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The First Day of Your Life

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Image of East Beach, Norfolk by shoebappa

Here’s something to consider:

Today is the first day of the rest of your life.

You’ve heard that before, right? Maybe it’s like Time Is Money – something we nod our heads to before we get back to all the stuff we have to do.

Hearing that today is a new, unique day at the beginning of a new week naturally implies both good news and bad news. In the spirit of realistic optimism, we’ll take the bad news first.

Bad News: You’ll never get today back. Once it’s gone, that’s it. On to tomorrow.

Good News: Right now, the day (and the whole week) is ahead of you. The choice is up to you: spend your time doing things that are unimportant or uninteresting to you, or spend it on things that move you closer to who and where you want to be.

It’s not much more complicated than that, although the actual implementation can sidetrack the best visionary or GTD guru. What can be done about this?

Today, the Beginning of Your New Life

On one hand, we have obligations and responsibilities. Not all of these bad – we have obligations to our loved ones, for example, that we would not want to break. The problem is that we tend to look at all obligations as non-negotiable requirements, when in fact many of them are unnecessary. We take them on because we like to be busy, we like to be needed, or because we’re not actually certain what we should be doing every day.

Instead of being completely mandatory, I’ve found that most plans can be canceled. Most obligations can be deferred without the world coming to an end. You really don’t have to do what other people expect you to all the time.

Some people think these kinds of metaphors are silly. I say, use whatever works for you. If motivation comes your way, take it. Don’t ask questions. There are enough skeptics out there already.

What if you know you’re on the wrong track?

I have one suggestion: change course as quickly as you can. Don’t wait. Someone said in the comments last week that complacency is like the “slow dying of the soul.” I couldn’t put it better myself. If the job is dead-end, if the college track isn’t working out, if you don’t like where you’re living, change it as quickly as possible.

Assuming you are on the right course, then the danger is more that you’ll be distracted by all the obligations and unrelated tasks that crop up along the way.

To combat this kind of resistance, answer these questions:

  • Is there one thing you can do today that goes beyond your regular to-do list?
  • Is there one thing you can do this week to work towards your 5-year goals?

  • Is there one way you can help someone that no one else is able to do?

If so, I suggest that’s how you spend your time this week. It rarely works out to 100% efficiency, but the two steps forward, one step back approach gets us to the finish line eventually. The power of a single action, or a single action for each question above, should not be underestimated.

And when you get there, you’ll have done more than fulfill obligations. You’ll have more than money, and more than a well-stamped time card. You’ll be able to say that today was the beginning, and this week was an exceptional seven days.

Are you ready?

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Beware of Potential

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I’ve known a lot of artists, writers, and musicians. Without fail, they all had some degree of talent and skill. There is no shortage of talent in the world. But I’ve noticed that something happens along the way with a lot of these talented people.

With a few notable exceptions, most of them give up on their goals at some point.

As a fellow creative type, this really troubles me. Why do talented people stop working on what other people say they are good at?

I don’t have all the answers about this. In fact, it’s something that I’m intensely curious about, and I might take it up as a longer project later.

But for now… I do think I know part of the answer. What many talented people lack is the ability to keep going when external rewards are minimal or non-existent.

At the early stages of working on something, hearing that “you have potential” can feel rewarding. But it’s a slippery slope, because the world expects more than just potential. At a certain point, you have to raise the bar and start delivering.

I’ve quoted Paulo Coelho before – “When you want something, the entire universe conspires to make it happen.” This is completely true. But I think it’s also true that when the universe bestows talent on you, you need to start working with all you’ve got to make something lasting of it.

140 Rejection Letters

We often hear stories of how some of the most successful artists encounter a series of great rejections prior to finally becoming an “overnight” success. Here are a few of my favorites:

• Jack Kerouac carried his novels with him for seven years before they were published. Seven years!

• Madeleine L’Engle's A Wrinkle in Time was rejected 25 times.

The Diary of Anne Frank was sent back with this note: "The girl doesn't have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the 'curiosity' level."

But here’s the grandmaster: Jack Canfield, the guy who started the whole Chicken Soup series. Yes, I know that the business beyond these books has gone far beyond any reasonable branding - see Chicken Soup for the Single Christian Woman or the Teenage Soul series, for example.

The first soup book, before things got crazy, was rejected a total of 140 times. Yes, 140 “no thank you” notes for Chicken Soup for the Soul, which has gone on to sell 40 million copies in at least 20 languages. That guy had more than just potential. He had unbelievable persistence.

Every writer gets rejected, sometimes over and over. But the ones who only have potential stop submitting (or just stop writing) somewhere along the way. They get discouraged and feel beat down.

And then, before you know it, they’ve become someone who used to be a writer. Or someone who wanted to be a writer.

I’m picking on writers because writing is the art form I’ve chosen, but the lesson extends to any art form. The forced accountability of this project is good for me, because if I were to stop posting one week, you'd know that I’ve slacked off. Then you could say I had potential—the verbal death blow that strikes so many creative types.

But hopefully I’ll have more than just potential, and you will too. You’ll adopt tenacity in place of mere talent, recognizing that talent is helpful but will only take you so far.

In the end, you’re in a room with a notebook, an easel, a computer, or whatever your medium is. You’re probably alone, because that’s what it takes. Are you willing to go beyond the potential that others see?

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Productivity and Vacations

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Have you ever gone on a vacation only to come back feeling more tired than before you left? It’s not a good feeling to need a vacation from the vacation, but many of us have experienced that kind of let-down.

The secret to overcoming this feeling is planning some good, productive blocks of “work time” into your restful vacation.

No, I am not a workaholic. The key difference is that the work you do on vacation needs to be the kind of work that brings you energy… not the kind of work that tethers you to your cell phone or PDA.

While people not interested in lifestyle design may not appreciate this idea, I suspect that many AONC readers will not find the combination of vacations and productivity to be strange at all. The goal of most vacations is to relax, but we often go about it the wrong way. We binge on relaxation the same way we binge on work. It feels good the first day, but by the third day, you may have the same burned-out feeling you get from working too much.

Without a clear set of goals for your vacation, you may not come back feeling relaxed.

That’s why I advocate a process of goal-setting and GTD for vacations that is fairly similar to what I use for the work-week. The projects on the list are much different than work-week projects, but the system is the same.

At the start of any vacation, I set a few goals for myself -- usually just two or three big ones, along with a few small ones such as journaling every day. If you adopt this system, you should set goals that make sense for you, but feel free to steal some of my ideas if you’d like.

Here’s a Few Ideas

-Complete a bigger “weekly review” than usual. This could be a quarterly or yearly review. For several years now, I have completed a full annual review each December while on vacation. It is the most important thing I do that week, and I plan everything else around it.

Later this year, I'll explain more about that process in real time -- but for now, you can create your own review by looking at the major aspects of your life and planning anything you want to change. There are also many good books that can help with this - two of my favorites are Wishcraft and Finding Your Own North Star.

-Work on one or more writing projects. The good thing about being a writer is that I can work anywhere. I don’t even need a laptop all the time (although I do usually take one with me) because I do a lot of my initial work in a paper notebook before transferring it to computer. But even if you’re not a writer by profession, chances are you have some writing projects to work on, and these are usually a good fit for a relaxing week. You’ll likely find you get a lot more done without interruption, and the work is usually free of the stress that comes with being online all the time.

-Exercise Goals. I try to eat sensibly wherever I go, but I do usually end up eating a bit more while on a real vacation. That’s why I always make sure to set some simple goals of exercise during the week, which also helps maintain my regular habits of taking care of myself. I like to run, so my exercise goals revolve around that, but depending on where you are vacationing, you may also be able to swim, bike, or just take long walks.

Live from Alaska

By the way, I actually wrote the notes for this short essay in June while on vacation myself, from a cruise ship on the Alaskan inside passage. And in between all those big dinners and bread pudding desserts, I set aside a morning to run a full marathon (26.2 miles) while on the open sea. You can read the whole story here, but the short version is that it was an intense, crazy experience that I probably wouldn’t repeat, but I’m tremendously glad that I did it.

I knew I would have a good story to tell, and I enjoyed the bread pudding a lot more afterwards. Then, I went back to my room and did some more writing.

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