Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Just start: The simplest guide ever to habit change

Over the last few years there has been rich harvest of great writing on how to establish habits and change behaviour. But many of the blogs and books about this make the process more complicated than it is. There is an even easier way. Just start.

My favourite way to use willpower is to make the smallest possible commitment. Three times Tour de France winner Greg Lemond says that when he didn't feel like training, he would commit to riding for only 15 minutes. After that he could turn around and go home.

You guessed it, he never went home.

Once you make a start, inertia takes over and you tend to keep going. Think of willpower as the rocket that blasts you out of gravity and into orbit. Don't strain willpower by thinking about powering to the moon. Turn it on for just long enough to get out of gravity.

Just start

But you can do even better than Greg. If you are a cyclist, just commit to putting on your cycling clothes and getting on your bicycle. Nothing more. No commitment to riding a specific distance or speed or anything . Just start.

I want to write more (like this blog for example). I recently read Gary Keller's amazing  "The ONE Thing : The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results"   (thanks again Steve) and I wanted to commit 4 hours a day to writing, as he advises for our core professional work.

I soon realized that this was over-reaching and aimed for 2 hours per day. Still too much.

Then 1 hour and even this was hard.

Then I remembered Greg's story. And I thought I could do even better than him :-). I don't have to write for any given time or number or words.

ALL that I need to do is to start.

That means sit down, open Notepad (my text editor of choice) and start writing. That's all. Easy, right? That's exactly the point.  Minimum use of willpower and effort. Just start. The rest tends to take care of itself.

It feels good

On this system the reward for doing the right thing is so immediate! This morning I had a lot to do before getting on a long-haul flight. It felt like committing an hour to writing would be too much. I didn't sleep well and frankly I didn't really feel like it.

Then I remembered my minimum commitment.

ALL that I had to do was start.

It was no big effort to take my laptop, walk down to the lobby of the hotel, sit down, open the computer and start. And for that little effort I got the good feelings of doing something I knew I had to. Funny thing is that it is now more than 45 minutes later and I'm still going.

An unexpected bonus - habit kicks in

If you keep just starting, a welcome surprise awaits. After 21-90 days (as the research claims) habit kicks in and you won't even need to us the little bit of willpower previously needed to make a start.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Introverts, don't try and network like extroverts!

A few weeks ago I read Amanda Palmer's fantastic "The art of asking". This is probably the most honest book that I have ever read.

One of the many fantastic parts of the book is her reflection on how artists can share their work. This interested me because it links pretty closely to one of my major hang ups: I am introverted, but I love connecting with people. [If you don't think this makes no sense, poor you. Introverts are anti-social, right? Go and read Susan Cain's Quiet, right now, OK? Then come and apologize.]

Back to the issue at hand. How can introverts network? Here's what Amanda says in her book:

"Once the art is finished there is a new challenge. Down to the ground floor and out the front door, you have the marketplace. It’s loud down there. It’s crass and mundane compared to The Garret-where the art gets dreamed up. But in order to share directly, the artist still has to leave The Garret and head down into the bustling marketplace, and that’s the catch: the marketplace is where you have to deal with people. To many artists, people are scary. But there is another option, which is to yell from your window. In most cases, the successfully independent antisocial artist pairs with an advocate to shout the message down to the street. Sometimes it’s a record label. Sometimes it’s a patron. Sometimes it’s a best friend. You can either leave The Garret, or you can invite everybody in with you, or you can send somebody out on your behalf to round up your crowd and drag them up the stairs."
What I took from this is that introverts don't have to try and network like extroverts. For most of my life I have beaten myself for not networking more. What I didn't realize is that I was limiting myself to extroverted forms of networking. What I am learning is that I can rig the game and network like an introvert.In hindsight I can see that while I could never walk into a room and start social or romantic small talk, people always loved talking to me once the ice had been broken and I was in a one on one setting. The trick is to find ways of engineering such situations.

In an interview with Forbes Magazine Dorrie Clark says:
"introverts can play to their strengths by inviting people for 1-1 coffees, hosting small dinner gatherings, or even 'networking' online by writing blog posts and attracting others to them. All of those strategies are far less emotionally exhausting than having to go up to strangers and make small talk." 
Some of Dorrie's other tips include:

1. Don't network when you are tired. She says "For introverts, networking requires a little more cognitive effort: it’s fun, but you have to psych yourself up to be 'on.' I don’t need to have the additional burden of doing it when I’m tired."

2. Don't feel like you need to take up every opportunity to network. Compare the potential networking opportunities to the effort of dragging your introverted ass into an extrovert space. Says Dorrie: "Ask yourself who’s likely to attend, and whether they’re your target audience (however you define that - potential clients, interesting colleagues, etc.). Then follow up by asking how likely it is that you’ll actually get to connect with them. Large, loud events hinder your chances. If it’s an intimate dinner, I’ll almost always say yes; if it’s a raucous roofdeck gathering, I’ll probably sneak out the back."

3. Don't be lazy! Take advantage of easy opportunities. Here's Dorrie again: "There are plenty of new and interesting people to meet who already have some connection to you." Just because you don't like rooms full of strangers is no excuse for not networking in safe spaces with people that you already have an open door to.

4. She also warns that, attractive as online networking might be to introverts, it is no replacement for meeting real people face to face. According to Dorrie: "The key in online networking is to realize it’s not an end unto itself. It can be a good starting point; for instance, I have friends who first reached out to me on Twitter and we subsequently built relationships. It can also be a great way to stay in touch with people you already know and to keep yourself top of mind; a quick tweet or message on LinkedIn is a nice way to share interesting articles, compliment someone if they published an interesting article, or the like. But on its own, that’s not enough."

Do you have any introvert networking tricks? Goodness knows I need to know about them!

Monday, July 4, 2016

Concentration is the default: How to stop distracting yourself

Think about it; You are always concentrating on something. It may not be what you want to be concentrating on. But concentrating is what your mind does. So the real question is not how to get yourself to concentrate, but how to get yourself to concentrate on the right thing. You want to get your concentration under control.

There are two basic principles to concentration. First you need to start it off with a bang. For the first 5 or 10 minutes you have to do all that you can to keep concentrating on the task at hand. After that the mind tends to give up, go on auto-pilot and does what you want.

The second principle is that once you are in the zone, don't give in to the mind's pathetic second wave of attempts to distract you.

Getting into the zone

Write early! Will-power declines through the day. If you want to resist distraction and concentrate, you have to do it early in the day. That doesn't necessarily mean that you do it when you open your eyes - especially if you are not a morning person. For me this often means around 9 in the morning. I get up early, but then I read, meditate, plan my day, get the kids off to school and ride my bicycle to the office. But once I get to the office I know that it is now or never.

No noise. Noises can distract you in a very subtle way. A siren sounds somewhere and you barely notice it, but it breaks your golden thread of concentration. I use  a white noise app on my phone to control my sound environment. Noise cancelling headphones are good too.

If I do these two things, then I easily enter a state of flow. I get absorbed in the work, the words flow and distractions are nowhere to be found. The trick is to control your environment so that you minimize the need for willpower and use what little willpower you have to start you off. Think of willpower as the rocket fuel that launches you into orbit. In this way you can get into the calm orbit of flow and write this damn thing.

Staying in the zone

Write it down. When the monkey mind asks about some other thing that you must remember, scribble it down on a piece of paper so that you don't forget. But then get straight back to writing.

No internet and TK When I write, I often need to find things on the internet. You know how distracting this can be. So do all such research first and then to turn off my internet connection. While you write, you may discover that you need to go find something else. Don't do it! Cory Doctorow advises that you put 'TK' into the text at such points. The English language doesn't have many TK's in it, so this is easy to search. At the place in your writing where you need the internet, write 'TK' and keep writing. Later, when you are finished writing, search for the TKs and do your internet thing.

Wordpad! Most word processors offer too many formatting options, buttons and doodats. Write in a place that does not offer these. I am writing this post in DarkRoom. You can use Writeroom if you're on a Mac. Wordpad is great too. Anything that doesn't offer details and wingdings.

Food for thought. Your body runs on food. If you don't eat, it stops. And it stops from the brain down because the brain uses more energy than any other organ in your body. It feels like poor concentration, but what it is is running out of fuel. If you write very early in the day this can just mean eating a fruit before you start writing. But eat you must. And coffee isn't food.

Stop. The specter of writing all morning or finishing an article or a blog is too much to bear. Break down the emotional strain by writing in 15-20 minute blocks. Then take a 5 minute break to move around, stretch etc. Be extra careful of distraction during these breaks. Don't check email, or start chatting or read the newspaper. Stay in the concentration frame of mind.

When the alarm sounds at the end of a 15 minute session and you are at a point where the writing is flowing - keep going! You may be into a magical vein that leaves you with 600 gorgeous words in an hour! But when you get stuck or tired, stop, take a break and start again.

Become a concentration Ninja!

Working in this way is very efficient. You will finish things much faster than you thought. Just do it.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Wake up grumpy and confused? Here's help

Often I wake up grumpy, negative and generally unenthusiastic about life in general. Here are a few tricks that get me out of that dark hole

Be clear about your goals
Always be aiming for something rather than be avoiding something.

You need more sleep. And you need more sleep than you think.

Yielding breath meditation
Close your eyes, and as you breathe out tell yourself to let go and just rest.

Listen carefully to others
Be prepared to hear something that you didn't already know.

Keep yourself inspired
Books, articles, podcasts, TED talks, whatever works for you.

Be happy to do just a little
No need to exercise or write or meditate every day without fail - doing just a little today is permitted.

Ask 'how' rather than 'why me'?
My friend Steve went from asking himself whether he would have time to run today to asking how he could find time to run today.

Be very, very busy
Be clear about goals and intentions, then crowd out the negative.

Sit/walk with your problems
All problems have solutions if you make space to receive then.

Ask your heroes how they do it.
I love the way that Duncan Green writes and reads at From Poverty to Power. I once asked him how he manages to read and write so much. You can ask your heroes similar questions.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The determination to follow yourself

There are many rules and disciplines that you can follow. Workplaces have rules, spiritual communities have rules, sports have rules.

Some of these rules are unavoidable or have dire consequences, like driving on the right hand side of the road. These rules are best followed mindlessly. Other rules are more malleable and personal, like which kind of training to do for a marathon. For these kinds of rules we need to find out what works best for us as an individual. Some people need to run 10 hours a week in preparation for a marathon, others thrive on shorter, more intense training.

Over the years I have discovered a few things that work for me at work, in exercise and in spiritual work. For example:
- Short sharp 10-20 minute work sessions followed by 5-10 minute breaks away from my desk,
- Short meditations during the day where I focus my attention on one sound, like the passing traffic or the sound of an air conditioner,
- Lots of slow running rather than intervals

Over the past few weeks I have been disgusted to find how seldom I follow these tried and tested rules and disciplines. Why?

The easy answer is that I forget. But why forget things as important as this? The deeper answer is that I let other things take over:
- I get caught up in what I am doing and set these rules aside. So for example I'm answering email and I decide to squeeze in one more answer rather than taking a break when the buzzer sounds.
- I think about what it looks like to others when I nap on the couch at work (which I often do between the short sharp work sessions).
- Sometimes I do simply forget. Sometimes I notice that some new rule or arrangement works for me, but I don't give it enough attention and it slips my mind.

Lets look at these three scenarios more closely.

Getting caught up: This is just dumb. I know soldiering on with one more email never works. The result is that 45 minutes or an hour later I stagger away from my computer dazed and confused. In the long run my short sharp method is faster and it leaves me fresher at the end of it all. Succumbing to the temptation of 'one more' or 'just a little longer' is hollow. It does not deliver what I want.

Perceived peer pressure: Peer pressure is at least real. Perceived peer pressure is just dumb. I read somewhere that we should stop worrying about what others think of us, because mostly they don't. They are caught up in their own dramas. For the last few years I have been experimenting with not giving reasons when I turn down an invitation or a request. And the amazing thing is that do date no one has yet asked me why. This shows that perceived peer pressure should be confronted with reality. Find our if it is true. If it isn't, ignore it. and it generally isn't.

Simply forgetting: These little discoveries are of inestimable value. They reveal our path through this world. I owe it to myself to take them more seriously. Not paying them attention and forgetting them is inexcusable. Before I started writing this post, I made a list my 'golden rules' and I am planning to look at them more regularly. I will continue to add and subtract and refine. But I will spend time with them and reduce the likelihood of just forgetting.

What do you make of this ramble? What works for you? Do you stick to your rules? And why do you think we sometimes don't?

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Be nice, we are in trouble

White people chasing and beating black people on a rugby field, a president and parliamentarians making a mockery of parliament, accusations of racism flying in all directions and 21 years after liberation there are still too many people without access to basics like sanitation, schools where education takes place or clinics where medicine and health care are being provided. The rainbow nation dreams of 1994 and 1995 are definitely long gone.

Few would pretend that they know the solutions to these problems. In the absence of any ready solutions I am focusing on:

  • Listen to people, especially when you don't agree. Try to understand.
  • Smile, look people in the eye and be nice.
  • Give others the benefit of the doubt. Don't assume the worst in situations where you really don't know what peoples' motivation is.
  • Care for each other. Every day presents an opportunity to do something for others, however small.
None of us are going anywhere. Not the angry students, not the self righteous middle class whites, not the dubious politicians, not the people begging at traffic lights or even the sense of impending doom. We must find a way to make this work. Lets smile, look each other in the eye and do what little we can.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Life beyond effort and indulging

I have been finding that caring, kindness and gentleness are more useful in my spiritual life than discipline and effort. In meditation, for example, when I struggle to focus on the mantra, it helps more to relax and let go than to try even harder to focus on the mantra.

For the last few weeks I have been trying the same thing in the rest of my life. So when I am tempted to eat something that I probably shouldn't eat, I have been cutting myself a little slack and eating it. Or letting myself indulge in screen diversions when I feel like it.

But meditation teacher Tara Brach has opened my eyes to a third way to respond in these effort/yield situations: "Rather than judging or indulging our desire for attention or chocolate or sex, we regard our grasping with gentleness and care."

Tara seems to be suggesting that we can even go deeper by not indulging. Rather we spend some time experiencing the impulse beyond the desire. In situations where I feel like eating I have found impulses like boredom, a need for escape from a hard task, a need for rest and even mild hunger :-)

What this approach allows us to do is to also treat this deeper impulse with gentleness and kindness. This is not mortification or self denial , but rather going deeper into the experience. This allows us to extend the exercise of being kind to ourselves to a deeper level.