Harvesting the Unconscious and Hacking Your Brain

As far as I’m concerned, anyone who believes that they have full, conscious control over their decisions is either hopelessly naïve or lacking in self-observation faculties. While we have conscious thought and the ability to make some decisions, research has shown the power of our subconscious in driving us towards certain behaviors and actions. Here’s a simple thought experiment. Imagine you’re trying to lean out for the summer, so you’re eating a low-carb diet. You’re sitting at home and think to yourself: “Wow, I could really go for some nachos right now” (or ice cream, or chocolate, or whatever it is for you). Unfortunately for you, suddenly a knock comes on that door and your neighbor comes in with some fresh, warm nachos. How likely do you think it is that your conscious self, which has decided to eat healthy for a bit, could resist that? I’d give it about 20% on a good day, if I’m generous.

Our brains are incredibly complex and powerful, but the high-level human part composes a very small fraction of the overall mass. So what’s the rest of our brain doing? Well, it’s keeping us alive, making habit or instinct-driven choices that would have been beneficial to keeping our ancestors alive and producing offspring (things like: don’t eat bad smelling meat or don’t try to take down that mammoth unarmed.). When we put all these parts of our brains into a modern world and we start to have trouble. We have more (and more highly palatable) food than we could ever need, instant access to adrenaline spiking entertainment, and amazingly comfortable couches, just to name a few temptations of modern living.

Given these set of issues, what can we do about it? Admitting that we don’t have full conscious control over our decisions opens up a path of action: use the conscious brain to guide the subconscious. This is what I like to refer to as harvesting the subconscious. You plant a seed of change with the conscious brain and then let the subconscious behave as it will. Trying to fight the subconscious with the conscious is like driving around with the hand brake on. When we stop trying to fight it and decide to work within the realities of our brains, we stop wasting a lot of energy. Hard habit changes will still require will-power and energy, but this can help guide the process of building new habits.

Some examples of this could be:

  • You want to start following the Paleo diet: use your conscious decision making to remove all the non-paleo food from your house. This forces your hungry, habit driven subconscious to choose from a subset of foods to eat when it gets ravenous. You’re going to make better decisions more often than if you still had cupcakes on the counter.
  • You want to start working out regularly: find a workout partner. This conscious hack gives your subconscious multiple signals. Most people have a very strong desire to socialize and another strong desire not to disappoint a social connection.

This same set of principles can be set up for any desired habit change. Consider how to set up systems which will:

  • Reward success
  • Discourage failure
  • Limit choices to the desired set

When you stop fighting how your biology works and build an accurate model of your mind, you can use that knowledge to do powerful things. If anyone is looking to improve their understanding of their subconscious mind, I recommend checking out Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious.

Please play around with the concept and let me know in the comments if it works or doesn’t for you or any creative mind-hacks you come up with using it. Please share the post if you enjoyed it. Good luck and have fun!

False Maximums: Catching Yourself Up with Short Horizons

I love a good diagram. A good diagram has the ability to take what looks like chaos and turn it into beautiful, understandable ink on paper. That said, it always pays to examine what’s not being show along with what is. Check out this one for example:

Time vs. Happiness with Short Time Horizon

Time vs. Happiness with Short Time Horizon

This simple graph explains a huge number of situations. From quitting a mediocre job to leaving a just-ok relationship. Often when examining situations for decision making, we look into the future for how that might make you feel. It should be obvious to everyone out there, that leaving an abusive job or bad relationship is going to benefit them in the long-term (as well as short-term). As we move from bad and abusive towards things like ok or satisfying, we start to get caught up. Yes, things are going to get worse in the week following breaking up with a partner who you are attached to. If you stay in the relationship, that happiness line will likely stay pretty stable. So it seems like a good idea to stay in the relationship right? Looking at this graph, it is. Let’s take another step back though. Let’s look at the next 6 months.

Time vs. Happiness with Long Time Horizon

Time vs. Happiness with Long Time Horizon

Suddenly you have the possibility of meeting someone, or finding a position that’s not ‘just ok’. It’s amazing. Your plateau in the relationship is suddenly much higher, you’ve gained a level of happiness beyond what you were trapped at in your ‘just ok’ position previously. If you project that out another 6 months, you’ve suddenly got a huge happiness gain.

I’ve simplified life for the purposes of this example, certainly I can’t guarantee that you’ll find a new job or relationship soon after leaving the old one, or that it’ll turn out to be better, but I can guarantee that a stagnant job or relationship isn’t going to suddenly become amazing in nearly 100% of cases. If we accept mediocre situations because we foresee short-term unhappiness resulting from making a choice, we fail to see the bigger picture, allowing ourselves to get stuck. Next time you’re stuck on a decision, take a step back and draw out a graph of time vs. happiness. Then extend the time access and see if you get a totally different view of things.

Three Powerlifting Cues I Use for Tangoing

Three Lifting Cues I Use for Tango

I started dancing tango about 7 months ago. I had done a bit in college, something like 5 years ago, but not enough to really count. I was never a great dancer, in fact, during choreography for “Kiss me, Kate” I was politely told to just stand still after attempting something simple at the prompting of the choreographer. Something changed between my college attempts and now however. When I reinitiated tangoing, I suddenly felt like I was very comfortable, relaxed, and was learning quickly. I’m sure there’s something to be said for reminiscence of previously attempted motor skills, but as the moves progressed far beyond what I had ever attempted previously and the ease of comprehension stayed high, that argument seemed less likely.

I suspect that I can attribute my improvement in dancing capabilities to one thing: picking up heavy objects. Learning to train CrossFit and subsequently working a lot with movement patterns both in myself and others, I started to become aware of common faults in my own movement and mobility. While watching someone lift and watching someone tango may not seem very closely related, both activities inform one another, and illuminate movement deficiencies in each other that may not be so easily observable in the alternate modality.

As I (or my teachers) notice these movement problems, I have begun to apply my old lifting cues to help myself improve. Here are the three most frequent cues I’ve transferred from lifting to tangoing.

Knees Out: 

I don’t know how many times I’ve used this cue while watching them lift. This is a common fault which can lead to pain and decreased power. Collapsing inwards causes weird stresses on various parts of the knee. When bending in a weight bearing positions, knees should be out and feet flat.

Much to my dismay however, my tango teacher pointed out that I was collapsing inwards which performing multiple movements, both rebounds and sacadas. That was a huge facepalm moment for me. My knees had been bugging me a bit, but I’d failed to translate what I knew about lifting into another type of body movement. Luckily, now I’m aware and have begun to override this bad habit.

Shoulders Back and Externally rotated:

Another tango teacher literally did this same movement to illustrate how to get into proper posture for the embrace. I was letting my shoulders collapse inwards, leading to a fallen chest and loose arms, two things which are highly detrimental to tangoing. The lead needs to be relaxed, but firm, with a high chest and shoulders back and down. Isn’t if funny how setting up for a max effort shoulder press and embracing a beautiful woman to tango both start out with the same proper posture?

Brace your core and keep the back flat:

I say this to myself before I deadlift. Turns out it works for tangoing too. Posture is crucial, and sloppy stabilization leads to sloppy performance. Arching my back forward or backwards while tangoing (or deadlifting for that matter) is going to lead to stress and pain in my back over time. After spending an hour or two dancing, My posture often starts to falter and my back starts to get sore.

As an added bonus, good posture makes the lead much simpler to follow. It provides the body with a relaxed tension which makes communication of intention much easier between leader and follower.

Application

Even more so than with lifting, tango takes an immense amount of concentration. I’m so busy not running into other people, and trying to figure out what I want to do next, and trying not to kick my partner, that I don’t really have time to think about all of these things while I’m dancing. How then do I improve these faults? Two ways:

Mindful practice: I will frequently decide to work in one move or work on one issue for a given song. Maybe for one song I’ll try to work on keeping my knees out during sacadas, or perhaps for the next one I’ll be sure to keep my shoulders back. (If you have a helpful partner, you can ask them to tell you if they spot you doing any of your bad habits too.)

Entering the Tunnel: Kelly Starrett of mobilitywod.com talks about entering the tunnel in a lift as being the beginning of tension in a lift. Once you have entered the tunnel, your movement pattern for the lift has been set. If you forgot to brace your core and back, you can’t go back now without resetting the lift. On the other hand, if you set your shoulders properly, it’s a fairly simple matter to complete the lift with good position. With tangoing, I try to be mindful of my posture from the first embrace onwards. Granted, I may lose it during the song, but often I can find time for a slight pause to reset myself if I notice I’ve lost it.

That’s it: knees out, shoulders back, core braced.

Stop Misusing Your Imagination and Free Yourself

Every once in a while someone hands me a phrase that changes my life. Sometimes it’s a new way of looking at things or a distilled concept wrapped up in a way that lets me carry it around and brandish it when needed. My dad recently gave me one of these which fits both of these categories and has changed my life.

I was talking to him about my difficulties in opening conversations with women I find attractive but yet don’t know. (I’m guessing most of you guys out there have had this experience.) Suppose you’re at a party and see a gorgeous woman: what’s your first response? Probably something along the lines of wanting to interact with her (I’ll leave that vague to cover the various possibilities). Then what do you do? For me, the answer was, unfortunately, to start to talk myself out of it, coming up with reasons why she doesn’t look like she’d want to talk to me. Maybe she’s texting on her phone, so I wouldn’t want to interrupt, it’s probably important, or maybe I can’t think of anything funny to say, and I wouldn’t want to make a bad impression… I could go on and on (and usually do), but you get the idea. So what’s the phrase which helps me catch and change this then?

“You’re misusing your imagination to abuse yourself.”

That’s it. Pretty simple right? And very true. Back to the above situation, I actually have no idea what could possibly be going on in her head. I don’t even know her. Why then am I supposing that she’d be offended or turned off by me? I’m anxious and defending by projecting thoughts and habits from within myself onto her. Why the hell am I doing this to myself? Why don’t I flip things around an imagine the best case scenario? Suppose I walk up to her and just say “hi”. Since I’m just imagining things, why not imagine that she responds by looking me in the eye, grabbing my jacket and pulling me in for some making out.

Start to attend to your anxiety and habitual ways of dealing with it. Work on midfulness of creating conversations in your head or when you’re stopping yourself because you think someone else may say or do something, or maybe you’re worried something they’ve done was because of you. That brings us to our first headline.

Separate self from the other:

Once you catch yourself doing this, stop, get a piece of paper and a pen, and draw a line down the middle of a sheet of paper (or in your head if you don’t have one). On one side list the things you know for certain because you’ve observed them in yourself or the world. On the other side, write down all of the things that you’re imagining. Are you using your imagination to come up with doomsday scenarios? Probably.

Instead, cross that all out and decide what you want to do and that you’re going to make it happen. Flip you paper over and user your mind to come up with the how for that. Figure out a plan and then execute. You may run into roadblocks, but they’ll be real, not in your head. Then you can deal with reality. This brings us to the next headline.

Accept Reality:

Without accepting reality, none of this will work. We need to be able to understand and react to reality without applying negative filtering from out punitive superegos. We function most ideally when we’re operating on facts. They won’t always be what we want, but viewing them without applying negative self-talk is hugely beneficial.

We also need to able to admit flaws in ourselves and others and accept that some things are out of our control. Back to my example of meeting women. Imagine that some poor young woman’s dog has just died and she’s gone to the pub to drink a pint. I may be the perfect man for her on any other day, but she won’t care today, she’s mourning her dog. That’s a hard reality. I won’t know about her dog and anguish until I try to interact, so I shouldn’t stop myself, nor need I later on try to come up with manufactured reasons that I’ve “failed”.

In fact, look at that ugly word, “failed” — is that a good thing to do to myself?  Did I fail, or did I try and get less than what I wanted yet learn something? Accepting that failure is part of life and learning is a whole other topic, but certainly one worth trying to recognize.

Shut down the superego:

Once we’re started to recognize our imagination abuse (or the punitive superego I mentioned above if you want to sound scholarly) we then have to stop it. For me, trying to separate what I control from what I don’t and accepting facts without letting myself tint them is the best way to do this. Once I’ve done that, I’m free to use my imagination to come up with something to say (like “hi” works well) or to solve the actual obstacles that are in my way (my own anxieties, for one). I might even use my imagination to create a best case expectation to talk myself up and try to relieve some anxiety that may be arising what the situation I’m in.

I owe a great deal of gratitude to this phrase, and I hope that it helps you lead a better, freer life too. I’m certainly still working on my own internal demons, but I’ve gotten better and will continue to do so. There are so many great things to do in the world, fantastic people to meet and terrific places to see, that we can’t afford to let our own old habits hold us back. The only thing holding us back should be reality, and we should be doing our damnest to move forward in spite of it. Onwards.

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Changing Things Up

I’ve spent a lot of my life since graduating high school moving to different places. Here’s a quick rundown for reference:

  • Graduate after spending the first 17 years of my life in Missoula
  • Move to Thailand for a year
  • Move back to Missoula for 4 months
  • Move to Washington for school for 9 months
  • Back to Missoula for 3 months
  • Back to Washington for 6 months
  • Germany for 5 months
  • Back to Washington for 12 months
  • Seattle for 3 months
  • Back to Washington for last 9 months of school
  • Off to Los Angeles for 2 1/2 years (one inter-city move in the middle of that)
  • Back to Missoula for 3 months
  • Currently in Argentina for 1 month (2 more planned)

Through all of this, I’ve had to learn a few things about travel and what’s important in my life. More than anything though, I’ve learned how to appreciate where I am. All to often people (myself included) get stuck in routine. Routine is nice because it’s comfortable. Change can be very anxiety provoking. I still hate moving, but I love exploring.

I was looking at a tourist map of Buenos Aires recently and had an epiphany: why don’t I own a tourist map of Los Angeles or Tacoma (where I went to school) or Missoula for that matter? Did I let myself get complacent? I’ll never know everything there is to know about a place, so why did I ever stop exploring? From here, I started pondering what else I could learn from my travel experience to apply towards more fully appreciating what life has to offer. Here’s a few items from my list.

Re-assess every 3 months

Breaking off connections and forcing myself into a new locations means that I have to find new places for my hobbies, new teachers, new classes, new teammates, new companies, etc. Because there is time and energy involved in this search, I often find myself rethinking what’s important to me. This means I get the opportunity to start or stop whatever I was doing guilt-free. Maybe I was playing ultimate frisbee with a team (I wasn’t, but for example) that I had some friends on, but really was only going because I felt obligated and because it was my weekly habit to go. Well if I move to a new city and don’t feeling like joining an ultimate league, I don’t have to. Granted this is a terrible way to get out of obligations, but realizing that freedom led me to the above rule.

Every activity you do should be working towards some greater goal for yourself. You don’t have to enjoy every minute of it, but it should be noticeably improving your life or have good probability of doing so in the future. Set aside some time right now and do this:

  1. Write a list of every activity you do regularly: Exercise, work, dance, art, music, meetups, hiking groups, drinking, poker playing, whatever…
  2. Ask yourself for each one: if I moved to the other side of the country, would I seek out people to help me continue doing this?
  3. If you answer no for any of these, stop doing them (unless you have a very good reason not).
  4. Make a calendar appointment for yourself to repeat this exercise 3 months from today.

One piece that makes this process easier is picking quantifiable goals. I bolded that because it’s that important. I get caught in time traps by my own mind every so often because I pick open ended goals. I hate giving up, so I stick with things that may not be what I really want to be doing. What I’m not saying is that you should constantly be changing your activities, merely that you should give yourself a chance to reevaluate every so often. For example, I recently decided that I want to get stronger so I’m going to spend 2 months doing a specific workout plan for that purpose. After that two months, I think I want to work on my running, but I’ll reevaluate at the end of the strength gain program and decide to continue if I’m really liking it, or move on if I feel it’s time. No worries, no guilt, because I accomplished my goal of doing it for two months.

Goal: Complete the task above and pick a goal you can do in the next two months.

Pick up a guide book:

If you live somewhere long enough, you get desensitized to all the excitement that’s around you. You go to the same places, hike the same trails, see the same sites. Next time you get a chance, stop by a local hotel and browse the brochures they have, or go to a local bookstore and pick up a trail map or a guide book for your region (the internet works well for this too — but I’m a fan of getting out of the house). From there it’s simple, find somewhere new to go. Maybe there’s a great museum you went to 3 years ago, but haven’t set foot in since, maybe there’s a concert venue you’ve never been to, could be anything. This step is pretty simple, the hard part is remembering to do it. Use your calendar again: put in a reminder for yourself every month to do something new that month.

Goal: Find one thing to do this month in your city that you’ve never done before.

Bring a camera:

Walking around with a camera puts you in a different mindset. Instead of walking to get somewhere, you’re walking to observe, to look at things in a new way. When you’re taking photos, suddenly a fire hydrant you’ve walked by every day for the past year is a dash of red in the forefront of a composition of green bushes. Once you’ve done this a few times taking photos, you’ll start to develop an appreciation for the beautiful things around you even without the camera. You’ll notice the clouds, the colors, the shapes of things you’d have passed by for mundane before.

Goal: Walk to a park near your house with your camera.

Make new friends:

The most difficult part of relocating is probably the loneliness of knowing no one. On the plus side though, this is a good motivator for being friendly and trying to meet new people. You’d be amazed how quickly you can find acquaintances and get to know people when you’re trying. Granted, not all of these are going to turn into your best friends, but at least you’re feeding one end of the funnel and it’s likely that you’ll filter out some you don’t get along with, but those that make it through will become a valuable part of your life.

Too often people find enough acquaintances in an area to fill up their invite calendars with drinking occasions, then stop looking. While this is fine, and it’s nice to have a stable social network, why not expose yourself to new people? It’s likely you meet new people all the time, but don’t consider getting to know them because they don’t need to. Keep in mind though that not needing something and not benefiting from having that something are separate concepts. Challenge yourself to keep exploring.

Goal: Invite someone new to do something with you and your friends.

Conclusion:

I hope this inspires you to get out and live a bit. Life can be hugely fulfilling or crushingly overwhelming and a lot of it has to do with how you treat yourself. If you set yourself up to enjoy it, you’ll enjoy it. That’s probably a whole other blog post in and of itself though, so I’ll just leave you with the above suggestions and hope you can take them and run.

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