What is Your Daily Practice?

Practice makes perfect, or so the saying goes. But have you ever stopped to think about what it is that you are practicing, possibly without even having decided to do so?

The dictionary definition of practice is: Repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it. We usually associate this with particular kinds of skills, like playing an instrument, learning a sport, or being a doctor or lawyer. As such, the common definition of practice has a decidedly aspirational quality — you practice something “so as to acquire or maintain” proficiency. But, there is a more subtle form of practice, one where you replace the above phrase with “which leads to.” You can think of this as unintentional practice. Any time you repeatedly perform an activity, this leads to you becoming more proficient in it, whether you intended to or not.

Why is this important? Because fundamentally, you are what you practice. You are your actions, words, thoughts and feelings — these are the fundamental ways you interact with the world, others, and yourself. When you do something repeatedly, it defines who you are. On the other hand, if you are not doing something repeatedly, then it could hardly be considered part of your core self. For example, one day you may give your spare change to a beggar. Does that make you a generous person? Hardly. But if you do it every time you have an opportunity, or if you volunteer regularly to help the homeless, then most people would agree that you are a giving person.

If you are what you practice, it makes sense to make sure that what you do repeatedly is directly connected to what you want to become. If it’s not, then you’re diligently becoming proficient at something that’s just not you. You’re practicing being someone else — a recipe for unhappiness.

To see how your daily practices profoundly affect who you are, I recommend adding a new practice to your repertoire, something I call the Daily Practice Challenge. Here’s how it works: every day, for 30 days, take 5 minutes at the end of your day to think about and answer the following questions about one particular activity you do daily. I recommend you do it in writing.

  • Every Day, I _____
  • I am practicing _____
  • It makes me feel _____ because _____
  • This is (good/bad) for me, and I (should/shouldn’t) continue to do it (this way).
  • Here are some ways I could improve on this: _____

One last rule: you can’t repeat the same activity on different days — every day, you must come up with something new that you do every day. You’ll spend the first week or so catching all of your obvious activities, and then you’ll need to go deeper to come up with new ones. This is where the real gold lies. As you get further along in the 30 days, you’ll have to start paying closer attention to what you do, as you are doing it during the day, so you’ll have something to write about that evening.

Some more guidelines:

  • You’ll find that there are some things you practice that you’ll want to continue, and some that you want to give up. Try not to focus too much on one kind or the other — sprinkle in some good habits with the bad.
  • Don’t just focus on outward actions, try to think about things you say on a regular basis, habitual thought patterns, and regular emotional responses.
  • Get detailed. Don’t just write, “Every day I brush my teeth.” Instead, say something like, “Every day, I brush my teeth twice: first thing in the morning, and last thing before going to bed. I use Colgate Fluoride toothpaste and an Oral-B Extra Soft plastic toothbrush, brush for 1 minute total, and brush before I floss.” Etc. The details will help you really evaluate this practice, understanding whether there is any part of it that is not in line with your beliefs. Maybe you’ll want to change toothpaste brands to a more natural one, or find a replacement to the plastic toothbrush. Whatever it is, unless you call out the details, they’ll likely go unnoticed, and unchanged.

I recently wrapped up 30 days of doing this nearly every day. Almost exactly half of my practices were “good” and half “bad.” They were pretty equally distributed across activities, thoughts and emotions. Here’s an example of one:

  • Every day, I check Facebook many times, esp. if I’ve posted something.
  • I am practicing feeding my ego, getting attention, allowing myself to be ruled by my compulsions.
  • It makes me feel either elated or let down depending if there is a “piece of candy” waiting for me. Regardless, I feel pretty empty afterwards.
  • This is bad for me, and I shouldn’t continue to do it.
  • Here are some ways I could improve on this: Maybe set a specific time window to check, and if I miss it, too bad!

As a result of this reflection, a few days later I gave up checking Facebook altogether. If I had not done this reflection, I would have happily (or, unhappily) continued to obsessively check Facebook, even though it was not good for me.

The Daily Practice Challenge works because it forces you to really look at what it is you do, day in and day out. By coming up with a new activity every day, you end up really examining your daily life, and going deep, to your thoughts and emotions. It also forces you to evaluate your practices, and re-make a “go / no go” decision about things that may have become habitual when they shouldn’t have.

At the end of your 30 days, flip back through your reflections. Find your improvement suggestions, and if you haven’t already, start to implement them, one by one. And, maybe, take the challenge again. After all, making self-reflection a daily practice is “good for you, you should continue to do it.” 🙂

Once you’ve gone through the process once, you can also try folding in these variations:

  • Instead of just focusing on things you do daily, try shifting the time scale, to either longer or shorter time periods (minutes, hours, weeks, months, years).
  • Instead of just focusing on things you already do, try changing the questions to shift the focus back to an aspirational one: Every day I should _____. I will be practicing _____. It will make me feel _____ because _____.

 

 

Living the SWEET Life, Daily

As the year draws to a close, I find myself reflecting and renewing my resolve to improve myself. In this post, I’d like to share a simple yet unbelievably powerful technique I use that helps me stay on track, focused on the right things, and always improving. The key is simple: manually track your daily activities to help build them into healthy habits.

Habits and Awareness

What you think and believe defines who you are to the rest of society, as your thoughts manifest themselves in actions through the process of motivation. But as Gandhi’s quote above alludes, that’s only half of the story. Your beliefs, thoughts, words, and actions also define who you are to yourself through the solidifying process of habituation. In Thoughts, Words, Labels, and Actions, I was inspired by Gandhi and talked about how by taking conscious effort, you can use the natural progression of motivation to encourage the kinds of positive action you might otherwise find difficult. In this article, I’ll talk about the rest of the story: how by taking a conscious effort during the process of habituation, you can ultimately affect your values and your destiny.

When people talk about habits, they typically speak mostly of small actions like “leaving the cap off the toothpaste” or “shuffling my feet when I walk.” While these can be habits, this view downplays the importance and strength of habits in our daily lives. A habit is any action, speech, thought, or belief which represents a default, one which you will naturally exhibit given the right situation or stimulus. As such, habits cover a wide range of human activity. Showering every evening before going to bed can be a habit. Always using the phrase, “Let’s get the show on the road!” when trying to motivate your children to head out the door could be another habit. But habits can be more subtle, like automatically thinking “that [insert gender/ethnicity/religion/age] person is probably up to no good,” or feeling a sense of resentment when your boss gives you something extra to do, or believing that someone is selfish when they cut you off in line at the grocery store.

Some habits are naturally healthy, others are mostly harmless, and some are naturally unhealthy, but all habits are learned. This is great news because it means that you can actively learn good habits and likewise actively unlearn bad ones. But how does one go about systematically making or breaking a habit? And which habits should we learn?

Because habitual behavior happens by default, the first step in taking control of your habits is awareness. How can you possibly decide to take an action or not take an action, unless you are aware of what you are doing? Awareness lets you short-circuit the default path. Once you do that, you can make your decisions consciously and in line with your specific goals. In other words, you can exercise willpower.

One way to learn awareness is through meditation. When you meditate, you train yourself to focus on your object of meditation (usually, your breath), and return to it if you should stray. This is made possible by an awareness of the self, and a development of meta-attention – the ability to pay attention to what you are paying attention to. Learning to meditate will absolutely help you build or break habits, but meditation takes time to learn, and ideally should itself be a habit.

Daily Tracking

Another way to build awareness is through daily tracking. The idea is quite simple: pick the actions you want to reinforce, and every evening, write down whether you were successful in taking the right path for each action for that day. That’s it. If this sounds familiar from my recent post on sleep, you’re right – it’s exactly the same idea, only now we apply it to many different activities. Here’s some advice I offered a friend who recently asked me about how to start tracking:

  • Start small – just a few things (like 3) to track. (See below for some ideas of what to track, like eating well, sleeping well, exercising.)

  • Start easy – with things you are currently failing at but are just this close to doing. Tracking things you already do well has little immediate benefit, and tracking things you really suck at can be demoralizing at first. You can add these things later, after you’ve made tracking itself a habit.

  • Start uncomplicated – give yourself a pass/fail. As Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” Mentally define what a pass is for each activity, and stick to that definition. After a few months, you can change the definition if you need to (ideally making it more strict).

  • Important: do not rely on software/hardware to do the tracking for you, or if you do (e.g., pedometer or Fitbit), make sure you transcribe the numbers into your tracking sheet manually. If you just let the computer track for you, you are no longer mindful of that activity. The whole point of tracking is to give yourself daily reminders and build awareness.

  • Just as in meditation, rest assured that you will fail, and when you do, gently bring your focus back towards achieving your daily goal, without judgment. This is the hardest thing for many people to do, but it is the most important part. (By the way, meditation helps you develop this skill.)

When I first started tracking, my tracking sheet was just a sticky note – and that’s all you really need. Here’s one from a few years back, where I was tracking eating, exercising and connecting (socially).

Of course, it may be easier for you to use an electronic medium, and for that I recommend starting with a simple spreadsheet: one row for each day, and one column for each thing you want to track. Every day/night, simply enter a 1 or 0. As time goes on, you can make it more complicated. For example, I added graphs, I track 7-day moving averages, and I define complicated functions that automatically translate things like “number of steps” into a score between 0 and 1. But those are just bells and whistles. The above is the core.

Daily tracking is such a simple idea, and is really easy to do. Its power comes from the fact that it encourages you to review your day, and hold yourself accountable for your actions. After a short time tracking, you’ll soon find yourself thinking ahead to your “sticky note time” when making decisions throughout the day (like whether to drink that soda, or whether to step out for a 30 minute walk). Likewise, as time progresses, you’ll use your “sticky note time” to encourage yourself to take actions (like, setting up that lunch date with an old friend). So you can see why I stress the manual part of tracking – if your phone or Fitbit is automatically keeping track of your steps taken and calories burned, there’s no reason for you to do it, and you’ll lose the awareness you need to be able to break out of your defaults.

When you first start, you may find that it helps to reward yourself for your successes (say, by linking your monthly point total to something you enjoy). If you take this route, make sure your reward is not something that would otherwise cause you to “lose a point.” It’s also not uncommon, at least initially, to criticize yourself when you fail. Don’t make that mistake. You are measuring yourself, not judging yourself. Cultivate a dispassionate attitude towards your failures – you will probably fail more often than you succeed, at least at first.

What to Track – The 5 Pillars of the SWEET Life

Although you can use tracking to be conscious about any kind of habit, I believe it becomes most powerful when you apply it to your health. After all, as the saying goes, without your health you have nothing, or to put it more positively, “The first wealth is health” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). By health, I don’t just mean physical health, although that is a large and critical component of your overall health. To quote my high school health teacher, Jim Spoerl, “Health is optimal physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional fitness for full, fruitful, creative, and spiritual living.” Having a healthy mind, body, and soul provides the foundation for happiness and a meaningful life, so making health a habit can have profound implications for all areas of your life.

My wife and I have been fine-tuning a tracking system over the last several years that works for us. We call it “The SWEET Life.” SWEET is an acronym for the five key elements of health: Sleep, Work, Exercise, Eating well, and connecTing with your Tribe. Sleep, Exercise, and Eating well are the three pillars of physical health. Work and connecTing are the pillars for mental and emotional health. I’ve also recently added meditation as a form of mental exercise.

Tracking the three physical pillars provides an easy and obvious starting point if you’re just beginning to track. Confucius once said, “To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.” To which I would humbly add, “To put our hearts (and minds) right, we must first put our body in good order.” The mind-body connection is so important, yet all too often self-improvement advice skips over the physical and jumps right into the mental. If your body is not healthy, keeping your mind healthy can become too challenging. Also, the techniques and skills you develop when getting your body healthy will naturally carry over to your mental and emotional efforts.

Before you begin, you have to define for each pillar what it means to succeed on a daily basis. This definition of success is necessarily very personal and relative, but it’s critical that you spend a few minutes to get this straight in your head or on paper in the most objective way you can. Here are some guidelines:

  • Sleep: Establish your sleep baseline and make this your goal. See: Building a Solid Foundation for Sleep.

  • Eat: Get clear in your head what healthy food is and what unhealthy food is. If you eat any unhealthy food on a given day, you don’t get to count that day as a success. Stay tuned here, I’ll be writing a blog post about how to eat healthy.

  • Exercise: Spend 20-30 minutes doing something that makes you sweat a little. (Hint: to make this easier, choose things that you enjoy doing. I like walks, so I park my car 20 minutes walking distance from my office, and I don’t even have to think about whether I’ll get my daily exercise.) Need inspiration? Check out this fun video: 23.5 Hours

If you’re a geek like me, you may want to jump straight into using a spreadsheet to do your tracking, and that’s okay because you’re still manually tracking. Here’s a good starting point spreadsheet – feel free to copy it: Tracking Template – Beginner.

I strongly encourage beginning with the 3 physical pillars, and then adding the other two later once you’ve gotten the hang of tracking and have made some progress on improving your physical health. When it is time to add work and connecting (and meditation, which you can think of as mental exercise), here are my guidelines:

  • Work: Personally, good “work” is any activity which gets me into a state of flow (see: A Simple Recipe for Flow), so I set a goal for number of minutes in flow.

  • Connecting: Spending time with people, in person, is important. I set a minimum goal around this in terms of minutes. I don’t count spending time with people that I always see on a daily basis.

  • Meditation: Right now, I’m still establishing this as a habit, so my goal is purely one of whether I meditated for at least 15 minutes or not.

For the truly geeky, here’s my full SWEET Life template for 2014: Tracking Template – Advanced. Yes, it is complicated and ridiculously customizable (and I make liberal use of logistic functions), but don’t let that scare you – I’ve evolved this over many years. Be satisfied with just a sticky note for now, but know that you can always “up your game” if you like, and if you find things like this graph useful as tools:

Habits, Values, and Your Destiny

So, tracking provides a way for you to consciously build healthy habits. The key facility that tracking provides is awareness – you develop the ability to intervene and change your actions in the moment, if they are not aligned with your daily goals. When this awareness itself becomes a habit, you begin to internalize the goals, to automatically think in terms of them, and to unconsciously consider them whenever you face decisions. In other words, as Gandhi noted, you incorporate these goals as key personal values. This won’t happen overnight, or even over the course of a year. And tracking alone won’t necessarily bring it about, but tracking can start you down this path of awareness of yourself and of your world, and lead you to consciously lead “the examined life.”

If all of this all sounds sterile, stoic, controlled and scientific, and well, just too much work, I invite you to step back and think about it for a moment. It may help to think of tracking as simply a quantifiable and much simpler form of that time-honored daily logging technique – the diary. In just one minute a day, you’ll be able to make a huge difference in your health and happiness. The potential return on investment is ridiculously positive and there is absolutely no downside risk.

As you become more facile in your ability to be aware, through tracking or other techniques like meditation, you’ll start to develop the ability to apply the habit-making and breaking skills to more and more situations. As an example, one of the habits we learn as children is to equate grasping with pleasure, and pleasure with happiness. That association serves us well when we are very young, but it does us a great disservice as we mature, especially since we tend to generalize literal grasping to metaphorical grasping. (Generalizing thought-based habits like this, without much thought, can be one of the most dangerous things people do with habits.) Unfortunately, most people never unlearn this grasping habit, because they don’t realize they have it, or if they do, they don’t have the skills to do anything about it. Imagine the power you will have to greatly reduce your own suffering, then, when you are able recognize your own grasping nature and gently guide yourself away from it. At that point, your awareness will have reached the level of enlightenment, and you will truly be living the SWEET Life. I sincerely hope you can reach that point, and that the techniques discussed here can help you do so.

 

Building a Solid Foundation for Sleep

More and more people these days seem to be complaining about trouble sleeping. Because one of the pillars of physical health is ensuring you get enough high quality sleep, there has been a lot written on the subject. I’ve had my fair share of difficulty sleeping, but recently have generally been able to keep my sleep debt to a minimum. In this blog post, I wanted to share a few unique techniques and insights I’ve had about sleeping well.

Aside from all the usual advice (avoid caffeine completely, especially if you are a slow caffeine metabolizer; avoid alcohol; get exercise every day; learn how to deal with or eliminate stressors, etc.), there are three targeted techniques I use.

Establish a Sleep Baseline

How much sleep do you need? The answer is easy – you need as much sleep as your body tells you it needs. In other words, you need to learn to listen to your body and prioritize sleep above other activities. Think about it: what are the things your body needs in order to live? In order of “time to death”, they are: air and water, and then food, sleep and exercise. You wouldn’t think of foregoing breathing so you could watch a TV show, or skipping meals so you can check your social feeds, or allowing yourself to get parched so you can play a videogame, so why would you skip sleep to do these less important things?

To establish a baseline, pick a time when you have no incumbrances to getting all the sleep you could want. The holidays are here, and this is a good time to try this, as are vacations. Take a week and give yourself permission to sleep as much as you want for the whole week (while avoiding caffeine!). There are two important things to keep in mind:

  • You should track exactly how many hours of sleep you get in this baseline period.

  • You should keep in mind that for the first day or days, you may be catching up from accumulated sleep deprivation. Disregard the data from these days.

Once you have established a somewhat regular pattern and have zeroed in on a regular number of hours, this becomes your baseline. It is your target. For many people, this target will be somewhere around 8 hours, as that is typical.  If it is a lot less than 8 hours, there is a very very slight chance that you are one of the few who truly need less sleep, but chances are better that you didn’t really let yourself sleep, and you should consider trying it again.

As you age, your baseline may change, so it’s a good idea to repeat the baseline measurement every few years.

 

Track Your Sleep, But Don’t Lose Sleep Over It

This is really easy.  Every morning, simply write down if you hit your target for that night. It literally only takes a couple of seconds to write this number down, so no excuses to not do it. This is the easiest form of tracking, you simply get a pass or fail. Even if you are just 15 minutes shy of your target, this is a fail.

Be honest with yourself and grade yourself accurately. At the same time, be gentle with yourself! It will be hard to hit your target at first, and there will be all sorts of times when it will be basically impossible. But you need to keep striving, and the best way to do that is to have a little logbook to look at and think, “Oh, gee, I’m missed my target 3 days running. I really need to make sure I head to bed a little earlier tonight or take a nap this afternoon.” Don’t beat yourself up if you fail, but do take the steps necessary to get back on track.

Personally, I track my sleep in more detail. I write down the exact number of hours as well as the quality of the sleep, and use these to compute a “sleep grade” for each day. I also look at my 7-day running average. I find these useful, and can share the exact formulas I use if you’re interested. But you don’t need to get this fancy. The simple pass/fail technique should give you the bulk of the benefits you need by simply making you aware of your actual sleep patterns.

Another bonus you may want to add on: also track your mood. You may find that when you lack sleep, you are more irritable and don’t handle stress as well. You shouldn’t be surprised by this – how many times have you seen a grouchy child miraculously cured by a nap? The same principle holds for adults, we just learn to cover up and ignore the effects of lack of sleep.

 

Iterative Visualization – Building Colorful Cubes in your Mind

Invariably, even if you exercise and eat right and do all of the right things, there will be days when you find it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep. Again, all of the usual advice applies here: establish a bedtime ritual, ensure you have a distraction free sleep environment, get fresh air, etc.  But here’s a particular technique I’ve developed and honed over the years that always works for me.

The technique is based roughly on the classic “counting sheep” and also on some forms of meditation, but differs from them significantly, in a number of important ways. The problems I’ve found with counting methods are:

  • Simple counting is too easy and fast – I can count and let my brain race around worrying about things at the same time.

  • Simple counting is boring and not challenging.

  • Simple counting ignores your physiology.

This technique attempts to address these shortcomings by replacing the counts with other memorized sequences (colors), engaging the visual centers of the brain, providing a task to be accomplished with waypoints, and linking it all to your breath. Sounds complicated, but it’s really quite simple.  Here are the steps:

  1. Establish your breath. After the lights are off and you have found a comfortable sleeping position, establish your breathing rate by simply counting in your head to 100. It also helps to visualize the numbers themselves as you say them in your head, so you begin to engage both the auditory and visual portions of your brain. You can do this step as fast as you like. The whole point of this step is to distract yourself from your breath long enough that it falls into its natural rhythm.

  2. Build the cube. The task you are to complete, in your mind, is building a 6 by 6 by 6 cube, made of smaller cubes. Imagine something shaped like a Rubik’s cube, only bigger (see the image at the beginning of this post). Each of the 6 horizontal layers of the cube are built from smaller cubical blocks, all of the same color. These follow the colors of the rainbow. So the first layer consists of 36 red blocks, the second layer of 36 orange blocks, then yellow, green, blue, and purple. All in all, you will only “place” 216 blocks in total, but you will do it in such a way that you are almost guaranteed to fall asleep before you finish. Here’s how:

    1. Place one block per breath. Do not change the pace of your breath, keep it slow and rhythmical, as established in step 1. As you exhale, imagine the next block being placed into its position. Imagine it as the appropriate color and mentally say to yourself the name of the color as the block is placed.

    2. Build “concentric cubes.” In other words, first build the 1x1x1 cube (this is trivial, you just place the first red block, and say “red”). Then build the 2x2x2 cube on top of the 1x1x1 cube, then the 3x3x3 cube on top of the 2x2x2, and so on.

    3. Always build the top layer first, then the right side, and then the front side. See the diagrams below.

    4. If you ever lose your place, don’t get frustrated, rejoice! This means you’re starting to fall asleep. Then simply step back to the last step you can remember and continue building from that point.

    5. If you manage to build the whole cube, don’t fret! Just build another one – maybe vary the color scheme a little.

At an average of 10 breaths per minute, this technique will likely get you to sleep in less than 20 minutes. Personally, I rarely make it to the purple layer, which accounts for almost half of the blocks, so I’m usually out in 10 minutes.

How does it work? First, it engages the visual, spatial, auditory and language portions of the brain at the same time. It also engages the somatosensory regions by having you focus on your breath. By doing this, it makes it difficult for you to be distracted by stray thoughts. Second, it provides waypoints, milestones of progress to keep you focused, and each successive waypoint takes slightly longer to reach, making the task progressively more difficult, thus keeping you engaged. Third, it replaces the “boring” elements of counting with something a bit more playful and fun, making the task a bit less arduous.

I sometimes add a little variety to the task. For example, I sometimes build an “all blue” cube (e.g., midnight, navy, royal, cornflower, sky, powder), an “all green” cube (forest, jungle, kelly, lime, olive, mint), etc.  Sometimes even just trying to remember the names of 6 shades of a given color is enough to put me to sleep!

 

So there you have it: establish a baseline, track your sleep nightly, and when you have trouble sleeping, build the cube. I’d be interested in knowing how these techniques work for you.