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Post image for Being and doing are not at odds

Every time I write something on the topic of personal productivity, a few people suggest that maybe doing more isn’t appropriate at all.

As a friend of mine suggested on the Facebook page, Western society has an obsession with productivity. We grow up being taught that we want to “do well” but we’re not often taught explicitly what that means. Success is a vague word, and in the absence of a meaningful definition it seems to refer to little more than having an above average income and a lot of phone calls to return.

We know that there’s something very near-sighted about taking busyness and career success for compass-North in our personal quests for happiness, so it’s understandable that the discerning person might be suspicious of anyone that appears unusually preoccupied with their personal productivity.

Last summer, I was more socially active than I’d ever been. Over the winter my focus shifted totally, and as the recreation season returns I find I’m spending most of my spare time at my desk. I’ve been turning down a lot of social invitations, giving vague reasons most of the time, but those who know me best know I am working. Some of them may be wondering, in my conspicuous absence, if I’ve lost touch with the values I espouse — staying present, connecting with other human beings, and enjoying the in-between moments.

A certain amount of personal productivity is absolutely necessary, at least enough to feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, and maintain some semblance of stability and autonomy. But I’ve been achieving those minimum productivity standards my whole life, so the question “Why do you need to do more than you’re already doing?” is a fair one.

Well, I don’t need to do more. Other than the physical essentials of life, I don’t strictly need anything. But it makes no sense at all to cease all activity except the minimum necessary to survive. After I earn enough to pay my food and rent, “unnecessary” productivity becomes any activity other than sleeping, eating, going to the bathroom and meditating. We each decide how much time to apply to any given “electives” in our lives: how many movies to watch, how many barbecues to attend, how many blogs to read, how often to make coffee, and of course, how much we work. Right now I want to accomplish more work than I have been, and I think I have good reasons.  Read More

Post image for How to cross every item off your to-do list in one night

For the entire year that I have lived in this suite, a cardboard-velvet box piled over with envelopes and mail sat on the floor between my filing cabinet and my entertainment unit. Today it is gone because yesterday I took twenty minutes to file it all.

It feels very different in here now. Cleaner karma. Better Feng Shui. It almost feels like I removed something from my head.

That box was, ostensibly, an active part of my “workflow system.” Any file that ended up out of its home was to be dropped in there, the whole lot to be re-filed at the end of every day.

All of the other components of my system have been in a similar state of stasis for a similarly long time. It was months ago that my master to-do list grew so stagnant and irrelevant that I stopped even looking at it, which reveals an interesting fact about our to-do items: they often don’t really need to be done at all.

There are items on it that have been “urgent” for months. I have certainly experienced inconveniences and lost opportunities because of my ridiculous level of procrastination, but clearly none of the eighty forgotten items on my list were life or death, or I’d be dead. Life has been generally pleasant.

So the bulk of my supposed must-do items (and probably yours too) were completely optional, benign opportunities to get ahead, rather than the creeping imperatives they seemed to be.

Still, their undoneness imposes a persistent mental burden, on the clarity of your mind and your self-esteem. Unmet commitments represent personal shortcomings.

I am a career procrastinator. So are many of you, I gather. None of the articles I’ve written has inspired more heartfelt “Oh my god that’s me!” responses than one I wrote about procrastination. In the article I argued that procrastination is not laziness, but a symptom of certain kinds of private fear.

Fear is much less a part of my day-to-day consciousness now than it was when I wrote that. I feel like I’m game to take on my concerns as they emerge in life, including the fuzzier, scarier projects that made my to-do items into more of a permanent collection than a rolling list.

The two approaches

Everyone experiences a steady stream of to-do items in their lives. People generally subscribe to one of two philosophies in dealing with them: acting on them arbitrarily as they become salient, or by using a system to organize them. In other words, they either keep their list of concerns in their head or they put them on paper.  Read More

Post image for Let reality be real

When I go grocery shopping I never get a cart. I restrict myself to one of my supermarket’s large baskets, which limits me to essential purchases, and ensures that whatever I do buy will fit into the two nylon bags I bring with me.

Most of the groceries I buy are particularly dense items: tofu bricks, fruit, bulk nuts, tubers and the odd condiment in a jar. I don’t buy boxed cereal, lettuce, chips, or anything else that would fill up the basket without offering much nourishment. I end up with two bags so heavy that plastic wouldn’t do. My car is a two-door, so the bags ride beside me in the passenger seat.

I rent a condo in the city’s most densely populated area and I depend on street parking, so sometimes I have to march the mega-bags a block or two to get to my door. When I do my shopping on the way home from work, I also have to carry a backpack, a suitcase-sized GPS, and a big laptop.

I load up as evenly as I can, close the door with my bum, and begin my half-kilometer farmer’s walk. Often it’s in extreme heat or cold. Eventually, straps begin to slip, my shoulders and fingers begin to burn a little, and it invariably becomes more uncomfortable the longer I have to walk. There are two doors and two steps along the way

I used to really hate this particular part of my life. In my old apartment I had a reserved parking spot so the walk was never more than fifty paces and one or two steps to climb, but it was such a worse experience than it is now. I used to dread it. It was like a final kick in the chest after working all day.

Now, it’s like water. For a while now I’ve known that the way to deal with physical discomfort is to open up to it, rather than close up to it. I used to grit my teeth and, in my mind, lean toward the moment when I can drop the bags onto my table and the discomfort is over. This does not defend against pain, but it’s what I always did and what most people seem to do.

I now see all instances of minor physical discomfort as a chance to get better at being relaxed. I relax into the discomfort, I let it hang out with me. When you first try it it’s an exhilarating experiment — to voluntarily open up to minor pain when that’s what the moment brings you, to refrain from listening to the impulse to cringe or harden. It feels like you’re walking freely in an area you thought you weren’t allowed to go.

It’s relatively easy to do with minor discomfort. Life gives you endless minor discomforts, all of them opportunities to retrain this impulse, and then when tougher things happen, the impulse is still there. Instead of cringing, you release and allow. You look right at it. Nothing else makes sense. Read More

Post image for How to make hard things easy

I live in a land of temperature extremes. In a typical year my city will see both 35 degrees Celsius and minus 35 (that’s 95 and -31 to Americans.) We have the greatest range of temperatures of any major city in the world. Average temperature is slightly lower than Moscow. Humidity and wind chill stretch these extremes further.

Our dramatic climate constitutes a large part of our modest civic pride. It’s particularly relevant to me though, because my day job has me working with my hands, outside, all times of year.

Construction crews know how to build things — roads, pipes, hydrants, and buildings — but they couldn’t possibly build them in the right place without a professional surveyor staking them out. That’s what I do. I read engineering drawings and mark exactly (to the inch) where all the new stuff belongs in the real world. Thousands of years ago, this was done using wooden stakes pounded into the ground at carefully measured-in points, and they have not yet found a better way.

Most construction happens in the summer. I find the points while a student assistant does most of the hammering. In winter, the construction season is on an outbreath and the industry slows way down. The students are gone, so two or three surveyors team up to create overqualified super-crews of stake-holders and hammerers. Many of my workdays, another surveyor does the technical stuff and so I become essentially a manual laborer.

Minus 35 is something everyone should experience at least once. The air shimmers with cold. When you inhale, the inside of your nostrils freeze. Your breath comes out in clouds. If there’s a breeze and some of your skin is exposed, say between your glove and the cuff of your coat, it feels like it’s being cut with a knife. But you wear layers, you keep moving, and you make sure to find a job for the extremities that tend to go numb first.

Worst of all for the surveyor, the ground is about as soft as a brick. Wooden stakes shatter when you try to hammer them in. So we must always first pound in an iron bar to make a hole.

Even with a pointed iron bar it’s almost impossible to make a hole if you’ve never done it before. If you don’t hit it dead-centre, often the bar bounces right out. It takes several great, two-handed swings with a ten-pound sledgehammer to make any progress, which means someone else has to crouch down and hold the bar for the hammer guy.

It becomes a cogent exercise in trust. A miss could be disastrous for the wrist-bones of the holder, but the hammer needs to be swung hard, and we have to do this thousands of times. Being the hammerer is actually scarier than being the holder — I would rather get hit with a sledgehammer than hit someone. After working a few weeks with a particular partner, a person gets less nervous and it feels a whole lot safer. The upside to swinging the sledge is that you stay warm.  Read More

Post image for How to grow

This month Raptitude will turn four years old. Some of you were here right from the first few awkward posts, a time when all of my subscribers could fit in a school bus. But now the regulars alone could fill an NHL arena, along with enough casual readers to form a pretty scary mob in the surrounding parking area.

The numbers are big enough to be abstract to me now, and when I think of Raptitude’s readership I’m usually still thinking of the same few dozen faces (or avatars) that were on that original schoolbus. So I sometimes forget that a good proportion of you are quite new, and we’ve never been properly introduced.

My name is David. I’m a 32 year-old Canadian. I write about creating moment-to-moment quality of life, mostly by reframing how we look at the world and its people.

It has worked for me. Unbelievably well. Every year I reach a new level of confidence and ease. If the Me of 2012 could travel back in time, he would make short work of the problems suffered by the Me of 2011. This is the kind of growth I expect of myself every year now, and I want you to expect that too.

Whether they read this blog or not, everyone is interested in that: more ease, more perspective, more self-dependability — to know how to be less needy, less unstable, less worried.

For people actively interested in personal growth, the existing reading material tends to settle into two slightly overlapping camps. There are the “summon the winner within” people you find in the audience at Tony Robbins events, and the spiritual/new-age people who talk in soft voices about meditating and manifesting things.

People do get lots of mileage out of these camps, but I think the greater proportion of people don’t really want to live in either one. On Raptitude I borrow what I’ve learned from both and pass on what works, but I don’t really like the tone of either one. They just feel too forceful a lot of the time. Most of us don’t want to become practicing Buddhists, or recite affirmations into the mirror every morning, and we don’t believe that’s what happy people do.

For me it’s about cultivating personal perspectives that work internally, for you, better than what you’ve been prescribed by society (or by Tony Robbins, for that matter.) In my experience, the conventional ways of life that most of us inherit from our parents, our religions and our cultural norms make for lives that are many times harder than they have to be, and much less rewarding. I feel like I’m about twenty times better at life than I was ten years ago, but only because I made a point of it.  Read More

Post image for You don’t want to be typical

School was easy for me most of the way through. I got A’s and I didn’t have to try. When I got a B, I was asked what’s wrong. The first time I got a C, I think a special parent-teacher conference was arranged.

Most of my friends were thrilled that they “passed”. Some of their parents gave them money for C’s and up.

I resented the double standard. I almost always did well, so why was I rewarded for that with increased scrutiny and disappointed faces?

A lot of times in my life I figured if I was doing better than average, better than typical, then I should be happy with my efforts and so should everyone else. If “typical” is good enough for the typical person, then hovering a little above “typical” should be more than enough, or else I must have entitlement issues.

It took me a long time to learn that typical is no good. There’s no reason to regard it as the “good enough” line. Typical health is pretty bad. A typical career is draining and unrelated to the worker’s real interests. Typical credit card debt is in the thousands. The typical level of fulfillment in a person’s life is far below where it could be with some self-examination and habit overhauls.

Having higher standards than what’s typical doesn’t mean you think you’re better than everyone else. It only means everyone is running way below their capability, and you want to make up some of the distance. It’s one of the most tragic yet also glorious truths of human beings: that we tend to live up to only a fraction of our potential, in virtually every area. There’s no reason to assume that on average people make use of 50% of their capabilities. Our species should win the “squandered potential” award.

But aren’t we the species that builds incredible buildings, writes brilliant literature, and achieves staggering technological innovations? Not really. It’s not our species that does those things. It’s always the work of individuals who are celebrated precisely because they are exceptional. All of the familiar symbols of high human achievement — the Gandhis, the Edisons, the Picassos and Gretzkys — were atypical. They had atypical standards for their work and for their conduct. They did not do what everyone else was doing. They didn’t find a comfortable place in the middle.

What keeps us all so lame? Conformity, for the most part. A fear of sticking out, screwing up, falling down. We are silently guided by an absent-minded belief that we shouldn’t do things other people aren’t doing. The safest thing is the old thing, the proven thing, the boring thing. The typical thing.

Don’t use what’s typical as your standard for yourself. Being a fear-driven person, I did for a long time in pretty much every area, and so I figured carrying a “manageable” Visa balance, for example, was okay. I thought spending $3000 a year on drinking was okay, that it was okay to leave dishes in the sink and clothes in my floor, that it was okay to eat crap food because it was apparently good enough for people around me.

We use what’s typical to calibrate our expectations for how much we ought to earn, how much time off is reasonable to insist on, how much frustration our relationships and obligations should create for us, the scale of our goals, and how happy we ought to be to be. Don’t do this.

Millions of people believe that when they finally make high five figures, have a home and kids and a faithful spouse, that they ought to be happy, even though they know they’re not. They know they meet society’s standard, but have never thought that society’s standard should have nothing to do with their own.  Read More

Post image for The most powerful force in the universe, and how to use it

Einstein is supposed to have said that the most powerful force in the universe is compound interest. It looks like he probably didn’t, as nobody can seem to find a context for that remark. Whoever said it, it’s profound enough that it warrants endorsement by a famous genius.

I bet Einstein would have been someone who understood that compound interest applies to much more than money. Compounding works everywhere, and our interests concern a much broader set of values than money.

Every established blogger knows, for example, that the hardest web traffic to earn is the first few thousand hits, because they must come from nowhere. You must put in time promoting it: commenting on other blogs, making connections, manually pitching your produce to people who have never heard of you and may have no reason to give it a look.

Once you’ve earned some traffic, then more traffic grows on that initial hard-earned traffic. If your labors have built something with value, then you soon reach a point where you don’t need to promote it. You just need to maintain an active blog. The promotion you did in the past is now promoting it for you. You are living off the interest.

With money, we know that it’s a better deal to buy something that makes money than something that loses money, even if they cost the same today. The idea of harnessing compound interest is to understand the tremendous value of that that which naturally generates what you value. A thousand dollars worth of rising securities is worth way more than a thousand dollars worth of currency, because with you’re not just receiving their current value but many years of their capacity to create value.

The whole point of life is to get rich. If you would scoff at that, then maybe you define riches too narrowly. Actual wealth is the capacity to create quality of life. Money is secondary to actual wealth, because it’s worthless except for one purpose: a flexible tool for building quality of life for you and your loved ones. What you build is your *real* estate, which really only amounts to what it feels like to live your life, and your capacity for making it feel like you want.

Regular readers may have noticed a surge of money-related posts recently. I haven’t become more materialistic — this new fascination is not with money or even things, but with the power of compound interest with respect to real wealth.  Read More

Post image for How to sit in a chair and drink tea

First, slow down, like you’ve just turned off the highway into a quiet neighborhood. Normal rat-race speed is unsuitable for what we’re about to do. Hurrying through the process of relaxing defeats its purpose.

This experience is all about decelerating. Take a breath if you have to, or if you wish to.

Take out your tools. Kettle. Cup. A mesh infuser if you’re using one.

Your supplies — the consumables — will be two of nature’s simplest creations: water and leaves. Loose tea is best but a teabag will do.

Choose your leaves. Chai. Rooibos. Ceylon. Oolong. Yerba mate. This is a personal decision and I won’t make a suggestion. Depending on the plant you choose here, you may be embarking on a mild drug experience. If you’re running low, on either quantity or variety, here is a wonderful source.

Run water into the kettle, feeling its growing weight, and take a moment to smile at your fortune if you did not have to leave the house to do so.

Turn on the heat. Put your tea into your cup.

You will now confront one of modern society’s ever-present dangers, which is the risk of distraction we face whenever nothing interesting happens for a few minutes. Your muscle memory will suggest something, maybe slipping your smartphone out, maybe leaning over the computer chair to surf Reddit, maybe straightening something on the counter. Worst of all, you may start talking to yourself in your head.

Stay where you are. You’re making tea. It’s tempting to think of the next two minutes of kettle-heating time as something in the way, something you want to get to the end of, like an unmemorable stretch of parking lot you have to cross to get from your car to your destination.

Your impulse might be to self-entertain. Opt instead to do something simple and self-contained, like stretching or looking out the window. If you’re game, just stand beside the stove. Let time just hang there, without making you feel like you should be somewhere else.

Whatever you end up doing for that two minutes, if you stay with it, your simple experience of standing or window-looking will seem to grow in intensity, until your whole world begins whistling and rattling.

Don’t rush here. A boiling kettle is not a crisis. To make sure you’re not reacting, watch it exhale steam for a few seconds. Observe how the world stays together. Let your pulse return to normal, then take it off.

Pour your water into the cup. Set the kettle aside. Heat off. Read More

Post image for How much does it cost to be you?

Now that I’ve installed snow tires, my car has only four things wrong with it. The passenger-side lock is misbehaving since someone tried to screwdriver it open this summer. The throttle sticks for a moment when the automatic transmission shifts to second gear. The heat takes twenty minutes to come on, and the suspension is creaking now.

I don’t know how much each will cost, but I figure if I’m lucky I can fix one item with each of my next four paychecks, if I tighten in other areas.

This is a pretty normal financial position for me. My life, the way I live it, is affordable, except when unpredictable expenses overlap. Just a little bit more income, say 10% more, would theoretically stop this from happening. But I’ve been thinking that for years, and my income is nearly double what it was seven years ago.

Parkinson’s Law is mostly responsible for this. We have an almost automatic tendency to increase our standard of living the moment our income increases. If you’re like most people, when your pay increases by another $500 a month, the first thing you decide is what additional $500-per-month thing you can now afford to enjoy, which is the same as deciding what additional $500-per-month expense you now wish to take on.

Every time that happens, your financial situation doesn’t really change, even as you climb through tax brackets. Ephemeral details of your life — what you are wearing, where you are eating, the sleekness of your furniture — do change, but the feeling of your financial situation doesn’t, and it is this feeling that determines whether your financial situation feels stretched, or ample.

That ample feeling comes, al least partly, from space. Ideally there would be space between what you earn and the cost of your lifestyle. If you have space, the thought of an unexpected expense doesn’t have the power to worry you, because normal life (for you) costs less than you have to spend on it, and so incidentals don’t put you in the red. On most of the occasions where life costs more than you expect, it still costs less than you have.

Space is an interesting asset in that it doesn’t actually cost money. It only requires that you leave a portion unspent. The returns on this zero-net-cost investment are considerable. It can make the difference between carrying a daily feeling of abundance and carrying a daily feeling of not-enough.

I’m convinced that a single middle-classer who makes $45,000 a year, and whose lifestyle costs $40,000 a year, is necessarily going to feel more day-to-day abundance than an upper-middle-classer who makes $100,000 and whose lifestyle costs every bit of that.

Read More

Post image for What love is not

Love is not what the movies and hit songs tell us it is.

Love doesn’t hurt. If it hurts it’s something else. Fear. Attachment. Idolatry. Addiction. Possessiveness.

Nobody’s heart aches out of love. In pop culture, love gets conflated with desire all the time. From childhood we learn you can like something, or you can love it, as if it’s only different degrees of the same thing.

Love is all selflessness. It’s the opposite of need and attachment. To an individual it’s a sensation of allowing, rather than seeking. Letting go, rather than grasping.

Love is subtle and silent and delicate, and in its beginnings it can be drowned out easily by attachment, lust and fear. Love must have space, and force is what crowds it out. Love is powerful but it isn’t forceful.

Desire is simple and often reckless. We need to manage it carefully to avoid causing harm. Desire is the intention to change something, to reject what it is in favor of what it could be — something better, more secure, more pleasing. Love is the intention to let that thing be for its own sake.

A lot of us grow up thinking that to love is simply to want very badly. It’s hard to be sensitive to love when you’re overrun by desire. Love isn’t something that can be done badly, if it’s love at all. Desire can happen at the same time as love, but it’s not the same thing.

Jealousy isn’t love, nor is it evidence of love. Jealousy is fear. Love doesn’t drive people mad, it drives them sane. Desire, in its different forms, can drive people to do anything. Love never drives people to kill or steal or cheat or worry.  Read More

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