Start with One

Finding the motivation to workout can be hard, especially when it's 97° outside.

It would be so much easier to just take the day off. You can hit it twice as hard tomorrow. Or the day after. Or maybe on Monday.

Making excuses is easy. Overcoming them isn't.

One strategy I've been playing with lately is to just do a little bit. Maybe just do ten push-ups. Or one pull-up. Maybe just put your workout clothes on and go stand outside.

Usually, doing a little bit motivates me to do more. I think, "Well, I'm not going to do just ten push-ups. That's ridiculous." So I'll do some more. And then some more. And before long, my arms are hurting. Boom. Mission accomplished.

It doesn't always work. Sometimes I'll drop and do 25 and think, "Nooooope. Not right now." And that's OK. Sometimes you're just not in the mood.

But usually all it takes is a little bit to get started and build momentum. Get the endorphins flowing.

Instead of thinking of your workout as some massive excruciating endeavor, just do a little. And if that feels good, do a little more.

Sometimes you're not in the mood to do a hundred push-ups. That doesn't sound like fun at all. But one? You can do one. And while you're down there, why not make it ten? Or fifteen or twenty? And since you're warmed up now, why not fifty?

You don't always have to start big. You can start small.

As long as you start.

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Seize the Spark

I spent my entire Friday night listening to, playing, and marveling at the glory of music.

I also spent the first five or so hours of Saturday doing that, and consequently went to bed just as the sun was beginning to rise. Four hours later, I got up and went to my advanced students’ graduation. Two hours later, I came home, and, despite — or perhaps due to — my exhaustion, was surprised to find myself endowed with a small spark of inspiration. The kind that whispers about how being productive right now might be a good idea. The kind that tells you to clean the entire house or go run five miles. The kind that says, “Think of how great it would feel if you got a whole bunch of shit done right now.”

Such a spark can fade in just a few seconds, and so it must be seized.

I showered, put on clean jeans, my oversized SHU hoodie, and my L.L. Bean slippers. A writer’s uniform. The day reflected my enthusiasm, so I opened the windows to let in the sunlight and fresh air. I made green tea. I put on Music for Airports. I put my phone in the other room. And over the course of the next several hours, I proceeded to write one-thousand-one hundred-and sixty-five words about the major themes of Middle English lyric poetry.

It was a watershed moment for my thesis. Not only did my spree bring my thesis introduction to a staggering four-thousand-three-hundred-and-seventy-two words, but, when combined with my body of textual analysis, it pushed my total word count over the coveted fifty-pages threshold. My almost done thesis had blasted through a tremendous milestone, one that many months ago seemed imposing and somewhat life-threatening. And now, all that remains to be written is a handful of pages in the form of a conclusion.

In that moment when I got home, I could have just as easily decided to have lunch first. I could have decided to catch up on some video games. I could have decided to fall back into bed and tell myself, “I’ll do better work if I’m rested.” But I assure you, had I done anything else in that moment, that spark would have gone out and faded from memory. And I’d still be feeling guilty about not finishing my introduction.

Sometimes, you have to stay up until five in the morning playing your guitar. Sometimes, you have to go to work on four hours of sleep. Sometimes, you have to force yourself to do the work. But when you feel that twinge of productivity — when you feel that spark — seize it. Recognize it, cultivate it, and relish it.

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How I Remove Friction from Writing

Aaron Mahnke has a great post on Frictionless Writing:

Any place I can find friction, and remove it, is an area of my life or business that I can push closer to my goals. So naturally, I am constantly on the lookout for ways to smooth my processes and methods for doing things. And my writing time is no different. Over the years I have gathered a number of helpful tips for making the writing process as smooth and frictionless as possible

I think about this concept often. As I wrote in a recent post, the easier it is to start writing, the better the chance of writing actually taking place. Writing could be as simple as opening a new document on your computer, but sometimes even that seems like a lot of work. So the goal is to make that process as simple as possible. For example, I use Alfred to launch Byword (a very frictionless text editor) in just a couple of keystrokes. It's easier than going down to my dock or into the Finder to double click on an application. Those few seconds often make a big difference.


Aaron divides his frictionless writing process into three areas, the first of which is Capture. After reading Getting Things Done by David Allen, I realized how important it is to be able to capture any idea — no matter how small — in the moment. It frees you from trying to remember things, which keeps your brain clear, calm, and relaxed.

My iPhone is always within arm's reach, so I often capture ideas in Omnifocus or Notesy. I also just started playing with Noted!, an app I found via Patrick Rhone. It lets you instantly type and email a note to yourself, which works well for me. I keep my inbox empty as much as possible, so if there's something in there, it means something needs my attention. I'll often email a tweet to myself if it contains a link I don't have time to check out at the time. I'm always going to check my email, so putting things there is a good way to ensure I don't miss anything.

I bought my first pack of Field Notes late last year. They're great, but I haven't yet developed the habit of carrying one with me all the time. I'm torn between keeping my pockets empty and being able to jot something down freehand. Carrying a notebook also means carrying a pen, so I have to give it some more thought. I'm leaning towards carrying one though.

Speaking of writing freehand, I also keep a scratchpad next to my computer, which is great for capturing random thoughts, making lists, and outlining posts while I'm at my desk.

I usually get ideas when I'm reading my RSS feeds in Reeder. I always get my feeds down to zero every couple of days, so when I come across something that I want to link to/write about, I just keep it unread until I have time to do so.


Management, Aaron's second aspect of frictionless writing, is probably my least systemized. All of my writing for this website is stored in a single folder in Dropbox. Link posts are named in a "Link - Author Title" format, while my original pieces are named with their title.

Now that I think about it, practically everything on my computer is stored in Dropbox. I've yet to setup a proper backup solution, but if my computer did spontaneously combust, all of my documents would be retrievable via Dropbox. My passwords and software information is stored in 1Password, and most of my apps are from the Mac App Store and easy to redownload. All of my music is kept on an external hard drive and is synced with iCloud/iTunes Match. I'm not a huge picture or video guy, but I suppose I do need a backup plan for those. At some point, I'll buy a second external hard drive and make copies with SuperDuper. According to DaisyDisk, I'm only using 47 GB of my MacBook Pro's 250 GB hard drive, and I could probably stand to clear some stuff out. Good to know when buying my next Mac.


Aaron concludes with the importance of Prioritization:

So after finding the best method for capturing your ideas, and building the right system for managing all of it, the final key is to install a sense of urgency and priority around our ideas. To grow as a writer, it is important to write. And it is easier to sit down to write with a nicely collected tome of ideas and sketches than it is when you can’t remember the great ideas you know you’ve lost.

This is something I've been trying to focus on in the new year, especially as I try to write more original pieces for the site. Writing something of my own Monday through Friday is a challenge, but the thrill of hitting Publish and sharing it with others is incredibly rewarding and worth it. But, my publishing goal also means I can't afford to skimp on my capture or management systems. If my system makes it easy to lose ideas, writing becomes much harder. Any stray thought could develop into a great idea, which could turn into a strong post. As such, I need to minimize the risk of losing my ideas by being able to capture and manage my thoughts quickly and easily.

The systems I have in place seem to be working pretty well so far, but I'll undoubtedly continue to tinker and refine them as time goes on. Writing is hard work, so like Aaron, my biggest focus is to make it as frictionless as possible. The easier it is to get ideas out of my head and onto my computer screen, the more likely others will get to read them.

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.

Regarding Your Quest for Passivity

Chris Guillebeau wants to teach you how to put off making decisions about your life:

Always remember: there’s plenty of time. No one ever dies young or unprepared. Ignore the 1,440 minutes available to you today, the changing of the seasons, the nagging sense that you could have done something more if you had made the effort. Don’t worry about the days flying by that you’ll never see again.


I’ve been writing this site for 51 days now. It’s been an awesome and very fulfilling project, even though I haven’t told anyone about it. Now that the time has come to reveal it to the entire internet, I’ll admit that I’m a little nervous about doing so. I feel afraid, but it’s a fear that’s also strangely familiar.

You see, while I’ve only been writing the site for a couple of months, I had the idea years before that. At the time, I was working in an office and just starting my master’s program. While I found most aspects of office life utterly soul-crushing, my time in the cubicle did help me realize two important things.

The first was that I hated the routine of waking up early, driving to the same building, sitting for eight hours, and then driving back home to sleep and repeat. Every day. I found it exhausting and depressing. Some people don’t mind the routine, and some have decided to accept it, but for better or worse, after two years, I decided it just wasn’t me.

The second thing I learned was that there are amazing people on the internet. Brilliant writers and designers and programmers. People who make great things and are passionate about doing so. You might call them artists.

And as I sat in that cubicle with my almost-two very expensive English degrees, and nothing but a terrifying job market waiting outside, I thought, “Hmm. I’d really like to do something like that. To be one of those people.”

While these thoughts were taking shape, I was coerced into giving a presentation at my university’s Student Leadership Retreat. I wasn’t keen on the idea, because I knew little about how to fill out payment request forms, or what goes into drafting a constitution for your club or organization. Fortunately, plenty of other people did. I, on the other hand, wasn’t sure what I had to offer.

Since personal development was one of the presentation categories, I decided to create and give a talk called “Simple Happiness”, which was about using simplicity and minimalism to lead a calmer, more productive, and happier life as a college student. To my surprise, it was very well-received, and I got several generous reviews from students and faculty. I was even asked to give the presentation twice more: once for the Honors College, and again at the following year’s Leadership Retreat.

The success of my presentation indicated that there was a market for this type of discussion, and while minimalism blogs were a dime-a-dozen at the time, I thought I might have some worthwhile things to say if I ever had my own website. The more I thought about it, the more grandiose the daydreams became, and the more excited I got about the idea. But the problem was, it was just an idea. An idea that remained a daydream month after month.

The barrier, of course, was fear. Fear of starting something new. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of change, really. I was comfortable with my amazing dream website, and all the groundbreaking articles I would write, and the impressive readership I would amass… someday. Dreaming about it was fun and exciting, and it was safe.

To make an increasingly long story shorter, I dreamed about it until July of this year. I had been “designing” (read: fiddling with) a page for a few weeks, thinking, “As soon as I find the right colors, I’ll start writing.” Or the right font. Or the right column width. Or the right name. Obviously, that’s no way to get any real work done, so I finally decided, quite spontaneously, to write one tiny little post and click submit.

Nothing bad happened.

Nothing really happened at all, other than some words appearing on the page. And I found myself thinking, “That actually doesn’t look terrible… Maybe I’ll post something else.”

Coincidentally, on a then-recent episode of Back to Work, Merlin Mann advised anyone thinking about starting a website to do it privately for thirty days. Post something every day, but don’t show it to anybody. That way, you can see if it’s really something you want to do. So, starting that day, I did, and it was great. I loved it. I still do.

All that daydreaming and fear of starting was a barrier, which caused me to procrastinate and not move any closer to my goal. I finally broke through it, and now, 51 days later, a similar situation is presenting itself.

For the past two months, I’ve been writing consistently and loving it. You know how they say, “Dance like nobody’s watching”? Well, I’ve been writing like nobody’s reading. And let me tell you: it works! I actually have a website now, and there’s actually a lot of pretty good, not terrible stuff on it. But just as I couldn’t daydream forever, I can’t write in secret forever. Not with the dreams I have of becoming a full-time independent writer.

So, like every movie when the second-in-command guy pressures the President to make the controversial next move, the time has come! “We must launch.”

As I’m sure to find out, nothing bad is going to happen. One day people won’t know about the site, and the next day they will. One of the great things about writing privately for thirty days is that I know I can do this regardless of whether or not anyone’s reading. Sure, now I’m going to be vulnerable to criticism, but that’s the only way to get better. What’s the worst thing that could happen? If no one decides to read, then I’m no worse off than I was for the past two months. If a bunch of people decide to read, and they all hate it and think I’m an idiot, well… alright then. I’ll try to fix it. They can’t eat me.

In any case, when it comes to barriers, the best way out is through.

The next 51 days start in 3… 2… 1…

This IS the Perfect Time

Ali Hale, over at Daily Writing Tips, on finding the perfect time to write:

Trust me, I know how you feel. For years, I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t actually write. I had lots of ideas and dreams, but they never made it out of my head and onto the page.

Why? Because I was waiting for the perfect time.

The perfect time rarely comes, if ever.

As I’m typing this right now, only a handful of people are aware that I have a website where I write about things. I haven’t made any efforts to publicize the site. No tweeting about new posts. No emails saying, “Hey, check out this thing I made.” No links in my various online profiles.

I’m doing this because I made a commitment to myself to write consistently for 30 days before I made any attempt to make the site public. There are a couple benefits to this strategy.

  1. It removed an enormous amount of pressure. I didn’t start writing and expose myself to the scrutinizing eyes of the internet the very same day. Like Hale says in her article, writing is a high-resistance activity. It’s hard work, especially if you aren’t used to it or feel self-conscious about your writing. Since no one was going to see what I wrote, even after pressing “Publish”, I was free to be myself and not worry about other people’s reactions. I had unlimited privacy.
  2. It gave me time to build up a solid foundation of posts. Anyone can create an account, write about their awesome workout, post it, and then tell everyone to check out their new blog. Having a respectable number of articles posted beforehand both legitimizes the site in the readers’ eyes and makes me feel confident that I can actually do this.
  3. It forced me to stop waiting for the perfect time to write. I have to make words appear every single day, whether I’m feeling it or not. Before I made the commitment to 30 days of writing, I never wrote. Ever. Even when I was feeling particularly inspired about something, I would think, “Ah, that’s going to make a great post someday!” Daydreaming is nice, but you’ll never have anything to show for it until you start making those dreams reality. Cliché, but true.

Waiting for the perfect time is a barrier for any project, writing or otherwise. There will never be a truly perfect time to start a new health regimen, build a website, or ask somebody out. The only way to break through that barrier is to jump in with both feet and just start… then the hard part’s over.

On Paralysis, Starting, & Cookies

Richard J. Anderson, of Sanspoint, on developing a superego:

All it takes, one thinks, is one misstep, one moment of weakness, and you’ll have to start over from scratch–so why even bother? In other words: fear of imperfection leads to paralysis. The expectation of perfection is, in many ways, a built in escape clause.

This is a huge point. Regardless of what self-imposed challenge you’re currently undertaking — diet, exercise, changing a habit — you cannot let the fear of imperfection prevent you from ever accomplishing anything.

Richard uses the perfect word here: paralysis. I had the idea for this website more than two years ago, and yet I could never bring myself to actually start the damn thing. I second-guessed myself so often — “Who would possibly care what I have to say?” “Do I even have anything to say?” “Why don’t I just leave it to someone else? Someone smarter.” — to the point where I was almost content with daydreaming about what my website could be rather than actually realizing it. Imagining the site was exciting, but if I started it and failed, I would only have disappointment to show for it.

Richard quotes Robb Wolf, author of The Paleo Solution:

Oftentimes people strive to be perfect just so they can “fail” and give up.

Most of the time, perfection is unattainable. After years of excuses, I finally told myself there would be no “perfect” time to start a website. If you spend all your time waiting for the perfect opportunity to try something new, you’ll probably be waiting a very long time.

Fear — both of failure and success — is a paralyzing force. If you remain paralyzed, you won’t fail, but you also won’t succeed. Starting is the hardest part. For me, it was one tiny little link post. That’s it. Just a block quote and barely a sentence of commentary. But it was enough to get me started, and the second post came much easier.

Once you’ve started, of course, you will have missteps. Richard has a great way of looking at these setbacks:

The path is always there. You can step off the path, you can go miles off, get hopelessly lost, and wander barefoot in the desert for forty years, but the path will remain, and you can always find your way back.

Again, this is essential, and it’s a comforting perspective that will help you sum up the courage to begin.

When people try to change their diet and eat healthy, and they accidentally eat a cookie at 10am, they think, “Damn. Welp, the day is shot. I’ll just start again tomorrow.”, which results in a day of junk food. There are two points here. The first is, yes, you can start again tomorrow. But starting over tomorrow everyday is not a path to success. The second point, and the better perspective to have, in my opinion, is that one cookie is not as bad as two, which aren’t as bad as three. This isn’t an excuse to have two cookies. Rather, if you step off the path, as Richard says, it’s important to recognize it immediately and step back on as soon as you can. It’s better to have one cookie than to eat an entire pizza for dinner. One unhealthy bite is better than one unhealthy meal.

Striving for perfection is a good way to go insane. Mark Sisson calls this the 80/20 Rule. The idea is that if you’re reaching your goals 80% of the time, you’re doing pretty damn well.

Even though 100% compliance isn’t the exact everyday expectation, 100% commitment is the intention.

In whatever it is you’re trying to achieve, you can’t be perfect all of the time. Missteps will happen. But if your commitment is strong, and you keep everything in perspective, it will be significantly easier to recognize that pesky 20% when it happens. You can always step back on the path; the key is, after that bite of cookie, are you going to do it tomorrow, or right now?