My Favorite Questions for Making Tough Decisions

Sometime you’ll encounter tough decisions that can leave you wallowing in indecision, such as whether to change jobs or careers, end a relationship, move to a new city, or pursue a new lifestyle direction. There are many processes you can use to make intelligent decisions, but all of them have shortcomings when you’re dealing with imperfect information. Sometimes all it takes to gain sufficient clarity though is to ask the right questions. A good question can shift your perspective about your decision and make the wise path obvious.

When I face tough decisions, here are some of my favorite questions to ask:

Will this help me grow?

Since growth is one of my highest personal values, I favor decisions where I can expect to learn and growth. If I see little or no growth on a particular path, I’ll tend to lean against it.

This heuristic gives me a bias to embrace the new, as opposed to repeating something I’ve already done. It’s one reason I usually don’t repeat workshops. Even though it’s more work, I favor doing new workshops because a new workshop pushes me to learn and grow a lot more than repeating a past workshop does.

Asking this question helped me join Toastmasters in 2004, and I remained a member until 2010. I felt a bit anxious about getting involved with the group since I didn’t think it would be a comfortable experience to practice public speaking. But I went to my first meeting and joined a club because I figured that it would be a growth experience, and it certainly was. When the growth aspect faded and the experience became overly familiar, I quit Toastmasters and shifted my attention elsewhere.

There are many situations where fear and hesitation might hold me back, and then my mind wanders towards justification. I can’t because I’m too busy. The timing isn’t right. I’m not feeling my best. Yes… but will it be a growth experience? If a decision will help me grow, then I’m inclined to lean into it.

Sometimes my answer to this question takes the form of a grudging dammit, yes. Part of me doesn’t want it to be a yes, especially when the decision involves facing a fear, a lack of skill, or a lot of extra work, but it’s a good step to at least admit that if I move forward and say yes, I know it will be a growth experience.

Would my best self do this?

Asking this question gave me clarity when I was trying to decide whether or not to uncopyright all my blog posts back in 2010. I had created a tremendous body of intellectual property, and I owned it 100%. But I often wondered what would happen if I let go of that ownership and donated it to the public domain. It seemed like a huge leap, and there was no good way to predict the outcome.

When I asked if my best self would do this, the answer was clear. If uncopyrighting my work would help more people than keeping it copyrighted, my best self would pull the trigger and do it.

My best self is brave, generous, and creative. He could handle the consequences of giving so much away and letting the world run with it. He trusts that it would work out. He knows he can always create more. He doesn’t want to depend on ownership of intellectual property for his sense of security. For him it’s enough to feel secure in who he is. Even if things didn’t turn out so well, he could handle that too. He’s strong enough to deal with the consequences.

Asking this question removed enough doubt to make it so. Would my best self do this? Of course he would.

This still wasn’t an easy decision, but at least I knew that if I could do it, it would bring me further into alignment with my best self. If I held back, I’d be keeping myself out of alignment with him.

Do I want the memory?

Every decision ultimately becomes a memory, and the sum of your decisions will eventually become a string of memories. So which memories do you want?

Do you want the memories of maintaining your current social media habits for the next 10 years? (It’s extremely rare to find someone who can honestly answer yes to this.)

Do you want the memories of keeping your current job for another year? What about your current relationship situation?

Do you want the memories of taking that trip, or would you rather have the memories of not taking it?

This is a really powerful question, and some people have gained immediately clarity the first time they’ve asked it.

Of all the social media interactions and online commentary you’ve posted over the past decade, what do you remember? I remember very little of it. It’s all just a blur. My mind seems to value those memories so little that it didn’t store them in any meaningful detail.

This question helped me lean into lots of delightful travel experiences. Every year I travel to places that I’ve never been before, and one reason is that I love acquiring the memories that come from travel.

When you look back upon the past year, what do you remember? Do you like those memories? Could you have created better memories?

When I think about the past year, I remember eating lots of yummy meals at this small restaurant called Verde Vegan in Acapulco. I remember walking around the streets of London in the rain. I remember going to the top of a volcano, visiting a coffee plantation, and seeing several waterfalls in a rainforest in Costa Rica. I remember sipping espresso on a cobblestone sidewalk in Italy, walking around Villa Borghese park, staring up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and taking silly photos at the Mouth of Truth. I remember lots of fun times while spending 30 days at Disneyland. I remember seeing many plays at the Fringe Festival in Winnipeg and eating samosas with tamarind sauce. I remember sharing laughs and insights at last year’s workshops and going out to dinner with the attendees afterwards. And I remember doing all of these things with my girlfriend.

Most of my best memories are not about working at my desk. They come from having interesting experiences. Is it the same for you?

I’ve taken action on a lot of stretch ideas – and sometimes just plain silly ones – after asking myself if I wanted the memory. One of the silliest was last year’s decision to spend 30 days in a row going to Disneyland. That’s a lot of time to spend on such an experience, and I certainly could have used that time in other ways, but I realized if that I did it, I’d end up with some wonderful memories, plus the overall memory of taking action on a stretch experience.

I rarely regret taking action in a new direction.Usually I regret holding back. I think that’s true of most people. We tend to regret the opportunities we missed as opposed to those we pursued, even if we didn’t get the results we hoped for. We regret not trying even more than trying and failing. Failing is okay. Not trying just sucks.

You could ask yourself which path you’re more likely to regret, but regret is just one type of memory. So when you ask this memory question, it already covers potential regret.

How will this sculpt my character as a man?

I’m sharing this question the way I ask it, so feel free to modify it to fit your gender, or use a gender-neutral substitute like, How will this sculpt my character as a human being?

This was an especially powerful question to ask when I was in my 20s, and I was thinking about what kind of man I wanted to become. This question stemmed from a realization I had while sitting in jail for a few days when I was 19 years old. I saw myself becoming someone much darker than I wanted to be, and that realization woke me up. I realized that in order to change the man I was becoming, I had to start making different decisions.

The decisions you make ultimately define your character and personality. Making a decision is like chiseling out the sculpture of who you’re becoming. Most decisions only chisel out small details. Some decisions define significant aspects of the final piece. The decisions I made while sitting in jail were some of my life’s biggest.

If you’d visited my website between 2004 and 2008, you would have seen a lot of ads. At the peak I was earning $12-13K per month in passive income from having advertising on the site. In late 2008 though, I removed all the ads, which immediately shut off that income.

One reason I made this choice is that I saw it as a character decision. I didn’t feel congruent with distracting my readers with third-party advertising when they came to my website to read about personal growth. I faced a choice, and each option would sculpt my character differently.

The first option was to continue enjoying the easy passive income from advertising for many more years. By today it would probably have been about a million dollars extra if I’d kept having advertising. This would also mean many years of sculpting myself into a man who accepts a misalignment with his values in order to make money, which would only make it more likely that I’d continue making similar decisions down the road.

The second option was that to remove the ads and look for more aligned ways to earn income. This would mean pursuing a path of greater congruence, even if it might be less profitable. It would also be a harder path to take because the advertising income was very easy to maintain. This path would definitely be more work.

I chose the second path because I believed it would sculpt my character in a more positive direction. It would be more difficult in the short term, but I liked the idea of shedding misaligned income sources in order to do the harder work of creating aligned sources. The year after I made this decision, I created and delivered my first three-day workshop. Fast forward to today, and now I’ve done 16 of them. While the workshops weren’t as lucrative as I expect the ads would have been, they’ve paid off in many other ways that I value much more than money. For instance, I met my girlfriend Rachelle at that first workshop, and a key strength of our relationship has been our values alignment, such as the fact that we’re both long-term vegans. And we love traveling and having fun lifestyle adventures together as well.

If you accept a misalignment in your life, you’ll attract more of the same. If you go for congruence, you’ll also attract more of the same. So think carefully about how each decision will sculpt your character.

I’m glad that I made the decision to remove those ads in 2008. Getting that incongruence out of the way helped me feel much closer and more connected with my readers. Since then I have met – and hugged – hundreds of them in person. The ads didn’t feel heart-aligned, so by getting those out of the way, I removed a barrier that might have otherwise weakened this relationship.

I could name many more instances where this character question has helped me make tricky decisions. This question nudges me to face more fears, to pursue new experiences, and to delve deeper into personal growth explorations than I otherwise would. I don’t always get it right, but I get it right more often when I ask this question.

Could I reverse or undo this decision?

Last week I decided to get a new home office chair to replace my really old beat up one. As I began browsing online, I thought that maybe I should get a really nice one this time instead of just another cheap sub-$100 chair from Office Depot, especially since one of my health goals for this year is to work on improving my posture. After doing some research, I narrowed the decision down to two choices: the Herman Miller Embody and the Steelcase Gesture. I’ve never owned a chair that had a name before.

Both chairs costs more than $1000. Both have radically different designs. I couldn’t find any stores in Vegas that actually carry them, so I couldn’t try them out first. Online reviews were helpful, but I could find really detailed, in-depth reviews that ranked either chair above the other. And wherever one chair got lots of four- and five-star reviews, I could always find other people rating it one and two stars. It seemed to come down to a matter of personal preference.

Instead of wallowing in indecision or not getting a chair at all, I went with the one I expected to like best – the Steelcase Gesture – even though I had to order it sight unseen and hope for the best when it arrives. What helped was knowing that the decision is reversible. If I don’t like it, I can pack it back up and return it. Or worst case I can always sell it. I might waste some time and money if I made a bad decision, but the long-term consequence is minimal, and the damage is largely reversible.

Some decisions are permanent, and you can’t simply undo them. If you quit your job or leave your relationship, you may not be able to go back if you later change your mind. But for many decisions, there’s a built-in undo. You can often return items you purchased. You can move back to your old city. You can buy back similar possessions to replace those you gave away. You can switch back to your old diet and exercise routines.

If a decision is reversible and/or the negative consequences of a mistake are low, then I’ll tend to lean towards the new experience. At the very least, I might learn something from it.

Can I test this decision?

If you can’t undo a decision, maybe you can test it somehow. Could you dip your toes into each path to gain more clarity about the options? Could you collect some real world experience before you have to commit?

This mindset was especially helpful in 2009 when trying to figure out whether Erin and I should stay together. By entering a polyamorous phase for several months, it was possible to test the waters by exploring other connections without ending the marriage. That provided tremendous clarity that the grass would indeed be greener on the other side. It still wasn’t an easy decision, but it became easier by testing.

Some long-term couples go through a trial separation first in order to test what their lives might be like if they were to separate and divorce. A good book for structuring such an arrangement is Should I Stay or Go? : How Controlled Separation Can Save Your Marriage. That book takes a pretty formal approach, which Erin and I didn’t really follow, but the general idea of testing the waters first is certainly helpful in these types of situations.

Testing a decision can help you tip one way or the other, so you don’t remain endlessly stuck in ambivalence, where you’re constantly waffling about which direction to go.

* * *

Try asking some of all of these questions the next time you face a tricky decision. I think you’ll find them useful tools for increasing clarity and making better choices. When I’ve shared some of these questions with other people, their number one favorite is usually the memory one, so that may be a good one to start with.

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Caffeine-Free Year

One of my goals for 2017 is to go caffeine-free for the entire year. This includes having no coffee, espresso, tea (black, green, white), caffeinated soda, chocolate, cocoa, cacao, etc. Herbal tea that’s naturally caffeine-free is okay though.

I feel this is something I just don’t need in my life this year. My mind feels sharper, calmer, and more focused without it. 🙂

Posted in: Uncategorized |

How to Cultivate a Year of Mindfulness

By Leo Babauta

In 2016, I practiced mindfulness more than I ever have before, after 10 years of sporadic practice.

I meditated regularly, practiced with a local Zen group, did a great one-day sitting, went on a retreat, took courses, read books, practiced mindful eating and exercise, learned some great new practices, and taught several mindfulness courses.

I learned a lot about how to cultivate a more mindful life, and I’d like to encourage you to try it this year.

Why? A few good reasons:

  • You learn to be awake to the present moment more, and lost in the daydream of your thoughts less.
  • You begin to see your mental patterns that affect everything you do, and thus begin to free yourself of those patterns.
  • You learn to be frustrated less, and let go more. And smile more.
  • You learn to be better at compassion, equanimity, love, contentment.
  • You learn to be better at not procrastinating, and better at building better habits.

I could go on about better mental and physical health, better relationships, less fear … but the reasons I’ve given are strong enough. It’s important stuff.

So how do we cultivate a year of mindfulness? I’m glad you asked.

Tips for Cultivating Mindfulness

I’m just going to dive in and share my favorite tips for creating a year of mindfulness:

  1. Commit to sitting daily for a month. It would be great to commit to a year of sitting meditation practice, but I think that’s too long for the brain to commit to. So I recommend trying to sit everyday for a month. Tell people about it, set reminders on your phone and calendar, put a note somewhere you won’t miss it, and keep the meditation short — just 2-5 minutes to start with, until you become more regular. This is the foundational practice for being more mindful, so make a big commitment to sitting.
  2. Find a group. If you can find a meditation group in your area to sit with once a week, that’s ideal. It doesn’t matter much what kind of group it is (Zen, Tibetan, Vipassana, etc.), just meet with them and meditate however you like when you’re on the cushion. If you can’t find a group in your area, find a group that meets online (San Francisco Zen Center has an online practice group, for example). This commitment to a group deepens the practice.
  3. Practice mindful eating. I’m gonna be honest here, I don’t practice this as much as I should. But it’s a good example of how you can take something you already do every day, and use it as a meditation. Simply commit to doing nothing but eating — single-task instead of multitasking. As you eat each bite, pay attention to the food, the textures and flavors and colors. Notice when your mind wanders. Savor the food. Showering, brushing your teeth, washing your dishes, walking and sweeping are other good activities to use as meditation.
  4. Take a course. This is a bit self-promotional, but I’m offering mindfulness courses in my Sea Change Program. However, you can take any online or in-person course, free or paid — I find that they force you to practice and reflect on your practice, so that your learning deepens even further.
  5. Find a teacher or partner. I am lucky to have a teacher who I meet with every couple months … I find that just knowing that I’m going to be talking to her means that I’ll try harder to learn, remind myself a bit more, reflect on my learning more so that I have something to talk to her about. If you can’t find a teacher, a learning partner can function the same way.
  6. Watch your frustration. When you get irritated, frustrated or angry … let it be a mindfulness bell! It is a great opportunity to drop out of your story, and notice how your body is feeling. What got you hooked? What story are you telling yourself? What is your mental pattern when you get hooked? What is the physical feeling in your body at this moment? Practice as much as you can!
  7. Read a good mindfulness book. You learn mindfulness by practicing, but a good book can guide your practice. I recommend checking out my recently published Zen Habits Beginner’s Guide to Mindfulness, and I also like Mindfulness in Plain English.
  8. Practice yoga or mindful movement. Yoga is moving meditation, and I highly recommend it. If you aren’t drawn to yoga, try walking or running or doing other exercise while trying to pay mindful attention to your body and breath. Either way, see it as an opportunity to meditate as you move.
  9. Sit with procrastination & fear. Whenever you start to procrastinate or run to distraction, there is fear at the root of your urge. Instead of running, sit with it. Notice the fear or resistance. Stay with this feeling, become intimate with it, be friendly towards it, smile at it. Stay, stay, until it dissolves.
  10. Journal & review regularly. The best learning is deepened by reflecting what you’ve been learning about, reflecting on your obstacles and challenges, reflecting on what works and what doesn’t. You evolve your learning through reflecting. Journaling is a great tool for that — it helps you reflect in a mindful way. Journal daily, weekly, or monthly, reviewing what you did the previous day (or week or month) and what you learned from it, and what your intentions are in the coming day, week or month.

That might seem like a lot of things to do, but you don’t have to do them all at once! Nor do you have to be “perfect” at this (perfection doesn’t exist). Just try one or two things, try another couple things later, and explore with no real desitation or outcome in mind. Play with these practices and tools. See what happens.

Challenge: A Month of Mindfulness

To start your year of mindfulness, I challenge you to do a full 30 days of mindfulness, starting today. That means meditating every day, for at least a few minutes (start small), and trying to incorporate mindfulness practices in your life in small ways.

Are you up to the challenge? If so, commit to it by announcing it to your loved ones, on social media, or emailing your friends. It’ll be an amazing way to start this year.

If you’d like to go deeper with mindfulness, sign up for my Sea Change Program. We’re doing a Month of Mindfulness in January, and I’ve issued the same mindfulness challenge to my members (we check in once a week). Don’t worry if you’re starting mid-month … it doesn’t matter. Go on your own schedule, let go of the idea of perfection.

Join us in Sea Change today!

minimalism with kids

I’ve often been asked, “How can you be a minimalist with six kids? I only have two kids, help me!”

It can be pretty hilarious calling yourself a minimalist when you have six kids … but 1) I didn’t become minimalist until after I had the kids, and 2) anyone can be a minimalist, it’s a mindset not a matter of being perfect at it.

Let me repeat that: anyone can be a minimalist. It just means you’re trying to opt out of consumerism, trying to be more mindful of how you live your life, and trying to figure out what’s important and what’s not.

So if you have kids, try this:

  1. Explore a life without as much consumerism. What would it be like to shop less? Watch fewer commercials? Go on Amazon.com less? Try to do without or find a creative solution rather than buying stuff to solve everything? Try to explore this on your own, but also talk to your family about this. See if they might come up with ideas of their own. Make it a game or a challenge, and they might actually be open to it.
  2. Be mindful of your life with your kids. As you live as a family, see what you typically do that involves buying stuff. How do you accumulate possessions in your life? What do you have that you can get rid of? Start to make changes, but start with mindfulness.
  3. Try to figure out what’s essential for you personally, and for your family. What do you actually use on a daily basis? How about each week? What do you need? What do you love? What have you not used in months and can probably do without? Slowly start to pare the non-essentials, and try to bring fewer things into your life from this point on. Sometimes a weekend purge of the kitchen or garage or your bedroom closet can be a lot of fun, but no need to go crazy! Just small, mindful steps in a helpful direction.

What you don’t want to do is try to get down to almost zero possessions. It’s not recommended, and for most people who live with other people, it’s not even possible. We just can’t control other people’s possessions, and living together is always about the art of compromise.

What you don’t want to do is try to force your spouse or kids. They will resent you, you will probably fail, and even if you don’t, you’re not teaching them how to let go of consumerist desires … you’re just teaching them what a jerk you are. And possibly that they should hide their things from you so you don’t toss them out!

Instead of forcing, talk to them. Have ongoing conversations. Be patient and compassionate. Remember what it was like when you didn’t care about minimalism. Make it a game, or a challenge, or a fun family activity, to see what you can donate to needier families, to try to have fun without spending money. Explore, play, breathe.

My Journey

To be honest, my journey with my family hasn’t been “perfect” … I don’t even think that exists. We’ve had a bumpy road, but I’ve enjoyed the journey.

 

Sea Change Program: Change Your Life in 2017

By Leo Babauta

I believe the freshness of this year brings a renewed energy for changing our lives. I believe 2017 can be great for all of us, with a bit of focus and effort.

So I’ve created a revised Sea Change Program that’s geared to creating a great 2017 for all of you, full of positive life changes.

How can Sea Change help you change your life in 2017?

  1. Video Courses: I’ve created a huge library of content: video courses and articles that are aimed at helping you practice mindfulness, exercise, eat healthier, declutter, stop procrastinating, get out of debt, overcome fear, find gratitude and more. I’ve been building up this content library for 5 years! I think it’s pretty awesome.
  2. Challenges: Every month I plan to have a new challenge. This month, it’s a Mindfulness Challenge — try to meditate every day of the month. Report on your challenge once a week. It really helps you to stick to change more to participate in a challenge.
  3. Forums: You can discuss the challenges, report your progress each week, and in general support each other’s changes.

So video and article content on changing your life, a monthly challenge, and a forum to connect with and get support from other people who are making similar changes. I’ve found this to be a simple but effective method for change.

If you’re ready to make changes in 2017, try my Sea Change Program for one week free (and $15/month after that).

Deeper Levels

In addition, if you want to go deeper, I offer Gold and Platinum memberships to help support people who are ready to fully commit to life changes.

How do these levels help you go deeper? A few key ways, in addition to what’s above:

  1. Live Webinars (Gold and Platinum): Gold members have access to monthly live webinars where I give a talk about the current challenge and answer member questions. My members have found these to be a great resource.
  2. Ask Questions (Gold and Platinum): Members can submit questions during the month and I’ll do my best to answer them. I highly recommend asking questions, as it deepens the learning process and helps me to see where you need help. People who ask questions are much more likely to see change.
  3. Accountability Teams (Platinum): I’ve created a Sea Change team on Slack for Platinum members to discuss their life changes, and more importantly to provide accountability teams of about 5-10 members to support each other’s changes.
  4. Twice-monthly Calls with Leo (Platinum): I’ve just added this feature for the new Platinum membership level … I’m going to have twice-monthly calls where people can ask questions and I’ll answer them, and other members can share their progress, I can even do some one-on-one coaching on the call with other members benefitting from listening. I think this will be a great help for people who are ready to go deeper into their learning and habit changes.

So four tools for more personal support, which I’ve found to be a key ingredient to lasting change.

Key Ingredients to Lasting Change

Through changing my own life in a hundred different ways, to helping others change theirs, I’ve found some things to be incredibly helpful if you want to make a change that sticks:

  1. Motivation: Do you really want to change? If you care about the change, and are willing to focus your life on it for a little while, you can make it happen. If it’s just “it would be nice,” then it probably won’t last until you are ready to get serious about it.
  2. Small changes, gradually: Most people hear this and ignore it, but they are missing one of the most important ingredients. If you want to meditate, start with just a couple minutes. If you want to exercise, just do five minutes. Start small, increase only gradually. Do less than you’re capable of, and the change will last.
  3. Reminders and focus: If you forget to do your habit, you won’t change. If you can set reminders, put up physical, visual reminders around you, and keep your focus on the habit, you’re much more likely to stick to it.
  4. Social support: Doing the change with other people is remarkably powerful. I haven’t found another tool more effective than this, if you are willing to put it to use.
  5. Gratitude & mindfulness: OK, you can have lasting change without these final ingredients, but I’ve found them to be essential in my personal changes. Why? If you aren’t mindful, you’ll give in to urges to procrastinate or quit your change, because you won’t even notice the urge, you’ll just follow it. And if you find gratitude as you do the habit, you’ll enjoy every step of the way, which means it won’t be a sacrifice but a joy. These are two amazing ingredients, use them!

So those are the key ingredients. You can change your entire life over the course of a year or two if you make small, gradual changes with mindfulness, gratitude, motivation and social support. I’ve seen it over and over.

It’s possible. Take the step today and join me and thousands of other members in Sea Change:

Join Sea Change

Filter Out the Noise

By Leo Babauta

It can seem like our lives are filled with busyness, noise, distractions, and often meaningless activities.

What if we could filter out all that noise, and focus on the meaningful?

What if we could find stillness instead of constant distraction?

I believe that most of us have that power. In my experience, most of the noise is there by choice, but we’ve fallen into patterns over the years and it can seem like we’re not able to change them.

Let’s talk about ways to filter out the noise, then how to find stillness and meaning.

Ways to Filter the Noise

Take the rest of today to notice what noise you find in your life. Even take a little time to make a list, whenever you find distraction or busyness.

For example, noise in my life comes from: email, Whatsapp, Snapchat, Twitter, blogs and other sites I like to read, text messages, Slack, and watching Netflix. You might have other sources: Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, news, cable TV.

Once we’re aware of the noise, how can we filter it out? We have to decide that we want more quiet and meaning in our lives. That it’s important enough to “miss out” on some things in those noisy channels.

Then we can take action:

  • Turn off notifications as much as possible. Including the unread messages count by each app on your phone.
  • Decide to check on some things (like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) just once a day. Others you can check twice a day, or three times if needed (like email or Slack). But set a limit.
  • Delete accounts or delete apps that aren’t giving you real meaning (I deleted my Facebook account years ago).
  • Unsubscribe from everything possible in your email account. And from Twitter or any other app where you’re “following” people or blogs/websites. If you use an RSS reader, unsubscribe from as many feeds as possible. Leave only a handful that give you meaning.
  • Tell people that you are only checking your messages once a day, to set expectations. Don’t use an autoresponder — I find those annoying. Instead, just send a message to the people who matter most, and ask that they be understanding.
  • Set a time each day when you watch TV or movies (if at all). Set a time of day when you read news or blogs (if at all). If you say, “I only watch TV after 7 p.m.,” then you’ve limited how much space this takes up in your life.
  • If there are some things (like email, for example) where you need to stay connected because of work, try to negotiate with your boss or team so that you can find periods of disconnection. For example, ask if you can take a couple hours in the morning and a couple in the afternoon to be disconnected, to focus on more important work.

If you take these actions, you’ll filter out most of the noise.

What’s left? Time for quiet, stillness, focus and meaning.

Finding Stillness & Meaning

Once you’ve filtered out the noise, you are left with a few interesting problems:

  1. Changing your habits of busyness and constant movement.
  2. Figuring out what’s meaningful.
  3. Learning to stop and stay still.

I think those are wonderful problems to be faced with. Most people never even consider them. Find gratitude that you can work on this at all.

Take some time to notice your constant need for busyness or distraction. For example, if you have a moment where you’re not doing anything — you’re waiting in line, you’re alone at your restaurant table while your friend goes to the bathroom, you’re sitting on your couch — what do you try to do out of habit? This is your pattern of busyness and movement.

Now see if you can let go of those patterns. Catch yourself, and instead opt for stillness and quiet. Try to just sit there and notice your surroundings. Soak it all in. Savor the moment. Meditate on your breath. Reflect on your day. Ask yourself what you’re grateful for right now.

Start building new patterns of stillness. For example, try morning meditation on your breath, even if just for a few minutes every day. Try going for a morning or evening walk, without your phone. Try turning the phone and computer off and just journal.

Start finding activities that are more meaningful to you. This doesn’t have to be done in one day — you can slowly experiment to figure out what’s meaningful to you. You might start writing a book or screenplay, for example, or taking photos or drawing or making music. You might decide to start a business or charity that changes the world. You might start to learn something that’s meaningful, or teach others. Find ways to help others and make the world a better place. Journal, meditate, exercise, make healthy food, declutter, make dates with people who are important to you.

When you notice yourself running to busyness and distraction, pause. Turn instead towards stillness and your meaningful activities.

Build a life around stillness and meaning, and notice the difference it makes in you.

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Broken Edges

What do you do when you know something isn’t quite working, such as a job, a creative project, a business idea, or a relationship? How do you turn that inner feeling of misalignment into a practical growth experience, so you can ultimately create or discover a better match?

I’ll share a pretty straightforward process that I use in such situations, one that has served me well for many years and continues to do so. I’ll walk you through a specific example too, so you can see how to apply these ideas on a practical level.

Identify the Broken Edges

The first step is to look at the parts of your problem area that aren’t working. Most likely some parts are working okay while other parts just seem out of alignment with what you want. Put your attention on those broken edges. What’s broken about them? How would you describe the main problem areas? What don’t you like about them?

Mentally place the problem outside of yourself, like a math problem to be solved or a broken object that needs repairing. Adopt the attitude that you’re absolutely fine as a human being and that something about the problem area is broken. You’re just doing this privately in your own mind, so if other people are involved, you definitely don’t need to pick a fight with them. Just give yourself permission to treat the problem as something external that’s broken, even if internally you’re feeling frustration, anger, resentment, stress, worry, anxiety, etc.

I often do this by journaling about the problem area and typing up a list of the broken edges. Sometimes I start by listing what I still like about the problem area, and then I look at the broken bits. But usually I don’t bother with the good stuff list, finding it unnecessary in most cases. If I treat the situation like a math problem, I don’t need to begin by journaling about what I like about mathematics or the nature of this particular math problem. I can just tackle the problem directly. But if you have a lot of emotion swirling around the problem, you may find it helpful to focus on the good aspects first, so you can calm yourself down enough to see the situation more objectively.

Go ahead and list however many broken edges come to mind. I usually come up with 3-5 of them each time I do this. You just want to hit the main ones though. If you come up with a list of 20 or more, you’re probably overdoing it.

Again, be sure to define your broken edges as external problems. Don’t define them internally. So don’t write down that the problem is that you feel needy in your relationship. Feeling needy is internal, and it’s just your reaction to the external problem. What might the external cause be? Maybe your relationship partner doesn’t touch you enough or say “I love you” enough. Maybe your partner isn’t very funny and doesn’t make you laugh enough. For the purpose of doing this step, blaming others is totally fine.

Get specific if you can. If you dislike your job, then what specifically do you dislike about it? Are your co-workers dreadfully boring? Does your boss fail to praise you enough? Does your cubicle smell funny?

A broken edge is a pattern that isn’t working for you. That pattern may be something pretty narrow and specific, or it may be something pretty broad and general. So define the pattern as narrowly as it actually comes up for you, but if it’s something fairly general, such as your boss’ overall negative attitude, it’s okay to keep it general.

Complain to the Universe

This next step is totally optional, but if you’re into subjective reality (i.e. the perspective that this reality is a dream or simulation), you might want to do it.

Imagine that you’re in a dream world that can create anything you want, and this problem is what you’ve been given instead. Now go ahead and complain aloud to the universe.

How did the dream world fall short? Do you think it can do better? Tell it where it messed up. Actually say this aloud, as if you’re doing the airing of grievances from Festivus.

You brought me a frigid and emotionally damaged relationship partner. What gives?

You gave me an employer who expects me to feel motivated doing insurance work in a beige cubicle. Seriously?

My coworker keeps coming into the office reeking of cigarette smoke. It’s disgusting – he smells like an ashtray. Can we drop this bozo?

What could you include in your complaint to the universe? What are the broken edges?

Turning Broken Edges Into Desires

It’s great to identify the problem areas, but of course you don’t want to get stuck there. Nobody likes an incessant whiner, the universe included. So the next step is to use these broken edges to define your desires.

This is usually pretty easy. Just look at each broken edge, and write down what it will look like when it’s fixed. If the broken edges weren’t there, what would you experience instead? That’s your desire.

Now you have a list that expresses what want instead of wallowing in what you don’t want. And you can begin working on the specific transformations, which could involve small tweaks to fix the broken edges or letting go of your current situation and starting something new, now that you know where to look.

A Walkthrough – Building Community

I think it’s easier to understand this if I walk you through a specific example.

When I started blogging more than 12 years ago, one of my big desires was to build a strong and connected community of people who could encourage and support each other. Social support is a powerful growth accelerator, and I expected that helping people create better social support would be a big part of my path. And indeed it was.

I also know that many of my readers have very little social support for their goals. For many of them, my work (and often other online sources) serve as their main social support for personal growth exploration. Many don’t have strong social connections with other growth-oriented people that they can turn to for help, advice, accountability, and encouragement.

For me it’s normal to have many goal-oriented friends. I’m immersed in an extended social circle of people who take lots of action and share their results. That’s just normal to me. But I have to keep reminding myself that this kind of social support is not even close to normal for many of my readers. And this is something that really holds them back, usually by making them way more hesitant to work on stretch goals and take risks.

Helping my goal-oriented readers enjoy strong social support remains a high priority for me. I’ve taken lots of action in this area over the years, which did help people gain some social support that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, but each attempt suffered from some significant broken edges. However, each attempt also gives me more clarity about what kind of solution I should pursue here.

Let’s take a lot at some of these previous attempts at helping my readers connect with each other.

Blog Comments

Since commenting was part of WordPress when I began blogging in 2004, I started with comments enabled by default, so anyone could post comments on posts. For the first year, it was a good start, but it wasn’t anything to write home about in terms of helping readers connect with each other. Here are some of the broken edges that I experienced:

  • Readers couldn’t connect with each other except by commenting on each others’ comments (too restrictive)
  • Comment spam (no good automatic filters back then)
  • Trolls (people baiting other commenters into pointless arguments, wasting people’s time)
  • Low quality comments in high volume (lots of fluff instead of deep discussion)
  • No ability for people to start their own threads on different topics (limited to commenting on my writing)

Note that these broken edges are relative to my particular vision and values. Your broken edges may not be the same as someone else’s, even for the same type of problem.

In-Person Meetups

I think it was around 2006 that I started hosting in-person meetups, mostly when traveling. I’ve hosted free public meetups in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, San Jose (Costa Rica), and perhaps a few other places. A meetup usually lasts for about two hours, and it brings together locals who have common interests to hang out and talk. They’re usually pretty engaging, and we share a lot of hugs.

Here are the broken edges I found with meetups:

  • Too short and too small to build much community
  • Just a one-time event, so no longevity
  • No real follow-up afterwards, so hard for people to stay connected unless they make the effort
  • For bigger meetups, not enough time for people to get to talk to everyone
  • Usually done on really short notice (often less than 48 hours)
  • Unpredictable how many people will show up

Twitter

Then there was social media. Let’s start with Twitter. I had a very active Twitter account for years with 30K+ followers. Here are some broken edges that I remember:

  • Restrictions on post length make it okay for shallow connections but not for depth
  • Difficult for community members to discover and interact with each other
  • The most active participation is from the greatest addicts, who usually aren’t the most growth-oriented people
  • Lots of chatter but not a good hangout spot for action takers (no accountability)
  • Twitter owns the community, and there’s no easy way to move it elsewhere (lock-in)

I like that Twitter is highly scalable, the fail whale notwithstanding, and it’s a lively and active place. But the shallowness makes it pretty pointless as a community-building tool. I deleted my Twitter account in July 2014 and haven’t logged in since. Someone else later registered a new account under the same name, put up my name and photo, and began posting pure drivel while pretending to be me. People reported it to Twitter, and they did nothing even though it’s against their Terms of Service, not to mention that it’s illegal to impersonate a living person. So that’s another broken edge. I’m really glad not to have Twitter in my life anymore, and I actually feel a bit stupid that I invested so much time in it, but it was at least a learning experience.

Facebook

On Facebook I maxed out at 5K friends for my personal account, then created a fan page and had thousands more people following it. We had a lively and active community there, but again this had some broken edges similar to Twitter:

  • The most active participation is from the greatest addicts, who usually aren’t the most growth-oriented people
  • Lots of chatter but not a good hangout spot for action takers (no accountability)
  • An interface that seems like it was designed to distract and addict people
  • Impossible to ban persistent trolls and spammers since someone could like a fan page, spam it, and then unlike the page, and there was no way to block this behavior (at least not when I used the service)
  • Facebook owns the community (lock-in)
  • Forces you to have an extra inbox to receive private messages, and no way to turn that off

I deleted my Facebook account years ago, then tried again with a more limited personal account, just to connect with friends. I ran into some of the same issues again and deleted that account in July 2014 (same time I dropped Twitter).

In October 2016 I decided to create a new Facebook account, which I only use on a limited basis for participating in few private entrepreneurial groups, one of which costs me $1000 per month to be a member. I have zero friends on that account, I set everything to the strictest privacy settings (so no one can send a friend request even if they tried), and I only post in the private groups. For that purpose it works reasonably well, and I’ve made some good connections with the people in those groups. Having a zero-friend Facebook account is very different; this actually solves many of the previous problems I had with the service. I’m able to participate in some high-value private discussions with some very growth-oriented people. The downside is that these groups are usually very narrow in focus, so I can only use it to support a fraction of my goals. However, this has shown me a working model that’s getting closer to what I’d like to create.

Discussion Forums

From 2006 to 2011, we had the discussion forums here. They became popular instantly because I fed traffic to the forums from my blog. We’d normally see between 500 and 1000 new posts per day, and we eventually passed 1M messages posted and more than 50K registered members. We did a lot of things right that made this work well for several years. Here were some of the broken edges with the forums:

  • Lots of work to manage the community (at least a dozen moderators were needed)
  • A sense of entitlement from some members, for whom the community became their personal online hangout
  • Some good action alignment in the beginning which gradually devolved into mostly discussion (low accountability)
  • Frequent attacks by spammers, including some hired to spam personal growth forums
  • Hacking attacks due to forum software vulnerabilities
  • A bigger load on the server and the need for more expensive hardware

Workshops

From 2009 to the present, I’ve been doing three-day workshops in Las Vegas (16 of them so far). These have been great for community building since people who meet at these events often bond closely and stay in touch for years afterwards. There are some broken edges though:

  • People have to travel, so those who don’t go to workshops are left out of the community aspect
  • Workshops are only available infrequently
  • Events are relatively short (just a few days)
  • No formal community retention after the workshops (although there has been some informal retention like a WhatsApp group)

I know there are more reasons to attend a workshop than the community aspect, so I’m only addressing the community aspect here. For many people the community is a major reason to attend.

Other Ideas

In addition to the major items above, there have been many other ideas considered over the years, many of which were ruled out in the idea stage. They tended to share some of the same broken edges as the items above.

Understanding the Broken Edges

Now let’s combine these broken edges together on one list. I’ll also simplify these problems, so we can see what we’re dealing with:

  • Vulnerability to disruption (spam, trolling, hacking)
  • Low quality interactions (too short, too shallow)
  • Low availability (too limited in time or space)
  • Inflexibility (limited to commenting on posts)
  • Low accessibility (requiring travel, only available on certain dates)
  • Little or no accountability (no skin in the game)
  • No longevity or long-term retention
  • Unpredictability (not knowing how many will show up)
  • Difficult for community members to interact with each other
  • Too much interaction with addicts instead of action takers
  • Someone else owns the community (lock-in)
  • Bad or distracting interface, forced clutter (for online communities)
  • Cost to maintain or manage (time, money)
  • Risk of the community losing its focus and becoming less useful
  • Too much chit chat and not enough goal-oriented action by the members

Creating this kind of list can yield a lot of clarity about what’s working. But it’s important not to stop there.

Discovering the Desires

Each broken edge points to a deeper desire. So what are the desires?

Let’s remake this list from the desire side instead of the complaint side, basically by listing the opposite result for each item above:

  • Immune or at least less vulnerable to disruptive behaviors (spam, trolling, hacking)
  • High quality interactions (long and deep… that’s what she said)
  • High availability (daily interactions for those who want it)
  • Flexibility (supports a wide array of personal growth challenges)
  • High accessibility (no travel necessary, access from anywhere)
  • High accountability (members have skin in the game)
  • High longevity and long-term retention
  • Easy for community members to interact with each other
  • Favors and rewards action takers, not addicts
  • Avoid lock-in (maintain the ability to move the community from one service to another)
  • Clean, uncluttered interface (for online communities)
  • Easy to manage and maintain
  • A focused community that maintains long-term value for its members
  • Lots of goal-oriented action by the community members and not too much chit chat

By looking at our broken edges and considering the opposite desires, we can create a practical checklist for evaluating other possibilities. This helps to narrow the search space, so we know where to look for an even better solution.

Seeing the Big Picture

When you create such a list for an area of your life, review the items carefully to gain a better understanding of the big picture. See how the pieces need to fit together. Get a better sense of what a viable solution would look like if you had it now.

The vision for this community is pretty simple. I want to facilitate (and belong to) a kickass personal growth community where the members help each other take a lot more goal-oriented action than they otherwise would on their own. This means we need to help the right people with the right attitudes connect with each other in useful and practical ways. In terms of membership, this would be bigger than a mastermind group but smaller and a lot more action-oriented than the larger communities I’ve experienced in the past.

Many of the items on my list above suggest that a private paid community would be part of the solution. An open community that anyone can join is too likely to suffer from low accountability, which leads to other problems like spamming, trolling, and attracting more addicts than action takers. Open communities are great for some things, but overall I’ve been semi-disappointed with the long-term results, both as a facilitator and as a member of such communities. Having a free community is great if you want to attract lots of people, but it’s not so great if you want to work with a more focused and dedicated group of people unless there’s some other qualification required, like needing some programming skill to participate in an open source project.

I’ve paid to be member of some private communities related to personal growth or entrepreneurship over the years, with dues ranging from $5 per month to $1000 per month. Having a price tag makes a world of difference, especially in terms of connecting with action-oriented people. And usually, the higher the price, the more dedicated and action-oriented the members are. Making new friends is great, but if I’m paying a significant sum to participate in a community, I want to see some positive results in my life or business from that membership as well.

My list also suggests that an online community would be a better solution than an in-person one, ideally a place where members can interact every day if they choose to. A private forum or a private Facebook group could work for that aspect, but that alone wouldn’t be enough.

The community should be more focused on action than discussion. The purpose of this community would be to help its members actively work on their personal growth transformations, not just to have watercooler-style chats. The group needs a pulse that keeps it aligned with this action orientation, so it doesn’t drift into becoming just another a social hangout. One way to achieve that would be to have regular group coaching sessions or webinars, so the group keeps syncing to ideas that encourage action.

My #1 goal for 2017 is to make a stronger attempt at building this kickass community. The right people are already out there, and maybe you’re one of them. We just need to put the pieces together to make it work even better this time.

I’ve been working on this idea for a few weeks now, and I’ll share further updates about it in the weeks ahead. It’s hard to predict when it will launch since a lot of this involves researching different possible implementations (which takes time), but if you’re on my email list, you’ll be among the first to know when it does. This time I especially want to work on the accountability and action aspects. So it will definitely be a paid, private community this time. It will be online. It will be available 24/7. And it’s going to include lots of direct coaching as well, to help the members make faster progress towards their goals.

I also want to guard against over-engineering, so like all the other solutions I’ve tried, I don’t expect this one to be perfect either. One of the most important priorities this time is flexibility. That means not being overly dependent on any one service provider or piece of software. I’d like to work out a solution that allows us to keep the community intact, even as we continue to evolve it over time.

From Broken to Fixed

The point of identifying your broken edges is to avoid getting stuck in the broken phase. Solve your personal growth problem like you would a math or science problem. When people stay stuck for too long, they tend to internalize their problems, taking them to a level where they can’t easily be solved. But when you examine the broken edges of a situation, it helps you see the problem objectively. Then you can take action to fix what’s broken and move on. Additionally, the more of these repair jobs you do, the better you’ll become at repairing.

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Congratulations!

I know you’ve done something recently that deserves some acknowledgement and appreciation, and you may have been wondering if it was going to pass by unnoticed, but you’re wrong about that. So speaking as a figment in your reality matrix on behalf of the matrix itself, I just want to congratulate you for your private victory. The matrix noticed what you did, it was awesome, and we all appreciate it tremendously!

Congrats… and please keep it up!

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