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Order of Operations

Daniel Barrett
Daniel Barrett
8 min read
Order of Operations

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It's natural to panic a bit when things spiral out of control.

What was ordered becomes disordered. What was predictable becomes unpredictable.

In times like these, there is a basic heuristic (a rule of thumb) that I fall back on:

First things first.

For me, this means there is a basic order of operations that must occur for me to get back on track.

If I want to push myself, to achieve, to be successful, to grow...these things must be in place.

If they aren't, I just end up spinning my wheels.

There's a reason it's an order of operations and not just a "list of things to take care of.  Each step builds on the one before it. You can't skip the line just because you feel like it - each element must be taken care of in turn.

This is simple, but not easy. It won't take me very long to explain, and you already know everything I'm about to tell you.

But knowing everything and actually acting on that information are two very different things.

Ready?

Here it is:

SLEEP -> FOOD -> ATTENTION -> FOCUS

Let's dive in.

SLEEP

Without sleep, not a whole lot is possible.

There's significant variation between people, and if you're young you can probably burn this candle longer than others.

But missing out on either quantity or quality of sleep saps your capacity for meaningful work. If you want to perform at your best, you must sleep well.

How do you sleep well?

Here's what's worked for me. Experiment for yourself:

  • First thing upon waking up, 5-15 minutes of light exposure. Outdoors works best. You don't need to stare at the sun, and it doesn't need to be sunny out. Just get out of doors and look around.
  • No screens 2 hours before bed. This means no TV, no phones. I have a Kindle Paperwhite; I use that in bed without the backlight on. Everything else, avoid.
  • Keep your phone out of the bedroom. If it's there, I'll look at it, so I charge it downstairs.
  • If you must look at screens, try blue-light blocking glasses. These do seem to keep my resting heart rate lower after watching TV at night.
  • Try not to work out or eat or drink alcohol too late. This just keeps your heart rate up and makes getting deep sleep more difficult. Alcohol particularly can hurt sleep quality.
  • Nothing in bed but reading, sex, and sleep. I don't hang out on my bed. Bed is for those three things only.
  • Aim for a minimum of 7 hours of sleep a night. Set your wake up and go-to-sleep times to make sure you hit this goal as closely as possible. Be consistent in your routine.
  • Realize that biological systems have a lot of variation; sometimes you'll get worse sleep than others and that's fine. Sleep is important, but no one sleeps perfectly every night. Stop stressing about it. Variation encourages antifragility and keeps you flexible.

Once you have been sleeping well for a while, it's time to move on to the next step:

FOOD

The quantity, quality, and timing of your food affect everything from your body composition to your energy level to your mood.

If your eating is "disordered" - meaning your seeing large swings in the quantity, quality, or timing of food you consume day to day - it is likely having an impact on your capacity for meaningful work.

Luckily, dealing with food is far more straight forward than most people think.

Here's what's worked for me. Experiment for yourself:

  • Measure what you eat. Get a kitchen scale. Weigh everything you eat for a week. Enter everything into MyFitnessPal (or any similar food tracking app) as best you can. This will give you you consumed for the week.
  • Average out your daily intake. Once you have your weekly total calories, divide that number by 7 to get a target daily intake. Then, try to eat that amount - no more, no less. This introduces consistency into your diet, and by itself can have a massive positive impact on how you feel.
  • Introduce slightly more complexity. Once you are able to routinely eat your daily calorie target, introduce just a bit more complexity. Try to eat at the same times each day. Or, measure your protein intake for a week, get your daily average, and aim to hit both your calorie AND protein targets every day. Whenever the process starts to feel stressful, or you stop hitting your targets, simply stop moving forward until you've mastered the skills necessary to hit your goals.
  • Dial in your numbers. Play with your calorie total, protein goals, timing, or whatever else you're interested in. Experiment: what's easy for you to change? What's hard? How does requiring more of your calories to come from protein affect your food choices? Do certain changes make you feel better?

What's important here is not any given calorie or protein goal, or that you eat a certain "type" of food or avoid another (you'll notice I said nothing at all about food choices above).

What's important is ordered eating, whatever that means for you: allowing our bodies to adjust to a regular and predictable intake of food while not allowing our emotions to drive our food choices.

Once your sleep is good and your food choices are ordered, we can move on to:

ATTENTION

Everyone around you wants to divert your attention for their own profit. We are bombarded, every second of every day, but people who will do anything to distract us for their own gain.

You must control your attention if you want to do anything at all of value.

This means consciously deciding what media you consume, how and when you will consume it, and what is important to you.

I'm not saying you "shouldn't" look at TikTok or watch TV or whatever you want to do. What I'm saying is that you should make a conscious decision to spend your time in that way, rather than simply being diverted by those things from something that's more important to you.

Here's what's worked for me. Experiment for yourself:

  • Get off of social media. This has been the single most important and positive change I've made in years. I deleted all social media apps from my phone. I made it hard to log into them by removing the passwords from my browser and making them hard to remember. For the social media I retained (like Twitter, which I still use) I unfollowed as many people as possible and only kept the highest quality stuff. I also use a separate app to post to my accounts that doesn't let me see my timeline - that way, I can still put out content without being sucked in.
  • Eradicate your timeline. If, like me, you use social media for work, the browser plug-in Newsfeed Eeradicator is a godsend. All it does is replace your newsfeed/timeline with a motivational quote. All other features - groups, messaging, posting, etc - work as normal.
  • Block off focus time. I use the web app RescueTime to protect my attention during the week. On Mondays, I use Google Calendar block off chunks of time that will be dedicated to tasks that demand my attention. In the title of the event, I put the hashtag focustime. RescueTime sees this event, and for as long as the event is scheduled it will proactively block any and all distracting websites from my computer. This means that even if I TRY to load up Twitter while I'm working (which happens - a lot), I can't use it. This pattern interrupt is almost always enough to get my back on track.
  • Control your phone. Your phone is a tool, but you have to use it wisely. Turn off every notification you feasibly can - I only allow a few. Aggressively put your phone into "do not disturb" mode when you need to focus. On Macs, you can actually schedule this to happen regularly during the week - I have both my desktop and phone go into Do Not Disturb mode from 9-5 Monday through Friday.
  • Filter your media. It is way too easy to consume media that makes you feel terrible just because you feel like you "have to." Made your media decisions deliberately. Sit down and think about the person you want to be. Then, write down a list of media that THAT person would consume. Maybe it's certain blogs, or certain newspapers, or podcasts, or TV shows. Make an effort to consume that media, and everything else? Ignore.
  • Aggregate your media. Do not consume content or media haphazardly. Get all your preferred sources into some kind of centralized place where you can consume it thoughtfully. For me, that means reading scanning blogs and Twitter feeds for interesting stuff with both Matter and Feedly; perusing email newsletters with Mailbrew; saving stuff I want to read for later with Pocket.
  • Schedule your consumption. The reason I'm aggregating and saving everything is that I have dedicated times set aside for consuming content. This is usually on Sundays. Because I've been scanning and saving throughout the week, on Sunday all I need to do is pop open my Pocket app and see what piques my interest. This is how I read everything that's featured in my Weekly Roundup posts.
  • Leave room for fun. I'm not saying you need to only read Tolstoy and the New York Times for the rest of your life. I play video games and watch ridiculous YouTube videos, too - I just have specific times for these activities (over lunch and on Saturday with my kids) that prevent them from distracting me too much.

Once your sleep is inline, your food intake is ordered, and your attention is your own, it's time to think about WHAT, exactly, you're paying attention to.

FOCUS

Attention is your capacity to focus. Focus is what you're focused on.

Ultimately, capacity to do meaningful work is just that - capacity. It is not the same as achievement.

To achieve, we need to be focused on the right things. Not much point in unlocking your inner strength only to waste it on something you don't care about...or, even worse, that moves you in the wrong direction.

This means choosing your goals wisely, and then making sure you remain focused on what will really help you achieve those goals. It also means being clear on what you DON'T want, and making sure that you don't lock yourself into something unsustainable.

Easier said then done, of course - especially when the world becomes more complex by the day, and who knows what's going to happen next year, much less in the next decade?

Peter Palchinsky put it this way: try new things, make them small so that they don’t threaten existence, and learn from the experience. *

If you're curious about how I personally stay in touch with my goals each week, I've written some in-depth posts on my process, all of which can be found here (look for the "Personal Danban" and "Quarterly Review" series.)

And that's all I have for this week.

Why?

Haven't been sleeping well.

Guess I know what I should be working on, eh?

Yours,

Dan


COOL STUFF TO READ:

Margaret Atwood on Envy and Friendship in Old Age.

I think that in structured, hierarchical, expanding corporations, where there’s room to move up—and moving up is fairly rapid—envy is less likely to happen. My theory is that the smaller the piece of cheese, the more the mice fight over it.
Notice I’m carefully not saying rats. And also, if you put too many animals in an enclosed space and with no exit, you’re gonna have fights, because there’s no way of getting out. So I think in closed systems, without much room for expansion, where the pieces of cheese are quite small, you’re gonna get ferocious resentments over who got the tiny piece of cheese.

Daniel Barrett

Musician, Business Owner, Dad, among some other things. I am best known for my work in HAVE A NICE LIFE, Giles Corey, and Black Wing. I also started and run a 7-figure marketing agency.