On the Usefulness of Fiction

We've talked before about the non-fiction books that have shaped my worldview, but today I want to talk to you about fiction. A lot of my high performing, hard charging friends find it challenging to “waste” time with fiction, but you’re doing yourself a huge disservice if you agree with them. You need fiction in your life. Since I’m wrapping up a vacation where I’ve been able to read some great books, I want to share a few reasons why I think so.

My Operating Manuals for Life

If you accept that you have your own User Interface, you’re going to need some instructions on how to set it up and maintain it. As you know, my go to source for just about everything is books, and I have found those on the list below especially useful for hacking together my own mental operating system. They currently sit right on my desk where I can see them every day and think about what they mean to me.

A Quick Start Guide for Your Brain’s User Interface

Note: This post might get your hackles up a bit. You might find it especially surprising in a space dedicated to agency and self improvement - but stick with me and you might learn something extremely useful.

We overestimate our control over what we think, how we feel, and even what we do. We assume that every moment of every day we are rationally picking and choosing what to do. It turns out this is an extremely inadequate view of how we operate. We actually take most of our actions on autopilot with little or no conscious thought. Even when we are exercising conscious thought, it is shaped and influenced by mysterious factors under the surface and in our environment. This all sounds somewhat depressing until we realize that we have the power to shape these factors and build the systems that drive our behavior. Our brain has a user interface and we can access it if we know where to look.

Analysis is Only the Beginning: An Introduction to Systems Thinking

Let’s talk about systems. We’ve touched on them in several posts, and they provide an incredibly valuable tool for understanding a complex world. When we stop thinking about things as independent objects and start thinking about them as elements in a greater whole of interdependent parts, we recognize that they are systems. Today we’re going to talk about a method of inquiry custom designed for such highly complex entities: Systems Thinking. 

Rethinking Risk with Antifragile

Risk fundamentally shapes some of our most critical decisions, but most of us don’t think very deeply or clearly about it. Nassim Taleb is not like most of us. he has thought long, hard, and with great rigor about risk and randomness, and he presents that thinking most usefully and straightforwardly in Antifragile. That being said, while his writing and storytelling are superb, it’s not exactly light beach reading. Below we’re going to talk about just one of the many useful concepts presented in the book, which is a fundamentally different way to think about and evaluate risk.

The Bathtub Model of Stress - Self Care Part 1

Stress is something that we all probably experience more often that we’d like and near constantly hear about in books, online, and on popular TV shows, but most of us have a pretty nebulous understanding of just what stress really is. So, today I want to introduce a more specific definition of stress than we usually use, talk about a useful model for thinking about it, break that model down its component parts, and then take a look at how that breakdown can help us more effectively manage and use stress in our lives.

“Super” Combinations from Tools of Titans

I’ve talked a lot about Tools of Titans here, but today I want to share my favorite trick for using the book. While every “tool" in the book is useful individually, I believe some of the material is even more useful when synthesized into a coherent whole. Below, I’m going to share the one that’s been on my mind the most recently, with a concrete example of the super tool in action. 

The 70/20/10 Model for Skill Development

If you spend any time around corporate learning and development types, you will likely run into the “70/20/10 Rule”. Today we’re going to talk about what it is and what it isn’t, some important cautions in making use of it, why it can be a useful heuristic, and what each component of the ratio is and how it applies to learning valuable skills. If you’re not familiar, I hope you find it a new and useful tool, and if you are, I hope to shed some new light on the subject.

The Lazy Man's Guide to Exercise

As I’m sure you’re sick of hearing, exercise is the single best thing you can do to make every other area of your life better and easier. We all know this, but damn if getting started doesn't suck. Especially if you didn’t take to exercise early in life, it’s hard to motivate yourself to endure such unpleasantness. You end up with the same vague feeling of guilt you feel when you realize you haven’t flossed since right after your last dentist appointment. Fortunately, there are reliable ways to make it easier to get started and to practice in a way that sticks, and I’m going to share some of those techniques today - from one lazy bum to another.

Float On - My First Experience with a Flotation Tank

Today I want to talk about something a little different - my first experience with a float tank session. Also known as flotation tanks or sensory deprivation tanks, I first heard about them via Tim Ferriss, and he discusses them in his latest book Tools of Titans, but apparently Joe Rogan is also a huge proponent of them, and has some great stuff to say about using them in a regular practice. I’m going to go through some of the benefits attributed to float sessions, talk about my own experience, where things fell a touch short, and things I plan on doing differently next time. 

Get Outta My Head and Into My. . .

To paraphrase Billy Ocean a bit, today’s post is all about getting material out of your head and into your task capture system (not as catchy, I know). Writing down what you need to do is the most fundamental building block in a comprehensive productivity framework. It’s a seemingly simple tool, but it really is the 80/20 tool in the framework. Simply keeping everything you need to do in one place that you check regularly will do more for your productivity and peace of mind than any other single behavior change. So let’s take a few minutes to step through why your head is a garbage place to store tasks, the importance of making your system comprehensive, how to trust that system, and finally, what are some of the tools you can choose from to make sure you find one that fits your needs and your life. 

Planning is Indispensable

Planning is something that I resisted for a long time. I thought it would be stifling and a pain in the ass, with no real benefit. Oh how wrong I was. Now that I have made planning a major part of how I work, I find myself far less stressed, I rarely feel overwhelmed, and I have made significant progress on personal and professional goals.  In addition to simply thinking about what to do ahead of time, I have found a powerful “force multiplier” in the form of prioritizing work with a method called “Three to Thrive.” Many of us avoid getting started with planning and prioritization because it feels a bit intimidating, but I’m going to share a couple of simple, lightweight ways to introduce them into your life pain free, so that you too can enjoy the clarity and flexibility they bring.

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Jeff's Recommended Self-Improvement Reading

Below is an annotated list of some of my favorite books related to self-improvement and the general pursuit of excellence. It’s a pretty long list, so feel free to skip around to the areas that most grab your interest and come back to revisit when you’re looking for something new. It’s by no means comprehensive, and I’ve always got a whole stack of books waiting to be read, so expect updates and additions down the road. The books below are listed alphabetically by author’s last name within each category.

No time for even skipping around to your favorite categories? Check out my top three.

Designing Your Own Productivity Framework

There is an unimaginably huge amount of material out there on productivity, self-improvement, and achievement. Books, blogs, podcasts, online courses: the works. Some of it is amazing, some of it is crap, but most of it is specific and narrowly focused - which is awesome when you are tackling a particular challenge that it addresses. The material that goes broader tends to be presented as a total, self-contained package. The trouble with the former is that you need a way to organize your ever-widening array of tools, and the problem with the latter is that the only person any productivity system works perfectly for is the one who invented it. 

Jeff Russell
Welcome and Hello

Welcome to my blog! I use this space to share the very best self-improvement material I come across and my own thoughts and insights based on my experiences coaching highly driven top performers. I believe we’d all be better off if more people adopted the kinds of habits, practices, and ways of thought that are featured here - happier, more accomplished, and tackling bigger and harder problems

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