Motivation

Weekend Reading #5

As usual, here's a dose of the good stuff for you to digest over the weekend.


Hacking Happiness: Why Your Personal Data Counts and How Tracking it Can Change the World - John Havens

I read a lot of books about happiness/positive psychology so I'm a pretty critical (I want to say "consumer" but if you read this book you'll know why I hesitate at that word...) reader. John has done something with this book that is a much more refreshing and interesting look at what it means to strive for happiness in a world soaked in technology and data. Also worth checking out is the non-profit John has started, Happathon. I had the pleasure of having a phone call with John earlier this week and he is working on a lot of great stuff to make the world a better place. Check out this book and keep John on your radar -- he's making good things happen.

The Ancient Wisdom Project

I'm not sure who turned me onto this site/project, but I'm glad they did (I think it might've been Cal Newport?). Anyway, the basic idea is that the author does a series of 30 day experiments in which he commits to "practicing, studying, and reflecting on a single philosophy or religion with the hopes of personal growth." I love the concept behind the project. I've only read the first couple of his articles on Stoicism but I'm looking forward to getting further into it.

It Was Me All Along (available for preorder) - Andie Mitchell

I had the pleasure of meeting Andie a few months ago when we invited her to speak at the TEDx event I was co-organizing. One of our planning team members recommended we reach out to her because she knew Andie from college and was familiar with her story (thanks Susan!). Turns out, Andie is a phenomenal speaker. Her talk ended up being one of my favorites of the day. In addition to being a great speaker her upcoming book, It Was Me All Along, is now available for preorder. If it's as good as her talk then it'll definitely be worth your time.

[youtube=://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-q7SVJYaO0&w=854&h=480]

What was the best thing you read this week? I'd love if you'd share it with me on Twitter (@samspurlin) or in the comments below.


If you like this stuff -- books about happiness, articles about personal development, and inspiring talks -- then you should consider signing up for The Workologist Newsletter. Once a month I send subscribers a recap of what happened on TheWorkologist.com over the past thirty days and an article expanding on the best idea I had this month. As a thank you, I also give you a free copy of my e-book that shows you how you can work a little bit better by paying attention to some of the research that has come out over the past few years.

Photo by Katherine Lim

A Manifesto For Graduate School, Year Three

Given the fact that as I publish this Tuesday morning I'm likely sitting in my first class session of the semester, I thought I'd share a few thoughts about where I'm at with my PhD degree. 

I earned my Master's degree in Positive Developmental Psychology in May and am now working on my PhD in Positive Organizational Psychology. I have a full load of classes this fall and then I've completed all my course requirements. After that I'll have a bunch of other requirements including a variety of small projects, a thesis, an oral exam, and then finally a dissertation. 

So far I've loved my grad school experience and I'm more than excited to see what else is in my future. 

Last year I drafted up a manifesto of sorts to remind me of how I want to work and act as a graduate student. Now is as good a time as any to share it again because it's all still relevant to who I am and what I'm trying to do. Graduate school is my main "gig" right now.

Have you tried writing a manifesto for whatever you do? How do you approach your job? Your family life? Your personal development? Sitting down and writing a document like the one below is a great exercise in mindful self-improvement.

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Last night I felt inspired to write some thoughts about the upcoming school year. I’ve been a student or a teacher for basically my entire life, so I’ve got some experience under my belt. This list of ideas is serving as both a reminder of what I know to be true about myself, the way I work, and what it takes for me to be happy, while also “pumping me up” for what’s ahead. With some slight editing, this is directly from my digital journal:

  • Wake at 6:30 everyday (including weekends as much as possible).
  • Do a “shutdown” sequence everyday before I finish working. This sequence will consist of reviewing the upcoming day and making a plan of attack for the following day. After the shutdown sequence is completed, I will do everything I can to not check email or do work. Shutdown should happen sometime between 5:30 and 7:00 each day.
  • Make as much of my food as possible, including a light breakfast, a lunch I bring to school with me, a snack for on campus, and a good dinner. I will prepare as much food as I can ahead of time so I can minimize the amount of time I spend on this task.
  • One day each weekend must be completely devoid of work. Ideally, I won’t even turn on my computer. The other day should consist of my Weekly Review and preparation for the upcoming week — but nothing too strenuous. The week is for work, the weekend is for rejuvenation.
  • Weekends should be filled with reading (for pleasure), hiking trips, obscure coffee shop visits, cultural activities (when are you going to go to a museum, you lazy-ass?), board games with friends, movies, etc. Doing something other than sitting on my ass in front of my computer like I do 90% of the time during the week (although the occasional video game on the weekend is alright).
  • Go to the gym 3-4 times a week and complete a pre-planned workout. This is your one time in the middle of the day when I can step away from my work and push myself in a physical, instead of intellectual, way. On days I don’t workout, a run (or at least a walk) are mandatory.
  • In the mornings, before I leave for campus, I will meditate for at least 15 minutes. I know myself well enough to know I rarely meditate if I don’t do it in the morning.
  • A lot of these statements have to do with *not* doing work. Obviously, when I’m working during the day I have to make sure I’m working with the greatest amount of clarity and focus I can muster.
  • My “sticky points” for getting back into work is any time I’m coming back to it after doing some non-work related activity. For example, getting going on work after lunch is hard. Getting back into work after a workout can be hard. Hell, even the first time I open my computer when I sit down to work in the morning can be hard. I will need to pay extra attention to these times and develop a way to jump right into my work without killing the requisite 15-20 minutes on email, Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. 
  • I am going to set aside one hour per week to go somewhere quiet, by myself, with a pen and paper, and just think about hard problems. Once I transition into the PhD program (hopefully) [note: this has happened] it’s going to essentially be my job to develop good questions and figure out novel ways to answer them. Most of us never take the time to truly get away from distractions and just *think*. I need to be able to think effectively. I need to set aside time to practice this.
  • I will continue to monitor RescueTime to see whether I’m truly using my time the way I want to be.
  • I will try to cluster phone calls and client meetings into the same days as much as possible. A meeting in the middle of the day can ruin large swaths of potentially productive time. Along the same lines, I will never schedule work or group meetings, if possible, on the weekend.
  • All notifications on my phone and computer will remain off. No piece of technology (other than phone calls, I suppose) should have the power to interrupt my train of thought with some bit of inane information. I will check text messages, emails, IM’s and the like on my own time and under my own volition. While working I will turn off my phone.
  • When stuck during the day or feeling some kind of emotional or intellectual discord, I will use DayOne and type out my thoughts. I like using this as a hybrid journal/log. Sometimes I will go days where the only entries in here are the minutiae of the work I’m currently doing. Other times I’ll write more introspective or reflective pieces. The important thing is to use this as much as possible. 
  • I’m working hard to develop a reputation of action, focus, and results among my classmates and professors. To that end, I can only do that if my energy level is high and I remain healthy. I must take care of my body as well as I can by not succumbing to the allure or excuses of convenient food. I will eat whole food. I will remain a vegetarian. I will drink water and tea and coffee with the occasional juice or calorie-free soda as a treat. I will take vitamins and supplements that help me operate at my highest natural ability. 
  • Creative insights to intellectual problems are not borne of utter disregard for the world around me. I need to continue reading non-fiction books outside the realm of psychology. I need to begin reading more high-quality fiction books to help broaden my perspective and help in my ability to empathize. I must not forget that I’m a person with hobbies and interests that lie outside of school and academic psychology.
  • At the same time, I must work hard to develop the basic skills that a research psychologist, coach, and writer needs to truly excel. Not understanding statistics doesn’t cut it. I don’t have to be an expert on all levels of stats, but I must understand the techniques I need for my specific project(s). If I can’t figure it out on my own, I must ask for help. As for writing, I must continue to write as much as possible everyday. Not everything I write needs to be for one of my websites or school. In fact, I’d say the majority of my writing should be for my eyes only. I should be pushing my boundaries in terms of my style, vocabulary, and simplicity. As for coaching, I must continue to ask questions of those who have been doing it longer than me and I must continue to educate myself using the resources available in the world. 
  • Much of what all of this comes down to is, “That which I feel like I most do not want to do is that which I must do.” If I’m tired, lethargic, and pressed for time I must be sure to meditate and workout. If I feel stupid with some kind of intellectual problem I *must* make the necessary effort to understand the answer. If I’m feeling buried under the work I must continue to rely and trust my GTD system. 
  • Instead of letting the beginning and end of my days leak into my workday by getting up earlier and/or staying up later, my first course of action if I’m feeling overwhelmed should be to tighten up the current 8-10 hours I have scheduled for school commitments. If and only if I do everything I can to optimize my usage of those daily 8-10 hours (9-5/7) should I consider staying up late, pulling an all-nighter, or getting up absurdly early. Grad school is hard but it isn’t any harder than a demanding job. Get over yourself. Focus, do your work, recharge, get back to it.

Bust a Rut By Doing Something Nuts

Everybody has to deal with getting stuck in a rut sometimes. The difference between remarkable people and the merely average is how quickly they can recognize they're in a rut and then do something to get out of it. Successful people have a toolbox full of reliable tactics to get themselves out of a rut. They've developed these tools with systematic exploration and experimentation. They've tried lots of different techniques and paid attention to how well they worked.

Let's assume you recognize that you're in a rut already. You feel like you're failing in one or more areas of your life and aren't making the progress you think you should. Instead of steadily getting better you've hit a plateau or are quickly sliding down the metaphorical hill. Here are a few techniques from my own arsenal that I'm happy to share with you:

  1. Knock out the most annoying thing on your list: For whatever reason, seeing a hated task get scratched off my list, even if it's not super important, feels really good. It usually leads to a sense of momentum that I try to apply to the second and third most annoying tasks on my list. If I can suck it up and knock out a couple annoying tasks I've usually ended up feeling so much better I can naturally move out of the rut.
  2. Stay up all night and work: I'm a huge proponent of making sure you get enough high-quality sleep every night to fully function. However, sometimes drastic times call for drastic measures (and obviously this only works if staying up all night isn't your modus operandi). When I'm feeling stuck sometimes I'll make an audacious to-do list, brew some good coffee (or hit my favorite 24/7 cafe), and put my nose to the grindstone. If you use the time wisely and get a lot of work done then you might be successful in snapping out of the rut. Being tired the next day is definitely worth being rut-free.
  3. Go work somewhere completely new: This tip works similarly to the last one. By going somewhere completely different from your usual locations you can sometimes snap yourself out of your typical routine. Sometimes being in a rut is just a matter of falling into too much of a habit. Drive to a nearby city you never visit and find a library or coffee shop to work in, look up a coworking space and book a day to work there, or go hiking and take your school books with you for some adventure studying.
  4. Step back from your work: A rut can form when you're constantly hammering away at your work for weeks on end without ever coming up for air. Instead of just continuing to chip away at a task list or project that has gone stale it can be worth a couple hours to step back and get perspective on your work again. Ask yourself some deeper questions about what you're working on, why you're working on it, and how it will help you professional or personally. Reading a book like David Allen's Making It All Work or another one that encourages you to look at your work from a holistic viewpoint can be incredibly helpful.
  5. Axe something: The result of tip #4 might be identifying a project that is more trouble than it's worth. The best feeling of all is finding a project that has been weighing you down and just shaking it off for good. Obviously, you can't just throw away everything that's weighing you down all the time. However, if you've got a project that's thoroughly stuck it might be time to just leave it by the side of the road. What's the worst that can happen if you decide to stop working on a project? Where could that energy be better spent?

Ruts suck. However, they will always happen. It doesn't matter how productive or efficient or happy you are. You will eventually feel like you're not moving forward with work, personal fitness, personal growth -- with something. It's up to you to identify when that is happening and then apply the proper tool to snap out of it.

I'm always curious about the tactics other people use. Please share them with me on Twitter.

Photo by Creda's Hill

The Anatomy of a Failed Goal

If everything had gone according to plan I shouldn't be able to walk very well right now. I should be incredibly sore and spending my day relaxing but with an intense sense of accomplishment. You see, I signed up and paid for the LA Marathon that was held yesterday. But I did not run the LA Marathon.

This is the anatomy of a failure.

THE BEGINNING

 

At the end of last September I was flush with success and ambition. I had just pulled off a successful event (along with my team of volunteers) that took approximately a year to plan. It was an extreme stretch event -- I had never done anything like it. It was very stressful but in the end I was very, very proud of the work we had done. Still riding that wave of euphoria I decided I needed a new audacious goal to work toward.

I decided that new goal would be the LA Marathon in March.

THE INITIAL SUCCESS

 

At first, training went very well. I was motivated and sticking to a plan. However, the first week where I felt like I was truly going to be pushing myself into new territory (I believe my long run was 7 or 8 miles) I got injured. I wasn't too worried at first because injury is often part of the training process, especially for someone who doesn't run a ton and I realized I probably needed some new shoes. I took the following week off, bought some new shoes and tried to focus on the upcoming weeks.

Unfortunately, a combination of recurring pain in my ankle and a complete lack of planning on my part was the beginning of the end.

THE STING OF REALITY

 

Just as I was getting over my injury and back into the regular training groove the semester ended and I flew home to Michigan for the holidays. Somehow when I was making the decision to train for a marathon in March I completely missed the point where I'd be living in Michigan for about 4 weeks right in the heart of my most important training time. Michigan. In January. Cold.

I'm a terrible treadmill runner and I always have been. I'm not sure why but I'd rather run in freezing rain or 20 below than on a treadmill. However, at the same time, I had no cold weather running gear. I also didn't have the money to justify buying new cold weather gear when I spend the remaining 11 months of the year living in Southern California.

At this point I'm just over a month away from supposedly running this marathon and all I've been able to accomplish is hurting my ankle and then moving somewhere I can't safely train for 4 weeks. Things were starting to unravel.

THE SHIFTING OF GOALS

 

If you read the last section again it may look like I'm blaming my lack of marathon training success on treadmills and a lack of proper equipment. However, I know I could have easily fixed that problem if I wanted to. I could've gone out to a sporting goods store and picked up some running tights, a couple long sleeve shirts, and some cheap hats and gloves and toughed out my training in Michigan. I could have utilized some willpower to not overly indulge in the decadent holiday foods and festivities. The problem was with me and my motivation, not the equipment or weather.

For some reason the allure of running a marathon started to wane pretty quickly once I had made the goal. I had even made the conscious decision not to tell people about it because I had read some research that telling people about a longterm goal makes it less likely that you'll actually follow through.

However, by the time I flew back to California at the end of January I had officially dropped the marathon goal in favor of something else. I decided to just eat the registration fee instead of showing up at the race and trying to just gut my way through it. Part of me wanted to do just that. I mean, what's more audacious than basically not training for a marathon but just showing up and battling through it anyway? What would make for a better story?

That would have been the ultimate stupid icing on top of this whole ill-advised cake, though. The last thing I needed was to hurt myself doing something like that.

THE LESSONS

 

Now, I'm doing my best to learn from my mistakes. The first thing I learned is that making plans for the future when you're in an artificially elevated state (like I was just days after doing something awesome) may not be the best time to make those decisions. It's probably better to slow down and make a more careful decision about where I want to place my focus when I'm not so amped up.

Secondly, I've learned to not underestimate the effect of reality. For example, I should have realized that I was going to be going back to Michigan for a large chunk of my training and running would be difficult in the winter conditions there. Tied to that was the fact that I gave myself just under 6 months to prepare for this distance. That's not an impossible amount of time, but it definitely doesn't allow you any wiggle room if you have to deal with injury or a lackluster training week in general. Every time I fell short of my running goals I became more and more anxious because it felt like the day of the race was bearing down on me. Instead of using that as motivation I think it ultimately demotivated me. If I wanted to give myself a better chance at actually preparing properly for a marathon I should've picked one further away.

Finally, I realized that there's a big difference between doing something because you like the idea of having done it and doing something because you want to do it. I liked the idea of being a marathon runner. I like doing things that challenge my physical abilities. However, to do it right I should've built up the habit of running. I was starting from almost scratch and trying to both instill a new habit and push myself at the same time. I would've been much more successful if I had taken a couple weeks or months just building the habit of running every day. I couldn't worked out when the best time to run would be and then shifting into a training schedule wouldn't have been such a shock. Instead, I was trying to figure out when the best time to run would be and increas mileage all at the same time. I had no steady base to work from and the first time I faced adversity (i.e. injury & cold weather) I fell apart.

Luckily, it hasn't been all bad news. Ever since I decided to officially drop the goal of training for the marathon at the end of January I've been doing something else fitness related. I've never been as consistent or seen as much in the way of results as I have since the end of January and now. I think my success in this area (and I'll share it with you sometime in the near future) stems directly from what I learned from the failed marathon goal.

It's okay to fail at something as long as you take a moment to figure out why. If I had failed at training for this marathon and ultimately just sat around feeling sorry for myself or being mad at myself then it would've been a complete waste. Instead, I'm doing my best to learn what I can, make changes to the way I do things, and continue to grow as a person.

Photo via jk5854

 

Motivation Isn't Worth It

Most of the advice I see pandered about on the internet treats motivation as the step zero of any kind of personal development. Motivational videos, articles, stories -- they all serve to push you into action. Undoubtedly, feeling motivated is awesome. When you're caught in the wave of motivation it feels like you can do anything and that you will do anything. When you feel motivated it usually seems like it won't ever go away. That this feeling is the new normal. But you know that it always fades. The motivation you felt to change your life last week quickly becomes a distant memory.

You cannot let such a fickle force be the difference between meaningful personal development and being unhappily stuck where you are. It's too unpredictable and too fleeting to be responsible for something so important. Instead, let's think of feeling motivated as a happy coincidence. Its presence isn't required to make the changes you want to see in your life, but if you happen to feel motivated then perhaps it will be a little bit easier for you.

With that change in mindset, your energy can be focused on developing the discipline and habits necessary to make the changes you want to see in your life and not on generating feelings of motivation. It's usually possible to generate increased feelings of motivation but I think it takes much more energy and time than just getting out there and doing what needs to get done. You can sit down and psych yourself up to go for a run, read some success stories, watch an inspirational video or two -- or you can just put your shoes on and do it.

It's very freeing in a way. No longer do you have to be on a constant search for motivation before you can do what you know needs to be done and you don't need to try to bottle it and save it for later. If you have it, great. If not, you were going to move forward on your goals anyway because that's what you do as somebody who cares about personal development.

You do not operate at the whims of motivation. You are not motivation's prisoner.

Photo via mjzitek

Small Changes, Big Effect

I recently made a simple tweak to my workflow that has completely changed my mental clarity.

I recently wrote about how my GTD system turned into a database of information that was unwieldy and overwhelming. Luckily, I was able to accurately critique my situation and realize what my system lacked curation. Once you get good at maintaining a GTD system it's easy to let it get out of control. Paradoxical, I know. Reintroducing a certain level of curation helped me regain my composure when it came to keeping track of what I wanted to do.

The real difference-maker, though, was something completely different. Before I introduce it, let me explain what my brain felt like a couple weeks ago.

I have a lot of large and interesting projects that I'm currently working on. I recently moved to Prague and am working on writing a research proposal. I'm organizing a day long TEDx event for over 600 people. All of my volunteers live in the United States and I'm in Europe so the already daunting task of leading a team of 20 volunteers is compounded by distance. I'm trying to build my coaching and consulting business while challenging myself to write more in-depth and well-researched articles (like this one on passion or this one on grit). I've also just started working on a major product that I'm hoping to release to my readers some time before the end of the year. Needless to say, I have a lot going on.

Most days I felt like I was in a constant struggle to move all of these projects forward. It was as if I had 25 soccer balls lined up on an open field. Each soccer ball represented some kind of project or commitment. Each day I would go from ball to ball to ball just barely tapping each of them down the field. I'd tap the first ball a couple inches and then move on to the next one. And then the next one, and the next one. I'd look back at my progress at the end of the day and all my projects had moved forward an inch or two. Perhaps some people would look at this and appreciate the amount of work that had to go into moving so many balls just a couple inches, but I usually felt profoundly deflated.

I decided to change my approach to getting those soccer balls down the field. Instead of tapping all of them forward a couple inches, I decided to focus on one or two and really boot them as far as I could. In GTD-speak, I told myself I'd focus on one "Area of Responsibility" per day. In that first week I decided to do this I worked on TEDx stuff on Monday, SamSpurlin.com stuff on Tuesday, coworking stuff on Wednesday, TEDx stuff again on Thursday, and left Friday open to work on whatever most had my attention. This simple tweak in how I approached my workday allowed me to get SO much more done (or at least feel like I accomplished more).

WHY DOES THIS WORK?

I think the key to adopting this approach requires a couple things. First, you have to have a certain level of control over deciding when you're going to work on things. There are many jobs where that luxury isn't possible. Luckily, all of my work has pretty nebulous due dates so it's merely up to me to figure out how it all gets done. The second key is actually scheduling your week in advance. I'm not talking about breaking down your task list and assigning it to 15 minute blocks. I've tried scheduling things like that and while it may work for a day, the first time something unexpected happens and your schedule gets completely shot it can feel like a waste of time. My previous mindset was one of, "Ok, this project I'm working on is important and I like it. But, I really need to be moving this other project forward. I haven't done anything for it in awhile." That's how I found myself interacting with 20 projects a day and feeling like I got nothing done. Now, when I begin to feel stressed out about the other things I need to do my mental chatter goes something like this, "Man... I really should be writing for SamSpurlin.com instead of doing this research. Wait! I've got all of Thursday scheduled to work on SamSpurlin.com stuff. Awesome! I don't have to worry about it right now."

Being good at GTD made it easy to shift between projects. I always had a next action written down and ready to go; just like you're supposed to when you adopt GTD. And because I was so good at GTD I always had a well (perhaps over) populated project and task list. The problem was that even though tasks were out of my head and in the system, I felt like I should do something to move the project forward all the time.

It's kind of silly as I look back on this problem and what I've written so far. I realize now that I was good at focusing on one thing at a time but I wasn't giving myself enough time to actually get dirty with a project. I'd brush it off, engage with it on a superficial level for an hour or so, and then feel so worried about everything else I needed to do that I'd end up putting it back on the shelf and engaging with something else. It really was just a matter of giving myself enough time to really dig into it and feel like I've given made significant progress. Roughly scheduling my week into Areas of Responsibility or significant projects seems to release my brain from feeling like it had to be doing everything at once all the time.

This may be old hat to a lot of you but I was always highly resistant to scheduling my week in advance. I realize that I've failed with it in the past because I've tried to take it to too granular a level. There's a continuum of planning that I had largely left uninvestigated, though. Are you having trouble feeling like you've accomplished anything at the end of the day? If so, try committing a specific day of the week for the projects that are swirling in your head and give yourself permission to go deep with whatever you're working on right now. You're likely to feel better at the end of the day and get more meaningful work done as well.

30 Days Will Not Change Your Life

I think I can be unnecessarily hard on myself sometimes (I did just draft an article tentatively titled "I Do Dumb Things"). I get disappointed with myself when I don't follow through with habit changes as completely as I imagined I would. I've started and failed a myriad of activities, hobbies, and new habits. Just a couple of highlights from my own personal Wall of Shame include; meditating every day for over two months, going to a meditation retreat, and then not meditating for 5 months after that; still biting my nails; wasting huge swaths of time doing stupid things on my computer; eating like an idiot more than I should (donutsssssssssssss) and I'm sure many others that I'm conveniently forgetting. I started thinking about why I seem to have had trouble with certain habit changes but have done fine with others. What's the difference? And then, a stroke of insight slapped me on the back of the head -- maybe I've been miscalculating the size of these habit changes.

THE MARATHON METAPHOR

When training for a marathon you don't strap on your shoes and go out for a 15 mile run as your first training session. That's stupid because a marathon is a huge thing that needs to be broken into smaller steps as you train for it. First you run a mile, then you bump it up to two, then five and eventually, after many months, you're running 26.2 miles. Nobody looks at you funny if you tell them you're training for a marathon and going out for a three mile run, especially when you've just started. Why, then, do we think changing some other behaviors or reaching other goals is something that can be done over the course of 30 days? Stopping biting fingernails can be like running a marathon for some people. They are completely different domains but I think it might be a bad idea to think of this habit change differently from training to run a marathon. It must be broken into steps and you must not beat yourself up if you still haven't run a marathon (or stopped biting your nails) after one or two or even three months. 

The nice thing about training for a marathon is that it's easy to break it up into smaller chunks. Miles are nice and convenient units of measurement that help you see you're making progress over time. Habit changes like not wasting time on the computer or stopping biting your nails are not as easily broken into smaller segments. What if you were able to, though? What if instead of shooting for complete mastery over the way you work at your computer you just aimed for an incremental improvement over the next 30 days? I worry that perhaps we are shooting for unrealistic goals. If you told someone you were going to run a marathon in 30 days (especially with no physical activity background) they'd tell you to hold your horses, cool your jets, perhaps to even take a chill pill. So why don't we respond similarly when someone says, "I'm going to start a 30 minute daily meditation practice in 30 days!" or, "I'm going to completely stop biting my fingernails in one month!" or, "I'm going to work completely distraction free from here on out!" All of these are admirable goals but not particularly realistic. It's romantic and exhilarating to think you can become a completely different person in 30 days. Undoing 20 or 30 or 50 or 60 years of NOT being that person, however, is not something that will be easily vanquished. You can make incremental changes over the course of one month and when you add that on top of another month where you made an incremental change and another and another and another, you suddenly have the makings of a new habit or begin closing in on a new goal (your behavioral marathon, if you will).

For the next habit change you have in mind, try to break it into smaller chunks and focus on only one of those chunks for the next 30 days. If you can resist the feeling of impatience I think you'll set yourself up for a much more sustainable change. Almost anyone can do anything for 30 days. It's incredibly hard to make those 30 days stick forever, though. Take your time, make small changes, and enjoy your new behavior. Below is an example of how you could break up the goal of "stop biting my fingernails":

 

  • Spend a month thinking about and writing about why you want to stop biting your fingernails. Get every single reason, thought, and impulse down on paper.
  • Write down what you were doing and/or thinking about immediately before each time you started to bite your fingernails.
  • Keep a running tally of every time you notice yourself biting your fingernails.
  • Pick a hand. Focus on only using the nail clipper on that one hand for an entire month. Notice the difference between your hands. Which one feels better?
  • Switch hands. Focus on only using the nail clipper on that one hand for an entire month. Notice the difference between your hands. Which one feels better?
  • Spend a month not biting your fingernails. If you do, notice what you were thinking/doing when you did. 
  • Look at your notes and figure out how you can address those specific thoughts/activities (I've noticed I bite my fingernails when I'm reading so I gave myself something to chew on while I read, like a toothpick).

And so on. If it feels absurdly slow -- it should. Let's think about this for a second. If you're trying to make a habit change that has thus far eluded you I think we should probably treat it with a little more gravitas than, "Just put your head down and focus for 30 days. Then you'll have it licked!" If you've had success with that, good for you. Some habit changes may be susceptible to that approach. The ones that seem more like a marathon or have been especially stubborn require a more systematic approach.

It takes awhile but if you break it into smaller steps, like training for a marathon, I think you're much more likely to be successful in the long-term. What would you rather have, a month (maybe two) of not biting your nails before you revert or many months of working toward not biting your nails, a couple months of "kind of" biting your nails, and eventually not biting your nails at all -- forever? You could go out and walk/run 26.2 miles right now but you'll probably end up in the hospital and hate running. Or, you could build it up over time and become healthier and potentially gain a new passion.

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.

 

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.

 

 

The Quickest Way to Improve Your Personal Development

 Every once in a while I hit a stretch where I feel stagnant in my personal development. I’ll get stuck in an endless loop of Facebook, Twitter, email, and other addictive sites that can be very tough to break. However, I’ve come to recently view my time as having two different “modes”; input mode and output mode. Paying attention to how much time I spend in each mode has provided me with a great way to recalibrate how I spend my time and break out of those unproductive slumps.

 

INPUT VS. OUTPUT

Input mode is when I’m spending time acquiring new information. Sometimes that means I’m reading something beneficial, like a book for school, but most of the time input mode is characterized by mindlessly using the internet. Fiddling around on Twitter, Facebook, and reading blogs are all examples of activities where I’m more or less being a mindless sponge. It's becoming easier and easier to never leave input mode. Keeping up with all of the various sites and services that most of us use requires a very heavy toll on our time and attention for very little personal gain.

Output mode, on the other hand, is characterized by creation. During periods of output I’m writing, brainstorming, and generally bringing new ideas into the world. It requires more effort and conscious thought than input and therefore sometimes gets pushed into the background.

Identifying the two different modes is just the first step to improve the ratio between them. When the ratio is skewed toward output, I always feel more productive, happy, and at peace in my life. It’s when the ratio is heavily weighed toward input that I begin to feel lethargic, lazy, uninspired and generally unmotivated. While much of personal development tries to pass as an input mode (reading books and blogs), true personal development is a function of output. How can we adjust our input/output ratio most effectively, then?

FIXING THE RATIO

One way to improve the ratio is to possibly increase the amount of time you spend in output mode. Focusing on spending more time creating whatever it is that matters to you is definitely one way to tip the balance of the ratio in favor of output. However, I don’t think that’s the best option. In my own experience, primarily focusing on spending more time in output mode usually just results in my stress levels going up. Without first addressing the amount of time I spend in input mode, I end up trying to cram more output into a small amount of time.

Instead, I think it’s more beneficial to first adjust input habits. When I feel myself becoming passive I take a hard look at how much time I spend in pursuits that don’t require any active engagement from me. Reading blog posts, playing with Twitter and Facebook, listening to podcasts — these are all input modes. Scaling back the amount of time I spend doing these activities has the same effect on the input/output ratio as increasing my output. The difference being that I find removing unnecessary activities is much easier than trying to cram more output into an already filled day.

GETTING INPUT UNDER CONTROL

If you’re feeling like your personal development has become stagnant, maybe it’s time to look at your input/output ratio. Try some of the following tips to recalibrate how you spend your time.

  1. Purge: One of the first things I do when I realize I’ve been spending too much time in input mode is to purge my RSS feeds. At its highest point, I was following 30-40 blogs in Google Reader and spending way too much time trying to stay up to date. Blanking the slate and starting over is a great way to reclaim a bunch of former input time back into output time. You can also use this idea for things like Twitter (Chris Brogan recently did it), Facebook, and any other service that requires you to keep up to date with ever changing information.

  2. Set limits: Everyone knows that checking email every couple minutes is an unproductive and borderline neurotic activity. But how many of us have actually set limits to how often we check it? How many of us have set limits for the amount of time we spend on sites that suck away our time? There are software programs out there that can help you block websites for a certain amount of time or even for a certain time of day. For example, I have my computer set up to only allow me access to input sites like Twitter and Facebook for an hour during lunch time and after seven o’clock in the evening.

  3. Make output your “default”: I realized that at my most unhappy and unproductive nearly all of my default actions had something to do with receiving more input. If I was bored I’d immediately open the Twitter or Facebook app on my phone and mindlessly flip through the updates. I decided that I really didn’t need access to these services 24/7, so I removed those apps from my phone. Now, when I’m feeling a little bit bored I don’t have the option to just flip open an app and “fix” it. Instead, I do something like brainstorm an upcoming article or project. Or I just sit and practice meditating. Or I call my family. The difference is that my new default action falls in the realm of output, not input.

Thinking about your time and how you can better spend it is the hallmark of a conscious and aware individual. If you find yourself feeling lethargic your input/output ratio may be out of whack. Your initial thought may be to try to increase your output, your productive or creative, time. Instead, I encourage you to first scale back your input time. I think you’ll find that productive activities will automatically grow to fill the void.

What are the best ways you’ve gotten your input/output ratio at a more healthy level?

Values Drive Motivation

TWO LEVELS, ONE PROBLEM

Lack of motivation is an issue can be dealt with on two different levels. One aspect of it can be addressed by tactical "tips & tricks." This is what you work on when your reasons for doing something are pretty clear, but for whatever reason you're having trouble getting over some specific hurdles.

The other aspect is much more broad and, I'd argue, more important. A lack of motivation is usually a situation where your values and the actual work you have to do are at some sort of disconnect. If you know what your values are and you can't see how doing a specific project supports them at all, then you're likely to not have any motivation. More commonly, people don't even really know what their values are. They have a vague sense of what they might be but haven't actually sat down and thought about them enough to really make them clear. When you have crystal clear values it's much easier to tie your everyday tasks into them and thus eliminate most motivation issues.

CLEAR VALUES CREATE CLEAR MOTIVATION

With that in mind, the first step to address any motivation problem is to first work on your underlying values. Come up with a list of values by thinking about the people you admire, how you view yourself, and what you consider to be the "ideal you." It can be helpful to look at a list of possible values if you're really feeling stuck. Once you have a large list of values (of varying importance to you) it's time to figure out which are the 3 or 4 that really drive you. One way to figure out which ones you really care about the most is just to start writing about them. Write about why it's so important to you, how you manifest it in your life, and how you want to improve on it in the future. If you have trouble explaining in writing why a value is so important to you, I'd argue that it's not that important. You should feel passionate about these values to the point where you can easily and clearly explain why they're so vital.

Once you have your list of 3 to 4 values that you've written about and clarified in your own mind, you need to make sure they stay visible. These need to become like second nature to you. Everything you do should be tied to these values as much as possible. Minimizing the number of things you have to do that don't support your values at all is the ultimate goal.

LETTING YOUR VALUES DRIVE YOUR PROJECTS

You've got a list of values and you've got a list of current projects. Now it's time to tie these two separate concepts together. Some of them might be very easy to correlate -- others, not so much. It's up to you to figure out what the connections are and how strong those connections need to be. I'm sure some of your projects are only on your list because you need to earn money -- but why do you need money? How does money tie to your values? Does it allow you to take more trips or do nice things for your wife or give you the freedom to pursue a hobby? Figure out the connection, tie it to your project, and write it down.

I know that you probably have some projects and tasks that you only do because they're expected of a responsible adult like yourself. Sure, "paying bills" may seem like a valueless/mindless task, but I'll bet you can reframe it in a way that supports your values. How about, providing for your family? Or creating a calm and stable home environment? Or responsibility and reliability? You can reframe almost anything in a way that will excite your mind more than what it might at face value.

When values are clearly tied to projects, it should be easier to build motivation to do them. You aren't just designing a website, your learning a new skill, earning money to support a passionate hobby, or challenging yourself with a difficult task. You need to make a connection between the task and your value in order to root it in something greater than your immediate situation. Tying values and tasks together allows you to transcend your current level of energy, emotions, and thoughts (to a certain extent) which in turn makes your motivation much, much clearer.

 

What do you think? Do you find yourself battling through motivation issues when your projects are clearly tied to and supporting your values? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

 

 

We've Been Doing Passion Wrong

The least useful and yet most overused piece of advice I've both proffered and received is, "Follow your passion!" Hearing that as a high school student is about as helpful as a tissue paper rain jacket. Everybody loves to tell you to follow your passion but nobody seems to have any equally simple advice for how to a.) figure out what the hell your passion might be, b.) how to make money doing what you're passionate about, or most rarely, c.) what the word "passion" even means.

I've been guilty of using this frozen-dinner-like piece of advice myself. It's ever so easy to pull it out of the freezer, peel off the plastic cover, and sprinkle it with whatever your unique spice happens to be. In the end, it's still a frozen dinner and nothing like what you really want. "Follow your passion," is the limp chicken and mystery lump of vegetables of the helpful advice world.

I'm here to do my best to try to fix that mistake.

PASSIONATE WORK IS THE IDEAL

I still think building your life's work around a topic or a profession that you're passionate is a pretty damn good idea. If you're lucky enough to lose yourself into the flow state doing something that someone will be happy to pay you for, you've got yourself a pretty sweet situation. If you figure out that your passion is helping people while also cutting them open, please, please, please follow that passion into a medical career (or forensics). However, most high school students (and even college students) cannot clearly articulate what their passion might be. And that's perfectly fine as well.

PASSIONATE WORKING IS EVEN BETTER

Here's why that advice still works. Everyone assumes that when they are told to "Follow your passion!!" that "passion" equals some sort of job or vocation. Law, teaching, medicine, archaeology, hula-hooping -- these are passions. However, let's start thinking about passion in a completely different way. Instead of using "passion" to mean some sort of job, let's reframe it to mean "passion of process."

Being passionate about doing things well. Passionately developing an autotelic personality. That's what "Follow your passion!!!1!!" should mean. When you focus on developing your ability to do everything well, everything becomes your passion. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has done extensive research into what he calls flow and he's concluded that learning how to enter that state can be learned. And, luckily, nearly anything can become an activity that induces flow.

Let's not worry too much about what we're doing. All you high school seniors can stop getting that queasy feeling in your stomach every time a well meaning adult asks you what you're going to do in college and then blasts you with a steaming pile of, "Well, follow your passion!!1!111!!" when you predictably answer that you aren't sure. Find something that seems semi-interesting and then work on developing your passion for the process of doing it well. Learn how to enjoy everything whether that's writing an English paper, conducting field research, working in the cafeteria, or doing surgery on rockets.

WHAT YOU AREN'T BEING TOLD ENOUGH

Because, here's the secret that not many people are telling you: the economy isn't going to go back to "normal." This is the new normal. And that means you need skills that can transfer across careers and across disciplines. Less and less of us are going to school to do one specific job. Instead, we're learning how to do things well. We're learning the more general skills of critical thinking, writing persuasively, communicating effectively, and thinking broadly. These are skills of process, not product.

Passion-of-process over passion-of-vocation has been the center of my writing and own life experiments for the last several years. It's an idea that I'm going to come back to over and over again. I firmly believe that a focus on developing an autotelic personality (basically, doing things because you receive intrinsic motivation in doing them) is the key to living a fulfilling life. This skill can be taught and developed -- and I hope to show you how.

If you enjoyed this article, you'll probably like what Cal has to say over at Study Hacks. He is another writer that thinks "follow your passion" is sub-par advice and has a lot of good things to say about learning to work effectively.

 

 

The Root of Laziness

Laziness is not a personal defect or a personality flaw. It's not because you suck or because you are lame. Even lazy people aren't lazy about some things. Nobody, except the severely clinically depressed, feel absolutely no joy or motivation for anything in their lives. Instead, "laziness" becomes an easy out for explaining our underperforming ways. It's not encouraged or celebrated to be "lazy," but at least people can understand it. Really, it's a matter of moving the impetus for action from ourselves and onto this fantasy adjective that we think happens to just "be the way we are."

I call bullshit.

Nobody is lazy when it comes time to eat. Sure, we may be lazy about cooking something nutritious but when it comes to actually shoveling food down our gullet, nobody needs to break out of their laziness to satiate their hunger. I know plenty of "lazy" people who are anything but when it comes to playing video games. The sheer diligence required to master a video game is proof against your laziness. All it proves is that you haven't found anything you care about enough more than video games.

Instead, laziness is a matter of short sightedness, not knowing what to do next, and not cultivating our own curiosity.

SHORTSIGHTEDNESS LEADS TO LAZINESS

Short sightedness merely refers to the fact that when we're being lazy we're undervaluing the return we'd get on our efforts in the future. When you have a short sighted view of the future, of course sitting on your ass all day seems like a good idea. If my operational time view was only for the next couple hours I'd probably go buy another ice cream cone, chill out, and ignore the blog post I should be writing. But when you successfully shift your point of view beyond the next couple of hours the range of beneficial activities you could partake in increases exponentially. The helpful question to ask yourself to figure out what your frame of reference might be right now is, "What am I going to be really pissed I didn't do in about a week?" Or, even better, "What am I pretty pissed off about that I didn't do last week."

LAZINESS IS CAUSED BY CONFUSION

Secondly, lots of laziness comes very simply from not knowing what to do next. Actually doing the things you want to do requires enough effort. Figuring out what those things are can be more than the average (or even above average, like yourself) to handle.

That's why I try to separate the two processes.

I'll spend some time (usually Sundays) figuring out what I actually need to do to move my projects forward. That way, when it comes down to actually doing work, I don't have to waste precious brainpower figuring out what the hell I need to do. I can just look at my list of predetermined tasks and get crackin'.

When you're feeling like a lazy spell might be sneaking up on you, the thought of simultaneously figuring out what you need to do and actually doing it can be the straw that breaks the camel's back (pardon the metaphor -- you're the least camel-looking person I've ever met).

LAZINESS HAPPENS WHEN YOU STOP ASKING QUESTIONS

Lastly, feelings of laziness arise when we don't cultivate our own natural curiosity about the world. In the 1800's I suppose you'd have a valid excuse for not investigating what you were inherently curious about. Unless your inherent interest laid within the domain of your immediate environment, you were a bit out of luck. What's the excuse now?

If you're reading this you obviously have access to the internet and therefore could become incredibly knowledgeable on almost any topic you want. Open your mind to the possibilities of what you could be learning right now. If you honestly have no idea about what you might be curious about, hop onto Wikipedia and click on the link that will take you to a random article. Read it, and then click on another link. Continue until you've found something that piques your interest. There is literally no reason to ever be bored ever again.

RELAXING ISN'T LAZY

Lastly, let's not confuse "lazy" with legitimate relaxation and renewal. We can't always give 100% effort all the time. We need to step back and just chill sometimes. Let yourself do that from time to time. The main difference between actual relaxation and laziness, though, is that you consciously decide to engage in it.

I worry that I've made this article about 600 words too long to truly impact my target audience. If you've made it this far I get the sense that you aren't feeling too lazy right now. We all have our moments though, so I hope you bookmark this article or keep it in mind the next time you begin to feel like a third hour of  The Deadliest Catch is the best course of action.

 

Why Getting Punched In the Face Was Worth It

This is what it looks like when you get into a hockey fight and lose. Lose badly. Really badly. As my dad says, a "two-hit" fight; me getting hit and then me hitting the ice.

Believe it or not though, I’m really glad I got punched in the face.

During my junior year at Bowling Green State University I was playing on the ACHA hockey team. I was in my third season with the team and was proudly wearing the captain's "C" on my jersey. We were playing Robert Morris University in a game at our home rink. We always had great games against RMU. In fact, they knocked us out of the playoffs my freshman year and we knocked them out my sophomore year.

They had a good, and big team. We had a couple big guys as well and it just so happens that one of their fighters fought our best fighter the year before and lost badly. Unbeknownst to me, basically the only reason their guy was playing this year was to get a chance at fighting our best fighter again.

I was a defenseman and one of the cardinal rules of playing that position is that you don’t let anyone from the opposing team touch your goalie. Ever. So, our goalie made a save and a guy from RMU that was looking for a fight (but i didn’t know it at the time) speared our goalie. As the defenseman standing closest to him, I took exception to that and slashed him across the back of the legs. Normally this results in a brief shoving match that is quickly broken up by the referees. However, the next thing I realize is that Mr. RMU has taken off his helmet and thrown his gloves to the side, the universal sign of “Let’s go, buddy.”

Hockey is a sport of honor and having slashed the bejeesus out of the back of his legs, I couldn’t just not answer the call to fight. So, like a bit of a fool, I took off my helmet (because we were wearing full face masks) and threw my gloves to the side. And then I got a good look at my opponent.

At least 6'3" (I'm 5'9"). At least 210 pounds (I'm 180).

Scroll up to see how it ended.

Anyway, to make a long story longer, I’m glad I got punched in the face, and here’s why:

  1. Showed I was willing to lead by example: I was by no means a “fighter” when it came to hockey. I can count on one hand the number of true fights that I’ve been in. My teammates knew this as well and yet, they saw me willing to drop the mitts with the biggest guy on the other team. I may not have won the bout, but I had teammate after teammate come up to me and say that they were impressed that I was willing to go with that goon. As a captain I always tried to lead by example. If I was willing to get outside my comfort zone it made my teammates more willing to get outside theirs.
  2. Gave me an opportunity to bounce back: The adversity of getting punched in the face, breaking my nose, and getting 10 stitches in my lip gave me something to bounce back from. You never learn and grow if everything is roses and buttercups all the time. I learned not to lean in for the grab in a fight when your opponent is coming at you with a hard right. I learned that getting punched in the face really isn’t that big of a deal. It gave me an opportunity to get on the ice the following weekend during our next game and play well, even though it looked like my face had gone through a grinder. It also gave me the distinctly manly opportunity to cut out my own stitches during the intermission of our next game because they were falling out and annoying me.
  3. The fear is gone: I’m not afraid to get punched in the face anymore. Been there, done that, wasn’t that big of a deal. I could play harder knowing that I could handle myself out on the ice if worse came to worst. Sure, it sucks to get punched in the face but after you do it once the fear is basically gone.

HOW TO RE-FRAME ADVERSITY FOR GROWTH

I don’t imagine much of my readership are competitive hockey players, so why am I telling a story about a hockey fight? Why does it mattered that I got my ass handed to me on a silver platter?

You probably aren’t getting in many fistfights but how many times have you failed spectacularly? It might kind of suck at the time, I’ll give you that much. It definitely sucked to leave a blood trail as I skated off the ice. But, looking back, it wasn't a big deal. In fact, I think I’m stronger now because of it. You are stronger because of your failures. You need to get punched in the face, metaphorically speaking of course, to know that you can bounce back from it.

Reframing the shitty times in your life as an opportunity to grow is a high level skill that dyed-in-the-wooloptimists use all the time. Getting fired doesn’t suck — it’s an opportunity to find a better job. That leaky pipe isn’t a pain in the ass — it’s an opportunity to learn how to do some basic plumbing. You get the idea. After I picked up my dignity off the bloody ice, I tried to view my colossal failure as a chance for growth. My teammates respected me more as a leader. I respected myself for being willing to step up and face the music. I learned how to better handle myself in a hockey fight. I could have just focused on how much it hurt and how stupid I looked when it happened, or I could use it as an opportunity to grow.

It’s up to you how you react to the events in your life. In fact, you control very little of what happens to you. However, you control every aspect of how you react to those events.

How are you going to react the next time life punches you in the face?

Living Like a Hockey Player: Playoff Edition

Growing up in southeast Michigan made me fall in love with a sport that the rest of my fellow Americans barely afford a second glance. It regularly registers TV ratings lower than professional poker and horse racing and yet, it features some of the most intense displays of human commitment and sacrifice that can be witnessed outside the battlefield. I’m talking, of course, about hockey. That crazy Canadian sport with the goofy looking players that have gaps in their teeth and hair only a lumberjack or a mother could love. I love hockey. And because I love hockey, I’m currently deeply engrossed in the best time of year - playoffs.

Hockey playoffs are a special, special event for the hockey fan (and player). Every sport obviously features some sort of competition to decide who gets the fancy hardware at the end of the season, but hockey takes it to a whole new level. The NHL playoffs generally last for nearly two months if your team happens to make it to the very end and it requires 16 wins (four best-of-seven series) to hoist the mighty Stanley Cup at the end of the season.

I’m not here to convince you to become a hockey fan (although, you should) but to show you what you can do to approach your own life a little bit more like a hockey player in the midst of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This is the culmination of a long, arduous season and these guys are not messing around. For a lot of players, they may only get one real crack at winning the Stanley Cup. We only get one shot at this life — so let’s not mess it up.

THE SEASON IS JUST PREPARATION FOR THE PLAYOFFS

You gotta do the prep work if you want to dominate. A hockey player plays an 82 game regular season before they even get a chance of lacing it up for the playoffs. Hell, before they even get a chance to do that they have to have committed their life fully and completely to perfecting their skills. They started skating when they were 3 or 4 and have been honing their skills for a lifetime. I remember going outside over the summer and taking 100 slap shots a day off of a piece of plastic to prepare myself for the upcoming season. I fired hundreds of pucks into the tarp hanging off our swing set. Multiply that dedication times a thousand and you have a sense of what it takes to play in the NHL.

What are you honing? What skills are you perfecting? How often do you go out back and fire pucks into a tarp?

PASSION WILL OVERCOME MOMENTARY PAIN

Hockey players are notorious for bouncing back from injury. It’s a badge of honor for a hockey player to get dinged up and not miss a shift. One of my favorite stories is Ian Laperriere. He blocked a slap shot (typically in the 85-95 mile per hour range) with his face last year. He missed a couple games but was able to bounce back and rejoin his team before the series was over. That’s dedication. That’s ignoring momentary pain. 

Did your e-book get a bad review? Are your wrists sore from typing all day? Did somebody leave a mean comment on your blog? Who the hell cares? Be a hockey player, spit those teeth out, and get back into the play.

YOU’RE ONLY AS GOOD AS HOW GOOD YOU ARE WHEN IT MATTERS

One of the worst reputations a hockey player can develop is that of a “choke artist.” This may be a highly skilled guy that for whatever reason sucks in the playoffs. Hockey teams expect their highest paid players, their superstars, to produce during the playoffs. Every once in awhile you’ll run into a player that absolutely tears it up in the regular season and then disappears in the playoffs.

Are you a regular season player? Do you talk a good game but never actually back it up? On the ice rink you’d have to answer for yourself with some fisticuffs, but in the online or work world it rarely gets to that point. But when was the last time you shipped something?

SUCCESS MUST BE SUSTAINED

It takes 16 victories versus four different teams to win the Stanley Cup. As we’ve already seen this year with the near collapse of Vancouver’s 3-0 series lead against Chicago, it’s not over until the buzzer on that fourth victory has sounded. Championship caliber teams sustain their success over a grueling 82 game regular season and then an even more epic 2 month playoffs. They can’t rest on the laurels of their last game.

So you wrote one really popular blog post or nailed that extensive project you were assigned at work; give yourself a mental high-five and gear up for the next challenge. You can’t rest on the success of your last endeavor if you want to keep moving forward. Plan, execute, reflect, and repeat.

It’s time to tape up your sticks, tie up your skates, and hit the ice. Keep your head up out there.

 

Who Decides Whats Good Enough For You

A new book raises a disturbing finding, a third of students at 24 universities did not improve their critical thinking or writing skills after four years. How can this be?

The article goes on to talk about the culture of teacher evaluations and how the incentive is on teachers’ to entertain students, grade easily, and reap the rewards of positive reviews. There are other issues as well, but all of them have to do with expectations being lowered instead of heightened over time.

Schools, particularly universities, aren’t expecting enough of students. I only have to look back at my own college career to find no fault with that statement. However, I think there is much more to the problem than a lack of academic rigor.

The real problem is that students use the external measurements of success provided by the school as their only goal. Good grades are generally the goal and a serious student will adjust his or her effort to match the requirement for that good grade. Very rarely do students go above and beyond what they know will get them an A. I know this on several different levels. One, as a teacher I have seen this over and over. And two, I was a student who did exactly that.

WHAT IS "GOOD ENOUGH"?

Any time we allow a societal construct to set the standard of our personal success we are setting ourselves up for failure, especially in a school setting. Working hard to get an A because you value that A is not the same thing as working hard because you have the intrinsic motivation to do the very best that you possibly can. When I was in high school I was the king at doing exactly what the teachers wanted in order to get good grades. I thought my number one goal in school was to get good grades, and that was it. In my mind, if I got that 4.0 GPA then I was obviously doing everything I needed to do and I would be set for the rest of my life. What college wouldn’t want me? What employer wouldn’t want to hire me?

It’s only in the past couple years that I’ve been able to divorce myself of the idea that meeting societal standards of success is the same thing as meeting my standards of success. My standard of success should be far and away above what is required to get an A. Or make gobs of money. Or become influential and famous. My idea of success comes from the intrinsic motivation to work on things that intrigue me, that have a greater benefit to the world, and cause me to grow as a person.

The problem with our schools isn’t a lack of academic rigor (although it’s true). The problem is that most schools and workplaces are really, really bad at helping people uncover their intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation, doing something because you care about it a lot, is the driving force behind anything that has ever been done well. Not because somebody was going to get an A. Or a pat on the back from a boss. Doing something because you care about it enough to work your ass off even when you’re tired and nobody else seems to care is the core of intrinsic motivation.

MATCHING INTRINSIC MOTIVATION WITH A JOB

The most successful schools and workplaces of the future are going to be places where students and employees have the tools to chase their intrinsic motivation. Harnessing that power into productive output is what the best CEOs and managers do. Finding people whose intrinsic motivation aligns with the interest of the company is what good recruiters should be doing.

I’m really, really, tired of seeing people doing things looking for the pat on the head and excellent report card/review/evaluation. Even more, I’m really, really tired of meeting the minimum societal standards for excellence. I’ll decide what excellent is and you can bet your ass it’s worlds above where society thinks I need to be.

What could be better than people doing the things they love because the feeling they get at the end of the day is worth more than the paycheck/gold star/high five they get in return?

 

 

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?

How do You Stay Motivated Through Monotony?

Much has been written about staying positive when things seem to be going against you. We all have those times where it seems like everything we say is taken the wrong way, everything that can go wrong is going wrong, and when it seems like our best course of action would have been to turn off that alarm clock and sleep until the early afternoon. Pushing through the hard times is an admirable trait.However, how do you push through monotony?

Nobody writes about pushing through the hum-drum because it isn't nearly as glamorous as conquering the world as it tries to smash you beneath it's proverbial foot. Rags to riches stories are the stuff of Hollywood legend. Most of us aren't in literal or metaphorical rags, though. Most of us are doing a pretty good job at whatever it is that we do-- not really getting ahead but certainly not falling behind. How do you push through and do something amazing when nothing seems to be changing around you?

This post is more of an actual question than my usual articles. I never try to portray myself as having all the answers but I really don't have the answers in this case. This seems to be the main thing that I'm experiencing in my own life right now. I'm not down on my luck, seriously handicapped, or particularly unlucky. I am a 23 year old college graduate living at home, substitute teaching on a part-time basis, and trying to do a little writing.

I've always been a very high achiever. 5th in my high school class, graduated college with all A's and one B, won several scholarships and a department-wide honor for historical research and writing, the captain of nearly every hockey team I've ever played for etc. But I live at home. With my parents and four younger brothers. I share a room with an 8th grader.

I try to keep the bigger picture in mind and I think that's probably the main reason I started this blog. I know this is not my end-game. I will find a job eventually (or who knows, maybe this whole writing thing will work out?) and I will move out. I will continue my life.

But right now I'm doing the hum-drum.

How do I break out of this? How do I make the boring work for me?

Stop Worrying About What You Can't Control

In twenty minutes of leisurely Googling I found 66 blogs on simplicity, minimalism, and personal development. This genre has taken off in the past couple years and with Zen Habits leading the way, is becoming very popular. I'm very new to blogging and entrepreneurship, but even I know that with so much competition it can be nearly impossible to differentiate myself. How is this website any different from the hundreds of other blogs that write about the same stuff? What makes me think that I can write anything that hasn't been written before on one of these other blogs?

The short answer to that question is that I'm not sure what I'm doing here is standing out in anyway. The general advice is to usually find a niche and become the authoritative voice for your little corner of a subject. What is my niche? Twenty-something college graduates that couldn't find a job and are living at home with his parents and four little brothers? Or, maybe more optimistically, twenty-something coaches and teachers with a passion for learning and teaching? Or maybe my niche is taking aspects of simplicity and minimalism and applying a more academic or philosophical bent? Or maybe it's focusing on the experiential and personal in my own quest for simplicity?

I don't know what my niche is right now, and honestly, I'm OK with that. This blog has been an incredibly personal reflection tool for me over the past few months. It has forced me to sit down and write a little bit almost every day. It has forced me to think about these aspects of life that I find interesting. It has helped me learn how to articulate what I'm thinking and, more importantly, why I'm thinking that way. Even if my blog is lost in obscurity among the hundreds of similar ones, the personal gain I have experienced has made this effort worthwhile.

Of course, I would love to somehow find my niche and experience the popularity explosion that the most well known blogs in this genre have experienced. However, that cannot be my ultimate goal. My purpose with this blog is first and foremost to poke, prod, and challenge myself. Secondly, I want to help other people examine their own lives and thoughts through my writing.

In the past I have worried too much about doing something that someone else had already done. Instead of starting a blog, I'd spend my time thinking about how my blog would be different or better than every other blog. Instead of being an invigorating thought, I would immediately get discouraged by the thought of all these well-established blogs overshadowing my own efforts. This time, the big difference was that I just started writing every day and putting my words out there. I stopped worrying about what other blogs were doing and focused on what I could actually control, my own output. Maybe at some point I'll reach a level of success where I can spend more time thinking about how to make my blog more popular, but right now my focus is solely on content. At the very least, this blog is a great personal tool even if I never have another set of eyes look upon it.

I hope that if you've found my writing interesting in the past you will continue to do so in the future. I would love for you to drop a comment on an article, send me an email, catch me on Twitter or Google+ and start a conversation with me. I want to talk and think about this stuff with you and I hope this blog is a valuable starting point for your own exploration of your life.