Software: MacBreakz and Joe Ergo

You. You who are reading this blog post.

You have already spent an ungodly number of hours sitting down, hunched forward, staring unblinking into this screen.

Do we really need your computer to remind you that you need a break every now and then? Sadly, yes.

There are many software-based solutions out there for Mac users, I'm sure, but here are the two I use.

MacBreakz (site | YouTube) is the more sophisticated of the two. I used this software extensively when I was spending 4-6 hours a day writing my thesis. It offers a good variety of stretches and ergonomic tips. It also monitors the intensity of your activity; if you're mousing around a lot or furiously typing to beat a deadline, it will pop up a reminder to take a micro-break of a few seconds. It nags because it loves. It's more expensive ($25) than most shareware, but worth it if you spend a lot of time on the 'puter.

Joe Ergo (App Store) is lighter weight, but also much cheaper ($2). Set a time for when you want to receive a reminder to take a break and then minimize the window. Joe Ergo offers fewer stretches, but that's OK -- it's the break that counts. I set the interval at 25 minutes (yes, like the Pomodoro). If I'm only on the MikeBook for an hour or so on a weekday night, then I'll use Joe Ergo.

I guarantee you will be surprised at how swiftly the interval you set passes and how irritating you will find these reminders. Starting the software and setting the interval is your calm, wise self looking out for the impulsive, in-the-moment, future self who wants to keep clicking those YouTube links until well past your bedtime.

In addition to giving my body a break, I also want to give my eyes a break. One of my eye doctors said that, when you stare into the distance, the muscles that focus your eyes relax. But when you focus your eyes onto a bright screen only a foot or so away from your face, the muscles tense up and "go all out like a Masseratti." Both programs above remind you to do eye exercises as well.

I also put wetting drops in my eyes when I take my break. My cataract doctor recommended keeping a wetting agent of some kind nearby and to use it often. He said he was horrified to see his wife working on her laptop and not blinking for minutes at a time. As he explained it, when the eye is moist, its surface is smooth as a marble. But when you stop blinking, the eye's surface begins drying out here and there and the surface gets rougher. The result is more refraction of light, glare, and squinting.

I recommend GenTeal liquid gel drops; I keep a bottle by my monitor at work and at home. It's tough to remember to do it regularly, but your eyes will thank you.


Inspire yourself

In my PhD methods class, our professor asked us to pick something that inspired us -- it could be a song, a research article, a movie, a book chapter -- make a brief presentation on it and on how it inspired us in our work. Inspiration can come from unexpected sources and feed us in non-obvious ways. This assignment nudged us into coming out about what we found exciting and how we could use it as a touchstone in our research. Great things are always great, and no matter how they may differ in detail, there is something common in their essence. Now, what inspired my fellow students may not have inspired me, and vice versa. I  recall that someone brought in an academic paper and another brought in a book of haiku. What our professor had us do was look inside ourselves to find our own sources of mental and emotional support; scholarly work is seemingly endless and often tedious, so being able to boost yourself by calling forth your own inspirational touchstones can be life-saving and morale-boosting.

I submitted the following YouTube videos of two artists performing immaculate work. Watch them now, and I'll talk about what I found -- and still find -- inspiring about them.

Good golly, where do I start??

Let's start with the fact that I picked two performing artists -- not sports figures (don't like sports) nor writers (though I fancy myself of the writerly persuasion). I have always loved performers of all stripes -- dancers, jugglers, musicians, magicians, etc. These are people who have the courage to think they can entertain us, to show us something we've not seen before. You could call it hubris, or you can call it confidence. I would call it a belief and faith in their own skills and abilities.

Inspiration #1: If you believe you can, you can.

These are examples of the power of mastery. These are guys whose skills have been crafted, honed, protected, nurtured and sharpened over many years of deliberate practice and creating and performing songs and dances so that they can do what you saw over and over again, flawlessly. (There are other recordings of Jorgensen playing "Ghost Dance" and all of them are played at that fast tempo and sound pristine.) I'd call this the "iceberg principle" of success, except that I'm sure someone's already called it that. How many hundreds of hours of work did it take to conceive and execute those 3-4 minutes of diamond-sharp perfection?

Inspiration #2: Even Fred Astaire had to put in the hours to become Fred Astaire. Getting good doesn't happen overnight. It takes work. To echo Cal Newport's motto: Be so good they can't ignore you.

My banjo teacher has me say the syllables "e-ven" with every pluck of the string, and I am to keep saying it even if my fingers fumble through a particular passage. The goal is to keep the rhythm until I can collect myself and jump back into the song. As he puts it, "The other musicians aren't going to stop if you lose your place and start the song over. They're just going to keep playing."

Lookit how fast Jorgensen is moving those fingers! The pace doesn't stop and the rhythm doesn't slow down if he's having an off night. No matter how fast and frantic the music gets, he's calm, relaxed, poised. Jorgensen and Astaire are not just in the flow, they're controlling the flow. And they make it look easy because they've put in the work that makes the hard look easy.

In life, we don't have a band behind us pushing to keep the beat. But we have calendars and commitments to others and the seasons, among other pacesetters. Life doesn't pause until you have time to catch your breath. You have to breathe while playing like mad.

Inspiration #3: Work hard, keep practicing, and you can set the tempo (and look cool doing it). Eventually, it'll all look easy to anyone who hasn't done the work.

I have these two videos in a YouTube playlist called ENERGY! I return to these videos periodically when I'm flagging or in the doldrums. No matter how many times I see the videos in that playlist, I never tire of them. They always seem fresh. Many books and movies that were touchstones in my youth have not survived with me into adulthood, but these videos (and all the other books and music and DVDs that stock my shelves) have stayed with me for years.

Inspiration #4: Truly inspiring things stay evergreen; you can grow old with them and they will always have lessons to teach.

Finally, looking at these inspiring videos makes me feel like I want to create something as fun, as beautiful, as energetic, and as inspiring. And that, for me, may be the commonality among all inspiring things I hold close. I won't be able to play the guitar or tap dance like these guys, but I can attack what I want to do -- a short story, a blog post, a business, a PowerPoint presentation -- with energy, spirit, discipline, and (I hope) humor. These inspiring things teach me that that the audience or the customer will never see all the hours I put into the work. But if what I create connects, I want it to be a show-stopper.

On starting before you're ready

When I first got the idea to restart the blogging, my first thought was: "No, don't start this Monday, start next Monday." It felt like the safe option: give myself time to scope out other blogging tools, come up with a list of topics,develop a workflow, etc.


And then the second, more challenging voice of The Coach came in: "Why wait? Start tomorrow. Just get started. If you wait till you're ready, you'll never be ready." And I knew that starting before I felt I was ready was the wiser course.

Now, were I starting a military campaign or PR blitz, yes, sure, plan to the nth degree and get your ducks in a row, etc. But for a personal project like this, starting before I was ready meant I had to eschew the perfectionism, set up some quick ground rules to prevent myself from putting up higher and higher barriers (I've now reduced my first draft writing time to 15 minutes to inspire faster writing and shorter drafts), and just dive in.

My banjo teacher, who is also a spiritual teacher, said one time that "The perfection is in the doing." It's so easy for me to forget that, to get hung up on the result or the desired outcome before I've taken a single step.

One of the great teachings of Constructive Living for me was that you cannot control the results, you can only control your behavior. So starting -- and starting imperfectly -- is better than not starting. Starting is in your control. Once I started, I discovered in the doing several little tricks that would not have occurred to me had I relied only on planning. And even if I had planned everything to a faretheewell, I'd have had to adjust my plan based on what I discovered as I was doing. So the better course of action was to fire-ready-aim-fire.

So start the diet today, start exercising today, start writing today. Starting -- and starting again fresh tomorrow -- is always in your control.



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On using timers and timeboxing

Mark Forster recommended the use of timers in his book Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play. It sort of starts with the idea of timeboxing, a demarcated bit of time within which you choose to work on a specific task. A teacher may set aside 45 minutes to grade papers, say, and then take a 15-minute break. The teacher has timeboxed that task for 45 minutes and included a break, since if she simply sat and plowed through all of the papers in a single setting her brain would curdle and the last papers in the pile would have less of her focus and attention than did the first papers.

Italiano: Autore: Francesco Cirillo rilasciata...

Forster recommended various ways to attack high-resistance tasks using a timer and timeboxing. One that I remember was to set a timer for 5 minutes with a one-minute break, then 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, etc. Focusing on the high-resistance task (or even a list of tasks) is easier when you agree with yourself to focus for only five minutes. Oftentimes that can be enough to get the ball rolling, and I find myself wanting to continue past the appointed time. It's important, though, to STOP what you're doing when the timer goes off. Your agreement with your mind is that you'll only work when the timer is active and then you'll take a break; your mind needs to know it can trust you. It's how you can get it on your side.

Forster had several other patterns in his book (one of them was a 5-10-15-20-25-30-25-20-15-10-5 sequence), all with the intention to help you get through the initial chaos of a high-resistance project or task and to ease you into doing the work you need to get done. Also, in these seemingly small margins of time, you will actually accumulate several hours worth of work. Oftentimes, just getting started is the hardest thing, and little tricks like this can be tremendously useful for just that purpose.

In recent years, the Pomodoro Technique has held sway and it's the one I tend to use the most often at home and at the office. It's kind of boggling to imagine that the simple idea of a 25-minute timebox has spawned web sites, apps, blog posts, ebooks, etc. In the old days, that probably would have been 2 pages in a chapter of any decent time management book.

An interesting twist on the timebox is the decremental timebox system (hat tip to a poster at Mark Forster's FV forum for the link). I've not used it much yet, but it's a rather fascinating idea.

I use two timers. At the office, I use the Time Timer, which is nicely visual and utters a little beep at the end of a session. (If I'm away from my desk when the timer goes off, I prefer the timer not drone on loudly for several seconds, thereby annoying my cubemates.) At home, I use the Datexx Miracle Time Cube (which is a winner simply for the name alone). It only offers 5-15-30-60 minute intervals, but it's dead easy to use and fun, which otherwise, why bother?

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Christine Kane, Upleveling, and an updated seminar

In July 2010, I’d made the big decision to leave the PhD program. I was back working part-time at my old job, turning over the strange things I’d experienced. And feeling a bit adrift. The PhD promised a roadmap of sorts, after all, and I’d just balled up that map and thrown it out the window. As i wondered what my next step would be, Christine Kane offered her Uplevel Your Life seminar (affiliate link). I can’t remember how I ran across her web site, but I had added her to my short list of RSS feeds and then signed up for her newsletter. I liked her story – she’d made herself into a singer/songwriter, then entrepreneur, then coach – and her blog posts struck me as sensible and sane bits of self-management advice.

I signed up for the course, enjoyed it, and still use some of her materials today. Christine is now launching an updated version of that seminar and as one of her alums, I'm happy to write about what I got out of her program and offer links to her new program.

Here are some of the things I remember about Christine’s course:

  • I liked receiving an email every day for the 49 days of the course. I always looked forward to what would come next. The daily anticipation definitely added to the positive excitement surrounding the workshop.
  • I liked the self-examination aspects. I’d lost touch with some basics about myself and while I can’t say I’m absolutely clear yet, this was the perfect time to ask those deeper questions.
  • She provides a bewildering number of exercises, questionnaires, and tools – including the Essential Leak Repair List and the Gratitudes, Gifts, and Gains practice – that if you make them a part of your daily/weekly/monthly habits, will certainly change how you think about your patterns and make you more mindful of what you’re creating or inviting in to your life.
  • Christine is great about giving you permission to do the workshop imperfectly. Many people called in worried that they were behind, how do they catch up, etc. And Christine was great about (repeatedly) telling us to breathe and relax. (The workshop’s emails were sent again after the 49 days were up, so you could re-experience and review what may have gone by too quickly the first time.)
  • Christine is always forward looking about the technology and she and her staff were quite well-organized. She provided the daily messages as emails, PDFs, and MP3 recordings for loading on an iPod. Her weekly calls were also recorded and downloadable. She had set up a Ning group for the participants (I expect it's Facebook now). She was also among the first gurus who started using video essays and instructionals extensively and they’re now an essential part of her marketing.
  • A bonus: the stuff I paid for I can still get access to, unlike some other programs where your access ends after the program is over.
  • The program had its analog aspects too. A couple of binders where you could print out and store emails, forms, and journal. There really is something different about writing your thoughts out by hand. I created my own index to the materials so I could find specific topics or exercises more quickly.
  • The workshop is a 7-stage “program” with each step forming the focus of a week’s readings. She says this is the process she used to heal herself from bulimia, and that it provides a foundation for the work she does today.
  • Christine packs a lot of wisdom in her readings for the course. I recognized some of her anecdotes and messages from other of her blog posts, but there was plenty of fresh material. Like many another guru, she has her own vocabulary for some concepts I recognized from other gurus’ material. But her spin was feminine, gentle, humorous, yet still challenging.
  • And memorable. I’m sure my mastermind partners are tired of my piping up, “Well, Christine Kane says this about that…”
  • I think I was one of the few males in her audience. As you can tell from her web site, women make up her target audience.
  • Because it’s a big group seminar, and there was only one group phone call a week, no one gets one-on-one time with Christine Kane. She’s running a business now, so if you want F2F time with her, you buy into one of her bigger programs where you pay for the chance to maybe interact with her in a smaller group or, for more money, more exclusive access. I wasn’t too bothered by this – a gal must eat and her business’s dollar targets must be reached. I got excellent value from the readings and the weekly calls (even talked to her on-air a few times), and it was worth what I paid.
  • She responded to emailed questions in separate recordings and took the time she needed to give very thoughtful answers. There were some weeks where she’d record an extra 2 or more hours of Q&A and that’s where many of my questions were addressed. I still enjoy relistening to those recordings on my iPod; she’s an empathetic listener and sympathetic advice-giver. I love studying how she responds to a question, breaks down its components, and responds with spot-on advice.
  • Yeah, she may be a bit woo-woo now and then (what’s your enneagram?), but she’s also pretty hard-headed. As she likes to point out, she’s now running a million-dollar business. So take what works for you and keep an open mind about the rest.

I enjoyed Christine’s program and I do recommend it for anyone who has questions about themselves and their lives and doesn’t know what to do first, wants to sort things out in a self-study format, at their own speed, and wants a sensible plan with an excellent guide. You’ll definitely finish the program with certain ideas and phrases floating in your mind that I guarantee you’ll access when you least expect them and most need them. Again, examine the Uplevel Your Life seminar material for yourself, if you’re interested.

I have continued to follow Christine’s rise and rise, and here a few things I’ve noticed. I don’t think these observations should stop anyone from signing up for her workshop. This is me reading between the lines:

  • The Uplevel Your Life program is the gateway drug for CK’s Uplevel Your Business program, where she teaches entrepreneurs systems and techniques for growing their businesses.
  • It’s pretty clear that Christine’s creativity is now finding its fruition in growing her business (as I said earlier, she frequently touts that she runs a million-dollar enterprise) and working with her students rather than expressing herself through music and art. (I haven’t heard of her producing any new songs or performing, anyway.)
  • Her miles-long marketing copy on the final landing pages for her programs look like all the other miles-long marketing landing pages I’ve seen for other programs: a blend of anecdote, marketing, testimonials, bonus offers (a $x value for only $y!), and calls to action. Christine is big on being authentic in your marketing, and I’m sure she is using authentic language to clothe her points, while using time-tested marketing and direct sale/copywriting techniques. Still – I instinctively resist being sold to and I have to kind of hold my nose as I read those pages. While her vocation is teaching and coaching, her business is getting new customers. And to stay on top of that million-dollar summit requires more assertive techniques. Hence, the landing pages, the free telecalls, etc.
  • She holds similar free phone calls for her business programs, and the information she gives away on those free calls is always top-notch and sensible. But starting a business has not been a priority for me, so I listened to the first one and then passed. If you don’t already have a business, then I don’t know how much value you’d find climbing CK’s ladder of commitments. I certainly felt left out of the excitement, but then, that seminar isn’t for middle-aged men who don’t have entrepreneurial ideas.
  • That said, if I had a business (and full disclosure: CK told me in one of the UYL calls that I should think about it), I don’t know how comfortable I’d feel at her business workshops, which include several in-person conference meetings. As I said, her focus is on women-owned businesses – I don’t know how many men attend or even if that’s an important aspect to consider. Or why that should hold me back, if I really wanted to go.
  • Although I don’t know who else is teaching the stuff that Christine is teaching, I know that she had to learn it from somewhere. She talks a lot about the coaching she has paid for over the course of her career, and I’m sure much of what she learned is probably well-known the higher up you go in those circles. Just as the information she shares in UYL is pretty well-known and traded if you read a lot of other gurus’ material and self-help content.

I think only a few rare people can improve themselves all on their own. I, for one, am someone who benefits from the coaching model: someone who will give me assignments, hold me accountable, and kick my ass when it needs kicking. Even in this self-directed, self-paced format, I think Christine Kane proves herself to be an excellent coach, and I find myself coming back to her materials often.

Click the banner below for more information on Christine's program. Full disclosure: these are affiliate links so if you sign up for Christine's program via the links on this page, then Christine's business sends a few bucks my way as a thank-you.

Uplevel Your Life 2013 banner


Don't overthink it (Installment #247)

I volunteered to do a tedious job at work -- copy/paste about maybe 200-400 parameters scattered throughout a group of FORTRAN files. The parameters may be in one of maybe 3 different formats. Also, the parameters came with multiline comments (with each commented line starting with !), and sometimes just big wodges of comments on their own that serve as documentation. The goal was to transform these snippets into something our customer could scan using Excel.

I volunteered to do it because it made no sense for a highly paid developer to do such a menial job; also, I kind of like taking on little challenges like this, developing a new technique or learn some new tools, and seeing how quickly I can rip through them. Then it's just a matter of putting on the headphones, pressing a few keys repetitively so the computer does most of the work, and voila.

I realized that my initial solution for this would be overly complicated, as it always is, and that the exploration process as I groped my way toward simpledom would be haphazard, as it always is. I thought "How can I use Applescript to parse the text? Should I just copy the fragments into Word and use Word's formatting functions? Should I use a text editor with some text formatting Services?" (DevonThink makes a killer set of text-formatting services available to Mac users for free; DevonThink not required to use them.)

I spent about 5 hours over the weekend scarfing up text-formatting Applescript code, messing with text editors, messing with Automator, messing with some copied fragments that I was using as my test case, messing with Applescript in Word (which adds its own complications), and seeing possible workflows getting more complicated.

Sometime around Monday evening my brain settled down and I decided on my workflow:

  1. Copy each parameter and comment into a Word file.
  2. Fix the formatting of each snippet to remove the extra lines, excess ! marks, and insert tab marks judiciously to make importing into Excel easier.
  3. Transform the tab-delimited text into a table using Word's Table>Convert>Text to Table command.
  4. Copy and paste the tables into Excel and format accordingly.

The intent of this workflow brings in what I've mentioned before, about batching similar actions together. With this workflow, I could check each line off as done and move fully to the next set of operations. I could do each set of operations more quickly and efficiently than transitioning from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 within each file.

#2 gave me the headache, of course, and is where I spent the bulk of my think time. I had on blinders as I was sure I could use some sort of Applescript in Word that would reformat everything in one go, without needing multiple passes. And because I thought it could be done, I thought I had to do it that way.

However, I had set myself a time limit for the R&D, and I had passed it. Time to drop that all-in-one solution. As I looked at the line fragments, I noticed that the bulk of the work would be done in the first line of each multi-line fragment. OK, let's start there.

That shift brought me back to the Agile programming maxim of, "Do the simplest thing that could possibly work." This is when I turned back to Keyboard Maestro; it's not as powerful as QuicKeys (or my beloved Macro Express in the Windows world), but it's quick, dependable, and does the job. In this case, I was using it as a robot typing the keyboard, but that keeps it simple.

That's when I cobbled together my workflow for #2:

  • With the text in Word, select the lines that will be reformatted.
  • Run Joe Kissel's great Clean Up Text script (scroll down the page to read about how to coy and paste his code into the Applescript editor). This script removes all spaces and tabs and removes multiple line breaks, making each fragment a unified paragraph. Kissell's article also tells you how to assign a keystroke to a script.
  • For a multi-line parameter with comments, the bulk of the delete symbols/insert tab action happens in the first line of the reformatted paragraph. So, position the cursor on the first line, and run the Keyboard Maestro macro (assigned to the F19 key) that manually moves the cursor, deletes a character, inserts a tab, etc. and then stops. Because the macro is working within Word, I added keystrokes to take advantage of Word's keyboard-based cursor movements.
  • For the remainder of the ! comment marks now studding the reformatted paragraph, select the entire document and use a simple Word find-and-replace to replace all the ! with " ".

Hm. Well, that still looks pretty complicated, doesn't it? But it's faster than me burning hours to get my head deep into Applescript territory, with delimiters, variables, if-thens, and so on.

The other advantage of this workflow is that this should cover about 80% of the code I'll have to reformat. I now have a base set of actions that I can clone and customize to handle the exceptions.

Anyway, the lesson as always: don't overthink it. Keep it simple.

Writing in the library

I had an excellent ~6 hours of solid writing/wrestling with my master's paper one day last week. At this stage, I'm still drafting raw text and am not in the polish stage where I'm honing the thoughts in the sentences and paragraphs, and ensuring my themes and the story I'm telling are all working together, which is what I would call "the writing phase". Right now, I'm at the "vomit text" stage, if I may be forgiven for such a phrase.

Here's how I structured my time and my environment to encourage me to work:

  • I staked out a table in Davis Library, 7th floor. There are plenty of big tables that are hardly used, wall plugs are nearby for the MikeBook, and -- most importantly -- the books on the shelves are from the Asian collection, printed in Chinese and Japanese -- so I'm not tempted to browse them during my breaks!
  • I have MacBreakz set to annoy me every 50 minutes with some simple ergonomic exercises. In the preferences, I removed the ability to banish the window, so that I have to force myself to stand, stretch, walk, go to the bathroom -- anything but sit and stare at the screen. The breaks last 10 minutes.
  • During that break, I put some Genteal drops in my eyes to keep them my moist. My cataract doctor said that, when you work on a computer, you tend to not blink, which dries out your eyes, causing strain. The regular breaks to look out the window and away from the screen (MacBreakz includes eye exercises) and the wetting drops help keep my eyes healthy.
  • Most important -- Fred Stutzman's Freedom app, to keep me from surfing the web when I should be working. I usually set it for 125 minutes, to really enforce that I should be working.
  • For the paper, I had some clear goals defined: insert the new stats graphs, write text describing the graphs, create new stats tables as needed from my original data. Instead of floundering, I had specific tasks in mind.
  • Also important: work in batch mode. When adding graphics into my Word file, insert one, got to the next page, insert one, etc. When applying the Figure style, walk through the file and apply it to each graphic. I like a lined border around each graphic, so do that action for each graphic before moving on to the next task; this enables me to run the command once and then select the next graphic, press Command+Y to repeat the previous command, and move on to the next. Trying to do all of those actions at one time for each graphic -- insert graphic, format, write text, insert caption, etc. -- would have meant too much fiddling and interruption for each operation. By breaking the separate tasks into separate streams, as it were, I was able to move more quickly. It also meant that when it was time to write, the figures were exquisitely formatted so that didn't distract me.
  • When writing, know when you're creating text and when you're editing text. That workday was dedicated to creating text and not to wordsmithing. I didn't try to push my argument too heavily, I tried not to get too nervous when I could see some ideas not quite aligning as I'd hoped or that I hadn't written as much as I'd hoped. The goal was to just get the words down in a rough draft, which is the hardest part of writing (at the start anyway!). I knew that the several passes through the text I still had to make would bring tweaks and additions and polish, so there was no need to get too stressed about expression and articulacy just yet.
  • Others might not be able to do this, but I had a good breakfast and skipped lunch. Once I plopped myself down, unpacked my stuff, set up the computer, etc. I really didn't want to interrupt the flow to pack up, eat, walk back, unpack, set up, and then hope I'd get back into the flow. I fueled up at the top of the day and it powered me well into the afternoon. Once I got in the flow of working on the paper, time did indeed both stand still and whiz by.

I'm now at the point where i'm trying to generate text for the last part of the paper, the discussion and conclusion, and find myself somewhat lacking for words. I've started with random ideas and sentences i put under those headings as I worked on other sections of the paper and so this has provided me a starting point. But the section still feels anemic.

I think the solution here is, again, to trust the process. As my favorite book on writing says, use the words you have to attract the words you want. So, let the the sections feel thin for now and as I continue sweeping through and reading and re-reading, let any other words or ideas bubble up when they're ready.

I should say, this is also the time when it's helpful to have another pair of eyes look at the text, so I'm trying to get a draft finished for my advisor to review so she can tell me where I've gone too far or not far enough.

Little steps

In trying to implement some new behaviors, I'm finally listening to advice and looking at how to piggyback the new behaviors on existing behaviors. The best way to introduce a new habit being to start small and link the new behavior to an existing behavior. These are basically implementation intentions [1], as introduced to me by the Psychology Today blogger on procrastination, Dr. Timothy Pychyl [2] (who also has an extensive site devoted to his procrastination research, an affordable e-book on the topic, and scads of podcasts subscribable through iTunes).

An implementation intention basically says. "I will do behavior x when y happens so that I can achieve z." The objective is to have your environment deliver the cue for the behavior you want to encourage. In addition to supporting your goals, implementation intentions can support something called prospective memory, which I'll blog about someday (after putting it off for nearly a year!).

If a task I need or want to do is a one-off, or requires extra will-power to motivate myself to do it, then that's a task I'm not likely to do. Therefore, I need to plan how to make more routine the things that I that I think will be beneficial to me. So here are some behaviors I'm trying to implement now:

  • Liz always goes to bed an hour or so before I do. After I kiss her good night, I always walk past the bathroom on my way to my office. So, an obvious intention would be, "When I walk past the bathroom, floss and brush my teeth so I can have better gum health and keep the dentist far away from me." I'm very bad about flossing regularly.
  • I have my banjo lesson on Friday mornings. When I come back home, I always leave the banjo in its case until the next time I decide to practice, which may not be till Monday or Tuesday. And I leave the case sitting off to the side even though Liz gave me a banjo stand for my birthday. So, to encourage me getting my banjo out and ready to play, my new intention is: "When I get home from my lesson on Friday morning, I will remove the banjo from its case and put it on the stand so I can quickly pick up the instrument when I want to practice." Even though removing the banjo from its case involves tiny effort, it's just enough resistance to keep me from practicing. By making this new behavior a policy or rule, I remove the need to use emotions or will power to get the task done.
  • On a related note (heh): I often practice my banjo immediately after I get home from work or school and before I pull my MacBook out of my backpack. I do this because once I have the MacBook out and plugged in, I get lost checking email, blogs, etc. With my desk clear of the computer, I have more room to set up my music, I can sit in my chair, swivel around to the banjo stand, pick up the banjer, and start plunking away. Little steps, and probably silly to someone who's more disciplined, but the more I can clear my path of little stones like this, the easier the journey.
  • A long-standing rule of mine has been to fill up the car when the gas gauge indicates there's a quarter of a tank left. Lately, though, I've come close to running on fumes so I needed to change this. There's nothing worse than being in a hurry to get to the next town and then discovering you have to divert to get some gas. My new rule now is to fill up every Friday on my way home from grocery shopping, no matter how much gas is in the tank. This lets me start off the next week with a full tank.

Now, will these intentions work every time? Maybe not. But by thinking about how to work around my natural resistance, I increase the chance that I'll do them more often. And more often is better than not at all.

Links [1] [2]

More on panic and discomfort

Mark Z at ZhurnalyWiki paid me the great honor of referring to my panic post. He ended with this thought:

And of course there's my favorite strategy: try to identify what causes panic and avoid situations where it might arise.

Sensible (and I think a little tongue-in-cheek) advice, though I believe there is more to this issue and I fear I lack the articulateness and critical thought to tease out all the threads. Still, let's try.

I take banjo lessons and my teacher one day asked me why I was taking a particular song at such a slow speed. "It's the speed I'm most comfortable practicing at," I said.

His reply was a zen slap: "Your comfort is not our concern." He explained that if I continued practicing only at speeds that "felt good" then my improvement would proceed so slowly as to be invisible. Instead, it was better to crank up the metronome to faster-than-comfortable speeds, stress myself a little, and build up the muscles, resistance, experience, whatever, so that I could see improvement happen faster. Even if I go too fast and have to step back to a slower speed, I'd still be practicing at a more intense level than had I plodded along at "safe" speeds.

This is advice applicable to any activity where one may want to see progressive improvement: weight training, long-distance running (waves to Mark Z), scholastic work, leadership skills -- deliberately putting yourself in an uncomfortable place in measured doses so that one gains the skills to operate competently with a higher or more capacity. (One key, I think, is defining the "measured doses" -- you don't go from couch potato to marathoner in a day.)

But I should note that, on days when it's obvious that I'm feeling off or am easily irritated by my performance, my teacher backs off on that advice and will instead say, "Take it easy. Some days, you only need to go at speeds where you're comfortable. Don't beat yourself up." So the wisdom, I guess, is knowing the difference between challenging oneself and abusing oneself.

With banjo, I intentionally crank up the metronome past my comfort zone and stress myself to play faster so that I can encourage my mind to confront and solve the problems I'm facing with fingering and rhythms. I know why I am putting myself through this discomfort -- so I can play better. And when I practice a week later, the section that had previously given me so much trouble is now comfortably folded into my normal practice, causes less stress, and is now a building block to help me conquer more complicated material.

What's needed here is my own willingness to confront a shortcoming. With any sort of training of this nature, a teacher or mentor is helpful. They can provide methods or rituals or processes we can employ that, over time, help us break the challenging problem down into pieces that can be easily solved, thereby reducing the discomfort and anxiety to mere questions of technique and experience. For example, only tackle four bars of a new song at a time till you feel they're not unnatural under your fingers, then tackle the next four bars, then play all eight bars at a slow speed and then faster. Jog at an easy pace before you start sprinting. And so on. After a while, what seemed difficult or impossible is routine. One of the things my first coach noticed was that, once we get past a block or remove an unhelpful attitude or behavior, we find it hard to remember what our problem was to begin with or why we thought we had a problem at all. The new neural pathways that we've laid down bypass -- and maybe help us forget -- the pain we'd previously put ourselves through.

Now we edge from discomfort to panic. Deliberately putting oneself outside of one's comfort zone is one thing, but life often thrusts us without warning into situations over which we have no control. In my still-young life, for example, I've been dumped, laid off, endured and recovered from detached retinas (both eyes), and forced to confront my moral/emotional/intellectual/human shortcomings in many other ways. I read a quote (from Alanis Morrisette, of all people) that said we're all going to go through shit at one time or another, and we're all going to get through it, so it doesn't pay to worry about it. That's useful to keep in mind, I guess, but hard to pull from memory when you're in the throes of panic (particularly when you're in an emergency room). It's during the panic times -- particularly times of illness -- that I call on my meditation and yoga experiences to put my mind in a more helpful place that will help me endure what I'm going through, help channel my emotions so they don't fuel panic, help improve my resiliency. Many of these situations we cannot avoid, we can only face them as well as we can. If you have someone's hand to hold, even better.

But then, there is that class of panic that is irrational -- fear of bridges, fear of elevators, fear of your thesis advisor (!). It's not realistic to avoid bridges or elevators or your advisor all of the time. And it's at that point that you dip into the various books and stuff I pointed to in the panic post, or enlist a therapist or counselor who can help you confront that fear or help make it go away.

Looking back on my spring, my panic was alleviated by my being surrounded by very understanding people who were able to relive me of some responsibilities that were simply more than I could handle, provide needed advice and -- importantly -- perspective on the situation, and generally just let me jabber as I tried to make sense of this experience. (Actually, I think making sense of something comes with time and distance from the event; when I'm in the weeds, I just want to get through it and make the pain stop).

I could have stayed in the PhD program, well outside of my comfort zone, where I was experiencing myriad panics at all sorts of levels -- scholastically, logistically, with personal relationships -- told myself that I'm not supposed to be comfortable, reconciled myself to living with the frustration, and just gotten on with it. Several people I know did that. But there are problems with that mindset: I didn't know how to measure progress in any of these areas so I had no objective markers to show whether I was progressing or regressing. I didn't have any methods -- apart from brute application of time and energy -- to help me get through the different types of work I was called on to do. I felt stuck in the same place and didn't see my situation -- or myself in that situation -- improving.

But my biggest problem here was that I was never clear on why I was doing the PhD. And because I didn't know why I wanted the PhD, I couldn't understand why I had to suffer what I was suffering. If I had had a clear picture of the destination, I could have found a way to suffer through the journey.

Anyway -- some more jabbering on a topic that, were I to talk about it with everyone I know, would make even me bored. Best to talk about it here where I can get it out of my system and spare the ears of my dear friends.