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SELFDISCIPLINE A GUIDE TO TAKING CONTROL OF YOUR MIND, YOUR TIME, AND YOUR LIFE
© 2019 Mark Manson
PART 1: HOW SELF-DISCIPLINE WORKS
IF SELF-DISCIPLINE FEELS DIFFICULT, THEN YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG When I was in college, there were some people on the internet who claimed that you could train yourself to sleep as little as two hours per day. Keep in mind, this was back in the early 2000s when we all still believed random shit we read on the internet. Here’s how the story went: There was a hyper-productive sleep schedule that had been discovered by military scientists. They were testing the limits of sleep deprivation on soldiers and made this startling discovery. Supposedly, great historical figures like Napoleon and Da Vinci and Tesla followed the same sleep schedule and it’s why they were so productive and influential in history. Supposedly, anybody (i.e., you and me) could achieve this state of daily hyper-productivity. Supposedly, all we needed was enough willpower to barrel through days of sleep deprivation and “acclimate” to this new superhuman schedule. Supposedly, this was all true and verified and somehow made sense. Supposedly. The scheme was called “The Uberman Sleep Schedule,” and here’s how you did it:
● Sleep follows the 80/20 Rule—that is, 80% of your recovery
comes from 20% of the time you’re unconscious. Conversely, 80% of the time you’re asleep, you’re a lazy piece of shit.
● This uber-efficient portion of sleep is called REM sleep and only lasts approximately 15-20 minutes at a time. That means for every two hours that your body is asleep, really only the last 20 markmanson.net
minutes or so is “useful” sleep. Thus, when you sleep eight hours during the night, only 80-100 of those minutes are actually causing you to feel rested and restored.1 People on the internet decided this was inefficient and needed to be fixed.
● What the military scientists (supposedly) discovered is that if you’re severely sleep deprived, your body will immediately fall into REM sleep the second you pass out. It does this in order to compensate for its lack of rest. People on the internet decided this was incredibly efficient.
● The idea of the Uberman Sleep Schedule was that if you took 20-minute naps, every four hours, around the clock, for days and weeks on end, you would “train” your brain to fall into REM sleep instantly the moment you laid down. Then, once your REM sleep was over, you would feel rested and restored for the next 3-4 hours.
● As long as you continued to take 20-minute naps every four hours, you could effectively stay awake forever. Congratulations, you were now an Uberman. Here, have a gold star.
● But there was a catch: supposedly it took 1-2 weeks of intense sleep deprivation to properly “adjust” to the Uberman Sleep Schedule. You had to stay up all night, every night, forcing yourself to only sleep for 20 minutes at a time, six different times per day. And if at any point you screwed up and overslept your nap, all would be undone and you would have to start over.
● PS: Caffeine is not allowed. And alcohol might as well be suicide.
Turns out this is bullshit. Who would have thought?
● Therefore, the Uberman Sleep Schedule became this kind of decathlon of willpower among internet self-help people—an ultimate test of one’s self-discipline with the ultimate pay-off: an extra 20-30% of productive waking hours per day, every day for the rest for your life. That’s like having an extra two days each week, or an extra three-and-a-half months per year. That’s insane! Over the course of one’s life, that’s over a decade of extra waking hours. Imagine everything you could accomplish with an extra decade of life, all while everyone else is asleep. Like an idiot, I tried to do this. Multiple times. For years, I obsessed with achieving the Uberman Sleep Schedule. And for years, I continually failed at it.
You have probably pulled an all-nighter before. Not sleeping for one night is not that difficult. Especially if there are deadlines and/or drugs involved. What’s difficult are the second and third and fourth nights. Extreme sleep deprivation is a crash course on how fragile our mind actually is. By day three, you will start falling asleep standing up. You will doze off while walking down the street in broad daylight. You forget basic facts like your mother’s name or whether you had eaten that day, or—fuck, what day is it? By day four you become delirious, imagining that people are speaking to you when they’re not, believing that you’re writing an email when you’re not, and then discovering that you don’t even remember who you were supposed to be emailing. I used to walk in circles around my living room for an hour, just to keep myself awake. When nap time came, I would crash, falling unconscious instantaneously, and proceed to have intense, fucked up dreams that seemed like they lasted for five hours. Then, 20 minutes later, my alarm would wake me up, where I would spend the next three hours and change desperately lying to myself, trying to convince myself that I felt rested and couldn’t wait to get back to—wait, what was I supposed to be doing again? In the end, I could never make it through the fourth day. Each time I failed, I felt intense disappointment at my own lack of willpower. I believed this was something I should be able to do. It pissed me off that some random people on the internet could supposedly do this thing that I couldn’t. I felt like it meant there was something wrong with me. That if I didn’t have the self-discipline to markmanson.net
sleep deprive myself for weeks on end, then what the fuck, Mark? Get your shit together! So I tortured myself. And the more I tortured myself, the more unrealistic my expectations for myself became. *** Chances are, at some point in your life, you’ve tried to change your behavior through sheer willpower. And chances are, you also failed miserably. Don’t feel bad! This is what happens most of the time. Most people think of self-discipline in terms of willpower. If we see someone who wakes up at 5 AM every day, eats an avocado-chia-fennel-apricot-papaya smoothie each meal, snorts brussel sprout flakes, and works out for three hours before even wiping their ass in the morning, we assume they’re achieving this through straight-up self-abuse—that there is some insatiable inner demon driving them like a slave to do everything right, no matter what. But this isn’t true. Because, if you actually know anybody like this, you’ll notice something really frightening about them: they actually enjoy it.2 Seeing self-discipline in terms of pure willpower fails because beating ourselves up for not trying hard enough doesn’t work. In fact, it backfires. And, as anyone who has ever tried to go on a diet will tell you, it usually only makes it worse. The problem is that willpower works like a muscle, if you work it too hard, it becomes fatigued and gives out. The first week committing to a new diet, or a new workout regimen, or a new morning routine, things 2
See: Tom Brady.
go great. But by the second or third week, you’re back to your old late-night, cheeto-loving ways. The same way you can’t just walk into a gym for the first time and lift 500 pounds, you can’t just start waking up at 4 AM on a dime, much less do something ridiculous like an Uberman sleep schedule. To have a chance of success, your willpower must be trained steadily over a long period of time. But this leaves us in a conundrum: if we view self-discipline in terms of willpower, it creates a chicken-or-the-egg situation: To build willpower, we need self-discipline over a long period of time; but to have self-discipline, we need massive amounts of willpower. So, which came first? What should we do? How do we start? Or, more importantly, where the fuck is the Ben and Jerry’s? Viewing self-discipline in terms of willpower creates a paradox for the simple reason that it’s not true. As we’ll see, building self-discipline in your own life is a completely different exercise.
WHY PURE WILLPOWER IS BAD Our behaviors are not based on logic or ideas. Logic and ideas can influence our decisions, but ultimately, our feelings determine what we do. We do what feels good and we avoid what feels bad. And the only way we can ever NOT do what feels good, and do what feels bad instead, is through a temporary boost of willpower—to deny ourselves our desires and feelings and instead do what was “right.” Throughout history, virtue was seen in terms of this sort of self-denial and self-negation. To be a good person, you had to not only deny markmanson.net
yourself any pleasure, but you also had to show your willingness to hurt yourself. You had monks hitting themselves and locking themselves in rooms for days and not eating or even speaking for years on end. You had armies of men throwing themselves into battle for little or no reason. You had people abstaining from sex until marriage, or even for life. Shit was not fun. This classical approach is where our assumption that “willpower = self-discipline” originally comes from. It operates on the belief that self-discipline is achieved through denying or rejecting one’s emotions. You want that taco? BAD MARK! YOU DON’T WANT SHIT! YOU ARE SHIT! YOU DESERVE TO STARVE YOU INGRATE!
The root of all evil.
The classical approach fused the concept of willpower—i.e., the ability to deny or reject one’s desires and emotions—with morality. Someone markmanson.net
who can say no to the taco is a good person. The person who can’t is a failure of a human being.
THE CLASSICAL APPROACH TO SELF-DISCIPLINE Self-Discipline = Willpower = Self-Denial = Good Person This fusion of willpower and morality had good intentions. It recognized (correctly) that, when left to our own instinctive desires, we all become narcissistic assholes. If we could get away with it, we would eat, fuck, or kill pretty much anything or anyone within a ten-meter vicinity. So the great religious leaders and philosophers and kings throughout history preached a concept of virtue that involved suppressing our feelings in favor of rationality and denying our impulses in favor of developing willpower. And the classic approach works! …kind of. Well, okay, while it makes a more stable society, it also totally fucks us up individually. The classic approach has the paradoxical effect of training us to feel bad about all the things that make us feel good. It basically seeks to teach us self-discipline through shaming us—by making us hate ourselves for simply being who we are. And the idea is that once we are saddled with a sufficient amount of shame about all the things that give us pleasure, we’ll be so self-loathing and terrified of our own desires that we’ll just fall in line and do what we’re told.
IN CASE YOU DIDN’T KNOW: SHAME FUCKS YOU UP Disciplining people through shame works for a while, but in the long-run, it backfires. As an example, let’s use perhaps the most common source of shame on the planet: sex. markmanson.net
The brain likes sex. That’s because a) sex feels awesome, and b) we’re biologically evolved to crave it. Pretty self-explanatory. Now, if you grew up like most people—and especially if you’re a woman—there’s a good chance that you were taught that sex was this evil, lecherous thing that corrupted you and makes you a horrible, icky person. You were punished for wanting it, and therefore, you have a lot of conflicted feelings around sex: it sounds amazing but is also scary; it feels right but also somehow so, so wrong. As a result, you still want sex, but you also drag around a lot of guilt and anxiety and doubt about yourself. This mixture of feelings generates an unpleasant tension within a person. And as time goes on, that tension grows. Because the desire for sex never goes away. And as the desire continues, the shame grows. Eventually, this tension becomes unbearable and must resolve itself in one of two ways. The first option is to overindulge. The tension has become so great that we feel the only way to resolve it is by going all out in a spectacular way. Hooker orgies. Compulsive masturbation for days on end. Rampant infidelity. And, sadly, often sexual violence. But indulgence doesn’t really resolve the tension. It just kicks the can down the road. Because after you put the cock rings away and the hookers have gone home, the shame and guilt come back. And they come back with a vengeance. So, if indulgence doesn’t work, what about the other option? Well, the only other option to escape that internal tension is to numb it. To distract oneself from the tension by finding some larger, more markmanson.net
palatable tension. Alcohol is a common one. Partying and drugs, of course. Watching 14 hours of television each day can be another option. Or just eating yourself half to death. Sometimes, people do find productive ways to distract themselves from their shame. They run ultra-marathons or work 100-hour work weeks for years on end. These are, ironically, many of the people we come to admire for having god-like willpower. But self-denial comes easy when, deep down, you fucking hate yourself. Because shame can’t be numbed away. It just changes form. The person who exercises religiously to escape their self-loathing will eventually find ways to loathe themselves for their exercise habits. And soon, what started out as a remarkable work ethic in the gym morphs into some form of body dysmorphia, like those guys who inject synthol into their arms to make themselves look like Popeye.
Similarly, the businessman who transmutes his shame into stellar work at the office eventually develops shame about his productivity to the point where he literally can’t go home. He’s terrified to do it. Any non-productive minute feels like an untenable failure. And while the rest of his life falls apart around him, he’s only worrying about spreadsheets and quarterly numbers. This is why the most hardcore, uncompromising people are usually the ones who are most compromised. It’s why the most fundamentalist religious leaders who rail against the immorality of the world are always the same leaders who are ordering fuckboys off Craigslist.3 It’s why the most “spiritually enlightened” gurus are also the ones blackmailing and extorting their followers. It’s why the politicians most vocal about party loyalty and patriotism are always the ones shooting up meth in the airport bathroom. They are running away from their demons. And one way to do that is to create shinier, more socially acceptable demons. Self-discipline based on self-denial cannot be sustained in the long-run. It only breeds greater dysfunction, and ultimately results in self-destruction.
THE TRUTH ABOUT THE CLASSICAL APPROACH Self-Denial = Emotional Dysfunction = Self-Destruction = -(Self-Discipline) Here’s the problem with all this—and it’s so obvious once you hear it, I can’t believe we have to say it. You can will yourself to go to the gym if you don’t feel like it for a few days. But unless the gym ends up feeling
This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with finding fuckboys on Craigslist. It’s the hypocrisy that is the problem. I actually respect Craigslist fuckboys way more than any fundamentalist religious leaders.
good in some way, you will eventually lose motivation, run out of willpower and stop going. You can will yourself to stop drinking for a day or a week, but unless you feel the reward of not drinking, then you will eventually go back to it. This is why my polyphasic sleeping nightmare consistently ended in disaster. Staying up all night and sleep-depriving myself produced no tangible benefits. It produced no good feelings. It produced nothing but misery and delirium. It was an exercise in self-abuse. Therefore, my willpower eventually ran out and my emotions took over, driving me to pass out for about sixteen hours straight. Any emotionally healthy approach to self-discipline must work with your emotions, rather than against them. Ultimately, self-discipline is not based on willpower or self-denial, but it’s actually based on the opposite: self-acceptance.
SELF-DISCIPLINE THROUGH SELF-ACCEPTANCE Let’s say you’re trying to lose weight and your big hang up is that you run through about three liters of ice cream each week. You’re an ice cream fiend. You’ve tried stopping by using willpower. You’ve tried diets with your friends. You’ve told your partner to never ever buy ice cream again in a desperate attempt to blame them for your own shortcomings. But nothing’s worked. Not a day goes by that you don’t down about a thousand calories of creamy goodness. And you hate yourself for it.
And that’s your first problem. Step one to self-discipline is to de-link your personal failings from moral failings. You have to accept that you cave to indulgence and that this doesn’t necessarily make you a horrible person. We all cave to indulgence in some shape or form. We all harbor shame. We all fail to reign in our impulses. And we all like a good fucking bowl of ice cream from time to time. This sort of acceptance is way more complicated than it sounds. We don’t even realize all of the ways that we judge ourselves for our perceived failings. Thoughts are constantly streaming through our heads and without even realizing it, we’re tacking on “because I’m a horrible person” to the end of a lot of them.
● “I fucked up that project at work, because I’m a horrible person…”
● “The whole kitchen is a mess and my parents will be here in 20 minutes, because I’m a horrible person…”
● “Other people are good at this, but I’m not, because I’m a horrible person…”
● “Everyone probably thinks I’m an idiot, because I’m a horrible person…” Hell, you might even be tacking on these self-judgments right now while reading this! Man, I judge myself like this all the time… because I’m a horrible person.
Here’s the thing: there’s a sick sort of comfort that comes from these self-judgments. That’s because they relieve us of the responsibility for our own actions. If I decide that I can’t give up ice cream because I’m a horrible person—that “horrible person-ness” precludes my ability to change or improve in the future—therefore, it’s technically out of my hands, isn’t it? It implies that there’s nothing I can do about my cravings or compulsions, so fuck it, why try? There’s a kind of fear and anxiety that comes when we relinquish our belief in our own horribleness. We actually resist accepting ourselves because the responsibility is scary. Because it suggests that not only are we capable of change in the future (and change is always scary) but that we have perhaps wasted much of our past. And that never feels good either. In fact, another little trap is when people accept that they’re not a horrible person—but then decide that they are a horrible person for not realizing that years ago! But, once we’ve de-coupled our emotions from our moral judgments—once we’ve decided that just because something makes us markmanson.net
feel bad doesn’t mean we are bad—this opens us up to some new perspectives. For one, it suggests that emotions are merely internal behavioral mechanisms that can be manipulated like anything else. Just like putting your floss next to your toothbrush reminds you to floss every morning, once the moral judgments are removed, feeling bad because you relapsed on the cookies and cream can simply be a reminder or motivator to address the underlying issue. We must address the emotional problem the compulsion is trying to numb or cover up. You compulsively eat tubs of ice cream each week. Why? Well, eating—especially sugary, unhealthy food—is a form of numbing. It brings the body comfort. It’s sometimes known as “emotional eating” and the same way an alcoholic drinks to escape her demons, the overeater eats to escape his. So, what are those demons? What is that shame? Find it. Address it. And most importantly: accept it. Find that deep, dark ugly part of yourself. Confront it, head on, allowing yourself to feel all the awful, icky emotions that come with it. Then accept that this is a part of you and it’s never going away. And that’s fine. You can work with this, rather than against it. And here’s where the magic happens. When you stop feeling awful about yourself, two things happen:
1. There’s nothing to numb anymore. Therefore, suddenly those tubs of ice cream seem pointless.
2. You see no reason to punish yourself. On the contrary, you like yourself, so you want to take care of yourself. More importantly, it feels good to take care of yourself. markmanson.net
And, incredibly, that tub of ice cream no longer feels good. It’s no longer scratching some internal itch. Instead, it makes you feel sick and bloated and gross. Similarly, exercising no longer feels like this impossible task that you’ll never be up for. On the contrary, it replenishes and enhances you. And those good feelings start showing up that make it feel effortless. *** You don’t necessarily have to do this deep therapeutic work to gain self-discipline. Simply understanding and accepting your emotions for what they are can allow you to work with them rather than against them. Here’s one way to do this: call up your best friend and tell them to come over. Take out your checkbook. Write a check for $2,000 to them, sign it, and give it to them. Then tell them that if you ever eat ice cream again, they can cash it. Done. Eating ice cream will now cause a much greater emotional problem than the one it solves. And, as if by magic, refraining from eating ice cream will begin to feel really fucking good. Social accountability works in the same way. It’s much easier to meditate for a long time when you’re in a room full of people than it is to do it by yourself. Why? Because when you’re in a room full of people, you don’t want to be the lone asshole who gets up and walks out after three minutes like you do at home! The social pressure makes it so that not meditating causes a bigger emotional problem than meditating for the full amount of time.
You can also do this through positive reinforcement: find ways to reward yourself for doing the correct behavior. Research shows that this is actually how new habits are formed: you do the desired behavior and then reward yourself for it.
RESULT: SELF-DISCIPLINE WITHOUT WILLPOWER Once you resolve much of your shame, and once you’ve created situations to provide greater emotional benefits from doing the desired behavior than not doing it, what you end up with is the appearance of airtight self-discipline, without actually putting forth any effort. You end up with discipline without willpower. You wake up early because it feels good to wake up early. You eat kale instead of smoking crack because it feels good to eat the kale and feels bad to smoke crack. You stop lying because it feels worse to lie than to say an important truth. You exercise because it feels better to exercise than it does to sit around, covering yourself in a thin layer of Cheeto dust. It’s not that the pain goes away. No, the pain is still there. It’s just that the pain now has meaning. It has a purpose. And that makes all the difference. You work with the pain rather than against it. You pursue it rather than run from it. And with every pursuit, you get stronger and healthier and happier. And eventually, from the outside, it will look as though you’re putting forth monumental effort, that you have this endless reservoir of willpower. markmanson.net
Yet, to you, it will feel like nothing at all. You do this by creating rock-solid habits.
PART 2: THE REAL POWER OF HABITS
Let’s pretend for a moment that you have decided that you want to become rich. Maybe you’re sick of your student loan debt. Maybe you’re sick of eating frozen waffles for dinner every night. Maybe you recently became overwhelmingly inspired by your favorite rapper, 50 Cent, and like him, you also want to ‘Get Rich or Die Trying’ …and then go bankrupt a few years later. Whatever the reasoning is, you’ve decided that the new you is going to be a Rolls-Royce-driving, bikini-pool-party throwing, Dom-Perignon-chugging motherfucker. Now, if you approached trying to get rich like most people do, here’s how you would conceptualize it:
● Start out by making $100. ● OK, great, now let’s try to make $1,000. ● Shit, that was hard, but now let’s try to make it $10,000. ● You eventually get there. But now it’s three years later and the mere thought of working until you have $100,000 in the bank makes you want to give up all your possessions and go live in an ashram.
● You say “fuck it” and buy a 60-inch flat screen TV. Ahh, that feels better.
● Dreams of a bikini parties on your yacht evaporate. Along with most of your savings.
That’s how most people try to do it. And if you haven’t noticed, most people aren’t rich. In fact, most people are quite the opposite. This is not a coincidence. In case you haven’t read a few books on wealth accumulation, this is how people who actually get rich do it (and not end up in bankruptcy court like good ol’ Fitty Cent):
● Start out making $100. ● Invest that $100 in skills/training/assets that will eventually net you $1,000.
● Invest that $1000 in skills/training/assets that will eventually net you $10,000.
● Invest that $10,000 in skills/training/assets that will eventually net you $100,000.
● Invest that $100,000 until you’re balling on your yacht like a Russian mobster. These are the two mindsets of building wealth. People who stay poor or middle class see money as something to be spent. People who become rich see money as something to be invested.
Get rich or die trying? Looks like you’re going to die trying.
You can call it the “spending mindset” versus the “investing mindset.” One gets you rich and one keeps you treading water, always fighting to keep your face above the surface.4 So why am I going over all of this? Because it applies to creating habits and achieving goals in life as well. In fact, it’s the exact same concept.
GOALS VS HABITS Let’s examine a common goal people have: “I want to lose 20 lbs and look sexy for summer.” I think almost everyone has had a similar resolution at some point. In most cases, you recover from your New Year’s Eve binge on January 4
If you want this concept explained to you like you’re five years old, check out the popular book, Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki.
1st, sign up for the gym on January 2nd, force yourself to go 5-6 times over the ensuing months mostly out of guilt because you spent so much damn money and you feel like you should use it. But you have no idea what you’re doing. And my god, look at all of the skinny sweaty people here. Wow, I feel so lazy just watching them. Can this treadmill go any slower? I’m tired. I want a burger. Or maybe ice cream. Or maybe an ice cream burger.
The real reason you go to the gym: so you can eat a burger made out of ice cream.
Aaaaaaaand it’s February 1st and you’re back to body-melding yourself into the fabric of your sofa, watching awful Maury Povich reruns, and wondering how is it that all of your clothes seem to be shrinking at the same time. Yes. The struggle is real. markmanson.net
The problems with the conventional pursuit of goals in life (i.e., new year’s resolutions) are well-documented at this point: ● People tend to rely too much on willpower and eschew forming useful habits. ● People tend to bite off more than they can chew, so to speak, setting goals that are far above their ability or knowledge level and then becoming frustrated when they make little to no progress towards them. ● People are tempted to take “shortcuts” to achieve a goal that may actually sabotage themselves in the long-run, like starving yourself to lose weight, or cheating to get a good grade on a test.5 That’s all true. But I’m here to suggest something else: “Lose 20 lbs by summer” is a shitty goal to begin with. That’s because it’s borne from the same spending mindset that keeps people broke—or in this case, keeps them overweight. They view life in the overly-simplistic terms of “Do a lot of X, eventually get Y.” Just like forcing yourself to work and save for 20 years is unlikely to get you rich, forcing yourself to go to the gym dozens of times is unlikely to make you lose much weight and keep it off. Goals like this require an intense amount of effort, yet they never seem to “stick.” Eventually, your energy and discipline run out and you fall right back to the same person you were, except now you feel defeated. That’s because it’s better to invest your limited focus and energy on building habits rather than specific goals. Just like you want to take the money you earn and put it to work for you, you want to take the 5
Ordóñez, L. D., Schweitzer, M. E., Galinsky, A. D., & Bazerman, M. H. (2009). Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Overprescribing Goal Setting. The Academy of Management Perspectives, 23(1), 6–16.
effort you expend in changing yourself and put it to work changing you as well. People usually don’t focus on habits because goals sound much sexier in our minds. They feel more motivating in the moment when we think about them. There’s a clear image of a certain result in our head and that gets us excited. Habits, on the other hand, don’t sound as sexy in our heads. They’re long-term and repetitive, which makes them seem boring. And there’s no clear image one can imagine for “going to the gym every morning for a year” or “only drinking alcohol on weekends.” You don’t get this rush of inspiration imagining yourself eating salad for lunch every day. You don’t lay in bed at night fantasizing about flossing every morning. Goals are a one-time bargain. They are the spending mindset. “I will spend X amount of energy to receive Y reward.” Habits are an investing mindset. Habits require one to invest one’s efforts for a little while and then take the rewards of that effort and re-invest them in a greater effort to form even better habits. This is why so many people who lose weight end up gaining it back (and then some). They focus on singular goals in life rather than developing underlying habits. So when their energy and discipline runs out (and it always does because willpower, as we’ve seen, is limited) they balloon back to their original selves. With habits, on the other hand, there’s no single endpoint that must be reached. The only goal of habits is that the goal is never over, it’s a simple daily or weekly repetition that one does until muscle memory and brain chemistry kick in and you’re now performing the desired markmanson.net
action on autopilot. With goals, every day you go back to the gym feels harder. With habits, after a while, it feels harder to not go to the gym than it does to go. Therefore, it is a better investment of one’s finite energy and discipline to focus on building habits. It’s fine to still have goals. Hell, I’d like to lose 20 lbs by summer. But that’s not what my mind will focus on this year. Instead, I will look at the habits that underlie that goal, that would make that goal an inevitability—eating better, walking more often instead of taking an Uber, developing a workout plan—and then focus on those. The weight loss then naturally occurs as a side effect.
HOW HABITS WORK
Habits form when you engage in a behavior repeatedly in the presence of consistent stimuli. That last part is important. Habits are “automatic” responses to familiar environmental cues. You save mental energy by developing habitual responses to familiar cues, situations, and even people that you encounter on a regular basis. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg summarizes a lot of research on how habits are formed and maintained and how they can be broken. Countless studies have shown that habits are comprised of three main parts: an environmental cue, a behavioral response, and a reward (or the removal of an unpleasant stimulus). CUE → BEHAVIOR → REWARD For example, if you’re a smoker, your cravings are typically triggered by a cue that you associate with smoking. For instance, finishing a big meal, drinking a beer, or seeing someone smoking a cigarette on TV. This cue then triggers your desire to perform the habituated behavior. Then you smoke, and your brain rewards you – you feel more relaxed, calmer (and of course, the nicotine helps as well). Habit researchers have found that in order to create new habits (or break old habits), we should NOT focus on the behavior but rather focus on the cue.6 We spend so much time and effort on creating or eliminating the behavior itself, when instead we should really be dedicating our
Verplanken, B., & Melkevik, O. (2008). Predicting habit: The case of physical exercise. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9(1), 15–26.
willpower to consciously create and/or reorganizing the cues in our environment that trigger those habits. So, for example, let’s say you want to start working out on a regular basis. Instead of just focusing on developing the habit of “working out,” focus on developing a routine around initiating a workout. This may just seem like a subtle difference, but it’s actually huge. An easy way to do this is to choose a cue that already occurs regularly in your daily life, such as getting home from work. Then, during the early stages of developing your workout habit, focus your effort on going straight to your room after you get home and changing into your workout clothes. Then go fill up your water bottle and head straight to the gym or hit the running trail or whatever. You want to develop the habit of putting yourself in the position to work out regularly, which makes it more likely that you’ll work out regularly. After a while, you’ll start to notice that when you get home from work (environmental cue/trigger), it takes little to no effort to go to your room, throw on your workout clothes, and head to the gym (habitual response). You’ll even start to look forward to it, and maybe even feel like something in your life is off when you don’t work out. And that’s the power of habit. The “reward” component of the habit equation above is used to reinforce your target behavior after you’ve successfully completed it. With our exercise example, you might get done working out and treat yourself to a (healthy) snack or maybe schedule a post-workout rest session by watching an episode of your favorite TV show. Some people derive enough reward from the exercise itself (e.g., “runner’s high”), which acts as powerful reinforcement for their habit. markmanson.net
Whatever you do, be sure to incorporate a healthy reward into your habit routine. HOW TO MAKE A HABIT STICK
Many people start out with good intentions and a strong desire to develop healthy habits only to slip back into their old, bad-habit ways. Studies have identified several factors that contribute to forming and keeping a lifestyle with healthy habits. One of those factors is relatively straightforward: just knowing the basics about how habits are formed and how they work can significantly increase your chances of forming and keeping healthy habits (and maybe even get rid of a few bad habits).7 So, educating yourself by reading something like this gives you a leg up on establishing healthy habits in your life. You’re already on your way. Another big factor is how you perceive the habit you want to build. If the habit seems impossible, then it will feel harder. If it seems easier, then it will be easier. That sounds stupid, but it has serious consequences. For example, if you want to lose weight and you decide that you want to do it by working out for 90 minutes per day, six days per week, that is going to feel like a gigantic and daunting task. Because it feels gigantic and daunting, you’re far more likely to give up. Whereas if you decide to lose weight by walking for 20 minutes after dinner each night (note: the dinner is your cue), then it feels very easy to accomplish, and therefore it is. 7
Lally, P., Chipperfield, A., & Wardle, J. (2008). Healthy habits: efficacy of simple advice on weight control based on a habit-formation model. International Journal of Obesity, 32(4), 700–707.
The beautiful thing is that once you’ve adopted the “easy mode” version of your desired habit, you can always amp it up afterward. For example, if you walk for 20 minutes after dinner each night for a month, then it won’t sound so bad when you decide, “Hey, I’ll walk for 45 minutes now.” Then you can try out a little bit of running. Then you can add calisthenics and plyometrics, and before you know it, you’re working out for 90 minutes per day, six days per week. The key is to start small. Set the bar low. Seriously. If you suffer from chronic low self-efficacy and low self-esteem, you have to start where you are.
Don’t expect the quantum leap, at least not at first. I know someone who lost a lot of weight (almost 80 lbs) over a 2-year period. He was running marathons by the time he was in shape, but you know how he markmanson.net
started out? Four minutes a day on the exercise bike. That’s all he could do at first, but he did it every single day and increased his workout as he lost more weight and gained more confidence. Once he knew he could do a few minutes on the bike, he figured he could do a few more, then he figured he could go for a run, then he believed he could run competitively, then he set a goal to run a marathon and did it. He didn’t say, “OK, I’m ridiculously overweight so I should run a marathon.” He instead started where he was, which was in his basement on an exercise bike for four minutes a day. This kept him engaged and he didn’t feel too overwhelmed while he was working to create a healthier lifestyle. Another strategy that increases the chances of a making a habit stick is having a plan for when things go wrong—and they will go wrong at some point.8 For example, let’s say you’ve decided your diet really sucks and want to eat healthier. Good for you. Now, if you’re like most people (including me), you know it’s hard to eat a healthy diet consistently. We’ve already partly discussed why this is: when your willpower is drained, you cave to temptation pretty easily. So you know ahead of time that you will be faced with temptations and that it’s highly likely you’ll give in to said temptations from time to time. Simply making a plan ahead of time to head off these temptations will greatly increase the likelihood that you do just that. In this case, I’d recommend allowing yourself a “cheat day” for one or
Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54(7), 493.
two meals a week where you get to pig out on some not-so-healthy food. On your non-cheat days, when you’re tempted with unhealthy food, make a conscious effort to remind yourself that you’ll get to indulge yourself soon enough and think about how proud you’ll be of yourself for practicing a little self-discipline. This strategy has a one-two punch: you get to regularly replenish your willpower while building your healthy eating habit (by having a cheat day) and you can more easily deal with temptation along the way (by having a plan ahead of time). You might need to change your strategies as you learn more about the way you react to various hurdles and temptations that arise. But the point is to anticipate the problems you’re likely to run into and have a plan to deal with them ahead of time. You know yourself better than anyone else, so be honest, set realistic expectations, and find a way that works for you. A couple of other things to keep in mind: ● While consistency is key, research has shown that missing one or a handful of opportunities to practice a desired habit will not ruin your chances at establishing that habit in the long run. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a workout session or you pig out one night on pizza and ice cream. Acknowledge it as just part of the process and get back to your routine as soon as you can. ● People don’t develop and acquire habits at the same rate; everyone is different. There are a lot of products and advice out there that promise a goal within a definitive time frame: 60 Days to Rock-Hard Abs; Read 7 Times Faster in 2 Weeks; Retire 6 Months from Today… it’s all bullshit. Set goals for yourself and markmanson.net
know your limitations and weaknesses; then work to eliminate them at your own pace.
THE ART OF COMPOUNDING HABITS Of course, some habits are better than other habits because some habits, once acquired, make other positive habits much easier to acquire as well. For instance, quitting smoking is hard. But some data suggests that taking up some form of exercise such as jogging or biking can make it easier for someone to quit (probably because they’re hacking up a lung the whole time). These are sometimes referred to as “keystone habits.”9 They are habits that, once adopted, will reverberate into other areas of your life, which makes acquiring other desirable habits more natural and require less effort. Unfortunately, researchers haven’t been so great at saying exactly which habits give the best returns and so you see a lot of moronic articles out there citing things like “make your bed every day” or “just have more willpower!” because they, like, heard this guy say it once and it sounded smart. I like to think of keystone habits as “compounding habits” because, much like compounding returns on an investment, over a long enough period of time, they can increase the richness of your life exponentially. Goals, by themselves, generate linear growth and change. Habits are capable of generating exponential growth and change.
Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Random House
And in case you were bad at math, here’s a quick example of the difference between linear gains and exponential gains over the long-run:
Notice the blue line doesn’t just increase faster, but the rate at which it increases is also increasing.
To keep the financial analogy going—because fuck you, personal finance is life/death important—you could say that different habits
have higher or lower interest rates, therefore making some habits far better initial investments of your energy and discipline than others. For example, aside from being fun, getting really good at a computer game like Starcraft has a really poor rate of return on quality of life per time and energy spent. Other than maybe developing some basic problem-solving skills and learning how to verbally abuse anonymous teenage boys on the internet, the habits gained will fail to translate over to improving other areas of your life. In fact, dedicating the time and energy to getting good at Starcraft is more likely to harm other areas of your life. You’ll be sitting all day, getting fat and lazy, not to mention it turns your love life into a nuclear wasteland.10 On the other hand, a habit like lifting weights has an extremely high rate of return. Getting stronger will make you more fit, give you more energy, increase your focus and mental performance, reduce the effects of aging, raise your metabolism and help your body process food better, and so on. Ironically, lifting weights would probably make you a better Starcraft player, whereas the opposite is definitely not true. That’s because lifting weights is a highly compounding habit. Its benefits reverberate out across other areas of your life, making many other positive habits and skills easier to acquire. Therefore, when setting out to drastically change your life, some form of exercise like lifting weights is likely to be one of the most efficient places to start.11
Trust me, I spent most of my teenage years trying. That goes for you too ladies. You’ll burn more fat and get far more toned than by doing cardio alone.
SETTING NEW MONTH’S RESOLUTIONS Another reason why typical New Year’s Resolutions suck is because of the time horizon. If I say something like, “I want to write another book this year,” it becomes that much easier for me to put off starting the goal until June, July, or whenever, at which point it becomes almost entirely unfeasible.12 Research shows that habits only need about 30 days of consistent effort to install themselves into our brains.13 At that point they begin to become automatic. So screw New Year’s resolutions. I say adopt new month’s resolutions, or as they’re more commonly known, 30-day challenges. Pick a habit you want to adopt and then do it every day for 30 days. It’s just 30 days. Anybody can do something for 30 days. Once you do it, it should begin to feel automatic and you can then start adding more depth or knowledge to work into the habit, or you can move on to another habit (more on this below).
THE SIX FUNDAMENTAL DAILY HABITS Hopefully by now, you’re starting to see the matrix. And you’re starting to understand why you’ve failed to achieve so many goals you’ve set for yourself in the past. Setting a goal like, “I want to lose 20 lbs for my wedding” or “I want to get a promotion this year,” and then forcing yourself to just do a bunch of shit until it happens is akin to saying, “I want a million dollars,” and 12
It’s probably no coincidence that November is the designated ‘Write a Novel Month’. So apparently this research is up for debate. There are some studies showing that it can take as long as 60 or 80 days to “install” a habit. Either way, the principle is the same. One day at a time. One action at a time. 13
then deciding to work 120 hour work weeks until you get there. It is almost certainly going to make you miserable and burn you out. And even if you do get there, like a person who wins the lottery and immediately spends it all, you’re guaranteed to lose it soon after. The correct way to make a million dollars, as we discussed, is to start small and then intelligently re-invest what you’ve earned, so stop trying to scale linearly and instead scale exponentially. We’ve also seen that some habits scale more exponentially than others—i.e., some habits provide higher rates of return because they provide benefits that then make adopting subsequent habits easier. Therefore, it makes sense to use your energy to develop habits with the highest rate of return first, and then move on to other desired habits later. So what are the life habits that give you the best bang for your psychological buck? After a lot of research and thought, I’ve come up with the six fundamental habits below. These are the habits I believe to be the most effective use of your limited time, energy, and discipline when starting out. Some will probably be obvious to you (we’ve already discussed one). Some will not. A couple may even surprise you. 1. EXERCISE
Benefits: If you don’t know the benefits of regular exercise by now, you must be living under a very large and very old rock. Aside from making you look super sexy and preventing obesity, exercise greatly reduces the risk of a bunch of things that can kill you:
heart disease, stroke, and a smattering of various types of cancer.14 It also improves your mood, gives you more energy, improves the quality of your sleep, your sex life, and some evidence indicates it even improves concentration and learning.15
Uh, I think you’re doing it wrong.
Adoption Strategy: The crazy thing about exercise is that just about everyone overestimates the amount of effort required to get results. They assume that you have to join a fancy gym, spend a ton of money
Warburton, D. E. R., Nicol, C. W., & Bredin, S. S. D. (2006). Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 174(6), 801–809. 15 Guiney, H., & Machado, L. (2013). Benefits of regular aerobic exercise for executive functioning in healthy populations. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 20(1), 73–86.
on a fancy pants personal trainer, and do a bunch of fancy exercises with odd looking rubber balls and mats. But according to the science, exercise is an 80/20 deal—ie., 80% of the benefits result from 20% of the effort. Something as simple as brisk walking 30 minutes per day has been shown to give vast health improvements and trigger weight loss.16 Therefore, if you’re starting an exercise habit from scratch (and if you’re really out of shape), start simple. Worry about the reverse piledriver crunches with your ripped personal trainer named Vlad later. A good friend of mine is really into bodybuilding and, as you can imagine, is ripping out of his muscles. One thing he told me last year that struck me was that one of the best things he did was deciding to just exercise every day, no matter what. Obviously, he’d prefer to hit the gym and get a big, structured workout in. But on days where he wasn’t feeling well, or when he was traveling for work, he still made a point to get some basic exercise in. Even if it was just push-ups on the floor or a quick jog up a flight of stairs a dozen times. The goal here is to just always show up. Worry about perfection later.
Rosenkilde, M. (2012) Body fat loss and compensatory mechanisms in response to different doses of aerobic exercise–a randomized controlled trial in overweight sedentary males. American Journal of Physiology.
So start simple. Challenge yourself to do some really basic exercises each day. Do it for 30 days. Then after the habit is instilled in you, worry about constructing a super sexy workout routine. Even if it’s just walking or doing some body weight exercises in your bedroom. Do a little every day. 2. COOKING
Benefits: This may strike you as a weird one to put down as a fundamental habit. But at this point, I’ve seen the positive effects of undertaking this habit in too many of my friends’ lives to not take it seriously. The benefits aren’t as obvious as exercise because most of the benefits don’t come from the act of cooking itself, rather they come from the ability to control exactly what and how much you eat. markmanson.net
The fact is, most people don’t eat well. Or at least, they develop some terrible food habits because they’re not capable of controlling what and when they eat. They either have such little time or little knowledge that they just settle for whatever is quick and easy, usually junk food. Eating well, much like exercise, sweeps the board in terms of health and lifestyle benefits: better energy, better cardiovascular health, lower risk of obesity, diabetes, various cancers, heart disease and other bad things that kill you,17 more energy, more focus, better moods (goodbye sugar highs and crashes), better sleep and sex life.18 The benefits are even more pronounced in kids.19 You can get the same general life gains from eating well as you would from exercising, but on top of that, being a bitching cook can open up cool social opportunities, a greater appreciation for fine food and/or wine, and saving a lot of money by not eating out all the time. Adoption Strategy: This is my Achilles Heel and is my big habit-building project. To be frank, my relationship with food, for as long as I can remember, has been shitty and toxic. I’ve shown my food a lot of love, but the love has been based on superficial pleasures and compulsion, not on a genuine desire for building something healthy together. For most of my life, I was able to compensate for it through a high metabolism and constant exercise. It was enough to keep me thin and energetic despite all of my trashy habits. 17
Amine, E., Baba, N., Belhadj, M., Deurenbery-Yap, M., Djazayery, A., Forrester, T., et al. (2002). Diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases: report of a Joint WHO/FAO Expert Consultation. World Health Organization. 18 Rogers, P. J. (2001). A healthy body, a healthy mind: long-term impact of diet on mood and cognitive function. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 60(01), 135–143. 19 Bellisle, F. (2004). Effects of diet on behaviour and cognition in children. British Journal of Nutrition, 92(S2), S227–S232.
But as they say, life caught up with me. Aside from just getting older, a number of major life events hit me all in succession, only to be followed by a series of minor and unexpected health problems. In other words, after what turned out to be a pretty stressful and tumultuous year, my shitty eating habits reared their ugly head. I soon found myself sorely out of shape for the first time in years and the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life. For someone who has lived on his own for 13 years, it’s kind of amazing that I still can’t even cook myself an egg. I’ve essentially lived off of snacks, take-out, and restaurants for the past decade. The problem with snacks and take-out is an obvious one: you’re essentially trading in nutrition for expediency. The food is quick, easy, and tasty, and so if you must give up some of your health for that, so be it. This strategy works well when you’re in your 20s and staying up all night coding websites. But as a lifelong habit, it’s a slow and gradual death that plays itself out in years and decades. And restaurants? Well, let’s just say that even the restaurants that serve healthy food aren’t very healthy. A restaurant’s primary interest is giving you an enjoyable experience and a sense that you got your money’s worth, not making sure you don’t die of a heart attack. So even though you don’t see it there, heaps of salt, sugar, and other crap are almost always on the menu. (Oh, and there’s a 2-for-1 dessert! Can’t pass that up.) Gradually, I came to the inevitable conclusion that the glaring hole in my lifestyle at the moment is food and my complete inability to control where and how I get it. I then realized that unless I want to eat at the markmanson.net
same 1-2 organic restaurants every single day for the next year (and spend half of what I earn in a year to do so), my only other option is to learn to cook. I’ve decided to start by learning a few basics—how to make a couple salads, how to grill chicken (no, seriously), how to make a couple eggs for breakfast—then I’ll make it a goal to cook myself at least one meal a day for 30 days in a row. Once I’ve done that, then I’ll worry about more complicated recipes and how to prepare more types of foods.
So there are some green leafy things, and these pepper-type things and then some meat-looking stuff that’s cooked in a thing with heat under it—am I getting this right?
Another focus will be not only finding healthy recipes that I enjoy eating, but that I enjoy making. My little experience from cooking in the past has been miserable. Probably because I was trying to cook stuff I had no business trying to cook and had no idea what I was markmanson.net
doing. This time, I will start simple, and gradually work my way up in a way that’s both enjoyable and satisfying. 3. MEDITATION
Benefits: The benefits of meditation are famous and numerous (I’ve previously discussed them here). But the short answer is this: increased focus,20 improved self-awareness,21 reduction of stress and anxiety,22 improved sleep,23 greater emotional stability,24 makes you more empathetic of others,25 and can even be used as a form of therapy for a variety of mental or emotional disorders.26 Adoption Strategy: No secret here, start with a daily small practice. Even as little as one minute per day can show benefits. I recently discovered Headspace, the app that gently guides people into a meditation practice if you want to take a stab at learning on your own. Another good one is Calm. But truth be told, despite what you would think, it’s incredibly hard to sit on a pillow and think about nothing for more than a few seconds. You get bored and fidgety, and if you’re by yourself it’s incredibly hard to get yourself to stay there for more than a few minutes. Therefore, I 20
Zeidan, F., Johnson, S. K., Diamond, B. J., David, Z., & Goolkasian, P. (2010). Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition, 19(2), 597–605. 21 Farb, N. A. S., Segal, Z. V., Mayberg, H., Bean, J., McKeon, D., Fatima, Z., & Anderson, A. K. (2007). Attending to the present: mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2(4), 313–322. 22 Morone, N. E., Lynch, C. P., Iii, V. J. L., Liebe, K., & Greco, C. M. (2012). Mindfulness to Reduce Psychosocial Stress. Mindfulness, 3(1), 22–29. 23 Nagendra, R. P., Maruthai, N., & Kutty, B. M. (2012). Meditation and Its Regulatory Role on Sleep. Frontiers in Neurology, 3. 24 Chambers, R., Gullone, E., & Allen, N. B. (2009). Mindful emotion regulation: An integrative review. Clinical Psychology Review, 29(6), 560–572. 25 Mascaro, J. S., Rilling, J. K., Negi, L. T., & Raison, C. L. (2013). Compassion meditation enhances empathic accuracy and related neural activity. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8(1), 48–55. 26 Chen, K. W., Berger, C. C., Manheimer, E., Forde, D., Magidson, J., Dachman, L., & Lejuez, C. W. (2012). Meditative Therapies for Reducing Anxiety: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Depression and Anxiety, 29(7), 545–562.
often recommend people find a local group or class. There are often free ones in major cities. It’s also a nice way to meet people. Then, once you get the hang of it, try it on your own. Start with one minute per day and slowly work up. Do it for 30 days until you have a regular practice going. 4. READING
Benefits: If you’re still reading this and don’t want to stab a spoon into your eyes, then that means you probably already enjoy reading. Which means I probably don’t have to tell you that reading is fucking magical. It’s the only thing in the world that allows you to come and live inside my brain for a little while, see what it sees, feel what it feels, and then leave again. Some historians believe that the written word, and the ability for people to read the written word (i.e., literacy) is essentially the basis for civilization.27 Without the ability to feel and see each other’s thoughts (or feel and see the thoughts and feelings of people from generations past), we would have no sense of cultural identity, and far less empathy. And many studies suggest that people who read regularly are far more empathetic. They care about other people more. They relate and respond to others better.28 People who read regularly are also just smarter, better informed, and more knowledgeable about the world. This is why when Warren Buffett was once asked the best thing for young people to invest in for their future, he replied with “knowledge.” He said that money comes and goes, people come and go, but what 27
See Chapter 3 in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker and Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber for more discussion on this idea. 28 Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. Science, 342(6156), 377–380.
you know never leaves you. He said that even in his 80s, he was earning returns on knowledge and information he picked up in his 20s. Adoption Strategy: The biggest problem I think people have with developing a reading habit is that they try to read what they think they should be reading rather than what they actually enjoy reading. If you like teen murder mysteries even though you’re a 45-year-old single mother, read teen murder mysteries. If you like books about zombies, read books about zombies. When developing a reading habit, start with what seems easy and exciting to you, then slowly branch out. Here’s another reading tip: if you aren’t enjoying a book, stop reading it. I meet so many people who hate a book they’re reading, yet they begrudgingly drag themselves back to it over and over again because they feel bad if they don’t finish. They feel guilty or are afraid it means they’re stupid. Sometimes they say that because they’ve read this far, they might as well finish the whole thing.29 This is entirely irrational and crazy. You wouldn’t keep watching a TV show you don’t like. You wouldn’t eat an entire plate of food you don’t like. So why the hell are you trying to read a book you don’t like? My rule of thumb is when I start reading a book, I force myself to read either the first 10% or the first chapter (whatever comes first) and if I don’t like it by the end of that, then I put it down and move on to the next book.
In gambling, this behavior is known as the sunk cost fallacy.
Benefits: Whether it’s emails or journaling or writing fiction or posting a political rant on Facebook, writing well is fast becoming one of the most important life skills in the 21st century. So much of your life today is spent in front of a screen and through social media, email and messaging apps, so if you can’t communicate well through writing, you’re putting yourself at a monstrous disadvantage. If reading allows you to inhabit other people’s minds for a brief period of time, learning to write well is like cleaning your house before the guests come over—it forces you to learn how to structure your thoughts more coherently, string together rational arguments, and tell stories in cogent and insightful ways. But not only that, it makes you a better and more insightful thinker. As Flannery O’Connor said, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” It’s also therapeutic. In fact, of all of the hokey pokey woo-woo self-help practices, journaling and writing out one’s thoughts and feelings on a regular basis has been shown to have calming and therapeutic effects.30 Adoption Strategy: Easiest way here is to start a journal. There are some cool apps to journal on your computer. Or you can do it the old-fashioned way, by hand.31
Ullrich, P. M., & Lutgendorf, S. K. (2002). Journaling about stressful events: Effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 24(3), 244–250. 31 There is some evidence that writing things out by hand is better for you and helps you learn quicker. But that’s so 20th century.
Hey, remember pen and paper?
The important thing here is to not limit yourself. Use writing as a tool of self-discovery; write your feelings, ideas, fantasies. And if you feel like going on a tangent about calculus problems that stumped you, do that too. If you get ballsy, you can even start a blog at a site like WordPress or Medium and go public with your ideas. The point here is to develop a consistent habit of 1) uninhibited self-expression and 2) practice formulating your thoughts in a highly coherent way so that others may understand them. Start with 30 days. As usual, don’t judge yourself. At first, make simply showing up the only requirement for success.
Benefits: I know what you’re thinking, “Seriously, Mark? Socializing?” I know, I know. It sounds painfully obvious—like one of those space fillers you see in top 10 lists in bad Huffington Post articles. But having friends is fucking serious, guys. No really, stop laughing. I’m serious here. Listen up. I think many of us, if we slow down long enough to take a look at ourselves, don’t give our relationships the time or attention necessary to keep them healthy and happy. You see, it turns out loneliness is kind of a thing. It’s growing at an alarming rate in the US, particularly among older people. And new research is discovering that being alone can be just as bad for your physical health as obesity or heavy smoking.32 It also makes you miserable and far more susceptible to depression.33 So yeah, in our “hyper-connected” world, more and more people are finding it harder to take the time to simply be with somebody else for a while. And that wears on us. This hit me this past year. After living nomadically for many years, I returned to the United States to live there for the first time since 2010. And much to my chagrin, I realized that almost all of my old friends had either a) fallen out of contact with one another, or b) moved to completely separate corners of the country. Throw on top of that being on deadline to finish a book (which, shall we say, put a dent in my ability to leave the house) and my social life 32
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality A Meta-Analytic Review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227–237. 33 Huang, C. (2010). Internet Use and Psychological Well-being: A Meta-Analysis. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 13(3), 241–249.
took a very real and uncomfortable punch to the gut this past year. Much like my health issues, it was a problem that I was not accustomed to dealing with and so it hit me unexpectedly. Adoption Strategy: Fortunately, I found this much easier to handle. In the fall, I made a simple decision. I decided that I would start doing something so simple and obvious that I kind of felt dumb for not already doing: I would make a point to talk to a different friend every single day. Whether it be on Facebook or Skype or in person or on the phone, I’d make a point to chat with someone different every day. Now, I don’t mean just bullshitty Facebook chatter. I mean genuine, “Hey man, what’s been going on with you lately? How have things been?” followed by a couple, “Oh, that’s cool, tell me about that,” and finally finished off with a, “We should get together soon, what are you doing next week?” for good measure. It would take maybe 15-20 minutes at most. And it was surprising how easy it was to reconnect with many people. Most of the time it was touching base with some friends who I had kind of lost touch with. Other times it was reaching out and taking a chance with getting to know someone whom I barely knew. Other times it was going out and meeting somebody new, maybe at a party or a conference or being introduced through a friend. And amazingly, that was enough. That’s really all it took. One person a day. Like a computer rebooting, my social life whirred back to life. And I became much happier for it.
SOME CLOSING THOUGHTS There seems to be a bias in the human circuitry that underestimates what it takes to accomplish really big goals in life and overestimates the effort required to take on a series of small goals. In my experience, it’s the regular heartbeat of pursuing and nailing small win after small win that eventually leads to the big ones. In fact, I’ve often found that becoming so intent on the small simple daily victories often causes one to not even realize one of the big goals has occurred until it’s already passed you by. This, too, is a habit. And I would argue it’s an incredibly compounding one at that. The six fundamental habits above provide a nice foundation for a healthy life in all domains: physically, emotionally, psychologically and socially. They overlap and buttress one another. And amazingly, they’re all actually quite simple to achieve, requiring far less initial effort than most people realize. If you’ve enjoyed this post and would like to learn more about the nuts and bolts of adopting habits, how to get started and motivate yourself for change, please consider putting your email in the box below. It’s a free PDF on Habit building and the science of self-discipline. It can hopefully help you make this year a great year. And if you’re really serious about getting your life together, check out my course on building a better life. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a salad I need to make.
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