Priority management and energy dissipation

I can’t emphasise enough the delicate nature of wisely choosing your priorities. I’m effectively drowning with respect to mine. Either choose 2-3 most critical top-level areas of focus, or become fairly laissez-faire at handling a multitude of interests with the respective flops or continuously postponed milestones. Or I’m clueless.

In the previous four months, beyond everything I’ve struggled to sustain, which I will address shortly, I initiated and dropped a series of projects.

First, I invested 30 minutes daily to continue developing Japanese Kanji using the Heisig method where I left off six years ago. Even at 15 daily minutes, enough to synthesize 5 new Kanji at my rhythm and not including the time to re-explore some subset of the already learned ideograms, I couldn’t harvest sufficient energy to sustain the habit.

I also invested 30 daily minutes into a series of hand drawing tutorials, which, too, after a few weeks, needed to abandon.

The challenge is not necessarily finding the free 15-30 minutes on the calendar to dedicate to independent hobbies, but managing the accumulated activities mentally and emotionally, since they tend to linger in the mind throughout the day, draining more energy.

Since three months ago I’ve intended to similarly invest 30-60 daily minutes to developing a palatable level of basic German. 30 would have easily sufficed for my purposes, considering the shortcuts and efficiency acquired over the years, as well as the efficient utilization of the Pareto principle. The three months gradually turned into three weeks, then three days, and now, well, I’m already three days in Berlin, and you know the story.

And the above resulted in spite of my love for languages and the relative ease with which I tend to pursue them. I simply did not diligently concentrate my efforts and energy to the task in the midst of all my other activities.

Now I’m in Berlin and feel foolish for not being capable of even basic broken conversation in German. Embarrassing. But such are my expectations. I’m not used to spending any significant amount of time in a country where I don’t speak the native language. Not for many years, and especially not in a place where I appear relatively local as opposed to in a place like Thailand. I recognize that here in Berlin I can ‘get by’ on English or other of my languages constantly encountered here. But this is not the experience I yearn. I’ve grown used to frequenting hole-in-the-wall establishments, laundromats, or other hidden joints where by far not everyone communicates in any non-German language familiar to me. I’ve encountered these situations a time too many, and don’t enjoy this communication barrier, irrespective that other travelers embrace this situation as an adventure in it’s own right. In any case, I’ve reached a peak in the wave of priority management.

Three days into Berlin and I still have not initiated the motions in developing German… And what has kept me occupied? The search for a flat to stay during the next three months, for starters. I too procrastinated with respect to this, except I have not the slightest inclination towards travel and logistics management until having reached a critical point. Despite the years of repeating these motions, it feels like a needle injection every time, which I would genuinely prefer in exchange for the logistics management handling itself.

Writing occupies a respectable part of my time, be it writing content for this blog, in my daily journal, or simple idea gathering for future material.

Daily exercise and quality nutrition takes time to manage and maintain, despite having severely automated this process. As I was conducting field research for pull-up bars or surfaces in parks or otherwise, I have yet to find something of utility. For example, see the following playground in my neighborhood:

I’m not sure on the merits of the angular design, but how is one to perform pull-ups on these bars? Just look at all those angles! Not a single useful planar surface to be found.

[Update: This playground is a result of an art experiment. Now I’ve also visited another and still not found a single planar bar of a reasonable height. Fortunately, there’s a usable series of planks situated at a comfortable height on a roof covering a rest area in a park that served the purpose.]

I’ve also recently experimented with pull-ups on tree branches, but alas, it’s tougher on the hands than appears on the street workout videos, in spite of wearing protective gloves even. This is where we severely diverged from the apes.

All of the above is strictly the necessary maintenance, in addition to the daily walks and explorations of sorts. And let’s not forget the daily reading which I love to indulge. Now, I haven’t even approached the bulk of my activities, and already struggle to manage the above.

So what about the Computational and Machine Learning research and experiments that I ideally would dedicate at least 6 hours a day to? And that’s when I don’t have some active contracting project. What about the other personal time? And I’m not even suggesting lower forms of media, which I long maintain at a distance. I similarly don’t waste time on social sites or the phone.

When friends inquire if I still play guitar as I had for a number of years in the past, I struggle to respond without demonstrating slight emotion. (I had practiced guitar for up to two hours daily.) My no-complaint bracelet helps, as I’ve become a second or two more preemptive in moments of impending emotional outburst. Seriously, I adore that silly looking bracelet.

Challenging is this business of priorities. Perhaps that justifies why I employ an almost neurotic approach at minimizing unnecessary energy exertion. So much noise and chaos can occur throughout the day, draining those energy reserves to the core, and then leave a deficit.

Flight delays, long lines, unreasonable wait cycles? I have to resort to expecting them from the start. Actually, I leverage what I call the parasite effect, although not in any strictly speaking unsanctioned sense of draining others resources.

The parasite effect essentially works as follows. As I foresee moments of impending frustration and construct a preemptive barricade of cynicism, something peculiar happens. In seeing others around me bask in frustration (on transit or waiting in lines, for instance), I proceed to externalize the situation and observe it with humor and a sense of irony, as if it were part of a literary narrative, and not a reality of any potential impact to me.

Somehow the frustration experienced by others dissipates as energy leaked into the atmosphere, allowing me to harness that negative energy, convert it into positive, and then channel it towards uplifting emotions and humor. Since psychology-related literature has been fashionable, perhaps some reader would kindly comment on how psychology explains this mechanism.

Here’s another curious bit. A respectable subset of the population, myself including, doesn’t mind noisy settings to work or study in. My reasoning is simply that seeing others around you in cafes or libraries evokes positive energy to draw from (the anti-parasite effect). However, once I find myself in a familiar or friendly atmosphere, be it even one person in the space I’m concentrating on work or study, I begin to exert substantial energy in the anxiety that arises as I expect the person to interact with me at any moment, disrupting the concentration. At a public setting this is not the case since we generally don’t expect anyone to engage us.

Other sources of energy leakage that I’ve identified, include saturated conversations, unnecessary comments, gesticulations, too much excitement, reminiscing of the past, many forms of small talk, and hearing common preconceptions continuously reoccur in conversations. Needless apologizing, rationalizing, or explaining also rapidly depletes those energy reserves. I don’t need to mention news sources or other noise or propaganda. James Altucher commented to a similar respect in a number of his posts, and even brought up an interesting point, which I will paraphrase:

For every unit of negative reinforcement, one hundred units of positive reinforcement are necessary to regain balance.

I would also add another contribution to the above, in spirit with the Pareto principle:

A small subset of sources of energy leakage occur a great majority of the time.

These sources may include the same frustrating conversations, the same anxieties, and sensitivity to constantly reoccurring violations to personal principles in our surroundings. Consequently, a small effort to patch one of these sources of leakage could produce an enormous stream of supplemental energy.

The greater the supply of energy, the more effectively we can manage priorities.