Are You Free to Abstain? Cover

Are You Free to Abstain?

French scientist Pierre Fouquet was an early researcher of alcoholism. He broke the illness into three categories, two of which describe the circumstances of people we now describe as “alcoholics,” such as drinking in secret with the goal of blacking out.

The third, “alcoholitis,” is “the most common form of alcoholism in France, particularly among men,” Fouquet noted. The subject has a high tolerance and lacks serious psychological complications — they mainly drink beer and wine in social settings, just in too large quantities for it to be healthy.

“We drink to drink with others,” Fouquet said, but “the toxic effects of consumption are still felt.”

Our sneakiest addictions are those we don’t consider to be problems at all. If you drink with coworkers four nights a week and everyone has two beers, that seems like a perfectly normal thing to do.

The question — and this may be Fouquet’s greatest contribution to the world — is:

Do you have the freedom to abstain?

The loss of this freedom is the mark of an addict, Fouquet claimed. When we no longer feel free to abstain, when it seems as if there is no choice to be had, that’s when we should scratch our heads — because we always have a choice.

I love coffee. I usually drink two cups every day. Yesterday, I just had one, and occasionally, I’ll skip an entire day. Not because I want to, but because I must remember that I can.

It is nice to give yourself a break, even from things you love, especially if the break will prevent the thing from becoming a chain around your ankles.

It is also profoundly liberating to sit in front of a foregone conclusion, like “I will drink this beer,” and realize, “You know what? I’m free to abstain. I can just say no.”

Don’t let harmless habits become dictators. Innocuous addictions can secretly run your life. Use your freedom to abstain. It is something you’ll always have — even when you think you’ve already lost it.

How to End an Email Cover

How to End an Email: Which Sign-Off Most Likely Leads to a Response?

For all the energy you put into your mails, you’re neglecting the one element that’s most crucial in determining whether you’ll receive a reply: the ending.

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

You’ve spent hours deliberating over your email subject line and its content. Will this word get them to open my message? Am I rambling? How can I get my request across in the most concise and considerate way?

You’ve worried about the first sentence, the second, and you’ve re-written both of them a dozen times. And then? Then you hit ‘Send’ without spending one thought on which words your recipient will read right before they decide if they’ll respond or not.

It’s easy to understand why your email’s subject line is all-important: If it doesn’t get the receiver to open your message, all hope is lost. Similarly, it’s clear that if you waste the first few seconds of someone’s attention, they won’t give you any more of it. What’s less obvious but also true is that if your email leaves a bad taste in someone’s mouth at the end, that person won’t reply.

Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman found evidence across several studies for something he dubbed “the peak-end rule.” The peak-end rule suggests we judge and remember experiences mostly based on how they feel at their most intense moments and right before they end.

If you’ve ever gone to a great party only to have the night ruined by someone spilling their drink over you just before you left, you know this is true. Chances are, you still remember it as “a bad night,” even if everything leading up to the last-minute mishap was perfect. The peak-end rule affects all of us, all the time, and so a good rule for closing your emails is this: Don’t spill your drink on people’s shoes before you leave.

This isn’t to say you’re actively killing people’s vibe in your sign-offs. You likely don’t end your emails with, “So long, sucker!” (if you do, please stop.) But are you doing your best to not just not ruin people’s day but make it better and increase your chances of getting a response in the process? Probably not. You might even have a generic signature that attaches “Best,” or “Regards” without you even choosing a particular sign-off phrase for any given email — and it torpedoes your response probability for every email you send.

In 2017, the company behind the Boomerang plugin for Gmail analyzed 350,000 email closings. They found the following three phrases most increased the likelihood of a response, somewhere from 22% to 38% when compared to the baseline:

  1. “Thanks in advance” (65.7% absolute response rate)
  2. “Thanks” (63% absolute response rate)
  3. “Thank you” (57.9% absolute response rate)

Gratitude. Who would’ve thought? Adam Grant, author of Give and Take and psychology professor at Wharton, concluded in a 2010 study: “Gratitude expressions increase prosocial behavior by enabling individuals to feel socially valued,” which is a fancy way of saying what the title of the study suggests: a little thanks goes a long way.

In the experiment, college students received an email asking them for help with a cover letter, some of which ended on “Thank you so much!” while others didn’t. More than twice as many people offered support when gratitude was expressed in advance. This may seem like common sense, but, apparently, we’re often lacking it when closing our emails.

In Boomerang’s study, phrases that didn’t perform so well in eliciting a response were “Cheers,” “Kind regards,” “Regards,” “Best regards,” and — ironically worst of all — “Best.” While you may not want to lean on “Thanks in advance” too much — it’s a bit presumptuous and can feel passive-aggressive, a simple “Thanks” will get most people to respond to your emails.

Don’t waste your effort building beautiful digital paper planes by skimping on the last few characters before they reach the finish line. Think about how you end your emails. Last words matter, even here — and, often, a simple “Thanks” will do.

Your Habits Will Determine Your Destiny Cover

Your Habits Will Determine Your Destiny

I don’t know you, but I know this: You have habits. There are certain behaviors you repeat every single day of your life.

One of them I can guess right off the bat: Reading. But I know even more about you, despite you and I never having met.

Every day, you wake up, get out of bed, brush your teeth, get dressed, open a window or leave your house, eat and drink, use the internet through your phone or laptop, and then, later, repeat some variation of that sequence in reverse.

Whoa! That’s a lot of data for someone halfway around the world who doesn’t know your name. And even though the picture gets blurrier from there, it’s enough data to tell me something else about you, something you might not know about yourself or at least not be acutely aware of all the time:

The outcomes of your life are determined by your habits. Your behavioral patterns dictate your destiny. They’re patterns of action, patterns of emotion, and patterns of thought — but they’re all patterns. They repeat.

It’s this repetition that steers you, like a pair of invisible hands, towards certain destinations but not others. Your habits can lead you to fame, fortune, and success. They can carry you to meaning, love, and happiness. Your habits can also drive you into depression, loneliness, and anxiety. They can drop you into poverty, darkness, and push you right off a cliff.

You might not think much of your habits, not think much about them at all, but your habits don’t just matter — your habits are everything.

How happy you are is a result of your habits. How much money you make, have, and keep is a result of your habits. How healthy you are compared to how healthy you could be, how many friends you have, to an extent even how long you’ll live — it’s all a result of your habits — and if you don’t pay attention to them, if you don’t observe, assess, and consciously shape your patterns, they will drive you off that cliff.

Understanding this takes more than nodding and saying, “Okay, I get it, routines matter.” It’s about grasping, accepting, and truly living by the one thing I’m here to tell you:

Your habits are your only weapon in your lifelong struggle for meaning, happiness, and making the most of your time.

That’s a pretty big statement, and it comes with big implications. Yes, the breadth of challenges we have to address through our habits is stunning, but, thankfully, they’re also the only weapon we need.

Once you see the magnitude on which they operate, I’m sure you’ll understand.

Voting for Who We’ll Become

In the movie Yes Man, Jim Carrey plays a bitter divorcé — Carl — who stumbles into a self-help movement that’s all about saying “yes.” The leader of the movement forces him to make a vow to say “yes” to any and every request.

Instantly, it gets Carl into trouble. First, he must give a homeless man a ride to a remote place. Then, the guy drains his phone battery and asks for all his money. After walking miles to the next gas station, however, Carl’s luck begins to turn. A cute girl offers him a ride on her scooter — and even leaves him with a goodnight kiss.

In Atomic Habits, James Clear says, “True behavior change is identity change.” We don’t think of habits this way because, usually, we’re focused on goals — a certain outcome or measurable result. The reality, however, is that, first, we have to become the kind of person who can achieve said outcome.

“The goal is not to run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner.”

— James Clear

Over the course of the movie, that’s exactly what happens to Carl. There are 103 variations of the word “no” in the script, most of which drop in the first half of the film. What follows is a series of 94 yeses, by the end of which Carl has become a different person: A guy who says “yes” to what life has to offer.

We don’t expect our small choices to have much of an impact, let alone change who we are, but they add up. “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you want to become,” Clear says in an interview.

Having a cigarette once in a while isn’t bad because of the pinch of tobacco, it’s destructive because each one sends a tiny signal that says, “I am a smoker.” Sooner or later, you might find yourself buying a pack a day. In the same way, it doesn’t matter if you only write one tweet a day for a month when, actually, you want to write a book. The tweets turn you into a writer and, at first, that’s all that matters.

Just like new habits slowly change your self-image, slowly changing your self-image will lead to new habits. That’s why, initially, it’s best to focus your energy on a small identity change rather than a big behavior change.

When Carl seeks out the leader of the movement for guidance, that’s exactly what he tells him:

“[Saying yes to everything], that’s not the point. Well, maybe at first it is. But that’s just to open you up, to get you started. Then, you are saying ‘yes’ not because you have to, not because a covenant told you to, but because you know in your heart that you want to.”

Every action is a vote for who you want to become. You’re voting whether you like it or not. We all do. The habits we choose today will determine what actions we’ll take tomorrow. Make sure you use your right to vote.

Who Will You Be When You Can’t Help It?

At the beginning of the movie, Carl hates his boss, Norman. For one, he calls himself ‘Norm’ and Carl ‘Car.’ Also, Norm is way too upbeat for their boring jobs as loan officers. He’s quirky, full of bad puns, and invites Carl to cheesy costume parties all the time (which he never attends).

Once Carl starts saying “yes,” however, not just to Norm’s parties but also to showing up at work on a Saturday and taking on extra tasks, something inside him shifts. He starts joking around with Norm. He likes it. He likes Norm. Yet nothing about Norm had changed.

Carl hated Norm simply because he was “the kind of person who hates people.” In this case, Norm’s behavior had little impact on their relationship — it was Carl’s interpretation of it that dictated the outcome.

This goes back to our habits affecting our identity, and it has profound implications for how we interpret the events in our lives. If our habits change our identity, and our identity informs how we make sense of the world, our habits also decide how we see others, and how they see us.

By shutting himself in and avoiding work, Carl slowly became a loner which, in turn, made him perceive his boss as annoying. The small, daily actions he took ultimately decided how he explained to himself what was going on around him. Clear calls this “negative compounding,” in this case of thoughts:

The more you think of yourself as worthless, stupid, or ugly, the more you condition yourself to interpret life that way. You get trapped in a thought loop. The same is true for how you think about others. Once you fall into the habit of seeing people as angry, unjust, or selfish, you see those kind of people everywhere.

This sends an important message, a warning as well as a call to action: Even though it didn’t feel like it, through his habits, Carl was in control of his worldview — and so are we.

Your habits determine how you will interpret your life’s events. By the time they happen, it’s too late to throw in a quick change. You have to react based on who you are in the moment. If you’re not already “a non-smoker” when that Friday night cigarette is offered to you, you’re unlikely to turn it down.

On a long enough time scale, however, you can change what perspective you default to when confronted with any given situation — and you do so less by talking to yourself than by working on your habits. Riffing on a Charles Francis Potter quote, we could say:

What you do when you don’t have to will determine who you’ll be when you can’t help it.

Be the person you aspire to be when you can so you’ll continue to be that person even when you think you can’t. Or, in the words of Lao Tzu:

Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.

Without Attention, Time Doesn’t Matter

Every morning, Carl grabs a coffee at the same cafe. Each time he leaves the building, there’s a guy handing out flyers for a concert. Of course, Carl’s canned response is “no.”

After starting his deal with the universe, however, he grabs the flyer and agrees. Lo and behold, who’s the singer of the band? The girl that kissed him after he got stranded.

Zat Rana argues that our most important asset isn’t time but attention:

The quality of the experiences in your life doesn’t depend on how many hours there are in the day, but in how the hours you have are used. […] Although time is indeed limited, with attention, it can be diluted to expand beyond what most other people get out of the same quantity.

What’s better? A life of 80 years, spent in a half-conscious daze, or a life of 40 years, spent in intense focus on what matters to you? Time is just a measure. Having and spending more of it provides no indication of quality. Without attention, time doesn’t matter.

In Carl’s case, his habits had closed his mind to such an extent that he wasn’t able to see anything. Not the good. Not the bad. Even what was right in front of him. He just passed through time, indifferent and oblivious.

Only once he changed his habits did Carl start perceiving again. Everything before was just a muffled thump of pain. It hurt here, it hurt there, it hurt everywhere — because he never paid attention and could thus never identify what hurt him and why.

In the interview, Clear says, “Habits are the portion of your life you can influence.” They’re also the portion that determines what happens with your time while you don’t control your attention — and how much of the latter you even have.

“Good habits make time your ally. Bad habits make time your enemy.” 

Just like your identity shapes how you interpret what happens, your attitudes and beliefs — call them interpretation presets — shape what you perceive — and all three are greatly affected by your habits.

When Carl acted like an isolated atom, he couldn’t see life as something that contains opportunities and he couldn’t see his boss as a person. He had to accept his connection with the world, that he was an integrated part of it, as we all are, in order to get his attention back. This happened through many small acts — approving a loan, meeting his friends, taking that guy’s flyer — but it created an identity shift that rippled through his entire life.

The rest of the movie is really just one thing: Carl being mindful wherever he goes. He notices the stability of his tempurpedic mattress. He notices the offers to learn Korean, playing guitar, and flying an aircraft. He notices his crush having a hard time opening up, the wedding planner being sad, the guy on the ledge just needing a friend. His new habits maximized his attention to life and to watch it blossom is mesmerizing.

What’s more, instead of defaulting into pitying himself on the couch whenever nothing’s happening, he now follows through on his promises. He looks out for his friends. Even when Carl isn’t acting deliberately, he’s a better person, and that’s why time now works in his favor.

Pay attention to your habits because your habits direct your attention. Good habits maximize how much of life you can absorb and where you go when you’re not looking. Try to cultivate good habits.

You Go Where You Look

When I turned 18, my parents gave me a driver’s training along with my newly earned license. Little did I know that, a few years later, I would need it.

It was entirely my fault — I fiddled with my iPod — but, one day, I nearly veered off the road. As the tire hit the curb, I felt a vibration. I looked at the ditch, looked at the road and, instinctively, pulled the steering wheel to the left, returning to where I belonged.

Somehow, I had internalized it before, but, since that day, I have never forgotten the biggest lesson from my training: You go where you look.

It’s a little phrase that universally applies, as John P. Weiss recently noted in analyzing the work of Tim McGraw:

We go where we look. It’s such a simple truth. Just five words, but its wisdom holds the key to achieving greater focus. According to McGraw, we need to look ourselves in the eye, accept where we’re starting from today, push aside all the noise and negative self-talk, and go where we’re looking.

My near-accident was a literal reminder that, without attention, we can’t choose where we’re going — and we can fall off track pretty fast.

Identity, interpretation, attention. At the end of the day, your habits steer all three of these. They all work in tandem and mutually influence one another, but, together, they determine what you think, feel, and do — every second of every waking minute of your life. That’s why your habits are everything. Your habits will determine your destiny.

Clear called his book “Atomic Habits” because, like atoms, habits are small in size, part of a larger whole, and, yet, a source of tremendous energy. “Your outcomes in life are a lagging measure of your habits,” he says. Luckily, we have a great deal of control over our habits and, thus, all these lagging measures.

“You can be the architect of your habits rather than the victim of them.”

I wonder what Carl would have to say about this statement. Then again, I guess he’d only need one word: “Yes.”

7 Lessons From My First Week of Meditating an Hour a Day

7 Lessons From My First Week of Meditating an Hour a Day

I started working on my habits in 2012. That story is now seven years in the making. One of its side effects is awareness. Self-awareness, mostly, but also awareness about many other things.

For a few years now, I’ve considered myself a mindful person. I know my strengths and weaknesses, and I spend most of my day in a self-aware mode of operating. If I’m biting my nails, I’ll know. Sometimes, I’m so mindful I can’t not notice things, especially the flaws and perfections of other people.

Because I was so aware and mindful already, I thought, “I don’t need meditation.” Until I heard Naval Ravikant speak about it:

“It’s one of those things that everybody says they do, but nobody actually does.”

Naval said many people abuse meditation for virtue-signaling. They pretend to care about mindfulness to look like a moral person without doing any of the actual, hard work of properly meditating. That’s why we have thousands of meditation apps, head bands, cushions, and other gimmicks when meditation is literally “the art of doing nothing,” as Naval calls it.

No matter whether you’re a fake meditator or a skeptic who thinks they don’t need it, like I did, chances are, you’ve never done an actual meditation session in your life. The reason you haven’t, if you ask Naval, is that it’s scary, because once you start, you’ll inevitably have to deal with all your unresolved issues:

“It’s like your email inbox. It’s just piling up. Email after email after email that’s not answered, going back 10, 20, 30, 40 years. And then, when you sit down to meditate, those emails start coming back at you.

‘Hey, what about this issue? What about that issue? Have you solved this? Do you think about that? You have regrets there? You have issues there?’ and that gets scary. People don’t want to do that, so they’re like, ‘It’s not working, I can’t clear my mind, I better get up and not do this.’ But really, it’s self therapy. Instead of paying a therapist to sit there and listen to you, you’re listening to yourself. And you just have to sit there as those emails go through one by one.

You work through each of them until you get to the magical inbox zero. There comes a day when you sit down, you realize the only things you’re thinking about are the things that happened yesterday. Because you’ve processed everything else. Not necessarily even resolved it but at least listened to yourself. That’s when meditation starts.”

When I heard Naval say these things, I realized:

Noticing is not the same as processing.

The word ‘mindfulness’ is very misleading in that regard because being aware of what’s going on in your life and dealing with it are not the same thing, even if both require being mindful. In my literal email inbox, I get a notification for every email that comes in. But until I’ve opened it and looked at it, I haven’t really processed it, have I?

So actually, there are two kinds of noticing: the kind that nets you new inputs and more information which are then sent down to your subconscious, and the kind that processes those stimuli once they make their way back into your consciousness. One is downloading your emails, the other reading them.

Think of it this way: The most enlightened meditation guru will notice everything twice, once on the way down and again on the way up. There may be a delay in between, but, at the end of the day, everything is taken care of.

Often, that second kind of noticing is enough to deal with a problem because most of our problems don’t need to be dealt with in actions at all. They’re like notification emails. We just have to acknowledge them so they can leave our minds and not cause us stress. However, if you don’t make time to deliberately do this second kind of noticing, it never happens.

That’s why I decided to finally give real meditation a go. Today, I want to share with you what I’ve learned.

So, how *do* you meditate properly?

It’s not an excuse, but one of the reasons why I avoided meditation is that all these prescriptive practices I’d heard about sounded fake. Naval finally gave me a practice that sounded simple enough to actually feel like the real deal:

“It is literally the art of doing nothing. All you need to do for meditation is to sit down, close your eyes, comfortable position, whatever happens happens. If you think, you think. If you don’t think, you don’t think. Don’t put it effort into it, don’t put effort against it.”

Naval also explained that all concentration exercises, whether it’s focusing on your breath or something else, ultimately aim at letting go of whatever you’re concentrating on. Therefore, you might as well skip to the letting go.

“The problem with what I’m talking about, which is not focusing on your breath, is you will have to listen to your mind for a long time. It’s not gonna work unless you do at least an hour a day and preferably at least 60 days before you work through a lot of issues. So it’ll be hell for a while, but when you come out the other side, it’s great.”

Right now, I’m trying to get to the other side. Every morning after waking up, I set a timer for an hour on my phone. I sit cross-legged, lean against the wall, fold my hands in my lap, and close my eyes. Ideally, I remain in this position. If I feel my limbs falling asleep, I change how I sit but keep my eyes closed. Whatever pops up in front of my inner eye pops up. Sometimes I get dragged into it for a while, sometimes I don’t. That’s it. When the hour’s up, I’m done.

I set the goal to do an hour each day knowing full well I wouldn’t make it on some days. I’m on day eleven now, and, for the first seven in a row, I meditated one hour each day. Since then, I’ve also had days where I did 15 minutes, 25 minutes, etc. But whenever I can, which is about 80% of the time, I do the full hour.

Here are 7 things I’ve learned so far.

1. Your brain is fuller than you’ve ever imagined

When you die, supposedly, your whole life flashes before your eyes. In movies, this is usually portrayed in some form of montage, like a slide show or quick sequence of scenes. My first two sessions felt like that. Think the ending of American Beauty or the blackout phases in Limitless.

Except I didn’t black out. I just got scene after scene after scene. I jumped from a conversation eight years ago to a moment in kindergarten to recess in third grade to something that happened a week ago. It was like swiping through memories on Tinder, but I didn’t control the swiping. That was my first lesson:

Your brain is full. Fuller than you have ever imagined.

You won’t believe what you find once you start meditating. Actually, ‘find’ isn’t the right word. Things will just come to you. Your subconscious is like a fountain, always bubbling. But in your day-to-day, you’re too busy to see what comes to the surface. Meditating is taking time to sit and watch the fountain. Sooner or later, everything shows up again, if only for a few seconds.

2. Meditation is cleaning your brain in real-time

Especially in sessions where lots of memories pop up, I can sometimes feel my brain “pulsating.” Once in a while, it’s as if a wave of cold water runs down my head. I might get goosebumps, but it feels good. Like a weight is lifted. I can sense my brain getting “lighter.” The best description I can come up with is “cleaning your mind in real time,” but it’s enough to let me know it works.

3. You will get glimpses of nothingness

I can only assume these to be previews of what’s to come, but, occasionally, I found myself in a somewhat empty space. With so many thoughts racing through your mind, passing you by, eventually, you’ll wait for the next one, and it won’t come. There’s just…emptiness.

It’s like you’re pulling on a series of strings and are used to one following another. At some point, you automatically reach for it, and when all you grasp is air, that’s surprising. But it’s a nice surprise. It feels refreshing. A brief moment of silence in a sea of noise. It’s hard to describe, but I think, ultimately, meditation leads to regular visits in this palace of calm.

4. Every impulse has a thought attached to it

When you’re sitting there, literally doing nothing, your body will need some time to adapt. It’s physically uncomfortable, and you’ll receive physical signals that it is. A pang of hunger. The urge to shift around. An itch in your ear.

One thing I’ve realized is that every one of those impulses comes with a thought. And only if you jump on that thought do you reinforce that impulse. If you let go of the initial thought, the impulse quickly subsides. Take being hungry. You feel emptiness rise in your stomach. Maybe it even growls. And there it is: the thought. “I’m hungry.” This is where the rubber hits the road.

If you don’t engage with the thought, it won’t stick. But if you immerse yourself in it, it’s as if you’re grabbing an outside rail on a speeding train. In an instant, you’re swept away. Then, all you can do is hold on for dear life. The impulse is the train and being hungry will now dominate all your subsequent thoughts and decisions — until you let go or satisfy the urge. Of course, letting go gets harder each second you’re wrapped up in the idea. That’s why ditching the first thought is so powerful, and meditation helps with that.

5. You’ll let go of your urges more naturally

Science says meditation builds discipline and boosts willpower, and I won’t argue with that. So far for me, however, it has felt more like meditation makes it less necessary to summon these things in the first place. Letting go of the thoughts attached to my impulses feels like an act of compassion, not control.

This isn’t to say I don’t make any bad decisions anymore, just that when I manage not to, it comes more naturally. Before, I may have been self-aware, but would negotiate with myself and eventually give in to the desire anyway. Now, it’s utterly clear that going to bed if I’m tired is the right choice. I still don’t always make it, but it does get easier.

6. Good decisions become larger, bad ones smaller

Besides increasing your ability to make good decisions, meditation also seems to amplify them while dampening your bad ones.

This may be a placebo effect or wishful thinking on my part, but, over the past week, whenever I indulged in something, the indulgence was smaller. Instead of grabbing the whole bag of chips, I poured some in a bowl and ate just those. Instead of watching a movie because it was late, I slowly started on an important task but then did a solid two hours of work on it.

I’m assuming this is a side effect of the other benefits, but it still feels real.

7. You’ll have more energy

Whether meditation can replace sleep is under debate, but it can definitely support it. Since I meditate in the mornings, I might sometimes still be tired, but at the end of each session, I feel a surge of energy. For one, I’ve processed so many thoughts, I can’t wait to act on some of them or put new insights into action. I also frequently have ideas for my writing. But I’ve also just rested physically for an hour, so it makes sense that I now want to go, go, go.

Unlike energy from caffeine, however, which might be unleashed all at once (coffee) or gradually (green tea), I can control how I want to roll out this energy over the course of my day. Most days, I choose the green tea route and try to increase my pace gradually, but, sometimes, I also plunge right into a long, deep-work task, like writing an article.

In any case, more energy with more flexibility in how you spend it is a good thing.


At the end of my first week of meditating, I had a busy weekend. It was full of fun and events and meeting people, but on the drive home, I noticed I was getting anxious about all the work that was waiting for me. When I arrived, I meditated for 25 minutes. After that, it was easy to relax.

Processing my anxiety showed me that I needed some time to decompress by myself. So, instead of frantically trying to cram in two extra hours of work on a Sunday night, I decided to chill. This morning, I woke up rested. I meditated, worked out, showered, ate, and now, I’m happily writing this article. Then, it’s on to the next thing.

Meditation won’t solve all your problems, but it’ll solve the fact that you’re not dealing with your problems.

Don’t fool yourself. Your most important issues constantly get buried under a mountain of noise, emotions, and inner chatter. Meditation cleans out those things like a snow plow to make room for finding these issues and dealing with them. It’s a way of filtering your life and processing it at the same time. Learning how to do this filtering is easy. That part only takes two minutes. It’s the continued commitment to making time for this practice that’s hard.

Meditation isn’t about spirituality or wisdom or finding some elusive nirvana state. It’s about making peace in the here and now. Not finding peace. Making. Because that’s what we do with ourselves and others.

I hope you’ll give it an honest try.

You’re Not Lazy, Bored, Or Unmotivated Cover

You’re Not Lazy, Bored, Or Unmotivated

I don’t know you, but I know this: You have internet access and enough time to spend some of it reading.

This is obvious to you and me, but this non-observation tells me two further, much more interesting things about you:

  1. You are in the top half of humanity’s wealth distribution. That’s right. You may not live in Singapore, Dubai, or even the US or Europe, but access to this all-powerful tool alone puts you in the top 50% — because the other half isn’t even online yet.
  2. You are fighting the modern human struggle. Since you’re here, reading, you’re not busy surviving. You’ve got the basics covered. Food. A roof over your head. It may not be great, not what you dream about at night, but, where you live, the basics of civilization are in place. You know you’ll be around tomorrow. You’re fighting to thrive, not survive.

In this fight, this lifelong battle to fulfill your potential and build a life that makes you happy while also giving you a sense of meaning, you’re not dealing with physical obstacles. You’re trying to defeat abstract enemies.

There’s no one blocking the road to riches. Anyone can get on there. There’s just the market, and, yes, it’s a tough place. But people pay for things every day. Good products, good services, good people win.

There’s no obscure cult guarding the secret to happiness. It’s all in your head. And your hands. Happiness is a consequence of the decisions you make and the people you choose to engage with. Your actions, your emotions, your choices are what you have to work on.

Even if you are facing challenges with physical constraints, like excelling at sports, overcoming a disability, or moving to a place with more economic opportunity, these real-world barriers aren’t what’ll stop you from living the life you want. It’s the hypothetical, made up, self-conjured concepts in your head that will ruin you.

Concepts like laziness, boredom, self-doubt, procrastination, and everything Steven Pressfield would subsume under the term ‘Resistance.

I’m here to tell you: All these concepts are one and the same and there’s only one way to deal with them.

You’re not lazy. You’re not bored. You’re not unmotivated. What you are — what all of us are — is afraid. And the only thing we can do that really helps — the only line of motivation we’ll ever need, the only piece of self-help advice that actually works — is a three-word sentence Nike turned into the most successful marketing slogan of all time after slightly tweaking a serial killer’s last words in 1988: Just do it.

You’re Not Unmotivated

“I’m not motivated” is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. What does that even mean? Not motivated to do what? Work? In that case, aren’t you motivated to avoid it? You’re always motivated! Every action human beings ever take is driven by some kind of incentive.

It may not always be an obvious one, like money, but it’s always there. It could be a social incentive, some form of status among your peers, or an ethical incentive, the relief of feeling like you did the right thing, but behind every action lies a driving force, whether it’s happiness, or peace, or satisfying your conscience.

So if you work the counter at a sneaker store and hate every second of it, you’re not unmotivated to change. Heck, I bet you wish you could change much more so than the annoying corporate hack who’s on his third side hustle and pseudo-spiritual journey to inner peace already. But there’s something holding you back. For some reason, it feels like you can’t change no matter what you do. So you don’t even try. But that’s entirely different from not being motivated and it’s only a sign that it’s time to dig into this feeling.

You’re Not Bored

I talked to a girl on Tinder. She was a scrum master and physiologist. She was in business school, but, really, she wanted to study fashion and launch her own creative company. As soon as we touched upon her dream, the conversation tapered off.

Messages took days to come. She was “busy.” On vacation. Didn’t feel like small talk, but wasn’t interested in real talk either. Or getting coffee, for that matter. When I asked her why she even used the app, she spoke the most common lie in the world: “I’m bored.”

She wasn’t bored. Just like you aren’t bored. No one is ever bored anymore. Why should we be? There’s no reason to. We’re 100% connected, 100% of the time. You couldn’t even be bored if you chose to. And that’s the problem: We don’t even try to choose to be bored.

We just pretend we are so we can keep filling our days with meaningless little distractions, like empty conversations on Tinder. Not because we love our entertainment so much, but because we know what lies beneath the stillness: existential dread. Go through the door of boredom, and that’s what you’ll find. The great scientist and mathematician Blaise Pascal once said:

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Zat Rana has a wonderful interpretation of what he means:

At its core, it’s not necessarily that we are addicted to a TV set because there is something uniquely satisfying about it, just like we are not addicted to most stimulants because the benefits outweigh the downsides. Rather, what we are really addicted to is a state of not-being-bored.

Almost anything else that controls our life in an unhealthy way finds its root in our realization that we dread the nothingness of nothing. We can’t imagine just being rather than doing. And therefore, we look for entertainment, we seek company, and if those fail, we chase even higher highs.

We ignore the fact that never facing this nothingness is the same as never facing ourselves. And never facing ourselves is why we feel lonely and anxious in spite of being so intimately connected to everything else around us.

So no. You’re not bored. You’re terrified of being alone with yourself in your own head.

You’re Not Lazy

Laziness is the scapegoat of everyone who’s trying to capitalize on your claim of “being bored.” “You’re not bored — you’re boring!” is what they’ll tell you. You need a hobby or a calling or a $250 fitness program with a personalized meal plan.

Of course, this too is nonsense. Laziness, like boredom, doesn’t exist. Psychology professor Devon Price explains:

If a person can’t get out of bed, something is making them exhausted. If a student isn’t writing papers, there’s some aspect of the assignment that they can’t do without help. If an employee misses deadlines constantly, something is making organization and deadline-meeting difficult. Even if a person is actively choosing to self-sabotage, there’s a reason for it — some fear they’re working through, some need not being met, a lack of self-esteem being expressed.

People do not choose to fail or disappoint. No one wants to feel incapable, apathetic, or ineffective. If you look at a person’s action (or inaction) and see only laziness, you are missing key details. There is always an explanation. There are always barriers. Just because you can’t see them or don’t view them as legitimate, doesn’t mean they’re not there. Look harder.

Once again, it’s not a lack of motivation, an inexplicable unwillingness to act that obstructs your path to success and happiness. It’s the invisible boundaries in your head that you’re tripping over — sometimes without ever moving at all.

Medicating the Symptoms of Our Only Disease

Laziness, boredom, procrastination, these are all excuses. Not as in “we suck because we succumb to these,” but as in, “we accept these as real problems when they’re just the symptoms.” Because that’s what they are. Surface-level phenomena that all lead back to the same root cause: fear.

My dad once told me this story: A colleague was driving to an appointment with a customer. As he was overtaking a truck, the truck moved into his lane. Seeing his car get crushed from the passenger side and compressing towards him, his animal instincts kicked in. Unleashing an ancient roar at the top of his lungs, he ripped out the gear lever of his automatic gearbox with one hand.

This is an automatic gearbox:

Image via Wikipedia

Clearly, we’re not talking about breaking off a knob on your radio. It’s a heavy piece of machinery, and the lever is properly fixated on it with multiple layers of further constraints built around it. That’s the power of fear. It can make you do unimaginable things.

Luckily, my dad’s co-worker survived the incident unscathed, but now imagine turning this same power not onto your physical environment, but against your own mind. That’s what you’re doing. That’s what you, and I, and everyone you know who’s struggling to realize their dreams is doing.

We’re taking this unbelievable source of raw power and, in lack of real-life threats to hurl it against, we turn it on ourselves. Of course, we don’t do it in outright, uncontrollable fits of rage — at least not most of us and not most of the time. We do it by self-medicating. By concocting and treating symptoms, like laziness, boredom, and other seemingly minor, but actually soul-crushing patterns.

John Gorman calls it “building around fear:”

Fear doesn’t manifest itself like you think, because often times we don’t give it the chance to. Fear isn’t always the sweaty palms that stop us cold in a job interview — fear is generally what prevents us from applying in the first place. It’s so subtly limiting that we often build around it without even noticing it’s there.

That’s why our long list of symptoms is so widely condoned and accepted. Society is playing a big, global, silently agreed upon game of “let’s hide the truth and move on with our day.” We want the cover-ups. And so in our day-to-day, it all looks the same; it all looks harmless.

The thing with fear is on a surface level it’s indistinguishable from laziness. 90% of the time it’s the former, and 90% of people will assume it’s the latter.

So instead of seeing everyone rip their gear levers out of their cars, we see them staring at their phones on the subway. We see them eating 4,000 calories in a single meal, playing 12 hours of video games in a day, or consuming weed, alcohol, and potentially worse drugs in the span of a few minutes. We see their outraged comments on social media, their finely curated highlight reels, their long or short list of small or intense vices, and we think, “Hey, these must be valid issues I have! After all, they have them too.”

No. The one true problem we all share is fear. We just choose to medicate it differently.

The Dog That Keeps on Chasing

Just like there is no reason to be bored anymore, there is no need to have any other problem in your life than fear. I mean, geez, that list is long. The number of things you can be afraid of is endless.

You’re afraid of dying early despite having no factual indication whatsoever that warrants believing you actually will. You read about plane crashes and armed robberies and natural disasters and newly discovered parasites and it all feels like it’s out to get you when, in fact, they’re all 0.01% incidents spun perfectly by the media to drill into your not-very-thick-skinned amygdala.

You’re afraid of being alone because well, existential dread, but also because it looks weird and gets weird looks, and if your parents haven’t asked why you’re still single yet, your friends most certainly have. You’re afraid of not meeting social expectations even though we all keep telling each other there are no more social expectations, afraid of talking the way you want to talk with your boss, your customer, and especially the dude you keep staring at at the café because for all you know, he’s your boss’s boss.

You’re afraid of writing chapter one of your book because who thinks that’ll ever work out, but you’re also afraid of wasting ten more hours watching Game of Thrones, especially now that you’ve already seen the whole thing twice. You’re afraid of never being rich, but not nearly as much as you’re afraid of losing whatever little you have, because how are you supposed to live without your IKEA living room table, your $500 iPad, or your custom-design wall decal of a world map highlighting all the places you’ve visited already?

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I could keep going all day. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of looking stupid, fear of losing something or someone, fear of fear, fear of wasting time or not having enough, fear of not being good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, thin enough, or inadequate in any sense whatsoever — your mind is littered with fear.

There are real fears, fake fears, the kind of fears you can neatly convert into boredom or laziness and dismiss at the surface, and the kind that makes you freeze right down to your bones in front of your computer screen despite absolutely nothing happening at all.

Now, here’s the thing: In order to deal with all these fears, you could spend thousands of dollars to further support the billion-dollar self-help industry which lives off reaffirming all your irrational jitters and nods along fiercely whenever you talk yourself into yet another cover-up. You could buy a new book from a new guru each week, collect a stunning array of probably-placebo supplements on your shelf, and attend a new seminar with a new pyramid scheme that is totally going to work every six months. Or, you can wake the hell up.

Wake the hell up and realize: it’s all the same thing. It’s all. The same. Thing. Fear. There is nothing else and there never was. Never will be. It’s the same, godawful, rotten, dark creature that’s always plagued us, and it will continue to invent new tricks till kingdom come. But, at the end of the day, it’s all fear.

You have to find a way to live in spite of fear.

That dog is going to keep chasing you until you die. And some days, it will get to you. But it can never — never — stop you completely. You have to keep moving. Always. Forever. The day you run into the bright light at the end of the tunnel, I want you to look back and give the finger to that dog trailing behind. Smiling. “Screw you, I won this! I made it. And I did it my way.”

The Cure

Now, I’m not qualified to talk about fear any more than the guy at the corner store. I hold no degree in psychology, no certificate from some brain research institute, heck, I have zero formal training as a writer. But, like you, I have lived with fear my whole life. And, somehow, I’ve still arrived here. I have a job I love, lots of time, few complex structures in my life, and would describe myself as a happy, positive, optimistic person. I don’t know much and have my own issues to resolve, but I sure feel okay taking life one day at a time. And I think that’s what it’s about. Beat the dog. Again. And again. And again.

My theme for this year is ‘Focus.’ Across all areas of my life, I’m trying my best to drill down to what really matters. Projects. People. Parts of those projects and how I talk to those people. How I manage my time, my energy, my life.

The one thing that has helped me show up consistently in spite of fear, particularly with writing, but in other places too — and I have thought long and hard about this — is some version of Nike’s glib, cliché, annoyingly obvious slogan: Just Do It.

Because besides being glib, cliché, and annoyingly obvious, it’s also universally, inescapably true. “Just Do It” isn’t an elegant solution and certainly not a perfect one. It’s not dismissive or snobby but empowering and humble. It’s motivation. Inspiration. Action. Energy. And truth. And that’s why it’s the most brilliant piece of marketing of all time.

People don’t realize how deep this slogan is. I don’t think the creators did when they came up with it. They didn’t mean it to be. But it is. However, you can’t see that when you get hung up on its immediacy. “If it were that easy, don’t you think everybody would ‘just do it?’” No, no, no. You’ve got that all wrong. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about something a guy named Marcus Aurelius told himself 2,000 years ago:

“You must build up your life action by action, and be content if each one achieves its goal as far as possible — and no one can keep you from this.”

If all we did was focus on the task right in front of us, we’d accomplish 99% of our goals and then some.

Sure, we’d still have to pause and reflect on occasion, and not all goals would turn out to be worth chasing in the first place, but we’d just…get there. Don’t you get it? This is everything. All you need. The whole strategy. But it’s more than that still. It’s also a tactic. Because another consequence of a relentless bias towards action is that there’s no room for self-doubt. You don’t have time for big picture concerns when you’re doing. And I don’t mean running around all day like a rat in a maze. I mean steadily engaging and re-focusing on the task at hand. Even if it’s relaxing. Whatever the next small step is. Because the next small step is always doable.

Let’s talk a little more about what living “Just Do It” means.

“Just Do It” as a Strategy

A strategy is a long-term approach to getting what you want. A set of behaviors you’re committed to, a line of principles you’re unwilling to compromise.

Amazon’s strategy is to be the most convenient place on the internet to order stuff from. That’s “the way they do business.” Almost everything they do serves that strategy. The whole point of a strategy is that it can’t possibly work out tomorrow. It’s only efficient if you stick to it, and, because it’s a fundamental guideline in how you make decisions, it’s hard to change. If Amazon changes their strategy, all their hard work goes out the window. If they started being hell-bent on quality, they’d have to shrink their product range to the point of inconvenience. So they don’t. The strategy is set and maintaining it all these years has served them well.

Using “Just Do It” as the strategy, the operating system of your life, means committing to figuring it out on your own.

No more gimmicks. No more wholesale adoption of get-rich-quick schemes, diets with pointless rules (“never eat celery!”), and fake silver bullets you know can’t possibly keep the promises they make. You chase your goals based on what you believe in. If you think art should be free, then make art for free and get sponsors or donors. If you don’t believe in remote work, rent an office and hire locally. If you see the people in your country just not getting what you’re trying to do, move.

“Just Do It” is the best advice because it’s the only advice that works.

When I started writing, I gave lots of specific tips in my articles. “Here’s how to set goals, have a morning routine, be productive.” But specifics are full of hindsight bias. I’m only giving you the final 10% that worked and that worked for me in particular. The last iteration of all the cycles I’ve gone through. The messy 90% of the journey that led me there? I left those out completely. I might have tried 15 different things over the course of two years to finally nail my morning routine — but now I’ve turned that last, functioning process into a pattern and am telling you how to do just that step by step.

Am I even talking to the right person? Who is it for? Because if I’m talking to “me-from-two-years-ago,” then I’m talking to the wrong crowd. And if I do catch you at the point where you’ve covered the 90% of your own journey, well, then what do you need me for? My specific advice is only going to work for a tiny fraction of people who happen to be in the right place at the right time and for whom it will click immediately. Everyone else who still needs to go through the random 90% in their journey will be left out in the cold. Still feeling alone, still stuck with their fears. Except now, they’re disappointed too.

“Just Do It” may not be perfect, but at least it clears the air from the start: Yes, you are alone, but you also have everything you could ever need to figure things out. You will make many mistakes, and you’ll have to take responsibility for each and every one of the countless choices you’ll make on your own dime. But since no one on this planet can give you the perfect answers to the questions created by your unique, once-in-a-lifetime circumstances, choosing proudly and continuing to move forward is not just the best thing you can do, it’s also the right thing you should do.

That’s why I now keep saying things like “just start” and “get off your butt” and “go do things.” Because specifics won’t help. Fear or no fear, for each next challenge and next chapter, you’ll have to get through that messy, random part. You have to make your mistakes. Forget the advice. The empty promises of “proven plans you can follow.” There is no such thing. Summon your confidence. Be proud of who you are. Have faith in yourself. Pick your own battles and how you’ll try to win them. Commit to “Just Do It” as your strategy of getting everything you want out of life.

“Just Do It” as a Tactic

A tactic is a short- to medium-term course of action that serves as an attempt at living up to your strategy. “Given our strategy, this is the next thing we’re going to try.”

Going back to Amazon, Prime is a tactic. Launching a program that offers faster delivery, exclusive products, and extra discounts at a fixed price per year gave them the answer to the question: “Will people pay us to make ordering online even easier for them in a predictable, calculable way?” Based on the revenue they made from the new service, they concluded the answer was “yes.” Had it been “no,” then Amazon would’ve shelved Prime and that would’ve been the end of it. Compared to the commitment required by a strategy, a tactic is just a wet wipe. If it’s not enough, you toss it and pull out the next one. No hard feelings.

“Just Do It” as a tactic is refusing to let everyday hurdles get to you while relentlessly focusing on the next, smallest action you can control.

Your boss didn’t like the presentation? Fine, you do it over and show her again. You’ve run out of clients and your freelance business never really got off the ground? Fine, you shut it down and start from scratch. The girl behind your dream profile ghosted you for no apparent reason and made you feel miserable? Fine, you delete the app and try another way of meeting people.

All professional athletes ever do is to focus on the next play. How do we convert this move? How do we recover these inches? How can I get the ball out of the bunker? All year you worry about minutes, inches, seconds — and by the end of it, you’ve won the championship without ever thinking about it. Michael Jordan’s so-called “next play speed” was less than a second. He’d score, run back to defend, steal the inbound pass, lose the ball, then run down the opponent.

A “Just Do It” approach to managing your day-to-day brings down your next play speed, and you’ll be happier because of it.

The faster you can re-center after you complete something or get rattled, the better. Having a high next play speed also leads to improved happiness because it simply leaves you with little time to even worry about the picture. There’s no wiggle room to dance around your fears, but also not enough space to let them get to you. What’s the next play? What’s the next play? What’s the next play? That’s all you’re ever asking.

Again, this isn’t to say you should never rest or that you’ll never have moments where the dog creeps back around the corner and stares at you with unblinking eyes. It’s to say that, with this focus, it’ll happen far less often and you’ll feel more confident in handling it when it does. Once you’ve chosen a strategy, a set of long-term plays you want to make, forget the big picture. Keep your head down. What’s the next play? Figure it out. And then just do it.

Make a Promise to Yourself

I don’t know you, but I know this: You’re fighting the modern human struggle. You have been equipped with everything you need to accomplish everything you’ve ever dreamed of and a whole lot more. You’re not scraping around the bottom of human existence. You know you have it in you, and the only thing that can make it all come crashing down are the ghosts inside your mind.

Those ghosts are here to stay in all their nefarious, despicable, irrational forms, but you and I both know you can’t let them stop you. You won’t let them stop you. You’re going to use your gifts and use them to the best of your ability to fulfill your potential.

You’re not unmotivated. You’re not lazy. You’re not bored. In a world where you walk around without blinders on, these things don’t exist. You are afraid. Like me. Like your neighbor. Like all of us. We are all afraid. And yet, we are still here. So every day, choose to be here. To hold a flashlight in the face of your demons and say, “I’ve played your games before. I know who you are, and you all look the same to me.”

Nike’s simple, mainstream, maybe even trite but genius mantra is the perfect reminder of how simple and straightforward, yet how demanding and strenuous this lifelong battle is. “Just Do It” is the song we grew up on, the ad that made us smile and clench a fist in fierce resolution. It may be a corporate marketing ploy, but it’s also the spirit of human potential, of the original American Dream.

Using this motto as both your strategy for living your best life and the tactic to see it through will accelerate and clarify your personal growth in ways no self-improvement gimmick ever could. It’s a contract, a promise to yourself to live life on your own terms and not be swayed by the events in it or the tricks your mind plays on itself. It’s not a miracle drug and it won’t lead to a guaranteed happy ending, but I think it’s our best shot at looking back on the brief time we spend on this earth with pride instead of regret.

And if that’s not a cause worth fighting for, a promise worth keeping, then I don’t know what else to tell you. Except “Just Do It.”

Anchoring Bias & Subconscious Mind Explained Cover

Anchoring Bias Explained: How Powerful Is Your Subconscious Mind?

At a football game celebrating their latest pickpocket haul, con man Nicky and his apprentice Jess get into a series of escalating bets with a Chinese businessman.

$1,000, $5,000, $10,000 — $100,000 — they keep increasing the stakes — and Nicky keeps losing. Finally, Nicky can’t take it anymore and goes into overdrive. He bets 1.1 million dollars.

“Double or nothin’, high card takes it all.”

Nicky has now bet not just all of his, but his entire gang’s money — on a single card draw. When he turns over the deck, he almost faints. Three of hearts. His opponent drew the five of spades. Nicky lost. Again.

Suddenly, his throat feels dry. He’s shaking. Nicky can barely see straight. Having watched the disaster from two feet away, Jess is furious. She yells at him. Pounds on his chest.

“Let’s go!”

But then, just as they’re about walk out, Nicky stops. He can’t quit now. Not like this. He needs one more. One final play. He turns around.

“Double it. I’m good for it.”

The Chinese businessman can barely believe it.

“Dude, what are you doing? You’re crazy.”

At this point, that sure seems like a fair assessment. Especially considering the bet Nicky offers next:

“Pick any player on or off the field. And I will guess the number.”

When you include backups and swap-ins waiting on the sidelines, a football team easily racks up 50 players. That’s about 100–1 odds. In other words:

“That’s f*cking crazy.”

And, as if that wasn’t enough, Nicky then says he’ll let Jess guess the number. Not one to pass on free money, the businessman agrees. Jess keeps begging Nicky to call it off as they watch him survey the field, but Nicky won’t budge.

Once he has made his choice, the businessman hands Jess the binoculars. She’s terrified. Obviously. There are over $2 million at stake — and she’s pretty sure Nicky doesn’t have the money.

“I don’t…I don’t know.”

At the last second, their opponent offers to let them off the hook. But Nicky is beyond hope.

“Just. Pick. A number.”

Desperately, Jess scans the field, looking for any sign of indication, of what player, what number to pick. And then, right before she’s about to give up and just guess, she spots…Farhad.

Farhad is a fellow gang member and Nicky’s best friend. He’s overweight, obnoxious, and his head is full of some curly mess you can barely call hair. But he’s also standing there, right in the middle of the field, casually sporting the number 55.

“Oh my god,” Jess thinks. As it dawns on her that the whole thing may have been a setup from the beginning, Jess says the number. Slowly.

“Fifty…five. Number fifty-five.”

The Chinese gambler shakes his head. Not in smug victory, but in loser’s disbelief.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no!”

Then, it’s his turn to lose his mind. But this time, in a good way.

“Holy sh*t! How did you do that? That’s right!”

He still can’t believe it. But he’s so in awe that he’s not even mad. He’s excited. He jumps up and down. He hands Nicky the money. Gladly. He even asks them to go to Vegas together. But, finally, Nicky declines.

When he and Jess leave the stadium, Nicky has turned 1.1 million dollars into more than four. And he did it thanks to the power of the subconscious mind.

In the back of the getaway car, Jess still can’t believe what just happened.

“How did you know who he was gonna pick?”

Nicky is pleased with himself.

“We told him. We’ve been telling him all day. From the moment he left his hotel room, we’ve been priming him. Programming his subconscious.”

And then, Nicky goes on to explain what scientists call anchoring.

“He’s been seeing the number 55 all day long. On the elevator. In the lobby. Even the stick pin on the doorman. Not only that, we loaded his route from the hotel to the stadium. He looks out the window, primers are everywhere.”

The road signs, billboards, a mob demonstrating for a group called “Local 55,” people wearing jerseys with the number — the Chinese businessman’s path is littered with the number 55.

“Now, he doesn’t see it, but he does. There’s no getting around it. He even sees Farhad. Suggestions are everywhere.”

What’s more, Nicky arranged for the song “Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones to play in the victim’s hotel room all night. Why? The Mandarin word for ‘five’ is ‘woo.’ Therefore, “woo-woo” adds up to 55 — and there are 124 “woo-woos” in that song.

It sounds simple, primal, even stupid, but that’s how it works. Thousands of micro-suggestions that affect the human mind. And the result?

“Now, he’s not registering it, but it’s all there. So when he picks up those binoculars, looks out on the field, sees a familiar face with the number 55 on his jersey, some little voice in the back of his mind says: “That’s it.” And he thinks it’s intuition. And he picks.”

This scene from the movie Focus might sound like an exaggerated example, but if you watch shows running similar, real-world experiments, like Brain Games or Deception with Keith Barry, you’ll see: That’s the power of anchoring — and it happens to you and me every day, whether we like it or not.

Anchoring is when we rely too much on an initial piece of information to make further judgments and decisions.

Some of the first scientists to investigate this cognitive bias were Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, and it’s particularly evident with numbers.

In their initial study, they asked people to calculate a complex multiplication within five seconds and found that people’s estimates varied a lot depending on which numbers they first saw in the sequence.

If I show you 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6 x 7 x 8, you’ll start multiplying those first numbers, and when time runs out, you’ll probably guess that the end result is somewhere around 500. But if I show you 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 and you take the exact same approach, you’ll land at a much higher final estimate — likely around 2,000 — just because the first numbers were the larger ones.

The correct answer is 40,320, by the way. I know, crazy high, right? But it gets crazier: The anchor can be completely random, but will still work.

In that same study, Kahneman and Tversky showed participants a wheel of fortune that was set to always land on either 10 or 65. Afterwards, they asked them: “What is the percentage of African countries in the United Nations?” If people had seen the wheel stop on 10, they guessed 25% on average. If they had seen the number 65, their average guess was 45%. People knew the game they saw was based on chance. Yet, the result still biased their judgment. The correct answer is 28%.

But the anchoring bias goes further. As in the Chinese gambler’s case, it can literally make us choose differently.

Another researcher, Dan Ariely, asked students in his MBA class to write down the last two digits of their social security number (SSN). Then, he showed them some items, like wine or chocolate, and asked if they’d pay that amount for them. That was an easy yes-or-no question, but when he later asked them to bid on these goods, the initial number had become an anchor. Those with higher ending digits were willing to pay 60% to 120% more — for the same items! Just because their SSN had dictated a higher baseline.

But wait, there still is more. Beyond being random, powerful, and affecting both our judgment and our decisions, anchoring is also nearly impossible to avoid. For example, even if you know an anchor can’t possibly be on the spectrum of correct answers, it’ll still influence you.

One study asked students whether Mahatma Gandhi died “before or after age 9” or “before or after age 140.” Everyone knew both anchors were nonsense, but they still adjusted their guesses somewhat in that direction. The first group estimated he died at age 50, the second at age 67, on average. Gandhi lived to 78, by the way.

Other studies tried telling people about the anchoring bias before asking them to make guesses and paying them money to avoid anchoring — all to no avail.

There are several theories why anchoring happens, a favored one being selective accessibility. It suggests that, in an effort to make our lives easier, our brain wants an anchor to be the right answer, and starts testing for that assumption. But in trying to validate this hypothesis, it looks for ways in which new guesses are similar to the anchor — and thus sticks closely to it regardless.

There are also multiple factors that affect how prone we are to the anchoring bias, many of which are contextual, like our mood, personality, experience, and cognitive ability. The studies show conflicting evidence but, supposedly, being sad as opposed to happy or in a neutral mood makes you more susceptible. So does being agreeable, conscientious, and open to new experiences. Having knowledge and experience in the field related to the anchor helps combat the effect, while general intelligence may or may not do anything.

Like most cognitive biases, anchoring isn’t something we can ever completely get rid of, but we also don’t need to. As long as we fight it when its consequences are most damaging, we can live our lives just fine. That’s not a skill you pick up in a day, but one that requires repeated practice and, above all, awareness.

Having the information is important, but having a story to tie it to will help you remember. Maybe, it’ll be the story of how Nicky hustled a guy out of two million dollars. Maybe, that’ll be your anchor.

But, regardless of which story you choose, one thing’s for sure about this one: it’s a great example of the power of your subconscious mind.

Why Too Much Freedom Makes Us Unhappy Cover

Why Too Much Freedom Makes Us Unhappy

Back in the 90s, there were about 7,000 items in your average supermarket. That’s already a lot of stuff to choose from, but today, that number is as high as 50,000. That’s 50,000 choices, 50,000 yeses or nos — from one trip to the grocery store.

Given there are many more important things than doing our daily shopping, and almost each of them comes with a similarly outsized wealth of options, who wouldn’t feel stressed?

A nifty little concept to capture this anxiety we feel when we have too much freedom is FOMO — fear of missing out.

  • Can’t decide which stocks to buy? FOMO.
  • Wait till the last minute to pick the best event to go to? FOMO.
  • Have a hard time committing to a relationship? FOMO.

In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz explains how too much choice leads to four conditions that reduce our happiness. And they’re all rooted in FOMO.

1. Analysis Paralysis

It’s easier to pick one out of two meals than one out of 50. With more options, we spend more time analyzing and tend to get stuck. Often, we’ll choose to do nothing at all for a long time, and dragging your heels never feels good.

2. Anticipated Regret

If there are millions of options, you should be able to find the perfect one, right? Wrong. Perfect almost never exists. But with so much choice, we think it has to, and therefore face immense pressure to get each choice right.

3. Postdecision Regret

This imagined perfect choice sticks with you long after you’ve decided. So no matter what you pick, if you had too many options at the time you made your call, you’ll be more likely to regret the choice later — and think it’s your fault.

4. Escalated Expectations

The more choice we have, the higher our expectations become. Objectively, we might be able to pick a pair of better-fitting jeans out of a selection of ten rather than just three. But subjectively, we can still feel worse, because our expectations have risen even more in comparison. With ten pairs available, better isn’t enough anymore. Again, they would have to be perfect.

Since it creates these four conditions and thus puts a lot of psychological pressure on us, FOMO is at the heart of modern-day unhappiness. With FOMO, even the tiniest, most irrelevant choice can balloon into a full-blown existential crisis. But instead of constantly solving these, we should fix the root cause. We should start fighting FOMO.

The first step of doing so is recognizing it as it happens. When you find yourself hesitating or taking unusually long to make a choice, sit with the discomfort for a second. Probe it with questions. Why is this so hard? What is stopping me from moving forward here? Is this an important issue? Or could I flip a coin and wouldn’t care much about the outcome?

The more you do this, the more “important” decisions you’ll expose as actually near-meaningless. And with each one you unmask, an idea becomes clearer and a new belief begins to form: FOMO makes absolutely no sense.

Not all of us remember simpler times pre-smartphones, pre-internet, even pre-computers. But, whether you’re lucky enough to do so or not, remember: we used to make do with what we had in almost all areas of life.

When I was a kid, I had to call my friend’s house to arrange a playdate. We set a time and then we showed up. And when we went home, we had to stop talking. We might not see each other again for a week. And everything, all of that, was perfectly okay. Today, the sheer image of all the uncertainty in this might feel depressing. Will he pick up the phone? Will she have time? What was he doing all of last week?

Back then, there was no internet to stay connected 24-7. But there was also no issue of who and what to stay connected with 24-7. There were also only ten pairs of shoes at the store, only three cars in your price range at the local dealer, and only two girls you liked in your local peer group. None of it meant the end of the world. In fact, as we now know, it made us happier.

So no. We don’t need to obsess over every detail of our lives. We don’t need to get every pizza topping right. Forget FOMO. Don’t let freedom hijack your brain. Don’t let it fool you into false importance. In the grand scheme of things, we’re still small. And in this smallness is where happiness lies.

Find JOMO. The joy of missing out. In a world that’s too full, letting go is reason to celebrate not cringe. Whenever you’re limited, be glad you have fewer options. Say thank you, pick something, and move on. And when you’re faced with a big selection, define some criteria. Find what meets your standards, and then don’t look back.

50,000 items at the supermarket. The world has become a big place. But that’s no reason to allow it to turn you into a nervous wreck. You can engage with all this choice, but you can also decide not to. You can shrink your option-circle. Make one choice to eliminate 1,000. Be small on purpose. And not buy into “more is always better.”

No matter how many items they stock, you can set your own boundaries. You’re in control. Use it. Exercise it. Discipline is happiness. Not just at the grocery store, but it sure is a great place to start.

Don't Forget to Breathe Cover

Don’t Forget to Breathe

You open your eyes and there it is. A spark. You can feel it. It’s tiny. But it’s enough. The beauty of new beginnings. You’re excited. You start. You roll. You make progress. You fuel the spark and the spark fuels you.

You’re motivated. You can’t sleep. You want to wake up and just go, go, go. You’re better. At work, at home, at the gym. It spreads. It’s contagious. You have energy. So. Much. Energy. Where does it come from?

Either way, it’s there. It needs go somewhere. You need more. Something else. Anything else. Another project. A new sport. A better job. Go, go, go!

But then, somewhere, something shifts. Where is it? Where is the spark? You wake up and…what? Why? How can this be? I don’t want to get up. No. Nooo. Just let me sleep. Come on. Just one extra hour.

But now, you can’t. Now, you have to get up. You have work to do. The gym is important. Your second project is slow. And a part of the first just broke. It needs fixing. Ugh. It’s too much. When are you supposed to do all of this?

A friend calls. She’s in town. Let’s get dinner? Another needs help. Hey, can you read my resumé? Slowly, anxiety creeps in. Everything is just another item on your to-do list. The list is long. Endless. It just spools off in your head. Over and over. Why does it never stop?

You can’t sleep. Your heart is pounding. You’ve had way too much coffee. You try anyway. Eight hours. Just this once. Pleaaase. You wake up after five. Argh. No time, no time. Gotta go. Gotta fix all of this.


What happened? How did you go from “I can take on the world” to “I’m overwhelmed, alone, and no one understands me?” How did it fly by so fast?

Nothing. Nothing really happened.

You just forgot to slow down. You forgot to breathe.

Breathing. You’re doing it right now. But taking a breath? Please, do it right now. More breathing, more living. Deeper breathing, deeper living.

How thin our most important survival mechanism becomes. Often, we don’t even notice. We just sit there, looking at our screens. But a cascade of shallow gasps? Just enough air to keep functioning, yet not enough to properly process anything? That’s not breathing. And that’s not living.

But if anxiety takes over, that’s our next stop. And we always get there fast. Let’s hit the brakes. Let’s pause for a second.

In fact, let’s pause for several. Science makes a compelling case to do so. In The Willpower Instinct, psychologist Kelly McGonigal provides an alternative to our body’s ancient fight-or-flight response. She calls it pause-and-plan:

“The pause-and-plan response puts your body into a calmer state, but not too sedate. The goal is not to paralyze you in the face of internal conflict, but to give you freedom. By keeping you from immediately following your impulses, the pause-and-plan response gives you the time for more flexible, thoughtful action.”

But what does that response look like? How do you trigger it? Yup. You guessed it: Breathing.

“The pause-and-plan response drives you in the opposite direction of the fight-or-flight response. Instead of speeding up, your heart slows down, and your blood pressure stays normal. Instead of hyperventilating like a madman, you take a deep breath. Instead of tensing muscles to prime them for action, your body relaxes a little.”

A well-trained athlete has primed their body to exhibit this response. Faced with a challenge, an opponent, a hurdle, their default is to relax, then tackle the guy, jump off the board, or hit back the ball. The same goes for an expert or any seasoned mindfulness practitioner.

But even an amateur can learn. Practice the physical response, and the mind will follow. Breathing is our most fundamental pattern as human beings. It is also our first chance to disrupt a pattern, to escape anxiety’s grasp, to start with a clean slate and make a change.

Life is a cycle. It all comes and goes. Our state of busy, of energy, of motivation and anxiety. But at any point in this cycle, you can breathe.

More breathing, more living. Deeper breathing, deeper living.

Every problem has a solution. It’s never the same, but it always lies behind a single, deep breath.

Sometimes, it’s taking action. Sometimes, it’s acceptance. Sometimes, it’s thinking or waiting or courage or patience. But it’s always a solution we must take time to even see. A solution that needs room, that requires us to breathe.

Perseverance. That’s what it is. Perseverance, one cycle at a time.


Choose to See Projects, Not Problems Cover

Choose to See Projects, Not Problems

She was in her 50s, I think. A lady with red hair, seated across the aisle. For a brief moment in time, about 45 minutes, we shared the same destination — and thus the same train.

Except for her fiery mane, nothing hinted at her remarkable energy. She was plain and rather sturdy. But as soon as she talked, you knew she was fierce.

Unfortunately, she dedicated all of that ferocity to raising complaints, none of which her friend was in any capacity to solve. They might have been nurses; granted, a tough work environment by any measure. But the way she spoke of her workplace, it felt like a place wholly without solutions. Just problems.

“He promised he’d give us more people, but then he broke his word last-minute.”

“They can’t change the rules like that, that reporting policy is ridiculous.”

In many countries, mine included, being a nurse is a tough, underpaid job. There’s much to improve, no doubt. But in blowing off steam for the entire train ride, the redheaded caretaker fundamentally neglected her job: She merely exhausted both herself and her friend.

Often, venting is our habit of last resort. We feel helpless. As if we’ve tried everything. Like there’s nothing else left we can do. Of course, that’s never quite the case. There’s always something else we can do.

But, sometimes, we’re too close to the to-do list to see it. Sometimes, we have to take a step back — a step up, even — and find a new perspective.

Heidi Hetzer was a German entrepreneur, rally driver, and a symbol of empowerment. Long after her company was sold, her career done and dusted, she set off on a trip around the world — at age 77, in a car older than herself.


For nearly three years, she ventured around the globe. She blew through not just two co-drivers, but countless breakdowns, customs issues, and language barriers. She also survived an accident in which she lost two fingers, her cancer diagnosis, and several robberies and threats.

As a result, she saw dozens of countries, connected with hundreds of people, and inspired thousands more. She had the time of her life. And at 81, she did it all again. After her passing on Easter Sunday, her final Instagram post reads: “I live no longer, but I have lived.”

The gap between Heidi Hetzer and the lady on the train is not a physical one. It’s not genetic and it does not depend on their financial background.

Heidi Hetzer had a growth mindset. The nurse’s point of view was fixed.

Whatever situation in life you look at, this distinction makes all the difference.

From 1980 to 1984, John McEnroe was the #1 tennis player in the world. He was also arrogant, entitled, and angry. His outbreaks on the court made half the show. He’d often yell at organizers over minuscule details, only for them to make the changes and then apologize to him.

“This is what it was like to be number one,” he says in his autobiography. In Mindset, researcher Carol Dweck examines his case further:

He goes on to tell us about how he once threw up all over a dignified Japanese lady who was hosting him. The next day she bowed, apologized to him, and presented him with a gift.

“This,” McEnroe proclaims, “is also what it was like to be number one.”

“Everything was about you… ‘Did you get everything you need? Is everything okay? We’ll pay you this, we’ll do that, we’ll kiss your behind.’ You only have to do what you want; your reaction to anything else is, ‘Get the hell out of here.’ For a long time I didn’t mind it a bit. Would you?”

As the saying goes, “better late than never,” but McEnroe’s insight sure would’ve been more useful back in 1980. Contrast that with Michael Jordan, an athlete known for his die-hard work ethic, and the the first billionaire basketball player in history. Dweck again:

“When Jordan was cut from the varsity team, he was devastated. His mother says, “I told him to go back and discipline himself.” Boy, did he listen. He used to leave the house at six in the morning to go practice before school. At the University of North Carolina, he constantly worked on his weaknesses — his defensive game and his ball handling and shooting. The coach was taken aback by his willingness to work harder than anyone else. Once, after the team lost the last game of the season, Jordan went and practiced his shots for hours. He was preparing for the next year.”

The difference between a fixed and a growth mindset is like the difference between success and failure, between winning and losing, between creation and waste: first and foremost, it’s a matter of perspective.

A fixed mindset will hold talent over everything. Whatever goes wrong, it’s genetic, it’s external, it’s permanent, everyone else’s fault, and can’t be changed. With such a worldview, anyone would try to look smart, avoid difficult situations, and seek approval rather than attempt to win big.

A growth mindset, however, is hell-bent on internalizing your locus of control. It insists that life happens for you, not to you. Therefore, even the bad stuff serves a purpose — and it is yours to turn into a stepping stone to some bigger thing. In this mindset, what goes wrong is just a detour, a distraction, a temporary setback you can handle. The only question is what you’ll try next.

If you have a fixed mindset, it may not feel like it, but, by definition, which of these two lenses you select is a choice. However, that choice is made one day, one habit, one small action at a time.

The best of those actions I found comes from a little farm in France.

After graduating college, Hannah and her boyfriend worked for a farmer in Europe. His name was Emmanuel. One day, this happened:

He took us to the greenhouse and showed us spots of brown mold that had begun creeping over the leaves on the tomato plants. “Ze tomatoes get sick sometimes,” he said. “It’s a big…how do you say…a big pr…”

“A problem?” I suggested in my mind, assuming that was the word he was looking for.

But then Emmanuel smiled and said, “Ah, project. It’s a big project.”

This slight change of language can lead to a profound shift in your trajectory. It might be just two words, but one leads to a fixed mindset, the other looks for growth and opportunity.

A project is a challenge. Something you can choose to tackle or not. A problem is a nuisance. Something you need to “make go away.” It’s not optional.

A project offers multiple angles from the start. A problem is a thorn in your thigh: before you can do anything, you have to talk yourself into even trying to pull it out.

A project is a game. It has levels. You’ll immediately look for milestones and ways to leverage what you already know. A problem is game over. You’ve already lost. You feel like you’re at square one, and so that’s where you start. You’re not considering your assets.

A project has stakeholders. There are several parties involved and if you get it right, everyone wins. A problem is yours and yours alone. “Oh no, why me?” It brings out your ego and makes you self-centered.

Completing a project allows you to advance. Resolving a problem only gets you back to zero.

Every time you want to say ‘problem,’ say ‘project’ instead.

Replacing this one word could change your whole life.

My unintentional travel companion came from a hospital full of problems. Heidi Hetzer lived a life made of projects. Two women, two perspectives.

No one loves to lose money on a business idea or enjoys the woes of chronic back pain. But it takes an open mind to deal with such setbacks.

Who would you rather be on the court? A furious McEnroe, who’s angry at an environment he can’t change, or a determined Jordan, who’ll settle for his best effort, nothing more, nothing less?

The best people I know aren’t those with the most success, they’re those with the most meaningful journeys. Not all of this meaning can be found inside ourselves, but what’s on the outside largely depends on your point of view.

If you look at the world like a game of Tetris, you can spot projects everywhere, choose the ones you care about, and then make the pieces fit. If you insist it’s a labyrinth someone else designed, you’ll constantly feel lost.

You can’t always pick who you sit next to on the train, but you can decide if that person’s a friend or a stranger. You can’t win every match, but you can decide what the loss means. You can choose to see problems or you can choose to see projects.

It’s up to you to make up your mind, but until you do, let the train be the one to blow off some steam.

How To See The World As It Is Cover

How To See The World As It Is

It’s a sunny day. You’re driving. The view is clear and the road stretches for miles ahead. You hit cruise control, lean back, and enjoy the ride.

Suddenly, a few clouds pull up. The first raindrops begin to fall. “No biggie,” you think. You can still see and maneuver.

After a while, however, the storm really hits. The sky is all but grey, you can feel the wind inside the car, and your wipers don’t seem to do anything. Your windshield is so full of water, it might as well be frosted glass.

Now, you’re barely holding on, trying to steer, but really, you can’t see anything. You’re just hoping for the best.

That’s what life is like when you’re unaware of your biases. You can’t think straight or make good decisions, because you don’t see the world as it actually is. Without realizing it, you’re pushed around by invisible forces.

The way to start combatting these forces is to learn about them. Here are ten of the most important ones.

The Backfire Effect

You’ve probably heard of confirmation bias, which has us looking for information that confirms our views, instead of challenging them. The backfire effect is its big brother: If you see a correction after remembering something false, you’ll trust the false fact even more. For example, if the sexual harassment allegations against a celebrity are found to be untrue, you might now trust them even less, as you’re not sure what to believe anymore.

The Ambiguity Effect

If we don’t have enough information to guess the probability of something, we’ll avoid that option altogether. We’d rather buy lottery tickets than stocks, because one is simple, the other needs learning. This effect means we might not even try to go for our goals, only because we can better estimate the odds of more realistic options, like getting promoted vs succeeding as a freelancer.

Survivorship Bias

Tom has a successful blog. Tom writes like this. I want a successful blog. I’ll write like Tom. This rarely works. Tom just happened to survive long enough to succeed, regardless of his writing style. Maybe, many others wrote like him too, but didn’t make it. Therefore, copying Tom is no guarantee of success.

Zero-Risk Bias

Zero-risk bias makes us exert too much energy and money towards the wrong ends rather than focusing on important, more impactful factors. It occurs because we’d rather eliminate however little risk is left than reduce the overall amount by a big chunk. Instead of buying a second insurance policy for a different threat, we’ll get the full package for our car and pay a premium.

Probability Neglect

We completely ignore how likely it is we might fall down the stairs, but if any plane were to crash, it must be ours. Similarly, we’d rather gamble to win a billion than a million, even if the odds are much lower. That’s because we respond to the magnitude of events, not their probabilities. Probability neglect explains most of our misplaced fear and optimism.

The Bandwagon Effect

When you choose between two restaurants, you might go with the more crowded one. But if everyone before you did the same, the first guests inevitably chose at random between two empty ones. Often, we do things just because other people do them. This not just twists our ability to accurately assess information, especially on the web, but also ruins our happiness.

The Spotlight Effect

Because we live in our own heads 24/7, we think everyone else devotes nearly as much attention to our lives as we do. Of course, no one does, because they also suffer from this imaginary spotlight. People won’t notice your pimple or messy hair as they’re busy worrying you’ll notice their pimple or messy hair.

Loss Aversion

If I give you a mug today and tell you it’s worth $5, you won’t sell me back that same mug for $5 tomorrow. According to Daniel Kahneman, you’ll want as much as $10. Just because it’s yours now. But us owning things does not make them more valuable. Thinking it does is a problem because it also means we’re more afraid of losing whatever we have than not getting what we really want.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy

Do you leave the theater when the movie is bad? Because throwing your good time after dollars spent badly won’t help. We often stick to an irrational path of action solely to be consistent with our previous choices. But once the ship is sinking, it’s time to abandon ship, regardless of what caused the dilemma. The sunk cost fallacy keep us wasting time, money, and energy on things that are long past the point where they ever had a chance of working out.

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality

You may know that Parkison said “work expands to fill the time available for it,” but, related to that, there’s also his law of triviality. It says that we spend disproportionate amounts of time on trivial issues to avoid the cognitive discomfort of solving complex, important problems. When you start a blog, all you need to do is write. But designing the logo feels really important, right?

Wikipedia lists almost 200 cognitive biases. It’s impossible to fight them all, all the time. But it helps to develop awareness.

The first part of this awareness comes from being able to recognize a bias when it plays a trick on your or someone else’s mind. That’s why we need to know what they are and look out for them.

The second part is learning to notice them in real-time. This ability only forms with consistent practice. The best way to do this — and therefore our single-greatest weapon against deceitful perceptions — is to take a deep breath before all important decisions.

Whenever you’re about to take a big next steps, breathe. Pause. Give yourself a few seconds to reflect. What’s going on here? Am I biased? Why do I want to do this the way I want to do it?

Every cognitive bias is a small raindrop on your windshield. A few of them won’t hurt, but if they fill every inch, you might as well drive in the dark. If you have a general understanding of what they are and how they function, a short pause is often enough to find the awareness you need to think clearly.

So slow down. Drive safely. And turn on the wipers before it’s too late.