It’s Not Getting Better Unless You Make It

I have just read an article that really made me think about what I am going to do with myself. The article is called “Five Reasons Why Your Life Isn’t Going to Get Better” by Harris O’Malley (AKA Dr Nerdlove). It sounds like a horrible article but it was meant as a slap in the face. So yeah, it was kind of horrible to read. This is one of those article that makes so much sense that you now absolutely hate the author. If you’re ready to get kicked in the ass by an internet articled give it a read here.

OK now that we are all thoroughly beaten up let’s talk about it.

1 – Time is Currency and You Have to Manage it IDIOT

The first big idea that Harris talks about is the fact that, a lot of the time, we add things to our routine without taking other things out. It’s the “Cost” of a new goal or activity that we don’t recognize. The fact is that, no matter how hard we try, there are still a limited number of hours in a day and you can’t even use all of them. I have a goal to start going to the gym on a weekly basis. After just reading the first part of Dr Nerdlove’s article, I now realize why I haven’t completed it. I “fart around on the internet,” play video games and generally do things that aren’t going to the gym. No matter what I tell myself, I have chosen to fail at my goal. There are no outside factors, the weather is not that bad, I am not too tired, and while I may still be recovering from my last trip to the gym, that doesn’t mean I can’t still go.

There! I just kicked myself in the nuts and that’s only the first of five points Dr Nerdlove makes. Reading his first point I know now that I need to manage my time like my boss does. Tracking what you do and creating a metrics system will be invaluable to accomplishing the goals I want to complete.

2 – Just Do It (Not Affiliated with Nike!)

Next up is a simple truth. If you are to accomplish that shiny goal you have set for yourself, you kind of need to actually work on that goal. If you say that to someone they are going to think you are treating them like a 4 year old. If you are to accomplish anything however, you need to put actions on the table. Wishes won’t do much and leaving the work to “future you” will do even less. As Dr NerdLove writes “The more you talk about how ‘someday, you’re going to be X’, without actually taking concrete steps towards getting there, then all you’re doing is mental masturbation.”

You need to dream to have goals but you also need actionable items to get those goals done. Completing those actionable items is the only way to get things finished. I think a good set of metrics might be the key to this. You can also gamify it if you are clever and competitive enough. To gamily is to create a set of metrics for your actions and assign a point system. Tally up your points and try to get better and better scores. If you don’t have a head for numbers and metrics you will have to find a more creative approach.

3 – Use a Sniper, Not a Shotgun

Harris’ third point is almost immediately obvious when you start a new self-improvement kick. There is so much to do that you have no idea where to start. You read all these articles and you get so much on your mind that you are overwhelmed. Well that happens to me, I don’t know what experience you have.

When you research or just jump into a new activity, hobby or regimen there is always so much you don’t know. It can become overwhelming, but with a little self-trickery you can defeat the paralysis. I break things down when I feel overwhelmed. Focusing on a few or even just one aspect of a problem or activity can be immensely helpful. After tackling a single part you can then add more and before you know it, you have started that gym routine or that helicopter building hobby you have always wanted.

4 – Damn You Brain… You Win Again!

Forth is the idea that your own brain is working against you. This is a hard one to describe because it is very subtle. Your brain likes to feel the same sensations all the time. Anything that threatens those sensations is “dangerous” and “scary” even if those changes are logically better. This is made worse by the fact that you can so easily get addicted to almost anything. It may not be a chemical addiction but the effects are similar.

Unfortunately there is no easy way to combat this. It takes shear will and a whole lot of it. The good part is that your will is just like any other skill. You can develop it and stretch it if you know where your limits are. The bad part is that your will is just like any other skill. When the going gets tough, sometimes you just want to lie down and eat a bowl of ice cream. Finding a balance between pushing yourself and allowing for rest is a difficult task but it take practice, just like any other skill.

5 – But Ma… I Don’t Wanna! (Insert Whiney Voice)

The final point in the article is that of motivation. No matter how many times you read about building that sweet helicopter, you won’t get very far if you don’t get off your couch and grab a wrench. Like Newton’s first law of motion, a couch potato tends to watch a ton of Netflix. Or something like that.

This is one of the hardest things to do for me. Self-motivating can be easy if you love what you do but if you are even slightly discouraged it can be difficult or even impossibly hard to generate some movement. This is another place where Gamification of your life can help out. Our brains are wired to work on a reward system. If you give yourself rewards for working towards your goals you will start to need less and less of a reward. Self-motivators are naturals at this. They can see rewards in things that other don’t.

Additionally, seeing a benefit for an activity is not the same as seeing a reward. Many benefits are logically obvious. If you start eating healthier you will start feeling more healthy. The problem comes when you actually attempt to start. Most people these days (including myself) are geared towards quick satisfaction. Unfortunately, most goals worthwhile take time for results to even show. Goals like higher education, eating healthy and learning new skills are all examples of this. This is why rewarding yourself is essential. Most diets incorporate a “cheat” day but I don’t like this idea. Your “reward” sets you back further on your path. I prefer a reward that has nothing to do with my goal. If I find myself going to the gym more often, I will find some fun to have. I won’t bail on a gym day because “I did good this month.” If you can find a reward for yourself, you can become self-motivating and totally build that helicopter.

Over the next few weeks I am going to develop and implement a “Game” for myself. This game will eventually include scores for eating healthy, going to the gym, talking to people, and all sorts of other things. I may have to break it up in to smaller parts until I get the hang of designing scorecards. I will also be publishing my cards here. I plan on using the game design process to improve my life and motivate myself to be better. Stay tuned kids, it’s going to be a slow and boring ride from here on out!

Wait… That’s not right.

Being SMART is not so Hard

Have you ever heard of a S.M.A.R.T goal before?

No, no, not a smart goal, but a S.M.A.R.T. goal (called SMART from now on because I don’t want to type that many periods). It’s a set of criteria for the creation of goals or tasks designed so that you don’t get overwhelmed or you don’t ‘finish’ because the original goal had ambiguities in it. SMART goals are just one way to use the SMART criteria to improve your processes and productivity. You can use the SMART criteria any time an important task needs to be completed. These criteria can apply to something as large and complex as a career path or something small like a chore list. The SMART criteria are as follows:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Assignable
  • Realistic
  • Time Related

The first criteria is Specific. Being specific is important because you need to know exactly what to do in order accomplish your goal. If you are not specific you run the risk of the ambiguity that I spoke of above. Say your goal is to get healthy. Well, that could be anything. You could eat better, go running, pretty much any kind of healthy activity could satisfy that goal. This uncertainty makes it hard to know when you are working on your goal or just doing any random thing. Having a focus is important when you are trying to accomplish something. Even the goal of losing weight is not specific enough. How are you going to go about losing weight? Being specific when you create a goal lets you know exactly what to do to accomplish that goal.

The second criteria is Measurable. Say your goal is to lose weight. If all you ever say or think about your goal is “I want to lose weight” you will never really know when you have accomplished that. Is one pound enough? You lost weight right? I don’t think I would call that goal accomplished but I may have a lot more to lose than others. If you say you want to lose 15 pounds you know exactly when that goal is accomplished. My goal for fitness is to come to the gym for at least an hour, twice a week. This must be accomplished for every week in a two month period. This goal is instantly measurable. Not only do I have to go to the gym twice a week, I have to maintain that rate for the span of 2 months. Making measurable goals allows you to keep track of your progress and know exactly when you have accomplished what you set out to do.

The third criteria is Assignable. This one seems pretty obvious because it really is. If you don’t define who does what in your goal, then nobody is going to know what to do. Most personal goals are only managed by the person who created them so the assignable criteria is a bit redundant. If, however, you and a significant other or a team of coworkers have a shared goal, then you can use this criteria to assign roles to each participant and expectations about those roles. Having goals with assignable parts makes them less confusing and allows for greater accountability for all participants. If you’re the only one in on this goal make sure to use words that specifically reference you in the goal.

The fourth criteria is Realistic. Creating a goal is about accomplishing a specific task or cultivating a skill (or any number of other things). The point of creating goals is to finish them. Lets say your goal is about learning to build furniture. If you expect to be carving Victorian era masterpieces by the end of your goal you have just set yourself up for failure. Unless of course, you are a master craftsman. If you create a goal that you cannot accomplish there is really no point in creating the goal in the first place. By creating a goal that you know you are able to complete it becomes easier to complete that goal. Keep in mind though, that goals are about progress. You want to strike a balance between realistic and challenging.

The fifth and last criteria is Time Related. Having the first 4 SMART criteria in your goal is all well and good but if you don’t set a date for completion you might as well not get started. Having a finish line is so important that the other 4 criteria (with the possible exception of Specific) pale in comparison. If you set a goal without an end date you don’t have any way of effectively maintaining it. You don’t have a clear way to track your rate of progress. On the other hand, if you set a ridiculously short deadline, you start to run into the Realistic criteria. Setting a time can be as specific as you want but the most important thing to realize is that if there is no specific ending date, you may unconsciously (or consciously) procrastinate. Setting a time for certain goals can be hard to do. You want to leave enough room to accomplish your goal but not so much room that you find yourself saying things like “oh, I can do that tomorrow.”

By following the SMART criteria, you can create goals where the end is visible from the start. You have a clear path and you know where you are going. This is an example of one of my goals:

“By the end of this year, I will go to the gym and workout for at least an hour, twice a week for every week in a two month period. I intend to continue going to the gym twice a week even after this goal is accomplished.”

Try making SMART goals for yourself. Start small so you get comfortable with the criteria. Once you feel ready start with more ambitious goals. Write them down and post them somewhere visible. I have found this a good way to get thing done. From getting into a cleaning routine to learning a new work skill. I am working on some goals for my writing and will share them in a future post. In the meantime, try it out for yourself and experiment.

The Hard Conversations

Uncomfortable situations can be awkward for all involved but they are especially awkward for the socially inexperienced. What an expert might consider basic knowledge might be something that a newbie has not yet learned. I like to break conversation types down into several “difficulty” categories. This is by no means scientific, set in stone, realistic, or even correct but it helps me gear up for a conversation when I know the topic beforehand.

Conversation Difficulty scale from Easy (1) to Really Hard (5):

  1. The Easy Conversation: This type of conversation is simple. Think of talking about something you love, a passion that you embrace with every fiber of your being. The words just flow and there is no end in sight.
  2. The Standard Conversation: You have these every day. Sometimes you trip up but it’s never that critical even if the content is important.
  3. The Slightly Hard Conversation: This usually happens every once in a while. Apologizing to someone, delivering some bad (but not too tragic) news, or even just talking to someone you’re attracted too. OK that last one is personal but many people have that problem right? This is not the type of conversation you want to have or mess up and some people will go to great lengths to avoid them.
  4. The Hard Conversation: Unlike the “Slightly Hard” conversations, you cannot avoid these. Feeling can and sometimes will get hurt and they are not easy to navigate. Examples include: Breaking up with a significant other, dealing with inconsiderate people, and particularly heated arguments.
  5. The Really Hard Conversations: Delivering tragic news and dealing with incredibly difficult situations are always the hardest conversations to have.

The examples and descriptions provided are from my experience and my current level of conversational skill. At the beginning of the year, I would have classified anything above the standard conversation and the hidden number 6) The Impossible Conversations. In the past few weeks I have started to think about the conversations that I avoid just to avoid conflict. Even dealing with rude behavior is something that I would shy away from.

I host a coffee shop meet up where people who are more introverted can get together and just talk, or meet new people, or just get out of the house. This meet is advertised on the internet and that means that we get all kinds of people with differing levels of social skills. Sometimes the people who come don’t mix very well. It’s rare but sometimes, as the host, I have to step in and mediate when things get out of hand. This is an example of a Hard Conversation because it is completely unavoidable if I want people to come back to these meet ups.

I am not great at dealing with conflict so when one rises in a meet up I host I don’t always have the best solution. I see things very logically and I don’t always take into account how other people feel when resolving a disagreement. This is something that I need to work on. I need to start thinking about how others are feeling and realize that not everyone follows the same logic paths that I do. In the next few weeks I want to find a way to start recognizing the feelings of others. I will then start to work with those feelings to resolve issues and conflicts that come my way.

Time For a Rest

Have you ever had a hard week at work (or just life, really)? It drains you and if you don’t get a break the next week can just drag on. You feel tired and even when you can get the needed sleep in, you just can’t seem to get back to your old self. I find that being overwhelmed with problems is the hardest thing to come out of on top. This has happened to me this week. No matter what I do, even a good night’s sleep hasn’t brought me back. What I have realized is that getting the rest you need isn’t just for each night. You need to have some time off to just recuperate. This can take on many forms depending on what type of person you are and what you like to do.

I have learned over the years that you really have to be picky about what you do in these times. It’s necessary that you choose something that you like to do but you have to remember that just because you like it, it will not automatically help the situation. I try to choose an activity that requires just the right amount of concentration. A balance between freeing your mind to think and occupying your thoughts or distracting yourself. This balance is actually really tough to find. For example, I love to play Minecraft but if I do that I can just put my fingers into autopilot and free my mind to think of other things. This is great when I have a problem to think on but if I have been having a hard time, this tends to make me overthink and I can spiral down all the worst paths of thought. On the other end, if I try to read a particularly engaging book, it has the opposite effect. I don’t think about my problems at all and I don’t feel better when I return to the “real world.” One of the activities that provides me a balance is listening to some of my favorite music. I have an album that I can play constantly and I never get bored of it. When I am listening to music, I can either immerse myself in it or let it become the background. I get to choose how much I want to think and how much I want to listen. This is the kind of balance that can make you feel rested. If you get to choose how much to engage, you tend to automatically choose the right level of distraction.

I encourage you to find an activity that you can do that fits these criteria:

  • You enjoy the activity.
  • You can let it occupy most of your mind.
  • You can put your mind on automatic and free some thought for your current problems.
  • The activity has minimal prep time. (This is so you can access it whenever. Traveling the world, for instance is not a good idea for this type of activity.)

Listening to music fits this bill for me. If you find something that works for you hold on to it. The rest and relaxation you get from it is worth it. We all get overwhelmed and we all need to just step back for a bit. Try it out, I think you’ll like it.

Patience and the Sciences

Over the last few months I have been binging on all things Neil deGrasse Tyson and let me tell you, that man is an insanely good speaker. I have always had an interest in the physical sciences and engineering, so his shows like Cosmos and the Inexplicable Universe are incredible insights into the world of practical science. Modern astrophysicists and theoretical physicists are the great explorers of our time. They are pioneers out there on the edge of human knowledge and understanding. I think it’s a wonder that more people aren’t interested in these people and their research. In many of Tyson’s lectures he refers to the short sightedness of the government and even the public. One of his examples is the time delay between Faraday’s original electromagnetic experiments and the first uses of generators in industry. The gap is about 30 years and the principles of Faraday’s experiments are still the basics of how all of our electricity is created today.

I think the real reason that there is not more interest in these pioneer sciences is that most people (including myself) are geared by our current culture for instant gratification. Think about it, how long would you wait for a computer program to boot up before you think there is a problem? How long do you want to wait for a product to be delivered to you from across the world? I admit that I suffer this type of bias in my work all the time. My software testing has me working on a combination of software and hardware that is not your standard PC. One of our consoles (they are pretty much panels with screens and small pseudo computers) takes up to three minutes to boot up. When was the last time your computer took three minutes to boot? (If your computer always takes 3 minutes… well you should get that looked at) Patience is just not in our cultures vocabulary these days. With our hectic lives we don’t want to wait for results. We want the tree and not the seed. The problem with this attitude is that there are many worthwhile things that take time. Improving skills and paying off mortgages are just a couple of examples.

I think that this impatience is not new. If humans as a species where not impatient, then faster means of travel would only have been a novelty, faster way of cooking food would not exist. We see other people who can improve faster than us and we are impatient about our own progress. Ultimately though, I believe that this impatience stems from our own memory and its perception of time. Based solely off of my own experiences, I can never truly recall how long events took place. Usually I have to go off of specific events that I remember actual times for and do the math. This type of remembering gets even harder when the timescale increases to beyond a couple of weeks. When was the last wedding you attended? How long did the ceremony last? If you can answer these, good for you, you have an excellent memory.

We don’t realize how long things take and get impatient for results. While sometimes this is a good thing, we need to be able to recognize when waiting is called for. Not everything is fast, so next time you find yourself asking “are we there yet?” Take a second look. Maybe patience is called for.

Even In the Lull

Work has slowed down quite a bit recently and that has given me the time to work on my own projects. I work as a Software Tester for a company that designs and build control systems and there is usually enough customer demand that all my efforts are focused on testing their software. Without a lot of customer work right now I have been improving my test strategies and paperwork. I am creating test suites, and test plans. Learning new strategies and formalizing a lot of informal process that never really had time to take hold. In effect, I have been working to improve my workplace and work quality.

These actions in a lull of activity made me realize that the only path to improvement is constant “upgrading.” Even when there doesn’t seem to be much to do, there is something that can be made better. Now this does not mean that you have to take every single opportunity to improve. It only means that there is improvement to be made and it’s your choice to take it. Just like every choice, it’s yours.

In the future, I think that I will be looking for more opportunity to improve when I have “nothing to do.” This doesn’t mean that if I have nothing pressing that I will always choose to improve my life. I still want to play games, and read books. In the words of a certifiably insane man “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.” So next time when you find yourself saying “I have nothing to do tonight” look for something in your life that needs working on and give it a go.

PS: After searching it up, I realize that the quote from the Shining, is not originally from the movie. It’s a proverb from a man named James Howel.

Seeking a Friend

I recently watched a movie called “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” with Steve Carell and Keira Knightly and I enjoyed it a lot. For those who haven’t seen it, this post will contain spoilers. Also, if you haven’t seen it, find it and watch it (it’s currently on Canadian Netflix).

Definite SPOILERS Below!!!

The first scene sets the stage nicely. Carell and his characters wife are sitting in a car on the side of a highway listening to the radio. A news announcement details the failure of an mission to prevent the asteroid ‘Matilda’ from impacting the Earth. Dodge (Carell’s character) opens the movie with a line like “Well, I guess we missed the exit.” Dodge’s wife promptly gets out of the car and runs through some wood towards a town in the distance. This struck me as a small reaction to a small joke at the end of the world. If it were me in that car I would be the one making that joke but I know some people who would lose their minds at this. If I was on the receiving end of that quip I would definitely lose my mind, laugh and cry at the same time. This is the END of all things. The radio announces that the Earth has three weeks until the asteroid hits. Three weeks until the end of the world.

Later we find many people who have either embraced or just ignored the apocalypse. Dodge’s cleaning lady keeps coming by his apartment till the end, there is a family restaurant turned into a happy-go-lucky orgy house and a man commits suicide via assassin at an inopportune time. Before seeing all this though Dodge escapes riots in his home town with a young woman who lives in the same apartment complex. The movie centers on the journey of these two and they eventually find love in each other. Really the whole movie is about actually noticing what is right in front of you.

I feel that the more I achieve, the farther I look ahead and I tend to forget where I am. I forget how far I have come. There is a point where Penny (the young woman) and Dodge are talking and we learn about how they each got this point in their lives. Penny asks Dodge what he does for work and when he says he is an insurance salesman Penny asks why anyone would want to do that. This makes Dodge reflect back on his life and realize that even though he did not get to achieve his dreams, he still has a pretty good life.

I should look back more often and realize just how far I have come from that person who doesn’t talk. I need to realize that no matter how far I have left to go, I have made so much progress. I started out long ago to increase the amount of social activity in my life. I have gone from not even being able to schedule a dentist appointment to making new friends and even going to the dentist! I hope that this movie struck you in a similar manner as it hit me. The more we look ahead, the less we tend to see.