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How I Achieved Mindfulness (Without Meditation)

(The image at left, created by artist Alice Popkorn, is licensed under Creative Commons.)

Thanks to a tweet from Valdis Krebs (@valdiskrebs) yesterday, I was directed to an article entitled “Mindfulness Meditation Training Changes Brain Structure in Eight Weeks.” The bottom line is that people who participated in a mindfulness program – where they meditated and did other “mindfulness exercises” for at least 27 minutes a day in an effort to reduce stress – overwhelmingly achieved that goal. At the end of eight weeks, using MRIs, the researchers observed:

increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress.

Wow! So that means all I have to do is learn how to meditate, practice it daily, and all of a sudden not only will my anxiety and stress fade away, but I’ll be smarter, more self-aware, and more compassionate.

There’s only one problem here. I really suck at meditation. I’m easily distracted, and furthermore, I’m a “quality expert” which means I can’t NOT try to be more efficient, effective, productive, etc – avoiding waste is my nature!! Even if I had the skills to do it properly, meditation has always felt, to me, like wasting time. (Darn it.) I even spent weeks and weeks last summer trying to become more mindful. Didn’t work. I finally stopped beating myself up for not focusing hard enough on being mindful and letting it slip away.

I’m sure there are a lot of people like me. You’d like to become more mindful, more self-aware, more able-to-enjoy-the-moment… but it’s hard to do. And meditation is just not helping. And so you keep anxiously moving from moment to moment, trying to be here now, but there’s way too much to think about and get done and it’s never going to end.

One day this past December, I was driving on the interstate in the middle of the afternoon. The road was laying itself out in front of me, the trees were swaying in the light wind and the low solar angle, and I was checking out the dents in the Nissan driving in front of me. And then it dawned on me… Wow, I am TOTALLY here in this moment RIGHT NOW! This must be what mindfulness is all about! I was experiencing all of the tiny details of the moment, perfectly content where I was in my seat, and where I was along the path from there-to-home, and it really didn’t matter what I was doing or not doing. Or what I had or didn’t have. Or what would happen tomorrow or not. Or what would happen an hour from now… or not. Or who thought what thoughts of me… or not.

It just didn’t matter… none of it. I was just pleasantly entangled in the moment, and totally content. (And this is not like me… I knew something had changed.)

I spent the next few days wondering how in the world this instant mindfulness happened. All of a sudden, it was all over the place. I remember mindfully eating chicken wings. Mindfully cutting my nails. Mindfully packing my bookbag to go to work. It was all around me, and there’s nothing I did to make it happen, or so I thought.

A few weeks later I figured it all out. Mindfulness is not something you can GO GET, it’s something that comes to you. All of the focused meditation and breathing I could have done would not have made me more mindful, at least not beyond the ephemeral moments of its immediate impact. And it comes to you when you consciously choose to do things that make you happy.

I had made a decision a few weeks prior to do something that would make me happy at least once a day, and to stop doing things that did not make me happy. If I really had to do something I didn’t like, I consciously found a way to do something happy as a component of doing the thing I wasn’t interested in. If I just didn’t have the energy to do something happy, I’d go take a nap (assuming that my attitude was a result of being tired – and usually, it was). I stopped trying to force the outcomes on my to-do list and get things done, and decided that I would attack only those items that I could really be happy about doing. Furthermore, I decided that I was going to stop lying to myself and others. If I wasn’t enjoying an activity, I would find a way to stop doing it – and if I was enjoying something, I would find a way to do more of it.

This is all a work in progress. But I can say that after a few weeks of my “focus on doing stuff to make me happy” exercise, I got mindfulness for free, and so far, it’s staying with me. No meditation. No breathing, other than what I had to do to stay alive. No past, no future. No worries.

The Undergrad Jungle Book

I’m releasing a new eBook tonight – January 1, 2011 at 1:30am Eastern Standard Time – in honor of the very Happy New Year to come! You can download a FREE TWO-CHAPTER PREVIEW here or view the DIGITAL FLIPBOOK of the preview from http://flipdocs.com until January 5th!

What’s the book about? I wanted to call this book COLLEGE SUCKS: AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT. But college doesn’t suck! It’s an exciting place full of opportunities and excitement and invigoration. I know, I know, sometimes that’s hard to see and hard to feel because of all the deadlines, tough assignments, obtuse quizzes, impossible exams, and professors who act like heartless drill sergeants. In this book, I want to introduce you to some unique approaches for managing your work and bringing joy to your academic life as a college student. To do this, I have to divulge some secrets about what some professors (including me) really think about their classes and about you. Are you ready?

If you’re a freshman, sophomore or junior in college who’s desperate to do better in school, have more free time, and feel better about college life, this book will help you accomplish just that. This is not your ordinary “how to do better in college” book. It’s a secret guidebook that will help you unlock your true potential by having more fun!

The eBook is delivered by e-junkie which I’ve found to be a great platform for delivering digital products so far – it ties into PayPal.


Help Spread the Word!

If you’re a professor and you’d like to use this in your class, I can arrange for bulk discounts.

If you’re a student (or professor) who’d like to spread this message across your campus and share in the proceeds, please join the 50% affiliate program. I plan on approving up to 5 resellers per campus.

You can also email me for an discount code you can use and/or give your students to buy the book for $12 instead of $25 until January 31, or a $5 off digital coupon that’s valid anytime.

Detoxing from Facebook

Eric Frazier of the Charlotte Observer told the story of Alyssa Rushing this week – a 20 year old student at the University of South Carolina whose mother has offered her $300 to “detox from Facebook” for a month. Alyssa’s mother, Melynda, wanted her daughter to focus on studying instead of social media – and viewed the challenge as a way to help Alyssa recoup the time she was wasting online:

Her mom, with just 40 Facebook friends, said she got on the network solely because she wanted to keep up with her children on it. Her idea for the $300 challenge came from her own past. As a busy mom trying to raise children, she once swore off TV and gained extra time to get things done.

She’s sure the same will be true for her daughter, especially given how distracting Facebook can be.

Next Tuesday, we’ll know if Alyssa was able to meet the challenge, because her month will be up. The question that I’m most interested in, though, is whether the one month pay-for-performance will lead to any long-term shifts in behavior. For a change to be permanent, the motivation must come from within. Although external motivators (like $300) might provide the impetus to get off Facebook now, what happens when the cash is no longer flowing? In 2009, the Wall Street Journal reported a higher success rate among smokers who were paid to quit, versus those who were not. However, there are no long-term indicators available. And besides, research shows that carrots and sticks don’t always work, anyway.

When I did my 42-day social media detox in the summer of 2010, all I was looking for was relief from the incessant online chatter – the anxiety and exhaustion that came from being frenetically, perpetually, and continuously distracted by status updates. As I peeled back the layers covering my anxiety, I realized there was a whole Pandora’s box of twisted emotions and my online habits were actually distracting me from dealing with the real issues all around me.

I check Facebook and other social media much less now – but my motivation is purely intrinsic: if I don’t keep a healthy distance, the anxiety will start to enshroud me again, and who knows where I’ll end up then. For me, it’s a matter of preserving mental and emotional happiness.

It’s kind of like dealing with an eating disorder. You can’t exactly swear off food since you need to eat to live – you just need to set very good boundaries detailing how you interact with food, and avoid putting yourself in situations that will threaten your health and well-being.

The game is all about devising effective structures to help you deal with your obsessions. And I think this is a huge issue for ensuring your own quality of life – at least in the very personal world inside your head.

Disciplined Creative Time

I think every blog has at least one post that says “sorry I haven’t posted in a while.”

Today is that day for me. I started professor-ing in August and have been on the Manager’s Schedule (huh? what does that mean? — see http://qualityandinnovation.com/2009/08/14/makers-meeting-managers-meeting) ever since. By the time I get to Maker’s time, which is where I think about the things I see in journals and newspapers, I’ve been pretty worn out. I realized that effectively managing your Manager’s time is the key to getting Maker’s time. If there’s too much physical time or physical energy wrapped up in the Manager’s Schedule, just stop right there – don’t even plan to get any creative work done. When you sit down for your “planned Maker’s time”, if your body is weary, your soul is just going to want to sip on coffee and surf the net.

I will need to take a much more disciplined approach to my creative time if I’m going to produce any useful output. (Valdis, that means MoC!)

How to Achieve Transparency: One Approach

Point 1: Transparency in business and in government means that you know what’s going on (or can find out). You have access to information about the organization’s processes and results, it is clearly presented, and it is understandable. It is difficult, if not impossible, to understand accountability when transparency does not exist. In the emerging ISO 26000 standard for social responsibility, both transparency and accountability are important.

Point 2: In data management, we struggle with the concept of provenance: how to track what happened to your data at every step of its journey – from being collected, to being operated upon by a host of processes and algorithms, to being evaluated, analyzed and visualized.

McClatchy reports today that the U.S. government is having problems with both. In “Where did that bank bailout go? Watchdogs aren’t entirely sure”, Chris Adams describes the murkiness of the issue:

Although hundreds of well-trained eyes are watching over the $700 billion that Congress last year decided to spend bailing out the nation’s financial sector, it’s still difficult to answer some of the most basic questions about where the money went.

Despite a new oversight panel, a new special inspector general, the existing Government Accountability Office and eight other inspectors general, those charged with minding the store say they don’t have all the weapons they need. Ten months into the Troubled Asset Relief Program, some members of Congress say that some oversight of bailout dollars has been so lacking that it’s essentially worthless.

Bottom line: achieving transparency requires successfully managing provenance. But in the case of the bailout, are transparency problems an information technology issue, or a policy issue?

Autocatalytic Strawberries

strawbryWarning: This post contains wild, imaginative speculation which I considered (nonetheless) pretty fun.

I was reading yesterday about autocatalytic sets – described, on Wikipedia, as “a collection of entities, each of which can be created catalytically as a whole is said to be autocatalytic.” by other entities within the set, such that as a whole, the set is able to catalyze its own production. In this way the set The example given in yesterday’s reading was the egg – an egg can produce a chicken, which is then in the business of producing more eggs. The “chicken and egg” problem is thus embodied by the notion of the autocatalytic set.

Today, I picked up my local vegetable share which had a whole bunch of strawberries in it. I cleaned them, cut the green tops off, and sliced them each in two or three parts. And then, when I was about to pop one in my mouth – I saw it. Not a tasty strawberry, but an autocatalytic set. The seeds on the outside of the strawberry are in the business of making more strawberries, which are in the business of making more strawberries, and so on and so forth.

And then I wondered: if that little seed is where thousands of generations of strawberries are destined to come from, is a single atom eventually to be the source of a future solar system? Now: re-read the first line of this post.

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