How to Schedule Your Day

Ladies and gentlemen, the time has come.

My thesis is so very close to being done, and it’s time to make the final charge so that I can stop writing about it and you can stop hearing about it.

My goal is to have my thesis finished and submitted by August 1.

To facilitate this plan, I’m conducting a bit of an experiment this week.

Because I work in the evenings, I tend to have a lot of free time during the day, and deciding how to allocate that time is often difficult. Sometimes I take so long to decide what to do that I don’t end up doing much of anything.

To combat this issue, I’m scheduling out each of my days the night before, à la Shawn Blanc.

For example, on Sunday night I planned out my Monday, which looked a little like this:

9:30 AM: Wake up. Check iPhone (Twitter, RSS, messages, etc.)
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM: Thesis. Fifty-minute blocks, ten-minute breaks. (Via BreakTime.)
12:00 – 1:00 PM: Workout. (Push-ups, goblet squats, overhead dumbbell presses, kettlebell swings, pull-ups, chin-ups. x2. Ten-minute run.)
1:00 – 1:30 PM: Shower, shave, dress.
1:30 – 3:00 PM: Prep and send QLE VIP Newsletter No. 1.
3:00 – 4:00 PM: Stop at Post Office. Drive to New Haven.
4:00 – 6:30 PM: Late lunch with Rich.
6:30 – 7:00 PM: Drive to Newington.
7:00 – 9:00 PM: Work.
9:15 PM: Home. Write. Rest.

It didn’t work out perfectly down to the minute, but having the day planned out was incredibly useful for knowing exactly what I should be doing right now.

One nice thing about scheduling your day is that you know exactly how long each thing is going to last. One of the barriers to working on my thesis, for example, is that it seems like such a huge task. But if I know I’m just going to work on it for two hours — and at noon, I’m done for the day — it’s much easier to concentrate and get a lot done during that time. Getting my least favorite thing out of the way first is a great feeling.

Fortunately, my dentist appointment today is scheduled for 9:40 AM.

I’m only working part-time while I finish my thesis, but this system can be applied to anyone’s work day. I recommend trying it out and seeing how it works for you.

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Year of the Habit: June

It’s June 1, and that means a new habit.

But first, the year in review:

I actually don’t have much to say about May’s habit. I was successful. My most expensive area was Auto, which comprised about a third of my spending. I only filled up with gas twice though, which pleases me. The Payments category took up another third of my spending, mainly due to student loans, which I’ve now consolidated. Food came in next at 10%. I ate out four times last month, not all of which were necessary, but not bad overall.

I’m pleased to report my number of unnecessary expenses was fairly low. I did buy a couple of t-shirts, which are my guilty pleasure. I spent a bit of money on Mother’s Day, and a little on personal items. I spent $23.90 on ten apps in iTunes, which I suppose is a lot. Overall, I’m pretty pleased with my spending habits, and I’m going to continue tracking expenses in the coming months.

Bonus Habits

These are additional habits I’ve picked up along the way this year.

  • Writing every day.
  • Taking cold showers.
  • Working out regularly, including doing yoga every day in April. This is an area where I’ve fallen off the wagon. Since the 30-Day Challenge ended, I’ve been reduced to going to yoga once or twice a week, which I’m not happy about. Subsequently, I’ve also lost most of my early rising habit. I’m not sleeping as late as I used to, but I’m nowhere near waking up at 6:30 AM every day as I did in April. I’ve let my thesis flounder as well. This is obviously due to a lack of self-discipline on my part, and I’m working on it.

Which brings us to June.

I’m unhappy about losing my early riser habit and the resulting drop in productivity. With that in mind, in June I’m going to try something I’m calling “No Wasted Days”.

What’s that mean?

I’m going to try to get something done every day in June. I’m going to try to make every day worthwhile. Whether that’s working on my thesis, or QLE, or exercising, or learning new music, I want to put my time to good use on a daily basis.

At the end of each day, I want to be able to able to say, “Today I did something that will help me get to where I want to be.”

Even though this habit seems vague, it’s something I feel I need to focus on right now. I’m about to undergo a major lifestyle change, which I’ll discuss in more detail next week, and it’s going to require that I bring my A-game. Shit’s about to get real, as they say.

Thank you so much for reading, have an exceptional weekend, and I’ll see you guys Monday.


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Favorite Apps: Ritual

I came across an app this week that makes a perfect companion to the Seinfeld productivity method.

It’s called Ritual.

Ritual helps you commit to your New Year’s resolutions, establish new habits, and keep track of your weight, spending, working hours, and more.

The app features a beautiful split-pane interface. On the left is a sort of linear calendar. On the right is the daily view, where you input the habits you want to track, like “Take vitamins”, “Eat healthy”, or “Exercise”.

If you complete your ritual, you check the box next to that habit. As time goes on, the calendar on the left gets filled with checkmarks to show you how many days in a row you’ve done your habit.

After you’ve been tracking for a few days, you can tap each habit to view graphs and charts of your progress.

When adding new habits, you have the option of making them “Yes/No” habits or “Number” habits. The Yes/No variety is self-explanatory: Did you work out today? Check for Yes, leave unchecked for No.

If you use a Number habit, you input the value for whatever your habit is. Say you want to do push-ups. Ritual lets you track how many you perform each day. You can also use this feature to track your weight or spending over time.

Ritual is pretty sparse in the settings department, but you can set reminders, and you can export your data via an email spreadsheet.

I won’t be using Ritual to track my expenses, as I prefer the functionality of a dedicated finance app. However, it has earned a spot on my second home screen as a way of staying focused and doing my habits every day. I was using a desk calendar for this purpose last month, but Ritual allows me to track my habits on-the-go, and I can add as many as I want. It’s simple, beautiful, and useful.

You can get Ritual for $1.99 on the App Store.

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Year of the Habit: May

Mayday! Mayday!

Welcome to the fifth installment of The Year of the Habit 2012.

As is customary, let’s review the year so far before revealing May’s habit.

  • January: Started flossing every day.
  • February: Stopped biting my nails.
  • March: Attempted to read every day. Mostly unsuccessful. Currently reading Buddhism Plain & Simple and The Art of Expressing the Human Body.
  • April: Health nut month. With the help of the Seinfeld productivity method, I was able to chart my healthy and unhealthy days quite easily. I had six unhealthy days in April, all of which occurred on either a Saturday or a Sunday, and most of which were special occasions (birthdays, christenings, etc.). My longest streak was seven healthy days in a row. Twenty-four healthy days out of thirty total means I was Primal 80% of the time, which I’m happy with overall. Coincidentally, that ratio exemplifies the 80/20 principle, which suggests that shooting for perfection usually lands you somewhere around an 80% success rate. I would have preferred it to be slightly higher, but 80/20 is a good balance, and visually representing my eating habits visually was a valuable experience. Weekends are obviously the most challenging days to eat well, while I’m able to remain in healthy mode throughout the week. In general, I’m considering April a success.

Bonus Habits

In addition to my monthly goals, I’ve also adopted some bonus habits that have made a huge difference in my 2012 so far. These include:

As I’ve said before, these unplanned habits speak to the power and momentum of small changes.

What’s Next? Dollar Dollar Bills, Y’all.

May is money month.

I’m actually a little nervous about this one, because numbers are evil, but it’s a step I need to take. My thesis is very close to done, and soon my singular focus will be on ways to make sufficient income.

But what makes one’s income “sufficient”? Well, that’s what I intend to figure out.

During the month of May, I’m going to be tracking all of my expenses.

This habit will provide me with several useful bits of insight:

  1. By knowing how much I spend in a month, I’ll know approximately how much I need to make to live.
  2. I’ll be able to identify needless spending that has hitherto gone unnoticed.
  3. I’ll be more mindful about how I spend my money knowing that it’s going to be recorded.
  4. I’ll be able to use my spending data to develop a budget for the future.

Of course, I’ll be using an iOS app to track all of my expenses. I’m going to start with Saver, but I also plan on testing out a few others. I’ll let you know of my favorites.

May is going to be a challenge in the sense that this is one habit I don’t love. Unlike trying to eat healthy or write every day, which were fun and enjoyable, I’m not looking forward to seeing where my money goes. But, it’s necessary, and I’m sure the experience will be enlightening.

And that’s what we’re all about, isn’t it?

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How to Win a Staring Contest with a Cupcake


That’s the number of cupcakes that were left over after my niece’s christening party. Chocolate with vanilla creme filling, and red velvet. Each the size of my face. Sitting there, staring. Unblinking. Waiting for me to cave. Damn you, Stew Leonard.

It’s easy to be enthusiastic when a goal or habit is new and exciting. It’s fresh, and you’re fired up about being a better person.

But once that newness wears off — like say, when you’re 23 days into health nut month — it’s hard to maintain the enthusiasm. You’re tired, maybe a little cranky, and you’ve become complacent. You’re used to your goal. It’s no longer at the forefront of your mind, but lodged somewhere in the back. Your energy drifts elsewhere, which makes you vulnerable to slipping up.

Our enthusiasm for positive change fluctuates over time. In the case of diet and exercise, some days, we’re fired up, rarin’ to go, ready to be the healthiest person ever. Other days, the mere scent of a cupcake can cause the whole thing to come crashing down.

It’s easy to make excuses in the face of a cupcake. That sexy pastry’s right there, taunting you. Moist, sweet, delicious. Loaded with sugar. You know it’s bad for you, but the excuses start to form in your mind…

I’ve been healthy all day/week…

I had an awful day, I deserve a cupcake…

It’s not a big deal. It’s just one bite…

When staring down a cupcake, these excuses creep in and take over. They take root in your mind, and suddenly you can’t remember any of your motivation for being healthy. The brain becomes overwhelmed with temptation, and so there’s no room for discipline.

A solution I’ve been experimenting with this month is something I’m calling “The Reasons Why List”.

The Reasons Why List is self-explanatory. It’s a list of reminders about why you’re working toward your goal. For example:

  1. I want to look like Tarzan.
  2. Sugar will kill me.
  3. Bruce Lee definitely wouldn’t eat that.
  4. Gotta look good naked!
  5. I want to live for as long as possible.

And so on. You’d be surprised how many you can come up with. When staring down a cupcake, consult your Reasons Why List.

Eating a cupcake is a pleasurable experience, there’s no doubt about it. But that pleasure is fleeting. The five minutes spent eating a cupcake are wonderful, but they’re soon followed by physical and mental discomfort. An unhappy stomach, and a guilty voice inside your head. Was it worth it? Maybe yes, maybe no.

Documenting all of your reasons why can help you determine whether or not a cupcake is worth the consequences. The Reasons Why List reminds you who you are and who you want to be.

When staring down a cupcake, remember your reasons. Beat back the temptation, and move a little closer toward your goal.

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Easter Casualities

Well, after seven healthy days in a row, I crashed and burned in a fiery explosion of Easter entrées, desserts, and candy. Pants were stretched, stomachs were tested, and abdominal muscles were forced to retreat from the Easter bunny’s onslaught.

But, that’s alright.

The important thing to remember about diverting from habits is that it’s very easy to go back to them.

All you have to do is step back on the path.

I could allow myself to feel guilty and depressed about the eight straight hours of sweets and treats, but what good is that going to do?

One bad meal isn’t as bad as one bad day, and one bad day isn’t as bad as one bad week. Rather, one bad meal is a mere bump in the road. When you look at the big picture, the healthy days still greatly outnumber the unhealthy days.

At the same time, one must be mindful. One bite doesn’t mean the whole day is shot. You can’t allow one mistake to become two, or three, or seven.

Don’t allow one step off the path to become an excuse for tumbling off a cliff.

Rather, when you’re stuffed with truffles, or high from caramels, or laden with cheesecake, take pleasure in the realization that you brought this on yourself. If you can choose to step off the path, you can just as easily choose to step back on. Right now.

Sometimes you have to utterly destroy yourself to remember just how much control you have.

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That Week I Changed My Life

On the evening of March 31, I took the long way home — as I do — and decided that it was time to make a drastic, life-changing decision.

What lead me to this point?

Thesis Bound

Lately, I’ve been struggling with remembering who I am, which in large part has been a side effect of my inability to finish my thesis.

Not having my thesis done was paralyzing me. I felt guilty about not having it done, and I also felt unable to concentrate on anything else, like job hunts, apartment searches, important work, etc.

I could not move forward until my thesis was finished.

A thesis is like an anchor, weighing you down and serving as your one final — but incredibly strong — tie to academia. It’s the last remaining bond between student life and the real world.

In some ways, it’s comforting. You’re still a student. The full pressures of adulthood do not yet apply to you. But, it’s debilitating for the same reasons. You’re still a student. All you have to show for it is a couple of degrees, a lack of direction, and no career.

My Fault

My inability to finish my thesis had been due to a lack of discipline. I work in the evenings, and I’m a night owl. I love to stay up late and sleep in.

When it comes to getting out of bed in the morning, a thesis is perhaps the least effective motivator of all time.

I’d stay up until the wee hours of the morning and sleep until lunchtime, only to spend another hour in bed catching up on the day’s news on my iPhone. If I was lucky I’d find the strength to exercise in some fashion before having lunch and going to work in the afternoon.

Sounds luxurious, but it sucked.

I was in a rut, paralyzed by a routine of ignorance and complacency, ignoring who I wanted to be and just waiting for things to get better. I would fantasize about how awesome my life was going to be, and then I’d wait for it to happen.

Until I realized waiting doesn’t work.

Survey Says

Several stars aligned that last weekend in March, which helped me to reverse my downward spiral.

The first was that my yoga studio was about to start a 30-day challenge for the month of April. Hot yoga, Monday–Friday, 7–8 AM; your choice of weekend classes.

I had no intention of doing the challenge. I wanted to, but I told myself I couldn’t do it.

I work too late. I don’t know how to go to bed early. I’m literally miserable in the morning. I’m a stubbornly proud night owl. Let the cheery morning people do it.

However, that weekend I had to work my monthly Saturday shift, which consisted of teaching eight three- and four-year old boys how to do karate at 8:30 in the morning. So, I was up early. Not by choice, but I was up early.

On Sunday, I decided to go to yoga at 9 AM because my schedule had changed, and I was no longer able to attend my Thursday night class. I like to practice yoga at least twice a week, so I went to bed at a decent hour Saturday night, and made it to yoga the next morning. Up early again, this time by choice.

I’d risen early two days in a row, which is a rare thing.

Which brings us back to my Sunday night drive.


As I cruised along my familiar route, I listened to no music, no podcasts. I thought long and hard about the challenge, my thesis, and my life. And then I realized…

This is the only way you’re going to get your thesis done.

This is the only way to free yourself.

This is the only way to move forward.

That was nine days ago.

Since that night, I’ve woken up at 6:25 AM. Every morning.

I’ve done yoga from 7–8 AM. Every morning.

I’ve come home, enjoyed a cold shower, gotten dressed, made tea, and read. Every morning.

I’ve been at the library when it opens, worked on my thesis, and written for three hours. Every morning.

This routine has turned my life upside for the better.

When I say it was a life-changing week, I don’t mean to be hyperbolic. My productivity, mood, and sense of self-worth have increased ten-fold. I’ve been a proud night owl for as long as I can remember, and here I am getting up with the sun every day. I never thought it could happen, and I never thought it would matter.

It did, and it does.

I love it.

Freedom Found at Dawn

When my alarm goes off in the morning, it’s cool, calm, and quiet. There’s a sense of solitude, which is what I crave and thrive on.

When I practice yoga at 7 AM, I take care of my body. I get my exercise out of the way, first thing, and I feel energized for the rest of the day. If I want to do more exercise later, great. If not, it’s no big deal.

I get home, and it’s still only 8 AM. The whole day still lies ahead, and I feel like I’ve already gotten so much done. The library doesn’t open until 10 AM, so I take my time. I relax. I enjoy the shower. I shave mindfully instead of in a rush. I have time to make green tea. I sit by the window with my iPad, reading my favorite sites or equally amazing things in Instapaper.

I drive to the library at 10 AM. It’s about a ten-minute drive; just enough to enjoy some music or listen to one of my favorite podcasts. It’s beautiful outside. Springtime. The sun is shining, the sky is blue and infinite, and the clouds are fluffy. The roads are mostly quiet, as the morning rush has ended. It’s been an amazing day, and it’s only 10 AM.

I take my usual cubicle in the library, in the corner by the window. I’m surrounded by books and people in pursuit of knowledge. I power up my Mac and work on my thesis, fifty minutes at a time. I take breaks, stand up, and stretch. It feels good to put my head down and power through the work. I keep adding words and pages. I feel like I’m making it better, and I feel like I’m getting better in the process.

I feel like I’m working toward where I want to be.

Around 1 PM, I stop working on my thesis — even if I want to keep going. I make a note of where to start tomorrow. I preserve the momentum. Then, I write something for this website, which I love to do. I take an idea I’ve been formulating, and allow it to become manifest. It’s a reward for typing about Middle English lyrics for the last three hours. The words seem to come easier, writing about things I love. I finish the draft. It’ll be reread and revised later on before being queued for publication. I feel accomplished.

And it’s only 2 PM.

I go home for lunch, feeling exceptional. Guilt-free. Productive. Healthy. Confident. I can eat mindfully, without rushing. After, I leave for work on time, or work out, or relax, depending on the day. So much has already gotten done; everything else that happens today is just gravy.

Life feels remarkable.

The biggest challenge is going to bed early, because I do work until 9 PM some nights. But, I manage to be in bed around 10 PM. I either read, or treat myself to some Netflix on my iPhone. And I’m excited to get up and do it all over again tomorrow.

The first night, I couldn’t fall asleep until 1 AM because I was still so energized from the day, starting with yoga that morning. I thought I would be exhausted all the time, but I’m not. It’s bizarre to say, but sleep feels like such a small part of my day. I used to stay up until three, four, five in the morning, messing around on the computer, playing on my iPad in bed. I can’t work on my thesis at home because it’s too comfortable. Too many distractions. Even writing for QLE was a challenge, especially if starting something from scratch. Then I’d sleep until I woke up, and lie in bed until I had to get up. And somehow, I’d still be tired.

Now, I just sleep to rest. To recharge for the next day. Sleep is a way of fast-forwarding to tomorrow and all the joys it’s sure to hold.

I can’t stress enough how important this change has been for me. I know it’s only been a short time since I’ve made the transition, and I’m still mindful of it every day. I don’t want to lose this routine or take it for granted. It will take many more of these days before it becomes habit.

I never thought I’d say it, but becoming an early riser is the best change I’ve made for myself this year. While I love being a night owl, it wasn’t working for me. It wasn’t helping me grow or move forward. But now, it’s the exact opposite. Everything’s changed. I was stuck, and now I’m moving forward.

I was paralyzed, and now I’m free.

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Year of the Habit: April

Happy April! Don’t you love it when the first of the month falls on a Sunday?

I’m ultra excited about this month’s habit, but first, let’s recap the year so far:

  • January: Started flossing every day, and still going strong! Can’t wait to stick it to my dentist.

  • February: Stopped biting my nails, also still going strong! I’m almost at the point where I feel like I can say “I used to bite my nails”, which is crazy.

  • March: Attempted to read every day. This was somewhat of a failure, as I couldn’t bring myself to get in bed early enough to read every night, even for five minutes. Alas, The Shadow of the Wind remains unfinished. However, I did manage to read two books last month: Enough by Patrick Rhone (exceptional; see my review here) and Minimalist Business by Ev Bogue. In addition, my good buddy Rich and I just started reading Catch-22, and I think treating the book as a joint-venture will yield a particularly fruitful reading experience.

I’ve also picked up some Bonus Habits along the way, which were not assigned to a particular month. These include publishing Monday–Friday, and going to the library on a semi-regular basis to work on my thesis — which is almost done.

Before my 25th birthday, I was also adhering to a strong workout routine every day. Since my 25th birthday, however, my dedication to my usual diet and exercise regimens has been unsteady.

That brings us to April. It’s beach season!

That’s right; April is going to be health nut month.

There are several tools and sub-habits I’m going to implement this month, most of which I’ll relate to you in future posts this week.

As you know, there are two components to healthiness: diet and exercise. I’m going to focus especially on the diet aspect during April because 80% of your body composition is determined by your diet. Part of the reason I burned out on my last workout regimen was that I tried to do too much. I was exercising six days a week at home in addition to yoga and karate classes. That’s unsustainable.

Eating garbage guilt-trips you into working out for four hours every day. It’s much easier to eat well and exercise spontaneously, when you feel like it. Exercise should be fun and invigorating, not exhausting.

I’m going to be Primal as much as possible this month, but of course, you can’t be perfect all the time. In particular, I have my monthly Manference dinner, Easter, and my little cousin’s birthday this month, all of which will present culinary hurdles. But, that’s OK. Remember the 80-20 principle. By identifying my potential fat days in advance, I’ll be able to anticipate them and act accordingly over the course of the month.

Furthermore, I’m going to use the Jerry Seinfeld Don’t Break the Chain method to track my healthy eating days. Seeing how many days in a row you can perform your habit is an excellent strategy, and it’s worked quite well for me so far this year.

How’s your Year of the Habit going?

For more about my health regimen, see the following at Mark’s Daily Apple:

  1. Primal Blueprint 101
  2. The Definitive Guide to the Primal Eating Plan
  3. 10 Real-Life Reasons Why the Primal Blueprint Works for Me

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What Jerry Seinfeld Can Teach You About Productivity

I’m not a huge Seinfeld fan, but there’s a terrific productivity technique that the man himself uses when writing jokes. It’s called “Don’t Break the Chain”. Here’s the story from Brad Isaac:

[Jerry Seinfeld] told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

It’s a simple idea, but I find it incredibly practical and motivating, especially if you have a tendency to forget who you are.

Say you have a goal: to write every day, or eat healthy every day, or to exercise every day. No matter how often you think about these goals, as long as they only exist in your head, they will remain abstractions. When a goal is abstract, your brain constantly has to remember what that goal is and remind you to act accordingly.

When you take a goal and get it out of your head and down on paper, it frees your mind from having to think about the goal all the time. A physical manifestation of a goal serves as a reliable, external reminder.

When faced with a batch of cookies fresh from the oven, your brain can conveniently forget that you’re trying not to eat cookies. But, if you remember that eating a cookie would break the chain, you’ll be deterred from losing your focus and motivation.

By seeing how many days in a row you can do something, you can develop extraordinary momentum and drive. It can help you get back on course when you step off the path. I’ve been having some trouble with my diet lately, so I’m going to implement Don’t Break the Chain for a while, as well as for next month’s habit.

Visualizing a goal allows you to keep the process of developing a new habit in perspective. It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying, “I’m going to eat healthy starting now!” Then a day goes by, and nothing’s really changed, so you say “Screw it!” and eat that cookie.

It’s hard to visualize what life will look like after a month of a new habit. But, it’s easy to visualize what your calendar will look like with thirty days crossed off. Don’t Break the Chain makes your goals tangible, and subsequently, much more attainable. Try it.

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Year of the Habit: March

Happy March to you and yours!

Last month, I declared 2012 to be the Year of the Habit, the goal of which is to facilitate more effective New Year’s resolutions by making one small change each month, rather than trying to reinvent yourself overnight.

Here are my 2012 habits so far:

  • January: Started flossing every day. I’m pleased to report that this is still in effect. I can’t shower without flossing. Take that, scolding dental hygienist.

  • February: Stopped biting my nails. I’ll spare you the photographic evidence, but this has also been going very well. Scratching itches is exponentially more satisfying. I need to cut them because they’re new and subsequently fragile, plus they’re getting in the way of my bass playing. I also still feel the urge to bite, so I’m going to stay mindful with this one.

As an aside, I’ve found that concentrating on these habits also inspires me to make positive changes in other areas of my life, even though they’re not “official” Year of the Habit changes. Specifically, I’ve gotten into the habit of writing and publishing every week day, and I’ve also developed a workout routine that I’ve been diligently adhering to for several weeks now. These “bonus habits” speak to the momentum of small changes. Even a little change can make you feel great and inspire you to get better.

That brings us to March, also known as the month of the gods. After careful consideration — and in the spirit of Dr. Seuss’s birthday — I’ve decided to make reading my habit for the month.

Since buying my Kindle, I’ve been reading a lot more, but my consistency leaves something to be desired. I’m constantly reading on the Web, but I’d like to dedicate more time to reading actual books (on my Kindle).

I’m going to keep it simple and focus on reading for at least a few minutes each day, usually before bed. I only read one book at a time, and I’m looking forward to finally finishing The Shadow of the Wind.

My favorite part of finishing a book is choosing which one to read next, and this reading habit will be a great help in that department.

How’s your Year of the Habit going? What small change are you making for March?

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Night Owls Are Not Lazy

Yesterday, as I struggled to wrench myself out of bed to make my 9am yoga class, I was reminded of the debate between early risers and night owls.

I’ve written about the power of night before, but I still let myself feel guilty from time to time for staying up late and sleeping in. I willingly admit that the early morning is an amazing time of day, if you can get to it. I’ve flirted with the idea of becoming an early riser, possibly by making it part of the Year of the Habit.

But I’ve decided that’s a dumb idea.

I love staying up late and sleeping in. Nighttime appeals to my introverted nature: the quiet, the calm, the solitude — it comforts me. In a weird way, the night energizes me. Even if I only slept for a few hours the night before, if I make it to sundown, I’ll usually stay up far past midnight.

I suppose my relationship to nighttime is akin to a morning person’s relationship with the early hours of the day. I imagine the process of waking up energizes these people. They love having a brand new day ahead of them. (I, for one, wish they would lower their voices.)

There’s a parallel between night and day, and introversion and extroversion, which I attribute to the presence of human beings and the resulting effects on the individual.

According to a definition I agree with, extroverts get energized by being around people. It’s easiest to be surrounded by people in the middle of the day, when everyone’s rushing around trying to get things done.

Conversely, introverts find other people exhausting. I completely relate to this. If I’m in a social setting with a bunch of people with whom I’m not familiar, I can only be friendly and outgoing (or my version thereof) for so long. It’s very mentally taxing to pretend to be someone you’re not. Eventually, I’m going to need to not be there anymore. Not in a rude way, but in an “OK, that’s enough” way.

Solitude energizes the introvert, and what better time to find solitude than when the world is asleep?

Mike Vardy has a terrific article about why it doesn’t matter whether you’re an early riser or a night owl:

There is no advantage to being an early riser over being a night owl when it comes to increasing your productivity. It’s all in how you handle what comes at you – day and night – and making sure that you handle in it in a way that suits you and your lifestyle [sic]. If you find that you like getting up early, go for it. If you don’t, then don’t change that. Instead, put your efforts into making sure that your are being productive rather than when you are being more productive [sic].

So simple, yet so profound. As Mike says, “The notion that early risers are more productive than night owls is a myth.”

Exactly. It’s a myth perpetuated by social convention — the same conventions that say you need to work from 9am to 5pm to be successful, or that you need to buy a big house to be happy, or that you need 6 – 11 servings of grains a day to be healthy.

I lovingly reject all of that conventional wisdom, so why would I try and force myself to conform to the “rule” that says I need to wake up at the crack of dawn when it defies the nature of who I am?

You should read Mike’s article, because it’s spot-on. A night owl gets as much done as an early riser; he just does it at a different time of day. Neither lifestyle is right or wrong. What’s wrong is trying to force your body to do something it doesn’t want to do. You don’t force yourself into a yoga pose if your body is screaming, “NO!” That’s how injuries happen.

As long as it’s not negatively impacting other aspects of your life, I say keep whatever hours you like. Doing great stuff is more important than trying to do it when other people say you should.

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Year of the Habit

The problem with New Year's resolutions is that people try to do too much too fast. A little self-improvement to go with the new year is great, but declaring you'll eat healthy, exercise more, wake up earlier, finally write that novel, and be a better person all at the same time is too much to manage. Transforming into your ideal self overnight is impossible, and that's one reason so many New Year's resolutions fail.

When it comes to getting better, baby steps are often much more effective than huge leaps. You can't just decide to start waking up at 5am if you're used to sleeping until 10:30am. At least, I can't. Waking up a few minutes earlier every day, however, makes it much easier. It's what Merlin refers to as "fresh starts and modest changes".

But uh, Andrew. It's February. No one cares about their New Year's resolutions anymore.


I didn't really have a resolution this year, or if I did, I can't remember what it was now. However, I did manage to develop a couple of new habits in January.

The first was to publish something original five days a week. This will be my fourth straight week of publishing an original piece Monday through Friday, and it feels really good. I've been sticking to a routine of writing at night and auto-posting every morning at 4:30am. This allows those of you who are email subscribers to wake up with a new article in your inbox each morning. Keeping to this schedule helps both of us; it helps me write consistently, which helps you read consistently.

(Side note: I just updated the email newsletter template, so it's much nicer to look at. If you haven't subscribed yet, it's a great way to stay up-to-date. You'll never miss an article and won't have to remember to visit the site every day. Click to subscribe via email.)

Earlier last month, I also wrote about how I was trying to develop a flossing habit by using Plackers in the shower. This has been going very well, to the point where I feel weird if I don't floss at least once a day. Mission accomplished. Take that, dental hygienist.

Flossing is a tiny little thing, but because it's a small change and I made it as easy as possible to achieve, I had little trouble turning it into a habit. Sources say that thirty days is a good benchmark for developing new habits. If you can do something for thirty days, it becomes part of your routine. Plus, saying you'll do something for thirty days sounds much easier compared to telling yourself to change for the rest of your life. With this in mind, I introduce to you:

2012: The Year of the Habit

I've decided to ingrain a new habit each month this year by focusing on one thing at a time. A little change every month doesn't sound too hard, right? For February, I've stopped biting my nails. I've tried to do this several times before, but never using the thirty-days method.

I'm confident I'll be able to get through it, and I look forward to choosing a new habit in March. If you make one new habit a month for twelve months, then you'll be a whole new you when 2013 rolls around.

I'll be keeping you updated of my progress as the month goes on. If you'd like to pick a habit of your own, or restart one of your resolutions, then let me know on Twitter! Having people to hold you accountable is a big help. Strength in numbers!

Have a great week.

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The Clean Slate Monday Theory

I like to start the week off with as clean a slate as possible. Mondays are tough, but a little preparation and perspective makes it a lot easier to get off to a good start.

For me, the Clean Slate Monday Theory consists of two components:

  1. Tying up loose ends
  2. Making a plan of attack

Both of these need to be completed in advance to ensure a smooth start to the week. Allow me to explain.

Tie Up Loose Ends

This is a matter of taking care of all the unfinished tasks that have accumulated over the course of the past week. For example, by the time Sunday rolls around, my living quarters are usually in disarray. My desk is cluttered, my bed is a mess, I should probably clean, and there’s a good chance I still haven’t put away my laundry.

Walking into this mess Monday morning is detrimental. We don’t realize it, but these little tasks weigh on us. A small part of your brain has to spend energy reminding you, “Oh, I still need to do this. Oh, I still need to do that…” The longer you have to remember to do something, the more mentally taxing that task becomes, which stresses us out.

I usually dedicate an hour to all these miscellaneous things on Sunday night. Clean the desk. Vacuum. Put the laundry away. Throw some new sheets on the bed. This helps me wake up Monday morning feeling calm because — quite literally — my slate is clean. It’s a much better feeling than waking up in the middle of a disaster area. “Happy Monday! Look at all this crap you still haven’t done.” That’s no good. The last thing I want is to have old stuff nagging at my attention at the start of a new week. Make it a fresh start.

Make a Plan of Attack

Tying up loose ends also enables you to successfully execute step two, which is to make a plan of attack. Starting the week with a clean slate is great, but not having a plan makes it easy to squander all that potential for productivity. Sometimes, figuring out what needs to get done is more difficult than actually accomplishing it.

Thus, make a plan in advance. What do I need to do tomorrow, and when? What’s the week look like as a whole? Write it down. You can get as granular as you like with your to-do list, as long as it makes good use of the clean slate created by tying up the previous week’s loose ends.

A Weekly New Year

Everybody hates Mondays, except for Shawn Blanc:

Mondays are my favorite day of the week for the same reason the morning is my favorite time of the day. The morning is when my mind is most clear — there is not yet the accumulation of “mental clutter” from the activities and worries of the day and the whole day looks like a blank canvas.

Shawn’s definitely got it right. Why is Monday so terrible, but New Year’s is so great? With the former, it’s “Ugh, another whole week of work.” Well, then on New Year’s it should be “Ugh, another whole year of work!”

The difference is that we see the new year as an opportunity for a fresh start, not as “back to the grind”. We should try to treat Monday the same way. Why not? Making an entire year bigger and better than all previous years is a lot of work, but making the next seven days as productive and enjoyable as possible? Much more manageable.

Mondays can be a source of stress if met unprepared. However, a clean slate — literally and mentally — can help start the week on a calm and productive note.

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Seize the Spontaneity

Sometimes, the things we know are best for us are the things we find hardest to do. With the new year, we find ourselves saying, “I want to write more”, or “I want to exercise more”, or “I want to floss more”. But these things are hard, and sometimes the motivation to just do the thing is elusive.

One component of what makes these activities difficult is that they often have intrinsic barriers to starting. With writing, you have to be at your computer and open a new document. With exercising, you have to put on your workout clothes, leave your house, and go to the gym. With flossing, you have to measure out the ideal length of floss, wrap it around your fingers, and remember how much you hate flossing.

These acts seem inconsequential, but they actually inhibit us from doing the thing we know we should be doing. Sometimes even the smallest barrier is enough to sap our motivation. The thing doesn’t get done, and we feel crappy about it.

The solution, then, is to minimize barriers as much as possible, which is something Merlin and Dan talked about in episode 47 of Back to Work.

One way to reduce barriers is to choose tools that make things easier. I keep a notepad on my desk so I can quickly write things down if an idea comes to me. Likewise, I use Alfred to launch apps on my Mac, so all I have to do to open a new document is hit CMD + Space, type “b” for Byword, and hit Enter. This process is much easier than moving my mouse down to open the Finder, clicking Applications, then clicking on Byword. It makes it very easy to start writing.

You can figure out ways to do this with any activity. Laying out your workout clothes the night before, for instance, might increase your likelihood of actually exercising. You might also figure out ways to workout at home, so you eliminate the barrier of having to travel to the gym.

I get in trouble with my dentist every six months for not flossing enough, even though I know how important it is. But so far this year, I’ve flossed every day this week because of three little changes. I started using Plackers instead of regular floss because they’re easier to use. Second, — wait for it — I started flossing in the shower. I don’t know why; it just makes more sense to me as part of my shower routine. I also put the bag of Plackers on top of my towel rack, so I can’t get to my towel without moving them. This forces me to floss every time I take a shower, i.e. every day. So far, so good.

Now occasionally, if you’re like me, you’ll experience a random fit of inspiration. You’ll know exactly what you want to write, or the weather will be beautiful and you’ll want to go running, or you’ll just feel like flossin’. I get these little windows of energy from time to time, but the problem is that they’re fleeting. Sometimes I’ll wake up, see it’s a beautiful day and want to get outside and workout… but then I’ll pick up my iPad or get distracted by music or something on the Internet. By the time I break away from the distraction, the motivation is gone, and it’s lunchtime anyway. Oh, well.

The key here is to seize the spontaneity. Choose tools and methods that make your barriers as small as possible, and use any windows of energy to smash through them right away. The smaller the barrier, the less energy needed to overcome it, so you’ll be able to stop waiting for divine inspiration and start doing more of the thing you want to do.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s a 50 degree January day here in Connecticut, and I have some sprints to do.

Back On the Primal Path

If you follow me on Twitter, you might be aware that I managed to eat pretty much everything in sight over the holidays. On the one hand, ‘twas the season to indulge, but on the other hand, the increased intake of my culinary vices made me feel lethargic, guilty, and more than a little gross.

I’m pleased — and my body is relieved — to report that I’ve been back on track and eating Primally for five days in a row now.

It feels fantastic.

Still, I’m not here to admonish the act of holiday feasting. On the contrary, my relatively brief foray into the realm of Christmas treats has taught me a few things about keeping a diet in perspective.

First, pigging out for over a week reminded me how much I love my normal Primal Blueprint eating regimen. Don’t get me wrong, holiday food is delicious, but so is eating Primal, and it doesn’t come with the associated bloating and guilt trips. The good news is that stepping off the path for a little while didn’t become a permanent change. In fact, I couldn’t wait to get back to my old healthy habits. That’s how a vacation should feel, and it speaks to the effectiveness of the Primal Blueprint as a sustainable lifestyle.

Second, while I did eat a lot, exercise little, and lose sight of my abdominal muscles over the holidays, the overall results of my week-long binge were… not that bad. Sure, I was a bit squishier than I was before, and my mood was a little low, but it’s not like I suddenly had fifty pounds to lose or had developed some chronic illness. I’m not saying this to condone unhealthy eating or tell you to take a week off whenever you want. Rather, it helps put the average cheat meal in perspective. I survived an entire week of holiday gluttony with pretty minor side effects. That means I should treat a single cheat meal as no big deal, rather than feel guilty about indulging with friends.

The key here, though, is not rationalizing or condoning the unhealthy meal and allowing it to become what’s normal. I would still rather eat Primal, and I will as much as I can. But, if I happen to be in a situation where it’s difficult to do so (if I’m a guest in someone’s home, for instance), I’m not going to sweat it. If I can survive an entire week of holiday eating, one cheat meal for the sake of manners won’t hurt. In the grand scheme of things, it’ll be a tiny misstep. Remember, that doesn’t mean an unhealthy meal every day won’t hurt! It’s just a way of altering your perspective so you feel less bummed out about deviating from your healthy habits. Step off, then step right back on.

Again, my holiday binge reminded me how much I love the Primal Blueprint. My sister is a recent convert, and she agrees that even after just two days back on the path, she feels so much better. I’m not trying to pimp the Primal lifestyle, as I have nothing to gain from doing so. (The gain would be all yours, actually.) These lessons can be applied to whatever diet you’re invested in. Still, if you’re interested in going Primal for the new year, Mark Sisson just put out a new updated and expanded paperback version of The Primal Blueprint. It’s inexpensive and a great way to get started.

One final note about my transition back on the path: I’ve started logging my workouts and meals using the Day One app, which allows you to journal from your iPhone, iPad, or Mac. They all stay in sync via Dropbox, and the app itself is well-designed. Keeping a record of what I do to be healthy each day helps me stay mindful as the new year progresses and the “resolution enthusiasm” wears off. I’m trying to see how many days in a row I can go without a cheat day. Of course, you don’t need an app to make this a habit. Pen and paper works too.

Get Back On Track

Leo Babauta has some advice for getting back on track after your holiday gluttony:

I indulge myself nearly every holiday, and feel guilty too — for about a minute. Then I realize that guilt does nothing to get me fitter. I realize the only thing that will get me fitter is eating healthy today — yesterday doesn’t matter — and being active and working out today.

I know I needed to hear this after my four-day weekend of living like a ravenous sloth. Fortunately, we have complete control over when and where we get back on the path, and right now sounds awesome.

Push-up Habits

On Wednesdays, I teach the black belt class and the junior beginner class back-to-back. The black belt class is for ages twelve and younger, and the junior beginner class is for white, yellow, and orange belts, ages seven to eleven.

The difference between the two classes is striking for a number of reasons, some of which are on my end, and some of which are on the students’. For my part, the black belts get to learn advanced material, while the beginners work on the basics. The black belts sweat and throw each other around, while the beginners have fun and learn about respect, self-discipline, and self-control.

However, what the juxtaposition of these two classes illuminates is the level of enthusiasm between a beginner and an advanced student. While the length of their careers evidences their love of the martial arts, the black belts are often lazy and complacent because they’ve been doing it for so long. They’re comfortable, and it takes extra effort on my part to keep them motivated, interested, and at peak performance.

By contrast, the beginners are hungry, brimming with excitement, and eager to please. Everything is new, so they don’t mind doing jumping jacks, push-ups, and sit-ups. It’s still fun because they haven’t amassed the thousands of repetitions that come with wearing a black belt.

These two dynamics are ironic because my expectations for the black belts are much higher than they are for the beginners, but the beginners exceed my expectations far more frequently than the black belts do.

One pet peeve of mine is when a black belt wimps his way through a set of push-ups with terrible form, rushing just to get them over with. It’s inexcusable. Upon seeing this today, I realized that such a student suffers from one thing: bad habits.

Somewhere along the way, they allowed themselves to get by with crappy push-ups, and now they can’t imagine doing them any other way.

The problem with bad habits is that the longer they’ve existed, the harder they are to rectify. Hence, my inability to cure certain students of their straight-leg syndrome, noodle-arm disease, or mountain-butt push-ups. As I explained to them, I can only tell them what to fix so many times; eventually, the change has to come from within. Self-discipline is the name of the game.

I’ve only been working with this particular generation of black belts for about seven months — a fraction of their training — while I’ve known most of the beginners from day one. It dawned on me that I did not want these beginners to lose their enthusiasm or develop bad habits that would plague them for the rest of their martial arts careers.

As such, we spent about ten minutes discussing what makes a good push-up, what bad habits to avoid, and what good habits to cultivate instead. Nothing depresses me more than seeing an advanced student with his arms out in front of him and his butt up in the air, bobbing his head like a chicken and groaning because I told him to do twenty-five. I told the beginners that if they wanted to get stronger, they needed to start doing good push-ups right now. If you develop bad habits now, I said, you will always groan over push-ups because they will always be painful and difficult. But if you learn to do them right — even if you can only do one — you’ll get stronger every single day. That’s when one becomes two, and two becomes ten.

Imagine doing crappy push-ups for four years; they’re still going to hurt, even after all that time. But imagine doing awesome push-ups for four years; think of how many you’d be able to do! I’ve learned to love push-ups by doing a lot of them properly. As I stressed to the class, creating a foundation of good habits serves you well time and time again.

I don’t mean to tout my teaching abilities, but the “good habits vs bad habits” lesson seemed to resonate, and it got me thinking about my own bad habits, which kick my ass on a daily basis:

I’m pretty sure I’ve been biting my nails since birth.

I will go to bed at 3am and sleep until noon if left undisturbed.

I usually say, “Nothing.” when asked what’s bothering me.

Just to name a few. Some time long ago, I picked these things up, and now I struggle with them. Sometimes I can stop biting my nails for a few weeks, but I always regress. Alarms and obligations do a pretty good job of managing my sleep schedule, and sometimes I’ll be comfortable enough to express myself openly. But it’s always an effort.

A foundation of good habits is invaluable. You can’t be a strong martial artist if you have a weak horse-stance. You just can’t. And bending your knees after years of having straight legs hurts like hell.