2019 personal development experiments

As noted in the previous post, I attribute better-than-usual success with personal development this year due to some key insights, including using experiments to trial different approaches to self-improvement. Here were the experiments that I found worthwhile:

Regular exercise (of the not-too-hard variety)

I find that whenever I make regular exercise a habit, I start making progress on all other aspects of my life. It’s like my brain isn’t fully able to adapt and change without it. Since most of my life I’ve struggled with getting in regular exercise, I find it interesting that I was able to successfully make it a strong habit this year. Part of the secret was moving a few blocks away from a nice gym which was easy and pleasant to visit. For a while, I religiously tracked my weekly gym visits, and this was the sole habit I pursued until I deemed that this habit had taken root.

I used my past failures to inform my new approach. In the past, I would stop exercising because it was either unpleasantly difficult and reluctance eventually overpowered my motivation, or because I would get injured and by the time I healed, I would have to build inspiration and motivation all over again.

So this time I was super cautious about listening to my body to avoid injury and avoided classes, as that’s where I often fell prey to injury.

I also committed to not making my workouts too hard. My hypothesis was that if I just kept showing up, my workouts would eventually get more intense, and by that time I would have developed a better kinesthetic sense and more musculature that would help protect against injury.

Intermittent fasting

Obligatory note: fasting and following random internet on the internet can be dangerous! Consult your doctor and be aware when you’re outsourcing your thinking.

September was the first time I tried regular intermittent fasting and, while not always fun or easy, it really worked for me. I was looking for a habit to pick up that would help me shed a few pounds without having to devote a bunch of time and attention to it. Several years ago I read this article chronicling the former Evernote CEO’s success with fasting. I became convinced of fasting’s merits and read tons of books on the subject and… I even tried fasting a few times! The trouble was that I tried to go from 0-60 in one go. After a 48-hour fast, fistfuls of hair fell out and I wrote fasting off as “not for me.”

This year I realized that instead of trying to go so extreme, I should just try intermittent fasting. I didn’t think a 16-18 hour fast would be significant enough to be effective, but I was wrong. Intermittent fasting seems to brilliantly regulate my hunger and satiety signals so that I naturally eat a more appropriate amount of food—no calorie counting or diet neurosis required! With intermittent fasting, I feel more energetic and healthier, not to mention I save time and money because breakfast or dinner is no longer a thing. Fasting seems to lower my inflammation, which I suspect may be because I am giving my system the time it needs to fully digest food instead of piling on more.

While I don’t find intermittent fasting particularly fun or easy, I do find it feels more natural the longer I do it. I’m glad I committed to doing a 30-day initial trial before saying “fuck this,” as it took me several weeks to adjust. I actually now crave fasting, especially after a time of feasting (I’m looking at you, holidays).

One interesting side note: When I was adapting to fasting, I felt the same feeling as after intense aerobic activity. After doing IF for some time, I found that I could run literally twice as long, whereas before it didn’t seem to matter how much I trained, I wasn’t able to do much to move the needle on my endurance.

Cold exposure

Several years ago I tried to get on the Wim Hof train. For those who missed the trend, Wim Hof is the “ice guru” who got everyone excited about ice baths. But even after reading a whole bunch about the benefits of cold exposure, I found it difficult to apply the knowledge. After all, cold showers initially feel pretty awful. And ice baths?? No thanks.

But this year I listened to this episode of “The Kevin Rose Show” where Kevin talks about how his mood improved as a result of cold exposure. Apparently there’s some physiological explanation, but all I needed to know was that I could improve my mood with only a few minutes of cold torture—what a deal! So I started doing a short amount of cold at the end of my shower and aimed to make it longer each time. And… it works! I do indeed experience greater happiness (sometimes a crazy amount, like the day I came to work and greeted my colleagues with, “Hello, beautiful people!”). But I find it does much more than that: it boosts my immunity, fosters a sense of aliveness, and bolsters my ability to handle mental stress. Seriously, all those benefits in like two minutes!

The Wim Hof method is to do a bunch of breathing techniques to gain greater control over the body. The Alexandra Heller method is to internally scream “I CAN DO IT!” over and over, which effectively drowns out all other thoughts. Cold exposure and affirmations for the day, done.

Habit tracking

This year I broke down my goals into daily activities and then every day checked “yes” or “no” as to whether or not I did the thing that makes progress on that goal. When I started doing this, the implications of wasting time became a lot clearer. I naturally stopped almost all TV or movie watching, as it became more obvious that e.g., either I watch TV or complete 20 minutes of learning German. I use the Loops – Habit Tracker app (Android / iOS), but there’s a bunch of similar apps.

Traction dashboard

To track non-daily activities and take a broader view, I created a traction dashboard that I update every week and month. It helps me understand if I’m on target to my goals with e.g., minimizing alcohol consumption, saving, donating, and learning. “What gets measured gets managed,” and all that. To capture qualitative data, I also journal reflections about what worked and what didn’t in a particular period of time.

Volunteering

This year I volunteered to write interviews with Giving What We Can members. My goal was to support the community by sharing different people’s perspectives on giving to high-impact charities. I’m not sure this was a particularly useful activity for others, but it was a lovely excuse to speak with interesting people whose values I align with. Selfishly, I was hoping that this activity would inspire me to make my 10% giving pledge. This worked, so I’ll call it a success, and it was nice to contribute my time to a cause I believe in.

Public speaking

I previously avoided public speaking because I get super nervous, but I got motivated to face my fears when Tim Ferriss mentioned that public speaking is a great tool for personal growth: what you are bad at in public speaking shows up in other areas of your life. I found his advice to be true—public speaking (often painfully) shows me my uneasiness with myself and my ideas, and working on public speaking has been a high-impact way to improve.

Gratitude journaling

For over a decade now I’ve wanted to jot down 3-5 things every day that I’m grateful for, and this year I finally made it happen. The secret was discovering the gorgeous “Presently” app (Android); ever since installing it I’ve had no trouble keeping this journal.

Gratitude journaling has helped me better understand what brings happiness into my life. Curiously, most of the things on my gratitude journal have little to do with what I think will make me happy. Having good conversations with people is nowhere on my goals list, but frequent on my gratitude list, so I probably need to reexamine my goals list so I don’t climb the wrong mountain.

I hoped gratitude journaling would help me train my mind to notice positive things instead of just problems. While it’s hard to objectively judge whether it’s working, I think it is (and I’ll happily take a placebo effect).

Consciously creating routines

Good routines are like a recipe for a good day. Eventually I’d love to have morning to evening planned out, but that’s a work in progress. So far these are the pieces that are working:

Weekday morning routine: wake up > run/gym > cold shower > meditate. I created this routine during a period when I felt like I was numbly following the motions of each day. While I don’t do it every day, I try to follow it at least 3x per week to feel on top of things, alive, and present.

Weekend routine: Fridays—take care of chores while listening to an audiobook and update my traction spreadsheet. This way I don’t feel like my whole weekend goes to maintenance. Saturdays—morning writing meetup. Sunday—visit favorite coffeeshop (more writing!) and then prep food for the week.

Moving money to savings/investment first

Early this year I tried (yet again!) to follow a budget, but it felt like too much effort to track everything, especially in cash-only Berlin where there’s no trail of credit card transactions. After rereading the ridiculously-titled personal finance book, I Will Teach You To Be Rich, I followed Ramit Sethi’s advice to take money out of my bank account as soon as it came in and move it to savings and investments. Ideally this happens automatically but that’s not feasible for me, so I just set a calendar reminder. I was motivated to not just move money back into my checking account because I know that the amount I took out is the monthly amount for my savings goal for the year, and I won’t hit that target if I take the money out. What tends to happen is I freeze non-necessary purchases for a few weeks, which often results in buying less. So it’s more like a feast-famine approach with money, and feeling indulgent sometimes and thrifty other times is a better match for my personality than eternal moderation.

Blogging

I really enjoyed writing personal blogs regularly this year. And apparently if you write enough blogs, your inner dialogue just becomes a sort of nonstop attempt at writing a blog post, which I guess is more productive than random thoughts and judgments. Last year one of my biggest resolutions was to create, and while I’d still love to express myself through animation, I feel pretty creatively satisfied. I now have Saturday and Sunday mornings penciled in for writing at a cafe, and they’re absolutely the highlights of my week.

Journaling

This was the first year I regularly journaled, and I agree with those who say that journaling is free therapy. Journaling has been an excellent way to move circling thoughts to their conclusion.

Learning

It’s hard to make time to learn new things as an adult, but it seems entirely necessary to do so. The world is changing and you have to keep up. I feel equal parts frustrated and successful with the amount of learning I accomplished this year. I ascertained a small amount of knowledge in German and After Effects, and while it’s a drop in the bucket of what I’d like to have learned, I am happy that I was able to gain at least this amount of knowledge.

What seemed to work for German was spending some time every day studying, but After Effects was too involved for daily practice. In the end I was unable to pursue either consistently, so in 2020, I would like to figure out how to make learning a consistent part of my life, even in times of stress and busyness.

Letting go

Perhaps this is a weird addition to a list of controlling activities. It was sparked by rereading Michael Singer’s The Surrender Experiment, an autobiographical account of Singer’s 40-year experiment in surrendering to life’s unfolding. What I took from the book was a desire to attempt to surrender to whatever current situation I find myself in. I found this particularly helpful in periods of stress and overwhelm. For example, in situations of overwhelm, my impulse is to try to make the situation be different. But because making the situation different is often impossible, resisting just makes me anxious. So instead of resisting, I now do my best to surrender and just do my best to serve the situation as best as I can, letting go of the outcome. I also am working to surrender overthinking what I’m doing. I surrender and say: “This is what’s in front of me, I’m going to serve it the best I can.”

Similarly, I try to surrender to emotions. If I let myself release into a feeling without trying to change it, the emotion seems to alleviate more quickly.

Training attention and focus

Fostering the ability to focus deeply for an extended time period is something I’ve been pursuing since reading Cal Newport’s superb Deep Work. This year my ability to focus seemed to get far better, I believe mostly due to training single-tasking through writing sessions. I still have a fantasy of regularly completely immersing myself in a project for 4+ hours, but my work and schedule don’t particularly lend themselves to that. Maybe one day!

Meditation

I had a frustrating time with meditation this year. For a while, I just sat through it to give myself a gold star for the day, but I didn’t feel like much was improving. I cycled through the popular meditation apps and some were helpful, but I always landed in the same uninspired place.

Finally, a friend suggested a book (Deep Meditation – Pathway to Personal Freedom by Yogani) and I tried its technique: repeating “I am” as a mantra. I didn’t like this mantra. I wanted an “om” or “mu” mantra that I could believe was magical. An English mantra affirming one’s existence was most certainly not magical.

But it worked. Pretty soon I found myself disappointed when I only had ten minutes for meditation. I found I could repeat the mantra and find space between the wave of emotions that was my self-concept, the egoic clinging onto being good and not being bad, and all the activities necessary to assert that claim. Then it became a habit. This silence became something I hungered for, something I felt incomplete without spending time in. It became a point of reference for my day, a place of refuge.

Curbing alcohol consumption

I love many things about alcohol, but each of alcohol’s positive attributes comes paired with an attribute that’s equally or more negative. In particular, good sleep is a requisite for progress on so many areas, yet alcohol is a strong disruptor of sleep (yes, even a “healthy” glass of red wine). It makes no sense to me to sacrifice sleep quality for alcohol: 1 hour of feeling elevated in exchange for a whole day where you don’t feel as well-rested and energetic as you could have? Hmm, no thanks.

The morning after a social situation where I choose not to drink, I reflect on how happy I am to have awoken so refreshed and energized, and how grateful I am for not drinking. This aligns with an adage I try to adhere to: make choices that make tomorrow better.

Curbing sugar consumption

Like a drunk is to alcohol, like a heroin addict is to heroin, I am to sugar. The times I’ve managed to wrestle myself free from sugar’s grips, I’ve contemplated getting a tattoo to remind myself that sugar is my kryptonite and I should leave it be. Like alcohol, sugar is physiologically addictive, which means your body craves it, so you have to wait through a period of craving when you give it up. After you get to the other side of this craving (really only three days), not consuming it is pretty easy.

I committed to giving up sugar several times this year, but I was only successful when I made a pact with a colleague. I find that without sugar my energy is more stable and I don’t feel as tired. I started viewing sugar items as simply “not for me,” which was a helpful mantra.

Cutting out sugar, I felt so many things improve. I felt more healthy and energetic, bloating melted away, and the ever-present sugar craving was replaced by contentment. Apples became a relished treat.

Community organizing

I stepped into the role of community organizer in several ways this year. I put on clothing swaps, organized a Meetup group, and started a public speaking club. I’m still not super excited about community organizing, but I now feel more empowered to create the community I want instead of waiting to find one to join.

Donating on a recurring basis

It’s difficult to look at a large sum of money and donate it at the end of the year, so this year I set up recurring monthly donations. This made donating 10% of my income easier than in previous years. I am so fortunate to be in a position to give, and there are so many desperate needs in our world. I’ve learned to regard this money as “not mine” and offer it up as thanks to all the fortunate experiences I have had that have brought me to this place of abundance.

This year I donated to Cool Earth, The Good Food Institute, GiveDirectly, Mayan Families, 5 Gyres, Mercy for Animals, and a friend’s orphanage. For those who are cynical about donating (“it just ends up in admin costs!”), please look into reputable charities whose impact is audited. GiveWell has some well-researched recommendations, and if you’re in Germany also check out Effektiv Spenden.

If we don’t help those who are dedicating their lives to address the problems in the world, who will? Check out Giving What We Can and Effective Altruism for more inspiration.


Keeping these endeavors going in 2020 will be a challenge; I see how quickly I abandon good habits when stressed or traveling. But I hope that, by discovering and noting the habits that work for me, I have formed a foundation of positive habits that I can return to again and again.

2019 personal development insights

This year I made better-than-usual progress in developing into the person I think I ought to be. I cultivated strong exercise and meditation habits, donated 10% of my income, met my savings goals, curbed sugar and alcohol consumption, blogged regularly, and lost 10 pounds. While this increased progress was enabled by having a stable, repetitive daily life as my canvas, there were several key changes in how I thought about personal development that were also instrumental:

Pursue goals methodically

This year I decided that I am an effective adult capable of achieving desires if I pursue them in a methodical, scientific method. That is, I would create hypotheses, try them out, and reflect on the results. This was a helpful perspective to take because it allowed me to let go of past baggage—e.g., “Oh I’ve tried meditation before, but it never sticks”—and see that I had not yet trialed all the possibilities. Obviously I was missing some strategy or insight that was keeping me from achieving my goal, so I must pursue and discover that missing piece. Had I tried every different meditation technique? Maybe one would work for me better than the others and thus motivate me to stick with the habit. Having many past failures made me believe I was closer to solving the problem, not more likely to fail again.

The key to goal achievement is daily action

Before I was frustrated by desiring a goal but only having brief moments of inspiration when I pursued it. This year I instead let these brief moments of inspiration act as beacons to guide my daily action. Now if I have a moment of inspiration about doing something, I put a daily activity related to it in my habits app so I can monitor if my daily actions are leading to the goal or not.

Pursue “forever habits”

I reflected more on this here, but basically I adopted a long-term approach to habit development, realizing there are recurring, permanent themes around what I think I should do, so I should just hack away at making these practices habits. Again, this hacking away takes doing experiments to figure out what works. I always want to limit my alcohol consumption, but I am not sure what is the best habit to apply. Should I stop drinking completely? Drink only at social events? Drink only on weekends? What if I just track my number of glasses of alcohol consumed and try to decrease it every month? By doing experiments for a set period of time, I explore which approach meets my needs and is sustainable in the long term.

Act on impulses to change

Instead of listening to the nagging thoughts telling me I needed to exercise or stop eating sugar, I decided to just do the thing the nagging thoughts wanted. Likewise, instead of entertaining fantasies about waking up early and working on my most important projects, I just did it. I tried to be conscious of these suggestions and follow through on them quickly instead of waiting months or years to heed their advice.

Sit with discomfort

This year I realized that my greatest limitation was a reluctance to sitting with uncomfortable emotions. For example, I would regularly turn down opportunities simply because those situations made me uncomfortable. I also perpetuated social media, sugar, and alcohol consumption due to an unconscious default decision to distract from these emotions. I realized that if I could simply be with the emotions without hiding from them, I would solve a host of problems and become a more resilient and capable person.

But sitting with uncomfortable emotions is difficult. Often these emotions come from a wellspring of unintegrated experiences (i.e., trauma), and there are powerful psychological forces within blocking their resolution. I’m not sure what the solution is other than to just hack at it with different approaches. For example, with fasting you can’t turn to food to distract yourself from emotions. With cold exposure, I practice allowing myself to feel extreme sensation. With meditation, I gain a little more leverage on recognizing the avoidance mechanism.

Pursue neurogenesis

I noticed that there were several habits—fasting, exercise, and cold exposure—that seemed to create exceptional results in many areas of my life all at once. For example, while I was only looking to cold exposure to improve my mood, it also seemed to deepen sleep and bolster resilience to sickness and stress. I discovered that fasting, exercise, and cold exposure are all activities that promote neurogenesis. While I don’t have enough understanding of neuroscience to conceive how behavior change is linked to brain development, I decided to explore whatever promotes or protects neurogenesis. For example, sugar and alcohol oppose neurogenesis, so I decided to explore limiting consumption of each.


In the next post, I chronicle the personal development experiments that yielded good results this year.

On forming Forever Habits

Several years ago, I found myself in the predicament of being unable to read nonfiction books. I could, of course, read the words just fine, but the act of sitting and reading one page after another stirred an overwhelming anxiety: I knew so little and learning took so long. Each sentence I read was a tiny drop in a bucket the size of a rapidly expanding universe (a metaphor which reminded me of astrophysics, another subject I’d like to learn, but how long would that take???). Turning each page felt like confronting the utter meaninglessness and pointlessness of my small, stupid existence.

So I’d shut the book and walk away.

When I realized I was stuck in a self-reinforcing cage of ignorance, I became motivated to overcome it. I decided that, no matter what, I would read for 30 minutes every day for a month. As a visual reminder of my commitment, I got a calendar and crossed a big X through each day after completing the reading.

And even though reading was still uncomfortable for the first few times, I got through my resistance pretty quickly. I stopped paying attention to my universe of ignorance and instead started paying attention to all the exciting new ideas rushing into my awareness.

The first book I read during this month was The Power of Habit. In it, Charles Duhigg argues that we have limited conscious attention and willpower to make decisions, thus the majority of what we do every day happens out of habit. He concludes that if we use our limited willpower to create our habits, we can effectively program our lives.

I was sold.

The author suggested you could form a habit in 30 days, so I got a big calendar that showed all 12 months at once. I made a list of 12 habits I’d like to adopt and chose one new habit for each month. And then I sat back to install 12 new habits, easy as crossing one day off after the next.

But… it didn’t work like that. Meditation didn’t stick around long once the 30 days were up. Journaling, gratitude, avoiding sugar… these too quickly evaporated from my life once I moved onto my next pet habit.

In fact, the only habit that stuck around from that year was my first habit: reading. But… that’s ok, reading has been a pretty great habit. Heck, if I could adopt one new habit every year as helpful as reading, I’d be thrilled.

But still, what happened with those other habits—why didn’t they stick?

The Power of Habit prescribes a cue, habit, reward formula. Cue is what reminds you to perform the habit. Then, after performing the habit, you’re supposed to get some reward to incentivize you to repeat the habit again. Y’know, like training dogs.

I peered into how that model was at play in my successful reading habit:

In my month of 30 minutes of reading per day, I had been quick to find a hack: audiobooks. If I just put audiobooks on while driving, I didn’t have to change anything else in my life to meet my reading time quota. Were audiobooks as nerd-sexy as the physical variety? Definitely not. But, whatever worked.

And worked it did. Quickly I found myself listening anytime I feasibly could—walking, driving, cooking, eating meals, cleaning.

So the cue for my reading habit was being a situation where my body was occupied with a task but my attention was free.

I didn’t need to ladle out treats after each reading session—the reward was intrinsic in the reading itself. Every time I read I would be rewarded by shiny, new fun ideas in my head. (This echoes Naval’s advice that, to build the habit of reading, you should read whatever you are most interested in, even if that means beginning by reading trashy novels. He advises to build up a sense of enjoyment of reading, so skip anything boring or tedious, and never feel compelled to finish anything.)

In the charmingly anecdotal Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin argues that you should never use extrinsic rewards to reinforce habits. From my own experience, I have found this to be very true:

One evening in high school, after reading something about using rewards to get yourself to do something, I ate a bowl of ice cream to prod myself into cramming for a pre-calc exam. Fast forward 15 years and I’m still unravelling the compulsion to pair the endorphin rush of a sugar high with tackling tough work. Looking back, I wish I would have instead committed to just 20 minutes of study (“it’s just 20 minutes, after that I can take a break”), set a timer, and afterwards reward myself by reflecting on how good it feels having faced a challenge head-on.

So when I was recently building a habit of regularly hitting the gym, I looked at how to build in a reward that would keep me hooked on the habit. I knew I didn’t want an extrinsic reward of, say, a smoothie at the end. So instead, when I was leaving the gym I would consciously think positive and affirming things. Like, “Wow, look how on top of things I am. Most of my life I’ve struggled to regularly work out, but here I am. Things must be going well.” So the reward became my feeling positive about my ability to achieve my hopes for my life, which was far more motivating than any treat. This reward also helped motivate me to go to the gym when I was tired or grumpy: I knew I would feel better after going.

The other thing that helped me form a gym habit was not making it too hard. Previously I tried to start an exercise habit by jumping into high-intensity programs that I would participate in with maximum enthusiasm until I overexerted myself and had to drop out due to injury or just having run out of enthusiasm for intense unpleasant experiences.

So this time I instead decided that I was forming a habit of going to the gym for the rest of my life. Because it was a lifetime habit, the intensity of any one workout didn’t really matter—what mattered was that I enjoyed going to the gym and that I worked out in a sustainable fashion. The goal became not to have a great workout but to just show up. My workouts weren’t efficient, I wasn’t getting ripped, but I was enjoying myself and coming back. And 20 years of consistent easy workouts will do me better than 20 years of occasional intense exercise. And so working out became less about the workout and more about the habit of arriving at the gym even if I didn’t feel like it.

This focus on the long view made me realize: I don’t want to focus on short-term behavioral change. I don’t want to do a Whole 30 or a sober October. I don’t want to prepare for a marathon or lose 10 pounds for a wedding. I don’t want to do anything where I use short-term enthusiasm for a short-term result. I want to use every ounce of my enthusiasm for better behavior to build permanent automatic daily actions.

Like with building the habit of meditation:

The day after completing my first 10-day Vipassana retreat, I committed to sitting for 45 minutes each morning and evening. I sat silent and virtuous, confident that my devoted meditation practice would become the calm groundedness I would build a meaningful life upon.

This routine lasted for a whole (very lovely) 1.5 days.

So when I took up meditation again, I took it up with the view of making it a forever habit. I decided that I meditate because I always meditate. If I stopped the habit, I would just start it back up again as soon as I noticed, just like how in meditation you come back to the object of meditation whenever you find yourself lost in thought. And instead of 45 minutes, I aimed for just 5 minutes. After all, unlike 45 minutes, I really can’t argue that I don’t have 5 minutes.

Interestingly, with the attitude of lifelong commitment, I finally started seeing benefits from my meditation practice. I started “waking up” in my everyday life. I would find myself standing in the kitchen drying my hands and I would just start watching, quietly observing. Or I would find myself in a surge of emotion and step back and watch my breath, waiting for the storm to pass. And one morning I felt an overwhelming sense of peace wash over me. I could see how one could remain calm and peaceful even as the world goes to hell. This was the peace described in all those books on meditation I had read in lieu of actually meditating.

I see habits now as a lifelong practice: Pick the habits you want to cultivate and do your best to water them every day. If you stray from your habits, come back and begin at them again, because they reflect your values and your values are always there, an endless source of enthusiasm for the activities that best reflect your authentic self.