Why Fasting is the Secret to Creative Growth

Today is Ash Wednesday,* the day that marks the beginning of Lent for many people of faith around the world. Lent, for those of you who are not bombarded with reminders on social media about it every year, is a religious term referring to the 40 days leading up to Easter. It’s tradition for people to fast for these 40 days in preparation for Easter Sunday.

I had no idea what Lent was until I went to college and got band-wagoned into giving up something trendy each Spring. One year it was desserts. Another, Facebook. My friends gave up coffee or alcohol or carbs. In more recent years, I became suspicious of the benefits of Lent. It seemed like the things people gave up were less about some pursuit of spiritual discipline and more about personal benefits. Lent just seemed like another excuse to diet.

But in the past year I’ve awoken to the power of deprivation to spur personal and artistic growth. I’ve given up one thing each month since last August. Sugar. Coffee. Alcohol. Cussing. The practice started on accident. I did a spending fast because (shocker) I felt like I was spending too much money, and when it was over, I realized there were a lot of other things I consumed in excess and so I just kept going.

Fasting is most commonly known as a spiritual exercise and most religions incorporate it in some way. Muslims practice Ramadan. Hindus set aside certain days every week to fast. Christians fast during Lent. Jewish people fast to celebrate Yom Kippur.

When I started giving up things for set periods of time, I wasn’t doing it for spiritual growth. I was doing it for selfish reasons. I wanted to save money so I stopped drinking alcohol. I didn’t want to get addicted to caffeine so I gave up coffee. But what I’ve come to realize is that deprivation automatically forces growth.

In his book Emotional Intelligence, Dan Coleman writes that, “There is perhaps no psychological skill more fundamental than resisting impulse.”

This is an especially essential skill in a first world country where delayed gratification is not a given. In America, you can go your whole life without going without. This is a blessing. But instant gratification can quickly become a burden. When we stuff ourselves with an endless stream of food, entertainment, and material goods, we starve ourselves of the opportunity to want something.

Fasting forces you to be present in your life. Every time you say no to something, you are reminded that you are a rational being, capable of making choices. It’s so easy to glide through our days with our heads down and never look up. My default is to ignore the big picture of my life in favor of getting through another day. Fasting reminds me of the very simple, but entirely remarkable fact that I’m alive.

Sugar, television, expensive clothes, alcohol—all of these things are unessential. Fasting sloughs them off.

If you are feeling stuck or in need of a creative jolt, I invite you to use Lent as an excuse to give something up. If you don’t know where to start, think of the things you do on a daily basis. What do you eat? How do you spend leisure time? Then go with the thing that sounds the most terrifying to be without.

Give up your crutch for the next 40 days. You may be surprised to learn that you are perfectly capable of standing on your own.

*it’s also Valentine’s Day, an irony that gives me endless joy

Happy New Week!

Everyone I know loves the new year. We throw parties, stay up late, and most importantly of all, make resolutions.

I think what draws most people to New Year’s—more than the midnight parties and the ball dropping in Times Square—is the chance to start over. The new year is always a blank slate, a fresh opportunity, a second chance.

I’m no exception. I love making lists of ways I’m magically going to be better, completely different person than who I actually am because that’s the kind of delusional hope that January gives me.

It’s funny to me that most people love the opportunity to start a new year, but loathe starting a new week. I think this might have something to do with the fact that, as many resolutions as we make, New Year’s is not a real harbinger for change. It’s easy to ignore because it only comes once every 365 days. New Year’s is a red herring—we use it to give ourselves a spark of hope for change, without any of the work and drive that real change requires.

But if you want to wring the most joy possible out of your one wild and precious life, why only give yourself one opportunity a year to try?

Monday is a weekly reminder of our opportunity to start fresh. What if instead of making huge New Year’s resolutions that we’ll never fulfill, we made New Week resolutions? You don’t have to make the same mistakes this week that you made last week. You don’t have to wait until January to start improving your life. Start today. Heck, start now. Stop reading this and start working. I won’t be offended.

New Week resolution

Make a New Week resolution and stick to it! Mine for this week is to get up when my alarm goes off (because I don’t want to snooze button through life). What’s yours? Shoot me an email and let’s hold each other accountable.

Don’t Live On Autopilot

steering-wheel-2209953_640.jpg

Hey guess what? Today is a day!

It’s not a reset, it’s not a time to sleepwalk through, it’s not a dream. It’s a day.

Here are a few questions you might encounter today:

  • How’s it going?
  • How was your weekend?
  • How are you?

I don’t know about you but I typically answer these questions without really thinking about it.

“Well, you know, it’s Monday…so…”

“Good. Too short.”

“Living the dream.”

These answers are so boring and cliché they make me want to throw this keyboard across the room. Am I so unoriginal? Am I so out of touch with my life that I can’t even assess how it’s going? Am I really living the dream? If not, why would I joke about that?

Moral of the story: I don’t want to live my life from a script. I don’t want to live on autopilot.

I am the only one responsible for my life. There is no back up person who will take over if I choose to live like a robot.

If you didn’t wake up this morning, don’t panic, there’s still time. Wake up. Today is an actual day in your life. It’s not a freebie, you don’t get a do over. It counts.

Challenge for the week:  Think about the clichés and automatic responses governing your days. Pay attention when people ask you questions and answer them honestly.

Goal for the week: My goal for the week is not to lie about my emotions. This sounds simple, but it’s actually really difficult for me. I’d prefer if no one knew I had feelings, but that’s a story for another time. I think this could be a helpful exercise for most people. When someone asks how you’re doing, don’t lie about your emotions. If your boss checks in, don’t lie about your workload. If someone says no offense, tell them if you’re offended.

Don’t lie about your feelings. Don’t live on autopilot.

Let’s be honest, not apologize for our being, and take the driver’s seat of our life this week. Make today count. It will only happen once.

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How to Conquer Internet Addiction and Achieve Your Dreams

telephone-1822040_1920Headline seem like a bit much? What does the internet have to do with dreams (besides all the nightmares you have freshman year because you stayed up too late reading about serial killers…please tell me I’m not alone in this)?

I think addiction has everything to do with mediocrity. And one of the things I’m addicted to knowledge. In some ways, this can be good. I’m informed about world events, I’m full of fun facts about serial killers (see above) and women in ancient Rome. The problem is I spend way more time consuming useless information than I do making the things I want to make.

So I decided to Rumplestiltskin* myself for the month of October.

Some of you have been asking about my Information Diet and since I’m drowning in extra time now that I’m no longer perusing the internet (oh, the horror!) I figured I’d share more details with you.

What’s the Goal?

Someone asked me what the point was in giving up information. They phrased it in a nicer way, but that was the gist. It’s such a valid question.

When I gave up other substances for a month, it was not with the goal of cutting them out of my life completely. I had no plans to become sugar or coffee free (I’m not INSANE).

This challenge is different because my goal is to permanently reduce the amount of time I spend mindlessly consuming information. 

I’m starting with a month of cold turkey informationless-ness** so I can determine what resources I miss and how much time I should devote to information consumption.

Cutting out information is far harder for me than cutting out alcohol or coffee. I didn’t even let myself think about it until October 1 because I didn’t want to face the reality of what my world would look like without news. That’s exactly why I knew it needed to be done. If I’m afraid to go without something, it probably means I’m addicted to it.

A few others have asked me what I’m actually doing and if I have any tips for doing your own Information Diet. I’ve written before about how I use tricks and manipulation to force myself to grow. Here a few tricks I’m using I’m using to make myself mindful of the information I consume.

Info Diet Tips & Tricks

1. Track your time

I am firm believer that knowledge is power. One of the most powerful tools we can give ourselves is knowing how and where we spend our time. 

At various phases in life I’ve used apps, physical worksheets, and calendars to keep track of how I spent every hour of every day. This is a bit extreme for most people, but if you suspect you have a problem with the amount of time you spend online (or watching TV, staring blankly into space, whatever floats your boat) forcing yourself to account for it is a great way to motivate yourself to make a change.

You can use sheets with slots for every hour (like so) or use good old fashioned pen and paper. This is a super useful exercise for life in general, even if you’re not particularly interested in how much information you consume.

2. Change your triggers

Deciding not to do something is easy. Setting yourself up to succeed in ditching your bad habit for a better one is the difficult part. 

Humans are creatures of routine and habit. External triggers cue these habits. For example, my mind is trained to automatically open my email account when I get to work and to scroll through Instagram every night before bed. Even though I’ve decided not to do those things this month my brain is still going to want to do them automatically. To succeed I have to take action to replace these triggers.

Here’s a few practical ways I’m doing that:

  • Changing the home screen on my internet browser. It used to open to Bing, which displays the top news stories of the day.  Whoever writes those headlines is a genius who should make millions of dollars because I would click on the stories every single time. If I don’t see that when I open the internet browser (which I’m not really supposed to be doing anyway) I can’t get sucked in by those stories.
  • Delete apps from your phone. I’ve never kept Facebook on my phone, but this is a great way to reprogram what you do when you automatically try to fill time by scrolling through social media. You can’t do it if they’re not there.
  • Sign out of social media accounts. This way when your brain types in F for Facebook without you being consciously aware of it, you will be locked out. Forcing yourself to log in every time you want to check social media is an easy way to be purposeful about how much time you spend on it. I’d also unclick “stay logged in” on anything you don’t really need to be logged into.
  • Use Instapaper to save articles you want to read (shout out to Adrian for telling me about this app!) I get inspiration from everywhere and appreciate a good Longform article like nobody’s business. This app lets me save links people send me or that I stumble across so I can come back to them later if needed. If you’re like me, you also constantly stumble across names and events that you want to look up. Instead of looking these up immediately and tumbling into the tunnel that is Wikipedia I started a Note on my phone to list all of them. If I’m still interested after a month*** they will be there. 

3. Set Time Limits

Maybe a complete Information Fast is not your thing, but you want to be more mindful about how you consume information. Set a timer for 10-15 minutes of browsing time and when it dings, go back to work. 

4. Use a Break To Do Sheet

Second shout out to Adrian for sending me this awesome PDF from Lifehacker. I live and die by To Do Lists. Seriously I have lists for everything (I think I’ve mentioned about five in this post alone). Probably the one thing in my life I don’t have a list for is taking breaks. 

Resting is difficult. Resting well is nearly impossible–if you’re not prepared. If you know you want to unwind by watching the newest SNL Digital Short, reading that New Yorker article, or scrolling through Instagram, plan for it! This makes taking the break purposeful instead of mindless. Also, you will get the unparalleled joy of checking something off of a list. You’re welcome. 

5. Know how you want to spend your excess time

The point of consuming less is to create more. I’m challenging myself to fill the time I used to spend surfing the web with creative output—outlining a story, editing pages, or doing story research. Keeping in mind the big picture why of my Information Diet helps me focus on what I’m gaining instead of what I’m giving up. 

 

What about you? Do you have any hacks you use to trick yourself into spending less time online? I need all the help I can get!

If you want more made up words and tips for tricking yourself into doing anything, sign up for my weekly newsletter where I offer plenty of both.

*Is this a verb? No. Do I care? Also no.

**Another word I made up. Really rolls right off the tongue doesn’t it?

***I won’t be

 

How to Actually Make Yourself Do Something (In 4 Easy Steps)

“You don’t have to believe in yourself, you just have to do the thing.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/BZOgr6Nhp2M/?taken-by=alikaywould

Author Holly Black said this at the Brooklyn Book Festival this weekend (more on the Festival in my weekly newsletter, which you can get by signing up here) and it’s been haunting me all week.

I am lazy. My natural inclination is to do nothing, all the time. If no one interrupted me, I could probably read for at least seven years before noticing any time had passed.

I’ve spent years searching for the magical cure to my laziness. I’ve tried using SMART goals, building habits and creating detailed Calendars for Change. Nothing stuck. I’d be hyper productive for a few weeks and then drift back into my natural state of being.

I suspect I’m not alone in this.

There are tons of blogs, books, and speeches floating around in the world about how to do things. How to write a book, finish a screenplay, paint a painting. For those privileged enough to have a dream beyond mere survival, one of the great struggles of life is getting yourself to do the things you actually want to do.

This struggle is nothing new. Paul wrote about it in a letter to the Christian church in Rome in the first century.

“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

(Romans 7:15 ESV)

This is the story of my life. I hate passivity and laziness, yet I often live in those states. I know what I want to do, but the gap between it and what I actually do is vast. It is exhausting, to fail at something so simple.

Ben Hardy has written, “it’s actually far more exhausting to not work than it is to work.”

This is so true. Pursuing goals take energy, yes. But not pursuing thing them takes even more.

Most of the advice I’ve seen about how to make yourself do the thing you want to do essentially boils down to: if you really want to, you will do it.

This is not true. Plenty of people want to start companies, travel the world, or direct movies. Most of them take no action toward doing these things.

I’ve always found this advice useless. I want to do so many things and I do so few.

This year, though, I’ve discovered the secret to making myself productive and achieving my goals. It’s simple: trick myself.

That’s right. The easiest way to start is to trick yourself into doing it. Once I threw away all that hogwash about chasing dreams and artistic passion and focused on what actually motivated me, I discovered that playing mind games was the best way to get myself to do the things I wanted to be doing.

Here’s a few tips for tricking yourself into doing something:

1. Figure out what motivates you

First, it’s important to identify what motivates you. I am motivated by external expectations.

I don’t bail on plans with friends and I always turn projects in on time at work. It’s meeting internal expectations that I struggle with.

You might be the opposite. Maybe it’s easy for you to finish something when it’s a personal project, but you bristle at the thought of an employer deadline or outer expectations.

Gretchen Rubin has written an entire book about the four ways people respond to expectations called The Four Tendencies. You can take the quiz to found out how you respond to expectations here.

Once you’ve identified what motivates you it’s time to figure out how work within that framework.

This is tricky for internal goals—it can feel hopeless. How on earth can I motivate myself to do something if I only do things for other people?

Simple. I turned my internal goals into external deadlines. I will not work out unless I have to. This year I started signing up for races and telling people I was running them. Now I have to train because I’ve spent money on a race. I love deadlines and so this system works really well for me.

Don’t expect yourself to magically wake up one morning feeling motivated to make all the changes you want to in your life. Identify the things that have actually motivated you in the past, and figure out a way to create a similar set of circumstances in your present.

2. Put your pride on the line

Shame is usually a negative thing, but I’m not opposed to using it to motivate myself. When I tell my roommate I’m waking up early to go on a run, I’m more likely to do it because I don’t want her to wake up before me and notice I’m still in bed.

Put your pride on the line for your work. Post publicly about what you are doing. Tell a few friends. Tattoo a deadline on your body. Whatever works for you. Higher stakes will lead to better results.

3. Build momentum

Different goal setting systems recommend different goal sizes. The SMART system suggests setting achievable goals. Others recommend wildly unachievable goals. I’ve found the best way to meet goals is to find a sweetspot between what you can realistically achieve and what you would achieve in your wildest dreams. If you start out too small, you may forget why you needed a goal in the first place. If you start out too big, you’ll grow discouraged and give up.

The trick, as always, is to find balance. If you want to run a 5k, starting with a goal of walking fifty feet a day will probably not help you. It will be so easy to achieve, you’ll wonder why you need to train for the race at all. On the other hand, if you start with a goal of running three miles on your first try, you will likely be discouraged by how hard it is. (Unless you are one of those people who can just run forever without ever trying, in which case, I hate you.)

The key word here is momentum.

Momentum is the word my friends and I use to make ourselves go out in the city. Nightlife in New York doesn’t really get started until midnight or later, which, for someone like me who is socially akin to a grandmother, is asking a lot. We use the word momentum to get us pumped.

When we leave the apartment at 10, cold and tired and thinking all our plans of dancing and “having the best night ever” were foolish, we start yelling “momentum!” It’s weird, but it works.

The real trick to doing the thing you want to do is building momentum. You don’t wake up one morning with the strength to finish something. You take one step, then another, and build a consistent work ethic.

4. Objects in motion stay in motion

Once you’ve figured out how to motivate yourself and have started building momentum, the trick is to keep moving. Operate by Newton’s first law of motion: objects in motion stay in motion.

Just because you’ve started doing the thing you want to be doing doesn’t mean you’ve earned a break. Keep working. It is much easier to keep moving than it is to start moving. You’re in motion, congratulations. Don’t stop.

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