Archive for the 'Self-improvement' Category

Exploration of Houston, A Museum, and Japanese Art

Sep 19 2012 Published by under Self-improvement

As I travel for work, I’ve found it’s easy to spend a week in a place and barely leave my hotel room. After 8 hours of standing in front of a class, actively teaching them, I don’t have much energy to explore.

So, I spend half an hour Sunday evening planning a small excursion for some evening that week.

Houston was a challenge. I stayed in the business district, where everything closes at 5:00 to 6:00pm. But after some digging, I found the Museum of Fine Arts Houston was open late on Thursday.

Hokusai - View of Fuji

One of Hokusai’s “36 Views of Mount Fuji”

Even better, on the Thursday I was there, the museum was presenting a talk by Dr. Kirsten Cather on Japanese art and culture, titled “From Genji to Godzilla.” Perfect!

I knew I was destined to go when I mentioned this to one of my students, and he exclaimed, “Oh, you can take the train!” Turns out that the light rail that passed right by my hotel went right next to the museum.

So, with some trepidation, I used the light rail. I’m always nervous about taking public transportation in a city I’ve never visited before. I’m afraid I’ll get arrested for having the wrong ticket, that I’ll somehow stand out as being obviously not a native and attract the scrutiny of some prejudiced cop. It’s childish, but real.

Fortunately, I had no problems. Bought a ticket at a kiosk, boarded the train, and got off at the Museum District several hours before the talk was scheduled to begin.

The Museum of Fine Art Houston is a beautiful place, with plenty of space to show off its large collection. It showcases pieces from Greece to the modern day, from Korea to South America. The placards are clear, if relatively brief, and all the pieces are very accessible. It felt more like a science museum than an art museum.

To my delight, Dr. Cather was warm, easy to talk to, and very interesting. She began by highlighting the Japanese tendency towards imitation, then gently led the audience to an understanding that this was intentional, and a trend to be celebrated rather than derided as “unoriginal.” As a bonus, she showed us and compared trailers for the original Japanese Godzilla (Gorjira) and the American edit, as well as a fascinating sequence from Sukiyaki Western Django.

Afterwards, I was able to chat briefly with the speaker about Japanese culture and anime, and recommend serial experiments lain, which she promised to watch.

A pretty perfect evening.

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Jul 06 2012 Published by under Self-improvement

From Tim Kreider‘s article “The ‘Busy’ Trap” in the New York Times:

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

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Jun 24 2012 Published by under Self-improvement

As I mentioned in my last post, I feel lost. Not depressed; just unmoored. So I’ve been thinking about how I want to spend my time.

That’s a clichéd phrases and an important thought. How do I actually spend my time? What do I actually do every night?

I work on lots of little things. I keep up with Google+ and email. I chat on IRC.

That’s not how I want to live my life. Unfortunately, I don’t know how I do want to live my life. So I’ve been experimenting.

On Wednesday, I met a friend at a nice restaurant. I arrived about an hour early (work ended early and traffic was merciful) and wandered into a nearby stationery store. My eyes flickered over the explosion of colors, and were drawn to a wooden counter stacked with new copies of old games. I ran my fingers over the wares on display, particularly a wooden transformer which I now want to build myself.

I bought a set of jacks. I chose them for one reason: there are no jacks tournaments. No jacks leagues or rankings. There are no international jacks competitions. It’s the least competitive sport I know of.

I’ve played and practiced a couple of times, nervously. It feels strange to play a game that I’m playing just to play. A game that’s just there.

I think I’m going to be just there for a while.

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No More

Jun 19 2012 Published by under Self-improvement

Good gravy, I’m tired.

'Mist' by frielp on Flickr

‘Mist’ by frielp on Flickr

I’m tired of outrage.

I’m tired of walls.

I’m tired of anger.

I’m tired of working late into the night on yet another project. Because everybody’s busy. So what are you working on?

I’m tired of feeling tired.

This exhaustion is thanks to a wonderful Monday night with historicula (not in that sense!). We saw Snow White and the Huntsman, which lived down to its reviews, and afterwards we talked for hours. I laid out my recentre-evaluations of my life. She provided excellent advice (no surprise there).

I’m tired of this. I’m tired of always striving for my artificially high standards. I’m tired of staring into a glowing rectangle, hoping to find satisfaction there.

I realize I’m whining. I think I’m allowed one rare emo post.

I spent this evening eating fish and chips at a local restaurant, then reading an odd book, then watching a documentary about horror hosts. A complete “waste of an evening” to yesterday’s self.

Today, I think differently.

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Advice Taken

Jun 17 2012 Published by under Self-improvement

It’s 1:00am. I’m writing a distressing number of these posts after midnight.

A few days ago, my Google+ stream gave me this video of photographer Scott Kelby.

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In the video, he exhorts a room full of photographers to understand the basics of photograph composition. He spends no time on lenses or cameras; he explains concepts like the Rule of Thirds and filling the frame, then walks through his experiences of “working a scene,” looking for a good shot. My eyes opened as if newborn to photography.

I knew that if I just said “Awesome!” and went on with my life, I’d forget what I learned. So I’ve re-watched the video every day, and I’ve taken photowalks every day. Today, I took my tripod along. Scott’s advice improved my photography at least twofold:

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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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