During my 2 years of National Service, I began what I called the 90 Week Project. I had heard many horror stories from men wiser and more mature than myself, and they described how easy it was to lose one’s focus, to become lethargic and listless. Many joked that their minds rotted away in that time. I had already wasted my 13 years in public education, I reasoned, so I was determined that the next 2 would not be as mediocre.
The project was neither an epic success nor a total failure. Here are a list of lessons that I had learnt from semi-religiously keeping track of my day-to-day life.
1: Sleep is vital.
I noticed several trends in my calendar, and the strongest one revealed to me the ridiculously damaging effects sleep deprivation has on my quality of life. Days marked “didn’t sleep enough”, or “sleep deprived”, or “zombie day” weren’t just lousy, lacklustre days in themselves- they often compounded. There were entire weeks at a go where I’d spend my life living in a blurry haze.
I noticed that I was far more likely to fall ill when I was sleep deprived. I was far more likely to waste money taking unnecessary cabs. I was far more likely to be rushing to camp late, stressing myself out unnecessarily. I was far more likely to be edgy, cranky and difficult, and I was never productive during the periods punctuated by bad sleeping habits.
If there’s only one thing I learnt from my 90 Week Project, it’s that sleep is of utmost importance for contented living. If I could change only one thing about myself, it would be my sleeping habits.
2: Water is vital.
Days marked with “dehydrated!” were almost as bad as days without sleep. Often the two would go hand in hand.
I was rarely, if ever, dehydrated during my Basic Military Training. This was due to the somewhat crudely implemented (but wonderfully effective) system of “Water Parades”, where entire platoons or even entire companies would gather just to drink large quantities of water. Done is better than perfect,kand all else held constant, it’s better to be hydrated than dehydrated. I notice that my BMT and Signals Course (both which were stay-in-camp affairs with strict regimentation) happened to be periods of time where I was remarkably chirpy, healthy, lively and alert. I also wrote. I wrote in staggering quantities, and was disturbed by my own productivity. It is clear to me that a combination of regimented sleep and hydration is key to unleashing high qualities of work.
3: Books are rocket fuel.
I’ve been meaning to write an entire separate post on this, but perhaps this will have to do for now. I am writing this blog post now because I started reading a little bit of Richard Branson’s “Screw Business As Usual”, and it set me on fir%. I couldn’t go past 50 pages- I was overwhelmed with the urge to write. I came straight home, and here I am, writing this.
Books always compelled me- this was a truth that was so intuitively familiar to me that I was never even consciously aware of it. Any advantage I might have had as a child, which subsequently carried over to my adult years (through the pervasive Matthew effect, surely) is almost entirely attributable to my love for books. They energize me. I was at a bookstore earlier today and I was simply in love, and in awe. Bookstores and libraries are wonderful, beautiful places for me. (I saw a video of Ray Bradbury talking about this, and I think it may have made something click for me.)
A good book can sometimes counter the effect of sleep deprivation- I remember that my time spent in my storeroom or office in NS was determined by whether or not I had a good book with me. A good book would energize me and have me enthralled. Lose the book, and I was most likely asleep.
4: Exercise is powerful.
I’ve heard from some motorists that it’s important to occasionally rev your engine hard- I’m not sure about the nitty gritty details, but I believe it cleans out the engine and ensures that everything is well-oiled and moving smoothly. Exercise seems to have the same effect for the body. I have experimented (in a non-deliberate, random sort of way) over the years, and I have found that it’s necessary to exercise regularly (I now do 20 pushups in the morning when I wake up, and 20 pushups again before I go to bed), and to occasionally push yourself really hard. (I go for short runs around the block. I haven’t hit the gym in a while, but I feel like my body is begging to face the iron again.)
5: Music is therapy.
I started a band called Armchair Critic in 2007, and we played many shows over the years. I developed a bit of a passion for music- I learnt a little bit of guitar and bass, and it was a great source of pleasure for me- although on hindsight I never really practiced as much as I ought to have. I never quite realised how fantastic it felt to be able to express myself, so I never really explored those avenues as well as I would now if I had the chance to start all over again. That said, now that I am aware, I am slowly making an effort to learn more, to practice more conscientiously and to make more progress as a musician.
I still play music today- right now I’m playing bass for a band called Green Lake, and we play at bars and pubs when we get the chance. I get paid to do it, which is great- but it’s also just fantastic to do what you love. Playing music has made me learn to appreciate it more, and it’s just wonderful to have something to go ‘home’ to- to sit and listen to good music and to just vibe to it, to allow it to waft over you and take you away. It’s amazing and a huge source of joy in my life.
6: Decluttering soothes the soul.
There are two sides to me that contradict each other directly. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and a neat freak, and at the same time, I can be messy as hell. How does that work? Well, if I’m given free reign and total control over my surroundings and workspace, I would turn everything inside out, upside down, get rid of everything non-essential and keep things ultra clean, tidy and spartan. I often don’t feel like I’m in control, so I tend to just ignore the underlying impulse, and simply allow the mess and filth to accumulate- be it physical, psychological or even digital. (I’m the sort of guy that renames all my music so that it’s displayed elegantly.)
At some point in time- perhaps it was reading people like Leo Babuta and Derek Sivers- I decided to start decluttering my shit. I realized that my wardrobe was full of clothes I never wore. I junked a good half of it. I would have liked to have donated it, but I simply didn’t have the patience or time. I’ve been cleaning out my workspaces.
My house is a huge mess- my parents are both packrats who love to accumulate Stuff. When I have a place of my own in the future, I swear it will be as minimalist as possible. Never own anything that doesn’t add beauty and value to your life, someone said. That’s the plan. All extraneous clutter must go. It’s a huge source of psychological peace.
7: Unfriend the non-essential.
I purged nearly 700 friends from my Facebook account a while ago. It was initially somewhat traumatic, but after a while it became hugely cathartic. It’s my own fault- I just kept accumulating more and more connections with people who I wasn’t particularly close to. I always made it a point to delete anybody who I didn’t personally know, but I tend to meet a lot of people- you play a gig with some bands, and you add all the musicians- and then never talk to them ever again.
My new rule is- I remain Facebook friends with anybody I can immediately start and sustain a conversation with. That’s all. I want connections, not statistics.
Even during the days of MSN Messenger, I made it a point to have as many contacts as possible. It wasn’t about showing off- nobody else could tell how many contacts you had, unless they were literally looking over your shoulder. I convinced myself that I was “networking”- that I was doing myself favours, somehow, by remaining connected to people who might perhaps come in useful someday in the distant future. Perhaps I might date this pretty girl someday, or perhaps I might need legal advice from this law student once he graduates. Perhaps. It does make sense- up to a point. But once you’ve got over 1,500 friends, it’s hard to keep track of everybody personally. The noise overwhelms the signal, at least for me. I find it more important to have depth of connection- to talk to the people who really care.
It feels great!