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Day 03/10/2012

Character+Action

This is what counts…rethink it…*

“Action is character.”

The Notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Bruccoli Clark, 1978. p. 332

…* You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish

Celebrate the freedom to read for this year’s  Banned Books Week (September 30-October 6th) with this glorious excerpt from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which used to be banned from high school reading lists and schools in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington state.

 

 

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.

Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of a biochemical accident to my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality. I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

–Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

The Importance of Positive Rituals in Freeing Creative Energy

 

 MANAGING ENERGY, NOT TIME, IS THE KEY TO FULL ENGAGEMENT

A few weeks ago I was writing about Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz’s book, The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. The premise of Loehr and Schwartz’s book is that energy, rather than time, management is the key to an engaging and fulfilling life. We have a limited amount of energy that we draw from with each thought, decision or action. It is therefore of supreme importance that we manage this precious, limited and overused resource fiercely. In the weeks since reading the book, I have been working through the steps that Loehr and Schwartz outline as part of their Full Engagement Personal Development Plan:

  •  Identify your key values
  • Develop a vision (personal & professional)
  • Identify primary performance barriers
  • Create rituals that address your primary performance barriers
  • Hold yourself accountable each day to your commitments.

To be able to fully engage with our deepest held values on a daily basis, Loehr and Schwartz recommend building small, incremental, highly precise rituals–behavioral expressions of our values–in all dimensions of our lives to be able to fully engage and strategically disengage when necessary. According to Loehr and Schwartz,

“Positive energy rituals are powerful on three levels. They help to us insure that we effectively manage energy in the service of whatever mission we are on. They reduce the need to rely on our limited conscious will and discipline to take action. Finally, rituals are a powerful means by which to translate our values and priorities into action—to embody what matters most to us in our everyday behaviors.” (166)

WHAT ARE POSITIVE RITUALSprecise, consciously acquired behaviors that become automatic in our lives, fueled by a deep sense of purpose

Once you have identified your key values and primary performance barriers, Loehr and Schwartz ask you to develop several rituals fueled by your higher purpose in life to address each of your performance barriers. For example, one of my five primary performance barrier was low concentration. To address this issue, I identified five positive rituals, aligned with my values, that would stress my ‘concentration’ muscle, much like a bicep, while accounting for an adequate recovery period afterward, so that my capacities to focus would grow over time.

The rituals I delineated for that particular performance barrier were as follow:

  • Exercise 4x a week
  • Eat three balanced meals at set hours each day
  • Take a multivitamin each morning
  • Spend 20-30 minutes at the start of your workday to schedule the various things that need to get done in 90 minute chunks of focus followed by rest periods

Because there is a thirty- to sixty day adoption period, in which positive rituals have not yet become automatic behaviors, Loehr and Schwartz stress the importance of the specificity of timing (defining precisely when each ritual will occur) as well as the precision of the behavior (what the ritual entails precisely). My ritual “eat three balanced meals at set hours each day”, for example, needs to be refined and clearly state when exactly I will eat each of these three meals and what they should entail to be considered “balanced”. A better iteration of that ritual would therefore be:

Eat three balanced meals at set hours each day:

  • Breakfast: 8:00 a.m. Have a  ‘green’ smoothie (ginger, kale, cucumber, green apple, parsley)
  • Lunch: 1:00 p.m. Eat a salad, switch it up by incorporating different colorful vegetables each day. Include lots of dark leafy greens. (and no, I’m not a rabbit, but a vegetarian so I get most of my protein from dark leafy greens)
  • Dinner: 7:00 p.m. Start with soup or salad. Include carbs & protein.

 Another important element of the rituals is that they be incremental.

“The sustaining power of rituals comes from the fact that they conserve energy. […] In contrast to will and discipline, which imply pushing ourselves to action, a well-defined ritual pulls us. We feel somehow worse if we don’t do it.” (168)

If following through on a ritual demands a monumental effort on your part and/or you find yourself unable to commit to it on a regular basis the most likely explanation is that you have not defined the ritual properly: either it is too vague in what it should accomplish or when it should occur; it is not properly aligned with your values and sense of purpose; or perhaps you decided to change too much too quickly and following through is a matter of scaling back. As the quote above expresses, rituals should pull rather than push you. You should feel compelled to follow through on your rituals–not from a sense of will or discipline or social pressure–but because following through feels good, because the ritual adds to your life and allows you to live it the way you want.

 ROUTINIZING THE ROUTINE TO MAKE ROOM FOR CREATIVITY

The limitations of conscious will and discipline are rooted in the fact that every demand on our self-control—from deciding what we eat to managing frustration, from building an exercise regimen to persisting at a difficult task—all draw on the same small easily depleted reservoir of energy. (168)

Our brains, it turns out, do not discriminate between ‘thoughtless’ and ‘thoughtful’ (for lack of better adjectives) tasks and decisions, so that when we decide what to wear today we are drawing from the same source of mental energy that we use to make life changing decisions, such as, for example, whether to have a child, get married or move to a different country. Mental energy is a zero-sum game. The energy I allocate to making decisions about what to eat for breakfast or which shoes to wear today is energy that I am directly taking away from potentially more fulfilling and creative endeavors. It is therefore crucially important to manage our energy, in terms of both how we allocate it and ensuring proper time for recovery between periods of exertion.

The most important role of rituals is to insure an effective balance between energy expenditure and energy renewal in the service of full engagement. All great performers have rituals that optimize their ability to move rhythmically between stress and recovery. […] The same stress-recovery balance is critical in any venue that demands performance. The more precise and effective our recovery rituals, the more quickly we can restore our energy reserves. (170)

Rituals are tremendously helpful in managing this limited and often over-tapped resource. By routinizing activities through positive rituals, we free up mental energy that would otherwise be used making ‘petty’ decisions that contribute nothing to our overarching life mission and sense of purpose. Without rituals, we also run the risk of becoming predominantly reactionary beings where we invest our energy, without any forethought, to simply staying afloat and attending to the myriad and seemingly never ending flow of demands in our lives. By implementing positive rituals, we ensure that we will be attending to the tasks that matter to us and that we will have the capacity to engage our full creative energy in the most salient areas of our lives.

Incidentally, last week, the Internet was ablaze with articles about this peculiar benefit of rituals in regards to creativity and mental energy following Michael Lewis’s profile on President Obama in this month’s Vanity Fair. Turns out, Obama is a big fan of rituals and routinizing the routine, for example, he only wears grey or blue suits, because “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make” such as, for example, how to run America, deal with nuclear weapons and world hunger. Two articles of note if you’re interested in finding out more about routines and mental energy are Maria Popova’s article How We Consciously Form New Habits (published September 25, 2012 via The Atlantic) and Boring is Productive by Robert C. Pozen on The Harvard Business Review (published September 19, 2012)

A NOTE ON ACCOUNTABILITY

The last critical element of successfully implementing positive rituals into one’s life is the issue of accountability.

“At its best, accountability is both a protection against our infinite capacity for self-deception and a source of information about what still stands in our way.” (181)

It is not enough, warn Loehr and Schwartz, to define rituals and stick to them for the purpose of sticking to them. It is crucial that these principles align with our life goals and vision. To ensure that your rituals are aligning with your values and sense of meaning, Loehr and Schwartz recommend that you follow two behaviors, which they term Basic Training and which, ” serve as the ground upon which successful rituals are most effectively built.” (179)

The first Basic Training behavior is Charting the Course: ” This practice can take many forms, but the aim is always the same: to launch each day’s ritual-acquisition mission by revisiting our vision, clarifying not just what we intend to accomplish, but how we want to conduct ourselves along the way.” (179)

The second is Charting the Progress: ” The second key to building rituals that lead to sustaining change is holding yourself accountable at the end of each day. Accountability is a means of regularly facing the truth about the gap between your intention and your actual behavior. (180) To do this, Loehr and Schwartz recommend the use of an ‘Accountability Log”:

Defining a desired outcome and holding yourself accountable each day gives focus and direction to the rituals that you build. For many of our clients, the best way to do this is to create a daily accountability log. This exercise can be as simple as a yes or no check on a sheet kept by the side of your bed. (180)

However you choose to keep yourself accountable, remember that accountability is a positive metric, it should be used to chart progress and identify areas that still need to evolve and grow. In no way should you use your accountability log, or whatever method you elect, to beat yourself up and reinforce your notion that you have no willpower or self-discipline and that change is impossible. (I’m looking at you, perfectionists)

“measuring your progress at the end of the day should be used not as a weapon against yourself, but as an instructive part of the change process. We can derive as much value from studying and understanding our failures as we can from celebrating and reinforcing our successes.” (181)

KEEPING TRACK OF IT ALL: ALTERNATING BETWEEN FOCUS & RENEWAL

Some of the rituals I have selected for myself occur every day (waking up and going to sleep at the same hour), while others occur only once or a few times a week (taking a class in something that scares me). Some are brand new behaviors (meditating) while others are a way to build in more time doing things I already do and love (journal for 30 minutes each day first thing in the morning). The issue is that I have identified a total of 17 new rituals to implement into my life and the mere thought of keeping track of all of them makes me want to run out, buy a beautiful planner, perhaps download a new productivity app, promptly forget this whole energy management idea and call it a day. Luckily, I followed Loehr and Schwartz’s advice, aligned my rituals to my deepest held values and higher purpose in life so that I am willing to push through and experience the minimal discomfort necessary to grow my capacity in areas holding me back from living my life in harmony with my values and purpose.

MEET MEGA SCHEDULE

Starting tomorrow (procrastinators unite!), I will do my best to adhere to the ‘mega schedule’ that I have delineated for myself based off of the principles in Loehr & Schwartz’s book. To help the automation process along, I have made individual fill-in-the blank schedules for each day of the week. Monday/Wednesdays and Tuesday/Thursdays are the same, while Friday is its own Adventure day. There are therefore three versions of my schedule, each containing a step-by-step description of every item in my morning & night routines and broken down by time chunks from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep. Each version of the schedule incorporates predetermined blocks of 90 uninterrupted minutes (the amount of time in which, Loehr and Schwartz claim, we can sustain full and deep engagement), followed by recovery periods ranging from 15 minutes to an hour.

Each morning, I simply have to print out the schedule for that day of the week and fill in the things I want to accomplish during my ‘focus’ and ‘recovery’ periods for that day. The rest can all be performed on autopilot, there are no decisions to make, no petty detail to attend to. I have already decided how to allot my time, and more importantly my energy  and can focus on engaging fully with the project at hand without having to attend to the nagging sensation that I should also be thinking about/working on other tasks and commitments. I am hoping that this will help me be more productive and engage more fully with projects in the time that I do have to work on them as well as achieve better balance amongst all my project.

 A CONCESSION TO INCREMENTALISM

I have kept my weekends completely unstructured. This means that some of the rituals I have outlined will not be attended to right away. I think adapting to this new highly structured schedule for five days a week is challenging and pushing past my comfort zone enough, without adding the weekend. I have decided to focus on adapting to this new schedule for the next sixty days at which point I will reevaluate  If I still feel it is a challenge to stick to my rituals on a daily basis I might want to rethink…* some of the rituals to ensure that they are aligned with my greater sense of purpose in life. I would also push off adding more rituals to a later time. If at the end of these sixty days, I feel I have successfully managed to incorporate the rituals, I will start adding the ones I am currently leaving out.

Source: Loehr, Jim and Tony Schwartz. The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 2003. Print.

…* I make skeletons that are able to walk on the wind, so they don’t have to eat ~ Theo Jensen’s Strandbeests

 “Since 1990 I have been occupied creating new forms of life. Not pollen or seeds but plastic yellow tubes are used as the basic material of this new nature. I make skeletons that are able to walk on the wind, so they don’t have to eat. Over time, these skeletons have become increasingly better at surviving the elements such as storm and water and eventually I want to put these animals out in herds on the beaches, so they will live their own lives.”  -Theo Jensen

Dutch artist Theo Jensen‘s magnificent 2007 TED talk about his Strandbeests–“creatures that walk without assistance on the beaches of Holland, powered by wind, captured by gossamer wings that flap and pump air into old lemonade bottles that in turn power the creatures’ many plastic spindly legs.”

Source: TED.com

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