Monday, December 15, 2014

5 things to do during winter break

Exams are over!! Congratulations!! You did it!!!!

Enjoy this feeling. Don't think about school for the next week or two. RELAX.

I miss that feeling of being DONE. I feel it a little bit as a teacher this semester, actually. That feeling of submitting grades. Being done. It feels good.

Take some time to enjoy it. 


And then, when you feel rested, start priming again for next semester. How you do this is up to you, but here are some things I used to (and still) do during my winter breaks:

1. Buy a new journal for the year and start writing your thoughts about how the past year went and what you want to accomplish next year. 

2. Make a collage of pictures and quotes that inspire you for next year and hang it up in your room or office. 

3. Write down some goals or intentions for the next year. Keep them small, specific, little things you can control. Especially new habits you'd like to adopt - what is one thing you can do every day that would help you reach one of your biggest goals? 

4. Choose a good book and make it a goal to finish it before the next semester. The book should be something that can help you improve or get better at something you're trying to achieve. If you have a friend or a group of friends with the same interests or goals, start a mini book club or just read together and chat about it periodically.


5. Do something artistic. Paint, draw, write, take pictures, dance, sing, build, play an instrument, act, etc. You don't need to be good at it. Just create something original. I don't have any science behind this for you, but it's something I do every year and it always rejuvenates me for the next year and makes me feel like I can do anything. For some reason, I don't get discouraged at my terrible water colors or colored-pencil drawings. They aren't good - trust me. I know that. But it doesn't bother me. I still find joy in creating something just from my own brain. It's empowering somehow. Try it. Trust me. 

Due to winter break I won't be posting as frequently until January so if I don't see you until then, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!! :) 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

15 things I do that keep procrastination away

A student recently asked me the following:

I absolutely adore your blog, and your advice for college success is incredibly helpful. I get inspired in a new way every time I visit your blog. Since you're the master non-procrastinator, and I'm a huge procrastinator, I was wondering if you could explain your work habits involving school. Just general things like how much homework/studying you did a day, the way you scheduled/prioritized work, school work habits...

You touch a lot on how to stop procrastinating, but I find myself most inspired when someone who never procrastinates explains their own habits and methods, so I was insanely curious to see how you stay on top of everything, and even get ahead sometimes!

I never thought of sharing some of my personal habits, but since a student has said she would find it helpful, I thought I'd go ahead and share. 

Keep in mind these are the habits that have worked for me over the years, both in school and in work. It doesn't mean they are the only ways. I'm always reading about ways to be more effective, and I've ready plenty of strategies that work for some people but when I tried them they didn't work for me. Try stuff out and keep what works for you.

How do you know if something is working for you? You kind of feel it in your gut, but also, you know it's working when you're getting the results you want without sacrificing your priorities (e.g. you could be a productive workaholic with straight-A's but be stressed, unhealthy, and not have good relationships).

The goal is to use your time strategically to reach your most important goals.

So here we go - let me share with you the habits I've used over the years to get straight A's, get a graduate degree while working full time and writing my first book, and working from home, all while not procrastinating and never turning in an assignment late.

But before I do, I'd like to make a list of things I'm terrible at so you don't hate me for being so good at productivity. I promise there are also a lot of things I'm terrible at and struggle with. Here is a short list:

Things Isa is Terrible At (So You Don't Hate Her For Not Procrastinating)
1. I have a goldfish memory (sorry can repeat your sub order again? I heard you, but I already forgot)
2. I never could get pass level 3 of Donkey Kong
3. My best cooking skills involve a box of macaroni and cheese and cookie dough in little squares
4. Give me an instrument to play and you'll want to take it away immediately
5. I got a B in pottery
6. 4th graders draw better than me
7. I'm not funny in person and can never think of witty things to say or jokes or comebacks. I don't even think of them a day later. I just cant think of them. Ever. FUNNY PEOPLE HOW ARE YOU SO FUNNY?!?! I don't understand. It's awesome. Just be my friend please, that's all I ask.

Ok. So are we good now? You won't hate me, right? I have flaws. I hope some of my productivity habits can help you. And in return, if you'd like to tell me how you're so funny or how to make a clay pot that isn't droopy/sideways I'm all ears. 

My Productivity Habits

1. Read books and blogs on effectiveness
I'm always reading. Like, always. And I've always weirdly loved books on effectiveness (I asked for 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens for Christmas...yeah...I was that kind of teenager). But honestly, that book made a huge difference in my life. Some of my other favorites over the years include: 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The Compound Effect, and How to Win at College. Cal Newport is also always writing about ways to get important stuff done - highly recommend his blog.

2. Do stuff that interests you
While I don't always feel motivated, most of my drive and energy comes from having goals and doing things that deeply interest me. I wanted to go to college because I loved learning. I loved class. I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do, but mostly, I loved the journey, the process. I also always picked classes that sounded really interesting. I do the same in my work life. There's some boring stuff along the way, but when the core is something that fascinates me, it makes the boring stuff so much easier to get through. The thought of procrastinating never even comes into question, because I'm actually excited to do the things I'm doing. I don't want to wait.


3. Technology is my friend
I had a palm pilot in college. Think, a to-do-list app on a smart phone that doesn't have wifi or make phone calls. In high school I just used a notebook and made little squares next to each thing that I would check off. I love checking stuff off. I loved my palm pilot because it allowed me to both check things off and more easily write and rearrange my list each day.

Now I use Asana and LOVE it. Google Calendar is also my best friend. Calendly is my personal assistant.

3. Write stuff down
As you now know, I have a bad memory. So I've always written everything down immediately: ideas, to-do's, due dates, etc. Now I just send myself emails on my phone or put a task I think of in my Asana app.  In school, every due date and assignment would go directly from my professors mouth (or syllabus, or online course schedule) to my task list and Google calendar (with reminders).

4. Library time
When possible, I scheduled my classes with time in between to force myself to stay on campus and have time to join and contribute in a club. 

Once this was a habit, I then scheduled my classes back to back in the middle of the day, and then drive the 30 minutes to campus to arrive by 8am and I would always stay until at least 4pm or 5pm Monday through Thursday. Any time I wasn't in class was spent in the library getting ahead. When everything was done (which happens a lot, the beauty of starting early, I'd use that time to hang out with friends on campus, visit a professor, or spend time doing work for a club). 

5. ABC method
I learned this method in a College Success class my last semester of community college. It's a simple labeling method. "A" tasks are important and urgent. "B" task are important but not urgent. "C" tasks are not as important and not urgent. I have played around with how I decide to define ABC, but I do have an A, B, and C project bin in Asana. I also have a "Today" bin where I pull from A, B, and C to plan my day.

6. Planning time
When I'd sit down at the library (and the same goes for getting to my office or sitting down in my home office) I never jump straight into work. Never. The first thing I do before anything else is read my goals, think about my priorities, and then plan my day. While I don't plan every minute of my day, I start every day with clear intention and purpose, all based on my top priorities and goals. 

7. Make motivation a priority
I don't always feel motivated, but I have learned what motivates me during slumps in energy and focus. Reading is a big one, especially non fiction and memoirs. Also any kind of art - plays, comedy, museums. Or a walk. I make resting, refreshing, and getting inspired a priority. I know it will pay off in the long run when it comes to having creative ideas and having the energy to do the hard stuff. 

8. Rest
I don't work on Sundays or go out. It's a day to rest and recover, and it's essential. On a rare occasion where I have a conference or something I can tell a HUGE difference in my energy and performance the rest of the week. The day of rest is vital. 

9. Write goals and dreams
I have a list of long term goals I read every morning. I used to put timelines on "big dreams" (like, "This is what I want to accomplish in 2013") but then when some of those things didn't happen I'd feel discouraged.

So I have this big running list of big dreams that makes me excited when I read it, but it's not attached to a timeline. 

Then I focus on having short-term goals for each month that I can control (like a goal to read X number of books or write X number of blogs or reach out to X number of people - instead of "make X number of dollars," something, on some level, I can't directly control). 

Focusing goals on what I can control has really helped, but still having big dreams that don't have a timeline I find to be very motivational and help guide my direction as I make decisions. I write them every December, but also adjust along the way. I also have a space to write in cool things that happened that I didn't plan but felt like dreams come true. 

(On the top of the goal sheets I print and read every morning, I also tend to write mission statements or phrases that summarize what I want to contribute in my work - a guiding force. Lately it's been: "help people break cycles of poverty through education.")

10. Project priority list
Whenever I'm considering a new project, I have a list to help me think about my priorities. Some things on that list include, doing something I believe in, working with cool people, having flexibility, etc. I use it anytime I'm thinking of taking a new project or going in a new direction and my gut feeling isn't very clear.

11. Limit things
I've always focused on just a few things and guarded my time. I never joined every club. I preferred to just be president of one and then try to contribute something. I love feeling good about being successful in my school and work life, but I also highly value rest, relaxation, inspiration, and of course, quality time with people I love. 

So when it comes to getting involved, course load, and time spent on work and extracurriculars, I always make sure my priorities are straight. If one of those things is lacking too much, I make an adjustment, even if it means saying no to something. 

It's impossible to "manage" time when you don't have enough of it. Sometimes it's just about eliminating things, which may be obligations or involvements, but it can also mean time wasting things that are bringing much value to your life. 

If success in a certain goal, especially a big one, is really important to you, then you will have to sacrifice some things. There was a commercial in the most recent Olympics that showcased athletes practicing their skills, with voiceovers of different versions of statements like this: "you know that hit TV show, I never saw it." This is an extreme example, but do remember that greatness in anything means focus, and focus means saying no to some things so you can say yes to the most important things (most important to you, that is). 
One of my inspirational pictures in my home office.

12. An inspiring space
My walls are filled with collages (I make one every year, not a vision board, but just things that inspire me for the upcoming year), pictures of countries I hope to visit, handwritten and framed quotes, books I treasure, trinkets from trips (like my name tag from my Harvard interview), a wooden board I broke with my bare hands, a picture of my grandma, etc. 

Both my offices are surrounded with very personal stuff that makes me feel alive, inspired to work. I keep things clean and orderly too, but not obsessively so, just so there's no distracting mess.

13. Morning routine
I've had a morning routine every since I was in 10th grade. It's evolved over the years, but it's always included some version of the following, as it does today: exercise, healthy breakfast, tea, reading something inspirational for at least 10 minutes, writing in a journal, reading my goals, planning my day. 

14. Google reminders
I have to give Google Calendar and its SMS reminders (e.g. it sends reminders to my phone) it's own space here. This is my EVERYTHING when it comes to not missing deadlines and keeping on top of everything, especially now that my life includes travel, meetings, speeches, etc.  Anytime I need to do something I set it in my calendar and set many SMS reminders. Set it and forget it! I love this.

15. Due dates are always the day before
I never plan to do something on the day it's due. Even in Google Calendar, I always mark a due date on the day before it's actually due. I never let myself know the "real" due date. I always plan to turn things in early.

I recently purposely procrastinated packing for a trip because of another priority - spending quality time with people I love. I had an opportunity to spend time with someone instead of packing the day before (something I usually do) and since I wasn't going to see that person for a while, I decided to spend time with them instead of packing early. It was worth it. 

However, the next day was very stressful. I had just enough time for packing. That's the problem with procrastination. You leave just enough time. But we're not always good at knowing exactly how much time we'll need for something. And also - we can't predict what else might happen on that day. Turns out, my car had an issue and I had to take it to the mechanic before driving to the airport. Ack! Packing was done very quickly, I made it, but just barely.

The experience itself, though, was stressful. A stress I'm not used to, because I don't procrastinate especially so I can avoid this feeling. And here's what I realized:

When you procrastinate, your to-list owns you.

When you make a conscious effort to plan and prioritize, you own your schedule and your life. It feels pretty great. If planning makes you feel stressed than perhaps you haven't figured out what you really want, what you're really working for, or you're over-scheduling and planning in a way that makes you feel trapped. It shouldn't feel like you are owned by some schedule or list. It should feel like freedom and excitement and energy and joy. 

That's when you know it's working for you.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

For Love or Money? Thoughts on Choosing a Major.

I recently had a student email me about a dilemma she is having with her major. She is stuck between two choices: engineering or film? 

When she talked about engineering, she only mentioned money. It would make money. This would be good, right? 

When she talked about film, she went on, and on, and on about all the things she found interesting and what she'd want to pursue.

Others in her life have doubts about the reality of this path, though. She's wondering what she should choose.

It's not a new question, but when it's facing you, it can feel brand new. Do you choose a career, or a major for that matter, based on something you love or something that will help you make money?

I lean towards love. But it depends on what you love. 

Do you love money? Do you love your family (whom you might need to support with money)? Do you love yourself? Do you love a subject, a type of work? What do you love the most? What can help you pursue at least a majority of the things you love? What are you willing to give up? What are you not willing to give up? What will inspire you to do your best work?

I can't answer that for you. I know you wouldn't want me to. Only you know you, your life, your interests, your goals, and what really matters to you. 

I do want to give you permission, though, to not be ashamed or afraid of your interests. I think you should pursue them, in whatever capacity you can. It may be a major. It may be a career path. Or it may be something outside of that (when it comes to your job, there are other forces at work - an economy, time, technology, need, etc; it doesn't mean it's not possible to make what you love your job, it just means it is smart to do your research ahead of time and think openly and creatively about how you can make that a part of your life).

I did happen to choose a major because I loved it. I had a vague idea of careers it would prepare me for, but I've always chosen paths and classes based on what I was interested in - and not for just dreamy reasons. I'm actually pretty practical too: I've always realized, at least for me, that I do better and succeed more when I'm doing something I'm interested in. I just work harder. 

It doesn't mean there aren't boring things along the way. But because I know they're on the way to something I am interested in, it makes it easier to get through. 

I'm also incredibly biased here because last night I saw Dead Poets Society for the first time. In the movie, a tragedy occurs after a student's father bans him from pursuing his interest in acting. The father is so intent on his son having opportunities he didn't have, but for him that meant his son needed to go to Harvard and be a doctor. When the son stated he wanted to pursue acting, the father took him out of his prep school and was going to send him to military school in order to ensure his son would stay on the path of wealth and prestige.

The son wasn't able to tell his father how he really felt about the path he wanted to take. Instead he channeled his emotions in tragic ways, and it was heart wrenching. 


I know this is fiction, and simplistic, but it felt heart breakingly real. And then I got this email this morning from a student caught between love and money. I had to write this blog immediately.

Choose love. 

And do it wisely. For example, be careful of schools that advertise dream careers and require a lot of tuition. Do your research. The best research involves finding and talking to alumni (LinkedIn has a great tool for this). What jobs did they get? How do they like them? How did the school or major help them? Do they have any regrets? Did they think it was worth it? What advice do they have for you? 

In So Good They Can't Ignore You one of my favorite authors and bloggers Cal Newport explains why "Follow Your Passion" is bad advice. I highly recommend this book, especially for my fellow dreamers out there.

While his book is especially geared towards people who aren't sure of their interests (which is great - not everyone has to have 'a passion'), for someone with a passion or a dream or an interest that they can't ignore Cal's book serves as a great reminder of the hard work involved in becoming really good at something. Just "following" a passion without doing the work or research is the problem. Following is blind and inactive.

Instead, research your passion and its path. Work your passion. Learn your passion. Find internships. Find mentors. Get better. Seek advice from people successfully doing what you aspire to do. Practice, practice, practice. 

Ask yourself if it does fit into a major or career. If it can - awesome! But also be open to it being something else. Can you do both? (I saw a job profile on LinkedIn yesterday that said "Engineer by day, media by night." I LOVE that!) Be open to possibilities. 

In her book, Yes Please, Amy Poehler also has some great advice on this subject: "I think we should stop asking people in their twenties what they 'want to do' and start asking then what they don't want to do. Instead of asking students to 'declare their major,' we should ask students to 'list what they will do anything to avoid.'" 

I like this. I think advisors should ask this of every student before their first semester of college. A two-column list: What do you want? What do you want to avoid? How is college going to help? Why is studying for hours each week going to be worth it for you?

I've talked to countless successful community college graduates who got through it not by following a specific passion, love, or dream, but because they wanted to do everything in their power to avoid another kind of life. For one single mom it was the life of retail. For another it was a life of poverty. For me, it was a goal to avoid feeling miserable in a job.   

Don't choose a major that is going to lead you right into something you're actually desperate to avoid. Choose one that helps you avoid those things, and moves you to want to learn, grow, and excel. Choose something in line, in some way, with something you love, whatever that may be for you.

Regardless of what you choose, hard work will be required. The journey will be long. No matter what, there will be hard times. You won't always love it. But if you choose something that feels worth it to you, something that will grow you instead of crush you, you may find you have the strength to contribute something you're proud of.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Why planning to arrive to your first class on time is a bad idea

When I was a senior in high school I remember a couple older friends bragging about how "College is so easy. Professor's don't even take attendance - you don't even have to go to class!" 

Those friends went to colleges where they were in classes with 300 other students. Attendance might not have been taken. But those friends took 5+ years to actually graduate.

This is not a good strategy.

But what I really want to talk about is not only ATTENDING every class, but arriving EARLY.

I'm writing this now because I want you to keep this in mind as you register for your spring semester. 

Schedule your first class for a time that allows you to arrive on campus at least thirty minutes before that class starts (I also recommend not scheduling classes back to back; instead leave time in between where you'll be forced to spend time in the library studying, or have time to meet a professor, join a club, etc.)

Always, always, always plan to arrive to your first class at least 30 minutes early. Worst case scenario, you're there early and you can get some studying in. Best case scenario, when you hit those inevitable snags (e.g. traffic) you won't be late!

Strolling into class late not only means you'll miss important content (and possibly lose points depending on how your professors monitors attendance - it does count for many!), but it also sends a message. The truth may be that things out of your control happened, but regardless, it sends a message to the professor that the class just isn't that important to you.

Because in some ways, that might be true. If it's really important to you, plan ahead to always arrive early so you can ensure those things that are out of your control don't affect your college success or timeliness. 

Sure, everyone might have one crazy thing happen each semester that makes them late or miss a class. Life happens. But if that's happening to you more than once a semester, it might be time to change something. 

Choose your classes carefully, and don't just make time for class in your schedule. Good time management starts when you register for classes and decide on how much time you'll dedicate to your classroom. Schedule at least 2 hours in the library for every hour you have in class, and perhaps consider making one of those hours occur before your first class of each day so you're never late. :)