Discipline

The Key to Self-Leadership: Don't Break Promises

You can probably think of a leader who inspired you in some way. For many it's a great boss, a teacher, or maybe a coach. In the world of work, working for a great leader can make a potentially boring or thankless job into something more meaningful (and a bad leader can take something that should be awesome and just absolutely ruin it).

As an independent worker, there are fewer ways for good (or bad) leadership to impact your work life. Obviously you don't have a boss, supervisor, or some kind of inspiring CEO to give meaning to your work. Instead, leadership of you falls into your own lap. You are simultaneously a leader and a follower and at that point, you have to ask yourself, "Do I find myself an inspiring leader? Am I a leader that I should/would follow?"

I've been thinking a lot about questions like this because I've recently been so focused on school and work I've let my physical and mental health (i.e. meditation) slide for several months. I'm certainly working hard and getting some great stuff finished but in the back of the mind I find myself being disappointed in myself. By not doing the things I know I need to do to feel like I'm living my life driven by my values I feel like I'm letting myself down. I'm definitely not inspiring myself to something greater, that's for sure. At the end of the day I want to be able to look at the sum total of my decisions in all realms of my life and be able to admire myself. When I'm consistently breaking commitments to myself to get into better shape or take my meditation practice more seriously it's hard to take myself seriously.

How do you be the type of person you would follow?

It probably varies from person to person just as every leader and follower are unique individuals. For me, I know the main thing I need to be doing on a regular basis in order to be the type of person I would happily follow is:

"Don't break promises."

Obviously, breaking promises and commitments to other people is a bad thing and nobody who regularly does that is going to be a credible leader. However, I'm more interested in the idea of not breaking promises to myself. This is the metric that is more important than whether or not I keep my word to other people because at a certain level there is a social expectation to not screw other people over which helps keep me (and really, everyone) somewhat in line. Crass but true. When it comes to keeping promises to myself, however, nobody but me knows whether or not I do it. It's between me and myself and that's it.

When I'm not keeping promises to myself it means I'm not making smart decisions about how I exercise, about how I eat, about meditation and keeping up my hobbies and other interests. I know the types of things I need to do to feel healthy and happy. When I don't do them even when I have every intention of doing so I'm sending the message to myself that I can't be trusted. I think that lack of trust chips away at the sense that I know what's best for me and that I should work hard to meet the goals I set for myself. 

Why should I follow a guy who can't even keep promises to himself?

For that reason I'm going to try a little weeklong experiment where I focus on doing all my *non-work* habits extremely consistently (for the purpose of this experiment that means daily exercise, daily meditation, and daily journaling). My hypothesis is that by putting more attention on these intentions I have for myself that help support my self-identity as a physically fit, mindful, and deliberately conscious person will spillover into my effectiveness when it comes to writing, coaching, and everything else that makes up my work life. Taking care of these commitments is a signal to myself that I can be relied upon to do the things that I know I need to do to be healthy and happy.

In a nutshell, the foundation of leadership is respect and the foundation of self-leadership is self-respect.

Photo by GrowWear

 

 

Making Footprints

This article originally appeared on my first website, The Simpler Life. I'm reintroducing some of the articles that didn't make the initial transition to TheWorkologist.com.

The Grand Canyon was created over thousands of years of gradual erosion. Mountains are created as gigantic and slow tectonic plates bump together. How many of us are trying to create majestic canyons and towering mountains in our lives with one herculean effort? How many changes in diet are left by the wayside after they fail to erase a lifetime of poor eating habits? How many half finished novels lie in drawers and the depths of our hard drives because writing a book ended up being more than a single burst of motivation could handle?

The concept of repeated effort and diligent practice was brought to my attention again after reading about Hua Chi, a 70 year-old Buddhist monk in Tongren, China. He has been praying at the same spot in his temple for so long and consistently that he has worn his footprints into the hardwood floor.

Consistency. Dedication. These are the words that will wear through hardwood floors and will push you toward great success in your own life.

WHERE ARE MY FOOTPRINTS?

 

This got me thinking about where I’m making “footprints” in my life. Where am I dedicating so much time and effort that the results will be seen forever? I’d like to think that my writing is becoming a footprint as I continuously and regularly make the "clackity noise". However, sometimes it feels like my footprint is being made in my desk chair as I check Twitter for the 7th time in 2 hours. I want my footprints to be evidence of my dedication and commitment to making the world a better place, not an insatiable desire to check my e-mail.

WHERE ARE YOUR FOOTPRINTS?

 

Think about what you do regularly. Where are you making footprints in your life? Are you literally making "footprints" in your recliner as you settle into your 3rd hour of Call of Duty for the day? Are you okay with that? Are you making footprints in the candy aisle at the grocery store? In your car as you drive 45 minutes each way to a job you hate? If you can make footprints there you can make footprints elsewhere. It's a matter of deciding where those footprints should be and taking the steps necessary to make them happen (which, admittedly, isn't always the simplest thing in the world). But it's only your own effort that can make them. I can't make footprints for you and your teachers can't make footprints for you. In the end, it's your call.

As Aristotle said (supposedly), “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.” It can be easy to let one excellent act or project define us. That’s not how it works. Our lives must be built upon repeated acts of excellence, of dedication, and of commitment. This is what builds mountains and chisels canyons.

Only this will make footprints.

 

Make Yourself Uncomfortable to Unlock Your Subconscious Mind

In The Talent Code, a book about figuring out how to become an expert at something, author Daniel Coyle discovered that many training facilities in talent hotbeds, geographic areas that produced an unusual number of people with world-class talent, tend to be run-down, shabby, and nearly dilapidated. He said that if all of the training grounds of all the talent hotbeds he visited were magically assembled into a single mega-hotbed facility it would "…resemble a shantytown. Its buildings would be makeshift, corrugated-roofed affairs, its walls paint-bald, its fields weedy and uneven."

What Coyle uncovered, according to John Bargh, a psychologist at Yale University, is what's called the Scrooge Principle. It states that "our unconscious mind is a stingy banker of energy reserves, keeping its wealth locked in a vault. Direct pleas to open the vault don't work; Scrooge can't be fooled that easily. But when he's hit with the right combination of primal cues-- when he's visited by a series of primal-cue ghosts, you might say-- the tumblers click, the vault of energy flies open, and suddenly it's Christmas Day." Training in a gorgeous, state-of-the-art facility does not provide any of the primal cues needed to trick our subconscious into unlocking that energy vault. Bargh says, "If we're in a nice, easy, pleasant environment, we naturally shut off effort. Why work? But if people get the signal that it's rough, they get motivated now. A nice, well-kept tennis academy gives them the luxury future right now-- of course they'd be demotivated. They can't help it."

How can you make your environment more conducive to unlocking your energy vault? What can you learn from the Scrooge Principle?

  1. Create adversity for yourself: The best talent hotbeds are not extremely pleasant places to be-- by design (sometimes). The mind is cued to work harder. What can you do to make your own working environment a little less luxurious? If you're a writer, is it possible to shut off the Internet and only access it for a short time each day? When I was Internet-less in my old apartment for about 6 months, I saw my creativity and production sky-rocket. Try working without the air-conditioning for a week or use a couple blankets to keep warm at night instead of a heater. It may seem silly or counter-intuitive but making your environment less comfortable might be a great first step toward developing your own talent.
  2. Use the simplest tools available: Youth baseball in the Dominican Republic does not have the fancy equipment or specialized training tools that many elite baseball teams have in the United States. In the Dominican, athletes use the simplest equipment. I remember when I was 11 or 12 I played a couple exhibition games against a youth hockey team from Russia. They were all using wooden sticks (everybody on my team was using expensive composite sticks), and old equipment. My teammates and I thought we would dominate them. We quickly discovered that top of the line equipment was not needed to be a good hockey player and we were soundly beat several times. In your own work, what is the simplest tool that you can use and still be productive? If you're a writer, try writing with a piece of paper and a pen for awhile. Try running without your iPod or even shoes. Use the simplest tools available.
  3. Focus on your core competency: At the Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow, a club that produced more top-twenty-ranked women than the entire United States did from 2005-2007, students spend hours practicing without tennis balls. They call it itimitatsiya and it develops the core competency of every tennis player: their swing. If you are a writer, write. If you are a runner, run. If you are a painter, paint. It can be easy to get caught up in the related yet non-essential tasks that your work creates. If I'm not careful I can find myself spending my time researching an article much longer than is truly necessary. Formatting my writing is important; but, not nearly as important as actually writing. Connecting with other writers via Twitter may be mildly productive, but it's not writing. Reading about running may be inspirational, but it's not going to make you suddenly able to run a marathon. Mastering the component parts of your activity is what will make you improve just like the tennis players practicing their swing without balls. What distractions can you eliminate from your working environment. 

Your subconscious is an extremely powerful component of your mind. Learning to setup your own working environment like some of the greatest talent hotbeds in the world; the run-down baseball fields of the Dominican Republic or the dilapidated shack of the Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow, can help unlock the energy you need to develop your own talent. Send yourself the primal cues that you haven't made it yet, you aren't living the high life, you aren't a master of all you do, and you will be closer to the world-class talent that you desire.

 

Get Out of Your Own Way

One of the primary issues I've worked through in my own life involves the idea of not making things unnecessarily difficult for myself. Trying to live a conscious life is hard enough; I shouldn't be making it any harder than it already is. Looking at the idea of ego depletion, or willpower, has been one way I've helped myself get out of my own way in terms of personal development.

WHAT'S EGO DEPLETION?

Ego depletion is essentially the idea that our willpower is a finite resource that can be used up by activities that require self-control. Once you've used up that reservoir of willpower you'll no longer be able to use it on other activities that require self-control. This is one of the reasons why after a long day you may feel a lack of motivation to go to the gym or why after sticking to your diet perfectly for a couple days you ultimately end up eating a large pizza in one sitting.

Roy Baumeister and his colleagues have done a lot of the research that explores this idea of a finite well of willpower that we all seem to have. For example, they did a study where two groups of people watched a comedian and one group was instructed not to laugh and the other one was free to laugh as much as they wanted. After watching the comedian, the two groups completed a task that required self-control. The group that was not allowed to laugh did significantly worse at the task than the group that was allowed to laugh. Evidently, forcing themselves not to laugh while watching the comedian sapped them of much of their self-control, leaving less for the task that followed.

In another study, two groups of hungry participants were led to a room with a plate full of freshly baked cookies and a plate of radishes. One group was instructed to only eat the radishes. One group was allowed to eat the cookies. Much like the study described above, the two groups were then instructed to complete another task. This time, the researchers were measuring how long the two groups would stick with an unsolvable puzzle. The group that was allowed to eat cookies lasted about 20 minutes, on average. The group that was not allowed to eat the cookies and could only eat radishes lasted about 9.

HOW CAN YOU PREVENT EGO DEPLETION?

When I learned about this concept I saw an opportunity to eliminate needlessly using willpower throughout my day. I realized there were several things I was doing that required me to use willpower when it really wasn't necessary. I'd much prefer to save my willpower for the activities and tasks that truly need it. Let's take a look at a couple of small changes I made to my day to fix this problem.

 

  1. Resisting the urge to check sites like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and my email when I'm supposed to be working: Knowing that blissful distraction is only a click away when I'm working at my computer (which is where 99% of my work happens) can be a massive drain on my willpower. Constantly resisting that urge to see if someone responded to my latest hilarious tweet was profoundly draining. To counteract this siphoning of my willpower, I use a program called SelfControl (appropriate name, eh?). When I use it, it completely and utterly blocks me from all of the websites I've put onto a blacklist. I no longer have to use my willpower to not check these sites because it has become impossible.
  2. Resisting the urge to eat pre-packaged, processed, junk food  at my apartment when I should be snacking on something healthier: Sometimes I have delicious junk food in my apartment. Convincing myself that I shouldn't eat the Swiss Cake Roll in my cupboard is a drain on my willpower. The simple (and utterly obvious) solution is to not bring any food in my apartment that requires willpower not to eat. If my only options are relatively healthy then I don't need to waste willpower resisting the urge to eat the junk.
  3. Resisting the urge to buy drinks or food when I'm on campus: I started a terrible, terrible, muffin habit last semester. Every Tuesday and Thursday before my morning class I would walk over to the campus cafe and buy a massive blueberry muffin. It was one of those muffins that makes you thank our ancestors of the agricultural revolution for the knowledge of how to craft such a delicious bakery item. But it certainly wasn't healthy and I usually had an epic battle with myself every morning where I told myself I wouldn't cave into my muffin craving. I usually failed. Until I just stopped bringing money with me to campus. Suddenly, it was no longer an issue of willpower because it wasn't even possible for me to buy a muffin. Problem solved.
  4. Resisting the urge to use my phone to distract myself when I should be working: Everything I'm blocking in item #1 above can also be checked on my phone. When I'm serious about eliminating the drains on my willpower I'll turn my phone completely off and put it somewhere where I can't see it. This seems to help fight the urge to use it as a distraction.
  5. Resisting the urge to be distracted by other applications on my computer: SelfControl (the program, not the psychological concept) will keep me from distracting myself on the Internet, but it doesn't block other applications on my computer from distracting me. If I'm constantly resisting the urge to fire up a video game or check out some other enticing app then I'm surely sapping my willpower. To combat this, I work in full screen mode as much as possible. When I can't see the other applications floating around behind my active window it seems to require less willpower to not give in to their distracting allure.

While it has been pretty well established in the psychology literature that willpower seems to be a finite resource, there are some nuances that are coming to light that are helping us better understand it. There are some studies that seem to suggest how much ego depletion we experience doing an activity that requires self-control depends on our age. The parts of our brains that seem to regulate self-control are not fully developed until our mid-twenties. Similar studies done with older people have shown less of an effect of ego depletion. Additionally, Carol Dweck has done work that seems to show that our beliefs about willpower also have an effect on how long and well we'll work on a difficult exercise.

TAKING A "GET HAPPY" BREAK

One helpful study seems to show that positive affect (basically, positive emotions) help restore willpower after a ego depleting activity. Test subjects who were shown a funny video after completing an activity that taxed their self-control but before a similar second task did better than those who were not shown a funny video in between the two tasks. In everyday terms, perhaps taking a break to do something that makes you feel good is a great way to break up various tasks throughout your day that require major use of your willpower. For example, in between classes I like to listen to podcasts or music as a way to help improve my mood before launching into another activity that requires self-control.

The science is still being developed at this point but I'm comfortable suggesting that you look at your daily life and see if there are activities or situations where you're using self-control when you may not have to. Let's save our self-control for those things that really need it and not waste it on activities that can be better regulated by a simple piece of software or a minor tweak in our behavior.

I'm always curious to hear about ego depletion leaks people have identified in their own lives and how they've eliminated them. Where have you stopped your limited supply of willpower being sapped? What did you do?

Predictors of Success: Grit

Over the past couple of months I've become very interested in what factors predict success. Traditionally, and according to most public schools today, IQ is the primary predictor of success. If you have a high IQ you should be set up for success later in life, right? It doesn't take too much digging to find a boat load of anecdotal and empirical evidence to refute that, though. How many intellectually powerful people do you know that haven't really achieved any measure of success? Most of us have that one cousin that could do differential calculus in his sleep but fills his days with Cheetos and pot instead of solving complex problems for NASA. There's definitely more to success than being smart. Considering it appears that a large part of our IQ is genetic, the fact that it's not the primary predictor of success should make you pretty happy (unless you're a Cheeto eating pot head).

One of the predictors of success I was introduced to this year is "grit." Grit was developed by a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania named Angela Duckworth. She defined it as "perseverance and passion toward long-term goals." She developed a scale to measure this trait and has administered it to some interesting groups of people with fascinating results. For example, she gave incoming West Point freshmen her grit scale and then observed which of them made it through Beast Barracks (the mentally and physically exhausting summer training before freshman year begins). Obviously, West Point has a lot riding on selecting students that they think will do well in the unique military environment the school provides. Selecting students that end up dropping out of school because they can't handle the environment is a serious pain for the school. Now, back to Duckworth and her grit scale. Those students who scored high on her grit scale before Beast Barracks ended up being much more likely to not drop out during or immediately after the experience. Those who scored low on the scale were much more likely to bow out in the middle of that first summer. The most interesting aspect of this study, however, was that Duckworth's grit scale predicted success much more than any of the tests West Point administers. More than SAT score, more than any IQ test, and more than any proprietary test they've developed.

Interesting, eh? However, I understand you probably aren't going to be doing anything as strenuous as Beast Barracks any time soon. The grit scale has also been given to Ivy League undergraduates and high level spelling bee contestants. In both cases, the grit scale predicted success more than anything else. In the case of the Ivy League undergraduates, scoring high on the grit scale correlated with higher GPAs when they graduated than SAT scores and for the spelling bee contestants scoring high on the grit scale resulted in greater success than even a test of their verbal intelligence. Having a high level of perseverance and passion for long term goals seems to result in some pretty excellent results.

The next obvious question, then, is how do you develop grit? From my research experience, it doesn't look like there has been a lot of scientifically rigorous studies about how to systematically develop grit in a specific population. Logically, however, it seems like having an opportunity to experience failure and then bounce back from it is a good way to learn how to stick to a long-term goal. In fact, the New York Times recently published an article about a prestigious New York private school that has made the development of character strengths like grit a cornerstone of their philosophy. To encourage this, teachers have been encouraged to cut back on the amount of homework they assign and to provide students more experiential learning opportunities with legitimate chances of failure. This can be seriously uncomfortable for highly intelligent kids (and their parents) who are used to flying through homework assignments and dominating standardized tests. More work needs to be done on specific interventions and programs that directly develop grit, but this seems to be a step in the right direction.

Everyday life, however, doesn't necessarily promote the development of grit. One of the major barriers to developing this character strength is information overload. Our attention is under unprecedented siege right now. Considering it is truly our most valuable resource, it's in high demand by advertisers, entertainment outlets, and, hopefully, ourselves. The problem with this information overload is that it's incredibly difficult to keep our attention fixated on one task or project for very long. Nowadays, when things start to get difficult there is always a plethora of other options and activities we can undertake. Particularly in an economy centered on "knowledge work" it is incredibly easy to keep jumping from one project to another. I'm sure you're familiar with the rush of motivation and excitement that accompanies starting something new. While super helpful for getting new projects off the ground, that response isn't very helpful for developing grit.

Overall, grit is a relatively newly defined construct that is still in its formative years. More work needs to be done on learning how to measure it accurately, differentiating it from perseverance, and developing empirically validated ways to nurture it in various populations. If the early research is any marker, though, it appears to be an exciting way to predict success. If future research shows that grit is more a matter of learning and development instead of genetically set, schools, other youth institutions, and organizations committed to developing employees must take note. 

For now, I'll keep my nose to the grind stone and keep working on the projects that matter most to me even when things go poorly. With a name like "grit" the name itself precludes any expectation for it to be a smooth ride in development.

References:

Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of personality and social psychology92(6), 1087-101.

 

Why I'm Re-opening My Facebook Account

I’m going to write something that may get me branded as a hypocrite. Being afraid of hypocrisy as a writer or leader is just a recipe for never growing or evolving. I am constantly trying to improve myself and the way I look at the world. Believe it or not, Younger Sam did not have all the answers. And thus, sometimes Now Sam has to look like a bit of a hypocrite because of it.

One of the most popular articles I’ve written on this blog was published on January 1st of this year. It was about my decision to delete my Facebook account. Since that time I’ve been living Facebook-less in the land of Mr. Zuckerberg. I’ve gotten more comments from people regarding my lack of Facebook than I have about any of the other “weird” things I’ve done like become a vegetarian, do digital fasts, live as a minimalist, etc.

I won’t rehash all of my reasons for deleting my Facebook account because you can very easily read the articlehere. I’ve enjoyed my time without Facebook, I really have. I’ve connected with people, I’ve eliminated a distraction (albeit, it was always a minor one for me) and shown the world that it is possible to function without a Facebook account.

But something has been bothering me.

I had a hockey coach that used to love telling us, “It’s not the tools, it’s the carpenter,” (And evidently I've written about this particular saying before). Every time we skated off the ice and blamed our stick or any piece of equipment for an errant pass or a mistake, he was always quick to whip out this phrase. Young hockey players love to talk about the newest stick that will make us all all-stars or the brand new skates that will let us skate like the wind. Whenever Coach overheard us he’d always say, “It’s not the tools, it’s the carpenter.” Yeah, okay Coach, now watch me snipe with my new stick.

“It’s not the tools, it’s the carpenter.”

I can’t help but feel that deleting my Facebook account is focusing on the tools at the expense of the carpenter. A good carpenter can use all of his tools efficiently and precisely for their purpose. A good carpenter doesn’t care about the tools that he uses because he knows his skill is what sets him apart. I’ve been a shitty carpenter recently. It’s like I’ve refused to take the screwdriver out of my toolbox because I’m “not very good at it.”

Facebook is a tool that has no inherent value until somebody gives it value. A shovel just laying on the ground doesn’t do a damn thing until somebody picks it up and starts using it for what it’s made to do. If they’re good at using a shovel, if they have the proper technique, then they’ll have an awesome hole in no time (and who doesn’t love digging holes?) If they suck at using the shovel, the logical thing to do is to learn how to use it better. You don’t see many people foregoing all future use of shovels because they aren’t very good at shovels right now.

I used to suck at Facebook. I might still suck at Facebook. But deleting my Facebook account is like refusing to use a shovel because I don’t understand how to use it.

I’d much rather focus on improving my own skills, my own carpentry, then winnowing down my toolbox.

So I guess that means I’m reopening my Facebook account. I’ve got some plans about how to use it better. I’m sure it will be a learning process. But I’m finally taking my coach’s advice to heart, I may not be the greatest at using Facebook well but I’m not going to let that keep me from being a better carpenter.

 

 

What I've Learned From a Month of Being a Vegetarian

On April 1st I started a month-long experiment in being a vegetarian. It’s not a particularly unique 30 Day Challenge, but a challenge nonetheless. As I’ve learned more about myself and how to live more consciously, I’ve discovered that the best way to do anything is not to read about it or think about it — but to actually do it. So, after months of reading about other people who have made the switch to vegetarianism and experienced impressive improvements in their life, I decided to give it a shot myself.

I had two main reasons for doing this. Firstly, I simply wanted to see if I could do it. I like challenging myself and giving up meat is something that requires at least a little bit of willpower. I wanted to see if I was capable of changing my diet that drastically. Secondly, I was interested in any potential health benefits. I’m in pretty good shape already but I wanted to see if maybe changing my diet would change how I felt on a day-to-day basis. These were my two reasons for giving the experiment a shot, but you’ll see that they did not end up being my most compelling reason to stick with it.

But first, a couple things that I learned:

  1. It was much easier than I thought it'd be: I’ve largely lost my taste for meat. Maybe this is only a temporary sensation but I don’t feel some guttural longing when I see a slab of steak on a plate. Vegetables just look more appealing, lighter, and more energy packed than any piece of flesh. Other than a few moments of momentary social pressure, I haven’t found the switch very difficult.
  2. I have a wider array of food choices: I assumed I would feel like my food options were incredibly restricted once I made the switch to vegetarian. The opposite is true. When you remove meat from your options suddenly a bunch of items you never considered become available. I’ve tried more new recipes and types of food in the past month than I have in the past 24 years of my life.
  3. A life-wide increase in mindfulness: Having a “rule” of no meat has made me more conscious about everything. Obviously, I’ve become more mindful about what I’m putting in my mouth but I’ve found that increased mindfulness has spilled over to other parts of my life. I’m not some kind of Zen master now, but I do find myself questioning some of the things I’ve always taken for granted.
  4. I'm developing a new skill: To be a healthy vegetarian you have to be able to cook. It’s not like I never cooked before, but now I’m doing it a lot more. I knew that if I didn’t want to eat salad and pasta for every meal I was going to have to try some new recipes. It has been a ton of fun and I’m developing a skill I can use for the rest of my life (and impress the ladies, obviously).
  5. Some people seem to take what I eat very personally: I was surprised how many people reacted to my vegetarianism with outright hostility. I spent exactly zero time proselytizing about all the benefits I was experiencing with this life change and yet on several occasions people very close to me decided that I was personally affronting them by not eating meat. It’s truly remarkable how dearly some people hold their habits and how unwilling they are to see other people doing something completely different. Strange and a little disheartening.

While all of these were good reasons to keep going throughout my monthlong challenge, something surprising happened. I developed and tapped into my moral reasons for doing this.

THE SURPRISING RATIONALITY OF BEING A VEGETARIAN

I’ve never considered myself an animal rights activist or anything close to a PETA member. I thought animals were delicious and that’s about as far as I ever followed that train of thought. However, over the past few months, and especially during my month of vegetarianism, I have clarified some moral thoughts that I’ve been having.

If I have two options that are very similar in difficulty, expense, energy, and convenience but one requires the suffering of an entity that very obviously feels pain, why should I select that option? Over the past month I’ve discovered that it’s not hard to not eat meat. It’s not more expensive to not eat meat. It doesn’t take much more energy or inconvenience me to not eat meat. So, why should I eat meat? Because it tastes good? Is that reason enough to justify killing an animal? I’m not convinced that it is.

Additionally, it is very apparent to anybody that has done one iota of research on the industry of factory farming that it is not a.) sustainable b.) humane for the animals and c.) particularly humane for the workers that run it.Why should I participate in a diet that supports this industry when I know I can easily, and at almost no inconvenience to myself, change my actions to support a more humane, logical, and sustainable way to feed people?

Before this experiment I think I just assumed that it would be very difficult to switch to a vegetarian diet. I’ve learned that I was very wrong in making that assumption. I don’t feel deprived or weak in any way. In fact, I feel like I’m in better health both mentally and physically than I was before I started this experiment.

MOVING FORWARD

As you can probably guess from the tone of this article, I’m planning on continuing my vegetarian eating habits for the foreseeable future. I’m going to continue to take it a month at a time but for now, I’m happy with the way I feel eating this way. I know I can still make many improvements to my diet and I’m excited to explore more of what vegetarianism has to offer.

I think the underlying lesson that I learned from this month is the truthfulness of the overused cliche, “Don’t knock it until you try it.” I used to think vegetarians were pretty weird, irrational, and uncannily disciplined. Then, I tried it for myself and found out that I don’t think I’m any weirder than I used to be, I feel MORE rational than I ever have now that I’ve thought about the implications of my diet, and that making this change has required less self-discipline than many other changes I’ve made or need to make in my life.

If you want to make a change in your life but aren’t sure that you want to commit to the long haul, just do it for a month. Give yourself complete permission to revert back to your old ways at the end of the 30 days if you don’t like it. You might just find out that you’ve been missing out on something pretty great.

 

 

The Power of Deep Practice

If there is one concept I wish I had a stronger grasp on when I was younger it has to be the idea of "deep practice". According to Daniel Coyle in the book Talent Code, deep practice is the methodical, slow, and painstaking way that people with world class talent practice. It's filled with errors and upon first glance doesn't appear to be anything special. However, it is the key to developing talent. If I had adopted and learned the techniques that distinguish deep practice I would have been a better hockey player, musician, student and any other role I pursued participated in. The oft-cited 10,000 hours needed to become an expert at something is built on the back of deep practice.

What is it?

Defining deep practice and recognizing or adopting it yourself are two vastly different abilities. True deep practice is characterized by chunking a skill into manageable parts, repeating it, and learning to "feel it". Basically, deep practice can be characterized by the following process:

  1. Pick a target.
  2. Reach for it.
  3. Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach.
  4. Return to step one over and over and over and over and over.

Another metaphor that Coyle uses is that of a baby learning to walk. You will feel wobbly, off balance, and you will fall when you are in the throes of deep practice. And that's ok. That willingness to keep trying, to keep improving, to keep taking baby steps is "the royal road to skill."

WHAT DOES DEEP PRACTICE LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?

This is a question I have struggled with for a long time. How can I deeply practice being a blogger? A hockey coach? A conscious person?

How can you adapt the principles of deep practice in your own work? Are there specific skills you can practice that will translate into gains at your job?

  1. Slow down - Deep practice is not something that can be rushed through. It’s something you have to approach slowly and deliberately. It's not about the number of hours you put in but what you put into the hours. With that being said, you can't expect to fly through a practice session and expect to improve very much.
  2. Focus - Daniel Coyle compiled a list of words people used to describe the sensations of their most productive practice. Here is a partial list: attention, connect, alert, focus, mistake, tiring, and awake. All of these words point to the importance of being able to focus solely on your practicing for a period of time. Deep practice is distraction free, so turn off the cell phone, get away from the internet, and focus on practicing.
  3. Make mistakes - If somebody were to watch you while you were practicing, they would probably wonder why you are making so many mistakes. That's ok--practice is supposed to be like that. You should be right on the edge of your abilities because that is how you push the edge a little bit further. I always tell my hockey players that if they aren't occasionally falling down during basic skating drills, they aren't skating hard enough or pushing themselves during turns and transitions. Practice beyond your ability and your ability will catch up.
  4. Break it down - Deep practice must be conducted on very small subsets of skills at a time. Instead of practicing an entire piece of music on the piano, you must practice on a very small piece of it. A master chefs doesn’t crank out a 5 course gourmet meal the first day of cooking school. Sidney Crosby did not rip a shot into the top corner the first time he ever took a slap shot. Anything you’re trying to improve can be broken down into the most basic of skills.

It is only by learning how to practice deeply that you will see a large increase in skill. Anything is up for grabs. The way you do your job, a particular hobby that you enjoy, or a skill you wish you had but never tried to develop. Nothing is out of reach when you are willing to spend a lot of time practicing - and practicing correctly.

Where have you applied the principle of deep practice in your own life?

Moving Beyond the Low-Hanging Fruit of the Simplicity Movement

I've mentioned several times that one of my core values is Growth; I am always looking for opportunities to grow in every aspect of my life. With that end in mind, I have turned my attention toward my own practice of simplicity.

I've been living a simpler life of varying degrees for at least four years now. I've gradually reduced the amount of stuff that I own to the point where I could definitely be considered a minimalist. However, the visual entrapments of life are not the only, or even most important, area that needs simplifying.

I like to call decluttering and physical-possession-minimalism the low-hanging fruit of the simplicity movement. For most people, reducing their stuff is the first step. It's a great first step, don't get me wrong. I'm very grateful that I've learned the benefits of having less stuff. However, simplicity shouldn't end there. In fact, if it does end there I would argue that your newly decluttered and organized space will not stay that way for long. Cultivating the more difficult habits and actions of simplicity is where the largest opportunity for growth lies.

How much have you addressed these hard to reach yet vitally important areas?

  1. Living mindfully and patiently: Being in the moment instead of lost in the unalterable past or the unknown future is where I should be. Too much attention on anything but the present is a waste of energy and effort. I plan on beginning a ritual of meditation into my daily routine that will help me in this aspect of living a more patient and mindful life.
  2. Cultivating long-term motivation: Everybody knows what it's like to have a burst of motivation at the beginning of a project. My aim is to funnel that burst into a long-term slow burn that allows me to finish large and time intensive projects. I'm currently working on a very large research based project for this site and am training for a half marathon in October. Both of these activities will develop my long-term motivation and persistence over time.
  3. Developing rock-solid self discipline: Discipline is the bedrock in which most long-term changes are founded. Discipline allows me to continue to work toward my goals and make the correct decisions even when I don't "feel" like it. Even though my previous point was cultivating long-term motivation, I don't think it's possible to be 100% motivated at all times. Self discipline is what you fall back on when the motivation just isn't there.
  4. Articulating and living by values: My recent guest post on the blog becoming minimalist does a better job explaining this point than I can do here. Basically, the whole point of living a simpler life is to live life according to your values-- not to have less stuff. I think the underlying motivation can get lost in the euphoria of decluttering and minimal living. Once you've moved beyond that point, what's the next step?
  5. Developing the ability to focus: Developing focus and an autotelic personality is absolutely key to living the simpler life. Focus allows you to do better, more efficient, and more meaningful work. Focus is the basis of developing your autotelic personality, or, learning how to enjoy nearly every aspect of life.

These are the attributes I am trying to develop. Other than occasionally purging my possessions that have built up over time, I'm done worrying about how many things I have or whether or not I can fit it all into a backpack. My concern is with mindfulness, focus, discipline, and values. This gives me more than enough fodder for a lifetime of growth and I'm excited to master each of these areas. I'm sure you've noticed by now, but all of these disciplines are interconnected with each other as well. Focus is part of mindfulness. Self discipline is connected to motivation. All of these are a part of my values. It is impossible to improve in one area without addressing all of the others as well.

Have you mastered the low-hanging fruit of simplicity? What can you focus on now to round out your own practice of simplicity?

Are You Too Comfortable?

In The Talent Code, a book I recently reviewed, I mentioned an idea regarding training facilities. Daniel Coyle discovered that many training facilities in talent hotbeds, areas that produced an unusual number of people with world-class talent, tend to be run-down, shabby, and nearly dilapidated. He said that if all of the training grounds of all the talent hotbeds he visited were magically assembled into a single mega-hotbed facility it would "…resemble a shantytown. Its buildings would be makeshift, corrugated-roofed affairs, its walls paint-bald, its fields weedy and uneven."

What Coyle uncovered, according to John Bargh, a psychologist at Yale University, is what's called the Scrooge Principle. It states that "our unconscious mind is a stingy banker of energy reserves, keeping its wealth locked in a vault. Direct pleas to open the vault don't work; Scrooge can't be fooled that easily. But when he's hit with the right combination of primal cues-- when he's visited by a series of primal-cue ghosts, you might say-- the tumblers click, the vault of energy flies open, and suddenly it's Christmas Day." Training in a gorgeous, state-of-the-art facility does not provide any of the primal cues needed to trick our subconscious into unlocking that energy vault. Bargh says, "If we're in a nice, easy, pleasant environment, we naturally shut off effort. Why work? But if people get the signal that it's rough, they get motivated now. A nice, well-kept tennis academy gives them the luxury future right now-- of course they'd be demotivated. They can't help it."

How can you make your environment more conducive to unlocking your energy vault? What can you learn from the Scrooge Principle?

  1. Create adversity for yourself: The best talent hotbeds are not extremely pleasant places to be-- by design. The mind is cued to work harder. What can you do to make your own working environment a little less luxurious? If you're a writer, is it possible to shut off the Internet and only access it for a short time each day? Since moving to my Internet-less apartment I have seen my creativity and production sky-rocket. Try working without the air-conditioning for a week or use a couple blankets to keep warm instead of your heater. It may seem silly or counter-intuitive but making your environment less comfortable might be a great first step toward developing your own talent.
  2. Use the simplest tools available: Youth baseball in the Dominican Republic does not have the fancy equipment or specialized training tools that many elite baseball teams have in the United States. In the Dominican, athletes use the simplest equipment. I remember when I played a couple exhibition games against a youth hockey team from Russia. They were all using wooden sticks (everybody on my team was using expensive composite sticks), and old equipment. My teammates and I thought we would dominate this team. We quickly discovered that top of the line equipment was not needed to be a good hockey player and we were soundly beat several times. In your own work, what is the simplest tool that you can use and still be productive? If you're a writer, try writing with a piece of paper and a pen for awhile. Try running without your iPod or even shoes. Use the simplest tools available.
  3. Focus on your core competency: At the Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow, a club that produced more top-twenty-ranked women than the entire United States did from 2005-2007, students spend hours practicing without tennis balls. They call it imitatsiya and it develops the core competency of every tennis player: their swing. If you are a writer, write. If you are a runner, run. If you are a painter, paint. It can be easy to get caught up in the related yet not essential tasks that your work creates. If I'm not careful I find myself spending my time researching for an article much longer than is truly necessary. Formatting my writing is important; but, not nearly as important as actually writing. Connecting with other bloggers via Twitter may be mildly productive, but it's not writing. Reading about running may be inspirational, but it's not going to make you suddenly able to run a marathon. Mastering the component parts of your activity (grammar if you're a writer, perfect stride if you're a runner, technique if you're a painter) is what will make you improve just like the tennis players practicing their swing without balls. What distractions can you eliminate from your working environment?

The tagline of this website is "Live consciously." However, your subconscious is an extremely powerful component of your mind. Learn to setup your own working environment like some of the greatest talent hotbeds in the world; the run-down baseball fields of the Dominican Republic or the dilapidated shack of the Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow. Send yourself the primal cues that you haven't made it yet, you aren't living the high life, you aren't a master of all you do, and you will be closer to the world-class talent that you desire.

 

 

Your Most Important Relationship is With Yourself

High school "mock elections" are stupid, I know. It seems like most of those voted as "most likely to succeed" end up living in a van down by the river anyway, right? Mock elections were always frivolous and entertaining and I never expected to win one. Somehow when I sat down at school one morning and listened to the morning announcements I heard my name through the crackle and hiss of our decrepit speaker in the classroom. That's right, yours truly won a high school mock election and is actually proud of it. The category that I "won", as voted by my peers, was "Most Reliable."

It felt good to know that my friends thought of me as a reliable person. I've always tried to treat my word as more than just words. I did my best to keep promises, be there for my friends and be a responsible classmate. I'm proud that my picture is in my senior year yearbook nestled between "Cutest Couple" and "Best Smile."

However, I've come to view the connection between personal development, self-discipline and reliability in a different light over the past few years. It's important for other people to see me as reliable, that's for certain. Colleagues need to know they can trust me. My students and players have to feel like I'm invested in them. On the other hand, there is somebody else I think is even more important to be reliable to: myself.

Having the self discipline to follow through on the goals and expectations I set for myself creates that sense of self-reliability. If I couldn't rely on myself, how many goals would I set? If I even managed to set some goals, how safe would they be? The more I develop my self discipline the more I know that I can count on myself to show up when the going gets tough.

My classmates viewed me as a reliable person back in high school because I tried to make sure I always stayed true to my word with them. If I said I'd do something for a friend, I'd do it. Now that I'm outside the social-bubble of high school, my self-reliability is what I care about the most now. If I tell myself I'm going to do something, do I do it? If I tell myself I'm going to lose 10 pounds or stop biting my nails, do I show up?

If you can't trust yourself, who can?

 

 

How to Use the Path of Least Resistance Productively

I'm all for taking the path of least resistance. Honestly. Do whatever is easiest. You have my permission.

That doesn't sound right coming from a personal development aficionado, right? I'm supposed to tell you to buckle down, put your nose to the grindstone and persevere. I'm not pulling your leg either, I'm being serious.

Take the path of least resistance but (ah, there it is) make sure you created that path. Set up your own path of least resistance and follow it as far as possible. Here are some examples of what I mean.

ARE YOU RUSHING AROUND IN THE MORNING AND AS A RESULT NOT EATING A GOOD BREAKFAST OR GETTING A GOOD START TO THE DAY?

Set your clothes out the night before and get breakfast ready as much as possible. Instead of stumbling around like a zombie when I wake up and rushing to get out the door, I can stumble into my clothes, find my breakfast waiting to be finished on the counter, and suddenly have 10 more minutes to end my morning in a peaceful manner. Sure, you have to have the discipline to prepare the night before, but once you've mastered that, which is easier-- preparing the night before and gliding through your morning routine or rushing around like a fool in the morning?

HAVING TROUBLE GETTING THE MOTIVATION TO WORKOUT WHEN YOU GET HOME FROM WORK?

Immediately change into your workout clothes, even if you have no intention of going. Sometimes when I come home from work I know I should workout but I just can't get the motivation to go right that instant. I'll tell myself that I'll go later but I've found that getting the motivation to change AND go workout can be a little too much to overcome. Take care of the changing earlier and working out later might be much easier to accomplish!

GET TO THE GYM AND THEN HAVE A LAME WORKOUT?

Go with a plan! Write down what you're going to do before you even start working out. Instead of just working out by "feel" and quitting what you want get through that list! If you've made the decisions beforehand it's much easier to just follow the plan. Don't trust yourself to make decisions regarding what's best for your workout after you just finished busting your butt on the treadmill. Take the path of least resistance and follow your pre-written plan!

HAVE A HARD TIME STAYING FOCUSED WHEN YOU SHOULD BE WORKING ON YOUR COMPUTER?

Install a program that blocks all of the sites that suck up your time. I use one called SelfControl on my Mac and it is awesome. I set a time limit and hit a button and suddenly all my time wasting websites are completely unavailable to me (even if I restart my computer). Sure, I know what hitting that button means. But hitting a button and then "suffering" through four hours of distraction free computer usage is much easier than trusting my self-discipline to not go to those sites. Make it easy on yourself and impossible to be distracted!

FIND YOURSELF EATING UNHEALTHILY AND WOULD LIKE TO IMPROVE?

It's really quite simple… don't bring any "bad" food into your house. If you are dying for a snack and your only options are fresh fruit, some nuts, or some other healthy and whole food it makes the decision making process much easier. Don't always rely on your self-discipline to make the right decision. Even the strongest of us will falter occasionally when we are constantly tempted.

Making your own path of least resistance usually takes a little bit of effort and planning-- but less than forging a path of difficulty. Where else can you develop a path of least resistance to make yourself more productive or happier?

Slay Monsters with Your Self-Discipline

Self-discipline makes everything easier. The problems is that developing that self-discipline is anything but easy. It takes conscious effort to nurture and practice being self-disciplined. Luckily, you don't have to tackle a monster of a goal to become a self-disciplined person. You can tame the monster by practicing your skills on the lesser minions that you face throughout your day.

Like any other skill, self-discipline is a skill that can be practiced. As a coach, I want the players on my hockey team to become better-- but I don't just have them scrimmage during practice. Instead, we work on individual skill sets like passing, shooting, and skating. When all of these are put together the result is a better hockey player. Self-discipline is like that. You start with something very small and easy to do. As you get better at it (i.e. more self-disciplined) you can start to ramp up the difficulty.

Being self-disciplined can only be developed by taking action consistently. You have to pick something that you want to get better at and make yourself do it, all the time. Two easy ways I've improved my self-discipline is by making my bed every morning and stopping the terrible habit of biting my nails. These may seem incredibly trivial, but how are you going to trust yourself to do anything more difficult (like train for a marathon) when you don't even have the self-discipline needed to make your bed? Once your mind is convinced you can handle the easy stuff, you can turn your slightly strengthened self-discipline onto bigger and better things.

If writing that novel or finishing a triathlon or anything that takes more than a modicum of effort is one of your goals, you probably need to develop your self-discipline. Don't be afraid to start your training with the smallest of actions. Make your bed, put your laundry away immediately, do the hardest task on your to-do list first. Master the trivial. Master the minion. Then, master the monster.

 

 

The Role of Self-Discipline in Self-Development

I'm a huge believer that self-discipline is the keystone to all sustained self-development.  Without self-discipline, when your enthusiasm fails and excitement fades you are left where you started.  Self-discipline is the difference maker that separates the truly amazing people from the average.  Luckily, developing rock solid self-discipline is not reserved for elite athletes and military personnel.  Anybody can become the self-disciplined stud that people turn to for help and admire from afar.

I must confess from the start that I almost feel fraudulent for trying to write this.  I am not nearly as self-disciplined as I wish I was.  In fact, sometimes my lack of self-discipline makes me sick.  However, I have at least come to the realization that this is something I want to work on and improve.  I want to share my successes and failures with you and, hopefully, together we can all develop our self-discipline together.  I believe in embracing the simplest way to do things in every aspect of my life. Having very strong self-discipline makes any other change you undertake that much simpler to achieve.  If you know that you have developed your self-discipline to a high level, the guesswork for any habit change is removed.

Why is self-discipline important?  Many self-help gurus have argued that self-discipline should take a backseat to motivation.  I vehemently disagree.  Being highly motivated is definitely a perk that makes everything easier.  However, as much as everyone tries to tell me, I will never be motivated for certain tasks.  Life is not always a basket full of kittens.  Sometimes you have to do things that aren't fun but still very, very necessary.  It would be disingenuous if I tried to trick myself into thinking I was highly motivated to take care of certain administrative tasks that are vital to keeping my life running.  It's just not going to happen.  This is where your rock solid self-discipline steps in to save the day.

Your self-discipline is what allows you to do things that are unpleasant, yet, important.  As motivated as I am to get into good shape and become a better runner, sometimes at 6:30 a.m. on a January morning in Michigan, I don't feel like running.  I can either chalk it up to not being motivated enough, or I can use my self-discipline to make myself get out there and pound the pavement.

As I said before, I am not an expert at developing self-discipline.  I am just a guy who wants to become more disciplined in many aspects of his life.  Therefore, I hope to do a series of posts where I will explore some different elements of developing self-discipline.  I will share with you my successes, my setbacks, what works and what doesn't, as I try to whip myself into the type of person that can do those unpleasant tasks without fail, every time.