B.J. Fogg on Behavior Design (2): A Three-Part Recipe for Tiny Habits

My previous post about Tiny Habits by B.J. Fogg described transformation as incremental — the result of many small behavior changes over time. B.J. refers to these changes as Tiny Habits, and each one consists of three elements.

Behavior

An ideal Tiny Habit:

  • Fits with your existing behaviors
  • Takes less than 30 seconds to do
  • Is easy — something you will do even when your motivation is low
  • Is something you can do right now
  • Is something that you truly want to do

For example:

  • Instead of saying that you’ll floss all of your teeth, plan to floss just one.
  • Instead of saying that you will meditate for 20 minutes, plan to just take one mindful breath.
  • Instead of saying that you do yoga for 30 minutes, plan to just step on your mat.
  • Instead of saying that you will walk for one hour, plan to just put on your walking shoes.

Do these examples seem absurdly small? They did to me at first. But after experimenting with Tiny Habits, I confirmed something that B.J. says: Small behaviors tend to expand over time. Flossing one tooth leads to flossing more teeth. Taking one mindful breath expands into 10, 20, and more.

In addition, keeping the behavior small allows you to feel successful right away — a pivotal factor in behavior change.

Anchor

Once you choose a tiny behavior, figure out exactly where it fits in your day. Your best bet is to do it after an existing habit that’s stable. B.J. calls this habit an anchor.

Common examples of anchors include:

  • Getting out of bed in the morning
  • Taking a shower
  • Starting a coffee maker
  • Brushing teeth
  • Turning on the shower

Celebration

Finally, plan to reward yourself for actually doing the tiny behavior. According to B.J., what creates stable habits is not repetition but positive emotion: “People change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad.”

There are many ways to celebrate. Your way of celebrating is unique to you. It can be as simple as saying Yes! to yourself or smiling while nodding your head.

Put it in writing

Capture your Anchor and Behavior in a single sentence with this syntax: After I…I will.

For example:

  • After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth. 
  • After I wake up in the morning, I will open a window and take a few deep breaths.
  • After I put on my shoes in the morning, I will go outside to soak in the natural light.
  • After I turn on the shower, I will say a quiet prayer of gratitude.
  • After I pour my coffee or tea, I will open my journal.

Add your method of celebrating, and you have a complete recipe for your Tiny Habit. B.J. recommends that you rehearse this new behavior and celebration 7 to 10 times immediately after you design it.


This ABC recipe for Tiny Habits — Anchor, Behavior, Celebration — is deceptively simple. Finding an appropriate anchor, choosing a behavior that is small enough, and celebrating in a way that feels authentic is not easy.

The key is to see habit design as a skill. And like any skill, habit design evolves through practice and feedback. As the old slogan goes, it’s about progress — not perfection.

B.J. Fogg on Behavior Design (1): Transformation Through Habit Change

Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything by B.J. Fogg is the most important book I read during the pandemic. It is filled with potentially life-changing insights. In this series of posts, I’ll capture my key takeaways.

Begin with some key perspectives.

Transformation as incremental

Millions of words have been published about behavior change. B.J. cuts through the clutter by reminding us that it all boils down to three key factors:

  • Epiphany — a sudden and profound insight that changes your life
  • Changing your environment — for example, by removing junk food from your refrigerator
  • Changing your habits

Among authors in the self-help and spirituality space, I see many references to personal transformation that flows from epiphany.

I respect epiphany. The world’s major religions owe their existence to moments of epiphany. The therapeutic use of psychedelics seeks to evoke them. So do programs like the Landmark Forum.

There are problems with epiphany, however. It is unpredictable. And, it doesn’t always change behavior.

Fortunately we have another option, says B.J. We can see transformation as the fruit of many small habit changes.

Sudden transformation is sexy and makes for great headlines. But incremental change in habits over time is something that we can design for — and execute.

Fallacies in behavior design

Alas, much of what we find in self-help books about habit change is anecdotal, unscientific, and possibly harmful.

One pitfall is something that B.J. calls the information-action fallacy: If we just provide people with key facts, they will change their behavior.

Unfortunately, gaining information doesn’t guarantee behavior change. Many people know about the dangers of smoking, for example, but continue to do it anyway.

A second fallacy is reliance on motivation. Yes, your “willpower” for sticking with positive habits occasionally peaks. But, says B.J., motivation comes in waves. Those peaks will wash away into periods where you just don’t feel like doing anything new or hard.

Release self-judgment

There’s a silver lining in all of this: if you struggle with habit change, the problem is not your lack of information or willpower: It’s lousy models of behavior change. Stop judging yourself for past failures, and start using a process that works.

That’s what B.J. offers in Tiny Habits.

He is a Stanford University psychologist who’s done rigorous research and personally coached people in habit change. This rare combination of skills means that he can translate theory into methods that work in real-world settings — the holy grail of social science.

Living in the Light of Death: The Five Remembrances

The following verses, known as the Five Remembrances, are chanted by Buddhists around the world:

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

As a child, I saw such statements as an exercise in negative thinking. But now — as an aging man — I find that they ground me. They remind me to fully enter the present moment and keep my karma clean.

Whenever I run across the Five Remembrances, I think about Larry Rosenberg, a psychologist, meditation teacher, and co-author of Living in the Light of Death: On the Art of Being Truly Alive.

This book includes Rosenberg’s account of a four-month retreat he did in Mexico with Badarayana, a meditation teacher.

One night, Badarayana asked Rosenberg to drop everything he was doing and come sit with a dead body. Someone had gotten drunk, fallen in a nearby ocean bay, and drowned.

The townspeople had put the body in a box with ice; beyond that, they would not touch it. They asked Badarayana and Rosenberg to stay with the corpse until the dead man’s relatives and a priest could arrive from Mexico City.

Badarayana jumped at the chance. He saw this as an opportunity to do an ancient meditation exercise — contemplation of death — which Buddhist monks practice around decomposing corpses in open burial grounds.

So there the two of them sat, meditating through the night in the presence of a bloated, malodorous corpse.

When Rosenberg confessed his fear and resistance to this assignment, Badarayana just said, “OK. Sit with it.”

Recalling the experience, Rosenberg later wrote:

Through the night, my teacher would periodically remind me that I was not exempt from this lawfulness, that if something appears, it must also disappear, that this dead body was not some kind of chance occurrence, that it was something to which we are all subject, that it’s the great leveler. And he would remind me again and again to reflect on this corpse as my true teacher; to see it as if it were my own body…. [emphasis added]

This passage from Rosenberg is a gift — a wake-up call.

Shining the light of death on my current worries and resentments, I am suddenly free to release them. Taking a corpse as my teacher, I resolve to better care for my body — and to be a little kinder to the next person I meet.

More about the Five Remembrances:

P. D. Ouspensky on Our Fundamental Illusion and How to Wake Up

P. D. Ouspensky haunts me. I’ve tried to make him go away, but he won’t leave me alone.

Ouspensky tells me that I am inauthentic and delusional.

Ouspensky says that my fundamental notions about myself — that I am an individual with an enduring identity and the capacity to make choices — are pure illusions.

Ouspensky says that I live in a state of waking sleep. If I truly saw myself objectively, he says, I would be driven insane.

Entering “the Work”

I own many books by OuspenskyThe Fourth Way, A New Model of the Universe, The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution, and more.

During the 1980s I gathered with a group of people to study Ouspensky’s masterpiece In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching. (See Jacob Needleman’s summary.) This book is an encyclopedic account of Ouspensky’s association with G. I. Gurdjieff. Today it remains the most complete and accessible treatment of Gurdjieff’s teachings.

Gurdjieff has been described as a spiritual teacher and genius. He has also been called a scammer, a fraud, sexual predator, and cynical manipulator of his students.

Possibly he was all of those things. He died in 1949, designating no successor, and much about him remains mysterious.

Ouspensky met Gurdjieff in 1915 and became one of his early students. The two men parted ways in 1918, however, after Ouspensky charged Gurdjieff with abandoning his original teachings. Ouspensky carried on with his version of “the work,” working with his own students until he died in 1947.

Gurdjieff wrote his own books, of course. One is the allegorical and opaque Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson.

Another is Meetings With Remarkable Men, a possibly authentic account of Gurdjieff’s travels throughout Asia in pursuit of esoteric knowledge.

If you’re interested in Gurdjieff, then save those books for later. Start with Ouspensky.

We are machines

In The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution, Ouspensky begins with the unflattering assertion that we are machines (forgive the sexist language):

It means that he has no independent movements, inside or outside of himself. He is a machine which is brought into motion by external influences and external impacts. All his movements, actions, words, ideas, emotions, moods and thoughts are produced by external influences. By himself, he is just an automaton with a certain store of memories of previous experiences, and a certain amount of reserve energy.

This is something that we can test by self-observation.

For example, I see Trump on television and immediately feel a surge of anger. What an idiot, I say to myself. I reach for the remote and hit the power off button. I just had to make the image of that man disappear.

This perfectly illustrates Ouspensky’s point. I saw an image. Felt disgust. Shut off the television. And it was all pure reflex.

That image of Trump triggered an automatic chain of events. And they unfolded in a few seconds with no conscious choice on my part. It just happened.

In short, I was a machine. I no more chose to turn off the television than a toaster “chooses” to heat up when you press down on its lever.

The truth is that I spend large chunks of my day in this mode — as an unthinking automaton. I think that I am doing things. But in reality, my reactions simply unfold, one after another. And I control them no more than I control the weather.

Ouspensky concludes that:

Man cannot do. Everything that man thinks he does, really happens. It happens exactly as “it rains,” or “it thaws”….Man cannot move, think or speak of his own accord. He is a marionette pulled here and there by invisible strings.

Given this fact, says Ouspensky, we move through our lives like automatons in a state of waking sleep.

Our only hope is to see that we are machines and fully admit it. Then — with time and help — we can learn ways to stop being machines. We can wake up.

Discovering the limits of your consciousness

Ouspensky suggests that you do an empirical test to discover how long you can stay awake:

Take a watch and look at the second hand, trying to be aware of yourself, and concentrating on the thought, I am Peter Ouspensky, I am now here. Try not to think about anything else, simply follow the movements of the second hand and be aware of yourself, your name, your existence and the place where you are. Keep all other thoughts away….You will, if you are persistent, be able to do this for two minutes. This is the limit of your consciousness.

Actually, two minutes might be a generous estimate. Even before that, my attention often dissipates. I sink into my default mental mode — distraction.

I get lost in waves of random thoughts and images that I do not control. Again, they simply happen.

There are those rare moments when we spontaneously awake from our unconscious state. This can happen when we feel strong emotions, find ourselves in new and difficult circumstances, or sense that we are in imminent danger.

In our normal state, however, these sudden and transitory flashes of consciousness are rare. And we have no control over them. They are strictly accidental.

“Remember yourself”

Fortunately, our moments of consciousness can be extended by an act of sheer will. We can train ourselves to release distractions and voluntarily focus our attention. This is the practice of self-remembering.

Gurdjieff once gave a simple definition of self-remembering: “To know you are angry when you are angry.”

We could also say: To know when you are afraid when you are afraid. Or, to know when you are sad when you are sad.

In each of these moments a different sense of I am emerges. Our job is to witness them as they arise and pass.

Self-remembering — the state of being I, here, now — has been called the master key to Gurdjieff’s teachings. Gurdjieff and Ouspensky spoke often about self-remembering and gave their students a variety of practices for developing it.

Ouspensky’s final years

Recently I discovered Ouspensky Today, a website developed by students of Francis Roles, Ouspensky’s successor in London.

Here I discovered that Ouspensky eventually abandoned all his prior teachings, telling students during his last lectures to “start again.”.

In addition, Ouspensky died of liver disease. Was that due to alcoholism? Perhaps, but I’ve not been able to verify this.

What next?

Fast forward to today, with Gurdjieff and Ouspensky’s followers splintered into separate groups with multiple interpretations of their teachings.

Where does this leave us? I take refuge in words from Gurdjieff (quoted in In Search of the Miraculous):

On the fourth way a man must satisfy himself of the truth of what he is told. And until he is satisfied he must do nothing.

In short, don’t take anything on belief. Test every teaching and take only what works.

Revisiting Werner Erhard and Essence of est

Though often controversial, the Erhard Seminars Training (est) launched a body of ideas that still shapes conversations about human potential.

Ask people who came of age during the 1970s about est. They might repeat stories about Werner Erhard cramming crowds of people into hotel ballrooms for long seminars, calling people assholes, and refusing to allow bathroom breaks.

Some of us remember the movie Semi-Tough, which includes a parody of Werner. His counterpart in the movie is Friedrich Bismark, a character who heads an organization called B.E.A.T. There’s a scene where a woman wets herself during a B.E.A.T. seminar and then declares to the group: ”I peed in my pants and it felt good.”

During the 1980’s, est gave way to the Landmark Forum, which retains many of Werner’s ideas and delivers them in a less confrontational way. (I took the Landmark Forum in 2005 and got a lot from it.

I’m thinking about est again because I discovered a long academic paper by Werner Erhard and Victor Gioscia. This article about the big ideas behind est impressed me. It offers fresh language for much of what I’ve learned from meditation and yields many insights that surprise me.

What est was not

est was not a conventional training. When I hear the word training, the first thing that comes to mind is gaining new concepts and skills. According to Werner, the est Training involved none of this.

Instead, est was about expanding awareness:

What I have discovered is that people know things that they do not know that they know, the knowing of which can nurture them and satisfy them and allow them to experience an expanded sense of aliveness in their lives…. to get in touch with what they actually already know but are not really aware of.

est was not an attempt to break people down. Yes, the schedule was demanding. Lectures and “processes” took about 15 hours per day, with one extended break for lunch and shorter breaks on a fixed schedule.

Why such an unyielding format? Because Werner wanted to est participants to enter an environment where con games and rackets (see the definition here) did not work. No one — no matter how smart or dominant they were — could rewrite the schedule.

Werner emphasized that there are “stable environments” in life where the rules do not bend: “…if I fall down, gravity does not say ‘Well, we’re going to relax the rules a bit since you hurt yourself.’” He wanted est to be such an environment.

est was not a cult. Cults center on a charismatic leader who prescribes certain beliefs and behaviors and does not tolerate dissent.

In contrast, nothing in the est training was meant to be believed or accepted uncritically. Participants were invited to “collect data” about their own experience and see whether est truly squared with it.

est was not necessary. “The fact is, no one needs the training,” Werner and Gioscia wrote. People could function perfectly well without it. Moreover, nothing in est was a substitute for medical treatment or psychotherapy.

The difference between gratification and satisfaction

Above all, Werner and Gioscia note, est was designed to evoke and stabilize the experience of being complete:

Each of us has experienced moments in our lives when we are fully alive — when we know — without thinking — that life is exactly as it is in this moment. In such moments, we have no wish for it to be different, or better, or more. We have no disappointment, no comparison with ideals, no sense that it is not what we worked for. We feel no protective or defensive urge — and have no desire to hold on — to store up — or to save. Such moments are perfect in themselves. We experience them as being complete.

Such experiences do not make anyone better — “smarter or sexier or more successful or richer or any more clever.” They are not “good” for us like exercise or dietary changes.

Rather, est pointed to self-validating moments of satisfaction that do not depend on external conditions. They differ in kind from the gratification that comes meeting a need or achieving a goal.

Gratification still leaves us wanting more — more money, more sex, more pleasure, no matter how much of them we get.

Satisfaction, however, is not about getting more of what we already have, or about getting something different or better. Satisfaction is an end in itself and not a means to gaining anything else.

Werner wanted est participants to discover a “space” inside themselves where moments of completion originate. This space, he says, cannot be accessed through planning or action that changes our circumstances.

However, completeness can be recognized. It is our natural state once we lift the veils that separate it from us.

In short, est was about moving from a deficiency orientation to a sufficiency orientation:

It is a transformation — a contextual shift from a state in which the content in your life is organized around the attempt to get satisfied or to survive — to attain satisfaction — or to protect or hold on to what you have got — to an experience of being satisfied, right now, and organizing the content of your life as an expression, manifestation and sharing of the experience of being satisfied, of being whole and complete, now.

The threefold nature of the self

Werner took est participants deep into an inquiry that animates much of philosophy, both Western and Eastern: What is the nature of the self? Or, more simply — Who am I?

Werner turned to this perennial question and offered his own answer. The est Training, he said, allows you to access your self in three layers:

  • The self as facade. Each of us constructs a public self — a front, a facade. This includes all the things we say and do in order to appear competent and successful. In fact, we spend so much time pretending to be someone who will gain social approval that we forget we are pretending in the first place.
  • The self as hidden. Underneath this facade is a cluster of thoughts and emotions that we hide from public view. Here lies layers of hatred, fear, sadness, lust, and aspects of ourselves that we condemn and repress.
  • The self as self. Neither our facade or our hidden qualities define who we really are, however. When we bring our hidden self to conscious awareness, we start to know directly who we really are.

More specifically:

The extent to which we can allow ourselves to confront — to experience and be responsible for — the pretense and trying, the avoidance and fear, is the extent to which we can be who we really are. The experience of being yourself is innately satisfying…. The experience of the self as the self is the experience of satisfaction. Nothing more, nothing less.

Reaching down into that fundamental layer — self as self — calls for two more processes: digging beneath our concepts into direct experience and understanding the power of contexts.

Putting our stories on hold

The self as facade includes a vast accumulation of opinions, unexamined assumptions, and requirements for how other people and ourselves are “supposed” to act.

To maintain this facade, we expend untold effort and energy in justifying, defending, and explaining our behavior. The result is endless conflict, alienation from our true nature, and a sense that we are trying to be happy rather than truly living.

The est Training was an invitation to relax all that effort — to put all requirements, defenses, and explanations on hold. Werner refers to all of that as story (see the definition here).

This, in fact, was one purpose of the est processes. During these parts of the training, participants were coached to stand up in front of the group and “share” — that is, to report what they were actually feeling and thinking without the need for explanation or fear of judgement.

According to Werner and Gioscia, sharing has profound effects.

One is the ability to “get off it” — that is, to release assumptions and behaviors that previously “had” to be defended. Releasing those defenses yields a sense of completeness and full engagement with life.

est particpants, for example, could move from having ideas about love to actually loving someone. An experience such as this “leaves one absolutely high, vivacious, and alive” — a far cry from “the pretense or concept of loving someone, or the ‘act’ or drama of loving someone.”

Choosing contexts rather than identifying with content

Werner and Gioscia are clear that “fundamentally, est was a context in which to hold one’s experience.”

Speaking in more philosophical terms, est was a shift in epistemology — how we know and define ourselves.

According to Werner and Gioscia, we have two broad options in this regard.

One is to define ourselves by the content of our lives.

This is our default response. When someone says Tell me about yourself or asks Who are you?, you give your name and birth date. You might describe your job, your home, and your relationships. You might also list your roles: single person, husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter, professional, volunteer, retired.

In addition, you might list your beliefs, opinions, and other descriptors: I am Christian, Buddhist, or agnostic. I am liberal, conservative, libertarian, or apolitical. I am successful or struggling. I am fat or thin, old or young, happy or depressed, healthy or sick.

If pressed to provide more detail, you might even reveal the struggles that lie buried in your hidden self — the conflicts in your relationships, the problems you’re trying to solve, the habits that you want to stop, and things you don’t want anyone else to know.

est raised a question: Who are you beyond all that?

Werner stated that all the ways that you typically complete the sentence I am… are simply ways to describe the content of your life. Instead, you can experience yourself as a “space,” “clearing,” or context in which all those contents occur.

A common and still useful analogy can be used to make this point. Consider the experience of watching a movie in a theater. You can identify with one of the characters in the movie (content). Or, you choose to be aware of the screen as a whole — the space in which all the characters appear and the events in their lives unfold (context).

The point is that you are someone beyond your roles, your circumstances, your opinions, your problems, and all the other details about the content of your life.

To see this is liberating. If you do not identify with your opinions, for example, then you can hold one opinion now and change it later. You can even experience depression or anxiety without having to label yourself as a depressed or anxious person.

In other words, no circumstance in our lives comes with a built-in interpretation (context). This might sound trivial until you understand the real point: Nothing inherently means anything. We can take any event and interpret it in many ways.

We can take any circumstance and adopt any attitude toward it that we choose. We are free to choose the context of our lives, no matter what the content.

Moreover, we do not have to be limited by the past contexts we chose — or by any context at all: As Werner and Gioscia note, “you are no longer a content — another thing in the context of things — but the context in which contexts of things occur.”

When we see this directly, we go deep into Source. We stop seeing ourselves as “positional” — a unique point in space and time, a separate person who accumulates experiences and viewpoints. Beyond having experiences and explaining them, we generate them in the first place.

According to Werner and Gioscia, seeing that we are the source of our own experience is “absolutely inseparable from the experience of satisfaction”:

In the training, the experience of being at the effect of life — of having been put here, and having to suffer the circumstances of life, of being the bearer or victim of life, or at best, of succeeding or winning out over the burdens of life — shifts to an experience of originating life the way it is — creating your experience as you live it — in a space uniquely your own. In that space, the problems of life take on an entirely different significance. They literally pale, that is, become lighter — or enlightened.

Staying grounded

Alas, we have proceeded too far into abstraction. Like many teachers, Werner has a penchant for cryptic language and Zen-koan-like pronouncements.

After reading something like Werner and Gioscia’s paper, I take a break to step on the yoga mat or sit for a short meditation. Better to remain silent for a while than to keep agitating the mind with concepts.

And yet I will eventually return to concepts such as those offered by Werner and Gioscia. Ideas are no substitute for spiritual practices. But they do place those practices in context and remind me to take refuge there.

Project Management for Meditators: An Introduction to ‘Getting Things Done’

I’ve seen people with a robust meditation practice whose personal lives were in disarray. If wisdom gained from a spiritual path does not extend itself to skill in managing the details of daily life, then our realization is incomplete.

This is why I am a fan of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity by David Allen. (People who follow the method described in this book refer to it simply as GTD.)

At one level, GTD is about managing projects and tasks. But it goes deeper — a fact that many GTD nerds miss.

Ironically, GTD is not getting your to-do list down to zero. Instead, the point of GTD is to:

  • Clarify everything that you’re currently committed to do.
  • Create a fail-safe set of reminders for those commitments.
  • Keep those reminders in lists rather than your short-term memory.

Doing these things frees you from a host of distractions. They allow you to engage effectively with whatever shows up in your life while keeping your head empty.

David refers to this state of relaxed presence as clear space. When I finally understood this term, I immediately saw the link between GTD and meditation: Both of them are about preserving a still mind in the midst of chaos.

‘Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them’

GTD does not begin by asking you to set a ton of new goals. That would just give you more to do on top of your already overflowing inboxes.

Instead, GTD begins with clarifying the commitments you have already made.

When these commitments are not clarified, they become a potent source of stress. We find ourselves continually wondering: Did I miss something? What am I forgetting? What is the next thing that will blow up in my face?

This is the mental state of most people, most of the time: They are managing their life by trying to keep everything in their head. They cling to the hope that if it’s really important, I’ll be sure remember it.

This assumption is deeply flawed. After all, our working memory can only hold a handful of items. People are uncannily accurate when describing the nature of their stress as I’ve got too much on my mind.

David says it well: “Your mind is made for having ideas, not holding them,” he says.

Understanding the importance of agreements

So, the spiritual dimension of GTD is about staying present, relaxed, and clear-headed — even when you have a lot to do. There’s also an ethical dimension to GTD, which is about keeping agreements.

There are two big ideas to consider here. First, we make agreements constantly even though we are seldom aware of them. For example:

  • I’ll get back to you on that.
  • Let’s get together some time.
  • I really want to get a new job.
  • It’s time for a career change.
  • Something about my marriage has to change.

Phrases like these roll easily off the tongue. It’s easy to forget that casual speech can signal life-changing agreements.

Second, once we discover how many agreements we make, we also become aware of how many agreements we break. Often we forget them because they’re not captured and clarified in writing.

Broken agreements carry a cost that is profound and largely subconscious — loss of trust. When you break agreements with other people, they lose trust in you. And when you break agreements with yourself, you lose something even more fundamental — trust in yourself.

The problem with to-do lists

So how do you get stuff out of your head and remind yourself to keep agreements? By making lists.

However, David does not recommend conventional to-do lists. These are often collections of vague ideas that don’t describe any clear actions to take.

For example, my own to-do lists used to contain items such as:

  • Get milk
  • Go to library
  • Financial planning

The first item is clear. I know it means making a trip to the grocery store and picking up a specific product.

The second item on the list is kind of clear: Go to the library. But why? To browse the shelves, pick up a book being held for me, take a class, or what?

The third item is painfully obscure. What does it actually mean? What action is called for? How will I know when to cross it off as done?

Seeing things like this on a list triggers my fight-or-flight response. At some level I realize that financial planning points to something that deserves my attention. But it’s also big and scary and unclear. My impulse is simply to avoid it.

Three lists to save your sanity

David Allen recommends trashing your to-do list and replacing it with a set of lists that are more targeted, precise, and useful.

Some people are initially turned off by the sheer number of lists that David recommends. I recommend that you start with just three of them:

Mind sweep. This is a brainstormed list of everything that’s currently on your mind as unfinished or incomplete. If it’s nagging at you, then write it down.

Next actions. Now take each item on your mind sweep list, one at a time. Ask yourself: What would it take to get this item off my mind?What, specifically, will I need to do?

For example, financial planning could translate to: Call Dad to get contact information for his financial planner. This sentence starts with an active verb and describes a concrete behavior.

David refers to such behaviors as next actions. They are physical, visible actions that you could capture on video.

Projects. Some items on your mind sweep will require more than one next action to complete. These are projects — clearly defined outcomes — and deserve their own list.

For example, the desired outcome implied by financial planning might be: Choose investments that balance risk with growth. This calls for several next actions — getting contact information for a financial planner, making that contact, and scheduling a meeting.

Simple is not easy

Does all this seem simple, obvious, and barely worth mentioning?

It did to me at first.

And yet I soon realized that simple does not mean easy. Though initially skeptical of GTD, I was still keeping useless to-do lists and feeling overwhelmed.

Eventually I learned that nothing in GTD is complicated. It consists of a bunch of behaviors that you already know how to do. The key is to take David’s simple suggestions and turn them into stable habits.

David says that when people start making GTD lists, they often end up with dozens of projects and hundreds of next actions.

And we’re trying to keep all that stuff in our head? No wonder we feel stressed. This is no way to live.

One list at a time

When I take stuff that’s on my mind and turn it into projects and next actions, I do get to clear space — something like the serenity that arises from sitting meditation. And, I’ve experienced this state of mind even during periods where I’m managing lots of projects.

I invite you to experiment with GTD and see if you get similar results.

Of course, there’s much more to GTD than what I’ve mentioned here. To get the rest, turn to the sources listed below. The frameworks from this post can help you dive into them without getting overwhelmed.

Above all, remember that you can implement GTD incrementally — one list at a time. Take it easy and enjoy the ride.

Where to learn more

In addition to David Allen’s books, I recommend:

Enlightenment: A Quick Start Guide

Is it possible to sum up the practice of Buddhist meditation in a few sentences?

I ask this question with tongue in cheek — but not entirely. It’s been on my mind ever since I posted about the Buddha’s words to a dying man.

Out of all the books I’ve read about Buddhism and all the dharma talks I’ve heard, what’s the essence?

This question is fun to ponder, and it might even lead to something useful.

Fortunately, I am not the first person to attempt this. In The Mind and the Way, for example, Ajahn Sumedho says:

The teaching of the Buddha is a very simple teaching, because it comprehends things in terms of the conditioned and the unconditioned. Conditioned phenomena are those which rise and pass away. They include everything that we perceive and know through our senses, through the body, feelings, thoughts, and memories. They are conditions; they begin and they end.

In meditation, you eventually see gaps between conditioned phenomena — such as the space that shows up after one thought ends and before the next one begins.

What is that space? It’s the unconditioned, the ultimate reality. To see this directly, free of concepts, is a milestone on the path.

Liberation from suffering comes when we allow unconditioned things to arise and pass without resistance. In the words of Ajahn Chah:

Do everything with a mind that lets go. Don’t accept praise or gain or anything else. If you let go a little you will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace.

I’ll end by linking to a quick start guide from meditation teacher Kenneth Folk. Notice everything that arises in awareness, he says — perceptions, thoughts, body sensations, mind states. Instead of identifying with them, see them as objects separate from you, events that you simply observe.

After a while, turn your attention to the observer. Who is this? Who watches all those conditioned things as they begin and end?

Taking a cue from Kenneth, I offer my two-sentence quick guide to enlightenment:

Take refuge in the witness. Then allow the witness to disappear.

Deepening the Practice of Walking Meditation

I wrote this post on my laptop while sitting in a sweet air-conditioned restaurant in southwest Minneapolis. I walked there from my house in 95-degree heat with high humidity. It felt like passing through a mile-long closet filled with steaming towels.

I felt drenched, hot, and happy.

What made this possible?

The practice of walking meditation.

As I negotiate the challenges of aging, my delight in walking meditation deepens. Practicing sitting meditation for long stretches is a lot less practical than it used to be. But walking is something I will do with comfort and joy as long as I manage to stay mobile.

If you’ve never tried walking meditation before, I encourage you to give it a spin. Like all forms of meditation, it allows you to take a microscope to your internal experience.

For me, what’s most useful is seeing in a direct way — moment-by-moment — the difference between physical sensations and thoughts about those sensations.

Thoughts about walking through 95-degree heat might include:

  • God, this is awful.
  • I still have half-a-mile to go.
  • I can’t stand this.
  • I’ll look all hot and sweaty when I get the restaurant—and probably smell bad, too.

If you’re willing to see those thoughts as mental events that arise and pass, you might notice that your suffering immediately decreases.

When you release your thoughts, what’s left over is the sheer physical sensation of heat and sweat. These are simply unpleasant.

Not tragic.

Not terrible.

Just unpleasant. And nothing more.

And think about it: If we can experience extreme heat without suffering, then what else is possible for us?

P.S. Kenneth Folk offers some sweet suggestions for walking meditation.

‘What Shall I Do With the Rest of My Life?’ Robert Fripp on Creating Your Future

There’s a recurring refrain in the self-help literature:

Do you want to succeed? Do you want to be happy? Cool! It’s simple! Just set goals and achieve them!

I’ve already posted about the flawed assumptions behind this point of view and suggested alternatives.

But we can go deeper.

Recently I discovered an online book by Robert Fripp, guitarist and creative force behind the band King Crimson. Steeped in the Gurdjieff work, Fripp approaches music as a spiritual practice.

He also points to subtle aspects of creating your future — ideas that goal setters can easily miss:

Better not to ask the future to present itself if we’re not prepared to follow where it leads.

This future will have an unexpected quality.

If we impose our wants and hopes on the future, we prevent it from speaking to us.

The creative future accords with common sense; i.e. it is practical and possible.

It is necessary to know the next step; but not the step after that.

The future may already be in front of us, but unrecognized or unacknowledged.

Better to hold the question gently, with eyes open and an available ear, than in desperation; trusting that what is necessary for us is possible and benevolent; and as available to us as we are ourselves available to our creative future.

The Buddha’s Words to a Dying Man

Legend holds that the Buddha once visited a man named Bahiya who was on the threshold of death. Bahiya asked the Buddha to sum up the ultimate teaching, the path beyond suffering and death.

Time was short, however. Bahiya was so sick that he could die at any moment — perhaps even before the Buddha could finish speaking another sentence.

Without hesitation, the Buddha answered:

Then, Bahiya, thus must you train yourself: In the seen there will be just the seen, in the heard just the heard, in the sensed just the sensed, in the imagined just the imagined.

Reading this quotation for the first time, I was sure that the Buddha had blown it.

That’s it?

A few arcane sentences about the psychology of perception?

Surely there’s more than that! A dying man uses his last breaths to implore the Buddha for help. And in response the Buddha carelessly tosses him a few conceptual crumbs.

But the more I learned about meditation, the more I saw the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha’s reply.

Here is the essence of the Buddha’s teaching: We create suffering by adding something to experience.

In his teaching about the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha pointed specifically to this habit as the origin of suffering.

At the level of bare sensation — just hearing, just seeing, just smelling, just tasting or touching — there is no suffering. It’s only when we take bare sensations and add our mental reactions of attachment and aversion that we start to suffer.


Once I worked 19 hours straight to meet a deadline for a writing project — a classic “all-nighter” and then some. Other than an occasional five-minute break to stretch or snack, I sat welded to my seat, pounding a computer keyboard and staring at the monitor.

At random moments during the night, I monitored my body sensations with non-judgmental awareness. Often I noticed a slight feeling of heaviness in my arms or around my eyes.

Of course, there were many more sensations as well — some pleasant, some unpleasant, and many that were neutral. But none of them presented any real problem in the present moment.

I also remember thinking at several points throughout this marathon work session: This is strange — I feel OK. I really should be suffering more.

At these moments, I was not so fortunate. My mind snapped into action. My thoughts raced, manufacturing a litany of judgments: How did I get myself into this situation? Why do I always get myself into crunches like this? What if this happens again?

With thoughts like these — painful memories of the past and dire scenarios for the future — I added to my bare sensations. In those moments, and in only those moments, did I suffer.

I forgot what the Buddha told the dying man.


Life is simple, really. In this moment, we see something, hear something, touch something, smell something, taste something.

And that is all. Anything more than this is something that we add to sensation by thinking — usually, with thoughts that create a burden.

We can break this habit.

We can literally “come to our senses.”

We can bathe ourselves in bare impressions.

We can learn to think in ways that help us effectively manage our life. And, we can learn when to release our mental commentary and stream of judgments.

This is what I practice every time I hit the yoga mat or take a seat to meditate.