Defining Success For Today

One of my favorite activities at the monastery is washing dishes.

I love washing dishes because it’s repetitive, it’s mostly physical, and the end point is obvious. These traits are the opposite of my office work where it’s often unclear when the work is done, mostly mental, and novel situations.

Because mental, office and creative work is so nebulous, I find it’s important to have a way to define the scope of work and define what is good enough. Too many people burn themselves out trying to do as many tasks as possible and still feel unsatisfied at the end of the day. At the same time, they’re often doing unimportant tasks where a lot gets done but doesn’t feel like it really mattered.

In order to overcome these obstacles, I find it’s important to do a few steps:

  1. Define your big goals, what’s the most important things to do? For me this includes the monastery, circling, meditation, health, and friendships.
  2. Work backwards from the big goals to what are the projects and tasks?
  3. Each day prioritize at least 2-3 most important tasks tied to those big goals.

If I complete those most important tasks then my day is a success.

Metaphorically speaking, there are more “dishes” (tasks, projects) than I have time to do each day. So, I’m choosing what are the most important ones that fit my given day / week / month. If I do them then I’ve succeeded.

Detox Non-Fiction

Before, I wrote about my experiment going a month without fiction books. It went very well. I found my attention moved towards reading more non-fiction instead. While I enjoyed reading new things, I still felt like the non-fiction was more of a distraction than a positive.

So, I decided to go one step further by removing any new non-fiction reading for the next month too.

My rule is:

  1. No Fiction Reading
  2. No New Non-Fiction Books (Exception: unless balanced with practice/implementation)
  3. Allowed to Read Non-Fiction Books for the sake of note taking review & implementation

This next month (Feb-March), my aim is to implement the skills and learning from my reading. I find it’s too easy to continually read more and more without any of the knowledge translating to a positive impact on my life or behavior. Instead, the reading is information-porn that feels good in the moment but doesn’t provide benefit in the long run.

Part of my motivation came recently from reading my old notebooks. I noticed the same goals year after year to learn swimming or implement systems like cloud backing up my data. Yet, I kept pushing these projects off.

I could always argue that I’m too busy to add any new activities. After all, I live in a metamodern monastery. My schedule is tightly regimented. Where would the time come from?

Yet, the truth is I had no trouble finding time to read many hours each week .

So, my biggest time sink appeared to be reading. I had already severely limited my social media (see my facebook post). I rarely watch television shows or movies. I don’t play video games. But reading is a huge part of my week. By cutting out reading, I can devote time towards practice and implementation of these projects and skills.

Surprisingly, it hasn’t been too difficult to cut out reading. I think like porn, reading was a way to fill time and feel some pleasure. But I find enjoyment in practicing these skills and projects too, there’s just an initial resistance to starting them.

It’s not all perfect though. The one stumbling block is reading online articles. I get into research obsessions like RV dwelling, mini PCs, phone/computer automation, best ways to backup, and more. I found myself spending hours reading everything I could about these obscure topics. At the end of the day though, all that research is only useful if I implement them into my life. I’m not sure what to do about this except ruthlessly plan, track, and review my time.

So, what am I doing with this extra time that used to be spent reading?

One of my current side projects is to learn basic hand sewing. It took me thirty minutes to find the best way to thread a needle and tie a knot. It took me another thirty minutes to sew my first button. On one hand, this seems like a waste of time. On the other hand, I can always do these basic sewing things now. More importantly, it’s helping me to practice a new way of learning with fun, patience, and curiosity rather than perfectionism and anxiety. That’s worth more than reading another book or even the skill of sewing itself. I’m learning how to learn better.

For years, I’ve worried about backing up my computer files and finally came up with a good, free solution. With my laptop recently dying (resurrected with a new battery), the urgency of backing up my files became more important. I had previously backed everything manually using an external HD. But, I’ve been robbed before and lost my external HD so that didn’t seem the best, final solution. After some murking around, I discovered Google Drive now has a better backup/sync app that allows you to choose any folder/file on your computer as well as do only one-way sync without automatic deletion. So, now I can backup my important folders to Google Drive without having to download any of my google drive files. I can also delete files on my computer and they stay on Google Drive. Cloud Backups Done.

I’m also re-reading the Work Clean book to systematically learn the values, habits, and behaviors to practice this way of being, this way of excellence involving focus, discipline, planning, continuous process improvement, and presence.

Eventually, I’m sure I’ll re-introduce more books to my life. For now, I’m going the extreme of practice 80%, reading 20%.

Getting Organized

I’m focusing on organization both physically and digitally.

This means making a beautiful and effective work space. The tiny moments of frustration searching for lost cables and having a cluttered desk adds friction towards excellence.

Likewise, I’m often missing and searching for items like my car keys, phone, and random gloves/hats. So, I instituted a new rule that I always keep my cellphone in my right pants pocket now.

The most immediate trigger was reading the book Work Clean: The Life-Changing Power of Mise-En-Place to Organize Your Life, Work and Mind.

Wikipedia defines mise en place as “a French culinary phrase which means “putting in place” or “everything in its place.” It refers to the set up required before cooking, and is often used in professional kitchens to refer to organizing and arranging the ingredients …

The writer and chef Dan Charnas uses the concept of mise en place as a “philosophy” and “system” for what chefs believe and do, even going so far to call it an “ethical code”. In the kitchen, the phrase is used as a noun (i.e., the setup of the array of ingredients), a verb (i.e., the process of preparing) and a state of mind. All of these uses, however, refer to someone who knows to be well-prepared.”

Mis-en-place as a philosophy is a state of mind, a system of habits, and guiding principles towards being prepared to be excellent in work and life. It’s not just a matter of what work you do or having an exhaustive task list system. Rather, it’s the preparation and attitude before, during, and after tasks.

One of core pieces is arranging spaces. In a professional kitchen, everyone’s cooking station is optimized to allow for effective, flow movement.

Likewise, I’ve been working on arranging my workspace. This includes creating more desk space by using elevated boxes, making my walls more beautiful, adding drawer organizers, making my screen and keyboard more ergonomic, and adding a physical inbox I review daily. I’m also downsizing all my possessions, plan on creating more vertical shelving, and setting up spare screens/tablets to have dedicated view of my calendar and tasks.

Over time, I plan on re-reading Work Clean to implement each of its exercises and principles and document how that works up in my life.

Not Reading Fiction for a Month

Sometimes, residents at the monastery run different personal experiments. Daniel once went a long time without eating any sugary desserts. If anyone saw him about to eat one, we could remind him, and he had to hand it over. One time, Pan went vegan for several months in honor of another vegan friend. Several residents have done all night sitting or fasting during retreats. I was a huge fan of extra hot saunas back when we rented our old location in a large wood barrel sauna.

Last month, I realized that I was reading a lot as a sort of crutch that was taking away from my mindfulness practice. Most nights, I would lie in bed and read a fiction novel on my kindle. Technically, we’re not suppose to use any electronic screens at night, but books/kindles are allowed.

Sometimes, I found myself reading well into the night and only getting 5-6 hours of sleep then. The bad morning start would inevitably impact the quality of my morning practice which would continue into exercise period and work. Often, whenever I felt a particular other-worldly type momentum in my practice, there would be this other part of me that wants to come back to my old state — maintain a state of homeostasis. It’s weird because I often would feel better. Way more energized. Breathing with my whole body. Solid. In the world. Yet, as soon as I get to bed, a part of me wants to read and scale back that momentum.

So, at the end of the December retreat, I vowed to go 30 days without reading any fiction. That was the 27th. Today, it’s Jan 21. So, almost there.

What have I learned?

Predictably, I switched to reading a lot more non-fiction reading. I finished a new book and started reading several more. With several of the non-fiction, the content starts getting fuzzy, and I want to sleep anyway so that’s an improvement over the fiction reading.

The book I finished was Work Clean: The Life-Changing Power of Mise-En-Place to Organize Your Life, Work and Mind. It has a lot of practical exercises I really enjoy and started implementing. I plan to write more on those too. So, that was a net immediate and obvious benefit over reading yet another short story.

I do want to sleep earlier though. With Soryu back and retreat starting tonight, I will have no distractions to sleep unless I journal or just continue sitting (maybe all nighters this time..).

It’s funny because most people wouldn’t consider reading to be a bad habit or distraction. Who’s it hurting after all? But, it was taking away from my highest goals and priorities. It gave me a type of pleasure and satisfaction, but it often came at making my next day slightly worse.

This isn’t the first time I’ve pinpointed reading as a bad habit. And it’s not the only one. There’s reddit, quora, news, and more. I got obsessed for weeks/months on van dwelling and mini pcs too. But, this is the first time I set a 30 day goal and got success.

Not sure what I’ll do after the 30 days. I don’t think I’ll return to fiction. If anything, I may cut back on my non-fiction now too.

Two Selves: Horse & Rider

For many of us when we practice meditation or any difficult skill, there can be an inner voice monitoring and telling ourselves what to do. For example, “Okay. We’re going to meditate now. Just pay attention to your breathe…..No, don’t think about that. Come back……Geez, this doesn’t work. I can’t do this. This place is too cold. I need to try harder…..Okay, right breathe time.”

In the Inner Game of Tennis, the author raises the interesting question, who is talking to who here? It seems like there’s the “I” that is constantly on watch keeping track of things and telling the other “me” what to do and how it’s doing. We could say this first “I” is the self-conscious ego and the other “me” is my subconscious body-self.

Often, the “I” is talking and doing too much. For most modern folks including myself, there’s a perfectionism theme to the self-conscious ego. It’s constantly feeling inadequate, upset, craving, nervous, and anxious about what’s happening and state of one’s practice.

A good metaphor here would be the “ego” as the rider, and the subconscious body-self as the “horse”. If you have ever ridden a horse (or tried to train any animal), you know that the rider doesn’t really have control. The ideal role of the rider is simply to keep the horse on track. The horse is the one doing the actual work and walking. The rider is the support. Once the horse gets into flow, the rider ideally disappears.

Likewise, in our meditation, the role of our thinking self-conscious mind is to keep track. We can use our thinking to coach ourselves rather than judge and criticize our efforts. Easy affirmations and instructions like “Nice job”, “I care about focusing”, “Come back to the breathe, friend”.

This is not a new concept. The Inner Game of Tennis was published in the 1970s. But, meditation teachers have been talking about this for thousands of years.