5 Simple Ways to Stop Feeling Stuck – Step 3: Start Heatmapping

This is Part 3 in a Five Part series.

Read the Intro

Read Step 1: Identify and Attack Your Triggers

Read Step 2: Make a Bored List

One thing I’ve learned about myself over year years of failure and embarrassment is that I am not good at recognizing correlations in my life. You’ve probably heard the phrase “correlation does not equal causation” in regards to data. On a scientific level, this principle holds true, but I’ve found that, on a personal level, correlation often does equal causation.

Other people are often than the ones who point out possible causes of a problem I’m experiencing. Friends have noticed that I tend to fall asleep if I eat a lot of bread or that I touch my hair a lot and that might be why it gets greasy so fast. These sound like obvious culprit, but before they were pointed out to me I assumed I just couldn’t stay awake during movies and that it was impossible to clean my hair. Connecting emotions to tangible aspects of my life does not come naturally to me.

Hence, Heatmapping.

If I had to pick one tool that I’ve found to be the most essential getting unstuck it would be Heatmapping. No contest.

I first discovered Heatmapping in college and it quite literally changed my life. I was exhausted all the time (like, fall asleep at 8 p.m. on my birthday exhausted) and there was no reason for it. I was happy and getting plenty of sleep and it wasn’t Winter. It was infuriating. I couldn’t stay up past 9 and I was tired all the time, but there was no discernible cause.

I found out about Heatmapping from Susan Dennard (if you are a writer, Susan Dennard is the Yoda you need—her website is incredible). Dennard used Heatmapping to figure out when she was most productive and what elements factored into that increased productivity. By using this technique she was able to figure out her peak work times and how to stretch those times so she could get more writing done.

So. What’s Heatmapping?

Basically Heatmapping requires you to track your activity and mood every hour of the day (you can modify this to every half hour to be more specific). I take this one step farther and also track my activities so I can correlate them with my mood. By tracking mood and energy level on a daily basis you can identify patterns over time. Maybe you tend to feel gloomiest at 3 p.m. or are more productive on days you drink less than two cups of coffee.

In college, I filled a folder with a bunch of copies of a Heatmap, bought some colored markers, and went to town. Within a few weeks I had noticed a pattern: the more sleep I got the less energy I had the next day. I kept tracking my sleep and eventually figured out that I need to between 6.5-7.5 hours to be operate at my highest level. This was a total game changer for me. I’d always been told that more sleep was essential to feeling rested, but in my case the more I slept the more I wanted to sleep and the more exhausted I felt. Since then I’ve to manage my sleep to make sure I’m getting the right amount for my body.

So how can you start Heatmapping? It’s easy and involves coloring so get excited.

1. Choose your template

Traditional, productivity Heatmaps use a circular grid. I find this confusing, but if circles float your boat, you can find a template of this model template here and a detailed explanation of how to use it here.

If you prefer a more straight forward spreadsheet, you can create your own version in Excel. This is what I did in college, but  lately I’ve been using Google Sheets. I like Sheets because it’s on the internet so I can access it from anywhere.

I used to print out pages and fill them in physically. If that’s your style, go for it! Any excuse to color is acceptable in my book. Personally, I find that it’s easier for me to track things digitally.

Here’s an example of what my Heatmap looks like:

Heatmap

I prefer to break my day into half hour increments (as opposed to hour) because I have a short attention span and tend to rotate activities more than once an hour.

If you’d like more info on how I designed my personal Heatmap comment below or shoot me an email and I’ll do a post giving more details on it.

2. Choose your color scheme

Next you’ll want to figure out what color scheme you want to use.

Here’s mine:

Red = time wasted

Green = peak productivity

Pink = lightly wasted time

Orange = TV/entertainment

Purple = socializing

Blue = sleep

Grey = rest, recharge, introvert time

Yellow = necessary life tasks (cleaning, commuting, etc.)

I have this pasted at the bottom of my Heatmap Sheet so I can refer to it easily.

Here’s how Susan Dennard color codes her map:

  • blue= sleeping
  • purple= cooking, showering, dealing with the pets/husband
  • green= creative flow zone
  • yellow= I’m productive but distracted
  • orange=  ugggggggh, I’m barely accomplishing anything
  • red= watching TV, reading, chatting with husband/friends

You can find more on Susan’s Heatmapping method here. I cannot emphasize this enough: if you are a writer and this type of color coding organizational stuff appeals to you, go check out Susan’s website immediately. She is the Queen of charts/productivity/words.

For other ideas you can check out Productive Flourishing’s model, which focuses more on energy level and less on activity.

3. Set up your supplies

If you’re going old school, print 31 copies of your Heatmap and stick them in a folder or binder. Plan on carrying this with you everywhere for the next month. You’ll also want to buy some markers or coloring pencils. If you’re going the digital route, make sure you have access to your Heatmap on your phone and laptop.

4. Map away!

Now’s the fun part! Start coloring in your boxes. I think it’s better to do this throughout the day as opposed to all at once, but if you’re struggling to remember to update the map on an hourly basis, you can do it once a day.

Tips for effective Heatmapping:

  • Set reminders

In order to get the best results, it’s essential to fill in the map every day—and to fill it in on the day you’re recording. It’s not helpful if you spend Friday morning trying to remember your mood and activities on Thursday. To help me remember to fill mine in I have reminders set on my phone and computer.

  • Commit to Heatmapping for 31 days

To get a sense of your mood and energy patterns, you need at least a month’s worth of data. You can start looking for patterns earlier, but for best results, stick with it for an entire month.

  • Be honest

When we start paying attention to how we’re spending our time and how that makes us feel, it can be tempting to lie. You might want to downplay how much time you spend watching TV or how many hours a day you waste trolling the internet. Don’t. Being honest about your life is the only way you can hope to improve it.

I’m found that simply paying more attention to the way I’m spending my time often helps me get unstuck. And Heatmapping is the best way I know to force myself to pay attention. Have you tried Heatmapping or another time tracking method? Let me know in the comments below?

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5 Simple Ways to Stop Feeling Stuck – Step 2: Make a Bored List

This is Part 2 in a five part series.

Read the introduction

Read Part 1

If I had to pick one emotion that lines up with feeling stuck it would be boredom. I’ve never been one to get bored easily. As a kid, I would spend hours on my own talking to myself and

Boredom – feeling weary because one is unoccupied or lacks interest in one’s current activity.

You’ll notice that this definition omits one of the things I considered essential for boredom as child: not having anything to do. What I’ve realized is that boredom isn’t about not having anything to do. As an adult, there’s always something to do. Boredom can stem from two things:

  1. Not doing anything

  2. Not liking what you’re doing

Both are problematic and stem from different underlying causes, but one thing I’ve been experimenting with lately is a simple solution that I think applies to both.

The Bored List

I call it the Bored List. What I realized is that when you’re an adult there’s no excuse to be bored. There’s always something that needs to get done. For a lot of people, it’s more difficult to rest—to stop hacking away at the never ending To Do list—than to start.

Feeling bored is not a normal experience for me, but lately I’ve found myself with more free time than usual (thanks horrible NYC winter!) and I’m not spending wisely. Feeling bored is a symptom of being stuck.

A teacher once told me that bored people are boring. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I do think that bored people are forgetful. When we’re bored, it’s not that there’s nothing we want or could be doing, it’s that we’re not remembering how we want to spend our time.

I’ll sometimes find myself with chunks of times where I have no commitments and I have no idea how to spend it. This is where the Bored List comes in. If I find myself reaching for the remote or falling down a YouTube rabbit hole (I recently discovered the early Lonely Island videos and I’m dead), instead of automatically giving these things my time I first review my Bored List. It’s basically a list of ongoing projects or things I want to work on when I have time. Some things currently on my Bored List: clean out craft shelf, download photos from phone, plan Europe trip.

I taped my Bored List to my laptop and put it in the Notes on my phone. Anytime I find myself reaching for these things when I’m bored, I instead review the list and remind myself of the things in my life that need my attention.

What helps you keep boredom at bay? Let me know in the comments!

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5 Simple Ways to Stop Feeling Stuck – Step 1: Identify and Attack Your Triggers

This is Part 1 of a series on Getting Unstuck. Read the intro here.

The first thing I did when I realized I was feeling stuck was to try and identify the tangible triggers contributing to my stuck-ness. Below are three things I did to figure out what my triggers were and change my response to them.

1. Identify Your Triggers

Before I could attack my triggers, I had to know what they were.

To clarify: By triggers, I don’t mean things like “my entire personality sucks” or “I live in a rat-infested hole in Brooklyn”—those are life factors. I was trying to identify the emotional factors playing into the feeling of being stuck. Like I mentioned in the introduction to this series, I’m not actually stuck in any area of my life right now. Job is good. Apartment is great. Relationships are solid. But despite these facts, I feel stagnant. I’m not appreciating the everyday magic of my life as much as I want to. I’m going through the motions of a routine instead of experiencing the joy of being alive. It’s annoying, to say the least.

So anyways. Triggers. Basically, I wanted to see if my stuckness had any correlations with what I was doing. Had I changed something in my life? Here’s what I came up with:

 

  1. Increase in screen time (mostly television and Instagram)
  2. Not running as much as I used to
  3. Too much sleep (more on this later in the week)
  4. Nothing to look forward to travel/social-wise because Winter is dark and full of terrors
  5. Not spending my lunch break outside

2. Make a Wellness Checklist

The second step was to identify the flipside of these negative triggers: what things do I intend to do on a daily basis that make me feel good about myself and my existence? I made a Wellness Checklist. I actually got this checklist idea from Dax Shepard’s podcast (if you haven’t listened to the episode he did with his goddess of a wife, Kristen Bell, you are unnecessarily depriving yourself of joy).

Here’s my checklist:

  1. Engage in deep conversation with someone about my problem
  2. Go for a run
  3. Write it out
  4. Spend at least 30 minutes outside
  5. Leave the house
  6. Eat some vegetables

I resolved that the next time I was feeling stuck I would run through my Wellness Checklist. If I hadn’t done something on the list I would do it and see if I felt better. Rinse and repeat.

I also decided to tackle the first item on my trigger list: screen time. For me, the problem with screen time isn’t comparison, it’s mindlessness. Most of the things I watch on TV don’t really hold my attention—so I do something else like scroll through Instagram or add yet another magical zit cure to my Amazon Wish List, resulting in double screen time. I wasn’t making a conscious choice to invest my time in these activities. It was mindless.

3. Add a step

I decided there was no better way to stop a mindless activity than with mind games. The key? Adding an extra step.

Because these are mindless activities, all I need to do to stop engaging in them is make myself actually think about them. Groundbreaking, I know.

I have a bad habit of scrolling through Instagram when I’m bored. So I deleted it off my phone. Sometimes I watch Netflix before going to sleep. So I signed out of my account.

If you watch too much TV, you could try unplugging the TV so that you’ll have to really think before turning it on. If you drink to excess, try putting your alcohol in a locked cupboard. If you constantly check your phone for notifications, try putting it in airplane mode for 30 minutes at a time.

Today’s Un-Stuck Steps:

  1. Identify your triggers

  2. Make a wellness checklist

  3. Add a step that makes mindless activities mindful

Tomorrow I’ll be writing about the list that transformed how I spend my downtime. Hope to see you there!

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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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You Are Responsible For Your Life

On this lovely morning, if you find yourself tempted to yawn, medicate with coffee or complain the day away, please remember:

You are responsible for your life.

Let it sink in.

You are responsible for your life.

No one else is responsible for your feelings, your finances, your happiness, or your success. It’s just you.

Last week I was really wounded by the way some friends treated me. I was stewing in anger and anxiety, and going over and over the situation in my head when I was reminded of this truth: Other people do not need to change. I need to change.

That’s not to say that I excuse other people when they do something wrong. It means that I am in control of my emotions. I don’t get to decide how people treat me. I do get to decide how I respond to it.

It’s terrifying to claim responsibility for your life. To own the fact that you are wholly responsible for how you respond to slights and success, failure and freedom. But do you know what’s even more terrifying? Letting other people run your existence.

I can’t control other people. I can’t make them kinder, can’t make them give me raises, publish my book or show up on time.

You know what I can control? Myself. I can work on regulating my emotional response. I can stop putting the blame for my unhappiness on others, and take ownership of my life. I can stop expecting other people to do the work of fixing my life and start getting my own hands dirty in the grimy, unglamorous work of self improvement.

Let’s stop blaming our problems on our jobs, our relationships and our circumstances. Let’s stop expecting other people to make our dreams reality.

Hate your job? It’s not your job’s responsibility to change, it’s yours. In an unhappy relationship? Same thing. Constantly exhausted and overwhelmed? See above. Placing the burden of responsibility on outside forces makes us stagnant, it makes us comfortable. It lets us pretend to be helpless, to pretend we are the victims, to pretend we can’t do anything.

This is a lie. You are responsible for your life.

So this week, when you are faced with a moment of apathy, a desire to hit the snooze button, to goof off at work, or gossip about a friend, remember: you are responsible for your life.

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