The Best 15 Minutes of My Day

On March 11th, 2013 I began the 21 Day Perfect Health Meditation Challenge hosted by Deepak Chopra and Oprah.

Why 21 days? Probably because popular belief dictates that it takes 21 days to form a habit. Apparently this idea originally came from anecdotal evidence in Maxwell Maltz’s self-help book Psycho Cybernetics. Personally I’ve found there to be a good amount of proof in that particular puddin’.

But before I go off on another food tangent… I should probably mention that up until that point in my life, I had never meditated before. Part of me always thought it was a little too woo woo, but I decided to put those feelings aside and give it a shot.

I’m really happy I did

There are many forms of meditation, but what I liked about this one was that it was guided every step of the way. A few words of wisdom in the beginning, and an introduction of the mantra for the day. Then some very soothing music, and a soft bell to indicate that it was time to stop. I felt as though Deepak was holding my hand through the entire process.

Interestingly enough, meditating actually reminded me of something I learned from Sid Efromovich in his happiness workshop. He talks about taking 10 minutes and simply sitting in silence. Not quite the same as meditation, but still very relaxing, and surprisingly helpful. He described it as a disk de-fragging for the mind.

*Geek-out warning!*

For those of you who don’t know, computers store information on spinning discs (a.k.a. hard drives). When new information gets stored it is recorded on different areas of that disc. Later, your computer’s mechanical arm has to move around in order to access it. The more scattered the information, the more inefficient and time consuming the retrieval process becomes.

That is why every so often, it is a good idea to de-frag your hard drive. In other words, taking related information that is currently fragmented in different parts of the disc, and placing them next to each other. Less movement = faster, more efficient data retrieval.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no neurologist…but I believe something similar (at least in concept) might be happening inside my brain. When I sit in silence for 10 minutes a day, it seems to take all the chaotic, disparate elements and organizes, sorts, and brings them closer together for faster, more efficient recall. It also ends up being a nice way to de-clutter my mind.

Pretty cool right?

Back to meditation

I noticed that when I spent those 15 minutes per day meditating, I had an easier time focusing, especially during my prime productive time when working on my Wildly Important Goals (a.k.a. WIGs).

By this point I had already formed a habit of working from about 12-2 pm, eating lunch from about 2-3, and then meditating before going back to work. It helped energize and focus me for that 2nd round of work, which was typically more challenging than the 1st.

A particularly moving meditation session

Duration the first 9 minutes or so of the session (on the topic of breathing), I had a very clear vision of myself in the future.

I was laying in bed, in my high-rise condo in NYC. The one with the fully stocked bar, dance floor, and recording studio that I’ve been dreaming about for years.

On this particular serene Sunday morning, I was next to my gorgeous wife, holding her snugly in my arms. Just as the sun began peaking through the curtains I drew a deep, soothing breath. The recently cleaned apartment left a hint of pine sol in the air, along with a natural freshness created by the assorted plants that I kept near the window sill.

The sun lightly touched her face, and with her eyes half open she gave me the warmest smile I’ve ever seen. In that moment I was overcome with joy and gratitude. I felt very much like Richard Dreyfus’s character in the last scene of Mr. Holland’s Opus, when he is surprised with a school-wide assembly to honor his lifetime of hard work as a music teacher.

After all, my vision was not just some random hallucination. I felt as though I was looking into the future, and that it would only be a matter of time until it would turn into the present. All my hard work, personal and professional growth, overcoming countless setbacks and challenges, would eventually pay off.

Other benefits of meditation

If that wasn’t already enough, here are some other things meditation has done for me:

  • Inspired 4-5 new daily affirmations.
  • Lowered overall level of stress during the day.
  • Improved productivity.
  • Improved quality of sleep (positive correlation of meditation and sleep cycle quality data…more on that in a future post).
  • Increased ability to focus on the present moment, and enjoy every part of it. Overall happiness definitely increased as a result.

This original meditation challenge has become a keystone habit for me (learn more about these habits that start a chain reaction in my post New Habits).

Since then I have already completed 3 other meditation challenges, and am going to finish my 4th today.

So what have you got to lose?

15 minutes of your day? As far as I’m concerned, those 15 minutes allow me to gain back time because I am more productive afterwards as a result.

Check out Deepak Chopra and his library of meditation resources. You’ll be happy you did!

The Universe is Whispering, Are You Listening?

If you’ve spent any time with me at all (yes, reading this blog counts…sort of) you’d know that Oprah Winfrey is one of my biggest role models. I aspire to achieve her level of success and share it with the rest of the world. My friends have even nicknamed me “Shoprah” as a result. Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? ๐Ÿ™‚

During an episode of one her early Lifeclasses, she talked about the concept of whispers of the universe. Sounds pretty fluffy, pie in the sky, new agey right?

Hear me out…

She simply means that the universe, god, or whatever you believe in that is greater than yourself, gives us subtle hints in the form of “whispers.” These are little clues or omens that make us raise an eyebrow and go “hmm, that’s interesting.” A little more than a coincidence, but not a full blown miracle or spiritual awakening. Make sense so far?

An interesting quality of these whispers is that the longer you ignore them, the louder they get. The clues become less subtle, until eventually they turn into shouts. If you ignore them for too long it hits you like the infamous belly-flop. Seriously, don’t try it at home.

To illustrate further, here is an example of a recent whisper in my life:

Last spring I had been teaching on Skillshare for almost a year, and everything was going incredibly well. I had a regular stream of new students signing up for my classes, I was making good money, received overwhelmingly positive feedback, and overall I was doing what I loved and knew that I was genuinely helping people in the process.

Then came the whispers.

  • Skillshare changed the interface on their site which forced me to update my an Excel web query that I used as part of a demo of one of my classes. Annoying, but manageable.
  • The website become more confusing to use in general. I wasn’t the only one who thought so.
  • Skillshare began diverting resources away from in-person classes and focusing on promoting hybrid classes (part online, part in-person).
  • When hybrid classes didn’t work, Skillshare promoted their new project-based, purely online class format.
  • The option to search for local classes got pushed so far down on their website home page that my students had a hard time finding it. Serious problem.
  • Significantly less students were signing up for my classes.

Finally, the brick wall came crashing down on me.

  • I received an email announcing the resignation of their community manager who was an integral part of their team and personally helped me develop my classes. They also announced the end of the Master Teacher program, which I was a proud member of for many months.

I felt as though the entire universe was coming together to tell me to stop teaching on Skillshare. That is precisely what I did. I taught my last class on May 1st, 2013, and have since shifted my focus to online classes.

Here’s another more subtle example, which led me to sign up for a free meditation program

My first whisper was hearing my friend tell me about the Deepak Chopra and Oprah 21 Day Meditation Challenge. I thought that was cool, but didn’t take any further action.

Then I got an email that my mother forwarded to me of the announcement of that program. Finally, I was watching OWN (the Oprah Winfrey Network for those of you who don’t know) and saw a commercial for the same free meditation program.

Hmm, how interesting.

By this point I was already quite adept at listening to the whispers, and taking immediate action. After all, if I ignored it, it would keep coming back anyway, so I might as well save myself the time and the hassle and get on with it already, right?

By the way, this concept reminds me of affirmations, in the sense that it made me aware of certain things, and helped me seize opportunities that I would have otherwise ignored. *Sad face*

So I signed up for the 21 day challenge on Perfect Health! More details on that in the next post…

Parting thoughts

I believe the answers are out there, and it is up to us to quiet our minds (something meditation has helped me with significantly), pay attention to them, and then act on them.

Do me a favor, and take a look at your own life for a few minutes.

Was there a time in your past in which you were ignoring all the signs? Looking back, could you have saved yourself a lot of struggle had you merely paid attention to, and acted on those signs early in the process?

Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments! ๐Ÿ™‚

How I Reach Inbox Zero in Under 5 Minutes Every Day

Now that you know that I do not check email from 12 pm – 9 pm every day, we can get to the specifics of how I actually process my email.

A few months ago I started using the Mailbox App for my iPhone and iPad. I’m such a big fan that it has actually replaced the prime real estate on my iPhone and iPad also known as the “dock.” Having said that, I must point out that there’s nothing actually revolutionary about it. It’s main benefit lies in the swiping gestures, which perform 1 of 4 actions:

  1. Swipe all the way to the right – delete message
  2. Swipe a little to the right – archive message
  3. Swipe a little to the left – reschedule message to appear in inbox at a later date & time (a feature I never use)
  4. Swipe all the way to the left – move message to a specific folder.

Speaking of folders… here are the exact folders I use:

  • Requires Action
  • To Watch
  • To Read
  • Udemy Sign Ups
  • Udemy Reviews
  • Unsubscribe

It took me a little while to realize that the “Archive” folder on the Mailbox app actually goes to the “All Mail” folder within gmail.

Before going any further, I should mention that at the time of this post the Mailbox app only works with gmail accounts. If you have a non-gmail account you can technically set up email forwarding from your non-gmail account to your gmail account, but as you might guess, that can get a little messy.

Why this is important

If you’ve done any sort of research on email hacking, you’d know that the goal here is to get to the promised land known as “Inbox Zero“. Merlin Mann (awesome name right?) the creator of coined the term back in 2007. In a nutshell, it involves taking all incoming emails and immediately doing something with them. That way we don’t have to look at everything when checking email, only the new messages. This significantly lightens the cognitive load on our otherwise overworked and under-appreciated brains. Sorry about that, brain.

Email processing across all my devices

When I check email on my MacBook Pro I use the built-in Mail application (currently running version 5.3). I also take advantage of the “Smart Mailboxes” feature. For those of you who don’t know, these are mailboxes that match any or all of the dynamic criteria which you set. Very similar to iTunes’ “Smart Playlist” feature.

Since there is no swipe functionality on my laptop, I created a few custom keyboard shortcuts to help with email processing. They are not all inclusive, but they do speed things up a bit. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • CMD + SHIFT + U: Mark selected message(s) as read/unread
  • CTRL + CMD + A: Archive selected message(s)
  • SHIFT + CMD + J: Move selected message(s) to junk folder
  • CTRL + CMD + (2-7): Move selected message(s) to Requires Action folder

The range of 2-7 here means that to move to the Requires action folder of my first email account, I use CTRL + CMD + 2, to my 2nd gmail account, I use CTRL + CMD + 3, and so on.

The only reason I have an Unsubscribe folder is because sometimes when I process mail on my device I don’t have time to click on the unsubscribe link in the email (or I’m in the subway and don’t have Internet access). I used to put these in the Requires Action folder, but that didn’t sit well with me. Much like the street food I ate last weekend. Damn you halal cart!

Not to toot my own horn but…

I’ve gotten so good at processing email, that I’m usually done in less than 2 minutes. Mind you, I only get a dozen or 2 new messages every time I check in the morning or evening. By the way, a big part of that is simply unsubscribing to all mailing lists or newsletters that I am no longer interested in (all of them except Ramit Sethi, Ash Ambirge, and a few other lucky ducks).

Then, I spend my time in the morning going through my Requires Action folder. These are the emails that usually require an intelligent and well thought out response. I originally thought I could do these at night, but quickly discovered that’s not such a good idea. Let’s not talk about that….

The verdict

Since my goal here was to spend less time with email, get more done, and at a higher quality, I’d say mission accomplished!

The best part? I sleep like a baby because I don’t have to worry about emails slipping through the cracks or the daunting task of manually organizing them all into folders. More on the results of my sleep hacking challenge in a later post. In the meantime check out Scott Britton’s sleep hacking course on Udemy.

Have some cool email hacks you’d like to share? I think I speak for everyone when I say “please share them in the comments!”

The Hidden Costs of Email Addiction and How I Finally Kicked the Habit

“Hi my name is Shir, and I’m an email-aholic.”

At least, that’s what I would have said 3 months ago.

Does any of this sound familiar?

  • Just got out of the subway? Let me check my phone.
  • Waiting in line at the grocery store? Maybe I’ve got a new message.
  • Walking down the street in the most exciting city in the world? I thought I felt a vibration, it must be a new email!

Let’s be honest for a moment (after which we can immediately return to our natural state of deception?), 85% of the emails we receive are either unimportant or completely useless.

I’m not even talking about spam. I’m talking about social media alerts, Groupon deals, newsletters we’re no longer interested in, replied-all email threads, and the list goes on. Yet, our default settings on our phone still behave in a “oh oh oh! Pay attention to me!” fashion.

Louis C. K. talked about the downside of smartphones during his appearance on Conan O’brien. Take a few minutes to watch it.

Have we really become so desperate to avoid feeling lonely that we’ll check our phones 100+ times per day?

Speaking from personal experience

I remember how strong the desire to check my phone was. After all, receiving email meant “someone is thinking of me!” right?

It got so bad that I felt like Pavlov’s dog whenever the email alert came in. Whether it was a *bing*, vibration, or email counter increasing in number, I immediately began salivating (metaphorically of course).

It wasn’t until a few months ago that I was talking about it with my friend Georges Janin, and I decided to make a serious change. Part of the impetus for it was the disappointment that came from checking my phone every 5 minutes, only to find that I still had “no new messages.” I felt more and more pathetic each time.

I knew that if I didn’t create some kind of system, my will power would cave in under the weight of temptation. And why waste all that energy anyway?

It was official! No email during the hours of 12 pm and 9 pm

Why 12-9 you ask?

Well, I already know that I’m most productive between the hours of about 12 pm – 2 pm and then again from about 3 pm – 5 pm. So, in order to optimize my day, I needed to make sure those times were off limits. Nighttime on the other hand was perfect because I could still check email even when tired.

Some of the benefits of this arrangement

  • Wake up in the morning to a batch of emails, which serves as a nice way for me to start the day.
  • Eliminates the biggest distraction during my most productive hours during the day.
  • Helps me achieve my Wildly Important Goals (a.k.a. WIGs) faster.
  • After a day of being productive, I get to reward myself at 9 pm with checking email, which have accumulated to a much larger number than they would have otherwise.
  • No more disappointment of checking my inbox to find “no new messages.”

I really look forward to 9 pm because I’ll have more emails accumulated to process at once. It’s a much better use of my time to batch email in this way. There are many people talking about the benefits of batching, but Tim Ferris was the first that really illustrated that point for me.

Here are 2 of his blog posts on the topic:

I know what you might be thinking

“But Shir, that’s crazy, I can’t have a 9 hour email blackout during the day!”

Pull yourself together and stop making excuses! (I yell because I care) You don’t need to do it as long as that. You can find 1 or 2 times during the day that make the most sense for you to check your mail. Right after lunch perhaps?

The exact steps to follow if you have an iPhone (before iOS 7)

  • Turn off sound alerts
    • Settings –> Sounds –> New Mail –> None
  • Turn off vibration alerts
    • Settings –> Sounds –> New Mail –> Vibration –> None
  • Remove counters from the app buttons
    • Settings –> Notifications –> Mail –> [Individual Email Account Name] –> Notification Center = Off, Alert Style = None, Badge App Icon = Off, New Mail Sound = None, Show Preview = Off, View in Lock Screen = Off.

By the way, I recommend going to the Notification center and turning off all Badge App Icons for all your apps.

The Key Takeaway

I always respond to emails that are actually important in less than 24 hours. Nothing truly important slips through the cracks. And in the meantime, I have gained so much freedom. I am no longer a slave to my inbox!

Your Turn

Don’t forget, you could start small with a 2 hour email blackout period. You don’t have to go for 9 hours at a time like I do. The cool thing is you can use it as a reward for yourself once you finish what you need to (For more on how to use rewards, check out my post:ย Don’t Underestimate the Power of Rewards). Either way, be sure to share your experience in the comments.