Change your life in 5 minutes a day

I try to avoid sensational titles, and I don’t mean for this week to be an exception. “Change your life in 5 minutes a day” is based on my own experience. Sometimes, it only takes me three minutes.

Ancient wisdom

I’m referring to keeping a gratitude journal. Each morning, the first thing I do when I wake up is to reflect on what made yesterday a great day, and what three things would make today great. It’s so simple it verges on trivial, and yet so useful I never miss a day. I’ve been writing in it for over a year now. I even take it with me when I travel, just for those few minutes each day. 

Ever since the advent of positive psychology in the late 1990s - "the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels” - there has been a wealth of research on the benefits of varying gratitude practices. (You can find popular summaries here and here.) It’s not a new idea, though. Practicing gratitude falls into the category of “ancient wisdom,” and has long been advocated by a wide array of sources.

“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has." - Epictetus

“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice.” - Meister Eckhart

“When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food, and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies with yourself." - Tecumseh, Shawnee Chief

“A grateful mind is a great mind which eventually attracts to itself great things.’ - Plato

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others. - Marcus Tullius Cicero

In The Book of Joy, practicing gratitude is listed as one of “the 8 pillars of joy” by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. In The How of Happiness, it’s one of 12 practices advocated by Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky.

My own results

By the time I saw an ad for The Five-Minute Journal, I was convinced and ready to start, though it wasn’t easy in the beginning. I would forget to write in it, or find myself saying the same things a few days in a row. Then I put the journal in a place where I knew I would see it when I woke up, and writing in it gradually became something I looked forward to doing. It became a habit.

Over time, I became aware of certain patterns. The things that appeared on the list most often were particular people in my life, and the time I could spend with them. Searching for new things to write, I became more aware of just how many precious basics - good health, food, and shelter to name a few - I had taken for granted. The act of listing what I was grateful for day after day helped to shift my perspective from overly-negative to something more balanced, and that made me happier.

Writing down my intentions - What will make today great? - had a somewhat different effect. It helped me to focus my attention on what mattered at different points throughout the day, and that helped me to make better, more mindful, choices. When I reflected on a prior day, I noticed how doing what I intended always provided a sense of fulfillment or completeness. Instead of being buffeted about by things out of my control, I found I could “live intentionally,” and it proved to be extremely satisfying. 

I’ve found this simple practice so helpful that I included it as one of the five self-care practices in WOL-SC.

Getting started

You don’t need The Five-Minute Journal in particular to practice gratitude. Some of my German friends use Das 6-Minuten Tagebuch. (Though I do wonder why they need an extra minute.) A blank book will do, or even placing notes in a jar. 

You might also try DayCatcher, a more visual and creative way to practice gratitude which I started using just last week. At the end of a day, you choose a photo that captures one special moment from that day, and add a short note or caption. Doing this has already attuned my attention to look for my “catch” each day. It helps me to savor the best moments and be thankful for them right before I go to sleep. At the end of the year I can use it to create a beautiful album of memories.

Your mother or grandmother probably told you to “count your blessings.” And now science has caught up with her, explaining why the advice she gave was so good.

But do you put that advice into practice? Why not start today?

The first WOL-SC Circles are ready to start in September

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I hit “publish” last week, asking for volunteers to test a new kind of Circle, so I kept my expectations low. 

When the first response arrived nine minutes later, I breathed a small sigh of relief. Then more and more emails kept trickling in. Within 24 hours, I realized I had a good problem: I would have far more volunteers than I could accommodate in the first test of the new materials.

The diversity of those who responded is remarkable. Some work in big companies like Bosch and Daimler, and others in governmental and non-profit organizations related to healthcare, training, and education. Some are coaches or work in small consulting firms. There’s even someone who has their own “small fashion brand.” Respondents wrote to me from 16 different countries.

  1. Argentina
  2. Australia
  3. Austria
  4. Belgium
  5. Brazil
  6. Canada
  7. China
  8. Germany
  9. India
  10. Italy
  11. Netherlands
  12. New Zealand
  13. Poland
  14. Switzerland
  15. Turkey
  16. USA

I was going to form just three Circles so I could be sure to support each one and make use of their feedback. But I quickly decided to expand the experiment to 15 Circles to accommodate more volunteers. Still, I had to ask many people to wait for the next version of the guides before trying WOL-SC. I expect to publish them on workingoutloud.com in early 2019, after the experiment is complete and I’ve made improvements and adjustments to the method.

When people wrote to me, some said they hoped they would “make the cut” and some sent me their qualifications to be included. For those of you who could not join, please know this was not meant to be a contest of any kind. In selecting volunteers, I aimed simply for diversity, attempting to have a healthy mix of different countries, organizations, genders, and jobs.

In the next few days, I’ll be sending out emails to everyone who responded. I want to thank every single person for their support, and for their willingness to try something new and to offer their feedback. It is encouraging and inspiring, and i greatly appreciate it. 

Screen Shot 2018-07-23 at 2.20.41 PM.png

Introducing a new kind of Circle: WOL-SC

For people who have participated in a WOL Circle, a common question is, ”What comes next?” Many people want to keep going, so some join another Circle with new members. Others just continue to meet every so often, updating and supporting each other. 

Now there’s another option. It’s a new way to deepen the insights and practice you began developing in your WOL Circle, and it’s called WOL-SC.

 

Screen Shot 2018-07-23 at 2.20.41 PM.png

What is WOL-SC?

The “SC” in “WOL-SC” can stand for many things: “Self-Care,” “Self-Compassion,” “SuperCharge,” or whatever other label you can come up with that expresses a sense of investing in yourself and and developing important skills. In many ways, a WOL-SC Circle can be thought of as a prequel to a WOL Circle. Whereas Working Out Loud improves how you relate to others, WOL-SC helps you improve how you relate to yourself.

WOL-SC is comprised of five discrete practices that you experiment with one after the other. Without exaggeration, these practices have changed my life. When I compare my current self to myself in years past, I am happier and calmer. I act with more confidence and clarity. I am a better father, husband, and friend. WOL-SC is an attempt to distill what I’ve learned from years of experiments aimed at improving my own work and life. It is not meant as a prescription that will work for everyone, or to presume that anyone should do what I do. Rather, it's offered in the spirit of “this helped me, and I hope you find it useful too.”

The main ideas are not new. The WOL-SC Circle Guides are all based on ancient wisdom, much of it thousands of years old and increasingly supported by scientific research. My intended contribution is to make it easier for anyone to apply these fundamentally good practices till they become habits, so more people can realize the many well-documented benefits.

How does it compare to a WOL Circle?

If you have already been in a WOL Circle, then certain aspects of WOL-SC will be familiar to you. You will meet as a group of four or five. It will be a psychologically safe, confidential space without judgment or competition. Your Circle can meet in person or via video across locations, and there will be guides with instructions on what to do in those meetings.

Beyond that, there are several important differences. You will meet only once a month for six months. You will do daily exercises on your own each month, and your meetings will be for you to share what happened and to prepare for a different practice the next month.

Also, unlike a WOL Circle, there is no goal or relationship list. The practices are largely focused on yourself. The only goals are to develop greater self-awareness and mindfulness. These are the keys to realizing more of your potential as well as a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness. The reason for the Circle meetings is that the structure, shared accountability, and support can help each person make progress. Also, reflecting on and exchanging experiences each month can advance your learning. 

Better for you. Better for your organization.

The personal benefits of the five practices in WOL-SC have been thoroughly studied and documented, and the new Circle Guides include resources to help you explore further and learn more. But there are benefits for organizations, too. Companies clearly recognize the need to do more to help employees handle the strains of work and life. Every company I've met with, for example, has a Wellness at Work or Mindfulness program. And hundreds of companies are spreading Working Out Loud Circles, proving that they are willing to create a safe, confidential space for employees to develop themselves.

What if we could build on that, and use Circles to enhance employees' focus, self-control, and stress management while helping them be kinder and happier? How many people would benefit if all those wellness programs had a new method that was easy to implement and spread? 

If you would like to be the first to try it…

I’ve been toying with this idea for a few years. While staying in Japan this summer, I finally drafted a set of guides that are ready to test, but not yet ready to publish. For the first experiment, I’d like to form 3 Circles, comprised of people I don’t know well and all of whom have been in at least one WOL Circle. We will start in September.

  • Circle #1 would meet in person in New York City, and I would be a member. So I would need four volunteers who live in or near NYC.
  • Circle #2 would meet via video and would span timezones. I would be a member of this Circle too, so I would need four volunteers from different countries.
  • Circle #3 would not include me. This will help me understand if the new guides are self-explanatory and what changes I may need to make. For this Circle, I would need five volunteers who would meet via video (unless five people in the same location volunteer as a group).

If you would like to volunteer for the WOL-SC experiment, send me an email at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com and let me know if you have a preference for which Circle you’d like to join. This is version 1.0 of something that may take many iterations to get right, but I am committed to working on it and to making the guides available for free. I appreciate your interest and support.

Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll probably find it

I was going through a stack of old books, re-reading things I had highlighted, when I found this parable in Happiness at Work by Srikumar Rao. He was describing how a shift in your thinking, in how you choose to see the world, can change everything.

“The abbot of a once-famous Buddhist monastery that had fallen into decline was deeply troubled. Monks were lax in their practice, novices were leaving, and lay supporters were deserting to other centers. He traveled far to see a sage and recounted his tale of woe, saying how much he wanted to transform his monastery to the flourishing haven it had been in days of yore. The sage looked him in the eye and said, “The reason your monastery has languished is that the Buddha is living among you in disguise, and you have not honored him.
The abbot hurried back, his mind in turmoil. The Selfless One was at his monastery! Who could he be? Brother Hua? No, he was full of sloth. Brother Po? No, he was too dull. But then the Tathagata was in disguise. What better disguise than sloth or dull-wittedness? He called his monks together and revealed the sage’s words. They too were taken aback and looked at each other with suspicion and awe. Which one of them was the Chosen One? The disguise was perfect. Not knowing who he was, they took to treating everyone with the respect due the Buddha. Their faces started shining with an inner radiance that attracted novices and then lay supporters. In no time at all, the monastery far surpassed its previous glory.”

There's a natural tendency to label people and file them into categories and boxes. It makes life simpler in some ways, but also poorer. 

What if, instead, we remained open to the possibility that each person has something precious inside them? What if we looked deeply for the gifts they have to offer? What if we listened carefully for the stories they have to tell?

What are you looking for.png

Waiting

As I approach the checkout lines at the supermarket, I quickly scan to see which one will be shortest. I count the number of people, of course, but also consider the items in each cart. I carefully scrutinize the cashier and even the customers. Will they require a delivery service? Do they have young children? These things can slow down the process.

I narrow it down to two alternatives, and then, confidently, I make my choice: register 11.

Within seconds, though, I sense something is wrong. There’s a hint of frustration on the face of the customer at the front. The cashier, with a disturbing calmness, is methodically packing her bags in slow motion. I consider switching lines but it is already too late as other lines have grown longer. 

A minute passes. Then another. My hand reaches for my phone, a salve for my restlessness, but I try to resist as I’ve been wanting to use my phone less. I look at the magazine covers instead, and the odd array of other items. I wonder about who chooses what to put there, and who buys them. More minutes pass.

I feel trapped. I advise the people behind me to pick another line, which they do. They smile, first with gratitude and later with a hint of embarrassment as they leave the store while I am still waiting.  

My sense of irritation increases. I want to find someone to blame! I want to commiserate with other customers! Isn’t this terrible?! Then I remember I have a book in my knapsack. Mindfulness on the Go. I take it out and open it to the place I had marked. The next chapter is titled, “Waiting.”

“Any time you find yourself waiting…take this as an opportunity to practice mindfulness.”

It seems the universe has a sense of humor, so I smile for the first time in 10 minutes and keep reading. It seems that waiting has presented me with an opportunity.

“As you undertake this practice, you learn to recognize early the body changes that accompany impending negative thoughts and emotions such as impatience about having to wait, or anger about “that idiot” ahead of us in the checkout line. Each time we are able to stop and not allow a negative mind-state to come to fruition (say, getting irritated at the traffic or angry at the slow cashier), we are erasing a habitual and unwholesome pattern of the heart/mind.”

My irritation melts. My judgment of the cashier - What is wrong with this guy? What is his problem? - is replaced with empathy. What if I had that job? I’d be even slower! I think, “Maybe he’s new, or had a bad day, or is disabled." I imagine what it would be like, to do a job surrounded by visibly annoyed customers, and I’m ashamed.

Eventually it’s my turn. I offer to pack the bags as a way to help out and move things along. By now, my negative feelings have been replaced with gratitude, and I see how even a long wait can be a teacher.

The next time you approach one of those seemingly empty spaces in your day, what will you fill it with? Will your habits take you somewhere you don’t want to go? Or will you try to take a step in a different direction?

“If we don’t let the cart of the mind keep running down the same deep ruts, down the same old hill, into the same old swamp, eventually the ruts will fill up. Eventually our habitual states of irritation and frustration over something like waiting will dissolve. It take times, but it works. And it’s worth it, as everyone around us will benefit.”

100 slices of Thanksgiving

Isn’t it strange how a label on a calendar can make a difference? It’s Thanksgiving this Thursday in the US. And for as long as I can remember, I’ve been wondering the same thing. When I mentioned it to someone in an email this week, she said she felt the same way.

“Is it me or does NYC feel different on Thanksgiving week? I might be projecting, but it feels like a kinder, more caring place, and I love this time of year.”
“I agree with you about the holiday season in New York.  There is a special feel to the city.”

Yes, we all know that being grateful is good, both for ourselves and the people around us. Yet who has time for that? Thanksgiving is different. There’s something about the simple structure of it, and the synchronization. It’s on the calendar and everyone does it.

But what if we carved up that day a little differently?

1440 divided by 365

A few months ago, my good friend (and founder of Fearless Inventory) mentioned the five-minute journal. “It’s a gratitude journal,” he told me, and he said it was helpful, so I ordered one.

You use it twice a day. In the morning when you wake up, you write down three things you’re grateful for and three things that would would make today great. Before you go to sleep, you write down three things that actually made the day great, and something that might have made the day even better. (That last bit is meant less as a judgment and more as learning for future days.) I found it takes me even less than five minutes to do it.

Given a day is 1440 minutes long, writing in my journal is like a little slice of Thanksgiving every day. The simple structure helped me do things I somehow never had the time or attention to do before. After 100 days, I noticed some changes.

Intentional consequences

When you do something mindfully 100 times in a row, you notice some patterns. I would often write similar things day after day. Gratitude for my family, our health, the chance to do meaningful work. The things that usually made each day great were often about being present for small moments during the day, especially those with my family and people close to me. 

Over and over I would realize that a “better day” would have meant paying more attention to people and less to technology and other distractions, that I would have been calmer and more joyful. An affirmation I’ve written down many times is "To let the gratefulness shine through me."

I also noticed that the moments of reflection actually shaped my days in ways I didn’t expect. In the morning, writing down my intention for what would make the day great would attune my attention, making me more mindful throughout the day of what was truly important. Oh, that’s right! Watching the kids’ swimming lesson is one of the things that was going to make today great. I’ll focus on that instead of taking my book or laptop.

My attention also shifted when it came to gratitude. Instead of just thinking of things I already had, I noticed I was actively looking for things to be grateful for throughout the day. I’d be in the supermarket and think Aren’t I lucky that I can choose from so much abundance? In the doctor’s office I’d be thankful for having access to medical care and health insurance. A cold day would make me appreciate a hot shower and a warm comfortable bed. Later, I’d write those things down in my journal, reinforcing those thoughts and further attuning my attention.

After 100 days, I felt…happier. I realize now that happiness, like being grateful or kind or almost anything you can say about a person, isn’t so much about who you are. It’s about how much you practice.

I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. Every day. 

 

 

 

Which seeds will you water?

Working in big companies, I’ve had the opportunity to see a wide range of human behavior, and it can be disheartening. Not only the big systemic injustices, like unfair performance management systems or abuses of power, but the personal, day-to-day exchanges between people.

Sometimes it’s the language we use. Where I’ve worked, it was routine to label entire divisions of our own company as “morons” (and much worse). Emails were often so threatening and mean-spirited that merely preparing to look at your inbox would evoke a stress response. 

Sometimes it’s a feeling you get when you walk down the hall or step into an elevator. In one location I visited for lunch, I said thank you to the woman clearing the trays and was told, “People don’t do that here.”

Sometimes, it’s how people from different jobs (titles, divisions, locations) relate to each other in person. I heard an executive tell someone they wouldn’t connect with them on LinkedIn because they were of too low a status, and their more important connections might notice. 

When you see these kinds of behavior, or experience it yourself, what do you do?

I used to get angry and frustrated. I would be quick to identify the villain - the bad boss, the sender of the nasty email - and blame them for my unhappiness at work. But after thirty years of working in corporations, I realized there is a never-ending supply of villains, bad behavior, and potential unhappiness.

Lately, I’m trying to respond differently. I ask myself, “Which seeds will you water?”

It’s a simple metaphor I found in the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, and the question has been helpful in determining where I put my energy.

“In the depth of our consciousness, there are all kinds of positive and negative seeds - seeds of anger, delusion and fear, and seeds of understanding, compassion, and forgiveness. Many of these seeds have been transmitted to use by our ancestors. We should learn to recognize every one of these seeds in us in order to practice diligence…The practice is to refrain from watering the negative seeds…and recognizing the best seeds in others and watering them.”

When something negative comes up, I have a choice. I can nurture my anger and indignation. Maybe I even spread the story so I can shame the villain while infecting more people with negative feelings. Or I can recognize that, if I look, I can find many more examples of behavior worth celebrating, I can also choose to lead with my own positive examples, practicing the kind of empathy and generosity I wish to see in the workplace.

This doesn’t mean I have to ignore bad behavior entirely, or never act on it. I just don’t have to strengthen it.

The older I get, the less I think of the workplace as being comprised of good people and bad people. Instead, we’re all just people, each with our own stories and struggles, our own good and bad seeds.

Which seeds will you water?

Your perfect month

The inspiration to do this exercise came from Moyra Mackie, the first person I ever called “coach.” At the time, I was working at Deutsche Bank, struggling to write drafts of Working Out Loud, and feeling like I was paddling in a leaky canoe - lots of activity but not much progress or direction. 

On one of our phone calls, Moyra suggested that I write down what my “perfect month” might look like in a year or two. That timeframe was far enough away to give me the latitude to do different things, yet close enough that I needed to be practical. My perfect month wasn’t just about sitting on a beach in Okinawa, but about a way to earn a living while living a balanced life.

So I took a piece of paper, wrote down the days of the month, and started to imagine what I would do each day. 

The things I began listing I had considered before. Yet something about mapping those ideas to specific days in the month made them seem more real - and made me ask myself more questions. Yes, I would like to travel, write, do research, etc. But how much? One day a month? Five? Ten? I found myself visualizing my days and weeks. I imagined how it would feel - how I would feel.

I could see this was a good visioning exercise, and I enjoyed doing it. (It’s a nice companion to the “Letter from Your Future Self” in Week 7 of a WOL Circle.) Then I put the piece of paper away, and forgot about it. 

That was a few years ago. I happened to find that piece of paper recently and was struck by how much of it describes my last month, and the month before that. Though my “perfect month” wasn’t meant as an exact prescription or prediction, it captured a direction I wanted to take. It enabled me to see an example of what a more balanced, creative, fulfilling portfolio might look like.

That exercise helped me appreciate how articulating your intention can be extremely powerful. It can help you identify what experiments you might do to see if the direction is a good one for you, and who you might build relationships with to discover more. It can help you make that all-important shift from feeling stuck to taking a step.

When you reflect on your own career and life, where are you heading? What’s your perfect month?

The ultimate vanity search

I've done it myself, and I recommend you do it reasonably often. Recently, I learned that “47% of American adult internet users have done it,” though I think the real number is higher. 

It’s a vanity search. You type your name into a search engine and see what comes up, seeing yourself as others might see you.

When I first searched for “john stepper” all I found was stepper exercise equipment and an old article about work I was no longer interested in. Over time, I learned I could shape my reputation through my contributions online. I could amplify who I was, what I did, and what I cared about.

To help others do the same, Week 6 of the WOL Circle Guides focuses on improving your online presence, and the first step is to search for yourself and discuss the results. “Are you and your work easy to find? Are the results what you would like others to see?”

Lately, I’ve been thinking of a different kind of vanity search. As with the original search, I'm not happy with the results, and I'm working on improving them. In this new search, you go beyond your online presence to your overall presence - what you say and do, and how you say and do it.

Look in your email inbox and see the language you use. Watch how people act when they are around you. Look into the faces of your children, and into your partner’s eyes.

Search deeply. What do you see? What would you like to see?

Pema’s dishes

When I first read this story, it made me optimistic. “If this can happen to her,” I thought, “then there’s still hope for me.” It’s from Start Where You Are by Pema Chödrön, the renowned Buddhist nun.

“I had just finished my evening practice. I had been practicing all day, after which you might think I would be in a calm, saintly state of mind. But as I came out of my room and started to walk down the hall, I saw that in our serving area someone had left dirty dishes. I started to get really angry.
Now, in the retreat we put our name on our dishes…So I was walking down and I was trying to see whose name was on those dishes. I was already pretty sure whose name was on them, because there was only one woman of our group of eight who would leave such a mess. She was always just leaving things around for other people to clean up. Who did she think was going to wash these dishes, her mother? Did she think we were all her slaves? I was really getting into this. I was thinking, “I’ve known her for a long time, and everyone thinks she’s a senior practitioner, but actually she might as well have never mediated for the way she’s so inconsiderate of everybody else on this planet.”
When I got to the sink, I looked at the plate, and the name on it was “Pema,” and the name on the cup was “Pema,” and the name on the fork and on the knife was “Pema.” Needless to say, that cut my trip considerably. It also stopped my mind.”

My first reaction was “So it’s not just me.” Even the most spiritual, compassionate, highly trained person gets angry sometimes, and makes up stories in her head. It’s part of the human condition. 

Then I noticed how she handled it. No additional drama. No self-recrimination. I imagined her smiling and shaking her head, thankful for the lesson manifested by some dishes. People make mistakes, and part of the practice is learning how to pause before you get carried away with the storyline, to be open to other possibilities before you react and to offer loving kindness for yourself and others when you do.

“Everything we meet has the potential to help us cultivate compassion and reconnect with the spacious, open quality of our minds.”