Choices

I’m back! I went away for a bit after having a great conversation with a friend. He started a business and it is changing his life. It’s not because he created some amazing product that will change the world, but because he started taking massive action and it’s bringing him onto a better path in life. I was inspired by that and decided to take some massive action myself. I’m proud to say I have two side projects going on now, and I’m quite happy with the progress my team and I have made.

But that’s not the point of this post. 

I recently watched this video by Andrew Kirby and it hit me hard:

“You have a tendency to consume personal development content, but then not actually implement it. … Consuming personal development thinking there was going to be something within that, some kind of magic trick that I wasn’t seeing that was going to give me everything I needed to make progress. … I would implement something, it would work for a few days … and then I would slip back into old habits and the cycle repeated.” 

That is the unfortunate truth about my seemingly productive life. My productivity comes and goes in cycles. And this seems like the one video that will help me change all that!!! (Yes I see the irony)

This great concept (that I actually already knew deep down, but he laid it out very well) is simply to give yourself the right choices. Between chips and unsalted almonds as a snack, your brain would almost always prefer the chips and would choice it as a snack when feeling peckish. So what should you do? Only buy healthy snacks for your kitchen! I knew this and have been doing this to a certain extent for my health (not keeping ice-cream at home, buying fruit juice instead of sodas, etc), but I did not implement the same concept to my attention. In today’s attention economy, taking control of your attention (and the attention of others) is crucial to success. 

Working from home has amplified the effects of this issue. If your brain had a choice between Instagram and reading a 100-page report, which would it prefer? If it had a choice between a video game and writing an article, which would it drift towards? Your brain would almost always drift towards the option that generatines more dopamine. What Andrew suggests is to hack that reward system and use it for good rather than bad (habits). By removing the negative choices from your surroundings, you would only have the choice between reading a 100-page report or writing an article. By surrounding yourself with only good choices, there’s not much else you can do. And eventually, once you’ve weaned yourself off of the intense dopamine stimulating bad habits (junk food, video games), your life will naturally be filled with good habits. 

Such a simple and intuitive concept which can incite so much change. 

Identity

I’ve noticed that some people who strongly identify with their craft, and are proud of it, tend to spend a lot more time and energy improving themselves and gaining mastery in what they do. For example, I have a friend who’s a lawyer and he’s great at what he does. Part of it is due to his work ethic and natural brilliance, though I suspect another part of it has to do with his self-identity as a Lawyer. I think he’s proud of being a lawyer. Not in an arrogant egotistical way, but one of earnest pride, constantly working to be more well-versed with the law.

Intuitively, this makes sense. It’s like how die-hard fans of a particular sports club would know everything there is to know about the team, the players, the sport. It’s so deeply etched into their identity that it would be a disgrace if there was some latest news or score they didn’t know about. They would also hang out with other fans of the club, exchange ideas and opinions, and collectively grow their “competence” about everything there is to know about the club.

Consequently, there could be a downside. If one’s identity is so strongly tied to something else, then losing it would be a huge emotional blow. Like a Blockbuster store movie aficionado, a proud Pan Am stewardess, or a Lehman Brothers investment banker. I’d argue that despite the risk, if you’re not emotionally invested in your day-to-day craft, then what’s the point of spending half your life pursuing it in the first place?

As such, I think it would be a good idea to start identifying with your current pursuit and consider if you’re proud of it. If you are, start being comfortable labelling yourself as that person. If you’re not, then perhaps a change of career is appropriate. Tying your identity to your craft could subconsciously make you work towards improving it more, and hopefully make your (work) life more fulfilling and meaningful.

Pedestal

I tend to put a lot of weight on the opinions of others. People’s opinions matter to me and their impression of me means a lot to me. It’s important to the extent that I would go out of my way to make people like me more, sometimes disregarding my own opinions to keep the peace. I think most of the time I’m quite rational, but I do have this people-pleasing side of me that can curb my confidence occasionally. 

In one of Garyvee’s videos, he advises a young adult about his insecurities and tells him not to put others and their opinions on a pedestal. That struck a chord with me because I realise I tend to do that too. There are a lot of people I look up to, and when I look up to them with awe and respect, I put them on a pedestal in my mind. This pedestal makes my interactions with them awkward and uncomfortable, at times making me seem rudely avoidant. Even with my peers, I tend to put their opinions on a pedestal. Before I make a decision I often ask many of my friends for their advice and will frequently go with the majority. 

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great to have role models, look up to people, and value the opinions of others in decision making. But there should be a line between taking other people as additional information to add to your life, rather than accentuate their opinions over yours. Putting someone or someone’s thoughts on a pedestal implies that you or your opinions are of a lower rung and value. I think doing that could be unhealthy for your self-esteem and your view of the world. 

Don’t put others or their opinions on a pedestal. Everyone has weaknesses and battles that they fight daily. There is something to admire in everyone, even you. 

TGIF?

Came across this gem of a video from Gary Vaynerchuk. His point is that lots of people cheer and celebrate Friday nights, and they dread and hate Mondays because they genuinely dislike what they do for a living. He suggests that these people should take action, and spend some time off work working on a side hustle that they’re interested in, keep at it, and eventually it could bring them financial freedom and become their main gig. 

I get that, and it truly strikes a chord. I think there’s a lot of room for misinterpretation though, because I also see a lot of people (especially young adults who have just entered the workforce) who try their job for a few months, dislike it, decide it’s not their “passion“,  and hop to another job or industry. If you can’t spend the time and effor to get good at what you do, you’ll always resent and dislike it to a certian extent. As always, I think the rational path is the middle ground.

I think a good rule of thumb is that, as the months go by, and you find yourself celebrating Fridays more and more despite striving to improve and becoming more skilled at your job, then it’s time to heed Gary’s advice – build a side hustle, start networking or looking for another job. You’ve spent time building the skills at your main gig, but you still seem to genuinely dislike it for some reason, so it’s time to take action. But for the people who are in a technical or skill-based role where it takes time and effort to get better at what you do, I argue that you should keep at it first before making the switch. 

Nonetheless, I think Gary’s video is a great wakeup call for all of us who celebrate Friday nights a bit too much. The phrase “Thank God it’s Friday” has always been a little intuitively backwards to me. Has the week been so tragic that you are now thanking God that Friday is here, bringing an end to your torturous week? It’s a good point to think about. 

Law of Attraction

Yes yes I can already hear the screams of protest when you see the title: “What’re you doing??? I thought you were credible??? There is no scientific basis to the LoA!!! Haven’t you read the Wikipedia page??? I’m never reading this blog again!!! Are you going to ask us to try Clorox or Lysol too???”. Okay thank you, I appreciate your objections and it gives me comfort to know that you can think for yourself and base your beliefs on logic and rationality. Great, just my type of audience. But put that aside for a second, and hear me out.

I was recently thinking about the LoA, and wondered if there might be any psychological basis for it. Now I’m not talking about The Secret-esque style of LoA, where good things happen to people with good thoughts, and bad things happen because of your bad thoughts. Let’s just put it out there that I don’t buy that. What I’m referring to is how a subtle shift in mindset can change your actions and attention, and by extension change your reality and your perception of it.

Say for instance you would like to learn how to ride a unicycle. As you try and fail while learning, your thoughts (for the pessimists among us) might drift towards something like “this is so hard, this is so silly, why am I even trying this, what’s the point, let’s just go home”. And you could very well rationalise with yourself to pack up and go home and try another day because it is, unfortunately, true that there is no immediate practical benefit in learning how to ride a unicycle. However, let’s say you gave this LoA a try and so before you start trying, your thoughts went along the lines of “I can ride a unicycle, I’ll be able to learn it, I can conquer it, I can ride a bicycle so a unicycle should be half as difficult”. How much more likely do you think this mindset will succeed? I know it sounds woo-woo, but I’m sure hyping yourself up and feeling confident will increase your 1) number of attempts 2) effort at each attempt 3) time before feeling dejected. I think this is worth trying out, not for the magical claims, but for the psychological and emotional benefits. 

Focus is blocking

As I was rushing a deadline today, I needed a few hours of focus. My mind instinctively knew what to do: I turned on Do Not Disturb mode on my phone and my watch (yes I bought the watch in the end), I exited chat applications, and I turned on some music that I could focus with and I was in the zone. For a while. 

In this article, researchers found out that our brain focuses not by placing “more attention” on an object, but by blocking out distractions in your mind:

“In effect, the network was turning the knobs on inhibitory processes, not excitatory ones, with the TRN inhibiting information that the prefrontal cortex deemed distracting. If the mouse needed to prioritize auditory information, the prefrontal cortex told the visual TRN to increase its activity to suppress the visual thalamus — stripping away irrelevant visual data. The attentional searchlight metaphor was backward: The brain wasn’t brightening the light on stimuli of interest; it was lowering the lights on everything else.”

Quanta Magazine, 2019

It’s highly improbable to focus and to do the heavy lifting with your brain when your attention is constantly bombarded with pings on your phone or email alerts on your computer. When you have to focus, be ruthless and decisive with your distractions – cut them off completely so you can do your best work. The science supports it. 

Chronicle your life

“The next thing most like living one’s life over again seems to be a recollection of that life, and to make that recollection as durable as possible by putting it down in writing.”

Benjamin Franklin

Today’s thought is a short one. I would like to experience what Ben Franklin wrote about, and recollect my life in the distant future. That’s part of my motivation for writing this blog.

But then again I think, in this public blog void of personal details and anecdotes, is my life truly chronicled? I intentionally wrote this blog in an anonymous form, so it’s difficult for someone to infer a profile of the writer. It also serves to help my writing connect with more people, because if I am nobody, then I can also be anybody. As such, is my life truly chronicled?

In my disdain for social media and its narcissistic undertone, I rarely post anything about my personal life on social media. I do use it to interact with my friends with the occasional replies and reactions, but I seldom create content. I look at all the people who (perhaps out of narcissism) post every aspect of their life on social media. Unintentionally, they’ve also created a curated multi-media recollection of this part of their lives. Many years down the road they can look back and relish in the moments and experience them with loved ones.

An obvious middle ground comes to mind – photos and videos. Though much more erratic and unintentional, they do curate moments of my life. But without captions, I can imagine future me wondering what a photo was for, or how I felt during a particular moment in time.

Maybe anonymity is overrated, and I might soon use this blog to write more personal anecdotes. I’m happy with what I have so far.

Gamify your life

Today’s thought started with a simple conundrum: why is it that I get so excited and put in my best effort at games or competitions, but not for things that I do daily? Maybe I’m a little competitive by nature, or that I enjoy challenges. How then can I incorporate this personality quirk into seemingly mundane daily tasks, like chores or busywork? My recommendation is to gamify them.

In my mind, “gamifying” something and gamification are distinct concepts. Gamification refers to making something into a game, like how Duolingo creatively makes learning language fun, with a point system, streaks, levels, etc. I think it’s a great concept and the research shows that it works, but the activation energy to employ such a system into your daily life seems a bit too high for my brain’s liking. My unresearched guess of a solution is to gamify things.

I would define “gamifying” something as bringing the mentality and posture of executing a certain task as if it were a game or a challenge, attempting to do it better/faster than before so as to beat your “high score”. I posit that this mentality is a choice no matter what task you may be doing. This explains why some people who pursue turn their hobbies into their career start dreading it and losing joy. I think conversely, it will be possible to turn something you dread into something enjoyable and fun with a mindset shift.

I’m not sure if this is plausible in the long-run, but I tried it today for a bit and it made some mundane tasks a little more fun. I’d like to try it more, let’s see if it works. I think this post by SMBC comics nicely sums up today’s thought:

SMBC comics, 2014

Compounding

Warren Buffett and other successful investors often laud the magic of compounding. For example, if you had to choose between a billion dollars today, or a dollar today which doubles every day, which would you choose? I’m sure you’ve heard of this before, and the obvious answer is the dollar because in 30 days you would have over a billion and in 31 days you’d have two. I think this applies to our habits in life too.

If you keep at a habit consistently, it’s amazing what you will accomplish over time. Now I will be the first to say that I don’t think I’ve ever kept up with a life-improving habit for more than a year. Except maybe brushing my teeth daily. But I’ve kept at a habit for a few weeks and I can already see positive benefits.

Right now I’m exercising once every two days. I have a little home-made regimen that I follow. It might not be the most optimal workout routine but it’s consistent… for now. And in a few weeks, I already feel fitter and stronger and that’s a great feeling. Also with this blog, I’ve been doing it daily for a week and looking back at my posts gives me a small sense of accomplishment. These daily positive actions compounded will lead to enormous benefits when we look back in a year or two.

I think this blog has been great for me so far, penning down my thoughts about self-improvement. I’d like to also figure out how to work in a habit to improve my career and professional pursuits. Might take some time but I’ll think about it.

Tip to prevent supper

I realise not all of my friends do this. It’s simple really, you change your environment instead of depend on willpower.

Everyday I will brush my teeth when I shower. So if I feel hungry after I shower, I will be much less tempted to get a bite because then I’ll have to brush my teeth again. That extra work of knowing I’ll have to head to the bathroom again is enough most of the time to dissuade me from having supper. It’s a good absolute rule because there is probably very few instances where it will be beneficial (health-wise) to eat after showering and before bed. Assuming you shower at night before bed.

The broader concept of this is not to rely on willpower to change your behaviours, but instead modify your environment. This came to me when I realise I supper a lot less than my friends who are quarantined and eat out of boredom before bed. I do sometimes feel peckish but am much less compelled to eat because I’ve already brushed my teeth.

Simple habits can make a difference.