More & Less: My 2017 Monthly Challenge
2017: The year I approached as an experiment. An experiment in discipline. An experiment in commitment. An experiment in pattern making, and breaking. An experiment in More & Less.
Each month I selected a new theme: something I would add or subtract to my life for the entire month. I invested each full month to explore and analyze the theme, and my relationship to it. Like a scientist in a lab, I donned my white coat and gloves, and got to work. Committed and determined to immerse myself in More & Less, 2017 turned out to be a very insightful, challenging and rewarding year. The year illuminated deep truths and tidbits of wisdom, and I’d love to share them with you below. After all, as Professor Singh states, “whatever is not shared, is lost.”
More & Less: The History
My 2017 More & Less actually stemmed from a prior experiment in 2012. My dear friend Dan Fredinburg and I decided to take the first quarter (January 1 — March 31st) of 2012 completely sober. We had a lot of fun in 2011, and we wanted to see what it’s like to spend three full months sober. We were curious what it would feel like to have sober weekends; to be at a party and not drink; to witness the affect on our health, bank accounts and social network. Together, we committed and embarked on SoberQ1. The experience was a revelation and we absolutely loved it. We loved being sober, clear, healthy and productive.
Almost to our disbelief, many of our friends wanted to join us in SoberQ1. In 2013 we started building a nascent community that championed sobriety, and this extended into 2014 and beyond. We kicked off a Facebook group and Google Group email alias, and encouraged all of us to share our experiences and words of wisdom.
SoberQ1 put a magnifying glass on our relationship to alcohol and illuminated deep insights about how we socialize. It questioned our beliefs about why we drink, and how it can act as a crutch and escape. Perhaps most importantly, it proved that discipline is a muscle, and that muscle needs exercise.
We learned that we can flex our willpower in the most pressuring of situations. SoberQ1 was empowering, joyful and revealing. Cut to today, and I’m writing this piece as SoberQ1 2018 is in full effect — the community still going strong, the benefits continuing to pour in.
Cheers to you, Dan. You’re always in our hearts and minds.
Now back to 2017…
More & Less came to me as a lightbulb moment in the earliest of days of January 2017 as I contemplated expanding the SoberQ1 movement beyond sobriety. I started sharing the idea with my friends and family — not knowing how they would respond once this idea was out of my head and released into the world. They all smiled and said, “go for it!” Now, with my accountability partners behind me, I ventured off into 2017 and committed to a full year of More & Less.
The following is a month-by-month recount of experience. Below I have shared my lessons learned, and a framework for you to consider something similar. After all, it’s just 30 days — what could be so bad?!
And now without further ado, my More and Less of 2017:
JANUARY: — ALCOHOL
This was an easy choice for Month One. The Holidays tend to be indulgent, and I was ready to start the year as I usually do: clean, healthy and sober. This isn’t to say that there weren’t challenges along the way…
On January 1st, 2017, I woke up in beautiful Tulum, Mexico. The sun was out, the ocean was sparkling, and everyone was still glowing from an amazing New Years. Around 3p, my friends ordered bottles of Rose (who doesn’t love Rose?!) to our patch of sandy paradise. Beads of ice sweat dripped down the pink bottles, whispering ‘Alex, Alex’. I held my ground and honored my word: no alcohol in January. This set the tone for the remainder of the month, and gave me the courage to drink cranberry sodas in Manhattan bars, sip water with my burgers and not keep California Cabs in my wine fridge.
As the end of January rolled around, it was time to make my Month Two selection and announce to the world through Social Media that I was going ALL IN on More & Less 2017.
A brief side note on how I chose my themes: during the final week of the month, I turned inward and listened. I really wanted to feel what called out. The loudest signal from inside would be (un)lukcy winner.
FEBRUARY: — SOCIAL MEDIA
On January 31st, I shared the concept of More & Less on Facebook and Instagram. Once I hit share, I knew I was in the for the long-haul. And to really demonstrate my commitment out of the gate, I chose Social Media. For the month of February, no Instagram, Facebook or Twitter for me. I moved the apps off my iPhone homepage to reduce temptation, and pledged to take a hiatus. I let my friends know I’d be back February 28th, and I’d be reachable through calls, texts and emails.
Then I signed off.
I inhaled. Then exhaled.
And almost to my dismay, the world didn’t stop. I think I actually heard a bird chirp. Those first few precious moments off one of my strongest addictions felt like a looong time.
The first few days posed some challenges. The bathroom was not nearly as fun; elevator rides were more awkward; I may have actually felt moments of boredom (the horror). But to tell you the honest truth, I kinda liked it. It was liberating and calming. I didn’t have to choose which epic photo to share and I didn’t have to craft a clever or heartfelt caption. I gained minutes (maybe hours?) back into my day and got more shit done.
On February 28th, I triumphantly re-entered the social matrix, and puffed up my chest. February was a success and now I was on a roll…
MARCH: — COFFEE
I love coffee. I love the smell, the taste, the culture. I love coffeeshops, and a morning cup of Joe. I love espresso drinks and grinding beans and feeling the warmth of the mug in my hands. This is part of my morning routine and I felt called to the challenge of removing one of my favorite pleasures (addictions).
What would the mornings be like without coffee? What would the subject line of my emails or titles of my calendar invites look like without the word coffee in the them? Do I meet people and drink water? Will I be a zombie at work come 3p? These were the questions that swirled in my little head on March 1st.
Well, as you can tell, I survived. Habits can be broken. Saying no is one of our most powerful tools. After all, the quality of our no’s builds the foundation of the quality of lives.
In a small way, I felt like I was reprogramming myself and updating myself with new software. Something I thought I needed was actually something that I just wanted. I was able to break another habit cold turkey, and felt my willpower muscle getting stronger.
APRIL: — RED MEAT
Coming from a Father who would starve if he didn’t eat red meat felt like an appropriate Less theme for me. Red meat is a guilty pleasure. In fact, bacon may be the biggest guilty pleasure on Planet Earth. A juicy burger from In’n’Out, a medium-rare T-Bone from Striphouse, a pastrami sandwich from 2nd Ave Deli…mmmm. Yes, I’m my Father’s son (and now I’m hungry).
But to be honest, I’ve always wanted to remove red meat from my diet. I know it’s not good for my health; I know killing animals is wrong; I know the devastating environmental effects from our industrial meat factories. I know all this and wonder…why in the hell do I still engage in this behavior? Do I need a triple bypass surgery ala Bill Clinton to wake me up? My highest version of myself is vegetarian, and April brought me one step closer to that expression.
MAY: + MEDITATION
As April was coming to an end, another idea dawned on me. Could I add a theme, or did I have to only remove a theme? I journeyed inside and asked myself if More fit into my 2017 commitment. A resounding Yes came back!
Cool. So what did I want to add? Another clear signal rippled into my consciousness: my being begged for a daily meditation practice.
Some of the people I admire most point to meditation as one of their clues for success. Just as too many tabs on a browser can crash it, or leaving your laptop on for days can slow it down, so too does our monkey brain chip away at our capacity. We need resets. We need rest. Certainly sleep is a form of rest, but others states of rest and rejuvenation exist and meditation is a core one. For the first half of the month, I was pretty darn committed. I spent 15–20 minutes in the morning before work breathing, sitting quietly, eyes closed, and doing my best to meditate.
Two things became clear:
- Mediation is hard!
- More was actually harder than Less. Adding something presented a greater challenge than removing something. Breaking habits was easier than making habits.
May was a peephole into to the power of meditation, and helped me commit to my December theme.
JUNE: — SUGAR
Without hesitation, I know my answer to the timeless question, “What would be your last meal on Earth?”
An Ice Cream Cookie Sandwich! I love them. I love ice cream (and I blame my Mom — she ate a pint of Haagen Dazs ice cream every night when she was pregnant with me. And yes, that said pint is still my favorite flavor). I love cookies. And I love ice cream sandwiched by cookies!
Sugar was a likely suspect for Less. The problem with sugar is that it’s basically in everything. Bread, granola bars, peanut butter…the list goes on and on. Rather than torturing myself during my birthday month, I eliminated all things that were blatantly sugar. So, no ice cream (cue my child-like self crying), no cookies, no cakes, no brownies, no candy, no chocolate. It sucked. I missed my sweet fix after a meal.
Sugar has turned into a toxic vice for us. High-fructose corn syrup is a deadly river that runs through almost everything. What was meant to be an occasional delight has turned into a pervasive additive. Heart disease, obesity, hyper-tension and more dis-ease can be traced back to an abundance of sugar in our daily diets. A sugarless diet was certainly hard, but I liked it.
I made it through June and did cheat on the 25th with some birthday cake and ice cream.
JULY: + JOURNALING
I’ve always admired my friends who keep a regular journal. It seems healthy to me to get your thoughts on paper and work through things through writing. Sometimes you just got to get it out, and paper and pen can serve as your sanctuary.
Despite the admiration, I’ve not been able to build a daily writing ritual. July took me overseas through an invitation to attend Nyla’s and Andrew’s wedding. They shared their vows underneath a beautiful tree in the hills of Scotland. Though the wedding only last three days, I made a 17 day adventure out of it. Sweden, Holland, Scotland and Spain, here I come! As June neared it’s end, and with #AdventureAwaits right in front of me, I committed to a month of journaling.
I spent my first day in Sweden at a bustling open air market. I stumbled upon this pocket of Zen goods and wares, and proudly procured my very own Buddha journal. It felt right in my hands, and I carried it to the banks of a nearby river. There I wrote my first entry under a setting sun. With an accomplished smile on my face, I went back to the hotel and enjoyed a dinner by my lonesome.
I wish I could report to you that the rest of July was just as romantic, with each entry flowing against the backdrop of some beautiful European landscape. It wasn’t. I had a hard time with this daily routine, and even though I love writing (as evidenced by this verbose blog post) it felt more like homework than growth-work. I did successfully create an entry (with an accompanied sketch) every day during my EuroTrip, but it fell immediately off upon my return to New York. Darn.
To this day, I keep the buddha journal on top of my bedroom drawer, perhaps hoping one day I’ll naturally pick it up and scribble down my thoughts, my emotions, my hopes and dreams. That day has not come yet…
AUGUST: + SWEAT
The Dog Days of Summer: kids playing in fountains; ice cream parlors with long lines out the door; picnics in the park and subway rides replaced by Citi Bike. As a San Diego boy, I really do love Summer. Sweating was on my mind, and all over my body. For August I listened to the seasons, and added Sweat to my daily routine.
I defined sweat as something I had to do proactively. Walking to work and sweating because of the humidity didn’t count. Sweating had to come from the gym, or yoga, or spin. Sweating had to be earned. The good news is I love to sweat, and having this as a proper incentive kept me honest.
This was my third More of 2017, and probably the easiest for me. Since this was already part of my normal routine, it just needed to be enhanced. I liked my August experiment, and can see this commitment applied to Summer 2018.
SEPTEMBER: — SPENDING
Good ol’ fashioned retail therapy. It feels good to buy new things. I like clicking ‘confirm’ when I shop online. I like supporting local businesses and updating my apartment and buying new clothes. I started to notice a troubling trend on my monthly credit card bills and made the call: September I’d reduce my spending. I’d only buy things I really needed, not wanted. Survival mode activated, I marched into September.
You know, it was kind of relief. I didn’t take much notice of enticing ads, I didn’t spend time on Amazon, or in Apple, or window shopping in SoHo. It kinda reminded me of removing Social Media in that once it was off the table, I was okay without it. It was a relief. Sure I spent money on food, and I paid my rent and bills, I just didn’t buy sh*t. I freed up some mental space and reversed the rising credit card bill trend. It felt good.
Above is one of my all-time favorite quotes from Confucius: “Happiness does not consist in having what you want, but in wanting what you have.” This quote always seems to infinity-loop back to me at the right times. This moment very much included.
OCTOBER: — CURSE WORDS
I started catching myself at work saying bad words. I would throw in a f-bomb for emphasis or say something crude for a laugh. I’d hear myself and not like what I was hearing. For October, I carried an imaginary jar and put a “dollar” in it every time I used a curse word. I’d imagine my parents washing my mouth out with soap if I said something unsavory. This commitment coupled with these imaginary protocols helped me right the ship.
Words are potent. What we say carries energy. How we talk and the words we use define us. Increasing my sense of awareness around my language and tone proved to be healthy and beneficial. I’m not sure others even noticed my October Less challenge, but I did. And that really matters.
NOVEMBER: + GOOD DEEDS
As the holidays rolled around, I wanted to do something for others. I thought about my year, and the focus on self. I wanted to take this experiment and take it beyond lil me. Inspiration struck and More Good Deeds came into my consciousness.
This was fun. Of course I love doing good things for others as the norm, but now I had the daily focus to really light it up. I made a list and smiled every time I opened the Good Deeds iPhone note.
Day one: walking home from the market and sharing my goodies with a homeless person.
Day two: helping someone figure out how to use Citi Bike.
Day three: donating to my friend’s non-profit.
The list went on, and November was turning out to be a lot of fun. There was one Good Deed that stands out, though. It was simple and powerful, and detailed below:
My Mom and Dad came to visit me in November and we made a weekend trip up to Boston. My Mom had never been and it was time to cross it off the bucket list. After an incredible dinner at my Dad’s favorite seafood restaurant, The Daily Catch, we walked across the street to Mike’s, the famous cannoli joint. My parent’s went inside to pick up some goodies, and I stayed outside and struck up a conversation with The Balloon Man. In his mid-50s, he had a wrinkled forehead, cropped grey hair, and clear blue eyes that contained stories. I was drawn to him and wanted to hear about his life. A few minutes passed and my parents emerged from the sea of tourists and Bostonians with a white box of cannolis. Before saying goodbye to my new friend, I bought the biggest balloon he had: The Friendly Octopus. I hadn’t accomplished the day’s Good Deed, and now I had my mission: find the Friendly Octopus’s rightful owner. After walking a few blocks, I saw my little dude across the street. A five year old boy who was surrounded by his Mom, Dad and older sister. As our families crossed each other on that fated piece of sidewalk, I said hello and presented The Friendly Octopus to him. His eyes lit up and a joyous smile widened across his face. He almost couldn’t believe it and his parents shared their thanks with us. My heart swelled and my parents and I beamed as we walked back to our hotel.
Funny me, I thought November was about making others happy…
DECEMBER: + VIPASSANA
And then there was the final month of the year: December. As it turned out, I saved the hardest for last.
I closed 2017 with a Vipassana retreat. The experience included over 100 hours of meditation, and 9 days of Noble Silence. It was quiet, reflective, powerful and intense. It was a challenge like none other I have ever faced, and it required all of my determination, perseverance and inner strength. Days started at 4a with the sound of gongs and lights were out at 10p. Each day was a roller coaster.
I first learned of Vipassana in the Spring of 2013, when I found myself on a remote Cambodian island. Half of the Digital Detox attendees had done a Vipassana and my curiosity was piqued. I felt called to do one too, and it took 4.5 years to muster up the courage to enroll.
It’s amazing what happens when you cut off all communication. Communication both in real-life and digitally. At first, you feel like you’ve lost a limb, or one of your senses. It’s jarring and scary. And then you layer in 10+ hours of meditation (per day!) and there’s no stopping this ride. You’re ALL-IN. All-in means full surrender. All-in means exploring the deepest parts, the darkest parts…all the parts. Vipassana rocked my world in a way nothing else has ever done and I’m still reverberating and processing it.
A few key takeaway:
I’m more in-tune with my body than ever before. Vipassana is observation through body scan. I’m more familiar with every square inch of my soul’s temple and for that, I’m eternally grateful. We have the most magical of vessels.
Throughout the experience, I kept coming back to the present-moment (or trying to!). We live so much of our lives in the past or in the future. The truth of the matter is all we really have is now. And now. As my friend Gina’s tattoo says, “Be Here Meow.”
I am in deep communion with Nature. When everyone and everything is cut out, Nature held me. The sunrises were the most glorious pastel paintings I’ve ever seen; the sunsets offered a moment for deep contemplation and reflection; the night sky was crystal clear — the stars danced with each other in perfect universal harmony and the moon provided me immense comfort. I also loved witnessing the jack rabbits play, the ants steadfast on their united mission, the birds playing their magical symphonies and the bees reporting to duty on time, every time. Nature is the coolest.
4. Social Connection
There’s a reason why solitary confinement is the highest order of punishment. It’s really hard and unhealthy to be cut off from our families, our friends, our tribes. You quickly realize how meaningful a hug can be, how important it is to share and communicate, the importance of soulful eye contact. My goodness, when Noble Silence was replaced with Noble Speech on Day 10, I could feel myself blossoming, being nourished by all the human miracles around me. I have not taken human connection for granted since leaving Joshua Tree.
Arriving back home in San Diego was one of the most profound and emotional moments of my life. The sense of accomplishment and depth of what I just experienced has forever changed my life. If you’re interested in learning more about a Vipassana retreat, visit: https://www.dhamma.org/en-US/index or reach out to yours truly.
Throughout 2017 I received so much positive feedback from More & Less. I’ve heard from many friends that they were inspired, and some have even committed to their own monthly challenges and experiments. How cool!
These images and the intentions behind them mean the world to me. Thank you all so much. Thank you for your feedback throughout the year, and for keeping me accountable during this rewarding, challenging and illuminating journey. Thank you for also encouraging me to write this piece, and thank you for sharing your commitments and experiences with me.
A special shoutout to my dude Jason Briscoe, who named the experiment “More & Less” and is committed to his own experiment in 2018. I also want to thank my soul sis Steph Bagley for the loving edits and feedback on this post. Jason and Steph are two of my all-time favorite co-conspirators, and I am so grateful for you both!
Before we part, a question and a final offering:
A frequent question: did any of these experiments stick?
Well, yes, and no.
I am proud to say that I now have a daily meditation practice. My social media apps never made their way back to my homepage. I try to go for tea in the afternoons rather than coffee. I do my best to not keep ice cream in the house. I’m also eating less red meat these days. I curse less and love doing random good deeds. I’m not journaling and sometimes I spend more money than I should. One thing is for sure: my relationship with all these themes are different. They have been updated. And they are still being observed, analyzed and challenged. I am constantly changing, and they are too.
A final offering, if I may:
We are more powerful, capable and disciplined than we give ourselves credit for.
So let us set bold intentions and be clear with our goals.
Let’s give each other the the permission to be the most epic versions of ourselves. Let’s share our gifts freely. Let’s declare and run towards our dreams, and let’s truly believe in ourselves. Let’s be cheerleaders rather than critics. More Yes, And’s and less No, But’s, please.
Let’s embody the absolute highest expressions of ourselves and be present with each other. Let’s truly listen.
The universe is yearning this of us.
Let’s rise to the occasion, stand in love and fully embrace the miracle of now. The miracle of life on Earth.