Zen, a slang for feeling peaceful and relaxed, a tricky word to add into your vocabulary. Depending on who you surround yourself with, it can either trigger a lengthy discussion on meditation and mental health or simply raise eyebrows. If you’ve just started getting into activities that will help you achieve zen, you’d probably see that on one side you have self-made wellness gurus who you’d pay to shut up, and on the other you have skeptics who think that you just drank some really strange Kool-Aid and they must drain it off of you. Yes, things get complicated real quick; another reminder that humans are messy and you are alone because one human brain is enough stress. Zen can indeed be hard to achieve.
But the third option works for me: solitude. I cannot say that it’s a conscious choice but a natural choice. Motivational speaker Jim Rohn said that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. I spend most of the time inside my head. That can only mean that I am the average of myself or perhaps more precisely, the average of my thoughts. I am what I think I am. If I want to be peaceful and relaxed, I just need to surround myself with the right thought triggers, set the right activities, and exert conscious effort to protect that space. My approach is not without flaw, but these things have greatly helped me in the past years.
1. Exercise and/or Physical Activities
I’ve been rather scrawny for the most part of my life. And worse than the ill-fitting clothes and unhealthy look is the thought that you are physically inferior to most people. It took me a long time before I discovered how badly this affected my self-confidence.
Today, I always sneak in 20 to 40-minute workout sessions into my daily routine and get into other physical activities whenever I can. No my body hasn’t improved tremendously; it still take me ages to gain weight. I can speed things up with a gym membership and specific diet but I choose to keep it easy. I am more focused about feeling good about myself putting in the effort to stay fit. The physical change is more a happy consequence.
Meditation and intuition is central to Zen Buddhism. I have been into meditation for a couple of years now and it has taught me a lot. Here are some real quick personal notes about meditation basics.
- We’ve been underestimating the relief that deep breaths and proper breathing can bring. A few deep breaths on a stressful day is like drinking a litre of cool water after a marathon. The relief is instant and impactful.
- Effectively dealing with the chaos in your brain involves acknowledging thoughts as opposed to suppressing them. You remember that time you filled every pocket of your camping backpack and you were so pleased about being so organised then you started carrying it and it weighed like a ton? Compartmentalising and suppressing our thoughts are like that. It doesn’t take away the weight, you have to decide whether to pocket it or leave it behind. There are more things you can leave behind than you know.
- There are more things to be grateful for than we think. No, I don’t mean we should all look at things with rose-colored glasses but pessimism is pervasive and highly contagious nowadays. The reframing that gratitude meditation teaches is valuable. Your first few tries will likely feel dumb but give it time and it will be uplifting.
The best thing with meditation is that it delivers results with little pressure if at all. It’s not a sport that requires a specific gear, stance, or environment. Nobody meditates harder than anybody. It’s just you and your thoughts or sometimes, its absence.
3. Reading List
I am not one of those people who read more than 20 books in a year. My average is pathetic in comparison. Additionally, I don’t read just books, I also read product blurbs when I avoid people in the grocery store. Yeah, classic evasion move passed on to every introvert right there. But having a good reading list is like surrounding yourself with the people you want to be. For this, apart from buying a book or two every time I visit a bookstore, I maximise the use of Flipboard. 30 minutes of reading through the latest news in your industry and interests every morning can get you really far and cure your FOMO. It also ups your small talk game when starting meetings. Yes, it’s small talk but smarter.
4. To-do List
You have three types of people in the workplace: the ones who keep a to-do list, the ones who perfectly remember every single one of their tasks, and the ones who lie that they can do the latter. I am the first one. But more than ensuring that I know what should be done when, I use to-do lists as source of sense of accomplishment. Have you ever had that moment when the day is about to end and you cannot name what you accomplished? Not a very good feeling right? A to-do list with check marks and notes is a proof of your progress.
I use Todoist for this. I have tried several other apps but I came back to it. No it doesn’t have flashy features but that’s where its beauty lies. If you have used overengineered task/project management tools with a million options to do things, you would understand what I mean. Less configuration means more time for action.
5. Time Tracking
Productivity extremists do this. Me? Just when needed. It’s tricky when you’re professional self is all about getting things done and your other self finds comfort in the art of doing nothing. Right? RIGHT?
I don’t advise everyone to do this if they can help it, but if you get a kick out of knowing how much time you spent on something in addition to your to-do list, this is the way to go. Applications and browser plugins like TMetric and Toggl are perfect for this. In addition, what gets measured gets improved they say. Tracking your time may just give you a lot of insights and contribute to any improvement plan you may work on.
6. A Cave
Some of us are very good at staying focused and at their best no matter where they are. I unfortunately am not. But regardless of which side we stand on, I think we can all agree that having a space conducive to achieving our goals, personal or professional, is something we can all appreciate.
Having a man cave is lovely but not always practical. Also, your profession might require you to be on the move all the time. At home, I would spend on furnitures and other articles that would get me into the desired mindset. But over the years, I have also developed tiny ways to build myself a virtual cave whenever I am outside. Finding a good corner, neatly lining the table with my stuff (oftentimes books, notepads, post-its, and pens), and selecting the right playlist, wallpaper, and application themes are just some of the things I do.
7. Low-information diet
What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.
So many information, so little time. And not every single one actually requires action from us. And worse they sometimes even get us into an unpleasant mood. Yes, I’m looking at you sensational news.
Quitting Facebook was liberating for me and guess what, I don’t miss anything about it. Granted I didn’t have a large network but I am talking about being able to stay away from toxic political exchanges and drama that, despite of me being selective, flooded my news feed anyway. Flipboard doesn’t highlight comments so it allows me to take the news for what they are–no unsolicited opinions. As for Twitter, I use it to follow thought leaders and check out what’s trending with significantly less risk of getting sucked into emotionally-charged exchanges. Or maybe I’m just not really that active in there.
8. Creative Endeavours
If you live and breathe your profession and cannot imagine doing something else, congratulations! I genuinely am happy for you. However, not everyone is like that. I met a lot of software engineers who love coding but engage on non-coding activities on weekends. They need a “change of scenery” and that’s not difficult to understand. I tried volunteering as an IT project manager once while being an IT project manager professionally and the stress just spread into my weekends.
One thing I have learned is that when you have multiple interests, you can turn them into therapy. In the past few months, I have done small creative projects. More than the output, the feeling that you were able to sharpen other skills, did something different, and attended to your other interests was really great.
9. Assertiveness at Work
I received my first lesson on assertiveness from an L&D manager in my first job. She taught me how to speak up, believe that I can express myself tactfully, and keep in mind that the worst thing that can happen is for the other person to say “no”. While not the one to talk a lot, I kept this with me. Being assertive allowed me to influence the things I work on, work well with other people, and ultimately create an appreciable work environment for myself. Filipinos are generally averse to any confrontation which makes the attitude switch really difficult. But if there’s anything I found out, it would be that your assumptions are most of the time working against you. Be open to the possibility that the perfect workplace does not exist, sometimes you have to create it. And no, you don’t have to be an ass to do that.
We’ve seen this in too many web comics. The character feels miserable not accomplishing anything and in the last frame he’s too miserable to change a thing. I chuckled on these comics. They are true for me and for most people. And sometimes it really is fair to stop and do nothing. But prolonged inactivity, as we know, breeds bigger frustrations and therefore must be kept in check.
To keep things balanced–that is stay productive while keeping a breathing room, I practice timeboxing and setting deadlines. Timeboxing sets the general pace on when to get into action and when to take a rest. Setting deadlines on the other hand is my way of scaring myself into action. However, deadlines and just timeboxing tasks you can accomplish on your own will not necessarily prevent procrastination. You might need another means of policing your activities. That’s where I take advantage of collaborations. Personal deadlines are often movable. But interdependencies and team deadlines are harder to change.
Many people see me as an efficiency and productivity junkie. That is only partly true. While most of this guide talks about productivity, the overall point is getting into activities that will make you feel good about yourself. It is not so much about what you can produce but the amount of negative thoughts, frustrations, bad vibes that you can lose just by being self-aware, in control, and more active.
My zen chart (if it exists) still has dips and disciplining yourself is never easy. But just what we do in meditation, you acknowledge things and then let go. -mB