“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.
“Without hustle, your talent will only get you so far.”
– Gary Vaynerchuk
The tone of this week’s quote is a little different than what I normally post, but I think Gary Vee’s words really highlight my mindset going into 2017.
For most of my life, I’ve gotten by on my natural talents combined with a ton of support (both emotionally and financially) from my family. While I’ve put a lot of work into my mental and emotional health over the past few years, I’ve yet to really exert myself when it comes to achieving the life I want externally. I guess you could say I’ve just been skating by my whole life, never failing at anything but also never achieving the kind of success I I know I’m capable of.
Along with focusing on mindfulness, I want to make this a year of hustle and execution. And for what seems like the first time in my life, I actually have a clear purpose to work towards: building this blog and my Youtube channel.
Here’s to a year filled with both presence and productivity!
Time management is something I’ve always struggled with. No matter how productive I am, there never seems to be enough time for the things that really matter. Plans change. Work gets in the way. Distractions are abundant. It’s almost as if I’m being pulled along by the moving stream of life, unable to free myself from its current.
In the three weeks since I started reading “First Things First” by Stephen Covey, that feeling of being “pulled along” has practically vanished.
How I discovered this book was pretty fortuitous. I was coming home from Starbucks one day, driving through a residential neighborhood close to the beach, when I saw a red wagon full of books with a sign that said “FREE BOOKS!” It just so happens that ‘free’ and ‘books’ are two of my favorite words, so I pulled over and had a look.
In the pile were quite a few religious books, some novels, and a few self-help gems. I naturally went for the self-help books, grabbing two that stood out to me. The first was “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” by Richard Carlson. I had seen this book a few times growing up, and I figured it would be worth a read.
The second book was “First Things First.” When I saw the author’s name I immediately got excited. Stephen Covey is the author of the hugely influential book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” which I had just finished reading a few months ago. I knew instantly that this would be a great addition to my library.
It took me about three weeks to finish the book, though part of that was because I took notes on each chapter. It’s by no means a difficult read, and you could probably gain some value from it if you just skimmed through a few of the chapters. Of course, I think it’s worth reading from start to finish.
Here are what I consider the top three lessons from this book:
1) The Importance of Principle-Based Living
Covey talks a lot about principle-based living in both “First Things First” and “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” While this idea isn’t directly related to time-management, it’s the foundation on which Covey’s time-management philosophy is based.
We all have things we want to accomplish in our lives. They are based primarily on what we value. If we value fulfilling friendships, then we might want to make building a great social circle a goal. If we value physical health, then we could make it a goal to get in great shape. How we go about achieving these goals is where what Covey defines as true north principles come into play (I’ve also described them as universal principles in previous blog posts). He explains this concept in the following quote:
“What we are talking about are the true north realities upon which quality of life is based. These principles deal with things that, in the long run, will create happiness and quality-of-life results. They include principles such as service and reciprocity. They deal with the processes of growth and change. They include the laws that govern effective fulfillment of basic human needs and capacities.”
He mentions the principles service and reciprocity in that quote, but here are some more I noticed throughout the book:
Some of these are principles that make up Covey’s “Seven Habits.” According to him, acting in accordance with these principles will not only help us achieve our goals but give us peace of mind as well.
At first glance, these principles seemed like common sense to me. Of course things like service and proactivity are good. Yet when I considered what methods I was using to achieve my goals, there was clearly a disconnect. How often had I procrastinated on my goals instead of being proactive? How many times had I been completely focused on my own feelings instead of practicing empathy? The fact of the matter was that I was not acting in accordance with true north principles.
This is because true north principles usually don’t produce instant results.
Covey emphasizes this when he talks about the Law of the Farm. This law basically states that we can’t have a successful harvest without first planting our seeds and cultivating them over time. In other words, we cannot get the results we want without following the correct principles. There is no such thing as a quick-fix. (Here’s a link to a more detailed explanation of this law, straight from the book: http://www.theteamvision.net/the-law-of-the-harvest.html)
After reading this, I was encouraged to think hard about what principles will bring me closer to my goals, and then commit to living by them.
2) Goal-Setting by Roles
All of us play a variety of roles in our lives, whether it be as a parent, employee, or even a world-traveler. A great suggestion this book gives is to organize our goals based on those different roles.
Covey advises we try to narrow our roles down to around seven, with the addition of physical, mental, spiritual, and social roles.
I considered this and decided on seven basic roles for myself. Some of them are roles in the traditional sense and others are just areas of my life that I feel are important. Here they are:
I then looked at these roles and figured out what I wanted to accomplish in each. As someone who has a tendency to set very broad goals – most of which never get accomplished – this really helped me get specific about what I wanted.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been setting weekly goals in each role and then working to accomplish them (following true north principles, of course). Maybe it’s just a placebo effect, but I’ve accomplished more in this time than I have in months. I feel way less scattered and a lot clearer on what actions I need to take.
What’s even cooler is that my roles tend to build off each other. The more I accomplish in one role, the more clarity I tend to gain in others.
3) The Difference Between Urgent and Important
In my opinion, effective time management really comes down to this one concept.
Covey explains that most people live their lives with an addiction to urgency. This means they prioritize activities and tasks that are urgent, but not necessarily important.
He categorizes how we spend our time according to four different quadrants. In the image above you can see what activities each quadrant contains. According to him, most people spend the majority of their time in either Quadrant 1 or Quadrant 3. Quadrant 2 is where they should be spending their time. This is the quadrant where true growth happens. In it, we prioritize the long-term over the short-term.
This was a revelation for me. Thinking about how I spent most of my time, I was a little ashamed to admit it was primarily in Quadrant 3 and 4. Aside from dealing with the occasional visa issue or job application, I had very few “crises” in my life. Yet I was always more than happy to spend hours dicking around on my computer or watching Netflix. In the rare moments that I felt like I was being productive, I was really just spending time on things in Quadrant 3, running errands and completing inane tasks.
For me, Quadrant 2 activities include things like writing new blog posts, reading, researching investing, and going to yoga. These are all things that don’t have to be done today or even tomorrow, but would make the biggest difference in my life.
To Illustrate this whole concept, Covey gives the analogy of trying to fit a bunch of small and large rocks in a bucket. If we put all the small rocks in first, there won’t be enough room for the large rocks. This is what happens when we prioritize activities that aren’t in Quadrant 2. We get so busy focusing on unimportant things that the truly important stuff gets left undone. But if we put the big rocks in first, there’s usually more than enough space for the little rocks to fit in the gaps. (Here’s a link to Covey’s full explanation http://www.appleseeds.org/big-rocks_covey.htm)
I’ve noticed some pretty awesome results since I started implementing this advice. By becoming conscious of what activities are really important to me, and then making them my top priority each day, I end up with plenty of time for them AND many of the less important things I want to do.
A Conscious Approach to Time Management
Underneath all the different time management strategies, I think the main message this book offers is the importance of living consciously.
As I read, it became clear that most of my issues with time management were a result of not really thinking about how I was spending my time. Sure, I was adept at making to-do lists and checking them off, but my days never felts like they were moving me towards the life I wanted. I was accomplishing things, but there never seemed to be any progress. It wasn’t until I took the time to connect with the vision I had for my life – and really consider what actions I needed to take in order to move towards that vision – that I started to gain that feeling of progress.
Now, I take time each Sunday to sit and consider what I want to accomplish, both long-term and in the coming week. I then organize my week based on Quadrant 2 activities, filling in my extra time with everything else.
So far this has worked well for me, but I definitely recommend you read this book and see if it can have similar effects in your life.
“Lose an hour in the morning, and you will spend all day looking for it.”
– Richard Whately
I am NOT a morning person. I usually wake up pissed off at the world, begrudging the alarm that jolted me awake and the fact that mornings exist in the first place. None of this is helped by the fact that I’ve always been a night owl. During my college years I rarely went to bed before 2 a.m., and my sleep schedule hasn’t improved much since.
Despite my harsh feelings towards mornings, I’ve started to recognize the value in rising early. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I’ve started feeling the consequences of getting up late.
My days often feel chaotic when I sleep in. There never seems to be enough time to get stuff done, and I usually end up going through the day on autopilot. But when I manage to get up early I feel a lot more grounded. It’s as if my mind has time to warm up, allowing it to perform optimally for the rest of the day. I can see clearly what I want to accomplish and take decisive action towards it.
In order to avoid the trappings of late starts, I’ve not only committed to rising earlier on a daily basis, but also to developing my own morning ritual.
Morning rituals are not a new concept. I’ve seen them promoted in religions, self-help books, and even autobiographies. It seems like most of the successful people I read about have some kind of ritual to start their days. I’ve even heard it said that all of us have morning rituals, even if we aren’t conscious of them. Since living consciously is one of my my most important values, intentionally crafting my own morning ritual seems like an important task.
While I’m writing about this now, creating my morning ritual has been an ongoing process for the past couple of years. I’m just finally at a point where I’ve found one that suits me.
So how did I go about developing my morning ritual?
To be honest, a lot of it was just trial and error. I looked at a lot of the advice given in self-help books and blogs, and started testing things out. This included everything from cold showers as soon as I woke up to performing goal visualization. A few things stuck; most of them didn’t.
I had to take into account what kind of person I am. Not being a natural morning person, would pushing myself to the edge with a cold shower each morning be sustainable? Probably not. I also considered how much time I needed to wake up, how much structure I wanted, and what parts of early mornings I struggle with the most. For example, I usually feel really groggy for the first 15-20 minutes after waking up. So doing anything that requires a lot of brain power during that time wouldn’t be the smartest strategy.
The ritual I’ve come up with takes about an hour. It changes a bit depending on my work schedule, but this is the core of it:
6:00 a.m. – Get up and splash some cold water on my face
I’ve found this to be a much more relaxed alternative to cold showers.
6:05 a.m. – Put on an audiobook, make a glass of lemon water, and cook breakfast
Listening to an audiobook or some type of educational content helps put me in a focused state of mind.
The lemon water is just plain refreshing, though I’ve heard it has some added health benefits as well.
6:15 a.m. – Eat breakfast while listening to audiobook
Giving myself at least 15 minutes to eat, as opposed to rushing through my meal, helps set a less frazzled tone for my day. I like to be focused, but never rushed.
6:30 a.m. – Meditate for 15 minutes
This is probably the most critical part of my routine. Daily meditation keeps me grounded and present, no matter what challenges I face.
6:45 a.m. – Go over my long-term goals and mission statement
I’ll go into more detail on this in a different post, but connecting with my long-term goals and mission helps me focus on what really matters during the day.
6:55 a.m. – Look over priorities/goals for the day
I usually write these out the night before and quickly review them before I start my day.
7:00 a.m – Get ready for work
All in all, this is a pretty relaxed morning ritual compared some of the other ones I’ve tried. But it gives me just enough time to fully wake up, put some energy in my body, ground myself with meditation, and get focused for the day ahead of me.
Do you have a morning ritual? What are some of the strategies you use to get the most out your day?
Note: This is the second part of a three part series I’m writing on freedom from outcome. Check out part one here.
Something I really enjoy is examining general concepts (some people call them “universal principles”) through the lenses of different paradigms and philosophies. The more I read from different sources – religious/spiritual texts, self-help books, biographies, ancient philosophies – the more I start to see the same principles over and over again. Different sources may use different vocabulary, but the underlying messages are usually the same.
The principle I want to continue talking about in this post is freedom from outcome.
In my last post I stated that freedom from outcome is something I’ve been using to help clear up my own confusion regarding ambition. Yet it is applicable in any area of our lives that involves taking action (so pretty much everything!). Let’s dig in.
Attachment to Outcome: The Real Issue
Have you ever wanted something so bad that your own desire seemed to get in your way? It’s like the very thing that motivated you to take action stops you from succeeding.
I’ve experienced this often in my life. One of the most notable areas is playing basketball. I can recall countless games where my intense desire to win, or even just play well, caused me to make careless mistakes. The same thing happens to me in non-athletic endeavors like writing. There are times when I’m so concerned with creating a good blog post that I can barely put together a coherent sentence.
The cause of my poor performance is simple: I’m attached to an outcome.
What does it mean to be attached to an outcome? It’s basing our happiness on whether or not our actions will produce a desired result. This seems like a natural mindset to have. After all, we take actions in order to produce results. Everything from eating to studying is done with an end goal in mind.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that desiring a result is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I would argue that desire is an unavoidable and necessary part of life. Desires are what drive our most basic actions. But there is a huge difference between desiring something and being attached to it. Desire is natural and healthy. Attachment is created by the ego, that persistent voice in our heads that tells us we need something external in order to be happy.
Being attached to outcome can hurt us in a variety of ways. It’s what causes us to endlessly (and miserably) chase things like money, fame, and success, hoping they will make us happy. And as I described above, it often hinders our performance while taking action. When we are attached to a specific outcome, we devote a great deal of our mental energy to focusing on it. This is energy that could be used to focus on the action itself.
Take my struggles with basketball for example. By focusing my attention on the end result (winning), I pay less attention to what is required of me in the moment. But it’s not just the lack of attention that causes me to make mistakes; it’s also the added stress and anxiety that my attachment creates. By making my happiness dependent on whether or not I win, I put unnecessary pressure on myself.
Of course, those are just the negative effects that attachment can cause before we get any kind of result. What happens when the result is the exact opposite of what we wanted? Usually it hurts. When we base our happiness on external results, some degree of future pain is inevitable. Sure, some people are very good at getting the results they want. But even the best can’t succeed all the time. So why suffer over something we can’t avoid?
Sources of Wisdom
I’ve talked about the suffering that can result from being attached to outcome. But what exactly does freedom from outcome mean?
In order to explain it I’m going to use two different sources in which freedom from outcome plays a central role: the Bhagavad Gita and the Tao Te Ching. Both are ancient eastern texts that are still influential in modern day Hinduism and Taoism, respectively.
Freedom from Outcome in the Bhagavad Gita
I first came across the idea of freedom from outcome when I read The Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu scripture most likely written between the fifth and second century BCE.
The whole scripture is grounded in the concept of selflessness, specifically selfless action. It teaches that, by acting selflessly in all areas of our lives, we can achieve self-realization. This is most emphasized in the line, “Through selfless service, you will always be fruitful and find the fulfillment of your desires.” (Chapter 3, Verse 10)
It is this underlying theme of selflessness from which freedom from outcome springs. Selflessness and freedom from outcome are directly linked in this quote:
“You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself – without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat.” (Chapter 2, Verse 47)
When I first read this it seemed like such an odd concept. For years I had been taught that doing things for others was good. Yet something so extreme as being completely selfless was, and still is, very foreign to me. I’m a goal-oriented person, and most of my goals are based on how happy they will make ME. Not having any selfish tendencies just isn’t going to happen. Besides, how could being selfless possibly get me the things I desire in life?
Yet as I considered the term selfless, thinking about it in relation to all of the things I had read about the ego and finding internal peace, I began to realize that selflessness in this context may not mean only doing things for the sake of others. Instead, it means simply taking the “self” (the ego) out of the picture. And if attachment is the result of the ego, then selfless action would naturally be detached action. (Ironically enough, I soon found that being selfless in the sense that we normally use it was one of the easiest ways to reach this ego-less state.)
Still, being the skeptic that I am, I decided to put this idea of selfless service to the test. It just so happened that, having just been hired as a recreation leader at a summer camp, I had the perfect job to do this; I would make giving value to the kids the focus of all my actions, taking my own desire for recognition or even a happy work experience out of the equation.
What resulted was a transformation in my work experience. Moments that would normally try my patience started to flow easily. Any frustration I would feel towards misbehaving children or difficult parents subsided quickly once I reminded myself to take action for the sake of the kids.
More importantly though, I found myself actually performing at a much higher level than I had before. I was more focused, better able to respond to challenges, and even more motivated. By removing the “self” from my actions, and thus my worry over their results, I became a happier, more productive worker.
Freedom From Outcome in the Tao Te Ching
Another great source that encourages freedom from outcome is the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Taoist text written by Lao Tzu. While covering some of the same themes as the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching has a drastically different tone. Each of its 81 chapters takes the form of a poem, and gives lessons in somewhat paradoxical language. To be honest, it took me a couple of readings to get much out of it. But what I got has made a huge difference in my life.
The main theme of the Tao Te Ching is living in harmony with the Tao: the natural flow of the universe. Doing this results in a state of deep inner peace and joy.
In the realm of action, this way of living takes the form of wu-wei, which is roughly translated as “effortless action” or “non-doing”. It is first introduced in Chapter 2. I’m going to include the whole chapter here to provide some context:
All in the world recognize the beautiful as beautiful.
Herein lies ugliness.
All recognize the good as good.
Herein lies evil.
Presence and absence produce each other.
Difficulty and ease bring about each other.
Long and short delimit each other.
High and low rest on each other.
Sound and voice harmonize each other.
Front and back follow each other.
Therefore the sage abides in the condition of wu-wei (unattached action).
And carries out the wordless teaching.
Here, the myriad things are made, yet not separated.
Therefore the sage produces without possessing,
Acts without expectations
And accomplishes without abiding in her accomplishments.
It is precisely because she does not abide in them
That they never leave her.
I think the key part there is “the sage produces without possessing, acts without expectations, and accomplishes without abiding in her accomplishments.” This describes freedom from outcome in its ideal form. It’s not just detaching from outcome during the process, but after as well.
Chapter 43 also directly talks about being detached from outcome:
The softest thing in the world
Will overcome the hardest.
Non-being can enter where there is no space.
Therefore I know the benefit of unattached action.
The wordless teaching and unattached action
Are rarely seen.
This whole concept is quite paradoxical, but I believe it points towards the same principle that selfless service does in the Bhagavad Gita. Acting without effort essentially means not trying to force any kind of result. It is acting purely for the sake of the action itself.
You may have a specific result in mind when starting, but the only way to operate in accordance with nature is to take the proper action (to the best of your ability) and let whatever happens happen. There is no excess physical or mental activity. No anxious thoughts. No stress. No anger or frustration.
Think of the beauty and immensity of nature; all of the plants, trees, mountains, and lakes that have sprung up around us, not to mention the incredible vastness of the oceans. All of these things were formed with no effort, no stress over their final forms.
The giant sequoias didn’t get anxious over how big they would grow. They just grew, following their natural course in life. Some may have grown taller. Some may have withered away. Yet there was never any stress involved. Lao Tzu states it best in the line, “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
I’ve noticed that both of these perspectives on freedom from outcome tend to serve me best at different times. In the realm of work and achievement, selfless service keeps me grounded. But in everyday life, I find that practicing wu-wei helps bring me a sense of peace.
It’s great reading about all of this and seeing it talked about in different contexts, but what are some of the concrete ways that freedom from outcome can benefit our lives?
Here’s a quick list of what I think are some of its greatest benefits:
Less stress and anxiety
Increased ability to concentrate
Easier access to “flow state”
Failures are replaced with lessons
Less Stress and Anxiety
This is benefit that comes in any kind of situation, whether it’s trying to win a basketball game or just enjoying a day at the beach. Most of us walk around with a constant buzz of stress and anxiety inside of us, whether we are conscious of it or not. This anxiety is usually a result of of our need for things to work out exactly how we want them to.
The irony is that this anxiety often ensures that our desired results won’t manifest. We end up losing that basketball game because we were too nervous. Our need for things to be perfect causes the slightest annoyance ruin our day at the beach.
Freedom from outcome immediately eliminates stress and anxiety because instead of being focused on a result, we are completely focused on the present moment.
Increased Ability to Concentrate
Often times our inability to focus on a single task is a result of our attachment to an outcome. Thoughts of success, failure, and all of the potential consequences associated with each, inevitably distract us from the only thing that actually produces results: the task at hand.
This is what usually happens to me when I write. I’ll be in the middle of a sentence and my mind will start ruminating on how many people will read my post and what their reactions to it might be. As a result I either get very little writing done or my writing just plain sucks.
When we let go of that attachment to outcome, it’s almost as if we are clearing out mental RAM. All that mental energy that was going towards thinking about the future can now be used to help us concentrate on what we’re actually doing.
Easier Access to “Flow” State
In his book “Flow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as, “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” Usually this state is accompanied with feelings of intense peace and joy.
We’ve all experienced flow states at one point or another in our lives. It might have been while playing a video game, working on a project for school, or just enjoying a night out with friends. Regardless of the situation, we all crave that feeling of complete focus combined with a deep sense of joy. For most of us though, these moments of flow are hard to come by.
Freedom from outcome is integral component of reaching a flow state. Much like my favorite quote from the Bhagavad Gita, Csikszentmihalyi states that “It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.”
As I stated above, our incessant thinking about past and future outcomes inhibits our ability to fully concentrate. Letting go out those attachments allows us to become fully engaged with an activity, making us more likely to get into a flow state. If we can learn to truly master freedom from outcome, our lives have the possibility of transforming into continuous flow-like experiences.
Failures are Replaced with Lessons
For me, one of the most dire consequences of being attached to outcome has been the intense pain that comes with failure. Going back to my basketball example, the nerves and stress that come from attachment usually seem manageable as long as I’m able to win in the end. But when I don’t get that W, boy does it feel crappy. It’s like adding a slap in the face on top of an already frustrating experience.
But what if I was to detach myself from the outcome? Sure, I could still desire to win (that’s the object of the game), but all of a sudden my happiness is not based on something external. This happens to be the optimal state for learning and improving. I may make mistakes and even end up losing. But afterwards I will be able to look objectively at what I did right and wrong in order to improve. I can stop looking at failure as something to be avoided, and start seeing it as a valuable learning experience.
After all, none of us are born knowing how to do everything perfectly. It’s only by falling down that we learn how to balance ourselves and walk. It’s only through bringing our weakness to the surface that we can start to improve them. But this is difficult to do if our emotions are tied up with our results
These are just a few of the valuable benefits that I’ve experienced while making freedom from outcome a part of my life. In reality, it’s a concept that is so intertwined with other components of living a happy life (such as presence and self-reliance) that the full scale of its benefits is hard to quantify.
In my next post I will offer some of the strategies that I’ve found most useful in achieving this detachment from outcome.
If you’ve kept up with this blog so far, it’s probably obvious that I love quoting Thoreau. I’ve been a huge fan of his since reading Walden a few years ago.
This particular quote resonates with something I’ve recently been focusing on a lot: proactively planning how I spend my time.
I’ve been reading a great book on time management called “First Things First,” by Stephen Covey. The basic message of this book is that most people spend their time focusing on things that may seem urgent, but aren’t necessarily important for their future growth and happiness. They get caught up in a myriad of duties and tasks that never seem to end. Yet at the end of the day, they don’t feel as though they accomplished anything of value.
I feel that way quite often. So I’ve started taking the time to ask myself just how important the things I’m doing really are. And by important I don’t mean urgent. I’m talking about actions that are in line with my core values and will help move me closer to the life I dream of (the things that normally get lost in the fray of daily concerns and duties). These are things like writing, researching future travel destinations, spending time with family and friends, or simply taking the time to relax by the beach.
I’ve already found that just being aware of this issue has created more time in my life for the things that really matter. Hopefully this quote can inspire you to take a conscious look at how you spend your time as well.
The past month or so has been pretty rocky for me. The progress I’m so used to making just hasn’t been there. I’m filled with an overwhelming sense of stagnation in pretty much every area of my life. It seems that no matter how hard I try, I can’t string together more than a couple days of productivity before going back to my lazy habits.
Motivational struggles are nothing new to me. Finding the motivation to go after what I truly want in life has always been difficult. I guess that’s part of what makes my current struggles even more frustrating than usual. However, my inability to generate much momentum lately has made me take a step back and really examine this whole situation.
A while back I wrote a post on the benefits I found in living intentionally as opposed to making a bunch of strict goals for myself. One of the main themes behind that post was my own tendency to be very hard on myself when I failed to reach my goals. At the time, I saw clearly that being overly critical of myself usually made me less productive overall.
It seems I’ve forgotten that message since coming back home. I may not have set concrete goals for myself, but I did have a mental picture of all the amazing things I would accomplish this summer. And this picture left little room for the struggles I’m having at the moment.
What has my response beens? Overwhelmingly negative. Every time I miss a day of writing or end up sitting in front of the TV all night, I compound the failure by mentally abusing myself. “What wrong with me?” “Why can’t I be more productive?” “Do I even want to change at all, or am I just lying to myself?” “If I keep this up, I’m definitely going to end up a failure.” This kind of self-talk has been the norm for me for as long as I can remember. Only now have I stopped to consider that it might be doing more harm than good. It’s not just the words themselves though. It’s the mindset behind them; a mindset that expects perfection where perfection is impossible.
If I were to take some perspective on the past month and a half, I might be able to see a different side to the story. I’ve been so focused on everything I’ve done wrong that I’ve failed to see all the things I’ve done right. I’ve stuck to a consistent gym routine and diet. I’ve been meditating fairly consistently. I’ve been working a ton and I’ve managed to save up a considerable amount of my future travels. While I may not be this perfect productivity machine, those are all things that I should be proud of.
Negative vs. Positive Reinforcement
In the little over a year that I’ve worked with kids (as both a recreation leader and an English language assistant), one major lesson has stood out to me: positive reinforcement is infinitely more effective than negative reinforcement. Focusing less on children’s’ negative behavior and more on their positive behavior can lead, not only to better behavior in the future, but also happier, more confident kids.
Does the need for positive reinforcement go away once we reach a certain age? I doubt it. We may need less validation from the people around us in order to feel good, but there is still a strong need for our own validation at the very least. Yet positive reinforcement is often the last thing we are willing to give ourselves.
Maybe it’s because we are the only people who know our true potentials. We can close our eyes and envision all that we can be and all the great things we can accomplish. With this vision in mind, it’s all the more disappointing when we fail to live up to it. So we get mad at ourselves. We criticize ourselves. We even hate ourselves at times.
But would we treat a child that way? Would we lash out at them every time they make a mistake, every time they don’t know how to do something with the ease of an expert? Of course not. Part of the reason it’s easier for us (at times) to be more understanding with children is because we know they are still learning and growing. Of course they are going to make mistakes; they don’t know everything yet.
But as adults, are we really that different than children? Sure we have more responsibilities and we know how to do a few more things, but aren’t we still learning? Aren’t we still trying to figure everything out? Don’t we still feel lost and confused at times? Maybe I’m alone in this, but a lot of times I still feel like a kid in a really tall adult’s body, still as clueless as I ever was.
With this in mind, what I’m really focusing on lately is giving myself the same positive reinforcement that I would give a child. I guess you could say I’m just trying to take care of my inner child. This means celebrating all of the small victories in my life and not beating myself up for my mistakes and failures. It means giving myself room to be completely imperfect. It means reminding myself daily that I’m still learning and growing, and that progress usually doesn’t take the route we expect it to. Most of all, it means showing myself the same love and compassion that I would show anyone else I care about in my life.
This is a lot easier said than done. My ever-present fear is that, by being so understanding with myself, I’ll just end up patting myself on the back for being lazy and never actually accomplish anything. There is clearly a balance that must be maintained between being compassionate with yourself and pushing yourself to take action. Honestly I’m not sure how to find that balance. I have a feeling it will be a lifelong journey of trial and error.
I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of achievement. There’s an undeniable satisfaction that comes from knowing you’ve put in the work to accomplish something, no matter how small it is. Hell, even as I write this, I feel damn good for get getting these words on paper.
I suppose the simplest way of experiencing the satisfaction of achievement is through goals. They are straight forward. Black and white. You always know when and how you accomplished them.
Yet despite how much I enjoy achievement, I’ve always been terrible at following through with goals. For as long as I can remember I’ve been setting goals and subsequently failing to achieve them. Everything from getting a six-pack to writing every day. Nothing ever seems to stick.
This isn’t a new story of course. Goals are something most people struggle with. I read a statistic that out of the 45% of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions, only 8% successfully achieve them. I’m not sure how accurate this is, but it doesn’t sound too far from the truth. I don’t think this is an American phenomenon either.
For a long time I attributed my inability to follow through on goals to my own laziness or lack of will power. This translated into me telling myself things like, “I can’t achieve my goals because I’m a lazy person” and “I don’t have enough will power to accomplish anything significant.” With this kind of negative self-talk, setting and working towards goals became less and less about the goals themselves and more about vindicating myself from those negative labels (which, ironically, I had self-applied). As you can imagine, this didn’t make sticking to my goals any easier. All it did was make the pain of failing so much greater. My failures to achieve my goals became indicators of my own inadequacies.
About a month ago, after years of dealing with this internal conflict, I decided to take a step back from goals all together. I didn’t really have a plan or even a time frame (it took a lot of effort to not make not setting goals a goal). I just knew that my current method of setting goals and working meticulously to achieve them wasn’t bringing me many positive results.
Upon making this decision, it felt as if a weight had been lifted off of me. What I had essentially done was give myself permission to not accomplish anything. No goals. No mission statements. No super-important tasks to get to outside of going to work. It was liberating.
Unfortunately, along with this feeling of liberation came a huge feeling of guilt, at least in the beginning. For the past three years all I had done was focus on improving myself, usually by way of setting goals and working towards them. While letting go of those goals felt good, I also felt as though I was letting myself down in some way. If I wasn’t working towards something, then how could I possibly be happy?
This internal conflict was, at its core, a symptom of my underlying belief structure, mainly in regards to how life is supposed to be lived. For simplicity’s sake I would characterize my normal way of thinking as “achievement-oriented.” I’ve always based my self-worth on what I could achieve, or at the very least what I was working towards. Going even deeper than that, I’ve always assumed that true happiness required struggling to overcome challenges, that I didn’t deserve to be happy unless I was working towards a bigger purpose in life and challenging myself every day.
Still, it was obvious that setting goals is not an effective strategy for me, regardless of the reason why. Yet my own happiness is still in many ways tied to achievement and the idea of working towards a purpose. It’s a paradox that I don’t see changing any time soon. So I came up with sort of a mental compromise.
What’s interesting is that in the month since I abandoned goal setting, I haven’t been any less productive. In fact, I’ve made more progress towards the life I want than I had in the several months prior to this change. I began meditating consistently. My diet improved notably. I’ve read more. I started this blog. Overall, I’m feeling a lot happier, which is most likely the result of constantly feeling as though I’m achieving something.
So how have I been able to be productive without any clear goals to work towards?
Simply put, instead of setting goals I just started focusing on what I wanted out of life. Not what I thought I should want, or what I thought I should accomplish. What I really WANTED. I started getting in touch with my core desires.
Waking up in the morning I didn’t think of my normal checklist for that day. I just paused and considered what I wanted my life to look like. To give you an example, some of the things I thought of included being more present to the moment, being more positive, filling my days with things I love doing, and creating an amazing blog.
I found that, by simply having what I wanted at the forefront of my mind throughout the day, I naturally started taking the actions that would bring me closer to those things. I began to live intentionally instead of in reaction to my environment.
Up and Down Cycle
For most of my life I repeated the same cycle of rapid progress and equally rapid burnout. I would be super consistent when it came to my goals, using every ounce of willpower I had in order to reach them…for a couple of weeks. Then, one day when the willpower just seemed to escape me, I would end up on the couch, binge-watching Netflix and hating myself. A few weeks later I would start the process over again, vowing that this time would be different, this time I would stick to my goals. On and on the cycle went.
While it’s only been about a month, I haven’t experienced any of those drastic motivational ups and downs. I might spend an hour or two watching Game of Thrones or catching up on some NBA highlights, but I don’t find myself binging on entertainment the way I used to. After a couple of hours of doing anything that doesn’t bring me closer to the life I want, I just get antsy and want to start taking action again.
I think what this really comes down to is allowing myself room to be imperfect. What I’ve found with goals is that they box me in to a specific result and a specific course of action. Maybe it’s just the rebellious kid in me, but being told I have to do something, even by myself, makes me really not want to do it. I think meditation is the most relevant example in this case. If you were to come up to me right now and ask me how I feel about meditation, you would only hear good things come out of my mouth. I freaking love meditation! Yet whenever I’ve set a goal for myself to do it every day, meditation and I stop being such close friends.
However, when I simply start my day by thinking about how much I want presence and positivity in my life, it seems only natural that I would meditate at some point. I go from begrudging it to looking forward to it. Now, after about 30 days of doing it, mediation just feels like a normal part of my life.
A lot of people would probably argue that the point of goals isn’t to have a rigid structure, but to give you a direction to head. That may be true but for whatever reason I have a hard time viewing goals in a healthy way. That’s just me though.
If I really analyze the past month, all I’ve done is simply make my goals a little less strict, a little less absolute. Either way I’m glad it’s working.