How to Start a Riot

I’ve written quite a bit already about how I’ve become a morning person. For this particular post, I want to share how it came about originally and some of my more recent observations with regard to how developing a morning routine has helped me change.

First off, the inspiration for mornings as a Conquer List item began with me being me. Aside from the 1-year period between late 2007 and late 2008 in which my all-compelling motivation to become a police officer got me out of bed super early, I have always been the worst. The worst at snooze buttons, the worst at rationalizations, the most vocal about “ungodly hours” and “sleep being better than sex”. You literally couldn’t find a more dedicated anti-morning person than me. As for how that came about, I will discuss at a later point. But it suffices to say that as recently as this June, most mornings you could find me lagging about until the last possible minute in bed.

Before I actually did conquer the mornings came the Awakening. I’m actually not sure what I want to call it. The Renaissance? The New Age? I’m sure some inspiration will come to me. Coming off the heels of a post-breakup trip to Jamaica with my mother, I had realized a few somewhat dire things about my work life: if I did not find a way to motivate myself and make my own way, I was pretty much sunk. My employer was big on goal-setting, but this as a concept had never been introduced to me. On top of that, nobody else seemed to know anything about it either. What was the purpose of goals? What should they look like? How do you set them? Basically anything to do with goals was completely foreign to me. On the other side of Jamaica, I was armed with the desire and inspiration to figure this out for myself. Since I didn’t know anything about goals, that seemed like the most obvious goal right there: Find things to read that would teach me what it meant.

Now, I’ve always styled myself as a “reader”. I’ve always kept a library going at the apartment and taken in pride in looking at the titles. The real truth however was that I was a terrible reader. I’d start a book, then set it down for months if not permanently. If I did manage to toil through a title, it would be months after starting and then naturally I’d consider myself among the most learned of men to walk the earth (I’m imagining a “Finishes one book” meme here with a picture of me followed by Aristotle or something). So this was actually something that would be a bit of a challenge, but I had something going for me: my daily commute. Roughly 40-45 minutes a day on the Red Line, plus other mass transit time around town since I’d ditched my car a couple years before. So the plan was hatched: I would find books that would teach me about goal-setting and other corporate core values, then read the shit out of them.

The first book was a goldmine: Angela Duckworth’s Grit. Within a chapter or two she had introduced me to the concept of the “goal hierarchy”, in which lower-level goals roll up to larger goals of which they are aggregate parts, which in turn roll up to an Ultimate Concern that gives purpose to everything beneath it (I hadn’t yet discovered what purpose was… that wouldn’t happen until about three books later).  Adopting this concept immediately, I continued to plunge into title after title. Mindset (Dweck) taught me I could improve at anything. Start With Why (Sinek) taught me about the power of purpose. The Power of Habit (Duhigg) taught me about keystone habits; the little things in life that generate small wins and build into big things. Essentialism (McKeown) taught me about “Protecting the Asset”. And then the final breakthrough was a tip from Kevin Anderson in “Your Oxygen Mask First” about a cool company called Habit Nest that created the “Morning Sidekick”, a purpose-built journal designed to ingrain a proper morning routine for anybody willing to pick up a pen and commit to the program. The Conquer List item was official.

By mid-July when I started the Sidekick journal, I was already getting into things like making the bed first thing after getting up. Great start, but it was still getting put off on the regular occasion when I just didn’t get up with enough time to bother with it. I was so hungry for it when I began the journal that it almost felt natural. Initially I stuck to 10pm bedtime and 6am rise, which then shifted to 9pm bedtime and time 5am rise. The routine began to stick: Journal. Glass of ice water. Shower. Do chores. Do push-ups (I had to start at a max set of 6 reps). Make the bed. Get dressed. Process yesterday’s expenses. Study German. Basically, over the sixty days that the journal covered, I was able to fit into the morning routine 20-30 minutes of activities to support all my other conquer list items. Life was changing rapidly now. The riot had begun.

This was all not without its troubles and pains, mind you. I found that the people I regularly associated with were sapping me of time, money, and health. I was still drinking enough to forget things every Friday night and it would be almost at the end of the first sixty days before I was able to keep the journal going through the whole weekend. My budget was revealing some major pain points that had been bleeding me dry for years. Ultimately, though, it was getting better a little bit at a time and that is genuinely all you can hope for.

Recently I’ve discovered how routines can save your life. I came off a pretty decent bender – Nashville bachelor party. I had started drinking Thursday right after work, and that pretty much continued until I was home Sunday at 7:30pm. This basically ruined me, but the routine was still there to catch me. By Wednesday AM I was nearly back to 100%. It reminded me though of how easy it is to kill good progress. How many times in my past had I had great intentions going into a fun weekend, and by the time I came out the other end I was right back where I started? For this reason, I am so grateful that prior to developing this routine I engineered a lifestyle that would support it even if there are the occasional trips out to the edge.

Make it Stick

Once in a while I’d really attack something and I’d be really proud of myself. Get it done right away, put the right priority on it, whatever else I thought “attacking something” was supposed to look like. The off-times I’d do this would convince me for a fleeting moment that I was a real go-getter. Getting a credit card down to zero for the first time in a year. Wow, I must really have my shit together.

But back home the laundry basket was overflowing, two Blue Apron meals were spoiled in the fridge, and I hadn’t been to the gym in months (while paying a $50 membership fee for each of those months). And sure enough six months later there was another $7500 somehow sitting on that card again. The go-getting didn’t stick; I would always find myself back in the same spot, doing the things I liked but refusing to do the things I didn’t like. How did this change?

I changed what my mind likes by first recognizing mundane but essential daily life things as not boring, but a challenge. Next I discovered the joy of overcoming those challenges. I have flipped yet another script in my head; instead of blowing off the easy thinking I’ll focus on the hard, I attack & conquer the mundane, boring, easy things. Through this I have literally re-programmed my brain to procedurally do the needful. The routines have enabled me to switch from having to make conscious decisions to attacking small but consequential things in the right priority automatically.

It trickles down into everything. Now instead of tossing clothing on the floor it somehow automatically finds its way into a folded state in my dresser. Socks are now always right-side-out after I take them off so I don’t have to do it at laundry time. Dishes are done. Laundry is clean. Beds are made. German is studied. Books get read. Blog posts are written. Food gets logged on my phone. And I barely even notice it happening! 

These tiny little things that improve life in micro-increments now are on autopilot. The Good Priorities Autopilot underpins essential, hard things like getting up early, getting my ass to Jiu-Jitsu class, getting ugly projects at work done, all of it. I have started to see the contrast between the things in life that move me forward and the ones that get me nowhere (or worse). Even better, I have started seeing how little things become very big things in the aggregate.

With this new clarity, I now see everything as a choice: do I build my life right now, or do I spin my wheels? I don’t want to let 45-year old me down, so it’s time to make good decisions stick.

photo: Car Stuck in Mud, c. 1920
credit: Underwood Archives

The Root of It All

I spent many years enjoying pleasures at the expense of having a well-ordered life, but recently I realized the truth. In fact, the well-ordered life is itself among the highest of pleasures. Not because there is much about it that is intrinsically pleasurable (though I’m sure for some it is), but because the well-ordered life holds the promise of all the other pleasures. A well-ordered life increases the frequency of good things happening and decreases the frequency of bad things happening.

At a deeper level, there are two specific things that engineering a well-ordered lifestyle has unlocked for me. First, it has enabled me to essentialize; to apply the rule “Less, but Better” and sharpen mental clarity by removing noise from the signal of life. Second, I have taken the new reservoir of attentive energy provided to me by removing non-essential things and invested it into things that get me to where I know I want to go rather than the opposite. As simple as all that sounds, it’s been a revolution for me.

photo credit: Spoon Boy, “The Matrix”

The Quotable Mihaly

I recently finished “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (or just Mihaly as I now refer to him), and will simply say that it was a genuine mind-opener on many levels. I won’t go all the way into it, in the hopes that you pick up the book yourself. But to whet your whistle, here’s some of my favorite quotes:

“A person who has achieved control over psychic energy and has invested it in consciously-chosen goals cannot help but grow into a more complex being.”

“A person who cannot override genetic instructions when necessary is always vulnerable.”

“The battle of self-discipline is not a battle against the self, it is a battle for the self.”

“Any fool can fall in love when young.”

“Writing is not meant only to transmit information; the point of writing is to create information.”

“Set yourself the challenge of reaching your [work] goals while helping [your boss] and your colleagues reach theirs.”

“A true friend is someone we can occasionally be crazy with; someone who does not expect us to be always true to form.”

In the words of Carlyle, when asked how to reform the world: “Reform yourself: that way there will be one less rascal in the world.”

The lion, when he runs after a pack of gazelles, can only catch one at a time.” (as quoted from a man named Reyad that Mihaly interviewed)

Paradoxically, this sense of humility–the recognition that one’s goals may have to be subordinated to a greater entity, and that to succeed one may have to play by a different set of rules from what one would prefer–is the hallmark of strong people.”

“The meaning of life is meaning; whatever it is, wherever it comes from, a unified purpose is what gives meaning to life.”

It’s not Mean, It’s Clear

As odd as it may be to hear this from a 35-year old man, this year is the first year I’ve genuinely learned to express myself clearly without getting emotional. Usually in the past I’ve chosen to simply say nothing or placate somebody. 2018 is the first I’ve realized that it’s fine to disagree with someone and it’s fine to say so. It’s OK to not like what’s been said or what’s going on, and to express that too. The truth is that not only is this acceptable, it is actually the best course of action for all participants.

Kim Scott tells a story in Radical Candor about walking a beloved but undisciplined dog. The amount of love for this dog is preventing her from cracking down on its bad behavior. A passerby rolls up on the two, and seeing and understanding the situation, gives some direct orders to the dog. The dog complies, and as the person then turns away they leave with a parting statement: “See? It’s not mean, it’s clear!” Effective communication is achieved when both parties are 100% understood by each other and cool heads have prevailed.

Now when I go into a conversation, I try to go into it with a goal. I ask myself, “what do I need to say?”. Make a plan, visualize it. Similar to accomplishing anything difficult if you tell your brain what you want to do, when you’re in the moment you’ll be more likely to do it. Try this out sometime. Let a few seconds of silence sink in, while you answer yourself in your own head, “what do I really need to say here?” Then let it flow.

The Seven Year Struggle

When I started the Conquer List, smoking was an obvious charter member.  As I write, I’m 5+ weeks since the last cigarette and the cravings are gone. How’d that happen?

The Conquer List is all about methodology; hunkering down and building out a holistic plan for killing the enemies of my goals. But smoking didn’t get conquered that way at all. Most habits take time to kill, like a slow strangulation. I had expected this for quitting something I’ve done pretty regularly since working a bar in Grand Rapids near the end of 2011. But it did not happen that way.

What makes the Conquer List so effective is that everything on it has a direct correlation to my top-level goals. Let’s look at two of them: becoming a Divemaster, and winning a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competition. Being a Divemaster requires time, money, and health. BJJ requires the same. What’s something I can conquer that would give back more time, more money, and better health? Exactly.

So there I was at BJJ class, after about two weeks. This class was special because it was the first time I’d done an actual “roll”, which is a free-form sparring session. You’re essentially fighting a guy for 5 straight minutes.  This absolutely murdered me, and made me realize just how poor my conditioning had become. In fact, it reminded me of Day 1 at police academy which was difficult even as a 25-year old who didn’t smoke.

Walking out after class into the warm summer air, still gasping, I realized that I’d never get anywhere in this sport if the smoking continued. And so it stopped. The crazy thing is it was really just that simple. By the time I had walked the five minutes home, my mind had decided that BJJ was more important. Since that moment back in August I have had two cigarettes in total.

I understand that this isn’t going to work for everybody. I also went through the traditional remedies; spent lots of money on expensive gums and vaporizers. Phone apps with pictures of my crush du jour to motivate me to quit. Everybody is different and I expect that different things will work or not work. I do believe though that the mind can decide that there’s something important that it wants to do, and suddenly anything that doesn’t fit gets written over with something that actually helps get it what it wants.

Where the mind goes, the body will follow. -Arnold Schwarzenegger



The Outcome Doesn’t Matter

Annie Duke’s book Thinking in Bets was transformative for me. I was one of those many people who see the outcome of decisions and let that define the entire experience. Annie taught me to evaluate the decisions that led to the outcome, not the outcome itself.

Ultimately, good decisions are only more likely to have good outcomes. They are not guaranteed. Similarly, bad decisions are less likely to end in good outcomes. But they still can. If I jump out of an airplane with no parachute (to use a fairly absurd illustration) and somehow survive, would you think that it was a good decision to jump without a parachute?

Let’s make it a bit more real. You meet a girl in highschool, fall in love, get married at age 19, and have a lifetime of marital bliss. Does your successful marriage mean that it was a great idea to get married to the first girl you dated when you were still a teenager? Hell, I bet you didn’t even have a pre-nup. I would argue that you made a bad decision that resulted in a good outcome – good for you, but I wouldn’t have bet on it.

And there you have the title of the book – every decision you make is actually betting on one outcome or the other. How certain were you about the bets (decisions) you made today? Did you really have enough information to make those bets accurately? Thinking this way has really opened my mind to uncertainty being one of the fundamental rules of life.

Thanks, Annie!

Tale of Two Masters

Tonight I attended the “Advanced” class at my Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu academy for the first time. This was a big step for me; “Junior” (Carlson Gracie Jr, the Big Boss) had told me about a month ago that in a month it would be time for me to bump myself up to the advanced class. He then had promptly disappeared (one assumes to Brazil), and tonight was his first night back. Advanced Class it was for me. As we were learning & drilling, the Muay Thai school that shares the same space had wrapped up for the night and the evening clean-up rituals were being attended to.

It was actually a bit of a relief, as the Muay Thai students make a hell of a lot of noise during the earlier beginner class and now I could hear Junior clearly this time as he explained a particular Open Guard pass to the crowd of eager Jiu-Jiteiros surrounding him. It was a good crowd; word had gotten around that Junior was back. Just the drills were getting the better of my poor conditioning. It’s been getting noticeably better since I started, but my conditioning is still laughably worse than the veterans in the room.

The class went about 55 minutes or so, and I was wiped out. To nobody’s surprise, every single other student that was in the class stayed for the open mat period afterwards. Despite my progress in staying calm during sparring, I’m still good for nothing about thirty seconds into a roll. Plenty of room for improvement, but to quote Bane, that comes later. Tonight I instead hobbled over to a chair off by the dressing rooms and caught my breath in preparation to leave.

As I sat there I saw that the guy who was cleaning the Muay Thai school the whole time was still working a full hour later, diligently sweeping dirt into a pile with a smile on his face. What surprised me the most was that it wasn’t a janitor or junior student; it was Andre Madiz, the owner and master instructor of the school. It was a beautiful thing to see. How ironic that the most important lesson of the evening came after the class had ended.

There is no champion without sacrifice. – Andre Madiz

Photo: Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Andre’s hometown.