Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing

Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing NothingAuthor: Andrew Smart
Title: Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing
Published: July 30, 2013

When I set out to read this book during May, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew the book was about the benefits of shutting down the mind for longer periods of time during the day rather than adopting the traditional “working at all hours of the day” mindset. However, in many ways, the book surpassed my expectations.

Harping on the dangers of our current working culture, Andrew presents example after example of respected philosophers, poets, and thinkers in our history and details how idle time was crucial to their greatest achievements. He offers up the story of Isaac Newton for example, who came to the conclusion about gravity while daydreaming in his garden. There are countless more examples that stand in stark contrast to the typical view of work today.

Many of the obstacles in our path to idleness are easy to see. Cell phones, for example, ensure that you can stay in constant communication with others (both at your job and elsewhere) through email, Twitter, Facebook, and any one of the other twenty thousand social media apps on the market. In the book, Smart argues that if we’re constantly available to be reached through our smartphones, are we ever really “off” at all? (I’d tend to agree with “no”).

The benefits of idleness aren’t just hypothetical. The book actually delves deep into the science of the mind, particularly into something referred to as the “default mode network”. This network is a complex interwoven series of connections throughout the brain. During periods of idleness (when you aren’t thinking about your to-do list or getting things done), this network fires up and enables unique ideas to surface and original connections between ideas and thoughts to be generated. The theory goes that this network is essential for true creativity.

So, exactly what am I going to do with this information tomorrow? That’s difficult to say. I’ve experimented with my work schedule quite a bit in order to enable more idle time during the day. I don’t think manipulating the schedule is the only answer however. I think larger gains can be made through flipping your mindset and abandoning things like email and Twitter when you’re truly supposed to be “off”. I’m planning on experimenting with some opportunities like “dead time”, a cutoff point each night where electronic devices go into airplane mode until the next morning. I think there are endless opportunities for progress here. The key is just to take it easy a bit more and accept that daydreaming and doing nothing can be beneficial.

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The Choice-Minimal Lifestyle

I’ve been a big fan of the Tim Ferriss podcast ever since it started a few weeks back. He’s had some extraordinary guests on the show so far. One podcast in particular struck me as very unique and interesting. In a shorter version than his traditional podcast (which are 1-3 hours in length), Tim read an essay called “The Choice-Minimal Lifestyle: 6 Formulas for More Output and Less Overwhelm”. I thought it was absolutely brilliant and immediately tweeted it out.

One particular “formula” that I’ve been putting into practice is routine:

Don’t strive for variation—and thus increase option consideration—when it’s not needed. Routine enables innovation where it’s most valuable.

Through this one simple switch, I’ve found that I have more free time now to pursue tasks that are actually mentally draining rather than focusing on smaller items like when will I start working or what I’m wearing during the day.

If you’re interested in reducing the amount of stress in your life, I’d encourage you to read the full essay here.

The Evolution of Fitness Trackers

Over the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing some of the most advanced fitness trackers on the market (including one that can predict and quantify your movements in the gym). At the same time, I’ve also expressed my hesitations on the current push for the quantified self movement. Currently, I feel like the movement presents users with an overwhelming amount of data, but in my opinion, it doesn’t spur behavior change, which is the only point of tracking the numbers in the first place. Data without understanding is absolutely meaningless. As I’ve mentioned before, Exist, an app created by the two developers at Hello Code, is set to change that. I’m really excited to see the kinds of tools they put in the hands of consumers and where their small app can take the quantified self movement as a whole.

In the spirit of dreaming big, I thought it would be cool to share some areas that I’m hoping fitness trackers improve on in the new few years. No doubt some of these are already being worked on at the moment. Many of the items I’m proposing aren’t anything spectacularly new or innovative. However, they are tough to implement. So, keeping that in mind, here’s a wish list of where I would like to see quantified self movement in the future.

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Creativity, Inc.

Creativity, Inc.Author: Ed Catmull, Amy Wallace
Title: Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration
Published: Apr 8, 2014

I picked up this book as soon as I saw it was coming out. I’ve always loved Pixar films. They’re entertaining and extremely well made. I don’t know much about the animation business, but they always seem to be pushing the envelope and leading the industry.

The book, written by Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar, details a bit of the history of Pixar as well as some overarching themes of their company that have helped them to produce so many box office hits. Ed lays out some foundational elements that he believes have shaped the company so far – particularly candor and honestly.

I expected to read quite a bit about how Pixar is run and how they develop movies. Catmull definitely delivered. He described in detail the Braintrust meetings, where company leaders get together in an honest and open environment to discuss the progress of movies in production. He goes on to stress the importance of being upfront and honest with feedback even delving into some experiences where allowing a movie to flounder cost them quite a bit of man hours and finances for a film that never hit theaters. Even more, Catmull described many of the roadblocks they have run into along the way and offers potential solutions.

At the end, the book discusses the Pixar merger with Disney, a huge undertaking no doubt. Catmull describes how he has attempted to fiercely protect the culture at Pixar and the difficulties of managing two huge creative companies at once.

This book certainly wasn’t a how-to when it comes to cultivating a creative culture. There isn’t a step-by-step guideline in the book that leads to creative genius being formed. Instead, Catmull relies mainly on past experiences and reflects back on how those experiences drove decisions and pushed the company forward. I found the book to be interesting and informative from the point of reading about the origins of Pixar. As for take home implementation, readers can find that to. Although a few of the ideas that Catmull reflects back on may not be possible for smaller creative groups, the underlying message is certainly applicable. If nothing else, it’s interesting to read about the history of Woody, Buzz, and all of your favorite digital characters.

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April 2014 Review

Yesterday marked the end of April and the start of a new habit. This past month was interesting so I thought it would be helpful to reflect back on the habit I focused on in April (meditation) and how I ended up performing.

Long story short, I didn’t perform as well as I had hoped. In summary, I meditated 18/30 days in April, not terrible but not great either. I started with the Headspace App 10-day intro to meditation. During that time, I was 9/10, meditating for 7 consecutive days before missing a day. However, when that program was over, I felt a bit lost as to what to do next. I thought about shifting over to a new app, but then, I ultimately decided that I would just build and evolve my own meditation practice that didn’t revolve around an app or specific programming. I finally settled on just listening to some relaxing music (kudos to Twitter peeps for recommendations) and practicing deep breathing.

If you’re just starting out, I would suggest following something similar to the Headspace 10-day program just to get your feet wet. The intro helps to dispel some common myths about meditation and what you should be thinking about and feeling during your 10-minute practice each day. After that though, I think it’s definitely okay to freestyle your practice and make it you. Here are some things I learned along the way:

  • I preferred to meditate at night before bed. I found it to be a calming way to ease my mind and a “hack” that helped to improve my sleep.
  • Deep breathing goes a long way. I’m guessing quite a few people reading this are “chest breathers” rather than “belly breathers”. Meditation is beneficial if it only just teaches you how to breathe correctly.
  • Sitting in silence for 10 minutes can be disturbingly challenging. I found my mind wandering quite often or thinking about the next thing I needed to accomplish.
  • It’s a great way to relieve stress. I found that I was pretty crabby on days that I didn’t meditate (there were quite a few).
  • If you can’t make time or find yourself failing to meditate for 10 minutes a day, try two 5-minute sessions. I read this tip from someone on the Lift App, and it worked really well for me.

I’m certainly not a zen master at this point, but meditation is something I’m going to try to keep up with over the next few months as I think it really offers some amazing benefits. However, my “practice” is going to change a bit. I’m going to shorten the actual meditation portion (the deep breathing with soft music) to five minutes a day. Beforehand, I’m going to add in 5-10 minutes of foam rolling before bed. I’ve found that I can still practice the deep breathing while foam rolling, and I’ve been hearing about how foam rolling can activate a parasympathetic response in the body (a fancy term for calming you down). I’m eager to see how/if this improves my sleep.

As for books, I didn’t finish any this month although I started Creativity Inc. If you’re still keeping score at home, that puts me drastically behind my goal of finishing three books a month. I’m going to try to pick it up next month by finishing Creativity Inc. and tackling the following:

On the plus side, I was busy writing a few articles this month. I had three pieces published:

Looking ahead – what am I going to focus on for May? Well, the plan was to take one cold shower a day, partly because I’m going to be camping in Zion National Park for the next handful of days making a shower unavailable and lessening the amount of times I would need to do this. But, that’s cheating. I really just don’t have any interest in taking cold showers despite what the research may say. I’m likely going to focus back on reading since I let that slip this month and continue to investigate this whole meditation thing.

5 Hormones That Have a Big Effect on Your Health

Normally, the evil villain thwarting your physique goals comes in the form of chocolate chip cookies or an extra slice of cake. Spotting the culprit? Well, it’s as easy as pie. But what if the obstacle that stands in your way is much smaller, even microscopic? You might not be able to see your hormones, but they play a constant role in how our bodies function; they’re the chemical messengers that travel, via our bloodstream, to every organ and tissue in the body. They influence fat storage, sex drive, energy levels, brain health and a host of other vital functions.

Hormones are such an integral part of your health and fitness. It’s a shame that more people don’t know the basics. With the help of Dr. Spencer Nadolsky, I detailed five important hormones you should be aware of and how they’re impacting your health.

You can read the full piece here.

This is Your Brain on Exercise

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I had a post on the Crew blog yesterday centered around what exercise can do for your brain. I broke down how exercise improves learning capacity and why you should include some difficult exercises in your programming. I also researched why exercising while learning isn’t the best option:

If exercise is so good for the brain, then riding a bike while reading must be the magic combination right? Unfortunately, it turns out exercising while trying to learn won’t turn you into a memory magician. During exercise, your body diverts blood away from your brain to the working muscles. This leaves you in a less than optimal state for learning.

You can read the full post here.

Photo Credit: jacsonquerubin

Hustling in the Margins

For two years at the end of my graduate school career, I was borderline obsessed with work. I had relatively strict wake-up times set for myself. When the alarm went off in the morning, I would head straight to the computer and start tackling items from my to-do list that mainly involved writing.

My goal at the time was simple – get my writing to as many places as possible.

I was sending out pitch after pitch to various publications. In a normal week, I might submit 2-3 articles on top of also writing a handful of posts for my blog. At the end of each month, I would organize all of the submitted projects into a spreadsheet where I could track performance and keep an eye on payment for my work.

It was terribly exhausting and energizing at the same time.

I’m a firm believer that everyone should have a side project in their back pocket that keeps them excited and gives them something to work on and develop outside of their normal 9-5. It fuels the fire and creates a desire to do/learn/achieve more. For many, the side project could be practicing their dream job until they’re good enough to earn a full-time living from it. But, a side project doesn’t have to be about making money nor does it have to be something you intend on doing full-time. It could be about injecting some good into the world through starting a charity or just perfecting a skill that you’ve always wanted to learn.

The guidelines are loose, but the goal is clear: find something that gets you excited.

Trial and Error

I was fortunate to find that something largely by accident. I was reading through fitness blogs and thought to myself “I could probably do that.” For others, that something is hard to come by. The only way to figure out what you love to do is by doing a lot of different things. Experiment, read, interview others.

When I was in college, I spent the first few months of my senior year working in the Strength and Conditioning Department at the University of Florida. I had the opportunity to work with collegiate sports teams and help program their workouts. I also had the exciting opportunity to clean every piece of machinery in that gym.

I hated it.

After about a month and a half, I quit. My supervisor was noticeably angry with me (I would surmise because he had no one to clean equipment now), but I didn’t care. I didn’t know much at the time, but I did know life was far too short to do something you hated every day.

Prior to that experience, being a Strength and Conditioning coach was my dream job. If I didn’t give it a try that semester, I would have moved hopelessly down a path that I would ultimately hate in the future.

No one is born with their passion stapled to their forehead. So, the solution is trial and error. The problem is that we’re so afraid of the “error” part that we avoid the “trial” in the first place.

If you think your passion is drawing, take 30 minutes each day to draw. If you think it’s playing guitar, buy a cheap guitar from a pawn shop and strum it a few times a week. The same goes for photography, baking, or anything else. The key is to work with what you have, not to acquire what you think you’ll need to get started. As Austin Kleon put it in his book Steal Like an Artist:

Don’t make excuses for not working—make things with the time, space, and materials you have, right now.

Protect Your Passion

At some point, you’re going to stumble across something that you’ll be hooked on. You’ll find yourself spending extra time during your day reading/learning/practicing that thing. Everything else in your day will just be an obstacle that gets in the way.

Once you find that something, work on it whenever you can. I’m a big believer in working in the mornings since you can invest your energy into something you love. To quote Micah Baldwin:

If the first thing you do in the morning isn’t 100% for you, selfishly, then the rest of your day will be spent not doing anything for you.

The key is to treat it as something important. Once you find that thing, protect it ferociously from the rest of your day. Block off time to work on your passion project. Turn off your phone. Turn off your WI-FI. Do whatever you can to focus solely on getting better at what you love to do.

Share With Others

Once you’ve found that thing you love to do, open up to others. Let them know what you’re working on and how you even managed to find a passion at all.

When someone starts talking to you about what they’re really excited about, it jars you. It’s not normal. People aren’t normally that excited about any part of their day. The excitement disrupts the normal ebb and flow that occurs in conversation.

That disruption can spur action in others. Maybe the person you’re talking to has wanted to pursue another project but has been to scared/lazy to take the next step. Hearing how you’ve invested your time and built something you’re proud of can inspire others to do the same.

“The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” —Annie Dillard

Having a passion or “hustling in the margins”1 shouldn’t be about the output. It should be about the input. What does this activity give to you? In some cases, the passion directly translates to an increase in income or an increase in production like when you’re building an app in your free time. Other times, you might not produce a damn thing, but production isn’t the point. Investing your time in something you do is the point.

1. The phrase “Hustling in the Margins” is borrowed from this episode of Beyond the To-Do List.

Make Personal Training Work for You

In a previous life, I spent nearly every waking moment in a gym helping clients to get healthier. I was investing all of the energy and time I could muster up in order to help them lose weight and get their life back. Although they were paying money (and quite a bit of it), I would say that 90% of my clients weren’t putting forth the same amount of effort. They weren’t getting nearly the full amount out of their training sessions. That inspired me to write this post for DailyBurn. Here’s the intro:

Personal trainers offer a wealth of information ranging from topics like exercise technique and programming to healthy lifestyle choices (like not keeping Oreos in your pantry). That information appears to be valuable as 6.4 million Americans are working with a trainer. Still, 47 percent of clients only stick around for one to two years max. Since supervised workouts have been shown to boost results, why are so many people ditching their trainer so fast? Maybe it’s cost; personal training definitely isn’t cheap — ranging from $30 to $100 per hour on average. Or maybe it’s that most clients don’t see the value, or they don’t fully cash in on their paid workout sessions. To get the most out of your training sessions and truly “level up” on your fitness knowledge, don’t pay another cent before reading these four tips.

You can read the full post here.

Vivofit Review

Garmin Vivofit

I’ve reviewed several fitness trackers for DailyBurn, but I haven’t been too impressed by any of them so far (Atlas may be the exception). The Vivofit definitely left me impressed. One thing I really hate is constantly having to recharge batteries for my devices. With a one-year battery life, Garmin finally released a fitness tracker that can keep up with your active lifestyle without needing to be charged every week.

You can read my full review here.