David Cain

Post image for How to Make Bad Days Okay

We human beings suffer from a persistent illusion that creates a huge amount of needless stress: we see today as much bigger and more significant than other days.

It seems like we should. Today is the only day we’re able to actually do anything, and the only day we can experience the consequences of what we’ve already done. In that sense, today is pivotal: what you have to do today is clearly much more relevant to your life than what you had to do on the same date ten years ago. This seems like common sense.

But this common feeling overlooks a crucial fact that would save us a lot of suffering if we could only stay aware of it: other days are “today” too. In fact, it’s the only kind of day there is. Chances are, whatever was looming huge in your mind ten years ago today had no more absolute importance to your life as whatever is stressing you out this morning.

It doesn’t feel like it though, because it seems like the person you were back then — the person those problems belonged to — wasn’t quite you yet. You were still on your way to becoming who you are. You still had some bad habits you no longer have; you were still in a job or a relationship that was all wrong for you; you hadn’t yet discovered the joy of running every morning, reading before bed, eating mostly vegetables, or a lot of the other things that might seem essential to who you are now.

Of course, ten years from now it will feel the same way. You’ll be a different person, and your life as it is today will seem distant, and not particularly relevant.

Research shows that we consistently overrate the importance of today in the scope of our lives. In 2012, a group of psychologists published a study in which they asked more than 19,000 people about how they had changed over time, and how much they expected to change in the future. The subjects were asked about their preferences, habits, and values, and how those things had changed over the last ten years. They were also asked to estimate how much they expected to change over the next ten.

The researchers found that at all ages, people consistently underestimated how much they would change in the future. For example, 40-year-olds looking back at their 30s saw that they had changed quite radically in the intervening decade, while 30-year-olds predicted relatively little change in the decade ahead of them.

From the abstract of the study:

“People, it seems, regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.”

It turns out that at every age — or perhaps on every day — we feel like we have reached the end of history. Today always seems so enormous, so significant in a way other days never were. Everything before today’s problems, which we see as our real problems, was backstory, relevant only in how it informs what happens today.

The extra significance that seems unique to right now was there all along, in every experience you ever had. And today, this day on which you’re sitting here reading this article — along with all the worldly concerns currently weighing on you — is happening on a date that used to be tiny in your mind, just another square on the calendar, and will soon be tiny again.

It’s not that today isn’t significant, only that life’s other days are more or less equally significant, even if it doesn’t seem like it from where you stand now. Today you might look back on your high-school breakup, and all of the fretting and sobbing that came with it, as silly or even cute. But when you were there it was happening now, and it was excruciating.  Read More



cinema

Most of us were taught as children never to talk to strangers. At face value this is bad life advice — we can never know people we never talk to. But we know it’s only meant to arm children with a basic skepticism about unknown people, so that they’re less likely to accept a ride from that rare person who really is dangerous.

It’s a crude but effective policy, something like how Wal-Mart used to pay “greeters” to stand near the entrance and tape shut any bags you’re carrying; they wanted to prevent shoplifting, so they simply treated all their customers like thieves.

Unfortunately, the word “stranger” isn’t used only between teachers and schoolchildren, it’s our normal word for referring to the overwhelming proportion of the population whom we don’t know anything about. It implies that our default view of everyday passers-by should be at least a little bit suspicious. We need a bit of evidence that they are worthy of our respect — let alone our love or caring — before we give it. We assume no obligation to feel anything for them, or to care how their lives are going.

A minority of the time, I’ll be out in public and that air of indifference won’t be there. Instead, I’ll feel an indiscriminate warmth towards my fellow citizens. There is a certain appreciation, even love, for everyone I see, without any of them showing a similar appreciation for me. Often this happens just after seeing a poignant film, or receiving some good news, or having some other experience that has temporarily dissolved that sense of unknown people being irrelevant.

It’s almost a custom in our society, to dismiss by default the idea of actually caring for people we don’t know, at least before we’ve been given a reason. Our comedy is built on this casual disdain for the other guy. We share anecdotes about “idiots” we ran into earlier. Sartre says “Hell is other people” and we nod knowingly, fully misunderstanding what he meant.

With people we already know, we can easily forgive mistakes. Strangers, however, enter our lives already under suspicion. We disqualify entire human beings from the possibility of our respect or forgiveness the moment they fail to use a turn signal, or wear a baseball cap in the wrong kind of eating establishment.

To quote humorist Jack Handey: “A man doesn’t automatically get my respect. He has to get down in the dirt and beg for it.”

In our culture, the default is to treat strangers with indifference at best. It isn’t normal, for example, to spend a moment quietly wishing your fellow bus passengers a good day at work or school. When we find ourselves in a grocery store aisle with some other human beings, we’re more likely to be annoyed by them than we are to sympathize with them.  Read More



Post image for How to Get Yourself to Do Things

I have a special sympathy for sufferers of a particular human problem, and I get more emails about it than just about any other topic.

There are normal people, who get overwhelmed on those occasions when they have more obligations to fulfill than time in which to fulfill them. Then there are us procrastinators, who are constantly overwhelmed, because even when we do have time, we don’t make use of it until we no longer have enough of it.

Procrastinators are familiar with the perverse feeling of watching oneself create trouble out of nothing, essentially volunteering for penalties, embarrassment and regret. We’re kind of like those people who are so predictably, stupidly late for everything that the rest of us learn to tell them to arrive at seven o’clock for what is actually an eight o’clock appointment.

The difference is that the appointments we miss are with ourselves, which means there are no social consequences to limit the scope of our delinquency. We leave things on our lists for months. We let ourselves down in ways we would never let down others.

There is something diabolical about procrastination, and I don’t claim to have cured it. But I have somehow maintained a self-employed existence for almost two years now, which has required me to get better at managing it than I used to be.

I’ve had a bit of a breakthrough recently that I want to share with you fellow sufferers. I now see the problem in a much simpler way, and it is working.  Read More



guitarist

I don’t think my father took days off. He must have, but I don’t think I ever witnessed it. I cannot picture him getting up and doing anything besides some kind of work.

When I would drag myself to the couch at 8am on a Saturday to watch cartoons, he was apparently in the middle of his day, already having built or fixed something.

He would permit himself to read books or watch TV later in the day. But I think the idea of taking a proper day off — where he didn’t build, organize, or otherwise try to advance his lot in life at all — was kind of foreign to him.

I don’t have half the work ethic he did, but recently I noticed I do the same thing: I see my weekends, my days “off,” as additional space for getting a bit more done, even if it’s only the kinds of work I enjoy.

A few weeks ago I found myself taking a true Day Off, in which I deliberately spent the day doing things that have absolutely nothing to do with improving, or even maintaining, my position in life. I had decided spontaneously the evening before: no work, no goals, no attempt to gain anything.

I ended up spending a lot of time outside, and visiting with four separate groups of loved ones, never rushing between them and never thinking much, at any point, about the rest of the day. I spent the morning with my girlfriend, lunch with a friend, the afternoon out walking with my mother, dinner with my sister’s family, and the evening with a book.

I went to bed feeling intensely grateful that my lot in life was such that I could have a day like that, and I slept very well.

If that wasn’t a perfect day then there are none. The biggest difference between that day and a normal weekend day, I realize now, was that I paid little attention to the advance of time. I suspended all aspirations to shaping the future. The only goal was to enjoy the setting and characters of every moment I found myself in, which is refreshingly easy when you’re not trying to get anywhere else.

The next day I went back to work, but I didn’t feel my usual resistance to it, and I got a lot done. The unhurried quality of my Proper Day Off seemed to carry into the following workday. It gave me a distinct feeling of being fine where I was, of not needing to be past what I was currently working on.

The Lost Art of the Day Off

It now seems absurd to let a week go by without a Proper Day Off, and I have quickly become an ambassador for the mostly-lost idea of protecting an entire day from one’s own toil. A lot of us never actually do, whether or not we realize it. We habitually give ourselves jobs on the weekend, and if we accidentally get nothing done, we feel guilty.

Stepping deliberately out of “getting ahead” mode reminds you that you already are “ahead” in all sorts of ways. What’s the point of getting ahead if we never have the experience of being ahead?

Before going on we should clarify what a Proper Day Off actually is. A day off what exactly?

It’s a day off of all the things we do for money, acclaim, position, or out of social obligation; off of treating time like a commodity to be invested or traded for future benefits.

A Proper Day Off isn’t an invitation for laziness, or the shirking of responsibilities. In fact, a Proper Day Off is a day for exploring a certain other class of responsibilities: being a relaxed and present friend, parent, son or daughter, or stranger.

It’s also a time for being a grateful member of civilization. A Proper Day Off is particularly suited to experiencing the highlights of human development: enjoying art, music and public spaces, particularly if we spend the other six days mostly butting heads with the worst parts: inhuman corporations, corrupt governments, vapid celebrity culture, and a news media that delivers only bad news.

6 Principles of a Proper Day Off

A few general rules, to keep your Day Off uncompromised:

1) No work, no “getting ahead”

If getting ahead has any use, it’s so that you can be ahead. A Proper Day Off is reserved for this experience of being ahead — appreciating the fruits of your labor (and that of others) — rather than for laboring even more.

Essentially this means, “Today, do things for now, not for later.” That means no errands, no utilitarian purchases, and definitely no major purchases. In fact, what are you doing in Home Depot at all? Go to the park. And although recreational shopping is a favorite pastime for many people, it is completely inappropriate on a Proper Day Off. Consumer shopping has too many emotional ties to the working world. Refraining from “getting ahead” doesn’t mean a Day Off is best spent getting needlessly behind, by liquidating your hours of labor (and therefore your precious time on this earth) for a low-brow shopper’s high.

Visiting an antique shop, or a farmers market, or a garage sale, is quite suitable for a Day Off — visiting a department store, or (God forbid) a Wal-Mart, is not.  Read More



stairs

A year ago I published a post called How to stop your mind from talking all the time, and it was an unexpected hit. When I linked to it the other day on Facebook, it got five times the normal amount of attention, so evidently a lot of you are going mad from the voices in your head.

I laud mindfulness so often on this blog that I suspect some people are tired of hearing about it. Part of the reason I’m so persistent is because I know I leave questions unanswered every time. Mindfulness is counter-intuitive and resists analogies, and seems to require a lot of words to explain why someone might want to do it, let alone what it actually accomplishes (which is why I wrote a 30,000-word guide about it.)

After my recent posting of How to stop your mind, a reader asked a great question, which I now realize might be a pretty common hangup:

Do you notice that when we travel we don’t think so much? We just observe the present. We are connected with the “now.” But it is easy because the “now” is interesting. Now the problem is: How is it possible to be excited by a “now” you know so well? The mind tries to escape from the present to fight boredom. I don’t know if there is a solution to that. [Edited for clarity]

There are a lot of reasons we keep our mental dialogues going almost perpetually. The main reason might be that we aren’t aware of an alternative to constant thinking, or even that we are thinking at all. (Hint: if you think you’re not thinking most of the time, then you are definitely thinking nearly all the time.)

We also often presume that any thought about something “important” — our health, our finances, our relationship — must itself be important to explore, when it’s probably just more needless worrying that offers no solutions and suggests no actions.

At any given time, your attention is trained either on the physical world, or your internal mental world. Unless you’re experiencing the present with deliberate mindfulness, or you’re currently held rapt by a sunset, conversation, television show, cheesecake, or some other sufficiently intense sensory experience, it’s safe to say you are occupied by your thinking.  Read More



fishbowl

When future anthropologists study us, they will learn a lot about what’s important to us by looking at our newspapers.

A minority of our news stories cover what’s truly new: scientific discoveries, thriving business startups, or groundbreaking legislation. But most of our news stories are about some human being (or group of human beings) failing, in a very familiar way, to be kind, fair, or honest. Politician caught lying! Violence erupts between Group A and Group B! Company misleads customers for profit! Details at 6.

If we sat down to think about what’s really important to us, we might come up with qualities like fairness, kindness, responsibility, loyalty, and mutual respect. It seems like all of the major problems in the world are caused by a small contingent of bad apples, who simply shun these important qualities and ruin it for kind, responsible, honest and fair people like ourselves.

I think this is wishful thinking. The truth is that all of us — even those of us who feel like good people — are almost comically terrible at achieving these qualities, yet we expect them as a matter of course from each other and ourselves. Our incredulous response to scandal and selfishness suggests that we believe any of us could, at any moment, snap out of our self-interest and dysfunction, and make the world the place it should have been all along.

What makes us distinct from other species, more than anything, is that we’re able to move beyond being impulse-driven, self-interested animals, at least a little bit. We can reflect, we can refrain, we can empathize, we can plan. We can feel our impulses while at the same time understanding that they aren’t always leading us to good things.

In the relatively short time we’ve been able to explore this higher territory, we’ve come to really value these lofty qualities, and we’ve become preoccupied with public figures failing to achieve them. After all, we know it is virtues like fairness, honesty, discipline and kindness that are going to make it easier to be human, to deal with suffering and loss and all the stark realities that come with knowing you’re a vulnerable, animated bag of meat. We desperately want to get ourselves (but especially others) to embody these higher human qualities, which promise to save us from cruelty and misery. But as much as we covet them, we forget that these new capacities are in fact skills, and that as a species we’re generally not very good at them.

Essentially, this higher territory is what we call morality, and I think we tend to greatly overestimate how good we are at it. We’re a species who, as I point out frequently, can barely uphold our New Year’s commitments to ourselves, yet we seem to expect everyone else to be more or less upstanding and incorruptible. Why am I so frequently appalled by how thoughtlessly other people park their cars, when I don’t think twice about spending thirty dollars on beer instead of feeding the starving?

You can make up excuses for this kind of behavior — cognitive dissonance, meritocratic economics, drop-in-the-bucket syndrome — but I think all of that is avoiding the truth about human beings, which is that we are pitifully underdeveloped when it comes to morality. We just happen to be living in that awkward and painful stage where we recognize its supreme importance to our well-being, yet we’re so bad at it we can barely stand ourselves.  Read More



empty hall piano

There’s no way for such an avalanche of unsolicited advice to come off as anything but preachy. But there’s also something appealing about the scattergun approach. Trying on a few dozen ideas in a few minutes will almost always leave you with something you can take to the bank, if you don’t get hung up on what doesn’t resonate.

Here are sixty-seven short pieces of advice I either follow, or probably should. Take from it whatever rings true to you, and don’t take the whole thing too seriously. Have a good week.

***

1. Ignore 1-star and 5-star reviews of books, hotels and products. The 3-star reviews will answer all your questions.

 

2. When you’re a host, use that experience to learn how to be a better guest, and vice-versa.

 

3. If you want to be fit, become someone who doesn’t skip or reschedule workouts. Skipping workouts is always the beginning of the end.

 

4. Learn keyboard shortcuts. If you don’t know what CTRL + Z does, your life is definitely harder than it has to be.

 

5. Become a stranger’s secret ally, even for a few minutes. Your perception of strangers in general will change.

 

6. Get over the myth that philosophy is boring — it has a history of changing lives. It’s only as boring as the person talking about it.

 

7. If you’re about to put down a boring a non-fiction book, skim the rest of it before you move on. Read the bits that still appeal to you.

 

8. Ask yourself if you’ve become a relationship freeloader. Initiate the plans about half the time.

 

9. Notice how much you talk in your head, and experiment with listening to your surroundings instead. You can’t do both at the same time.

 

10. Reach out to people you know are shy. It’s hard for them to get involved in social things without somebody making a point of including them.

 

11. Learn the difference between something that makes you feel bad, and something that’s wrong. A thing can feel bad and be right, and it can feel good and be wrong.

 

12. If you need to stop for any reason in a public place, move off to the side first.

 

13. Before you share an interesting “fact” on Facebook, take thirty seconds to Google it first, to see if you’re spreading made-up bullshit.

 

14. Clean things up right away, unless your messes tend to improve with age.

 

15. Consciously plan your life, or others will do it for you.

 

16. Be suspicious when someone uses the words “Justice” and “Deserve” a lot. Be suspicious when you use them yourself.

 

17. Get rid of stuff you don’t use. Unused and unappreciated things make us feel bad.

 

18. Expect people to get offended sometimes when you try to tell them what to do. Even if you think it’s good advice :)

 

19. Once in a while, imagine what it would be like if you really did lose all your data and had only your current backups.

 

Read More



standing

The other night I had my first boxing class in almost three weeks. Throwing hard punches at a heavy bag might be, minute-for-minute, the most exhausting thing a human being can do. This morning I’m incredibly sore and I can feel it getting worse in real time. My forearms burn when I bend my wrists, and my lats feel like two great, triangular bruises.

Gym rats know this feeling as “DOMS” — delayed onset muscle soreness. Like many people I kind of enjoy the feeling of it, debilitating as it is, because it’s the feeling of getting back in shape. But the severity of it, after such a short layoff from the gym, is a stark reminder of how vigilant you have to be about putting your body to use when you work at a desk at home.

I’ve built a precarious set of habits to defend against the ever-present danger of sedentation. My five workouts a week (two boxing and three bodyweight training) form the bones of it. On top of that I’m always looking for any excuse to go for a walk. When these habits get interrupted though, as they often are during my annual Christmas illness, my activity level comes close to zero.

In Summer, as I mentioned last week, none of this is a problem. I’m outside several times a day, biking or running. Between November and April, though, both of these things become significantly more miserable and dangerous where I live.

Canadians are supposed to embrace the cold, but I don’t, and according to a recent CBC documentary, I am not unusual in that regard. We mostly resent and avoid frigid temperatures. Russians, reportedly, have a completely different cultural relationship to the cold, partly because it helped save them from both Napoleon and Hitler. They see the cold more as a national ally than a perennial enemy, as we tend to up here. So until I learn to like polar bear dives and winter hiking, I need to create habits that keep me from rusting in place in my desk chair.

Sitting is essentially what we do when we want the opposite of exercise, and the modern world has us doing it for long stretches. Much of our work and most of our entertainment is wholly mental now — we just need to park our bodies in front of the place where we need to use our eyes. Technology has minimized the role of the body in both work and entertainment to an absurd degree; using a mouse and keyboard requires only the wiggling of our fingers. Human beings have become an animal that is nearly always sitting.  Read More



balloon shadow

When one of my favorite radio hosts, Shelagh Rodgers (pronounced ‘Sheila’), announced on air that she was leaving her morning show to take some time off, her way of explaining why left a lasting impression on me.

She said that for years, a colleague of hers (Peter Gzowski?) insisted on making frequent trips to a remote cabin up North, where he spent the time chopping wood, reading books and walking with his dogs. When she asked him why this ritual was so important to him, he said, “Well… I guess I really like who I am when I’m up there.”

Rodgers explained her departure by saying that the morning show had made the reverse true for her: the job required her to wake up at 3:30am, shuttle herself to the studio, and force herself into professional-mode hours before the sun came up, and she didn’t like who she was when she was doing that.

When I heard her say that, I was sitting in my office at work, and realized I that definitely didn’t like who I was when I was in there. I didn’t like who I was when I was on the phone with clients, or out talking to contractors, or sitting at pre-construction meetings. Without any better ideas at the time, I imagined that eventually I would need to build a cabin up north and escape regularly to chop wood and read books by a fire.

That thought — Do I like who I am while I’m doing this? — has visited me a few times a year ever since, and I’m finally seeing how crucial a question it is. We ought to ask it about everything we do regularly in our lives. If the answer is “No,” then it makes sense to ask how we ended up making it a regular part of our lifestyle, and whether it’s necessary or worthwhile.

You might think we’d naturally gravitate towards whatever activities do give us this self-affirming sense, but we seem to be driven more by expectations, gratification and momentum. Between watching a bad movie for the third time, and calling up a friend, we’re often inclined to go with the former, not because it promises a better day or a better life, but because we’re usually operating from more immediate incentives: predictability, ease, freedom from risk. The idea of doing something because we like the person it makes us probably doesn’t enter the picture at all.  Read More



morts de rire

NOTE: Although feedback has been mostly positive, I have my misgivings about this post (as usual.) I don’t think I was as fair as I tried to be. Please just take it as another viewpoint among many different views available to you. Our right to access differing views, and to present our own, must be actively protected.

As a rule I don’t talk about current events on this blog, because they’re ephemeral, and I want readers to be able to draw something useful from every article I write, even if they read it years later.

Unfortunately, terrorism and threats to free speech aren’t strictly “current” events. They are also yesterday’s news, and will be tomorrow’s news too.

I’m not a journalist, and I have a lingering discomfort about publishing this post. But I guess I was more uncomfortable at the thought of not publishing it. Whenever people are murdered for expressing their opinions, the writers and creatives who survive them tend to want to say something about it, as we’ve seen. Bless them.

My hesitation wasn’t because I’m afraid of being shot, or flogged one thousand times, but because I’m always afraid of being wrong or unfair. This is a hyper-sensitive issue, and I want to be as fair and straightforward as I can.

Regular readers know I think all organized religion is fundamentally scary. It is terrifying to me that billions of people believe ancient books can give them absolute certainty about the fate of humanity, and that morality is a matter of obeying these books, rather than thinking rationally about the harm caused by our choices.

It is taboo to say that one religion is scarier than another, but there are noticeable and measurable differences between our religions, regarding the prevalence of certain beliefs. I am more worried about Islam in its current state than, say, Buddhism, as politically incorrect as it is to say so. But I think I have good reasons.

For what it’s worth, what scares me most about Islam isn’t terrorism, but the non-violent threat it currently poses to freedom of speech in Western countries. Polling data suggested that more than 75% of British Muslims believed that the Danish cartoonists should have been prosecuted for drawing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in 2005. Flaming embassies aside, if that figure is even close to the truth, that is a genuine threat to freedom of expression (but by no means the only one) and we deny it at our peril.  Read More




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