Friday, January 31, 2014

Golden Goals: Trent of The Simple Dollar: Baby boy is his inspiration

1) What would you consider your greatest achievement in the last few years? Feel free to add other achievements or goals if you’d like.

Less than one year ago, I had five figures worth of credit card debt, a large outstanding loan on my primary vehicle, and I barely had enough money to cover the minimum payments on both. I had nothing at all in savings, either.

So what’s the accomplishment? Without increasing my income at all, I currently have zero credit card debt, I own that vehicle free and clear, and I have several thousand dollars in the bank.

Some people might not view that as a great achievement, but it did lead into the creation of The Simple Dollar, which I launched in November 2006 and currently reaches 7,500 visitors a day. It describes what I learned during this process of turning my financial life around, and the success of it is now aiding me to begin saving for some bigger life goals.

2) What was the key to achieving that success for you? Was there one thing, or were there a number of factors?

The key moment was the birth of my first child, a son, in November 2005. Before he was born, I was reasonably organized in terms of time management, but the management of a lot of other aspects of my life were a complete train wreck.

I remember distinctly one night, when he was about four months old and I realized that my financial situation was a complete nightmare. I was literally wondering whether I could come up with the money to pay for our housing that month. He was very fussy that evening, so I sat in his bedroom with him, held him in my arms, and rocked with him for several hours. He finally fell asleep on my chest and as I sat there in the darkness and felt him breathing against my chest, realizing how utterly helpless he was and how much he depended on me, I broke down completely. I put him in his crib, sat there in his room in the dark, and hit bottom.

I realized I needed to turn things around with my life, and if I didn’t do it now, I would lose everything that had value in my life.

In other words, the key to achieving this success, for me, was finding inspiration, and it was in the form of a baby.

3) What are the essential habits that you’ve formed to help you achieve your goals?

I could go on about that for hours (this is a big part of what The Simple Dollar is about). Here are the first two things that come to mind:

One, I avoid situations where I would spend money. I used to go to book stores and browse and usually leave with a book or two in hand. I would do similar things in electronic stores and so on. By simply avoiding these temptations as much as possible, I find it much easier to not waste money on such things – or time.

Two, I review my finances weekly, and do a major financial review monthly. This involves several things, such as checking the balance of every account in my name. Each month, I calculate my net worth (sum of all assets minus sum of all debts) and I strive to ensure that it goes up as much as I can possibly make it go up from month to month.

4) How often do you think about your goals, review them, and take action on them?

I have different regular cycles for the goals, but the key word is regular. For me, evaluating goals and determining further action is something I have to do on a daily/weekly/monthly basis without fail in order to keep moving forward. Whenever I slack off on it, I find myself slipping into bad habits and laziness.

5) Describe how you overcome failure, how you pick yourself back up if you are struggling, and how you motivate yourself if your enthusiasm is lagging.

Honestly, I play with my son. It’s really hard to feel too much like a failure when you walk into the house and a toddler who has just learned how to walk yells “Daaa!” and comes running towards you as fast as his legs can carry you. He often makes me feel like I’m the champion of the world by doing little things like building giant towers out of blocks in the living room so that he can knock them over.

Again and again, he reaffirms that I am not a failure in life. I realize parenting isn’t for everyone, but this little child has turned my life around and made me far more productive and positive than I’ve ever been before.

6) Could you describe your productivity system and any productivity tips you have for people?

My general productivity system is a lot like a simple GTD. I just write anything I have to do on a piece of paper as soon as I think of it and toss it in my “in” box if I’m busy. Then I process my “in” box regularly. Projects are on their own sheet of paper (or collected sheets with paperclips) where the top one is just a list of the tasks for the project. I also have a filing system for long-term storage. Instead of using the figurative “43 folders” of GTD, I just write due dates of things that are upcoming in the upper right and leave them in the inbox until the date comes. That’s it – that’s all I do to keep things going.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Three Secrets to Happiness

We all know that money can’t buy happiness … but many times we act as if we’d be happier with a bit more money. We are conditioned to want to be rich (when we know the rich aren’t happy either); we are trained to want the latest gadget or style that television tells us to want; we want to earn more money because then we’ll have the good life.

But none of that will bring us happiness. No matter how much we earn, no matter how much we have in the bank, no matter how nice our clothing or cars or toys, none of it will make us happier. And the sad thing is that it could take us decades of pursuing wealth and luxury items before we realize this.

So what will bring us happiness? Luckily, it’s three things that don’t cost a thing. These three things have been proven by research — surveys of hundreds of thousands of people about what they have, what their lives are like, and how happy they are.

Here they are, the Three Secrets to Happiness:

Good relationships. We have a human need to be close, to be intimate, with other human beings. Having good, supportive friendships, a strong marriage or close and loving relationships with our family members will make us much more likely to be happy. Action steps: Take time, today, to spend time with your loved ones, to tell them what they mean to you, to listen to them, and develop your relationship with them.
Positive thinking. I’m obviously a big proponent of positive thinking as the best way to achieve your goals, but it turns out that it can lead to happiness too. Optimism and self-esteem are some of the best indicators of people who lead happy lives. Happy people feel empowered, in control of their lives, and have a positive outlook on life. Action steps: Make positive thinking a habit. In fact, this should be one of the first habits you develop. Get into the habit of squashing all negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones. Instead of “I can’t” think “I can”. It may sound corny, but it has worked for me, every time.
Flow. This is a popular concept on the Internet these days — the state we enter when we are completely focused on the work or task before us. We are so immersed in our task that we lose track of time. Having work and leisure that gets you in this state of flow will almost undoubtedly lead to happiness. People find greatest enjoyment not when they’re passively mindless, but when they’re absorbed in a mindful challenge. Action steps: Find work that you’re passionate about. Seriously — this is an extremely important step. Find hobbies that you’re passionate about. Turn off the TV — this is the opposite of flow — and get outside and do something that truly engages you.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Art of Doing Nothing

Sure, we all know how to do nothing. We all know how to lay around and waste time. But many of us are too busy to do it much, and when we do it, our minds are often on other things. We cannot relax and enjoy the nothingness.

Doing nothing can be a waste of time, or it can be an art form. Here’s how to become a master, and in the process, improve your life, melt away the stress and make yourself more productive when you actually do work.

Start small
Doing nothing, in the true sense of the word, can be overwhelming if you attempt to do too much nothing at once. Do small nothings at first. Focus on 5-10 minutes at a time, and start your practice sessions in a safe place — at home, not at work or in a busy public place. You may also not be ready to do nothing in the middle of nature, so do it in your bedroom or living room. Find a time and place where there are not many distractions, not much noise, not a lot of people to bother you.

Shut off all distractions — TV, computer, cell phones, regular phones, Blackberries, and the like. Doing nothing is hard when our communications gadgets are calling at us to do something.

Now, close your eyes, and do nothing. Yes, the smart-asses out there will say you’re doing something — you’re sitting there or laying there, closing your eyes. But we mean doing nothing in the sense that if someone were to call us up and ask what we’re doing, we say “Oh, nothing.” Don’t let them call you up, though. They are trying to distract you.

After 5-10 minutes of doing, nothing, you can quit, and go do something. But try to do this every day, or as much as possible, because it is not possible to become a master without practice.

The first place to start in the quest for mastery over this art is in your breathing. If this sounds suspiciously like meditation, well, cast those suspicions out of your mind. We are not here to do suspicion — we are doing nothing.

Start first by breathing slowly in, and then slowly out. Now closely monitor your breath as it enters your body, through your nose, and goes down into your lungs, and fills your lungs. Now feel it as it goes out of your body, through your mouth, and feel the satisfying emptying of your lungs.

Do this for 5-10 minutes, if you can. Practice this as you can. When you start thinking about other things, such as how great that darn Zen Habits blog is, well, stop that! Don’t beat yourself up about it, but bring your thoughts back to your breathing every time.

An important part of doing nothing is being able to completely relax. If we are tense, then the doing of the nothing is really for naught. Relaxing starts by finding a comfortable place to do your nothing — a soft chair, a plush couch, a well-made, clean bed. Once you’ve found this spot, lie in it, and wiggle around to make it fit your body better. Think of how a cat lies down, and makes itself comfortable. Cats are very, very good at doing nothing. You may never approach their level of mastery, but they make for great inspiration.

Next, try the breathing technique. If you are not completely relaxed by now (and a short nap would be a great indication of relaxation), then try self massage. Yes, massage is much better when administered by other hands, but self massage is great too. Start with your shoulders and neck. Work your way up to your head and even your face. Also do your back, and legs and arms. Avoid any areas that might lead to doing something (although that can be relaxing too).

Yet another great way of relaxing is an exercise where you tense each muscle in your body, one body part at a time, and then let the tensed muscle relax. Start with your feet, then your legs, and work your way up to your eyebrows. If you can do the top of your head, you may be too advanced for this article.

Once you are relaxed, see if you can relax even more. Try not to relax so much that you lose control of your bodily fluids.

Bathing – an advanced stage
Those who are in the beginning stages of the Art of Doing Nothing should not attempt this stage. But once you’ve become proficient at the above steps, the stage of the Bath can be pretty great.

The bath must be nice and hot. Not lukewarm, but hot. Bubbles are also required, even if you are a man who is too manly for this. Just don’t tell any of your guy friends. Other bath accessories, such as a loofah sponge, or bath gels, or potpourri, are very optional.

Again, you must have all distractions shut off. Bathing is also best done if you are alone in the house, but if not, everyone else in the house must know that you CANNOT be disturbed, even if the house is burning down. If they break this sacred rule, you must turn upon them with the Wrath of Hell(tm).

Step into your bath, one foot at a time, very slowly. If your bath is properly hot, it is best if you get into it an inch at a time. For more sensitive body parts, such as the crotchal area, it is best to squeeze your eyes shut tight and slowly lower yourself into the steaming water despite all instincts to flee. Once you are fully immersed (and you should go completely under, head included, at first), close your eyes, and feel the heat penetrating your body.

You may begin to sweat. This is a good thing. Allow the sweat to flow. You may need a glass of water as the sweat could dehydrate you. A good book is another great way to enjoy your bath. Allow your muscles to be penetrated by the heat, to be relaxed completely, and feel all your worries and stresses and aches and inner turmoil flow out of your body into the water.

A hot bath is even more awesome if followed by a bracing cold shower. Either way, get out of the bath once the water is no longer warm and your skin is very raisin-like.

Tasting and feeling
Doing nothing is also great when accompanied by very good beverages or food. Good tea or coffee, wine, hot cocoa, and other sensual beverages go very well with the Art. It’s best to take these beverages by themselves, with no food, and without a book or other distractions. Focus on the liquid as you sip it slowly, savoring every bit of the flavor and texture and temperature in your mouth before swallowing, and feeling the swallow completely. Close your eyes as you do this. Truly enjoy this drink.

Foods are also great: berries, rich desserts, freshly made bread, the best … soup … ever, or whatever it is that you love. Be sure you eat it slowly, savoring every bite. Chew slowly, and close your eyes as you enjoy the food. Feel the texture in your mouth. It is bliss!

Doing nothing in nature
Once you’ve passed the above stages, it is time to practice this gentle art out in nature. Find a peaceful place — in your front yard if that’s peaceful, a park, the woods, at the beach, a river, a lake — places with water are excellent. Places out of reach of the sounds of traffic and city life are best.

Out here in nature, you can practice the art for 20 minutes, an hour, or even longer. There are fewer distractions, and you can really shut yourself off from the stresses of life. Don’t just let your mind wander everywhere — focus on the natural surroundings around you. Look closely at the plants, at the water, at the wildlife. Truly appreciate the majesty of nature, the miracle of life.

Incorporating the Art in daily life
This is the final stage of mastering this Art. Don’t attempt it until you’ve practiced and become competent at the above stages.

Start by doing nothing while you are waiting in line, at the doctor’s office, on a bus, or for a plane. Wait, without reading a newspaper or magazine, without talking on the phone, without checking your email, without writing out your to-do list, without doing any work, without worrying about what you need to do later. Wait, and do nothing. Concentrate on your breathing, or try one of the relaxation techniques above. Concentrate on those around you — watch them, try to understand them, listen to their conversations.

Next, try doing nothing when you drive. Yes, you must drive, but try to do nothing else. Don’t listen to music or news or an audiotape. Don’t multi-task. Don’t talk on your cell phone, don’t eat, and don’t do your makeup. Just drive. Concentrate on your driving, look at the things you are passing, and feel your breathing. Relax yourself, and don’t worry about the other drivers (but don’t crash into them!). Drive slowly, going easy on the gas and brake pedals. This technique has a great side-effect: better gas mileage.

Last, try doing nothing in the middle of chaos, in your workplace or other stressful environment. Just shut everything out, close your eyes, and think about your breathing. Try a relaxation technique. Do this for 5-10 minutes at a time, building up to 20-30 minutes. If you can do this, in the middle of a stressful day at work or with the kids, you will allow yourself to focus more fully on the task at hand. You will be relaxed and ready to concentrate, to bring yourself into a state of flow. (Warning: Doing nothing could get you in trouble with your boss, so be careful! But if it makes you more productive, you boss might not mind.)

Finally, the Art of Doing Nothing cannot be mastered overnight. It will take hours and hours of practice, of hard work (doing nothing isn’t easy!). But you will enjoy every minute of it! Try it today.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Golden Goals series: David Seah on clarity, creativity and productivity

This is the second article in the Golden Goals series of interviews with notable bloggers about their goals, habits and productivity systems.

I’m excited about the next blogger in this Golden Goals series because 1) he writes thoughtfully and insightfully on productivity and achieving goals and 2) I use one of his excellent productivity tools every day (the Emergent Task Planner). David Seah of is a freelance designer who writes about things that empower and inspire people, covering topics such as design, development, becoming productive, and the business of being a freelancer. He’s best known in the online productivity world for his Printable CEO series.

1) What would you consider your greatest achievement in the last few years? Feel free to add other achievements or goals if you’d like.

Personally, it’s been finding that I could overcome my own inertia, fear, and perfectionism to create a web presence that is a pretty authentic representation of myself. From that, good things have followed.

2) What was the key to achieving that success for you? Was there one thing, or were there a number of factors?
One of the greatest boosts was getting into the 9rules Network, which was huge to me because of what they represent: quality content. It was the first time in a long time that I’d been recognized for something I’d done that was of immense value to me, not someone else’s bottom line.
I feel I’m on a path now toward success, but I’m not sure exactly what it’s going to be. A commitment to following where this path leads, I think, is a key factor at work here.

3) What are the essential habits that you’ve formed to help you achieve your goals?
I automatically try to get to the essence of my goals so I can establish clarity in my direction before taking action. At times, this may actually mean taking action before I fully understand what I’m doing. Maintaining this dynamic balance between thoughtful planning and immediate action, I think, is helping me keep a stable perspective of what it is I’m doing.
I write a lot every day, because it clarifies my thinking and my reasoning, distilling a course of action into a few focused sentences. This creates continuity in my day, and a historical record for the next day.

4) How often do you think about your goals, review them, and take action on them?
I think about them often, though I could be more disciplined in reviewing them. The trouble is probably more like sticking to just a few goals at a time; this is something I’m working on. I’m also particularly bad at doing maintenance-type chores, unless it has something to do with keeping my computer running, so this is an area that I could certainly improve.

5) Describe how you overcome failure, how you pick yourself back up if you are struggling, and how you motivate yourself if your enthusiasm is lagging.
I’ve recently identified that I have two creative processes, one impulsive, the other methodical. The former energizes me, the latter drains me. When it comes to engineering-type goals, however, the equation is reversed: I find methodical development energizing, and impulsive implementation to be a source of frustration. By keeping aware of what mode I’m in, I can identify the frustration and shift into a different mindset.
I also like to figure ways around obstacles, so it’s pretty rare that I feel absolutely stymied. I will lose enthusiasm, though, if I’m not working directly with someone invested in the work I’m doing. I am energized by positive-minded, conscientious, kind, self-empowered people; I find that being in a community of people like this helps inoculate myself from that horrible feeling of failure.

It’s not always easy, but what keeps me going is a belief that I can do anything I set my mind to. I’m not saying that I’ll do it WELL or even correctly, but there’s very little stopping me from making a move in a direction I want to explore except my own attitudes. This applies to
everyone. I consider it a great victory when anyone tries to do something at all … bravo! Even if it doesn’t come out in the right way, there is always something to learn.

6) Could you describe your productivity system and any productivity tips you have for people?
I don’t really have a productivity system; it’s more that I have pieces of systems that I apply when the need is there. The various forms I’ve created target a specific kind of behavior that I have sought to optimize for improved focus, but they are not strung together into a system. I see the seeds of this in my current development, but it’s not in place now. I would probably say that my fundamental tip is to strive for concreteness and clarity in all activities, to make sure that you see tangible benefit as the only acceptable result from a given action. What a good productivity system does is provide a good accounting methodology so you can measure
your progress, and provide the methodological scaffolding for whatever creative processes you are engaged in.
I have, however, created a number of useful forms that could be integrated as a component of one’s personal productivity system. I think the most generally useful form I’ve made from a productivity perspective has been the Concrete Goals Tracker, because it does a good job of really focusing you on benefit-bringing activity … if you’ve taken the time to really pick
good goals. This form is particularly good if you’re defining yourself or your business. I like how it brings focus without overloading you with accounting.

The next most useful forms are probably the Task Progress Tracker [original and Destruct-o-matic versions], the Emergent Task Timer, and the Emergent Task Planner. The TPT is a top-down project tool to help you define and track what specific things need doing. The ETT, on the other hand, allows you to see what you’ve ended up doing without stricter planning. Each form applies to a certain situation or kind of work personality, I think. The ETP, finally, is more of a daily planning worksheet for more general use.

The concepts introduced by these tools and others, combined with the other various insights I’ve had, probably do form the basis of a “system” of productivity, and I look forward to putting this together over the next year.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Golden Goals series: Secrets to the success of J.D. Roth (of Get Rich Slowly)

This is the first article in the Golden Goals series of interviews with notable bloggers about their goals, habits and productivity systems.

The first in the Golden Goals lineup is J.D. Roth of Get Rich Slowly, which is probably the most successful personal finance blog around. But it’s not just his success that brought me to invite J.D. to be a part of this series. He’s most definitely a notable blogger, but I’ve admired J.D. ever since I discovered his blog for his common sense approach, his sincere writing style, and his philosophy that building wealth is not something that should happen overnight. He’s the opposite of the Get Rich Quick marketers — he builds wealth like he’s built his blog — one gold brick at a time.

1) What would you consider your greatest achievement in the last few years? Feel free to add other achievements or goals if you’d like.

My greatest achievement has been finding a purpose. For years I plodded through life with no real objective. I was going through the motions. I hated my job. I felt like I had failed, had left the promise of my youth unfulfilled.

When I was young, I wanted to be a writer. But like most early goals, I was more attracted to the idea than to the actual practice. I didn’t actually know what it meant to be a writer. For a decade after I graduated from college, I didn’t write anything. In the late 90s I began to keep a web journal. In 2001, this became a blog. With time this blog became an outlet for my writing urge.

Last year I realized that blogging could be a legitimate use of my writing skills. It also became apparent that I might be able to make money at it. So here I am today, writing for money. It’s not at all like what I expected it would be, but in a way it’s better. I write every day. I do research. I’m helping people. I have a purpose.

2) What was the key to achieving that success for you? Was there one thing, or were there a number of factors?

I think there were several factors that allowed me to achieve success.

For one, I’ve always maintained a ready mind. I am curious about things. I’m open to new experiences. This has allowed me to see opportunities that I might otherwise have missed.

Second, when I understood what it was I intended to do, I applied myself with diligence. Previously I’d always been something of a slacker. But when I had a goal, a purpose, I threw myself at it with passion. I worked hard.

Finally, I’ve tried to approach my goals with a balance of personal vision and the wisdom of others. I read and listen to what others have to say about the subject, but I temper their viewpoints with my own opinions. There are a lot of people out there who will tell you that this is the way to run a web site or this is the way personal finance should be approached. I don’t believe there is one right way. I take bits of advice from others and put them to work for me, but I forge my own path when I feel it is warranted.

3) What are the essential habits that you’ve formed to help you achieve your goals?

Hard work! Seriously.

I recently purchased an old book (from the 1920s, I think) entitled “Touchstones of Success”. It features interviews with successful men of the day. Nearly all of them cite the same two factors: their mothers and hard work. My mother had little to do with my current success. But hard work has had everything to do with it.

I write nearly every day, often for several hours. I read constantly. I’m always absorbing information from books, magazines, and web sites. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. I recognize that by devoting myself so wholly to my goals now that I am sacrificing other momentary pleasures. I tell myself that I enjoyed these pleasures over the past ten years, back when I had no purpose. Sure I had fun in the moment, but I felt unfulfilled. I feel fulfilled now. And maybe after a few years of hard work I can relax, and reap the rewards over the rest of my life.

4) How often do you think about your goals, review them, and take action on them?

Not often enough. Perhaps once every three to six months.

What usually happens is this: some crisis will cause me to re-evaluate my current situation and where I’m headed. I’ll spend a day or two thinking about my goals. I’ll set them down on paper (or a text file, actually). This process is pretty intense, and I’m very focused on it. But once I’ve set my goals down, I rarely refer to them again unless I stumble upon them in doing some sort of clean up. I feel like this is one area of my life that could be improved.

5) Describe how you overcome failure, how you pick yourself back up if you are struggling, and how you motivate yourself if your enthusiasm is lagging.

I used to let failure get me down, but more and more I’m learning to roll with it, to learn from my mistakes. For example, I recently was asked to give a radio interview about the country’s negative savings rate. I agreed to do so. But when the station phoned me and I went on the air, I froze. I had stage fright. I couldn’t remember even the most basic facts. I talked and talked and talked, but I didn’t say anything. It was an embarrassment. I could have let this get me down — I did feel a little bummed — but instead I decided to view it as a learning experience. I e-mailed the show’s host, and she offered some tips for how to improve next time. (I’m also planning to take a Dale Carnegie public speaking course once I have enough web income saved.)

When my enthusiasm is lagging, I take time off to recharge. I get up and turn off the computer. It’s easy for me to get wrapped up in my work, to become so focused that I neglect other aspects of my life, particularly physical fitness. When this happens, it can be like I’m beating my head against a wall. I’m working extra hard, but getting little done. At times like this, I’ve learned to stop, to take a break, to ignore all of the things that I “have to do”. For example, a few weeks ago I had several important pieces I needed to get written. Things just weren’t coming together. I’d written for hours, but felt like it was all rubbish. It came time to attend a friend’s birthday party, but I told my wife I couldn’t. I had to stay home and write. She persuaded me to go, and I’m glad I did. We spent three hours roller skating. It was exhilarating. I’m serious. Those three
hours roller skating did more to improve the quality of my writing for the next week than anything else I might have done.

6) Could you describe your productivity system and any productivity tips you have for people?

The key to my system is: JUST DO IT.

I have a bad habit of putting things off. I’ve learned that if I want to get things done, I just need to do them. For example, I’ve adopted an e-mail system that is based on a hybrid of those suggested by Merlin Mann and Gina Trapani. When e-mail comes in, I try to act upon it immediately. (In practice, my e-mail box actually has about 100 messages in it, waiting to be processed.) I find that by taking care of e-mail now, people respect my responsiveness.

Another key is to prioritize things. I am actually attempting to actively maintain six separate blogs. I love each of them, but I have to make certain sites higher priorities than others. It used to be that my personal site was my top priority. Now Get Rich Slowly has taken that position. It’s more important for me to generate new content for GRS than it is for me to, say, post an entry at my animal intelligence site.

As for the mechanics of my system: they’re pretty rudimentary. I’m actually looking for a better way to work. Currently I use BBEdit on a Mac. A wide screen is essential to my work, so I bought a 17″ laptop. I keep a browser window on the left side of the screen and a BBEdit window on the right side. Whenever I find something that’s worthy of writing about, I create a new document. I have hundreds of documents on my hard drive, most of which are half-completed
articles about personal finance, animal intelligence, or vintage popular culture. I keep a couple of important text files as constant reference:

Schedule file – This lists the next week’s worth of planned entries at Get Rich Slowly. It also lists when I most recently updated each of my other sites, along with any upcoming scheduled entries for them.
Idea file – As I mentioned, most of the time if something seems like a good article topic, I start a new text file. But I also have a separate text file that I use simply as a dumping place for ideas that occur to me.

I’ve found that I profit greatly from reading, watching, and hearing other success stories. I know this probably seems trite, but I don’t care. It works. Reading sites like 43 Folders and Lifehacker and Mutual Improvement keep me focused on the positive. (I’m hoping that Get Rich Slowly helps people do that with their money goals.) I have an iPod. I have a subscription at Every month I get two books. One of these is usually fiction of some sort, but the other is some sort of self-improvement book. I’m careful to seek out highly-regarded books — there are few things worse than a bad self-help book — and then I listen to these on my commute. They are amazing.

If anyone’s curious about possible books to read from this genre, I recommend Tom Butler-Bowdon’s “50 Success Classics”, which provides brief summaries of fifty such titles. This book itself is highly motivational. And one can build a great success library from its recommendations. (Complete list here: 50 Success Classics.)

Friday, January 24, 2014

Best All-Time Children’s Books

Reading to your kids is one of the all-time best things you can do with them, and for them. I love reading to my kids, and they love reading with me. It is some of the best quality time ever, and sharing a good book with a child is just a wonderful feeling.

I’ve compiled a list of my all-time favorite children’s books — a list that can start any child’s library. It’s a starting point, to be sure — I’m sure you can think of many more to be included. But these are books I truly love (and my kids do too) and I think most kids and parents will love them. These are mostly time-tested classics, so there might not be too many surprises here, but sometimes it’s useful to be reminded of books we’ve forgotten about.

For Younger Readers

Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Harold Crockett. One of my most, most favorite books for younger kids. Great imagination, great character. I still wish I could be Harold.
Go, Dog. Go!, by P.D. Eastman. Often the book that has taught my kids to read. Warning: they might ask you to read this an infinite amount of times. But that’s a good thing for them.
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault. The thing I love about this book is its rhythm. It’s so fun to read. Also teaches about the alphabet.
Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. I can never get enough of this book. It is truly awesome. Great drawings, great imagination. If I had to choose just 10 books on this list, this would be one of them.
Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown. Kids just love this book. Perfect for toddlers.
Corduroy, by Don Freeman. One of my favorite books as a little kid. This lovable teddy bear will always have a special place in my heart.
Guess How Much I Love You, by Sam Mcbratney. I love you all the way to the moon and back! Fun to read this with your kids, and then later compete to see how much you love each other.
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Joffe Numeroff. This was a favorite for my kids. I love the drawings.
The Complete Adventures of Curious George, by H.A. Rey. He’s now an international icon, but Curious George has always been one of the most lovable characters in literature.
In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak. This is Sendak at his best. He has such a wonderful drawing style, and can tell stories with the best of them.
Horton Hatches the Egg, by Dr. Seuss. Speaking of the best of them, Dr. Seuss is it. He’s a legend, of course, and everything he wrote is amazing, so it’s really impossible to choose, but I love this Horton book, as well as the next two by Seuss. This book is characteristic of Seuss’s early days.
There’s a Wocket in My Pocket!, by Dr. Seuss. A great tongue-twister book, this is the epitome of much of his silly, fun stuff.
The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss. His most socially conscious book. Although many of his books have a message, this is the most overt. It talks about the dangers of industrialism and environmental damange, in such an easily understood manner that any kid could get it.
The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein. If Seuss is the best, Silverstein is right behind him. If I had to list just 10 books here, this book would be one of them. Such a sweet, sad, true book, with great drawings of course.
The Five Chinese Brothers, by Claire Hutchett Bishop. I read this as a little kid, and forgot about it until rediscovering it with my kids in recent years. It’s a classic, and will be loved by any kid.
Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein. Classic Silverstein, this book and the next are full of incredible poems and drawings that will delight any reader, young or old.
A Light in the Attic, by Shel Silverstein. More from perhaps the greatest children’s poet of all time.
The Missing Piece, by by Shel Silverstein. OK, I should stop with the Silverstein, but I really cannot get enough of him. There’s actually a series of books along the lines of the Missing Piece, all of them with interesting life lessons, and wittily drawn. Read them all.
The Story of Babar, by Jean De Brunhoff. Another classic, this was a staple of my childhood, and just as good today as 30 years ago.
For Middle Readers

James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl. I don’t know how he does it, but Dahl has a way of telling stories that is just magical. He creates such real and deep characters, little kids who you cannot help but love and empathize with. This and the next two books are among his greatest, but one should not rule out BFG, his poetry or any of his other stories.
Matilda, by Roald Dahl. Perhaps my favorite Dahl book. While reading this book, you want to have Matilda as a friend, and during the time you are with her, she is your friend.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl. A classic, of course, and yet another poor kid who inevitably enters your heart.
The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Originally published in French, this classic is so unique, I cannot really describe it. If you haven’t read it to your child, please do.
Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White. Warning: this book will make you and your child cry. But it is worth the sadness for the wonderfulness you will discover.
The Borrowers, by Mary Norton. What a fun and adventurous book. Every kid will love this.
Stuart Little, by E.B. White. This is an admirable little character that will delight all children.
Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. Written in the hard-boiled detective style, this is just a lot of fun.
Encyclopedia Brown Solves Them All (Encyclopedia Brown), by Donald J. Sobol. This is actually a series of books about Leroy Brown, a brilliant kid who solves neighborhood crimes. I could not get enough of this as a kid, and my son loves it too.
Magic Tree House Series, by Mary Pope Osborne. A very long series (over 30 last time I counted) of fun, adventurous and educational books. It covers stuff kids love, like dinosaurs and ninjas and knights and wizards, and makes history come alive. My son is in love with this series.
Junie B. Jones series, by Barbara Park. Another great series, this one appeals more to girls who are beginning to read.
The Ramona series, by Beverly Cleary. Yet another series, this one appeals to both boys and girls. I loved it as a kid.
How to Eat Fried Worms, by Thomas Rockwell. Now on the big screen, this book has portrayed elementary school life accurately for several generations of kids.
Freckle Juice, by Judy Blume. This author, Judy Blume, has such an insight into the young mind that any child, young or old, will identify with her characters. This book, and the next, are just two samples from her lovely collection — any Judy Blume book will be excellent.
Superfudge, by Judy Blume. Your kid will crack up at this book, and have a lot of fun with the characters.
The Great Brain, by John D. Fitzgerald. One of my all-time favorite series as a kid. I recommended it to my son, who loves to read but thought this would be boring. He fell in love with it. Told you so!
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L Konigsburg. A timeless novel, the characters in this book come alive for a great adventure.
The Book of Three (The Chronicles of Prydain), by Lloyd Alexander. This is actually a series of books, all of which are so perfect you don’t want them to end. This tale about a pig-keeper’s assistant has been entertaining young readers for generations, and is a must-read.
Westmark Trilogy, by Lloyd Alexander. Another series by a true master, this is for slightly older kids than the last series, but just as amazing.
For Older Readers

The Chronicles of Narnia Box Set, by C.S. Lewis. What can I say about this series that not everyone knows? Nothing really, except that every new generation falls in love with it as if it were the first time. And for them, it is. Be sure your child is among them.
Eragon (Inheritance, Book 1), by Christopher Paolini. One of the more recent books on the list, this was an instant classic. Though it’s about dragons, it will appeal to both boys and girls.
Harry Potter Paperback Box Set (Books 1-6), by J.K. Rowling. This series has been super-hyped in the media … and in my opinion, it lives up to the hype. I got into the series a little late, but read every book to my daughter and am now going through it for a second time with my son. These are the type of books that will hook children on reading.
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkein. How I love this book, and always have. I loved it before I was able to get into the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and though the trilogy surpasses the original Hobbit, this little book has a special place in my heart. It will in your child’s heart as well.
Watership Down, by Richard Adams. This book so enchanted me when I first read it, in middle school, that I read it several times during my teen-age years after that, and even once or twice in adulthood. It leads you through such an adventure, such an emotional journey, and from the perspective of a few rabbits!
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. This is required reading for most middle school students, and rightfully so. As a teen-ager, reading about an island controlled by kids was just too cool.
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. This is a gripping story with great characters. You can’t go wrong with this one.
The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. This book hits the teen-ager reader with a pop! between the eyes. A main character that swears! And we’re encouraged to read it. Salinger creates a character that is true, and timeless, and captures the experience and sensibilities of youth extremely well. I will always love him for this book.
Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Trilogy, by Ann Brashares. I haven’t actually read this book, but my daughter did, and loved it. It got her reading again, after a brief hiatus, and for that, I have to recommend the book. Plus I liked the movie.
The Giver, by Lois Lowry. A kind of chilling book, but engaging nonetheless.
Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson. Classic story being rediscovered by a new generation because of the recent movie, this story about two fifth graders who create a secret kingdom in the woods called Terabithia will stir your heart.
A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle. This warm, loving book has been cherished by so many. Follow the Murry family in its adventures in all the books of this series.
Inkheart, by Cornelia Caroline Funke. This writer has such a great imagination, and this ode to books and book lovers will be highly enjoyed by your child. Also read the Thief Lord.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

How to Get Back on the Exercise Train

It’s a story most of us have lived through at some time or other: we begin an exercise program, and it’s going well, but after a week or two or a month or two or even a year or two, we fall off the program. Then we might get a little down about that, and because of the initial friction of entering any program, it’s hard to get back into it.

I recently fell off my triathlon training for a couple weeks due to illness and a death in the family, and I found it hard to get back into it. I reset my resolve (just press the reset button!) and re-focused myself, leaving off all other goals but my training for the month of March (see the Zen Habits March Challenge if you haven’t yet).

So, for those of you who’ve fallen off your exercise program, and want to get back in, here are my tips:

Re-focus and commit yourself again. Often we think that, because we already were on a program, we can just pick it back up, no problem. But in reality, we need to condition ourselves for a new habit (although it should be easier this time since we’ve done it before), so we need to start (almost) at the beginning. That mean starting with making a commitment. Write down your goal and tell people about it, put it on your blog, post it up at your home and workplace. If you can’t take this step, it’s likely that you will falter.
Focus on just this one goal. If you’ve got other stuff going on, it’s hard to add a new habit while working on others. It’s hard, but it’s best to be patient and work on one goal at a time if possible. Too many goals at once spread your focus too thin. The key is to focus yourself as much as possible on that one goal, and maintain that focus for as long as possible.
Do it for one month. You don’t need to start at the beginning of a month — you can start today. But do it for 30 days. Commit to that, and once you’re past that, it will get much easier.
Do it at the same time every day. If you tell yourself that you will exercise when you find time, there will be many days when you don’t find the time. Set a time of day when you can exercise every day — in the morning, lunchtime, after work are the three best times. Do it at that time every day, and it will become a stronger habit.
Start small. We have a tendency to do too much at first, especially if we’re used to a certain level from our old exercise program. But in the beginning, it’s best to hold back, and just do a little, and then progress slowly back to your old level. If you’re used to running 5 miles, run 3. If you’re used to swimming for an hour, do half an hour. If you’re used to lifting 12 reps of 200 lbs., do 8 reps of 160 lbs. You get the idea. Start slowly, or you will have a harder time sticking with it. Once you’re back in the habit, you can increase your workload.
Learn from your mistakes. There’s a reason you stopped your exercise program. Figure out what that was, and plan to beat it next time. If not, it will happen again.
Celebrate every little success, in the beginning. The first few days are the most crucial. Reward yourself often during this time, and celebrate everything you do! The first week is the next most important period. After that, it gets easier. But after about 2-3 weeks, you’ll face a crisis. Re-focus yourself during that crisis, and you’ll get through it. After a month, you’ll be golden.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Pretend You’re Who You Want to Be

To be happy, it is important that we become happy with who we are — accept ourselves, recognize our good traits, accept our flaws, and come to see those flaws as actually good and unique parts of us.

But if you’re like me, there’s always something we want to change — and in keeping with the philosophy of this site, for me that’s changing my daily habits to help me reach my goals. The problem is, many people just don’t believe they are the type of person who can achieve that goal — they have a negative self-image, and that negativity will stop them from success every time. Positive thinking is the key to any kind of achievement.

So today’s quick happiness tip is simple: think about the goal you want to achieve, imagine the kind of person who has already achieved that goal or created that habit, and pretend you are that person.

Let’s take a quick example: If I want to start running, to make running a daily habit, I think about runners I know or have read about. I read about their habits, their lifestyle, and imagine what it’s like to be them. Then, I pretend I’m a runner myself. I think about what it’s like to be a runner, how a runner would act, how a runner thinks and feels, what a runner’s habits are.

I take the identity of a runner, and make it my own. Soon, I believe I’m a runner. And here’s the magic: it becomes true! Just by pretending it, and assuming that identity, I become a runner. I think and act like one. And if I’m a runner, what do I do every day? I run.

This magical trick can work for any goal, and for any person. Imagine that you are that person, and you will be.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

10 Habits to Develop for Financial Stability and Success

Just like any goal, getting your finances stable and becoming financially successful requires the development of good financial habits. I’ve been researching this topic extensively in the last few years in my quest to eliminate debt, increase my savings and increase financial security for my family. I’ll talk more about these habits individually, but wanted to list them in a summary (I know, but I’m a compulsive list-maker).

Here they are, in no particular order:

Make savings automagical. This should be your top priority, especially if you don’t have a solid emergency fund yet. Make it the first bill you pay each payday, by having a set amount automatically transferred from your checking account to your savings (try an online savings account). Don’t even think about this transaction — just make sure it happens, each and every payday.
Control your impulse spending. The biggest problem for many of us. Impulse spending, on eating out and shopping and online purchases, is a big drain on our finances, the biggest budget breaker for many, and a sure way to be in dire financial straits. See Monitor Your Impulse Spending for more tips.
Evaluate your expenses, and live frugally. If you’ve never tracked your expenses, try the One Month Challenge. Then evaluate how you’re spending your money, and see what you can cut out or reduce. Decide if each expense is absolutely necessary, then eliminate the unnecessary. See How I Save Money for more. Also read 30 ways to save $1 a day.
Invest in your future. If you’re young, you probably don’t think about retirement much. But it’s important. Even if you think you can always plan for retirement later, do it now. The growth of your investments over time will be amazing if you start in your 20s. Start by increasing your 401(k) to the maximum of your company’s match, if that’s available to you. After that, the best bet is probably a Roth IRA. Do a little research, but whatever you do, start now!
Keep your family secure. The first step is to save for an emergency fund, so that if anything happens, you’ve got the money. If you have a spouse and/or dependents, you should definitely get life insurance and make a will — as soon as possible! Also research other insurance, such as homeowner’s or renter’s insurance.
Eliminate and avoid debt. If you’ve got credit cards, personal loans, or other such debt, you need to start a debt elimination plan. List out your debts and arrange them in order from smallest balance at the top to largest at the bottom. Then focus on the debt at the top, putting as much as you can into it, even if it’s just $40-50 extra (more would be better). When that amount is paid off, celebrate! Then take the total amount you were paying (say $70 minimum payment plus the $50 extra for a total of $120) and add that to the minimum payment of the next largest debt. Continue this process, with your extra amount snowballing as you go along, until you pay off all your debts. This could take several years, but it’s a very rewarding process, and very necessary.
Use the envelope system. This is a simple system to keep track of how much money you have for spending. Let’s say you set aside three amounts in your budget each payday — one for gas, one for groceries, one for eating out. Withdraw those amounts on payday, and put them in three separate envelopes. That way, you can easily track how much you have left for each of these expenses, and when you run out of money, you know it immediately. You don’t overspend in these categories. If you regularly run out too fast, you may need to rethink your budget.
Pay bills immediately, or automagically. One good habit is to pay bills as soon as they come in. Also, as much as possible, try to get your bills to be paid through automatic deduction. For those that can’t, use your bank’s online check system to make regular automatic payments. This way, all of your regular expenses in your budget are taken care of.
Read about personal finances. The more you educate yourself, the better your finances will be.
Look to grow your net worth. Do whatever you can to improve your net worth, either by reducing your debt, increasing your savings, or increasing your income, or all of the above. Look for new ways to make money, or to get paid more for what you do. Over the course of months, if you calculate your net worth each month, you’ll see it grow. And that feels great.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Cranking Widgets: Turn Your Work into Stress-free Productivity

One of the great revelations that David Allen makes in Getting Things Done is his analogy of cranking widgets. In a nutshell, he talks about those simple jobs where you come to work in the morning with a pile of widgets to crank, and you leave work with a pile of nicely cranked widgets. It’s a mindless job, but there’s not much stress, and it’s satisfying, and it’s simple. And you know if you’re being productive because you are really cranking those widgets.

For most of us, it’s not that simple. We’ve got a million emails, voicemails, phone calls, documents and visitors to deal with. That’s on top of a list of projects and to-dos that can drive anyone crazy. With all of that going on, we look at our list and see an item that says, “Redesign website” or “Research market trends”. Frankly, those are not widgets that can be cranked. They are intimidating projects that might sit on the to-do list while we go check out our favorite blog (Zen Habits, most likely!).

So what to do? Turn your work into a Cranking Widgets job.

Here’s how:

For every project that you have, select one next-action. You can make a whole list of next-actions if you want, but it’s most important to get one next-action. This is defined as the very next physical action that needs to be done to move your project forward. Let’s look at that carefully: very next means that it’s something that should be done first, instead of later, otherwise the project can’t move forward; if there are more than one of those, just choose one. Physical action means something you can do in the physical world: things like call, email, write, list, read, decide, talk to, brainstorm, buy. Things that can’t be done in one action are multiple actions, widgets that can’t be cranked.
Take a look at your to-do lists and make sure that all items are crankable widgets. Sometimes things on our to-do lists are actually multiple widgets combined into one item. Start garden, for example, might entail things like list tools needed, call mom for seedlings, go to store to buy tools, get watering can from shed, turn over dirt, etc. Redesign website might start with a next-action of surf web for inspiring examples of good design, or read article on design, or draw three design ideas, or brainstorm new website name.
List the widgets by the type of crank used. This is another way of saying that you should group by context. Group phone calls together. Group reading items together (in a folder). Group emails to be written together. Group websites to research together. That way, when you’re cranking out the phone calls, you have them all on one list, and can just crank, instead of searching for the widgets that need to be cranked.
Just crank. If you’ve truly broken your to-do list down to crankable widgets, there’s no more thinking involved, at least not at a higher level. All you gotta do is crank them. When you crank one, celebrate, and get going on the next. At the end of the day, you should have a nice stack of cranked widgets, and that’s pretty satisfying.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Discipline is an illusion; Motivate yourself instead

"I think discipline would be a good topic, as much of what you talk about requires a certain amount of it.

The Army was good for teaching me discipline, but I realized that in the end, it comes from within.

But still, like most things, it is a habit that one can work on over time.

Would love to hear your thoughts and experience on the subject.”

Let me start with the conclusion first: if you think you don’t have discipline, you don’t need it. What you need is to commit to your goal or habit and fully motivate yourself. Read on for more.

I think that most of us believe that discipline is something you either have or don’t have — some believe you are born with it, and some, like Kamal, believe it is something you can develop as a habit. But what exactly is it we’re talking about when we say the word “discipline”?

If I wake up early every morning to run, do I have discipline? Most people would say that I do. But, as someone who regularly wakes up early, and who runs frequently (not every day), I can testify that I for one do not have discipline. I am anything but disciplined, and never have been.

So how do I explain my ability to wake up early, and to run on a regular basis? Simple: I have adequate and varied motivation. I get up every morning, not out of discipline, but because I really want to — and have tricked myself into doing it. I get out the door and go for a run not because I’m super disciplined, but because I really want to.

Let’s take the example of someone in the military — the typical example of someone with discipline. Let’s say Sgt. Lamar is a tough Army man. He wakes up very early every day, goes through a strict morning routine, runs and does his pushups and situps, eats a moderate diet and keeps his clothes and living area spotless. He’s the epitome of discipline.

But I say he has motivation instead. Review the Top 20 Motivation Hacks for some of the reasons why:

Sgt. Lamar has signed up for the Army and all that that entails. He is a full-time military man, and everyone he knows is aware of this. He has fully committed himself to living a life of discipline, meaning he’s fully committed to all the habits of the Army: waking early, exercise, cleanliness, orderliness, etc. That’s the No. 2 of the Top 20 Hacks.
He’s in the middle of a mutually supportive competition. There is competition among his fellow officers about who has more discipline (wakes earlier, runs more, etc.) — Hack No. 3.
Sgt. Lamar has powerful reasons (Hack No. 8) to keep those habits going — to keep up his reputation in the Army, to promote his advancement in the organization, to set an example for those under him.
There are many more, but let me quickly point out others: there’s a system of accountability, public pressure, others above him who he must report to, rewards for sticking to the habits, the pleasure of accomplishing his goals and habits, workout buddies, visualization of his goals (even if he doesn’t realize it, Sgt. Lamar has a picture of what an Army man should be, and keeps that in his head each day). And then there’s positive thinking (Hack No. 1) — Sgt. Lamar doesn’t allow himself to think negatively, or to tell himself he can’t do it. He has no choice. If he does start thinking negative thoughts, he will soon be former Sgt. Lamar.
If you removed all of these motivations — the public pressure, the rewards, the positive thinking, the powerful reasons, the accountability, the full commitment, the mutually supportive competition — I believe that Sgt. Lamar would have no discipline.

Now, some people will think, “But Sgt. Lamar was disciplined even after he was in the Army. He’s still the most disciplined person I know, as a former military man.” That may be true (it’s not true in every case), but I would argue that he has maintained his habits from many of the same motivations — he is still committed, to everyone he knows, to being a disciplined former military man, and he has this public reputation to maintain. He probably also still finds pleasure in being an early riser, in exercising and staying fit, in looking clean and being orderly. I also argue that those who do not have those same motivations are those who are former military men who aren’t disciplined — and we all know just as many of this type as the former.

So how can you be “disciplined” about your habits? Get the right motivation (See the Top 20- Motivation Hacks for more). Here are a few tips:

Pick one habit, and fully commit to it. Don’t try to be “disciplined” for a whole lot of things at once. I’ve tried this (many times) and it always fails. I’m re-evaluating my goals for this year for that reason alone. Try one habit at a time, and really focus on it.
Come up with a plan for that habit. See how many of the Top 20 Motivation Hacks you can apply to this habit. Write down your goal, and set a measurable and achievable goal, with a deadline. Write down mini-goals along the way, with rewards for each. Write down a plan for monitoring your urges to quit the habit, and for how you will overcome those urges (write it down beforehand!).
Maintain your focus on that habit for as long as possible. Try not to get distracted from it by other things. Post up pictures, motivational quotes, your plan, a list of rewards, your list of reasons, etc. Send yourself email reminders. Get others to remind you of your focus. Blog about it. Whatever it takes.
Set up your environment so that you maintain your motivation for your habit over time. Look at the example of Sgt. Lamar above. His life is set up so that he can’t fail. Set you life up like that too, with motivation all around you, in many forms. Set it up so that that motivation continues for as long as possible, not just for a couple weeks or a month. Maintain that environment of motivation.
Celebrate your success!!! Woo hoo!!!!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

How to Teach Your Kids Good Habits

Every parent will commiserate with me, especially parents with a good number of kids (I have six): for awhile now I’ve been trying to teach my kids the habit of putting things back where they belong when they’re done with them. As you can imagine, it hasn’t exactly been a rousing success.

So I’ve been giving it some thought, and have hit on some new ideas. The main idea: turn it into a game.

I love creating charts, so I plan on making one that give points to each kid for putting stuff away. They get additional points for helping remind each other (I told them to help their siblings remember as an act of consideration). There will be treats for making a minimum number of points, so they can all win. This will be set up as a friendly challenge, not a cut-throat competition, where they can all help each other win. I don’t like to set up competitions for my kids where there are winners and losers, because the only lesson the losers learn is that they are losers. That’s not a lesson I’m teaching my kids.

Some tips on creating good habits with your kids:

Use the carrot, not the stick. I’ve tried punishment as a way of teaching them to remember things, and it not only doesn’t work, it’s no fun for anyone. Kids learn more about their faults than about the habits you’re trying to create. Use fun games or rewards instead, and plenty of praise. This is something I need to work more on.
Be their focus. I’ve written before about how maintaining focus on a goal is one of the main keys to sticking with it and actually accomplishing the goal. Well, kids have a hard time maintaining focus — you have to do it for them. Or better yet, teach them ways to keep that focus. You’ll have to remind them, post up visual reminders, and remind them some more.
Provide multiple means of motivation. I’ve written about my Top 20 Motivation Hacks, which work well for adults. They also work for kids. Provide not only one kind of motivation, but as many as you can. Rewards, praise, positive public pressure (tell not only the whole household about their goals but their grandparents and others), friendly competition, journals, charts and more can all be effective ways of creating motivation for your kids.
Try to be consistent for at least a month. After that it should get easier, but you’ll still need to provide motivation to keep it going. Consistency, in the beginning, is important in creating habits. There will be failures, sure, but learn from it and don’t drop the goal and then pick it up the next week. You need to maintain that focus consistently, so that they are constantly working on improving it (and having fun while doing so!).
Remember that kids aren’t perfect. They will make mistakes. They will fail. Do not put a tremendous amount of pressure on them to succeed. Gently help them along. Encourage them, but don’t criticize them. And remember that it could actually take months or even years before they learn some habits. Remember that you didn’t learn good habits overnight (and may still be trying to do so yourself). Don’t expect them to be better than you.
Join them. It would be even more fun if you all did the game together, if you had a joint goal of learning good habits. If the parents are part of the game, the learning process, the fun, the kids can learn from the parent’s example of how to set a goal, how to maintain focus, how to motivate yourself, how to reward yourself for doing well, and how to feel great about any accomplishment, no matter how small.
Celebrate often! Kids need positive feedback. If they do something good, no matter how small, celebrate like they just landed on the moon! Have fun, and show them that achieving goals can be a great feeling. Go out for a fun dinner, go to the park or beach, really reward them, especially in the beginning.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Trying to eat healthier? Make lifestyle changes, and have a weekly cheat day

It can be a difficult thing to change our diets. I’m not a big fan of being on a “diet” in the first place, one that restricts you to bland food and makes you feel like you’re suffering. These diets are doomed to failure, as they might work in the short term but we will always, always fall off them. Trust me, I’ve tried and fallen off many: Atkins, South Beach, the Abs Diet, Slim Fast, Weight Watchers, and some you probably haven’t heard of.

As others have said before me, don’t go on a diet — go for a healthy lifestyle change instead. That means to make changes that you can sustain for the rest of your life.

Here are some simple lifestyle changes you can make and keep in your diet:

Substitute whole grains for refined carbs. Ditch white bread and eat whole grain bread (note that wheat bread and whole grain bread are different – the first uses enriched wheat flour, which is refined, and the second uses whole grain flour, which isn’t). Eat whole grain pasta instead of regular pasta. Eat brown rice instead of white. Whole grain bagels instead of regular. You get the idea. Whole grains are much healthier — more nutrients, slower to digest, more fiber. Refined carbs offer nearly no nutrition in exchange for lots of calories. And after a little while, you won’t want to go back — whole grains taste better and are more satisfying.
Eat more fruits and veggies. Yes, everyone will tell you this. But it’s an easy change to make — just stock up on them every week when you go shopping, and snack on them throughout the day. Have berries for breakfast. Snack on fruits at your desk in the office. Eat raw or steamed veggies with lunch and dinner. Fruits are a great after dinner snack. Fruits and veggies not only provide nutrients and fiber, but they fill you up without giving you too much calories and fat.
Eat leaner meats (or better yet, other forms of protein!). Switching beef for lean chicken or turkey is an easy switch to make. You might love red meat, but it’s killing you. There are very tasty dishes you can make using lean meat. And even better is soy protein, or nuts and whole grains, beans and other such forms of protein. All the nutrients with none of the saturated fat! If this is difficult for you, try doing it one day a week to start with.
Cut back on sweets. This is my most difficult challenge. I have not been completely successful on this, and this will be the topic of a future post, but I have made progress by cutting back on the pastries and candies and other sweet desserts — I usually just have a little now, and find healthier treats to enjoy instead.
Implement these changes one at a time, slowly and over a long period of time. Don’t start tomorrow by saying you’re going to drastically change your entire diet. You will have a difficult time, and suffer, and fail within a few weeks. When the change is very drastic and restrictive, it is too hard for most of us, and it’s just a matter of time before we fail.

A final tip: if you decide to cut back on sweets, or something similar, give yourself one cheat day a week. This will make it easier on you, and give you something to look forward to. It will also increase the likelihood of your success. Give yourself a break sometimes!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Spend time with family and loved ones

When was the last time you told your family and close personal friends that you loved them? Whatever your answer, do it today. Recently my grandfather was admitted to the hospital, just days after his 80th birthday, for heart problems. He’s had heart surgery in the past, and this time, just as in the past, he toughed it out. But any day could be his day, the day when it will be too late to tell him how much he’s meant to me over the years.

Don’t let that day come for your loved ones without telling them what they mean to you.

I know that for many of us, expressing those kinds of feelings isn’t easy. That’s true for me, but I’ve been trying to overcome those barriers. But even if that’s too difficult for you, I recommend that you just hang out with your family or treasured friends. Talk to them. Listen to them. Understand them.

Just spending a little time with someone shows that you care, shows that they are important enough that you’ve chosen — out of all the things to do on your busy schedule — to find the time for them. And if you go beyond that, and truly connect with them, through good conversation, that says even more. Many times its our actions, not just our words, that really speak what our hearts feel.

Taking the time to connect with those you love will bring you true happiness. The more you do it, the happier you’ll be.

Since I’m a notorious list-maker, and because many people are busy and might need help with this, here are some tips:

Have five minutes? Send an email. It doesn’t take long to send an email to someone you care about, asking them how they are, wishing them a good day. And that little gesture could go a long way, especially if you follow it up over time with regular emails.
Have 10 minutes? Call them up. A phone call is an easy way to connect with someone. It’s conversation, without the need for travel. What an invention! :)
Have 30 minutes? You might not get the chance to do this every day, but at least once a week, take 30 minutes to drop in on someone you love (call first, so you don’t catch them in their underwear) and just visit. It’ll be some of the best 30 minutes you’ll spend this week.
Have a couple hours? Have a good lunch or go somewhere with a loved one. Who among us doesn’t have a couple of free hours each month? Weekends, or evenings, there’s got to be a time that you spend in front of the TV or mindlessly surfing the internet. Take a chunk of that time, and devote it to a friend or family. (If you truly don’t have that time, see Edit Your Life, Part 1: Commitments.)
Really focus on them. Don’t just spend time with someone but think about your work, or your blog, or the errands you have to run. Pay attention to that person. Listen. Really be there, in that moment, with that person. Because that’s a moment you’ll never get back, so spend it wisely.
Have a blast. Tell jokes, crack each other up, do something fun and spontaneous. Really have a great time!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Monitor Your Impulse Spending Urges

Do you have a problem with impulse spending? If so, the first step to controlling it is monitoring your urges. Make it a goal to monitor and track your spending urges over the next week or two.

Keep a small notebook handy, and every time you get an urge to buy something, practical or not, put a little tally in the notebook. Tally every urge, whether it is to buy something online, or at a store, looking at a catalog, thinking about that new iPod while at your desk, or even if it’s multiple urges to buy the same item.

Whether you buy the item or not, just keep track of the urges. Many times the urges are subconscious. You won’t be able to control your spending if you’re not aware of it.

Some other tips, beyond this first step, for controlling impulse spending:

Avoid the mall or Walmart other shopping areas. Just going there practically guarantees you’ll buy something on impulse. Do something outdoors or at home instead.
If you have to go shopping, go with a list. And stick to the list. Tell yourself that anything not on the list is strictly verboten.
Keep a 30-day list. If you have an urge to buy something, make it a rule that you have to first write it on your 30-day list. If, at the end of those 30 days, you still want it, then you can buy it (if you have the money). Just the act of putting it on the list (awareness) and forcing yourself to wait (delay) can make a big difference.
Breathe. And drink water. This delay can help you get past your urge.
Find other things to do with your friends or family. Do you hang out with people who love to shop as a pastime? Encourage them to do something else. Go outside, to a park, to the beach. Have a potluck dinner at home. If your friends refuse to change, you may want to give some thought to who you hang out with, if you have different values.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Top 10 Productivity Hacks – #1

Quick intro: This is one in a series of Top Productivity Hacks – little tips and tricks that are designed to make you more productive. At the end of the series I’ll post them all together in an overview.

Productivity Hack #1: Do something you’re passionate about.

This might not seem like the normal productivity tip, but give it a thought: if you really want to do something, you’ll work like hell to get it done. You’ll work extra hard, you’ll put in even more hours, and you’re less likely to procrastinate. It’s for work that you don’t really care about that you procrastinate.

For some people, this tip might not seem too practical, especially if you’re in a humdrum job that you don’t really feel like doing. It’s for you that this tip was written: if you hate your job, or are just doing it for the money, I highly recommend that you give this some thought. If you must force yourself to do work every day, you can only do this for so long before burning out. You’ll probably quit eventually anyway, so give it some consideration now.

What do you really want to be doing right now? (Don’t say sleeping!) What do you love doing? What is your dream job, and how can you get it? Give this some thought, not just right now but for the next few days. If you can identify that job, your next step is to plan how to get it.

My suggestions:

Do some research. Who else is doing your dream job? What is their experience? How did they get the job? What are the requirements? Research it on the internet, ask people you know, make some calls. The more info you have, the better.
What are your obstacles? What do you need to do to get there? Do you need an education? Do you need to know the right people? Do you just need to fill out an application? Do you need to learn some skills?
Make a plan. Work out some solutions to your obstacles. If you need an education or skills, you will not be able to execute this plan overnight, but if you don’t plan it out now, you might never get there. Lay out the path to your success.
Take action. Don’t wait for opportunity to come hit you on the head. Go out and grab that opportunity. Execute your plan — do at least one thing today, and each day, until you get there. It might seem like it will take forever, but if you really put in the work, you’ll achieve your dreams someday.
Be persistent. Don’t give up because you’ve been rejected a few times (or even a lot of times). Keep knocking on doors. Keep making those calls. Keep submitting your resume. Keep making appointments. Don’t ever let up. The person who is relentless will win over the person who quits.
Land your dream job, doing something that you’re passionate about, and you may never need to motivate yourself to be productive again.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Top 10 Productivity Hacks – #2

Quick intro: This is one in a series of Top Productivity Hacks – little tips and tricks that are designed to make you more productive. At the end of the series I’ll post them all together in an overview.

Productivity Hack #2: Work off-line as much as possible

You’re doing it right now — the biggest distraction ever invented. The Internet can keep you occupied — and unproductive — for hours on end.

To increase your productivity, disconnect your Internet connection. Have scheduled times when you’re going to check your email, and only let yourself check your blogs or surf the web when you’ve gotten a certain amount done. When you do go online, do it on a timer. When the timer goes off, unplug again until the next scheduled time.

You’ll be amazed at how much work you’ll get done.

This is one of the best productivity tips I’ve ever used. Period.

Top 10 Productivity Hacks

#10: Take care of your Most Important Things first
# 9: Wake up early
# 8: Simplify information streams, crank through blogs & email
# 7: Declutter your workspace; work on one thing at a time
# 6: Get to work early; work fewer hours
# 5: Avoid meetings; when you must meet, make it effective
# 4: Avoid unnecessary work
# 3: Do the tough tasks first
# 2: Work off-line as much as possible
# 1: Do something you’re passionate about

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Review Your Goals Weekly

How often do you review your goals? Every year? If so, you may be ahead of most people. Even so, I recommend a more frequent review period that will seem like overkill for some people, but to me it’s the key to maintaining focus on your goals and actually making them a reality.The key habit to actualizing your goals: Review your goals at least once a week.

Let’s be honest: if you don’t think about your goals, you won’t make them happen. If you aren’t doing anything about your goals, they are just wishes. (If you haven’t set your goals yet, I highly recommend you do so.)

In order to actualize your goals, you need to take the following steps:

Set your goals (see Think About Your Life Goals).
Set action tasks for each goal.
Do the action tasks – one a day is ideal (see PurposeYour Day).
Motivate yourself to stay focused (see Top 20 Motivation Hacks).
Review your goals often (weekly is ideal).
Here’s the process I recommend:

Once a year (New Year is convenient, but really any time is good) you should review what you’ve done this year, and set your goals for the next 12 months. Yearly goals should be mini-goals of your life goals.
At the beginning (or end) of each month, review your progress for the past month, and set your goals for the coming month. Set easily achievable goals — it’s better to set your sights low (at least at first) and achieve them than to set them too high and fail. Monthly goals should be mini-goals of your overall yearly goals.
At a set time each week (Mondays work for me), review your progress for the last week, and set goals for the week. These goals should be mini-goals for your monthly goals. For each of these goals, list a few action steps. Then schedule the action steps throughout the week (one step per day is ideal).
Each day, when planning your day, make your goal action step for that day be one of your Most Important Things for that day. Do it first thing in the morning. Once you complete it, you have done something awesome for that day — you’ve taken a small step towards making your dreams come true!
The key is to review these goals and set action steps each week. If you only do it once a year, or even once a month, you won’t remember them on a daily basis.

If you fall off your weekly review, just re-focus yourself and start again the next week. Don’t let small slip-ups stop you from achieving your goals!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Are Your Days Crazy? Take Control

Some of us have such hectic, busy, crazy, chaotic days that we don’t have the time to even consider organization, goals, or routines. It’s when your days are so crazy that you need to take that time, and get your days under control.

It’s important, for your mental health, your sanity, and your productivity. You simply cannot be at your most effective if you are running around, putting out fires, and getting super stressed in the mean time. Taking the time to gain that control will make all the difference in the world.

Here’s how:

First, claim a block of time to gain control. Yes, it will take an hour or two. Yes, you can find that time. Schedule an appointment on your calendar. If you really, really can’t find the time in your work day, get up early, or do it right after work. You can find that time if you really try. Your sanity demands it.
Make a list. Do you already have all your tasks on a single to-do lists, or several next-action lists broken down by context? If so, you are ahead of the game. If not, this should be your first step. Gather all you papers into one inbox (including post-it notes, phone messages, etc.) and process them, listing the tasks you need to do on your list or lists (see Three Steps to a Permanently Clear Desk). However you do the list(s) is not important at this point. I recommend the GTD method (see Beginner’s Guide to GTD), but do whatever works for you. Making a list of your tasks is the first way to get them under control.
Plan your day. Not just today, but every day. You need some sort of regular schedule in order to get things under control. Schedule your regular tasks in blocks of time: email, calls, meetings, processing your inbox, planning time, writing, etc. Try to have at least 15-30 minutes at the beginning of each day when you plan your day out in these blocks of time. This little time for planning each day is a simple way to gain control. (See Purpose Your Day: Most Important Task)
Stop multi-tasking. This is probably the thing that makes your day the craziest. You can’t stay sane if you’re juggling a million things at a time. If you are doing this, you are not being productive either. Focus on one thing at a time (see How NOT to Multi-task).
Control Incoming Communications. Others won’t let you do this? You need to be assertive and claim control of your time. Let others know when they can call you, or how often they can expect to receive responses to your emails. Turn of IM and chat. Turn off your email notifications and only check it once an hour, or on some other regular schedule. Let calls go to voicemail. You simply cannot respond instantly to every cell phone call, every email, every page, every request at your desk. If you have to, put on headphones. Be clear and upfront with others about your availability and the times when you cannot be disturbed. People might not always be happy with it, but after awhile, they will begin to respect your time.
Review your day. Set aside a little time at the end of the day to review what you’ve done, check off your to-do lists, update the lists with new items, put stuff back where it belongs, clear off your desk, and plan for tomorrow. Leave feeling satisfied.
Set routines. These regular routines are the best way to feel in control of your life. I’ve been working on a morning routine and an evening routine at home, and it also helps to have a first-thing-in-the-morning work routine (including Step 3) and an end-of-the-day work routine (Step 6). Make them a habit, and your days will be must less stressful.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Top 10 Productivity Hacks – #3

Quick intro: This is one in a series of Top Productivity Hacks – little tips and tricks that are designed to make you more productive. At the end of the series I’ll post them all together in an overview.

Productivity Hack #3: Do the tough tasks first.

You know what those tasks are. What have you been putting off that you know you need to do? Sometimes when you put things off, they end up being things you don’t really need to do. But sometimes they are things you just gotta do. Those are your tough tasks.

Do them first thing in the day.

Been putting off that report? Start on it first thing in the morning. It will be a relief to get it over with.

If you’re not sure what those tasks are, it just takes a quick scan of your to-do lists: what’s been sitting there the longest? Is it something you really need to do? Do that task first thing.

Getting at least one of these tough tasks done first thing in the morning lifts a great load off your back and gives you a psychological boost to go forward in your day.

Only once you’ve done the hard stuff should you allow yourself to do the fun stuff (check your email or blogs!). Then take a breather and enjoy the bliss that follows a job well done.
Top 10 Productivity Hacks

#10: Take care of your Most Important Things first
# 9: Wake up early
# 8: Simplify information streams, crank through blogs & email
# 7: Declutter your workspace; work on one thing at a time
# 6: Get to work early; work fewer hours
# 5: Avoid meetings; when you must meet, make it effective
# 4: Avoid unnecessary work
# 3: Do the tough tasks first
# 2: Work off-line as much as possible
# 1: Do something you’re passionate about

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Get the Kids Outdoors

Every Tuesday is Finance & Family Day at Zen Habits.

Do your kids spend a lot of time in front of the TV or video game system? Are they on the internet a lot? If they are like most kids (in America at least), most of their free time is taken up by the TV or other electronic entertainment. In fact, after school, television is the second source of education for our kids. Parents come in third.

My kids are no different, but as a dad I try to limit this kind of passive entertainment. And when I can, I encourage them to read or go outside.

Every Sunday is Family Day for my family, and one of our favorite activities is playing soccer in our front yard as a family. We put on our sneakers, set up orange cones to function as goals, choose teams and start having fun. Sometimes we like to play kickball instead.

When I started running, I started getting the kids running with me. They also like to ride their bikes in the park while I run.

However you do it, get your kids outside. They need to reconnect with the world. They are shut inside the house, insulated from the outside world. They become lazy and in bad shape. It’s unhealthy.

Playing outside gets kids in better physical shape, healthier, and forces them to use their imaginations rather than the imagination of some Hollywood executive.

Here are some ideas for things to do outside:

fly kites
explore the woods
treasure hunt
go to a playground
go to a swimming pool, beach or lake
play pirates, or make a pretend fort
go jogging
ride bikes
wash the car
rake the yard
water balloon fight
squirt gun fight
play tag
obstacle course race
just go for a walk, and talk
walk to a store for a treat
There are thousands of other things to do. Coming up with ideas can be a game in itself.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Top 10 Productivity Hacks – #4

Quick intro: This is one in a series of Top Productivity Hacks – little tips and tricks that are designed to make you more productive. At the end of the series I’ll post them all together in an overview.

Productivity Hack #4: Avoid unnecessary work.

The key word here, of course, is “unnecessary”. How do you know if work is necessary or not? You must first know what your goals are — work that forwards you towards your goals (which should probably be in line with your organization’s goals) is necessary, essential. Trim everything that is not essential, or you will be wasting your time.

If we just do any work that comes our way, we can be cranking out the tasks, but not be productive at all. You’re only productive if you are doing work that moves you towards a goal.

Someone calls you and says they need something right away. Well, they might need it right away, but that might not be your problem. Is serving this person immediately part of your job description? It might be if this person is an important client, but if they are just a co-worker who is trying to make you do their work, then that’s unnecessary work for you. Cranking out that task is a waste of your time.

It’s good to do an inventory of your to-do lists every week or so … look at each task, and ask if it’s truly necessary, and what goal it is moving you towards. If it’s not necessary, see if it can be eliminated or passed on to the right person.

And this next step is just as important: as new tasks come in, say no to unnecessary tasks. Evaluate each request. If it’s not necessary, tell the person that you simply do not have time to do it. Tell them that you have high-priority projects that are due soon, and you regret not being able to help them. Refer them to someone else who might help. Be polite, but regretful. If it’s your boss, you might need to have a talk with your boss about priorities and goals. Be sure that you are both clear on what your work objectives are, and ask that extraneous tasks be assigned to someone else. Tell your boss that the extra tasks are getting in the way of your productivity.

If you do not take these steps and speak up, and say no, then you will be overloaded with work that you simply do not need to do. Cut out the non-essential tasks, and focus on those that really matter.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Health tip: Try eating vegetarian sometimes

The simple act of replacing meat with something healthier, like soy protein, can make a big difference to our health. Doing this on a regular basis, perhaps once a week or more, can add up to a lot in the long run. Meat is high in saturated fat and cholesterol, and it’s much better for your body if you can avoid it. I became a vegan last year, and I’ve never eaten healthier. You don’t need to become vegan (although I highly recommend it!) to eat healthier, but trying vegan or vegetarian dishes now and then can be a good and healthy experience.

I suggest trying out an easy-to-make vegetarian dish at first, something simple yet delicious. There are some good soy protein replacements out there, for ground beef, chicken, sausages and more. Like spaghetti? Try using the soy ground round instead of ground beef.

To get you started, I’ll give you one of my favorite, yet easiest to make, vegan recipes. This is my original recipe, so if you like it, you are obliged to close your eyes, and savor the deliciousness.

Zen Habits Three Bean Vegan Chili
1 package Yves Meatless Ground Round (or any vegan ground beef replacement) – optional
one 14.5-oz. can each: black beans, pinto beans, and kidney beans
one 14.5-oz. can corn
one 29-oz. can each: stewed tomatoes & tomato sauce
half a yellow onion, diced
half a green bell pepper, cored, seeded, and diced
2-4 cloves garlic, diced (depending on how much you like garlic)
black pepper, salt, chili powder to taste
olive oil

Dice up the veggies first, because the cooking will go fast. On medium high heat, heat up some olive oil, then saute the onions, then the garlic and bell pepper. Throw in the ground beef replacement (still frozen is fine), and let it brown. Add a liberal amount of chili powder and black pepper, and a bit of salt (I never measure, sorry).

Now dump in the beans and corn, one can at a time, stirring as you go along, making sure the bottom doesn’t stick and burn. Add more chili powder and black pepper. Spice it up nice! Throw in the stewed tomatoes, stir, and then dump in the tomato sauce. Done! Lower the heat and let it simmer for as long as you can resist. You can actually eat it right away (prep and cooking time: 10-15 minutes) or you can simmer it for 30 minutes, an hour or more. The longer it simmers, the better the flavors will all mix together. Taste it and spice it as needed. I like to add a lot of chili powder and black pepper. To crank up the heat, feel free to add your favorite red peppers early on in the cooking process.

Serve with brown rice, good bread, or blue corn chips.

This is a favorite at every party, whether people are vegetarian or not. They’re often amazed that it’s vegetarian. Enjoy!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Top 10 Productivity Hacks – #5

Quick intro: This is one in a series of Top Productivity Hacks – little tips and tricks that are designed to make you more productive. At the end of the series I’ll post them all together in an overview.

Productivity Hack #5: Avoid meetings. When you must meet, keep it short and effective.

I hate meetings. I think most people do, unless there are coffee and donuts in the meetings, and you really like coffee and donuts, but even then, the meeting itself is just something you have to put yourself through in order to get the good stuff. Point is, most of us hate meetings, and yet we have so darn many of them.

And if you really analyze most meetings, you’ll see that they are a huge waste of time. In the hour or more that you were sitting in that meeting, you could have gotten 10 times more accomplished if you were working alone. And so could each of the other meeting attendees, which means that the amount of lost productivity is huge.

Are there meetings you go to regularly that you can avoid? If you think the answer is no, think about it a little more: perhaps you’ve been told it’s mandatory, but it’s still possible that if you make a good enough sales pitch to your boss, you could get out of the meeting — show him/her how much more you could accomplish by not being there, and how you could send a simple email to accomplish the input you would have given in the meeting, at 1/10th the time.

I find it best to say no to meetings up front. I just say, “Sorry, I can’t make it. I’m tied up with a project right now.” And that’s always true. I’ve always got projects I’m working on that are more important than a meeting.

Now, you probably won’t be able to get out of most meetings, so here are some tips for making meetings more effective:

Every meeting should have an agenda. People should know, beforehand, what will be discussed, so they can be prepared.
The agenda should include the desired outcome. If it’s not on the agenda beforehand, it should be the first thing you bring up in the meeting, right when (or even just before) the meeting starts: what do you want to accomplish in the meeting?
Take notes of important points, especially next actions. Mark the next actions with arrows or asterisks or something, so you can see them at a glance later.
Review the next actions at the end of the meeting. Everyone should leave the meeting knowing what decisions were made, and what everyone needs to do next.
Harvest all next-actions to your to-do lists immediately after the meeting, so you don’t forget.
If you’re still stuck going to a completely useless meeting, take your read/review folder into the meeting. At least you can use that time productively by cranking through your stuff that you need to read or review. I also like to use this time to brainstorm for ideas or plan projects.
The best long-range strategy is to convince the higher-ups that most meetings are a waste of time, and that meetings that must take place should be short and effective. I know someone who installed a countertop, with no stools, as his office’s conference room. If people wanted to meet with him, they had to do so standing up. It made for fairly brief meetings.