Write mediocre things now 

boredI never thought of myself as one of those writers who’s afraid to put their writing out there.

I’ve published over 1,100 posts on Tech Cocktail and hundreds of posts on my personal blogs. Fear is not my problem – right? 

But the other day, I was toying with an idea for a blog post about “should” – a phrase I use all the time in my head, which may not be the best motivational strategy. And I realized: I was afraid. 

Not of trolls or scathing refutations, but of mediocrity. 

I often get my fiance to read my posts, and when he responds with something along the lines of “Hm! That’s nice,” I feel like I did something wrong. Somewhere in my head, I want all the posts I write to be the musings of a genius. I want to be creating new ideas, challenging assumptions, and evoking more than a “Hm!” And, as a perfectionist, I’ll always push myself to take the ideas further, to categorize and define, to find the connections that lie just below the surface. 

But maybe I’m too hard on myself. Maybe I have to write lots of mediocre stuff before I someday arrive at my magnum opus, my book, my profound revelations. Maybe writing is just like a form of public practicing, where I get better at the actual writing and the idea development each time I click “publish.” 

Paul Jarvis, who published an ebook for creative entrepreneurs last November called Everything I Know, says, “Einstein wrote thousands of research papers and most were considered either awful or simply average. It wasn’t until he had tried several ideas and explored many new paths that he finally came upon his genius.” When Jarvis felt like a weak web designer himself, he responded by building more websites – practicing. 

The student doesn’t walk into physics 101 and expect to invent a new theory. As bloggers and writers, maybe we need to see ourselves as students – particularly if we’re hoping to become experts in a certain subject. While I aim for the fascinating, today I may have to settle for the mildly interesting. 

Photo by Flickr user TRF_Mr_Hyde

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2-minute tricks to increase your chances of keeping your New Year’s resolution

New Year's resolutionTechnology is all around us: if we’re the fish, it’s the water. Instead of lamenting how it’s ruining our lives, here are four quick tricks for using technology to keep your New Year’s resolutions top of mind.

1. Change your passwords. Pick the password you enter the most, and change it to something related to your resolution. If your goal for 2014 is to change your diet, make your password eathealthy42014.

2. Change your alarm names. I’ve been trying to be more positive and less stressed lately, so I changed the name of my alarm from “Alarm” to “New day :-)”

3. Change your wallpaper. When’s the last time you updated the background on your computer or your smartphone? Change it to something that reminds you of your resolution – a basket of fruit or a runner, for example.

4. Add a calendar reminder. Put your resolution on a digital calendar (like Google Calendar) that sends you an alert by email. Or, better yet, sign up for AskMeEvery and keep track of whether you’re keeping your resolution by responding to their daily emails with a simple yes or no.

 

A trick to reduce distraction in meditation

“There’s nothing to do, nothing to achieve. All you have to do is sit back and let the mind return to its natural state.” 

In the guided meditation app Headspace, you’re constantly reminded that your mind is like a blue sky. Although clouds of thoughts may swirl and thunder, making your day seem gray and dreary, there’s always a clear blue sky above. That calm and stillness isn’t something you have to achieve; it’s always there, if only you sit back and allow the clouds to dissipate. 

For me, the problem is when I don’t want to chase the clouds away. Sometimes I’m meditating and I remember this thing that I absolutely have to do – make a phone call, or set a reminder. I worry that if I let that particular cloud float away, it will never come back, and I’ll miss the appointment or forget the to-do. That thought keeps swirling around in my head, but I don’t want to interrupt the meditation to write it down. 

The trick I developed is inspired by the “memory palace,” a technique used by the ancient Greeks and Romans to remember things. To construct a memory palace, you start with a place you know well (like the rooms in your home), and then associate the things you want to remember with a particular location. This engages the spatial learning part of your brain and allows you to recall the memories simply by mentally “walking” through the familiar place.

When there’s something I need to remember during a meditation, I turn it into an image, stick it on a tiny cloud, and place it in the far corner of my blue sky (which I visualize when meditating). This trick only works if you visualize something when you meditate – do you envision the lapping waves of the ocean? Put your little memory-images on a buoy far out in the water. Or a tranquil forest? Carve your images into a distant tree.

I’m not sure Andy from Headspace would approve – he might say that the thoughts will come back later if they’re truly important. But it works for me. How about you – how do you deal with distractions in meditation that you don’t want to forget?

Do you have “banging your head against the wall” syndrome?

In his book The Perfectionist’s Handbook, author Jeff Szymanski talks about the difference between persistence and “perseveration” – or what I like to call “banging your head against the wall” syndrome. 

Bang your head syndrome

Persistence is that dogged determination of working on a challenging task that you know you can accomplish: the long, slow grind of marathon training. Its alter ego perseveration shows up when you keep applying yourself to a problem without results. You might start to feel anxious because it’s not working and you’re wasting time.

Think about bloggers who insist on getting their introduction perfect before moving on to the rest of the article – and end up staring at a blank screen (guilty!). Or startups who insist that their idea is the right one, even though no customers seem to agree. Or working mothers who exhaust themselves peeling potatoes and chopping vegetables after a long day of work, day after day.

Often, the problem is falling into the trap of “The Right Way.” The writer assumes her introduction must come first; the entrepreneur believes that his original idea must be the winner; the mother feels that all dinners must be made from scratch. We get so obsessed with details and doing things properly that we forget about the overall goal: writing an article, making money, or having a family meal.

It reminds me of an infographic I saw by Yang Liu about attitudes in the East vs. the West: it turns out Eastern societies know that some “problems” really aren’t problems at all – and you can just step around them.

East vs West

Not sure if you’re banging your head against the wall or slowly chipping away a tiny hole through it? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I making progress?
  • What is my emotional state?
  • Do I have alternatives?

In other words, be flexible. Be faithful to your goal, but creative about how you get there. There isn’t one Right Way.

Beware of lists

ListsIn the past month, I’ve had two face-palm moments that made me question the usefulness of lists. 

First, I forgot my passport on the way home from Paris after making a 30-item list of things to pack. Vitamins? Check. Shoes? Check. Cocoa powder? (an essential) Check. Passport? Whoops.

Then, I went to the doctor for an annual checkup and brought my handy list of questions. Yet as I returned to the waiting room, I realized I had forgotten the most important question of all. So I waited another half hour to speak to my doctor for five minutes.

In both cases, the lists failed me. Or maybe it was my brain’s fault?

According to a 2011 study, the Internet is making us remember less because Google becomes our crutch for finding information.

“When people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it.”

I think the same principle is at work with lists. Without a list, my brain is doing some background processing as I walk out the door: “We may have forgotten something. What could it be?” Just after shutting the door, I might head back inside to retrieve a forgotten paper or jacket. But with a list, my brain becomes complacent. I expect the list to contain everything I need, so my brain doesn’t spontaneously surface relevant information.

Is the solution to make better lists? Maybe, if you have a foolproof way to ensure your list isn’t missing anything. You could add each item to your packing list as you take it out of your suitcase, but you might forget to add souvenirs or new clothes you buy. Yet I don’t want to sacrifice my lists, either.

In the future, I’ll try a hybrid approach: leaning on the list for the bulk of my memory, but pausing for a deliberate minute or so to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything else. And having wasted my time and missed a flight thanks to list-induced memory loss, it won’t just be a token pause but a real racking of my brain.

Photo by Flickr user Ex-Smith

Do you “cross that bridge when you come to it?”

Cross that bridge when you come to itI went to the dentist today, and he suggested I try a certain treatment to soothe my gums, then come back in a week to see if it worked. “If this doesn’t work, then what?” I asked. He waved his hand and said something along the lines of, “We’ll talk about it next week.” 

In essence, he was saying, “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” – something I’m particularly bad at. In my mind, I’m already crossing the bridge, falling off, and getting eaten by piranhas in the river below.

My boyfriend isn’t that way, and he invented a special phrase for his approach: “just-in-time thinking,” inspired by just-in-time computer programming. From what he tells me, just-in-time programming involves holding off processes until they absolutely need to be executed, allowing things to run faster in the meantime. For him, just-in-time thinking frees up his mind now until it’s absolutely necessary to make a decision. For me, I just end up hearing “we’ll figure it out later” a lot from him.

But I feel uneasy if I don’t have my possible future paths figured out now. I want to know if this doesn’t work, what will I do? What are we doing tonight? After Hong Kong, where will we live? Sometimes that makes sense, and you want to be prepared for eventualities – if I don’t get this job, how will I make money? But other times it doesn’t, like when I get distracted from work trying to figure out what we’ll have for dinner, and I can’t focus until my brain has worked it out. (Am I the only one this happens to?) Or I end up dwelling on worst-case scenarios that never come to pass.

Perhaps I’ve picked up a silly assumption along the way, something like “You need to have all the answers” or “Everything has to be figured out.” But there are too many bridges in life, and we could spend all our time crossing them in our heads. Instead, I’ll try to meditate on the maxim “all in good time.”

Photo by Flickr user I_am_Allan