If you want to be the author of your own life

The first time I saw the phrase, I thought it was beautiful: “Be the author of your own life.” It seemed so appealing and uplifting, like “Be the CEO of your own career” or “Be the change you want to see in the world.” The prospect of self-determination inherent in the phrase, the power to actively craft your own future, seemed to offer both hope and inspiration.

But the more I reflected on it, the more it seemed like a cruel hoax.

After all, what prepares you to be the author of your own life? Is it the HR survey that tells you what your strengths are? The personality profile that describes your color or element and suggests jobs that are right for you?

Of course that’s not enough. You can’t be an author unless you actually write. And read. A lot. You need to do it every day, day after day, until you develop the skills, habits, and mindset of a writer. It’s your deliberate practice over time - experiments, feedback, connections - that enable you to develop the grit and heart and craft you need to make something great..

The same goes for an intentional life. You must explore, attempt, fail, learn, and adapt over and over and over again. Only through an endless series of small steps will you develop a sense of what feels right for you, broaden your understanding of what’s possible, and expand the perimeter of your potential. 

Crafting a life is not something you say or wish. It’s something you work on every day. Start now.

Author of My Own Life.JPG

“The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on.”

What if, instead of constantly trying to fight against some of our cognitive and behavioral weaknesses, we could use them to our advantage?

In praise of mindlessness.png

Hidden persuaders

The title of this post is taken from the last line of Mindless Eating, by food researcher Brian Wansink. In the book, he writes that we make over 200 food decisions each day, and that we aren’t aware of most of them. The result is that what we eat and how much we eat are determined by an astounding array of “hidden persuaders.” Here are a few of them:

  • size of the plate or container

  • shape of the glass

  • distance to the food/convenience of accessing it

  • variety of food

  • number of people you’re eating with

  • distractions present (tv, radio, phone, reading, etc.)

  • labels/descriptions of the food

  • presentation of the food

The most famous example might be the popcorn study. Wansink gave people a free bucket of popcorn at a movie theater. Some had a medium bucket and some had a large bucket, though each was big enough that no one could finish all of it. Importantly, all of the popcorn was stale, having sat in sterile conditions for five days. Despite patrons saying, “It was like eating Styrofoam peanuts,” people with large buckets ate 53% more - an average of 21 more handfuls (or 173 extra calories). 

Study after study show the impact of hidden persuaders. If you eat with one person you’ll eat 35% more, and up to 96% more when you eat with a group of seven. If you’re given a half-pound bag of M&Ms you’ll eat an average of 71, but you’ll eat 137 (or 264 more calories) from a one-pound bag. Even experienced bartenders mistakenly pour 37% more alcohol into short, wide glasses than into tall, skinny ones.

How to avoid a lifetime of suffering

If you’re like me, you may believe you’re not fooled by such things, that you’re in control of your own choices. Alas, two decades of Wansink’s research shows that everyone thinks this way.

“We all think we’re too smart to be tricked by packages, lighting, or plates. We might acknowledge that others could be tricked, but not us. That is what makes mindless eating so dangerous. We are almost never aware that it is happening to us.”

Instead of fighting with yourself to become more disciplined, Wansink suggests you adopt simple “reengineering strategies” that make it easier for you to choose what you believe is in your own best interests. Want to eat more vegetables? Serve them family style or on larger plates. Want to drink a bit less wine? Serve it in taller, thinner glasses and keep the empties on the table.

“As all of our research suggests, we can eat about 20 percent more or 20 percent less without really being aware of it. You can eat too much without knowing, and you can also eat less without knowing it. The goal is to make small changes in our environment so it works with us rather than against us.”

Beyond popcorn

Reading Mindless Eating has already inspired me to change my environment when it comes to food. But the core idea applies to all sorts of things - from how much we use our phones to what kinds of media we consume.

Yes, our innate human tendency for doing things in a mindless, habitual way can lead to unhealthy choices - choices that may well be driven by external influences and the interests of others. But a short period of making mindful adjustments to your environment can help you create a kind of “positive mindlessness,” one that leads to choices that serve you well.

The next time you overindulge on popcorn or social media, don’t waste time berating yourself. Think instead of how the things around you may have led to that behavior. Choose to control your environment rather than have it control you.

100 slices of Thanksgiving

Isn’t it strange how a label on a calendar can make a difference? It’s Thanksgiving this Thursday in the US. And for as long as I can remember, I’ve been wondering the same thing. When I mentioned it to someone in an email this week, she said she felt the same way.

“Is it me or does NYC feel different on Thanksgiving week? I might be projecting, but it feels like a kinder, more caring place, and I love this time of year.”
“I agree with you about the holiday season in New York.  There is a special feel to the city.”

Yes, we all know that being grateful is good, both for ourselves and the people around us. Yet who has time for that? Thanksgiving is different. There’s something about the simple structure of it, and the synchronization. It’s on the calendar and everyone does it.

But what if we carved up that day a little differently?

1440 divided by 365

A few months ago, my good friend (and founder of Fearless Inventory) mentioned the five-minute journal. “It’s a gratitude journal,” he told me, and he said it was helpful, so I ordered one.

You use it twice a day. In the morning when you wake up, you write down three things you’re grateful for and three things that would would make today great. Before you go to sleep, you write down three things that actually made the day great, and something that might have made the day even better. (That last bit is meant less as a judgment and more as learning for future days.) I found it takes me even less than five minutes to do it.

Given a day is 1440 minutes long, writing in my journal is like a little slice of Thanksgiving every day. The simple structure helped me do things I somehow never had the time or attention to do before. After 100 days, I noticed some changes.

Intentional consequences

When you do something mindfully 100 times in a row, you notice some patterns. I would often write similar things day after day. Gratitude for my family, our health, the chance to do meaningful work. The things that usually made each day great were often about being present for small moments during the day, especially those with my family and people close to me. 

Over and over I would realize that a “better day” would have meant paying more attention to people and less to technology and other distractions, that I would have been calmer and more joyful. An affirmation I’ve written down many times is "To let the gratefulness shine through me."

I also noticed that the moments of reflection actually shaped my days in ways I didn’t expect. In the morning, writing down my intention for what would make the day great would attune my attention, making me more mindful throughout the day of what was truly important. Oh, that’s right! Watching the kids’ swimming lesson is one of the things that was going to make today great. I’ll focus on that instead of taking my book or laptop.

My attention also shifted when it came to gratitude. Instead of just thinking of things I already had, I noticed I was actively looking for things to be grateful for throughout the day. I’d be in the supermarket and think Aren’t I lucky that I can choose from so much abundance? In the doctor’s office I’d be thankful for having access to medical care and health insurance. A cold day would make me appreciate a hot shower and a warm comfortable bed. Later, I’d write those things down in my journal, reinforcing those thoughts and further attuning my attention.

After 100 days, I felt…happier. I realize now that happiness, like being grateful or kind or almost anything you can say about a person, isn’t so much about who you are. It’s about how much you practice.

I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. Every day. 

 

 

 

“Did I take my pill today?”

I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s happened more than once. I’ll be holding my bottle of vitamins, staring at it with a puzzled look on my face, wondering if I’ve already taken my pill or was just about to take it.

The first thing I’ll realize is how absent-minded I was being. I was so un-conscious that I could not remember whether I opened the jar and swallowed a pill just a few seconds earlier.

Then I'll think of my mother. She would take medicine daily and would often wonder aloud, “Did I take my pill today?” Instead of offering empathy, my younger self could only react with a mix of irritation and shame. “How could you forget such a simple thing?”

Finally, I'll reflect on the power of nudges. I read recently how simple text messages helped people in Nigeria take their malaria medication. For me, my nudges include putting the vitamins in the same place and taking them at the same time, and checking off a box on my daily progress chart.

Maybe you also have some things you forget, like where you placed your keys. Or maybe it’s something much more important, like telling those around you how much you love and appreciate them.

You’re not thoughtless, you’re human. Each of these moments is a gift, a chance to remember to be mindful, to offer compassion to yourself and others, and to perhaps change your environment a bit so you’ll remember next time.

30 days without added sugar

“Please have some sugar!”  

That was the plea from my wife and daughter when I was midway through my #NoSugarChallenge. They noted I was <ahem> more irritable and unpleasant than usual. Whether that was a lack of sugar or just my personality, we’ll never know.

Nevertheless, I persisted.

What and why

I was inspired by my older son to try this challenge. We debated rules: Does maple syrup count? Agave? What about dextrose? Pretty quickly we settled on avoiding anything that included white or brown sugar, corn syrup or similar derivatives, or artificial sweeteners. We agreed that eating an apple, for example, or granola with real maple syrup, was acceptable. 

For most of my life, my approach to food was simple: if I liked it, I ate it. Over the last ten years, though, I have become more mindful of what I eat. My view of sugar in particular has changed as I saw my mother die of diabetes, and learned how one of every three people in the US will develop this preventable disease

I had tried similar challenges related to meat and alcohol. Now it was time to try a sugar challenge.

The immediate benefits

Starting from the first day, I became increasingly aware of sugar in my diet. I started reading more labels, and was often surprised at how sugar had insinuated itself into so many things. 

For the most part, it turns out, I don’t eat much added sugar. I like baking and enjoy ice cream, but for these 30 days I could easily avoid them. Dark chocolate, though, was a different matter. I have a habit of having a few pieces after dinner, and I really wanted that chocolate. To deal with my craving, I’m sure I drank more wine and had more second helpings than usual.

I also failed twice while I was on a business trip. Once was on purpose. At a nice restaurant with a friend who was looking forward to sharing dessert, I made a conscious decision to participate. The other time was an impulse, when some lovely-looking rice pudding was served for free after an Indian meal. I did not resist.

At the end of the challenge, I opened some chocolate I had purchased specifically for the occasion. I looked at, smelled it, and savored it. Just a few pieces. It was heavenly.

The absolute best part

The biggest benefit actually didn’t have anything to do with sugar, but with the practice itself: I became more confident, with a reinforced sense of self-control. I first experienced this when I became a vegetarian:

“When I stopped eating meat I did more than just change my diet, I gained confidence that I could change anything I wanted.”

That feeling has increased with each challenge and with new habits like writing, meditation, and playing piano. For most of my life, my fear of big changes was matched only by self-criticism for my lack of discipline. Now, in mid-life, small experiments with my habits have changed my life.

The Stoic philosophers, along with modern psychologists, say that self-control is something to be developed, and that doing so makes for a happier life. I think they’re right.

“Don’t expect applause”

I had been waiting for several months for the small box to arrive. Inside was a tiny cardboard stand and a set of 59 cards, a short slogan written on each one. The slogans are from the Lojong teachings, a mind training practice developed over a thousand years ago. They're designed as “a set of antidotes to undesired mental habits that cause suffering.”

I selected the first card and put it on the display. It read: “Don’t expect applause.”

I learned about the slogans from Pema Chödrön’s Start Where You Are, which is about developing compassion, including self-compassion. 

“If we are willing to stand fully in our own shoes and never give up on ourselves, then we will be able to put ourselves in the shoes of others and never give up on them. True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings.”

Later in the day, I thought about the card when I did something around the house and was irritated that my wife didn’t say anything. I thought about the card again when I went to the gym and wanted to be noticed, and when I got good news and was eager to share it in anticipation of receiving praise. It all seemed so childish, and I was embarrassed at having such a deeply-ingrained habit. (Thankfully, I remembered that developing self-compassion is also part of the practice.)

The problem isn’t with positive feedback or encouragement, it’s with expectations, and the card helped me pay attention to my intentions. I should do something because it’s right or nice, not because I hope for something in return.

“It’s good to express our gratitude to others. It’s good to express our appreciation of others. But if we do that with the motivation of wanting them to like us, we can remember this slogan. We can thank others, but we should give up all hope of getting thanked back. Simply keep the door open without expectations.”

"Simply keep the door open." With my first card, I clearly understood that expecting something in return is one of the “mental habits that cause suffering.” I also experienced that it takes practice to train your mind and change the habit, to gradually learn how to be happy.

I wonder what the next card will bring. 

What happens after 400 days of meditation

Meditation, like Fight Club, is one of those things you’re not supposed to talk about. If you’re doing it to bolster your ego - Look at me! I’m enlightened! - it goes against the entire process. Still, when I noticed on my “Insight Timer” that I had sat down and meditated 400 times, it surprised me. What started as a challenge has become one of my most valuable habits. 

I’m not enlightened by any means, but several things have changed for me. I hope that by sharing it, some of you may consider making meditation a habit too, or may be more confident in developing other habits you care about.

It began with a challenge

A few years ago, I had begun doing small experiments on my own habits and happiness. After one post about “30 days without alcohol” that included a reference to Stoic philosophy, a reader made an interesting comment: 

“There is too much “learning through punishment” with the Stoics – which is why I hold my reservations about their philosophy.
But I am full of admiration for what you are trying to achieve here. I would challenge you to do/add something every day for 31 days that you find challenging.”

Instead of abstaining or subtracting from my life, what could I do or add that would make life better? I instantly thought of meditation, as references to its benefits kept appearing throughout my reading and research. So I started by trying to do it for ten minutes a day for thirty days. That was almost two years ago.

The progress chart I kept for my meditation "challenge"

Simply difficult

Meditation is at the same time ridiculously easy and ridiculously difficult. There are many variations. The kind I practice, based on How to Meditate by Pema Chödrön, is especially simple.

  • Sit down with your back straight, legs crossed on a cushion or sitting on a chair.
  • Keep your eyes open, focused on a spot on the floor about 4 to 6 feet in front of you.
  • Focus on your breath.
  • When your mind wanders from your breath (it will), simply let the thoughts pass, or label them “thinking,” and focus again on your breath.

That’s it. I do this for 15 minutes each day, usually first thing in the morning, before the kids wake up and after I’ve turned the coffeemaker on.

“You’re not as angry.” 

The first thing I noticed, and what seems to be a universal experience, is that it’s impossible to stay focused for more than a few seconds. You think about that thing you need to do later. You shift your position. You become irritated that you’re such a bad meditator. The phrase commonly used to describe this is“monkey mind” and your inability to control it is frustrating. 

It’s why Pema Chödrön says, “Our mental habits are ancient and take a while to unwind. So we need to practice with patience, intelligence, and gentleness.” She teaches you to think of your thoughts as clouds passing by. Instead of clinging to them, notice them as a detached observer, without judgment, without berating yourself. It can help to simply label thoughts as “thinking,” a gentle trigger to focus on your breath again. 

Over the following months, I never experienced a major insight or epiphany. One day though, over dinner, my 9-year-old daughter said to me, “You’re not as angry.” I was a bit stunned. I looked across the table at my wife who said, “It’s true.” I reflected on it later, and felt that I had indeed become calmer and happier.

Calm, Compassion, Clarity, Confidence

With more research, particularly reading the work of Dr. Dan Siegel, I’ve come to think of meditation as a simple process for training your mind, for learning how to make the most of it. What makes a difference for me isn't the idea of a serene experience each morning. It’s the tens of thousands of times I've practiced calmly focusing my attention on the present moment. 

The more you do it, the more you develop a kind of “meta-awareness” - an awareness of what you’re thinking as you’re thinking it. I don’t claim to have perfected such an ability, but I’ve experienced glimpses of how powerful it can be. The benefits include what I think of as “the 4 Cs.”

Calm - I’m more aware of the triggers that cause me to react as they happen, and that awareness allows me to pause and proceed more mindfully.

Compassion - I’m more aware of my judgments about others, including my own inner critic’s voice. Being aware makes me more thoughtful - Is that really true? - and softens my attitude towards myself and others. 

Clarity - The less reactive and judgmental I am, the more purposeful and open I become. It’s like putting on glasses that let me see through the noise and drama.

Confidence - This isn’t about ego or arrogance, but more like walking on solid ground. Instead of doing something unthinkingly, I’m more mindful of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

Meditation and getting a glimpse of the four Cs is like learning to ride a bike with training wheels. Sometimes you lean heavily left or right, or teeter side to side. But there are those moments when you get it. I’m riding on two wheels! In that moment, you’re fully alive, and you can feel the sun and the wind and the joy. The next thing you know you’re relying on training wheels again, and you’re eager to keep practicing. 

I may never be like Pema Chödrön, but I can be a better me. The more I get a glimpse of calm, compassion, clarity, and confidence, the more motivated I am to practice. 

“The mind is very wild. The human experience is full of unpredictability and paradox, joys and sorrows, successes and failures. We can’t escape and of these experiences in the vast terrain of our existence. It it part of what makes life grand - and it is also why our minds take us on such a crazy ride. If we can train ourselves through meditation to be more open and more accepting onward the wild of our experience, if we can lean into the difficulties of life and the ride of our minds, we can become more settled and relaxed amid whatever life brings us.”
- Pema Chödrön, How to Meditate

Please pay attention

“Cool neon sign,” I thought to myself as I walked by it in the hotel lobby. I was there all day for a conference, and it caught my eye each time I passed it.

First I wondered why they hadn't turned it on. Then I wondered what it would look like if it was lit up, imagining the red glow in the hallway. I even pointed it out to someone else and we agreed that we liked it.

It was only at the end of the day that I discovered what the sign really was, and what it might mean.

The signs I pass every day

For most of my day, I’m not paying attention at all. I’ll stare at the bottle of vitamins and forget if I already took one. I’ll walk twenty minutes and not look at the sky once. Much worse, I’ll be in a room with people I love and won’t really see them at all, engrossed instead with my book or laptop.

I’m not special in this regard. In the book Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson writes that while our brains can take in eleven million pieces of information at any given moment, we’re only consciously aware of forty. It’s a dramatic statistic that shows just how precious little attention we have. “Paying attention” requires extra energy and, as the neurologist Daniel Kahneman writes, “Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

Looking at things differently

Heading out of the hotel, I passed the sign one last time. This time, I stopped and walked up to it. That’s when I noticed a small placard well beneath it to the right.

The “neon sign” wasn’t neon at all, but was made of painted wood. When I examined it closely I could see the small carving marks.

The irony wasn’t lost on me. I had passed a sign with clear instructions - “PLEASE PAY ATTENTION!” - and never took a moment to really see it. I had instantly created a truth, “Cool neon sign,” and was blind to other possibilities until I paused and examined my assumptions more closely.

Giving the gift of attention

It turns out you can train yourself to pay attention, and that the more you train, the more easily you can offer it.

You can practice offering it to yourself by paying attention to what you’re doing in any given moment. Notice the taste and texture of the food you’re eating, or the feel of the water in the shower, or your surroundings as you walk. Practice offering it to others by actively listening to them, and pausing to consider things from their point of view.

Sometimes offering attention is simply being with someone. Each time my son asks, “Want to play Sorry, Dad?” or my daughter tells me a story of what happened with her friends, I wish I had that neon sign reminding me of what I should do.

“Please pay attention.” You and all the people around you deserve it.

***

Note: My next post will be on January 7th, and I’ll be migrating this blog to workingoutloud.com, where I’ll publish an article every Wednesday and Saturday. Have a wonderful holiday.

The elephant at the piano

As a child, I saw a Gary Larson cartoon that I still remember, because it captured a feeling I had even then. An elephant, on stage in a crowded concert hall, is sitting at a piano, his ridiculously large legs dangling by his side. He’s thinking to himself, “What am I doing here?”

The Far Side® and the Larson® signature are registered trademarks of FarWorks, Inc.

This cartoon captures the feeling you may have when you’re faced with something new. You’re unprepared and anxious, and may literally feel like you’re in the wrong room, that you’re not supposed to be there.

I’ve had this feeling so many times that I now recognize it as familiar. I had it before my first attempts at public speaking, and publishing something I had written. I had it when I was supposed to “manage” other people, and when I had my first child.

In developing my latest habit, though, I’m learning a better way to approach new things.

The elephant on the yoga mat

I still remember my first yoga class. It was over a decade ago. Trying to impress my girlfriend (now my wife), I went with her to an intermediate class. It didn’t go well.

While she was effortlessly doing all the poses, I couldn’t even understand the words the teacher was saying. “Downward dog?” “Chataranga?” He kept telling me to breathe in and out in sync with my movement, but I gave up trying to follow him. I was happy to breathe at all! I kept looking at my watch. “How much longer?”

Although I knew the benefits of yoga were undeniable, I couldn’t help but feel like the elephant at the piano, that this new experience just “wasn’t me.” Every few years, prodded by my wife, I might try again. But the same feelings would crop up.

Lessons from an inflexible yogi

Now a decade later, with my own yoga mat and a regular habit, I’m learning how to deal with that “elephant at the piano” feeling. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned.

Start where you are. Instead of comparing myself to my wife, an accomplished expert, I should just compare myself to myself, and focus on my personal development.

It’s a practice that takes practice. The goal isn’t to “be good at yoga” so much as it is to practice yoga. The doing is the point. Any advance I might make in my mental or physical health will only come as a consequence of practicing. 

Pay attention! When my mind wanders, I miss the teacher’s instructions and stand there dumbly, looking around the room so I can see what I’m supposed to do. Or, worse, I simply fall down. Nothing teaches me to be present like trying to balance on one leg.

“Do what is accessible to you.” This is one of my favorite expressions that teachers use. While many personal development programs seem bent on suffering - “No pain, no gain!” - yoga teachers provide a safe environment for me to try new things, to literally and figuratively stretch myself.

The next time you’re the elephant at the piano

When I enter the yoga studio now, I know I’m in the right room. Not because I’m an expert, but because I’ve accepted that I’m a beginner, that I can make progress at my own pace. I’ve accepted that, with effort and attention, I will gradually improve and realize a range of benefits.

The next time you’re anxious at trying something new - “I can’t play this thing! I’m a flutist, for crying out loud.” - take a few deep breaths and allow yourself to start where you are.

With practice and dedication, your initial anxiety will be replaced with calm and self-compassion, and eventually lead to new feelings of confidence and clarity.

The golden ticket you’ve been holding all along

When Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory came out in 1971, I was seven years old. Even then, one scene struck me as particularly strange and uplifting. Grandpa Joe has been bedridden for twenty years, along with his wife and another old couple. He wants the best for his grandson, Charlie, but doesn’t feel there’s much he can do. Still, he offers Charlie his tobacco money so the boy can buy some chocolate and have a chance to escape, to dream, if only for a moment.

Grandpa Joe’s outlook on life is clear in the song he sings.

“I never thought my life could be

Anything but catastrophe

I never had a chance to shine

Never a happy song to sing”

But when Charlie unwraps the chocolate and there’s a glimmer of gold inside, everything changes. Grandpa Joe undergoes a transformation, getting up and dancing around the room. “I haven’t done this for twenty years!”

“But suddenly I begin to see

A bit of good luck for me

'Cause I've got a golden ticket

I've got a golden twinkle in my eye

'Cause I've got a golden ticket

I've got a golden chance to make my way

And with a golden ticket, it's a golden day"

your-golden-ticket

Here’s the thing. The ticket didn’t change his age or health or circumstances. What changed was his perspective, something he could have changed any time.

It’s hard to do. When upsetting things happen to me, my tendency is to react. I’ll curse my luck or myself, and my reactions color other areas of my life, including my relationships.

But I’m discovering I have more control than I thought. More and more, when something happens, I remember to take deep breaths, allow my initial feelings to take their course, and then reflect on what to do. I try to think about the many golden tickets I’m holding, the many reasons for joy. Sometimes I even think of Grandpa Joe and I sing the song (loudly). It takes practice, but when I remember to do these things, my perspective changes, and I feel happier.

Next time you think, “I never had a chance to shine, Never a happy song to sing,” try and reflect on the golden tickets you’re holding. Choose to dance around the bed.

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