Lifestyle design

Two and a half years after reading Tim Ferris’ 4 Hour Work Week I am now literally living it out, just as Tim described.

For the last 5 weeks I have had (almost) total control over my life.

A few commitments here and there, but by and large I’ve been able to do exactly what I want to do, precisely when I want to do it. No employer, no clients, no one to report to. Total freedom.

But this “freedom” has quickly degenerated into mindless self-indulgence.

I spent 4 weeks in Belgium eating and drinking like a starving pig at Brussel’s many all-you-can-eat restaurants. Then returned to Valencia for a few days of beach-lounging and jet-skiing. Then to Morocco to swim in waterfalls and race quad bikes through the desert.

This was all great fun but at some point diminishing marginal utility kicks in and sucks up all the excitement.

As Oscar Wilde said, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” Nothing is fun forever, and (most) human beings need limits to lead meaningful lives and keep us away from myopic primal hedonism.

As Tal Ben-Shahar astutely argues in his book, Happier, a sincerely happy, meaningful life is one where we live our lives in fine-tuned balance between present and future benefit.

Eating, drinking and jet-skiing, though great in moderation, provide only present benefit to the detriment of one’s future benefit. As a result, I’ve been yearning meaning, purpose, something to work towards. But equally, Ben-Shahar warns against falling into the rat-racer’s trap: where you furiously pursue future reward to the detriment of present benefit. (A trap I’ve fallen into many times before.)

For me, balance between present and future benefit can be most easily found in learning.

Learning Spanish, for instance, delivers present benefit in seeing tangible progress and reaching aha moments, but also future benefit in the new relationship and travel opportunities Spanish fluency can open up.

And the same for all the other stuff I’m learning and working on: psychology, data science, writing, boxing, salsa.

But without structure, especially when stretched between several competing interests, it’s too easy to fall prey to short-term pleasures – to forego writing this article because the new season of Power is out – or to get tangled up switching between pursuits – to give up on the imperfect tense to start a machine learning MOOC.

So after finally returning from Morocco and ending my 5-week holiday period, I sat down to design a structure for my new lifestyle.

Structured freedom:

First, I divide each day into 4 x 3 hour activity blocks (12 hours). Allowing a further 2 hours to cook lunch and dinner, and 2 hours to meditate, gym and spruce up, that soaks up my entire 16 hours of awake time. (Assuming 8 hours of sleep.)

Every Saturday, I conduct a weekly review: I sit down with my goals and review my performance in the last week. Depending on where I am (i.e. which goals need more/less work), I then decide on what I’m going to do in each activity block for the week.

For instance, today, I had planned to spend the first block studying Spanish (to reach my professional fluency goal), the second block water-bubble zorbing (to reach my have more fun goal), this current third block writing this article (to hit my write one article per week goal) and my fourth block practising massage (which again works towards my have more fun goal).

And this is how I structure every day of my week. It’s a lot like school: I go through each day from one activity block, one lesson, to the next, learning and doing different things along the way to improve and enjoy myself. The big difference obviously being I’m in control of what and how I study.

Throughout the week I also schedule in ad hoc one hour Misc periods to deal with the random stuff life throws at me. But by batching all the random stuff that crops up into these one hour misc periods, I prevent any randomness from bleeding into my activity blocks or distracting me.

I’m rarely ever able to stick perfectly to my timetable (which is fine) but I do try to ensure each activity block endures the full 3 hours allocated to it. And so far, it’s working out exactly as intended: structured freedom gives me the structure, discipline and limits I need to balance my interests and progress towards my goals.

Like Jocko Willink says, “Discipline equals freedom”.

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