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"Pick Six"

"Pick Six"

No, we are not talking football today, but as a former high school player and a fan of the sport I thought it a fitting title for today's article. Pick Six will instead focus on the six daily habits, the dailies if you will, that come Hell or high water I make it a point to complete, without fail.  In my previous two articles I wrote of my thoughts on productivity and shared my personal system, and while the Pick Six are closely related I view them as different, in a separate category from my professional work day to-do list. My Pick Six are a bit more personal perhaps, and as a case in point I may not go to the office to work on a Sunday, but I will hit the Pick Six and see to their completion. 

"Your level of success will seldom exceed your level of personal development" 

- Jim Rohn

The above quote from Rohn tugs at the core, the very essence of the Pick Six, and I believe the aforementioned words of brilliance are as true as the laws of physics themselves. IF we aspire to greatness we must first make ourselves great. IF we truly desire success we must immerse ourselves in daily habits that will breed success. IF we want to engage fully in the lives of others and help people to the absolute best of our potential...we must first see to it that WE are working to be absolute best we can be.

The following six daily habits aid in my personal development. They allow me to perform at the highest possible level at Liberty, at home, and in my social life. Through them I learn and practice self-discipline, personal growth, time management, and high performance in all areas of life. I have always been mesmerized by the possibility of human potential, and I believe these six daily habits bring me closer to realizing my greatest potential in all areas of my life.

Why six you might ask? Why not three, or twenty? I started my daily habits with a Big Five list and have since moved to my Pick Six. Six is small enough that I can devote the time and focus each item deserves, while large enough that I cover a wide range of personal growth areas and achieve balance in said growth. Three would be too small, too narrow of a focus, and if I am being honest with myself, I certainly would not have the time or energy to devote to twenty items while still maintaining a high level of productivity at Liberty. 

Enjoy! 

 

1. Read 

Business, leadership, management, swimming, health, fitness, diet, exercise science, strength training, politics, social science, Religion, productivity, time management, sport in general, biographies, history, neuroscience, psychology, self-improvement, and a select few fiction authors make up the majority of my personal library. I have a wide range of interests, and I am likely one of the few Christians on earth who can claim C.S. Lewis, Richard Dawkins, Nicholas Wade, and Charles Spurgeon as part of their collection. Wisdom...knowledge...ideas...fascinating breakthrough science concepts and ancient musings...I am not sure I would survive if I had to limit my book collection to one genre, to one niche!

Reading allows me to expand my professional skill set, make connections between different fields, inspires my creativity, and goes a long way in satisfying my curiosity and thirst for knowledge, wisdom, self-improvement, etc..   Two facts about me that should drive home the reading point better than any other: 

  • While at Shippensburg University, I never sold back my books to the school for cash. I was a history major and not only did I keep all of my history books, I kept the books from my general education classes as well. While my classmates were busy selling back their books for beer money, I was busy building a personal library. 
  • I had a personal embosser made for my collection many years ago..."From the Library of Jacob Alexander Shellenberger" and stamp each new addition accordingly. 

Time spent per day: At least 30 minutes of dedicated time with no distractions.

Rules of engagement: Email does not count, nor do podcasts or educational YouTube videos. Audio books do count, as do articles, blogs, magazines, and journals. As a case in point, there are few swimming books out there, but a plethora of smaller articles about swimming and swim science in various journals and on websites. 

 

2. Exercise

Swimming, strength training, brisk walking, office kettle bell routines, and pull-ups on my doorway bar at home are the top ways in which I engage in daily exercise. Exercise is what we thought it was.  I need not explain the many benefits of exercise for the brain and body as we know it is good for us. My top two motivations for daily exercise: 

  • First and foremost is brain/cognitive performance and development. There is a large body of research linking exercise with increased cognitive ability. In short, exercise makes our brains work better, thus I exercise daily. Success in coaching (and all knowledge work) is based solely on cognitive ability, and if I want to be a better coach I need my brain to be performing at the highest possible level, every day. 
  • Aging well. I want to be able to pick up my grandchildren many moons from now, and desire physical independence for as long possible. My grandfather on my dad's side passed away at 93, fully independent and riding his bicycle up until his death. My grandfather was riding his bike at 93 (and still doing farm work as well)...I have much to live up to!  

Time spend per day: I do not have a minimum or maximum time goal, only a task goal I must meet. For example I might have a goal of swimming 1500 yards or doing 60 kettlebell swings. The swim may take 25 minutes, the kettlebell swings much less. 

Rules of engagement: Walking to swimming practice from my office does not count, although a brisk walk outside for 1-2 miles would. My kettlebell Pomodoro technique is a favorite as it allows me to break up emails and general office work with a quick burst of KB energy, although standing at my standing desk for 8 hours a day does not count. 

 

3. Meditation

I must admit I am new to meditation and still learning, but from my limited experience I have found the benefits immense. Mediation lowers my stress levels and leaves me feeling relaxed, in control of my mind, and allows me to fall asleep faster at night. I have also found that I write much more creative and "better" swimming workouts after or while meditating. I engage in a mixture of guided and self-meditations depending on the day, my goals, and my stress levels. For example if I have "writers block" and find it hard to think of a productive main set for swim practice, I will meditate on the main set and hold it as the object of my meditation. I never fail to dream up a brilliant main set after meditating! If the day was stressful I will go through a guided meditation before bed and hit the pillow feeling relaxed and refreshed.

At first glance meditation may seem hokey, and I was in that camp a few years ago...no longer. If skeptical, start with this article and give it an honest, open minded evaluation. Check out some of the studies referenced. Perhaps try meditation for yourself. Give it 30 days and then reevaluate. While the jury may still be out regarding the science behind meditation, I do believe it reduces my stress levels and allows me to write more creative swimming workouts. That to me is worth the 20 minutes a day I spend on the practice! 

Time spend per day: At least 20 minutes, guided or self-meditation. 

Rules of engagement: I always sit while meditating, whether at my desk or on the floor. I never lie down, and I always breathe as deeply and as slowly as possible. I always wear headphones, regardless of whether I am doing a guided or self-meditation. 

Disclaimer: There are some who may see meditation as incompatible with Christianity. I simply disagree, seeing meditation itself as a physical act, apart from any spiritual meaning. That is to say, I see meditation the same as any other form of physical/cognitive exercise. It is the motivation and the object behind the meditation that may render it incompatible with the Gospel. As a case in point: The act of closing my eyes, breathing as deeply and as slowly as possible, while concentrating solely on what I want to write for a main set and holding that focus in my mind for 20 minutes is MUCH different, in my humble opinion, than the same exercise while chanting a sacred mantra from a different religion while pondering the idea of a God within for the sake of "enlightenment." I should also note that meditation does not take the place of prayer in my life nor does it have any spiritual leaning whatsoever. I want to write more creative swimming workouts and decrease my stress levels...nothing more, nothing less.  

 

4. Brain Games

If a smart phone user, no doubt you have heard of Lumosity, Peak, Elevate, and the various other "brain training" apps that promise to increase your cognitive abilities. Lumosity has become a household name with national ads on TV and some 50 million users nationwide. While the jury is still out with regards to whether or not these brain games provide actual carryover to the real world or simply help you improve performance on the specific games, I have decided to include brain games in my Pick Six for the following two reasons: 

  • I believe in the "use it or lose it" theory with regards to the physical body and cognitive ability. While Lumosity and N-Back training may not increase fluid intelligence or working memory, anyone who has played the games can attest that the higher difficulty levels are extremely challenging and require a high level of cognitive ability. Consider Dual N-Back training, where you are asked to remember a location on a grid and a sound a certain number of moves back. Three back is a challenge, four back and above are extremely challenging and your brain will literally hurt afterwards as you put every last bit of focus and concentration into remembering the locations and sounds. Regardless of carryover to the real world, I believe without a doubt that stressing the brain in this way can only be a good thing as we age.
  • What if there is carryover? I believe in neuroplasticity and the ability of the brain to change over time. It goes without saying that muscles can become stronger with training and there is certainly a carryover to real world tasks...why would the brain be any different? I find it funny that the very same people who discount genetic differences in IQ and assert that IQ is a product of environment...are some of the very same people who discredit brain training as a way to increase working memory and in turn fluid intelligence.  Suzanne Jaeggi is one of the leading researchers in this field and has shown in studies that there is indeed an increase in fluid intelligence from working memory games. There have also been many studies that rebuke her findings. Again the jury is out...but if we find in 20 years that fluid intelligence can be increased by playing working memory games such as Dual N-Back, I will be glad to have been on the right side of history! If not...see my first point above. 

My favorite brain games and why: 

  • Pinball Recall from Lumosity. This is a fantastic memory game in which you combine the classic "squares on a board that disappear" concept with the spatial reasoning of pinball wedges at 45 degree angles that direct a pinball through a maze. Not only must you remember the location of the wedges, you must also remember the angle in which they're sloped. You then have to mentally track the ball through the maze and choose where the ball will leave the table. Click HERE for a demonstration, starting from level 1. Pinball Recall combines classic memory training with spatial reasoning ability and is extremely challenging at the higher levels. My best score is 25,000 at level 18...though I have seen level 22 on YouTube and cannot imagine the cognitive ability needed to achieve such a score! 
  • Follow That Frog from Lumosity. Follow That Frog is a classic N-Back style working memory game where you must remember the path of a frog jumping from pad to pad on a pond surface. The trick here is that you cannot move your own frog faster, and the orange frog jumps further and further ahead as you go. On a good day in a true Dual N-Back game I can remember 4 back with 80-90% accuracy, which makes sense as my best Follow That Frog is 4 jumps back. 
  • Train of Thought from Lumosity. Lumosity considers this an "attention" game and specifically divided attention, but I see hints of N-Back style working memory as well. Train of Thought requires you to guide different colored trains to their respective stations by moving a circular switch to direct the train. While yes, you must focus your attention on multiple trains/stations at once, you must also remember to change several switches for multiple trains as well, requiring you to hold those switches in your short term working memory. My best score is 55,000 on level 13...not bad, but the video I referenced is a perfect score on level 14. Impressive indeed! 
  • Any classic Dual N-Back game. Classic Dual N-Back is the standard in working memory games and the one brain game above all that has been shown in studies to have an impact on fluid intelligence and a carryover to real world cognitive tasks. This game is extremely challenging, requiring you to hold both the location of an object and a sound in your working memory a certain number of moves back. Jaeggi's research deals primarily with N-Back training, and thus far the results have been promising. As mentioned above on a good day I can go four back with 80-90% accuracy...5 back and I drop to 30-50% accuracy depending on the day. The version I use is called Super N-Back by Paul-Antoine Nguyen and I highly recommend this version. Dual N-Back is quite simply the single most challenging cognitive "work" I have ever done, and for that reason alone if for no other I will continue to play. I absolutely love the mental challenge, and N-Back delivers. For an intro, see here.

If nothing else, it is amazing to see the difference in my scores on the above mentioned games depending on my diet, sleep, and stress levels. While again, the jury is out with regards to whether or not these games actually make us "smarter" and increase fluid intelligence, it is quite easy to see how sleep, diet, and stress affect cognitive performance as a whole. The implications here are great, and there certainly is carryover to real world cognitive tasks as far as quantification is concerned. If I am not sleeping well my N-Back scores will suffer - not surprisingly I find it harder to focus at work and my memory suffers as well. 

Time spent per day: Varies. Perhaps I'll spend 20 minutes playing Super N-Back, or cruise through a Lumosity session in less than 10. 

Rules of engagement: As a naturally competitive person I am always looking to set new high scores, thus I make sure to play when I am at my cognitive peak. I rarely play late at night, and find that my best scores often come after I exercise or meditate - see above. 

 

5. Proverbs Chapter of the Day

This daily ritual is popular among Christians and for good reason. I will go a step further and assert that reading and reflecting on the Proverbs Chapter of the Day can be done by all, regardless of their faith or spiritual beliefs. To the atheist who scoffs at this proposition, I challenge you to try it for a month or two then report back to me with your findings. There is something for everyone in Solomon's teachings, and the atheist who proclaims to love wisdom and knowledge but is unwilling or unable to find said wisdom and knowledge in Proverbs should reconsider their commitment to these virtues.

The Book of Proverbs has 31 chapters, written by King Solomon, whom God blessed with wisdom in 1 Kings after he prayed for understanding instead of long life or wealth. The 31 chapters lend themselves to logical daily reading; as today is May 24th I will read and reflect on Proverbs Chapter 24. There is repetition here...yes. Every 5th day of the month I will read and reflect on Proverbs Chapter 5, and that is part of the point. We would not exercise once and deem ourselves fit...we would not study once and deem ourselves ready for that big test...why then would we read Proverbs once and consider ourselves wise? 

I find many benefits to this practice, chief among them, but not limited to: 

  • Valuable lessons in all areas of life including financial, professional, relational
  • Helps keep me humble, hungry, and grounded
  • Reinforces work ethic
  • I believe the repetition is valuable to the subconscious...perhaps the wisdom guides me at the subconscious level through the forced repetition? 
  • Encourages me to think and reflect in the moment and apply to situations in my  life
  • Daily influence of God's word in my life

Back to the atheist for a second...again I believe that all mankind can find value in Proverbs if they chose to consider this daily ritual. Consider Chapter 6, verses 9-11. The following passage is one which every man of every faith or no faith at all can embrace: 

"9 How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? 10 A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest - 11 and poverty will come on you like a thief, and scarcity like an armed bandit." 

Now certainly we know that rest and sleep are important to productivity and ultimately success...but we see Solomon's point here - the lazy are rarely successful. There is no mention of anything religious or spiritual here, just good old fashioned work ethic that everyone can and should embrace. 

Time spent per day: These are short chapters, and my reading and reflecting takes no more than 20 minutes.  Occasionally I will write down my thoughts which takes longer, but still no more than 30 minutes per day. 

Rules of engagement: I make sure not to rush through any of my Pick Six, but especially this one. The Word deserves all the time and reflection we humans can muster. 

 

6. Write

I love to write, and find immense benefits in my life from writing daily. There is something magical that happens when pen hits paper, for it is one of the most intimate moments a man can share with his thoughts. I keep several paper journals along with digital writing for this site and my book projects. I use the Pelikan M1005 and M800 Demonstrator fountain pens as daily writers, and use Byron Weston paper, the world's longest lasting archival quality paper, for my personal stationary. I have a second embosser: "From The Desk of Jacob Alexander Shellenberger" and stamp all of my recruit and personal letters. I use Noodler's Eternal Black Bulletproof ink for my fountain pens, naturally it is also the world's longest lasting archival quality ink. My first business venture, Jacob Journals, LLC., featured this Byron Weston Linen Record Paper in a journal I declared "the longest lasting archival quality journal available on the market today." While the business did not succeed, it certainly did not dampen my love for writing, fountain pens, and high quality journals and paper. Just a few of the many reasons why I write daily: 

  • Helps me stay organized / planning 
  • Stress relief
  • Personal growth
  • Self optimization / quantification - write it down! 
  • Fosters creativity 
  • Professional development 
  • Legacy building / eternal investment 
  • Communication...I pen letters to friends and family 

My writing takes on several different forms and is rather broad in scope. Some examples of what exactly I write:

  • Books. I have written two books on swimming and am currently working on three more - one on swimming, one on leadership, and the final is a memoir of life growing up on the farm. 
  • Hand written letters to friends and family. I also write hand written letters to swimming recruits but do not count this as part of my daily writing. 
  • Journals of our swimming seasons.  I record every workout, then write my thoughts after every workout...What went well, what didn't go well, what we can improve on, and any significant times we went in practice and so forth.  
  • Personal journals for professional development, self-improvement, personal reflection, etc.. For example every Sunday my writing consists of a "week in review" and "week ahead" planning/review session where I write down goals for the next week and evaluate how well I achieved my goals from the previous week.
  • Brainstorming sessions, stream of consciousness writing, "brain dumps" and so forth. Get it out and get it onto a piece of paper! 
  •  Spiritual thoughts, ideas, beliefs, etc. For example I take a journal and my fountain pen to church every Sunday, without fail. I write down the key points from the sermon and add my personal thoughts. 
  • The list goes on 

Fountain pens...journals...actual pieces of paper. I know, I know, outdated...who writes anymore with all of the digital tools we have available today? With regards to the analog vs. digital debate...As I mentioned above, one of the reasons I write is for legacy, and to invest eternally. While yes, I admit this is somewhat selfish, I want my son to be able to pass along my words to his son, then his grandson, and so on and so forth.

One of the surest paths to eternal obscurity is to have all of your writing in digital form.

Suppose I died tomorrow - who would pay the bills to keep this site up and running? After my yearly subscription ends, Squarespace would shut down the site and my son, who is 5 weeks old, would likely never read these words. If all of my writing were kept in Evernote, or on my laptop, or another digital form...you can see where I am going here. Now having said the above I do love Evernote, use it daily, and of course I am writing this article on a laptop and hosting it digitally. I find that a balance between the two worlds is ideal. For example I write the outlines and brainstorming sessions for my articles by hand in one of my journals, then write the final draft on my laptop.  I keep several different Evernote journals for my various book projects, ideas, and business concepts. After a brainstorming or outlining session with pen and paper, I will transfer the material to the corresponding Evernote journal via the app's document capture feature. All of my swimming practices are kept in paper journals, as documenting the sport requires certain styles and strokes one cannot find on a keyboard.....

Disclaimer: I grew up on a 10 generation family farm in Lancaster, PA, and studied history at Shippensburg. As such, I have as strong bond to the past and simply love the idea of writing with a fountain pen, using the world's longest lasting archival quality paper and ink, with the purpose of having my words reach as far out into the future as is possible for pen and paper to reach. Please do not fault me for this obsession, for it is in my DNA! As a case in point, we still have the original parchment deed to our farm, dated 1748! Consider that it is nearly 30 years OLDER than the Declaration of Independence and you start to get an idea of how the Shellenbergers have valued family documents over the years. 

Check out some of the other documents from the early 1800's that we cherish below - it is easy to see how one would value pen and paper when you grow up handling family documents from 1825, written by your ancestors! 

 

Tell me of the man who once said: 

"No, I do not mind if I am forgotten and I care not if my great-grandchildren read my words" 

.........................

 

Time spent per day: Varies. I have no minimum or maximum time, I simply adhere to the rules of engagement and write, daily.

Rules of engagement: Letters to swimming recruits do not count, nor do emails. Letters to friends and family do count, as do letters to our alumnae or current women on our team; emails to the aforementioned groups do not. Writing a swim practice does not count, however writing my thoughts about the practice afterwards certainly does. 

 

 

In summary, I read, exercise, meditate, play brain games, read the Proverbs Chapter of the Day, and write, daily. Through trial, error, and quite a bit of reflection I have found these "Pick Six" to be the best ways for me to grow in all the ways I believe a man should grow. Through these six daily rituals I have seen much personal development, and wholeheartedly recommend some form of daily ritual to anyone looking to better themselves in all areas of life. IF it is true that our level of success seldom exceeds our level of personal development, I will see to it that I am always in a stage of personal development growth. As a father, husband, and coach, I owe it to my family and to the student-athletes I lead to be the absolute best I can be. 

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