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Personal Development with Gray Miller

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the pros and cons of an annual review

Never Mind “Good & Evil” -

Check out the Garden of Reflecting at Anderson Gardens in Rockford, IL:

The Garden of Reflection Pond at Anderson Gardens in Rockford, IL

aka: The Garden of Agonizing Introspection, Guilt, & Regret

A friend of mine gave it that latter name when we both visited it along with a group of friends. She and I had both had a rough year, and as we walked through the gardens it was less with a joyful appreciation of the beauty around us and more with the grim attitude of survivors waiting to see what dirty trick life was next going to play on us.

I remember standing, looking at the water, feeling completely weighted down with the many mistakes, betrayals, and misfortunes that had befallen the past year. Frankly, the longer I looked at the still waters and the beautiful green, the more depressed I got. That was probably when I stopped doing the whole “annual review” idea, and actually gave up on goals altogether. I’ve written a bit about the process of coming up with plans and goals before. This is certainly the time of year when such things come to mind – with more apps around than ever to “help you reach that goal” or keep your New Year’s Resolution (only 23% of people actually keep them anyway) or, perhaps more realistically, just try not to mess up next year as much as we did this year.

Can an annual review help with that?

Yes! Of Course It Can!

Chris Guillebeau certainly thinks so. He’s not only written about the process, he also has a spiffy spreadsheet free for downloading and goes through the remarkable and personal process of publishing his own. He is brutally honest – talking frankly about the places where he felt as if he let himself or others down, and also taking credit for the things he accomplished and the efforts he made. If you, like me, feel a sense of “oh, god, why would I want to relive that again,” he has some words of encouragement:

…when I started the process of writing everything down, I was worried. The heaviness and negative feelings I’m about to describe have been weighing on me so much lately that I had almost convinced myself that the whole year was a bust. But no! Once I started reviewing my calendar and writing down these highlights, I was amazed to see so many good things crop up that I had totally forgotten about.

It reminded me of one of the core lessons of the Annual Review: we tend to overestimate what we can accomplish in a single day, but underestimate what we can accomplish in a full year.

And of course, the benefit of the past is that you can’t change it. That means there’s absolutely no obligation for you to do anything once you’ve done your review. It won’t change a thing. Sure, you can maybe decide how your present and future will be, and take some actions there…but things in the past? Don’t stress it! There’s literally nothing you can do about it. Being more aware of what you’ve done also makes it easier for you to focus on your new goals as well.

There’s only one problem with the idea that the annual review will help you better achieve your goals:

Successful People Don’t Set Goals

Yep. That’s right, I said it. But it’s also backed up by research. First of all, there’s the work of psychologist Saras Sarasvarthy who interviewed many successful entrepreneurs, trying to find out if razor-focus on goals was their modus operandi. Cited in The Antidote by Oliver Burkemann, “the outlook of Sarasvathy’s interviewees”:

…rarely bore this out. Their precise endpoint was often mysterious to them, and their means of proceeding reflected this. Overwhelmingly, they scoffed at the goals-first doctrine of Locke and Latham [goals theorists]. Almost none of them suggested creating a detailed business plan or doing comprehensive market research to hone the details of the product they were aiming to release…The most valuable skill of a successful entrepreneur …[is] the ability to adopt an unconventional approach to learning: an improvisational flexibility not merely about which route to take towards some predetermined objective, but also a willingness to change the destination itself.

This is a flexibility that might be squelched by rigid focus on any one goal.

Not only that, but further research shows that focusing on a goal can actual suck the joy out of activities you usually like! If you’re focused on losing those extra pounds, you stop enjoying the actual bike ride. Not to mention that, if you’re like me, you already have too many projects on your plate – a “goal-setting” session is just another opportunity to think of more things you ought to be doing, and then feel bad because rather than do them you’d prefer watching Netflix.

I hear you, I hear you. Believe me, I feel your pain. But I’m going to do the review anyway, and I’ll tell you why:

Not for the Goals

No, in fact, I’m going to deliberately keep myself from setting them. I’m also not going to focus on what goals I had at the beginning of last year compared to where I am now.

Instead, I’m going to do the review with an eye towards on quality: what nurtured my soul? What activities, places, people added to my quality of life? When was I feeling in flow, and when was I scrambling? I believe that a review of the year can help figure out how to bring more of the joy and pleasure of living, rather than just being alive. That’s the purpose of my review.

What about you? Are you a goal setter? Nothing wrong with that – what tools do you use? How about the whole retrospective idea – horrifying? Exciting? Satisfying? Let us know in the comments!

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the practice of graceful requests

photo courtesy Ann Thorniley

Be careful what you ask for. And how you answer those who ask.

A Guest Post from Amy

A dear friend and avid reader commented last week on my Friendly Coercion post with some suggestions that were so good that I felt they merited their own post.

Amy Law from Seattle has developed her own particular set of protocols for both hearing and expressing requests. Personally, I think it would be great if we had little cheat-cards we could pull out and use to help remember the steps.

When receiving a request:

  1. Hear the request: It’s a request. Not a demand, not a threat, not a need only I can fill, and probably not something I only get one chance at.
  2. Clarify what I heard: In whatever manner is appropriate to the situation (verbose, succinct, non-verbal, pictogram…) try to communicate back what I think they’re asking for. When that is totally clear, then…
  3. Wait for my response in that moment. Don’t “default” to a response
    • because it’s what I said last time,
    • because it’s what they expect/need,
    • because I was angry five minutes ago when I thought they were asking for something else.

      Just take a moment and find out what’s in my integrity in this moment.

  4. Remember that my response can be an invitation to intimacy. I’m more than a Magic 8-ball. What other information or point of connection can I offer in this response? This isn’t about softening a “no.” This is about sharing the vulnerability. (And in my case sometimes it is about encouraging myself to be more enthusiastic in my “yes.”)
  5. Respond and stick around to see what happens next. Cultivate generous curiosity. In general this is a reminder to refrain from mentally running off into story land (aka “narrative fallacy”), but if storyland is what happens be willing to observe (not analyze) that too.

When making the request:

  1. Notice the desire.
  2. Am I happy to accept a no? If I pause when answering that question, then I pause before making the request. I take the time to tease out what’s so important. What does this request mean to me? Can I be more direct in asking for the core of what I want?
  3. Notice the environment. Not just physical location, but the emotional and physiological states of everyone involved.
  4. Make the request: In whatever manner seems appropriate to the situation (verbose, succinct, non-verbal, pictogram…)
  5. Stick around to see what happens next. (see above)

Got feedback for Amy or Gray? What are your techniques for asking and receiving things well? 

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coercion awareness

Woulda Coulda Shoulda

I’m very excited to begin this post, even though it may be completely wrong.

As I mentioned in the last Weekend Roundup podcast, I’m going to begin an exploration into the idea of coercion. With relatively few exceptions, I’m going to be talking about the various ways that the phenomenon is a part of our practices, a part of our lives, and certainly a part of our love.

Coercion has a bad reputation; usually the word is not looked on favorably. Yet synonyms are used in some the most revered philosophies out there: How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, for example. The art of the Persuasion Speech is taught in high school forensics as a useful skill, and it can be argued that the many books, courses, and coaches for interview techniques are about coercing employers into hiring you.

photo courtesy of Gexydaf

Hint: It’s not quite this obvious.

The problem comes when the power of coercion moves into darker waters, when it becomes manipulation. Yet even then it is sometimes championed – Robert Greene’s bestseller The 48 Laws of Power, for example, has chapters such as “USE SELECTIVE HONESTY AND GENEROSITY TO DISARM YOUR VICTIM”. Even children, Mr. Greene says, are manipulative:

“Children may be naive in many ways, but they often act from an elemental need to gain control over those around them. Children suffer greatly from feeling powerless in the adult world, and they use any means available to get their way.” (emphasis added)

And therein lies the truth of the matter: coercion is a strategy developed by humans as a form of power in order to get what they want. It may be used for “good” (I persuaded my partner to do yoga) or “evil” (I totally made her believe I was a Doctor and got her digits!) but in the end it’s done for selfish reasons (…because I don’t want to be alone).

We, uh, culpa

Most likely, if you were accused of being coercive, you’d either deny it or at least feel bad. Let’s agree, for the duration of this exploration here on Love Life Practice, not to do that, ok? We are all coercive as well as all coerced almost constantly, from the larger form of obeying societal laws under the threat of controlled violence to the simple act of convincing yourself to get out of bed because you should…or, more likely, because you promise yourself coffee or the equivalent.

So we’re all coercers. It’s like privilege; everybody’s got it, in one way or another, and what matters is that we recognize it and not abuse it and, if possible, use it for good. Before that can happen, though, there need to be some time noticing when we are doing it. And it’s not usually as easy to spot as someone lying about their job to catch the eye of an attractive mate. It takes physical form, it takes nonverbal form, it takes rhetorical form, and obviously it takes form in words.

Here, I’ll start. Here are the ways I am coercive during my professional life:

  • I will smile and be cheerful towards service industry workers regardless of how I’m feeling, because I know it will give me better service.
  • I usually dress with slightly more vanity than any particular social situation requires, because I know that it is a subtle way to make an impression and stand out in a crowd.
  • If a client is upset with me or with someone else, I will become extremely focused on polite responses and sticking to simple facts, avoiding letting any of my personal feelings of wrong or right or fairness show in my words.
  • If I am having a conversation with someone and I want them to think I’m smart, I will ask them to talk about something that they care about, and then turn on “active listening” skills so that they feel heard, knowing that it will give the impression of intelligence regardless of whether I’m actually interested in what they’re saying.
  • If I am managing a large group in a teaching situation and I identify someone who is likely to derail or monopolize the situation, I will deliberately create a topic I know they can speak on in order to make them feel valued and then guide the rest of the conversation towards the contributions of other people (technically a version of the previous coercive tactic applied to large groups).

There it is. My secrets lay revealed and I have come clean. Whew! Feels good to finally admit that I do those things. Maybe you’d like to try it? Go on down there into the comments and just let me know what kind of manipulations you use!

Unless, of course, you feel that my baring of my soul was actually another coercive tactic designed to appeal to your desire to reciprocate. In which case I will admit: yes, you caught me. You are astonishingly perceptive. As long as you don’t notice that I write in the first person in order to give you a false sense of being personally invested in my blog, I should be ok, though…

Your Power, Your Self

It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole. Suddenly we’re second-guessing each other and ourselves and that way lies paranoia and madness. Since those are not particular personal developments I’m interested in fostering, please don’t think about it too much.

Plus, I don’t happen to think that all these habits are things that should be changed. These coercive – sorry, I mean persuasive – techniques are part of why I am somewhat in demand as a speaker, teacher, and facilitator within certain circles. I know that the skills have benefited people besides me; that makes it ok, right?

Don’t answer; that’s what we’re going to be talking about for a while. But do take the time to try and watch, from a more objective place, the ways that you shape your behavior for the purpose of affecting others. Don’t worry about changing them; it’s likely that a lot of them are subconscious and I suspect more than a few will surprise you.

If they do, I really would appreciate hearing about it in the comments, or if you want a bit more anonymity I’m happy to get a personal email. We’ll figure out whether we want to change later on; the first step is just noticing all the little tricks we’ve developed in order to get what we want…

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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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