Category Archives: Habits

The ABC of Rituals (My Morning and Evening Check List)

By the way, before I continue any farther, I want to thank my sister, Jennifer Wheeler, for making this amazing cover photo. :)

My dad is an airline pilot. Several times a week, he enters a vehicle capable of flying hundreds of miles, several tens of thousands of feet above the ground, over dense metropolitan areas, carrying dozens of very important of people.

What keeps my dad and so many other pilots like him able to keep from making mistakes? What keeps pilots from forgetting things? Checklists and routines.

AsianEfficiency wrote an article on rituals. Some checklists and routines are so important to how we function, that they reach the “ritual” level of importance, something that you do every day at the same time every day, in more or less the same way.

Why is this important? Because if you have a checklist that takes you “automagically” from when your alarm goes off until when you walk out the door of your dorm room/apartment/house, and that checklist does everything you need to get prepared for a successful day, then because you do this ritual every day you will automagically start every day prepared to be successful.

I use a ritual to convert myself from horizontal and asleep to being focused as I walk out my door of my dorm room every morning. I also have a ritual that brings me from a certain time of day (variable because I work evenings some days, and I’m free others), to being sound asleep every evening. These checklists cover everything from reviewing goals, to prioritizing tasks, to devotions, and make sure that the big things that are important to me in life are not going uncared for.

That’s a short explanation. If you want more reasons why this is a really good reason for you, there are other blogs online that you can get to with a google search. In this post, I mostly wanted to share my morning rituals. I focused on making them alphabetical so they were easy to remember, and fun to execute. So with further ado:

Morning ritual

  • Alarm goes off – This is the trigger that starts my morning ritual. As soon as this happens, I instinctively roll out of bed, turn off my alarm and drink a …
  • Bottle of water – This sits next to my phone. I chug it. Your body, which is mostly water has not gotten any of this precious resource all night, and the first step you can do towards reaping the benefits of being well hydrated is to actually drink water.
  • Cold shower – This shocks my body into gear, and forces me to do something uncomfortable first thing in the morning. If you can’t stand to do something uncomfortable for even 5 minutes, how do you expect to achieve your most daunting goals?
  • Dress for success – This is wrapped up with brushing teeth, flossing, and making myself smell nice. The longer I sit in pajamas in the morning, the more tempted I am to adopt the “today is a pajama sort of day” mentality. In general, the better dressed up I am, the better I perform, and I like to do a good job. Taking care of body image is an important part to starting out my days.
  • Establish room in order – A clean living environment is really awesome. I tried cleaning my room in the evenings before going to bed, but what ends up happening is that I sleep in my bed which requires it to be made again, and I also have a tendency to leave clothes on the floor. With most of my getting ready done at this point, I can clean my room and have everything squared away, so that any time I come back to my room throughout the day, everything is spic and span and I am motivated to get work done.
  • Feed on the word – Equipped now to do anything I want, I now spend time in Scripture. More on this in a future post.
  • Give thanks – After reading, I write down what I’m thankful for in a prayer journal. Writing helps me be focused, and I don’t drift off or fall asleep, or get distracted with what’s happening today.
  • Hone in on goals – I’m going to get a whiteboard soon, that I’m going to put yearly, quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily goals on, and this will be a place I keep going back to to get focused. Currently I do this in Evernote, and that gives me a bit of flexibility. I also check my calendar to make sure I don’t forget any appointments. After this step is done, my mind is free and I know exactly what is due today, and what is important.
  • Invite Jesus to help me with my goals – I do my best to align my goals with what I feel God is guiding me to do with my life, and I know that on my own, I cannot fully achieve these goals, nor should I even try to. A friend of mine summed this up in one of his favorite quotes from a book called Testimonies to Southern Africa:

“I see the work of God is so sacred, that I dare not touch it without the presence of Jesus by my side. All might, all power and all glory Ibelong to Him who loved us and gave Himself for us.”

  • Just do it – This is the last step of my morning ritual, which is actually the first step I want the rest of the world to see. It’s the part where I step out of my dorm room, and start doing the most important task of the day. By getting this done, I know that if I don’t finish anything else all day, that I will have still made progress toward my goals.

In between my morning ritual and my evening ritual, I have an intermediate step called

  • Kick butt all day – I’m not sure if I’ll keep this one here, but right now it serves as a great catch-all for the things that happen between my most important task, and my evening ritual.

My evening ritual is as follows.

  • Learn from a book – I’ve lately been reading more, and this is only because I try to get a little reading in every night, enough to read through one book per month.
  • Make notes from reading – I want to capture the highlights from what I just read, usually in Evernote. It helps me solidify what I learned, and also quickly reference it later if I want to refer to it.
  • Note daily progress in Evernote – This is where my journaling happens. I answer the same few questions every day, and they help me reflect on how I did on my goals, what I learned, and how I can be more focused, and how I can grow closer to Jesus. These are the material that I reference when I’m doing my weekly reviews, which are referenced for monthly reviews, which are referenced for quarterly reviews, etc…
  • Organize what tomorrow will look like – Comparing my long term goals with what I have time with tomorrow, I make a specific action plan for what the next 24 hours will look like. Which projects will I forward, and what resources will I use, who will I email, what is my most important task, etc…. The more decisions I can make in this step, the better I can avoid things like decision fatigue the next day.
  • Prepare for bed – This involves brushing teeth, changing lighting, changing clothes, all the necessary things for getting ready physically to go vertical for 7 hours.
  • Quiet time in prayer – Before actually falling asleep, I spend a few minutes reviewing how the day went with God. I ask forgiveness for times that I fell short, and pray for people on my prayer list.
  • Refill water bottle – I intentionally put a step between prayer and sleep so that I wouldn’t be tempted to fall asleep while praying. I walk over to the sink, refill my water bottle, and put it by my phone. I set an alarm for about 7 hours and 45 minutes in the future, and go to
  • Sleep

So that’s my morning and evening rituals. It’s what I do to make sure life is progressing the way I want it to do, and everything that needs to be taken care of, gets taken care of. The reviews are really important to me to make sure that I continue to be focused on getting what’s important done, and unless I put that in a check list, the reviews, as well as other things, often will get overlooked.

Let me know what you think. This is the routine that I’m using now, but I’m sure as time changes, so will the routine.

The 12 days of Cell-free-mas

No cell phone is perfect, but when my Samsung phone stopped charging because the charging port got messed up, I was a bit disappointed. My phone was already showing the signs of it’s nearing demise, and I was hoping it would last until April when I could get a cheap(er) upgrade to a new phone.

I tried using different chargers with my phone, but one by one my phone destroyed the chargers so that they wouldn’t power any other devices. My mom experienced a similar problem in the fall, and her solution was to charge cell phone batteries, carry around a few spares wherever she went, and constantly replace the batteries when her phone ran low on juice. But that didn’t sound appealing to me, so I tried an alternative.

Not using my phone.

People wonder what it was like before people had cell phones. Since February 1, I have had a pleasant rewind into what my life was like when I was 16. Boy what a difference it made.

My normal self-check routine is to pat down my pockets and feel for three things: phone, wallet, keys. I often even say it out loud before leaving my room, car, workplace, friend’s house, etc… The list will change depending on where I am (passport gets added to the self-check list at airports, and so on). These last dozen days I’ve been readjusting to a self-check routine that consists of two-items, and it feels quite a bit more freeing.

I struggle to disengage from my day. From when I wake up until I go to bed, I’m constantly wanting to check emails, send messages to people, or even read different articles around the web. I recognize that the time I spend waiting here and there represents about 2% of my day, but I still feel horridly unproductive if I’m not doing anything during that time.

I am coming to realize that we as humans were not created to be constantly plugged in. Even though there are some environments that make us feel like we need to be constantly on call 24/7, this lifestyle is taxing, and never allows us to feel that we can truly unwind. In between classes, or during breaks, I am finding myself re-learning how to sit in a seat and just be content to wait without having to have a screen in front of me that is fooling me into feeling productive. It’s during these times that I feel like I can reflect on how my day is going, and re-align myself to those things that are important, like character development I talk with Jesus about every morning in my devotions.

I still make phone calls, but they are through my laptop or on a friends’ phone. My day becomes a bit more structured because if I tell people that I’m going to be there at a certain time, I can’t let them know last minute that I won’t be there. I have to be more responsible and even (heaven forbid) arrive places early, but nobody has told me that they mind much.

I could say a lot more, but I think you get the picture. I will likely upgrade to that new phone in April, but hopefully I can create positive habits of unplugging in the next few months that will persist even when I have the temptation of staying tuned in 24/7.

Why I won’t be playing video games on my phone/tablet/computer in 2015

This Christmas break, I found myself putting a lot of time into Minecraft and Clash of Clans. I had no school, and had finished some personal projects, so I had some time to burn and a nice iPad mini and MacBook Air.

From my experience time tracking in the past, I had an intuitive feel that gaming was taking up huge amounts of time, and that the hours per day that I was spending on games could be much better spent working on this blog for example.

I’ve made New Years resolutions before, and am well aware of the backsliding that is associated with the term. According to this site, only 8% of us keep our resolutions, and only 46% make it to 6 months. But I believe a big part of the reason we don’t make it is because we don’t understand the neurochemistry behind it.

Part of the goal of this blog, Making Gears Turn, is to better understand the mechanics that power the human experience. To keep a New Year’s Resolution, you need to understand the neurochemistry behind motivation, and video games have a fair bit to do with that.

A researcher at UConn discovered that dopamine, a chemical often associated with pleasure and our brain’s reward system, is not strictly about pleasure. He placed a pile of food near rat subjects, and another pile twice as large behind a small fence, and saw what happened to different rats. Rats with low dopamine lacked motivation to overcome their obstacle, and went for the small pile that was most accessible. Rats with more dopamine were able to make it over the fence and to the food. It turns out that dopamine has more to do with motivation, and increased motivation often gives us the willpower to achieve goals that give us pleasure.

Dopamine doesn’t cause pleasure in our brain, but it is the gatekeeper. Endorphins on the other hand are the chemicals released when we run, eat food, or play video games. So when someone particularly enjoys an activity, the brain (particularly the hippocampus and the amygdala) record the environmental cues associated with that activity, and the next time those cues are seen, then we get excited and motivated.

The problem with video games is that they are at a place where normally we are supposed to be productive. In the example of a mobile device or laptop, we are supposed to be writing a paper, or sending an important text, yet dopamine triggered by the sight of our devices and the tactile feel of the keyboard instinctively prompts us to log onto Facebook.com or open up our favorite game. This hijacks productivity.

So in order to stay on top of things like exercise, clearing todo lists, and fulfilling personal goals (like writing on this blog), the video games get to go this New Years. Completely off the phone. So when I feel compelled to log on, the game simply isn’t installed (and my hippocampus hasn’t yet associated the app store with endorphins yet :D). Less time gaming leaves more mental energy and more time for other things that really matter.

Oh, and for the record, playing a board game is something that matters. :)

The Secret to Getting to Bed on Time

When is the last time that you have been in a power outage without any internet? What did you do?

The power frequently cuts out here in Lebanon, often for only a short period of time, and UPS’s (uninterrupted power supplies) do a great job of making sure that important electronics continue to do their jobs. Every once in a while, all electricity dies, and the UPS’s run out of battery. Without internet, I often find myself at a loss.

It’s probably a good thing, because I almost always end up grabbing a book and sitting underneath an emergency exit sign and start reading instead. By the time 8:00 PM rolls around, I am ready for bed.

This is an interesting contrast to my normal days when I am busy responding to emails, working on coding projects, and reading blogs, and researching things on the web. Fill in the blank here with your internet timesink (Facebook?). The bottom line is that internet is what keeps a lot of us up at super late hours of the night.

sleep is the enemyCreative Commons License hobvias sudoneighm

I did a little experiment, and it turned out to be surpassingly successful. Using Tasker (which I promise I will write about soon), I set up a profile that disables wifi (or alternatively, enables airplane mode) from 21:00 to 05:00 every single day. The effects are remarkable, even a month into the habit.

At first, I would find myself writing an email, only for little error messages about not saving drafts to pop up. I might be browsing a website, when all of a sudden none of the links are loading, or for some reason, no more facebook posts are loading. In every situation, I remembered: “Oh! that’s right, I should be going to bed, so I can wake up at 5:00.”

More recently, it has turned into this frantic rush at 20:30 to try to finish up all of my emails, Dropbox syncs, and other Internet activity before 21:00 rolls around.

The automatic return of WiFi at 05:00 is more persuasive than any alarm clock in getting me out of bed. When I sleep, I leave my phone on the other side of the room charging, so when I start getting tons of notifications at 05:00, even if I wanted to keep sleeping, the overwhelming curiosity gets to me. Additionally, I don’t have to worry about being disturbed while I am asleep by notifications and buzzing. :)

If you’re considering trying this out yourself, I would highly recommend finding a way to make this an automatic process, and having the same time frame every night, weekdays and weekends. It doesn’t mean that you absolutely have to be in bed by a predetermined time, but for sure it does at least two things:

  • Helps your mind disengage and prepare for a better night’s rest regardless of whether you like it or not.
  • Communicates to the world in a way that’s not a jerk that you need to go now. (It’s easier to explain your WiFi will automatically turn off in 5 minutes than to say that you’re going to turn it off yourself. Your friends also respect you a bit more :p).

Making a Tasker Profile to turn off all networks from 21:00 to 05:00 has been the single best thing I have done to improve my sleep habits in my entire life. What are some things that you have done to do the same?