Location Has Energy; Time Has Memory

Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it.

—the Dalai Lama

There are twelve of us, maybe more, sleeping on the floor, each on a thin yoga-type pad, covered by a simple sheet. The walls of the room are made of packed cow dung that feels like rough plaster and gives the place a not-unpleasant earthy smell. The unfinished stone floors are worn smooth, but a far cry from memory foam. There are no finished windows in this building—we’re in an interior room that keeps us dry in the rainy season and has plenty of doors for ventilation.

Although I sleep here every night, there is no particular space that I consider “mine.” We steer clear of ownership here—no possessions, no material attachments. Right now the room is dark as a cave, but from the tenor of the birds outside, our bodies know that it’s 4 a.m.—time to wake up. We’re due at collective prayers in half an hour. Without speaking a word, we move to the locker room, some of us showering, some of us pulling on our robes. We wait inline to brush our teeth at one of the four communal sinks. No one from the outside world is witness to our activity, but if they were, they would see a group of seemingly well-rested men, all of whom appear perfectly content to be getting up at this early hour.

   It wasn’t always that easy. Every morning my brain, desperate to remain shut down just a little bit longer, thought of a different excuse for why I should sleep in. But I pushed myself to adopt this new routine because I was committed to the process. The fact that it was hard was an important part of the journey.

Eventually, I learned the one infallible trick to successfully getting up earlier: I had to go to sleep earlier. That was it. I’d spent my entire life pushing the limits of each day, sacrificing tomorrow because I didn’t want to miss out on today. But once I finally let that go and started going to sleep earlier, waking up at four became easier and easier. And as it became easier, I found that I could do it without the help of anyone or anything besides my own body and the natural world around it.

This was a revelatory experience for me. I realized I had never in my life begun my day without being startled in one way or another. When I was a teenager, my morning summons came in the form of my mother screaming “Jay, wake up!” from downstairs. In later years, an alarm clock performed the same thankless task. Every day of my life had begun with a sudden, jarring intrusion. Now, however, I was waking up to the sounds of birds, trees rustling in the wind, a stream of water. I woke to the sounds of nature.

At last I came to understand the value in it. The point of waking up early wasn’t to torture us—it was to start the day off with peace and tranquility. Birds. A gong. The sound of flowing water. And our morning routine never varied. The simplicity and structure of ashram mornings spared us from the stressful complexity of decisions and variation. Starting our days so simply was like a mental shower. It cleansed us of the challenges of the previous day, giving us the space and energy to transform greed into generosity, anger into compassion, loss into love. Finally, it gave us resolve, a sense of purpose to carry out into the day.

In the ashram, every detail of our life was designed to facilitate the habit or ritual we were trying to practice. For example, our robes: When we rose, we never had to think about what to wear. Like Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, and Arianna Huffington, all of whom have been known to have their own basic uniforms, monks simplify their clothing so as not to waste energy and time on dressing for the day. We each had two sets of robes—one to wear and one to wash. In similar fashion, the early morning wake-up was designed to launch the day in the right spirit. It was an ungodly hour, yet it was spiritually enlightening.

I would never wake up that early, you may be thinking. I can’t think of a worse way to start the day. I understand that perspective since I used to feel the same way! But let’s take a look at how most people currently start their day: sleep researchers say 85 percent of us need an alarm clock to wake up for work. When we wake up before our bodies are ready, the hormone melatonin, which helps to regulate sleep, is usually still at work, which is one of the reasons we grope for the snooze button.

Unfortunately, our productivity-driven society encourages us to live like this. Maria Popova, a writer who’s best known as the curator of Brain Pickings, writes, “We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But what it is is a profound failure of self-respect and of priorities.”

Then, once we’ve woken up after too little sleep, nearly a quarter of us do something else that starts us out on the second wrong foot of the day—we reach for our cell phones within one minute of waking up. Over half of us are checking messages within ten minutes. A majority of people go from out cold to processing mountains of information within minutes every morning.

There are only six cars that can go from zero to sixty miles per hour in under two seconds. Like most cars, humans are not built for that kind of sudden transition, mentally or physically. And the last thing you need to do when you’ve just woken up is to stumble straight into tragedy and pain courtesy of news headlines or friends venting about gridlock on their commute. Looking at your phone first thing in the morning is like inviting one hundred chatty strangers into your bedroom before you’ve showered, brushed your teeth, fixed your hair. Between the alarm clock and the world inside your phone, you’re immediately overwhelmed with stress, pressure, anxiety. Do you really expect yourself to emerge from that state and have a pleasant, productive day?

In the ashram, we started each morning in the spirit of the day we planned to have, and we trained ourselves to sustain that deliberateness and focus all day long. Sure, that’s all fine and good if your daily schedule involves prayer, meditation, study, service, and chores, but the outside world is more complex.


Here is my first recommendation: Wake up one hour earlier than you do now. “No way!” you say. “Why would I want to wake up any earlier than I do right now? I don’t get enough sleep as it is. Besides, yuck!” But hear me out. None of us wants to go to work tired and then get to the end of the day feeling like we could have done more. The energy and mood of the morning carries through the day, so making life more meaningful begins there.

We’re used to waking up just before we have to get to work, or to a class, or to a workout, or to shuttle children off to school. We leave ourselves just enough time to shower, eat breakfast, pack up, etc. But having “just enough time” means not having enough time. You run late. You skip breakfast. You leave the bed unmade. You can’t take the time to enjoy your shower, brush your teeth properly, finish your breakfast, or put everything away so you’ll return to a tidy home. You can’t do things with purpose and care if you have to speed through them. When you start the morning with high pressure and high stress, you’re programming your body to operate in that mode for the rest of the day, through conversations, meetings, appointments.

Waking up early leads to a more productive day. Successful businesspeople are already onto this. Apple CEO Tim Cook starts his day at 3:45 a.m. Richard Branson is up at 5:45. Michelle Obama rises at 4:30. But it’s important to note that while lots of high-impact people rise early, there’s also a movement among top executives to reclaim sleep. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos makes it a priority to get eight hours of sleep every night, saying that less sleep might give you more time to produce, but the quality will suffer. So if you’re going to rise early, you need to turn in at an hour that allows you to get a full night’s rest.

Life gets more complicated if you have kids or a night job, so if these or other circumstances make the idea of waking up an hour earlier unfathomable, don’t despair. Start with manageable increments (see the Try This below). And notice I didn’t name a specific time for you to get up. I’m not asking for 4 a.m. The hour doesn’t even have to be early—the goal is to give you enough time to move with intention and do things completely. That spirit will carry through the day.

Create a time cushion at the beginning of the day or you’ll spend the rest of the day searching for it. I guarantee you will never find that extra time in the middle of the day. Steal it from your morning sleep and give that sleep back to yourself at night. See what changes.


This week, wake up just fifteen minutes earlier. You’ll probably have to use an alarm, but make it a gentle one. Use low lighting when you first wake up; put on quiet music. Don’t pick up your phone for at least those bonus fifteen minutes. Give your brain this time to set a tone for the day ahead. After one week of this, roll your wake time back another fifteen minutes. Now you have half an hour that is all yours. How will you choose to spend it? You might take a longer shower. Sip your tea. Go for a walk. Meditate. Spend a moment cleaning up after yourself before you step out the door. At night, turn off the TV and phone and get in bed whenever you feel the first twinge of fatigue.


Once you’ve created space in the morning, it is yours alone; nobody else controls how you use it. Given how much of our time is controlled by our obligations—job, family, etc.—this free time is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves. You might go about your ordinary routine, but feel the space and leisure created by more time. Maybe you have time to make your own coffee instead of grabbing it en route. You can have a conversation over breakfast, read the paper, or use your newfound time to exercise. If you have a meditation, you can start the day with a gratitude visualization practice. Maybe, as health experts are fond of recommending, you’ll park further from work to add a bit of a walk to your morning. When you create the space, you’ll realize it fills with what you lack most of all: time for yourself.


Every morning make some time for:

  • Thankfulness. Express gratitude to someone, some place, or something every day. This includes thinking it, writing it, and sharing it. (See Chapter Nine.)
  • Insight. Gain insight through reading the paper or a book, or listening to a podcast.
  • Meditation. Spend fifteen minutes alone, breathing, visualizing or with sound. (More about sound meditation at the end of Part 3.)
  • Exercise. We monks did yoga, but you can do some basic stretches or a workout.

Thankfulness. Insight. Meditation. Exercise. T.I.M.E. A new way to put time into your morning.


At the ashram, I learned that the morning is defined by the evening. It’s natural for us to treat each morning like a new beginning, but the truth is that our days circle on themselves. You don’t set your alarm in the morning—you set it the night before. It follows that if you want to wake up in the morning with intention, you need to start that momentum by establishing a healthy, restful evening routine—and so the attention we’ve given the mornings begins to expand and define the entire day.

There is “no way” you have time to wake up one hour earlier, but how often do you switch on the TV, settle on one show or another, and end up watching until past midnight? You watch TV because you’re “unwinding.” You’re too tired to do anything else. But earlier sleep time can put you in a better mood. Human growth hormone (HGH) is kind of a big deal. It plays a key role in growth, cell repair, and metabolism, and without it we might even die sooner. As much as 75 percent of the HGH in our bodies is released when we sleep, and research shows that our highest bursts of HGH typically come between 10 p.m. and midnight, so if you’re awake during those hours, you’re cheating yourself of HGH. If you have a job that goes past midnight, or little kids who keep you up, feel free to ignore me, but waking up before the demands of your day begin should not be at the expense of good sleep. If you spent that ten to midnight getting real rest, it wouldn’t be so hard to find those hours in the morning.

In the ashram, we spent the evenings studying and reading and went to sleep between eight and ten. We slept in pitch darkness, with no devices in the room. We slept in T-shirts and shorts, never in our robes, which carried the energy of the waking day.

Morning sets the tone of the day, but a well-planned evening prepares you for morning. In an interview on CNBC’s Make It, Instagram Shark Tank star Kevin O’Leary said that before he goes to sleep he writes down three things he wants to do the next morning before he talks to anyone besides his family. Take his cue and before you go to sleep, figure out the first things you want to achieve tomorrow. Knowing what you’re tackling first will simplify your morning. You won’t have to push or force your mind when it’s just warming up. (And, bonus, those tasks won’t keep you up at night if you know you’re going to handle them.)

Next, find your version of a monk’s robe, a uniform that you’ll put on in the morning. I have a bigger selection of clothes now, and to my wife’s relief none of them are orange robes, but I favor similar sets of clothes in different colors. The point is to remove challenges from the morning. Insignificant as they may seem, if you’re spending your morning deciding what to eat, what to wear, and what tasks to tackle first, the accumulating choices complicate things unnecessarily.

Christopher Sommer, a former US National Team gymnastics coach, with forty years’ experience, tells his athletes to limit the number of decisions they have to make because each decision is an opportunity to stray from their path. If you spend your morning making trivial decisions, you’ll have squandered that energy. Settle into patterns and make decisions the night before, and you’ll have a head start on the morning and will be better able to make focused decisions throughout the day.

Finally, consider what your last thoughts are before going to sleep. Are they This screen is going blurry, I’d better turn off my phone or I forgot to wish my mother “Happy Birthday”? Don’t program yourself to wake up with bad energy. Every night when I’m falling asleep, I say to myself, “I am relaxed, energized, and focused. I am calm, enthusiastic, and productive.” It has a yoga-robot vibe when I put it on paper, but it works for me. I am programming my mind to wake up with energy and conviction. The emotion you fall asleep with at night is most likely the emotion you’ll wake up with in the morning.


The goal of all this preparation is to bring intentionality to the entire day. The moment you leave your home, there will be more curveballs, whatever your job may be. You’re going to need the energy and focus you cultivated all morning. Monks don’t just have morning routines and nighttime routines; we use routines of time and location every moment of the day. Sister Joan Chittister, the Benedictine nun I’ve already mentioned, says, “People living in the cities and suburbs… can make choices about the way they live, though most of them don’t see that, because they are conditioned to be on the go all the time.… Imagine for a moment what America would look like, imagine the degree of serenity we’d have, if laypeople had something comparable to the daily schedule of the cloistered life. It provides scheduled time for prayer, work, and recreation.” Routines root us. The two hours I spend meditating support the other twenty-two hours of my day, just as the twenty-two hours influence my meditation. The relationship between the two is symbiotic.


Just as an inventor has to visualize an idea before building it, we can visualize the life we want, beginning by visualizing how we want our mornings to be.

After you do breathwork to calm your mind, I want you to visualize yourself as your best self. Visualize yourself waking up in the morning healthy, well rested, and energized. Imagine the sunlight coming through the windows. You get up, and as your feet touch the ground, you feel a sense of gratitude for another day. Really feel that gratitude, and then say in your mind, “I am grateful for today. I am excited for today. I am joyful for today.”

See yourself brushing your teeth, taking your time, being mindful to brush every tooth. Then, as you go into the shower, visualize yourself feeling calm, balance, ease, stillness. When you come out of the shower, because you chose what you were going to wear the night before, it’s not a bother to dress. Now see yourself setting your intentions, writing down, “My intention today is to be focused. My intention today is to be disciplined. My intention today is to be of service.”

Visualize the whole morning again as realistically as you can. You may add some exercise, some meditation. Believe it. Feel it. Welcome it into your life. Feeling fresh, feeling fueled.

Now visualize yourself continuing the day as your best self. See yourself inspiring others, leading others, guiding others, sharing with others, listening to others, learning from others, being open to others, their feedback and their thoughts. See yourself in this dynamic environment, giving your best and receiving your best.

Visualize yourself coming home at the end of the day. You’re tired, but you’re happy. You want to sit down and rest, but you’re grateful for whatever you have: a job, a life, family, friends, a home. You have more than so many people. See yourself in the evening; instead of being on your phone or watching a show, you come up with new ideas to spend that time meaningfully.

When you visualize yourself getting into bed at a good time, see yourself looking up and saying, “I’m grateful for today. I will wake up tomorrow feeling healthy, energized, and rested. Thank you.” Then visualize yourself scanning throughout your body and thanking each part of your body for helping you throughout the day.

When you’re ready, in your own time, at your own pace, slowly and gently open your eyes.

Note: Life messes up your plans. Tomorrow is not going to go as you visualize it. Visualization doesn’t change your life, but it changes how you see it. You can build your life by returning to the ideal that you imagined. Whenever you feel that your life is out of alignment, you realign it with the visualization.

In the ashram we took the same thirty-minute walk on the same path at least once a day. Every day the monk asked us to keep our eyes open for something different, something we’d never before seen on this walk that we had taken yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that.

Spotting something new every day on our familiar walk was a reminder to keep our focus on that walk, to see the freshness in each “routine,” to be aware. Seeing something is not the same as noticing it. Researchers at UCLA asked faculty, staff, and students in the Department of Psychology whether they knew the location of the nearest fire extinguisher. Only 24 percent could remember where the closest one was, even though, for 92 percent of the participants, a fire extinguisher was just a few feet from where they filled out the survey (which was usually their own office or a classroom they frequently visited). One professor didn’t realize that there was a fire extinguisher just inches from the office he’d occupied for twenty-five years.

Truly noticing what’s around us keeps our brains from shifting to autopilot. At the ashram we were trained to do this on our daily walk.

I have taken this walk for hundreds of days now. It is hot, but not unpleasant in my robes. The forest is leafy and cool, the dirt path feels soothing underfoot. Today a senior monk has asked us to look for a new stone, one that we have never noticed before. I am slightly disappointed. For the past week or so we’ve been asked to look for a new flower every day, and yesterday I lined up an extra one for today, a tiny blue flower cupping a drop of dew that seemed to wink at me as if it were in on my plan. But no, our leader is somehow onto me and has switched things up. And so the hunt is on.

Monks understand that routine frees your mind, but the biggest threat to that freedom is monotony. People complain about their poor memories, but I’ve heard it said that we don’t have a retention problem, we have an attention problem. By searching for the new, you are reminding your brain to pay attention and rewiring it to recognize that there’s something to learn in everything. Life isn’t as certain as we assume.

How can I advocate both for establishing routines and seeking out novelty? Aren’t these contradictory? But it is precisely doing the familiar that creates room for discovery. The late Kobe Bryant was onto this. The basketball legend had started showing his creative side, developing books and a video series. As Bryant told me on my podcast, On Purpose, having a routine is critical to his work. “A lot of the time, creativity comes from structure. When you have those parameters and structure, then within that you can be creative. If you don’t have structure, you’re just aimlessly doing stuff.” Rules and routines ease our cognitive burden so we have bandwidth for creativity. Structure enhances spontaneity. And discovery reinvigorates the routine.

This approach leads to delight in small things. We tend to anticipate the big events of life: holidays, promotions, birthday parties. We put pressure on these events to live up to our expectations. But if we look for small joys, we don’t have to wait for them to come up on the calendar. Instead they await us every day if we take the time to look for them.

And I’ve found it! Here, a curious orange-y stone that has seemingly appeared out of nowhere since yesterday. I turn it over in my palm. Finding the stone isn’t the end of our discovery process. We observe it deeply, describe the color, the shape, immerse ourselves in it in order to understand and appreciate it. Then we might describe it again to be sure we’ve experienced it fully. This isn’t an exercise, it’s real. A deep experience. I smile before returning it to the edge of the path, half-hidden, but there for someone else to find.

To walk down the same old path and find a new stone is to open your mind.


Monk training wasn’t just about spotting the new. It was about doing familiar things with awareness.

One afternoon a senior monk told us, “Today we will have a silent lunch. Remember to chew your drinks and drink your food.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“We don’t take the time to consume our food properly,” the monk said. “When you drink your food, grind the solids into liquid. When you chew your drink, instead of gulping it down take each sip as if it is a morsel to be savored.”


Look for something new in a routine that you already have. What can you spy on your commute that you have never seen before? Try starting a conversation with someone you see regularly but haven’t ever engaged. Do this with one new person every day and see how your life changes.

If a monk can be mindful of a single sip of water, imagine how this carries through to the rest of daily life. How can you rediscover the everyday? When you exercise, can you see the route that you run or feel the rhythms of the gym differently? Do you see the same woman walking her dog every day? Could you greet her with a nod? When you shop for food, can you take the time to choose the perfect apple—or the most unusual one? Can you have a personal exchange with the cashier?

In your physical space, how can you look at things freshly? There are articles all around our homes and our workspaces that we have put out because they please us: photos, knickknacks, art objects. Look at yours closely. Are these a true reflection of what brings you joy? Are there other favorites that deserve a turn in the spotlight and inject some novelty into your familiar surroundings? Add flowers to a vase or rearrange your furniture to find new brightness and purpose in familiar possessions. Simply choosing a new place for incoming mail can change it from clutter to part of an organized life.

We can awaken the familiarity of home by changing things up. Have music playing when your partner comes home if that’s something you don’t usually do. Or vice versa, if you usually put on music or a podcast when you get home, try silence instead. Bring a strange piece of fruit home from the store and put it in the middle of the dinner table. Introduce a topic of conversation to your dinner companions or take turns reporting three surprising moments in the day. Switch the lightbulb to a softer or clearer light. Flip the mattress. Sleep on the “wrong” side of the bed.

Appreciating the everyday doesn’t even have to involve change so much as finding value in everyday activities. In his book At Home in the World, the monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them.… If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have dessert or a cup of tea, I will be equally incapable of enjoying my dessert or my tea when I finally have them.… Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane.”


Even a task as quotidian as doing the dishes can transform if you let it. Allow yourself to be in front of the sink, committed to a single task. Instead of putting on music, focus all your senses on the dishes—watch their surfaces go from grimy to clean, smell the dish soap, feel the steam of the hot water. Observe how satisfying it is to see the sink go from full to empty. There is a Zen koan that says, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” No matter how much we grow, we are never free of daily chores and routines, but to be enlightened is to embrace them. The outside may look the same, but inside you are transformed.


We’ve talked about taking an ordinary, familiar moment and finding new ways to appreciate it. To take that presence to another level, we try to string these moments together, so that we’re not picking and choosing certain walks or dishwashing episodes to make special—we’re elevating our awareness of every moment, at every moment.

We’re all familiar with the idea of being in the moment. It’s not hard to see that if you’re running a race, you won’t be able to go back and change how fast you ran at Mile 2. Your only opportunity to succeed is in that moment. Whether you are at a work meeting or having dinner with friends, the conversations you have, the words you choose—you won’t ever have another opportunity just like that one. In that moment you can’t change the past, and you’re deciding the future, so you might as well be where you are. Kālidāsa, the great Sanskrit writer of the fifth century, wrote, “Yesterday is but a dream. Tomorrow is only a vision. But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness, and every tomorrow a vision of hope.”

We may all agree that living in the present makes sense, but the truth is that we’re only willing to have selective presence. We’re willing to be present at certain times—during a favorite show or a yoga class, or even during the mundane task we’ve chosen to elevate—but we still want to be distracted when we choose to be distracted. We spend time at work dreaming about going on a beach vacation, but then, on the beach, long-awaited drink in hand, we’re annoyed to find that we can’t stop thinking about work. Monks learn that these two scenarios are connected. A desired distraction at work bleeds into unwanted distraction on vacation. Distraction at lunch bleeds into the afternoon. We are training our minds to be where we physically aren’t. If you allow yourself to daydream, you will always be distracted.

Being present is the only way to live a truly rich and full life.


It is easier to see the value of being present throughout an ordinary day, and easier to be truly present if you understand and appreciate the benefits that routine has to offer. Routines aren’t just about actions; they’re also about the locations in which those actions take place. There’s a reason people study better in libraries and work better in offices. New York City imparts its hustle and bustle, while LA makes you feel laid back. Each environment—from the biggest city to the smallest corner of a room—has its own particular energy. Every location gives off a different feeling, and your dharma thrives—or falters—in specific environments.

We are constantly experiencing a range of activities and environments, but we don’t pause to contemplate which ones most appeal to us. Do you thrive in busy environments or in solitude? Do you like the safety of cozy nooks or spacious libraries? Do you prefer to be surrounded by stimulating artwork and music, or does uncluttered simplicity help you concentrate? Do you like to bounce ideas off others or to get feedback after completing a job? Do you prefer familiarity or a change of scenery? Having this self-awareness serves your dharma. It means that when you step into a job interview, you have a better sense of how you will perform at this job and whether it’s a good match. It means that when you plan a date, you can choose a space where you will be most comfortable. When you imagine different careers within your skill set, you know which ones are best suited to your sensibilities.


For every environment where you spend time this week, ask yourself the following questions. If possible, ask them right after the experience, then again at the end of the week.

  • What were the key features of the space?
  • Quiet or loud?
  • Big or small?
  • Vibrant or plain?
  • In the center of an active space or removed?
  • Close to other people or isolated?
  • How did I feel in this space: productive? relaxed? distracted?
  • Did the activity I was doing fit well with the place where I was doing it?
  • Was I in the best mindset for what I set out to do?
  • If not, is there another place where I am more comfortable accomplishing what I planned?

The more your personal spaces are devoted to single, clear purposes, the better they will serve you, not just in the fulfillment of your dharma but in your mood and productivity. Just as the room where we monks slept was designed for nothing but sleep, so every place in the ashram was devoted to a single activity. We didn’t read or meditate where we slept. We didn’t work in the refectory.

In the world outside an ashram, to watch Netflix and/or eat in your bedroom is to confuse the energy of that space. If you bring those energies to your bedroom, it becomes harder to sleep there. Even in the tiniest apartment, you can dedicate spaces to different activities. Every home should have a place to eat. A place to sleep. A sacred space that helps you feel calm and a space that feels comforting when you are angry. Create spaces that bring you the energy that matches your intention. A bedroom should have few distractions, calm colors, soft lighting. Ideally, it should not contain your workspace. Meanwhile, a workspace should be well lit, uncluttered, and functional, with art that inspires you.

When you identify where you thrive, focus on expanding those opportunities. If you’re drawn to the energy of a nightclub in your leisure time, would you do better in a career that is equally vibrant? If you’re a rock musician but you thrive in quiet, then maybe you should be composing music instead of performing. If you have the “perfect job” working from home, but you prefer the activity of an office, look to move your work to a café or shared workspace. The point is to be aware about where you thrive, where you’re at your best, and to figure out how to spend the most time in that place.

Of course, we are all obligated to do activities we don’t like in environments that aren’t ideal—especially work—and we’ve all experienced the negative energies that these activities generate. With elevated awareness, we understand what has made us impatient, stressed, or drained, and develop guidelines for what living in our dharma, in the right environment, with the right energy, would look like. This should be the long-term goal.

Sound Design Your Life

Your location and your senses speak to each other. This is most obvious when we think about the sounds that we encounter every day. In monk life the sounds we hear relate directly to what we are doing. We wake up to birds and winds. We hear chanting as we walk into a meditation. There is no painful noise.

But the modern world is getting louder. Planes howl overhead, dogs bark, drills whine. We’re subjected to uncontrollable noise all day. We think we’re ignoring the honk and clatter of daily life, but all of it adds to our cognitive load. The brain processes sound even when we don’t consciously hear it. At home, many of us retreat to silence, so we live in the extremes of silence and noise.

Instead of tuning out the noise in your life—sound design it. Start by picking the best alarm tone in the world. Begin the day with a song that makes you happy. On your way to work, listen to a beloved audiobook, a favorite podcast, or your go-to playlist. Choose sounds that make you feel happier and healthier, the better to replicate the highly curated life in an ashram.


When we tailor our locations for specific purposes, we’re better able to summon the right kind of energy and attention. The same is true for time. Doing something at the same time every day helps us remember to do it, commit to it, and do it with increasing skill and facility. If you’re accustomed to going to the gym every morning at the same time, try going in the evening for a change and you’ll see what a challenge it is. When we do something at the same time every day, that time keeps that memory for us. It holds the practice. It saves the space. When you want to incorporate a new habit into your routine, like meditating or reading, don’t make it more difficult by trying to do it whenever you have a free moment. Slot it into the same time every day. Even better, link the new practice to something that’s already a habit. A friend of mine wanted to incorporate daily yoga into her schedule so she laid a mat right next to her bed. She literally rolled out of bed and into her yoga practice. Marrying habits is a way of circumventing excuses.

Location has energy; time has memory.

If you do something at the same time every day, it becomes easier and natural.

If you do something in the same space every day, it becomes easier and natural.


Time and location help us maximize the moment, but there is one essential component to being wholly present in that moment: single-tasking. Studies have found that only 2 percent of us can multitask effectively; most of us are terrible at it, especially when one of those tasks requires a lot of focus. When we think we’re multitasking, what’s usually happening is that we’re shifting rapidly among several different things, or “serial tasking.” This fragmented attention actually erodes our ability to focus, so doing just one thing at a time without distraction becomes harder. Researchers from Stanford University took a group of students and divided them into two groups—those who frequently switch among multiple streams of media (checking email, social media, and headline news, for instance) and those who don’t. They put the groups through a series of attention and memory tasks, such as remembering sequences of letters and focusing on certain colored shapes while ignoring others, and the media multitaskers consistently performed poorly. They even did worse on a test of task-switching ability.

To make single-tasking easier for myself, I have “no tech” zones and times. My wife and I don’t use tech in the bedroom or at the dining table, and try not to between 8 p.m. and 9 a.m. I try to practice single-tasking with mundane tasks in order to strengthen the habit. I used to brush my teeth without thought. They were white enough; they looked great. But then the dentist told me that I’d damaged my gums. Now I spend four seconds on each tooth. I count in my head, one, two, three, four, which gives me something to do. I’m still spending the same amount of time brushing my teeth, but I’m doing it in a more effective way. If I think about business when I’m brushing my teeth or in the shower, it doesn’t feel nourishing and energizing, and I don’t take care with my gums. When you’re brushing, just brush. When you’re showering, just shower.

We don’t have to be focused like a laser beam on every task every time. It’s okay to listen to music while cleaning the bathroom or talk with your partner while eating together. Just as some instruments sound great together, certain habits complement each other. But single-tasking as much as possible keeps your brain in the habit of focusing on one thing at a time, and you should pick certain routines where you always single-task, like walking the dog, using your phone (one app at a time!), showering, or folding the laundry, in order to build the skill.


Routines become easier if you’ve done something immersively. If you want to bring a new skill into your life, I recommend that you kick it off with single-pointed focus for a short period of time. If I play Ping-Pong every day for an hour, I’m definitely going to be better at it. If you want to start a daily meditation, a weeklong meditation retreat will give you a strong base on which to build. Throughout this book I suggest many changes you can make to your life. But if you try to change everything at the same time, they will all become small, equal priorities. Change happens with small steps and big priorities. Pick one thing to change, make it your number one priority, and see it through before you move on to the next.

Monks try to do everything immersively. Our lunches were silent. Our meditations were long. We didn’t do anything in just five minutes. (Except for showering. We weren’t showering immersively.) We had the luxury of time, and we used it to single-task for hours on end. That same level of immersion isn’t possible in the modern world, but the greater your investment, the greater your return. If something is important, it deserves to be experienced deeply. And everything is important.

We all procrastinate and get distracted, even monks, but if you give yourself more time, then you can afford to get distracted and then refocus. In your morning routine, having limited time means that you’re one phone call or spilled coffee away from being late to work. If you’re frustrated with learning a new skill, understanding a concept, or assembling a piece of Ikea furniture, your instinct will be to pull away, but go all in and you’ll accomplish more than you thought possible. (Even the Hemnes dresser—allegedly Ikea’s most difficult build.)

As it turns out, periods of deep focus are also good for your brain. When we switch tasks compulsively (like the multitaskers who showed poor memory and focus in the Stanford study), it erodes our ability to focus. We overstimulate the dopamine (reward) channel. That’s also the addiction pathway, so we are compelled to stimulate it more and more to get the same feel-good hit, and that leads to more and more distraction. But ultimately, ironically, the feel-good of dopamine bums us out—too much dopamine can keep our bodies from making and processing serotonin, the contentment chemical. If you’ve ever spent the day jumping on and off calls, in and out of meetings, ordering this book from Amazon and checking that thread on Snapchat, you know that feeling of exhaustion you have at the end of it all? It’s a dopamine hangover.

When we allow ourselves to have immersive experiences—through meditation, focused periods of work, painting, doing a crossword puzzle, weeding a garden, and many other forms of contemplative single-tasking—we’re not only more productive, we actually feel better.

There are plenty of magazine articles and phone apps that encourage you to meditate for five minutes a day. I’m not against that, but I’m also not surprised if it does nothing for you. In our culture, it is commonplace to devote five to ten minutes to one daily practice or another, but the truth is you achieve very little in five minutes. I’ve had more than one friend complain to me: “Jay, I’ve been meditating for five minutes a day for seven months and it’s not working.”

Imagine you were told you could spend five minutes a day for a whole month with someone you were attracted to. At the end of the month you’d still barely know them. You definitely wouldn’t be in love. There’s a reason we want to talk to someone all night when we’re falling in love. Maybe sometimes it’s even the other way around: We fall in love because we talked to someone all night. The ocean is full of treasures, but if you swim on the surface, you won’t see them all. If you start a meditation practice with the idea that you can instantly clear your mind, you’ll soon learn that immersion takes time and practice.

When I began to meditate, it took me a good fifteen minutes to settle physically and another fifteen to settle down the mental chatter. I’ve been meditating for one to two hours a day for thirteen years, and it still takes me ten minutes to switch off my mind. I’m not saying you have to meditate two hours a day for thirteen years to get the benefit. That’s not the point. I have confidence that any process can work if you do it immersively. After you break the barrier and commit yourself wholly, you start experiencing the benefits. You lose track of time. The feeling of being fully engaged is often so rewarding that when it’s time to stop, you want to return to the experience.

I recommend using immersive experience as a kickoff or reinvigoration for a regular practice. To my friend who was frustrated with his five minutes-a-day meditation practice, I said, “I get it. Time is tough to find, but if you feel like you’re not getting enough from it, try taking an hour-long class. Then return to your ten-minute practice. You might find it has become more powerful. If you want, you could try a daylong retreat.” I talked to him about falling in love, how eventually you aren’t compelled to stay up all night anymore because you’ve gotten to know the person. Five minutes goes a lot further when you’re married. I told him, “Maybe you and meditation could use a romantic getaway.”

     Routines are counterintuitive—instead of being boring and repetitive, doing the same tasks at the same time in the same place makes room for creativity. The consistent energy of location and memory of time help us be present in the moment, engaging deeply in tasks instead of getting distracted or frustrated. Build routines and train yourself as monks do, to find focus and achieve deep immersion.

   Once we quell our external distractions, we can address the most subtle and powerful distractions of all, the voices inside our heads.





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