The healthy office

I have a desk job. I have worked in front of a computer for the better part of the last 10 years. Even my free time was spent in front of the screen for much of my life. So naturally I have health issues related to that. A few years ago I started worrying a lot more about my health and about the fact that I was so sedentary. Not only did I take a more disciplined approach to exercising and eating healthy, but I also took a better look at my working habits.

The first step for me was inspecting how much, when and how I worked. I found that on the one hand I felt very unproductive, while on the other I felt overworked. I wasn’t working that much, but it was very scattered – tinkering with something here, writing something there, sketching a bit on the subway, recording things on my phone while outside so I wouldn’t forget them. This made it feel like a lot of work. I was always worried that something was missing, that there was something I could, or should, be doing.

Taking steps to solve this – and I have not yet managed to completely solve it – has had a tremendous impact on my overall health, especially my mental health. I started heavily scheduling my days and committing to deadlines so that I would have to force myself to stop working and to add artificial pressure to the hours I did work. During the last 6 years “biting more than I can chew” has been my default state.

My first piece of advice is to work from home. At least for a time (I’m posting this amidst the 2020 Coronavirus outbreak so it might be the perfect time for you.) Take that time to find out how you work best, and thus how you live best. The phrase “work-life” balance is in the Zeitgeist, but I find it often misleading. It hints at something that I don’t find any less healthy than being in a shared office: letting non-work related things interfere with your work. What I feel people really want is to simply work less.

So that shall be our focus for now: how to work less (while getting more done.)

First, a definition. When I use the word “work” in this article, I don’t necessarily mean your 9-to-5 job. I mean the thing that is your passion, the thing that drives you, that moves you forward. The thing that, if you had to hypothetically, stay at home for 2 to 3 weeks with nothing else to do, you would just do naturally. It could coincide with your job, it could be profitable for you. If it is, great. If it isn’t, don’t worry. This will in one way or another apply to everything you do.

My proposal is not some whoowhoo work-life balance thing. No. Quite the opposite. Make your work your absolute number one priority. Let nothing interfere with it. It must be sacred. This is why the first step is to work from home. When you do that, not only are you in full control of your schedule, but you’re also in control of any disturbances.

1) Make work the very first thing you do in your day

“But my morning routine…” NO!

“But my breakfast…” NO!

“But my…” NO!

“But I have kids…” then your kids are your work. If you don’t think kids are your work then you shouldn’t have kids (yes I’m judging you.) If you want to do something before your kids wake up, then wake up earlier. Continue reading.

“But my partner/mother/father/whoever is sick and needs my care…” then that’s your work. If you want to do something before that, then wake up earlier. Continue reading.

Note that your work doesn’t need to be the same all the time. Yes, life throws curveballs at you. You make the curveball your work and you deal with it. Make it a priority, don’t let it just happen to you. You have to happen to it.

Create a habit of waking up and getting shit done. The time after waking up is a time where your mind is still rested, at ease. It’s empty. It didn’t yet have time for distractions to creep up, and random thoughts are yet to appear. Usually you will wake up with one thing on your mind: make that your work for the day. Make sure you take care of it. If you don’t, you’ll never stop thinking about it and it will disturb you for the rest of day or until you do it. If it’s something that cannot be done, because you need to be at a certain place or at a certain time, then write it down, make an appointment with yourself or whoever else. Make sure you will not miss it, and then move on. Free your mind of that task so you can devote your thought to something you can do right away.

There is also a way that I’ve found to help me focus on one task in the morning: do that as the last thing you do before bed. Now I know this won’t work for most people. I honestly don’t do it that much. But if I have something that I’m struggling with, I will employ this method. Note that it shouldn’t be literally the last thing you do (i.e. don’t work until you fall asleep.) It should be the last active thing you do. You should stop once you’re feeling tired, and then just Go. To. Bed. You can read a book in bed, or stretch, or whatever helps you wind down, but don’t do something that demands attention like answering emails. Actually don’t look at a screen at all, but that’s a different article.

If you’re doing this, it’s important that you take a long break during the day. Don’t work literally from your first waking minute to your last. You might get a lot of stuff done, but the title of this article has the word “healthy” in it, and in the long term you’ll end up burned out. So structure your work into two chunks: one after you wake up and one before you go to bed. Again, the late night work is something that might not work for everyone or every time, but it is a tool you can use and experiment with. Your work chunks don’t need to be long. Use as much time as you need and have available. It could be one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. Or two hours in the morning. If you’re doing this with your job, then doing four/four or six/two could work. Just experiment.

If you work in a team and have mandatory work hours, then adjust your sleep schedule accordingly. If you must start working at 9, then wake up shortly before 9. The important thing to understand is that you are in control of your life and can simply change things. You can change your sleep schedule, you can change your habits, you can change your appointments, and you can even change your work (you might think you can’t, but you can.)

Pactice deep work. I recommend reading “Deep Work” by Cal Newport. The premise is simple: a focused life is a good life. This will help you get more done in less time. Read. Implement.

2) Take care of yourself

So what should you do in between breaks? Your 9-to-5, for instance, in case you devote your early hours to a hobby or side business. Go for walks. Do chores. Exercise. Meet friends. Do some hobbies. Take a nap. Relax. Etc, etc.

A must, however, is to get out of the house. (I hate that I have to have to say this, but since we’re in the middle of a pandemic right now, don’t go out if you’re sick!)

Go for walks daily. Be in nature daily. Even if all you have in your area is a small garden or park, it will be enough. Simply taking time to relax in a place not made by humans and allowing your mind to take in the odd shapes, the asymmetries, the fractal patterns, the earthy colours, the sounds of birds, of water and wind.

Exercise. You can even kill two birds with one stone by exercising outside. It doesn’t really matter what kind of exercise you do, as long as it keeps you physicaly active, strong and supple. If you don’t know where to start, check out this easy 1-hour at-home training plan by my movement teacher Joseph Bartz: https://josephbartz.de/essays/en/basicworkout1.html. Once you finish this, there are other plans to keep progressing your practice.

Supplement this with regular movement throughout the day. Don’t remain in one position the whole day. Change positions. Take short breaks to move. Focus especially on the spine. Move it in different directions and angles (if you follow Joseph’s plans you will be introduced to a few unconventional spine movements. You can repeat them throughout the day.)

Get a standing desk. Or improvise one. If you do any work on a computer, then this is a must. Find some boxes and place your setup on top of them. Or find a low coffee table or other kind of low furniture to put on your existing desk. Or find something to lift your desk up – some sturdy stools or a stack of pallets. But you shouldn’t necessarily stand the whole day either. Again, variety is the key. Change positions throughout the day.

Sit on the floor (this one is courtesy of Joseph Bartz). If you work on a laptop, place your laptop on the ground or on top of a low object like a coffee table, cushion, etc. Find a semi-comfortable position to sit in and work until it starts to feel uncomfortable. Then change. The goal is to get your body used to being in a wide variety of positions, and also to get into a whole dimension that is often missing (the floor contact.) Eventually the positions will get more comfortable and ideally you’ll be able to hold them for a long time. You can also use a small cushion under your butt or any part that hurts. You can also squat – deep squat that is. Get used to holding it while working. Place your laptop a bit higher – on a chair for instance.

Meditate. Meditation is like training your mind to obey you. Just like gaining more control over your body, gaining control over your mind can be equally, or even more, powerful. This will help you stay focused throughout the day and allow you to keep distractions out while you’re working.

Talk to people, even if online/on the phone. Having such a weird schedule might make social life harder, but recognize that since you are in control of your time, you can make time for other people whenever necessary.

Step 3) Sleep

I won’t go too deep into sleep. It’s a huge subject that I’m not an expert on. What is important to remember is that this too is something you have full control over. It might not seem like it is, but you just need to will it. Take the time to find how you sleep best.

Some things to investigate:

Circadian rhythm. This is your natural waking/sleeping cycle. Most people’s circadian rhythms don’t last 24 hours. That means that without a clock your day would be, let’s say 23 hours, or 25, or 26 hours long. Knowing this you can adjust your sleep schedule accordingly, not only for one day, but over the whole week. The amount of sleep one needs also varies, and thus changes your timings. That means that you will need to adjust eventually, or end up waking up in the middle of the night and going to sleep during the day (a valid strategy, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!)

Sleep cycles. These are the cycles your brain goes through during sleep. They are usually around 90 minutes long. During each cycle, brain activity down and then up. Wake up during during the cycle and you’ll feel groggy, low on energy and tired. Waking up at the end of a cycle is ideal, since your brain is more active, your blood pressure is higher and your body is warmer.

Biphasic sleep – sleeping twice a day. If you figure out your ideal sleep duration (according to sleep cycles) and have a stable week-long sleep schedule, then you might want to divide your sleep in two sessions. Remember when I talked about being fresh and clear-minded when you wake up? Well, what if you could reach that state twice a day? Great! I’m not talking about taking a power nap, but rather a proper sleep. At least 3 hours each time.

No alarm. If you must use an alarm then there’s one rule you cannot escape: NO. SNOOZE.

For “No alarm” to be complete you have to follow the most important rule of all: go to bed when you’re tired. Don’t keep pushing off sleep. You’re telling your body that it’s fine to be overworked. When you’re tired, go to bed. Yes, that means that when you’re feeling drowzzy at 6pm you can go to bed. Yes, you’ll probably wake up at 9pm or something. Use that fresh time to go back to work. Then when you’re tired again, sleep again.

 

With all that said, I know that a lot of these are impossible for most people, for whatever reason. This is also what I have tried or researched, but your situation is different and thus will require different solutions. But if this gets you to at least experiment with one or two things, I consider it a success. The key is experimentation. Find what’s right for you and what fits into your life.

Cigarette butts

There has recently been quite a bit of controversy in Portugal over a bill to fine people for throwing cigarette butts onto the pavement. This is a bill that recognizes cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products as pollutants and also prescribes new ways to dispose of the materials safely and recycle them. Some people in politics and in society at large contested that this bill should even be debated in Parliament, arguing that there are more pressing matters. This dismissal of the problem sparked many conversations between me and my friends and family. Whether it is cigarette butts or something else, there are some heuristics that we should apply to any problem we are faced with. That’s what this essay is about.

Are there bigger and more pressing issues? Yes, definitely. Can they be solved easily? No, they take a lot of effort, a lot of thinking, analysis and years of work over multiple administrations to figure out. Topics like education, the public health system, trade and so on present essentially permanent and timeless issues for governments. They are a balancing act – balancing development, maintenance and policies in such major sectors of society will, for the foreseeable future, be one of the major occupations of a nation’s government. So does that mean that government cannot, or should not, tackle any other issues? Obviously not.

In any significantly deep endeavour, we are faced with several issues to solve and these will naturally have different levels of importance. Importance is not the only metric to consider, though, as some tasks might be incredibly important but at the same time be completely out of your reach to solve. That is, an important task that you also don’t know how to solve should not be given much thought and you should move on to something you can actually contribute to.

This is where accessibility comes in, meaning how accessible or how easy it is to complete the task. If we give tasks an importance value as well as an accessibility score, we can order them by the sum of those two scores and that will be our priority list, with the highest scores being the tasks to be completed first.

This method maximizes tasks completed over time while also allowing one to tackle the more complex problems. The first tasks to be done will be the ones which are important and easy, whereas the last ones will be those which are very hard and unimportant. In the middle fall all the ones which are only slightly important and only slightly hard, as well as those which are very hard but also very important and those which are very easy but not as important. This is what I would call the low-hanging fruit method: go for the lowest-hanging fruit first, the tasks that yield the most “value” for the least time.

Going back to cigarette butts, the extra punishment for throwing them on to the pavement might be a solution or it might do nothing (this will be explored further ahead). In any case the task would fall somewhere in the middle of the priority list, since it is something that can be tackled immediately and has a high potential impact. Cigarette butts are a serious pollutant, with an estimated 12 billion butts being left on the ground every day. They not only add more plastic to the environment (they are essentially made out of plastic fibers), they also release all the toxic chemicals they filter out of the cigarette, like heavy metals lead-210 and polonium-210, carcinogenics such as nitrosamines and obviously nicotine, which have been shown to affect plant growth when cigarette butts are left on the soil.

Another issue I have with this whole controversy is that people seem to not understand the role that the state has – or should have. This is clearly shown by the position “I don’t mind cigarette butts on the street, thus I don’t think the government should care about it” or “this other thing is negatively affecting me, thus I think (or demand) the government should solve that instead.” These are narrow and egotistic views of the state’s role.

I am not politically active. I don’t care much for what this politician said or what that politician thinks about this or that. What I care about is that the whole of the state as an institution fulfills its mission: look after the best interest of the people, present and future. How they go about doing this is the matter of partisan discussions, left versus right, and heated Internet arguments, which I will not go into. I divided the state’s mission into two: looking after the present people and looking after the future people, and that’s very intentional. In our priority list, we could say that the importance score corresponds – or is at least strongly correlated – to the urgency of the task, meaning how far into the future the problem will be unavoidable. With time, certain tasks that might have begun with a low importance score, like decreasing carbon emissions, will go up in importance, simply due to the increasing effect that not addressing the issue has on the people and its “best interest.” So some issues become more important with time. Other issues become less important with time, as technological, economical and social progress makes them less relevant – this usually brings in new issues though.

There is also to consider the impact that each task has over time. Something like tackling carbon emissions might have a much bigger impact over time than adopting a new software in public hospitals. Hence, in a way, reducing carbon emissions is looking more after the interests of future people than new hospital software is.

Once more going back to cigarette butts, I think the fundamental mistake that many people have made when confronted with this issue is that they assume eliminating littering is a now task. “I don’t care about cigarette butts,” “I think something else is more important” and so on, instead of imagining a reality where their grandchildren will not literally step on trash everywhere they go.

With many of these small and seemingly insignificant issues it is often useful to ask oneself “what will this mean for my grandchildren?” That’s one exercise I propose.

Another perhaps unseen consequence of the cigarette butt bill is that it educates people. This has actually been my main argument when discussing the issue with people. If the new law gets even a small percentage of people to stop littering, more than the arguably minute reduction in trash on the street, we will see clear benefits in education. The children of that small percentage of people will not have the example of a parent who throws trash on the pavement. They in turn will not do it. They might confront their friends in school who do litter, since for them it’s so unthinkable. They might change some minds. Their children will definitely grow up in a “littering-free” environment, and the effect spreads. Two generations from now, surrounded by non-litterers, a litterer will naturally feel embarrassed to litter and alter their behaviour. A person who values a clean street might also value clean air and clean water. They might more seriously evaluate their environmental impact and that of their relationships in the world (personal or impersonal). This might lead to other actions, however small, which will similarly cascade into bigger societal changes over time.

Small changes matter.

In looking after the best interests of the people. The state must ensure that not only the immediate needs are met, but also that future generations are better off than current generations. That means having the foresight to identify problems that can be quickly addressed and dealt with, and their long-lasting repercussions.

Eating

Eating. We do it every day. We have to. Our cells, tiny pods of boiling chemical soup that fundamentally constitute us need to be constantly renewed and refueled with new chemicals. That replenishing of the chemical soup is exactly what eating is. That’s what life is. And we do this all the time, gleefully pouring other bits chemical soups into our own chemical soup.

The act of eating has long fascinated and perplexed me. We take another living being (it’s hopefully dead by the time we do this) and turn it into ourselves! We are the combination of all the plants, animals, fungi and bacteria we shove, or allow to be shoved – whatever floats your boat – down our throats. Our bones are made of broccoli, our skin of freshly baked bread and the carbon in our tendons is whisked out of the atmosphere by plants – photosynthesis, another immensely fascinating food-related phenomenon.

So, eating is literally the act of creating oneself – on a molecular, atomic level. I am very conscious of this when I eat. I wonder whether the spoonful of chickpeas and rice I just ate will go into making some of the new knee cartilage I so desperately need. Or perhaps some of it will go to refill the glycogen in my muscles after a hard training session and another part will go to reestablishing chemical balance in my kidneys. I know the science doesn’t necessarily work out like that, but I think it’s fun to think of it this way. My mom always had this fantastic analogy for nutrients: proteins are like the bricks that make up the walls of your house. Carbohydrates are the gasoline that fuels your engine. I have since expanded on this analogy and went on to find all kinds of other analogies for body parts and bodily functions. The analogies are, however, incomplete and I will spare you their naïvety for now.

And as if you needed more arguments as to why eating is such a deeply meaningful activity, there’s one thing that leaves me even more baffled: we share this moment of deep introspection with other people. And we don’t do it by mere chance either – it’s in our blood. Breaking bread is one of the oldest signs of friendship. It has historically been and continues to be one of the fundamental ways we humans show love.
We share meals with people who are important to us, whether it is a cup of coffee on a first date, a grand family dinner or a snack with your buddies.
We need to do it, as the social apes we are, in order to establish deep interpersonal relationships. If you share a meal with a total stranger you immediately create trust and thus a social/emotional bond. And if having stronger social bonds leads to higher chances of survival in nature, it stands to reason that we would be hard-wired to bond to humans who feed us. It makes total sense from an evolutionary perspective.

I have recently experienced this a lot attending Joseph Bartz’s school, where we regularly cook and share meals together, often with total strangers. It’s wonderful how open people become during and after a meal. It’s no wonder any truly important relationship will revolve around the dinning table.

In eating we are exposed, like a machine that needs to be opened up for repairs. We willingly invite others to look into the wires and circuits inside of use, because that’s what food is.

The next time you eat, especially if you are with someone else, I encourage you to bring your attention to this moment of exposure and to reflect upon all the wonderful life taking place there.

One step closer to paradise

Today I showed my game Of The Ruins (you can play it here) to a friend. At the beginning, he had some problems grasping the concept of the game. He didn’t get the controls right away, even after a huge prompt appeared on the screen. That was alright, I thought, as the game was meant to promote experimentation. I ended up telling him he had to hold the mouse button down. He then proceeded to solve the first puzzle and got to the second puzzle, where he spent some time trying to get a grasp of the mechanics. I spurred him on as he seemed to lose faith. I asked him if he understood how something in the game worked. He answered negatively. I told him to find out. And he did. After some experimentation, he solved the second puzzle. So far so good. When he got to the third puzzle, he again got stuck for a moment and then suddenly realized that there must be something somewhere with which he could solve it. And there was. I asked him to test for some bugs and fortunately they didn’t occur. I was relieved, more than happy. His experience with the game seemed frustrating, he seemed to get stuck, and even if the game was made during a game jam, I could not forgive myself for making such an impenetrable puzzle game.
And then he said it. He said the best thing anyone has ever said about any of my games. He said the one thing I least expected to hear in that moment. He asked me “Have you played The Witness?”
The game was made for the 36th Ludum Dare between August 26th and August 29th of 2016. The Witness came out earlier that year, on January 26th. After playing The Witness, shortly after it came out, I became totally and completely obsessed with everything pertaining to its design, Jonathan Blow’s design principles and Jonathan Blow himself as a game developer and as a person. The Witness was undoubtedly the biggest influence in my life as a game developer. Never had I been confronted with such seemingly unrelated ideas as Pottery and Quantum Physics so majestically woven together by the overall design of a game as in The Witness. I consider it one of the best games ever made, not to say the best and definitely the best use of solid game design principles through and through. I’ve always wanted to write something about it. It had such an impact on me that I could not, even if I tried with all my strength, resist ever formalizing my thoughts on it. But I didn’t hurry, for I knew the time would eventually come to write about The Witness. I’ve been thinking and writing in my mind, arranging thoughts into sentences, tinkering with ideas and pondering how to talks about it without bias.
But fuck bias. Someone just said that a little shitty game I made in 72 sleep-deprived hours reminded them of an object of praise that I have enshrined in my own personal Church as the holy fruit of the divine itself. Today I’m going to bed with a smile.