values

A Manifesto For Graduate School, Year Three

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

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

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

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

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

-------

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

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

Values Don't Make Your Life Better

For years I have been an advocate of articulating values as a logical first step when improving your life. I've written about it over and over and have used it as a starting point with most of my coaching clients. While it has always seemed to work decently well I've discovered I'm a little uneasy about using this method. The logic is that if you can articulate and describe what you truly care about, what I've been calling values, you can start doing things to make those more salient in your life. It's a simple enough idea that also seems logically sound. The problem, however, is that actually drilling down to your true values is not easy to do. There are multiple factors working against this kind of approach, including the fact that the whole idea of values is kind of fuzzy to begin with. I can say I value Family and you can say you value Family and the mental picture we're each drawing may be completely different. We both know what we mean and are happy with the description, but it's not the same thing.

THE CASE AGAINST VALUES

Another major stumbling block when it comes to articulating values is the fact that there are powerful societal forces that say you should value certain things. I believe it was in Tim Brownson's book, How to Be Rich and Happy, that he described a situation where a husband and wife did a values articulation exercise at the same time. When Family didn't appear in the husband's top 3 values and it did in the Mrs' there was obviously a major point of contention. That may be a little bit of an unusual situation, but think for a moment about the things that society says you're supposed to value. Family is definitely one of those values that's supposed to be on everyone's short list. Other people feel significant pressure to include Faith/Religion, Freedom, Friends -- the list could go on. The point I'm trying to make is not that it's bad to value these things, but to merely ask how likely it is we are truly describing our values when we feel societal pressure to value certain things.

I think there is an underlying metaphor that we can examine between values and passion. I'm not sure I can go a day without hearing or reading the advice about "finding a passion." I used to be a purveyor of this piece of advice as well. Until I figured out it's basically pointless. The belief that everybody has a particular passion waiting for them somewhere in the world and it just needs to be uncovered like a treasure under a rock is not helpful. Therefore, the dominant activity when trying to uncover or find this passion seems to be flitting from activity to activity, from rock to rock, looking for that elusive passion that will fix all your ills. There's a driving force that if you don't like your situation then you just haven't found your passion yet. I've since decided that this line of thinking is mostly fallacious and that "finding" is the wrong verb to use when describing passion. Instead, we should talk about "developing" passion. The focus is on action and practice. I feel the same way about values. The traditional way of thinking about value places little emphasis on actual action, just like the quest for finding a specific passion. Values shouldn't be discovered but developed over time, like passion. Both of these constructs need a radical overhaul.

VALUES --> ACTION, OR, VALUES <--ACTION?

The underlying assumption that I think most people make (and I have, too, for a long time) is that our actions follow our values. That we act the way we do because of the things we value. This seems logically straightforward. However, what if the relationship between values and action is more bidirectional than believed? In fact, let's think about the directly opposite view. Instead of our values driving our actions, what if the way we act drives what we value? That we think we value Family not because we've decided that Family is very important to us but because doing nice things for your family makes you feel good (both in the short and long-term) and therefore you associate doing nice things for your family as the "value" Family. The driving force in this relationship is the action, not the value.

I think personal development should be a very tangible activity and the ephemeral nature of values has bothered me for some time. There has to be a better way to think about living a life that makes you happy. Today, I'd like to propose a new line of attack in personal development: Instead of trying to articulate your values, articulate the activities that make you feel both "good" and "bad" in the short and long-term; systematically cultivate and seek the activities that make you feel good while cutting out the activities that make you feel bad. With this new approach we can now focus on action, on practice, and on progress instead of sitting idly and searching our memories, feelings and "values" that describe the way we feel. In the end, you can have the most perfectly articulated values but what actually matters is what you do. Action is the greatest manifestation of value, so let's shift our attention to how we can create more of it in our lives.

IDENTIFYING THE GOOD

As human beings we are hard wired to seek pleasurable experiences and sensations. Delicious food, clothes fresh from the dryer, sex -- all of these produce pleasurable sensations. Are these the types of things you should be seeking out under my new value-less paradigm? Not quite. While there's nothing wrong with pleasurable sensations themselves (provided they aren't harming you or anyone else in the long-term), we are searching for a more nuanced definition of "good." A helpful starting point when trying to articulate the types of activities and behavior that we're after is to think about a day where everything seemed to go "right" and you went to bed feeling satisfied and happy. For me, it probably means I worked hard and made progress on work that mattered to me, had some kind of physical activity, interacted with the people to whom I'm closest, meditated and challenged myself in some way. That is the type of day that makes me smile as my head hits my pillow, exhausted, at the end. While I was working hard on a difficult project or working out I probably didn't feel euphoric like I might be when eating a thick slab of chocolate cake. The immediate gratification wasn't there, but the long-term benefits I knew I was cultivating by not procrastinating and by keeping myself healthy far outweighed the momentary discomfort.

You may have an idea of similar activities that make you feel fulfilled and aligned when you do them. Some sort of physical activity and eating healthy are common activities that seem to find their way on to people's "good" lists frequently. What other activities make you feel this way? If you're having trouble coming up with ideas, there's something you can do to make this process easier. For the next few days you need to become more mindful of how different aspects of your daily activity make you feel. There are numerous times throughout most days where I find myself saying, "Man, why don't I do this more often?" That's a good sign that I've just found an activity that I should try to systematically build into my life in a more robust way. On the flip side, there's usually numerous points throughout most days where I find myself saying, "This sucks. I never want to do this again." Again, this is the sign of an activity that I should actively try to remove from my future experience. It's not easy to remember to be mindful but the more you practice it, the better you'll get at it. If it's easier for you, you could spend a few minutes at the end of the day identifying the times and activities where you felt really good and bad in the past 24 hours. Write those down and after a week or two you should have a good list to work from.

Another route you can take for identifying the activities and actions that you'd like to build into your life is to look at people you admire and identify what seems to be making them feel good. The problem with the approach I described in the previous paragraph is that you're limited to the scope of activities in which you already partake. That's no good. Obviously there are a myriad of possibilities that exist beyond your current realm of experience. Looking to people you admire can give you ideas of activities for inclusion on your own list. Obviously, you can't just adopt other people's approaches without testing them for yourself. It's possible that something your friend finds fulfilling and "good" is quite the opposite for you. It's up for you to give it a try and make that decision for yourself, though.

BEYOND HEDONISM

The obvious trap that must be avoided is lapsing into a hedonistic focus when it comes to identifying the activities that make you feel good. Hedonism is a school of thought that argues pleasure is the only intrinsic good. A hedonist does everything they can to maximize pleasure while minimizing pain. There are lots of possibilities of things you can do that will make you feel good in the moment such as eating four chocolate chip cookies or not working on a difficult project. In the short run, both of these choices may maximize pleasure while minimizing pain. How does my new approach to personal development sans values differ from pure hedonism?

The key term that I fail to use in my definition of good while hedonists latch onto with authority is "pleasure." A hedonist's primary focus is purely on pleasure. Pleasure is characterized by good emotions and sensations without too much concern about long term ramifications. In my approach to personal development, you're searching for activities that go beyond pure pleasure and tap into more long lasting sensations of "good." That's not to say that some of the activities you identify as positive components of your life aren't also hedonistically oriented. However, it's unlikely that the full roster of your good activities will all be hedonistically relevant. For example, lifting weights or running is something I've identified as an activity that makes me feel good. In the short term, when I'm actually sweating and breathing hard, I rarely feel like that final rep or final half mile is adding a lot of pleasure to my life. If I were a hedonist, it's unlikely that I'd partake in activities like that, even though I know they are good for me in the long run. While it may be difficult in the moment, I know the importance of staying physically fit and I know how good I feel after a strong workout. When seeking out the activities that you want to cultivate more mindfully in your own life, try to identify whether you're looking for immediate gratification or long term happiness. The more you can build your life around doing things that will benefit you in the long term and not just the short, the better off you'll be.

ARRANGING YOUR LIFE

The whole point of this entire shift in ideology is to place the focus squarely on concrete actions that have improved your life in the past or you have a strong suspicion may improve your life in the future. At the same time, you're systematically removing actual events and actions that have been detrimental in the past. The net result of this addition and subtraction should be a noticeably happier life that coincides more directly with what you actually care about. One caveat before moving forward is that this approach requires a decent amount of mindfulness to pull off successfully. Essentially, you need to be able to step back from your immediate experience often enough to notice what your emotions are when you partake in different activities. This serves as the backbone of this system and without it your lists are going to be flimsy and meaningless.

To begin, take a week where all you do is go on living your normal life while carrying a small notebook and a pen with you throughout the day. Your only job is to pay attention to what is making you feel good or bad as you go about your business and to write it in your notebook. This is going to feel weird at first, I know. There's no reason you need to stop doing whatever your'e doing to whip out your notebook and make a note, but try to just pay attention to how you're feeling when you do different things and make a note of it as often as possible. At this stage of the game, you're just trying to get a rough idea of the activities you want to cultivate and those you want to rip out by the roots.

After you've done this for awhile you should have two lists; one full of activities and events that make you feel good about yourself and one full of activities and events that make you feel bad about yourself. Now, take a few moments to look at your lists and add any other activities that you may not have experienced in the past week but you know they are something that's super positive or very negative for you. Helpful questions at this point include, "What makes me feel good whenever I do it?", "What should I do more of?", "If I had the time/money/energy, what would I do more of?", and "Lots of people seem to enjoy running/working out/eating a paleo diet/eating a vegetarian diet/volunteering/whatever -- should I try that?" As you can imagine, do the same thing with the negative components as well. You want to flesh out these lists as much as possible so they are salient and exciting.

The obvious next step is to begin making space in your life to incorporate some of the activities from your good list as much as possible. Depending on the content of your list, that will obviously look differently for different people and activities. The key is to make yourself commit to a handful of these activities as explicitly as possible. Put them on a to-do list, break them into smaller tasks, leave yourself notes around the house reminding yourself to do them -- whatever it takes to build more of these events into your life. In order to make this a sustainable change, however, you should try focusing on only a small subset of these activities at first. You're only going to set yourself up for failure and disappointment if you try to cram the entirety of your list into every day, or even every week. Some of the activities on your list are probably habits that wouldn't hurt to instill into your daily life, but some of the other ones are probably done no more frequently than weekly or monthly. I like to actually set some time aside at the beginning of the week to actually look at my lists and decide which positive activities I'm going to try to do over the next several days and which activities I'm going to actively try to remove.

Looking at and working with your good list is obviously a little bit more fun than thinking about all the things you do that you hate. However, I've found that removing bad habits and activities from my life is almost more rewarding than filling my days with activities that make me feel good. Take a look at your schedule or routine and identify where you can remove items that are on your negative list. For many people, possibilities include waking up too late to feel calm and collected in the morning, eating tons of fast food, spending money on stuff you don't need (or really want) and other hobbies or activities that bring little or negative value to your life. Again, just like with the positive list, you can't do everything at once, especially if you're dealing with habits. Pick one that you'd like to eradicate and focus on it exclusively until you've changed or removed it to your satisfaction. This isn't a race -- take your time and do it right.

CONCLUSION

I've covered a lot of ground in this article to essentially make a simple point; the more you do things that make you feel good and the less you do that makes you feel bad the better you'll feel about yourself. For a long time I advocated that the best way to figure out how to live a more meaningful and positive life was to take a long and hard look at your values. I've always had trouble with that approach because it's hard to wrap your mind around values separate from the influence of society at large. Instead, rooting your decisions in what you'll do to improve your life should be based on experience. Nobody except you knows what makes you feel good. Nobody except you knows what makes you feel bad. If you can mindfully identify which activities produce which emotions within you, you can systematically build your life around those activities (or around removing those activities).

Values and Living Life Fully

It strikes me as incredibly odd that I haven’t written about values yet on SamSpurlin.com. Anybody who has worked with me in a coaching situation knows that I always talk about values during the first session. Regardless of the issues to work on (motivation, procrastination, fear, etc.) — they can all be better understood and worked through once values have been articulated and clarified.

Values, as I understand them, are the feelings and attitudes you hold about the world that take precedence over everything else. They describe the ideals that you hold yourself to while giving yourself a target at which to aim your daily actions. The values you hold will be the words people use to describe you long after you’re gone. Most importantly, when you’re living in accordance with your values you're operating at the highest level of wellbeing.

Your values (and if you don’t like that word, feel free to use another one) are a part of your consciousness whether you’re aware of them or not. They guide everyone’s actions and thoughts but not everyone realizes it. In my experience, happiness usually closely follows living in a way that is true to your values. In fact, people seem to define their own personal happiness in a way that sheds light on what they value. If happiness is directly related to aligning the way you live with your values it makes sense to spend some time figuring out what those values are. They’re a part of you whether you’re aware of it or not so you might as well use them to your advantage.

Secondly, if you can connect your values to your character and skill strengths, you’ve just opened a path to an incredible sense of power in your life and work. Strengths are something I’ll address in a later article, but I’m sure you can already think of some examples of strengths in your own life. Taking those strengths and using them to manifest your values is like using a magnifying glass to focus the sunlight into a point of fire.

The weird thing, however, is that the more time I spend thinking about values the less clear I am about where they come from, how you form your particular set, and how to make them a larger part of your life. Values can be tricky.

Values are developed through the socialization process that we all experience as we grow up. We form our values in a delicate interplay of peer influence, parental involvement, school, church, advertising, and observation of how we perceive the world to work. The problem, however, is that the values held dear by these entities are not always in our best interest. I’m sure you can think of some people in your life who very clearly have had their values shaped by reality television, extremist religion, or unhealthy parental involvement. Those are certainly all possible conduits for value development, but not necessarily positive ones.

I’m very interested in working with teenagers who are still at that delicate stage of figuring out which values they’re going to adopt into their life and which ones they’re going to avoid or ignore. Or, for that matter, is it possible to change the values of someone who is older than what is generally considered to be the “formative years”?

But, I digress.

Assuming you aren’t at the stage in your life where you’re still figuring out who you are, how can you figure out what your values are? The simplest tack, unfortunately, is nearly useless. Simply asking yourself what your values are is too broad a strategy to be particularly helpful, I’m afraid. That question quickly devolves into, “What should I value according to everyone else?”

I’ve had the most success with myself and with my clients by taking a backdoor entrance to the question. Instead of flat out asking what values someone holds, I’ll ask a couple of the following questions:

  1. Who do you deeply admire? Why do you admire them?

  2. Think about a time you felt completely at peace/invigorated/happy. What were you doing?

  3. When you think about your future, what do you see? What is the Ideal You like?

The answers that are uncovered will generally set you on the path of figuring out what values someone holds.

Once you’ve figured out your values, what next? How do you strengthen your values? How do you let them guide your life? Can you change your values?

I’ve only just begun to open this can of worms and I can guarantee that I’ll write more about this in the near future. In fact, my own opinions and knowledge of my own values and values in general is always changing and evolving. I’ll definitely be sharing any new insights and further thoughts about values in the very near future.

 

 

Values Drive Motivation

TWO LEVELS, ONE PROBLEM

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

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

CLEAR VALUES CREATE CLEAR MOTIVATION

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

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

LETTING YOUR VALUES DRIVE YOUR PROJECTS

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

How I Used Minimalism to Jolt Myself Out of Complacency

In the fall of 2005 I started my undergraduate degree at Bowling Green State University. Like a typical college freshman that goes away to school, I spent a lot of time and money buying things for my new dorm room. I was going to be out on my own for the first time in my life and everyone wanted to make sure I had everything I could possibly need, and more. I had a hot water pot, a coffee maker, microwave, cases of convenient food and drinks, lamps, bean bag chairs, a futon and an array of other random things that you’re “supposed” to find in a college dorm room. It was definitely way more stuff than could comfortably fit in a 12 x 12 room with a roommate. Essentially, I was identical to your typical college student in every way.

DECEMBER 2005, NEWBIE MINIMALIST

Fast forward several months and I was beginning to wonder if there was a better way. I was tired of living in a tiny room that was packed to the gills with “stuff” that I barely used. Granted, everyone else’s dorm room looked basically the same - so what was I complaining about? In my angst ridden annoyance over being dominated by my stuff I found the blog Zen Habits. And thus, my foray into minimalism began.

This isn’t a minimalism blog. I’ve already spent plenty of time and effort writing about that. However, minimalism was my ticket out of complacency. I realized that I didn’t have to live like everyone else. I didn’t have to get through college, find a great job, and start acquiring the symbols of success like people expected. It took me years of thinking about the topic and experimenting with what felt right in my life but eventually I came to realize that I was more than my stuff. The whole process of thinking about my relationship to material goods spurred me on to more aspects of living consciously — but minimalism got the ball rolling. It made me start thinking about what I was doing and why I was doing it.

BREAKING FREE OF COMPLACENCY

I see a lot of value of trying out various lifestyle experiments like minimalism or vegetarianism. Doing something that removes you from what everyone else is doing forces you to think. I don’t particularly care if you decide to be a minimalist or a vegetarian, but I do care if you think about why you’re living the way you are.

Living a minimalist lifestyle forced me to think about my relationship to stuff, which made me think about my habits, and eventually led me to reevaluate my future. It helped me clarify my values and lead me down the path I’m currently traveling. If I’m not interested in accumulating stuff what’s my motivation to work? The work itself became the motivation and explains why I’ve stepped away from my original chosen profession of teaching and am embarking on a degree in positive psychology and a career as a coach.

Minimalism was the jolt that got me out of complacently accepting everything society told me I should be working toward. What is your jolt going to be? Can you try minimalism? Can you try changing your diet? Can you commit to some sort of 30 day challenge that will test the boundaries of what you think is possible? Whatever avenue you decide to take, waking up from complacency and blind acceptance is worth the effort and sometimes it takes something drastic like living with less than 100 things or eating only a plant-based diet to snap us out of it.

 

Why I'm Taking a Digital Semi-Sabbatical

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have seen that I announced a 1-week Twitter sabbatical last night. That’s the type of thing that’ll cause eyebrows to raise so I thought it’d be a good time to articulate why I felt this step was necessary. I mean, as a blogger it doesn't make a whole lot of sense for me to ditch my #1 platform for connecting with readers, right?

First of all, a smidge of background. Since January 4th I’ve been working full-time as a high school economics and government teacher. I have the tendency to throw myself into endeavors to the point where everything else gets pushed to the back burner. I was working 10+ hour days trying to be an awesome teacher and that resulted in me doing nothing else other than teaching, planning to teach, or grading. All of my blogging duties and responsibilities have been seriously neglected over the past three months.

However, I happen to be fairly sweet at GTD (Getting Things Done). I read David Allen’s book several years ago and since then have implemented a fairly robust productivity system that usually serves me quite well (and also read the book twice more). My GTD system allows me to capture incoming thoughts and ideas fairly seamlessly and for the last three months I’ve been absolutely dominating the “collect” aspect of GTD.

On Friday I basically finished my teaching assignment and began to turn my attention back to my writing and blogging. However, three months of collecting information and ideas but not acting on them has left me feeling absolutely swamped and overrun. I have so much that I think I might want to do, but maybe not, but then again maybe I do.

I decided that I need to take a week to work through all my information, clarify what it means to me, and align it with my goals and values. To that end, the last thing I need is even MORE information to add to the pile. So, I decided that taking a break from Twitter, Google Reader, mindless net surfing, and awesome-blog reading was in order. I need to spend some time alone with my thoughts, and only MY thoughts, in order to prepare myself for the coming months.

In a nutshell, here’s what’s going on.

WHY I’M TAKING A SEMI-DIGITAL SABBATICAL

  1. I’m way too good at GTD (well, the “collecting” aspect of it)
  2. I’ve had some major life changes that need to be addressed (upcoming article about that later this week)
  3. I need to spend some time with my own thoughts. I find myself getting sucked into the awesomeness that you all create and sometimes it depresses me because I don’t think I can do that. This is bullshit but sometimes I need to give myself a break from all the amazing stuff my friends produce and see if I can do something that warrants my association with them.

WHAT I WILL NOT BE DOING DURING MY SEMI-DIGITAL SABBATICAL

  1. Checking or posting on Twitter (except for initially tweeting out new articles by using the button on my blog)
  2. Checking my RSS feeds
  3. Browsing reddit or any other news aggregation site
  4. Checking email more than twice a day

WHAT I WILL BE DOING FOR THE NEXT WEEK

  1. Running
  2. Writing for the website
  3. Writing for myself
  4. Writing for a freelance project
  5. Cooking good food
  6. Meditating
  7. Reading Making it All Work (again)
  8. Realigning my daily action with my overall goals

WHAT'S THE ULTIMATE GOAL?

  1. Come back with a clearer focus for my website.
  2. Come back with a clearer vision of what I’m trying to do with my life
  3. Come back with a healthier relationship with Twitter, email and other online information sources
  4. Come back with a renewed vigor for my own creative output

Whew. That’s a lot of writing to essentially say, “I’m peace-ing out for a little bit but I’ll be back soon.” I like the idea of digital sabbaticals and writers better than I have explored the idea in more detail, if you’re interested. I think the idea of stepping back from the internet, unplugging and focusing on the self is going to become much, much more commonplace in the future. It’s only when your goals, values, and purpose are crystal clear in your mind that you can productively harness the information deluge that the internet provides. As soon as those higher level ideas become a little murky the internet shifts from an entity full of endless possibility to one of oppressive weight.

I’ll be getting my head together, creating some excellent content, and coming back with a new attitude after this break. Thanks for sticking around during the last three months and I’ll do my best to make it worth your while.

To wrap things up, I'd love to hear about your experiences with digital sabbaticals in the comments!

 

 

Out of Sight Minimalism

Minimalism usually evokes images of spartan living spaces, airy closets, and few personal possessions. In essence, minimal living is usually tied to physical items, or the lack thereof. That's an important aspect of minimalism, but it's not the end-all-be-all of what it means to live minimally. In fact, I don't think it's even the most important part. Minimalism can, and should, be applied to the unseen components of life, too.

COMMITMENTS

It doesn't matter how tranquil and serene your living environment is if you spend your life rushing from one commitment to another. I think it's interesting how many people who are interested in living a minimal life are also the type of person who is very driven and dedicated to personal development. Sometimes, the two values clash with each other. In the quest of self improvement it can be tempting to take on too much at a time. Start restricting yourself to only the commitments that speak most directly to your values. What you'll sacrifice in breadth of activities you'll easily make up for by becoming more deeply involved with your remaining responsibilities. The deeper you get into your commitments, the greater chance you have for impact, too.

SOMEDAY/MAYBE LISTS

A component of David Allen's Getting Things Done system (a keystone for organizing my life) is the idea of having a Someday/Maybe list. This is the list where everything that you think you might like to do at some point, but can't right now, lives. When these lists are up to date and truly reflect your passions and desires, it can be exhilarating to look at.

However, the longer something sits on this list and you don't take action on it, the more likely it is to weigh you down. I recently took a look at my someday/maybe list and had well over 50 things on it. Some of them had been on there for so long I couldn't even remember when I wanted to do it. I certainly didn't want to now. After I purged those lists and was left with the few things I knew I still wanted to do, I felt better. Unfulfilled commitments, even to yourself, can become draining. You have control over that, so don't let it happen.

PERSONAL WISH LISTS

I keep a simple list in my Evernote account of things that I want. It also serves double duty as a 30 day waiting list for significant purchases. It's easy to have a handy list to give someone who asks about birthday or Christmas presents and it keeps me from buying unnecessary things on impulse. Over time, though, the list becomes littered with 30-day-wait-items that failed to pass the test and items I no longer yearn for. Having a huge list of things that I wanted didn't feel very minimalist, so after I cleaned it up and purged the majority of it, I felt like I was closer to living my value of mindful consumption.

DIGITAL DETRITUS

How many gigs of music do you have on your computer that you never listen to? I used to have a massive iTunes library that routinely pissed me off. I couldn't listen to the entire library on shuffle because I had to keep skipping songs I didn't like. What the hell is the point of that? With Pandora and other streaming radio, keeping actual music files on my computer is almost redundant. I know this isn't true for everyone, but it might be worth looking at how much you're actually storing on your computer. Almost everything can be accessed on the cloud now. That means you don't have to store it plus you can access your data from anywhere. What about crappy photos that are mixed in with your good ones? Old work reports you'll never need again? That middle school paper you wrote 11 years ago? Why keep digital detritus around when you wouldn't dream of keeping a physical folder of old algebra homework in your minimal office?

An outwardly minimal life marked by unseen clutter is minimal in nothing but name. Minimizing the visual and concrete is only the first step that allows the space to minimize the more abstract components of life. Out of sight minimalism is just as important, if not more so, than visual minimalism.

Where are your out of sight trouble spots?

Moving Beyond the Low-Hanging Fruit of the Simplicity Movement

I've mentioned several times that one of my core values is Growth; I am always looking for opportunities to grow in every aspect of my life. With that end in mind, I have turned my attention toward my own practice of simplicity.

I've been living a simpler life of varying degrees for at least four years now. I've gradually reduced the amount of stuff that I own to the point where I could definitely be considered a minimalist. However, the visual entrapments of life are not the only, or even most important, area that needs simplifying.

I like to call decluttering and physical-possession-minimalism the low-hanging fruit of the simplicity movement. For most people, reducing their stuff is the first step. It's a great first step, don't get me wrong. I'm very grateful that I've learned the benefits of having less stuff. However, simplicity shouldn't end there. In fact, if it does end there I would argue that your newly decluttered and organized space will not stay that way for long. Cultivating the more difficult habits and actions of simplicity is where the largest opportunity for growth lies.

How much have you addressed these hard to reach yet vitally important areas?

  1. Living mindfully and patiently: Being in the moment instead of lost in the unalterable past or the unknown future is where I should be. Too much attention on anything but the present is a waste of energy and effort. I plan on beginning a ritual of meditation into my daily routine that will help me in this aspect of living a more patient and mindful life.
  2. Cultivating long-term motivation: Everybody knows what it's like to have a burst of motivation at the beginning of a project. My aim is to funnel that burst into a long-term slow burn that allows me to finish large and time intensive projects. I'm currently working on a very large research based project for this site and am training for a half marathon in October. Both of these activities will develop my long-term motivation and persistence over time.
  3. Developing rock-solid self discipline: Discipline is the bedrock in which most long-term changes are founded. Discipline allows me to continue to work toward my goals and make the correct decisions even when I don't "feel" like it. Even though my previous point was cultivating long-term motivation, I don't think it's possible to be 100% motivated at all times. Self discipline is what you fall back on when the motivation just isn't there.
  4. Articulating and living by values: My recent guest post on the blog becoming minimalist does a better job explaining this point than I can do here. Basically, the whole point of living a simpler life is to live life according to your values-- not to have less stuff. I think the underlying motivation can get lost in the euphoria of decluttering and minimal living. Once you've moved beyond that point, what's the next step?
  5. Developing the ability to focus: Developing focus and an autotelic personality is absolutely key to living the simpler life. Focus allows you to do better, more efficient, and more meaningful work. Focus is the basis of developing your autotelic personality, or, learning how to enjoy nearly every aspect of life.

These are the attributes I am trying to develop. Other than occasionally purging my possessions that have built up over time, I'm done worrying about how many things I have or whether or not I can fit it all into a backpack. My concern is with mindfulness, focus, discipline, and values. This gives me more than enough fodder for a lifetime of growth and I'm excited to master each of these areas. I'm sure you've noticed by now, but all of these disciplines are interconnected with each other as well. Focus is part of mindfulness. Self discipline is connected to motivation. All of these are a part of my values. It is impossible to improve in one area without addressing all of the others as well.

Have you mastered the low-hanging fruit of simplicity? What can you focus on now to round out your own practice of simplicity?

Values "Next Actions"

It's not enough to just have values, they must become the cornerstones of your decision making process. Anybody can say they have values, but that's not the point. In fact, you shouldn't even have to articulate them in order for the people you interact with most to be able to describe them; if you actually live your values on a day-to-day basis, it becomes obvious what they are.

I've written about my values in the past and I want to make sure that I don't fall into the trap of making a list that sounds good but isn't actually practiced. I think the best way to prevent this from happening is to actually make a list of value next-actions that will help you live a life that is aligned with your values. This is sort of taking a page out of Getting Things Done and the importance of having truly actionable "next actions" for every project. By making sure that your next action is something that can truly be accomplished even the largest of projects can keep moving forward.

For example, one of my stated values is "growth." Some of my next actions to further this value are, "Watch a TED talk," "Finish reading current book," and "Begin researching ebook project." Another one of my values is "family" so some possible actions I can take to further this is, "call cousin in Florida," "email my grandparents," and "go to brother's hockey game on Wednesday."

Values can be very amorphous things when you don't take the time to actually figure out what it looks like to live with them guiding your actions. I recommend sitting down and giving yourself 2-3 actions for each of your main values at the beginning of every week. You don't necessarily have to do it for every single value that adhere to. In fact, I think it's probably a better idea to focus on only one or two values a week in order to make the biggest impact.

The bottom line is that your values mean nothing if your actions don't align with them. Give yourself some next-actions ahead of time and the rest takes care of itself.