Sunday, 6 January 2013

A checklist for happiness

Two years ago, I saw a book title: "The Checklist Manifesto". I didn't actually read the book, the title and blurb was enough to give me an epiphany (I just read the 8 page article from which it was derived - highly recommend it). At the time, I was doing an honours project in a biochemistry lab, and for every experiment I did, I had a checklist to follow. The startling thing was that every time I followed the checklist, the experiment worked. And every time I didn't, the experiment failed. The insight I had when I saw that book title, was that I could apply the Checklist Manifesto to my life.

Our habits define us
It struck me that my 'success' or 'failure' as a person would be based on the sum-total of all the actions I took during my life. And it seemed to me that most of the actions I took on a daily basis were not actions that I spent a lot of time thinking about - they were habits. Essentially I was living my life in auto-pilot a lot of the time. Some of these habits served me well. Riding my bike into uni every day predictably made me happy. I got that shot of endorphins from exercise and arrived at my lab feeling energetic and usually with a few new ideas.

Keeping a happiness journal
I also noticed that I felt happier when I had a meaningful conversation with interesting people. That wasn't immediately obvious to me. I was fairly oblivious to what actions led to having a happy or unhappy day.  I even developed fatalistic superstitions (e.g. if I got a green light at a certain intersection, then things would go smoothly that day). My happiness amnsesia when I took the suggestion to keep a happiness journal for a week. I documented what made me happy. Exercise made me happy. Talking to people made me happy. Learning new things made me happy. Cleaning my room made me happy. Journalling made me happy.

I soon noticed that many of the things on that list were pretty rare occurences. Being an introverted chap by nature, I rarely made the effort to talk to people and so I rarely had meaningful conversations. I often didn't bother to clean my room. I generally forgot to journal. Those behaviours certainly weren't habits for me.

Negative habits sabotage happiness
Speaking of habits, I noticed that many of the habits I had did not serve me well. For example, my habit of drinking a plunger full of coffee every morning undermined my performance for the rest of the day. I got jittery and frantic. In fact, I messed up a lot of my experiments simply because I raced through the checklist so fast that I missed a step.

The other consistent red cross on the happiness journal was my habit of overeating. When I overate, particularly at night time, it made me feel intensely guilty and filled me with shame. I'd deal with it by going and doing another workout (midnight runs were a frequent occurence) which further sabotaged me because it meant I got to bed late and relied even more heavily on caffeine the next day.

And if I didn't exercise late into the evenings, chances were I'd be working until late at night, striving to finish 'just one more task', again compromising my sleep and compounding my caffeine addiction.

The checklist manifesto for happiness
Recently I've started addressing my negative habits. I've joined a peer support program (completely free, inbox me for details) which has allowed me to give up caffeine (7 months free), stop overeating (6.5 months free) and quit working past 7:30pm (not so good: 32/44 days). At the core of this program is a checklist. On the checklist are my happiness to-dos and my happiness not-to-dos. Some of these are actions from the program and others are drawn from my happiness journal. The checklist is a work in progress. I'm constantly refining it and adding new to-dos and not-to-dos to the list

Happiness to-dos
Here's my list (yours will of course vary):
- Sleep at least 7 hours per night
- Meditate for at least 30 minutes each morning
- Speak to mentor for 15 minutes each morning during week
- Have at least three meaningful conversations with people in my peer support program
- Write at least 2 pages in my journal
- Arrive 10 minutes early to every meeting
- Do 30-45 minutes of exercise per day
- Get at least 30 minutes of sunshine each day
- Plan my calendar and tasks for my next day in advance
- Catch up with friends
- Watch a TED video every day
- Wait 72 hours before making a purchase over $20

- Wait for the green man at traffic lights (to avoid rushing)
- Drink 3 glasses of water before each meal
- Make my bed
- Take my multivitamin

Happiness not-to-dos
- Don't look at backlit screens after 9pm
- Eat an oversized portion
- Drink caffeinated beverages
- Buy anything on credit
- Procrastinate when scheduled work
- Run for a train/bus
- Interrupt someone
- Jaywalk

Tracking habits
Being a data nerd, keeping a checklist every day wasn't enough. I wanted to be able to track how I was doing with these habits. So I spent many hours searching for the best apps to track habits and measure happiness. I have an android phone, so can't help you Apple lovers, sorry:P

App 1: HabitStreak
I use HabitStreak (I bought the Pro version) to keep track of my happiness checklist. I like it more than any of the other Android habit tracking apps. Habit Streak works really well for activities that I want to do every day (most of them). I've found it useful to keep up my happiness regime on the weekend as well as during the week. The happiness not-to-dos get converted into positive actions, e.g. "Did you avoid interrupting people today?"

App 2: To Do Log
But then there are some happiness actions that I don't necessarily need to do every day. For example, writing a blog post makes me happy, but it takes a lot of time and I can only really afford to do that on Sundays. So Habit Streak wouldn't work too well for things like that. For that reason, I also use To Do Log.

The cool thing about To Do Log is it gamifies habit tracking. You can assign points to each activity. As an example, to encourage myself to get enough sleep, I've set it up so I get 1 point for every 10 minutes I sleep (a 7 hour sleep is worth 42 points). And to encourage punctuality, I lose 1 point for every 1 minute I am late to a meeting. I really like this combination of positive and negative reinforcement. And I love that I get a score at the end of the day. It means I can try to beat my score from the previous day to reach that impossible asymptote of happiness!

App 3: Moodlytics
Finally, I've got an app that allows me to measure my actual happiness: Moodlytics. I set it up to quiz me every 30 minutes (my mum thinks this is crazy:P you can set a less frequent interval) about how I'm feeling. The emotions I generally use are: happy, anxious, sleepy or in pain. At the end of the week, I look at the report and add my 'happy' percentage to my spreadsheet, so I can track my happiness over time.


Adam Kirk said...

Interesting write up Jeremy. Would you find this app (ToDoDa) useful?

jeremy nagel said...

Thanks Adam. I am interested in that app:) I already use Remember The Milk and ToDoDa looks like it can do what I currently do with a spreadsheet (assign tasks to specific days more easily).

Symon Aidan Smith said...

There is the side of treating happiness, to me a process, as an object of contemplation. Reading philosophical fiction can be good. "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" I read when I was a teenager, his other book "Lila, an inquiry into morals" is better, or even better is Delmore Schwartz's writing, or Kafka's stories. The full depth of meaning works on a slower time scale than modern technology but it's a window into other's imaginations/ concerns.

David Hughes said...

I find it amazing that all the reading and listening I've done in previous times has now set me up to be happier than I've ever been.

Looking at your checklist, I see many points which I too followed to arrive at where I am now.

Reading is good for the mind, music is good for the blood, and poetry is good for the soul.

You are walking the talk Jeremy, and I wisah you well in your journey.