Secondhand Life

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I Didn’t Mean To Detach Myself

I misunderstood. I thought that detachment meant to detach from my thoughts and feelings. That was wrong. Now, I believe it means to detach from the perceived outcomes of the thoughts and feelings, not the thoughts and feelings themselves. To feel the feeling and think the thought, but not ascribe any importance to the result.

My analogy of having a guest bedroom in my mind and letting my thoughts and feelings stay there until they choose to leave is incorrect. That is not how to welcome guests. As a matter of fact, my thoughts and feelings are not guests at all. They are me. I should celebrate my happy thoughts and feelings. And I should comfort my sad thoughts and feelings. I should welcome them with open arms, merge with them, experience them, and when they have run their course, hug them and bid them farewell.

I’ve kept my thoughts and feelings once removed, separated from my self. Saying I didn’t trust them is tantamount to saying I didn’t accept them as a part of me. As a result, I’ve been half dead because I’ve prevented a major part of myself from living. This is why my numbness exists and where my passions have gone to slumber and die (see Killing My Feelings).

Treating my thoughts and emotions as unwelcome has separated me from life. All that happens out there needs to be experienced as what happens inside me, as the physical sensations and their accompanying thoughts and feelings. After all, my reality is what I create it to be inside me. By denying my thoughts and emotions, I’ve numbed out reality. I’ve only been partially accepting it and as a result, partially living it.

I’ve taken the wrong detour, gone way down a path I didn’t mean to go down, and ended up with a secondhand life.

Single Core Awareness

In an earlier post, Acceptance: I Think And Feel, Therefore Nothing, I talked about how I learned to observe my feelings and thoughts as they came into being. This implied that there was a separate awareness different from whatever was doing the thinking or feeling.

Currently, I believe that there is only one awareness, one stream of consciousness. That awareness first feels or thinks something, and then switches to examine the result of what it was like to feel or think that something (memory and physical sensations). There aren’t two awarenesses, one doing the experiencing and the other observing the first. It’s just one awareness doing the one (experiencing) and then the other (observing the results of the experience). Similar to how old single CPU, single core computers faked multitasking, the focus of awareness shifts so fast that it appears to be simultaneous.

A single awareness makes the gap in stimulus and response possible. Basically, the experience of feeling or thinking is first broken and then the focus moves to examining the resulting physical sensations in the body and the memory of that emotion or thought. If I get upset during a conversation, I stop feeling upset first, observe that my face is flushed, ponder what could be causing the irritation, and then decide whether to continue the conversation or leave. This timeout takes place in a split second and is a learned behavior.

In the past, my negative emotions and thoughts were short-circuited and weren’t allowed to cause bad behavior. The problem is that I was also prematurely aborting positive feelings and thoughts and never switching back from observing them. The positive emotions and thoughts were never allowed to grow to completion. Both intense hatred and passions were not allowed to come into being.

As a result, my experience of life was shortchanged. Instead of living firsthand, I was stepping back and observing myself living. In effect, I was living a secondhand life.

Just Be, Bad or Good

I want to fully experience my thoughts and feelings. To just be them. Good and bad. But I don’t want to act less than my best because of them. Surprising, I think I know how to do that.

The act of thinking and feeling generates judgments (of the persons and event) and expectations (of outcomes), which when acted upon can lead to adverse behaviors. So, I just have to not attach to the judgments and expectations so they won’t affect my behavior, right? I think I can do that with reframing and anti-expectations.

I’ve been training myself to switch back if I slip into observing mode. Once the feeling or thought died or grew as big as I was willing to allow it to, I used the observer mode to detach from any resulting judgments and expectations. This wasn’t easy to learn to do. I expect to spend the rest of my life practicing this. Over time, I’m hoping to train my awareness to experience an emotion or thought to completion before switching focus, instead of bouncing back and forth between the two modes.

I don’t plan to discriminate and to allow only positive emotions and thoughts to grow (while aborting the negative ones). Perversely, as a feeling dominant, I want to experience both the good and bad. Sometimes the bad can turn out to be good in the long run. And sometimes the good can turn out badly at the end. Life is also perverse.

Acceptance Always

I’ve been thinking about the thoughts, not thinking the thoughts. I’ve been thinking about feeling the feelings, but not feeling them. There is a better way. It involves embracing thoughts and feelings as my self, giving them energy so that they can come to life and run their course, accepting them, celebrating them, forgiving them, sometimes acting on them and other times not, and then letting them go. To never attach or cling to what they may imply. To explore them without any intention to make them stay. Acceptance is the better way.

It doesn’t mean to act out my thoughts and feelings unless I want to. Just because I’m feeling angry, doesn’t mean I should be breaking things or punching walls. And it especially doesn’t mean mistreating and abusing others, physically or emotionally. It’s okay to feel angry, be angry, but not act angry. (Though in rare cases, it may be okay to act angry.)

If you ever accidentally detach yourself, I hope that my post will help you to find your way back.

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Killing My Feelings

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An old friend tells me that I have changed a lot. That I am extremely calm now; whereas years ago, in discussions, I would easily get emotionally agitated. A neighbor asked me recently if I had always been so serene. This didn’t surprise me too much. I tell my friend that I have worked to control myself so that I wouldn’t react emotionally to things. In the past, I’ve allowed myself to act or react based upon strong negative feelings, which led to results that I regretted very much. Now, I don’t. Unfortunately, I admit, it seems that along with the negative low feelings, I’ve also lost the passionate highs. Now I’m just steady most of the time.

Having also explored personality types, my friend asks if my thinking is now dominant or my feeling still is.  I answer that I believe it is neither.  He looks confused.  I explain that I’ve taught myself not to identify with my thoughts or emotions.  I have them, I just try not to attach to them. Just as thoughts can be misleading or wrong, so can feelings.  That’s why I don’t get emotional much anymore.  But there is a downside, because along with my negative feelings, my positive ones are not as strong as in the past. I am not as passionate about things as I was before.

My friend replies that I have vulcanized myself.   That I have killed my feelings. And that Vulcans show no passion because they aren’t driven by emotions. In a way, he is right (albeit, we are talking about fictional beings). My strategies to avoid identifying with my feelings are accomplished by thinking tools such as forgiveness, acceptance, reframing, and anti-expectations. To not attach to my feelings, I use my self-awareness to pause in the gap between emotional stimulus and response long enough to use the thinking tools above. In the past, I was dominated by my emotions; but now, I use thinking to prevent that domination. I have accidentally vulcanized myself.

Why I Divorced My Feelings

If you are an idealist (which includes INFPs like myself), there is a downside. For most idealists, as we get older, we come to realize that we have fallen far short of reaching our ideals and have failed miserably to meet our own high expectations. We tend to get depressed. Some can get cynical, but most get depressed.

In my early thirties, I started getting brief spells of sadness, which I called low energy states. In that state, I didn’t feel motivated to do anything and had zero excitement for the future; everything seemed grey and meaningless. At first, I thought they were burnt-out episodes due to work, but they were different. At work, I was so busy I didn’t have time to experience the low energy spells. But at home, I had all the time to do so. I came to realize that the low energy states were the result of the disconnect between what my subconscious thought I should be doing (saving the world, helping people) and what I was actually doing (helping a business increase profits). Not that working is bad; after all, it does provide a living for myself and my coworkers. It just wasn’t enough.

I guess one could call it an early mid-life crisis. But instead of buying a red sports car, I turned on myself, ruminating on my thoughts and feelings. No matter how much thinking or explorations of feelings I did, I couldn’t find the cause of the low energy state. And so I went around, in an endless cycle, full of sadness, regret, irritation, and finally, anger. At the end, raging against myself and my condition because I didn’t know where to direct the anger at. In such a state, I was emotionally volatile, behaved badly, and would suddenly lashed out at people. I apologized afterwards but the damage was done.

I Am Not My Thoughts And Feelings

A chance sentence in a book, “I Am Not That Thought”, gave me the answer. If I am not that thought, then I’m also not that feeling because one usually comes with the other. (Thinking couldn’t fix the feelings I had.) If I am not my feelings, then it meant that I didn’t have to act according to my feelings. I didn’t have to react according to, or believe in, the low energy states. I could decide how to act, regardless of my emotions or thoughts.

Of course, the epiphany didn’t immediately change my life and behavior. As with most worthwhile things, it took a lot of work and a lot of failures. It gave me a little wedge which I could begin to try to insert between my feelings and my actions. Most of the time, I failed; but once in a while, I succeeded. And over time (many years), the successes slowly widen the gap between feeling and acting. In that gap, I was the decision maker, not my emotions.

When those feelings of meaninglessness came, I could accept them (in a way, they are true) but stop myself from ruminating on them, which prevented the low energy state. Over time (many more years), not ruminating evolved into not identifying with the feeling. Emotions are like visitors to my house (my mind). I welcome them, give them the spare bedroom for the night, and by morning, they have already left. I don’t attach them to myself. I don’t become them. That would be a silly thing to do.

So now, I try not to identify with any of my thoughts or feelings. I don’t suppress them, but can understand that it may appear that way. I think of thoughts and emotions as kindling. Because I don’t attach to them, put more thought and feeling into them, they don’t grow. Instead they appear and then eventually disappear. In the past, if I have a depressive thought like I’m going to be alone, I would dwell on it, feel pity for myself, think I’ll be alone forever, that there is no one for me, feel sadness, suffer regret for not taking advantage of past opportunities with women, and think I’ll die a lonely death. By identifying with, focusing on, and giving energy to the initial negative feeling or thought, I create these self-reinforcing loops of thoughts and emotions. And the kindling becomes a roaring fire, capable of burning down my house.

If one supposes that the above self-reinforcing loop is the norm, then it would appear that I’m suppressing that loop. However, if one believes it is a choice, then I’m not suppressing, I’m just choosing not to engage the loop.

Growing Passions

The problem is that high passions appear to depend on that same self-reinforcing loop. I have a thought about wind surfing, I think that it would be cool, I imagine sliding across the water, wind and ocean spray on my face, I’m feeling happy, excited. I decide to research a class that I can take. Maybe I consider taking a long vacation to a nice place like Hawaii or southeast Asia where I can take lessons. It would be great, the experience of a lifetime. I’m identifying with it, focusing on it, and growing the ember into a robust fire. If I continue, I can build it eventually into a raging forest fire.

My friend exclaims that he now understands… I am a pseudo-thinker. Being a dominant thinker, he also has the same problem with ruminating on feelings and thoughts, asking himself why he had a particular feeling, and going around in circles. Except, he primarily suffers from a thinking loop, not a feeling loop. He solves the problem by focusing mainly on his business (which is also his purpose) and not giving thought to anything unrelated; he has no energy to spare to ruminate on anything else. And if anything negative comes up, he would ignore it. He would only ruminate on the positive feelings and thoughts he has.

He suggests that I could do the same thing. That I could allow only positive feelings to grow. That I could flame my positive feelings into passions. I tell my friend that his suggestion is worth exploring; though inside, I am uncomfortable with the notion.

Passionless Passion

Not building upon my thoughts and emotions have become a habit. Along with not identifying with negative emotions and thoughts, I also do not identify with positive emotions and thoughts. It seemed simpler to not have to act differently for either. Though it is a habit, it is also a choice, which can be changed. I should be able choose which emotions to identify with. So perhaps, I can bring back my passionate highs by choosing to identify with only the positive thoughts and emotions. But something holds me back from making the change.

Choosing which feelings to identify with feels false to me. Who am I to decide which emotions are negative and which positive? If I stoke the one, why shouldn’t I stoke the other? And is being a pseudo-thinker so bad? I’m not sure. In the present, I enjoy the positive emotions as they occur, without trying to grow them. And I try to appreciate the negative feelings as they occur, without trying to fight them. Are passionate highs something I need? If something is a true passion of mine, do I need to artificially stoke it?

Perhaps, instead of growing passions, I can identify my passions by what I do. I read a lot because I like to read. It’s a quiet passion. I don’t get enflamed with positive feelings as I read or contemplate reading. Some periods of my life, I read a lot. But other periods, I don’t read much at all. I keep returning to it though. Isn’t that a passion without the passionate highs?

During times when I don’t feel like reading often, I imagine that if I try to stoke any urge to read into a bonfire, it may backfire on me. First, forcing myself to feel more intensely sounds like a lot of work, which is unappealing to a lazy person like myself. Second, trying to interfere with the natural lifecycle of my passion seems like a bad thing to do and I imagine, could kill the passion prematurely or permanently.

Serenity Now, Insanity Later

There is something to be said for trying to remain in a state of serenity. I’m finding that my mind is more quiet these days. Perhaps it is normal for humans to have extremes of high and low, and I’m just the odd Vulcan out. Perhaps I should be satisfy with who I am now and quietly enjoy my passions.

Disclaimer: This post makes me out to be a saint, or that I have grown from a self-absorbed child into a sage. I’m not. That is far from reality. I still have trouble controlling my strong negative emotions. More often that I would like, I still react without considering what the best response should be. But I keep trying. I keep reminding myself that it is a process, not an end state. That it must be continually practiced for the rest of my life. After all, I’m just an imperfect human, and will continue to be one until I die.

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You Can Do A Lot In An Hour!

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Years ago, my friend quit his job and decided to take some time off from work. We occasionally hanged out. In the beginning, he mentioned how he was playing tennis in the morning and meeting friends for lunch and dinner. As time went on, he seemed to be less and less busy. A year passed. One day he told me that the major accomplishment of the day was getting his laundry done. He wondered where the time was going.

heinz_doofenshmirtzWhen a major disaster occurs, first responders (firemen, doctors, nurses, volunteers) arrive to help from all over the country, maybe from a different country. They are trained and equipped to help, except their walkie-talkie radios, from different manufacturers, most likely are unable to talk to each other. So someone is assigned the task of being a message dispatcher. He is the man wearing the vest full of different radios. His job is to relay messages from one radio system to another.

A startup I joined, a decade ago, had the goal of replacing that man with an affordable and easy-to-use solution of hardware and software. It was a worthy goal because during an emergency, any delay in communication could cause additional loss of life and property. The faster we worked in the startup, the sooner we could get our product out into the field and the more lives we could potentially save. So we took it from concept to product in less than six months. I remember writing code until 3 am in the morning, driving home, going to sleep, getting up at 8 am, and driving back to work for months on end. I accomplished overnight what others might have taken a week or two to do. I wasn’t tired or sleep deprived. I was driven to wring out as much as I could from each waking hour.

Time seems to expand and contract. For my nonworking friend, time compressed so that his days flew by without much activity. In my startup job, time expanded so that I seemed to be able to do a whole lot in a little time. Alternatively, I could say that my friend’s time expanded to fill his day with laundry and my day compressed along with my day’s work into an hour. It seems that the amount of time required to do a task varies, and if you really want to, you can drastically reduce that time.

In the 2011 movie “In Time”, time is money. The more you earn, the longer you can live. If you spend all your time or run out of time, you die. The rich, with lifespans measuring in centuries or millenniums, had grown accustomed to lives of leisure. The poor worked hard to earn only enough to live another day, and any mishap (like a raise in bus fare) could mean their death.

After the authorities unfairly confiscated everything but two hours of his time, the protagonist escaped and robbed a rich lady of all her time but a day. She despairingly wondered what she was going to do with a day. Surprised, he responded that you can do a lot in a day; he thought he had been generous leaving her with a day. As the movie progressed, the protagonist ended up in increasingly worse situations; he went from having only hours to live, to minutes, and at the end, to seconds. Each time, he persevered and pushed onward. You can do a lot in an hour, in a minute, in a second if you don’t give up.

I Can Do A Lot

The movie reminded me that in the past, I could accomplish so many things in a day because I believed I could. I really can do a lot in an hour! Holding this conviction again has made me much more productive. It helps me to work smarter by looking for a more efficient approach. It forces me to focus on the essential part that needs to be done. It pushes me to think outside the box in coming up with ways to complete the task, even if one of those ways is to eliminate the task itself. It permits me to say no to requests. My time is precious and should not be wasted.

If “work expands to fill the time available for its completion” (paraphrased Parkinson’s law), then work should also contract to fit the time remaining for its completion. Procrastinators instinctively use the latter principle to meet deadlines, though usually with poor results. High performance teams have used the latter principle to focus and work together to pull off the impossible in record times. (Although, there are probably many more teams that have crashed and burned.)

“If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.” – Stock–Sanford corollary to Parkinson’s law

Given a choice, I would want to choose the principle that directs me to do more things in the same or lesser amount of time. I’m not suggesting to rush through and do poor work. I believe that we are capable of doing high quality work in less time that we usually expect to. We just have to believe and push ourselves to. We may just end up surprising ourselves.

Your Money or Your Life

More importantly, the movie gave me a kick-in-the-pants reminder that time is very precious and that earning money costs me time. In the movie, every cost is measured in units of time, specifically your lifespan. A cup of coffee costs 15 minutes of your life. A new laptop could cost half a year. A house, a couple of decades.

Except if I think about it, it’s not just in the movie. It’s the same in real life. If I earn $10/hour and a Starbucks drink costs me $5, then that drink costs me 30 minutes. Is the coffee worth it? Probably not. That $100/month cell phone plan costs 10 hours of life per month, more than an 8 hour work shift. And a $1500 Macbook will cost a hundred fifty hours of life. Actually, everything costs even more because taxes take a chunk of life coming (income tax) and going (sales tax).

“If time is worth more than money, then why do we spend time earning it?” – Lance

The above way of thinking about money was covered in the 1992 book, “Your Money or Your Life”, by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominquez. The book’s most important premise is that money is equal to your life energy, so it behooves you to increase what an hour of your life energy earns and to spend it wisely. Instead of spending it on a Starbucks Frappuccino, you may wish to spend it on a class to acquire a new skill or career. I think that if we can start thinking of costs in terms of life energy (a.k.a. time and effort), folks may be more mindful of how they spend their money.

Awesomely, from a certain viewpoint, earnings from savings and investments (interests, dividends, and capital gains) actually add time to your lifespan. If your investment earns you $500/month, it can be considered as adding 50 hours to your lifespan (if you make $10/hour) each month. Awfully, from that same point of view, the interest you pay on your debt deducts time from your lifespan. Hours, days, months, or years of your life may be needed to service your debts.

False Opportunity Cost

When thinking of whether you should do a task yourself or pay someone to do the task, you might decide to consider what the cost to you is. If you remodel the bathroom yourself, but it would take you 500 hours, then the money equivalent cost to you would be $5000 at $10/hour. If you can hire someone who can do the work for less than $5000, it may be worth it because it ends up being less costly for you.

There is a fallacy in the above calculation if you plan to include your non-money-earning hours. If you plan to remodel the bathroom on your free time, then the cost to you may not be $5000. It may be significantly more or less, depending upon how much you value your free time or the activity you would have spent your free time on instead. If you would have spent your free time watching TV, then maybe your free time is worth only $1/hour and the cost of the work is $500. Can you hire someone to spend 500 hours working for you for $500? Probably not – it’s better for you to do the work yourself. If you plan to spend the free time taking a computer class so you can become a software engineer and earn $50/hour, then the cost to you might really be $25,000. Can you hire someone to do the work for that money or less? I think so.

In Time, We All Die

Generally, people think negatively about time. They think that it can’t be done. That there isn’t enough time to do it. That time is running out. That time is going to kill them in the end (yes it will). I suggest thinking positively. Think about how much we can do in the time given. Even better, how much more we can accomplish.

Act as if you believe that you can do most anything in an hour. Sure, you could end up taking longer than an hour (maybe two hours or two months), but you did accomplish something and maybe even eventually completed the goal. The progress is what counts. Psych and motivate yourself to exert the fullest effort by turning time into an optimistic cheerleader, instead of a pessimistic slave driver.

Remember, you can do a lot in an hour!

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Procrastination is Just a Feeling

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I procrastinated on writing this post about procrastination for half a year. I need help. I wonder why there is no 12 step program for procrastinators. At extreme, it is a mental health issue, right? Society tells us so, teaches us so and shames us so. It’s probably for the best because a procrastinator would rarely make it past step zero, showing up to the meeting.

droopy_dogInstead we procrastinators struggle alone, feeling like failures. Reading books and attending seminars in the hope that someone somewhere has a magic bullet to solve our compulsion to not do things that we need to do. Actually, we most likely read books and attend seminars to avoid doing stuff. Unfortunately, as with every other important problem, there is no magical quick fix.

Note: To me, procrastination can mean two things: delaying doing something until you do it, or delaying until you end up not doing it. Both cause a lot of stress and guilt. The former usually ends in sub-par results. The latter could result in catastrophic endings or be a huge windfall of effort saved.

No Rhyme or Reason

Everyone has their theory about the cause of procrastination and thus what the fix should be. Unfortunately, the causes and fixes are different and sometimes conflicting. I procrastinate because I fear failure. No, it’s because I fear success. I’m afraid to start because it is a huge undertaking. No, I don’t start because it is a small one and thus not worthwhile to do.

Since I could remember, I’ve procrastinated about some things and not others. In school, some subjects I study diligently for and others I would cram the night before an exam. Early at my job, I worked in cycles, months of extreme productivity followed by periods of forcing myself to do the minimum. Liking or hating didn’t seem to be the reason because I procrastinated on subjects I liked and did the work I hated and vice versa. Neither was wanting to please or not please family, friends, classmates, teachers, teammates, and managers. Fear or defiance of the consequences drove me to do or not do. I didn’t know why I was motivated or why I was not.

Just-In-Time Management

I tried time management tools like tracking my minutes or the Pomodoro Technique (which involves breaking work down into 25 minute intervals), but that was more work than just doing the work I was avoiding in the first place. I ended up using prioritized to-do lists and a calendar for meetings and appointments. My to-do lists are text documents that I frequently edit to sort tasks based upon importance and to delete tasks which are done or no longer necessary. When I feel motivated to work, I try to compete as many to-do items as possible.

Over time, I’ve trained myself to take care of the small tasks right away. For small tasks, the burden of having to remember to do them is greater than just doing them. It is a relief to complete them and checked them off in my mind. At work, for medium to big tasks, the angst of feeling like a failure or loser from not doing the task (in the eyes of peers and managers) is greater than just doing the task, so I do it. Outside of work, the medium to big tasks were problematic to do if they didn’t have undesirable consequences like family members being mad or the IRS asking where my tax return was. However, though I will complete the tasks to avoid the consequences, I may still procrastinate until the last moment and endure the stress.

For medium to big tasks that had no external consequences (like writing a novel on the side or learning a new language), my last theory was that I was afraid to start something because of the large time commitment. The solution I came up with was to trick myself by just committing to start for a short period of time, say 15 minutes only. Once I started, I usually ended up spending much more than 15 minutes. I explored this solution in a previous post, Roadblock To Nirvana (see the “A Simple Plan For The Rest Of My Life” and later sections). Unfortunately, some willpower was still necessary to overcome the fact that I knew that I was trying to trick myself into thinking of a large time commitment as a tiny commitment.

In the end, whether I procrastinated or not still depended upon how I was feeling, whether I could motivated myself or not. All the above were compensatory tools, to reduce the occurrence or duration of procrastination, that ended up not working most of the time.

Root of All Procrastination

These past few months, I’ve tried to find the root cause of procrastination. I’ve discovered that there is none. I procrastinate on anything for any number of reasons; from not going to the gym because my stomach felt a little bloated to not wanting to clean the bathroom because hey, it’s not a pleasant thing to do. I’m not motivated to do it so I don’t.

I’ve realized that there is no logical cause and no logical fix. No way to think myself out of this problem. It is because the problem is not thinking, it is feeling. Procrastination is just a feeling. Hey, I just feel like not doing it. As with any feeling, there is no way to reason with it. There may be no obvious cause for a feeling so digging for one would only turn up dead-ends and false positives that might make the situation worse. I can argue with myself about why I should not be having the feeling, but that doesn’t get rid of the feeling. I can override the feeling but eventually my willpower will be exhausted.

The only effective solution is to accept the feeling. To acknowledge that I don’t feel like doing something and then doing that something in spite of it. A small amount of willpower is still necessary, but I’m not fighting the feeling; I’m just letting it occupy the extra guest bedroom in my mind until it decides to leave. In the meantime, I just do what I need to do.

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” – Stephen King

I still felt that something was missing. We are beings with free will so if I want to procrastinate, why shouldn’t I be able to? If I’m willing to accept the consequences of not doing something, what’s wrong with that? What is so bad about procrastination? From past experience, procrastination has helped me to avoid doing tasks which, at the last minute, turned out to be unnecessary. So there are good things about procrastination.


Saying that procrastination is just a feeling is incomplete. To be more accurate, procrastination is just a feeling of not wanting to do something that we have judged should be done. That is the conflict. For whatever reason, we have decided that something needs to be done and because we don’t do it, it remains at the back of our head that we didn’t do what we have committed ourselves to do. We didn’t meet the expectations we had of ourselves.

For me, having an unmet judgement or expectation results in mental baggage. We have failed ourselves and we can’t hide that failure from ourselves. Worse, resentment usually follows the disappointment. Who judged that we should do something? Who decided that we should do something we don’t feel like doing? Procrastination may be our rejection of that judgement. Our rebellious self could be saying, “You think it should be done… well I don’t and I’m going to prove it by not doing it.” Fatally, in the final analysis, the judge is us and we are only rejecting ourselves.

My solution is to remove the judgement and expectation, which would eliminate the resulting resentment and rejection. We should not have to do anything. We can choose to do something for whatever reason. There may be consequences like bad credit if we have late or missing payments. But if the consequences are acceptable, then the choice should exist as it always does. Do I do it now or not or ever? Any decision is fine. A decision not to do something is equivalent to deciding to accept the consequences of not doing that something.

Note: See my posts, Who Are We to Blindly Judge? and Expectations Are Bad, M’kay?, for tips on how to avoid making judgements and expectations.

In practice, expect to have feelings of procrastination often. When you can catch yourself feeling them, stop and accept those feelings. Try to realize if you are judging or expecting yourself to do that something. Determine the consequences of not doing. Then make a decision to do or not do. Over time, you will learn to be okay with having the feelings and doing or not doing.

Dark Side of No Stress

I implemented my solution above and ended up doing nothing beyond what is necessary. This is bad. I completed job tasks and other daily living tasks like paying rent. But I didn’t do anything extra that had no consequence, like writing a blog post. Without the self-imposed judgments and expectations driving me to do, I ended up not doing.

While it was peaceful and pleasantly stress-free, this was not the desired end state. The dark side of the solution is not getting much done because I don’t expect myself to do anything. It turns out that setting goals and expecting myself to accomplish those goals is what makes life interesting. It’s the drive that pushes me forward, to improve myself, meet interesting people, and experience new wonders.

It’s like when Alice asked the Cheshire Cat which way she should go:

Alice: Which way should I go?
Cat: That depends on where you are going.
Alice: I don’t know.
Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.
(from Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland)

Goals determine which way we should go. Without them, I ended up stuck in the same spot, not forcing myself to take a step in either direction. This state of being is stress-free and stagnant.

On Pain of Doing

Rather than re-introduce my self judgments and expectations and their attendants, stress and guilt, the answer is to make the consequences so undesirable or unpleasant that I would decide to do what I have determined I should do. Or to make the goals so pleasurable and worthwhile that I would want to do them anyhow.

I needed to identify my important goals. Goals that would be painful not to do. The goals that I would regret not pursuing on my deathbed. The goals that if I didn’t make an effort to accomplish would render my life void of meaning. I’m talking about those goals.

I didn’t need to succeed at those goals, I just needed to try my best. They could be one or many. I could do them one at a time or several at once. They just needed my attention and doing.

I’m not sure if the above will work, but at least I’m moving in one direction. Whether it is the right or wrong way, I do not know… I just feel like doing something.

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Break the Negative Thinking-Feeling Feedback Loop

Self No Comments

A friend asked for my advice recently. He was experiencing emotional turmoil or as he described it, an overwhelming shit-storm of horrible feelings all mashed up together. He didn’t know what to do; he was thinking in circles. He needed another person’s perspective. As he listed all the troubles that he was going through, I could understand why he was disturbed. There were a lot of bad happenings, uncertainties and unknowns. I suggested talking over all his issues, one by one, to separate and understand them. In the end, though we didn’t solve anything, I think he felt better.

061PinkyNBrainLater, he told me that he had identified the horrible feelings in his gut as stress. He had been stressed out by all his problems. So stressed that he couldn’t think clearly, couldn’t made good decisions, and couldn’t work. I think the problem started off with him dwelling on his issues, creating negative emotions as a result of all that thinking, and those emotions in turn causing his thinking to become more negative. Or the bad emotions caused negative thoughts, which made the emotions even worse. It was a feedback cycle of negative thoughts and feelings that caused him to work himself into a stressed-out state.

The gist is that negative thinking leads to negative feelings which lead to negative thinking and so forth in a feedback loop. Or it could start with negative feelings leading to negative thoughts and so on. This cycle will increase stress as the person dwells upon one negative event after another. Sometimes, the person won’t be able to determine which came first, the negative feeling or the negative thought. Thankfully, which comes first doesn’t matter. Breaking the negative feedback loop is what is important.

Dominant thinking personality types probably start with a negative thought, while dominant feeling types start with a negative feeling. The dominant thinking type thinks a negative thought (maybe not consciously), which generates a negative feeling, and the thinking type tries to identify where that negative feeling came from and comes up with justifications for the bad feelings which generate further bad thoughts. Dominant feeling types get a negative feeling (probably unconsciously), which causes a negative thought, which causes another negative feeling (or re-enforces the existing one) and soon they wonder why they are feeling so bad. Feeling types also can come up with justifications which are negative thoughts which then cause them to feel worse.

However, dominant thinkers don’t always lead with a thought. And dominant feelers don’t always lead with a feeling. For me, as a dominant feeling type, most of the time, I probably lead with a feeling, but that doesn’t preclude that sometimes I lead with a thought. Most of the time, I feel that both arrive at the same time. It may be that unconsciously, one comes before the other; but by the time they reach my consciousness, it seems like they come simultaneously. Regardless, because they almost always appear in inter-dependent pairs, we must treat both thought and feeling. (Treating both may be especially required for hot button issues where I already have a pre-programmed thought and feeling response.)

There are two methods to break a feedback loop, one to prevent negative thinking from causing negative feelings and the second to prevent the reverse. Both may be required to break the feedback cycle.

Reframing: Prevent Negative Thoughts From Causing Negative Feelings

In my post, Who Are We to Blindly Judge?, I talked about reframing as a way to replace a negative judgment with a positive one. Fundamentally, reframing converts a negative thought into a positive thought (or at least a neutral thought). By changing negative thoughts to positive ones, we prevent the negative thinking from giving rise to negative feelings. This short-circuits one part of the feedback cycle.

To reframe, the moment you catch yourself having a negative thought, force yourself to think of an alternative, positive thought. For example, immediately after you find yourself thinking that the salesperson is being rude to you (and hopefully before you get irritated), think “gee, he was much more rude to the customer before me, so he actually likes me more”. If you can’t manage a positive thought, think of a neutral one like “that’s just how he is, what can you do… I’m glad I won’t be seeing him again ever”.

The goal is to prevent yourself from continuing to ruminate on another person’s bad behavior or some external misfortune, and working yourself into an agitated state. A reframe may prove to be the little additional support that prevents the emotional avalanche from occurring.

Reframes are great for one-of interactions and events, but if you find yourself doing reframes for the same person or event again and again, then you’ll need to be pro-active and attempt to confirm the validity of your reframes. If the repeated event is always stressful, consider removing yourself from the event. If repeated interactions with a person cause you stress, confirm with the person whether your negative thought is valid or not; you might have misunderstood. If you haven’t misunderstood, consider reducing or discontinuing interactions with that person.

Let us look at an example to explore the full range of methods to handle negative thoughts. If a friend said something which sounded really bad to you, here are some possible responses you can make, from worst to best:

  1. Respond to your friend immediately based upon your unexpressed negative thought and feeling response. Accuse him of being a bigot or whatever bad label comes to mind. This will escalate the tension because your friend may not understand why he is under attack and may counter-attack as a response. Most likely, both you and your friend will experience negative feedback loops and the resulting stress.
  2. Give your friend the benefit of a doubt; he is a good person so that is most likely not his intention. You don’t say anything in response beyond a non-committal acknowledgement and you let the conversation die or go elsewhere. This is still not the optimal response because you will always have a tiny bit of uncertainty and doubt about what your friend said, and the emotional response is still there, existing in your head and taking up your mental space. If this repeats in enough incidences, you may hold an image of your friend as someone who unintentionally makes bad-sounding statements and this will adjust your expectation. Because this friend is someone you care about and will see again, having to keep such an expectation in mind is unnecessary mental stress and baggage.

  3. Give your friend the benefit of a doubt and ask for clarification to remove all doubt. Give him a chance to respond and resolve any misunderstanding. Your friend will probably say that he didn’t mean it to sound that way, that it was not his intention, and that he meant to say it another way. You will end up with no mental stress or baggage — any related negative emotion is fully resolved and cleared, and your image of your friend as a good person is reaffirmed. Misunderstandings in conversations and human interactions are frequent and normal. What you want is to take this third step to avoid accumulating mental stress and baggage about people.

Acceptance: Prevent Negative Feelings From Causing Negative Thoughts

In a previous post (Acceptance: I Think And Feel, Therefore Nothing), I talked about how accepting thoughts and feelings, acknowledging their existence without judgment or attachment, leads to freedom from them. By observing and accepting my thoughts and feelings as they came and went, I learned not to be affected by them and to take control of how I acted (and reacted). Acceptance is also how one can prevent negative feelings from generating negative thoughts.

Feelings are irrational so most of the time, one cannot address them by rational thinking or reframing. Feelings don’t care about the possibility that the cause is innocent or that there is a misunderstanding. A negative feeling just feels bad and that is that. You can’t convince it otherwise, suppress it, transform it, or kill it. All you can do is to accept that feeling and decide whether to act on it or not. Usually with bad emotions, accepting them and then deciding not to act on them, with practice, can prevent negative feelings from generating negative thoughts. If you decide not to dwell on what could be causing the negative feeling, but just accept the negative feeling as okay to experience as itself, you won’t generate negative thoughts.

Acceptance means to expand your mental space to accommodate that negative feeling. It will still be uncomfortable, but you will let it be. If it chooses to stick around, you are fine with the continuing discomfort. If it leaves, that would also be good. You have no expectations of the feeling… you don’t react to it beyond acknowledging that it exists.

If you haven’t gotten the hang of acceptance, here are less ideal (though progressively healthier) ways to handle negative emotions that may serve as stepping stones to acceptance:

  1. Think very briefly about what is causing that negative emotion or why you are having it. If nothing immediately comes to mind, stop! If something does come to mind, hopefully understanding it will lead to acceptance. This method is dangerous (can degrade to extensive dwelling on why you are having bad feelings) and should only be done for causes that are very obvious; like when you are scared and pissed because you have just slammed the trunk on your thumb, the thumb is stuck, and you can’t reach the lock to release the trunk (yeah, this happened to me once). Otherwise, if you keep trying to come up with a cause, you might generate other negative emotions or thoughts.

    Thinking about the emotion will give it energy and keep it potent. So while calling up a good friend to discuss the problem might help you to understand it, if the conversation drags on without resolution, you may start feeling worse. Venting your negative thoughts and feelings may only re-enforce and increase them.

  2. Emotions persist. You usually cannot think a feeling to death. You can try to starve a negative feeling by getting yourself to experience positive emotions. Just like how it is hard to keep two opposing thoughts in your head for a long time, it is difficult to experience two opposing emotions at the same time for any significant length of time, especially if you focus on one of the emotions. So by feeling a positive emotion and thinking about that positive emotion, you will starve the negative emotion of attention and energy, and it will die… hopefully.

    My friend watches inspiring feel-good movies. The movie diverts his attention (thoughts) from the negative emotion and inspires him to have positive emotions. Reading a book, going out with friends to dance (but not to talk about your bad feelings), or doing any activity that takes your mind off the negative emotion and also encourages you to have positive emotions will most likely work.

  3. In some cases, reframing may help to handle negative emotions. A negative judgment contains both thoughts and feelings. When we reframe the judgment, we change (more accurately, replace) the thoughts and feelings. In fact, an effective reframe causes you to experience an entirely different powerful emotion that overwhelms the original negative feeling; the more powerful, the more effective the reframe.

    For example, there is a story about a dad on an airplane with a crying son. The boy was screaming and the dad was incapable of quieting him down. The passengers nearby grew irritated, annoyed and angry. Finally, the dad explained in a trembling voice that the boy’s mother, his wife, had just died. The passengers felt shocked, sorry and even some shame, which immediately short-circuited all the irritation and anger. They then asked what they could do to help.

    Initially, in a reframe, I had believed that the explanation (thinking) was primarily responsible for changing the negative emotion, but it was really a much stronger emotional response which replaced both the negative emotion and thought. An effective reframe needs to provide an explanation that explains the behavior, diverts attention from the negative emotion to a strong new emotion, which overrides the old negative thought and feeling.

Hopefully the tools above will help you to break out of the negative thinking feeling feedback loops that we all experience as a part of life.

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Expectations Are Bad, M’kay?

Self No Comments

My friend was complaining that his neighbor was mean, that he knew this because of the few times he has said hi to her, she rarely replied and when she did, she sounded annoyed. I then had this conversation with him:


Me: “Yes, I used to be annoyed too until I learned to let go of my expectation that everyone should reply.”
Him: “No, I don’t have expectations of people like that.”
Me: “Well, you seem upset about it. Why are you upset?”
Him: “I was taught that when you greet someone, they should greet you back. That is common social decency.”
Me: “So you got irritated because she did not exhibit social decency?”
Him: “Yes.”
Me: “So you expected her to say hi back and when she didn’t, you got annoyed?”
Him (with chagrin): “Yeah, I guess I did have an expectation… but it was drilled into me by my parents.”
Me: “I understand. Most of my expectations came from my parents also.” (Another one to blame the parental units for!)

I believe that letting go of expectations is the key to avoid getting upset or annoyed by the actions of others or even by random events. If you expect your spouse to read your mind, be ready for disappointment. If you expect that life should be fair and bad things happen to you, you are going to be angry. I didn’t discover this principle; it is nothing new and is actually one of the primary teachings of Buddhism (and probably other faiths).

Training Wheels: The Anti-expectation

Unfortunately, there is no step-by-step manual to letting go of expectations. You are told to let go of expectations, but how to go about doing that? There are fortunate people out there who can just decide to let go, but I’m not one of them. I had to come up with my own method.

Because it is easier to replace something than to just get rid of it (leaving a vacuum), I decided that I needed to replace the expectations with something else. Similar to how a smoker would replace cigarettes with a nicotine patch, I decided to replace an expectation with its opposite, an anti-expectation. An anti-expectation is not a low expectation; it goes all the way to the opposite end. Optimists would call it a totally negative expectation; I call it keeping my sanity.

Some examples of anti-expectations:

  • I do not expect people to reply to my greeting or to demonstrate social decency at all.
  • I do not expect my spouse to read my mind.
  • Life is not fair. Sometimes, it looks like life is out to get me.

With high expectations, you’ll be disappointed most of the time. With low expectations, you’ll be disappointed some of the time. With strict anti-expectations, you’ll be occasionally pleased when people and events exceed your anti-expectations. Which kind of expectation would you rather adopt in your live?

For my friend, if he held the anti-expectation that his neighbor would not return his greeting, he can continue to greet her pleasantly, take her non-replies in stride, and occasionally be pleasantly surprised when she greets him back. Maybe, her greeting will be so enjoyable that it will give the rest of his day a positive glow.

If you are married and hold the anti-expectation that your spouse cannot read your mind at all, you’ll assume he or she is as obtuse as a rock (though very lovable) and requires very clear communications. And even when he or she messes up, you are not upset because well, what can you expect? You probably didn’t do a good enough job explaining it. And when they do exceed your expectation by getting it partly right or totally right (pigs are flying), you’ll be so giddy that your feet will not touch the ground for the rest of the day.

If you don’t expect life to be fair, you’ll be the calm at the center of any storm. Tornado throws a tree missile through your living room? Well, you’re just glad no one got hurt. When a cashier overcharges your grocery, you’re glad you only lost a few bucks instead of a million dollars because that could totally have happened! Your coworker, who you think is less capable (though still very likeable), gets the promotion you believe you deserve; oh well, it’s amazing that even one of you minions got promoted and it offers that tiniest chance that life will decide to stop screwing with you and promote you someday… maybe… probably not.

To start, you’ll need to practice identifying the broken expectation when you get disappointed, upset, or annoyed at the actions of others or events. Once you have identified the expectation, you can pretend that you believe in its opposite, the anti-expectation. Mulling over the anti-expectation will then quell the disappointment. (What are you disappointed about? After all, you anti-expected it in the first place. Duh!) With practice (a month or two), this will become a habit. With even more practice (several months), the time between the disappointment and move from expectation to anti-expectation will reduce — until the disappointment, identified expectation, and anti-expectation occur almost simultaneously.

Letting Go (After A Lot Of Hard Work)

Eventually (after half a year to a year of practice), you will find that things which bothered you in the past will no longer disappoint, upset, or irritate you. It would seem as if you have no expectations, that you have successfully let them go (at least for those expectations that you have practiced anti-expectations for). I believe that practicing the anti-expectation will train your subconscious mind to disregard the unmet expectation immediately, so that no emotion response occurs. Letting go of an expectation means that you are no longer affected by whether it is met or unmet.

Unfortunately, learning to let go of one expectation does not automatically get rid of all your other expectations. You will have to put in the work for each expectation that you identify and wish to let go of. Over time, with practice, it should become easier and less time-consuming to do the anti-expectation work.

Great Expectations

I don’t think it is healthy to let go of all your expectations. The expectations you might consider keeping are positive expectations concerning yourself (like achieving life goals) and expectations concerning how others should treat you (they should treat you well). If you keep those expectations, you will want to manage how you react when those expectations are not met or violated. You will want to react understandingly and calmly, while determining your next steps.

The solution is to simultaneously hold both the expectation and its anti-expectation in your head. The practice of recognizing your unmet expectation and then bringing its anti-expectation to mind should hopefully have given you this ability to have two conflicting thoughts at the same time (well, almost at the same time). When an expectation you have decided to keep is not met, the existence of its anti-expectation should blunt any emotional reaction and give you the clear head to decide what to do next.

If you have placed the expectation on yourself to win the gold medal, but end up with the bronze, it’s okay; you’ve tried your best. If a friend consistently mistreats you, you may decide to hold onto the expectation that friends should treat you well and gracefully reduce the time you spend with that friend. The anti-expectations should prevent any regrettable, emotional reaction. You’ll be more understanding and forgiving because you know that you are choosing to hold that expectation for yourself, not anyone else.

The Serenity Prayer authored by Reinhold Niebuhr:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”

I think the goal is to not hold expectations that you have no control over (other people’s actions and events) and to hold expectations that you have autonomy over (yourself, how you react to others, and how you allow yourself to be treated by others). I find this way of looking at things very empowering and hope that you will too.

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Ski in Jeans, Run in Tennis Shoes

Health 2 Comments

matterhornBack in the early 90’s, my college buddy and I decided to go skiing in the Swiss Alps. Never mind that we were beginner skiers, we were confident that we could tackle the Alps. We took a train to Zermatt, rented skis, took the lift to the top, looked in wonder at the nearby Matterhorn mountain, looked at the slopes, asked if we could re-board the lift to go back down, and the man said “the exit lift is 3 miles that way” with his finger pointing down-slope.

I had on my standard protective skiing outfit at the time: a pair of Levi’s jeans, t-shirt, sweat-top, blue-and-hot-pink jacket (from the 80’s), and neon red/pink gloves (also from the 80’s). My buddy had a comparable outfit on. On our best days, we could take a 30 degree slope, but starting from the top, we were looking at 45 degree slopes. Not wishing to die, we decided to sled down on our skis.

After much sledding, a few short bouts of skiing on small slopes, walking awkwardly on flat icy passages, shouting responses of “we’re okay, thanks for asking” to concerned skiers, we finally made it to the exit. We took so long that by the time the lift got to the bottom, it was almost dark. I had five holes in my jeans from the sledding; the two on my derriere were big enough that I had to hide them with my hands on the way back to the hotel.

Later, we found out that we were lucky because it would have been easy to head down the wrong side and end up in Italy (without our passports) instead of Switzerland. Looking back, I see that we were totally overmatched and unprepared, lacking the necessary skills and protective clothing. Still it was great fun once the ordeal was over. Youth are easily amused.

What strikes me is that back then, I was fine skiing around New England in jeans and whatever I had on hand. I didn’t feel the need for specialized winter clothing. Nowadays, I would need to spend several hundred dollars on thermal under-layers, a tri-climate jacket with high-tech materials, and waterproof snow pants before going skiing or snowboarding.

I feel that exercise and recreation have been commercialized, specifically in the expectation that I have to purchase expensive equipment as a prerequisite or precaution. To go jogging, I had better get running shoes that match my foot type and running form to prevent injuries. Back during high school track, I remembered that we had no problems running in tennis shoes (or whatever footwear we had on).

Now, I’m not against getting appropriate equipment if you want to, but I’m against being misled into believing that it is necessary or a safety requirement. Definitely, waterproof snow pants were a vast improvement over water-logged jeans. And if I ran a marathon, I would want the best footwear that I can afford. Or would I? It turns out that expensive, specialized running shoes may be no better, and may even increase the chances of injury, than an inexpensive, neutral pair.

“The First 20 Minutes” book by Gretchen Reynolds is a surprising look at how we exercise based upon the latest research. Reading it has caused me to change many of my assumptions. Here’s what I learned:

  • 150 minutes a week of light exercise (like walking) split into any chunk of time is enough to achieve health benefits. Do more intensity or duration to increase benefits.
  • High-intensity interval training (HIIT) can reduce that time drastically (150 minutes down to 6 minutes of hard exercise a week, not including prep and rest times) while gaining equivalent health benefits.
  • A warm-up (like stretching) before a workout may be counter-productive by tiring out muscles, so do it lightly or not at all. It’s better to just start easy; i.e., walk before you run. Having said that, dynamic stretching to activate the joints specific to the activity (handwalks for tennis) can be effective.
  • Cool-down activity doesn’t lessen soreness. Ibuprofen, massage, and ice bath don’t reduce soreness either, but may actually slow down recovery. Rest from vigorous activity is the most effective remedy.
  • During exercise, drink only when you are thirsty. After exercise, low-fat chocolate milk is better than Gatorade for recovery.
  • Moderate exercise doesn’t rev up your metabolism for the rest of the day; the extra calorie burning ends with the exercise session. And moderate exercise isn’t effective for weight loss because the body compensates with less activity and more appetite/food intake. However, prolonged or painfully intense exercise will maintain the increased metabolism and blunt the appetite, resulting in weight loss. (Moderate exercise is helpful for maintaining weight though. Exercise is also necessary to mitigate the bad side-effects of a low-carb diet like Atkin’s.)
  • Weight training (resistance exercises) improve cardio/endurance performance and vice versa.
  • Core strength (that is, having a six packs) do not improve athletic performance. Repeated bending of the spine can contribute to damage of the spinal discs, so go easy on (or forgo) crunches (or sit-ups).
  • Running is not a problem for many knees; marathon runners continue to have sturdy, healthy joints. However, running (and other intensive sports) does result in significantly more injuries than walking. In fact, elderly people who run lightly to moderately have healthier knees (less arthritis) than those who don’t.
  • Reduce the duration of cramps by stretching the muscle (if you can) and/or taking a shot of pickle juice (no one knows why pickle juice works, but it does).
  • Don’t use foot type as a basis for buying a running shoe because it is not clear that over- or underpronation is the real, underlying issue. Buy shoes that fit and feel right (and do not cause pain or discomfort) regardless of foot type. (The evidence is not solidly for or against barefoot running, so take it easy when transitioning to it.)
  • The biggest predictor of injury is a previous injury, so don’t get hurt in the first place. When hurt, cortisone injections will slow healing; it’s better to do nothing (wait and see) or undergo physical therapy.
  • Exercise is good for the brain, may improve cognitive capabilities, better your mood, and might prevent neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

The gist is that if you have not injured yourself with what you are doing for exercise (warm-up, using exercise equipment like shoes, eating/drinking before/during/after, and cool-down, etc.) and are comfortable doing it (no pain), then keep doing it. There is really no conclusive scientific evidence as to the best way to exercise.

Given all the benefits of exercise and really how little exercise we need to maintain our fitness, it is a no brainer to move. Walk a couple blocks to the grocery, take the stairs, park further from the store entrance, mow the lawn, vacuum the house, do push-ups when you are bored … it all adds up.


Supportive Excitement For When Too Much Excitement Is Just Too Much

Personality No Comments

My friend was telling me about how he was doing a diet with his sister. More importantly, how he was suppressing his excitement about the new diet’s effectiveness so that his sister would be more excited about it. This is the first time he has consciously done this and it is born of past diet attempts when he was very excited and his sister was not. He was wondering why that was the case? Why did he have to dampen his excitement to avoid killing other people’s excitement and motivation to do things?

In the past, I had tried to speak with my friend about this very same subject, though not very well because I had not figured it out myself. Telling him how his excitement affected me didn’t really help him to understand because he is not wired that way (he is a thinker type). So I was very glad when he broached the subject because it meant that he is ready to learn. As they say, when the student is ready, the master will teach?

stewie_excited_animatedI explain that he tends to get extremely excited about things. He admits that he has cultivated the ability to pump himself up to atmospheric heights, to motivate himself to achieve. I reply that it is a great skill to have; but unfortunately, some (if not most) people don’t have that ability and their excitement (and motivation) usually builds slowly. And that his way can kill their way. Some people build their excitement like a small campfire and he, in turn, is the forest fire sweeping down on them. They are not going to keep nursing their fire, they are going to abandon it and get the heck out of there.

To further clarify, I reminded him about how we spoke about a first date I had a couple of months ago. I told my friend that the date went well, that I felt attracted to her, and was excited to go on more dates to get to know her better. My friend commented how wonderful that is and as he spoke more about it, he got visibly more excited in voice tone (faster and louder) and more expansive in body language (waving his hands about). My friend talked about how my date was a great match for me, pulling in details (that I had told him) such as how her teaching job gave her the summer off so she could travel and how I loved to travel. And when I married her and had kids, we could travel as a family in the summer because the kids would also get summer off from school. And since Valentine’s Day was coming up, my friend told me that I should plan a weekend trip as a test run to see how well we would travel together. Within a few minutes, my friend was at least 10 times more excited and pumped up about my date than I was. Suddenly, I wasn’t as excited about my date anymore. In fact, I was not feeling much of anything about the subject beyond a growing annoyance at your friend. I wasn’t sure why I was getting irritated; I only knew that I was. Why did that happening?

As far as I can determine, the loss of excitement is caused by the large dissonance between my excitement and my friend’s excitement. His extreme exuberance made me want to protect my small kernel of hope by going numb. I ended up feeling, well, not very excited at all. Because do you know who was really, really excited? My friend was. Maybe he should date the woman, I thought. This feeling and thought dampened my excitement down to zero.

I think this comparison happens for most everything (though I’m training myself not do it). Say that you are great at tennis; you enjoy it and love playing it. Then you meet a new friend who is 10 times better than you. Suddenly, you’re not feeling so good about tennis and don’t think you are great at it; actually, you think you’re a horrible tennis player. You feel bad. Even though you are better than most people, the comparison makes you feel that you are worse.

My friend says that he doesn’t react that way to the dissonance. That he wants to meet very excited people because he wants to become even more excited. I think there is truth to that. When someone is a little more excited than you, you can become more excited by association. However, when someone is 10-100 times more excited than you, it can serve as a dampener. Because he constantly pumps himself up so much, I doubt that my friend has encountered anyone who is 10 times more excited than him about anything that he wants to be excited about.

stewie_barfing_animatedMy friend is a brainstormer and problem solver. As I’m sure most women know, men generally will interrupt with solutions when all you may want is a friendly sympathetic ear. (This is why when a friend tells me about something troubling; I try to ask first, do you want suggestions to fix the problem?) I believe this focus on fixing is the cause of my annoyance above. His excitement is causing him to plan out my future. He means well. Unfortunately, the end state is that he is “telling” me what my future will be and what I should do to realize that future. His excitement makes him very forceful in tone, like he is commanding me. Nobody likes to be told what to do. I know he means well so my rational mind attempts to suppress the irritation while my subconscious is reacting very badly.

To help my friend, I coined the term “supportive excitement”. I told him that I believed that supportive excitement is what he should have as a goal and what he is aiming for with his sister. (D’oh! Here I am, telling him what to do.) He quickly objected, “But that’s what I do. I pump up other people’s excitement.” I replied, the emphasis is on supportive, support comes before your excitement. He asked me what that meant.

It means don’t be more excited than the other person. Be just a bit less excited and at worse, a little more excited. You want your excitement to reinforce theirs, not overwhelm. This is not a battle of attrition; you are on the same side. You want to give that person the gift of motivating himself. In turn, by trying to increase your mutual, supportive excitement, he will increase his own excitement and motivation.

And it means not dreaming or brainstorming more than they would. If they are dreaming up one or two good outcomes in the near future (like a second or third date), while you are coming up with 50 good outcomes spanning from the near future to the distant future (when they are married with kids), you have effectively overwhelmed any small hopeful dreams they may have. Again, the emphasis is on “supportive”. You want to re-enforce what small dreams they have, not overwhelm and kill off all their hopeful buddings. Rather than coming up with a vision of their life (can you see how assuming and offensive that is?) and throwing out your ideas on what they should do, you should ask them to expand on their small dreams. Give them the gift of cultivating their own hopes and dreams.

I think supportive excitement is what my friend is attempting to do with his sister concerning their new diet. I hope that I at least helped him to understand what he is trying to do so that he can be more effective at it. I can see that if he drops into his normal, volcanic, pumped-up excitement mode, it may just kill whatever motivation his sister has. And that would not be good for either of them, because in the end, he also needs her to maintain his own excitement and motivation.

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The Russian Roulette Diet

Health No Comments

014ChefDisclaimer: I am not a doctor, so take everything I write with a big pill of aspirin.

As I mentioned in my previous post, My Brain is Made Out of Saturated Fat!, after I added fat and meat back to my diet, my cholesterol levels strangely improved.

For two years, I had eliminated fat, reduced meat consumption, and exercised regularly to improve my blood chemistry. Dishearteningly, my cholesterol level refused to change (hovering around 230) and worse, my HDL (the good high-density cholesterol) decreased significantly (from 52 to 36). After watching the Fat Head movie, I started eating fats and meat moderately and even reduced the amount of exercise I got. My cholesterol level dropped to 200 and my HDL increased to 48, both borderline normal!

I didn’t understand why, but was just glad that I could enjoy the occasional, mouth-watering marbled steak again. I decided to eat everything I wanted, in moderation; though I continued to avoid sugar, especially in the form of soda, and heavily processed food items, like hot pockets.

In honor of my Russian coworker’s “eat everything but don’t overdo it, stupid” philosophy, I named this diet the Russian Roulette Diet. Basically, put all the different foods on the roulette, spin, and then consume whatever food gets landed on… in moderation. It’s Russian roulette because eventually, the latest science will warn us that a few of those food or food ingredients are very bad for us… and then tell us that what was bad before is now okay or good.

I just read Nina Teicholz’s book, titled “The Big Fat Surprise”, and it has cleared up some of my food confusion. Evidently, the modern recommendation to avoid fats, especially saturated fats (meat, butter and cheese), is not based upon good or sound science. This low-fat, low-cholesterol diet was proposed in the mid-20th century and then seized upon by the government (in the 1970’s) as the answer to the increase in heart disease rates during the first half of the 20th century. Since then, obesity and diabetes have increased drastically.

Instead, the preponderance of the scientific evidence suggests that eating meat, butter and cheese is better for our health. However, this is not a license to eat any sort of fat, saturated or otherwise.

I recommend avoiding heavily processed food such as meat that has been pulverized and glued back together (with chemicals and preservatives) into a pleasing shape, a chicken nugget. Or fried food. Restaurants may be using trans-fat-free vegetable oil to fry with, but under sustained high heat, the vegetable oil (which is less stable than trans-fat-producing hydrogenated oils) may break down into toxic oxidative products. The long-term effect on the human body of such products is unknown.

Meat Good

From the Fat Head movie and the book, I learned that eating animal fat increases HDL and eating carbohydrates increases LDL (and lowers HDL). When I ate more fat and meat, my HDL increased and because I ate less carbohydrates (rice) as a result (of eating more meat), my LDL decreased. My total cholesterol dropped to around 200 (borderline normal).

There is no correlation between LDL and heart disease. There is a correlation between HDL and heart disease though. A follow-up to the famous, long-term Framingham Heart Study (which followed participants from 1948 and is still continuing today with their children and grand-children) indicates that someone with a HDL less than 35 mg/dL has eight times more risk of heart attacks than someone with a HDL greater than 65 mg/dL.

So, one can safely ignore the total cholesterol level (until it reaches near 300) and concentrate on the HDL level instead.

country6plotCorrelation is Not Causation

That correlation does not imply causation is drilled into every student of science. Just because B follows A does not mean A causes B.

Ancel Keys, the scientist who promoted the linkage of fat (in the diet) to serum cholesterol (in the blood) to heart disease, used the chart to the right to show a correlation between increased fat consumption and greater occurrence of heart disease. Keys concluded that fat is the cause of heart disease.

Yerushalmy and Hilleboe, two other scientists, showed that no correlation is evident when more than the six countries hand-picked by Keys are plotted. The plot of data from 22 countries suggests that the correlation between fat and heart disease is false.

country22plot.jpgYerushalmy theorized that wealth is the cause of increased heart disease rates. Rising prosperity in the mid-20th century led to increased consumption of sugar, protein (meat) and margarine (trans-fat), a more sedentary lifestyle (population movement to cities, use of automobiles), and increased vices such as smoking.

Wealth makes sense to me. People eat richer, unhealthier food (more calories in) and exercise less (less calories out). Weight increases and diseases (like diabetes and heart disease) are more prevalent. It seemed to me that Key’s six countries were the most industrialized and prosperous countries at the time, and all of them had increasing rates of heart disease as compared to Japan (less industrialized). If we look at countries that have industrialized recently, are growing prosperous, and have adopted the American diet (highly-processed, carbohydrate-rich food and sugar) like China, we see that they are experiencing increasing rates of obesity and diabetes.

Sugar is the Enemy

The “The Big Fat Surprise” book suggests that sugar is the enemy of the heart. High sugar levels in the blood cause inflammation and tearing of the artery. The damaged artery is then infected by bacteria (ever present in our body; the same bacteria responsible for gum disease). White blood cells and LDL (the supposedly bad low-density cholesterol) kill bacteria and fix the tearing. Cholesterol is not the cause, it is the spackle. Just because one sees a lot of spackle on the artery walls (of a person with heart disease) does not mean that the spackle is the cause (of the disease). The culprit is whatever is causing the damage and most likely, the culprit is sugar.

Furthermore, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that the narrowing or shortening of arteries (arteriosclerosis) is a cause of heart disease. The plaque (cholesterol spackle) buildup which leads to the arterial narrowing may just be a fact of growing old, caused by the multiple repairs across the years of infection. Or it could very well be that some plaque grows unstable (cause unknown), detaches from the artery wall, floats along the blood stream, and eventually causes a heart blockage. Until we know for certain, reducing sugar consumption seems to be the most prudent action.

Avoiding sugar means avoiding refined carbohydrates and fruit juice. The human body easily converts refined carbohydrates into glucose (a simple sugar) in the blood. Hence, the recommendation to eat unrefined brown rice instead of refined white rice, because the body will take longer to convert the brown rice (which avoids a sudden increase of blood sugar). Likewise, the body converts fruit juice easily into fructose (also a simple sugar) in the blood. Eating a whole fruit is recommended instead because the fiber (in whole fruit) slows down the absorption of the fructose into the blood stream.

Update: The book, “Good Calories, Bad Calories” by Gary Taubes, suggests an alternative cause of obesity that provides a compelling explanation for the role of carbohydrate/sugar. The book posits the following:

  1. “The basic proposition is that obesity is caused by a regulatory defect in fat metabolism” where rate of energy storage (fat) exceeds energy release; internally, the body starves which leads to over-eating and/or inactivity.
  2. “Insulin plays the primary role in this fattening process, and the compensatory behaviors of hunger and lethargy.”
  3. “Carbohydrates, and particularly refined carbohydrates — and perhaps the fructose content as well, and thus the amount of sugars consumed — are the prime suspects in the chronic elevation of insulin; hence, they are the ultimate cause of common obesity.”

So, to reduce the rate of energy storage, we need to reduce the level of blood insulin (“insulin regulates fat deposition”). To reduce insulin levels, we need to reduce the intake of carbohydrates (“carbohydrates regulate insulin”). To reduce the consumption of carbohydrates (sugar and starch), we need to increase the consumption of protein, fats, and non-starchy vegetables; evidently, people on non-carb or carb-restricted diets usually get satiated faster (don’t feel hungry all the time), so they tend not to overeat.

Listen to Your Body

Thankfully, my body tells me clearly when I am eating particularly badly. Besides having taste buds that prefer salt, my body punishes me if I consume too much sugar. After consuming a lot of sweets, I will get a sore throat within an hour and/or a mouth sore within a day (which then lasts for days). I can only eat a certain amount of cheese or meat per day before I get an upset stomach.

An essential part of the Russian Roulette Diet is to listen to your body. Your body will tell you in minor and major ways when you are consuming a particular food past your own healthy limits.

Now go out there and eat some poor, defenseless animal.

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Roadblock To Nirvana

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Imagine that you have made a commitment to always remind yourself that reality is an illusion. That the floor you stand on, the air flowing into your lungs, your body, and the people and places around you are all illusions. That everything and everyone is not real. Whenever you remember to, you make this reminder to yourself. When washing dishes or stopped at a light in your car. Several times a day. For a year.

Brainwashing Myself

043GirlOnBeachThat’s what I did. I consciously brainwashed myself for a whole year. Good idea? I’m not so sure. I experienced many wonderful benefits but encountered one major downside.

Believing that reality is an illusion does have a basis in science. It does not need to be a fanciful flight of the imagination. At the basic quantum level, everything can be regarded as probabilities. In this instance of time, the probability collapses that a quark exists at this position in space. Other probabilities collapse into other quarks at the same position in space to create a neutron. And other probabilities collapse into positrons, neutrons, and electrons to make an atom. And this atom, in combination with other atoms, forms a living cell and with other cells, forms your body. All these gazillion probabilities collapse into you, a thinking being, at this exact moment. And they collapse into you again in the next moment and the next. It’s a miracle that we don’t fly apart, scattered across the universe, blinking into and out of existence.

Expand that miracle to include each of the billions of humans, the Earth we inhabit, and the universe around us. It is awe inspiring. As I convinced myself more and more that all was illusion, I grew more amazed at reality. When I’m hiking, I have to stop and let the marvel of nature wash over me. What possibilities exist for there to be this majestic valley and mountain before me? Sometimes, I spend minutes looking at my hands, wondering at its existence and at the fact that I can move it with my thoughts. Amazement soon moves into gratitude for my existence and the endless wonders that surround me.

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” ― Albert Einstein

Note that I’m not in the state of amazement and gratitude continuously, all the time. This mindfulness infrequently comes and goes. Similar to how I have to continually remind myself to remember that reality is illusion, I have to remind myself to be amazed and grateful. I think this infrequency is a very good thing. Because humans adapt, I’m sure that after a while of being continually in such an “enlightened” state, it would start to be dull and average.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

The goal I was shooting for with this mind experiment was to attain better detachment from worldly concerns. And I believe the experiment succeeded. What does detachment sound like? The phrase “don’t sweat the small stuff… and it’s all small stuff” (from a book title) comes to mind. Small stuff like almost hitting a car that cuts suddenly into your lane on the freeway, or having to wait at the checkout line because someone ahead of you has an issue. Because all is illusion, why should I be attached to events and their outcomes? Everything is as it should be. The near collision wasn’t a collision. I am here, waiting in this line, because I am supposed to be here. And I’m doing what I am supposed to be doing. No decision can be wrong if everything is an illusion, including the decision itself.

Detachment is great. Most of the time, I’m not stressing out about what goes on, wondering if I’m making the right choice, or worrying about the future. I am just calm, relaxed. Now, I still do things that I have to do, such as paying the bills and being productive at work, to avoid the possibility of externally-induced stress, such as getting evicted or not having enough money for food. There is only so far you can go before reality takes a bite. I’m sure that a truly detached being wouldn’t care about what happens to his body, but I’m still concerned about not experiencing bad things like pain and starvation.

Other than the survival stuff, I expect things to work out. If they do, great. If they don’t, that’s okay. Surprisingly, most of the time, things work out for the best; if not immediately, then in the near future. Sometimes I think it’s the worse, but then a twist occurs and it’s actually for the best. My previous car, a Jetta, developed a weird crayon smell in hot weather caused by the decay of the sound absorption material Volkswagen used. I was a bit vexed because the issue was a manufacturer defect but the car was out of warranty. I decided to live with it. Months later, my sister upgraded and offered to give me her Civic. I sold the Jetta and ended up with a car which was more reliable, used cheaper gasoline (regular, not premium), and was less expensive to maintain. Because I try not to expect good results, I’m pleasantly surprised when things just work out for the better. The universe (or if you prefer, God) knows what it’s doing.

Do Sweat The Big Stuff

The good thing about detachment is that I’m floating along in life, without stress. The bad thing about detachment is that I’m floating along in life, without stress. I’ve realized that self-induced stress is necessary to push me beyond my comfort level, to take action, and to force me to grow. Without stress, I feel like I’m at a dead-end. I’m no longer clawing my way up the corporate ladder. I’m not pushing myself to arrange get-togethers and activities with friends. I’m not under a time crunch to do things, professionally or personally. I get what needs to be done done, but I don’t push myself to go the extra mile. Sometimes I miss being busy, having to sweat about juggling family, friends, work, personal life, and their related dramas. I miss feeling like I’m accomplishing a lot.

“Creativity requires action, and part of that action must be physical. It is one of the pitfalls of Westerners adopting Eastern meditation techniques to bliss out and render ourselves high but dysfunctional. We lose our grounding and, with it, our capacity to act in the world. In the pursuit of higher consciousness, we render ourselves unconscious in a new way. Exercise combats this spiritually induced dysfunction.” – Julia Camera, The Artist’s Way

When I know that my accomplishments have no meaning, it takes a lot of wind from feeling triumphant. There is a lack of motivation and a lot of passivity. I’m not driving. The universe directs my life… I’m just waiting for it to send experiences my way. The ride is very pleasant but I’m not going anywhere. I’ve gone too far to the other end and am falling down a puddle without end. As with anything in life, when you reach a roadblock or dead-end, it’s time to look for a detour.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff… and everything is small stuff” is right and wrong. While learning to not sweat the small stuff, I should have kept sweating the big stuff. The big stuff is not everything, it’s just the important thing. And it is right that I should be sweating the big stuff in my life. Sharing experiences with family, friends, and coworkers. Figuring out what is important and meaningful to do with my life. Having compassion for my fellow humans in their misfortunes and sharing the joy in their triumphs. Putting myself out into the world, making mistakes, getting bruised, meeting cool people, and learning and doing crazy, interesting things. Trying to be a better person than I was yesterday. And, though I hate to say it, forcing myself to eat healthy and exercise. Those are the big stuff that matters.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff… and everything is small stuff except for the big stuff.” – My addendum

Good Vs Bad Procrastinators

I admit that it is an awful amount of big stuff to sweat, especially for a procrastinator such as myself. As with anything in life, procrastination is good and bad, depending upon how you handle it. Being a “good” procrastinator, I push myself to be creative about eliminating unnecessary work and doing the remainder in a way that requires much less effort and time. As a software engineer, I would spend my time to write a program to do repetitive work, instead of doing the repetitive work myself, especially if I know it is recurring work. And I write how-to instructions in detail, in my technical blog and in a wiki at work, because it saves me a ton of time when I can quickly refer people asking for help to an article and when I need to remind myself how to do something. (You probably have experiences with coworkers who ask you a question that you take the time to answer and a few days later, they ask you the same question again. I just point them at the wiki repeatedly until they understand that I won’t humor them and they go off to find another “victim”.)

Sometimes, if I feel a task is not important, waiting until near the deadline to do it can save me time when I find out the that task is no longer necessary. The downside is that if I’m wrong, I may have to work extra hard to meet the deadline; but that is the acceptable risk and most of the time, I come out ahead. Good procrastinators are careful gamblers who figure out the odds that something needs to be done. Bad procrastinators are bad gamblers who bet their energy on things that don’t need to be done, ignoring the important work.

A Simple Plan For The Rest Of My Life

Back to the main topic, I believe I have found a simple 2 step plan to making progress on the big stuff. I created this plan by merging ideas from two books, “The Now Habit at Work” by Neil Fiore and “Why People Fail” by Simon Reynolds. This plan will work for procrastinators, and if it works for procrastinators, it should work for everyone else.

Here is the simple 2 step plan for sweating the big stuff:

  1. Commit to start creating for 15 minutes each day or whatever is most attainable. (For the truly bad procrastinators, 5 minutes might be a better starting point.)
  2. Increase the time as you feel comfortable to.

Why the weird “start creating” phrase? Let’s address the latter part first, as it is the most important. I believe that the purpose of life for all humans is to create. We express our most pure nature when we do something creative, like drawing a picture, writing a blog, inventing a new skateboard trick, building furniture out of discards, combining flavors into a new dish, and testing a new prank on a friend. When we create, we are pushing our limits to bring something new into existence. It reminds me of the phrase, “man is created in the image of God”. To me, that phrase means that when we are creating, we are closest to God.

When I look closer at my big stuff, I find that the biggest, most challenging stuff has to do with creation. Creating enriching moments with my family, friends, and coworkers. Trying to find my life’s purpose can more accurately be stated as creating my life’s purpose. Creating a better life for myself and my fellow beings. Creating a new, better version of myself each day. If I keep my focus on the big stuff and commit to creating each day, my creations will naturally become the big stuff. I sweat the big stuff by creating it.

Self Help For The Procrastinator

The “start creating” phrase and “15 minutes” time limit are for procrastinators or people who lead very busy lives. I synthesized this approach from two ideas about overcoming procrastination, getting started from the “The Now Habit at Work” and limiting time commitment from “Why People Fail”. I hesitate to take on tasks because I don’t want to commit to spending my time and effort to complete them. The bigger the task and the greater the effort required, the more I hesitate. However, if I think that a task is short (just 15 minutes or even 5 minutes) and the effort is small (I’m committing to starting the task, not finishing it), I don’t mind taking it on. Once I get started, I usually go for longer than 15 minutes and sometimes a couple of hours later, I will complete the creation. (This method is how I usually complete postings for this blog.)

It’s a mind trick I play on myself. The goal is to do something (anything) creative every day and the secondary goal is to establish a daily habit of creation. Once I have the habit, I won’t need the trick as much. Or if the habit never develops (usually true for a procrastinator), I may just have to live with the trick. I can still “start” the same thing today that I’ve started the past 20 days or that I’ve started a year ago. Off and on, I’ve “started” this blog post more than two dozen times already.

Before I end this posting, I want to talk about learning. Sometimes I confused learning with creating. When I’m surfing the Internet and learning new things, could that be considered part of my commitment to doing something creative each day? The answer is yes and no. There is a gray area between creating and learning. I believe that learning may be required to meet the goal of creating, but it should never be the goal itself. For example, how can I invent a new skateboard trick if I don’t know how to skate and can’t perform any of the existing tricks? How can I create a video game if I don’t learn how to program first? So if you are learning in order to surpass that learning and create, then yes, it meets your commitment to start creating each day. If you are learning just to learn, then no, it does not meet the commitment to create.

Start Creating Every Day

Aya_KitouIf we are made in the image of God, then his greatest gift to us is creation in its many splendors. Are we not then made to create? By creating, do we not express our truest nature and offer thanks and gratitude to God?

I wanted to end with a story about Aya Kitou. She was a young woman, a teenager who was stricken with a disease, Spinocerebellar Ataxia, which took her mobility and ultimately her life. Yet, she never gave up on living, on growing, on creating her future, however imperfect and dark it became. From her diary, a quote (translated from Japanese) stands out: “So fall down, get up, and smile because you are alive and experiencing this wonderful gift of life.”

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