Month: August 2013

Daily Affirmations: Part 1

I know what you’re thinking.

“I’m Stuart Smalley. I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gawdawnit, people like me!”

I used to think these kinds of skits were harmless, but these days I have a more critical view. If nothing else, I believe this kind of humor helps people dismiss affirmations as being hokey or stupid.

“I don’t need to do that, look how ridiculous it is.”

When all it really does is prevent ourselves from taking such practices seriously. Practices which have shown to enhance performance, and increase problem solving abilities under stress, among other things.

But let me start from the beginning

You may not know this about me, but in high school I was a bit of a strange kid. Sure I had a few friends here and there, but overall I had a very difficult time connecting with my peers.

I think part of it had to do with the fact that I was a very intense person. I would go up to girls that I had crushes on and tell them to their faces “I like you” with all this awkward pressure to respond right away. If you’ve ever been put on the spot like that, you know how uncool that is.

The thing is, I had an unusually high emotional intelligence for my age, but an abysmally low social intelligence. I would explore my own feelings and talk about them openly, but would never stop to think how what I was saying could be interpreted by someone else.

It should come as no surprise then, that I suffered from particularly low self-esteem for many years. No matter what situation I encountered, it would always go through the filter of “I’m not good enough.”

For example, I used to I walk by groups of girls who would start laughing, and I immediately assumed they were laughing at me. They could have been laughing at anything, but it didn’t matter because I only saw the worst case scenario.

After High School

Things got a little better in college, and I even managed to get a girlfriend…somehow. The worst part was that I felt like I didn’t deserve it, and as a result behaved in a very needy way. And nobody likes a Needy Ned (you know, like a Debbie Downer).

After college I knew that if I didn’t take matters into my own hands I would always be at the mercy of my external environment and circumstances. I would have no choice but to settle for any relationship that I could get. In other words, not a particularly exciting future.

Instead of getting a full time corporate job (and partly because the economy was busy taking a nose dive), I proceeded to spend a year working on myself. Exactly what I did during that time is probably the subject of an entirely different post.

In any event, it didn’t take long for me to come across the concept of daily affirmations.

How the affirmations worked

Instead of saying what I wished I had or what type of person I wished I was, I crafted the affirmations such that everything I wanted was already true.

For example, instead of “I want to be someone who feels more confident.” Or “I am not nervous around women I am attracted to,” a better way to say it is “I am a powerful, confident man. I know what I want, and I go for it.”

See the difference?

By being a powerful, confident man who knows what he wants and goes for it, the whole talking to women thing falls into place quite naturally. Not only that, but it covers other areas in my life as well. Like how I negotiated payment on a freelance project. But more on that later.

Another thing to note, is that each affirmation was specifically designed to replace negative thoughts (a.k.a. monkey chatter. You know, the nagging voice in your head that never shuts up).

To give you a better sense, here were some of my original affirmations (from 2008) and the negative chatter they replaced:

  • I always operate at maximum efficiency and effectiveness. (“I am too slow. I read slowly, I think slowly, and everyone else is faster than me.”)
  • I give everyone uncommon value. (“I am nothing special. I have nothing to offer.”)
  • All women are extremely attracted to me. (“Nobody would be attracted to me.”)
  • I am immune to all airborne diseases and viruses. (“I always get sick.”)
  • I am always expanding my comfort zone. (“I am too scared to try new things.”)
  • I am a powerful, confident man; I know what I want and I go for it! (“I am too afraid and meek to do anything.”)
  • I am a phenomenal dancer, and women love to dance with me. (“I can’t dance.”)

Interesting side note: It’s been so long since I’ve thought about the negative self-talk that it all seems so foreign to me now. Yet, at the time I was convinced that each of them was 100% true.

Ridiculous, I know.

When is a good time to say affirmations?

I originally heard that saying it first thing in the morning and last thing before bed is a good approach. However, I am the kind of person who would get really into them and get excited when I say them.

According to Scott Britton’s sleep hacking course on Udemy, that would be counterproductive since my mind would start racing and I would have a more difficult time falling asleep.

That left me with the morning to work with, which worked out pretty well (seeing as how I’m obsessed with dental hygiene and spend an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom). Trust me, $20,000 worth of braces implants, and other dental work would have the same impact on you too.

I began by saying all my affirmations out loud while looking in the mirror, and then repeated them all 4 more times. In addition to saying them out loud, I also took a moment with each one to visualize what it meant to embody the qualities that I was affirming.

I’d love to share 2 examples of how affirmations helped me, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave them for next week…

Don’t you just love cliffhangers?

Excel it Forward

Have you seen the movie Pay it Forward? If you haven’t, go watch it. If you have, watch it again!

The idea is simple. When someone does a good deed, don’t pay it back. Instead, pay it forward to someone else.

In a nutshell, Excel it Forward is the Pay it Forward phenomenon, measured.

Okay great, but what the hell does that mean Shir?

Well, imagine every good deed that you give or receive being recorded into a giant spreadsheet, with the ability to sort and filter by any criteria you want.

Want to see what types of good deeds you performed? Want to see who you helped inspire to start performing good deeds of their own? Where did they spread to geographically? How long did it take for 100 deeds to occur daily?

In my head I’m already seeing this all as an interactive Excel dashboard. And let me tell you, a more beautiful site, I have not seen. (Not sure why I just turned into Yoda for a second there)

I know it’s still very vague, and the truth is, I’m not really sure exactly what Excel it Forward is going to be or what it will look like. Or even, how it’s going to work from a logistical standpoint.

But that’s OK, because contrary to my old belief system, I do not need to have all the answers before getting started.

So how did it come to be?

By this point I’m sure you’ve all heard of the Sandy Hook elementary school tragedy

In the wake of the tragedy, Ann Curry decided to start a campaign of 26 random acts of kindness. I first found out about it through @ohjefframos’s tweet:

There he links to the Buzzfeed article that originally sparked the idea for Excel it Forward:

I saw this tweet on 12/21/12, which ironically enough was supposed to be “The End of the World” according to the Mayan calendar. Glad that didn’t happen.

My first thought was to hand out 26 Metrocards on the subway, and take a big group photo. But then I thought to myself “OK, that’d be nice, but where would it go from there?”

Something was missing

What if I found a way to be more systematic about it? Cause, you know, I’m a pretty systematic person. (*ahem* understatement of the century)

It would be particularly gnarly (in the good sense of course) to see exactly how the good deeds spread. I envisioned an Excel spreadsheet where I could see how many people I inspired to do good deeds, and then how many people those people inspired, and so on and so forth.

For the first time in human history, we would finally be able to visualize the ripple effect of acts of kindness, in real time.


That’s when things got exciting.

All I would need is a simple, non-obtrusive way to record the act of kindness

It would have been nice to record everything about the deed itself, but that would make the process prohibitively complicated. So, to narrow it down to its most essential elements, all I really needed was: who, when, where, what, and how.

  • Who? Do-Gooder ID, and Referred by ID
  • When? Timestamp (automatically recorded)
  • Where? Location (city, state, country, zip)
  • What? Good deed type
  • How? Good deed description

I also thought about including a picture, since it would be nice to see the deed in some way. After all, that’s how the #26acts was done as well. And you know what they say…

Why put off til next year what you can do today?

The interesting thing about Excel it Forward movement is that I didn’t think I’d be able to start it for at least a few years. I would say to myself:

“I have a lot of different projects going on right now.”

“I want to set the foundation and really get this right, so that when it takes off I’ll be completely ready for it.”

In other words…blah blah excuses blah.

Finally, after talking about it with several people, I decided to take the plunge on June 1st, 2013. I realized I would never be completely ready, and it would never be an ideal time, so why not seize the moment and go for it.

And go for it I did

I did not have a logo. I did not have a comprehensive system in place to record the good deeds. All I did have was a Google form with a few questions:

This linked to the following Google spreadsheet:

I also created a tumblr account, which seemed like a natural choice, because after all, tumblr is a microblogging platform.

My very first good deed was taping a $5 metrocard to an MTA vending machine:

After a few days of using the Google form, which was annoying to fill out on the spot, (and therefore made it less likely for anyone to actually follow through and perform the good deeds…myself included), I decided to streamline the process a bit.

I decided to use, recommended to me by Achievement Architect Ari Meisel. IF This Then That simply automates things on the internet for you, based on the triggers you set. It’s actually quite simple, and remarkably powerful.

I searched high and low for a way to trigger an automatic action using twitter, but there was none to be found. Thankfully I was able to trigger the event using tumblr.

Here is a link to the recipes I use to make it happen:

Excel it Forward frequency

At first I was super dedicated to performing at least 1 good deed every day. And for 2.5 months I did just that. After about 2 months though, I began feeling anxious and stressed at the prospect of coming up with another good deed every day.

That’s when I had a conversation with maymay, where he helped me see that the stress was actually taking away from the genuine nature of the good deed itself. I was becoming more concerned about filling my quota than improving someone else’s life. As soon as that happened, it was defeating the entire purpose of Excel it Forward. Check out the bottom of this post for the unedited notes after my conversation with maymay.

I immediately lifted the requirement on myself to perform a good deed every single day, and allowed myself the flexibility to perform a good deed when the opportunity arose.

The benefit is that there is no more stress associated with it for me, and as a result each deed is more genuine, natural, and ultimately more helpful.

The back end system

Shockingly, at the time of this post I still don’t have a system in place to record other people’s good deeds. I thought of teaching other people how to set up their own tumblr and link it to their twitter, and google spreadsheet using IFTTT. That probably would be too many steps for most people though. Plus I would then have the problem of linking everyone’s disparate spreadsheets together.

After discussing it with Georges Janin the next logical step is to develop a system that captures the good deed using tools that people are already familiar with. The most obvious choice is Twitter. I am very close to creating a system that grabs the latest twitter activity for #excelitforward and adds a row in my spreadsheet with their username, timestamp, and the tweet itself (describing the deed).

As far as I see it, the moral of the story is that things don’t have to be perfect before trying them out and actually taking action. In fact, it’s better to just dive in and adjust as you go.

Wouldn’t you agree?

Final notes

As it stands now, the Excel it Forward website just has the latest 20 deeds as a news feed, and a link to the Google spreadsheet. Eventually I’m going to give clear instructions for anyone to start performing and recording their good deeds.

In the meantime, what do you think of Excel it Forward? Conceptually, philosophically, logistically, I’m always looking for ways to improve. Thanks!

As promised, here are the unedited notes after my conversation with maymay on 8/14/13.

“There’s really no need to do a good deed every day, and by attempting to do so I am actually making the deeds come off as forced and disingenuous. Meitar gave me specific feedback on the “told someone they had a beautiful smile” and said that while he was sure my intention was good, it could have come off as a back handed compliment in a way. Instead of me complimenting someone, it was as if I was complimenting myself for complimenting them. I see that, and even felt something was off about it. But as I told him, and he knew anyway, this is very much a work in progress and I am still experimenting and adjusting constantly.

Then he told me the story of Cleveland Ohio and how the chain of good deeds led up to all the incredible things that happened to him in the past few weeks. They were all so seemingly random and magical, and had one of them not happened the way they did it wouldn’t have led to the next piece. He used the analogy of the Tetris Attack chain combos. You can’t have the last one without all the previous ones. And that’s also what makes the last one so impressive and powerful, is that everything had to be in place perfectly to lead up to that moment.

The real essence of excel it forward isn’t about measuring, he argued. And I agree, nobody cares about measuring good deeds (except for data nerds like me). If anything they feel inauthentic if they are doing it to get measured (and then praised later).

Instead, the focus must be on REMEMBERING the good deeds. Uncovering the stories behind the deeds, and seeing what led up to each one. Seeing how far the chain can go. The other thing he mentioned was the mindset and message is something like “look for good deeds and remain open to them throughout your day, and magical things will happen to you.”

If anything it’s very spiritual and all about the law of attraction and karma. It can’t be forced though, which is precisely what I was doing, and why I was having such a hard time with it lately. I knew it happened for a reason. Even the Hershey kisses idea wasn’t working. They were like “so what.”

Now the pressure is off, I can write about the entire process and evolution of the idea, and the real fun can begin.”

1 Second Everyday

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, how much is a video worth? How about 1 second of video every day for the rest of your life?

Believe it or not, that is exactly what I signed myself up for, as of Jan 14th, 2013. And since I’ve always been a fan of showing, not telling, here is a reel of the first 7 months of my journey.

But first, grab some popcorn and make yourself comfortable.

Pretty cool right?

The app is called 1SE, which stands for 1 Second Everyday. On Jan 14th I met my friend Sid Efromovich, who told me about it. It wasn’t a hard sell for me, seeing as how I started the very same day.

When I describe to people what it’s like for me to watch my reels, I say “it’s like having my life flash before my eyes…only I’m not dying.”

Granted it’s not my entire life, but still. I get to re-live my life in a way that wouldn’t have been possible back in the day, which was a Wednesday by the way (thanks Dane Cook for that little fun fact).

And I know, I’ve done the whole journal thing (in the form of my CANI log), but this is completely different. In just 1 second I am instantly transported back to that moment of my life. Where I was, who I was with, what i was doing, and how I was feeling. It’s nothing short of extraordinary.

Incidentally, this reminds me of the same guidelines as any good improv show. The first thing to do in a scene is establish who you are, where you are, and what you are doing.

Did I mention that I am currently enrolled in Improv 101 at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, and that my graduation show will be on Monday, August 26th at 6:30 pm at the UCB east theater?

Oh? I didn’t? Well now you know 🙂

But I digress…

What I noticed in the first couple days of recording videos, is that I had too many good moments to choose from. It felt like a waste to only use 1 second. Luckily, there’s an option to create an entirely separate “timeline.” I call it my B-Roll. That way, all the major moments are captured in my A-Roll, but for everything else that is still worth remembering, I have a B-Roll. The only challenge is that every day I must take at least 2 videos.

So how did it go down…?

At first I tried to plan out in advance when to take the videos. There’s even a built-in reminder system within the 1SE App to help you with this. Sometimes I would not check my phone at the right time though, and then I would have to take less exciting videos of my ride home or something. After all, I can’t miss a day and break the chain.

What ended up working best was going about my day, and finding moments that were interesting, unique, or beautiful, and take videos of those. Even if I wasn’t sure they were the best moments, my thinking was “at least I’ll have something at the end of the day to fall back on.” Then, if I had better moments later in the day, I could always delete the previous ones. No harm, no fowl.

It didn’t take long for it to become a habit and always think “what are my 1 seconds going to be today?”

It got a little challenging when all I would do is stay in and work at my home office, or when I would just go and teach my classes and take the same route to get there. The trick was to find a slightly different angle or aspect of the experience that I hadn’t captured before. You’d be surprised how many different ways you can record the same walk down a street.

One last word of caution…

Don’t forget to back up your phone at least once a week. The last thing you want is to create priceless memories and then have them taken away by some computer failure. Not cool.

Got a 1SE reel you want to show off? Post it in the comments for the world to see. That’s right, the world is reading this post. I said it.

P.S. For a different angle on the same 7 months, here’s my B Roll:

An Unbalanced Life is Not Worth Living

Alright kids, it’s time to get personal.

Let’s rewind 2.5 years. I just ended a serious relationship, and being the mature adults that we were, we both decided to pursue our own careers.

In actuality, it couldn’t have gone better. No resentment, guilt, or even any childish name-calling. Completely respectful, and very healthy for both of us. In fact, it went so well that I got completely absorbed in my work with very little emotional distraction from the whole experience.

So there I was, working pretty much non-stop, single, and loving it. I kept telling myself that I didn’t want to date anyone and that my career was the most important thing in my life. And truthfully, for a while it was.

I eventually came to realize however that I was just using that as an excuse. I didn’t want to have to go out and date again. Because, you know, that would take a lot of time and effort.

I finally admitted to myself that I was feeling lonely and that my life was out of balance. *Sigh*

Not so long after this realization I stumbled upon a class by Scott Britton, where he mentioned his 6 Box Method to increase productivity. Loosely paraphrased, it calls for you to take the 6 most important areas of your life, and break down individual tasks to accomplish within each of those areas.

What I liked about it was that it was very proactive, and inherent in its design was an easy way to maintain a balance. After all, if a box was left blank it was very easy to notice. Kind of like your notebook saying “Um, you missed a spot.”

I also saw a talk about gamification as a tool for achieving more, which I found quite helpful. There, Jon Guerrera mentioned the software Goalscape which uses a pie structure for goals. The beauty of that setup is that you can’t make everything a priority. There are only 360 degrees in a circle (last I checked), and when you add more of one thing, you inevitably have to give up part of something else. It forces you to really examine everything very closely.

I decided to create my own daily habit… with a slight twist

The first step for me was to determine which 6 areas of my life were most important.

I used Scott’s example as a starting point, and then I also came across a blog post by Erica Douglass of Erica.Biz. There she writes about the Perfect Day Exercise in a post called Finding Your Path Towards Your Perfect day. It helped me figure out which areas were really important to me.

My first version looked a little something like this:

  1. Money
  2. Exercise
  3. Dating
  4. Friends (social)
  5. Learning
  6. Other

Once again, I used Outliner to record my daily entries. Cuz really, when you think about it, everything is outlinable.

I wrote down individual achievements I wanted to make for the next day in each area. I thought of it like an action plan. It looked like this:

  • Money
    • Improve Shir Dating Survey
    • Work on RentFreeNYC prototype
    • Record & post VLOOKUP approximate match video tutorial
  • Exercise
    • Take a walk in the neighborhood
    • Or practice some swing / salsa in my room
  • Dating
    • Watch body language video
    • Stop people on the street to ask for the time
  • Friends/Family
    • Enjoy thanksgiving with my parents and younger brother
  • Learning
    • How to record and post Excel tutorials using Camtasia 2
  • Other
    • Set mom up with
    • Open a free checking account for mom with Charles Schwab

I kept that up for about a week, and then realized that I couldn’t always predict or plan what I was going to accomplish in each area a day in advance. How am I supposed to know if a friend will be free for coffee, or if I’ll decide to start listening to an audiobook all of a sudden? Exactly.

So I switched gears

By the way, I can’t overemphasize how important it is to embrace these kinds of adjustments. They’re going to happen no matter what, so you may as well come to expect them, and handle them with grace.

You know, roll with the punches. That sort of thing.

Alright, so the very next night I started writing about things that happened earlier during the day. No more planning things in advance that I couldn’t even predict. And I thought to myself “Self, why not give each of these areas a rating or a score?” Otherwise the only quantifiable component would be the total count of how many things I did in each area. And just having a tally/count like that doesn’t really tell the whole story, ya know?

Since by this point I had already started rating my sleep quality with a 1-5 scale, why not use the same scale for the quality of the day?

To give you a sense, 1 means absolutely nothing accomplished, and I would have been better off laying on a velvet sofa, popping Doritos until my skin turned orange. On the other hand, scoring a 5 means knocking my own socks off with how much I accomplished in that particular area. Impressive, I know.

At this point I also tweaked around the 6 areas. This is how they have stayed since then. And yes, they are sorted in order of priority.

  1. Money/Career
  2. Exercise/Health
  3. Dating/Romance
  4. Social: Friends/Family
  5. Personal Growth
  6. Helping/Volunteering

It’s been going really well so far, and even though I haven’t analyzed anything in Excel yet…

I have noticed a couple things.

When I felt like I had a crappy day, I could identify exactly why that was. Almost always it would be the direct result of only accomplishing a little bit in each area, scoring mainly 2’s and maybe a 3.On the other hand, when I had a terrific day, it was when I accomplished great things in 3 or 4 different areas.

What usually happened though, is I’d do really well in one area (most likely Money/Career), and then the other areas would tend to get lower scores. On the other hand, when I scored high on Money/Career, also exercised, and spent time with friends, while learning something new, and helping out some strangers…now that would be an amazing day!

Analyze This…

As for the analysis piece, I tried to dump the OPML (Outliner Processor Markup Language) file from Outliner into Excel, and made some progress, but then didn’t ever finish. When I have something there I’ll be sure to share it with everyone. I’ll also provide more specifics on how I set mine up. It’s already looking fairly involved.

In the meantime, I’m curious, which 6 areas are most important in your life?

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. I will say however, that it does provide a great level of perspective and focus. For me it was the difference between being swept away in the current of life, or grabbing hold of the oars and steering myself in the direction I wanted to go in.

Or something like that.

Sleeping with Fitbit (Sexual Jokes Not Included)

Ah, sleep tracking. How I wanted to master you long ago.

We spend 1/3 of our lives unconscious, and yet most of us don’t think much of it. Except when people brag about how little sleep they got and how they are still functioning. Hurray for you? Or in the immortal words of comedic genius Chris Farley: “la, dee-frickin’ da!

So I first tried the Zeo sleep coach and had a rather disappointing experience. Also, they are apparently out of business as of March 2013. In any event, I quickly made the switch to tracking my sleep with my Fitbit.

The problem I had with Zeo is that it was too tight around my head, and worst of all, left very noticeable marks on my forehead. Perhaps it’s due to my light complexion. On the bright side, I liked how detailed and (presumably) accurate the data was with the Zeo. After all, measuring brain waves sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it?

Enter the less invasive Fitbit sleep tracker

Instead of measuring brain waves, it measures your movement or “restlessness” during the night. Since it’s snuggly tucked away on a band around your arm, it’s significantly more comfortable than a tight headband. And it’s far less likely to move around in your sleep (which is why the headband had to be so tight in the first place. Grrr).

All it takes is remembering to press and hold the main button (and by main button, I mean the only button) to start the timer before going to sleep. In the morning, you wake up and press the button again to stop the timer. I must admit, I’ve forgotten to start it a few times.


Also, remember the Lumen Trails app I told you about (formerly Daily Tracker)?

Of course you do.

Just in case I forget to start the sleep timer, I have a backup system in Lumen Trails. It’s a little clunkier, but when I finally get around to analyzing my data (it’s on my to-do list! I swear!), I’ll be able to fill in the missing days of my Fitbit data, with my data from Lumen Trails. At which point, the full picture of my sleep shall be painted! Step aside Picasso, there’s a new kid in town!

So how has this helped me?

Still no actual analysis, but I did notice one thing in particular. Usually I need about 7 hours of sleep to not feel groggy all day, and still get tired at the right time at night to keep a regular sleep schedule.

However, when I exercise for 1 hour the night before, I need an extra hour of sleep in order to achieve the same feeling of restfulness. And believe me, I’ve tried many times to just get the same 7 hours but waking up after 7 hours is like pulling wisdom teeth out with no anesthesia. Yikes.

Speaking of restfulness (not to be confused with restlessness), how do I measure that?

By using the Lumen Trails app. I give a rating between 1-5 of how good I feel the next morning. 1 is the worst night’s sleep ever (or way too little sleep). 5 is sleeping like a baby. You know, snoring, drool, outrageous dreams… the works.

I used to use decimal ratings, but then I had a chat with Mike Tyrrell of Wine Zeus who helped me realize that if I’m using decimals my rating system probably isn’t designed correctly. Thanks Mike!

Random Plug

Don’t forget to check out Scott Britton’s Sleep Hacking course. I’ve only just taken part of it but so far I’m liking it a lot. Creates a nice framework and gives specific advice on how to improve the major areas of your life that affect your sleep quality. Once again, Scott makes it easy to spend very little time, and get major results. And for that, I give him map props yo.

How about you? How many hours do you need each night to feel well rested? How have you managed to improve your sleep?