Saturday, July 27, 2019

On Active Leisure

"What? You say that full energy given to those sixteen hours will lessen the value of the business eight? Not so. On the contrary, it will assuredly increase the value of the business eight. One of the chief things which my typical man has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change - not rest, except in sleep.

- "How to Live on 24 hours a Day" by Arnold Bennett

This week I finished Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism. I've been a fan of Cal Newport after reading his previous books such as Deep WorkHow to Win at College, and So Good They Can't Ignore You. When he published his new book about adopting a minimalist approach to digital life, I wasn't first in line to pick it up though. He's been sharing his point-of-view on his blog for the last few years and I'm a total subscriber to his proposal. I've deleted my Facebook app from my phone since 2013 and don't spend a lot of time on social media in general. My husband and I make it a rule not to use our phones at all while eating out.

So when I picked up a copy from the local library, I didn't expect to get any major new ideas. However, the book ends up shedding light on a new topic - Leisure.

To be exact, how active leisure (demanding activities) is preferred than passive consumption.

Have you experienced this: it's the weekend and all you want to do is relaxing. So you decide you'll deliberately be "unproductive" - not doing anything demanding like work, serious reading, or doing anything hard. Instead, you spend hours watching Netflix, wander around the house, screen tapping.

I've certainly done all these - in the spirit of "relaxing". But almost always end up feeling more tired than when I began.

In Digital Minimalism, Cal advocates replacing these low-quality, passive leisure activities (i.e. watching Netflix, browsing social media, etc) with high-quality leisure. Examples of high-quality leisure includes building something for your house, exercise at home or go a class, take up a craft, join a social group, cooking a recipe - in other words, something demanding

It's counter-intuitive, isn't it? In his influential book "How to Live 24 Hours a Day", Arnold Bennett argues that expending more energy in your leisure can end up energizing you more. Cal gave a few good examples to further confirm this point. Pete Adeney, aka Mr. Money Mustache, prefers to spend his free time working on various construction projects. He gets satisfaction from "making stuff". Liz Thames, the blogger of the popular Frugalwoods blog, meet the demand of rural life by spending leisure time clearing trails, harvesting wood, and plowing snow. Both Pete and Liz are part of the FIRE (financial independence retire early) community. They are not driven financially to take up these demanding activities (both are financially independent), but by reaping multiple levels of benefits from these seemingly demanding activities: physical exercise, better mental health, something tangible to show for (like a new guest house, or a cleared driveway).

This "bias towards action" attitude definitely agrees with me. A good weekend for me is always those that are more structured and full of actions. Exercising, writing blog, visiting friends, trying out a new recipe are a few popular activities.

Cal offered a list of example activities you could do on a single weekend - things like changing your car oil and installing light fixture. Inspired by his list, I develop a list of my own:

  • Practice Chinese calligraphy (a childhood of mine)
  • Start a garden plot (from Cal's list)
  • Learn how to hem pants (essential skill for a person standing at 5 feet...)
  • Vacuum and clean my car 
  • Cook new Vietnamese recipes 
  • Exercise outdoors in our community park
  • Learn new skills via websites such as Coursera
  • Join something (groups, organizations, volunteer work, etc)
  • Reach out to more friends and make plans to meet up
What's your take on leisure and what activities do you like to take up?

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Fitness Check-In Mid 2019

This year I've made some progress on the fitness front, both in terms of a healthier diet and more effective exercise routine. 

Regular exercise has become a habit since 2015, when I lost 20lbs in about 6 months (5 feet, I got down to around 100lbs from 120lbs). At the time, I live 7 minutes to work so was able to work out almost every day for one hour. Fast forward to the beginning of 2019, I've been at the new job where I have a 50-mile, more-than-an-hour one way commute. For the past two years, I couldn't seem to find a good routine that fits my schedule while juggling a demanding job. I've tried mornings, tried after work, even dabbled in lunch workout, nothing ever quite stuck. 

The last few months, however, witnessed a substantial progress towards a healthier lifestyle. Specifically two big changes took place:

1. I got into the habit of exercising first thing in the morning.

For the longest time, I've resisted morning workout. I just don't run as fast. But due to work schedule, long commute, morning is the only time I can make myself work out CONSISTENTLY. Too many variables stood in the way of later-day workout: the meeting ran over, too much traffic, just ate a snack so still full, etc. 

No such excuses exist for the morning. Splash some cold water on my face to wake up and I'm ready!

Depending on how early my meeting starts, I can usually squeeze in 30-50mins exercises.

2. I built in much more strength training (resistance exercise) into my workout.

I used to be the cardio queen - running as much as 6 miles a time on a regular day. Spending an hour on the elliptical. Little did I pay any attention to lifting weights. Growing up in China, it's a culture of admiring skinny beauty. Not so much emphasis toning. 

Meanwhile, I didn't understand the science either. In addition to increasing your muscle mass, which you lose as you age, strength training offers a plethora of benefits. CDC recommends strength training at least two times a day for healthy adults. 

For me, a couple useful resources I've found to incorporate into my routine:
  • Jeremy Ethier's Youtube Channel - a science-based youtube channel, where Jeremy offers great content on strength training-related topics: best way to lose fat, science-based workouts for various body parts, how much rest time you need, etc. What I love most is every recommendation is based on research literature, not just personal experience. I used this recommendation to build out two routines for upper body and lower body respectively.
  • BodyFit by Amy workout videos - I stumbled upon this YouTube channel and absolutely loved it. Amy is a certified personal training. She recorded lots of 20-30 mins interval cross training videos. She possessed a really positive, pleasant energy that makes each workout a treat. She also offered modifications so you could adjust based on your fitness level or how you feel that day.
  • Free FitOn App. A truly FREE fitness app offering a variety of workouts. You could filter by intensity level, targeted body part, or trainer. I mostly used it to tone/sculpt a specific body part if I happen to have 5-10mins break. The app is well designed and user-friendly. Most importantly of course, it is really free!
So this is the mid-year check-in. I hope these habits stick as the colder days come. Will do another check-in in the end of the year!

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The #1 Rule to Increase Productivity - Eat the Frog

Since January last year, I was put on a very exciting new project at work. It's a highly demanding, yet exciting project involves lots of cross functional partnership internally, as well as managing lots of external agency partners. It's also very fast-paced - it's not uncommon for me to progress 4-5 different sub-workstreams simultaneously within one week, and have multiple deadlines to meet.

It's challenging sometimes for sure. Yet the last 18 months taught me some great lessons about increase productivity and improve time management that I'd like to share with everyone. Today I'm sharing the most important one:

Eat the Frog Early in the Day

It is so simple, almost cliche, yet extremely powerful. By "eating the frog" I'm really talking about prioritization, and being very disciplined about it. Let me explain why it's powerful and how I approach it.

I had an epiphany moment on this subject while listening to an episode from the WSJ Secrets of Wealthy Women podcast. It was an interview with Angie Hicks - the co-founder of Angie's List. When Angie's List started off, Angie had to make sales calls everyday to reach out to and get new customers. As somewhat an introvert, it's the least favorite part of her job. But she gave herself a quota everyday and made herself do these calls "first thing in the morning". "

She said:"I usually like to do things I don’t like to do early in the day...I treat (selling) like math because I’m a math geek. I have to make 20 calls, and out of the 20 calls, one or two will be successful.”

That - do things one doesn't like to do early in the day - makes a total difference, especially mentally. Have you had this experience: you keep putting off that thing you don't feel like doing (or most accurately - afraid of doing). But as you go through your day, it's always on your mind. It's a constant reminder that eventually, you'll have to come back and deal with it. It's mentally exhausting.

What I also find true is that "the task that you don't like to do" could very well be the most important task (MIT). In Angie's case, it's selling and acquiring new customers. For me, it's usually thinking through some very tough strategic questions that guides the project on the right path. We have to do it, and prioritize it first thing.

By getting it done early, the rest of day feels like a breeze. By 9 or 10am, you already have a most productive day because you get the most important task out of the way. What can't you do next? :)

How I Do It:
  • Every night, I look at my to-do lists, and ask myself, what is the task that's strategically important, yet I have an inkling of wanting to put it off. That will be my "frog". I bump that on top of my list.
  • At the beginning of practicing this, I literally add it to my Outlook calendar. So when I check my schedule for the day in the morning, it's right there to remind me.
  • I usually prioritize doing it for first thing in the morning. Usually it gets done before 9:30 or 10am, depending on when I start the day. This is when my mind is the freshest.
The last thing I'll say is be really disciplined about it. Research suggests it takes 66 days to form a habit, not 21 days. So being deliberate and disciplined about this is very critical, especially at the beginning. Then it will feel almost automatic.

Give it a try, and let me know how you like it!

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Book Recommendation June 2019

It's official - we're more than half way through 2019. Thanks for Goodreads, I was able to track my reading progress. As of the end of June, I read 24 books, a combination of books and audiobooks. Not bad, considering 2018 whole year only witnesses 21 books in total.

Here is the round-up of books worth recommending:

1. The War that Saved my Life and The War that I finally Won. By Bradley Kimberly Brubaker.

Ah how I love, love, love Ada's story. This children's story is set during World War II. Ada and her brother Jamie live in London with her mother. The mother never let Ada out of their apartment because she's ashamed of her club foot. The war came, and children were evacuated to the suburb. Ada and Jaime were put up with Susan, a seemingly ill-tempered woman who grieves her loss of best friend. But under that cold surface, it's a warm heart. She becomes the mom Ada never had. That's where the beautiful story all begins.

This book is written by Dr. Edith Eger, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary. She shared the heartbreaking story during World War II, including losing both parents in one day as they were marched into the concentration camp. A second section of the book focuses on her life after the war and her life as a first-generation immigrant in America. As the title indicates, the book is about making "the choice". One can't choose what happened to her and her family. What one could choose, is how she reacts to it.

3. Murder on the Orient Express. By Agatha Christie 

As a detective story fan, I wonder why it takes me so long to start reading Hercule Poirot series! This story is so captivating I couldn't put the book down. The ending is absolutely surprising. Look forward to reading other books in this series!

So these are the top ones for first half of 2019. Hoping for more good reads for remainder of the year!

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