My Goal for 2019: Focus on Quality over Quantity

I started my 2019 blog reboot last week with retrospective reflections on my life in 2018, and as is common this time of year, I’d like to follow it up with my goals for 2019. In compiling this list, however, I found a unifying thread between the goals: In every case, I hope to replace a mindset focused on maximizing quantity with one focused on maintaining quality.

In other words, I need to grow up. Back in 2014 when the most interesting topic in politics was how Colorado and Washington were taking steps to legalize marijuana, NYT columnist David Brooks wrote about how in his youth, he and his friend group just sort of stopped smoking weed. That isn’t my vice, but I want to highlight one particular aspect of his story:

Third, most of us developed higher pleasures. Smoking was fun, for a bit, but it was kind of repetitive. Most of us figured out early on that smoking weed doesn’t really make you funnier or more creative (academic studies more or less confirm this). We graduated to more satisfying pleasures. The deeper sources of happiness usually involve a state of going somewhere, becoming better at something, learning more about something, overcoming difficulty and experiencing a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

David Brooks, Weed: Been There, Done That

Indeed, part of the growing up is leaving behind unedifying habits and activities. With the wealth of opportunities for meaningless diversion at our fingerprints, you could maybe even say that this is the most important part.

But it isn’t enough just to leave things behind. Brooks’ friends went on to develop interests in science, literature, sports and romance which eventually supplanted their marijuana habit. In the same way, we need to focus just as much on removing lower quality as replacing it with higher quality.

One aspect of this struck me recently while I was on vacation with family in California. As I was getting ready to eat dinner, I was thinking about reading an article I’d seen on Twitter while I ate. Instead, I was struck that this was one of the best opportunities I’d have a chance to talk to my sister about her life in PT school, and it’d be a real shame if I passed that up to read something I’d just as quickly forget. We ended up talking for a good half hour or more and I really cherished that time.

This sort of choice would present itself to me a couple more times that trip. Instead of focusing my efforts on feeling guilty about looking at my phone, I tried to focus on the sweetness of the conversations I could have with my family. That paradigm shift helped to encourage me to continue that habit — instead of the resentment that guilt-based motivation brings, thinking about the greater good I was pursuing positively reinforced the decision.

My 2019 New Years’ Resolutions don’t include any actively negative behaviors that I need to quit, like smoking. Instead, it’s about replacing behaviors that are somewhat good, like keeping up to date on the news, with those that are more clearly or strongly good. It’s not about the direction, but the quality.

Free Food Isn’t Good Enough Anymore

Graduate students are notorious for chasing down opportunities for free food. A combination of being relatively underpaid, still fairly immature, and frequently in areas of campus with few options for food lends itself well to the mindset of a scavenger on the ocean floor: When that whale falls, eat as much of it as you can.

My department was one of the richer ones, which meant that the two weekly grad student seminars would rotate between about a dozen different restaurants for catering. But it also meant that we had afternoon tea every day at 3:30 with two trays full of cookies.

Before coming to grad school, there were a number of the cookies on those trays that I wouldn’t have said that I liked. Oreos were the most common, although those have definitely gotten a lot more interesting recently. Nutter Butters were too dry, and I never really liked dark chocolate.

But there weren’t always the cookies I did like at tea, so with the free food mentality, I went ahead and ate some of the mint-flavored Oreos. After all, I’d already walked to the lounge; why waste it without at least getting a couple cookies? Sure enough, after a while, I started to actually like the Oreos, a change which would have disastrous consequences for my weight.

Now, liking Oreos in itself is not the problem. All things being equal, it’s better to enjoy something than to not enjoy it. The Math Department offering us free cookies every day is similarly not the problem — more options should be better than fewer.

Besides, as I would soon discover, most workplaces offer free snacks, at least some of which are unhealthy. From the chocolate pretzels at the Insight offices to the M&M’s at Kebotix, sweet and unhealthy foods would continue to beckon me through this year.

It’s not that I need to change my circumstances, it’s that I need to count the opportunity cost, and focus on the good food that I’m going to get to enjoy if I just put down the snacks. Instead of grabbing an easy handful of M&Ms, I need to think ahead to what I’m going to be having for dinner and save my appetite.

Breaking the Habits of a Political Junkie

I also partake in another form of gluttony, consuming a lot of political news. From the New York Times to National Review to Twitter, I’m, wait, a minute, I haven’t checked Twitter for most of today, let me go check it right now…

Okay, I’m back. Yeah, 20 minutes later, my biggest takeaway was schadenfreude at the Democratic response getting better ratings than Trump’s Oval Office address. Oh and Pelosi had a nice line about Trump thinking federal workers can just borrow some money from their father…

Who am I kidding? Those 20 minutes were wasted. I’m entertained, certainly, but turning to politics for entertainment is exactly what got us in this mess in the first place.

Oh, I’m also reminded that from apparently accidentally unredacted lines in a court filing, Manafort has been charged with sharing polling data with Russians, a smoking gun of collusion if I ever saw one. That gives me a glimmer of hope that this national nightmare can end sooner rather than dragging on until January 2021 at the earliest.

But turning to politics for hope, even hope for an escape from politics, is also exactly wrong. I was reminded of this lesson when I saw Michael Wear’s talk at Q, an annual TED-like gathering of thinking Christians:

The best part is the end, starting at 8:34. I know not many of you have the ability or desire to watch a video, so here’s that closing in full:

Jesus says in his gospels, “If you love me, you will obey my teachings. My father will love you, and we will come to you and make our home with you.”

Am I politically homeless? Are we? If so, so be it!

The crisis for Christians is not that we are politically homeless. The crisis is that we ever thought we could make our home in politics at all.

Our home is with him who has made his home in us, and our hope is with the kingdom that is right at hand. If we find ourselves in Babylon, let’s make sure we don’t become Babylonians.

The time for self-serving parochialism is over. The time for going to politics for self-affirmation and cultural expression has long past.

Christians go to politics to advance justice and affirm dignity. We get our emotional and spiritual needs met elsewhere.

It is time for Christians to stop looking to politics for hope, and to start carrying kingdom hope into politics with them out of love of God and for the good of their neighbors.

Michael Wear, Rising Above Partisanship, Q Ideas

Amen. If I’m tuning into politics, I need to ask myself: Is my action advancing justice or affirming dignity? Or am I just watching Stephen Colbert in order to laugh at Trump, and Rachel Maddow in order to hope for his impeachment?

Again, laughter and hope are not inherently evil things. But there are so many other things that make me smile, and also make more of a positive difference in the world than the disaster voyeurism my political engagement has become.

It’s high time I consolidated. Conveniently, I already stay pretty up-to-date without Twitter or late night through RSS feeds of my favorite columnists and the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast. In order to help this consolidation, I’ve subscribed to a couple more of the columnists I used to read the most on Twitter. Again, I’m trying to celebrate the best parts of my political engagement as much as I try to move on from the worst.

Building a Robust Blog Editorial Cycle

The last time I posted blog posts regularly, 42 straight weeks in 2017, I felt like that was my big accomplishment: just to post something every week. This isn’t to say that I didn’t write some excellent pieces in that time, but that I was more willing to focus on just getting the posts written and published on time every week.

This came with some pretty natural tradeoffs. With the focus on meeting a deadline, I would often wind up procrastinating and therefore spending a good chunk of time Thursday evening coming up with the post, writing it and editing it all at once.

That’s generally poor practice. Any writer or editor will tell you that looking over a document in multiple sittings will help you notice things you wouldn’t if you just did it all in one sitting. By the time I got to the editing, I’d be both more tired and still unable to step outside of the mindset I was in when I wrote it.

The other problem with writing all in one bunch is that it was more likely to cause me to stay up very late or even spend work hours writing the post on Fridays. Now that I have a job, that’s simply not an option.

My new plan involves a process over the course of four days. It’s somewhat inspired by the Insight model of producing presentable demos over the course of four weeks. Here’s my tentative breakdown of the work:

  1. On Mondays, I decide what I’m going to blog about for that week. This doesn’t sound like much, but it’s actually fairly involved.
  2. On Tuesdays, I start writing the post. I finish the introduction and section headers, a general scope of what I’ll write in each section, and possibly start writing the first couple sections.
  3. On Wednesdays, I finish a complete draft.
  4. On Thursdays, I read over and edit my draft, adding the usual bells and whistles.

Of course, this is all flexible depending on what I have going on that week. I’m not sure I’ll ever follow it exactly, but it gives a nice partition of my time that should increase the overall quality of my posts.

These New Years’ Resolutions could probably be summarized fairly succinctly: Make opportunity costs more salient.

After all, every minute on Twitter is a minute I’m not reading an excellent article by an insightful columnist, and every calorie I eat of free food or sweets is a calorie I’m not eating of a tastier meal, either now or in the future. I don’t literally count my minutes or calories (though I have done the former in the past), but I need to think in the same fashion.

That’s even true for my blog posts. Every post I write and you read is time that could be spent by both of us elsewhere. I’d better make it worth your while, or what’s the point? This could very well mean there are weeks I skip, if I’m unusually busy in the evenings or hit a complete writer’s block. I’m declaring to myself right now that skipping is okay, as long as it doesn’t become a (lack of a) habit.

Taking a step back, why set New Year’s Resolutions in the first place? Well, we get stuck in bad patterns of behavior that we can’t just break by momentary decisions. In optimization language, we get stuck in local optima, where minor tweaks to our daily rhythms aren’t able to improve our lives, and we have to consider bigger changes. The New Year simply provides a nudge to reflect, evaluate, and pick a new direction in which to make a bigger leap.

It’s important to remember that you might not immediately notice any improvement. After all, you just jumped away from a local optimum, where the small tweaks had already been maxed out. You need to be able to do the same from your new starting point, slowly getting used to a new way of life. Only then can you go back and compare to your previous way of life.

It’s like moving to a new city. At first, your life is much worse: You don’t know where the grocery stores are; the transportation system is confusing and you’re living in an unfamiliar building with less of your stuff and probably not near as many of your friends. But over time, you learn the lay of the land, make new friends, and it becomes home.

That’s why I’m not really worried if I’m not able to keep to the ideals I’ve laid out here perfectly. For instance, I may very well tweak my blog writing and posting schedule as I try to figure out how to contribute a little bit every day. That’s fine, of course, because more than me satisfying these arbitrary constraints, my underlying goal is simply to write higher quality posts.

What are your resolutions for 2019?

One response to “My Goal for 2019: Focus on Quality over Quantity

  1. Pingback: It’s Okay If They Don’t Remember You | The Christian Rationalist

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