Leap Year Habits

The peg-legged month of February is quickly upon us, and this year its gait is even more angular than normal. To all of you born on February 29, happy birthday. It’s been four years coming. 🥳

February is as good a time as any to start something new. Austin Kleon has a fun 29 Day Challenge on his site that I like the look of. Since February is the shortest month it’s way easier to start a new habit in than January, right? (At least February doesn’t feel like it lasts forever as January sometimes does.)

Pick a habit you want to start, print off the sheet, and cross off the days you accomplish it. Don’t Break the Chain! I’m going to work on Intermittent Fasting every day.


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Break Tasks Down into Small Chunks

As I write this my son is playing scales on his double bass. (Tomorrow morning he has an audition for the high school orchestra, which is a big deal for an 8th grader.) Scales are one of the most important and most boring things to practice on an instrument because they give the player a chance to work on small chunks of difficult notes over and over. It’s a great analogy for how all work should be done.

The B melodic minor scale on double bass has some interesting challenges. There are notes that aren’t played frequently and hand positions where the thumb goes somewhere it normally doesn’t. Getting this scale right involves practicing difficult movements over and over until they feel natural. Once those difficult sections are familiar the rest of the scale is easy to play.

In college and when I played music professionally I didn’t really appreciate the lessons I learned from playing hours of scales. Those same principles are scattered throughout the work I do each day. Break big jobs down into smaller chunks. Identify the chunks I’m already comfortable with and set those aside. Identify the hard chunks and spend the most time on those. Put everything together at the end and run it until it feels natural.

It doesn’t matter if the work is preparing a presentation, writing sales copy, coding part of a website, or having a difficult one-on-one conversation with an employee. The principles behind playing scales work for all the work I do, and probably for the work you do to.

I just hope I won’t have B melodic minor played by an 8th grade bassist stuck in my head all night. Ah, the hazards of parenting!


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Process Accelerates Creativity

Recently I was part of an off-site planning meeting. My company flew people from different parts of the country to Portland for three days. Part of the success of these types of meetings is of course the human aspect—when you get together in person you form closer bonds—but our great success this time came in the creative leaps we made. We owe this success to the process put in place before the meetings.

Two members of our group did a great job of getting everyone’s input and ideas written down. They produced a schedule that we used to guide the meetings. During the three days they adapted the schedule based on where the process took us. Most of the time the meetings were very free-form and spontaneous, or at least that’s how they felt to me. Once in a while we would be nudged back into the structure of the schedule. It worked amazingly well.

In our case, process enhanced and accelerated our results. The structure made creativity possible. Don’t ignore the importance of setting up effective processes.


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Do a Good Deed Daily

One of my New Year’s goals this year is to do a good deed daily.

It changes my day when I have a goal like this top of mind. I set out with the thought that I want to be helpful and do some good for the people around me. There have been a few times when I was able to do something significant, but generally it’s small things: holding a door for someone, smiling at people, taking the time to talk, and sharing some of what I know.

A side benefit I’ve discovered is I’m more aware of the good things people around me do. When I see someone going out of their way to be nice or serve someone I feel like I’m meeting a fellow member of a secret club. It feels great to see the good that others do, and helps reaffirm my desire to keep doing good too. Faith in humanity confirmed!


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Art and Craftsmanship

I have a good friend who made his own dining room set. It’s a beautiful table with chairs and benches. It’s the kind of thing their family will be able to use for a long time and will always have a lot of sentimental and practical value.

My brother is an auto mechanic. Once when he was visiting I asked for help fixing a burned out headlight bulb. We spent a very interesting hour talking and taking apart the wheel well of my car. Time after time he calmly reached into his tool bag and brought out a tool that seemed perfect for what we needed. He took care to line the beam of the new bulb up with the beam of the old one. It was really impressive.

A friend at work is very handy. He bought a small starter house, and when he moved to a bigger house he rented out the starter house. Once in a while he’ll mention something about replacing a water heater or rewiring part of one of the houses.

I’m jealous of them. Their craftsmanship is in work they do with their hands.

I love watching the piano player at the jazz academy my kids attend. You can hear his love for the music he’s playing. He teaches the students how to move through a song, the things to listen for, and encourages them to try new things. When he plays you can feel the joy that he feels.

My boys started tuning pianos. This began as my younger son’s Eagle Scout project, and has since turned into a part time job for them. Tuning a piano takes time and patience. Each note on the piano has multiple strings that need to be both in tune with the pitch and with each other. Getting one note to sound correctly can take a while. Then you have 87 more notes to go!

It’s a grueling process to tune a whole piano. Getting the notes to sound in tune often takes a gentle hand. By the end of their last job I saw the beginnings of real pride in the work they were doing. I could see the change from “I’m getting paid to do this” to “I’m proud of my work.”

No matter what kind of work we do, we have the chance to develop craftsmanship. There’s art in everything done well.


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Getting Goals and Habits to Stick

Over the past year I’ve had a significant change in the way I deal with goals and habits.

For a long time I wasn’t a person that set goals. I felt better without them, and was able to get more done when I wasn’t setting goals. (I blame Leo Babauta for sharing this idea. I really took it to heart.) I thought about things I wanted to do, but I wouldn’t go through the process of setting goals or tracking them.

In the end of 2017 I wanted to establish some habits. They are small things that I wanted to become better at, like writing in a journal and reading certain kinds of books. I wanted to be the kind of person who writes in a journal every day. I found a habit tracking app I like, called Streaks, and set out to see if simply tracking whether I do an action each day can help me establish a habit.

It turns out this really works for me. I enjoy clicking the box to say I’ve done something and the small reward of seeing my streak grow. After reading Atomic Habits I started to chain these small actions together. I added things like flossing my teeth, meditating each day, and daily writing. Just adding more things to my habit tracking app didn’t mean I actually did them, but eventually each of these habits has taken hold and become part of who I am. I don’t do any of theses things at a very high level. My writing won’t inspire millions and my journals won’t be carefully read in the future. That’s not why I do it. I wanted to improve and adopt actions that I admire.

Here are a couple of the keys that have made a difference for me:

  • Don’t worry about starting on January 1The day to set a new goal or begin a new habit is right now. Everyone knows that New Year’s Resolutions are arbitrary, but I also think we sometimes don’t start new things because the beginning doesn’t feel significant enough. (If I start exercising on 11 I know I’ll stick with it all year long!) That’s rubbish, and we all know it. Start your resolutions on the 15th or the 6th or the 23rd. When you start really doesn’t matter. Getting started does.
  • Gamification can help. I know that there are some people who are incredibly effective at using gamification to change their lives. (I’m looking at you, Nerd Fitness community!) Designing epic quests or creating an alter ego doesn’t work for me, but the simple gamification of keeping a streak alive does. Find out if gamification works for you, and use it if it does.
  • Don’t try to be epic. For years, since childhood, I tried to write in a journal consistently. The problem was that I never thought the things I was writing were worth anyone’s time to read! I was so focused on the vague future when someone would read what I wrote that I psyched myself out of writing at all. Now I just make sure I write something. Some days my journal is just a picture. Some days I write a lot. Getting the benefits of journaling was not a matter of being good at it, but simply of doing it.
  • Break big tasks down into chunks. Blogging and writing in public is another thing I wanted to do, but it takes so much time. Trying to brainstorm an idea, write out a post, edit it, publish, and promote it all on the same day is something I can do if I’m on vacation, but not when I have a regular day with work, school, family, and whatever other things pop up. Reading about Jeff Goins’ writing process really helped me. Now I chunk my writing process into three tasks: generating ideas, writing a post, and the steps of editing, publishing, and promoting. My goal is to do two of the three each day. The process of chunking has made writing less scary and something I’m able to do more consistently.

Our daily actions determine who we will become. Use small, simple steps to help you become the person you want to be.


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Analog January Challeng

I love the idea of replacing digital habits, particularly ones you use a phone for, with analog habits. It can seem quaint, or old fashioned, or even hipster-ish, but I’m always delighted at the great experiences I have when I consciously choose to use a physical object instead of a digital one. Handwritten notes, hardback books, and typewriters. So much fun.

Cal Newport, author of the great book Digital Minimalism, issued an “Analog January” challenge. This is a great idea, and something I’m trying to do. Here are some of the ideas he gives:

Read

Commit to reading 3 – 4 new books during the month. It doesn’t matter if they’re fiction or non-fiction, sophisticated or fun. The goal is to rediscover what it feels like to make engagement with the written word an important part of your daily experience.

Move

Commit to going for a walk every single day of the month. Try to make it at least 15 minutes long. Leave your phone at home: just observe the world around you and think.

Connect

Hold a real conversation with 20 different people during the monthlong challenge. These conversations can be in person or over the phone/Facetime/Skype, but text-based communication doesn’t count (you must be able to hear the other person’s voice). To hit the 20 person mark will require some advance planning: you might consider calling old friends or taking various colleagues along for lunch and coffee breaks.

Make

Participate in a skilled hobby that requires you to interact with the physical world. This could be craft-based, like knitting, drawing, wood working, or, as I’ve taken to doing with my boys, building custom circuits. This could also be athletic, like biking, bow hunting, or, as is increasingly popular these days, Brazilian Ju Jitsu. Screen-based activities don’t count. To get the full analog benefit here, you need to encounter and overcome the resistances of the physical landscape that surrounds you, as this is what our minds have evolved to understand as productive action.

Join

Join something local that meets weekly. For many people, this might be the hardest commitment, but it’s arguably one of the most important, especially as we enter a political season where the pseudo-anonymity and limbic-triggers of the online world attempt to bring out the worse in us. There’s nothing more fundamentally human than gathering with a group of real people in real life to work on something real together. This has a way of lessening — even if just briefly — the sense of anxious despair that emanates from the online upside down.

I suggest you pick one of these areas and set a goal. Don’t try and do them all. Pick one, put it on your calendar on a regular basis, and lightly track your progress in your journal, on a goal tracker, or even on a sheet of paper stuck to the fridge. One small change can make a big difference over time if you stick with it. Tracking your progress gives you natural times to look back and see the difference.


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Dark Mode for Your Desktop Browser

Ever since Apple introduced a dark mode for macOS I have enjoyed using it. I’m not a hacker who works late into the night coding, in fact I’m very much a morning person who heads to bed pretty early, but I appreciate the way dark mode windows tend to lessen the strain of looking at a screen for an extended period of time. Apple has done a nice job of making default system applications dark mode friendly, and many application developers give this as an option as well.

One of the developers at SpiderOak showed me a neat Chrome extension that turns web pages into dark mode. It does this by identifying the color codes of various webpage elements, like the background and the foreground text, and reversing them. All of this is done in the browser window on your computer. It can add a slight lag to page load times, but it allows you to have a much more eyestrain-free browsing experience. (I like it so much that it’s one of the things I really miss on my phone compared to my desktop.)

This magic extension is called Dark Reader.

It’s compatible with Chrome and Chromium-based browsers (including my default, Brave, and the excellent Vivaldi), Firefox, and Safari. The Chrome and Firefox extensions are free, while the Safari extension is available in the Mac App Store for a small fee.

One of the things I like most about Dark Reader is the ability to create your own whitelist of sites. I like Startpage’s dark theme, so I put startpage.com on the list of sites Dark Reader should not activate on. Some websites detect your operating system’s dark mode preference and automatically renders a dark mode version. Sites like that I also whitelist. Once in a while there will be a site that just doesn’t look right or has elements that Dark Mode doesn’t render correctly. Turning it off for that page is very easy. I’ve found, however, that about 95% of websites I visit look great with Dark Reader enabled.


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Resources for Reading Online Content

I’ve recently started a program that involves a lot of online reading. I deeply dislike reading in a web browser. Here’s what I do when I have a lot of web-based reading to do.

The Problem

Reading in a web browser is a pain. There are ads, popups, sidebars, and a whole list of other things that take away from the content itself. It’s also an inflexible format as far as the reader’s ability to customize the reading experience.

My Solution

Use a service like Instapaper or Pocket to save the articles. This has several advantages:

  • Articles are available offline
  • Articles can be read on a computer, phone, or tablet
  • Only the article content is saved, so there’s no sidebar content or other elements of the webpage to distract or take up space on the screen
  • Text size and color scheme is easily adjustable
  • You can highlight and take notes as you read

Both Instapaper and Pocket have free and paid versions. The features they offer in the paid tier can be nice, but they aren’t necessary if you simply want to gather your reading materials one place and keep track of them. I’ve been using Instapaper for quite a few years so that’s my first choice, but Pocket seems to be a good piece of software too. (I have no formal relationship with either service.)

Instapaper – https://www.instapaper.com/
Pocket – https://getpocket.com/

A Quick How To

After you create an account with one of these services, the first thing you should do is install their browser extension or bookmarklet. This gives you a button that you can click to save an article to your account.

How to save to Instapaper – https://www.instapaper.com/save
How to save to Pocket – https://help.getpocket.com/article/895-how-to-save-to-pocket-overview

I open all of the articles I need to read in different browser tabs. Then I go to each tab and click the Instapaper extension so that the article will be saved to my Instapaper account. I then go to Instapaper and double check that all the articles appear there. My last step is creating a folder in Instapaper so I can put all the articles together. (This is optional but helps me keep organized.)

I prefer reading on a tablet or phone to reading on a computer. The mobile apps for both services are very good and give a nice environment for reading.

Other Alternatives

If you use Safari, either on an iPhone, iPad, or browser on a computer, you can use the Reading List function. It’s similar to Instapaper or Pocket, though with fewer features.

If you want to print articles or save as a PDF, try the Mercury Reader Chrome extension first – https://mercury.postlight.com/reader/. This gives you a clean version of the article without any sidebar, ads, or other distractions. You can then print or save as a PDF. This is also a nicer way to read articles in your browser. If you’re on Safari there’s a built in version of this called Reader View.


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A New Year’s Do Not List

It’s the time of year when we think about where we are, where we want to be, and what we should do to get there. I love the new year. Setting goals can be great and keeping new years resolutions, even for a few days or weeks, is a good thing.

As you take time to set goals, consider adding some “Do Not” goals to your list. Instead of adding more and more things to your already busy life, decide what things you want to subtract or stop doing. There is a beauty in progress by subtraction.

As you create space and time by not adding things to your to do list, you’ll be able to focus deeply on important things. The best work you do is deep work, and that takes time and concentration.

Simplify. Focus. Single task. Concentrate exclusively on the work you are doing at this moment. Great progress comes through the accumulation of small gains.

Here’s to a happy, productive, and peaceful new year!


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