Losing Weight in the United States is an Act of Rebellion

Disney wants to fatten you up.

Disney wants to fatten you up.

I just got back from Disneyland. Fun trip. Also a bit of a shock, in one regard.

America is fat. Seriously fat. The number of people I saw who were disabled by weight problems was disheartening and saddening.

In the Bay Area, it’s easy to forget this fact. On average, we’re thinner here. It’s not because we’re morally superior or have more willpower. It’s because we have access to fresh food, and we live in a microculture that encourages healthy eating, organic food, and exercise.

Most Americans aren’t so lucky.

What I realized, looking around at my fellow Americans, is that to eat a decent diet in most parts of the country is an act of rebellion. To eat well (real, high quality food), the average American is rebelling against:

  • what most restaurants have available on their menus
  • packaged items advertised as “food” on television
  • 9 out of 10 aisles in the average grocery store
  • cultural conditioning
  • the fattening and hormone-disrupting foods our government subsidizes (sugar, corn, wheat, soy, etc.)
  • in many cases, what your family serves for dinner

There are thousands of voices telling you to eat the wrong foods: pseudo-foods that won’t support your health; packaged foods that will make you fat (or fatter); Franken-foods that will leave you with no energy and feeling depressed.

It was a wake-up call for me … I had forgotten how bad it was out there in mainstream America. I want to reach out to U.S. readers who are struggling with weight (some of you have contacted me personally), and who may not have access to the culture of good food that is so readily available in the Bay Area and other health-conscious parts of the country.

Words of encouragement to those who would like to lose 30 or more pounds of fat (at least half the adults I saw in Disneyland could easily lose this much):

  • In most of the United States, the deck is stacked against you in terms of eating well. That doesn’t mean you can’t succeed. U.S. food culture is changing, slowly. You can be part of that change.
  • To make a change in your diet, health, and life, you will need to commit 100% to the process. To do this, take some time to consider the consequences of not changing your diet (Type 2-diabetes, reduced virility, reduced mobility, early death) and also the rewards if you do change (improved energy, physical attractiveness, self-confidence, better health, better sex life, longer life).
  • Once you commit to a change, you will get friction from your family and friends who may feel that you are judging them. Make it clear that you are just trying to get healthier, and that they do whatever they want with their own bodies, and that you are going to eat real food regardless. (Secret: if you stick with it, they’ll eventually follow)
  • Your first step, which will yield massive results, should be to eliminate or greatly reduce refined carbohydrates. This includes high-fructose corn syrup (soda), white flour (bread, pastry, donuts, etc.), and sugar (ice-cream, candy bars, etc.). If you only make one change, it should be this one. You might have a rough couple of days while your body adjusts to not having a massive flow of sugar available at all times, but you’ll adjust.
  • To get your (fat-burning) liver in good shape, go easy on the alcohol. A 40-day reset was helpful for me. Beer is good, but beer is not your friend.
  • Second in importance (after removing/reducing refined carbs) is getting rid of processed oils that oxidize easily, promoting inflammation, chronic disease, and weight gain. These include vegetable oils like corn oil, canola oil, sunflower seed oil, other seed oils, and trans-fats (partially hydrogenated oils). I’m guessing that for most Americans, the biggest sources of these oils are french fries, popcorn, and chips.
  • What should you eat instead? Fresh fruits and vegetables, good fats (extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, butter from grass-fed cows, unsalted nuts and seeds, avocado), and humanely raised animal products (the “humanely raised” is not only to be a good person, but free-roaming, grass-eating animals tend to be healthier, happier, and more healthful when you eat them, especially in terms of omega-3 fatty acid content). If you don’t have access to grass-fed meat and free-range poultry and eggs, consider supplementing your diet with fish oil (for omega-3 fatty acids), or eating more fish (but only eat wild-caught, low-mercury fish, like sardines and wild salmon).
  • Don’t replace refined carbs and classic desserts with massive amounts of “natural” fructose. Eating an apple or a square of dark chocolate is fine. Skip the 12oz. glass of OJ or big handful of raisins or granola bar. Lots of fructose is hard on your liver and will slow or prevent fat loss.
  • What about grains and beans? This is not the post where I tell you to go paleo. Unless you have serious digestive or autoimmunity issues, eat small amounts of properly-cooked beans, and lower-gluten grains like oats and rice. Organic whole-grain (or even partially whole-grain) sourdough bread may be fine too. Consuming grains and beans (neolithic/agricultural foods, which our bodies have had less evolutionary time to adjust to) are fine, for most people, in moderation (but if these foods give you digestive issues, get your complex carbs from starchy vegetables instead).
  • Get your gut bacteria working for you. Your gut biome will change as your diet changes, but you can fast-track a healthy gut biome (which will help you burn fat and improve your mood) by eating probiotic foods like raw sauerkraut and plain kefir.
  • Reduce your exposure to bisphenol-A and other hormone-disrupting chemicals. Common exposure sources are plastic water bottles, packaged foods, canned foods with plastic linings (soups, tomatoes), and thermal receipts (BPA can be absorbed through the skin).
  • If you have a deep emotional attachment to a food, eat that food once in awhile. Even eating it once a week probably won’t hurt you, as long as the rest of your diet is good. It makes sense to eliminate foods that you don’t actually enjoy that much first.
  • Don’t think in terms of dieting. Think in terms of permanent positive changes to the way you eat. Think in terms of nourishing your body, mind, and spirit.
  • Find out what works for you, in terms of your taste preferences, cultural upbringing, budget, food sensitivities, ethical standards, etc. Do it your way.


There are no magic weight loss supplements. Diuretics, stimulants, and laxatives will all harm your health — don’t take them. Some supplements may support weight loss by reducing inflammation, improving insulin sensitivity, and improving liver function. If you don’t have a negative reaction (try them one at a time so you know), the following might be helpful:

  • fish oil (2-4g/day, depending on body weight)
  • vitamin D (2000-4000IU day, depending on body weight)
  • chromium picolinate (up to 200mcg/day, support insulin sensitivity)
  • milk thistle (support liver function)

I’m not a doctor, and you should consult yours before taking any supplements.

What About Exercise?

Yes, exercise! Exercise is great for you. But in terms of losing fat, diet is at least 80% of the equation. Most people would lose fat just by walking around Disneyland if the diet part of the equation was looking better.

I think the key to a successful exercise program is finding a physical activity that you enjoy, and that is easy to do. Then do it every day.

One More Voice

I realize that there are at least 1000 blog posts offering this exact same advice. But seeing how massive of an obesity problem we still have in this country, I can’t be silent. Even if this post only helps one person lose five pounds, it will still have been worth it to me to write it.

Mainstream food culture in the U.S. still sucks. For those of you who don’t have local access to good food culture, I feel for you! Until your local culture changes, find what you need on the internet (places to buy good food, recipes, health information, like-minded folks), and keep your own standards high.

It’s rough out there. Don’t give up. Raise your standards. Corporations and government will follow where the people lead. So rebel against the bad food that makes us sick and fat. Together, we can change the USA from the land of the fat to the land of the strong.

11 Ways to Succeed as a Freelancer


Lance at the ready!

I’ve worked as an independent contractor for about twenty years (with a few breaks to try out working full time, or not working at all). I always came back to “freelancing” (I love that word — it implies you’re in armor, on your trusty steed, ready to ride into battle in exchange for a full coin purse) because of the flexibility, high compensation, and variety.

Blog reader Marcin asked awhile back for insights on freelancing. I’ve done my best to compile a few insights below. Some of these came easy, others “the hard way.” My own field is database application development, but I think the ideas will carry over to most types of freelance work.

1. Go Where the Work Is

It doesn’t make sense to take on the uncertainty of working for yourself unless there is work to do. Generally it’s not a good idea to develop a specialized skill set and then spend time searching for a where to apply that skill (and try to get paid). Successful freelancers find the work first, then find a way to do it (learning new skills as needed).

I think many freelance careers get started with a regular job. If you and your current employer can come to an agreement — specific work for specific compensation — it may benefit both of you. You’ll gain more time, more freedom, and higher hourly compensation. Your employer stands to pay less tax, and less money overall to retain your specialized skills.

2. Your Client’s Success = Your Success

Help your clients succeed. Own their problems and provide solutions. If you adopt this attitude, your clients will come to trust you and depend on you.

3. Underpromise and Overdeliver

Build “buffer time” into your estimates and quotes, both in terms of billable hours (or days) and actual time. What initially sounds easy invariably isn’t — if the work were easy they wouldn’t be paying you good money to do it. Expect hidden complexity, additional requests not included in the original specification, and unanticipated problems, all as a matter of course.

Once you’ve underpromised, work hard to come in below budget and ahead of time. Once again this will build trust in the relationship and you will come to be seen as reliable and dependable.

4. You’re only as good as your last job.

If you blow it, don’t expect to be hired for the next project. As a freelancer, you’re free to say yes or no to both projects and clients, but so are your clients. Don’t expect loyalty.

So try not to blow it. Come through for your clients. Deliver results, not excuses!

That said, you might get fired, and then rehired, and never know it. If you mess up, salvage things as best you can and don’t burn any bridges. You might receive a call in a year or two, when your client realizes you didn’t do such a bad job after all (maybe they tried hiring someone else who did an even worse job).

5. Try to maintain at least five active (or semi-active) clients.

Usually one or two clients will take up the majority of your time. But invariably, even if you have been delivering quality work, things will slow down. Maybe your main contact at the organization will go on vacation, or get a new job. Maybe your client will switch technology platforms, or business focus, or even move operations to a different city. Expect change.

The only way to have a steady flow of work as a freelancer is to reach “critical mass” in terms of the number of clients you support. This will require you to be able to handle multiple simultaneous projects and “crunch times,” but it will provide security in terms of income flow.

6. Expect your clients to mirror your behavior.

Your clients will probably mirror whatever standards you set in terms of communication style and habits, so consciously set a standard you are comfortable with.

For example, if you don’t like working at night, don’t call or email your client (or respond to emails or calls) after 5pm. They’ll quickly get the message.

When I communicate with a tone that is friendly but semi-formal, my clients respond in the same way.  I prefer it when communications are concise, clear, and specific, so I apply those standards to my own communications and generally find them mirrored back.

7. Don’t tolerate abuse.

One of the joys of working for yourself is that you never have to tolerate tyrannical or even unreasonable behavior. This has almost NEVER been an issue — I really like the vast majority of my clients — so when recently someone associated with one my clients was unreasonable and rude during a phone conversation, I was genuinely surprised.

I resolved never to speak with that person on the phone again. I expressed this intention to my client and they were 100% supportive; it turned out there was no need for the two of us to directly communicate. Problem solved.

Very rarely you may find that you can’t tolerate the communication style or demands of a client. In those cases you can “fire” your clients, or explicitly state your communication requirements and allow your client to either conform or find someone else to do the work.

8. Understand and master your internal monologue.

It’s likely that as a freelancer there will be times when you feel confused, lost, and overwhelmed. This could be a result of taking on more work than you can handle, encountering difficult problems, asymmetrical expectations, or communication breakdowns.

At times like these, don’t talk yourself into a pit of despair. Problems feel unsolvable until you solve them (and then, with hindsight, you usually realize they weren’t that hard).

Use language to reduce the intensity of your emotions, when necessary. Why not consider an “impossible” problem to be “a tad challenging”?

Usually, when you feel overwhelmed, you need one of the following:

  • a break
  • a good night’s sleep
  • someone in your field to bounce the problem off of
  • more information from your client

Try to avoid words like “impossible” and “can’t”. Instead, look for ways to deliver value to your client. And remember most clients will be open to alternate solutions and unconventional approaches as long as they work.

9. Bill fairly (fair to both your client and yourself)

Your client should have the experience of getting good value for the money they pay you. That feeling is more important than the actual amount of money, so make sure they get it. Regardless of how many hours you put into the project, the client’s feelings about the end result will have more to do with:

  • Did the deliverable match or exceed their expectations?
  • Did the deliverable make them look good?
  • Did your work make their job easier?
  • Did they feel listened to and respected during the work process?
  • Did you respond to change requests and other service needs in a timely, helpful manner?

Your clients will feel much better paying $10,000 for a product and process that feels high quality than $5,000 for a difficult process and a shoddy deliverable. Fairness in your client’s mind corresponds to value received, not the actual amount of money.

The amount you bill should be fair to you as well. As a freelancer you will be paying for things that most regular employees have covered or subsidized (health insurance, self-employment tax, savings plan, and so on). Of course you need to consider what price the market will bear, but don’t charge too little for your services.

10. Don’t disregard “small” clients

Make sure you maintain your high standards for quality at all times, even for “small” clients. You never know when a “small” client might turn into a tsunami of work and money. The tiny project you’re working on might only be the tip of a gigantic iceberg.

11. Love What You Do

Even more important than “doing what you love” (though I’m not knocking it) is loving the work you do have.

But how?

For most people, helping people feels good. And getting paid well to do it doesn’t hurt. So that’s a good start. Deliver great value to your clients and feel good about it!

Often the “bad” parts of a job can be eliminated by simply choosing to do things a different way. I have a “don’t” list that I’m strict about. I just avoid the following, because I’ve learned over times these are the precise situations and circumstances that make me miserable (and life is too short to make yourself miserable on purpose).

  • working with a slow or unreliable internet connection
  • working nights or over the weekend
  • working when I’m tired or hungry (take a nap or eat instead)
  • working more than about twenty-five hours a week
  • working for organizations or companies who I don’t think are acting ethically or creating real value

These rules aren’t hard and fast — sometimes I’ll do some work in the evening for a client if it will really help them out. But there’s no reason to work under poor conditions when you have the choice not to.

So avoiding pain is half of the equation. The other half is actively enjoying the work. I find that I consistently enjoy my work more when I do the following:

  • when I’m friendly with clients and get to know them as people
  • when I strive for the highest possible quality
  • when I take the time to learn new techniques and methods
  • when I frame problems as puzzles or challenges
  • when I push myself to learn and use new tools and languages
  • when I take time time to optimize my working environment (light, sound, music, fresh air, ergonomics, etc.)

Remember that deferring happiness until you are successful is always the wrong strategy. When you succeed, your mind will simply pick a new success target, and you will be stuck deferring happiness forever!

Instead, find ways to be happy moment to moment, in the work. Feeling good will increase your effectiveness and chances at success.

Square One

If you are just starting to think about a freelance career, I would recommend this post from Ramit Sethi. Ramit makes the excellent point that everyone has marketable skills, and he provides some tools to help you think flexibly about your own skills (which you might take for granted … it’s easy assume that just because you know how to do something that everyone else does too).

I hope this list was helpful for you freelancers and aspiring freelancers. Please share your own insights below!

Changing Habits — 5 Specific Proven Techniques

What would YOU do for a scrap of bacon?

What would YOU do for a scrap of bacon?

Recently I’ve become fascinated with learning and implementing techniques to replace destructive habits with helpful ones. I’m particularly interested in giving up the habit of aimless web-browsing and other forms of online procrastination in order to become a more prolific writer. I not only want to write more words, but also to increase the intensity of my attention and quality of focus so that I can create higher quality work (I believe the two go together; increased quantity leads to increased quality).

I’ve made some progress over the last two years. I’m regularly reaching my goal of 15,000 words/month on my current novel, in addition to writing 2-3 blog posts a month. I’m curious to see how those numbers will change if I’m able to effectively implement all of the techniques below. Right now, if I were to give myself a grade in regards to how effectively I use my writing time, I’d give myself a C- (barely passing). I know I can do better.

The Problem: I either delay or interrupt my own writing process by distracting myself with email, checking social media feeds, checking link sites like reddit, or reading news and opinion articles.

The Ideal Behavior Pattern: Start writing without delay around 8:45am. Take breaks as needed to stretch, pace, exercise, and think, but don’t go down the internet rabbit hole.

The techniques below can be applied to any kind of desired behavior change, including quitting smoking, eating more healthful food, drinking less alcohol (or none at all), not fighting with your children or partner, etc.

Technique 1: Align Your Emotions with Your Intent by Asking the Hard Questions, then Commit

This is an area that I was neglecting until I read Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins. I bought my copy used for $0.01 on amazon and it’s worth every penny. Just kidding — even though there are many references to events in the nineties, the psychological techniques discussed in the book are as relevant and valuable today as they were fifteen years ago. You can download the eBook for free using the link above.

The basic idea is to associate pain with not changing the behavior and pleasure with changing the behavior. What do you stand to lose if you don’t change? In regards to smoking and other health-destroying habits, the stakes are high; you could lose your good health, and/or twenty-plus years of your life.

Web-browsing might not sound as serious as smoking, alcoholism, or destructive drug-use, but when I asked the hard questions, I realized there was a lot of potential pain associated with NOT establishing good concentration and work habits. Any chance at establishing a new career from scratch (regardless of age) depends on intense focus, productivity, and the ability to resist distractions. I really would like to call myself a novelist one day, and if I don’t take full advantage of the free time, clear mind, abundance of ideas, good eyesight, and otherwise ideal circumstances that I am fortunate enough to be experiencing at this time in my life, I will regret it.

It was more fun to consider the pleasure side of the equation. Writing prolifically is a key part of fulfilling a major childhood dream of being a novelist. There’s also the immediate, daily satisfaction of completing a great writing session (I’m on top of the world for hours). When I write well I feel like I’m fulfilling my potential as a human being. Whether it’s blog posts that might inspire other people, or science-fiction that could entertain, inspire, or even add to the collective imagination of what humanity might become, writing lifts me up and expands my mental horizons.

I don’t get that feeling when I fritter away valuable hours and only manage to get a few anemic sentences down.

So those are the stakes. The last step of this technique is committing. Was I ready to commit to being a prolific writer? To raise the bar from should to must? Yes, absolutely. Carefully considering the stakes made that decision easy.

Is there a change you’re gearing up to make in your own life? A habit you’re ready to change, permanently? Do the exercise above and you’ll be ready now.

Go ahead. Bookmark this post, stop reading, and do the exercise above. What pain is associated with not changing? What pleasure is associated with changing? Do what it takes to gain the emotional resolve, then commit.

Committing isn’t the end of the process, of course …

Technique 2: Make the Good Habit Easy and the Bad Habit Difficult

This is the part where we use our natural laziness as human beings to our own advantage. Making a bad habit even slightly less convenient (or the converse, making a good habit more convenient) is hugely effective. Google demonstrated this principle by putting candy in opaque jars and healthier snacks in clear ones. Over a seven-week period Google employees consumed 3.1 million calories fewer of M&Ms.

Before I start writing, I disable the WiFi on my computer (unless I’m working on the blog — then I need the internet in order to create links within posts). At other times I’ve used site-blocking software like RescueTime and Freedom to curb my internet use. These tools work pretty well.

On the “more convenient” side I always keep a shortcut to my current manuscript right on my desktop, so I don’t have to dig around in folders to open it.

Other examples that could apply to other habits:

The “make bad habits harder” strategy works pretty well, but I’ve run into limitations. If I’m not fully committed to behavior change, I can always find a way around these “soft” restrictions. Maybe you have a friend who has halfheartedly decided to “smoke less” and therefore only bums cigarettes instead of buying them?

Other issues arise when your family or cohabitators aren’t on board. Maybe you’re ready to give up chocolate but your wife isn’t. Maybe unplugging the internet router would be great for you, but would through a wrench in your roommate’s workflow. In that case you need to support your behavior change with other techniques.

Technique 3: Understand the Cues, and Disrupt the Habitual Behavior

These days, when I catch myself going to a website or checking email or Twitter when I should be working, I make a loud siren noise with my mouth, like a fire alarm going off. Then, out loud, I describe the exact details of the offending behavior, and coach myself back to a more productive mode.

Good thing I work from home, right?

Let me explain how I arrived at the above technique …

Earlier this year I realized I had fallen into a less-than-ideal morning ritual. The experience of turning on my computer, drinking coffee, checking email, and looking at Facebook, reddit, nytimes.com, and other sites (I’m sure you have your own list) had become comfortable, easy, and habitual. This wouldn’t have been a problem if the web-browsing only lasted for five or ten minutes, but I often found it difficult to break out of this “easy web-browsing mode” into the more mentally strenuous work of writing, revising, etc. Major time wasted! I might still cram in some work before lunch, but many mornings I would end up frustrated with myself, even angry at myself for wasting so much time. Yet I felt powerless to stop it.

My first attempt at breaking up this pattern was to NOT start my day with turning on my computer. Instead, I used a pen and notebook to sketch out my ideas, plans, and thoughts about the day. This resulted in a more conscious start. It’s a good habit and I’ve easily maintained it since I wrote that post back in April.

My second attempt at breaking the pattern was to manipulate the cue of drinking coffee. I recognized that drinking coffee had become a cue for web-browsing, so I experimented with not drinking coffee until I was actually working on fiction-writing. This worked reasonably well and increased my word count, but it wasn’t the ideal strategy. Coffee drinking was a trigger, but it was also a reward, and sometimes I just delayed coffee drinking until I got a minor caffeine headache. The process started to feel too convoluted and unpleasant, so I abandoned it and went back to studying how habits are constructed from cues, behaviors, and rewards.

Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, explains that a habit is constructed of a cue (or trigger), a behavior, and a reward. If we can develop an awareness of what sensory inputs trigger the behavior we want to change, we can modify our response to the cue.

So far I’ve noticed several cues that precede my habit of internet browsing, including:

  • turning on the computer
  • finishing a chunk of work (a scene or even a paragraph)
  • hitting a mental block … not sure how to proceed

Now, if I find myself starting to go down the internet rabbit hole, I use what Tony Robbins calls a “pattern interrupt” to disrupt the behavior (thus the siren noises and out-loud verbal self-coaching).

So far this has been very effective. But it only addresses part of the habit — the cue or trigger. What about the reward?

Technique 4: Understand and Reprogram the Reward

For lasting habit change I knew I needed to identify the reward I was getting from self-distraction, and find an alternate means of getting it.

Getting a better understanding of the triggers helped me understand the reward. I think the reward I get from self-distraction is a break in intensity, a rest for my brain.

The problem with using the infinite entertainment and distraction potential of the internet is that a five minute break can turn into a twenty or sixty minute break all too easily. Also, I don’t get the full benefits of a break, like moving around, looking at something besides a screen, doing a quick household chore, or even briefly exercising.

A household chore as a reward? Really? If you don’t understand this, you’re not a writer. ;-)

Even worse, if I check email there’s a good chance my brain won’t get any rest at all, but will be pulled into a different problem. Too many times I’ve lost writing momentum because I read a client email, and my brain got sucked into how to solve that problem. It’s not fair either to my creative process or to my client to give each half my attention.

So if I feel the need for a break, I give myself a break. I might sit in a chair in my yard and soak up some sun, or do some pullups on the plum tree, or sit and meditate for a few minutes, or get a water or coffee refill. Ideally I try to keep it physical and short, then get back to work.

When I took a break from drinking, I found I was able to achieve many of the associated rewards without actually consuming any alcohol. San Pellegrino in a wine glass went a long way: something a little fancy, treating myself well, hydrating, mouth sensation, etc. Sometimes I found the craving for wine was actually a craving for sugar … adding a little juice to the carbonated water helped satisfy that need. The substitutions I used for wine, beer, and scotch help me understand that when I thought I was craving a drink, at times I was craving something else (water, sugar, being nice to myself, relaxing, time with family or friends). I probably drink about half as much now as compared to before I took the break.

Technique 5: Repeat and Reinforce Good Behavior

Eventually a good habit rewards itself. When I changed my eating and supplementation habits and eventually was able to breathe normally, the idea of going back to my old lifestyle habits held zero appeal. Nothing beats breathing.

But when you’re just starting to change a bad habit and/or establish a new one, it’s important to reward yourself immediately when you do something right.

The rewards don’t have to be big. But at least pat yourself on the back. I use out-loud verbal coaching to this effect, congratulating myself when I take a minor step in the right direction. When I reach a major milestone I usually treat myself to something … a small purchase or a nice meal.

It’s important to keep rewards simple and immediate. A complicated reward (like a trip to a foreign country) requires a great deal of work to implement. Your mind might not perceive it as positive reinforcement by the time it happens.

The most effective reward schedules are intermittent and variable. Don’t always reward yourself for good behavior, and mix it up both in terms of the kind and size of the reward. After a good writing session I’ll sometimes reward myself with dark chocolate, a walk around the neighborhood (sometimes I’ll stop by the local record store). If I finish a draft I’m going to splurge on something. My brain is going to know I did something right.

I guess there’s some possibility of creating a new bad habit by reinforcing a new good habit. You’re not going to replace smoking with candy bars, or drinking beer with drinking soda, are you?

Line ‘Em Up, Knock ‘Em Down

It’s not a bad way to approach life change. Line up the bad habits and turn them into good habits, one by one. After I kick the aimless web-browsing habit I have a few more in the queue.

What habit are you committed to changing in your own life? Step up and comment below.

Family Values — A Different Take

In the United States, the phrase “family values” tends to be associated with a conservative “1950’s style” family structure and lifestyle, including a heterosexual marriage, a bread-winning father, a homemaker mother, and multiple children.

There’s nothing wrong with that kind of family, but it’s not accurate to consider this kind of family as “normal”. Most families in the United States don’t look like this.

The way the term “family values” is used politically angers me — it attempts to marginalize families with gay parents, single parents, even couples who elect not to have children.

What makes a “real family”? Love and commitment. That’s it.

Maybe it’s time to reclaim the phrase. What if “family values” simply referred to the particular values that your family holds?

The idea is simple: sit down with your family and discuss what’s important to all of you. What values can you agree on? What does it mean to be a member of your family?

This isn’t a new idea, but rather a trend that’s gaining momentum. I can’t remember where I first read about this particular exercise, but here’s another post that describes it.

Our daughter is six, and you can see a six-year-old’s voice in the some of the items below. First-graders tend to make fun of each other mercilessly, and she decided she didn’t need that at home. So for now, we’ve agreed to not make fun of each other.

Our daughter sees these more as “rules” — she doesn’t quite get what a value is. Kia and I see the list as aspirational. It’s what our family looks like on a good day (or week).

What is your family about? Articulating your values is powerful. Co-defining your values pulls your family together, like gravity (but doesn’t bind you, like glue).

Values ripple out. Your small (or big) family unit may be more influential than you realize. Values are contagious. Like cold viruses, values spread through children.

Here’s the list my own family came up with (in no particular order, redundancies and family slang included). If you do the exercise, feel free to post your own results below.

What does it mean to be a member of our family?

  • We take care of each other.
  • We help each other with projects and tasks.
  • We share enthusiasm.
  • We listen to each other.
  • We prepare and enjoy healthy meals together.
  • We make good food.
  • We accept each other for who we are.
  • We celebrate birthdays and holidays* together.
  • We are polite and respectful and nice to each other.
  • We go on adventurecations together.
  • We learn together.
  • We go to family camp together.
  • We read together.
  • We don’t make fun of each other.
  • We go on bike rides together.
  • We go to the movies together.
  • We play games together.
  • We spend time in nature together.
  • We help our community together.
  • We help our friends and extended family.
  • We try to make the world a better place.
  • We are loving towards each other.

* we celebrate all of the Jewish holidays, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween … we are equal-opportunity observers (and yes I’m an atheist — but I don’t think religious practice needs to be tied to beliefs)

What was the result of completing this exercise?

As I mentioned above, our daughter has assigned herself the “enforcer” of the “family rules.” Even though she is selective and self-serving in her enforcement, her reminders do sometimes get us back on the right track.

What happens when you explicitly define your values is that inevitably you start to notice discrepancies between your stated values and your behavior.

A less-developed mind will shout “Hypocrisy!” and condemn the value setter.

But what’s the alternative? Lower standards? Not stating and therefore not knowing what your other family members hold dear?

Some “falling short” is inevitable. But it’s also inevitable that once you search your heart and then mentally focus your feelings into values, you’ll find yourself moving towards them.

Explicitly stated values vs. habitual behaviors create friction and tension within the mind. That leads to growth.

So slowly, day-by-day, we’re getting a little closer to what we all consider to be ideal family relations and activities.

In addition to growth, I have a secure feeling that I know what we’re about, as a family. It won’t be the same as your family (though there might be a lot of overlap). Each family is unique.

Conscious Growth — Personal vs Familial

Defining our values as a family made me consider what my own personal values are. The exercise served as a catalyst for my own personal growth. I ended up following-up with a series of exercises where I defined and prioritized both my positive and negative values (things that I want to have both more of or less of in my life). I’ll describe this process more in a later post.

Values as Cultural DNA

I sometimes think about my eight great-grandparents, and how they influenced me. I only knew one of them personally, and of course she was a really old lady when I was a little kid — I never got a good sense of what she was about.

But I know those eight people shaped me, not only through bits of DNA, not only via their life events that activated or inactivated various genes via epigenetic methylation, but through values, implicit and explicit, that they held and lived by. My strengths, my weaknesses, my hopes and fears, everything about me was greatly influenced by those eight people — even though I only met one of them.

Their values were passed down to my grandparents, to my parents, and then to me. No doubt some changes were made along the way. Sometimes we reject our parents’ values, because those values suck. But that kind of change takes tremendous self-analysis and effort, and even then we can find ourselves walking in our parents’ footsteps.

Take the time to consider your own values, and what values you’re passing on to your children (or whatever children you come into contact with in your life, even if they’re not your own). Make the passage of “cultural DNA” a little more conscious, a little more intentional.


How To Trigger Super-Momentum

Super-momentum: life in the productivity fast lane

Super-momentum: life in the productivity fast lane

No more than a dozen times in my life, I have experienced a state of what I call “super-momentum.” For days, sometimes weeks at a time, I operated at a extremely high level of energy, excitement, and creativity. I became so absorbed in my work that becoming distracted wasn’t an issue; I was distraction proof. I slept less and ate less, but had more energy. At times ideas came so quickly that I struggled to capture them, getting up in the middle of the night or pulling over in traffic to write them down.

There’s a clinical word that describes aspects of this psychological state: hypomania. But whereas hypomania is often associated with distractibility and thrill-seeking behavior (gambling, shopping sprees, sexual promiscuity, etc.), I associate super-momentum with extreme focus in a single work area, and the application of 100% of the excess energy to the work in question.

There are multiple advantages to having a singular focus. With project immersion, the subconscious mind is always engaged with the material (though other life areas may suffer from lack of attention and processing power). Project progress increases because there is less “loading” time; since the mind is continually engaged, you don’t have to “remember where you were” when you start working. You already know! This also reduces initial resistance/willpower expenditure for starting each work session. Instead of knowing and dreading the mentally strenuous work of reviewing your work for half an hour (or longer) to “get back in the groove,” you just pick up right where you left off the night before. You’re already in the groove — you never left.

Super-momentum is similar to Csikszentmihalyi’s flow, but I consider super-momentum to be more agitated, more based on heightened physiology (dopamine, sex hormones), and less reliably triggered. And while flow is characterized as “enjoyment in the process of the activity,” I would describe super-momentum as an ecstatic, near-frantic, inspired, completely focused work hustle.

It’s a great drug, and I’d like more of it. But it’s not something money can buy.

So, the questions:

  • Is super-momentum worth triggering? Does it actually result in value being created? Or is it just another high to be chased?
  • Is it possible to trigger super-momentum, and if so, how? What circumstances lead to this explosive burst of energy, enthusiasm, motivation, and productivity?
  • Are there negative effects of super-momentum, in terms of psychological strain, physical stress, and general wear-and-tear? Is the comedown painful? Is “project completion letdown” inevitable?

Is Super-Momentum Worth Triggering?

Absolutely yes. While not every period of super-momentum in my own life has paid off in every way, all have paid off in some way. To list just a few examples:

  • I spent weeks in a state of super-momentum writing an artificial life emulation program that took my programming skills to the next level. I still sometimes reference the source code of this application when solving similar problems.
  • For at least a full month I became complete absorbed in Minecraft, sleeping very little and thinking about the game constantly. My brain was so “activated” that I made major breakthroughs on completely unrelated problems (client work) during this period of time.
  • Momu and Grayarea collaborated during a very short window of opportunity. A sixteen-hour work session led to a week of very intense follow-up work, resulting in the track “One” which has generated thousands of dollars in royalty income.

In the long-run, these brief periods of super-momentum are mere blips when compared to productivity and results from consistent daily disciplined work. But still, these blips interest me. Not only are they fun when you’re in them, but many artists and writers I respect and admire seem to be able to consistently generate super-momentum, dramatically increasing their productivity during focused periods of being completely ON.

Is it Possible to Trigger Super-Momentum? If So, How?

Since flow is a possible subset of super-momentum, what have psychologists already determined are the prerequisites for the former?

In order to achieve flow, Csikszentmihalyi lays out the following three conditions:

  1. Goals are clear
  2. Feedback is immediate
  3. A balance between opportunity and capacity (the task is sufficiently challenging but not overwhelmingly difficult)

On most days I can enter a flow state (as characterized here) for at least a few hours. But I don’t know if I can consistently generate the heightened physiological state I associate with super-momentum. As a start, in terms of reverse-engineering, here are the factors (in addition to the above) that I associate with super-momentum:

  • a great idea
  • competition (personal, not abstract)
  • a crush/a muse
  • hunger for success and recognition
  • decent tools and working environment
  • an inflexible deadline
  • powerful collaborators or helpers
  • creating something that will really help or inspire other people
  • breaking new ground (in terms of knowledge, style, or genre)
  • some drugs (modafinil, bromocriptine, caffeine, etc.)
  • being in good physical shape and generally healthy
  • incremental success (power-ups)
  • emotional intensity (including heartbreak, joy, grief, love)
  • working hard, playing hard
  • terrible consequences if I don’t succeed
  • a big payoff if I do succeed
  • getting “amped” because of excitement around an activity or an upcoming event or release (anticipation)
  • extended hyperfocus (for example videogame immersion)
  • an extended period of quiet solitude or near-solitude, time and space to completely relax, decompress, reflect, and even become bored

I have personal experience with all of these factors except for modafinil (which I am curious about, but wary of). Some of these factors are within personal control, but just as many aren’t. Part of super-momentum might simply be utilizing the enormous energy that comes with momentous life events (births, deaths, falling in love, getting dumped, etc.).

Drugs are within one’s personal control, but to me that seems a dangerous route (for example, I could imagine quickly and efficiently writing an absolutely worthless one-thousand page novel under the influence of modafinal).  I once tried bromocriptine (which increases dopamine levels) as an experiment, and  once was enough. I consume a moderate amount of caffeine from dark roast coffee, but medium roasts leave me dehydrated and jittery — I’m not interested in increasing my caffeine intake.

What other factors are controllable?

  •  Setting an ambitious but achievable goal
  • Agreeing to a tight, inflexible deadline, such that other people are depending on you to deliver
  • Choosing subject matter than can potentially have a real impact or break new ground
  • Maintaining and optimizing your infrastructure and work environment so that when inspiration and energy do strike, you are not slowed down with mundane “fixit” tasks and distractions
  • Underscheduling and undercommitting, so that you end up with “empty space” in your life (and not filling that space with distractions like television — get bored enough so that your mind starts racing for its own entertainment — see Oates tweet above)
  • Engaging in a rich social life (ideally centered on or related to your work area) so that you increase your potential exposure to mentors, muses/crushes, rivals, and collaborators, all who can dramatically spur your motivation and amp up your nervous system.

This is the first time I’ve thought about this analytically. I’m surprised by how many super-momentum associated factors are potentially controllable. Maybe super-momentum can be engineered.

Can you Create Your Own Motivation and Excitement?

According to Neil deGrasse Tyson, yes.

“The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation. For me, I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.

- Neil deGrasse Tyson’s response on Reddit when asked “What can you tell a young man looking for motivation in life itself?”

What Tyson doesn’t explain is how. How do you go from sitting on the couch feeling blah to firing on all cylinders?

Well first, get off the couch. As Tony Robbins likes to say, “emotion is created by motion.” [Tony Robbins “Ultimate Edge — Hour of Power” mp3, link borrowed from this Tim Ferriss post]

Exercise generally stimulates dopaminergic systems, which generally increases motivation (though the neuroscience is complex; higher dopamine in some brain areas increases motivation, while higher dopamine in other brain areas increases awareness of the costs of certain behaviors).

So daily exercise is a must if you want to boost your “get up and go,” with the caveat being that you don’t want to overdo it and end up in a state of chronic inflammation. Lifting heavy weights or going on long runs every day will just exhaust most people. Walking or bicycling or yoga everyday plus short bursts of more intense exercise (sprints, weights) is probably a good balance.

But brisk walks won’t get you to super-momentum. You need to be excited about your work.

Well, what if you aren’t excited? Can this be changed?

Author Rachel Aaron has a good perspective on this. In this blog post she describes how she went from writing 2000 words a day to 10,000 words a day. She breaks her approach into three core requirements:

  1. Time (track productivity and evaluate)
  2. Knowledge (know what you’re writing before you write it)
  3. Enthusiasm (get excited about what you’re writing)

She has valuable insight into all three areas. I’d recommend her post to all writers. But for the more general purposes of this post, her insights into generating enthusiasm are the most relevant. From Aaron’s post:

The answer was head-slappingly obvious. Those days I broke 10k were the days I was writing scenes I’d been dying to write since I planned the book. They were the candy bar scenes, the scenes I wrote all that other stuff to get to. By contrast, my slow days (days where I was struggling to break 5k) corresponded to the scenes I wasn’t that crazy about.

This was a duh moment for me, but it also brought up a troubling new problem. If I had scenes that were boring enough that I didn’t want to write them, then there was no way in hell anyone would want to read them. This was my novel, after all. If I didn’t love it, no one would.

Fortunately, the solution turned out to be, yet again, stupidly simple. Every day, while I was writing out my little description of what I was going to write for the knowledge component of the triangle, I would play the scene through in my mind and try to get excited about it. I’d look for all the cool little hooks, the parts that interested me most, and focus on those since they were obviously what made the scene cool. If I couldn’t find anything to get excited over, then I would change the scene, or get rid of it entirely. I decided then and there that, no matter how useful a scene might be for my plot, boring scenes had no place in my novels.

This applies to all creative/innovative pursuits — not just fiction writing. If it’s boring, why are you working on it? Skip ahead to the good part or the interesting part.

You may need to come back to the “boring bits” of the project later, but if you’re already in a state of super-momentum, you’ll blast through them effortlessly.

Are There Negative Effects of Super-Momentum?

Obviously, being amped up physically and mentally for an extended period of time (even if drug free) is going to take its toll. More free radicals, more stress hormones, and accelerated aging are probably inevitable to some extent.

Super-momentum is not the fountain of youth. It’s burning the candle at both ends. Even if the high is natural, all highs are followed by a low.

In addition to physical and mental stress, focusing all your energy and attention on a single life area means that other parts of your life (household, relationships, children, eating well, sleeping well, other work areas) are going to be temporarily neglected.

In addition, when you come down (and you will eventually come down), you won’t have the energy to energetically deal with these neglected areas. You’ll be drained. After expending an enormous amount of energy and delivering or otherwise completing your project (or possibly abandoning it), you’ll experience letdown. While life coaches and therapists might distinguish physiological depression from post-project depletion, they feel about the same.

The advantage of going through the latter is that you know why (you just pushed yourself like a maniac, and now you’re out of gas), and you know that with rest and recuperation, you’ll bounce back and regain that life spark.

So pursue super-momentum at your own risk. There will be downsides. A near constant state of super-momentum without corresponding periods of rest and recuperation might lead to gigantic leaps in terms of career success, but long-term health life effects might include:

  • obesity, from sleep deprivation and circadian disruption
  • insulin resistance, see above
  • chronic inflammation, manifesting in joint pain, back pain
  • chronic depression
  • drug and alcohol abuse
  • damage to personal relationships, from neglect and/or volatile emotions
  • self-doubt, loss of sense of purpose, “Why am I doing this?”

To these risks you might say “So what?” In the famous words of a super-momentum enthusiast:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”

- Hunter S. Thompson

He was a man true to his word.

On the other hand, there are equal or even greater risks to not pushing yourself, to eating and resting too much, to not discovering and stoking your inner fire. These risks are both physical and psychological. Chronic stress is terrible for health, but acute stress is necessary. A sedentary life devoid of all challenges is a fast track to obesity, heart disease, cancer, and dementia. Consider:

Work “sprints” (via super-momentum) are not necessarily bad for your health as long as you take some downtime to recover. Here are some basic life and health precautions to take if you are chasing the dragon of super-momentum:

  • stay super-hydrated
  • get at least five hours of sleep a night
  • eat at least one healthy meal a day
  • don’t use stimulants stronger than tea or coffee
  • rely on “natural” sources of motivation (see above) instead of drugs (including all so-called “smart drugs”)
  • start with “money in the bank” (literally, but also in terms of relationships, core infrastructure, etc.)
  • take extra care to be polite, patient, respectful, and considerate to your loved ones (your agitated, hypersensitive, hyperactive state will make you prone to snapping and snap judgements)
  • when its time to come down, come down gracefully (sleep more, eat well, decompress, pamper yourself, recuperate, thank everybody who supported you during your sprint, return the favor)

This cautionary tale from author-turned-cocaine-and-videogame-addict Tom Bissell is worth reading. It’s possible to amp yourself up into a state of hypomania and hyperfocus that feels like super-momentum, but moves your life backwards instead of forwards. While I’ve never gotten into recreational drugs, I can relate to the lure of videogames. These days I have a simple rule of “no entertainment during the workday” (including web browsing) that keeps me from falling into false “feeling productive while doing nothing productive” traps.

So Who Wins, The Tortoise or the Hare?

Well, we all know that slow and steady wins the race. There is no substitute for establishing rock-solid daily habits that inch you closer to your goals, day by day.

But there is a place for sprints, for extremes. Especially to reach the heights of artistic or innovative greatness, these sprints might be required.

So the tortoise wins the horizontal race, but the hare gets more air.

Or maybe, once in awhile, the tortoise bursts into a sprint.