“I hope you don’t get what you want in life, because then you are Fucked.”
For over 20 years, this phrase has been one of my guiding principles. Today I am softening it.
Why soften it? I want my guiding principles to be in the positive frame, not the negative. While this has been great click bait and jolts the system, it does so by triggering a visceral emotional reaction: “What do you mean not get what I want? Isn’t that the point of life?” That reaction is why I like the principle, but I don’t want to relive the negative shock every time I hear it.
While I haven’t figured out exactly how to reframe this principle, something along the lines of :
“Process goals are what you want in life”
Process goals trump outcome oriented goals.
I hope your goals support your values.
The [[good life]] is a process not a goal.
Basically, the value of the positive frame in most things I do has risen in my value stack, and I am reframing whatever I can in that way. Give it a try.
For as long as I can remember, I have had goals. At the end of a goal (successful or not) the question is always the same: What now? For a long time, the answer was another goal. This has been a treadmill to nowhere. When I started asking the question of where do the goals come from, it became clear that it was my values. My values determined what goals I thought were important. For a very long time I was unconscious of my values. I now spend most of my time exploring values and the goals follow from that. This can be either an unconscious process or a conscious process. The fact is that values drive goals. You set goals based on what you value. Life becomes enjoyable and easy when goals come out of considered values. The goals don’t seem to be so much work anymore.
Step 1 is to wake up to the fact that values drive goals.
Step 2 is to become conscious of your values.
How to take step 2? Take step 1 first. There are good value exercises like this one, which can get you started. Consider a purpose statement with my handy dandy tool. Don’t worry about getting them all right the first time, it is a journey, a process not a goal. I have found it useful to keep a values document which lists my values and some animating principals that I review on a regular basis. Figure out what is missing, what may have changed, if I want to re-order any of them. The win is to understand, not to get it “right”. I have shared mine below.
I experienced a stark reminder yesterday of how insidiously ugly regret can be. A major internet influencer posted a video about a topic which trending up and to the right lately. Lots of people are talking about it, writing books and companies are building specialty apps around the concept. While this guy was one of the first to talk about the concept over 10 years ago, he is not one of the current media darlings around the topic. The concept, while trending today is also as old as the world, it is something humans have been doing since the dawn of time. It is something many religious practices teach and ascetics practice. The current discussion is basically a popularisation for the masses. And the guy in the video was pissed off that all these people weren’t giving him credit for talking about it for 10 years. His regret at being left out of the current popularity oozed through every frame. It was not a good look. Half way through, I stopped listening to what he was saying and just felt bad for the guy. His message was not getting through all the regret.
You can’t change the past. So regret is a completely wasted emotion. And when you have it, it can completely change the character of your present. Like a video on a subject you care deeply about. The message of the video was completely lost on me, hidden behind all the regret. The guy’s present moment was destroyed by his ascent to regret about the past. The problem is not that he felt regret. Feelings come into consciousness all the time from who knows where. The problem was his ascent to and identification with regret so that someone watching a video could clearly see and feel it. The regret was passed on with other things he was trying to say and reduced the effectiveness of his message. I doubt that was his intent.
At first blush this seems to be exactly the opposite advice I have given before. And to go against my investing rule to only invest in companies with CEO’s who meditate. Yesterday I watched Ryan Holiday talk about his bookStillness is the Key at Google. He gave his 10 tips to add Stillness to your life “and I am not going to tell you to meditate because you probably won’t anyway.” Yesterday I also listened to something from Sam Harris in his Waking Up app where he pointed out the purpose of meditation is not to become a “meditator”, but to become better at life.
As I roll back through my own meditation journey, I started out of a feeling of guilt and shame. I had tried to “meditate” to be “a meditator” and had “failed”. I couldn’t find a rhythm, it didn’t flow, I was a failure. So my first forays back into learning to meditate were to “win at meditation”. To right the wrong, the failure. That certainly was enough motivation. And as my practice evolved I started to realize the change in my everyday awareness and ability to pause in difficult situations and consider the right action. That pause is likely a result of the practice of meditation, a benefit from the practice which caused everything in my life to change. More resilience, more calm, more pause, less emotional reactivity. The real upside is all that stuff not the time “meditating”.
One of Ryan Holiday’s 10 suggestions is “practice presence”. That is basically meditation. Anytime you are awake to the present moment, you are meditating. There are many ways to be awake to the present moment, having a meditation practice like a mantra based, or breath focused practice, is one. So is gardening, fixing a fence, mowing the lawn, fixing a motorcycle, riding a motorcycle. Anytime you must focus on something right in front of you and let the rest go, you are meditating.
So Remember Martin: Don’t be a meditator. Be present. Practice the pause between stimulus and response.
I have been doing Morning Pages for almost a two years now. It seems like every week I meet someone else for whom Morning Pages has earned a place in the morning routine. Here are some of my personal hacks that make Morning Pages even better:
On a desk with pen and paper. The point of morning pages is to focus and get the brain/hand connection working. Get the body and mind in sync. And to provide a distraction-free outlet for thoughts and feelings. I have tried using online applications to do morning pages. Bad idea, too many popups and distractions and too easy to indulge the impulse in checking email or facebook or any of the other shiny things that come up during the sitting. The best way to focus at the appropriate pace is to sit at a technology free desk or table with a pen, and college ruled journal.
No electronics within reach. It is tempting to keep the “productivity” tool close to indulging those inspirations which come. But this is focus time. 15-20 minutes. The point is that you have the rest of the day for technology. Leave it all outside your reach.
Set a timer. I have found that daydreaming is the first distraction during morning pages. If I take away the technology enabler of most distraction, I am left with just staring off into space daydreaming. To combat that, setting a timer has been effective because I know that thing is going go off and I want to be done before it does. I use Google Home to set the timer.
Post-it notes. The most common shiny distraction that my monkey mind wants to indulge and get out of Morning Pages are additional to-do items that come up during the sitting. Since it is a creative time, there are frequently things that come up that I want to follow up on or do later. When I used to have my phone next to me, I would put them on the to-do list right then. But about 70% of the time I would get sucked into a rathole of further investigation or googling to flush out something. That would all be enabling delays in Morning Pages. But I didn’t want to lose those items of inspiration, so I now put a pad of post-it notes next to my journal. Inspirational to-do items go there. After the sitting, I take those things over to the computer, if on second thought they still seem worthy, I add them to the to-do lists then.
Feeling word list. Often when writing, I have to describe a feeling. Before I found Byron Katie’s emotions list, I thought there were about three feelings (angry, happy, sad). Now when faced with describing a feeling I start with I am feeling… then read through the entire list of feelings. I write down every word that seems to fit with the feeling. Typically I come up with 10-20 feeling words. And in this process, I have never had the same set of words for two different events. The subtleties of the feelings come out. You get to understand at a visceral level what is going on inside you and how that situation was different from the one yesterday. While the at the top level both may be “angry,” when you read the longer list and notice the differences, you understand the next level of feelings. Critical hack to get to the real issues.
Something to drink. Always have something to drink. I have two things. Usually coffee and water. Or Tea and water. Make full cups, so you don’t get up in the middle and use getting a drink as an excuse to stop morning pages. Making coffee can be a 5-minute distraction. Don’t let the monkey get the control that long.
List of Journal Prompts. I have not had a problem filling three pages recently, but for the first few months, I did. This list of prompts has helped me break through and get going. Just read the list, and after you read through them, the writing will start. One of them will trigger something, and the pen will start moving. As a stand alone exercise I also sometimes just print out the list of prompts and write a sentence or two about each from top to bottom.
Word of the Day at the top of the Page. Every day should have a primary intention for the day. I usually set this word in my Intention/Decision exercise just before Morning Pages. If you don’t do that, just come up with one word for the day. And write it at the top of the first page. Today my word was “Present.” That one word can start a whole page of dialogue. Why did you choose that word? Why today? What was the word yesterday? Why did it change?
Do decision intention worksheet before. A huge part of waking up for me is being intellectually honest with myself. Am I living in line with my intentions? As a habit to track that congruency or synchronicity, I created the http://wp.me/p6JmUh-5sIntention/Decison exercise. I do it before morning pages every day.
Be authentic. Make sure your Morning Pages work is actually in line with your goal/values. Early on in Morning pages, my monkey mind lets me believe three pages of wide ruled writing (160 words per page) was the same as three pages of college ruled writing (250 words per page). Contemplation and Analysis caught that cognitive disconnect. I fixed it. Make sure you are being authentic and not cheating yourself.
Record emotions by moment to moment sensations. While #5 has been a life-saving hack, what it is getting at is DEPTH. Don’t write in your journal “I was scared”. Using #5, I write the 20 other feeling words that are also there and get a much more rich understanding of the emotion. Another technique I borrowed from this guy, is to reproduce emotions by the moment to moment signal and sensory experiences that you went through. The five ways we feel emotions are:
Signals in the body. Temperature, heartbeat, lungs, muscles, nerves, etc.
Signals outside the body. Gestures, posture, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc.
Flashes from the past. Not analysis but “bursts of waking dream”
Flashes from the future. More dream bursts, but as premonitions of what might happen. Again, not analytical. (not “being scared was bad”)
Sensual selectivity. What we sense from the world around us, filtered by emotions. (like “the sun burned a hole in my heart”)
I have found these hacks to improve morning pages for me. I hope they do for you as well.
Listed here are questions/ideas which are my favorite prompts for journaling. I periodically print this out and keep it next to my Morning Pages to break through if I get stuck. Another trick which I do about once a month is to print this out and use it as stand alone journaling exercise. Just fill in a couple sentences for each question on the page.
Prompts from the ZEN frame:
What area(s) of my life could use more attention and mastery? Relationships? Work? Health? Spirituality?
If I really tell the truth about what I can work on today, I would say….
How do I want to BE in the world?
What do I want life to feel like? Work? Relationships? Health?
How do I want others to experience me?
Judgments that often come up are….
A core disempowering / restrictive story I tell myself or that I FEEL is….
What is a challenging theme of your life story that keeps repeating itself?
If I were to choose to engage with the world and in my relationships differently, I would be more / less…
What are my top 5 skills or personal traits?
PROMPTS from the STOIC frame:
What am I lacking in attaining freedom from attachment?
What for tranquility?
What am I not?
Who am I not?
What / who then?
What then is demanded of me today?
How did I steer away from tranquility?
What did I do yesterday that was unfriendly, unsocial, or uncaring?
What is a judgment that I have on my mind right now?
What specific emotions (using the emotion list) do I feel around that judgment?
What bad habit did I curb?
How am I better?
Were my actions just or were they unjust?
How can I improve on my decisions yesterday going forward?
Everything bad that we think happens to us is in fact a bad dream. The reactions are the problem not the thing. Wake up and don’t let the story about the dream cause more problems than the thing itself.
I know from personal experience that having a plan and contemplating intentions leads to a more well-lived life. A life lived more in alignment with my values and intentions because I am keeping those plans top of mind and reducing the random walks and drifting in life. It is during the drifts that I get into troubled waters usually (again discerned after much contemplation). So realizing that things go better when my intentions are more often in my conscious mind, I started thinking about what daily habits or exercises I could add to support that behavior. For the last month, I have been doing this Intention/Decision activity, and it has won a spot in my daily routine, so here it is. While related to “How to make decisions” which lays out a set of decision guardrails, this is more of a tactical support habit for planning and cognitive authenticity.
As part of my morning routine, after making coffee, before sitting down for Morning Pages, I sit down with the day’s calendar and my to-do list and fill out an Intention/Decision log. A list of the major decisions I expect to have to make today. Things that are habits are not on the list. There is not a decision to make if it is a habit. Whatever comes to mind. Like where and with who should I have dinner? Or Should I work out or not if it is an off habit day? Or should I accept an invitation to play poker with friends? Should I do this big project today or tomorrow? Here is my Intention/Decision log for today:
Here are the column descriptions:
Filled out in the morning for Today:
Date/name: I put the date and my name there (obviously)
Word of the day: What word do I want to be the foundational intent of the day. Today is “Present.” Often it is one of the four Stoic virtues (Temperance, Wisdom, Justice, Courage). It is the first word that pops into my head when my pen gets to that par of the page.
Cat: What category is the decision in? Of the four big classes of that affect life balance and wellness, Health, Wealth/work, Relationships/Family/Tribe, Soul/Spirituality. Then fill out how many decisions in each category down below. This will give me a cognitive trigger for how the day is going to be balanced. Is it primarily a work day? or relationships? or spirituality? Also, it helps me to make sure (since one of my goals is to have a balanced life) to have a major decision in each of the four categories.
Decision: What is the decision I expect to have to make today?
Intention: What is my intention around that decision? Now, in the morning, with my virtues and goals by my side, before the craziness of the day has taken over. What is my intention?
TWJCI: Does this decision have anything to do with the four major Stoic Virtues or an Indifferent? Temperance, Wisdom, Justice, Courage, or Indifferent? An Indifferent is wealth, status, fame, health, etc. All decisions should have at least one of these. Because if it does not, the decision is likely out of my control and should not be a decision at all. Or it is a habit which is also not a decision.
Then also in the morning, I pick up the Intention/Decision log from yesterday and review my performance yesterday by filling out these columns:
Y/N: Did my actual decision match my intention Yes or No.
Notes: Especially if the decision didn’t match the intention, why? What was the reason for variance?
% I/D sync: How may Y vs N in the Y/N column. Today it was 6/7. That means 6 out of 7 times I ended up making the decision during the day that I intended to in the morning. My goal is 100% synchronization.
Primary Variance Cause: Why did I not follow through on intentions. If it happened a lot, what is the ONE THING that was the biggest cause. This is to raise this leak in my cognitive stack so I am aware of it going forward.
One Change for Tomorrow: What one thing (if anything) should I do going forward to achieve 100% Intention/Decision synchronization?
This exercise has really helped wake me up to the truth of “Am I living life according to my stated values?” Something that can easily get sidetracked without a habit of reflection. I like the exercise and will keep it in my daily routine until further notice. It takes less than 5 minutes a day and is worth the investment for the cognitive authenticity it adds.
I invented this one, but I am sure some part of Cognitive Behavior Therapy agrees with exercises to remind cognitive self about your values and intentions on a regular basis.
Ok, so after reading 25 different ways that the Stoics tell you the only thing you have in your life is your own reasons choice (the ability to make decisions, to react to things), I have to say I agree. Philosophically this one tenant whisks away the importance of many other things like possessions, status, wealth, relationships, etc. It is actually a very heavy cognitive lift to realize that the ONLY thing that is TRULY AND EXCLUSIVELY mine is my Prohairesis. Everything else is outside my control and allowing things outside my control to determine things like my happiness or wellbeing in life is a losers game. Ok, over that cognitive hurdle.
Now comes the hard part. Similar to my advice of “I Hope you don’t get what you want in life.” Because then you have a REAL problem. You have to decide what is next after your wants and desires are gone (either fulfilled or given up). The hard part is when you accept the fact that you only have rational choice, then how do you make the best decisions? One guy has put together a handy dandy Modern Stoic decision chart which I have found handy:
In the Stoic way, the high order bit is always “Is this decision in my control or not?”. If it is, then decide if doing the thing would build one of the four virtues (wisdom, justice, temperance, courage), if yes, then do it. If no (not build a virtue) does it deal with one of the indifferent things (wealth, health, status, life, death, pleasure, and pains, etc.) Do if preferred but not if dispreferred. I found this very complex. So I have come up with my own set of guardrails when faced with decisions. And of course, I created a daily exercise to support the decision process.
Whenever I am faced with a decision in life, even small ones daily, if the answer is not immediately clear I ask myself the following framing guardrail questions:
Is this in my control? The standard Stoic question. 90 percent of decisions are here because the ones that are not in my control don’t even become decisions. Habits are not decisions. If I decide to do morning pages as a habit, it is not a decision every day to do or not do morning pages. The decisions that tend to fall outside my control have to do with other people. Like if I ask myself “Should I try to make my girlfriend happy today?” That one has two terminal errors. First, it has the weasel word “try”. Never ever decide to try. There is no try. There is only do or not do. It is NEVER a decision to “try”. Second, it is impossible to “make” someone else anything, so there is nothing to decide. The affirmative is impossible.
Choose people. There are many decisions in my day where I can choose an activity that engages with people or one that I do myself or with things. Say to work out alone in my home gym or go to coffee with a friend. Or work at home or work in the co-working space (where I may run into friends). Or dinner with friends or a stay at home organizing the garage. While I am an introvert at heart and my instinct is to do the alone thing or the inanimate thing, my experience has shown me that by choosing the decision that engages with other people, over time it results in a more well-lived life.
Create instead of consuming. Most activities in life can be put into either the creation (making something new, new experiences, new things, writing, making, etc.) or the consumption (watching TV, reading, eating, passively taking in the world) bucket. The difference is engagement. Am I active in creating something or am I passive? The allure of passivity is very compelling. Especially after a long day of work or mental engagement. The desire to unplug can be overwhelming. But again, after years of experience, when I choose the thing that creates something it always leads to a more well-lived life.
Move your ass. Basically, if the choice is between sitting at the desk or working out or doing something active, do the active thing. Always choose the active thing. When deciding where to have a meeting, a coffee shop or walking and talking? Walking and Talking.
What is the Third option? Many times we are trained to choose between two options. Republican or Democrat. Black or White. Right or Left. And many times when faced with a decision, only two options surface. But many times if I stop and ask myself if there is a third option, a hybrid, an out of the box decision to make, then more choices come up. Maybe more than three. The point is to ASK THE QUESTION.
With any decision, if I don’t know what to do, after going through those four questions, the best decision always comes out.
Life is a journey. The stuff you bring along on the journey either helps or hurts you. Much of what we are draging around with us we are barely aware of. In order to wake up to what is actually going on in your life you need to periodically stop and check what you are carrying along. And ask the question: “does this serve the journey now?” You may have picked the stuff up at one point when it felt necessary. But is it still? Yes each and every thing.
I am big on learning by doing so here comes another paractical exercise. It will take you less than 10 minutes to do and it will literally and figuratively lighten your load on the journey of life. Last week I took a look around the hotel room and questioned everything I saw. This week it is time to uppack the backpack.
Grab your backpack. Yea the thing you carry to and from work every day. Or your purse. Or Bike bag. Whatever you carry your stuff to and from work in, including your computer.
Put it on a scale and weigh it. Mine came in at 11.83 lbs.
Now unpack it. Here is an overall picture of what is in there then thrrr pictures of each compartment.
Man that is a lot of stuff! All added to the pack at some time when they seemed important.
Now go through each and every item and ask the question:
“Does this serve me for my journey ahead?”
If it does leave it in the pack.
If it does not, take it out.
Re pack for the journey ahead. Weigh the backpack again.
Here is a picture of the new contents with all the stuff taken out. And each pack section. It is noticeably less stuff.
Some of the stuff taken out:
6 pens (I only need one)
4 pairs of sunglasses (kept 2)
Fleece (I will pick the right one for the trip from closet)
Various trash items.
Keys I never use.
Out dated business cards.
Travelers checks that expired in 2008. (Yea I have been carrying them for almost 10 years).
Resulting new weight: 8.96 lbs. a reduction of 2.87 lbs. I have literally lightened my load in life. Going forward the journey will be easier and I will have more energy for the challenges ahead. I will not be bogged down with as much from the past.
Whar are you carrying around that no longer serves you? How much could you lighten your load? Go ahead. Try it. 10 minutes now could save you days of carrying around stuff you no longer need.
I am sure some attachment theory applies here. But I invented this one myself.