Derek Tillotson

My Key Practices

Sometimes I feel like an underachiever. I aced high school. Then I decided to go to college (something I wouldn't recommend to 90% of people), where I realized I didn't need to try all that hard to get good grades. Then, when I got my first full-time job out of school, I applied that same mindset to my career, and the results were...not good.

I used to spend a lot of time looking back on those experiences, and while I don't do that much anymore, I've started to appreciate what I have accomplished, rather than what I have not.

I let my self-disappointment control me for a long time. I worked in a job that didn't challenge me in a place that didn't seem to want to do anything with me. And without work giving me fulfillment, I didn't seem to have any idea what to do.

So I made my own.

I started developing habits that made me feel good. I started making mental notes of what worked and what didn't. And although I slipped up from time to time, I found myself remembering the habits that mattered most to me. Over time, they've turned into habits I frequently bounce back to:

1) Read a lot. When I'm at my happiest and most productive, I tend to be reading from 2 to 4 books at a time. I usually try to find books to represent different themes, such as: Fiction (which helps make me a better writer), biography/memoir (which give me insight into other people), self-help and spiritual texts (which typically just make me feel good), and things that can give me practical usage (skills I can learn or topics I want to learn about).

2) Write a lot. For a long time, I was committed to the idea of "I need to write every day AND publish something every day." Nowadays, I'm less invested in that. Still, I make it an effort to write something daily (even if I don't share it), but if I struggle to come up with anything, I'll simply meditate a little bit longer.

3) Be physically well. Eat well, sleep well, exercise. There's a lot to be said for being physically healthy. As someone who used to be obese, then just overweight, then obese again, I speak from experience when I say that there is a huge benefit in working out, eating correctly, and getting enough sleep.

4) Be grateful. Since I started meditating a few months ago, I've begun to implement gratitude into some of my meditation and that's made it easier to feel gratitude in other parts of life. When you focus on things you're grateful for, it becomes easier to break attachment to the things and the people that provide no value. A great mental exercise is to find things that bother you and look for ways to turn that into gratitude (I hate when the bus runs late, but I'm grateful to live in a city that doesn't require me to get a driver's license).

5) Minimize "junk food" activities. Junk food activities could be a lot of things and they will likely differ from person to person, but they're activities that add no real value to your happiness and life and take away from things that are. The difference between junk food activities and junk food is that the activities often disguise themselves as things you think add value. Things like playing video games or watching TV/movies are fine in moderation (or the rare situation where you use them professionally), but for most people (myself included), there's little benefit and plenty of downside to overindulgence.

6) Write down ten ideas a day. The habit I most proudly stole from entrepreneur/writer James Altucher. He explains the benefits better than I ever could, but when I get into the habit of writing ideas, things happen. I start to get better ideas. I start to think more critically. And I become more likely to put myself out there.

7) Do puzzles. Puzzles are fun and are a great way to challenge your mind without much of a commitment. Lately, I've been playing a few nonograms a day.

8) Laugh. Adults don't laugh enough, and I've noticed that the more I laugh, the happier I feel throughout the day. I always keep some stand-up specials ready to go on Netflix.

9) Connect with others. Not like a LinkedIn or other social media connection, but a genuine personal one. Start conversations with friends and family, or chat with people you meet throughout the day. It builds a bridge to other people and improves interpersonal skills.

10) Spend time in solitude. Earlier this pandemic, I read Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism and took it to heart. It got me to end my social media usage and made me take a better look at my relationships with my phone, video games, and other junk food activities. One of the big things Newport talks about is solitude. It's not necessarily the state of being alone, but it's the state of being without outside input. Sitting alone in a cabin in the woods listening to a podcast isn't solitude. Sitting on a crowded bus, writing your thoughts in a journal is. And through meditation, I've come to appreciate one of the great benefits of solitude: A better friendship with myself.

11) Avoid multitasking. It's easy to pop in your headphones while taking a walk. Or to turn on your TV while cooking. Or even check your emails between rounds of a video game. Yet combining activities--even things as tiny as walking and listening to music--take away from the focus we could be placing on singular activities. The human brain is a powerful CPU, but as powerful as it is, it's not great at doing two things at once. Especially if you want them done at the highest level possible.

12) Find mentors. On one hand, I can't say I've ever had a mentor. At least not in a traditional sense, but I can definitely look at a variety of people whom I could consider mentors in different ways. People who have given me life advice, career tips, or other valuable information. They could be people I've met in person, have only communicated with digitally, or have no idea I exist. I once had someone tell me that I shout straight-up ask ask others to be my mentor. I've always found that odd--it seems so insincere and puts the recipient in an awkward position! But the idea of mentorship is a valuable one, even if it's a non-traditional route. I don't force mentorships or seek them out, but I try to treat many people as a mentor, as I can learn something useful from most.

Whenever I find myself emotionally slipping, I grasp onto the nearest of those twelve practices. They've each given me a boost in their own ways and I'm grateful for all of them. There may be other things I add to that list in the future and there may be things that go away, but thing I've learned is that I'm at my best when I have things that help challenge me and better myself, even if I need to do it myself.

Written August 20, 2020

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