Category Archives: Personal Development

Break Up With Your Phone

In last week’s post, I talked about how and why our brains are wired for distraction and interruption. That facility keeps us alert to threats when our attention is focused on other matters. It works wonders in primitive environments that are rife with peril but doesn’t serve us terribly well in our twenty-first century technology-laden lives.

break up with your phoneAccording to statistica.com, the 85% of American adults owned Smartphones as of February 2021. Half claim to use them 5-6 hours per day; another 22% copped to 3-4 hours of daily usage. It’s hardly surprising. They’re key communications devices (calls, email, text) with integrated cameras, Internet access, and a mind-boggling warehouse of downloadable apps. Author Catherine Price acknowledges their utility but explores their deleterious effects in her 2018 book How to Break Up with Your Phone. In particular:

  1. They feed our thirst for novelty with an everchanging media stream (and get us addicted to it).
  2. With an array of configurable alerts and easy access to the associated apps, they’re designed to get us to use them. Every time we hear a “ding,” our distractible brains note the intrusion; curiosity (and Fear of Missing Out) compels our attention. We lose our train of thought on the task at hand and become far less efficient completing it.
  3. A sustained pattern of distraction overloads working memory. We don’t process incoming data and register it effectively across multiple schema in long term memory. This deficiency inhibits our capacity for creativity and complex thought.
  4. They stimulate the pleasure sensors in our brains. We tune in to see if there something good to consume or to relieve boredom or anxiety. Once they’ve captured our attention, they provide no cues to get us to stop. We just numb out.
  5. They provide the illusion of human connection through social media and give us the means to be “liked.” Yet studies have shown that the more we use social media, the less happy we are. We get caught up comparing ourselves to others and fixated on who is (or is not) paying attention to us. We’re also subject to context-specific gleaned from our browser history.
  6. The blue light radiating from Smartphones inhibits sleep by delaying the proper release of melatonin. And to the extent that we encounter something unpleasant during these late-night episodes, we may ruminate on it long past lights out.

In short, despite all their utility, Smartphones can have a negative impact on physical, cognitive, and emotional health. A bit of restraint may improve our lives without impinging on all the great things these devices can do. Here are some suggestions:

  • Pay attention to the habit loops that feed phone addiction. Do your reach for it as soon as you get out of bed? Do you take action whenever you hear an alert? Do you mindless surf the phone while watching TV? Then ask yourself: What’s driving the behavior? Habit? Anxiety? Boredom? Is there a healthier response?
  • Turn off alerts on all but essential applications. Customize the latter to minimize unwanted disruptions.
  • Schedule times for uninterrupted work; turn off the phone and leave it in another room. Enroll family, friends, and colleagues in respecting your privacy during this time.
  • Make it more difficult to check social media by getting rid of the custom apps on the phone. Use the Internet browser for access with the associated inconvenience of logging in. If that seems too extreme, set an alarm on the phone when connecting to apps to limit time spent there.
  • Resist the temptation to look at the phone first thing in the morning or within an hour of bedtime. There are plenty of other hours in the day to plug in!

Feeling the need for a more structured intervention? Grab a copy of Catherine’s book and follow her “30-day plan to take back your life.”

Pep Talk for the Fall Season

While it has been many years since I looked to September as the start of a new school year, I still gear myself up for new activities and initiatives as summer winds down. This year’s “coach” is Ayelet Fishbach, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Her book – Get It Done: Surprising Lessons From The Science of Motivation – served up four guideposts.

4 steps to get it doneChoose Your Goal. The goal should point you in a specific direction and then pull you toward the end game. The most powerfully motivating goals share four characteristics: (i) They are ends in and of themselves, not a means to other ends – e.g., “I want to be financially independent,” and not “I want to make money.” (ii) They are specific and have some uncertainty regarding their success (ergo, you’ll work harder at attaining them!) (iii) They carry a powerful incentive for achievement. (iv) They satisfy meaningful wants or needs that may relate to self-acceptance, personal growth, relationships, contribution, and health. Such goals are inspiring; they don’t feel like chores.

Ideal goal statements emphasize meaning behind the associated actions. They focus on what folks WILL DO instead of what they will refrain from doing. (“Avoidance goals” are harder to implement!) They also provide challenging, measurable, actionable targets (how much, how soon) and suggest the path from point A to point B. A well-conceived path is enjoyable, if not exciting.

What litmus tests might be used to judge the quality of a goal? It serves a noble purpose that aligns with your values. It encourages personal excellence. It compels you to stay on task even when the going gets rough. It stimulates curiosity and creativity; you are eager to solve problems and make progress. It feels like play.

Keep Pulling. Once an initiative gets out of the gate, it takes effort and intention to sustain momentum. Progress monitoring looms large in motivation. As a rule, the more progress made, the greater the commitment to keep going. To that end, breaking large goals into smaller chunks creates an opportunity to attain milestones, take stock of all that has been accomplished, and celebrate. It minimizes “long middles” where motivation tends to sag and cutting corners becomes tempting. It also serves as a check point for actions yet to be taken and a sense for time frames to completion. That assessment may light a fire if things appear to be falling behind. Finally, breaking big goals into smaller units provides “fresh starts” and the boost in energy and enthusiasm they instill.

Failures and negative feedback may accompany the journey from point A to point B. Both can derail momentum when the ego gets bruised. Use the opportunity for learning and growing as the antidote for flagging motivation. Figure out what went wrong and do things differently going forward. As playwright Samuel Beckett said: “Try again. Fail better.”

Navigate Competing Goals. With multiple goals on the horizon, it pays to understand the “goal system” – i.e., the relationship between the focal goal, other goals, each goal’s means of attainment, and how each contributes to the realization of others. Maximum attainment calls for making as much positive progress on multiple fronts while minimizing negative impacts among them. Activities that serve multiple goals rock!

Prioritize goals (and back burner others) when actions express commitment, when they’re integral to who you are, or when you’re getting increasing marginal utility out of them. Consider compromise when you’ve made sufficient progress, you want variety, or you seek a balanced “middle road” for all of your efforts.

Secure Social Support: We are social animals. We pay attention to what our peers say/do/think and find ways to coexist harmoniously with them. We’re also wired for collaborative effort in service of shared goals. Moreover, we tend to work harder when others are watching. Therefore, the best social support consists of those whose values, goals, and actions are compatible with ours and who thrive in a context of mutual support. Step it up further by finding role models whose life choices and comportment help you set your sights high.

Finding Greatness

chess boardI don’t recall how Josh Waitzkin’s book The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance wound up on my reading list. I didn’t recognize his name from the days when he was America’s chess phenom on whom the movie Searching for Bobby Fisher was based. I didn’t know that he’d gone on to win 21 national martial arts championships and several world titles. And, truth be told, I’m not at a stage in my life where I’m seeking peak performance in a competitive arena. However, the book provides an interesting window into the worlds of competitive chess and Push Hands tai chi while providing good advice for high achievement in any discipline. Bottom line: A good read.

Here are my take-aways:

Mastery relies upon a solid foundation in the fundamentals and keen insights into the dynamics of play. Those who get to the top have a well-conceived approach that inspires resilience, the ability to make connections between diverse pursuits, and a genuine enjoyment of daily practice. They have a passion for learning and the heart for continuous improvement.

In accordance with Dr. Carol Dweck’s research, a growth mindset yields substantive benefits over a fixed mindset. The latter views intelligence and competencies as innate endowments that are set at birth. It places limits on one’s potential and (perhaps) leads to overly conservative behavior. A growth mindset views intelligence and competencies as qualities to be developed with passion, toil, and training. It believes in possibilities, instills an appreciation for the value of learning, and encourages relationship with those who have far better skills and knowledge. “We learn by pushing ourselves and finding out what lies at the outer reaches of our abilities.” Painful losses can provide a jumping off point for the next leap forward.

We should expect setbacks, distractions, and disappointments. Progress comes in ebbs and flows. Our environments won’t always be conducive to undisturbed thinking. We’ll make mistakes or get bad breaks that adversely impact outcomes. We can bolster our performance by working in less than ideal conditions (e.g., noise, interruptions) and getting acclimated to them. It helps us learn to flow with whatever comes and use it to our advantage. And when results fall short of expectations, we learn the lesson(s) and move on.

Errors and mental lapses happen. We must regain composure quickly and be present to what is going in the moment. When carrying unrealistic expectations of perfection or getting frozen in the past, we open ourselves up to making more mistakes and moving in a downward spiral.

In any long-standing discipline, it often pays to reinstate “beginner’s mind.” We go back to the basics and take things apart for the sake of identifying and correcting bad habits and creating a platform for long-term improvement. Waitzkin refers to it as a “plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick.” It may be challenging when internal and external expectations run high for performance. But it’s often what’s needed to break through.

While a certain intensity may be necessary for peak performance, it is not forwarding to sustain that attitude feverishly. Much like interval training, mind and body profit from stress and recovery. Concentration improves when paired with little breathers.

When called upon to perform, it’s really helpful to have a routine that reliably evokes “the zone.” Time permitting, it might contain a light snack, meditation, stretching, and listening to music. A shortened version may suffice when the clock’s ticking. Why does it matter? There are physiological and mental connections that come into play between a performance and the activity that immediately precedes it. And these connections can be invoked by simply visualizing the routine!

Finally, there is much to be said for developing one’s own distinctive expression of a discipline. Successful competitors play the game differently. Successful artists leverage their natural gifts, creative sensibilities, and life experiences to good effect. Great thinkers tackle problems differently. The right combination of passion, individuation, and dedicated effort can produce wonders.

Turning the Tide Toward Empathy

In 1994, a brewing civil war between rival factions in Rwanda erupted into a bloody massacre. Over the course of 100 days, upwards of one million Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu were exterminated via carefully orchestrated attacks by the interim government. As with other modern-day genocides, the perpetrators made effective use of media to demonize and dehumanize their adversaries while whipping up their followers into a hate-filled and fear-laden frenzy. Folks who might otherwise have simply gone about the business of living took up arms and committed acts of unspeakable horror.

welcome to rwandaIn 2007, I traveled to Rwanda with a collective of professors, students, and alumni from the Duke Divinity School. We entered deeply into the history of the country, visited genocide memorial sites, and listened to eye witness accounts of those earth-shattering days. It was hard to fathom the violence that had erupted years earlier given the astonishing beauty, tranquility, and orderliness of the place. But it did happen, and Rwandans have had to find a way forward to pursue justice and community building in its aftermath.

While one hopes that conditions in this country are a far cry from all that, one cannot help but notice the same undercurrents on our political landscape. Our beloved e pluribus unum (out of many, one) has become a frayed tapestry at threat of losing its shape and substance. Where once civil discourse prevailed over national, state, and local policy, we now have threats, insults, and suspicions. We seem to have forgotten our shared humanity, our common goals, and the wealth of benefits we accrue when working together collaboratively and harmoniously.

For those who share my discomfort with the current state of affairs, I commend you to Dr. Jamil Zaki’s book The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World. He provides a crash course in the neurological basis of empathy, the challenges we face in the modern world, and strategies to reclaim this essential building block of civilized society.

Empathy provides the opportunity to “walk a mile in other people’s shoes” and make guesses about what it feels like to be them. Cognitive empathy gives us different perspectives on the world. Emotional empathy engenders feelings that others might be experiencing. Empathetic concern provides a modicum of emotional distance while motivating us to act in another person’s behalf. All such expressions have as their goal an increase in kindness and compassion.

Two schools of thought once pervaded regarding empathy. One school deemed empathy a relatively immutable trait. One was or was not an empathetic person. A second school deemed it a spontaneous, reflexive, unthinking response to external stimuli. Both schools have been proven wrong. While acknowledging some genetic influence, Zaki provides solid evidence that empathy is a skill that may be cultivated. And while empathy may spring forth naturally for some and less so for others, everyone can learn to moderate its expression. Experience, environments, and habits also play a role.

A consistent practice of metta meditation has beneficial effects on the capacity for empathy. In it, we direct loving kindness toward ourselves, someone we love, someone toward whom we are neutral, someone with whom we have difficulty, and toward all beings in a sequence of expansion. For example, one may cycle through these thoughts for each object of our attention:

May [name] be safe.
May [name] be healthy and free from pain.
May [name] be happy.
May [name] be at ease.
May [name] be filled with loving kindness.
[May [name] be at peace.

When university students engaged in this practice, they reported elevated focus, more nuanced emotional experiences, an improved capacity to sense others’ feelings, greater generosity, and a clear recognition of our common humanity.

For communities embroiled in conflict, hatred often buries empathy… but does not kill it. In the 1950s, psychologist Gordon Allport asserted that “bigotry often boils down to a lack of acquaintance.” When people live, work, or play together, divisions between them can melt away given the right kind of contact. Such efforts work best when reversing existing power constructs – notably, giving voice to those who are typically silenced and encouraging those in power to listen attentively. I experienced the healing power of intentional community building in a Rwandan church comprised of perpetrators and victims of the genocide. The local gacaca worked to mete out justice to those who had committed wrong; the church served to heal wounds through the time-honored act of worship and sharing meals.

rwandan worship service

Listening also proves a critical skill for establishing relationship with members of hate groups. These folks expect outsiders to judge them and promote change; they’re very well-defended in rebuffing such attempts. One must listen nonjudgmentally and show a genuine interest in their perspectives. It confers respect and gives them the opportunity to experience compassion. It also opens the door to envision a future in which they see themselves as both caring and cared for. Those who’ve left such groups have referred to themselves as “formers”: former members of a group, and forming themselves into something new.

Arts and literature provide endless opportunities to walk in other shoes. When lost in a good book, I experience the characters’ perspectives and emotions while sharing a slice of their lives from the comfort and safety of my sofa. Theater arts grow its practitioners’ cognitive empathy as they prepare to embody their roles and make them come alive on the stage or screen. Both avid readers and actors have demonstrated above average skill in empathy.

Of course, an excess of empathy can lead to compassion fatigue and its attendant impact on the body – e.g., low-grade inflammation, disrupted sleep, cellular aging, depression, substance abuse. Health care professionals who ignore their feelings increase the risk of making inaccurate diagnoses and taking out their frustrations on patients. When able to draw awareness to their feelings, they are much more likely to express empathetic concern rather than empathetic distress. It allows them to care about others without internalizing their pain. Mindfulness training has proven effective in cultivating this skill.

Finally, Zaki tells us that empathy is personal, but it is also collective. We tend to copy what other people do and think – or, at least, what we think they think. Unfortunately, the loudest voices at the extremes often mute our sense for the abiding kindness of the majority. When tempted to get drawn into the we-they trap, choose to believe in everyone’s highest selves and act in a way that lets their better natures surface.

The Stoic Way

stoicI’m a long-time Star Trek fan. I find encouragement in creator Gene Roddenberry’s future (especially these days) and revel in the close connections forged among the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. I get a kick out of the tension between the highly sensitive Doctor McCoy and the unflappable Mr. Spock. The latter serves as the model for my sense of a “stoic” – one who endures pain or hardship without showing feelings or complaining. Such persons are seemingly indifferent to pain, pleasure, grief, or joy.

To my surprise, this sensibility doesn’t apply to the ancient Stoics (e.g., Zeno of Citium, Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius). They did not seek to banish emotion but rather maximize pleasant sensations (e.g., delight, joy, awe) and minimize negative emotion (e.g., frustration, anger, grief, envy). While the latter may serve a useful purpose momentarily, a needless cycle of misery should be avoided. Professor William B. Irvine lays it all out in The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient.

Like it or not, life presents challenges and setbacks. Thoughtful folks may make plans and take precautions to minimize their occurrence, but there remains much outside our control. A traffic jam precipitated by a roadway accident. Unanticipated expenses. The unnerving medical diagnosis. The unusually long line at the grocery check-out. Stalled deliverables on an important project. Depending on our response, some challenges can prove beneficial. They help us grow and/or heighten appreciation for things that we previously took for granted. (Indeed, life might be less interesting should we experience smooth sailing all the time!) But we must learn to rise quickly and bravely to address whatever shows up… or, even better, create an alternate narrative from which we don’t need to bounce back.

An effective strategy for “rising up” treats the challenge as a test of our resilience and resourcefulness. In a “Stoic Test”, we take up the mantle to exercise creativity in conjuring up options, thoughtfulness in evaluating them, and decisiveness in choosing the best one. We treat it as a puzzle for which the universe has faith in your ability to solve it. To behave otherwise is a waste of time and energy.

Stoics also experimenting with “framing” when facing setbacks. They’d consider all of the things that were going well in their lives and treat the setback as a minor inconvenience. They’d imagine how much worse things could be and took comfort that their circumstances weren’t all that bad. They’d frame news with a positive spin – e.g., a 60% survival rate for a disease versus 40% mortality. They’d consider how they’d feel in an hour, a day, a week, or a month and ask themselves: Will this setback really matter to me then? They’d try to find the humor in their situations and let a smile or giggle come through.

Bottom line, each setback has the potential for a two-fold effect: the challenge itself, and the negative emotions experienced in its wake. Anger and frustration shatter tranquility and cloud thinking. It can spiral into a “blame game” that amplifies negativity, thwarts effective action, and delays resolution. Rather than wallow in them, turn setbacks into vehicles for transformation. Recognize that we can grow stronger through adversity and become all the more adept at dealing with it. Learn to savor every moment of life and extract every drop of joy to be found even in the occasional stormy sea.

10 Tools for Embracing Finitude

In my last post, I summarized key recommendations from Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks that carry the intent of helping us make the best use of our limited time on earth. He reinforces these principles in the closing section of the book with ten tools for embracing our finite existence.

  1. what matters mostSet boundaries. We can’t do everything, and a life spent cramming productive activities into every moment isn’t all that fulfilling. No one really cares if we’re a paragon of productivity and achievement or an ordinary bloke leading and ordinary life. Make tough choices. Don’t add a project to the “to do list” until another one comes off. Confine work to a set schedule and stick to it.
  2. Serialize, serialize, serialize. Focus on one big project at a time. Our brains are not wired for multitasking and work far less efficiently in the attempt. Moreover, a multi-project horizon suggests a lack of focus on what’s truly essential. Focus on what matters most and let the non-essential fall away.
  3. Make choices about where to pursue excellence and where to accept mediocrity. Put energy into that which truly matters and get comfortable with showing up and participating in areas of lesser significance. Check in on this distinction from time to time as priorities shift.
  4. Pay closer attention to what has been completed than what has yet to be done. The “to do list” will never empty out. Why feel weighed down by future responsibilities when it’s possible to revel in accomplishment?
  5. Consolidate your caring. Choose which causes, issues, charities, and/or political interests are most meaningful and direct time and resources to them. Dial down the calls for action and funding from all others.
  6. Embrace boring, single purpose technology. A digital “to do list” may promise to make life simpler, but it carries the risk of distraction with other apps when managing it. Manual “to do” and grocery lists work just fine. For that matter, consider getting rid of all those distracting apps from the mobile phone. Make it a tool, not an entertainment device.
  7. Find ways to enjoy the mundane. The endless search for novelty and excitement makes us anxious, unsettled, and unhappy. Joy and satisfaction await those who learn to plunge more deeply into the life they already have.
  8. Be curious. When beset by boredom, anxiety, fear, etc., don’t run away from it by seeking distractions. Explore how the feeling manifests in the body and mind, how it morphs into other sensations, and what happens next. We may realize just how fleeting these sensations really are. We may also learn a bit more about ourselves.
  9. Cultivate spontaneity. Don’t wait until work is out of the way to say YES to an interesting experience. Don’t wait until there’s enough money in the bank to be generous. Acting on impulse can be a good thing from time to time.
  10. Practice doing nothing. Stillness may bring forth poor choices to relieve boredom and anxiety. Go ahead and be a little bored and anxious. It’ll pass. Settle down and reflect before taking action… or just get comfortable with sitting there. It’s OK. Need a little help? Check out Tom Hodgkinson’s book How To Be Idle: A Loafer’s Manifesto for an amusing take on the subject.

Four Thousand Weeks

Oliver Burkeman serves up a great big dish of finitude in his New York Times bestseller Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. He argues that time management should be everyone’s concern and offers some practical advice for making the most of it.

Make hard choices. There’s not enough time to do everything that feels worthwhile or interesting. There’s no peace and contentment trying to cram ever more things into each day. The more we fall into the trap of believing we can do it all, the more likely we’ll invest precious time in activities that aren’t truly meaningful for us. When we discipline ourselves to make hard choices, we make better ones.

Face finitude. We are each granted a limited time on this earth with no guarantees on how long that might be. Confronting that reality can make us truly present for the moments we’ve been given. As he says: “Where’s the logic in constantly postponing fulfillment until some later point in time when soon enough you won’t have any later left?”

Get comfortable with procrastination. Do the right things and let the other stuff slide. Burkeman’s principles include: (i) focusing on personal priorities first to make sure they get done; (ii) setting limits on how many projects you’ll tackle at a time (i.e., top 5, not a top 25!); and, (iii) resisting the allure of middling priorities even if they’ll take consume very little time and resources. That approach may leave some items on the “someday list” for quite a while. If they prove compelling, they’ll work their way up. If not, they’ll fall off.

Avoid external distraction. Digital media excels at hijacking attention. Our devices provide alerts to new content and provide effortless ways to tap them. We lose momentum on the tasks at hand and often get drawn in to browsing their curated content. Beyond their disruptive influence, they exert a substantive impact on our attitudes and thoughts. It’s time to reset notification parameters and limit the parties aho are granted instant access.

Avoid internal distraction. When facing difficult or uncomfortable tasks – even things we want to do – our minds can start scanning for ways to pull us off course. Turn on the TV. Check social media. Do busy work. Go to the refrigerator. Boredom accounts for a number of these interrupts. (Daily workouts, meditation, and music practice fall into this category for me… until I get going on them.) Fear accounts for others. (“What if I’m not good enough to get this job done well?”) Internally-motivated distraction chews up a lot of brain cycles while stalling forward progress. Rather than getting caught up in this spin cycle, acknowledge (name) the discomfort, deal with it, and then move on.

Rediscover rest. We needn’t justify our lives in terms of productivity or treat leisure time as recovery for work or yet another opportunity to achieve mastery. It’s OK to pursue hobbies at which we’re mediocre. It’s OK to go on hikes, runs, or bike rides without challenging ourselves to better our prior efforts. In fact, it’s OK to flat out “waste time” and do nothing at all. We’re allowed to just be and put the kibosh on the constant striving.

Practice patience. We’ve become speed addicts, always in a hurry. If traffic jams up, we get frustrated and start honking our horns. When in slow moving lines at the grocers, we get annoyed with the chatty check-out clerks or the folks who take too long with payment. When projects take longer to complete than we anticipated (as they usually do!), we stop enjoying the process and grumble about the unanticipated drag on our schedules. Why opt for anxiety-laden frustration when it won’t change the outcome? Breathe and opt for peace and calm instead.

Cultivate staying power. Life doesn’t always come with easy answers to the problems it presents. Stay in the mix long enough to discern the way forward. If challenged by a gnarly task, chip away at it a little at a time without succumbing to the pressure to race to the finish line. Embrace trial and error; fumble along while learning new skills or accumulating experience. It creates a more satisfying experience while delivering better outcomes.

Connect with people who matter. The cosmos will take little note of our lives on earth. All but a very few of us will make our marks in history. But our lives will be enriched immeasurably by aligning our temporal grooves with the family, friends, and communities about which we most care.

Am I Using My Time Wisely?

“This space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live.” – Seneca, Roman philosopher

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
– Mary Oliver, poet

When we are young, we think we have all the time in the world. As we age, the ticking clock gets louder and louder. When our parents pass away and we join the ranks of the family elders, it feels as though time is flying by. And so, I wonder: Is this how I want to spend the final chapters of my life?

If I follow in my parents’ footsteps, I should have a good long while before the grim reaper comes knocking on my door. And yet no power on earth provides a guarantee of longevity. As my meditation teachers often remind me, all we have is this moment… and then the next one… and then the next.

As I reflect on books I’ve read about time management – including those covered in this blog – the content tends to focus on productivity. For instance:

It’s about squeezing more in to the fixed amount of time we have. I think these folks have some really good advice (else I would not have covered them in my blog!) And, as a productivity-conscious, achievement-oriented individual, I eat this stuff up. But perhaps that orientation isn’t entirely good for me.

I suffer under the delusion that I can do it all and work diligently to prove myself right. My mother used to call me “the girl who can’t say no” because I always had too much to do in too little time and found ways to say “yes” when asked to add more. With some sense of pride, I’d meet my obligations, but I clearly wasn’t taking the time to focus on things that mattered most.

I can get so caught in being efficient that I forego the present experience in favor of ticking off the boxes on my “to do list” and moving on to the next task. I can be quite impatient with myself and others when things take longer than expected or interruptions draw me off course. (Hofstadter’s Law says: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.) And when I finish tasks, I find that I keep adding new ones to the list, thereby ensuring that I never arrive at an end point. Life can feel like one long conveyor belt… one that has become my habit to ride.

I feel like I’m living in the future. I frequently hear myself say things like: “If I could just get through this project, then I’ll have time to…” “This year has been nuts, but things will ease up in the new year.” “I can’t wait until I retire and I can do the things I really want to do.” Guess what? Much like the greyhound who never catches the mechanical bunny that he chases around the race track, I never quite reach my target.

I’ve come to a place where I’d like to rethink what it means to make good use of my time. I like having goals, but I don’t want to confine my activities to things associated with progress toward them. I like having plans, but I don’t want to get overly attached to them or worry that I’ll somehow be ill-prepared to deal with whatever happens in their absence. (As author Oliver Burkeman says: “A plan is a present-moment statement of intent. The future is under no obligation to comply.”) I want to strike a balance between having engaging and meaningful things to do while also allowing for life to unfold and surprise me.

Would you like to join me on that journey? Stay tuned for some practical advice.

Priming for Peak Performance

From Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success, last week’s post focused on how a combination of challenge and rest provides the impetus for growth. Authors Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness also discuss the importance of preparation for priming the field for success. Here are strategies they recommend.

Optimize Your Routine. Great performers set themselves up to operate at the top of their game every time they take the field. They identify the specific conditions that evoke their personal best and then integrate these elements into their daily routine. They don’t wait for the zone to magically appear. They know what they need to bring it on predictably, day in and day out.

priming for peak performanceWarm Up Your Mind. Elite track and field athletes don’t step into the starting blocks cold. They warm up off the field to ensure that they are ready to go when the starting gun sounds. In like fashion, great thinkers create a positive mood by thinking good thoughts about their projects and coworkers. When bolstered by a harmonious environment, this frame of mind improves problem solving and creativity.

Fashion Your Environment. Famed author Stephen King has said, “most of us do our best work in a place of our own.” Our brains engage with the objects with which we surround ourselves; they bring forth specific behaviors. If we want to elevate our creativity or productivity, we’ll want to manage the stuff in our space, adding things that help us, and getting rid of things that don’t.

Establish Your Routine and Stick To It. Don’t make it difficult for the muse to find you. When you set a consistent schedule, she’ll show up! An established routine doesn’t just prime us for work. It also alters our biology in a manner that increases strength, energy, confidence, creativity, attention, and memory. In short, routines both condition us to perform AND enhance our performance.

Minimize Distractions. Great performers choose where to focus their time, energy, and attention. They eliminate activities that are either extraneous to their work or injurious to their health and harmony. While they remain open to new ideas and relationships, they are vigilant in their use of precious personal resources.

Eliminate Trivial Decisions. We all have a limited amount of mental energy. When inundated with a gaggle of small decisions, we lose our train of thought, wear out our mental muscle, and become vulnerable to procrastination. Consider making a routine out of every decision that isn’t core to your central mission – e.g., what to wear, what to eat.

Be Sensitive to Your Chronotype. Some of us are early birds; others are night owls. Take note of when you experience your peak energy, creativity, and productivity, and set your schedule accordingly. There’s no sense fighting your body’s internal clock.

Choose Your Friends Wisely. Motivation spreads among close knit groups; feelings are contagious. Through mirror neurons, we’re hard-wired for empathy. The emotional landscape in which we dwell prompts actions and behaviors. As such, the people with whom we interact regularly will have a profound impact on our performance and mood.

Show Up. As the authors tell us, “The best performers aren’t consistently great, but they are great at being consistent.”

Peak Performance

Even as a semi-retired person, I’m always on the lookout for ways in which I can stimulate my body and mind to ever greater levels of excellence. Enter Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness’ book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.

stress plus rest equals growthExercise science provides a model for GROWTH by alternating STRESS (challenging stimuli) with REST. Stress demands rest, and rest supports stress. Renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi noted a similar dynamic in creative thinking. A period of intense, total engagement (immersion) followed by rest and recovery (incubation) leads to insight.

So, what constitutes “good stress”?

We stimulate growth by giving ourselves manageable challenges and focusing on their mastery with total concentration. New skills arise in the context of struggle, but not too much (to the point of breakage) or too long (to the point of exhaustion). Furthermore, we must give their development our full attention. Our brains are not wired for multitasking. With each distraction from the primary task, our ability to filter out irrelevant information, identify patterns, and feed long-term memory declines. Consider “deep work” a practice to be cultivated over time.

We support our quest for continuous challenge with a growth mindset. With this frame of reference, we can’t wait to get out of the starting blocks. (“Let me at ’em!”) We welcome trials and tribulations as part of the process of gaining competency. We know that setbacks provide opportunities for learning and revising strategies. They do not shatter confidence in reaching toward the finish line.

Why does rest matter?

Athletes understand the need for rest. When their bodies have reached the break point, they back off to allow time for recovery. Rest prevents injury and supports muscle building. But since thinking does not create muscle strain, why take brain breaks?

While we certainly improve cognition through “exercise,” a skillful practice of meditation strengthens the mindfulness muscle – i.e., our capacity to be fully present in the moment. This “muscle” provides the means to view our thoughts and feelings from the perspective of a neutral observer and exercise choice in how we respond to stimulus. It helps us avoid getting hijacked by our reactive amygdala. Not surprisingly, a consistent practice of meditation gives rise to an increase in the size of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that exercises attention, inhibits impulse behavior, and exercises control.

Good ideas often crop up when we’ve made space between periods of intense thought. In these intervals, the brain switches from its task-positive network (linear, logical, if-then) to its default mode (random, subconscious, integrative). In this mode, the brain can retrieve previously inaccessible bits of information and make connections between disparate data pulled from all parts of the brain. Though seemingly coming out of thin air, these insights spring forth from a brain that was always active in the background.

So, what does this mean?

Top tier athletes, thinkers, and other performers understand the need for challenge and rest. Every 60-90 minutes of deep work should be paired with 7-20 minutes of rest. The latter need not be a period of sloth. It can be filled with activities that require little to no effortful labor or thinking. For example:

  • Take a short walk, preferably out in the fresh air (although indoor walking works in inclement weather). It’s heart and brain healthy!
  • Look at pictures of nature. It stimulates the brain and lowers inflammation.
  • Take a break with a friend or colleague with whom you can enjoy a light and pleasant social interaction. The resulting release of oxytocin will make you both feel better.
  • Meditate in a relaxed setting.
  • Take a 10 minute nap – just long enough to improve performance, alertness, concentration, and judgment, but not so long as to engender grogginess or disrupt nighttime sleep patterns.

In addition to periods of workday rest, stellar performance calls for extended breaks – e.g., observing a weekly day of rest, and taking regular 7-10 vacations without bringing work with you!