We often get up in the morning and immediately jump into where we left off the night before: we flip open our laptops (or even just roll over and grab our phones) and dive back into email or whatever windows we left open on our computer. The problem with this (as I’ve written about before) is that often times hours can go by and then we realize that we haven’t actually gotten anything of any importance done.
I started an experiment a couple of weeks ago to see what would happen if I didn’t look at my inbox until I had done at least 3 hours of real work. This practice worked great – I got way more work done and still took care of what I needed to in terms of responding to email. I deviated sometimes, especially when the work I needed to do was related to the emails I had waiting for me, and it was a struggle to constantly remind myself to adopt this new practice, but it proved to me how much we get sucked into to doing things that make us feel busy.
Doing the email experiment connects with something else I started thinking about earlier in the summer. I had been thinking about the few things I can do in a short amount of time each morning that have the highest ROI. My thought was that if I can make my day meaningful in the first hour that I’m awake, then on the days when things seem to spiral out of control, I don’t end the day feeling like it was a waste.
So I’ve been experimenting now with a high meaning, high ROI morning. It’s a combination of the things we know have the highest impact on our overall well-being, our creativity, and our ability to contribute something meaningful to the world. And it takes less than an hour.
- Do 10 push-ups and 50 situps (less than 5 minutes). It may not seem like much, but at least it is something. At least I get up and get my body moving. Doing this small amount of exercise motivates me towards doing more and on the days I do this, I feel better.
- Write Morning Pages (10 – 15 minutes, sometimes a little longer). This is the morning mind dump. Whatever you woke up worrying about, whatever you’ve got on your mind, falls out onto the page. Morning pages is a concept I learned through Julia Cameron‘s book The Artist’s Way. In the traditional way, you write 3 pages by hand of literally anything that comes to mind. If you need a more modern way (because writing by hand can be painfully slow), I use 750words.com. No one is going to see what you write. It’s your way of clearing your mind at the start of your day.
- Meditate (10 minutes). I used to shy away from meditation because I associated it with freewheeling hippies who didn’t shower, always smelled like patchouli, and had an unrealistic view of the world. But the research is there that meditation is absolutely one of the best things you can do for yourself mentally and physically. It reduces stress. It helps you handle the ups and downs of a day. It teaches you a skillset that you don’t really learn anywhere else. My favorite way of meditating in the morning is with Susan Piver as my guide – she is the one who helped me realize that meditation is not just hooka-hooka stuff for hippies. You can follow ten-minute guided meditations as part of her Open Heart Project.
- Create something (1o to 30 minutes or longer). This is something that stuck with me from a post on Leo Babauta’s blog about creating a profound workday. We are really good a filling our days with doing, but not so good at filling our days with creating. If you start each day by creating something – writing a helpful blog post, taking a photograph, even drawing a little sketch – the day feels different because you’ve already added something meaningful.
I’ve been thinking a lot more about something Seth Godin wrote about on his blog the other day, and that I’ve written about before too.
We often worry so much about whether our ideas are good enough, whether what we’re about to do is going to have an impact, that we never even bother to start. We worry that whatever we do won’t be enough.
But what if you forget about trying to get over all of your fears? What if you simply conjure up the courage to start? To take one step forward at building something, at creating art, at making the world better?
That one step, it turns out, means something. In fact, it means a lot.
With that one step, it’s likely that you will inspire someone else to take a step forward themselves. You will give them the courage to start.
Your courage to take a small step creates a chain reaction of small steps. And those small steps add up to something big.
I realized recently how much I do out of routine.
The routine of my own habits.
The routine of other people’s expectations.
So I started asking myself a question every day.
Many, many times throughout the day.
It’s the best question ever.
And it’s only one word.
Why am I about to RSVP to this event?
Why am I setting up this meeting?
Why am I feeling bummed out right now?
But I don’t let myself end there.
I’ll follow it up by asking again: “no, really, why?”
If it’s a complicated why, sometimes I’ll draw it out – create a little diagram that looks like the expanding roots of a tree. I’ll keep asking myself “why?” until I get to the real answer.
My questioning of myself isn’t about passing judgment. It’s about understanding motivation.
Because understanding motivation is the key to helping me separate out what’s truly important from what’s not.
Your meeting ended earlier than you expected.
Your conference call didn’t take as long as you thought.
You find yourself on the train for a commute that is taking a little longer than usual.
The dentist is late finishing up with the patient before you.
You’ve got 15 minutes.
What are you going to do with that time?
For me, those are the times when the guilt sets in, when I think I should be doing something “productive.”
And productivity experts would be quick to jump in and give me tips on how to make the most out of that time – how those little pockets of 15 minutes throughout the day can lead to getting a lot more done.
But I find it kind of ridiculous that we’ve come to believe that we have to fill every nook and cranny of our day with doing something.
If we can’t give ourselves the fifteen minutes in the waiting room at the dentist or the five minutes in line at the grocery store to just chill out instead of sending emails or making a phone call, then we’re doing something wrong.
We’re doing too much. And we’re focusing too much on productivity techniques being the trash compactors of lives – squishing as much as possible into the small space we’ve got in a day.
If productivity is supposed to about getting more of my life back, then I’ll take my 15 minutes back.
And gladly do nothing but stare out the window.
I didn’t really understand how important dedicated bike lanes were until I tried riding a bike in a part of the city that doesn’t have them.
I didn’t understand how crappy the software was that some of my staff had to use every day until I sat down and spent a few hours trying to use it myself.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t been empathetic about these situations in the past. I always thought bike lanes were a good idea. And I certainly listened to my team when they complained about their software.
But I didn’t really, truly understand deep down in my gut until I actually became the biker and the software user.
Before, I simply had empathy.
After, I had actionable empathy – empathy that would move me to do something, to fix something, or to at least be prepared to shout my support instead of keeping it quietly to myself.
Yesterday, I was thinking about being ready for opportunity, which subsequently got me thinking about what happens when an opportunity disappears – when you lose a job, when a relationship ends, or when what was supposed to be your big break ends up barely qualifying as a small crack.
Our tendency is to flip out a bit. To get angry. Or sad. Or both.
And our tendency is to assume that we’ll never get an opportunity like that again.
But if we’re really being rational about it, that doesn’t make any sense.
Whatever opportunity we are a lamenting the loss of probably came our way unexpectedly. We didn’t board the airplane expecting to find love or sit down at the coffee shop expecting to find a job. But we did.
The supply of unexpected opportunities is actually infinite. No, they won’t be the same. They will lead your life in different directions. They will teach you something different. But they will be there.
And the interesting thing about unexpected opportunities is that the more you open your heart and mind to them, the more they show up.
Some of the things that have happened to me over the past few months have seemed a little magical to some people. But the only magic, perhaps, is in my shift in mindset. While I do seek opportunities and work hard to make things happen, I don’t pursue things with desperate aggression or with a unilateral vision on one and only path. Instead, I make sure that I’m open to whatever people and opportunities show up.
Approaching the world that way has helped me appreciate and enjoy what I have in the moment, understand the lessons from it when it goes, and be ready for the next thing when it comes.
We often go through life behaving like we’re trying to win a prize.
But I was thinking the other day…what, exactly, is the prize?
We’re competitive, constantly comparing ourselves to other people, trying to have more Facebook friends, get more Twitter followers, sell more books, get more press, win more awards, or earn more money.
And there was a point when those prizes held some level of value for me. They are easy, visible validators of our existence.
But I realized the other day that except for the almost impossible to curb occasional twinge of natural human jealously over someone’s massive Twitter following, I have lost all of my desire to win for the sake of those prizes.
It isn’t the prizes that matter, it’s the work that matters. And not just any work, but work that is transformed into meaningful art – art that gives the world a prize instead of the other way around.
In the past two and half weeks, I have spent most of my time putting New York City’s public transportation system to work, transporting me from meeting to meeting throughout the city while I try to absorb as much as can of the New York tech scene. My days have often started with breakfast meetings and not ended until after midnight, when the networking drinks were done.
This time has been all about input: listening in meetings, reading emails, scanning my Twitter stream, reading blogs.
This is not all a bad thing. I needed to rapidly gather information so that I could get a running start in my new role at NY Tech Meetup, and I’ve gained some great insights that will provide amazing guidance going forward.
But I was listening to an interview with Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, the other day, and it hit me how much of an issue we have with input vs. output.
Turkle talked about how most of our days are built around trying to keep up with input from every direction. We in fact spend so much time trying to deal with input that we have no time to think or be creative, or actually create any output. (and no, email doesn’t count as real output)
It’s kind of like calories in calories out. If you gorge yourself on too much food, you get so full that you are hardly capable of doing anything – you just want to sit around, hold your belly and groan. A diet consisting of too much information input creates the same kind of paralysis.
With calories, we balance the calories in by exercising and making sure that we burn some of them off. We need to do the same thing with information input.
If we turned off the flood of input for chunks of time during the day, we might actually get something real done.
I’ve been feeling pretty content lately. Something that I talked a little about here and here.
And because this feeling of overall contentment is somewhat new to me, I’ve been wondering where it’s coming from.
Superficially, I could say that it’s situational: New York is pretty awesome.
But I think it’s something deeper than that. I think a big piece of my contentment has to do with my level of autonomy.
I have more autonomy now then I have ever had at any other point in my life.
From what brand of toilet paper I buy to choosing to eat a cupcake for dinner to what meetings I take and what projects I work on to where I work on any given day, it’s all up to me. I am the architect of my life.
It makes total sense that this is influencing my level of contentment. Autonomy is one of the key factors in motivation and engagement. And I think one of the key factors influencing how content we feel.
When oppressive bosses and governments create environments void of autonomy, it should be no surprise that people eventually find some way to rebel.
A friend of mine once told me that he wasn’t striving to be happy, he was striving to be content.
And I think I have to agree with his approach. Striving to be happy all of the time puts a lot of pressure on us, and then we tend to focus on all of the moments when we’re not happy. And the truth is, we can’t exist in a constant state of joy and delight every minute of every day.
But I think we can strive to reach the point of being content. The point where we’re not always wishing we had someone else’s life or someone else’s stuff or someone else’s lawn.
This doesn’t mean settling and it doesn’t mean not pushing to make things better. But it means reaching a place where there is a consistent undercurrent of contentment flowing, no matter what your day is throwing at you.
Somehow, over the past few weeks I have found that place of peaceful contentment. It seems strange in a way, because on the usual list of what is supposed to make us content, I’m missing a few things: my sublet runs out on March 9 and I have no permanent place to stay after that, I have no consistent paycheck, I’m not in a relationship, I don’t own a house or a car, and I never seem to have enough time to get all of my work done.
That’s not an equation that most people would think adds up to being content. But I feel more content now then I did when I had all of those things.
Not only do I think I had been striving for the wrong thing, but I had bought into the false advertising of what I needed in order to get there.
Maybe that’s ok when when you’re caving into buying a ShamWow! for the low, low price of $9.95. But when it comes to my life, the false advertising is no longer going to have such an easy time winning me as a customer.