Annual Me-Time: A Reset

Conscious I haven’t published anything proper for almost 45 days(?). So, a couple of life updates.

I’ve been hermitting in my apartment for the past 3 weeks from late September. It’s only an hour drive away from my house and I feel kinda bad for not wanting to go back home just yet, still enjoying this much.

Prior to this I felt somewhat stuck in a rut, trapped in a routine. I’m objectively OK, but I feel I can’t make and sustain changes I want to make on some situations I’m unhappy about in this period in my life.

Easiest way to make changes: change your environment. That’s obvious to many of us. And I am extremely grateful I have the privilege to exercise that to a certain degree. I have optionality.

Thought I’d share couple of things I’ve learned from this experience so far.

You might find it useful if you’re experiencing any of these

  • in a crossroad of / in between major life decisions and transitions

  • hustle fatigue, burnout

  • FOMO, LinkedIn envy
  • realising how little you have experienced the world and how little has the world experienced you
  • disillusioned by the different games and sub-universes you’re in, one after the other
  • seeking for a more solid purpose or narrative
  • feeling disconnected from yourself and have a feeling you need to spend time to reintroduce and get to know yourself better
  • the urge to make sense of life and to make sense to the world is getting more intense

If you’re mostly interested in the mental shifts feel free to jump ahead to “Mental states” and “What I learned” onwards. It will spare you some juicy details.

An annual “me time”

Exactly this time last year I was living alone in Ireland, hopping from different hostels and Airbnbs, being fully in control over my schedule and activities. Exploring the cities, basking in all the new experiences I get exposed to. Visit new places, observe, meet new strangers. New food, new language, new people, new transportation, new ways of doing things, new systems, new skills. Learning and experiencing. Alone with my thoughts. Blissful solitude.

I was free to choose what I do, when I do it, where I go, and how to do everything. Within reasonable limitations that I consciously recognise and adopt. What I mean by that is I need to compromise and consider other people’s schedule in a smaller number of instances than I would have otherwise.

Baselines rejiggled, perspectives widened. Collecting experiences for the sake of collecting experiences.

And I’ve had similar opportunities for the past 3 consecutive years. Solo long-distance and extended-period travels in different cities in other continents.

It scratched an itch I know I have (an “ultimate me time”) in a way I didn’t know possible (longer period travel, moving out temporarily).

I used to pride myself with not needing to go out, owning that identity of a complete recluse, lone wolf, self sufficient. That’s why I’m surprised it’s still helpful to get out of the house. Because even at home I have access to a very private living spaces, made my own schedule, and have very supporting family members who give me all the mental and emotional space I need.

Somehow I don’t get the same joy in activities I used to enjoy anymore. I don’t read that much, I haven’t touched my guitar for years, and I don’t listen to music.

So perhaps this “annual me time” is how I recharge now.

This year especially with this pandemic where I’ve stayed in the house since mid February till September and only went out of the house 9 times. 7 of them with my family, one is 1-2 hour drive around town without significant new experience or interaction, and the other one is a 2 (or 4?) day staycation at the apartment. This last part is me testing the water; a smaller scale experiment that enable this current longer staycation.

I was reluctant of expressing this desire as I don’t want to make the people I care about worry about me being “out there”, exposing myself to the risk of contracting the virus on a larger degree. It’s always nice to get small confirmation that I am not ruffling any feathers or making my family upset around my actions and decisions. Too agreeable and a little too needy for approval, heh.

What I appreciate about / get from / achieved in this staycation

First, the fundamentals / physical realm

A. Sleep and physical health

  • I get access to the small somewhat private gym in the building. Have been antsy about not being able to properly train certain movements. Since Feb I have built a home gym with free weights and bench (which I suppose help extend the period of time before burning out) but I really miss working with more machines.
  • Shifted into a new sleeping schedule (third version so far). From food comma-induced midday nap, to getting sleepy at 9pm and waking up at 3-4 am now.
  • My wrist is 97% recovered. It has been injured (again) for a couple of months and I’ve been half-assing the recovery process at home. Being here without access to staircases and curl benches have forced me to not use the wrist that much.

B. Nutrition

I get to experiment with different eating habit. This is more difficult to do at home, not wanting to be fussy about what I will and won’t eat, and when.

I. How much I eat: portion control

I managed to eat in a saner portion. Back home I was stuck in this high-volume low-calories cycle which lead me to eat to the point of discomfort 9 times out of 10. Trapped in an awkward place trying to manage the portion and eating time around my working and family schedules.

Still haven’t been able to ignore food though. I know I will fall right back to the old situation if I go back home now. Still can’t stop until all is gone. Can’t have easy food lying around.

Being here and only ordering what I will eat for that meal enables me to have good control over portions and options (quality, quality). Want to build that mental muscle and train my body to get used to this new portion.

II. What I eat

Spent the first week or so indulging in non-home-cooked food that I haven’t had for a while. I can now survive for another 6 months without them. Itch scratched.

I haven’t had these for years as I don’t want to bother explaining why I sometimes want to eat some junk / things I don’t usually eat. I consciously opted out of the extra friction needed to break out of the inertia. As context: I’ve cut out rice for the past couple of years, and I don’t miss it that much really, but I do crave nasi padang and fried rice sometimes. As in, I don’t miss THE rice, I miss some rice-based dish.

After that period of indulgence, I decided to run an experiment and cut out processed food with added sugar, simple carbs, and dairy (only been ~12 days).

Once or twice the past months I noticed how these food actually make me feel during and after. The bliss point, the umami, the bloat, the after taste, the drowse (note here I put more attention / weight on how I physically feel, and not mentally - as in guilt).

I actually did this a couple of years ago where I spent 30 days not consuming flour-based food (only failed once because I didn’t realise steamed buns are made from flour XD). I didn’t notice anything significant back then. But let’s do it again.

So in this staycation I went from a period where I allow myself to have biscuits, cookies, bread, dairy, high carb, high fat, oily, to now where I am experimenting with only eating fish as main source of protein and only having carbs from food high in fibre.

Sidenote: everything happened organically. It was not planned, I noticed and respected what I feel like at that moment and let it happen.

III. What I’m expecting out of this experiment

Want to observe if I feel any differently in terms of energy level. I have also been working out slightly heavier than usual, and the sleeping schedule is still fluctuating. So the data still too dirty to make isolated conclusions from.

I am reminded of a conclusion I made in the past that optimising for physical and mental bandwidth (aka energy management) is a legit north star to use. I have 2+ years of data of my days and I can see how much of the day rating correlate with my energy (that I have available and what I generated from the activities) that day.

IV. Plan and conclusion so far

I slept and ate differently (I wouldn’t yet say better), reactivated dormant muscle groups (not that many DOMS and don’t feel that much stress / burn / drained though).

I’ve found that it’s really not that hard to do these changes when 1) you are very deliberate and am in full control over your decisions and 2) you are not self sabotaging.

So the actual part I need to support #1 is to work on the courage to ask, set up the structure, and allow this decision to happen back home. Gotta prep well and deal with my discomfort around making requests.

Will explain what I’m trying to do and why. Want to make sure they know they don’t need to worry about me, I’m not hurting myself — as I’m still getting occasional pushback for not eating rice. Also want to make sure that I’m not creating extra work or cause inconvenience in other people’s choices and lives.

And to support #2, I will keep training the self awareness muscle and keep “letting not making”.

C. Mental states

Now here are some mental and emotional state shifts I noticed in this staycation so far.

  • Got reminded how refreshing it is to wake up to a different environment. It’s the easiest path to start being less autopilot about things. The first week I was still quite “numb” to this despite intellectually knowing that new environments usually make me feel better. But the past 2 weeks there is less conflict / gap of what I know and what I feel. I am more present and can appreciate the situation better.
  • Went from not feeling any desire to read (have built a nice private library here) and feeling conflicted about it — “why tf don’t I like reading anymore??“, to starting reading again. Picked up a book off the shelf that feels “Just In Time” and started reading it, got through half easily in two mornings. Read a couple of digital books as well — and actually enjoyed them. Yay, still got it.
  • Been documenting the view from 20th floor in different points in a day. Got many lovely shots of the sky and buildings. My favorite is that calm transition from dark to light at around 5 to 6:30am. Snapped one of the thunderstorms as well.
  • Spent a lot of time reflecting, learning, working on longer and shorter-term things. Made progress on the “Work Smarter and Level Up in Your Career as a Tech Worker” project, recorded one webinar, one podcast, hung out with my drafts, actively learning and taking notes on topics I am interested in.
  • Spent time doing mental defragmenting, the usual housekeeping and managing my monkey mind (FOMO, hedonic setpoints, and LinkedIn envy, to name a few).
  • Uninstalled Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook from my phone. Drastically limits my option on the phone. Only have Food delivery app, email, Youtube, and Medium to scroll on now.
  • Kept the business-as-usual in this new environment. Did four interviews, ran team meetings, took part in strategic ad hoc calls, customer calls. Love the experience of having to adjust to new situations. Growth, novelty, aliveness.
  • Redefined “being productive as being mindful of what outcome an activity produce. Does it produce leisure, does it produce health, does it produce money, etc. E.g. if I wanted leisure, then lounging around IS productive. Everything is contextual anyway.

What I learned

A. Patience, child. Patience.

  • Things take the time they take. Derived that conclusion again after seeing how much progress I’ve noticed in 3 weeks that I was quite obsessed and desperate about — being stuck in the “want it all want it right now” mode.
  • Decide on your systems and process, and trust them. Be impatient with actions but be patient with outcomes. Everything has evolved and will keep evolving.
  • All it takes is a week to see progress in anything you’re doing. If you’re serious about any change, give it a week, and let the energy that comes out of seeing progress fuel the next week / cycle of iteration / milestone.
  • The only thing you can do to go into the direction you want to go, is to change your next step. If you missstepped that one, then course correct your next step. Nothing is fatal and nothing stays the same. A pivot starts with one step into the new direction.
  • You can clean up any mess, rebuild any ruins, fix any error, change any state. Do it. Try more. Don’t obsess over making the right decision. Make the decision right.
  • As usual I move 5 inches into a million different directions but it’s OK. Why not? Nothing is wasted and can’t predict or plan the future. Nothing matters that much in the grand scheme of things but everything is significant. Life is light. Life is play. Nothing is wasted. It’s just data.

B. Managed to test drive / validate my assumptions on two things:

I. Cooking

One of the items in my “one day I’d like to” list is to learn to cook. I thought I’d love to pick up cooking as one offline activity to get better at. Seems therapeutic and objectively useful.

One assumption / excuse why I haven’t acted on that is this idea that I can better experiment when I live alone (free to make a mess, no time restriction on when and how long it takes).

But apparently spending time on cooking is still quite down my priority list of leisure-producing activities now.

I am all about texture. I would happily chomp down steamed sweet potatoes and broccolis, eat cold meat and potatoes out of the fridge, eat salad separately from the dip, chew on stale bread, and actually enjoy them! I even thoroughly enjoyed air-popped popcorn. My standards on taste is quite low, you could say, haha. I mean, I know what good taste like for most food, but I couldn’t care or imagine what better should taste like if I had a mediocre one.

So: 1) I have many options right now that I haven’t exhausted at all, 2) I couldn’t bother to cook intricate meals, and 3) there are things I assign higher on my priority list.

I DO still want to learn to make killer salads though! The different rich types of salad I seen during my travels were all very inspiring and there is obvious gap of supply here. Not sure about the demand but there will be time when I find out.

II. Driving, roaming about

Driving around aimlessly is something I enjoyed in the past, but it is also not something I would deliberately allocate that much time on lately.

First reason is I have other better things to spend time on, so driving would be triggering a conflict even though objectively I do enjoy it. Second reason is it feels like it’s “been there, done that” for most things. Same old same old and not many things lived up to the hype.

By the way, it’s worth mentioning that I reframed this one from a less precise: “I don’t enjoy driving around that much anymore“. Always am frickin precise with my words (thoughts) huh?

What I miss about the old environment

  1. Have not trained lower body. At home I usually do stairs cardio and bar squats.
  2. Le parents. I feel guilty for “abandoning” them. I try to initiate more conversations and interactions via digital tools anyway, so I hope they don’t feel that lonely. I actually rarely show up at home with my work schedule and unconventional eating habit and I don’t feel the time spent with them are recharging or that much “quality”, but I still feel very selfish for indulging in this escapade.
  3. Cable internet. Been tethering my 4G connection here. The capacity of the mobile connection is actually better than my ADSL at home(!!), and it ends up cheaper as well.

But to a small degree, it’s a nuisance to have to top up and purchase extra bandwidth every day. The pain to make repeat purchase is higher than these rational things (cheaper, better quality). I spend less in aggregate but I feel more pain.

And second it’s nicer and more freeing to not have that resident thought of “don’t use up too much bandwidth, do you need to load this video?” at home.

This teaches me that optimising for mental bandwidth is always a good decision.

Related: when choosing between 1 hour drive via an unfamiliar route vs 1.5 hour via a familiar route, I find it’s usually worth the extra 30 mins to follow the familiar route especially (or only?) when I want to be listening to podcast or enjoying music. It made the mechanics of the driving experience more autopilot (takes less cognitive effort). But I know when to chose the unfamiliar route if I am in the mood for novelty.

What I’m still struggling with:

Two things I am trying to iterate on / out of:

A. Self sabotage

Managing Resistance. To stop snoozing on life. Conflicted about what I do and what I’d like to do. To start building things I’d like to build. Put the ideas, the ammo, the knowledge to use.

But also: noticing my “shoulds” aka expectations that lead me to label things as “self sabotage”. First type is when there is conflict between things I know is good for me long term but less convenient short term. Second type is an attachment to a state in the past or the future, things I thought I should want, and could have.

B. Self censoring: self awareness -> self expression -> self actualisation

I’m happy that I’ve gotten clearer on how to articulate and frame my positioning though: who I can help, and in what ways.

To be more honest with myself about what my art is and start building the momentum to go into the direction that aligns more with what resonates with my current self.

Currently very constipated still — always self-censoring, overthinking, planning porn. Too high of a standard, too many unfinished thoughts and half baked ideas.

To face the truth that my full-time job is NOT the biggest blocker for me to “spend resource to build asset and not transact“. Sure it is one significant blocker — having to muster the limited resource I have to maintain external reputation and accountability (which is a much stronger incentive to commit and get shit done properly), but it’s not the main blocker.

It’s my lack of decision and commitment on what to pursue and focus on. Which is in turn caused by some underlying conflict, misalignment, impreciseness, and other unresolved mental knots.

And then I get frustrated seeing yet another day pass by. Done enough for the present me but not enough for the future me.

Plans and conclusion so far

I am certain I’m still not out of that funk. So right now I’m trying see what I can do to make sure I don’t snap back to what was, that easily.

  1. To analyse what is it about this enviroment, the activities, the choices, that enabled and hindered these changes.
  2. To decide what changes do I want to keep and then design and implement these intentional constraints.

That’s all. It’s more or less a summary of my last 7 months. Let me know if this resonates. Happy to chat about it.

Also published on Medium.

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