An Alarmingly Simple Way to Stay Present


I wonder... are they texting each other?

Do you ever catch yourself messing around on your phone or frequently using it to check the time while hanging out with friends?

If you’re like most of us, you often pull out your phone to check the time (let’s be honest: watches are mostly a thing of the past) and end up unlocking the screen and firing off replies to newly discovered texts, emails, and social media notifications. Though brief, these little distractions pull you out of the present moment and steal your focus.

And not only is this a rude habit to get into, but since humans are actually awful at multitasking, it is also extremely inefficient to bounce your focus back and forth between a conversation and your mobile device.

I’ve found a simple trick to free myself from the urge to check on things when I really want to focus: I set an alarm before I begin a new task.

If the distraction arises from needing to be somewhere on time, I set an alarm for a few minutes before I will need to leave. That way, I can carry on my conversation or activity without any reason to look at the time, because the timer will let me know know when I need to wrap things up.

I also use this for quiet activities such as writing and studying. For these sorts of endeavors I want to be able to focus without checking the time on my phone or laptop (which would risk derailment). Setting an alarm is particularly effective in this context because it removes the temptation to use technology to procrastinate, thus decreasing the amount of willpower needed to stay on task. Yet another benefit lies in creating a steady workflow through rhythmic periods of working and taking breaks– and having a planned on/off cycle is less mentally taxing since it further decreases the necessity to self-regulate attention.

But my favorite use for this technique is simply for relaxation. Not only does setting yourself an alarm release you from checking the time you have remaining in an endeavor, but it creates a sense of timelessness. I use this method as a regular part of my recovery process between workouts for tranquil activities like baths (which can be taken either hot or iced), meditation, and power naps.

Freed from the anxiety of having to be anywhere or do anything, the time outside of time that meditation creates can be particularly restorative.

Now is all you have.

“Nothing has happened in the past; it happened in the Now. Nothing will ever happen in the future; it will happen in the Now.” — Eckhart Tolle

Go ahead and try a few of these “alarming” tactics for yourself– and please comment if you have your own to share!

photo credit: Twm™ via photopin cc


Kill The Thing You Love

Drink it.

I hear it takes just a little drop…

Many people worry that if they do what they love whole-heartedly, they will kill it.

It must be a slow death. No one has ever said that being handed that first paycheck for publishing their novel felt like getting shot. But perhaps they worry that turning in draft after draft of their second book, facing criticism and rejection and still having to pump out more pages would poison their love for writing. But so what if it does?

It’s likely that you’re not still dating your high school sweetheart or driving that first car you were so crazy about. You’ve gotten over a few books, movies, and albums that you could consume on repeat when you first discovered them. And I would bet you have some favorite foods you no longer order when you go out. Maybe overuse is what did them in, or it’s possible that you just moved on from them naturally.

I’ve found that for each love I manage to kill, new ones always spring up. Old passions walk out into the ocean to drown just as new ones are arriving over the horizon. Author and poet Oscar Wilde addresses the benign inevitability of this lifelong process. He writes, “Some do the deed with many tears/ And some without a sigh/ For each man kills the thing he loves/ Yet each man does not die.”

I’m sure you’ve heard others express concern for killing their love of something. The mantra goes like this: “I love photography (or dancing or cooking or coding!)– but I could never do it for a living because then it wouldn’t love it. I do it for me, but if I did it for work that would take all of the joy out of it.”

Oh, really? It appears that for some, indulging in his or her passion is less important than avoiding pain. But that just doesn’t seem balanced to me.

I can’t quite wrap my mind around the notion that work is a special category, an activity where one should spend half of their waking life doing something that he or she is willing to hate (or at best feel meh about).

Maybe they are concerned that doing something often, doing it for money, doing it under someone else’s scrutiny and advice, or doing it on a timeline will necessarily eek all the fun out of things.

I’m not convinced.

“Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” Mae West

With the exception of doing something only for pay, all of those work-associated traits make you better at things. Frequent practice, constructive critique, and being accountable to a schedule are all factors that improve performance. Who wouldn’t want to improve at doing what they love, even if it’s just a hobby?

And this mentality applies to activities other than work too. It applies to every dog-lover who feels that actually having a pet would be too much hassle. It applies to every musician who practices incessantly, but refuses to play an at open mic night. It applies to all of the people who insist they train jiu jitsu “just for fun.”

So don’t get too hung up on aphorisms like everything in moderation, or worry that immersing yourself in your craft will necessarily result in poisoning it with too much of a good thing. Could it happen? Sure. But you’ll recover. And if things go well and you don’t manage to drown your affections, the positive outcome will be well worth the risk…

“Mr. Wonka: “Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he wanted.”
Charlie Bucket: “What happened?”
Mr. Wonka: “He lived happily ever after.”

photo credit: ˙Cаvin 〄 via photopin cc

Updates and Gratitude Practices


Last week things were going pretty damn good.

Cage Sports 31 Griffith 7.19.14

Going toe to toe with Hadley Griffith.

It started out when I beat “Relentless” Hadley Griffith at CageSport 31 last Saturday. Coach called while I was on vacation in early and talked me into fighting a 5’11” seasoned pro on July 19th– meaning I would jump straight into the hardest part of our fight camp as soon as I got back to Portland.

The time flew by, and before I knew it Coach was wrapping my hands, then I was walking down the ramp at the Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma, WA to climb into the cage again. That went by quickly too when I secured a win via rear naked choke at 1:52 minutes into the first round.

And my streak continued on Monday when I passed my road test and finally got licensed to drive in the state of Oregon. (More about my experience of learning to drive again is here.) Then I came in to Gracie Barra Portland for jiu jitsu practice the next day and was very surprised when Professor Fabiano Scherner promoted me to purple belt at the end of class. Almost eight years of training brought me to that point on a random Tuesday night.

Cars know to share the road when I'm on my way to practice.

Cars know to share the road now when I’m on my way to practice.

Then the Willamette Week came out with it’s Best of Portland list on Wednesday and I was featured in the “Best Moves” category for Best Beatdown. (You can read it the full text of that here.) On Thursday, I took my first steps towards becoming a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist by joining the NSCA and purchasing study materials for the CSCS certification exam. I’d hemmed and hawed about getting certified for a long time and I’m thrilled to finally be able to the plunge.

So, on the one hand, it feels like everything has been coming up roses lately. I’m excited to see how long I can make that last.

On the other hand, last week was not particularly different from many others in my life over the last few years. Actually, I’ve been feeling like I’m on a roll for quite some time since I found my bliss.

One of my day-of-competition rituals is to spend some time writing about and meditating on the things in my life that I’m thankful for. I don’t only do this before fights, but it does have particular value for me at that time. It always renews my passion for what I’m doing, puts me in a positive mindset, and makes me feel confident and supported from within. On fight night, it helps me tap into the circumstances of previous successes in such a way that future success feels imminent.

Whenever I need a little boost– and often, too, when I’m already feeling upbeat about how things are going– I put some of my gratitude for down in writing. This can take narrative form like a journal entry, or it could be a list or even a diagram if that’s how I want to organize my thoughts on that day. It can be specific or general, narrow or encyclopedic.

You don’t necessarily even need to write your thankfulness down, though studies show this is actually more effective. I find it nice to be able to refer back to later on, too.

Sometimes I write about everything that is going right in just one part of my life, such as my training:

  • how much my lifting is improving
  • how good it feels to be strong
  • how awesome my coaches are
  • how tip-top I feel about the last sparring session or fight
  • how a new technique is finally clicking
  • how helpful my teammates are
  • how easy my cardio plyos feel
  • how glad I am not to be injured

On other days I try surveying all of the areas where I am seeing success and/ or improvement using broad categories like:

  • friendships
  • health
  • physical fitness
  • finances
  • learning
  • “work”
  • opportunities for leisure
  • relationships
  • competition
  • personal development
  • creative projects

Another way to access the bliss of gratitude is to send a thank you note explaining to someone who has been positive in your life what they’ve done for you and how it makes you feel. If snail mail isn’t your jam, saying thank you in person, on the phone, or publicly via social media can have similar cognitive benefits– with the added perk that it can help strengthen your preexisting network of friends.

Thanks, gno thanks

I suppose gnomes write thank you “gnotes”…

However you choose to do it, honing in on the great things you might otherwise take for granted will help you draw on confidence and strength during moments of stress. Moreover, many people find that taking time for this process on a regular basis boosts their overall mood and brings more positivity into their lives even when they’re not consciously focusing on being thankful.

When I reviewed my own gratitude list from last weekend it was immediately obvious to me that I was already on a roll before that awesome week even started.

Take a moment today to write down some of the things you are thankful for. Then let me know: is it possible that you have also been on a roll without noticing it?

photo credit: Ernie Sapiro

photo credit: elycefeliz via photopin cc

Advice to My 16-year-old Self


We should probably start with this, because I just want you to see what we’re dealing with:

Oh boy

Yeah, I was very pouty back in high school.

When I was 16 years old I wanted so badly to be a punk rock star. I could just see my 20-something self as a neon-haired drummer in a crazy-loud punk band. With time the dream faded and I regretfully moved on to other pursuits.

It recently occurred to me that if I had enjoyed practicing the drums as much as I now enjoy training to fight, I would have been so much better at it. And if I had stayed with it, by now I would’ve been an excellent musician.

Of course, I might never have found what I now consider to be my true passion if I hadn’t quit the drums… or if I had persisted and actually put in the time to practice, music might have become my “true passion.” This got me thinking: what would I do differently with the knowledge of hindsight and the personal growth achieved in the preceding 10 years?

I considered what advice I would give to a younger me, and it was very tempting to condescend to myself. I thought:

Brush your teeth more.

Being “goth” is just a phase.

Be nicer to your parents.

Show respect for everyone.

Pick a more useful college major. The list goes on and on.

Ultimately, there were only two categories of advice to consider, both resulting from what I’ve observed in the intervening years since my 16th birthday. The first is the advice based on the changes I have already made. And the second set of prescriptions stems from the habits my present incarnation is still working to overcome.

I want to present just one key piece from each.

Advice to my 16-year-old-self: Learn to let go of mistakes, failures, and upsets.

Get good at this one, because you’re going to have to do it a lot.

Lots of things in life aren’t going to work out for you, 16-year-old Emily. Jobs, friends, relationships, assignments, hobbies, performances, trips… many of these things will fail in some way.

You will quit jobs. You will end relationships. You’re going to move. You’re going to stay. You’re going to try really hard and still not always get what you want or think you deserve.

Some colleges you apply to will wait list you. At times, people you care about will treat you badly. You will miss deadlines. You will misspeak, and sorely regret it.

…You will quit playing the drums.

Things that seem like the be-all-end-all purpose of your life right now will end forever and you may not even notice.

Get over it. When a door closes, a window opens, right? Holding on to the past does not protect you in the future, it only robs you of enjoying the present. Holding grudges does nothing to the person who harmed you, but it will indisputably steal your joy.

Failure is utterly inevitable, so you’d better get used to moving on from it. This is especially important because failure is an opportunity to grow. So while you’re practicing letting go of mistakes, you might as well get good at learning from them too.

Advice to my 26-year-old self: Start earlier.

I cannot stress this one enough. Start now.

This applies to tasks (and timelines) both large and small. Don’t hit snooze 3+ times before waking—there is no cognitive value in sleeping an extra 5, 10, or 15 minutes. Even worse, this fails to help “train” your willpower for more important situations.

Starting nearly every paper assigned in college on the night before it was due heavily undercut your potential for success—and now finishing speeches the night before they’re due does the  same.

Don’t wait months to see a doctor, to deal with your taxes, to throw out that junk mail pile.

Don’t spend too much time procrastinating the start of your “real life.” Even if you seem to be flubbing and flailing for ages while trying to get a handle on things, you won’t regret the experience gained by at least starting that process immediately.

In the words of author Karen Lamb: “A year from now you will wish you had started today.” So take the advice I’m offering you and don’t put things off. It’s a mistake we’ve made in the past, so learn from those unpleasant outcomes, and don’t repeat it in the future.

After all, how much better would you be at MMA if you had begun training even just a bit before you started at Reed? What nuance would that skill have now if you have started earlier down the road of failing at– and perfecting– it?

It’s easy to delay beginning projects because change feels slow and tomorrow’s progress might not seem to be an obvious benefit of today’s discipline. But over time, what felt so painfully slow turns out to have flown by so maddeningly fast. Adulthood is a quiet apocalypse. It’s not an atom bomb that detonates on your 18th birthday. Rather, the changes can be ever so subtly catastrophic, like the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers those around you will morph ever so delicately, imperceptibly, until some day no one is as you once knew them.

I’m not who I used to be and someday I’ll become someone else too. Identity isn’t static, and that’s okay.

Sure, there are more mistakes to be made, and learned from. But let’s not spend the next ten years on the same tired blunders when we could be trying out new ones! Let’s not give my 36-year-old self any reason to look back and say, “I told you so.”

Let’s start today.


(This piece was inspired by the book Advice to My 18-Year-Old Self, recently put out by Asymmetrical Press. Get yourself a copy!)