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Post image for Why The Other Side Won’t Listen to Reason

At some point during your first year as a human being, the adults throw a real curveball at you. They expect you to start understanding what right and wrong mean.

These lessons come in the form of mysterious reactions that follow certain things you do. After you pull all the books from the bottom shelf onto the floor, quite a feat for a one year-old, they scold you for some reason. When you pee in the correct place, they praise you.

It’s completely baffling, but over time you get a sense that adults are extremely preoccupied with classifying actions into two broad categories: okay and not okay, or good and bad.

You quickly gather this is how the world works. And there is some logic behind what’s rewarded and what’s punished: “bad” actions are usually (but not always) ones that hurt, annoy or inconvenience other people, and “good” actions usually (not always) help in some way, or at least don’t hurt anyone.

This classification system is so strongly emphasized by the adults that you develop a keen sense of it yourself. You see rights and wrongs everywhere, particularly where you stand to gain or lose something personally: in the fair distribution of treats, in acknowledgement for chores done, in which cartoon characters deserve to be happy (or in a police wagon) at the end of the episode.  Read More

Post image for Four Things Procrastinators Need to Learn

One litmus test for being a serious procrastinator: there are items on your to-do list that were there a year ago.

A year is more than one percent of even a very long life—what could be so difficult or intimidating that we’d avoid it for that long? For some of us, anything really: making a doctor’s appointment, cleaning out the trunk, fixing a leaky faucet.

To be a chronic procrastinator is to be fooled repeatedly by the same illusions about how your mind works and how things actually get done. You hit the same ruts, spin out in the same place, and misunderstand what happened in the same way as every other time.

Once in a while, you spot one of these mirages right before you step into it again, and finally see the truth behind the illusion. Here are four such truths about I wish I could tell my younger self.  Read More

Post image for Why There’s Too Much On Your Plate

The great complaint of our time seems to be “I’ve got too much on my plate.”

I wonder how long people have been saying that for. When did plate room, whatever it is, become the thing we can’t get enough of? It’s hard to imagine our hunter-gatherer predecessors keeping multiple-page to-do lists, or perpetually pushing back their actual hunting and gathering because of incessant meetings.

Presumably, we stack so much on our plates because each item returns something necessary for the life we want, something pre-industrial people wouldn’t have had: more security, more luxury, more fun, more fulfillment.

Yet we can’t seem to refrain from stacking things too high, and suffering the resulting stress, overwhelm and sense of falling behind.

Modernity has brought unbelievable benefits to us and we shouldn’t take that for granted. I’m not pining for the days of rickets and involuntary fasting. But it is amazing to me why it’s so chronically difficult for us not to overfill our plates with obligations, diversions, work, and projects, given all the technological advantages we have over our ancestors. Read More

Post image for The Art of Enjoying The Burn

After inspecting my ankle, the doctor told me to strengthen it by doing a hundred calf raises a day. I try to do them whenever a few minutes present themselves: when soup is heating, coffee is brewing, or something is downloading.

After a few dozen reps, the calves really start to burn. I hadn’t done calf raises for years, and it turns out my relationship to that burning is very different than it used to be. Having done a fair bit of weight training since then, I hadn’t quite realized that I now enjoy the burning sensation of fatiguing muscles. I’ve come to know it as the feeling that goes with getting stronger.

I used to hate this same feeling. It was the feeling of slogging through the final laps in gym class, dying to hear the buzzer go. It was the feeling of awkwardly holding up a plank while I waited for my dad to put in all the screws.

Interestingly, the physical side of this muscle-burn feeling is the same as it ever was. It’s still uncomfortable. It’s still a relief when I can stop and rest. But my psychological relationship to it has completely reversed.

Instead of trying to escape from, ignore, or stop the burning, as I once did in Phys Ed class, I settle into it willingly, like the heat from a sauna. I let it build and intensify as I push on, without trying to defend against it, and that intensity is exhilarating. Even though it burns, it feels like strength, capability, progress.  Read More

Post image for The Value of Practicing Awareness

Last week I sang the praises of the countless tiny, private experiences that enrich our day: the stripes of sunlight that fall on the staff room table, the steam billowing from your coffee machine, the warmth of the cat in your lap.

We all love that stuff, and it’s happening all day long, even on “uneventful” days. Every day contains potentially unlimited objects of gratitude, but connecting with them requires a somewhat persistent awareness of the present moment.

This persistent awareness doesn’t come naturally to us. Typically, for 21st century adults, any free attention is usually captured by habitual thinking—an ongoing, meandering inner monologue about things that will happen later, or have happened already, or should happen. Worries, rehearsals, diatribes, imagined conversations.

Maybe it sounds dramatic, but I see this the great tragedy of the modern human mind: we miss the moments that make up our lives because our attention is dominated by remembered or imagined experiences—hypothetical moments we’d like to have, or more often, avoid having.  Read More

Post image for Gratitude Comes From Noticing Your Life, Not From Thinking About It

Every gratitude exercise I’ve ever done asks you to think about what you have to be grateful for. In other words, you brainstorm reasons you ought to feel grateful, whether or not you do.

You’ve probably done one of these before: writing five things you’re grateful for every night, recalling past good luck during difficult moments, or trying to remember, as often as possible, your privileges and advantages in life.

These exercises might be worthwhile on some level, but most of the time they don’t create much of a real-time, felt sense of gratitude. They just remind you of certain encouraging rote facts: on paper, your situation is pretty good; many parts of your life would be enviable to others; things could be worse.

As you might have noticed, simply making the case to ourselves that we have reasons to feel grateful doesn’t necessarily make us feel grateful.

Gratitude, when we do genuinely feel it, arises from experiences we are currently having, not from evaluating our lives in our heads. When you feel lonely, for example, simply remembering that you have friends is a dull, nominal comfort compared to how wonderful it feels when one of those friends calls you out of the blue. Reflecting on the good fortune of having a fixed address is nice, but stepping inside your front door after a cold and rainy walk home is sublime.  Read More

Post image for It’s Time to Put The Internet Back Into a Box in The Basement

My first online interaction, circa 1992, fascinated but also terrified me. I should have taken it as a warning.

At the time, computers were just machines you had in your basement. They had programs in them, and you would sit in a chair and use those programs for a while, then go do something else. The whole time you used this machine you remained, both physically and psychologically, in your own house.

Nobody had the internet yet really, but there were Bulletin Board Systems. Your computer could phone another computer, presumably in someone else’s basement, and access a virtual space for posting messages, designed by that computer’s owner. No images, just bare text. Only one person could visit at a time, because it occupied the owner’s phone line.

One time I was using a BBS, believing I was alone in my basement, when some strange text started appearing on my screen, letter by letter. Someone else was typing—on my screen, in my basement. The text asked if I was enjoying his BBS.

My heart pounded. What was happening was impossible. Seeing that alien text crawl onto my screen felt like a seeing ghost appear before you inside your locked bedroom.

I did not yet have any sense of what it meant to be “online.” At the time, everything was offline. Life consisted of physical objects in physical locations. (We had TV and phones of course—which must have similarly amazed and unsettled those who were alive when they were introduced—but in my case they were an established part of the universe from birth.)

Still, for years afterward, going online was something you did in one place—at the home computer, or more likely, at the one in the school library—for a small part of the day, if at all. The online world was a novel and small part of life, and you almost never thought about it when you weren’t sitting in a computer chair.

Twenty-some years later, the internet seems present in almost every room, vehicle and public space—and I want that old feeling back. I want life to once again feel like it takes place in an immediate, local, physical world.

While living in this physical world, you can, if you choose, occasionally use a special computer device that allows you to look things up, learn a bit of news from afar, entertain yourself, and send important messages.  Read More

Post image for If It’s Important, Learn It Repeatedly

A little more than a year ago, a friend took me for lunch in downtown Toronto, and we talked mostly about what we’d been reading. Immediately afterward she marched me to a nearby bookstore and insisted I buy Cal Newport’s Deep Work.

She was the second person that week to describe it to me as potentially life-changing, so I bought it with great enthusiasm. Later that day, I sat reading it in a tea shop for two hours, riveted by the possibilities of working in the uncompromising, undistracted way Newport described.

I’ve had that feeling many times while reading non-fiction books—the “hot lightbulb effect” of being aware you’re reading the right ideas at the right moment in your life. I’d stopped in Toronto on the way home from an inspiring chautauqua experience in Ecuador. The trip that had culminated in an unforgettably moving group discussion, during which each of us declared heartfelt resolutions about how we wanted to live the rest of our lives. I was determined to return to work with unprecedented focus and clarity, and now I’d found the perfect guide to doing exactly that.

The window to act on a timely idea is very small. The heat of inspiration only lasts a few days, or even hours, and if it runs out before you’ve formed and implemented a plan, you’re essentially back at the status quo.  Read More

Post image for Mine Your Acre of Diamonds

The response to last month’s “Depth Year” article caught me off guard. It went viral immediately and quickly became the most popular article of the year.

I’m still sorting through emails from readers sharing their intentions to go deeper instead of wider with their pursuits in 2018: reading unread books, tuning up the piano again, resuming Spanish lessons, calling up old friends. Someone even started a Facebook group to discuss Depth Year plans with others.

This level of enthusiasm made me feel a bit sheepish, because I intended it more as a thought experiment than a serious proposition. I wanted to point out the mirage of novelty—that emotion of newness and possibility we get when we start a new project, buy the supplies for a new hobby, or order a new book.

Novelty—essentially the feeling of “Oh how life will change now that I’ve added this to it!”—is a very gratifying emotion, and we experience it frequently in our consumption-focused society. But it usually contains a vital miscalculation: acquiring access to some new thing doesn’t guarantee we will ever enjoy its full value, or even a fraction of it.  Read More

Post image for How to Treat Yourself in 2018

At the end of every year I write something about the great recurring problem of holiday baking.

For many people, it’s a time of year when it’s easy to become surrounded by dangerous snacks. In fact it’s a mathematical certainty—each attendee at a Christmas gathering brings a week’s worth of caloric energy, and it would be a shame to let it go to waste.

In my family, someone has a birthday in mid-December, which means we get an early warning, in the form of cake, about the impending invasion of dessert foods. This year we had a beautiful carrot cake. It was delicious and well-made, and after we each had a piece, we tried to make each other take the rest home.

Eight-year-old me would have found this scene hilarious—everybody trying not to eat the cake! To a kid it’s the perfect comedy sketch.  Read More

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