Help! Some kind of voodoo priest is trying to change my life!

I met a woman in Michigan who told me that she performed improv with Second City in Chicago a few years ago.

"Why dd you stop?" I asked.

She explained that she moved north to Michigan for work, and there is no real improv scene in her area. She still loved performing improv when she left Chicago, but there's just no opportunity for her anymore. 

"Then you need to create an opportunity," I said. "You need to start something here."

She paused for a moment. Thought. Then smiled. She said, "Yeah, maybe. That's not a bad idea."

"No maybes," I shot back. "Do it. You need to do it now. Don't wait for some other day. Go home tonight and take one small step forward. Choose a name. Create a logo. Make a list of possible venues. Call ten people who might want to perform. Get started today."

"Maybe," she said. "It's a good idea."

"Stop saying maybe," I demanded. "You need to do it now. Too many people put off the hard, important, scary things that could change their lives forever. Don't be one of those people. Don't find yourself five years from now regretting this moment in this hallway when you could've done something great. Go home tonight and do something."

"Help!" she shouted, leaning into the office space adjacent to us. "Some kind of voodoo priest is trying to change my life."

Then she fled. 

Two days later, I ran into her again in the same hallway. I repeated many of the same things. She said she was "seriously thinking about it," which sounded pretty terrible to me. Lots of people "seriously think" about things and then live lives of quiet desperation. Fail to make their dreams come true. Lie in their death bed regretting all that could have been. 

Instead of "seriously thinking," she needed to be "seriously doing."

"Okay, okay," she said, not sounding as committed as I wanted.  

I left Michigan that day.

Three days later I mailed her a two-page letter reminding her that someday is today. "Get to work. Stop making excuses. Stop 'seriously thinking about it' and start making your dreams come true."

Our only guarantee in life is that that someday it will end. The rest is up to us. We need to make the beauty and magic and art in our lives real. We have to stop saying that someday we'll do something and instead make that someday today.

She probably thinks I'm crazy. She might even believe that I'm a voodoo priest. Maybe she's right. I sent a person who I knew for all of three minutes a letter demanding that she stop spinning her wheels and build something. Create an opportunity. Perform.  

Maybe I am a little crazy. I don't care, just as long as she starts that improv troop and takes the stage as soon as possible. 

Add "voodoo priest" to my already long list of job titles if that's what it takes to get you moving. 

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"How do you get so much done?"

The question most frequently asked of me during interviews and at the end of book talks, lectures, and the like is some variation of "How do you get so much done?"

It's sort of an impossible question to answer, because the actual answer could fill the pages of a book. 

At some point it might. 

But still, I try to answer the question by explaining my approach to life, my motivations, and offering a few productivity tips that are meant to be emblematic of the hundreds that remain unmentioned for the sake of time and sanity.

Mostly, my answers come down to one precept: 

Don't waste time. 

But that's not terribly helpful to people who can't see what that means. "Don't waste time" comes in many forms, but yesterday might be a good example of this precept.

Sunday was a busy day for me. I rose from bed at 4:45 AM. After getting dressed, I fed the cats and sat down to write a blog post. When that was finished, I read and revised a chapter of a future novel and finished off a magazine pitch. Then I made breakfast for the kids before leaving at 6:00 AM to play golf.

While making breakfast and on the way to golf, I listened to Springfield Confidential, a memoir by Mike Reiss about his years writing for The Simpsons. 

I stepped off the golf course at 8:55 and drove to my friend's house, where I helped move furniture until 9:30. Then I returned home. I clean up my kids' breakfast dishes, showered, and changed clothing.

I had 15 minutes before leaving the house with the family for the Coventry Farmer's Market, so I sat down and edited the second segment of the Speak Up Storytelling podcast episode that dropped this morning. Then it was off to the market for a couple hours of fun with Elysha and the kids. We sat on hay bales, eating breakfast sandwiches and Italian ices while listening to a band play songs by Tom Petty, Jack Johnson, and Michael Jackson. Then we walked the market, buying flowers and saying hello to vendors we know before leaving. 

On the way home, we listened to music. Answered Charlie's existential question on the nature of heaven. Debated the greatest vocalist of all time. Discussed the innocuous nature of the band Foreigner. Decided to learn the lyrics to Crosby, Stills, and Nash "Southern Cross."

When we returned home from the market, I had another 45 minutes before I needed to leave for Miss Porter's for camper orientation. For the next week, I'll be teaching a storytelling workshop to 28 girls from around the world. During those 45 minutes, I edited another segment of the podcast and decided on a story idea for a Moth StorySLAM on Monday.

On the way to Miss Porter's School, I worked on that story, which I had started working on about a year ago but had never finished. I spoke the story aloud as I drove.

For the next two hours, girls arrived at Miss Porter's and registered for camp. I met my counselors, chatted with folks from last year's camp, and answered parent questions. At the same time, I had my laptop set up by the squash courts, When not needed, I was editing the podcast and preparing a follow-up email for the workshop participants who I taught on Saturday in Boston. 

At 4:00, I addressed the parents and campers, talking about the week we had planned. I took some questions, finalized some details, and left. I drove 30 minutes to a friend's house where I met Elysha and the kids for a barbecue. On the way to the barbecue, I worked on my story, finding arc and the transition sentences I would need.

I enjoyed a barbecue with friends before driving another 20 minutes for ice cream at Rich Farm. I listened to Springfield Confidential on the way since I was in a separate car.

After ice cream, I drove the 45 minutes home, listening and finishing Springfield Confidential. When I arrived home, I fed the cats and finished editing the podcast and scheduled it to publish at midnight. Sitting beside Elysha, I answered email and read through the magazine pitch once more. I dragged the trash and recycling to the curb. Then I went to bed around 11:00 PM.

That was a full day. A round of golf with friends. A visit to a farmer's market with my family. A barbecue and ice cream with friends and faimily. Moving furniture. Orientation at Miss Porters School.

It was busy, but I spent a lot of time with my family and friends, and since I carry my golf bag on my back, managed some exercise as well. 

Actually, the moving of furniture was the real workout of the day. 

But in between all of it, I edited a podcast. Wrote a blog post. Wrote a magazine pitch. Revised the chapter of a novel. Finished listening to an audiobook. Planned a story for The Moth. There wasn't much time to accomplish these things. Most of them were completed in the spaces of my day. Between activities. At the beginning of the day. At the end of the day.    

Truthfully, it wasn't a terribly productive day in terms of writing, storytelling and the like. Most of my time was occupied by other pursuits. But in between, when time could have been wasted, I got some stuff done. 

I also didn't watch TV. I didn't scroll through social media. I didn't arrive home and putter around the house. I maximized the spaces of my day. 

Spaces we all have. Everyday.

This is how I get so much done. There are also an enormous number of routines and strategies that I use to maximize my time. Other stuff, too. A book's worth of stuff. 

But this is a good start.

Change. Now.

I saw this fortune the other day and thought, "Someone gets it."

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I believe in change.

I am a man who has held the same teaching job for two decades, in the same school and in the same classroom for almost the entire time. I've watched so many of my friends come and go over the years. Some have left teaching altogether. Others have retired. Quite a few have moved into new positions at other schools. 

Good friends. The best of friends. My wife, even. 

Yet I remain, unmoved and unchanged. Even my classroom has changed very little. Students come back to visit years later and can't believe how much the classroom looks like the one they remember.

It may not seem like I embrace change, but that is not true. I believe in change. I seek change wherever possible. If you're doing the same thing, day after day, year after year, absent any change, you're getting old. You're dying a slow death.  

I'm in constant search for change, both planned and unexpected. Sometimes self-selected and sometimes prompted by others. 

Twenty years ago, almost on a whim, I became a wedding DJ.
Eventually a minister, too, I started marrying couples. Conducted baby naming ceremonies, too. 
Then I took up golf thanks to the prodding of friends. 
For a few years, I performed in community theater. Even sang a solo once, and I can't sing.
About the same time, I started playing poker, too. Pretty seriously for a while.  
After years of trying and failing, I finally published my first novel and became an author.
Still later, I started writing columns for magazines and newspapers. 
Then I became an author again. Eventually again and again and again. 
One day, a friend asked me to write musicals, so I started doing that.
A year later, I started writing screenplays, too. Film and television. 
Seven years ago I took a stage in NYC and told a story, and I became a storyteller.
Someone saw me telling stories and asked me to write comic books, so I tried my hand at that.
After a while, I became a teacher of storytelling. Then a communications consultant.  
Upon request, I started delivering inspirational and keynote speeches, too.  
Half a dozen years ago, I started studying finance. I began investing. Pretty seriously, too. 
Five years ago Elysha and I launched Speak Up. 
Four years ago, I started writing non-fiction. Storyworthy was the first to publish.
Three years ago I started writing middle grade fiction. My first will publish next year.
Two years ago, my cohost, Rachel, and I launched Boy vs. Girl, a podcast about gender. 
Last year I tried stand up comedy for the first time.
This year I was paid to perform comedy for the first time.
Last summer I started delivering sermons for churches. 
Along the way, I also became a husband. A homeowner. A father. The owner of two new cats. 

I'm constantly looking for the next thing. The new thing. The thing I'd always wanted to do and the thing I never imagined I'd do. 

Elysha and I launched a podcast on storytelling, Speak Up Storytelling, just this month.
I'm currently completing the paperwork to become a notary.
I'm recording a possible future podcast with my children. We call it "What the Heck?"
I working on new books in a variety of genres.  
In August, I'll perform my one-person show for the first time at a festival in New York. 

Find something new.

If it's hard or frightening or seemingly impossible, even better.

Then find something else new. And then something else.

The fortune cookie is right.

If you want to stay young, you must change. 

Walk fast. Now science is standing behind me.

Four years ago, I wrote a post on productivity that suggested that you walk faster in order to save time. 

I wrote (in part):

I know it sounds simple and stupid, but if you want to be more productive, walk fast.

I am often teased by colleagues because I walk down the halls at breakneck speeds. It’s assumed by many that I am incredibly busy, and while this may be true, my decision to walk fast is a conscious one that I make in order to recapture time.

Not only does the increased speed provide me with an elevated heart rate and a tiny bit of exercise, but I simply get places sooner than everyone else. Almost every day, I park my car and walk past people who are sauntering through the parking lot as if it were adorned with fine art. As if it were a place they wanted to be.

Do I save much time in the process?

Over the course of a day, a week, a month or a lifetime, the answer is yes. Absolutely. The amount of time I save in each parking lot, hallway, and grocery store is minimal, but it adds up quickly. 

It gets me back to the places where I want to be.

It gets me back to the people who I want to be with.

Readers scoffed at this notion at the time. They argued that I needed to stop and smell the roses. They suggested that there was value in the saunter. They insisted that rushing around every day wasn't the best way to live a life. They said that walking quickly through a grocery store was ridiculous. They implied that I was a little crazy. 

Their opposition didn't bother me at the time. I know what it's like to be at the tip of the spear. Leading the charge for change can be difficult, but the tip of the spear is where I have been for much of my life.

I'm accustomed to occupying the minority, albeit correct, position on matters such as these.  

Four years later, science finally supports my claim. 

Walking at an average pace was linked to a 20% reduction in the risk of mortality compared with walking at a slow pace, while walking at a brisk or fast pace was associated with a risk reduction of 24%, according to a new study. A similar result was found for risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.

I was, as you can imagine, not surprised. 

The study was a collaboration between the Universities of Sydney, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Limerick and Ulster. The researchers linked mortality records with the results of 11 population-based surveys in England and Scotland between 1994 and 2008 in which participants reported their walking pace. The findings appear in a special issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine dedicated to walking and health.

I'll add that in addition to the possible longevity that results from a quicker walking pace, I stand by my original argument:

You'll also get more out of life by walking faster. Fewer minutes spent crossing through parking lots, walking down halls, and strolling through the aisles of a grocery store means more minutes spent doing the things you love and spending time with people you love. 

Even if these studies prove to be flawed and life expectancy does not improve with a quicker walking pace, walking faster means that the time that you do have will be better spent. Precious minutes will be saved. Do this every day, and those minutes quickly add up. 

Once you understand the value of time (by far the world's most undervalued commodity), you'll want to preserve every single minute possible.

And if you can gain an extra decade of life in the process, even better.  

People don't like you because you complain all the time.

People don't like people who complain all the time. 

I explained this to my students after hiking The Freedom Trail in Boston with them. "I was so proud of you," I said. "In past years, some students complained a lot. Complained about being tired. Complained about walking. One kid once told me he had a terrible time because all we did is walk around and look at stuff."

The worst, I told them, is when someone complains about something that can't be changed. The length of the walk. The heat. The hills. "People don't like complainers."

This is one of those universal truths that everyone knows is true and yet is so often ignored. If it's a 10 year-old kid, I can understand. Kids lack wisdom and perspective. They're still learning. 

But adults? 

I really don't get it. 

I have to assume that the constant complainers either:

  1. Fail to realize that they are constantly complaining
  2. Can't help themselves
  3. Are somehow convinced that complaining is acceptable and appreciated

Either way, it's a damn tragedy. Their constant complaining never get them any closer to a solution to their problems, and they often damage their relationships with others in the process. 

I assume that people who constantly complain are fundamentally unhappy people, and while I can sympathize with their unhappiness, I also know that the complaining only serves to make them even less happy. It's an ugly feedback loop that seems to never end. 

People are drawn to positivity. Optimism. Solutions. Forward momentum. We know this, but so often, we fail to put this knowledge into practice.

This is not to say that complaining about something is wrong or that you must exude positivity and optimism at every moment. We can't be happy and satisfied at all times. 

I get quite annoyed, for example, when stuck behind someone in line at a convenience store who is requesting an assortment of scratch tickets. 

If you're going to purchase $50 in scratch tickets and then immediately scratch them inside the store beside the rack of Cheetos, I feel like you should be forced to stand in a special line for really, really dumb people. 

See? I can complain, too. 

I've also been known to complain about household clutter, my family's inability to turn off lights when leaving a room, the shot selection of Marcus Smart, men who think that watches are objects worthy of even a second of discussion, drivers who adhere to "No Right on Red" signs when the intersection is empty, pickles placed beside my hot dog like a garnish, golfers who roll their ball into a preferable position on the fairway, speed tables in wealthy neighborhoods, and dress codes of any kind.

Complaining is not the problem. It's the ratio of negativity to positivity that I'm talking about. The frequency by which a person complains. For some people, the ratio of negative to positive comments is off the charts.

So I tell my students (and my children) to try to be self-aware. Ask yourself:

How often do I complain about things beyond my control? 

Listen to yourself. Try to be self-aware. 

Remember: 

People don't like people who complain. 

Objectively, I think we all understand this.

In practice, I'm not so sure. 

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Be a satisficer.

I bought some new golf shoes last summer. 

I was walking through Golf Warehouse with my friend, Plato, when I came upon the shoe department. Sitting on the very front of the department was a pair of waterproof golf shoes.

"I'll take these," I said.

"That's it?" Plato asked incredulously. "You're not going to look at any others? You didn't do any research?"

At his urging, I made a perfunctory examination of the the many options available to me, but about five minutes later, I returned to the first pair I saw. "Nope, these are good."

They've been serving me well ever since.

This has become a source of amusement amongst some of my friends. They scoff at my un-informed purchase and see me as someone who blindly plows through life, grabbing the first shiny object I see. 

"Not so," I say.

Scientists agree.

Researchers in the decision making process have identified two types of decision makers:

Satisficers make a decision once their criteria are met. When they find a hotel or a pizza or a pair of golf shoes that has the qualities they want, they’re satisfied. Although a slightly better version of the product may exist just a few feet away, they stop looking once the minimum requirements have been met.

For me, I wanted waterproof golf shoes in a size 9. Once I found those two qualities in a single shoe, I was done.

Maximizers want to make the best possible decision. Even if they see a bicycle or an apple or a pair of golf shoes that meets their needs, they can’t make a decision until they’ve examined every option. They are the researchers. The comparison shoppers. The folks who prize quality over speed. These are the shoppers who constantly return items to the store after second guessing their decision. 

Here's what the research shows:

Satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers.

According to the research, a lot happier.

Maximizers expend more time and energy reaching decisions, and they’re often anxious about their choices both before and after the decision has been made. They have increased levels of stress, both during the decision making process and overall. 

Satisficers rarely look back on a decision if their minimum requirements were met. They use significantly less time and energy in the decision making process. They tend to exhibit lower levels of stress throughout their lives. 

It's good to be a satisficer.  

Obviously there are times when you want to be a maximizer. Some decisions demand your maximum level of attention and effort. 

Choosing a home
Choosing a spouse.
Planning a vacation.
Deciding on a baseball team to love and support throughout your life. 

These are decisions that can end in disaster if you're not careful.

You could end up as a Red Sox fan vacationing on Staten Island.  

But sometimes, many times, oftentimes, good enough is good enough.

Those golf shoes were good enough. They still are. 

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It's not all about the sleep

Last night I had the pleasure of addressing the annual meeting of the Cambridge Health Alliance in Cambridge, MA as their featured speaker.

After hearing my bio, I was asked how I manage to be so productive, and as if often the case, almost immediately, someone in the group said, "You must never sleep."

While it's true that I typically sleep 5-6 hours a night (and can sleep a lot less when necessary), it's a mistake to assume that my reduced sleep schedule is the only reason I am productive. There are many, many ways that I make the most of every minute of my day.

My life is filled with productivity hacks. Short-cuts. Routines designed to recaptures seconds, minutes, and hours from my day.

A few months ago, Elysha Dicks and I were watching the biopic of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc. In one scene, the McDonald brothers (the original owners of McDonald's) are demonstrating how they have turned the making of a hamburger into a model of efficiency. Not a single step is wasted. Every move is purposeful. The McDonald brothers were fanatical about streamlining the process as much as possible.

Elysha reached for the remote and paused the movie. "Is this why you are the way you are?"

It's true that I managed McDonald's restaurants throughout high school and college - more than a decade in total. And yes, it's true that the institutional priority of efficiency at McDonald's probably rubbed off on me, but much of my desire to squeeze the most out of every day is the result of motivation.

An keen awareness of the fragility of life. Watch my TED Talk if you want to know more.

So when the person assumed that I never sleep, I did what I've been doing for a while:

I pushed back.

"Yes, it's true that I sleep a couple hours less than most people," I said. "But there's a lot more to it than sleep."

He asked for an example. Knowing that he worked in Boston, I offered this:

The average American spends about 50 minutes commuting per day.

Not only is this relevant to productivity and time, but it's also important because we have an enormous body of research showing that people with longer commutes spend less time exercising and less time sleeping. They have sex less often. They are less happy, more likely to be overweight, and more likely to suffer from high blood pressure

Long hours of commuting, especially if you’re driving, are also associated with increased anger and resentment at work, absenteeism, lateness, and an ability to concentrate and perform to the same standards as those who live in much closer proximity to the workplace.

Long commutes can also increase the risk of heart attacks, flu, and depression.

When I consult with people on productivity, one of the first things I ask is about the length of their commute. If you're losing an hour or more a day getting to work, your levels of personal productivity are highly compromised.

In the last 20 years, I've moved five times between two different towns, but regardless of where I lived, my commute has never been longer than 10 minutes. And for the last 10 years, my commute has been five minutes.

If I spend a total of 50 minutes a week commuting to and from work and you spend five or ten hours a week, I have a lot more time to get things done.

So I asked the man how many minutes per day he spent commuting to work. His answer:

"A little less than an hour. Each way."

My commute for the entire week is HALF of his commute to and from work on a single day.

He spends about 10 hours a week in his car, fighting Boston traffic.

Every single week, I have about 9 hours of free time that he does not.

468 hours per year. Almost 20 full days.

Imagine what you could do with 20 extra days per year...

I realize that the length of your commute is often out of your control, but when Elysha and I were looking for houses to buy, one of our priorities was to keep our commute short. We limited our search to about five different towns, based upon a number of factors, but one of them was the distance between our home and our place of work.

I made sure that I was not wasting needless hours driving to and from work.

It's not all about the sleep. It's many other things. Some big. Some small. Some infinitesimal.

But they all add up.

I am competitive, which means I might be a jerk but also other important things

I had no idea that highly competitive, super serious tag was a thing. 

And what a thing it is...

I want to play this game, which should come as no surprise to people who know me well.

I like competition. I thrive on competition. 

My favorite form of storytelling is the slam. Stand on a stage and tell a story so a team of judges can determine if my performance was best. In fact, if given the choice between being paid to perform in a beautiful, thousand-seat theater or tossing my name into a tote bag at the back of a bookstore with the hopes of maybe competing in front of 200 people for free, I'd take the latter almost every time.  

My favorite card game is poker. Match wits against an opponent with actual cash on the line.

If competitive yoga was a thing, I suspect that I'd be a full blown yogi by now.  

When I was living in Brockton, MA in the 1990's, I competed in an underground arm wrestling league. Though I was not close to being the best arm wrestler on the circuit, I was only beaten once in my two year career. I wasn't always able to pin my opponent (in fact, I rarely pinned an opponent), but I became famous for always managing to wrestle to a draw. 

I couldn't stand to lose.  

And although I am a winning storyteller and poker player, I don't need to be good in order to enjoy the competition. I am a terrible golfer who routinely plays with excellent golfers. It is rare that I do not finish in last place in my foursome, but I return to the golf course again and again, ready to compete each time.  

I can't imagine not keeping score, and I refuse to play with a handicap. If I can't win straight-up, then I don't get to win.  

In college, I would try to not only score the highest on tests, but I would also tried to finish the test first, viewing speed as a positive attribute and knowing that if I finished quickly enough, I might demoralize my fellow students and bend the curve in my direction. 

Terrible, I know. This didn't mean that I would help my fellow students study or offer strategies and tips to be successful. Just like in poker or storytelling, I'm happy to help my competitors perform better through instruction, advice, and counsel. 

Hell, I'm publishing a book containing many of my storytelling secrets. You should preorder it immediately, by the way. 

But when it comes time to actually compete, I'll do anything short of cheating to win, and if that means finding a way to demoralize an opponent, I'll do it. I want to win every time. 

My mother told me time and time again as a child that "Everything is not a competition," but with two siblings and two step-siblings, it was fairly simple to turn almost anything into a competition.

Climbing. Running. Eating. Biking. Rock throwing. Sledding. Handstands. Pushups. 

I even turned seemingly benign activities like shoe tying, drawing, dishwashing, and splitting wood into competitions.

I would compete against my brothers to see if I could fall asleep faster than them.

In school, I worked like hell to be the fastest reader in class. The most accurate mathematician. The most fluent speaker of French. The best pole vaulter.   

One could argue that I was turning everything into a competition in a desperate attempt to get the attention that I so desperately wanted but so rarely received. In a world where no one was ever looking in my direction, I was just trying to find a way to turn the heads of my parents and my teachers. 

Others might argue that I'm just a competitive jerk. That may also be true. 

But what I also know is that I read exceptionally fast, and that was an enormous asset when I finally made it to college as an English major.

I can fall asleep almost instantly.

I paid for our honeymoon through poker winnings.  

My success at The Moth has led to opportunities to speak, perform, and teach around the world. It helped me land a book deal. It resulted in the launch of Speak Up. It changed my life in incredible ways that may have never happened had I not been so hell bent on winning story slams and perfecting my craft.  

And even though I almost never win on the golf course, some of my best and most favorite memories with my friends have taken place while trying to get that little, white ball in that terrible, little hole. I've even written a memoir about a summer of golf that will someday find its way to bookstore shelves.

So perhaps I'll find my way to a competitive tag tournament someday - hopefully just as intense as the tag on the video but perhaps with people a little less like superheroes and a little more like ordinary human beings.  

A former student's advice on avoiding procrastination

A former student visited my class last month to offer advice to my fifth graders as they prepare to embark on their journey to middle school.

His advice was fascinating:

In order to avoid procrastination, fill your life with after-school activities. Do as much as possible. Sports, drama, student government... anything and everything. Pack your day with excitement and adventure.

In this way, he explained, your time to complete homework and study will be limited. You'll have very specific and defined times each day when you can get your work done, and as a result, you will be forced to do your homework and studying during those times.

My former student's message is this:

When we have large amounts of free time available to us, we procrastinate. If we eliminate or restrict the amount of free time we have each day, we'll have no choice but to use that free time wisely. 

Kind of brilliant. Right?

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Try something new. Again and again and again.

My wife, Elysha, is learning to play the ukulele. Her remarkable and handsome husband gave her a ukulele and lessons for Christmas, and ever since December, she has practiced and played almost every day.

It's her new thing.

My friend, Steve, is hosting his first corn hole tournament on Saturday in his backyard. Dozens of competitors, corporate sponsors, fabulous prizes, and he's opening the event with a singing of the national anthem. 

It's his new thing.

I can't say enough about introducing new things to your life on a regular basis.

You must. You never know where they might lead.  

Back in July of 2011, I went to New York City to tell a story on a Moth stage. My plan was to tell one story and never do it again. 

Today, I have become a storyteller who performs all over the country and the world. 

In 2013, Elysha and I produced our first Speak Up storytelling event at Real Art Ways in Hartford, expecting 30-40 friends would gather two or three times a year to listen to stories. 

Today, we produce about a dozen shows per year for audiences as large as 500 people.

In 2014, I taught my first storytelling workshop, telling the participants that this would be the only workshop I ever teach.

Four years later, I teach storytelling professionally. I work with corporations, clergy members, politicians, nonprofits, colleges and universities, public schools,  hospitals, and many more.

The last four days alone:

On Saturday, I taught storytelling at Central Connecticut State University to abut 75 educators as part of a conference on literacy.  

On Sunday, I taught storytelling to a group of remarkable young women at Miss Porter's School, a private boarding school in Connecticut, in preparation for a show that I will be producing on campus.

On Monday I traveled to a Mohawk reservation an hour north of Toronto, Canada, to teach storytelling to a group of Mohawks who are learning their native language for the first time,

Yesterday, I taught storytelling to high school students in Woodbridge, CT. I also produced a story slam for students and performed that night alongside friends and fellow storytellers.

Tonight I will consult on storytelling with an attorney in Kansas City who works to reform housing and labor practices in his city.  

All of this happens because in 2011, I tried something new. 
In 2013, I tried something new.
In 2014, I tried something new. 

I shudder to think what my life might be like today had I not taken that stage seven years ago. 

Not everything that I try has similar results.

I wrote a book of poetry that will never see the light of day.
I've written picture books that no one wants to publish. 
I tried to learn to code online and honestly could not wrap my mind around any of it.

But each of these new experiences opened a door to me. Provided me with possibility. Gave me new insights. Carved new neural pathways in my brain. 

Elysha may never play the ukulele professionally, but every night. we listen to her play and sing, and it's beautiful.

Steve may never turn his corn hole tournament into anything more than an annual backyard event, but those annual tournaments will be a source of joy and amusement for him and his friends and family.

I keep a list in Evernote called "What's Next?" It's a list of things I want to try at some point in my life. Some of the items on the list are realistic and doable. Others are fanciful and unlikely. But if you had told me seven years ago that I would spend two days on a Mohawk reservation in Canada teaching Native Americans to tell stories, I would've thought you were being ridiculous.

You just never know.

Items on my "What's Next?" list include:

  • Perform my one-person show in a theater
  • Spend a summer at Yawgoog Scout reservation
  • Write and direct a short film
  • Launch a podcast with featuring me and the kids
  • Learn to make an outstanding tuna avocado melt for Elysha
  • Try curling
  • Teach a college class for new teachers about the things that are really important
  • Officiate a funeral
  • Become a notary 
  • Become an instructional coach 
  • Design and teach a competitive yoga class
  • Land a weekly column in a major newspaper
  • Become an unlicensed therapist

These are just a few of the many items on my life. An endless list of opportunities for me to try.

Life is so full of opportunities. So full of possibilities. Yet I see so many people become stagnant and still. Stuck in the routines of their lives. Unwilling to try new things. Afraid to attempt the ridiculous or the difficult or the seemingly impossible. 

Avoid this at all cost. Pick up a ukulele. Start your own corn hold tournament in your backyard. Officiate a funeral. 

Do something new, and after that, doing something else that is new. Keep doing this. Never stop. Life is full of possibility and surprise if you allow it. 

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Time spent in the Starbucks drive thru line is not time well spent

When asked about how I get so much done, I have a multitude of answers. Strategies. Recommended routines. The propagation of certain habits. Suggested ways of thinking. 

But what I should really say every time I'm asked this question is this:

I value my time appropriately. I know that time is the most valuable commodity on the planet, and therefore I am constantly making value judgements about how I will spend it. 

Most human beings don't value their time appropriately. I have a multitude of examples to demonstrate this tragic fact, but here is one that makes me insane:

There is a Starbucks near my home with a drive thru window. I stop by this Starbucks on the weekends to pick up Elysha's latest caffeinated fix. The line of cars in the drive thru line at this establishment is typically so long that it sometimes blocks the entrance to the parking lot. 

It's insanity. It infuriates me. The parking lot in front of the store is bereft of cars. The parking spot beside the front door is empty. The inside of the Starbucks is almost empty. Twice as many employees as customers. Yet people will sit in their cars, waiting for this line to slowly wind its way around the building instead of hopping out of the car and going inside.

These are people who do not value their time appropriately.

Last weekend, I decided to determine if I was missing something. Maybe I was misunderstanding the situation.

Perhaps the line moves incredibly fast?

It doesn't. I watched customers walk into the store, order their coffee, receive their coffee, use the restroom, and leave long before the cars at the back of the drive thru line were even close to the window. 

Maybe these were parents with little children strapped into car seats? 

Nope. I walked around the building, creepily eyeing the back seats of these cars. While I'm sure there are occasionally parents with small children in the drive thru line, none were in line on either day that I checked. 

These are people who are not valuing their time appropriately. They are spending time in a drive thru line when there is a faster, more efficient option available.

It's a small thing, and it's admittedly not a lot of time wasted. Ten minutes at best. But when you start to value time appropriately, you realize that all time is valuable, regardless of its size.

For me, ten minutes could mean an extra ten minutes on a treadmill, which could equate to an extra 60 calories burned.

Ten minutes could mean an extra paragraph written in a novel, which brings me one paragraph closer to completion. 

Ten means could mean an extra ten minutes spent playing soccer with the kids on the front lawn.

Ten minutes could mean a dishwasher emptied, a load of laundry folded, a letter written, a cat cuddled, a permission slip completed, an email answered, a page read, a magazine article pitched, a phone call made, a photograph taken, or a banana eaten.

These ten minutes add up quickly. People don't believe it. They think tens minutes here and there are nothing. I know this because they roll their eyes and scoff at the ways I try to preserve tiny slivers of time every day. They think it's ridiculous that I practically run through the grocery store when shopping. They think that my deeply-held desire to identify the most efficient way to empty a dishwasher is ludicrous. They think it's silly that I try to keep my shower to under 100 seconds. They think it's insane that I eat the same thing for lunch almost every day.   

But this time matters. These minutes add up quickly, and the results of this time saved are extraordinary.

When you're on your death bed years from now, moments from the end, will you wish you'd spent more time in a Starbucks drive thru line? 

Or will be wishing that you could've written just one more letter to a loved one or eaten one more banana or spent just a few more minutes with your children when they were little? 

I know the answer to this question. I think about it constantly. This question is my guiding force. My ever-present mantra. 

I know the answer to this question. I think you do, too.  

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Walking a paper route with a friend taught me an invaluable lesson.

I'm admittedly hyper-focused on productivity. 

"How can I do more in less time?" has been a flashing beacon in my mind for a long, long time. As far back as I can remember.  

Along those same lines has been this question:

"What is the most productive way to spend my time?"

This second question came into focus when I was about twelve years old. My friend, Jeff, had a paper route in his neighborhood, and one day he asked me to walk along with him. I agreed. He delivered the afternoon edition of The Woonsocket Call Monday-Friday plus the Sunday morning edition. We had fun, walking from house to house as he introduced me to the idiosyncrasies of each of his customers. 

  • This old lady gives me one stale Oreo cookie on Friday.
  • This guy answers the door on payday in a robe and slippers.
  • The customers who he had never seen. "They just leave money in an envelope under the mat for me, like they did for the last paper boy."

Back then, paper routes were precious. In order to secure one, you had to purchase it from a retiring paperboy for a considerable amount of money. As I walked with Jeff, I wondered if my paper boy might be retiring soon. Maybe I could be a paper boy and finally have some money in my pocket. 

I walked the paper route with Jeff several times until one day, he and I walked together on Friday. 

Payday.

That was when I saw how much money Jeff made per week. I couldn't believe it. As poor as I was and as much as I wanted to have money in my pocket, a quick calculation in my head determined that this must be the least productive job on the planet. 

The pay was atrocious. It was miniscule. It was not worth his time.  

Not only was the pay pathetic, but taking on the job as paperboy meant committing every afternoon to the job without exception. No after school sports. No visits with friends. Just straight home to deliver the papers. And it didn't matter if it was raining or snowing. It didn't matter if it was 10 degrees or 100 degrees. It didn't matter if you were sick or hurt. A paperboy was outside, delivering papers, every day, no matter what. 

That was the moment I realized that as poor as I may be, some jobs are simply not worth the pay. My time, I came to understand, is exceptionally valuable, and simply having more money than I had before should never be the reason to take a job.  

It was the moment I realized that my time was worth a certain amount of money, and my goal was to find work that balanced the equation between my time and effort and the money and benefits being offered in return. 

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A few months later I would be hired for my first job:

Laborer on a local farm. I hooked and flung bales of hay off tractor trailers. Hung barbed wire. Sunk fence posts. Mucked stalls. Cleared brush. I worked 5-6 hours every Saturday morning and made more money than Jeff made in a week. 

Time is money, I learned at an early age, but only if the money and benefits offered matches the time being given in return. 

Far too often, I watch people take on additional work, new assignments, and side jobs that are simply not worth the time invested. While I understand the inclination to say yes to any additional income, you must keep the big picture in mind:

Time is the most valuable commodity on the planet, and you have just as much of it as the wealthiest people alive. Value your time accordingly. Never waste it away. Find the additional work and side jobs that price your time accordingly. Take the time to find the right fit. Invest in yourself and your skills so you can ultimately earn what you deserve. Demand that your compensation be commensurate with your ability from every employer.   

Admittedly, I still struggle with that last one a bit. 

48,762 is a completely unacceptable number

As an "inbox zero" guy (one who strives to keep his email's inbox empty or as close to empty as possible), you can't imagine how upsetting this particular phone is to me. 

It's real, too. This iPhone belongs to someone I know. I took this photograph.  

Just knowing that this number exists in the world (and is probably larger) is distressing to me. 

If you're looking to gain some control over your own inbox, may I recommend using a mail app like Inbox, which allows you to reschedule your email to a more convenient and appropriate time for you. 

For example:

  • I schedule all tax related information, invoices, and digital receipts to return to my inbox on February 1 of each year.
  • I schedule tickets for shows and events to return to my inbox on the actual date of the show.
  • I schedule information pertaining to workshops, speeches, and meetings (agendas, directions, contact info) to return to my inbox at the time and date of the actual meeting or workshop. 
  • I'll even reschedule email received during the morning or afternoon to the evening or the next day if that is when I plan to respond to it.

All done with the simple swipe of a thumb.  

Amongst the many rescheduling choices offered by the app (Tomorrow, Later this week, This weekend, Next week, a specific time and date) is "Someday," which also allows me reschedule a complimentary email to hit my inbox a second time.

A reader writes to me to compliment me on a book. A former student writes to me thanking me for inspiring her. A friend sends an unexpected email with words of kindness and generosity.   

I reschedule it for "Someday," and surprise and joy get a second visit. A second shot of the brain's four "feel good" chemicals: endorphin, oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine.

Someday... 

Inbox has many other fantastic features that I routinely use, but the ability to reschedule your email to arrive at a time that fits your schedule is the feature I use most often.

It keeps things manageable. Prevents me from missing or forgetting about an email. Keeps my mind uncluttered. It allows me to operate at "inbox zero" or close to it every day. 

I'm not saying that your goal should be inbox zero. I'm merely implying that you will be a far better human being if you are an inbox zero devotee like me. 

You can't be "useless after 8:00 PM" if you want to be productive

I was speaking to someone this week about being more productive, and over the course of accounting for his time, he informed me that he is "useless after 8:00 PM."

In short, the only way he could possible spend his time after 8:00 is by watching TV.

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This is ridiculous, of course. 

Had the person in question been working two jobs or working or playing in a sports league after work or volunteering in a soup kitchen during the dinner hour, I might understand this claim better, but this person works a typical 9:00-5:00 job, followed by dinner, dishes, and television.

This is not the way to live a productive life. 

Please note:

I'm not judging this particular life choice (out loud), but when you come to me hoping for advice on living a more productive life and tell me that you can't accomplish anything after 8:00 PM, I'm going to take issue.

Happily, I also have a solution to this after-dinner malaise: 

Exercise. 

Exercise is one of the most dependable mood-boosters. Even a 10-minute walk can brighten your outlook and increase your energy level.

It's counter-intuitive, I know. Spend energy to get energy, but anyone who exercises regularly will tell you that this is true. Exercise is an enormous energy booster, and on days when I am not able to exercise, I feel the sluggishness.

In fact, in warmer months, it's not uncommon for me to go on a 15 minute run around the neighborhood at 9:00 PM if my hope if to be productive and alert past midnight. That 15 minute burst of speed and effort does more for me than caffeine ever could.

Theoretically, at least. Caffeine sadly has no effect on me. I can drink a 32 ounce caffeinated drink and still be asleep ten minutes later.   

My cross to bear.

But exercise!

Walking. Running. Playing a sport. Climbing aboard an elliptical or rowing machine. Coming over to my house and mowing the lawn or cutting up the enormous branch in the backyard that I still don't know what to do with.  

Just 15 minutes a day can make an enormous difference. 

When I work with people on personal productivity, I look primary at three things:

  1. Efficiency during the work day (can you complete tasks faster if more thought is put into planning/methodology?)
  2. Prioritization: Are you spending too much time on things that aren't important?
  3. Time: How are you spending those hours outside the typical work day? 

Too often I discover that people lounge in bed after awaking (which hurts their ability to fall asleep quickly and maximize their sleep) and spend most (if not all) of their evenings in front of the television. 

While I'm not judging these behaviors (out loud), they are certainly not helpful to the person who wants to be more productive and make their dreams come true. 

Instead of plopping down in front of the TV, go for a walk. Try to make it a jog or even a run. When you return, you'll feel refreshed, invigorated, and prepared to take on the world. Ready to make your dreams come true.

It's not impossible. Just remember:

Those actors, athletes, comedians, musicians, and performers who you are passively watching from the comfort of your couch: They are making their dreams come true right before your eyes. They are doing what so many want to do but so few can do.

The writers and directors and producers of the show... same thing.

Visual evidence that making your dreams come true is entirely possible. But probably not if you're useless after 8:00 PM.

How do you juggle so many balls at once? The answer is simple.

During a recent interview, a reporter cited my multitude of careers.

"You publish novels. Write columns and musicals. Perform on stage. Produce storytelling shows. DJ weddings. Minister. And you teach elementary school! Plus I know there's more that I'm forgetting. How do you juggle so many balls at one time?"

I've been asked this question before. It always surprises me, because the answer seems so obvious. 

I don't juggle anything.

Yes, it's true. I do lots of things. I have lots of balls in play. But I don't juggle them. I pick one up. Spend some time with it. Deal with it. But then I put that ball down and pick up another one. Deal with it. Put it down. I don't juggle. I handle one ball at a time.

Only a lunatic would try to write a novel while ministering a wedding and teaching long division to fifth graders.

This analogy has seemed to provide some clarity for people, and for others, maybe even a little hope. Someone who read that interview recently wrote to me and said. "It seems a lot easier to chase my side-hustle knowing I don't have to be thinking about both careers at the same time. It sounds ridiculous, but taking that juggling analogy off the table helps a lot."

I have always advised people to be working on your next career. Allocate a small percentage of your time and effort to your next job. Your dream scenario. The business you might someday launch. The creative endeavor that you've imagined since you were a child. 

But don't juggle. Never juggle. Simply do one thing, and then stop and do the other thing. 

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Commitment, persistence, and practice can look a lot like talent. Don't be fooled.

I love this video so much.

I love this guy so much. If I owned a company - any company - and was hiring, this is the person who I would hire. 

So much of life comes down to grit. Persistence. Commitment. Tenaciousness. Practice. Yet so few often seem to be willing to put in the time.

I write novels. Though some may argue this requires a certain degree of talent, I would argue that the most important attribute I possess is the willingness to commit my ass to a chair for a long period of time.

Truthfully, I believe that it's been my willingness to sit in a relentless, non-precious, non-idealized way for an incredibly long period of time that has led me to my writing career. 

I started writing in late November of 1988 when I was 17 years-old, and it is not an exaggeration to say that I have written every single day of my life since then.

I have not missed a day.

Wedding day. Birth of my children. Death of my mother. Pneumonias. Honeymoon. Vacation. Concussions. Homelessness.

I have not missed a day. 

When I was younger, I wrote in journals. I wrote letters. Short stories, Newsletters. Poems. Zines. Dungeons & Dragons adventures. Comics. My classmate's term papers (my first paid writing gig). 

In 1990 I began blogging on an early version of the Internet known as a Bulletin Board System.

In 2004 I took a graduate level class on blogging and began blogging regularly, first at a blog entitled Perpetual Perpetuity, and then Conform Me Not, and now here. Since 2004, I have not missed a day.  

I started writing at the age of 17. I published my first novel at the age of 39.

Talent? It took me 22 years of constant, consistent, relentless daily practice before any publisher was interested in my work. Maybe I'm a talented writer, or maybe I simply forged myself through hard work into someone who looks like a talented writer.  

I wrote on an island. Under a tree. In the middle of a parking lot.

I arrived at the dentist office at 1:40 PM for a 2:00 PM appointment. With a book due in less than a week, I was anxious to return to the manuscript. 

The dentist has a television in the waiting room, so rather than trying to write with a talking head yammering in the background, I took a seat beneath a small tree on an island in the center of the parking lot and worked for 15 minutes.

I finished a chapter and revised the end of another. 

I mention this for two reasons:

1. I meet a lot of people who claim that they can only write under certain conditions:

  • Only in Starbucks 
  • Only in two hour increments
  • Only with a cappuccino
  • Only in the morning
  • Only with ink and paper
  • Only while listening to jazz

I have yet to meet a published writer who suffers from any of these limitations. I also like to remind these tragically limited writers that soldiers wrote poetry, letters, and novels in the trenches of World War I while wearing gas masks. 

John McCrae wrote "In Flanders Field" after presiding over the funeral of friend and fellow soldier Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who died in the Second Battle of Ypres.

Thank goodness he didn't need a cappuccino to write one of the great poems of the twentieth century.  

2. I mention this because the question I am asked most often is "How do you manage to get so much done?" While I have many, many answers to this question, yesterday's writing session on the island of a parking lot is a good example of one of those answers:

I don't waste a minute. Rather than being precious about my time, I believe my time to be precious. Instead of waiting for ideal conditions to complete tasks and accomplish goals, I take what I can get, when I can get it. Time is our greatest commodity, so I don't wait a minute of it.  

Change happens slowly, methodically, and daily. Most people refuse to accept this.

This is a perfect metaphor for change. Watch this video.

When I work with people on affecting change in their lives - whether it's my fifth grade students or the adults who hire me to help them achieve a goal - the struggle is often to make them understand how small, incremental changes over time produce huge results.

The struggle is two-fold:

1. People lack the patience to allow change to happen. When I lost almost 60 pounds, people were desperate to learn how I managed to do it. When I told them that I ate a little less, exercised a little more, land lost about a pound a week for a year, they were far less enthusiastic. People want a quick fix. A magical diet. Not a plodding, methodical, common sense approach to weight loss. But it's the slow, habit-changing method of change that often produces the best results. 

 2. People lack the faith in incrementalism. They believe that things must be done in large bites instead of tiny nibbles. If your closet is a disorganized disaster, for example, pick up just one item every day, and before long, your closet will be clean with minimal effort and time spent. Instead, people would rather spend a rainy Saturday cleaning out their entire closet, which turns a tiny, simple daily chore into an onerous, time consuming, and loathsome job. 

Small, consistent, focused efforts at change over a long period of time can produce enormous results, and like the video, these results can snowball into something enormous. 

People either don't believe it or won't put forth the effort to ensure the consistency required to make it happen.  

For example:

After writing every single of my life - without exception - for 17 years, I wrote the first sentence of my first novel in 2005.

One sentence.

Martin opened the refrigerator and saw exactly what he had expected. 

Then I wrote another sentence. Then another.

Three years later I had finished writing my first a novel. That same day I started writing my second novel. 

A year later, I had sold that first novel. Then I sold the second and the third and so one. 

Today I've published four novels. My fifth will publish next year. I have contracts for three other books, including my first book of nonfiction and my first children's book. Three of my novels are optioned for film. I'm writing columns regularly for two magazines. 

This is the year that my enormous Domino block has fallen. Twelve years after I wrote that first sentence, and thirty years after I committed myself to writing every day, I am on the verge of being able to make a living as a writer.

But I'm still working one sentence at a time.

Small, consistent, focused change over a long period of time. It results in enormous changes. It turns the blank page into a book and a writing career.

Be patient. Consistent. Focused. Tiny steps forward every single day can bring to you amazing places.  

The Two-Day Rule: A means by which I have become more productive and trusted.

When I'm upset - angry or enraged or disappointed or annoyed - the rule I try to live by is this: 

Stop.

It turns out that the words or actions that upset me today are often meaningless and irrelevant tomorrow. Almost nothing seems as bad the next day. So I try to say nothing whenever possible, particularly when I'm upset with someone whose relationship I value or depend upon.

I wait. Two days if possible. Two days of inaction often makes everything better. 

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This was not always the case. There was a time when my response to anger was immediate and direct. I was known for my biting, caustic, unwavering retaliation. And I was good at it. As one friend said, "You always know the worst thing to say at the best moment."

There are times when I still put this skill to use, but whenever possible, I hold back and wait. Some have said that I have "mellowed out" over the years. "Calmed down." "Chilled out."

Not true. The fires of retaliation still burn brightly in my soul. Those worst things at the best moment still leap to my mind. The two day rule was put into place for the sake of productivity. It turns out that a reduction in conflict and drama in my life yields more time for accomplish my goals. I get more done when I'm not trying to verbally assault my offenders. My mind is clear. My thoughts are directed toward more productive matters.

Unexpectedly, this shift has also caused people to seek my counsel on a regular basis. I spend much of my week offering advice on personal and professional matters, primarily (I think) because I am seen as someone who is thoughtful, trustworthy, and grounded. Stable. No longer as reactionary or unpredictable.  

This is not as good for my productivity, but a reputation that has served me well.

The two-day rule doesn't apply, of course, to my children or my students. It is critical that inappropriate behavior be dealt with as soon as possible if you have any hope of affecting a meaningful change in a young person, so even if I'm annoyed or angry with the child for their behavior, I address the problem directly. 

It also doesn't apply to situations like my podcast, Boy vs. Girl, where verbal repartee is expected and demanded. My co-host, Rachel, and I often disagree, but that is part of the show. There are times when verbal sparring is expected, invited, and even desired. There are moments when people demand my instantaneous reaction. In these cases, I don't hold back.  

This rule also doesn't apply to encounters with strangers, since any delay in response will result in the loss of an opportunity at retribution. If I'm never going to see the person again, I may need to express my outrage or disappointment immediately before that person exits my life forever. 

Yes, it's true that a day or two later, their perceived crime against humanity might seem decidedly less egregious, but I'm not willing to take that chance. I fire away.  

But when it comes to family, friends, colleagues, and anyone else whose relationship I value, I try to exercise patience whenever possible. Wait a day or two before you open your mouth in anger or to complain and you'll find yourself almost never opening it in anger and almost never complaining.