get into the science of dietary recall ad nauseam, I guess, but I think technology certainly helps us solve some of those problems and this is certainly the case for time management.
Christopher: So, what do you do then if you identify some activities that you would rather not be doing? I'll give you a personal example. I think I spend a lot of time multitasking, too many tabs on the dance floor. My browser's got too many tabs. I'll tell you who's even worse than me than this? It's Tommy.
Simon: I've seen his desktop. It's a window to his soul.
Christopher: You've never seen anything like it. I don't know how his Mac keeps running with all those tabs open. I write code and one of the things I find myself doing is ALT Tab. Alt-Tab, Alt-Tab, back to Slack, notification, back to Slack, back to the thing, and so there's this overhead, I think, of context switching. It's not like I'm really doing two things at once. I'm like, to use another computer analogy, there's a stack and I save everything that's currently on the stack into memory and then I switch thread into another context and then I start -- pull everything out of memory back on to the stack and off I go again and then I'll stop. Ten seconds later, put everything back on. And so it goes on. There's this overhead of context switching. That's a computer analogy. I think it's pretty fair for what's going on in people's heads.
Simon: It's very consistent with the attentional research literature is that multitasking, there's really no such thing in brain world as multitasking. That's just not simply how we process cues and makes sense of information. What we are doing, people think that we are very good at multitasking. There are already -- What they're really demonstrating is very good attentional flexibility. They're switching tasks very, very quickly and effortlessly.
And so what we can do is we can control the triggers for that attentional switching. If you're not very good at controlling those triggers you have a very cluttered desktop or you've got lots of tabs open then it is really like little screaming voices saying, "Pay attention to me, pay attention to me." One of the really hallmarks of stress free productivity in David Allen's parlance is to reduce the complexity of that attentional environment that you have.
It's not just that having a clean desktop that helps. It's like, okay, I'm going to turn off my phone or log out of my email if I'm trying to do this. And, obviously, these app notifications and the way that software grabs our attention when it wants us to pay attention is really preying on the fact that we are very sensitive to triggers in our environment to switch attention. And that's not really how we become productive.
Christopher: Do you have any apps or tools or utilities that you like to de-clutter the desktop? I've been using Chrome extension called OneTab that's pretty fantastic.
It's a button that sits in the Chrome tool bar and you press it and it collapses all of the tabs down to nothing. They're all gone. Apart from the tabs that you've pinned which I keep my calendar open, I think. Maybe I shouldn't even be doing that. And then it creates one tab with a webpage with links to all of the tabs that you had open so you don't need to see that when you got each tab and it's three pixels wide.
Simon: If what you're doing requires that you're constantly switching between all those tabs and, yes, all you're doing is simplifying your stimulus environment in Psych terms. But whether you actually need to be doing that is another thing. So, if you were to do a task analysis of how you navigate around your computer and how often you're going into tabs that you've got open once you open them and you're going revisiting them, you'll probably find that you're not doing that nearly as much as you think you are.
In other words, you've got things available to you or ready to be used or accessed when you actually don't need them to be. This is all very specific to what it is you're trying to accomplish.
Christopher: Let's talk about Inbox Zero. It's something that I've adopted recently. I think that can be really helpful. It falls into this general category of batching things. it makes sense, I think, to batch things and email is one of them. I'll look at email probably later on in the day actually when -- so it's not the thing that I'm going to deplete my willpower with first thing in the morning. I'm going to spend that if I've got anything left over.
And sometimes I don't check my email. Some days I don't check it because I've run out of willpower that day and I don't even see my inbox. But when I do I work through it and every time I open an email I'm going to do something with it. I'm either going to reply to it, I'm going to defer it or I'm just going to--
Simon: Delete it?
Christopher: Delete it. And there's a lot of just deleting. Actually, Google Inbox now does -- it's not Gmail. It's inbox.google.com, now has I think -- it's been a while. Maybe I've never even directly seen Dave Allen's stuff. I think it must implement all of the things that he talks about because it has the button.
Simon: Defer-delete is a Dave Allen.
Christopher: Yeah, defer, delete. So, the deferral thing I think is really important. Rather than letting this email sit in my inbox for another week because I need it next week, the idea is you just defer it until then. So, Google Inbox actually has the -- they call it snoozing. They don't call it deferring. They call it snoozing. You just press the button and then you set a calendar reminder for when you want to be reminded about this. Rather than it sitting in your Inbox you can just defer it, delete it, respond to it. And then quite quickly you get to the point where there's literally nothing in your Inbox which is super cool. Did I miss anything there? Was there anything?
Simon: No. I think the other piece, certainly coming back to the David Allen stuff, is if you're able to reply to this with information that's, totally in the context of email, within two minutes then you always action it there and then. Anything that you can reply within two minutes you do so. And if you can't, then you're deciding to defer [0:43:02] [Indiscernible].
Christopher: Right, right, right.
Simon: And some of us, we don't -- it's a perpetual frustration of people on the receiving end of emails, you've sent a message and you just want -- Well did they get it? Are they replying? I haven't heard from them. A lot of people have the tendency to reply to emails only when they think they've got the complete information that's being requested of them.
One of the things of email tennis, as we know, is that, just to break this stuff in small chunks, is to say, well, what's the smallest minimal task I can do to make progress with this task but not actually having to feel as though I have to reply once I've got everything? It's to say, "Thanks, I've got your message. We'll reply soon." Even if that's [0:43:45] [Indiscernible] the moment I get something that's in the defer box, I'm going to -- this is what inbox does now automatically, is that you can set a notification for yourself about when you're going to reply to it and then you put it into an archive folder or what have you.
You're using strategies to triage importance and urgency for how you react to them. It's really quite effective. And then, of course, if you've heard of email suicide which is another term--
Christopher: I like the sound of this.
Simon: Yeah. This notion that when people become overwhelmed by the size of their inbox because they've got a whole host of -- There are Instagram threads now that are ridiculing a screen capture of someone in their computer and there's how many messages they have in their inbox. Lesley has 27,000 or something like that.
Email suicide is periodically deleting every single email in your Inbox whether you've read it, replied to it, whether it's urgent or not. I'm not advocating. I'm just saying this is an example of a strategy. The logic is not one of negligence and they're not replying. It's just that much of the email traffic that we send, like meetings that we have are completely unnecessary or we're just being cc'ed in as an FYI and they don't require our attention.
They clog up our attentional resources. They're clogging up literally our Inbox. And so email suicide is that periodically, what if you just deleted everything in your Inbox?
Christopher: What's the worst that could happen?
Simon: What's the worst that could -- But if anything is so critical and we haven't had a reply for them, they'll email you again. And it's not like shoving the burden back onto them but it can often free people from that how do I get out from under this or how do I start again or de-clutter? I've always find it quite humorous, this email suicide, where I'm just clearing out my Inbox. How do I get to Inbox Zero easily? Just highlight everything and delete it. I don't think I ever have the guts to actually do it.
Christopher: I've worked with a client recently that did it and they actually started a new Gmail account so they just set an auto responder saying, "Hey, I've changed my Gmail." And, of course, like you say, anybody who's got something urgent is going to see that auto response and then email the new account and then everything else was just gone. It's gone forever. How great would that feel?
This general principle of batching, I think, is really important. It also applies to cooking. Especially if you're single or maybe there's just two of you, it doesn't make much sense to start cooking from scratch every time you have a meal. I mean, we did it last night. You opened the fridge and like, "What the hell am I going to do with all that?" There's not really a lot of processed ready to eat food in the fridge of all the people to be listening to the NBT podcast. And so, I mean, batching stuff, spend some time on a Sunday if you've got it cooking food so that it's all just ready for you when you need it during the week. I think it's a really great hack as well.
Simon: Yeah, absolutely. Don't use the word hack.
Christopher: Sorry. What's wrong with it? Now you said it, what's wrong with the word hack?
Simon: I think it's sort of -- when we talk about hacking mindset biology, what actually is a hack? It's somehow sort of a backdoor or a cheat, is it right?
Christopher: We have totally different terminologies. In computer science, hacking is joyful and creative solving of problems and understanding complex systems. It's not -- Yeah, there's this kind of derogatory term, hacker. Really what you mean is like a script kiddie or a cracker would be perhaps a more appropriate term, somebody that's trying to hack into a system. They're not really trying to hack into a system. They're trying to crack a system. Sorry.
Simon: Batch cooking is, obviously, you're taking -- we get decision fatigue. We talk about this. In psychology we talk about decision fatigue a lot. It drains willpower or, in psych terms, ego depletion. Every time we have to make a decision or contemplate alternatives and come out with a solution it's draining in brain world and certainly socially and time wise. Any chance that we can reduce decisions that we make is going to help.
One of the decisions that most of us find frustrating is what am I going to eat tonight? And if you've got children, there's a multiplying factor there. What am I going to feed my children? Because I might be willing to eat this tonight but I can't feed my children that. I'm having to make -- and if you've got different food preferences in the house.
One of the ways that you reduce decision fatigue throughout the week of what you eat is you try and front load all that, just as you said, into a time where you do have more time, it might be the weekend, where you devote an hour or two hours to saying, okay, I'm going to plan out -- You might not be able to do it for every meal but you might be able to do it for the evening meals for three days next week.
And if they're tied to those that are practically stressful for you because you are slightly late from work or there's a PTA meeting and there's going to be a time crunch or there's practices for your kid's sports or so on so you try and think ahead of time and you prepare the food, you freeze it, you make everything, you make more of everything so it's like catering industrial scale cooking. It's a pain at a time but it reduces that decision fatigue throughout the day. What is the consequence of that? Guess what? It's one less check that you've been having to write from the part of your brain that is controlling willpower.
Christopher: That's the crucial thing to understand. I'm not sure I got this straight away. It's not just the hard things that deplete willpower. It's every time you make a decision.
Simon: Every time you make a decision. And this could be something as simple as you're in the shower and do I condition my hair after washing it? Maybe it does not apply to you, Chris. It's these little trivial decisions that we make. Should I do that or should I not? Any time we do that it comes at a cost and it comes at a metabolic cost as well because the thirstiest organ in the body is the brain metabolically speaking.
And willpower and the parts of our brain that is regulating impulse control and some of those things are all -- they come at a really big cost. We can reduce that by front loading or trying to reduce those decisions or creating habits. That's really where the benefit of habit and routine and automating things that we do in our daily life, that's really one of the biggest advantages, is that it doesn't tax the part of our brain that requires willpower.
Christopher: And you reminded me that that's something else we do in our household, is that we don't have kid's food. We've got two kids and they eat exactly the same food as us. Bower is six months old and he's just starting to show an interest in food. In fact, he's a really hungry bird compared to Ivy. And he's eating the same things that we sit down to have breakfast together and he's having egg yolk and avocado and US Wellness meats and that's what we're having. He's just not having the egg white. It just makes everything so much easier when you're not trying to prepare different food for different people. I have a ton of dietary restrictions and my wife is gracious enough to adhere to those even though she doesn't really need to. That's just so helpful.
Simon: And it's the same with Lesley and I. She has a very restrictive diet. I don't but I am by association, and it's easier to do that. I get sort of the health benefits accordingly.
Christopher: How do you get by in though? It's that in my opinion a can of worms there? Okay, so, maybe you decided to make some choices and your partner say or somebody else in your household is not bought into those ideas and they're resistant to them, what do you do then? I guess you just have to live with it.
Simon: This is now resolving ambivalence, the motivation part. I mean, the goal of all -- let's not try and make out that all food preparation and eating and preferences has to be this ongoing continued negotiation. We're all creatures of habit. People, when you're forced to do things that are out of your habit or your routine, people will kick and scream again because it's suddenly bringing something that was an automatic control, automatic oversight into our conscious mind.
"Hang on, I don't use to get this. I don't like the taste of this." Most people back down. If they don't like confrontation, they back down from having conflict and so you end up defaulting to giving people what they want again. But this is now back to setting boundaries. We know that food choices are learned. Obviously, there are some genetic components and there might be even some pre-natal exposures that affect food preferences and so on but they are predominantly learned.
There are some things that are changing with some of our senses changing over time so our tolerances for bitter foods have some changes but they're predominantly learned. And families that seem to have more of harmonious, they'll eat whatever we're eating. The nine-year-old child who can eat garlic and not really be bothered by it. These are learned responses for the most part because that's all they've been exposed to or because, in the spirit of what we call paradoxical intention therapy, a fancy word of saying if you do what you don't like for long enough you get used to it. So, yeah, that's probably the rationale behind it.
Christopher: Okay. I think this is a good place to wrap up this episode. You gave me a couple of ideas for accountability challenges. Maybe we should do a week of time tracking. Maybe a week is too long. Maybe we should decide that on the forum and then perhaps we should do an accountability challenge where people identify something in their life that they can say goodbye to. This is the equivalent of going through your wardrobe and identifying a garment that actually you haven't worn this.
Simon: You've never worn. Right, right.
Christopher: Like this needs to go. And so saying no to that thing.
Simon: Just one day of time tracking. And if we can find an app that everyone [0:53:27] [Indiscernible] everyone sort of agrees to help with. Because otherwise, keeping a paper and pencil diary is fairly arduous, can help. I think that will be quite -- you'll get insights from that. I've been involved in a number of research studies that have done based on time-use, EMA for lots of different behaviors.
The insights that you get and when you plot patterns and your trends in your own time are quite remarkable to the point where you think I would never have guessed that I spent my time doing this or that or I always do this in the same order. And with some really cool statistical modeling now, time series analysis, that kind of thing, you can start to get some really remarkable insights. You have no intervention other than to measure and monitor.
Christopher: Wow. Yeah, let's do it. Let's take it on to the forum, forum.nourishbalancethrive.com. Let's get it going. Let's do some time tracking. Thank you.
[0:55:00] End of Audio