Priorities

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Limited Time

An axiom of existence is the limited nature of time. With normal life responsibilities, there are only so many things that we can spend time on. The more we build discipline and focus, the more we can get to, given our particular set of circumstances. But we will never be able to get to everything. It is necessary that we decide on a method for determining what we focus on, and structure our lives from most important to least important.

Determining Importance

So how do we go about figuring out what is important and what is not? Well, different people value different things, so, to some extent, this is a personal matter. However, in my opinion, a pretty rigid hierarchy can be put on general areas. (Note: this presupposes a rejection of total subjectivism – i.e., the idea that nothing is truly morally or ethically superior to anything else, and that value heirarchies are merely a matter of perspective. Not everyone agrees that this is false, but most people live as if it is).

Here is how I would outline universally important priorities (in order of descending importance):

1. Certainty on matters of existential reality and one’s purpose in life

This might take the form of answering questions like:

  • Why do I exist? Why does the universe in general exist?
  • Does God exist? Is there a divine moral code to structure my life around?
  • How ought one to live given the harsh reality of unavoidable death? How ought one to live if time’s indefatigable march will eventually turn all man’s glory and achievement to dust?
  • (Given that it is possible to have a life purpose) what is my life’s purpose? What am I here to accomplish? What skills and talents can I leverage to help other people and make the world a better place?

In my observation, conviction on individual purpose is the single most powerful predictor of life success. Having certain knowledge about why you are here and what you are supposed to to do puts everything else in its proper context and gives your life direction. To use an analogy, imagine trying to build a bridge without knowing what it is supposed to look like or what things will drive over it. Even if you succeed at building a bridge that is functional and not ugly to look at, you certainly could have built an even better one (and in less time) if you knew its precise characteristics from the beginning. So too man’s achievement in life: those who know what it is they are striving to achieve can plan backwards (breaking down their broader goals into more actionable sub-goals, those into smaller sub-goals yet, and so forth) to reach their objectives faster and more efficiently than those making it all up as they go along.

2. Purposefully cultivated and frequently exercised habits of discipline and thought

By discipline, I mean the ability to do what you want to do when you want to do it. By thought, I mean the ability to reason about things at a level deeper than superficial. Thought gives you the ability to figure out what the best things to do are, and discipline gives you the ability to do them, and do them effectively (instead of getting distracted by things in the past you can’t change, things in the future you can’t control, self-doubt, hunger, etc.).

Your ability to succeed at literally everything you do is a function of your discipline and thought. People who are better at thinking and have more discipline get more things done, better, in less time. It ought to go without saying, then, that these two are incredibly important to actively cultivate and exercise.

3. Stable and strong interpersonal relationships

These relationships would include family, friends, and significant others. Research has shown that people that have support networks handle stress and adversity much better. They also tend to be happier and live longer.

While most people don’t look at relationships quite the same way as objects or processes, relationships can be studied and improved over time as well. For example, communication and trust, the foundations of any relationship, can be improved through conscious effort and work. (Though it generally requires this from both parties). Relationships that have been strengthened over time and invested in will always last longer and be closer than other relationships, increasing the benefits that relationships provide in the first place.

4. An implemented and disciplined routine of intellectual expansion through reading

Here (and below), by “implemented” I mean you have thought it through and are capable of giving a reasoned defense of why you are doing what you are doing. By “disciplined” I mean you generally stick to what you say you are going to do.

Almost all truly successful people throughout history have been voracious readers. This suggests that reading is an important means of boosting effectiveness (almost certainly mediated through intellectual expansion and increased knowledge).

Of course, some books are of much more value than others. Reading practical nonfiction is going to do you a whole lot more good than trashy paranormal romance novels. I would suggest attempting to balance reading things that are in your areas of expertise (and/or line up with your interests and beliefs) with things that are not in your areas of expertise (and/or are contrary to your interests and beliefs). It’s hard to gain perspective if you only get one point of view.

In my opinion, the idea that paper books somehow increase comprehension over screens (or are faster to read, less mentally taxing, etc.) is rubbish (see my thoughts on screen reading here). Most of the research comparing paper reading to screen reading is of extremely poor quality, and none that I am aware of truly compares apples to apples (i.e., explicitly controls for differences that might be significantly biasing the results, such as people reading on screens scrolling rather than emulating page turning). In my opinion, most all research that claims that audiobooks are basically the same in effectiveness as print books is also rubbish, since I think that any learning that does not include reading as a component is suboptimal.

5. An implemented and disciplined exercise routine that includes both aerobic and anaerobic training

Exercise reduces stress (lowering stress hormones, leading to reduced hypofrontality in the brain, leading to better self-control and judgement). Exercise also generally boosts energy levels, and releases natural opioids called endorphins, which make you feel good.

In my opinion, it is best to do both aerobic and anaerobic training to get the benefits of both. Some of their benefits overlap, but some are unique to one or the other. Throwing in flexibility training as well isn’t a bad idea, but it’s mostly useful for ensuring that you don’t hurt yourself when doing the other two forms of training. You should always stretch and warm up before doing serious exercise to get blood flowing and muscles loose.

6. An implemented and disciplined common-sense diet

In general, such a diet would

  • Be free of or low in processed foods, added sugar, and high omega-6 oils (e.g., sunflower oil, corn oil)
  • Be high in vegetables, naturally occurring antioxidants, and sources of omega-3 fatty acids (e.g., salmon, sardines)

Whether you believe in evolution through natural selection or divine creation (of whatever form: Christian, Muslim, etc.), either way humans were not designed to eat processed foods. In practice, if you avoid buying anything packaged and pre-prepared (unless you know exactly what is in it and where it comes from), you will avoid most of the persistent health problems related to metabolic syndrome. You will have to cook for yourself, however.

Some practical tips:

  • If you substitute “vegetables and vegetables” for “fruits and vegetables,” you will be better off every time (with the possble exception of berries: berries tend to have higher antioxidant levels and fiber content relative to glycemic load than other fruits). Most fruits are not bad per se, but their ratio of nutrients and fiber to sugar is much, much lower than that of vegetables.
  • Anyone that is trying to get you to buy their diet books/“special foods” is probably wrong in large or small part about something. Don’t get sucked in by unrealistic promises of efficacy or marketing hype. A good rule of thumb is this: paradoxically, the more testimonials something has, the more you should avoid it. If somebody needs testimonials to push their products, usually it means the science doesn’t support their claims or they are not intelligent enough to understand one way or the other (neither of which says very good things about them or their products).
  • Avoid extreme positions and authors that make use of sweeping condemnation or praise for any common food. Also avoid authors that talk about “the lost knowledge of our Paleolithic ancestors,” “Eastern wisdom,” etc. or advocate sourcing some uncommon food as a sort of cure-all health booster. Use common sense.
  • Trust methodologically-sound, peer-reviewed, double-blind scientific studies conducted by qualified and respected researchers without conflicts of interest and funded by entities without an axe to grind. Don’t trust anything or anyone else, including the USDA and the AHA.
  • Buy local and organic as much as possible (you will get price-gouged, so not everyone can afford it). Local farmers usually use more sustainable farming methods, and have much less objectionable business practices in general. Foods that are certified organic will typically have less pesticides and other nasty substances. Be skeptical of anyone that claims their products are “natural” without specificying further – they probably use chemicals. Getting certified organic is expensive (partly because it is, unfortunately, rather political: big agribusiness has tried to make it difficult for smaller local farmers to get certified to make them look less attractive), so not everybody that has good farming practices will be certified. If I had the option of buying organic from some big company or just buying local (non-organic) from someone I knew/could talk to and whose farm I could visit, I would buy local every time.
    • For animal products, make sure the animals were ethically and sustainably raised. For cows this would mean pasture grazed and grass-fed/finished (not locked up in their own dung and force-fed corn and antibiotics); for chickens this would mean free range (“cageless” is meaningless for the overall health and well-being of the chickens), preferably with non-soy supplemental feed; for fish this would mean wild caught; etc. This is simply the ethical thing to do from the perspective of animal welfare, but, generally speaking, animal products from healthy, happy animals will also be healthier. (For example, eggs from free range chickens have significantly higher levels of omega-3’s than eggs from corn/soy fed cage-confined chickens).

Other Priorities

After the 6 above (which, again, are merely my opinions on what is universally important), you are going to have to decide what to focus on next. In general, this will relate to your life purpose (as discussed above).

I would suggest starting with “meta-skills” like typing. Learning how to touch-type enables you to be much more efficient on a wide number of tasks, as well as speeding up the rate at which you can achieve success in other areas. Some other good things to start with:

  • Learning mouseless text-editing (in the manner of Vim or Emacs).
  • Learning how to effectively meditate (in the scientific sense, not the eastern mysticism sense)
  • Learning about effective time/project management systems like GTD, Kanban, the Pomodoro method, etc., and combining them in various ways to come up with the productivity system that works best for you
  • Adopting functional minimalism, wherein you only own the things that give you value; simplifying your possessions
  • Learning about another culture, and learning their language and way of thought


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