Tuesday night, a long workday has passed and you have an hour before bed. You try to muster up the energy to work on your personal project but it doesn't happen. You put it off - I'll have time and energy on the weekend you say to yourself.
The weekend arrives and you've slept in. You have brunch plans. You go for a walk after. You have to buy groceries. You go out Saturday night. Sunday is laundry and gym day. You clean the house and meal prep for the week. Game of Thrones starts in an hour. That project from Tuesday night? You'll have Monday night to catch up on it.
For those working full time jobs, the weekend is a sacred bucket where all procrastinations from the week go. We imagine the bucket will be easier to empty on the days we've labeled Saturday and Sunday. It's as if the bucket feels twice as heavy on a Tuesday compared to a Saturday.
The problem with this approach is it becomes an endless cycle. Life and social priorities come up and those uninterrupted chunks of time during the weekend dissipate. Your tasks go back into the procrastination bucket and on and on it goes.
I strive not to separate a weekday from a weekend. They are all just days. Some have more free time than others. I visualize time as blocks on a calendar. What's the difference between Wednesday and Saturday? On Wednesday I'm in the office between 9 AM - 6 PM. On Saturday I have that block of time open.
So technically the only difference is I have fewer open blocks of time on Wednesday. And thus if I schedule personal project time from 8-9 PM on Wednesday, it feels no different than if I scheduled that time from 12 - 1 PM on Saturday.
The other aspect is the perception of time. I used to perceive that a weekend minute was different from a weekday minute. Weekend minutes were more flexible and productive. More appropriate for personal projects. And yet to procrastination, a weekday minute is no different from a weekend minute. It's just a minute.
If you start viewing your time as blocks of time, it wont matter which day of the week you assign them to. Instead of routinely procrastinating projects to weekends, assign them to the earliest block of time you can commit to. You'll then get in a habit of being focused and getting to work during your block of time. The day of the week wont matter. A day is just a day. A minute is just a minute.
And you'll find that once the weekend does come, the only difference is you just have more blocks of time to work with.
Have you wondered why when you go on vacation, or when you visit a place you've never been before, time seems to slow down? It could be as simple as visiting a new part of town on a Saturday afternoon, to traveling thousands of miles to a different country. Somehow the memories and feelings of those places are more vivid and powerful than the ones from a typical work week.
Your typical week follows an expected routine. Your morning routine, the commute, the job. Each component follows an expected routine. Your brain knows what to expect, and it switches to autopilot to navigate it. And yet when going somewhere new, your brain doesn't know what to expect. There is no routine because you haven't experienced it. Your more aware as you absorb the new experience. It's an elevated sense of wonder fueled by a break from the routine.
People often ask me why I left Southern California for New York. California doesn't typically fall in the list of places people are itching to get out of. And yet after 15 years, I was ready for a change. I was deep in a routine and I needed disruption.
When I first arrived in New York everything was new. The city, my apartment and neighborhood. A new job and title. New colleagues and friends. New furniture and clothes. A new commute. A new lifestyle. I was living with an elevated sense of wonder. Every experience and encounter was new, and I welcomed it. I welcomed getting bumped in the subway because wow, I'm here in New York taking the subway! I welcomed the snow because wow, I'm here in New York and it's snowing! I was comfortable saying hello to a stranger because wow, I'm here in New York talking to a New Yorker!
When you've just arrived in a new place, everything seems forgiven because your new. Talking to a random stranger? New Yorker's don't do that but it's ok for me because I'm new. Pausing to admire a building and taking a photo. New Yorker's don't do that but it's ok for me because I'm new. Walking alone without any plans on a Saturday night, New Yorker's don't do that but it's ok for me because I'm new.
An elevated sense of wonder eliminates any self-doubt or apprehension. It's OK because I'm new. My sense of wonder makes me comfortable with spontaneity. I'll try that. Yes, I'm interested.
And yet after some time the wonder begins to fade. A routine emerges. The it's OK because I'm new excuse no longer works. That's not what a New Yorker would do hinders spontaneity. I'll try that becomes I'm not sure. I'm interested becomes I don't have time. When I firsts arrived to New York I didn't have to work for an elevated sense of wonder. It was a byproduct of the new environment. I just went along for the ride.
But as a routine settles in, and the sense of wonder flounders, I have to work to maintain it. I have to find the moments in the routine that are wondrous. The moments that stand out and make the typical days feel different. I have to create those moments. Instead of going straight home on the same train after work, I take a different train to park, sit on a bench for 30 minutes and then walk home. Even the smallest change can make a difference. Anything that breaks me from my typical routine path. It's the break, the new experience that reignites the sense of wonder.
Inbox zero is a state where your email inbox has zero messages. Not zero unread messages, zero messages total.
To some, inbox zero was a new years resolution (still working on it!). To others it's a habit, a way of life. And for most of us it's a distant place that we can only dream of visiting someday. A trip that is postponed until further notice.
As the idea for this post came to me, I started wondering about the origin story. I don't have internet access as I write this so I'm just going to guess.
In the early-days of email we had Excite, AOL, Yahoo, and Hotmail. Microsoft Outlook was dominant in the corporate world. I used all of these tools and I don't recall having an 'Archive' feature in any of them. Inbox management was simply read an email, file it away, or leave it in your inbox.
Then came Gmail with it's mysterious Archive button. Google replaced folders with labels and archiving. Coming from Outlook it took me sometime to adopt the habit of archiving (I was stuck in the folders concept). But once I got comfortable with tapping that Archive button, I started to get closer to the state of Inbox zero.
So my conclusion is Inbox zero is the byproduct of Gmail's Archive button.
But why inbox zero? Why strive for this elusive state?
If you don't get there, you're using email wrong. Email becomes the itch you cannot scratch as the never ending list of messages continue to pile on. You read some now, you figure you'll get to others later, and you never feel accomplished because you have so many more to go through.
Your main argument is all those emails need your attention. The flash sale email, the obscure sneaker newsletter, deals on flights to Europe, bank notice, club soccer team group thread, all these emails need to be looked at and processed. But if you aren't shopping for anything right now, or planning on going on a European vacation, do you really need to process those emails? Why not just archive them and if you do happen to need a new pair of pants the next day, use the search tool to find that flash sale email.
If your inbox is a task list, you are doing email wrong.
Your approach should be receive, process, archive. Ideally you do this in deliberate, planned, time-allocated chunks. This way you process them in bulk and are not interrupted throughout the day processing email. If an email does require you to take some action, schedule it. Add it to your calendar or your favorite task list tool. Schedule it, archive it.
In the early-days of the internet, the volume of email circulating was minimal. Today, the amount of newsletters and email notifications that exist is mind boggling. You can easily get 100 emails a day. Given this, reassess how many of these services and notices you actually need. The fewer you have, the easier it will be for you to reach inbox zero.
Getting to inbox zero will bring not only a sense of accomplishment, but of resolve. You're caught up. You've scheduled any relevant actions. You've processed the information. You can carry on with your day knowing that you don't have to check your inbox every few minutes.
It's the lifestyle habits and processes you instill that make inbox zero much more valuable than just inbox zero.
If you are currently in your primary workspace, take a look around. What do you see? Do you have a simple and clean work environment? Or are there a bunch of distractions (papers, books, pens, cables, etc.) cluttering up your space?
It’s no secret that a simple and organized work environment is conducive to productivity. You'll be more productive on your primary task with fewer things vying for your attention. Explore Feng shui for much more on this.
Now take a look at your digital desktop. What do you see? Does it match your simple physical work environment? Or is it a clutter of shortcuts, folders, and quick launch icons?
It’s interesting how we spend time optimizing our physical space, but forget about our digital space. I was guilty of this. I have a very simple desk environment, but my desktop was filled with folders and things to click on.
Here is my before image (I have two monitors, hence the two background images):
All of these “extras” are distractions. They give you something to click on to escape your primary task the moment it gets hard.
For example say you are writing a paper for school. You reach a point where you are not sure what to write next. So you click on the Chrome icon on your desktop and before you realize it you've escaped to Facebook.
After falling into this trap I decided to make a change. I was inspired by Leo Babauta’s video: How I Work. Look at his desktop. No icons. No folders. No distractions.
Here is my desktop now (I removed all icons and set the taskbar to auto-hide):
And here is my desktop while writing this post:
Medium is on full screen (hit F11 on chrome). I can now focus solely on writing this post. And when I get the urge to pull away (often when I'm not sure what to write next), I don't have an escape icon to click on.
It’s a small change, but it can have a significant up side. Give it a try!
(Originally posted on Medium December 6, 2014)
A habit that may save your life
“If someone gets in your face and calls you a $%#$%, I want you to be nice.”
-Dalton “Road House”
My goal in writing this piece is to show how adopting a mindset of being nice will bring you happiness, inspire others to do the same, and how it may even save your life. I hope that after reading this you consider incorporating a be nice mindset into your life.
I’d like to first present some examples of how I try to incorporate this mindset into my life:
- On the road if someone cuts me off I gently hit my brakes and let it go.
- If I’m teaching someone a new topic and they ask the same question nth time, I’ll patiently answer it as if it were asked the 1st time.
- At an event with a speaker/panel I strive to ask a question where the answer could benefit the entire group.
- If I see a piece of trash near a trash can I’ll pick it up and throw it away.
- I eat a salad prior to most dinner meals.
These examples (although trivial) showcase that being nice can be applied in nearly any situation. The more you practice, the more you’ll find the habit unconsciously influencing your actions.
This mindset can influence your actions towards others, yourself and your environment. The key is to be mindful of your actions and reactions in various situations. Internalize “be nice” and use it like a mantra. You’ll then see it start driving your behavior in all aspects of your life.
I’d like to now go through the three benefits of adopting the be nice mindset.
> Benefit 1: Being nice will bring you happiness
It is no secret that when you are nice to someone or yourself, you feel good. You feel happy. Some situations are naturally more conducive to this habit, such as offering your seat to an elder person on the bus. Others are about doing the unexpected. For example spontaneously helping a stranger load a heavy item into their car at a shopping mall. Some situations call for restraint, like when you get cut off on the freeway and withhold your road rage. Or controlling your emotions when a coworker calls you out for a miscellaneous work issue in front of your peers/boss. Each situation will be different but the end result of achieving happiness will be consistent.
When doing something unexpected (assisting a struggling stranger) the sincere appreciation the ingenuous stranger shows is a very powerful stimulant for happiness. For that brief moment that person feels noticed and and that is certainly something you can smile about.
In a situation where something has already happened (you got cut off on the freeway) adversely reacting to this will bring more angst and anger. Why do this to yourself? The action of getting cut off has already happened. Your reaction should be to let it go. Think of it as you being so nice that you let this person cut you off to make them happy (more on this later). Your reaction has turned a negative feeling into a positive one and that is very conducive to your happiness.
In tougher situations (coworker calling you out) your natural reaction tends to be to protect yourself. You may get defensive, send a strong-worded email and the situation escalates. A small issue transforms into a big issue. This will certainly destroy any feelings of happiness on your end.
What if you instead acknowledge the mistake and compliment the person for calling you out. In this case the tone of the other person will likely change (they did not expect your “be nice” reaction). This puts your adversary on the spot. They’ll question their brash approach to the situation and may transform from being aggressive to helpful. Happiness will ensue as you just turned a negative situation into a positive one.
The biggest hurdle in this situation is overcoming the desire to do what is easy versus what is hard. The easy response is to retaliate with a negative attitude, the hard response is to be nice. You’ll have to be careful not to be susceptible to the easy (or natural) negative response. Being nice will feel very uncomfortable initially (these things have a tendency of being hard). Yet if you elevate yourself to be nice in this uncomfortable situation, a great feeling of happiness will flow through you.
> Benefit 2: You will inspire others to be nice
…There are habits that are conducive for social skillfulness. The first is the habit of kindness. When looking at any human being your first thought should be: I want this person to be happy. If you have this mental habit coming effortlessly, it changes everything. It reflects unconsciously in your body, your face, your language, tone of voice and facial expressions. It will be picked up unconsciously by other people. And their perception will be: I like this person, I don’t know why, but I like this person. People will want to work with you, you will become successful…
Meng eloquently describes how the habit of being nice can lead to your own personal success in the workplace and beyond. Taking it one step further, I believe that by being nice you will inspire others to be nice as well.
It’s like when you are working out at the gym and you are struggling with some weight. When a member of the opposite sex comes by all the sudden that weight feels a lot lighter. Seeing someone be nice (either to you or someone else) has the same kind of stimuli by inspiring you to be nice as well. And so the snowball effect begins…
The trigger to inspire someone to be nice can be the smallest thing. Opening the door for someone, saying excuse me, giving a stranger a smile. The smallest trigger may connect with someone in a way you never intended or expected. All the sudden someones bad day becomes a not-so-bad day, and negative actions they may take in the future transform into positive ones.
An important takeaway from Meng is that he categorizes kindness as a habit. By forming a habit of being nice you unconsciously perform nice actions throughout your day and the number of people you influence can grow exponentially. It just takes one action to plant the being nice seed into someone. It’s a contagious habit.
> Benefit 3: It may save your life
In early February 2014 a tragedy took place in Orange County California. A young woman in her early twenties was beaten to death outside a nightclub by a group of people. Allegedly the entire altercation was sparked when the victim walked into the assailants group photo. This led to a verbal argument which escalated to someone throwing the first punch. In the end the victim was beaten to the ground and eventually died in the hospital from the injuries she sustained.
This event resonated with me for several reasons. On a personal level this young woman was a graduate from my alma mater (Chapman University), and although I did not know her, I very well could have passed by her on campus at one point in time. The second was how something so stupid and trivial (walking into someones group photo) can result in a lost life. How does it make any sense that in 21st century America a young woman can get beaten to death by a group of strangers when going out to a club?
Your life can change in seconds. The actions you take in those seconds can be a matter of life or death. As the young lady walked into the assailants group photo both parties began to exchange obscenities. Had someone just said “I’m sorry”, “excuse me”, “don’t worry about it”, I would not be writing about this tragedy. Just one person enacting the be nice mindset could have changed everything. The confrontation would not have developed and a life would not have been lost.
We are all going to be put into situations where our pride or patience is tested. We are naturally proud individuals. We don’t appreciate when someone calls us a name, cuts us off on the road or even looks at us the “wrong way”. To tolerate such provocations makes us look weak in the eyes of society. And who wants to be perceived as weak?
Yet how we react to these provocations can determine if we make it home that night. With an increased number of shootings and violence people are living on edge. You never know when the person you just provoked (or is provoking you) is carrying some sort of weapon, is crazy or is just looking to get into a fight. Is it worth yelling at someone and risk getting into an altercation where your life is threatened? Who cares if your “pride” has been tainted, just let it go, be nice.
About a year ago I was at a gas station inflating my car’s tires. I’m occasionally a bit OCD so I was taking my time making sure each tire was inflated to the optimal PSI level. As I reached the last tire a car flew in next to me and a man got out red-faced screaming at me for how long it was taking me to finish. I had no idea he was waiting and naturally I got pissed and started yelling back at him. Fortunately the situation did not escalate but I was certainly in a bad mood after the ordeal.
As I reflected on the situation I realized how wrong my reaction was. If this guy had a weapon or was looking to fight, I fell right into his trap. And what would I have been fighting for? For access to the tire air pump? Had I reacted nicely, maybe apologized, I would have caught this person off guard. He would likely have realized what a jerk he was being and may have cooled off. To be aggressive is to pour gasoline on the fire, to be nice is to take away the oxygen from the flames.
> Closing thought
Being nice is a habit that can be part of all aspects in your life. Whether to yourself or others, it’s a habit that can have a profound impact on your environment. It’s a mindset that you will have to consciously work on incorporating into your life, and one day it will transform into a habit.
Everyone has different approaches or reminders for getting into the mindset. Whether it is a visual reminder before you step out of your home, or being mindful throughout your day and catching yourself when emotions begin to negatively stir.
No matter how you get there don’t forget the importance of being nice, it really does change everything!
(Originally posted on Medium April 6, 2014)