The 5 Most Valuable Lessons I’ve Learned in a Month of Living on Purpose

At the beginning of the year, I wrote a post called On Turning Pro, about my new mindset for the new year, one of discipline and responsibility. The post really struck a chord, even though it wasn’t specifically about running or diet (but the ideas in it could, of course, be applied to fitness and food).

This is the first of several follow-ups I’ll write about my progress. If I were writing this post at the end of January, which I had every intention of doing, I would be celebrating a month of huge success at what I set out to do.

As it is, I’m still celebrating success, but of a different kind — this week, I finished writing my book! There’s still lots of revision and editing to be done, but the hard part — the sitting down, facing the Resistance, and writing — is finished. The cost of finishing, unfortunately, was abandoning many of the healthy habits and disciplines I had developed in January.

But I’m not deterred. The idea of the meta-habit (perhaps better called an “anchor habit,” by Brett and Amber) is a comforting one — rather than feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of having to restart 10 or 12 different habits, I know that all I have to do is get back to my daily habit of reading and listening to positive material, and the others will fall into place like dominos.

I’m excited for things to return to the way they were before the huge push to get the book finished. Reading over the journal I kept in January, I’m astounded at how much I learned about myself in so short a period.

I learned way more than I can fit into a single post, but I figured I’d start with the five most important lessons I learned during this month of dedication and discipline. I hope you find them useful, in some way, for your own life.

1. Keep a journal.

I started a daily journal at the suggestion of Jim Rohn, and it’s perhaps the most valuable habit I’ve adopted so far this year.

The key to sticking with it, for me, is brevity. You can’t possibly record all that you did each day, so be satisfied with jotting down just one to three highlights. For those days when I don’t have much to write about, I answer three questions:

  1. What did I learn today?
  2. What did I improve today?
  3. What did I enjoy today?

(Thanks, Tony Robbins, for these.)

I keep my journal in a Google document so that I can access it from any computer and easily add notes and quotations that I come across throughout the day.

The best part of a journal, for me? Writing things down forces you to notice unconscious patterns in your behaviour and thoughts. A huge one for me was the realization that as soon as I drink a beer or a glass of wine, I become pretty much worthless, at least as far as willpower and discipline go. Implication? Don’t have a drink until I’ve finished positively everything I plan on doing that day.

2. Cultivate the art of letting small, bad things happen.

In order to do big things, you have to let small, bad things happen. -Tim Ferriss

Oh, I was letting the bad things happen before. The difference between then and now is that then, I would fret about them. Now I understand that small, bad things are a necessary tax on doing things that matter, and I accept them as such. For me, this permission to let the small things go wrong has been unbelievably liberating and stress-reducing.

Example: for three years after starting No Meat Athlete, I answered every single email I got. I didn’t want to piss off or disappoint a single potential reader (and sneezer, as Seth would say) of my blog. I sunk hours and hours each week into my email inbox … to the detriment of the actual work, the stuff that matters.

Writing this book made me realize that those small, one-on-one interactions aren’t nearly as important as writing blog posts or, in this case, a book. I’ve let go of the idea that I can please everyone, but with the result that (hopefully) I’ll make stuff that helps a lot more people than I can ever do with email.

It’s not just email, and it’s not just work. This little idea has changed everything.

3. Recognize the distractions and addictions that are — to be blunt — ruining your life.

Again, I’ll point to email. It was my main digital addiction. I imagine that Facebook and TV are bigger ones for most people, but email was mine.

In short: Email is where I learn about new opportunities, so it’s fun for me to check it. Although I quickly learned that it was stupid and unproductive to leave Gmail open while I was trying to work, email remained my little reward when I was done. Soon, the addiction worsened, and checking email became my default behavior.

Just got in from a run? Check email. Finished reading a chapter in a book? Check email. Finished a walk with the family? Check email. First thing in the morning, last thing at night? Check email.

Checking email became the reward for everything else in life, my home base. The state of checking email was my steady state, the state I always strived to return to.

Centering your schedule around something so meaningless is a recipe for emptiness in your life.

To break free of it, you just need to learn to sit with the urge. Recognize when you’re feeling that pull to do the empty, addictive behavior, and just be okay with not doing it. Sit there. Or better, start that other, important thing — you know, the one you always say you don’t have time to do.

It doesn’t take long before the previous way of doing things — think about it, treating email or Facebook or TV as your reward for hanging out with your family? — seems pretty ridiculous. Once you’ve recognized these addictions for what they are, you can confine them to neat little time boxes, enjoy them for a few minutes each day (or just kill them entirely), and all of a sudden there’s plenty of space for richness in your life.

4. Read (and re-read) Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic.

I’ve never really “gotten” philosophy — I’ve always wished I were a philosophy guy, but just never could get into it.

Seneca changed that (again, a recommendation from Tim Ferriss). Letters from a Stoic is the only book which I’ve read and then immediately re-read as soon as I was finished. It was that much of an eye-opener.

Letters from a Stoic, and stoicism in general, offers a practical philosophy for living without fear and, basically, for happiness. The highlights (for me) include the idea of “rehearsing” poverty or any other situation that you fear so that you become hardened to it, an advocacy of minimalism over the pursuit of material things, becoming comfortable with the idea of mortality, and learning not to value anything obtained through chance (“Fortune”) over that which has been earned through deliberate effort, since such gifts are taken away as quickly and easily as they are bestowed.

No exaggeration here — Letters from a Stoic has been a more effective treatment for anxiety than any therapy or medication I’ve ever tried.

Start with one letter and see if you like it. You can find free translations online, like these, but I found it worthwhile to pay $1.99 for an ebook (I bought a hard copy the second time I read it, since it just seemed like a hard copy type of book).

5. Eliminate fear of rejection, by facing it head on.

I’ve been pretty successful in implementing the first four lessons above. This one, though, I’ve only just gotten started with — for me, it is by far the hardest.

I had read about “Comfort Challenges” (where the goal is to intentionally do something that’s uncomfortable in public, to get over the fear of what others might think), but I always found an excuse not to do them — mainly, “This just isn’t me.”

But as I’ve learned more about myself, I’ve come to see that when something is this scary and so out-of-the-question, it’s a sign that I need it more than anything else. This post by my friend Karol Gajda offers a step-by-step approach to getting more comfortable with rejection, by actively seeking it out in increasingly large doses, and it’s what got me to action.

I only got through Step 1 before Bookmageddon took over my life, but now that it’s finished I’m ready to attack the next steps. I can’t wait to see where it takes me.

Two Announcements

1. The other day I got excited about the idea of doing some Google+ Hangouts, to better get to know some NMA readers, and, well, to hang out. Certainly we can talk about food and running there, but it’s this personal development journey I’ve recently started that has motivated me to do this sort of thing. If you add me to your circles, you’ll get the details about when the first hangout (and future ones) will be.

2. If you’re near NYC, don’t forget to come see me speak at the NYC Vegetarian Food Festival in about a week, Sunday, March 3rd, from 11:15-12 (followed by the one and only Gene Baur!). I’ll be talking about habits and the sort of stuff that is in posts like today’s. Plus we’ll have a No Meat Athlete booth there all weekend, so I hope to meet you there!

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Comments

  1. I love that both of us avoid alcohol until the top goals of the day are complete. That’s funny and so true!

    I’m finally going to read “Letters from a Stoic.” You’ve convinced me. Thanks for a great post Matt and congratulations on your book!

  2. Thank you for writing this. Once again, the only blog I actually find interesting on the whole of the interwebs! You find a kindred spirit in us all.

  3. Great post. I whole heartedly agree with keeping a journal, I find it beneficial in so many ways. I read the post by Karol as well and really enjoy what he has to say in other posts as well. Congrats on finishing the book, I can’t wait until it is released.

  4. I really enjoyed A Guide To The Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. It might be up your alley as well. Tried to read Seneca’s Dialogues and Essays, but it’s a slogfest. Will have to check out Letters From A Stoic.

    Congrats on finishing the book Matt, and it’s nice to see you consistently challenging yourself.

    • Karol, that’s really surprising, because part of what I liked about Letters was how easy (and fun) it was to read. I had expected a slogfest, given that it’s philosophy and it’s 2000 years old. Maybe it depends on what style the translator was going for?

      Thanks for the congrats! I’m excited about how well the book has come together.

      • Yeah, I think translator is important. But it could be there’s simply a drastic difference between his Letters and Dialogues & Essays. Still haven’t checked out Letters, but it’s on my list.

  5. Big congrats on conquering Bookmageddon! That is a major accomplishment, and I hope you’re celebrating in every way possible. I can’t wait to read it!

  6. I found this fantastically inspirational, thank you!!

  7. Congratulations on finishing the book, and thanks for sharing your lessons. I realize I am addicted to email, not to mention sugary foods, and they are ruining my life. I will cut back on both, and re-read the timeless wisdom of Seneca, too. Sorry we never got to run together when you were still in Maryland. Look forward to your next update!

  8. What a post! It’s so relevant to my life right now. I hope your readers realize that they can hit the reset button at any moment.

    Habit change is but a series of leaps and falls for all but the most disciplined. And those highly disciplined people rarely have anything to change since they are so disciplined. That said, I’ve veered off the path but I’ve noticed it, hit ‘reset’ and started again. I’m doing this right now and I feel more optimistic than ever.

    For the past few years I’ve resolved to improve my situation but I’ve always managed to procrastinate time away. Hey, I’m really good at it!! I’m not particularly struggling. I live with mummy and daddy so everything is taken care of. However, I’m not happy.

    I’m dissatisfied because something in me is yearning to get out there and do something. Make something; create, build, inspire, live, experience. I’m sure some of you can relate.

    So naturally, I resolved that 2013 was the year. What better time than the new year right? ‘Fresh start’. ‘New year, New me’. Oh yea, it’s cliche central in this buildin’ today. ‘Make or break’. Okay, I’ll stop now :-).

    All I had to do was show up and things would happen. ‘The dominoes would fall into place’ as it were. Love that metaphor Matt! For the first two or three weeks in January, I did great. I showed up. I was consistent and I felt unstoppable. Obviously I saw little to no results since two weeks is not time enough for anything of value to materialize.

    I got discouraged. Why? Cuz I’m part of a new generation that seeks instant gratification. That’s my vice.

    This is why ‘letting small bad things happen’ resonates with me. Accepting that I’ll fall off my horse and veer off. Knowing what to do when that happens i.e, dust yourself up, understand why it happened and resolve to not follow that pattern again. In other words, learning about my weaknesses and my pitfalls!

    I could go on forever but I’ll stop here. I’ve got a hard copy of Letters from a stoic and I too got the recommendation from Tim Ferriss. I have not yet read it but this was like a jolt to my system. It appears this book is golden so I’ll get started on it today.

    I enjoyed this post muchly.

    Gracias Matt

    Dennis

  9. I was SO meant to read your article! I addicted to email too and I only just realised a few days ago how it was impacting on my life. Thank you for pin pointing this for me. All the best!

  10. Congrats on finishing your book. That is no doubt a big accomplishment. I picked up several tips in your article that I need to be doing myself. Thanks for that!

    Joe

  11. Hi Matt!

    Long-time lurker here; thank you for the continued inspiration this blog provides.

    Two quick questions:

    1. Ex-Green-Silence-fanatic here, considering switching to the PureDrift, as per your recommendation. Are they sized the same as the Green Silence?

    2. How do you feel about securing all your protein from raw sources, i.e. nuts, seeds and greens? Something you have experimented with? (Asking because I keep hearing great things about raw veganism, and also because legumes make me ill.)

    Keep up the amazing work.

  12. Matt, Congrats on your book! I too, have the same rule to finish project/thought before alcohol. Thanks so much for this article! I greatly appreciate : )
    And I will see you at the Vegetarian Festival on Sunday – looking forward to meeting you.
    Keep up the great work.
    Namaste,
    Janel

  13. Great post! I really like this line: Centering your schedule around something so meaningless is a recipe for emptiness in your life. – I’m one who hates to see the (1) on my email tab. I like to have a clear inbox. Thank you for the reminder to move away from this behavior.

  14. I also really, really found Seneca very helpful for my anxiety.

    My grandfather passed away suddenly this Thanksgiving. He was 80, but in excellent physical health, and none of us were anticipating it because he was the primary caretaker of his wife (my grandmother), who is in very late stages of Alzheimer’s, and we have all been focusing on her health for years. It was his greatest wish that she be able to remain in her home, and so we have been trying to make that happen.

    I sat with her on Christmas Eve. She likes to be read to, even though it does not seem to matter what we read. I saw a copy of a Seneca book sitting on my grandfather’s desk, and I picked it up and started reading to her Letter 18, since it was supposedly about holidays. It was the portion you are describing, about practicing poverty — and it struck a chord with me, in the face of all this loss in my family, that practicing this way of thinking could help me let things go more regularly (money, stress, worry) that just don’t matter.

    Thank you for the wonderful list, I am going to try journaling in the way you suggest. Cheers.

  15. Matt – Great post as always. Congratulations on your book!

  16. Hi Matt! As someone who is working on both her own discipline with fitness and eating as well as trying to get a personal business going, this post has been unbelievably helpful! Thank you for this. I also wanted to recommend to you, in relation to your last item here, that you read the book “Go For No”. It really influenced me positively and I will be reading it again soon. It’s about the importance of failing in order to reach success. Silly or not, just reading this book helped me not think of failing along the way as a bad thing, but rather a good thing. Thanks again for the motivating post!

  17. I’m playing catchup on your emails and I read this one today. I really like those 3 keypoints with journaling when time is restricted to write up a full day of journaling. I’ve had that in my folder of things to start doing in the storage portion of my brain, journaling that is and just reading your blog about it makes me want to start doing it. I used to be an avid journaler during my weightloss journey years ago, where I journaled everything I did throughout the day. However, today, I can’t find the time, that’s why those 3 keypoints are useful and can be fit in to a day. Thanks for those pointers Matt!

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