Four weeks ago I decided to end my summer with a challenge. Since I’m generally a “do it when I feel like it” kind of guy, I tried to build some discipline into my life by setting myself small tasks to work on every day.
The tasks revolved around different areas of my life I’ve been trying to improve on – fitness, health, culture, writing, music, reading, mental. I wanted to challenge myself to spend time on each activity each day, hopefully seeing a noticeable improvement by the end of a four week (28 day) period. For example, playing the guitar. If I just practised for ten or fifteen minutes each day, hopefully by the end of the challenge I’d be able to play one or two songs. If I read a few pages of a book each day, by the end of the challenge I should have finished two or three books.
The practical side of it was simple. Write down 10+ things to do each day of the week. As you finish a task, add a tick beside it. If you haven’t done something at the end of the day, add a cross beside it. Nothing more than a glorified to-do list. By the end of four weeks, the tasks each day will have a mixture of four ticks/crosses, representing my success/failure in completing them over the four weeks.
Some things, such as reading, were listed every day. Others were scattered on selected days only; for example I might have jiu jitsu classes only on Mondays, and dance classes only Tuesdays and so on.
Assuming the task was listed daily, the best possible result was 28 ticks. The worst possible result was 28 crosses.
What tasks did I choose?
Everyone always talks about yoga and it seems like all yogis live to 120 and beyond. I finally took my first classes last November, about 5 months ago, and enjoyed it. I thought perhaps I could try and do yoga each morning to iron out the kinks I’ve accumulated over the last 3 decades of sport, gym and travel.
2. Mobility WOD
Mobility “workouts of the day” are simple stretching, massage and mobilisation exercises put together by the brilliant Kelly Starrett. They are designed for athletes to help prevent injury, correct your movements and posture, and keep your muscles loose and limber. They only take about 5-10 minutes each and are really effective for someone injury prone like myself.
I’ve been using an app called Headspace to learn how to control and calm the mind. I’ve been doing sessions rather sporadically since I subscribed, so I wanted to try and be more consistent to see if I noticed any real benefits.
4. Duolingo / language study
I love learning language but I’ve been slack at studying. Duolingo is good at making sure you get at least a few minutes of revision each day.
I’m not the most musically gifted person so I wanted to at least be able to pull a tune together on a musical instrument, just as a hobby and nothing more.
I’ve been working on a book which has been going abysmally. My creative juices are dry, perhaps because I draw my creativity from travel and I’ve been grounded for quite a few months now. I put it on this list to try and force myself to get some words out each day.
I’ve got a whole bunch of unfinished blog posts sitting in my drafts folder. There are a lot of ideas, I just need to polish them into publishable articles. An hour of writing blog posts each day will mean I have plenty of new content.
8. Martial arts
I’ve been spending a lot of time at my local martial arts gym, learning kickboxing, wrestling and jiu jitsu. Since I always look forward to going, I knew it wasn’t going to be a challenge to get to class. I included it anyway, as it does require a lot of my time.
I haven’t danced since I left my salsa school in Ecuador. I enrolled in a local dance school and signed up for two classes a week, just to see if I still have moves.
Every morning I juice up a big bowl of vegetables and get my greens for the day. Sometimes I groan at the thought of driving to the vege shop, washing and cutting everything and then cleaning my juicer. Adding it to the list makes sure I’ll get it done anyway.
11. 6am wake up
My day always tends to fly by. I suspected it’s because I wake up quite late (between 9 and 10am). I always read about successful people waking up before sunrise and getting so much done so I thought I’d give it a try. I knew this would be tough – I’ve never been a morning person.
12. Cold showers
Cold showers are great for your metabolism, your skin, your testosterone, and just making you feel alive. It’s a great test in mental strength. Not everyone can do it.
I’ve been trying to read more books in recent years but I struggle. I know people that read a book a week. I’m lucky if I manage to read five pages a day. Successful people universally recommend reading as much as possible, so I’ve been trying hard to make this a habit.
Here’s what my sheet looked like:
And here’s the sorted data:
|Duolingo (language study)||22||6||79%||21%|
|MMA class (martial arts)||8||24||25%||75%|
|6am wake up||1||27||4%||96%|
Out of 13 activities, I had a positive completion rate (above 50%) on 9, and a negative completion rate (below 50%) on 4.
I scored best on making and drinking vegetable juice each morning (96%), and scored worst on waking up at 6am each morning (4%).
I only scored above 80% on 3 tasks – juice, dancing and Mobility WODs.
I had a total of 190 completed tasks (ticks), and missed a total of 149 tasks (crosses), for an overall score of 56%. I think in report card grades that’s around a C or C-, so coming from a Chinese family I’m basically disowned now.
Here’s what I learned from the experience:
I let small things get in the way and don’t face adversity well
My martial arts numbers were among the worst. If you know me, this would be surprising to you because I love going to those classes. For most of the summer, I was at the gym almost every day and never missed a class.
What happened was I tore a ligament in my arm during the first week of the challenge. The doc said it was a bad tear and I would be out for at least four weeks. If I really wanted to keep training there were things I could’ve done: I could have just done shadow movements at home, watched videos or gone to the gym and watched the classes and still learned a lot. I even told myself I was allowed to tick my sheet if I did something like that in place of training. But I mostly spent the rest of the challenge feeling sorry for myself and giving up.
I also had to head out of town for three nights, and pretty much did nothing that entire time except for some reading. If I really wanted to, I could have done all the tasks required except for maybe one or two, but I didn’t. The break in my routine upset my momentum and I just went into CBF mode.
I struggle to be adaptable and need to work on it.
I hate mornings but I should learn to love them
I managed to do one 6am wake up and that was at the very start of the challenge. I still remember that day. I woke up semi-inspired, took a cold shower straight away, did my yoga and MWod, made my juice and by the time I sat down at my laptop it was still only 8:30 or something. It felt really good to have ticked so much off the list before the day had even started. However, that feeling when your alarm goes off and you slam it and go back to sleep is one of the most blissful feelings in the world. During my 9-5 years I spent every single morning longing for the day when I would be able to tell my alarm clock to f*ck off and just go back to sleep. I’ve finally won that luxury and it is hard to give it back.
I will revisit this challenge later on because I definitely see the benefit of this, but holy crap I hate waking up that early.
I’m not really good at anything
During the challenge, I realised how bad I am at everything. I’d pick up the guitar and struggle to play the songs in the “very easy” section. Then I’d try to meditate and fall asleep halfway through. Then I’d go to the gym and get my ass beat. I’d go out for a surf and get smoked for two hours. Then I’d fall over doing that horrible yoga pose that I hate. Then I’d sit down to write my book and still have a blank page after thirty minutes.
There’s nothing that I’m actually good at. In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell studied hyper successful people, and concluded that the average time it takes to become an expert at anything is 10,000 hours of practise. This goes for sports, instruments, arts, anything. That means to become an expert at any of these tasks, I’ll need to practise them for an hour every day for the next 27 years.
Since I couldn’t even practise an hour a day for four weeks, 27 years feels a little far from the realm of possibility. But we can always try.
It wasn’t long enough to build any habits
I was thinking after doing these things every day for a month I’d have developed them into habits. It seems like the opposite is true.
For example, every morning I’d wake up and do yoga. Although I didn’t particularly enjoy it, I could feel the benefits of it and wanted to make it a habit, especially as I’ve been injury prone recently. It also tied in nicely with meditation, which adds positives to the rest of my work and life. I hoped that doing yoga each morning would cement it into my daily routine, similar to brushing my teeth or making juice – not something I really enjoyed, but something I did because it was good for me.
The first day after the challenge ended, the opposite happened. I was ecstatic I didn’t have to do yoga anymore. No more fucking yoga. I woke up, made some juice and went straight to my laptop to work.
I always thought my sporadic interest in things was due to my nomadic lifestyle, but even when I’m grounded in one place I don’t fare much better. It remains a work in progress.
Cold showers turn you into Superman in 60 seconds
Unless you live in a tropical country, it is not easy to take cold showers. Doubly so in the dawn of Auckland’s winter. Some days I had to seriously psyche myself up before I was able to get in and turn it on. It is surprising how mentally difficult it is to do. It made me realise how weak I was. Hot water is still non existent in much of the world.
When it hits your skin for the first time it’s an electric shock to the system. You huff and puff. If you jump around it makes it easier, but I always held my hands behind my back and stood perfectly still for maximum effect. The first ten seconds are kinda miserable.
I count to sixty. One minute. By this time I feel great. It’s still cold, but no longer a piercing, painful cold. I might even stay in for a second minute. When I get out of the shower I feel alive and invincible.
Challenge yourself you take a sixty second cold shower every morning for a week. It will surprise you how hard it is.
My goals weren’t specific enough
Make sure your goals are SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time based).
Yeah, whatever. I hate little quips like that. They sound like dumb shit your boss says in a performance review to sound smarter than you, right before not giving you a pay rise.
Turns out, sometimes they’re right.
I would look at my list and see “Guitar”. I’d pick up the guitar, play around with it for a few minutes and then tick it off the list. For me it was still an achievement just to pick it up and strum a few chords each day, since I’ve been struggling to do that my entire life, with everything.
The problem was there was no end goal. I needed to have a song to master by the end of the challenge. For writing, I needed to have a word count to reach. For my language study, I should’ve created a list of words to finish learning. That would’ve given me something more concrete to aim for. I believe in shooting for the stars, but I think this SMART stuff might actually help us get there.
When I revisit these challenges I’ll be sure to set more specific targets, so instead of just working blindly I’ll know exactly what I’m aiming for.
I have terrible time management
I estimate it requires about 3.5 to 4 hours a day to complete everything on the list. That means if I wake up at 6am, I could have everything done by 10. If I need to drive to the gym or to dance class you can add on another two hours, which happens in the evening anyway.
Yet most days I would get to 10 or 11 at night and still have five or six things left to tick off.
One thing about going through the traditional education system of high school and university is you get very good at procrastinating. The nature of exam-based achievement means you can literally leave everything until the very end and still have it work out somehow. I am a professional at this.
Clearly this has seeped into my adult life, and as someone who works from home on his laptop this is doubly troublesome. It is a test of willpower that I fail daily. I have no idea if there is a cure for this. A to-do list is just a band-aid, I need a complete mindset change. I’m working on it!
I’m learning too many things (maybe)
We settled earlier that I’m not very good at anything. I think that’s possibly because I’m doing too many things.
I’m trying to learn to surf, fight, dance, speak Spanish, French, Chinese, blog, play the guitar, do yoga, write a book, and more. Even though I have a lot of fun doing (most of) it, it means I don’t really get to focus on doing one thing and my mind is always scattered. I thought meditation would help with this, but I tend to struggle with meditation because my mind drifts off to all those others things I’ve been doing. It’s chicken and eggish.
It becomes a question of do I want to become mildly proficient at lots of different things, or become really good at one or two things. Because I don’t have any glaring natural talents at anything in particular, and I enjoy all of the things I’m doing, I think the choice that speaks to me is learning everything and just enjoying the journey. As long as I keep challenging myself and getting better each day, I’ll be proud of that.
It’s important to be social and around others
I know now why most artists and creatives become weirdos. Because we spend so much time alone and indoors obsessing over our projects. Similarly, most of the tasks in the challenge I was able to do alone at home. Only two things – fight class and dance class – required me to go outdoors. Because I stopped going to the gym after the first week, I was craving my dance class by the time Tuesday and Thursday rolled around. It wasn’t so much for the dancing; I can practise that at home alone too. It was just to be around some new people and enjoy other people’s energy. It’s also the reason I miss the road so much. The travel community is one of the few places where I can tell people about my life and not get looked at funny. Most people find community in their jobs or at school, travellers find that community out on the road. I don’t get that every day when I’m at home.
I need to learn to be more present
I found myself trying to rush through things so I could just tick them off the list and move on. This was particularly true with yoga. Just hurry up and finish these last five poses so I can get outta here. I noticed it became a common theme with most of the other activities too.
It was constant challenge to remind myself to be present. Instead of rushing through yoga stretches, I had to tell myself to breathe and focus. It reminded of times on the road too, where you can get caught up in the travel whirlwind and forget to appreciate the moment and the amazing places you’re in.
Now I know while I’m doing yoga, my mind needs to be 100% on yoga. When I’m reading a book, my mind needs to be 100% focused on the words. I need to forget about everything else for that moment. Instead of just things to tick off a list, they need to be experiences that I commit to and lose myself in. Otherwise, it defeats the purpose of doing them in the first place.
I should make to-do lists a permanent part of my life
When I interviewed for my first (and only) 9-5 job back in 2007, I remember the HR lady asked me to describe a particularly stressful situation I’d experienced and how I handled it. A friend of mine had warned me about this question and told me the best answer was to say you make a to-do list, prioritise everything and then tick off each item as you finish it. I delivered his answer almost word for word. I told her I was going through work overload at university, made a prioritised to-do list, put my head down and finished everything with ease. It was a lie, obviously. I’d never made a list like that in my life.
She seemed to like the answer, because I got the job.
Once I started working there my boss kept giving me little tasks to do, like “send this to that client” and “collect this information for the lawyer”. I just left her emails floating around my inbox and attended to them if/when I remembered. But I hardly ever remembered.
One day she asked me how I keep track of her requests and I pointed to my head. Her mouth dropped open. She told me that will never work and asked me to write them all down in an Excel spreadsheet and mark them off so she could see when they were done. It actually worked. I don’t think I ever missed a task again. Still, I didn’t think much of it.
After this challenge, I’m finally realising this to-do list thing actually works pretty well. I will be travelling soon, but I will pare it down and continue doing a shorter version of it throughout my travels. It will be interesting to see how things turn out after 6 months or a year.
Where to from here?
This was a personal experiment, but as I started punching the results into Excel I decided I needed to share it. It wasn’t an overwhelming task but I learned so much, so I would encourage you to all try something similar, even if your list has only one or two things such as 20 push ups or a cold shower. The completion rate to beat is 56%. Not hard, really. But your rate is 0% if you don’t even try. Get started!
For me, as I said I’ll keep going and incorporate this into my life. I will also refine this challenge, repeat it down the line with more specific goals, and I’ll beat my own score. Stay tuned for that.
Good luck, and don’t be afraid to get in touch and let me know how it goes!