Most people yearn for a life marked by "more"--more meaning, more depth, more activity, more friends, more stuff, more security, more health. We look around and notice that others we know seem to have what we want, at least partially, but the gap between where we are and where we think they are seems to be a chasm too large to cross, too time consuming to consider, or too impossible given our current reality. I'm one of those people.
Yet at the back of my mind are these dreams that rise to the surface from time to time, visions of myself in a more fulfilling and enriching future. What frequently happens when one of these dreams seems to float longer than usual is that I buy a book. My office, my home, and even my car are littered with tomes that I saw someplace and thought, "Ah, here's what I need to read so that I can learn about/do [insert any number of subjects here.] Sometimes, I'll jump right in to one of the books, only to set it aside in favor of some other book that I discover. Occasionally, I'll accidentally misplace the book and forget that I even have it. Rarely, if the timing is just right, I will indeed read the entire book and apply its principles to my life.
While clearing my desk of the typical clutter a few days ago, I came across a flyer for QPB (Quality Paperback Book club). Given the number of book club purchases that remain unread on my shelves, I have finally learned to grit my teeth and throw the newest flyers into the circular file. Apparently, my resolve was weak one day and I kept it for later consideration. Likewise, my curiosity about what new books awaited my discovery outweighed my desire for a clean desktop, so consider it I did.
Among the books I found interesting was a book on brain fitness, Brainfit: 10 Minutes a Day for a Sharper Mind and Memory. The topic appealed to me for several reasons. First, now that it has been nearly eleven years since I completed my graduate work, I often feel as if my thinking is a little mushy and my ability to grasp difficult concepts is more slow. Second, I have a truly abysmal recall--not so much for the things like where I put my keys, but for recalling what I've read, conversations I've had, and events from my past. This is not something new; I have believed for many years that my memory seems to be afflicted with some undiagnosed, rare disorder. Third--and as a result of the first two reasons--my shelves already contain a few books on this topic, most of which have barely been cracked open.
Something else, though, especially intrigued me. Is it really possible, I wondered, to become "brainfit" in just 10 minutes a day? Surely, ten minutes isn't realistic. Surely, ten minutes couldn't really make much difference. Surely, this is just a gimmick to sell books, right? Surely, it wouldn't work for me.
Over the next couple of days, the seed planted by those questions began to germinate. As I went through my day, I found myself wondering about just what would really change if I did something new or did things differently for about ten minutes a day. Ten minutes seemed absolutely reasonable; no doubt, most of us waste that much time each day watching YouTube or reading Entertainment Weekly on the toilet (not that I'd have any experience with either of those, of course!) For that matter, even twenty minutes seemed doable except in very rare cases, once I really gave the matter some consideration. So, I gave in to the little devil on my shoulder, who beckoned me to "just buy it."
I next wondered how many other experts claimed they could teach me some great truth, some difficult skill, or some new hobby in just a few minutes a day. Not surprisingly, there were plenty of websites, audiobooks, downloadable kits, life coaches, and much more which came up when I Googled "minutes a day." I started making a list. In roughly ten minutes a day, I found I could...
• Learn Norwegian, Arabic, Chinese, or any number of other exotic languages
• Give myself a massage
• Become a blues guitarist
• Train my dog (in my case, my wife's dog!) or horse (ditto) or cats
• Learn HTML (the language behind every Internet site you visit)
• Solve my psychological problems
• Write more creatively
• Learn Tai Chi
• Lose the spare tire that is growing around my waist
• Find a deeper relationship with God (or any number of other deities)
• Improve my marriage
• Relax and find inner peace
• Spell words corectly correctly every time
• Become independently wealthy
• Make a home cooked meal
• Increase the speed of my reading
• and lots, lots more.
What I didn't find much of was proof that any of this was actually possible. Sure, everyone made lofty and desirable claims, and plenty of testimonials were used to convince fellow seekers of transformation that their hard-earned funds would be well-spent and the life we dreamed of was really possible. But it seemed to me what was missing was an independent review of these quick-fix methods, these books which were destined to soon be out-of-print. What was needed was someone who would be willing to see and report to all the world if we can truly be changed in just ten minutes a day, or if we must actually set aside far more time to become the person we want to be. What was needed was an ordinary individual who would test the gurus' claims by sticking to them for as long as it took for a real difference to be experienced, for real habits to be formed, for real goals to be accomplished. For reasons I can't yet explain--but hope to explore in the course of this book--I decided I was that person.
Several years ago, the environmentalist Bill McKibben tried what I regard as one of the craziest experiments of all time. He had a whole host of friends record literally every minute of every cable channel in one of the largest cable markets in the United States. Then, he actually watched all of those tapes, seeking some sort of broad understanding about what information is or is not conveyed through the pixelated images that beckon us to look at them. McKibben followed up that experience with a 24-hour time of solitude in the hills and woods above his town. In his book, The Age of Mission Information, Bill tried to convey to his readers that we need to wake up, to tune in--not to our favorite programs, but to the data that exists everywhere around us. I remember being absolutely in awe of his conclusions, and almost 15 years later I still think of him as a mentor.
Other regular individuals have tried and written about their own wacky efforts to do something extreme and extremely unusual. More recently, for example, Morgan Spurlock gained notariety for eating nothing but McDonald's food for thirty days, a stunt documented in the film SuperSize Me and his book, Don't Eat This Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America. (From books like these, I've learned that it's important to have a few rules one will stick by no matter what, and a few rules that one will bend as new information becomes available or life situations require it. More on this in a moment.)
I'm not willing, though, to go to such extremes, and I'm certain I'm not alone. All of us can learn from those who push back the normal boundaries of existence to see what happens when one does so, but not many of us are going to abandon our routines and rituals in the pursuit of Truth. Most people I know have given up on making New Year's resolutions, because their experience has been that such commitments are rarely kept. Yet those same people regret that they were unable or unwilling to stick with it to the end they were seeking. I want to know why it is that they--why I--give up the quest.
My hope is that as you read about my own experiments with life change that you'll find yourself encouraged and inspired to try a "10 minutes a day" attempt of your own. With luck, my own experience will help you avoid a few pitfalls, know how to better achieve success, and have even more fun along the way. (I'm assuming, of course, that I'll actually have a little of all of these. But not having started yet, who knows!) If my story in any way gives you the courage to jump in with all you have, there's nothing that would make me happier.The Rules
Since the whole idea for this book came to me just a few days prior to my writing these words, I really haven't yet got everything all worked out. I think that's OK, because in my own life I have often found that when I wait until the perfect time, that day never arrives. When I delay until I have more information, I usually don't really get anything more useful than what is already at hand. That said, here are the rules I'm planning to live by throughout this process.
1. I will spend up to 20 minutes per day on any activity I take on, not including the time it takes to journal or write about my experience. (I do have a real life, after all.)
2. Normally, I'll seek to limit myself to ten minutes per activity. Because of rule #1, though, I can do two activities per day if I so choose. (Being the somewhat lazy guy that I am, two will be plenty!)
3. I will commit myself to doing each of my chosen activities for 30 days, unless the activity or program by design lasts less than that amount of time. (After the 30 days are up, I might decide to continue, or I might not.)
4. I will commit myself to working through my entire group of chosen activities for one year, or however long it takes to do them all, whichever amount of time comes first.
6. I will not rely on family members to assist me (unless they so choose, or unless we decide together to take on an activity.)
7. I will limit my spending on any activity to $50, and hopefully far less. (Frankly, I'm a cheapskate.)
8. I will keep notes throughout my adventure in the form of a journal. I will do my best to do so several times a week.
9. I will enjoy myself. That's not a rule, more of an expectation I have of myself.
10. All of the above rules are firm and unflexible, like strands of spaghetti right out of the box. (Of course, spaghetti changes when cooked and is breakable when uncooked!)
There are a lot of things I want to accomplish with my life. For example, I'd like to go on an archaeological dig in Israel. I'd like to end world hunger. I'd like to get the other three sides of my house painted. None of those are especially realistic for this experiment. Quite doable, I'm hoping, are the following priorities:
1. Become a better writer
3. Improve my financial situation
4. Learn new memory and "brain fitness" skills
5. Organize my office and home, and gain control over the chaos and clutter by simplifying my life
6. Learn HTML (and, perhaps, some related topics like CSS, or "Cascading Style Sheets")
Next are a few things I think are good ideas, but aren't at the top of my list:
7. Improve my social skills and increase my network of friends
9. Increase my spiritual life through the practice of prayer, meditation, or mindfulness
10. Taking regular naps to rejuvenate myself
11. Learn to read ancient Greek
A few ideas I came across simply intrigue me so much that I'd like to try them:
12. "Color Therapy" - this has something to do with staring at colors to improve my mood. I think.
14. Self massage. Not as much fun as having someone else give me one, but I'm still intrigued. (And no, this isn't THAT sort of massage...)
Finally, there are two things that I do relatively well, but I'd like to push myself to the next level and beyond:
15. Live in a more socially-conscious, environmentally responsible way
So, there it is. My list of 16 things I'd like to work on, learn, and do over the next year. That works out to 4 every 3 months--seems reasonable, at least right now. I guess it's time to get started!
Current Mood: contemplative