The Hourglass Method

The iPhone alarm may be the worst noise ever created. The alarm is always louder, more annoying, and harder to turn off than I expect. But I’ve found something that may finally replace it, an item that has brought some joy to my timekeeping: hourglasses.

Most activities that I use timers for have a time limit, but not a time maximum. I use timers to make sure I meditate for 10 minutes, read for 15 minutes, or write for 30 minutes. I don’t care if I do it longer, just that the minimum time is reached. Hourglasses (which come in different time increments) are perfect because they only tell me when I’m done. No sand left, no problem. I can always keep going if I want, just like I do when I play Taboo. There’s something satisfying about turning over a 15-minute hourglass, reading, noticing the sand run out, and getting back to my book without being interrupted. While phone timers and computer clocks distract and break my concentration, going tech-free feels wonderful.

So try the hourglass method. Get glasses with small time increments as you try to build habits, so you can always go longer. And most importantly, please change that iPhone alarm sound.

The Case For Spoilers

I like spoilers. Or at least I don’t dislike when something is spoiled for me. I may be alone in this view, but:

1. A Wikipedia article should never ruin my experience of anything.

2. Knowing what happens allows my mind to focus on the cinematic language, instead of making predictions. Spoilers ground me in what is happening as opposed to projections of a future that may not come true.

3. While I may lose a bit of the shock that comes from a twist, the emotional moments will still hit. It’s not about what happens to Romeo and Juliet, but how it happens. I get emotional during Death of a Salesman, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and Coco even though I know what happens in all of them. The fact that we rewatch anything is evidence that emotions comes from the artistry, not the plot points.

4. Caring about plot outcomes changes the medium into a sport. We may only watch a football team for the fantasy stats or to see if our favorite team won. But applying this viewpoint to movies, TV shows, and books destroys their artistry. There’s a reason why we don’t rewatch NBA regular season games from 1972 and why people still discuss The Godfather nearly 30 years since it premiered. 

5. Movies with twists are often better the second time I watch them, so why not skip that first viewing entirely. Shutter Island and basically every Christopher Nolan movie prove this point. No longer disoriented by what I am seeing, I can focus on the characters, soundtrack, set details, and dialogue. I can focus on what matters.

On Reflection

For my first quarter-century, I filled my days with tasks to do, shows to watch, calls to make. There was little stillness until the evening podcast episode I was listening to faded from my awareness and sleep took over.

This year, I’ve tried to create more space to reflect on my life and what my mind and body tell me. Whether it’s planning out the day, recounting how an experience made me feel, or jotting down a half-baked idea that’s been bouncing around, I’ve tried to capture at least a sliver of my days.

As I skim through my journals, I’ve noticed a trend:  when I write more about my internal life, I feel better.  Writing about my life feels like giving proper respect to it. And that feeling is priceless. Knowing what I had for dinner on a random Tuesday is a nice by-product.

What I’ve Learned About Meditation In 2020

I like practicing mindfulness meditation, which focuses on cultivating an awareness of my thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. For years, meditation frustrated me. But as my beliefs about the practice have changed, I’ve meditated more consistently and felt better afterwards.

These are 5 beliefs I have about meditation that I didn’t believe in 2019. While etched in text, they’re not etched in stone. I’m excited to see how these beliefs change in 2021. This is a snapshot, not the whole story.

  1. Meditation is not about attaining a perfectly peaceful mind. In fact, I don’t think it is about creating a particular state of mind at all. Trying to do that frustrates the process for me entirely. Effort creates separation between what is happening while I meditate and what I want to happen. This effort requires thinking, and thinking takes me out of the role of the observer and into the role of the doer. Not a place I want to be. Instead, meditation is about giving the mind space to move freely and my awareness a chance to simply watch it happen. I use the app Headspace, but it took years to understand the power of the name itself.
  2. Meditation is not about feeling Zen. While being frustrated by pursuing peace is not pleasant, my awareness of that frustration while meditating is great. I read somewhere that the thought of enlightenment keeps us from being enlightened. I am not trying to reach a peaceful Zen state because that is a thought that takes me out of the moment. And it’s also easy to mistake a Zen state with dissociation, which is not helpful to engaging with life after the session. Meditation is about watching the negative self-talk, seeing the stories my mind plays on repeat, recognizing the physical discomfort. Not ruminating on it, but seeing it for what it is, embracing it, and then letting it go and returning to the breath or the senses.
  3. The most frustrating meditation sessions are the most helpful. Seeing the chaos is wonderful. When I feel my mind racing and my breath ignored while meditating, I  get curious and watch, without trying to change it. When I don’t push back, the chatter slowly quiets down. The chatter never goes silent, and worrying about that is counterproductive. The beauty is in how it quiets and dims at all.
  4. Meditation is more beneficial when done more frequently. I used to think that meditation was like riding a bike. Learn how to do it once and you keep the skill, that feeling, forever. I don’t believe that anymore. My mind and body are always growing, changing, working. So cultivating awareness requires consistent growth, change, and work as well. Meditating 10 minutes a day is better than one hour-long meditation session a week. Two 15-minute meditations are more helpful than one 30-minute session. The frequency helps cultivate the awareness for when I need it most: in stressful and trying moments when I’m not in a calm, peaceful state. Meditation is not to feel good. It’s to observe and accept when I’m feeling bad.
  5. Meditation is not something to get good at. The practice is the whole point. Some people play football to win a championship. Well, with meditation, the practice is the workout, practice, playoffs, and championship all collapsed into one. It’s the whole experience. I am skeptical now when my mind says, “I should skip a day because I’m getting good at this.” That misses the mark entirely. Consistent practice, no expectations. Just keep showing up.

On Giving

Years from now, we are unlikely to remember the gifts we received today. But we will remember the feeling of being seen by a person who was generous enough to give something — kind words, time, a note, a donation, food, an item. And that feeling is priceless; it does not require money to create and lasts a lifetime when done right.

On Planning

The great things in life take time, so plan. Sad is the shopper at Target looking for a Valentine’s Day card on February 14. Disappointing is the car in the Best Buy parking lot on December 24. Waiting until the last minute to make the best decision is just waiting until the last minute. No one wants that. People deserve more, including you.

On What Holds Us Back

Addressing what holds us back is scary. Easier to say instead, “I’ll deal with that later. Now is not a good time.”

The truth is that we are dealing with it, right now, whether we choose to believe it or not. And so is everyone around us. The coping manifests in how we talk, act, and operate in the world. What holds us back infects everything.

It’s scary to open Pandora’s box. But it’s less scary when we realize that we’ve been in the box this whole time.

On Prioritizing

Do immediately what you know you must do now.

Do today what will take you longer to do tomorrow.

Do tomorrow what will take you longer to do today.

And forgive yourself for not doing the things you know you will not do.

On Identities

The identities we define ourselves by matter a lot. Whether they manifest in beliefs in our minds or in conversations with others, ask yourself whether the identity you choose is truthful.

For example, I am a writer. This identity is true, but it’s not because I write “well.” That part is just a story my ego cares about. I am a writer because I sit down, and I write. And that story serves me. It’s accurate, and it’s encouraging. It puts me on the hook in a way that is not debilitating because I can control the outcome. I determine if keys are pressed and words are typed. And if I write, then I am a writer.

But perfection and quality, the story alongside the identity, cannot always be controlled. So put aside the identity, “I’m a good writer.”

Quality is debilitating. Anyone can write one “good” sentence. But you’ll never be a writer without a lot of “bad” sentences being out there. That’s part of the process, it’s part of the identity. Almost none of us go undefeated. Even Muhammad Ali went 56-5. But in each of his five losses, he was still a boxer.

We shy away from identities because self-definition puts us on the hook. It’s the fear of putting ourselves in the arena. As a result, we either shun identities to protect our egos or delude ourselves into embracing identities that are not true. We either become the painter who shuns the label because we haven’t sold enough paintings to be a “successful painter.” Or we walk around calling ourselves singers, even though we don’t sing, or call ourselves businessmen, though we’re not in business.

Don’t hide behind an identity that isn’t truthful. And don’t shy away from an identity because you’re afraid. Criticism and setbacks will come. But if you embrace the identity and put yourself on the hook, you’ll be more resilient.

“I am there for my friends when they need me.”

“I am a writer.”

“I get back up when I fall down.”

I can control these identities.

So be precise, be accurate, be outcome-agnostic and process-focused. Stop hiding, have courage.

On Finishing Strong

There’s something about being so close to completing a task that makes it so hard to finish. The last 1% of what we do carries 50% of the resistance. Steven Pressfield in The War of Art describes how, “resistance is most powerful at the finish line…It hits the panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it’s got.”

I find this resistance in so many parts of my life. A quick list:

-Getting to bed late, knowing I should brush my teeth, but feeling the warmth of the sheets and not scrounging up the energy to get up.

-Entering the last room of the house to clean and speed-mopping aimlessly, missing 30% of the floor in a rush to finish.

-Writing a blog post and hitting publish instead of proofreading one more time like I know I should because I want the dopamine hit of being done.

There’s an adage in weightlifting that lifting is not about reps 1 through 9; it’s about rep 10. It’s about how we finish. This is where the growth and resistance live. Knowing that growth comes from moving with resistance is a game-changer. We can work this muscle by embracing resistance in things both big and small. If you are learning to run and decide to run for 20 minutes, know that minute 20 is going to be the hardest – embrace it. Don’t taper off. End as you began. The resistance you feel isn’t a sign that you should quit. It’s a sign that you’re doing it right.

So, start now. Put the shopping cart back when you’re done using it. Push in your chair when you leave a room. Hug your family members when you say goodbye. Finish strong.