Monday, September 9, 2019

Further reflections on Theodore Roosevelt: why you should never become good at just one thing

I’ve become a little obsessed with Theodore Roosevelt, ever since I began reading Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (a biography of Roosevelt's younger years). As I explained in last week’s blog post about Roosevelt’s study habits, the book is great (it quite rightfully won Morris the Pulitzer). It’s full of anecdotes about how extremely well-versed Roosevelt was in a wide variety of fields, which I rather enjoy. For example this one (also quoted in last week’s blog post):

A few weeks ago, when the British Embassy’s new councillor, Sir EsmΓ© Howard, mentioned a spell of diplomatic duty in Crete, Roosevelt immediately and learnedly began to discuss the archeological digs at Knossos. He then asked if Howard was by any chance descended from “Belted Will” of Border fame—quoting Scott on the subject, to the councillor’s mystification. The President is also capable of declaiming German poetry to Lutheran preachers, and comparing recently resuscitated Gaelic letters with Hopi Indian lyrics. He is recognized as the world authority on big American game mammals, and is an ornithologist of some note. Stooping to pick a speck of brown fluff off the White House lawn, he will murmur, “Very early for a fox sparrow!” Roosevelt is equally at home with experts in naval strategy, forestry, Greek drama, cowpunching, metaphysics, protective coloration, and football techniques.

Roosevelt was a true Renaissance man - by the time he died, he’d written over thirty books and hundreds of articles, about topics as far removed as ornithology and naval strategy. That’s unique, and for me inspiring to read about.

Don’t get me wrong, though: for all his obvious greatness, I certainly don’t think we should idolise Roosevelt blindly. There are plenty of things about his character and his ideas that don’t work for me. Despite the fact that he was strongly in favour of equal rights for women (including the right to vote), he believed a woman’s natural role was to bear children and run the family home. He glorified war and violent struggle. He was a cultural elitist who fervently believed in the superiority of the values and norms of his own group, and appears to have looked down on the cultures of ethnic minorities. The jury is out on whether these ‘shadow qualities’ of Roosevelt are representative of him in his later years - Morris, for one, appears to conclude that they are mostly characteristic of Roosevelt as a young man, and claims that he became much more appreciative of other cultures and ethnicities as time went on. But in The Rise, which deals with Roosevelt’s younger years, those shadow qualities are sometimes on full display, which occasionally makes for some unpleasant reading. The book is also hard to read: it’s the size of a phonebook and contains LONG passages about American politics in the 1890s which for me are just not that interesting. Every time I think that I’m going to give up on the book, however, I’ll come across a passage where I’m suddenly hooked again, where Roosevelt practically leaps of the page and inspires me. I’ve come to realize that those passages all deal with a single topic: Roosevelt’s attitude to work.

Two things stand out for me here. One: his extreme aptitude at time management, a topic I covered in my previous blog post on Roosevelt. He was extremely disciplined, and very, very skilled at making the most of his time. But that’s not all I find inspiring. A second aspect of Roosevelt's attitude to work which I find fascinating is this: he didn’t put all his eggs in one basket. He had a wide range of interests, and he simply refused to focus on only one. After he graduated from Harvard in 1880 (where he did a classic, broad liberal arts and sciences bachelor program) he went to Columbia to study law. And here’s where things get a little odd: despite the fact that his law studies kept him busy, and despite the fact that he was recently married and increasingly involved in local politics, he decided to write a book on naval history.
Yes, you read that right: naval history. A topic that has nothing whatsoever to do with law or politics. Is that a little crazy? Yes, it is. But it’s also kind of cool.        

The book was eventually published as The Naval War of 1812, and covers the naval strategies and technologies used in the war of 1812 between the U.S. and the U.K.. Like anything Roosevelt did, he worked on it with conviction and intensity. He really, really put in the hours. He read hundreds of books and used every free moment of his time to write it after he had done his research. Morris gives the following anecdote which illustrates to which extremes Roosevelt went to find the time to work on his book:

Owen Wister has left an anecdote of this period which reads like the opening scene of a Victorian drawing-room comedy. It is the pre-dinner hour; Theodore, standing on one leg at the bookcases in his New York house, is sketching a diagram for The Naval War of 1812. In rushes Alice [Roosevelt, Theodore's wife, RR], exclaiming in a plaintive drawl, “We’re dining out in twenty minutes, and Teddy’s drawing little ships!”

The hard work paid off, though. The book was published in 1882 and received gushing reviews from most critics.  It went through three print runs in a relatively short amount of time. University lecturers adopted it as a textbook in their courses. Morris even goes as far as to say that the book remained the defining work on the topic for over a hundred years.

I’m not saying we should emulate Roosevelt’s every move here. I’m certainly not recommending you work as hard as he did, especially if you’re recently married (as a culture, I think we’ve become a lot less forgiving of our spouses’ obsessions than poor Alice Roosevelt was, which means you might find yourself being handed divorce papers faster than you can say ‘naval strategies and technologies’ πŸ™‚). Nevertheless, I do think there’s a lesson to be learned here. Roosevelt never ever allowed himself to be pigeonholed, and I find that admirable. He never settled on having just one or two identities - lawyer, politician, husband. Instead, he allowed himself to have a wide range of different identities. He was, during his time at Columbia, a law student, politician, husband AND a researcher and writer on naval history. That’s a strategy he never abandoned, which means that by the time he became president he had written so many books that they provided him with a steady stream of income (it appears he used his modest presidential salary mostly to fund lavish banquets for his guests). Roosevelt, then, was an early adopter of what productivity writer Tim Ferris calls diversifying your identity, a concept I wrote about in a blog post last year. Ferris describes this concept like this:

When you have money, it’s always smart to diversify your investments. That way if one of them goes south, you don’t lose everything. It’s also smart to diversify your identity, to invest your self-esteem and what you care about into a variety of different areas — business, social life, relationships, philanthropy, athletics — so that when one goes south, you’re not completely screwed over and emotionally wrecked.

Ferris claims that this is not only a more fulfilling way to live, but also a way to deal with the sheer unpredictability of the future. If you don’t put all your eggs in one basket, you’re not totally screwed if one of your baskets breaks. If you’re trying to be a concert pianist but don’t manage to do well, it will help you feel better about yourself if there are other areas of life in which you’re doing well. That strategy only works, however, if you identify with all of those efforts. I think that was always Roosevelt’s secret: he never thought of himself as only one thing. Even when he was president he was writing books and papers on topics that had nothing to do with politics, and if you can find the time to do it, there’s a lot of wisdom in that way of living, I think. The world is a rich and endlessly fascinating place, and there’s so much to explore. Roosevelt simply refused to stop exploring.

I find that inspiring - it gives me the conviction to keep doing that in my own life. I’ve always had many interests, and I’ve never really picked a single one to focus on. I’ve always felt a little guilty about that. Reading about Roosevelt’s life takes away some of that guilt, and makes me feel better about my choices. Why shouldn’t I be a University lecturer, an academic researcher, a musician, and author of a book and a blog about how to organise yourself? Why not wear all those different hats? I’ll probably never write a classic scholarly work on naval strategy, but I’ll certainly have a more rich and rewarding life than if I only focussed on one area of expertise. Which means that I will now stop writing this blog post and focus on some other areas of life that demand my attention. I’m just not sure which one to focus on first: learn how to play blues guitar like Joe Bonamassa, work on my French so I can become as fluent as Bradley Cooper, or continue with my Theodore Roosevelt reading project? Or how about this: why not take a break and go running, or even do nothing? Argh, how to choose! Theodore oh Theodore, however did you do it? πŸ™‚

Monday, September 2, 2019

How to study like Teddy Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt is known as one of America’s greatest and most popular presidents. Along with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, his face is depicted on mount Rushmore. He was adored by the American public, and was widely praised for his diplomatic skills - he received a nobel peace prize in 1906 for ending the Russo-Japanese war. He became president when he was only 42 - one of the youngest American presidents ever.

Those achievements alone are already something most of us can only read about in awe, and they make Theodore - or Teddy, as he is often lovingly referred to - stand out as remarkable. But what makes Roosevelt even more unique is that he was a true Renaissance man. Apart from his political career he also had a distinguished career as a writer and scholar: during his lifetime he managed to publish forty books and hundreds of articles. He was also an avid sportsman, and achieved high levels of proficiency in horseriding, boxing, rowing, and tennis. In The rise of Theodore Roosevelt, the fantastic biography of Theodore by Edmund Morris, a long string of often amusing anecdotes is given about the level of proficiency he was able to achieve in all these fields. To give but one example (the whole book is full of similar passages):

A few weeks ago, when the British Embassy’s new councillor, Sir EsmΓ© Howard, mentioned a spell of diplomatic duty in Crete, Roosevelt immediately and learnedly began to discuss the archeological digs at Knossos. He then asked if Howard was by any chance descended from “Belted Will” of Border fame—quoting Scott on the subject, to the councillor’s mystification. The President is also capable of declaiming German poetry to Lutheran preachers, and comparing recently resuscitated Gaelic letters with Hopi Indian lyrics. He is recognized as the world authority on big American game mammals, and is an ornithologist of some note. Stooping to pick a speck of brown fluff off the White House lawn, he will murmur, “Very early for a fox sparrow!” Roosevelt is equally at home with experts in naval strategy, forestry, Greek drama, cowpunching, metaphysics, protective coloration, and football techniques.

How on earth was Roosevelt able to become an expert in all those things? Talent of course had something to do with it, but it’s not the entire story. Roosevelt appears to have had not only talent and discipline, but also a way of organizing his time that really, really worked for him, and it’s in the latter category that I think we have to look if we want to understand Roosevelt’s extraordinary productivity.  His secret? To block out distraction, divide work into subtasks, and then work on a subtask for a relatively short chunk of time with intensity. Morris, in his biography of Roosevelt, writes that Roosevelt already worked like this as a student at Harvard. He would look at his schedule - for both sports (which he did a lot of) and lectures, and then take note of where the free hours were. He’d then make a plan for what to work on during those free hours.

That doesn’t sound very remarkable, does it? Almost all students do that. Most fail to stick to their schedule. Roosevelt didn’t.

What Roosevelt also intuitively understood was that, during the two hours he had for doing a reading assignment, he should do nothing else. He was extremely good at blocking out distraction. When he was with other people, he was social; when he played sports, he played sports. And when he was studying? Well, then he studied -  intensely. Because he was on such a tight schedule, he knew he only had limited time to finish whatever task he was working on - the clock was ticking. Somehow, having that time limit helped him to stay focussed.

Cal Newport, author of the famous blog about student productivity Study Hacks, calls this kind of work - intense, focussed, without distraction - deep work. He claims that it’s becoming harder to achieve in this age of eternal distraction, and he’s probably right about that. It must have been easier for Roosevelt to block out distraction than it is for students nowadays. He didn’t have a phone. He wasn’t on social media. There were no cat videos on youtube to lure him away from his ornithology books. But there must have been some distraction. It would have been difficult even at Harvard in 1867 to stay focussed. If it wasn’t, every Harvard student of Roosevelt’s year would have graduated with a string of published papers to their name. Needless to say, they didn’t. That means, in other words, that it must be possible to transfer Roosevelt’s method to our own day and age. But how do you do that? How do you study like Teddy Roosevelt? Cal Newport, who discusses Roosevelt’s study habits in his book Deep Work, gives the following advice on how to apply Roosevelt’s method to your own academic life:

Identify a deep task (that is, something that requires deep work to complete) that’s high on your priority list. Estimate how long you’d normally put aside for an obligation of this type, then give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time. If possible, commit publicly to the deadline—for example, by telling the person expecting the finished project when they should expect it. If this isn’t possible (or if it puts your job in jeopardy), then motivate yourself by setting a countdown timer on your phone and propping it up where you can’t avoid seeing it as you work.

At this point, there should be only one possible way to get the deep task done in time: working with great intensity—no e- mail breaks, no daydreaming, no Facebook browsing, no repeated trips to the coffee machine. Like Roosevelt at Harvard, attack the task with every free neuron until it gives way under your unwavering barrage of concentration.

Try this experiment no more than once a week at first - giving your brain practice with intensity, but also giving it (and your stress levels) time to rest in between. Once you feel confident in your ability to trade concentration for completion time, increase the frequency of these Roosevelt dashes. Remember, however, to always keep your self-imposed deadlines right at the edge of feasibility. You should be able to consistently beat the buzzer (or at least be close), but to do so should require teeth-gritting concentration.

To those wise words I would add: perhaps experiment a bit with ways to restrict temptation, which is always right under our noses these days now that all of us are constantly hooked up to that great dopamine-producing slotmachine we call the internet. Give your phone to your flatmate, and ask them to only give it back after two hours. Turn off your internet router. Experiment with apps that block the internet on your phone or laptop, like Cold Turkey -  whatever works for you (for more ideas on dealing with distraction, read Newport’s book Deep Work- it’s great). Doing something like that is also a clear signal to your subconscious that you mean business, and that it should put its incessant requests for cat videos or netflix binges on hold. Then work with great intensity for a relatively short amount of time on your task, and try and get it done within the assigned timespan. Do this for only a few tasks in the first week you try it, then gradually do this more and more until it becomes second nature. Who knows - you might become as good at it as Theodore. You probably won’t win the Nobel peace prize or end up on mount Rushmore (last time I checked it was already quite full with presidential-looking faces up there). But it probably will do wonders for your academic achievements. Ornithology or naval strategy, anyone?

[If you enjoyed this blog post: I've written a follow-up called 'Further Reflections on Theodore Roosevelt - Why you should never become good at just one thing']

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

How to write papers more efficiently

Essay writing season has started here at University College Roosevelt, the small liberal arts college in the Netherlands where I teach.  In the course I teach this semester about Religious Ethics my students are researching topics to write about, pitching approaches, trying to find the arguments that they’ll be making in their papers. Some of them are even writing already. Not all of them – it’s early days yet. That means that some students are not writing or researching but – you guessed it - procrastinating. πŸ˜€ (If this sounds familiar, and like some of my students you’re also having trouble finding the drive to get started with that big scary paper, why not begin by reading my blog post from last year on procrastination.)

But regardless of what kind of student you are – an early starter or a procrastinator who only starts at the last possible moment - there will come a time when you need to start doing some actual work. And chances are that you will have far less time than you’d like. That’s a fact of life when you’re a student – at some point the clock starts ticking, and you’ll be under some kind of time pressure. Even if you started early, there will come a time when you discover that you have less time to finish the paper than you’d hoped for. If that sounds familiar, then this blog post is for you. Here, in no particular order, are the top five tips I share with my students to help them cut corners and save time during the research process so that they can survive essay writing season and meet their deadlines. There is some information in the tips that are only applicable to UCR students (the tips come from a workshop on research tools I teach each semester); however, almost all of them can be used by any student struggling to meet a deadline. 

1. Use f.lux
When you’re under time pressure to finish a paper, almost all students fall back on that time-tested method to tackle deadlines: pulling an all-nighter. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of research that shows that the blue light from LCD screens makes it harder to fall asleep if you’ve been exposed to it in the evening. I often tell my students that the best way to deal with that problem is ‘no screens in the evening’ – but no student can survive essay writing season if they adopt that rule, I think. πŸ˜€

Next best solution: install f.lux. F.lux is a real base-line tool – install it and forget about it. You can download it at In the evenings, f.lux will filter out the blue light from your computer screen. This means it should be easier to get to sleep if you’ve had to work in the evening. On Apple phones and tablets, the same service is called ‘night shift’. Turn it on and forget about it – it can make a big difference. 

2. Use digital sources
Being super efficient at using digital sources is one of the best ways to save time during research, I find. You can go from discovering an article or book to reading it in five minutes. Also, you can do keyword searches in digital sources – which is especially helpful if you’re dealing with brick-sized books. Yes, these usually have an index, but a keyword search often brings up passages that you wouldn’t have found through the index, and at a speed which is far higher. Of course none of this means you shouldn’t also go to the library – do check out what they have, it might just be that they have books relevant to your research project. But in the first instance, relying on digital sources can be a real life-saver – especially since Middelburg doesn’t have a big University research library. My top tips are:

Gives access to a host of ebooks and academic articles. Not free (about 40 euros per semester) but highly intuitive and easy to use. Also has a good iPad and Android app so you can read sources on your tablet. Strongly recommended, will save you a lot of time and frustration! Of course, you can also access a lot of digital content through UU library, but the problem is that it’s spread out over a gazillion different databases. That means that finding content can be extremely painful. I hear from students all the time that they struggle finding articles, and almost never hear that students are using the ebook platforms which UU library gives us access to. Questia solves this problem – it has the intuitive user interface of Google, i.e. a single search bar. Search for a keyword, and see at a glance which books, academic articles, newspaper articles, magazine articles and encyclopaedia articles Questia has on offer. Strongly recommended.

(Tip: Questia also has many textbooks in their catalogue. So instead of buying a particular textbook in hardcopy, spend that money on a Questia account and get all the other great content for free). 

If you’re a UCR student, you have free access to Encyclopedia Britannica with your Middelburg library card. Use this link to access it. I strongly recommend that you make use of this excellent tool. Unlike Wikipedia, you can actually quote from it. πŸ˜€

Google scholar is one of the most intuitive ways to search for academic articles. Finding books through Google scholar is also possible, but you will probably not be able to download or read them. If you’re a UCR student, you can use this link so that you can use google scholar in combination with your Solis ID – which means you should be able to actually download sources found through Google scholar (if Utrecht library has a subscription to the journal in question, of course). In the workshop I teach at UCR on digital research tools I sometimes discover that students cannot download articles even if they login with the link above – what usually fixes it for them is to switch browsers. Google chrome almost always works.

If you’ve been able to successfully log in, the web address in your browser should read the following:

If it only says it did not work, and you will not be able to download any articles. In the case of the student I helped out, I kept getting this error (i.e. the correct web address was not displayed even after logging in) until we switched to chrome, then it worked! 

3. Use Mendeley for your references
Mendeley is a real life-saver – it’s a database for all your references which you can also use to fully automatize your referencing in word or open office. At the end of your project, it can then make a bibliography automatically for you, in the output style of your choice (APA, MLA, etc). At Masters or PhD level, you’d be a fool note to use something like Mendeley – so why not start learning how to use it now, even if you’re only a Bachelor student. For a short video on how to install it and use it go here. 

(The best part of using Mendeley is its integration with Microsoft Word - for that to work, you'll need to install the  Word plugin which comes with Mendeley. Instructions for how to do that are in the video. If the plugin doesn't work with your version of Word, then it will always work with the version of  Open Office available as a free download at The text editor which comes with this suite of Open Office programs is just as good as Microsoft Office, works beautifully with Mendeley, and is free!)

4. Use Evernote for note-taking and storing documents.
Evernote is free and really great. It’s available for your smartphone and your computer, and you can use it to easily clip web pages, store and organize pdf documents, or brainstorm - the possibilities are endless. For a short video on how to use it go here.

One of the best things about Evernote is it’s free web clipper – a plugin for your browser which you can use to easily clip information you find online to Evernote. For more info on the web clipper go here.

Evernote is really popular with college students – many students also use it for note-taking during class. For a video on how to use Evernote as a college student go here.

5. Use to stay organized.
Wunderlist is the app I use most of all. I use it to stay organized in general, to help me prepare my classes, and also to do my research. It’s a to-do app that I’ve developed a simple time-managent system for, which I’ve taught to many UCR students and also colleagues. Many report less stress, more clarity and even enhanced grades. For research it’s also a real life-saver: I create a project list for all my research papers, so I can keep track of brainwaves and things I still need to fix/improve. I’ve published a short book about how I use Wunderlist, which is available as both an ebook and paperback on Amazon, Apple iBooks,, etc. You can find out more about the book at

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Procrastination: why we postpone what is urgent (and what we can do to stop doing so)

I’m teaching a course on Eastern philosophy this semester, which focuses on the core ideas and practices of Hinduism, Buddhism and Daoism. In one of the last  classes of the semester I discussed the Dao-De-Jing with my students, an ancient Chinese text from around 600 B.C. It’s one of the core texts of Daoism and, along with the bible, one of the most translated texts on the planet. It was written in a time period marked by violence and chaos – a period often referred to as the ‘Warring States Period’ - and its content is quite clearly a response to that chaos. It constantly warns against the dangers of using excessive force and violence, and advocates a life style of balance, harmony and tranquility. One of my favourite passages from the text is this one:

Prevent trouble before it arises.
Put things in order before they exist.
The giant pine tree
grows from a tiny sprout.
The journey of a thousand miles
starts from beneath your feet.

Rushing into action, you fail.
Trying to grasp things, you lose them.
Forcing a project to completion,
you ruin what was almost ripe.

I think it’s safe to say that, like most Westerners, most of my students do not live their lives like this. Unlike what the Dao-De-Jing advises, a considerable number of them are rushing or forcing frequently – when deadlines for exams or papers draw near, when they are late for a class or social activity, when they forgot to do something important - the opportunities for stress and last minute bursts of panicked activity are endless when you're a college student. Nevertheless, when I asked my students whether they thought that it was possible to be more Daoist while at college, they all acceded that this was possible. When I asked them what could be done to make that happen the very first point that was raised was this: ‘You’d need to start on time with all your assignments.’ 
‘But I don’t do this of course,’ the student who raised the point said, looking – dare I say it – a tad bit guilty. I looked around the rest of the class. They all looked equally guilty. 
None of them objected to the point that was raised: that they would be seriously less stressed if they started on time with everything they had to do. Everyone also agreed that being less stressed and doing less rushing would be a good thing. Yet somehow they’d all become convinced of the fact that starting on time with working on their projects was an impossible feat; so impossible that they might as well give up trying. Procrastination, my students seemed to say, is simply part and parcel of student life. It’s unavoidable, like bad weather. And here’s the thing: I understand where they’re coming from. When I was a student myself I was seriously good at procrastination. I was so good at it that I once spent six months without attending a single lecture or working on a single assignment (yes, you could still do that when I was a student without immediately getting kicked out). And when I did finally decide to put in the hours? Well, then I only got serious about it at the very last moment. I really needed the rush of being close to a deadline to get serious about whatever task was at hand. That meant I spent long periods doing almost nothing, followed by short periods of very intense stress and panic. I think it's safe to say that I paid a heavy price for that strategy – I frequently exhausted myself because I had to pull all-nighters or because there was not enough time to take breaks. Yet it never dawned on me that I should change my strategy. For me, like my students, procrastination was something that I considered a fact of life, something I simply accepted. It was just how things were. But is that really true? Is starting on time really something that’s impossible to do? I’ve thought a lot about that question in recent years, and have become convinced that it isn’t – there are ways of working that help us to almost completely eradicate procrastination from our lives. But why is doing that so hard? Why do so many of us procrastinate – even if it seriously affects the quality of our life? In this blog post I’ll write out my thoughts on these questions, and explain why I think we procrastinate - along with some suggestions for how we might change this behavior. 

Reason #1: We procrastinate because we are overwhelmed. 
The number one reason why I think we procrastinate is because human beings have an inborn tendency to avoid pain. And the bigger a project, the longer our to-do list, the more intense the pressure we are under, the more the things we have to do become associated with pain. So we go into hiding. We pretend the project, the to-do list, the pressure – whatever feels too painful - isn’t there. We put it off until tomorrow. ‘I’ll relax right now’, we tell ourselves. ‘But tomorrow – then I’ll start on my big scary 5000 word paper’. 
The only problem is that we don’t. Because tomorrow that paper still feels equally scary. And the day after that? Same thing. It becomes the thing we don’t want to look at. Somehow, I’ve come to realize, human beings are really good at convincing themselves that not thinking about something is a good idea. And sometimes it is. Fact of the matter is, though, that often it isn’t. 
            So how to handle this perfectly natural tendency of the human mind? One of the best ways I’ve discovered along the path of trying to overcome my own procrastination tendencies is to use the power of habit. Facing the things that are painful in life, that are a little scary, takes a great deal of will-power. Sometimes things are so scary and painful that we simply cannot muster up that will-power, and then we’ve lost the battle. We retreat and go into our comfort zone, whatever that may be (looking at random videos on youtube, checking facebook – pick your poison). But here’s something that not many people realize: there’s a way to face what is scary and painful that does not require tons of will-power, and that is by using the power of habit. Develop a daily routine – a habit, in other words - that makes looking at that scary to-do list or thinking about how to tackle that difficult project something that is simply built into what you do every day. 
Using the power of habit has been the number one breakthrough that has helped me to reduce procrastination to manageable levels. My own way of working – as described in my short time management book for students (or anyone else with a busy life)  Make Lists Not Fists – centers heavily on doing what I call in my book the 'morning ritual', a morning routine which involves cleaning up my to-do lists, looking at all my deadlines, and then creating a to-do list for that specific day. I do that every single morning of every single work day. Because it’s a habit it requires zero will power. Not a single cell in my body protests that I do this. I don’t have to think about it – I boot up the computer, grab a cup of coffee, and complete my morning ritual. After I’m done, I’ve looked at all my scary deadlines, and I’ve decided when and how I’m going to work on them. Now that I’ve got that helicopter view of everything that’s asking for my attention, I’m way less intimidated, and it’s much, much easier to muster up the motivation to do the actual work. 

Reason #2: We procrastinate because we try to do too much in one go.
Here’s something else I’ve come to realize: it’s much, much easier to muster up the motivation for a small task than for a huge task. The reason why so many of us procrastinate, I think, is because we often define our tasks as tasks that are too big, that feel too overwhelming. It’s wise, therefore, to split up big tasks into a series of smaller tasks, and spread them out over a longer period of time. With this blog post, for example, rather than sitting down in one session and writing the whole thing out in one go, I’ve split the writing process up in a series of small, thirty minute sessions. It’s easy to motivate myself to sit down and write for thirty minutes. But mustering up the motivation to write a whole blog post in one go, which would probably take hours? Here’s how my unconscious would have responded, in all likelihood: ‘Sounds painful. I’d rather not do it. I think I’ll try to get us to check out some random videos on youtube. Hmmm… perhaps there are new Daily Show and Joe Rogan clips that we can check out. Yes! Let’s do that!’
            With really big projects, therefore, don’t tell yourself something generic like ‘I’m going to write my paper now’, without a time limitation and without a task specification. To the part of you that wants to avoid pain and suffering (in most of us a highly influential part πŸ˜€) that sounds like a terrible ordeal. But if you add a time limitation, as well as a precise task specification, it feels much lighter. ‘I’m going to write the introduction of my paper for 45 minutes, and then I’m going to take a short break’ – that sounds doable. Which means you’re much more likely to actually go out and do it. Work like that over a sustained period of time – a series of days, let’s say – and guess what? You have your paper. Chances are the paper is better, too – because you’ve had plenty of time to come up with fresh creative ideas in between each writing session. This method, however, only works if you start on time – which you’ll probably only be able to do if you use the power of habit mentioned in point one above.
            (Chopping up big tasks into a series of timed smaller tasks, by the way, is what the pomodoro method is all about, which advises you to work in blocks of 25 minutes with a 5 minute break after each session. I don’t think the method only works with 25 minute blocks, though – do experiment with different time periods. But timing yourself, and being specific about what you will work on during each block – that is the secret of this method’s success, and something I highly recommend.)

Reason #3: We procrastinate because we think we have to feel motivated before we start working.
Here is what most of us believe in regards to motivation, I think: You have to wait until you feel motivated to do something before you go out and do it. But here’s a thought: what if you don’t have to feel motivated? What if you could just do whatever needs doing, regardless of whether you feel motivated or not? That point is made frequently by British journalist Oliver Burkeman, who writes about productivity, motivation and self-help for the Guardian. In a short article in which he explains this idea in detail, he summarizes it as follows: 

Don’t wait until you feel like doing something. When you’re mired in negative emotions about work, resist the urge to try to stamp them out. Instead, get a little distance — step away from your desk, focus on your breath for a few seconds — and then just feel the negativity, without trying to banish it. Then take action alongside the emotion.

Burkeman makes the same point in his book The Antidote, a book I’m often recommending to friends and colleagues (I even use as it as a textbook in one of my courses). In that book he puts it like this: 

Who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something in order to start doing it? The problem, from this perspective, isn’t that you don’t feel motivated; it’s that you imagine you need to feel motivated. … If you can regard your thoughts and emotions about whatever you’re procrastinating on as passing weather, you’ll realise that your reluctance about working isn’t something that needs to be eradicated or transformed into positivity. You can coexist with it. You can note the procrastinatory feelings and work anyway.

Many of my students have told me that just reading that passage in the book changed their whole perspective on procrastination. It’s a radical but overwhelmingly simple thought: what if you could just start? What if you didn’t have to wait until you ‘feel’ like starting? It’s on this simple premiss that Morita Therapy is based, and it’s one that I wholeheartedly subscribe to. I try to put it into practice regularly. And guess what? If you use the power of habit, andyou chop big tasks up into a series of smaller tasks, it’s much easier to just get started, regardless of how you feel.

Reason #4: We procrastinate because we don’t realize fully that we pay a high price for doing so.
When we procrastinate, we don’t think long-term. We think only in terms of present benefits. Right now, in this exact moment, there isn’t really that much of a price to be paid for procrastination. I could spend the rest of the morning drinking coffee, reading the paper, and neglecting my to-do lists and my email inbox. But later on in the day I’ll have to pay the price. It would entail showing up unprepared for the class I have teach, and guess what? I’ll get my butt kicked by my students, who will ask me difficult questions and look at me funnily as I stammer and stutter and go red in the face. And here’s what makes such small acts of procrastination even more problematic: if you procrastinate repeatedly, the price you pay becomes higher and higher. All that time you’ve wasted stacks up, and in the end life will kick you in the butt – hard. As Stephen Fry puts it in his autobiography Moab is my washpot, life is seriously unkind if you give up on what needs doing: “Life, that can shower you with so much splendour, is unremittingly cruel to those who have given up.”
One way to stop procrastinating so much, then, is to become conscious of this high price. I know of no better thinker who has driven this point home than Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist whose ideas have gone viral in the last two years, especially because so many of his lectures and interviews are on youtube  (where many of his lectures get millions of views) and because he is critical of some of the ideas associated with the political left such as identity politics (which has led to protests and walk-outs during some of his public lectures).  Don’t dismiss Peterson because you disagree with his ideas about politics - when it comes to life advice, I find that his comments are frequently spot on. Here he is, for example, explaining why wasting time as a student is something that you end up paying for – big time. He makes similar points in his book Twelve Rules for Life,  in which he puts forward twelve rules that together sum up what he considers 'essential' life advice - the advice, in other words, which he's shared with his patients over the course of his career. One of the twelve rules he outlines is the following: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible helping. In the chapter of Twelve Rules which covers that particular rule (chapter 2), he makes the point that simply focussing on what makes you happy in the short-term (which we do when procrastinate) is the equivalent of giving a child candy all the time - it makes the child happy momentarily, but it's no good for them in the long-term:

To treat yourself as if you were someone you are responsible for helping is [...] to consider what would be truly good for you. This is not “what you want.” It is also not “what would make you happy.” Every time you give a child something sweet, you make that child happy. That does not mean that you should do nothing for children except feed them candy. “Happy” is by no means synonymous with “good.”

That strikes me as a very sensible point indeed. When we decide on how to act, we need to take the whole of our life into account - not just the present moment. If we focus on the present moment only - which we do when we procrastinate - there will at some point be a price to pay. It may take a while before the payment is due, but it will need to be paid at some point - no exceptions. Becoming conscious of that price - for example by watching Peterson's lecture on the topic - may therefore be an effective strategy to help battle our tendencies to procrastinate.

Afterthought #1: Is all procrastination bad?
Answer: no, it isn’t. A little bit of procrastination, when used wisely and in moderation, is probably healthy. Sticking to a strict regiment of tasks with military precision and without any small acts of procrastination is killing for the parts of you that are creative and playful, and you desperately want those parts on board if you want life to be fun and rewarding. But procrastinate wisely. Keep an eye on the clock. Don’t get lost in it – procrastinating for hours on end is probably one of the worst feelings you can have as a human being (and we’ve all been there πŸ˜€). Give yourself permission to procrastinate,  but do so only when you can really afford to. Also, consider putting a time limit on your procrastination sessions. Doing things that are fun but relatively meaningless can be great, but doing so for hours on end? Most of the time, the feeling that leaves you with is suboptimal to say the least.
I still procrastinate myself, although I’m nowhere near as bad as I used to be. In that sense, I consider myself a recovering procrastinator. It still creeps in sometimes without me noticing it – for example because I spend too much time on a task that is fun, meaningful but not super urgent. Like writing this blog post. Yesterday, for example, I scheduled thirty minutes for writing it, but I was in the zone and kept writing. That meant I spent the rest of the day playing catch-up, with just a little bit too little time for everything else, which meant I was – blinks guiltily – rushing. But I’m getting better and better at recognizing when I’m doing this, and it happens less and less. When I get lost in useless activities, it’s almost always at a time when there’s no harm in it, like in the evening when I didn’t have anything important to do anyway. It eats up the time I would have spent reading a quality book, but it doesn’t mess up my planning. (For me, my poison is youtube – before I know it, I’ve spent the whole evening looking at clips about Brian May’s guitar and Eric Clapton explaining why he wrote Layla.)
It’s certainly possible to reduce procrastination to almost zero levels, then – to that I can testify. But will doing that automatically mean you will no longer be rushing, so that you’ll end up living the life of tranquility and peace which the Daoists advocate? Probably not. Not procrastinating simply means that you are not spending your time on useless activities during time periods when you really can’t afford doing. Doing that doesn’t automatically turn you into the Western equivalent of a Zen monk. In order to make sure that ‘no procrastination’ also leads to ‘no rushing’, you need to take one more step: leave some space in your day. Don’t plan it chock-a-block full with useful activities. Start on time with your projects, but use the time that this frees up to leave some breathing room in your schedule. Do that consistently, and perhaps at some point you’ll reduce your stress levels to such an extent that you can proudly call yourself a Western Daoist. 

Afterthought #2: Sometimes procrastination is telling you to change direction.
Here’s a final thought: if none of the advice given in this blog post works for you (after getting serious about it for a sustained period of time – you’ll need some time to learn new habits and clean up your act) you might need to think about whether what you’re trying to achieve is really what you ought to be doing with your life. Sometimes the fact that we cannot muster the motivation to do something simply means that it isn’t something we really ought to be doing anyway. If you hate every single minute you spend doing something, then maybe it simply means that there are more worthwhile pursuits to consider. That’s also very much a Daoist idea: that every person has their own inner nature, which means that each and everyone of us will flourish in some circumstances and do poorly in other circumstances. As Benjamin Hoff puts it in his excellent Tao of Pooh: “When you know and respect your Inner Nature, you know where you belong. You also know where you don't belong.” And that’s very good advice. The problem is that it’s quite difficult to tell the difference between where you belong and where you don't belong sometimes. The fact that you're procrastinating a lot doesn't have to mean that what you're doing is not right for you. Most of the time, I think, it’s just a sign that you need to get organized and clean up your life. So try that first. Working in the right way has a tendency to change the feel and quality of almost every single thing you do into something more enjoyable. If you’ve tried that, though, and you still hate what you do, consider changing direction. If your tail is dragging, check your path.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2018

What's so great about following your passion anyway? Reflections on whether you should do what you love.

When I was in my late teens I read a lot of books by American self-help authors like Wayne Dyer and Anthony Robbins. There was one thing those books all seemed to agree on: the most important thing in life is to do what you are passionate about. ‘Do what you love’, Wayne Dyer would write, ‘and the money will follow’. That very quickly become something I believed in with all my heart, and it influenced many of the choices I made as a student. If I devoted myself wholeheartedly to my biggest passions, I reasoned, I was bound to become happy and successful. This led me to devote a huge amount of time to music, creative writing, and studying philosophy. The results, however, surprised me. Instead of becoming blissfully happy and achieving instant success, I also encountered failure, stress, and anxiety. It was certainly the case that following my so-called ‘passions’ also led to many moments of satisfaction and happiness, but not constantly, and that ran counter to my expectations. Also, some of those endeavors didn’t lead to success at all - instead, I crashed and burned in some areas of my life. ‘Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans,’ John Lennon famously said, and that has certainly been true for me.

Our culture, however, has embraced the ideas of thinkers like Dyer and Robbins in a big, big way. The fact that people should follow their passion has become such a mainstream idea that most of us take its truth for granted. People who claim to follow their passion are put on a pedestal, and as a result almost everyone at some point in their life ends up asking the kind of questions I asked as a nineteen-year-old student: what is my passion? What is my ‘thing’?

It’s a hard question to answer, though. And asking it frequently stresses people out - a lot. After all, not everyone has a passion so huge that it’s crystal clear that devoting the rest of your life to it is sensible. And what if you have several passions, like I did as a student? How do you divide your time? How do you decide which passion to give priority?What if you have no passion? Does everyone have a passion? Should you be able to earn money with your passion? What is a passion anyway? Does drinking coffee count as a passion? The list of questions you can ask yourself about this topic goes on and on.

In my case, after many sidetracks and dead ends, my struggle to answer these kinds of questions led to a career as a University teacher, and in that capacity I frequently end up discussing these questions with my students. What should I do, they ask me? Should I go this way or that way? Focus on music or law? Should I do what I love or choose something that I think I will be able to earn more money with? And what do you do if you can’t choose? What if a thousand possible directions to take all look good? What if none look good?

It’s hard for me to help out when students ask these kinds of questions. Everyone is different. What’s sensible for one person is poisonous advice for another. So I don’t have clear-cut answers. I’m not an oracle, and I can’t make the decisions for them. In the end, what I almost always end up doing is this: I recommend stuff for them to read or watch. I end up recommending books, youtube clips, blog articles, newspaper articles, in the hope that it will help them to clarify their thinking. So here, in no particular order, are my favourite reading and viewing recommendations for figuring out that eternal, pesky question: what is my passion?

Youtube clip. Viewing time: 5 minutes.
Question addressed: Should you follow your passion?
Answer: Yes.

Before authors like Dyer and Robbins made a career out of bringing the ‘do what you love’ philosophy to the masses, there was Joseph Campbell – a hugely charismatic, deeply wise academic specializing in myth and religion who taught at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York for most of his life. Campbell shot to fame in the eighties when a series of televised interviews with him unexpectedly drew viewing figures in the millions. This clip comes from that series of interviews (the whole series is worth watching, and is called ‘The Power of myth’). Campbell explains that throughout his career he has advised his students to, in his words, ‘follow their bliss’. While that phrase might sound cheesy, Campbell’s explanation about how he came up with the phrase is anything but. I dare you to watch this clip and not be moved by Campbell’s energy and charisma. Although he doesn't address this in the clip, Campbell himself often acknowledged that following your passions will not lead to permanent bliss, commenting jokingly that a more accurate phrase would have been ‘follow your blisters’. 

Internet article. Reading time: 5 minutes.
Question addressed:Sshould you base what you study at University on your perception of what will lead to a job?
Answer: Probably not.

Glaser makes a point I believe in with all my heart: It’s very wise for students to use their bachelor degree to experiment. Take courses in a wide variety of fields, and don’t worry about the economics too much. A liberal arts degree, in this regard, is a perfect way to spend the first three years of your academic life. And if you’re passionate about the humanities - which have a bad rep in terms of job prospects - then go head and take that humanities major anyway (and after that, why not do a master in the same field, if you still love it?). In all likelihood your understanding of those poor job prospects are false anyway. The transferrable skills students learn in the humanities are tremendously valuable assets in a wealth of different jobs, as Glaser argues in this short article.

Blog article. Reading time: seven minutes.
Question addressed: Should you follow your passion?
Answer: Probably. But be aware of the caveats.
Question addressed: What is my passion?
Answer: You already know.

Manson is a superstar blogger and author of the recent best-seller The subtle art of not giving a f*ck (which I also heartily recommend). Of the many excellent points he makes in this blog post, two stand out for me:
1. What you’re passionate about is often so obvious that it’s staring you right in the face. We overcomplicate this issue frequently, as if we’re waiting for some kind of mystical ‘eureka’ revelation that lets us know that this is our thing, this is what we should devote the rest of our life to. But reality isn’t like that. Most of us don’t get messages from the Gods about what direction to go in. So we need to try stuff out. Following your passion often entails not just going with your gut-feeling, but a messy series of trial and error.
2. If you do what you’re passionate about, you’re not going to be 100% happy all the time. Accept that, and expect it to happen.

Blog article. Reading time: nine minutes.
Question Addressed: Should you invest all your time into following a single passion?
Answer: No.

Another article by Manson, this one a riff on a concept by famous productivity author / polyglot / speed-learner / angel investor / cookery writer / podcast host  Tim Ferriss (yes, Ferriss is really all those things!). Ferriss – whose blog I recommend – coined the term ‘identity diversification’, a concept which he explains as follows:

When you have money, it’s always smart to diversify your investments. That way if one of them goes south, you don’t lose everything. It’s also smart to diversify your identity, to invest your self-esteem and what you care about into a variety of different areas — business, social life, relationships, philanthropy, athletics — so that when one goes south, you’re not completely screwed over and emotionally wrecked.

Ferriss himself hasn’t elaborated much on the concept other than mention it in passing in interview, so I therefore recommend this blog post by Manson, which digs deeper and gives more food for thought. For me, the idea that you should diversify your identity is very, very wise advice. The reason that the whole ‘follow your passion’ idea leads to so much stress is that we start identifying with our passions. We put all our eggs in one basket. We invest huge amounts of time into making one area of our life a success – our so-called ‘passion’ – and as a result we feel under huge pressure. It is wise, therefore, to diversify our identity. This means we don’t necessarily have to follow just one passion - we can follow several. If I look back on my own career, this is something that I’ve always done, and I always felt slightly guilty about that. In hindsight, I see that it was actually a very sensible strategy.

[edit:I've written a blog post with some further reflections on the 'diversify your identity' concept - you can read it here]

Newspaper article. Reading time: 15 minutes.
Question addressed: Is failure bad?
Answer: No.

This article from the British newspaper the Guardian introduces the main ideas covered in Oliver Burkeman's book The Antidote, which is one of my favorite books of all time. It's a deeply wise book about the psychology of happiness which has had a huge amount of influence on my own thinking. I wish I’d read it twenty years earlier – it would have saved me much heartbreak and frustration. The most important take-away from the book for me? Make your peace with failure. Instead of seeing at as something to be avoided at all costs, see it as something natural, which is often-times beyond your control. I strongly recommend the entire book, but this short article does an excellent job covering the book's main ideas and can be read in under 15 minutes. I love the part where Burkeman describes his visit to the famous museum of failure - a huge collection of products that were on the market for only a few weeks because no one bought them. Failure, in other words, happens to the best of us. If you are going to follow your passions, then do so – but don’t stress yourself out by thinking that you must succeed at all costs. Convincing yourself that something beyond your control must happen is a surefire way to depression and anxiety. Failure is natural, and not something to be afraid of. If you combine that idea with Ferriss's 'diversify your identity' strategy you will have an approach to following your passions that is far, far healthier than most people's, and one I'd known about twenty years ago. 

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