Archive for the 'Self-improvement' Category

The Dark Hotel Room

Jun 13 2012 Published by under Self-improvement

I’m sitting up in a hotel bed at two o’clock in the morning. The room is dark. The hotel’s silent. This would be a good start to a Stephen King novel.

And books are on my mind. I recently posted this photo of my (physical) to-readpile on Google+:

My to-read pile

In contemplating that mountain of wood pulp and ideas, I came to a realization: I should be smarter about my reading.

What would be wisest to read? That question bounced around my head for a few days. I quickly discarded misgivings about the subjectivity of wisdom and absolute knowledge.

I’ve decided to read the classics. I want to read the “foundational texts” of literature, philosophy, biography, history, etc.

There’s no end to such lists, naturally, so I found one list from The Telegraph that includes a reasonable cross-section of established classics, and loaded up my Kindle. I read the Nibelungenlied, and am now a few hours away from finishing T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

The most interesting part of this project so far has been its effect on my judgment of other people. I’m already far too judgmental, and this project hasturbo-charged that tendency when I see how other people use their time.

I see blogs filled–yes, literally filled–with excited posts about comic book movies and pop music. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with comic book movies–I watched and loved Bunraku last weekend, which is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a live-action comic book–but I see a lot of people who fill their spare time withgeek-outs about Batman movies or grunge music.

However, it’s not my job to fix people. They’re not even doing anything wrong. This is my judgmentalism grumbling that other people don’t spending their time as well as I do.

It always comes back to the self.

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How Then Shall We Eat?

Apr 30 2012 Published by under Self-improvement

Been thinking a lot recently about food. I eat poorly. But what’s the standard?

'FOOD!' by galfred on Flickr

'FOOD!' by galfred on Flickr

The USDA food pyramid–once the nutritional standard–has come under fire. Research increasingly shows that foods once thought bad are actually important in certain amounts and ratios, and overall we’re finding that food is a matter of relationships.

So, to begin with, I must admit that there are no simple rules. One can’t simply brand grains or meat “unhealthy.”

What can we say? Using some of Michael Pollan’s advice, I’ve been thinking about traditional cuisines. What proportions of foods do we see in German or French or Chinese cuisine?

Let’s divide food into a few categories:

  • Grains
  • Meat
  • Beans and such
  • Dairy
  • Fruit
  • Vegetables

Asian food tends to focus on Grains (particularly rice), Vegetables, and Meat.

Italian food focuses on Grains (particularly pasta), Meat, Vegetables, Dairy, and Beans.

French food focuses on Grains (particularly bread), Meat, Fruit, Vegetables, and Dairy.

Mexican food focuses on Grains (particularly flour and corn), Vegetables, Beans, and Meat.

I’m seeing a pattern here. It’s not looking good for Atkins or Paleo, either.

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The Core Productivity Life-Changers

Apr 16 2012 Published by under Self-improvement

IMG_4243 by prijordao/priscillajp on Flickr

IMG_4243 by prijordao/priscillajp on Flickr

A few habits boosted my productivity dramatically in the last few years. They are presented here in the hopes you find them useful.

1. Schedule half hour chunks of time each day. When you get to work in the morning, or if you have a large chunk of empty time, break that down into half-hour or hour pieces and determine what you’ll do.

Combine this with your priorities. You probably have two or three things that you’d like to move forward today. Schedule them.

2. Create 4 lists: Projects, Next Actions, Waiting For, and Someday/Maybe.

The Projects list contains everything you’re trying to complete in the next couple of months. If you phrase each item in terms of how it will look when completed, your mind will be encouraged to make it real.

The Next Actions list contains the very next physical, visible action you need to do on each Project. It’s a bookmark for the Project. Why bother? Oddly, the mind has trouble deciding on an action when it looks at a list of goals, but if it sees a bunch of simple, physical actions, it’s easier to just choose one and go with it.

Moreover, while you can plan out a bunch of next actions for each project, you only really need one, and you don’t want a list that’s half-full of actions you can’t do yet.

(An advanced tip: break out your Next Actions by context: a list for actions at home, a list of actions at work, etc.

Put everything that’s on-hold until you get a response in the Waiting For list, along with the name of the person for whom you’re waiting. Review this every so often. Send reminders.

The Someday/Maybe list contains everything you want to do, but don’t have time for right now. This is perfect for Great Ideas that would normally pull you away from important, urgent work.

3. Review your lists weekly. Clean up items you missed. Add items that you may think of as you spend a few minutes really looking at your lists.

And take a step back. Has a Project been sitting on your list, with no progress, for a month? Maybe it’s time to re-frame it.

(Much of this is from David Allen’s Getting Things Done. It works.)

4. Turn off email notifications. Does your email pop up a notice when a new email comes in? Turn it off.

5. Get rid of your TV. You can watch everything on or on DVD later. TV is designed to suck you in for hours with shows you don’t really care about. What for?

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The 6 Most Important Productivity Tips I’ve Ever Received

Jan 05 2012 Published by under Self-improvement

'Construction Signs' by jphilipg on Flickr

'Construction Signs' by jphilipg on Flickr

In truth, I hate “tip culture,” the idea that you can achieve balance, harmony, and rightness in life with a few painless steps in 5 minutes a day. It’s never that easy.

Also, I don’t want to tell you what to do. Who am I?

So, these aren’t tips as much as they’re pieces of advice that I’ve taken, which have powerfully affected my productivity and efficiency.

1. Keep a list of projects

A project consists of work towards a specific goal. I keep a separate text file of all my projects.

This includes everything I’m working on, even ongoing projects where I just have to check in occasionally. It ensures that I don’t forget anything.

Corollary: Don’t use email as a de facto list of projects and things to respond to. If you read an email and realize you now have to do three new things, don’t keep the email in your inbox; write those new things down and file the email away.

2. Turn off email alerts and process email completely

I keep my email program minimized, and I’ve turned off those alerts that pop up whenever a new email arrives. When I “check email,” I clear time to actually process my email. When I’ve finished with an email, I move it to a folder. When I’m done checking email, my inbox is empty.

I’m not perfect with this. I doubt that anybody is. But when I do empty my inbox, I feel less distracted. Nothing nags. This habit also ensures that I’ve actually written down what needs to be done, instead of relying on a re-read of an email to refresh my memory.

This means I only check my email a couple of times a day. Even at work.

3. Every morning, schedule tasks on the calendar

Literally. Every morning, I open my list of projects. I find the most important one, locate a free half-hour slot on my calendar, and create a meeting for it. I’m the only one in the meeting. I continue until about 2/3 of my day is scheduled.

I felt weird the first few times I did this, but it worked. Not only does it push me to actually work on important projects, co-workers are less likely to schedule a meeting during time I’ve scheduled. So I’ll actually have time.

4. Take a lunch break

'lunch~' by tsuihin - TimoStudios on Flickr

'lunch~' by tsuihin — TimoStudios on Flickr

I used to work through lunch, but a few weeks ago, I changed.

If I get up from my desk and walk somewhere else for lunch, even for just 20 minutes, at the end of the day I’m still reasonably fresh and energetic. If I don’t, by 5:00pm I feel beat up.

This doesn’t mean going out to eat. In fact, I usually take my homemade lunch to a conference room. It’s enough of a break.

5. Journal work and take a reward for every few items recorded

I have a document titled “Daily Time Log.” When I get to work, I open that document, then minimize it. Every time I finish a significant task during the day, or I talk to someone, I record it in the Daily Time Log along with a timestamp.

For every 6 items I record, I eat a small Peppermint Patty from a stash I have in a cabinet.

The key to the reward lay in finding something that I like but don’t love. If I kept Butterfingers or Snickers, I’d feel tempted to scarf them all down.

6. Pick a few core things to do every day

These are the things that are important to you and your work. For me, it’s writing. I write every day, when I get home. Before I eat dinner. Simple but effective.

What effective habits would you recommend?

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Cleaning Out

Oct 14 2011 Published by under Self-improvement

Spent a good chunk of last night reading It’s All Too Much, based on a recommendation from Merlin Mann on the “Back to Work” podcast.

It’s an excellent, kick-in-the-butt response to having too much stuff, and guides the reader through ways of tossing out a lot of it.

I was inspired by this image of Steve Jobs, way back in the day:

This was his apartment. He was a millionaire at the time this photo was taken.

So, I tossed a whole lot of things yesterday. Piled up some of it for Goodwill; the rest will go away. I’ll be free of it. Time to focus.

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Aug 17 2011 Published by under Self-improvement

"Rub by belly" by tambako on Flickr

"Rub by belly" by tambako on Flickr

I lack self-discipline.

There are many reasons for this, none of them important now. The fact remains: I don’t need to discipline myself, besides basic practices like going to work in the morning. I can buy whatever I want, exercise if I want, and watch movies if I want.

We all know that, but what about the subtler cases? I don’t actually buy anything I want. I don’t eat McDonald’s at every meal.

But I do eat very few vegetables. I know the sorts of healthy foods I should be eating; I just don’t buy them. Meditation can only take a few minutes, but I never seem to get it done.


Yesterday, I read a bunch of online articles on self-discipline. Buried amongst the useless self-help blogs, one helpful article from a Hindu perspective pointed out the power of saying “No” to yourself. Even in little ways. As a practice.

It can be very temporary. If I have an urge to check my email–and I checked my email a few hours ago–I’ll say “No.” I may check it again later. That’s okay. I’ll say “No” for now, just to practice.

I’ve been practicing this today, and it’s an amazing experience. It feels like a muscle. Feels strange at first, then normal, then powerful. I have an inkling this will change my life.

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A Personal Plea From Me To You

Jul 05 2011 Published by under Self-improvement

I’ve been reading personal improvement books lately. They’ve inspired me to pass along a recommendation that I hope you–yes, you, reader–will take to heart, think about, and implement.

Stop watching TV.


Give your TV(s) away, if you can.

“But there’s good stuff on TV,” some proclaim. Yes, there is. There’s also good stuff in books and in movies. The problem is not the content; it’s the method of delivery.

You know all this. This sounds stupid. But this one stupid thing will suddenly give you the time to do all those things you want to do. Seriously.

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Why I just canceled my NetFlix account

May 28 2011 Published by under Self-improvement

Some Hot Chick Typing in Her Underwear

Thanks to Merlin Mann for pointing out this ridiculous image

Growing up, I always wanted to be a writer.

(Queue 5-minute reverie about Goodfellas, which is exactly what I want to talk about. The reverie, not the movie.)

When I was a kid, I’d read a great book and think, Man, I’d love to be a writer. Just sit there at my desk and write. Mug of tea next to me, open window with the breeze gently blowing the curtains.

Even when I started writing seriously in my teens, and I realized that the process is nothing like that, I was always drawn to it. I always liked at least the feeling of clicking the “Count Words” menu item at the end of an hour-long session and seeing that I’d added a thousand words to a story.

I’ve written sporadically ever since my teenage years. I’ve had plenty of other interests, of course, but that’s not really the reason. The reason is that I haven’t made time for writing.

Moreover, I’ve let other things slide into that time.

Now, yes, one has to set aside time for the activities one finds important. But there’s also something to be said for removing distractions, even voluntary ones.

For example, last year I created a calendar item called “Media Fast.” From sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, I would consume no broadcast media. No DVDs, no YouTube, no blogs, no newspapers, no books, no magazines.

When I attempted my first Media Fasts, the initial experience felt awkward, off-balance. If I was tired or needed a break, I couldn’t think of anything to do other than watch a DVD or fire up YouTube or check my news feeds.

Then I felt free. As overwrought, California, New Age, crystal-staring as that sounds, I suddenly realized that I had huge amounts of time. I could write, or play around on my guitar, or putter around in the garden, or fix that hole in my studio wall.

About ten years ago, I gave away my TV. (Yeah, this is jumping all around. Hang with me for a minute.) I just wasn’t following any shows, and when I did turn on the TV, I’d invariably spend half an hour channel-surfing. I just didn’t need that distraction.

Predictably, my productivity flourished, and I spent my downtime on things I enjoyed more deeply.


Then along came NetFlix, and particularly the Roku. With this, I could choose only the movies or series I really wanted to watch. Perfect.

Except that I spent much of this week watching most of The Kids in the Hall.

That’s a well-written show. Nothing against it. I’m glad I found it again. But why did I watch the better part of the entire show’s run? Because it was there.

Meanwhile, I own over a hundred DVDs that I haven’t watched yet.

A huge pile of unread books and magazines teeter precariously next to my bed.

This is not an adult way to behave.

Moreover, I’m not writing. Sure, I need down time. But I also need up time.

As I showered this morning, I realized I faced a stark choice: I can either be a guy who watches movies and doesn’t write, or a guy who doesn’t watch movies and writes. I want to be the latter. Much as I wish I could do both, it’s not happening.

So. I canceled my NetFlix account.

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Brother, can you spare a dime?

Oct 26 2010 Published by under Self-improvement

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m broke. Almost literally. Lots of assets, no cash.

This was driven home to me yesterday evening, after work.  I stopped by a gas station on my way home to fill up my truck with gas. My debit card didn’t work, and neither did any of my credit cards. All denied.

To be fair, several of those cards I paid over the weekend just as their due date came up, so I think they’re just locked until those payments go through.

Still. Embarrassing. I called my Dad, and he suggested that I run back to work and see if I could borrow some cash. Brilliant! I did, and all was well.

Then I returned home to check my bank account balance.


I’m fine, really. I transferred some cash from savings, and my paycheck comes through this Friday. I just have to live frugally for a little while, and use a spare credit card for this week’s expenses.

I’m just shocked, to be honest. I knew I was low on funds, but I didn’t realize it was this bad. I’m usually good at keeping my finances in shape.

To be brutally honest with myself, I haven’t been paying enough attention. I ignored a few bills. I kept ordering anime and manga online even when I was low on funds, justifying that I needed it to keep up with Otaku, No Video. I’ve been foolish.

So, I’m facing up to it. I’ve stopped making any entertainment purchases. I’m eating frugally (inexpensive meals at home and leftovers at work; no restaurant meals). I’ve identified a paid service I can cancel and a few gadgets I can sell.

And I’m re-establishing my budget, which laid out how much I could spend each month on movies, manga/anime, my garden, etc. Very simple. It’ll need to be updated, but it helps.

Come to think of it, I should also establish an entertainment purchasing plan: what books/movies/etc. I plan to buy each month. Hmmmmm.

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What should my contribution be?

Sep 17 2010 Published by under Self-improvement

"Happy Birthday Lil guy...:O)))" by Kevin Law on Flickr

"Happy Birthday Lil guy...:O)))" by Kevin Law on Flickr

Read this today in Peter Drucker’s Managing Oneself:

Throughout history, the great majority of people never had to ask the question, What should I contribute? They were told what to contribute, and their tasks were dictated either by the work itself—as it was for the peasant or artisan—or by a master or a mistress—as it was for domestic servants. And until very recently, it was taken for granted that most people were subordinates who did as they were told. Even in the 1950s and 1960s, the new knowledge workers (the so-called organization men) looked to their company’s personnel department to plan their careers.

Then in the late 1960s, no one wanted to be told what to do any longer. Young men and women began to ask, What do I want to do? And what they heard was that the way to contribute was to â€œdo your own thing.” But this solution was as wrong as the organization men’s had been. Very few of the people who believed that doing one’s own thing would lead to contribution, self-fulfillment, and success achieved any of the three.

But still, there is no return to the old answer of doing what you are told or assigned to do. Knowledge workers in particular have to learn to ask a question that has not been asked before: What should my contribution be? To answer it, they must address three distinct elements: What does the situation require? Given my strengths, my way of performing, and my values, how can I make the greatest contribution to what needs to be done? And finally, What results have to be achieved to make a difference?

Indeed. To quote Fight Club, “Our generation has had no Great Depression, no Great War. Our war is spiritual. Our depression is our lives.”

My generation, and the generation now growing into adulthood, must discern the right and the good. My parents’ generation rejected it, and previous generations knew it through osmosis.

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