The Pursuit of Excellence Practical steps toward happiness

21Nov/120

The Waiting Place

I hate waiting. I'd rather be doing.

When I was a kid I used to delay trips to the bathroom because it meant putting 'fun' on hold. As an adult I tend to jam my schedule so tight I can't find time to eat. Sitting idle is a sin, says the world outside.

Line-ups, traffic. Waiting for an important call. These are annoying, but there's a far more crushing brand of waiting: getting stuck. Life stuck.

I want to finish my book, launch my business, finally learn to play Hotel California on guitar. But my last chapter was flat; my business model is flawed; my fingers won't cooperate.

Challenges visited each of my projects all at once this past summer, landing on top of a layer of family and personal worries, and I got stuck. I fell into a funk.

For weeks I made little progress on my goals. I forced myself to keep going and beat myself up when I couldn't find the strength. The funk worsened. I had no choice but to take a vacation and to fire my inner slave-driver (he still loiters in the background.)

"Difficulties in your life do not come to destroy you, but to help you realize your hidden potential and power." - Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam

In this unwanted rest period I learned there is value in getting stuck.

Ever notice that when waiting at a red light you're more aware of your surroundings than when driving?

Can't stop the funk

Standing still lets us look around. When we look around we can see what's working and what is not in our lives. In this mindful place we can see opportunities and truths we would normally miss.

In my "waiting place" I learned to ask for help. I learned to stop forcing. And I learned to be kinder to myself. These lessons helped move my projects back on track.

"Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you." - Rainer Maria Rilke

Challenges will come, and some will stop you in your tracks. You can thrash around in this waiting place or you can treat it as a welcomed chance to look around.

Have you been stuck? Let me hear your story in the comments section below.

14Aug/122

Lowered Expectations

I am a productivity fanatic.

I get up early and after a healthy breakfast and some meditation I'll write down my ten long term goals and a long to-do list for the day. I try to apply the 80/20 principle to everything I do and schedule every half hour of my day. Push, push, push.

Overloaded vehicle
Overloaded

In the last 12 months I've been ambitious. I ran an election campaign--eight 80 hour weeks of intense, emotional work. I moved apartments, ended a long-term relationship, and left a good job to finally start a business. It's been long days of networking, business plans, and chasing investors.

At the same time I decided to start a writing career. I wrote a 65,000 word first draft of my book in six weeks and since January have been re-writing the second draft while attending a weekly writing workshop and applying for grants.

I started this website and freelance writing. I punish my body at CrossFit 4 times a week, have been teaching myself to play guitar, and reading voraciously while keeping a full social calendar.

The result? I'm badly burnt out.

Golf Wisdom

For months I've been asking myself why I can't keep up the pace; why I haven't hit my goals already. Every time I've slept in, skipped the gym, and just didn't feel like working I've berated myself about it. I'd tap thatWith that much stress, getting started again was murder. And so the cycle continued...

My turning point came a few weeks ago while interviewing a former PGA champ for a magazine article about golf tips.

"Bring down your expectations and your game will improve," he said. When golfers stress about sinking the putt they miss the shot. 'Relax and enjoy' was his advice.

Could I lower my expectations and enjoy more success?

Ongoing debate

Last week I came across an article at Lifehack asking Is it Time to Let Go of Productivity? It was a response to Leo Babauta's zenhabits article Toss Productivity Out advocating tossing goals in favour of working on what you enjoy in the moment.

"It is better to travel well than to arrive at the right destination"
- Arthur C. Custance

The authors disagreed on the recipe for success but I was relieved to know that others have also been a victim of productivity.

The ideal balance of productivity and letting go will differ for everyone, but after my own failed experiment with hyper-productivity I don't have much of a choice but to give the alternative a shot; to relax. To simplify. After all, I'm not a machine.

Do you need to lower your expectations? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Original images at ForkParty and DonkeyTs

20Feb/120

Speed Reading 101

A girl opens a book, glances at each page for about 0.8 seconds, then flips to the next.  Repeat.  For much of my life TV had me believing this was speed reading.

TV also taught me that one man with a machine gun can take on an entire army, and that supermodels regularly approach nerdy guys for sex.

Speed reading girl

Coffee helps too

Hollywood's ideas about speed reading haven't evolved much.  Screen writers know more about how computers work (Let's enhance that image!) than our topic of conversation.

I knew that the picture of a person madly flipping pages was probably exaggerated, but guessed that there must be some value in speed reading.

By the middle of my second year at university, I was buried under a mountain of books, so I went to my local library and picked up a dusty copy of a speed reading manual.  The results were amazing.

In only a month I tripled my reading speed.

How does speed reading actually work?  I won't be able to train you in 600 words or less, but I'll give you the Coles Notes in hopes that you'll be curious enough to investigate further.

Speed reading is:

  1. Creating good habits to focus on the information
  2. Taking in information quicker
  3. Retaining more of that information

1. Good Habits:

Quick reading requires your full attention and active participation.  This is half the battle.

  • Sit up straight with your feet on the floor, book on a desk centred in front of you; turn pages with your left hand, underline what you're reading with the right index finger.
  • Centre yourself.  Take a few deep breaths.  Tighten your muscles then relax.  Focus.
  • "Key in" to your material: "Handle" the book.  Flip through it's pages, read the table of contents, back and front flaps.  Ask yourself, "What am I going to do with this information?"

2. Absorb information faster:

Reading faster is primarily about training your eyes and brain to process information differently.

Re-read the last sentence.  Did you hear your own voice in your mind reciting the words?

Flipping pages

Thanks a lot, Hollywood

  • Stop doing this.  That voice is the middle-man between your eyes and brain.  It just slows you down.
  • Use your finger to underline everything.  It will keep your eyes from wandering.
  • Harness your peripheral vision.  Take the blinders off your eyes.  This is tough, but try to pull the words off the page in chunks, rather than one or two at a time.  With only a little practice, your brain will get better and faster at doing this.

3. Retain more of what you read:

  • Trust your perfect memory. Have confidence in your ability to remember.
  • Aim to grasp the subject or theme and decide how you want to use the information
  • Do something active with the material: talking to someone about it is the best way to memorize; writing is second best.  Thinking about it after is better than nothing.

I don't always apply these principles when I read. It's nice to take your time with a good book.  But speed reading is a valuable skill that could save you hours for more worthy pursuits...

Like supermodels.

20Jan/123

86,400

Years ago I was sitting in high school business class contemplating just how awesome the new Nirvana album was, when into the room walked a stranger who looked very out of place in his suit and tie.  This clean cut young professional started shaking hands with every greasy 15 year old in the room, introducing himself as if at a sales conference.  It turned out that he was a “motivational speaker,” whatever the heck that meant, and over the next hour and a half he was going to teach us how to live.

Light a fire under your ass

Given my adolescent attention span and the new-fangled ideas he was peddling, I’ve since forgotten the finer points of the lecture, but the premise of his argument has stuck with me, even fifteen years later.

“What would you do if you had a bank account that was filled with $86,400 each morning, and whatever you didn’t spend at the end of the day simply vanished?”

He was, of course, using money as a clever metaphor for something much more valuable: time.  Each day every one of us is given 86,400 seconds to live; not one more or less.

The happiest, the greatest, the most remarkable individuals in history have made do with the same allotment that you and I enjoy.

Think about how much potential that leaves us with!

Our choices have great power.  Acts of heroism stem from decisions to spend our seconds fearlessly.  Each great work of art comes into being through an artist’s commitment to pool enough seconds labouring toward bringing a vision to life.  And without exception, civilizations have risen and fallen based on the quality of choices that men and women made about the use of their precious time.

Each day, all remarkable human beings withdraw from their banks the same block of time as you and me.  In this sense the playing field of life is remarkably level.  Of course success is influenced by birthplace, race, sex, and parental wealth.  But this is a weak excuse to avoid asking yourself: “Am I living my days the way I want?”  I have a hunch that most remarkable people would answer yes to that question.

No one can know for certain if we receive a second chance in an afterlife, but what we can bank on is that we have a fixed amount of precious seconds each day to spend.

Use them wisely.