Relaxation in Work

I recently received some flash cards that contain short quotes about GTD. I've been selecting one at random each week and posting it on the wall near my desk. A couple weeks ago I came across a card that read, “Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax.” GTD aficionados will recognize this concept from David Allen talking about martial arts and the ability of seemingly physically slight people to accomplish impressive feats of strength. This quote came to me at the right time because it seemed like my work life was quickly spiraling out of control to the point of pretty serious imbalance. I was feeling burnt out, run down, and generally exhausted from trying to move forward many projects and meet all the responsibilities I had accepted into my life.

The first time I read the quote it made me think about the importance of taking breaks and allowing myself to rejuvenate. This is important on both a micro and more macro scale. Small breaks throughout the day that allow me to recharge (ala Tony Schwarz and The Power of Full Engagement), having clearly delineated starting and ending points to my day, and even stepping away from work for days or weeks at a time. I was missing all of these components.

The more I reflected on the quote, however, the more I realized that it's actually about more than just taking time away from work to relax and recharge. It's also about the ability to relax while doing work. The state of mental relaxation doesn't have to be separate from the experience of actually being productive. In fact, true productivity may be inextricably connected to approaching work with a relaxed mindset.

I thought about what I'm like when I'm at my best and I realized I never feel like I'm rushing to complete tasks or even feeling heavily emotionally invested in what I'm doing. In fact, my biggest battles with procrastination usually take place when I care about the work I'm doing to such an extent that I can't bring myself to even begin because I care so much about the outcome. However, when I approach my work with a relaxed mindset I'm able to see the experience for what it is -- usually just sitting in a climate controlled room and moving my fingers across a keyboard. When I'm relaxed I can separate myself from the longer-term outcomes of a project and instead focus on the experience of just completing this next task.

For example, I'm currently writing a thesis proposal that is 30+ pages of highly researched and extremely academic writing. I've been working on it for nine months and it has gone through greater than 10 revisions. I care deeply about the subject I'm writing about and I want nothing more than for my advisor to be impressed with the caliber of my thinking and writing and for the research project to be successful. However, sometimes I can get stuck in a rut of not being able to bring myself to read through the next round of comments I receive from my advisor for weeks on end. I get too wound up in both thinking about how much time I've already spent on it and how much more time I have yet to spend. I'm not relaxed and thus I'm generating no power.

Ever since contemplating the quote that opened this article I've been trying to adjust the way I approach giant projects like this. I've been focused on 30-45 minutes blocks of work that in and of themselves do not seem terribly important. Instead of sitting down to "work on my thesis" and wrestling with all the feelings that evokes I sit down to work on "revising the first paragraph of the Introduction" or "rethink the logic supporting hypothesis 1." I don't get all hyped up when I break off a discrete chunk of a project -- I'm able to bring a relaxed mindset to what I'm doing and am thus able to generate more power (i.e. get more done) than I would otherwise.

It's a given that we could all probably use more time away from work, more true relaxation in our lives. While we're working toward that, let's see how much relaxation we can build into our working lives as well.

Photo by Retrofresh!

Abraham Lincoln and Growth Mindset

I've been listening to Team of Rivals, a book about Abraham Lincoln and his rivals turned advisors, by Doris Kearns Goodwin and it has been absolutely excellent. Today I heard something that made me stop what I was doing and start taking notes. Goodwin shares a story about Abraham Lincoln that I had never heard but made me admire him more.

Lincoln and the McCormick-Manny Case

In 1855 Lincoln had a relatively failed political career and was practicing law in Springfield, Illinois. A major patent law case related to two types of reapers was going to be tried in Springfield. The outcome of the trial was going to have major national implications so the very best lawyers were hired to represent each side. The big shot lawyers working for one of the sides decided to hire a local Springfield lawyer who might have some measure of influence over the judge presiding over the trial. That lawyer was Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln realized this trial might be a make or break opportunity for him to move his career forward. He absolutely threw himself into preparation for the trial -- working intensely for months and traveling to Rockford to learn more about the technology central to the case. At some point, however, the case was moved to Cincinatti. Since it was no longer happening in Illinois the lawyers who were running the case had no need for Lincoln. Except nobody actually told Lincoln his services were no longer needed. So, he travelled to Cincinatti under the assumption that he was still going to be part of the team taking part in the trial. When he arrived, however, he was essentially patted on the head and sent on his way. They had no need for all the work he did and never even opened the brief that he had worked on so arduously.

How did Lincoln react to this colossal slap in the face?

Did he turn around and go home to Illinois? No.

Did he make a scene and call attention to the injustice he was facing? No.

Lincoln stayed in Cincinnati and watched the trial from the audience. He listened closely to each speaker and took note of how these highly trained lawyers crafted their cases and built their arguments with ironclad logic. He didn't stick around to enjoy the potential schadenfreude of watching the men who miffed him fail; he stuck around to learn about what it takes to be a high caliber lawyer. Lincoln never attended law school and was frankly astonished at what he watched in the trial. These highly trained men were far better lawyers than Lincoln considered himself.

At the end of the trial Lincoln told one of his new friends that he was going back home to Springfield to study law. He said that these college-trained lawyers from the east were heading west and although he was a good enough lawyer to handle the relatively simple and minor cases of the backcountry, he was no match for the lawyers trained in the east. He resolved himself to be prepared for when they arrived. He studied. He pushed himself to prepare his speeches more carefully. He basically used this extremely negative experience as a catalyst to improve himself.

Growth Mindset in Historical Action

Hearing this story left me incredibly impressed with the mindset and work ethic of Lincoln. I don't know that I could've responded so positively and productively to such a setback. Stories like this certainly help me better understand how he was able to be so effective as president despite his paucity of traditional schooling.

Where have you experienced something like this in your life? Did you respond like Lincoln? Do you wish you could have responded differently?

A story like this is a perfect example of what it looks like to have a growth mindset. Having a growth mindset means that you think of your intelligence and abilities as things you can develop and grow with practice. Lincoln re-framed this situation as an opportunity for him to learn and made the most out of a pretty crummy situation. Instead of leaving Cincinnati utterly demoralized and upset, he left with a renewed sense of purpose and vigor to improve himself.

We all face versions of this situation on an almost daily basis. How we respond to negative situations says a lot about who we are as people and a lot about how we view ourselves. Almost anything can be a learning opportunity if you approach it with the mindset. Thinking about it another way, not treating everything like a learning opportunity seems like a colossal waste of time. Positive or negative, important or unimportant, every situation has something which can be extracted and applied to our work and lives. Like Lincoln, we just have to get better at recognizing and taking advantage of those opportunities.

Have you checked out The Workologist on Facebook or on Twitter?

Photo by Gage Skidmore

Weekend Reading #10

If you're an astute reader of The Workologist you may have noticed that I missed publishing a Weekend Reading article last week. I was deep in the midst of moving so I ended up having to skip it in favor of spending the day hauling all my stuff over to a new house.

Now that I'm more or less moved in I want to make up for my negligence by making today's edition, the 10th, extra good.

Before we launch into the best stuff I've come across in the past week, I figured I'd mention the guest article I wrote for the VIA Institute on Character about how to use self-experimentation and self-data collection to apply your strengths in new ways. My colleague Jeff Fajans makes an appearance as well.

Alrighty -- without further ado let's get into this week's top picks.

Humans Need Not Apply (15:00) - YouTube via CGP Grey

CGP Grey makes the best informational videos and his latest is on a whole different level. He makes an excellent case that sometime in the relatively near future we are going to face a seismic shift in the labor market as automation/robots become better at a myriad of jobs than humans. It's scary and thought provoking and worth a watch. On a side note, CGP Grey is also a co-host of a podcast that has cracked my lineup and is now a show I look forward to every week (which is pretty hard to do). It's called Hello, Internet and it is also worth your time.

You Can Learn Anything (1:30) - YouTube via Khan Academy

This is a cutesy and super short video that encapsulates the nature of having a growth mindset pretty well. Sure, there are genetic differences in IQ and we all have different strengths/weaknesses but the research shows that believing you have the ability to improve and learn is the first step to actually making it happen.

Why Self Awareness is the Secret Weapon for Habit Change - 99U

The examples should sound familiar: We get necessary and helpful feedback from a boss or colleague, only to snarl under our breath, but failing to realize the foolishness on our end. We become aware of our declining efficiency, so instead of treating the disease we treat the symptoms and we chug coffee only to crash an hour later face-first into our keyboard (and then we go searching for productivity hacks because our workload is too high).

Great article from Paul Jun about why self-awareness is so important yet difficult to cultivate. It's similar to the idea I wrote about regarding the importance of self-reflection (I even called it the most important habit).

The Makers - Vimeo

This is a Vimeo channel with tons of relatively short videos about people who make things. It's one of my most reliable motivation/inspiration boosters that I like to turn to when I'm feeling kind of blah. From a guy who takes bread and butter to a whole new level to a guy who makes blowpipes in the Amazon rainforest, there is an awesome array of people doing awesome things on this channel.

Out of the Doldrums - JD Roth

JD Roth wrote one of the first blogs I ever started reading regularly, Get Rich Slowly (I was super into personal finance for awhile). On his personal website he's been covering a lot of interesting topics including the idea of flow and finding meaning. What JD calls the doldrums I recently called a ["productivity valley."](http://www.theworkologist.com/blog/productivity-valley ) It's nice to see that I'm not the only one who experiences cycles like this.

As always, thank you very much for continuing to read this site. Traffic numbers have been steadily increasing and for that I'm very grateful. Please don't hesitate to share this site with your friends/colleagues/acquaintances/pets -- it means a lot to me! Also, please follow me on Twitter or drop me an email to say hi.

Photo by NH53

What's Worth Doing Worse?

I'm starting to learn that a huge part of getting better at the things I care care about requires the willingness to get actively worse at something else. Consciously choosing to do things poorly goes hand-in-hand with doing other things really well.

Getting Worse to Get Better

For example, I'm trying to do a worse job responding to email promptly. Yes, worse. I've realized that responding to email extremely quickly is something that feels productive but in most cases actually contributes very little to my overall goals and vision. In order to maintain quick response times I have to constantly monitor incoming messages and decide what to do with them. This breaks my focus and makes it more difficult to work on the things that really matter -- like writing articles, doing research, coaching, and everything else that my business and life is actually built upon.

Another example is keeping my various inboxes completely zeroed out during the week. In the past, this felt like a worthy endeavor and was something I took a bit of pride in. Email inbox always at zero, physical inbox always empty, all messages on all social networking sites responded to -- I was a man on top of his life! Much like with my fascination with responding to email promptly, I realized this endeavor that felt productive was actually pulling me away from what really matters. Instead of constantly zeroing out all my inboxes I could do it at a more relaxed pace.

Busy Work or Busy Working?

First, I shifted to making sure they were empty by the end of the day and now I'm experimenting with letting them fill up and remain largely unprocessed until the end of the week. That's not to say that important or time sensitive items that come into my life aren't responded to swiftly. Instead, I'm just becoming more okay with waiting until my Weekly Review to fully process everything down to zero. This means I have more time to actually do the work that matters and not the outwardly productive, but actually fairly unproductive, work of cleaning out inboxes. Knowing that I have time set aside at the end of the week to process everything frees me up to use my cognitive capacities on difficult work problems throughout the week without having to worry about the fact that there is some paper sitting in my inbox or a couple emails that need responses.

What are you willing to actively get worse at? Are there pseudo-productive tasks keeping you from the work that really matters? What would it take to get these off your mind a little more easily and efficiently so you can use your time and attention on real work?

Photo by Bryan Costin

The Uneasy Relationship Between Time and the Indie Worker

Cal Newport recently (well, not that recently -- I'm working through a backlog here) wrote about hisstruggles tracking his work. One method involves selecting meaningful milestones and working toward them and the other one involves simply tracking the number of hours spent on a project. Each has pros and cons; tracking milestones prompts greater hustle while tracking hours is simpler.

I've been having my own uneasy battle with this basic issue.

On the one hand I'm a huge proponent of the Steven Pressfield mantra of "do the work." If I've got something I want to accomplish then I need to lash myself to the chair and churn baby churn until I reach my goal. The creative muse isn't going to wait around until my coffee is sufficiently fancy, my keyboard sufficiently clicky, my beard sufficiently hipstery, and my inclination to work ever so perfectly initiated. Nope. Great work comes to those who show up consistently day after day and hammer out those hours as they perfect their craft. I love that mindset.

But. Well -- can't that be a little... I don't know, archaic?

Should indie workers, people who can work from anywhere at almost any time, be showing up 9-to-5 like people with corporate "jobby jobs?" I mean, what's the point of working your ass off to create an independent career if you're just going to treat it like a normal job? Hell, if you're going to do that you might as well get a normal job and enjoy a little job security and some benefits, right?

See what I'm talking about here? I'm a man conflicted.

For the past five months or so I've been tracking my working hours with a nice little iOS app calledATracker. It's not super fancy but it is very easy to quickly tap whatever project I'm working on and let the timer run in the background. I like knowing how much time I'm spending on various projects and on various areas of responsibility when it comes to my ever complex professional life. For some of my projects, time tracking is an essential part of being paid, even. I don't spend too much time analyzing the data after the fact and I'm never really shooting for an overall amount of total time worked in each day. I'm just letting it run almost entirely in the background. This relationship with time seems to be working pretty well for me.

On the other hand, I tried tracking my "start time" and "ending time" for work each day. The idea behind that initiative was to just see how many of my waking hours were spent with me "at" work. For a normal day without interruptions and an adequate amount of motivation, this wasn't a big deal. Many days I work what almost seems like a normal 9-to-5 job except I'm just sitting in my home office instead of a cubicle. But some days I wanted to work from 6-11 AM, take a big break during the middle of the day, and do a couple more hours of work after dinner. Is it fair to say that my working day was 6-10 PM, then? Obviously, not. Why was I trying to track my working day like it was one big contiguous chunk of productivity? What's the point of sticking to my chair and trying to "put in my time" when my brain is fried and doing almost anything else would be a better use of my time? But, dammit, I have to show up and "do the work!" Mr. Pressfield wouldn't take that as an excuse and neither should I!

Does this mean that I just work when I feel like it and spend the rest of the time goofing off? No. I still think a commitment to showing up every day is a huge part of being successful. I can't choose to deliberately practice only when I'm truly feeling like it. At the same time, though, I don't need to slog through a 9-to-5 day like a guy with a normal job if that's not going to be the best use of my time. With this mindset I align more closely with the ideas of Tony Schwartz; managing energy is far more important than managing time.

Where does that leave me? And bringing it back to Cal's point about tracking work, how should I be keeping track whether or not I'm pushing myself to fully utilize my abilities? Track the milestones of my projects? Track the hours I've put toward those projects? Track my overall "butt-in-chair" time?

I don't know.

How do you do it?

Photo by Fabiola Medeiros.

Stepping Into the Discomfort

I've been thinking a lot about the benefits of discomfort. It seems like it's the less-scary cousin of pain and injury. Most people avoid it like they would something that causes serious distress in their life. Breaking your leg creates true pain and would definitely be classified as an injury. Working out so hard that your legs are really tired... now that's a case of discomfort. How often does discomfort result in permanent injury or death? Never.

So why do we work so hard to avoid it? 

Evolutionarily, I understand it. Our bodies like to conserve energy and remain in a state of equilibrium. Conserved energy means more warmth in the winter and a higher likelihood of surviving long enough to reproduce and propogate our species. Luckily, most of us live in a society where living long enough to reproduce represents the very lowest rung of the aspirational ladder. Now, It's okay for us to feel discomfort. We don't need to act like our paleolithic ancestors preparing for the next high speed sabre tooth tiger evasion or incoming ice age. If so, why do we work so hard to avoid it and how can we learn to embrace it?

Discomfort as Metric of Improvement

One of the toughest things about any long term change (whether we're talking about a habit change or a project) is identifying signals of progress. How do you know if you're improving? One method I'm a fan of is collecting data on yourself over a long period of time. If you're making progress then you'll see it in the data. Unfortunately, collecting data can sometimes be tedious and not everyone has as deep and undying love for data and graphs as me.

That's where mindful discomfort comes in. As a first step, just noticing where and what causes you discomfort is a type of progress. Discomfort is caused by your body being pushed or stretched out equilibrium. It's resisting some type of change. If you're the one inflicting the discomfort, then it's resisting the  positive change you're trying to create. It means you're at the barrier between what's normal and what's possible. Your job is to push that barrier farther into the realm of what's possible until it becomes the new normal.

With that mindset, discomfort is reason to rejoice, not shy away. It means you've found that all-important barrier that will allow you to improve. Over time, mindfully entering into that zone of discomfort over and over will change what you perceive as normal. Whereas running a mile may have been as uncomfortable as anything you can imagine, consistently stepping into that discomfort will result in that mile-long run no longer causing you discomfort. Then, you'll have to run faster or longer to find that area of discomfort again. And in the process of doing so, you just became a runner.

How to Deal With Discomfort

The first step in dealing with discomfort is not using that word at all. You don't "deal" with discomfort. You seek it out. You sit in it. You try to relish it. You take a break. And then you do it again, and again, and again. 

You start doing things because they will cause discomfort. Discomfort stops being an unfortunate byproduct that you have to work through to get where you want. By mindfully choosing it, it becomes something that you control. Instead of going for a run and thinking, "I'm going to run for three miles and I hope it's not too uncomfortable," you try thinking, "I'm going to go for a run for three miles and I'm going to see how much discomfort I can tolerate." That probably sounds a little bit weird, however, it's strangely liberating once you adopt it. Instead of thinking, "I'm going to write this article and I hope it's not too difficult," you try thinking, "I'm going to write this article and I'm going to push myself stylistically and with my vocabulary and with my tone and with my syntax and with my grammar to create as great a piece of writing as I'm capable. And it will be hard. And that will be okay."

Process, Then Product

One of my favorite lines is "process over product." I'll recite it to anyone who will listen and I'm sure many of my clients are tired of hearing me say it. Taking care of the process, the way you do something, the way you live your life, how you make decisions, how you approach your work etc. will inevitably lead to the product you ultimately seek. However, it rarely works the other way around.

Embracing discomfort is embracing the process behind change. When you've moved from working out to lose weight/be more attractive to working out because you enjoy the process of working out then the spoils you seek are near at hand. When you approach each day of work as an opportunity to improve the way you work, to improve the way you think about work and the way you solve problems, then you will inevitable create better products. Those who speak passionate words about change and self-improvement, those who buy new shoes and download training plans, those who spend hours looking for new tools to make them more productive at the expense of doing the work are searching for shortcuts around the discomfort.

There is no shortcut around the discomfort. You have to step into it. You have to learn it. You have to master it. And, ultimately, you have to learn to love it.

Thank you to Leo for writing the article that got me thinking about this topic.

Photo by Lorenzo Sernicola

Lessons on Work From Sushi, Video Games, and Television

Over the past three nights I've watched three documentaries that are directly relevant to the process of work. I didn't explicitly seek them out because of their topics but it seems like my subconscious was trying to tell me something about where my focus should be right now. Each documentary offers a different aspect of working meaningfully and working well. I'd like to explore each of these with you and maybe extract some useful nuggets for you (and definitely for me).

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

In Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) you're introduced to 85 year old Jiro Ono, a world-renowned master sushi chef. He runs a tiny restaurant that only sits ten people and he is recognized as quite possibly the greatest living sushi chef. Jiro approaches his working life with the utmost simplicity. A long time ago he decided he was going to be a sushi chef. Constantly improving and growing within his occupation is a given for him and since he's been doing this job for 75 years, he has had a lot of time to develop his skills. Once the occupation of sushi chef had been decided, the ancillary skills that allow someone to be a great chef were also decided. He dedicated himself to developing his sense of smell and taste. He dedicated himself to being able to identify and select only the very best fish. He dedicated himself to constantly pushing and developing his technique in the kitchen. The end result is somebody that oozes the value of craftsmanship. Creating sushi is not just a job -- it is an expression of how he has decided to live his life.

Indie Game: The Movie

In Indie Game: The Movie (2012) this documentary you meet a handful of independent video game developers. The movie follows most closely the developers of Super Meat Boy (Edward and Tommy), Fez (Phil), and Braid(Jonathan). Edward and Tommy are deep into "crunch time" as they rush to finish Super Meat Boy in time to be included in a marketing push by Microsoft. Phil, perhaps the most compelling storyline in the documentary, is mired in a 4 year development cycle for his game, Fez. After winning a major award for an early version of the game he has been struggling under personal and public expectations. Jonathan's game, Braid, has been out for a couple of years prior to this film and is considered to be one of the greatest video games ever created. While each of these developers is obviously very different from each other, there are fascinating similarities. The primary obsession with creating something that is true to their personal vision is inspiring. None of these guys are working for a big game studio that has analyzed the market and assigned a game to them to create. Each of these guys has an intimately personal reason for crafting the type of game they want to create. It seems that their very identities are tied to their games, for better or worse.

6 Days to Air

Finally, 6 Days to Air (2011) is the story of how the animated television show South Park is created. Despite being one of the most watched shows on TV, an episode of South Park is conceptualized, written, animated, and edited in 6 days. Like the other two documentaries, this one focuses on the process of how interesting work is created. I'm not sure how I envisioned famous creators working or how television shows were actually made, but I wasn't prepared for it to look like any brainstorming session I've had with a group of classmates. Creating something interesting doesn't suddenly become mysterious or complicated once you've found success. The time pressure of having to create a new episode that millions of people are going to watch, from scratch, seems incredible. Failure is not an option, ever. I'm going to think much more carefully the next time I feel like I'm under a time crunch.

Key Points

I'm obsessed with the process of work. These three documentaries gave me some great insight into how I work and how I can help my clients with the challenges they face in their own work. I think the first interesting thing to think about is why I felt compelled to watch these in the first place. Working in the knowledge economy as a coach and full-time student leaves a certain sense of tangible creation missing. I can work really, really hard on preparing for a coaching session, it can go really well, but I'm not left with anything to point at and say, "Yeah, this one was really hard to create but I'm super proud of it." Or, "Look at how bad I used to be at this." I think I'm craving the tangible aspect of creation that creating sushi, making a video game, or making a TV show allows. I'm not quite sure how to get that in the work I do. Obviously, my writing provides this feeling to a certain extent but is there more I should be doing? Should I develop a hobby that allows me to get this feeling of accomplishment? So much of my work is seemingly ephemeral -- coming up with ideas, conducting research, having coaching sessions -- and I think I crave the simplicity of making a piece of sushi. I imagine I'm not the only knowledge worker to feel that way and I suspect this is something I will pursue further in my ongoing research.

Once you decide on your occupation... you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That's the secret of success... and is the key to being regarded honorably. - Jiro Ono

I loved this aspect of Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I think it also fits in line with what I really love about Cal Newport's approach to developing a passionate work life. Jiro doesn't think about what career he should be doing instead and whether or not making sushi is really his passion. He started making sushi 75 years ago, realized he enjoyed the process, and decided to dedicate himself to becoming the very best at he could possibly be. Making sushi seems like a simple enough occupation but Jiro shows how there is so much to consider, so many techniques to master, and so much to learn to do it well. He's been doing it for 75 years, his restaurant has a 3-star Michelin rating, and he still thinks he's not as good as he could be. We can take the same approach to our own work. What aspects of your job have you not mastered? How can you constantly be growing as a person and improving what you do for a living?

I will kill myself if I don't finish this game. - Phil Fish, creator of Fez

Indie Game: The Movie shows the dark and light sides of passion. These video game developers have a vision for the type of game they want to create and since they don't work for established video game companies nobody stands between them and their vision. Their identities are tied so intimately to the games they are creating they don't think twice about sacrificing their social lives, working insane amount of hours, or pushing themselves to the brink of physical and emotional wreckage. The end results are products that are financially successful and critically acclaimed. However, as the quote above shows, it's possible to take it to an extreme. I'm a huge advocate of people developing (notice, I didn't say "finding") passion for what they do for a living but it's equally important to have an identity separate from your work. You are not your work. Take a breath, take a break, rejuvenate.

There's a show on this Wednesday. We don't even know what it is. Even though that's the way we've always done it. There's this little thing going, 'Oh you're screwed.' - Trey Parker

If the creators of South Park can create a new episode from idea generation to airing in 6 days I can certainly do more than I expect. The power of deadlines can be a powerful motivator as any procrastinator knows. How can you use a deadline to push yourself to create something? There's a delicate balance between perfecting something and getting it to the point where it can be respectably released. Going up a few paragraphs it may seem like I'm actually disagreeing with the idea of craftsmanship and stressing the details. Maybe I am. Maybe being able to identify when something requires a touch of polish versus when it just needs to be sent out the door is something that comes with time and practice. Either way, try setting some insane deadlines for yourself and see what you're able to accomplish.

Develop simplicity and a dedication to personal growth like Jiro the master sushi chef. Cultivate obsession and passion, weigh the benefits and the risks, like the developers of Super Meat BoyFez, and Braid. Commit to focus and efficiency like the creators of South Park. Each of these documentaries offers something (and even more than I described here) for the modern worker. They're all available on Netflix and I'd love to hear what you learned from them in the comments below.

How to Find More Flow In Your Work

Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has a story I've heard him tell on several occasions that illustrates the power of flow. Many years ago he went to visit a brother that he hadn't seen in a long, long time. When Mihaly got to his brother's apartment he was astounded with how many crystals and other geologic specimens were on display. It was like walking into a museum. Eagerly, Mihaly's brother beckoned him over to a microscope to show him his latest acquisition.

Being a dutiful brother, Mihaly looked through the microscope for a few seconds and agreed with his brother that it truly was a beautiful rock. His brother then told him that on the day he received this specimen he sat down at the microscope after breakfast to look at it. When he next looked up from the microscope, he noticed it was much darker outside. Thinking it must be getting ready to rain he got up to close the windows. Only then did he realize that it wasn't getting dark because it was about to rain -- it was getting dark because it was evening! He had sat at the microscope all day with nearly no sense of time elapsing. How is it that Mihaly had looked at the crystal for a few seconds and gotten all the enjoyment he could muster from it while his brother could look at it for hours and seemingly be enraptured with it?

The answer to that question is what I think makes flow such a valuable idea for work. Flow is the concept Dr. Csikszentmihalyi developed to explain the sense of optimal experience we get when doing something that causes us to lose track of time, feel fully engaged with what we're doing, and "lose ourselves" in an activity. To find flow in something you have to match up the amount of skill an activity takes and how much challenge it presents. Since Mihaly had no skill in understanding geology, the challenge presented by the crystal under the microscope was very low. However, for his brother (an expert on crystals) looking at the specimen under the microscope was like reading a book. He tried to determine where the crystal came from, how it was formed, how old it was, and probably countless other aspects of it I can't even fathom because my skill in geology is also nearly non-existent.

When it comes to being more engaged in your work, whether you work for yourself, a company, or just want to get involved with a creative hobby or outlet, learning how to find flow in it is key. Given this story, a great way to develop the ability to find flow is to become more knowledgeable about whatever it is you want to find flow in. The nice thing about flow is that it's a constantly growing target. As you experience flow in an activity you develop skills that upset the skills/challenge ratio which means you need to find greater challenge (which then means you need to develop greater skills to meet that challenge -- and so on).

Was Mihaly's brother in flow the entire time he was learning about geology to the point where he could spend an entire day looking at one rock under a microscope? Probably not. I think Cal Newport's critique of flow in the framework of deep work is fairly valid. Sometimes building knowledge requires you to step outside of flow, to be in a situation where the challenge outweighs your skill to the point of frustration. As you battle to build the skills to fix that ratio you will find yourself in flow more often.

In fact, being in flow is probably a better diagnostic tool than ultimate end-goal in itself. Being in flow means you're in a comfortable place between your skills and the challenge of your environment. In the case of a pleasant hobby then maybe that's enough. But in the context of work, spending too much time in flow might mean you aren't doing enough to push yourself forward. Use flow as a nice reward when it happens but be ready to step outside that comfort zone. Eventually, you'll be surprised by what you can do in the name of flow. What's the equivalent in your line of work of looking at one rock under a microscope all day and being thrilled with the choice to do so? How can you use flow to craft a meaningful career?

Photo by Machine Project

Motivation Isn't Worth It

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

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

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

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

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

Photo via mjzitek

On Living With Dignity

A certain aspect of personal development has been rattling around my head for the better part of a couple weeks. The concept of carrying oneself with dignity isn't something I see written about very often.

In episode 60, "Writ in His Boots," of the podcast Roderick on the Line, John tells a story about a man he saw on a train in New York. The man (and the boots he was wearing) projected some sort of overwhelming sense of dignity (without ever saying a word) that left John speechless. This is largely a comedic podcast but any longtime listener will be able to discern the earnestness in John's voice while he tells this story. This man truly affected John in a pretty profound way. This leads into a discussion with Merlin about what it means to live with dignity.

I think part of the reason this won't leave my head is because I'm having a hard time operationalizing what dignity actually means. Before much can be done with a concept scientifically it must first be operationalized. Basically, there has to be a consensus about what, precisely, we mean when we say a certain word. Despite all my best efforts, "dignity" is evading my best efforts to operationalize it.

The obvious cop out answer is to see what Merriam Webster has to say about it, or, "Bearing, conduct, or speech indicative of self-respect or appreciation of the formality or gravity of an occasion or situation." That's a good start, but I think it's so much more than that.

A helpful starting point may be laying out what dignity or living with dignity certainly isn't. My incomplete list includes:

  • Stylishness
  • Wealth
  • Sarcasm
  • Bravado
  • Loudness

I think a misunderstanding of someone who has dignity would be equating it with some kind of swagger built around stylish clothes, a nice car, or other consumer goods. The dignity John talks about in the podcast and the kind that intrigues me so much has nothing to do with owning luxury (as far as consumerism goes) goods. While it's certainly possible to be dignified and wealthy (or any of these other characteristics), it would be a mistake to think living with dignity is some sort of amalgamation of these traits.

Unfortunately, describing what something is not isn't enough to really hone in on what it is. If dignity isn't any of those above words or ideas what gets us closer to a workable concept? What words come to mind when I think of someone who lives with dignity?

  • Respect(ed)
  • Quiet
  • Confident
  • Deep
  • Kind
  • Deliberate
  • Wise

I think being dignified as having a quiet confidence about the way you interface with the world. It's not something you announce or attain after attending a class. You don't get a certificate after going through "dignity school." I think it's something that accumulates over time when the right decisions are made over and over (and enough bad ones are learned from). I think it represents a certain level of "skillfulness of being" that is slowly earned over time. Maybe that's why my default mental image of a dignified person is someone much older than me. While that may be my default I don't think it necessarily holds true that you have to be elderly to be dignified. I'm intrigued by the idea of living with dignity even as a 25 year old. It seems to me that living with dignity is a much more meaningful goal than productivity, efficiency, or any other favorite concept of personal development writers.

As a student of positive psychology I tend to lean toward the mindset that almost any ability can be developed with conscious effort and practice. Positive psychology has shown there are concrete things we can do to increase our happiness and well-being. Gratitude journals, mindfulness practices, and exercise have all been empirically shown to affect how we feel about ourselves and the world around us. But what is the equivalent intervention for developing the quiet dignity that will make someone sitting across from you on the bus think, "I don't know what it is... but something about that guy is awesome."

I don't know exactly what it is either but I can't help but think if we all had more of it the world might be a little bit better place.

Send me a link if you write a response on your own blog or send me a tweet with your thoughts. I welcome your ideas. This isn't a simple concept and I'd love to expand my understanding of what dignity really means.

Photo courtesy of United Nations Photo

Predictors of Success: Growth Mindset

Our beliefs lead to our behavior. The way we think about the world and the things that happen to us affect the actions we take. Two people can experience the exact same stimulus and react in two totally different ways. Carol Dweck and her associates have developed a line of research to help us better understand the various types of beliefs we can have about ourselves and the world. She has identified a continuum she describes as having a Fixed Mindset or a Growth Mindset.

The easiest way to think about these types of mindsets is to look at them through the lens of failure. When somebody with a Fixed Mindset experiences failure they take it personally. As Dweck says, "Failure has been transformed from an action (I failed) to an identify (I'm a failure)." On the other hand, failure when you have a Growth Mindset is an opportunity to learn. Who do you think experiences the greatest amount of success in the long run?

The way we develop our particular mindsets has a lot to do with the type of praise or encouragement we were given when we were younger. Dweck has found that parents and teachers who praise a child's effort, instead of their accomplishments, help support a Growth Mindset. On the other hand, praising accomplishments or how "smart" a child seems to be can lead to the development of a Fixed Mindset. If you're constantly being praised for being smart and then run up against something difficult that takes effort then your "smartness" can take a hit. On the other hand, being praised for effort can result in a difficult task being seen as an opportunity to increase effort even further.

Effort is a key concept when talking about the difference between Growth and Fixed Mindsets. Being good at things is not the sole worry of someone with a Fixed Mindset. Instead, it's important to be good at things while also not having to spend a lot of effort. It's important to be perfect. As a result, most people with a Fixed Mindset stay firmly entrenched in what they know and what they already do well. They do not expand the boundaries of their abilities or interests because it would be a threat to their identity as a "smart" person.

As you can imagine, the Growth Mindset approach is largely the opposite. Increasing difficulty is not a signal to stop, but a signal that you're heading in the right direction. A Growth Mindset uses difficulty and setback as guideposts for where effort should be spent. In one study, children who tested as having more of a Growth Mindset had to be wrestled away from difficult puzzles and wanted information about where they could get more puzzles like the ones they were having trouble with so they could practice at home. Children with a fixed mindset couldn't get away from the puzzles fast enough. When faced with the opportunity to either complete a puzzle they had already completed successfully once, or to try a slightly harder puzzle, Fixed Mindset children were content to complete the same puzzle again.

Luckily, mindset, like any belief, can be changed. Your predilection for having a Growth or Fixed Mindset may be originally genetically set, but it appears to be able to be changed over time. An important first step is simply learning about Growth and Fixed Mindsets. Becoming aware of the difference and thinking about your own beliefs can set you in the direction of changing them to a more conducive approach. Another avenue to changing mindsets is to learn about the plasticity of the brain. Dweck has used this concept to develop a workshop and software program for adolescents that helps them learn about how the brain is like a muscle. Using your brain more strengthens it just like going to the gym and lifting weights strengthens muscles. This can help eliminate the belief that anything that doesn't come naturally or immediately is not possible.

I think one of the most interesting implications of this research into mindset has to do with happiness and success. There are lots of people with Fixed Mindsets who are wildly successful. Talent is completely separate from mindset and many people have an absurd amount of talent. There are also people with Growth Mindsets who are absurdly successful. What's interesting is that those successful people with a Fixed Mindset have expended all the time and effort into being successful because they are striving for some kind of external reward. Whether it be prestige, money, power -- a Fixed Mindset is not satisfied until it attains those. Somebody who is equally successful but has a Growth Mindset may reach the same level of success but it is a byproduct of the enthusiasm for what they do. They tend to be happier than those who have fixated on external proof of success (I wonder if obsessive/harmonious passion is related to Fixed/Growth Mindset at all?).

Looking at the way you deal with failure and success can help you  figure out what kind of mindset you have. If you're unhappy with your personal development it's possible you've been operating under a Fixed Mindset. If you can shift that to a more Growth-oriented mindset you're likely to find greater success and be happier in the process.

Carol Dweck's book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, is a great place to learn more about this idea and get more ideas about how you can improve your own mindset.


Introduction to Flow

I’d like you to take a couple minutes and visualize a time where you “lost yourself” in whatever you were doing. If you’re an athlete, maybe it was during the last game or match you played? Perhaps you sat down to work on a project you really enjoy and the next thing you knew three hours had passed. During this time of intense engagement you probably felt like your skills were being used to their upmost capabilities and the task wasn’t too difficult as to frustrate you or too easy as to bore you. You probably don’t reach this state when you’re working on math problems that are above your ability to understand or destroying your little brother in a tennis match.


When you’re able to enter this state of optimal experience you generally feel really good about yourself afterward. You feel like the activity was worthwhile to have done even if it was physically uncomfortable or difficult during it. Looking at a marathon runner’s face would generally make you think that they don’t feel particularly well but most of them will tell you afterward that they were glad they did it. Everything I’ve described here falls under one heading that positive psychologists have spent a lot of time studying and trying to understand.

I just described the “flow” state.

I know I mentioned flow in the introduction to this series but didn’t go into too much detail. In this article I’m going to dive in a little bit deeper to what this psychological state is.


The name that is usually attributed to the study of flow is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi began his research into flow many years ago when he noticed that many artists engrossed in their work would occasionally ignore personal concerns and needs like food or the bathroom. What was going on in their minds and why did working on their art seem to take precedence over everything else? Thus marked Czikszentmihalyi’s research into what he eventually came to call flow.

First of all, the name flow was given to this psychological state of extreme involvement because many of the people Csikszentmihalyi interviewed kept describing it as if they were caught up in a river or a current of water. They didn’t have to exert much energy and yet they were swept along.

As I described at the beginning, the flow state is characterized by losing track of time, being fully engaged with whatever you’re doing, and feeling like your skills and abilities are being used to their greatest ability. Because the experience seems to be so positive, it is often also described as “optimal experience.” As you can imagine, this is a highly enjoyable state to be in and being able to enter it usually means good things for the quality of your work and the quality of your life.


I have a soft spot for Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow because his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience is what turned me on to the idea of positive psychology. Until I read his book I didn’t realize that a.) positive psychology existed and b.) that it holds many important answers for some of the world’s toughest questions. The thing that most excited me about flow is that entering and promoting it can be practiced and taught.

Think about that for a minute.

That feeling you get when you’re at your very best and doing something that you love can be practiced to the point where you can enter that state doing nearly anything. People who report entering flow regularly also tend to be happier and have higher life satisfaction. The thought of feeling like I do when I’m writing an article or playing a game of hockey all the time is exciting and powerful. I want to learn how to do that and how to teach others to do that as well.

Besides the obvious implications for living a happier and better life, think about the other myriad of applications where flow could be vital.


  1. School: Think for a moment what education might be like if most of the students spent most of their time in the flow state. Think about what teaching would be like if teachers were able to enter the flow state during their lessons and planning periods more easily. A student who is fully engaged in their work is going to learn more than the disengaged student. The teacher that is fully focused on the task at hand will be more effective than his colleague who is going through the motions. How can flow be promoted in schools?

  2. Work: Imagine going into a job every day that allowed you to use your skills and abilities to their fullest extent. Going into a job where you could lose yourself in the work will not be a drain on your psyche like many jobs tend to be. You’ll be more productive and be more invested in the well-being of the company. How can managers promote flow among their workers? How can the work environment be changed to increase flow?

  3. Relationships: Ideally, spending time with your partner and closest friends should be an exercise in flow. Deep conversations and engaging experiences with the people you care about are what strong relationships are built of. If you know how to structure your relationships so that they are conducive to flow I’ll bet they will become more positive overall.

The potential benefit of knowing about flow and being able to enter it doing nearly anything is profound. I’m continuously working toward the point where I can feel just as engaged doing laundry, going for a run, or talking to a close friend as I do during my own periods of flow (usually writing). An engaged life is a conscious life.

Flow is our ticket to that reality.

Going Pro With Your Personal Development

I’ve always been fascinated by people who are the very best in their field. One of the most visible sets of people that fit this criteria are professional athletes. With my experience in playing and coaching ice hockey, I’ve been able to get a closer look than most at what it takes to be a professional or semi-professional athlete. These men and women have development and practice down to a science. They know what it takes to be the best they can possibly be.

You may not be playing a game in front of thousands of people or getting paid millions of dollars, but I think we can all take some lessons from the pros when it comes to our own personal development.


First of all, let’s look at how athletes practice. The first thing that most people don’t really think about is that being a professional athlete means you spend about 80% of your time practicing, training, and preparing and only about 20% of the time actually performing the skills you spend so much time practicing. We only get to see the finished product and very few of us get a look at what goes on behind the scenes. Athletes train for hours nearly every day to prepare themselves for the couple hours of performance that we all get to see. I’m not as interested in the final product as I am the work that it takes to get to that point.

Secondly, professional athletes approach their practice in a systematic way. Granted, the structure may be dictated by a coach, but no professional hockey player would just spend a practice session monkeying around without a plan (monkeying around WITH a plan, like improving stick handling skills, happens all the time, though). Practice sessions have a logical progression that allow the athlete to work on very minute skills that, when put together, equal the ability to do their job at a highly competitive level.

Now, I understand that most of us don’t have a job where we have the luxury of practicing all day and then executing our skills in front of lots of people who want to give us money. Most accountants I know don’t sit at home for eight hours practicing only to go into work for two hours in the evening. Doesn’t quite work that way in the real world. However, let’s forget about our careers and jobs right now and think about another way we are all professionals.

We’re all professional humans.

This is what we do and are every day so why not treat our personal development like the pros?

How can we go about treating our personal development in the same way pros approach their own development?


  1. Deliberately Practice: Athletes break down their practice into the various skills they need to perform. And then they break down those skills even further. Breaking complex skills into simple parts that can be practiced over and over is what separate people who do amazing things from those who don’t.

  2. Unfailingly Practice: Athletes show up for practice no matter what. I’ve gone to many a hockey practice when I was sore, tired, and didn’t feel like being there. But not going to practice isn’t even an option. It doesn’t even register into the realm of possibilities for professional athletes. You need to make a commitment to your development that goes beyond immediate gratification.

  3. Practice With a Plan: Athletes and coaches approach the development of themselves and the team with a plan. On the coaching side of things, the practices that happen at the beginning of a season are very different from those that happen at the end of the season. Have you done an audit of your own skills and abilities to see what you need to work on the most? What is happening in your daily life that would benefit the most from improving a specific ability? You can’t practice effectively without a plan.


But wait, athletes have coaches!

Seriously? You can’t make that argument when this whole website is being run by a life coach. Life coaches are to “regular people” what sports coaches are to athletes. Granted, I realize that the vast majority of people who read this blog will never hire me. I’m perfectly fine with that and will continue to write free articles for everyone to enjoy.

Let me give my quick little schpeil on how I see life coaching, though. In the past, personal development and your job went hand-in-hand. People would find a secure job and they would develop the skills necessary to move up the ranks in that job. Eventually, they’d hit a ceiling or retire with a decent pension and hopefully some savings to live off of. No need for a life coach when your employment situation was stable and your job would happily provide you with opportunities to develop the skills you need to work your way up.

But that is changing. In the new economy most of us will never have that life long job that will provide for us forever. We aren’t going to have our salary needs and our personal development needs met by our employers anymore. Instead, our personal development is going to become just that, personal. The steps that we take to improve ourselves are going to be what set us up for success in an economy where our job situation is constantly shifting with the winds of uncertainty. A job isn’t going to nurture you along anymore. You are going to have to take the initiative to improve yourself. And that’s where a life coach comes in.

But I digress.

The last argument that I can see forming on the lips of everyone reading this article is, “But athletes make tons of money and can afford to spend all their time getting better at their job! I have a job and a family and responsibilities! I can’t just sit around reading philosophy and learning another language all day!”

I worry that my answer is going to seem harsh, but I’ll take that risk. And that answer is:


Are you going to let the excuse that you’re busy and have responsibilities be the reason you don’t take control of your own life? Are you saying it’s only worth the effort to become the best person you can possibly be if you’re being showered in Benjamins? You don’t believe that and neither do I.

Sure, it’s tough to find the time to improve yourself when you have real life demands that require your time and attention. But if effective personal development was easy there wouldn't be a humongous self-help industry, I probably wouldn't be writing this article, and there would be little reward for putting in the time and effort to improve yourself.



Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Welcome to the first book review written and published on SamSpurlin.com. From time to time I'm going to write out some of my thoughts and observations on the books I've been reading. I'll add these reviews to the normal twice a week posting schedule that I stick to.

Positive psychology is a field that is putting out an astonishing number of new books every year. The discipline sits at an interesting cross section of science and personal development which seems to make it a very popular draw when it comes to book sales. As a blogger and coach, I’m interested in books that are truly helpful and relevant. As a graduate student, I’m interested in books supported with sound science. I will try to balance these two forces with the book reviews I write at SamSpurlin.com, just like the balance positive psychologists face when writing their books.

The book that carries the distinguished honor of being the first to fall under my gaze on this website isMindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck.

Mindset looks at the research Dweck has done over the past 20 years about how people see the world. She’s discovered that the way we view the world is not a minor personality quirk. It doesn’t change on a whim or only affect small areas of our life. Indeed, our mindset creates our whole mental environment and affects how we react to setbacks, challenges, opportunities, and learning.

For example, some people actively seek out difficult things in order to improve themselves. Other people will do anything and everything they can to avoid challenges. Our mindset also affects how we approach learning, the way we manage people, and how we raise our children. Considering how vastly our mindsets affect our lives, it makes sense to try to have the best one possible. But what does it mean to have a "good" or "positive" mindset?


Dweck has identified two different mindsets that characterize people; fixed and growth mindsets. People who operate under the fixed mindset believe that their talents and abilities are unchanging. They were born with a specific level of talent and nothing they do can change that. That doesn’t mean these people are under performing or deficient in intelligence. In fact many, many high performing people people operate under this mindset. However, the problem lies in the fact that people who have a fixed mindset believe they have to constantly prove their ability. Everything is a potential threat to their identity because failure is not an option. Failure means they aren’t good enough or don’t have the skills. Obviously, many people who operate with a fixed mindset begin to experience serious problems when life doesn’t go their way 100% of the time.

The other mindset described by Dweck is what she calls the growth mindset. People with the growth mindset believe that their talents and abilities are developed over time. These people are constantly looking for ways to improve themselves and develop their abilities. They view challenges and failure as an opportunity for growth and learning. Dweck has determined that happy and successful people are overwhelmingly more likely to have the growth mindset. Most great CEOs, teachers, and athletes use a growth mindset.


All of this information is truly interesting, but it would be fairly useless if our mindset was unable to change (and indeed, that would be a truly fixed mindset way to look at it!). As you would imagine, Dweck argues that it’s possible to change your mindset from fixed to growth. Much of her work has been in developing workshops and interventions that help people develop the growth mindset.

It’s not necessarily an easy process but by gradually changing the way we think about ourselves and the world we can learn how to operate under a more growth based mindset. I won’t go into the details here, as I don’t think I could do the topic justice in the small scope of a review. However, I will tell you that Dweck says just learning about the growth mindset and the benefits it has is a great first step to developing it.

This book is an excellent combination of theoretical and practical advice that makes it worth your time. Operating under a growth mindset is very similar to the idea of living consciously that I’ve been writing about for a long time (see Regaining Consciousness and Exploring Consciousness). This book is especially worth your time if you suspect that you might be more toward the fixed end of the continuum.

The growth mindset is a vital component to living a conscious life and this book will show you how to make it happen.


It's Not the Tools, It's the Carpenter

This blog isn't about minimalism.

It never has been. Sure, I bandy the word about but I've never considered myself a "minimalist blogger". I write about living simply and consciously -- in whatever form that takes. Sometimes that is through the tool of minimalism and sometimes it's not. Despite the recent uproar (which I promised myself I wouldn't get involved in -- although, appear to be doing so now) minimalism can't die. Tools can't die. Hammers, screwdrivers and computers are nothing more than what people make them to be. Minimalism is made by the people who practice it -- and they aren't going anywhere soon.

I caution those of use who are lucky enough to make a full or even partial living on the internet to lose perspective of the larger world. Just because everyone you interact with on Twitter claims to live minimally and consciously doesn't mean the idea is mainstream. If you read this blog you're in the minority. If you've ever left a comment, sent me an email, or interacted with me in any way you're part of an even smaller minority. Your reality isn't my reality. My reality isn't yours. We risk running into problems when we project our own perspective on others.

Please don't let one person represent an idea for you. Proclamations are pointless when we are talking about the way we live our lives. Conscious living applies to every aspect of life -- especially when it comes to what you read on this, or any other, blog.

I'm not particularly interested in petty controversies between people who write on the internet. I'm just going to keep writing about how I'm learning to live a simpler and more conscious life. Minimalism will continue to be a tool I use. However, my tools don't define me. Nobody looks at a world-class sculptor and says, "That's the guy who uses that really awesome chisel! Check out how sweet his chisel is!" A carpenter is not asked to wax poetic about his hammers and his saws after a house has been built.

I'm not interested in being defined by my tools either; I'm building something that transcends what I've used to build it.



Why You Should Focus on Process, Not Results

I've spent the last several days thinking deeply about what I want to accomplish in 2011 and beyond. I've always been a planner by nature. However, events over the past several years have made me question the point of planning. So far, most of my plans rarely seem to come to fruition for reasons outside my control. This year, I'm going to try to change the nature of my planning to account for the fact that there are numerous factors that I have zero control over in my life. I want my goals and plans to reflect what I can impact with my own actions and effort. To that effect, I am focusing on process in 2011.


Obviously, this website plays a very large role of my life. I spend hours upon hours working on it every week and I am trying to grow it into a self sufficient business. It's important that I have logical goals to work toward. However, the metrics that many blogs use for success are not things I can have complete control over. For example, I really don't have any control over whether or not you subscribe to my blog. I can't control your actions. I can, and should, obviously write compelling content that will make you want to subscribe and I should provide an easy way for you to do so. But the bottom line is that decision is purely yours.

Another common metric for blog success is page views. Again, that is not something I control. I can improve my SEO so my pages rank better in search engines, I can submit articles to news sites like Digg or Reddit, but again, whether or not somebody clicks on a link to my site is not something I can control.

Instead, I'm going to focus on goals that hinge completely on my own effort this year.

  1. Writing first thing in the morning: I need to write if I want to become a better writer. The better writer I am, the better this site will be. Very simply, I need to write more. Therefore, I want one of the first activities I partake in upon waking to be writing. I don't necessarily need to jump directly into an article for the website, I just need to write something. It can be my daily "morning pages", a poem, an article, a letter-- anything.
  2. Letting every piece of writing sit for at least 24 hours before publication: I don't edit my writing stringently enough. For most of what you see on this website, I write a draft, look it over and make some minor changes, and then hit publish. That works for some people but I'm becoming more and more aware of the fact that writing requires good editing just as much as a solid first draft. I need to let my writing sit, to marinate for awhile, before I allow you to see it. I think this will make my writing tighter, clearer, simpler, and more powerful.
  3. Planning at night: Each night I want to spend a few minutes planning for the upcoming day. When I have a clear plan with three "Most Important Things" to do I am much, much more productive. Investing the time on the front end to figure out what my discrete next actions for each project are allows me to get a lot more work done. Developing this habit is just a matter of discipline.

Each of these three goals are completely dictated by my own choices and action. They are process-focused and not result-focused. I obviously want more subscribers, more readers, more exposure and every other goal that bloggers want. Writing in the morning, editing my writing more ruthlessly, and planning each night will make those other goals happen. By improving the process I improve the result.

This concept of process-centered goals can be applied to other aspects of my life. Health, personal development, and relationships can all benefit from focusing on the habits and routines, the processes, instead of goals.

What processes can you improve on in 2011? Does it make more sense to focus on process, which you control 100%, instead of external metrics of success?



Keep Your Stick On the Ice

As a long time player, and now as a coach, I've been around the game of hockey for a long, long time. One of the things you quickly pick up if you're familiar with the sport is the prevalence of certain cliches. Watch a between periods interview on TV, a post-game interview with a coach, or talk to a 12 year old pee-wee and they are all likely to sound very similar. For some reason, hockey is a game dominated by cliches. I've heard many people say that it's nearly pointless to interview a hockey player because they are likely to say the same things every other hockey player says:

  1. "We just gotta get some traffic in front of the net."
  2. "I just gotta keep my stick on the ice."
  3. "Gotta keep your head up out there."
  4. "Just gotta go hard every single shift and everything will take care of itself."

And a few others.

Being the inquisitive person that I am, I decided to think a little bit deeper about what these cliches actually mean. If everybody says them all the time, they must have some sort of relevance, right?

Don't worry, I'm not about to launch into a detailed analysis of hockey theory and system. I know most of you guys are American and don't even know what hockey is :)

Instead, I'm going to apply these hockey cliches to life in a new series I'm calling Living Like a Hockey Player.


This might be the most repeated piece of advice any hockey player ever hears. From the time you're old enough to be stumbling around on the pond you have a coach constantly telling you to put your stick on the ice (although, it's amazing how many of my college players seem to have tuned out that part of their development…) What's the big deal about having your stick on the ice? Obviously, if you're going to take a shot or see somebody getting ready to pass to you you'll put your stick down, by why does it matter if you don't even have the puck?

Hockey is an incredibly fast game. Pucks often reach 90 MPH or more. Players are flying around with razors on their feet. It's intense, quick, and changes directions constantly. Having your stick on the ice means you're ready for anything. I don't know how many goals I've scored just because my stick was on the ice and a shot deflected off of it. If I was carrying my stick around my waist I would never had the opportunity to score. The difference in a one goal game can be as simple as where the blade of your stick is at all times.

But what about life? What can you learn from the cliche "keep your stick on the ice" if you aren't a hockey player? I see it as advice to be ready at all times. Sometimes you don't see what is developing on the horizon until it is right on top of you. If you aren't ready to jump all over an opportunity, if your "stick" isn't on the "ice", you're going to miss it. How can you train yourself to keep your proverbial stick on the ice at all times?

  1. Stay on top of your work: If you're buried under work that you've been procrastinating on, you probably won't even realize an opportunity passed you by. Even if you do realize it, you probably don't care because instead of seeing it as an opportunity you see it as just another thing you have to add to the pile of work already crushing you. Granted, sometimes we get buried under work outside of our own control. However, too often I see people who are just "so busy" and "swamped" because instead of working on something logically and steadily over time, they procrastinated to the last second. Kick the procrastination habit and you'll be in a much better position to see an opportunity for what it is.
  2. Eliminate clutter from your life: Clutter serves to distract you from what's important. How many times have you missed an opportunity because an important piece of paper was lost in the abyss known as your desk? How many times did that vital piece of information get lost somewhere in your purse? Clutter prevents you from having your stick on the ice. It prevents you from being ready for opportunities you don't even know are coming.
  3. Develop the ability to switch gears quickly: In hockey, and life, the ability to change directions and adapt to situations quickly is vital. It's already tough enough to react to a 100 MPH slap shot when your stick is on the ice. If it's at your waist you're not going to have time to get it on the ice to deflect that shot and the opportunity will be missed. If your boss comes to you with an opportunity that will improve your career but you can't quickly switch gears from one mindset to another, from the "ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod I have so much to do," to "I'm busy, but I can see how this would have a positive long-term impact on my career," then you will miss out.

It's a crazy world out there. Don't make it harder on yourself by not being ready for opportunity at all times. It's not tough to do - it's just a matter of where you're carrying your stick. Are you skating around with your stick in the air while waiting for the perfect pass? Or, are you going hard to the net with your stick on the ice hoping to knock in an ugly goal? The latter might not be as sophisticated as the former, but on the stat sheet you don't get any points for style.

Keep your stick on the ice.

(Tired of hearing it yet? Gimme a lap.)

Simplifying Isn't Easy

It drives me nuts when people interchange the words "simple" and "easy". I also understand why people do it. Before I started this blog, I never really thought about the difference, either. But there is a difference -- a difference so great it defines the very basis of what it means to live simply.

Let me explain.

My definition of simplicity involves the removal of all excess, all superfluousness, in favor of the true essentials. The world we live in today means that most of us have a lot of excess in our lives. We have an excess of possessions, an excess of information, an excess of commitments and an excess of distractions. We live in a society of too much and too fast.

For those of us that have made the decision to simplify our lives and therefore live more consciously, a lot of our time is spent identifying the excess and getting rid of it. Anybody who has spent an afternoon purging a closet or making phone calls to end various commitments knows that it's not easy. Simplifying is hard.

Simplifying your life will lay you bare. It's easy to hide behind a mountain of stuff or point to your packed schedule and say, "I would follow my dreams, but look!" When you begin to peel away those layers of fat, those layers of excess, then the true person underneath has nowhere to hide. What if you aren't smart enough? What if you aren't brave enough?

Being laid bare means eliminating what society has told you to do, to become, or to desire.

You become you and most of us really don't have any idea who that person is.

And most of all, it's certainly not easy.



The Slippery Nature of Planning

For the second year in a row, I am going into the fall without a full-time teaching job. It wasn't supposed to work this way. I was supposed to graduate from college, find a job in an excellent school district and be teaching exactly what I want to teach. I wasn't supposed to spend a summer fruitlessly applying for countless jobs and only getting two interviews. I wasn't supposed to sub for an entire year. I wasn't supposed to spend another entire summer looking for and applying for jobs to only get one interview. These were not my plans.

For a long time I was the type of person that liked to plan and have everything adhere to that plan. I liked having that feeling of control. The experiences of the past two years are teaching me something knew: when your carefully laid plans start to slip away, let go and make new ones.

For a long time, I tried to grab ahold of my waylaid plans the more they slipped away. I got frustrated and depressed. Instead, I realize that now is the time and opportunity for growth.

Plans are obviously artifacts of the past. By definition, they are an attempt at regulating and predicting the future. When they start to slip away, realize that you now have new experiences, new knowledge, and new insight that you didn't have when you originally made those plans. This is an opportunity to rejoice at the chance to use all of your new information to improve your plans. Adhering to an old plan that no longer fits the situation is the height of folly. And yet, that's exactly what many of us do. Circumstances change and it makes sense for us to adapt as well.

Using the example I talked about earlier with my job search experiences I can illustrate what I'm talking about. When I first made those plans to graduate from college and get a teaching job, I had no idea that I had an interest or any skill in blogging. My inability to find a teaching job has opened a new door into a world I knew almost nothing about a year ago. Instead of using my frustration as an excuse to give up I refocused my energy on a new activity. And even though blogging and teaching are two very different activities, my efforts here at The Simpler Life draw on a lot of the skills I developed as I studied to become a teacher in college.

So, in a nutshell, what should you do if you feel your carefully laid plans slipping away?

  1. Let go: You won't get in trouble if you abandon your plan. Sometimes the best option is to just cast it aside and get busy forging a new path.
  2. Use the core of your original plan: Take the main skills or idea of your old plan and create a new one with them. For example, when I couldn't find a full-time teaching job, I didn't completely abandon the plan and become an actor or a crab fisherman. Instead, my new plan is to substitute teach for awhile while I refocus my teaching talents toward my writing. I'm still using many of the skills that I needed for my original plan. I'm just applying them in a different way.
  3. See it as an opportunity for growth: It can be easy to feel like a failure when plans don't turn out the way you think they will (or should). Instead of feeling that way, try to look at it as an opportunity to do something new. If my original plans had worked out how I wanted, I never would have started this blog and I would have missed out on all the excellent experiences I've had because of it. What have you always wanted to do but haven't?

It all boils down to how you react to a change of plans. What will your attitude be like? What good does sulking and getting depressed do? Change, adapt, and move forward!

Three Areas of Your Life You Can Gain More Control Over Today

The study of happiness has been ongoing for centuries. It's generally accepted that money doesn't buy happiness. But what does? Is it our relationships? Maybe it's our mental outlook or attitude? Or possibly our status in society? More likely, it's probably a complex relationship of all these factors -- plus many more.

My personal belief is that while all of these things are important, the most vital characteristic to long term happiness is control.

When I think back on the times that I am most content and happy with my life, I realize that it's always when I have a high level of control over what is happening to me. For illustration, lets look at the opposite of this phenomenon. Ever since I graduated from college in 2009 I've been looking for a full-time teaching job. As the months and months of joblessness stack up, I've become more and more agitated (and even depressed). Searching for a job in this economic environment does not allow for very much control. Preparing my resume and filling out applications allow me to have some control over the situation, but as soon as I apply for a position my feeling of control dissipates.

You may notice, however, that this lack of control is a construct of my own mind. For some people, actively searching for positions, writing resumes, preparing applications, and following up is something they feel they have much more control over. I'll bet you that this type of person does not find the job search as nearly as soul-sucking and depressing as I do.

And therein lies a great avenue for personal development; learning how to take control over situations that are causing us anguish.

Here are a couple situations where many people feel like they have no control and a couple ideas to begin changing your mindset:

  1. Work: The workplace can be an environment where you feel like you have no say, no control, over anything that happens. Obviously, different jobs will have various levels of autonomy. If you happen to be at the highly autonomous end of the spectrum, then your potential for control is enormous. What can you do to make yourself more effective throughout the day and possibly even finish your work earlier? What is your Great Work and how can you do more of it? If you're job is less autonomous, you might have a little more trouble finding ways to exert your control. Start with the smallest of environments (your desk or workspace) and routines (is there a better way you can ring up those groceries?) and gain control over those first. Later you can try to gain more and more control over what you do, how you do it, and most importantly, how you feel about what you do.
  2. Health: When I am at my unhealthiest, I feel like I have no control over my habits. I'll eat whatever I want, workout intermittently, and just generally feel like crap. Gaining control over my health does wonders for myself psychologically and usually only consists of a couple simple steps. Tracking what you're putting into your body is an eye-opening experience on several levels. Seeing the actual number of calories and array of food that you're consuming is quite often enough to spur positive change. Similarly, planning and tracking your workouts allows you to have a level of control that is often missing.
  3. Emotions: This is probably the most difficult and most abstract topic to talk about controlling. Our emotions control almost everything about the way we act. How we react to positive events, negative events, and everything in between differentiates us as people. I would never recommend curtailing your positive and negative emotions to the point where everybody exists in some intermediate and dull range. However, I do recommend taking the time to figure out how to recognize what causes us to overact, both positively and negatively. In my experience, meditation has helped me control my emotions in a way that nothing else really has. Figure out what works for you.

If you want to be happy, you have to feel like you have control over yourself. Your environment, work, health, emotions, and relationships are all important aspects of your life that require you to be in control if you are to be at your happiest.

Where do you feel out of control and is it hampering your happiness? What can you do to change that situation?