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Finding the Perfect Attitude for Willpower, Part II

States of mind

In the first post in this series, I brought up the question of a perfect approach to willpower, some kind of zone we could get into that would make us automatically able to make the good choices we want for ourselves–exercising more, dealing better with people, eating healthier, working harder, stopping dangerous behaviors, or anything else. Lately I’ve gotten a glimpse of a frame of mind that is something like that zone, a frame of mind that has been making willpower much, much easier for me. Unfortunately, it’s not a single, simple change–but the pieces of it are ones we can master. Here are the ones I’ve been able to puzzle them out so far, and though I’m talking mainly about weight loss, the principles are the same for any other willpower challenge.

1. Resignation
This might seem like an odd thing to emphasize, but it’s become clear to me recently just how essential resignation is. Resignation is saying “OK, so this will be painful or inconvenient or unpleasant sometimes. I can deal with that.” Resignation is saying “I’ll embrace hunger, or loneliness, or whatever the challenge is for me, and find out what there is in it I can enjoy.”

Ineffective fad diets often claim they can help you lose weight without going hungry, or while still eating foods you love. It’s not impossible to lose weight without going hungry very much, or while eating foods you love, but it’s much easier if you’re willing to eat food you find boring, dull, and insufficient. If that sounds joyless, consider: what’s the best source of joy anyway? Yes, it can occasionally be delightful to eat a doughnut, but more often it’s just vaguely pleasant and we don’t pay that much attention anyway. Feeling successful, healthy, strong, and capable, however, pays off in joy consistently.

2. Going toward, not running away from
To eat well, it’s much easier to focus on getting healthy food than on avoiding unhealthy food. To quit smoking, it’s much more motivating to focus on how many non-smoking days one has had so far than on missing smoke breaks.  The more we think about things, the more our brains automatically configure themselves to be ready to do those things. If we spend a lot of time thinking about activities we’re trying to stop or do less of, it will make it harder to avoid them. Instead, we can focus on things that carry us forward.

3. Consistency and commitment
I don’t know how much this is my particular personality and how much this is true for most people, but it’s far easier for me to stop doing something I’m used to than to do just a little of it. For example, in 1985, concerned about environmental impact and mistreatment of livestock, I stopped eating meat, seafood, and poultry. I continued as an ovo-lacto vegetarian for more than 20 years, at which point I found that there were health issues for with my diet as it was (notably, it turns out that I’m allergic to soy and needed to reduce cholesterol consumption), and I added seafood and poultry back in. Vegetarianism was sometimes inconvenient, but it was never difficult. Similarly, I go years at a time without having any caffeine–coffee, chocolate, most sodas, etc.–because my body doesn’t handle caffeine well. That hasn’t been hard either.

By contrast, it can be very hard for us when we try to ration unhealthy foods or TV watching or Internet usage. Rationing seems to encourage us to think more about the things we’re trying to minimize, which as I’ve mentioned causes trouble. So the most successful attitude toward healthy eating for me has turned out to be “I’ll try to make healthy food choices every time.” Yes, there will be situations where I don’t have many good choices, and there may even be situations where I choose something less healthy because that’s the choice that makes sense to me at the time, but my practice now is to stop myself before any “recreational” eating choice and see if I can’t find a perspective that makes me happy to skip it. Not that this is always easy: more on that below.

4. Awareness
In order for me to make good choices, I have to realize it when one of those choices is in front of me. If I have four pieces of pizza in my belly before I remember to think about what I’m eating, then it’s already too late. Accordingly, the first thing I practice is being aware of making a choice. The second thing I practice is being willing to think about my motivations for making good choices. It shocks me how often I’ll realize I’m in a situation where I need to make a good choice and my first inclination is to not think about it. When I get past that and focus my attention on what I’m trying to achieve in my life, it becomes much easier to make the good choices. It’s when I don’t notice the opportunity or do notice but don’t allow myself to think about it that I run into problems.

5. Knowledge
I should say that any positive change needs to be founded on real knowledge. Meaningful facts–whether it’s calorie counts for eating well, knowing that people who have tried to quit smoking before are more likely to succeed when they try again, knowing what markets are available for the novel you’re working on, or really understanding the question of cardio versus strength training–facilitate reaching our goals, while lack of information gets in our way. For instance, if I try to lose weight but don’t realize that some of my “diet foods” are high in calories, I’m very likely to give up, because I’ll see I’m not making any progress.

So those are the pieces–at least, the ones I recognize so far. In the third post in this series, I’ll talk about how these pieces fit together and what it feels like to be fully engaged in changing a habit for the better.

Photo by sean dreilinger

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Finding the Perfect Attitude for Willpower: Part I

States of mind

Since I started this blog more than two and a half years ago–actually, no, since long before that–I’ve been quietly searching for the perfect state of mind, the way of thinking or being that would make willpower simple. It always struck me that people sometimes go through experiences that affect them so much that their actions are completely different from that time forward, even though all that changed was their thoughts.

I was talking to an acquaintance the other day about her father. He’s been a diabetic for decades, but he never really got into the habit of checking his blood sugar regularly. It’s hard to blame him: who wants to draw their own blood twice a day for life? A few days ago, though, he called his daughter on the phone and told her something was wrong. His speech was slurred, he couldn’t stand up, and his daughter feared he was having a stroke. She called an ambulance.

The paramedics were able to rule out a stroke, and it turned out that the problem was just that the amount of insulin her father was taking was off. He should have been testing his blood sugar so that his doctor would know if it was getting too low (in this case it was much too low–a little lower and it would have sent him into a coma) and be able to adjust things accordingly.

You might not be surprised to know that my friend’s father is now checking his insulin religiously. Poking yourself with something sharp every once in a while suddenly stops feeling like so much of a nuisance if it’s going to prevent you from collapsing on the floor and going into a coma.

What does this have to do with willpower? Well, I’ve always wondered. On the one hand, I’ve thought, maybe it’s possible to jar ourselves into that state of complete dedication to making the smart choice, over and over again, in the same way my friend’s father was jarred. On the other, maybe that only applies to really traumatic experiences.

A little more background we’ll need to make sense of this topic: I’ve never had a friendly relationship with food. I’m one of four kids, raised in a household where the food budget was sometimes very tight. The kinds of food we liked weren’t always easy to come by, so if something was served that we considered especially good, we’d scarf down our first portion to get seconds before it was all gone. In this and other ways, we all learned some bad ways of dealing with and thinking about food, and for me this has been an issue into adulthood. I was unhappily overweight for years, gradually gaining mass, until about seven years ago, when I finally understood about exercise. I’d always thought it was something that you tried to put up with: I had never realized that exercise could be something you crave, and yet regular exercise made that transformation for me, and with that change along with some hard work to eat better, I eventually lost more than 60 pounds.

Over the past six months or a year, though, I hadn’t been bothering as much about fitness, having family matters to deal with that were a more important place to put my time and attention, and recently I realized I had started putting weight back on. The idea was very unappealing to me, as you can probably imagine, and I focused on the problem to piece together what I knew about willpower so that I could find a state of mind where I didn’t just eat well, but craved eating well–just like I crave exercise. I may have found it, but it’s not as simple as I once imagined it might be. I wasn’t scared into changing my life. Instead, I began looking at things in a different way. In my next post, I’ll talk about what that change of attitude was and how to get to it.

Photo by Chris Rimmer

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News Fasting: Is There Too Much News in Your Life?

States of mind

Years ago I read a book that advised going on a “news fast”–that is, not watching, listening to, or reading the news for at least a week.  The idea seemed strange to me: I was listening to the news in my car every day on the way into work and back. If I didn’t keep up with the news, wouldn’t I be uninformed? Wouldn’t I miss important things?

Well, maybe. I mean, if I were an investment counselor, I’d need to keep up with financial news. Almost everyone can use weather reports–though we can get that online without going near any other kinds of news. I certainly need to know something about what’s been going on in politics sooner or later if I’m going to vote responsibly. On a day-to-day basis, though, is news actually doing me any good?

News and stress
I could phrase this question another way: is what I get from keeping up with the news worth the stress it causes me?

Because it’s definitely stressful. I listened to NPR while in the car this morning and ended up turning it off after 20 minutes, because it had already managed to offer me stress-producing material about 1) biased journalism, 2) world overpopulation, 3) declining birth rates (notice how this is in direct conflict with #2 and yet each offers things to worry about), 4) drug shortages, and 5) invasive plant species.

I’m not advocating not knowing about these things. The dangers of overpopulation should (if you ask me) figure into any family planning discussion. There are practices I can avoid, like bringing unchecked fill onto my property, that can help limit the spread of invasive species. Having a sense of how responsible my sources of information are helps me take their statements in a more well-considered light.

What’s the news for, anyway?
Yet on the whole, the news tends to be filled with things to worry about, very few of which we can do much about directly unless we choose to make it a key personal mission. There are some positive stories, but they’re rare. You’ve probably heard the saying “If it bleeds, it leads”: people pay more attention to the news–watch more, listen more, and read more–if something bad is happening. Imagine a newspaper with a huge front page headline: “Everything is fine; not much to worry about!” It might have novelty value, but if it began to happen regularly, people might well stop buying newspapers.

When we listen to something negative on the news, we have three choices: we can do something about it right away, we can ignore it completely, or we can keep it in mind. Since we can rarely do anything about corruption in Afghanistan or declining salmon populations right away, and since ignoring is difficult and seems counter-intuitive when we’ve gone out of our way to get the news in the first place, we do a lot of just keeping things in mind. Does this make us better people? Does it help us make better decisions?

For that matter, are we even necessarily better informed? The news often emphasizes the unusual, the shocking, or the disturbing, making the world seem more extreme and upsetting than it actually is. “Two people fall in love, have minimal relationship problems, and live happily together into old age” isn’t usually news, but knowing that things like that happen is crucial in terms of how we experience our lives. News tends to skew the way we view the world. It’s depressing. It’s stressful.

Less news is good news
So what am I advocating here? Just that if you’re in the habit of listening to, watching, or reading the news every day, you might want to try taking a vacation for a while. Also, when you come back from that vacation, you might consider the possibility of limiting your news consumption on a regular basis.

I’d suggest two weeks. One week probably isn’t long enough to completely feel the effects, and anything longer runs the risk of making a person feel so out of touch the whole thing might backfire.

But old habits are hard to shake off, so I also recommend substitute behaviors.

If you read your news, whether on paper or online, consider introducing more enjoyable fiction and blogs, magazines, or books on topics you care about into your literary diet.

If you tend to listen on the radio, substitute music (which can be a highly effective mood changer), audiobooks, or just thinking about your life, the things that are important to you, and what makes you happy (see Getting Past Our Own Uncomfortable Silences). If you own a Kindle, you can have it read some books aloud to you (depending on the publisher’s settings) by pressing Shift+Sym and using space bar to pause/play. I plug my Kindle into my car’s stereo system and “read” articles, blog posts, and books this way. If you enjoy singing, doing more of that–with or without the radio–is another way to boost mood.

If your news mainly comes from the television, consider watching less television and spending the time instead with family or friends, reading or listening to music, or engaging in projects that leave you with a sense of satisfaction and meaning.

I’m not sure there is a perfect balance of taking in the news and staying clear of it. Even though news is often stressful, it’s occasionally enlightening or uplifting, and even when it’s stressful, sometimes that stress has a purpose (see The Benefits of Feeling Bad). Still, getting large amounts of news on a regular basis seems as though it would enough to increase anyone’s stress levels. If you’re a daily news consumer, what’s it doing to yours?

Photo by matsimpsk

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Writing and Martial Arts 2: Writing and Punching

States of mind

This is the second post in the “Writing and the Martial Arts” series, this post from Steve Bein. For more on this series and on Steve, see the first post: “Writing and Martial Arts 1: How Do You Like Your Chances?”


Bruce Lee said that before he started martial arts, he thought a punch was just a punch.  Then, having begun his training, he realized a punch was not just a punch.  Then, having mastered the art, he understood a punch was just a punch.

Now you may say this sounds like advice from Yoda.  You may say it’s as inscrutable as a Zen koan.  And if you said that, you wouldn’t be far wrong; Bruce cribbed this from Zen Buddhism (in the Buddhist version it’s a mountain, not a punch, that needs to be understood), and as it happens, Yoda was first conceived as a Buddhist and Daoist master (Dagobah, where he lives, is the name of a Tibetan style of pagoda, a sacred structure in both Buddhism and Daoism).   But what I want to take from it here is a comparison with writing.

Before I started writing, I thought writing was just writing.  That is, I thought all you did was sit down and type, and then you’d have a story.  There’s an episode of Californication where Hank Moody’s childhood friend voices this view on writing: “I can’t believe you get paid to just sit around and make stuff up.”  The uninitiated in the martial arts have a similar view on punching: just ball up your fist and whack somebody with it.

They’re wrong about that.  I’ve told my martial arts students many times that if you spent a year working on nothing but your jab, it wouldn’t be a wasted year.  People who don’t want to waste time studying the punch end up breaking their hands.  Their punches are slow, sloppy, and without power.  They punch from the shoulder, not from the toes, and worse yet, they can’t even understand what it means to punch from the toes.

In my opinion, the same goes for sitting down to write without any sense of the art.  It’s an old adage that stories amount to interesting characters with difficulties.  But how do you invent an interesting character?  How do you find the difficulty that is hardest for this specific character, yet one that this specific character is best suited to solve?  How do you make a reader care about solving this difficulty?  For that matter, how do you get readers to flip to the next page so they’ll even find out what the difficulty is?

None of that stuff comes naturally.  Every writer must go through a phase in which writing is not just writing.  If that weren’t true, little kids’ stories would be interesting.  But they’re not—at least not to anybody but their parents.  Little kids’ stories go, “This happened and then this happened and then this happened.”  Good stories go, “This happened because this happened, and because of those, this happened.”  And when they say, “this happened,” what that really means is, “this difficult thing happened to this interesting person, and it turned that person’s world upside down, and now all of us really want to know how this person is going to set things right.”

A good story generates both tension and a sense of inevitability.  There is a causal connection between act two and act one, and enough suspense generated in act one to leave readers no choice but to read act two.  And that’s something we need to learn, and practice, and practice again until we get it right.

My process for this is a lot like my martial arts training.  In jiujitsu, for example, you’ve got strategy and tactics, you’ve got practice in technique, and you’ve got actual sparring.  Anyone who lacks the patience for the first two gets dominated in the third one.  At 170 pounds, I’ve tapped 400-pounders because they didn’t have technique and they didn’t have a game plan.

In writing, the strategic and tactical phase—for me, anyway—is a lot of free-form scribbling just to figure out what story I want to tell.  In the practice phase I create an outline for the story.  Sometimes this is short; other times it’s quite elaborate.  (My longest outline to date was 41 pages.)  The sparring phase is the actual writing itself, and then the editing, and then editing again, doing it over and over again until I’ve got it right—exactly like jiujitsu, or kickboxing for that matter, or any other art I’ve ever trained in.

In jiujitsu, sometimes technique fails me and I have to come up with something on the fly.  In writing, sometimes the outline fails me and I need to take it in a different direction.  In jiujitsu, when I get into a jam where the technique I learned isn’t working, I always want to get a technique that will work better.  In writing, when I get into a jam where the story I outlined is losing tension, I always want to start a new outline that ratchets up the tension again.  And both in jiujitsu and in writing, the most important phase is the first: understanding exactly what I want to achieve, so that my practice and my execution lead to the kind of results I want.

I’m a better kickboxer than a jiujitsu player.  Part of that is due to body type—I’m tall and lanky, and at my best when I can keep an opponent at a distance—but most of it is due to the fact that in jiujitsu I’m still at a point where I have to memorize techniques and apply them.  That hasn’t been true for me in kickboxing for years.  The fight just flows.  I know what it takes to make an opponent open his guard, and I know what it takes to keep him from advancing.  For me, kickboxing is just kickboxing.  There’s no memorization.  Show me something new even once and I can do it.  Jiujitsu is not just jiujitsu for me; show me something new and I need to practice it a dozen times right now, and then again at the beginning of the next class, or else I’m certain to lose it.

I’m not at a phase where writing is just writing either.  I used to believe that no writer can get there.  Now I believe otherwise.  In On Writing, Stephen King says he doesn’t outline at all, nor does he formulate a game plan in advance.  He just thinks of interesting characters and then watches what they do.  Harlan Ellison says he writes the same way.  If we take them at their word, then for them writing is just writing.

I am still looking for the magic formula that will allow me to do what they do.  I don’t particularly enjoy laboring over every story.  I don’t like doing all that free-form scribbling in advance just to throw it away and start anew.  I don’t like following an outline only for it to lead me to a dead end.  I also don’t like the process of memorizing one jiujitsu technique after another, just to get tapped because the technique came to mind a tenth of a second too late.

Here’s the bitch of it: there is no magic formula.  There is only time served.  There is only doing it, and doing it again, and doing it again.  Sooner or later I will either make myself a good jiujitsu player or I will get so old that my body can’t do it anymore.  And sooner or later I will either keel over dead or I will discover how to spontaneously create interesting characters, line by line tension, three act structure, and all the rest of it.

I wish I could tell you how.  I can’t.  For me writing is not just writing.  Not yet.

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Writing and Martial Arts 1: How Do You Like Your Chances?

States of mind

I know a small but fascinating group of people who are both successful writers and accomplished martial artists, and as these are both areas of great interest to me that I practice on a regular basis, I was very curious to know what connections some of these friends drew between the two disciplines.

The first post in this series comes from my good friend Steve Bein, who is a martial artist with 20 years of training, a professor of Philosophy and History at SUNY Geneseo, and an award-winning fiction writer. His first novel (a thriller about modern crime and samurai history) comes out in 2012.

Steve has this question for you: How do you like your chances?


I was told as I entered my Master’s degree program of a plan to streamline graduate education.  We could dispose of the GRE, of long hours spent walled in by stacks of books, of area exams and dissertation proposals and all the rest.  We could weed out everyone who needs weeding out by collecting all of the applicants to a given grad program, lock them all in a concrete room, and tell them to bash their heads against the wall.  The last one to quit gets a PhD.

As education reform goes, this plan isn’t half bad..  I like my chances in this system.  It certainly would be easier to get a PhD in this system than to get one the way I did, with all that old-fashioned writing and test-taking and such.  But then, I’ve been in the martial arts for about 20 years.  I learned some things along the way, things about physical and mental punishment, about perseverance, about sheer mule-headed stubbornness when perseverance gives out, and most of all about extinguishing the desire to quit.

Most writers could use some lessons on these counts too.  Show me a successful writer and I’ll show you someone who has learned these lessons already.

Writing will bring its share of mental and emotional punishment.  Count on it.  Even as I’m writing this, I’m escaping the frustrations I’m having in working out the plot to my next novel.  (Don’t worry.  I’m only allowing myself 20 minutes of escape.  Then I’ll go back to that for 20 minutes, then come back to this.  My sensei taught me not to quit, but tactically speaking, he and I both recognize the merit of retreating in order to launch a new attack from a different angle.)

There is good reason for a writer to feel frustrated..  99% of people who submit work never get published.  Of the 1% who do, less than half get a second publication.  Of those, only a handful make enough money from writing to make protein a regular part of their diet, and even they tend to collect more rejection letters than acceptance letters.

We have a similar formula in martial arts.  For every 10 students who begin a martial arts class, only one still comes a month later.  For every 10 of those, only one is still training a year later.  For every 10 of those, only one earns a black belt, and for every 10 black belts, only one goes on to teach the art.  A sensei is one in 10,000.  A writer who doesn’t need to hold a day job is more like one in a million.

The more I write, the more I learn that the pains of this art go beyond the mental and emotional.  I’ve developed neck problems and chronic eyestrain headaches.  Writing cost me my 20/20 vision.  I now need yoga exercises to be able to write for any length of time.  As it happens, it was martial arts that led me to yoga, but that’s not the important part.  It was martial arts that instilled in me the discipline to actually show up to yoga classes, to actually do the stretches every day, and to actually keep on writing even when it’s uncomfortable.

Charles Brown, the former editor of Locus, once shared some grim but sagacious advice with me (well, me and everyone else in that year’s Writers of the Future class).  He said if you’re a writer, one of three things is going to happen to you: you quit, you die, or you get published.  I thought, I like my chances.  I’m not going to quit.  My sensei drilled the quitter out of me.  That only leaves death and publication.

You can read more posts by Steve Bein on the multi-writer blog It’s the Story at http://itsthestory.wordpress.com.

Photo by JimRiddle_Four

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Reframing: An Instructive Example

States of mind

I’ve made no secret of how brilliant I think Randall Munroe, author and artist of the webcomic XKCD, is (see “Randall Munroe and Zombie Marie Curie on Greatness,” “Off-topic: Does Wanting Something Make It Real?,” and “Some Common Misconceptions“). A few days ago, he offered a really, really good example of reframing. Reframing is looking at something in a different way, and when I talk about it on this site, I’m usually talking about looking at a situation in a more constructive way. Here’s Munroe’s comic, in which he offers a means of looking at cancer that in a weird way is almost joyful.

(Sorry for the shrinking: it’s a limitation of my blog’s design. You can click on the comic to see it full size on XKCD.)

There aren’t many perks I know of to being a cancer patient, but cancer patients go through experiences more harrowing than anything most of us have ever experienced. Coming through that kind of trouble without crumpling is a feat worth some serious respect, especially considering it’s more or less impossible to know for sure whether you’ve survived cancer or not (as Munroe explains in this comic).

It’s not unlike the massive outpouring of goodwill that greeted congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords when she appeared in Washington earlier in the week to vote on the debt ceiling bill (on which subject please don’t get me started). One not-very-politically-correct thought that crossed my mind is “does she like being applauded for getting shot in the head?” Fortunately I caught up after a minute or two and realized that it was not getting shot in the head she was getting applause for, but for months of struggle to get back to her job and for showing up at a vote despite enormous hardships. In the same way, cancer patients aren’t laudable for having cancer; they’re laudable when they show courage and perseverance in carrying on despite it.

We all get visited with trouble sometimes. We get fired, lose friends and family to illness or accident, have money troubles, have romantic troubles, get hurt … and none of that is really very encouraging to think about. It’s nothing to celebrate. Yet our responses to those situations when we persevere or overcome, even if we’re not doing anything particularly out of the ordinary, are definitely something to celebrate–and making celebration out of hardship can turn your whole outlook around.

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Hope Addiction: Why and How Not to Camp Our Spawn Points

States of mind

I wrote a dictionary of subculture slang that was published back in 2006, and in the “online gamers” section, it includes definitions for two terms that together have a lot to do with a common way we lose productivity and focus.

spawn point: A game location where characters or monsters regularly emerge.

camp: (as a verb) To take a position where many enemies emerge and ambush them there.

Some players, in some games, like to take up the practice of “camping a spawn point.” You position yourself right near a place where new players are emerging into the game, or where computer-controlled antagonists (generally known as “monsters”) are being created, and you just nail those suckers one after the other as they come out. It’s annoying to the players (and probably annoying to the monsters too, although since they don’t talk much about their feelings, we’ll never know for sure), but players who are camping spawn points are really not playing the game: they’re reactively taking easy pot shots at whoever shows up. In gaming, this may not be a problem as long as everyone’s having fun. In life, it can become a serious impediment to happiness.

Camping the inbox
I don’t play online games, but I do use e-mail–a lot. While I’ve gotten much better at using e-mail responsibly over the last few years, I’ve certainly had periods in my history when I was visiting it every few minutes, with a miniature rise and crash of hope every time I checked and something good hadn’t shown up–which was most of the times I checked, of course, because you don’t generally get good news a hundred times a day.

We can do the same thing with any number of sources: snail mail boxes, voice mail, text messages on cell phones, bank accounts, Twitter, Facebook, online sales reports, Web site statistics, the news, forums–all places where we hope some good news may suddenly appear. A deposit came through, or sales have taken an upturn, or the person we most want to hear from has gotten in touch, or something has sold, or our investments have gone up, or a package has arrived … in one way or another, a bit of hope has been gratified.

Hope is generally thought to be a good thing, the one consolation prize left at the bottom of Pandora’s box, but it has its dark side too. Buddhist tradition knows about this, stating that the suffering in the world arises from attachment, where attachment means (this is my rough explanation) making your happiness depend on anything external to you. This would include the package you’re hoping will ship today, the reply from the person you want to date, or the acceptance letter for the story you sent out last month. It’s easy to fall into a habit of always looking for some new good thing to happen, and the results can be distraction, frustration, and repeated disappointment.

How not to camp
When we camp e-mail inboxes or other places where good things might emerge, we’re either focusing our attention on something we want (for instance, a response to an e-mail, application, or submission) or being driven by habit. In both cases, one of the easiest and most effective ways to stop obsessing about what might come to us is to get engaged with something that’s actually going on, to really dig into a project, connect with another person, or just get active.

So in practical terms, three especially good ways to stop camping are

  1. Taking the next immediate step on a project you care about, so that you become involved (and ideally achieve flow–see “Flow: What It Feels Like to Be Perfectly Motivated“).
  2. Doing something with other people: human interaction can be absorbing and rewarding when it goes well.
  3. Exercise. Taking a walk or doing more strenuous activities will offer all kinds of benefits even if you don’t count the fitness payoff (see “Nothing to Do With Weight Loss: 17 Ways Exercise Promotes Willpower and Motivation“).

To put it another way, the best way to stop camping is to energetically do something else constructive. Camping tends to happen when our attention is not engaged well–when boredom threatens or has overtaken us.

The difference in our experience can be dramatic. A day of camping can be exhausting even though not much might have gotten done. We feel distracted and often dissatisfied, and we have no reason to believe the next day won’t be more of the same. By contrast, a day spent focused on engaging work or with other people–or at the very least spent actively–will feel more satisfying and build optimism, confidence, and focus.

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If You Want to Be Happier, You Have to Care Less

States of mind

Think of the most serene, compassionate, happy-looking person in the world. What does that person look like? A movie star, someone who’s climbed to the top of the fame ladder? I’m guessing not. A powerful politician? Absolutely not. A toddler with adoring parents? Maybe, but check again in five minutes and the answer is probably no. A bride on her wedding day? Not so serene, usually. An incredibly successful entrepreneur? Smug, maybe: I’m not so sure about serene or compassionate.

How about the Dalai Lama–or virtually any other highly accomplished Buddhist monk?

Serene? Check. Compassionate? Double check. Happy looking? Those lines didn’t come from years of yelling at the cat to get off the furniture, for damn sure. Check out the images that come up if we search Google for pictures of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama: except for a couple of expressions of attentive interest, it’s a complete smilefest. (Scroll down to the bottom to see the screen shot: I didn’t want to put the picture at the top and prime you to choose the answer I’d thought of.)

Does happiness work the same way for everyone?
But then again, what does that prove? This is the Dalai Lama, for the love of Pete. It’s his job to be serene and compassionate. That guy doesn’t have to argue on the phone with his wireless provider. That guy doesn’t have a neighbor who mows the lawn every Sunday morning at 6:15. That guy has never been jilted by someone he was pity-dating (to the best of my knowledge).

Although, OK, he did have his country stolen from him, is exposed to the profound suffering of millions daily, and is never allowed to have sex at all, ever. Still, his approach to happiness probably has to be a lot different than our approach to happiness, right?

Happiness in four bullet points
I was thinking about this just a short while ago, after a conversation with my wireless provider (I bet you thought that was a hypothetical example, huh?) in which I was informed that while yes, the equipment I just purchased from them does not work, and yes, it’s their fault and yes, I’ll have to exchange it, and yes, the whole reason I had to buy it in the first place is that their coverage at my home is unusably bad, that no, they would not give me a new one before they receive the old one: in the mean time I would just have to suffer without it.

There’s the key word: “suffer.” The central lesson Buddhism has for us about happiness (even for people who, like me, don’t consider themselves Buddhists) is contained in something called “The Four Noble Truths.” The millennia-old Four Noble Truths are surprisingly in tune with psychological research from the past couple of decades, and they go a little something like this:

  1. Suffering exists
  2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires
  3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases
  4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path

For the moment, let’s not worry about the Eightfold Path: that’s a discussion for another day, although the short version of it is what my girlfriend reminds me of (patiently) time and time again: the more that the things you do are in harmony with each other and with you, the happier you’ll be.

How to suffer: a practical example
The thing I want to latch onto here is the whole suffering and attachment deal. Let’s use the example of the wireless company: Why is it frustrating and annoying to me that they aren’t helping solve my problem now, when I want it solved–frustrating enough that I literally went directly from their store to the bakery across the way with the idea of possibly having a really unhealthy lunch revolving around pastry? (Note: I did get a handle on things after a minute or two and went on to have a lunch of roasted chicken, black beans, and salad.)

The reason it was annoying is that I cared. My self-talk was subtly but inescapably guiding me toward misery by dwelling on what the wireless company–OK, I’ll go ahead and say that it’s AT&T–“should” do, what I “deserved” to have, how “unfair” it was that the device I’d pay for didn’t work, and how I “needed” an immediate solution. Note the words in quotes: they’re all indicators (in this case) of broken ideas, our primary mechanism for making ourselves miserable and the focus of a number of highly successful cognitive therapies (see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair“).

As long as I cared whether or not AT&T did what I wanted, I would be unhappy. The moment I ceased to care–became unattached from–that concern, it would no longer bother me.

How not to suffer
Again I’m not talking theoretically: I let that concern go, and I immediately felt better. Of course, the problem with bad habits–even when they’re very general habits like making ourselves unhappy when things don’t go our way–is that we’ve grown specialized neural connections to keep them going, so releasing that concern generally just means that I’ll stop worrying about it right at that moment, but that it will come back as soon as I’m reminded of the original problem at a time when I’m not concentrating on being unattached.

Fortunately, I then have the option of not caring again. It turns into a long-term battle: my habits kick in to make me act in ways that will cause me to be unhappy, then I exert conscious effort to free myself and become happy again … and round and round we go. Yet this cycle weakens the habit over time, because the more we think or act a certain way, the more robust our mental wiring for that approach becomes, while the more disruptive we are to a behavior, the more that behavior weakens. This is how habits are made and destroyed.

When next we talk about this …
There’s a lot more to talk about here, especially the idea that caring less is a good thing (which on a gut level has always given me trouble) and about when caring more is important (because there are times when caring is indispensable)–but I’ll leave those subjects for other posts, so that this one can remain a fairly readable length. I had wanted to cram more into this post, but with a little effort, I’ve stopped caring whether I do that or not.

Silo image by Timothy K Hamilton

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The Surprising Impact of Getting Happy on Career Success

States of mind

Shawn Achor

An interesting article on IT World Canada last week offers some surprising job success insights from psychologist Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work.

Here were some of Achor’s assertions that struck me as particularly useful (some are quotes and some paraphrases, all from the IT World Canada article):

We know that doctors, when they’re positive, perform diagnoses 19 percent more accurately.

Achor had 200 tax audit managers [practice a gratitude exercise every morning] during the 2009 tax season, which was expected to be the worst tax season on record. After 21 days, Achor measured their emotional outlook using various psychological assessment tools and found that their levels of optimism rose … Two days after the [positive psychology] training, they felt significantly higher levels of happiness and job satisfaction … Four months later, the group … had significantly higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction …

The correlation [between success and social support] is .7, which is significantly higher than the correlation between smoking and cancer.

The article is relevant to anyone who works for a living whether they’re in Information Technology or not. You can find it here: “Why Your Negative Outlook is Killing Your Career.”

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Randall Munroe and Zombie Marie Curie on Greatness

States of mind

You already may know about my preoccupation with the remarkably clever and heartfelt stick figure comic series XKCD by cartoonist and former NASA scientist Randall Munroe. Today’s installment of XKCD, “Marie Curie,” makes a key point about greatness, a topic that’s easy to drop into conversation but about which not much practical advice is usually available. Munroe has a little bit of just that kind of practical advice to offer:

It’s that point Zombie Marie Curie makes about greatness that grabs me particularly: “You don’t become great by trying to be great. You become great by wanting to do something, and then doing it so hard that you become great in the process.”

Among other ways this connects to what we know about self-motivation is its relationship to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow,” the process of losing yourself in a task and thereby realizing your greatest possible skill at it (see “Flow: What It Feels Like to Be Perfectly Motivated” and “Some Steps for Getting into a State of Flow“). It also reminds us of the importance of caring more about the process than to how other people might respond to the result.

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