Inspired by Updates from Boston.
One of the more valuable interventions I tested in the last couple years is the idea of setting a "Monthly Policy" and a "Monthly Theme." I'll share the basic process briefly, and then share a couple counterintuitive lessons with implications for self-improvement.
I've gotten immense value out of naming my months an uncommon phrase, and trying to live in accordance with that theme for the entirety of one month. For reference, here's my monthly themes for each month of 2017 —
- Structured Data
- Do Less, Better
- Sentry Ops II
- Impact Floor
- Glorious Neutrality
- Boring Methodical Execution
- Make List, Run List
- Trust the Process
- Build Supply
So, in January, "Structured Data," I focused on building out a more complete dataset that I could run for the whole year — setting up systems for tracking every minute, tracking how long projects take to complete, upgrading personal finance, tracking fitness and macronutrient consumption, and a few things like that.
In February, "Do Less Better," I focused on having less projects open at the same time, doing less activities overall, and more carefully choosing activities for upside/gains while also focusing on spending more time to increase output quality of all the work I did choose to do.
Last month, November, was "Trust the Process" — October had been a month with lots of travel that had heavily disrupted my core habits, sleep schedules, etc. In November, I focused on doing nothing particularly expansive and instead focused on resetting and re-installing every best practice I know.
This month, I'm focused on both stockpiling all common physical supplies and improving procurement (food, household supplies, medicine, etc) as well as increasing my backlog of intellectual work (essays written and edited that are in backlog ready to publish, all the logistical work for events pre-done with reminder and confirmation messages scheduled, etc).
Monthly Theming is great, because it's almost free. I think you could set a theme without much reflection in just 15-30 minutes and get some benefit, but doing a full review takes me only 3-4 hours to do rigorously. I wind up making more correct decisions throughout the month, and some of the policies stick with me forever.
For instance, "Impact Floor" was about aiming to ensure I got 5 excellent hours in every single day and designing requisite plans and changing my workflows around that. The 3-4 hour investment to analyze and realize that this was important paid off in many more good hours that month, and I kept roughly half of the policies I experimented with and kept running them every month going forwards.
How I Set Monthly Policies and Themes
The first thing I do is a Monthly Review. This is very factual and not particularly subjective. Most of it requires very little judgment.
I first review last month's policy, and write down which aspects of it I adhered to or did not.
I then look at all the projects I did the previous month, and I literally look at every single day to identify what I did on each of them the past month. I look at all the data I keep and glance over it, looking for anything unusual.
Then I write four things —
- Short Policy Statement
- Tools and Operationalization
- Behavior Change
The first is where I write whatever I see as the current largest unsolved problem, the current largest opportunity, and/or any hypotheses I have about things I could or ought to be doing.
Then I write a policy statement. This takes the longest to think through and weigh what I want to work on. Some policy statements are very straightforward — "Build Supply" for this month is very straightforward — whereas others are more abstract and take a while to nail down. For instance, "Glorious Neutrality" was about repeatedly looking to reach neutrality and equanimity from any place of negative affect, but in a calm and expansive sort of way. The key line from that entry:
[Glorious Neutrality] means rapid recovery, rapid recentering, and vigilance to turn fight/flee/thrash reactions into productive time or leisure time.
Then I write down what external factors and tools I'll need to develop or install into my life for that particular month, as well as what behavior changes I'll test out for that month.
To use Glorious Neutrality as an example again, I picked a number of interesting books and audiobooks at the start of the month, got a coworking membership for the month, and set up a series of work meetings / jam sessions with a couple productive friends.
This has been a very worthwhile usage of 3-4 hours per month.
Success and Failure Rates of Monthly Themes
I've now been running something resembling monthly policies since February 2016; this is the 23rd month I've done something like that. It was very much a work-in-progress and didn't hit its current form until January of this year.
Looking at my monthly policies from this year, the results are —
Large Successes: Structured Data (Janaury), Do Less Better (February), Impact Floor (June), Acts (August), Boring Methodical Execution (September), Trust the Process (November)
Failures: Sentry Ops II (March), Make List Run List (October)
Mixed: Repertoire (April), Excellence (May), Glorious Neutrality (July)
Of the 11 completed months of this year, that's 7 successes, 2 outright failures, and 2 middling underperforming failure-ish things.
If you're counting then, 64% of monthly policies produce a large success.
On average, I test between 5 and 12 implementation items each month between tools and behavior change. Here's November's ("Trust the Process") —
Tools and Operationalization: Get back on -I and -II Lights; Create a “Daily Calibration Template” for my journal; On Calibration, include tuning lights and develop repertoire; Get back on Project Speed of Execution tracking; Do rounds of formal Cycles again; Maybe put some jams with other people on the calendar.
Behavior Change: I’ll need to include countermeasure-planning in Daily Calibration; That should include leisure and fallback plans; Persistence is in order, especially around getting Cycles done; Spend a lot of time studying my behavior and ensure I adhere to it.
Interestingly, I only keep doing 1-2 items on average from each month.
That means that, on average, 60%-90% of items I experiment with are discarded after being tested for 30 days.
We know that, due to loss aversion and a variety of cognitive biases, people tend to experience failure as more painful and distressing than success feels good and uplifting.
Likewise, it stands to reason that a month that was a failure is also likely a time period where someone has lower mental and physical resources and wellbeing — a month where you get sick is more likely to be a failed month while simultaneously reducing capacity/capability for next month.
I suspect that these types of self-improvement initiatives are likely to be abandoned after a run of 1-2 bad months, despite being useful overall. For a person to stick with monthly planning and theming, they'd need to have either an unusually good run to start it, or pre-committing to sticking with it during failed months.
Most importantly, the realization that 60%-90% of behavior interventions aren't worth keeping was insightful and has a lot of implications. Most people, I suspect, probably only install one or a small handful of behavior changes and tools at a time.
But from my experiments, the average individual tool or experimental new behavior is not worth running going forwards.
If this held true for other people, then it means that someone who attempts to install a single new tool or technology, or uptake a single new habit or behavior change, is far more likely than not doing something that isn't worth the cost of maintaining going forwards.
This could very easily lead to a person becoming discouraged by self-improvement experiments. I didn't intentionally set out to test 5-12 interventions every single month and keep the best of them — rather, they flowed from experiments along a common theme in order to try to actualize that theme.
For someone trying only a single behavior at a time, it's likely that it would make perfect sense to abandon that behavior — but, if they're only trying behaviors or tools one at a time, it's actually likely that they hit a run of failures on their first few attempts.
This would seem to be demoralizing, and discourage experimentation going forwards.
I find setting a "Monthly Theme" — basically, naming any given month a unique name that ties into a set of behavior changes and attentional focus — to be a very inexpensive way to get some gains. Try it out, if you like.
I do a rigorous review of the past month, and list out a mix of potential problems/opportunities/hypotheses before choosing a policy and theme for the next month. I've found the 3-4 hours that this takes to do, once per month, to be a very good use of time.
Explicitly setting out "tools and operationalization" and "behavior change" to support the theme and policy has been useful.
My experience has been that the majority of tools tested and experimental behavior changes are not worth keeping going forwards, yet, since I discover 1-2 worthwhile things to keep each month, the majority of months feel like a "win."
This might suggest that trying a "basket of changes around a single theme" to be a more reliable way to identify 1-2 good changes to keep going forwards, whereas trying to make individual piecemeal changes might result in seeming failure and demoralization.
I plan to keep running monthly themes and policies for the foreseeable future; it's been good for me. If you try it or have tried similar things, I'd love to hear about it. Questions and feedback are very welcome.