freewriting_problem_solving

Automatic writing for problem solving

Freewriting, also called automatic writing, is a fantastic tool for problem solving. Even more than that, it is a wonderful tool for generating creative ideas, organizing chaos in your head and getting unstuck. I’ve got really hooked to this practice when I read “Accidental genius” by Mark Levy.

I consider this book a must-read, especially for visual learners, who want to become effective in their problem solving. The book is full of valuable exercises and methods for generating ideas painlessly and having them well organized. Although it reads as a workbook, it can certainly be appreciated without making the exercises step by step. You can  jump into freewriting directly. Even though the book is geared towards a business world, the concepts are directly applicable to these who want to use their brains creatively. Be prepared, though, that it is a dry or cynical read, at times.

The idea of automatic writing is to define your problem first, set a timer to say 15min ans start writing continuously and as fast as possible until the timer beep. The fast paces forces your mind to reach for its internal resources and partial solutions, hidden from the plain view.

According to the author, there are six secrets for a solution-focused freewriting.

1. Try Easy.

“A relaxed 90% is more efficient than a vein-bulging 100% effort.”

Just relax and start scribbling. When you do automatic writing, your goal is not to produce a breath-taking piece of prose, but to jot your ideas down on the paper, instead. That’s it. You are to collect your ideas, as if you are collecting leaves, flowers or conkers with your kid for some home-make projects.

Before you start freewriting, it’s good to have a small ritual where you remember to be easy with yourself and stay centered during writing. When you allow yourself to relax, your mind will set itself free. It will maneuver through the maze of thoughts the way it likes.

2. Write fast and continuously.

When you write fast you actually ask your mind to operate closer to the speed of your thoughts than to the internal critic or perfectionist inside you. By uncensored writing you put the editor on hold so
that the creative part of you can have a better possibility to emerge through the process. If you don’t know what to write just keep repeating the last word.

With experience, your mind will know that you will not stop writing so it will relax on opening the gate to half-baked or inappropriate ideas. These are your golden eggs as such ideas are usually brutally honest and in-depth insights, observations, or knowings.

The goal of the continuous writing is to have a brain-storming session with yourself with the exception that you don’t hold the judgement. The judgemnt will only come later when your writing time is off and when you can inspect your thoughts, and refine them when needed.

Your best ideas, similarly as the most beautiful diamonds, will show up in rough, unpolished stones.

3. Work against a time limit.

“The timer enforces a self-imposed behavioral contract”.

In brief, the time limit makes you more resourceful. The analogy is to sprinting. If you are to sprint over a short distance, you can certainly commit to it. However, if you only know that you are supposed to sprint for some distance between 1 and 20 miles (km), you will have a hard time to keep your focus on. The goal is too vague and too demanding. In contrary, the limitation, the deadline or the barrier will challenge you to think outside the box and explore unknown paths.

4. Write the way you think.

This is a good one, because your imperative is to get the raw thoughts.  These will later become your material for creating the solution. When you write the way you speak, thoughts have already been polished or digested. The novelty is hidden behind the horizon.

Thoughts are super fast and your goal is to use writing to record yourself thinking. Use your own slung or strong language, words abbreviation or whatever words come to your mind. Your ideas are flowing in your head and they need to flow easily on the paper too.

 5. Go with the thought.

Write your thought down and extend it. Don’t edit, don’t contradict yourself to disagree with the idea. Even when your thought is provocative or crazy, go with it. When a thought is written down, accept is as it is and continue to explore it further down. Your task is to explore the path where the thought leads to, to exhaust all the possibilities that show up in your mind. If A is true then B comes next. If B is there then C must happen etc.

If you can happen to explore on line of thinking in depth in the given time, just set the timer for an additional 5 min and ask yourself where another path lead. “What is a different direction I can take for an effective solution?”

6. Redirect your attention.

In automatic writing, your objective is to explore the problem  and the solution at depth and at width. The later means that you want to travel as many thoughts as possible (within the time limits). When When you feel that you may become bewildered on not knowing what to write next, redirect your attention.

A good focus-changer is an open question related to what you have just written. It may challenge you to explain this particular point of view differently, or to look for holes in your thinking. This redirection oftentimes comes in the forms of an open question such as “How else can I say that?”, “What am I missing here?”, “How can I describe this situation to X?” (where X becomes kids, a friend, the boss, a bookshop seller, a sportsmen, a Disney character etc), “What is the best case scenario?“, “How can I implement it fast?”, and so on.

When you feel you have explored a direction, just ask an open question to start a new conversation with yourself.

Thinking without anchor is poorly utilized

As explained in the previous post, thinking needs a physical anchor to make it a laser-concentrated focus towards a solution. Paper or a computer screen provide a powerful focusing force. Without the physical outlet, prolonged thinking often gets circular, or degenerates into daydreaming.

The process of freezing your thoughts onto paper is invaluable because:

  1. it helps you to create order from chaos
  2. it centers and grounds you
  3. it provides perspective and context
  4. it enables you to understand (over time and practice) of whom you are becoming
  5. it pushes you beyond your comfortable thoughts
  6. you access knowledge you have forgotten and consult inner knowing you were not aware you had
  7. it allows you to track the associative line of thinking back to its origins
  8. and  give you a solid, raw material to explore, expand and create from

Make freewriting a daily habit. Your genius is waiting to be consulted 😉

***

Photo copyright by Ian Sane, available on Flickr under the Creative Commons.

 

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“It is an old ironic habit of human beings to run faster when we have lost our way.” 
Rollo May

Paraphrazing the quote above, we run faster or attempt to do more when we are lost, overwhelmed and don’t know what to do.

Turning back, being still or letting go may be the hardest things under the sun because they require trust.

Instead of stopping what we have been doing so far, we often prefer to act even more. Taking action and handling urgent tasks leaves us with a tangible feeling that something is being done. We feel as if we are moving towards a solution.

The higher the level of busyness, the faster we seemingly move. 

What if we are moving in a wrong direction?

***

I’ve been busy, oftentimes too busy, most of my adult life. If this busyness had been directly related to the results I would have moved mountains by my achievements. I didn’t, however. I curved shapes in a few rocks, instead. 

There are two strong reasons behind it. First, I grew up believing that only hard work for long hours would produce results. I have spent countless hours working very hard. I believed these were necessary for success, even though many hours were unproductive. In fact, I could have better used them for rest to maintain balance

Secondly, I’m a polymath i.e. a person who has too many interests to selectively focus on a few only. I want to be an expert in multiple unrelated fields, but not necessarily the top 1%. Top 5% sounds good enough 😉 

Understanding. It took me years to understand the following. Hard work is essential for success. It is hard work, but not arbitrary hard work. It is hard work of a certain kind and quality, in agreement with the principle of rhythm. This means that rest, thinking time and playful creativity are as important as intensive work is. 

Being busy the right way

I believe a structured busyness is healthy for us. What I mean is a daily structure in which you work on your goals, projects, products or ideas. Following your vision.

Any meaningful achievement requires dedication and effort, which is work. At the same time, any meaningful achievement consists of multiple small steps and some “a-ha moments”. Such insights only arise when there is sufficient space and stillness in which the creative process is able to unfold on its own.

Being still or playful is a necessary ingredient of the structured busyness. Knowing how to follow the rhythm of work and rest is an indispensable skill to master. It is the key to success.

The danger comes from overwork and being too busy all the time. This means an endless to-do list and flood of tasks, projects, ideas, and work to handle. Such an approach is especially draining on the mental level. Over-busyness and hard work all the time is counter-productive and often leads to permanent stress, burnout or an illness. I guess we all know that. 

What lies beneath continuous busyness

I see three factors behind overwork and busyness.

The first factor is rooted in either an inaccurate self-image or/and self-esteem, or fear. The fear may be of various kind but it is usually a fear of rejection, loneliness or failure. This manifests as the inability of saying “no”, when we want to please everybody and be friends with everybody. We are afraid that people may stop liking us with all the consequences of this.  

On the other hand, the same factor may manifest as having too high standards for deliverables, which is related to perfectionism and feelings of obligation. We believe we have to be spotless and expect the same from others. In both cases, the inability of saying “no” or perfectionism lead to more tasks and responsibilities than it is possible to handle. 

Partial solution: Accept yourself and value yourself.  Learn to simplify and say “no”. It is a laser focus that delivers results.

The second factor behind busyness is ineffective work. Busy people are usually quite efficient, but not effective. Remember that efficiency means doing things right, which is about doing particular tasks well. Effectiveness means doing the right things i.e. things that matter in the context of our job, goal, task or purpose etc. 

Example. Imagine you receive 100 emails daily on average. To handle this you have perfectly optimized your inbox structure. Your inbox structure is complex to allow for all type of messages and actions to be taken. While this may be a great solution, it is hugely inefficient. Assuming that it takes you 2min per email, we arrive at more than 3h of handling emails daily – time that could have been spent better otherwise. 

In this context an effective approach is to first eliminate your incoming email perhaps by developing detailed FAQs on your products or discouraging clients from contacting you unless truly necessary. The next step is to have a simple system for inboxing and automation as much as possible. This should ideally cut your emails to 20 or less per day.

Partial solution: Pay attention and become aware. Ask questions on how repetitive tasks can be simplified and automated. Look for ways to improve the given process.

The third factor behind busyness is a defence or resistance to face the challenge that matters and, oftentimes awaits us anyway.

By keeping ourselves too busy we leave no time for thinking, questions and introspection. Overwork is an excuse to postpone an important decision taking because we may not like the consequences. By buying busy we avoid a challenge ahead in a false hope that this challenge will vanish or be solved somehow. Busyness often masks for lack of trust.

Partial solution: Create trust. Gather your courage and face the truth. There is no growth if you try to escape the challenge in your face.

***

The partial solutions above address some important points, but they do not expand beyond busyness. The growth beyond busyness relies on deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice

We need the long hours for developing expertise, estimated by some as much as 10 000 hours (see Gladwell’s book Outliers). It is however not the hours alone that reach the conclusion. Expertise requires much more than hours. With the hours alone we are destined to mediocre at best.

What we need are the hours dedicated to pushing through and outside our comfort zone, i.e. handling challenges and tasks we don’t know yet or are not comfortable with. It becomes a deliberate practice. And there are only few who would follow this path.

Why?

Because this path requires discipline to endure pain of uncomfortable tasks or uneasy experiences beyond what is known. This is necessary to train the mental and physical muscles as well as myelin towards a development of new skills and deeper foundations.

While developing a skill you need to deliberately choose challenges of an increasing difficulty within the field or in the neighboring fields. What is however interesting is that such laser focus and uncomfortable action is needed for relatively short times, say hours a day instead of the whole days. Such days become highly disciplined in which intensive yet uncomfortable practices are structured at specific times.

Committing to such a training is a path of personal growth. See this article for more details. 

Example. Let’s say you need to develop your presentation skills because you will be giving talks on conferences. You start by preparing your slides and then training your talk. In the beginning, people often write it down and memorize sentence by sentence, or train by repeating the whole talk endlessly to make it sound smooth. While this is a good strategy for newbies, when you need to handle your fear of public speaking, it is an ineffective strategy when you have already spoken a few times. 

You need to practise, but rehearsing a complete talk multiple times is counterproductive. The challenge is to focus on the difficult pieces only and leave some space for the story to emerge.

The next step is to consequently increase the difficulty from an event to an event. This may be training your voice in smooth talking, only a light preparation beforehand and improvization at the spot, introducing an interesting side story, making a joke that fits, becoming interactive with the audience, and so on.

Strengthening your myelin

In the book the Talent code, Coyle develops further the ideas presented by Gladwell. The book gives arguments why talents are merely grown through a hard work and practice. Coyle points out to the role and workings of myelin.

If we see a human movement or thought as an electrical impulse travelling through a circuit of neurons, then myelin is the insulation which wraps around these fibres and increases their signal strength. Coyle says “The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become”.

In short, the book postulates three necessary ingredients behind any talent or expertise. First, you start with a burning desire to become great at something. Secondly, you follow great mentoring or find good teachers. Finally, you need a”deep practice”, a deep focus of doing the thing you are working on and constantly improving it. The goal of the practice is to strengthen the myelin strand coatings in the brain in order to strengthen brain connections made during practice.

The conclusion of the book is that passion and persistence are the key ingredients of talent and success. Why? “Because wrapping myelin around a big circuit requires immense energy and time. If you don’t love it, you’ll never work hard enough to be great.”

Pareto principle and Parkinson’s law

Now we know that practice is necessary for success. Such a deliberate practice relies on tools, techniques and systems. In my opinion, it has to incorporate two rules, one by Pareto and the other by Parkinson.

Pareto rule (80/20): 80% of the results are achieved through the 20% of effort.

Of course the proportion is approximate, but it gives you an idea. This rule reminds us that the majority of time is spent on the details while the essential things (80%) can be achieved with minor focus. This principle challenges us to produce results instead of producing them perfectly.

Example. You can easily observe this in real life. E.g. you can easily create the whole article in the 20% of the total time , the remaining 80% is spent on getting all the details right, rewriting, editing, grammar checks and formatting. These are often endless repetitions.

Parkinson’s law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
If you have only one task to be done in a day, say, writing and posting a letter, it can easily take the whole day. As a result if you reduce the time given for the completion of the practice, you will force yourself to use the time well.

Applying the two rules. The challenge is to give ourselves limits and deadlines and stick to them so that we are forced to cut unessential, eliminate distractions and arrive at innovative solutions to meet the time constraints. 

Finally

What’s the point of this article? 

Except for the obvious side effects, overwork and/or busyness kill creativity. Creativity unfolds in undisturbed time and space, when mind becomes explorative and playful.

Introduce a structured approach to your busyness which incorporates silence and empty space. Limit the time for the tasks and you will become more resourceful. You will be able to focus on the essential things and master them to perfection.

You need this step. For breath. For being. For your own presence and joy.

***

 The coaching questions about busyness

If you want a change, start by becoming aware. Explore the questions below and learn more about yourself. 

  • What do you avoid facing by keeping yourself permanently busy? What is the challenge beneath that you need to face?

Perhaps you need to communicate to your family or supervisors that your plate is too full.
Perhaps you need to organize a helping hand or a system to simplify the tasks.
Perhaps you are not happy at your job and need to  choose a new direction of your growth.
Perhaps your marriage is at risk and you need to learn new ways of communication.

Change is inevitable and the only way to go through a change is to manage change.

  • What do you loose when you are so busy?

It is important to realize what your price is. Do you have time for rest, thinking, exercise, reading books and learning new things?

  • What would you be doing if you were not that busy?

Perhaps the key point is here. Work is an important aspect of our lives. It nourishes when we can express ourselves and become creators, be it on the level of product development, programming, team management or organization structures. However, sometimes works takes everything there is in life. And then you begin to dread your free hours as you simply don’t know what to do.

Maybe it is the time to go out, find new hobbies, start volunteering or seeing others.

  • How can you become less busy and more successful?

The combined Pareto rule and Parkinson’s law are helpful here.

***

Alternatively, you can ask the questions below exploring your towards and away motivation as well as hidden aspects.

  1. What would happen if I continued to stay permanently busy?
  2. What wouldn’t happen if I continued to stay permanently busy?
  3. What would happen if I stopped being busy?
  4. What wouldn’t happen if I stopped being busy?

***

The image above shows a beautiful quilt by Inge Duin. See more of her works on www.ingeduin.nl.

 

 

 

change_is_difficult

Most people are afraid of conscious change. They would rather stay in their comfort zone than take steps into the unknown. As a result, life controls them.

Things happen to them and they respond to the circumstances. They become reactive instead of proactive and they become victims of the circumstances instead of their co-creators.

Yet the world keeps changing all the time. Both the employment of ideas and development of technology have been very fast nowadays. And we, as individuals, change every day.

We are bombarded with new information, new knowledge, new structures, new technology as well as the new challenges they pose. We collect new experiences, we learn new things and we change our minds. We evolve and change in response to the changing world.

Conscious change is often difficult. It may also be easy, if we encourage the right circumstances and apply the right strategy. An effective change can be implemented by simple and manageable steps. Change does not need to be a painful process, either. On the contrary, it can be pleasurable when we are enjoying the process.

Most people fear change and consider the fear of unknown as the major obstacle. I don’t think it makes change that difficult though.

Why is change difficult?

In my opinion there are two reasons:

  1. we don’t want it badly enough (motivation) or
  2. we don’t know how to make it happen  (techniques).

We don’t want to change

How many times did I want to become an early riser? Countless, I have to say. Have I been successful? No.

There were many times I committed to getting up at 4:30am or 5am and although I succeeded in a short term, I’ve never made it a habit. Why? I can give you various more or less valid explanations, but the truth is simple. I didn’t really want to.

I thought I wanted it because there was a logical explanation, a social pressure and a strong evidence of an organized and successful life from the early risers I knew. I understood all the benefits of becoming an early riser, too. But such a change required a major shift to happen – going to bed early to get enough sleep.

I simply loved the quiet atmosphere of the night and the focus I could get in the evening hours. The morning hours were unattractive to me because they kept introducing the pressure of the tasks to be handled in the day. I failed because I couldn’t sustain both processes: working late at night and starting fresh and energized early morning. I simply did not want to become an early riser if I had to give up my quiet evening hours (this is my secondary gain). So, I ultimately chose not to become one.

How many times did you want to loose weight, stop smoking, get fit, become debt-free or earn extra money aside? Even if you initially succeeded, have you been back to the old patterns?

It is quite common to be excited for a change, seemingly commit to it to get the short term result, only to find yourself back where you started some time ago. At the moment we take conscious action we are likely to stick to the process for a while. The moment we stop paying attention we are back on the old tracks.

Going against homeostasis and a staying both feet in the stretch zone requires much more than the initial intention and enthusiasm. It requires a conscious shift to happen.

Coaching

I love coaching because we get to know ourselves and we grow enormously through asking the right questions, committing to right action and evolving through experimentation. Through self-coaching and coaching others it has become crystal clear that most people don’t really want to change. They want a magic button instead so that the change will miraculously manifest at the door. But there is no one like that, I’m afraid.

We say we want to change and we may even think or believe so with our hearts. In reality, however, this is often untrue. When you dig deep enough, you will often want the result but not the cost to be paid, learning to go through nor the shifts required for this change to happen. We want the result, the magic pill, but not the process. As if being fit or wealthy, having an interesting job or great family was a one-time event that could have been extrapolated to a lifetime.

Change is about learning new skills or forming new habits that have to be managed and maintained.

There are three main reasons why we don’t welcome change:

  1. We lack understanding.
  2. We are not ready.
  3. We want the result but not the process.

We lack understanding

Forced change or lack of communication. This usually happens when a change is forced upon us, in a company, between peers or friends, or by some forms of social pressure.

For instance, the company has to go through a process of structural changes that will affect employers on all levels. Perhaps some positions will be threatened, new tasks introduced and new teams created. Everything is uncertain.

The lack of honest and effective communication from the CEO to the leaders, from the leaders to the managers and later co-workers will provide a fertile ground for false ideas, assumptions and speculations. This leads to the lack of trust, and ultimately creates resistance.

In addition, we also lack understanding when we have an inaccurate perception of who we are, what we want and what is our reality. This actually challenges us to dig deep to know ourselves.

Secondary gain. When we have a negative habit or a habit we would like to change, there is usually something beneath the habit that serves us well. It is called the secondary gain. We may perfectly understand the reasons and circumstances for a change to occur. We may clearly see the benefits, yet resist change from our heart.

Why?

Because deep beneath there is an additional gain for this habit to function. It may even be completely illogical.

For instance, a child may start wetting in bed simply because his secondary gain is to attract attention from the busy parents who (by default) dedicate majority of their attention to the younger siblings. Stopping this habit will withdraw the attention back to the sibling, something a child doesn’t want. And in some cases, any dedicated attention is better than no attention.

You may choose to smoke because you seek acceptance from the peers and you get it by joining the smoking circles at school or work. There are usually some interesting conversations going on. Quitting smoking would mean staying outside these circles and becoming “less cool”. You don’t want that, hence you will sabotage your approach to stopping smoking.

You may choose to over-eat because you don’t feel lonely during eating. With cooking, cleaning and eating there is always an activity to be done, so your mind (or stomach) is occupied.

We are not ready yet

Any change to happen needs to be accepted on the emotional level. In order to change we need to leave the comfort zone and taking steps into the unknown. And this bring forward our basic fear – the fear of the unknown. We are born to maintain the homeostasis, the status quo, and resist those things that we cannot easily predict the outcome. Change is uncertain and will lead us through new avenues and new learning. It invites tension and requires extra attention and focus for the new learning to occur.  It also requires new energy levels for maintaining the process.

For a change to happen we need to accept it. Not only by logical reasons, but also through the act of facing our fears that will surface on the way. We also need to give ourselves permission to make errors, choose suboptimal strategies and solve problems inefficiently. This means we grant ourselves permission to learn even if these are baby steps. Such an emotional preparation will allow us to embrace the change together with the underlying process.

We want the result but not the process

We want a quick fix without hard work. We want to become fit, healthy or wealthy overnight or in to weeks, (let it be a month but no more, ok?) without taking the necessary actions or establishing long term habits. This is again related to our inborn difficulty to think and predict trends long term. We are good at short term perspectives choosing an immediate gain (oversleeping, eating cakes, drinking coffee, buying stuff, etc) over the delayed gratification. And for these reasons, we will succumb to marketers who offer us shortcuts: one click to become a millionaire, a pill to a perfect body or a car for a perfect self-esteem.

Yet, change is a process. And we need to understand this fact.

We don’t know how to change

Change is difficult because we focus on the negative aspects of the change. We follow a wrong strategy. We want to stop habits or patterns and focus on what we don’t want. Effectively, we want to uncreate the very thing we have, but instead we usually add more features.

As we know from experience, when we have a poor product or a computer program then adding more features or creating fixes will usually not lead to a better product as a result.We will only get a complex solution, overcomplicated for the tasks to be done, counterintuitive, having too many preferences and unclear choices to be made. And perhaps even conflicts between the existing features.

It is much easier to create a new product from the scratch with the essential features only. It is then well-thought and optimized for the task, hence simple, fast and working like a charm.

The same applies to a change. If you focus on uncreating your unwanted habits by introducing fixes, you are likely opening yourself to pain and frustration.You need to replace one habit with another. But this is often difficult too. The right approach is to focus on creating a new product – the New You.

It is much easier to imagine the person you want to become and set up the conscious habits from the scratch that correspond to the You 2.0 :). This requires a cultivation of an ideal self-image, setting up right values and right beliefs, and starting small with right actions in order to built habits that serve us.

Finally

The truth is this:

If we don’t manage change, change will mismanage us.

If we don’t take the responsibility for change to happen we will become shaped by the external circumstances. Not to our liking :(.

Obviously, we can’t manage every change possible, but the essential ones. It is our task to choose the changes that matter and make a difference.

Make a choice to change. Understand the why’s and the circumstances. Get ready. Implement!

***

Photo credit Fe Langdon, available under Creative Commons on Flickr.

***

A series on green smoothies

***

I am glad you are here, because it tells me you like the idea of green smoothies. Yay! Great news.

Daily green smoothie is a simple and healthy habit that can change your whole life experience. In the previous post I give arguments why green smoothie is a fantastic way to incorporate more greens in your life and become an energized and healthier person as a result. In the movie below Sergei Boutenko demonstrates how to make a delicious smoothie. It is based on the concepts from the Green for Life book written by his mother, an originator of green smoothies. First, he talks about some principles, then in the last 2 minutes he shows how such a smoothie is made.

See also http://www.rawfamily.com. Here we will focus on the blenders.

Blenders

Any blender will mix fruit and vegetables together to make a smoothie, or a kind of smoothie. As usual, the devil lies in the details. The difference between blenders is in the following aspects:

  • preparation: the amount of work such as peeling fruits, cutting leafy greens into pieces, etc
  • quality of the final result: smoothness or how much pieces of fiber are left out unblended
  • ease of use
  • durability and sustainability
  • cleaning time

Best green smoothie blenders

The best blender will allow you to make fantastic smoothies easily and fast. The most powerful blenders include VitaMix and BlendTec brands. They are very expensive, though. A much cheaper yet a great possibility offers the Omni blender. This is the latest blender added to the family of the so-called 3-horse power, powerful blenders. It seems the best value for money. If you want a powerful blender, Omni may be the right choice. 

What makes the VitaMixBlendTec and Omni blenders so good?

Their optimal design for heavy duty and daily use.

These blenders are also multi-functional. Not only make they smoothies and green smoothies, but also ice-cream, warm soups (yes, BlendTec can produce warm soups from cold water), nut butters, sauces, drinks, doughs, cake mixes, and so on. In addition, they can grind coffee beans and seeds. These are simply professional machines so you can rely on them for a long term use.

Have you ever wanted to have a fresh peanut butter, tahini, raw halva, almond milk, sesame milk or raw ice-cream (made from almond milk, peanut butter, dates and maple sirup)? Now, you can easily make them. And they are delicious.

Mid-priced blenders

If you cannot spend a few hundred dollars/euro/pounds on a blender, you may start with a decent mid-priced blender, usually in the 50-100 $/EUR/GBP range. Such blenders will let you start experimenting with delicious smoothies without too much pondering over the expensive blenders. Just have fun.

Mid-priced blenders are generally well-equipped for making great milk shakes or soft fruit smoothies. They are not necessary capable of blending hard leafy greens well such as kale, parsley leaves or chard. They will work better with spinach, rocket leaves, lettuce, baby spinach or coriander. Still, you will need an extra care and a right blending strategy to prevent the motor from burning.

Be aware that mid-priced blenders save you money in the short term, but many people report how fast they wear out when they commit to daily use. There is a chance you will need to replace your 50-100 $/EUR/GBP blender soon after you commit to daily green smoothie, either because the motor will burn out or you will outgrow its capabilities. Look at my tips below to ensure the blender you choose lasts for some time.

How to choose your mid-priced blender

If you are unsure whether you will stick to green smoothies or not, or you cannot afford the high-end blender yet, a mid-priced blender will help you start small and keep experimenting. Follow the strategies below to make sure that the blender is right for the task.

If you like green smoothies and want to establish a daily habit, buy a high-end blender. It makes the whole experience, both making the smoothie and enjoying the result, just smooth and easy. And the blender should last for years.

Tip #1. Learn about blenders.

The best strategy is to go to a home appliances shop and investigate example blenders yourself. See how they differ in the blade lengths, bottom area, container volume, speeds, size, etc. Inspecting the blenders visually will give you a better idea of how they may work and what is that you want. For instance, some of the blenders are huge and may be impractical to fit in your kitchen.

Look at blenders’ specs and reviews on the Amazon site as well as the sites of other online retailers. Compare them to the BlendTec and VitaMix brands. After learning basic ideas about various blenders, you can perfectly buy your blender online. It is usually cheaper than in a regular shop. The differences in the making will contribute to the ease and speed of producing green smoothies.

Tip #2. Look for these qualities in your blender (sorted from most important to less important):

  • High-powered motor. 700 watts or more (preferably 1000 watts or more). You need a high rotation speed to liquefy the fruits and vegs efficiently.
  • Long stainless blade. The longer the better. Ideally, the blade should be 4-5cm long at least. The longer the blade, the easier the blending process is.
  • Ice-crushing possibility. You want to handle ice and  frozen fruit well. In addition ice-crushing usually indicates a more powerful motor, too.
  • Two or more blending speeds and a pulse. Pulse is a must. You want to control how fast you can go with the processing of the ingredients. You will need different speeds for leafy greens and fruit. You will rely on pulse to start the blending.
  • Secured lid.
  • Large container / pitcher, preferably BPA-free plastic, for durability and easy cleaning. I recommend plastic containers as I had an accident with the glass one – see the note below. High-end blenders use specially designed plastic containers and they are good. Even if you are alone or have a small family, it makes sense to buy a blender with a big container. You may happily experiment with making larger amounts of smoothie (green smoothie, milkshakes and others)  or you may invite friends for smoothie tasting. Choose a container of mimim 1-1.2 litre (50-60 ounces).
  • Wide bottom of the container. With a wide bottom, the blades can work efficiently and a better blending vortex is being created.
  • Wide skid-proof base. This is for stability. When you are blending on a high speed, the base may start sliding across your counter unless you are holding it tight or you got a blender with a solid foundation.
  • Guarantee and return possibility.

Tip #3. Choose the best blender you can afford and buy it online.

Good mid-priced blenders suitable for making green smoothies come from the KitchenAid and Hamilton Beach brands. However, they often rely on the motor power of 500 watts. Choose more watts if possible. A blender that seems a good match for making green smoothies is any of the KitchenAid 5-speed blenders. They are quite powerful (around 700 watts) and are multi-functional (chop, mix, blend etc).  I have not used any of these, but available reviews tell me they are sturdy and capable blenders. I personally had some experience with a few mid-range Braun, Kenwood and similar blenders, but I was not too happy about them.

When I was on holiday, I ordered a mid-priced blender for my family. I had used it for three weeks and I was quite pleased with it. It cannot compare to my BlendTec but it was capable of making good smoothies from non-hard leafy greens, such as spinach, rocket, lettuce and so on.

In addition to your blender, you may also like to use a cheap coffee grinder so that you can grind  sesame seeds, linseed or fresh spices. You can add them to enrich your green smoothie experience.

Tips for an effective use of your mid-priced blender

If a powerful blender is not yet possible for you, do not worry. You can still make great green smoothie if you follow the suggestions below.

  1. Start with water first and then add other ingredients. Water is the medium that helps to create a vortex that pulls fruit and leafy greens into the blades. Start with 0.5-1 cup water, depending on your blender and how much smoothie you want to make.
  2. Add your fruit second. ALWAYS add fruit before leafy greens. Leafy greens tend to get stuck into blades, especially if they are short or when the bottom of the container is narrow (which is often the case for many blenders). Fruit will help to create a better vortex. If you use a liquid-rich soft fruit, such as papaya or pineapple, you may need much less water or no water at all.
  3. Add ice third if you want (use less water when you add ice).
  4. Finally, add your leafy greens.
  5. Cut your fruits into pieces and shred your greens. Mid-range blenders may get trouble to handle big chunks of fruits or leaves.
  6. Use the PULSE button to get started. Press it a few times for a few seconds.  It is really important.  The pulse gives the ingredients the kick to get things going. It will break up large pieces into small ones and dislodge pieces that may get stuck.
  7. Choose a high speed and continue for 30 sec. Let the motor rest. You may need to repeat this a few times.
  8. Use a long spoon or other suitable kitchen utensil to get unstuck pieces of leafy greens or other larger chunks.
  9. Consider making green smoothies in parts. If the above works very slowly, start with a half of the ingredients and add the remaining ingredients slowly. Another strategy is to blend your fruits first and then add your leafy greens in small steps.
  10. Fill the container with fruits and greens only up to 80%. You need to leave some space for the blending vortex.

If you follow the above principles you should enjoy your blender for a while and be able to make green smoothies in little time.

Just do it! Make your first green smoothie. Boost your day.

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The final note is my personal recommendation:

BlendTec – the total experience!

I personally use a BlendTec Total Blender (a.k.a. Blendtec WildSide HP3A Blender – 3Qt Container & 4″ Blade). It can blend anything because it has a powerful 1500 watt motor and a very long blade.  It works amazingly well.

To prove the power of BlendTec, the Blendtec founder Tom Dickson created a funny series of info-commercials in which he attempts to blend various unusual items, such as TV controls, CDs, iphone, air-gun, etc. These hilarious short movies can be watched either on http://www.willitblend.com or YouTube. See how e.g. xbox360 is blended:

or how English and German are blended together

**** 

PLEASE READ:

As of January 2013, there are another powerful blenders on the market. E.g. Duronic BL 1200, Magimix 11610, Magimix 11615 with Mill. They look great, have 1.5-1.8 litre jugs, and are capable of a heavy duty work with their 1200 Watt motors. In addition, they are also cheap in comparison to BlendTec and VitaMix. However, I would have reservations to recommend them. Why? Because of their glass containers.

On my holiday last year I was using a powerful blender with a glass container, different than the ones mentioned above. Unfortunately, I had an accident. Due to micro-damages in the glass (invisible to my naked eye), the container burst into pieces, when I turned the motor on. If you ask, yes, I took care things were set up all right. Since my right hand was on the cover top, as the result, just in milliseconds my right thumb got into high-speed rotating blades, because the motor was still working. It shattered parts of the bone and removed parts of the flesh. It was horribly painful.

The thumb has been healing very slowly and it is still a long recovery. I am not sure whether it was just a one in million accident, but it certainly made me not to choose any glass container for blending, mixing or similar type of work, ever again.

***

 

eat_your_greens2

How are your mornings? Let me guess…. 

Stressful. Fast pacing. In hurry.

Some coffee. Something to eat. On the go.

But…

What would you say about changing the whole experience? What about a magical drink that is not only nutritious but also a great boost for the day?

Every morning I am looking forward to enjoying my magical drink. I am craving the subtle taste of this drink. I drink it sip by sip and simply love it.

It is green smoothie. And, yes, it looks very green 🙂

It has been a year since I started my daily habit of drinking green smoothie. This is one of a few habits I implemented problem-free directly after taking the decision. And I stick to it. Every day I drink two green smoothies and I adore it.

What is green smoothie?

Green smoothie is an energizing drink made by blending green leafy vegetables, such as spinach or kale, with fruit and water. If you like, frozen fruits and ice can be used as well. Another variant of green smoothie includes also non-starchy vegetables, such as cucumber or celery. The typical ratio in a green smoothie is about 60% fruit to 40% leafy greens in order to balance both nutrition and flavor. This is suggested by Victoria Boutenko, the pioneer of the green smoothie revolution.

I recommend you read her book Green for Life or Green Smoothie Revolution: The Radical Leap Towards Natural Health. Victoria developed the early ideas from the so-called Energy Soup by Ann Wigmore , so studying her work will give you even more foundation.

Motivation + benefits

The motivation behind green smoothies is to substantially increase the consumption of leafy green vegetables, or leafy greens, in their raw form.

What are leafy greens?
Leafy greens are vegetables with (dark) green leaves. They include spinach, baby spinach, romaine lettuce, lettuce, kale (a few variants), rocket leaves, watercress, parsley leaves, coriander (cilantro), chard, collard greens, all types of salad greens, basil, etc. There are also wild edible which can be hand-picked and used in smoothies as well. For instance, these are sorrel, stinging nettles, dandelion leaves, grape leaves, aloe leaves, etc. And guess what? The wild edibles are even more nutritious than the domesticated leafy greens and they are… uhm… yammy!

Why leafy greens? Because they are nutritional powerhouses. Just to mention a few advantages:

  • low in calories
  • low in fat
  • high in fibre hence improve digestion
  • low glycemix index (can be eaten by diabetes-2 people)
  • high in vitamin A, C, E, B2 and other B-vitamins, and K1
  • rich in in potassium, calcium, iron, zinc and magnesium
  • high in phytochemicals such as carotenoids, lutein and folates; the best source of folic acid and folates
  • some claim leafy greens help to remove toxins and toxic metals from the body; kale and coriander are of key interest

Why smoothie?
To increase the quantity of leafy greens in the diet while enjoying the experience. While some leafy greens are quite tasty in salads such as the rocket salad or baby spinach leafs, other are much less so. For instance, eating raw kale requires quite some chewing and is not a pleasant experience in my opinion. Moreover, it is usually not appealing to eat a bunch of raw spinach or chard.

So, if eating big amounts of raw spinach or kale is not your cake, there is a great solution. Prepare a delicious drink from blended leafy greens and fruits or fresh vegs. Green smoothies are surprisingly very tasty, because the fruits dominate the taste. I fell in love just after my first drink.

How-to

For the best and most nutritious experience follow the ideas below:

  • Remember the rule of 60% fruit + 40% leafy greens.
  • Collect ripe fruits and leafy greens of your choice and wash them. Put them into a blender, add little water and blend them well. Depending on the leafy greens you use and the amount you have you will need 20-80 sec of blending. Your goal is to make a dense, well-textured smoothie.
  • Don’t peel apples or pears. I blend them whole except for the endings.
  • Always include at least some fruit from the following: banana, avocado or mango. They provide smooth texture (and not a watery feeling) and a great taste. Banana gives the best base.
  • Use fruits which are seasonal. Frozen fruits can be used as well.
  • Use single or maximum two leafy greens per smoothie.
  • Use maximum two extra fruits in addition to banana/avocado/mango. The flavor worsens when too many fruits are added.
  • Rotate leafy greens daily or every few days.
  • Drink it on an empty stomach in order to assimilate the nutrients well. Wait 50-60min before eating afterwards.
  • Eat your green smoothie. The key is to take a spoon or a sip and mix it with a saliva for 15 sec or more so that your digestion will start in the mouth. It is important for the best absorption of the nutrients. Similarly, as you chew your food, you need to “chew” your smoothie. You know the enzymes have started working in your mouth when you begin to taste an increased sweetness.
  • Add additional seeds or oils (if you like) although Victoria Boutenko does not recommend it for the fastest absorption.

Very basic green smoothie recipe

  • bananas
  • spinach leaves
  • water

My basic green smoothie recipe

  • bananas
  • avocado  (note: I skipped avocado a few months after this post)
  • apples
  • leafy greens of choice
  • a mix of flax seeds and sesame seeds (soaked a night before in sour water)

Leafy greens should be rotated frequently. The reason for this is explained in the Green for Life book, but basically refers to minute amounts of alkaloids in greens which are toxic. Tiny quantities of alkaloids cannot hurt you; they will even strengthen the immune system. However, if you keep consuming any chosen leafy green for weeks without changing, the same type of alkaloids can accumulate in the body and cause some symptoms of poisoning.  Every leafy green vegetable has somewhat different alkaloids, so by changing them we do not build an overload in the body.

Note that this does not hold for fruits so the same fruits can be used daily. However, rotating fruits will enhance both flavor and nutrition in your smoothies.

My usual rotation include spinach, watercress, rocket, flat parsley leaves, kale, romaine lettuce, baby leaves and coriander. I sometimes use other greens such as black kale (cavolo nero), chard, dandelion leaves (collected on meadows) or sorrel.

Blender

The key to the smooth experience of a green smoothie is a blender. A very basic kitchen blender will not do the job. I know because I experimented with a few blenders and I burned two of them.

I first learned about green smoothie about 5 years ago. I immediately liked the idea but I did not have a good blender. I was preparing green smoothies with my kitchen blender but the results were  … ehhh…urgg… well, not tasty to say at least. It was a mix of coarsely blended fruits and greens that did not make a united whole. It was hard to gulp down without the horrendous fibres clinging everywhere in the throat. Not the best experience, I must say.

There are two key elements of a powerful blender: the motor power (or the rotation speed) and the blade length. There are many blenders with motor power of less than 400-600 Watt. They will not work that well. You also need a long blade, at least 4 cm  long. I will write more about blenders in the next post, where I provide information on how to choose the best smoothie blender.

The look or a simple how-to

“This is cool”, you may think, but “How such a green smoothie looks like?”. Well… you have guessed it right. In most cases, it looks as intensive green. It is sometimes dark green or red-brownish when you add red fruits such as strawberries. It is usually a dense drink (unless you add lots of water), denser than a usual milk-based smoothie. Here are two example of green smoothies. Have a look.

Learning points

Obviously, the only way to justify whether green smoothies are beneficial or not is to do own experimenting. The idea of green smoothie resonated with me, so I decided to give it a go for 30 days and evaluate my findings. I discovered that I loved it, so it was natural for me to continue. As a result, I established a daily habit. My family (3-4 adults + 3 kids) has now been a year on green smoothies. Below are my observations and learning points along the way:

  1. High energy levels. 
  2. Improved digestion.
  3. Green smoothie provides a good start of a day (no coffee!).
  4. Developed a good habit of eating greens. After a few weeks of drinking green smoothies, everybody craves and enjoys eating more greens.
  5. My kids love it! This is a big surprise, indeed. My twins have been on green smoothie since six months old and have loved it since beginning. A basic green smoothie  (spinach, banana and a bit of water) was one of their first food after baby rice. Introducing green smoothies to my toddler was more challenging as he was discouraged by the green look of the drink. But after a week of my offers he finally got interested. I guess, because he saw us drinking it as well. Now, he loves it, and often demands it a few times a day.
  6. Cravings for sweets have become close to zero. This is the biggest surprise for me. I usually got some cravings for sweets but after 2-3 weeks of green smoothies I stopped having them. I will occasionally eat some chocolate or cookies, but often, still to my surprise, they do not taste good to me. I believe that the perception and taste of sweetest has changed because of the green smoothie experience. I stopped eating ice-cream, simply because they taste too artificial to me nowadays.
  7. We feel healthy.
  8. Some people recommend drinking green smoothies to lose weight. It was not our experience, perhaps because we were not overweight, neither we drank smoothies promoting weight loss. If you are interested in a significant weight loss, you can learn from Angela Stokes Monarch how to approach the problem. She is respected in the Raw Food Community.
  9. Making daily green smoothies requires an extended shopping list and a routine to stick to. It is not difficult once optimized. What helps me is to order most of my fruits and leafy greens online and have it delivered. It is somewhat more expensive than buying in local grocery shop, but saves me what is currently most pricey for me, which is time.
  10. Smoothies are super easy to prepare. Fresh is always best, but green smoothies can be made in one go for the whole day. They can be stored in a refrigerator even for two days. I usually make smoothie once in the evening.
  11. You need a powerful blender to make a great smoothie every day. Consider VitaMixBlendtec 4″ Blade or Omni blender. Omni blender is especially interesting since it is as good as the other two competitors, but much cheaper. Overall, Omni blender is a great value for money. Other choices, include mid-priced blenders as described here.
    It takes me 15-20 min, from start to finish, including preparation and cleaning, to make 2.5-3 litre of the green smoothie. I do it in three batches as I also make a bit different version for the kids. You will need 5 min only if you are alone or have a small family.
  12. Green smoothies are costly especially if you buy organic fruits or vegetables. We cut down on meat, sweets and other fruit to balance the expenses. What is great is that we buy very little sweets, indeed.

Summary

Drinking green smoothies is a pain-free way to eat more leafy green vegetables and fruits a day:

  • They are loaded with vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and many others.
  • They are made from raw ingredients hence you get the best nutrition value.
  • They are easy to prepare and can be stored in a fridge for a day or two.
  • They are very tasty because sweetness from the fruit dominates the flavor.

From the 30-40 people whom I treated with green smoothies, only one did not like it. Many love it from the first sip. 🙂  Kids love them too. Yes, they are very delicious. And appealing in the look of fresh green.

Too busy in the morning?

If you think you are too busy in the morning to prepare the smoothie, I am with you. I am too busy myself.

But … I have a solution. Make your green smoothie in the evening and store it in the fridge. When stored immediately, the drink remains fresh and tasty in the morning. Obviously, you will loose some nutritional value by storing overnight but I personally prefer to do it this way than not to do at all.

And … don’t forget to find out  how to choose the best green smoothie blender.

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Photo courtesy McKay Savage, available under the Creative Commons license on Flickr.

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Other posts on green smoothies and raw food

 

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