1. Log off social media, turn off the news
Like laughter, fear is contagious. You can see this in birds where one of them starts acting nervous and a moment later the whole flock takes flight. For several weeks I went down the coronavirus news hole, and my emotions went right down with me. Then one day I shut my laptop and noticed the shining sun and swaying trees outside. In that moment, I decided that I was the one who would decide my experience of this time. While I still check the news and Twitter, I do my best to limit exposure.
2. Tune in, breathe, and feel
Soothe anxiety as you would a crying child: hold it, listen to it, be with it. To ritualize this emotional processing, each evening I take time to tune into my body, breathe, and feel through any emotions present. The book Deep Listening is a fantastic guide to this practice.
Troubled by circling thoughts? Try using the 4-7-8 breathing: inhale through the nose for 4, hold the breath for 7, breathe out the mouth for 8. The counting acts as a chew toy for the mind, while the breathing technique helps the nervous system switch out of fight-or-flight. To shift from shallow chest breathing to big belly breaths, tuck your chin and place one hand on the heart and one hand on the belly.
Another breathing practice I’ve found particularly useful is qi gong. It might feel silly to do at first, but I’ve never found anything that pacifies turbulent emotions so effectively. An easy way to start is this YouTube.
3. Be kind
If you’re living with others, go out of your way to do something nice for them. If you’re not, send friends and family thoughtful messages and reflect on the good times you’ve shared. Performing acts of kindness will help you as much as others.
4. Get going on your secret dream
Look! Everyone’s distracted and all your plans are canceled. Now’s the time to take up watercolor, learn to make ravioli, finish that David Foster Wallace novel, or whatever else you’ve been relegating to the forbidden land of someday. That someday is today—unless, of course, you are on 24/7 lockdown with kids. Then grab a beer and Netflix, you deserve it.
As the Stoics would say, the situation is as it is, but you still have a hand to play—even if it’s just choosing to consciously breathe through this time.
Is there another technique that you’ve found helpful? Please comment and share. We’re all in this together.
It started with a lingering sadness. My head was a lead balloon, my arms pinned by sandbag hands.
“I get it now,” I thought, recalling people’s tales of depression weighting them to the bed. Anxiety, my lifelong companion, looked productive by comparison. At least anxiety offered a nervous attentiveness I could use to fuel overwork. This depression seemed to not bear any gifts.
I made a pact with myself. Before losing myself completely to this void, I would fight. I would do everything everyone says to do to beat depression. I would get regular sleep. I would exercise. I would spend time with people instead of closing myself off. I would stop treating sugar and caffeine like major food groups.
And little by little, the depression lifted. But when I read Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind, and how psychedelics help the brain find new routes instead of spinning the same faulty circuit, I decided to try it—if only for insurance against the void.
I did a quick Google search for legal psychedelic sessions. One of the first results was for a group psilocybin retreat in the Netherlands, a rare refuge where psilocybin truffles were legal, hosted by the UK Psychedelic Society. I wasn’t keen on tripping balls with a bunch of randos from the internet. I wanted an experience like Pollan had. He found an underground therapist who watched over him, 1:1, as he journeyed. But I was a millennial, too lazy to network and find one of these elusive practitioners. I filled out their short application.
Day one of the retreat arrived. In the first of many group check-ins, they asked how people came to be here. One by one, we recounted our tale. “I read Michael Pollan’s book. Then I searched on Google. Now I’m here,” said two people before me. I repeated the story, my identity as a unique snowflake melting.
According to the facilitator, the groups used to attract people seeking novel experiences. Now, with the changing perception of psychedelics, more and more people arrived in search of healing.
I came hoping to chill out, trip, and bounce, but the facilitators—beautiful bright beings you couldn’t help but like—had other plans. They coaxed us through one group exercise after another. The activities prodded us into dropping our defenses. We gazed into each other’s eyes and traded closely held secrets. Reluctantly, I engaged. There was something healing about being a part of a group of people sharing openly. I became less trapped in my own little story. Maybe I didn’t need psychedelics. Maybe I just needed a dose of humanity, a sense of belonging and sharing the truth of what living feels like.
But all this authentic relating was a bit intense. My mounting anxiety about the trip was slowly being outpaced by a desire to be left alone.
At last, it was time. We settled onto mats and were handed eyeshades and cups of honeyed ginger tea to pour over our shrooms. Almost immediately, swirling shapes appeared over my vision. My heart beat rapidly, a chunk of icy fear growing in my chest. Clinging onto reality, I downed what I perceived to be the minimum dose.
I donned the black silk eyeshades and shut out the room. Closing my eyes, a universe appeared. It was dark, but there existed… something. Swirls of colored smoke entwined around the edges, framing a stage. Scene after scene of never-ending strife unfolded on this stage. Scenes of galactic wars were followed by scenes of factory-farmed animals who never knew anything but a cruel and wretched existence. In one scene I clung to my boyfriend as bombs exploded in our city.
There was no escape. I had been mistaken about life. In the end, this eternity of suffering was all there was.
I was vaguely aware I was tripping, that this kaleidoscope of horrors would end sometime, and that I had the option to never ever do this again. That sounded nice.
The facilitators were there for us in case we should want help navigating troubled waters. They so sincerely wanted to help. But… what could they do to stop all reality from ultimately being endless strife and darkness without redemption? There was no help. I was quite certain that this was all that existed.
Then a thought sprang into my awarenss: “The only good in the world is that which we create.” This sentiment was a spark that pierced the darkness. There was still the darkness, but now also the kindness created by those who care. I saw that there was still time for me to join that group and use my life to make life better for others. Such precious grace! I recommitted my life to altruism.
The golden rays of the setting sun filled the room. We were coming down. The facilitators took us on a walk, which turned out to be less of a walk and more a herding of newborn kittens with stumbling legs and awe-filled eyes.
Overhead, a giant sky was streaked with voluminous spiraling purple-blue clouds so majestic they looked shaped by Zeus himself. Everything looked realer than real, like we had taken the offramp from Flatland. Does the sky usually look like this? How could I not have noticed before?
It was October and the start of fall. The leaves on the ground stretched the gamut of sunset hues. How could the leaves fall so perfectly, with each square foot of ground like a Monet? Again, I wondered how I could have walked this path before without noticing such immaculate beauty.
At the sharing circle that night, I learned that I had one of the more trying experiences of the group. Some people had full-blown mystical experiences—love and light, deep insights, whatever.
I tried to contain my envy.
I wasn’t sure what my trip taught me. Ok, I should be a better person and use my life to improve others’. But it still seemed horrible and dark. It seemed clearer what the retreat taught me: how to be. I realized I spent my life rushing out of the inadequate present to some perfect future that… probably didn’t exist.
The retreat was all about taking time to be. At a group activity, I would think: “Okay, this must be the end of this activity.” No. “Now this must be the end.” No. “Now this must be the end.” Nope. With nothing else to do, I started leaning into the moment instead of rushing to the next.
Centered in the moment, I breathed deeply, feeling through my emotions. To my surprise, I discovered a whole store of very old emotions stuck waiting to be felt. I breathed into the emotions of myself as an alarmed infant, screaming alone. Maybe in my never-ending rush for accomplishment and self-acceptance, I had never learned to just be a human, breathing and feeling. Now I sat breathing in the moment as it was, with all its wants and faults and hurts.
I realized my anxiety was nothing more than a mounting queue of unfelt emotions, and that if I took the time I could breathe through the debt of feeling, like patiently combing through tangled knots of hair.
There were too many aspects of my life that changed around this time to objectively tell what effect the retreat had on me. But depression, my original motivation for the trip, didn’t visit me again.
A year later, as I once more waded through autumn leaves, I realized what that trip had been about: it was all of my fears about the world. All of my fears were offered to me so I could confront and integrate them. From that perspective, the trip looked less like a nightmare and more like a very kind offering. Maybe the world wasn’t so dark after all.
Many thanks to the UK Psychedelic Society for facilitating the retreat. While these retreats may not be right for everyone, I felt the retreat helped me become more emotionally integrated and more capable of contributing positively towards society.
Book are categorized by nonfiction / fiction and then loosely organized from most to least recommended. Many of this year’s books were read to glean insights for my quest to get my life to a proper baseline of effectiveness; results from that initiative are in the two preceding posts.
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming – David Wallace-Wells
For most people, “climate change” conjures up mental images of cities underwater and warmer winters. Not a big deal—just don’t live anywhere coastal or hot, right?
Wrong. Wallace-Wells explains how climate change means problems that gravely impact everyone: massive food and water shortages, plagues, unbreathable air, and perpetual war.
Wallace-Wells’ beautiful writing makes the tragedies he foretells all the more visceral. You can get a good sense of the book from the article that originated it.
Guide to the Good Life – William B. Irvine
Guide to the Good Life is an approachable introductory guide to Stoicism. This book is replete with obvious-yet-remarkable gems like:
“We can either spend this moment wishing it could be different, or we can embrace this moment. If we habitually do the former, we will spend much of our life in a state of dissatisfaction; if we habitually do the latter, we will enjoy our life.”
The Stoics valued tranquility of spirit, and by looking through their eyes, I examined my life and saw how I routinely disturbed my tranquility with foolish thoughts and behaviors. Here’s an example of how Seneca watches for such foolish thoughts and corrects them:
At a banquet, Seneca was not seated in the place of honor he thought he deserved. Consequently, he spent the banquet angry at those who planned the seating and envious of those who had better seats than he did. His assessment of his behavior: “You lunatic, what difference does it make what part of the couch you put your weight on?”
Irvine views the Stoics as master psychologists. They prescribed, for example, negative visualization as a way to prevent hedonic adaptation. For instance, to help guard against the desire for a new phone, imagine your current phone being smashed to pieces. Or imagine being in a world without smartphones at all. Or imagine not having use of your hands and thus smartphones simply existing as a source of frustration. With daily negative visualization, it’s easier to stay appreciative of how much you have.
One of my favorite techniques in the book is only pursuing things you can control. For example, if you are playing tennis, instead of playing to win, your goal would be to play the best you can. You can’t control winning but you can control playing the best you can. And paradoxically, focusing on playing the best you can instead of winning is a better strategy for winning.
While time will tell how lasting the changes are, I felt that in reading this book I had at last found a compass for my life and was able to delineate which goals and behaviors are worth pursuing. I look forward to practicing the prescribed methods and further studying Stoicism as well as what seems to be its Eastern cousin, Buddhism.
Principles: Life & Work – Ray Dalio
I can see why so many people recommend this book: it is the distillation of a lifetime of unconventional yet effective wisdom. I was particularly inspired by how Dalio ran a wildly successful firm using radical honesty. As there’s too much to unpack in one read, I look forward to rereading it soon. This video is a great introduction:
A great book that inspired me to take more time without media. Recommended for anyone with a smartphone. Full review here.
Ultralearning – Scott Young
Scott Young is an overachiever. After graduating with a degree he didn’t care for, he did an experiment to learn MIT’s 4-year computer science curriculum in two years without taking classes. After that, he attempted to learn four languages in a year. Ultralearning is his strategy for aggressive, self-directed learning. I had a few takeaways about how to learn more effectively, but my biggest takeaway was inspiration to embark on my own ultralearning challenge.
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear – Elizabeth Gilbert
A beautiful book on creativity. I’m enamored by Gilbert’s enchanted view that ideas live in a realm of their own and come to Earth to find people to materialize them. Gilbert is an inspiring figure in that she has devoted her life to her writing without ever expecting it to pay her way. She worked various restaurant jobs to pay the bills while writing novel after novel, all of which came to no acclaim before her breakout Eat, Pray, Love. I believe most people with a creative calling will find something insightful in the book.
Better Than Before – Gretchen Rubin
This became one of my favorite books on habits, but I think more than any particular piece of advice in this, Rubin became a role model to me. Her personality is quite similar to mine, and so I came to think: “If Gretchen Rubin can do X, Y, and Z, why can’t I?” She became my inspiration to, e.g., wake up early and get more done.
Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert
I wrote off this book because it was so mainstream and come on, there’s a movie version with Julia Roberts. But I got curious to read it because I loved Big Magic so much, and I’m glad I did. It’s a gorgeous story that I couldn’t put down. If you’re interested in spirituality, travel, and self-discovery, give it a try.
The Surrender Experiment – Michael A Singer
I became a Michael Singer fan when I read The Untethered Soul, one of the books I reread most often. This year I reread The Surrender Experiment after @bertstachios recommended it. While Singer wanted to live a quiet life of meditation, he decided to surrender to whatever was coming to him in life. This book recounts that tale and how that level of surrender transformed him.
The Obesity Code – Dr. Jason Fung
If you haven’t struggled with your weight, then congratulations! You have missed out on a world of suffering. Dr. Jason Fung dismantles the argument that “restrict calories and exercise more” is an effective weight loss strategy. Yes, calories play a factor, but humans are more complex than simple thermodynamic machines. If weight were as simple as “calories in, calories out,” then why do women gain fat during puberty and pregnancy when their caloric consumption doesn’t change? Hormones. In The Obesity Code, Fung discusses the hormonal factors that affect body composition. This was my second time reading this book and I got just as much out of it as the first time.
I Will Teach You to Be Rich – Ramit Sethi
This is still my favorite personal finance book. I read it again this year to get re-inspired about my savings goals, which worked. I made the change to put money into savings/investments and donations as soon as I receive it, which has been helpful. If you’re new to the world of personal finance, this is a great place to start.
What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast – Laura Vanderkam
Super short, fun read that profiles what different people do in their early mornings. I read it for inspiration about starting a habit to wake up at 6 am, and it did the trick.
Delay, Don’t Deny – Gin Stephens
This was the book that convinced me to give intermittent fasting a try. Stephens writes from a “here’s my story, here’s what worked for me” everyday person perspective. If you’re looking more for the science behind intermittent fasting, try another book.
The Fast Diet – Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer
Apparently this was one of the first books to come out about intermittent fasting. The Fast Diet approach is to eat 500 calories or less two days per week. Apparently these days of calorie restriction mimic fasting. Seems reasonable, but I have yet to put it to the test.
Indistractable – Nir Eyal and Julie Li
In a very 2019 move, the author of Hooked, the bestselling book on how to get users hooked on products and apps, now writes a book on how to escape apps’ addictive distractions. I enjoyed reading it but not much stuck with me. If you haven’t read Deep Work yet, I would start with that.
Voss is a former international hostage negotiator for the FBI. He makes a compelling case for using his method to negotiate. His examples are dramatic and keep the book exciting, but I would have probably gotten more out of examples that were closer to my life.
Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life – Bill Burnett and David Evans
This book would have been really helpful for me in high school when choosing a career path. I didn’t find it super helpful to my current life situation, but I still enjoyed reading the authors’ thoughtful approach. When it comes to life design, I found Stoicism to be more helpful.
Atomic Habits – James Clear
By the time I read Atomic Habits, I had read so many books on habit formation that I didn’t find Clear’s insights particularly helpful. I’d like to reread it down the road because I think it just wasn’t a match for where I was at the time.
The Happiness Equation – Neil Pasricha
Is “Want nothing + do anything = have everything” the formula for happiness? Not sure. This was fun to read but I didn’t find it had a lasting impact on me. This is why people wisely recommend reading classic books that have stood the test of time. I would have gotten more out of reading another volume on Stoicism.
Fiction / Poetry
The Way of Kings – Brandon Sanderson
This was a recommendation from a Twitter friend (thank you, @ModyVirag!) and is the first super-long book in a five-book series. I’m so glad I gave it a try; it’s the perfect fantasy escape with a tightly woven magical world, characters you fall in love with, and captivating storylines.
My favorite aspect of the book is the widely varying “spren,” elemental creatures that live in the Cognitive Realm and appear alongside phenomena like awe, creativity, honor, and rot.
I introduced this book to two people and they both loved it. I imagine Sanderson will someday be widely regarded as one of the masters of fantasy fiction.
Words of Radiance – Brandon Sanderson
This is the second book in the series and likewise recommended. I look forward to reading all of Sanderson’s work.
Bluets – Maggie Nelson
An inventive book of numbered short essays and poems about heartbreak centered around the author’s hypersensitive love for the color blue. I found the creative writing interesting but I stopped short with emotionally resonating with it, perhaps because I’ve never been exceedingly heartbroken (or felt much fondness for the color blue). Thank you to @joepetrowski for getting me out of my comfort zone with this recommendation.
A Discovery of Witches – Deborah Harkness
This book was bearable until the author had the characters act out her fantasies of drinking ridiculously expensive antique wines—then I gave up.
An ask for you, dear reader
Do you have any books to recommend, especially nonfiction and fantasy? Please let me know. Message me on Twitter or email alex @ this domain.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I write down brief summaries of books read as a way to help retain my learnings and reflections from them, as well as to help improve my recommendations to others. For more reviews, check out the list from 2017 and 2016.
The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World – Niall Ferguson
This is a super fascinating read on the history of money. It belongs to that thick, epoch-defining class of books like Guns, Germs, and Steel and Sapiens. Definitely worth reading, especially for those interested in gaining a wider perspective on financial history before cryptocurrencies.
The Order of Time – Carlo Rovelli
I read this in an attempt to get a little more educated about wtf is happening in reality. It was pretty mind-blowing (non-subjective time doesn’t really exist??) and I’d like to revisit it again because I didn’t fully integrate its concepts into my everyday perception of life.
12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos – Jordan B. Peterson
Peterson is the father figure who yells at you to stand up straight and give a shit. Forget about fixing the world: first fix your own life. Start by making your bed. Then tidy your kitchen. Then fix your relationships. Then help your neighbor. Do the right thing even when it doesn’t appear to make a difference, as it does matter: it makes you the person who did the right thing.
When everything is fucked, when you cannot find a friend even in yourself, sometimes your only move is some trivially small positive act. So just do that, and keep doing those tiny good deeds as best you can. Maybe it’s telling a partial truth when you might before have told a full lie. Maybe it’s just making the effort to wish someone well even when you want to feel resentful. Maybe it’s doing soul-crushing work for pennies but doing it with reverence and completeness, giving it every ounce of your capacity because this is the thing that’s in front of you, and you’re becoming the person who does their best regardless of the situation. Whatever you find that is positive and constructive to do, keep doing it. Close your eyes and don’t keep score. Trust that at some point, someday, all these constructive actions will one day bring you through this period of suffering darkness.
While this type of advice is my main recollection from this book, 12 Rules covers a wide range of subjects. This includes some interesting evolutionary psychology and heaps and heaps of Biblical interpretation. If you’re not keen on some parts, just skip through and find what does speak to you. It’s easy to hate 12 Rules, but the more difficult and courageous thing to do is to find something in it that speaks to you.
Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now – Jaron Lanier
Very short book that’s well worth reading if you engage in social media. Sadly his arguments didn’t convince me to delete my social media accounts, I’m sure to my detriment.
Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality – Max Tegmark
I read this because it doesn’t strike me as unplausible that reality could be a mathematical structure. Not much stuck with me a year after reading this book, probably because I don’t have much foundational knowledge on astrophysics and quantum theory on which to attach Tegmark’s perspective.
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress – Steven Pinker
Enlightenment Now puts into perspective all the technological and medical progress that amounts to this amazing time we live. However, I drastically disagree with him in his assessment that things only getting better. His perspective is entirely human-centric, but let’s think about all the lives of other species who have gotten worse and worse as the average human life has gotten better and better. I also can’t see how he remains optimistic despite the fact that we are living in an ecological crisis that will snowball into greater and greater peril for humanity.
Out of Your Mind – Alan Watts
In the fall I went on an Alan Watts binge. I resonate with his perspective on the nature of reality (briefly encapsulated in this quote), and I find listening to his work both comforting and helpful in broadening my perspective from my day-to-day concerns.
Radical Markets – Eric Posner and Glen Weyl
There were some cool ideas in this book, though I’m not sure I’d want to live in the world they prescribe. I was most taken by the idea that just like having open trade makes economical sense, opening talent trade—letting anyone work in any country—is likewise a good economical move.
Running Down a Dream – Tim Grahl
I picked up this book on overcoming creative blocks after seeing it on Ryan Holiday’s mailing list. It’s really short—I listened to the audiobook in a Saturday afternoon walking around doing errands. Objectively, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield’s book on the same topic, is a superior book, but I enjoyed the approachability of “Running Down a Dream.” There’s something about how up front Grahl is with his flaws that made me think, “Well, this guy’s obviously like me.” The book made me feel like: maybe there is some worth to my creative works even if they are not masterpieces, maybe there’s worth in my churning out work to get to the work that’s not shit. However, I didn’t seem to stick to his advice too well. When I published “kinda done” blog entries, I quickly became embarrassed and unpublished them. But that experiment helped me understand what “done” felt like and helped me get over a little of the vulnerability of putting out work.
The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money – Carl Richards
I tend to read lots of books on the same subjects: meditation, personal finance, health and fitness, productivity, and creativity. A lot of these books have similar content and while I’m always looking for new insight, I’m also just looking to get in the right mindset and renew my inspiration for my goals. Not much to say about this book except that it inspired me to recommit to my savings goals.
Girl, Wash Your Face – Rachel Hollis
I balked when this repeatedly showed up on my book recommendation list: “Recommendation algorithm, sorry but you’re confusing me with some basic bitch,” I thought. Or… maybe not. I picked up the book one day when I was feeling low. It’s a collection of “you can do it!” inspirational stories through a particularly American-millennial-mom lens. Hollis’s open candidness about her life is endearing, and I can see how she’s come to amass a legion of fans. It’s a fun, heartfelt read and I enjoyed the three days I spent listening to it.
Wherever You Go There You Are – Jon Kabat-Zinn
I was trying to find some inspiration for meditation and picked this up. It’s an intro book to mindfulness and for whatever reason it didn’t speak to me.
I learned a few things from this year’s fiction adventure: online reviews of fiction books tend to be less reliable than those of nonfiction books. I also learned to be cautious of young adult fiction if I’m interested in good writing.
Siddartha – Herman Hesse
I loved this book! It perfectly encapsulates the undulating pull from worldly desires to spiritual devotion.
Off to Be the Wizard – Scott Meyer
Fun fiction read about a guy who programs magical powers. Cute but not especially compelling.
City of Bones series – Cassandra Clare
This was where I started my hunt for a good fantasy book with a female lead. Albeit trashy young adult fiction and not recommended, this series was a fun escape during the dark winter months.
Throne of Glass series – Sarah J. Maas
Another attempt to find a good fantasy book with a female lead. I got frustrated by the crappy writing (how many times can you have your characters “huff”? Maas’s answer: let’s find out!). The characters are either evil or possess the same guilt-martyr complex. But the series is a page-turner and my inner thirteen-year-old is a sucker for fae fantasies and love triangles, so I stuck with the series for most of the way through.
Despite the rave reviews, I initially skipped reading How to Change Your Mind. Having already read a fair deal on psychedelics, I figured I knew enough on the subject. But the author’s interview with Tim Ferris intrigued me, so I gave the audiobook a try. And I’m glad I did. It was definitely the best book I read in all of 2018, and there’s been takeaways that have stuck with me now more than a year later.
Psychedelics is a subject loaded with mania, fear, and political baggage, and Pollan handles the subject with what feels like the right mindset: skeptical curiosity and cautious reverence. Regardless of how it handles its taboo subject, How to Change Your Mind is a good book in its own right; I found it difficult to put down. Michael Pollan is an exquisite writer, and his beautiful narration in the audiobook only adds to the book’s richly felt, considered prose. I recommended the book to a few friends (including one not previously sold on psychedelics’ merits), and they loved it.
What stuck with me most was Pollan’s description of how psychedelics forge new neural connections. He likens this phenomenon to tracks in snow:
On ground covered by fresh snow, you chart your path freely. But as the snow becomes more and more well-traveled, trenches of tracks appear that you’re likely to follow. As the snow rises and tracks become deeper, it becomes quite difficult to veer from the well-worn paths.
Similarly, your thoughts and actions tend to follow the same neural pathways over and over. For example, you experience an unpleasant situation and immediately light up a cigarette. Your well-trodden neural path goes from the awareness of anxiety to the impulse to fumble for matches. You could do something else, but the path is so well-worn that it takes heroic effort to forge an alternate route.
Interestingly enough, one study showed that a psilocybin session was more effective than other treatments for smoking cessation. One participant in that study said she stopped smoking because in the session she realized: “My lungs are precious” (such seemingly stupid platitudes are common takeaways from psychedelic experiences). Finding a fresh perspective could make sense in light of the idea that psychedelics form new neural connections deep in the brain, and a new neural connection could give you the sense of a new understanding or new way of looking at things.
The other thing that stuck with me was Pollan’s description of what type of dispositions psychedelics are most helpful for. The human psyche ranges from overly open to rigid. Schizophrenia falls on the open side, anxiety and depression are on the rigid. From the current research, psychedelics appear to be most immediately helpful for issues on the rigid side of the spectrum. Perhaps this is related to how psychedelics may cease activity in the part of the brain associated with identity.
Before Michael Pollan tackled the subject, it seemed like the conversations around psychedelics were either, “Everyone should take psychedelics! Put them in the water! Utopia is nigh!” or “Psychedelics make you crazy! Ban them and investigate these evil-making drugs no further!” But psychedelics are a whole realm of nuance, and the correct approach is likely somewhere in between. Since this book came out to high acclaim, it’s felt like the conversations around psychedelics are evolving past that black-and-white thinking. As so many members of our society have mental and emotional problems that aren’t successfully addressed with currently available treatments, it seems worthwhile to explore what solutions psychedelics could provide.