Room Again for Old Things

Before I was an English professor, I was living a very strange period of my life.

I was virtually done with my master's, but I hadn't found anyone who would pay me for my above-average education. I had a lot of free time, so I filled with things I loved. Being unemployed is demoralizing, and you have to keep busy. I taught karate, I joined a band, I recorded podcasts, I did a lot of yoga, and I wrote to my heart and mind's content.

And yet, I'd often feel stressed out. Not because of workload, but because of external—and subsequently internal—pressures to get off my ass and put my degrees to use.

But how could I? I was doing things I loved. I was living a life comprised almost entirely of passions. Not even slightly lucrative, but very joyful, save for the financial stress.

And yet, ultimately unsustainable. A guy's gotta eat.

Now I'm teaching English composition at a nearby community college. I love it, and hot damn is it nice to have income.

But I was conflicted, because the daydreaming, passion-driven, Internet-living, writer, podcaster, entrepreneurial wannabe in me was protesting.


Yeah, I know.

When you set off on a new endeavor, you spend a considerable amount of time adapting. New schedules, new people, new workflows, new locations, new responsibilities, and more. Old things seem... inconsequential. Certainly your Internet website does compared to your newfound stewardship of tomorrow's burgeoning, young minds.

But eventually, harmony returns:

Things have been crazy. Transition surrounds. Time and attention are at a premium. Sleep is a gift.

Life will settle shortly and balance will return. It always does.

It has. Perhaps not fully, but it's getting there. And there's room again for old things.

Patience. Then, balance.

High Gear

Given the radical shift my life is about to undertake, I've begun to feel a bit overwhelmed. So much to do, so little time and all that.

To combat this increase in to-dos, I'm going to more heavily implement the schedule your day tactic so that I may better manage my time and tasks. And I'm not talking about merely identifying a handful of things I'd like to accomplish tomorrow; I mean scheduling my day down to the hour.

With my new job, adult responsibilities are going to begin to creep into my life, undoubtedly encroaching on the things I'd really like to be doing. By scheduling my days, I hope to be able to set aside sufficient time for both work and personal responsibilities. I want to put my best effort into all of my endeavors, and I don't want anything to fall by the wayside.

If I don't manage my time—if I don't ensure my life runs the way I want it to—no one will.

With that in mind, I'm going to be diligent and ruthless in my scheduling. This goes for obligations as well as hobbies. If I want to read, it needs to be on the schedule. If I want to work out, it needs to be on the schedule. If I want to write, it needs to be on the schedule.

This approach will allow me to focus on one thing at a time without worrying about all the things I'm not doing. Rather than try to keep track of everything on my own, in my head, I'll be able to look at my schedule and know what I should be working on right now.

It will take much experimenting and tweaking, but it needs to happen. It's the only way I'm going to be able to do all of these things well.

As summer draws to a close, it's time to kick things into high gear. It's time to come up with a plan and execute it. It's time to take things to the next level. Stay tuned.

P.S. If you're on, you can find me there as—surprise—andrewmarvin.

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The Amount of Time You Have

As listeners of the ZenGeek Podcast will recall, I had dinner with my family over the weekend, and my sister was contemplating what to do with her two huge closets worth of clothes when she relocates to Rhode Island at the end of the summer.

That got me thinking, and I realized that if she hadn't had two huge closets, she — theoretically — wouldn't have as many clothes.

If you have the space, you'll eventually manage to fill it. If you have a huge house, you'll eventually fill it with stuff. Consciously or not.

The same is true with time and work. I can take pretty much as long as I want on my thesis as long as I keep filling out the Incomplete extension form. No wonder I've taken fifteen months to write the thing! There's no sense of urgency. If I had a deadline with real consequences, I probably could have finished it in half the time.

Many of us have eight hour work days. It's bizarre that we can procrastinate and stretch the simplest task so that — seven and a half hours later — we still haven't done it. Imagine how much you could get done if you only had two hours to do it all.

The amount of time you have is the amount of time it will take.

On the other hand, it's amazing how much you can get done in just a few minutes when you really concentrate.

Or when you really love what you're doing.

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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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Three Piles

Scott Berkun with a crucial bit of wisdom:

Here’s an oversimplified theory to play with for today: there are only three piles in life.

  1. Things that are important
  2. Things that are unimportant
  3. Things that are unimportant but distract you from what is important

Most suffering in life comes from #3.

It’s a short article, so you should read the whole thing. Especially the first big paragraph.

In fact, because it’s so succinct, and because I so heartily agree with every word, I’m not even going to offer any further commentary. This article speaks for itself and for everything QLE stands for.

If you’ve already read it, read it again.

Then go have a marvelous weekend.

Thanks for reading! Want more? Grab the free QLE Manifesto. Perhaps follow me on Twitter. Need something? Email me.

So Long, Lifehacker

Last week, I wrote a thing about too many inputs. One of the concerns was RSS, an area where I sometimes feel I’m just swiping “read” to process to zero as quickly as possible.

The key to RSS is being mindful of your subscriptions and only allowing those that are truly valuable to occupy your feed reader. If you’re finding more irrelevance than value, it’s time to unsubscribe.

The Culprit

One of the feeds I struggle with most is Lifehacker.

I have a love-hate relationship with Lifehacker. The site contains both a lot of great information and a lot of useless information.

Lifehacker is a high volume feed. I’d estimate they post between fifty and a hundred times a day. This frequency makes for a difficult subscribing decision.

I want to be more productive, and I want all those tips and tricks, and I want to astound people with my wealth of brilliant geek knowledge.

But do I need to know that you can use mayonnaise to clean crayon off your walls?

Or that you can use a banana peel to relieve itching from poison ivy and mosquito bites?

Or how to use a jelly pocket for a better drip-free PB&J?

Maybe I’m just biased against food hacks, but I now see where Merlin is coming from. It’s gotten to the point where whenever I see new Lifehacker posts in Reeder, I know I can just swipe, swipe, swipe them as read and knock fifteen or twenty off my unread count.

I’ve struggled to come up with a solution, because a few times a day there actually is something worth reading on Lifehacker. I’ve followed the site via RSS for years, and I’ve been following it on Twitter since I first signed up for an account.

The Lifehacker Twitter tweets every single post, so following in both places is extraneous. It comes down to the lesser of two evils: do I continue to swipe, swipe, swipe in Reeder to maintain a clean Twitter feed, or do I continue to flick past endless Lifehacker tweets to make RSS significantly more manageable?

The Twitter feed allows me to be more selective in which articles I choose to read. If a headline catches my interest, I can bookmark it or send it to Instapaper. Otherwise, I just keep scrolling. Compare this to RSS, wherein every item must be processed one way or another.


The Solution

I think it’s time for Lifehacker to go the way of Facebook for me. The percentage of relevant posts has gotten much too small, and when it comes to tech news, I prefer to read dedicated sites or real people anyway.

I’ve unsubscribed from Lifehacker on RSS and Twitter. I did, however, add it to my News list on Twitter. I only check my lists every other day or so, which allows me to keep a relaxed eye on the site while freeing myself from its information firehose.

I think Lifehacker is best treated as a database. It contains a wealth of useful information, but most of it isn’t useful either A: to me, or B: right now. Rather, if I ever find myself thinking, “Jeez, I’ve got all this mayonnaise and my walls are covered in crayon”, I’ll go look up a solution on Lifehacker.

Reading Lifehacker on a daily basis is like reading an encyclopedia from cover to cover: nonsensical. It’s more practical and efficient to look up something specific when I need it, instead of wasting my time reading about things that don’t apply to me.

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Too Many Inputs

Mark Sisson:

Namely, smartphones, social media, and the Internet in general has changed the way we experience the world. For many, it has replaced engagement with the real physical world almost entirely.

Brett Kelly, on reading intentionally:

It may sound narcissistic, but I feel a lot better laying my head down at night knowing that I spent 30–45 random minutes reading books and articles that I actually want to read instead of frustratedly skimming news that usually doesn’t interest me.

Paul Miller quit the Internet for a year:

I feel like I’ve only examined the internet up close. It’s been personal and pervasive in my life for over a decade, and I spend on average 12+ hours a day directly at an internet-connected terminal (laptop, iPad, Xbox), not to mention all the ambient internet my smartphone keeps me aware of.

Stephen Hackett:

Miller’s actions are probably over the top. That said, I do think many of us who are neck-deep in the Internet daily could use a healthy dose of self-control.

Richard J. Anderson:

How much of what I’m consuming in content each day is signal, and how much is noise? […]

Every click brings us a little shot of pure, full-strength dopamine. Don’t tell me you don’t get just the tiniest little thrill when you open your Twitter client, refresh your RSS feeds, or refresh your Instagram feed.

I love being a nerd, having a website, recording podcasts, tumbling, tweeting, reading RSS and Instapaper, and on occasion, even emailing.

I quit Facebook because it was a timesuck, and I need all the time I can get. It’s the same reason I don’t keep any games on my iPhone.

But sometimes, it’s still too much. I’ve felt digitally overwhelmed lately.

I had a nonstop weekend last week. Work was consuming, people were graduating, mothers were celebrating, family was remembering. And so my online life fell by the wayside.

Other than increasing unread counts, there were no consequences for my being off the grid. But I felt a certain heaviness every time I did take a moment to check my phone. I felt removed from the online world.

Distraction is ubiquitous. It’s so easy to wake up in the morning, reach for the iPhone on your nightstand, and spend half an hour reading and consuming.

I haven’t picked up my Kindle in months, even though I love it, and I think it’s because I’m already reading all day. Reading books takes focus and concentration. It’s intellectual work, and I often don’t have the strength for it at the end of the day. I’d rather just thumb through more tweets and RSS feeds.

Combatting information overload is an iterative process.

I’m not about to quit the Internet completely; I find too much value in it, and it’s helped me discover things I love very much. It’s helped introduce me to this online world of writers and creators, a community that I aspire to be a part of.

Ultimately, I agree with Rich. The simple answer is mindfulness: being aware of all of our inputs and what they contribute to our lives.

RSS is the biggest culprit for me. I’m currently subscribed to 98 RSS feeds, some of which are high volume, many of which are not. I’ve made a conscious effort to remove any feeds I deem extraneous. If I find I’m constantly swiping “read” on a majority of a feed’s posts, it’s time to unsubscribe.

I’m considering moving to a Patrick Rhone-esque RSS system in the future, but for now I’m going to continue to keep a close, mindful eye on my inputs, and maintain the self-control to not check them every five minutes.

Sometimes, you need to shut down.

The solution to too many inputs is simple. Evaluate each input as follows:

  1. Be mindful of the input’s value.
  2. When the input is no longer valuable, remove it. (This requires letting go of the fear of missing out on what the input provides.)
  3. Repeat.

Eliminate the unnecessary. Inner peace 101.

Have an extraordinary weekend, everyone.

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Why & How I Deleted Facebook

One week ago, I deleted Facebook.

Needless to say, I don’t miss it at all.

The Why

The simplest answer is this:

Facebook is a timesuck, and I need all the time I can get.


Because of its artificial and forced two-way friendship model, amassing hundreds of Facebook friends is easy. One might even consider it difficult to avoid.

Having lots of friends is desirable, even if those friends are mostly meaningless acquaintances. It makes us feel like we aren’t alone, like we’re a part of something. It’s nice to be popular.

I joined Facebook circa 2005 as I was preparing to graduate high school. Before long, checking Facebook became part of my routine. As a college freshman, it was an attempt to meet people. New town, new school, no friends… But there was Facebook.

For many, Facebook is ingrained to the point where we can’t imagine living without it. It seems so useful. You can look at people’s pictures. You can check relationship statuses. You can stalk guilt-free because everyone does it. You can “keep in touch” with friends and relatives. You can play games.

And you can post statuses.

The status update is the source of Facebook’s superficiality. When I post a status, I know that at least some percentage of my ~400 friends is going to read it. No matter what it is. A description of my lunch. The story of my great workout. A photo in which I look particularly attractive.

What’s the motivation for sharing these bits of information with hundreds of mostly-strangers?

Because I know I’m guaranteed to get some attention in return.

People love what I’m having for lunch. They cheer me on when I post about running my latest 5k. And they won’t hesitate to tell me how great I look in this photo.

And if I have a bad day? It’s like ordering a rush delivery of attention — all from the comfort of your laptop.

Consciously or subconsciously, the underlying motivation of a Facebook account is vanity. Self-affirmation. Titillation.


Facebook is very mainstream. Everyone is on it. But the mainstream is called such because of what it is: shallow.

And what it lacks in depth, it makes up for in breadth. Hundreds and hundreds of “friends”, few of whom we care about, and most of whom we need to wade through to find who really matters.

Insidious Distraction

As I wrote in Ubiquitous Distraction, whenever we check an input, we severely inhibit our ability to create.

This is not to say we can’t find inspiration in blog posts, or escape in a great novel, or levity in a funny YouTube video. But what separates these inputs from Facebook is value.

Facebook provides very little value that cannot be obtained elsewhere. It provides hours of distraction with almost no reward.

I was fortunate to never find Facebook very addicting. Years ago, I began hiding all of the people I didn’t care about, and so checking my News Feed was easy. Log in, read a handful of new posts, and get out. I rarely felt compelled to stalk, check pictures, or play games.

But even still, those few minutes added up. Between the iPhone and iPad apps and logging into the website, I would still manage to check it multiple times a day.

Rarely would I find anything worth the time. Sure, I’d like a status or two, or make a comment if something particularly witty came to mind.

But, why?

What am I getting out of clicking that little thumbs-up button?


What am I contributing by clicking that little thumbs-up button?

Nothing, except for a fleeting moment of gratification.

Every moment I was reading a Facebook status was a moment I was not thinking about making great stuff.

Of course, we can argue that the same is true of Twitter, Path, Instagram, et al. But these inputs are far more likely to provide value because of their models for following and connecting.

You follow people on Twitter whom you find interesting. They do not have to follow you back.

Path is specifically designed for sharing with close friends. You may share your Path with someone, but they do not have to share theirs with you.

Instagram (for the moment) follows the same model as Twitter. Follow those with good pictures. Ignore those without.

You only encounter bullshit in these places if you choose to follow people who post bullshit.

This is where Facebook differs from other social networks.

The How

So, how does one go about departing the land of Lucida Grande?

1. Download Your Information

If you’ve been a member on Facebook for years, as I was, you’ll probably be fearful of losing all of your wall posts, pictures, videos, etc.

Fear not.

Facebook allows you to download all of your information fairly easily, provided you know how to do it.

Click here to learn how to download your Facebook data.

The steps are as follows:

  1. Click the account menu at the top right of any Facebook page.
  2. Choose Account Settings.
  3. Click on “Download a copy of your Facebook data”.
  4. Click Start My Archive.

The archiving process takes a while, and you’ll receive an email from Facebook when your download is ready.

I want to mention here that when I tried to download my archive, I received an error several times stating that my data couldn’t be downloaded. I had to try again the following day before the download link worked.

2. Permanently Delete Your Account

Note that Facebook distinguishes between “deactivate” and “delete”:

If you deactivate your account from your Security Settings page, your profile (timeline) disappears from the Facebook service immediately. People on Facebook will not be able to search for you. Some information, like messages you sent, may still be visible to others.

In case you want to come back to Facebook at some point, we save your profile (timeline) information (friends, photos, interests, etc.) so that the information on your profile (timeline) will be there when you come back. A lot of people deactivate their accounts for temporary reasons.

If you do not think you will use Facebook again and would like your account deleted, keep in mind that you will not be able to reactivate your account or retrieve any of the content or information you have added. If you would like your account permanently deleted with no option for recovery, log in to your account and then submit your request here.

Fortunately, there’s an easier way to quit Facebook: visit and click the red button to be taken directly to the account deletion page.

Upon doing so, your account will be deactivated for fourteen days. Afterward, the account will be permanently deleted. If you log in during the grace period, you will cancel the deletion request.

Be Free

I was on Facebook for eight years and who knows how many hours.

I still catch myself wanting to type “f-a-c-e-b-o-o-k-.-c-o-m” in my URL bar once in while. It’s muscle memory at this point. But then I remember I don’t need to do that any more.

And it feels good.

I’m not saying that everyone who uses Facebook is an idiot. Most of my friends are still on it. However, I do believe the large majority of content on Facebook is worthless. The cost outweighs the benefits.

For me, it was time to move on. The cost outweighed the benefits. Like the week I changed my life and started rising early, leaving Facebook was the result of self-evaluation.

It’s going back to basics: when something no longer works for you, or no longer contributes value to your life, it’s time to let go.

Eliminate unnecessary things — that includes social networks.

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Ubiquitous Distraction, Oases of Quiet, and Why You Can't Come Up with Anything

Lately I’ve been wrestling with the idea of ubiquitous distraction — the notion that distractions are everywhere, and that it’s increasingly difficult to exist in a state without distractions.

The trouble is that distractions often don’t seem like distractions, and sometimes we don’t even consider something a distraction, even though it’s preventing us from doing what we should or even want to be doing, which itself seems like a pretty good definition of “distraction” to me.

Take checking Twitter, for instance. I love checking Twitter. There’s so much cool stuff on Twitter. Many days, it’s a gateway to something inspiring, thought-provoking, or just plain interesting. It has value, no question about it.

But at the same time, when you’re checking Twitter, it’s very difficult to do anything else, or at least do anything else well. It’s the case for single-tasking. The reason for this inability, I think, begins with the fact that checking Twitter requires you to receive information.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. We’re receiving information all the time, through all of our senses, and probably even when we’re asleep.

I believe an incompatibility exists between receiving information and, shall we say, creating your own information. That is, there is a tension between absorption and creation.

When you’re receiving information, it’s difficult to put out information. For example, it’s hard to listen when you’re talking. When you’re talking, you’re acting as an output. You’re sending words out into the air. When you’re listening, you’re receiving the words from someone else.

A talker’s output is a listener’s input.

Talking and listening at the same time is very difficult. We think we’re capable of doing both simultaneously, but more likely we are alternating in rapid succession between talking and listening.

Suppose I’m reading a book and therefore taking in external information. To understand what I’m reading, I need to pause and think about it. This process happens almost instantly, probably between sentences. That’s what punctuation is for. Otherwise, we would never have an opportunity to understand a thought.

Beyond mere understanding lies the act of pondering. To think about what I read, I need to stop reading and process it. I might have passing, reactionary thoughts to what I’m reading as I read it, but to truly ponder on it, I’m better off pausing to reflect.

Our inputs are innumerable. Twitter, Facebook, texts, books, radio, television, magazines, etc. Whenever we interact with these things, we are receiving information, and thus we are unable to create new information, whether we realize it or not.

With that in mind, it’s clear that reaching a creative state — that is, a state where creation is possible — is incredibly difficult.

Suppose you’re trying to come up with a creative, original thought, or otherwise do some kind of work wherein you’re making something out of nothing. Writing a blog post, a poem, a short story. Painting a picture. Composing a song. Something that requires you to be creative if you’re going to produce anything significant.

If you’re surrounded by inputs, that state of creation is going to be difficult to reach. How can you create something while you brain is busy taking in and understanding external information?

As long as you are surrounded by inputs, you will find no room for your creative output.

This relationship strikes me as insidious in the sense that we may never realize it’s happening.

Say it’s a Wednesday night, and I just queued Thursday’s blog post for publication. But, now I’m in trouble, because I’ve run out of ideas for potential blog posts. I’m all tapped out. But, I need to publish something on Friday morning. The readers depend on it. No matter, something will come to me over the course of the day.

I wake up Thursday morning and check Twitter and RSS. I catch up on the day’s news. Then, I put some music on while I take a shower. I listen to a podcast as I’m eating lunch. Read the news some more. More music or podcasts in the car on the way to work. Actual working while I’m at work. More music or podcasts on the way home. Read some more news while eating dinner.

And now I’m screwed because the day is over, and still no new ideas have come to me!

Well, how could they?

If you were taking in information all day long — news, music, podcasts, other people, etc. — then how could your brain possibly have had a chance to create something original? There was no space to create.

This brings me to an excellent video featuring John Cleese called “A Lecture on Creativity”, which Merlin Mann referenced on Episode 62 of Back to Work.

In his lecture, Cleese advises creating what he calls an “oasis of quiet” when it comes time to do your creative work. He recommends five things as necessary to reaching a creative state, but I’m only going to refer to two of them here. You can (and should) watch the video for the rest.

The first requirement is space, which Cleese says means, “sealing yourself off” from the world. Some place without inputs, without distractions.

The second requirement is time, as in a set period when you wrestle with your problem and only your problem, and after which you go back to your life. He recommends ninety minutes, as it generally takes a while to get used to being alone with your problem and letting the creative juices flow.

Cleese’s “oasis of quiet” is something increasingly rare these days because we are so often surrounded by inputs. In my example of trying to come up with a new blog post idea, I never allowed myself the opportunity to experience an “oasis of quiet”. I was always receiving external information, and thus my brain never had the opportunity to create something of its own, or, to pull knowledge from the air.

To do our best creative work, to really make something great, I believe we first need to build that oasis of quiet. Because there are so many inputs — and therefore so much noise — in our world today, and because we have become so acclimated to them, we do not realize how stifling they are to our creativity.

I’ll end with a quote from Cleese’s lecture:

It’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent — like thinking — and it’s also easier to do little things we know we can do than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about.

Things like Twitter, as wonderful as it is, are trivial when it comes to creation. Sure, you might discover something that inspires within you a new idea, but following that, the actually process of making something with that idea can only be achieved in an oasis of quiet.

It’s up to you to determine what your oasis looks like. Perhaps you’re sitting. Perhaps you’re pacing. Perhaps you’re alone, or in a crowded café. Perhaps you’re on the couch in the dark, or out in the sunshine.

Whatever it looks like, your oasis needs to afford you and your mind the space and time to create. To do that, you must eliminate inputs. And, you must be patient while you wait for your creativity to come out of the woodwork.

Take the time to turn off your inputs, and find the space and opportunity for your creative output to blossom.

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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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Dive Deep: The Case for Single-tasking

One of the great things about the iPad — on which I’m currently writing — is that it forces you to do one thing at a time.

True, the iPad is capable of “multitasking”, but it’s really just an interface that allows you to switch between apps quickly. You can never have two apps onscreen at the same time. Some perceive this as a limitation, and many cite it as the reason they would never be able to use the iPad to get any “real work” done.

We often associate multitasking with productivity. After all, why wouldn’t you want to get a bunch of things done at the same time?

Multitasking does have some value, but we always forget about the power of single-tasking.

When we’re working on multiple tasks at the same time, or even thinking about multiple things at the same time, our focus is divided between each entity. Even I know enough math to understand that if you’re working on two tasks at once, each is only receiving half of your time and attention.

When we spread our time and attention over many different tasks at once, the quality of our work suffers.

Quality suffers because our brains are built for single-tasking. When we multitask, our brains are jumping from thing to thing very quickly. We feel like we’re working on several things at once, but our brains are actually moving from one thought process to another in rapid succession. I tend to make more careless mistakes when I force my brain to operate this way. When I’m thinking about several things at once, my mind feels scattered and overwhelmed, which is stressful and exhausting.

By spreading ourselves too thin over too many different things, we negate our ability to focus deeply on one specific thing.

If you jump off a diving board with spread arms and legs — jumping jack style — you won’t sink very deep. But, if you jump off with your arms and legs together — pencil style, I believe — you can easily touch the bottom of the pool.

It’s the same with multitasking and single-tasking. Spread yourself too thin, and you won’t be able to delve too deeply into any one project. But, if you focus all of your attention on a single problem, you can reach new depths of productivity and understanding.

Writing this article on my iPad forces me to think deeply about the topic and what I’m saying. I’m not writing and surfing the web. I’m not writing and listening to music. I’m not writing and playing guitar. If I were doing any of those things at the same time, my attention would be divided between them, and I’d only be able to scratch the surface of what I was writing about.

When you want to do your best work, single-task. It can mean the difference between a dive and a belly flop.

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How to Take a Massive Brain Dump

Your brain is like your body’s inbox.

Every time we think of an idea, or are given a to-do, or come across something we want to remember, it goes directly to the brain. Like an inbox, though, it’s possible for the brain to get overloaded.

When we fail to process our desk’s inbox, more and more things accumulate until the inbox is overflowing. This inundation creates both physical and mental clutter. Our desk is literally buried under paperwork, which in turn makes us feel stressed and claustrophobic.

Our minds work the same way. Like an inbox, our minds contain a finite amount of space. When too many things build up, the result is chaos.

An item placed in an inbox will remain there until it is acted on by an individual. Likewise, a thought in our mind will remain there until we either forget it or act on it. Since forgetting things is usually bad, we struggle to retain as much as we can.

When our lives get busy, we find our minds overflowing with thoughts, ideas, and to-dos. Left unprocessed, these thoughts bounce around in our heads, usually crashing into other thoughts and making us feel stressed and overwhelmed. If you’ve ever felt like your head was going to explode thinking of all the things you need to do, then you know what I’m talking about.

The solution is what David Allen calls a “mental sweep”, otherwise known as a brain dump.

The idea is to get all of your thoughts and to-dos out of your head and down on paper. The process is simple: write down every single thing you can think of that is competing for your attention. And I mean everything, no matter how big or how small:

Return library book.
Send thank you cards.
Pay auto-loan.
Email Auntie Sally.
Do laundry.
Buy deodorant.
Finish thesis.
Research carry pen.
Buy Mother’s Day present.
Finish transferring DVDs.
Move tax return to savings account.
Investigate adjunct jobs.
Finalize Manference XIII.
Process email.
Make dinner plans with Keith.
Email Kevin and Caitlin about November.
Reschedule doctor’s appointment.

And so on. Write until you can’t think of anything else. You want your mind to feel clean and empty when you’re done.

None of these tasks are that big of a deal, but storing all of them in your head at once is a recipe for a mental breakdown. The fact that you haven’t captured these thoughts on paper means your mind is constantly working to remember them. “Oh, I forgot I need to do this… Which reminds me I need to do that… And I still haven’t done this… And I need to do this, that, and the other thing… AHHH!”

Writing everything down in one big list frees your mind from having to remember it all. Even if your list turns out to be three pages long, it’s OK. It’s better to have everything in visual form because it allows you to keep things in perspective. OK, this is everything I need to do. When it’s all bouncing around in your head, you can’t get a sense of the big picture. You’re missing the forest for the trees.

When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I always try to sit down and do a mental sweep. I empty out every thought, idea, and to-do and put it down on paper. Then my mind is free and calm because I don’t have to worry about remembering everything. It’s all right there on the page, and I feel better. Instead of struggling to keep my brain from exploding, I can focus my energy on actually getting things done and crossing items off the list.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with things to do, I strongly encourage you to do a mental sweep. Dump your brain out on paper. You’ll feel much better.

If you’d like more, check out Merlin’s post on the subject.

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Even More Almost Done

I am so tired of not having my thesis done.

Do I have anybody to blame but myself? No.

Should I be working on it now instead of writing for you kind-hearted, good-looking folks? Probably.

Is it going to get done very soon? Of course.

Am I going to nonetheless turn this situation into some semblance of thoughtful reflection for the benefit of you, the reader? You bet.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how my thesis was almost done and how the brink of achievement is a precarious place. My thesis is still almost done, and it’s even closer to being done than it was two weeks ago. It’s just not as done as I’d like it to be.

“So, stop whining and go finish it!”

You are absolutely right, sir or madam. In fact, the more my thesis remains in a perpetual state of “almost done”, the more I realize a very important point:

Everything depends on my finishing this thesis.

I’m not just talking about the obvious here. My degree and GPA and academic career hang in the balance, of course. But even more critical is the fact that my life cannot move forward until this thing is done.

A human being only has so much time and attention. Time, with which to do things, and attention, with which to choose what those things are. A human being’s mind only has so much room with which to think about these things.

As I’ve written before, my time and attention is divided between writing my thesis, writing QLE, teaching karate classes, eating, and — occasionally, as of late — exercising. This arrangement frustrates me because the presence of the thesis as one piece of my life’s pie makes it difficult to pay attention to the other pieces without feeling guilty about how I’m not paying attention to the priority piece.

Every couple of weeks, I get inspired about fitness and decide to completely rethink my workout routine. I just had one of these episodes the other day and proceeded to plan out an entire schedule of what kind of exercise I would do each week, including karate, lifting, sprints, and yoga. I even wrote it all down. But, as I marveled over the schematics of my new regimen, I realized that none of it is going to happen…

Until I finish my freaking thesis.

As long as this academic beast is prowling back and forth in the cage behind my cerebellum, I will never be free. I will not have the available time or attention necessary to implement a new workout regimen, or read a new novel, or start a new project, or do anything of consequence, until my thesis is done.

And so, done it shall be. And once it has been done, once that large, imposing piece of mental pie has been consumed, it will release its grasp on my time and attention, and open up a new world of sweet freedom and endless possibilities. And, at long last, my life will go on.

If only I liked pie…

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