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Build a disciplined lifestyle, one small habit at a time.

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Welcome to Nela’s blog!

I am a growth mindset hacker, writer, and entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. My blog is a collection of ideas on how to implement small habits to help you build a self-disciplined lifestyle so that you can maximize each day. I write on a variety of topics including building self-discipline, developing a growth mindset, strengthening motivation and willpower, goal setting, changing bad habits, overcoming procrastination and increasing focus, doing deep work, maximizing productivity,  and more. 

Where can you find my published work? 

You’ll find me on Medium.
And, you can follow my work on Quora, where I’ve been writing for six years and have earned Top Writer status. With answers that have reached 80+ million views, I contribute to a community of 300 million monthly users, where I have 69K+ followers. My articles have been published on Inc., Time, Forbes, Business Insider, Huffington Post, Slate, and Apple News, and translated into over a dozen languages including French, Swedish, German, Spanish, Italian, Slovak, Japanese, Chinese, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Brazilian-Portuguese, Finnish, and Greek. 

📚I am the author of 11 books that are part of a growth mindset e-book series. The e-books are:

🤓 New to the blog? Subscribe with your email and get a free sample of My Self-Discipline Journal.  
☕️ Already a follower? Support my work by buying me a virtual cup of coffee

5 life skills worth having (and how to practice them)

Critical-thinking skills.

I like to call this independent thinking or not depending on other people’s words, opinions, conclusions, or attitudes in general. It’s easier to mimic others than come up with an original idea. Conversely, it’s not easy and takes time to learn more about something — a concept, a lesson, a language, a skill. How do you practice this? Gather data, do the research, read literature that argues for and against one topic, and always ask open-ended questions like why and how. Learn to rely on your brain – it won’t disappoint you!

Flexibility.

Being flexible means you can adapt to change. Although it may seem easy to stay in the comfort zone (daily habits, knowledge you already possess), it’s better to keep going with the flow. Why is this important? The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said the words Panta rei (Πάντα ῥεῖ) which means “everything flows.” The world is changing and you have a choice: adapt to it or be left behind. How do you practice this? Don’t immediately resist something new just because it’s unfamiliar to you. Make small changes, adapt in small ways, try a new habit for 15 minutes a day.

Growth mindset.

You may think that your mindset is something you were born with, but it’s the opposite. Your mindset can change and adapt depending on how much you’re willing to learn and keep an open mind. Do you think you’re either talented or clueless at math or sports? Or do you believe you can make improvements consistently over time with increased effort? When you allow yourself the time to learn new things and practice getting better at something, you’re growing your mindset. How do you practice this? Try, try, and try again. Be OK with failure. Consider it your biggest ally, not an enemy.

Quantitative skills.

Get to know numbers in any shape or form. It can be as simple as practicing basic accounting skills (your daily budget, for example), or more involved like personal finance (how to invest and grow your portfolio, or how to invest for retirement) or data analytics (observing market trends, gathering statistical data which can tell a bigger story). Many people are afraid of math so they run away from it. If this is something you’re good at, keep at it. If you’re not, keep practicing. Why? It’s a highly marketable skill that can afford you better jobs in your career.

Writing.

You may think it’s easy to write; after all, we all use language and so we should know this skill, right? But you’d be surprised how few people really know how to construct a concise, clear, and interesting sentence. Grammar isn’t easy to master, either. Neither is diversifying your vocabulary. On top of that, you need to know your audience — their age group, cultural background, what they’re interested in, what they want to learn. How do you practice writing? Read books, not just online articles or Instagram posts, to understand what good writing looks like. Practice writing every day, even if it’s for 15–30 minutes. Get a thesaurus. Ask for feedback. Then practice some more.

If you’re a student with exams coming up, check out my new e-book kit Study Different in 2023!

We’re getting closer to December.

It’s that time of year when college students are doing their best to make the most of the time left in their semester before the holidays. There are a few more weeks of classes, followed by exam preparation, and finally, a chance to make good marks and pass each course.

Every year around this time, I receive dozens of questions on how to study smarter.

Do you think 10 hours a day of study time is enough?

What’s a good way to take notes so I’m ready for exam week?

Can I pull a few all-nighters and make up for time lost because I procrastinated?

Because I feel so strongly about this topic, I want to address each question individually, and sometimes I do (here on my blog, other times on Quora). But there are so many of them!

I decided to put together an e-book kit which I called Study Different in 2023. If you’re a student who’s struggling with managing time effectively and are worried about your performance during exams, you may find it useful.

The kit consists of two e-books to make over your study habits:

Study Different in 2023
This e-book is designed to help you find out how your brain works, give you tools so you don’t overwhelm yourself, and show you how to optimize each study session so you can work less while covering more material. It includes the following sections:

  • 7 strategies for studying more effectively in less time
  • A morning journal template to maximize your peak performance time
  • A Pomodoro sessions template for each part of the day: morning, afternoon, and evening
  • A sample of effective note-taking to help you prepare for exams

My 2023 Focused Study Journal
This e-book is a sample of one journal entry spread across four pages. It includes the following sections:   

  • SITREP (situation report)
  • The Discomfort Zone (how to build your discomfort muscle)
  • The Work (daily study schedule)
  • Push it Further (prompts for increasing your studying efforts incrementally)
  • Performance Review (reviewing your work and giving yourself a performance score)

You can find the kit here. It’s available in 2 different formats: Pages and PDF.

🙏 As always, thank you for your support and for following my blog. And keep those questions coming — I look forward to each one!

2023 is around the corner— how do you max out the time left?

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Hello friends!

It’s already November and we’re all busy with school, work, and the usual rush of getting things done on time before the holidays. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with the amount of things you need to do — getting ready for university exams, reaching a project milestone at work, honing a skill that will be useful to you in the future — you’re not alone.

We’re all feeling the grind.

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that my approach to getting things done is to rely not on motivation (because it’s fleeting and unreliable) but on self-discipline: the habit of being consistent, day after day, in doing the work.

It takes the guesswork and any dilemma out of the equation.

No more, Should I leave this for tomorrow?

No more, I don’t feel like it right now.

No more, If only I had more time to devote to this.

Instead:

Go to bed a bit earlier so you can get up earlier.

Plan your day.

Know your priorities.

Ignore (even better – eliminate) distractions.

Hold yourself accountable, instead of blaming circumstances or other people.

If you’re on board with this approach but would benefit from getting that extra push in the right direction, I created a free self-discipline journal template to keep you focused. It’s a small way to say thank you for following my blog ❤️.

I recommend writing in the journal early in the day. It won’t take more than a few minutes but I promise — it will make a world of difference in the way you approach every waking hour.

The journal includes 5 short sections:

1. Create a SITREP

Short for “situation report,” this is a summary of what’s happening in your world and what you want to focus on.

2. Get into the discomfort zone

You’ll identify one thing you don’t want to do but that is necessary to complete a goal.

3. Do the work

This is the main part of your journal entry, where you’ll add activities you’ll be doing in the morning, afternoon, and evening.

4. Push it further

Ask yourself, what is the ideal scenario, or what does success look like to you? Find quick ways to increase your effort to outperform.

5. Give yourself a performance review

At the end of the day, summarize what went well, what didn’t, and how you can remove any obstacles that are standing in your way.

And that’s it!

Get your free sample of the self-discipline journal here. And drop a comment to let me know how it works out for you!

Adults keep journals, too. ❤️

Here are a few ideas on why you might want to pick up this valuable habit.

Photo by Brent Gorwin on Unsplash

Don’t believe people who say that keeping a journal is something only kids and teenagers do.

My experience has been the complete opposite.

There are many people, both at work and in my social circle, who keep the habit of writing in their journals. Of course, there are many who don’t do it but they keep track of their lives in different ways. They have sketchbooks in which they draw every day. They record music they play so they can learn and improve the skill of playing an instrument. They take pictures of the food they make and have thousands of photos on their iPhone showcasing their creations — and sometimes post them on Instagram for the world to see.

I’ve been the more traditional, journal-writing type of person over the years. And I do mean years. It’s a habit I first started when I was 7, as soon as I could form sentences and scrawl the words in my first journal. I still remember what the notebook looked like. It had pink and purple flowers on the cover, and the lines were wide spaced, just perfect for a 7-year-old to write in.

The topics have shifted over the years, as you would expect. That first notebook had a sentence that read, “Today I painted the toenails on my feet. AND ON MY FEET.” Apparently this was a big deal to me at the time. Then the notebooks started piling up. By the time I had reached my teens, there were all kinds of entries about friends and school and what I was thinking about the whole arduous process of growing up. In college, I started adding book lists to the mix because I was reading more and more. I also copied entire quotes and sections of the books that made a big impression on me. One of the books I was reading at the time was Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and there were so many good sections I had to write stuff down so I could go back to it later (which I often did).

The notebooks I’ve picked over time, I noticed, are all of different sizes. There are huge notebooks, there are tiny ones you can fit in your back pocket, then sketchbooks where I would write and doodle and draw stories in. Some beautiful, leather-bound notebooks by a printer who specialized in binding books in the style of the renaissance period. A few simple, no-fuss paperbacks with a black and white pattern. A hand-sewn notebook with a slim rope that ties the booklet together like a tiny parcel, a gift.

Which brings me to the biggest value of keeping a journal-writing habit — in my opinion, of course.

I see it as a series of small gifts I have created over the years. They served as a gift to the me-at-the-time, the gift of having space for self-reflection, curiosity about the world, a place where all of my questions could call home. And I had so many questions — and still do. Also, they have been a series of gifts I was making in advance for the future me. A blueprint for growing up, a living document of everything under the sun that still moves and changes shape and color. It’s a dialogue I have with myself. Look, this is who we were. Remember? This is how we tackled the world. This is how we fell in love, wildly and recklessly. This is how we grieved. This is how we enjoyed one blissful summer, riding bikes by the water and sitting on blankets eating sandwiches in the shadow of a tree. This is what moving from city to city, from one continent to the other, feels like. The friends we keep, the long letters we write each other in the middle of the night when everyone’s asleep but we’re still awake and dreaming.

This is how we created the version of me that’s writing these words now, in my home in California. The version of me that’s not that different from the previous, younger versions. Come to think of it, we are quite similar to each other. We all like to make sandwiches for lunch. Coffee rituals in the morning. Asking a lot of questions. Reading novels. Dancing by ourselves with the headphones on. Scribbling in notebooks every single day.

That’s probably why we’re all still friends. ❤️

Don’t miss my new 6-part series on Medium called “Declutter Your Mind”

Photo by Darwin Vegher on Unsplash

Did you know that the average person typically has around 6,200 thoughts a day?

That’s a large number but yes, it’s backed by research — according to a 2020 study by psychologists at Queen’s University in Canada. In the study, Canada’s Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience Dr. Jordan Poppenk refers to thoughts as “thought worms” — consecutive moments when a person is focused on one idea. When a person transitions or thinks of a new thought, another “thought worm” is created, and so on. This means that we have thousands of thoughts each day that may or may not be linked to one another.

How can we manage these thoughts so they don’t create mental chaos?

I believe there is one method you can practice on your own that can bring you the results you want, and that is writing.

And no, I don’t mean writing a work of fiction such as a short story or novel, or even poetry. By writing, I mean writing down everything that is going through your mind. Literally.

What are the steps?

I just launched a 6-part series on Medium called “Declutter Your Mind.” It’s a deep dive into the process of making sense of the random thoughts that overwhelm us every day. In each part, I’ll share one step to help you understand your thoughts better, organize them so they work for you, and ultimately deal with them more effectively.

You can find part 1 of the series here.

I hope you enjoy it. And as always, I appreciate your support and comments!

Nela

Where can you go with wishful thinking?

Wishing things for yourself is like being in a cocoon. 

Think of it as your comfort zone in which you get to dream, think, imagine. It’s the space to think of a million scenarios where things go your way, you live a wonderful life, have a beautiful home, enjoy the company of a partner who is a perfect fit for you, have a job that earns an income large enough so you can live comfortably and still have enough money to go on vacations to tropical destinations of your choice.

Speaking of destinations, that’s the thing.

Your cocoon of dreaming and wishing shouldn’t be a destination in itself. It should be a starting point. 

You can use that time to prioritize what are the things most important to you and your personal growth. Then you can create goals so that those wishes don’t just stay in the realm of your imagination. They can be the motivational force to move you forward into a future you can create for yourself.

The good thing about goals is that they give your dreams a sense of purpose — you have an awareness of what you desire in life, which extends beyond what’s happening in your current life. Once you know what it is you desire, you can be honest with yourself about how badly you want it.

Are you willing to give up a bad habit today so you can invest in a better life two years from now?

Can you be self-disciplined to build habits that will keep you on track toward reaching an important goal?

How will you measure your progress and stay motivated to keep going until you get there?

What do you imagine it will feel like when you do eventually reach that goal?

Those are the questions that will help you step out of the cocoon of wishes and dreams, and on to the path towards making tangible, real changes in your life.

This path includes having an action plan that consists of the following steps:

1. You think about what you want your dream life to be.

Ask yourself the following questions to define your goals properly:

  • Where do you want to be 1, 5, or even 10 years from now? Don’t think only geography and economy of your country, but more in terms of personal development and skill level.
  • Who do you want to become in your career — a leader, CEO of a startup, data analyst in a Fortune 500 company, innovator, scientist, writer?
  • What is your dream scenario — living a life in a specific city, becoming an expert at something, being surrounded by smart and interesting people who contribute to my personal growth and well-being?

2. You create a specific goal.

Don’t just stop at dreaming and wishing a certain lifestyle for yourself. If you’re stuck in the imaginary world, your brain won’t know what to focus on and how to take action on an idea you’re thinking about.

  • Non-specific goals can be anything of the following. I want to get a job, or move out of my parents’ house, or get fit, or have a large salary.
  • Specific goals are spelled out. For example, if you want to get a job of your dreams, write down that you want to get a job offer for a [job title you want] that pays an annual salary of [amount you believe is fair given your skills and experience] so you can develop [current skills + new skills you’re working on].

3. You see everything you do as a personal choice, not an obligation.

This is largely a mindset issue because there is a big difference between feeling forced to do something and choosing to do it.

  • Tell yourself, “I really want to see myself succeed at this!” The benefit? It gives you a greater sense of control about what you’re doing. That’s much better than feeling like you’re reacting to things or you have an obligation to work towards someone else’s goal (for example, a goal set by parents).
  • Remind yourself of the reason for action with this question: “Why am I choosing this goal?” Make the connection with the initial wishes and dreams you had for yourself at the beginning. It can be passing all exams so you can graduate from college, start your own business, earn a promotion that will help you save up more money to purchase a home, etc.

4. You schedule it in.

Set aside one hour after dinner tonight to create a schedule that will make your dreams more tangible and real.

  • Select your top 3 personal goals. They can be anything you’ve been dreaming about for years, or something you’ve started considering more seriously in the past year or two.
  • Under each goal, write down 3 things you need to do on a consistent basis. It can be to practice a skill three times a week, set aside an hour a day to focus and do research, or sign up for a class to broaden your knowledge in a field.
  • Create a schedule for the week ahead. Set aside blocks of time to making progress in the areas you’ve identified. Start small, with a 15–30 minute block of time. You’ll be surprised how much the time adds up without you having to give up on other things you need to do during the day.

5. You measure your progress.

After following your new goal schedule for one week, make an assessment of the progress you made. Be honest in answering the following questions:

  • Did some activities take more time than you anticipated? If so, why?
  • What was easy to do? Why do you think it wasn’t as difficult as you initially thought?
  • What could you have done better? Could you have started earlier in the day, turned off distractions, or used shortcuts to save time without sacrificing the quality of your work?
  • In what way can you improve the following week? Can you focus only on one activity to make significant progress?
  • How will you measure your progress? Can you set milestones to reach by the end of each week, or deadlines that will keep you on track? Will you track your progress in a spreadsheet or a bullet journal?

You’re not born disciplined (and that’s OK).

I consider self-discipline to be a skill, not a trait.

There’s a big difference between the two concepts.

A trait — a characteristic that is specific to an individual — is determined by DNA or genes. For example, we can genetically inherit a specific hair color, eye color, or blood type.

A skill — the ability to do something well or to use knowledge to improve the way we perform an activity — is not determined by DNA. For example, we can learn a language that was not spoken by our ancestors. There’s one element that is required to acquire a skill, however: repetition of activity over time.

Here’s where your self-discipline can really pay off.

Ever heard of David Goggins?

He is a retired U.S. Navy SEAL who served in the Iraq War (and is now also a triathlete). Goggins calls self-discipline “the callusing of the mind.” It means building a thick, impenetrable layer that will allow you to do what’s uncomfortable so you can get out of your comfort zone and start shaping your life into something worthwhile.

He points out how beneficial it can be to practice self-discipline, and I agree with that mindset. For me, self-discipline as a skill is not just limited to physical endurance.

It is a way of thinking that anyone can practice if they want to.

We can decide today that we’ll get better at a skill, whether it’s physical strength training, managing stress better, or improving the way we work. We get to decide that we want to create something that has value, not just for ourselves but also for other people. And the most important thing — we decide that we will take action on it immediately.

So how do you start practicing the skill of self-discipline?

Tip #1. Start your day right.

The way you start the day — any day — is going to set the tone for whatever you do, try to do, want to do, and then actually do. You can choose to be reactive, which can mean you wake up, get your phone, and start checking emails, Twitter, or Instagram. You might watch the news and get caught up in world events, none of which you can control. Or, you might answer calls or respond to text messages that your friends start sending you as you’re having breakfast. If you’d like to create a different beginning to your day, train your brain to be focused as soon as you wake up.

What’s an easy way to do this?

Start your day with this question: What is the one thing I am committed to completing today? This technique trains your brain to focus on identifying goals that are important to you and forces you to prioritize the single goal you believe to be the most relevant at this moment. How do you start? Put it in writing. Write it in large letters on a sheet of paper and hang it on your bedroom or bathroom wall. Read it out loud as you start your day, for example as you’re brushing your teeth or getting ready for work or school. Come up with an answer on the spot and answer it out loud. Then follow up by taking action — focus your energy throughout the day to complete your one thing.

Tip #2. Don’t just go through the motions — do deep work.

You can say a lot of things to describe the benefits of leading a self-disciplined life, but being spontaneous in managing your day-to-day activities isn’t one of them. There’s time for spontaneity, and then there’s time to do what you need to do. In other words, timing — just like in most other aspects of your life — is everything. Being self-disciplined means you do deep work (concentrating on complex cognitive tasks such as studying, problem-solving, and writing) first before you do anything for pleasure. It means you are aware of which times of day should be devoted to doing it, and which times can be allotted to entertainment and socializing.

What’s an easy way to do this?

Make the most of your mornings by building a habit of doing your deep work early. This means taking full advantage of your circadian rhythm (your body’s biological clock), which is your natural rhythm that “knows” what are the optimal times for you to perform certain tasks. For most people, the early morning hours are optimal for deep work. Specifically, the brain’s peak performance is 2–4 hours after we wake up. So if you wake up at 6, then your peak time is until 10 a.m. Working early allows your brain to focus fully on the problem at hand, with fewer distractions, and fewer inputs from your environment.

Tip #3. Postpone what gives you pleasure.

If doing deep work early helps you focus better and get the biggest responsibilities out of the way, what you’re also doing is postponing things that are more pleasurable. What’s the point of doing something difficult first to reward yourself later? You’d be surprised how far-reaching this practice can be. In a study performed by Stanford University scientists, results showed that delayed gratification can increase your chance of succeeding in many areas of your life — your education, career, short and long-term goals, and even your personal life choices. This study is now famous and is called the Marshmallow Experiment.

What’s an easy way to do this?

Start by observing the things you’d like to indulge in whenever the opportunity presents itself — for example, eating a large slice of chocolate cake or having a second portion of what you already ate for dinner. Then, resist the temptation to immediately choose to treat yourself by thinking of one reason why not to indulge: maybe you’re focused on your new fitness goals or developing better eating habits. And follow up. Take your attention away from the distractions and focus on your priorities for the day: complete your homework, go outside for a run or walk, listen to a podcast on an interesting topic, or prepare dinner early so you have time to watch a movie later.

Tip #4. Don’t be a Tik Tok addict.

Leading a self-disciplined life means you learn how to say no to many different things: no to giving in to temptations to indulge in pleasant activities, no to your desire to procrastinate on daily priorities, and no to distractions that take over your day. They may seem harmless to begin with, but distractions can easily make you slip from your work. One minute you’re just scrolling through hilarious Tik Tok videos, and the next thing you know it’s two hours later and you haven’t picked up your notes to start prepping for the exam. But when you turn off what distracts you, you have a better chance to actually get stuff done.

What’s an easy way to do this?

Be aware that distractions come from different sources, not just your electronic devices. Your goal is to dial down all types of distractions so they’re not in your way. First, set your phone to Airplane mode when you need to focus on your work — try this for 2 hours. Next, let people around you (family members, friends, or roommates) know you won’t be available during that time. Check your email and social media apps 2–3 times during the day; start around lunchtime and then check later in the afternoon. Avoid browsing the Internet or reading the news all day long. Close all tabs in your browser so you’re not tempted to do yet another Google search.

Tip #5. Develop an attitude of “I want” instead of “I should.”

Like with all other areas in your life, self-discipline is for the most part all about attitude. What’s your understanding of self-discipline? Does it sound like a practice that is uncomfortable, unusual, harsh, or maybe extreme? If it does, it’s time to take a second look because the attitude you have towards self-discipline will either help you or deter you from practicing it in your daily life. For me, it’s never been about what I “should” do or what feels uncomfortable to do. It’s all about what it can afford me. With daily practice, self-discipline trains my brain to prioritize the things I can control, allows me to let go of what I cannot, and frees me up to focus on my personal goals.

What’s an easy way to do this?

Instead of focusing only on daily schedules and tasks, start thinking about your future and what you want to accomplish in 5, 10, and yes even 20 years. Even if practicing self-discipline may feel like you’re sacrificing some things right now (chatting with friends or indulging in a delicious dessert), think about what leading a self-disciplined life will afford you. Write down a list of new habits you’re practicing (or want to start practicing) that can add up to bigger results a year from now. Create time in your calendar to practice them — even a 30-minute session is enough to begin. When you understand the benefits of leading a self-disciplined life, you are more likely to nurture it. It will become a lifestyle that will take you into the future you want for yourself.

🤓 If you’re like me, you may prefer to have a printout of tips so you can reread them and write notes in the margins. That’s why I put these steps in a printable workbook called Develop a Self Disciplined Lifestyle. It includes tips, a workbook section, a list of recommended readings, and a weekly gratitude journal template. You can learn more about it here.

What are the most common pitfalls in self-improvement?

What an excellent question. It’s important to have this conversation because there are quite a few drawbacks to the way we approach self-improvement, yet we don’t really talk about them much.

I want to address three pitfalls specifically.

#1. Going down the rabbit hole of intense navel-gazing.

Having self-awareness and knowing there’s something that needs improving in our life is a good thing. That’s the first step towards positive change. The problem starts when being self-aware turns into being completely consumed with the self. We start viewing every aspect of our life through a magnifying lens. A need to start eating healthy begins by doing research on healthy foods, reading nutrition labels on packages in the supermarket, and making smarter choices about what to eat. But what if this research becomes the lens of looking at the world in a certain way, and we start judging certain foods as “toxic” or “bad” and even tell other people how and what they should eat? If we don’t watch the way we talk to ourselves, we can easily slip into bad habits of awfulizing whatever is not our choice and labeling what is our choice as the “best” and “smartest” way to live. Other than demonstrating a rigid and more fixed mindset, this is also dangerous because we can alienate other people; it will be difficult to enjoy spending time with us and learn something constructive from us.

Can you fix this?

You can, but you have to be deliberate and mindful about how you talk and how you think about self-improvement. It helps to broaden your view of the world to include data points other than yourself. What does that mean? Having awareness that the rest of the world may not have the same beliefs, needs, or goals is a good start. Learning something new to increase your knowledge and understanding, even if it clashes with your current set of beliefs. Solving a problem that someone else may have instead of just focusing on your own, which you can practice by asking the question, How can I help here? Finding ways to share your progress so that others can benefit from it, and explaining the progress in a way that is easy to understand (the point of what you’re doing, the habits you’re practicing, and the benefits you are experiencing). When we share our knowledge and experiences, we don’t just focus on us — we add value to others, which gives us a greater sense of purpose in life.

#2. Practicing small things, but procrastinating about the big things.

Small things are certain behaviors and habits we practice in our daily life that give us a feeling of accomplishment. Also, it looks good on the outside. We appear busy with our acts of self-improvement, which sends a signal to our brain that we are getting things done. For example, we get into the habit of keeping a bullet journal so that we can streamline the way we work and how we manage our daily schedule, both for our professional and personal life. The bullet journal method can easily morph into an obsession with aesthetics — how to add designs to your pages, put different colors, and experiment with different stickers and doodles to give the journal a cool artistic look. We start shopping for better notebooks, highlighters, cool pens. Suddenly a daily task of checking off items turns into hours of making things look good. What happened to the big picture? What are the initial goals we wanted to work on? Where did the time go to make progress on those goals?

Can you fix this?

Absolutely. If there’s anything we should really be dedicating our energy to, it’s the big things that matter to us — practicing a blue sky way of thinking. This means setting aside time to think about how to reach a big goal, overcome a personal challenge, improve relationships with people closest to us. Watch out for that self-talk that stems from feeling so busy with our daily lives that leads us to push all the big stuff aside and leave it for later. I can’t think about this right now, I don’t have the time! This is too complicated and stressful for me to deal with! It’s all going to work out anyway, why worry about it now? This is a form of procrastination, hidden under the guise of productivity. To deal with it, it helps to ask yourself, Why am I so reluctant to act on this today? Am I afraid of something, and if so, what is it? What’s standing in my way? Once you get to the bottom of it, you can take action. It’s a baby step move — you dedicate 15 minutes to getting something underway, whether it’s writing down five things you need to do to acquire a skill, or talking to your partner about solving a problem together.

#3. Obsessively monitoring the self-improvement journey of other people.

Watching others and how they behave, what they possess, and where they’re going is a human thing to do. We are social creatures. This is not altogether too bad — it’s important to learn from the experiences, behaviors, and even mistakes of other people. But there’s a danger hidden behind these observations: when we allow them to take over our thoughts and impede our judgment of what is truly important to our own self-development. Just because a friend mentions that they have taken up running at 6 a.m. to boost their physical stamina does not mean we need to immediately go shopping for a new pair of running shoes to do the same. And if a co-worker decides to quit so they can focus on being an entrepreneur and create their own business, that is not an excuse for us to give in to FOMO (the fear of missing out) and start asking ourselves if we’re really meant for this role or we should also give up a stable source of income to pursue something on our own — even though we’re not quite sure what that is.

Can you fix this?

Yes. It will, however, require you to change the way you think about goals that are important to you and only you. This is an exercise in goal-setting that can literally change your whole life if you know how to do it right. It does take a certain level of introspection and asking yourself difficult questions like, Is the lifestyle of the person I admire the right fit for me and what I need? Can I turn this lifestyle into a goal that fits into the bigger picture of my life and what I want it to look like 10 or 20 years from now? How can I make the goal actionable so it’s not just a “nice to have” but “I WANT to have this”? How will I measure my progress as I keep practicing these new behaviors? I created a workbook based on this process that includes question prompts, tips, templates, and a recommended reading list, all of which you can learn more about here.

What are 5 things you should say NO to in the morning?

I’m sure you have read all kinds of articles offering advice on morning routines. When to wake up. How much work to do. How to keep yourself entertained (or focused) on your commute. Podcast lists. Spotify lists. To-do lists. Meal prep. Writing in your journal. The list goes on and on. But did you ever consider what are some things you should not do as soon as you wake up?

Maybe it’s a good way to reframe your mindset.

Here are 5 things to say NO to in the morning.

1. Giving in to a state of anxiety and panic.

Many people open their eyes and immediately start listing all the things they have to do on that day. That type of mental “chatter” seems to be the brain’s default response to waking up. And of course the list feels endless — not to mention unrealistic. After all, you only have a certain amount of waking hours to get it all done, right? Next thing you know, you’re feeling overwhelmed with all those thoughts about the dreaded list. And feeling overwhelmed won’t help in any way, so it’s best to come up with a strategy for setting goals.

Instead of giving in to this state of mind, DO ask yourself one question first thing: What is the one thing I am committed to completing today? It will help your brain prioritize and identify one goal or task that’s the most important. To make this easier to do, write the question on a large sheet of paper and put it somewhere you can immediately see when you wake up.

2. Reaching for the phone to start checking your social media apps.

The list of social media apps is getting longer over the years. You probably know your top 3-5 apps. It’s not just Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook any more. It can be reading other sources of news, playing games, or scrolling through Reddit. One thing you’re forgetting is a valuable resource that’s at its peak around this time, and that is your willpower. And you choose this time to scroll through Instagram! You’re better off using this time of day in a more efficient way.

Instead of repeating the same habit, DO give yourself time to ease into the day. This may be taking the time to do a 5-minute meditation, writing in your journal, watering the plants, taking your dog out for a walk, or turning on music to add some energy and perk you up.

3. Beginning the day on an empty stomach.

Unless you’re doing intermittent fasting, starting the day without any type of fuel won’t give you the energy you need. And it’s not only about addressing your stomach. Think about what your brain needs — like your stomach, it also needs food. Actually, the brain of an average adult consumes about 20 percent of the body’s total energy — which you mostly get from the food you eat. If you don’t eat, your brain won’t have the energy it needs to function properly and be productive.

Instead of skipping your fuel, DO start the day with breakfast. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or big. Try oatmeal with fresh fruit or yogurt with a combination of fruit, walnuts, and granola. An egg or two is another good option; eggs contain B vitamins, antioxidants (which protect neurons against damage), and omega-3 fatty acids to keep nerve cells functioning at optimal speed. If you’re fine with caffeine, it’s a perfect time for that first cup of coffee or tea to get you going.

4. Wasting time on things that don’t need your full focus and attention.

Consider for a minute what are the types of activities you typically perform before noon. You might be listening to the news, tidying up your home, chatting with or texting friends. It could also be spending a lot of time packing up what you need for work or school or agonizing over which outfit to wear. But what you’re not giving your brain is what it needs at that time — the opportunity to do deep, focused, uninterrupted work such as reading, writing, coding, analyzing, critical thinking, and problem solving.

Instead of wasting time, DO take advantage of your brain’s peak performance hours which are around 2–4 hours after you wake up. If you wake up at 6, your peak time for complex cognitive tasks is between 8 and 10. Another bonus is that when you get that tough cognitive work out of the way, you’ll feel more accomplished and ready to relax when you really need to.

5. Staying indoors all morning.

There’s so much goodness from giving yourself some time in the sun, even if the weather is overcast. Think of it as spending a few minutes absorbing daylight, much like plants do. Getting some sun exposure will allow your body to naturally produce vitamin D, which is important for optimal brain function. Vitamin D helps the brain through its anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties. Additionally, studies have shown it protects agains dementia by helping to break down Alzheimer’s disease-related proteins and enhancing blood flow to the brain.

Instead of being indoors all morning, DO schedule a short walk or run early when the sun comes up. Your mornings are super busy? It doesn’t have to take a long time. You can set the timer on your mobile phone to go off anywhere between 15 and 30 minutes. When you’re moving, you’ll also get the additional benefit of producing more endorphins — those happy hormones we all need more of!

I struggle with being consistent. How can I be consistent every day?

Create a life in which you practice very small habits as a way to build your self-discipline.

This means practice every day.

This means don’t put things off any more.

This means show up for yourself, respect your time, be focused on an important goal.

How can you do that?

#1. Take ownership of your day.

Instead of waiting to respond to external factors (work or school assignments, a task given by your manager, other chores given by family members), take the day into your hands by asking one question that I use to start my mornings: “What is the one thing I am committed to completing today?” This technique will train your brain to start evaluating the goals that are important to you right now and prioritize one goal that needs immediate attention.

How can you do this?

Write it down on a sheet of paper and hang it on a wall in your home. Read it out loud as you start your day, for example as you’re brushing your teeth or getting dressed. Come up with an answer on the spot and answer it out loud. Then take action: focus your energy throughout the day to completing your one thing.

#2. Instead of putting off work, attack it immediately.

It’s not unusual to feel a sense of overwhelm because there are so many things you need to do, from small everyday chores and tasks to working on a large project. Of course, your first response can be to delay doing anything (because it’s hard to decide what to do and in what order), which translates into a bad habit of procrastinating. What you’re actually doing is ignoring your willpower reserves; they’re at their highest peak early and then taper on as the day progresses. The solution? Do not delay what you know you’ll have to do anyway.

How can you do this?

Once you’ve established your top priority, work on it as early in the day as possible. I try to start right around breakfast time. It can be a small thing that I can do in 30 minutes but I’ve been avoiding all week. Sometimes it’s even shorter and can be completed in 10 minutes, but it feels unlpleasant and a chore. That doesn’t matter. Set the timer for 10, 15, or 30 minutes and work on it right now. And the benefit? Feeling that you accomplished something important so early will set the tone to the rest of the day.

#3. Don’t complicate new habits.

Let’s imagine a scenario in which you neglected yourself, for example you’ve been saying you’ll make healthier meals or work out regularly, but life gets in the way so the new habit never begins. Why would you avoid something that you know will most likely have positive results? Maybe it’s the way you think about the habit — it’s going to be difficult to do it, you cannot find the time, you’re preparing for exams so you can’t think about meal prepping right now, and so on. But are those thoughts really true? Or are you just setting it up to make it easier on yourself to delay some more? Maybe the simple answer is this: you complicate the habit to the point that it sounds like it’s going to be excruciating to do. Simplifying it is a better solution.

How can you do this?

A good first step is to stop telling yourself that practicing self-control is self-punishment. It may feel unnatural at first to tackle a new habit like running early in the morning, but you’re not a child being told what to do. You are making decisions for yourself and your well-being. And you are taking charge of your life. Do you see the difference, that shift in your attitude? It is one of the most important changes you will make that will allow you to stay focused. Another thing that is helpful is to break down something hard into manageable increments. One hour at the gym sounds like torture, but what about a 20-minute workout at home? If that’s too long, how about you do two short workouts or walks of 10 minutes each? Make the task as easy to do as possible.

#4. Be more deliberate in avoiding distractions.

Yes, we may all have cell phones and use social media accounts to be informed, stay in touch with friends, and experience something funny, beautiful, or fascinating. But at the end of the day, social media is more of a distraction and less of a proactive experience. If you find yourself spending hours on Tik Tok or YouTube, maybe it’s a good idea to ask yourself a few questions. What do I like to watch the most? How much time do I spend each day on this? When I’m done, how do I feel? What do I want to get out of this experience? Very often we go to our apps to distract ourselves from work, or to make time go by more quickly as we’re waiting in a long line at the post office. The question is this — will you remember everything you’ve seen today one year from now? And if you won’t, is there something better you can do with your time? In other words, minimize what distracts you to take charge of your time.

How can you do this?

If you feel anxiety, dread or overwhelm after spending time reading news on Twitter, you have to acknowledge these feelings. If an action doesn’t add value to your life (or even reduces the quality of your emotions and your thoughts), do you need it? Eliminate what doesn’t make sense to keep any more. Set your phone to Airplane mode when you need to focus. Don’t let other people’s schedules and priorities take over your own; let others know that you are working and won’t allow interruptions. Check email and social media apps only in the afternoon and evening, and set your timer so you’re aware at all times how many minutes you’re dedicating to these activities.

#5. Keep a self-discipline journal.

Since you are making a lot of changes in the way you think and organize your days, a good idea is to document these changes. When you write things down, your brain can focus better to sort through new information, prioritize, make decisions, and plan out what needs to be done. In addition, when you have words written down on paper, it will feel like more of a commitment you are making towards your future. It’s important to mark your progress in all these areas so you can track everything, including your thoughts and mood.

How can you do this?

Dedicate one notebook to this activity. For each day’s entry, write down several prompts that you can answer on that day. Here are a few suggestions: What is the one thing I am committed to completing today? How will I distribute the work morning/afternoon/evening (create a plan)? What went well today, and what didn’t (why)? What is one obstacle I can remove or reduce tomorrow?


✏️🗓 If you are interested in self-discipline, head over to this page to read about a packet (e-book + journal) I put together to help you build and maintain a self-disciplined lifestyle.