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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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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On Tweaking vs. Fiddling

Mike Vardy makes an important distinction between tweaking and fiddling:

Fiddling generally involves avoiding the things you need to do rather than work towards making those things happen. You wind up getting caught up – and have to play catch up as a result.

Tweaking is making changes that are necessary in order to better optimize your situation – in this case, my ability to shift between work mode and life mode. Tweaking are changes for the sake of progress; fiddling are changes for the sake of change.

I totally agree.

As I mentioned in my Byword review, I’m pretty good at avoiding fiddling. I admit that I love to go through preferences and settings, but once I have everything set up, I tend to forget about them. That’s tweaking. Fiddling, on the other hand, would be playing with preferences to the point where it interferes with getting your work done.

For me, tweaking is a way to tailor something to suit my specific needs. If we’re talking text editors, for example, the proper font is important. I use Open Sans in Byword, which is also the body font I use on this website. It just feels good seeing that nice sans-serif on a pleasant white background.

Much of my tweaking comes from a desire to make an app “feel” good. Fonts are a big part of how an app feels. Look at Instapaper. Each of its iOS apps’ new fonts has a different feel to it, and choosing the right one for you is central to having a great reading experience. (I’m currently using Proxima Nova on my iPhone and Tisa on my iPad.)

The point is that taking the time to decide what font I want to write or read in is not fiddling. I don’t spend time trying different options every time I open the app. If I did that, I’ve never get anything written or read. Rather, I carefully consider my choices, pick my favorites, and then get to work.

If I love the way an app looks or functions, I’m much more likely to use it. If Instapaper only had Arial and Comic Sans, I’d never feel compelled to open it. The lack of tweaking would deter me from using the app. In turn, I’d just keep saving things to Instapaper and never get around to reading them, which would make me feel guilty. Or — heaven forbid — I might switch to another Read Later app. Fortunately, Instapaper is highly functional, reliable, and offers just enough customization to make using it a joy. After I’ve taken a moment to pick my preferences, I can get down to reading.

The same is true of Byword. It’s reliable, ultra pretty, and it works on all of my devices. Byword makes me want to write the way Instapaper makes me want to read.

In addition to apps and productivity, tweaking can also help improve your quality of life. As Mike suggests, tweaking is a way of refining and improving. It’s adjusting for the sake of getting better.

If you love taking hot showers, but your skin is always dry, you might try taking cold showers — James Bond style. That’s a tweak.

If you find yourself spending an extra hour in bed playing on your phone in the morning, you might consider moving your charger to your desk. That’s a tweak.

If you hate running, you might try running barefoot like Mike and me. I couldn’t stand the thought of running a few years ago, but since I tweaked my footwear, I love it.

The important part is not spending too much time on any of these decisions. That’s when tweaking becomes fiddling. If you’re spending more time tweaking than you are getting things done, you need to dial it back. Fiddling is aimless; tweaking is focused.

Tweak, then do. Repeat as needed — no more, no less.

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On Forgetting Who You Are

I wrote yesterday about having different identities and struggling to decide which one deserves your time and attention.

There’s a canonical Merlin quote from Back to Work S1E01 about procrastination. It goes like this:

Procrastination is an effect, not a cause. [The cause is] when you temporarily forget who you are, or who you want to be. It’s when you forget what you’re supposed to be paying attention to, and when you lose confidence about what your options are for doing something about it.

Sometimes, our individual identities are so ingrained in our consciousness that we forget they need to be actively maintained. When I pig out on crap, it’s because I’ve momentarily forgotten that I want to be in badass paleolithic shape. When I don’t put some kind of work into this site on a given day, it’s because I’ve forgotten that I want to be a writer.

If I want to write for a living, then I need to consciously dedicate my time and attention every day to making that happen. I can’t just throw up a new blog post and forget about it. Achieving your dreams is not a passive pursuit. You can’t wait for someone to hand it to you. It takes diligent, consistent hard work, and it might take a long time.

I know who I want to be. I have visions of my not-so-distant-future life, and it’s pretty great. And, it’s totally achievable. But, getting there requires focus. It’s not going to happen automatically if I just wait long enough.

We need to take control of our days. We need to ask ourselves each morning, “What can I do today that’s going to help me get to where I want to be?” And then do it. At the end of the day, we’ll be that much closer to whatever it is we want.

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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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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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On Being Almost Done

I had a meeting with my advisor (Hi, Dr. McBrine.) to discuss my thesis, which you may or may not know is on Middle English lyric poetry. At the time, I had sent him about 35 pages of solid criticism — the bulk of a fifty-page master’s thesis. The consensus was that the work I had done so far was very good. After months of reading, researching, and writing, such positive feedback was music to my ears. The hard part, my advisor declared, was over. All that was left to do was write my introduction and conclusion and tie it all together. I was almost done.

That was a month ago.

One month later, I’m still almost done, but I’m not any closer to actually being done than I was before the holidays.

I am paralyzed on the brink of achievement.

In some ways, it doesn’t make any sense. Just finish the damn thing! But, unfortunately, procrastination is persistent. There are a couple of reasons why I’ve failed to make any progress as of late. The first is that those initial 35 pages were hard work, and I clearly interpreted advisor’s generous feedback as, “Great job. You deserve a break.” Wrong, of course, but I’m only human.

The second and bigger reason is the concept of “almost done” itself.

Being almost done is exciting, but it also makes it much easier to come up with excuses for not finishing. “I’m almost done!” becomes “Eh, it’s almost done… I can finish it anytime.” Any time that’s not now, of course.

The brink of achievement is a precarious place. On one hand, most of the stress is gone. The hard part’s over. What once was an intimidating behemoth is now just a handful of leftover pages that need to be written. But on the other hand, less stress also means less motivation. In my case, having an entire thesis hanging over my head was excruciating. It drove me to power through in hopes of removing that pressure. Being almost done, however, means that my thesis is no longer a big deal. I’m not worried about it. Because it’s almost done.


That “almost” is a killer. It’s a splinter in the back of my mind. A much smaller splinter than it once was, but a splinter all the same. My thesis is still there, waiting to be finished off. And so it shall.

The only way out is through.

Obviously, I have no intention of going through life with an almost done thesis on Middle English lyric poetry in my back pocket. The time has come to finish the job.


Discipline and perspective.

I’m writing this Wednesday night, so my Thursday is reserved free and clear. Time to dig in. Fifty minutes on, ten minutes off. Repeat until lunchtime. Then hit it again until yoga. I recommend the BreakTime app.

What’s even more important is to think of the thesis — or any horrifying task — not as a To-Do, but as what Merlin Mann calls a To-Have-Done. That is, think not about how much it’s going to hurt to do the thing, but rather about how good it’s going to feel when it’s done. That shift in thinking makes it much easier to get started. Or get finished, as it were.

I’m not looking forward to working on my thesis for six or eight hours, but I am looking forward to being six or eight hours closer to done at the end of the day.

It’s time to own this thing. Soon it’ll be just a memory, and I can’t think of anything sweeter.