Tag Archive | practice

SitRep: Two Months of Handwriting Practice

A little more than two months ago I began working towards acquiring the skills of a Graphic Recorder. That’s a big project; it’s both internalizing principles and strategies as well as actual physical practice of the craft.

I do say “craft” rather than “art” because one of the principles is “Ideas, not art.” There’s also a lot of pushback in our culture about being an artist (my own mother, upon taking a look at my Instagram feed, called me with a worried tone “Are you…becoming…an artist or something? 

But more to the point, a Graphic Recorder’s job is to help others recall and understand information, usually that they’ve already received in one format such as text or voice. When I did a skills assessment at the start of this project I took a look at past flip charts I’d used in my public speaking, and recognized something very obvious.

My handwriting sucked. It was hard to read, was full of misspellings, and had no real consistency much less visual heirarchy, and it was a shortcoming that stretched beyond the flip charts into my own journals and sketch notes.

Jumping in the Deep End

Luckily, handwriting is both something that you can improve as well as something that you can measure. I began looking around for instructional treatises on handwriting, especially as it applied to graphic recording, and was quickly drawn to the work of Heather Martinez. Aside from a wealth of free video and online content, she also had a course online of “Lettering with the Masters” which looked like exactly what I needed: direct training from people who were graphic recorders, people whose work I already admired (like Mike Rohde).

Have you spotted the flaw in my plan?

I didn’t, until Heather herself pointed it out to me in the 1:1 lettering session she provided gratis to help me with the natural disadvantage of being a left-handed letterer. “You really jumped in the deep end,” she said. “This was a course designed for hand letterers who had already done it all and were looking for something different. It’s called Lettering with the Masters, after all…

Yep. I’d been struggling with hands (you might want to call them fonts, but you shouldn’t, because that’s what machines use) and cursing myself for a lack of progress, when the whole time it was like being frustrated at being on a football team when you hadn’t really ever played or watched the game before.  

(I’ve had that experience, too, by the way. Why do I keep finding myself in these situations?)

Here’s the other thing about it, though: when I was practicing the lettering, or learning about the hands and the strokes and such, I was almost immediately in a state of Flow. Doing this stuff totally engages me, in a way that very few other things ever have. And looking at my past notes from the decades, even during the Marines or High School, I’ve always been drawn to this.

So I Quit My Job to Follow My Passion…


Nope, in fact, I didn’t even do what I would have told anyone else to do, namely: Set up a time every day where you can practice, and a different time when you can learn more about it. Enjoy the process of learning, the gradual improvement from regular practice, and leave the product to itself.”

That’s not to say I haven’t practiced. I’ve spent hours with brush pens and papers learning new fun words like majuscule and exemplar and tittle. I’ve learned pangrams – phrases containing every word in the alphabet – to practice with, as it’s better to write the letters as they will be used rather than in rote repetition. “Waltz, bad nymphs, for slow jigs vex” is one of my favorites, though there are times when I’m in more of a “Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs” kind of mood.

It has not, however, been a consistent practice.  This is not so much a “here’s how you do it” post as a “Here’s how I’ve been doing it, and what I think I could have done better” post. 

Despite Self Sabotage

I could hold up something like “I’ve been traveling a lot” as a contributing factor to my lack of a consistent practice, but if I were being honest it has more to do with that whole process – product dichotomy. When I’m spending time practicing a hand, it feels great – and that must mean that it’s play, right? And therefore it’s not work, and therefore not profitable, and I’m still in the freelance/entrepreneurial world so that means I gotta hustle 24/7, and if I’m not being productive I’m losing cash and going to end up a failure and a shame in the eyes of my family and loved ones…

OK, so maybe the brain goes a little overboard. But you get the idea – any time I am practicing it feels like I am wasting time that should be spent whittling away at the ever-increasing to-do list. 

It feels that way. It’s not really that way, of course. Because here’s the thing: in spite of that particular self-sabotaging voice trying to draw me away from the practice, my handwriting is getting better.

Comparing where I was two months ago to where I am now is almost like night and day. I recently spent two days as an impromptu graphic recorder for a movement workshop I was assisting with, and again, it was like jumping in the deep end (turns out that drawing knots and rigging in specific detail is a pretty challenging thing) but I did it. And at the end, I got the reward that every G.R. hopes for: people stuck around to take pictures of the posters so they could remember things better later.

It’s a happy milestone in my process, and it’s a reminder: if I can get this good with intermittent practice, how good could I be with a deliberate practice?

I think we should find out. I’ll keep you posted, in another two months. In the meantime: what could you be practicing?


Loving Your Process

Yesterday I had an eep moment.

See, I’ve enrolled in a course called “Lettering with the Masters” from the amazing Heather Martinez (seriously, even if you’re not interested in lettering, just study her marketing funnel and deliverable videos and digital content. She really knows what she’s doing.)

The idea is that every month she interviews a “Rockstar” of the lettering/visual practice world, and you (the student) get the chance to ask the guests directly for input (or, if you miss the live broadcast, you get to see the re-broadcast).

I had gone through the first segment, where Corinna Keeling talked about her work as an urban artist using (mainly) the medium of chalk and the street. It has literally changed the way I write, sketchnote, you name it. My friend recently needed a sign with his last name on it to pick up his kids from school, and I eagerly dug out my brush pen as I confidently said “I got this…

But…I’m new at this. I’ve probably practiced it for about an hour, tops. Sure, I’m trying to put it into practice wherever I can…but in spite of the tremendous confidence granted to me by a world literally designed for my convenience, I’m not that good at it yet.

The Terrible Challenge of Praise

I also am a firm believer in documenting your own process, and sharing the challenges and progression, which is why my Instagram for CreativeGrayVisual exists. There’s a thriving community of letterers, visual recorders & facilitators, and sketchnoters on the platform, and it’s inspirational and makes me feel a part of this community.

Yesterday my friends’ daughter (who we’re watching, along with her siblings, while their parents enjoy a well-deserved vacation) invited me outside to do chalk drawings with her. I seized the opportunity with perhaps more gusto than was warranted, resulting in the image you see above (in case you’re wondering, it’s half of a quote from Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and no, I was not about to put the second part of the quote on my friends’ porch).

Dutifully, I took a picture and posted it to Instagram, making a joke about being “Bert from Mary Poppins” and of course giving credit for the inspiration and style to Corinna Keeling.

Of course, she saw it. And she commented back: Swoon!

Not “Good job.Not “Keep it up”. ” Not “That’s an interesting start to a possibly legible style.” No, that was not just praise, it was praise that made me blush.

And instantly, the voices were in my head: Of course she said that, it’s social media, she’s protecting her brand. You know it’s a smudgy mess. She’s really laughing and showing her friends just how ridiculous that old guy in flyover country is to think he can emulate her style.

Thankfully, those voices are not so much “loud” in my head as they are “tinny and distant locked away in a glass jar in a pantry in my soul marked voices we do not listen to.”

Learning to Love the Journey

But I confess, the pantry is pretty damn full. I can see all the things I wish were better about that drawing, and at the same time I can see things that I really like about it. The challenge is to extend to myself and my early work the same love and compassion I would share with others – while at the same time keeping myself uncomfortable enough to stay in that zone of Deliberate Practice.

I like the piece. I love lettering, and creating things with my hands in a way that I’ve not done much of in my life. It’s not a matter of whether I love the things when I’m doing them.

The challenge is to love them when they’re done, even if they are imperfect, and even if – or perhaps because they are helpful signposts showing me the direction I need to go.

The Optimistic Nihilist

”The process can kiss my ass. Throw processes under the bus if they aren’t getting the desired result.” – Matt Krause

“I just do what I like every day, and good things seem to happen as a result.”-Nate Damm

Ever stop to think about the big picture?

I’m not talking about the gamble that is the religious afterlife; I’m not going to impugn anyone’s hopes and beliefs about what comes after death, because like one of my favorite authors said, there’s no proof for, there’s no proof against, and sooner or later we’ll all know, so why fret about it?

No, I’m talking about our place in the universe cosmologically. The whole “insignificant life form on a small planet on a so-so sun in a mediocre galaxy merrily spinning it’s way towards the inevitable heat-death of the universe” kind of understanding. When you take that perspective, some people react in a Nothing matters then. Why bother? kind of nihilism, either resulting in inactivity or sometimes bursts of destructive hedonism.

There’s another way to look at it, though. If nothing you do is going to matter on a cosmological sense, that means whatever you do only has the meaning that you give to it.

You Be the Judge

It’s a different kind of freedom. It’s realizing that when someone looks at you with their judgey eye, you get to first laugh at them – you really think that your opinion matters, when you less than a blink in the entire history of life on this planet? – and then you get to decide if you want to give their opinion weight. Maybe they have useful opinions! Maybe they have fun or educational opinions (you can learn a lot from someone who is wrong, after all, and they’re often very entertaining).

If you can keep from moving into a “why bother” mentality, the realization that things are only as important as you decide to let them be can also be a defense against your own judgey voice. When the you’re not good enough monster whispers in your ear, you can scornfully laugh at it. Good enough for what? I’m just a ripple in the pond of life.

Changing the Focus

This simple realization can be a way to shift the motivation for your actions from external (I have to make a difference!) to internal (This is the kind of person I want to be). Suddenly instead of having pressure on the outside telling you how you should be, with arbitrary goals and levels, you can decide which ones are valuable to you, or even make up entirely new ones.

There are some who would argue that without external motivations, people will simply aimlessly wander through their lives, never accomplishing anything. Aside from the problematic assumption of laziness inherent in that, there’s also that cosmological view: so what? Those people should think more about their own lives, and less about judging others.

Meanwhile, you can enjoy the freedom of the big picture and do the things you want to, rather than the things you have to. It doesn’t give you freedom from consequences, of course, or cause and effect – if what you want to be is a blogger, you have to actually write. If you want to be a good parent, you have to actually feed your kids. Much of the time that might not feel like it’s fair (ravenous beasts, those kids) but like another author said: who says life is fair? Where is that written?

Insignificant ball of dirt spinning around a mediocre sun, etc. You can decide to be fair, and good, and happy; the universe will not do it for you.

Then again, the universe won’t stop you, either, and it’s a pretty interesting place to be.

Have fun making up the rules as you go along!

Three Daily Planning Layouts to Try in 2018

I know better than to try to set resolutions this time of year. Also, after 2017, there’s a bit of a grim “batten down the hatches” attitude. In all honesty, there’s a part of me that looks at 2018 with a level of gibbering fear that has nothing to do with politics or climate. I’ve simply got three Very Big Projects coming up Very Soon, along with multiple smaller ones. The potential to have them all come Crashing Down Disastrously is enough to merit Random Capital Letters.

One of the ways I confront this paralyzing anxiety is to set up a schedule. Lists! Daily charts! Zero-based calendars! These provide a comforting, if illusory, sense of control and of forward progress.

Here are three very different daily planning methods that I’m considering trying for the month of January. You may find one here that appeals to you, or they may just seem like too much work. However, there’s a good point of doing what is known in some productivity circles of “fake work”. It’s not really fake – because it is work – but it’s the kind of work that creatives don’t get paid for. It’s taking the time to sit and plan out the day, taking a look at big picture next-steps and the like.

One thing you’ll notice about all three of these: they are not apps. In fact, the closest they get to digital is the occasional download. Why? Well, for one thing, I like my notebooks. For another, the calendar on the phone or the computer is more like a clock than a planning device for me. Useful for an alarm, but when I’m looking at the structure of the things that I want to get done, I can picture it better when it’s paper and pen.

The When Daily Planner:

I’m a little fanboyish about Daniel Pink; his earlier books like Drive and To Sell is Human I found valuable and fascinating. It’s no surprise that I’ve pre-ordered his next book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, because I’m a sucker for click-bait titles. Along with the pre-order you can get a nifty little pack of goodies, including planning sheets and a brief explanatory preview of what’s in the book.

It’s not your normal schedule – there’s no hourly set, but instead a Peak, Trough, and Recovery time, along with two Break times. There’s a little math you do based on sleep patterns that figures out what hours during your workday fit each of those categories.

You then are asked to divide up your daily tasks into three categories as well: Analytic, Insight, and Administrative. These match up to the times: analytic tasks to peak times, for example. And there you have it – a schedule of what to do when, during your day, based not on arbitrary Taylorist numbers but rather on your own particular work rhythms.

He also stresses that breaks are really important, and so there is space not just to schedule them but also to write down what you’re going to do. Sketch. Walk to get the mail. Juggle. Yoga (ugh).

Finally, in a part that is reflective of 5-Minute Journaling, he suggests you end by listing “3 Things I Got Done Today.” This is especially appealing if you are like me and have a hard time recognizing the things you’ve done sitting in the shadow of all the things you have yet to do. Having those three things – even if they are as simple as “I took both my breaks – can be the difference between waking and sleep when it’s time for bed.

Daily Momentum Planner

This planner also appeals because it is designed for Creatives. I’ve long chafed under any schedule that is task rather than project-based, and that’s a weakness, not a strength. The Momentum planning sheets from Productive Flourishing are designed around people like me, who would rather focus on “Today’s Projects” than hourly events. In fact, the “Scheduled Events” section is almost the smallest part of the sheet. Instead, the majority of the space is for “Supporting Tasks” (the things you know you need to do for projects) as well as “Emergent Tasks” (the things that pop up, aka “shit happens”).

With all this, you also do some energy level tracking so that you can see when you are tired of a certain task — which may mean to do it first thing, to get it over with, or after a nap so your mind is clear, or may mean that’s the time for the jolt of coffee or a quick workout to get the blood flowing.

While the daily planner is what I’m focusing on here, there’s a whole host of resources on the website, such as monthly planners, daily habit trackers, etc. If you clicked on that link, it took you to their newsletter signup page; yep, you do have to give them an email to get access to the downloads. However, there is a hidden bonus: everything is free. That’s right, every month they publish a new bunch of resources that you can use for free. Sure, they also sell a bigger package, but that’s only if you want to throw them a few bucks – less than a movie.

There are two downsides I can see to this: one, if you’re a big fan of pretty layouts and fancy lettering and BUJOesque fanciness, this is not the planner for you. It’s a gridwork of blanks to fill out, basically. Two, because this does not come bound in a book, it means you have a lot of loose papers, or a three-ring binder. It may be possible to spiral-bind them, but I am certain that the lack of a bound journal will be felt as I try this one out.

Radial BUJO

While Bullet Journaling is based around lists, there’s another way of visualizing it that’s a bit more unusual. It’s based on radial planning, whether that’s for a day, for a month, or even a year. Rather than a linear list, you’re given circles to fill in the blanks. As you can see, it can be combined with lists, and either made all pretty with colors or just left as lines (I particularly like the “DO ALL THE STUFF!” battle cry on the example page).

Obviously you can draw your own circles, but there’s a thriving online business community of downloadable templates if you don’t feel like trying to divide the circle into 31, 30, or 28 segments for your monthly work.

Why would this appeal? Well, I’m someone who gets a jolt of energy out of re-arranging things (probably part of why Natasha and I threw away our couch today). Looking at my day as a circle rather than a list changes things up. There’s also something to reminding ourselves that we are in cyclical lives, not linear; the ending of one day is the beginning of the next.

Also, hey, it was good enough for the Mayans, it’s good enough for me.

There you have it! What kind of planners are you using in 2018? Let us know in the comments — we’ll be coming back to this again at the end of the year.

The Interrupted Practice

Today was supposed to be a much simpler post.

It was going to be a simple layout of how I do my notebook…ahem how I aspire to do my notebook, both for the monthly layout and the daily one.

However, I think I need to own up to a different issue, one that ties in pretty nicely with the last Life post that I put up, Your Schedule is Not Your Life. Because shortly after putting up that post, I clicked into my Editorial Calendar (a great plug-in for WordPress) and planned out the next two weeks of posts here. Three times a week, writing prompts about love, about life, about practice.

And then Thursday we got on the road, and drove to Cleveland to visit our friend the author Ferrett Steinmetz (yes, I’m name dropping, but only because I want you to do a search on Amazon for him and buy all his books) and somehow in spite of being in the car for hours I neglected to write a post for Friday.

And on Friday, when we were again in the car for many hours on our way to Gettysburg (where I was presenting on The Defining Moment among other things) I again Completely Forgot to write any post at all, much less the post about Love I had planned.

(That one had the working title of “Yelp Yourself” and was supposed to be about the joy of making lists of things you loved. For example, I recently started a list of cigars I enjoy. Guess what I didn’t update when I had a lovely Diesel cigar Saturday afternoon?)

Prioritizing Time

As I mentioned, I can’t pretend that I didn’t have time to write that post. What I failed to do was set aside the time to write it. Time was spent on Twitter, reading the Star Wars comic series (a much better way to prep for the next movie than trying to watch Episodes 1-3), and driving and teaching. My partner Natasha and I took a tango class that was great – but that was ninety minutes that I wasn’t writing.

The good news, though, is that I can see where the way I spend my time can be changed. I don’t even have to “give up” anything, and I can leverage things to be rewards for habits. For example, I can set a boundary for myself: No twitter on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday unless the blog post is up.

I still get my dose of dopamedia, but I have a motivating factor to get it done proactively. In fact, that motivates me to do it the day before, scheduling things so they release at 8am on each of those days.

Becoming The Me-Whisperer

Any good dance lead will tell you they don’t really “lead” their partner — they create a space for their partner to be and then “invite” them to occupy that space. It’s similar to the idea of the horse-whisperer (caveat: I’ve neither seen the movie nor read the book so I may have a false idea of what that word means). Basically, instead of berating yourself for not sticking to habits, calling yourself a failure, or trying to muscle through things…create a space for yourself to do the thing you want to do, and make it inviting. Make it as joyously inevitable as your soft bed at the end of a hard day, or a warm shower after coming in from a cold one.

It’ll be easy to see if this works: just come back on Wednesday and Friday and see if the post is up! Meanwhile: what are you going to whisper yourself into doing?

The State of the Habit

I remember the good old days when I felt that my voice wasn’t needed. There were plenty of people who were saying important and useful things, often better than I could say them, and therefore I hung up my virtual pen and took a hiatus from this blog.

When I did that, though, I also took a hiatus from a three-day-a-week writing habit. For years I’d spent a good portion of my days either thinking about or writing about things I loved, my perspective on life, and my practices.

My life didn’t fall apart. I’m not depressed, nor am I lost. I am doing quite well, occupied with meaningful work and wonderful people and at least a bit more slack than I used to have.

Still, the practice of this writing is missed – not only by me, but by a few other friends and loved ones who had missed seeing these little screeds every other day during the week.

So we’re back! And I’m going to start off this practice day by talking about three practices that I’m currently engaged in: The Good, the Bad, and the Temporary.


I was a cross-country runner in High School, and while I was never very good, I was adequate, and I grew to love running. In the USMC, though, the cartilage in my knees was damaged and for the most part I gave up running as an impact sport that would injure me further, and I wanted to save my knees.

As I approach 50, there’s another thought: what are you saving them for, exactly? Inspired by a marathon runner I met at a conference, I decided to try to run a 5K (that’s 3.1 miles). My plan was to do the Zombies, Run “couch-to-5K” 8-week program.

Let me tell you, it is a lesson in humility for a cross-country letterman and hard-charging devil-dog to start at “couch” level, but that was where I was at. There was a lot of walking, and a little running, and then more of the latter and less of the former.

I haven’t finished the eight weeks yet, but I did try my first 5k, and managed to make it with only a few stretches of walking thanks to the encouragement of my dear sister. I’m continuing to use zombies as the motivating force behind my runs, and I tend to be out on the road about three times a week.

And my knees? Yes, they hurt, but no more than the rest of my body, and it’s a price I pay willingly for the fringe benefits of feeling more fit the rest of the time when I’m not running.


If you thought that I would have, during the hiatus, lost my dislike of yoga, you’d be wrong. It is still the most unpleasant best way to keep my body limber, and I still am bitter about that.

On the other hand, the above-mentioned aching body tends to function better when I start the day with either Adrienne or Kassandra or, occasionally, Boho Beautiful. Kassandra’s “yin yoga” series, strangely, is my favorite, and my partner gets a lot out of her seasonally-themed videos. I also have gotten a lot of good use out of the CleverYoga travel mat, which is a painless way to carry a good-sized mat through airports everywhere.

I’m resigned to the fact that yoga is going to need to be a regular part of my day for the remainder of my life. Perhaps someday I will learn to enjoy it. Instead, for now, I enjoy having done it, and that needs to be enough.


I’ve attempted National Novel Writing Month five or six times, and completed it three times. The goal, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is to write 50,000 words in the month of November. The most valuable tool I’ve found for this is the same thing I’m using right now to write this: Ulysses, a writing application. Aside from providing me with a nice focused writing environment, it also has publishing features (if you’re reading this on Medium, thank Ulysses).

I’m on track to make my goal without much stress — and in a way, that makes me feel a little like I’ve cheated. The idea of NaNoWriMo is “quantity over quality”, and the power of the exercise is to get past the idea that you can’t write a book. You prioritize the time, and you get the word count done.

Thing is, I already know I can write books. Three novels and two non-fiction books proved that. What I’ve not proven is that I can write a good book, or that I can take the time to polish what I’ve written so that it actually seems good to me. And that’s the frustrating part of this month: getting the word count is not a problem, but what I’ve got is a bunch of pieces of a story without the thread to bind them together. Luckily, January is National Novel Editing Month, and perhaps I can use something like the Story Grid to turn them into something readable.

The Unrealistic List

Steven Pressfield named the combination of Imposter Syndrome and Procrastination that stifles our creative pursuits “the Resistance.” I happen to use that word in a different and positive context these days, but he’s right that the repression inherent in our systems is insidious. One of the best ways my own brain tries to keep me from doing these habits is by suggesting other things for me to try. In no particular order, here are practices that interest me:

  1. Dance (of any kind)
  2. Ju Jitsu (hey, if I can ruin my knees running, why not doing BJJ?)
  3. Sketching
  4. Programming, especially white-hat hacking and security
  5. Playing guitar
  6. Film making
  7. Meditation (yep, fell off that wagon)
  8. Journaling (that one too)
  9. Reading dead-tree journalism
  10. Bookbinding

Now, any time you ask a personal development blogger why you don’t have enough time to do all the things you want to, their first question is: How much TV do you watch? And it’s true, I do enjoy watching TV, and also spend more time on social media than I’d like. But what the bloggers never tell you is that if you do give up on TV and social media and replace them with those activities you dream of doing, you will end up exhausted.

The reality of being an adult is recognizing that time and energy are limited, and making choices based on that. It can be hard to live with them, and that’s a great thing to talk about in a future post.

Meanwhile, what are your current practices? How are you enjoying them? And what would you like to do more of?

Self-Care as an Act of Resistance

It’s one of the bitter silver linings of the current political climate: a lot of people suddenly find themselves in a similar situation to their pop-culture heroes. Suddenly the word “Resistance” is not talking about a Princess-General struggling against an evil empire in a galaxy far, far away – no, instead it’s in the form of thousands of protesters filling the streets of Raleigh, NC to protest the draconian and anti-democratic measures of their state legislature. It’s in the form of friends held or turned back at the border, or in the form of surreal commentators saying “Well, yes, they’re Nazis, but let’s hear them out…

Suddenly we (and yes, make no mistake, I’m part of the Resistance, and if that means I lose your readership, I’m ok with that) are faced with the realization: Being part of a resistance to a totalitarian regime is not much fun.

In the movies, you see the highlight reel. You get fictional narratives that end the way we want them to: with focus on the people who survived. Storytellers usually won’t give us as much attachment to the characters that won’t survive the tale, Whedon and Martin aside (Rowling kills characters, sure, but she usually makes sure their deaths mean something).

In reality: there is no storyteller. So people who you are attached to get hurt, and people who don’t deserve it end up on top. Rather than some machiavellian plot, the world is run by a whole bunch of people who either don’t know what they’re doing and are faking it or (worse) think they know what they’re doing but really don’t.

In that kind of world, being part of a Resistance is a weary place to be.

It’s OK to Be Tired

Here’s the good news: if you are part of the Resistance, then what the Evil Empire wants to do is wear you down. It wants to make you give up. It wants to dishearten you, weaken you, and erode your resolve until you effectively disappear.

That means anything you do that frustrates that plan is an Act of Resistance.

  • Did you look at cat pictures today and smile? A blow against tyranny!
  • Did you tell a friend you appreciated something they accomplished? Strike for freedom!
  • Did you manage to get a workout in today? Reinforce our defenses for they shall never break through!
  • Did you make it even slightly harder for them to keep track of you? Operational Security is the Key to Victory!

Even if the best you can do is get to the end of the day and growl out “I’m still here!”, you’ve scored a victory.

But if you want to do better than that, there are some ways you can make it a little easier:

The Logistics of Resistance

Armies run on beans & bullets – every smart military commander, ever.

Here’s some things you can do – this week, today, right NOW – that will help arm you against the sea of troubles we’re in (and by opposing, eventually end them):

  • Join Something. There is strength in numbers. You don’t have to do everything, but pick out one group that resonates with your own purpose. For me, that’s EFF.org, as well as a local conservation club.
  • Support Something Else. I’ll repeat it: you can’t do everything. So look for that thing that you wish you had time for, and throw money at it. Doesn’t have to be a lot of money, but you can definitely make a deliberate practice of it: I want to get a cheeseburger deluxe meal. But I’m going to have a plain burger instead and donate the $5 to the ACLU. You just gave one of their lawyers the extra cup of coffee that inspired the thought that successfully overturned an unconstitutional Executive Order! Way to go!
  • Limit the Bad News. It’s a pretty depressing time to be a news junkie. The Gravy Hose can fill your brain with an awful lot of stuff that keeps you awake at night. This is a good time to decide that you are going to limit your sources of news to those you trust (the NYT has my vote) and then limit your intake to a set time every day. I’d recommend cutting yourself off a few hours before bed, just to improve your sleep.
  • Do Preventive Maintenance. Personal development bloggers often would promote the idea of morning routines as a way to be healthy, or to succeed. Now there’s another reason: to stay strong in a world which is designed to weaken us. I didn’t do yoga, meditate, and journal this morning so that I could make more money or find enlightenment; I did it because it will better prepare me to face the onslaught of demoralizing and terrifying news and events of the day. Find your morning routine – or begin to develop it – and do it for the Resistance.

Most of all: find joy. Find the thing that feeds your soul, no matter how frivolous, and do that. It is not a waste of time, and it is not less important than anything else. Think of it as the oxygen mask in an airplane: Secure your own before helping others. Because if you let yourself get used up and burned out, we have one less ally to help us through these times.

If you’re going through hell – keep going. — Winston Churchill

Three Easy Ways to Have More Time and Less Stress for the Holidays

Busy time of year, yeah? Probably feel inundated on all sides with either of doom and gloom and consume and…damn, can’t think of another rhyme so let’s go with “holiday cheer.”

The practice I’m going to recommend today is an easy and quick fix and it is guaranteed to make your holiday season more relaxed and enjoyable. It has to do with the deluge of newsletters and ads and “special offers” that you’re going to get this year.

Now, in full disclosure: I use newsletters in my business a lot. There’s even one for Love Life Practice, and I’d love it if you subscribed. But one of the things I’m very aware of, as a business person, is CAN-SPAM.

Your message must include a clear and conspicuous explanation of how the recipient can opt out of getting email from you in the future. Craft the notice in a way that’s easy for an ordinary person to recognize, read, and understand.

And within that lovely little law is the key to increasing your calm this holiday season. Now, “clear and conspicuous” has some pretty weird interpretations, usually involving really tiny fonts down at the bottom of the email and sometimes some tricksy wording (“Click on this button if you want to not unsubscribe from future fantastic emails”). Think of it as a little mini-quest in a video game – you, the hero, must solve the puzzle to free you from future emails!

Unsubscribe from everything!

Why Would I Want to Do This?

There’s more than a few reasons to do this mini-purge, especially this time of year. But let’s start out with a simple fact: if it turns out you miss a particular kind of mailing, you can always re-subscribe.

But meanwhile, especially at a stressful time of year, there are a lot of upsides to clicking that “unsubscribe” button automatically:

  • Time: Each email, even if you skip it, takes time to notice, click on “delete”, etc. Maybe it’s less than a second…but the seconds add up, and imagine what a full minute of calm added to your day might feel like.
  • Decision Fatigue: The jury’s still out on this, but let’s stipulate that willpower is finite. No matter how fast you hit the “delete” button, you’ve had to decide to do it. That’s one iota less of willpower left to you for more important decisions like “should I eat this bowl of ice cream?
  • FOMO: I do some work in marketing, and I can tell you that the objective of a lot of newsletter ads is to deliberately make you feel like you are missing out on something by not consuming whatever product is being marketed. Whether it’s gentle or overt, it’s basically a guilt trip – and that’s something you don’t really need this time of year.
  • Shoulds: Related to FOMO, the fact is that not all newsletters are about selling something. I love Steven Pressfield’s What It Takes newsletter, for example, which is chock-full of great advice for writing novels. Except that right now I’m not trying to write a novel – I have a whole lot of other projects that need my attention. So when I get that newsletter, along with the good advice I get a hefty helping of Remember, you were gonna write another novel? When are you going to do that, Gray? You’re not a real writer, are you? You really should make more time to write. Maybe I’m the only person who hears that kind of voice, but I doubt it.

Here’s the thing: in this digital age we’ve constructed this narrative that if we don’t get constant reminders of things we will miss them, fall into a morass of lazy self-indulgent non-productivity that will result in obesity, locusts, and the decline of Western civilization.

The reality, as it turns out, is that those three things, much like almost everything else, is going to happen (or not) regardless of whether we are reminded of it.

But there’s one more way to apply this idea of via negativa practice that can help the Holiday Stress.

Is This Helping You?

A very good friend and fellow self-improvement enthusiast posited this challenge to me: Is there a way you can change your social media intake so that it is a more constructive force in your life? It’s a great question; for some people (like me) just getting off of these networks entirely is not an option, for either social or business reasons.

I don’t have the complete answer to her question yet. However, I have found that applying that “unsubscribe” button, along with another friend’s decluttering method of “one in, three out”, works pretty well. Here’s the first part of the heuristic:

  1. Be aware of feelings as you’re looking at twitter or Facebook, and watch for moments that cause you stress – that make you angry, or (worse) make you start typing a time-and-willpower-consuming response.
  2. Click “unfollow” on that account. Remember, you can always refollow them later if you feel that you’re missing something. But for now, try shutting out the voices – wherever they come from – that are diminishing your calm.

Then there’s the opposite side of this:

  1. As you’re looking at various feeds, if you see something that makes you laugh, smile, or gives you the urge to share with someone else because it might make them happy (that’s an important part), then follow that account. Even if it’s as ridiculous as TextFromDog, if it is a positive, follow them! Remember you can always unfollow them later.
  2. Now that you’ve brought one in, it’s time for the three out. Go through the list of people/accounts you follow, and pick out three to unfollow. DO IT. No changing your mind and “unfollowing” that cute account from #1. Too late! You have to pick out three to unfollow, and guess what? They’ll likely be the ones that are negative, or that you didn’t really need to follow anyway.

There you go. Social media practices that will give you more time and willpower, and at the same time enhance your calm during the holiday season. Give it a try!

And guess what: if you need permission, you are totally allowed to unfollow @lovelifepractice on twitter or Medium. I promise, anything I write will still be here if you ever decide to come back.

Good luck, and happy winter to you!

The Simple Way to Reduce Your Social Media Dependence

I’m a day late! So this is a quickie, because we’ve already lost a day of practice! Happily, I can assure you that this is a practice that is 100% effective. It is one of those win-win practices; it helps take your brain off of the intermittent-dopamine-reward addiction of checking your twitter or Facebook or Newsfeed app incessantly, and it helps make you slightly more antifragile by increasing your situational awareness and capacity for “boredom.”

Ready? Here it is:

Shut off your cellular data to those apps.

I’m not going to go through the steps of doing this; it’s different for every kind of phone or computer or tablet. But most of your mobile devices, when they don’t have a wifi connection, will be using data via the cellular network to refresh your feed from social media.

Don’t let them.

Just cut off the gravy hose. It’s the equivalent of saying “Want to watch less TV? Unplug it.

What will happen (and go ahead and try this, just to get a laugh) is that the next time you want to “check the feed”, you will reach for the phone, pull up the app – and stare blankly in a moment of digital deja vu: “Didn’t I already read this?” scroll down “They already said that this morning.” scroll further”Wait, why is that story posted agai- oh.”

And that’s when your lizard brain, deprived of the easy source of dopamine, will throw up its scaly hands in despair and change the channel to that tried-and-true reality show, “Scan the Horizon for Predators.”

It’s Not About Weak Will, It’s About Strong Won’t

Now, notice I did not say this will cure your compulsion entirely. That takes something a big bigger, like maybe a Simple Time of Peace or other media retreat (I am late with today’s blog because yesterday I was in just such a place, and damn, it was lovely). This particular practice is just a way for you to be able to cut back a bit, to reduce things.

It’s dead simple: you already have all the tools you need, no apps to install, no weird devices to strap to your wrist. That is also one of the weaknesses of this method: it’s just as simple to turn your cellular data to those apps on again, wherever you are. So it’s not about whether you will want to check your feeds; it’s about whether you won’t make it possible again.

Gonna try this hack for a week? I did it last week, and I confess; there was a moment when I “had to” check my Facebook. I rationalized that I needed to chat with my daughters; but really, could I have found a different method? Certainly.

Let’s see if we can make it to next Monday. Who’s with me?

The Practice of Privacy

You’re being followed.

No, don’t look behind you. Not because it’ll give you away – they’re not back there – but because it won’t do any good. They don’t have to follow you physically. Not any more.

Here’s one example: open this page and it will likely do a pretty good job of showing you your location. It will also detect a whole lot of other information about you, down to the kind of screen you’re using to look at the web page. If your answer is “Well, I just won’t go to that site!” then you’re missing the point – every site you visit gets that information. This particular page just happens to tell you about it.

And that’s just the beginning. Did you realize you have a browser fingerprint?

“Browser fingerprinting” is a method of tracking web browsers by the configuration and settings information they make visible to websites, rather than traditional tracking methods such as IP addresses and unique cookies…While the tracker won’t know your name, they could collect a deeply personal dossier of websites you visit.” – Panopticlick

Again, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Your Amazon shopping profile, your Facebook likes, your check-ins on Yelp and even your chat history is all being stored. It’s all being recorded. And that’s just through your browser. If you really want to get paranoid, read through this article about how many different kinds of people – from schools to government agencies to “low-tier hacker peeping toms” are finding ways to get access to your cameras. Not just the cameras on your computer or your phone – we’re talking baby monitors coming to life and swearing at your children.

But I’m Just a…

insert whatever demographic you are here. Yes, you are. Exactly. Why would any one want to spy on you? How could they possibly use that against you?

Well, we could go all “First they came for…” on you. But that requires a healthy level of mistrust of the government, and who wants to bother with that? Instead, let’s go with good old fashioned greed: both Natasha and I have had our debit cards hacked and used in the past year. Now, we are not poor by world standards, but based on the U.S. standard of living we are right around the poverty line – yet somebody behind some computer felt it would be worth it to try spending our money.

Identity theft. Stalking. Access to your employer’s networks. Those are just the kinds of things that Facebook hackers want. Multiply that by every social network you visit, and you have an idea of just how vulnerable you become when you use them indiscriminately.

You don’t have to unplug everything and move into the woods. Well, I hope not, anyway. But there are definitely some solid (and mostly easy) ways to counter most of these vulnerabilities:

  • Use a VPN. Right now, anyone looking at my browser information believes I am in Miami. I’ve been using IPVanish on my mobile and laptop, and it’s pretty painless (as long as I remember to turn it on. There are many other ways to do a VPN (I’m going to be trying to create my own later today)
  • Encrypt Everything. On an iPhone, it’s as simple as activating the passcode. On my mac, it’s called FileVault. I’ve already recommended Signal, but if you really want to feel like a spy, try Confide.
  • Protect Your Browser Unfortunately, this is kind of like saying “fix your car” – it could mean a lot of different things, depending on what you do. Most secure would be to switch to the TOR browser – but if that’s too much, you can at least do things like install the Privacy Badger extension to reduce some of the tracking that’s being done on sites.
  • Minimize Your MeatSpace Vulnerabilities. See how easy it is to start talking like William Gibson when you think about this stuff? This is doing things like using Two-Factor Authentication wherever possible, or a password locker app like LastPass. Check this list, and see if there’s anything that stands out as something you might be overlooking when it comes to defending yourself from identity theft.

But That Sounds Really Inconvenient

Yep. It is. Even for an enthusiastic lifehacker like me, there are parts of this that really have put stumbling blocks in my routine. I forget to turn on my VPN. I still haven’t really figured out how LastPass works on all my devices. And you can ask Natasha how many times I’ve sworn at my laptop because SAASPASS was taking too long to let me in.

Convenience is how they get you. Watch any spy movie: it’s the point where the person in danger waves their hand at their security and says “That’s too much trouble!” It’s also inconvenient to lock your car, to schedule an doctor appointment, or to put shoes on. But you do those things because they protect you, and some of them you do automatically now because they are a habit.

Habits? We know how to create habits!

That’s my challenge to you (and to myself) for the week. Pick out some privacy habit – something that makes you just a little harder to follow – and make it a daily thing. Maybe it’s the VPN, maybe you just see what it’s like surfing with Privacy Badger, maybe you just get nifty little stickers for your webcam – but try a little privacy practice.

Let me know what you try, and how it goes!