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Post image for Every January, Make Two Lists

I’m always looking for alternatives to standard New Year’s resolutions. They’re just too simple to work unless you get lucky. You gather your resolve around one behavioral aspiration, apply it to that festive but fleeting moment when the calendar changes over, and hope there are no momentum-killing setbacks too early on.

I’m trying something different this year. I started it in December but I could see myself doing this on New Year’s Day every year. It could be done alongside traditional resolutions, or instead of them.

Here’s the basic idea. Instead of trying to change overnight on January 1st, you use the whole year to do less of certain things that you know are a net problem for you, and more of certain other things that you know are a net benefit. You’re not attempting to eliminate, or guarantee, any behaviors on your part. You’re only trying to move in the right direction, consistently, with a small handful of habits.

I know that sounds vague, and it is, until you name these behaviors explicitly by sitting down with a cup of coffee and making two lists.

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Post image for You Need to See Things Differently to Do Things Differently

If you want to get better at something – writing screenplays, gardening, making omelets, playing Tetris, organizing closets — find a way to do that thing with an expert, even if it’s just for an afternoon.

They’ll give you pointers, of course, but the real benefit is in how an expert can help you see the activity from a completely different viewpoint.

I got a lot better at rock climbing in 2022. That’s mainly because I did a lot of it. If I were to graph my progress, however, it wouldn’t be a straight line. It would rise slowly until the beginning of October, then angle up like a mountain over the last few months.

That’s because on October 2 I attended a climbing festival, and climbed with climbers way beyond my ability. Watching these people  was a revelation. They were slow, calm, and rested a lot. They moved more like sloths than monkeys.

Most importantly, they clearly saw the rock itself differently than I did. Whereas I saw it as a dangerous, prickly thing you’re fighting with and trying to conquer, they seemed to see it as a partner they can work with –- an eccentric but sturdy ladder that gets them to the top.

This was a complete figure-ground reversal for me. The rock helps you climb it! My climbing got better immediately, not because of any explicit advice I received, but because I had caught a glimpse of the activity from outside my normal way of seeing. My insight didn’t increase my existing climbing ability, so much as it changed my view of what climbing even is.

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Post image for How to Eat Your Vegetables

I once knew a man transformed by vegetables. When I first met him, he claimed he could barely stand to eat them, and rarely did so on his own initiative.

Six months later we both ended up at the same party, and I wouldn’t have recognized him if he didn’t recognize me. He looked like a fashion model.

During our conversation I brought up the vegetable question, and he told me that he had conceded to eating them at every meal and that they weren’t that bad. He still didn’t love them but he recognized their superpowers.

I always liked vegetables, or at least I thought I did. I began to question this belief when I started experimenting with the old suggestion of “filling half the plate with vegetables” at each meal. The idea is that it’s easy not to overdo the rich, non-vegetable foods as long as they’re at least matched, if not dwarfed, by a large serving of veggies. The vegetables are so voluminous and calorically sparse that it’s hard to overindulge in anything else, namely the dense and delicious carbs, meats, cheeses, and sauces that sit beside the pile of plants.

It’s an elegant solution, although not for everyone, to the so-called “omnivore’s dilemma” — what to eat, and how much, in order to stay healthy and satiated.

So far I’ve found these half-veg meals to be filling enough that I don’t need to rely on willpower not to overconsume the richer foods. I don’t hit an afternoon wall. My skin looks better. I crave snacks less. My whole system seems grateful. Superpowers, I tell you.

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Post image for One Reason the World Seems So Troubled

The shrewd parts of my brain can’t help but admire Planet Fitness’s business model. It’s a gym made for people who don’t like gyms and don’t want to go to them, which must be a huge slice of the market for gym memberships.

More specifically, they market to people who are afraid of the gym — people who dreaded gym class and dread commercial gyms, but still want to be fitter and healthier.

Helping this segment of the population get fit, if that’s their intent, is a noble and honest goal. I remember how intimidating it was to go at first. I pictured muscle dudes and fitness models rolling their eyes as I huffed and puffed after ninety seconds on the NordicTrack, and struggled to unrack a fifteen-pound dumbbell. I assumed I’d have to bear the pitying gaze of gym regulars for a good six months before I was fit enough to be accepted, or at least ignored.

That’s not what it was like, of course. By the third time you go to a gym, you’ve surely noticed that nobody cares what you do unless you’re about to hurt someone, and that most people there are fellow amateurs. There are a few bodybuilder dudes and career fitness people, and they’re just there to do their routines and go home. Everyone is listening to earbuds and looking at their phones anyway.

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Post image for How to Stop Thinking Too Much

I appreciate Sam Harris’s apt analogy about inner monologues — being caught up in your own thinking is like having been kidnapped and held hostage by the most boring person on earth. You’re forced to listen, as though at gunpoint, to an internal commentator who insists on telling you its impressions of everything it notices or thinks about.

Nothing is too petty, too repetitive, or too obvious for the boring kidnapper’s ongoing monologue: Susan was wrong to criticize people who wear Crocs to the grocery store; a certain politician is the worst person alive and here’s why; your ex-partner was definitely out of line when he accused you of wasting dish detergent that time; the two halves of this Oreo don’t line up, but it would be so much nicer if they did.

If you’re ever able to step back from your own mental chatter, and listen to it with some critical distance, perhaps after a long meditation, or in one of those tired but insightful moments near the end of the day, you might find it indeed exhibits many of the characteristics of an extremely boring and self-absorbed person. It’s not that you yourself are this way — surely you don’t say everything that comes to mind. But the mind does.

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Post image for The Best Idea Humans Ever Had

I have a radical proposal. An experiment that might just change your life. If you want to try it, I’ll do it with you.

It goes like this:

Live most of your days according to your normal habits, doing your job and your everyday stuff the same as always. Then one day a week, let’s say Tuesday, you live by a specific dictum:

From the minute you wake up, do without hesitation the thing that most needs to be done in each moment, regardless of how appealing it is. Bring your full attention to each such act, as though it’s your sole purpose on earth. Let go of every other concern.

In other words, on Tuesdays, and only Tuesdays, you devote yourself to doing the wisest and most helpful thing you can think of in each moment, all day long. You don’t try to strike any sort of “balance” between doing what you want to do and doing what you know is best. You choose the latter every time.

If the moment calls for taking a big gross garbage bag to the dumpster, you calmly pick it up and go. If it calls for broaching an unpleasant topic with your boss, you broach the unpleasant topic with your boss. If it calls for starting your term paper today even though you could rationalize waiting till Saturday, you sit down and start. If it’s time to slip your phone back into your pocket rather than scrolling another page of Reddit, you do it.

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Post image for Mindfulness Means Letting Things Surprise You

One of the hardest things about trying to be mindful is that it is often powerfully boring.

You’re trying to pay close and gentle attention to the ordinary experiences of life — sipping tea, opening a door, breathing in through your nose — and this is supposed to transform your life if you keep at it.

But it’s hard to pay this much attention to ordinary life stuff, because you already know what’s going to happen. You already know what it feels like to sip tea and walk down a sidewalk and pass through a door. It’s hard to give things more attention than they seem to need.

I’ve been practicing mindfulness for a long time, and it has transformed my life, and I still periodically run into this same problem. The rustle of leaves or the inner caress of the breath only seems to bear so much attention, so much looking and noticing, before you want to say, “Okay, I see it. What next?”

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Post image for Choose Reality While You Still Can

In the early 1990s, perhaps my favorite part of the week happened between 7:00 and 7:22 on Sundays, when America’s Funniest Home Videos broadcast their best submissions.

It’s hard to convey how precious this material was at the time. A good video of someone dropping a birthday cake down the stairs, or tumbling headlong into a kiddie pool during a dizzy-bat race, was still a rare and hilarious sight. Those perfect moments of comedic human accident were captured on video only rarely, because camcorders were still an expensive luxury item. To have all the best camcordered clips concentrated in one place was something truly special. Laughing at them with my parents and sister made for some of the best quality family time I remember.

There was only that twenty-two minutes per week though. (The final eight minutes of the show always consisted of Bob Saget drawing out the awarding of the weekly ten-thousand-dollar prize.) As with most highly gratifying things, supply was very limited. After that you had to do something else.

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Post image for How to Get Started When You Just Can’t Get Started

Cracking an egg into a bowl is a two-step process. First there’s the careful strike onto the countertop. You want to crack it just enough to enable the second step.

The second step is to pull the cracked egg apart. You put your fingertips along the jagged edges of the crack and gently pull, trying to release the yolk and white cleanly into the bowl.

You cannot pull apart an uncracked egg, because it’s smooth and edgeless. The whole point of the first step is to change the egg into the kind of egg you can pull apart, by giving it a place for your fingertips to go.

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Post image for How to Change Your Momentum in a Week or Two

During the late 2000s, around when I started this blog, there was a trend among young male entrepreneurs called “Monk Mode.”

Everyone had a different idea of what that term meant, but generally it referred to taking a definite period of time – a week to three months or more – to focus with unusual intensity on certain important and fruitful pursuits, while abstaining from certain distracting or self-defeating activities.

Somewhat like a monk, you would voluntarily adopt a standard of heightened discipline, following a few non-negotiable rules, in order to bring certain important things to the fore of your life. A person might do this in order to launch a website, finish a manuscript, or return to the level of fitness they enjoyed in college.  

The last time I heard this phrase was around 2009, and at the time it seemed indistinguishable from “working hard until I finish this current project,” which is what I was always trying to do anyway.

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