How To Control Your Mind Cover

How To Control Your Mind

One of life’s great trilemmas is the tradeoff between money, energy, and time. Maybe you’ve heard someone joke about how you can only ever have two of the three. The punchline inevitably comes with age.

When you’re young, you have time and energy, but no money. As an adult, you get some money, but lose all your time. And once you’re old, you might have cash and hours to spare, but no fit body to enjoy either.

We laugh at this, but at the same time, it scares us a little. Because we know it’s true.

I’ve spent the past four months reflecting on our relationship with technology. After exploring addictions, distractions, and enhancements, I recognize many of our efforts in the tech arena are spent trying to fix this impossible problem. While there are some improvements we can make, we’ll never get a perfect outcome.

And yet, the power to deal with this imbalance has been with us all along.

1 + 1 = 1

We usually think of time as a good way to measure a life, but it’s only a proxy for what we really mean: attention. Think of the wealthy heir, who wastes all his riches, and compare him to the artist who dies at 40, but leaves behind a significant body of work. The things we most want in life, be it money, health, family, status, or impact, are really just byproducts of deliberate attention.

To cultivate said attention, we need more than just time. We also need energy. Time without energy is not spent moving. It is just spent. Most of us start life with an abundance of both, meaning our capacity to synthesize attention is often greatest when we’re young.

Visually speaking, science describes attention like a zoom lens on a camera. If you try to see the whole picture from afar, it takes a while to focus. The more you zoom in, the smaller the segment and the faster you can process it.

If we translate this metaphor to attention the way we just defined it, you can think of your time as a flashlight and your energy as the batteries. You need both to turn it on and point it where you want to go. Yes, it’s true that more time and more energy lead to more attention, but that’s only half the picture.

Like on any good flashlight, you can also adjust the radius of the beam.

One Addiction to Rule Them All

One of the world’s leading researchers of attention, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, wrote about the state of optimal performance:

“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.”

Imagine you had $100 million and were perfectly healthy. What excuse would you have not to use your attention well? None. Chasing this imaginary state is the game most of us are playing. There will never be no excuses left, but blaming their existence is easier than dealing with them head on. It’s an addictive game too. You can play it your entire life without ever getting close to winning.

David Allen calls this our biggest weakness as humans:

“I think control is the master human addiction. To try to control the world.”

Often, in spite of having the right intentions, that’s what we’re doing. Less Facebook, more time, less email, more energy. They’re all small steps in the right direction, but by taking them we lose out on a much bigger one:

What if we just maximized the attention we can get from whatever time and energy we have right now?

This is a slight, but significant difference. Allen noticed it too:

“Not ‘be in control,’ because that’s something that we work with, something I think you need to develop, but trying to control externally the world is a big addiction.”

Deliberate attention is good. Aware attention is better.

Talking to Ourselves

Even if you’re loaded with spare flashlights and batteries, you can’t just point your attention once and then go straight forever. You’re going to get lost. Naval Ravikant calls this ‘monkey mind:’

“The reality is if you walk down the street and there are a thousand people in the street, I think all thousand are talking to themselves in their head at any given point. They’re constantly judging everything that they see. They’re playing back movies of things that happened to them yesterday. They’re living in fantasy worlds of what’s going to happen tomorrow. They’re just pulled out of base reality.”

He explains that as children, we’re very connected to the real world, a trait we lose as we grow older and start long-range planning. While some projecting is necessary and useful, we tend to go overboard rather quickly. We get stuck in our visions and wave our attention spotlight around uncontrollably.

So, to get where we want to go, it’s not enough to be deliberate in using our attention. We also have to observe it. Therefore, looking inward and reflecting on where you deploy your attention is equally as important, if not more, than how much you can muster.

This isn’t easy, but Naval has some ideas:

“I’ve taken on this idea that I want to break the habit of uncontrolled thinking, which is hard. If I say to you, “Don’t think of a pink elephant”, I just put a pink elephant in your head. It’s an almost impossible problem. It’s more something that has to be guided by feel, than guided by actual thinking or thought process. I’m deliberately cultivating experiences, states of mind, locations, activities, that will help me get out of my mind.”

Funny how that works, isn’t it? In order to get more control over your attention, you have to let it go.

Wrong Means, Right Ends

Csikszentmihalyi’s book is titled Flow. The name itself suggests the loose nature of the state.

“To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.”

But it is not just letting go of external rewards. Flow also requires a certain degree of surrender to the task at hand. You don’t beat a hard level in a video game on first try, you beat it on the 17th attempt, when you barely care any more, but the gears magically click into place.

“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.”

Subconsciously, we know this. We induce chemical reactions in our bodies in hopes of controlling our attention all the time, according to Naval:

“In some sense, the people chasing thrills in action sports or flow states or orgasm or any of these states that people really strive to get to, a lot of these are basically just trying to get out of your own head. They’re trying to get away from that voice in your head and this overdeveloped sense of self.”

Food, alcohol, drugs, sex, exercise, these all rest on a choice to direct our attention a certain way and then let it drift for a while. We can use this same choice to recalibrate our attention flashlight, minus the escapism.

What blocks our way usually isn’t the obstacle, but our brain’s obsession with it. Once we let that go, we immediately regain internal control, even long after external control has gone. There are many ways to achieve this:

  • Meditating.
  • Taking a walk.
  • Visiting a place that triggers nostalgia.
  • Immersing yourself in a task that’s either repetitive, like washing dishes, or continuous, like reading, for an extended period of time.

Whatever the activity, if it puts you in a meditative state it helps you make this mental shift. Over time, you’ll see you can do almost anything this way. Allen agrees this is very productive:

“Being able to let go and say ‘wait a minute, let me just accept what’s going on, cooperate with what it is and then be in control of myself.’ But be aware of whatever’s new, whatever’s current, whatever’s present. Letting go is probably the idea that made the biggest difference in my life.”

The result is peace.

No Strings Attached

When you direct your attention once, but then adjust focus intuitively as needed, you get a calm mind. This is a state worth cultivating, Naval says:

“You can think of your brain, your consciousness, as a multi-layered mechanism. There’s kind of a core base kernel level OS that’s running. Then there’s applications that are running on top.

I’m actually going back to my awareness level of OS, which is always calm, always peaceful, and generally happy and content. I’m trying to stay in that mode and not activate the monkey mind, which is always worried and frightened and anxious, but serves incredible purpose. I’m trying not to activate that program until I need it. When I need it, I want to just focus on that program. If I’m running it 24/7, all the time, I’m wasting energy and it becomes me. I am more than that.”

No matter how much attention you can create, spend it right here, right now. Not up in the future, not down in the past. The most peaceful place on earth is always the present.

Be Water, My Friend

This is all very confusing and paradoxical, which is the perfect indicator that it’s natural.

Even if you had 100% of your attention at all times, you would choose to turn on the autopilot occasionally. Watching a movie, reading, music, or sensory experiences, like being outside, eating, swimming, you want your mind to wander during those. Creativity, inspiration, love, that’s when they happen.

At the same time, frantically chasing impulse after impulse, without any awareness of where your attention goes, would be equally disastrous. Who’s planning your goals, checking your direction, paying the bills, if you’re busy slinging feces at the other monkeys in the park?

So, what do we make of this imbalance? Let the pendulum swing, for true control comes from the inside. To lead an empowered life, you needn’t command what happens in it.

Know that while behavior change is helpful, it’s a pebble in the powerful river that is your mind. Remember to look inward and work with what you have. Choose where to go and when to flow. Don’t escape, exist.

Pay attention to your attention, and you’ll always be on your way.


This post is the last in my AntiTech series, where we use technology to fight technology in order to get back what we lost: our time and our attention. You can find an overview here.
Everything Popular Is Wrong Cover

Everything Popular Is Wrong

We remember Oscar Wilde as a poet, a playwright, a player who’d write. Most of us associate him with drama, both in his work and life. The Picture of Dorian Gray, a few pithy lines, an early death.

But when I look at the sea of thoughts that unravels when you click on the author of the most popular quote on Goodreads, I see none of that. I see a philosopher, full of contrarian ideas, paradoxes, and lots of new angles to look at life from.

They remind me of the beliefs of a philosopher we can still talk to: Naval Ravikant. After reflecting on an interview he did with Shane Parrish, I can’t help but notice that some of the most popular sentiments floating around Medium and the web are, well, just sentiments.

“Everything popular is wrong.” One of Wilde’s many polarizing statements. It may be hyperbole, but it’s a starting point for originality. In the echo chamber of self-improvement, some ideas have been circulating for so long, we’ve stopped questioning them.

What if we considered the possibility that these ideas are false?

1. Diversified Learning

The general consensus is that you should learn as much as you can, from as many sources as you can. When it comes to money, food, work, and material possessions, we all readily agree that more isn’t better. Why shouldn’t that apply to books? Illacertus thinks it should.

We rage against materialism, but we condone mental overstimulation. If you want to read 52 books each year, isn’t that just as much of a rat race as assembling a huge shoe collection? Why not pick your sources carefully and deeply understand them?

Maybe some of history’s greatest and time-tested books — the Bible, Tao Te Ching, Don Quixote, each hold all the advice you could ever need. Maybe, you just have to keep re-reading them. For almost all modern bestsellers, you can find a book that’s 50, 100, 500 years older and says the same thing – except it usually does it better.

The same applies to people.

2. Surrounding Yourself With Great People

We’ve all heard it a thousand times: “You are the average of the five people you surround yourself with.” We’re encouraged to keep running around, trying to find the best five people.

In reality, the only person you’re surrounded by 24/7/365 is you. Life is a single player game, as Naval puts it.

“Socially, we’re told, “Go work out. Go look good.” That’s a multi-player competitive game. Other people can see if I’m doing a good job or not.

When it comes to learn to be happy, that’s completely internal. No external progress, no external validation. 100% you’re competing against yourself, single-player game. We are such social creatures that we don’t know how to play and win at these single-player games anymore. We compete purely on multi-player games.

The reality is life is a single-player game. You’re born alone. You’re going to die alone. All of your interpretations are alone. All your memories are alone. You’re gone in three generations and nobody cares. Before you showed up, nobody cared. It’s all single-player.”

How many of your greatest insights, your most blissful moments, your most trialing challenges, how many of your “holy shits” and “oh my gods” and “I don’t knows” have happened in group sessions?

Mentors, teachers, motivators, these are all overrated. Learning to be with yourself and compete against yourself? That takes a lifetime.

3. Constant Growth

If you’re now scared because you think “Really? Living in my own head? Fighting my demons, all the time? Won’t I go mad?” then that’s an indicator for another common piece of advice gone awry. Because there’s so much motivation out there, we feel like we constantly have to keep working on ourselves.

But you know what? You don’t. You don’t need to move forward all the time. You can stand still, too. It’s just that no one tells you that’s okay. But maybe you want to take care of your kids, or your spouse, or help a friend. Or even do nothing for a while. What’s wrong with that?

What’s more, even when it comes to your bad habits, sometimes, you can just accept them. Make tradeoffs. I bite my nails while writing, all the time, but at least I write good stuff. I’m not gonna stop writing, even if it means I never stop biting my nails.

But maybe one day, I’ll stop both. It’s not like…

4. You Need an Identity to Have a Life

The reason we’re so easily sold on perpetual self-improvement is that we’re assembling a puzzle of who we are, and personal development feels like we’re filling in the gaps. With each new habit comes a new label you can put on yourself.

“What we do is we accumulate all these habits. We put them in the bundle of identity, ego, ourselves, and then we get attached to that. I’m Shane. This is the way I am. I’m Naval. This is the way I am.”

But that’s really all habits, goals, accomplishments are: Labels. The more proudly you wear them, the less you’ll be able to take them off when you need to.

Just because I’m introverted does not mean I can’t walk into any room and be the life of the party. I’m writing right now, but that doesn’t make me a writer for life. The more pieces you add to your identity construct, the easier it breaks. Identity is fragile. You aren’t.

If you put down the labeling machine, you can stay flexible and change your mind at a moment’s notice, if that’s the best option.

Who was this man? We’ll never really know.

5. Leaving a Legacy

Now, you might say “But who I am is important, because that’s what the world will remember me for.” It’s the ultimate reward for constantly growing, for shaping an identity worth admiring: legacy.

How ironic. We jump through all these hoops to get more control, to focus more on the knobs we can turn, to shape who we are, only to try and shoot for something that is completely out of our grasp. Isn’t that absurd?

No one cared about you for thousands of years before you were around and no one will thousands of years after you die. What difference does it make whether your book sells for 10 or 50 or 0 more years after you’re dead?

Imagine you couldn’t leave a legacy. Wouldn’t that allow you to focus more on what we need right here, right now? The only thing that’s guaranteed is the time that you’re here. Nothing that happened before, nothing that’ll happen after.

Maybe not even that.

6. Freedom Equals Happiness

If we’re not hustling for legacy, we’re hustling for freedom. Freedom to spend our time where we like, how we like, with whom we like. I’m guilty of this. We think all we need is money, health, and maximum choice, and then we’re free.

But maybe that’s just another self-constructed prison. Maybe there are diminishing returns to freedom. As Barry Schwartz explained, we experience anticipated regret whenever our pool of options grows too big. It hurts us even more than regretting a bad decision:

“Anticipated regret is in many ways worse, because it will produce not just dissatisfaction but paralysis. If someone asks herself how it would feel to buy this house only to discover a better one next week, she probably won’t buy this house.”

So mostly, we’re looking for the wrong kind of freedom. In the long run, travel won’t make you happier. First class seats won’t make you happier. An empty schedule won’t make you happier. But maybe not desiring those things will.

Naval says that’s because we can’t find true freedom on the outside:

“My old definition was ‘freedom to’, freedom to do anything I want. Freedom to do whatever I feel like, whenever I feel like. Now I would say that the freedom that I’m looking for is internal freedom.

It’s ‘freedom from.’ It’s freedom from reaction. It’s freedom from feeling angry. It’s freedom from being sad. It’s freedom from being forced to do things. I’m looking for freedom from internally and externally, whereas before I was looking for freedom to.”

You could be a wage slave or an actual slave, but still find happiness. Don’t put your discontent on a lack of external freedom. But maybe, even getting rid of that inner resistance is a mirage.

7. Happiness Is the End Game

I don’t like the word ‘happiness’ because it conjures such a distorted image. We connect it with excitement, with passion, with euphoria. It’s a state, a feeling, ‘happy,’ but turning it into a noun makes it feel permanent.

We now think we can reach a stage where we’re always in that state and that’s just not true, nor would we want to live that way.

“Happiness to me is mainly not suffering, not desiring, not thinking too much about the future or the past, really embracing the present moment and the reality of what is, the way it is. Nature has no concept of happiness or unhappiness. To a tree, there is no right or wrong. There is no good or bad.

Nature follows unbroken mathematical laws and a chain of cause and effect from the big bang to now. Everything is perfect exactly the way it is. It is only in our particular minds that we’re unhappy or not happy and things are perfect or imperfect because of what we desire.”

I think we should replace ‘happiness’ with ‘balance.’ It’s not about constant positivity, but about cultivating the belief that nothing’s missing. And there’s never anything missing.

The Only Thing That Remains

Sir Ken Robinson once explained why all children are geniuses:

“Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. Am I right? They’re not frightened of being wrong. I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

“Everything popular is wrong.” No wonder we love kids. They misstep all the time, but they do it with bravado. What’s genius about this is not that they come up with so much original stuff. It’s that their default behavior remains the same in all of life’s situations: be true to yourself, whoever that is in any given moment.

What you learn, who you’re with, how fast you’re going, what people know you for, who will remember you, how free you are, and even whether you’re happy, none of these things matter.

What does is the one thing no one can ever take away from you: You are. Right here, right now. And it’ll always be this way.

How To Make Better Decisions Cover

How To Make Better Decisions

In 1970, economist George Akerlof published a paper called The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism, in which he described an idea that would keep researchers busy for decades: adverse selection.

The concept describes a type of market inefficiency. When buyers and sellers have different information about the goods or services being sold, whichever party knows more can dictate the outcome of the transaction.

For example, sellers of used cars know whether their vehicle is of good quality or breaks down every ten miles, (a so-called ‘lemon’) but potential buyers don’t. As a result, sellers overcharge. Akerlof dubbed this phenomenon ‘asymmetric information’ and predicted a market death spiral in which, theoretically, no one would want to buy a car.

Of course the real used car market is very much alive, however inefficient. While measures to mitigate information asymmetry have been introduced, such as extended guarantees, inspections, and certifications, people still get ripped off every day.

But why? Akerlof received the Nobel prize in economics for his discovery and today, almost 50 years later, every US state has its own variant of the ‘Lemon law’ to protect consumers. Yet, we still make bad decisions, not just in purchasing goods, but everywhere.

And we really have no excuse to.

Avoidance Is Expensive

There are two types of capitalism: the kind that solves real problems and the kind that peddles placebos. The latter thrives on information asymmetry. In fact, it’s the only reason it works.

While con artists and scammers have been around for millennia, they’ve had to be a lot more creative since the rise of the internet. The wide dissemination of information at no cost has shrunk the gap a lot. Or rather, it’s increased how much we can shrink it ourselves. What used to be mostly a game of luck has now become a game of effort, but we avoid it just the same.

Take this picture of a turtle, for example.

It’s beautiful, isn’t it? While it’s a fantastic way to elicit emotions and get you to daydream about your next vacation, you don’t know where I took it from. But you could find out, thanks to Google Image Search.

With some more effort, you could even determine what kind of camera was used, where it was taken, who the photographer was, and ask them for more details. The question is, if I used this picture to try and sell you an all-inclusive trip to the Bahamas, would you?

Most of us don’t. We’re happy to comply when others prompt us to make decisions with as little context as possible. We form opinions based on headlines, pass judgements after reading tweets, and glance at pictures without demanding the frame they came in.

That’s what information asymmetry is at its core. A lack of context. It’s baffling how often we choose to decide under its influence, despite having all the tools we need to fight it.

Here are three that help you define, set, and leverage context to improve every single one of your decisions.

1. Knowing What You Know

One of Warren Buffett’s most popular mental models is the circle of competence. In a 2017 documentary, he describes it as follows:

“I can look at a thousand different companies and I don’t have to be right on every one of them, or even 50 of them. So I can pick the ball I want to hit. The trick in investing is just to sit there and watch pitch after pitch go by and wait for the one right in your sweet spot. And the people who are yelling ‘swing, you bum,’ ignore them.”

Knowing what you know increases the probability of your assumptions being right and thus helps you decide with confidence. Whatever lies outside of that circle is nothing but smoke and mirrors, but you can afford to ignore it, because you’re not going to take shots in the dark.

What’s remarkable is how small a circle we can get away with, yet still be successful. You could specialize in producing, selling, or investing only in tetracycline antibiotics, and that’d be more than enough to keep you busy for a lifetime.

To find the border of that circle early, we must walk to the edge, peer over, and maybe run a few low-risk experiments. But once we’ve set the perimeter, we can build a huge web of context inside it, while ignoring all the noise on the outside.

2. Knowing What You Don’t Know

In video games, it’s very common for the map of the terrain to be unknown when you start playing. Only as you move around do you uncover patches of the area, which then slowly begin to form a complete picture.

No matter how many black spots are left, keeping track of where they are allows you to shine your proverbial flashlight on them later, but not go there before you’re ready. There’s lots of smoke outside your circle, but that too is finite, at least for any particular decision. Knowing that boundary has value.

The more you optimize your life, the less you’ll have to step outside your circle of competence, but sometimes, life forces you to. It’s impossible to pick the perfect job when completely switching career fields, but being aware of how little you know, you can consult with experts, steer clear of big responsibilities at first, and prioritize what you’ll learn.

Even saying “I don’t know” out loud provides relief, makes it easier for others to empathize, and is more often seen as a sign of professionalism, rather than weakness.

3. Knowing How Much You Need To Know

Once you’ve determined where your wisdom ends and how much there is to attain for your specific decision altogether, another question presents itself, and it makes all the difference: how big is the gap between the two?

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell placed the ideal amount of information needed to make an educated decision between 40% and 70% of the total that’s available. Ideally, he says, you’d always keep waiting for more context at less than 40%, but never procrastinate after you’ve got 70% of the data.

No two situations are alike and this isn’t a hard rule, but thinking about whether you can push the edges of your circle of competence, and how far you’d have to drive them to avoid complete failure, is worth your while.

For example, if a stranger passes you in the street and doesn’t return your smile, your gut might tell you “this person’s arrogant.” However, armed with nothing but their appearance, you clearly have less information than you need to make that call.

Similarly, spending two whole afternoons to decide which out of three $50 backpacks you buy might be overdoing it, especially if you make $50/hr or more.

These are oversimplified, but the principle stands. Don’t let perceived urgency pressure you into sub-par decisions. Ask, search, and wait for what you need to pick not just an option that will do, but the option that’ll do best in your circumstances.

The Diet of the Wise

When Warren Buffett first took an interest in financial markets, there was no internet, yet he chose to fight information asymmetry regardless. It surely must have been an uphill battle, reading all those books, complicated financial reports, and whatever else he could get his hands on.

Yet here we are, history’s entire knowledge at our fingertips, often failing to google, go beyond the headline, or read the blurb of a book, let alone the whole thing. We’re too lazy to read and too busy to think, when that’s the diet of the wise. Better yet, it’s close to free.

In a fully connected world, information is only as asymmetric as you allow it to be. You have all the tools you need. Use them to build context. Avoid environments that force your hand. Know what you don’t know. Resist the temptation to move too quickly.

If your good decisions compound, maybe we’ll read about you someday.