Reflections on Achieving Your Goals: Invest in Experiences, Not Stuff

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Every now and then we ask ourselves the big questions: “What is this life all about? What will we leave behind? What will be our legacy?”

There are many great answers to these questions. Most of them come down to making a difference. Changing the world (for the ambitious crowd) or changing how others perceive us by getting rich, pretty(er) or famous (for the more egocentric folks out there).

What I personally really want to leave behind are fond memories and strong bonds with the people in my life that I care about most, especially with my family.

Which is a long intro to get to the point I want to make in this post: focus your time and energy on creating rich experiences, fond memories and with that strong bonds.

Focus on experiences

Making time for and investing in experiences was one of the big resolutions and promises to each other that Uli and I made when we moved to the US.

Back in Germany we were always super busy during the week, exhausted on the weekend and as a result crashed on the couch in front of the TV most weekends instead of going out and experiencing the world.

We were also living in the same area where I grew up and subconsciously we probably thought we had already seen it all anyways.

So how do you do this ‘experience thing’?

Block time, make it a priority

First of all, as for everything, you need to decide to actually do it and commit to it. Block time, protect that time. Define a measurable goal or success criteria. For us it was to commit to going outside or doing at least one fun and engaging activity every single weekend.

You need to defend that time since you will of course have errands to do every weekend that will distract you from your goal. Do it! The renewed energy you will gain from your experiences will let you blast through your other responsibilities much more effectively once you’re back.

You will also often need to kick your own behind because all you really want to do is to actually crash on the coach. Get yourself going. Get over the hump. You will feel much better afterwards. And if not, you can still get your beer and chips and decide that I suggested a really stupid idea to you.

On a side note, Uli and I don’t watch TV at all anymore – it’s too much of a time and energy sucker. The only exception is the occasional movie night with the kids, which quite frankly is much more about the experience than the actual movie when you watch Frozen for the 20th time.

Keep your curiosity

The big stuff is awesome. We love going to National Parks and spending our vacations camping in nature.

Don’t waste your time waiting for your next vacation though. There is so much to explore right here, every day. Keep your eyes open and be curious like a child. If you have a hard time doing that, watch your children, they will teach you. Rediscover your inner child and its playful curiosity and wonder for the world.

Invest in experiences

Rather than buying lots of stuff, that will soon end up at your next garage sale, spend your resources on experiences.

Instead of buying that beautiful little thing, go to your state park website and book a campsite for next weekend. Instead of renting that movie, get gas for your car, grab your loved ones and drive into the mountains. And instead of buying your kids that new toy, get them a swim suit and go to the lake.

Our biggest investment this year will probably be a new camping trailer since our old one starts to fall apart. Rather than a new TV or car or whatever status symbol we could show off to friends and coworkers, this will bring us out with our kids for irreplaceable bonding time and fun. You don’t need a trailer though, a tent or picnic basket will do just fine. The point is, focus on getting stuff that make you create experiences.

Which brings me back to closing the loop with my intro.

Leave a legacy for your kids

What really made us double down on experiences are our kids. They are still young and sometimes even listen to mommy and daddy. Sometimes.

So we still have direct influence on their lives and views of the world. That won’t last much longer though. Friends will take over as influencers. They will become more and independent and soon take off into their own lives. They will have their own families and kids and will carry forward what they picked up from us.

So what can we leave?

Teachings and rules? Unlikely to stick.

Stuff? Maybe. They will be ‘thrilled’ to have to get rid of all of the old ‘junk’ that we will leave them.

Memories? For sure. And I think experiences and shared memories will shape their lives more than any smart advice we can give them. After all teaching by example is still the most effective method of teaching (it might well be the only one that actually works).

Invest your time, energy and resources in building experiences. Through that, create strong bonds and memories with your loved ones. And have a TON of fun along the way!

Reflections on Achieving Your Goals: Minimalism – Simplify Your Life

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I guess this is one of the basic principles in my life so far. Be it my choices in sports: Karate, Tai Chi, other Martial Arts or in arts: Ikebana, Sumi Painting, Photography or woodworking.

Yes, Minimalism or Simplifying your life is a modern trend, but looking back it has been part of my life all the time.

Sports and Minimalism

Following a totally random choice of starting Karate (Shotokan) at the University Sports Club at Ludwig- Maximilian University (LMU) in Munich, Germany, while pursuing some extracurricular education in Sports Medicine, I not only found my passion for Martial Arts, but for the simpler things in life. The less embellishments, the more straight forward your move is, the more powerful it will be. No extras added. If you take a closer look at the Karate you see in competitions or movies, you might think those fancy jumps or moves look cool. But in the end, the guy who studies his opponent, finds the opening and delivers the final blow, is the one who will be successful. No fancy, good-looking cinematic stuff required.

Trying to remember the name of one movie, I think it was “The Seven Samurai” (Akirao Kurosawa), where there is one Samurai being attacked by a group of Ninja’s. He is calmly waiting inside a house and suddenly starts moving. Every single stroke of his sword hit’s the intended target.

I remember one of the first books I read in connection to Martial Arts was Jon Hyam’s “Zen in the Martial Arts” (“Der Weg der leeren Hand” in German). I have re-read it several times since then. Empty your bowl, if you want to learn new things. His stories still inspire me and help me reflect.

The same fits for Tai Chi. Flowing movements, but also straight forward and no extras. Focus on breathing and meditation more than the movements themselves. Meditation in motion does not really need fancy forms, but being present in that moment and not thinking of other things. Those thoughts are not important right at this moment. Put them on a shelf and unpack them if needed afterwards when you are ready to focus on a new task.

I did Yoga for a couple of years and it feels as if it is the same. Moving from one pose to the next offers you the time to focus and reflect. Be it reflection on your current physical condition or the things which concern you right now. And whichever Yoga teaching you are following, it often is the reduction of movements which brings your life back into focus. I was lucky enough to find an amazing teacher right here in our backyards and am truly sorry that I am not continuing with this right now. Maybe I will get back to it when the time is right.

Any of the martial arts I tried so far have that major commonality (Gemeinsamkeit (D)), be it Aikido, SMR (Shinto Muso Ryu) or Kobudo. No embellishments, focus on the one practise, focus on the moment.

Art and Minimalism

Ikebana (Japanese Flower arrangement) teaches you the art to embrace spaces. To not only see the flowers, but emphasize their beauty by reducing it to the basic components. Sometimes the empty spaces are the most important ones. The hardest part at the beginning of my  learning voyage was to be brave enough to cut off petals or leafs or even branches. Sometimes you feel so sorry and afraid to do it, just to realize that after you did it, it enhanced the beauty of your arrangement. It still is sometimes hard.

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If you know Sumi-e or Sumi Painting, you also realize the focus on the simplification. Ink is your medium and even if you add some color here or there, it still is the reduction of strokes, which shows the essence of the painting.

If you look at the best pictures of well-known photographers, they most often focus on one thing. I am thinking of those pictures on National Geographic, where you see the one polar bear trotting over ice, the one wave crashing on top of you or the one little bright-colored frog in the rainforest. I know someone who makes awesome Macro Photos, just depicting a raindrop on an insect or a leaf on the ground. Focus on the reduction of visual deterrents and reduce the stress in which we are surrounded every day.

Even though I’ll never be (nor want to be) Mary Kondo, the author of “The Art of Tidying up”, I still strive to simplify and reduce. I need space surrounding me. Clutter at home or in my surrounding really drains my energy. No, I am anything but perfect in this realm, but I am definitely working on it. Two major learnings here: everything has its space, and one thing in, at least one thing out!

And never forget to breathe!

Spiritual Balance – Week 43: Go Outside Into Nature

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Find some time to get out into nature!

Science has shown that getting out into nature on a regular basis boosts your health, and mental wellbeing. Make it a point to spend time in nature on a regular basis.

Get out into nature. The less manicured, the better. Pay attention to what you see, to the smells and sounds. Breathe! Live!

Walk your dog, hike, bike or play with your kids outside. Tend to your garden or backyard, get your hands dirty with soil. Whatever gets you going, do it. If you can’t get yourself to walking regularly, buy a dog.

Make it walking time in nature though, not the concrete deserts of the city. Human beings are animals at their cores. We need nature, we need the green and we need to see some natural messiness. Parks are ok, but the more natural ‘wilderness’ you can find, the better.

Find trees, mosses, green, dirt. Go out in nature and explore the small and big wonders.

There seems to be a fancy new term and movement for everything these days. Naturally there is also a fancy japanese way of walking in the woods. It’s called Shinrin-yoku (森林浴) and really only means to walk in the forest, be mindful of what you encounter and watch your breath. I leave it to you to decide is you need a Shinrin-yoku instructor or just some sturdy boots. Personally I opt for the latter, but I’m also a simple person.

Go low-key (dog walking) or fancy (Shinrin-yoku, forest bathing), whatever meets your needs, but do it!

 


Did you like this article? Want to read more?

I will keep posting articles here and I have them lined up way into summer 2020. However if you want to get it all in one comprehensive, structured, and grammar-checked (!) view, check out our new book:

 

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps

By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk

ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: Paperback, Kindle

 

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Spiritual Balance – Week 40: Simplify and Declutter

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We already talked about focusing on your priorities, cleaning up your calendar and inbox and decluttering your workspace. Let’s now take a broader stab at simplification and decluttering.

Simplify and declutter. Do it quick and radically, it will develop inertia. Don’t limit decluttering to your physical space, do it everywhere. Don’t fill up the empty space with new stuff.

Simplification helps you be you more relaxed, in the moment and happier because you are distracted by fewer things. There’s less stuff to maintain or to worry about. Further, clean space allows your mind wander freely and come up with new ideas, while stuff distracts and captures it (often with all the things you still have to do, like dusting those vases…).

Simplify and declutter radically

Simplification and decluttering (i.e. the art of getting rid of things you don’t really need) gains momentum as you are doing it. It has a strong inertia in either direction.

It’s pretty hard to get started. Off the top of your head, you seem to need all the things you have – why else would you have bought them in the first place?

However, push through it. Once you identified a few things that you don’t need anymore, or never truly enjoyed having in the frist place, things will get easier. As you get rid of things, you will feel a relief and that will propel you to get rid of more things that you don’t really need or want anymore.

Be willing to cut deep and cut fast. Putting one thing away a week will not give you that momentum and positive feedback. Instead take a weekend afternoon and make it a goal to fill a whole moving box (or two if you are an ambitious person). Don’t fret over decisions, if you don’t want to fight for an object, you are probably ready to let go.

Cut your losses

There’s a rule in investing that applies here as well:

“Don’t throw good money after bad money.”

What that means is that you should not add additional money to a sub par investment only because you hope that it will get better in the future. While that stock that went down for a year is really cheap now, chances are that the trend will continue and you will lose a lot of money.

Likewise, if you have bought something in the past that seems like a less stellar idea today, don’t get stuck in that ‘investment’. It might have been a good idea back then, but if it is not anymore, then say goodbye. Don’t throw ‘good money’ (your time, energy and mental capacity) after ‘bad money’ (something you don’t care about anymore).

If you have separation anxiety, don’t throw things away or donate them right away. Put them in a box. Once you didn’t touch that box for three months, bring it to a local charity for donation.

It’s ok to have bought something that doesn’t fit your life anymore. Cut your losses.

One area at a time

Attack one area of simplification at a time. Don’t let yourself get distracted as you hop from area to area.

If you want to declutter your living room, don’t get distracted as you bring stuff out through the garage. Pick one area or room at a time and tune out everything else. As always: focusing wins the day!

Decluttering and simplification is not only about stuff. The space you live in has a big part, but clutter and complexity is everywhere. Address all those spaces:

  • Spaces – your home and living spaces, your yard, your office and work spaces, you storage (how much of that stuff do you really need),…
  • Obligations – emails, calendar, volunteering, promises to ‘friends’, events,…
  • Digital – websites, news, games, (phone) apps,…
  • Relationships – friends that don’t lift you up, connections that drag you down, negative people, ‘friends’ on social networks,…

Don’t fill up the empty space

Of course, once you have decluttered an area, don’t fill up the empty space with new stuff. Keep the emptiness and enjoy it.

A clean empty space is not an invitation to bring in lots of new stuff (new clutter).

Cherish it, protect it, feel really bad for anything that contaminates it. Regard anything that move into that space as an intruder who needs to fight for its right to be there.

 


Did you like this article? Want to read more?

I will keep posting articles here and I have them lined up way into summer 2020. However if you want to get it all in one comprehensive, structured, and grammar-checked (!) view, check out our new book:

 

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps

By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk

ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: Paperback, Kindle

 

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Be More Effective – Week 31: Bringing it All Together: Make a Plan to Calm the Monkey Mind

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In Zen our usual behavior is often referred to as the ‘monkey mind’. Our mind is constantly busy, jumping from one thing to another, never fully focusing on following through on any single priority. There is always another banana on the tree that grabs our attention.

Calm you monkey mind. Reduce distractions. Make a plan and go for it.

Our goal is to calm the monkey mind. To remove distractions from our workplace, relationships and life in general.

Our goal is to understand what’s important today, the next week, this year and in our life. We need to assess, prioritize and plan.

Our goals is to make time for those priorities and focus on them, without being distracted by the banana on the other tree.

Our goal is to empty your ‘to do list chasing mind’ and free it to concentrate on the work at hand.

This week is really about consciously bringing together all the pieces we discussed so far. Step back for a moment. Reflect on the things you practiced the last 30 weeks and make a plan on how you will bring them together.

Make a plan. Write it down. Commit to it.

Clear your mind, make a plan ahead. Stop your mind from wandering and worrying. However, also know that you won’t fully stick to it and don’t get frustrated if you don’t.

 


Did you like this article? Want to read more?

I will keep posting articles here and I have them lined up way into summer 2020. However if you want to get it all in one comprehensive, structured, and grammar-checked (!) view, check out our new book:

 

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps

By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk

ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: Paperback, Kindle

 

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Be More Effective – Week 23: Bring a Little Zen into Your Life

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Clean up your workspace

Let’s look at your workspace (office desk, kitchen counter, tool shed). How much stuff is lying around and cluttering your workspace, and your mind as a result?

If you want to be able to focus on your work and come up with creative ideas, you need to remove distractions. Create white spaces.

Create empty spaces. Reduce distractions.

Clean up your workspace. Find a place for everything and preferrable pick a spot that you cannot see. The only things that should be on your workspace are the project that you are working on right now and the tools that you are using right now.

Everything else needs to go and find a place somewhere else. Likewise, everything needs to have its place. And it needs to be there and only there, unless it’s in your hands.

If everything has its place and can always be found there, you will also not need to make a mad dash through your house to find it when you actually need it (think: your keys). I believe the creative chaos is a myth. I trust the empty and creative Zen space instead.

“Order is contagious.”
Willpower, Roy Baumeister, John Tierney

If your workspace is not clean and quiet, your mind won’t be either.

Create your retreat space in which your brain can calm down and your mind can focus.

Create empty space in time

Don’t stop at cleaning and emptying your workspace. Also create free space in time. Free up time on your calendar, for which you plan to do nothing.

No, that’s not the same as not having a concrete plan an instead running random errands. Plan out a time where you do nothing. Create space for your mind and observe what will happen.

It might be scary at first but try it out. Soon it will feel liberating. Give yourself the gift of time without expectations and without things you have to do or achieve.

Give yourself the gift of a little Zen. With emptiness comes focus. With focus come results and inspiration.

Empty spaces ignite your creativity – both empty spaces in space as well as in time (do nothing times).

Be More Effective – Week 22: Inbox ZERO, Regain Control of Your Inbox

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Almost everyone I talk to is struggling with email overload. Interesting enough that is regardless of whether they receive 10 emails a day or 100. In my different roles, I have typically received about 100 emails a day, not counting discussion groups, newsletters, advertising or spam (which all get filtered out automatically before they reach my inbox).

I always make it a point to have my inbox down to 1-2 screens at the end of the day and to Zero on Friday by the time I leave the office.

‘Inbox zero’ is my golden rule for the weekend. And while it sounds like a tough challenge, it’s actually very achievable. Decades of working at Microsoft and Amazon, with email as the primary tool of communication, have taught me how to do this.

Bad news first

As you follow the tech news, every couple of months you will hear about a groundbreaking new tool / technology that will finally “kill email” and make communications so “much more effective”.

I hate to break it to you, but that’s not going to happen. The amount of information that is shared is the problem, not the tool. When you jump on a new tool, you will find some relief for a while because no one else is there yet. Of course you get less spam and more focused communications, if only you and your best buddy are on that new cool thing. Once the tool has enough audience to be actually usable, the volume of conversations will feel unmanageable again. A couple examples throughout IT history are email, SMS, IM, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, Yammer, Slack,…

The only things that truly work are your process and discipline.

Keep it simple (but keep to it)!

The good news is that this information problem can be solved. All it requires is a plan and a little discipline.

Keep it simple and stick to it.
Finish easy stuff right away, mark things that take more time and block that time on your calendar.
Delete everything that isn’t immediate relevant. Move it to one archive folder if you have separation anxiety.
Don’t sort messages you want to keep into many folders – search is your friend.

For me simplicity is key. If a process is not simple, I will likely not stick to it over a longer period of time. That’s why I stopped using categories and lots of folders for to-dos and elaborate filing. In most times, it would not be clear where something belongs and I would have trouble finding it again later.

All I need is my inbox (contains everything I still have to take care of), a follow-up flag (marks things that need a little more time) and a single archive folder (to get rid of anything that is done or not relevant right now).

You don’t need more than one folder to keep things that are already done. Search is awesome. Trust it! (Or get a better email system if your search doesn’t work.)

Rule 1: When you touch it, triage it

When you touch an email, triage it (or even better resolve it). Don’t ever go to the same email twice to decide what to do with it. Make that decision right there on the spot.

Every email that you receive typically falls into one of 4 categories:

  • 20% – Can be answered or delegated in less than a minute.
  • 10% – Needs more time to follow-up.
  • 40% – You shouldn’t have received this in the first place.
  • 30% – Is informational but you might just as well live a happy life without that information.

Rule 2: Delete everything that you don’t really care about

This includes old newsletters that you signed up for in a previous life, the org updates that don’t even remotely relate to what you’re doing, the email that you got CCed on without anyone knowing why, or even the follow-up that someone else in your team is taking care of (delegation is king!).

Get those out of your inbox right away!

Tip: If you are anxious about deleting emails that you might want to get back to later, just move them to your (single) archive folder. I am one of those anxious folks and I use that workaround. I still wait for the day when I get back to any of those emails. But hey, storage is cheap and unlimited email is the norm these days (I have a free 50GB mailbox and, as much as I try, can’t get it fuller than 15%).

Rule 3: Answer quick things while you look at them

There is no value in not answering an easy email right away. You have just spent some time reading it. Do you want to spend that time again?

If it’s less than a minute, answer right away. And then move that email out of your inbox into your archive folder (or delete it – depending on how adventurous you feel).

Rule 4: Block time for responses that need a deeper follow-up

Some emails require more thinking, a longer write-up, some research, or just some emotional distance because you are so enraged.

Flag them for follow-up and stop reading (you will have forgotten the details by the time you actually follow-up). Move on to the next unread email that needs to get triaged.

Remember to block time on your calendar for when you will go through all flagged emails (and only those!) and get them done.

Rule 5: If you think you will read it within the week, then keep it (for now)

The last category is the most controversial.

There are some emails that seem to be interesting enough to read in a spare moment but just not important enough or too long to read right now. (I’m guilty of sending my wife a lot of these – my official apologies for that.)

Sometimes those spare moments will come and you will discover interesting new things. Oftentimes you won’t find a spare moment and those emails will pile up (the ones that don’t have a flag and are marked as read but still linger around in your inbox).

Here’s my bonus rule: If I didn’t have time to read them by Friday then they have to go forever. It’s a liberating feeling to bulk-move all of them into your archive folder Friday evening.

Don’t put those emails in a special folder, you will never get back to it anyway.

Approaching bliss

After this triage exercise your inbox will have shrunk dramatically. You have answered everything that was quick or urgent. You will have marked things that need more time and will know exactly what needs and what doesn’t need attention.

Everything is read and the only unread stuff are new emails that are coming in and will be triaged in your next triage session (not now!).

I try to never let that remaining list grow more than 1 or max 2 screens long. If it gets longer, delete some of the FYI emails and/or block more time for follow-ups.

For Fridays your goal should be to have zero emails in your inbox. Then just turn off your emails over the weekend and spend quality time with your family instead. Create a rule to have them moved to a separate folder so that they don’t show up in your phone’s inbox.

This will feel really good! Stick to it for a while and get motivated by the sense of control that you will gain.

Please make a deliberate difference between ‘triage’ and ‘follow-up’ mode. I make it a point to triage all of my emails first thing in the morning. So when I start my day of meetings, I have already minimized the number of surprises waiting for me. And I can feel confident not checking email throughout the day, unless I have spare time for it.

Some weeks are harder

Some weeks are harder. There are more emails coming in. You have more other things going on. You just aren’t that effective.

I simply adjust my system for that, by significantly raising the bar for emails that I keep in my inbox for ‘later reading’. If you send me something as FYI during a extra-busy week – tough luck for you (and my heartfelt apologies).

Even in crazy weeks, I hold true to my rules of (1) no more than 2 screens of emails in my inbox and (2) inbox zero on Friday afternoon.

It’s worth it

Inbox zero is a blessing! Treat yourself to it.

Get rid of the guilt, the lingering thoughts about your email, the anxiety that you might have missed something (or even worse the revelation that you actually did miss something important).

I have an empty inbox every Friday evening and it makes for an awesome start into the weekend!

Addendum: How intentional use of technology can support this system

Here’s a little tip how technology can help you stay focused on triaging versus answering. And it also helps with not re-reading the same email again and again

Triaging: use your mobile phone

Mobile phones are great for this. Use spare minutes to triage new emails on your phone. Make a triage decision after the first paragraph (reading on a small screen is a pain anyway) or provide a short (!) answer if possible.

Hold yourself back from reading long emails that you won’t answer on the spot. You can even set your email client to only show ‘unread’ emails so you won’t be tempted to re-read emails that you had already touched.

Answering: use your desktop/laptop

Respond to more complex emails when you have time at your desk (with a nice keyboard).

Don’t triage, focus only on those emails that you have marked for follow-up. Get the list down towards zero as much as possible during that time.

Intentional separation

Separating triage time from answering time will make you more effective with both. And since my proposed systems is technology-wise super simple (all it needs is the ability to flag), it will work and transfer across any email system and client.

Chose the best technology for the task to force you into the right habits!