State of the Sam: 2012 Edition

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

PART I: PLACES I TRAVELED & THINGS THAT HAPPENED

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

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

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

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

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

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

A FEW MORE THINGS

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

See a selection of photos here.

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

PART 2: BOOKS

 

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

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

The entire list can be viewed in spreadsheet form here

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

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

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

THE FAVORITES

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

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

THE RE-READS

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

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

LOOKING AHEAD TO 2013

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

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

PART III: PRODUCTS I LOVE

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PART IV: SOFTWARE

 

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

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

OS X

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

Honorable Mentions: BartenderBastionNagOnyXTextExpander

IOS

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

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

Honorable Mentions: LetterpressComixology1PasswordDayOneEvernote

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

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

PART V: WORK

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

The Space Between What You Want and What They Think

I'm hopping on a plane this afternoon to head back to the Midwest to spend time with my family for a few days. I've been trying to finish as much school work as possible for the past week so I can have a relaxing couple of days at home. With that in mind, Craig Morton graciously wrote a guest post that I'd love to share with all of you today. Craig is a life coach who writes at Ignite Change.

There is a small, yet important moment in a conversation when you tell somebody about your new plans. That last word out of your mouth hangs in silence and before your conversation partner responds, there is an overwhelming sense, a silent yet tangible sense of vulnerability.


This very powerful but usually overlooked brief moment has more meaning than all of the words that you just spoke. This is the point where you now publicly own your thoughts.

Those ideas that you were so animated about just seconds ago about quitting your job, moving, stopping drinking, leaving your partner, getting up early to exercise, going to a therapist, writing a book, losing weight, coming out of the closet, leaving your faith or whatever conceivable possible idea that you have been privately incubating are now floating in the space between your mouth and their ears. It is now no longer theoretical.

This takes more courage than skydiving, jumping off a cliff, driving with my 97 year old grandfather and/ or entering into some sort of mixed martial arts nuttiness that I keep seeing being advertised.

But once you’ve gotten those words out and for those few milliseconds before the other person gives their reaction, you need to inhale and be so completely proud of yourself because you have just taken action in the face of absolute fear.

You are the definition of courage.

At this point, once the words land on the other person you need to be solid in why you have told them this information. You might have thought that you were looking for their approval, but in reality you aren’t.

What they think for the most part is largely irrelevant. You would like their support and feedback, but it is not necessary. You’ve told them because you needed to share this vital part of your soul with them. You wanted to expose your self for who you really are and let this part shine. So whether it is met with a hug and smile or scowl and a “Are you nuts?”, you need to hinge your self esteem on the action of telling them and not their reaction. You are seeking self expression and not approval.

This shift allows you to enter the space with them as the messenger rather a child showing his completed homework, and changes the whole dynamic. You no longer need to convince them that this is the right move for you, but rather, you are simply explaining why it is necessary. This takes the expectation of acceptance out of the interaction and remolds it into that of an invitation to join you in your process because with or without them, you’re doing it.

And the reasons why are yours, not theirs.

What is something that you need to tell somebody, but cringe at the thought of their reaction? What shift needs to occur so that your reasons for sharing your ideas are to inform rather than seek approval?

How to Break Procrastination With Just a Journal

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Photo by [E]mmanuel17

Utilizing Space to Improve Your Work

The power of physical space on our minds and ability to do work is fascinating to me. When I was younger I was convinced I wanted to be an architect. I wanted to build incredible houses with slides from second floor bedrooms to pits of foam and indoor hockey rinks. I was eventually persuaded to direct my talents elsewhere when I learned I didn't seem to have much interest in learning to actually draw well. However, I've recently rekindled my interest in the interaction between space and mental state.

Your space and your work

Think about the different places you work throughout a typical week or month. How do you feel when you sit down at your workspace at home? What if you work someplace else in your home? What is your mental state like if you go to a coffee shop to get some work done? The library? Or, even more dramatically, have you ever experienced the hyper-productive mental state of working on an airplane? Or perhaps the complete opposite? The specific mental states aren't necessarily the same for two people who are sharing the same physical space. However, I think it's hard to argue that physical space has no effect on the way we think and work.

Thinking vs. doing

A recent article from 99U illustrates this point nicely. In "The Thinking Mindset vs. The Doing Mindset," Art Markman describes two "ways of being" that many independent and knowledge workers seem to face; the days where the ideas come pouring in and the days where you just want to get things done. I can certainly relate to this feeling as I've noticed my own productivity seems to ride certain cycles. Every hyper-productive week I've ever had seems to be followed by a lull (or, perhaps Mr. Markman would call this a Thinking period?). Regardless, we aren't constantly in the same mindset day after day.

In the article, Markman offers a couple suggestions for ways to alter your mental state, to shift between Thinking and Doing and vice versa. Getting some distance between you and your work can help you shift into a more creative and brainstorming-esque mindset. Literally moving away from your typical workspace and the problem you're working on may help your mind re-engage with it on a different level. Your typical workspace is strongly associated in your mind with getting work done so moving away from it could provide the spark to enter a more Thinking mindset.

The wandering desk

I can see this clearly in the way I work. My typical workspaces are my home and the university library. However, at home my desk has occupied three different spaces over the course of the past few months. It started in the most typical place -- my bedroom. However, I quickly decided that spending my days working inside were a waste of beautiful Southern California weather so I moved my desk to the covered porch behind my house. After several weeks of doing most of my work sitting outside I decided to move the desk back inside (SoCal nights get surprisingly chilly!) -- but not back to my bedroom. Now my desk is in the living room and right next to the sliding glass door to the backyard. Even though my desk never left the premises, each position has put me in a much different mindset. I like the change of pace of working somewhere different, even if I'm ostensibly in the same location (which is part of the reason I don't have a "regular" table when I work in the library, either).

Independent work, knowledge workers, & spacial liberty

Obviously, my fascination with independent workers and coworking spaces also fits into this model. I think individuals who aren't required to come into an office every day quickly realize the power physical space can have over their mental states and work. Whereas the typical knowledge worker doesn't have a whole lot of say in their physical surroundings if they work for a company, an independent worker suddenly has nearly complete control of the environment in which they work. I think this is why so many end up seeking places like coworking spaces. There is something lacking in the typical home office or café workspace that many people seem to be finding at coworking spaces. I could speculate about what that is -- but I'll save that for another article. The important thing to think about is your own work habits and how a tweak of your physical surroundings may result in a myriad of benefits.

If you have the freedom to do so, try changing your workspace. You can be like me and move your desk to a new room (or even outside) or try working at a coffee shop you've never been to or drop into a local coworking space for a day of work in a new environment. We may be more of a product of our environment than we realize -- but we also may have more control over our environment than we realize, too.

Morning Wins

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

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


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

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


The Silent Majority

"Here's why positive psychology will never make as big an impact as it should, Sam. Most people don't want to do the work to improve their life. They don't want to know where their weaknesses are and figure out ways to be better, happier, whatever. Most people aren't like you."

HELPING THE UNWILLING

This was said by one of my professors during a dinner conversation a couple weeks ago. My initial reaction was to disagree -- to defend humanity. But, on a certain level, I think he's right.

This isn't the type of article you normally see on a personal development website because it deals with an issue that is completely foreign to the type of person who reads a website like this. You're like me. You're taking time out of your day to actively read articles about personal development, living consciously, etc. You've already made the decision that there is some way you can improve your life and you're taking steps to figure out how to do it.


What about the people who don't read this website or others like it? What about the people who have never picked up a self-help book or strove to better understand some aspect of human psychology? I'm sure a microscopically small minority of these people are already happy and have no need to seek more information. The vast majority of these people, though, could be much happier if they decided to do something about it. For whatever reason they resist doing the work to develop the self-reflection skills to assess what is making them unhappy. They may have a vague sense of being unhappy, but are more comfortable living with that gnawing sensation then really digging into the reason for their malaise.

For some, the resistance to dig deeper is due to an unwillingness to uncover an inconvenient truth about their lives. Maybe the relationship they're in is truly toxic. Maybe the way they've been approaching their work has been nothing but a drain for 25 years. Maybe there is a well of untapped potential that will just serve as a reminder of bad decisions made when they were younger. Whatever the reason, a huge number of people don't have personal development, positive psychology, or conscious living on their day-to-day radar.

How do we reach these people?

SEARCHING FOR THE MENTAL SWITCH

Positive psychology has a lot to offer people -- not just people who seek it out but anyone who is at least moderately interested in improving some aspect of their life. But if there is no interest, no motivation, to seek it out then it remains closed off. What caused you to become interested in reading articles like this? Is this just how you've always been? Or was there something that "clicked" in your head that made you realize you had more control over your daily experience than you thought? This isn't a rhetorical question. I think I've always been this way -- whether it's something my parents taught me when I was very young or if it's some kind of inborn trait, I don't know.

It's not as simple as sending a link or sharing a book or talking incessantly about the latest study I heard about. Realizing and accepting that you have more control over your life also requires realizing that you have to give up control. You have to give up a sense of complacentness, of comfortable acceptance of external conditions, of a sense of knowing who you are at a very basic level. Perhaps this is profoundly pessimistic for someone who places so much time and energy in the written word, but, I don't think writing, no matter how eloquent or cogent, is usually the answer. Sure, there are some people who "see the light" after reading a particularly relevant book -- but again, I think that's a minority.

MINDFULNESS AND MODELING

I have two ideas for potential starting points. First, I think mindfulness is the starting point for almost any self-improvement. This may be an article in and of itself, but I don't think any kind of personal development can happen without some base level of mindfulness. However, this doesn't really solve the problem because once again you're left with the question, "How do you get somebody interested in mindfulness?" If someone isn't interested in improving their life through their own action how do you convince them to begin meditating or experimenting with mindfulness?

The second approach probably has a higher chance of success but is both very indirect and time consuming. Very simply, living in such a way that makes yourself an example of the benefits someone can get from learning about personal development or positive psychology may be the best way to convince someone to change their mindset. However, it cannot be accompanied with nagging, hounding, or really any acknowledgement that you're hoping someone will take inspiration from you. If so, you're no longer a beacon of positive living, but instead someone putting on an act to coerce someone to change their own life. It's a delicate balance.

I love helping people who seek out my writing, coaching, and experience but after the jarring conversation with my professor I'm more acutely aware that we are all a minority. Me, you, and anyone else logging onto SamSpurlin.com. We all "get it." How can we help other people "get it" too?

Lessons Learned From A Failed Week

I inadvertently ran a little experiment on myself this week. The week after TEDx happened I was struck with the most crippling lack of motivation I've experienced in a long time. I finally pushed it aside and was able to get a handle on the projects that had been playing second fiddle in my psyche for the past couple months. I realized I have some pretty awesome projects to work on and got super excited to make some progress. Something clicked in my head and I told myself I'd do whatever I needed to push these projects forward. I was ready to bear down and get some serious work done!


Instead of buckling down within the fairly successful framework I've created for myself, I regressed to a younger (and dumber) version of myself. Specifically, I stayed up very late a couple nights in a row to "get more work done." For some reason I thought I'd be able to go to bed at 1 AM and still get up early enough to really wring out all the value in my favorite time of day -- the early morning. Believe it or not, I'm human and when I don't get enough sleep I don't operate very well.

At the beginning of last week I told myself I'd do whatever I could to have a super productive week. Instead, it was one of the least productive weeks I've had in awhile. It's funny that my mind immediately went to, "I'll just stay up later!" to fulfill the need to be more productive. A much better approach would've been making sure I got to bed on time every night, getting up a little bit earlier (since I know I love the mornings), working out and meditating regularly (because when I don't I feel like a failure and that carries over to my work), eating well, working in short and focused bursts, etc. Basically, everything I normally do to accomplish really cool things and feel good about my work. I've been developing these habits and routines for awhile and they all went out the window when I decided I needed to be truly productive.

Last week wasn't a complete bust, however. I may not have been super productive but I did gather some useful data. The best way for me to be productive is to stay within the guidelines and routines I've created for myself. Greater productivity can be found by improving the way I operate and using my time within my current constraints. It's tempting to think that staying up later night after night results in greater productivity. I think I've been collecting data on myself and studying my optimal work habits for long enough to know that wasn't going to work. The last seven days confirmed that for me in a big way.

When's the last time you had a bad week? Instead of just trying to forget it as soon as possible, is there something you can learn from it?

Harnessing Flow to Craft a Meaningful Career

Study Hacks writer and Georgetown professor Cal Newport recently released one of the best books I've read in awhile, So Good They Can't Ignore You. In it Cal describes his "career craftsman" philosophy which is pitted against the "passion hypothesis" (the idea that finding your passion is the key to happiness). Instead, he thinks the way to a fulfilling and meaningful work life is the slow and steady accumulation of expertise and skill in a specific domain. By picking a general domain of interest and then dedicating oneself to systematic improvement in the constituent skills and techniques that make up that domain, Cal postulates you're much more likely to end up with a career you love. This goes against much of the advice peddled by well-meaning adults and advisors to "follow" or "find" your "passion." This tends to set up young people for disappointment and anxiety when a well-defined and socially worthy passion doesn't magically appear in front of them.

Flow and Career Crafting

I think Cal has hit upon something important in his philosophy. Not only does it "feel" right to someone who has been frustrated with his past adherence to the passion hypothesis (i.e. me), but one of the most key concepts in positive psychology fits with it very well. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has carved his niche in the psychological literature with his investigations into what he calls "flow." In the 1970's he began studying people who partook in activities for seemingly no reason other than intrinsic motivation. He looked at rock climbers and painters who weren't gaining fame or wealth but still pushed themselves to physical and mental extremes. How can someone become so wrapped up in a painting or a chess game that they lose track of time or forget to eat lunch? His inquiries into this concept led to the development of flow, or the psychology of optimal experience.

The Balance of Challenge and Skill

One of the best ways to think about flow is to think about the interplay between skill and challenge. If an individual is partaking in an activity that is far more challenging than their current skill level, they are likely to experience anxiety. If they are doing something that is very unchallenging and they possess a lot of skill in the domain, they are likely to be bored or apathetic. There is a "sweet spot" or channel where an individual's skills and the challenge presented by a task are in balance. This is when people are likely to experience flow.

In order to stay in this flow channel an individual must gradually seek out greater challenges as their skills increase. The longer you do something the more you build skills (especially if you're engaging in deliberate practice). If the challenge of the activity remains stagnant then eventually you drop out of the flow channel and experience relaxation, boredom or apathy. However, if you're able to tweak the activity or find a new aspect of it to focus on, you can keep increasing the challenge as your skill improves. I believe this is what Cal is talking about in his career craftsman philosophy. A career craftsman constantly finds ways to uncover new elements of challenge as she develops her skills in a domain.

A Defense of Flow

If you're a regular of Cal's blog, however, you may be asking, "Wait a second, I thought Cal was critical of flow?". Cal is critical of flow because the work that often builds skill is not effortless or time altering or unselfconscious -- all components of the flow state. Instead, it's hard, frustrating, and a constant battle. What Cal describes in the article above is what I believe to be the "arousal" state in the flow model. Arousal is experienced with the perceived challenges are just outside the current skill level. It's not a necessarily pleasant feeling but is instead characterized by a conscious effort of striving to master something very difficult. I think Cal's right, the largest gains to be made in terms of skills are when time is spent in the arousal segment of the flow model. However, this is not a sustainable mode of work. It is something you can engage in for a short amount of time but if you spend all of your productive time in this state you would likely experience burnout and exhaustion before long.

It is the steady balance between arousal and flow, between skill and challenge, that allows the career craftsman to constantly move forward in his or her domain. You don't need a specific passion to experience flow. Indeed, the most powerful aspect of the idea is that it's possible to experience flow doing nearly anything. It's an exercise in attention control that can be practiced and refined. Likewise, the career craftsman can craft a worthwhile career in almost any domain.

The career craftsman needs a myriad of tools available in the hard work of crafting a meaningful work life. I think an understanding of flow theory is an important -- maybe even vital -- tool in that collection.

The Indie Worker In Each of Us

Over the summer I got my first taste of true academic research. While I was working in Prague I helped design a structured interview we gave to the individuals working in the coworking space in which I was working. The goal of the interview was to better understand some of the psychological challenges and benefits of being what we were calling an "independent worker." One of the first things I learned about academic research is how important it is to be very clear regarding the definitions of the terms and concepts you are using. We decided that the distinguishing characteristic (among several) of independent workers is the fact that they work in geographic isolation from other people in their organization (or are the only person in their organization in the case of a solopreneur). This definition, then, includes people working for themselves, people working for companies but telecommuting, freelancers, and even students. The more I think about what it means to be an indie worker, though, the more I realize how important it is for us to all have a little bit of that inside us.

While many people don't fit our specific definition of an indie worker because they work for a company and go into an office every day, the vast majority of us spend at least part of our day in an indie work-like situation. For example, anybody with any kind of side hustle is going to experience many of the same psychological challenges a full-time indie worker face. Even if your side hustle isn't designed to be a business venture, just participating in some kind of personal growth activity after work hours is going to put you in company with indie workers. The research is still ongoing -- but what are the challenges that indie workers tend to face, anyway?

Self-directed motivation

One of the hallmarks of independent work also tends to be one of the most challenging aspects. When you aren't in physical proximity to a boss or other coworkers you don't have to worry about someone looking over your shoulder to check on your progress. In our interviews, this is one of the most commonly cited reasons to pursue an independent work situation. On the other hand, not having that direct motivation can result in some annoying problems with procrastination and lack of self-directed motivation.

Ambiguity

Many independent work situations are fraught with ambiguity regarding how well you're doing with your work. If you don't have a boss or a colleague nearby to give you feedback on what you're doing you can sometimes go for long stretches of time not knowing if what you're doing is any good. It takes a lot of self-trust to self-select a goal or a path and stick with it without knowing for sure if it's the right one.

Social isolation

Working in a coworking space I heard many people talking about how they couldn't handle the social isolation of working out of a home office. While working from home tends to sound amazing to those who have yet to do it, many people who make the switch realize they rarely interact with other people. Many independent workers have been turning to coworking spaces to help fulfill this social need.

These are the same challenges that you'll face if you embark on any kind of side business. In fact, depending on your work situation you may face some of these challenges even in a more traditional job environment. Not every job has direct supervision or accurate feedback which can result in the same motivation or ambiguity problems that most indie workers face on a day-to-day basis. Learning how to overcome these challenges regardless of job situation is a valuable use of time. Despite these challenges, I think it's worth cultivating the ability to work independently, especially if you view yourself as an individual outside the structure of your job. Being a good independent worker hinges upon the ability to accept each of these challenges and adopt strategies for overcoming them. For example, being able to create motivation without the external force of a boss or coworkers is a skill that serves you far beyond a simple work environment. By cultivating the ability to derive enjoyment from the actual process of doing work you're likely to find greater enjoyment in your work, your side hustle, and your hobbies.

Learning how to be okay with being alone, with solitude, is a skill that will serve you beyond the reality of work. At the same time, learning how to utilize tools and institutions like coworking to help alleviate the challenges of social isolation is also a viable path to enjoyment in your work. Finding other people with side hustles or similar hobbies can not only alleviate social isolation, but also help challenge you in ways that improve your business or simple life enjoyment.  We have only just begun our research into what it means to be an independent worker. I'm confident we will discover ways to better support indie workers across the world. I'm also confident that we'll discover principles that will reach beyond the typical indie worker and will affect anyone who is involved with a side hustle, a hobby beyond watching T.V, and even those who work in more traditional jobs.

Photo by Chris Ford.

Sanity, Grad School, And Doing Cool Stuff

For better or for worse, I've developed a reputation of somebody who takes on a lot of work and (generally) does it well. To some, I appear hyper-productive whereas most of the time I feel anything but. Granted, I'm only three days into the second year of graduate school, but I feel a little bit different about this year than I have in the past. I'm working on more interesting thingshave greater responsibilities, my classes are harder, and yet, I'm actually working less than I used to.

I've committed myself to clearly delineating when my day ends and when my relaxation and rejuvenation begins. Sometime between 5 and 7 every day I review what I've completed for the day, make a rough plan for tomorrow, and then turn off my computer. From then on I don't check my email, do any kind of school work (including reading for class), or any kind of extracurricular work. 7 until 11 is reserved for me to make dinner, unwind, and read somethign for fun.

When I wrote my Back to School Manifesto a week ago, I was a little bit worried that I was being too ambitious. I knew I had a huge plate of work ahead of me this year and saying that I wasn't going to stay up late to do work or read felt a little bit risky. I thought that this commitment to a more sane work style would result in less output and I'd just have to live with it. I was prepared to do just that but my experience over the past week has actually been the complete opposite.

By committing myself to a fixed work schedule I've actually accomplished more work in less time than I ever have before.

THE END OF THE WORK DAY ISN'T WHEN I FALL ASLEEP

Giving an end to my day other than no longer being able to keep my eyes open gives me something to shoot for. You don't sprint a marathon -- that's just stupid. You can't see the finish when you're standing on the starting line so you have to pace yourself. Likewise, when I'm starting my day without clearly defining when I've finished the race I'm setting myself up for a long slog of average output. I'd much, much rather focus my energy into a shorter but more powerful burst. Sitting down to my work in the morning and looking ahead I know that for better or worse I'm calling it quits at 7 PM. If I don't want to put myself into a massive hole then I need to keep myself in line for those 9-10 hours and get as much done as I possibly can. Setting a finish line I can actually see added some urgency back into my day.

I NEED ALL MY BRAINS

Second, clearly dividing the time I'm working from the time I'm not-working lets me use the entirety of my mental faculty on both. I am not a genius. When it comes to my cohort here at grad school, I'd place myself as decidedly average in most facets of being a student. Therefore, I need to make sure I'm bringing 100% of my focus and ability on each school or work activity I'm doing. If I can't do that then I can't keep up. In order to bring  my A-game every time I sit down to work, I have to make sure I've rested and rejuvenated well. For many students it's a perverse badge of honor to treat yourself like garbage. Late nights at the library, sleep deprivation -- sometimes it seems like a competition to see who can be the most miserable. I opted out of that mindset as quickly as possible. I'm asleep by 11 o'clock most nights, I read books for fun, and my weekends are work-free except for a 2-3 hour block where I do my Weekly Review. All of this allows me to bring the entirety of my mental faculty during the week.

NO COMPLAINING UNTIL I'M PERFECT

One of the most common complaints I hear is that there "aren't enough hours in the day." I used to say it all the time. And then I took a look at how I was actually spending the hours I was given. It's kind of sickening how bad I am/was at using my time well. I vowed to never use that complaint again unless I was using my productive hours to 100% capacity and still felt the same way. By the same token, I told myself that stayig up late or working long hours on the weekends are signs that I've failed during the week. There's no reason for my work to spill over into those time blocks if I'm using my time well. If I get to the position where I'm using my work hours to 100% peak capacity and still have too much to do, then maybe I'll rethink my position on this (but really, that's just a sign that I've taken on way too much).

Maybe we all have enough time but are just really, really bad at using it well? I challenge you to not say you don't have enough time to do what you want until you take a super close look at how you're using the time you already have.

A Letter To The Freshmen

My second youngest brother is starting his first year of college in a week. Consider this my letter to him and everyone else starting college (or grad school or any other new phase of life):

Hey Joe,

How's it going? As your big brother I feel obligated to impart all my endless wisdom to you. You lucky, lucky man. Here's the deal, I know you've picked a major already and that's awesome. I'm sure you're getting a taste of this already, but everybody's favorite question after they've figured out what you're studying is asking you what you're planning on "doing with it." Are you going to be a chemical engineer? Go to med school? Do cancer research? What does one actually do with a chemistry degree?

I'm sure more than one person is going to sit you down and say, "Just follow your passion." On the surface, that sounds like decent advice. Who doesn't want to do their passion for a career? But I'm here with my big-brotherly advice to tell you it's bullshit. That kind of thinking makes it sound like your passion is out there somewhere, maybe hidden in a tree or under a rock, and all it requires is climbing enough trees or turning over enough rocks to find it. One day, when you least expect it --there will be your Passion. It'll be shiny and exciting and the solution to all your professional problems for the rest of your life. Unfortunately, it doesn't happen that way.

The only way you're going to "find" your passion is if you stick with something for long enough to actually build some skills and expertise. It's not about finding the perfect thing for you right now. By picking a major that you're interested in you're already on the right path. You're avoiding the multi-year search for the "perfect path." Good. You're on a track and that's the first step. But what do you do next?

At this stage in the game, your focus should be on building the skills needed to move forward in your area of study. All of those things that your classmates find annoying or really hard -- those are the things you should master. The stronger you are in the basic skills of your profession the better foundation you'll have for tackling bigger questions later on. When you get things wrong on a test, find out why they're wrong. The hard question at the end of the problem set that nobody seem to get right; figure it out.

Once you've developed the habits to truly become a master of the techniques and skills that allow you to do well you must turn your attention to a question. Instead of plotting out a career path based on a specific job, pick a question that fascinates you. Figure out what you should do, what classes you should take, what skills you need, and what connections will help you answer that question and let that guide your decisions. Chances are you aren't going to feel passionate about a "job". But a question -- a question that burns at the base of your skull -- that will sustain you into a truly interesting career.

When it comes to passion most of us have been using the wrong verb. "Finding" seems to be the verb of choice when it really should be "building" or "developing". When you get to my age (you know, the ripe old age of 25) you begin to see the difference between people who are looking for a passion (most haven't found it) and those who have developed a passion (they're some of the happiest and most interesting people you'll meet). You've got plenty of time to change your mind and make mistakes. Just always remember that you're constantly building your passion and that conceptualizing your future career as some kind of proverbial game of hide-and-seek will likely leave you looking under rocks and climbing trees. You're a chemistry major -- not a professional tree climber and rock explorer. Get in there and build the skills that will let you develop, not find, your passion in that domain.

Have fun in your first year of school and try to make as many mistakes as possible. Mistakes imply action, and like a good hockey player, it's easier to change directions when you're already moving.

Good luck dude,

Sam

edit: A few people have expressed disappointment that I appear to be criticizing my brother's major choice in this letter. I apologize for not being clearer in my writing-- that's not what I'm trying to say at all! I'm just saying that he shouldn't worry about finding a specific passion within chemistry right now. If he focuses on building general skills and abilities relevant to his major he will end up building himself a passion. I'm super proud of him and excited to have a chemist in the family!

What is your message to someone starting college this fall? What do you wish you had known when you started your freshman year of college? Interested in this conceptualization of passion? Read more from Cal Newport at Study Hacks -- the writer who first turned me on to this new way of thinking about passion.

Time Management or Energy Management

In a couple weeks I'll be leading a workshop for incoming graduate students at my university. I've been trying to articulate the biggest lesson I've learned in the past year. What do I wish I had understood better when I started graduate school? I think the main change in my perspective has been this: managing your energy is exponentially more important than managing your time.

GO HARD OR GO HOME?

It's easy to think that the best students give 100% to everything they do. It obviously makes sense, right? Those who achieve the most are obviously doing everything at the very highest level they possibly can at all times. That's what I used to believe but now I realize I don't think that's true. For the first couple of weeks, some students are able to give 100% to everything and they momentarily appear as if they are all-stars. Within a couple weeks though, they can no longer keep up that pace. It's impossible to give everything you do 100% as a graduate student.

At first, I felt badly about this. I felt like I was somehow cheating myself out of the true graduate school experience by not staying up until 3 AM every morning and talking about how little sleep I get. I thought the measure of a good graduate student was how much time I spent with my studies and how long I was able to seclude myself in the library each week.

I quickly realized this was stupid.

DO EVERYTHING WELL, DO NOTHING WELL?

Your impact in graduate school is measured in a very different way. You obviously have to do well in your classes and stay up to speed with what's going on. That's a given. But that doesn't require you to put 100% of your energy into class assignments. In fact, if you're putting yourself into your classes 100% you're probably missing out on opportunities to make a true impact. In graduate school it's expected to do well in classes so when you do well, nobody cares. Instead, people (i.e. professors) care about the other things you get involved with. They care about your involvement in a research lab. They care about your assistance in a grant they're writing. They care about your efforts to start a business or start your own research or generally just do something other than do well in their class.

TIME FOR SOME STRATEGIC SLACKING

Looking back on this realization, I think it applies to non-students as well. You can't go through life giving 100% of your effort to everything. It's a recipe for burnout and frustration. Instead, the truly high level operators get very good at figuring out where they can scale back their effort in order to save themselves for the opportunities and activities that have a much larger impact. For example, is it really worth staying absolutely on top of your email if it takes you hours everyday and results in you losing an opportunity to work on an exciting project with a colleague? Or, is it worth taking hours and hours to fill out a routine report absolutely perfectly if nobody is actually going to read it in-depth and it's just going to get instantly filed away? If doing something routine leaves you too drained to really pour yourself into something that matters, what's the point?

At a certain level, I feel a little dirty even writing this. I was raised to do things well no matter what. I was always told the true test of character is what you do when nobody is looking. I believe that's the case when it comes to issues of morality but when it comes to doing great work, you have to cut corners on the work that doesn't matter so you can focus on what does. Figuring out the proper balance of full effort and partial effort is what often separates people who do and don't make an impact in your field.

The important thing to remember with all of this, though, is that saving your energy does you absolutely no good if you don't fully engage with those activities that really matter. If you cut corners just for the sake of cutting corners then you're missing the point. I wrap up a class paper even though I know with a couple more hours of work I could make it 5% better so I can spend those hours on something that actually matters, like a grant proposal. Getting 95% on a paper instead of 90% is not worth the couple of hours I could spend doing something that could help catapult my career forward far more than an A over an A- on a single paper could.

FIND HIGH IMPACT ACTIVITIES AND DOMINATE THEM

Getting good at this requires you to shift your thinking from managing time to managing effort. We all get the same amount of time in a day. However, we all get to allocate our energy uniquely. I much prefer to give the majority of my energy to the activities that will give me the largest return. Figuring out which activities those are -- that's the hard part. And that only comes with experience and experimentation. My message to the incoming students, then, is to not measure themselves based on how much time they spend in the library as compared to the rest of their cohort, but to work hard figuring out where they can work less hard. Take the energy saved by working less hard and apply it to something that matters, something difficult, something in which they can make an impact.

Where can you allocate your energy better? What is taking up a disproportionate amount of your energy as compared to the returns you get from it? How can you fix it?

Video Games Have Flow Figured Out

I'm learning more about myself just by paying attention to how I feel in certain situations. I've recently realized that I'm drawn to activities and programs that focus on small, incremental steps of improvement. Let me share some recent examples.

I've started a bodyweight conditioning program that focuses on 6 major "master moves" (such as handstand pushups, one armed pushups and other insanely difficult things to do). Right now the thought of doing any of these master moves is downright farcicical. However, each move has been broken down into 10 intermediate steps that build on each other. The first step to doing one armed pushups, for example, is simply doing pushups leaning against a wall. And then leaning against a table. And then kneeling pushups -- and so on. The program specifically tells you to start at the beginning even if you can succesfully complete later steps. The focus is on building the body awareness, joint/ligament strength, and mental strength necessary to do the later moves. I've really enjoyed it because I have smaller goals to shoot for (each intermediate step) and I can see physical evidence of getting stronger when I'm able to complete more reps than I did last time.

Another recent example comes from a much less productive aspect of my life. I've recently been playing some video games (Starcraft 2 *ahem*) that have various "achievements" that are earned for doing things within the game. Although I've already "beaten" the game I've been playing recently, I've started going through and earning the various achievements that I didn't get the first time through. It's kind of silly how good it feels to complete an achievement and be able to scratch it off my list (this same feeling probably partially explains the rush I get when I finish something on a to-do list).

Two other websites I've been using for personal development, Duolingo and Khan Academy, also use the achievement model for tracking progress. It's nice to be able to look back and see how far I've come and to know precisely what is ahead of me. Even the website I use to track my workouts, Fitocracy, uses the achievement model. This idea of instant feedback, which is essentially what you get by earning or not earning an achievement, is the core basis for the success of this model. It makes sense when you look atCsikszentmihalyi's research on flow, as well.

One of the required components of experiencing flow is constant and immediate feedback. Video games provide this by the level of success you're experiencing in the game. Almost anybody who enjoys playing video games will tell you it's incredibly easy to fall into a flow state while playing them. A lot of times, though, it can be harder to find flow in things that are less "fun". I've been finding myself finding flow a lot more often recently and I think it's partially because of these services I've been using that provide feedback in a more visual way. Fitocracy gives me points and gives me badges when I work out. I can log in and see how far I've come in my physical strength. When I'm studying French in Duolingo I'm more likely to stick with a study session for longer if I'm at a point where I'm close to moving on to the next "level". In my bodyweight workout routine I can see where I am in the progression to "mastery" and I know exactly whether I'm moving forward or not.

There's a lot to be said for this video game model of achievement and progress tracking. There are even some apps that try to take this concept and apply it to traditional to-do lists. I haven't found one that really does it well, yet. Ideally, I could give my to-do list to a program, it'd automatically break up larger projects into smaller chunks, and would provide me with achievements like, "Write for 20 minutes 3 days in a row," or, "Make 5 phone calls in 2 days," or other goofy things like that. It seems silly, but turning my productivity into more of a game and harnessing the idea that immediate feedback helps facilitate flow could be prety huge.

It's something I'm going to keep playing with in the future and I'd love to hear any thoughts about what you do to keep yourself engaged with your work.

 

A Paradox Of Personal Development: Self Acceptance vs. Self Improvement

The more I learn about Buddhism and develop my own meditation practice the more I think about one of the core paradoxes of happiness. It seems there are two paths you can take on the path to greater well-being. You can work to close the gap between where you currently perceive yourself to be and where you want to be. That's generally called personal development. The other path is to close the gap between who you perceive yourself to be and who you want to be by shifting who you want to be to who you are. I'm calling this self-acceptance.

I think this is a fundamental aspect of being human: what is the best balance between personal development and self-acceptance? Too much of either would appear to result in less-than-ideal results. If you're 100% focused on personal development then you lose awareness of the present. Being obsessed with being "better" can end up being a profoundly unhappy way to live as you're constantly thinking about how the future can be different from the present. There's nothing wrong with wanting a better future for yourself but if it comes at the cost of enjoying the present you have to ask yourself if it's worth the price.

On the other hand, the other end of the continuum doesn't seem optimal either. Complete self-acceptance with no interest in personal development results in a lack of preparedness for the future. Working on yourself helps you be ready to take advantage of opportunities when they arise. Whether that is something as simple as getting into better shape so you can play with your kids or being strong enough to save someone from an emergency situation, personal development of some nature is what prepared you. Complete lack of interest in personal development also means that you're not interested in improving yourself for the benefit of the people around you. I do lots of annoying things that I'm trying to be better about because I don't want the people I care about to have to deal with it.

There is clearly some optimal point on the continuum between complete self-acceptance and personal development that we should be aiming for. In the past, I thought of this as a static place where once I found it I'd know it. Now, I've come to think of the continuum as much more fluid. I think that optimal point changes depending on the situation in your life. For example, sometimes I think too much about what I could be doing to improve myself. I'll make lists of habits I want to change, things I want to learn about, and online courses I want to take. I become acutely aware of how who I want to be and who I currently am are vastly different. At times like these it can be helpful to take a step back, re-engage with my meditation practice with new dedication, and try to cultivate some self-acceptance. At other times I can find myself becoming complacent. When complacency sets in it means I've stopped challenging myself. That's when I need to scale back the self-acceptance and kick my butt a bit.

What seems important to me now, and I think I'm getting better at this, is figuring out where I am on the continuum and where I need to be. I think a lot of the mental anguish we experience in our lives is caused by not recognizing our mental state. We feel something unpleasant and we leave it at that. Feeling unpleasant leaves us cranky and irritable. But if you can feel unpleasant and then identify WHY you feel unpleasant, that's a whole new story. I'm getting better at labeling my emotions for what they are. A labeled emotion is going to have a much less severe impact on your mental well-being (both bad and good, though).

Learning how to label emotions and recognize where you are on the self-acceptance/personal development continuum is a topic for another article, unfortunately. The sneak peak, though, is that it comes from training your mind. How do you think you develop this ability?

Being Fast Isn't an Advantage Anymore

There's no comparative advantage in being fast anymore.

A comparative advantage is when you're better at something than all of your competitors due to your environmental (or otherwise) advantages. For example, Canada has a comparative advantage in producing maple syrup as compared to Dubai (for pretty obvious reasons). It'd be really stupid for Dubai to try to match Canada's maple syrup output considering they are situated in the middle of a desert and Canada is inundated with maple syrupy goodness.

Applying this idea to personal productivity, it used to be that you could have a comparative advantage in productivity and effectiveness if you were super fast in responding to requests and dealing with information. Before everyone had smart phones you could gain a significant advantage over other people by quickly returning emails or looking up information. Awhile ago, it would have taken some serious skills and dedication that not everyone else would've had. You would've reaped the rewards of having a comparative advantage. You would be seen as more productive, get the promotions, the adulation, and everything else that comes with being seen as a high performer. Dealing with multiple streams of information quickly and efficiently used to be something that got you noticed.

Not anymore.

Now, almost everyone can multitask pretty well. Anybody with a smart phone can respond to emails instantaneously or look up random tidbits of information at a moment's notice. Today's technology has flattened the playing field when it comes to dealing with information efficiently. Sure, some people are better at it than others, but overall there's no significant advantage to be gained by being "good" at handling lots of information.

Where's the new comparative advantage then? As multitasking and instantaneous communication become the norm, how can you stand out? I think the new comparative advantage will go to those people that can cut through the noise of always-on information and think deeply, with full concentration, and high levels of creativity, for a sustained amount of time. Almost any kind of work that ends up being new or noteworthy requires somebody (or a team of somebodies) who eliminated distractions long enough to wrestle with some hard questions. It's not easy to do -- especially since the normal operation of our society is doing an excellent job at eradicating the skills that make this possible.

As a former student of history and a self-proclaimed history nerd, I read a lot of biographies. A hobby of mine has been to take note of the people in these biographies who have done amazing things and try to find points of similarities. Obviously, they all had different styles for doing remarkable work. However, I have found one common factor that seems to unite anybody who gets a biography written about them -- they had a very developed ability to focus. Cutting out distractions and diving deep into a problem seems to be a nearly universal skill that remarkable people have.

Unfortunately, I think this ability is being swiftly destroyed. Is that worrying to anyone else? One of the only unifying characteristic of people who do great things (in my admittedly amateur research) is being largely removed from our society! Constant distractions, notifications, instant gratification, and constant streams of information allow us to never develop our ability to focus if we don't choose to do so.

That's why I think that those people who are cultivating this ability are going to reap the rewards of being a rare commodity. Being able to focus and think deeply will get you noticed in a sea of people who are skimming along the surface. The ability to dive deep and come back with important insights, creative connections, or innovative solutions is going to be something that is reserved for those who have honed their concentration and focus.

This is part of the reason why I think meditation is going to become an increasingly "normal" thing to do over the next 50 years. While still somewhat in the domain of the mystical, meditation seems to be the single best way to develop the ability to focus. Working out is the best way to strengthen your body and meditating seems to be a great way to strengthen your mind. I hope to see the day where meditation is taught in an effort to inform people about healthy living just like eating vegetables or getting enough sleep.

Let's stop acting like we live in a world where multitasking and being constantly connected will give us some kind of advantage. It's old news by now. Almost everyone can do it. What almost everyone can't do, however, is truly think.

What are you going to do to make this comparative advantage work for you?

 

Small Changes, Big Effect

I recently made a simple tweak to my workflow that has completely changed my mental clarity.

I recently wrote about how my GTD system turned into a database of information that was unwieldy and overwhelming. Luckily, I was able to accurately critique my situation and realize what my system lacked curation. Once you get good at maintaining a GTD system it's easy to let it get out of control. Paradoxical, I know. Reintroducing a certain level of curation helped me regain my composure when it came to keeping track of what I wanted to do.

The real difference-maker, though, was something completely different. Before I introduce it, let me explain what my brain felt like a couple weeks ago.

I have a lot of large and interesting projects that I'm currently working on. I recently moved to Prague and am working on writing a research proposal. I'm organizing a day long TEDx event for over 600 people. All of my volunteers live in the United States and I'm in Europe so the already daunting task of leading a team of 20 volunteers is compounded by distance. I'm trying to build my coaching and consulting business while challenging myself to write more in-depth and well-researched articles (like this one on passion or this one on grit). I've also just started working on a major product that I'm hoping to release to my readers some time before the end of the year. Needless to say, I have a lot going on.

Most days I felt like I was in a constant struggle to move all of these projects forward. It was as if I had 25 soccer balls lined up on an open field. Each soccer ball represented some kind of project or commitment. Each day I would go from ball to ball to ball just barely tapping each of them down the field. I'd tap the first ball a couple inches and then move on to the next one. And then the next one, and the next one. I'd look back at my progress at the end of the day and all my projects had moved forward an inch or two. Perhaps some people would look at this and appreciate the amount of work that had to go into moving so many balls just a couple inches, but I usually felt profoundly deflated.

I decided to change my approach to getting those soccer balls down the field. Instead of tapping all of them forward a couple inches, I decided to focus on one or two and really boot them as far as I could. In GTD-speak, I told myself I'd focus on one "Area of Responsibility" per day. In that first week I decided to do this I worked on TEDx stuff on Monday, SamSpurlin.com stuff on Tuesday, coworking stuff on Wednesday, TEDx stuff again on Thursday, and left Friday open to work on whatever most had my attention. This simple tweak in how I approached my workday allowed me to get SO much more done (or at least feel like I accomplished more).

WHY DOES THIS WORK?

I think the key to adopting this approach requires a couple things. First, you have to have a certain level of control over deciding when you're going to work on things. There are many jobs where that luxury isn't possible. Luckily, all of my work has pretty nebulous due dates so it's merely up to me to figure out how it all gets done. The second key is actually scheduling your week in advance. I'm not talking about breaking down your task list and assigning it to 15 minute blocks. I've tried scheduling things like that and while it may work for a day, the first time something unexpected happens and your schedule gets completely shot it can feel like a waste of time. My previous mindset was one of, "Ok, this project I'm working on is important and I like it. But, I really need to be moving this other project forward. I haven't done anything for it in awhile." That's how I found myself interacting with 20 projects a day and feeling like I got nothing done. Now, when I begin to feel stressed out about the other things I need to do my mental chatter goes something like this, "Man... I really should be writing for SamSpurlin.com instead of doing this research. Wait! I've got all of Thursday scheduled to work on SamSpurlin.com stuff. Awesome! I don't have to worry about it right now."

Being good at GTD made it easy to shift between projects. I always had a next action written down and ready to go; just like you're supposed to when you adopt GTD. And because I was so good at GTD I always had a well (perhaps over) populated project and task list. The problem was that even though tasks were out of my head and in the system, I felt like I should do something to move the project forward all the time.

It's kind of silly as I look back on this problem and what I've written so far. I realize now that I was good at focusing on one thing at a time but I wasn't giving myself enough time to actually get dirty with a project. I'd brush it off, engage with it on a superficial level for an hour or so, and then feel so worried about everything else I needed to do that I'd end up putting it back on the shelf and engaging with something else. It really was just a matter of giving myself enough time to really dig into it and feel like I've given made significant progress. Roughly scheduling my week into Areas of Responsibility or significant projects seems to release my brain from feeling like it had to be doing everything at once all the time.

This may be old hat to a lot of you but I was always highly resistant to scheduling my week in advance. I realize that I've failed with it in the past because I've tried to take it to too granular a level. There's a continuum of planning that I had largely left uninvestigated, though. Are you having trouble feeling like you've accomplished anything at the end of the day? If so, try committing a specific day of the week for the projects that are swirling in your head and give yourself permission to go deep with whatever you're working on right now. You're likely to feel better at the end of the day and get more meaningful work done as well.

Predictors of Success: Growth Mindset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Make Yourself Uncomfortable to Unlock Your Subconscious Mind

In The Talent Code, a book about figuring out how to become an expert at something, author Daniel Coyle discovered that many training facilities in talent hotbeds, geographic areas that produced an unusual number of people with world-class talent, tend to be run-down, shabby, and nearly dilapidated. He said that if all of the training grounds of all the talent hotbeds he visited were magically assembled into a single mega-hotbed facility it would "…resemble a shantytown. Its buildings would be makeshift, corrugated-roofed affairs, its walls paint-bald, its fields weedy and uneven."

What Coyle uncovered, according to John Bargh, a psychologist at Yale University, is what's called the Scrooge Principle. It states that "our unconscious mind is a stingy banker of energy reserves, keeping its wealth locked in a vault. Direct pleas to open the vault don't work; Scrooge can't be fooled that easily. But when he's hit with the right combination of primal cues-- when he's visited by a series of primal-cue ghosts, you might say-- the tumblers click, the vault of energy flies open, and suddenly it's Christmas Day." Training in a gorgeous, state-of-the-art facility does not provide any of the primal cues needed to trick our subconscious into unlocking that energy vault. Bargh says, "If we're in a nice, easy, pleasant environment, we naturally shut off effort. Why work? But if people get the signal that it's rough, they get motivated now. A nice, well-kept tennis academy gives them the luxury future right now-- of course they'd be demotivated. They can't help it."

How can you make your environment more conducive to unlocking your energy vault? What can you learn from the Scrooge Principle?

  1. Create adversity for yourself: The best talent hotbeds are not extremely pleasant places to be-- by design (sometimes). The mind is cued to work harder. What can you do to make your own working environment a little less luxurious? If you're a writer, is it possible to shut off the Internet and only access it for a short time each day? When I was Internet-less in my old apartment for about 6 months, I saw my creativity and production sky-rocket. Try working without the air-conditioning for a week or use a couple blankets to keep warm at night instead of a heater. It may seem silly or counter-intuitive but making your environment less comfortable might be a great first step toward developing your own talent.
  2. Use the simplest tools available: Youth baseball in the Dominican Republic does not have the fancy equipment or specialized training tools that many elite baseball teams have in the United States. In the Dominican, athletes use the simplest equipment. I remember when I was 11 or 12 I played a couple exhibition games against a youth hockey team from Russia. They were all using wooden sticks (everybody on my team was using expensive composite sticks), and old equipment. My teammates and I thought we would dominate them. We quickly discovered that top of the line equipment was not needed to be a good hockey player and we were soundly beat several times. In your own work, what is the simplest tool that you can use and still be productive? If you're a writer, try writing with a piece of paper and a pen for awhile. Try running without your iPod or even shoes. Use the simplest tools available.
  3. Focus on your core competency: At the Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow, a club that produced more top-twenty-ranked women than the entire United States did from 2005-2007, students spend hours practicing without tennis balls. They call it itimitatsiya and it develops the core competency of every tennis player: their swing. If you are a writer, write. If you are a runner, run. If you are a painter, paint. It can be easy to get caught up in the related yet non-essential tasks that your work creates. If I'm not careful I can find myself spending my time researching an article much longer than is truly necessary. Formatting my writing is important; but, not nearly as important as actually writing. Connecting with other writers via Twitter may be mildly productive, but it's not writing. Reading about running may be inspirational, but it's not going to make you suddenly able to run a marathon. Mastering the component parts of your activity is what will make you improve just like the tennis players practicing their swing without balls. What distractions can you eliminate from your working environment. 

Your subconscious is an extremely powerful component of your mind. Learning to setup your own working environment like some of the greatest talent hotbeds in the world; the run-down baseball fields of the Dominican Republic or the dilapidated shack of the Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow, can help unlock the energy you need to develop your own talent. Send yourself the primal cues that you haven't made it yet, you aren't living the high life, you aren't a master of all you do, and you will be closer to the world-class talent that you desire.

 

30 Days Will Not Change Your Life

I think I can be unnecessarily hard on myself sometimes (I did just draft an article tentatively titled "I Do Dumb Things"). I get disappointed with myself when I don't follow through with habit changes as completely as I imagined I would. I've started and failed a myriad of activities, hobbies, and new habits. Just a couple of highlights from my own personal Wall of Shame include; meditating every day for over two months, going to a meditation retreat, and then not meditating for 5 months after that; still biting my nails; wasting huge swaths of time doing stupid things on my computer; eating like an idiot more than I should (donutsssssssssssss) and I'm sure many others that I'm conveniently forgetting. I started thinking about why I seem to have had trouble with certain habit changes but have done fine with others. What's the difference? And then, a stroke of insight slapped me on the back of the head -- maybe I've been miscalculating the size of these habit changes.

THE MARATHON METAPHOR

When training for a marathon you don't strap on your shoes and go out for a 15 mile run as your first training session. That's stupid because a marathon is a huge thing that needs to be broken into smaller steps as you train for it. First you run a mile, then you bump it up to two, then five and eventually, after many months, you're running 26.2 miles. Nobody looks at you funny if you tell them you're training for a marathon and going out for a three mile run, especially when you've just started. Why, then, do we think changing some other behaviors or reaching other goals is something that can be done over the course of 30 days? Stopping biting fingernails can be like running a marathon for some people. They are completely different domains but I think it might be a bad idea to think of this habit change differently from training to run a marathon. It must be broken into steps and you must not beat yourself up if you still haven't run a marathon (or stopped biting your nails) after one or two or even three months. 

The nice thing about training for a marathon is that it's easy to break it up into smaller chunks. Miles are nice and convenient units of measurement that help you see you're making progress over time. Habit changes like not wasting time on the computer or stopping biting your nails are not as easily broken into smaller segments. What if you were able to, though? What if instead of shooting for complete mastery over the way you work at your computer you just aimed for an incremental improvement over the next 30 days? I worry that perhaps we are shooting for unrealistic goals. If you told someone you were going to run a marathon in 30 days (especially with no physical activity background) they'd tell you to hold your horses, cool your jets, perhaps to even take a chill pill. So why don't we respond similarly when someone says, "I'm going to start a 30 minute daily meditation practice in 30 days!" or, "I'm going to completely stop biting my fingernails in one month!" or, "I'm going to work completely distraction free from here on out!" All of these are admirable goals but not particularly realistic. It's romantic and exhilarating to think you can become a completely different person in 30 days. Undoing 20 or 30 or 50 or 60 years of NOT being that person, however, is not something that will be easily vanquished. You can make incremental changes over the course of one month and when you add that on top of another month where you made an incremental change and another and another and another, you suddenly have the makings of a new habit or begin closing in on a new goal (your behavioral marathon, if you will).

For the next habit change you have in mind, try to break it into smaller chunks and focus on only one of those chunks for the next 30 days. If you can resist the feeling of impatience I think you'll set yourself up for a much more sustainable change. Almost anyone can do anything for 30 days. It's incredibly hard to make those 30 days stick forever, though. Take your time, make small changes, and enjoy your new behavior. Below is an example of how you could break up the goal of "stop biting my fingernails":

 

  • Spend a month thinking about and writing about why you want to stop biting your fingernails. Get every single reason, thought, and impulse down on paper.
  • Write down what you were doing and/or thinking about immediately before each time you started to bite your fingernails.
  • Keep a running tally of every time you notice yourself biting your fingernails.
  • Pick a hand. Focus on only using the nail clipper on that one hand for an entire month. Notice the difference between your hands. Which one feels better?
  • Switch hands. Focus on only using the nail clipper on that one hand for an entire month. Notice the difference between your hands. Which one feels better?
  • Spend a month not biting your fingernails. If you do, notice what you were thinking/doing when you did. 
  • Look at your notes and figure out how you can address those specific thoughts/activities (I've noticed I bite my fingernails when I'm reading so I gave myself something to chew on while I read, like a toothpick).

And so on. If it feels absurdly slow -- it should. Let's think about this for a second. If you're trying to make a habit change that has thus far eluded you I think we should probably treat it with a little more gravitas than, "Just put your head down and focus for 30 days. Then you'll have it licked!" If you've had success with that, good for you. Some habit changes may be susceptible to that approach. The ones that seem more like a marathon or have been especially stubborn require a more systematic approach.

It takes awhile but if you break it into smaller steps, like training for a marathon, I think you're much more likely to be successful in the long-term. What would you rather have, a month (maybe two) of not biting your nails before you revert or many months of working toward not biting your nails, a couple months of "kind of" biting your nails, and eventually not biting your nails at all -- forever? You could go out and walk/run 26.2 miles right now but you'll probably end up in the hospital and hate running. Or, you could build it up over time and become healthier and potentially gain a new passion.

What Is Positive Psychology

I recently decided to wipe the slate and start my blog from scratch. However, there are some articles from my past that I'd like to update and reintroduce to the blog. For the next several weeks, I'll be sharing some of these articles. If you've been following my writing since the beginning of The Simpler Life, you may recognize some of them. More than likely, however, this will be brand new content to you.

Inevitably the first question I’m asked any time I tell someone I’m in a graduate program in positive psychology is, “What’s positive psychology?” It’s a logical question that I’m going to do my best to answer in this short article. Obviously, explaining any academic discipline in 1000 words or less is a tall order, but I’ll try to lay out the basics.

POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY AS A DISCIPLINE

Traditionally, the focus of psychology has been on diagnosing and “fixing” mental disorders. Schizophrenia, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder and other mental sicknesses are usually what psychologists are looking to diagnose and correct. This is obviously very important work that strives to improve the quality of life for many, many sick people. However, positive psychology focuses on a different aspect of human behavior.

Instead of taking people who are in the negative range of the mental well-being continuum and trying to elevate them back up to neutral, positive psychologists are interested in studying how to take people who are perfectly healthy and elevating them to an even higher level of well-being. Instead of going from −7 to −1, the aim is going from 0 to +8. This is a fairly new, and yet, ancient aim. Philosophers such as Aristotle, Socrates and Epictetus all asked the same question that positive psychologists ask, “What does it mean to live a good life?”

THE TWO "FATHERS" OF POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY

Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi are generally considered the “founding fathers” of positive psychology and each head up graduate programs at their respective universities (Seligman at University of Pennsylvania and Csikszentmihalyi at Claremont Graduate University). Obviously, it’s not that well-being and the other aspects of positive psychology weren’t being investigated prior to Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, but they led the charge in creating a specific subset of psychology focused on the positive approach.

WHAT DO POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGISTS STUDY?

The topics positive psychologists are interested in are incredibly broad. A good place to start is with the research interests of the two most well known positive psychologists, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi.

MARTIN SELIGMAN AND OPTIMISM

Seligman first did work on learned helplessness. This is the idea that animals, and people, can learn to become helpless when they are placed in a situation in which they have no control. This helplessness can then be transferred to a completely different situation that is actually under their control. Because of the helplessness that was learned in the first situation, most animals then don’t even try to escape in the new situation. If you think you’re helpless, what’s the point of even trying?

However, Seligman noticed that there was always a minority of test subjects that were resistant to learned helplessness. These subjects were very resilient and led him to ask, why don’t they become helpless when most of the other test subjects do? Thus, his research into "learned optimism," the antithesis to learned helplessness, was born.

MIHALYI CSIKSZENTMIHALYI AND FLOW

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi is best known for his work on the concept of flow. Flow is the state of mind you enter when you’re working on something that challenges your abilities, provides direct feedback on your success, and is autotelic (you do it just for the sake of doing it). Any time you have lost track of the time because you were completely engrossed in a project or sporting event is probably an example of being in the flow state. Why can some people enter this state with nearly everything they do and others seem to never experience flow? How can work and school be structured to become conducive to flow? Can entering the flow state be taught and practiced?

THE POSITIVE ASPECTS OF BEING HUMAN

These are only two of the many topics that positive psychologists cover. Other topics include motivation, mentoring, effective leadership, organizational dynamics, happiness, emotions, longevity, health, decision making, character, and developing passion. As you can see, positive psychology is truly the science of studying what is right with people and how to live a better life.

Over the next several weeks I will be unveiling a series of articles that break down some of the more important topics, issues, and introduce the most important people of positive psychology.