Chaos Theory, Complexity, and Your Better Life

If you're a mathematical theorist I want you to go ahead and skip this article. It's just going to make you mad, trust me. I'm going to bastardize and vastly over simplify a complex idea for my own purposes. If you don't want to deal with that then I suggest you turn back now!

Alright, with that out of the way I want to talk about chaos theory. While you may immediately think of dinosaurs and Jeff Goldblum it's actually a little bit more complex than that. Chaos theory itself is a branch of mathematics that deals with complex systems that are inherently unpredictable (but not random). For a system to be truly chaotic it has to meet three requirements, which I'm not going to go into (mostly because my understanding of the whole thing is tenuous at best). However, there is one characteristic of chaos theory that I do understand and is actually very, very relevant to thinking about how we live our lives.

A complex system is made up of many, many parts that are extremely interconnected. In chaos theory, a very minor alteration in one part of the system can have huge ramifications in another part of the system. Another way to think about this is as extreme sensitivity to initial conditions. Over enough time and space, two objects that started very near each other but at slightly different angles will end up at completely different end points (which I understand is more an example of exponential differentiation and not chaos -- but you get the idea).

One of the most complex systems I can think of is human life itself. Our relationships, habits, emotions, cognitions, work, physical environment, etc. are all deeply interconnected in ways where changes in one domain may (or may not) effect every other domain. It can be tempting to accept this apparent complexity as impossible to untangle but I prefer to think of it as a very optimistic way to think about personal development and growth. If you're facing challenges or a desire to improve in one area of your life it often makes sense to tackle it head on. You aren't happy with a relationship so you decide to do something that directly effects the relationship in question. Sometimes, though, that doesn't work as well as you'd like it to. Luckily, chaos theory and complexity can come into play and give you a different avenue to improving your situation. A small change in another area of your life, perhaps in your personal health or mental outlook, can have reverberations far more widespread -- perhaps even improving the relationship in question.

Here are two more examples from my own life to get you thinking about how this idea can be applied to your life. Something I seem to try to improve every couple of months is my diet. I'll go through phases where I eat very well but eventually end up sliding into bad habits. The obvious way to fix this problem is to focus specifically on the food I purchase and eat in my daily life. This works to a certain extent, but I always have more success when I expand my thinking and effort beyond food. If I start working out regularly I find myself unconsciously making better decisions about the food I eat. My ostensible goal is to "eat better" but the effort I place in achieving that goal is actually in "start working out." The connectedness between these two concepts allows changes in one area to have a greater effect in another area.

Another example involves times when I'm feeling frustration in my relationships. My first impulse is to do things that involve the other person -- have a conversation, write them an email telling them how I'm feeling, have an altercation, etc. However, I've discovered that when I am disciplined in my meditation practice my relationships throughout my life improve. Meditation is a distinctly private and individual effort but its effects reverberate far beyond the confines of my own body and mind. It effects how I interact with everybody on a daily basis.

Admittedly, this is not an earth shattering idea. Of course there are multiple paths to the same goal. I think it's easy to get stuck in a rut of failure where the initial effort to make a change fails and it seems like it's impossible to break out of the habit that's holding you back. In those cases, I encourage you to think about how everything in your life is connected like a giant web. Your efforts to directly change one node of the web may be thwarted, but you have an almost limitless array of more indirect approaches you can take. Harness a little chaos to bring more order to your own life.

Thoughts on a Career Worth Having

"How can we explain this? Certainly factors like the sluggish economic recovery and stuck wages play a role, but I think the real answer is even more straightforward: It’s not clear how one designs a satisfying career in today’s professional culture, especially if lasting fulfillment (as opposed to salary maximization) is the goal." - Nathanial Koloc

The quotation above is one of the main ideas that's driving my research efforts as a Ph.D student. People move jobs more than ever nowadays and the traditional plan of getting a "good job" and working your way up an organization over 40 years is largely a relic of the past. There needs to be new ways to think about what a successful career looks like in today's more fluid job market.

Koloc argues that we should seek legacy, mastery, and freedom (in that order). I have qualms with that order, but fully support those concepts otherwise. I think mastery often drives freedom and legacy but I'll leave my quibbles with the specific order for another time. I'm particularly interested in the idea of freedom and how more and more people are consciously choosing careers as freelancers to fulfill this need. A career of conscious freelancing or solopreneurship is becoming more and more viable and I want to understand the forces that preduct and support success in this kind of work.

The final point of the article is one that I predictably throw my full weight behind: treat your career like a grand experiment. 

"I use the word “grand” to describe this experiment because the reality is that your career is not just a way to earn a living. It’s your chance to discover what you’re here for and what you love."

It can be easy to lose sight of this in the quest to make enough money to keep food on the table but I think we do so at our own peril. I think work should be more than a transaction where you shut off your brain and emotion and dreams for 8 hours a day in exchange for a modicum of security. 

We can do better than that.

Using the Bi-Weekly Approach to Habit Formation

Standard operating procedure when trying to develop a long-lasting habit is to do it every day for a period of time (usually a month) until it becomes second nature. This seems obvious, right? I recently had a conversation with one of my coaching clients that made me question whether there might be another approach toward habit development -- something we ended up calling the biweekly focus.

What if you shifted your focus between two habits on an every-other-week schedule instead of focusing full-bore on one habit for a month or longer? In the context of our conversation, my client was talking about how she wanted to get back into playing the piano regularly while also working on her fitness. Conventional wisdom is for her to pick one of those, focus on it for a month or so, then move on to the next one. This can be frustrating for many people because even though it's fairly accepted that trying to do more than one habit at a time might be a great recipe for accomplishing nothing, some habits do not lend themselves to full focus for a long period of time. In this case, practicing the piano in a very intense and focused way for any longer than a week made her feel tired and less motivated to keep working at it. Likewise, when she focused on trying to be healthier and improving her fitness she felt other areas of her life falling by the wayside to the point where it was difficult to keep up with the fitness habit.

Instead, she started a pattern where for one week she would focus intensely on piano while just doing the bear minimum to keep her fitness habit moving forward (attending one spin class instead of three). The following week she would shift piano to the back burner (practicing for 30 minutes or less instead of the usual hour or more) while elevating the amount of time she spent on fitness. By alternating between "Piano Weeks" and "Fitness Weeks" she was able to cultivate two habits that mattered to her without getting burnt out on either one.

When might this biweekly approach toward tackling multiple habits work best? I think attempts at establishing smaller habits will generally benefit from the tried-and-true approach of focusing on it exclusively for a month until it starts to become second nature. However, if you're trying to establish a habit or routine that is mentally or physically taxing, it may be beneficial to think about developing it in a cycle that allows you a week of focus followed by a week of recovery.

This approach may also be beneficial for anyone who really struggles with only focusing on one thing at a time. While I don't think this is a solution to trying to do too much at once, I do think it'll allow people who are a little bit more impatient have a higher level of success accomplishing their habits than usual. For even greater success, using the biweekly approach with two habits that tax separate systems may be a good idea. In the piano/fitness example, my client was able to spend one week taxing her body while letting her mind rest and then switching to a mentally taxing week while her body rejuvenated. At the end of each week she was mentally and physically ready to shift gears into the other domain.

I'm always on the lookout for advice that seems overly simplified or heavy handed. Humans are incredibly complex creatures and the mental conditions behind our behaviors and attitudes should not be oversimplified when greater complexity will give us a more accurate picture of what's going on. Why should all habits be cultivated one at a time for around 30 days? Starting a flossing habit and a piano playing habit share similarities, but I would argue that they're different enough to warrant different approaches. 

If you've been struggling with a habit change I encourage you to try a one-week-on-one-week-off approach to developing it. At the very least, you'll learn that this doesn't work for you. At most, you have successfully begun cultivating a meaningful habit. 

If you've done something like this or are planning on giving it a try I'd love to hear about it in the comments. What habits did you pursue in tandem? How did it work for you?

How I Use "Things"

Sometimes I feel like one of the kids looking from the outside as all the cool kids play with their fancy new toy. In my nerdy internet circle it seems like OmniFocus is the weapon of choice for task management. People love to write about it, share their approaches to using it, and generally high five each other in cool OmniFocus-ish ways. But I don't use OmniFocus. I use Things -- and it's time it got some more love. 

This isn't going to be a blow-by-blow comparison between Things and OmniFocus as I've never really used OmniFocus. Instead, I want to share how I use Things every day and how it has become the backbone of the way I work. If you haven't jumped into using a specific piece of software for task management, maybe Things will become a little bit more alluring. 

The structure of this article is going to be something like this:  an overview of what Things actually does, a description of the basic structure of the software, how it fits my specific workflow, and a few tips and tricks.

Let's get to it.

Overview

Very simply, Things is a piece of software that helps me track my projects and to-do list items in an organized and logical way. It borrows heavily from David Allen's "Getting Things Done" personal productivity system but doesn't necessarily have to be an extension of that specific approach. It keeps track of Projects, Next Actions, Areas of Responsibility, and presents them to me in a way that allows me to manage all my work.

Basic Structure

The basic building block of Things is called a Next Action. Essentially, it's a to-do list item that can be placed within a specific Project, in an Area of Responsibility, or stand alone by itself. The starting point for a Next Action is the Inbox. With a simple keyboard shortcut you can bring up a window that lets you quickly add a Next Action and it gets placed in the top-most "container" of the program -- the Inbox. You can also add Next Actions directly to a Project or Area of Responsibility, but I'd say 80% of my Next Actions start in the Inbox.

After the Inbox the next most relevant list is Projects. Each Project holds Next Actions within it (kind of like a folder). I can have a project called "Write Paper for Class" and within it I can have as many discrete Next Actions as I want (such as, "Research Social Identity Theory," and "Look up APA formatting"). Projects are anything I've undertaken that's going to require more than one Next Action to complete it.

One level of abstraction above Projects is Areas of Responsibility. This can be thought of as the various domains of my life in which I have projects I'm responsible for. For example, some of my Areas of Responsibility are "Student," "Relationships," "SamSpurlin.com," etc. Each Area acts as a folder that contains Projects that are relevant to that area.

These three components (Inbox/Next Actions, Projects, Areas of Responsibility) represent the vast majority of the functionality of the program. There's also an area to place Projects or Next Actions that you aren't actively working on but might want to re-visit in the future (called the Someday list). With this basic structure the program allows me to very quickly get a snapshot of my overall work picture, figure out what to work on in the moment, and make sure I'm not letting anything fall through the cracks.

Things and My Workflow

At least 15 or 20 times a day I hit CTRL+OPT+SPACE to bring up the Quick Entry window that lets me enter whatever text I want that then gets saved to the Inbox. I use it to capture any ideas unrelated to what I'm currently working on as well as anything I remember I need to do at any time. If it makes it into the Inbox, I know I will see it and make a decision about what to do with the piece of information. At a very basic level, this is quite possibly the most important habit I've developed that makes Things useful. Once something makes it into the program via the Inbox I know I'll have to interact with it again and make some sort of decision about what to do next. This allows me to trust my system and focus my cognitive power on what matters -- actually doing the work.

Sometimes an item in my Inbox represents a new Project. If it's going to require more than one step to complete I'll go ahead and create a new Project. A lot of the time an item in my Inbox is a Next Action for a Project I've already created. In that case, I simply drag and drop it onto the proper Project. In some cases, the Next Action doesn't belong to an active Project, isn't a Project itself, but is still going to take longer than a couple minutes to finish. In that case I'll just drop it into the Area of Responsibility to which it corresponds. For example, my "Do Weekly Review" Next Action isn't a Project in itself, doesn't belong to an active Project already, but I need to make sure I see it at the proper time so I drop it into my Personal Administration Area of Responsibility.

Another cool feature of Things is that it allows you to tag Next Actions. I use it to denote the context in which the Next Action has to be completed. This allows me to sort my Next Actions by my current context. For example, sometimes I want to see anything I can do at my computer but don't have to be on the internet to complete. In that case, I'll search for all tasks I've tagged with "@computer" (as opposed to "@online"). Another way I use the tagging feature is to tag extremely easy tasks that I can do when my brain is fried as "@easy." That way I can very quickly get a list of tasks to do when I'm not feeling my best.

Things also helps me actually do my work and not just create and organize reminders of the work I have to do. Every morning I'll look at my active Projects and Next Actions to figure out what I should work on today. I can drag these items (or use a keyboard shortcut) into a Today view that only shows those tasks and projects I've selected for the day. Anything I've tagged with a specific due date will also show up in the Today list when it comes time to actually complete it. This helps me filter through the insane amount of information that's actually being tracked within the program to focus on what actually needs to get done (while I can also trust that everything else I need to complete in the future will still be there for review later on).

Things is the central hub that my Weekly Review revolves around. Once a week (usually Sunday morning) I go through all my Projects and make sure they have at least one Next Action. I make sure all my Areas of Responsibility have at least one active Project. I make sure my Inbox is cleared out and all Next Actions are in the proper Project or Area of Responsibility. This lets me go into each week knowing that everything I've committed to doing is safely in Things and is just waiting for me to sit down and do the work.

Finally, there is an iOS version of Things that syncs with what I have on my computer. This allows me to quickly capture Next Actions when I'm away from the computer. After a day away from my computer I'll usually have a handful of items sitting in my Inbox waiting for me because I used my phone to capture ideas during the day.

Tips and Tricks

One of my favorite features of Things is using the Scheduled feature to hide a project or task until a specific day. During my Weekly Review I'll often determine that certain projects aren't going to get worked on in the upcoming week. Instead of having them sit in my active list making me feel bad all week, I'll schedule them to re-appear next Sunday (during my next Weekly Review) at which time I can make a decision about whether I'll work on them in the coming week. I also like using this feature for activities or events that I might want to do but aren't sure about at the moment. For example, if there's a concert a couple months away that I want to reconsider going to once it gets closer, I'll have a Next Action that says "Look into going to XYZ concert," pop up a few weeks in advance. That way I don't have to think about it until I can actually do something about it.

One of the best uses of a task management system is to schedule infrequent recurring tasks. I don't put things I do every day, like brush my teeth, into Things but I do put things I do every month, every 3 months, every 6 months, and even every year into it. I have a reminder to conduct a Monthly Review on the first Sunday of every month, I have a reminder to revisit my goals and vision every year between Christmas and New Year's Eve. I have a reminder to "start thinking about Christmas shopping" in the middle of October. I can use the power of the program to help me make sure I'm moving my attention to where it needs to be at different times throughout the year.

If you use the Quick Entry with Selection keyboard shortcut within Gmail, Things will create a new Next Action with a link back to that specific email in the Notes field. Since I try to keep my email inbox as empty as possible, I'll frequently create a Next Action that is connected to a specific email. By using Quick Entry with Selection I can then have a Next Action that allows me to click back to the specific email I'm replying to. A huge time saver that also lets me keep my email inbox under control

Other Software

Part of what makes Things so useful to me is making sure I'm not asking it to do too much. Things is *only* a task manager for me. It keeps track of Projects and Next Actions. That's it. It's not a calendar (although I do attach due dates to Projects and Next Actions when it makes sense). For my calendar needs, I use Fantastical. It doesn't really matter what you use as long as you're crystal clear about the information that does and does not go into it.

Likewise, Things is not for holding any kind of reference material. For that, I use Evernote. Evernote is my "digital file cabinet" and very often I'll have a note attached to something in Things that says, "Relevant notes are in Evernote." By making sure I don't put calendar items or reference items where they don't belong I can make sure Things stays optimally useful to me.

Things is an incredibly important part of the way I work and my successful use of it allows me to be more productive and less-stressed than I otherwise would be. I'm not an evangelist for this piece of software or this company -- but I am an evangelist for people having *some* kind of way to keep track of their ongoing projects and tasks. Having a clear view of everything you've committed to not only makes you a better team member, coworker, employee, or family member but it allows you to keep implicit contracts with yourself. You'll know that you can trust yourself to do what you say you're going to do. You'll stop letting things (ha) slide through the cracks and the coolest result of it all is that really cool opportunities will start to find you. I firmly believe that without knowing the precise state of your working life most of us subconsciously keep opportunities from appearing. We know we're too busy to tackle anything else so why would you have your feelers out for something new and exciting. Using a program like Things has allowed me to have a crystal clear vision of what I've committed to which means I know what else I can safely take on and what I have to let pass me by. In the past, I wouldn't be scanning the horizon for cool opportunities because I was barely keeping track of what I already had going on. This is huge -- and not something I expected when I first started using this program.

I'm probably missing vast swaths of information that would be helpful to you. What questions can I answer for you about Things and task management more generally?

The Process of Boring Work

"InsuranceAgents.com sells insurance. Again, it’s tough to find anyone with a “passion” for insurance. Seth Kravitz of InsuranceAgents.com says, “Insurance is not an exciting industry, but that doesn’t mean the work can’t be meaningful. We had to find ways to make the work more fun, make the environment more family like, and show people the positive impact of what they do.” -- Matt Linderman

There are a lot more jobs in this world that fall into the "Well, that sounds boring," category than the, "Woah. That's an awesome job," category. And this is why I think focusing on the process is so important. Even in the amazing jobs, there are going to be tasks that must be done and projects that must be completed that are straight up BORING. If you only feel satisfied with your job when you're doing objectively "cool" things you have put a ton of pressure on your job (and subsequently absolved yourself from a lot of responsibility -- convenient, eh?) to keep you entertained. The key to the craftsman mentality is finding joy in the process of doing the work. I think this is a key difference between those people who view their work as meaningful and those who are constantly dissatisfied with what they're doing. 

Mental State Continuity and Productivity

Our brains are awesome in many ways. It's pretty incredible that our lumps of grey matter hold the entirety of our consciousness as human beings. Pretty neat, for sure. However, as incredible as our brains are sometimes they need a little help. One form this takes is what I call striving for "mental state continuity."

Mental state continuity refers to the idea of keeping my brain working on one problem or type of problem for as long as possible, instead of bouncing around between lots of them. When you're working on a specific type of task you've pre-loaded a lot of concepts, knowledge, and information needed to complete that type of task. For example, when I'm reading and summarizing academic articles for my thesis I've "pre-loaded" what I know about how to read academic papers efficiently, social science methodology, whatever knowledge I have on the specific content area, and all of the thoughts and ideas I've recently had around the larger project that is my thesis. That's a lot of stuff. And it's a completely different set of information that I'd have ready to go if I were writing in my journal, watching a lecture, or paying my bills.

 

It takes mental effort to shift between these states. If I were switching back and forth between reading academic articles and paying bills I'd constantly be loading and re-loading the relevant mental states I'd need to do these tasks well. I'd be spending more time trying to remember what I was thinking about when I left a task to switch to the other one than I would actually doing what I need to do. This is why working with distractions is such a time waster. Distractions represent shifts in mental continuity that you have no control over. While it's certainly important to eliminate those as much as possible, I think most of us need more practice with not switching mental states so quickly.

 

Weekly Planning

 

There are certain things that you probably have to do every day to fulfill your job responsibilities. However, there's probably another whole class of activities that you have more control over when and how you do them. These activities are the ones you can use to organize your week to better allow you to have control over your mental state. For example, when possible try to work on fewer projects each day. Instead of bouncing around 4 or 5 try to hone in on 1 or 2. By giving yourself more time to dive deep into fewer projects you're more likely to come up with creative ideas and feel like you're making meaningful progress.

 

Tapping forward 9 projects in a week may take the same amount of energy and represent the same amount of progress as really booting forward 2 projects but the psychological satisfaction you'll receive from the latter usually makes it the better course of action to take. While I'm sure there are important individual differences as to whether this holds true for everyone, it's something you can easily test for yourself in the next week, too.

 

One of the best ways to ensure you're minimizing the amount of mental state switching you have to do is being deliberate in your weekly planning. Look at your upcoming week and figure out the main tasks for each day. You don't have to get down to the micromanagement level of planning each hour of the day, but it's helpful to know that Big Project A is going to be your main focus on Thursday so you can focus on Big Projects B and C on Tuesday and Wednesday. In order for this to work, however, you have to be diligent in recording any ideas, updates, and thoughts for Project A that come to mind earlier in the week so you can engage with them on Thursday (and not in the moment when they first appear).

 

 

The other consideration when planning your week is to think about how your mental state naturally shifts throughout the week and capitalizing on your natural tendencies. For example, I like to start my week off with a bang so I'm likely to tackle very important and large projects on Mondays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I have class in the middle of the day so it's difficult to dive into large projects that require large swaths of focus time so I'll usually work on smaller projects or something directly related to those classes. I like to end the week with as many closed loops as possible so I'll try to take care of all my administrative tasks on Fridays. For all of this to work, though, I have to make sure I record any administrative tasks that come up on Monday (instead of doing them in the moment) so I can tackle them at the end of the week and not have to shift my mental state when I'm working on something important. Likewise for ideas that come to mind on Tuesday or Thursday for the project on Monday -- any ideas have to be recorded somewhere I'll trust when I get back to it later.

 

Daily Planning 

Finally, one last scheduling consideration to keep in mind when thinking about mental state continuity is at the individual day level. When do you feel at your best in terms of doing creative work? In the morning? Just after lunch? Late at night? Do your best to match the energy level required for a project or a task to the level of energy you currently have. Doing a low-energy task when you're at full-energy is a waste of your potential. For that reason I do almost all of my writing in the morning and schedule all my meetings in the afternoon. Meetings don't require me to be as creative and productive as writing so it makes the most sense to schedule them when I'm already feeling a little tired. Friday afternoons are the most tired, so that's when I'll handle responding to non-urgent emails, filing papers, and other administrative mindlessness.

If you have some level of autonomy over your work day and how your work week is scheduled it makes sense to think about how you can keep your mental state in as continuous a state as possible. True creative work comes from digging below the surface level connections and observations that anybody can see. The only way to do that is to work on a project or a problem long enough, and with enough concentration, to break through that layer of superficiality and dig into the richness of the content below. It's not necessarily easy to do it but with practice and a little bit more consideration when planning your weeks and days I think you'll find the effort worth it.

Photo by frankdouwes

Your Life Is Not a Children's Movie

"These (literally) childish plot devices are eerily similar to the popular conversations surrounding career planning. The passion culture tells us that the key to an extraordinary life is to look deep, be true to your inner passion, and courageously ignore the naysayers as you pursue your dream." -- Cal Newport

Animated children's movies are becoming more formulaic and perpetrating the cult of self-esteem. Whether you're a rat that wants to cook or a panda that wants to be a kung-fu master the key seems to be simply believing in yourself. While this is perhaps harmless (although that's debatable) in a children's movie, Cal makes the point that much of today's career advice sounds a lot like Disney movies. From a popular career guide:

"You see, I believe you already have everything you need inside of you. You are good enough the way you are. You’ve simply learned ideas that keep you from living up to your full potential.”

Yikes. 

Cal points out that this is not deep wisdom. Finding your passion and overcoming naysayers does not a successful career make. Real life is much messier, complicated, and frankly boring, than most career advice would have you believe. 

Find something that at least holds your interest for a little bit. Become completely engaged in it and develop your skills to the point where you actually have expertise. Continue exploring the process and refining the skills of your chosen profession and you're likely to see passion emerge. It's not something to be found and there aren't naysayers holding you back from the life you're "meant" to live. 

You are not a crop duster that wants to become a world class racer or a snail that wants to go fast. You are a person who has control over where you put your attention and energy. That's a super power most children's movies have yet to explore.

How to Leverage Success Intelligently

It feels awesome to accomplish something audacious. After weeks, months, or even years of hard work and it all finally comes together into a successful product or event you are probably riding a seriously intense wave of adrenaline and excitement. Assuming it went well, you'll probably feel like you're on top of the world, the bee's knees, or the cat's pajamas. I applaud you, I congratulate you, and I want to shake your hand.

What I don't want you to do, however, is start making plans for your next project.

Maybe it feels like a waste to not utilize this surge of motivation and excitement. What better time to plan than when you're already feeling great about yourself and your abilities? And to that I answer, "Almost any other time."

Making decisions about your future when you're on an emotional high is a good way to set yourself up for unattainable expectations and burnout. It also sets you up to neglect other areas of your life that probably need attention after the period of intense focus and dedication your current accomplishment required. Instead of launching right into the planning process of something new, I encourage you to do one, or more, of the following:

  1. Reflect: Before blindly blundering into a new project give yourself some time to reflect. Let a little bit of time lapse so you can look back at the entire process with a somewhat more objective view. What went well? What challenges were faced and how were they handled? What would you do differently next time? Give yourself time to sit and observe these reflections so you can incorporate them into future projects and endeavors. Everything you do, successful or otherwise, provides data that can be used to improve the way you go about future work.
  2. Refocus: In the weeks and days leading up to a major accomplishment you often have to narrow your focus. When the first TEDx conference I organized was getting very close to happening I had to put a lot of other normal concerns on the back burner in order to give it my full attention. I delayed hanging out with friends that I'd normally see more often. I called my family less. I put forth the minimum amount of effort to get by in my classes. The end result was that the conference was a great success and everything went well but I had to make some sacrifices in the process. It was important for me to relax afterward and identify the conscious and subconscious decisions I had made in the weeks leading up to it regarding my other commitments. I had to reach out to friends, to family, and re-dedicate myself to my academic work. In a word, I had to refocus and regain some balance to my life.
  3. Recharge: Accomplishing major projects and milestones can be exhausting. While that exhaustion is often masked by the adrenaline and euphoria of accomplishment, eventually you'll come down from that high and the true state of your mental and physical health will hit you. That's why it's important to embrace rejuvenation immediately after a major success instead of immediately launching into a new endeavor.

This basic concept should be applied to both ends of the emotional spectrum. Just as it's a bad idea to make major decisions when you're emotionally high, making decisions when you're feeling abnormally low is also a recipe for disaster. That's not to say there's anything wrong with feeling particularly positive or particularly negative -- it's a fact of being human that you will vascillate between emotional states over time. However, because these are transient states they don't necessarily provide the surest foundation for important decisions. Making a decision when you're emotionally high is likely to result in unrealistic expectations while making a major decision when you're emotionally low is likely to result in overly pessimistic and negative expectations.

Embrace your success but don't let it set you up for failure. Embrace your sadness but don't let it hold you back. Find your center and use it to make realistic, optimistic, and attainable goals for your future.

Photo by jimmiehomeschoolmom

Death Spirals and Success

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This is both awesome and sad. It's also a metaphor for what happens when you try to copy others' success step for step. There are an infinite number of paths to success (and the first step for any of them is figuring out what success even means to you -- and not what society says it should be). Don't get tricked into trying to do what the person in front of you is doing. You may be following their footsteps perfectly but at just a slightly higher perspective you'd realize you're doing nothing but walking in circles. 

Stoicism and Personal Development

recent article on Motivated Mastery made me think about Stoicism and its relation to meaningful living. I don't remember where I originally started learning about Stoicism but I know I was immediately interested by its focus on identifying what you have control over and not wasting time or energy on what you don't have control over. To a certain extent, that's why I was interested in and wrote about minimalism for so long. When you start challenging yourself to live with less and only work on meaningful projects and act in ways that align with your values you begin to realize there are only certain things over which you have control. Most importantly, what you always have control over is how you reach to any kind of information or stimulus. 

One of my side projects is the website Getting History Done. Over there I share some of my favorite quotes from autobiographies and biographies. There's a whole section from my favorite Stoic philosopher, Epictetus.

"Every habit and faculty is maintained and increased by the corresponding actions: the habit of walking by walking, the habit of running by running. If you would be a good reader, read; if a writer, write. But when you shall not have read for thirty days in succession, but have done something else, you will know the consequence. In the same way, if you shall have lain down ten days, get up and attempt to make a long walk, and you will see how your legs are weakened. Generally then if you would make anything a habit, do it; if you would not make it a habit, do not do it, but accustom yourself to do something else in place of it."

Pretty simple. Pretty clear, eh?

Stephen King and Starting "Right"

Why Stephen King Spends 'Months and Even Years' Writing Opening Sentences

With a title like that you'd think that means Mr. King sits in front of a blank screen all day agonizing over the way to start his next book. Instead, that title should've said "Why Stephen King Spends 'Months and Even Years'Rewriting Opening Sentences." Somebody as prolific as Stephen King doesn't agonize over just the right way to start. He cranks out revision after revision until he has crafted that first sentence into something that perfectly encapsulates what he's trying to accomplish.

In addition to reminding me that just because something is "the beginning" doesn't mean you have to do it first, the linked article also made me think about how important it is to start things "right." 

The way I start my day impacts everything I do. That's why I get up early and try to work on something important right away.

The way I start my week impacts everything I do. That's why I try to make sure Mondays are highly productive and filled with meaningful work and save "administrative BS" for later in the week.

The way I start a major project impacts how I'll feel about the project for its entire duration. That's why I almost always start with a massive brainstorming and planning session where I can get all my ideas in front of me and I can create a framework for completing it.

The way I start my weekend impacts how well I'm able to rejuvenate. That's why I try to close as many "open loops" as I can on Friday afternoon.

Where could you benefit from thinking about the way you start a little more carefully?

The Quest to Make Afternoons Not Suck

I'm one of those annoying morning people. I generally wake up at 6:30 without hitting the snooze and by 9:00 I've usually knocked out some high level creative work. I can generally work at a pretty productive clip until lunch time -- and then everything changes. 

In the afternoon I feel like a waste of space. 

It's hard to say how much I'm objectively sucking in the afternoon as opposed to comparing it to my somewhat abnormal normal hours. Either way, I want to try to even out my work day so I'm not constantly experiencing the two extremes -- either I'm tearing it up in the morning or I'm a zombie in the afternoon. To that end, I've instituted a few changes to my daily routine and have a few more waiting in reserve. I'm going to try these out over the next couple of months and then I'll report back with what is, and isn't, working.

  1. Increased afternoon structure: One idea I have to make my afternoons better is to give myself more structure than I usually have in the morning. If I HAVE to be somewhere at a certain time then I obviously can't just sit around and feel unproductive. All of my classes this semester start no earlier than 1 PM. I also try to schedule client calls and meetings for the afternoon. When other people are relying on me I'm not going to just blow something off because I don't "feel like it."
  2. Pushing lunch a little bit later: This is a simple way to make the morning, my prime time, a little bit longer. If I'm in the groove with whatever I'm working on in the morning I can try to keep it going a little bit longer by pushing lunch to a little bit later in the day. Unfortunately, on days I have class I can't do that too well because I have class at 1 and I can't go a three-hour grad-level class without having lunch. 
  3. Matching tasks with energy levels: This is a huge part of one of my favorite productivity books, The Power of Full Engagement. Some of the work I have to do requires me to be thinking clearly, creatively, and with a high level of energy. Writing of all kind and intensive research with lots of note taking falls into this category. A little bit less intense is preparing for coaching calls, doing general personal development research, and most brainstorming. Finally, some of the tasks I have to do can be done with just a minimum of focus and mental energy. Filing, updating my task management software, triaging email, and most simple correspondence are all able to be done in this state. Knowing the demands of my various tasks means I can then match them up with my optimal energy. Doing my "zombie tasks" when I'm feeling fresh and awesome is a complete waste of my psychological abilities. Likewise, trying to write a detailed article late in the afternoon when I'm exhausted is also a complete waste of time.
  4. Each day has its own personality: The morning contains my highest value hours. The afternoon the lowest. You could say each part of the day has its own personality. Likewise, I think each day of the work week also has its own personality. For example, my Mondays are usually highly productive because I'm trying to start the week off on the right foot. I also do most of my emailing on Monday and that often means I'm brainstorming and moving forward many different projects. Wednesdays are usually my lowest productive day because I've pushed myself very hard on Monday and Tuesday. Fridays are usually pretty productive, but I'm also usually quite tired. Therefore, I try to save as many small/easy tasks, administrative duties, and errands for Fridays so I can free up more time earlier in the week for the more challenging things I have to do. It's the same concept as the #3 expanded to a daily, instead of hourly, perspective. Early in the week is best for my difficult and creative work and the end of the week is better for clearing my mental deck of various jetsam.
  5. Afternoon workouts: I usually workout in the morning but I'm considering moving my daily workout to the afternoon. My afternoon fatigue is usually more of a mental situation, not physical. Therefore, I think working out shouldn't be too much of a problem. A possible added bonus is that I usually feel more energized after a workout so I may be able to kill two birds with one stone (getting in a workout and making my afternoon mental state better). This is going to be tough because I love my morning workouts where I'm the only person in the weight room. I'm willing to at least try it for a couple weeks to see how it goes, though.

By systematically trying these different solutions I'm hoping I can make my everyday experience a little bit more pleasant. Where could you use this same approach to some problem in your life? 

Photo by Horace 

Reflecting on Summer Reading

Ever since I finished my last final exam in early May I've been trying to read as many books as possible. The summer months aren't quite like they were when I was in high school or even undergrad because the first thing you learn in grad school is that the work never really ends. However, I did have a little bit of extra time and have read approximately 19 books between then and now. 

I won't go into an exhaustive review of all of them, but I do want to share three that I think that stood out from the rest (a complete list of all the books I've read this summer and since 2008 can be found here).

Workflow: Beyond Productivity

This book is unlike any other productivity book I've ever read. I'm not even really sure where to start or how I can accurately describe it. It almost reads like what the love child of David Allen (Getting Things Done) and Aristotle would write. It's like a philosophy book in that words and concepts are very carefully defined and then systematically built into a coherent structure and a psychology book that tries to unravel the mysteries of mastery. This book opened my eyes to the very basic nature of what it means to be "productive." At the same time, by breaking it down to the very basics, the book can come across as quite complex. This paradox is probably what made the book so interesting to me as very few writers in this field treat the topic with such careful exposition. 

This is one of those books that I'm going to need to read again in the near future to unravel it even further. You can learn more about it and buy it here.

Upside of Irrationality

A few months ago I watched a TED talk by a fellow named Dan Ariely. At this point, I had never heard of him but I thoroughly enjoyed his talk and shortly thereafter I started seeing his name everywhere. I decided to pick up one of his latest books and give it a read. First, before I get into the meat of the book, I just wanted to share that I'm not 100% sure why Dan's speaking and writing style resonate with me so much -- but they do. I loved his talk not only for the content but for the way he presented it. His writing is very similar. Warm, understated, extremely clear and a touch of humor. 

Ariely is a behavioral economist which falls into the realm of psychology more often than not. His book is about how human beings are incredibly irrational even though most classical economic theory assumes otherwise. While irrational may have a negative connotation in every day use, Ariely shows how our irrationality can be quite positive. This book is chock full with very easy to follow explanations of clever experiments conducted by Ariely and his colleagues. This book is well-supported by academic scholarship yet Ariely's writing does not come across as stilted or difficult to follow in the least.

I highly recommend this book for an eye opening look at how your irrationality isn't as unique as you might think and how it can be a positive force in your life. Buy it from Amazon here.

Ripples from the Zambezi

This book filled me with hope and excitement regarding the future of independent work and entrepreneurship. In a nutshell, it's a description of a method developed by the author to help communities improve economically. While traditional development up to this point was a very top-down approach (meaning the government would create some kind of program in which community members could enroll -- like job training), Ernesto Sirolli completely turned the process around. In fact, while his job was to help local economies, he would never initiate any kind of program on his own. Instead, his theory was that the entrepreneurial spirit and intrinsic motivation of the locals just needed to be supported by somebody who could help them find the resources they need, help cut through red tap, and make connections among related businesses and ideas. Sirolli would come to a community and just start making it known that he was there to help anybody who wanted to start some kind of business. The progress was slow at first, but success started building on success and now the approach has been replicated in numerous communities throughout the world.

I thought the book got a little repetitive near the end but the basic idea resonated with me so much I didn't mind. I think there are huge connections between this book and this kind of economic development and my own interests in independent work, positive organizational psychology, and coworking. I'm not quite sure what the next steps might be but I'm glad to have read this.

Buy it from Amazon here. 

Honorable Mentions

I re-read Ready for Anything, as I tend to do every summer. It's always a good kick in the pants and reminder for what I need to be doing to keep my personal organization system fresh and well-maintained.

Christopher Peterson, ostensibly the third "founding father" of positive psychology and University of Michigan professor died several months ago. The book he completed just prior to his death is called Pursuing the Good Life and is a compilation of 100 articles he wrote for the Psychology Today website about positive psychology. It's humorous, incredibly insightful, and grounded in the best research. 

Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing is a dense book that will inspire you to slow down, turn off the TV, and let your mind wander. For most of us, that's something that we definitely need more of. It's well-researched and clearly written.

What about you? What did you read this summer? I'm always looking for more books to add to my queue and would be happy to add your favorites. Share them in the comments below!

Photo by Chris

A Manifesto For Graduate School, Year Three

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

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

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

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

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

-------

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

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

Creating Your Productivity Toolbox

Over the past couple of months I've been embarking on a series of one-week, systematic experiments regarding the way I work. The idea behind the project was to test for myself the best strategies for successfully completing my work. As an independent worker, very little of my work life is dictated by outside forces. While that sounds great, it also means I have almost an infinite number of (bad) ways to work. 

My experiments ranged from using software to block distracting websites, using software to block distracting apps, strictly following the Pomodoro Method, specifically focusing on taking better breaks throughout the day, doing the most challenging task of the day first, and deliberately trying to burn myself out. Here's what I learned.

The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique can be great. Some of my most productive weeks was when I was using this method. The key to using it productively is having an app or timer that automatically switches between the 25 minute work blocks and the 5 minute rest blocks. If it's up to you to manually switch between the two and start the timers, it starts to break down. If you have an iPhone, the 30/30 app is perfect for this.

The tricky thing about the Pomodoro Technique, though, is that using it extensively for a long period of time eventually erodes its effectiveness. By my fourth week in a row of following it I noticed myself ignoring the timer more often and even resenting the technique. Somewhat confounding this experience is that during this final week of using the Pomodoro Technique I had shifted from the highly monotonous work I was doing the previous weeks (transcribing and coding interviews) to more creative work (writing, mostly). That leads me to believe I have the most success with the Pomodoro Technique when I'm having to "make" myself do something I'd rather not be doing. Transcribing was not an enjoyable task for me so having an outside force (the Pomodoro timer) organizing my work was a welcome addition. When I'm doing something I want to do (like writing) having the outside force feels like a burden.

Eating Frogs

Beyond the Pomodoro Technique, I discovered that working on the hardest task first thing in the morning ("eating my frog") for at least 15 minutes is a huge productivity/well-being booster. I'm almost never so busy that I can't spend 15 minutes working on something that may not be connected to the overall goal of the day. This forces me to spend at least 15 minutes (and often much longer) working on something important and non-urgent. These important and non-urgent tasks are usually the ones imbued with the most meaning and yet are often the easiest to skip. Eating my frog every morning helps make sure I'm moving forward the projects that actually matter and it helps keep my stress level down. I like starting every day by asking myself, "What's stressing me out the most right now?" and working on it for awhile.

Burnout Is Serious Business

I've written about it extensively already, but the week where I deliberately burned myself out was kind of scary. I realized that the most insidious aspect of burnout is not the fact that you're tired, but the fact that you come to resent your work. Being tired is a physical malady that can be fixed with rest and rejuvenation. Resenting your work is something that can have much more lasting ramifications. I'm going to work hard to make sure I don't reach this point again. If I do, I hope I'm able to recognize it early enough to prevent any kind of serious damage happening to me and my work.

Creating a Productivity Toolbox

I think when I started this experiment I expected to land on one strategy or type of working that I could unequivocally call "the best." Instead, I realized that the best way to work depends on a multitude of factors. My current energy, the type of work I need to finish, how I feel about the work, and how much time I have to work all interact with each other and result in a strategy of execution that can vary widely. Monotonous tasks I don't feel like doing benefit from the Pomodoro Technique. If I'm feeling a lack of structure and don't know where to begin the Pomodoro Technique can be helpful as well. Free-wheeling with my work is best done when I'm doing something I'm highly motivated to finish. Doing creative work in the morning and scheduling calls and meetings in the afternoon seems to be the best way to make sure my most important and difficult work get my highest quality of attention. Most importantly, this whole experiment has made me very comfortable with the idea of continuing to experiment with how I work.

I still have a million questions about my optimal work style but I know I have the tools at my disposal to do a good job answering them. How does my physical environment affect my work? How does my physical fitness affect my work? How do my personal relationships affect how I work? The questions are endless but answering them will just continue to add tools to my productivity toolbox.

Is your productivity toolbox bursting at the seams with solutions to your problems or does the one hammer you have in there result in everything looking like a nail?

Photo by David Poole 

Why Regular Reflection is the Most Important Habit

By all accounts, I probably got my undergraduate degree in the "wrong" thing. I spent four years earning a secondary education social studies degree and then spent a year and a half teaching before moving on to graduate school in a completely different field (psychology). I did well in my education course work and by most accounts I was a very good teacher who would've become great with time. However, I eventually realized that the confluence of several factors resulted in teaching not being the right career for me. Those factors are beyond the scope of this article but I do want to address how I got into this situation in the first place and how fixing the problem that got me in this situation has had huge results in the rest of my life.

Sometime in my junior year of high school I decided I was going to be a social studies teacher. I don't remember the exact moment I made the decision, but I do remember spending at least a year before college telling people that was what I was going to do. At the time, it felt like the right decision. I loved (and still love) history and I had some great role models I could look to as I began creating my teaching career. Once I made that decision, though, I never once stepped back and assessed whether it was still the right decision. I got on a path and kept my head down until I popped out the other side (four years later) with a teaching certificate and a gnawing sense this wasn't what I really wanted to be doing any longer. 

There's one habit that would've prevented all of this -- a practice of regular reflection. 

Regular reflection is the simple process of looking back at your decisions, actions, and thoughts and making behavioral changes based on what you see. At a very high level, regular reflection will keep you from the multi-year wastes of time that my undergraduate degree could be viewed as (which, admittedly, is a little harsh considering I use a lot of what I learned in teacher education school in my writing and coaching now). At a lower level, a practice of regular reflection will help you stay on the right path with smaller habit changes and projects.

Regular Reflection and Habit Change

A lot of habit change is a process of trial and error because there are a myriad of strategies and methodologies for any kind of habit change. What many people do is choose one and just plug away at it until they either fail (most commonly) or got lucky on their first try and successfully change the habit (much more rarely). The smart thing to do is to periodically check in with yourself and ask questions like:

  • How has this been working for me in the past week?
  • What was I doing when it seemed like things were going very well for me?
  • What was I doing when it seemed most difficult? 

Asking these questions gives you an opportunity to look at some data (whether actual quantitative data you've collected on yourself or just your thoughts and impressions from whatever time period you're reflecting on) and make any behavioral changes necessary to attain greater success. The flip side is to never reflect on how well you're doing and just hope you get lucky. 

How to Build Reflection Into Your Life

You can easily build a habit of reflection into your life by taking advantage of the repeated scheduling capabilities of your task management software or calendar. I have weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly repeated tasks that remind me to look at my corresponding reflection checklists. For example, every Sunday my task management software tells me to complete a Weekly Review and on the first Sunday of every month I have a reminder to complete my Monthly Review. This takes care of actually remembering to do the review, but the next step is to actually complete some kind of review.

I think checklists of questions to answer through writing are the best way to systematically build reflection into your life. My various checklists have been cobbled together based on my own experiences, goals, and on the suggestions of various books I've read over the years. I've shared my Weekly Review checklist before but you can see it again here. My Monthly Review checklist can be seenhere. As you might be able to tell with the differences between the Weekly and Monthly Reviews, as the review becomes more infrequent the nature of the reflective questions become "bigger." My Quarterly Review deals with long-term goals and Areas of Responsibility and my Yearly Review deals with my values and personal vision. I encourage you to use my checklists or other templates you find around the Internet as a first draft and then tweak them to match your exact specifications. Then, write (and save) your answers to the questions in your checklists to get yourself thinking reflectively. Saving your answers provides a great history of how your thinking and goals have evolved over time.

Without building a habit of reflection you're forcing yourself into a low-odds game where every decision you make has to be perfect. That's what happened when 17 year-old Sam made a decision that Future Sam was supposed to adhere to for the rest of his life. Don't put that kind of pressure on yourself. Trust that you've built a safety mechanism, regular reflection, into your life and you'll likely to start finding much more success and happiness.

Photo by b-leam

Workspace Optimization vs. Workspace Agnosticism

As it is with most personal development topics I think about, I'm finding myself wrestling with somewhat of a paradox. 

What's better, identifying and creating the optimal workspace for the way you work or cultivating the ability to work anywhere? Basically, focus on creating the best environment in which to do your work or focus on being comfortably location agnostic?

OPTIMAL WORKSPACE

If you have a lot of control over where and how you work (indie workers, I'm looking at you) then you've likely invested some time thinking about what your optimal workspace looks like (and if you haven't then now is a good time to start). From the tools you use to the chair you sit in to the color of your walls and the soundtrack (or lack thereof) of your office -- you have a lot of control over crafting it around your personality and needs. With systematic experimentation and an eye for what helps or hinders your productivity, you can create a veritable productivity haven built specifically to your whims. 

This is why my home "office" always has a large white board with my weekly calendar and major due dates within easy line of sight from where I sit, why I keep a very minimal desk with just my computer and whatever I'm currently working on on its surface, and why I am always listening to some kind of instrumental music. I know what I like, I know what I need, and I create my space to reflect that as much as possible.

LOCATION AGNOSTICISM

On the other hand, perhaps our time is better spent developing the abilities that makes our environment unimportant to how we work? If you're location independent in your work then it makes sense to be able to pack up and work from anywhere. Instead of spending time energy and money on creating the perfect home office, you can instead work from your kitchen table, the park, a coffee shop, and the library with equal productivity and happiness. How location independent can you really be if you can only work in a perfectly laid out office? 

If this sounds like the way to go, then you need to develop your ability to block out distractions and truly concentrate. You need to be able to work with only a minimal amount of tools as you aren't likely to be trucking around your complete arsenal of productivity materials. You need to be comfortable working from unknown locations and low strung enough that the occasional wi-fi outage or noisy cafe neighbor doesn't send your day into a complete tailspin.

FALSE DICHOTOMIES, FOR THE WIN

As with many dichotomies conveniently created for blog articles, this one is false. At least, to a large extent. While I can definitely see people falling more into one camp than the other, there's no reason you can't both create an awesome home base completely designed to your specifications and develop the ability to work productively from anywhere. 

The most important factor that cuts across both of these options, however, is self-knowledge. It's not about having one strategy that you stick to come hell or high water. It's about knowing yourself and what you need to work well to make good decisions about how you're going to work each day. If you know you need burning incense, instrumental music at precisely 45 decibels and a fuzzy cat in your lab to successfully write, then maybe it's best if you worked from home on those days. If you know your corporate office is a good place to knock out relatively menial and easy tasks but the worst place ever to sit down and think deeply about a problem, then it behooves you to find a better environment. At the same time, cultivating the concentration and focus necessary to be location agnostic in your work gives you the flexibility and peace of mind to work anywhere, under any conditions. It's up to you to know what your day demands, to know how you work best, and then take action to make that happen.

Do what you can to make your home base as productive as possible but don't forget that very rarely in the knowledge worker economy does work take anything more than a computer and an internet connection. Strive to be the master of your productivity kingdom and the slave to nothing.

Photos by Jared Schmidt and Onyx Mirror

 

Stepping Into the Discomfort

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

So why do we work so hard to avoid it? 

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

Discomfort as Metric of Improvement

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

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

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

How to Deal With Discomfort

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

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

Process, Then Product

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

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

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

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

Photo by Lorenzo Sernicola

Removing Distractions at the Project Level

I write about distraction quite a bit. Considering the extent to which we are inundated with information it's a pretty easy target. Doing good work is hard and embracing distraction is easy. While distraction as a concept gets a lot of ink from writers like me, I think we may be overemphasizing in-the-moment distraction at the expense of something much larger -- distraction at the project level. 

Are any of your ongoing projects distracting you from what you should actually be working on? Do you immediately turn to a low-priority yet easy to accomplish project whenever you're feeling challenged by something more important? Checking Facebook, organizing your sock drawer, and responding to texts are the candy versions of doing work that actually matters. Projects can be candied, too. 

Have Your Projects Grown With You?

I think it's important to periodically sit down and determine if it's necessary to remove or downplay your involvement in projects that are more of a distraction than an opportunity for you to do your best work. Many projects are long term endeavors and therefore may not keep up the pace with your growth as a person. A project that seemed a good idea with your values and priorities six months ago may no longer be relevant as your values and priorities continued to evolve. Why keep plugging away at something that's doing nothing but keeping you from what matters?

Noticing The Way You Think About Your Projects

The thing is -- it's hard to do. Really, really hard to do. I recently decided to turn down a research project that was very tangentially related to my main interests, but involved several extremely interesting people. I tried to make it work for a couple weeks, but I noticed something every time I sat down to work on this project; instead of thinking about how I could bring my best and most creative self to the project I noticed I was constantly thinking in terms of time. "How long will it take me to research this section? When will I be able to move on to something else? I only have an hour to dedicate to this today." While it's not inherently a bad thing to think in terms of time, it begins to be a problem if it's the only way you interface with a project.

I decided to (as graciously as possible) bow out of the project while it was still in its earliest stages. I sent an email to the entire team (including the professors leading it) that was honest and to the point. I said that I think it's vitally important for everyone to be brutally honest with themselves and their colleagues when it comes to how we allocate our time and attention. Since the project was not connected to my primary research interests and I had many other ongoing projects, I knew I wouldn't be able to bring my highest quality of attention to the research project. While it felt good to send that email and reduce my commitment on that project, it was definitely a tough decision. But ultimately, the right one.

The other thing I noticed once I sent that email is that I attacked my ongoing projects with a renewed sense of energy and vigor. I found myself thinking that I didn't want to fail on these projects AND have stopped working on the other one. I wanted to show my colleagues on the project I removed myself from that I wasn't wasting my time. That I really was working on some cool things that require my full attention. It pushed me to be better in everything I consciously decided to keep on my docket.

Removing Distracting Projects From Your Life

There's no specific formula or list of criteria to decide whether or not a project is a distraction or should be left alone. Hell, plenty of times there are distracting projects in your life that you just feasibly cannot remove. We all have to do things we don't like from time to time but it is worth minimizing those projects as much as possible. While I can't give you a specific list of criteria, I can give you a couple things to think about as you look at your list of ongoing projects.

  • Which projects fill you with the most dread? Which projects can you not wait to keep working on?
  • Which projects feel like an impediment keeping you from what you really want to do?
  • Which projects do you think about in terms of how much time it will take to finish them?
  • Which projects are you not a primary component of? How difficult would it be to completely remove yourself?
  • Which projects have the highest cost to benefit ratio? Which projects have the lowest cost to benefit ratio? How difficult would it be to remove yourself from the former projects?

Your projects are the investment vehicles for your time and attention. Choose wisely. Review often. Be ruthless.

Photo via *Kid*Doc*One

A Glimpse Into My Research on Independent Work

A couple articles ago I mentioned my girlfriend and I presented a poster at the 3rd World Congress on Positive Psychology in Los Angeles. I thought I'd share a simple explanation of the research since I'm sure most of you don't want to read through the statistics and academic-jargon we were expected to write it in.

Essentially, there were two different studies we summarized on the poster. Both of them were exploratory, meaning we weren't testing specific theories or hypotheses. Instead, we were asking some general questions and trying to get a sense of what conclusions might be able to be drawn from the initial data we collected. As a note, neither of these studies have been peer reviewed yet, so they must be taken with a couple grains of salt.

The Daily Experience of Indie Workers

The first study was an Experience Sampling Method project where a group of people downloaded an app for their smartphone that would beep them 6 times per day and present them with a questionnaire. The questionnaire would ask them things like their current mood, what they were doing, why they were doing it, how rushed they currently felt, how skilled they currently felt, how much plant life was currently around them, and so on. For our analysis, we were able to split this group into two. One group was people who said they work "traditional" knowledge worker jobs. They go into an office each day and generally work 9-5. The other group of people were people who said they were entrepreneurs, freelancers, contractors, or full-time students. These were our "indie workers." We then compared these two groups on a handful of variables to see if they were different from each other. Accourding to our analyses, indie workers generally report lower mood, more difficulty concentrating, feeling more rushed, and feeling less skilled than traditional workers. However, they also report spending more time with their family. Indie workers are also more likely to respond that they are doing an activity because they "Wanted To" or "Had To and Wanted To" rather than "Had To" than traditional workers.

Indie Workers Interviewed

The second study was 14 interviews done with independent workers who worked in a coworking space in Prague. The interview covered a lot of ground including their motivations for becoming an independent worker, their expectations about what it would be like to be an independent worker versus the reality of what it's actually like, the overall positives of indie work, the negatives of indie work, the strategies they use to mitigate the negatives of indie work, and their reasons for joining a coworking space. After transcribing all the interviews (an incredibly laborious process) we then "coded" the interviews based on how people answered questions. Since we had a severe lack of space on the poster, we only focused on a couple of questions.

People reported a mix of what we called internal and external reasons for becoming an independent worker with neither one being a clear favorite. Some people come into this style of work because they lost their job and couldn't find another one, because they moved and needed to start making money right away, because they didn't agree with some kind of organizational restructuring at their old job, because they were just looking for something different or because they were craving greater freedom or meaning in their work.

In terms of the positives of independent work, most people mentioned some aspect of having greater autonomy over the way they allocate their time. On the negative side of things, people have a hard time being self-disciplined. They also commonly mention a lack of resources, both social and professional. In order to mitigate the negatives of working independently, most interviewees mentioned some kind of strategy aimed at providing greater structure in their work life. This commonly took form as adhering to a routine, joining a coworking space, making rules about when and/or how they would work, etc. As you can imagine, people mentioned a need for structure as the number one reason for joining a coworking space. Social support and looking for a sense of variety were also commonly cited reasons for joining a coworking space.

What's Next?

It's important to not take too much from this very preliminary data. I think it's interesting to note both the ESM study and the interviews point to the idea that being an independent worker is not easy. It can be easy to assume working from home or a coworking space is glamorous. It's much the opposite. While indie workers may not have to worry about externally imposed structures from bosses or organizational rules, they have to deal with aspects of self-discipline they may never have had to develop while working for an organization. Both studies point to a kind of paradox of indie work: it can be really hard but most of the time people really like it and wouldn't trade it for a more traditional job.

I think this goes to show how important autonomy is in the way we work. People crave structure even (or maybe especially) when they work in a mostly structure-less environment. The key difference is that people want to create their own structure, not have it imposed upon them.

A Skills Gap in Indie Work

The other major takeawy from this project is that it doesn't seem like people necessarily come equipped with the skills needed to immediately be successful in independent work. Everyone we interviewed could list a large array of challenges they were trying to conquer in some fasion. The self-management skills that make someone a good independent worker are not necessarily the same skills that are cultivated in the American school system. Stepping beyond the data, I think this points to a need for a fundamental shift in how people are educated. Indie work is going to continue to grow and even working for an organization is going to become more indie work-like in the future. As communication technology continues to improve, as some companies decide telecommuting is an effective cost-saving strategy, and as employees begin to demand more autonomy in the day-to-day process of work, the skills needed to be successful are not going to be the ones that schools have provided.

This project was just a first exploratory foray into studying this type of work and worker. Like any good exploratory study, it created far more questions than it answered. I'm excited to keep moving down this research trail and will be sure to check in here from time to time to share what I'm learning.

If you have any questions about the research we did please leave a comment below.