Being mindful

I began doing mindfulness meditation on a daily basis late last year. The key idea behind this kind of meditation is to simply notice without judgement the thoughts and feelings arising within your body and your mind.

It sounds easy enough, but in practice I have found it challenging to do it even just for ten minutes, and I’m only just now beginning to understand the positive impact that being mindful can have on my daily life.

Dan Harris, the Nightline tv show anchor who is also behind the production of the meditation teaching app 10% Happier, provides this example of what mindfulness is:

We are all getting carried away with the voices in our head every day. We’re checking our phone in the middle of conversations with our children, we’re eating when we’re not hungry, we’re losing our temper or getting annoyed, etc. These are all examples of mindless behaviour.

The antidote to this behaviour is mindfulness, which is the ability to see what is going on inside our minds without getting carried away by it.

Now, imagine you are in traffic, and someone cuts you off. How does that situation usually go for you inside your head? For most of us, it goes something like this:

I’M PISSED!

In the instant that the thought occurs, you reflexively inhabit it, and the next thing you know you are pissed. The key point being that this all happened on automatic, using a firmly entrenched pattern of thoughts that you conditioned yourself to have a long time ago.

With some exercising of your ‘mindfulness muscle’ through the practice of meditation, you can short-circuit this mindless reaction and the situation could well go differently. Dan provides this colourful more self-enlightened internal dialogue:

My heart is thumping, my ears are burning, I’m having a starburst of righteous thought. Wow, I’m getting pissed!

Now that you’ve noticed what is going on, you don’t have to act on the thought and fly into full-blown road rage with your kids sitting in the back seat. You can respond appropriately (or perhaps even not at all), rather than reacting.

Some of you may think that the end goal here is to meditate oneself into being a completely non-reactive person who never gets upset about anything. Nope, that’s not it.

What I’m saying is that by learning to be mindful, you can make an appropriate choice about how to respond in any given situation. There are going to be occasions where it may well be appropriate to raise your voice to get your point across. Likewise there will be times where you can take a pause, and respond in a calm and measured way.

Being mindful is a learned skill, and it takes practice to build the ‘mental muscle’ to be able to use it well. The more you use it, the more benefits you will gain.

Changing direction

This post will mark almost 20,000 words published since I began writing this blog at the beginning of 2019, or about one fifth of the average paperback novel.

So far google analytics tells me that I’ve amassed quite the audience. My impressive visitor stats are as follows:

MonthVisitors
January 201950
February 201986

Ok, so I’m off to a slow start.

My goal when I started was to acquire the habit for writing on a daily basis, and after doing this for almost 3 months, I feel like I’ve achieved that. The daily routine goes something like this.

  1. 4am: Get up, start on a tall glass of diluted apple cider vinegar
  2. Feed our two burmese cats
  3. Meditate for 10 minutes
  4. Write

My initial inspiration for starting this blog came from the prolific writing habits of Seth Godin, who has been writing on his blog daily for decades. In that time he has published almost 7,500 posts consisting of some 3,000,000 words, and still going strong.

Along my writing journey I’ve encountered the enemy of all creative endeavours, resistance, sometimes taken 2 hours to write just a few paragraphs, and sometimes written a post in less than half an hour.

What I have noticed though, is that in the scramble to produce a new post daily, that I’ve not always been entirely happy with the work. I figured that my ability to formulate my thoughts on to the page would improve, and they have, but it’s been a bit hit and miss, and sometimes I wish I’d taken longer to dive into a topic in a longer form post.

On top of that, I’ve started writing my first book (a fiction novel), so I’ve had to re-allocate some of the time I spent writing on the blog so I can work on the novel too.

So from now on I’ve set myself a new daily goal. That is to keep writing 500 words a day on average (between the novel and the blog), and to publish a new post on the blog once I’m happy with the quality, rather than getting something out the door every day. This might mean posting every second or third day, or even weekly.

I have no idea where this writing gig is going to lead, and it’s not like I don’t already have a lot on my plate. I have three young children aged 10, 8 and 1 with another one on the way, a business in the process of resurrection, I cross-fit twice a week, and aim to read at least 20 pages of a book each day, all the while trying to average at least 7 hours of sleep a night.

What I do know is that even though I still feel like I’m floundering every time I sit down to write, that the niggling urge to keep writing is still there, so I’ll keep going.

You can expect a wide range of topics on the blog covering productivity as well as some others I haven’t touched on yet, including the (re)emerging science of psychedelics, ponderances over our existence in the known universe, and musings over the things that science can’t yet prove, but effect the lives of all of us nonetheless.

If you’ve been joining me for the journey so far, thanks for coming along, and I hope to have your company for longer still. I hope also, that what I write here can make a positive difference in your life. And if not, well I’ll have something that my kids can tease me about when I’m really old.

Being judgy

Making judgements or comments about other people or situations is a common human frailty.

As I’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation each day, the subject of making judgements has arisen from the teachers I’ve been listening to. It’s easy to condemn oneself for being judgy of other people especially. In making judgements we consider ourselves as superior, more aware, more informed, or the other person somehow inferior to us.

Joseph Goldstein, who has been teaching meditation for over four decades and is the author of One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism, said that there are two aspects to freeing ones mind from making judgements or comments about people and situations:

The first is the obvious one, which is to notice when we do it. For example, when we’re making a judgement about the person who is hesitating at the stop sign when we definitely would have moved by now. Or when we’re judging our friend the Dad who works interstate 5 days per week and rarely sees his wife and young children. Or another friend the Mum who has her one year old daughter in day care from 6:30am to 6:30pm each work day so she can work in her high-flying career.

The second aspect is to notice when we condemn ourselves for being judgemental. Which is to say, to notice when we are judging ourselves for being judgy! In being mindful of this, we then have the power to stop feeding the cycle of thought that creates these comments in the first place.

It’s unlikely that we can be completely free of making judgements, but in simply noticing these thoughts arising, and also noticing when we judge ourselves for having them, we can largely liberate ourselves from the suffering associated with being judgemental.

Are you getting enough sleep?

I used to think that a valid option for getting more work done was to get less sleep. Swapping two hours of sleep for two hours of uninterrupted work time early in the morning seemed like a good deal to me.

What you may not realise though is that there is more of a cost to not getting enough sleep than simply being tired. Put simply, you likely will die much earlier.

A recent study across five OECD countries show that individuals who average less than 6 hours sleep per night have a 13% higher mortality risk, and for an individual averaging 6-7 hours of sleep the risk is 7% higher.

In addition, sleep deprivation is linked to lower work productivity and negative effects on our overall health and well-being.

So if getting less sleep means you are likely to die younger, and you are also going to be less productive and have poorer health, isn’t it time to rethink your attitude to getting enough sleep?

Surely it is.

That’s impossible

One of my son’s sometimes trots out this phrase. He sees things in black and white, either true or false, possible or impossible.

Achieving anything in life involves removing the word ‘impossible’ from your everyday speech. You have to reframe the way you look at the problem and ask the question ‘where can I start to fix this?’

At a TED conference in 2018, SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell said this about Elon Musk’s sometimes mind-boggling aspirations for the company:

First of all, when Elon says something, you have to pause and not immediately blurt out, “Well, that’s impossible,” or, “There’s no way we’re going to do that. I don’t know how.” So you zip it, and you think about it, and you find ways to get that done.


Once we go from thinking that a problem is impossible to fix, to thinking about how we solve it, there are ways we can be more effective during the problem solving phase as well.

When Albert Einstein was asked how he would spend his time if he was given a problem that his life depended on, and he had only one hour to solve it, he responded with:

  1. Spend 30 minutes analyzing the problem
  2. Spend 20 minutes planning the solution
  3. Spend 10 minutes executing the solution

It’s tempting to jump straight into executing the solution to a problem, but if often leaves out edge cases or bugs that we hadn’t thought of. Taking the time to analyze the problem and plan the solution may seem to be a more time-consuming approach at first, but leads to more robust results.

The hero’s journey

I subscribe to the theory that we all have a hero’s journey waiting to be lived out.

In his book The Artist’s Journey, author Steven Pressfield refers to the hero’s journey as ‘a template that exists from birth in our psyches.’ He proposes that there are two aspects to it which are often overlooked or not taken into account:

  1. This template has within it a pattern and sequence of events but the specific details are up to the individual.
  2. It exerts a powerful and almost irresistible pressure on the individual to live it out in real life.

I think we all feel this pull, this pressure to follow a particular path. We can choose to ignore it, but that urge remains. We can try to silence it with drugs, alcohol or any other number of obsessions to dull or consume our attention, and that may work for a time.

If you are feeling a little lost, then take some time to consider this. Turn off the tv, put your phone down, sit quietly and write a page with all of the ideas, no matter how crazy they might seem, on how you want to spend the rest of your life. Let the ideas and dreams percolate to the top so they can be captured.

Then pick one of those ideas and make a start. Today.

Hubris

Defined as excessive pride or self confidence, author Steven Pressfield wrote this about hubris:

But ambition must never be allowed to rise to the level of hubris. The minute we believe that we are the source of that which comes through us … that’s when the gods start dusting off their thunderbolts.

My own experience of hubris is that it can destroy in a matter of months something that can take 10 years to build.

Four years ago, my business was growing at an astounding rate and we were selling some new and exciting products that no-one else had yet bought to market. Profits were good, supply was good, and demand was ever-increasing.

After struggling for so many years, it was a dream come true, so I dropped my defensive game. I put all of my energy into driving sales, added staff, and bought even more stock. I was recognised nationally as the founder of one of Australia’s fastest growing businesses.

But I wasn’t paying attention to the greater landscape, and (naively) assumed that the good times would just keep on rolling. More than that I wanted to believe that this was what I had worked so hard for, so surely I didn’t have to apply the usual rules which I had used to build my business so far?

When competing products were announced I didn’t change a thing. I kept on buying stock. I didn’t want to miss out on a single sale. When the competing product hit the market, not only was it superior, but the prices began at 30% less than mine. My sales plummeted. Suddenly I had non-cancellable PO’s that I couldn’t afford to buy, stock that wasn’t moving, I was rapidly running out of cash, and had way more staff than I needed.

Rather than cutting my losses at that point, regrouping and downsizing, I did the opposite. I pushed harder. I took on expensive radio advertising. I kept renting an expensive house. I lowered prices to drive volume. I mingled with other high flyers.

It was hubris at it’s finest, and of course none of it worked.

Finally in 2016 I ran out of money and had to lay off 80% of my staff because I could no longer afford to pay them. I cashed in every investment I had saved up over the previous 10 years and borrowed heavily just to stay afloat. I had suppliers threatening to take legal action. Some actually did.

I’m not back to zero yet, but in some ways I’m glad that this happened. I’ve learned how a business can run in much more efficient ways and how to focus on the most important thing that I need to do each day. I’ve learned how to hustle, and then hustle some more.

The moral of the story is that no matter how well things are going, and no matter how successful you become, the basics are always going to apply.

Work with humility. Allow the profits to run, but as soon as the signals point to a downturn, cut your losses. Expect good times, but be prepared to make sacrifices when bad times appear.

Be bold my friends, but stay sharp.

3

Nobody’s perfect

When you make a mistake, or lose your cool, or hurt someone else’s feelings, it doesn’t make you a bad person.

It just means that you are human, and we all make mistakes.

What really matters is that you apologise for doing so.

Clean up the mess.

Mend the fence.

Rebuild trust.

You always..

The use of the terms ‘you always’ or ‘you never’ (in an argument) are rarely used to represent facts, and using them just ends up wounding the other person. If you have a need, or want something done, then ask for it rather than resorting to criticising the other persons character.

“You always leave the toilet seat up” versus “You left the toilet seat up, can you please put it down when you are done?”.

“You never listen” versus “I feel like you didn’t hear me when I asked you to take out the recycling just now”.

Using “you always” or “you never” in an argument is a way to blame the other person for what’s going on without taking any responsibility for asking for what you need. Does it help you get what you want? Definitely not.

Try complaining without blame. Be clear about what you need and be surprised by the results.

I can’t…

When we make a choice and communicate that clearly to those around us, it’s far less stressful for everyone involved.

If you don’t want someone to pass calls through to you, then say:

“I’m not taking calls until mid-day”, rather than “I can’t take any calls now”.

If you are invited to meet with your account manager at xyz company because he’s “in the area” but it’s not something you want to do, then be honest about why. “I appreciate the invite, but I don’t take in-person meetings unless you are a potential client”, rather than “I’m sorry, I’m busy this week and can’t meet”.

I rarely take marketing calls, but if I happen to pick up the phone when someone does call, I politely decline their invitation. “I’m sorry that’s not something I’m interested in”. If the caller presses to send me an email outlining their product as opposed to meeting in person, I say, “I appreciate you have a job to do, but don’t send me an email. I will just delete it any way.”

Being direct doesn’t mean you have to be rude, and it makes for much clearer communication.