self-experimentation

A Look Back on My 2013 Summer Productivity Experiment

Today's "article" is actually several. It's also long (almost 5,000 words).Time to put your reading pants on.

Last year I did something I called the Grand Summer Work Experiment. The basic idea was to use a different productivity strategy each week and write about my experiences (kind of like A Year of Productivity but on a smaller scale).

What I'd like to do today is share the articles I wrote during this experiment last year. It's long, but it's also a very detailed look at my thinking over a year ago as I experimented with different ways to be more productive and feel better about my work. I think there are some nuggets in here that could be applied to your own work as well.

Let's go!


Introduction

I'm obsessed with the process of work. I want to understand how people experience work and how that affects their well-being. I want to understand how to improve the way people think about their work and utilize it as a vehicle toward living a fuller life and not as something to be avoided. How do our values, strengths, goals and personalities impact and change due to the way we work? A seemingly good place to start with all of these questions is with myself.

This brings me to my grand summer work experiment which I'm calling The Grand Summer Work Experiment (give me a break, I'm a scientist-in-training, not a headline writer). The general idea is to systematically adjust the way I work over the summer, take careful notes about how it affects various components of my life, and share what I've learned with all of you. I'll commit to one change every week before deciding whether to permanently add it to my repertoire or try something else. Every once in awhile I'll throw a wrench into the whole process and try something completely new.

Hopefully this will give me some more personal experience and data (albeit from a sample size of one) about what different work styles are like. By the end of the summer I will have ideally tested out a multitude of changes to my own personal work style and identified what works (and what doesn't) for me.

Sound good?

Experiment #1: Pomodoro

For the week of May 27th through June 2nd I followed a strict Pomodoro Technique style of working. The basic idea is to work in 25 minute increments followed by a five minute break. After the fourth work session you then take a longer (30 minute) break. One set of four work sessions counts as a "Pomdoro." The philosophy behind the system is that building in regular breaks throughout your day helps keep you fresh and alert. The longest you have to commit to working on anything at one time is 25 minutes and then you get a short break. One of the key rules of this style of work, however, is to respect the 25 minute on, five minute off, pattern no matter what. If you're in the middle of something at the end of a 25 minute work session you should still stop. Similarily your five minute rest session should not expand beyond that 5 minute (or 30 minute if you're on your final rest session of a Pomodoro) break.

I did my best to stick to this routine for the past 7 days and here are a few things I learned:

1. 30/30 is an awesome app: If you have an iPhone and want to use the Pomodoro style of working download this app immediately. It's a customizable to-do list app/timer that automatically advances to the next item on a list and starts a timer. If you set up your 25 minute work sessions and five minute rest sessions (+ final 30 minute rest session) all you have to do is hit the start button once in the morning and follow the timer for the rest of the day. I think using a timer that doesn't require you to manually start a new session of work is really important. It's much easier to start letting your sessions spill over their boundaries when it's up to you to set the new timer. When you're following an automatic one, though, it's much easier to just do what it tells you.

2. Making an iPhone stand out of an index Card is super handy: If you don't have a stand for your iPhone I recommend making one out of an index card. The combination of 30/30 and an easy way to look over at the timer has been great. One of the best aspects of Pomodoro I learned over the past week is that a 25 minute work session means you never look at the time remaining and think, "Damn, that's way too long." Every time I've glanced at the timer, even when working on something boring, I've been pleasantly surprised by how little time is left. This has been huge in convincing me to get started on less than exciting tasks.

3. Having a list of "easy" tasks is important: Every once in awhile you'll finish a major task and still have some time remaining in a work session. This awkward block of time may not be the greatest for starting a new task that will take a long time to finish. Therefore, this is the perfect time to knock out pre-established "easy" tasks. In the couple of minutes remaining in a session you can fire off a couple emails, look up a fact you need for something later, or even make a list for your trip to the store later. I tag tasks like this in Things with the "@easy" tag and then search for them when I have an awkward block of time to finish up.

4. 3 Pomodoros per day is ideal: One full Pomodoro is 100 minutes of focused work with 45 minutes of rest. Completing three Pomodoros gives me five hours of highly focused work. At first I thought that was lacking ambition. Then I realized that the quality of attention and focus I bring to my work when I'm working in this style is so much higher than normal. With no distractions, a counting down timer, and a list of pre-determined work I get much, much more work done than I normally do. Additionally, it's more draining to do three high quality Pomodoros than it is to work like I used to for eight or more hours. I also don't count meetings, coaching calls, or other mandatory errands as part of my Pomodoro time. Once I add those in I often end up closer to the standard 8 hour work day. Figure Out Your Work Ahead of Time: A key part of working under this style is to have your work figured out ahead of time. I've been a huge proponent of front-end decision making for a long time and I'm glad I already had that habit when I decided to try Pomodoro-ing. You want to be able to move from task to task without having to think about what you should be doing. For me, this was partially determined during my Weekly Review. At this time I pre-determined which projects would be worked on which days of the week. During the week, the last thing I did before shutting down for the day was determine what I was working on tomorrow. I'd make a checklist on an index card and have it sitting next to my computer so I could get started on my first Pomodoro the following day with as little friction as possible.

Room for Improvement

Moving forward, I have a couple areas that need more work.

1. Stay strict: Unfortunately 30/30 allows you to easily pause a session by tapping the screen. A couple of times I found myself utilizing that feature with less than pure intentions (i.e. "Just one more game of Starcraft 2," or "I'm not quite done reading this chapter.") This style of work completely loses its punch if I'm willing to ignore the 25 minute on, five minute off, routine.

2. Take Better Breaks: It may seem like you can't do much in a five minute rest session. I seemed to use most of my breaks as an opportunity to check social media -- which isn't necessarily a bad thing. That's why these breaks exist. However, I wonder if there is a better way I can spend my breaks in the future? I like Tony Schwartz's work on renewal rituals and I wonder what I can do in those five minutes that will help me bring a fresher and clearer mind to my work.

3. Be mindful of scheduling commitments: Meetings in the middle of the day will mess up working in this style. It sucks to have to pack up and go to a meeting in the middle of a Pomodoro. Last week I had at least two meetings or phone calls to attend to each day. This week, I've so far kept all my commitments segregated to Wednesday. I don't anticipate getting many Pomodoros finished on that day, but the remaining 4 days should be highly productive.

Experiment #2: Pomodoro + Self Control

For week #2 I continued with the Pomodoro method but also forcibly blocked myself from distracting websites during work hours with a piece of software called SelfControl. The idea behind this tweak was to ensure I didn't take my scheduled breaks by continuing to sit at my computer or get sucked into time-sucking websites that would spill over my allotted break times.

In terms of my Rescue Time data my results were somewhat mixed. I spent less time on Facebook (significantly so) and Reddit during work hours but slightly more on email. I spent less time in my News and Opinion and Social Networking categories (slightly) but my overall Productive time went from 53% to 50% of the time spent at my computer. My efficiency score was identical for both weeks (56%).

Subjectively, it was less of a close call. Monday through Wednesday were great but the rest of the week was a borderline bust. On Wednesday I had a 10+ hour day filled with 4 coaching sessions, 2 phone calls, and 2 meetings. I did this on purpose in a kind of mini-experiment to see if I could collect all my coaching/meeting/phone call commitments into one day, therefore leaving the rest of my week open for uninterrupted work. It was definitely tiring, but overall I enjoyed it. I liked being able to stay in one mindset all day long instead of trying to jump back and forth between writing, coaching, administrative tasks, etc.

However, something I need to be aware of and work on more in the future is how I attack the day after a marathon day like that. I'll let the words I wrote on Thursday night in my journal describing how my day went:

What a bust of a day. I'm not really sure what my problem was. I had SelfControl on all day so it wasn't really a matter of just mindlessly surfing. I just found other ways to not do what I probably should've been doing.

While Thursday wasn't great, I do think I learned something valuable. Also from that evening's journal entry:

At some point today I realized it wasn't going very well and I just started to accept it to a certain point. I tried to do some less mentally intensive stuff and worked on reading a book quite a bit. In terms of how I can avoid doing this again in the future, I think the key is really making sure I'm well-planned with enough work the day before. I only had a couple of items on my list for today and when I did them or eventually realized they couldn't be done I ended up mentally tapping out, for the most part. If I don't want that to happen I should be a little more audacious in my planning.

Friday started similarly to Thursday but instead of wallowing in it all day I recognized what was going on immediately. I had a ton of errands to run so I decided to knock all of those out. Was it the most important work I could've been doing? No. Did it need to get done? Yes, eventually.

Experiment #3: Pomodoro + Self Control + Concentrate

I'm going to continue blocking myself from distracting websites during the day. I don't think that was really the problem with my lack of productivity at the end of the week. An unintended consequence may be that I found other ways to waste time that didn't involve trying to go to a website I had blocked. To that end, I'm trying out a new app this week called Concentrate. Not only does it block specific URLs but it can also block specific programs. I think this might help me avoid finding computer-based distractions even more. My complete challenge for week #3 is to continue working under a strict Pomodoro style while blocking myself from distracting websites and other apps on my computer. I shoot for 3 full Pomodoros of focused work each day.

To a certain extent, I understand I'm addressing the symptom of distraction (blocking myself from websites) instead of developing the personal abilities that would allow me to resist the urge to even be distracted in the first place. However, I'm a big believer that willpower is a finite resource and doing things to prevent myself from having to use it (like completely blocking myself from certain websites, thus rendering it beyond the need for willpower) is a good move. Eventually I hope to get to the point where I don't need the crutch of a piece of software, but for now I'm embracing it.

P.S. It has also come to my attention that I think my long rest session in my Pomodoro routine is too long. For some reason I thought it was supposed to be 25 minutes long but I think it's only supposed to be 15. I'm going to continue with the 25 minute rest session for the remainder of this week but might play with that duration in future weeks.

Thoughts on Experiment #3

Last week's Grand Summer Work Experiment was kind of a bust and I'm not 100% sure why. I don't think it had anything to do with my experiment for the week (using a program to block distracting URLs and distracting programs). I think it was more a function of the work I had to do. I'm working on an academic poster to be presented at a conference in two weeks and I need to transition into a phase of the project I'm not really sure how to do. Essentially, I avoided doing difficult or unclear (yet highly important) work for the majority of my so-called "productive" time last week. If I run into that problem in the future I need to figure out how to battle through it, though. It seems like the best way forward would be to recommit to sticking to the Pomodoro Technique and truly clarifying the work that needed to be done (maybe using the Natural Planning Model to gain clarity on the project?).

Pomodoring Myself Dull?

The other thought I'm having about my productivity experimentation is that perhaps last week was a function of rebelling against too much structure. I felt myself resisting using the Pomodoro Technique (and didn't use it at all except for Monday) and I'm not sure why. A couple times I found myself thinking something along the lines of, "Dammit, I'm an independent worker with a lot of flexibility… why do I have to follow this timer?" This leads me to think that instead of having one style of work that I stick to 100% of the time I'm wondering if I need to be cultivating two or more distinct styles based on how I'm feeling and what the day calls for. I'm already discovering that using the Pomodoro Technique doesn't work when my day is carved into little chunks because of coaching calls or meetings. Maybe the differentiation of my working style has to be even greater than that? Maybe I should rotate between highly structured Pomodoro-style productivity and a more free-wheeling, play it by ear style of productivity on a weekly basis?

Experiment #4: Better Breaks

This week I'm going to continue working Pomodoro-style (at least for Monday through Thursday -- Friday is my long coaching day). I'm also going to continue blocking myself from distracting URLs and distracting programs. Like I said, even though last week was a bust I don't think it was a function of the experiment I was trying.

The new experiment for this week will be focusing on taking better breaks. Instead of just sitting at my computer or even taking my phone over to the couch to read an article, I'm going to try to completely change my context. I'll try to get outside, just sit quietly for a few minutes, or lay on the couch and listen to some music. I want to figure out what the best way truly is for me to regain energy and be able to continue working with a high level of focus. I may even take a look at The Power of Full Engagement again to brush up on advice about energy restoration rituals. I think the breaks in the Pomodoro Technique are super important to the success of using it so I want to make sure I'm gaining as much as possible from them.

This may be a bigger thought for another day, but I also think many of us have already taken care of all the low hanging fruit in regards to the active improvement of our productivity. However, I think the way we rejuvenate and restore ourselves is something that most of us take for granted when in reality it may be just as ripe an area for cultivation than the more "active" productivity tips and techniques we like to talk about the most. That's an idea I'll probably flesh out some more in the future.

But for now, my timer just dinged so it's time to go sip some coffee on the balcony.

Thoughts on Experiment #4

Last week's experiment was to continue with the Pomodoro Technique, continue blocking myself from distracting websites (using the software SelfControl), continue blocking myself from distracting programs on my computer (using the software Concentrate), and taking "better" breaks.

It's hard to distinguish whether subpar weeks in terms of work are due to the techniques I'm employing to get the work done or the work itself. Like most things, it's probably a combination of both (which unfortunately makes my experiment a little bit more difficult to analyze). For example, last week I found myself rarely using the Pomodoro Technique even though I was supposed to. For whatever reason, I lost my taste for setting 30/30 and following a timer during my work day. Since I rarely used Pomodoro last week I didn't get many opportunities to take "better" breaks.

I did try to get away from my computer a little bit while taking breaks but often found myself thinking that five minues was too short of a time to really bother doing anything other than just flipping over to Twitter or checking my email. One thing I have been doing relatively consistently for the past week is taking a long break in the afternoon to workout, hop in the pool, meditate, and take a 20 minute nap. I know that I'm borderline useless in the afternoon anyway so it seems like a good time to knock out these other tasks. I usually get a second wind in the evening to knock out one final batch of work.

What's the Issue? Technique or Content?

It's possible that I'm just getting tired of working in this structured way or it's possible that I'm simply tired of the project I'm working on. My primary project has been the same for the past several weeks and it has been mentally draining. I'm finally wrapping it up this week and I'm more than ready to move on to something else. Maybe that means my productivity will increase and the lackluster couple of weeks I've had are due to the nature of the work. Either way, it's still beneficial to systematically add and remove various pieces of a work routine to get a sense of how they affect me and my work.

Numbers Don't Tell the Whole Story

It's also interesting to note that my Rescue Time numbers improved almost completely across the board from last week. I spent less time on distracting websites and more time being productive as compared to the week before. Granted, the week before was really bad so maybe it's not that big a deal to have improved. Even though my numbers were better, I didn't really subjectively feel "better" than the previous week. Which leads me to the interesting conclusion that feeling good about my work is much more than just not spending a lot of time distracting myself or being unproductive. The absence of unproductiveness does not equal feeling good about my work. I have to actually have accomplished something, even when not wasting time on Facebook or Reddit, to really feel good about my work week. This makes me think that I should minimize the amount of effort I put into worrying about distractions and really focus on moving important projects forward (which seems obvious as I write it). That seems to be the key to feeling good about my work and is definitely something to keep an eye on as I move through the rest of the summer.

Experiment #5: Taking A Week Off

This week, I'm taking a break from my summer productivity experiment to work however I choose. I know Pomodoroing wouldn't be the best choice this week because it seems like each day is punctuated with coaching calls and meetings. I'm also going to be at a conference starting Thursday morning so my true work week is only going to consist of three days. I'm just going to work however I feel like working for this week (which I suppose is an experiment in itself) and will jump back into a specific challenge starting July 1st.

Experiment #6: Eat a Frog Every Day

Last week I started each day by "eating a frog" as my first task. The frog I ate every day was not of the amphibious variety, but the most dreaded task currently hanging over my head. The general advice of doing the hardest thing first is pretty well-traveled, but I've never really adopted it until last week. I'm certainly glad I did.

My commitment was just to work on my frog for the first 15 minutes of my work day. By committing to a very small chunk of time I lowered the psychological barrier that tried to keep me from doing it. A lot of the time, once I got started I'd end up working on it for far more than 15 minutes. Whether I just made it the minimum 15 minutes or carried on for a longer block, the end result was always that I felt much, much better about my work. Over the course of last week I wrote, edited, and delivered a freelance article that had been hanging over my head for a couple weeks.

This is something I'm going to adopt into my typical work day from here on out. I didn't really perceive any drawbacks. A couple times I felt like I didn't have time to work on the frog when it was unrelated to the other things I needed to do in a day, but really that's just a lame excuse. I always have 15 minutes available to work on something even if it is unrelated to the overall mission of the day.

Experiment #7: Insanity

This week I'm going to do something stupid. I'm calling it Insanity Week. Basically, if I'm awake I'm going to be working. Mostly, I'm interested to see what my limits are. Will I hit a wall? Will I be able to focus at the end of the week? I have a couple coaching calls later in the week, so I'm not interested in completely frying myself to the point where I can't be a good coach, but I do want to push my limits in terms of the amount of work I do in a short amount of time (i.e. see yesterday's announcement about the "competition" I'm engaged in). I'm still going to take breaks throughout the day to refocus and rejuvenate, but they're going to be short and efficient. Hopefully, this experiment will help me better understand what I'm capable of if I really have to put my head down and finish a crap ton of work in a short amount of time.

Final Recap

[Note, halfway through the Summer Experiment series I did a "productivity competition with my friend Garrett, which is what I'm referring to here.]

Today is the final article in the series and serves as a recap for the previous week. I also decided to pair up my next Summer Work Experiment work style experiment with last week's competition so this article is really a recap of the competition and my experiment. I decided to do what I accurately called Insanity Week. Basically, the experiment was to push myself to my breaking point to see what I was capable of. This resulted in 15+ hour days Monday through Thursday and falling flat on my metaphorical face on Friday.

My goal for the competition was to draft an entire e-course by Friday. Despite driving myself into the ground with an unrealistic work schedule that left me a sputtering mess by Friday morning, I did manage to finish the draft. It clocked in around 12,000 words. Including the other writing I did last week, I ended up writing about 14,000 words. There were a couple other projects I moved forward in the past seven days and had a few coaching calls and other meetings. All in all, it was definitely a productive week.

I didn't use any special work techniques or tricks during the competition. No Pomodoro, no specific strategies other than putting my head down and working as much as possible. One day I worked at Starbucks for awhile. It was also incredibly hot and my "office" (brother's bedroom at my parents' house) has no air conditioning. It worked alright -- but as I type this Monday morning I have my Pomodoro timer going. I think last week's completely free-wheeling and structureless schedule has pushed me toward wanting greater structure today. Weird how my brain works that way.

As I look back on the previous week, a couple things pop out at me. In no particular order:

The quality of your work is capped or multiplied by the quality (or lack thereof) of your leisure.

AND

Burnout will make you tired, which really isn't a big deal. But it will also make you resent your work, which is far more dangerous.

I think both of these came through very clearly in the past seven days for me. The feeling I had Friday morning, and a little bit Thursday afternoon, was not how I wanted to be approaching my work. Instead of celebrating the fact that I had entirely drafted an e-course in the past four days (an e-course that I was seriously not considering doing this summer because it would be "too much work") I was mad about it because I was tired and grumpy.

Working more hours can feel more productive, but they rarely are. Subjectively, I think I know that but it was really driven home in my Rescue Time data this week. As compared to last week, I spent a higher percentage of my work time on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit than I did the week before. I spent a lot more time on Writing Activities but I also spent a higher percentage of my time on General News and Opinion, Social Networking, and Entertainment than the week before. Finally, my total Productive & Very Productive time fell from 48% to 45% as compared to the previous week. Is it worth burning myself out and resenting what I do for a living for these numbers? Hell no.

As a final note, I want to thank Garrett for partaking in this with me. I always love doing little experiments and competitions in the spirit of learning more about who I am and how I work. I'm super impressed with what Garrett has accomplished over the past week. He has a real job with real people who are relying on him to do certain things at certain times. In all reality, being productive shouldn't be hard for me. I'm almost completely on my own schedule and work for myself 90% of the time. There really isn't a more optimal environment for me to be in. Garrett works in a newspaper's newsroom -- not exactly the most placid place to write, yet, he has it figured out.


I'm thinking about doing another version of this project for this summer as well, but want to use different experiments. What do you think I should try over the next couple of weeks to improve my productivity?

Photo via freephotouk

How to Break Procrastination With Just a Journal

I recently stumbled across a little anti-procrastination trick that has been working surprisingly well for me.

To briefly set the stage, I occasionally find myself procrastinating on some major projects that require constant effort to keep moving forward. They aren't the type of project that can be knocked off with a long weekend of work and some reason I keep finding myself unable to work on them. It's not a problem of motivation -- these projects are something I care deeply about. It's not a problem of not knowing what to do next -- I'm pretty neurtoic about making sure my to-do list is filled with truly concrete next action steps. I couldn't figure it out.


I carry a hard cover medium-sized notebook with me everywhere I go. I decided that instead of bashing my head against the procrastination wall every time I struggled to work on something, I'd write in my journal instead. I think my brain immediately latched onto the idea because it gave me a seemingly productive task to do ("Procrastinating? What?! I'm writing! Look at my hand go!") even though it wasn't what I wassupposed to be doing.

What I quickly discovered, though, was two things. First, writing in my journal while I was procrastinating often uncovered interesting data on myself about what triggers my procrastination. I've come to a couple realizations about my work, ranging from understanding my next action weren't quite right, that I needed to delegate a task to someone else, or I actually needed more information before I could move on. Instead of sitting at my desk feeling badly about how little work I was doing (and not really knowing why), writing in my journal helped me better understand where my procrastination was coming from.

The other benefit to writing in my journal each time I found myself procrastinating was the fact that very often I jolted myself out of my procrastination just by writing about it. I'd find myself writing about the project I couldn't get going on and excuses would start flowing out of my pen. Very quickly I'd realize that those excuses were terrible and that procrastinating on a project you truly care about just because it's hard or big is one of the most immature things you can do. I think I essentially shamed myself out of procrastinating more than half of the times I started writing in my journal.

The way I see it, it's a win-win situation. If you don't outright break through the procrastination just in the act of writing out your thoughts about why you're procrastinating, you've at least gathered valuable data on yourself. Over time you'll collect more data and specific patterns may emerge. Once you've identified a pattern then you can take steps to change your work habits, projects, -- whatever it is your pattern of data suggests -- to break your procrastination.

It's a simple idea, but the next time you find yourself procrastinating just start stream-of-consciousness writing about it. You might be surprised how so simple an activity can have huge results.

Photo by [E]mmanuel17

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.

 

The Experimenting Self

One of the preeminent figures in the social sciences is an individual named Donald Campbell. His primary contribution to science was through methodology and epistemology. One of the phrases that is historically attached to his name is “the experimenting society.” Campbell’s idea of a utopian society was one where policy decisions were made based on actual experimental data. Therefore, those programs and activities that were shown, experimentally, to be beneficial would be funded and those that were not validated by good science would be left by the wayside. The experimenting society would constantly search to improve itself through the use of the scientific method. There would be no place for cronyism, shady business dealings, or bribery in the experimenting society because all decisions would be data based.

I like the idea of the experimental society and applying it to my own life. What would my life be like if I constantly challenged myself to improve and used experimental methods and data to drive that improvement? I don’t think there’s any reason we can’t follow in the footsteps of Campbell and institute our own experimenting society within the confines of our own lives. It’s really actually quite simple; identify areas of your life that you want to improve, measure you’re current state, try something different, measure yourself after doing the new behavior, and analyze the results. This is one of the simplest experimental designs (pre-test post-test) and yet, has powerful implications for figuring out what actually is capable of making a measurable change in your life.

STEP 1: IDENTIFY AREAS WHERE YOU'D LIKE TO CHANGE

This is the one step that I'm really, really, good at (probably too good). I always have an idea for something I can do to improve myself in some way. Whether it's an idea to make myself physically healthier, mentally stronger, a more caring person, or some other habit or quirk that could stand for improvement, I have a long list of possibilities to pursue.

A helpful starting point is to think about your values and ways in which you might make them a more prominent part of your life. For some people it's really easy to point out the handful of values that undergird and guide their actions. However, I don't think everybody always has success with this method. I recentlywrote an article proposing an alternative method, which I'll summarize quickly here. Instead of trying to focus on values, think about times in your life where you felt "on top of your game" or "truly happy." Whatever you were doing to elicit these feelings in the past is probably a good candidate for something you should try to do more of in the future. Make a list of times where you felt awesome and what you were doing at that time. Those activities and actions are now on your list of things you'd like to change.

STEP 2: MEASURE YOUR CURRENT STATE

The basis of the experimenting society, and therefore the experimenting life, is making data driven decisions about what to do in the future. Campbell would design and implement research studies to generate the best data possible to answer questions about programs and policies. It's your job to collect the data on what you're currently doing so you can make your own decisions about how to best move forward.

In the academic world, there is a certain level of tension between the two major categories of data, qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative data is what you generate with words through observation and description. It generally takes the form of interviews, structured observations, case studies and other methods where the primary vehicle of information is the written word. Quantitative data, on the other hand, is based on numbers. Survey data, census information, and other techniques that generate numbers you can run statistical analyses on fall under the umbrella of quantitative.

We're going to combine the best of both worlds into what academics call "mixed methods." In my own data collection efforts, an example of qualitative data I collect on myself is through journal writing. I'll pay attention to the area of my life I want to improve and write down my observations. At this point I'm not consciously trying to make any changes. 

On the quantitative side of things, it depends on the type of improvement I'm trying to make. For example, in past efforts I've recorded the number of times I've meditated or bitten my fingernails. Right now I'm using the software program RescueTime to collect quantitative data about how I spend time on my computer. The nice thing about quantitative data is that it can be much more objective than qualitative data. As the cliche goes, "Numbers don't lie." (Although, if you're any good at statistics you can do some serious truth bending).

This step is all about figuring out the best way to measure the level of whatever you decided you'd like to improve in Step 1. For instance, if you looked at your life and decided that you wanted to try being a more outgoing person, for Step 2 you could measure the number of times you went out with friends (quantitative) and how you felt after each time you did or didn't accept (qualitative). A nice little bonus, however, is something called the Hawthorne Effect. Essentially, sometimes just observing something will actually cause it to improve. Several times I've ended up improving my area of concern from Step 1 just by becoming more aware of it.

STEP 3: DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT

This is the fun part. Now that you've decided what you want to change and recorded data about where you currently are, you get to change your behavior! For me, this usually takes the form of a 30 Day Challenge. I'll make a conscious and concerted effort to improve the area of concern I fleshed out in Step 1. In terms of specifically what I end up doing, I usually try to base it on some kind of research that has already been done. For example, there has been a lot of research into the benefit of cultivating gratitude. One of the habits the research supports is keeping a Gratitude Journal. For 30 days I'll make sure I write down a couple of things I'm grateful for at the end of the day. Presumably, I've done some kind of happiness measurement before beginning this behavior (see Step 2) so I'll have something to measure against at the end of the 30 days. Sometimes I'll get ideas from other bloggers or friends of mine who have done something interesting that I want to try as well. The cool thing is that this doesn't have o be a huge change in order to see pretty big results. Try to pick something small that you know you can stick with instead of a huge behavior change that you aren't likely to sustain.

STEP 4: MEASURE AGAIN

This is basically the same as Step 2. Now that you have your baseline data and have changed your behavior for at least 30 days, it's time to see if there's any change in your outcome. Obviously, you need to collect data on the same issue (and using the same methods) that you did in Step 2. 

STEP 5: REPEAT

What do you find? Did 30 days of a behavior change create any difference in the area of your life you wanted to improve? What does the data say? If you found a positive difference -- great! Assuming the change you made in Step 3 was something you can sustain indefinitely, you've found a way to measurably improve your life. If your data doesn't show any difference, why might that be? Is it possible that the action you took in Step 3 actually affects something else? For instance, maybe you wanted to become happier so you decided to meditate every day for 30 days. You may feel that the experience was very worthwhile but the data doesn't support your gut feeling (you didn't score any higher on a happiness survey, for instance). Perhaps meditation tapped into something different? Perhaps meditating everyday made you more mindful but not any more happy. Still a worthwhile effect, just not the one you measured. Or, perhaps you didn't implement the change in Step 3 consistently enough to see any changes? Either way, you've now made a scientific and systematic approach to improving your life and you're ready to start your next attempt!

CONCLUSION

Campbell's utopia of the experimenting society never actually came to be. Political and corporate pressures proved to be too much for our politicians and policy makers to handle. Instead of letting science drive their policy decisions the sway of money, prestige, or other non-scientific forces end up playing a large role. While the experimenting society may be far from our current situation, there's no reason we can't create our own individual utopias through the experimenting self philosophy. The more mini-experiments you run on yourself the better you'll get at it and the more you'll learn about how to make your own experience as a human being a better one. Much of the research done in positive psychology has shown that happiness is not something that just randomly descends from the heavens to anoint the chosen few. Instead, there are actual steps and actions you can take to create happiness for yourself. Adopting the mindset of permanent curiosity and perpetual self-improvement will help you figure out what those activities are for yourself.

 

Why I Do Weird Things and You Should To

I like to do weird things because being a little bit weird means you aren’t afraid to step out of the current of conformity. Weirdness sets you a little bit to the outside. The nice thing about being on the outside is that it gives you a new perspective. Most of us take for granted that what’s “normal” makes sense when actually a lot of what we unquestioningly accept isn’t necessarily the best course of action for a good life. Most people I know spend several hours a day watching T.V. If I followed that normal course of action I definitely wouldn't have ever started this blog or coaching business. Normal does not equal good.

THE POWER OF THE THIRTY DAY CHALLENGE

The Thirty Day Challenge is pretty simple - you commit to doing something for thirty days. For instance, I recently concluded a Thirty Day Challenge where I only wore one outfit (hat tip to Kristy Powell at One Dress Protest) for an entire month (a white t-shirt and khaki shorts). That’s pretty weird, right? I wanted to see what it was like to not worry about what I was going to wear every day. I wondered what it was like to diminish the messages my clothes were sending through branding. It wasn’t a permanent change (although, coincidentally, I am wearing khaki shorts and a white t-shirt right now). It was just a challenge to see if something that seems really hard and weird is actually difficult.

DEVELOPING HABITS VS. CHALLENGING YOURSELF TO GROW

Thirty Day Challenges are also used to develop habits. Many people think that it takes about thirty days to develop a new habit so forcing yourself to do something every day for about a month is a potentially good way to develop a new behavior. I’ve done that before, but that’s not necessarily what I’m talking about today. I’m talking about thirty-day challenges where you test the limits of what you think you’re capable of. You aren’t necessarily changing any habits because you’re free to go back to the way things were before the challenge. I like to think of it as stretching a rubber band. For thirty days I’m stretching myself and once I stop stretching, chances are I’ll be a little bit larger and different than I was before.

EMBRACE THE EXIT PLAN

Thirty Day Challenges work because of their experimental nature. You aren’t committing to a lifetime change. It’s just thirty days. Piece of cake. However, you might find that some of your thirty-day challenges make you feel so good that you continue them indefinitely. That’s what happened with my vegetarianism challenge in April 2011. What started as a month-long experiment into vegetarianism just to see what it was like turned into a permanent lifestyle change. If I had gone into it knowing that I “couldn’t” change my mind after thirty days I probably never would have made the change to begin with. The option to quit without guilt after thirty days was there. I just didn't need to use it. You might be surprised by the changes you make that become a permanent part of your lifestyle.

Let your exit plan allow you try some crazy things for your thirty-day challenge. Do something you think is a little weird or difficult. Stretch your capabilities and even if you decide not to stick with it, chances are you will have grown as a person as a result.

If you need some ideas to get started, here’s a list of things I have done or am planning on doing in a thirty-day challenge soon:

  1. Vegetarianism/veganism
  2. Only water to drink (no juice, soda, etc.)
  3. No caffeine
  4. No artificial sweeteners
  5. Only whole foods (eat nothing in a wrapper)
  6. Write 1,000 words every day
  7. Run at least 1 mile every day

SHARE YOUR CHALLENGES

I’m sure you can come up with your own challenges and I’d love to hear about what you think you’d like to do in the comments. Have you already done a thirty-day challenge? Share your experiences in the comments as well.

 

 

How Do You Know What You're Capable Of?

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about what I'm capable of. That's kind of a weird sentence, so let me explain.

In January I deleted Facebook and counted every single calorie that I consumed. Both of those things I figured would be hard, if not impossible. In February I tried to limit myself to $0 in discretionary spending. While I missed that mark, it was definitely much lower than my monthly average. In March, I'm trying to eat as primal a diet as possible. I don't know if these things are necessarily the best and I certainly don't think I'm better than you for accomplishing them. I just wanted to know if I could do them -- so I did.

I'm in love with the idea of 30 Day Missions that stretch and challenge you to heights you didn't think you could accomplish. This post is short, but I'm hoping it has a lot of comments because I want to know what kinds of 30 Day Missions you have tried or want to try.

I have a whole list of questions that will probably turn into some sort of 30 Day Mission:

- How much sleep do I actually need to operate well?
- What would I feel like if I didn't consume any caffeine?
- What would I feel like if I ate a completely vegan diet?
- How fast can I run 1 mile?
- How far can I move myself in 8 hours?
- How long can I go without purchasing anything?
- How long can I fast?
- How long can I not sleep?

I get that some of these may not be the healthiest thing in the world -- but dammit, I want to know what I'm capable of! Our ancestors got to test their mettle against saber tooth tigers and angry mastodons on a daily basis. The scariest thing I see is what's growing in the back of my fridge.

More than anything, 30 Day Missions add a sense of excitement, of challenge, and unpredictability to your life. You may work in a boring job but as you look around at your boring co-workers you can smile inwardly about the time you once ran/walked for 8 hours just to see how far you could go or how you once randomly high fived a stranger just for the heck of it.

My simpler life has plenty of room for adventure. Does yours? Please share your 30 Day Mission ideas in the comments! 

Rethinking Necessity in a World of Abundance

As I strive to become more conscious in the way I live my life I find myself rethinking what I think is necessary. When you are surrounded with abundance of wealth, information, distractions, tools, and services it can be easy to start thinking that all these things are truly vital. While some of them may be, most of them are not. Figuring out what is truly required to do your best work or be your best self is what living consciously is all about.

I think what really caused me to start to question my needs is the move I made to my new apartment a couple months ago.

WHAT DO YOU NEED?

Every type of work has certain tools that are truly vital to executing the job correctly. Carpenters need all of their hammers, drills, saws and other building tools. Seamstresses and tailors need fabric, thread, needles, sewing machines and whatever else is inherent to making and adjusting clothing. Jobs like this are pretty clear-cut with what tools are truly necessary. It's these "information worker" jobs where the line starts to get a little fuzzy.

What does an internet marketer need to fulfill his job requirements? What does an IT worker need? What about a blogger?

Remember how I said I moved into a new apartment a few months ago? At the time, I decided to not sign up for internet service. I was super poor and decided that I could use my parents' house, the public library, and other free wi-fi hotspots for my internet needs. I figured I'd conduct this little experiment for a month or so before caving in and getting internet hooked up at my apartment.

That was 5 months ago.

INTERNET-LITE BLOGGING

I'm a blogger and I do not have home internet access. What I thought was absolutely necessary to my career as a blogger turned out to be much more of a luxury than I thought. Rethinking what you believe to be necessary is truly at the core of living a conscious life. Try these steps to help break out of the advertiser and society induced fog that is currently clouding your vision:

  1. Pick an area of your life to examine: It could be your job (or even just an aspect of your job). You could try looking at your routines (like what you do after work) or even the way you eat. Almost any area of your life is open to examination.
  2. Write down what the absolute core of this area is: If it's your job, what do you actually have to DO on a daily basis to complete your work? For me, even though blogging requires access to the internet to post articles, almost ALL of the true work that goes into blogging, the writing, brainstorming and creation of products can be done without the internet. If you're looking at an area of your life other than work, think about this question: what would the "ideal" you do/act/look like in this situation?
  3. Honestly look at how you currently approach the situation: How do you currently behave? What is distracting you from focusing on the core essence of a specific area in your life? Is it a bad habit (or a series of bad habits)? Is it unnecessary distractions? Is it a lack of clarity of what needs to be done? Try not to pull any punches with yourself at this step. You want to have as clear a picture as possible about what is keeping you from your best.
  4. Identify what's truly necessary and boot the rest: In step 2 you figured out your core action or responsibility and in step 3 you figured out what is keeping you from that. It's time to use that knowledge to get rid of all that unnecessary "stuff" that is keeping you from your best. Be ruthless. Although, if you're worried you might eliminate something that you will truly miss, try just putting it away in storage for awhile. That way you can have a test run without it in your life. Chances are you won't miss it. If you're eliminating bad habits or trying to build new ones, commit for just a week at first. Give yourself permission to go back to your old ways if after a week you hate it. Again, once you start seeing the positive change I don't think you'll be going back to your old ways.

TRUE CONSCIOUSNESS REQUIRES ONLY THE TRULY NECESSARY

Necessary is not what the marketers tell us. It's not what the T.V. commercials berate us with, what our friends insist upon, what we see on billboards or in the newspaper. Necessary is only decided when you take an honest look at your own life and make some decisions. You get to decide what's necessary. Most people don't realize they have that power. You truly do and it is one of the most important realizations to living a conscious life.

Have you decided what's necessary yet?