Mindfulness: A Month in Review

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“Mindfulness isn’t difficult, we just need to remember to do it.”

-Sharon Salzberg

At the start of January, I committed to practicing a single mindfulness method: abdominal breathing. I thought that sticking to one method would help make my mindfulness practice more consistent. It turns out I was wrong…but also kind of right.

Yeah, I know I just contradicted myself. Let me explain.

The Wrong

I did a pretty terrible job of practicing mindfulness last month. Outside of my daily sitting meditations, staying mindful took a backseat to some of my other priorities. I even noticed this lack of focus halfway through the month, but unfortunately didn’t do much to change it afterward.

Having a mindfulness method did not make it significantly easier to practice mindfulness. Or at least it didn’t help me remember to be mindful.

The Right

I mentioned this in my mid-month reflection, but having a mindfulness method DID prove useful when I actually remembered to be mindful. It was a great way to not only bring my attention back to the present moment but calm my nerves as well.

The only disadvantage I found in using abdominal breathing was when I was sick. Not being able to breathe properly made those abdominal breaths quite challenging, if not impossible at times.

Renewing My Focus

Last month taught me that the only way to be consistently mindful is to maintain a strong commitment to mindfulness throughout the day. I did exactly the opposite. I made a verbal commitment to mindfulness, but in reality placed my work and other concerns above my practice.

Even though January was not a very mindful month for me, I’m still not discouraged. The fact that I’m aware of my lack of mindfulness actually shows that my practice has progressed over the years. I also recognize that January was an exceptionally hectic month for me. Expecting to all of a sudden master mindfulness while drastically increasing my workload wasn’t very reasonable. My mindfulness practice is sure to be a lifelong journey that will require me to be very patient with myself.

Instead of choosing a new mindfulness method for February, I’m going to stick with abdominal breathing. I want to see how beneficial it can be if I actually do it consistently.

 

 

A New Mantra: Think Less, Do More

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I’m an overthinker.

This wasn’t so much of a problem when my life only consisted of school or a typical 9-5 job. The predictable structure of school and work allowed me to make decisions on autopilot. My goals were clear – get good grades, provide great customer service, etc. – and I knew how to accomplish them. There was very little ambiguity back then.

Things are quite different now. I still have some routine in my job as a teaching assistant, but my goals are much grander than they used to be. For the first time in my life, I don’t know the best way to achieve them all. I don’t even know if I can achieve them.

My mind is filled with endless what-ifs and worst-case scenarios. Should I write about this topic or that topic? Should I make a video about something even though I’m not an expert on it? What’s the best way to express my point of view? What if I publish this and people hate it? What if people misinterpret what I’m trying to say?

So many questions. So many paths in front of me. But all of these thoughts leave me frozen, scared to make a decision at all.

That’s why I’ve developed a new mantra for myself:

Think less, do more. 

This mantra is both a call to action and a reminder to stay present to the moment.

The simple truth is that working towards my goals will be a long process of trial and error. No matter how much thinking I do, the only way for me to discover the right way to do things is by taking action.

Only through action will I achieve anything I desire.

Only through action will I escape the whirlwind of anxiety and doubt inside my head.

 

 

 

Lessons Learned – “The Everything Store” by Brad Stone

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I recently finished the audiobook version of Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.” Not only is the story of Jeff Bezos and Amazon an exceptional one, Brad Stone proves to be an engaging storyteller as well.

Jeff Bezos is undoubtedly a controversial individual. His aggressive leadership style, while obviously effective for him, probably isn’t something the average person should model, and his success seems to be the result of his ferocious nature combined with his brilliance. The same could be said for famous entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs. Without their genius, their temperaments likely would have resulted in disaster (and they sometimes did).

The Lessons

I’ll admit, reading books like this can be a bit discouraging. Most of us aren’t blessed with the genius of a Bezos or a Musk, nor do we want to emulate their aggressive personalities in order to achieve success. Even so, I think this book contains several powerful lessons that can benefit all of our lives, genius or not.

1. Long-term vs. Short-term Thinking

A common thread throughout the book was Bezos’ aversion to short-term thinking. Almost from the start, he was determined to build Amazon into the world’s foremost online retailer. This might seem like a reasonable idea today (since we are deep into the “age of Amazon”), but the boldness of that goal was pretty spectacular back in the 1990s. The internet was just blooming and the world had yet to embrace purchasing things online.

Bezos consistently showed his commitment to that long-term vision by not letting Amazon’s numerous setbacks discourage him. While other people were freaking out about profit losses and failed product launches, he viewed every one of Amazon’s “losses” as a valuable lesson for the future.

He also committed to long-term thinking in Amazon’s business strategy and product development. While others were concerned about short-term gains, he was thinking years and even decades in the future. This allowed Amazon to outlast its competitors and become the giant it is today.

I think this mindset can be readily applied to our personal lives. Specifically, we should commit to a long-term vision for the future, even if we aren’t completely sure how to achieve it. This allows us to look past all the trivial problems that usually distract us, and instead focus on the big picture. No matter how slow our progress is, we can find joy in the fact that we are moving towards our larger vision.

2. Disrupt Yourself

Here is a quote from one of Bezos’ colleagues that really sums up this lesson:

“It is far better to cannibalize yourself than have someone else do it.”

One thing Bezos constantly did with Amazon was force it to change before the environment made it necessary, even if it caused short-term pain. He saw that many large companies were devastated by the constantly evolving business and technology landscapes. They made important changes only when it was absolutely necessary, which either put them out of business or left them far behind more prescient competitors.

How can this business-based concept be applied to our personal lives?

It’s simply a matter of being proactive instead of reactive. We may not be competing against other businesses, but our lives are changing at a faster rate than ever before. By constantly putting evolutionary pressure on ourselves, we can be better prepared for whatever changes come our way, whether they be in our jobs, our relationships, or our physical health.

For me personally, this means constantly reading new books, exploring new subjects, and pushing myself to attempt new creative endeavors. It’s a philosophy of constant, never-ending growth (something Tony Robbins talks about a lot).

Note: If you’re interested in this idea, check out “Disrupt You!” by Jay Samit. 

3. Only Be Bound by the Laws of Physics

In reference to Bezos’ disregard for doing things in the traditional way, someone who worked closely with him said:

“…he is not tethered by conventional thinking. What is amazing to me is that he is bound only by the laws of physics. He can’t change those. Everything else he views as open to discussion.”

All of the innovations that Bezos spearheaded, many of which we all benefit from today, would never have happened if he followed the “rules.”

Nobody thought there could be a successful online bookstore 20 years ago. Now we can buy books for ten dollars a piece and read them on an electronic screen that looks like paper. No one thought amazon could be profitable if they constantly lowered prices and made shipping as fast as possible. Now, people around the world shop at Amazon because of low prices and speedy delivery.

When considering our own hopes and dreams, there are probably years of conventional thinking that tell us what we can and cannot do. Voices, both in and outside of our heads, tell us not to try new things, not to deviate from the norm. But if the success of Bezos and Amazon is any indication, deviation is exactly what is needed to accomplish great things.

This leads me to the last lesson…

4. Be Willing to Try Everything…and Fail

The story of Jeff Bezos and Amazon is not just one of massive success. At times, it seemed like the book was chronicling the downfall of a brilliant but misguided entrepreneur. But this story of trial and tribulation demonstrated an ageless truth: in order to succeed we have to be willing to repeatedly fail in pursuit of our goals.

This is a lesson everyone can benefit from. By embracing failure, we can transform even the greatest of setbacks into opportunities for growth. Our failures then become the foundation for our future success.

Thanks for reading! I hope these lessons can benefit you in some way. And if you enjoy stories about innovation and entrepreneurship, I definitely recommend picking up a copy of this book. 

Quote of the Week #32

Photo: Zarautz, Spain
Photo: Zarautz, Spain

Since 2013 I’ve had a list of personal dreams and goals that I review (almost) every morning. I read somewhere that keeping a list like that would help bring me closer to what I wanted to accomplish. But the results have been pretty sparse over the past few years.

The reason: I didn’t follow up on those aspirations with action. I had a vision, but I didn’t put in the work necessary to make it real.

Someone who does a great job at describing the ideal balance between vision and action is entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk. One of his notorious maxims is, “clouds and dirt.” Clouds represent the vision, and dirt represents the hard work it takes to achieve it.

Interestingly, he doesn’t describe it as finding a middle-way between the clouds and the dirt. For him, the middle represents people who neither take the right actions or have a strong vision. What he counsels is living simultaneously in both the clouds and the dirt, having a ridiculously powerful vision and a ridiculously strong work ethic to back it up.

 

Lessons from a Common Cold

“There is one consolation in being sick; and that is the possibility that you may recover to a better state than you were ever in before.”

Henry David Thoreau

After going full speed for the first three weeks of January, a nasty cold forced me to step on the brakes this weekend. This might have been a blessing in disguise.

I was more productive in the past few weeks than any period I can remember. However, my frantic pace left a lot to be desired in terms of rest and conscious reflection. Getting sick forced me to take it easy for a few days. It also made me take a step back and examine why I got sick in the first place. Am I getting enough sleep? Is my diet conducive to good health? Am I pushing myself too hard, too suddenly?

The answers to those questions: No. No. And…probably.

Sleep is Key

A common cliché about success is that it should often come at the cost of sleep. Whenever I read about the great entrepreneurs of past and present, it seems they were all willing to endure weeks or months or even years of low sleep in order to achieve their goals. Then there are motivational speakers such as Eric Thomas, who give quotes like:

“You can’t sleep. Broke people sleep. You got to be willing to sacrifice sleep, if you sleep you may miss the opportunity to be successful.”

Everyone is different. I’m sure there are plenty of people who can operate on four to five hours of sleep per night and be ok. I’m just not one of them. Anytime I go more than a week with less than seven hours of sleep per night, I seem to get sick.

Does this mean I should take on less in order to get more sleep? Not necessarily. I just need to be more proactive in managing my time.

The past few weeks were somewhat of a scheduling experiment. I knew that fitting in all of my obligations would be a process of trial and error. One of the major errors I made was failing to sufficiently plan out my weeks.

Things were easy when I was only teaching 12 hours per week and posting on here once or twice per week. I had a lot of flexibility in my schedule, and my to-do list was often just as flexible. That flexibility has all but disappeared now, and if I want to have a decent sleep schedule I need to manage my time more carefully.

Eat Your Veggies

Along with a busier work schedule this year, I also committed to putting on some muscle in the gym. This means eating a lot more than what I’m used to. In order to accomplish this, I’ve been pounding calorie-rich carbohydrates (cereal, pasta, rice, etc.) but basically ignoring fruits and vegetables. Combined with low sleep, that kind of diet is a recipe for disaster (pun intended).

I need to find a way to be more disciplined with my diet. More fruits, more greens, and more water as well.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

The best time management book I’ve ever read is Stephen Covey’s “First Things First.” One of its core ideas is deciding on and prioritizing the “first things” in your life. He uses the analogy of filling a bucket with a combination of big and small rocks. The only way to fit them all is to put the big rocks in first and then fill the gaps with the smaller rocks. This means that certain tasks will take a backseat to others depending on what your “big rocks” are.

In taking on so much so fast, I never chose my big rocks.

This was mainly due to impatience. I came into this year with a ton of ambitions and my initial instinct was to try to accomplish them all at once. I treated all of my ambitions like big rocks. But just like my poor diet and lack of sleep, this won’t be sustainable. In fact, not prioritizing my ambitions will probably lead to me accomplishing less in every area.

I’m going to have to sit down and really think about what my top priorities are for this year, and not feel guilty if I can’t devote equal time to everything I want to accomplish. Off the top of my head, developing this blog and my youtube channel are my two biggest rocks. Teaching, traveling, and personal growth (reading, meditating, etc.) are integral parts of those goals so they would be big rocks as well.

What smaller rocks does that leave?  Goals such as gaining muscle and having an active social life.

That doesn’t mean I can’t pursue these goals, but maybe I should be a little less eager with them at the moment. Instead of trying to gain muscle right away, I can simply make going to the gym a habit. Instead of being the most social person ever, I can make sure I go out and socialize at least one night per week.

Starting small in some areas is better than trying to do too much and getting overwhelmed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mindful Reflections: Abdominal Breathing

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A little over two weeks ago I designated mindfulness as my main focus for 2017. In order to make it easier on myself, I decided to choose a “mindfulness method” for each month. My method for January has been abdominal breathing.

Here are a few things I’ve observed so far.

  1. Even with a “method” to rely on, remembering to stay mindful takes a ton of discipline. However….
  2. Having a designated place to focus my attention has been helpful. Bringing my attention back to my breath – when I notice myself living unconsciously, at least – is starting to become automatic.
  3. Abdominal breathing is a very effective way to engage with the present moment. It quickly takes me out of my head and into my body.
  4. My focus and productivity seem to increase whenever I’m conscious of my breath.

I’ve been pushing myself pretty hard for the past two weeks, which has resulted in a pretty sporadic mindfulness practice. That’s why I think that last observation is the most important one. It shows me that there doesn’t have to be a dichotomy between my focus on mindfulness and hustling towards my goals. In fact, mindfulness seems to make my efforts much more effective.

The key for me now is making sure my mindfulness practice doesn’t get overshadowed by other concerns in my life. I want to learn how to stay mindful even when my external life is chaotic. Maybe I’ll have to start setting mindfulness reminders on my phone or invest in one of those mindfulness apps. Anything to make mindfulness a habitual part of my life.

How do you remember to stay mindful throughout the day?

 

Quote of the Week #31

Begin

I think this ancient poet’s words, while simple, contain three powerful lessons about achieving success:

  1. Begin – Like a lot of people, I have dreams and goals but don’t know exactly how to accomplish them. I’m learning that the only way to learn is to just get started.
  2. Be Bold – Beginning takes a lot of courage. So does continuing when things get tough. When I read about anyone who has achieved their definition of success, boldness in the face of challenges is one thing they all have in common.
  3. Venture to be Wise – I put emphasis on “venture” because wisdom seems to come from realizing you don’t have it all figured out. So this part of the quote might be interpreted as, “embrace each day as a learning experience.” And the best way to learn is to start taking action.

Two Keys to Finding Motivation

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In my last post, I mentioned some of my doubts about being able to handle my workload this year. In the two days since writing that I picked up a third private English lesson and a fourth is in the works. This extra work hasn’t eased those doubts, but my determination to crush it this year remains strong.

If I’m being honest, my newfound motivation is a little shocking to me. This time last year I was doing my best to avoid hard work, and finding any kind of lasting motivation seemed like a battle I was destined to lose. Yet now I’m  filled with a burning desire to make the most out of my life.

How did I get to this point?

Starting this blog last April was the spark that lit the fuse. Since then, my motivation and ambitions have both grown exponentially. To get more specific, though, here are two different focuses that have fueled this change.

  1. A focus on doing
  2. A focus on giving

A Focus on Doing

“Personal power is the ability to take action.”

– Tony Robbins

I’ve been a thinker for most of my life. I like to think about all the things I want to accomplish and how I might accomplish them. I make plans and imagine different scenarios. I think, and I think, and I think.

For years I wondered why I could never create any lasting change in my life. I had so many great plans and even more theories on how to accomplish them. But the plans always seemed to stay plans, never coming to fruition.

It’s obvious now, but my problem was that I never acted on those plans.

Thinking about what I wanted to accomplish was easier than actually trying to accomplish it. There was no risk of discomfort or failure. Plus, indulging in all that mental masturbation was like a dopamine hit for my brain. I could take pleasure in my potential without having to work to fulfill it.

If taking action was so difficult for me, then how did I even start this blog?

I guess I had a momentary convergence of inspiration and motivation. I was also extremely dissatisfied with my life at the time, and taking action seemed to be the only way out of that negative space. Either way, I’m really grateful that I was able to take that initial step.

Since starting this blog I’ve experienced the rewards that taking action can offer. I’d like to write a more in-depth post about them, so I’ll just talk about the biggest one for now: momentum. The most amazing thing about taking action – even if it’s something small like choosing a WordPress theme for your new blog – is that it provides the fuel for even more action.

It’s a matter of inertia. An object at rest isn’t going to move unless something makes it. But when something is moving, it’s not going to stop unless something forces it too.  So now that I’m taking action on a daily basis, I can hardly imagine stopping. Each action fills me with inspiration and motivation to take even more action.

This doesn’t mean each day has to be filled to the brim with activity, though. Some days I only get one or two important things done. But just a little bit of action on a daily basis helps me maintain my forward momentum. Plus, as the momentum builds, the amount and intensity of my actions also increase.

P.s. – Watching this video also helps get me in the “doing” mindset.

A Focus On Giving

“Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. Do your work with the welfare of others always in your mind.”

– Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 3, Verse 19)

For all my talk about doing, staying motivated can still be a struggle at times. I experience this most when it comes to teaching English, probably because I’m not as passionate about teaching as I am about writing and creating. Still, it’s something I’ve committed to doing (and it gives me a paycheck), so staying motivated in this area is really important to me.

This is where a focus on giving comes into play.

I first discovered this powerful idea when I read the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu spiritual text. The Bhagavad Gita talks about selfless service, which means acting for the benefit of others without the expectation of any reward.

It’s not so much about being the next Mother Teresa or even making sure all your actions directly help someone. What it’s really about is the mindset you have while taking action.

I’ll use teaching English as an example. There are two ways I could look at it:

  1. I’m teaching because I want the opportunity to live abroad and make money while doing it, or…
  2. I’m teaching because I want to help students learn and improve their English. I want to have a positive impact on as many students as possible.

Both of these statements contain some truth. Teaching is by no means my greatest passion, and I mainly decided to do because it was the easiest way to move my life abroad. At the same time, I do genuinely want to help my students, even if I don’t feel overly qualified to do so.

My natural tendency is to approach my work with the first mindset. This means viewing each day of work as a necessary duty so that I can live in Spain. As you can imagine, this makes work feel like a chore, which then makes me less likely to stay motivated.

Things become a lot easier when I approach my job with the second mindset. Instead of viewing work as a chore, I look at it as an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of students. This has been like finding a hidden stockpile of energy. I can now bring the same amount of passion to my teaching as I do to my more creative endeavors.

It takes discipline, but I’ve found there’s always a way to think about an activity in terms of benefiting others. Take working out consistently for example. By being in great physical shape you’ll have more energy to help others, you’ll be in a better mood which will rub off on others, and you can set a positive example for the people closest to you. This is a really basic example but you get the idea.

 

Note: I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve got this motivation thing all figured out. What I’ve written here is just what has helped me on my journey so far, and I hope it can help you with any motivational struggles you might be facing as well. Thanks for reading!