Seasons – Planning Life Alongside Nature

For us in the northern hemisphere, there is no denying the change in the air. Summer is giving way to autumn (or fall, if you want to be all American about it). The kids are back at school. All the upcoming holidays now have an ‘end of year’ feel to them. For those in the southern hemisphere, the reverse is true. Spring is coming and summer will be here before you know it. Time to hit the beach and get outdoors.

It was whilst living in New Zealand that I realised for the first time how productivity and personal development have seasons of their own, often very much inline with nature. Perhaps it was because all my online inputs were largely presenting an experience that was the reverse of the one I was living through. What I did realise was that as the rains came (I was living in Christchurch, there was lots of rain), it became harder to stay motivated and geared up for new projects all the time.

Any productivity guru worth their salt will tell you that you don’t need to wait for the New Year to make a change. Or that every day is a fresh start. It’s all very true. I just think it becomes harder if you try to do it out of sync with the world around you.

Many people live online so much that it makes it easier, in a strange sort of way. When you never leave the house, it’s easy to forget what is going on outside. I know the temptation of the laptop as much as anyone else. Nevertheless, it can contribute to a feeling of burnout when there is no variation, just the non-stop hustle and grind of daily life.

Right now, I am taking a mini-break to plan the remainder of the year. I wanted to be somewhere different, somewhere much closer to nature, to remind myself of this idea. As the days get shorter, it will become harder to get out of bed each morning. The evenings will seem made for curling up under blankets with a good book, not hitting the gym or high intensity projects. I need to remember this so that I don’t fill my days with things I won’t achieve. I don’t like breaking promises to anyone, least of all myself.

So, over the next few weeks when you begin to see articles and blogs reminding you that ‘It’s not too late to win the year!’ and ‘make that final quarter count!’, remember that life is meant to have periods of recovery and renewal. If you’ve left it until nature begins to shut down, then it might be time to consider a different approach next year.

Of course, for those of you in the southern hemisphere, it’s time to get up and at ‘em.

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Books for entrepreneurs: Tools of Titans review

Tim Ferriss does not know how to write short books. Don’t let the fact his paperback versions could be used to bludgeon someone to death put you off. He’s a master of the soundbite.

He’s just collected more of them than anyone else.

Tools of Titans is a fantastic book for anyone who wants to try life-hacking. It works because it doesn’t expound a single point of view. Instead, Tim has interviewed hundreds of top performers and asked them what they do. As he says, it’s all in asking the right questions:

“What do these people do in the first sixty minutes of each morning? What do their workout routines look like, and why? What books have they gifted most to other people? What are the biggest wastes of time for novices in their field? What supplements do they take on a daily basis?”

Of course, this results in some contradictory approaches. But it never seems like he is doing this to cover all bases and therefore always be right. Instead, it’s clear how certain techniques suit different personality types, or specific sets of circumstances. This allows you to cherry pick the ones that work for you. And if they don’t work, a quick flick through the book and you’re sure to come up with a Plan B.

The book itself is divided into three broad sections: healthy, wealthy and wise. There is fluidity between them all, as certain tips and tricks can be applied effectively in all three life areas. It gives the book a sense of structure though that allows you to start where you need the most help. Tim’s writing voice is quite distinctive, so if you don’t gel with his podcast style, you might struggle with reading. I find him to be a highly engaging speaker, so I went through all 674 pages in a week. Most sections contain direct quotes from his interviewees, so there is plenty of variety to keep your brain engaged.

This is one of those books I would recommend without hesitation to anyone who wanted to level up their life. If you’re looking for productivity tips, diet and exercise hacks, habits and routines, meditation and yes, even raw and candid advice for those who are depressed to the point of suicidal, then this is the book for you.

You might even find the thing you didn’t know you really needed along the way.

You can buy Tools of Titans on Amazon and all other good retailers. For more information about Tim and his work, check out toolsoftitans.com

Why the 45,000 pound sugar mountain wasn’t what it seemed

In today’s post-fact society, always read the label

Last week, a huge mound of sugar appeared in Times Square. This piece of educational art was installed to drive home the point that in America, every five minutes children consume 45,485 pounds of added sugar.

That’s a lot of sugar.

I’m all for promoting the dangers of sugars added to and hidden in food. But it did raise the question: who exactly were they trying to educate? What was really the message here?

I’ve been to Times Square. I love it. It’s hustle and bustle and, dare I say it, prime marketing real estate. This installation highlighting the dangers of added sugar comes not from any educational or government body. Nope, it comes from a food manufacturer.

KIND have a message that’s hard not to get behind. From their website:

“We believe if you can’t pronounce an ingredient, it shouldn’t go into your body. Actually, it shouldn’t even go into your pantry. KIND® products are made from nutritionally-dense ingredients like whole nuts, fruits and whole grains – no secret ingredients and no artificial flavors, preservatives or sweeteners.”

However, this is where I get really frustrated with food companies being disingenuous when it comes to promoting healthy food. It’s true that the added sugar consumed by children is way above where it should be and where most parents probably believe it to be. But for many people, it is precisely the types of snacks made by KIND that cause the confusion. They’ve just launched a new range of snacking products, Fruit Bites. Let’s look at the description for the Mango Pineapple Apple version:

Our Mango Pineapple Apple Fruit Bites are made from only 3 simple ingredients and give you a delicious tropical fruit snack in every bite. We don’t use fruit juices, purees, concentrates or preservatives – so you can enjoy a fruit snack that’s actually made from real fruit. And with no sugar added and 1 full serving of fruit per pouch, it’s the perfect lunchbox snack.

Real fruit! That elusive serving! Perfect for the lunchbox! What parent trying to do the right thing wouldn’t go for that? However, let’s look at the nutrition label. Again, from their website:

Whilst it contains no added sugars, it still contains 11g per pouch of natural sugars. Which are, make no mistake about it, still sugar. At an 18g serving, that’s around 60% sugar.

Always be suspicious of marketing, especially when the message is wholesome and healthy. Even more so when that message is aimed at your kids.

How to create a successful morning routine

Why set up a morning routine?

These are a few benefits I’ve found from my own routine over the years.

For many years, a corporate job took most of my time and energy. I would come home from work and have nothing left to give for things that were important to me. I wanted to be a writer, but I never actually wrote anything. This all changed when I dedicated just an hour every morning to my writing. Having a morning routine allows you to dedicate time to the things that matter to you most.

Precious alone time. In today’s world, we are constantly bombarded with interruptions, whether in real life, social media or any other online input. A successful morning routine, one that was clearly defined, gave me a definite course of action, so I always knew what to do next. That removed ‘check twitter’ from my list of options. That space gave me time to think about what was important and also sheltered me from negative bombardment from the moment I woke up.

There are many other benefits, but those two give the biggest returns for a happier and more fulfilling life.

So how do you set up a morning routine?

It’s easier than you think.

Firstly, ask yourself what you hope to achieve from doing this. Everyone will have different objectives. Is it to make time for your creative projects? Is it to make sure you get in a good workout each day? Or perhaps it is to read or work on personal development. What matters most to you will make up the core of the routine.

Secondly, decide how much time you want to devote to this activity. Be realistic. If you want to do a thirty minute workout but have to go to the gym, then include the travel time and showering afterwards. No one will thank you if you run out of time for that. The amount of time required will impact on how early you need to get up in order to complete the routine before beginning your existing obligations.

Thirdly, don’t start too big. Habits take time to become routines and the more you add in, the more likely you are to become overwhelmed and give up. My morning routine started out with a simple, single task: write 1000 words before breakfast. Over time, that has developed into a multi-step routine, but I needed to get used to doing that single but significant task first.

Be in it for the long haul

So what does my routine look like now? It combines several elements that I have seen successful authors, businesspeople and entrepreneurs confirm as being instrumental for them.

1) Begin with a pint of water. I used to go straight to coffee, but never underestimate the power of rehydrating after 7 hours of sleeping.

2) Write 1000 words. That’s still my big goal after 6 years of doing this.

3) Morning Pages – adapted from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. You’re really supposed to do them before anything else, but for me they have actually always been more effective after my half-asleep writing session. The last page always contains three things I am grateful for that morning.

4) 20 Pushups. Really not many, but it makes me feel like I’ve at least done something physical and makes me more likely to do other activity throughout the day.

5) Affirmations and visualisations. Yes, I still feel like an idiot sometimes saying these things out loud, but they do work. I’m shy and introverted by nature, so this gives me the confidence to step outside my comfort zone when I need to.

6) Goals review. Don’t work hard to climb that ladder just to discover it’s up against the wrong tree. Work out what you want and remind yourself every day to stay focused on what matters, rather than what simply feels urgent.

7) Calendar review. It doesn’t matter what grand goals you have for that day if your calendar says you have back-to-back meetings. Again, be realistic.

8) Task list review. By the time I’ve reviewed what matters (goals) and what’s immovable (calendar), it makes it much easier to delete, delegate or defer tasks on my list. What remains still needs to get done, but this way I don’t waste my energy on unnecessary tasks before I get to them.

The power of a morning routine means that these tasks take less time as you repeat them. The whole process above now takes somewhere between 90 minutes and 2 hours. That’s from 6-8am at the latest. That gives me a whole hour to have breakfast, get showered and be at my desk by 9am.

I’ve already achieved things that matter to me and mentally prepared for my day by the point most people are just thinking about booting up the laptop.

None of this will work unless…

A meticulously planned morning routine with all the best intentions and activities will still fail unless you actively set yourself up for success the night before. Unless you have the luxury of being beholden to no-one, you’re going to have to sacrifice some morning sleep to get this done.

A successful morning routine means ensuring you go to bed early enough to get the quality sleep you need. If there are any objects/spaces that are essential to your routine, then these should be found or made clear the night before to remove as much friction as possible and ensure you can make every minute of your morning routine count.

Hopefully this has given you some ideas about how to set up a morning routine and how to grow it into something that makes a huge difference in the level of success and satisfaction you get from your day. If you have any questions or thoughts then drop them in the comments section below, or you can get in touch with me by email at realist@sherrinicholds.com.

Tools of the trade: Field Notes Campfire Review

As a reminder, I use analogue tools for creative planning (including business strategy, idea generation and note taking). Therefore the items I use have to meet three criteria. They must be:

  • Attractive to use, so they make me want to write
  • Portable, so I can use them at my desk, office or coffee shop
  • Flexible, so they are appropriate in multiple scenarios

So how does the quarterly Field Notes Campfire release shape up against those requirements? Great, actually.

The different cover designs are awesome

Compared to the previous two releases (Utility and Black Ice), this edition feels like a Field Notes book. It has shades of Americana that people expect from a company like Field Notes. It is part of their brand appeal. For me, the two previous editions were innovation over functionality. They reduced the usability of a product that I want to carry with me at all times.

So are they attractive to use? Oh yes. A big tick in the box on that score. The three different covers add variety and they have a beautiful tactile finish on the covers. Nice additional touches include the different shade of grid lines in each book to match the key tones of their respective covers.

Attention to detail with the grid line colours

As for portability, Field Notes always have that covered. Of their 35 quarterly editions, only two have broken away from the pocket book size (Arts and Sciences and Byline). Both were great alternatives, but not as truly portable as the pocket size. Campfire Edition has the portability that we’ve come to expect from Field Notes and fits in all those standard carry cases as well as your back pocket.

Straight into my trusty Nock Co case

Finally, flexibility for use in both personal and business scenarios. Field Notes are never going to be corporate like Moleskine or Leuchtturm1917, but they’re not trying to be. At the same point, neither are they offensive or too gimmicky most of the time. If I had to pull these out in a client meeting, they’re the kind of notebooks that might attract attention, but in good ways. They don’t scream unprofessional.

As for the paper, I haven’t found it to be a problem with fountain pens, as long as I’m not using a big juicy wet nib and ink. There’s very little feathering or bleed through on the page, which means I don’t have to stop and think about the pen I’m using before beginning to write.

Very little bleed through on the page

Overall, I give this one a big thumbs up and can’t wait to see what the next quarterly release is. Fall is subscription renewal time for me, but I have a mountain of pocket notebooks still waiting to be used. It will be interesting to see if Field Notes pull something out of the bag that makes it impossible for me to resist subscribing for another year.

You can buy the Field Notes Campfire Edition here until they’re sold out.

Healthy Motivation: FitBit Alta

I am not one of life’s natural movers. I’d always prefer to be curled up with a good book than down at the gym or pounding the pavements. It takes a lot to get me motivated but I finally found something, so I thought I would do a quick Fitbit Alta review.

The original Fitbit Alta came out nearly a year ago and I’ve been using it since then. The updated FitBit Alta HR is the new model, for those who want the additional heart rate tracking functionality, but I’ve stayed with the basic one. After continuous use, I’m happy to give it a big thumbs up.

Pros

The Fitbit Alta and the app are both really easy to use. Honestly, this is the main one for me.

Sleep tracking. Oh boy, this was eye-opening (no pun intended). I finally saw why I was still tired after going to bed at a reasonable time. Restless nights equal tired days:

Challenges and social sharing – given the lower cost of entry to the Fitbit market compared to the Apple Watch or hardcore Garmin products, I’ve got many more friends and acquaintances using a Fitbit. This makes social interaction much easier and the group challenges really hone into the competitive spirit.

Step per hour reminders – another winning feature. 250 steps an hour? We all do that anyway, right? Nope. It’s so easy for an hour to go by and I’ve sat at my desk for the entire time. The subtle buzz on my wrist tells me to get up and get moving for ten minutes, but is subtle enough not to be intrusive if I’m in a meeting and can’t get away.

All of these key features are easy to interact with on the intuitive user interface:

Cons

Only splash resistant, not waterproof. Not good for pool bunnies.

The official bands aren’t the most durable or corporate friendly (turquoise and purple are my favourite). However, the customer service was great when my band broke and the delivery of a replacement was fast and efficient. Plus you can easily get unofficial alternatives on Amazon (I chose these replacement bands for a bit of variety – around $1 per band).

I’m under no illusions that walking 10,000 steps a day will turn me into a lean, mean, fighting machine. Diet plays a significant role in health and 10,000 steps does not by default mean cardio, strength or calorie goals get met. But for someone like me, it’s a daily gentle push towards better health. Overall, I’d recommend Fitbit Alta as a great starter wearable for anyone of any age who wants to be more conscious of their daily activity levels. You can always upgrade to something more hardcore at a later point.

Books for Entrepreneurs: Essentialism

Greg McKeown’s infamous book, Essentialism, has been on my reading list for a long time. I can’t even remember when or where I first heard about it, but those who mentioned it always spoke of its life changing effect.

When you read a lot of business and personal improvement books like I do, you get used to people waxing lyrical about how things will never be the same after adopting strategy x. This may turn out to be one of those rare occurrences where it happens to be true. The constant doing more, but achieving less. Never feeling satisfied or that the day was meaningful.

As I began reading, I was relieved to discover I already had quite a few essentialist habits. I discovered the underlying cause of friction I felt on many projects: my broadly essentialist approach versus the non-essentialist approach being taken.

This meant that in addition to completing the task itself, I had to work out the true intent and purpose of the project. Where some people are happy to just complete any task (usually just taking the easiest route to something approximating done), I have never accepted mediocre as the target to aim for. Instead, I would rather take longer to work out how to provide a valuable outcome.

But although I was embracing essentialism in many areas, in others I was getting woefully distracted. My personal life, especially, was in free-fall at the time of reading this book. In no small part this was due to the mental exhaustion that came with battling work tasks handed to me that were governed by non-essentialist principles.

So how has this book helped me? Largely by giving me the confidence not to accept a task without getting those in charge of the project to clarify their thinking about it first. Sometimes, the person handing out that task is me. As a freelancer or entrepreneur, understanding essentialism is vital for avoiding burnout.

It’s hard to ask difficult questions sometimes, but it gives me the boundaries to not only do good work, but also valuable work.

The best part of this is that I ultimately freed up valuable creative energy to expend into my personal life and projects. I developed a new infrastructure for 2017 that allowed me to be location independent and travel.It also gives me the framework to consider carefully my side projects and see which ones are ready to move from hobby to business and which ones simply need to be cut from my life, no matter how enjoyable they seem on the surface.

For the first time since reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done, I have experienced a fundamental shift in what I believe is achievable and what my life needs to look like to get there. The confidence comes through in the decision making process. Whilst success is never guaranteed, I am giving myself the best possible shot at living a meaningful life, rather than a purely busy and productive one.

With challenging economic and political times ahead, Essentialism is one of the books I would recommend for anyone who wants to make the most of future opportunities in the changing workforce.