Perhaps it’s the quarter-life crisis, but recently I’ve been reading lots of book on self-improvement and living well; they range from philosophical works like Stoicism (everyone should read A Guide to the Good Life) to more practical advice about tidying up like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Overall, there are periods of my life I’ve noticed that, on looking back, I think wow was I productive. And there are other periods where I’m definitely not. I started analyzing exactly what went well or not so well during each of these periods respectively.

The following rules are things I’ve noticed work well for me. This is not meant to be prescriptive to others by any means.

  1. Spend as little time on Facebook as humanly possible

  2. Never pity yourself

  3. Always be learning a new skill; seek new experiences

  4. Be honest with yourself and others regarding to what you want

  5. Keep yourself and the home clean and well maintained; dress well

Facebook

I genuinely cannot express how much I despise Facebook.

I have never once logged into Facebook and said to myself - oh thank goodness I went on Facebook today. It’s an addiction - and one of the worst ones. It saps your energy and spare time and refocuses your thoughts into a fairly negative spiral of jealousy, anger, etc. I really do believe your thoughts contribute directly to your success, and believe it or not, you can control your thoughts.

I don’t think I’m someone that particularly gets depressed that often (though apparently 23 And Me disagrees), but I do notice I get very depressed after I log onto Facebook / Instagram / whatever. It almost immediately puts me into a zombie state where I lurk and jealously stare at profiles for hours on end, and an afternoon that could have been spent on a side project or at the gym is now spent making me sad and angry at my own life.

I can see an exception being made for Messenger, but mostly I find very negative value to my life by using Facebook.

Self Pity

I’ve been fairly lucky to have very few bouts of self-pity in my life.

But even the few I’ve had are few too many. In my experience, almost all motivation and desire for self-betterment and change comes from a deep-seated shame. Shame is one of the most powerful motivators for progress, and nothing kills shame faster than self-pity. Self-pity refocuses the entire discussion away from what you were doing that was wrong to why the world is so unfair, and how so many others are so much luckier than you. Self-pity is toxic and saps any hope of improvement.

Generally I distance myself from anyone who pities themselves too much; it’s very contagious (to me, at least).

Learn New Things

Life is short - really, really short.

One of the things that makes life seem longer and more enjoyable is learning new things. I think in a very meta sense, the ability to learn new skills is the most useful skill. Technological change is only advancing, and no one can predict what the world will look like by the time this generation retires. The world is constantly changing, and learning how to adapt to that change is an extremely useful skill.

There is of course another, deeper aspect to this obsession I have with learning. One of my great fears in life is to one day wake up, find out that I’ve lived through the majority of my life and have very little to show for it. The elderly should be a source of wisdom, a wisdom that’s drawn from decades of unique and fascinating experiences. I cannot imagine (personally) a more sad experience than having done just a single thing my entire life.

Lately I force myself to learn new things whenever the opportunity presents itself. I think often people are presented with even the most simple things - an Operating System change, an upgrade, a new user interface - and they just get frustrated. They’re too tired to re-learn this skill they spent all this time previously learning. There’s a deep unwillingness because people can’t be bothered and by and large just want things to work.

Maybe that attitude works for other people, but as an engineer, I find that attitude extremely dangerous. Of course, there are exceptions - maybe you’ve had an extremely hard day at work and you have numerous personal issues going on or whatever. But on an average day, rather than getting frustrated, this principle means opening yourself up to a new experience and learning how to learn. Each new experience (good and bad) is that lesson couched in a different situation.

Honesty

As I start down this road of dating more seriously and finding longer-term partners, I find that we all have white lies we tell each other. “Oh I go to the gym all the time”, “Oh I really liked that movie”, etc. Perhaps it’s because I’m such an awful liar, or maybe it’s because every lie I’ve ever told has ended in disaster, but I find these small things to be exhausting. Maintaining a web of who I told what to is extremely tiresome and (at least for me) inevitably backfires.

Furthermore, it seems like whenever a relationship hasn’t worked out in my life (professional or otherwise), it’s because some party wasn’t really being honest deep down. Maybe it’s because I’ve read one too many papers on Radical Honesty and really drunk the Ray Dalio / Bridgewater kool-aid, but life really is too short for lies. Slowly but surely I’ve started weening away even the white lies I tell people - there really just isn’t a good reason for it.

People are always afraid of insulting other people, but I’ve found it’s not what you say, but how you say it. You really can word things in a way that stays true to your feelings while communicating the message in a non-confrontational way, and so far my life has benefited pretty tremendously from it.

Tidyness

This last thing is what I struggle with most, which is why I included it for myself.

I notice a pretty curious pattern in myself that, whenever my house is neat and organized, I’m way more productive that day. It just feels like the whole space is mine and I can really utilize it all to think everything through. This goes back to Marie Kondo’s book on tidying up (which I highly recommend), but the physical space really does reflect the mental space for me.

Dressing reasonably well and maintaining a well-ordered household (through all the numerous chores) signifies that my life is going pretty well. If I have time and diligence and discipline to do all the numerous small chores (dishwasher, laundry, change cat litter, vaccuum every day, etc), then odds are I have the discipline to do the other lifestyle habits that keep me healthy and happy, too (gym, floss, etc). There really is a virtuous cycle that I’ve noticed between the state of my household and my general health and happiness.

The converse is also true. Currently, I have strep throat as I’m writing this. I hadn’t gone to the gym in multiple days, didn’t really sleep well, and had just been ordering Uber Eats. My house was a mess. Numerous pizza boxes and Taco Bell bags. It felt like a disaster. Despite my fever, I cleaned up and went to the gym (having the worst workout I’ve ever had). I came back and it was a world of a difference. I committed two patches for work and wrote this blog post!

Sometimes it just takes a kickstart to resume the virtuous cycle again, and the best kind is often just cleaning up one’s own living space.