In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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My Best Brain Hack

This is my fourth entry in a series of posts about things I do to improve – or at least preserve – brain function. Until I started writing these posts, I didn’t realize how much I actually had to say on the topic! And still do, apparently. This post was supposed to contain random “leftover” tips and tricks, but one element in particular grew into a post of its own. So there are still two posts left after this one: a summary of other odds ends that I do (post 1) or won’t do (post 2) for my brain.

Here is my big secret, and probably the single most important thing I do now for brain function. Yes, more than exercising and supplements and sleep. (Although sleep and exercise have benefits beyond just brain function.) I say “now” because I only started it recently, and the results have been amazing. Not only is my brain working better, but I know exactly how well it is performing.

It’s simple. I write down every creative idea I have.

It doesn’t have to be a good idea, but if it has any creativity, problem solving, or new idea-ness (to me anyway) at all, I grab a piece of paper and jot it down.

Why so old-fashioned? I write faster on paper than on my phone, and if I pick up my phone AT ALL I will get derailed by social media notifications; or seeing my grocery list app will remind me of something I need to add to the list; and heaven help me if I accidentally open Pinterest – the rest of the day will be lost! That creative idea will vanish in a puff of smoke and disappear into the recesses of my mind. I periodically transfer the ideas from paper to Evernote where they can be searched or organized into related notes and notebooks as needed. Some may need more research and definition before I can act on them and some may be complete dead ends, but at least they are all there.

This leads to two amazing outcomes. One: I can see just how many ideas I actually come up with over time. Some days are full of creativity, and others not so much … or not at all! But recording them means I can watch them pile up and realize just how much creativity still bubbles around in my noggin.

The second outcome is even more important. By getting the ideas onto the paper, they get out of my head, and new ideas pop into my head.

Crazy right? Who knew it could be so simple?

Oh, right. A lot of people, actually. I am building on a lot of other ideas from authors I have been exposed to over the years. When I thought back on how many years in fact, I was mildly horrified. If you would like to read on, I will go into detail about the different techniques I’ve learned which have lead up to this new compulsion to write everything down. If you don’t care so much about the backstory, grab a pen and paper and prepare to be amazed.

This creative approach has several key components that make it so effective (at least for me): writing down everything as it comes, without judging; exercising your brain’s creative and problem solving capacity; and deliberate daydreaming.

Writing Down Everything

The first time I was exposed to the idea of always having a way to write down ideas was in Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method, by Gerald M. Weinberg.  I read this book (mumble) years ago. Mind you, I didn’t actually start carrying writing tools with me all the time at that stage – although I probably should have, who knows how many more ideas I would have collected by now! In Weinberg’s methodology, these flittering thoughts I capture are the “fieldstones” in his method. The approach, in brief, is to collect these fieldstones (ideas) as you find them, regardless of whether or not they pertain to whatever writing project you are working on. You then store them where you can easily retrieve them, and then when you have enough fieldstones that fit together, you can build a wall… er, write an article or a book. This is actually the approach I’ve used to write many of my recent blog posts – I just keep capturing ideas until I have enough related ideas to string together into an actual post. While this is taking longer – because I am waiting on ideas instead of forcing words onto a computer screen – I have NO shortage of future blog post topics because they gush into my brain faster than I can keep up with writing them.

Popular productivity management approaches such as Getting Things Done and Zen to Done also advocate being able to get ideas out of your head onto a piece of paper, but those are more focused on to do lists and projects rather than creativity.

The most recent time I found this advice was in Get It Done, by Sam Bennett, which I listened to a few months ago. (Yes, I have started reading/listening to self-help books again… don’t judge!)

She calls it “Nearly Miraculous Daily Habit 2: Find an Idea Catcher” (aka somewhere to capture ideas as they come to us). She uses index cards, similar to Weinberg’s approach, to write down the ideas as they come and then sort them into envelopes. I always have a paper to-do list with me, and jot my ideas on the corners or back of the paper. It’s not fancy, but it still works!

Without Judging

This technique works so well for me, in part, because it gets the old ideas out of my head. I can’t generate new ideas because the current ideas play on endless repeat – even when they don’t appear to be useful or relevant to any of my creative endeavors.

This aspect is similar to the techniques of freewriting and brainstorming. I don’t remember the original book I read on freewriting, but the idea is just to get everything out without regard for complete sentences, grammar or punctuation. Usually freewriting is done for a specific amount of time, and helps overcome writer’s block. I often use the technique as a way to get “unstuck” when struggling with various issues. Once I start getting the endless-playback-words out of my head, additional ideas start flowing out as well. (In my case, this may be more like “freejournaling” rather than true freewriting.) Since I cannot share the specific book title, here is a Wikipedia article about it.

This is also related to classic brainstorming, which has the goal of generating as much content as possible, usually as a problem solving technique. For example I don’t always judge the ideas that pop into my head, I just diligently capture them to store for future analysis. Brainstorming is generally done as a group, whereas I am just dreaming up ideas on my own… although maybe there are multiple people in here. It sure feels like it sometimes anyway! Here is the Wikipedia article, if you somehow have never heard of brainstorming.

Exercising the Brain

Another reason this technique works is by exercising your brain’s creativity and problem-solving capabilities. I first saw this idea articulated about a year ago, when I read (most of) Tools of the Titans, by Tim Ferriss. One of the “titans”, James Altucher, suggested the habit of writing down ten ideas every morning, to strengthen your “idea muscle”. Even coming up with bad ideas, says Altucher, exercises the brain’s capabilities.

I wrote “ten daily” lists for about a month after reading those pages, before my attention was hijacked by something else. While I don’t write down strictly ten ideas every day, I definitely experience how writing them down – whenever they come to me – reinforces the capacity to come up with more ideas.

(Altucher also describes a second part of this habit: writing down a “first step” for the idea, which is something I need to start doing myself. I am wayyyyy to inclined to just dream up ideas which is OK when they are ideas about things to write, but not sufficient for things to do.)

Deliberate Daydreaming

With all these super smart people advocating writing everything down, why did I only just doing it?

Blame – or rather thank – Sam Bennett. Yes, the same Sam Bennett I mentioned earlier, in the same book.

It was the combination of “Nearly Miraculous Daily Habit 2: Find an Idea Catcher” and “Nearly Miraculous Daily Habit 3: Allot Fifteen Minutes a Day for Deliberate Daydreaming.”

The idea is to keep your hands busy on purpose and allow your mind to wander. If you are up on trendy self-help techniques, you might notice this is the exact opposite of mindfulness. Mindfulness teaches you to focus your attention on whatever you are doing, and when your mind drifts off, to gently bring it back to fully experience the here, the now, the task at hand. Deliberate daydreaming encourages your mind to wander. How crazy is that?

Deliberate daydreaming turns chores into an amazing opportunity to come up with new ideas: gardening, washing dishes, driving, even exercising. Although it gets complicated jotting the ideas down when your hands are covered in hot soapy water, or if you are driving!

Of course everyone has experienced this before. It’s why great ideas always pop into your head in the shower. Deliberate daydreaming differs because you seek out these hands-busy, brain-idle times intentionally (I now tolerate hand washing dishes, only for this reason), with pen and paper at the ready.

By the way, this makes me a bore in the car. The radio is always turned off when I’m driving – any sound, podcasts, audiobooks, or even music, renders me incapable of having my own creative thoughts. It entirely kills the deliberate daydreaming thing. Although sometimes it doesn’t happen anyway, which makes for a really, really, really long car ride. And for the record, earworms are just as detrimental to the deliberate daydreaming as actual songs on the radio!

There you have it – the whys and wherefores of my current idea capturing habit. Now go try it for yourself and watch your creativity soar!


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Tiny Steps

You might’ve noticed, I’m a bit of a self-help junkie.
While I haven’t read any self-help books recently – so I can use the time spent “fixing” myself through exercises to write instead – I’m still getting emails from a few self-help guru-types, and well, they’re just emails so they don’t take that long to read. And they usually don’t include exercises. (I might’ve snuck in an audiobook or two, but shhhhhhhh don’t tell.)
Recently there was an email from Courtney at Be More with Less about toasting “tiny steps”. She discussed her own life experiences, the tiny steps she’s taken, and how long it took to transition from where she started to where she is today. I found the article particularly inspiring because so often it feels like we’re not doing enough. Like we’ll never get to wherever it is we want to be. Like you feel as though you’re getting nowhere, so why even bother? Particularly if your tiny steps are focused on transitioning to a lower energy lifestyle, consuming less, and eating more naturally. The overwhelming majority of your friends and neighbors aren’t bothering, and you find yourself wondering what’s the point.
Well, here is a list of tiny steps I’ve taken over the last year(ish). As I was trying to recall exactly how long it has been, I remembered … I have written about tiny steps before! It’s fascinating to see what I meant to do, compared to what I have actually done. This list may have to become an annual tradition!
Consuming stuff:
  • Using fewer single-use disposable items. We rarely use paper plates anymore; I reach for a sponge or cloth towel before a paper towel. Not always successful, but again, this is about tiny steps.
  • Not using plastic produce bags at the grocery store for fruits or veggies that have their own wrapping (sweet potatoes, lemons, limes, etc … although the cashiers hate finding that one extra lime in my order because they weren’t all bagged together)
  • Reusing single-use disposable items wherever feasible. For instance, when I do end up with plastic produce bags, I save them to store veggies I harvest from my garden. The plastic containers that hold deli meat get reused to pack lunches.
  • Compost what paper napkins and paper towels we do use, so at least they aren’t cluttering up landfills.
  • Started a ‘deep pantry’ so I can buy food staples when they are on sale, rather than when we run out.
  • Figuring out ways to use possessions we already have in new ways to solve problems, rather than immediately purchasing a solution.
  • Reading books through the library and free ebook services rather than purchasing books. Not always 100% successful … trying to buy used books when I simply can no longer resist.
  • Mending clothing, which says a lot because I hate mending.
  • Simplifying my wardrobe… I even tried Project 333, but it really didn’t work for me. (Sorry, Courtney!)
Still working on…
  • Phasing out paper napkins… even though they are teens, my kids are still really messy
  • Shopping less. I’ve tried, but the results are inconsistent at best.
  • Watching less TV.
  • Spending less time on my cell phone.
Eating:
  • Reducing food waste through ninja meal planning skillz.
  • Eating out less often, particularly at fast food restaurants.
  • Eating more produce from my own garden. I had wanted to join a CSA, but I can’t even properly use everything from my own garden before it rots. It didn’t seem responsible to buy even more produce I would struggle to use.
  • Incorporating more wild foods into our diet.
  • Eating more food in season and local to the area. I mean, there is nothing sadder than a grocery store tomato in Maryland in February!
  • Using more permaculture techniques (like intercropping and polyculture) in my garden to improve overall health and reduce the need for energy-intensive human interventions.
Still working on…
  • Preparing at least one vegetarian meal per week
  • Preserving or sharing garden produce rather than letting it go to waste
  • Finding innovative ways to feed my family whatever I can harvest yes, really, one more time. Ask my kids how sick they are of green beans!
  • Actually listening to my body and putting the fork down when I’m full even if it’s wasteful to stop, or so delicious I don’t want to.
Energy Consumption:
  • Sewed light-blocking curtains for the full-length windows flanking our front door. The summer sun streaming into the foyer made the whole house an oven, and the AC worked overtime. In the winter, cold radiated from them. The curtains let us control the temperature better on the main level of our house.
  • Installed a new attic fan and skylight. OK these were big steps, but we needed to redo our roof anyway so both attic fan and skylight got upgraded as well. The skylight has a remote control which allows you to open and close the curtain to allow or block the sun as needed, or open the skylight to allow hot air to escape. The attic fan has also kept the temperature upstairs more comfortable.
  • Trying to combine errands to use less gas… or better yet, just not go out!
Still working on…
  • Finding and completing more projects to insulate and weatherproof our home. For example, I bought foam to insulate hot water pipes after reading Green Wizardry last year, and they are still just piled all over our basement floor.
  • Line drying more clothing.
Friends and Family:
  • Making time to actually listen to the kids.
  • Spending time with friends and family, sharing a home-cooked meal rather than going out to a restaurant.
  • Sharing experiences instead of exchanging store-bought gifts.
Still working on…
  • Working to connect with other people locally who share my interests and values.
  • Learning to enjoy what the local environment has to offer rather than going on fancy vacations; there’s lots of local opportunities for hiking and camping, for instance.
I am sure to many people these tiny steps seem like self-deprivation and misery. (Although people who feel that way probably aren’t reading my blog in the first place.)
But putting one more plate in the dishwasher is no more work than throwing out the paper plate.
Cooking at home from scratch is more work, but allows my husband and I time together while we prep the meal; we enjoy the meal together as a family, and we’re all healthier as well.
Instead of shopping as a past-time with the kids, we’re actually having conversations and trying to cook together, while the money saved has helped us better cope with a few financial crises.
Hanging laundry up to dry is actually better for the clothes as well as the environment.
And even though I still abhor mending, it brings with it the quiet satisfaction of fixing a problem myself, and returning a loved garment to my wardrobe rather than scouring the malls or internet hoping I can find *and* afford its replacement.
Last but not least, I find joy in knowing that in even small ways I am cutting back on waste and reducing the degree of variation between my values and the life I’m actually living. And that’s worth more to me than any minor inconvenience which may be caused by these tiny steps.


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Wild Edible World, Week Ending 8/12/2018

This week, I had planned to post about using “milkweed cheese”. Many milkweed seedpods are still at the perfect stage for harvesting both to eat as a vegetable, and to collect the creamy white silk from inside. However, while researching recipes I realized I had nothing to add beyond what Alan Bergo has already covered on his Forager Chef site. Except when harvesting, please mind the monarchs!

A fierce monarch caterpillar devouring its helpless prey, a milkweed seedpod

A fierce monarch caterpillar devouring its helpless prey, a milkweed seedpod

Instead, in light of the recent fate of a foraging cookbook recalled over possibly toxic ingredients, I decided to add my own “guide to safe foraging” page on this site. I’d meant to do so for a while. Now each time I post about foraging safety, I can link to that page, rather than boring you to tears with the same dire warnings over and over and over again.

I also recently updated this blog’s About page … I hadn’t touched it since 2009, and a lot has changed in nine years!


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Ode to Self-Help Books

You may be wondering why my blog posts consist of a random mix of self-help / self-improvement / lifehacks and gardening / foraging. No, it’s not a symptom of multiple personality disorder, I promise! (Or is it?)

I am struggling to find (make) time to write. My weekly foraging series (while mostly unread) has created a firm commitment that I will post something, however short, at least once a week. But I have so much more to share.

I keep thinking… just one more technique from one more self-help book, and I will at last discover the ultimate trick to unlock my true gifts and unleash my creativity on the world. I will finally overcome (or embrace) the resistance, and be able to write.

Just as soon as I am done getting things done, papers filed, inbox to zero, boxes checked – then I will finally be have all the time I need to write.

Maybe I can change my life by tidying up, which will help me cultivate an uncluttered mind, and then I will finally be able to write.

You know, I need to manage my budget better, and when I am less concerned about finances, then I will have the spare brain cells to be able to write.

I must exercise, and eat healthy (including cooking meals from scratch), and take all the nutritional supplements because when I am at my peak, physically speaking, my mind will be as well and then I will be able to write.

If I could just lifehack a little more free time into my day, then, well … you know.

If I could only perfect my sleep so I could survive on less thanks to the amazing quality of the sleep I did get, then … sigh.

…are we noticing a theme here?

“Is there any chance that the healing you seek is just another form of resistance?”

–Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

My friend Kristen at The Sojourning Spinner recently suggest that for at least a month I try – get this – rather than spending time on lifehacks to free up time to write, I just (gasp!) write.

It’s a great idea. And I’m going to give it a serious try. But first, I need to find my “Flow Pattern” on the Flow Genome Project so I know I can really maximize those precious few moments to write.

…. oh wait. Oops.


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Happy New Year!

Welcome to 2018! Kicked off in typical “me” style with a random kitchen injury while making dinner. Seriously, I somehow cut myself with the knife without knowing. I’m getting used to the feeling of, huh, wonder when that happened? Oh, well.

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions, because I feel anything worth doing is worth starting now, not just because it’s a new year.

That said, I will try to write more in 2018. Maybe here, maybe on other blogs and forums, maybe I’ll write a book, who knows. I’m still figuring out if I have anything worth saying…. so stay tuned!


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If I Were A Business Author

I’ve been reading a lot of business books lately. “Reading” being loosely defined as actual reading, skimming, and listening to audiobooks. I haven’t been keeping up with my book reviews because I’ve been gliding through books at such a swooping speed that I don’t have time to write anything up. (The Power of Less, Drive, and The Passion Plan, to name a few.). And in this reading frenzy, I have decided: I don’t like business books written as parables. If I want to read fiction, I’ll read fiction. Please keep your business book to the facts(-as-you-see-them), please. I’m skimming through Change Your Questions, Change Your Life right now, and while I feel there may be some good points buried in there, and I’m not sure whether it’s worth sifting through all the narration and dialog to try to find them. :-/