I Meditate - You Heard Me Right

When I first tried meditation a little over two years ago it was among my dirty little secrets. I didn't like to talk about it because it seemed a bit trendy and I hadn't quite figured out whether it would remain an important part of my routine. It's fair to say that meditation has become an important part of my life and thought I'd share a bit about my experience so far.

The motivation to try meditation was rooted in my struggle with stress. At the time my stress level was affecting all aspects of my life, cropping up in all kinds of ways that I don't like. My breaking point was when I realized that I was getting tunnel vision any time I tried to solve a problem, blocking out any and all other things in my life, no matter how important. For bigger problems, especially ones without complete solutions, tunnel vision has a serious issue.

Sam Elmore, who I had worked with in a variety of company and individual settings, recommended that I try meditation and coached me through a few sessions to get me started. The first few felt almost useless - I had a hard time sitting quietly for 30 seconds, let alone the 20 minutes or so that I've build up to today. If you're giving meditation a try, start with whatever you can manage and build on it.

I also struggled with meditating regularly, and eventually learned to build up to a daily(ish) routine in the same way that I built up from 30 seconds to 20 minutes for a given session. I've started thinking of habits as footpaths, which can be established even if they're not walked every single day. Don't give up if you have a hard time squeezing it into your schedule. If you find it to be a valuable practice it will make it's way into your routine eventually. With some practice I've found that I can meditate on the bus ride into work when I can't manage it earlier in the day.

Two years later I've found that I appreciate meditation for a few reasons:

  • It's become "me time" that I carve out for myself, which helps balance the time I spend taking care of family, friends, clients, and other community members the rest of my day.
  • I'm able to notice when I'm getting stressed out, which gives me the opportunity to do something about it before it gets worse. Tension in my face, neck, or shoulders and shallow breathing have become warning signs that I'm stressed. When that happens I know I should get up and walk, have something to eat, or meditate to take a step back before I start to get tunnel vision.
  • I feel physically healthier. Lowering my overall stress level has helped with discomfort I've had in my lower back for years, has me out sick less often, and has made it easier to maintain my weight.
  • I'm much more productive. I'm able to focus on the task at hand without spending too much energy thinking about other things that need to get done. They're still there, but I'm able to keep them in my peripheral vision instead of getting in the way of what I'm trying to accomplish in the moment.

Thanks Laura Harrison and Galvanize for organizing a visit to the Boulder Shambhala Center this morning. She arranged for guided meditation for me and several other Galvanize mentors, which was a great perk and way to start off my day. It was also the inspiration for this post!

Habits Are Footpaths, Not Sidewalks

I've invested a lot of time into learning about how to form habits to make the most efficient use of my time. About a year ago I stopped looking at habits as sidewalks and started thinking about them as footpaths, making them much easier for me to adopt. I'll explain.

I had been meeting regularly with Sam Elmore, a consultant I've gotten to know over the past few years, to talk through a variety of things including my desire to reduce stress in my life. I was frustrated with the trouble I was having building good habits around work routines, household chores, exercise, self reflection, and the like.

I had failed at implementing the Getting Things Done system, for instance. Having read the book more than once, all I had managed to do regularly was to use the Two Minute Rule, which hardly changed my life. The author had provided a blueprint for success that was easy to understand yet I failed to build a habit from it.

Sam's observed that I had been evaluating things as success or failure in strictly binary terms and submitted that a different perspective may be useful. He helped me think of forming habits the way that I might wear a footpath through a field. While it'd be ideal to walk the path every day, missing a day here or there wouldn't be the end of the world. Even the occasional walk is valuable, as it takes more than a few days for a footpath to get overgrown again.

Looking back at my original perspective, I realize now that I had been thinking of building habits as I might build a sidewalk. Use a blueprint, buy the right tools, let the concrete dry, and walk it from point A to B more efficiently than ever. Using this framework to evaluate success and failure, however, made me give up trying more often than not.

A daily habit completed 4 out of 7 days, for instance, was a failure; a partially built sidewalk isn't quite a sidewalk. Thinking about how walking through a field 4 out of 7 days would eventually wear a footpath, however, kept me motivated to come back for more, even if a day or two was missed here and there.

This perspective is especially helpful in the context of implementing processes for a growing team. It's rare to get every member to agree on whether or not a process should be implemented, or how or how often something should be done, let alone actually implementing it. There's some pretty interesting reading on how sidewalks are being planned in city parks and on college campuses (preview: they're not planned at all).

I've managed to use this analogy to help me build most of the habits that I've set my mind to. In writing this post I'm taking steps (pun intended) towards building a weekly writing habit. It'll be that much better if it helps you build a habit of your own!

Candor Shouldn't Require Blunt Force Trauma

Lately I've noticed that people thank me for speaking candidly. Sometimes, including now, I worry that my candor is noteworthy for the wrong reasons. My intention is to be concise but the unintended consequence can sometimes be blunt force trauma for my recipient. It shouldn't be that way.

More often than not feedback is watered down with the best of intentions. In an effort to soften the blow, many people sugar coat it or are passive-aggressive about it. I've found that watered down feedback is incredibly hard to understand and build on, which can create frustrating, drawn out problems. At House of Genius, we go to extremes to ensure that feedback isn't muddied by a person's credentials or qualifying comments either. Candor is a good thing.

It's not all rainbows and unicorns, however. There are times when I have an emotional response to being on the receiving end of candid feedback. It can be tough hearing things I don't want to hear. That said, I'd rather have my ego bruised temporarily than to be blissfully ignorant about how to get better. 

With that in mind, my first lesson learned about being candid without blunt force trauma is that it requires tasting your own medicine from time to time.  I try to remember that the knee-jerk reaction I can have to candid feedback is something that recipients of my feedback can also feel. Plus, who really wants to get feedback from somebody who isn't open to it himself?

Secondly, I try to be candid in delivering both the good and the bad. While the compliment-criticism-compliment approach has its place (also known as the shit sandwich or the compliment sandwich), that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about being equally straightforward, and more importantly, equally opportunistic about delivering good and bad news.

It's important to say things like "Hey, I noticed that you're falling behind on the timeline you committed to. We need to talk..." I submit that it's even more important to say things like "Great job on that last hackfest! I really appreciate the work ethic and execution that you bring to this team. Thanks..."

You may notice that people have unexpected reactions to candid compliments. Some have a harder time accepting a candid compliment than a candid criticism. Regardless, you're showing the recipient that candor is a delivery style, not a way to assert power or to hurt feelings. Even if that's not the case, at least you've given somebody you care about a nice little boost of encouragement.

With each interaction I have and each relationship I build I get more comfortable with speaking candidly, but I'm still a work in progress. If you've got a tip you'd like to share, I'm open to feedback in the comments below (sadly, pun intended).

One Brick at a Time, One Step at a Time

I have a hard time sitting down and writing consistently. It's a habit I'd like to form but have had a few false starts with since I decided to create a blog three years ago. Each post feels like a huge project though I know that I'm putting too much pressure on myself.

A tidbit from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance prompted me to think about an approach to break my unproductive cycle: when you're blocked trying to write something about the United States, focus on a smaller chunk until you have the focus you need, whether it be a single city, street, building, or brick.

This brick by brick approach reminded me of my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail years ago. A 2,100+ mile, 7 month hike that was taken not as an epic journey, but as a series of states, resupply points, shelters, and steps. Step by step I walked from Georgia to Maine.

One brick at a time, one step at a time.

Don't Get Sucked into the New Year's Black Hole

The holiday season is right around the corner. For me it will include travel, family, shopping, and all the other typical holiday craziness. What it won't include is something I've been guilty of in past years - losing momentum at work.

It's especially hard to stay focused on work that needs to be done when end of year business planning is layered on top of holiday planning. We spend so much time looking forward during this time of the year that today can get lost in the shuffle.

No New Year's resolutions for me. It's a November resolution: get shit done.

Leave Your Credentials at the Door

redentials are a powerful thing. So much so that they can get in the way. The next time you participate in a group discussion, try asking everybody to leave their credentials at the door before getting started. It'll make for a more open and meaningful conversation.

Each month I ask a group of 20 or so businesspeople to get together for House of Genius. The purpose of the event is to give three entrepreneurs an opportunity to ask for help on a particular problem that each is facing.

The idea is to tap into the group's collective genius after a short presentation by the entrepreneur. A critical ingredient in the House of Genius secret sauce is to limit introductions to first names with no discussions about job titles or experience until the very end of the evening.

 

"The process and approach worked brilliantly – I thought the amount and type of feedback the three presenters got was at the high end of the spectrum for any other group feedback session I’ve ever been involved in."

Brad Feld on a recent House of Genius event, Great Events - House of Genius

By maintaining an element of anonymity we're able to minimize preconceived notions about who knows what. It's a completely different dynamic than traditional meetings beginning with "name, rank, serial number" type of introductions that create a set of expectations before the conversation has even begun.

We also ask that participants avoid qualifying their comments with things like "In my experience with this..." or "I don't know much about this, but...". These types of comments are a different but equally powerful form of credentials.

The next time you're planning to gather a group for a feedback session ask everybody to leave their credentials at the door. You'll find that the discussion gets moving quickly and includes more creativity and honesty than traditional meetings.

Note: House of Genius was born in Boulder but is now in Austin, Singapore, New York City, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Albuquerque, Seattle, Denver, and Reno. More locations are in the works. Let me know if you want an invitation to a House of Genius session here in Boulder or elsewhere.

 

The Two Minute Rule

I experiment with productivity techniques and tools a fair amount because I'm always wanting to squeeze more into my day without sacrificing sanity time. The most productive of them all? The two minute rule.

It's very simple: if a task will take two minutes or less to complete, just do it on the spot, even if other pressing tasks are at hand. It's one less thing to track, one less thing to worry about, and one less thing that may hold up another task down the road.

I was introduced to David Allen's two minute rule in his best seller Getting Things Done and have had great results. While I've struggled to implement the rest of his system consistently, I've managed to use the two minute rule on a daily basis with no problem for several years now. It's stupidly simple, which is perfect for me.

Spending two minutes to make a problem go away gives me instant gratification and helps clear my head of loose ends I have to think about all the time.

Often times it's the small things that make me worry the most, so checking them off the list is a beautiful thing. In actuality, they never even have to be put on the list in the first place because they're handled on the spot.

Give it a try. Fight the instinct to put it on a list. If it takes two minutes or less, just Get Shit Done.

I'm Moving You to Bcc

Lately I've found myself involved in a lot of email introductions, both as an initiator and a recipient. If somebody is nice enough to make an email introduction for you, return the favor by cutting her loose with "I'm moving you to Bcc."

I see tweets from people about struggling to inbox zero just about every day. Some even declare email bankruptcy when their inbox is a lost cause. With that in mind, minimizing the email load for somebody who just made an introduction for you is a nice courtesy.

So let's say I introduce you to Zoe because you have a common interest in volunteering in the Boulder startup community. It'd be great if your reply looked something like this:

Thanks for the introduction Bing - I'm moving you to Bcc.

Zoe,

I'm glad to hear that we've got a mutual interest in doing some good for the community. Let's grab coffee. Are you free some time next week?

A nice way to say thanks before cutting me loose from the rest of the email thread.

You get a chance to say thanks and I see that the conversation has begun, which is all I really want. The fact that you've excluded me from the rest of the thread is great (assuming, of course, that you've actually moved me to Bcc). I don't want or need to be a part of the continued conversation.

Consider using "I'm moving you to Bcc" as one way to change our reply all culture. We've got enough email in our lives as it is, don't you think?