Disclaimer: I mostly wrote this article to myself, but felt that it may be helpful to others.
The Scattered-Focus Life
With information and global networking more attainable than ever, there’s no reason why, with a little focused effort, any of us can’t become world-class specialists in our craft. From graphic designers, developers, writers, videographers, and photographers to business managers, financial professionals, and educators, with the proper focus, we can continue to sharpen our craft every day. But many of us choose not to. Why? Because we prefer the easier, scatterbrained life.
Multi-tasking vs. Fragmented Focus
Yes, listening to a podcast while folding the laundry or watching a TV show while riding a stationary bicycle are both within the realm of what we deem “multi-tasking.” This is due to the limited concentration required for the accompanying task. This being said, one task always has focus over another. The folding of the laundry, the riding of the bicycle—these tasks require virtually no mental bandwidth whatsoever. That means that our primary focus is on the plot of the show or the content of the podcast. And that’s perfectly fine, as long as we’re not fooling ourselves into believing that we can split our focus 50/50 between both activities simultaneously. This is a lie—a lie that we frequently tell ourselves when it comes to pursuing our craft.
Forsaking Focus On Your Craft
When we attempt to use this same logic in our working lives, the same rules apply; one takes the lion’s share of our focus. Though we can listen to repetitive music while we write about complex subjects, we can’t simultaneously watch riveting programming while claiming to provide the necessary attention to our valued specialty.
Why not? Well, firstly, as much as you claim to be the unique person with the capacity for split focus, you simply can’t. But more importantly, because your craft deserves to be the primary focus of your conscious mind. Your concentration deserves your concentration.
So, if you hope to sharpen your skills and create meaningful work, sign out of Netflix, close the YouTube browser, turn off the podcast episode, and give your craft what it deserves — the captain’s seat of your focus.
Even after we’ve grown up, we still believe in superheroes.
The “work hard, play hard” mentality has convinced a generation of “wantrepreneurs” that hard work, long hours, and a swiss-army-knife-array of lifehacks are the key to success. Those who can endure such grueling schedules are not only seen as more than successful—they’re superhuman.
An obsession with the lifestyles of high-achieving entrepreneurs and personalities has led many to fixate on a popular hustle metric: what time you get up in the morning.
And guess what? According to recent scientific research, they’d have to be superhuman for such lifestyles to be sustainable.
The Downside of Irresponsible Early Rising
The appeal of getting up early is the goal of adding hours to one’s days. Though you stayed up late, getting up early gives you a headstart on life—providing time to exercise, tend to your wellbeing, or squeeze in an edge on the snoozing competition. However, science says that the wakefulness we steal from our mornings to pay for this edge are debts that will very likely come due.
“Every disease that is killing us in developed nations has causal and significant links to a lack of sleep,” Walker reports. “So, that classic maxim that you may [have] heard that you can sleep when you’re dead—it’s actually mortally unwise advice from a very serious standpoint.”
Our waking brain has been found to maintain a build-up of metabolic waste. This beta-amyloid waste has been associated with the impairment of communication between neurons present in Alzheimer’s patients. Though this sounds scary, there’s a bright side: like running the dishwasher overnight on pots and pans, sufficient sleep releases a flood of cerebrospinal fluid to wash this waste away.
Failing to achieve sufficient sleep can be compared to leaving your dried peanut-butter-coated china in the dishwasher overnight and hoping a light rinse will leave them adequately ready for important company the next day.
In Why We Sleep, Walker contributed two examples of famous high-achievers who frequently boasted their lack of a need for sufficient sleep—the U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Both of these officials were known for their almost superhuman ability to function on very little sleep. What else did they have in common? They both later suffered from severe dementia that robbed them of their mental acuity and likely shortened their lives. Though these are just two examples, the before mentioned has established associations between a lack of sleep and advanced cognitive decline.
Sufficient Sleep Recommendations
So, what is considered insufficient sleep? 3 hours a night? 4 hours a night? Think again: anything below 6 hours a night.
In addition to cognitive decline, Walker’s research has also linked insufficient sleep to a significant increase in the likelihood of developing:
What is the most important alarm for those who want to get an early start? It’s definitely not their morning alarm, but an evening alarm. Because the evening hours are notorious for slipping by us, setting evening “get ready for bed” and “lights out” alarms are your best bet to getting to bed at a time required to receive sufficient sleep—anywhere from between 7-9 hours of sleep, according to Walker.
Powering Down in Phases
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with getting up early. If anything, some of the highest performing athletes also beat the dawn. However, unlike many of their peers in achievement, professional athletes carefully structure their hours of sleep. How do they do this? By regimenting and guarding their evening activities. In addition to a designated “light’s out” time, many sleep guardians are known to practice power-down phases to prepare their bodies and minds for sleep.
“I follow the same bedtime routine and start getting ready for bed around 9 p.m. My wife and I turn off the TV and don’t look at our phones other than setting the alarm to have 30-45 minutes of no ‘blue’ light before we go to sleep. I then read a book to get my eyes tired, then I kiss my wife goodnight, and I’m out cold in a couple of minutes.”
Following a similar routine can ensure you receive sufficient sleep.
While turning off bright overhead lights can help you prepare for bed, your favorite devices can also be suppressing your melatonin and throwing off your circadian rhythms by emitting generous amounts of blue light. Televisions, computer monitors, and phone screens are the worst offenders. About an hour before bed, try to limit your use of such disruptive devices. Instead, opt for that book you’ve been meaning to get to, journal about what’s on your mind, or play a board game with another member of your household.
What to Avoid Before Bed
To ensure quality sleep, there are several behaviors and consumables you will want to avoid. Some of these seem fairly straightforward. Others seem counterintuitive.
Alcohol: Though it can feel like the occasional glass or two of wine can help you nod off easier, its key ingredient can lead to later tossing and turning. Though the alcohol can help you drift off, the body won’t begin to fully metabolize it until later—a process that can leave your body feeling restless. The consumption of alcohol before bed has also been found to inhibit deep R.E.M. sleep.
Caffeine after 5 PM: Though caffeine only spikes your energy levels for about a half-hour to an hour after consumption, its effects can linger for as much as five hours. Yes, that trip to Starbucks after work may be the reason you’re still tossing and turning at night.
Exercise: I’ll admit, I used to enjoy using up the last of my energy for the day with a jump rope in my driveway at 9 PM. However, the effort of intense exercise can spike levels of cortisol—your body’s main stress hormone. For this reason, keep your exercise to no more than three hours before lights out.
Distractions in the bed: As we’ve mentioned above, the blue light from TV, computer, and mobile devices can inhibit the production of melatonin—disrupting your brain’s circadian rhythms. While all screens should be avoided in bed, your bed should also be treated as a place reserved for two things—1. Sleep 2. Sex. Watching TV, working on a laptop, or even reading books can muddy your brain’s understanding of the purpose of your bed and result in restlessness.
Sleep aids: For many, getting to bed means popping a popular sedative. There’s only one problem with that—sedation and sleep are not synonymous mental states. Natural sleep is an incredibly elaborate restorative process of the mind and body. Sedatives, on the other hand, simply induce unconsciousness without many of the other attributes of sleep. As Matthew Walker put it, “We don’t have any good pharmacological approach right now to replicate such a nuanced and complex set of biological changes.”
In Bed ≠ Time Asleep
When running the numbers on how to achieve sufficient sleep, remember to leave a window of time to actually fall asleep. For most healthy individuals, falling asleep takes about 10 to 20 minutes on average. For this reason, it’s important to differentiate “lights out” from “sleeping” time.
What to Do When You Can’t Sleep
There will always be occasions when, despite your best efforts, you simply can’t sleep. What to do now? Get out of bed.
Why get out of bed? According to Walker, your brain is an extremely environmentally sensitive machine. If you spend enough time awake, staring at your ceiling in rumination, your brain will associate that activity with your bed. Instead, get out of bed, possibly even going into another room. Use that time to read a book (not on a screen), listen to soothing music, write in a journal, play solitaire with a deck of cards, or meditate until you grow tired enough for sleep. These types of relaxing activities will not only help you to grow sleepier but will also likely distract you from the anxieties that may be keeping you awake.
For its importance to absolutely every aspect of our health, the only reason we’re not asked about it more by our physicians is the timeliness of understanding its importance—thanks to the very recent strides in imaging technology. Despite these earth-shattering discoveries, neurologist Matthew Walker believes that we are, as a society, experiencing a “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic.”
So, what is the best way to attempt to maximize your own potential to live the lives of your idolized superheroes? Go to bed on time.
There are few things more liberating than kicking off your kicks in the backyard and letting the piggies roam the grass. However, if you look at an old person’s shoes in the developed world, they’re more akin to a medical device. This is odd because when you look to cultures that have maintained connections to their past, they can walk in the most minimalist of sandals, if not barefoot, for miles and miles. What gives? A possible cause: we’ve been babying our feet our entire lives with modern, thick-soled shoes.
We prop up the arches so they don’t have to hold up themselves.
We cram the toes together so they can’t feel the ground beneath.
We raise up the heel so the Achilles tendon is disengaged, so then we have to support the ankle to keep the whole thing steady.
Shoe Heels Have a Purpose, But It’s Super Dumb
Now in the defense of the shoes of the last several hundred years, heels on the shoe a purpose — to KEEP BOOTS IN STIRRUPS. Oh, and to make derrieres appear pronounced. Those are really the only two functions of a heel on the shoe. The rest of their functions are purely aesthetic. However, having this heel has completely changed the way modern humans walk and run. Instead of walking with the ball of the foot doing its job of absorbing the initial impact of walking or running, the pronounced heel has taken that job — a role it was never meant to have. Growing accustomed to making initial contact with each step heel-first, the ball of the foot is bypassed and the additional shock rattles it’s way up in chain reaction through the ankle, knee, hip, and back — all because of this device meant to keep people on horseback. Look at our genius.
Fortunately, many have begun to question our need for a heel and atrophy-inducing cushioning in our shoes. A whole industry of “barefoot” style shoes has taken off—dozens of companies all vying for who can make the best minimalist shoes that let the foot move and feel as its designed. The results? I’m going to level with you—most look like rubber socks. But you know what? Maybe that’s what we need. At the very least, we all need to spend as much time barefoot as possible.
In addition to being an accomplished television personality, minister, and musician, “Mister” Fred Rogers was also an immensely disciplined fellow. He was a vegetarian who never drank or smoked. He went to bed every night at 9:30 PM. He rose every morning at 5 AM, and began every day with prayer, answering fan mail, and swimming laps. After swimming, he’d weigh himself. Every time, the scale was the same: 143 pounds—the “I love you” number as he’d call it due to the number of letters in those words.
Was this routine flashy? Hardly. Was it sustainable? Undoubtedly.
Inspired by Rogers and my desire to be a friend to the older versions of myself, I’ve grown fixated on cultivating the most sustainable lifestyle possible. This research continues, but this piece contains what I’m presently referring to as “The Four Attributes of a Sustainable Existence.”
Four touchstones must be present when determining which lifestyle activities, habits, or routines are sustainable—a sustainability test, if you will.
Positive: The activity has to be something that you won’t need to give up eventually.
Honest: The activity has to be something you honestly want to pursue with motivations authentic to your character.
Simple Reasoning: the reason for pursuing this activity needs to be simple.
Enjoyment: you need to enjoy the activity separate from the benefit it brings.
Throughout this piece, I’ll be using the routine of jumping rope for 25 minutes, six days a week as an example of a sustainable lifestyle habit of mine and why it met all these criteria for me (and maybe you, too, but hey, that’s you...)
1. The activity needs to be good for you…or at least not bad for you.
Starting with the most obvious, any lifestyle activity you hope to pursue into old age shouldn’t be anything that will, at some point, result in negative consequences. Some examples of not-good activities include nightly cigar smoking, a keto diet, or afternoon ice cream. While any of these may begin as harmless niceties or even helpful tools, if you’ll have to give it up eventually, there’s no use in starting it now.
Example: One of the reasons I chose jump rope as my favorite form of exercise as opposed to, say, motocross racing, is due to its sustainable nature. With the proper conditioning, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to do jump rope cross-overs and boxer-skips into my 90’s. Ok, maybe not double-unders, but I can take or leave those.
Secondary thought: is it good (or at least not bad) for the world?
This activity should also not be harmful to others. (This is perhaps the most common understanding of modern use of the word sustainable—which many use in an environmental context.) For instance, if you decide to pursue an activity that requires a product whose manufacturing or disposal is overly destructive to the environment, this activity may not be sustainable. Likewise, if this activity damages a valuable relationship, it’s also likely not sustainable.
2. Do you really want this? Why?
Despite our ambitions, there is a certain amount of virtue in properly giving up on a goal. To determine which ambitions to pursue or discard, we can simply look at the honesty of our motivations.
Do you want to read all 2,711 pages of the Babylonian Talmud to glean its information, or are you doing so for the bragging rights?
Do you want those six-pack abs to combat dangerous subcutaneous and visceral fat or to flaunt it on your Instagram feed?
Do you want to wake up 5:30 AM to get a jump on the day or because you simply want to share that aspect of your daily routine with your favorite influencer?
Honest Motivation = Stored Willpower
Any activity we pursue will occasionally depend upon stored motivation and willpower to commence or pursue. If our motivations are frivolous or shallow, that fuel source will be spoiled when we need it most. When our motivations for pursuing a specific goal are constructed on vain or fragile foundations, they are doomed from the start.
To test this, ask yourself:
“Do I want the result because I want it? Or do I want the result because I’m supposed to want it?”
My motivation for jumping rope is pretty straightforward: to maintain my fitness and because it’s fun. Yes, I’m supposed to want to maintain my fitness and pursue fun things, but I also genuinely want to pursue these endeavors for my own sake—thus, this goal has a sustainable motivation.
Besides, if I was going for cool points, I could have done a lot better than a jump rope.
3. Is your motivation simple enough to endure?
If our motivations for pursuing a task are unclear or overly complicated, determining success may be difficult—and thus, the reward illusive. To test your motivations’ simplicity, see if you can express them in a single concise sentence.
Here are a few examples of my own reasons for pursuing my routines/habits:
Why do I practice intermittent fasting? To aid my digestion and boost metabolism.
Why do I jump rope six days a week? To maintain my fitness and because it’s fun.
Why do I journal? To process my thoughts and emotions.
Why do I meditate? To train my attention span.
Why do I allot eight hours in bed every night? To maintain my health and focus.
Now, enjoy some examples of my past routines/habits I’ve abandoned due to complicated or misguided motivations:
Why do I practice strength training? Because I’d like to, at least once in my life, see what my abs look like under that gut fat. I mean, wouldn’t it be pretty cool? I guess, though it’s not a huge deal, it seems like something I should want. (Yep, and I ditched it.)
Why do I engage in the Daf Yomi (daily reading of Talmud every day, resulting in completion in seven-years-time)? I imagine that studying Talmud and navigating all of the arguments of the sages would give me immense insights into Jewish life. Besides, being able to say “I’ve completed Shas(Daf Yomi)” is something not everyone can say. (And thus, I closed the book.)
Why do I get up at 5:30 AM? Some of the most accomplished minds get up at 5:30 AM, if not even earlier. Getting up an hour or more early will give me time to do more throughout my day…right? (I didn’t quite believe this and was tired of cutting sleep short, so I have since abandoned the notion.)
If you have to sell yourself on your motivations, pursuing the associated goal is likely not sustainable.
4. How much fun are you having?
Another sustainability sniff test for a lifestyle activity is how much pleasure you derive from the process…independent of the goal.
“Because I Want To” Passes the Test…As Long As You Do
To piggyback on clearly defining motivations, one of those motivations may simply be, “because I enjoy doing it.” That was my initial motivation for jumping rope. Though it has transitioned into, “I jump rope to maintain a certain level of fitness,” as well, the process began solely as, “Hey, that looks fun.” Because fun was my original motivation for starting it, I still enjoy the process to this day. Any project or activity we begin must remain pleasurable to remain sustainable.
Pleasurable Doesn’t Always Mean Non-Stop-Fun
Only pursuing projects I find pleasurable does not mean that I am perpetually laughing like an idiot through every step of a process. During a writing project, I may end up banging my head against the wall regarding what word to use or how to structure a piece. During exercise, I may end up frustratedly tripping over my jump rope. Despite these challenges and disappointments, exasperations eventually give way to breakthroughs, making them an enjoyable part of the process. However, when the highs no longer justify the lows, it may be time to abandon an unsustainable initiative.
In Conclusion: I’m Actually Lazy
While the idea of cultivating sustainable lifestyle activities and projects seems ambitious, it’s actually a process I’ve lovingly dubbed utilitarian laziness. It’s nothing more than buffing out the friction of false-starts, thin motivations, and superfluous fluff from life to get us closer to the good stuff—fewer items on our docket, but each one packing a resonant punch that helps us live a life that truly sticks to our ribs.
This time of lockdown/quarantine has been one of the most unique times in the lives of my generation. Many of us had been unknowingly living according to schedules and routines set by others. While having your docket cleansed of the plans seems liberating, we were then simultaneously limited in the activities we could place on it due to social distancing guidelines. For many, this paradoxical free-to-do-everything yet not-allowed-to-do-anything forced some to step up to the plate of their own aspirations. For others, it has resulted in a free-fall into the abyss of mindless social media black holes, time sacrifices at the altar of Netflix, and maddening isolation.
For me, this isolation forced me to carefully inspect my life. My blessings. My curses. My goals. My fears. My habits. It made me take a deep look at the man I want to be for those for whom I care most.
This time of self-rediscovery has revealed another truth to me: suspenders are way better than belts. In fact, belts suck. That’s right—I said it.
How the Hell Did I Come to This Conclusion
I know it sounds very random to have such a hot take on trouser accessories. Well, over the course of the last year, I’ve lost roughly 40 pounds. While this has been a life-changing journey into health and fitness, the change left me with a closet full of ill-fitting pants. While I could buy new trousers, I happen to like my pants. They’re otherwise perfect. However, for the past eight or so months, I’ve been cinching up my waistband with a belt as though I’ve been tying off a garbage bag. The result had been flaps of loose fabric and constant adjustments. After a little research, I decided to try out suspenders this week.
The results? Wow, why did we ever give these up for something as terrible as a belt?
Why I Prefer Suspenders Over Belts
1. Suspenders make sense from a physics perspective.
Your biggest obstacle to keeping your pants up is gravity. To consistently oppose gravity, your best bet is to restrict any downward movement of the pants. Suspenders do this in the most sensical way possible—by distributing the opposing downward force across your shoulders, which are more than capable of supporting the weight of pants and anything in your pockets. Belts, on the other hand, will always fail eventually.
Either they (a) will require that you cinch them tight enough for the friction of the waistband to support the weight of the pants or they will (b) sit too loose to be of any reliable good. The result is a losing battle.
2. Suspenders make sense from a biological perspective.
The human body is a marvelous machine—perfectly calibrated to transform water, air, and organic matter into fuel…as well as poop and pee. The use of belts over the years literally changes our bodies. They frequently disrupt the more even distribution of fat throughout the torso, resulting in the “dunlop” belly for those carrying more weight on their frame.
The extended wearing of tight belts also isn’t great for your digestive system. One medical study carried out by Professor Kenneth McColl of the University of Glasgow discovered links between wearing tight belts and some forms of throat cancer due to increased instances of acid reflux. The same study found associations between tight belts and an increased risk of hernia.
So, yeah, belts are tourniquets for your guts. Suspenders, on the other hand, like…aren’t.
3. Utilitarian suspenders are immensely unfashionable…and are therefore sustainably fashionable.
Once upon a time, if you wanted help keeping your trousers up, suspenders were your go-to method. Belts were primarily used to keep robes closed or to hold tools and weapons handy. It wasn’t until pants were designed with lower waistbands that suspenders started to take a backseat to belts—and even then, it was purely a choice of fashion, not function.
These days, skinny, sleek, or rustically weathered leather suspenders are a popular look among hipster mixologists and baristas. However, when it comes to utilitarian “fashion,” suspenders have been mostly been relegated to improv comedy performers, seventh-grade geography teachers, retirees, skinheads (both racist and non-racist), and the Amish.
That being said, there’s something sustainably fashionable about something as classically sensical as suspenders. My personal fashion must endure decades of functional style. That’s the reason why my glasses, hats, pants, and shoes likely could have been fashionable in most decades while at the same time not turning heads in any decade. Whenever my fashion choices can be simultaneously functional and timeless, that’s usually the route I will take.
All of this being said, I only wear shorts when exercising or swimming. For those who choose to wear suspenders with shorts…I guess I’ll see you at Oktoberfest?
4. Suspenders are functionally superior to belts.
Suspenders don’t ever cut you through the middle after a large meal or sitting for an extended period of time.
Suspenders allow you to have your pants completely unbuttoned and unzipped without having to simultaneously hold them up—which is especially not fun if you have heavier objects in your pockets.
Sayonara, plumber’s crack.
But Mostly, Belts Suck
I could have very well titled this piece “Belts Suck: What Other Options Exist?” However, I chose to take the high road and support my favorite means of support: suspenders. Feel free to give them a shot. I don’t know what you have to lose, but its definitely not your pants.
So many of us struggle to live within our means. Part of the reason for this is that our checking account balance is lying to us. No, you actually do have that amount in your account, but many of us forget how or more specifically when it got there.
I used to wonder why I was so slammed up against the wall as I neared the end of a pay period. I would find myself at the grocery store the day before payday, wondering whether or not I should use my credit card or move money from savings into my checking account.
How the heck did this happen? Well, it turns out that I was misreading my checking account balance. This was causing me to spend beyond my means quite comfortably the first week or so after being paid—a false assurance. It wasn’t until I received one tip from a financial advisor through my Native American tribe that helped me look at my checking account differently, to live within my means, and start putting savings away.
The first thing you should do when you get paid is to move everything that had existed in your checking account before payday into savings and act as though it never existed. That will force you to truly live on your salary and not feel like you have more because of what remained from your last pay cycle.
She was right—I hadn’t been seeing a realistic picture of my means due to the remnants of my last paycheck artificially inflating my checking account balance.
Her advice sounds ridiculously simple, but it worked. If my paycheck hit my account on top of, say, $300 that was in there before, that $300 got thrown into savings. Now, every time I look at my checking account, the only info looking back at me is only what my most recent paycheck had left and the spending since then. This little behavior has forced me to more diligently stick to my budget but also to truly live within my means. No matter how much is left over, it goes to savings. As far as I’m concerned, that money is stowed behind a rock on the moon.
Anyway, I hope this helps someone as much as it helped me.
If there’s a concept most of us wrangle with the most, it’s time. There doesn’t seem to be enough of it in a day. No time to work, pursue your dreams, spend time with loved ones, take care of yourself, and fart around. There is one simple tool I’ve found to be the most helpful for what I call “time dieting”—your basic timer.
Yes, a timer. It could be a timer app or asking Siri, Alexa, or Google to let you know when a certain amount of time has passed. It could even be an egg timer or a simple watch timer that beeps or buzzes.
How to Use a Timer to Manage Your Life
Yes, not your day—your LIFE. Why so dramatic? Because…
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” – Annie Dilliard
Anyway, back to the timer.
What the timer allows you to do is to section off periods of the day and dedicate them to specific activities. Why is this necessary? Because we’re abysmal at doing so without assistance.
How many times has, “I’m just going to scroll (enter social media platform here) real quick and then get back to work,” turned into two completely soul-draining, utterly unproductive hours? Not to say that there’s anything wrong with two unproductive hours—as long as that was your intention for those two hours. But was that your intention? Likely not. You probably intended to scroll the infinity pool of social media for 10 minutes and then regained consciousness 110 minutes later.
Now, if you’ve been dutifully working for an hour and would like some intellectual novocaine, you should be allowed to imbibe now and again. However, if you down the whole bottle (or vial…I don’t know what receptacle novocaine comes in) on TikTok, you may not return to the productive world for the rest of the day. That is why a timer is the perfect measuring spoon.
A timer is a leash that permits you to “wander off” for 10 minutes, only to bring you back once you’ve run out of chronological slack. It is your ankle tether keeping you from straying from your board of intention.
Time Dieting: Nourish & Imbibe
I use a simple wrist timer to measure out my doses of hyperfocus and intellectual novocaine throughout the day. Sometimes, I turn to my timer and go…
“Ok, I’m going to read with an immense focus for 30 minutes.”
Ready. Set timer. READ. For the next 30 minutes, I pour my focus into reading.
Other times, I allow myself to unabashedly go down the rabbit hole of news, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube videos for 15 minutes as a reward for or motivation to conduct more productive behavior.
Ready. Set timer. IMBIBE. Until that timer goes off, it’s off to White House Press Conference coverage, trending hashtags, Instagram Stories, and life hack videos on YouTube.
I repeat this process for meditation, exercise, vegging on the porch, and even work via the Pomodoro Technique. Each watch buzz on my wrist is a tug on my time leash, drawing me out of said intentional activity, no matter how productive or juvenile it is.
“Ya Can’t Have One Without the Other.”
I find that occasional shots of mental novocaine straight to my prefrontal cortex are as necessary as the rest of my meaningful pursuits. Giving yourself the occasional cheat day from all-out productivity helps one stave off burnout and can even increase drive…when used in moderation, of course. In many instances, I use the promise of upcoming mental downtime as a reward for focused work or other productive accomplishments. Frequently, dangling carrots of sloth on the end of long sticks of productivity can pull my donkey out of the ditch of procrastination. There are instances when I will work my arse off for the chance to do absolutely nothing. Sometimes, I will burn the midnight oil if it means I get to sleep in (though, being an early bird, it usually means I will greet the dawn if it means I get to turn in early).
How do I regulate my bouts of intentional neural lethargy? Again, a simple timer.
“Ok, you’re allowed 10 minutes of watching video reviews of products you already own in return for 45 minutes of productive work.”
“You got it, boss. I’m going to knock out deep cleaning up my office. Then…I’m going to watch strangers share their thoughts about a jump rope I already own.”
There are instances when, no matter the size of the dangled carrot, my donkey ain’t moving. For those instances, I find it helpful to give the donkey a down payment—a tiny nibble on the reward. Perhaps five minutes of stand-up comedy on YouTube will remind my inner do-nothing the bliss of earned inertia.
Ready. Set timer. Cue 5-minutes of jokes about garage sales.
Ok, that was delightful. I’m coming back to that…in 45 minutes.
(Sets timer for 45 minutes of focused work to earn additional listlessness.)
I recently started using the Pomodoro Technique. This technique is a work/break scheduling tool used initially by medical school students to foster focused “deep work.” “Pomodoro” simply means “tomato” in Italian — which was the shape of the kitchen timer used by its Italian developer, Francesco Cirillo, in the late ’80s. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Choose a task you’d like to execute. This task can be anything from making space for a hand-me-down fridge in your garage to writing a novel. The more daunting, the better— though simple tasks will work great as well.
Step 3: Have a means of notetaking immediately at hand. This method of taking notes can be an app like Google Keep (my favorite), or a physical note pad with a writing tool.
Step 4: Prep your environment for focus. Use the bathroom. Ready your coffee. Put your phone “do not disturb” mode. Obtain the necessary books, materials, or tools to complete the task. Log out of all social media platforms. Yes, actually log out.
Step 4: Set the timer for 25 minutes and work with as much focus as you can muster. Place your full attention on attacking this task for the full 25-minutes. If you suddenly have a great unrelated idea, realize another task you remember that you need to do, or the cure for COVID-19, use the notepad or notetaking application to jot it down. Once jotted down, immediately return to the original task.
Helpful tips for Step 4: A. Remember that you’re only committing to 25 minutes. B. Depending on your level of distractability, you may want your timer visible. Sometimes seeing how much time you have left until you can quit helps you focus.
Step 5: Take a break. Once the 25 minutes is up, set the timer again for 5-minutes and take a break. Get up. Walk around. Check your phone. Use the bathroom. Top off your coffee. Whatever you need to do—you’ve earned it.
Step 6: Get back to work. Once the five minutes is complete, reset the timer for 25 minutes and get back to work just like you were doing in Step 4.
Step 7: After four cycles, take a longer break. Once you’ve done FOUR 25-minute work sessions, take a 15-minute break. You’ve earned it.
Step 8: Start the whole process over again. Once that 15-minute break is over, start back at Step 4.
If done correctly, a two-hour cycle of “deep work” should look like this:
25 minutes of deep work
25 minutes of deep work
25 minutes of deep work
25 minutes of deep work
If you find yourself immensely focused and you don’t want to take a break, simply set the timer for another 25 minutes and continue working. Still, I wouldn’t recommend doing this more the two or three times. You need a break to stay sharp!
The Pomodoro Technique sounds way too simple to be useful, but it absolutely is useful for me—for reasons that may go unconsidered by someone who hasn’t tried it.
What I Like About the Pomodoro Technique #1: It immediately scales down forboding work.
Before, the idea of turning an information-packed 30-minute interview into a respectable article was reasonably daunting. I knew I’d be committing to hours of reading, writing, rephrasing, and potential premature burnout. Now, I only really have to commit to 25 minutes of work. Who can’t commit to 25 minutes? Pffssshhh.
What I Like About the Pomodoro Technique #2: Physically hitting a “start” button.
I already hit a timer on most of my paid work to track the time spent on it for clients. Even though this is the case, these timers also include breaks, trips to the bathrooms, water bottle refills, and everything else included within the “process” of writing. My Pomodoro clock, however, is purely for work. Once I hit that “start” button, it’s like throwing the lever on a rollercoaster—you gotta go where the tracks take you. Need to fasten your safety belt? You should have thought about that earlier.
What I Like About the Pomodoro Technique #3: I don’t feel guilty about taking frequent breaks.
Usually, when I take a break from working, they’re rarely planned. I may need one. I may accidentally take a break because I got distracted. With the Pomodoro Technique, I don’t feel bad about taking five minutes to stretch, jump rope a dozen times, refill my water, peruse the news, message a friend, or the like. Not only did I “earn” the break by being immensely productive during the past 25 minutes (typically as productive as I’d otherwise be in a distracted hour), but my break also has its own timer. Whereas other breaks may have wound up being much longer due to distractions, I’m quickly back to work as soon as those five minutes are up.
What I Like About the Pomodoro Technique #4: Distractions don’t linger in my mind as much.
One of the reasons I’d indulge my distractions in the past was fear of forgetting that thing I needed to do. “Oh, I need to block out some time on my calendar to budget out my tax return.” Just doing that little act would usually derail me while I remembered the other items I needed to time-block in my calendar. With the Pomodoro Method, I can either (a) quickly jot this down in a Google Keep “to do/remember” specifically for that day or (b) can feel confident that I won’t forget to do this in the next 25-minutes max.
What I Like About the Pomodoro Technique #5: It’s so damn simple.
Whether its time-blocking, jumping rope, meditating, journaling, or using the Pomodoro Technique, all of my favorite self-management techniques are also some of the simplest tasks one can perform. If you’ve made it this far in the article, you’re an expert in the Pomodoro Technique. While there are a few books on the subject, it’s effectiveness is in its simplicity.
If you read this entire article, that’s about 6-minutes, which means you need to get back to work!
Last year, I cultivated four incredibly beneficial lifestyle habits (and wrote a free book about the experience) that I continue to utilize in my daily life. As 2020 rolled around, I was incredibly inspired to see what other habits I could develop. As I began to look into my spiritual life, though prayer was now a regular morning staple, my religious study was in need of some strengthening. Fortunately for me, there was Daf Yomi.
If you don’t know what Daf Yomi is, don’t worry—even a lot of Jewish folks don’t, much less the general public. “Daf Yomi” literally means “a page a day.” A page of what? Talmud. What is Talmud? The Talmud (specifically the Babylonian Talmud) is over 300 years of conversations between Jewish religious authorities extrapolating, debating, and exploring every nook and cranny of Jewish law. Discussions are filled with great wisdom, table-pounding arguments across centuries, a dash of old-timey folklore, and even jokes. It’s words fill 63 books known as “tractates” and 2,711 double-sided folio pages—each called a “daf.” One side/half of a “daf,” when translated into English, is roughly 1,000-1,300 words. When read in English at a conversational pace, each “daf” takes about 30 minutes.
If studying Talmud sounds quite daunting and difficult to navigate, that’s because it absolutely is. That being said, many find its study immensely fulfilling. It is said to sharpen the mind of its students—teaching them how to carefully examine life’s most and least significant questions with an analytical mind. To manage the process of studying the entire Talmud, some authorities on the matter established Daf Yomi— a “one page a day” cyclical and communal study of the Babylonian Talmud. This seven-year(and some change) study sought to make Talmud study like eating the metaphorical elephant one bite at a time in lock-step with the community. Because everyone partaking in the study is on the same page every day, they could discuss the same material. Sidenote: If you plan on eating a non-metaphorical elephant, they are technically kosher, but their size and strength make appropriately and humanely slaughtering them virtually impossible. That, and they’re largely endangered, so you’d end up looking like a real jerk. Anyway, back to the article.
Though one need not to wait for the Daf Yomi merry-go-round to end before hopping on, around the turn of the new year, the previous cycle had just finished with a new one slated to begin again just a week or so after the beginning of 2020. I was determined to hop on. What happened next was mostly my own fault.
I approached studying Daf Yomi like I did my other habits.
Identity: Instead of telling myself “I’m a guy who studies Daf Yomi,” I started saying, “I’m a committed Daf Yomi student.” Check.
Environment: I had found the perfect nook at my kitchen table that I would utilize for my study. As soon as my son was asleep, I’d go to my Daf Yomi nook and get started.
Accountability: Boy, oh, boy did I lean into accountability. I knew I couldn’t be trusted to start studying Daf Yomi on my own and keep with it.
Because of this, firstly, I set up a group text with a handful of buddies from my synagogue (most of whom never expressed an interest in being in such a group—sorry, fellas) with the idea that each of us could share what we gleaned from the daily daf.
Secondly, I actually set up a website blog where I would share my daily daf insights.
My third accountability step took it to the next level; I made a Daf Yomi podcast using Anchor. I read the daily daf in English into my phone for the benefit of one of the dyslexic group text members who prefers audiobooks.
I planned on being one daf ahead of the group so that the podcast episode would drop the morning of its accompanying daf.
So, off I went.
I started at a gentle pace. I got a free Sunday afternoon, so I preloaded my week by studying and recording several pages of Daf Yomi. Once that surplus was published, I went back to daily…then back to preloading.
I checked in with the group every so often. At first, everyone was immensely responsive to the daily insights. Some were sharing their own. My dyslexic friend thanked me immensely for my efforts with the podcast.
The blog was…well, a brand-new blog. It can take months or years for a blog to get traction. I essentially treated it as a repository for my notes.
As I went along, the group text response began to fizzle. I asked my dyslexic friend if he had been enjoying the podcast. He said he had gotten around to “this week’s” episodes.
After a few weeks of reading into my phone for 30 minutes a day followed by writing summaries and scheduling posts, the weight of Daf Yomi went from a giggling baby on my shoulders to an impatient, squirmy toddler. While the insights were fascinating, the break-neck schedule didn’t allow me to spend time with the content. This isn’t the fault of Daf Yomi, but rather the lack of bandwidth my daily schedule allowed. I was beginning to feel burnout from what now seemed like a daily homework assignment on top of daily prayer, meditation, exercise, spending time with my son, my wife, my job, my friends, books I wanted to read, etc. I had to be truly honest with myself—Daf Yomi was not currently how I wanted to spend my time.
Before I got through the first tractate, I decided to quit.
The Freedom of Being Honest With One’s Self
Though I truly wanted to be a student of Daf Yomi, it turns out that I didn’t want it as bad as I had initially thought. While it seemed like a nice idea, it was never really a passion. Don’t get me wrong—I love being a student of my faith, but a tractate of Talmud isn’t what my hand naturally gravitates to when approaching my bookshelf. I’m much more of a Mishneh Torah, Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Nachman, or Mussar type of guy.
But this extends further than which books I want to read. This extends into being honest with who I am. Should I want to be a Talmud student? Sure—Talmud has shaped the faith, practice, and minds of my people for generations. Am a Talmud student? Eh, not really. And there’s nothing wrong with that. And I’m not saying that I shouldn’t give up on religious study altogether just because Talmud study isn’t my cup of tea, but rather that being honest with myself allows me the freedom to explore what is my cup of tea and give it more of my time. Why? Sometimes someone’s cup of tea isn’t tea at all. Sometimes it’s black coffee.
As soon as I decided, “I quit, but I feel OK about quitting,” that squirming toddler on my shoulders of the responsibilities associated with Daf Yomi stopped fluttering and hopped down. I pointed my existing podcast listeners to an alternative podcast with a passionate host. I completely took down the blog (not that it really had any traction) and reallocated that slot in my day towards things that truly resonated with who I am. I increased my journaling. I tightened the bolts on my daily exercise and meditation routine. I made a conscious effort to be more present with my wife and son. I started to interact with friends, setting up hang outs mostly free of digital distractions. I did things that I would look forward to with great anticipation.
I learned a lot from my short time studying Daf Yomi, but the biggest lesson I learned is that an intentional, well-executed “OK, I give up” is immensely underrated.
“Why do I get pesto? Why do I think I’ll like it? I keep trying to like it—like I have to like it.”
“Who said you have to like it?”
“Everybody likes pesto. You walk into a restaurant, that’s all you hear—pesto, pesto, pesto.”
“I don’t like pesto.”
“Where was pesto ten years ago?”
More than a scene from “The Busboy” episode of Seinfeld, you’ve likely experienced an instance like this yourself—a situation where you feel self-conscious about exerting your preferences and “sticking to your guns.” In an attempt to be an open-minded explorer of worlds, you end up forgoing sure-fire preferences for maybe-I’ll-like-it-this-times.
Here’s an unpopular opinion: pickiness is severely underrated.
Though modern society is designed to make us feel like curmudgeons for not continually seeking the hip new thing, most of this anxiety is engineered FOMO—fear of missing out. I, for one, lean into JOMO—the joy of missing out. How? By embracing my picky, quirky, eccentric ways, i.e., things I know I’ll like.
The Happiness of a Picky Kid
As a kid, did you have bouts of pickiness? Were there periods of time whenever you were obsessed with a particular song, food, or clothing ensemble? Do you recall how much happiness these simple preferences brought you? I was recently revisiting my childhood pickiness and discovered something quite magical; if you dare to abandon all outside expectations for what you’re supposed to want, like, or enjoy, you can receive immense joy from the simplest of creature comforts.
There is one caveat of this path, though — you have to channel your inner picky child.
Picky Child or Chronic Preference Researcher?
I was blessed with very wise parents. They recognized that children operate in phases. Instead of freaking out about the bizarre choices my brother and I would make, they would give us our space, but closely monitor our choices to see where they would take us.
Most of the time, my chosen preferences about what I wanted to eat, wear, pump into my headphones, or watch on the television — all were subject to sudden and drastic change. My parents also understood that, had they wanted to limit my bouts of experimentation, there would be a strong likelihood I would resent this intrusion and latch to what they deemed detestable — aka, the cause of most teenage rebellion. Their only stipulations were for my own good — making sure that I ate my vegetables, got to bed at a reasonable hour, and never rolled my eyes when asked to brush my teeth or take out the trash.
I imagine that this tolerance of my experimentation wasn’t always easy for them. At one point in my childhood, I remember a time when all I wanted to wear were overall-shorts, red cowboy boots, a cape, and my dad’s old football helmet (notice I didn’t mention a shirt). I remember accompanying my mom to pick up my dad from the airport one day, donned in my broke-down superhero vestments. Everyone at the baggage claim likely assumed I was as crazy as a soup sandwich…or that I was five years old, which I was.
But guess what? I was happy and everyone was fine.
The Picky 30-Something-Year-Old
Returning to the realization that I was allowed to embrace my picky inner child came about recently not as an epiphany as much as it was my wife giving my picky behavior a loving dig. One evening, while watching the famed producer Rick Rubin interview another famed producer, Pharrell, I said to my wife, “Rick Rubin is my spirit animal.”
For those of you unacquainted with Rick Rubin, he’s pretty much the veteran Gandalf of recorded modern music with a likely shorter list of musicians he hasn’t worked with than he has. In addition to his work, he is a caricature of “cool.” Though always sporting a long, thick beard and a shoulder-length truly unmanicured bed head, these days, he’s almost always in cotton shorts, barefoot, oozing Sunday-afternoon-backyard-uncle energy. His words float out of his bearded face like clouds with so much space between sentences that you could rent it out in Midtown Tulsa for $900 a month. You get it — I like the guy.
“Only that you can’t stand to wear shorts or go barefoot,” my wife said without looking up from the cabbage stew she was stirring on the stove. She was right — I’m one quirky dude.
Just to give you a further taste:
I have to sleep in full pajamas because I don’t like the feeling of my skin touching my other skin — also the reason I rarely wear shorts.
I choose coffee mugs by the way their handles feel.
Before I was married, I only slept in hammocks.
I once spent about five hours shopping for the perfect belt. It turned out to be about $12.
I dislike the feeling of plastic — especially plastic cups and combs.
All of my clothes must be “nappable.”
Depending on the closeness of our relationship, if you are a male, I will likely call you either “buddy” (for friendly acquaintances) or “bubba” (for close personal friends).
I could go on, but then again, so could you.
The act of acknowledging my eccentricities scratches an even deeper itch—that these quirks are my conditions for increased happiness and optimal living. The way my clothes, combs, and coffee mugs feel. The warmth I feel for my friends. The intention I put into the possessions I choose to let into my life. My disregard for certain societal norms (e.g. sleeping in a bed) versus comfort preferences (e.g. sleeping in a hammock). By taking ownership of my “quirks” and the ways in which I am picky, I can lean into these to bring more joy into my life. Like a pet lizard’s owner fills their reptile’s terrarium with the lizard’s favorite things, I realized that I too could fill my life with the sensations I find most pleasing to facilitate consistent joy.
Imagine a Life Filled with Favorites
“If you do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten.” – Tony Robbins
Though this quote is usually meant to jar people out of a rut, when you apply it to a scenario in which you enjoy what things that you’ve always done, it takes on an entirely new meaning. It goes from, if only I could get out of this rut to you mean I don’t have to feel bad about only wanting to wear bamboo-fiber socks? Nice! Bring on more of the same, please!
The Dangers of Living in a Joy Terrarium
While living in a bubble of your own curated happiness sounds blissful, before you do so, there are a handful of questions you should probably ask yourself.
Are any of my preferential quirks self-destructive?
You wouldn’t think that a lifestyle preference perceived as optimal could be self-destructive, but they absolutely can. Excessive usage of pretty much anything can be harmful to your physical, mental, and spiritual health. One question to ask before leaning into a quirky preference is, “is this sustainable?” If your quirk is that you only want to eat top ramen, the answer is a resounding “no.” I don’t believe that stuff is actually even food.
Are any of your “quirks” rooted in prejudice?
There’s a massive difference between a quirky preference and a prejudiced mindset based on unsubstantiated hate of an entire people or culture. If that’s the case, you’re not picky or quirky—you’re likely just a jerk. Genuine preferences are developed utilizing research and experimentation. George doesn’t like pesto because he’s tried pesto, not because he hates Italians.
Are there any of my quirks that may hurt or inconvenience anyone else?
I feel blessed that most of my conditions for joy are relatively benign to the existence of others. My coffee mug, wooden comb, and single belt do not adversely impact the life of my wife or son. If you have a preference for listening to the music at full blast or sleeping in a hammock while married, you may need to compromise on some of your lifestyle choices. This compromise would be for the sake of preserving essential relationships and the sanity of those in your life. I’ve personally discovered that I occasionally need to make comprises because not everyone enjoys jalapeno and anchovy pizza as much as I do. But seriously, give it a shot…or don’t. Your preference.
Dipping Your Toe Out of Your Comfort Zone…You Know, For Research Purposes
Keep in mind that you once dipped your toe out of your comfort zone to discover what you now prefer. If your favorite food is authentic Chinese cooking and you’re not from a Chinese family, you likely took a gamble at one point—and it paid off! Though it can be tempting to limit yourself solely to your picky preferences, allow yourself instances where you take these gambles for research purposes. Set time aside from life in your terrarium to lower your force fields and try the fish tofu pudding fish from China Garden at 31st & Mingo in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Yes, this has all been an elaborate commercial for China Garden. Ok, just kidding. But seriously, it’s so damn good.
There Really is No “MO” in JOMO
JOMO (the joy of missing out) is somewhat of an inaccurate description of the sensation of relishing in your eccentricities. There isn’t really any “missing out” from the perspective of an honest JOMOer…or is it JOMOist? No, being picky in this context does not mean plugging your ears, closing your eyes, and singing the chorus to German Eurodance group ATC’s 1999 international radio hit “Around the World” (yes, it’s “la la la la”). Being picky means you’ve done the research, you’ve discovered what you like, and you’ve chosen to spend the majority of your relatively short life enjoying these selections rather than being consumed with chasing after fleeting maybes.
Some call them “creature comforts.” A JOMOist just calls them “my life.”
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