I keep a short “guilty pleasure” movie list. It mostly consists of chick flicks with adorable plot lines that are rated poorly on IMDB. The list is short because I’m totally someone who filters movies by their ratings. If it’s less than a 7, I usually skip it.

Two nights ago, I watched “In Good Company.” The movie is rated a 6.5, and I could see exactly why. The acting was spotty and overdramatized, the side characters were flat, and there were quite a few cheesy shot compositions. Despite all this, by the end of the movie, I still had a smile on my face. I enjoyed the story.

I would definitely describe the movie as very simple and obvious. But because it is simple and obvious, the messages that the film conveys are easily understood. It’s funny how creative areas like writing and filmmaking make simplicity out to be so bad. People will often criticize a work for its lack of complexity. In the space of software and product design, simplicity is the holy grail.

Anyway, when it comes to ratings, Yelp inevitably come to my mind. I startle myself by remembering all the times I’ve discounted restaurants for their meager 3.5 ratings. I can definitely think of a few places that I tried and liked through friends or because of geographic convenience—only to check Yelp ratings later and be shocked at their less than 4 ratings. (E.g. Ozumo, one of my favorite restaurants, is only a 3.5.)

This is definitely a matter of oversimplified rating systems, where you trade in depth for speed in filtering. And I completely understand the need for these systems. There is so much noise in the world that unless you block out 99% of it, you won’t be able to get anything done. Imagine spending hours reading reviews for three restaurants every day just to decide where to eat, or having to try every single dish at a restaurant to know what’s good.

As a society, we’re definitely getting used to slapping oversimplified number ratings on almost everything (Amazon) and everyone (dating sites). As a result, we’re being trained to make cursory judgements all the time. Unfortunately, the issue is not as simple as advocating for taking more time to evaluate more slowly. It’s as difficult as the topic of work-life balance. There is never a sweet spot when it comes to “finding balance.”

Anyway, I’m just glad I gave “In Good Company” a chance despite its poor rating.

Willpower Instinct

It’s almost a new year. I’m not one for new year’s resolutions, simply because the chapters of my own life never align so perfectly with what we arbitrarily call January 1st. However, I am one for setting goals, wanting to become a better self, and being aware of time.

My “2014” started about three months ago. I had set some of the biggest goals I’ve ever set in my life, and I was determined to not give truth to the saying that all new year’s resolutions were meant to be broken. That said, I was also aware my excitement was from starting something new, and excitement is never enough to last the effort that would ensue. My biggest doubt was in persevering through the mundanities of daily progress some few months down the line. There is no sense of external urgency. My daily tasks are too far removed from directly impacting the achievement of my goals. I questioned how I would fend off temptations to just bum out.

At that time, I had lunch with a friend who recommended a very appropriate book to me called The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. The book could not have come at a more pivotal time. It teaches you the basic science behind self-control and how to fight common willpower challenges. You’ve probably faced problems of these variations before:

  • procrastination: I have a week left and I need to start a semester-long project
  • giving in to temptations: I smelled the popcorn when walking by and just had to buy it
  • undoing your previous effort: I’ll eat an extra cupcake as a reward for working out
  • screw the rest of it: I already screwed up my diet today so I’ll just eat whatever I want

For me, reading the book was like preemptively donning sword and shield against the very real possibility of productivity and motivation doldrums. While weapon and armor are necessary, so are practice and skill before the actual battle. I was glad I found the book before I found myself stuck in a slump.

I had certainly independently arrived at some of the tactics suggested in the book by fine-tuning from my past experiences. For example, when procrastination tempts me, I just tell myself to do the task for ten minutes with no pressure to complete it. Once I’m started, it’s often a lot easier to continue. Other times, it’s okay to just give in. I’m a person with limited energy. I need to pick my battles carefully.

Learning from past mistakes is great, but I certainly wish I were equipped with some of this knowledge during my college years. Procrastination was my biggest struggle. I would stay up late to watch movies instead of doing work. I didn’t understand why I kept procrastinating when it so obviously made everything worse. If only I had known that as humans, we’re wired to seek immediate relief from what is causing us distress. My problem was that I was stressed about being behind, and thus I coped by procrastinating more to avoid thinking about my problem of being behind.

It’s empowering to learn about self-control. I now understand it’s how my brain works, that it’s not just my personal shortcomings. I just have to set up my life such that I minimize opportunities for my primitive brain to reign over my self-control one. So do yourself a favor. Read The Willpower Instinct for your new year’s resolution. Let this be the resolution that enables all future resolutions.

Time off

My aim for October was to do nothing. Being the first month off since leaving my job, the chance to do nothing seemed a huge novelty compared to worklife. How often in life can you have the freedom to have no obligations? Thus, I indulged and spent my time playing Final Fantasy Dimensions, reading some YA fantasy fiction, watching two seasons of Once Upon a Time, finally learning the last page of Liebestraume No. 3, and sleeping over ten hours a day. The only real change I made over the course of the month was to go from eating out the majority of the time to eating in so I’d be within budget.

I took a break in a very literal sense. Now that it’s all said and done, I realize it’s scary how quickly it’s possible to adjust to changes. For the first few days, I had a strong urge to be productive. But since my goal was to do nothing, I fought it the urge. By the middle of the second week, that urge was gone. Also in the first few days, I’d always think it would be some time in the early evening when the clock would actually read early afternoon. Now, I’m back to the all too familiar feeling of, “Wait, it’s 11pm already?”

The first week off also felt like an extended long weekend. Monday would come, and there’d be no work. Now, Fridays and Mondays are one and the same. I’ve also quickly adjusted to having zero income. I used to not think twice about spending $16 for a ten minute UberX ride. Now I completely balk at the idea. That’s almost $100/hr rate. Though maybe that says more about living in San Francisco.

I enjoyed doing nothing, but only in the present moment of doing nothing. I can’t say that my time spent relaxing was that worthwhile. I’m not suffering from burnout, so two weeks was probably more than enough. I realize now that it’s like sleep. Even if you’re sleep deprived for months on end, you really only need two or three nights of good sleep to get back on track. An extra four hours a night for the next three months is not necessary.

The only time spent bumming out that still feels satisfying today was my time spent in Seattle visiting a best friend. It was very reminiscent of our time in college. We deliberately kept most of the days free and just did whatever random thing we felt like. This generally translates to long conversations analyzing life, doing awkward things, and laughing at ourselves uncontrollably.

I guess I didn’t really successfully do nothing in all of October. When it became clear that I no longer needed day in and day out to bum out, I got a head start on my reading goals for November. Plus, I now needed to readjust from bum mode back to being mildly productive again. I didn’t want to waste time in November transitioning. Despite knowing now that I didn’t need the entirety of month off, I don’t regret how I spent last month. It’s hardly the first time I misused my time.

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