Establishing Habits for a Productive Life

Productivity

Using Mint.com to budget my expenses

As the daughter of an accountant, I grew up hearing about the importance of managing my money responsibly.  Furthermore, as a student with very low (or rather, a non-existent) income, I am forced to be very strict about what I can and cannot spend money on.  Unfortunately, I’ve always resisted making concrete budgets for myself to stick to, instead telling myself “Yeah, I’ll try to cut my spending.”

This casual approach to saving was working for a while (I think?), but my “yeah, I’ll try to spend less” mentality now seems evaporate as soon as I pass a charming coffee shop and realize I need that $4 latte. Since I know that my self-control can sometimes be a little weak, I’ve decided that I need to take action to start developing the “saving habit” my dad has been telling me about my whole life.

Just this weekend I made a profile on Mint.com, and I’m already very impressed with the website’s functions.  Now I can set exact budget amounts- not just per month, but also within each category of spending: clothes, food & drink (subdivided into coffee shops, restaurants, groceries, etc.), general shopping, etc.  Mint.com will allow me to identify spending trends and to identify areas of my spending where I could be cutting back.

The issue with the site that makes some people hesitant to sign up is that when creating a profile, you need to enter your bank account user name and password. They ask for this information so that every time you swipe your card, the information is automatically sent to Mint.

There has been much talk about this system and whether it makes Mint.com an insecure place to house all your banking information and financial history. A NYTimes article came out a few years ago on the topics, and they assured users that the safety system seems secure. If you’re curious about the nitty-gritty details of Mint.com’s encrypting, check out the NYTimes article here.

Mint.com also has a mobile app – Mint.com Personal Finance.  It’s a super easy to use app that streamlines and simplifies your financial data enough so that you can check your current balance and budget on-the-go.  That way, as soon as you feel tempted to wander in and purchase that new Lululemon tank, you can pull up your info and maybe think twice about making that purchase.


Six Secrets to Smarter Decision-Making

“The single most important factor in determining your health is not your parents, or even your environment.  It is the quality of decisions that you make every day.”  – Dr. Daniel Amen (child and adult psychiatrist, self-help advisor, author and medical director of the Amen Clinic)

Let’s face it: we all know what foods are good for us, we all know we need to exercise, we all know we should quit smoking.  We are bombarded with information and advice about how to get healthy.  The problem is not a shortage of information. It is implementing it in our own lives on an everyday basis.

In fact, an eight-decade long study found that the single largest biological factor linked with longevity was conscientiousness.  What seems like our permanent state of “health” is, in large part, the consequences of a lifetime of decision-making. We might tell ourselves that we’ll make better decisions tomorrow, but bad decisions quickly turn into bad habits. And as we age, the consequences become more and more magnified.

The question then is, how do we help ourselves make better decisions? We all know what we should be doing, but we often act in contradicting ways.

I find that my moments of poorest judgement come when I am in a weakened mental state. Have you ever noticed that you tend to make the laziest, most unwise decisions when you are tired, starving, cranky, stressed, or intoxicated? In these states, reaching for that donut may seem like the only thing that will help you get through your day. It is so easy to justify bad decision-making to ourselves, especially when in the short term, it may be easier or more fun than the alternative. Unfortunately, if we tend to indulge our cravings in this way, we might be asking ourselves 3 months down the line, “Where did those 5 lbs come from?”

There are several steps we can take to prevent ourselves from falling into these weakened states in the first place (in order words, ensuring that our brain is well-equipped to make the best possible decisions):

  • Keep your blood sugar stable. Eat high quality, small meals four to five times a day.
  • Get 7-8 hours of sleep daily. Six or less hours of sleep decreases blood flow to vital organs, particularly the brain.
  • Eliminate toxins.  Heavy drinking or drug use will impair your judgment, making you more likely to do things you might not normally.  Not to mention, the carbs from alcohol probably aren’t going to make those fitness goals any easier.
  • Lose weight.  Did you know that the more weight you put on, the smaller and less efficient your brain becomes?
  • Meditate. A UCLA study published in March 2012 found that meditators have larger amounts of folding in the brain’s cortex than non-meditators, enabling them to process information more quickly.
  • Worry a little bit.  The Longevity Project also found that those with the “don’t worry, be happy” philosophy were a little more inclined to slack on their health than those who worried a small amount.

The type of temporary satisfaction we seek by indulging our cravings or weaknesses may provide pleasure in the short-term, but before you reach for that bag of potato chips, ask yourself if the subsequent guilt and regret is worth it.


How Facebook is Ruining Your Life

I’m a child of the Facebook generation. When I was a freshman in high school, Facebook was just starting to trickle down from the college set to my age group and as a result, much of my high school social life grew within and was influenced by this new virtual space.  It was unfortunate timing, I think, because my friends and I were learning the ropes of social networking right when, emotionally and socially, we needed that kind of desperate competition the least.

In the public sphere there is so much conversation about the merits of Facebook: the political uprisings it enabled! The rekindled connections! The expanded audience for advertisers! As I’ve watched Facebook become a social necessity in the lives of my peers, however, I’ve realized that the vast majority of Facebook use is not only ineffective, but damaging.  What’s more, it has created a new kind of person – one who has learned how to craft their life for, and find great self-affirmation in this virtual space.

While I don’t doubt that many photos are posted because that party really was fun or that vacation really was awesome, I wonder what percentage of content on Facebook is generated for the sole purpose of validating one’s self-worth. Productivity-wise, think how much emotional energy this must consume, and how much time! And for what? 

At the end of the day, which is more valuable? A life lived to be perceived by others, or a life lived for the fulfillment and happiness of oneself?

We all know those people who live on or for Facebook – the ones who set out for an adventure so that they can capture photos to show the world that they too are having fun, the ones who carefully craft status updates to maximize “likes”, the ones who agonize over selecting the perfect profile picture to complement their “image.” I am not saying I’ve been immune to this. I’ve spent my share of time adding and deleting photos, picking which ones might make me look cool or thin or whatever. I do think, though, that now that I’m starting to realize how futile this is, that I’m becoming a little more jaded about it all.

At the start of this summer, I made a deliberate effort to step away from Facebook. I was as sucked in as everyone else.  I felt like I had (virtual) social obligations, messages to respond to, events to keep track of, etc.  I tried to limit my usage, but I was still spending about 30 minutes a day on the site. I sometimes found myself getting distracted and scrolling through my newsfeed or looking at vacation photos of people I didn’t care about (and that’s a weird enough issue to be discussed in another post, I think…). I stepped back for a moment, added this up, and realized that if I continued on this trajectory, I would spend more than a week out of the year doing something that brought no happiness or fulfillment to my life whatsoever.

So when the summer began, I asked my mom to change my password so I couldn’t log on. Each time I came back to answer messages, however, the site seemed more and more frivolous. I realized three things: first, that some of the most adventurous and interesting people I knew had little to no Facebook presence (I wonder why…perhaps they were more concerned with actually living it?). Second, Facebook had essentially eradicated any traditional notion of modesty. Bragging about any and all accomplishments had become fair game. And third, so much of what goes on on Facebook is incredibly insensitive to others – and this is where the ‘damaging’ part comes in.

I’m sure that most people who use Facebook recognize the artificiality behind it all. Anyone with a profile can see how easy it is to make one’s life look adventurous and exciting.  Unfortunately, while many of us recognize this, we forget that everyone else with a profile has the same kind of power.  This is why Facebook can inspire jealousy and insecurity so easily. We take what we see at face value, and thus spend an inordinate amount of time (either consciously or subconsciously) judging ourselves against others. A passive perusal of the newsfeed could inspire one to seriously doubt their own self-worth. They might ask themselves if what they are doing is enough: Is my career adequate? Do I have enough friends? Am I fun enough? Am I attractive enough?

My advice? Check yourself on two levels. The next time you hang out with those people or go to that party, ask yourself: would I still be doing this even if no one could see it? Am I doing this because I want to, or to impress others? And furthermore, the next time you comment about an amazing party, publish those photos from a girls’ weekend, or write that status update, please consider those who spent the weekend home alone, or who might not be finding life quite so ‘epic.’

And please, friends, remember.  Everything you post is being distributed to anywhere from three hundred to two thousand people. It’s not your ten closest friends.  It can be literally anyone you’ve ever met, ever.  Do they really need to see what you look like in a bikini?


Design your morning routine to inspire creativity

I had coffee with a friend of mine a couple days ago, and he said something that really resonated with me.  He told me that when he first wakes up, he tries to immediately engage in something creative before doing anything else.  He hypothesized that doing so would launch your mind into a creative mode.

Those first moments upon waking seem to be crucial for setting the tone of your day. Unfortunately, many people wake up and as we sip those first sips of coffee, we mindlessly scroll through our Facebook newsfeed, turn on the news, or scan the flood of emails that came in during the night. These kind of activities, though at times necessary, can have a dulling effect on the mind.

Try refraining from these activities for at least 15 minutes upon waking. Use those quiet moments of alone time in a mindful, constructive way. It may be as simple as writing 10 words concerning your intention for the day.  I once read a book called The Artist’s Way where the author, an artist, advocated writing three full pages of stream-of-consciousness blabber in your journal before doing anything else.  She said you should routinely empty your mind of all its residual junk in order to make room for new information and fresh ideas. My friend said he usually sketches or writes something. I have experienced the same therapeutic , mind-cleansing effect when I run or do yoga first thing in the morning.

Before you go to bed tonight, think about how you would like to begin your day when you wake up tomorrow.  Then, lay out physical reminders that you’ll won’t be able to see past. Turn your laptop face down. Set your journal or sketch pad out on the kitchen table.  Place your running shoes in front of your bedroom door.   Roll our your yoga mat at the foot of your bed.

Don’t let yourself begin your daily routine until you have engaged in your creative activity. Or more specifically, identify one aspect of your routine that you enjoy doing.  Personally, I hate the feeling of having not showered yet.  Because working out is a priority for me, I don’t allow myself to shower until I have done some kind of physical activity (running, yoga, etc.).  For you, if you derive satisfaction from checking your email, don’t allow yourself to do so until you have completed your “creative” action for the morning.

I challenge you to try this for several days in a row, and see if it alters your mindset upon waking up. In my experience, doing so allows me to approach my day with a clear, focused mind.


The Early Morning Routine

I strongly believe that I could not have made it through my first two years at Stanford without the early morning habit. At the beginning of freshmen year, I was constantly exhausted, underslept, and irritable. It was difficult to focus during the day because of all the activity around me. When I tried working late at night, I produced low-quality work.

I haven’t always been a morning person, but I slowly made the transition using simple tricks, tools and habits. I now wake up around 5 a.m. every morning, and those early hours are the most productive of my day.

A typical morning looks something like this:

5:00 a.m.: The alarm rings.
5:20 a.m.: Work-out clothes already on, I brew my coffee, cook an egg/feta/spinach omelette or whatever else I might be craving.
5:30 a.m.: I sit down with my breakfast and give myself at least five minutes to focus on my food and coffee. This intentional eating, coupled with a clear effort to set my intention for the day, sets a mindful and purposeful tone for the next few hours. I look over my schedule for the day, prioritize my work, and then begin, starting with the most important items first.
Note: I try to refrain from checking email/facebook/texts until around seven. No email needs a reply this early anyway.  These early hours are the time for me to be alone with my work, without distraction. To reduce any kind of temptation, I usually set SelfControl for an hour and a half, having added Facebook, Gmail, etc. to the blacklist.
7:00 a.m.: Having already completed an hour and a half of completely focused work, I open my email and respond to anything pressing.
7:20 a.m.- 8:30 a.m.: This is the time I set aside each day for either yoga, running, or meditation.  This time is essential for me to approach my day with a clear, stress-free mind.
8:30 a.m.: I shower, get ready, and head out the door.

By the time most of my peers are just waking up, I’ve already conquered a significant portion of my work.  Additionally, instead of resenting my 9 a.m. classes for having dragged me out of bed, I am well-prepared.  Rather than being groggy, I am focused and alert.

Of course, the one downside of this schedule is that I get tired earlier in the evening. Because I don’t always want to go to bed at 10 p.m., I usually take an hour-long nap between classes at some point in the afternoon.  This re-energizes me for the rest of the day and enables me to work or socialize late into the evening.


Making Exercise a Daily Habit

It’s very easy to tell ourselves excuses to explain why we can’t get active. In order to transform exercise from a chore into a daily habit, there are steps we can take to work exercising into our daily schedules and hold ourselves accountable.

  1. Write down a measurable goal. When I first started, my goal was to be running 3 miles a day by the end of the month.  I wrote it down on  a post-it note and stuck it to my desk. When I woke up every morning, I made sure I did at least one thing that day to be moving toward that goal. If you don’t write it down, you are more likely to change it half-way through.
  2. And don’t make it unrealistic. Although it’s tempting to be ambitious, set a smaller goal first, and then go from there.  Setting a goal you know you simply won’t have time or energy for will only lead to disappoint and shame rather than feelings of accomplishment.  The association with positive emotions is more likely to propel you forward.
  3. Be specific about the daily routine. Instead of just saying that “I’ll run,” I say, I’ll run three miles on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and two miles on Tuesday and Saturday.
  4. Tell people about it. Broadcast your goal. This is one of the many ways you can hold yourself accountable.  If you succeed, you can brag about it.
  5. Set a time of day when you will work out regardless of the conditions. Mine is 7:30 a.m. If you have more free time in the evening, make it then. I just find that morning works particularly well for me because I will squeeze in all my work that I need to do with whatever time I have left in the way, but it’s doesn’t necessarily work the other way around.  But whatever your time is, make sure that the habit is consistent.  If you do it right after you wake up, do that everyday.  If you do it before dinner, do that every day.
  6. Don’t make it torturous.  If you not feeling well, if you’re sore, etc., you don’t have to kill yourself that day. Even if you’re only going for a walk, just make sure you’re still doing something, no matter how small it is.
  7. Recruit a work-out buddy.  Talk to a friend the night before and say, “Let’s meet at ___ time to ____ (run/walk/go to a gym/etc.).”  You then can’t back out because you would be letting someone down.  You are held accountable to someone other than yourself.
  8. Be prepared.  If you are travelling, there is no need to leave your running shoes (or whatever else you may need) behind.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done my morning yoga routine on a hotel floor, or how many times I’ve woken up before everyone else to go for a run.  You can exercise wherever you are.  A new location doesn’t necessarily mean a new routine. I have a friend who carries tennis rackets, golf clubs, and a swim suit in his trunk at all times.
  9. Log your efforts. I right it down on my calendar, you might choose to use an app, a google doc, a diary, etc. I find it incredibly rewarding to look back and see how consistent my efforts have been and if and where I may have improved (I used to be able to run no more than a mile, now I’m running at least 3 daily).
  10. Add variety. I get tired of doing the same thing every day, as do most people.  Right now, I’m alternating my morning exercise hours like this:

Monday – Trail-running/Meditation

Tuesday – Yoga

Wednesday – Gym (Treadmill running/weights)

Thursday – Yoga

Friday – Trail-running/Meditation

Saturday – Hiking

Sunday – Anything goes.


“I don’t have time to work out…” and other excuses we tell ourselves

I don’t have the right equipment, the right shoes, the right shorts, the right sports bra.
I just showered, I don’t want to get sweaty.
I’m so out-of-shape I’ll make a fool out of myself.
The gym is too far, I don’t want to waste time driving.
I need to send emails.
I haven’t eaten yet. I just ate.
It’s too early. It’s too late.
It’s too hot. It’s too cold.
I’m tired.
I’ve had a long day.
I don’t look good in my work out clothes.
I only have a half an hour, it’s not enough time.
My iPod isn’t charged.
It’s a Saturday morning, the gym will be too crowded.

Do any of these sound familiar? Acknowledging that you set up these barriers for yourself is the first-step. Abolishing them is the next. The solution is not to wait for the perfect time, but to understand and deconstruct these mental blocks.

“I wish I could go for a run/to the gym/to yoga class, I just don’t have time.”  Especially at school, this is my go-to excuse.  I’ve found that in a society where “busyness” has become an indicator of drive and ambition, being too busy to squeeze in even the smallest activities (“I have no time to sleep,” “I can’t even sit down for a meal.”) is simultaneously a complaint and a bragging point. Though I may actually be busy, I find that sometimes I consciously or unconsciously add more items to my plate in order to feel less guilty about not being active.

When I tell myself I can’t work out because I have too much to do, I’m hiding under my work.  It reality, it comes down to a matter of prioritization. Can I sacrifice the 30 minutes I spend on Facebook over the course of the day? Can I work with more focus and efficiency to free up time in the evening?

I challenge you to listen to the excuses you tell yourself and question them.  Where are they really coming from? How can we reframe our thinking in order abolish mental roadblocks we set up for ourselves? Will there ever be a day when all conditions are perfect: when we are in-shape enough to not feel embarrassed or in adequate about running, when we will be well-fed, well-rested, have the perfect gear and the perfect weather? Most likely not.


TEDTalks for Changing Habits and Keeping Motivated

I don’t know what I did before TEDTalks.  I can’t imagine anything more convenient, more inspiring, and more accessible than 20-minute-or-less videos from some of the world’s greatest thinkers.

Here are some of the talks that I’ve found the most interesting. If you have a few minutes, please give these a listen.  You won’t regret it.

To remind you why not being productive isn’t always unproductive, Stefan Sagmeister: The Power of Time Off:

An inspiring talk by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver on how we can improve America’s eating habits from the bottom-up, Jamie Oliver’s TED Prize wish: Teach every child about food:

Considering becoming a vegetarian, but not quite ready to take the plunge? Graham Hill: Why I’m a weekday vegetarian

On shedding material possessions to make more time, space, and money for yourself: Graham Hill: Less stuff, more happiness

On rethinking success: Alain de Botton: A kinder, gentler philosophy of success

Simple reminders to find happiness in the everyday: Matthieu Ricard: The habits of happiness

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbLEf4HR74E