20 minute interruptions

Very, very early in my self-improvement journey, I tried adding a 20 minute timer to my life. Every 20 minutes of my waking life, it went off. I’d explicitly say to myself what it was I was doing (“Watching TV” or “Talking to Fred”). It’s important to have a verbal or written note of what you’re doing.

I added a specific prompt at one point: “What am I doing, and why?”. I don’t think goals are how I think about things today, but it’s how I tried to think back then (goal factoring). Today I might ask, “What am I doing, and do I want to be doing it? Do I want to be doing it this way?”

The basic 20-minute check-in process was very helpful to me. Some benefits:

  • Ding! What am I doing? It gave me an awareness of time. How long do things last? Our subjective sense of time doesn’t always match. For example, doing my daily chores takes about 20 minutes. A typical conversation with a friend takes 60-120 minutes for me. But the chores feel way longer to me!
  • What am I doing, and do I want to be doing it? Interrupting default activities (a type of inertia). Watching TV until I get bored of it takes me 2-10 hours, if I don’t have a timer. Having a timer interrupt me let me say “well, maybe this will be the last episode, then.” It’s easy to get into a low-energy state for leisure activities where you don’t notice the passage of time. And it’s important to note, I don’t have any rules. I can keep watching TV all night if I want to. This helps me avoid doing it out of pure inertia. (It also really keyed me in that TV does not really “recharge” my batteries. Other relaxation is better.)
  • Do I want to be doing it, or doing it this way? Interrupting bad approaches (a type of inertia). Sometimes, I get stubborn. I’ll keep trying to solve a problem in one way, for way too long. Having a regular interruption keys me into how long I’ve been doing that. I’ll notice I should maybe try a different approach or a work-around. Or give up.
  • Ding! Providing a check-in. I’ll just take stock, and say “hey, am I really having fun? is this even useful?”. Sometimes I’m just doing something dumb. Or sometimes I forget to have fun or take a break for too long. This is my reminder to check in with my strategic system; my emotions; my body.


One of the more useful things I did was to start logging all my technical problems. Whenever I hit a problem, I write an entry in problem-log.txt. Here’s an example

Q: Why isn't the printer working? [ SOLVED ]
A: sudo cupsenable HL-2270DW

// This isn't in the problem log, but the issue is that CUPS will silently disable the printer if it thinks there's an issue. This can happen if you pull a USB cord mid-print.

I write the date, the question, and the answer. Later, when I have a tough or annoying problem, I try to grep problem-log.txt. I’ll add a note if I solve a problem using the log, too.

This was an interesting project to look at 5 years later. I didn’t see benefits until 1-2 years later. It does not help me think through a problem. It’s hard to remember to do. But, over time it’s built up and become invaluable to me. I hit a tricky problem, and I can’t immediately find an answer on the web. I find out it’s in problem-log.txt. And, someone’s written it exactly with my hardware (and sometimes even my folder names) correctly in there. Cool!

Here’s another example:

Q: How do I connect to the small yellow router?

Not every problem gets solved. Oh well.

What I know about sleep schedules

I’ve had pretty irregular sleep schedules at times, so I have some tricks for making it more regular, or moving it back/forwards. Take everything here with a spoonful of salt. All of these tricks are relatively long term (1-4 weeks) and won’t instantly fix your schedule. Most of them are from experience, with some knowledge backing them.

Also, as a note, I wake up whenever I feel like it (I don’t have a day job). I have used many of these same tricks with an alarm and a day job when I had those, but I might be forgetting some details.

Quality of sleep. First off, make sure the sleep you are getting, is good. I recommend something like a Zeo ideally, because it’s hard to get a subjective feel for how well you’re sleeping. Ultimately, it’s important to you to sleep enough and sleep well. Sleeping at the right times is important to other people.

Quantity of sleep. Get enough sleep. Enough said. If you have a good quality of sleep, you don’t use an alarm, and you’re waking up relaxed, you’re probably fine.

Here are some things I’ve found screw up my sleep schedule and affect my quality of sleep.

  • Caffein affects schedule AND quality. Caffein at 2pm, affected my quality of sleep at 2am. This is something I just COULD NOT have figured out without a Zeo. Quality of sleep is hard to diagnose.
  • Bright/blue light late affects schedule. Use f.lux or a similar program for your computer. Be aware that most programs of this kind don’t actually WORK for your phone–I don’t use a smartphone, personally. Don’t turn on room lights late at night. I find I’m good if I turn lights off about 3 hours before I want to sleep. Turning on lights very late at night (when you’d usually be asleep), even briefly, screws up your circadian rhythm.
  • Light pollution affects quality. Light while you sleep sucks. I sleep next to a big window, and I often get poor sleep based on whether neighbors have their lights on. Or sometimes, I just need to sleep during the day.
    • A sleep mask gives you EXCELLENT quality of sleep, but can screw up your schedule because you don’t get early-morning light–you’ll sleep longer and drift forward.
    • Blackout curtains are like a sleep mask, but worse, because they don’t block light as well and they’re expensive. They could be better if you have light pollution from one window only, and they’re okay in combination with a timer light (see below).
    • Cover any electronics with lights, especially blinking or blue LEDs. I use black electrical tape.
  • Allergens affect quality
    • Air quality massively affected my sleep. I’d wake up with my throat scratchy, but it took a while to figure out it was affecting my sleep. I now use an ionizing air filter. The trick to air filters is that you have to regularly (once a month) clean the prefilter, and replace the main filter every 6-12 months.
    • Itching. Sometimes this was just mold, which other than an air filter there’s not much I can do about, but also make sure to regularly wash your sheets. Food (don’t eat in bed!) or dust mites can make me itchy.
  • Other drugs may affect schedule and quality. When I started on marijuana I found it massively screwed up my sleep schedule. YMMV. Some foods can too, especially before bed.
  • Relaxation level affects quality. If you’re tense (neurotic especially), you’ll sleep poorly. I haven’t done a lot of experimentation with this one, because it comes up rarely for me. Deliberate relaxation and self-love (the hippie kind, not the sexual kind) before bed can give nice dreams, though.
  • Exercise before bed, or working right before bed, affects at least schedule. Both tend to keep me up.
  • Playing videos before bed affects quality. I might RIGHT before, like 2 minutes–I have some maybe bad habits as a bachelor. I think this doesn’t let your brain relax properly, you need more “down” time.
  • Working in bed may affect schedule. As a general tip, it may be better to avoid working or otherwise being in bed during the day, to cue your body that bed=sleep.
  • Nightmares affects quality. Unfortunately, I can’t be much help on this one. I rarely remember my dreams.
  • Depression affects schedule and possibly quality. Depression makes you sleep more, mania makes you sleep less. If like me you become depressed when you don’t get enough sunlight, you can end up stuck nocturnal. A bright artificial light during the day is a partial solution.
  • Having a regular schedule is self-reinforcing. If you regularly go to bed at the same time or wake up at the same time, you’ll keep doing it. Also, you’ll get cranky if you don’t. [A similar principle applies to dieting–if you eat meals at the same time each day, you’ll get a sudden appetite then. If you don’t eat meals regularly, you won’t have an appetite, or will have one only when actually hungry. But for sleep, regular is good]
  • Age. At 20, I needed 12 hours of sleep a day. At 30, I need only 8-10. This varies a LOT per-person, too. Some people just need more/less sleep.

If you want to move your sleep schedule forward, it’s fairly easy. Just stay up later. I have only performed the “roll forward until you’re the right time” operation once, and don’t recommend it. Normally I hit a wall at dawn. Go forward by no more than 1 hour a day, preferably half that, or it won’t stick. If you do it for more than a few days, you’ll feel weird and sleep deprived.

If you want to move your sleep schedule back a significant amount (more than just undoing a recent 1-hour forward shift) I recommend:

  • Do it gradually. Half an hour a day, probably more like 15 minutes. Don’t bother trying to schedule it.
  • Have caffein AS SOON as you get up (within 15-30 minutes, the sooner the better). This moves your circadian rhythm back, and also stops you falling back asleep. Again I don’t use alarms these days, but it’s a great combo to set a schedule.
  • You can try adjusting it by taking small (0.5mg) melatonin supplements before your usual bedtime, if you’ve just drifted forward a bit
  • Make sure you are getting natural light if possible. If you aren’t, or if it’s winter and you want extra help: hook up your lights, especially a sun lamp, to an automated timer so you get bright white light in your room around when you’d like to wake up. This can fix problems caused by blackout curtains.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a horrifying trick I learned while sleep-deprived at my first job after college. To get up while incredibly sleep deprived, set two alarms, about 30 minutes apart. After the first one, hit the alarm, chug significant portions of an energy drink on reflex while mostly asleep, then immediately fall back sleep. On the second one, actually wake up–the caffein will help keep you awake.

Life-logging in 2019

I’ve been keeping a time log since somewhere around 2011. A time log is a journal with a complete record of everything I do. I’ve become very consistent about it, so this seemed like a good time to write up my current habits for anyone interested.

This is going to be a mixture of information about life-logging, how I organize things, and my current schedule, because they’re not really separate things.

There’s an interesting story about how I systematically broke everyone one of my habits, and it took me 17 years to get in a daily routine after that, but that’s a story for another time.

If you’re curious, I’d guess it takes me 2 hours a week spread out to do my life-logging, 1 hour to type it up, and 1-2 hours to do my weekly review. In my mind the original life-logging doesn’t cost me anything because it’s so automatic, it’s zero-energy, and it has some psychic benefits. By psychic benefits I’m talking about the same kind of thing you get from GTD–you’re not constantly thinking about or trying to remember things that are already written down in a trusted system. Typing it up and review are not free.

Time log (2011-)

I keep a written (pen and paper) time log which I normally just call my “log book”. Each entry has the current time and what I’m doing. I typically record an entry either when I start an activity, finish one, or notice I’ve switched activities. I’m on volume 9.

Today’s page starts like this (italics are censorship or words added for clarity):

Date: 2019-12-17, Tue
12:02pm Woke up on my own slightly before alarm. Dream about […]. (7h12m sleep)
[100ml yellow rockstar recovery. (33mg caffein, 400mg taurine–from front material)]
Morning data log (see below)
Brushed teeth
12:55pmCancelled torrent verification–I already know this will fail
Responded to gnu coreutils ‘date’ thread
health stuff
2:02pmTrying qutebrowser. Feels very productive.
2:04pm[Coke Zero Vanilla, 1 can]

I’m not fastidious about what the time represents. The questions I most often ask are “when did this happen roughly” and “do I have any big portions of my day I’m not time-logging”. I’m less concerned with exactly how long I spent doing each particular activity.

There are some things I try to consistently write down every single time, including:

  • Exactly when I woke up, especially if I don’t use the computer first thing (see “Sleep Log” below)
  • Any dream if I remember it
  • Any food or drink I consume, with enough information that I could generate nutritional facts if I wanted. I omit food amounts if it’s a pain to measure. 1 package of ramen: yes, 125g chicken curry: no. I put food and drinks in hard brackets: []
  • Watching a movie, TV show, youtube, or reading a book. I used to underline these, now I’m trying putting them between underscores: _. I’m switching to write these in a computer-understandable way but it’s a work in progress.
  • Anything health-related, including symptoms, drugs I took, and bathroom visits. Drugs are a type of food [], the rest is freeform.
  • Travel from point A to B
  • Phone calls. I don’t always manage this one. While you’re picking up the phone is a really garbage time to try and write something.
  • Any time I change timezones
  • Any time I work on a project for more than a couple minutes
  • “Where did that time go”: one of the goals here is to have no huge gaps. If I spent time browsing the web or researching, some vague notes on what about. If I talk to someone in person, noting who and possibly what topics we talked about (talking in person often feels like minutes in my head but hours on the clock).

Here are things I don’t write down:

  • Information that I’ve put elsewhere. See below for specifics on what else I have! This one isn’t hard and fast, but I’m a believer in things being in “exactly one place” as much as possible–I do make some exceptions since I’m working with paper
  • General-purpose notetaking, thoughts about what’s going on, TODO lists, etc. This is just a boring ol’ record of time. I do sometimes jot down TO-DOs when out of the house since this is the only paper I carry on me, but at the rate of 1-3 a week. I also may write down where I’m at in a really long-running computer project, just to make sure I can find it later.
  • Anything a human shouldn’t have to write or read. For example, I could write down the youtube URL or the UPC code of everything I buy… but nobody has time for that, and I’d only write it down wrong.

At the front of the book I have a table with guides to abbreviations, ingredients in things I have often (ex. caffein amounts or recipes). In the back is my bookkeeping section (see below).

I am currently using the Leuchtturm1917 gridded notebook, with date labels at the top of the page. I’ve been experimenting with felt micron pens–I’m looking for something that can write easily, but won’t smear when I close the book. I’ve used Moleskins in the past–I stopped using them because 2 of 5 split at the spine for me. Leuctturm seems a bit better but more expensive–time will tell.

One a week, I type up my time log up to the last page. I’m working on my backlog slowly. This lets me search more easily. I have plans to someday cross-reference better in a computer system (for example, include nutritional info, link to youtube videos, etc).

Bookkeeping (2019-)

Fun fact: b-oo-kk-ee-ping is the only word in the English language with three consecutive double letters. Bookkeeping is keeping a record of what you earn and spend, or what you buy and sell.

For the most part, I pay for everything using a credit or debit card, which I’ve been doing since 16 so that I have a financial record for my own benefit. Most banks offer an easy export. I get paper copies, then once I download the PDFs from my bank, throw out the originals (I’ve checked one or two match the PDFs by hand). I use mint.com for the purpose of having a CSV export from my bak statements. I used to put this export online (currently broken, check back soon).

Starting a few months ago, I started keeping a weekly record by hand. Every time I spend money, I’ll put a $ symbol in my time log,

2:21am Amazon $

and add a bookkeeping entry (real thing is prettier).

2019-12-15, Sun
[ ] Amazon -29.21 -236.07
Choline citrate, 500g

The entry includes:

  • The date (2019-12-15)
  • Where I spent the money (Amazon)
  • How much money (29.21)
  • How much total I’ve spent this week (236.07)
  • What I bought (Choline citrate, 500g). If it was more than one thing, how much each item cost. I’ll try and write price-per-pound if I’m buying bulk food or meat. If I’m buying more than one of something, I’ll write how many I bought and how much each is. I’d like to consistently write down how much of something I got (ex. 16oz of cheese) but I don’t at all yet.
  • If it’s something that needs to be delivered, I’ll write a checkbox. Then when it arrives, I’ll check the box and write down the date it arrived to the right. This way I can easily scan and see if something never got delivered.

Since I use the same book for my time log and my bookkeeping, bookkeeping goes from right to left, two pages per week. At the end of the book, I keep

  • a running record of any debts I owe
  • any undelivered packages from the previous log book

During my weekly review process, I copy this information to my (digital) weekly review and add it up by category to check against my budget. I used to check it against my bank statements, but it takes forever and it’s easier to just be really good about writing down everything to start with. Checking totals and category totals is pretty time consuming the way I do it, I’ll probably automate it soon.


My current categories are:

  • taxes, bills, rent: Predictable expenses, no need to check these on a regular basis. I separate out medical bills in my summary, which are not regular.
  • travel, hard drives, moving: Big but one-off expenses. Currently I don’t have a way to budget these.
  • charity: I aim for 10% of my income after taxes (a tithe)
  • other: The main budget category, I try to keep this at $1000/month ($240/week). I actually break it down into categories like “food”, “groceries”, and “luxuries” so I know what happened, as well as pulling out any single big expenses.

Weekly Schedule (2019-)

My current schedule is weekly:

  • Monday: Do meal planning for the week, and grocery shopping for the week if needed.
  • Tuesday: Cook food for the week.
  • Thursday: Batch day.
    Do all the small chores (<1 hour) on one day. I aim for around 2-4 hours of chores, but I’m fine skipping a batch day if I don’t really have anything. I almost always clean my room and do laundry at minimum. I also have a running list of small tasks: call the doctor, clean the fridge, fix SSL certs.
  • Friday: Review day.
    I’ll do a weekly review, and a monthly one if it’s the last weekly review of the month. Then I’ll type up the timelog up to that point in time. For my weekly review, which I do on my computer, I write down
    • How much sleep I got on average
    • What I did each day of the week (summary of that day’s time log). Typically once I cut out really boring things (brush your teeth), food, movies, etc there’s not all that much left.
    • Accomplishments. Anything I got done this week. Also, any big milestones reached (finished X) even if the last step wasn’t that impressive.
    • Reflection/things learned: Did anything major happen? Did I learn any new facts? This is my time to look at the big picture and thing about how my life is going lately and where I’d like it to go. Also, if anything especially good/bad happened, I try to think about why and how to make things go well next time.
    • Finances. I copy down my expenses for the week and total them by category.
  • Saturday: Nothing planned.
  • Sunday: Nothing planned.

I haven’t done batch cooking in a while, but I’m also trying to run out my food supplies because I’m about to move, so we’ll see if it sticks around.

Daily Log (2019-)

Every morning, I record:

  • The date and time I’m recording
  • How much sleep I got (but not when I went to sleep or woke up)
  • What day it is in my schedule
  • The temperature of the room
  • My body temperature (am I running a fever?)
  • How much exercise I got yesterday, in minutes (and what type)
  • My weight

I don’t think it matters that much how you do these measurements, but it’s important to be consistent (for example, weight with clothes on/off?)

If I have a specific habit I’m trying to pick up (say, brushing my teeth twice a day or meditating) I might record that for a while too each day. I used to record a mission for the day, but I dropped the habit.

Automatic Logs

I put all my computer logs in a single combined format, and sync them to a single location, starting in 2019. The format is basically <date> [<log name>:<computer name>] <Log entry>. I don’t have a great process to view logs yet.

Sleep Log (2019-) / Keystoke Activity Log (2013-)

I log which hours I was asleep. I live alone and tend to fall asleep first thing after closing my laptop in bed, or at least with a video playing in the background, which makes this relatively easy. I keep a computer log of whether I’m using my keyboard (I almost never do anything with just the mouse) for each minute using a custom-built keylogger (it records activity but not passwords).

Then I run it through a custom script (included in link) which says which broad periods I was active. The biggest inactive period in a day is when I was asleep.

~ $ sleep?
Report period: 2019-12-17 00:00:00 – 2019-12-17 16:21:06 (16:21:06s)
Inactive: 2019-12-17 04:50:18 – 2019-12-17 12:02:58 ( 7:12:40s)

I was asleep from 4:50am to 12:02pm. I make sure to write down when I wake up into my time log in case I don’t use the computer first thing. This has been much better at guessing when I fell asleep than anything else I’ve tried.

If you don’t fall asleep at a computer, I have some ideas around using a motion sensor (cheap webcams can see in the dark)

Chromium History Log (2013-)

I use Chromium as my only web browser. I export the history and bookmarks every time I do a backup, and put it all in a standard log format (basically time + URL). Currently I only record each history entry once.

For futureproofing, I archive every webpage I go to on an irregular basis (about once a year). Archiving pages doesn’t work super well but it’s better than nothing.

Video/TV Log (2019-)

I watch my movies using noice, either directly on my television, or streamed from my media server to my laptop. When I start watching something, it automatically gets logged (including what the movie is, the path, how long it is etc). Same for when I stop, so I know if I quit early.

Youtube is included in my chromium history (see above). Sadly I’m not sure I can get ‘how much of this video did I watch’ from my format–only that I visited the video.

For futureproofing, I automatically archive every youtube video I watch.

Bash History (2011-)

This one is pretty simple. My Linux shell history (everything I run from the command line, which is basically everything I do outside a browser) is saved, forever. This one goes back to 2011 for my laptops.

Scanning (2014-)

I scan all documents I write, mail I get, etc. and generally throw out the originals. I organize everything by hand, and keep everything as image files.

I use a flat folder structure, which is to say I have a “scans” folder and then a bunch of folders in it like “taxes – 2019”. No nesting. This was my main takeaway from GTD for Hackers and I use flat folders for most digital organization.

I use the Doxie Go feed-through scanner (doesn’t need a computer, writes directly to SD which I love). I recently got a Canon Lide 400 flatbed scanner (works on linux) which I use to scan bound books like my time log.

Who else does this stuff?

As far as I know I came up with this stuff independently. I’ve read plenty of time-management resources (which tend to be good) and experimental journaling resources (which tend to be… scarce?).

  • Lion Kimbro: “Make a complete map of every thought you think”. General journaling. Inteview.
  • Fenn Lipowitz (my roommate): Time log, with an emphasis on being completely machine-readable. Being machine-readable means click for pretty graphs. I took inspiration from how machine-parsable this was recently, but I want to keep my freehand sections too.
  • Bryan Bishop (acquaintance): meetlog, a system for recording conversations and topics of conversation. Overall I didn’t find this useful because I don’t know hundreds of people. The format is so-so, largely because the author can type very fast, including real-time transcripts. I got the inspiration to write topics of conversation while talking from this. I do something similar if I spend a long time thinking or researching, too.
  • Bullet Journaling: I dunno, if you’re super lost and don’t know how to write a journal/TODO list, some guy figured it out for you! It’s just the basics that you’d figure out on your own, but it may save time. The site is better than the book. I independently invented most of their notation for TODO lists, I don’t find it too useful for a journal. Other peoples’ bullet journal pages are also useful, not just the original author’s.

Review Habit

When I’ve talked to successful people, the one habit they pretty much all have is some kind of daily review process. Often journaling as well, but very specifically some kind of review process. I want to be a successful person, and I can understand how this would help, so I want that. I’ve tried to set it up before, but I never end up journaling every day.

The typical way to set up a habit is to link it to another existing habit. For a daily habit, you try to link it into an existing part of your daily routine. Here’s the problem: I don’t have any major daily habits. I don’t eat every day. I don’t brush my teeth at night every day. I don’t take a shower every day. I check my email, which is how I tried it before, which worked OK but it turns out I don’t do that every day either.

Daily: Wake up and go to the bathroom to put in contacts. Grab my journal and write a daily review for the previous day. The contents of the review are

  1. What I remember doing the day before
  2. Which aspects were good
  3. Which aspects were bad
  4. Changes I can make to get more of the good and less of the bad. I’m not allowed to name a change I’ve named before.

I’m making sure to write down

  • Good/bad aspects I have no idea how to affect
  • Things I did which were both ‘todos’ and things that used time (for example, derping and talking to people for a long while)

I’ve also been writing my daily to-do list at the same time.

Weekly: Every monday evening, talk to <name> on Skype. Discuss the general direction my life has gone the last week and where I want it to go, and how to make those two accord. Can be as long/short as I want. I designed this to be with someone else because I didn’t anticipate doing it on my own. I haven’t done this one yet, although one Monday did pass.

Monthly: Spend two hours on the 2nd of the month (the 2nd so I notice dates). Review how the daily and weekly systems have been working, and how they need to be revised. I haven’t done this one yet. I’ve publically precommitted $100 to do this the remaining months of the year.

Rationality Techniques 1

CFAR usually designs their techniques to help people Get Stuff Done. I have a failure mode of Getting The Wrong Stuff Done, so this time through their workshop, I focused on improving techniques to explicitly have steps around pursuing the correct terminal goals (which I’ll here call “terminal goal techniques”).

Original technique: Goal-factor
New terminal goal technique:

  1. Find an instrumental goal toward another instrumental goal.
  2. Embark on that goal provisionally, while also making a plan to acquire more information about whether it’s a good idea and better plans are available.
  3. Periodically re-evaluate to make sure it’s the best goal and you’re gathering information.

Continue reading