Act As If

 

One of the few maxims that has profoundly changed my life is to “act as if.” What this means is to act as if you are already capable of, or the type of person who, does certain things. For example, a professional writer gets up and writes at the same time every day. I get up and write at the same time every day.

Before exploring this in more detail and explaining why it works I’d like to give another example. When I wanted to get of my crippling fear of failure in my mid twenties I felt helpless. Everything I began would get discarded before I had to risk public exposure. I remember one particularly terrifying experience — entering into a business plan competition. My group had what we believed was a great project. This meant we would have to get up in front of a large audience (twice if we did well) and give a presentation. Then answer questions.

Public speaking was not my thing. Upon entering graduate school I’d given two or three speeches and felt terrified each time. During the first semester I had a class where everyone would practice giving speeches or interviews. To make things more challenging the teacher filmed us. Then we watched the film while the whole critiqued it! The class was uncomfortable for everyone. I was no exception.

To prepare for the business plan competition I decided to throw myself into any activity that would allow me to practice. I volunteered to be the presenter for any group projects in my other classes. I signed up for the venture capital competition to practice speaking in front of strangers every week. I practiced in front of the mirror. I practiced in front of roommates.

Why did I do this?

I decided I needed to act as if public speaking was my favorite thing to do. It was that simple. Public speaking had to become my ice cream!

How did I accomplish this shift? I said out loud, “Public speaking is my favorite activity in the world!” Afterwards, I signed up for anything, I mean anything that someone who loved public speaking would sign up for. I pretended that public speaking was my jam. I noticed that I began to enjoy it a lot more. It happened fast!

This was a huge lesson for me. My team ended up having to present twice and taking 3rd place in the competition. And yes, it was still terrifying. I was nervous and uncomfortable. I didn’t choke though. I didn’t fall apart.

How can you begin adopting an act as if mindset for yourself? Let’s go over why this works. It isn’t complicated when you dig in. Essentially, your brain is wired to mirror behavior. Watch any child around their parents and you’ll get a quick sense of this. When you start to act as if you’re a certain type of person you immediately begin rewiring your brain to be that type of person. It happens fast because we are built to adapt to new situations. It’s amazing.

Here’s how you begin:

1. Tell yourself that you are the type of person you want to be — say it out loud!

2. Write down what that person does.

3. Do it.

It’s that simple! Give it a try for yourself and let me know how it goes. I’ve used this process to change my behaviors dramatically over the last 8 years. I’ve faced some deep-seeded fears, and helped friends to do the same with this technique. It can work for anyone who commits.

 

Open Your Eyes After Large Changes

Throughout our lives we have to make major changes. It can be a time as simple as a move to a new city, or as complex as the loss of a close family member. During these times something incredible happens. Whether we want it to or not, we dramatically simplify our lives.
 
I recently moved to a rural part of New Jersey for a little while. I’m not sure how long I’ll be here, but at least a couple of months. Sounds boring, doesn’t it? Instead, I’ve hardly had a free minute. When we end up in a new situation the tendency is to focus on the core important things in our lives.
 
For me this has been food, a gym, Starbucks with internet, and the program I am attending here. Nothing else has mattered. At home, I would’ve been planning with friends, or checking out a store, or walking by the river, or..
 
We add increasing complexity to our lives over time. Larger changes force us back to a basic routine. We have no choice in the matter! Over time, we re-complicate our lives again with people, events, and to dos. This can be an intentional or unintentional choice.
 
My challenge to myself (and you, dear reader), is to only add back layers that truly add lasting value. I haven’t been able to buy anything on Amazon for a few weeks, and I haven’t suffered in the least. I haven’t been able to cook in awhile, and that’s been okay. I have seen lots of family, read a lot, and exercised once or twice a day. I’ve made new priorities based on the most essential parts of my day.
 
My goal is to look back in a month and again in three months, and see my life and time filled with meaningful activities. It’s startling how easy it is to become “busy”. Unfortunately, “busy” doesn’t mean happy. The more things I’ve acquired, the more people I’ve met, the more commitments I’ve made to objects and humans, the less happy I become over time. I wake up stressed. I go to bed stressed. Most people I know operate on this level. Sure, it comes in waves with work or family commitments.
 
Room in our lives is a good thing for two main reasons:
1. It forces us to focus on the 2 or 3 things that are most important within a day
2. It cuts out excuses for not doing these 2 or 3 things
 
These are significant for a couple of reasons. The largest is that we often have 5 or 6 different options for any give period of time. Just getting off work – should you exercise, grocery shop, grab a drink with a friend, go see the football game with coworkers..? How do you know what to do? When do you fit in reading a book or working on that side project?
 
Our constant prioritization of our lives throughout each day is both challenging and draining. Humans aren’t neurologically programmed to make this many internal decisions every single day. We are horrible at it.
 
This is where stress, sleep deprivation, eating for comfort, and even libido issues tend to come from. It’s all connected. I’m not saying to quit your job and move to a cabin in the woods. Instead, take stock of all your priorities like you would after a major life change.
 
Choose how you spend your time. Be the driver of your life, rather than having the choices you made in the past drive your days.

Pushing Through

There’s an interesting conundrum that humans face: whether to persevere through a situation or quit. On the surface, we are told to always persevere. To stick with things. To finish, no matter how hard. This creates good habits. This leads to lasting happiness and great rewards.
I agree with this mentality, kind of. As with most things in life you can add an “it depends” clause. I’ve watched friends push through at a job month after month waiting for the payout, only to have it never happen. I’ve watched loved ones throw energy into a relationship, only to have it fade with time. My most glaring example came from the first time I trained for a marathon.
 
I was living in Chicago ten years ago. I followed all the prescribed methods for success in running your first race. I stuck to a schedule. I went to a speciality running store for fitted shoes. I had friends to cheer me on. I quit drinking, ate right, and slept a lot. By the time the race day arrived I was horribly injured. When my ankle and then my knee started hurting people told me to run through the pain. Some said train less, others run more.
 
I did serious damage to my leg by pushing through. It turned out two things were wrong with my training and both provide lessons to learn from.
 
When I went to the speciality running store they misdiagnosed that I pronated. I was prescribed shoes that would fix this issue. Unfortunately, I don’t pronate. These shoes created a lot of extra pressure on my ankles which led to pain over time. And as long as I continued to run in them they would continue to put that pressure on. When you’re going to be spending hours and days in an activity its always worth getting a second opinion!
 
The second lesson came to me years after the race. After hurting myself snowboarding I went to rehab. At the end of my rehab I told the trainer I wanted to run again. I had tried to run a few more times with minimal success – my longest race had been a painful half marathon. She recommended a running specialist who worked near Boulder, CO. I met the specialist and she proceeded to video tape me running on her iPad. Three minutes later, I took off my shoes and sat down with her in her office. “Well,” she said, “close your eyes and just listen.”
 
I closed my eyes and listened. The sound I made with every step was like a thunderclap. She could tell I was landing too heavy. She explained this would always lead to injury over time regardless of shoes or training regimen. We worked together for a couple of months and since then I’ve been able to run injury free for the last 4 years.
 
The takeaway here is that some times you need to adjust your approach. Maybe your goal is a reasonable one, but your methods for achieving it need work. Finding an expert or a trusted advisor to give you honest feedback is better than pounding out miles. There’s no perfect process for anyone, and hard work is important. Rather than brute forcing through difficult times, I encourage you to re-examine your tools and process.

The Instant Procrastination Struck

LighthouseI was reading a post from Mark Manson today that I’ve read a few times in the past and enjoyed. Something stuck out that I hadn’t noticed before. Ponder this. The root cause of procrastination is that doing the task will change our image of ourselves either positively or negatively. As a consequence it is easier to do nothing.

What stayed with me today is an underlying idea. Mark’s suggestion is to think about your “self” less. Not to say how amazing or how awful you are, but instead to be more in the middle ground. Be a creator, or a friend, or a sibling. Not the most awesome, special, amazing, life-changing, earth-shateringly, wonderful person. But just a person.

While I like this idea, I think there’s a better solution.

This morning, while reading his article, I was procrastinating. I found an iPad game I’ve been enjoying, and rather than playing one or two games I was a couple of hours in. It’s Monday morning. I had an amazing weekend and went to sleep amped up about this week. But now it’s actually Monday. And I’m procrastinating.

So I read Mark’s article. And I played games. And then something changed.

I stood up to grab a snack and it hit me like a piano in a Looney Toons cartoon. I could CHOOSE my level of awareness about my procrastination. I didn’t need any kind of self-talk. I wasn’t scared that writing or continuing to learn iOS development would shake my world. Gaming was just easy. Moving into my day was hard. But, it was only hard because it was unconscious.

Ok. Back to the initial point that doing something could change your identity. Why am I writing this right now? It’s not because I sat down and started writing. It’s not because I said just do one line of code. These are common methods I’ve seen in the self-help world. Instead, I paused for 1 second. In this single second I let myself become aware. That’s it. I stopped thinking about all the things I needed to do, or who I was or who I wanted to be. I let it all go for an instant.

And what happened? It’s hard to describe, but I knew after that instant that it was time to get going on stuff. The stuff didn’t matter. I began to watch an iOS tutorial I’ve been working through, then realized I should begin my daily ritual of journaling and blogging. I started my pomodoro timer and began to write.

Here’s the amazing part. I currently feelzero resistance. No part of me wants to go back to gaming or reading. I’ve been getting texts, because I forgot to put my phone on do not disturb. Yet, I have zero urge to touch it, because that means that my hands would leave this keyboard and that’s exactly the place they want to be right now.

Why does this work? Why is this so powerful?

I’m not sure, but I have a theory. Let’s call it Nick’s Inertia Theory (thanks Mark). A large part of the reason that sitting down and beginning a task works so well is that it breaks inertia. One push up or one line of writing is something and once something exists it’s easier to do more of this. Part of the fear leaves. I think we all have experienced this, whether in relation to cleaning our bedroom, doing the dishes, exercising, or creating. My theory is in relation to the instant before we begin this single line. Here’s the theory:

“The more you care about the results or the reasons you’re working on a project, the harder it will be to begin. And the easier it will be to continue once you gain any momentum.”

This makes logical sense even though we don’t want it to. We want to believe that our life-changing business idea will be easy to start. But as soon as you believe it to be life-changing, it becomes difficult to begin. The inverse is true. Finishing the last half hour of a movie is pretty easy, but if we have other tasks we care about more they begin to nag at us five or ten minutes in.

Let’s get back to the instant before we feel the inertia. The one second of space you can create to begin moving the heavy object forward on a path.

I have two steps to take the moment you realize there is something important that you want to be doing instead of whatever you are currently doing. The caveat is that I believe you need to have this level of awareness first or you’ll just numbly continue with whatever you are in the midst of.

  1. Take one, single deep breath.
  2. Stand up – physically move your body.

That’s it. If you are watching tv and remember you need to do the dishes, try this method. If you are checking email instead of writing, try this method. Here’s why it works.

By taking a breath you force momentary awareness. Breathing is 99.99% unconscious throughout our day. But forcing a breath short circuits brain activity for a split second. Moving rewires your brain, again for a split second. Even if the task you intend to do allows you to be in the same physical position as you’re currently in, you need to move.

Give this process a try. I am shocked that something so simple worked for me this morning. The best part is, that I stood up to get a snack. I wasn’t intentionally getting off the couch to move, I just happened to stand up right after I paused for a breath.

Let me know how this works for you!

Mark’s Article: [http://markmanson.net/procrastination]

The Other Option Than Failing

For those of you who know me well I’m pretty obsessed with learning new things. There’s rarely a time where I’m not spending at least a few hours a week on some new online course or workbook. I’ve discovered that this process, at least how it was taught to me, has some major flaws. I want to talk about the biggest trap, and how to overcome some of the minor flaws.

The trap I alluded to is the watch/read/learn/do everything mentality. It’s the drive you get to watch every course and take every lesson. Before you can be good, you’ve gotta learn it all. This obviously isn’t true. When you think about it with even a shred of logic it falls apart immediately. Yet so many people I know, myself included, fall victim to this. We believe we will somehow become qualified to create once we’ve taken all of these courses. Or once we have the proper certification. The solution to this trap is the same as the flaws I’ll discuss, and why I wanted to write this article.

The first flaw in learning is the expert myth. We think our work isn’t worth doing until we become an expert. Of course this means we won’t do anything, because if you need to do work in order to become an expert, but can’t do work until you’re an expert… You get the picture. We tend to think more knowledge will make us feel more secure. The reality is that we have to make the leap of faith and try creating at some point. There’s no other way around it – you have to try.

The second flaw is that failing is good. I linked the title of the article to this flaw because I think it’s so pervasive in society right now.

I’ll summarize – you should make a ton of mistakes and fail a lot because then you’ll get good. The underlying idea here is that failure is what makes you good. And lot’s of it makes you great. I disagree with this completely.

My belief is that intentional creation from a place of passion is how you get good. I’ll dig into this more shortly. It’s not about failing or making mistakes though. I think these are the byproducts of intentional creation. I don’t think they should be the goal. To me, you are striving to make something better every single time you try. This is how you learn. This how you get good – regardless of whether it is a new language, or drawing, or dancing. You have to spend time trying, and wanting to get good. This is where the intention comes in. If you WANT to get good, it will happen. On the other hand, if you want to make mistakes, this will happen. You might get good, or you might get good at making mistakes because you believe this is what you should do.

The reason this thinking irks me is that it’s similar to the connection made when looking at people who are successful. We try to find what they all have in common and determine this is the path to embark on. Maybe it is the right path, but maybe 99% of people attempting the same skill took the exact same path and never succeeded. It’s pure selection bias. We think, Michael Jordan shot basketballs for 6 hours every morning, so to be good we must do the same. We don’t know what he thought about while shooting those baskets, where his mind was, or what his goal or attitude were. I think these things are just as important, if not more so. What was he thinking about on his off days? What did he dream about?

I’m clubbing the idea here, but it’s frustrated me for a long time. I put the 10,000 hour rule into this category as well. Why did these people do what they did for that long? Why didn’t they spend more time watching tv, or napping, or hanging with friends? These are the questions I want to know the answers to.

I believe that being intentional and passionate about whatever you undertake is the key. I think we all learn this lesson as children, and then again from children when we are adults. As a child, you make. You don’t judge, you are proud just to have made. You want to show everyone what you’ve made because you made it. Then we become adults and we don’t want to show anyone what we’ve made because we are terrified it isn’t good. It doesn’t matter in either instance. What matters is the act of making with passion.

Take this as a challenge. Try whatever you’ve wanted to begin learning, but with passion and intention. Go speak to people in another language and bumble around, but try really hard. Do it with a huge grin on your face because you love it. Enjoy the entire process. And have the desire to get better, find a way to track it, ask others how you are doing. Finish things and compare them to your previous work. Most of all, remember what it was like to be a child anytime you sit down to learn and create. Your brain still has that capability if you let go of other’s expectations you’ve internalized.

The Right Answer

There isn’t usually a “right” answer. At least not in the black and white terms we tend to think about it. There are two reasons why. One is time, the other is perspective.

As time passes, an answer that may have been the best for us in the short term is not in the long term. Think of food. We ponder over a menu and make a choice. Maybe that choice is the most delicious thing to eat there. Let’s say we act this way every time we eat out. We get the most delicious thing. A year later we are overweight and unhappy.

Time can change things with work too. Bartending can be incredibly fun. It can be an excellent short term job, or a way to make extra income when starting a career. But bartending for twenty or thirty years can lead lots of negatives as well. Many professions are like this.

Perspective, on the other hand, shifts with experience. Staying up late to party with friends can be fun. But, less so when you have a big sales presentation the next day. Or you have a sick kid.

What this all means is that making a quick decision, from the gut, is usually the best option we have. In that moment. If we live a long-term life, one where we focus on how our choices will impact us in the long run, we tend to be happiest. It’s not about resisting urges, its about accepting the choice to be happy. It’s about learning from mistakes and enjoying that process rather than dreading it.

None of us knows the future. We do get the chance to fix things and make similar decisions though. This is a blessing of humanity, and society, and modern life.

Giving and Getting Compliments

We live in a society where compliments have lost their edge. Ponder this for a minute: when was the last time someone gave you a genuine compliment and you thought about it all day?

Ok.

Let’s take the reverse of that. When was the last time someone insulted you, or cut you off while driving, or didn’t hold a door open when your hands were full. Did you think about it all day?

Here’s the catch…we do receive compliments a lot. A friend may compliment your haircut. A coworker may compliment your shoes. We don’t think about and remember this. We focus on the negative. Our brains have become wired to only hear the negative.

Imagine this narrative. You and your girlfriend are out to dinner. Over the course of the meal you say:

“It’s awesome how much you helped me this week.”
“Your dinner last night was delicious, you’re a great cook.”
“It’s awesome how hard you worked out this week, you look great.”
“I wish you’d smile more when we’re out with friends.”
“I’m so proud you got that promotion at work!”
“I can’t wait to spend the weekend cuddling and watching movies – we’re gonna have so much fun.”

Which line do you think get’s remembered the rest of the night? Maybe even the rest of the weekend? I could analyze all the reasons we do this for a whole book. I’m sure other people have. Instead, I’d like to dive into solutions.

The way the brain works is fascinating. We dig pathways, like a mole, by thinking thoughts continuously. Over time, the pathways turn into trenches. We teeeeeeeend to do this with negative thoughts. “She thinks I’m fat, she thinks I’m fat, she thinks I’m fat. Does he think I’m fat? Am I fat? I’m fat. I bet I’m fat. She thinks I’m fat…” As these repeat we entrench our ideas like World War 1 soldiers.

Try doing this with positive thoughts instead. Don’t brush them off and accept them. Entrench them.

When someone pays you a compliment write it down. Immediately. Then email it to yourself. Remind yourself next time you go to the bathroom. Then remind yourself when you go grab some water. Then remind yourself when you get into your car. Then remind yourself when you get home. And when you get into bed.

Does this sound weird? It’s what you already do with negative thoughts. With negative words and actions. So it’s 100% do-able with positive as well. It may take a few days of practice. Give it a try. Be in control of your positive thoughts.

Give compliments to others whenever you have one running in your head. If you have a negative thought entrenched, do you think you’re more likely to compliment or insult others?

Sleeping On The Right Side

Have you ever wondered why you sleep on a certain side of the bed? I’ve read a few different discussions on this. Some having to do with power positions, some with familiarity, some with where your parents kept you as a baby.

What I’ve found most interesting is returning to a bed after awhile. Maybe it’s your high school bed when you’re home visiting parents, or you lived with someone for awhile and are back on your own. What I’ve noticed is that you crave the same position. Even if you slept on the opposite side for years.

I tend to switch sides when I’m on my own, and usually end up towards the middle of the bed. I’ve always wondered if we have some type of sleep muscle memory. Maybe our bodies remember every night of sleep, and the environment, even though our conscious brain doesn’t.

Go For A Walk

When was the last time you went for a walk? And I don’t mean walked somewhere specific, like to a store. Or walked with your cellphone out on a business call. I mean the opposite of these; a real walk.

It’s the middle of summer right now. And we all have a million things going on with work, and family, and friends. Juggling all these projects, or moving, or trying to close that next deal. What better time to take thirty minutes for yourself?

My challenge to you is to walk. Without bringing your phone. Without a specific destination. Just leave your front door and walk somewhere, either around the neighborhood or around work. Explore. **Without**a path in mind ahead of time. Resist that urge to mentally map your route. Please. Just move your feet, let the mind wander, let the day swoop you up. If it’s raining, put on some clothes that can get wet. If it’s sunny, put on a hat.

Just go. And remember to smile at people. Odds are, even in NYC, that they will smile back.

An Addiction to the Morning

Over the years I’ve experimented with a whole variety of morning routines for one simple reason. How you start your day sets the tone for the entire day. Want to have a great day? Kick ass for the first 30 minutes.

If you’ve followed Leo Babuta, Tim Ferriss, or any major trend from lifehacking.com, you’ll know that changing a habit it works best if you do it first thing in the morning.

While I was in business school here’s how my morning looked:
– Wake up
– Pull open my iPhone/laptop and look at Facebook and email
– Browse either random sites or follow things from the previous day

Does this sound familiar?

Afterwards, I’d likely take a shower or go eat a bowl of cereal. At this point I’ve been awake for 90 to 120 minutes. And I’d feel like crap. I’d have to go to class, or meet a team, or work on a project. And I hadn’t taken care of myself.

I had ambitions to blog, meditate, exercise, and read a good book every single day. I wanted to do these things. I could have done some of them in that first 90-120 minutes of the day. But I had my routine. Does this sound familiar?

After finishing graduate school I went on my Rumspringa. I spent 6 months traveling and reading all the non-MBA related materials that helped shape my life. I was intentional about documenting which things worked for me, and which didn’t.

What I found was pretty shocking (to me) and now feels like an obvious answer. Do the 2-3 most important things for the day first. Duh.

Let me reinforce this, if you go make a pot of coffee to “wake up” this becomes a daily habit. And guess what, your brain associates this as one of the most important things because you do it first. That slot is filled. You don’t get 5 or 6 slots. There aren’t 10 most important areas to focus on.

The most interesting and annoying piece of the puzzle for me came when I took a step back from what the life coaches were teaching. It was to NOT make a set pattern. Not in total at least. What do I mean here?

I now give myself 3 things in the morning that are musts every day. I meditate immediately when I wake up. I then exercise after that – whether its a walk or run on vacation, or lifting weights when I’m home. My old self would go shower, or make a protein shake, or go get breakfast out and read. I’ve tested a lot of different patterns here, some intentionally the same for a month or two and some with variability. This is what I’ve found that shocked me… If I leave the third slot open for what is most important to me that day, it gets done.

Let’s take a step back for a second and examine this. I know that meditation and exercise influence my mood and health and color my interactions for the rest of the day. Always. Every single day. So I make them #1 and #2. Before anything else. I don’t look at email or return calls from the night before. This way I never feel guilty about missing exercise or meditation, and I don’t pretend like I’ll do them later in the day. Because stuff always comes up. I find reasons not to do either of these two things I want to do.

By leaving the third slot open, I get to be flexible. Today, my third slot was the re-installation of music production software on my laptop so that I have plugins. That way I won’t have an excuse internally if the mood strikes me later to work on a new track. Yesterday, I spent 45 minutes writing the book I’ve been working on. It can vary every day, and I like this. Tomorrow, I may blog first, or go grocery shopping, or call my parents. Whatever it is, I let it be flexible, but it’s a non-negotiable. And I do it before I shower or eat (depending on how long it will take, I sometimes do a road smoothie if it requires me to be out of the house).

It’s taken me about 4 years to find this balance, and the quality of my life has improved dramatically when I follow this prescription. If you are looking to begin a meditation or exercise practice I recommend the age-old advice of starting small with an accountability partner. Meditate and exercise for five minutes each to begin, but start with one at a time. And be realistic about what your most important life tasks are right now.

If you are trying to get out of debt, spend 5 minutes looking at what you spent the day before and your financial picture. If you are trying to de-clutter your house, go spend 5 minutes in the garage or basement organizing. Do these things before work, family, and school become mental interruptions that drain your willpower supply.