The Anatomy of Equanimity

version 0.9.4 — 2024-01-05 — orbital mechanics

I’m writing this live and in the open, so sections may appear, disappear, move, change drastically, or be stupid. Your impressions and suggestions are welcome —

Building durable systems is, I believe, the only reliable way to make progress on yourself and your life.

They tried to convince me of this in grade school, but it didn’t work. Someone recognized the power of planning and habits. They thought, “We need to make sure kids get this! We’ll empower an entire generation to reach their true potential!” (I spent a long time at war with the word potential, urgh.) So they rolled the TV into the classroom on a big cart in early-’90s fashion. On it they played some tape about how if we plan well and develop good habits then we can… eat healthy and get good grades, probably? Some message that I immediately forgot because it was irrelevant to my juvenile psyche.

What they should have said was, “Every person you think is cool got that way by regularly doing things that made them a better person. Even when they didn’t feel like it in the moment. Including Geddy Lee.”

But since they didn’t say that, and no other message about how to be an effective person got through to me either, I was a pretty useless human for the remainder of my adolescence. In fact, it took until I was 22 years old and working at a productivity app company to realize that perhaps I ought to have a systematic way of deciding what to do, and making myself do it.

Here’s a system of organizing a human life that works for me.

This system has its roots in a decade and a half of pious Getting Things Done practice — I read and reread the book, attended the seminar, presented at the conference, got the coaching, designed the app, met the David. GTD is still a fine place to start, and you can get the substance of it in 15 minutes! I gradually mutated my own system from that starting point and a pantheon of other inspirations, until the day came that I realized I didn’t practice GTD anymore, but something new. Like the Ship of Theseus, replaced part by part until nothing of the original remained.

The values that this system optimizes for are meaning and fulfillment. Meaning is the sense that there is something worth living for. And fulfillment is the sense that you are, more or less, doing it. You’ll notice that I don’t talk a lot about happiness or success. Those are just fine, but they tend to come as side effects of the more fundamental meaning and fulfillment.

This guide is intentionally more of a pamphlet than a book. So many good ideas are imprisoned by the insistence that anything worth learning must be delivered in the form of a marketable text smeared across several hundred pages, so that it’s economical to print and ship around and put on store shelves at a certain price point. I once had to (gently) inflate my own writing to fill such a book, and I’d like to avoid doing so again.

Also, this is not a business empire — the advice has no proprietary app to subscribe to, no special stationery to buy, no certified consultants, no executive membership plan. I just want you to have an easier time of finding your way!

This is a modular, hackable meta-system that you are encouraged to make your own.

Part of what makes a system “durable” is a willingness to evolve. (The other part is independence from technology.) It’s tempting to try to find the perfect system that will keep you on track for the rest of your life. But you can’t. You, your situation, and the world will change enough even over the next ten days that any supposedly perfect system is likely to fray. Thus this is in fact a meta-system — a system for thinking about, choosing, and evolving systems. You should expect to be adjusting, repairing, and renovating how you think about accomplishing things as long as you continue to care about accomplishing things.

Most of the advice is presented in the form of modular subsystems that do speak to each other, but that can be modified, separated, swapped out, or otherwise hacked. As you read this guide, by all means take the pieces you like, discard the rest, and evolve your own system over the course of the rest of your life like a proper thoughtful human. Please do publish your own subsystems and house rules!

Foundation — Have compassion for your brain.

Anyone you can think of who seems to really have it together probably isn’t mentally superior. They don’t have any special unattainable willpower, intelligence, or memory. More likely, they’ve put systems in place that compensate for the humble human brain we all have as our starting platform. A brain that’s supported by systems can focus on what it’s good at, while the systems handle the rest. Like it’s cheerfully riding in a little vehicle that protects it from the dangers of the world, allowing it to confidently do its thing.

We modern humans live in cities, work at companies, and socialize on the internet, none of which was a thing in the world that life evolved over billions of years to handle. The little bugs and outdated survival programs in your brain — cognitive biases — make it hard to see clearly and succeed in this world our species has just lately started building. We’re set up with a few core systems for low-level functions like sensing, moving around, emoting, talking, imagining what others are thinking, and reproducing. Most of what we accomplish is done by hacks upon hacks upon that evolved foundation. Sure, we can build an astonishingly sophisticated vehicle around it for navigating this weird modern world, but only ever imperfectly and intermittently. The vehicle is often unreliable and fragile; it often veers erratically or sheds rusty crumbs.

Your precious, lovable, oblivious mind comprises a crowd of simplistic modules competing for a chance to shove thoughts and feelings into your stream of attention and trick you into thinking that they define you! Your consciousness, adorably, thinks it’s actually in charge, but free will is probably fake! The idea of the self is probably also fake! We have it better than nearly every human who ever lived, but we feel anxious, even doomed. It’s all a bit of a mess. Trying to force yourself to do useful things is futile and frustrating, and you pretty much can’t get anywhere that way. You may sometimes feel like a failure if you try, even though it’s not your fault that you weren’t evolved for this stuff.

But the good news is that there are ways to be compassionate to your brain, to take better care of it. You can recognize that what you ask of it depends on layers and layers of precarious hacks, and acknowledge the miracle that any of it works at all. You can carefully craft a trusty vehicle, to carry you safely through the difficulties of modern life. You can armor it, to allow your vulnerable self to survive even in indifferent or even hostile environments. You can gently steer it, to make gradual, deliberate progress over time.

Who are you?

You are many. You probably feel like you’re a single continuous being, experiencing a contiguous expanse of time starting from your birth and ambling in procession off into the future. Really though, you’re not the same person every day, or even every moment. You’re more like a series of individual selves experiencing a series of moments, each self somewhat like the others but gradually shifting, evolving in complex patterns, until you’re hardly recognizable anymore. It’s hard to get all of these instances of you to cooperate. Perhaps your yesterday-evening self felt motivated and focused, and decided to commit to a grand project. Your today self, though, might not be quite on board. How are these two even the same person?

The many instances of you are bound together by patterns. Habits are things you do automatically. Attitudes are things you think automatically. These patterns define your personality, making you you. The things you do may start out as conscious decisions, but they’re not really incorporated into you until they’re subconscious. The big idea of this system is to adopt good patterns, to develop durable systems, to consciously design the bigger thematic self that encompasses those momentary snapshot selves. Any action shorter-term than a habit can be rounded down to doing nothing. Any notion shorter-term than an attitude is just a passing thought.

Think in strata — defaults / actions / projects & new habits / shifts / cadence.

You can, and probably already sometimes do, think about your life on various time scales: the past couple of years, last month, right this minute, today, the next few weeks, the next year or so, &c. You can look at these different time scales as strata, layered one on top of the other, forming the substance of a life. Your brain is myopic, though, and tends to get stuck in the moment or to worry about something in the near future. So left on its own, it just flaps about helplessly at the lowest strata without striving toward anything bigger. (Maybe right now it would be good to just scroll the internet until four in the morning?… Hey, let’s spend all our energy fretting about whether our boss is upset with us… Hmm, maybe if we pursue enough disjointed side projects, unspecified good things will happen to us in the future?… Oh no, this long-term thing crept up on us and became a right now thing!) You can counterbalance this tendency with regular, deliberate check-ins at each stratum.

The strata of this system are like so, from bottom to top:

  • A default is an activity you fall back on in moments when you can’t — or don’t want to — really decide what to do. Texting a friend while standing in line; reading an article while feeding a baby; daydreaming between tasks; watching videos while winding down before bed.

  • An action is some concrete thing to get done in order to work toward an outcome. It tends to be on the scale of a minute to a few hours. Write 300 words on your short story; drop off a form at school; invite a friend on a road trip; bake muffins for a brunch.

  • A project is a concrete outcome comprised of actions. It tends to be on the scale of days or weeks. Finish a draft of your short story; get accepted to a school program; take a road trip; hold a brunch with friends.

  • A new habit is something you’re trying to establish as a regular part of your life. It’s something you do every day or so, and that may take weeks or months before you don’t need to consciously track it anymore. Meditate for 20 minutes; check in on a friend who might appreciate your attention; find something in the house you can get rid of; practice the drums.

  • A shift is a bigger change that you hope to complete in the foreseeable future, perhaps on the scale of a month to a couple of years. Something that leaves a more permanent imprint on who you are, in substance or in spirit. Write a book; find and land a new job; learn to manage time effectively; pass a standardized test; become a more gracious person by one notch. (The name used to be “quest”, meant to evoke a noble King Arthur or Journey to the West sort of quest, not a banal online video game sort of quest. Now it’s “shift” as a direct metaphor to orbital shifts; see “Orbital Mechanics of the Heart” in the next section.)

  • The cadence is a vision of a perfect moment that resolves the efforts leading up to it, representing the meaning and fulfillment you intend to cultivate in your life. One is the appropriate number to have, as it may take decades, or a lifetime, to realize. Everything on the lower strata feeds into it. This stratum is special and will get the explanation it deserves later in this text.

Examine what you get out of your actions. Then you can confirm that you’re doing them for good reasons. “Feeling like it in the moment” is not a great reason to do something, especially if it’s something useless that you’ll regret. “Wanting to have done it” is not a great reason to do something either; if you don’t get anything out of reading Melville apart from being able to say that you read Melville, it’s not contributing to anything bigger. We have such limited time in this universe to do things, we might as well spend it on things of value. So how do you know what’s of value?

Do things that feed into something bigger. If you imagine yourself as a character in a story, individual choices and experiences can seem to fit into a greater story arc. When you make a decision, take a moment to think about how it supports your aims on the higher strata. Get used to doing this with everything, at every level. Thinking stratum by stratum, you can honestly connect even what you decide to eat in the morning to your ultimate goals in life. Maybe you choose a thing of hippie yogurt because it’ll give you the healthy energy you need for a big meeting, which is important to success on a work project, which supports your career aspiration quest, &c. Maybe you indulge in a croque madame because it came recommended by an old friend at your celebratory lunch together, which supports your current quest of cultivating your closest friendships, &c. Either choice can be fine, as long as your reasoning is genuine and the support of the higher strata is real. If you can’t honestly say how something you’re doing feeds into the higher levels, that might be a clue that you should jettison it in favor of something that does.

Perhaps stop doing some of the things that you enjoy. That was a sad sentence to write. But if you can only do so much, you might as well intentionally choose what will be left undone. Upon seriously considering your pastimes, you may find dead ends that are enjoyable but that do not help you achieve anything bigger. When you evaluate an activity you’re spending significant time on, don’t just come up with a rationalization for why it has value — like “it helps me relax” — almost anything can be justified that way. Instead figure out if it’s categorically of more value than what you could be doing otherwise. A pursuit that’s fun and that leads somewhere meaningful is better than one that’s just fun. Building elaborate model robots would bring me satisfaction and relaxation, which seems to make it a fine hobby. But practicing music would bring me at least an equal amount of those benefits, while also supporting a number of my music-related higher-level quests, and in turn my cadence, at the highest level! As cool as the robots are, I can’t tell my ideal self a convincing story about how they’ll help me achieve anything grander than a shelf of completed models. So I’ve set them aside. (For somebody else, the models may make more sense, depending on their aims!)

Interlude i — Orbital Mechanics of the Heart

Since starting to write this document I was ambivalent about the word “quest”, which I’ve used to label goals that take weeks to a year to complete, and which I think people should only have a handful of at a time. It gets the idea across of an extended effort to change something about your life, especially if you’re familiar with fantasy tropes. But I’ve never been entirely happy with how gamelike it feels, especially as the word “quest” is increasingly attached to banal tasks like “gather 12 hurgromblin pelts” in video games.

But since rereading Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, and discovering that it’s almost as significant to me as his Anathem, I’ve been thinking about such things in terms of orbital mechanics. “Quest” suggests going to some dungeon or another; acquiring or slaying something; and returning home to some stronghold. I like that it captures the idea that the effort has an end, and that things should be meaningfully different afterwards. But I think an even better metaphor may be orbital maneuvers:

  • Start out in a stable state that you want to exit
  • Expend some energy, often a surprisingly large amount
  • Expend that energy gradually or all in one powerful burn, but never any faster than the governing laws allow
  • Expect to feel uncomfortable as you accelerate between the two stable states
  • Perhaps encounter some unexpected obstacles along the way that require adjustments or even canceling the whole maneuver
  • Perhaps overshoot or otherwise realize you need to make further adjustments
  • Reach the new stable state
  • Stop expending energy beyond the small amount needed to maintain it against decay
  • Enjoy your new orbit

This, I think, much better captures what it feels like to make the sort of change in one’s life that I consider central to my own system. What I thought of as my “Work quest” is actually a transfer to a higher altitude from last year’s stable state to a new stable state that makes sense in context of changes in our organization and in my role. “Be the Parent” quest is a plane change. “Be well” is a correction of rotation. And “Live in Tokyo” is actually a long journey from a low geosynchronous orbit through a Lagrange point gateway to orbiting a completely different body.

Incantation 1 — What if you just didn’t?

Adapted from the newsletter “Microcosmographia”.

There are a few commonsense exhortations that I have found that function like magic incantations, cutting through unhelpful thought patterns and wresting me back into a reasonable state of mind. I’d like to write about three of them in turn:

  • What if you just didn’t?
  • So what are you going to do about it?
  • Okay, compared to what?

The first comes from the article “How To Talk To Girls On Twitter Without Coming Off Like A Creepy Rando”, now a venerable six and a half years old. For whatever reason, this line immediately embedded itself in my mind like an ancient proverb. What if you just didn’t? Would you die?

I don’t think I was quite the target audience for that article, as someone not really in the habit of approaching strangers of any gender in any context, even on Twitter. But the words are electric with what seems like a generalizable potency. How seriously do we consider the option of just… _not doing something?_ Especially if it’s so easy to do, and has no obvious, immediate downside?

Not only “What if you didn’t @ strangers on Twitter”, but what if you didn’t say anything on Twitter at all? What if you didn’t look at Twitter either? What if you didn’t jump in to add your opinion to a conversation where it’s not strictly needed? What if you didn’t even feel the need to have an opinion, on things you’re not an expert about? What if you didn’t bring up the anecdote that makes you look cool, even when it’s tangentially relevant to the conversation? What if you didn’t honk your car horn at the inconsiderate BMW? What if you didn’t even try to bring justice to the neighbor who threw dog waste in someone else’s recycling bin? What if you were generally quieter, waited a little longer to consider whether your voice is truly needed, spent more of your time and attention cultivating your thoughts rather than announcing them?

Perhaps it’s funny that I’m writing this in an email that I had the presumption to put into your inbox. I think I’ve gone from:

  • Thinking that I need a mechanism to say stuff out loud to the world several times a day (Twitter)…
  • To emailing only when I had something worth writing several paragraphs about (Microcosmographia)…
  • To focusing on sharing only things that are worth putting in a book (Cadence), and reserving these emails for early drafts of book sections.

Everyday thoughts still need somewhere to go! But consider this newfangled outlet for them: private conversations with trusted friends! I certainly got into the seemingly common brane-mode of assuming that of course all conversations should be had in the open, with all strangers invited. Or at least that the purpose of private conversations was to generate fodder for tweets. The weirdly simple app Marco Polo has unlocked several friendships that were stuck in the “occasional texts and rare coffees” mode, pushing them into deeper and more meaningful territory than they ever reached even when I saw those people face-to-face regularly. Now nearly everything I would have been tempted to tweet about in 2015 becomes a personal video message to a specific friend who I know will appreciate it.

There’s also an application of “what if you just didn’t” to being just a bit more ascetic than you suspect you should. When you’re tempted to have some food or drink you think perhaps you shouldn’t, what if you just waited an extra twenty minutes? When you’re tempted to buy something, what if you just waited one more day? What if you waited one day per dollar that the thing costs? And indeed, what if you just didn’t? Would you die?

Interlude ii — Really think in strata

It seems to me that true maturity is the ability to see everything on multiple levels, to apply multiple complementary lenses, to believe multiple seemingly-dissonant truths at the same time. (Maybe the most influential article on my worldview in recent years is A bridge to meta-rationality vs. civilizational collapse, which argues this line of thinking in great depth.) Indeed, this Anatomy is essentially about seeing your life on multiple time scales, and getting the shorter-term instances of yourself to listen to the deeper, longer-term versions of yourself.

But there are endless situations where it’s beneficial or even essential to learn to see at multiple levels:

  • Expanding to consider more time scales beyond what this system covers: generations, lifetimes, centuries, millennia, decamillennia, and beyond. Do you aspire to have any impact on these scales? Is it comforting to know that almost nothing you can do will show up at these scales?
  • Understanding yourself as a layered phenomenon, from an individual human personality all the way down to the bare mathematical foundations of the universe.
  • Separating your understanding of a nebulous field like politics, business, or arts; into the strata of personal aesthetics, autobiography, ethics, culture, history, economic explanations, evolutionary explanations, physical explanations, et cetera. Developing ever richer and more complex opinions in each stratum, while letting yourself have a weak opinion, or no opinion, in the strata where you aren’t well-versed.

Interlude ii Interlude 1 — Zoom Out

Adapted from the newsletter “Microcosmographia”.

Do you know Bret Victor? He’s a universally well-regarded thinker on the topic of how humans work and learn with technology. A lot of smart people consider his Inventing on Principle to be one of the best talks of all time for people who, like, make things, or… do things. I got to see him speak about Up and Down the Ladder of Abstraction at Edward Tufte’s See Think Design Produce seminar. His newest talk is called The Humane Representation of Thought, and it is also very good. The subtitle of that talk is “A trail map for the 21st century”. There is a thread through most of Victor’s work, and the way he talks about it, that makes it pretty clear: his thinking and his work are focused at the century level. He wants to do work that’s important enough to be remembered in holo-textbooks of the 22nd century. Maybe if he does a good job, he could have a multi-century impact.

Andy Matuschak’s blog Square Signals is post after post about this sort of thinking, and the values you end up with if you focus on that scale. (Incidentally, I met Andy at that Tufte/Victor event.)

David Deutsch’s book The Beginning of Infinity argues for a worldview in which humans have started down a path of infinite progress, which you can participate in, probably at century scale.

Sheeeeeesh. Okay, so that is an intimidating boggle. If you aren’t making a dramatic difference to people’s lives four generations out, jeez, what are you even doing on this planet, right? But while I was dwelling on all that, I also happened to be absorbing some stuff on vastly larger scales. Numenera, a tabletop RPG set a billion years in the future, when Earth is utterly unrecognizable. Iain Banks’ Culture series of novels, which take place in a galactic civilization so advanced that the only real threat is boredom. And the excellent Wait But Why post about the Fermi Paradox, which takes very seriously the possibility of hyper-advanced civilizations in our own galaxy right now. (Group 2 Possibility 3 for life!)

At scales like that, century thinking seems… quaint? Self-important? How much of a role can you really believe you are playing in the fate of intelligent consciousness in this universe a dang billion years from now? So I started this exercise of trying to zoom out from where I’m sitting to look at as many time-scales as possible, and to think on what seems important to people at each one. This is superbly calming and meditative.

  • 1 hour: I am gonna eat this junk food and it will totally make me happy
  • 1 day: I am gonna be lazy and look at the internet instead of working on stuff; I probably deserve it?
  • 1 year: I am totally gonna be popular in the scene this year
  • 1 decade: I am gonna work hard at my career and reap the appropriate rewards
  • 1 generation: I am gonna raise my kid to be a good and successful person
  • 1 lifetime: I am gonna do things that I believe in, and sustain them for a long time, to make the world somewhat better while I am here
  • 100 years: I am gonna advance my field with new thinking and be remembered in holo-textbooks
  • 1000 years: I am gonna fundamentally change the way our species inhabits the universe by making some world-changing discovery — can any one person really do this, or is the discoverer just the person who happened to be working on it when a leap happened?
  • 10,000 years: Uh, is anyone gonna care in 10,000 years who did a thing? Does it matter which individual person first discovered how to control fire, grow crops, or write?
  • 100,000 years: Oh, hmm, is anyone even gonna be around? Will civilization as we know it even exist anymore? What can it even mean to think and act on this scale?
  • 1,000,000 years: Forget it, who cares
  • 1,000,000,000 years: YEAH NUMENERA

We disapprove when people only see the narrower views, and don’t plan for their own futures. And we admire the people who sacrifice those lower levels to tilt toward the higher levels. After writing it all out, it seemed like the natural center is at 1 lifetime. Which is I guess where I have been focused! I really want to use the understanding we have as a species to make tools for people to do meaningful things. But I am also careful about enjoying my own time here. I’m not so sure I want to sacrifice those more individual-human time scale goals in order to do the truly profound stuff at the longer-term levels. There’s a balance to be found.

Maybe someday I will get a chance to work directly on some 100-year stuff. But I know that things I have helped make, by doing my narrower-scale work, are being used by many people to do 100-year stuff. Which might be even better? Question marks??

Interlude ii Interlude 2 — Our Mathemindful Universe

Adapted from the newsletter “Microcosmographia”.

Do you meditate? I used to associate the practice with certain spiritual traditions or worldviews, and I got some moderately useful advice from books like The Zen Commandments and Waking Up. But I didn’t really develop a successful practice of my own until I read a certain theoretical cosmology book. Yeah!

Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark is unequivocally the most interesting book I have ever read. It’s a survey and synthesis of various multiverse theories — like, ideas about our universe not being the only one — and it posits the exhilaratingly wacky claim that these theories might all be true, all at the same time. It also puts forth the Level IV Multiverse (or “Ultimate Ensemble”) theory, which is the only satisfying explanation I have encountered for why anything exists at all and why we find ourselves in this particular existence. I won’t spoil it tho, in case you want the full experience of reading the history and arguments that build up to the theory.

In any case: the book introduced me to a weirdly enlightening stratified way of thinking about the world and my place in it. I found that if I focused on these ideas carefully, I experienced something like what I’d always heard about effective meditation! A feeling of vastly zoomed-out perspective, oneness with the universe, calm in spite of petty day-to-day stresses, &c. Here’s how it works for me. I start with the familiar and mundane, then contemplate each stratum one at a time, in this increasingly profound order:

  • I am fet. I have a personality and some worries and some interests and I have done a variety of things in the world. Tomorrow I have to give a presentation at work and I hope it goes fine.
  • I am a person. I can perceive and think and plan and have an impact on the world.
  • I am a human being. I come from a big messy gene pool of humans that branched all over the planet and somehow via an infinite number of accidents some of them survived and propagated themselves to now.
  • I am cells. Feeling like a unified being is fine but in a very real way I’m just a colossal colony of trillions of cells that replicated into this shape and that follow these behavior patterns because it’s a weirdly effective survival strategy.
  • I am atoms. Sure, cells are a thing but they’re not really that smart; they’re really just clumps of molecules and atoms obeying the laws of chemistry.
  • I am a four-dimensional braid pattern. It feels like I’m moving through time but that’s just a convenient way of perceiving things; it’s just as valid to see everything as still and time-free, stretched out into a fourth dimension according to very ordinary laws.
  • I am math. Ultimately the shapes of these four-dimensional patterns is pure mathematics, a coherent and internally consistent system just sitting there being itself and processing information.
  • “Consciousness is the way information feels when being processed in certain complex ways.”

BONUS ROUND: If any of the multiverses are real, then there are certainly an infinite number of instances of you. Instances who are in precisely the same situation as you, identical in every way; instances who made every other conceivable choice, and instances who lived in every other conceivable circumstance. You can’t literally have a conversation with them, of course, but it’s oddly comforting to think that they are out there, living their alternate realities, thinking about you too.

The cadence is an ideal moment that you’d like to realize someday.

Okay, so the whole system is named after this thing, and everything you do is supposed to build up to it. So what is it? Cadence is music terminology for a chord progression that cathartically resolves a section of music. Jazz, for instance, has a particularly satisfying sort of cadence called a turnaround, that reflects on all the wonder that just transpired while carrying you back home. It’s a moment that makes worthwhile all the efforts that led up to it, and reassures you that it all fits into a bigger plot.

In this system, then, the cadence is a similarly all-satisfying moment you intend to live, somewhere in the foggy future. This one ideal moment should encapsulate all of the depth of meaning and fulfillment that you hope to realize over the next five, ten, twenty years, or even longer. Choosing your cadence is pretty dang important.

A truly ideal moment requires a lot of supporting pieces to be carefully put into place. Designing decades of a life around one tiny moment might seem disproportionate and frivolous, but if it’s truly ideal then it’s not tiny at all. In an ideal moment your thoughts are untainted by the slightest worry about money or health. Your mind is in a baseline state of gratitude about where you live, your family, and your work. You feel belonging and meaning and satisfaction. Everything is in its place. Only then can the cadence even be possible. This means you may need to do quite a few things on a multi-year scale like building a career, getting married and starting a family, finding social circles where you truly belong, reaching financial independence, breaking into a new field of study, doing serious refurbishment of your mental health and personality, &c., before you can even imagine having such a moment.

The moment can be brief or extended. Maybe the “moment” really is just one instant in time, or maybe it’s a whole day. Make it whatever encompasses and emblematizes everything you want to achieve.

The moment can be specific or fuzzy, and it can change over time. You might already have an idea of the details you want to realize, or you might just know the kind of things you want to have in place later in your life. The cadence can come in and out of focus as your situation and your values shift. But it should always give you something distant and meaningful to hang shifts on.

The moment should seem a little bit ridiculously perfect. A cadence that you can achieve by next year is not absurd enough. Something ambitious enough that you’re a bit embarrassed to tell people is just about right.

You might not get the moment. You might not get the moment! Plenty of things won’t go as expected. Plans will change. Your ideas about what you really want will change. Some variables might never fit perfectly into place. The moment is, in fact, a macguffin — a catchy plot device to keep you moving toward putting everything in its place. It represents the end of the rainbow, serving to keep you looking wistfully yet determinedly at the horizon. So the secret, which you shouldn’t think about too hard, is that it doesn’t really matter if you get it. What matters is that if you earnestly pursue a perfect cadence, if you strive to put everything in its place, you’ll end up having a meaningful and fulfilling life full of nearly perfect moments along the way. And if you do get the moment? Hah! Wow, bonus, you got it!

If you get the moment, you have to continue living afterward. I haven’t gotten mine yet, so I can’t tell you what this is going to feel like. The idea is admittedly just a story device for the plot of my life. But when you wake up the day after achieving your ideal moment, I think you’ll find that a life that was designed to yield that moment, with everything truly in its place, is a pretty excellent life to have. It will likely set you up to have another ideal moment, and then another, and another…

I’m not going to tell you my cadence. But to give you an idea — it started simply as a desire to live in a certain city, with everything else in life set up properly for that choice of location to make sense. Gradually I added the idea of running a certain kind of business there, and reaching a very specific and meaningful goal in that business. That’s all I’m saying! This megashift will take between five and twenty more years, I think.

Microcadences are meaningful moments along the way.

Placeholder for describing the more frequent, beautifully imperfect moments of meaning you end up experiencing as you pursue the cadence

interlude: おやすみなさい

interlude interlude: juvenalia: button trance

Incantation 2 — So what are you going to do about it?

This incantation works to transmute outrage, melancholy, and general complainy crabbiness; into resoluteness, tranquility, and general reasonableness. It’s a bit of serenity prayer, a bit of five whys, a bit of zen, a bit of Jobs “saying no to 1,000 things”.

This one has been hard to write about. The inner critic is a snarky Twitter account, always hunting for the most uncharitable possible interpretation of everything you say or do; and mine was mashing out critical brane-tweets all along as I tried to express this idea gracefully. I’ve excised about 1,000 words in this letter over the past several weeks. But here’s a short version I think gets the idea across all right.

When I catch myself spending more than a moment on reacting negatively to anything, I’ve been asking, Okay, so, what are you going to do about it?

This is meant in a compassionate way! I genuinely want to know. What am I particularly equipped to offer to ameliorate the situation? Is there really anything substantive I can do? If not, can I let go of it?

Rarely, it leads to an idea of something you’re actually particularly equipped to do.

Congratulations! In complaining you have discovered a way to exert special influence on the world, shaping it to be slightly — or significantly! — more in line with what you wish it to be.

What am I particularly equipped to do? Well, I work at an absurdly influential company; any effort I can put in there to steer even a tiny fraction of a percent toward better is effort well spent.

Sometimes, it leads to an idea of something you’re equipped to do elsewhere

I’m parent to two human beings, each with an entire subjective universe unfolding in their consciousnesses; the accumulated influence of our everyday attachment will shape that universe profoundly. There are plenty of problems I can’t solve today, but I may be able to make a difference on in a generation.

Usually it leads to respect for the complexity of a system

Most problems bigger than our immediate influence are not as easily solvable as we think. My first idea of what to do is usually answerable with “so why hasn’t anyone done that already?” I can try to imagine why, and encounter another problem. “So, why hasn’t anyone done something about that already?” And on down the chain of reasoning, often to a sheer cliff I can’t scale myself.

It turns out that almost everything one can know about in our modern world is as out of one’s control as a star going supernova in a distant galaxy. That should feel liberating! We’re being exponentially more exposed to information about what’s going on in the world, but as individuals we’ve gotten no better equipped to do anything about most of it.

What if I allocate the influence I do have as effectively as possible, and then stop fretting? Not because I don’t care, but because I need to focus on areas where there’s a reasonable exchange rate between the impact I can have and the anxiety I take on.

Each stratum is supported by a review structure.

Each stratum of your life needs different methods for thinking about it and keeping it on track. Everything you intend to do should fit on some stratum, but planning is tiring. When you have the prodigious psychic resources it takes to decide what to do, use the review structures described below to plan. Do it on behalf of a future version of yourself who is too tired to plan and just wants to be told what to do.

A review is a regular check-in with your ideal self. The review structure at each stratum is a way have a little conference with your ideal self — the version of you that you would really like to be. You can get to know your ideal self via journaling, therapy, role models, or meditation. Imagining them sitting at the desk with you will keep you honest, but inspired, in a way you wouldn’t be alone. And regular planning meetings with your ideal self will bring you closer to being them rather than just idly wishing. There’s plenty more to come about the ideal self later on.

Find your own rhythms. In setting up your reviews, you don’t have to adhere to the artificial time intervals of hours, weeks, or months. Sometimes it can be valuable to let your own rhythm be a bit out of sync with the rest of the world. Maybe you actually work best in 41-minute chunks. Maybe it’s enlightening to have your periodic reviews fall in different parts of the year each time you do them. Maybe you need two “daily” reviews on Tuesday but zero on Saturday. Try things!

Avoid precious stationery. Don’t believe anyone who tries to convince you that spending a bunch of money on notebooks will make you more organized, at peace with your thoughts, or akin to some romantic historical figure. You need there to be as little barrier as possible between you and writing things down all the time; a fancy artsy notebook that costs 20 cents per page just paralyzes you with fear that whatever you write won’t be worthy of it. I recommend finding the cheapest per-square-centimeter notebook that you don’t dislike, or the lowest-tech software that isn’t unpleasant to use. Write like you’re going to throw it away. When you’re done, throw it away.

Periodic Review — Shifts and Cadence

Starting at the top — this review is an opportunity for you to think deliberately on a long time scale. Pick an interval — 23 days, a month, 44 days, a quarter — on which you can spend a good while introspecting. Set aside enough time without distractions (at least a few hours) to really settle in and hang out with your ideal self. This can become one of the most meaning-dense activities you do.

It happens in a document. Intending to write things down is an excellent way to get yourself to pay attention to those things in daily life. In between periodic reviews, you may find yourself spontaneously composing narratives about how your shifts are going. This sort of thing happens if you know in the back of your mind that you are going to have to write about them soon.

If this isn’t your first periodic review, start by reading through your previous review for context and a sense of progress. Then, write as much as you feel you need to for each of these prompts.

Overview — How is everything going? What’s the story arc of your life right now? What would you tell your past selves about how their efforts are paying off?

For each current shift — How is it going? Are there habits or attitudes you can put in place to make it go better? Should it continue being an active shift, or should you mark it paused, completed, or abandoned?

New shifts — Are there any new shifts you should instate, based on your current story arc and where you want the story to go next? Have you read anything or had any conversations lately that contained especially meaningful topics that you want to do something about? What habits or attitudes could support it? What is the purpose of the shift; how does it get you closer to your cadence?

Ideal self — Have you learned anything durable enough that it should be recorded in your Rules or Personal Canon?

Cadence — Does your cadence still reflect where you want your life to go? Can you make it more specific? Do you need to make it a bit more vague? Most importantly, are your shifts actually bringing you closer to it?

Message from the past — Say hello to your future selves. What would they appreciate knowing is important to you now?

Daily Review — Projects & New Habits

The project is the standard unit of work in this system, and once a day is about the right rhythm for checking in on them.

Keep a list of your projects and their actions, and any new habits you’re cultivating, in one place. Some folks like to debate about task-management apps, and some of us have even devoted significant chunks of our careers to building them. I helped create one called OmniFocus that I still like quite a lot, but you can really choose anything you like.

You can only realistically maintain a handful of active projects at a time. This is because you can only do so many actions in a day. As tempting as it is to try to capture everything you’ve ever vaguely wanted to do into one database, list only the projects you’re likely to work on in the immediate future. Say, in the next month. Anything beyond that will probably be more demoralizing than helpful to document.

If you like, you can put “someday” projects in your commonplace-book, described later. But really, a scarcity of ideas for projects is not the problem that causes people to adopt systems like this one. It’s a scarcity of the time and drive to do them.

When considering whether to adopt a new project, its seeming like a good thing to work on is not enough. That’s how you end up with an overwhelming project list that just makes you sad. You probably need to decide what you’ll stop doing in order to make space for it. And of course, you should be able to articulate how each project is feeding into a larger shift or setting you up for your cadence.

This is all pretty strict. But you’ve got your strong and clear-headed ideal self by your side, so you can take it. Be strict during the review in order to feel more at peace in between the reviews, when you’re harried and uncertain and you just want a clear idea of what is truly important work on.

A daily review is an opportunity to check in (with your ideal self!) on your projects and new habits.

  • Which actions, from which projects, are you going to do today? When? How will you make sure you have the time to do them? Will you block out time for them on your calendar? Will you set up off-the-grid time to give them the attention they deserve? (And if not, how in the actual heck do you expect to get them done?)
  • Do any of those actions need to be broken down into smaller actions in order for you to really make sense of them? (If you’re familiar with GTD, the idea of the “next action” is invaluable here.)
  • Do any projects need new actions added to them?
  • Is there a new project to add? Are you really going to do it in the immediate future? How does it support your shifts?
  • Do any projects need to be marked finished or dropped?
  • Have you done your new habits yet today? When will you make time to do them?

Momentary Review — Actions

You can do momentary reviews of your progress on actions throughout the day, too. Do whichever of these makes sense, when it makes sense.

  • Check your calendar, say, every fifty minutes or so to make sure you’re doing the actions you blocked out time for.
  • Set a repeating timer for, say, every 23 minutes, which prompts you to check in — with your best self! — about what you’re doing and whether it’s the best action you could be doing just now.
  • Check back on your project list throughout the day to mark complete the actions you’ve done and see what’s left.
  • Check your inbox for items that you need to take care of, turn into projects, or move somewhere else.

Instant Review — Defaults

When you have some “free time” to spend and don’t want to decide what to do — choose one of your default activities.

Everyone has a set of default activities for filling the little gaps in their day, but they’re usually subconsciously chosen. You can get a lot of control over how you spend time by choosing sensible defaults. Keep a short list of good default activities to do whenever you have a few free minutes and you don’t want to decide what to do. For many of us, a common unexamined default is to open a social media app and scroll unhappily until we are torn away by the next responsibility. Could you open an e-book app and read a couple of pages, instead? Could you do some flashcards for your foreign language study? Text a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, to let them know you’re thinking of them? What if you just meditated for a few minutes? Setting beneficial activities like these as defaults avoids wasting time in ways that you’ll regret. It lets you scrape together many tiny moments into something meaningful, instead of leaving them as fragmented and aimless. In these moments, your ideal self can help you out by looking over your shoulder and gently asking, “Is this really more rewarding than reading a book?”

You may want to keep a set of themes for your defaults — perhaps based on your current shifts — and periodically choose which defaults to slot in to these themes. Then you’ll always have a balanced variety to choose from. (Mine happen to be Focused Study, General Learning, Geekery, Creative, and Meditation.) Working on this very document is my Creative default right now. So today when I had a bit of time at home and felt like making something, I didn’t have to feel paralyzed by the choice of whether to reach for a guitar, a knitting project, or a drawing stylus; I just opened up this document on my phone and made some quick edits.

If you genuinely want to do something that’s not on your list of defaults, by all means just go ahead! If you keep coming back to that activity, and it’s a worthwhile use of time, consider swapping it onto the list. The idea is to carefully make a few good decisions when you’re in planning mode, so that you can have good answers already at hand when free moments come. Don’t obsess about the “best” way to spend your personal quiet time to the point that you waste the whole time fretting.

Things you need to do go in the inbox.

Human brains seem to have evolved to be pretty good at remembering to do certain things over and over again, for better or for worse; we call them habits. But they’re bad at remembering things that need to happen once, especially if there are lots of things to remember, the things are not in plain sight, and each has a specific deadline.

Capture everything that needs your attention in an inbox. Most productivity systems have some sort of “inbox” concept — a place where you collect things that you need to do something about. The crucial practice to cultivate here is automatically capturing everything as soon as you recognize it as something you need to do. No matter how sure you are that you won’t forget. No matter how small or dumb it seems. Ask Kara about where to eat dinner in Seattle; Pay the electrical bill; Put the mail by the door so you remember to send it tomorrow; Process all the notes from the meeting with Áthila into projects and actions.

When you immediately capture everything, you free up your precious, distractable human brain to focus on the matter at hand rather than worrying about whether it might be forgetting something.

Try not to leave stuff in the inbox for a long time — move important things to projects, finish small one-off tasks, and move daydreamy things into your commonplace-book.

Check your inbox often. As long as you know you’ll be checking your inbox soon, you can confidently ignore all of your worries, trusting that they’ll be in there waiting to be processed when the time comes.

Interlude iii — The Discipline

This section is copypasted from a newsletter I wrote, but I should properly integrate it into the main text.

After ten years away, I reread Anathem by Neal Stephenson, a book I’d suspected might be my favorite novel. Now I can say that it is. It’s set in a culture of monastic mathematician-scientist-philosophers who retreat from society for one, ten, one hundred, or one thousand years at a time. They disconnect from the banalities and frivolties of the world to focus on long-term contemplation and study. The premise is so nerdy and esoteric that I kind of can’t believe that a book so perfectly aimed at my brain exists, is popular, and is so good.

Upon returning from three slow-paced, minimally-connected, meditative months in Tokyo, I took inspiration from the avout of Anathem and planned out a miniature version of their Discipline to decide how to spend my available time. I am doing my job, participating in my family, and keeping up friendships normally. But the precious time that remains, which it’s so easy to fret about using properly and so easy to waste, is now neatly allocated by the Discipline.

Each day has a focus assigned, from among five possible focuses:

  • ⌘ Connect — Catch up on what’s going on in the world and generally be a normal modern human.
  • ❥ Read — I read at least a bit every day anyway, but on a Read day, I’ll try to spend all of my available time reading. This should be solid, healthy stuff with something to teach.
  • ❖ Study — Deliberately trying to understand or get better at a specific subject. Lately it’s been programming Haskell; later it may be systematic study toward level N1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.
  • ✿ Play — Allowing my mind to get carried away by something imaginative. A video game, comic, concert video, or whatever other input that seems worthwhile if not entirely intellectual.
  • ✽ Create — I’m writing this guide on a Create day! This could also mean building software, playing music, drawing pixel art, working on websites… any variation on making something.

Time is divided into ten-day decades. (We commonly use the word “decade” to mean ten years, nowadays, but prior to the 16th century, it could mean any collection of ten things, including days.) I love my desynchronized rhythms; the 10-day decade and the 7-day week create a healthy polymeter that drifts in and out of sync over time. At the start of each decade, I choose a template for how I’ll spend the next ten days worth of available time.

The standard decade is ⌘ ❥ ❖ ✿ ✽ ❥ ✽ ✿ ❖ ❥. There are other templates for when I want to bias toward a particular pursuit or two for the next decade, but every template includes each pursuit at least once. For instance the Study Focus decade is ⌘ ❖ ❥ ❖ ❖ ✿ ❖ ❖ ✽ ❖. Create & Play Focus is ⌘ ✽ ✿ ❥ ✽ ✿ ✽ ❖ ✿ ✽. And so on.

Note that Connect only happens once every ten days, and it’s always the first day. The first-order aim of this system is to spend nine out of ten days disconnected from the wider world, focusing on deeper, longer-term concerns. At its heart is the thesis that something that’s not of value after ten days is not of value. Now — remember that this Discipline is about available time left over after fulfilling the responsibilities of the day. So I still talk to friends, family, and colleagues every day.

Connection that can happen on any day:

  • One-on-one conversations with friends
  • Reading posts and emails
  • Hanging out, or making plans to hang out
  • Doing my dang job

Connection that happens only on the Connect day:

  • Reading the news
  • Watching videos (YouTube recommendations fill up with genuinely good stuff if you only check them every ten days!)
  • Hanging out in close-knit online communities of friends

Connection that shouldn’t happen:

  • Spending time on public online spaces like Twitter, where intense stimulus goes past faster than you can properly process it
  • Clicking around sites like YouTube or Reddit, seeking out something to spend time and attention on

On an ordinary day, the goal is to do the focus pursuit at least a little. Writing for 20 minutes on a Create day is good. Getting through a chapter of Haskell exercises on a Study day is splendid. It’s also fine to move on to other pursuits if I’m already satisfied with how much of the focus pursuit I’ve done for the day. If I end up with no available time at all, that’s okay too; it means I had lots of normal responsibilities to take care of that day.

Some people I’ve described this system to say that it sounds tiring. When their available free time finally arrives, they feel too exhausted to do anything but turn their brain off and watch dumb videos or TV shows. That brings me to the paramount rule of this system: when in doubt, go to bed. If I’m exhausted, especially mentally or emotionally, nothing I can do will fix that except sleep and then maybe a good morning meditation.

So that’s how the Discipline works. After practicing it for sixty days, I’ve found that so far it’s solving the problems I designed it for and then some. My in-the-moment self doesn’t fret about how to spend time anymore; a wiser, longer-term version of me has already decided it. I don’t worry about whether I’m letting an important pursuit languish too long, because each of them happens at least once every ten days. I genuinely care way less about the frivolous, day-to-day nonsense of news, politics, and online life. When the Connect day comes, stuff that would have consumed hours of my attention every day now seems downright dumb. Oh, and of course, I’m making steady progress on things like learning functional programming, absorbing heaps of books that are utterly worth every moment I spend on them, and writing my own little book.

(In retrospect, this is an upgraded version of an older system I developed, Periodic Table of Priorities)

Back to the main text!

Develop an ideal self you can consult with.

Checking in with an imaginary ideal version of yourself is a shortcut to wisdom and good decision-making throughout this system. Here are some practices that can bring that ideal self into clear enough focus that they can sit down and plan with you.

to do — how to assemble an otaku collection room of the soul

Be well.

placeholder for the sub-system focused on regularly returning to center and creating a healthy physiological foundation on which to pursue meaning. have compassion for your body, and recognize that it’s intertwined with your mind.

You can model your life as a sort of graph, a variety of interwoven lines, proceeding off along the time axis, that you’re endeavoring to pull up above zero and keep there. Your physical health, mental health, relationships, finances, sense of meaning, et cetera. Each pulls on the others as it moves up or down. Some are on their own mysterious rhythm that you can try to influence with carefully-planned systems. At any given moment, some are likely above zero and some are likely below.

In moments when the systems are all doing their job well, you’ve rested, exercised, and cleared your mind. You’ve got family, friends, meaningful work, a cozy home. Interests and pursuits to provide texture. The hope is to generate more of those alignments, even some microcadences, along the way to the ultimate alignment, the cadence.

being well unlocks your ability to, say, choose to interpret the events of the day positively; but that still requires a conscious choice to use the ability

Cultivate texture to nurture emotions toward helpfulness.

This is a placeholder for another sub-system; currently copypasted from my personal notes.

Rather than letting emotions hang unsatisfyingly, you can weave them with behavior to yield a sort of useful structure. A seemingly negative emotion, when paired with the right behavior, can lend meaning to your day-to-day life. When this is done well, we can call it texture.

This is intentionally orthogonal to the Discipline, which is about deciding how to use your available time toward bigger tangible goals. Texture is about activities that maintain emotional wellness and richness; some of them may also happen to be Discipline activities.

When you neglect texture you end up with unresolved emotions, and you aim your attention at things that perhaps do contribute to bigger goals in the future, but that don’t quite represent the experience of being who you want to be in the present.

texture emerges when you can pay attention to nothing in particular, and makes every moment feel gratifying

insert some stuff here about how to map emotions to texturally beneficial behaviors

keep a textural library, similar to personal canon, for setting emotional and aesthetic atmosphere

Recognize microcadences and nanocadences to affirm the meaning and fulfillment you are finding along the way.

loop of microcadences and nanocadences: develop a sense of what you find meaningful, set yourself up for these moments, then reflect on them with gratitude for years afterward; how to create a record of these; perhaps this becomes part of the review structure

Works that represent who you want to be go in the personal canon.

Maintain a list of works to revisit often, to take guidance and inspiration from. This is a sort of bible that you compile for yourself. It can include books, films, articles, music, even places. These are things that you don’t just enjoy, but that you actually find bring you closer to the kind of person you want to be. When you return to your personal canon, you should feel more like yourself, like you’ve refreshed your perspective on the world and remembered what it is you truly value.

Don’t canonize people. If someone did a lot of things that you find indispensably valuable, then add those things to your personal canon. But heroes lead you astray, making you think you should emulate how someone else lived their life, as if every choice they made was good, and would be good for you too. This sets you up for disappointment when you inevitably discover something the person said or did that you don’t feel right about. People are complicated. No one else’s values and choices can be imported verbatim into your own life. Good ideas and works should be able to stand on their own merits, without us idolizing their creators.

Ideas you want to live by become rules.

Sometimes a turn of phrase from a book, a conversation, or a commonplace entry seems important enough that you should enshrine it as a rule to live by. Having a short, memorable phrase that represents something about how you want to live can help you recall it and follow it at crucial moments. Rules can help you achieve shifts and keep them achieved, develop new habits, and generally move toward your ideal self. Imagine what your ideal self would say to you in moments when you need help — you can often imagine what a very wise person would say in a given situation, which actually means you are a very wise person. You just need to believe and follow the advice.

Each rule comprises:

  • The rule itself, in some catchy phrasing. “Words come after the fact.”
  • Some expounding on its significance. “Remember what Jesse said at lunch that day — things are what they are, endlessly unique and complex, and then we put necessarily inaccurate labels on them as a convenience so that we can talk about them. So don’t get caught up in thinking that the word is the thing.”

Keep an eye out for false idols, and use them to your advantage.

Do you envy anyone? Do you ever worry that you should be pursuing a path more like this or that well-known person? Do you find yourself jealously scoffing at someone because they’re successful and famous in a way that you secretly think you should have been? These are excellent awful feelings! You can use them.

Being good at something, being famous for something, and having a good life are three different things. If someone you don’t know is visible to you, that’s fame. And fame is usually a product of putting a lot of work into being famous — which is one way to develop yourself, but not the only way. Most likely, the people out there who are most like who you want to be are not known to you. The best person in the world at any given thing is very likely not famous at all, but quietly pursuing what they believe is the right path for them. The path that’s right for you almost certainly doesn’t already have some famous person on it, offering you an example. So whenever you see your false idols doing something, you can be assured that that’s not your life, not your path, and take it as a reminder to quietly continue with your own thing.

Find attribute models and icons instead of role models.

A role model is too likely to turn out to be a false idol. Identifying someone as worth striving to emulate is setting yourself up to be disappointed when you find out anything you don’t like about them.

But chooisng attribute models is thinking at the right level of hierarchy — if you think of people as having a variety of attributes, like a character in a game, then you can identify just the specific attributes you wish to take inspiration from. Perhaps you want the cheerfulness stat of one person, the poise and grace stats of another, the protectiveness stat of another; put them together into an assemblage of inspiring attributes that is uniquely yours. Perhaps you admire a certain writer’s brilliance and clarity of communication, but find them disagreeable and callous as a person; help yourself to their intelligence and writing stats, while leaving the rest.

(describe icons — flattened images to aspire to which deliberately reject the whole personality)

Interlude iv — Simulation of the Ideal Self

placeholder for the idea of running your ideal self as a tabletop rpg character

Incantation 3 — Okay, compared to what?

This most powerful incantation may be my most important discovery of 2021.

Any judgment you make, especially about yourself or your situation, must be in comparison to something else. Explicit or not, you hold some model to measure against.

Let’s take an easy example up front, from my dear friend and Microcosmographia narrator Jon Bell. I have a tendency to complain about Apple software design and quality, and Jon has a tendency to challenge me in a way that I interpret as, “Okay, compared to what?” Honestly, who is doing a better job than Apple at these jobs? While taking into consideration all the variables needed to deliver such sophisticated products to such a vast, varied audience? Of course, no one is. I was once again comparing against some imaginary ideal in my mind (perhaps against the imaginary ideal of Apple media event keynotes), instead of against anything that has ever existed on this planet. Another way of phrasing it is “what should they have done?” And if you have a better answer than people who have this as their entire job, you could probably have a successful career in the industry! (That’s not meant to be dismissive, it’s meant to be inspiring — come and help us make it better!)

So it’s a helpful way to reconsider complaints you might have about anything — a product, a person, a place, a global geopolitical stae of affairs.

What happens when you apply the question to yourself, and your own life: “Okay, compared to what?” If you’re dissatisfied or ambivalent about something in your life, what life with actual evidence of existing would be preferable? It can be invigorating to march down a list of possible answers, starting with the most unrealistically lofty.

  • Some imaginary ideal — This should be immediately rejected. It doesn’t make any sense to compare yourself to people in made-up stories, any more than it does to compare actual products to the claims of media event keynotes.
  • Celebrity — Of course, anyone you know only through their fame and brand are hardly real people any more than imaginary characters are. There is a real person behind the artificial one, but you don’t see them. It’s healthy to recognize that even the most genuine-seeming celebrities, who seem almost like friends, are still creating a character, an image, to admire and enjoy. You love that character. They love that character. You both contain an image of that character and what makes it valuable inside of you. It’s fun and enriching for everyone, but it’s not a real person to compare against.
  • The prominent and notorious — Even people who aren’t celebrities per se, but are known in your school, your industry, or your social circles, are just smaller versions of the same phenomenon as celebrities. Maybe some of them genuinely have stories and attributes to admire and to learn from. But after considering those you can march right on.
  • People you know — This may be the most reasonable step, assuming that these are people you know reasonably closely and whose experiences are relatable to your own. If you seriously consider whatever difference there might be between you and them, you should realize that at the largest scale, almost everything about your experiences is nearly identical to theirs. Any seemingly dramatic difference is actually at the margins of an almost completely overlapping Venn diagram. If that doesn’t seem true, continue on to the following steps about the really contrasting comparisons.
  • Your past self — You’re more mature, more experienced, wiser, and generally more you than you have ever been. Even past experiences that you may miss and long for are still contained within who you are now. If there’s anything good in your life now, it is most likely the result of good decisions and hard work; if you don’t believe that, honestly imagine what it would have been like if you’d made bad decisions and been lazy all along the way.
  • Any human on earth — If you have the luxury of reading this letter you are probably better off than almost everyone on the planet. Almost anything that bothers you about your life, there’s a much more tragic version of it that you successfully avoided. A situation that you could be in that’s so bad you would give anything to instead have what you really do have now.
  • Any human in past eras — If you exist now, you almost certainly have it better than nearly every human who has ever lived. The safety, comfort, knowledge, opportunity for connection and belonging, and range of pleasurable and meaningful experiences furnished to you is unthinkable even for the most vaunted emperor of a few centuries ago, let alone anyone of the prior 200 millennia of our species.
  • Any pre–homo sapiens — Our weird species is precisely as intelligent as it needs to be to create the sort of civilization that unlocks all of this. One notch less intelligent and we couldn’t do it. One notch more intelligent may come artificially, but not via normal evolution. Even being able to perceive, recognize, and appreciate most anything that matters to anyone is a tremendous privilege that only came to us recently, and that we only barely acquired.
  • Any less-conscious creature — The previous comparison gets even starker when you consider that nearly all living things that have existed, or could exist, are drastically less conscious than you.
  • An absence of consciousness — Some of the most effective meditation sessions I’ve had have been ones that focus on the idea of all subjective experience as occurring in a pure, boundless field of consciousness. Sort of like how in quantum field theory, “particles” are actually excitations of various fields corresponding to the elementary particles. Compared to a completely still field of consciousness, with nothing occurring, what a blessing it is to have any subjective experience at all.

That last one, the first time I successfully held it in my mind and took it seriously, led me to an experience I am pretty comfortable labeling 見性 kenshō — the zen concept commonly translated as “recognizing one’s original nature”. At the most basic level, you’re made of perturbations in a pure field of consciousness. “Consciousness is the way information feels when being processed in certain complex ways.” Getting to the point where you can really believe that, even just for a moment, and then compare it to everything you get to experience, regardless of its positive or negative valence, comes with a dang boundless sense of gratitude and love. This sure does make it easier to remain patient for the crucial five extra seconds you need while interacting with a four-year-old who needs to brush his teeth, or to part ways with a video game collection you’ve spent twenty years accumulating. And even to at least survive in the face of greater challenges than those.

Interlude v — Survival Mode

Adapted from the newsletter “Microcosmographia”.

I tend to believe that for maintaining resilience, your inherent character is less important than the systems you’ve put in place as a vehicle to weather the bizarre world we’ve grown around us. When challenges come, I hope to have some system for handling them, or to develop one anew. And, well, the year 2020 put all of my systems to the test. At the end, the vehicle was windswept and battered; the passenger was shaken but intact. The theme that seemed to emerge for me was “expending a lot of effort in order to feel mostly okay”. Without the systems in place, it would likely have been “despite expending a lot of effort, still not feeling okay at all”.

The last six weeks in particular were the real trial. I was on leave from work, running the household of three by myself. Survival was my only aim, and I’m pretty proud that my systems allowed me to achieve it.

One of the most important additions that emerged to the all-encompassing meta-system was a new understanding of what to do when life, or the entire world, or both, get too absurdly askew to carry on as normal.

My automatic response was to pause all systems and focus entirely on the sudden exec-level design dash at work, the household distress, or the current event of historic gravity. Surely I can’t be expected to run my systems and keep up with all that. As it turns out, though, there is a sort of hierarchy to the systems that determines which ones are all right to switch off, and when.

  • The Anatomy itself is an overarching meta-system based on reviews for making sure you’re working toward longer-term meaning. Dropping down to survival mode for a week or a couple of months means pretty much ignoring all of this structure but maintaining the mindset that following it has generated, and looking forward to returning to questions of meaning and self once things are stable again. Pause.
  • (One exception to the above is that I’ve found a number of opportunities for microcadences, small but deeply meaningful and affirming experiences, especially during the pandemic when a lot of such stuff has moved online. A virtual concert by a band that means the world to me, two personal screenprinting sessions with my favorite visual artist, et cetera. It feels like a true blessing to be able to continue to pursue such moments among such difficulty. Microcadences are yet another system concept I hope to document soon!)
  • Durable Notes is a system for accumulating a library of intertwined knowledge over time, rather than letting it wash past. But when I’m not deeply reading or studying, there’s nothing to accumulate anyway. Pause.
  • Commonplace is a system for journaling and generally thinking things out in text. In survival mode its main function is therapeutic, for venting and sorting out thoughts. Inspirational and documentary functions are paused.
  • Texture is a system for nurturing loose emotions and reinforcing the sort of person you want to be in the present. Wow, that sounds ridiculous when summarized and I hope to write it up for you soon — but for me it basically ends up involving lots of calm reading, video, and music from subcultures I feel affinity to. (Usually in Japanese, because I coped by pretending to be in Japan whenever possible.) This turns out to be even more important while in survival mode, so I have replaced much of the Discipline with Texture instead.
  • The Discipline is a system for deciding how to fruitfully spend available time. But when deep in survival mode, with (at most) zero psychic resources left at the end of the day, I’ve found that I can’t do anything beyond picking one or two default Texturey activities that are at least not bad for me and using those to psychically recharge; the more mentally expensive focuses like Create and Study, and even Play, are set aside.
  • Be Well v2 is a system of “wellness for the reluctantly corporeal”. It’s less about ambition to get healthier or more fit, and more about recognizing that if I don’t maintain a baseline level of health, I’m certain to be useless and miserable. I must never pause this system. Even in survival mode, there’s a floor on the amount of sleep, activity, and meditation I need, and falling beneath it will interfere with the aim to survive.

The lesson here was, apparently, that it’s okay to pause your cerebral, ambitious systems for success when things get dire. But it’s not okay to pause your systems of nurturance and well-being. You’ll need those more than ever.

Interlude vi — Focus Mode

placeholder — when and how to set up a suite of shifts to get you through a major life shift and ignore all else

Thoughts go in the commonplace-book.

A good system needs an unsystematic playground. You should be fastidious about your projects, habits, defaults, &c. But the commonplace-book is a place to relax. It’s a big heap of words and images you collect without worrying too much about their structure or immediate usefulness. Things you want to write down, but that don’t belong in any particular review structure, can all land in the commonplace-book.

Here are some things you can do in a commonplace-book:

  • Journal. Write what’s on your mind. Have a little conversation with yourself. Get your worries and ruminations out, rather than staying up fretting all night.
  • Freewrite. Write what’s really on your mind. Write without stopping; without consciously considering what you’re writing; without caring about what anyone might think upon reading it. Get waking dreams from your unconscious on demand.
  • Make lists. It’s tempting to put everything you want to do in your entire life into one system, with dreamy someday-projects jostling side-by-side with urgent work deadlines. But anything that you don’t intend to work on in the near future can live happily in a list here instead. Books to read. Creative projects to try. Places to visit. Business ideas.
  • Collect wisdom. Every book you read, film you watch, conversation you have, and talk you attend can be made permanently valuable if you save thoughts and quotations from it rather than letting it evaporate from your brain the next day.
  • Keep a scratch pad for your brain. Anything that needs writing down, and that isn’t as banal as a shopping list, can go in the commonplace-book. Ideas for a daily work schedule. Dream themes. Unusual names. Words you like. Jokes.

Don’t worry about organizing it. Maybe you’ll come back to these thoughts later and find something valuable. Maybe not. But anything truly important won’t let itself get lost. “Oh no, I forgot to learn to play the piano someday” is not a real problem anyone has. If you really want to remember the insights from a particular book, you can go back and find it. If you don’t think of it, maybe you’ll stumble across it anyway. If you don’t, that’s okay — there is a lifetime of other inspiring stuff to stumble across instead.

Revisit old pages at random. When you’re feeling introspective, flip through your commonplace-book and see what you find. Seemingly unrelated ideas may develop new connections and new meanings. The thoughts of your distant self may give you new perspective on your current self. You may (re)learn something, and you may gain a new appreciation for just how obviously you are not the same person over time.

Things that contribute to your accumulated knowledge become durable notes.

Placeholder for an explanation of durable notes.

If you learn without writing down anything permanent, you’re missing out on much of the value of what you’ve learned. Building higher-level systems is the only way to get reliably better at anything.

Existing systems include Evergreen Notes and Zettelkasten, using technology like Roam and Bear and various homebrew automation and scripting. I don’t think there is a way to do it that isn’t both fragile and boxed-in to a specific tool forever.

Interlude vii — Durable Systems

Section undergoing evolution

I introduced this whole document with the idea that “Building durable systems is, I believe, the only reliable way to make progress on yourself and your life.” Part of what makes a system durable is a willingness to evolve. The other part is independence from technology.

Migration day is coming. Sooner or later, one way or another, something is going to break. The system should rely on discipline, not technology. Technology may make your system more convenient — it’s allowed to do that. But technology is not to be trusted. Technology is fun and exciting, and “technology is anything that doesn’t work yet.” Consider boring tools, and be suspicious of fancy new tools. Your system must continue to run when the technology breaks, and it will surely break when migration day comes. Migration day comes when any OS, app, service, device, or other part of the apparatus changes in some subtle way; when something you used to get for free starts to cost more than you want to pay for it; when some innocent-seeming edge-case bug lays ruin to your delicately just-so personal setup. Are you prepared to switch technology tomorrow, if necessary? Are you ready to reïmplement the system on paper next week if necessary?

Plain text is eternal. Absolutely no relying on software with proprietary formats that can’t be instantly and losslessly exported to plain text. When you are considering a new tool, just try a simple export and see what comes out; you may be surprised at how unusable it ends up being. No relying on automation platforms, which will break. No writing your own code and thus signing yourself up to maintain and troubleshoot it indefinitely. No relying on things like unique IDs or callback URLs, because those will get lost on export when migration day comes, or at best you’ll be stuck having to automate translating the links into some new format for some new setup when migration day comes. Migration day is coming.

Organize by being disciplined about structure. You have a number of ways to get structure in a standard way without relying on how some tool organizes and interlinks data. Plain text files on a disk can be your atomic unit, per advice from existing systems. You can carry these files around for the rest of your life; they’ll never become unopenable, unreadable, or unsearchable. JPEG photographs of physical, handwritten pages may not be easily searchable, but they will never become unopenable or unreadable.

Light manual processes are fine. Most of what you might want to do with fancy software can be accomplished with general-purpose features that will always be around: search, find-and-replace, copy-and-paste, and markup.

Light automation is fine. It is okay to automate something that, as soon as the automation breaks, you can shrug and carry on doing it manually instead. “Make a new commonplace file and title it with today’s date” is fine. “Find all mentions of this file and update them to the new title” is fine. “Bidirectionally sync all links and backlinks for all files” is too much.

Interlude vii interlude 1— Durable Lifestyles

placeholder for a chapter about generally not investing too much of yourself in a life that depends on the continued goodwill of some company; whether it’s for your personal systems, your leisure, or your career. plain text is yours forever; proprietary saas might irrecoverably corrupt your life’s data. tabletop gaming is yours forever; your online game of choice might be laid to waste tomorrow. computer science or storytelling expertise are yours forever; the online marketplace you base your living on might become untenable.