The only way to reach your targets in life is to get to work. But it’s easier said than done. Only a fraction of people in life are actively working towards their goals. They know how to create and use the right tools and processes to generate progress for themselves. A lot of these people have a ton of interesting things to say. So I thought I’d interview them.
Most of my weekly guests created their own business, and they got where they are today by successfully implementing self-discipline in their life. To each one of them, I ask questions about their life, their learnings, their tools, and sometimes about which celebrity they would like to have coffee with.
There are no rules for success, only consistency in the work you do. None of the people I interviewed are super-humans. They’re just dedicated, and they have a lot of awesome things to teach us.
Let’s get to it.
My guest this week is Brian Pennie. On October 8, 2013, Brian experienced his first day clean after 15 years of chronic heroin addiction. Instead of perceiving his addiction as a failure, he embraced a second chance at life and went to university to study the intricacies of human behaviour. Since then, Brian has become a keynote speaker, a PhD student, and a university lecturer teaching the neuroscience of mindfulness and addiction. He is also a published academic author and he has just finished his first book, a memoir called Bonus Time, which will be released in spring 2020 with Gill Books. You can also find his work on Medium, Quora, and on his website where he has developed a free program about nine of the strategies he used to change his life.
You were addicted to heroin for 15 years. You went on to become a keynote speaker, business owner, PhD candidate, University lecturer, with one book deal at a mainstream publishing house. What changed?
Well, lots of things changed for me but I supposed the big thing that happened is this: I hit rock bottom. I lost everything and nearly died. I had a seizure, and in the process bit my tongue and split it in half. After that experience, I entered rehab and had a massive perspective shift in my way of thinking.
The way I like to describe it is that I cracked my ego. I changed the story that I told myself. I used to have a story that was: “I am anxious, I need to do drugs to cope with anxiety.” During rehab and my perspective shift, my mind got very quiet, anxiety left me. There was no more story, my life completely changed. I dropped the ego, I dropped the story that I told myself. Because anxiety left me, I broke free and became lighter.
Do you have a morning routine?
I have a very structured morning routine, and it’s completely non-negotiable for me to have it. At the moment I base it on an acronym called MAVIG. That stands for:
- Inner child
It takes me about 15 minutes. I do 6 minutes of meditation, and I spend 2 minutes on each other item on the list.
My morning routine centres me, gets me focused, sets my intentions, triggers me to be present, grateful, positive throughout the day. I put a lot of the success I’ve had in life down to my morning routine. It’s such an important component of my life.
What is the number one habit/routine you attribute the most success to in your life (online and/or offline)?
Without a doubt, self-observation paired with mindfulness. In addiction I was a master of self-deception. But now I always try to observe myself through my thoughts, my feelings, and my bodily sensations.
By practicing mindfulness on a regular basis as well as self-observation, I’ve created a space between stimulus and response. And with this practice, that space has grown. Whenever I’m triggered by challenges and events, that space is there and I have to respond in a rational manner rather than acting on my emotions, anger…
Self-observation is by far the number one habit I practice that I attribute a lot of my success to.
What is the number one productivity item you can’t live without?
I can’t live without my laptop, but I’m not going to talk about the physical item. Instead, I’m going to answer this: just being able to say no.
Many people in today’s world say yes to so many things. But an ability to say no gives you the time to do the things that are important like your family, hobbies, work. It is so, so important.
The trick is that you have to know when exactly to say no. That’s why I’m very clear on 3 things in my life:
- My values
- My goals
- My purpose: to show people that change is possible
So whenever I’m asked to do something, whenever I have a decision to make, I ask myself “will it make my goals go faster?”, or “does it align with my values?”. If it doesn’t, because I’ve thought deeply about these things, I say no, and I have no problem with that.
The One Book you recommend for self-improvement and/or productivity?
Awareness, by Anthony de Mello. It’s an amazing book about how we are jerked around by our mind. It’s also where I got the idea of self-observation, of building self-awareness into my life.
Anthony has a great story at the start of that book about a little eagle who lived in a chicken coop and thought he was a chicken. All his life, the little thought he was a chicken, and died thinking he was a chicken.
What Anthony is saying is that many people are eagles living like chickens. We have so much potential if we become aware of what life is really about, if we quiet our minds and stop being jerked around by the advertising in life, the people doing things that don’t align with our goals and values. That’s a book I couldn’t recommend enough. I read it every few months, it’s brilliant.
Can you tell us about your use of journaling and goal tracking?
I journal intermittently. If I’m stuck on a problem I write a question “how can I move this problem forward in the next 2 weeks?”. And I do a brain dump during that journaling session and analyse very specific problems.
When it comes to goals, I do track them everyday. I have a daily todo list, but it’s not a ticked off todo list. It’s more setting my goals for the day to what I have to do. I rate how well I’ve done it, look at how good I’m doing things.
If I’m writing and I have a 2-hour slot where I’m working on an article for a blog, I’ll rate how well I’ve done. If I’ve done a great job and I was focused I’ll give it a 8 or 9/10. If I was a bit distracted I’ll probably give it 5/10. I rate these things to see and track how well I’m implementing my goals.
I’ll add that because I’ve been working on my book for the last 4 months, I actually haven’t been doing what I just talked about. But I’m finishing my edits soon, and I will be getting back into that game, for more daily stuff. Lately it’s been all about the book.
How important is time off for you, and what do you do when you take time off?
I exercise one hour every day after my mourning routine, at the gym with the lads. That is a sort of time off for me, where I let out a bit of steam. It’s also a social time.
But other than that, time off is my Achilles heel. I’m addicted to learning, to self-improvement. I think time off is very important, but I haven’t been doing that. When my book edits are out of the way, I plan to put a lot more effort into taking time off and just being, doing nothing. I’m going to take Christmas off to recharge the batteries. I think my best writing comes when I’m letting things process.
You’ve talked about the importance of sweating the small stuff in life. Can you elaborate on that?
How you do anything is how you do everything. I remember I heard that people who floss their teeth tend to live longer. Not a little, but a lot longer. It’s not because they floss their teeth, it’s because if you sweat the small stuff in life, you tend to do everything that way.
People who floss their teeth tend to exercise, eat well, focus on the little important things in life, health, cleanliness… I think that if you start taking your eye off the ball and you let the small things go, then you start letting the bigger things go overtime. So sweat the small stuff.
Going into rehab was the best investment you could make in yourself given your situation back then. What is one of the most recent ways you’ve invested in yourself, and why?
Without a shadow of a doubt, it’s been reaching out to people further along the path. I wrote an article about this. In the start of 2018 I decided to take a leaf out of Tim Ferris’s book Tribe of Mentors. I decided I wanted a tribe of my own.
So I reached out to many of Ireland’s most successful people. Actors, sports people, business people… I was looking to try to hack the tools and the tactics they implement in their lives. I have seen great results using this strategy. I now have mentors for myself. My speaking career was launched on the back on that initiative too, and I might even get a TV show out of it.
Connecting with people further along the path is being bold, taking a chance, dreaming big, and just going for it. Because at the end of the day, regardless of who you’re reaching out to, they’re just normal people. I’ve been in touch with guys like Adam Robinson, Derek Sivers, by just reaching out. The way I see it is if you don’t ask, the answer will always be no.
If you could have coffee and talk about anything with a personality (dead or alive) you admire, who would it be and why?
I would pick Anthony de Mello again here, but I’ve already talked about him. My number one book recommendation was a flip-the-coin between his book and The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. So if I could have a coffee break with anyone, I would have to pick Eckhart Tolle. When I got clean he started to set me up for how I was going to live my life.
There are 3 pillars that I live my life by:
- One of them is self-observing, which I’ve talked about earlier on.
- The second one is just being. Look at the plants, look at the animals, they’re just being. You don’t get a jealous race horse or a frog with self-esteem issues. A frog is just a frog, a horse is just a horse. We humans tend to get angry, jealous, self-doubt… All of these things we think inside our brains. So that’s another lesson from Eckhart Tolle, to get away from always thinking of what is happening.
- The third one is accepting life as it is. Tolle calls this the “isness” of life. The bottom line is, if something has happened, it already is the case, we can’t change it. Accept the “isness” of life.
So we could chat about these things, but the main reason why I would want to have coffee with him is so we could just be present. I’ve listened to his teachings, I followed him for a while, and then I got caught up in productivity and content like that. I think that if I sat for 10 minutes with him, I would have a shift in my way of thinking just by being in his presence. So yes, meeting Eckhart Tolle would be great, one day.
There you have it. I want to personally thank my guest for taking the time to provide me and my readers with really insightful answers. I am deeply grateful to Brian Pennie. Congrats on turning your life around, and all the best with your future projects!
If you want to take control of your time, stop wasting your energy, and prioritise the right things, my free tool The 168 Hours Spreadsheet will help!