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David Cain

Post image for Wise People Have Rules For Themselves

Every time I post a new behavioral experiment, or share a personal resolution of some kind, I get a few emails telling me not to be so strict with myself.

They always say something like “It’s not good to be so hard on yourself!” or “We shouldn’t be forcing ourselves to do things!”

This is a common thing to hear in our improvement-focused culture. I used to think it was a reasonable caution, but now I think it’s generally bad advice.

It seems well-meaning in most cases—people sometimes do go overboard with exercise, frugality, and personal efficiency. But I think it’s much more common for people to go under-board in some or all of those areas, and you can bet the person giving you a hard time is one of them.

We often hear about the importance of “balance” in our self-improvement efforts. But what exactly are we balancing? Good behaviors and bad ones? Are we looking for lives that are equal parts wisdom and recklessness?

Can you imagine someone saying “I don’t think we should force ourselves to brush our teeth every day. You have to live a little!”

You might have noticed a pattern in the most successful people around you. Wherever they excel, they tend to have personal rules that they take very seriously.  Read More

pink donut

The Main Street strip in Mount Pleasant, Vancouver, is a mile-long stretch offering every sense pleasure you could think of. Craft beer. Sushi. Third-wave coffee. Trendy clothes. Pizza and burgers. Ergonomic furniture. Artisanal ice cream.

Last month, on my first night back in civilization after a seven-day silent retreat, I spent most of the evening slowly walking that strip.

Still hyper-aware and hyper-patient from the retreat, I kept noticing something my mind usually only does in the background. Maybe fifteen or twenty separate times, I noticed myself getting really excited about acquiring something—a slice of pizza, a book, a dessert, a coffee—and then I noticed that feeling dissipate.

Each of these cravings came and went in turn, and the experience was the same every time. There were five or ten seconds of really intense wanting—Yes! That! I could have that! Then there was a minute or so of lingering enthusiasm, maybe some money-related rationalization about acquiring the tweed-faced notebook or blueberry-lavender ice cream in question.

But if I just kept walking past the storefront, the feeling ran out of steam very quickly. Five minutes later, I could remember it, but the emotional pull was all but gone.

Desires begin vanishing as soon as they arrive, yet our responses to them can have far reaching consequences. What we tend to do during those pivotal seconds can make all the difference between good health or poor health, retiring at 40 or at 70, and being generally happy or generally miserable.  Read More

Post image for The Alternative to Thinking All the Time

One evening last week, I was sitting on my front stoop waiting for a friend to come over. I brought a book out with me, but instead of reading I just sat there and let my senses take in the scene.

I didn’t look or listen for anything in particular, I just let the details of this particular moment in the neighborhood come to me: the quality of the air—heavy and warm, the incoming summer storm kind; birds; two couples having a conversation down the sidewalk; the clinking of dishes coming from inside the house to my right; distant hammering from a construction site somewhere in the blocks behind my house.

There was also a scent that I only recently learned has a name: petrichor. It’s the earthy scent of rain having just fallen on soil after a dry spell. You definitely know it. It was a big part of the overall flavor of the scene.

I engage this kind of receptive awareness often, particularly when I’m waiting for someone, and there’s something very satisfying about it. Every scene in our lives—whatever’s unfolding at any given time in a front yard, a living room, a doctor’s office, a grocery store—has its own unique tone and emotional signature, which you can notice if you’re not talking in your head, which we usually are.  Read More

Post image for Where Personal Breakthroughs Really Come From

This article isn’t ultimately about money, but it does include a simple technique I can almost guarantee will save you tens of thousands of dollars, years of needless toil, and relieve you of an enormous amount of financial stress.

If you do this one thing, you’ll have a lot more money and a lot less worry, without any concerted efforts to earn more or restrict your spending. Probably the only way it won’t change your life is if you’re already doing it.

It isn’t difficult and it requires no new skills, only a few minutes here and there, and perhaps a daily alarm, or a strategically placed sticky-note, to remind you to do it.

Here it is: you ledger your income and expenses. Any money that enters or leaves your possession, you track in a spreadsheet or ledger by category. Then look at the totals at the end of the month. As a failsafe, sit down once a week for twenty minutes to make double-sure you did it.

That’s the entire commitment—just tracking the income and out-go. You’re free to buy whatever you want, as long as you track it. Go order $85 worth of tapas and wine, just make sure you ledger it. Go get a $350 handbag if you like, as long as you’re willing to type that “$350.00” into the “Clothing and accessories” column later that night.

Without any budgeting or self-imposed restrictions, you’ll automatically make far better use of your money, at least doubling or tripling the efficiency of your discretionary spending. You’ll gain a sense of control over your financial life and experience far less money anxiety, all without any conscious effort to spend less or make more.

It works because it’s impossible to be aware of the actual numbers behind your behavior without your priorities changing. It becomes easy to see where you’re getting value and where you’re not. A natural aversion to wastefulness emerges in your daily behaviors, with no self-scolding necessary.

In other words, the things that tempt you towards trouble become considerably less tempting, and that’s the vital point here—tracking your behavior, without striving to change it, gently reduces the amount of willpower and self-scolding required to do the right thing.  Read More

Post image for Want More Time? Get Rid of The Easiest Way to Spend It

For the month of May I time-traveled back to 2007, when social media platforms were still just websites you visited. I removed Facebook, Twitter and Reddit from my phone. Throughout the month, if I wanted to use those platforms I had to log in manually at my desk.

This decision came after experiencing a through-the-looking-glass moment while listening to an interview with Tristan Harris, former “design ethicist” at Google. I had always known it was easy to waste time on social media, but I hadn’t quite understood how engineered our social media habits are.

The big services are designed to exploit our psychological vulnerabilities, particularly our need for frequent signals of approval from others: thumbs-up, gold stars and hearts. These small hits of pleasure are enough to keep us checking in early and often, so that our attention can be sold to advertisers. That is the business model. (More here: How Billionaires Stole My Mind

I didn’t want to quit outright, as many people have. I just wanted to get away from the ubiquity of Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. I didn’t want them in my pocket. I didn’t want to find myself swiping through them without having decided to. I wanted them to return to what they used to be: fun websites you may or may not visit on a given day.  Read More

Post image for You Never Have Time, Only Intentions

In my new house the top floor is a single room with gabled walls and a single window that looks out over the street. I go up there twice daily to meditate for half an hour, so every time I’m in that room I can’t help but think, at least once, about how much time I have left in the day.

During those sessions I’m more aware of my thoughts, and the effect they have on me, than at any other time. And I’ve noticed that the amount of time I have left after my sitting—before I have to be somewhere, or before bedtime—makes a big difference psychologically. Given what I plan to do for the rest of the day, I always have one of two distinct feelings: I have enough time, or I don’t have enough time.

I’m learning not to trust either of these feelings, because they’re based on an error in perception—when you think about it, and we never really have time. Time we talk about “having” is always in the future, where we can’t see it and don’t know what it will be like. We can’t be confident it will be there when we need it, or that it will arrive without conditions or unexpected problems.

We never possess time in the same way we possess the money in our wallets, although we talk like we do. We assume we have three hours or three days to do something, but it never actually comes into our possession. The time we “have” is never where we are, and we can never see it, unlike everything else we have: our clothing, our furniture, our homes, our friends and family. We never know our time like we know those things, so we can’t depend on it like we depend on those things. Read More

Post image for Five Things I Learned From Not Drinking for Four Months

I had my first drink of 2017 on the third of May. Last December I realized how uncomfortable I’d become with my eighteen-year habit of drinking to excess once or twice a month.

Aside from being expensive and unhealthy, I could no longer deny that alcohol often made me into a person I needed to be drunk to tolerate: snarky, flippant and oblivious.

So I decided to take four months off the drink, to evaluate what it was doing for me, or to me. I also wanted to finally learn how to operate as a non-drinker at parties, concerts, and other get-togethers for which I’d normally get drinks. Would these occasions still be fun? Did I know how to be sober?

The four months was easy. I liked being sober. There were only a few instances where I envied the drinks of people around me. Most of the time I had little desire to drink.

The final act of the experiment was to drink again—two drinks in the first session, and a few more in another session—to see where alcohol and its effects stand with me now, after four dry months.  Read More

Post image for How Billionaires Stole My Mind

You may have fallen into the same trap as me, and I want to help us all get out.

You use your phone as an alarm clock, and because you do, the first thing you learn, every morning, is that while you were sleeping someone messaged you, Liked you, or Mentioned you.

The one-second task of turning off the alarm leads to ten or twenty minutes of swiping and scrolling through pictures, messages, memes, jokes, diatribes and recipes. Maybe you find reports of a violent attack somewhere, or a gaffe by a politician, or a GIF of a baby goat. Or all of those things.

You learn some things your friends have been up to—someone checked in at Olive Garden, someone ran in a 5k fundraiser, someone bought tickets for Yo-Yo Ma, someone doesn’t like some country’s labor minister, and someone plans to make cake pops later, or is at least thinking about it.

This ritual seems benign enough, but sometimes you think it takes up too much time. Twenty minutes a day (if somehow you only fall into this pit once daily) adds up to a lot of your life gone.  Read More

Post image for The Art of The Hard Part

I was always moved by a particular line in The Godfather: “Mister Corleone is a man who insists on hearing bad news immediately.”

The line stuck out to me because it was so clearly the opposite of my natural tendencies. I always tried to move away from unpleasant realities. When I started to worry about money, for example, I avoided looking at my bank balance. When one of my friends was mad at me, I would avoid talking to them.

This is an almost perfectly terrible life strategy. Virtually every personal victory I’ve had amounted to doing exactly the opposite—finally confronting some reality, or some experience, that I had historically avoided. Monsters grow in the dark, so if you like your monsters small and manageable, you probably want to go and meet them at your earliest convenience.

The story arc of my adult life has essentially been a long process of learning and accepting that fact. A few weeks ago my friend Hélène taught me something that brought this principle to a new level of clarity. Her suggestion not only destroyed a specific problem I was having, but also seems to be a master key to all sorts of long-standing problems in other areas of my life.  Read More

Post image for How to Do It Tomorrow Instead of Never

My Dad had a clever way of getting me to do the things I typically avoided, like homework or cleaning my room.

When he interrupted my Nintendo-playing to remind me of the task, I would explain that while I absolutely intended to do it, I was simply planning to do it later rather than now.

Rather than argue, he would say, “That’s fine, you don’t have to do it now. All you have to do now is tell me when you will do it.”

I hated this tactic. Giving later a definite time spoiled my true plan, which was to do it never. I preferred later over now not because 2 o’clock the next day is a better time than the current time, but because from where I was sitting, later seemed closer to never than now did.

Or in other words, if you squint just right, shirking your responsibilities for another day vaguely resembles having no responsibilities, which is what I always wanted.

But my Dad’s clever question of when dispelled this mirage. Later is just a different now, and there’s no good life that’s free of responsibilities.

Unfortunately, I didn’t internalize this wisdom. Instead I saw his question as one of the shrewd tactics of the opposition in my war against responsibility. I became a dedicated procrastinator and difficulty-avoider for a host of complex psychological reasons I may never fully untangle.

I get more emails about procrastination than any other topic, even though I only write about it once or twice a year. Apparently there are many, many adults who suffer from an uncanny inability to do what it seems like every grownup should be able to do: simply work through a to-do list with the time they have.

Seemingly, most adults can move steadily through their day-to-day workload as though it’s a pile of logs to be split—the only limitation being time and energy, with nothing psychologically fraught about it, and no self-sabotage or existential fears involved.  Read More

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