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Personal Development with Gray Miller

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reinforce the habit you want instead of the habit you have

A Classical Re-Education

Operant Conditioning used in an experiment to change behavior

It’s easy to change the behavior of mice. And, it turns out, humans. Just ask the Slot Machine Industry.

Pavlov’s Dogs. Skinner Boxes. The world of classical and operant conditioning is often cold and pretty scary, not only because of the methods used on cute and fuzzy animals to learn about them but also because they work. I made the mistake of taking some advanced psychology classes in high school. That meant that when I went through the Marine Corps Recruit Depot I understood completely the ways the Drill Instructors were re-shaping my brain to suit their ends. Just because you understand that the symbol of the eagle globe and anchor is a secondary reinforcer doesn’t make it any less effective in making you want to stand straighter, run faster, snap salutes more crisply to “earn” the right to wear it.

No, it actually makes it more horrifying. On the other hand, with a good understanding of things like operant conditioning you can get an idea of why things like Twitter are addictive and take steps to moderate the effects. And since it does, in fact, work, you can even use it on yourself.

The Strange Case of the Glasses

Here’s an example of using conditioning to change personal behavior: I have a tendency, entirely subconscious, to take off my glasses at any given moment and set it down wherever. The back of the couch, the top of my dresser, the stereo speaker, the kitchen counter…there’s no rhyme or reason to it. I have a little artisan glass dish that I could place them on – but somehow I can’t seem to get in the habit of using it.

Instead I tend to rely on my partner to help me find them. “Have you seen my glasses?” is a phrase that I really don’t even have to finish before she will be picking them up from whatever random place I put them. In fact, much like associative conditioning, I believe there is a certain posture I have which communicates to her Gray is looking for his glasses because she will sometimes appear with them in her hand before a word has left my lips.

Wonderfully helpful, right? I smile and thank her and praise her for her prescient fulfillment of my needs.

What kind of behavior is that reinforcing? I enjoy getting help; she likes me smiling; there is no motivation for either of us to change the behavior of laying down the glasses in various places. I suspect she thinks it’s adorably absent-minded or some such.

So how could I use conditioning to change my own behavior?

Creative Conditioning

If your first answer was “Have something unpleasant happen every time you can’t find your glasses, Gray!” then gee, thanks for thinking the answer is to make my life more unpleasant! Just kidding – I know it was rooted in an honest desire to help, and not in any kind of latent sadism on your part.

But unfortunately research shows that negative reinforcement and punishment (two different things, by the way) are not as useful as positive reinforcement when it comes to changing behavior. Not that it can’t be done – it just tends to be less predictable and much less permanent.

Instead, we might do things a bit differently. I could ask my partner to put my glasses, any time she saw them not on my face, onto that glass tray. She wouldn’t hand them to me, she wouldn’t even mention it to me. Meanwhile, I would make sure that if I couldn’t find my glasses that the first place I looked was the glass tray. Odds are that either she would have already put them there, or she would see me looking, do her little magic divination and find them, and place them there.

One way or another, I would be rewarded for looking in the dish by the glasses being there. Even better, it would probably (at first) be an intermittent reward, which is amazingly effective to trigger behavior. Want proof? Try not checking email for 24 hours. Heck, just changing to checking twice a day is pretty difficult.

Pretty soon my brain would connect the tray and the glasses, and my tendency would be to take off my glasses and just place them there. My partner would, theoretically, find the glasses outside of the tray less and less. Which would, of course, free her up to go and find my keys…

Bear in mind, it’s a theory. But it’s worth a try, and there might be some behaviors you can find in yourself (or that you might gently suggest to your loved ones) that could benefit from some good old-fashioned conditioning. One suggestion, though, which we’ll go into more thoroughly on Wednesday’s Life Post: take the time to find the behaviors that actually need changing, rather than looking to the media to find what they want you to change (usually with the help of products they’d like to sell you).

This is your brain; apply conditioning, rinse, repeat. And let me know how it goes in the comments!

using hand signals for better meetings

The Good, the Bad, the Efficient

Occupy Wall Street. The phenomenon raises a lot of eyebrows, shaking of heads, grimaces. Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, looking at it as noble or futile or both, it was, for a time, an undeniably potent force. One of the more powerful tools that it used was a conversational technique using hand signals. It’s not entirely original – this kind of thing has been used by everyone from Quakers to the Civil Rights movement.

I have seen it creeping into conferences and such that I attended over the past year or so – people snapping their fingers or waving their hands to indicate approval, for example – but I experienced it full-on in a more recent “lean coffee” a couple of weeks ago in Seattle. Now, Lean Coffee is a whole other thing, using the Kanban Technique pioneered by Toyota, but this particular discussion also used a version of the hand signals in the process.

Here’s How It Works:

Seems trite? And yet, amazingly effective.

Seems trite? And yet, amazingly effective.

In the flow of conversation, if someone was talking, the others would often indicate their feelings about what was being said with the lower set of signals. That tended to give the speaker a good idea of how they were being received, and if they were being head (not just listened to). In the Occupy method, a response to whoever was speaking would be indicated by pointing a finger at the speaker, and saying something new by the “Want To Talk” signal ingrained in students for hundreds of years.

In this particular Lean Coffee we used the pointing fingers for something different. If someone wanted to speak, whether response or something new, they would raise their hands. If others felt that they wanted to hear what the new person had to say, they would point a finger at that person raising their hand. As often happens in conversations, more than one person might have things to add – and people would use their other hand to point at the additional people with ideas.

If it sounds complicated, it really wasn’t. The pointing fingers (sometimes with two fingers to indicate first/second choice) gave a pretty clear idea of who was next in the pecking order, and it kept people from talking over each other. The “feeling” hand signals let people respond to what was being said without interrupting the speaker.

An additional element was timing. Each person had seven minutes to start with when they began speaking. At the end of that seven minutes, people would vote on whether to give the person another four minutes to speak. At the end of four minutes, people would vote on giving an additional three, then two, then one. Voting was a simple thumbs up/thumbs down or sideways for “neutral” (and if a majority were neutral, then the subject was deemed not interesting enough to continue). The intent was to keep people from droning on and on or repeating themselves (there’s also a hand signal for that, twirling your fingers around each other, but that wasn’t part of the Lean Coffee I attended).

Hippy Dippy Yippee

If all of this sounds silly or artificial, it’s because it is. Then again, did you watch the rules of the Texas State Legislature when Wendy Davis made her stand? Again, regardless of your politics it can’t be denied that there were arcane and arbitrary rules being used by both sides to try and achieve their ends. Ever since the first campfire discussion we’ve tried to come up with rules and methods to make group discussions more comprehensible. In a perfect world everyone is equanimous, concise, polite, and seeking mutual understanding. Anyone who’s been in any kind of committee meeting knows we do not live in a perfect world.

I didn’t stay for the whole discussion, and at the time I found I really didn’t like using the signals. They felt constraining, they felt a little silly, they felt like they drained the passion out of the conversation. I looked at it as a simple experiment, but not something I’d want to adopt.

Then I went to Ann Arbor last weekend.

The Sound of Listening

Have you ever been a part of a group of artists discussing something? How about a group of teachers? It can get pretty raucous and passionate. Now imagine a group of artists and teachers talking about how to teach art, in a room where there are a bunch of other artists and teachers actually teaching art. Mind. Blown. The ideas flowed and expanded and overlapped and synergistically built on each other and it was amazing.

It was also chaotic. Interruptions. Hard-to-hear voices, especially when people strongly agreed or disagreed with something. Lots of hands raised, sometime unseen by the person speaking or by others who simply spoke up. Suddenly at a certain moment when I saw one friend across the room wanting to talk, I found myself pointing at her. Another woman to my left raised her hand as well, but I knew most people couldn’t see her, and I found myself pointing two fingers of my other hand at her. It was a natural reaction: we should listen to her next, and then this other person needs a turn. Sure enough, the person who was speaking saw my hands, looked over, and ceded the table to the new idea.

In other words, it may have been silly and artificial – but it works. Here’s your challenge this week: give it a try. Maybe around the dinner table with kids, maybe at an informal “test” meeting at work (remember, you don’t have to reference Occupy Wall Street; use Toyota, it’s got a better track record). I suspect, like me, it will feel really weird during that first meeting, and you might just dismiss it as a harebrained idea.

But I bet at your next meeting without it, you’ll wish that at least some of the people used it.

Then again, I could be wrong. Let me know what you think!

use security to protect your attention

Scary Thoughts on the Road

Last week I talked about the idea of a “Notification Free” week, when you could try to be less distracted by all the beeps and buzzes of the many apps. As promised, I shut down all the notifications on my phone and my iPad and went silent. That meant when people tweeted about me, I didn’t know it; I didn’t get the updates on mail; my phone didn’t tell me when apps updated, and my iPad didn’t let me know there was a new issue of GQ available.

Did it make a difference?

FOMO Strikes Back

At first the only real difference that I could see was that I kept checking the apps themselves – since I didn’t know about the updates, I needed to check them. Like Joel from Buffer, I found that I was the one who interrupted myself with incessant checking.

But the Fear of Missing Out slowly subsided, helped by two factors. First, I spent several days in Vancouver B.C. teaching, performing and training with a Japanese artist. I don’t have cel service in that country. It means that my interactions with the social internet are limited to the availability of wifi.The long breaks between these oases of connection helped to wean me off of that craving. In some ways, traveling to Canada was like a trip to a rehab center, where they slowly taper you off of your addiction to whatever is consuming too much of your life.

But the second reason actually kept me even from logging into those public wifi centers. Simply put, it was fear.

Scarier Than Fiction

You know in all those suspense thrillers or crime procedurals where the computers all work all the time, and instantaneously find the information needed by the protagonists and villains? You never have blue screens of death or spinning wheels of doom and whatever securities the high-end target has in place is easily overcome by the erstwhile hacker typing away at her keyboard in a coffee shop.

We pay a price in security and privacy for the fun of cameras and the cloud. Image Courtesy Vincent Brown.

1984 Is Starting to Look Charmingly Naive

Totally unrealistic fiction, right? Well, yes, except for that last part. According to this article in Medium, it’s pretty remarkably easy for a hacker to get all kinds of information through open networks such as you find in coffee shops. More than that, they can also put information onto your phones.

In less than 20 minutes, here’s what we’ve learned about the woman sitting 10 feet from us: where she was born, where she studied, that she has an interest in yoga, that she’s bookmarked an online offer for a anti-snore mantras, recently visited Thailand and Laos, and shows a remarkable interest in sites that offer tips on how to save a relationship…We try another trick: Anyone loading a website that includes pictures gets to see a picture selected by [the hacker]. This all sounds funny if you’re looking for some mischief, but it also makes it possible to load images of child pornography on someone’s smartphone, the possession of which is a criminal offense.

Given the proliferation of privacy threats out there, all of the sudden having a supercomputer in your pocket is less an asset and more a vulnerability.

Then again, it doesn’t have to be something as big as a hacker. It can be someone looking over your shoulder as you type in that four digit passcode, and boom, they’re in your phone. Those celebrities who had their phones hacked recently didn’t have hackers playing with code; rather they had people who had researched them gain access through password recall mechanisms that functioned exactly as they’re supposed to.

After reading the article, I took a couple of precautions. I changed my passcode on my phone and iPad to longer, ten-digit numbers. I looked for a VPN (that’s Virtual Private Network) client that might help secure my browsing (still looking, by the way).

Then things got worse.

Here to Help You

While I’m certain I turned out more liberal than many of my close relatives are comfortable with, there are some situations where I am as conservative as the rest of them. One of those is privacy; what is written or stored on my computers is mine, and I am very grateful for the fourth amendment protecting from illegal search.

Recently there was a court ruling that cel phones may not be searched without reasonable cause – meaning that if an officer pulls someone over for speeding, they do not have the right to look at recent text messages or status updates on a phone. In addition, even if they do grab your phone, they do not have the right to demand that you unlock it. They can guess, of course, but another security precaution I take is that my phone will delete all information if more than ten attempts are made to guess at the security code.

Then Michael Knight (yes, that’s his real name), a security expert friend of mine from the U.K., told me about a little loophole that I’d not known about.

One of the reasons I did not mind so much about the longer pass codes is because I have the nifty little biometric sensor on my phone. That meant that I didn’t have to actually put in the code – just pressing my thumb to the button would unlock the device.

Guess what? While the Fourth and Fifth Amendments protect me from being forced to reveal my security code, my thumbprint is not similarly protected. So I can have everything encrypted and locked away with complex codes…and they are legally able to force me to use my thumb to give access. It’s similar to the way that governments are legally able to seize and search your hard drive on your computer when you cross a border.

Security Through Naivety

If all of this seems a bit tinfoil hat to you, I can understand. It really may not affect you. However, not only do I want to protect my information, but I also have the records and personal stories of several clients on my laptop. It is ethically my responsibility to keep that from going anywhere other than where they would like. It’s why my laptop now uses encryption for all data, as well as a passphrase to access it. It’s not the strongest in the world, but according to experts it’s pretty durn good.

The tin foil has an additional silver lining, though, which is why you might want to try making your device more secure even if you feel no risk. I’ve found that since I can’t use the fingerprint sensor on my phone that I’m less inclined to want to type in all those numbers. As a result, I only check my phone when I actually intend to find out something – never on a whim. It has meant I’m more engaged with the world around me, and along with the lack of notifications I have found that the world seems a bit less noisy.

It gives me more room to identify the urgent, but more to the point, it gives me the space to enjoy the silence.
I’d invite you to try it, maybe just for this week. The silence? It’s pretty nice.

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control your notifications

Signal to Noise

What demands your attention?On Friday we talked about how it is a misnomer to think that the urgent and the important cannot – or do not – coexist for all of us. I mentioned that the real problem was differentiating between the urgent and the noisy.

“Noise” is a powerful word – and it’s different than sound. We rely on sounds to let us know things are going well – such as the sound of a car engine. The first time I rode in a hybrid and the engine shut down while we were still moving I was unnerved by the lack of noise – something must be wrong! In fact, there are “minimum sound requirements for hybrid and electric vehicles” to keep pedestrians safe when crossing the street. Similarly, when you hear that extra grinding sound when you put on the brakes, you know it’s time for a visit to the repair shop.

Both of those sounds were signals – that is, they convey useful information about the environment. The car is running. The brakes need fixing. At the same time, though, there is a lot of noise going on that is not conveying useful information – the birds outside, the wind blowing, the radio playing music. Not that the music isn’t entertaining, which, yes, is a kind of useful – but it isn’t necessarily conveying information. In fact, the entertainment may actually be hiding the information you need – which is why turning up the radio so you can’t hear the grinding brakes is probably not the best strategy.

Your Personal S2N

Part of separating the truly urgent things from the noise in your life comes with your electronic presence. There are many techniques for it – “Inbox Zero”, choosing an email-checking schedule, “analog time” (when you don’t use anything electronic). One of the founders of a powerful social media tool called Buffer has his own strategy: the Zero-Notification Challenge.

Joel’s idea was to simply turn off all the notifications – aggressively called “push” in the Apple iPhone world – on his phone. No more “You’ve got mail” tones, no twitter updates, no Sports or News flashes, no Facebook likes except when he chose to look at them.

I have no excuse that a notification came in. If I check it too frequently and find myself procrastinating, it is only my fault: I went out of my way to go and look.

When I read about this last week I was intrigued, and in my gung-ho way I went to try it out. Then I realized that I was working a conference that would have many social and organizational demands…and so I simply shut off most of the notifications. I suspect the organizers are grateful, since it let us pull off a wonderful event.

All Things in Moderation

Perhaps “zero” is a bit of overkill. I know that while I’m good at “inbox zero” (emptying my email inbox) I also tend to compulsively check it in case more emails have cluttered up my box – and that means I check my email more, not less.

Similarly, I found that while I don’t have as many beeps and flashing letters on my phone, I also tend to impulsively check twitter and my messages to see what I might have missed. At least it makes me more aware of what social media outlets I spend my time on, and helps me figure out where I can better control my focus in the future.

That’s the challenge for this week’s practice: try turning off most, if not all, of your notifications. At the very least, take a look at what your devices are trying to tell you and make it a conscious decision. And as always: let me know how it goes in the comments!

There are two types of people: One strives to control his environment, the other strives not to let his environment control him. I like to control my environment – George Carlin

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practice good hugs

Hugs, Broccoli, & Yoga

“We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” – Virginia Satir, “The Mother of Family Therapy

Basibanget via Flickr CCAs promised, today’s Practice post is all about hugging. Hugging may not be your thing, but like broccoli and yoga, it probably should be. As a liberal dance artsy type, I’m pretty familiar with hugs; as a midwestern male former Marine I’m also pretty familiar with how awkward, clumsy, and even creepy they can be. So how do you manage to get your RDHA (Recommended Daily Hug Allowance) without getting a reputation as Person Most Likely to Be a Reincarnated Octopus?

Here’s a few tips that I’ve found work pretty well. Keep in mind they are only suggestions – not rules. In researching this post, I found many “how to” guides on hugging, and after many head-shakes, spit-takes, and more than a few expletives following the words “What the -“, I threw them all out. Everything that follows is either hard science or else personal opinion. Cultural mores? Customs? I can’t pretend to speak for your world, your friends, family, or comfort zone. Use your best judgement.

  1. You need hugs. Saying “I’m not a hugger” is kind of like saying “I’m not an exerciser” or “Yeah, nutrition, I’m not into that.” It may be true, but your body – specifically your body chemistry, which controls things like your mood – is totally into that. So bite the broccoli and get your hugs.
  2. Ask for consent. Just as you wouldn’t force-feed someone broccoli or do “enforced yoga”, if someone doesn’t want to hug you, you need to gracefully accept the “no.” More than that, you should give them the opportunity to say no – ask “Are you a hugger?” or hold your arms out (see #3) when you’re still quite far away from them, so they have time to frown, shake their head, run away, or give you some other indication that they are ok with their depleted oxytocin.
  3. When in doubt, do an X hug. Did you know hugs can be dominant or submissive? Or that if you hug someone around the neck, it’s romantic? Neither did I. In fact, I’m pretty sure I still don’t know those things. What I do know is that when I started giving X hugs, things got easier. All that means is that you hold up your right hand and stretch down with your left. Hopefully your hug partner does the same, and when you come together your arms make an X – that then collapses in on itself, because you want to try and -
  4. Hug Longer. Though I’ve heard “six seconds” is as long as it takes to get the oxytocin pumping, all the research I found online said twenty seconds or more. Now, that can be easy if it’s somebody you’re really comfortable with, but it can be a really long time if it’s someone you don’t really know all that well. One way to get past that is to simply -
  5. Breathe. C’mon, you knew that if this was a touchy-feelie post I was going to say “Just breathe…” at some point, right? If I didn’t, they’d take away my Personal-Development Blogger License. The fact is, though, when you breathe deliberately you not only center yourself, you also give the person you’re hugging something to focus on. Above all, don’t hold your breath – it kind of negates the point of the hug. The other person might be holding their breath, which we’ll cover in number seven. But you should breathe, and just breathe. In fact, you kind of step out of space and time and -
  6. Make a Bubble. For the duration of the hug – no more, no less – don’t do anything else. Step out of the busy, create a tiny little unreality where the two of you are simply sharing human touch – a language far deeper than words or even expressions, a language so deep our bodies are designed to respond to it. Take just that little moment – that twenty seconds out of your day – and make it just for hugging. If it helps, decide that for that one-fifth of a minute your job, your vocation, your calling in life is to hug well. After that you can go back to being a rocket surgeon or whatever.
  7. Listen for the Disengage. This is a vital skill. This is how you aren’t creepy. You are paying attention to the other person’s body language to judge how comfortable they are with the hug. Sometimes people just hug you back. Other times they tense up at first, but you’re breathing (right?) and they kind of relax into it. Sometimes they just keep holding their breath though, and that’s your cue to disengage. Not like they’re hot lava, but quickly and graciously. Also, if they do hug you back, be listening for that moment their body signals they want the hug to end. It may come from their hands, it may be a slight drawing-back of the body – but whatever it is, listen to it and respect it. Do not force a hug to last longer, any more than you would force a dinner guest to have seconds on broccoli.
  8. Acknowledge. It doesn’t have to be a big deal – just a simple “Thanks” or even a smile and a nod. Whatever it is, it’s like you had a conversation, and at the end you say “goodbye” or “see ya later.” You don’t just walk off abruptly. You’ve just made a bubble and breathed together and communicated – so give that triumphant example of human interaction its proper due and say “Hey, thanks for the hug…
  9. Establish a Supply. I don’t expect you to hug everyone for twenty seconds or more (though if you do please email me and let me know how that went). While you can offer hugs to everyone – and yes, you’ll be known as “that huggy person” and suffer the fearful derision of the macho – you will find out pretty quickly that there are some people you can get your twenty seconds from and some who are just good for a brief pat on the back. That’s fine – you can become a hug connoisseur, and appreciate the trust involved with simply being in such close proximity to another human. Save the hug buddies for when you both really need your fix.
  10. Hug How You Want. In researching this post I came across a lot of derisive posts about certain kinds of hugging. Some said the “guy hug” (clasping hands and bumping shoulders with a single hearty pat on the back) was ridiculous. Others talked about how bad “A” hugs were compared with “I” hugs, or that you had to be a certain age or height differential to hug other people. All of this is hearsay, custom, opinion, and bull. The twenty second thing? That’s backed by science. But everything else is basically about you and the person you’re hugging. So ignore convention, and do what feels right to both of you.

That’s it! Got more suggestions? Any hug questions for me? That’s what the comment section is for! Now go out there and hug!

Did you know that giving on Patreon feels almost as good as a hug?
Ok, that may not be backed by science –
but I know it feels good,
because my patrons have told me so.

finding nobility in simple practice

And Now, the Classics…

This is an epic moment. For the first time in my life, I’m going to quote Virgil:

Virgil, courtesy Thomas Hawk CC

Even now the countryman actively pushes on to the coming
Year and its tasks; attacking the naked vine with a curved
Pruning knife, he shears and trims it into shape
Be the first to dig the land, the first to wheel off the prunings
For the bonfire, the first to bring your vine-pole under cover;
But the last to gather the vintage…
It makes for hard work.

Why am I, a humble amateur author with a B.S. in Dance, of all things, bringing ancient Greeks to your browser this morning?

It’s kind of a balance, actually. After last week’s talk about flourishing and focus and such, I felt that it’s worth remembering that what you’re doing right now is actually pretty awesome, too. Or at least it could be, if you chose to see it that way.

Mind you, I’m not saying you should. Sometimes the only thing that gets you through that thing you are doing is the release valve of being able to complain about it. That’s how I’ve managed to cultivate an almost-daily yoga practice, after all – by keeping my own inner monologue going (I call it “bitter yoga”).

But the point of Virgil’s poem was to show the simple nobility of the work of the farmers of his time. He was praising the virtue of the simplest task, in the purity of a zenlike monofocus on doing what is necessary because it is necessary.

“The Colour of Hope”

IMG_0865.JPGThe philosopher John Armstrong (from the School of Life) suggests that we can take a similar tack in our own tasks, especially those which we may have a less-than-friendly relationship with. For example, I happen to really dislike working with my finances; even with eight months of detailed monthly reviews and spreadsheets and a much better bottom line, I still procrastinate opening up the file and actually looking at the numbers. Even with cool apps like Mint – which is about as friendly as a financial app can get – I just get uncomfortable dealing with it.

Armstrong suggests perhaps framing it in a Virgil-esque way:

…And take yourself also, as the sun is setting,
To a stationery supplier and get yourself a quantity
Of manila folders, the colour of hope
Dine early and lay all the pieces of paper before you on the carpet.
Divide them, as the Gods divide the just from the unjust
Into two piles. Arrange them by Date. Work slowly.
And when you are done, pour a libation to Apollo,
Who loves clarity and order.

Suddenly opening that spreadsheet becomes the opening of a ritual of the seasons, a festival of finance that occurs once every full moon. It can be accompanied by Bacchanalian music and secret single-origin dark chocolate only opened for these sacred moments…

Or whatever works for you. I’m sure, here as the week begins, you have something going on that seems mundane. That seems tedious and just totally taking time away from the things you want to be doing.

Maybe take a moment and realize that you are the caretaker of your life’s garden, and this is part of the pruning and tending that is necessary for you to grow. Make the tedium into a sacrament for just a moment, a ritual contributing to your quality of life.

Then you can go back to complaining, if you like. But very few complaints are the color of hope.

the focused browser practice

A Simple But Profound Change

Last week I said some harsh (for me) things about Cal Newport and his ideas in So Good They Can’t Ignore You. I stand by my evaluation of that particular manifesto, but I don’t want to discourage you from reading more of his work at the Study Hacks blog; it’s a regular read for me, and in particular this entry on focused web surfing during the day seemed like a good practice to try out. “No clickbait. No Facebook. No blogs (except, of course, Study Hacks…)” he says.

When you eliminate the chance of web surfing, you tend to be more efficient in processing your work. (The way I see it is that I’d rather finish my day an hour early than sprinkle an hour of time wasting throughout.)Of equal importance, the simplicity of the rule — no web surfing, no exceptions — makes it easy to avoid this temptation when trying to work deeply, thus preventing unnecessary ego depletion.

Now, I confess I found it a little strange that there was an external link to the “unnecessary ego depletion” phrase – that, plus other ads on his blog, would seem to be a bit hypocritical in the realm of “focused browsing.” In fact, in the midst of writing this post I found myself on Amazon looking to see if any of those books he recommends were in the Amazon Prime free reading list (I’ll save you the clicking: they aren’t). I also have to question the idea that it is more “efficient”; to me, the efficiency of a process is not so much a matter of speed as of quality. In other words, if I write a blog post quickly, because I didn’t follow up any outside links, it may not be as good as one where I spent some time wandering through related topics and gaining a deeper or broader understanding of the topic.

Reminds me of a time when I was asked to teach a class on “speed rigging” for some aerialists. My response was “Sure – but I get to pick what speed.”

courtesy Ngo Quang Minh, Flickr CC

Not that browsers make it easy…

Every Little Bit Helps

At the same time, I did take that challenge and found it did have a kind of “purifying” effect for me. If I was tempted to check twitter, or Facebook, or any other article, I was more quick to catch myself and say “No…” and get back to the job at hand. The net result was that at the end of my workday it was easier to point out to myself what I had accomplished, and that in turn made it easier to allow myself to relax.

I’d recommend you try it out this week. Just give a couple of days and aim for that “pure” web browser history that shows that everything you did on the web had a purpose – even if that purpose was a moment of entertainment. It’s an incremental change towards a more focused day in general, and since we know that multitasking doesn’t work, that’s got to be a good thing.

Let me know how it goes, and I’ll read your responses on the Love Life Practice Podcast next week!

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ten travel tips

The Practice of Travel

As I come home from an excellent relationship intensive in Heber, UT, seems a good time to update my travel tips.

1. Wear slip-on shoes, not laces. If you usually wear a belt, shift it to suspenders. Also having a satchel, purse, or jacket to easily stash your wallet, watch, etc. will speed up your trip through TSA *immensely*.

2. Have your contact’s phone number, name, and address memorized. Sure, having it in your phone and written down are all good – until your phone breaks or your briefcase is lost or any other number of things. Your memory is the last best traveler’s companion.

3. If you like hot drinks, bring a tumbler. It will often save you money getting refills (especially at outrageously priced airport cafés), can be filled on the plane and get you more than that little silly styrofoam cup, and besides, it’s good for the environment.

4. Be polite. Either *don’t* recline your seat, or if you must, turn and let the person behind you know that you’re about to do it. Why this is not taught at the same time kids learn to say “please”, I do not know. But economy ain’t getting any bigger, and the least we can do is not sacrifice other’s actual comfort for our own minimal improvement.

5. Check with the attendant at the gate to see if carry-on luggage can be checked to your destination. Often they’re happy to (it saves overhead space and quickens boarding time) and you get all the convenience at none of the cost.

6. Don’t buy bottled water. It’s not any better than the stuff in the water fountain, and you’re contributing to the ever-growing mountain of plastic that is slowly eating the globe (seriously). Instead, get yourself a collapsible water bottle. They’re cheap, they are easily carried, and really can help you get better hydrated.

7. You can actually do yoga in your seat on the airplane! Twisting poses, drawing your arm across your body, stretching your wrists, and (depending on your seating space) doing leg bridges, etc can make a long flight much more bearable. Try out any of the many “desk yoga” workouts available online, but modify them for the airplane seat.

8. Stay hydrated. Aside from the water bottle mentioned above, make a rule that when they offer water, you say yes. When they offer some other drinks, ask for water *in addition* to it. And never let yourself walk past a water fountain in the airport without taking a drink from it. Traveling dehydrates you far more than you’d think.

9. Unless you’re allergic to nuts, carry around a small bag of almonds, maybe mixed with something (I happen to like dried cranberries). For some strange reason, almonds are not only a good source of protein, they are also a magic food that helps counter cravings for *other* foods. So when you’re hungry, tired, and walking past some unhealthy restaurant choice, you can pull out the almonds and they will not only tide you over, they will also help get you past that craving for a double bacon cheeseburger with mushrooms. Plus you have something to throw in case you are attacked by nut-allergic ninja pirates.

10. Be polite (part 2). Far too often people presume while traveling that they somehow have some privilege that enables them to talk to the attendants, TSA workers, or shop cashiers as if they were second-class citizens. Don’t be that person. In fact, be the person who stands out because in the midst of a simple interaction (“*Would you like fries with that?*”) you managed to make a connection, human-to-human. You can be the person who the airport worker tells their family about that night, who had the nice smile and treated them so *nicely*. Really, though, you’re being selfish – because treating other people that way makes you feel really, really good about yourself. So tip extra, let people get in front of you in line with a smile, and layer on the “sir” and “ma’am” even if the person looks surprised to be addressed that way.

Actually, *especially* if they look surprised. A little respect can go a long way.

That’s the latest edition of “the Nomad’s Guide to the Practice of Travel”. Got more? Let us know in the


the power of the next “no”

A Simple Plan

I started a relatively basic but drastic life hack last week. I call it “no obvious sugars”, and basically the idea is to cut out the blatant sweets in my diet. Things like donuts, candy, cookies, cereal, I’m even going so far as to eliminate things like ketchup or soda with high-fructose corn syrup. I am not eliminating all sugars; aside from how hard that would be (I’m old, my eyes can’t read those ingredient labels like they used to) I also have a hard time believing that fruit and a bit of honey in rolled oats is causing the kind of blood-sugar spike that doctors warn of.

That’s the motivation behind it, you see. If you want specifics, take a gander at this video:

Now, I’m not actually all that concerned with occasional spikes. What I’m concerned about is the idea of being dependent on the sugar. Of needing it, rather than simply enjoying it. Honestly, it’s less about health and more about some issues of control, but hey, if we can channel the latter into the former, it’s all good.

Curbed Custard

I should add, I live in Wisconsin. Land of frozen custard, the best donuts in the Northern Hemisphere, truffles and chocolates and more. I was raised within a reward system where the Ultimate Reward (and symbol of adulthood) was a Hot Fudge Brownie Sundae. My devotion to the art of the pancake is literally internationally known. My partners, my kids, even my co-workers know that I have a sweet tooth.

So cutting out sweets, even only five days a week, represented a pretty major lifehack. It’s not as easy as just dumping all the sweets in the house – after all, on the weekends, I plan to indulge. I’m not forcing my partner Natasha to do it along with me, so the temptations still abound – especially in a home office environment, where for hours there is nobody here but me and that bag of Twix bars…


A little wear, but runs great!

A little wear, but runs great!

Yet it’s really not been that difficult to do. I’ve been astonished, in fact, at just how easy it has been. At the risk of jinxing myself I will tell you my strategy.

I deliberately did not focus on the long-term benefits. I have a sneaky suspicion I’m losing weight, but that’s a side effect. I know that my mood has been very down lately, which would suck if it wasn’t an indication that this was a good idea in the first place. I’d rather have my mood not altered by my sugar intake; not that other things like body chemistry wouldn’t affect it, but somehow it feels more authentic.

I just focus on one thing: the next “No.” That is, in a few minutes when I go in to refresh my coffee, that cookie will be sitting there on the counter saying “C’mon. Eat me! I taste gooooooood…” And I reach into my metaphorical mental pocket and pull out the “No” that I’ve kept there, and I move on.

The great thing about the Metaphorical Mental Pocket is that it spontaneously generates the next “No” for me, without even being asked. So when lunch comes around and I have something savory and delicious and the server asks “Would you like some dessert?” I can reach in and pull out the slightly ornamented “No, thank you.

See, I don’t have to worry about going without sweets for the next week, or month, or whatever. I just have to be ready for the next time that sweet comes around, and already have my decision ready.


It’s a way to get past the dangers of ego-depletion (great podcast about that on the latest You Are Not So Smart, by the way). So I invite you to try it out this week, for something that you might want to change. You don’t have to make all the right decisions. You just have to make the next one.

Now: what do you want to change?

the true cost of distraction

Paying Attention

Over the weekend I had one of those epiphanies. One of those moments that changes your perspective on things, that makes you suddenly see the elephant in the room.

Specifically, it’s the metaphor of the elephant as being the bulk of our subconscious psyche – our emotions, our habits, our desires. It’s an example used by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. He also posits a rider perched on top of the elephant symbolizing the conscious mind, riding this massive, powerful animal. If it were a contest of strength, the elephant obviously wins, right? The rider can’t use force to make the elephant go somewhere. The entire process of self-improvement is figuring out ways to persuade, trick, distract, or train the elephant to do what the rider wants.

Enter social media. Suddenly the rider becomes just another voice in the maelstrom of sensory inputs. The poor, harried, distracted elephant suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous updates. The elephant wants to go where the rider directs, but there are just so many confusing directions possible to go, and many of them seem like innocuous detours but end up in miresome swamps of time-guzzling clickbait.

But this isn’t just another “We should all focus better” post. No, this one is different.

The Value of Me

A friend of mine recently shut down his Google apps. No more Gmail, no more Drive, no more Docs. Instead he’s switching to Apple’s cloud-based apps – iCloud, etc – which offer much of the same functionality.

Still, it seemed rather strange to me. When I asked him why he was doing it, he said it was because he objected to the way Google used the data of his online activities to target advertising, etc. It’s the argument that your data belongs to you, and if you’re using something for free it means that you are the product.

I’m familiar with that argument, and I still use Google, mainly because I find their apps convenient. As for the data they gather on my website usage, that’s ok with me too – I’m not using it, after all. To me giving them knowledge of what kind of things I look for on Amazon, what kind of articles I like reading, even what kind of movies I love is not a big deal.

The Value of Attention

However, there was one sentence in an article on Medium that changed everything. The article had the relatively unwieldy title of “Why I Just Asked My Students to Put Their Laptops Away” It’s well-worth a read, not the least to keep yourself up-to-date on some of the studies of this brave new information age.

For example, there’s the usual “multitasking is an illusion!” diatribe. But it includes a link to a study that showed that multitasking is not only bad for the person doing it – it actually takes away from the capabilities of people around the multitasker:

…participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not. The results demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students…

But we knew that already, right? But how about this: since the studies prove that attention is a limited resource, what are these social media venues doing? They are taking that resource away from you, with the help of every new “update”:

…the designers of operating systems have every incentive to be arms dealers to the social media firms. Beeps and pings and pop-ups and icons, contemporary interfaces provide an extraordinary array of attention-getting devices, emphasis on “getting.” Humans are incapable of ignoring surprising new information in our visual field…

That’s what caught my attention (sic). That “emphasis on “getting””. Suddenly I realize that while I don’t care about the corporations making use of the trail of digital detritus I leave behind, I resent the hell out of them stealing a non-renewable resource that is more valuable to me than anything: my time.

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 12.16.29 PM

Actual Screen Shot!

Attention on FULL

There are many, many articles on how to focus, how to eliminate distractions. I’ve written some myself. There are also many apps that can help, with names like “FocusFree”. But I’ll tell you right now the singular practice that I started directly after reading that article: FULL SCREEN MODE.

No more windows. If I’m in my browser, that web page is the only thing there on the screen. If I’m writing (as shown here) there’s only my wonderful Ulysses app here in front of me. I haven’t yet tracked down all the screen alerts, so it’s not perfect yet, but when I can I shut them down. Ad-free is worth the cost, and the tweets can wait until the blog post is written.

It’s changed the way I work. What do you use to focus? Or what do you wish you could change?

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