Weekend Reads – September 18, 2015

September 18, 2015 — by Matt

My own ideas of personal development and the genesis of this blog itself really sprang from the ideas and writing of others. In Weekend Reads I include a few articles that have spoken to me recently. I hope these provide you valuable insight and motivation.


(via Valet)

Not that we really need an excuse to continue learning or put together a plan for personal growth, but fall seems like a great time to get to work, doesn’t it? This article is a short-but-sweet embodiment of the back-to-school season of learning and growth.

I for one will be using the fall as a way to dive back into reading for pleasure on a regular basis. What will you use fall to kick-start?


(via Casey R. Fowler)

A reminder that the best first step is to just get started. This article deals specifically with the writing process, and the analysis paralysis that often accompanies writing a first draft. As Casey explains, “the first draft is always perfect, because all it needs to do is exist”.

This doesn’t just apply to writing. Our lives are a series of drafts that we continually edit. If we look at every move we make as a final draft, we’ll be too scared to do anything about it. Want to start dating? Go on a date. Want to learn photography? Take a picture. Want to learn a foreign language? Start speaking it. You can edit and refine each draft as you go along.


(via No Sidebar)

I often call myself an “aspiring minimalist” – the concepts of minimalism are extremely attractive to me but I’m not great yet at applying them. This article is a reminder about why making the choice to live simply is a step toward prioritizing what matters. It also identifies some of the forces that can easily pull us away from from a simpler life.

I’m not perfect. I get pulled into materialism and scrambled priorities. This article reminded me to approach things a little more simply for the benefit of my work, my piece of mind, and the people around me.

Any articles, books, blog posts, or podcasts that you think would benefit others? Share them in the comments below!


A letter to my younger self about taking risks

September 9, 2015 — by Matt


This post is adapted from an email I wrote to my youngest brother as he was debating taking a risk involving travel and creative pursuits. But as I wrote it, I realized it was really an article to my younger self, who often avoided similar risk in order to play it safe. I don't know if I have any real wisdom for the college-age generation, because I'm trying to figure it out too. But if I were able to write to them or to myself at that age, I might write something like this.


Since we last spoke, I’ve been thinking a lot about taking risks or making “less stable” decisions – especially in the context of the “typical” American upbringing.

There will be an abundance of folks around you who will applaud the safe or “standard” route – both on the large scale of life direction and on the small scale of individual decisions. People, in general, gravitate toward what gives them the least fear, and will usually recommend the same for others.

From an evolutionary perspective, fear is a survival mechanism. Fear, doubt, and the pursuit of safety kept us from getting eaten by wild animals or sustaining an injury that, without modern medicine, would lead to death. But we haven’t had enough evolution time for our instincts to catch up to our relatively safe modern-day environment. Our fear response has a tough time differentiating between truly life-threatening scenarios and those that are just less comfortable. The “unknown”, in our primitive brains, is still something to be avoided in order to survive. So most people gravitate toward safety and stability.

But I believe there are very few people that have found true success, or happiness, or really followed their passion, or built their ideal life without taking some substantial risks. With risk, of course, comes failure, but failure is rarely insurmountable. I know for someone as strong as you, it certainly isn’t. Failure won’t break you; if anything, it will give you the ammo to tackle the next risk with more artillery and a higher chance of success. Failure isn’t actually “failure” in the negative way – it’s really just education, experience, and context for the next attempt.

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” —Henry Ford

When I say “risk”, I’m not talking about “recklessness”. There are certainly risks that are not worth it, where the potential reward is greatly outweighed by what failure could bring. I’m talking about calculated risks. But many of us, myself probably included, are so predisposed to avoiding risk that we skew too much toward safety. We might naturally view things as riskier than they really are. So it might be in our best interest to accept a dose of what we see as “recklessness” just to defeat our own thinking and swing us closer to a healthier safety/risk balance.

We grew up on stability and safety; it’s in the DNA of how many of us were raised. We might not have been given the leeway to test our own boundaries, take our own risks, and make and learn from our own mistakes. I think that means 2 things:

  1. see the above paragraph. It might be harder for us to accept and take risks. And
  2. maybe we shouldn’t expect the people around us to necessarily see the point of choosing the potentially “risky” route.

It doesn’t mean the people in our lives who prioritize safety are wrong or at odds with our ambition; it just means they may not be the best advisers for some situations. At a certain point, you need to seek advice from the people whose thinking aligns with your goals. Some people are great resources for guidance in some areas, and not in others. No one is the perfect adviser for every situation. But if you’re looking for advice on how best to accomplish (goal A), you’re better off seeking advice from someone who has followed (path A) than someone who followed (path B).

Anyway… all the above is general life stuff that I’ve been thinking a lot about over the last year or two. If you’re currently deciding what you want to do, or debating whether to go all-in on your dreams or find something safer, see if any of this applies. Test your appetite for failure and iteration. Figure out how much risk you can tolerate. The “what is the worst possible outcome of making this decision” question is a good litmus test to assess the true risk of a decision. And unless you’re going to end up dead, homeless, or being bitten repeatedly by a gang of angry chipmunks, taking the risk is worth considering.

I don’t know. If my 21-year-old-self had your opportunity, he probably wouldn’t take it. Hell, he had a ton of opportunities that he passed on. As my 30-year-old self, I would tell my 21-year-old self that he had to do it. But that’s me. You have to figure out what’s right for you.

I’m not saying any of these things as a person who has taken the big risks or followed his desires to find success and happiness. Rather, I’m saying them as someone who is 9 years older, who has generally favored stability in his decisions rather than risk, and has done a lot of introspective thinking about where he is today and where he could have taken more chances in the past. The popular slogan to boldly proclaim is “I have no regrets, everything has made me the person I am today.” That’s fine, and the second part is, of course, true. I agree with it and have enough self-love to accept myself for who I am now. As a result I have to accept everything that made me the person I am. And I do.

But that doesn’t mean I have “no regrets” – I have them. Not for the things I have done (with a few exceptions) but for the things I haven’t done. And at 30, I’m finally realizing I need to take the big risks if I want to get to my ideal self.

That doesn’t mean I’m good at taking those risks yet – a life of the safe route leaves that muscle fairly undeveloped and paralyzed by underlying fears. And like the first few workouts in the gym, risk-taking is painful at first. But I believe (or hope, since I’m not there yet) that it becomes more natural as you go on – and through failure, learning, and trying again you get better at it. That route, even with its frequent failure, sounds better to me than accepting mediocrity.

You have your entire life to take the safe route. That also means you have all the time in the world to recover if you fail. (And again, experiencing and learning from failure is a GOOD thing). Now is the time to risks in general, and when the risk-to-potential-reward ratio is so favorable, these decisions become that much easier to stomach.


Is there anything you’d tell your younger self? Have you taken any big risks in the past that have paid off: either directly, or through the lessons learned from failure? Leave a comment below!

Post image courtesy of Jannelle Fontes, (c) 2015

ProductivityTools and Systems

How to minimize distractions when you just need to Focus

September 3, 2015 — by Matt

no_distractionsWe all get distracted. No matter what we’re working on, how exciting our current project is, or how in-tune it is with our passions, it’s very easy to get sidetracked or let the world around you pull your focus. Last week I wrote about my recent struggles with distractions and came to the empowering conclusion that our attention is our energy to spend, and we have the power to decide where it goes.

But just because our focus is under our control doesn’t mean that we have to battle distractions with willpower alone. A few effective techniques or systems can help make retaining our focus much, much easier.

Below are a few methods I use to help mute or muffle distractions when I’m in “work mode”.

Single-tasking – Do one thing at a time

For years, multitasking has been lauded as a critical skill in school, the workplace, and everyday life. I’ve even seen “effective multitasking” as a desired skill in job postings. In reality, however, multi-tasking makes you feel busy but does not lead efficient, effective output, and could even be damaging to your thought process.

We get the most focused, effective, and thoughtful work done when we concentrate on one task at a time. Single-tasking eliminates the time wasted when context switching and puts you in a better position to enter a state of “flow” (a topic I’ll be exploring in much more detail in future articles).

Set a single priority for the day

Whenever I compile an extensive to-do list, I either get overwhelmed by the number of tasks I need to get done, or I cherry-pick the easy tasks to the exclusion of the important ones. By identifying the single most important thing to do in a day, you’re less likely to do unimportant tasks first (they’re not on the list!) and more likely to get your important items done first (what else would you do?).

Setting your most important task(s) for the day is the backbone of many a daily journal or morning routines. I’ve also started using the Momentum extension for my new tab page in Chrome. The first time I open a new tab Momentum asks me what my focus for the day is, and every time I open a tab after that it reminds me where I should be prioritizing my focus. Plus, it has pretty pictures!

Momentum Screenshot

Single Tabbing

If my description of Momentum didn’t give me away, I’m a serial tab opener and often have a few windows each with multiple tabs for stuff I’ll “get to later”. I use “Controlled multi-tab browsing” to limit this bad habit but an even more extreme approach is that of single tabbing. By only allowing a single browser tab you force yourself to focus on one thing at a time until its done. I’ve never tried it (and honestly it terrifies me) but doing a week of single-tabbing may be my next focus experiment.

The rest of the suggestions in this article may help focusing on a single task easier.

Minimize Digital Distractions

In our ultra-connected lives, digital distractions are tough to avoid – especially when so many of us use the internet regularly for work and are constantly being pinged by our smartphones. I’ve tried a few methods to minimize the (seemingly constant) digital noise.

Reduce Notifications


Almost every app you install on your phone comes with some type of notification, but keeping those notifications on is giving your phone the authority to dictate when you check it. I’ve turned off notifications for email and facebook and turned most other notifications to silent so that I decide when I need to check my updates, not my phone.

Airplane Mode/Silent/Do Not Disturb

Airplane mode and silent mode are two of my best friends when I’m deep in a creative project and can’t be disturbed. For bonus points, stick your phone in a drawer or in another room when you go heads-down on your work. And if you’re worried about the unlikely case of an emergency call, make use of your phone’s “do not disturb” mode.


Consider this “airplane mode” for your computer. Freedom is a fantastic app that allows you to set a period of time during which the entire Internet is shut off, effectively eliminating the distractions it generates. I find that after my 3rd or 4th attempt to check my email my brain gives up trying to distract itself and I fall much more easily into a flow state with whatever I’m doing – to the point that after my Freedom timer expires and I’m free to browse the web I have no desire to do so and I stay on track, lost in my work.

Because Freedom shuts down all network access it’s not a great solution for tasks that require the ‘net like research or networking – but for writing and making music it’s been invaluable. Their website indicates they now have versions for tablets and smartphones – so I’ll definitely be installing Freedom on my phone this week.


Even when I’m not locked into “deep focus” mode or I can’t shut down the whole internet, I try to minimize my time on easily distracting websites like Facebook and Twitter. The StayFocusd Chrome extension helps by allowing you to set a time limit each day you for a set of websites, which, once expired, blocks access to those sites. I currently limit Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter to 15 minutes every day and although I sometime open up Firefox to cheat, it generally keeps me pretty honest.

WriteRoom and ZenWriter

WriteRoom and ZenWriter (for Mac and Windows, respectively) are writing programs that remove the distractions of other windows and your toolbar and give you a simple, full-screen, minimalist writing space. ZenWriter even plays soothing sounds while you write. If you find yourself trying to write but being tempted by other windows, give one of these a try.

Get Lost in your Headphones

I can get easily distracted by sound. Even conversations happening a few feet away while I try to read or write will completely screw up my focus (probably a sign of some undiagnosed attention issues). Blocking out my most overactive sense with something else helps immensely, but what specifically plays through your headphones is important.


Music can be a valuable tool to block out the sound of the outside world and enhance flow, but it has to be the right kind of music. Some studies suggest that music you enjoy is the best medicine, while others point to ambient or classical music. Me? I like music with no lyrics, as the words tend to distract me when reading or writing.

miles-davisMy go-to is jazz standards (I have a playlist that I use), and I’ve also had luck with the “Deep Focus” playlist on Spotify. But find something that works for you, and get lost in it.

White Noise and Ambient Noise

Another route is to forgo music altogether and just go with noise. I like to use white or ambient noise sometimes when I’m writing and its effectiveness is completely dependent on my mood. But if music is still too distracting or doesn’t work for you, this might.

SimplyNoise is a simple white noise generator, while Noisli (my personal favorite) has a number of different calming and focusing noise options including rain, wind, thunder, and other environmental sounds.

Binaural Beats

Binaural Beats and Isochronic Tones work on the concept that sounds played at a certain frequency stimulate brainwaves at a similar frequency that promote brain functions like focus, learning, memorization, or creativity. Binaural beats proponents claim that these sounds help enhance the effects of psychedelic drugs, help people quit smoking, or aid in memorization.

Although I’m somewhat skeptical of the science behind binaural beats, I’ve used them effectively to improve my focus and block out outside sounds, whether it’s a placebo effect or not. Here’s one I’ve used before.

Change Your Environment

One of the most effective techniques I’ve used to improve my focus is to change my environment. In other words, I get out of the house.

There’s a few ways to find a new environment in which to work, and a few benefits you can expect. You can choose an environment that specifically helps your goals (open spaces for creativity, small spaces for task-specific focus). Or you an just pick somewhere new with fewer possibilities for distraction – a place with no TVs or where everyone around you is working hard on their creative projects can be incredibly motivating. You can even continually go to the same place to do a certain type of work, which will help solidify that place in your brain as the place for writing, or making music, or drawing, or coding, or whatever.

District Hall

One of my favorite places to go in Boston is District Hall, a civic creative workspace in the seaport district. Not only have I built an association with creative work there by going often, the environment is primed for it – whiteboard paint on the walls, free wi-fi, a cafe, and tables full of entrepreneurs, coders, and motivated young professionals. Find a workspace like this, and you’ll find yourself lost in your current project in no time.

So there you have it – the techniques I’ve used to some success to block out annoying distractions and get into a state of deep focus. Different techniques work for different people and there’s a ton of effective methods out there. What have you done to try to focus, clear your mind, or get work done effectively? Which of these techniques have you tried, and how have they worked for you? Leave a comment below!


The World Is Out To Distract You!

August 26, 2015 — by Matt



Last week I was on a flight for work – a few hours, nothing too draining. I thought it would be a great opportunity to make a dent in the book I was reading and fill a few pages writing in my notebook.

The flight had those in-headset TVs, so I held down the “lower brightness” button to turn the screen off (already an intentionally convoluted process designed to keep the TVs on) and opened my book. But within the first 15 minutes of the flight, the monitor sprung to life no less than thrice, requiring me to stop reading and turn it off each time. I started to wonder if I was fighting a losing battle. This TV obviously wanted my attention.

Seems kind of unfair, doesn’t it? We’re forced to spend our energy to fight off the distractions the world fires at us, scatter-shot. How dare the world try to tell us how to spend our time?

In reality, it’s not that targeted or vindictive. The world isn’t really out to get us or maliciously pull our focus. But the world also isn’t going to help you prioritize your attention, only serve you the information you need when you need it. There are just a lot of inputs into our lives nowadays, and a lot of loud, vibrant attention-seekers. The world is what it is, not inherently bad or good, just chock full or information and activity – and we have the power to decide how we interact with it. So it takes a little work to sweep aside the clutter in order to focus.

Your attention is still yours

The most powerful approach to your attention is that of ownership. Your attention and focus is yours, and you can give it to whatever you see fit.

Of course not everything is in your control. A construction crew jack-hammering the sidewalk outside of your apartment is going to make it pretty difficult to compose that sonata. If the wing had broken off the plane on my flight and the oxygen masks had dropped, I’ll bet that would have been enough for me to put down my book.

But some distractions are in your control to stifle – and they are the ones that require us to actually submit to the distraction. Realizing it’s our job to prioritize is both powerful and for me, a little nerve-wracking.

“I was going to finish writing that article, but Facebook distracted me.” No – you distracted yourself by giving something else your focus. That’s like saying “that shoe sale took all of my money!” No – you prioritized having shoes over having something else.

(This article beautifully outlines how distractions are often of our own construction and how our brain searches them out. It’s a great read.)

Think of your attention like a currency, and invest wisely.

I’m one of the worst offenders I know of this.

This isn’t me on a pulpit, preaching against the evils of losing focus or claiming it as a weakness. As someone with some pretty prominent attention issues and the (sometimes crippling) inability to stay on task, I’m basically the poster child for this behavior. But I’m finally recognizing that I’m in control of my own destiny here and relying on the world to tell me where to focus my attention is a recipe for disaster.

Here’s another complicating factor: a lot of focus-pullers are incredibly enriching. If you’ve ever been “distracted” by a beautiful sunset or a deep conversation with a stranger on the train, you know that a constant heads-down, hermit-mode, world-blocking focus is not a good thing.

(I’ll be writing much more on my struggle balancing between going out and experiencing the world, and going ass-to-chair to put in the required work.)

The point is to give an old-fashioned “talk to the hand” to distractions we know to be wasteful. By putting the intentional heisman on unhealthy distractions we leave room (a) for us to focus on our priorities and (b) for the possibility to experience some of the great things that happen around us.

Your attention is yours to spend, but there’s nothing wrong with putting in some cheats to make it easy to ignore unhealthy distractions. I have had some success with a few tools and systems that make it easier to block out the unhealthy distractions. In my next article I’ll outline a few that I’ve tried or plan to try. If you’ve been battling distractions or a lack of focus like I have recently, let’s start a conversation in the comments below!


Weekend Reads – August 14, 2015

August 14, 2015 — by Matt

My own ideas of personal development and the genesis of this blog itself really sprang from the ideas and writing of others. In Weekend Reads I include a few articles that have spoken to me recently. I hope these provide you valuable insight and motivation.


(via Tiny Buddha)

Like the author of this article, I am a recovering people-pleaser, often taking on O.P.P. (or “Other People’s Projects” – NOT Naughty By Nature’s original intent but you get the idea).

Of course, it is important to help others. But sometimes we go too far, taking on other peoples’ problems as our own or completely filling our schedule cleaning up the messes of others, that we leave no “me” time. It’s possible to strike a more healthy balance, and I think this article does a good job outlining some methods to do that.


(via Break The Twitch)

As an aspiring minimalist and a struggling creative, this article really hit home and connected many concepts I had been contemplating independently.

This article focuses on minimizing your inputs and distractions to help with creativity, which I find to be extremely helpful. In fact, me next two articles will deal with the abundance of distractions we face today and some of the systems and tools I use to try to quiet my environment and get some work done.

This article also does a great job of explaining the “flow” state, another of my favorite topics, and something I often struggle to find in my own creative process.


(via Tim Ferriss)

The reason I love this (admittedly old) article is not the particular items included Tim Ferriss included in his list (although I do agree with many of them) – it’s the concept of a “not-to-do list” in general.

Our lives are overcrowded with stuff, and sometimes it feels like to-do lists just add pressure to our already stressful lives. Making a not-to-do list not only helps our stress levels by subtracting from our stressful inputs, but it also helps make clearer the goals and activities that are important by getting rid of the surrounding clutter.

Any articles, books, blog posts, or podcasts that you think would benefit others? Share them in the comments below!


My Personal Pillars; or My Ideal Unboring Self

August 7, 2015 — by Matt

This is part 3 in a 3-part introduction to this blog. After this article, content will (maybe?) be more subject-specific – but who’s to say, really.

In my first post I told my story, how I made a decision to banish complacency and inaction in my life and focus my energy on growth and my passions. In my second post I outlined the importance of defining the type of person you want to be by building your own personal pillars. These pillars are great guides not only for moving you toward your goals, but also for moving you away from distractions and focusing your energy.

So I guess it’s time to eat my own dog food. Here are my own personal pillars.

Why am I doing this again?

In case you don’t want to go back and read the first two articles, here’s the cliffs notes version:

  • I’ve followed a pretty traditional “safe route” path into adulthood.
  • I’ve recognized how easy it is let routine and complacency destroy people’s creativity, passion, and growth – and I don’t want it to happen to me (or any of you!)
  • So I started a blog to write about my own journey and hopefully start conversations with others finding their own path.
  • My journey starts with defining what is most important to the person I’d like to be – my own Personal Pillars.

My Personal Pillars

The following list are the items I’ve identified as my own personal pillars. This, like most things in life, should be viewed as a “first cut” – I’m sure as I learn, grow, and progress these will adjust accordingly. Some may drop off the list, some may be combined – but it’s important to start with something – because with something, you have enough to get started moving in a direction, even if it’s not where you ultimately end up.

The key word here is “personal” – not everyone’s pillars will be the same, nor will everyone’s definition of “unboring” (more on this in a future article). But without further ado, here are the pillars I’m using to define my ideal, “unboring” self.


“Creativity is very important to me. I am the type of person that is always creating something or making some kind of art.”

Creative pursuits have been a passion of mine since I was a wee lad. I truly believe that we are all creative in our youth – some of us choose to focus on other things, some of us focusing on it inadvertently, and some (like me) fight to hold onto our creativity. This is listed first for a reason; for me, this is one of the main passions in my life that I want to drive my actions and shape my path.

Related Link:


“I am a person who is always driving toward freedom; the freedom to make my own decisions and shape my own path.”

One of the biggest pressures I (and probably others) feel pushing us back toward the safe path of inaction is our reliance on outside things – reliance on a paycheck, reliance on the employment of someone else, or our possessions being an anchor. Freedom is important as it opens up possibilities and eliminates barriers to taking action.

Freedom could mean financial freedom through the elimination of debt, physical freedom through the ability to travel or being location-independent, or freedom from the crippling desire for “more stuff”. I firmly believe that striving for “more freedom” is greatly superior to “more money” or “more stuff” and ultimately leads to “more happiness”.

Related Link:


“I am constantly exploring new things in order to learn about the world around me and about myself.”

When we’re children, curiosity drives our entire energy. There’s so much out there we haven’t explored, there’s so much about ourselves we haven’t developed – we spend most of our time trying, failing, learning, exploring, and asking “why”. The world is full of wonder, and we want to see it all.

When we become adults, a lot of us lose some of our curiosity. Why? Do we now know all there is to know? Have we amassed the worlds knowledge, tasted every experience? Of course not.

When we stop exploring, learning, and exercising our curiosity, we stop growing – and we might as well throw in the towel. It’s my goal to keep being curious and exploring that with which I am not knowledgeable – which, let’s face it, is mostly everything.

(Note: I could also call this pillar “curiosity” or “learning” or “wonder” – and I very well might change it later. For now, I’m sticking with “exploration”.)

Related Link:


“Adventure is very important to me. Experiencing new places and cultures is a focus of my life.”

I was going to call this “travel” but then I realized it’s more than just visiting new places, it’s visiting new experiences. Also, this pillar may end up rolled into my “exploration” pillar, but for now it’s on its own.

As I wrote above, exploring new things and testing your boundaries is one of the surest ways to spark growth and avoid becoming boring. Testing those boundaries physically through travel or adventure is not only one of the best ways to test your comfort zone, but can help expand your worldview, cultivate empathy for others, and expose you to some of the most beautiful sights, sounds, and people the world has to offer.

Related Link:


“I focus on simplicity both in my life and in my problem-solving in order to focus on what is important.”

A few years back I stumbled upon the concept of minimalism – reducing the influences, activities, and possessions in your life to help focus only on what matters. I love the concept, but I’ve only been somewhat successful at implementing it. Also, the term “minimalism” often gets a bad wrap or it associated solely with design.

I want to focus my attempts at change on finding the simplest solution – and I want to simplify my life and my influences so that I can really concentrate on what is important – basically, the contents of this list. I anticipate a lot of the posts on this blog focusing on my attempts to simplify.

Read more about minimalism here:


“I am not afraid to take risks. I know that through trial and error I learn and grow much faster than through taking the safe route.”

I grew up pretty risk averse. The safe route was encouraged, and the concept of “getting into trouble” or “learning by making mistakes” was not one that permeated my development. Since then I’ve come to realize that without risk, there is rarely change or growth. And often trying and failing a lot (and then iterating and trying again) is the best way progress or. Just like everyone else, I’m afraid of failure – so this will be one of the most difficult pillars by which to live.

Aversion to risk is one of the biggest characteristics of the “boring grownup” – and it’s one I’m working on banishing from my life. Articles in this category might include examples of my trial and failure, and what lessons and growth resulted.

Related Link:


So there you have it – my personal pillars. Not only will these help guide me on my journey to unboring, but they’ll also shape the content of this site – I’ll be using each of the above pillars as a category for future posts.

These are not the only things I believe are important. Kindness, Empathy, Mindfulness etc. are not on the list and are probably more important in life. But they don’t really fit what I’m writing about – at least right now.The items on the list now will likely change and adapt over time as I learn more, just as our goals and focuses might. But here’s the launch point.

Remember that everyone’s personal pillars may be different – you may (and should!) have a completely different ideal, unboring self that you’re building. So with that said – what are your personal pillars? What is most important to you?


Identity-based Personal Pillars: Define your Ideal Self

July 20, 2015 — by Matt

So… now what?

In my first article, I outlined the factors and thought process behind my decision to take control of my life’s direction. That decision was my first step toward becoming unboring.

“The first step toward success is taken when you refuse to be a captive of the environment in which you first find yourself.” – Mark Caine


The Thursday morning after I posted that article, my eyes snapped open and I sprung out of bed, ready to start my new life. I didn’t feel any different. “But I must be different now” I thought. I had made the decision to change my life – surely that was the hardest part! I once again attempted to jump up and click my heels together (getting a little closer this time but still ending up on my bedroom floor, holding my newly injured knee) and went about my day.

After a day that felt eerily similar to the last few weeks of commute + work + dinner + netflix, I sat on my couch, energy drained, and realized that the decision to change was indeed only step one. Now the real work would begin.

It was time for step two.

Taking Action

Once I had made the decision to make a change, the next step was to take action – to start directing my energy toward the things that I find important and therefore that I want to be central to my life.

But action without purpose is not productive. You know the concept of “busy work” – tasks or assignments in work or school that take up time and energy, but don’t actually contribute toward an overall goal or project? Taking action without a plan or guiding principles is like doing “busy work” on yourself.

Rather than putting together a specific set of goals and a plan to reach them right off the bat, I think it’s important to first define yourself and what is important to you as guiding principles for the decisions you’ll make moving forward.

Defining Personal Pillars

I decided to start by defining the personal pillars that make me the best version of myself and therefore will be driving factors for the direction I take. Consider this a “personal framework” around which specific goals and actions will take shape. This is an important first step for a few reasons:

You can take action before having to get specific.

Like many others, I often don’t really know where I’m going or what I really want out of life. But I don’t think I need to in order to get started. By defining my personal pillars, the things that are most important to me and that drive my ideal self, I can start making decisions and changes that match them. I don’t need to have a specific goal for what music I want to make to have “I am a creative person that enjoys making art” drive how I spend my time and energy.

Very specific goals and roadmaps are sometimes paralyzing. I often put tons of pressure on myself to meet self-imposed deadlines or quantity of creative output, and it has a negative affect on my work and on my peace of mind – sometimes resulting in me doing nothing. Using the more general personal pillar as a guidepost helps me more easily spend my energy on what makes me happy in a stress-free way.

They are personal, and thus inherent to your identity.

James Clear wrote a great article about changing the language of habits from “I want to work out more” to “I’m the type of person that never misses a workout”. I think this concept is also fantastic for general goals or life changes. By using identity-based language, you make these tenants a part of you rather than just “something you want to do”. It’s much easier to disregard a specific habit or activity, and it’s also very easy to beat yourself up about missing a specific goal. But by defining the core of who you are, you grant yourself control over your destiny. Because these pillars are traits of your character they are much harder to abandon than individual habits, goals, “hobbies”, or “wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if”s.

They help focus on what is (and isn’t) important.

One of my favorite goals of minimalism (a concept I’ll cover quite a bit on this blog) is to eliminate anything unnecessary that steals energy or focus from what is important. In minimalist design, this means stripping away any elements that compete with the main content or message. In life design it means stripping away any forces, activities, or influences that do not serve your goals. These personal pillars provide focus to what is and isn’t important. If a new activity, opportunity, or commitment is in line with your personal pillars and your ideal self would do it, go for it! If it doesn’t align with what your ideal self would do, maybe it doesn’t serve you and you can leave it behind.

How to start defining personal pillars

I recently went through an exercise to define my own personal pillars. As with anything, I expect that as I learn and grow my thoughts on this process and the role of the pillars will evolve and become more refined, but here is what I kept in mind in my first attempt:

Think about what makes you really happy

Chances are, the things that make you very happy, excited, or motivated are good places to start when defining what is important to you. Another great focusing question is “if money was not an issue, what would you spend your time doing?”

Don’t get too specific

Unlike in goal creation, I found that avoiding specifics when defining my pillars helped me phrase them as character traits rather than activities. “Travel is important to me” is a personal pillar while “I will travel to 30 different countries in my life” is not.

Use identity-defining language

The language itself should define the person you are or want to become rather than outline specific tasks or behaviors. Your phrasing may differ from mine, but the two formats that spoke to me in my exercise (using “creativity” as an example) were:

  • “Creativity is very important to me, and is a driving factor in my life.”
  • “Creativity is very important to me. I am the type of person that is always creating something or making some kind of art.”

Borrow from others

Although these tenants are all personal, you’re allowed to get inspiration from others to spark your thinking. Ask those around you what their driving forces are, or find someone else’s list online from which you can get ideas (just realize that not everything these lists defined as “important for everyone” may actually be important to you – choose only what you care about!).

Keep it short

10 or less pillars is a good place to start. Trying to focus on everything at once typically results in nothing earning true focus, and paring your list down to what is truly important will help focus your energy. And this list is a tool for you – you can update it at any time!

Creating the pillars

In the next article I’ll outline what I came up with in my first attempt to define my own personal pillars. These will be different for everyone, but on the quest to become unboring you might find some overlap with your own driving forces. That’s awesome! I’d like this blog to start conversations about those shared principles so we can all help each other along the way.

What do you think? Does this concept jive with your own journey? Have you done something similar (or different) as a focusing effort for your own life design, and if so, how did it work? Any thoughts are welcome in the comments below!


Hi. I’m Matt (The beginning of my journey)

July 15, 2015 — by Matt

I've been told a journey starts with a single step. This post is mine.


If I were to meet my 7-year-old self today and ask him to describe himself and what he liked, he might say something like “I’m Matt. I like to make things. I like music and food. When I grow up I want to make music and art and go to far away places.” Or, he might try to say those things through a mouthful of grilled cheese sandwich.

If you asked me the same question today, I might tell you the same thing. Although my love of grilled cheese has waned since then, a lot of the things that are important to me have remained the same.

Starting to realize what really drives me and makes me tick is the beginning of my journey.


“Remember, too, that all who succeed in life get off to a bad start, and pass through many heartbreaking struggles before they “arrive”. The turning point in the lives of those who succeed usually comes at some moment of crisis, through which they are introduced to their “other selves”.” – Napoleon Hill


In 2009 I secured my first full-time job out of college. This was the glorious finish line of the path I was “supposed to” walk since my youth; work hard, earn good grades, get into a good university, graduate with honors, land a good job with benefits. I had made it! My new post-education life had begun, and I hit the ground running.

Ready to hit the ground running…

And it started out OK. But soon I started to notice people around me grow up and then stop growing. I saw a culture that praised stability to the detriment of disruption. Worse yet, I realized I had started to slip into a state of complacency myself. It was only a matter of time before I stopped setting new goals, making new memories, and realizing my potential now that I had “come of age.”

And I decided I needed to make a change before losing myself to the abyss.

“If you’re losing your soul and you know it, then you’ve still got a soul left to lose.” – Charles Bukowski


The epiphany wasn’t a lightning strike of inspiration. I didn’t wake up one day, jump out of bed, try to click my heels together, fall, get up, shout “Eureka” and put together a plan to change my life. (I did do some of those things). The “epiphany” was a change in thinking that slowly became more real over time as I learned more about myself and what was important – a transformation that I still feel I’m at the very beginning of today. There are days, even weeks sometimes where the clouds of the daily grind, stress, and distraction obscure my epiphany and my resolve finds itself off-track. But the seeds have been planted, and progress must be made.


Early in my journey I discovered the power of starting a conversation about your goals and struggles. As a generally private person, honestly sharing what I was working on improving in my life and where I was having trouble not only took me out of my comfort zone, but helped me start a dialog with those around me who were going through similar changes. I believe we all have the capacity for change at any age, and having “grown up” is not an excuse to not make changes.

But I don’t have all the answers; I might not have any of them. As motivated as I am by the writing of others who have built an inspiring and creative life for themselves, I often find myself unsure of how to take the first step. So this blog is me trying, failing, documenting, and learning.


  • Be a journal of my path to transforming my life, including my steps taken, my roadblocks, and my lessons learned.
  • Start a conversation with others on a similar wave and help each other.
  • Inspire others to take steps in the direction of changing their life.

First step: taken. Join me for more.

In the next article I’ll discuss how to set the important principles that will help focus your energy, and why defining your ideal self first is often more important than defining your specific goals.

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