How I stop wasting time and better manage my curiosities

How I stop wasting time and better manage my curiosities

Yesterday I stumbled across an article on Medium called “The 7 Most Underrated Websites Online.” Being my naturally curious self, I spent time clicking through the 7 websites to see what they have to offer.

I started my journey on this curiosity crusade around 12:30 pm. When all was said and done, I spent the better part of a half hour poking around on these sites, instead of working on research that I needed to do.

We’re in this together

One thing that struck me a few months ago in my article titled “Be More Greedy With Your Time” is that many of you struggle with the same thing I do when it comes to curiosity. As I noted in that article, curiosity is the lead domino that starts to cycle of me wasting time.

I was kind of surprised when I saw how many of you out there have the same ailment as I. It got me thinking…we can’t be the only ones who have to deal with this issue on a daily basis.

The purpose of this article to address some possible solutions to this curiosity bug. I want to explore some ideas I’ve incorporated, and some others that I think could be useful to those who are in a similar predicament.

Want to know your priorities? Look at where you spend your time.

One of the first things I would recommend for those of you with a curiosity bug is to review you internet history. You can’t know where your time is going if you don’t know what you spend your time on.

I’ll admit, I got inspiration from this idea in “The Effective Executive,” a classic business management book written in 1967 by Peter F. Drucker. In that book, he states that one must record their time before one can know where it goes and before one can attempt to manage it.

This is great advice for managing time, and I think it can be applied to managing those curiosities as well. I used this advice myself by looking through my browsing history over the past week or so and seeing where I spent a majority of my time online.

I see that I spend a lot of time on Facebook and ESPN (no surprise). But I also see all of my searches I’ve made in Google during that time period as well.

I’m able to get an idea of what I was looking at, when I was looking at it, how long I was looking at it, and what path it led me down during that period of time.

How many websites did I visit? What was I looking for initially? Was my curiosity satisfied? Or did I stop searching before I actually found what I was looking for? Or did I get distracted by something else along the way?

One surprising thing I noticed was that many of my “curiosity searches” come to an abrupt end before I even found the answer. Another large chunk of those searches were completely unrelated to what I was looking for initially. Finally, many of those things I was searching for at the time seem to have disappeared from my memory now. Is this the best use of my time?

In order to manage this I asked myself, what can I do? How can I prevent myself from wasting so much time? Here are some of my possible solutions.

The art of non-reactivity

In mindfulness circles, non-reactivity is the art of creating space between a trigger and your response. It’s the ability to not allow a stimulus to direct your actions to do something you don’t need to do right now. And it’s an awareness that allows you to observe and see what it is you really want.

The way I use this to my advantage is to keep my Evernote app open, and jot down those things I become curious about as I become curious about them. I write down either: the search terms I would look up at the moment or the question that I’m curious about, and then I get back to working on what I was originally working on.

I’ve found that many times I become curious when I’m smack dab in the middle of something. It may be while I’m at work, at home cleaning, reading a book, writing an article for Freethinkr.

This curiosity trigger takes me out of a focused mindset. Often, I give in to this curiosity. And this pulls me out of the deep work I was engaged on at the time.

Breaking “deep work”

Many thought leaders have argued that breaking “deep work” is detrimental to your success in getting work done effectively and efficiently. In his book “Deep Work,” Cal Newport states

“Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from dependence on distraction.”

He goes on to argue that individuals are poor at multitasking and that it results in people who are less productive and very ineffective. Newport supports this claim with information from Clifford Nass, a late Communications professor at Stanford. He found that constant switching of attention can have a lasting negative effect on your mind. He states:

“So we have scales that allow us to divide up people into people who multitask all the time and people who rarely do, and the differences are remarkable. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand…they’re pretty much mental wrecks.”

Applying this information

When I take a break from deep work, I take a few minutes to go through my list of questions and search the internet.

At the end of the day, I’ll look up all of those things I was curious about during the day.

You know what’s funny? Sometimes I’ll go through my list and think to myself “What was I thinking? Why did I care about that?”

But there are times where one of my curiosities was memorable or important, and I’m able to tackle those things with further clarity and focus.

It’s almost as though taking some time to let those ideas simmer will allow you to filter out what matters from what you were just using as a distraction to take you out of your focused work.

An excuse to escape

I’m guilty of using my curiosity as a distraction. When I take for a break from what I’m working on, I surf the web. But I don’t want to go on Facebook or ESPN or any other websites, so I used my curiosity as an excuse.

I’ll distract myself by going on Wikipedia and reading about the Roman emperors. Interesting? Yes. Necessary for me to know? Probably not.

How many times has this happened?

You’re in the middle of an article or paper or project that you are working on. You get to a tough point in your work. And a thought pops into your head. “How do cell phones really work?” Then, just like Alice, you go down the rabbit hole.

But this sort of thing is just as bad. It breaks concentration. And if I really want to get something done, I’ve learned that I need large uninterrupted chunks of time. All these curiosities do is break my concentration and flow.

So I take a break from what I’m working on and look it up. Just as things are getting difficult, I take a completely sideways tangent to escape from my work.

One thing I try to do is remind myself that those difficult times are when you need to push through the most. Those are when you have those moments of breakthrough. And if you really need a break, maybe you just need a mindfulness break.

An alternative to curiosity?

I’ve been making an effort to take more mindfulness breaks throughout my day. To me, this is about taking a few minutes to focus on myself.

A few minutes to bring awareness to my body and my mind. A few minutes to observe my thoughts. A few minutes to check in with my body and see how I’m feeling.

While on the surface this practice looks like I’m doing nothing from the outside, I actually find this practice extremely helpful for me for a couple of reasons:

  1. I’m getting away from what I’m doing. Sometimes, all I want is a short break.
  2. I’m taking a break to stop completely. I’m not spending time online. I’m getting away from the computer. (Sometimes just being on the computer itself can be a tiring exercise mentally.)

How else does mindfulness breaks help?

This practice also allows my subconscious to do some processing. Ernest Hemmingway always said, don’t go to bed without having a request from your subconscious. I try apply this to my thinking when I’m working on something.

Say I’m in the middle of writing this article and suddenly I get tired halfway through. I can take a mindfulness break and check in with how I’m feeling.

As a byproduct, my subconscious continues to work on whatever it was I was doing. And because I’m not filling my mind with other random information, I’m able to stay on task better.

I feel like this allows my brain to make connections that I wouldn’t normally make if I didn’t take a brief interlude.

One final thing is that this allows my brain to become bored. If you’ve ever tried meditation, you know that your mind begins to wander easily. By taking mindfulness breaks, my mind begins to wander, but it usually wanders to whatever the task at hand is.

So what’s the protocol?

Focus only on those curiosities that are important to you and help you achieve your goals.

Keep Evernote or other notetaking app or a pen and waiter pad nearby and jot down those things you are curious about.

Take mindfulness breaks every so often (for me it’s about every 10-15 minutes of work, on average) where you pause for one to two minutes and bring awareness to your body and how you are feeling. Because what you really want (or need) is a break.

These breaks helps you stay focused and on task. And they will allow you to get deep work done and accomplish more work in less time. This, in turn, (and ironically I might add) gives you more time to dive into those curiosities later since they aren’t interrupting the flow of your work.

Curiosity is a great trait to have. But don’t let it be a time suck like it has been for me. Get meaningful work done and address those curiosities later.

What are some tricks you’ve learned to manage your curiosities?

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My average meditation session is far from perfect

My average meditation session is far from perfect

“I haven’t meditated all day. Let me take a few minutes and do myself a favor.”

I check the clock and it reads 2:08 pm.

“I’ll meditate until about 2:20,” I tell myself.

I sit down in the office chair in my bedroom. I close my eyes and sit still. I allow my mind to do whatever it pleases.

A few minutes go by. I think about the gifts I have to wrap. I think about a text I got from my friend that I need to reply to. I think about the desserts I was going to bake for my family tomorrow.

Each time my mind curates one of these thoughts, I take a step back. I acknowledge the thought as it happens.

It’s a meta experience. Looking at thoughts from a third person perspective. But that’s the practice.

My mind continues to wander around. Just like a dog on a lease, I let it go where it may, but never straying too far.

Another idea pops into my head. I follow it. I acknowledge it’s existence. I then let it go as best as I can.

I don’t judge the thoughts that pop into my head. I merely observe that they are there, from a third person perspective, then watch them leave. After a few minutes of this the chatter begins to quiet.

The key is to not react.

As I think this, I imagine how good it would be to get up and stretch. I resist the urge. I acknowledge this thought, but I choose not to react to it.

A few more minutes go by. The chatter dies down further. I feel more at peace.

“This is a good place to stop.” I think to myself.

But I never stop when I think I should. I like to go a few more minutes to challenge myself. I like to push on just a little bit further.

I believe these extra minutes are where the true magic happens. Because I’m resisting the urge to end the session. That is the ultimate example of non-reactivity.

A few more minutes go by.

“Okay, I feel pretty good now. What time is it?”

The clock reads 2:19 pm. Not too shabby.

Why should anyone care what I think?

Why should anyone care what I think?

Anyone can do what I do.

Everybody knows already knows that.

I don’t want to write about that, everyone’s writing about that.

What am I really contributing?

Is this something that people are even going to read?

These questions occupy my mind when I sit down to write. This is the battle I fight.

It’s time to break free from this mentality. It’s time to steer away from this train of thought.

The thing about most people

You have a message you want to share. It seems obvious to you.

“It’s not like anything I write is actually going to contribute to the world.”

But what if?

What if someone doesn’t read the books that you read?

What if someone doesn’t watch the same videos that you watch?

Most people haven’t experienced the same things as you. Most people haven’t learned the same things as you.

Maybe they didn’t have the time. Maybe they’ve never heard of those books or blogs. Or, maybe they read them, but came away with a completely different perspective.

Writing for one

If you don’t share what you learned, your interpretation of it, and its applicability to the real world, you’re doing the world a disservice.

If you’ve learned something and you understand it, you have an opportunity to teach it to somebody else.

Yesterday I was listening to a  podcast featuring Seth Godin, author, entreprenuer, former VP of Direct Marketing at Yahoo, and creator of Squidoo. I was reminded that I need to visualize who I’m writing for when I do this blog.

One fun trick I use is creating an avatar of my reader. I ask myself:

  • What does the reader enjoys doing?
  • What kind of person are they?
  • What are they trying to accomplish in life?
  • What are their hobbies?
  • What are their dreams?
  • What do they fear?

The goal is to get inside this person’s head. I create an avatar – the person that I am communicating to as I write.

Sometimes I take it a step further. I’ll give that avatar a name and a face. I imagine having a conversation with them. What questions are they asking? What should I tell them?

I used this technique while writing this article. The person I’m imagining is a woman named Lauren. She’s in her mid-to-late twenties. She’s an avid reader and enjoys writing. But, she lacks confidence when it comes to sharing her ideas with the world.

Lauren doesn’t feel her ideas are unique. Lauren feels that everything she says has already been said before. And now she’s coming to me seeking advice.

It’s easier to answer to one than to many

This applies to podcasters. This applies to YouTubers. This applies to business owners.

It’s easier to target one person that you know intimately well then it is to target the masses.

Writing for many is a recipe for disaster. When I attempt to write for too many people, I have a tendency to worry that someone somewhere has already read what I’m about to write. And that makes me not want to write.

What is your smallest possible audience?

Seth Godin talks about this as well. He advocates that you find the smallest possible audience, and then please that audience so that they love you.

Often, we get sidetracked when we forget about “smallest possible.” If you make the audience you’re initially serving too big, you will dilute the very thing you set out to make, avoid critical mass, and compromise the magic of what you’re building. You’ll make average stuff for average people instead of something powerful for the few.

Can’t see the forest for the trees

I become self-conscious at times. I don’t want to be a parrot. I don’t want to write something that people already know. This gets me into a mentality that everything that I write has to be 100% original and unique.

I’m too close to myself. Things that seem common and obvious to me may not be as common or obvious to others.

I need to remind myself: my message is unique to someone somewhere. Most people haven’t read the same books as I. Most people haven’t watched the same videos and documentaries as I. Most people haven’t listened to the same podcasts as I.

Try if for yourself

If you have trouble sharing your ideas because you feel like they are not unique, try out the techniques in this article.

Focus on your audience of one.

Think of a person who could use your unique perspective.  

Think of someone who hasn’t learned the same things you have.

Then create something for them.

Have you ever experienced this feeling when you sit down to write? What do you do to deal with it? What other advice would you give others to overcome this feeling?

Make your goals more robust by doing this:

Make your goals more robust by doing this:

I knew the exact path I would go down once I escaped high school. Get my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in accounting, conquer the CPA exam, and get a good job with benefits.

That was my goal from day one. Every day in school this goal was in the back of my mind.

I thought about getting to the end of the road. I had my eyes on the prize, and imagined how my life would be better once I reached the finish line.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. In an early undergraduate accounting course my school required a minimum grade of a B before moving on to the next course.

I messed up on the first exam. My world almost came crashing down. Everything I was focused on almost disappeared. The future I dreamed of was slipping away. (In retrospect, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. But in that moment, that was my whole world.)

Goals are great, but can be burdensome

I’ve been a fan of goals since I was young. They kept me accountable. They gave me a something to shoot for. They helped me zero in on what I needed to do.

Goals are important. But they are not the only thing that matters. (In case you were wondering, I had to retake that class, got an A, and lived happily ever after.)

The missing ingredient

In “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg explores the depth of how humans function, including the neurological patterns that govern our habits.

He defines the habit loop and divides it into three elements: cue, routine, and reward.

According to Duhigg, cue and the reward are neurologically intertwined, creating a sense of craving. This is why some folks crave certain actions, like smoking a cigarette or eating that candy bar. What we really seek is the reward from the routine.

What can we do with this knowledge of habits?

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, wrote “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big,” where he explores the idea of goals and habits with a unique twist.

According to Adams, there are two types of people in the world: those who are goals-oriented and those who are systems-driven.

(For the purposes of this article, I use habits and systems interchangeably.)

Adams believes that goal-oriented people always exist in a state of pre-success or failure; there is no in between.

However, systems driven people look at the familiar in new and different ways. Those with a system in place succeed every time they implement the system.

For example

In honor of NoNoWriMonth, let’s say I have a goal to write a book. My hope is to achieve this goal in the next few months.

Thinking of this goal, I see a gorilla of a task at hand. Writing an entire book? Sheesh, that’s tough to do.

Now imagine this: Say I get 70% of the way through the book, but can’t do it anymore. I’m a failure. All of those hours were merely a waste of time. Unless…

I have a system.

What would your system be?

My system would be writing for a minimum of 10 minutes first thing in the morning. In those 10 minutes, write at least 500 words. It doesn’t matter how good or bad those 500 words are. The system is merely the act of writing within this time frame.

These mini-goals, or systems, are what is going to help me reach that long term goal of writing a novel. By writing for merely 500 words per day, I could easily have a draft with 45,000 words within 3 months. That’s the power of systems.

Systems also make it so you never truly fail

The system is writing for 10 minutes, first thing in the morning. What would I hope to accomplish with this system? Well…

  • I want to improve my writing skills
  • I want to improve my editing skills
  • I want to share my thoughts with the world

With my system in place, I would achieve bullets 1 and 2 every time I write. The 3rd bullet allows me an out even if you never finish writing the book. How so?

Let’s go back to the scenario earlier. Say I’m 70% of the way through the book and decide I can’t finish it. I just wasted a bunch of time.

But, if my goal is to share my thoughts with the world, I can still accomplish that!

I could break up the book into bite-sized pieces and share it with the world through articles my blog.

Systems increase your chances of success

Scott Adams looks at systems as a technique to increase your chances of success. It’s not simply success or failure, as it is in the goal-oriented frame of mind.

Instead, with the right system in place, you can succeed a little bit each and every day. These small wins drive you closer to accomplishing your goal of writing a book.

Adams actually recommends that you set up systems all throughout your life in order to accomplish those things that you want and increase your odds of success.

Another system example

One such system that I’ve implemented into my life is having 10% of my paycheck transferred into my retirement accounts every single month.

Instead of setting some audacious goal (say saving $1 million) and the obsessing over it every single month, I have a system in place that operates automatically. This one simple habit helps puts me on track for success. This system operates every single time I get paid.

Going back to the habit loop, the cue is receiving my paycheck, the routine is having it automatically transferred. What’s the reward? Checking my investment accounts and seeing the balance I’ve managed to accumulate.

This is one instance where having a system in life increases my odds of success. By creating the habit of saving, I don’t blow through my whole paycheck.

Instead, I slowly invest my cash that will help me reach my eventual goal of financial freedom. Do I know when I’ll reach that goal? No, but the system in place takes it from a pipe dream to a realistic probability just like that.

Systems-driven thinking

Systems influence your mindset. The right systems allow me to become mindful and focus on the present moment. Instead of thoughts about some future audacious goal, I focus on that task at hand.

I focus on what it is that I have accomplished already. With systems, the accomplishment is taking action. It’s writing 500 words today. It’s saving 10% of my paycheck every pay period.

The system becomes routine, and there’s no obsession on the end result.

Goals and anxiety

Personally, goals make me worry about the future to the point of anxiety. Goals can be overwhelming, especially if they aren’t expected to be accomplished for years or even decades.

Systems are a form of mindfulness, present state focus on the moment. They allow you think about what you are doing right now. You don’t think about how far away you are from that goal. This frees up your mental faculties so you can do deep work and do the best you can now.

Systems keep you grounded and present. They allow you not to obsess over the progress bar.

Don’t rob your present state awareness with audacious goals about the future. You can still reach them, you just need the right system.

What systems (or habits) have you implemented in your life that have had a big impact? Are there any systems you think we can benefit from by implementing into our lives?

How to improve your listening skills so that others open up to you

How to improve your listening skills so that others open up to you

Last month I was working on a project with my coworker, Mike, when I came across something that I thought was unusual.

It was something I’ve never seen before, and I wanted Mike’s opinion on what we should do.

I wanted to talk it out and get an explanation of some sort. About two sentences into my speech, Mike cut me off.

“Don’t worry about that. It’s not important,” He said.

That was it.

No explanation of why it wasn’t important.

Mike cut me off before I had a chance to explain. His short, abrupt response didn’t help me whatsoever.

I’m trying to learn and figure something out. And all he could say was that it wasn’t important.

His half assed response infuriated me.

I didn’t have any resolution. He made my job harder because not only did I not know why this didn’t matter, but I had to figure out on my own why it wasn’t important and document my reasoning.

Mike pissed me off. Why didn’t he listen to me? He could’ve given me an explanation and let me go on my way. Instead I completely wasted my time trying to figure out things on my own.

Mike’s not the best listener. But he’s not alone.

When people fail to listen, problems sprout up like weeds. It makes jobs harder. It leads to miscommunication. And it wastes time.

I’ve Resolved to Become a Good Listener

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to value good listening.

Growing up as a middle child, I felt like no one ever listened to me. Maybe I’m self-conscious about it.

Regardless, I made a promise not to make others feel like they are being ignored. I’m not perfect. I have moments where my attention dwindles.

Benefits of Listening

People have a tendency to tell me more information when I shut my mouth and listen to what they say.

By showing an ability to listen, people appreciate your patience and listening skills. They are also more likely to open up to you and tell you their deep, dark secrets.

If I were an evil person, I could use this to my advantage. But I’m not. I have, however, found this skill to be quite useful in my personal life and my work life.

You better understand people’s quirks and attitudes better. From there, you can adapt your behavior to their little quirks which is huge to help avoid any confrontation or animosity.

Great Leaders Listen

According to Sir Richard Branson, if you want to stand out as a leader, start by listening. Listening is a skill that helps you throughout your career. It helps you gather information on how to move things along by paying attention to what employees are saying.

Branson says “Leaders who are great listeners are often terrific at uncovering and putting in place strategies and plans that have a big impact.”

“We have two ears and one tongue so that we would listen more and talk less.” – Diogenes

We listen for a variety of reasons: to obtain info, decipher it, learn, and for pure enjoyment. However, research shows we only remember about 25 to 50 percent of what we hear.

Many employers say listening is one of the top skills they look for in employees.

If you’re a business owner or employee, listening increases customer satisfaction, leads to greater productivity, fewer mistakes, and an increase in information shared among individuals.

How Can We Become Better Listeners?

1. Have an Open Mind

Start by having an open mind to what your speaker is saying. Listen without judging or criticizing.

Occasionally when I talk to someone with a different opinion from me, I can tell if they are tuning out what I say. What ends up happening is I don’t listen to what they say in retaliation. We are both stubborn, and all communication breaks down.

Hold back your thoughts, and listen without judging or criticizing. Don’t interrupt someone else when they are trying to finish their sentences.

2. Actively Listen

Pay complete attention to your speaker. Be mindful of what they are saying. Put away books, papers, your cell phone, and any other distractions that will detract from their message.

Sometimes I get bored when I hear someone else talking. I remind myself to repeat what they say in my head as they say it. This turns listening into an active activity instead of passive.

3. Make Eye Contact

Have you ever talked to someone while their eyes dart around the room? It’s kind of distracting.

Look at the speaker directly. Don’t become distracted by those things around you. Maintain eye contact with your subject.

4. Connect Emotionally

Listen to not only the words that the person is saying, but listen to the emotion behind those words. Are they excited or sad or angry?

Emotion drives a lot of our communication. Emotional awareness will lead to greater comprehension and understanding in your communication.

5. Pay Attention to Nonverbal Clues

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said” -Peter Drucker

Nonverbal communication makes up a majority of our communication.

Some say that 93 percent of our communication is nonverbal, others say 55 percent. The numbers don’t matter. At the end of the day, more than half of our communication with one another is nonverbal.

Pay attention to how someone is behaving. Are the fidgeting? Are they avoiding eye contact? Do they seem closed off?

These nonverbal clues can give you a peek into their mind and give you an idea of how they’re really feeling.

6. Acknowledge the Other Person

Nod your head and say “uh huh” or “yeah” to reassure the person that really are listening.

Not only that, but respond to the speaker in a way that encourages them to continue speaking. Be sure to recap what they say every so often. You can do this by saying, “So what you’re saying is…” or “So you think…”

This helps you understand better what they are saying, forces you to recall what you’re saying, and reinforces to the speaker that you are actually listening to their concerns.

7. Encourage Further Communication

Once you develop an understanding, ask open ended questions that encourage them to talk further and expand upon what they were saying.

You want to respond in a way that encourages your speaker to continue speaking. This way you can extract more information that you can utilize down the road. Ask open ended questions that allow for further explanation.

That’s It

I’m not the best listener, that’s why I wrote this post. Sometimes I need to remind myself why listening is important and how to listen better.

Would you consider yourself a good listener? What would you recommend in order to become a better listener?