Make Stress Work For You

The first martial arts class swords class I’ve ever went to I ended up being the slowest one in the class.

I thought this was just because I was new, but after a few classes went by I found that my speed was still an issue. Then one day, while we practiced defenses, my instructor came up to me, grabbed my shoulder and told me:

“You gotta relax. You will be a lot smoother if you weren’t so tense. “

To my surprise, I was tensing up my body every time I grabbed my sword. Once I became aware of this I took a deep breath and relaxed. Immediately after relaxing I found that my strikes and blocks occurred much faster and with a lot more ease.

When I realized I was unknowingly feeling tense I started to wonder where else this was happening in my life. I ended up finding that I was tense when doing a lot of other activities, including the very basic day-to-day tasks in my life.

The problem was, I was so use to feeling tense I just considered it normal. Once I started to recognize these feelings of stress I was able to combat it and increase my work flow. This ended up leading me to researching and learning a lot about how about I can use stress to make myself get work done more efficiently.

Recognizing Stress

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There are two kinds of stress(Actually three, but the third is less common than the other two): Acute Stress and Chronic Stress.

Acute Stress is that short term stress you have when reacting  to an immediate threat or an event that heightens a strong emotional response.  While Chronic stress is the long term stress that occurs when responding to emotional pressure(s) for a long period of time.

While acute stress can help stimulate that exhilarating feeling you get from riding a roller coaster or skiing down a slope, chronic stress is the far less fun one that can cause severe physical and mental strain. Along with anxiety, irritability, and depression, chronic stress has also been known to weaken the immune system and cause permanent brain damage.

Despite the dangers of chronic stress, a lot of people tend to not recognize they are suffering from it. There are very notable symptoms to help identify the feelings of chronic stress, but the one I found to be most effective is body scanning.

Body scanning is not only a very effective way to identify if you’re feeling stressed, but also a great way to help relax the areas of the body that are tense. The process can even take as little as 10-15 minutes to do.

To start off, find a comfortable position and take a few deep breathes. Once you’re feeling comfortable and cleared your mind, it’s time to start the body scanning process. Start by focusing on your feet, noting the sensations felt in this position. Identify if there is any tenseness present. If so, take a few deep breaths and relax them. Then, slowly work your way up, doing this same process one body part at a time, until you have fulled relaxed all parts of your body.

Once you finished relaxing your body, take a few deep breaths and open your eyes. Take a couple more deep breaths and slowly come out of your seated position before resuming normal activities.

Control Your Stress

Body scanning isn’t the only way to combat chronic stress. Studies have found that the most effective ways to overcome chronic stress is through regular exercise and meditation.

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What these two solutions have in common is that they practice mindfulness. One of the biggest causes for chronic stress is worrying too much about problems out of your control. Instead of constantly thinking about the tasks in the future it’s important to be mindful about the tasks currently in front of you. By letting your mind wander away from the present activity you are allowing yourself to be distracted.

This causes, what Cal Newport describes in his book, Deep Work, as attention residue:

“People experiencing attention resident after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on that task, and the more intense the reside the worse the performance.”

One of the best way to practice mindfulness is to take up hobbies that require you to be in this state of mind. This can include getting involved activities such as martial arts, yoga, or creative arts. Just doing some sort of activity that brings you in that meditative state and focus on the the task at hand. By being more mindful with our tasks we reduce that feeling of anxiety for any future tasks.

Finally, another extremely effective way to combat stress is by organizing and planning. Scheduling when you allow yourself to work, take breaks, and practice mindfulness helps organize your thoughts and give you a much less cluttered mind. This not only gives you a better feeling of control in your life, but it also provides a way to effectively track your tasks and stick your your To-Dos.

Make Stress Work For You

Stress can definitely be a helpful way to keep you on task, but it can also be a hindrance for getting the most work done. What really helps make stress beneficial is to not perceive stress as negative. In fact, by perceiving stress as a challenge for getting things done you can gain very positive health benefits from it.

When dealing with stress it’s important not to let it get out of control. By keeping your tasks organized and balancing your work and leisure you can keep stress in check. Doing so will help prevent you from worrying about stressing overwhelm you and instead use it as a strategy to be more productive.

 

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5 Inspirational Anime Series About Hard Work

This blog entry is going to be a little different than my usual entries.

Last blog entry I discussed the differences between being inspired and being motivated.

In it, I mentioned that I’m inspired by those who struggle and work hard to achieve something great. There are a lot of inspirational events I’ve seen that illustrate this.

Whether it’s my fellow gym member who went to every single back-flips class for 3 years to master the move or the truck driver who spent any free time he had learning how to program in hopes of getting a better job. All of these stories show a high level of passion and continuous hardship to achieve their goals.

These inspirational stories do not extend strictly to non-fictional people either. Sometimes it’s just as good to be inspired by a fictional story as well, and it’s no secret that I enjoy anime.

So I compiled my top 5 anime series that inspire me to push myself harder towards my goals. Whenever I’m looking for ways to keep on pushing I can find myself looking back at any of these series to keep going.

#5 Silver Spoon

Silver spoon is the light hearted tale about the young high school student, Yugo, who found himself in the unusual Oozero School of Agriculture. After failing the entrance exams to his chosen school, Yugo decides to go to what he expects to be a much easier school. However, with waking up at 5:00 A.M. and spending 14 hours a day on school, required extracurricular activities, and other work, Yugo finds that this school is anything but easy.

One of the most admirable concepts of this anime is how it touches base on a number of life’s problems many of us have felt before. Our character, Yugo, is thrown into unfamiliar territory. In the first episode, we find that his classmates all hail from an agricultural background with each student already set on where they want to be once they graduate. Yugo, on the other hand, doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life.

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For most of the series, Yugo is simply focused at being the best at what he can do and works his way to the top of the class. Although, this does not come without difficulty. While Yugo is able to master the core subjects, he struggles with very fundamental concepts about agriculture, something his classmates are able to do with ease.

One of the most evident examples that show the differences between him and his classmates level of expertise is in episode one. After getting back his exam results, Yugo prided himself for acing a test in admiration of his classmates. This pride is soon crushed when he listens to his classmates discuss animal cloning. His classmates, whom most of which failed the exam, carry on an entire conversation about college-level molecular biology that completely goes over his head.

It’s nice how quickly Yugo’s illusion is broken when he finds out that being the highest ranked student in the class does not automatically make him the smartest person. Yugo is constantly pushed out of his comfort zone in this series and, as a result, ends up growing up to be a more mature, compassionate person. He finds challenges in life where he realizes that simply putting in effort and having a dream is not always enough. In the end, it’s about coming to grips with reality in order to produce results that leads to success.

This show does well to drive its message home while keeping it comedic. Through the use of visual gags and likeable characters we’re able to get a good laugh from the series then emphasize with the down-to-earth problems the characters face. I applaud the variety of personalities each hard-working classmate has. The large diversity in characters helps us understand each person’s struggles and sympathize with them when they hit a wall in life they cannot overcome. It also drives home a valuable lesson that when a struggle becomes too difficult, sometimes it’s best to go down a different path in order to move forward.

#4 Hunter x Hunter (2011)

In the world of Hunter x Hunter, humans live in a land where mythical beasts and magical artifacts are commonality. Understandably, the most dangerous areas of the world remain restricted to humanity unless they have earned the respected title of Hunter.

Our series follows protagonist, Gon Freecess, who, upon learning his thought to be dead father is an accomplished hunter, sets off to take the hunter exam. Although the exam proves to be a huge undertaking where thousands of applicants set off to take the exam but only a handful of them pass each year.

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When I first watched this series I quickly drew similarities between it and Dragon Ball. However, this Hunter x Hunter quickly establishes itself as its own thing by separating itself from similar Shonen anime tropes. Our characters, while likeable, have flaws that are not easy to over come, and has caused tragedy to those around them. Never before have I ever watched an anime series without feeling tense that there is a very real possibility these characters will not survive.

The idea of being killed so easily ends up influencing how our characters fight.  Instead of solely relying on strength, our characters find they need to rely on reflexes and wit in order to win. This is a really admirable direction Hunter x Hunter takes. Our characters, although established as strong, are often pitted against enemies that vastly outclass them in terms of strength and skill. The fighter who gets the upper hand in battle is the one who thinks better on their feet. Rather than spouting an inspiration speech of getting a power up, our characters assess the situation and take risks(sometimes fatal) to outwit their opponents, just enough to either flee or land a critical blow.

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While a lot of the cast are shown to be both strong and clever, these traits are not the reason Hunter x Hunter is on this list. What makes this anime truly inspiration is how gradual each character grows. Hunter x Hunter rarely introduces a strong character whose abilities stem through natural talent. These characters are shown to have endured the worst they can put their minds and bodies through to get where they are. For them, to grow their abilities a tiny bit they are shown to endure harsh training that takes a prolonged period of time.

Truly, Hunter x Hunter illustrates that in order to really progress you can’t rely on training montages, inspirational words, or pulling a new technique out of the pocket. Rather if you want to win the battle you will need to put your mind and body through hell repeatedly for a long time.

It’s no surprise this series has been critically acclaimed as one of the greatest anime series out there. Although this series was put on hiatus since 2014, the 149 episodes released so far has been smart, wild, and overall, inspiring.

#3 Hajime No Ippo

Hajime no Ippo is one of the few sports anime series I’ve watched and enjoyed. The protagonist, sharing the same name as the show, is a young high school student named Ippo. Ippo lives with his widowed mother and spend all of his free time helping support their family’s fishing business. Because he never has time to hangout with his classmates, Ippo finds himself often alone and bullied.

However, one day while he was walking home from school, a group of bullies come up to him and start beating him up. A passing jogger, later known as acclaimed boxer Takamura, sees Ippo being picked on and scares away the bullies using quick feints. Ippo is taken to Takamura’s boxing gym where he meets the gym owner, Genji. Genji teaches him how to do a basic punch and finds that Ippo has a natural talent for boxing after he sends the punching bag flying.

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Ippo then starts his boxing career and trains to become one of the most talented and hard-hitting boxers over the course of several years. Throughout his journey we see Ippo push himself hard and slowly rank himself up with each victory. He also interacts with other boxers he meets along the way. Each of these boxers have their own varied skill set and talents that make their training style unique. From the gifted boxer who never loses a match, to the fighter who relies solely on technique, to the fighters who train hard but just can’t make it to the top.

This diversity helps illustrate a number of different characteristics when it comes to skill-building. The first being how everyone who wants to follow their dreams will not often start at the same place and the same level. There are some characters who are good at boxing because they were able to train when they were young. Then you have those characters who do start boxing at the same time, or later, but end up excelling at it faster because of their natural talents.

Despite where they start, the journey for them to improve is never an easy route. The series is not short(with over 3 seasons and 126 episodes) and the series is not one to compress story arcs. Often we see several episodes dedicated to a character trying to either learn or improve on a move before a big fight. This leads to them going through several months of intense physical training just so they can get slightly better doing certain punches.

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I felt that unique approach speaks volumes about something we’re all too familiar with. A lot of these characters pick up the basic boxing moves within a year then move on to doing fights. However, there comes a point in time when a fighter will hit a stride and find themselves pushing themselves hard but not improving as fast as when they started out. This is a training plateau many of us can relate to when trying to master a skill.

I’m sure we all hit that point when we first learn a skill and feel like we are picking up things pretty quickly at first. Eventually, that pace starts to slow down then it takes a lot longer before noticing any improvement. Hajime no Ippo follows suit to this. Often our characters find themselves having to spend countless hours/days/months/years just so they are slightly better.

The diversity of characters helps demonstrate the typical routes a lot of people end up going about tackling gradual improvement. There are those who continue to train at the same level and find themselves never getting any further in their abilities and there are those who push hemselves by doing a harder regime and gradually work their way up over time. Sure it may be long and difficult, but with patience and strive, progression will happen.

Hajime no Ippo does an excellent job to illustrate an important part of skill development. It’s not about dealing with the big picture, rather, it’s about tackling one small task at a time. By breaking down that much larger goal to small, incremental ones, achieving that level of mastery becomes more obtainable. This is why Haijime no Ippo places itself on my list of inspiring anime series.

#2 One Punch Man

Whenever anyone thinks of an inspirational anime series One Punch Man will very likely come to most people’s mind. In a world where super heroes and super villains exist, the hero, Saitama ranks right up there as the strongest hero out there. While he largely goes unnoticed in the world Saitama has proven himself to be an unbelievably strong character able to defeat his opponents with just one punch.

Our protagonist, Saitama, is somewhat of an unusual character. Mainly because he’s unlike your typical anime hero. He did not gain his power through some mystic artifact, technological upgrade, or born from some extraterrestrial being. No, our hero just stuck to a good old exercise regime every day for 3 years. What is his routine?

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With just a little strength routine, 3 meals a day, and going without A/C or heat, Saitama has achieved God-like strength. However, such a simple strength regime seems a bit silly to achieve such power.

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However, Saitama tells him that there was really nothing more to it. He dedicated himself to this regime and got to where he is today through it. A very simple idea that may strike a chord for many viewers. There is no secret formula for success, it’s just a combination of sticking to good habits and slowly growing over time. There are many people out there who thinks that there are little hacks to lose weight or become a millionaire, but those same ideals is what causes us to lose focus on the very simple concepts we know will get us there. We often ignore the routine that leads to success in favor of an easier solution.

Being dedicated to good habits is not the only thing that makes Saitama a truly admirable character. Saitama has one thing that separates him from many of the heroes and villains out there. His power is largely unknown among many. Mostly this because of how modest of a character Saitama is. He doesn’t care if he gets credit for his work, in fact, he often goes out of his way to not credit himself. Saitama is a very Taosit-like character. He recognizes himself as strong and doesn’t feel he needs to prove this to anyone. Instead, he will go without the flow of the world and intervene whenever a situation get too dire.

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Saitama truly illustrates the idea that it’s the result of your hard work that matters more than the person who does it. When I thought of Saitama’s personal beliefs and resistance for appraisal, it gave me an epiphany.

Take a look at the things around you. We live in a world of technological advancement but the majority of us aren’t really sure who invented it. This is because a thousand years from now, we aren’t going to care who invented our every day conveniences rather more about the influence it has on us. Personally, I feel making a difference in someone’s life matter more than being known for it.

This series has made it’s mark as one of the most popular anime out there, and for good reason. With a perfect blend of comedy and action we are taken on one entertaining ride throughout.

#1 Bakuman

Hard work, conceit, and luck.

These are the three attributes needed to be successful in the manga industry. That’s at least what our protagonist, Moritaka Mashiro, believes.

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The story of Bakuman follows an aspiring young artist who has long forgone his dream of being a Manga artist after the death of his uncle, a professional Manga artist who worked himself to death. It wasn’t until top-class student, Akita Takagi, approached Mashiro asking him to partner up and become managa creators together.

Mashiro, reluctant at first, joins Takagi after being tricked into confessing his love to long time crush, Miho Azuki. Azuki agrees to marry Mashiro on the condition that both Takagi and Mashiro create a manga successful enough to become an anime and Azuki lands the role to voice the leading female charactermarryWhat follows is several years of Mashiro and Takagi working through various successes and failures in attempt to get their manga popular enough to be picked up by an animation company. What ends up separating this anime from the rest of the list is the down-to-earth nature of the show. This anime is adapted from the popular manga with the same name, written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata. If you are deep in your manga creator knowledge those names might be familiar to you for iconic show, Death Note.

Throughout Bakuman, Ohba and Obata do well to draw in their experiences to the series. It’s very easy to emphasize with these characters as they go through a roller coaster of successes and failures in attempt to reach their goal. Throughout the series we find our two protagonists go through many sleepless nights working, constant anxiety to make their work successful, and even working so hard one of the characters ends up in the hospital.

With each failure these characters take it as an opportunity to grow. Despite them being, what many would consider, talented at what they do, they find that they need to try and fail a lot if they want reach their goal. Alongside them is a wide variety of characters. Including Eiji Nizuma who is known as a “Manga genius” able to produce work that becomes huge hits in far less time than our protagonists can. As well as other characters introduced in the series who also dream to become future manga artists.

 

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A lot of these characters have different kinds of personalities and talents to them, but nonetheless are supportive to one another to follow their dreams. These characters also have their share of successes and failures we’re familiar with. Some of these failures drive these artists to reach out to others to improve themselves. While others end up giving up on their dream. Those who do succeed are the ones who have spent half of their lives trying and failing to get there.

It’s sense of realism adds a feeling of empathy for many of these characters. Like many of the characters, we have all failed when trying to reach a goal. We may have found ourselves discouraged to keep trying after we see people who seem to succeed in our dreams with seemingly no effort. But what makes this anime truly inspiring is, despite our failures and successes, what really matters it to still work hard and improve.

This will involve going through a lot of different events in our life. We need to find people out there who will support us and we need to support them. We need to get out of our comfort zone and prepare for failure. We also need to build up a portfolio that shows what we’re capable of and that we can improve.

Bakuman does a really great job demonstrating all these attributes and has taught me quite a few things about working towards my goals. For these reasons Bakuman earns its spot as the #1 most inspirational anime series out there.

How To Make Impossibly Large Tasks Easy

Imagine what you want to complete if you had all the time in the world. Do you want to write the next American novel? Start your own multi-million dollar business? Climb Mt. Everest?

Heck, some of us may dream of playing guitar at a venue with thousands of adoring fans, but do not even know how to play a single note.

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Whatever that dream may be, for one reason or another, you are not doing it. There could be a lot of reasons why this is the case, and some may have very valid reasons, but for the vast majority we tend to have the same excuse:

“I don’t have enough time”

But that’s just the trap a lot of us fall victim to. We are all thinking of these dreams as one large task that has to be done in a short amount of time. This only causes us to be intimidated by our long-term goals and put them off all together. Instead, I want you to start doing this:

Don’t Think About The End Result

When Computer Programmer, Matt Cutts took the challenge of doing something new every 30-days there is one thing he started doing to take on the more difficult task of writing  a novel:

Matt points that that a typical novel is about 50,000 words total. That may seem pretty big at first glance, but when Matt broke it down he found that he could write a novel if he spends every day, for 30 days, writing just 1,667 words.

That’s what it really comes down to when finishing large projects. If you really want to get that project done stop thinking about doing it all at once and instead:

Do a little bit each day

If you want to run a marathon you don’t do it by going out and running 20 miles(32km) a day. You start off a training plan months in advance and run just a few short miles each day than gradually build yourself up to that full distance.

However, it’s not enough just to do a small bit each day. If you do not set-up some rules for yourself beforehand “Doing a little bit each day” can end up giving you as much benefit as opening up Microsoft Word than watching television the rest of the day. If you truly want to make your work meaningful you will need to something more.

Make It A Habit

When web developer, Alexandar Kallaway, really wanted to commit to being a better programmer he invented a challenge known as 100 Days of Code. His rule for this challenge was simple:

“I will code for at least an hour every day for the next 100 days.”

That’s it. It’s a challenge that floats up often in the programming community and there are thousands of people who take it up. The result? People who never even picked up a programming language before are now writing fully functional applications and frameworks in just over three months.

While this has good intention, for some of us, 1 hour of doing a task for 100 consecutive days may be a bit much. Kallaway sure thought the same. Which is why he made an updated version of the challenge. He included some new rules like including a taking a break. If you miss a day, that’s fine, instead of tapping out of the challenge you simply continue it like normal trying not to miss two days in a row.

This is really smart because it’s difficult to commit to 100 days of a habit when every day of our lives is not the exact same. That is why when we want to commit to this challenge, it’s crucial to do one important thing.

Make It Work For You

Before taking up this challenge(or something similar to it), do not dive head first into it by immediately doing an hour a day. Instead, start small than build your way up to it.

This means just starting out with committing to as little as 5 minutes a day. This gives you plenty of time to write that one sentence for your novel or to learn a new word in a foreign language. Even if it’s just a little bit of progress, it’s still progress.

As you feel more comfortable start moving your commitment to 10 minutes, than 20, than 30. When you are feeling perfectly comfortable with 30 minutes a day, don’t just move straight to 1 hour a day. Instead, break it down to 2 Promodo Sessions a day.

What that entails is breaking your tasks into 2 25-minute sessions followed by a 5-minute break. Remember it’s about breaking down the larger tasks into small, more manageable ones.

There are at least 24 hours in the day, 168 hours in a week, and 672 hours in a month. You only need to spend a small portion of that time each day working towards your goal to make a meaningful impact. Remember, when you want to achieve your goals it’s not about the destination, but the journey towards it.

Note: If you’re looking for a good Promodo application I would recommend looking into Be Focused, Goodtime, or Mariana Timer. All three of these tools are free to use.

The 2016 Round-Up: Biggest Takeaways From A Year of Challenges

It’s that time of the year again!

It’s the end of the year, and that means it’s time to step back and reflect back on 2016’s Challenge List. This is where I take a step back to review the list and go over what went awesome, what didn’t go so great, and what was learned as a result.

So let’s take a look at total amount of challenges completed for 2016:

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In total, I managed to complete 72% of all challenges on my list. Some of the more notable tasks included:

  • Running a Spartan Race
  • Publishing an Android App
  • Tripling my distance record for swimming
  • Taking a trip out of the country
  • Building and shooting an arrow from scratch
  • and many more

While this was a year for new experiences, it also had one of the most pivotal moments that changed how I view productivity. With many successes came many learning experiences. With these learning experiences I plan on taking on 2017 with these ideas in mind:

Better to Be SMART Instead of Busy

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If I had to pinpoint my biggest mistake for 2016 it would have to be doing my 20 Things A Month experiment. You see, back in early February I had an idea that would push me to get things done. In order to motivate me to focus on my yearly challenges, I would select several tasks each month and then draw them up on a list of 20 things to complete at the end of the month.

My initial thought was that if  I broke it down like this I can chip at each tasks little by little and complete almost all of it by the end of the year.

Instead, I ended up finding myself pulling out my hair each day constantly doing work but barely making any significant progress towards my Challenge List goals.

It wasn’t until I listened to a podcast interview of Smarter, Faster Better‘s author Charles Durhigg that I realized what I was doing.

I crafted my To-Do lists to make me busy, not productive. Sure I would be spending 15 hours a day, working my brain and body to mush, but all of that was pointless because I was tackling small, insignificant tasks on my list in attempt to cross more items off.

I was experiencing, what is known as a False Authentic Pride, where you working towards  feelings of the little dopamine effects you get from doing small accomplishments  instead of working towards the much grander feeling of accomplishing something worthwhile.

Now I’ll be tackling on my tasks with SMART Goals in order to handle the bigger, more difficult tasks on my list and get much more done.

After learning this it led to another way I need to tackle my goals

Work Towards The Long-Term Goals

As Steve Kamb said in his book, Level Up Your Life:
Think of each big quest on your list as a series of tiny, incremental quests. If we can create 10 steps to a mastery of a skill, then we can focus our energy on simply putting one foot in front of the other and the process will take of itself
After hearing reading this it sparked something in my mind: There are very different feelings between how I feel accomplishing each challenge.

Each challenge I’ve completed thus far has been no stroll in the park. If I wasn’t pushing myself to go beyond my physical and mental limits, I was pushing myself to do things that went beyond my comfortable zone.

The problem is, I found that the challenges that ended up going towards my overall goals(i.e. My Impossible List) were far more satisfying than those I wanted to do because I thought it would be “fun” or “look cool”.

This caused my focus to shift towards my long-term goals instead of short-term, spontaneous goals. As a result, I didn’t really work towards some of these items as hard as others. My energy and focus went towards my long term goals, and each one I crossed off ended up giving me a more deserved feeling of accomplishment as well as put me that much closer to being who I want to be.

With that being said, there is one last thing I will be doing for 2017

Do A Lot in A Little, Not A Little in A Lot

Probably the biggest thing I’ve been debating about these last two years has been the number of items I’ve used on my list. I’ve done 25 challenges for 2 years now and each year I only get close to finishing 20 of them. Each item I work on typically takes a long time and a lot of focus to complete, so trying to do an average of over 2 per month starts to look less realistic.

If I really want to buckle down and finish off my goals I need to shorten my list so I can give it my all. But than that begs the question, how many challenges do I do? 20 challenges, 15 challenges, 10 challenges?

Well… That’s still up to debate. Right now I have quite a few items already sorted out for 2017’s list.

The idea I’m leaning on most is to cap the limit on 20  items and attempt to do 5 extra if I finish my list with a lot of time to spare. There would be something more definitive in my post for 2017’s Challenge List.

All and all though, I have to say that this year proved to be a great year for experimentation and learning. I am looking forward to this upcoming year and cannot wait to see what’s to come.

For all of you out there, I hope you had a great 2016, and shoot hard for an even better 2017. Train hard, and I’ll see you next year!

How To Do The Most In A Day

Stop me if this rings a bell: It is the start of a new day, you take a look at all the things you have to-do today. You have a full day ahead of you to get things done.

Fast forward to later that evening. Your time to work is almost up, you still have so much left to do and the deadline to complete them is drawing near. You are likely going to be staying up late just to get them done in time. I know I had my fair share of those days

While I may have spent each day crossing off my tasks, taking minimal breaks each day, by the end of the day I had accomplished almost nothing meaningful. This was because I kept making the same mistake every single day:

I was making not making a SMART To-Do List.

If I wanted to make sure I was getting the most done each day I had to figure out a way to improve my To-Do List. Fortunately for me, I discovered a way that helped increased my productivity by 1000%.

What Makes A Good To-Do List?

As Charles Durhigg describes in, Smarter Faster Better, a To-Do List should have the most important task first. Although, many of us don’t do this and fall into a spiral of spending each day finishing the easiest tasks first while leaving the more essential ones unfinished.

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One of the reasons why we often don’t do the most important tasks first is because we tend to build our To-Do list, but do not consider why they’re on there in the first place. Sure, if I work on a task I would happy to have finished it, but is its purpose valuable enough to focus on?

Most of the time the answer is no. We like to think that completing the task is as equally rewarding as the others on our list, but what ends up happening is that we focus on the wrong tasks we want to complete.

We feel what is known as Authentic Pride, otherwise known as the joy given when we feel like we’re accomplishing something. However, this is not true authentic pride, rather a dopamine effect we get when we cross off a few items on our list.

While it is definitely beneficially to write down your To-Do list down on paper, or use an electronic To-Do builder like Habitica or To-Do Ist, this is almost meaningless if the list is built without a thoughtful approach.

To make the most impacting To-Do List, these three rules are essential:

  • There needs to be a reason for doing the tasks
  • It should follow your stretch goals
  • There needs to be flexibility

Building A Better To-Do List

In order to figure out what tasks we should focus on it’s a important to think about why we want to focus on them in the first place. Once each item does have a reason figured out, it becomes clearer which ones take precedence over the other.

To figure out what are the most important tasks to focus on, follow along with me with this simple exercise:

  1. Take out a sheet of paper or your favorite electronic note taking software
  2. Separate the list into two columns, one titled To-Dos the other titled Reason
  3. Write down all the things you want to complete by the end of the week in the To-Do column. (1 sentence is more than enough)
  4. Once you finish your To-Do column, review each item and write down why you want to do it in the Reason column. (Again, 1 sentence is more than enough)

Now that you have a clear idea of what each task is and your motivation for doing them, pick out the top four to five most meaningful tasks (sound familiar?) and put them onto another list. By now your list should look something like this:

SMARTGOALS

This list you have created is now what we call your Weekly Stretch Goals.These items on your list are not things you should expect to complete in one day rather they will be broken down to smaller tasks completed throughout the week.

One of the best ways to accomplish this is to create what is known as SMART Goals.

Defining SMART Goals

SMART goals have been a popular way of formatting To-Do List for quite some time now, and that is not surprising. When trying to plot out an effective To-Do List, SMART Goals can become an extremely practical tool to help plan that out. Some of you may be asking yourself,

“What are SMART Goals?”

SMART goals is an acronym used to define each item on a To-Do List and how needs to be worked on. It stands for:

  • Specific – What needs to be accomplished
  • Measurable – How the task will be broken down
  • Achievable – What needs to be done to fully focus
  • Realistic – How you plan on reaching this focus
  • Timeline – When it will be completed

To help illustrate this let me use an example of one stretch goals I have on my list:

Publish an Application on the Google Play Store

Right here I have a clear, Specific, goal of what I want accomplished by the end of the week. The next step is to divide up this project into smaller, Measurable, tasks that can be accomplished throughout the week:

  1. An interface needs to be designed
  2. The application needs to be coded
  3. The application needs to fully functional
  4. The application needs to be published

The next step is to formulate a plan on how I will achieve this. I am able to delegate 2-3 hours on this project on days I work, while the days I have off I can spend more time on the harder tasks. To make this Achievable, I have to schedule in what times are best suited to perform what tasks.

Now the only way to make this Realistic is if I define certain rules for myself to work on this task. During the time dedicated to the project I will be closing my e-mail, leaving my phone on silent, and only work on this task during the allocated tasks.

Break it down on a day-by-day basis, the Timeline would look something like this:

  • Day 1: Create project’s user interface
  • Day 2: Code the project to perform basic operations
  • Day 3: Add any additional features to the project
  • Day 4: Test and fix any bugs
  • Day 5: Finalize and publish

Writing this SMART goal took less than 2-3 minutes to complete. This task is now delegated from one huge project to much smaller, manageable, tasks that I can complete throughout the week. It also gives me a better idea of what I should be focusing on doing the day and what other items should be handled later.

Which leads me to the final component for building a To-Do List

Your To-Do List Should Be Flexible

One of the last, but most important parts of your To-Do list is that it needs to have room for flexibility. There are going to be days where something pops up and you can’t accomplish your To-Do list as expected. This doesn’t mean you should completely stop yourself from working towards your goals, instead that task should be revised to a fit a more realistic goal for the week.

A fundamental thing to keep in mind is that designing effective SMART Goals is not something that can be done once per week. SMART Goals should be created, then reviewed and updated daily.

This is because new To-Dos will always be popping up throughout the week and it is impossible to gauge your priorities days in advanced. I would personally recommend having two to-do lists. One that has your weekly SMART Goals, and one that has your every day goals.

Each day, before writing your daily To-Do list, spend some time thinking about what you need to accomplish for the day. Analyze how you plan on approaching each tasks. Richard Plepler, HBO’s CEO, does something similar to this by doing non-religious prayer 15 minutes a day. I personally spend 5 minutes a day meditating to go through what I need to do throughout the day.

Regardless of what mental exercise you plan on doing, remember to keep your SMART Goals in mind when creating your list.

Conclusion

I hope that this entry helped anyone who is struggling with their every day tasks.I know since changing how I do my To-Dos I have started seeing a noticeable increase in finishing my Challenge List goals.

Just to leave off, you do not have to do your To-Do lists in this exact format. Some people have different ways they approach tasks and that is perfectly fine.The important thing is to experiment with how to create To-Do list and see what works for you. For me, SMART goals have been a tremendous help to increase my productivity, for others, this may not be the case.

Whatever the case, just remember your To-Do list is not just how many items you cross off, but what you improve on when you do it. Stay strong, and keep pushing forward.

Don’t Be Busy, Be Productive

A few months ago I fell into a routine that many busy people unknowingly fall into. My schedule was filled to the brim with things to do, but I felt like there was very little progress towards achieving my goals. Despite being constantly busy, I was barely accomplishing anything.

It became a routine to wake up early in the morning, write up a to-do list, go to work, attend classes, study, blog, manage club activities, workout, develop my personal projects…UGH! It was stressing enough trying to all of these things each day. It only added to the stress when I would finish the end of the day with only half of my To-Dos accomplished.

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Instead of continuing to pull my hair out trying to manage everything I decided to take a day to sit down and think why I wasn’t getting things done. After some thought I realized my problem wasn’t due to procrastination or poor time management, rather it came down to one simple mistake I made when I changed the way I  did To-Do Lists.

To fully analyze what happened we will need to take a trip back to a year ago where I first learned of a tale about Warren Buffet.

The Warren Buffet Story

For those unfamiliar with Warren Buffet, you just need to know that he is ranked as one of the most successful businessmen in the world.  Among other things, Warren Buffet is also known for a famous tale involving him and his pilot, Mike Flint.

BUFFETT CREDIT

 

One day, Buffet and Flint were having a conversation about career priorities. Flint, in admiration of Buffet, asked him how he can be as successful as him. Buffet told Flint to do this simple exercise:

Step 1: Take out a sheet of paper and write down the top 25 goals in your life.

Step 2: Review the list then circle the 5 goals that matter the most to you. This was now known as List A. The other 20 goals will be known as List B.

When Flint completed this exercise he essentially had two lists. When Buffet asked Flint what he felt these lists meant Flint told him that List A was the list of things he should focus on doing immediately while List B contained the things that weren’t as important to do, but can be done intermittently.

Buffet told him, “No, you’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”

Joining The Now Movement

Shortly after reading this story I learned of this movement from College Info Geek blogger, Thomas Frank.

This exercise was dubbed as the Now Movement, an idea conceptualized by David Sevirs. David is a widely successful musician who founded the company, CD Baby. David tweeted a page on his website titled What I’m Doing Right Now. Essentially, his page would inform others what his main priorities are currently and if any new opportunities that do not relate to the list come up, he ignores them.

When I first read about this on Thomas’ Franks page, I thought the idea was fascinating. Although, what really motivated me to make my own Now List was Thomas’s suggestion to make one simple modification.

“I am open to considering new opportunities, as I highly value novelty, spontaneity, and growth. However, I aspire to stick to my priorities 90% of the time. As a result, I will say no to the majority of requests that come my way now.”

The reasoning behind this made sense. David is already well into his career and has a large list of achievements to his name. Thomas feels he is still starting out in his career so to outright deny opportunities for growth may not lead him down his most ideal path.

Still being a college student, I too feel like I can’t completely remove myself from opportunities, so having a list more like Thomas’ makes a lot more sense.

Doing The Now List Wrong

Shortly after I read Thomas’ article I created my own Now List. However, when I made my Now List I ended up neglecting 4 important things that led to several months of sleepless nights and overbearing stress. When you are making your Now List I would recommend keeping these important points in mind:

Keep Your Now List Specific

A rule for almost all To-Do list making guides is to specify your goals. Making a list without a clear goal can make you take on your tasks with the wrong approach. By putting down what exactly you want to accomplish in the end you are drawing up a map of where Point A is and where Point B will take you.

When I first made my Now list I put down some really general goals like Save money. However, having a goal this general didn’t really give me a baseline I needed to reach. This would cause me to just put in the absolute minimum towards my goal.

It made no difference if I saved $1 or $100, I felt like both amounts accomplished my goal just the same. This unsurprisingly meant I was barely saving any significant amount of money at all. So instead I put down a clearer goal on there, Put 20% of my paycheck into my Savings Account each pay period. After a few months I found that I now had a steady amount of money going into my Savings.

Put a Deadline On Your To-Do’s

In addition to having clear goals you also want to have a specific deadline on when you need to reach each goal. Not having a deadline only creates the excuse to put it off because it feels like there is an eternity to do it. That finish line is never reached because it was never created.

When you are able to figure out deadlines you have a much better idea of which ones take priority over the other. This allows you to fully focus on your task so you can produce the best result. Then when that deadline passes you are able to move onto that next task with complete focus.

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One example I would give is when I had two tasks to accomplish in the same month: turning in a scholarship essay and submitting a final project. After determining the deadline for each item I was able to figure out which one needed my absolute focus first. Once one deadline passed my focus was able to shift towards another task.

In the end not only was I able to complete both of these tasks before the deadline, but by prioritizing which ones needed to be done first I was able to focus 100% on each of them. This resulted in me getting in A on the project and winning the award money for the scholarship.

Do Not Make It An Everyday List

In Chis Bailey’s book, The Productivity Project he talks about an experiment where he would work 90 hours for one week then the next week work for only 20 hours. In his experiment, Bailey found that while there was a massive difference in the time he was doing the work, there was very little difference in productivity.  This is defined as Parkison’s Law, where work will expand or shrink to fill the time available for its completion.

When I initially made the Now List I went at it with the mindset that if did a little work on each item every day I will have a lot accomplished in all my tasks by the end of the month. Boy, was that dumb.

Instead of being productive I ended up spending 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, getting very little accomplished. This was because each day I would write up a list of twenty tasks then give myself little intervals on how long I was allowed to work on each one of them. Instead of it motivating me to finish the tasks faster I ended up having to stop just when I hit the point where I was at my optimal focus, otherwise known as the flow state.

As Scott Dinsmore states in 11 Steps to Insane Focus, it’s more beneficial to work on a small number of tasks instead of a large amount throughout the day. If you are constantly switching between tasks you will quickly find that it will have little long term effect towards achieving the most for your goals.

Work Towards Your Stretch Goals

If you take a gander at my Impossible List you’ll notice I have about a million things I want to get accomplished in my lifetime. If I want to cross off any of these things I need to spend some time each day working towards them.

When creating a Now List you are creating a list of what is most important to you right now. Odds are the most important things to you now are not going to be the most important to you 5 years from now.

What this comes down to is that when you create your Now List you need to be considerate of your long term goals. Take a careful look at each item on your Now List and ask yourself “How will this help me reach my stretch goals”. If you can’t think of a reason then think about whether it truly needs to be focused on.

Be Smart, Not Busy

About a few months of doing the Now List (wrongly), I found that while I was being busy I was not being productive. As Charles Duhigg discusses in Faster, Better, Smarter:  there are two kinds people who make To-Do lists. Those who are busy and those who are productive.

He argues that those who do create lists find that they are getting a lot of their To-Do’s crossed off, but they progress very little from when they first made the list.

The reason for this is because those busy people are not creating their To-Do lists intelligently. If you want to create a To-Do list you need to state the reasons for doing each tasks. When you have a better idea of why you want to do each task it becomes that much easier to realize which ones take precedence.

One way to do this is to create SMART goals. SMART goals are a very proactive way to approach your tasks as they give each item a reason, are detailed, and have a timeline for doing them. There is a lot I can write about when it comes to creating SMART goals. In fact, I had a whole section on SMART goals written up that I realized would be better suited as it’s own topic for my next post.

For now, if you want to create SMART goals remember to keep these things in mind: keep the list specific, give each item a reason, and make sure they work towards your stretch goals. Doing these simple things can make all the difference from creating a busy To-Do List to creating a productive one.