Personal

In the Name of Focus, a Hiatus

It has been a tumultuous couple of months. In early July I drove from California to Southeast Michigan and then got on a plane to New York City. Shortly after arriving in NYC I started my dream job. A couple weeks into that job, while still living in a sublet in a city I barely knew, I travelled internationally for a week with some colleagues. The day we returned, along with the rest of the company, we were laid off. Every day for approximately the next month I split my time between cold emailing people at companies I wanted to work for, having coffee with more people than I can remember, doing countless interviews, and working full-time on an organizational design project as a freelance consultant with a Fortune 100 company. Like I said, crazy times.

Finally, finally, finally it looks like those crazy times are coming to an end.

Last week I started work as the first employee at a new organizational design consulting firm called The Ready. I love it. I love what we’re doing and I love that I can finally pull in the reigns of my time and attention to focus on one thing. I’m finally getting an opportunity to catch my breath, buy some furniture for my apartment, take stock of what's working and what's not and, most importantly, regain some focus. 

Somewhat understandably, I think, I had been letting some things slide while moving to a new city, starting a new job, losing that job, working as a freelancer, and then finding a new job dominated my attention. My PhD work has sputtered along with nary a substantive sentence or p-value calculated since the middle of the summer. My physical fitness and meditation practice — both aspects of my life I value and know play a huge role in keeping me grounded and feeling halfway decent about myself — have mostly laid dormant. My website, as you may have noticed, has mostly gone quiet as well. My monthly newsletter sits untouched and averaging a decidedly un-monthly release record. 

I think focusing on a limited number of activities and truly diving into them as deeply as possible is the only way to do something that matters. In the past, I’ve counteracted this belief with my own skills in being productive and organized. Because I’m good (usually) at self-managing I’ve always taken on a bit more than I can comfortably chew. This time around, though, I need to truly take some of my own medicine. I’ve met my match productivity-wise. I’m simply trying to do too much and worst of all…

I can feel my PhD momentum slipping away. 

I’ve always told myself that I wouldn’t be one of “those” people who gets ¾ of the way through a PhD, gets a job, and suddenly gets completely stuck on making any academic progress. I study self-management for God’s sake — how sad would it be if I couldn’t self-manage myself into a completed degree? The past couple months have shown me how this happens, though. Just keeping my life moving in the right direction and my head above water required me to set my PhD progress aside. Not a huge problem in itself, but I’ve realized that every day my PhD work stays on the shelf it becomes even harder to get back into it. The guilt builds to the point where it feels like not only do I need to get started on it again but I need to make sure the next time I sit down and work on it I knock a serious chunk of it out. But… that sounds time intensive. And tiring. And I don’t have time and I don’t have the energy. So, it continues to sit and get scarier and scarier.

I refuse to let this happen. I have spent too much time and too much money (sunk costs, I know, I know) to let this fall apart. More important than the time or money, though, is that I’m sticking my foot into an area of research that I think truly matters. Organizations are changing rapidly, the future of work is going to be crazy, and I’m doing research that will help people and organizations be better.

So, here’s the plan:

SamSpurlin.com, TheWorkologist.com, The Workologist Newsletter, and my personal coaching practice are all going on indefinite hiatus.

I’m officially releasing myself from the expectation of maintaining these sites or businesses. I mean, I haven’t been writing anyway but I’ve basically felt consistently bad about it since about June. That ends today. TheWorkologist.com archive will stay up and if I’m moved to write something at any point in the future I will do so but for now The Workologist and the newsletter are indefinitely paused.

I can already tell that there is a weight off my shoulders by making this decision. This is one small step that allows me to focus a little bit more. I won't have to feel badly when I'm working on my PhD work because I'm also neglecting this website. My capacity to feel bad and do good work can only be pushed so far. I’ll revisit this decision in a couple months once I see what kind of progress I’m making on my degree.

You can still find me on TwitterInstagram, and on my nearly weekly podcast I do with my buddy Eric, The File Drawer. Keep an eye on TheReady.com as well because it’s likely that will be evolving with my input. 

It has been a wild ride! Here's to a newfound focus and to finishing this damn degree!

Thoughts on my Imminent Vacation

What are the emotions at play that make us want to stay connected to work and our normal everyday routine when we're supposed to be on vacation? Why do we seem to be unable to separate ourselves from this often stress-inducing expectation to operate as we always do while on vacation? Why do we feel the urge to check in with email, Slack, Twitter, and the other tools of our normal day-to-day life when we've explicitly traveled to another location ostensibly to remove ourselves from our day-to-day reality?

Part of it is that we like this stuff. At least, I know I do. A notification represents a positive (even a microscopically positive) change in my equilibrium. Somebody likes a thing I did, somebody posted an article I'm interested in reading, there's a nice photo, here's a new opportunity, there's a positive update on a project. We are all buried under an avalanche of nearly imperceptibly positive inanity.

That's not to say there aren't overtly negative aspects to our biggest online time wasters, too. In my own life, though, these are far outweighed by the positive (and if they weren't then I probably wouldn't have as hard a time as I do shutting them off). Does this onslaught of mildly positive affect dilute us or maybe distract us from something worth experiencing?

I think so.

An unrelenting haze of micro-positive interruptions and outlets may take the place of boredom, curiosity, and the uninterrupted time they used to come out and play together – with potentially powerful results. I wonder if my vaguely positive but usually entirely dull digital life prevents me from having insights, ideas, and emotions that never get to see the light of day? What areas of my life requires a recipe more refined than unrelenting mild positivity, interruption, and constant stimulus? What might be hiding under the warm and admittedly comfortable blanket of my mundane usage of modern technology?

Self-awareness? Creativity? Deeper relationships? Mental clarity? A willingness to dive deeper into a single subject or experience?

I don't have any answers but I do often wonder I might be giving up to support my addiction to the steady stream of retweets, text messages, listicles, faves, likes, gifs, and faux antique digital photos I allow into nearly every moment of my waking life. Why not use this vacation to peel back that familiar layer of my life and poke around beneath it?

When I wake up Monday morning to get on the train that will take me to the bus that will take me to the plane that will take me to a beach across the country I will be trying to live by a couple rules:

  • No email. I am not an important enough person doing important enough work for anything to break, blow up, or die if I don't respond to email for a week (most of us aren't -- we just like to think we are). 
  • No Slack. See above. The world will go on without me.
  • No Twitter. Twitter is both a pleasant distraction and a useful work tool. I need neither of these during my vacation. Tweetbot (along with Mailbox and Slack) will be removed from my first page of apps and all notifications will be turned off.
  • No Facebook. No Instagram. I will be in the midst of my own relaxing and rejuvenating experience. I don't need to see others' good times'. I will try to take some pictures but they will be for my own creative expression.
  • No RSS feeds. RSS is a normal part of my work day routine. I have no interest in propagating my normal work day routine to my vacation location. All the interesting articles will be waiting for me when I return.
  • No podcasts. While I have nothing against podcasts I view them almost as audio candy. They are nice to ingest during the busy times of a typical work week but I'm looking to make this vacation a rejuvenation experience. I have no room for candy in this rejuvenation attempt.
  • The same logic applies to what I have saved in Instapaper. This vacation is a time for me to dive into something longer and meatier – not blast through a series of articles about tech, psychology, and everything else I read and write about everyday.
  • Needless to say, no Mendeley or Evernote or Things or anything else that helps me run my hectic and productive life. Hectic and productive are not my buzzwords for this vacation.

That's a whole lot of things that I'm NOT going to do. Almost makes you wonder what I AM going to be doing, right?

  • Reading on my Kindle. I'm not sure what, yet, but I will be reading copiously. I'll probably read some kind of fiction because that's what I'd be most likely not to do during my everyday life.
  • Writing in Day One. Each day (or whenever the mood strikes me) I want to pull out my iPad and write in Day One. This won't be a log of what I'm doing but simply a place for me to do any stream of consciousness writing that seems appropriate.
  • Listening to an audiobook.
  • Nothing. About three days in to this weeklong vacation I will probably hit a point where the first twinges of boredom will arrive. My hope is that I'm successfully able to do nothing instead of looking for some mental stimulus in the form of one of my no-nos from above.
  • Walking/wandering.
  • Conversing with loved ones, strangers, sea gulls – who knows.
  • Taking pictures.
  • Writing in my analog notebook whenever writing in Day One doesn't seem appealing.
  • Thinking.
  • Simply being outside as much as possible.
  • Meditating.

Hopefully I come back rejuvenated and ready to conquer another couple months of doing meaningful and challenging work. At the very least, I know I'll at least have a tan and an overflowing inbox. 

I'm okay with both.

Photo by espos.de

Less, Better, Consistent

Today I want to share three words that I’m trying to use as guideposts in 2015. As you’re reading, think about what words you would use to encapsulate what it means to have a productive and meaningful year.

Less.

I always take on too much. I’m admittedly good at getting things done but it often results in me burying myself under opportunities that quickly become obligations. I want to do a better job identifying the aspects of my life that are suffering from too much “more” and apply a liberal dose of “less” instead. In the past few weeks I’ve closed one of my companies, did a planning process that resulted in me ending, or at least delaying until April, a bunch of projects, and did a major purging of my digital and physical possessions. ’Tis a good start.

Better.

Better follows Less because until Less happens there is no time or energy for Better. The projects I take on should be astounding in their creativity, effectiveness, and impact. I want articles to be better, interactions with my team members to be better, research projects to be executed better, and collaborators to be blown away by how much “better” I bring to everything I touch.

Consistent.

Motivation isn’t special. Anyone can get a burst of motivation and clean the garage over the weekend, or workout really hard for a few days, or come up with a title and a domain name for a new book. Bursts of motivation have done very little to change the world in meaningful ways. I want motivation to become a relic of the past for me. Sure, I’ll take it when I can get it but the things I decide are important to me shouldn’t be dictated by whether or not I feel motivated in the moment. Instead, they should be driven by small, consistent, and meaningful decisions that are made day after day even when progress feels slow or even non-existent to an outside observer.

When I do Less I can do Better. When I do Better and Less Consistently I know I feel better about my own life and in the way I interact with the larger world. What words can guide you to a meaningful, productive, and successful year?

Photo by Fe Ilya

Early 2013 Productivity Tweaks

I'm constantly tweaking the way I do things. I think it's the scientist-in-training inside me that always wants to know if there's a better way to do something. When the new semester started near the end of January I had a small list of things I wanted to try to increase my productivity and decrease my stress. A few of them have worked out really well and I want to share them with you.

IDEAL WORK BLOCKS + AUTOMATIC REMINDERS


Before the semester began I sat down and tried to figure out what my week would look like if I scheduled "blocks" to do certain kinds of work. I knew I had a couple constraints such as classes, sleeping (unfortunately), eating meals, and I knew I wanted to be finished with my work by around 7 PM each day (as much as possible). So, I sat down and created a calendar that looks like this. Each of the blocks in the calendar have an alert set for their beginning time.

This has been helpful on two fronts. First, when I'm scheduling meetings or errands and in the day-to-day activities of my life. For example, I know that scheduling maintenance activities like picking up dry cleaning or going to the grocery store during my work blocks doesn't make a lot of sense. I'll try to schedule those during Meal blocks, Personal blocks, or the evening Misc. blocks. When I sat down and made this calendar I knew that my prime creative and productive time are in the morning and early afternoon (which is when my main Work blocks are scheduled) so I want to make sure I use those for the work that requires me to be at my best.

The other way this has been helpful is through reminding me where I should be in my day. For example, I receive a notification on my phone when I shift from one block to another. If I'm feeling kind of low energy or not really sure what I should be working on it can be helpful to get a notification on my phone that says, "Work Block #1 starting now." It's a simple little nudge, but sometimes it's enough to get me on the right track.

RENEWED FOCUS ON CLUSTERING SIMILAR ACTIVITIES

I've always known that clustering (or batching) activities was a good productivity trick. I try to sit down and do all my email at one time, or save all my receipts and input them once a week instead of doing them haphazardly. It struck me that I should be clustering other things as well. This semester I have classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Tuesday and Thursday are basically commitment-free. I decided I would try to schedule all errands and meetings for the days I already have class. I have to come to campus anyway on those days so it makes more sense to try to keep my Tuesdays and Thursdays as pristine as possible. Knowing I have two days a week that are completely wide open is a great feeling. I know I can sit down on those days and work nearly without interruption for 8 or more hours. Much, much better than having a meeting I have to attend in the middle of my day. This results in my Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays generally being pretty long and tiring days but the reality seems to be that this is less tiring than having meetings scattered about my entire week.

WEEKLY + DAILY PLANNING IN JOURNAL


I've been doing a Weekly Review every weekend for well over the past two years. This is an integral part of my productivity system and something I will probably do for the rest of my life. However, this semester I've added a new wrinkle to my review that has really helped me out. I use software to manage all of my tasks and calendar so I'm essentially paperless in my day-to-day life. However, I do carry a notebook everywhere I go. I decided to add a step to my Weekly Review where I look ahead to my upcoming week, take a look at my appointments, meetings, and other commitments, and try to schedule 2-4 areas to focus on each day. I will then write this plan into my notebook. I don't try to slot them into specific times or anything -- they're just the domains of the tasks I want to finish to feel like I really accomplished what I set out to do.Weekly plan. Written out Sunday afternoon.

As I work through the week I'll move these tasks around as I do or don't finish them, thus resulting in a fresh daily plan every morning. For whatever reason, getting the plan onto paper and out of my computer has really helped keep me on task throughout the day.

FUTURE TWEAKS

Like seemingly most nerds I downloaded Mailbox and have been using it on my phone for the past few weeks. I'm still working it into my workflow but I think it's going to have a very positive impact.

I'm also thinking about trying to move my Weekly Review into Friday afternoon (as opposed to Sunday afternoon) so I can keep my weekends even more free of work than I do now. I at least want to see what my mindset is like going into the weekend completely reviewed as opposed to going into Monday morning completely reviewed.

I'll keep tweaking and will report back with any conclusions once they've been drawn. I'm always curious about how other people have done to improve the way they work. If you care to share, Twitter is the best way to reach me. Even better, write something up on your own blog and shoot me a link.


State of the Sam: 2012 Edition

Every year the president gets on TV and delivers a State of the Union address. The end of every year is always a great time for reflection so I’m going to do a new yearly tradition — writing a State of the Sam article. I’m going to lay out what a couple different areas of my life look like right now and how I experienced the last 365 days. Maybe there will be some interesting insights to be had. More likely, this will be something I can look at a few years down the road and see where I’ve been. This is going to be a very self-reflective post but I think there will be some interesting tidbits you can take for yourself as well.

PART I: PLACES I TRAVELED & THINGS THAT HAPPENED

1. Joshua Tree National Park: Went camping with Emily for the first time. We drove out to Joshua Tree National Park (about 2.5 hours from where we live) to camp for two nights. Such an incredible place and the place we stayed was nearly empty. Pretty awesome way to spend part of Spring Break. 

2. Doha, Qatar: I had the opportunity to travel to Doha for TEDxSummit. The Summit was for TEDx organizers from around the world to come together and learn how to organize better events. I never thought I’d be travelling to the Middle East any time soon but I’m so glad I did. A great experience.

3. Portland, Oregon: Emily and I house sat for a friend as soon as the semester ended. Normally this wouldn’t be remarkable except a.) I’d never been to Oregon and b.) I was house sitting a “tiny house.” Really cool to get a chance to live in one of these for a week.

4. Prague, Czech Republic: I went to Prague for an internship and research opportunity and ended up living there for over two months. I had been to Europe before but never for this type of duration. Was really cool to slowly phase out of the “tourist” mindset and settle in to a kind of routine for a couple months. Would love to go back.

5. Berlin, Germany: While in Prague we went to Berlin for a few days to do some additional research. First time in Germany. Berlin is a seriously cool city.

6. Transcontinental train trip: I came back from Prague to my parents’ house in Michigan. Spent a couple days there and then took a train from Detroit to Los Angeles. Taking a cross country train trip was always one of those things I wanted to do so it felt good to cross it off my list. Cool way to see a large part of the country.

A FEW MORE THINGS

  • Organized TEDxClaremontColleges: After working on organizing this event for nearly a year we finally pulled it off at the end of September. It went really, really well. Brought together over 400 attendees and 16 speakers for a day-long conference. 
  • Cassidy died: My childhood dog died back in Michigan the day before TEDx :(
  • Teaching assistant for Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s class: I got to act as a teaching assistant for one of my idol’s classes this year. His book is the reason I’m studying positive psychology in graduate school. Surreal experience.

See a selection of photos here.

I’m incredibly lucky to get the opportunity to travel so much. I had a couple of once-in-a-lifetime experiences this year (Doha and Prague) that will be tough to match. Looking ahead to 2013 I’ve already got trips to New York City (first time!) and Atlanta scheduled for conferences. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to expand my travel horizons even more over the next few months! 

PART 2: BOOKS

 

A large part of my process is the raw product I’m utilizing to write, coach, and basically just live. In the case of knowledge work (or really, any creative work) a large part of that raw product is information. One of my favorite ways to learn and expand my own intellectual horizon is through reading books. I’ve been tracking all the books I read since mid-2007. I’m a nerd for data of any kind, but especially stuff like this.

Let’s dig into what I read this year, eh?

The entire list can be viewed in spreadsheet form here

In terms of sheer number of books read, it looks like I clocked in at 50 books read (and I have a few days to wrap up my latest so I might make it to 51). This puts me at 20 less than 2011, 14 less than 2010, but 8 more than 2009 and 6 more than 2008. Reading less than last year makes sense since I started graduate school in September but had essentially from April until then to read uninterrupted. In terms of sheer number of pages read (something I don’t track) I’m sure this year has probably eclipsed all previous years put together (I read a lot of scholarly articles and other non-book assigned materials).

The main genres are Personal Development, Psychology, and Philosophy (especially if you collapse all the Buddhism books I read into that category). That seems about right considering my interests. Somewhat unbelievably it looks like I only read 3 fiction books in the past year. Yikes.

Let’s move into a selection of my favorite books from 2012, a look at the books I re-read in the past year, and what I’m looking forward to reading in 2013.

THE FAVORITES

  • Eating Animals by Jonathan Foer: This book helped solidify my reasons for being a vegetarian in a profound way. I enjoyed Foer’s personal story that essentially wrestled with the question, “What should I eat to be a healthy, moral, and happy human being?” Considering Foer’s novel-writing background, this book did not read like a typical pro-vegetarianism informational book. It was engaging, moving, well-researched, nuanced, and ultimately entirely worth the time and money.
  • The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra: Technically, this belongs in the next section as I read it in 2005. However, at that time it was an assigned book for my freshman year Critical Thinking class. When I read it then it completely flew over my head. I decided to revisit it this year and I’m very glad I did. I’ve been getting more and more interested and involved with Buddhism and Eastern thought in general but I’m also studying science at the graduate degree level. This book investigates how physics and Eastern thought are actually much more alike than many people realize. A dense but very gratifying read.
  • So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport: Cal’s blog has been in my top three favorite places to visit on the Internet for a couple years now. I love his take on how to become an expert and completely endorse his view that passion for our work is developed and not magically “found.” Cal’s book takes that idea and fleshes it out in a very accessible way. I think this book came along at an important time in my life as I embark (hopefully) on a journey that will culminate in a PhD. At the very least, I care deeply about being remarkable at what I do and this book helped me clarify how to do that.

Honorable Mentions: The $100 StartupEnoughHow Will You Measure Your Life?

THE RE-READS

In addition to the books I described above, anything I re-read this year is definitely worth your time. Here’s what I cracked open for the second (or third or fourth or fifth time) in the past 12 months.

  • Getting Things Done by David Allen: I tend to read this book at least once a year (usually once the school year ends). It always serves as a great refresher when I’m feeling mentally burned out. I’ve been “practicing” GTD for about 5 years and I seem to get something new out of this book every time I read it. This was at least the 4th or 5th time I’ve read this book.
  • Ready for Anything by David Allen: I seem to read this one six months after I read GTD. It’s broken up in such a way that it’s easy to sit down and read a chapter or two and come away with a couple insights about how to move a project forward, gain clarity in some way, or just feel better about the work I need to do. This had to have been the 3rd or 4th time I read this book.
  • Making It All Work by David Allen: I actually read this book twice in 2012 (once in May and again in October). In May I was struggling with some really big questions about what my future was going to look like. And in October I had just finished putting on the TEDx event that I had been working on and stressing over for the past 11 months. I had pushed a lot of potential projects to the backburner in order to focus on the event so I needed something to read to help me get above the fray and gain some perspective. This book does an awesome job at that.
  • Mindfulness in Plain English by Ven. Henepola Gunaratana: This is hands down the most accessible book about learning how to meditate I’ve ever read. It’s written in a very simple and engaging way and makes the case for why you’d want to begin a mindfulness practice in addition to showing you how to do so. I read it whenever my meditation practice starts to feel a little haphazrd.
  • Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: This is the book that started it all for me in terms of going to graduate school and pursuing a degree in positive psychology. I was fortunate enough to be a teaching assistant for one of his classes this semester in addition to taking another one of his classes. That inspired me to sit down with his book again and give it another read through. It’s kind of like GTD in that every time I read it I get something new I hadn’t noticed before.

LOOKING AHEAD TO 2013

I’m almost done with the A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series so I’d like to make sure I get that wrapped up in preparation for the last book to be published. Once I finish that I think I’ll start another epic fantasy series (any suggestions?). I’d like to read at least 1 or 2 of the Great Books to serve as a way to challenge myself. Finally, in terms of general genres I’ll be reading more of this year, I anticipate an uptick on the number of business/entrepreneurship/management books as well as Buddhism/mindfulness books. As always, I’m sure there will be a ton of psychology and personal development books thrown in the mix.

What did you read in 2012? Any recommendations I should throw on my wishlist

PART III: PRODUCTS I LOVE

 

I try to research thoroughly nearly every purchase I make. As an ardent minimalist I think long and hard about any item I allow into my life. I try to make sure everything I have and use regularly is something I love. That results in not owning very many things, but what I do own I tend to really, really, like. 

I think an interesting part of anyone’s process is understanding the tools they use to get their work done. If you don’t think researching the pen you use or the backpack you carry around every day warrants much thought you might want to skip this article.

I thought about reducing this list to only things I bought or acquired in 2012, but decided against that a.) because I don’t remember when I got some of these things and b.) I’ve never done an inventory like this so I think it’d be more interesting to get it all out now.

To make the list the item had to be something I either really, really love and/or use a lot.

  • Black Sharpie pens (medium) and Pilot G2: I spent 95% of 2011 and 2012 using black medium point Sharpie pens. However, I realized the main way I carry these around is in my front left pocket. Since the cap is separate from the pen I kept running into the problem where the cap would come off and my pen would be floating around in my pocket stabbing me in the leg and getting ink everywhere. I decided to find a click pen to replace my go-to Sharpie pens and ended up with the Pilot G2’s. They write great, don’t get my pants messy, and have a good clip. Can’t ask for more.
  • Large black hardcover Moleskine plain notebooks: This year I decided I wouldn’t use normal notebooks for school. I do most of my note taking on my computer anyway and regular notebooks tend to get nasty looking over time and are kind of a pain to carry around. For the past year or so I’ve been carrying around a hardcover Moleskine notebook for all my analog writing needs. I fill them up at a rate of maybe 1 every 9 or 10 months so it isn’t prohibitively expensive. The hard cover and smaller size than a normal notebook makes them great to carry around and the higher quality paper is much nicer to write on than a typical loose leaf notebook. Halfway through this year I switched from a ruled Moleskine notebook to a completely plain one and don’t see myself switching any time soon.
  • 2008 Unibody Aluminum Macbook and Apple Wireless Mouse: The computer I bought in the summer of 2009 is still trucking along. It’s starting to show its age in a couple places (for example, all of it’s little rubber feet have fallen off and have been replaced with little clear bumpers I bought online). However, it still does everything I need it to do really, really well. I imagine it’ll be upgraded in the next year or year and a half. Once the MacBook Air line switches over to Retina displays it’s going to be hard to hold back on upgrading my laptop.
  • Bose IE2 headphones: I had very nice Bose over ear headphones for a couple years. They eventually broke and I decided I no longer wanted to go back to the cheap headphones of my childhood. Luckily my lovely girlfriend stepped up and got these for my birthday in February. They are the most comfortable headphone I’ve ever worn and work great in every environment I tend to wear headphones, walking around, working out, working at my computer, and on airplanes. Love ‘em.
  • iPhone 5: I upgraded my iPhone 3GS in October. This is the first time I’ve ever been on the leading edge of any kind of technology. The phone is incredible and I love using it. I do a ton of reading and other legitimate work on it on a regular basis. Also, games.
  • Bodum French press and Mr. Coffee blade grinder: Nothing too fancy here. The French Press gets the job done and the blade grinder falls into the category of something I use all the time and not something I love. Looking to upgrade this to a decent burr grinder in the near future.
  • Trek 8.2 DS bicycle: Got this bike when I first moved to California as I had no other means of transportation. It has been doing a great job getting me around town for the past year and a half. I’m learning to do a little bit of maintenance on my own and am looking forward to learning more about that aspect of owning a bike. If I get a car in the near future I may consider selling this and getting a more fitness-oriented bicycle for future athletic endeavors.
  • Tom Bihn Synapse backpack (black): My trusty backpack officially gave up the ghost a few weeks ago. Following in the footsteps of Rands and Ben Brooks I did a susbstantial amount of research before pulling the trigger on a purchase. I’ve never spent anything approaching what I spent on this Tom Bihn backpack on a backpack before. However, I can definitely say this is unlike any bag I’ve owned. It’s incredibly well made and really a joy to use everyday. Considering how much time I spend wearing a backpack, I figured upgrading to a Tom Bihn was a good move.
  • Merkur Classic safety razorboar bristle shaving brush, and stand: A few years ago I received a classic safety razor and haven’t looked back when it comes to shaving. Even thought I’m sporting a bushy beard, I actually do enjoy shaving with this razor. I don’t remember the brand of my brush off the top of my head, but I know it’s a boar bristle brush and it feels incredible on my face. If you’re a man and still using disposable razors you need to upgrade your game and treat your face a little better.
  • Remington HC5350 beard trimmer: Like my coffee grinder, this falls into the category of something I use but don’t really love. If I remember correctly I had to buy it in somewhat of an emergency situation so I didn’t get a chance to do much research. With that being said, it does what it needs to do. I’ll upgrade this when it eventually breaks but it’s not high on my list.
  • Green canvas messenger bag: I once wrote a whole article about this bag for a friend’s website. TL:DR, this bag is awesome and I love it.
  • Amazon Kindle Keyboard (2011 model): I’m still rocking my 2 year old Kindle that has a slight smudge on the screen and a crack in the body. However, it does its job well and I love reading on it. The vast majority of the books I talked about in my last article were read on this device.
  • OXO LiquiSeal coffee travel mug: This travel mug is awesome. It does a great job keeping things hot but event more importantly is nearly impossible to spill. You can carry it upside down, throw it around, shake it, and nothing will spill. Important considering I spend a lot of time with it in my backpack.
  • Teavana tea travel mug: Yes, I have separate mugs for coffee and tea. Drinking tea out of a mug that normally has coffee in it is not a pleasant experience no matter how much you clean it. This tea mug has an infuser inside it so I can easily steep tea right in the mug. It’s also incredible at keeping tea hot.
  • Classic stainless steel 12 oz. Klean Kanteen: I don’t like drinking out of plastic and I hate paying for water. Enter, the super simple and super awesome Klean Kanteen. I don’t have to worry about it leaking (see above) when I throw it in my backpack and it can take all kinds of abuse without breaking.

For what it’s worth, I wrote 99% of this article completely from memory. I know the name and model of nearly everything I own because I thought carefully about everything I let into my life. It may seem like overkill to figure out what your favorite pen or travel mug is, but when it’s something you use every day it makes sense to actually enjoy what you’re using. Sure, it’s a minor inconvenience to use a crappy pen or a leaky mug, but I’m a huge fan of eliminating as many minor annoyances as possible. It adds up over time and even the smallest changes can make a big difference if you let enough time elapse. 

If this all seems a little silly to you I encourage you to take a little bit longer the next time you need to buy something and make sure you get something you truly love. It’s kind of addicting to challenge yourself to have as little, but as high quality, as possible. 

PART IV: SOFTWARE

 

A huge part of my life (both productive and leisure) is software. I spend a lot of time on my computer as a student, writer, and coach. My phone acts as an extension of my computer and allows me to do work more effectively in certain situations. I thought it’d be interesting to share the software I use and the reasons I useI these specific products.

First I’ll share my most loved/used apps on OS X and then I’ll do the same for iOS.

OS X

  • Spotify: Early last year I made the switch to exclusively using Spotify for my music needs. I don’t even have any audio files saved in iTunes any more. For $10 a month I can listen to basically anything I want and carry it with me on my phone to use offline. I don’t have to worry about backing up music files or filling up a hard drive. For someone who doesn’t care at all about building a library of music and just wants to listen to it without pirating, Spotify is perfect.
  • DayOne: This is a gorgeous journaling app. I’ve been journaling off and on for many years. I’ve been experimenting with using this app as more than just a journal — more like a daily log. I find myself opening it up and writing stream of consciousness when I’m feeling stuck or just want to work out an idea for an article. Lots of my most recent published work and school papers have started in DayOne as stream of consciousness pieces. The iOS version of the app is awesome in that they stay completely synced and allows you to quickly snap pictures and add text.
  • Dropbox: Dropbox ties together a lot of my OS X apps with my iOS apps. It also seems that Dropbox (and not Google Drive) is the go to method for sharing documents and files with my classmates in graduate school. Dropbox is amazingly seamless and I forget it exists a lot of the time. That’s definitely the sign of a good syncing/backup app.
  • Evernote: Evernote acts as my digital file cabinet. Anything I might need to reference in the future gets thrown into it. Any notes for projects I’m currently working on also get thrown into it. Its tagging and searching is so good I know I can find anything I throw at it.
  • Fantastical: This is so much better than using Calendar.app. I can just activate the quick entry dialog box with a keyboard shortcut, write “Lunch with Nate on Wednesday at noon,” and it adds it to my calendar. No drop down menus, no clicking, just type it like you’d say it and you’re good to go.
  • Flux: Flux is always running in the background and when it starts to get dark outside my screen starts to automatically get “cooler”. It’s effect is completely unnoticed after the first 20 minutes of using it until you decide to turn it off for some reason and realize it’s saving you from looking at the blazing LCD inferno that is a computer monitor at night. This thing saves my eyes and I love it.
  • Chrome: My browser of choice. Every once in awhile it pisses me off and I have to switch back to Safari. But for the past year Chrome has been what I’ve used the majority of the time. It’s usually quick and has a great suite of extensions that tie in with some of my most frequently used programs.
  • 1Password: Good passwords are a must nowadays. So much of my life and important work takes place online. If my Gmail account or any of my other important accounts were victimized I’d e in a lot of trouble. 1Password helps me manage unique and gibberish passwords  to increase the security of everything I do online. It lets me not have to memorize a huge number of passwords and prevents me from not having the same password for everything. Everyone needs to use this app or something like it.
  • Koku: This is the app I’ve been using the least amount of time so far. I had been using Mint.com to manage my finances for the past couple of years but was never a big fan of it. There were too many things happening on that site that I had no interest in and either had to figure out how to turn off or just learn to ignore. When I heard about Koku I decided to give it a shot and so far I’m really enjoying it. Very simple and clean way to manage finances.
  • Mendeley: In graduate school you have to read a ton of PDF’s. My first semester I took a thumb drive to the print shop and had them print over 700 pages. For the past two semesters I’ve been using Mendeley to manage all my readings and I’ve even been doing the reading right on my computer. The ability to take notes right on the document, highlight, and create annotations is pretty great and goes a long way toward keeping me organized.
  • Quicksilver: Another one of those apps (like Flux) where I sometimes forget it’s not a built in part of the operating system. Quicksilver lets me launch any program or file on my compter without ever having to touch the mouse or trackpad. Once you get the hang of it you’ll wonder how you ever used your computer without it.
  • Reeder: I have about 20 RSS feeds that I check a couple times a day and for the longest time used Google Reader for that task. A few months ago I started using Reeder and have really enjoyed it. It makes it easy to go through a list of articles using only the keyboard, it’s clean and easy to read, and allows me to easily export articles to Instapaper so I can read it on my iPhone later.
  • RescueTime: RescueTime runs in the background and watches how much time I spend using various applications and the amount of time I spend on each website I visit over the week. Every Sunday I sit down with the report it gives me and analyze how I’ve been using the time. This has become a very important part of my weekly review and helps keep me accountable.
  • Things: My task manager of choice for the past couple of years. I know a lot of people in the productivity/nerd racket use OmniFocus but I’ve been a Things man for a long time. It does everything I need it to do in a simple yet powerful way. I’ve become incredibly proficient at throwing random pieces of information at it and because I’ve instituted a regular weekly review I know I can trust the program and my system. This piece of software may be the most important (other than Evernote) to my entire work process.
  • WriteRoom: I abhor Microsoft Word. I also abhor Open Office. I do all of my writing in either TextEdit (if it’s small and impromptu) or WriteRoom (if it’s something longer, like this article). It just presents you with a black screen and a blinking cursor and you take care of the rest. No formatting. No font choices. Just write.
  • TweetDeck: For the past couple of years I’ve been using Twitter from their website. However, this year I had to manage two accounts for a little while and therefore needed an actual Twitter client. I had never used one before and was skeptical about how it could be better than the website for how I use Twitter so I wasn’t ready to put down any money for one. That left me with TweetDeck and it has been okay. I may be changing this in the future.

Honorable Mentions: BartenderBastionNagOnyXTextExpander

IOS

On my iPhone I try to keep my home screen as uncluttered and simple as possible. I don’t have any folders on my home screen because I think my most commonly used apps should be available with as few taps as possible. What follows is a few of the apps that live on my home screen and I use quite a bit.

  • Chrome: I liked Chrome for OS X so much I decided to give it a try on iOS. It’s great. I think it’s better than Safari. Give it a try.
  • The Magazine: This is a publication that puts out a handful of “articles for geeks and curious people” every couple of weeks for $1.99. It’s a beautiful app and so far the articles have been great. Look forward to the new issue every time.
  • Instapaper: From the creator of The Magazine, Instapaper makes it very, very easy to read things I find online whenever I want. I find interesting things to read all the time but I rarely have time to sit down and read them the moment I find something. I click a button on my browser and it sends it to Instapaper on my phone. I open Instapaper whenever I want and the text from the article I was reading on my computer is ready to go. It has become a huge part of how I consume information.
  • Reeder: A lot like the OS X version. Clean, quick, and makes it easy to do what it’s designed to do, read RSS feeds.
  • Check the Weather: A very smooth and simple weather app that provides information above and beyond the stock Weather app on the iPhone. It’s completely gesture based and is tied into the Dark Sky API so has the freakishly good short-term precipitation forecasts DS is known for.
  • Things: When CulturedCode released the latest version of Things with Cloud integration I rejoiced. Now, any task I add to my phone will show up on my computer and vice versa. I don’t ever have to worry about forgetting something I need to do thanks to this app and its slick integration with its OS X counterpart.
  • Fantastical: Again, much like its OS X counterpart. Instead of messing with dials and switches as I struggle to add a new event I can just use my natural language to type in what I need to do, when I need to do it, and it takes care of the rest.
  • Downcast: I listen to a handful of podcasts and before iOS 6 came out podcasts was part of the Music app. I was never a huge fan of that app and it was pretty bad for podcasts. I switched over to Downcast and have been happy ever since (even with Apple releasing a dedicated Podcasts app). It lets me subscribe and manage all my podcasts with ease.

Honorable Mentions: LetterpressComixology1PasswordDayOneEvernote

My philosophy with using and buying software is similar to my philosophy regarding physical items I bring into my life. If I need to use it a lot, it better be something I like. That’s why I sought out something like Fantastical. I found myself resisting adding things to my calendar on my computer and phone because it was a pain in the butt. After trying out a handful of calendar apps I found something that made the process a little easier and removed that hesitation. For me, that’s worth $5. 

If you find yourself thinking, “Man, I hate doing this thing on my computer or my phone,” multiple times a day you should investigate whether there are any alternatives out there for you. Chances are, there is. As long as you can resist the urge to fiddle with new software just for the sake of fiddling then spending a little bit of time to find something that works better for you is worth it. 

PART V: WORK

 

As a full-time graduate student it might seem like the only “work” I have to do is centered around classwork. Doing the assigned readings, attending class, completing projects, writing papers, and taking exams is definitely a large chunk of what I spend my time doing. However, that only scratches the surface. I told myself when I came to grad school that I didn’t want it to dominate my life. I’ve worked hard to become more efficient and intelligent about how I do my work so I can have the time and energy to keep other endeavors going.

Let’s take a look at what my work landscape looked like for 2012 and what it might look like in 2013.

  • Classwork (readings, assignments, exams, etc.): From January to May and September to December I was enrolled in a full schedule of grad school classes. Needless to say I spent a lot of time reading and writing for these classes.
  • SamSpurlin.com articles: My article output on SamSpurlin.com has been severely curtailed over the past few months. The demands made on my time due to class and a little bit of lack of clarity with what I should be writing about has contributed to this. This is something I’m looking to improve in 2013.
  • SamSpurlin.com newsletter: For the first half of the year I was writing and publishing a monthly newsletter through my website. However, that seemed to stall once school started up again. I’m not sure if this will be restarted in 2013. If it is, it will probably be changed in format.
  • SamSpurlin.com Weekly Video Update: Another thing that I did off and on this year that needs to either be officially retired or revamped.
  • Sam Spurlin Coaching & Consulting: I was able to work with more coaching clients this year than I ever have in the past. I’m really loving this part of my work and hope to expand it in 2013.
  • Independent research: Over the summer I took on a research project while I was living and working in Prague. It’s still at a very early stage and needs a lot of work to move into something potentially useful. I’m also working with a classmate on another project that we’re presenting in Atlanta in February. In general, independent research is something I need to keep moving forward, especially if I get into the PhD program.
  • Independent evaluation: One of my classes this semester was developing an evaluation proposal for a real-life program. I met with the main stakeholder today and it looks like we’re going to move forward with actually doing the evaluation. If I get into the PhD program, this project will fulfill one of the requirements of my portfolio. Unfortunately, I don’t think any of my group members from class are going to actually be helping me with the actual evaluation so I might be doing this largely solo.
  • GettingHistoryDone.com: I started a fun little website where I could put quotes up from the autobiographies and biographies I read. I’m fascinated with descriptions of how people do their work and I’m also quite the history nerd. I don’t really have a commitment to posting regularly here so I’m not overly worried about how much time I sink into it. When I have some good quotes to put up I’ll put them up, otherwise I don’t worry about it.
  • P>P.com: I started this website to serve as the receptacle of all my writing that doesn’t fit with SamSpurlin.com. It’s kind of a mishmash of different styles, ideas, and themes but I think I’m okay with that. That’s basically why I created it. Sometimes I feel bad for not writing more regularly on it but it is kind of like GettingHistoryDone.com in that it’s nice to put something up when I have something to say, otherwise it’s fine to just sit there.
  • Claremont Coworking: One of my major projects while I was working in Prague was writing a proposal to give my university to start a coworking space for students. The proposal was written but nothing is really moving forward in terms of an actual space at my school. Opening a coworking space is still something I want to do, I’m just not sure how much time I can truly focus on it right now. I’m thinking about setting up the website and using it as a place to publish any articles I develop dealing specifically with coworking. At this point, the most important thing I can do is begin creating a community of people who are interested in coworking in this area. I’m not quite sure how to best go about doing that, yet.
  • Other entrepreneurial ideas: I’m always on the lookout for other entrepreneurial ideas to investigate. One of the main ones right now involves leveraging the presentation my friend and I are delivering in Atlanta. 
  • Be a Better Indie Worker: This originally started as an e-course that was part business development for me and part school assignment for a friend. He no longer needs it for a school assignment but I think we’re going to keep working on it. I’m viewing it more as a living e-book/membership site at the moment. It’s still very much in the air and needs a lot of work.
  • TEDxClaremontColleges: I’m co-organizing TEDxClaremontColleges 2013. Organizing the 2012 event was incredibly gratifying yet stressful. I’m hoping the fact that I’ve already done it once and have a co-organizer this time around will make it more enjoyable. It’s a great opportunity to get experience organizing a large event and leading a group of awesome volunteers. Not to mention the contacts made organizing an event like this are second to none.

I think it’s safe to say I potentially have more than I can safely handle right now. On the other hand, maybe not. A lot of these projects are very long-term and only require a small amount of effort each week to keep them moving forward. At the same time, I don’t want to be spreading my attention too widely so that none of these projects are actually world-class and I’m mediocre at basically everything.

Looking ahead to 2013, I see a couple of changes in focus taking place. I’d like to bring back the newsletter but I think I might make it a quarterly endeavor instead of a monthly one that rarely gets written. Consistency is important and right now I can’t find the time to write a high quality newsletter every month (especially since I’ve only been averaging one or two articles on SamSpurlin.com each month). The same goes for the Weekly Video Update. Instead of failing at doing it weekly I think I’ll change it to a monthly video update. Another idea I’m toying around with is starting a podcast that will be tied to my site. If I do this it will take the place of the video update. I also know it will probably be more work than I’m currently committed to, so I’m not sure if it’s a good idea.

In terms of writing, I just need to do more of it. I think my idea repository is a little bit stale right now so the first course of action will be freshening it up. I’m going to come up with a couple series that will be interesting for my readers while also helping me plan out what I’m going to specifically be writing about. I think shooting for one article a week is doable, especially if I don’t force myself to write something huge each time. I think I’d even be happy with one every two weeks. 

Some of this is up in the air until I find out whether I’ve been accepted to the PhD program at CGU. If I have, I’ll have to reconsider what I’m committing to in terms of non-school work. Being in the PhD program doesn’t necessarily make my course work more arduous, but I’ll have to take on projects outside of class that will cut into the time I have for entrepreneurial activities. For now, I think a lot of these non-school programs are actually supportive of what I want to do in the long run regardless of whether I get my PhD. For example, if I get my PhD I still want to open a coworking space and do coaching/consulting out of it. Therefore, it makes sense for me to keep working on SamSpurlin.com, getting more coaching clients, keep trying to build Claremont Coworking, etc. 

CONCLUSION

Wrapping all of this up, I see a bunch of projects that I care a lot about and am excited to work on. At the same time, I still have a sense of unease about how spread out my efforts are going to have to be to give them all the attention they need and deserve. I don’t have any good answers right now other than continually asking myself what is truly the most important and listening closely to what my brain and heart tell me each time. Projects may fade in importance, a new opportunity may arise, or my priorities may change. I need to be open to any of that in 2013. 

Morning Wins

I'm starting this morning not with my normal routine of: CTRL + SPACEBAR, "Chrome," "Gmail," ALT + T, "Facebook," ALT + T, "Reddit," CTRL + SPACEBAR, "Tweetdeck." That has become my automatic morning response and I can do it quickly and utterly unconsciously. Today is going to be different, though. The coffee is almost done, it's still dark outside, and I'm going to start the day with a win.

Starting with a win is one of those things I'm increasingly realizing makes a big change in how I experience the rest of my day. As the day progresses, the opportunities for "wins" tend to decline. Or, perhaps they are just overshadowed by the annoyances and myriad "losses" throughout the day. Email is the most common vehicle for losses. "Can you do this for me?" "Have you done this yet?" "Why did you do this?" "What's the next thing we have to do?" None of these are inherently "bad" questions, but they represent drains on my attention because I am not their locus of origin.


Nor am I saying that I wish my days were filled with exclusively self-created work. I enjoy helping people and the majority of my projects, personal or otherwise, incorporate and need other people. However, I've learned over the years, and particularly over the last couple of months, that it's hard to start my day taking care of other people's problems first. When I do, I can feel the resentment grow inside me. If I don't take care of myself and my needs, even in the most cursory manner possible, I do a poorer job helping other people throughout the day.

I started writing this only ten or so minutes ago and have only taken a sip or two of the aforementioned coffee. But, now that these words have traveled from my head to my fingers and to my screen, I know the rest of my day will go better. I will be asked to do annoying things, I will have to work on tasks that aren't the most important to me right now and it will all be okay. I selfishly woke up early to indulge in my own thoughts and creative impulse and because of that I'll be able to work more unselfishly the rest of the day.


Sometimes I Do Dumb Things

I'm a warrior. A modern-day samurai. A Jedi of epic responsibility. You see, I'm in a constant battle. A battle that wages every day, every minute, every second, of my life.  

I'm in a constant war against my own idiocy. 

I came to the realization awhile ago that I do really dumb things sometimes. I've always done dumb things, but it's only recently I've been able to notice and catch myself doing something dumb. Instead of just living with my dumbness, I decided to try implementing some simple behaviors as a self-protective mechanism against my dumbness. Here's what I've come up with so far.

DUMB THING I DO, #1: STARE AT MY TASK LIST BECAUSE I'M TOO TIRED TO ACTUALLY DECIDE WHAT I SHOULD BE DOING.

Sometimes I do dumb things like not get enough sleep or think I can work for 10 hours straight. This means that sometimes I'm really, really, tired. Ideally, that would mean it's time for me to take a nap. While that's the best course of action you have to remember that I do dumb things. So, sometimes I decide to keep working even when I probably shouldn't (maybe that should actually be Dumb Thing I Do #1…). Anyway, when I'm too tired to be doing important and thoughtful work, it's nice if I've already figured out the not-so-difficult work I COULD be doing instead. I have lots of those tasks because I don't have a secretary to take care of administrative BS or errands or anything else that sucks to do but is necessary to running a business and life. The best time to do these tasks is when my mind is fried because even if I'm only working at 25% of capacity, they only require 10% to do. The problem is that if I haven't figured out what the tasks are ahead of time, I'm too tired and/or dumb to figure it out later on. To combat this, I add a simple tag to each of my tasks in my task management system; Easy, Medium, or Hard. The trick is to do this ahead of time, when I'm not tired. Basically, it's well-rested Sam taking care of tired and dumb Sam. Hard things require me to be on top of my game. Medium things are kind of difficult and I should probably be somewhat aware of what's going on when I tackle them. Easy things a monkey could do. Unfortunately, I have no monkey so the next best thing is to do them when I'm fried. Now I don't waste time, I get stupid/easy tasks out of the way without taking up my more productive time, and I can stop feeling so dumb.

DUMB THING I DO, #2: STARE AT MY TASK LIST BECAUSE I JUST WOKE UP AND DON'T WANT TO DO ANYTHING EXCEPT EAT CINNAMON TOAST CRUNCH IN THE MORNING.

I like getting up early. I'm definitely a morning person. I'm not sure why I self-identify that way, though, because I'm an idiot in the morning. I'll wake up and putz around for hours trying to decide what I should try to do. Whatever part of my brain that looks at the things I have to do and makes the decision that it's something I'm capable of doing today doesn't seem to wake up with the rest of my body. The part of my brain that can do work if it has been clearly defined and laid out in front of it is always raring to go in the morning, though. So, to combat the dumbness of getting up super early and then not being able to decide what to do, I've started selecting the 1 or 2 tasks I want to do the next morning the day before. Now, the last thing I do before I wrap up work for the day is decide what I'm going to work on when I wake up. No more wasting time trying to figure it out in the morning and no more time feeling like an idiot for scrolling through my task list at 6 in the morning trying to figure out what strikes my fancy.

DUMB THING I DO, #3: HAVE AN AWESOME, EARTH-SHATTERING, POLIO-VACCINATION, WRIGHT-BROTHERS' AIRPLANE, THEORY OF RELATIVITY-ESQUE IDEA THAT I'M CONVINCED I'LL NEVER FORGET. AND THEN FORGET IT.

Sometimes I have good ideas. Not often, but sometimes. The tricky thing about a good idea is that it seems so obvious, "Of course I won't forget this idea -- it's basically the best thing that has happened to me!" Five minutes later I have a stupid song stuck in my head and I'm grasping at straws in my now vacuous brain. This is a dumb thing to do. Now, no matter where I am, I will write down a good idea the moment I have it. Front left pocket, pen. Back left pocket, notebook. Front right pocket, phone with note taking and voice recording capabilities. Sitting at a desk, computer with key combo that allows me to add a note to my inbox seamlessly. In my bed, notebook and pen on the nightstand. Brushing my teeth, scamper back to the bedroom and tap it out on my computer. In the car, repeat it endlessly to my passenger until I get somewhere I can safely dig out my notebook and pen. See? No more losing great ideas.

DUMB THING I DO, #4: GETTING INTERRUPTED BY SOME PIECE OF INFORMATION AND HAVING TO THINK DEEPLY AND THOUGHTFULLY ABOUT WHERE TO PUT IT. 

As a fairly dumb person, when I have too much going on I get overwhelmed. When I get overwhelmed I get whiny and annoying. We live in a world where information is cheap and plentiful (and often hilarious, useful, vital, or interesting). I used to keep important pieces of information in lots of different places. When I had to find a specific piece of information there would be about 10 different places I had to look before I could find it. This is a dumb thing to do so I decided to fix it. The first thing I realized is that I have an Internet connection 95% of the time I'm at my computer. I also realized that about 95% of the information I'll ever have to look up I can find in about 3 minutes on Google. Anything I can find with Google doesn't need to be saved on my computer. Next, I had to decide what specific pieces of information I received most often and then decide where I'd keep it. Here's what it looks like for me right now:

 

  • "I came across something on the Internet I want to read later!" --> Save to Instapaper. Read on iPhone or computer at my leisure.
  • "This blog/website looks interesting. I want to know when this person writes something new!" --> Add to Google Reader (and if a new article comes up and I don't have time to read it right now, see above)
  • "This email has important information but I can't deal with it right now!" --> Star the email in Gmail. Within 24 hours review the email and either respond, or enter a to-do in Things. Unstar email.
  • "This email needs a response and it won't take me long to deal with!" --> Respond right now.
  • "This email has important information in it and I don't have to respond to it." --> Archive it.
  • "This email might be relevant at some point in the future. Maybe not, though." --> Archive it.
  • "This person called, instant messaged, Facebook messaged, or Twitter DM'ed me with something I need to do." --> Add task to Things.
  • "This reference "thing" is something I'll look at a lot (Weekly Review checklist, list of movies to watch, etc.)!" --> Stick it in Evernote.
  • "This reference "thing" is something I probably won't ever look at again, but if I ended up needing it I won't be able to find it in Gmail or Google!" --> Stick it in Evernote.
  • "I just had an incredible idea (or a mediocre idea) or remembered something I have to do later!" --> Add task to Things.
  • "I just downloaded something I'll be using regularly for awhile!" --> Move it from Downloads folder to Dropbox if it's something I need to keep. Otherwise, Trash it after using it.
  • "I just posted an article or turned in an assignment that had been sitting in Dropbox while I worked on it!" --> Move it to Evernote or Trash it.
  • "I just created a new username and password for this website!" --> Click yes when 1Password asks if it should save it. Hit Command  + the next time I need to log in to this website.
  • "I just bought something with my credit card!" --> Cool. Mint will keep track of it automatically. Check it monthly to make sure nothing funky is going on.
  • "I just got some information that I have no idea what to do with!" --> Create a new task in Things that says "figure out what to do about X."

There are probably other instances that I'm forgetting. This probably also looks very confusing but you have to remember that most of these things happen many times every day. It's gotten to the point where I immediately recognize where I keep any kind of information and I don't have to think about where I should stick it any longer. Plus, if you know the keyboard shortcuts for your various programs it ends up being super easy and quick to do all of this.

One of the biggest things that has moved my personal development and productivity forward is realizing that I do dumb things sometimes. Noticing immediately when I do dumb things and then figuring out ways to fix it has made a huge difference. Do you do dumb things? Have you changed your behavior or habits to take care of it? I'd love to hear about your methods in the comments.

 

Freedom on my Terms

Freedom is a word that drives almost everything I do. When I graduated from BGSU in 2009 and began the search for a teaching job, I don't think I had a very good handle on just how important this concept was to me. Teaching is an incredibly difficult profession that I respect to an almost reverant degree -- but it certainly isn't marked by a high amount of freedom. I quickly realized this when I took a good look at my schedule and realized there was no physical way for me to go to the bathroom for about four hours during my teaching day. There just wasn't time for me to go between classes due to the unhappy circumstances of classroom location and absurdly short passing time between bells.

For me, freedom is waking up every morning and getting to work on something that is mine. Not necessarily all day and it doesn't mean never doing anything for anyone else, but working on something borne of my own creativity and devotion. That led to the creation of this website and the growth of my business. It led me to graduate school to study the scientific discipline that helps me better understand how to help people. It explains why I'm sitting in a coworking space in Prague as I write this, working in the midst of other people who by choice or by circumstance are working for themselves. It's why the top of my list of research ideas sits the equation, "meaningful work = meaningful life". We spend the vast majority of our lives working. I want to help people make sure they're getting the most out of that time.

Freedom can be scary and not everybody values it as highly as I do. I certainly respect those who value the security of a salaried job and regular paycheck. I'm just glad I figured out that wasn't for me before I had bought so completely into the system that says that's what you're supposed to do that I never could've fought my way out. I'm excited that by creating my own freedom I can help other people find their freedom. Whether that's starting a business of their own or carving out their own definiton of freedom while working for someone else. I'm not here to define freedom for anyone -- only to help people find it once they've defined it for themselves.

Freedom. It's not a matter of being able to work from anywhere or never doing anything for anybody else. It's not about sticking it to the man or raging against the machine. It's about knowing what I'm good at, what I like to do, and combining them in a way that helps people and allows me to earn a simple living. Sometimes freedom is not knowing what the hell I'm doing or how I'm going to make something work. It can be a cycle between great ideas and difficult/impossible execution that can seem like a perverse perpetual motion machine of frustration.

But I wouldn't trade it for anything. And you shouldn't trade your freedom, whatever it means to you, for anything either.

Happy Independence Day to all my fellow American readers. Regardless of your national origin, think a little bit about what freedom means to you today. Can you take a step in a direction that will make you more free?Can I help?

 

A Year Without Meat

Last year on April Fool’s day I did something that was not a practical joke -- I became a vegetarian. I did eventually feel like a fool but only because I realized a.) how much I was lying to myself in order to eat a “normal American diet” an b.) how easy it was to eat more in line with my values. When people ask me about what it’s like to make the switch to vegetarianism I always tell them it’s one of the easiest things I’ve ever done. I don’t say that to downplay others’ more difficult transitions or to somehow make myself look better. I’ve honestly found this change to be one of the easiest habit changes I’ve ever undertaken. I’m happy to share my experience with becoming a vegetarian in this article but I’d like to take a step back and try to suss out why this behavior change was so easy for me. There are lessons somewhere in my experience that I want to try my best to uncover. But first, a couple thoughts specific to becoming and being a vegetarian.

LIMITATIONS ARE NOT A PROBLEM

The obvious assumption is that by removing a whole class of food from my diet I was going to end up feeling deprived or limited in some way. As many people have described in their own switches to vegetarianism, I did not feel limited in any way. In fact, it was the complete opposite. By giving myself guidelines and restrictions I suddenly had to use more creativity to eat a diet I wouldn't get completely bored of. I started trying food that I never would have if I had been eating my normal diet. I realized there is a whole world of food out there beyond my normal rotation of meals.

YOU CAN BE AN UNHEALTHY VEGETARIAN

Being a vegetarian doesn't mean I'm automatically healthier. I've struggled with this at times because some of my favorite junk foods fit right in with my vegetarian diet. Huge muffins, donuts, bread -- I could eat all of this for days. They may lack meat but they definitely don't lack in empty calories. Being a vegetarian requires an increase in my mindfulness regarding food and being a healthy vegetarian requires even more.

SOME PEOPLE CAN BE MEAN — MOST AREN’T

I've answered the question, "Why?" a lot over the past year. At first I felt a little self-conscious while answering this question. I felt like I immediately had to defend myself from those who were looking to denigrate my decisions. Then, I realized that most people were just genuinely curious. Being a vegetarian seemed like a crazy thing to them and they wanted to know what it was like. I'm happy to share that I have a myriad of reasons for why I've become a vegetarian and much of the time it's a nice segue into a great conversation.

THE LESSONS BEYOND VEGETARIANISM

My specific experiences becoming and being a vegetarian aren’t much different from anyone else’s who have made this same change. What may be a little bit unique is how easily I made the change into this type of lifestyle. This is what truly fascinates me because generally habits are incredibly difficult to change. I’ve had success changing some, utter failure changing others, but changing my diet like this is arguably my largest yet most successful change. What can I learn from this experience?

TYING INTELLECTUAL KNOWLEDGE TO VALUES IS POWER

When I was first becoming a vegetarian I spent a lot of time researching where most of our food comes from as Americans. I read about factory farms and the effect they have on the human workers who operate them, the environment we all live in, and obviously the animals that lose their lives there. I learned about the health benefits of a diet that features mostly plants and other whole foods. I discovered that being a vegetarian doesn't have to result in me being super skinny or frail. I then took all of this intellectual information that I learned through reading, watching documentaries, and talking to people and directly tied them to my values. I value Peace very highly and I could see that my normal diet was not particularly harmonious with that aim. I value Growth and I realized that challenging myself to undertake a diet that more closely aligned with what I believe would be a perfect avenue for growth. When I felt the urge to eat meat I didn't have to think only about the intellectual side of things (factory farms are terrible places, you can be healthy without meat, etc.) or only the values side of the equation (supporting the factory farm industry doesn't promote peace, etc.). Instead, I could think about both of these approaches and tie them together into a much more compelling reason to stick to my goals.

PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY IS PRETTY HUGE

I've been writing online for well over 2 years. Over a year ago I wrote about my switch to vegetarianism and wrote about my plan to stick with it. I didn't want to bail on this life change and have to write about how I failed. An even more powerful component of accountability was with the people that I interacted with on a daily basis. My family quickly realized that I was serious about this life change and I didn't want them to think I was giving up by eating meat. Same with my friends and other people I hung out with regularly. I didn't want to slap a piece of meat on my plate and then explain that I had failed. I didn't have a good reason for reverting to my old diet other than enjoying the taste of meat. That wasn't reason enough for me to let down my commitment.

STOPPING A HABIT = STARTING A NEW ONE

Changing my diet to a vegetarian one was the same as any other habit. It becomes much easier to stop doing something detrimental if you replace it with something positive. Instead of viewing my diet change as removing meat I tried to think of it as adding much more varied and interesting food. I tried to view it as an opportunity to practice mindfulness when I'm eating at a restaurant or catching a waft of barbecuing meat on a summer day. My diet change was growing a series of positive changes across my life, not just ending and removing something else.

WHAT'S NEXT?

Obviously, considering the tone of this article, I’m not going back to eating meat any time soon, if ever. In fact, the next inevitable step is going completely vegan. Considering the ethical and moral undertones of my reasons for being a vegetarian, I can’t continue participating in the dairy and egg industry with a clear conscience. I’ve already been moving in that direction for the last couple of months by removing most of the obvious sources of dairy and egg from my diet (like glasses of milk and hardboiled eggs). Once I’ve lived comfortably for awhile with these obvious sources removed I’ll then concentrate on those food items where they are somewhat hidden. I’ve been on the lookout for substitutes and have been trying various brands so when I do finally make the switch I’ll be used to what’s out there. Once I feel ready to make the final surge into full veganism I’ll probably spend some time doing additional research into the dairy and egg farming industry to make my commitment as real as possible.

Other than removing the last bit of incongruence from my diet I’d like to make a more concerted effort to just eat better. I can still fall into lapses where I eat lots of baked goods and crappy (yet vegetarian) food. I need to challenge myself in the kitchen more so I can continue to grow my skills in preparing food for myself. I don’t necessarily need to be eating new and exotic food all of the time since I’m pretty content with a couple staples, but it’s still nice to be pushing the boundaries with my cooking abilities.  Lastly, I’ll soon spend a month or so recording everything I eat so I can make sure my macronutrient intake is where it should be. Even though protein suggestions seem to be overblown in our society, I am lifting weights regularly and I want to make sure I’m getting enough to make my time in the gym worth something. I also want to make sure I’m not somehow missing vital vitamins or minerals with what I’m currently eating (yes I am taking a multivitamin with B12).

If there’s any parting advice I can give you if you’re thinking about becoming a vegetarian it’s to just try it. This entire lifestyle change started with a 30 Day Challenge where I firmly intended to go back to the way I was eating before. If I hadn’t done that challenge just to see what it was like I probably would have never made the change. The other aspect is to focus on what you can eat — not what you can’t. If all you think about is what you can’t eat you’re setting yourself up for some serious mental anguish and likely failure. Instead, try to focus on the new things you’re trying and how much you enjoy them. Lastly, try to tie the behavior change to a deeply held belief or value. When you can do that it’s no longer a matter of “not eating meat” but “not participating in a cruel industry” or “not contributing to the environmental destruction that factory farms cause” or “not supporting an industry that mistreats its workers.” Those are powerful emotions and reasons that will help you get past the fact that hamburgers taste good.

Have you made the switch to vegetarianism or veganism? I’d love to hear your experience in the comments below.

 

Are You Making an Ass of Yourself With Assumptions

Last semester I took a class called, “Foundations of Evaluation.” It was the first in a sequence of classes that are supposed to prepare me to be a professional evaluator. However, I quickly came to think of the class as “Critical Thinking 101.” Our professor was incredibly accomplished (his CV contains over 400 publications), incredibly blunt, and utterly mentally intimidating. We spent most of the class trying to pick out the fallacious thinking that leads to bad decisions and even worse outcomes. A huge part of that process was identifying and evaluating the assumptions used to reach a decision. It can be an eye-opening process to clearly see an assumption that has always been lurking just below your consciousness and yet directed your thoughts. It’s important that we identify the important assumptions in our lives and ask ourselves if they are truly justified.

Assumptions are often created subtly and without our active knowledge. The slow accumulation of life experience through observations of the world around us, conversations with our parents and peers, and the way we’re taught new information coagulates into the basic assumptions we use to help bring order to our world. For that very reason, assumptions are a valuable tool. They save us time and mental power when thinking about a situation and/or deciding what to do. We are able to use the assumptions we hold to bring sense to completely different situations that still have an underlying similarity. Having to make sense of every single situation or stimulus from scratch, without the help of assumptions, every single time we are presented with them would be a massive drain on our psyche.

However, the benefit of assumptions only hold true when our assumptions are truly valid. Otherwise, we are saving ourselves mental effort but coming to seriously suboptimal conclusions. In my case everything I do, from the writing on this blog to the focus of my schooling, is focused on one very important assumption. If it’s not valid, there’s a good chance I’m wasting my time. Is it true that we all have the ability to improve our lives in measurable and significant ways if we want to?

WHAT I DO

This assumption is the driving force behind the majority of things I do as a student and a writer. To start, everything I write on SamSpurlin.com only holds true if you also agree with this assumption. Personal development in general is predicated on the idea that focused energy in a specific direction will allow you to make positive changes to your life. If that’s not true, then I’m certainly wasting my time and effort writing about personal development. The same goes for my coaching. The people that I work with obviously all believe that there is action they can take to improve their lives. It’s my job to show them that action and give them advice for how to best use their energy when it comes to personal development. Lastly, the underlying basis of the entire branch of psychology that I’m currently studying is also predicated on the assumption that people can do things to improve their lives. Positive psychology looks at the human being and the human experience from an angle of growth. Developing happiness, mindfulness, creating positive relationships, and establishing new habits are all possible only if we actually have some control over our experiences as human beings.

THE COUNTER ARGUMENT

I don’t want to spend the rest of this article beating on a straw man that doesn’t actually exist. Does anybody actually believe the opposite of my underlying assumption? Does anybody believe that we don’t have any control over our direct experience? There are actually plenty of arguments that espouse this position and they all boil down to one of two sub-assumptions; that we can’t control our genes and therefore can’t control the way we are and that we can’t control our living circumstances/environment. Let’s unpack each of these believes a little bit.

GENETICS

Our genes ostensibly control the vast array of our physical and psychological characteristics. Therefore, how can we make the assumption that we have any control over our lives? We obviously have no control over who our parents are so therefore there’s not much we can do on the genetic side of things. If I’m genetically predisposed to be fat (or stupid, or smart, or shy, or anything) than what’s the point of expending energy to change that? All this talk about personal development is just an exercise in self-denial about how little we can actually control anything. Besides, if somebody does seem to improve their life with focused effort, then they obviously had the genes that allowed them to do it!

ENVIRONMENT

Personal development is a rich person’s endeavor. To be reading this article you obviously have access to some kind of computing device and an internet connection. That alone precludes the vast majority of the world from ever even reading this. Worrying about your happiness and trying to understand motivation are only salient concerns when you aren’t desperately poor and don’t know where your next meal is going to come from. Just as we can’t control our genes, we can’t control the environment into which we are born. If I happen to be born to a single mother of three in the inner city my opportunities are going to be much more limited than the only child of millionaire parents. It’s the sad truth but our position in life is essentially random and assigned to us at birth.

OTHERS

Between genetics and environment, it’s obvious that we have no control over our personal development. Just think about somebody who grew up in an environment of abuse and extreme deprivation. They are unlikely to be thinking about personal development because they have much more pressing issues at hand — like surviving! Or, for example, take somebody who is extremely depressed. Or, somebody who is an extreme introvert. These are all things that aren’t under our control as human beings and prevent us from being more than we are. Personal development is the discipline of people who don’t have anything better or useful to do.

THE CASE FOR ASSUMING WE CAN CHANGE OUR LIVES

I must admit, writing the previous couple of paragraphs from the perspective of somebody who believes we don’t have any control over our ability to grow and improve was surprisingly difficult. Every time I started typing a sentence my brain would scream, “No! That’s not true!” This just goes to show how powerfully this assumption is interwoven into the way I view the world. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is a logical or accurate assumption to have.

The keystone of my argument requires an explanation of the way I view personal development and how it may differ from how many people look at it. Personal development has always been about the process of growth, not the product of it. This may seem somewhat counterintuitive as I think most people get involved with personal development because they want to change something about themselves. It’s only logical, then, to be focused on some end state that is somehow better than you currently are. I don’t deny that personal development relies on some kind of change, but I do argue that an unwavering focus on some ideal state is not a good use of our time or energy. Instead, merely the process of growing, of improving, with no focus on some ultimate end, is the true benefit of personal development. Without this approach personal development becomes a Sisyphean quest of never-ending self loathing.

If we change our perspective on personal development from a quixotic quest for perfection to a uniquely personal journey of self-awareness and self-improvement we can eliminate a key threat to the assumption that people have control over their immediate experience. Whether you’re a multimillionaire living in the most ideal and perfect of environments or a victim of abuse in the most squalid of home situations, personal development is possible and equally necessary. Neither of these two fictional characters are shooting for the same level of personal development in any aspect of their lives. Starting points aren’t important or relevant in any way when making personal development an important part of your life. There is no ultimate end point that we’re all searching for.

Looked at another way, holding the assumption that you can improve your life in important ways allows you to be in a position of power when living your life. Each moment is a situation that can either add to or detract from your personal development. Even if you don’t have direct control over the circumstances of an event, you can always control your reaction. Taking this stance puts you in a position to have control instead of being buffeted about by the random winds of fate. In a world where my two options are believing myself to be a victim of my circumstances and thereby completely powerless to change them or having control (however tenuous that grasp may be) on my immediate experience I will always take the latter.

I will happily concede that some people are born into more advantageous situation than others, that some people are born with a higher genetic set point for happiness or intelligence, that growing up in an environment of abuse is something out of your control and likely incredibly detrimental to your personal development. Perhaps it is merely a function of my definition of personal development, but I cannot think of a single life situation where personal development is not possible or important. Personal development is not a product of our environment or life situation but a product of our minds and how we view the world. We can be imprisoned by circumstances, physical limitations, or injustice but if we retain the control over our ability to think then we retain control over our ability to personally develop.

It’s important to note that this assumption says nothing about whether or not you want to make changes. I don’t make the assumption that everyone in the world finds personal development important. That would be an incredibly fallacious belief that has no actual bearing in reality. My assumption merely says that anyone who decides to take action will find it possible to improve their lives in measurable ways. Part of my job as a teacher and coach is to show people the path that exists. I can describe the path’s location, clear it of obstacles, and give somebody a map but I can never throw them across my shoulders and take them down the path of personal development myself. The initiative and motivation has to be internally generated (how to go about generating that is a story for another time).

THE BUDDHISM CAVEAT

Being interested in Buddhism made me start thinking about whether personal development is reconcilable with a Buddhist approach toward life. Is it possible to reconcile a commitment to perpetual personal development with the ideals and values of Buddhism? Isn’t it anti-Buddhist to never be content with where you are and always on the lookout for something better? I don’t know enough about Buddhism to fully answer this question, but I immediately am drawn to the practice of meditation as a metaphor for personal development. Meditating is something that is incredibly frustrating and difficult at first but gradually becomes easier over time. I think many Buddhists would say that they’re always trying to improve the quality of their ability to meditate. Indeed, unless an individual has experienced enlightenment, I’m under the impression that a lot of effort is placed into making meditation a better experience. This movement toward better meditation while simultaneously dropping expectations is analogous with any journey of personal development. The value is in the practice itself, the process, and not in the end-state it produces.

You can either believe you have control over your life or you don’t. For me, believing I can change the circumstances of my situation gives me power. It puts me in a position of strength and impels me to be engaged with the world, to not let it float by. The flip side of this approach is to give up all control or attachment and just “go with the flow.” I think it’s possible to be interested in personal development and not overly attached to it at the same time. That’s why I always focus on the process — on habits– and not the final outcomes of personal development. I try to let personal development, like eating, sleeping, or breathing, be a constant in my life that doesn’t require constant attention or rethinking. It’s just the way I’ve decided to look at myself and the world.

What assumptions do you hold about the way the world works? What assumptions do you hold about other people? Have you taken the time to think through these logically and possibly even change them? Our assumptions orient the stories we tell ourselves about how the world works. I think it’s vitally important that we get them right.

Where Have All the Interesting People Gone

Graduate school is hard. You have to read insane amounts of very confusing articles, write lengthy papers about incredibly specific phenomenon, and contribute intelligently in class discussions that last for hours at a time. That’s not what I mean about it being hard, though. The hard part is not letting everything you have to do destroy what I’ve come to call your “inherent interestingness.”

I’ve observed an interesting phenomenon among my classmates (both older ones and my own cohort). Everybody who entered this program is really, really interesting or unique in some way. People have varied interests and experiences that really color who they are as individuals. However, over the last couple of months I think a lot of my classmates are having their inherent interestingness hammered out of them. They’re being grad-schoolized.

Everybody is turning into a study-robot that is constantly thinking about the next assignment, the next reading, or the next test. We all gather in the library to slave over our notes and have conversations about the same topics every single day. Obviously, an important part of a graduate program is inundating you in the discipline that you’ve chosen. Especially if you’re on track for a PhD — you need to become an absolute expert in what you’re doing. I’m totally behind that goal of a graduate school program.

However, I’m not behind that goal if it means losing what it is that makes us interesting people.

Last night I finished reading a book about Japanese technology in World War II. It has absolutely nothing to do with positive psychology. I read it because I’m still a history nerd at heart and it sounded interesting to me. It took me a lot longer than it would have under non-grad school conditions, but it got done. Right now I’m writing this blog post and not reading about ANOVA for my statistics class. Tomorrow, I’m going to be going to a meeting about organizing next year’s TEDx event on campus. None of this stuff will directly help me get my degree but I submit that it’s all just as important as classwork.

I don’t mean to denigrate my classmates and put myself on a pedestal with this description. I’m certainly not perfect. I told myself that I would do almost no school work on weekends and yet I spent at least three hours on Sunday reading for a class. My classmates are a fairly amazing group of people that accomplish things in the classroom that make me shake my head in amazement. I just don’t want any of them, including myself, to lose the inherent interestingness that got us here in the first place.

DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR INTERESTINGNESS IS?

What about your inherent interestingness? What do you like to do that doesn’t have any ramifications for your job, school, or other “grown up” responsibilities? Everybody has certain activities and quirks that are constantly being ground away under the pressure of stress and responsibility. It can be easy to let these things slip away as more important things enter your life. However, the inherent interestingness within us all is what provides for the opportunities that we’re all looking for. Stressful jobs and life situations are a leveling factor that turn everybody into automatons of themselves. Automatons can be replaced by any other similarly trained (manufactured?) automatons. The creativity that sets you apart from the robots making microchips is borne of those characteristics that are constantly under fire. You must protect and cherish your inherent interestingness in order to grow and flourish regardless of life situation.

HOW TO CULTIVATE YOUR INTERESTINGNESS

Theory and words are cheap. I hope you’ve been reading this article with a critical eye and thinking to yourself, “So what if inherent interestingness is important? I have responsibilities. I have a family. I can’t sit around and just read books that seem interesting all day. I can’t just follow my muse whenever it strikes.” You are correct but I think I have a couple ideas that can be directly applied to the defense of your inherent interestingness today.

  1. Make time: There is a profound psychological difference between these two statements; “I need to find some time to do something,” and, “I need to make some time to do something.” When you make time you’re in control of the situation. When you try to find time, you’re at the whims of the universe. Very simply, you need some free time (some, not a lot) in order to protect your inherent interestingness. It’s up to you to figure out where it comes from. Can you approach your work in a more intelligent and efficient way so you have 15 minutes at the end of the day to devote to yourself? Can you get up 15 minutes earlier? Maybe you can cut a television program out of your routine? Almost nobody is operating at such peak efficiency and capacity that they can’t find 15 minutes anywhere in their day.

  2. Set boundaries: If I wanted to I could do graduate school work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There is always a paper to write. If I finish all the papers there’s always more to read. If I finish all the reading for class there’s always my own research to be conducting. It’d be never-ending if I were to let it. Very simply, I don’t allow that to happen. To the best of my ability I set boundaries about when I’ll do work and how much I’ll do. Where are your boundaries? Do you work on the weekends? Do you take work on vacation? Where is it okay for you to be separated from your work? If you’re currently boundary-less, try setting some very minor ones and then move forward from there. A simple boundary, like no mindless internet after 9 PM, is a great way to get started.

  3. Cultivate your interests: Writer Julia Cameron advocates something she calls the Artist Date. Essentially it’s just time you take out of every week to take your inner artist out to do something interesting. I think you should do the equivalent to cultivate your own interestingness at least weekly. At least 3-4 times a week I spend 15 minutes reading something completely unrelated to school. It lets me get through books that I find enjoyable and interesting without cutting too much into my “productive” time. Maybe you can go check out a museum you think is awesome or watch a documentary that piques your interest sometime in the next week. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate, expensive, or time consuming. 15 minutes can be enough to get your mind moving in a way that work, school, or stress usually prevent from happening.

If we stand by idly the stresses of our lives will grind us down into the lowest common denominator. We will all be the same, bemoaning what we’ve become, with nothing to differentiate ourselves from each other. We must plant our feet, look our circumstances in the face, and proclaim, “I will NOT let you turn me into a robot. I will NOT become boring. I AM an interesting person.” Your inherent interestingness is one of the only things that differentiates you from anyone else.

You must guard it. You must cultivate it.

Nobody else will do it for you.

 

 

How to Maintain Control During Times of Strife

Sometimes I psych myself out when it comes to writing for this blog. I tell myself that now that I’m a graduate student actually studying positive psychology, all of my articles should be steeped in references, research and data. That’s the type of evidence that we look for in my classes and there is certainly a place for it. Hell, my ultimate goal with all of my studying and research right now is to help make life coaching a more reputable and credible profession with the support of science.

 

But this blog is more than an amateur psychology journal.

Sometimes it’s just about a guy that’s trying to make his life a little big better by thinking about the best way to approach life. Sometimes it’s about a guy that takes a leap and moves across the country to study something he’s truly passionate about. And sometimes it’s about a guy that’s fighting through the same issues that everybody faces at some point — loneliness, confusion, and an overwhelming sense of the unknown.

It doesn’t always have to be about the science. In fact, science without humanity is arguably completely useless.

WHEN THE UNKNOWN SEEMS INSURMOUNTABLE

As I sat down in the library after a long day of statistics, research methods, and discussing complex articles with people who are much more intelligent than me, I was dreading having to write something for this website. My brain was fried and my analytical thinking capabilities had been completely tapped out for the day.

It’s time to just write about what’s on my mind right now, regardless of the science behind it. And right now I’m looking at some turmoil in my personal life, stress in my student life, and unknowns across the board. What do you do in a time like this? What should you do?

FOCUS ON THE CONTROLLABLE

For me, whenever I’m feeling out of control I always come back to the idea of focusing only on what I can truly control. When I sit down and think about what I actually control in a calm and collected manner, I’m usually surprised by how little I’m left with. The everyday worries that fill my life, and yours, are actions we can’t control. And yet, we worry about them. We fret. We let the uncontrollable control us. A renewed resolve to focus only on the variables within our grasp often leads to fresh outlooks on the true nature of our stress and worries.

What does that look like?

DAILY HABITS

Almost everything we do is the result of our habits. Our habits are built up over time by making the "right" decision over and over (which obviously varies depending on context). When your life feels like it’s spinning out of control it’s likely that what’s actually being neglected is the attention to your daily habits. Improve those, and you’ll find your life getting back under control.

ATTITUDE

I recently read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. The main takeaway from that book is that regardless of the hopelessness of your situation, even if it is rife with suffering and despair, you still control the contents of your own mind. Frankl suffered through Nazi concentration camps and during this time of unbelievable suffering he developed his theory of meaning. Those who are able to find meaning in their lives are able to find any situation, even those filled with suffering, an opportunity for growth. Try reframing a negative situation into more positive light and you’ll be taking the first step toward reclaiming your attitude.

THE NEXT ACTION

Huge projects are not completed in one night. Grad school is not completed with a weekend of hard work. A happy life is not built upon a single event. Instead of looking at the big picture, try focusing only on the very next action you’re taking. Make a good decision about your next action. And then, make another good decision about the action after that. If you fill your days with good decisions about your next action then you will have control over your life.

I love positive psychology and I love science. I love data and the strength that empirical evidence gives to an argument. However, sometimes I get tired of numbers, theory, and variables. Sometimes I need a quick dose of inspiration — something to get me moving in the right direction.

Where are you feeling like you’re losing control in your life? Do you actually have control over it or is there something you should be focusing on instead?

 

Three Lessons I Learned from TEDX

Last Friday I had the honor of attending a TEDx event. When it comes to TED, I think most people fall into two camps. If you’ve heard of TED and know what it’s all about, you probably think it’s awesome. The other camp usually consists of the question, “Who’s Ted?”

For the uninitiated, TED is a huge conference of incredible people giving 18 minute or shorter talks on various topics. They are huge events but the real goldmine behind TED is on their website where nearly all the talks are available to watch and listen to for free. A TEDx event is a smaller and independently produced version of an "actual" TED conference.

At our TEDx event there were six speakers (check out their bios here) covering topics from non-profit funding, leadership, neuroeconomics, combating AIDS, urban farming, and music. I could write an article for each of these speakers as they all did a fantastic job and talked about incredibly interesting topics. However, instead of going through a point-by-point breakdown of the evening I’d like to just leave you with a couple thoughts that hit me the hardest.

THE WAY WE THINK ABOUT SOMETHING DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THE WAY YOU THINK ABOUT SOMETHING

Jesse Dubois gave an excellent talk about urban farming. He is the founder of a company called Farmscapethat is trying to increase the amount of food grown within the city limits of Los Angeles. One of the main problems his company is facing is the fact that people have a hard time thinking about the production of food in a way other than what we understand as “farming.” People think that food has to be grown on mega-sized company farms well outside the city.

Is there really a reason it has to be this way? Jesse asks if the way we think about food production is really the only way to think about it. Going one step forward, why do we landscape our yards with aesthetically pleasing plants that have no actual value to our lives? What if it was normal to landscape your yard with food producing plants?

This talk made me think about other areas of my life where I might just be making assumptions about the way things “have to be.” Where can I reject faulty assumptions and develop a healthier and better way of thinking?

DON’T OVERCOMPLICATE YOUR DREAMS — JUST ATTACK THEM

Grammy award winning composer Mateo Messina booked a symphony in Seattle’s new symphony hall before he’d ever even written one. In fact, he couldn’t even read music. He just knew that he always wanted to write a symphony — so he figured out a way to make it happen. He tells the story of how he bought a children’s book about orchestras, a keyboard and some software that would transcribe the notes he played on it. He then sat down and played out the notes that each instrument in his orchestra would play (after checking the picture in the children’s book first, of course).

He had a dream and he didn’t overcomplicate it. He could play the piano and knew there was software that would transcribe what he was playing. Who says you need to be able to read music to write a symphony?

Where am I overcomplicating the things I want to do with my life? Attack your dreams with single-minded intensity and they won’t stand unconquered for long.

PEOPLE ARE PASSIONATE ABOUT INCREDIBLY DIVERSE THINGS — ASK THEM ABOUT IT AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE

The last, and probably most enjoyable, part about this TEDx was the conversation break we had in between the two sessions of talks. Everybody had a name tag that had 3 self-chosen “Talk to Me” points. The easy access to conversation starters and the environment of TED led to incredibly engaging and passionate conversations.

What if it was normal to expect someone to come up to you at any point and ask you about your passions? What if the spirit of TED infused every part of our lives?

If you ever have the chance to check out a TEDx event (or an actual TED conference) I encourage you to jump at the opportunity. I can’t think of another time where I’ve been so surrounded by passion and inspiration.

Have you been to a TED event? I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments.

 

 

What Does Productivity Even Mean to You?

In my first session working with life coach Tim Brownson we got to talking about my standards of productivity. I was telling him that I've been beating myself up lately for not meeting certain standards of productivity that I feel like I should have for myself. After a very small amount of digging I discovered that I don't even have any clearly articulated productivity standards. That wouldn't be a problem if I wasn't constantly beating myself up over not meeting these fictional standards. Anybody else see the problem here?

What follows is what I wrote down immediately upon getting off the call with Tim. Please feel free to share your insight and comments at the end. You'll see that I've far from resolved this issue.

How can I be mad at myself for not meeting a standard I haven't set?

I can’t continue to try using a standard of productivity that was developed during the Industrial Revolution. Back then, as long as you showed up for your shift and worked hard you were doing your “job.” It may have been 12, 10, or 8 hours but it was pretty clear when you were “at work.” Even now, lots of jobs still have that dynamic. Show up for 8 hours, work reasonably hard (or appear to, at least), meet the requirements of your job description and you can go to bed knowing you’ve been pretty productive.

As a student, blogger, writer and coach does it make sense for me to use this metric for my own productivity? If I show up at my office/desk/computer and put in my 8 hours is that good enough? That’s the metric I’ve been trying to use for the past couple months. It could work except for the fact that I’m completely unreasonable with what counts toward that productive 8 hour block of time. If I wasn’t actively writing, arguably my most productive and useful act, I felt like I was being unproductive. Maybe 8 hours of uninterrupted writing, everyday, is possible for some people but it seems patently absurd to me. Why should I be using this “old” style of measuring how well I’m doing? Especially when it’s causing me to constantly feel like I’m being unproductive and wasting my time.

A lot of my first session with Tim was spent talking about the standards I have set (but not really) for myself. Hitting my standards should make me feel like I’ve been productive. Because I haven't clearly defined what my standards are, I'm never sure if I'm hitting them. I always sort of assumed I wasn’t. Tim also made the interesting point that a standard should be nearly synonymous with “minimum.” If should be able to hit a standard without a superhuman effort. Consistently hitting my standards for productivity means I can then raise my standards. But if I can’t hit them then maybe it’s time I figure out why.

Right now my standards are set so high (and really, not even defined) that I rarely feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. That’s not good for my own state of mind or self-esteem. The problem is that setting my standards lower sounds like a cop out. Like I can’t handle a little hard work. I have all the time in the world, I’m fairly disciplined, I should be able to write for hours on end, right?

"Feeling" my way to productivity?

That may be true. But before I can decide if my standards are too high or too low, they have to be clear. I can’t just ambiguously “feel” whether or not I’ve met my standards. I should be able to objectively look at my output as compared to my previously defined standards and know if I've been productive today. And I might as well start low and work my way up. I can always raise them later.

Now, should standards be based on concrete output like words, articles, etc. or how I’m utilizing time? For example, should my standard be two articles drafted per day or two hours of focused writing per day? I think I’d like to get away from defining myself and my work by something as arbitrary as time but is any other metric any less arbitrary? It shouldn’t matter how long something takes, right? On the other hand, isn’t there something to be said for “putting in the time” regardless of how much actual output it creates? That’s what the pros do, right? They show up every day and do the work. Besides, shouldn't I be most worried about how I'm spending my time? Time is our most finite and valuable resource so it makes sense to measure my productivity in terms of how I spend it, right?

In the end, am I just cutting the same cake in two different ways? Either way, at the end of the week I should clearly know whether or not I was productive. Is it just a matter, then, of either looking at time logs or finished product? Is that what I’m ultimately deciding here? And does it even matter?

Please help me, wise readers

What are your standards for productivity? How do you know when you’ve had a productive day or week? Can you clearly decide when you’ve been productive or do you just operate on gut feeling?

While I’m working this out for myself I’d love to get your feedback in the comments. All of these questions I asked are legitimate — I don’t have any answers. I’d love to read yours, though.

 

 

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?

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?

 

 

The Anatomy of a Major Life Change

I’ve written a little bit about why I’ve decided to go to graduate school already. However, I wanted to go more in depth as to the thought process that goes into a decision about giving up on a chosen career and finding a new path. I’m not the first person, nor will I be the last, to make a drastic career change midstream.

Since about my junior year of high school I knew I wanted to be a high school social studies teacher. Or so I thought. My number one love, however, has always been the content of social studies. Sometimes this put me at odds with some of my classmates in my education program who were becoming teachers because they loved working with kids. Don’t get me wrong, I like kids just fine, but I really loved the intellectual wrangling involved with being a teacher. I love history, sociology, psychology, economics, and government. Being the “practical” individual that I’ve always been, I figured the most marketable profession to enter that allowed me to work with these topics was teaching.

For the past three months I have worked as a full-time substitute teaching sophomores in high school economics and government. Before that, I had a year and a half of very steady substitute teaching jobs. I am now cutting my fledgling teaching career short to pursue graduate school. Over the past three months, I’ve learned some things about myself, what I need from a job, and the value I place on personal freedom.

WHAT I LEARNED FROM BEING A FULL-TIME TEACHER

  1. I need more control over my time: Teachers have zero control over their time. Zero. I can’t even pee when I want to — I have to wait for my planning period, lunch, or the end of the day. This is something that really began to bother me the longer I taught. I need to have the freedom to decide what I’m working on and when. In hindsight, it seems really stupid that I decided to get into teaching when this is such an important aspect to my working life. I suppose it’s something I didn’t really realize until I got an actual taste of what it’s like.
  2. Assembly line teaching sucks: I had six classes of students. Each class was made up of as little as 31 and as many as 35 students. I saw each class for 48 minutes. It is impossible to explore anything in the amount of depth with that many students and that little time. The clearest way I can think of putting this is that every teacher, regardless of how good they are, has to learn to care a little bit less. It is absolutely impossible to do this job if you follow up on every single missing assignment, every single low test grade, and every single kid that isn’t living up to his potential. If you devote the amount of time that is truly necessary to analyze, critique, and improve a piece of writing to every single student’s work it is absolutely impossible to do anything else. You cannot care at the absolute highest level about every aspect of this job, planning, teaching, following up with students, parents, and providing feedback on work and keep your sanity. The best teachers figure out what aspects to care about the most and let other things slide. The worst teachers just don’t care about anything. My nature found it incredibly difficult to reduce my caring and by the end of the three months I had run myself fairly ragged. I would be burned out at the end of 5 years if I continued like this.
  3. I have a desire to affect events on a larger scale: The American education system is falling apart. Plain and simple. The funding structure is disintegrating — just look at the recent protests in Wisconsin and Michigan. Every year since I began my studies to become a teacher, there has been almost zero good news about the educational system. Funding is constantly being cut. Unfunded mandates are constantly being placed upon schools. The result is a PERVASIVE environment of pessimism. I’m not talking about teachers’-lounge pessimism. I’m talking about up to down pessimism throughout the entire profession about the future of our educational system. Our system is on the verge of collapse and it’s going to get much worse before it gets better. I think positive psychology holds a lot of the answers to the questions kids are asking in school and not finding satisfactory answers. What should I do with my life? What actually matters? How can I be happy? I’m going to be tackling these questions in my graduate studies and the overreaching application of these answers excites me like nothing has in a long time.
  4. I have a desire to affect events on an individual scale: This may seem paradoxical considering point number three, but I don’t think it is. While I want to affect and improve the world on a larger scale, a scale that wasn’t feasible as a high school teacher, I also want to have more of an affect at the individual level. With nearly 150 students I couldn’t give nearly the individual attention that each student deserved. I felt like I was skimming along the surface of my class and learning bits and pieces about my students. Getting involved in life coaching and small group workshops/speaking will give me the opportunity to help people on an individual basis. That scale is impossible in a modern high school.
  5. My ideal day is impossible as a teacher: I’ve done plenty of personal development exercises that asked me to write out my ideal day in extreme detail. I’ve done this many times and it’s only now that I realize my ideal day is impossible as a teacher. Yet, it’s very possible if I run my own life coaching, consulting, and writing business. Why give up on being able to live my ideal day everyday if I can see a path to that end? It won’t be easy and it doesn’t mean that everyday will be the best day of my life, but I want to have a shot at being able to live my ideal day everyday.

I will be the first to admit that I obviously did not give teaching a lot of time to grow on me. I’m sure there are plenty of teachers reading this and scoffing, “Three months?! Of course you hated it after three months.” I know that the first year is generally considered very difficult. I get that. In fact, I was starting to get into a bit of a groove by the time my subbing assignment ran out. However, just because teaching may have gotten easier for me over time does not mean that my underlying issues with it were anywhere close to being resolved.

LEARN FROM MY EXPERIENCE

You don’t have to settle for less than ideal. I get that I’m a 24 year old single white dude with no responsibilities. I don’t really have much holding me back. I know, I know. But you can always take steps toward your more ideal future. I started this blog on a whim to keep me occupied while I searched for a job. I sat down nearly everyday and just wrote about what I found interesting and about my journey to improve myself. Over time this became an obsession that led me to research positive psychology more intently. Which led to investigating graduate school. Which led to filling out a couple applications. Which led to actually pulling the trigger on moving across the country. All while continuing to do the best job that I possibly could teaching my students and writing at my blog.

This process took nearly two years and now I’m on a path that I think is much closer to leading me toward my ideal life. But I never would have found this path if I sat back and settled for what I knew wasn’t fulfilling me in the way I expected. It was a matter of taking tiny steps toward the direction I wanted to go. It’s all you really can do anyway.

Lastly, I’d like to address the guilt that I’m feeling about this decision. I feel badly to be essentially turning my back on my future students. According to the students I’ve had for the past three months, my colleagues at the school, parents, and the administration, I was a damn good teacher. I will freely admit that I was good at being a teacher. I’m sure if I were to stick with it I would only become better. Casting aside a profession that I think I would have eventually excelled at in favor of an incredibly uncertain future is something I’ve sat awake with quite a bit over the past few months. What if I blow it? What if I can’t hack graduate school? What if I fail a class? What if I can’t start my own business or end up having to work at a job I dislike more than teaching? Everybody will face questions like this when making huge life decisions. What separates the average person from the exceptional is the way you respond to these uncertainties. I know the road will be hard. I know that people will be doubting my decisions. I know that some people will feel let down or betrayed by what I decide to do. I’m tired of letting other people’s expectations dictate what I do. Or, more succinctly, I’m done making excuses for my lack of happiness.

As I laid in bed a few nights ago one sentence kept flowing through my consciousness.

My excuses are going to seem really stupid when I’m dead.

 

What The Future Holds

I’ve been alluding to some big “life change” for several weeks and I know you’re all on the edge of your seats, biting your lips with anticipation, as you wait for the big announcement. Sadly, this is the type of life change that is going to affect me more than it’s going to affect you. I don’t have a big giveaway planned or any huge project about to hit the shelves. What I’ve been meaning to announce for a while, and is now official, is that I will be attending graduate school in the fall to earn a master’s degree in Positive Developmental Psychology.

In August (most likely) I’ll be moving from my apartment in the northern suburbs of Detroit to Southern California’s Claremont Graduate University. CGU is only one of two programs in the United States that offers an advanced degree (and the only one to offer a doctorate) in positive psychology.

WHY CLAREMONT GRADUATE UNIVERSITY?

Besides the fact that they are one of two universities that offered the program I’m interested in, I have some other reasons for attending CGU:

  1. Comfort zone destruction: I grew up in Michigan, went to college in northwest Ohio and obviously feel very comfortable in a midwestern environment. I’ve traveled a little bit to places like Ireland, Hungary, and various locales in the U.S., but not for very long. I’ve never lived further than two hours from my childhood home. Moving across the country will be a brand new experience for me — and one I think will cause me to grow as a person.
  2. The faculty: One of the most life changing books I’ve ever read is Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This book opened my eyes to the discipline of positive psychology and the untapped power that lies beneath the surface in all of us. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi is a faculty member at CGU and will be teaching several of the classes I’ll be taking during my time in the program. The opportunity to study with and learn from one of the founding fathers of positive psychology is an incredible opportunity that I can’t pass up.

WHY POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY (AND WHAT IS IT?)

Positive psychology is a fairly new academic discipline that focuses on the characteristics, habits, and traits of human flourishing. Topics like motivation, optimal experience, flow, happiness, resilience, and perseverance all fall under the umbrella of positive psychology. More specifically, my program of positive developmental psychology focuses on the positive aspects of human development and how those characteristics can be encouraged and nurtured.

As far as why I’m going to be studying positive psychology, I have you to thank. I started this blog almost a year and a half ago to fill the void of not having a full-time job. I decided to write about topics that interested me. That turned out to be how to live a simpler, more meaningful and more conscious life. I didn’t realize when I first started that there was an actual academic discipline that was interested in these same phenomenon. As I continued to write and grow this blog positive psychology slowly made its way into my consciousness. Finally, I decided that the passion I awakened by running The Simpler Life was something that I should pursue beyond my amateur writings here. I want to take my interest in helping people live more meaningful lives to a professional level. I want to contribute to the research that is being done to improve the lives of people across the world.

It seems like the ultimate goal of many bloggers is to go “professional”. For most, that means making enough money from their blog to live their life. It’s an admirable goal but one I don’t think I’ll ever meet. However, I see myself as stepping on to the scene of professional blogging in a different way. Instead of providing me with an income, my blog has provided me with an outlet to explore and develop my passion. Now, that passion and interest I developed by creating The Simpler Life is going to be fostered into a new environment, a graduate degree and hopefully a career helping people live better lives.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR SAMSPURLIN.COM?

All in all, not too much. I don’t leave for California until August so until then I’ll have a lot of time to create as much content for the site as possible. Obviously, once I start classes my free time will be significantly curtailed. At that time I may have to cut back my posting schedule, but I won’t be closing the doors on The Simpler Life. In fact, I have a feeling that I’m going to have more ideas and “stuff” to write about than ever once I start spending my days learning and talking about positive psychology with like minded people.

Over time this blog will probably subtly shift focus from simplicity towards more specific issues of positive psychology. I still think simplicity has a role in a meaningful life, so I’ll never truly leave that topic behind. I just know that positive psychology is a broad and vast topic that will never be exhausted by my writing efforts here. My writing may take a more scientific bent over the next couple years but the focus will always be on applying those scientific principles to actual lives. I will always continue to write about my own experiences and experiments in conscious living.

THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU

Really, the purpose of this article is to thank you guys for helping me clarify my life path. Without the readers that have made The Simpler Life a success, I doubt I would have stuck with it long enough to realize this is where my passion is. Because of you I will be studying a topic that I have uncovered a true love and desire to learn more about. You guys are the reason I’ve become a “professional” blogger. Thanks for always being there. I hope my experiences at CGU will serve as fodder for creating excellent content for you guys in the future. It’s definitely the least I could do.

 

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?

The Beauty of the Late Night Mind Dump

It is truly amazing what a late night cup of coffee can do for my restless and scattered mind. This is not the first time that I have sat down with a cup of brew after the sun has gone down and spent a couple hours figuring out my life. My to-do and project list has been pitifully short the past couple weeks. That may sound like a good thing, but I assure you it is not. My short list was a product of keeping too much in my mind. I didn't think I really had that much up there anyway, considering my reduced responsibilities and lack of a full-time job. However, once I started writing and sipping my coffee, I rattled off three pages of ideas, concerns, projects, to-dos and other flotsam that was clogging my neural passageways.

Despite my new writing projects and renewed commitment to making something of myself as a writer, I've been plagued by an uneasy sense of underwhelming. I have a ton of free-time and I have not been using it as well as I should. This late night brain dump has filled me with a new sense of energy and purpose, something I have lacked for too long.

The most important thing I accomplished from this activity was breaking down some ill-defined and vague goals into steps that I can actually execute. For example, when it comes to my coaching I don't know what exactly I want to do or how far I'm going to go. I do, however, have some excellent contacts with former coaches (including an ex-NHL coach) that I should utilize. So, I spent a couple minutes to track down some email addresses and phone numbers and will be sitting down next week to discuss my coaching future with a couple of guys who really know what they are talking about. I still don't know what my future holds in terms of coaching, but at least I have taken steps to figure it out.

I really don't know if the combination of late-night caffeine and subtle self-loathing is my ticket to these flashes of motivation and self-realization. All I know is that once every couple months I brew myself a hot cup of joe, resist the urge to go to bed, sit down at my desk with a pen and a piece of paper (or three), and just let my worries, thoughts, and ideas flow out.