10,000 Hours – or 5

A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about 10,000-Hour Rule. Then I read that the researchers who came up with that rule said he got it a bit wrong.  Gladwell made it seem that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a world-class expert at anything.

Does 10,000 hours seem daunting? If you’re doing 8 hour work days, that’s 1250 days or 250 work weeks or 4.8 years. Seems like a long time, but 5 years to really become expert at something sounds reasonable.

The clarification is that different fields require different amounts of practice to become expert.

I found a more encouraging plan, that might be called a 5-Hour Rule.  This idea is based on a number of famous and busy people who set aside at least an hour a day (five hours a week) for something that they might classify as a deliberate practice or learning practice.

Three of these practices which we can all try are reading, reflection, and experimentation.

This doesn’t mean that you sometimes read. It needs to be a kind of discipline in the way that a musician or athlete practices  certain number of hours every week for set times. Arthur Blank, co-founder of Home Depot, reads two hours a day.

The reflection practice sounds too easy. Set aside an hour a day just to think?  Yes, but this is not an hour nap or staring at people passing from a park bench. But it’s not a mediation session either. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner schedules two hours of thinking time per day. More sophisticated is billionaire Ray Dalio who logs into a system any business mistake he makes. The entry is public to all employees at his company, and then he schedules time with his team to find the root cause. Entrepreneur billionaire Sara Blakely is a journaler and has more than 20 notebooks in which she records and reflect on the good and bad things that happen in her life.

You can go back to Ben Franklin, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison to find people who deliberately set aside time for experimentation. They were inventors, but most of us aren’t looking to invent for ourselves. Google was known for allowing employees to experiment with their own new projects during 20 percent of their work time.  Some of that led to new products like Gmail and Google Maps, but some of it may have led to new ideas but no new products. And that’s okay.

What might you experiment with?  Art, music, craft, a new language, a sport?

These five hours are not about productivity as much as being about improvement. All of us do some degree of “lifelong learning” every week, but it is probably more “just-in-time learning” than deliberate blocks of time for improvement without set products at the end.

The author of that article compares this to have minimum recommended dosages of vitamins, or step goals on your fitness monitor or on the machine at the gym.

I wonder if I can count the hours I spend each week writing on my blogs?

The Value of Organizing Your Procrastination

Does it count as procrastinating when you’re just too busy to do something?  I had lunch with my friend Leon yesterday and he is always surprised at how much I seem to get done with work and with writing poetry or blog posts for my own pleasures. However, I always think that I am not accomplishing enough, or at least I’m not accomplishing enough of the “important” things.

I am so easily distracted. It is so much easier and more pleasant to walk in the woods, work in the garden, go out for coffee or watch a film than it is to call a lawyer about setting up an estate plan or finishing some webpages for work.

It might even be procrastination to write a  post about procrastination.

You won’t be motivated to do something that doesn’t have much value to you. Of course, “value” is relative. I have friends that do not understand what value I find in writing on blogs. (I have six that I use.) Certainly, there is no money in it. There are only a few comments that make you feel good about the writing. But there is the writing itself. I have been more disciplined about my writing by doing blogging than at any point in my life. I set myself deadlines – like writing something here on the weekend when I supposedly have the time.

Researchers call this malleability of value psychophysics and they say that there are ways to put value into tasks.

The best increase in the value of a task is when you have a passion for what you do. I like to work in my garden in the summer and I enjoy weeding and cutting the lawn. I’m know others see that as work or chores, but I find weeding relaxing and feel very satisfied when my garden is all clear of weeds. I will do it and  avoid doing other tasks outside like  powerwashing the fence.

But you are unlikely to be able to go through life only doing things you love to do. A technique I saw online to add value to a task that seems counter-intuitive is to take a boring task and make it more difficult. We sometimes do this with kids by turning a task into a game. Picking up the toys all over the floor becomes a race or a contest with time limits. As an English teacher, I have always dreaded grading papers. I often set myself parameters. If I grade 5 papers in 10 minutes (with a timer on the table), then I can take a break and have my coffee. If not, I have to do 5 more papers. This technique is known as adding “flow” (not a great term for it).

We also try to add meaning to the task by considering how doing it ultimately lead to something more pleasurable later.  Finishing grading student papers means having Sunday free from schoolwork. Finishing painting the hallway will make my wife happy. happy wife, happy life, it is said.

It’s hard to take on a job if you are physically or mentally tired Timing when you start something can be critical to completing it. The research I have read says that this depends upon your own circadian rhythm, but most people have the most energy during a period starting a few hours after they wake up and lasting about four hours. It’s 11 am as I type this and I woke up at 7:30 am this morning. However, I am a night owl and, for me, from 8 pm until the early hours of the morning are often my most productive in tasks that require writing, reading, organizing and being online. (It’s not a good time to be cleaning the garage, mowing the lawn or painting the fence.)

Some people work better when there is a routine to doing something. I know that sounds boring, but the person who jogs or uses their elliptical or heads out to the gym at 7 am every morning finds some stability in that.  If that sounds boring, then you may need to deliberately set up a routine that has variety built into it.

There are some other quick tips for energy that I have seen listed that you can sample as you wish and decide for yourself whether they work: drink lots of water, don’t eat things that contain wheat and other grains, use stimulants (from caffeine, to energy drinks to drugs) include short but intense exercise sessions (including stopping for a walk or a jumping jacks break), cold water on your face or a brisk (not warm) shower.

Of course, tasks that have actual rewards are less likely to be put off. There are the big rewards, like money and fame, and there are the smaller but still motivating ones, like my coffee break, a dinner out, or allowing myself to buy a totally frivolous thing. I cleaned out a bunch of junk in the basement last weekend and rewarded myself with some art supplies that I had wanted.Of course, I could have just bought those supplies, but seeing it as a gift to myself felt better.

I was working on a presentation about writing goals versus objectives for a presentation this past week. It’s not as easy as it sounds. One approach that is used in teaching, training and self-help courses is the idea of SMART goals. The SMART acronym is for goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Anchored. The research on this is not super solid, but some ideas are worth considering.

For example, a goal of “cleaning out the garage” might be better set for Sunday afternoon as “sort through the old books in the garage and recycle or donate 75% of them.”  That’s more specific and therefore is also actually attainable in an afternoon. You could literally measure your success if you went from 8 boxes to 2 in that afternoon session. Last summer, I set my own garage-cleaning goal at filling one garbage can per weekend with stuff that I would just throw away, and I did it for 7 of 8 weekends. (I did get sidetracked looking through some boxes of old magazines which I am still convinced have some real monetary resale value. On this my wife disagrees.)

Just breaking up larger goals into smaller objectives with realistic deadlines can be very helpful.

I find that checking something off my To Do list is very satisfying. Unfortunately, I spend too much time making those lists. I also find it important and satisfying to keep track of things that got crossed off these lists as a a reminder of what did not get done.

Procrastination is normal. We all do it. Setting a goal to defeat it is doable. Get to it. Two more posts for this weekend and I can check that off the list.

The Zen of Groundhog Day

I watch this film at least once a year. I’m sure there are people who think of this film – seen or unseen – as “just another Bill Murray/Harold Ramis comedy.” I really believe it is far more profound than you would think at a glance. I don’t know that the filmmakers’ intended all of that, but it’s there.

A. O. Scott in The NY Times did a re-review of this existential comedy this past week (watch his video review) and that was enough to send me to the shelf this weekend to watch Groundhog Day again.

I am not crazy in my belief that’s there’s more here than meets the viewing eye. Do a search on “Groundhog Day” and add something like philosophy, Buddhism, Zen, etc. and you’ll get plenty of hits of others who feel the same way.

Harold Ramis (director and co-writer) has said that he gets mail from Jesuit priests, rabbis and Buddhists, and they all find meaning in the film , and use it in sermons, talks and classes. In Buddhism classes, it is often used to illustrate the cycle of continual rebirth.

If you haven’t seen the film, here’s some background: Bill Murray plays a self-centered, cranky TV meteorologist named Phil who gets sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities. He is joined by his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell), and a cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott). He does a going-through-the-motions report. When they try to drive back to Pittsburgh, they are stopped by a blizzard (which he had predicted would miss the area) that shuts down the highways and they are forced to stay in town an extra day.

Phil wakes up at 6 AM and discovers that it is February 2 all over again. The day runs the same as it did before, but no one else seems to be aware of the time loop. And it happens again the next time he wakes up – and the next time and so on (38 times by my count).

He realizes that he can use this to his advantage and begins to learn more about the townsfolk. He ‘s hardly noble. He seduces women, steals money, drives drunk and tries to put the moves on Rita (that last one fails).

But this power he has eventually bores and depresses him. He tries to break the cycle and files mean TV reports, abuses residents, kidnaps Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog. Finally, he attempts suicide, but still ends up waking up to the clock radio playing Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” (Give a listen.)

Each time I re-watch the film, I think about another aspect of it. I keep thinking that some day I am going to teach this film in a course.

One scene has Phil dead in the morgue. Rita and Larry are there to identify his body. Is any of these retakes on the day affecting the others?  They don’t seem to remember the alternates takes, but…

A few years ago, I watched it and it led me to explore other movies and writings that play with time loops. There are a lot of them.

One day Phil is in the bowling alley. He asks two guys drinking with him, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same and nothing that you did mattered?” One guy replies, “That about sums it up for me.”

Are some of us leading a kind of Groundhog Day existence for real?

Other writers online have gotten far more serious in their explorations of the film than me.

This is from thesacredpage.com

Once Phil realizes that in his Nietzschean quagmire there are no consequences to his actions, he also experiences modern philosophy’s liberation from any sense of eternal justice. “I am not going to play by their rules any longer,” he gleefully announces. His reaction epitomizes Glaucon’s argument in Plato’s Republic. Remove the fear of punishment, Glaucon argued, and the righteous will behave no differently than the wicked
and from groundhogdaythemovie.com comes some discussions about the film like this:

I asked what the Reb thought was the turning point in the film. After watching it for the ninth or tenth time specifically to find where the third act begins, I concluded that it begins 4/5 of the way into the 103 minute film, at about the 80 minute mark. Phil is throwing cards into the hat, and Rita points out that the eternally repeating day doesn’t have to be a curse.

Reb Anderson disagreed. He thought the turning point came later, when Phil found he was unable to save the old man’s life. Only here, he said, did Phil realize “It’s not me, it is the universe, I am just the vessel.”

Why did the writers use February 2, Groundhog Day, as the setting? I think because it’s such a nothing “holiday.” It has no religious connections, no cards, no gifts and very little tradition. And yet, it’s not just an ordinary day. The first time I saw the film (wow, almost 17 years ago), I thought that he would relive the day for 6 more weeks of winter. Later, I thought about the day and decided there was something about the end of winter, spring and rebirth going on in the story.

In this piece from 2003, the author suggests that we consider the film as a tale of self-improvement which:
“…emphasizes the need to look inside oneself and realize that the only satisfaction in life comes from turning outward and concerning oneself with others rather than concentrating solely on one’s own wants and desires. The phrase also has become a shorthand illustration for the concept of spiritual transcendence. As such, the film has become a favorite of Buddhists because they see its themes of selflessness and rebirth as a reflection of their own spiritual messages. It has also, in the Catholic tradition, been seen as a representation of Purgatory. It has even been dubbed by some religious leaders as the “most spiritual film of our time.”
Want to have a viewing group (which I would prefer to a reading group these days) and show the film?  Check out the discussion questions on this philosophy site. http://www.philfilms.utm.edu/1/groundhog.htm

The original idea for the story was supposed to have come from the book The Gay Science (The Joyful Wisdom) by Friedrich Nietzsche. In that book, Nietzsche gives a description of a man who is living the same day over and over again.

The writer of the original script, Danny Rubin, said that one of the inspirational moments in the creation of the story came after reading Interview With the Vampire which got him thinking about what it would be like to live forever. Rubin and Ramis have both said that they avoided exploring the really dark side of Phil’s time looping in which he could done some horrible things without consequence, like murder.

And, as a capper to this love letter to the film, I have to add that the film is also funny and sweet. Funny is no surprise. Murray and Ramis teamed up for the film Stripes which is a great, silly comedy that I also love, and that has no philosophy or religious themes at all.

The sweetness is all Hollywood. Phil does learn lessons. He befriends many of the townsfolk that he had mocked. He uses his knowledge to try to save lives and help people. And he finally knows how to treat Rita. His final TV report is a beauty that puts everyone in tears. The  next morning he wakes and finds the circle broken.

When the clock clicks over to 6 AM for you in the morning, what kind of day are you planning to make it?

What Did You Do Before Breakfast?

What did you accomplish this morning before breakfast? Anything?

During the week, I read an article about what successful people do before breakfast. It is meant to be a self-improvement article, but you can also view it as an indictment about how little you accomplish in the morning.

It turns out that there are plenty of people telling us about CEOs and other high achievers’ sleep and morning work habits as a view on finding the secret of success.  I have written about other habits and even about where writers write in that same vein of searching for secrets.  Is looking at the window from your desk inspirational or just a distraction.

What do I conclude from reading these articles?  Unfortunately for me, you have to get up really early. Those successful folks are up by 5-6 am. These are not people who hit the snooze button. They seem to leap out of bed.

I am also not pleased to read that these winners blur the line between business and personal life. Business is on all day and night. Their personal lives are organized in the same way as their business calendar. Business meeting are logged in along with gym time and time with their spouses and kids.

They are not playing Words With Friends while sipping a second cup of coffee.

I also discovered in my web searching someone who has made a living by studying these kinds of habits. Laura Vanderkam is a writer who “questions the status quo and helps her readers rediscover their true passions and beliefs.”

On her blog, I found her writing about one of my personal demons – the to do list. I can’t stop making them, but when I see how many items are still undone, it drives me crazy.  Laura says:

My big realization over the past few years is that a weekly priority list gives me a nice mix between the immediate and the long-term. Before the start of the week (either on Friday afternoon or Sunday evening) I make a list of weekly priorities. This priority list encompasses both the professional and the personal. This includes things that “have” to happen (a doctor appointment, articles I’ve already committed to turn in) and things that I’d like to have happen: new article ideas, long-term planning, running a certain number of times.

Then, each day I make a daily to-do list off this weekly priority list. I tend to front load the week, because things will come up that I want to make time for later in the week. Coming up with the right balance of an aggressive, but not overly ambitious weekly priority list takes time. But as with anything, we get better with practice.

Laura has written a number of books in this category: All The Money In The World: What The Happiest People Know About Getting and Spending ; 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think and Grindhopping: Build a Rewarding Career Without Paying Your Dues.

She stays busy. Read her bio: USA Today’s Board of Contributors, CBS MoneyWatch, articles in The Wall Street Journal, City Journal, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Prevention, Fortune etc., appearing on The Today Show and Fox & Friends, hundreds of radio segments, Princeton grad,runner, wife, mom to two young sons and a baby daughter.

So, I guess when she wrote 168 Hours she was thinking hard about squeezing the most out of those 168 hours in a week.

I get a lot done. Friends ask me how I have time to write online on all my blogs, work and still write my poetry and enjoy my hobbies. That makes me feel good. But why do I still feel like I’m not accomplishing enough?

My wife heads for bed to read for a bit before sleeping about 10 pm consistently, but I continue to stay up (often into the morning hours) and work.  I am a night owl and feel more productive at night, but I know I need that quality sleep time too.

Vanderkam is a proponent of self-examination and prioritizing, and believes you can get you eight hours of sleep and still have time for the gym, hobbies and write that novel without giving up work, family, and other things that matter to you.

She questions that idea that hitting the lottery and having, as another of her books says, All the Money in the World, is not the answer.  Even with a pile of money, there is never enough. Even the person with an average income spends a lot (too much?) time trying to stretch their money and fretting about spending too much and  saving too little.

The premise of her book Grindhopping sounds too good to be true: Building a Rewarding Career Without Paying Your Dues.  I’m pretty far from a life in the corporate grind. But if you’re there – long hours, low pay, few rewards, trying to climb out an entry-level jobs – then the idea of hopping over all that to starting your own company, freelancing, consulting, job-hopping, and networking to success has got to sound very appealing.

Though I don’t need to hop over any one for a job, it would be good to get more out of my 168 hours – though it’s more like 112 if I can get in some decent sleep. My fear in reading the book is that it will make me want to add more things to my to do list.

Improve Your Life in 100 Days

A well meaning friend sent me a link to an article on the lifehack.org.

I should have just clicked on the article about “Seven Reasons Why Bentos are Good for You” or “7 Ways to Make Commuting Suck Less” but the link pointed me to “60 Small Ways to Improve Your Life in the Next 100 Days.”

60 ways and 100 days is a lot of changes.

Unfortunately, I am a compulsive To Do list maker and always ready to start another campaign at self-improvement.

The article’s author is Marelisa Fábrega. She blogs about creativity, productivity, and getting the most out of life over at Abundance Blog. She has a book “How To Live Your Best Life – The Essential Guide for Creating and Achieving Your Life List”.

Maybe if I lived with Marelisa, I would put be better at doing what my To Do lists tell me to do. I’m excellent at making the lists. Not great at completing them.

The appealing thing about the article is that I agree with the premise that “you don’t have to make drastic changes in order to notice an improvement in the quality of your life.” Small steps, taken consistently, for 100 days will show results. So, what might I try between now and September?

You might want use a calendar and just use one of the categories. How about a plan to do a little bit of decluttering every day? Day 1: Declutter Magazines, Day 2: Declutter DVD’s, Day 3: Declutter books…

I actually got a start on that when I boxed up 6 cardboard boxes full of books from my collection and donated them for an environmental center’s book swap day. Check one off the list of 100.

Or, you might choose the 100 days to happiness calendar. Write down 5 things that you’re grateful for each day, or make a list of 20 small things that you enjoy doing, and make sure that you do at least one of these things every day for the next 100 days. You want little things like eating your lunch outside, calling a good friend to chat, taking time to read each day.

One suggestion is to “keep a log of your mental chatter, both positive and negative, for ten days.” This one sounds anti-happy to me. “How many times do you beat yourself up during the day? Do you have feelings of inadequacy? Are you constantly thinking critical thoughts of others? How many positive thoughts do you have during the day?” Sounds like therapy. Yes, you’re supposed to spend the next 90 days changing your emotions for the better by modifying this negative mental chatter. Good luck.

Maybe you’re one of those people who rips through a good book over the weekend. I am not. In fact, I have gotten so much slower and much more distracted in my reading since my English major undergraduate years. So, a plan to pick a book that requires some real effort and concentration (though that already sounds like work) and read a little of it every day with a plan to finish in 100 days, sounds doable to me.

Here’s another one that’s doable for some of you. “Set your alarm a minute earlier every day for the next 100 days. Then make sure that you get out of bed as soon as your alarm rings, open the windows to let in some sunlight, and do some light stretching. In 100 days you’ll be waking up an hour and forty minutes earlier than you’re waking up now.” I’m not a morning person. I don’t want to wake up 100 minutes earlier. What I need to do is go to bed a minute earlier each night. Too many nights of post-midnight reading, watching and writing.

There are others: learn something new each day (You better write them down so you don’t forget what you learned.) There are a group of financial plans: Create a spending plan and track every cent that you spend for the next 100 days to make sure that you’re sticking to your spending plan. Scour the internet for frugality tips, choose ten of the tips that you find, and apply them for the next 100 days. Go to the grocery store with cash and a calculator. Pay for everything with paper money and keep any change that you receive. Then, put all of your change in a jar and see how much money you can accumulate in 100 days.

Track how you spend your time for 5 days. Note the ways in which you regularly waste time. Set a time budget to limit those things like no more than half-an-hour for television, or social media sites, such as Facebook, or video games.

Record every night what happened that day. A business-like diary. What did you accomplish? What went wrong?

What went right?

Of course, there are the obligatory health suggestions too. Reduce your caloric intake by 175 calories a day for the next 100 days, you’ll have lost 5 pounds in the next 100 days. Push yourself to eat five servings of vegetables or three servings of fruit of every day, or pick the one food that constantly sabotages your efforts to eat healthier and go cold turkey for those 14 weeks.

I actually started up again on the idea of wearing a pedometer and walking 10,000 steps a day. The only problem is that most of my walking during the day is too slow to really make much of a difference.

My wife would probably like the work on your relationship section. Write down something positive about your partner every day. Create a scrapbook of all the things you and your partner do together during the next 100 days. At the end, give your partner the list and the scrapbook you created.

This is not creating a Life List (not crazy about the Bucket List label). But just to rub it in, Marelisa has already crossed off 50 things from her personal life list including: Visited the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt; Took a cruise down the Nile and visited Abu Simbel; Graduated Cum Laude from Georgetown University; Got her J.D. there too; Passed the New York Bar (on the first try); Lived in Florence, Italy for a year and learned to speak fluent Italian; Visited Shakespeare’s birthplace; Got deported from Malta (Was that really on her list? I think she’s adding things along the way.); Saw the Mona Lisa; Rode in a horse-drawn carriage in New York; Saw the cherry blossoms in full bloom in Washington, D.C.; Achieved second-degree Reiki, the Japanese technique for channeling healing energy; Published a popular blog and created several sources of income online.

Don’t you feel a bit guilty and inadequate?

I may just start a list of things to accomplish if I live to be 100.

Commitment Contracts

You’ve probably heard of the expression “carrot and stick (also “carrot or stick”).  It’s an idiom that refers to a policy of offering a combination of rewards and punishment to induce behavior.

The origin of the phrase is supposedly from a practice of a wagon driver would tying a carrot on a string to a long stick and dangling it just out of reach in front of a donkey pulling the wagon. The donkey moves forward to get the carrot, and pulls the cart in the process.

That seems pretty cruel, and I can’t imagine a donkey would fall for it for very long.

The phrase has evolved more to mean that you can give a reward (carrot) or a punishment (a crack with the stick?) to “motivate” behavior. Punishment and reward. Psych 101.

Carrots and Sticks cover I picked up a book recently by Ian Ayres called Carrots and Sticks: Unlock the Power of Incentives to Get Things Done.

This idea of a ” Commitment Contract” is based on two principles of behavioral economics.  First off, people don’t always do what they claim they want to do. Second, incentives actually do work at  getting people to do things.

How many times have you set up a goal for yourself and come up short?  It might be a small one – lose 5 pounds in two weeks for an event. Or it might be a big one – go back to college and finish that degree you only made it halfway through.

Maybe you concluded that the goal was too difficult or unrealistic. Maybe it was. Maybe it was that you lacked the discipline to succeed. Maybe it was that you didn’t give yourself the proper incentives.

Ayres is also the co-founder of the website stickK which I’m going to check out this week.  People put their commitment contracts online. They also set up a  “stick” that means losing some money (probably to a charity).

He talks about companies that have used this method. ( Zappos offered new employees $2,000 to quit cigarettes.) But the idea of the book and the website is for personal commitments.

Ayres also wrote  Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart (And I need some new smarts.)

And he wrote Lifecycle Investing: A New, Safe, and Audacious Way to Improve the Performance of Your Retirement Portfolio (And I need a better performing retirement portfolio too.)