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Free Goals and Habits Coaching Available This Month


Update, 3/18/2010: My coaching schedule is now full for the time being, and I’ll be sure to announce when I have openings again. If you’d like to join a waiting list, just send me a note letting me know.

During this month and for a limited time going forward I’ll be providing free, one-on-one goals and habits coaching through e-mail. I don’t know about you, but I often find it easier to work through issues by talking with someone who is interested and has specialized knowledge they can bring to bear. Through coaching, I’m able to assist in identifying obstacles, determining tactics to overcome those obstacles, and providing resources to help inform the process.

Coaching services are entirely free: the benefit to me is in expanding my understanding of how individual people face issues with goals and habits in their own lives. To participate, it’s necessary to be willing for our discussions to be drawn on and quoted in my further writing on these issues, with the understanding that participants will be kept completely anonymous at all times.

A full explanation of the service is available under the Free Coaching tab at the top of this page. There are no strings attached, and I’m not offering any fee-based services at this time. If you have questions, please get in touch through the contact form.

Please feel free to repost this or information from the Free Coaching page anywhere you think it might be of interest. As a matter of fact, I’d consider it a favor.

Photo by Philo Nordlund

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How I’m Keeping My E-mail Inbox Empty


I’ve aspired for years to keep my inbox empty and up-to-date, but it wasn’t until very recently that I figured out how to actually achieve it. Before, my idea was “Well, I’ll kind of reply to things in order of importance and just try to really keep on top of it.” This is another way of saying “I’ll just try harder,” and just trying harder doesn’t work . While I was aware of this on some level, I didn’t see a better solution available for the time being, which is fine–we can’t tackle every goal in our lives all at once. But then I learned how to actually get it done–and it turned out to be quick and even kind of fun.

Why keep an empty inbox?
Keeping an empty inbox means no worrying that there’s something I ought to have replied to, no forgetting to follow up on important matters, no burdened sigh on seeing a long list of maybe-I-need-to-do-something-about-some-of-these messages every time I open my e-mail. It improves my mood and keeps me focused on things I actually need to do.

I’ve only had an empty in-box for a short time, but all indications so far are that it will be much easier to keep an empty inbox now than it was to keep a full one before. What enabled me to really tackle this job was switching to a Web e-mail client that I could access from everywhere instead of using one e-mail client on my laptop and another at home on my desktop. Using two programs meant I had to process every single e-mail twice, which was tedious and didn’t seem worth my time. Using the Web client gets rid of this problem, though it doesn’t in and of itself provide any solution to inbox management.

The setup
So Web mail for me was what opened the door to keeping my inbox empty. But what am I doing differently to actually accomplish it? Well, let’s take a look at my e-mail folders (see the close-up, below). The key to this system is that group called _Utility. All the other folders are just where I keep old e-mail for reference.

Information” contains e-mails that have something in them I might someday need to know: login information for a new hosting account, a discount code for a Web site I shop at sometimes, a schedule for a conference I might go to, that kind of thing. It’s there only to keep the most important reference information I receive through e-mail all in one place. Because of the small number of things I need to keep here (I only use it for information I have a high probability of needing), it’s always easy to find what I’m looking for. I’ve been using this strategy for years, and it’s worked really well for me.

Pending” contains e-mails about things I’m expecting from other people. I review it regularly to see if there are any situations that have changed or gone on too long and require my attention. Because there are usually only a few e-mails I’m waiting to have someone else follow up on, it usually contains very few items. Right now it holds only one, a note from someone who owes me a refund on a defective computer part. This is a new category for me in e-mail, but a similar category has worked really well for me in my task list (I use ToDoist, which is free unless you want a few extra geegaws, has good features, and is very easy to use.)

REPLY or act” is my folder for e-mails that need a substantial response or that require me to do something. This might seem like just another inbox at first glance, but it’s actually the key to the whole system. E-mails only go into “REPLY or act” if I have

1) already looked at them, and
2) need to take some action (writing back or doing something), and
3) have decided exactly what kind of action or response I need to provide, and
4) have decided I’ll definitely take that action or make that response (that is, there are no “maybe follow up on this” e-mails in this folder), and
4) can’t answer the message in two minutes or less.

Before I started this system, my inbox contained thousands of e-mails. As of this moment, my “REPLY or act” folder contains exactly eight, none more than a week old.

Things to Read” is where I put things that I’m interested in reading but don’t need to specifically get back to anyone on or do something about–blogs of interest, a non-critical update about a group I’m involved in, etc. I only put things in here if they will take some time to read: anything that I can read within a few minutes gets read right away and never makes it to this folder.

How it all fits together
What this means is that going through my inbox ends up being a process of making quick decisions and taking quick actions. Here’s a letter from a friend: I’ll put that in “REPLY or act” and respond at length later on. Here’s a long description about new features on that Web site I use: I’ll put it into “Things to Read.” Here’s some spam and a couple of notices I’m not interested in: delete, delete, delete. Here’s a short e-mail about recent events at my son’s school: I’ll read it now and then file it. Here’s an e-mail asking if I’ll be at Taekwondo class Thursday: I’ll fire off an answer now. And so on.

The result is that I can mow through everything in my inbox in a very short period of time and bring it back to “empty.” Anything that takes a long time by definition gets shuffled into one of the utility folders.

Then whenever I go into e-mail and don’t have anything in my inbox, or else get through the inbox quickly and don’t find anything interesting, if I actually have some time, I dive into my “REPLY or act” folder, open the oldest e-mail in it, and reply to or act on it. I had tried using a “reply or act folder” with my old system, but since I hadn’t figured out yet how to keep my inbox clear, the huge mass of e-mails in the inbox always distracted me from looking at “reply or act.” With the new system, my empty inbox forces me to look into my utility folders if I want to do anything. What I’m finding is that instead of feeling paralyzed by the mass of mostly low-importance, undealt-with e-mails in my inbox, I’m energized by the short list of really meaningful e-mails in “REPLY or act.”

Principles for easy e-mail management
It’s important to point out that I process everything in my inbox only once. If some message really is going to take a prolonged decision process, it can go into “REPLY or act,” but usually the decisions take a very short period of time. In the past I would defer them in favor of digging around for a more interesting piece of e-mail. Now I have a rule that if the decision is short I make it immediately, and this allows me to respond very quickly to all kinds of e-mails that otherwise might have languished for weeks.

So, the three principles that need to be followed for this kind of system to work are:
1. Process everything in the inbox from beginning to end regularly
2. Don’t defer dealing with e-mails that just need a quick decision or read or a short response
3. Review actionable e-mails in utility folders on a regular basis.

One exception to the above: if you know you have time to answer a more lengthy e-mail, you can just process your other in-box items and then get back to the e-mail you want to answer right away. Anything you are going to act on immediately after processing your inbox never needs to go into the utility folders at all. Just whatever you do, don’t leave something in your inbox because you want to follow up on it soon but can’t immediately. Even one leftover e-mail can encourage us to avoid inbox processing, and all that needs to be done is to put that e-mail into the Reply folder, maybe with a star or a red flag if it’s of special interest.

How to get started
To set this kind of system up, what do you do with the half-a-billion e-mails already in your inbox (if you’re like me and had them piling up)? Well, you need to set aside some time if you’re going to do this, but it only took me a little more than an hour to set mine up and get organized. Once you have your block of time, here’s the process I’d suggest:

1. Make a set of utility folders that works for you.
2. Pick a time period, from 5-30 days. Anything this recent, you’ll consider “fresh” e-mail. (Don’t worry: older e-mails will be covered in a later step, so this doesn’t have to be a long period. I used 10 days.)
3. Move everything older than that to a new folder called “Old Inbox.”
4. Process your inbox in the way I’ve described, starting with the first item and going through all e-mails without skipping any. Only process! This means: delete e-mails you don’t need, put messages needing long responses in your reply folder, file away non-actionable e-mails you want to keep, and deal immediately with any e-mail that you can get through in two minutes or less. Don’t get bogged down in detailed responses for anything that isn’t absolutely urgent: only answer e-mails that will take 2 minutes or less for now. Even very important things, as long as they don’t need to be done right this second, shouldn’t merit responses: you’ll have a chance to get to those soon.
5. When you have processed all of your fresh e-mail, you will have an empty inbox. Everything has been deleted, queued in a reply/act folder, queued for reading, stored with pending (waiting for someone else) items, or filed away.
6. If you think there may be anything important in your Old Inbox folder, start going through it from the most recent item going back. Just skim the titles and check e-mails as necessary if you need to know what’s in them. Don’t worry about processing everything in here unless you have a lot of extra time: just look for actionable items and put them in reply/act, to read, or pending. Everything else is just reference and can be found within Old Inbox if you ever need it. (This step will be especially easy if you’ve been flagging important e-mails prior to now: start by processing all of your flagged e-mails.)
7. Keep your inbox empty by following the three principles above.

My categories are just guidelines: you may find a different way you prefer to sort your e-mail. However, you may find something very similar is the most efficient method for you if you’re interested in keeping a clean inbox. However you organize, make very clear distinctions between actionable e-mail folders and non-actionable ones, or you’ll start to get a huge mass of stuff accumulating without knowing off the top of your head what needs your attention and what doesn’t.

This post owes much to the ideas of Dave Allen and to his book Getting Things Done, although it also is informed by personal experience and organizational skills I’ve learned over the years. Here’s hoping you find it useful.


How to Make Self-Motivation Easier, Part II

Strategies and goals, Uncategorized


In my previous article, I offered four ways to make self-motivation easier, and talked about stacking up advantages ahead of time instead of waiting to come face to face with a difficult situation. Here I’ll cover five more ways to make self-motivation easier: building up enthusiasm, being more mentally and physically prepared to face challenges, getting help from others, learning, and minimizing temptation.

Visualize and find your enthusiasm
When things are going well, I’m not distracted, and I have time to think about what I want to do, I’m often in a good state of mind to improve my motivation, but by definition these low-demand times tend to be ones when not much motivation is needed. I can build up motivation for harder times by using these opportunities to visualize where I’m trying to get and by otherwise spending time thinking about and especially enjoying my goal, whether I’m reflecting on successes so far, enjoying progress, envisioning future payoffs, or planning ahead. The more time I spend thinking positively about my goal, the more accessible positive thoughts about it will be when I really need them. For instance, if I’m trying to learn to play a musical instrument, I can visualize myself playing it and remind myself why I’m putting in all the hard work.

Take care of yourself
When we get enough sleep, exercise regularly, eat well, and use techniques like meditation to aid mood and mental focus, we’re much more capable of being proactive in our lives than when we are tired, inactive, badly nourished, overstuffed, or carrying around a lot of stress. Mood and physical well-being have an important impact on making good decisions, so everything we can do to improve them will tend to improve  motivation, too.

Get support
Connecting with a friend or family member to talk about your goals, the problems you’re running into, your plans, and your successes is a good way to keep your goal more in mind and to process your thoughts about it. Having someone in your corner can also make it more important to to do well and provides more options if something starts going wrong. A person trying to quit a bad habit can go talk to a supporter when temptation seems particularly strong. Someone trying to get a better job can talk through their plans and strategies if they have a sympathetic ear.

Read, learn
Reading about subjects having to do with our goals serves several purposes at once: it gives us more information to use when making plans; keeps our goal more in our mind; lets us try on others’ ideas; and serves as a physical reminder (whenever we see the book) of what’s being accomplished. Someone trying to get fit can learn a lot from books about nutrition and exercise, like The 9 Truths About Weight Loss. Anyone trying to change habits and running into emotional resistance can benefit from books like Emotional Alchemy, The Feeling Good Handbook, or A Guide to Rational Living.

Minimize temptation
Finally, minimizing temptation can be a real boon, at least in the short term, for anyone who’s really struggling with making the right choices. If you’re working on spending money wisely, you can take any savings you have and put it in a CD or some other instrument that makes it difficult or impossible to withdraw for a time. Someone who’s trying to quit playing video games can actually sell the games rather than hanging on to them to play just a little bit now and then.

This approach is a bit of a crutch, and the problem with relying too much on it is that when a situation comes up where there is temptation–for instance, when the person working on spending gets a tax refund, or when the former video game player is staying with a friend who has a top-notch video game system–the strategies to deal with the temptation may not be very well developed. But like all of these strategies, minimizing temptation–if not relied on absolutely–can help make everything simpler.

Photo by James Jordan

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Improving Motivation Through Better Memory and Learning



Learning and memory can be essential in self-motivation. Why? Well, consider two examples.

Let’s say a man, Scott, has trouble with being late, and he’s trying to change his habits to always be on time or a little early. Scott has three children, all in school, with various afterschool activities. Sometimes they take the bus home, but sometimes Scott needs to pick them up, while sometimes his wife, Selena, does. Sometimes activities get changed at the last minute.

So Scott might get much better at paying attention to what he’s doing before leaving to go somewhere, and he might start setting aside extra travel time in case of delays, but if his daughter shouts “We have an extra soccer practice tonight, so you have to pick me up” as she’s leaving for school in the morning and Scott doesn’t remember this fact, then his other preparations are useless, and his daughter will be left standing in front of a deserted, locked school until someone catches Scott’s mistake.

To take a different kind of example: let’s say Lisa wants to become much more organized at her job (she’s an architect). She attends a special training seminar on organization for architects, with all kinds of wonderful information–but she’s distracted during the seminar by a very sick man sitting next to her, and so while she scribbles down a lot of notes, the information doesn’t sink in. When she looks back later, her notes aren’t of much help: she wasn’t really understanding the material when she wrote it down, so she’s not going to suddenly understand it from looking at her own notes later. She has a vague recollection that the system seemed to be exactly what she needed and involved a lot of colored folders, but that’s it. The system never gets implemented and Lisa continues to spend hours every week trying to find documents she needs.

So if learning and memory are important to self-motivation, how do we improve them?  There are a few important facts to keep in mind.

Make sure you understand as you’re learning
We don’t remember things like a video recorder: our brain breaks up everything see, hear, touch, etc. into a lot of separate kinds of information and store it all over the brain, bringing it together as needed. That means that if you don’t learn something when it’s presented to you, you usually won’t be able to learn it by trying to recall the details. Effective learning requires focus at the time you’re learning.

We learn better when information has meaning
The more meaning and connections information has for us, the easier it is to remember. As an example, many top chess players can look at a chess board mid-game and instantly memorize the location of every single piece on the board. In one study, chess players with this ability were able to remember layouts set up from actual games beautifully, but were much poorer at being able to remember layouts where pieces were just set randomly around the board. The actual game layouts were meaningful to them: a possible threat to the queen here, mutually protective knights there, and so on. Random game layouts didn’t have these meanings, so they couldn’t “chunk” the information (that is, bind up many pieces of information into a single “chunk” that can be recalled as one piece), which was what was enabling them to memorize so much information so well (I’m trying to help both myself and my readers chunk concepts from posts when I use subheadings, like in this article). More meaning connections to a piece of information also gives you more possible ways to remember it when you need to.

Emotion is a powerful force in memory
We learn things better when we have emotional associations with them. Have you ever used your own personal information, or a family member’s, when making up a password? Those kinds of passwords are much easier to remember than random passwords, because our lives and those of family members have much more meaning to us than random information. (Unfortunately, such passwords are also usually easier for other people to guess.) In the same way, experiences that are powerfully joyful or frightening or that are emotionally charged in some other way tend to be very memorable. If you run out of your house while it’s on fire, you’re liable to remember that in much greater detail than if you run out of the house to get to the hardware store before it closes. (Although this is also because we tend to remember unusual things better than everyday things.)

To really learn something, start using it immediately
When learning how to do something, one of the strongest possible ways to fix it in memory is to start using it. This serves several purposes: it provides a lot more neural connections for the information; it allows you to experiment and apply the information while it’s still fresh in your memory; and it helps turn up any misunderstandings or gaps in knowledge that need to be filled in while you’re still close to the source of the original information.

One way to start using knowledge immediately is to write, talk, or teach about it. If you find out something you think will be especially useful in your life, you might consider calling up a friend and telling them about what you’ve learned, or blogging or writing a journal entry about it. This forces you to use the information in a way that creates more connections and helps you see exactly how well you’ve understood it, at the same time that you’re doing other people a service by passing it on.

Come back to the same information several times to fix it in memory
Getting information to permanently take up residence in long-term memory usually requires revisiting it several times, with perhaps a few hours to a few days between repetitions. If you make notes about something you want to learn, you can leave yourself two reminders to come back to it two more times, just to review. You can also use the write, talk, or teach approaches at timed intervals. The same amount of study spread over a day or a few days or a week seems to be much more effective than taken all at once.

How this all works in real life
So for instance, if you were writing an article on how memory applies to willpower, you might start out with some examples that people could easily envision, to give meaning to the idea that memory applies to self-motivation. You might even make those examples a little emotionally loaded, with a stranded child here, anxiety about a sick person there … actually, that sounds like it might work. Remind me to write something like that sometime!

And if you want to make the best possible use of this article, you might glance over it to make sure you understand everything, asking yourself questions about each of the major points and seeing how well you can answer them. You might then go blog about it, tell a friend about it, try to summarize the main points in a quick written outline, or go use this information to learn something else. Reviewing it twice over the next couple of days would give it the strongest chance of sticking around.

For more information on how memory works, along with other useful information about how the brain operates, I highly recommend John Medina’s book Brain Rules, which provided some of the information for this entry.

Photo by clappstar.


Blog carnivals


Posts that might interest you elsewhere in the blogosphere:

Kellen Von Houser maintains a Mental Health Blog Carnival that changes from week to week. As far as I’ve seen, old carnivals aren’t kept on the site, and the carnival isn’t kept with the main blog, so the content of this page changes:

The Carnival of Personal Development at (that’s the May 4th edition, at any rate) offers quite a variety of posts, some probably of more interest to you than others.

Finally, the Widow’s Quest blog offers support and encouragement to widows and widowers, and every Sunday offers a Carnival of Positive Thinking.

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Kellen Von Houser on expectations, frustration, and fairness


Therapist Kellen Von Houser posted an informative, interesting look at how we respond to unfair situations: what kinds of responses buy us trouble and what kinds can make things better.

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