The Numbers For Calm
The Numbers. Another year, another set of new tweaks to help me progress. Today is my 50 Days Of Calm. I starting a daily meditation practice during December. Missed a couple due to travel, but have now logged 50 days in a row. That’s not the whole story, however. I’ve spent the last few weeks reviewing what’s been working for me and what’s not been working for me and I started to look at small changes and reinstating large challenges.
Last year was tough professionally, just very busy. Not a complaint, because I love what I do. But at the end of the year, I realised I didn’t want to have a similar year in 2020. I expect to be even busier this year, but I want to experience it in the context of doing some things more smartly, effectively. Plus proactively carve out some time to look after my broader wellness needs. I reason that even though the workload is higher, being smarter will make it more effective and enjoyable.
The meditation practice started because I was aware that days and days rolled past without any time for quiet reflection. As a nailed on introvert, that’s quite a feat. Even in my introvert withdrawal to recharge stanzas, my mind was still going flat out. I bought the lifetime subscription to Calm. Why not the monthly subscription? I reasoned if I made the price sting, it would make me take it more seriously. Firm commitment, not a cancel with one click commitment.
My routine has tended towards 15 minutes at the end of the day to help with sleep. I look forward to it and it really does help me clear my head and relax into sleep. I do the odd short session in the morning at times too. Keeping the streak is important to me, it means I’m creating an ingrained habit and that means I’ll get it done. And getting done has positive mental wellness effects. The numbers have really helped me to make this habit an easy part of my routine and the benefits have flowed.
30 Days Of Focus
I realise that when I’m working there are very seldom periods where I’m not interrupted by the phone, email or someone coming into my office to talk. Where does the time come from to deeply understand a subject? The danger of having no focus time is the foundation for critical thinking and making good decisions starts to be eroded. Experience, gut feel and a quick assessment of superficially known facts go a long way. But good critical thinking goes even further.
I also looked deeper into the issue of what can interrupt thinking time and I alighted on email. (Interesting phone calls are way down the list, even the business community has moved strongly towards email, texts and messaging.) Looking at any four week period over the last three months, I’ve found I send on average 230 emails. Less than I thought. The shocker is the other side of the equation, as I’m reading around 3,050 emails in a four week period. I’ll hazard a guess they weren’t all crucial to the future of the human race. I dread to think how many hours were consumed reading them. I need a strategy, and if I find one, there’s a lot of valuable time to be freed up there.
Six weeks ago I started to carve out a two-hour slot each day to focus on one subject or knocking off a shortlist of important tasks. No email, no meetings, no calls. I have about a 60% hit rate so far. When I’ve missed it’s been my own lack of discipline. But so far I’ve had 18 days where I got the two hours done and 12 days where I gave it a good crack. I’ll keep going, there’s most certainly a great detail of potential in this. The numbers aren’t exactly where I want them to be, but if I can get to 80% next, that will be a huge piece of progress and will make me more effective in business.
365 Days Of Listening
The numbers show I spend probably 90 minutes a day commuting or moving around town from one meeting to another. I also spend many hours on an indoor bike or in the gym. The time squeeze over recent years has reduced the time I used to devote to reading on my Kindle. A year ago I decided to give Audible audiobooks a go. I’m a few days shy of a year of buying my first 12 book subscription. I have just finished my third cycle, which means I’ve listened to 36 books in that time. I’ve used time which could be ostensibly seen as dead time to learn something, and I’ve enjoyed the experience.
The books have been virtually all business biographies or books on wellness or effectiveness. Favourite biographies? Steve Schwarzman’s autobiography of how he founded and built Blackstone. Bob Iger’s autobiography of his ascent to the head of Disney. Both of these guys were clearly destined for great things very early in their careers. Their Level 7 thinking ensured the rule book us mortals use was discarded and big and ambitious moves defined their careers. Alibaba, the biography of Jack Ma was also an eye-opener, at face level he wasn’t exceptional early, but turned out to be through a combination of graft and then making big bets.
I’ve just finished Atomic Habits by James Clear and found it excellent. Probably because it’s the type of stuff I’ve been exploring too: personal effectiveness and the good habits that support that. Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed was also a thought-provoking book, an analysis of innovators and their best practices.
I could go on, but that’s a sample of my listening. As well as the books, I also fit in the odd sports podcast: Peter King’s NFL weekly and The Cycling Podcast the two most listened to.
12 Months Of Grind
Back to the grind on the exercise front too. The last two years has seen me only do half a year on the bike. The first half of 2018 and the last half of 2019. Major business change diverted my focus in that period. Looking back, that really was a poor excuse to stop conditioning. A bit hard on myself actually, because I had a weekly personal trainer session every week of 2019. But my cycling miles dropped to less than half of my 2017 mileage.
This year I’ve gone big. Because why not? My previous best was 3,600 miles in a year, so I’ve gone for 4,000 miles this year. The year of my 63rd birthday, I thought it only reasonable to go for a lifetime best. Tracking progress is key as is declaring it publically. My goal is on Strava and I can see day by day if I’m on or off-target. Despite being on holiday until the second week of January, I’m now on track. The key will be consistency, chipping away at the target week by week.
The numbers in this area are many. I track my training hours and miles. My total training stress score. Average heart rate and the time spent in each heart rate zone. My average power. It sounds on the nerdy side and possibly a bit obsessive, but it’s quick, simple and effective. I can measure my fitness improvement. But I can also measure my fatigue and so stop me overdoing it. One surefire way to destroy fitness is to do too much fitness training. Fitness shows up when you’re resting, not exercising.
As well as the annual goal, my cycling event goals remain in place too. 77 very tough miles in Tuscany at the start of April. The 101 miles of Gran Fondo New York in May, five days before I’m 63. Over 300 miles in three days at the end of July on the Hot Chillee London to Paris ride. The latter event being the biggest endurance event I’ve ever tackled in my life. Finally, Prudential Ride London 100 miler in August. That’s 600 of my 4,000 miles right there. I have to admit to being very intimidated by the first event. I won’t really have decent fitness by then and the course is an up and down brute, with 15 miles of strada bianche thrown in to turn the heat up even more.
I’ve used numbers in the sub-headings by design. There’s no doubt at all that numbers enable me to track progress as well as be disciplined. A vague notion of trying meditation, or carving out focus time, or trying to absorb more books, or get fitter will remain vague notions without a target or sense of progress.
The other advantage of the approach is it leads to some discipline in my day or week and I can get more done. I know I have five hours of listening time available to me and I can pick listening material in advance. There’s a two-hour focus slot in my day and I’ll assign a worklist to that slot. I know there are six hours of cycling in my training plan and I’ll get that done.
For most of my life, I’ve seen myself as a bit undisciplined. I think that’s changed in recent years and is changing again now. Intuition and gut and big picture thinking can only get you so far. At some stage, you need The Numbers to measure and guide progress. But also to increase effectiveness: getting more done, but also more of the right stuff. It’s all helpful in defining and enacting my ikigai.
Also published on Medium.