Scalable loops

Our very essence is cyclical. Blood is pumped out of our heart and returns to it. Our circadian rhythm—which dictates our sleep and activity patterns—repeats itself, day after day. When it comes to sustenance, we go through the same process; eat, digest, excrete, repeat. One of our fundamental psychological orientations is time. Seconds that make minutes that make hours that make days that make weeks that make months that make years that repeat themselves until we die. And through the passage of seconds and lifetimes, the sun is rising and setting, rising and setting, rising and setting. Civilisations themselves begin, grow, evolve and deteriorate. Economies go boom, then go bust. Companies—both young and old—harness feedback loops. If something works, it’s replicated. If it doesn’t, it’s abandoned. 

I’ve attempted to leverage this undeniable preference for the cyclical. Instead of devoting myself to the attainment of specific and singular outcomes, I try to find my preferred processes. I have tasks that I complete every week and every month. I’ve developed rituals and workflows that I rely upon, day after day after day. One such construct is my daily standard. It’s derived from two concepts: the 80/20 power law and minimum effective dose. “What matters most to me and what’s the minimum amount I can do of those activities every day in order to chalk that day up as a success? I came up with:

– Meditate in the morning.
– Read for two hours.
– Write for the blog.
– Weight train.
– Play a game.

But that was years ago. I’ve simplified it since then. I write it on my index card to-do list as follows: Med / Re / Wr / Move / Play. But here’s the issue. On days where I’m un-obligated, where my time is my own, I can blow through those activities in hours. Because I like to rise before the sun, it often happens that I’ve meditated, read, wrote, moved and played before ten o’clock. I then spend the rest of the day in a maze of distraction, listlessness and unease. But not so much anymore. See, I began thinking about our cyclical essence, about the loop-iness of the natural world and the artificial world we call “civilisation” or “society”, and wondered if I can harness loops in my day-to-day activity. I wondered, could I transform my daily standard into a daily loop, a repeatable cycle? Answer: yes. But before I explain how, I need to describe a particular concept: making smaller circles.

Josh Waitzkin is a chess world champion, a tai chi push-hands world champion, and a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black under Marcelo Garcia—widely considered one of the best BJJ practitioners ever. Thus, Waitzkin knows a thing or ten about the art of high performance, and in The Art of Learning, he shares some of his insight. One particularly effective method he talks about is “making smaller circles.” He cites the importance of ritualisation in psychological preparedness, but argues that high performers often don’t have autonomy over their time. Having a one-hour ritual you complete before a performance or high-stakes event is great, but what happens when, because of an unexpected occurrence, you only have two minutes, rather than an hour? Make smaller circles. I’ll provide an example.

Imagine that before a BJJ match, I like to do three things:

1) Complete a breathing ladder, inhaling for one, exhaling for one, inhaling for two, exhaling for two, and so on up to ten and back down to one.
2) Work through a series of stretches and BJJ movements that gradually increase in intensity. 
3) Do 1) and 2) whilst listening to a favourite song on repeat. 

That process—breathing ladder and progressive moments whilst listening to music—could take half an hour. But I can compress it into ten minutes. I could do three, deep inhalations and exhalations, complete three preparatory movements and listen to my chosen song once. Or I can compress it further. One breath and one stretch whilst listening to the chorus. Or I can do it without music: a breath and a movement whilst humming the hook to myself. This is making smaller circles; the compression of rituals into a smaller time and space. 

It’s a powerful method, and I can apply it to my daily standard. I said above that my daily standard can take me hours to move through. It doesn’t have to, thanks to the compression provided by Waitzkin’s method. If I only have an hour in the morning, I can do a quick meditation—inhale over five seconds, hold for five seconds, exhale for five seconds, hold for five seconds—read a passage from a new or old book, draft up a new post, do some kettlebell swings, and play a game on my tablet. 

Because of this new orientation, this compression, my daily standard has now become a scalable loop, composed of the activities I most enjoy. I can execute the loop once in a day, or twice. I can do it in an hour, or over the course of ten. And I can alter the individual parts, depending on what I want to emphasis; I can meditate for longer, spend less time reading, more time playing. I haven’t been doing this for long, but so far the implementation of a scalable loop has proved revolutionary. There’s something soothing in a pattern repeated and a ritual revisited multiple times in a single day. And if you’re wondering how you can find the contents of your own loop, consider walking yourself through the following thought exercise:

“I do A.”
Tech makes A superfluous. What do you do?
“I do B.”
Tech makes B superfluous. What do you do?
“I do C.”
Tech makes C superfluous. What do you do?

Repeat the process, digging down until you find something you’re willing to keep doing, even when it’s “unnecessary”, until you find something that you’ll happily do regardless of external outcome.