Mindful Email

I'm currently reading David Levy's book, Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives, and doing the exercises recommended. The first exercise is called "Observing Email" and it instructs you to check email for a dedicated length of time (like 20 or 30 minutes), log observations you make, create personal guidelines from those observations, and then share what you learn, which is what I'm doing today.

Last week, I logged eight sessions across four days, which was over four hours of email time. I quite enjoyed logging my experience, especially during the first five sessions. I was less disciplined with ending my email checking in the last three sessions — I'd reach inbox zero and then keep email open instead of closing it and proceeding to another activity.

Here's a samplE of some of the observations I made:

  • Doing email feels like whack-a-mole.

  • Find myself in the middle of an urgent series of tasks: see something opportune, schedule it, inform the person of my commitment, repeat.

  • Feeling pressure to say yes to all the people that have requested my time.

  • When I dread the contents of an email, I want to postpone it/snooze it/do other things.

  • I need a notepad beside me while I check email to write down things I need to remember so I stay in email.

  • Feeling trepidation at responding to one email and therefore the recipient knowing I'm available and needing to respond to their other emails.

  • I am not at all paying attention to my body or posture.

  • Felt the desire to go to Facebook immediately after opening a message I was avoiding opening.

And here's a list of things I learned about myself:

  • I am in and out of my calendar a lot during email. It's hard to do email without it because many emails are about scheduling.

  • There are lots of things that can take me off task while in my inbox, especially newsletters and social updates that link to the internet.

  • Checking email can emotionally derail me.

  • Sometimes I dread email when the reality of my inbox is actually not dreadful.

  • I have a tendency to avoid emails that are long and complex and prefer to keep the ball in the air with shorter, more manageable email volleys.

  • Sometimes email involves using a number of different devices and websites.

  • Emails come in tides and waves. Sometimes they accumulate quickly, other times they seem to trickle in.

  • Email seems to be an emotionally "felt" experience for me, even though I have a hard time noticing my posture, breath, or physical senses.

The exercise also instructs you to read over your observations and synthesize them into guidelines. For me, this was the most helpful part.

Here are the guidelines I came up with:

  1. My email craft* requires certain tools:

    • a good calendaring app that does not require me to exit email to schedule things

    • a notepad and pen for jotting down tasks so that I can stay in email instead of following up on every task right away

    • my mobile device handy for certain information needs (sometimes optional)

    • a mouse because I enjoy using one (sometimes optional)

  2. Email can be an emotionally volatile space. I must notice my emotional state before opening my inbox and agree to the likelihood it may be altered by what I find (otherwise, I should check email at a different time).

  3. To keep distractions at bay, I need to close my email once I've achieved inbox zero and re-open it with intention.

  4. When people or newsletters email me things I'd like to explore, make a note of it instead of exploring right away. Similarly, when people request I do something, it's okay to make a note to do it and then email them to say I'll get back to them later.

  5. Treat lengthy or complex emails (or emails I must write but don't exactly know how to) as I do anything else I'd typically avoid: get them out of the way first, using a pomodoro if necessary.


I found this exercise not only fun, but also enlightening. I recommend it and am already considering observing social media time using the same methods.

* A note about craft: Levy argues that we should consider our digital life a craft like we consider woodworking or playing a sport. That it requires practice, certain tools, and refinement. There's an entire chapter about this coming up, so I'll likely blog more about it later, but I love the idea.




The Participant is Present

Marina Abramovic is exploring some interesting ways to get her audiences to digitally detox. 

  • She worked with Igor Levit, who performed the 86-minute long Goldberg's Variations uninterrupted and by memory, to an audience of prepared listeners. To prepare them, she offered lockers outside the music hall where they were instructed to put all devices and watches. Once in their seats, everyone was given noise cancelling headphones and instructed to sit quietly for 30 solid minutes before the performance began.

  • She ended this TED talk with a short "The Artist is Present" experience where she asked audience members to stare into one another's eyes for two minutes.

  • She's experimented with rice counting as a way to create presence and independence in individuals.

  • And she's envisioning a museum-like institute where people must sign an agreement promising to stay for six device-less hours without leaving. While there, she imagines people going through different chambers where they would (re?)learn how to walk, drink water, sit, stare at each other, and lie down.

Thanks to Note to Self for pointing out this particular rabbit hole.




Contemplative Arenas

I'm reading Thomas Merton's journals lately and telling everyone about them.

After one such telling, my friend Meredith pointed me to a novice monk that studied under Merton, James Finley. Finley wrote Merton's Palace of Nowhere, which is nowhere to be found in the libraries around me. My local library does have an audio book Finley created some years later, which isn't the same as the other even though it's titled similarly. In Thomas Merton's Path to the Palace of Nowhere Finley talks you through Merton's journals with a specific lens on how he lived a contemplative life and I've been enjoying it.

Key among my takeaways so far is a better understanding of what makes an experience contemplative. I use the phrase "contemplative practice" with increasing frequency lately and no one (including me) is exactly sure what I mean. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

Understanding it from Merton's point of view is a start, so here goes. According-to-what-Finley-learned-from-Merton, contemplative experiences are spontaneous, require trust that the experience is indeed real and revelatory, and tend to occur in the following situations, or arenas:

  • When you're in nature and connecting to a stillness or natural phenomena.

  • When you're truly connecting with another human.

  • When you're completely alone.

  • When you experience art (broadly defined).

  • When you're in meditation or prayer.

  • When you're viscerally aware of your own suffering (physical or mental).

  • When you're aware of healing from whatever you were suffering from.

  • When you're reflecting philosophically about something (like writing or daydreaming).

Finley has his own words for these arenas, "Experience of Nature, Human Intimacy, Solitude, Art, Prayer, Suffering, Healing, and Philosophical Reflection." Seems like a good start. It will be interesting to see how these Christian-based observations compare to other sources.


Big news, everybody.

In October of 2014, I posted this image to Facebook and told everyone that I was leaving my job. I said, “I'm leaving because my gut says to leave and that's pretty much the only reason I have.” That was true then, and it’s true today as I write to tell you of another similarly gut-based decision.

Last summer, I experienced an “aha” moment, where I realized that much of what’s come before has positioned me well to do something I didn’t previously know was possible. I met a researcher who studies information and contemplation, and began discussing what it might look like to research that area myself. 

I talked with mentors, faculty, students, former students, and friends. I wrote reams on what I care about, where I’ve come from, and who I am. I began to make out a body of water—a field of research—into which I want to dive deep.

I applied to be a PhD student at the University of Washington, I moved out west, and I crossed my fingers. Last Thursday, I was notified that I’ve been accepted. 

I never expected to be an academic. I never knew studying something like “contemplative practice and information” was even possible. But I feel my whole life has led me to this opportunity and I plan to take outrageous and exquisite advantage of it. 

Classes begin in September. Until then I’ll be working work with some of my favorites, resting my brain a bit, and steadily continuing to build and refine my own set of contemplative practices to carry me through the harder parts of this new endeavor.

Thank you for those good vibes and prayers a few weeks ago, especially those of you who sent them without hesitation or knowledge of why I needed them. They mattered so much, as do each and every one of you.

How I Use TextExpander to Avoid Using the Words Should and Just

Don’t should on me, I won’t should on you, and most of all never should on yourself.
— Frances Ulman, PhD

I began using TextExpander, née Textpander, in 2006 because it helped me save time and reduce typos in my code. The software logs your keystrokes and when you type a certain combo of them — e.g. ddate — it automatically replaces it with something more meaningful, like the actual date — e.g. December 17, 2015.  You can set these replacements up to be simple, BEck automatically changing to Beck, or more complex, substituting dynamic info or even pasting the contents of your clipboard. 

I’ve used it all sorts of ways, but I’m writing this post to share with you the way I’ve found most beneficial: I use TextExpander as a method for questioning my use of words I’d rather avoid. Specifically, the words should and just.

I create snippet for the word I want to avoid — e.g. should — and I tell TextExpander to replace it with that word followed by a question mark — e.g. should?.

It’s easy enough to delete the ? if I want to use should, but it requires me to consider it first. After a while, I added a snippet for the word SHOULD in all caps, replacing it with should in lowercase for times when I’m sure I want to type it and don’t want to be bothered. The small step of holding down the shift key still requires me to be intentional about its use.

I added the word just recently, after a couple tweets I made in a moment of frustration with my use of the word seemed to have some resonance with my friends and followers.

This blog post isn't an endorsement of TextExpander, though I obviously like it and find it useful, but rather it is an exploration of ways we can use technology to help us become who we want to be. 

Some Thoughts on Measuring Online Engagement

Did you grab attention? Did you deliver delight? Did you cause people to want to share? Did you initiate a discussion? Did you cause people to take an action? Did your participation deliver economic value?
— Avinash Kaushik

The tricky thing about these metrics — conversation, amplification, applause, economic value — is that they may or may not reflect what we care about, which is change. It’s assumed that more conversation, more amplification, more applause, and more economic value == good. And that correlation == causation. We can assume neither, despite the digital reams of data that are available to us.

Online facilitation is like in person facilitation, especially if your intended outcome is change. Consider likes, favorites, follows, friends, comments, and shares like you consider test scores, which do not reveal much except for truncated measures of retention, attention, and recall. Clicks of mouse, taps of a finger. These touch points do not reveal the complexity of a human heart, mind, or identity.  Understanding how a person changes based on their interactions with us, how those interactions shape who they are and combine with their past and future experiences to produce change inside of them — healing, harm, openness, closedness — is probably impossible. 

Learning and change are super complex. Consider we may never know the effects of our work. Every snapshot lacks context in some way. Proceed with listening, kindness, observation, and experimentation. Accept that there will be uncertainty, as in all things, and move forward anyway.

Same, Same

I have never lived in a place as big as Seattle, where I encounter stranger after stranger, day after day, and could never not. 

But some of those strangers are magical.

The woman who rides the same bike I do, same color and with the same basket and even the same kind of bag in the basket, wearing the same t-shirt that Jen used to wear all the time until she lost it, locking her bike up across from me at the library on a Thursday afternoon.

The man who sits in the Olympic Sculpture Garden on a Saturday morning, writing in a notebook and staring at the water for a long time. I know it was a long time because I sat a ways down from him writing in my notebook and staring at the water for that whole time, too.

Or the day I left my apartment with an apple, which I ate while walking down the hill to Broadway, where I stood holding the apple’s core and waited patiently for the crosswalk signal. And the man on the opposite side of the street, who after also waiting patiently for the signal to change, crossed my path  holding the core of his own apple.

These moments are pure joy. I grin wide and breathe them in deep.   On a different day, in a different moment, we wouldn’t know each other at all. 

A List of Things That Improve

  • homes

  • energy efficiency

  • handwriting

  • the seasoning on a cast iron skillet

  • water quality

  • screen resolution

  • public transit

  • the time it takes to run a 5k

  • wifi bandwidth

  • medical treatments

  • interest rates

Noteworthy omissions:

  • self

  • humans

  • trees

  • flowers

  • ladybugs

My thanks to Frances Ulman, who taught me much of this over and over again.

How to Write Morning Pages

On October 20th, 2010 I started a practice of writing Morning Pages. It’s since become a space I use to reflect and find clarity, but taking an hour to write each morning hasn’t happened easily. It's required priority, boundary setting, and forgiveness. Here’s how I make it happen:

I Use Ritual

In her book, The Creative Habit (library), choreographer Twyla Tharp writes about how humans use ritual to understand things that are hard to understand — things like death, and God, and creativity. She recommends establishing a ritual to habitually put yourself in a creative space. 

Here’s Twyla’s morning ritual: 

She wakes at 5:30am, puts on gym clothes, hails a cab and goes to the gym. Notice that no part of Twyla’s ritual involves choreography. She has set up a series of minimally effortful actions that propel her into a groove as opposed to a rut. Twyla says her ritual is complete when she hails the cab. Hailing the cab is the point of no return for her creative process. If she gets that far, she’ll end up in the dance studio later in the day. 

My morning ritual looks like this:

I take two gummy vitamins, make an embarrassingly elaborate cup of coffee, and then number three pages: 1, 2, 3. My ritual is complete when I number the pages.  If I make it that far, I’ll propel myself into a groove and write. If I don’t, I’ll take my fancy cup of coffee and check Facebook.

I Use Envelopes

In The Artist's Way (library), Julia Cameron writes that you can throw your Morning Pages away after you're done, but I’ve never been able to do that. She says that the point of the activity is to exhaust the logic brain and parlay that state of mind into your next creative act. Morning Pages do that for me, but their content is too valuable to me to toss.

Still, it is easier to write honestly when your writing can’t be revisited.  To achieve this without throwing them away, I seal completed pages in an envelope.  There’s power in that thin strip of glue — it’s enough to keep me honest while writing and also prevents me or anyone else from revisiting. 

Anything Goes, Within Bounds

There isn’t a right way to write Morning Pages. Some days I draw symbols in between words, or do long division when I'm trying to figure something out, or repeat words or sentences when I can't think of anything else to write.

There is one wrong way to write them, though, and that’s to go beyond three pages. On days when three pages aren’t enough, I still stop when I’ve reached the back of page three. This keeps the scope of my practice nicely contained, which is especially important on days when the words don’t come easily.

I Write Them By Hand

I write with pen and paper and recommend everyone do the same. Handwriting matters (NYT) and it also slows us down, which is good because part of the benefit of writing pages is thinking about things at a contemplative pace.

Because handwriting is harder for those of us who type all day, I also use good tools like fancy stationary and an agreeable fountain pen. This adds a dignity and importance to the practice that influences how much I value it.

I Keep Trying

A month ago, I went through my collection of Morning Pages envelopes and counted them. I wrote 505 mornings out of the 1,561 since I started. That’s one out of every three, or a failure rate of 68%. Considering how often I fail to meet my goal, it would be understandable if I just gave up, but I haven't and I've written reams — over half a million words — as a result.

Failure and success aren't mutually exclusive. Don't let a single or double or triple failure stop you from the bigger goal. Practice is called practice for a reason.

Give It A Chance

Whether it's for personal or professional reasons, or both, Morning Pages are a great way to introduce reflection and self-awareness into your life. Imagining who I'd be without them is like imagining who I'd be without years of good therapy. Start a ritual, forgive yourself when you fail to meet it, and see where it takes you. 

A Flow Chart for Navigating Fear

The next time you notice you're afraid and aren't sure if it's an actual shark with teeth, maybe this flow chart can help you out.

How to Draw a Shark



Step One:

Think of something you are afraid of.


Step Two:

Draw an upside down “V” or an A without the crossbar that makes it look like an upside down “V.”


Step Three:

Draw the bow wave so that you can tell what direction the shark is swimming (e.g. towards you).


Step Four:

Draw the wake to help reinforce that yes, it’s definitely swimming towards you.


Step Five:

Draw an arrow that points to it.


Step Six:

Color it in (optional).


Step Seven:

On the end of the arrow that is not pointing at the shark, write down a sentence that describes the fear you thought of in step one.


Repeat as many times as necessary.


You may be wondering why there is no body necessary to draw a shark.
It is because we only need the imagined threat of any fear to fully fear it.
And besides, spoiler alert.


Announcing Museum Camp 2015

I am very excited to announce that I'm partnering with Nina Simon and the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History to put on Museum Camp 2015.  It'll be in August of this year and our theme is SPACE-MAKING, which means making time/head/physical space for things like creativity, contemplation, solitude, risk-taking, and self-care. 

You don't have to be a "museum person" to apply. If you pursue positive change in your life and community, you are invited. Applications are here. Join us!

Knowing Not Knowing

Some days risk must be endured. On those days it's not thrilling nor terribly scary. Reward and failure, both, elude.

Today is one of those days.  Today I experience the plain, boring side of risk. I must be with my choices and not scramble one way or another to change them so they are more or less comfortable. Being with this uncertainty is different from creating it or discovering where it leads. It’s both not knowing and knowing at the same time.

It’s knowing not knowing.

Ocracoke Update No. 4

Ocracoke Update No. 4

After a long drive and ferry ride. After packing the cars. After taking down the Christmas tree. After time with friends and family. After Christmas concerts. After finding a whole Scotch Bonnet. After star gazing and dodging cats (and their poop) on walks with Rusty. After dolphins and rainbows. After raw wind and storms. After warm days long past their due. After being chased by a dog and circled by a hawk. After making and experiencing one of the best decisions ever, we are home.

About a month ago, I was sitting on the couch writing morning pages when I heard an abrupt and familiar whackthump. A bird had flown into the window. I winced and got up to assess and I saw it lying on the ground, upright, panting, and otherwise not moving.

I knew the bird wouldn’t last a minute in its current state. Ocracoke is home to dozens if not hundreds of the fattest and most fearless feral cats — Ocracats — I’ve ever seen. And our area of the island happened to home a large percentage of them. I thought of something Frances once told me — to always make way for life — and I put on a coat and went outside to stand watch.

I sat about ten feet from the bird and waited. I tried not to scare it. I had no desire to rush it. I simply sat and watched it for what felt like a long time. Eventually, it did fly and with a start. One second it sat immobile and the very next it was gone and I never saw it again. 

As I sat watching that bird, I didn’t know if it would ever fly again. So much of my Ocracoke experience was like that. It was unknown until it was known. And even though each and every moment of those three months is known at this point, there’s still much unknown about it. What will come of the relationships we’ve begun? Will we keep our new routines and perspectives? Who will we be as a result of this experience? 

One last story.

Leslie owns a bookshop (the bookshop) on the island. It’s called Books To Be Red. We went there frequently because we love it and she’s awesome and it’s something to do. We always chatted and were friendly and it was the sort of thing we could do anywhere but usually don’t. 

A week or so ago, we stopped by Leslie’s store to buy toy walkie talkies. Jen and I were driving separate cars home and we thought it’d be nice to use them instead of our phones. Leslie showed us the set she had but once we told her our plans, she didn’t recommend them. She didn’t trust that the toy ones would have the range we needed to communicate.

Later that day, I got an email from her. She wrote that her son had a pair of real walkie talkies that we were welcome to use and could ship them back once we got home. We stopped by the store the next day and picked them up.

On the morning we were set to leave, Leslie texted at 7:32 am. She was on the 7:30 ferry with her son Andrew, a freshman at UNC, who she was driving back to school after winter break. Just as the ferry launched, he realized that he forgot his dorm key. Even though they were only two minutes from the island, they were essentially seven hours away from his keys (the three hour ferry to mainland, the wait for the next one, and the three hour ferry back to Ocracoke).

Leslie wanted to know if we might grab the key and meet them in the Triangle later that day. It was effortless to say yes and so right to be able to reciprocate her frequent kindness to us. We met them at REI a few hours later, dorm key and walkie talkies in hand.

These stories remind me of something I learned time and again in Ocracoke - to give from a place that has. The morning I watched the bird, I wasn’t sacrificing to stand watch. I suppose Ocracoke didn’t sacrifice much by being so very much Ocracoke in our time there. But it was exactly what we needed.

In the words of Rilke, “In the course of my work this last long winter, I have experienced a truth more completely than ever before: that life’s bestowal of riches already surpasses any subsequent impoverishment. What, then, remains to be feared? Only that we might forget this! But around and within us how much it helps to remember!”

Or in my own words, dated the morning of 12/30/14, “I am deeply grateful to this place. And to my past self for finding and trusting a way here. This time, while I am sad to experience the end of it, was enough. I am grateful for this perspective and for the truth behind it. I have the eyes to see how my life is wonderful.”

Ocracoke showed me that we have. And when we give from that place, we have even more.

Secret's in the Salt

The first edition of the Secret's in the Salt newsletter went out in the US Post today.