13 Mental Traps You Need to Avoid

My Prison is an Open Cage by Pensiero

If you want to make good decisions, or at least less wrong ones, it’s important to avoid these common mental traps.

In almost all situations the best way to reach the most beneficial option in a tough decision is solid, rational thought. There’s something to be said certainly for going with your gut at times, particularly in situations where an immediate decision is required to get you out of danger. For bigger less immediate decisions though taking a long objective look at things gives you the best vantage point from which to make the best decision.

The problem is, in a lot of ways our brains suck at rational, objective thought.

We suffer from a host of cognitive biases that disrupt our ability to make good, rational decisions. These likely conferred an evolutionary advantage in the past when focusing on the negative or over emphasizing imagined patterns made you more likely to survive to reproducing age and less likely to get eaten by a Smilodon. In modern times, they tend to just get in the way and encourage us to make bad decisions.

Thankfully we can fight their influence once we know what to look out for. Here are thirteen of the more common ones and some easy ways to counteract them.

The Common Cognitive Biases

There are definitely more than thirteen cognitive biases total, but these are the ones that seem to pop up the most and the ones which have the potential to cause the most problems on a day to day basis. In a lot of respects just knowing about these biases and the tendency of people to default to them can help you avoid them – if you’re aware of the trap you can tell when you’re about to walk right into it.

The Anchoring Effect / Focalism

Focalism is a cognitive bias rooted in our tendency to fixate on a specific number and then base all of our further calculations on that value. That means for example in a negotiation if you set the initial price higher and then ask people how much they think it’s actually worth they will tend to guess higher. It also leads to our tendency to fixate on the price of things on sale in terms of the money saved from the original price rather than evaluating it by the price itself.

If you intend to spend $200 and someone says they have a $500 item on sale for $350 or an item at full price for $190, you’re more likely to evaluate that based on the reduction in price rather than the fact that the final price of the sale item is still more than you intended to spend. In other words you’ll likely pick the item on sale regardless of whether it’s the best choice. This also leads to our tendency to pick the middle option when given a set to choose from.

If you offer people an item for $100, $300 and $1,000 the high anchoring point of the $1,000 option makes the $300 option more attractive than if you were only given the $100 and $300 option.

Unfortunately, the Anchoring Effect is one of the hardest to counteract. Being aware of it doesn’t always actually help. There is some evidence suggesting expertise in a relevant field can help, but it’s inconclusive. As it stands the best way to counteract it is to recognize when faced with a variety of options that you’ll tend to overestimate based on the value of the most extreme anchor point.

Negativity Bias

We tend to fixate more on negative news than positive news. This isn’t just a general observation either, our amygdala (one of the parts of your brain responsible for the creation of long-term memories) is specifically primed to search out negative experiences and make them into long-term memories first. Our limbic or emotional processing system also puts a strong prevalence on negative information and stimuli over positive.

From an evolutionary perspective this was probably useful for keeping us alive in the past. Knowing that fire will hurt you is more important to your survival than knowing that hugs feel good. In modern times though it can encourage us to focus too much on the negative. This can make us excessively risk averse, and interfere with the way we accept criticism and praise.

The best way to combat this bias is to make a concentrated effort to be mindful of all the positive things that happen. Don’t go too far into optimism and begin overestimating the positive things, but be aware of them. Also recognize that you’re more effected by negative input like criticism than you are by positive input like praise.

Neglect of Probability

Humans suck at intuitive estimations of probability.

Even worse, when we actually have the math done for us and know the statistics, we still tend to just ignore probabilities all together. Take most people’s fears for example. A lot of people are afraid of being in a plane crash or killed in a terrorist attack or something like that. At the same time, they don’t think twice about hopping in their car, running down their stairs or eating three pounds of fast food a day.

The fact is though, you’re way, way, way more likely to die in a car crash, or falling down your stairs, or from a heart attack than any of those other things. More people have been shot and killed in this country by toddlers this year than have been killed by terrorist attacks. Chances of dying in a car accident are 1 in 84, chances of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 5,000 at least. More people are shot and killed in a year in the U.S. than the number of people around the world killed by terrorist attacks.

The problem is, even when you give people these statistics their behavior doesn’t change. You can tell someone 200 lbs. overweight that heart disease is the number one killer of people in the U.S. and they’ll still be more scared of someone breaking in and murdering them than they will be of eating crappy food.

The best way to get over this bias is to actually allow statistical information to inform your behavior. When you see a statistic like 1 in 87 people die in a car accident, actually become a more careful and aware driver as a result of it. Worry less about the things that are statistically unlikely and more about the things that are more likely.

Ingroup Bias

The Ingroup Bias ties into our tendency of giving preference to those we consider to be in our own ingroup, our general circles of association. It’s a type of automatic tribalism that encourages people to treat people in their own group better and people in groups considered to be outside of one’s own group worse.

This is reflected in the sense of ‘other’ that is often exaggerated by the force of the Ingroup Bias. We show favoritism toward groups we consider ourselves as belonging to in terms of treatment and allocation of resources and over-estimate the abilities and positive features of those groups.

In it’s milder forms, this can lead to unnecessary competition and the exclusion of people that would actually be helpful to your goal. In it’s more extreme forms it can lead to racism and genocide. It’s important to recognize whenever you start to feel competitive (outside of a genuine competition of course) or start to think of people in terms of ‘them’ vs. ‘us’ that the people you’re referring to in the ‘them’ group are likely not all that dissimilar to you.

The Gambler’s Bias

The Gambler’s Bias, also sometimes called the Gambler’s Fallacy, is the tendency for people to think that past outcomes affect future results of genuinely randomized systems. In other words, people who are doing well at a dice game might say they’re “On a hot streak,” or conversely someone who’s been losing consistently may say they’re “due for some good luck.”

In reality in a random system past outcomes have no effect on future outcomes. If you flip a penny and get 10 heads in a row, the odds of landing a tails is exactly the same on the 11th flip as it was on the 1st. Now what makes this confusing for some people is that the odds of landing 10 heads in a row do differ from those of landing other possible combinations.

Where this gets people in trouble is that they think they’re ‘lucky’ or, in the opposite case, ‘overdue’ for a win. That encourages them to continue to bet beyond when it’s prudent to do so. It also encourages people to overestimate the odds of a positive outcome in situations.

The best way to avoid this fallacy is to understand that the concept of ‘luck’ – an invisible or indeterminate force that tilts probabilities in favor of or against specific individuals – is as imaginary as the concept of fairies or Santa Claus. In a randomized system no matter what your past wins or losses were you are no more guaranteed a win than when you first started.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is basically the tendency for incompetent people to overestimate their ability and for skilled people to underestimate their ability.

Put another way, people who are unskilled or non-proficient in something are much more likely to rate their ability in that thing as being above average. This is mostly because they’re not proficient enough to recognize their own lack of skill and suffer from a general case of anosognosia. On the inverse most skilled people assume everyone else is equally as proficient and as a result fail to accurate estimate their own skill level in relation to others.

Always reevaluate and test your presumptions about how skilled in something you actually are as time goes on and don’t just assume your initial assessment is correct. In general if you think you’re better than average at something you may not be and if you think you’re at or below average you may be better than you think. Don’t assume though that just because you think you’re bad at something means you’re actually good at it – actually test and compare to others.

Selection Bias

Selection Bias is the tendency of people to pick out the examples of something that make a certain pattern while unconsciously disregarding examples that contradict that pattern. It’s similar to the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon where you learn of something new, maybe a new word or you hear a new song, and then suddenly it starts popping up everywhere you go seemingly by coincidence.

In the same manner Selection Bias causes us to pay attention to the things we’re primed to pay attention to for some reason at the exclusion of other things. This causes us to erroneously perceive patterns that don’t necessarily exist. In the case of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon it generally comes down to the thing you’re now noticing everywhere having been there all along but you never payed attention to it until primed to.

This isn’t a terrible bias in terms of causing problems, but it can make people believe or do odd things based on ‘patterns’ they’re seeing that just aren’t there. It also causes us to pick out things that reinforce our current beliefs at the cost of blindness to examples that contradict those beliefs. If you start seeing patterns pop up do some objective analysis and see if there’s anything actually going on there before you start coming up with crazy ideas.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation Bias is kind of the big brother of Selection Bias in that it causes people to fixate on things that confirm their opinions and beliefs and ignore things that run contrary to them.

Conservatives will watch FOX News and liberals will watch MSNBC. You’ll also tend to associate with people who hold the same views rather than those who hold differing views. In more extreme cases you may also blind yourself to good evidence contrary to your position. A person who thinks dreams foretell the future for example will remember the one time they dreamed about a car accident and then had one and completely ignore the thousands of dreams they had that never came true.

Confirmation Bias can be dangerous because it blinds us to truth for the sake of feeling good about our opinions. A good exercise for working on confirmation bias is to expose yourself to material contradictory to the beliefs you hold on a regular basis. Approach it honestly though, going into it with the attitude of ‘debunking’ it is just another expression of confirmation bias.

Change Aversion

People are terrified of change.

This may tie into the fact that humans experience a sense of loss much more forcefully than a sense of gain. We’re extremely loss averse as well. Regardless of the cause, people are almost always more willing to stick with the status quo than to change things up.

This may not sound so bad at first, but the reason this habit can be detrimental lies in the fact that it encourages us to disregard options that may be objectively, empirically better just so that we can feel better about avoiding change. We will willfully choose the worse situation we have now rather than choose to change things for the better.

This self-destructive homeostasis can stop us from improving our lives and the lives of others. Whenever you’re thinking of making a change, make an objective pro-con list. That way you tally the relative scores up and make a more informed decision as to whether you really should keep things the same or whether changing things up would be more beneficial without the tendency to give more weight to keeping things the same.

Herd Behavior / The Bandwagon Effect

People also really want to fit in.

They want to fit in so much in fact that like the Asch experiments showed decades ago people are even willing to sacrifice their own morality in order to follow the influence of the group. Most people are much more willing to go with the flow and conform at the expense of their own conscience and free agency than they are to actually exercise them in defiance of the herd.

Most people are at least aware of the tendency toward the mob mentality or herd behavior but that isn’t always enough to be able to fight the effects of it. In important decisions or with positions on important topics it’s always important to stop every now and again and closely examine the impetus for why you think the way you do on it. Can you rationally defend your position or choice based on hard evidence? If not, you may need to take a closer look at it, particularly if you’re on the side of the majority since you may just be following the group.

Post-Purchase Rationalization

Post-purchase rationalization is pretty much exactly what the name says it is – the rationalization of the decision to purchase a specific product after it’s been purchased. It’s usually most prevalent in more expensive purchases because more expensive purchase often involve more pre-purchase research and deliberation and hold a lot more emotional investment.

The danger of post-purchase rationalization lies in its ability to blind us from seeing when we’ve made emotional decisions or errors in our reasoning and prevents us from correcting them in the future. If you bought something and it turned out to be a huge waste of money, just admit that you made a mistake and move on. Spending additional effort to overcome the cognitive dissonance between the expectations of the product and emotional investment pre-purchase with the reality of the product and the disappointment post-purchase is just a further waste of your time.

If you want to take this a step further, apply that reasoning to the rest of your life and stop rationalizing your bad decisions away. Recognize why they were faulty and resolve not to do it again in the future.

Projection Bias

There are two biases that are frequently labeled ‘projection bias’, so I’m just going to lump the two together since they really boil down to the same problem – in general we’re very bad at imagining a mind substantially different from our own and, as a result, have a tendency to project our current mind onto all conceptual models of minds we’re working with.

What does that mean?

First, it means we tend to naturally assume everyone else thinks in a manner very much like our own way of thinking. Currently it is impossible for you to really experience any mind other than your own in a direct sense. You can interact with other people and through that develop models and understand that they too have a sense of mind but you can never completely verify it through direct experience.

This is where we get ‘brain-in-a-jar’, Matrix-esque, solipsism arguments. I can’t prove to you, at least not completely, that I’m not a very well-constructed figment of your imagination.

This is a problem because in practice people often think very, very differently. Not just in terms of conclusions but in the methods used to arrive at those conclusions. Assuming that everyone else thinks the same as you is only going to cause difficulty.

Second, it means we tend to be unable to predict our own future states of mind as being anything different from our current ones. Basically, we assume our minds will never change.

Again, in practice, this is almost never the case. Our tastes, preferences and opinions are changing constantly. Something that we want now we may not want in the future and our wants in the future may be for things we couldn’t even fathom now. That makes it very hard to make truly informed decisions on things that will have a large effect on your life far down the road like career choices.

So what’s the best way to overcome this bias? In my opinion a great deal of fiction reading can help. Fiction allows you the closest proxy to being able to occupy another person’s head for a while. It exposes you to alien thought processes and reasoning and helps you develop a much better theory of mind – an ability to place yourself in another’s shoes.

Immediacy Bias

Anyone who’s ever lost weight will be keenly familiar with immediacy bias.

Immediacy bias is the tendency to choose things that offer gratification immediately, even to a net detriment, over things that provide gratification in the future, even to a net benefit. In other words you’re much more likely to choose the thing that makes you happy now (candy, procrastination, etc.) over the thing that will make you happy in the future (healthy food, work, exercise, etc.).

It’s obvious why this is a bad thing – we are more than happy to completely destroy our futures for a little bit of immediate pleasure than to have exponentially more pleasure on a delayed timescale. The immediacy bias is like rocket fuel for self-destructive behaviors.

One way to mitigate the effects of immediacy bias is through cultivation of your willpower. Now, willpower is a finite resource and, while you can build Batman levels of will, you’re going to run out eventually.

In order to assist your willpower it’s best to do things to limit your agency in situations where you know you’re likely to give in to temptation. Like Odysseus ordering himself bound to the sails in order to hear the Sirens without drowning himself, placing obstructions in your way in advance when you know you’re going to be tempted into irrational decisions takes your willpower out of the equation – or at least gives it a big boost.

These may be the most common, but there are a lot of other cognitive biases that lead people into bad decisions. Being aware of our human tendency to make irrational decisions for bad reasons is one of the best first steps in making not quite so bad decisions.

Do you have any good tricks for overcoming some of these mental traps? Any other that you think should be included? Leave a comment and let us know!

Photo Credit: Stefano Corso

Progression Vs. Position: How to Balance Happiness and Self-Improvement

Round & Round at the Vatican by Andrew E. Larsen

Life is a lot like a big, endless staircase. Is your happiness based on what stair you’re on, or how fast you’re climbing?

Complacency and a fire for constant self-improvement seem to be diametrically opposed.

The drive for self-improvement spurs us on to always be better than we were yesterday. It pushes us to keep fighting, keep training, keep working for that next goal. People who are particularly driven by a desire for self-improvement tend to be very ambitious and the heart of ambition is a hunger to improve or to succeed. That ambition makes a person work hard, but it also ties their mood to their progress. They always want more and they’re often not happy until they get it.

On the other hand you have people with a high sense of complacency. These people are happy with what they’ve got almost no matter where they’re at in life. Their happiness is tied to appreciating what they’ve got rather than with getting something else. This sounds nice in theory, but complacency encourages stasis – if things are fine how they are why should you work for something better? People who are too complacent run the risk of living a life dictated by others rather than the one they actually want to lead.

So how do you find happiness while still retaining your motivation for self-improvement? By focusing on progress rather than position.

A Change in Viewpoint

The main problem with both of these ways of viewing the world, the ambitious person always improving and never happy with where they are and the complacent people who are happy but never improve, is that both of their senses of happiness are tied to their position.

Both derive their sense of worth from where they currently are in their progress through life. They interpret that information differently, the ambitious person is unhappy with their position and the complacent person is overly happy with their position but for both where they are right now is the main concern.

Imagine some people standing on a stair case. Our ambitious person, Ms. A, sees someone on a higher stair than she is. She looks down at the stair she’s on, lower than where she wants to be, and she gets depressed. She’s motivated to climb those stairs to get where she wants to be, but at each step she judges herself by the step she’s standing on at that moment and as a result is never truly happy until she’s standing on the stair she wants to be on.

On the other hand we have our complacent person, Mr. C, standing on another stair near the bottom. He didn’t really choose to be there, and he thinks it’d be nice to be up there at the top of the staircase, but he’s decided he’s happy with where he’s at. He figures he is where he is and he should just be happy with the stair he’s on. He is genuinely happy, but he’ll die there without ever seeing the top of the stairs.

For both of them their happiness is based off of what stair they’re on at that moment. That’s the problem – it’s often framed as a choice between one or the other, ambition or complacency. There’s another option.

Rather than base your happiness on position, you can base your happiness on progression.

Imagine another person on that staircase of success, we’ll call her Ms. Z. Now Ms. Z looks up the staircase and sees people up at the top and wants to be up there too. Unlike Ms. A and Mr. C though she doesn’t base her happiness on what stair she’s on, she bases it on whether or not she’s moving.

As long as Ms. Z is climbing up those stairs, no matter how slow, she’s happy. Like Ms. A she’s motivated to keep progressing, but she doesn’t have all the unhappiness Ms. A gets from not being on the stair she wants to be on. Ms. Z is progressing so she’s happy. In fact she’s just as happy as Mr. C, but unlike Mr. C who will stay on the stair he was placed on his entire life Ms. Z will end up higher up than where she started.

Embracing Momentum

Ms. Z is an example of someone who bases their happiness on progression.

When you concern yourself primarily with whether or not you’re improving rather than how good you are at that moment you get all the motivation of a strong drive to improve with all the in-the-moment happiness that would get embracing a complacent worldview. By embracing the concept of only caring about maintaining that momentum you can be happy and fulfilled feeling while still possessing the impetus to be better each and every day.

So how do you switch from being position focused to progression focused?

The biggest thing is to stop worrying so much about where you are now or where you want to be. Recognize that the only thing that really matters is the present moment and that the only thing you have control of in the present moment is whether you’re making progress toward something or stagnating.

You need to start to shift your values toward the velocity you have in approaching your goals rather than your current position in relation to them. That means that a millionaire who has stopped improving is less successful than a penniless homeless person who’s actively working toward improving their situation.

Once you shift your thinking to fall more in line with progression based value as a preference over position based value you’ll find that success and failure isn’t such a big deal anymore. You won’t feel worthless when you haven’t made it to your goal as long as you’re still moving toward it. Even better you won’t be left with the boring, unfulfilled feeling of sitting on a plateau for your whole life.

Have you made the shift to a progression based value system? Do you think the position based one is better? Do you see things in a completely different way from both? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Photo Credit: Andrew E. Larsen

Why You Need to Stop Waiting for Your Hero Moment

Pixelblock Danger by Cold Storage

It’s dangerous to go alone, take this!

Ah, the Hero Moment.

It’s so endemic to our storytelling, so ubiquitous and pervasive in everything – movies, TV shows, books, video games – that most people don’t even notice it even as it shapes their own understanding and expectations about their own lives. The Hero Moment meme seems built in to our way of thinking, whether genetic or just as a result of socio-cultural forces, and it directly interferes with our ability to do what we need to do in order to have the highest chance of success.

In other words, the Hero Moment is poisoning the way you think about life and making it harder for you to achieve your long term goals.

We want to stop that.

What’s The Hero Moment?

The Hero Moment is that standard moment in fiction where some huge, defining, life-changing thing happens to the protagonist thrusting them into the main issue of the story. It’s usually accompanied by finding out there’s something special about the protagonist.

Harry Potter finding out he’s a wizard is a perfect example. The beginning of just about any Zelda game is another. Meeting Ben Kenobi was Luke Skywalker’s Hero Moment. The arrival of River on Serenity changed all those character’s course. The common thread here is one big thing happens that changes the protagonist’s life forever.

It’s always a single drastic event.

That’s important, because it’s the main reason this particular meme is so subversive to the way we approach our goals. Life doesn’t work that way.

The Million Dollar Idea Myth – Waiting for a Boat at the Airport

When it comes to assessing your future and your goals, people put way too much emphasis on looking for a single, life-changing moment and severely under-emphasize the importance of consistent, grueling day-in day-out work.

That’s so freaking important I’m going to say it again.

In bold and italics.

People severely overestimate the value of a single life-changing moment and severely underestimate the importance of persistent, daily, habitual work.

People are looking for that Hero Moment. People are waiting for that moment when they’ll hit it big. In the abstract they’re waiting to have their own Hagrid come and tell them they’re the Chosen One. In the real world, this manifests itself as the myth of the million dollar idea.

Everyone is looking for that million dollar idea, that entrepreneurial lottery ticket that’ll turn them into the next Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos. They think it’s just like the Hero Moment – one minute they’re sitting there in their boring day job and then BAM they’re hit with a great idea, flip their desk and run out to make their fortune. People expect there to be something out there that’ll make them hit it big.

That’s just not how it works though.

Success takes work. Steve Jobs failed a ton, and pulled long hours to get where he got. Jeff Bezos didn’t just think up Amazon one day and go pick up his billionaire license – it took hard work every single day. It took struggle.

People don’t think of that though. They don’t sit and dream about how they’re going to lose sleep and work hard and devote 100% of their life to this big goal of theirs, they expect it to fall down their chimney like Santa Claus and be handed to them all nicely wrapped and ready to go.

It’s not surprising this is the model in media, after all it makes for a much shorter, sexier narrative. Hard work is perceived as so boring in most stories it gets glassed over in a couple minutes with a quick montage. Having a character spend ten long years of struggle to become a hero is not nearly as convenient as having Dumbledore show up at your house with some dwarves or being given the single most powerful piece of jewelry on the planet by your uncle.

Overcoming the Poison of Inaction

The reason this all is so bad for us is because it encourages us to sit around and wait for success to fall into our laps.

Success is not a well-trained puppy that will come whenever you call it. Success is a rabid, steroid filled grizzly bear on meth with a rocket launcher – if you want to capture it you’re in for a fight.

Sitting around forever trying to dream up this million dollar hit-it-big idea and expecting it to just come to you is wasting your time. You’ll never get anywhere doing that, and even if you do actually come up with an idea, statistically speaking it’s probably going to fail.

The way people finally succeed and get to a point where they’re living a fulfilling life that they actually want to be living is by putting in the hours every single day, no matter what, and failing over and over and over again until their sheer persistence finally gets them through.

Unlike all the fictional hero stories, this is how it works in the real world. Look at just about any biography of any extremely successful person and you know what common theme will be – lots of hard work and even more failures and an attitude of not giving up until they get where they wanted to be.

That’s the kind of attitude you need to cultivate in order to be successful.

You need to stop waiting for some big thing to happen and you need to start putting in the effort every single day to make something happen. Don’t focus too much on one area, try lots of stuff. If you’re having trouble putting in the hours each day, find some way to make yourself accountable until you’ve developed it into a habit.

In the end it’s going to be this attitude that gets you through, not waiting around for your radioactive spider to come along and chomp you into success.

Have you fallen into the trap of waiting around for your Hero Moment or your big Million Dollar Idea? How’d you get out of it? What are some tricks you’ve used to build a good daily work habit? Help us out and share with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Cold Storage

Flow 101: Figuring Out What Makes You Happy

Math Everywhere by Thowi

Unlike a math test, flow testing can actually be enjoyable.

In the last Flow 101 article I explained exactly what flow is and how you can apply some of its principles to your work and life in general to make the things you do more engaging, fulfilling and enjoyable. The only catch is, what if your work is such that you genuinely can’t do anything to make it put you in a state of flow?

What if your work is so awful, or even so intentionally temporary (waiting tables for a Summer, etc.) that it’s just not ever going to provide an opportunity to be fulfilling no matter what you do? Further complicating matters what if, like most people out there including myself for the longest time, you have no idea what it is you actually want to do?

How do you figure out what will really make you happy?

The flow test.

Be Are a Machine Gunner, Not a Sniper

Most people, when it comes to trying to figure out what makes them happy in life, think they’re snipers.

They conserve their ammunition, they plot and plan and select their targets carefully. They’re only willing to commit to a shot if they have a high certainty of it being a hit. There’s an emphasis on strategy and planning and tactics. This is completely the wrong way to go about things.

The problem with being a sniper is you spend way too much time in your head plotting things out. The truth of the situation when it comes to figuring out what makes you happy is that more often then not the model we’ve built in our head and the reality of whatever it is we’re chasing almost never line up. People spend half their lives lining up their shot, picking a vocation, getting a degree in the field they think they’ll love and then, when they finally pull the trigger – oops, wrong target.

Then they’re stuck. The damage is done and they’re invested in something they don’t enjoy nearly as much as they thought. At best most people repeat the same cycle at this point retreating back to the planning phase and spending a ton of time prepping for their next shot with no more of a guarantee the target will be the right one than they had the first time around.

So what’s the better option? Being a machine gunner.

A machine gunner’s got plenty of ammo. A machine gunner doesn’t have to be choosy about her target selection, in fact she doesn’t even have to have a target – there’s enough ammo to burn she can just fire in the general direction of a target to provide some suppressing fire. Sure she still has to pick targets to a point, but she can be broad about it. She can open up on groups of targets and as a result has a lot more options.

That’s the way you should treat your search for what really makes you happy. Don’t plan and focus too much on one thing, don’t conserve your ammunition – you’ve got plenty – go out and try hundreds of different hings as fast as you possibly can. The goal is not to pick something and fixate but to cultivate a sense of activity ADHD. You want to try something, determine if you enjoy it or not and, if not, chuck it aside and move on to the next thing immediately.

How best can you facilitate this rapid testing? That’s where the flow test comes in.

Running a Basic Daily Flow Test

The flow test is an easy way to cover a lot of potential targets quickly with a minimal amount of effort. It’s your machine gun. There are a handful of different ways to conduct flow tests, but the easiest in my opinion is just an hourly check up.

Set some kind of reminder each hour, whether that’s an alarm on your phone or watch or an hour long egg timer or whatever and then every time that alarm goes off stop what you’re doing and note down the following info on a sheet of paper or Evernote or wherever:

Time:        Current Activity:        In Flow?        Mood:

‘Time’ is obviously the time you’re making the note. ‘Current activity’ is whatever you were doing when the alarm went off and you stopped to make your note. Could be working, exercising, doing laundry, whatever. You can be as precise as you feel necessary but sometimes being more detailed can help fine tune things.

For ‘In Flow?’ a simple yes or no is generally sufficient. To recap, being in flow means you’re in the zone. You’re pumped and feel unstoppable and are rocking through things feeling like whatever you’re doing is effortless. ‘Mood’ is however you were feeling while you were doing whatever it was you were doing when you stopped to make your note. Again, you can be super descriptive here or you can put in simple responses like ‘excited’, ‘bored’ etc.

Do this on a daily basis for a couple weeks while trying to do as many different activities as possible and then go back and look for patterns. Are there things that just never put you in a state of flow? What about the opposite, is there anything that consistently puts you in a state of flow?

If you find that your work never puts you in a state of flow and you’re constantly using mood adjectives like ‘depressed’, ‘annoyed’ or ‘bored’, then you probably need to find a new line of work.

Take a look at what does put you into flow, or even just make you feel a little happier. You might be surprised. Personally, I always knew I enjoyed writing – but doing a little flow testing showed me just how often it puts me in that state where I go into a near trance and am just a fulfilled, delighted productivity machine.

By constantly asking yourself whether the activity you’re engaged in is producing flow for you as well as what general mood it puts you in and then trying as wide a variety of things as you possibly can it gives you the data to figure out what really makes you happy rather than just picking something you think will make you happy. From there you can refocus your efforts on those areas and start to shift your life toward doing more things that make you feel fulfilled and happy.

Have you tried any flow testing before? What kinds of things put you in a state of flow? What things just never do it for you? Share your experiences with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Thomas W

Flow 101: How to Love Your Work

Flow by Alejandro Juarez

Flow isn’t just important in parkour, it’s important in not despising your work.

For a lot of people, work sucks.

It’s built right into our cultural perceptions and usage of the word. When there’s something you don’t want to do, or something that’ll be difficult and unpleasant what do we tend to say – that’ll be a lot of work. Clearly ‘work’ as a concept tends to have some pretty negative connotations.

That doesn’t have to be the case though and, personally, I think the world would be a better place if we could correct this issue. Work can be fun, enjoyable and positive. You can love your work again, or at least change your work to make it something you love by using a single principle as your guiding compass.

Flow.

What is ‘Flow’ Exactly?

Flow, loosely defined, is that feeling of being in the zone when doing something. It’s that sense of being one hundred percent in the moment, of effortless and exhilarating activity, of rocking things out with no sense of struggle.

We say someone is ‘in flow’ or in a state of flow when they’re experiencing this. Think of an experienced traceur moving effortlessly through an obstacle filled environment, reacting instinctively, gliding through like a river around and over rocks and pebbles. That’s a person in flow. Think of a writer who sits down and loses themselves at the keyboard, fingers flying in a creative frenzy until a short time later there are several thousands of words on the page and a smile on the writer’s face. That’s flow. Think of someone playing a video game who tears through a level with perfect efficiency and dominates her opponents without taking a scratch the whole time reacting without having to think about what she’s doing. That’s flow.

This state of flow is essentially an optimal experience. Entering a state of flow both signifies and creates a sense of fulfillment and elation that makes each experience being in flow addictive and pleasurable. In general, when you’re in flow you’re happy.

Criteria for Creating Flow

One of the people responsible for studying and defining this concept of flow is Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The main criteria he lays down for what best leads to experiences of flow are:

  • A clearly defined goal.

  • Immediate feedback on progress toward that goal.

  • A task that is challenging, but not to the point of impossibility.

  • Clear indicators of when the goal is completed.

The gamers among you, along with the more astute people ought to recognize immediately that the list of flow creating conditions is almost word for word the foundation for good game design. Think about the last really great game you played and examine it along the items above.

  • A clearly defined goal – Finish the level, beat the boss, rescue the princess, capture the flag, eliminate the enemy team, etc.

  • Immediate feedback on progress toward that goal – Moving to the next level, progress indicators, intermediate bosses, leveling up, increasing scores, etc.

  • A task that is challenging, but not to the point of impossibility – Tic-tac toe gets old quickly because it’s too easy, you almost always tie. Conversely games that are too difficult (Ninja Gaiden series anyone?) quickly get hurled across the room in frustration. The best online games always happen when you’re matched against a team of similar skill level making it a challenge, but one where victory is still within reach.

  • Clear indicators of when the goal is completed – Did you die? Start over. Did you beat the level? Hooray! Here’s some fanfare and a big ‘You win!’ screen. Video games always make it extremely clear when you’ve met your goal, when you’ve failed and when you’ve got a little more to go.

This general set up that all games, intentionally or not, are designed to be perfect flow inducing environments in my opinion leads to their extremely addictive quality. Particularly as an escape mechanism when your life is spent in work and activities you hate and you never really achieve flow having an artificial means designed to let you experience that state fills a deficiency in your life.

Finding or Creating Flow in Your Work

So what’s the best way to create flow in work that you generally hate? A lot of it comes down to manipulating the variables above to find something that feels a lot like a video game. In other words you want to have clearly defined goals, clearly defined progress and it needs to be at the right balance of skill level and difficulty.

Challenge Vs. Skill Flow Continuum

Manipulating the balance of challenge level vs. skill level makes a huge difference in finding states of flow.

The first thing to do is make sure that you’ve defined clear goals. Proper goal setting is huge when it comes to success in general, but it’s also what makes finding a good state of flow possible. A good goal should be something that’s challenging enough to be worth pursuing, but still within the bounds of achievability. A good clear goal might be the completion of a project, or finding five more clients. Whatever fits your work.

It’s vital that the goal you make must be challenging but not impossible and on top of that it must have a clearly indicated completion point. Memorize 10 guitar chords is a goal that has a clear state of completion, learn to play guitar is not. We want specific – not nebulous.

Next make sure that you’ve set up milestones or progress markers so that you can track your progress. Have things in place, whether they’re smaller goals that add up to your larger goal or some kind of system of points to mimic the way the games work. Are you moving forward? Are you not making progress? You should always be able to tell if you’re looking to create a flow conducive environment.

A good example of something that’s used gamification to apply principles of flow to fitness is Fitocracy.

I’ve loved Fitocracy ever since I got to play with it in beta because it makes fitness fun. Exercise, like work, has a lot of negative connotations to a lot of people, but Fitocracy changes that. You have a clear goal (level up), an indicator of progress (points earned from workouts), a variable skill level (leveling up is easier for beginners and becomes more difficult as you get more fit) and a clear point of success (a hearty congratulations on leveling up from FRED).

Working to apply these principles to your work doesn’t guarantee you’ll start enjoying it, but it creates an optimal environment for finding joy in what you do when previously it was all pain and struggle. Sometimes the trick isn’t changing your current work environment to facilitate entering a state of flow, but rather finding other work that naturally puts you in a state of flow. I’ll cover that, including an easy test to see what you’d love to do most, in the next article on flow.

Have any personal experience wit flow? Any tips on the best way to get into a state of flow or understand what it feels like? Leave a comment and let us know.

Photo Credit: Alejandro Juarez

Scientific Sleep Hacking: Easy Ways to Optimize Sleep

There is Plenty to Do in a New Empty Apartment by Bealluc

Some sleep hacking ideas get a little ridiculous – let’s start with what the research says first.

There’s something about sleep and sleep optimization that seems to captivate people in the productivity and lifestyle design communities. I suspect it’s mostly because people who are deep into lifestyle design also tend to be fairly ambitious and, as a result, the thought of spending less time asleep and having more time to accomplish things is tantalizing.

Our very first experiment in fact was with trying to switch to a polyphasic sleep schedule. I called it a success at the time, but I recognize now it was a failure.

I’ve not abandoned my interest in optimizing sleep though, and since then over time I accumulated a collection of methods for optimizing sleep that are backed not only by my own personal experiences, but more importantly by actual research.

To Hack or to Optimize?

I recognize I used it in the title, but I needed something to get your attention. Honestly I rather dislike the idea of ‘hacking’ sleep. It feels adversarial to me, like one is attempting to game the system or to cheat somehow. In my experience that breeds the kind of attitude I’ve fallen victim to in the past of trying to be extreme about it. Being extreme about it is almost never sustainable.

Instead I like to think about it as optimization.

Optimization isn’t adversarial, it’s complementary. Optimization isn’t so much about gaming the system you’re working against and bending or breaking the rules to get what you want, it’s about working within the system to reshape things so as to be more beneficial.

Another key difference is that sleep optimization is not about sleeping less – at least not necessarily. A lot of the sleep hacking community seems devoted entirely to the reduction in hours spent sleeping, consequences be damned. Optimization can certainly shave a few unnecessary hours off your time spent asleep but its primary goal is to help you feel as best as you can and recover as much as you can.

We’re not looking to break sleep and conquer it, we’re looking to redirect it so that we get the most out of it and can use it to fit our schedule without all the struggle.

Monophasic, Biphasic or Polyphasic

Right off the bat, polyphasic is out.

In the past I would’ve suggested giving it a try if you thought you could swing it, but having given it a try myself and having dug a lot deeper into the research supporting it (there really isn’t any), research suggesting it’s either unsustainable or flat out detrimental such as Dr. Piotr Wozniak’s and trying to hunt down confirmed successfully long term polyphasic sleepers (there really aren’t any save Steve Pavlina and his claims are still questionable) – I just can’t recommend even trying it.

To the best of my evaluation science as a whole pretty much doesn’t support the viability of polyphasic sleep and I agree with that position.

Biphasic sleep, on the other hand, shows a great deal of promise.

Biphasic sleep (essentially taking a nap somewhere around that midday slump) has a lot of research backing it as beneficial, both to memory, general cognitive performance and quality of sleep in general. There’s also strong evidence supporting the claims that a midday nap reduces the time you need to sleep overnight by more than the time actually invested in the nap.

This research reflects my personal experience (or maybe it’s the other way around). I’m a big fan of naps. Whether that’s just normal daily scheduled ones or short, focused caffeine naps taking a little bit of time in the afternoon to grab a quick nap makes a huge difference in both quality of sleep and the the amount of sleep you need in a night. I also appears to have a strong beneficial effect to memory and creativity.

Better Sleeping Through Science

There are a lot of recommendations out there for how to optimize sleep.

The problem is, not all of them are effective – some do absolutely nothing and others may even prove detrimental to the end goal of getting the most restorative sleep possible in the most efficient way possible. We need some way to separate the wheat from the chaff without having to spend a ton of time with self-experimentation.

To that end I’ve only included things on this list that have some type of research backing them that shows a positive effect. Before some people start yelling about how something can be true even if it hasn’t been proven in a double-blind study, I agree. Some things certainly could have a high efficacy but either haven’t been verified in a controlled setting or have traits that make isolating them in a proper study a logistical impossibility.

That’s fine, and I encourage you to properly experiment yourself with these things to get an idea of whether or not you think they work. I’m not interested in things here though that people think work, I only want things that have been proven to work. That seems like the most logical place to start, then you can start adding your own unproven strategies on top of the foundation of what we know is effective.

Sanitize Your Sleep Environment

When I say sanitize here I don’t mean in the traditional sense of clearing it of bacteria and pathogens and things (though, you know, that’s probably not a terribly bad idea too), but rather sanitizing it of interfering stimuli. Things like light and noise can severely disrupt both your ability to fall asleep quickly and the quality of your actual sleep.

The first thing is to clear your room of any electronics that make noise or give off any light. Claims have been made that even the electromagnetic field generated by said electronics can disrupt sleep although there’s been no studies to confirm it. I’m much more concerned with the bright LEDs and whirring fans of a computer, the glow of an excessively bright alarm clock or anything else that gives off light or noise. Get those out of there, or silence them and cover up the lights.

Next deal with outside sources of light and noise. If you live in a big city spend a little extra to get some light/sound canceling curtains like the thick ones they use in hotel rooms. Even getting some ear plugs and a sleeping mask can go a long way. Neither are terribly expensive and they’re worth the myriad benefits of getting a good night’s sleep.

Eat for Sleep

Your nutritional habits have an immense effect on just about every other physiological process you go through. Sleep is no different. Going to bed hungry can impair your ability to fall asleep quickly. There is absolutely no research supporting the claim that you burn fewer calories at night and that eating late at night will make you gain fat. I’ll say that again because this is a frustratingly persistent misconception.

Eating before bed does not make you gain weight.

The difference between what your body burns when you’re sitting in your chair watching TV and when sleeping is about the same. The importance is the macro composition and net energy expenditure over a longer period of time than just 24 hours.

The primary reason, as best we can tell anyway, your body needs to sleep is so it can fix everything you tore up through the day and clean house a bit. Providing your body a little food not only removes the difficulty of falling asleep through the discomfort of hunger but it supplies your body materials to facilitate the repair work it needs to overnight.

The studies here on the actual effects on quality of sleep have been somewhat mixed in terms of quality, so I’ll concede this tactic is not 100% proven but does show some strong statistical promise of being beneficial. In general the best results have been seen through the consumption of fats and protein prior to sleep with some small additional benefit appearing to come from choosing a slower digesting protein.

My recommendation, based on said research and my own personal experience, would be to go for some cottage cheese (maybe a cup to a cup and a half at least) as a pre-bed snack. You get a little fat and some slower digesting caseinate protein in a relatively small package.

Have a Sleeping Ritual

Without getting into motor patterning and neuroscience and things our brains very much like to go on autopilot when we’re doing something we’ve done repeatedly for a long time. If you’ve ever zoned out on the drive to work and realized disconcertingly on arrival that you kind of blanked out and don’t remember the drive at all that’s sort of what I’m talking about. When we do something repeatedly our conscious minds tend to shut off and we go through the motions automatically.

We can use this propensity for switching to autopilot to help us get to sleep quickly (and wake up) by employing sleep rituals.

A sleep ritual is basically a sequence of actions that you do in the exact same way, in the exact same order, whenever it’s time to sleep. This can be anything you want really, as long as it doesn’t directly interfere with said sleep. Go have your pre-bed snack, let the dog out, brush your teeth and do your other pre-bed stuff then go to sleep. Do that the same way in the same order over and over again and eventually your brain will get the hint and as soon as you go through that ritual it’ll know it’s time to sleep.

It’s important here too to keep your sleeping space sacred. Particularly if you have trouble sometimes falling asleep your bed should be reserved for only sleep and sex. Don’t eat in bed, don’t watch TV in bed, don’t even read in bed (though reading before bed can help you get to sleep, do it somewhere else then go through your pre-bed ritual before slipping between the sheets).

That way your brain has a very clear delineation around your bed that this is where sleep happens and that’s it. If you’re going there, you’re probably going to sleep. Just like the ritual it primes your brain to start the sleep process and get you to sleep quickly.

Be Active

Exercise has been proven over, and over, and over again to have a positive effect on sleep quality.

So go exercise!

Seriously you should be doing this one anyway. In terms of sleep it doesn’t necessarily have to be actual structured exercise either, as long as you’re up and moving around and being active in a general sense your sleep quality will improve as a result. Go for a long walk every day, or go play some games outside. Practice parkour. Whatever.

The point is making a habit of being physically active not only improves your general health but also helps your sleep. To borrow Pokemon terminology, it’s super-effective.

A slight word of caution though – don’t go overboard. Daily heavy lifting followed by HIIT or Met Con workouts or anything that causes too much stress on your system can interfere with sleep. You’ll know if you’re over-training though, so just be cognizant of how you feel.

Use Substances Appropriately

To my knowledge there are no recreational substances that have a positive effect on sleep quality. Caffeine quite obviously serves no other purpose than to specifically inhibit one’s ability to fall asleep. Alcohol tends to make most people sleepy and can make you fall asleep faster but it severely damages the quality of sleep, dehydrates you and can disrupt sleep cycles for a few days following (have you even gotten drunk and then woke up the next morning thinking, ‘I feel super!’?) Marijuana use has been linked to both longer sleep periods and reduced quality of sleep which is doubly counter-productive.

That’s not to say that you can’t still enjoy these substances, but you need to do it intelligently. The effects of these on sleep can last a lot longer than the recreational effects last. Coffee, for example, can disrupt sleep patterns hours after the buzz that you drink it for has faded away. Similarly, even if you’ve sobered up, alcohol can still have an effect on your quality of sleep.

So what do you do? Ideally, you should cut off your use of these substances three or four hours prior to when you intend to sleep. For me 3 p.m. is the limit for caffeine intake if I don’t want it to interfere with my sleep.

Obviously with alcohol this becomes something of a problem since socially it’s most common use is late in the evenings. In general if you’re consuming large volumes of alcohol prior to 3 p.m. there’s a chance you have other problems you need to address. When it comes to alcohol the best things is to just understand the effects of it and regulate your use accordingly.

Every now and again going out and drinking late in the evening is fine, but if you do it every night or even every couple nights it’s going to have a cumulatively detrimental effect on your sleep and your health and everything else will likely suffer as a result. So keep it reasonable. You should also drink a good bit of water before bed to try to mitigate the dehydrating effects of the alcohol. You may have to wake up a few times to go to the bathroom, but interrupted sleep is preferential to the dehydration.

Chill Out and Light Some Candles

Falling asleep is a process that, physiologically anyway, starts well before your head hits the pillow. Putting yourself in an environment before bed that facilitates and encourages those process to start will help get to sleep much more quickly when you actually do head to bed and will make for more restful sleep since you’re primed beforehand.

The first step is to limit your exposure to full spectrum light. Exposure to bright full spectrum light inhibits the brain’s production of melatonin which is a chemical that helps put you to sleep. For hundreds of thousands of years the Sun going down has meant it’s bed time for humans, our brains still operate that way. Shutting off the lights and switching to a non-full spectrum light source encourages the brain to up-regulate melatonin production.

That means no bright computer or phone screens and no TV among other things. It doesn’t mean you necessarily have to sit in the dark though, candles are a good source of gentle non-full spectrum light. So shut off the lights and the bright electronics about 20 – 30 minutes before bed. If nothing else, a house filled with candles every night is a good mood-setter for some sexy time.

The next environmental factor to change is the temperature. People sleep best at an average temperature between 60 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5 to 20 degrees Celsius for our international readers). That’s just a touch chillier than normal room temperature, so turn the AC on gently, open some windows a crack (provided that won’t let too much noise in) or don’t cover up so tightly. You’ll get a much higher quality of sleep.

Putting it All Together

You can certainly experiment with additional tactics to improve sleep quality, but these are the best place to start in terms of building a strong foundation of practices that have been proven to be effective. To recap for all you tl;dr folks.

  • Remove noise & light stimuli from your sleeping environment.

  • Eat some slow digesting protein 15-20 minutes before bed.

  • Follow a pre-bed ritual ever single night.

  • Be physically active or exercise regularly.

  • Limit caffeine and alcohol use.

  • Eliminate light exposure 20-30 minutes prior to bed time and sleep in a 60 to 68 degree Fahrenheit room.

Do you have anything else to add? Something I missed? Have you had success with any of these tactics? Share your experiences with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Bealluc

No One Cares Who You Are, Only What You Do

Car Flip by Alex Cockroach

The world doesn’t care if you’re a nice guy, can you help these people or not?

Imagine for a moment that you’re walking down a quiet street minding your own business when a car driven by a distracted teenager veers around the corner and up onto the sidewalk and clips you (don’t text and drive kids).

You tumble through the air and hit the ground in a heap a few yards away and the teen speeds off. You’re a bloody mess, and are barely hanging on to consciousness when you see a stranger running towards you. He runs up to you and kneels down.

“Wow, you’re really messed up,” he says. “Your one leg’s popped out of its socket, want me to put it back for you?”

“Are… are you a doctor?” you ask.

“No. But I’m a really nice guy.”

Even with tunnel vision setting in you manage a pretty good ‘What the hell’s wrong with you’ look. “If you’re not a doctor can you at least call an ambulance?” you ask.

He shakes his head. “Nope. Sorry. I’m super honest though, and I have a great sense of humor. Oh! I’m a great father too!”

It’s at this point you use the last of your ebbing strength to grab him by the shirt with both hands and pull your broken husk to his face to scream “I don’t care! Do something to help me!”

Actions Speak Louder

It may seem like an extreme example, but society and everyone you meet is the accident victim bleeding out on the street and you’re the guy running up to help.

Everyone needs something. The question is whether or not you’re able to provide that something. If you are then you’re useful, if not – well then in general no one’s really going to care about you.

If that seems harsh to you it’s for two reasons. The first is that it is harsh. Deal with it. The second is that modern culture as a whole has drifted in the direction of pretending to value states over actions. People tend to judge their value based on what they are rather than what theydo.

Not sure if you do too? Ask yourself really quick what makes you so great, why anyone else should care about you. If you’re like most people you default to states of being over actions. You’ll say things like, “I’m nice, I’m funny, I’m a hard worker, I’m generous” etc. When you should be saying things like, “I tell great jokes, I donate 10% of my income to charity and I make a mind-exploding grilled cheese sandwich”.

Everyone needs something. This doesn’t have to be anything huge – they might just need a hug or a little bit of support. Either way there’s something they need and your value to them hinges entirely on your ability to provide things that they need. It doesn’t matter if these are things they know they need or not, just that you are able to provide something of value via your actions.

Learning to Walk Your Talk

If you realize that you fall into this category of people who emphasize states over actions, if you’re the useless guy running up to the accident victim with nothing at all to offer but assurances you’re a nice person – you need to change the way you approach the world.

After all, what do those states even mean if they’re not backed up by actions?

Are you a nice guy if all you ever do is think nice thoughts? If you had two friends and one of them helped you move, like physically picked up your couch and put it in the truck, and the other one just thought really nice thoughts about helping you move, who would you actually consider to be the nice person?

Before you start insisting that all the good traits about yourself you listed when I asked you why anyone should care you exist are backed up by concrete actions – are they?

As a result of this swing toward the ‘it’s who you are inside that counts’ bullshit a lot of people just go on making reaffirmations to themselves that they’re funny, or a nice person, or whatever. Then when you ask them what they actually do that’s so funny, or nice or anything else all you get back is a blank stare and lots of ‘ums’.

So stop thinking about yourself in those terms. Understand that you are what you do.

You are. I don’t care about your hipster, post-postmodernist, feel-good notions of internally derived self-worth. You are what you do. That doesn’t have to mean you are what you do for a living necessarily, but you are a reflection and direct product of your actions and vice versa. So act like it.

Figure out who you want to be and go out and do the things that the person you want to be would do. Change your identity by changing your actions and your actions will in turn reshape your identity.

If you’re not sure who you want to be, pick a new skill – cooking, parkour, speaking a new language, making toothpick sculptures of ducks – it really doesn’t matter what. Pick something and get really, really good at that thing. Good enough to make people take notice. Good enough that people are impressed.

Once you’ve done that once, make it a habit. Learn something else. You have plenty of lives to do it in, so start shifting your way of thinking from trying to be things to doing things. You’ll lead a much better life that way.

Have anything you’d like to add? Think I’m wrong and it does matter that you’re a super nice guy because it’s what your mom told you growing up? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Alex Cockroach

Getting Away With Murder & Living 14 Lives

Post begins below this fantastic and relevant comic.

SMBC - 20120902

Read this, then go open up smbc-comic.com in another tab.

While all that business about every one of your cells being replaced every seven years isn’t entirely true, people do tend to go through major changes in their lives in cycles of seven years or so. Think about your own life broken down into 7 year chunks. How different were you at 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, 56 and so on?

Beyond the fact that we tend to change in tastes and personality every 7 years, we also tend to refresh our social networks every septennial. That’s not to say you completely abandon your old friends for new ones every seven years, but people tend to replace a majority of them and your primary friends shift. Add on to that fact the general guideline that it takes roughly seven years or so on average to master a new skill or profession and you wind up with what almost amounts to a brand new person every seven years.

I think that’s absolutely fantastic.

Your 14 Lives

Assuming you live to be 100 years old, broken into seven year increments, you’ll get to live a total of fourteen lives. If we cut out the first seven years since a lot of that time is spent getting comfortable in your own skin and even bring your life expectancy down a bit to be less optimistic you still have about 11 lives to make use of.

Eleven opportunities to completely reinvent yourself. Eleven opportunities to start over fresh and be the person you want to be. Eleven opportunities to go try something new and crazy knowing that after seven years you can ditch that and try something else.

Isn’t that exciting?

In general this is a process that you’ll go through on your own, whether you intend to or not. No matter what you do you’re going to change and it’ll probably happen in roughly seven year increments and even if you fight it, you’re only going to delay the inevitable.

What’s worse is that, much like dreading and fussing over and denying the coming of your eventual real demise is only going to make the time you’ve got here right now less enjoyable, worrying and dreading over your septennial resurrection or trying to deny it completely will only taint the time you’ve got now.

Rather than dread these septenni-deaths, embrace them. Make the most out of them. The way I see it I’m not interested in just letting myself die and be reborn every seven years, I take it upon myself to purposefully and intentionally murder my former self every seven years in order to be reborn the way I want.

Murder As a Form of Self-Improvement

Most people have no idea who they are.

I genuinely believe that. I really think that the vast majority of people have less of a notion of who they are, who they really are than the people around them do, because they never think to actually sit down and ask themselves, “Who the hell am I?”

That’s really sad to me, because not only do I think it takes a lot of the person’s self-determination away from them (how can you make informed decisions about where you want your future to go if you don’t even know who you are?) I also think it leads to an extreme lack of fulfillment. You have to know what you want to find a fulfilling life and that’s exponentially difficult if you don’t have a handle on your true self.

The septennial life cycle allows for a golden opportunity to closely examine who you are, who you really are, and change the parts you don’t like anymore.

These little deaths allow you to not only ask yourself the existentially important question, “Who the hell am I?”, but it also allows you to ask yourself the more important question practically, “Who the hell do I want to be?”

Because of this I relish these opportunities. I see them as an opportunity to murder my old self and become someone completely new.

Now, when I say murder that doesn’t mean you have to hate your old self. In fact I find that kind of attitude to be generally negative. I just use that term to emphasize the fact that I think it should be a directed, guided, intentional process. You’re putting your former self in the ground. Chapter closed. Moving on.

Making the Most of Your 11 Lives

Given the septennial nature of these mini-deaths I think it’s important not to squander them – they take too long to come around again to be wasteful with. To that end here are some things I think can help you make the most of your phoenixian transitions.

  • Let Go of Unfinished Business – Dwelling on your past life after it’s over is counter-productive. You’re not a ghost, so just let go. Even if you were really great at something in the past or there was a part of your life you loved that’s gone for one reason or another it’s best to just let it go. There’s a reason the roots for the word ‘nostalgia’ mean ‘old wounds’.

    Instead, focus on the boundless opportunities that lie ahead of you. The old things were great, but they’re gone and not coming back. Reliving past glory in your head is living in fiction. Turn your attention to all the lives you’ve got ahead of you instead. Think about all the possibilities and the great things you could do. Then go out and do them.

  • Don’t Cling to Life – Just because you’ve done something one way for the past seven years, for this whole lifetime, doesn’t mean you should refuse to let it go. There are certainly things you can choose to let carry over into your new life, but don’t artificially prolong the old one.

    Putting yourself on septennial life support because you’re scared to let yourself die is a natural reaction. Death is scary, even if it’s symbolic. Don’t fear the unknown though, embrace it. The unknown is potential. The unknown is a promise that there might be something more, something better. You can never improve in anything if you stay with your comfort zone, so step out of it and let yourself die – or even murder yourself on purpose – and get on with the process of being reborn as someone better.

  • Live Each Life Intentionally – Just letting yourself die and be reborn is good, but leaving the process unguided leaves so much potential on the table. Harness that potential by guiding the process as much as possible. Ask yourself during this seven year transition period what you like about yourself, who you really are and who you want to be.

    List all the things you dislike about yourself and all the things you love about yourself, list all the things you want to do or have always wished you could learn or try, then figure out all the things you can do to embrace the good things, chase your dreams and abandon everything about yourself you no longer like. Make it a purposeful, intentional process.

    This isn’t necessarily an easy thing. You may have to cut out old friends who are leading you down paths you don’t want to take, you may have to make big changes in your career or habits or routine.

    It’s all worth it though since it grants you the opportunity to live an entirely brand new life, chase your own destiny and master something you’ve always wished you could do.

Near Limitless Possibilities

The key principle of the idea of septennial lifespans is, determinism and social mobility aside, you have access to a near limitless amount of potential.

You don’t have to feel constrained by your current life. If you’re feeling unfulfilled and bored with life, if you feel like you’re missing out on something or chasing a goal you don’t really care about, that’s fine! You have the opportunity to write a brand new chapter, really a brand new book, every seven years. Bury the life you hate and rebuild the one you want to live atop its grave.

Have you gone through any big septennial life changes? Have any other tips you’d like to add to make the process more beneficial or efficient? Leave a comment and hare it with us! While you’re at it, go leave a friendly comment over at SMBC too, or pick up a prettier poster form of the comic above – they deserve it!

Photo Credit: Zach Weiner of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

26 Lessons from a Quarter Century of Failures, Successes and Troublemaking

26 by Katherine McAdoo

I’ve certainly more than 26 things in 26 years, but these are some of the more important ones.

I am 26 years old – and it terrifies me.

It terrifies me because I recognize that my life is at least a quarter over. Sure I might get hit by bus tomorrow, but even if I have a good run I can’t reasonably expect to make it much past 100. So I’m a quarter done. I’m a quarter done and that terrifies me because I feel like I should be further along in my goals toward achieving the life I want to live.

I know, I know – people will say to calm down and enjoy my life as it is. To be happy with what I’ve got. I am, to be honest, and this shouldn’t be seen as a complaint. While grateful for everything I’ve got I hate complacency. I’m an ambitious person, whether you apply that word as praise or as an insult, so complacency is anathema to me. You can be simultaneously grateful for what you have yet hungry to accomplish more and that is the terribly uncomfortable place I find myself sitting in now.

So – both to assist those who find themselves younger (or older) than myself and yet to seize their ideal life, and for the entirely more selfish purpose of assuaging my own dread that I’ll find myself twenty-six years hence with my goals still unachieved – I’ve collected a list of 26 lessons I’ve learned over my time spent circling the Sun.

1. Everyone Has an Opinion on What’s Right for You – You Don’t Have to Accept It

Everyone, from your friends and your family to complete strangers and society itself, is going to have a strong opinion on what you should do with your life. In my experience it’s usually a lot of bullshit. That’s not to say in the case of those close to you they don’t have your best interests in mind – when your parents push you toward a certain lifestyle they probably are doing it out of love.

It’s also not to say all opinions or advice are wrong, if you’re a crack addict and people tell you to stop that’s definitely a good (if extreme) example of advice you should take. The problem is when you don’t think about the advice you get and just follow it blindly. You go to college, find a job that you’re complacent with and dig in for an uneventful, unfulfilled life following the script society wrote for you. You spend your whole life fishing only to realize far too late that you never wanted fish in the first place.

Take every bit of advice you get with a healthy dose of skepticism. Judge each on its merits for you and then write your own story. You only get one life, don’t waste it living someone else’s narrative.

2. If You Aren’t Pissing People Off, You’re Not Living Boldly Enough

People who create, people who follow their own path, people who do things on their own terms, they inevitably piss people off. There are lots of reasons for this ranging from people just being upset that you’re challenging their beliefs to being jealous that you’re actually doing what you want while they’re still dancing to the unfulfilling tune everyone else has been following. Great things piss off small people.

That means that if you want to do great things you should expect to piss some people off.

There’s two lessons really from this realization because not only does it mean you shouldn’t let the pissed off people get to you, but it also means if you aren’t pissing people off you’re probably not being loud enough. That’s not to say loud in an obnoxious, in-your-face kind of way, but loud in the sense that you’re doing your own thing proudly and don’t care what anyone thinks. If people aren’t pissed off at you then you might need to find something else even greater to pursue.

3. If You’re Comfortable You Aren’t Moving Fast Enough

This ties strongly into the above point – in general if you’re reasonably comfortable you’re probably not moving fast enough. We just don’t learn well inside our comfort zone.

That’s not to say you should be hurtling through life in a stressed out ball of manic inertia, but you should be just outside your comfort zone. You shouldn’t be ripping your hair out, but there should be that tiny bit of pressure edging you on to do just a little more, to go just a little faster. That tiny bit of stress is what’s going to keep you improving throughout your life and keep you from stagnating.

4. Fear Can Be Healthy, but Don’t Let it Control You

I’m not going to tell you to not be afraid of anything, or to ignore all of your fears – they’re there for a reason in the general sense and definitely do serve a strong purpose in keeping you from doing stupid things and getting hurt.

The problem is most people’s fear is seriously overactive.

People wind up terrified of any sort of loss or temporary discomfort, so they sit in their same place their entire life making excuses and resenting their complacency only to die unfulfilled and secretly miserable. If anything you should be scared of that!

You should always acknowledge your fears, because they may be helping you avoid something stupid, but don’t let them rule you. Look your fears in the eye, judge them, and if it turns out they were less lion and more housecat then give them a pat on the head, step right over them and go do something great. You own your own fears, not the other way around, so act like it damn it.

5. Aim for Big Things

I absolutely hate the saying, “Aim for the Moon because even if you miss you’ll land among the stars”. I’m sorry Mr. Stone, you were a great philanthropist and all but your saying is repeated way too much and it belies an extreme ignorance of astronomy.

That being said, I begrudgingly accept the premise. Your goals should be big enough to scare the hell out of you. Aiming for small, achievable things is a great way to build up to a much bigger goal, but if all you ever go for long term are the little achievable things you’re never going to get anywhere.

Big, ambitious, mildly insane goals are the most motivating and will provide the most inspiration for you to actually get out there and do them. There’s an inherent drive to chasing something that seems impossible not present when you only go for things you think you can do. Besides, that’s kind of self-denigrating isn’t it? Don’t sell yourself short, you can do great things so go out and actually do them.

6. You’ll Become the People Around You, Choose Wisely

No matter how much I tell you to ignore what everyone else tells you about how you should live your life, the fact is you’re going to wind up a lot like the people you hang out with. It’s unavoidable. I’m fairly staunchly anti-conformist but even I’ll start adopting the traits and mannerisms of those I surround myself with.

So what do you do about it?

Rather than fight it (you’ll lose), break out some social Aikido and turn that unavoidable fact into a benefit rather than a pitfall. Instead of worrying about being dragged down by people with habits, goals and lifestyles contrary to your own surround yourself with those living the life you want to live.

If you want to be fit, hang out with fit people. If you want to be an entrepreneur hang out with other entrepreneurs. You don’t necessarily have to ditch your old friends (though if they’re being that big of a drag on your life it might not be such a bad thing), you just have to find other people to be around who act as a positive force in your life.

7. Always Be Looking for Ways to Help People

The best way to find meaning in your own life is to help create meaning in the lives of others. Living a completely free life where you have enough passive income that you barely have to work and essentially have the funds to do whatever you want whenever you want doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be happy. You can have everything you think you want in life and still lack meaning.

So find ways to help people.

Whether that means volunteering somewhere, giving to charity or creating something awesome that helps people finding some way to make other people’s lives better will add a lot to your own. Beyond the general altruism thing, there is a self-centered side of making a rule of helping people – the more you help others the more they’ll be happy to help you.

That’s not to say you should help people just so they’ll owe you a favor, people can usually tell when you’re lending a hand for purely selfish reasons. The point is just that when you try to do a little something everyday to help others just for goodness of helping people out it’ll come back to you one way or another for your own benefit.

8. Things Are Easier the Less You Worry

Spending time worrying is pointless and wasteful. Worrying gives you something to do, but it’ll never actually help you accomplish anything. It consumes your attention and, unlike fear which can sometimes be a positive force, worry only leads to distraction, lack of action and bad decisions.

Stop worrying.

Things can be broken down into two categories, things that are under your control and things that are not under your control. People tend to spend a lot of time worrying about both which is extra pointless. Worrying, on its own, is a waste of your time. Worrying about things that are not in any way under your control, things which you cannot change, means that you are wasting time you could be spending addressing things you can change fretting about something you’re powerless to affect.

Even worrying about things you can affect is a waste because you could be spending that time taking action. If you have an hour to spend doesn’t it make more sense to spend that hour fixing the problem or taking action to avoid or correct something rather than spending an hour wringing your hands and fussing about it.

Spending your time worrying about something you can’t change just distracts you from fixing the things you can change and worrying about things you can change is like standing on train tracks pulling your hair out because you see a train coming – stop worrying and just step off the tracks.

9. Systems Will Always Beat Motivation

I have to give the personal training department head at the gym I’m working at right now some credit for this one, so Chab if you’re reading this – thanks.

It doesn’t matter how motivated you are, it doesn’t matter how diligent you think you are in whatever it is you’re trying to do, if you don’t have systems in place to make sure you’re doing it you’re going to fall short eventually. What do I mean by systems? Systems are things that are external to you that force you to do whatever needs to be done everyday to keep you on track.

Things like to-do lists, Seinfeld chains and daily schedules are all examples of systems that ensure that you’re taking the little steps you need everyday to achieve your bigger goals.

People who are successful inevitably wind up with a ton of things on their plate to juggle, usually on a daily basis. If you don’t have systems in place to keep you in line something somewhere is going to slip. Making sure you have the right systems in place will take a lot of the human error element out of your chances of reaching your goals.

10. Be a Little Better Every Single Day

If there were something of a common theme among all of my lessons or pieces of advice, I’d say it would probably be to never stagnate. I firmly believe that, given the severely limited amount of time we have here, we should do our best to get the most out of it. To that end I think what opens up the most opportunities to get the most out of life is to constantly be improving yourself.

That means that every day you should go to bed just a little better in some way or at some thing than you were when you went to bed the previous evening. This can mean you’re a little better at a skill, a little kinder, a little more relaxed, whatever. The point is to always be improving – that’ll lead to a better life and better experiences. Not to mention self-improvement is fulfilling.

11. Take Time to Play

While I stand by my conviction that you should work to improve yourself every single day, that doesn’t mean you should spend every single day working yourself to the bone. Go out and play. Not only is it good for you mentally and emotionally it’s also good for you physically (provided you go out and move).

Try to always make it some kind of physical play if you can – it’s nice now and again to just chill out and play some video games but physical play, getting up and actually moving, is going to be a lot better for you in every way. Go outside and play a game with friends, or go try some parkour or go hiking or something.

Don’t work so much that you neglect your need to have a little fun.

12. Don’t Settle for a Complacent Life

You might be comfortable. You might have a stable job, no real financial worries, a nice house and a healthy family. You might look around at your life and say, “Yeah, this is good enough I guess.”

But there’s a big difference between ‘good enough’ and ‘absolutely fantastic’.

There’s a difference between waking up each morning, flopping out of bed filled with early morning indifference and thinking to yourself, “Well, it’s time for another day,” and leaping out of bed totally pumped yelling, “Hell yeah it’s another day! Let’s do this!” If you want to crawl back in bed in the morning in dread of the coming day rather than jump out of it in anticipation of what’s to come, something is wrong.

Your life should be so great you wake up before your alarm because you just can’t wait to get the day started. If you’re just trudging along in a fog of complacency because you’re comfortable enough then something needs to change. Don’t settle. Make up your own mind how you want your life to be and then go out and get it.

13. Prioritize

How you prioritize things makes a big, big difference in your overall chance of succeeding. I’ve always liked to follow the 80/20 principle since it seems to hold true the majority of the time.

When you know what you want you can focus on the things that will do the most to get you there and ignore the things that are going to give you minimal returns on your time and energy. The smarter you are about your prioritization the more efficiently you can work and the more progress you can make. This also means recognizing when certain things need to be avoided. Is watching four hours of TV a night really a priority? Cut out the things that aren’t helping you and focus on the ones that are.

14. Embrace Failure, but Don’t Set Yourself Up for It

Failing is by far the best way to succeed.

That may sound crazy, but it’s true. You should love to fail. Everyone who’s ever been successful is successful because they’ve failed again, and again, and again and learned from each and every one of them. They try things, fall down, and then get back up and figure out what went wrong so they can do it better next time.

Take note though that this doesn’t mean you should set yourself specifically to fail. Setting yourself up to fail intentionally or to never try at all makes you worse than a failure. Accept failure and be ready for it, but don’t take a dive on something just because you’re too scared of what might happen.

15. Travel

Travel is one of the best things in life. Particularly travel overseas – the ability to meet a much wider variety of people, experience diverse and varied cultures, broaden your viewpoints and be confronted with ideas and customs you may have never considered is invaluable.

You don’t have to give up everything and become a digital nomad, but I assert that everyone should experience travel to a foreign land at least once during their lifetimes. I guarantee once you’ve gone abroad once you’ll itch to travel more.

16. Read as Much as You Can

Reading is another one of the best things in life, because it affords almost all of the benefits of travel in a much more compact if less grand package. Reading and reading often, both fiction and non-fiction, exposes you to so many opportunities.

Reading not only makes you more intelligent by providing direct information about things but also makes you a better person by exposing you to a wide variety of human experiences. It puts you in the shoes of thousands of characters and makes you examine their decisions, motivations and actions. It leads you to reflect on yourself and your own actions, and to consider that some people might think differently than you do. Best of all it’s just plain fun and relaxing.

If there was one thing out of this whole list I would like every single person younger than me to take to heart, it would be that they should read as often as possible. The world would be a much better place.

17. Don’t Worry so Much About Accumulating Stuff

While it would be hypocritical of me to vociferously inculcate upon you the rule that others’ prescriptions for your happiness should be viewed critically and then turn around and declare a particular path the wrong way to True Happiness ™ I’m essentially about to do just that.

I’ll at least include the caveat that I may be wrong – but I think that trying to find happiness by accumulating a bunch of things is just not going to work. If you’re in the U.S. this is kind of the default modality for how to live a happy life. You have to buy the latest gadgets, own a nice car and a big house. You need to constantly be consuming in order to fill that nebulous void you feel.

It usually doesn’t actually fill that void though, and you just wind up cramming more and more stuff in there until you die without ever finding happiness. That sucks. Stop worrying so much about gathering junk and try to view things a bit more minimalistically. Chase experiences in your pursuit of happiness not objects.

18. Live Right Now, not Yesterday or Tomorrow

Remember what I said about not worrying? That also applies to spending too much time thinking about the past and the future. That’s not to say you should totally abandon all thoughts of anything outside the moment and dive into a wild and self-destructive frenzy of pure hedonism – that won’t end well.

It is to say though that you should think about the past enough to learn from it, think about the future enough to plan for it and then that’s it. Don’t dwell there. If you spend so much time steeped in nostalgia and longing for the way things used to be then you’re going to lose all the time you’ve got right now. If you spend too much time worrying and planning and preparing for the future you also miss out on the time you’ve got now- and that future may never even come.

Be present and mindful and enjoy the moment.

19. Be Social

I grew up as a fat, nerdy, socially awkward introvert.

Don’t do that.

Well, ok, I encourage nerdiness. The rest of it though contributed to a lot of the very worst parts of my adolescence. I understand, as a former victim of extreme social anxiety, that it’s not as easy as just saying, “Go be more social!” I hate that. That’s like telling someone suffering from sever depression that they just need to ‘cheer the hell up’. It displays a lack of understanding so severe as to border on the offensive.

That being said, don’t just accept your social awkwardness. There are steps you can take to gradually dig yourself out from under it, and a lot of it hinges on small, purposeful steps outside of your comfort zone. Put the work in. It’s hard, and it sucks, but believe me when I say that the benefits to working at being more social far outweigh the pain of getting there.

Not only are social interactions inherently fulfilling on a subconscious level a lot of things in life genuinely do come down more to who you know than what you know. That isn’t to say you should approach everyone you meet with the mindset of figuring out what you can gain from them, that won’t end well. You should be social for the emotional benefits, but understand that it’ll help out in a lot of other ways too.

You can still be an introvert – I certainly still need my alone time – but work hard to cultivate a solid social life as well.

20. It’s Never Too Late to Start (or Stop) Something

The Sunk Cost Fallacy is some straight bullshit.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve spent twenty years trudging along in a career you hate – if you hate it trudging along another twenty isn’t going to make it better. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that since you’ve put a lot of time into the wrong thing that you should put even more time into it to make all that wasted time ‘worth it’ somehow. That’s just insane. No matter how long you’ve been doing something, if it’s making you miserable stop doing it.

There’s never any time when it’s too late to start something new either. While it’s often better to get an earlier start there are tons of people who have taken up something new late in life and mastered it. Saying you’re too old to do something is basically just decided to not even try and to go to your grave having not even made an attempt to do what you want. How awful is that? Even if your 99th birthday is tomorrow, if there’s something you really want to do find a way to go out and do it.

21. Don’t Confuse Patience and Inaction

Patience is definitely a virtue. You’ll get no argument from me about that. The problem is I’ve seen a lot of people say they’re just being patient, that good things come to those who wait, when really they’re just sitting around wasting their time because they’re too timid to go get what they want.

Good things come to those who wait when they need to wait and who act when they need to act. Inaction, laziness and indolence are not going to help you reach your goals. Sitting around and waiting to just know a new language one day isn’t going to get you anywhere. You have to work for it. Hard.

The same thing applies to fitness. If you’re overweight do you think you can just sit around and be patient until you’re fit? No. You’ve got to work your ass off for it. Where patience comes in is the understanding of the necessity of delayed gratification – that right now, tomorrow, maybe the next few months, are going to suck. They’re going to be painful. You’re going to have to do a lot of things you don’t want to. In time though, if you’re patient enough to persist and not give up great you’ll reach your goals.

22. Treat Your Body Well

Speaking of fitness, in a lot of ways your body is the only thing that’s really yours. Don’t trash it.

Aside from all the ways being fit opens up countless opportunities for experiences, additional freedom and just general happiness the fact is you are your body. We can argue about identity and mind/body dualism all day long, but everything that makes you you is just the particular combination of chemicals, electrical signals and neurons that make up your brain.

While we may get there eventually, we don’t currently have the technology to separate your mind from your brain. That means that you are essentially your brain. Given that we also don’t have the technology to keep that brain of yours alive without your body in what could generally be called a fully functioning way you basically are your body.

So why let it fall apart? You’re not in your body, your body is you and you are your body. We’ve come a long way medically, but you still basically only get one, so treasure it and keep in good shape.

23. You Don’t Necessarily Need a Degree

I think more and more people are coming to this realization on their own, but you really don’t need a college degree anymore in most cases.

There are certainly fields where you definitely do need one, but when I was going through school it was impressed on us that every single person needed some kind of degree or they would never get beyond the realm of sub-poverty line minimum wage serfdom. To not go off to college was like occupational suicide – you were ruining your chances to amount to anything.

Anymore though it really doesn’t matter so much. You can do plenty of great things without a college degree, and not being yoked with crushing student debt can even give you an advantage over your peers in a lot of respects. I’d never say a higher degree is useless either, the point is just that you should understand it’s not necessarily a requirement. Look at your situation, goals and options and evaluate for yourself whether or not it’d be a good investment to pursue.

24. You Don’t Necessarily Need to Work for Someone Else

This follows the above point. When I was young the sole goal in life as pressed upon me by the educational system was to choose my function in society and find a nice stable job at a good company doing whatever it was I decided to do on a steady 9 to 5 schedule for the rest of my life.

The concept of starting a business, of freelancing, of pursuing something creative, none of that was even considered.

With the Internet it’s easier than ever to find your own work or start your own business, provided you’re tenacious and persistent enough. I’m not going to suggest everyone start a business, because it’s hard, risky and takes a certain type of person to find success. It’s just not for everyone. You shouldn’t feel like you have to work for someone else either though or get some 9 to 5 that you despise just to pay the bills. Find were you work best and are happiest and go with that.

25. Meditate

Modern life is stressful as hell.

Meditation provides one of the best ways to deal with that stress and find some peace and happiness in a chaotic world. Meditation leads to contentedness (not to be confused with complacency) which will make your days much more pleasant overall while you work toward improving yourself and the world around you.

Meditation also leads to introspection and a better understanding and control of yourself – something that is absolutely priceless in the pursuit of self-improvement. There’s nothing spiritual about meditation, and even if you’ve never done it before meditation is easy to start. Even five minutes of quiet reflection every day will make a big difference.

26. Only You Can Define Your Happiness

After everything else, this ought to be self-evident. No one else can decide for you the best way to be happy. Take time and consider it, deciding what makes you most happy is not something to be decided upon in haste lest you come to the end of your life finding you were mistaken. Mull it over and test things out, try a little bit of everything. You’ll know when you really find it, and once you do don’t let anyone stop you from going after it.

There you have it – 26 things I’ve learned in my time here so far. Hopefully reading it has provided as much motivation and catharsis as I’ve found in writing it. Now go out there and do something great.

Do have anything to add? Any lessons you’ve learned in your time here, however long that’s been, that you feel should be included? Leave a comment and share them!

Photo Credit: Katherine McAdoo

Five Ways to Mitigate Travel Mishaps

Plane at Dalian Airport by Caroline Wik

Ensure your time away is as good as it can be.

In a dream world, we could travel or go on vacation and have absolutely nothing go wrong. Nothing. No missing baggages, no unexpectedly awful hotel experiences; everything would happen on time and just as planned.

If you’ve traveled a lot though, you’d probably laugh at the thought. A trip where your expectations and hopes are met?! Crazy talk!

It is an unfortunate reality that something is bound to go wrong, but you don’t have to let that spoil your trip. You certainly don’t have to lower your expectations so low that you’re just miserable. There are things you can do to prevent things from going wrong, and if something does go wrong, there are ways to mitigate the damage too.

Embrace Minimalism

We’ve talked about minimalism a lot before, both in reference to travel and in reference to general quality of life, but it bears repeating – being a minimalist at least when you travel can make your life a lot easier.

When we traveled in our pre-minimalist days, we took way too many things and this caused us innumerable headaches. In one instance, we had two checked suitcases packed to the brim on our way home from China and neither of them were at baggage claim waiting for us. Not only did we waste a lot of time trying to get a hold of someone to help us locate our bags and eventually file a lost baggage claim, but we also suffered the stress and emotional consequences of being too attached to things.

Thankfully, we got a knock on our door at three-freaking-a.m. by a kind airport employee with our recovered luggage. We got lucky, admittedly. Baggage is lost all the time at airports. Trying to keep track of hundreds if not thousands of bags is tough, and so losses are bound to happen sometimes. This experience really made us re-examine our priorities and packing style.

Headaches from taking too much can happen from more than just baggage claim though; you inevitably lose things in the hotel, transporting those bags to and from the airport and your hotel is a pain and they only wind up being an unnecessary source of stress. It’s unnecessary because the majority of what people pack with them are all unnecessary items. You just don’t need so many things. On our most recent trip, we managed to pack everything we needed – clothes, extra shoes, a laptop and a minimal amount of toiletries into one backpack. That was the least we’ve ever taken, and honestly the freedom it gave us was invaluable – freedom from worry, freedom to be more mobile, freedom to be flexible with our plans, so on and so forth.

Carefully examine what you plan on taking and pare it down to only the absolute essentials, ideally enough that you can carry it onto the plane with you. The more control you keep over your possessions, the easier trips to the airport and hotel will be.

Don’t Set Too Rigid Schedules

The more you try to schedule and plan every minute of your trip, the more you set yourself up for stress, headaches and disappointment. You’re lowering the amount of control you have and increasing your dependency upon others – on something to not delay your flight, transportation to run on time and for traffic to be ideal.

The easiest and, in my opinion, best way to take back that control is to give yourself some freedom. Take your time, enjoy the journey and be careful not to plan things too close together so you have ample time to get from place to place.

We’ve all had problems arise from situations out of our control like traffic on the way to the airport or an activity running long. Part of our study-abroad in China included our weekends being carefully planned, minute-by-minute and so not only were we not free to enjoy and spend extra time on things we found enjoyable or interesting, like exploring the gorgeous Summer Palace, but if one of us in the group took too long we would be literally sprinting to the bus and, lacking good judgment, the bus driver would drive recklessly to get us to the next location on time. He always got us there, somehow alive.

Long Corridor at the Beijing Summer Palace by Caroline Wik

Hi, welcome to the longest painted corridor in the world (728 meters!) You have five minutes until we leave.

So don’t over-schedule yourself or plan things out too rigidly. Give yourself time to not only enjoy your precious time spent there, but also space between activities so if there is an unexpected mishap in transit you won’t be left sweating about a missed reservation or time lost.

Check Your Expectations

Be careful of what it is that you are expecting – especially if traveling overseas. Obviously you can’t expect everything to run perfectly, but don’t expect everywhere else to be the same or have the same standards as the United States, or where ever you are from.

Customs and definitions of terms vary from place to place so it’s important to not hold other countries to our cultural norms and standards. For example, we were told the dorm we’d be staying at in China was new, very modern and swanky. And it was. Except that we didn’t have hot water past 7:00 a.m. (for reference, our classes didn’t begin until 9:00 a.m.), we were given a washing machine to do laundry but no dryer and furthermore we could never have guessed that we’d be awoken at 5:00 a.m. by actual gongs to wake up construction workers building more dorms near ours.

Not to mention, running the shower meant flooding the bathroom because there was no divider on the floor to keep the shower water contained.

I learned very quickly not only how to do laundry and just how long clothes take to hang-dry, but also not to wait until all but one outfit is dirty to wash them.

Your hotel may have plumbing, but that doesn’t mean you can get it anywhere near your mouth nor that it’ll be hot on-demand. Your hotel may be a 4-star hotel, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a 4-star hotel by American standards.

I’m not saying you should expect the worst or for everything to go horribly wrong – but you should be careful about what you do expect. Your accommodations may be amazing – just not all day. Don’t expect it to be perfect, don’t expect it to be terrible, and don’t let it ruin your trip.

Expect the Unexpected

Along with being careful of what you expect, you can be guaranteed that unexpected things will happen. You can mitigate some of it by being proactive with things like being a minimalist traveler as noted above, but you can’t plan for every possible scenario. Sometimes, there’s simply nothing you can do either.

Learning to accept unexpected things happening and just rolling with the flow is tough, but it’s a valuable skill to have.

Getting sick on trips to new countries is almost a guaranteed “unexpected” thing to happen. It wasn’t until our third week in Seoul that I got hit with some kind of illness. I hadn’t eaten in a day and Adam insisted I try to eat something. I felt awful that my sickness was ruining not just my trip – but his too – and so I suggested we tried Chicken Lady’s* since it was a restaurant we had been past many times and he was very eager to try it.

I composed myself as best as I could and we walked a few blocks over to Chicken Lady’s and took our seat. I strained myself to read the only-Korean menu and we ordered. As the food cooked on the table-top grill I could feel myself getting dizzier and dizzier, and my stomach turning increasingly more. I suddenly told Adam that I had to leave. Now.

I literally jumped out of my seat and ran.

I was optimistic that I could make it back to our room, only a couple blocks away, but I couldn’t even make it to the street corner, where I did the unthinkable. I threw up in the street. When I looked back, Adam and the great Chicken Lady herself had seen it all.

On the bright side my stomach had settled.

Sick and ashamed I stumbled back to the restaurant and sat back down with Adam at our table. Chicken Lady disappeared into the kitchen and came back with bottles of 7-Up and patted my back. She said a bunch of things in Korean so quickly I could have never hoped to understand any of it with how poor my Korean was at the time. One thing did translate though – her kindness. She took care of us for the rest of our brief time there and as we left I asked Adam to tip. We knew that Korea doesn’t really do tips – but I wanted to give them something extra since she gave us sodas and things for free and showed us more care and kindness than I could have ever expected (and have yet to experience again) and because I was way too embarrassed to ever go there again. So I wanted to sort of pre-pay for a meal that I would theoretically have eaten in the future.

She didn’t accept our extra money, and chased us down to give us our change. Without being able to speak Korean well enough at the time to explain (and being way too scatterbrained to even try) our gratitude and what we were attempting to do, we just had to let it go. We went back to our room and just stayed there for the rest of the day until I was better, then promptly resumed our adventure.

I’m not saying you should expect something horrible like throwing up in the middle of the road, but you also never know when you’ll stumble upon something (or someone) incredible either. Expect mis-communications, that you may get sick, to get lost and to have to make compromises. Savor the great moments, accept the bad and move on.

More often than not it’s the unexpected things that you’ll remember the most – hopefully fondly. Even if it is something bad like my getting sick was, there may also be something unexpectedly nice that goes along with it like Chicken Lady’s unexpected care.

Not to mention, it appears the notion that 7-Up cures upset stomachs is universal. Who knew?

*We don’t remember the name of the restaurant, just that the sign had a woman’s face on a chicken’s body and so we refer to it as “Chicken Lady’s”.

Be Mindful and Choose Your Reactions

Most importantly, practicing mindfulness and living in the moment will get you the farthest in terms of having a great vacation or journey. You have control over how you react to things going wrong, whether you will worry about the past or the future, something going horribly wrong, or cross-cultural mis-communications.

It’s up to you if you let these things get to you and worry over every single little thing. If I hadn’t learned to just accept the bad things that happened and instead be grateful that I had the opportunities and adventures that I did I’m not sure I would have made it out sane.

Rather than complain about the gongs and cold water, we took the opportunity to go ahead and get up early. We’d sit on the rooftop of the dorm and watch the absolutely gorgeous sunrises over the East China Sea. Learning to be mindful will help you to see through the bad events that happen and make them less bad, if not good.

Take it slow, do things deliberately, whole-ass one thing – these are just a few ways you can practice mindfulness. Make a habit of being mindful well before you travel. On the road is no place to try to pick up new habits or virtues.

It’s not easy to change your habits – as they say nothing worth doing is easy – but begin working on it now. Don’t eat in a hurry or in front of the television but rather eat intentionally. Pay attention to every bite you take, to the flavors of the dish. Get into the habit of stopping when a situation or thing becomes stressful and take a breath – go for a quick walk if you must – this pause will help you refocus and to think more calmly. When you are stressed and distracted is the worst time to be making important decisions.

If and when things go wrong, or unexpected things happen, it’s up to you how you’ll react. Whether you hyperventilate, scream, have a panic attack and faint in the middle of the airport or if you take a deep breath, accept it, begin working through it and remember that in the future you’ll probably laugh about it – it’s all in your control.

You Can Only Control Yourself

Taking steps to ensure that your trip will be as stress-free as possible isn’t difficult, but it will take work. Examining and minimizing what you choose to take with you, planning some activities but not over-planning, setting the right expectations and learning to be mindful and in control of your reactions are only a few ways you can ensure a great trip but the impact from them is enormous.

The true value in travel isn’t the souvenirs, the cattle-like shuffle to see every single tourist attraction, nor about how fabulous you looked the whole time, but rather in the personal growth, the journey, the sights, experiences and people you’ll encounter.

What things or strategies have you employed to ensure your travels are stress-free and enjoyable? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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