The Power of the Weekly Review (Part Two)

Two weeks ago I wrote the first article of a two-part series about how I conduct my weekly review. If you haven't read part one yet, check it out before moving on to today's article.

As a quick reminder, a weekly review is something I learned from Getting Things Done by David Allen. It is hands-down the most important thing I do to keep myself sane in the face of multiple projects, responsibilities and competing demands. Without the weekly review I'd be a blithering, stress-ridden, and scatter-brained idiot. I need my weekly review like the desert needs the rain. Or a fat kid needs cupcakes.

Moving on to the final three steps of the weekly review, I'll focus on wrapping everything up and getting crystal clear about what I'm facing in the upcoming week.

4. CREATE AND CLARIFY PROJECTS

A lot of the "stuff" that I generated in step 2 are actually projects that will require more than one action on my part to bring to completion. A key component of my productivity is making everything on my to-do list be as "doable" as possible. That means reducing everything down to the simplest next step possible. Therefore, I need to turn a lot of the amorphous items into projects where I can break it down into smaller steps. At this point I'll often look at my Areas of Responsibility (just the various roles and responsibilities I have such as Student, TEDxOrganizer, Friend, etc.). Looking at each Area of Responsibility and asking myself if there's anything I need to do to do a good/better job fulfilling that responsibility helps me ensure that I get all my projects out of my head and into my list.

5. DOUBLE CHECK FOR STUPIDLY EASY NEXT ACTIONS

I kind of already mentioned this, but it's important enough to give it its own step. My next actions have a couple of characteristics that are very important. First, they must start with a very clear verb. "Homework" is not a next action. "Download homework set #3" is a next action. See the difference? It may seem silly to get this nuanced, but this is actually one of the most important habits to get into if you want your to-do list to actually get done. Figuring out ahead of time (what I call front-end decision making) what it actually means to do all of the items on your list, and clearly articulating it, means you can use all of your energy on actually completing the items. When you're in the trenches trying to get things done the last thing you want to do is figure out what it actually means to complete the items on your list (what does "Homework" ACTUALLY mean?) and doing the work to finish them.

6. WRITE OUT “HARD LANDSCAPE”

Once I've gotten to this point I know that all of the various commitments, worries, and tasks that I've been carrying around in my head or in my notes all week are safely within my system. All of my projects are listed and each of them has at least one next action step that is super clear and ready to go. I'm feeling pretty good at this point. The final step is to make sure I know exactly what my upcoming week looks like (David Allen calls appointments and other calendar items your "hard landscape"). I keep all my appointments and important due dates in iCal (synced to Google Calendar) but I like the upcoming week to be visible all the time. Therefore, I take a piece of paper and write down every single appointment and due date in the upcoming week. I also make a short list of due dates that are coming up within the next two weeks and another short list of the current projects that are active and need to have my attention the most. At any time I can take a look at this sheet (which I tape to my desk) and know where I'm supposed to be at any time during the week, what is due soon, and what I should be working on if I have some free time.

Bam. Done.

Thinking you don't have time for all of this hullabaloo?

I have a feeling a lot of you are thinking, "How in the world does he have enough time to do all of this every week? I'm way too busy to do something like this." To put it bluntly, you don't have enough time to NOT do this. Spending an hour or two doing this every week saves me countless hours throughout the week by clarifying my focus and not having to worry about what I should specifically be working on. By doing a weekly review I know that I can go full bore on my work during the week and not have to worry about getting off course. If I know I'll be stepping back and getting a bigger perspective on my work and life every week I don't have to worry about trying to do both the work and figuring out what my work should be. The weekly review is for figuring out what my work looks like. My week is for actually doing it.

As I've mentioned a couple times before, this is a grossly simplified version of David Allen's weekly review fromGetting Things Done. However, I've been doing this long enough I know what I need to do each week to clear my head and prepare for what's coming up. Your weekly review doesn't have to look my weekly review. The value isn't in the style -- just the substance.

 

The Power of the Weekly Review ( Part One )

WHAT IS A WEEKLY REVIEW?

There’s one thing I do every week that sets the stage for everything I’m able to accomplish. It is incredibly simple and yet it seems to be one of the most overlooked components of personal organization and development. I look forward to doing it every week and everyone I’ve taught how to do it agrees that it has truly changed how they approach their work. Those of you familiar with Getting Things Done will be familiar with it — The Weekly Review.

A weekly review is simply an appointment I set with myself to review the previous week and look ahead to what’s upcoming. It allows me to step back from the brouhaha of daily action and get a better perspective about where my work and my life are headed. While David Allen lays a great foundation for what a weekly review should look like in his book, I think it’s vitally important that you figure out what the weekly review needs to be for you to actually keep doing it. Over time my method has evolved, expanded, and then streamlined into the version I use today. By allowing it to change and modify I created something that is intimately tied to the way I work. Now, if I don’t get my weekly review every Sunday I feel like I spend the next week perpetually stuck in a meeting I wasn’t prepared for.

Before we get into the details of what you should include in your weekly review, I’d like to expound on its virtues a little bit more. One of the key benefits of doing a weekly review is that it primes my brain to do what its best at in the coming week — solve problems. It’s amazing how much we try to hold in our heads. If you’ve ever forgotten a great idea, or an important ingredient for dinner, or forgotten an appointment, you know just how bad your brain can be at remembering things. Getting this type of information out of my head and into a trusted system every week gives me the mental capacity to turn energy toward solving problems, not remembering what the problems are.

Lastly, spending time in a weekly review looking at my to-do list (or “next actions” if you’re a GTD aficionado) is like making sure my fishing tackle is ready to go before I get in the boat. Every week I make sure that all my projects have actionable next steps that I can easily take without too much effort. I’ve learned that having the energy to work on a project is not the same thing as having the energy to figure out what to do on a project. It’s a subtle, but important, difference. If I haven’t figured out what it means to “work on my psychology paper” or what “home” means on my to-do list I’m very unlikely to spend the energy to both figure it out and work on it. By figuring out what everything on my list means beforehand (“work on psychology paper” means “find 5 research papers to read” and “home” means “research plane tickets home for Christmas”) I’ve given myself a better shot at actually moving the project forward when I sit down to work on it during the week.

HOW DO YOU DO A WEEKLY REVIEW?

There are as many ways to do a weekly review as there are people that will read this article (yes, more than 9 you smart aleck). As a good starting point, I always recommend that people try reading Getting Things Done by David Allen first. He gives a great explanation of what a good weekly review entails and he orients it in the larger scope of a complete personal productivity system. However, in order to save you the ten bucks and several hours you’d need to invest to read the book, I’ll give you the Sam Spurlin Version. It consists of several steps:

1. CLEAN OUT MY PROJECT AND NEXT ACTION LISTS

During the heat of the moment throughout the week sometimes I let my lists get a little outdated. I’ll finish a task or a project and forget to remove it from the list or sometimes a project is no longer relevant. I like to start this whole process by going through my lists and clearing it of all the flotsam. I like my system to be clean and lean before I start throwing a ton of stuff at it.

2. COLLECT MY CRAP INTO ONE PLACE (INCLUDING MY HEAD)

This can be a pretty huge step depending on how much new information I took in during the week. This is when I take all the information that is strewn across my various inboxes and throw it all together in one place. My “inboxes” include: email inbox, text messages, saved bookmarks, favorited Tweets, iPhone notes, loose papers in my bags, loose papers on my desk, downloads folder, Evernote inbox, and undoubtedly something I’m forgetting. I go through each of these areas and add any of the relevant information to my task management software’s (Things in my case) inbox. If a piece of information is useful but doesn’t generate a task or a project, it is therefore reference material and I put it into the appropriate notebook inEvernote. At the end of this step I should have completely empty inboxes except for one incredibly full Things inbox.

3. GO THROUGH INBOX AND PLACE EACH ITEM ON A LIST (OR FILE AWAY AS REFERENCE)

The next step is to go through the one location that currently has about 12592 pieces of information in it and put them on the logical lists. Lots of the items I generated will be standalone tasks that don’t require being put on a project list. However, some of the items I put in my inbox aren’t actually next actions — they’re projects. Anything I can’t resolve with one action I consider a project. I’ll talk more about this at the end, but it can be helpful to have various Areas of Responsibility to help figure out a.) where I should put this information, and b.) whether I've truly captured everything that’s residing in my head.

Keep reading for Part 2!

 

 

Where Have All the Interesting People Gone

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

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

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

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

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

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

DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR INTERESTINGNESS IS?

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

HOW TO CULTIVATE YOUR INTERESTINGNESS

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

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

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

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

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

You must guard it. You must cultivate it.

Nobody else will do it for you.

 

 

The Power of the Project: A Framework for Finding Passion and Meaning in Your Life

Over the years I’ve observed my own work tendencies, moods, and productivity closely. I’ve also carefully observed the work habits and characteristics of interesting and accomplished people I’ve crossed path with in addition to having read about in the pages of biographical books. There are a couple ideas that seem to cut across the vast majority of people that accomplish important things within their respective domains. One of the most important is the ability to select and work on a project of personal importance over a long period of time.

 

Just looking at my own experiences with productivity and mental well-being makes it very clear how important it is that I have a long term project to orient myself with. For example, some of the most productive and happy times of my life have been:

  • Writing each of my e-books.

  • Developing The Simpler Life.

  • Launching and developing SamSpurlin.com.

  • Launching and developing life coaching and personal development coaching.

  • Writing a 25 page paper on an obscure historical topic.

  • Training for my first half marathon.

Some of these projects are ongoing and some of them have been successfully completed. While I was working on each of these projects I could always seem to more easily align my actions with my values which resulted in a greater sense of well-being in my daily life.

On the flip side, when I’m feeling my worst, listless, unmotivated, and weak, it usually means I don’t have a project that I’m excited about. At this point, it’s important that I distinguish between the everyday use of the word “project” and the type of long term project I’m talking about here. Most of us have a huge array of projects of varying sizes that we have in some state of completion. Projects our boss expects us to finish for work, projects our spouses expect us to finish at home, projects for school — most of us have no shortage of projects in our life.

However, I’m talking about a project that speaks to you at a deeper level. A project that you’re undertaking just because you like the sound of it. A project that is just an opportunity for you to investigate something that interests you further. I’m talking about projects that get you excited to work on and aren’t necessarily related to what you do to make money (although, they can be).

WHY DO YOU NEED ONE?

Having a personal project can help your quest for a well-lived life in a couple different ways. In addition to likely being intrinsically motivating (you do it just because you enjoy the act of working on it), there are a couple other benefits you could be reaping from developing a long term personal project.

First, projects of this nature generally take a long time to accomplish. I would consider the short end of the spectrum to be 6 months while the upper bound is almost limitless. Since this isn’t a project that you can just sit down and knock out in one evening of concerted effort you will develop your discipline as you steadily chip away at it over time. One of the beautiful things about discipline is that once you’ve developed it you can bring it to bear on nearly any other problem. Developing discipline as you work on your project will increase the amount of discipline you bring to other areas of your life.

Secondly, a long term personal project can help you develop and find meaning in your own life. The importance of meaning in living a healthy psychological life has been explored by many psychologists. Most notably, Viktor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning wrote eloquently about how finding meaning through suffering separated many of those who perished in Nazi concentration camps with those who didn’t. Obviously, suffering isn’t the only way to develop a life of meaning. Finding a project that has long term implications to the world, your community, or anything else you care deeply about can help develop the sense of meaning that most psychologically healthy people share.

Thirdly, a large scope project can give you an opportunity to pull together a wide array of skills and abilities in novel ways. Most of us get very good at the specific elements of our job which means we can be incredibly efficient within the narrow confines of what we do everyday. However, without some sort of large, and often transdisciplinary, project we may never get an opportunity to use our various skills and abilities in novel ways. In fact, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, two prominent psychologists within positive psychology, have shown that using core character strengths in new and novel ways is an excellent way to increase well-being .

HOW DO YOU PICK A GOOD PROJECT?

At the risk of sounding like I’m diminishing an important point, let me just say that it almost doesn’t matter what you pick as your project as long as it’s inherently interesting to you and is something that will take a long time to accomplish. The specifics about what you’re doing or how you’re going to do it isn’t as important as the process involved in adopting and working on a project of this nature. With that being said, there are a couple techniques you can use to develop some ideas for your project.

Get involved with an organization and develop a solution to a need they have. I have a friend who decided to make a long term project a fundraising effort for an organization that he was involved in. It allowed him to combine his many different interest in marketing, interpersonal communication, and philanthropy with a cause that he cared deeply about. Most volunteer organizations would love to have someone on board that would be willing to take a difficult problem they have and try to develop a viable solution.

Another possible avenue you could take is to make an old-fashioned bucket list of things that you’ve always wanted to do. It can be fun to just sit down and think about everything you’d do if you had the time, money, cajones, etc., to do. Make your list and then either select something that seems moderately possible (but still difficult) or if you’re a real die-hard, pick one at random.

The third strategy can be approached in one of two complementary ways. Most of us are pretty aware of what we are and aren’t good at. For your long term project you could identify a weaknesses and then dedicate a year or longer to making it one of your strengths. For example, maybe you feel like you haven’t read most of the books that somebody your age is “supposed” to have read. For the next year you could work your way through the Great Books. You could even start a blog where you write about your journey through the books and the thoughts you have about them.

On the other side of this approach is to take something that you’re already pretty good at and become truly world-class at it. Perhaps you already view yourself as a pretty good chef and you enjoy cooking. What if you started a project to make every recipe in a difficult recipe book? Or to develop a cookbook of your own? Or anything else you can think of to elevate your cooking game to an entirely new level.

Lastly, you can develop your project by looking at the various strengths, interests, and abilities that you have and combining them in a completely new way. As I wrote about earlier, using strengths in a novel way has been shown to increase well-being. What could you do that would combine your interests of writing, zombie movies, and interpretive dance? True creativity comes as a result of combining seemingly unrelated ideas and concepts in ways that nobody else has ever done. Get crazy and create something that ties together multiple different components of who you are as a person.

HOW DO YOU ACCOMPLISH IT?

I promise to be much more brief in this final section. I wanted to make sure I spent plenty of time explaining how important and beneficial I think it is to find some kind of long term project. I wanted to make sure that I was super clear about possible ways you could go about finding a suitable project. This last step, however, is much easier than everything else I’ve written about.

The way you accomplish your project is to take constant, tiny, microscopic, incessant, baby steps in the right direction.

You won’t complete this in a day, a week, or even many months. The only way you’ll successfully reach the conclusion of any project worth doing is to be ok with making small progress every day. It’s not a matter of smarts, or strength, or any other personal characteristic other than determination. Projects, like objects, have inertia. If you let it sit still it’s going to be difficult to get it moving again. But if you keep your project moving forward, if even almost imperceptibly, then it will eventually get done.

I’m really, really excited about hearing other people’s projects. Care to share yours in the comments below?

 

 

New Year's Resolutions in October: Getting 2012 Started Right

It's that time of year again. The days are getting shorter, the leaves are changing colors, and pumpkin flavoring is invading all sorts of non-pumpkin foods -- it's time for New Year's Resolutions!

 

You heard me correctly. Today, October 25th, I want you to start working on your 2012 New Year Resolutions. Why wait until the calendar flips over to start changing your life? What's so special about January 1st vs. October 25th? Instead of jumping into your set of New Year Resolutions in a couple months, why not set the stage right now to make yourself successful? What does it even take to be successful? Why have you been successful with resolutions in the past? Why do most people fail on their New Year's Resolutions? Am I get annoying with all the questions, yet?

There's a lot of different components of the resolution making process that we could look at. I think there are four things we can all begin doing today to make what we resolve to do in 2012 last beyond the second week of February.

KICKING 2012 IN THE FACE TODAY

Don't wait until January 1st, 2012 to start thinking about changing your life for the better. You can begin laying the framework for successful resolutions today by adjusting your mindset, making physical and mental space to grow, and clarifying your values.

  1. Mindset: To make a New Year Resolution last you need a mindset of personal development that doesn't require a new year to motivate. We place too much emphasis on the importance of a "fresh start" on January 1st when we can actually give ourselves a fresh start every day. Every day you can make a decision to continue on the path you're on or to do something different. Your days, hours, and minutes are made up of all the individual decisions you make. Each decision is an opportunity to change your life for the better. A piece of fit or a cupcake for a snack? Work on a project or browse the internet mindlessly? Do a couple pushups or make an excuse? You don't need to wait until January 1st to start changing your decisions for the better.
  2. Clear the crap: Minimalism has played a huge part in my life. Clearing all the physical stuff out of my immediate environment that I didn't truly care about had a hugely liberating effect on me. I'm not saying you need to go to the same extreme as me, but I do think that thinking seriously about what you let into your life (physically and mentally) is very important. If you want to fill 2012 with new habits and choices, how are you going to make space for them? Spend the next couple months clearing the space to let the improved you grow and prosper.
  3. Clarifying values: Everything I do with my coaching, writing, and living comes back to values. Our values drive our daily actions and decisions. For something that's so important to our functioning, very few people have a truly good grasp on their values. Spend the next couple of months asking yourself what you truly care about, what you want to change in your life, and why you believe these things. If you're clear on your values then setting resolutions that align with them won't be difficult. Tying your resolutions directly to your values means that you're going to be incredibly unlikely to break them. It all hinges on figuring out and clarifying your values first.
  4.  

Start Where You Are

On Saturday I had the privilege of attending my first all-day meditation retreat. Prior to this retreat I had never meditated for more than 25 minutes. Now, I can proudly say that I spent 6 hours alternating between seated and walking meditation. I won't tell you that I'm suddenly incredibly enlightened or an expert meditator. In fact, I distinctly remember spending about 10 minutes during one meditation session trying to decide if a shark with the arms of a bear or a bear with the face of a shark (there's a difference, trust me) would win in a fight.

 

Overall, I do think my meditation practice is much stronger and I felt like I did an admirable job for essentially being a beginner. I've spent the last month or so meditating consistently but I was worried I hadn't "trained" enough to be able to handle a 6-hour retreat. I was worried that I'd lose my mind a couple hours in and have to leave early. Instead, the exact opposite happened. I enjoyed it immensely and was disappointed when it ended.

One of my favorite parts was the short discussion we had at the end of the retreat. We each took a turn talking about what we experienced and had an opportunity to bring anything up that we wanted to discuss. I said something along the lines of what I already wrote. However, the lady directly to my left said something that I found particularly profound:

"START WHERE YOU ARE."

For some reason, that really hit me. I've spent a ridiculous amount of time worrying about what I haven't accomplished yet, about how everyone is ahead of me, and how I'm somehow not good enough. Accepting the fact that you just have to start is liberating. Everyone started at some point. Some people just didn't stop. We all start with differing experiences, skills, and aptitudes but that doesn't mean we have to stay where we start.

A start is just a point in time, not the path we must follow.

MY STORY OF STARTING.

It made me think about why I never started a serious blog before October of 2009. I've been reading blogs consistently and dabbling in my own writing since about 2006 but I never took the plunge into publishing my writing online. I would look at blogs I admired, and convince myself that starting a blog was pointless. How was I supposed to compete with the likes of those huge A-listers? Who was I to think that people would want to read my writing? Starting just seemed so daunting.

For whatever reason I finally decided to launch my first "real" blog, The Simpler Life, a couple years ago. I decided to stop worrying about where everyone else was in relation to me and just start. Once I got started it became a lot easier to move in the right direction. Eventually, a year passed. And then two (actually, I just realized as I was writing this article that I passed my two-year blogging anniversary five days ago). And now, even though it boggles my mind sometimes, people email me for advice about starting a blog. That never would have happened if I didn't decide to just start where I was two years ago (samspurlin@gmail.com -- go for it).

I'm a little bit surprised I've written so much about such a simple sentence, but I really do think it's one of the most important pieces of advice that people (including myself) need to hear. There's always someone more advanced than you. There's always someone who is less advanced than you. It doesn't matter -- just start where you are.

Start.

Keep starting.

Start where you are and you'll end up where you want to be.

 

 

How to Maintain Control During Times of Strife

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

 

But this blog is more than an amateur psychology journal.

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

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

WHEN THE UNKNOWN SEEMS INSURMOUNTABLE

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

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

FOCUS ON THE CONTROLLABLE

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

What does that look like?

DAILY HABITS

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

ATTITUDE

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

THE NEXT ACTION

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

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

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

 

Three Lessons I Learned from TEDX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DON’T OVERCOMPLICATE YOUR DREAMS — JUST ATTACK THEM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Many Paths to Happiness

How do you define happiness? It's definitely something we think we understand but is very difficult to define.

 

Some positive psychologists don't even like to use happiness as a measurement and replace it with well-being, life satisfaction, or some other measure that is supposedly more specific or easier to measure. Regardless of whether you're going to use "happiness" as a topic of research, I think it's important to have a good understanding of what it actually means. Knowing what it is means we have a better chance of finding it for ourselves.

To that end, there's three ways I encourage you to think about your happiness -- through meaning, through pleasure, and through engagement. Christopher Peterson, Nansook Park, and Martin Seligman developed a questionnaire that aims to measure the various paths that people take to happiness (see the paper here).

MEANING

One way many people find happiness is through aligning their life with some higher purpose or meaning. Religion fits that description for some people. For others, it's the pursuit of a social ideal or the support of some type of organization. People who feel highly connected to their work and view it as a calling are likely to score highly in this subscale. Aristotle's concept of eudaimonia, or being true to one's inner self, is a concept that aligns closely with a life of meaning.

If you identify highly with this path to happiness, you probably feel like your life serves some kind of higher purpose. Your choices tend to take into account other people and how they will be hurt or benefit from your actions. You're likely to believe that your life has a lasting meaning and what you do matters to society.

PLEASURE

Hedonic pleasure, or the accumulation of positive feelings, is another path on the route to happiness. This is the philosophy that was supported by people like Epictetus, Aristuppus and later used as the philosophical core for utilitarianism (the greatest good for the greatest number of people). A life of pleasure is concerned with the summation of all positive and negative events in an individual's life. Many people initially think of pleasure when trying to articulate happiness.

If you score highly in a life of pleasure, you enjoy doing things that excite your senses. You seek out euphoric activities and anything that will be physically pleasurable. You'd be very likely to agree with the statement, "Life is too short to postpone the pleasures it can provide."

ENGAGEMENT

Lastly, another path to happiness is spending time on activities that produce a sense of engagement, or flow. Flow is the timeless state that many people slip into when they're actively engaged in an activity that requires so much involvement and concentration that they lose self-consciousness and become completely immersed in an activity. Many athletes describe it as "being in the zone," but a life of engagement is available to anyone doing almost any activity.

If you identify most closely with a life of engagement, you'd agree with the statement that while you're working or playing you're very often unaware of time. You'd be likely to seek out situations that challenge your skills and abilities and you often lose yourself in the day to day activities of living.

WHAT'S THE BEST PATH?

As you were reading the descriptions of the three different paths to happiness, I'm guessing you had a gut reaction as to which one was "right." At least, one may seem "more right" than the others. However, the three researchers who developed this scale discovered that people who scored highly in all three subscales were also the people who scored highest in other life satisfaction scales. Evidently, utilizing only one path to happiness is not as effective as cultivating all three paths to as great extent as possible.

When I completed the survey for a class that I'm taking, I wasn't terribly surprised by my results. I scored highest in meaning, followed by engagement, with pleasure bringing up the rear. All three of my scores weren't as high as I'd like them to be, but the order in which they appeared made sense to me. Even though I'm non-religious, I do believe that the work I do has meaning to the world and that I try to be in the flow state as possible. However, it's apparent to me that I'm forgoing some of the benefits of a life of pleasure and therefore giving up a completely viable path to happiness. There are things I can do, such as learning how to savor experiences, that gets in touch with what it means to live a pleasurable life.

If you read the paper and filled out the scale (which is kind of confusing, but I can't seem to find an interactive version of it anywhere online), did your scores surprise you? Even if you didn't fill out the scale, what do you think your scores would have shown you? What path to happiness are you currently neglecting and what can you do about it?

A good starting point for your personal development is identifying which path toward happiness you're neglecting and to figure out ways to make it a more prevalent part of your life. Living a meaningful life, finding ways to be engaged, and seeking out pleasurable experiences are all equally valid ways to increase your own happiness.

Edit -- The lovely Lori emailed me to say that she found a resource for taking this test, and others, online. If you click this link and scroll to the bottom you'll find the "Approaches to Happiness Questionnaire," which is the one I'm referencing in this article. Thanks Lori!

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.

 

 

The Quickest Way to Improve Your Personal Development

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

 

INPUT VS. OUTPUT

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

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

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

FIXING THE RATIO

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

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

GETTING INPUT UNDER CONTROL

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harnessing the Power of Questions

The main weapon in any coach’s arsenal is the simple question. If you’ve ever worked with me or any other coach, you’ll know that we love to ask questions. The beautiful thing about a good question is that it gets you thinking about a situation differently. Even better, the answers that you come up with are completely your own. Think about the difference between somebody preaching to you about how awesome something is versus coming to the realization on your own. An ineffective coach will talk on and on about his theories and ideas. He’ll preach to you about all of these amazing things you should be doing, you’ll probably sit there and nod, and then wonder why you just paid this yahoo to talk at you for an hour. On the other hand, a good coach will hit you with a question you didn’t see coming and as you struggle through an answer your thoughts will coalesce and become clearer. Suddenly, you’re at a new level of understanding or are hit by an insight you haven’t had before. And the best part is that you came to it on your own.

 

Luckily, questions are not the intellectual property of coaches alone. You can, and should, ask yourself questions all the time. In fact, I have a list of questions that I like to ask myself every 6-12 months, every month, every week, and one super special one that I ask myself as much as possible.

6-12 MONTHS

The questions that you ask yourself once, or at most twice, a year are obviously fairly grand in design. They try to get at the underlying issues that drive your actions and thought. These answers probably don’t change very often either because at this level, you’re going to be questioning your values and assumptions. Ask yourself these questions every 6 months to a year, write down your answers, save those answers, and revisit them again in another 6-12 months.

  • What are my 3-4 core values?

  • How do I know these are my core values?

  • What have I done in the past 6-12 months that proves these are my values?

  • What can I do in the next 6-12 months that will make these values a larger part of my life?

MONTHLY

At the monthly level you’re trying to make sure you're staying on target with how you're spending your time. Every month I like to make sure my major projects are moving forward and that I have ongoing projects within each of my major 3-4 values. Stepping back every month and making sure you aren’t slacking off in one value or area of responsibility is a great way to let yourself focus on the day-to-day actions of living.

  • How have I used my time this month?

  • Am I addressing all my areas of responsibility (family, work, personal development, leisure, etc.)?

  • Do I have an ongoing project in each of my 3-4 major values?

WEEKLY

Every week during my Weekly Review (GTD secret handshake) I ask myself a series of questions to make sure I’m staying on task. At this lower altitude of engagement the questions are more closely related to the actual work I’m doing on a daily basis. I’m free to dig into these details because I know I’ll be revisiting some larger questions that will keep me pointed in the right direction every month and even larger questions at the 6-12 month mark.

  • What did I accomplish this week?

  • What do I need to accomplish next week?

  • Do I have a very clear and actionable next step on all my projects?

  • What is on my mind and how can I get it out of there?

THE ALL-THE-TIME QUESTION

Lastly, there’s one question that I try to ask myself whenever I remember to. It’s really the core of my life philosophy and what keeps me grounded in the beauty of life.

  • What am I doing right now?

That’s mindfulness at it’s core. When I ask myself that question and I either a.) don’t have a good answer or b.) realize I’m doing multiple things at once, I try to step back, regather my mind, and focus on the present.

The last thing I want you to do before you stop reading is open your calendar and put a little reminder in there for the end of this week, the end of this month, and 6-12 months from now to revisit these questions. I guarantee if you make this a regular part of your life and reflective process you’ll gain more than you think.

Questions are power.

 

 

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.

 

 

Introduction to Flow

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

 

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

I just described the “flow” state.

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

THE ORIGINS OF FLOW

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

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

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

FLOW CAN BE TAUGHT

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

Think about that for a minute.

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

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

APPLICATIONS OF FLOW IN THE REAL WORLD

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

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

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

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

Flow is our ticket to that reality.

Going Pro With Your Personal Development

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

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

THE PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE SCHEME

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

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

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

We’re all professional humans.

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

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

PRACTICE LIKE THE PROS

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

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

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

IS IT THAT SIMPLE?

But wait, athletes have coaches!

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

So?

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

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

 

 

The Perks of Clean Lines

As I get ready to start graduate school I’ve been thinking a lot about how I manage my time and attention. I’ve been soliciting advice from other people who have gone through graduate school and the most common piece of advice I’ve received is to set limits. There is always more writing to do, another article to read, and more work to do when you’re a grad student. If I don’t set limits then I’m sure to be consumed.

KEEPING CLEAN LINES

The best way to set limits is to have what I call “hard lines” between the different modes of my life. By clearly defining work and relaxation as separate modes of being I can make sure I’m using my attention appropriately for each. You can even take the idea of hard lines further to the different kinds of work that I do throughout the day. Instead of having my attention bleed like a Sharpie on tissue paper, I want to keep my attention as fully and properly engaged as possible.

Luckily, my experience as a self-employed writer and coach the past several months has taught me some things about creating clear boundaries. On days that I clearly define the boundaries between my work and the rest of my life, I seem to get more done and feel better about it. On the days where my work and the rest of my life bleed together like mashed potatoes and gravy tend to result in much less getting done. Boundaries help us get in the correct mental framework to get work done and approach the various aspects of our life in the most intelligent way possible.

WHERE HAVE ALL THE BOUNDARIES GONE?

The problem, however, is that boundaries are becoming more and more scarce. Some people have a natural boundary when they leave their house in the morning and commute to an office. However, more and more people lack even this most basic distinction. Even people who work and live in different locations often carry a smart phone that keeps them constantly in some sort of work mode even when at home.

In my own experience, I discovered that because I use my laptop for both work and much of my leisure activities I sometimes have trouble defining a barrier between relaxation time and time to work. It gets even worse when I try to be productive in the same place I go to relax. In college, I quickly discovered that I could never do anything productive in my dorm room. I always seemed to be in “fun” mode in my dorm room even though that’s where my desk was and where, logically, it would have been easiest to do much of my homework.

As the boundaries between our different modes crumble around us, what can we do to rebuild them?

There are three different avenues we can take when seeking to create the hard lines that let us be productive as well as allow us to switch off.

CLAIM YOUR SPACE

  1. Physical space: If possible, try to have the space that you play and work be different from each other. That doesn’t mean you need to pack up and hit the cafe every time you want to do some work. I had a home office where I used the main desk for playing on my computer and a small desk on the other side of the room for focused work. I knew that when I took those several steps across the room and sat down at the “work desk” it was time to get down to business. Experiment with different spaces where you find it easier to be productive and try to keep that place “sacred.”

  2. Digital space: The internet is awesome. It holds most of the information and resources I need to write engaging and interesting articles. Unfortunately, it is also a treasure trove of kitten pictures. It can be tough to work when I know I could be giggling at funny pictures with two simple clicks of my mouse. To get around that, I use a software to remove the temptation, such as SelfControl. Another strategy I’ve used is to create a new account on my computer that I only used for doing productive work. Switching over to that account was like flipping a switch in my brain.

  3. Mental space: Lastly, differentiating your mental space is kind of a combination of physical and digital space. One way I can set up my mental space to differentiate work from play or writing time from research time is what I call “start up” and “shut down” routines. I try to start and end my work day the same way every day. I may still be using my computer after my shut down routine but executing that routine lets me know that I have switched over to a different mode. Try developing a start up ritual that lets you know you’ve started work and a different ritual that signifies the end of your work day. Let those be the hard lines between work and play.

By differentiating the aspects between and within each of these spaces we can create the hard lines that let us do better work more efficiently.

Do you create hard lines between your different modes? If so, how do you do it? Share your strategies in the comments.

 

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.

 

My Forthcoming Digital Sabbatical

In twenty four hours I leave for vacation with my family in rural western Kentucky. Every year we visit my grandparents and extended family. It’s a week filled of delicious Southern food, fishing, reading, and laying by the pool.

In the past it has also been a week where technology took a backseat in my life. When I didn’t have a cell phone the only technology I regularly interfaced with was the occasional movie or television show. Once I got a cell phone I still wasn’t able to use it very much because the reception used to be terrible out there. However, in the past couple years our trip to Kentucky hasn’t been much different from being at home. My grandparents have cable television, my cousins who live next door have wireless internet and a computer, the campground my grandparents have a permanent camper at has wireless internet and proper cell reception now, too. If I want to, I can bring my computer and not really experience anything very different from life at home. In the past, I’ve done exactly that.

This year, however, I'm leaving my computer at home. I just deleted all the social apps on my iPhone and disconnected my email account from it. I’m taking a long overdue proper digital sabbatical.

I’ve covered both extremes of connectivity in the last year. For approximately eight months I did not have home internet service or an iPhone. If I wanted to use the internet I had to go to Starbucks, the library, or somewhere with public wi-fi. It was probably one of the most productive times of my life. However, I eventually got to the point where I constantly had my iPod Touch with me so I could check my email or check Twitter if I happened to come across some wi-fi in my daily travels. I didn’t like the feeling of being constantly on the lookout for my next “internet fix.”

In January I happened to land a long term substitute teaching job so I decided I’d get internet service in my apartment. I didn’t want to be relegated to planning my lessons only at school or the library (in hindsight, I probably should have). After months of not having any internet service I was like a starving person at a buffet. I gorged myself on information.

Then I got an iPhone. It was essentially a free upgrade from my previous cell phone so I decided to jump on the bandwagon approximately three years late. Don’t get me wrong, I love my iPhone. I also hate it. It’s a complex relationship.

Lately, I’ve realized that I spend way too much time and attention checking email, Twitter, Google+, Facebook etc. It’s a cyclical struggle that I’m currently in the midst of losing. The problem is that my email account brings me good information (e-book sales!), bad information (mean people), opportunities (contribute to my project!) and entertainment (lol that kitten tripped). Much the same could be said for Facebook or any of the other social networks I engage with.

That’s not going to fly much longer though. I’m deadest on developing my ability to focus effectively. I’m not going to let my lack of focus effect how well I do in grad school. I’m not going to become like the vast majority of the people in my generation and lose the ability to focus intently on one project or task for a long period of time. I don’t need the crutch of an iPhone and constant connectivity to bring interest to my life. I can be the source of entertainment, intrigue, and engagement. I don’t need external forces to push me along through life.

So, spending a week without any of that is good for me. I’m concentrating on reconnecting with myself and not the internet. I love you guys and the work you do, but when I try to take all of it in it starts to feel the same. I need to step back and reconsider my relationship with information.

For the next week I’m going to have my Kindle, a couple regular books, my journal, and my pen. I’m going to read silly fantasy books, write about whatever catches my attention and be ok with the fact that my inbox is filling up with good news, bad news, and indifferent news. I’m going to be ok with the fact that you guys are tweeting without me, sharing awesome things, and generally carrying on just fine.

If you've thought about taking a digital sabbatical before maybe it's time you bit the bullet and make it happen. It seems scary. When I get back I'll write a complete reflection on how my digital sabbatical went.

If previous experience is any measure I think I'm going to be wondering what took me so long to finally do this again.

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.

 

 

Future Me Is Awesome

There is somebody in my life who I think very highly of. I think he has more money, is better looking, has a better job, more self-discipline, and more interesting hobbies than myself. He's always the life of the party and the driving force of any intellectual conversation. Most importantly, I think he is able to finish incredible amounts of work with the greatest of ease. He's kind of like Superman minus the crippling geologic allergy.

MEET FUTURE SAM

Future Sam is awesome. In fact, I think he is so awesome that I often leave important decisions for him to decide. Future Sam will know what to do so I just ignore the troubling situation. Writing this article is hard and time consuming -- I know, Future Sam will do it! Going for a run is tiring and inconvenient. It's ok though, because Future Sam is in excellent shape. As you can see, Future Sam is a pretty incredible dude.

The problem, however, is that I've never actually met Future Sam. I thought we had an appointment set a couple times but each time he flaked out. It always seems like I'll be meeting Future Sam soon, but never today. He must be a pretty busy guy, considering how much stuff I keep delegating to him. I can understand why he wouldn't be able to meet me for lunch next week. I'm starting to get a little bit worried, though.

THE FALLIBILITY OF "FUTURE ME"?

People keep telling me that Future Sam is getting pretty run down. He's overworked, under respected, and utterly exhausted. They have to be wrong, right? If Future Sam isn't going to do it, who is going to do all this work that I keep putting off? If Future Sam ceases to exist, does that mean I need to start making decisions now?

They've got to be wrong. Future Sam is out there and as healthy as ever. But, just in case, maybe I should lighten his load a little bit. Maybe I should stop putting complete and utter faith into his ability to be everything that I'm currently not. I'm sure Future Sam would appreciate that.

I think Right Now Sam is feeling a little unloved recently. He doesn't like being lazy and unproductive either and is eager to increase his responsibilities. He's not nearly as awesome as Future Sam, but I think I should probably give him a shot. What do you think?

Have you met Future You, yet? Is he or she nearly as awesome as you assume? Any chance you could do something to make Right Now You a little bit more like the fictional Future You?