post-it art building

Beside me on my desk at all times is a pad of sticky notes, which was the size of a Rubik’s cube when I bought it. Now it’s the size of a Melba Toast.

Whenever I think of something I might have to deal with, I write it down on one of these squares. The sheets alternate yellow and hot pink, so my inbox always looks like a tropical salad.

Every few days I process these little notes, which means I look at what I’ve written and decide what to do about it. Sometimes I neglect this duty for a while, and end up with a week’s worth (or two) of sticky notes.

I end up throwing most of them right into the recycling bin, because when it comes time to look at it, the thing I wrote down is no longer relevant, or I’ve already done it, or I don’t feel like anything has to be done about it.

Yet almost all of those notes were scrawled in a moment when I felt some kind of urgency or worry about something, as if my life was suddenly becoming more difficult. I have to ______! I need a new ______! What am I going to do about _____?!

We have these kinds of moments all the time. Things are going fine, and then they’re not, because you think of something you might have to deal with. The moment goes a bit dark. You wish you hadn’t thought of it. Another thing on your plate.

Problems emerge like that: a mental tapping on the shoulder, and a darkening of the emotions. I’ve become really interested in the exact moment this reaction happens, and watching what physical feelings creep in. It almost always does something to the body: the jaw hardens, the skin flushes, or a pit grows below the ribcage.

In those moments, it can be easy to forget (assuming you realize this in the first place) that most of these apparent problems will never have to be solved. They’ll never ripen into real-life dilemmas that require anything difficult from you. Chances are they’ll be sticky notes in the bin at the end of the week (if you’re organized enough to write them down.)

Over and over and over in my life, things that I think will be a big problem turn out not to be. Something else happens instead. Or, a moment I’m dreading comes and goes and it’s not that bad.

Most of the time, the only difficulty posed by a problem is dealing with the moment in which it occurs to you that you might have a problem. After watching thousands of my worries go straight to the bin, I’m getting better at noticing the “shoulder tap” when it happens, and reminding myself that this problem probably isn’t a problem.  Read More

Post image for The First World’s biggest addiction

My people have a ritual, and in fact I performed this ritual as I sat down to write what you’re reading.

It goes like this: I take a spoonful of special seeds and grind them down into a powder. I run hot water through the powder, and collect the dark liquid that seeps out. I take the cup of hot liquid and bring it to my desk because I believe drinking it will make for a better working experience.

Coming to the desk with this liquid is a tradition for millions of us because getting down to work first thing in the morning is traditionally a less-than-comfortable moment. We welcome anything that seems to make it more comfortable.

This liquid does that. As I drink it, I can feel it has immediate effects on my experience. I kind of feel like dancing, but instead of dancing, I type. I always look forward to the next time I have a chance to do it, sometimes even before I’m done. I don’t do it too often because I know that by the third time in a day, the ritual makes me tired and cranky.

I’ve made the ingestion of this substance an ordinary part of my day, and in fact I own specialized equipment for preparing it: one that grinds the beans into a powder for me, and another machine that makes the powder into the drinkable liquid. Mine is a fairly fancy one that makes a super-concentrated form of the liquid. If you don’t have one (or even if you do) there are also stores whose sole purpose is to have professionals make this liquid for you.

Interestingly, these seeds don’t grow within two thousand miles of me. But I have steady supply through a convoluted channel of farmers, marketers and middlemen. We call the seeds “beans” even though they are actually the pits of a tropical berry, which most of us have never seen.

The bean-liquid industry is worth 100 billion dollars worldwide, but there is another mind-altering liquid whose sales are expected to exceed 1 trillion dollars this year. It’s prepared differently, through fermenting plant materials. We have tried fermenting almost everything to make this stuff, and so there are all different types.

Its effects on your consciousness are a lot more dramatic. It gives you a certain confidence and sense of freedom. Its side-effects are quite reliably awful though. It makes you more careless and less intelligent. If you drink a lot of it (and it is common to drink this amount on purpose) it will make you nauseous, irresponsible and difficult to be around. Still, it is almost as popular as food.  Read More

Post image for A tale of two species

A man sits on a park bench up on a slope, and looks down to the city skyline. A tiny blue bird lands next to him.

“Beautiful day,” the man says. “Much nicer than the weekend.”

After a moment, the bird says, “It is beautiful.”

They sit and watch the city for a while.

Finally the man turns to the bird: “So, how do you think your species will fare over the next fifty years?”

“That depends,” the bird says.

“On what?”

“What’s a ‘Next fifty years?’ ”




One day about a week later the man returns to the bench. After a few minutes, the bird lands next to him again.

“It is beautiful,” the bird says.

“Not so much today. I have big problems.”

The bird looks the man up and down for a moment. “Where are they? You look fine.”

“Well, I guess they’re down there,” he says gesturing to the city.

“That’s great!” the bird says. “Imagine if they were up here too.”




One day a month later, the man comes back to the bench and sits in his usual spot.  Read More

Post image for 15 unexpected side-benefits to living in the present moment

Keeping your attention in the present is the world’s most useful (and underrated) skill. Last week’s post on shutting up your mind throughout the day was a big hit, but it only hinted at the benefits.

The presence habit does much more than make for a peaceful walk to the store. There are actually hundreds of practical applications to practicing everyday mindfulness, even if you have no spiritual aspirations at all.

Here are just a few:

1. Cravings become obvious and easier to overcome.

All you have to do to quit smoking is notice when you’re having a craving, and respond to it by doing anything other than putting a cigarette in your mouth. That is the entirety of the goal, and it’s small enough to be achievable any time. If you lose sight of that, you might misunderstand quitting as some big, abstract goal that can never be done now, such as “Maintain perfect self-control for the rest of your life.” It works the same with anything else.

2. It takes the edge off physical pain.

It’s the last thing you might think, but turning your awareness towards the feeling in your stubbed toe or aching stomach makes it much easier to bear. If you’re turning away from a sensation of pain, it gets mixed with resentment, wishing, blame, and other kinds of mental neediness. This is what makes pain into suffering. When you put your attention right onto the pain, it’s remarkable how it takes the edge off. It’s still pain, but you know you’re handling it.

3. Working out gets a lot easier.

Your workout might sometimes seem like a big, long grueling thing, but that’s only when you’re thinking about it. When you’re actually doing it, you’re never required to do more than a single moment’s action. You never have to actually “do” a whole workout at all, or even a set — and in fact you can’t. At no point do you have to do any more than complete the current rep. Keep your mind there.

4. Big projects stop being scary.

For the same reason that you can’t actually do a whole workout, you can’t actually do a whole project. All projects consist of single actions, most of which are no tougher than dialing a phone, explaining something to someone, Googling someone’s contact info, or sketching up a model. Once you have a plan, it’s easy to make progress if you stay zoomed in on the requirements of the moment, and only zoom out in order to figure out what they are.

5. Food tastes better and you eat less of it.

Try paying full attention to all the sensations of eating a bite of food. Put your fork down between bites to remind you. For most people this is a much more intimate and involved eating experience than they’re used to. It takes longer, it tastes better, and for some reason you become satisfied sooner. It’s also easier to negotiate that moment when you decide to stop eating, because you’re not already leaning mentally towards the next bite.  Read More

Post image for How to stop your mind from talking all the time

A couple of Sundays ago, I left for a friend’s house to watch the Oscars, and decided to keep from talking in my head the whole way there.

I’ve been doing micro-experiments like this a lot recently, committing to total presence for very short stretches of time. Can I, for example, keep my mind on what’s happening the entire time I’m doing the dishes? After each little exercise I can go back to my normal distracted stupor if I want to.

So for the 30 minutes or so between my door and my friend’s, including a stop at the store, I dared myself to keep my attention on the current real-life scene only, and not get drawn into any mental dialogues. Put another way, I decided to put words aside for a little while, and observe everything else.

It worked. The talkative part of my brain mostly shut up, and I discovered for the 600th time that the world is intrinsically beautiful and peaceful whenever I manage to take a break from thinking and talking about it.

Ideally I’d spend my whole life in this state — when you’re just observing things and it really doesn’t matter what happens, because it’s all very curious and beautiful, and if trouble does show up you’re already in the best headspace to deal with it. You get the specific sense that you don’t need to be anywhere else, which makes you realize how rarely you feel like that.

The most prominent quality of this state of presence is the quiet that comes over the outside world. You can still hear the city noise and traffic, but the loudest thing has gone silent, which is your normal mental commentary.

I’ve had this state happen before, but it always seemed to come randomly. After this most recent experience, I realized something that should have been obvious: if you practice doing it, it happens more.  Read More

Post image for An unlikely-sounding trick for shortening everyday bad moods

Like all creatures, the ultimate ambition of a Bad Mood is to live forever. Once it finds its way into a host, it wants to bed down and arrange its surroundings for a long stay. The Mood does this by discouraging initiative of any kind. It applauds couch-sitting and movie-watching and between-meal eating, because this keeps it alive as long as possible.

Skilled Bad Moods also encourage the host to interact badly with others. If it can get the host to scowl and criticize others, those others will react with faces and criticisms of their own, justifying the BM’s existence to its host, thereby giving it a better chance of long-term survival, and giving it a chance to reproduce.

As it gains experience with a particular host, a successful Bad Mood gradually masters the controls. It can keep its administration going for days, or even weeks, once it’s learned which buttons to push. Some especially talented Bad Moods are able to stay in office for the entire lifetime of their host.

The primary strategy of such Moods is to convince the host that it shouldn’t change anything about its environment or its behavior. The Bad Mood feels threatened by changes in physical surroundings, new habits, curiosity, and any effort by the host to move life forward in any way.

Unaware of these covert motives, the host often responds to the Bad Mood by doing the very things that keep it alive.  Read More

Post image for How to work now and procrastinate later

October 14th, 2019 — Researchers discover the cure for procrastination. Tens of millions of stalled projects move forward at once. The economy explodes with productivity. Everyone finally learns Spanish and joins Crossfit. Publishers become inundated with manuscripts of brilliant novels. Facebook’s share price plummets. Humanity is saved.

Of all the topics I’ve written about, none created such an outpouring of “Oh my God that’s me!” emails as my experiment on procrastination. It seems like most people believe they have a particularly bad problem with procrastination. If a cure were introduced into the population, the release of pent-up personal energy might be more than the world could withstand. Imagine the shock wave of organized closets and used copies of War and Peace.

So I post this knowing there is a risk of bringing on a productivity apocalypse.

The experiment itself was actually disastrous. It peaked about twenty-four hours in. After what turned out to be a single day of ideal productivity, things began to point downhill, and my problem got steadily worse. My thirty-day campaign of improvement turned into a four-month debacle. It went so perfectly wrong, my progress report is hilarious to read.

Readers have been asking where I finally ended up with my procrastination issue. Ironically, once the experiment spat me out, I immediately began to improve. I had so thoroughly immersed myself in my bad habits that they became conspicuous to me whenever I was doing them, and today I’m about eighty times better.

During the experiment, and in the three years since, I’ve tried all kinds of things to overcome procrastination. Most of my strategies didn’t work, but some absolutely did and still do. In my experience, here’s what works.  Read More

Post image for Keep your doing and your deciding away from each other

There’s something liberating about being told what to do. It lets you focus on the doing.

This is another one of those countless truths that I sensed but never articulated until a real-life example made it clear.

Historically, my relationship to the fitness “wagon” has been spotty. Many times in my adult life, I strung together a stretch of regular workouts for a couple of months, and made progress, but it always felt like I was close to falling off.

It was always the same thing that unseated me. I would begin to doubt whether my chosen regimen was sensible, and that made it hard to throw myself into it physically. I’d wonder whether I was doing too little and not really getting anywhere, or the opposite — setting the pace so high that I would inevitably start compromising. At some point, I’d always begin to wonder whether I should make an adjustment to my targets or my number of sets or rest times or something. Soon it would be impossible to stick to the program, because I no longer know what the program was.

Until recently, the intermittence of my workout habits was never a big problem because my job had been physical enough to keep me in shape. Now I work from home, which can become an extremely sedentary lifestyle if you don’t deliberately include daily physical activity. I went from walking miles a day, with equipment on my shoulder, to a twenty-five-foot indoor commute.

For the first time, I’m doing a regular workout that I don’t have to fight myself over. I have almost no resistance to it. My success has something to do with the fact that this time I’m taking orders from a computer program.

Going with the principle of “The best workout is the one you can stick to,” I decided to begin with the arbitrary but attractive goal of a hundred pushups in one session, using a much-downloaded “100 pushups” app on my phone. You start with an initial test, type in your results, and then it prescribes how many reps to do each set, and counts the rest time down for you. It charts your progress in a graph.

It’s not high fitness science and I understand that. I’m fully aware there may be better programs, but any doubt in my regimen is trumped by the undeniable fact that it is working — my reps-per-day graph is snaking steadily upward, I’m looking and feeling better, and I’m never tempted to miss a workout. I’ve never experienced this kind of consistency and confidence in my workout routine. Now that I’ve established this consistency I can scale up the volume. I’m going to start doing kettlebell squats in the same way.

The doubt that normally sinks my fitness efforts is absent this time because it’s always clear what to do. Press the “Begin” button. Shoot for the targets it tells you. Keep your form good. Enter your results. Repeat the workout if you have to. The wondering is gone, and that removes a certain shakiness from my muscles.  Read More

Post image for My new book, out today

Today I’m releasing a new little book, called On Becoming an Individual (or HOW TO SAVE THE WORLD). It’s all original content, including photographs and mini-essays.

The theme is living a life on your own terms in a world that encourages you to be anything but a free individual.

It’s available free to Raptitude readers who subscribe by email. I’m changing email service providers this week (because the old standard, Feedburner, has been bought and basically abandoned by Google) and so old readers might notice a slight difference in format.  Read More

Post image for 6 should-be-common-sense realities about doing what you love for a living

It seems like we’ve reached a point in our online culture where trashing the notion of doing what you love for a living has become at least popular as encouraging it. Google “Do what you love” and half the results are rants against the idea.

Having recently quit my job to do exactly that, I’m curious to know why so many people think I’ve made a terrible mistake, so I read a lot of these pieces, and I now I have fewer doubts than ever. The anti-”Do what you love” movement gained some wind recently in a popular article by Miya Tokumitsu, in which the author conflates the simple idea of loving your work with the exploitation of interns, the injustice of traditional gender roles, the globalization of food production, and the unlikable side of Steve Jobs.

The rest of the pieces I read are similarly off the point. Detractors of “Do what you love” (or DWYL) come at it from all kinds of angles, but what they have in common is that they all seem to have a very naive idea about what doing that actually means. Given that some of today’s graduates are leaving school already convinced that DWYL is “terrible career advice,” here are six points that I hope will one day be obvious to everyone.

1) “Work you love” is still work

By reading their online rants it seems like many anti-DWYL people imagine that doing what you love for a living means expecting to get paid to taste ice cream or review hot tubs. I can’t believe this clarification is necessary, but DWYL does not mean, “You should be getting paid for doing the thing you enjoy most, if you can just love it intensely enough.”

Work you love does not need to be work you would do for free. I love writing, and while there is certainly writing I would do for free, I recognize that making a career out of it requires me to do a lot of things that I don’t necessarily enjoy, such as writing sales pages, fixing inexplicable website issues, and navigating IRS paperwork. I do these things because they allow me to keep doing what I love. I never expected my dream career to spare me every instance of annoyance and tedium. Loving your children means cleaning up their vomit, but it doesn’t mean you love cleaning up vomit.

2) Your work needs to be useful to other people

Particular criticism is paid to the title of Marsha Sinetar’s famous book Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow. The “…and the money will follow” part presumes you understand the basic reason that anybody makes money doing anything, which is because they create something worth paying for. The amount paid for that something is directly related to how much value it provides for people other than you, and is not necessarily related to how fulfilling it was for you to create — although the latter can certainly make the former easier. We all want other people to have an incentive to give us money, so naturally it’s more than worthwhile to find a way to provide value that doesn’t simultaneously make you dread five-sevenths of your days on earth. 

The money will follow because you are older than twelve and therefore understand that some aspect of your work must involve doing or creating something that makes people want to give you their money for it. Love for your work implies that you are determined to continue to do that work, which obviously requires you to do it in such a way that you can pay your rent. Love your work, but be aware that your love isn’t what other people are interested in paying for.  Read More

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