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The worst period of my life ended shortly after I made a key discovery: most of the difficult experiences in my life arose directly from my desperate need to avoid difficult experiences.

At the time, I was flunking in school. I was a bad student because I avoided asking for help or revisiting concepts I hadn’t grasped the first time. I avoided those things precisely because they made me feel like a bad student.

It was a perfectly self-defeating strategy, but of course I didn’t realize what I was doing until later.

I had inadvertently made certain emotional experiences—in particular, the feeling of being seen as incompetent—so unacceptable that I’d do anything to avoid them, which is precisely why they continued to dominate my life.

The light came when I discovered a simple principle that’s sometimes described as “exposure therapy”. You experiment, a bit at a time, with letting yourself feel the things you’re afraid to feel, and watch them lose their power over you.  Read More

mini self

Imagine, for a moment, that you could see your own life from above, as though your home, neighborhood, and workplace were little dioramas with open roofs.

Your miniature self isn’t aware you’re watching, and exhibits all the habits you do. With a kind of embarrassed concern, you watch your hapless self wake up, hit snooze a few times, then sit up and read Reddit on your phone for twenty minutes (or whatever you normally do). You watch as you interact with the world, making some good decisions and some bad ones.

You’d learn a lot about yourself just from seeing your everyday behavior from the outside. How much time you actually spend staring at electronic devices. How you’re more argumentative than you thought. How often you cut your workouts short so you can get on with lunch. How you almost never clean behind the couch.

Now imagine you could intervene in subtle ways, not by making choices for your mini-self, but by changing the surrounding environment. You could move an object in a room your mini-self will visit later, maybe putting a bag of cookies in the cupboard that would otherwise be sitting out when you get home from work. You could position a birthday card where it might remind you to call your mother. You could quietly delete Reddit from your miniature’s phone.

Over time, small changes like these might be all you need to guide your mini-self to a significantly better life. None of them give your mini-self any more resolve or willpower, but they do set up a different succession of triggers throughout each day, each of which leads to predictably healthier behaviors, and a predictably better life.  Read More

smiley scrubby

In November, an article did the rounds—entitled “Actually, Let’s Not Be in the Moment”—in which the author describes, hilariously, a failed attempt at mindful dishwashing.

It’s quite relatable if you’ve ever tried to force yourself to “be with” some unpleasant domestic task like sorting recycling or scrubbing a drip tray. Even if you’re attracted to the idea of mindfulness, actually trying to commune with tedious or objectionable experiences often proves to be neither enlightening nor fulfilling.

The piece is mostly an exasperated rebuttal to the New Age tenet that we should force ourselves to “live in the moment”. It’s an understandable rant, and I think it represents an increasingly common sentiment in the self-improvement world: mindfulness is annoying.

At least, it’s annoying to try to be mindful all the time, and it’s annoying to be told to be mindful all the time. I receive emails expressing similar frustrations, from people who are tired of trying to find peace in the folding of laundry or the raking of litterboxes, even if they still believe it is somehow possible.

As the author, Ruth Whippman writes, “Mindfulness is supposed to be a defense against the pressures of modern life, but it’s starting to feel suspiciously like it’s adding to them.”  Read More

Post image for We Are Not Materialistic Enough

When a friend of mine inspected the damage from a fender-bender, what upset him most was the discovery that his bumper was nothing but a brittle plastic husk supported by three pieces of styrofoam. The vehicle was new and probably cost about $35,000.

In the documentary Minimalism, on Netflix, sociology professor Juliet Schor articulated something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Essentially she said our society is drowning in needless possessions and consumer debt not because we’re too materialistic, but because we’re not materialistic enough, at least in the true sense. (Direct quote is here.)

In the everyday sense, the word materialism is used interchangeably with consumerism, a preoccupation with buying and consuming goods. We hear all the time that Western society is vapid and materialistic, meaning that it cares far too much about things, and not enough about spiritual or interpersonal values.

But using the word “materialistic” that way implies that the things themselves are what we value most, as though we consumers are connoisseurs of fine handiwork, attention to detail, and inspired design.

Looking closer, it’s clear our rampant buying has little to do with a taste for nice things. Our shopping culture does not suggest a close relationship with the physical and concrete parts of our lives. In fact we have very low standards for what physical objects we trade our money for, and for the quality of the sensory experiences they provide.

So much of our stuff is so crappy. Seams on brand-name clothes undo themselves under normal wear. Our grocery store vegetables are bland. We drink coffee that was roasted a year ago. Everything that can conceivably be made of plastic is made of plastic. (Seriously, who wants to sit in this?) We might be in love with buying, but we are not in love with things.  Read More

Post image for Why There’s Never Enough Time

I have this dream, and maybe you do too, of one day having enough time. It always feels like I’m in a particularly time-squeezed period of the year, or of my life.

The state of having enough time seems like a real place but we but never seem to be there. Once I finish this project, once Christmas is over, once the move is done, I’ll have time. But right now, there’s not enough time to do everything.

Quite a bit gets done, but something is always falling behind: emails, bookkeeping, self-improvement promises, things I said I’d do. Am I still learning French? I’m not sure.

Sometimes I wonder if having enough time is achievable at all, or if it’s like trying to reach light speed. We can approach it, if we have vast amounts of energy, but the laws of reality prevent us from quite getting there.

That doesn’t make much sense though. You always get some things done, and if those things were all you felt you needed to do, you’d have enough time. If you had another couple of hours a day, you would have kept up with Spanish lessons, you would have culled your sock drawer, you would have finished the 30-day yoga challenge. Read More

Post image for Goodbye Booze, For Now

Happy New Year everyone. So I’m starting 2017 by not drinking any alcohol for four months.

The decision wasn’t made in the throes of a January 1st hangover. I had committed to an extended teetotaling break a few weeks before, the morning after attending the staff Christmas party of my former employer.

It was a rather restrained night, as far as get-togethers at the pub go. But the next day I remembered a detail that made me realize I’ve been making a huge miscalculation the entire eighteen years I’ve been drinking.

There seem to be three basic relationships a person can have with drinking. There are drinkers, dabblers and teetotalers.

Teetotalers never touch the stuff. Dabblers may have a glass of wine or a beer now and then, or even regularly, but they only occasionally have enough that they’d have to call a cab. They see drunkenness as an accident, a morally salient line one should avoid crossing. Drinkers get drunk on purpose, and obviously believe it’s worthwhile.

I have always been in the drinker category. Throughout my adult life, I’ve regularly gone out with the intention of having six or more drinks, sometimes many more. This is socially acceptable where I come from, but only recently has that begun to seem strange to me.  Read More

Post image for Maybe You Don’t Have a Problem

For a grown man who writes for a living, I read very slowly and I’m self-conscious about it. Finishing a novel in less than two weeks feels like an accomplishment. If I love it from the start I’ll fly through it in a week or less, but usually that means I’m spending several hours a day on it.

Yet there are people who read two or three or seven or eight books a week. I have always wanted to be one of these people, and two months ago I decided to become one. My philosophy was simple: whatever they do, I will do that.

It seemed obvious that people who read five or ten times as many books as I do must be going about it completely differently. They’re not just reading—as I know it—more quickly. They must be using their eyes and minds in ways I never learned to.

So I dove into the dubious world of speedreading. I bought the best-reviewed instructional book on the topic, and promised myself I’d work through the program.

The technique was indeed very different from how I normally read. Zip your finger across the lines as a pacing device. Don’t say the words in your head. Don’t stop to reread anything you didn’t quite get—just allow the important words to come through and the natural redundancy of the material to fill in gaps in your comprehension.

And these instructions did do something. I found I was able to plow through non-fiction at more than double the speed right away, and actually comprehend most (I think) of the ideas presented. With words coming into my head that quickly, there was no time for daydreaming or distraction.

But it wasn’t pleasant. It felt like I was on a game show on the Food Network, scrambling to cook something presentable while a clock ticked down. My reading was quick, and not so quick as to be useless, but it was sloppy and completely devoid of joy. I don’t believe I was absorbing the material in the way the author intended. There’s no way would I read a novel that way.

When I investigated the topic of speedreading itself, I learned that it isn’t really a faster method of reading. It’s a kind of pragmatic skimming, very useful for consuming large volumes of material for school or work, or otherwise extracting vital information from anything you don’t actually want to read. But by most accounts it’s not a way to finally enjoy Proust.  Read More

cookies

Over the entire calendar year I probably eat a little more than I should. But it only becomes a crisis in December, when every semblance of moderation goes out the window, for a number of reasons.

The biggest problem is holiday get-togethers—for Christmas, or certain sports events, or just because a lot of people are off work. Usually each person brings 15,000 calories in a casserole dish for everyone to share. Most of these recipes call for one or more bricks of cream cheese, or bacon wrappings for foods that are normally not wrapped in anything.

There are always dainty little desserts that could be eaten in sets of two or three, each piece smaller than a deck of cards but somehow containing 350 calories. There are little bowls of nuts beside wherever you happen to sit, and you eat them for the same reason George Mallory climbed Everest. (He died.)

Egg nog reappears, which would be a shame to miss even though it contains eight thousand calories per glass. While you’re finishing your main pile of food, someone’s aunt is circulating, telling people to “Eat more, there’s lots!” and you want to help them out so you do.

And because you know defending against this festive onslaught is futile, you give yourself an official hall pass for the evening, and double down on your consumption to take advantage. You have a few drinks to dull the guilt. During the second round of Apples to Apples you decide you will take a cab home, which means you must have three or four more drinks. And because everybody brought five or ten times as much food as they eat, you get sent home with several pounds of leftovers, and end up eating crab dip and carrot cake for breakfast.  Read More

Post image for Five Things You Notice When You Quit the News

I grew up believing that following the news makes you a better citizen. Eight years after having quit, that idea now seems ridiculous—that consuming a particularly unimaginative information product on a daily basis somehow makes you thoughtful and informed in a way that benefits society.

But I still encounter people who balk at the possibility of a smart, engaged adult quitting the daily news.

To be clear, I’m mostly talking about following TV and internet newscasts here. This post isn’t an indictment of journalism as a whole. There’s a big difference between watching a half hour of CNN’s refugee crisis coverage (not that they cover it anymore) versus spending that time reading a 5,000-word article on the same topic.

If you quit, even for just a month or so, the news-watching habit might start to look quite ugly and unnecessary to you, not unlike how a smoker only notices how bad tobacco makes things smell once he stops lighting up.

A few things you might notice, if you take a break:  Read More

Post image for How to Become Less Uptight in Two Minutes

The classic advice for public speaking nerves is to picture the crowd in their underwear.

I wonder if the person who invented that ever tried it. I find it immediately increases the tension of a speaking situation. It makes you more aware of what’s at stake—the possibility of embarrassment, for the audience too.

What does work is to picture the room around you as it was at 4 am. Empty and silent. Nobody there to need any particular thing to happen, or not happen.

This simple thought makes it clear that the room itself is harmless, and so is speaking into it. Filling it with people changes that sense a little, but not so much that it feels dangerous.

The mental image of an inert room shrinks the prospect of speaking from a frantic story in your mind down to its bare bones again—people in a room, one of them talking. It becomes obvious that however the talk goes, life will continue afterward. The room will be quiet again, with no trace of your forgotten lines or botched intro, if they even happened.

Even if you never speak to a roomful of people, this ability to shift your view of a particular scene in this way is quite useful. You can reduce the stressful effect of queues, crowds, busy subway platforms and family gatherings just by imagining that same space as it might feel with no people in it—either the previous night at 4am, or a century from now, when it’s a dusty ruin. Back in the present, suddenly the place isn’t so threatening or intolerable. It’s just what it is to the senses alone—a space with people in it—and the mind is only adding commentary.

This remarkable little exercise works because our feelings towards the moment we’re in typically have little to do with the scene itself. Instead, we’re wrapped up in our own internal narrative around it.  Read More

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