three things to work on in 2011

As I am sitting on a train going through a very snowy Germany, I am contemplating some of the things that I want to work on in 2011. Normally I make resolutions but they always end up too close to being goals. And once you achieve a goal, improvement stops. So this year, rather than focus on very specific goals, I am going to tackle three areas that I want to work on. If I do a half way decent job at these, I am sure many productive things will happen and I will end up achieving what one might call a bunch of goals.

1. Get out of my own head

Problem number one for like fifteen years in a row now. I am pretty sure the last time this wasn't my biggest issue, my biggest issue revolved around trying to figure out how to French kiss Ina Hellweg. Getting out of my own head simply means dropping unproductive thoughts; thoughts about things that I cannot change. They either happened in the past or they are completely out of my control. I have a vivid imagination, which is good from a creative perspective, and horrendous when it comes to this. Put a thought in my head and I can take it to the end of the world. Give me a glimpse, and I'll make a feature film out of it. The biggest problem with thinking about things that you cannot change (unproductive thoughts) is that it keeps you from thinking and acting on the things that you can change (productive thoughts leading to action). The more that happens, the less productive you become and the more you feel bad about wherever you're at in life. Men who have lots of productive thoughts are healthier, more successful and probably have lots of sex with gorgeous women. People who worry too much about crap they cannot change are caught up in their own minds, conflicted, experience a much lower quality of life and definitely do not live in the moment. Forty percent of our happiness is not determined by whatever situation we're faced with but rather by the stuff that is happening in our minds; oftentimes removed from reality. Here are some unproductive thoughts that can keep you up, occupied and miserable for hours - and there is absolutely nothing you can do about any of them:

  • Envisioning your girlfriend having sex with her ex. Or with anyone for that matter.
  • Imagining what it would it feel like if your dog died. Or your cat, snake or pet rat. Which is a really weird pet to own, by the way.
  • Wondering what life would be like without your parents, brothers, sisters - people you love.
  • Turning your swollen lymph node into a self-diagnosed life with cancer. Confusing your indigestion with a heart attack or attributing a day late period to pregnancy.

I highly recommend against trying any of them. While it's hard to control the things that come to mind (and even harder to stop them when they do), here are some coping strategies that people much smarter than I have come up with. When I remember to use them, they usually work:

  • Assign one hour every week to worrying about crap you can't control. Whenever an unproductive thought comes to mind, tell yourself that you are only allowed to think about it then. Put that hour in your calendar and make sure to ignore it when it comes up. Or try to be really unhappy during that hour, which I promise will be a hard feat.
  • Go do something active. For me, this normally means going on a long, painful run. The focus should be on an activity that helps you flip the switch mentally.
  • Wear a rubber band around your wrist. Whenever a dumb thought shows up, flick it against your wrist. It hurts like hell. We don't like pain. Again, it's an opportunity to flip the switch.
  • Clear your mind for a second, then intensely focus on wondering what thought will come to your mind next. If you really do that, nothing will come for a long time. It makes you recognize how trivial thoughts really are and that you don't have to be miserable. They're just that: thoughts, not reality.

I have always been a thinker, and a very creative one at that. My career and life have been built upon it. Last year I unfortunately let my mind get the best of me, got stuck worrying about things I couldn't change and then just felt stuck. Things snowballed and I went from somewhat of an overachiever to someone who barely functioned. If I can make some serious progress on this, 2011 is going to be a fantastic, happy and very successful year. Considering how many unhealthy, unproductive and at times unhappy people are out there, I think it is something that just about everybody can work on a little bit. Maybe even you. Because, well, you can.

2. Screw multitasking

Rumor has it that women are better at multitasking than men. Actually, there are data out there to back it up. I don't know if that's true or not, but I can tell you for a fact that I suck at multitasking. That doesn't mean I can't be a successful person who achieves on a number of levels. But it does mean that I can't try to do multiple things at the same moment. Same year, yes. Same month, yes. Even same day. Same moment, hell no. Whenever I try to do two things at once or even think about two things at once I underachieve. Actually, I usually get bored and then start introducing even more crap to the equation. Here is an example that happened a million times last year: I try to publish an IdeaMensch interview while responding to a work email. While talking to someone standing behind me. While glancing at Facebook and while remembering that I need to make a doctor's appointment. I usually end up publishing the interview with a mistake, write a crappy email, appear unthoughtful to my co-worker and don't go to the doctor all year. I am a rock star at checking Facebook, however. If I do one thing at a time, my attention is focused, my work is better, I find more enjoyment in everything and I am someone who people find a pleasure to be around. Well, maybe on the latter. Here are some things that I will try to do to drop multitasking once and for all:

  • Schedule 15 minute blocks for different tasks throughout the day. I will put them in my calendar and during those blocks, I will only be allowed to work on those tasks. I will even block off 15 minutes every day for personal errands, since that is the stuff I never get done.
  • When I have to write something, I will disconnect from the Internet. I use a program that turns my screen black (with green type) so I only focus on my writing.
  • Facebook and my favorite German soccer sites will be blocked at work.
  • When I am meeting with someone, I won't carry my iPhone. When I am in a meeting with a bunch of people (even if it's a complete waste of my time), I won't bring my iPad. While that will be very painful initially, it will help me to cut stupid meetings out of my schedule.

While I do believe that women are better at multitasking than men, I truly think that multitasking is a fundamentally unproductive habit. Rumor has it that men are much better at consuming copious amounts of alcohol, which is also an unproductive habit in most cases.

3. Introduce habits

If you know me, you know I hate habits. I don't like working 8-5, I don't watch the same TV show every Sunday night, I don't like eating the same thing for breakfast every morning and I don't believe people should only have sex right before they go to sleep. For the most parts, I have cut out just about every habit imaginable. Now my life is a mess. I eat like crap, I exercise at midnight and I check my mail twice per year. If anything is a habit in my life, it's that sometimes I wear the same t-shirt a couple of days in a row. And I only sport Chuck Taylors without laces, albeit in various colors. Oh, and I wear very colorful socks. Every day. But that's probably more style than habit. Anyhow, it's time to introduce some new habits. Productive ones. Why? My hope and assumption is that by introducing some habits into my life, I can spend less time trying to make decisions about things that shouldn't require so much attention and instead focus that attention on things that will truly move my life forward. Here are some habits that I am going to introduce and why: 1. Eat breakfast every day. Maybe the same thing. And definitely something with lots of protein. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. If you skip it or eat food with little nutritional value, your body and mind are on the wrong track from the getgo. I am thinking that every morning I will eat three eggs, whole wheat toast, a Greek yogurt and maybe a banana in the car on my way to work. And lots of ketchup with everything, except with the yogurt. That goes with honey, people. 2. Exercise in the morning. Generally speaking I exercise every day, not because I think my body needs it but because my mind does. By getting exercise out of the way early, I hope I can start every day on a positive note. 3. Bring my lunch to work. Not to save money or live healthier, but rather so I don't have to spend 20 minutes worrying about what the hell I am going to eat every day at 11:45. 4. Check my mail every day. This pains me, but it's necessary. While I hate physical mail and have very successfully ignored it, it has created piles of clutter in my mind and in my living room. I've heard that some people check their mail every day. I am joining that club. 5. Do something nice for someone every day. This one sounds good, but actually, is quite selfish. Do something nice for someone else and you'll feel better about yourself. Try it. 6. Write a blog entry on here once a week. Every time I write something on my blog, I feel great. And I usually receive tons of feedback of all sorts, which is a nice confirmation of, well, humanity. People care about others. I usually only write when I am inspired to do so, but I have a hunch that all great writers schedule time every day to create. And since I have no ambitions or right to call myself a great writer, I'll go for weekly rather than daily. Ok, that's it for now. If I think of any more habits, productivity strategies or ways to control my mind, I'll add them via comment. Maybe you can do the same if you have any ideas, habits, etc. that help you. Happy 2011 everyone. I wish you the best, awesomest, healthiest, most passionate and happiest year ever.