Expanding Space

There are two ways to gain space: clearing it and expanding it. The main tool will be meditation. The goal is to gain mental space, grasp control of the space I have, and maximize what I can do with it.

Ever since I was in high school, dead set on getting into a good university, I have trained myself to always be doing something “productive”: reading an educational article, practicing my sport, planning for the future. After a decade of constantly thinking “productive”, I could feel the stress building. High expectations coupled with a demanding job eventually wear at the mind. I turned to ways to destress. Exercise, eating better (sometimes worse), and relaxation (vacation, massages, etc) all provided short-term relief. But inevitably the stress would creep back in. I had to find a more permanent, sustainable solution.

I recently learned from a guided meditation that you must allow yourself time to think about nothing. The time spent quieting your thoughts benefit your mind’s active hours. Just 10 minutes a day can supercharge those remaining 15 hrs and 50 minutes (note the healthy 8 hrs of sleep!), turning them into the equivalent of 17+ hrs.

The immediate feeling after coming out of a meditation speaks for itself. It’s like you’ve washed your mind in cold water. The constant static buzz of thoughts bouncing around in your skull has faded. Behind your main line thought, there is a refreshing quiet. It’s like you’ve hard reset your RAM and you’re only running core functions. Nothing like a clean Task Manager. CPU at 15%.

The long-term benefits of meditation remain to be seen. For one reason or another I have not stuck with meditation for more than two weeks at a time. I’ve heard the true benefits come after 3-4. That seems to be the tipping point between short-term clarity and long-term space. Therefore I am committing to three weeks of continuous meditation. For this habit to be achievable, I need a block of time each day picked out to meditate and a three-week, 10-minute meditation program to follow. Since my after-work schedule is erratic, regular meditation in the morning seems much more achievable. Wake up 10 minutes earlier. It also means going to sleep 10 minutes earlier. So wake up at 6:30 and sleep at 22:30. Not too hard right? I’ve picked out the 21 Days of Calm meditation program from the Calm app to follow.

So three commitments:

  1. Wake up at 6:30, sleep at 22:30 (set the Bedtime range in my phone)
  2. Meditate 10 minutes every day in the morning before work (set a daily Calm reminder)
  3. Follow the 21 Days of Calm program until the end

By the end, my hope is that I will have achieved this next level of mental quiet and serenity that many have talked about. I don’t expect to be a shaolin monk on the edge of enlightenment but I hope to feel not just mental but physical improvements. Increased clarity at work, ability to maintain focus, lower stress levels. Not just in my work but also in my relationships, I expect to see improvements in my mood, temperament, and optimism. I’m talking about meditation like it’s some miracle pill; but if I define lofty expectations – it might be exactly that.


Clearing Space

My mind is a messy place. I am curious about so many things. I want to learn so many skills. But I split my time between too many investments. There are so many distractions to indulge in that finding the time or energy to focus on the few essential tasks can be difficult. Like all humans, I want to enjoy myself. But unfortunately there are too many things I enjoy.

Some hard decisions need to be made to clear the necessary space. Space for development of what’s important.

Let’s start with the physical world. I read that a cluttered space clutters the mind. So perhaps the easiest way to clear space is to do it physically first. My office desk was an organized mess. I use “organized” lightly but it had some semblance of order. But paper clips and sticky notes can only go so far when you’re working with 18 ft2 of tabletop. There were bundles of paper, representing my many rolling mini projects and investigations, everywhere. Open binders and technical books stacked on one another. The complexity grows and grows until it is unmanageable. On the bright side, I think I improved my working memory by trying to keep track of all the different documents. (Developing a different work habit so I don’t have so many running projects is another topic altogether. Soon.)

The solution is a better filing system to reduce clutter and cut down on the mental RAM used to keep track of it all. The majority of my work can be organized into seven buckets:

  1. Unit operation changes (“can we do this?”)
  2. Incident root cause investigations
  3. Unit optimization opportunities
  4. Unit and product monitoring and adjustment
  5. Procedural reviews
  6. Process condition reviews
  7. Special projects

If I have more than five of any of these going at one time, I think I’ve got bigger problems on my hands. I should learn to finish something before starting another. So let’s start with space for five each. I’m not a fan of trays because you have to pull the whole pile every time you try to find a file. That’s a lot of wasted energy. I’ve seen those vertical dividers that can sit on your desk and you can slot bundles into. Kind of like an exposed file cabinet, rotated 90o on your desk. Let’s start with that.

And of course, get in the habit of filing files away when you’re done with them. Leave them in an organized way so you can come back to them in years and remember quickly what you’ve done. Don’t trust memory for small details over that timespan – it’s not going to work.

Let’s move now to the mental world. To clear mental space, space must be cleared from what is occupying your focus. For me, the digital realm is a huge time sink. Some of it totally useless which can be cut easily without remorse; but most of it is semi-useful. To me, semi-useful is the biggest trap. It makes you feel like you’re being productive: learning something “interesting”, loosely developing some skill, getting better at that unique app that doesn’t translate to anything else. It’s fun to feel like you’re getting better at something but ultimately it distracts from what you really want to focus on. I spend the majority of digital time on my phone. I would say text takes up 25% of my time on it, apps 75%. I’m not cutting my friends out of my life (though delaying responses by a few more minutes is worth some discussion) so it’s time to give my apps an audit.

Here are the four apps I am committing to curtail from my phone:

  1. Youtube – it’s great learning about philosophy and from TED-Ed but limit them to one or two a day. Too many leads to little retention anyway.
  2. Instagram – memes are great but I can probably cut these down by 75%
  3. Facebook – keep updated with group posts but don’t go down the continuous rabit hole of posts
  4. Supercell games (Clash Royale, Brawl Stars) – these guys know how to make a good game. They’ve got the recipe down and the games are fun. But now isn’t the time to get good at them.

Take these steps and see how much space you get back. Maybe it’s not as much as you thought or perhaps it’s more. But either way there will be space to do what you will. Keep some for decompression and mental health. But devote most to focusing on the few important things.

Want to figure it out?

At the end of Stranger Things 2, Eleven and Mike meet at the Snow Ball, the middle school dance. Looking around at the other middle schoolers swaying back and forth, Mike asks Eleven if she wants to dance. Eleven responds hesitantly, “I don’t know how.” And Mike simply replies, “I don’t either… want to figure it out?” Eleven nods, extends her arm and Mike leads her onto the dance floor.

That was the sweetest moment of the whole season to me. Not the moments between Jonathan and Nancy or Max and Lucas or even Bob and Joyce. Because that’s what finding your person is all about. Not knowing what the future holds or how to conquer it, but knowing you want to figure it out with them. Finding someone that you’re comfortable being vulnerable around – showing your weaknesses and hesitancies.

Your person not only learns with you but teaches you in their process of learning. They can look at the same information as you, and see something completely different. Their experiences inform their interpretation. If it’s the right person, their interpretation will  add another dimension to yours.

That’s what I’ve always looked for.  Not someone who knows what I know but more so can teach me.  Not someone that knows what I know but less who I can teach.  Someone who’s mind works differently than mine.  Who’s interests I wouldn’t dream of pursuing myself – but I can appreciate none the less.  Someone who exposes you to a side you may not have known you had – or lost along the way.  Someone you can do the same for.

That’s a key pillar of a lasting relationship: facing the world together and tackling what it throws at you. Find your person, figure it out, and dance.