My year-long experiment with excellence is continuing – I’ve had a bunch of insights along the way, and I may even be starting to seeing some hints of change. If you’re just joining, you can read my original post on the set-up and design of my experiment here, but basically, I’m devoting myself to developing habits that are said to lead to excellence in three different areas of my life, to see what happens. We’re now one-third of the way through the year, so here’s an update on what’s been happening so far:
Area #1: Professional Excellence
My focus here is to develop excellence as a writer, speaker, and life coach, so the first habit I decided to incorporate was writing for at least one hour each day, and reading something in the field of personal growth and development for at least an hour every day.
I’ve done okay on this one. At least, I’ve been writing and reading regularly, although not necessarily for an hour every single day. There are some days when I’ve binge-written for several hours (usually when under pressure to get my next blog posted), and binge-read when I had a convenient block of time. But, that isn’t the same as a disciplined regular daily habit. I’ve skipped one or both activities more frequently than I’d like, especially when I’m traveling. Therefore, I’m keeping my attention on establishing these disciplines before I try to add any new habits in this area.
As I analyzed my experience, I realized that with the writing, it didn’t take too much to distract me – I could always find something else ‘urgent’ that needed to be done (amazing how cleaning the toilets doesn’t seem anywhere near as urgent or appealing during a Netflix marathon…). The truth is, writing is hard work. Don’t get me wrong – I love writing. At least when it’s flowing. Or when it’s completed. But staring at a blank word document and not knowing where to go next? Not so much.
So on the days when I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say, it was easy to come up with an excuse and wait for inspiration to strike. However, inspiration is very fickle… and that’s the whole point of developing the discipline of writing daily. Plus, lots of successful writers will testify to the phenomenon that inspiration will eventually show up if you keep your butt in the chair long enough…
As for inconsistency with the reading habit, the only reason I can come up with is simply not prioritizing it highly enough on busy days. I’m not sure why. I love reading. If you sent me to a deserted island or a cabin in the woods for a month with a trunk-load of books and plenty of food and coffee, I’d be a perfectly happy camper. And it’s productive – I get ideas for future blog posts or talks from every book I read.
Therefore, I’ve recommitted to making these two activities a high priority every day, to finally get this habit on autopilot.
On the positive side, though, I am seeing some benefits from my efforts already. Since the beginning of 2018, I’ve posted 18 articles on my blog, and I’ve gotten some feedback, so I’m learning what works and what doesn’t. The number of people reading my blog is increasing from a handful of family and friends to people across the globe whom I’ve never met. I see myself as a real writer now, not just someone who talks about wanting to be a writer. I’ve gotten involved with some online blogger communities and I’m developing a supportive circle of people with similar goals. Perhaps most importantly, I’m having fun and I feel like I’m finally doing what I’m meant to do. And hopefully, I’m inspiring other people along the way.
Area #2: Excellence in Self-Care
This area is a bit of a catch-all that includes exercise, eating healthy, personal image, home environment, and keeping up with “life stuff” in general. The focus is on improving the habits related to how I take care of myself, an area that I’ve traditionally neglected.
Unfortunately, I’ve hit more than a few speed-bumps in this category.
As far as exercise, I already have a well-established routine so my basic goals were to escalate time and intensity. I ran into a few extenuating circumstances, like renovations that closed my apartment gym, cancelled classes at the gym I pay for, and unseasonably cool weather that kept me from running outside. Nothing major, and nothing I couldn’t have worked around with a higher level of commitment, but they were enough to slow me down. I didn’t lose ground since January, but I didn’t really gain any ground either (although I am up to 16 push-ups and 40 tricep dips a day!).
The first real ‘new’ habit I tried to establish in this area was dedicating time each weekend to shopping, revamping my wardrobe, and polishing up my image. Sticking with this microresolution has been more miss than hit so far. I’m not sure whether it’s some kind of internal resistance (I don’t really enjoy shopping…), or whether it’s the challenge of trying to carve out a big chunk of time in my already busy schedule, or whether the problem is not even knowing where to start. Probably a combination of all three, but I got no traction with this particular habit.
So, I tried tweaking my original microresolution, as Caroline Arnold recommends in her book “Small Move Big Change”. First, I tried to make it more of a daily habit, rather than weekly one, but that didn’t get me far either. Then, I remembered the principles of kaizen, and realized I might be setting my goal too high – so now, I’ve scaled back my microresolution (hopefully to the point it’s small enough that my brain can’t find an excuse not to do it). My new goal is to hit one store, or section of a department store, per week.
So far this hasn’t triggered the same feelings of dread as spending an afternoon in the mall or weeding out closets, and I’ve been able to stick with it for a few weeks now. It feels slow, and it won’t get me to a revamped wardrobe overnight, but I’m moving a lot faster than when I wasn’t moving at all. And that’s the whole point of starting with tiny steps – building forward momentum.
Area #3: Doing Life Excellently
This is another catch-all category. Basically, it’s about building habits that people with extraordinary lives claim will enrich and enhance life in general. And I have to say, I’ve been getting the best, or most noticeable, results in this area.
The first habit I decided to adopt was doing something outside of my comfort zone every day if possible, but at least as often as I could. This has certainly taken me on some interesting adventures! I started small, simply going to new places on my own, driving in unfamiliar places, or tackling social situations that intimidated me. But pretty soon, those things were going so well and my confidence was growing. I started craving bigger challenges, like facing some real fears. This led to my high-ropes obstacle course/zipline adventure where I successfully confronted my fear of heights (you can read all about that adventure here).
More recently, I made a scouting trip to Los Angeles to check out a possible move. I’ve talked about wanting to move to Southern California for years, and I thought the experience of moving across the country on my own would be a great way to really take a quantum leap out of my comfort zone. Alas, the area that I explored wasn’t what I was looking for and didn’t feel like my future home, so I’m postponing my plans and going back to the drawing board.
The trip wasn’t a complete bust, though, and I discovered something important. In the past, a trip like this that involved driving in a city like LA in a rental car and finding my way around alone would have terrified me (and I just wouldn’t have gone). But, because of all the things I’ve done so far to push the boundaries of my comfort zone, this trip didn’t even faze me. I was totally comfortable exploring on my own. I even made a new friend and had a few spontaneous adventures – something the old me would have never done.
I realized my comfort zone has already expanded permanently. That means I’m going to have to find some new things to push my boundaries even further. Stay tuned!
The second habit I started was a daily meditation practice, and this one has gone really well too. Again, I started small (just 5 minutes a day), and it’s become an integral part of my routine – I actually look forward to it, and if I don’t get a session in early in the day, I won’t go to bed until I do. So far, I’ve noticed that it seems a little easier to concentrate, and it may have helped a little bit with stress. I’m going to increase to 10 minutes to see what happens with longer sessions.
With these two habits pretty well established, I’ve decided to start working on a third microresolution. This one comes from a video I recently watched on the morning habits of high-achievers, by sales and personal development guru Brian Tracy. Apparently, many successful businesspeople avoid electronic distractions, like emails or texts or social media, first thing in the morning. Instead, they use the first few hours of their day working on their most important projects sans distraction. Author and time management expert Julie Morgenstern (“Never Check E-Mail In the Morning: And Other Unexpected Strategies for Making Your Work Life Work“) recommends working for three solid hours before checking your email, and after that only checking it it 2-3 times during the day.
I’ve been trying to streamline my routine so I can be more productive, and mornings are a particularly big problem, so this really resonated. I realized I waste a ridiculous amount of time every morning by checking and rechecking all of my accounts, frequently reading the same things over and over again. To top it off, by the time I get down to work, my brain feels fuzzy and foggy. So, from now on, I’m turning off my electronics at night, and not checking back in until I’ve started my work-day and taken care of any projects that require deep concentration.
I’ve only done it for four days so far, and I’m not sure it’s made my morning routine any faster, but I am amazed at how much easier it’s been to stay focused on my work. I mean, I’ve read about (and written on) the negative impact electronic multitasking can have on our brains and on our ability to focus, and I’ve cut back, but now that I’ve experienced the difference it makes at the start of the day – wow. And amazingly, I haven’t missed anything important – all of the emails and Facebook posts were still there at lunch, and it was much more efficient to process them all in one batch.
All in all, I’m pleased with the direction the Excellence Experiment is taking. I’m pretty impatient by nature, and sometimes I get a little (a lot?) frustrated by how long it’s taking to establish some of these habits and see their impact on my life. But, whenever I feel this way, I remind myself of the analogy of a flight plan. If a plane takes off from New York with a course set for San Francisco, and it’s off course by 1%, it may not be noticeable for the first 50-100 miles – but the further west it flies, the bigger the deviation from the original flight plan. And, if somewhere along the line the pilot adjusts course another degree or two away from the original plan, by the time that plane reaches the west coast it will be in a very different place than San Francisco.
That’s the power of small habit changes – they may not seem to be doing much at first, but the effects grow over time, and multiple small changes accumulate to take your life in a very different direction from the path you were originally following.