Learn How to Focus, it’ll Give You More Energy

Do you ever come home from a long day of school, work, bicycling around, hanging with your friends, or you know, generally doing interesting and tiring things, and feel really burnt out but still feel the need to immerse yourself in the internet or otherwise generally waste time?  And do you later realize that the time wasting made you feel more tired?  It’s because when you waste time by watching TV, poking around the internet, or getting sucked into some other form of entertainment, you’re burning up limited cognitive resources.  You’re burning the candle at both ends, friend, and it’s probably why you feel so tired all the time.

Energy is a limited resource.  What’s the point of working an 8+ hour day, getting to and from work, if you get home just to watch TV, end up exhausted, and not have enough energy to cook dinner, see friends, or do things that you really enjoy?  I think there’s very little point.  Then you’re living only for the weekend and 5/7 of your life is lived in an information clogged stupor.

So how do you avoid it?  Realize that you have a limited supply of cognitive resources.  When you spend several hours surfing blogs, checking Facebook, Googling endlessly, you’re burning up your energy supply which means that later you won’t have as much energy to see friends, exercise, cook dinner, or generally do healthy and fulfilling things.  If you realize that your energy is limited, you will begin to understand that spending your time in certain ways prevents you from spending your time in other ways.

Prioritize.  Set limits for yourself.  I personally installed an app to Google Chrome called StayFocusd.  You can mark certain sites as ‘blocked’ and allot yourself only a certain amount of time for each of them.  I get 25 minutes per day for Facebook, Twitter, and the Mr. Money Mustache Forum (what can I say? I’m a frugality nerd).  When I began this, my mind fought against it wanting to waste time and goof around.  The longer I’ve had it (I even cut down from 30 minutes), the less I feel the need to go on those time-suck websites since every time I’m on there I constantly remember that I shouldn’t be.  I also decided to make my bedroom a computer-free zone.  This means that my computer now lives in the living room and is much less available for casual time-wasting, especially since its battery life is terrible.

Energy management is also very important in work settings.  When you interrupt yourself to visit various websites or check your phone, you’re burning up resources that otherwise could have been spent finishing tasks more quickly.  If you’re feeling burnt out at work, do you really think that reading something online is going to make you feel refreshed?  When I’m feeling burnt out at work I do a couple of things, depending on where I am and how much time I have.  If I have a little time I like to take a walk, or go to a private area and do 10-15 minutes of yoga.  If I don’t have much time, I’ll simply sit still and meditate on my breath for a couple of minutes to focus myself, and then return to the task at hand refreshed.

Mindfulness practice can help you refresh your energy and make better energy decisions.  Since I’ve started monitoring how my energy is spent, I sometimes can really see the forces at work in my body.  Recently I came home from a busy day and felt very strongly that I wanted to go read some blogs and watch a couple TV shows on my computer.  I thought, “Man, I’m tired, I want to waste time.”  I actually thought that!  I was able to catch myself then and say, “Okay, I’m tired.  Wasting time probably won’t make me feel better.  Maybe I’ll take a nap!”  And nap I did and it was wonderful.  I woke up refreshed and able to have a great evening with friends.

I now tend to generally plan out my free time a little.  I think about the day and schedule in bicycling, yoga, cooking, and friend time.  It doesn’t give me a lot of left over time to spend on the computer and I feel much better about how I’m spending my time.  I certainly feel like it’s a journey, and no effort is too small.  Once you start focusing more in one area of your life, it will become easier to keep the ball rolling in other areas.  Certainly a regular mindfulness or meditation practice helps, as it trains the mind to become calmer and more centered, but any small effort to make your mind less tumultuous will bring you more peace and energy.

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Integrating Exercise into Every Day

Here’s a confession: I used to have a gym membership.  I would shell out $58/mo for my YWCA membership to go work out on the same elliptical 3-4 times a week.  I’d sometimes take a yoga class.  I’d often lift weights.  I got in better shape, lost a little weight, but I NEVER enjoyed it.  I’d blast whatever peppy songs I’d been listening to lately on my iPod while I tried to forget about the fact that I was working out.  While I was doing this, I kept thinking, “This is it?  I’m going to have to waste 4-5 hours at the gym every week for the rest of my life?”  But I’m happy to tell you that this is not the case!  You do not need to be a slave to a gym that sucks up your money and time.

When I quit the gym something interesting happened: I stopped ‘working out,’ I got into better shape, and I enjoyed myself much more.  How?  I started integrating exercise into my everyday life and found that I get much more exercise than I did before, it’s more useful, and I actually enjoy it now.

Working out is boring.  There’s no way around it.  Working out, to me, is any individual activities that take place at a gym.  The sole intent of working out is to increase physical fitness, which is great.  I did it for 1.5 years.  While I enjoyed being more physically fit, I didn’t enjoy having to set aside time each week to spend at the gym plugging away on the elliptical machine and doing the same arm exercises.  It was so boring!

During the time I went to the gym, I biked quite a bit but never had to bike all that far.  I started discovering that biking can be an amazing useful tool to both get you places and serve as your exercise for the day.  Last summer I biked to work for several weeks, 12 miles each way, and was excited about the fact that I wouldn’t have to come home and go to the gym since that served as my exercise.

When I started grad school, I began biking 8 miles round trip 5 days a week.  I got in better shape, felt more fit, and saved time because my commute also counted as my exercise time.  The other part is that I enjoy biking outside; you get to look around and notice what people are doing and what’s happening in the neighborhood.  It’s much more interesting than staring at a wall in a gym.

Utilitarian exercise is also much more sustainable than recreational exercise.  Sure, I love to go for a sunny bike ride around the lake, go for a pleasant jog, or take a stroll downtown, but I don’t always have time to do those things.  On the other hand, I always need to get to school.  Biking is faster than taking the bus and allows me more flexibility in my schedule; therefore it is the obvious choice for school transportation.  Even when I’m not able to do recreational exercise for awhile, at least I’m still getting exercise, and usually a lot of it, because it is well integrated into my life.

I also don’t feel like I exercise all that much.  I do yoga about 5 times per week and I bike 30-50 miles per week, but it never feels like exercise.  When I bike places, it feels like I’m transporting myself while getting fresh air.  When I do yoga, it feels like a mindfulness practice that happens to move my body.  I sometimes think that I need to exercise more because I never register my physical activity as exercise; it’s simply what I do to get around or be happy.

It’s really hard to motivate yourself to do something several times every single week, especially when it’s not something you particularly enjoy.  Finding enjoyable exercise that can become well integrated into your life is a very positive way to ensure that even if you’re strapped for time, or tired, or cranky, you will still be getting the exercise that your body needs, probably without even thinking about it.  So how can you do this?  Get a bike.  Bike to the grocery store, to run errands, to work.  Walk to your friend’s house or to the library.  In the winter, go ice skating instead of sitting inside watching TV.  Spend time doing physically active things with friends: take a walk, go for a run, take a yoga class (hell teach each other yoga moves), climb a tree, or go rock climbing. Some of these things are free, which makes it a great way to be social while being frugal and healthy.

Once exercise is well ingrained into your life, you won’t even notice it’s there.  You’ll start exercising for recreation on top of for utilitarian purposes and become even healthier.  You’ll save time and money not going to a gym.  You’ll be sexier and more interesting.  I promise.

Time is counting down until you need to plug your laptop in!

Why I Like My Computer’s Terrible Battery Life

There’s nothing like the thrill of hearing the sweet chirp of your computer’s battery monitor telling you that you have three minutes until your computer completely shuts down due to a drained battery.  I’ve heard this chirp often lately.  It’s hard to tell if my computer’s battery life is getting worse, or if I’m just using it in charger-less situations more frequently.  Either way, my computer’s battery lasts for 1.5 hours maximum, and usually less.  That chirping noise is supposed to happen when I have 10% battery left, and for some reason is often delayed until I have 5% battery life left, which functionally means that the chirp will happen quite belatedly after my computer has died and been turned back on after being plugged in.

So you would ask why, why would I possibly like this lovely feature?  There are three reasons.

First, the computer that I have has worked splendidly.  It’s an Acer Aspire 5532.  When I bought it brand-new from Best Buy in May of 2010 it was less than $400 including tax.  Sure it doesn’t have a web cam, but my old computer didn’t either so I already had one.  Yes it only has two USB drives, but that’s enough for filling up my external hard drive, so good enough for me.  It has a 17” screen which is fantastic for watching the Daily Show and the other various videos that one might watch online (ie. Baby Sloths).  It’s not bad looking either.

Sure, sometimes I get somewhat jealous of people who have MacBook Pros or iMacs, but there is no way that I could ever justify such a purchase.  Let’s assume that people replace their computers every 4 years.  My <$400 17” screen Acer will average out to less than $100/year, while a $1799 15”MacBook Pro will average $479/year (after tax) and a $1199 13” MacBook Pro will average $319/year (after tax).  Even considering the fact that MacBooks have greater resale value, a brief Ebay search indicates that a 4-year-old 15” MacBook Pro can resell for an average of $780, which still results in a yearly loss of $284.  I understand that some people do interesting things with their computers, but I don’t and I know that the vast majority of friends and acquaintances with MacBooks use their computers for the same things as I do: listening to iTunes, writing Word documents, checking Facebook obsessively, Googling things, Wikipediaing things, Youtubing things. Which brings me to my next point:

Second, a crappy battery life is an amazing way to meet people at coffee shops.  If you frequent coffee shops that have ubiquitous electrical outlets, this does not apply as much.  But if you, like me, enjoy independent and local coffee shops with sporadic electrical outlet placement, having a computer with poor battery life provides you with a great excuse to speak with that cute guy or girl sitting next to the nearest outlet.

For example, one day I was at Espresso Royale in Dinkytown, a place infamous for its lack of outlets.  I was working away on grading some undergrad discussion forum posts when my computer died without even chirping first.  I spent several minutes with computer cord in hand wandering the coffee shop, seeking an elusive outlet.  The only one I could find was at a two-person table where a fellow was sitting by himself, working away on his own laptop.  I asked if I could share his table and outlet, and he willingly obliged.  This fellow, Jesse, was very friendly and the entire endeavor was quite satisfying.  We chatted, worked, and watched each other’s computers while the other went to smoke (him) or went to refill a water bottle (me).

This is not necessarily just a tactic for those who are single and looking.  There’s something about having a connection with community that has become more and more important to me as I’ve been learning to navigate the world on my own.  While being in grad school has blessed me with an abundance of lovely friends and acquaintances, many of them will someday move away and I’ve been especially aware of possibilities for meeting new friends once this happens (and before!).

Third, I’ve been trying to spend my time a lot more wisely lately.  I try to do some sort of physical activity every day, usually including at least one hour of yoga and some running or biking.  I’ve found that both meditating for 20 minutes every morning and being physically active make my mind more able to focus on work or homework that I might need to finish, which makes me overall more productive than if I had forgone the physical activity and meditation and tried to spend all of that time working.  One of the major features of this new lifestyle trend has been to cut down the time I spend online.  When your computer unexpectedly dies or starts chirping that it is about to, you are able to assess what you’re doing and evaluate whether that activity warrants the retrieval of a power cord to continue.  In many situations I realize that what I’m doing (watching the Colbert report, re-reading Mr. Money Mustache blog posts, looking at friends pictures on Facebook) isn’t something that I really want to spend more time doing, so I leave my computer dead or plug it in and turn it off.  Having this time limit helps me be more productive and provides a great reminder for times when the internet sucks me in.

Having a great computer battery life is probably a necessity for some people, but I’ve found that the monetary as well as unexpected social and personal benefits from a poor battery life are not insignificant for me.