Thursday, February 23, 2017

How To Be Invincible

3 Minute Read

You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you.
-Marcus Aurelius

90 days of meditation doesn't make me an expert. But I can say with confidence that I am experiencing undeniable benefits, and the above quote from Rich Homie Marcus sums it up nicely.

Meditation, often known as strength training for the mind, has been an impulse-control bench press session for your boy these past three months. 

Here’s what I mean:

All my fellow bros out there understand that muscles are strengthened by lifting, holding, and repetition. Meditation works the same way (minus protein shakes). By focusing on our breath and getting a feel for our senses, we’re able to find center and to exist in the present moment. Without fail, our minds will wander off and get distracted, and that’s the whole point (at least it is for me). We notice this and gently gain control of our impulse, return our attention to the breath and back to the present moment. This happens repeatedly over the course of a ten minute sesh and--Whoomp there it is--you have mental reps over the course of a period of time, and a road to invincibility!

Symptoms of Invincibility

Anyone who knows me well is aware of the blind fury I’m capable of going into when a car alarm interrupts an otherwise peaceful Sunday afternoon. Impulse takes over, my mood sours, and I venomously rant about the ineffective irritant. Often continuing well after the noise has ceased.

Meditation practice has helped me to realize that the car alarm itself doesn’t directly make me insane with rage. I had been choosing that response. Nowadays, the car alarm serves as a reminder of an important lesson I’ve picked up recently: We don’t control the world around us, but we do control our response to that world and how we choose to interpret life's events. We don’t control the existence of outrageous political blogs, but we do decide whether or not we will acknowledge them. We don't decide if the iPhone screen cracks or if she doesn't text back, but we do decide if those things matter.

In The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene writes, “Contempt is the prerogative of the king. Where his eyes turn, what he decides to see is reality. What he ignores and turns his back on is dead.”
In other words, we choose to let things bother us. Just as easily, we can choose to not notice them and to consider them unworthy of our attention.

So do your worst, actual and metaphoric car alarms...

U can't touch me.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Willpower 101

3 Minute Read

You didn’t work out this morning because The Resistance got the best of you. The Resistance kept you up late, encouraged you to have another drink, and to stay in your pajamas while mindlessly poking away at your Samsung Galaxy. 
In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield defines The Resistance as anything that prevents us from our goals and ambitions. My take? The Resistance is a big time jerk, and is constantly working against us. Like the T-1000, Jaws, or any other Hollywood villain, The Resistance is in constant pursuit.
The good news: We all have a built-in weapon to use against The Resistance, and it is called willpower
The bad news: Willpower seems to come and go. Willpower depletes over time and, once we run out, The Resistance takes over. Now we need a vacation, a new year, or some sort of extraordinary event to alleviate The Resistance and get us back on track.
The answer: Develop one or two Keystone Habits and get into the Willpower Groove early in the day. The Resistance can't touch us there.

Peter appears to be in the groove

Quick Profile of The Resistance:
  • Fights Upward Ambitions, Permits Downward
    • Resists healthy eating and exercise
    • Is totally cool with donuts and social media consumption
  • Internal
    • The Resistance may seem to present itself in the form of other people, push notifications, and "I'm just too tired, man". In reality, it is inside us. We decide when to let it win.
  • Relentless
    • The Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from your work. It’s too hot, too cold, too soon. The Resistance never stops.
  • Unreasonable
    • Much like Sean Spicer, the Resistance cannot be reasoned with and is detached from reality. "When there's donuts in the office, I just have to have one" is The Resistance talking. This is simply not true.
The Resistance is a total a-hole

The Resistance can take on an infinite number of forms. A few of the most popular are:

This is the most common and easiest to rationalize. To paraphrase Pressfield, we don’t tell ourselves, “I’ll never write my symphony.” We tell ourselves, “I’ll write my symphony tomorrow.”
Self Doubt
The Resistance loves to point out why it probably won’t work out.
The conditions aren’t quite right, The Resistance rationalizes. If only we were older/younger/taller/less busy...
The Wrong Crowd
Those friends of ours who are constantly complaining and stirring up unnecessary drama? Brought to you by The Resistance.

Our Silver Bullet: Willpower. The Resistance is particularly weakened when we are in the Willpower Groove:


The Willpower Groove
All performers know they need to warm up in order to be at their best when it’s time to take the stage. Steph Curry arrives to the arena hours before tipoff to get his jumper into a groove, Adele warms up her vocal chords, and Usain Bolt goes for a light jog. These performers are getting into a groove to ward off their own versions of The Resistance. Curry, perhaps the greatest shooter in basketball history, has put up millions of shots in his life, but still needs to go over his habitual form to get into his groove.
As for us, The Willpower Groove is available to us upon waking up, and becomes less available as the day wears on. 

Much like muscles, willpower gets tired as the day wears on, and The Resistance sets in as willpower fatigues. How to strengthen willpower, you ask? Much like habitual weightlifting will make you stronger over time, habitual willpower exercises strengthen our ability to fight of The Resistance over time. Welcome to the world of Keystone Habits.

Keystone Habits
Fighting The Resistance across all aspects of our lives will ultimately wear us down. This is why complete overhauls of our lives rarely take hold, and less than 10% of New Years Resolutions are sustained. The key to defeating The Resistance is to get into the Willpower Groove early in the day by developing what Charles Duhigg refers to as Keystone Habits.  These habits can--and should--be almost embarrassingly attainable, rigging the rules so that we will routinely defeat the Resistance early, get momentum, and kick ass on the reg.

Keystone Habits have the power to permeate our minds, disrupt our thought patterns and start a process that—over time—transforms everything. Consider a few:
Making Your Bed - Research shows that this simple task, performed each day, sets the Willpower Groove in motion. We check off the first item on our to-do list and tell The Resistance to eff off. Then we make some eggs.
Morning Workout - According to science, people who implement a morning workout routine quickly start eating better, become more productive at work, smoke less, use credit cards less frequently, and feel less stress. I don’t think I need to tell you how much The Resistance loves to push bullshit food, distractions, Marlboros, impulse buys, and stress. Do I?
Healthy Breakfast - Two eggs and a banana = A swift kick to The Resistance's junk
Audiobooks - These have been a game changer for me. Consider downloading Amazon's Audible app and learning something while you commute/work out. The Resistance will be floored. A few screenshots of my Audible library are below, I've consumed all these in the past six months while driving to work:

Again, Keystone Habits develop when they are simple and easy. The Resistance loves it when we set lofty goals and try to completely overhaul our habits. When to begin? The Resistance says tomorrow and is terrified of right now.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

One Pushup Per Day: The Power of Embarrassingly Small Goals

Four Minute Read

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.

Want to work out in the morning? Make your goal to do ONE pushup upon getting out of bed. Looking to lose weight and to revamp your diet? How about eating ONE cup of spinach every week? What say you, loser (referring to me)? You say you want to be a writer? Make a point to write three crappy sentences immediately after breakfast.

Are these even goals? A first grader can pull this off, no problem. Here's the psychology behind it: By setting benchmarks that are ridiculously easy to reach, you're rigging the game so you can win. According to The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, here is how habits work (good and bad):

The human brain is designed to create habits. Without them, even the most mundane of tasks would require concentration and a bewildering amount of decision making. Duhigg writes, "An efficient brain allows us to stop thinking about basic behaviors--choosing what to eat--so we can devote mental energy to inventing spears, irrigation systems, airplanes, etc."

In other words, you do some of your best thinking in the shower because it's so routine that your mind is able to wander off instead of trying to decide which armpit to scrub first. You don't decide to shower. It's automatic.

Habits are triggered by cues (pungent armpits), followed by routines (showering), and capped off by rewards (feeling Zestfully clean).

Playing the Long Game

There's that saying - Life is short - well, I disagree. Life is long. And our habits, which develop over extended periods of time, can make life pretty miserable if we passively allow bad ones to develop. No one starts off by saying, "you know what? I'm gonna make a point to slam KFC twice per week, and be sure to wash it down with a jumbo Mountain Dew." No, your KFC/Do the Dew habit is the negative version of the habit loop.

There's the cue (driving past KFC or seeing that guy at work who looks like Colonel Sanders), the routine (hitting the drive thru), and the reward (that sweet taste bud sensation of fried-chickeny-fructose corn syrup on your tongue). It's cheap, it's easy, and the next thing you know, your Pavlovian brain has you craving fake mashed potatoes every time you see Phil Jackson on TV.

You're craving a famous bowl right now, aren't you?

Here's How to Establish a Good Habit

1. Decide on a routine - workouts, running, reading, flossing...whatever.
2. Identify a reward - there are options here, but for now let's go with the feeling of accomplishment that increases as we put together a winning streak (think marking days off on a calendar - Jerry Seinfeld's Chain Theory). 
3. Set yourself a cue - this can be a sticky note on the bathroom mirror, running shoes/clothes laid out before bed, dental floss on the counter, or books on the coffee table.

"Wow,  I've gone running 12 days in a row," you might say. It doesn't matter if 11 of those days you never made it past your mailbox. The important thing is: you're establishing a habit. And here's the beauty of it: If your goal is to do a single pushup upon waking, chances are that when you're already down in the pushup position, you'll go ahead and rep out a second, a third, and eventually a 12th and a 25th. 

Getting over the "getting started" hump is the key. If goals are set too high (200 pushups every morning), the chain is inevitably broken, the "reward" feeling of accomplishment is lost, and the habit never forms.

The rules of the game are up to you. Set them so you can win consistently.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Avoiding the Tyranny of Comparison

6 Minute Read

"Comparison is the thief of joy."

-Theodore Roosevelt

If the above quote is true, we're in deep shit. To paraphrase my boy Daniel Gilbert, most of us make decisions on where to live, what to do, and with whom to do it--and we often make these decisions based on a subconscious comparison of our lives to those of others. This seems so natural that it's easy to overlook the fact that we are among the first human beings to make these decisions. For almost all of human history, people were born into unchangeable situations, accepted them, and (presumably) made the best of them.

Comparing ourselves to others is nothing new, but being told our lives are inferior because we don't have what others have is mind-bogglingly new. Some people earn a good living by doing so, like this d-bag:

Way to go, asshole

Looking below at a timeline of human history (not quite to scale), we can see that the recent agricultural, industrial, and technological revolutions made pricks like Robin Leach possible. As Gilbert points out, "the resulting explosion of personal liberty has created a bewildering array of options, alternatives, choices, and decisions that our ancestors never faced."

To make these decisions, we often subconsciously rely on our ancient instinct to compare ourselves to others. For 99.5% of human history, this was probably a good idea. But as we'll find out, comparison truly is the thief of joy in our modern world.

Quick facts in case you missed the post about distractions:
Humans have been evolving for 2,500,000 years (that's 2.5 million)
We figured out how to farm 12,000 years ago and started the earliest civilizations
It takes roughly 25,000 years for evolutionary adaptations to take hold
Thus, our minds and bodies are still those of hunter-gatherers

To make this more personal, let's say a quick hello your great2,000 grandfather (for simplicity purposes and because I'm a dude, we'll focus on the male lineage of your DNA...shoutout to Tim Urban):

Oh, what up?

Your great2,000 grandfather, a hunter-gatherer, lived in a tribe of 75 people, and those were the only people he knew.There was no such thing as being attractive or unattractive because he only knew five other men his age, and your great2,000 grandmother was his lone mating option. Ah, the simple life.

For your great2,000 grandfather, comparing himself to others was a good idea. In fact, there was nothing more important than to be aware of what his peers (all five of them) were up to so that he could maintain social acceptance. If the tribe began to gossip about how unproductive or annoying he was, his status would drop and he could very well be thrown out of the tribe, left for dead, and you wouldn't exist.

Possible Peer Comparisons: 5

Let's jump ahead to 8,000 BC and meet your great400 grandfather.

Hey Gramps

This dude lived in a small agricultural village, inherited a few domesticated wolves (for protection and companionship), and contributed to a small economy. He competed for resources and mates among a society of a a few hundred people, was completely unaware of the other 5 million-or-so other humans on the planet at the time, and evidently was able to score with your great400 grandmother at some point. At no point did this guy contemplate a career change, save for retirement, or discuss moving to a warmer climate. All the while, his body and psychological software were identical to yours (save for that tattoo you got on spring break in '99).

Possible Peer Comparisons: 30

Jumping ahead 9,800 years to the early 1800s, we get to meet this guy:

Your great5 grandfather may or may not have been Millard Fillmore, but let's assume he was. Grandpa Millard was a young adult at a pivotal time in mass-media history: the advent of the photograph. For the first time in human history, we could compare ourselves to actual images of people we had never met. For instance, these 1839 photos of Robert Cornelius and Dorothy Catherine Draper:

The ability to feel shitty about one's self was increasing, but photographs were still rare. Most people were still living on isolated farms, playing checkers with immediate family, and maybe reading a book if they were lucky.

Possible Peer Comparisons: 100 (if that)

As we move ahead 100 or so years, feelings of inferiority are growing exponentially. Hollywood becomes a thing, televisions become common in the 1950s, and now your grandfather is painfully aware of his mediocrity. Despite his above-average athletic ability, he knows Joe Louis would kick his ass, George Mikan can easily back him down in the post, and your grandmother will never be Marilyn Monroe.

Now that we have television, the media knows they can sell worthless (and destructive) products to your unsuspecting grandfather by making him feel inadequate and by leading him to believe the answer to his perceived shortcomings can be found in bullshit:

aaaaand we're fucked.

Right around this time is when people your grandfather's age came up with the idea of superheroes. Not only can grandpa feel inferior to Mickey Mantle, he can fantasize about kicking as much ass as Superman or pulling tail like Bruce Wayne. Hooray! Let's all hate ourselves and wish we were someone else!

Possible Peer (and imagined) Comparisons: 2,000

Moving on to today and to you. You probably look something like this (thanks again Tim Urban):

You didn't invent billboards, movies, the internet, smartphones, telemarketers or social media, but you were born into an era where--for the first time in human history--it takes a substantial effort to avoid comparison. I get it, you pretty much have to have a smartphone and at least one social media account in order to function in modern society. But this does put the ability to compare your life to billions of others in your pocket and next to your bed at night. Now, it's the last thing you do before sleep and the first thing you do upon waking. You subconsciously compare at stop lights, as soon as the flight lands, and multiple times throughout the day--even when you don't want to.

And here's the worst part: you don't even compare yourself to actual people anymore. Now you look to movie characters, 'roided up athletes, silicon supermodels and staged/filtered Facebook posts to see how you measure up:

Left: actual photo of Faith Hill Right: the photo that gets published (and a plug for skinny pills!)

Possible Peer (and imagined) Comparisons: 2,000,000,000

Here's what blows about all this comparison (shoutout to Mark Manson for this bell curve):

In short, we're all in that yellow middle when it comes to just about everything, but we compare ourselves to the extremes. Some alarming statistics:

The worldwide population is roughly 7.5 billion
There are 2.3 billion active social media users (with an average of 5 different accounts each)
Snapchat users watch 6 billion videos per day
Adults in the US spend an average of 1.25 hours per day watching video on digital devices
Facebook adds 6 new profiles every second

Fighting Back*

So what the hell do we do about this? I'm not going to pretend I have all the answers, as I've only recently become aware of all of the above. In fact, just writing all that has been therapeutic for me. Maybe that's step one:

1. Become aware: Understand it's in our DNA to compare ourselves with others, to try to fit in, and to regurgitate others' opinions and desires as our own. That made sense for your ancestors. Not for you.

2. Get to know yourself: Sounds simple, but spend some time trying to figure out your answers to Gilbert's three important decisions without sifting through the tangled ball of yarn that is the thoughts and opinions of others: Where to live? What to do? With whom to do it?

3. Take control: Stop comparing yourself to others, appreciate what you have, and let others measure themselves against you.

*As I am no expert on this, this is an incomplete list. Please feel free to add to it in the comments below.