Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

As I’ve aged, I’ve noticed myself returning to ideas and passions and goals that I had for myself much earlier in life. It’s been simply fascinating so far. One of the most subtle, yet powerful realizations has come as I pursue and re-open ideas from the past. There was a time I was obsessed with learning languages, a time with learning music. I notice that when I return to these old habits, while some parts are quite rusty, other’s seem fresh and to have sunk in deeper than I could have imagined. I believe part of this is due to allowing time for things to naturally seep into your brain, but another part is that new connections are formed as you continue to learn new things in other arenas.

We are trained to think that progress means butting your head against a wall and continuously pushing it forward inch by inch. However, I don’t believe this is actually how our brain learns. There’s a combination of short-term and long-term memory attributes, as well as different depths of muscle memory required to truly learn any new skill. The old adage is “Two steps forward, one step back,” and I think it doesn’t work that linearly, yet we pretend growth can be.

Have you ever felt stuck on something for days or weeks and then simply come up with a solution? Have you ever physically attempted something you couldn’t do for months and then one day you can suddenly achieve it? This happens all the time when someone is learning, and what I want to apply this to is our own pursuit of being a better, more aware human being.

So how is this practical. To begin with, let yourself be okay with taking steps back. Smile, and remind yourself that not only is this a normal part of growth, but that it’s a good sign as it means growth is coming.

Next, focus on what you are trying to actually accomplish with what you’re working on. For me, a recent example has been having less snap judgements of my friends or girlfriend. I intentionally try to give myself three seconds of pause to think over or ask why they did something, because it’s likely I don’t fully understand the situation or their intentions. Do I accomplish this all the time? No. But I’m getting better. I’m learning a new skill, and the outcome will be worth the time I’m investing. It can be difficult when I’m already in a bad mood because of something or hungry (hangry). These are the times that I feel even better when I remember to pause. However, there are days and whole weeks that go by where I forget, where I’ve done great for awhile then I fall out of practice with it. The key is reminding yourself of that initial goal, realizing you’ve taken a few steps back, and plunging forward.

Here are a few quick tips for this process:
1) Smile whenever you remember to work on whatever it is you’re trying to learn – whether it’s a personal skill, or exercise, or a new language. This will anchor it as something positive in your mind and you’ll begin to think of it more often.
2) Forgive yourself when you realize you haven’t practiced in a while. Our tendency is self criticism, but this isn’t necessary as you can’t change the past.
3) Tell a friend or a loved one what you’re working on. This creates accountability, and it can be fun to check in weekly or monthly to see how you’re doing.

Running From Demons

After ten miles of constant pounding, left foot, then right foot, heavy breaths, aggressive sun, and swollen ankles I set a goal. I was three miles short of finishing a half-marathon, and I had just been passed by a larger-set woman wearing an intensely pro-life shirt. She wanted us all to know she was running for all the unborn fetuses killed by everyone who did not share her beliefs. I decided I wouldn’t let her finish ahead of me, since I didn’t want to read her shirt anymore. I took off, and by the end of the race, with a pained knee and hip, beat her by a couple minutes across the finish line.

Part of this short anecdote brings that sense of cheer, of finding a target or a demon to run from (or past), and pushing through pain across a finish line. However, part of the story is this negative pattern that humans have where we create external demons and in fleeing from or pursuing them cause ourselves harm. This could be pulling a series of all-nighters to finish a project, or missing your son’s baseball game for that important business meeting to close a big deal.

We play this internal game where we forget our initial goals as time progresses and a new goal might be possible. We pretend this is okay, we justify. My goal was to simply finish the race and not be in pain, I wanted to be able to show my girlfriend around Chicago for the weekend afterwards which would mean a substantial amount of walking. Both of the last two 13 mile plus races I’d run I was injured by the end. The last race I couldn’t walk for over a week as my knee healed.

Ten miles into the race I felt tired, I was a little sore, but my knee was fine. My pace was slow and steady. My goal was to finish, not with a specified time, not ahead of anyone, but simply to cross the line and still be healthy. Ten miles in, I was accomplishing this goal. Then my goal changed. Sure, I finished ten minutes faster than I would’ve otherwise. I had a lot of “juice” left in the tank and would have either way. But the point, and my goal wasn’t to go fast. It was just SO hard to not let myself try to go faster.

Once I had my demon to chase, going faster became automatic. I didn’t even have an internal debate about this, I just went. At the end of the race and for a couple days after my knee was sore, I limped some and had difficulty going up and down stairs. Was it worth it? No.

Why do we change our minds on goals in the moment and hurt ourselves to achieve a new temporary goal? I’d set this goal months ago. I’d suffered a broken ankle a year ago and knew this wasn’t going to be a fast race, it was about finishing and not being hurt.

It’s amazing to watch as the mind plays tricks on you to accomplish an ego-related goal in the moment. When you notice this happen, take a breath. Remind yourself of the real goal. Write it down on your hand, or some paper, or your laptop or your shoe.

Don’t let the tendency to believe someone imaginary can judge you, or something inconsequential is more important now that the situation is actually happening. Remember your initial goal, especially if it was set over time and came from a place of reason. In the middle of a passionate exchange reason is often the furthest from the mind.

3 Reasons Your To-Dos Suck

Do you have a perfect system for tracking your life?

Do you GTD? Do you RPM? Do you time-micro-macro-plan-attack-attempt-morning-evening-monthly-checkin?

I bet you’re doing it wrong.

If you consider your current system perfect, stop reading this article now. If instead you want a few crucial tips then read on.

1) You don’t have a one-stop shop.

You MUST have one central place you keep track of ANY new thing you want to add to your life that needs to get done. Stumble across a blog post to read? Add it. Stumble across a new musician to check out? Add it. Want to check out that new restaurant, or hang out with Emily next week, or call Grandma next month? Add them.

Most people do not have one central place from which they can delegate. This could be a little notebook you keep with you. It could be Clear, or Wunderlist, or Omnifocus, or any other task management system. But you need ONE and only one master place to start. The one I’ve used the most is actually gmail – I simply sent myself an email with the task in the title for years. I still believe this is the best solution for me, but find what works for you. Sticky notes are OK but only if you take them with you EVERYWHERE (even to bed). [edit: I’ve been testing using Wunderlist for shared lists and Trello as my gathering place for books, courses, music, etc.]

2) You try to remember too much.

I often see people forgetting things, or places, or people they intended to check in on. They blame stress, being too busy, having bad habits, or a whole host of other external sources. I will happily point you down research lane if you want to understand more, but basically our brains are HORRIBLE task management, remembrant computers. They are designed for present-moment thinking. Think of Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now, or Tony Robbins Awaken the Giant Within. Our brains get fired up when we are in flow, are in an action state, it’s how we as humans are wired. This is entirely different from the future-imagining-what-do-I-need-for-that-meeting-tomorrow mindsets.

I often ask my girlfriend to remember or remind of things in the moment when I don’t have something to write handy. Maybe I’m driving, or in the shower, or naked for other reasons…Asking a second brain to remember can help, but it’s still a flawed system. Don’t fight against biology. Track everything that you think you may want to do, somewhere, and write notes in the moment so you aren’t trying to remember things like groceries, or uncle Bud’s Birthday.

3) You are trying to do TOO MUCH in the present moment.

I believe we all fall into this trap. I am searching for someone who has this completely figured out, and I would love to buy them a drink. How many browser tabs do you have open right now? How many browser windows filled with tabs? How many emails in your to-respond section? How many books in your to-read list? Or by your bed? How many magazines to read, songs to absorb, new restaurants to try? We all want to do too much right now and it pulls us in a million different directions.

We end up doing less than we’d like, regardless of our intentions. This isn’t necessarily bad. But we make it into something that causes us stress. We don’t know whether to read right now, or eat out, or check out our old favorite band’s new album. And we worry we are making the wrong choice in every moment.

Not only is this unhealthy, but it can cause a whole lot of stress. I challenge you to close most of your browser windows, only keep one open. Try using one or two tabs at a time and closing each one upon reading. If it’s something you don’t want or need to spend the time on right now, close it and don’t bookmark. Let go of many of the items on your to-read, to-listen, to-eat lists. Enjoy the spontenaity and space of letting new things into your life as the come up. I bet you will get a book recommendation this upcoming week that sounds interesting, or you will stumble across a course or article that looks fun. Would you rather add those to the end of a multipage list? Or have the space in your life to let this interesting journey in sooner.

Let me know how this process goes for you, what your challenges are and how you are able to overcome them!

Sleep Testing and What Mornings Mean

There’s a common belief amongst people that they are either morning people or night-owls. The underlying idea here is that you are either someone who loves raising with the dawn or someone who enjoys the silence of the evening. Your ciccadian rhythm supposedly syncs with this time of the day to produce powerful mind/body connection. This is when you write well. This is when exercise feels the best. This is when you can create and deduce and produce…This is bullshit.

I’ve spent much of the last three years testing an idea that has always mystified me: whether I am a morning or an evening person. Up until I was a sophomore in highschool I rarely stayed up later than 8:45. This was my bedtime and I enjoyed falling asleep before my parents. However, I quickly switched from 8:45 to 10:30 to after midnight in the course of a single year. Until around the time I turned 30 I frequently stayed up past 2 AM.

What I’ve realized is that this is a product of lifestyle and desire. Not of biology. The ability to switch, during my travels these past few years, from going to bed at 9PM some nights, to 3AM, based on what I’m working on and desire is not that difficult. I was surprised to find this and began asking other friends if they had similar experiences.

Much of this came about from switching between East and West coasts, and talking to friends who travel for work or pleasure frequently. What I discovered (aside from how powerful jet lag really is) was that most people ended up having different times of high-level productivity based largely on how passionate they were about their current endeavor.

During high school I was competitively playing video games late into the night and this made staying awake relatively easy. In grade school I loved reading in the mornings, and this made waking up before 6 AM to read simple.

Why am I going into all of this detail? I challenge you to test your assumptions on your most productive time of the day. The most critical piece of this is your current beliefs and working on something you are passionate about. If you want to be a writer, and believe writing is best done in the morning, begin setting your alarm MUCH earlier for 30 days. Commit to a full 30 days. Don’t try to wake up 10 or 15 minutes earlier every day. Force yourself to re-cycle as you would from a travel day where you have no choice. Yes, you will be tired for a day or two, or struggle if you are instead trying to stay up much later than normal. But make this happen and commit to seeing how it works for a full 30 days.

In the end, we all have dreams and passions and beliefs about when we should be doing things and how effective they will be. Setting an intentional sleep cycle that you believe will promote your best work is a huge advantage. For me, personally, I love reading in the morning still, but have the belief (probably from late nights during college and grad school) that I am a better writer in the evenings. If I am going to undertake a writing project, I would make the extra time in the evening, and vice versa for learning or reading.

Let me know how this process goes for you, and be kind to yourself during the first four or five days as it can be a shock to your system if you’ve lived on a fairly consistent sleep cycle for a while.

How Daily Awareness Can Un-fuck Your Life

I want to take a break from writing about flow this week for a bit of a discussion. To me, one of the most important and often under-discussed aspects of learning is overall awareness. There is a huge difference to the quality of one’s ability to study, learn, and create during different periods of the day and week.


When people are able to truly pay attention to the quality of their learning something magical happens. It seems as if over a short period of time, sometimes even a matter of five to ten days, an individual can maximize their ability to absorb information in a reduced period of time. I’ve seen this several times for myself and friends – we struggle on a project and then get into a rhythm or a groove. Everyone has different words for these magic moments.


Unfortunately, for most they occur by happenstance. This is where awareness plays a key role. I have a bit of a laundry list of things to test to see which affect you the most.


Before diving into these, I have a brief anecdote. I’m currently sitting on an airplane heading home from Chicago. I stopped at Potbelly to grab one of my favorite sandwiches on my stroll through the airport and ended up eating right after taking my seat on the plane. It’s about thirty minutes later. I can actually feel how slow my brain is processing information. Part of me wants to nap. Part of me wants to take a sip of water and go back to reading Harry Potter. Ever felt this way before?


While I’d committed to writing this post on the plane, my brain and body don’t want to cooperate and thankfully I still have some willpower left today. I wanted to highlight this feeling because I suspect you’ve felt it before. The key here is that I actually take the time to notice it’s the sandwich I ate. I’m not blaming a long day of walking around Chicago or the lights turning off on the plane. I know my body well enough to understand that eating a sandwich, having any sort of complex carbs shuts me down for an hour or two while I digest it.


Do you know your own body in this way? Do you spend enough time reflecting on the effects of your actions on your feelings, your motivations, your mood?


An awesome test is to spend a week seeing how your body reacts to different foods. Eat some cookies, see how you feel an hour later. Repeat with pizza, and ice cream, shift between high starch and high sweet foods for a couple of days to actually notice the real difference it makes on your body. Then try eating just vegetables, or fruits, or meat. After a week of doing some tests like this you will understand how food interacts with your body better than ever before.


The next group of tests I’d recommend involve sleep and exercise. Again, test how exercising at different times in the day makes you feel. Try writing this down. Workout first thing upon waking, mid day at lunch, right after work, or later in the evening. See the differences in your energy level and how it changes your ability to fall asleep.


Lastly, try going to sleep at different times (this will likely take longer than a week to test). For example, I can take 15-30 minute naps in the afternoon and feel great afterwards. I actually love taking a nap after spending a couple of hours learning as it stores what I’ve learned into long-term memory. Shifting your sleep around can be difficult. I’d recommend trying to fall asleep closer to your current time and working up or down. For instance, if you normally sleep at 1 am, try 12, then 11, then 10, then 9 PM. I would test times between 9 PM and 2 AM to see how your body reacts. I’d also add in naps in the late morning, around noon – if you get a lunch break, I used to sneak out to my car to take a snooze on some days – and then in the afternoon if possible with work.


The overall goal is true awareness of how your lifestyle impacts your ability to learn and work throughout the day. Are you exhausted in meetings? Do you have to watch TV at night because your brain shuts off? Does it take three or four cups of coffee before you can even function in the morning?


Here’s a comprehensive things you CAN test, but really just spend time on the three I’ve already listed and then try to have awareness when other things come up situationally in life:


  • Food
      • Time of day you eat
      • Type/Quality – salad vs junk
      • Frequency of meals/snacks
      • Combinations of food
  • Sleep
      • Naps
      • Number of hours per night
      • Time you fall asleep and wake up
  • Exercise
      • Time of day
      • Duration per day
      • Number of times per week
      • Type of exercise – see differences between cardio, weights, sports and combinations
  • Work
      • What times of day your work is most focused
      • Quality of work at different times of day
      • When you feel most distracted
      • Internet on versus off
      • Setting work goals versus free flowing
      • To do lists
  • Friends
      • When you feel more connected to people
          • Group size
          • Restaurants vs other types of interactions
          • Alcohol or not
      • Frequency of keeping up friendships
      • Time of day
      • Weekends vs weekdays
  • Spouse
      • Quality of conversation
      • When to have difficult talks
      • When you both have more fun together
      • Activities and how they impact both of your moods
      • Travel
      • Active listening vs time of day
      • Food – do you get hangry?
      • Who interacts with kids better at different times of day
  • Kids and Pets
  • Family Interactions
  • Meetings
  • Errands
  • Housework

You get the drift here, there are a huge variety of different things you can test. Have fun, but most importantly keep track of things! Write them in a journal or on Evernote. Remember that you can change almost any of these things in different ways. The best part is that as you begin to live with awareness about these activities, you will find a huge shift in the quality of your interactions and life as a whole.


Let me know how this works for you and what you discover! I’m sure there are other things I’ve left out, and ways that we can all grow that haven’t crossed my mind.