I’m a big fan of Anki for learning languages, or anything you like. I’ve used it for 3 years: learned 1,300 cards.
Today I took a break from every kind of work. I like to do this on Sundays. At 9am I jumped onto the boat bus, which traverses the canals that cut through the centre of Bangkok, and got off at the very end of the line. Old town Bangkok.
When you go about your daily business, you always have an objective. You’re going to work, or going home, or going to lunch. There’s always some goal in everyday life. This is normal; it’s routine; it’s fine. But it’s one reason travel is so great. Travellers don’t have so many interesting stories because they’ve been all over the world: they have these stories because they have opened themselves to whatever life has to offer.
As I get off the boat I notice an elderly monk carrying a bag. I think it looks a bit heavy, and think about offering to help him, but I don’t. This is everyday mind: I’m busy; he probably doesn’t want my help; someone else will offer.
A few paces later, I stop and look back. Today I’m open. Not sure how to address the monk, as I don’t often speak to monks and don’t know the special Thai words you’re meant to use, I offer to help. He responds in the most normal Thai I can imagine, in a way that puts me immediately at ease. He doesn’t accept the offer, and he doesn’t turn it down. So we chat a bit, mainly about how we are right in the middle of a protest area, and how he doesn’t know how he’s going to get to the temple with all the blockades. But in the end, I’m going with him.
His bag is damn heavy, and I wonder how this 70+ year old guy would manage on his own. But mainly we’re talking, relaxed, enjoying the sights: thousands of monks and nuns have come here from all over Thailand for some big ceremony. He leads me around, and everyone we pass is bowing to him. This event is huge. There are stretch limousines, Rolls Royces, and high ranking officials strutting about. He takes me in to the temple area through the ‘monks only’ entrance, chat a bit more, and then we part ways.
Later on, I’m walking, and the strap of my huaraches (home made, Mexican-style sandals) breaks. Instead of getting pissed off about how I was going somewhere and can’t be late, I think about how I can fix them. I find a hair pin from a local shop, sit down, and have just enough strap left to re-thread and re-tie the sandals. In no time I’m walking again, happy that the monk needed help and happy that I got to do some DIY that actually worked. (I’m actually really crap at DIY; just ask my wife.)
If I had been working today, none of this would’ve happened. If I even had a bunch of things I wanted to get from this day-off, it wouldn’t have happened. It’s only because I had no plans, no agenda, that I’ve had such an interesting day.
You don’t have to be in Bangkok for this. You don’t have to be anywhere special. You just need to tell yourself "today, I’m open."
Over the last few months I’ve got a lot better at getting stuff done, and I’m going to share some of the techniques that have made this happen. This website isn’t about productivity, it’s about inner freedom and wholeness, so why am I writing this? It’s because of the effect that productivity, and lack of productivity, has on your state of mind.
I’ve been amazed what a difference getting on top of my to-dos has made. My mind feels more relaxed, open and calm, and a little knot I often felt in my solar plexus is gone. We often look to spiritual or psychological approaches for this kind of thing, but this can, to borrow a phrase from Thai, be like riding an elephant to catch a grasshopper. Not only is it unecessary, it’s not the most effective way to get what you want. When you’re riding on the top of an elephant you’re going to find reaching down to grab that insect difficult.
My life generates a huge amount of little tasks: a form to fill in, an email to reply to, a doctor’s appointment to make, a shelf to tidy. I guess your life might be similar. The problem is that when tasks pile up, you get buried beneath them. When there is a backlog of little things you know you should do, but which don’t have to be done right now, just some day, maybe next week, or when the next vacation comes round; oh I’ll think about it later, it’s not urgent, after all… you find yourself struggling under its weight. These little (and big) to-dos require processing by your brain. Without realising it, you’re living with a constant source of background mental noise and, at least for me, this creates tension.
I’m going to tell you the four things that have helped me get out of that trap.
1. Do it now
If you can do a task now, and you have time, do it. Your default reaction might be to a task to put it on a to-do list, but this means extra work for yourself because you have to 1) write it down and 2) review that list, and decide when to do it, which is extra mental work. Make your default reaction to do it now, unless there’s a good reason why you can’t.
One good reason why you can’t do it now is because you need to rest. Rest is an excellent reason. We need rest throughout the workday, at the end of the workday, and at the end of the working week. More on this in the next section.
2. Give yourself a break.
Lots of breaks. You will not thrive by over-working yourself. Since I’ve starting using this system I stress less and do more. Before my work day looked like this: I would sit down to my computer in the morning and come up for air two hours later wondering what exactly I had been doing, why I hadn’t completed any of the tasks I had planned for the day. I would then plunge back in for another two hours of more focused activity, but have to stop because I was feeling restless and hungry. I would do another three or four hours after lunch, without any real breaks, finishing hunched up in a poor posture, stressed, and needing a strong drink.
Bugger that. The system I now follow looks like this. You work in 90-minute periods, because that’s enough time to get a lot done, and after 90 minutes of focus you are probably ready for some kind of break. The break should be 20-30 minutes, if you’re in a job that allows that, followed by another 90-minute period. That’s three hours of real focus, and you will then be ready for a leisurely lunch. This break will preferably be well away from your work place, both mentally and physically, and last one to two hours. The afternoon has two more 90-minute periods.
If that seems like a relaxed work day, it’s because it is. I work best when relaxed and at ease, and get significantly more done in three or four of these ninety-minute sessions than I used to get done in much longer, more stressful workday. And in the evening I am freer to enjoy myself because I haven’t got stressed.
If you have a boss, she might not allow this kind of schedule, but you might still find a way to work in some of its principles. It might for example be about going to the coffee machine after a ninety-minute session and having a good chat with colleagues and not feeling at all guilty about it: it’s part of your system of productivity.
One of the keys of this system is that ninety minutes doesn’t seem like a long time. Before this, I would think “I have a whole day ahead of me, which must be plenty of time to get things done”, so I would start with email, social media, and getting lost in endless trails of fascinating google searches. Now *I only have ninety minutes*, and there’s no way I’m going to make Facebook my home base for that short length of time. I don’t check my email at the start of the day, because *I only have ninety minutes*. And I’m going to get stuff done.
The more I force myself to rest, the more I get done.
3. Inbox zero
As soon as I came across this concept, my email habits were changed forever.
I get peace of mind just looking at this screen.
I used to believe that checking my email was a time to read friendly messages from loved ones. Then I woke-up to the fact that almost all of the emails I receive are actually jobs for me to do. So I turned off push notifications, and starting checking my email only when I actually have time to read, reply, and do, all in one sitting. If it’s something I can’t do now, I will leave it in the inbox (for something I know I can do within this week), or file it in a ‘waiting’ folder and set a reminder to deal with it on a certain date in the future. If it’s personal, I will enjoy reading it and then file it in a personal folder. There’s no pressure to reply to these, as they’re not tasks.
Once you’ve experienced an empty inbox, you’ll never want to go back to all that chaos.
4. A book
I’m reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done. People rave about it, and follow the system almost religiously, and I can see why. If you want to go deeper with this productivity stuff, read the book.
The techniques I’ve mentioned here might seem too rigid. But they don’t have to be. I don’t follow them like laws, rather as principles. The more often I achieve them, the better I feel, but I never beat myself up for not doing them right.
OK, I’ve been working on this long enough, time to go and get a nice leisurely breakfast.
If you never learn to love yourself, you will spend your whole life seeking that love from others.
As a young Christian I constantly felt under pressure to discover what ‘the will of God’ was for my life. This is not so different from what people call ‘finding your passion': it’s learning about who you are and what you most want to get out of life. But when it’s framed as the will of God, you really don’t want to fuck it up.
Creating life goals is the work of years, and for me this wasn’t the problem. It was the tiny things that got me stressed out. Did I just hear God telling me to give money to that beggar? Or to go and speak to that stranger about Jesus?
Christians know themselves as the children of God. While this metaphor has its uses, when it is pushed too strongly—and it usually is—the overwhelming freedom of the human condition is sacrificed for something less. The freedom we then know is that of a child who cannot leave his mother. It feels safe, but it’s not real freedom. We prefer this, however, because we never have to become adults, which would mean deciding for ourselves.
We were made for more than infantile clinging to what we think the will of God might be. Fear was not meant to be a permanent feature of our lives.
It is not enough to choose from a set of pre-packaged Christian options. It is not enough to hear the voice of God and trot along, the ever-faithful servant. Freedom requires that saying ‘no’ to God, or to any power that claims authority over us, be a possibility that is so real it is a razor’s edge. When we hear a compelling call to do something that we know is not true to who we are, and can say ‘no’, only then can we call ourselves adults.
I’ve never been interested in detoxes because I feel my body handles toxins well enough. It’s only because I’ve been going to a chiropractor, to address chronic neck tension, that I’ve reconsidered. This chiropractor believe that a congested gall bladder and bile ducts is directly linked to muscular pain and tension in other parts of the body. A series of two-day liver cleanses is the answer, he says.
I trust this chiropractor. Since my first visit the tension in my neck has dropped significantly, and I’m 4cm taller. My new posture feels strong and balanced, and this has impacted the way I feel and the way I relate to people every day. A physical adjustment has brought a clear psychological improvement. I’ve never felt so strong.
Before trying the cleanse I read arguments for and against it online, with a lot of people saying it is a complete hoax. So when I did it, it was because of my trust in the chiropractor’s expertise. And the first cleanse bought such an improvement. The tension in my neck was reduced, and subjectively I felt lighter and cleaner. After the second cleanse I started sleeping better, right through the night without any wakings.
If it didn’t help, people wouldn’t do it, because it’s gruelling. On day one you cannot eat anything with fat in it (which is harder than you’d think), until 2pm, after which you cannot eat anything at all. At 6pm you start drinking Epsom salts dissolved in water, which basically serve to give you diarrhoea. At 10pm you drink half a cup of olive oil mixed with half a cup of orange juice.
Yes, you read that last sentence right.
And now it’s day two of my third cleanse. Drinking the Epsom salts solution feels like drinking metal, and it makes me gag if I take anything more than a sip at a time. Glass number three is down. I have another glass to drink in one hour. At around lunch time I should have excreted a hefty amount of, well, crap, and will break the fast, and hopefully start to feel awesome.
Right now I feel weak, but strong enough to write. I feel proud of myself for making it past the toughest part of the regimen, and that I’m well on the way to completing the four to six cleanses that the chiropractor thinks I will need.
And I feel happy that I’ve done yet another whacky thing for my health, despite scientific evidence telling me it’s useless. I don’t have a strong enough interest in science to find out why the liver cleanse has such a profoundly positive effect on your health. The how doesn’t matter so much as the results. The same goes for Reiki. It may not work in the way Reiki practitioners say it works, but but I cannot deny the deeply positive changes it’s brought to my life.
It might turn out that mainstream science one day accepts our whacky alternative health techniques, but I’m not going to sit around waiting for that to happen. Health, like happiness, is not something you put off for the future.
If you’re interested, the regimen is detailed here.
My life has got quieter since I put my phone permanently on vibrate only.
I always look for a neat answer; it’s just how my mind works. So when I think about who or what God might be, I want–when my thinking is done–to be able to say it all in just a sentence or two.
But God is not easy to pin-down and dissect. Our ideas of God are formed organically, marinated in attitudes and especially feelings from family and friends, from books and school and society. When we say "I believe in God" or "I don’t believe in God", we’re putting in a nutshell years of growth of understanding. We build intellectual arguments to justify the nutshell, but what lies inside is more raw, more basic.
When I read many theists I am confronted by their fear of unbelief (and what that might mean for the fate of their souls); when I read the new atheists (like Dawkins or Hitchens) I am bowled over by their anger at the theists. They paint their positions in the language of rationality, but their basic stuff is fear and a lack of peace.
I don’t want what I call God to be like that. That’s why, although I’m frustrated by not knowing who or what God might be, I’m also tentatively satisfied. Why? I want the question to be part of me. I want to infuse in the question. I want the question to change who I am, to slowly but persistently shift my emotions and grow me into someone more healthy, strong, and authentic.
If I’d found a simple answer, it would probably be a manufactured McGod, something I use to solidify the emotions and thoughts that I don’t ever want to face and resolve.
We are accustomed to looking for answers to our problems from outside sources. But Umair Haque says it so wisely: “Be what you search for.”
The problem with the Buddhist idea that the purpose of life is to become freed from the wheel of life and death, to escape the cycle of reincarnation after reincarnation , is this: that it makes life seem like a curse, something that we would escape if we could.