“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

Godfather

I just revisited the movie, The Godfather, and this line shared by Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro coincides with a recent measure I’ve enforced on myself, making myself an offer I can’t refuse. I’ve given myself no choice. I must be present, I must show up, or I fail. More and more people are doing it every year, and it’s happening across the world: We are addressing our primal need for danger and challenge.

Surfing, skiing, mountain biking, mixed martial arts, powerlifting, Crossfitting, entrepreneurship. These require your full attention. Your diligence. And once there, you find yourself in the ecstasy of presence, of productive bliss, of conquering and understanding. Of truth.

And you don’t need to go skydiving to experience this. What I’m talking about is getting focused at your task, like when the coders were “wired in” in the movie The Social Network. It’s called the flow state, as coined by psychologist Csikszentmihalyi from the studies he’s done with people. It’s a primal state of clarity. It’s simply when you flow from decision to decision, without fear, without confusion. You are wired in. You are fully present, and experiencing life.

So one way I put myself on the line is simple, harmless, but highly effective: I set a timer for 15 minutes, or 20 minutes. For each task I have: writing, a work task, reading a chapter, cooking. I click the timer and I go. I am “on the clock.” I don’t have any other options once I click that timer. And it works. There’s no time to think. Your bike crests the hill and gravity grabs you, nature takes hold, and there is no turning back.

The flow state is where we aren’t thinking of any other task but the task at hand. Anxious, fearful, impatient, embarrassed? Then you’re not in flow. Flow means we’re focused, we’re present, and we’re totally invested. There’s no time to worry. You’ve isolated a slice of your life. I’ve given myself a 15 minute mini-life. You see ‘death’ coming up, the end, and there’s no time to procrastinate. No time to think, “maybe this won’t work, maybe this will suck”. You just need to push off down that hill, you need to grab that breaking wave, and go, go, go. There’ll be time to judge yourself after you act.

The cost of not getting into flow? No bliss. Marginal levels of happiness. Imagine crawling when you could be running. Imagine a potted plant on a window sill compared to flourishing in the full sun of a meadow.

Can we soak up all the experience in our life? Can we live it like it’s going to end?

Of course we can. It’s going to end anyway, right?

Because we’ve all been given an offer we can’t refuse: Death.

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Recess like a child

recess revolution 3

I started my run, and it was like any other day. But when I made my way around the school parking lot this time, I heard screams. I continued jogging down the driveway, the screams mixed with a screeching sound. I kept going, and as I rounded the corner of the building, I finally caught sight of a playground full of children. The swing sets were swinging. Kids were scattered in small groups, playing made up games, while others clambered over jungle gyms. They looked like they were having fun. More fun than me. Then I thought, what happened to my recess?

I want recess back

Who took our recess anyway? Was it the high school administrators who just don’t have enough hours in the day to spare us? Or was it the colleges who don’t need you to have recess? No, it was me. High school offers arts and music. College offers the opportunity to make your own schedule and club network. But, intent on being productive, after high school and college, I forgot that the movement and unstructured socializing of recess is what keeps a person loose.

I made my way around the playground and noticed 4 or 5 kids lining up at the top of a small hill. There was some direction from the more authoritative members of the group, and then they all dropped to their knees and then their sides and rolled giggling down the hill. They were creating their own fun, maybe tired of the jungle gym and swing sets.

Recess keeps us thinking creatively. During my work day, even if I just take a walk to the coffee station and have a short conversation, I come back to my desk with more energy. More focused. Rested, and in fact more productive. Studies have shown this. The breaks during intense periods of study and work are important in resting the brain. It’s almost like the recuperation of muscle after you’re broken it down after exercise. And productivity decreases if we don’t take a recess.

The judge bangs down his gavel, “We will recess.”

We need a judge in our head, observing our actions. He is silent, patient, resolute. So when we lose our focus, when we blink our eyes and stare away from the screen to refocus them. When we raise our head and realize we’ve been in the same position for an hour. That’s when the gavel comes down.

BANG

“Time for a short recess.”
“But I just need to finish this part up, it’ll just take.-“
“I said, Recess.”
“Look, if I just bust through this, I will-“
“You will finish it, yes, but will it be right? Will you do it the same way, instead of thinking of a better way to do it?”
“I guess not.”
He points sternly out the window, “Now go play. It looks like your friends need a fourth for four square.”

The secret to truly changing yourself

When I was in middle school, I noticed that I was smaller than most of the other kids. And I hated that. I hated my skinny arms and legs. So I started lifting weights. And eating… and taking supplements. I got bigger, but I always found fault. Even throughout college, I compared myself to other guys.

For years, I forced myself into this lifestyle until it became a habit… until one year. I stopped working out. I had met someone, the first person who showed care for me. We moved in together. I soon realized that I had never been training for me. Now, years later, I exercise for myself, for the good feelings I get. And I focus on getting fit, not big.

Changing something in your life means taking control. And where does that control come from? Your personality, values…your attitude, right?

So the first step in changing our actions is finding out what values are driving them. Is it because we’re unhappy with ourselves? Because no matter how much you “improve”, you will never become happy with yourself if you’re not already content with life.

Once you gain this self-awareness, then whatever changes you want to make aren’t hard, because…well…because you want them. When my goal changed from getting validation to being fit, it was almost unconscious. I didn’t obsess over becoming healthy. I didn’t hold myself to a strict program. I didn’t read books about why it was better to be more fit. I didn’t do those things because I didn’t need to do those things.

A measure of the value of a goal is how much you want to do the grunt work. But if the drive to change comes from inside you, you will embrace the grind and it will cease to be one. Facing the challenge of something new will become exciting, not paralyzing. The sacrifice won’t feel like a sacrifice.

But it won’t really work if you’re doing it because you think you must or you have no choice. You can’t do it if fear is driving you, or if you’re forced to.

People do change. We evolve. Just don’t force it. Evolution is natural. Other people and your environment can supplement a change in your values, but the truest values, the ones that drive us to do the right thing, always come from the inside.

So what’s the secret to really changing yourself?

Let go of what you think you need.

Free yourself. Because no one else will.

We were meant to evolve. And we have the self-awareness and freewill to do exactly that.

Taking off the blinders requires learning how to ignore

I have trouble sitting down to work sometimes. My focus is on many things, and so it is on nothing. Then I realized how to let go. And it was more than simplifying and prioritizing. It was the realization that I needed to acknowledge and then ignore many things. In order to get stuff done, I needed to ask myself throughout the day, day after day, week after week: “What do you want? What are you doing?”

The other day, I was returning from the bathroom to continue my writing and saw the new handheld vacuum I had purchased recently. I like tools, and this was a bright, shiny new one. Soon, I was unplugging it, having just swept the kitchen. I stopped suddenly and thought, “What am I doing? Why am I not writing?”

Vigilance is key

Neil Gaiman has a great analogy for making tough decisions in life. If your goal is a mountain, make sure your decisions are taking you towards that mountain, not away. The mountaintop is far so it’s ok if it takes you a long time to get there, as long you’re making your way to it.

My experience would make me add this to his analogy, “Make sure you’re not circling that mountain, neither going towards it or away from it.” To this end, I think it’s vastly important to reiterate to ourselves, “What do I want? What am I doing?”

The day I started ignoring things was ironically the day I took the blinders off. I looked up from the solid foundation I was laying and noticed all the options that were open to me, from professional to social, and then I decided to stop and ask, “What do I want?” It is overwhelming, but the possibilities appear around you, and it is the first step towards accomplishing what you want.

The saying that ‘ignorance is bliss’ isn’t true. We’re not animals. To achieve bliss we must be conscious of our surroundings and taking a stand and making choices and adapting. And this requires taking the blinders off and asking ourselves repeatedly, “What am I doing? What do I want?”

Occupy yourself

Don’t think and the days go by, never to be done again, except in our heads. If only I’d done this, if only I’d done that…

But doing what? I’m often busy doing things as the days go by, but not really any thing. I’m buying things. Moving things. Cleaning things. Trying to maintain a steady state of constant activity. A mind occupied by everything but my self. Activity is the appearance of production, like a big leafy top to a little carrot.

More important is YOUR thing. That which will make you happy. It will leave you smiling at the end of day. But then I think too much on my thing, and the same situation is created. Stymied by thoughts and words. The paralysis of analysis. I find the best is when I plan. Then do.

The thinking comes first, so that the doing will flow… eternal, unconscious and unrestrained.

The summer smells good

The intoxicating smell of comfortable warmth and movement and change. Of sun rays beating down, of future acts, exciting unknowns, shirtless, of liberation from consumption by creation. It smelled of possibilities.

I stopped thinking of what I had to do today. The urgent stuff that wasn’t truly urgent. I sat down and embraced this small area where I would bang out my 1000 words for the day. This would be my bunker. I put the thoughts of everything else out of my head. I willfully -albeit with quiet kicking and screaming- entered this solitary confinement. In this quiet, I stopped holding. The energy of my thoughts moved onto the digital canvas. I knew I hadn’t moved, but I was changing things. What had not existed, now did. People acting, realizing, feeling, and growing. My characters and I took turns leading. When the words were spent, I emerged from the dark cramped environment. I felt liberated. I immediately thought ahead: I must go here, and check this to buy, and then go here and have them fix this, and then I need to go the gym, and then…and then.

And then I stopped the planning. and just as I had when I crawled into my foxhole, I started thinking, “What if?” I started thinking, “Let’s see what happens.” Because life isn’t a series of situations. Life is what I choose. It’s what I create. And my creation started off quite well today.

The summer smells good.

“Once the plan gets too complex, everything can go wrong.” -Walter Sobchak

Technology and prosperity give us many options, from what to buy, where to go, who to communicate with, and the “how many” almost reaches infinity given the internet. We have a lot of power to do more as an individual and put a dent in the universe. The one danger of techonology and access is the distraction. And this distraction could be in the form of Facebook or it could be information overload. Too much data can create an abundance that leads to redundance and overanalysis that leads to paralysis.

The simple idea with effective use of tools allows us to do more for less.

The amount of work for a task will grow to fill the time you set aside for the task, based on all the different things you can study and do in preparation. Sometimes we like busyness, because it delays the real work. I’ve done that with my writing, making unnecessary outlines and reading how-to’s when the action of writing is what I needed to get into. All the references at our fingertips certainly gives us the opportunity to stay busy.

The one thing that is clearly quantifiable, more than how much analysis and preparation is proper, is this: We will accomplish nothing if we don’t do something. And Walter was right: “Once the plan gets too complex, everything can go wrong.”