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What are Barbell Weeks?

Fair Warning:  This is not a neuroscience article.

But, I’m assuming that those of us who are into nootropics and brain optimization are probably interested because we want to maximize our least renewable resource: time.

So I wanted to share something I’m doing this year — my New Year’s Resolution of sorts — both because it will probably have impact on Smart Drug Smarts, and because the  idea itself may have value to other people.

I call them “Barbell Weeks,” and I’m gambling approximately 25% of my 2014 on them.

Last year, I read Antifragile, a book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb that’s too idea-rich to easily synopsize.  To grossly oversimplify things: it explores how some systems contain feedback loops that make disorder and unpredictability a good thing rather than a bad or neutral thing.

One of several terms Taleb introduces in his book are “barbell” upsides and downsides, derived from the idea of looking at a graph where results are flat-lined in middle-ground likelihoods, then shoot up on a nearly-straight trajectory at some point on the x-axis — much like a barbell if viewed head-on.  Taleb, a former derivatives trader who got wealthy following his own advice, says to look for “barbell upside” opportunities — situations where the worst-case is small-to-middling, but the best-case goes straight up.

(His thesis is: On a long enough time-frame, or with enough total repetitions or chances, you will eventually land on the outlandishly-winning end of this curve, while the other, far more common areas of the curve won’t cost you that much as you land on them for months, years, or decades.)

Needless to say, not all opportunities have barbell upsides.

But one that I’m thinking might, is my plan for…

Barbell Weeks: The Recipe

  • One Week per Month — a full 7 day stretch — I will sweep my normal day-to-day obligations aside and force them to sit and wait.  A full clearing of both the mental and physical desktop.
  • Dedicated Single-Project Focus.  I’ll be working on something, to the exclusion of everything else, for all 7 days.  The “something” I’m not putting any particular parameters on — in some cases it may even be a traditional vacation — but only one something per Barbell Week.  No split-focus, and any multi-tasking will be multiple tasks within the overall project.
  • If Something Isn’t Worth A Week, It’s A “No.”   There are 12 months in a year, so I’ll have 12 chances to say “yes.”  But aside from that, I’ll be Mr. No.  This is where I expect major benefits in the rest of my life (the non-Barbell weeks).  I tend to get distracted by a lot of mini-projects that nibble up an hour here, 3-4 hours there.  In 2014, I’ll be saying no to these things.  If an endeavor doesn’t merit a Barbell Week commitment, it’s not weaseling into my calendar.  Period.

What does any of this have to do with Taleb’s “barbell” lingo?  Here’s my thinking: Most of these weeks will probably have no long-term upside for me.  I’ll be finger-painting or learning Esperanto or something that will seem inane or ill-advised.  But in all cases, I’ll have only lost a week, and probably gotten a nice recharge by shaking off my normal daily schedule.  A week, by my reckoning, is a low-impact, acceptable loss on the “bad end” of Taleb’s results-graph.

But if even one of these weeks yields a project that is a real success (in business, learning, adventure, or whatever), the potential upside is essentially unbounded.  Thus, the “barbell” name.

My first Barbell Week will land at the end of January, and the project focus is going to be a tech start-up gambit that I can’t reveal just yet.  But the name includes “jetpack,” so that’s fun.

Also, a public hat-tip to my friend Marcus, whose off-handed statement “You should take a week off every now and then” spurred this whole idea.

Finally, if you read this and get inspired to implement Barbell Weeks yourself, let me know.  I’d be curious to hear what other people would devote a week to.  And maybe we could set up some sort of post-board or forum to watch for the low-frequency, high-upside barbell win that on a long enough timeline, one of us is sure to get.



PS:  Negative barbell graphs are possible too, and thanks to Murphy’s Law, more common.  So watch out for those.

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