Mindfulness

Turning Off the Informational Deluge

Today’s snippet comes from realizing the connection between news, gossip, bite-sized nuggets of information, and doing my most meaningful work is tenuous. And this article by Jason Fried.

I recently embarked on an experiment where I opened the informational floodgates and let the world of news, think pieces, and “thought leadership” wash over me.

That experiment is now over.

I’m back to my cozy world of following basically nobody on Twitter (it’s not personal), Facebook (sorry high school friends), and Instagram (I can like you as a person even though you take terrible photographs). I’ve re-built my minimal RSS reading experience where I follow only a handful of extremely high quality sources. I’ve stopped trying to teach Apple News that I don’t want to read articles about celebrities or basketball. I’ve been exposed to some new ideas over the past few weeks, realized what I’m not actually missing out on much, and developed a new appreciation for silence, reflection, and wrestling with my own thoughts.

The nice thing about this little experiment is the fact that I’m really not feeling any anxiety about missing out on anything. I was super on top of everything for weeks and I don’t think I did any particularly great work or had any awesome ideas. I mean, I wasn’t a bump on a log or useless during that time but it’s not like I was crushing it. It just reinforces to me that feeling connected and plugged in to what’s going on in and around my areas of interest is not necessary to do great work. Without the time and attentional space provided by turning off the informational faucets it probably actually prevented a lot of great work from happening.

I’m not disappearing. I’m not turning into a hermit. I’m just committed to trying to do more awesome things.

How To Use Technology to Support Who You Want to Be

I'm tired of using the various technological tools in my life and feeling like I need to exert deliberate willpower to use them productively. Technology itself is amoral -- neither good nor bad. It's just a thing that amplifies whatever course of action or intention you bring to it. Our default mode of scattered attention directed is diffused like a beam of light through a pile of broken glass -- haphazard, chaotic, and incoherent. On the other hand, there's no reason that a more deliberate approach toward using our technology can't amplify those more positive and useful intentions as well.

Inspired by the Distraction Free iPhone idea I recently restructured what I see when I look at my phone. Before this experiment I had the apps I used most regularly be the most accessible ones. If my goal is efficiency then that makes perfect sense. Tweetbot, Instagram, and Facebook were all prominently displayed on the home screen. These apps don't represent the way I aspire to use my time -- just the way I currently use my time. If I found myself with a burst of motivation (like on the upswing of a productivity cycle) I still had to resist "just checking" those apps every time I looked at my phone because they were constantly being thrown in front of me. In a somewhat startling moment of clarity I realized I could rearrange my phone to push me toward the person I want to be instead of the person I was currently being (and I suppose if you're 100% happy with how you're currently behaving as a human being then this idea isn't for you).

The Aspirational Home Screen

Instead of putting the apps I used most often on my home screen I started putting the apps I wish I used more often. My home screen became representational of the person I want to be. The time sucks I mentioned before were deleted or moved to the depths of my phone and only the apps who pushed me to be a better person were left in the position of honor (i.e. the home screen). That means Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram were out and Instapaper, Oyster, Kindle, MapMyRun, Fitocracy, and Insight Timer are in. Now, when I look at my phone I'm presented with options for development instead of options for distraction. Is it a tiny change? Of course. However, this simple tweak is helping my use of technology become more mindful and more of a source of good in my life.

Using Technology for Personal Good

This basic idea can expand to other pieces of technology as well. What apps do you see when you turn on your computer? Does anything automatically open? Why not have the apps that support your growth as a human being be what you see immediately upon sitting in front of your computer instead of potential time sucks? Making Day One, Evernote, and Things open automatically has made me more likely to get to work instead of killing time when I turn on my computer and I've had the additional happy result of writing in my journal more than ever. Twitter used to automatically open when I turned on my computer but I realized that I wasn't gaining anything by having my attention immediately fought over between the forces of "good" (Day One, Evernote, Things, etc.) and the forces of "bad" (Twitter, Facebook, etc.).

Carrying the idea further, what apps are always visible on your desktop or dock? Why keep unopened apps that represent potential distraction somewhere you constantly keep seeing them? What benefit are you deriving from constantly fighting the urge to give into distraction (unless you're some kind of attention-based masochist, I suppose)? What do you see when you open a new tab or window in your browser? Why not have it open onto something that challenges you to be a better person? I currently have mine set to my Rescue Time dashboard instead of the Yahoo homepage that used to suck me into distressingly long sessions of reading asinine "news."

Notifications As An Ally

Turning off notifications is usually step 0 of any anti-distraction/pro-meaningful work treatise, but what about turning on notifications for apps or reminders that prompt you to improve yourself? I agree that email and Twitter notifications should be banished from anyone trying to do meaningful work, but I think we're throwing out the potential good of notifications with overly general advice. I love using the "schedule" feature of Things to remind myself to do things in the future that I would normally never remember (in fact, it's the cornerstone of my reflection habit). I love using reminders to prompt me to do a gratitude exercise, reach out to an old friend, or simply take a moment to get away from the computer and stretch my legs. The reminder to read through my journal to see what ideas are generated for personal/professional growth every 5 months has created more great projects than anything I've done and it's something I would never remember to do on my own.

I think you get the idea.

Simple Changes Can Make a Huge Impact

There are plenty of ways to let our technology scatter our attention in ways that don't support the people we want to be. Luckily, with just a little bit of deliberate thought, your phone, computer, and other technology can amplify your intentions instead of acting as an anchor slowing down your quest to do more meaningful work and live a more satisfying life.

Photo by Symo0

Weekend Reading #6

Please excuse the slight lateness on this edition of Weekend Reading. Fridays are either super chill or super insane for me when it comes to work. I try to get as much work "out the door" and into other people's hands before I wrap up the work week so in the last two hours I've sent out two projects that have represented several hundred hours of work over the past few months.

ANYWAY, you're not here to listen to me ramble about my work. You want links to the best things I read/watched this week. Here ya go!

Thirty years of projects - Seth's Blog

Somehow, I always thought of my career as a series of projects, not jobs. Projects... things to be invented, funded and shipped. Sometimes they take on a life of their own and last, other times, they flare and fade. But projects, one after the other, mark my career. Lucky for me, the world cooperated and our entire culture shifted from one based on long-term affiliations (you know, 'jobs') to projects.

This is almost exactly how I conceptualize my own career. The world is moving away from titles/professions while turning toward the actual verbs of work. "What are you doing?" rather than "What are you?" I love this change in how we think about work.

Aloha from the Hala Kahiki - The Distance

I love this side project from Basecamp. If you aren't familiar with The Distance, the idea is to share stories about businesses and the people behind them who have been around for a long time. In a world where the start-up is glorified it can be easy to look past the less glamorous examples of good business. This issue is about a tiki bar in the suburbs of Chicago that has been open since 1966. The other issues (this is the 3rd) are worth checking out, too.

Divide and Conquer: How the Essence of Mindfulness Parallels the Nuts and Bolts of Science - Google Tech Talks

[youtube=://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8XCWP4pODbs&w=640&h=480]

This is a pretty old talk but it's one of the best I've heard in terms of giving a very clear and simple description of why meditation is such a powerful force for people who practice it. I've read quite a few meditation books and have a fledgling meditation practice of my own, but this talk helped me understand why it's so worth doing this incredibly difficult activity.


As always, I want to know what you've read or watched recently that has had an impact on you. Shoot me a link at @samspurlin on Twitter or email me at sam@theworkologist.com. I also recommend signing up for the Monthly Newsletter in which I share more ideas like you see here on The Workologist and in which you receive a free copy of my e-book, Work Better.

Photo by Neil Conway

Thoughts on Mindful Sharing

"Imagine sitting with a group friends who randomly spurt out the titles of articles that they have read. That’s interesting, you think to yourself. So you look up some of the articles and read them yourself. Then you spurt out the title to another group of friends, who are spurting out their own circulation of titles too. Other than impressing one another with our bibliographic prowess, what has all this spurting accomplished?" - James Shelley

I often find myself thinking about how I'm interacting with the deluge of information I experience every day. More importantly, what is my role in others' experiences of the information they face every day? Does my writing enhance the overall quality of the information they take in or does it get lost in the shuffle? Does the way I interact with social media add or subtract from the experience of others?

I'm finding myself drawn more and more to those individuals who are carefully curating what they share on the internet. I'm becoming more interested in what people think about what they're sharing and not the sharing itself. Retweets are less interesting. Even comments on blogs are not quite the right venue for really digging into a topic. I'm a firm believer that everyone should have a place on the internet that is 100% their own to do with as they please. Ideally, that means sharing opinions and reflecting on issues in a form factor greater than 140 characters. I want people to take the ideas I write about here on SamSpurlin.com and expand, respond, critique or otherwise interact with them on their own sites (and then send me the link, of course!)

What if we all just took one main idea, every day, and shared it? You get one retweet. One share on Facebook. One article to write. How would we approach it? 

A Week Without #1: Background Noise

Every once in awhile I'm going to conduct a one week self-experiment while sharing my reasons, insight and experiences as I do it. The idea behind this is to do things that would seem crazy if I were to commit to it for life, but might lead to a beneficial change in how I live if I were to just give it a chance. Forever is a long time -- but anybody can do anything for a week.

This week I'm committing to creating more quiet space in my life. Normally I listen to music or a podcast while I drive around, walk to and around campus, or exercise. Instead, I'm going to let myself do all of these activities in silence. Much of my future success as a PhD student relies on my ability to think deeply about tricky problems and I can't do that if I'm constantly consuming audio. I noticed when I was living back in Michigan and walking to and from my workspace every day (about a mile and a half walk) that when I didn't listen to anything I very often had good ideas for articles, projects, or developed new insights for things that were bothering me. Hopefully I can tap into that again.

A Week Without #1: Background Noise

 

  • No music or podcasts while driving, walking around, or working out.

(Hat tip to the apparently defunct Week Without tumblr for the inspiration.)

The Silent Majority

"Here's why positive psychology will never make as big an impact as it should, Sam. Most people don't want to do the work to improve their life. They don't want to know where their weaknesses are and figure out ways to be better, happier, whatever. Most people aren't like you."

HELPING THE UNWILLING

This was said by one of my professors during a dinner conversation a couple weeks ago. My initial reaction was to disagree -- to defend humanity. But, on a certain level, I think he's right.

This isn't the type of article you normally see on a personal development website because it deals with an issue that is completely foreign to the type of person who reads a website like this. You're like me. You're taking time out of your day to actively read articles about personal development, living consciously, etc. You've already made the decision that there is some way you can improve your life and you're taking steps to figure out how to do it.


What about the people who don't read this website or others like it? What about the people who have never picked up a self-help book or strove to better understand some aspect of human psychology? I'm sure a microscopically small minority of these people are already happy and have no need to seek more information. The vast majority of these people, though, could be much happier if they decided to do something about it. For whatever reason they resist doing the work to develop the self-reflection skills to assess what is making them unhappy. They may have a vague sense of being unhappy, but are more comfortable living with that gnawing sensation then really digging into the reason for their malaise.

For some, the resistance to dig deeper is due to an unwillingness to uncover an inconvenient truth about their lives. Maybe the relationship they're in is truly toxic. Maybe the way they've been approaching their work has been nothing but a drain for 25 years. Maybe there is a well of untapped potential that will just serve as a reminder of bad decisions made when they were younger. Whatever the reason, a huge number of people don't have personal development, positive psychology, or conscious living on their day-to-day radar.

How do we reach these people?

SEARCHING FOR THE MENTAL SWITCH

Positive psychology has a lot to offer people -- not just people who seek it out but anyone who is at least moderately interested in improving some aspect of their life. But if there is no interest, no motivation, to seek it out then it remains closed off. What caused you to become interested in reading articles like this? Is this just how you've always been? Or was there something that "clicked" in your head that made you realize you had more control over your daily experience than you thought? This isn't a rhetorical question. I think I've always been this way -- whether it's something my parents taught me when I was very young or if it's some kind of inborn trait, I don't know.

It's not as simple as sending a link or sharing a book or talking incessantly about the latest study I heard about. Realizing and accepting that you have more control over your life also requires realizing that you have to give up control. You have to give up a sense of complacentness, of comfortable acceptance of external conditions, of a sense of knowing who you are at a very basic level. Perhaps this is profoundly pessimistic for someone who places so much time and energy in the written word, but, I don't think writing, no matter how eloquent or cogent, is usually the answer. Sure, there are some people who "see the light" after reading a particularly relevant book -- but again, I think that's a minority.

MINDFULNESS AND MODELING

I have two ideas for potential starting points. First, I think mindfulness is the starting point for almost any self-improvement. This may be an article in and of itself, but I don't think any kind of personal development can happen without some base level of mindfulness. However, this doesn't really solve the problem because once again you're left with the question, "How do you get somebody interested in mindfulness?" If someone isn't interested in improving their life through their own action how do you convince them to begin meditating or experimenting with mindfulness?

The second approach probably has a higher chance of success but is both very indirect and time consuming. Very simply, living in such a way that makes yourself an example of the benefits someone can get from learning about personal development or positive psychology may be the best way to convince someone to change their mindset. However, it cannot be accompanied with nagging, hounding, or really any acknowledgement that you're hoping someone will take inspiration from you. If so, you're no longer a beacon of positive living, but instead someone putting on an act to coerce someone to change their own life. It's a delicate balance.

I love helping people who seek out my writing, coaching, and experience but after the jarring conversation with my professor I'm more acutely aware that we are all a minority. Me, you, and anyone else logging onto SamSpurlin.com. We all "get it." How can we help other people "get it" too?

A Paradox Of Personal Development: Self Acceptance vs. Self Improvement

The more I learn about Buddhism and develop my own meditation practice the more I think about one of the core paradoxes of happiness. It seems there are two paths you can take on the path to greater well-being. You can work to close the gap between where you currently perceive yourself to be and where you want to be. That's generally called personal development. The other path is to close the gap between who you perceive yourself to be and who you want to be by shifting who you want to be to who you are. I'm calling this self-acceptance.

I think this is a fundamental aspect of being human: what is the best balance between personal development and self-acceptance? Too much of either would appear to result in less-than-ideal results. If you're 100% focused on personal development then you lose awareness of the present. Being obsessed with being "better" can end up being a profoundly unhappy way to live as you're constantly thinking about how the future can be different from the present. There's nothing wrong with wanting a better future for yourself but if it comes at the cost of enjoying the present you have to ask yourself if it's worth the price.

On the other hand, the other end of the continuum doesn't seem optimal either. Complete self-acceptance with no interest in personal development results in a lack of preparedness for the future. Working on yourself helps you be ready to take advantage of opportunities when they arise. Whether that is something as simple as getting into better shape so you can play with your kids or being strong enough to save someone from an emergency situation, personal development of some nature is what prepared you. Complete lack of interest in personal development also means that you're not interested in improving yourself for the benefit of the people around you. I do lots of annoying things that I'm trying to be better about because I don't want the people I care about to have to deal with it.

There is clearly some optimal point on the continuum between complete self-acceptance and personal development that we should be aiming for. In the past, I thought of this as a static place where once I found it I'd know it. Now, I've come to think of the continuum as much more fluid. I think that optimal point changes depending on the situation in your life. For example, sometimes I think too much about what I could be doing to improve myself. I'll make lists of habits I want to change, things I want to learn about, and online courses I want to take. I become acutely aware of how who I want to be and who I currently am are vastly different. At times like these it can be helpful to take a step back, re-engage with my meditation practice with new dedication, and try to cultivate some self-acceptance. At other times I can find myself becoming complacent. When complacency sets in it means I've stopped challenging myself. That's when I need to scale back the self-acceptance and kick my butt a bit.

What seems important to me now, and I think I'm getting better at this, is figuring out where I am on the continuum and where I need to be. I think a lot of the mental anguish we experience in our lives is caused by not recognizing our mental state. We feel something unpleasant and we leave it at that. Feeling unpleasant leaves us cranky and irritable. But if you can feel unpleasant and then identify WHY you feel unpleasant, that's a whole new story. I'm getting better at labeling my emotions for what they are. A labeled emotion is going to have a much less severe impact on your mental well-being (both bad and good, though).

Learning how to label emotions and recognize where you are on the self-acceptance/personal development continuum is a topic for another article, unfortunately. The sneak peak, though, is that it comes from training your mind. How do you think you develop this ability?

Clutter and How It's Ruining Your Life

recent episode of Back to Work got me thinking about the larger relationship inherent in all of the possessions we own. I’ve been a fairly vocal proponent of minimalism for a long time — even to go as far as committing a year and a half of my life to writing and maintaining a blog exclusively about minimalism. While my relationship with minimalism has been fairly unflagging for the last five years, I’ve tried to figure out what it means on a deeper level. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the title of “minimalist” for awhile but my actions have always been firmly set within that camp. In the aforementioned episode of Back to Work, Merlin talks about the effect clutter has had on his life. It was refreshing to hear his take on this subject as he has been unabashedly the anti-minimalism guy for awhile. It always felt kind of weird that he was who I most closely emulated in my own online writing ventures but I was positive  he’d despise what I write about.

I recently went through my apartment and took photographs of everything I own. I’m not really sure why I decided to do that — but I have some ideas. I don’t think it had anything to do with the minimalist pissing contest I’ve been critical of in the past. I didn’t count my possessions, only took pictures of them. Part of me has always been curious just what exactly I own. Taking pictures of everything made me actually think about my reasons for owning every item I touched. I’m fairly ruthless with how willing I am to let possessions go and yet I was still surprised by how much I had documented in my little photo shoot. It made me think about what it would have been like to do this activity if I wasn’t a minimalist and accumulated and retained items like a typical American.

While I’m definitely a fan of minimal aesthetics that my lifestyle leans toward, it’s not the main reason I’m so ruthless about restricting the physical items I own. I’ve become aware that each item I own represents more than just the simple physical object that it appears. Everything I own carries emotional and psychological baggage that may or may not be a positive contribution to my life. Getting rid of everything I own that I don’t find useful or beautiful clears my environment not only of physical items, but clears my head and my life of emotional and psychological detritus. It’s a very interesting feeling to look around my living space and let my eyes fall on the various objects and know that I made the conscious decision to keep it in my life. That sounds simple but have you tried looking at the things you own and asking yourself why you’ve kept something? Even me, Mr. Minimalist Guy, finds things that have wormed their way into my life without me noticing and need to be removed every couple of months.

Owning less makes me more aware and thankful for what I do own. I’m forced to take better care of my possessions because I most likely don’t have a backup if I break or lose something. At the same time, I can’t remember the last time I lost something. Considering I can fit nearly all of my worldly possessions into two duffel bags, it takes some major lack of awareness to lose something.

My favorite part of living this way, however, is simply for the personal challenge. That is a bit of a misnomer because I no longer find it to be particularly challenging, but I do like testing myself to see what I really need in terms of possessions to live a happy life. Before I decided to try this whole minimalism thing, I would have thought you were nuts if you told me I’d be living with as many possessions as I have now. What about all my video games? What about the rest of my clothes? What’s the point of working hard and making money if I’m not going to buy lots of things? Those were the questions I would have asked myself and these are the questions that people still ask me. However, now I know I don’t need a lot of what other people consider necessities and I have more flexibility and faith in myself because of it. It’s fun to challenge myself to see if I really need what society says I need to live and be happy. I’d much rather find out for myself and so far minimalism has been one of those activities that society says is weird but I’ve discovered is extremely exciting and liberating at the same time.

Living exactly like this isn’t for everybody, especially those of you with families. Being a student and unmarried definitely means I can make decisions about my environment that some of you don’t get to make. However, I don’t consider the end goal to be some magic number of things you should own. Instead, the metric should be whether you’ve consciously made the decision to keep something in your life. If you can look at something and immediately articulate why you have it (and are okay with those reasons) I think you should keep it. The problem arises when you begin looking at items you forgot you owned and/or aren’t sure why you even have in the first place. These are the items that represent a drain on your well-being and are prime candidates to make swift exits from your life. This criteria applies to me, the guy who owns almost nothing, and the most cluttered hoarder on the planet

There are certainly much more difficult and important aspects of living a good life than worrying about what your living situation or office looks like. However, spending some time to think about your physical environment is one of those tasks that seems unimportant but can actually have pretty big ramifications down the road. It only makes sense that the places where you spend the majority of your time should be as energizing as possible. Creating positive relationships, doing great work, and making a difference in the world are all difficult enough. Don’t let your environment drain the precious energy you need to take care of the bigger things in life.  

Start Where You Are

On Saturday I had the privilege of attending my first all-day meditation retreat. Prior to this retreat I had never meditated for more than 25 minutes. Now, I can proudly say that I spent 6 hours alternating between seated and walking meditation. I won't tell you that I'm suddenly incredibly enlightened or an expert meditator. In fact, I distinctly remember spending about 10 minutes during one meditation session trying to decide if a shark with the arms of a bear or a bear with the face of a shark (there's a difference, trust me) would win in a fight.

 

Overall, I do think my meditation practice is much stronger and I felt like I did an admirable job for essentially being a beginner. I've spent the last month or so meditating consistently but I was worried I hadn't "trained" enough to be able to handle a 6-hour retreat. I was worried that I'd lose my mind a couple hours in and have to leave early. Instead, the exact opposite happened. I enjoyed it immensely and was disappointed when it ended.

One of my favorite parts was the short discussion we had at the end of the retreat. We each took a turn talking about what we experienced and had an opportunity to bring anything up that we wanted to discuss. I said something along the lines of what I already wrote. However, the lady directly to my left said something that I found particularly profound:

"START WHERE YOU ARE."

For some reason, that really hit me. I've spent a ridiculous amount of time worrying about what I haven't accomplished yet, about how everyone is ahead of me, and how I'm somehow not good enough. Accepting the fact that you just have to start is liberating. Everyone started at some point. Some people just didn't stop. We all start with differing experiences, skills, and aptitudes but that doesn't mean we have to stay where we start.

A start is just a point in time, not the path we must follow.

MY STORY OF STARTING.

It made me think about why I never started a serious blog before October of 2009. I've been reading blogs consistently and dabbling in my own writing since about 2006 but I never took the plunge into publishing my writing online. I would look at blogs I admired, and convince myself that starting a blog was pointless. How was I supposed to compete with the likes of those huge A-listers? Who was I to think that people would want to read my writing? Starting just seemed so daunting.

For whatever reason I finally decided to launch my first "real" blog, The Simpler Life, a couple years ago. I decided to stop worrying about where everyone else was in relation to me and just start. Once I got started it became a lot easier to move in the right direction. Eventually, a year passed. And then two (actually, I just realized as I was writing this article that I passed my two-year blogging anniversary five days ago). And now, even though it boggles my mind sometimes, people email me for advice about starting a blog. That never would have happened if I didn't decide to just start where I was two years ago (samspurlin@gmail.com -- go for it).

I'm a little bit surprised I've written so much about such a simple sentence, but I really do think it's one of the most important pieces of advice that people (including myself) need to hear. There's always someone more advanced than you. There's always someone who is less advanced than you. It doesn't matter -- just start where you are.

Start.

Keep starting.

Start where you are and you'll end up where you want to be.

 

 

Harnessing the Power of Questions

The main weapon in any coach’s arsenal is the simple question. If you’ve ever worked with me or any other coach, you’ll know that we love to ask questions. The beautiful thing about a good question is that it gets you thinking about a situation differently. Even better, the answers that you come up with are completely your own. Think about the difference between somebody preaching to you about how awesome something is versus coming to the realization on your own. An ineffective coach will talk on and on about his theories and ideas. He’ll preach to you about all of these amazing things you should be doing, you’ll probably sit there and nod, and then wonder why you just paid this yahoo to talk at you for an hour. On the other hand, a good coach will hit you with a question you didn’t see coming and as you struggle through an answer your thoughts will coalesce and become clearer. Suddenly, you’re at a new level of understanding or are hit by an insight you haven’t had before. And the best part is that you came to it on your own.

 

Luckily, questions are not the intellectual property of coaches alone. You can, and should, ask yourself questions all the time. In fact, I have a list of questions that I like to ask myself every 6-12 months, every month, every week, and one super special one that I ask myself as much as possible.

6-12 MONTHS

The questions that you ask yourself once, or at most twice, a year are obviously fairly grand in design. They try to get at the underlying issues that drive your actions and thought. These answers probably don’t change very often either because at this level, you’re going to be questioning your values and assumptions. Ask yourself these questions every 6 months to a year, write down your answers, save those answers, and revisit them again in another 6-12 months.

  • What are my 3-4 core values?

  • How do I know these are my core values?

  • What have I done in the past 6-12 months that proves these are my values?

  • What can I do in the next 6-12 months that will make these values a larger part of my life?

MONTHLY

At the monthly level you’re trying to make sure you're staying on target with how you're spending your time. Every month I like to make sure my major projects are moving forward and that I have ongoing projects within each of my major 3-4 values. Stepping back every month and making sure you aren’t slacking off in one value or area of responsibility is a great way to let yourself focus on the day-to-day actions of living.

  • How have I used my time this month?

  • Am I addressing all my areas of responsibility (family, work, personal development, leisure, etc.)?

  • Do I have an ongoing project in each of my 3-4 major values?

WEEKLY

Every week during my Weekly Review (GTD secret handshake) I ask myself a series of questions to make sure I’m staying on task. At this lower altitude of engagement the questions are more closely related to the actual work I’m doing on a daily basis. I’m free to dig into these details because I know I’ll be revisiting some larger questions that will keep me pointed in the right direction every month and even larger questions at the 6-12 month mark.

  • What did I accomplish this week?

  • What do I need to accomplish next week?

  • Do I have a very clear and actionable next step on all my projects?

  • What is on my mind and how can I get it out of there?

THE ALL-THE-TIME QUESTION

Lastly, there’s one question that I try to ask myself whenever I remember to. It’s really the core of my life philosophy and what keeps me grounded in the beauty of life.

  • What am I doing right now?

That’s mindfulness at it’s core. When I ask myself that question and I either a.) don’t have a good answer or b.) realize I’m doing multiple things at once, I try to step back, regather my mind, and focus on the present.

The last thing I want you to do before you stop reading is open your calendar and put a little reminder in there for the end of this week, the end of this month, and 6-12 months from now to revisit these questions. I guarantee if you make this a regular part of your life and reflective process you’ll gain more than you think.

Questions are power.

 

 

Obliviousness Is Not a Valid Path to Simplicity

I firmly believe that limiting the amount of information that you face is a great way to simplify your life. I also firmly believe that having a good understanding of major world events and issues is very important. These two ideas can come into conflict with each other quite easily. In fact, I've seen many minimalists write about how they don't follow world events or the news at all. It's almost a point of pride to be completely oblivious to what is going on in the world. Every time I read that particular piece of advice I cringe. The social studies teacher inside me won't let me forego understanding and following world events in the name of greater simplicity.

I should probably back up and give some credit where it's due. I realize that most of my colleagues aren't advocating complete obliviousness to what is going on around us. They are wary of being sucked into the need of checking news websites all day long or leaving CNN on the T.V. for hours on end. I support that sentiment. Nobody needs to stay that connected to what's going on in the world. However, I do think many of my colleagues understate the importance of being informed and educated about more than just what is happening in your own small sphere of influence.

WHY SHOULD WE CARE?

An understanding of the world and the dynamics within it adds important aspects to our lives. Becoming obsessed with that which you cannot control isn't healthy, but neither is obliviousness to the travails and problems of the world around you.

BUILD EMPATHY

Knowing about conflicts happening across the world will help you build empathy for other humans. But only if you go beyond being aware of conflicts and move into understanding the issues surrounding them. Geographically we may be spread very far apart but the things that you care about, living a fulfilling life, having your natural rights respected and protected, supporting and providing for your family, are the same regardless of nationality or culture. The protests in the Middle East may be happening on the other side of the world but they are made up of people who care very deeply about topics that you likely care about, too.

We risk shutting off our capacity to empathize with others when we disregard the events they are living through.

BROADEN YOUR PERSPECTIVE

The majority of people who read this blog, and people in the United States in general, are some sort of "knowledge worker." Knowledge worker is just a fancy way to say that you interact with information and somehow add to or modify it in some way as to make it useful. Most of us aren't standing behind a workbench producing physical items any more. Whether you think that's a positive or negative thing is not relevant, but you can thank the Industrial Revolution for that particular social change.

When you are a knowledge worker, the only thing you have that separates you from somebody else is your unique perspective. Your educational background, your biases, your personality and your relevant knowledge is what you apply to your work everyday. Being aware of the larger world and understanding the issues that permeate it stretches your perspective. This is tied to the idea of empathy, but broadening your perspective to include the viewpoints and concerns of people other than your close friends and neighbors will only serve to improve your ability to do great work.

Perhaps you think I'm really grasping at straws here by arguing that an understanding of world events will improve your work, but I think it's a salient point. You never know when or how your knowledge  of the world will apply to your work -- especially when that work is something like writing, teaching, or something equally abstract.

THINK CRITICALLY

Lastly, staying up to date with the world will improve your ability to think critically. Thinking critically refers to the idea of weighing multiple sources of information and deciding if they are relevant and accurate. For many people, thinking critically is a skill that has laid dormant for a long time. When you begin to accept as truth whatever you see on TV or everything you read you give up the sovereignty of the mind that distinguishes you as a human.

Thinking critically is something that must be practiced and honed over time and there is not a better arena than the propaganda-laden world of news media. It's not easy to figure out what is truth and what is spin, but that doesn't mean it's not worth the effort.

WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO STAY CURRENT?

When I advocate staying up to date with world affairs, I must clarify the time frame of what I'm talking about. You don't need a minute by minute feed of information. I don't even think a daily checkup is particularly important under normal circumstances. I'm talking about understanding the large and recurring themes and problems that are present in different areas of the world. Almost every conflict that you hear about in the news has a historical basis that is well established. Understanding that historical basis is the key to understanding current events today -- not checking an RSS feed every hour.

READ LONG ARTICLES/ESSAYS ON CURRENT EVENTS

Long articles and essays generally treat topics of importance with a greater attention to detail and nuance than short articles or clips. A well-written essay will explore many different aspects and sides to a story which makes it easier for you to digest critically. Some of the best sources for long form articles include Longreads and The Browser. If you have a mobile device, the app Instapaper has single handedly done more for my reading than anything else.

BRUSH UP ON YOUR HISTORY

As I mentioned earlier, most world events are not spontaneous. They are usually rooted in a deep history. Most of the conflicts in the Middle East, for example can be attributed to a handful of different historical events: The split of the Islamic religion, the mandate system at the end of World War I, the creation of the modern state of Israel (which in itself is borne out of it's own unique history). Nearly everything can be explained by first looking at the past. Brush up on your history, whether that's as simple as Googling for some information about something you don't understand, checking some books out of your local library, or taking a class at a community college -- the information is available if you care to find it.

FOLLOW A SAMPLING OF NEWS WEBSITES - PERIODICALLY

I rarely watch news on the television. Part of that is the fact that I don't have cable TV in my apartment and part of it is because I know most news television is utter crap. That which attracts viewers (and thus advertisers) is very rarely that which is actually important to understand. Bloodshed, sex, and celebrities make for so-called interesting TV but they are not the holy trifecta of important information you need to know. A more rational way to get a sampling of world events is to check a handful of news websites every couple days. For example, I regularly peruse BBC, CNN, Fox News, and Al-Jazeera. I try to select a wide array of sites so that I'm not exposed to only one type of bias -- even if I happen to disagree with the way they lean politically.

CONCLUSION

Living a life of simplicity does not mean living a life of obliviousness. Putting your hands over your ears and closing your eyes to the worlds' problems does not mean you are living a better life. In fact, I would argue the opposite. Understanding world events allows you to build empathy for those different from yourself. It allows you to broaden your perspective which allows for an untold amount of creativity and growth in your own work and thinking. Lastly, it allows you to practice thinking critically. Whether that is through identifying bias in news sources or understanding the historical basis of the ills that plague our world.

We live in a world too interconnected to expect to live completely isolated from one another. Utilize your tools intelligently to regulate the stream of information that is coming your way at all times but don't hide from it. The problems of the world are not just for those experiencing them at the moment. We all have a responsibility to understand and work toward a more harmonious world in whatever form that may take.

 

Old-Fashioned Augmented Humanity

One of the biggest names in minimalist blogging, Everett Bogue, has caused quite the brouhaha recently due to the change in focus of his writing. His talk of "cyborgs" and "augmented humanity" has turned a lot of people off. I'm not going to offer a critique of his new focus because, frankly, that's none of my business. I actually think it's great for a writer to evolve and grow. It's the only thing that keeps us interesting as creative people. However, I do want to offer a counterpoint to the concept of augmented humanity that he writes about.

The basic premise is that the always-connected nature of our relationship with the internet through software such as Twitter is allowing us to become something more than what we were in the past. I don't dispute that being able to connect with people, instantly, across the globe has some serious ramifications for the way ideas spread and evolve. We live in an exciting time of technological advancement and achievement. However, I have an issue with turning my attention to external factors, primarily technology, when I feel like I am light years away from where I personally want to be.

Let's slow down for a second.

I worry that we are looking to technology to fill in the gaps of our consciousness instead of looking within ourselves for improvement. When I think of augmented humanity, I envision an individual who has so thoroughly mastered the art of being human that the only chance for growth lies in the adoption of technology -- of becoming a "cyborg." Again, I don't doubt that technology is allowing us to become so much more than we have been in the past. But, maybe it's the history teacher inside me that constantly looks to examples of our past and sees remarkable people that accomplished incredible things without Twitter, without cell phones, without the internet, and without becoming a cyborg. I look to those examples as I try to become more than I currently am, not technology.

What might old-fashioned augmented humanity look like?

Where can we look for improvement before we embrace technological augmentation? Surely adoption of brand new technology is not the answer to self-improvement?

MASTERY OF CONSCIOUSNESS

Regaining consciousness means knowing why I act, think, and believe what I do. It's about making decisions and living my life in a way that is aligned with my values and NOT the external decision makers, like advertisement, that barrage me. I need to be able to take multiple information streams and synthesize them with my own self-determined values to decide what I truly believe. Too many people are content to give up their consciousness for the relative ease of letting others live their lives for them.

I firmly and truly believe that the more people strive to live consciously the more we will see the great social ills of our time be solved. A world full of people asking themselves what they truly believe and whether their actions are consistent with those beliefs will result in greater responsibility across the board. This isn't an easy thing to do and it requires a constant and concerted effort. Every aspect of our lives, from what we eat, the work we do, and the relationships that we have need to be addressed in turn as we increase our consciousness. It is a whole body and whole mind effort.

MASTERY OF FOCUS

I see this in myself and my students everyday; our ability to focus on one thing at a time is quickly becoming eradicated. The pull on our attention comes from everywhere and anywhere all at once. The ability to sit quietly and truly focus on one thing is a skill that very few people still have. And yet, the ability to focus for long periods of time is one of the most important factors to creating great work. It isn't good enough to spread your attention as thin as next year's laptop anymore. If you want to rise above the noise then you must be able to eliminate distractions and focus at the expense of staying ever connected.

I look back to history with a twinge of jealousy as I read accounts of how Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Edison worked. They didn't have to face the never ending ping of incoming emails, text messages, or Twitter updates. And yet, nearly do you or I. We can turn off notifications, we can download software that blocks distracting websites and we can train ourselves to focus like the heroes of the past.

BECOMING AUTOTELIC

A person who is autotelic is able to find enjoyment in anything. An autotelic activity is something you do just for the sake of doing it. You aren't looking for external rewards or recognition. Developing an autotelic personality is quite possibly the ultimate end of old-fashioned augmented humanity. Try to imagine how you felt the last time you truly got "lost" in an activity. Time flew by, you felt engaged, challenged and you were operating at the peak of your abilities. You can train yourself to enter this state of flow at will with practice.

Mastering flow, or optimal experience, allows you to enjoy every aspect of your life. From the most mundane to the most exciting, you have complete control over your emotions and attitude. There are powerful examples of prisoners of war or explorers struggling under intense conditions that have been able to train their minds, to master their environment so completely, that they report levels of happiness that some millionaires only dream of. This level of super-humanness is equally as exciting as any purported benefit of technological augmented humanity. It doesn't take Twitter or the internet for you to learn how to enter the flow state in work, at play with your friends or family, or working on some other difficult task.

EMBRACING OUR HUMANITY

The purpose of this article is not to tear down Everett's theories of augmented humanity. In fact, I think using technology to help people become more than they currently are is an admirable goal. Using technology intelligently is an important skill that is only going to gain importance as time marches forward.

However, I'm afraid that we're jumping into the future without having a strong base to work off. Most people have not even scratched the surface of what they're capable of without the use of technology. Mastering our consciousness lets us become the masters of our own lives. Mastering the ability to focus allows us to create work that will change the world. And mastering flow makes us an active part in every aspect of life, regardless of how others perceive it. I'll spend my time focusing on these components of humanity first. Then, if I ever feel like I'm ready, I'll investigate becoming a cyborg.

Like a cheesy sci-fi movie, the cyborg built on the strength of humanity will beat the cyborg tricked out with the latest technological innovations any day.

 

 

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?