Stop Being Busy

You know the story. You see a friend. It’s been awhile. You shake hands. You give a hug. As you sit down for coffee to talk, your friend naturally asks, “How are you? How have you been?” There’s lots you could share, right? All the things you haven’t shared with your friend – the updates, the changes in your life, the challenges you’ve been dealing with, new discoveries you’ve made that you’d like to share.

But instead, you answer, “Busy. I’ve been busy.” Even as your lips purse to form the burst of the “B,” you regret it. But it’s out there. The most boring answer to your friend’s question that you could give. Worse yet, your friend doubles down. “Oh yeah, me too. SOOOO busy.”

How often have you had this conversation? I know I’ve had it more times than I could count, and many more times than I care to admit. What’s behind this answer? Are we really that busy? Our feeling of how busy we are has increased over time. Take a look at Google’s graph of this use of the word “busy” between 1800 and 2010:


From this timeline, we used the word “busy” at an increasing rate until the mid-1940s. That makes some sense – the world at large did have an awful lot to deal with in 1944. And it appears that people were in the mood for a well-deserved 25 year vacation after the war. But around 1975 (notably, the time that most of my generation were appearing on the Earth), we started another climb towards increasing business.

Are we really that busy? There are differences between being busy, believing that you are busy, and wanting others to believe you are busy. It seems to me that people generally fall within a three categories. Some people really are unbelievably busy, filling their lives with professional and personal obligations from sunup to well past sundown. There are people who are not busy at all, although people don’t often admit it. Last there is what I suspect is the largest group of all – people who say and believe that they are busy, but actually are not really getting much done at all. Do we need to be busy? Is there a better way to be? And if we are busy, what should we be busy doing?

There are two places in our thought process where we often get confused. The first is in dealing with the pressure the modern world places on us to be in perpetual motion. The second is making good choices about how to spend our time.

Turning Off Your Monkey Mind

Work, side projects, family, spouse, kids, friends, and community all demand attention from us in amounts greater than we can meet. We careen through life with a thousand different to-do lists and scheduling conflicts dancing in our head. It’s easy to live life almost entirely in your head, bouncing between thinking over and “re-doing” past events and worrying about future ones. Past-future-past-future-yesterday-tomorrow-where are my car keys?

Left uncontrolled, our thoughts can take over and make a ping-pong ball out of our psyches. Buddhists refer to this phenomenon as “Monkey Mind.” When Monkey Mind takes over, you are unsettled, restless, lost in daydream or worry, inattentive, confused, and indecisive. It’s what makes you feel busy and overwhelmed. You don’t want to encourage Monkey Mind.  You want to turn it off.

How? If you want to avoid being lost in these thought loops, you first need to become aware of those thoughts and how they arise. Take a quiet moment and sit comfortably. What does your body feel like in the chair? Is it heavy or light, calm or restless? Do you feel pain or tight muscles? Don’t judge or worry, just notice it. Breathe normally and notice your breath. How does it feel in your body? Where do you feel your breath? Does each breath feel different? Don’t judge or worry, just notice it. Chances are, the first time you try this, you will find yourself thinking about your afternoon appointment calendar or weekend plans or work stress without any desire to do so. You might not be able to focus on even one or two entire breaths before new thoughts pop up in your head. This is OK and normal. It’s actually the point of the exercise. You might have believed all along that you spend time thinking thoughts because you choose to. That’s not the case. It’s your uncontrolled Monkey Mind filling your peaceful mental stillness with worry, planning, and regret.

After you understand how thoughts arise in your mind, you can practice letting them pass by while observing them calmly, instead of being whisked away. This is simple, but not easy. It involves nothing more than noticing thoughts when they arise, and over time, improving your ability to do that so that you can avoid being swept away and lost in thought. You can call it meditation, or mindfulness, or being present, or anything else that works for you. You don’t need to adopt any religion or new philosophy or recite mantras. You just need to pay attention to how your mind works. There’s no better way to do that than to sit down and watch it.

Should I Do This?

The second reason we feel too busy is that we do things that we don’t want to do. I’m not talking about taking out the trash or cleaning out the gutters. I’m talking about big projects or time commitments that require a lot of us, but that don’t help us accomplish any of the goals in our lives. We take too much on. We don’t say no. We get caught up in societal pressures to have more, do more, be more, win more. If a friend calls you at 2PM on a Wednesday on the first warm day of spring and asks you to go play 9 holes of golf, what would you do? If your spouse calls you at the office and invites you to lunch and a long walk, would you go? If you have a choice between attending the third networking lunch of the week or having a quiet lunch to read and think about a problem at work, what’s the better choice?

Why are we making ourselves busy with things that make us miserable? I am not advocating sloth. I do believe, however, that as a society we are absolutely confused about how to spend time to do our best thinking, produce our best work, and live our best life.  Derek Sivers has a wonderful take on this in his short post, “Hell Yeah.” When presented with an opportunity, only commit if your reaction is “Hell, yeah!” Otherwise, say no. Don’t follow lukewarm feelings.

The interesting thing is that, the more you tame your Monkey Mind, you’ll desire less. You’ll worry less about the future and regret the past less. You won’t spin your wheels trying to address phantom concerns. You’ll dump the unnecessary tasks. You’ll feel more present and energized by your work and pursuits. You’ll spend less time doing things you don’t want to do. You’ll get more done in less time. You’ll be less busy, and you’ll be more interesting at the coffee shop.

Starting a Travel Journal

I’m sitting in an apartment in Washington, D.C. writing this, enjoying a week’s vacation with my family during the spring break my kids have from school.  Cathedral Heights, specifically.  We have a lovely view of the National Cathedral across the street from our accommodations, and we have spent a fun week taking the kids on their first “big city” trip and doing the typical nation’s capital tourist items.  Museums, bus tours, memorials, great food, and lots of squinting over Metro maps and bus schedules.

I am collecting items for a travel journal this trip, a first for me.  I first came across the idea after reading an article about Yolanda Edwards, creative director of Conde Nast Traveler.  Ms. Edwards and her family travel extensively, and her habit of creating a travel journal for most of her trips, chock full of postcards, maps, receipts, menus, coasters, matchbooks, drawings, and notes is marvelous.  I couldn’t believe I had never done it before.  I take it back – I did make a half-hearted attempt to document my cross-country travels decades ago, but never with collected items.

So I’m giving it a try this trip.  I didn’t plan well in advance, so I do not have the new notebook that will house our trip’s memories.  But I’ve made daily journal entries, and I have a pile of restaurant receipts, planetarium tickets, bus tour maps, and other items documenting our trip.  When I get home, I’ll put it together as the first complete travel journal.  I can’t wait to see what it looks like.  I know I’ll be better prepared next trip (New Mexico in June!) and have my new notebook ready.

“Best Book” Lists of 2016

I have not yet compiled my list of favorite reads of 2016.  I have been busy, however, perusing some great lists of book recommendations from individuals I trust to steer me to good material.  Keep in mind that these lists are not all of books published in 2016; rather, they are lists of great books discovered, read, and sometimes published, in 2016.  The distinction is not a meaningful difference.

Farnam Street’s “Best Books of 2016” – Farnam Street is a treasure trove for readers, especially readers who take pleasure in a greater understanding of the world.  This is a great list of nonfiction and fiction alike.

Bil Gates’s list of “Favorite Books of 2016” – Gates releases a list of great reads every year, sharing that “Never before have I felt so empowered to learn as I do today.”

Ryan Holiday’s list of the “(Very) Best Books of 2016” – Ryan Holiday is a great resource on reading, how to read more effectively, and what to read.

Bonus: Shane Parrish, curator of Farnam Street, has released his list of all books he read in 2016.  Not a “best of” list, it’s still well worth a look.


Forging the Heart Through Jiu-Jitsu

I began training Brazilian jiu-jitsu this summer at the age of 40. I started training jiu-jitsu for reasons including fitness and the pursuit of a new challenge. More than anything, however, I wanted to experience the struggle and stress of a physical battle with another human, fail in that struggle, and then ultimately learn how to survive and succeed in that struggle.  I certainly found struggle, but also unexpected lessons of deep and personal meaning, which will keep me connected to jiu-jitsu for as long as I’m able to do it.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu, or BJJ for short, is a combat sport system that focuses on grappling and ground fighting.  There is no striking.  Each grappler uses his or her whole body to implement a system of clinches, grips, and holds.  Focusing on leverage and precise technique, a properly trained grappler can manipulate even a larger opponent into submission by choke or joint lock. BJJ is astounding in its complexity, and often is described as “human chess.”

I had no prior martial arts experience.  I first heard of BJJ about twenty years ago in college. A close friend was a fan of the then new Ultimate Fighting Championship , and he enthusiastically described BJJ expert Royce Gracie’s dramatic victories over larger wrestlers, boxers, and martial artists.  That was in the early 1990s, and those first UFC fights — designed to test the superiority of different martial arts systems — were an interesting curiosity but didn’t capture much of my interest at the time.

I didn’t encounter BJJ again until a year or two ago, listening to Tim Ferriss’s podcast.  A number of Ferriss’s guests, including chess master Josh Waitzkin,  neuroscientist Sam Harris, and former U.S. Navy SEAL and writer Jocko Willink, all described their practice of BJJ, their obsession over its complexity and beauty, and the personal benefits they had each experienced from practicing the art.  And so, last summer, I found myself at the age of 40 walking into a BJJ academy for an introductory one-on-one lesson.  Over the course of an hour, the instructor introduced me to some basic principles of BJJ – how to use a basic escape from being flat on your back with an attacker sitting on your chest, how to submit an opponent with an armlock, and how to apply the unbelievably effective rear naked choke, which can render a powerful man unconscious within seconds  by cutting off all blood flow to the brain.  These techniques – simple but awesome in their power – were taught in a smooth, calm, respectful manner, with a conscious awareness of their utility and the responsibility required to employ them effectively.

I was sold and signed up.  And the next day, I found myself the newest student in the academy.  Imagine standing in a new, crisp white gi on a mat with two dozen other grapplers.  You don’t know exactly how much experience each of them has, but you know every one of them is more trained than you. You pay attention to the warm up and the lesson, working slowly through the technique with a polite but unfamiliar partner.

Now imagine the “live” sparring session that follows, where you square off with that partner, who has a great deal more experience (probably years) than you.  You slap hands, bump fists, and you are then left to defend yourself against an onslaught of attacks with nothing more than your untrained instincts.  The experience is overwhelming, much like being caught in a large wave, picked up and tumbling blindly through powerful waters, desperately hoping for the moment when the surge slows and you can begin to try to reorient yourself and recover.  You try to resist, only to find that your efforts to use brute strength are no match for the superiority of technique.  Your partner captures your arm in an awkward angle and you find yourself submitting to a shoulder lock.  You start again, avoiding that last trap, only to find your arm and head caught in your partner’s encircling legs in a move called a triangle choke.  Then you fail again, and again, and again.  Class after class, you fail.

I now train BJJ two or three times each week. Each class follows the same formula.  After a brief warmup of squats, pushups, and stretches, three techniques are taught.  The first typically is a self-defense technique, and second and third are BJJ grappling techniques.  Each technique is demonstrated, and then the students pair off and drill the technique.  The final ten minutes are spent in a “live” drill, where students engage in live sparring and try to refine and use the techniques learned in classes over time.  As students progress in their learning they spend more time sparring in unscripted live training sessions.

One of the things that makes BJJ unique among martial arts is that you can train at full intensity without the same risk of injury that is present in other martial arts.  In any striking discipline, be it boxing, kickboxing, tae kwon do, or mixed martial arts, the trauma caused by kicks and punches requires participants to spar at less intensity than they would employ in a real fight.  In practicing grappling, however, the risk of blunt force trauma is not present, as no striking is permitted.  This means that two grappling students can move at full speed, with full intensity, for long sparring sessions.  This intensity allows students to test the effectiveness of attacks and defense in an environment very similar to a real-world struggle.

Of course, that intensity and the inherent complexity of BJJ makes for a formidable physical and mental challenge, especially for a beginner.  And in that challenge, which often leads to failure, I found lessons even greater than the techniques themselves:

The Importance of Humility

BJJ makes you humble.  Or, perhaps more precisely, it requires you to be humble.  Because if you cannot summon humility, and lots of it, your ego will never allow you to return to class again.  In BJJ, your opponent wins by submission – by submitting you.  “Submit” derives from Latin, literally meaning “to put under.”  And in BJJ, your opponent only wins by submission when you tap out, when you admit that you’ve been beaten, when you admit that your opponent has submitted you.  In tapping, you literally  are admitting that your opponent has put you under him or herself, that your technique was inferior to theirs.

There is no room for ego here.  If you study BJJ for any period of time, you will tap out and submit hundreds, eventually thousands of times.  If you give in to ego, give your ego too much power, you will never experience anything other than embarrassment or frustration in failure.  In contrast, approaching these moments with humility allows you to self-reflect, ask questions, accept advice, and most importantly – improve your game.

This principle is applicable in many phases of life.  Ego is dangerous. If we think we are too good to fail, or underestimate our opponents, we become vulnerable to surprise and we risk falling short of our goals.  On the other hand, if we are open and accepting of our mistakes, our weaknesses, our challenges, we can learn from past experience, adjust accordingly, and remain focused on our goals.  If your goal is improvement, be humble.

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

How often to you seek out discomfort?  When you’re uncomfortable, what are you focused on?  Are you fighting to end the discomfort?  Or can you dig deep and remain focused on the goal, even if it means working through an uncomfortable moment and enduring, while you watch things develop?  I believe that we collectively have lost our ability to be comfortable with discomfort, and that as a result, we’ve lost opportunities to find betterment through pain.

In BJJ, there is an offensive move called a stack pass.  A stack pass is an attack where a grappler hooks both arms under your legs while you are on your back, and then drives forward until your knees are essentially buried in your eyeballs, if not behind your ears. He then slides around sideways until he can drop his weight on your torso and take control of your upper body.  It hurts.  It bends your spine into a painfully compressed curve, it stretches your hamstrings into lengths they’ve never known, and it smashes your eight inch neck into a three inch space between your flattened shoulders and the mat.  And it takes a long time.

Faced with this predicament, in the middle of a stack pass, you essentially have two options.  One, you can quit.  Quitting can mean rolling over, giving your back to a choke, flailing without purpose and exhausting yourself, or just lying there like a limp noodle with no plan.  Two, you can endure the discomfort patiently, but with focus, until a new opportunity presents itself.  Obviously, the latter choice is the right one.  The secret is that it’s not as hard as it seems.  But it requires comfort with discomfort.

We deal with hard times all the time.  We can’t control the circumstances of these moments, and we often cannot control the outcome.  But we can control the attitude we face challenges with.  In fact, our response to challenge is the one thing that no one can ever take away from us.  But we can never seize that power unless we take a deep breath, prepare to endure, and then get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

The Long Road

Jiu-jitsu is a long road.  Some people say that the path to a black belt is ten years, although there are many students who have experienced longer roads than that.  It is impossible to walk such a long road if you find motivation only in ego or short-term satisfaction.  One can walk this path to satisfaction only if he or she has committed to process, to routine, to small gains.  I feel as though I have not walked far enough to even see the beginning of the path over the horizon, but I am heading towards the trailhead.

Winston Churchill said, ““Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” And that is what is most apparent to me in my very, very short exposure to BJJ.  Betterment lies in the willingness to do the hard thing, to do the difficult thing.  Betterment lies in the willingness to expose yourself to trial and fire and pain and humiliation.  Betterment lies in becoming comfortable with mistakes and failure and weakness, because if we are blind to these things, we will never see the path to conquering them.

I intend to keep walking the path.  I expect it to hurt.  I expect it to be hard.  I’m comfortable with that.  Greater things lie past the pain.


Stay tuned…

I’ve been taking a month off of writing as I recalibrate some of the ideas here and formulate the best method to share them.  My quarterly review for first quarter of 2016 revealed that I needed to define some goals more precisely and I’m working on that at present.


Finding Mindfulness in the Kitchen

I love to cook.  I’m self-taught, I have no professional experience, and I doubt that I have the chops to survive in a restaurant environment.  But I love it all the same.  My interests and heartstrings are tugged in a lot of different directions when I cook, but the most consistent sentiment I experience is a connection to life: to the Earth, to farmers and purveyors, to past generations, to my current community, to family.

Heat (An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany) is the fantastic memoir of Bill Buford, who left his job as an editor at The New Yorker to dive into the world of professional kitchens, pasta making, and ultimately, to learn the craft of butchery in Tuscany.  It is a beautiful tribute to those cooks in the world who choose to master craft, and by mastering craft, develop a deeper love for life around them.

The book follows Buford through kitchens of different locations, sizes, and intensity.  At every turn, though, Buford focuses his attention on what he can learn from the moment and from his teachers.  The unifying thread he stitches through these vignettes is a mindful attention to the emotional and human experience of cooking.

Lessons of Mindfulness in the Kitchen

On developing mindfulness in the kitchen:

I once asked Mario [Batali] what I could expect to learn in his kitchen….

He thought for a moment. “You also develop an expanded kitchen awareness.  You’ll discover how to use your senses.  You’ll find you no longer rely on what your watch says.  You’ll hear when something is cooked.  You’ll smell degrees of doneness.”

On the simple pleasure of making good food:

The satisfactions of making a good plate of food are surprisingly varied, and only one, and the least important of them, involves eating what you’ve made.  In addition to the endless riffing about cooking-with-love, chefs also talk about the happiness of making food: not preparing or cooking food but making it…. The simple good feeling …might be akin to what you’d experience making a toy or a piece of furniture or maybe even a work of art – except that this particular handmade thing was also made to be eaten.  I found, cooking on the line, that I got a quiet buzz every time I made a plate of food that looked exactly and aesthetically correct and then handed it over the pass to Andy….

These are not profound experiences – the amount of reflection is exactly zero – but they were genuine enough, and I can’t think of many other activities in a modern urban life that give as much simple pleasure.

On the melancholy ways that food ties us to each other, ancestors, and mortality:

Betta’s tortellini are now in my head and my hands. I follow her formula for the dough—an egg for every etto of flour, sneaking in an extra yolk if the mix doesn’t look wet enough. I’ve learned to roll out a sheet until I see the grain of the wood underneath. I let it dry if I’m making tagliatelle; I keep it damp if I’m making tortellini. I make a small batch, roll out a sheet, then another, the rhythm of pasta, each movement like the last one. My mind empties. I think only of the task. Is the dough too sticky? Will it tear? Does the sheet, held between my fingers, feel right?

But often I wonder what Betta would think, and, like that, I’m back in that valley with its broken-combed mountain tops and the wolves at night and the ever-present feeling that the world is so much bigger than you, and my mind becomes a jumble of associations, of aunts and a round table and laughter you can’t hear anymore, and I am overcome by a feeling of loss. It is, I concluded, a side effect of this kind of food, one that’s handed down from one generation to another, often in conditions of adversity, that you end up thinking of the dead, that the very stuff that sustains you tastes somehow of mortality.

Laying Out the Pasta at Our Albergo in Tripoli, by Edward Ardizzoni

On reaching higher planes of achievement through mastery and listening to your own voice:

This, it told me, is what you have to do to learn this craft: you keep having to be a slave – to not one master but several, one after another, until you arrive at a proficiency (whatever that might be) or your own style (however long it takes) or else conclude that, finally, you just know a lot more than anyone else.

On the connection of the kitchen to the natural cycle of planting, growing, harvesting:

The evening was interminable and I remember little about it, except for a brief exchange with Enrico about his olive oil.  I wanted to know why it was so good.

“There are two reasons,” Enrico said.   “When I pick and what I pick.  Nothing else matters.”

Heat is an important reminder to us to slow down, pay attention, and experience the feeling of what we’re doing.  Pair with Thoreau’s advice on escaping busyness through walking and my post on protecting your time for important work.

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