Infotainment triggers

This is a great bit of advice I give people a lot that needs to be written down.

There are days I don’t feel like following my training plan. You may find it hard to believe, but I, too, am human, in a manner of speaking. I, too, bleed the same red blood as you do, figuratively speaking (not literally red of course, I’m just saying by way of analogy that we have certain similarities).

On those days it’s a drag to get myself dressed, ready, and started. On the other hand, it’s easy to convince myself to put earbuds in and start listening to Dan Golding’s book about how to train the right way for exactly the sort of triathlon I’m trying to train for. This bombards me with helpful propaganda:

Training smart means you do not avoid the things you don’t like to do. You find out what the best athletes do- and you do that!

Golding, Dan. Triathlon: Winning at 70.3: How To Dominate The Middle Distance . Kindle Edition.

Now that you mention it, I do feel I’m better than those filthy casuals!

These are the things that separate champions from athletes who never reach their potential because they skipped the fundamentals, the little things that actually matter.

Yeah, yeah!

For 70.3, you need to do what is necessary for success, not just “what you feel like” on the day.

Well, I guess since I’m pro and not a filthy casual I’d better get dressed and do what’s on that fancy, individualized training plan for today.

As you step up to 70.3, pay attention to the small stuff. It does matter! If you actually do it, it can be a major advantage for you as most people will skip the small stuff…thinking it won’t make that much difference. But you and I know that it does.

Mr. Golding, tell me more about how I can act in accordance with my recently reinflated self-concept as a better person than other people.

Remember you are unlikely to get better if you keep practicing poor technique. Do the drills and mentally focus on the “feel” of the stroke instead of mindlessly blasting up and down the pool.

Sometimes I’ll continue listening to this book for a while during a cycling or running workout, other times I’ll switch over to a podcast or a different audiobook. But once I’m started, I don’t have trouble finishing.

In traditional motivation theory, you’d do this unaided by technology by simply thinking about what a good runner looks like and does, and visualizing yourself being that person and hitting such and such goal. And while that’s a useful skill to build up, it takes significant willpower where infotainment takes almost none and works every time.

I’ve generalized this idea over time and started looking for infotainment triggers for every area. For example, Jocko Willink’s audiobook on discipline would be perfect if you’re trying to get in the habit of waking up earlier in the morning. MMA rounds are perfect in between weightlifting or heavy bag sets. Some triggers are better than others, and making the following list of qualities is the other motivation for writing this post.

Qualities of a perfect infotainment trigger:

  • Genuinely engaging: Doesn’t require a lot of convincing to choose it over mindless leisure
  • Self-propaganda: Strongly and repeatedly reminds you why doing the thing is important to you (this fills in for the traditional activity where you think of as many reasons as possible for achieving a goal you’ve set, and reflect on these as much as possible)
  • Directly related to the activity: Not necessary, since MMA isn’t directly related to lifting weights, but definitely better if you can manage it (i.e. your preferred broscience YouTuber might be a better choice for lifting)
  • Educational and shapes your internal ideal: From a previous post, “And probably the deepest [intrinsic motivator] for long-term development is to develop expert knowledge of how improvement in the activity is trained, treating it as an applied skill.”
  • Doesn’t conflict with beginning the activity itself: This is very important and can be tough, so I’ll explain at length in the next paragraph

The biggest potential danger is that infotainment can replace the activity you’re trying to produce, because you may end up going down the infotainment rabbithole and wasting the time that was supposed to go toward the activity. For example, maybe you don’t like doing your budget for ten minutes per week but you do like listening to Dave Ramsey BTFO idiot call-ins on his podcast. There’s a danger that if you click on one Dave Ramsey video on YouTube, you’ll end up watching YouTube for a couple of hours. This is particularly tricky because, unlike exercise, most of the things you want to inspire yourself to do require your full attention and aren’t amenable to listening to a podcast or audiobook, so the transition is key. I’d split these activities into two types: deep work and shallow work. The choice needs to have a relatively short fuse (10% the length of the intended activity is a good rule of thumb) and it has to be inconvenient to go down the attention-sucking rabbithole.

As an example of deep work, right now my biggest focus for improvement is to become a great student by plowing through as much graded work as possible in my peak productive hours each day, between 10 and 2. I obviously can’t listen to a podcast during this time. But I can propagandize myself as part of my 30-minute warmup:

Soon after I met David Dewane for a drink at a Dupont Circle bar, he brought up the Eudaimonia Machine. Dewane is an architecture professor, and therefore likes to explore the intersection between the conceptual and the concrete. The Eudaimonia Machine is a good example of this intersection. The machine, which takes its name from the ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia (a state in which you’re achieving your full human potential), turns out to be a building. “The goal of the machine,” David explained, “is to create a setting where the users can get into a state of deep human flourishing—creating work that’s at the absolute extent of their personal abilities.” It is, in other words, a space designed for the sole purpose of enabling the deepest possible deep work. I was, as you might expect, intrigued.

As Dewane explained the machine to me, he grabbed a pen to sketch its proposed layout. The structure is a one-story narrow rectangle made up of five rooms, placed in a line, one after another. There’s no shared hallway: you have to pass through one room to get to the next. As Dewane explains, “[The lack of circulation] is critical because it doesn’t allow you to bypass any of the spaces as you get deeper into the machine.”

The first room you enter when coming off the street is called the gallery. In Dewane’s plan, this room would contain examples of deep work produced in the building. It’s meant to inspire users of the machine, creating a “culture of healthy stress and peer pressure.”

As you leave the gallery, you next enter the salon. In here, Dewane imagines access to high-quality coffee and perhaps even a full bar. There are also couches and Wi-Fi. The salon is designed to create a mood that “hovers between intense curiosity and argumentation.” This is a place to debate, “brood,” and in general work through the ideas that you’ll develop deeper in the machine.

-Cal Newport, “Deep Work”, Rule #1: Work Deeply

For me, room number 1 is a walk on the bike trail outside to make use of attention restoration theory (discussed later in the book), while dwelling on my previous great grades, how few hours I’ve put in to get them, how great of a student I must be, and how grandiose and megalomaniacal I’m going to feel after cruising effortlessly through a project that was designed to take 8 hours. Room number 2 is a great place to stick 15 minutes of audio self-propaganda during the walk back. (Work starts in room 3.) The fifteen-minute limit can be enforced with a sleep timer and the transition can be managed by opening the stuff I’ll need on my computer during the last couple minutes.

Shallow work is trickier because you don’t want to waste five minutes listening to Jordan Peterson every time you have to wash benis. This is where you make the Skinner box your friend, because after you overcome the hump for several days in a row you stop needing the extra boost most of the time, and just use it when you need it. Most days, triathlon-wise, I only need to realize that I could listen to that book I like and it would definitely work. That confidence alone is enough to get me up and moving by pure association 9 times out of 10, and I’ll usually start listening to something else or just think about stuff. But on those days that I still need the stimpack, I have my favorite trusty sources of propaganda ready to go.

All of that is to say the way to win in the area of shallow work is to focus on a couple of tasks you hate at a time and use the propaganda until you don’t need it. Except on the days you do need it, then you can spend the extra few minutes. It’s like hearing your football coach yell the same thing over and over until you’ve internalized it and, years later, you can hear him in your head still yelling that thing. Americans don’t get this, but willpower is about 95% socially constructed. The 5% is choosing the friends and community who will construct your 95%.

Picking good sources will be tricky at first, because it’s very particular to you individually, but you’ll get better quickly just by paying attention to what actually works for you. It might be surprising, so keep an open mind about it (as long as it’s not immoral, e.g. Joel Osteen or pornography). If Marcus Aurelius doesn’t do it for you but Sesame Street does, use the one that works. The point of this exercise is edification via efficacy, not the other way around (the other way around works, but it’s a different exercise).

About Aeoli Pera

Maybe do this later?
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1 Response to Infotainment triggers

  1. LOADED says:

    Good for you. Now time to unlearn the special snowflake concept of mind that I am trapped in as well!

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