New Tab, New You

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This post is about a light-weight piece of software I wrote to help track a few things about me I’m interested in monitoring.  It’s freely available (to use and modify) here.

The NTNY screen in action, tracking weekly goals and (white) carbs eaten.

This is a story.  One time, I wanted to get a lot better at pull-ups.  I wanted to be a good rock climber and to have a lot of upper-body strength, and pull-ups were one of the best exercises I could do.  So I thought about how I could do a lot of pull-ups– there was, after all, no bar in my house or office from which I could do the exercise.  An idea came to me: go across the street to the park, and each night, practice doing pull-ups there.

This was not a good idea.  That should be apparent if you’ve ever tried any self-motivated exercise regimen.  All I was relying on was my willpower to achieve a long-term goal.  I didn’t do anything differently except expect that I would make it to the park.  Every night, even when it was dark and rainy and sometimes cold, and I would magically muster up some willpower and go and do the pull-ups.

I think I went once.  Complete failure.

Now this story has a happy ending.  It’s not about me finding it within myself to walk across the street every night.  No, it’s when I realized that the only thing that could convince me to do pull-ups was to make it dead simple.  I would buy a pull-up bar, but only if it could fit in the door of my kitchen, bedroom, or office.  There was no other place I would see it frequently enough to just stop and do pull-ups.  It had to be visible.  It had to be right in my face.  It had to be zero extra work.

The result: I’ve more than doubled the number of pull-ups I can do to 15, and still improving.

The lesson: if you’re going to change something in your life, Read More

If You Can’t Beat Them… Have Them Beat Each Other

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Photo credit: Susannah Conway

No one’s perfect, and while for the most part our various failings are viewed as obstacles to us achieving our goals, I want to take a different viewpoint here: each of us has many vices that can actually help us achieve our goals.

I think this sounds weird to say, so here are examples.

Laziness over Gluttony

I can resist any temptation until I can see it.  And when I see food– it doesn’t matter how much plaque it will dump in my heart; it doesn’t matter how much fat it’ll layer over my rock-solid abs– if I have room in my stomach, I will probably eat it.

This is not good.  But there’s a catch.  See, I rarely get hungry for sweets, pastries, or beer on my own.  99% of the time, my stomach will be perfectly satisfied with whatever I give it (but not too many vegetables, k?– doctor’s orders).  So the problem is not eating junkfood when I’m hungry for junkfood– it’s eating junkfood when I see junkfood.

Therefore, the solution is Read More

The Sorrows and Joys of the Bulldozer

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Photo credit: Vinoth Chandar (flickr: vinothchandar)

We hear a lot of hype about ideas. “Ideas can change the world”.  Right.

“Ideas can move mountains”. Ideas don’t move mountains, Peter Drucker reminds us, bulldozers do.  Ideas just tell the bulldozers where to go.

Know what this means?  I’ll tell you:

Do you fancy yourself a bulldozer? You’d better.

If you have a lot of goals, there’s a good chance that– like me– you’re an “ideas person“.  Your notion of the perfect job is to sit back and do nothing but come up with all the next brilliant ideas in your chosen field.  You love discussing, debating, and especially thinking of new ideas.  You place a high premium on interesting.

There’s a problem with that, though.  Ideas are cheap.  Worthless, almost.  What’s your most ambitious goal?  Oh, to start your own business?  That’s cute!  Do you know how many Read More

Do All Your Dreams Start Tomorrow?

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Photo credit: Susannah Conway (susannahconway.com)

The sure sign of an amateur is he has a million plans and they all start tomorrow. --Steven Pressfield

Patrick Rhone, author of Enough and Mac Minimal, talked about the Finishing School in his most recent podcast.  It was interesting hearing his thought process in deciding to start a Minneapolis/St. Paul Finishing School.  The sentiment that stuck with him the most was this: something worth doing at all is worth starting tonight.

Boris Taratutin, an engineering student in Massachusetts, saw my guest post about living life like an experiment at The Art of Manliness and is getting together with a group of his friends to talk about self-reflection behavior changing.  Their first tenet is based around this question: what’s the smallest step I can take now?

Running a marathon.  Learning to rock climb.  Reading for self-education.  Learning Krav Maga.  The experiences that led me to start this blog happened only because of this question: how do I start tonight?

I used to write a lot of music.  I wasn’t majoring in music– heck, I wasn’t even in college when I learned, so I had to find other resources to teach myself– websites, books, scores, any mentor who would listen to a green 16-year old’s stabs at polyphony.  I ended up learning a lot from a centuries-old book called The Study of Counterpoint.  It turns out it was the same text the young Beethoven studied.  I still have highlighted a piece of advice from Read More

The Rape of the Muse

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Photo credit: Susannah Conway (susannahconway.com)

“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”
― W. Somerset Maugham

Creative projects live and die by what you do when you don’t feel creative.

Maybe you want to write a symphony. I don’t know. Let’s say you do. Let’s say you take in the music and get halfway decent at composing and now you’re ready to make your big statement with an orchestra. Symphony in F. Or C. Or G minor– that’s a good one too.

Writing that symphony, it will go like this: first, it will be heaven. You will want nothing more in the world than to sit down and scribble out the harmonies of life, love, and loss as you know them. Things will come easily and you will be full of excitement. You will drink from a firehose of inspiration and spew out melody after beautiful melody.

Then, a ways in, that excitement will wane. The music in your head will start to cycle in and out. The inspiration will come to a drip. Writing the symphony is still kind of fun, but maybe you will take some time to write that folk song or a string quartet or some other little project. Something newer and fresher– because the big one just keeps dragging on.

This continues. It gets worse, really. It becomes hell– the point where you’d rather do anything else than the one reason you’re here. You’d sooner fold socks and vaccuum under your bed than write more song. And that’s exactly what you will do.

When it comes to that, you’re at the decision point. Somewhere between dusting the top of your fridge and organizing your bookshelves according to the Dewey decimal system, you will have a realization: Read More

Experiments in Productivity: Zen to Done

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Photo credit: Josefe aka Hipnosapo (flickr: josefeliciano)

During the months of February, March, and April 2012, I will try out a new productivity system each month. After each month is over, I'll record my experiences on this blog. In March 2012, I used Leo Babauta's "Zen to Done" as described here.  This is my review. Last month's review on Scott Belsky's "Action Method" is here.

My original intent for this month was to review the most famous productivity system in the world– David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”.  I bought the e-book, set aside a few hours to plan out how I would use Getting Things Done (GTD) in the next month, and started reading.

Four hours later, I closed the book frustrated, disappointed, and very aware of the irony that I’d just wasted my entire evening.  I simply could not wrap my head around the system as a whole, and there was no one place where it was explained clearly at a high level.

So I decided to check out a little productivity method I had heard a friend rave about a few years ago– not Getting Things Done, but Zen to Done (ZTD).

 Zen to Done Explained

If you’re like me, when someone says you should try a funny-sounding program called zen-something-something, you’d be all too happy to let it slide.  And if you feel that way now, I mean to convince you otherwise.  ZTD is a wonderfully useful productivity system.  Despite the name, it has nothing to do with satori and everything to do with worldly effectiveness.

It was initially conceived by blogger Leo Babauta as a reaction to some of the main problems people had with Getting Things Done– which means I stumbled upon to it at a very fortunate time.  ZTD is composed not of a flowchart of actions for handling any incoming tasks, but a series of 10 straightforward “habits”, which are to be adopted one at a time (which is easier than adopting all 10 habits at once, the thinking goes).

Here are the 10 Habits of ZTD as far as I understand them.

  1. Collect.  Ubiquitous capture.  Carry a notebook, index cards, smartphone, or something on which you can write any idea, task, or tidbit for future action.  Don’t rely on your memory for this.
  2. Process.  Do not let things fester in your inboxes.  Make quick decisions on things in your inbox and figure out the next action they require (if any) upon looking at for the first time. Read More

How Slowly Can you Float?

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Original image credit: Darren Kirby (flickr: bulliver)

Last night, I heard someone talk about how he ate less than an Auschwitz prisoner for almost a month. Were we talking about eating disorders? Nope. We were talking about goals. It was his goal to lose weight, and somewhere along the way, things got carried away.

Let’s talk about a fundamental rule of goal achieving. This rule is a good thing to keep in mind as you try to accomplish any of your goals, because it completely changes the way you think about what you’re trying to do. It’s something you may already know intuitively, but if you don’t, you might never go to business school and you might never read a book every week, because you approached those in the wrong way. If things get especially bad, you might forget you’re not in a cattle car in 40s Germany. Let’s not go there.

This rule is called accomplishments vs. habits.

Here’s how it goes.

Accomplishments are one-time things. Running a marathon. Eating at the top-ranked restaurant Next. Going to business school.

Habits are things you plan to adopt and keep up forever. Lose 20 pounds. Walk 10,000 steps per day. Read a book every week. No one has the goal of losing 20 pounds once and then not caring about their weight.  The pounds come off and stay off.

Accomplishments are finish lines that can be raced towards. In fact, if you don’t race towards them, you may never finish. Habits cannot be raced towards– not normally, anyhow. You have to start with something small and only increase it a bit at a time.

* * *

Every few months, I go to a wonderful meetup of total nerds called Quantified Self. It’s for people who are interested in tracking data about themselves– usually things like eating, sleeping, and exercising. It was at this last meetup that I heard, straight from his acutely underfed mouth, how one man could eat so little.

He described the graph he kept of his weight. Each morning he’d measure himself and the program would plot the point on the downward slope of his weight over time. A little dotted line far below represented his goal weight. How fast could he make it plummet? This was the question on his mind, and that was what drove him to the verge of anorexia.

But let me suggest a different question: how slowly could it float? Read More

Experiments in Productivity: The Action Method

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Image credit: actionmethod.com

During the months of February, March, and April 2012, I am trying out a new productivity system each month. After each months is over, I will write about how my experience with it went. In February 2012, I used Scott Belsky's "Action Method" as described in his book Making Ideas Happen. This is my review.

Before Occupy Wherever picked up the moniker, the top search results for “99%” was a the99percent.com, a well-designed website that advertised itself as “Insights on making ideas happen”. The title banner still betrays the etymology of the name– it’s from Edison’s famous quip “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”.

The 99% is a website that is not about ideas; it’s about making ideas happen. The perspiration part, not the inspiration.  ”Too many ideas”, the site boldly proclaims.  ”Not enough action”.  So they made the Action Method.

The Action Method is a productivity system that I tried out for a month. First I will explain how you use it, then I will tell you whether or not I liked it.  Let’s get started.

The Action Method Explained

There are three things you keep track of for each project (a project can be any large-scale task at work or at home):

  1. Action Steps. These are specific concrete tasks. They are the bread and butter of gettin’ stuff done.  Action Steps start with a verb, and they don’t require more planning before you can start one.
  2. References. This is project-related material you may want to refer to later– links, videos, articles, books, e-mails, etc.
  3. Backburner Items. These are not actionable now, but they could be future projects or sub-projects.  They’re the brilliant ideas you have now but want to remember later.

Let’s talk about how this works for a very specific example: writing a blog.

First, potential Action Steps.

  • Brainstorm post topics
  • Write a post or two
  • Pitch a guest post to another blogger
  • Leave some comments on other related bogs

I want you to notice two things.

  1. Each Action Step starts with a verb
  2. Each Action Step requires no further planning before being able to start it

So no “Make sure blog readership continues to grow”. That’s bad. Read More

Write What You No

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Photo credits: mermaid99 on Flickr.com

On the back of your list of life goals, write what you No.

One side has the great stuff you’re going to do with your life, and the other has what you will stop doing.

See, this is all about focus, and focus is about saying no.  Think about that for a second.  It’s true, isn’t it?

And if you look on your life and the things you want to do and you ask yourself “Self, why haven’t I done any of these yet?”, the answer will come back, at least in part, “I don’t have time”.  BullllllshI don’t believe in “I don’t have time”.  IDHT means IDC, I don’t care.  You have plenty of time, and unless it’s all being taken up by far more pressing matters than you or I ever deal with on a daily basis, the time is there and it’s your job to take it.  You don’t find it; you manhandle it.

So where do you get all this time from?  That’s where the list of No comes in.  Choose things you will stop doing.  Cut out the fat from your life.  If you don’t, your dreams will fade like the muscle tone of a middle-aged cubicle tenant.

When Seth Godin– who runs the number one business blog in the world, has written more bestsellers than I have fingers, and responds to every e-mail he gets– is asked how he does it all, he says he doesn’t watch TV and he doesn’t go to meetings, so that’s already four to five hours more than most people have.

That’s some serious No right there!  It gives me the warm fuzzies to see someone so boldly cast from his life the trappings of the non-producer lifestyle.

I think you need to say No, and say it hard.  Don’t be– to borrow a term from Noah Kagan– a wantrepreneur.  You know– one of those two-beer bards waxing poetic about lost opportunities.  He is the sad, sad result of a lifetime of Yes.  Yes to every distraction, yes to every addiction, yes to every fashion.

Therefore, No.  Write down your rules.  We’ll start with Seth’s rules.

No TV.  No meetings.

You’re about to bust out complaining about how you have to go to meetings aren’t you?  If so, you’re missing the point.  Let’s go on. Read More

The Great War for Your Short, Short Time on Earth

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Photo credit: Chris Smith (flickr: cjsmithphotography)

If you ever undertake some project, goal, or quest that requires a serious commitment of time, there will undoubtedly be some point during your journey where you will pause to reflect and find that you’d rather do anything that what you’re doing.  “Pluck my eyes out.  If I can’t see, I don’t have to finish writing my novel.”

Good for you.  That means you’re doing something worthwhile.  The only reason you made this much progress is because you knew it would pay off in the end.  It’s awfully inconvenient now– heck, you’d rather be blind– but keep dreaming about the finish line, because if you got you into this mess, it can get you out.

And that’s what I want to talk about now– why you got into this mess.

You did it because you thought it would be worthwhile.  Not easy, but worthwhile.  And now that it’s living up to your expectations, you’re taking some time to reflect.  And potentially gauge your eyes out.

Here’s something I think.  I think it with all of my heart:

Never, ever evaluate Read More