Category Archives: Personal Improvement
Since 2013, when I read about Ramit’s Year of Taking Control theme, I decided I would come up with themes for my years. I actually stole his for the first year just to bootstrap it, but after spending a year with the concept I was able to come up with my own themes that were more relevant to me. (Such high-minded things as: The Year of Finishing and The Year of Awareness.) Sometimes, I have to get into the year a little bit to figure out what the theme will actually be (I try to decide before it starts, but usually something else will present itself as a more natural path to follow).
As a very concrete example, I thought this year was going to be the Year of Productive Procrastination or the Year of Putting the Time to Work (that is: the time saved by being efficient and organized being used in the most productive way possible instead of just more time to check Facebook). Both of those would have been great. I read an article on overcoming productivity addiction on the Todoist blog and it seemed to fit with either of those themes. Instead of reading more about productivity, I would instead use my system of lists and calendars to make sure that even when I wasn’t working on my highest priority items (like writing the next book in the series), I would still be working on something productive to help me reach one of my numerous other goals. I would finally leverage my system in a more conscious way; being aware in every moment of the time I was saving, the little moments here and there, where putting things on a list or on my calendar, would help me build up a reserve of extra time that I could spend on doing what I really wanted. (If only time could actually be garbage collected like that into more contiguous blocks) I even went so far as to think: Hey, maybe instead of always doing something that is obvious, like opening and sorting them mail, or cleaning the dishes in the sink, maybe I’ll let those things slide until they really need to get done so I can put that time to use in the present instead of trying to save it for some nebulous future.
Then I read an article on the Todoist blog about strategies for overcoming procrastination. Initially, it sounded either like something that would fit perfectly with my theme, or something that I’d read a hundred times before and would be able to skim in a few minutes. It turned out to be mostly the latter, but also contained the seed of something else entirely. The strategies for overcoming procrastination were actually very good (please read them when you’re done procrastinating by reading this post), but nothing I hadn’t seen before. (Good to remind yourself periodically though)
But the breakthrough actually came in the background part of the post, where the author – as per usual – quotes some study that someone has done in order to back up the stuff they’re about to tell you. This one went like this:
Research shows that our brains are actually wired to think about about our present and future selves as two separate people. That’s why we’re able to prioritize our present mood at the expense of our future well-being even though it’s an irrational choice in the long-term.
A study run by UCLA psychologist Hal Herschel and a team at Stanford University found that participants actually engaged different areas of the brain when they thought about their present selves versus their future selves. In fact, when people were told to think about themselves in ten years, their brain patterns closely resembled those observed when they were asked to think about celebrities they didn’t know.
This separation of present and future self encourages us to make different decisions about ourselves now and in the future. For instance, one study showed people asked to tutor other students would offer to do so less in the present, but would offer more of their time in the future.
To sum up the research, we procrastinate because our brains are wired to care more about our present comfort than our future happiness.
So “Do something today that your future self will thank you for” is not just a good saying for a meme or an inspirational poster. It’s a legitimate scientific concept.
You think that your future self is someone else.
So from the point of that realization forward, this has been the Year of the Future Self.
Evidence of this can be seen if you look at the dates of the blog posts that I refer to above. They’re from February and March. I started this post in April and it’s been 2 months. Because there were things that were more important for me to get done for my future self. (No offense to anyone who reads this blog, but I don’t think anyone is sitting around anxiously waiting for the next bi-monthly installment of my random thoughts)
Thinking more about my future self has already helped me overcome a lot of procrastination. It actually kind of forces you to do a lot of things that you would see listed in those articles about overcoming procrastination, but I like the change in mindset that comes with it. Eat That Frog! becomes not just a funny way to think about doing something difficult, it becomes a question:
What is the one thing I can do right now that my future self is going to appreciate the most?
For me, and especially for my writing, I can ask myself, “How does my future self feel when he comes home from work and his writing for the day is already done?” That is a question I can answer because I know how my past self felt when that happened and it makes it much easier to imagine how my future self will feel. It draws him closer to me, makes him less of a stranger and more like someone who is almost me. And when that happens, I imagine the feeling my future self will have (or the opposite feeling he’ll have when he has to come home to a 0 word head start), and it turns it into something more about my present comfort than my future happiness.
So really, I think they key is not just to see that motivational quote on someone’s Instagram and go for a run or do a workout. It’s not eating the frog because that’s what a book tells you is the key to overcoming procrastination.
It’s about drawing your future self back into your present self. So he or she doesn’t feel like a celebrity you don’t really know. Think about how you’ve felt when you’ve procrastinated or when you haven’t. Recognize that is how your future self is going to feel.
If I think about how I felt last year when I was falling behind in my writing goals, there was stress. I know how that felt. It’s concrete. I don’t have to imagine it like it’s a future scenario. I know that if it happens again (which it is), my future self will feel that same stress. (It’s totally irrational stress since it’s not like writing is anything close to a full time job that puts food on the table or a roof over my head, but that’s a whole different
therapy session blog post)
When I imagine my future self feeling that concrete emotion, it makes present me stressed. Not as stressed as I certainly would be in the future. But enough to make me think: “It’s worth suffering for another thirty minutes to crank out two hundred more words so that my future self doesn’t have to write those extra two hundred words on top of everything else I’m going to ask him to do.”
tl;dr Applying the principle of interval training to my writing will allow for a nearly 50% increase in output while still giving me time to keep current on technology relevant to my daily (non-writing) work.
I’m doing a little (or large, I guess) experiment this year. Initially it started as a way to balance my writing output with what I repeatedly hear is an important part of a mid-list writer’s life: The Day Job.
So in order to allow myself periods where I focus intensely on writing, editing, learning about writing, reading fiction for inspiration, and not feeling guilty about dedicating more time to writing than to professional development, I adapted a technique I learned in high school cross country training.
Fartlek, which means “speed play” in Swedish, is a training method that blends continuous training with interval training.
The idea of interval training is probably more familiar than that of continuous training since it’s used in a lot of popular workout programs. It involves doing periods of high-intensity reps with a short rest in between. Fartleking (sp?) is like interval training but instead of resting, you just don’t run as hard you had been. That’s an important analog for my plan because I don’t want to try to write a whole bunch over a short period and then not write for a while. I think just about any writer will tell you that’s basically asking for failure.
For the last 6 months of 2013, I worked on a schedule that I broke down by days and then morphed to a weekly set of goals that allowed a little more freedom in terms of what I did on a given day.
But then in November, I did NaNoWriMo. (And even though I didn’t win, aren’t we all winners?) I realized that I could definitely push myself to write more than I had been in the months leading up to November. But instead of trying for 50,000 words per month (or even 27,000 like I did in November), I compromised on a schedule that would allow me to balance professional development in the workplace with development of my writing skills. By fartlekking my writing, I get to push my writing muscles past where they would normally go, but then I pull back give myself some time to recover from the exertion and mental fatigue that comes with the focus it takes to push those muscles. During that recovery, I continue to “run” but I also engage a different set of muscles (though muscle confusion is a whole different training philosophy).
Starting with a slow warm-up in December, I had my first push in January and am now backing off again for February. January yielded just over 18,000 words, which is double what I averaged per month in 2013. So, if I can do that much in my sprint months and then fall back to my average of 9,000 in off months, I’ll have about a 47% increase over last year. And assuming all goes to plan, I’ll still have a day job (with the all-important health insurance).
Zen Habits has a very good list of things that will help you simplify your work day.
Most of these I’ve seen before, but here’s a new one (which is sort of similar to other things I’ve seen, but different enough I thought it was worth quoting):
# Practice a focus ritual. Every hour or two, do a refocus ritual. This only takes a minute or two. You might start it by closing down your browser and maybe other open applications, and maybe even take a walk for a couple of minutes to clear your head and get your blood circulating. Then return to your list of Most Important Tasks and figure out what you need to accomplish next. Before you check email again or go back online, work on that important task for as long as you can. Repeat this refocus ritual throughout the day, to bring yourself back. It’s also nice to take some nice deep breaths to focus yourself back on the present.
Here is the entire quote, which I had to cut down for Twitter:
Enlightenment is always there. Small enlightenment will bring great enlightenment. If you breathe in and are aware that you are alive – that you can touch the miracle of being alive – then that is a kind of enlightenment. Many people are alive but don’t touch the miracle of being alive.
I’m not being sarcastic when I say that I like how he makes enlightenment attainable for anyone. Small enlightenment, at the least, but as they say, it’s the journey that matters, not the destination.
Another quick block quote:
With mindfulness, you can establish yourself in the present in order to touch the wonders of life that are available in that moment. It is possible to live happily in the here and the now. So many conditions of happiness are available—more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don’t have to run into the future in order to get more.
I first studied Buddhism from a book on Zen which made the difference between Buddhist and non-Buddhist much more stark. I was still a fan of meditation (though I stopped after a short time because I was only about 15 at the time). I have seen other interpretations since which include the more “spectrumized” approach, and I think that’s important because there are certainly aspects of the practice (like those mentioned above) which are useful to anyone – not just those who intend to become full-on Buddhists.
Mindfulness and appreciation for life are simple things that can be achieved no matter what the economy does. While we all have difficult times, there are always simple moments of peacefulness to be found. You just have to pay attention.
Here is a bit more of an explanation by way of an exercise you can try with only a cup of tea:
Suppose you are drinking a cup of tea. When you hold your cup, you may like to breathe in, to bring your mind back to your body, and you become fully present. And when you are truly there, something else is also there—life, represented by the cup of tea. In that moment you are real, and the cup of tea is real. You are not lost in the past, in the future, in your projects, in your worries. You are free from all of these afflictions. And in that state of being free, you enjoy your tea. That is the moment of happiness, and of peace. When you brush your teeth, you may have just two minutes, but according to this practice, it is possible to produce freedom and joy during that time, because you are established in the here and now. If you are capable of brushing your teeth in mindfulness, then you will be able to enjoy the time when you take a shower, cook your breakfast, sip your tea.
Since I’m a big Getting Things Done fan, let’s look at a question Oprah asked and how GTD can help us to be more mindful:
Oprah: What if my bills need to be paid? I’m walking, but I’m thinking about the bills.
Nhat Hanh: There is a time for everything. There is a time when I sit down, I concentrate myself on the problem of my bills, but I would not worry before that. One thing at a time. We practice mindful walking in order to heal ourselves, because walking like that really relieves our worries, the pressure, the tension in our body and in our mind.
GTD steps in here to help you out because you put “Pay Bills” on one of your action lists (perhaps @Desk or @Bills – or if you do everything online like you should to conserve paper: @Computer or @Online). When you have it on an action list, you don’t need to think about it any more. This allows you to think about something else instead. Of course, that something could be work, family, or an infinite number of other things, but theoretically, when you’ve got everything down, your mind should be completely clear, allowing you to only think about walking and being in the moment of walking.
So, now stop, and think: You are reading this blog post. How are you seated? Where are your hands? What is taking your mind off of reading this post?
Small enlightenment will bring great enlightenment.
The first is the key to the door, and it’s easy to insert and unlock: Hustle. Simple as that.
If you want to do something: do something. If want want to make progress towards a goal: do something. If you want to learn something (like Matt Nowack in the post): do something. Just keep doing something (hustling) and you will get things done.
So that pretty much covers that. Except, it also leads into the second post, which is: the reason you have to keep hustling.
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