Routines and Tools, part 2

I mentioned on my post yesterday that I have to be flexible with my routines because of a fluctuating work schedule. Some days, when I have to walk to work, I do not have my morning walk at the park, because the walk to work is about 33% longer plus 20 lbs on my back, and is more than enough for a workout. I try to get to work at least 1 hour before clock in so I can recoup and read a bit. If a coworker or friend brings me to work, depending on my schedule, once I get there I try to begin writing. (Sometimes I am at work 4 hours early, plenty of time for writing and reading.) I write on My iPad using Textilus Pro, while listening to Focus@Will, an ambient music concentration app that also uses binaural entrainment. This seems to work well, and I breeze right along with my writing.

In November I finished reading a book, Organize Tomorrow Today, by Dr. Jason Selk, Tom Bartow, and Matthew Rudy. Within they give eight practices to help your productivity performance. They suggest to NOT try all these practices at once, but to select one, and to develop it as habit over a period of 3 months, at a 90% success rate. (81+ days at a solid performance.) Then move on to another practice, while maintaining the first, and so on. I chose the first practice, Organize Tomorrow Today, (yes, the name of the book.) On any given day, you choose the Three Most Important Tasks that you need to do to move forward with your chosen goals. These can be daily habits/practices you are developing, or smaller tasks that build your goals. One of these Three Most Important Tasks must be a MUST DO task. You MUST DO it, period. It needs to be something that really pushes you forward. (In fact, the second practice of this book is called Choose Wisely, which describes the importance and how tos of choosing this task.) You also try to complete making this list by noon. The catch is, these are Tomorrow’s tasks. You get a head start selecting them, and you sleep on them. This allows your subconscious mind to begin working on solutions while you are not even focusing on them directly, including while you sleep. You also schedule them for the earlier hours of the next day, if possible, because your energy levels and willpower reserves are at their highest, and the day’s urgent interruptions haven’t caught up to you just yet.

I’ve tried this now for about three weeks, and it seems to help considerably. I use an iOS app called 2Days, which allows me to organize tasks for today, tomorrow, and for later. I can assign a specific date and time to the tasks, and also schedule it to repeat at daily, weekly, monthly, or even random intervals according to my needs. I mainly use this for personal tasks. My work tasks are pretty straightforward and do not change much, although one must occasionally dodge monkey wrenches and curveballs due to poor planning on other folks parts. Maybe they need to read some of this stuff, hmmmmmm?

I’m always reading more than one book. Right now I’m reading The Charisma Myth, by Olivia Fox Cabane. I try to read at least one chapter every day. I’m a fairly slow reader, which astonishes people, considering how many books I own. But I like to digest books slowly as I read them, contemplating applications. I also mainly read non-fiction. I use Kindle for iPad, so as to not lug around physical bookshelves around with me.

On my two 15 (give or take) minute breaks I read, write, or check social media and email. On lunch I do eat, and try to read. Some evenings I have to wait for a ride, so that’s more time to read.

Well, there you have it, my day in a nutshell. Boring, but on the track to be much more productive in my personal life. Tomorrow I will write out my evening routine. Bedtime determines the success of the next day, so it deserves full attention as well.



Why I Learned to Meditate

In an earlier post, I mentioned beginning a keystone habit – meditation. I would like to take some time to describe the practice a bit more the way I’ve experienced it, and its benefits.First of all, I want to clarify a few things. I am a Christian, a believer in Jesus Christ, and I am unapologetic about that. Some folks might voice some concern that I am being unfaithful to my devotion by practicing meditation. Although these folks are well intended, these claims are based on ignorance. What I practice on a regular basis does not invoke the name of any god or other religious devotion. Although some kinds of meditation have their origins in Buddhism and Hinduism, there are many meditational practices today that have no basis in these faiths. On that note, let me also say that I am in no way trying to discredit the meditating Buddhist or Hindu or any other devotee of another faith. Meditation has benefits for all who practice it, whether for religious or other purposes.

I have two intended purposes for my practice of meditation: Focus and Health.

When I meditate, I slow down. Way down. I don’t sit cross legged on the floor chanting a mantra. I sit in a chair. A very comfortable arm chair. I listen to a guided meditation by Andy Puddicombe called Get Some Headspace. I keep my eyes open for a few moments and softly keep my gaze ahead of me, being aware of my complete peripheral vision. I begin breathing deep breaths through my nose, and exhale through my mouth, for about 60 seconds. Then I close my eyes, becoming aware of the contact of the chair beneath me and my feet on the floor and my arms on my lap or on the armrests. I become aware of any sounds around me, any smells, and even any remaining tastes in my mouth. Then I begin to notice any physical feelings I might have, whether there is any discomfort in my body. Then I take mental note of my emotional state. Am I stressed, anxious, or sad? Then I take note of my motivations for doing this, especially today’s motivation. Why am I doing this, TODAY? Then I take note of who round me might benefit from my meditation. If I become less stressed because of my meditating, who around me benefits? Then I am reminded that this whole exercise is not one of intense effort, but gentle effortlessness.

At this point, I begin to count my breathing. Inhale, one, exhale, two…inhale, three, exhale four…and so on, until I get to ten, and then I start over at one. I focus on my breathing and my counting. I notice my chest expanding, I feel the rhythm. My mind begins to wander, thinking about some distraction. That’s okay. I gently draw my attention back to my breathing. A few moments later, my mind drifts again. I notice and gently reel my focus back to my breathing. Again and again this happens, but that’s okay. During this distraction/refocus sequence, I am actually strengthening my willpower “muscle”, (the subject of last weeks post). Being distracted and having a wandering mind have some creative benefits, but bringing the mind back to a focus, in this case, my breathing, strengthens my command center. Daniel Goleman, writer of Focus, The Hidden Driver of Excellence , wrote,

“Build up the mind’s muscle for focus through a daily session of meditating on your breath. This is the mental equivalent of working out in the gym. The battle tension between focus and distraction takes place in the brain’s circuits for resisting impulse. In the mental gym, the more often you catch your mind wandering off and return it to concentrating on your breath, the stronger your concentration grows – like bulking up your pecs on a Cybex.”

As I break this evening from writing this post, I open up the book I just began reading, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, by Maria Konnikova. Within minutes, I read this passage –

“The idea of [meditation]/mindfulness itself is by no means a new one. As early as the end of the nineteenth century, William James, the father of modern psychology, wrote that ‘the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgement, character and will….An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.’ That faculty, at its core, is the very essence of [meditation]/mindfulness.”

After about 12-17 minutes of focused breathing, I then allow my mind to wander for about 60-90 seconds, without any focus at all. Strangely enough, giving myself the freedom to wander usually gives me the the highest moments of clarity and focus of the session. After this small interlude, I begin to focus once again on my physical surroundings, the touch of my body against the chair and floor, the sounds, the smells and lingering tastes. Then I open my eyes, gently, and it is as if I am on another planet. The state of focus is indescribable. I can usually stay in this mode for about five or ten minutes, and I usually use this time to try to plan my day (if in the morning), or the next day (if in the evening). I might write for a few moments. But I try to take advantage of, well, that natural high that comes after “awakening” from the meditative state.

When I began the practice of meditation, many other tasks became “easier” for me. I became more “self-disciplined” in other areas of my life. Actually, what I believe was happening was that I was learning how to focus and exert my will in areas in ways that I had never been able to before. Exercise, cleaning, diet, study, saving money…all the areas were affected. A little focus went a long way.

My blood pressure has always been a little high, but after practicing meditation for about a month, for the first time ever, my blood pressure lowered into the “great” zone. Added to my regular exercise and improved diet, my heath and fitness was at an all time high.

Meditation (or rather, mindfulness, as it is commonly referred to today) is not a bunch of new age mumbo jumbo, (although in some circles, it has been hijacked into such.) It is a skill that has practical outcomes. Even small amounts of restful sitting without activity and a stillness of mind has shown to reap quick results.

I leave you with my usual question of application…Can you find a way to carve 2-5 minutes to sit quietly with nothing but your thoughts focused on your breathing? Try it for one week, consistently. See if you don’t benefit immediately.

Willpower Muscle Strategy

I begin this post with a question:

What drains you of your energy?

What tasks leave you feeling tired or unmotivated to move forward? What about your decision making? Do you feel that having so many different choices to choose from drains you mentally? 300 channels on satellite, 15 different brands of corn flakes, 50 different task manager apps to choose from…need I say more? Once you finally make an important decision, do you sometimes feel the need to drop everything and just veg out?

Decision making, problem solving, perception work, creative work, resisting temptation…all these skills require a certain amount of focus and willpower. And willpower requires energy. And willpower-energy is a limited but renewable resource. When it’s depleted, you can bet that some of the easier decisions/mental work become a lot tougher, and the tougher mental work, well, you can do that tomorrow. Walking Dead and a pizza awaits! Think of your willpower as a muscle: it tires after use, but grows stronger over consistent use.

Consider this study by Roy F. Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, (co-authored with John Tierney): A group of students who had been instructed to fast entered a laboratory that was thick with the aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Before them on a table were a plate of the cookies, a bowl of candy, and a bowl of radishes. The students were divided into two groups: one group was instructed to eat the cookies and candy, the other group could only eat the radishes. Researchers observed the students from a one way mirror/window. The radish only group used every ounce of available of their willpower to resist the temptation of the cookies, which is shown in part 2 of this test. After a period of time, both groups were invited into a second room and instructed to work on geometric puzzles, which were actually known to be insoluble. The cookie/candy only grouped worked on the puzzles diligently on average about twenty minutes, while the radish only group gave up after about eight minutes. Their energy stores for problem solving were used up in the previous problem of having to resist.

Over time, your willpower “muscle” can be strengthened. The more it’s used, the stronger it becomes, and it seems to cross over to other categories. The willpower used in resisting sweets is also the same willpower used in creating the habit of consistently writing in a journal every night, or sticking with a tough problem at work, or making a risky business decision.

Your willpower muscle is refreshed after a good nights sleep, and is reinforced after quality meals and snacks throughout the day. Knowing this, it would make sense to strategically schedule your tougher willpower-required actions in the early part of the day, and after meals. Naps seem to give a boost to your reserve, so does a session of meditation.

Armed with this information, I leave you with this question: What tasks can you reschedule in your day to take advantage of your willpower energy fuel tanks?

How to Conquer a Weak Self Discipline

I already mentioned in a previous`post that I am not the most self disciplined person in the world. And I reckon that there are others who feel the same way. Despite what appears to be a weakness, there is good news for those of us who lack this virtue.

“There is this pervasive idea that the successful person is the ‘disciplined person’ who leads a ‘disciplined life.’ — It’s a lie.”

The above is from Gary Keller and Jay Papasan’s book, The ONE Thing, which I have also alluded to in a previous post. They counter the above falsehood with the idea that we need just enough discipline to develop an ongoing habit that will create the desired outcomes in our life. You work at something regularly until it regularly works for you. When you see a “disciplined” person, what you see is a person who has trained a handful of habits into their lives.

How do you create a habit? Charles Duhigg, in his book, The Power of Habits, breaks down a habit into three components: A cue, a routine, and a reward. A certain cue, let’s say finishing breakfast, prompts a certain routine or behavior, let’s say, sitting down to meditate for 20 minutes, which in turn brings about a reward or set of rewards. In this case, a focused mind, or a sense of peace, or a lowered blood pressure, or even the hint of a fulfillment of a future result, such as a consistent sense of well being that is currently eluding you.

Another important component – you must have a sense of “craving” for the reward that compels you to begin the routine. Otherwise, resistance usually wins. You must want the reward. It has to light a fire within.

It also usually takes 66 days to build a solid habit. Success literature speaks of a 21 day period to completely develop a habit, but solid research has discovered otherwise. The full range suggests 18 to 254 days, but 66 represented a “sweet spot”, with easier habits taking less time and more challenging habits taking longer time.

One other thing – habit building is an upper brain function. We’ll come back to this in a later post, but for now, think of your upper brain as your pilot, and your lower brain as autopilot. When you develop a habit, you are having to use faculties of your brain that require actual focus and willpower, a kind of command center. Once this habit begins to take hold, however, the control for the new “circuitry” is shifted to the lower brain, a kind of intuitive, instinctual, automatic response system. When you begin to do the routine without having to mentally engage the initiation of it, then you know that the lower brain has begun to assume control, and it won’t be long before the routine is indeed a habit.

I will now leave you with this question to ponder…What habit or handful of habits do you need to study and breakdown and begin to implement so that you can reach your desired outcomes?