TESTOSTERONE —Zeus. King of the male hormones, he is dominant, aggressive, and all-powerful. Focused and goal-oriented, he feverishly builds all that is male, including the compulsion to outrank other males in the pecking order. He drives the masculine sweat glands to produce the come-hither smell of manhood–androstenedione. He activates the sex and aggression circuits, and he’s single-minded in his dogged pursuit of his desired mate. Prized for his confidence and bravery, he can be a convincing seducer, but when he’s irritable, he can be the grouchiest of bears.
VASOPRESSIN— The White Knight. Vasopressin is the hormone of gallantry
and monogamy, aggressively protecting and defending turf, mate, and children. Along with testosterone, he runs the male brain circuits and enhances masculinity.
MULLERIAN INHIBITING SUBSTANCE (MIS)–Hercules. He’s strong, tough, and fearless. Also known as the Defeminizer, he ruthlessly strips away all that is feminine from the male. MIS builds brain circuits for exploratory behavior, suppresses brain circuits for female-type behaviors, destroys the female reproductive organs, and helps build the male reproductive organs and brain circuits and builds trust circuits, attachment circuits in the hormones, lowers men’s blood pressure, and plays a major role in fathers’ bonding with their infants. He promotes feelings of safety and security and is to blame for a man’s “postcoital narcolepsy.”
OXYTOCIN–TheLion Tamer. With just a few cuddles and strokes, this “down, boy” hormone settles and calms even the fiercest of beasts. He increases empathic ability romantic-love circuits, and brain. He reduces stress
PROLACTIN–Mr. (couvade pregnancy increases Mom. He syndrome)dads’ ability to hear causes sympathetic in fathers-to-be and their babies cry. He stimulates connections in the male brain for paternal behavior and decreases sex drive.
CORTISOL–TheGladiator. When threatened, he is angry, fired up, and willing to fight for life and limb.
ANDROSTENEDIONE –Romeo. The charming seducer of women. When released by the skin as a pheromone he does more for a man’s sex appeal than any aftershave or cologne.
DOPAMINE —The Energizer. The intoxicating life of the party, he’s all about feeling good, having fun, and going for the gusto. Excited and highly motivated, he’s pumped up to win and driven to hit the jackpot again and again. But watch out–he is addictively rewarding, particularly in the rough-and-tumble play of boyhood and the sexual play of manhood, where dopamine increases ecstasy during orgasm.
ESTROGEN —The Queen. Although she doesn’t have the same power over a man as Zeus, she may be the true force behind the throne, running most of the male brain circuits. She has the ability to increase his desire to cuddle and relate by stimulating his oxytocin.
Many highly successful people claim to have ADD, and some genuinely meet the clinical definition. One of them was Jake Eberts, a film producer whose works include Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, Dances with Wolves, Driving Miss Daisy, A River Runs through It, The Killing Fields, and Chicken Run, and whose films received sixty-six Oscar nominations and seventeen Oscar wins (he passed away in 2012). By his own admission, he had a short attention span and very little patience, and he was easily bored. But his powerful intellect found him graduating from McGill University at the age of twenty and leading the engineering team for the European company Air Liquide before earning his MBA from Harvard Business School at age twenty-five. Early on, Jake identified his chief weakness: a tendency to procrastinate. He is of course not alone in this, and it is not a problem unique to people with attention deficit disorder. To combat it, Jake adopted a strict policy of “do it now.” If Jake had a number of calls to make or things to attend to piling up, he’d dive right in, even if it cut into leisure or socializing time. And he’d do the most unpleasant task—firing someone, haggling with an investor, paying bills—the first thing in the morning to get it out of the way. Following Mark Twain, Jake called it eating the frog: Do the most unpleasant task first thing in the morning when gumption is highest, because willpower depletes as the day moves on. (The other thing that kept Jake on track was that, like most executives, he had executive assistants. He didn’t have to remember due dates or small items himself; he could just put a given task in “the Irene bucket” and his assistant, Irene, would take care of it.) Procrastination is something that affects all of us to varying degrees. We rarely feel we’re caught up on everything. There are chores to do around the house, thank-you notes to write, synchronizing and backing up of our computers and smartphones to do. Some of us are affected by procrastination only mildly, others severely. Across the whole spectrum, all procrastination can be seen as a failure of self-regulation, planning, impulse control, or a combination of all three. By definition, it involves delaying an activity, task, or decision that would help us to reach our goals. In its mildest form, we simply start things at a later time than we might have, and experience unneeded stress as a deadline looms closer and we have less and less time to finish. But it can lead to more problematic outcomes. Many people, for instance, delay seeing their doctors, during which time their condition can become so bad that treatment is no longer an option, or they put off writing wills, filling out medical directives, installing smoke detectors, taking out life insurance, or starting a retirement savings plan until it’s too late. The tendency to procrastinate has been found to be correlated with certain traits, lifestyles, and other factors. Although the effects are statistically significant, none of them is very large. Those who are younger and single (including divorced or separated) are slightly more likely to procrastinate. So are those with a Y chromosome—this could be why women are far more likely to graduate from college than men; they are less likely to procrastinate. As mentioned earlier, being outside in natural settings—parks, forests, the beach, the mountains, and the desert—replenishes self-regulatory mechanisms in the brain, and accordingly, living or spending time in nature, as opposed to urban environments, has been shown to reduce the tendency to procrastinate. A related factor is what Cambridge University psychologist Jason Rentfrow calls selective migration—people are apt to move to places that they view as consistent with their personalities. Large urban centers are associated with a tendency to be better at critical thinking and creativity, but also with procrastination. This could be because there are so many things to do in a large urban center, or because the increased bombardment of sensory information reduces the ability to enter the daydreaming mode, the mode that replenishes the executive attention system. Is there a brain region implicated in procrastination? As a failure of self-regulation, planning, and impulse control, if you guessed the prefrontal cortex, you’d be right: Procrastination resembles some of the temporal planning deficits we saw following prefrontal damage, at the beginning of this chapter. The medical literature reports many cases of patients who suddenly developed procrastination after damage to this region of the brain. Procrastination comes in two types. Some of us procrastinate in order to pursue restful activities—spending time in bed, watching TV—while others of us procrastinate certain difficult or unpleasant tasks in favor of those that are more fun or that yield an immediate reward. In this respect, the two types differ in activity level: The rest-seeking procrastinators would generally rather not be exerting themselves at all, while the fun-task procrastinators enjoy being busy and active all the time but just have a hard time starting things that are not so fun. An additional factor has to do with delayed gratification, and individual differences in how people tolerate that. Many people work on projects that have a long event horizon—for example, academics, businesspeople, engineers, writers, housing contractors, and artists. That is, the thing they’re working on can take weeks or months (or even years) to complete, and after completion, there can be a very long period of time before they get any reward, praise, or gratification.
Many people in these professions enjoy hobbies such as gardening, playing a musical instrument, and cooking because those activities yield an immediate, tangible result—you can see the patch of your flower bed where you removed the weeds, you can hear the Chopin piece you’ve just played, and you can taste the rhubarb pie you just baked. In general, activities with a long time to completion—and hence a long time to reward—are the ones more likely to be started late, and those with an immediate reward are less likely to be procrastinated. Piers Steel is an organizational psychologist, one of the world’s foremost authorities on procrastination and a professor at the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary. Steel says that two underlying factors lead us to procrastinate: Humans have a low tolerance for frustration. Moment by moment, when choosing what tasks to undertake or activities to pursue, we tend to choose not the most rewarding action but the easiest. This means that unpleasant or difficult things get put off. We tend to evaluate our self-worth in terms of our achievements. Whether we lack self-confidence in general—or confidence that this particular project will turn out well—we procrastinate because that allows us to delay putting our reputations on the line until later. (This is what psychologists call an ego-protective maneuver.) The low tolerance for frustration has neural underpinnings. Our limbic system and the parts of the brain that are seeking immediate rewards come into conflict with our prefrontal cortex, which all too well understands the consequences of falling behind. Both regions run on dopamine, but
the dopamine has different actions in each. Dopamine in the prefrontal cortex causes us to focus and stay on task; dopamine in the limbic system, along with the brain’s own endogenous opioids, causes us to feel pleasure. We put things off whenever the desire for immediate pleasure wins out over our ability to delay gratification, depending on which dopamine system is in control. Steel identifies what he calls two faulty beliefs: first, that life should be easy, and second, that our self-worth is dependent on our success. He goes further, to build an equation that quantifies the likelihood that we’ll procrastinate. If our self-confidence and the value of completing the task are both high, we’re less likely to procrastinate. These two factors become the denominator of the procrastination equation. (They’re in the denominator because they have an inverse relationship with procrastination—when they go up, procrastination goes down, and vice versa.) They are pitted against two other factors: how soon in time the reward will come, and how distractible we are. (Distractibility is seen as a combination of our need for immediate gratification, our level of impulsivity, and our ability to exercise self-control.) If the length of time it will take to complete the task is high, or our distractibility is high, this leads to an increase in procrastination.
To refine Steel’s equation, I’ve added delay, the amount of time one has to wait to receive positive feedback for completion of the task. The greater the delay, the greater the likelihood of procrastination:
Certain behaviors may look like procrastination but arise due to different factors. Some individuals suffer from initiation deficits, an inability to get started. This problem is distinct from planning difficulties, in which individuals fail to begin tasks sufficiently early to complete them because they have unrealistic or naïve ideas about how long it will take to complete subgoals. Others may fail to accomplish tasks on time because they don’t have the required objects or materials when they finally sit down to work. Both of these latter difficulties arise from a lack of planning, not from procrastination per se. On the other hand, some individuals may be attempting a challenging task with which they have no previous experience; they may simply not know where or how to begin. In these cases, having supervisors or teachers who can help them break up the problem into component parts is very helpful and often essential. Adopting a systematic, componential approach to assignments is effective in reducing this form of procrastination. Finally, some individuals suffer from a chronic inability to finish projects they’ve started. This is not procrastination, because they don’t put off starting projects; rather, they put off ending them. This can arise because the individual doesn’t possess the skills necessary to properly complete the job with acceptable quality—many a home hobbyist or weekend carpenter can testify to this. It can also arise from an insidious perfectionism in which the individual has a deep, almost obsessive belief that their work products are never good enough (a kind of failure in satisficing). Graduate students tend to suffer from this kind of perfectionism, no doubt because they are comparing themselves with their advisors, and comparing their thesis drafts with their advisors’ finished work. It is an unfair comparison of course. Their advisors have had more experience, and the advisor’s setbacks, rejected manuscripts, and rough drafts are hidden from the graduate student’s view —all the graduate student ever sees is the finished product and the gap between it and her own work. This is a classic example of the power of the situation being underappreciated in favor of an attribution about stable traits, and it shows up as well in the workplace. The supervisor’s role virtually guarantees that she will appear smarter and more competent than the supervisee. The supervisor can choose to show the worker her own work when it is finished and polished. The worker has no opportunity for such self-serving displays and is often required to show work at draft and interim stages, effectively guaranteeing that the worker’s product won’t measure up, thus leaving many underlings with the feeling they aren’t good enough. But these situational constraints are not as predictive of ability as students and other supervisees make them out to be. Understanding this cognitive illusion can encourage individuals to be less self-critical and, hopefully, to emancipate themselves from the stranglehold of perfectionism. Also important is to disconnect one’s sense of self-worth from the outcome of a task. Self-confidence entails accepting that you might fail early on and that it’s OK, it’s all part of the process. The writer and polymath George Plimpton noted that successful people have paradoxically had many more failures than people whom most of us would consider to be, well, failures. If this sounds like double-talk or mumbo jumbo, the resolution of the paradox is that successful people (or people who eventually become successful) deal with failures and setbacks very differently from everyone else. The unsuccessful person interprets the failure or setback as a career breaker and concludes, “I’m no good at this.” The successful person sees each setback as an opportunity to gain whatever additional knowledge is necessary to accomplish her goals. The internal dialogue of a successful (or eventually successful) person is more along the lines of “I thought I knew everything I needed to know to achieve my goals, but this has taught me that I don’t. Once I learn this, I can get back on track.” The kinds of people who become successful typically know that they can expect a rocky road ahead and it doesn’t dissuade them when those bumps knock them off kilter—it’s all part of the process. As Piers Steel would say, they don’t subscribe to the faulty belief that life should be easy. The frontal lobes play a role in one’s resilience to setbacks. Two subregionsinvolved in self-assessment and judging one’s own performance are the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the orbital cortex. When they are overactive, we tend to judge ourselves harshly. In fact, jazz musicians need to turn off these regions while improvising, in order to freely create new ideas without the nagging self-assessment that their ideas are not good enough. When these regions are damaged, they can produce a kind of hyperresilience. Prior to damage, one patient was unable to get through a standard battery of test problems without weeping, even after correctly completing them. After the damage to the prefrontal cortex, she was utterly unable to complete the same problems, but her attitude differed markedly: She would continue to try the problems over and over again, beyond the patience of the examiner, making mistake after mistake without the least indication of embarrassment or frustration. Reading the biographies of great leaders—corporate CEOs, generals, presidents—the sheer number and magnitude of failures many have experienced is staggering. Few thought that Richard Nixon would recover from his embarrassing defeat in the 1962 California gubernatorial election. (“You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”) Thomas Edison had more than one thousand inventions that were unsuccessful, compared to only a small number that were successful. But the successful ones were wildly influential: the lightbulb, phonograph, and motion picture camera. Billionaire Donald Trump has had as many high-profile failures as successes: dead-end business ventures like Trump Vodka, Trump magazine, Trump Airlines, and Trump Mortgage, four bankruptcies, and a failed presidential bid. He is a controversial figure, but he has demonstrated resilience and has never let business failures reduce his self-confidence. Too much self-confidence of course is not a good thing, and there can be an inner tug-of-war between self-confidence and arrogance that can, in some cases, lead to full-scale psychological disorders. Self-confidence appears to have a genetic basis, and is a trait that is relatively stable across the life span, although like any trait, different situations can trigger different responses in the individual, and environmental factors can either build up or chip away at it. One effective strategy is acting as if. In other words, even those who lack an inner sense of self-confidence can act as if they are self-confident by not giving up, working hard at tasks that seem difficult, and trying to reverse temporary setbacks. This can form a positive feedback loop wherein the additional effort actually results in success and helps to gradually build up the person’s sense of agency and competence.
Humans are both cursed and blessed with the knowledge that they’ll die someday. We feel the urgency of time passing. We long to live life to the full. And yet how do most of us actually live our lives? We buy lots of things to make ourselves feel good, but we still feel dissatisfied with what we have. We socialize with many people—on the internet, at home, at work—but still feel lonely. We have access to every kind of pleasure—food, drink, movies, gambling, games, internet, music—and yet none of it is enough. None of it satisfies our longing for meaning and purpose. We seek to satisfy our longing by buying more, socializing more and consuming more. We don’t notice that trying to get more only makes us feel worse. Like drug addicts, we can’t seem to stop. We sacrifice our time and energy in order to get the right house, the right qualification, the right job, the right car, the right clothes, the right “thing” that will finally make us feel like we have enough. When we finally have enough, we believe, we will arrive. But where? We think there’s something wrong with our body, and spend our time looking at ourselves in the mirror, trying to hide our flaws and wishing we were a different size. We refuse to go to certain public places like the beach or swimming pool because we feel too fat. We read book after book and article after article desperately trying to find the secret to weight loss. We sometimes get some perspective and wonder, “How many secrets could there possibly be?” and “How come these secrets never work for me?”
How many different ways can we be told to eat more fruit and vegetables, cut down on fat and sugar, and do more exercise? But still we search for the secret, still we cling to the hope that there’s a quick fix, a simple and easy way to lose weight and keep it off. And many of us also believe that if we can just lose enough weight to get the look we’re after, we’ll be good enough. Then we can begin living life.
But life is beginning now. And now. And now. We’re here now, and none of us will be here in 90 years or so. We’re fellow travelers. How will we spend our time?
Ultimately, we each need to answer the same deep questions:
1. How will I develop friendship and love?
2. How will I positively influence the world?
3. How will I give and find joy?
We’ll ask these questions again and again. You’ll find that as you grow older and change, your answers to the questions will change, but the questions stay the same. The secret to becoming the author of your own life is not to have the right answers, but rather to remember to keep asking yourself these ultimate questions. And here’s something else that’s important to remember: no matter what the magazines and popular books may claim, answering the next three questions won’t deliver you a rich and meaningful life: 1. How do I lose weight? 2. How do I maintain weight loss? 3. How do I get the look I want? Weight loss can never be an end in itself.
After all, death is the ultimate weight-loss strategy. We want strategies for living, so it’s important to remember that weight loss is only a means to an end. We do it in the service of a greater purpose. Ultimately, weight loss will be about improving our health—physical, psychological or emotional. Let’s rephrase our ultimate questions:
1. How will weight loss improve my health?
2. How will improved health help me develop friendship and love?
3. How will improved health help me positively influence the world?
4. How will improved health help me give and find joy?
When we honestly answer those questions, we’ll become motivated to lose weight and keep it off. And our life will be organized around a deep, guiding purpose.
Weight loss will no longer be the center of our universe, it will just be a side issue, something we achieve as we go about living a meaningful life. We can make our life about something bigger than desperately trying to get smaller. THE TWO HABITS OF UNHAPPY PEOPLE See if you recognize either of these habits in yourself. 1. Striving to get away The more we seek to avoid or get rid of our unpleasant thoughts, feelings and cravings, the stronger they tend to become. Furthermore, the attempt to escape these feelings drains us of energy we could be using to do something vital and authentic. Suppose the idea of escaping our current weight and losing 20 pounds completely dominates us. That means that until we lose the weight, we’ll feel inadequate. In other words, every day we’re on the diet, we’ll feel we’re not good enough. Now let’s say we succeed at the weight loss. “I’m okay now! I’m the right weight. Yippeeeee!” But then what? What will motivate us to maintain the weight loss? Avoidance is a highly ineffective form of motivation in the long term. It often works for a short time, but eventually it sucks the life out of us. Sooner or later, we’ll want something more. We’ll look for something else to run toward. Authentic living often means moving toward something we care about rather than away from thoughts and feelings like guilt or not being good enough. We’ll have much more to say about this soon. Take the one-minute quiz below to see whether you use dieting and exercise as a way to avoid unpleasant feelings.
Do you think that dieting and exercising will solve your problems?
The truth is, we probably all exercise and diet to escape feeling guilty, at least a little bit. That’s not a problem. It’s a problem when our life is dominated by attempts to escape; when that happens, misery typically follows. Karen’s story: waiting for it all to begin
Karen searches across her bedroom floor, which is strewn with discarded outfits. She’s stressed and rushing. Tonight she’s meeting a guy she thinks she really might like and who might actually like her. But all her trusty outfits have become too tight. She can’t get away with wearing any of them, but she has to, and she needs to hurry or she’ll be late. Karen feels her skin crawl underneath her clinging black pants. She feels disgusting and gross. Under the tension, she starts to feel tears sting her eyes. “No,” she says, “don’t cry, or your mascara will run and you’ll look even more disgusting.” Karen has been trying to meet someone for years. Since her divorce, no one ever seems to work out. The best that ever happens is that she dates a guy for a few weeks, or at best months, and then he disappears. Lately, Karen can’t even seem to get a second date. In Karen’s eyes, there’s only one reason she’s divorced and alone: her weight. A lifelong dieter, Karen has tried everything, and now she feels she’s running out of time. She is 33 this year and really wants kids. She needs to meet someone. She needs to lose weight now. Sitting in the bar, she waits for him to arrive. So far he’s 20 minutes late. “That’s okay,” she tells herself. “The traffic is pretty bad.” Twenty more minutes pass and she decides to text him to see where he is. No response. Fifteen more minutes pass. Nothing. She tries again, this time calling him. Voicemail. He’s now officially one hour and 15 minutes late. It isn’t going to happen. And here she is again; walking by herself to her car to drive home. “I bet he took one look at my huge bum and ran away,” she says to herself. She wants to call someone to talk about what’s happened but she knows there’s no point. Everyone’s sick of her. They’ve heard it all before. The only thing that keeps Karen holding on is the belief that one day a diet will work and she’ll lose the weight for good. Only then, she believes, will she have a chance at the life she wants. Most of the time, Karen wonders how she gets through the monotony of her days. One thing that really boosts her hope is hearing about a diet she hasn’t tried yet. Karen jumps on board every new fad. Over the years, she’s spent thousands of dollars on weight-loss “miracles.” And she has had success, for a while, but the weight always returns. Still, Karen pushes on, believing that if she can just lose the weight, she’ll finally be good enough for someone to want her.
Karen also believes that if she can stay fashionable, people will take her seriously. She subscribes to five fashion magazines. And every night, while the rest of the world sleeps, she shops online for new clothes, handbags and shoes. She loves the momentary high of each purchase, but the thrill never lasts. And now she has a room full of things she’s never really used. 2. Building self-acceptance from the outside Let’s be honest. We all want to look attractive. If we want to lose weight, it’s at least in part because we want others to like how we look. Striving to look good is not in itself a problem. But it readily becomes a problem when we need to look good on the outside in order to feel good about ourselves on the inside. The biggest problem with building self-acceptance from the outside is that it simply doesn’t make life richer and fuller. Research suggests that people who value attractive or prestigious things tend to be less happy and more antisocial. People who succeed at getting the look they’ve been after and hiding the signs of aging don’t then feel good about their life; research says they actually feel worse. Of course, it’s all about moderation. We’re not suggesting you let yourself go—wear shabby, ill-fitting clothes and stop your personal grooming. We’re merely saying that an excessive focus on your physical appearance, and trying too hard to make others find you attractive, is likely to make you feel worse in the long term. The second problem with trying to feel good about yourself through focusing on your physical appearance is that it takes valuable time away from other things that are important in life. For example, consider Karen, who sought to build her self-esteemby shopping for things to make her feel attractive and glamorous. She felt excited when she was shopping and pleased right after she’d bought the stuff. But pretty soon all the new stuffis forgotten in the wardrobe. She must now work long hours to pay off her credit-card debt, which means she has less time to develop relationships or engage in other enjoyable activities. Getting others to like how we look clearly doesn’t bring fulfillment. We need to do something different. We need to find activities that give us a sense of joy and purpose. Once we have a clear focus for our life, we’ll find it easier to commit to our health and weight-loss goals. Weight loss will become something we do for ourselves rather than to avoid unpleasant feelings or obtain the approval of others.
Do you care too much what other people think? Do you want to lose weight for yourself or to please someone else? Answer each question truthfully and take the opportunity to consider other possible ways you might try to feel good about yourself.
DISCOVERING WHAT YOU CARE ABOUT We all already know what activities don’t deeply fulfill us, so let’s now turn to what does. Ask yourself this question: what is important to you? Although it seems like a simple question, many people find it hard to come up with a substantial answer. However, if you take just 10 minutes to seriously consider it, it will help you to manage stressful events, improve your intellectual performance, improve your relationships with others and help you experience greater openness to life. And on top of that, it will also help you to reduce your weight and waistline. Hard to believe, right? Well, amazingly, research shows that all these things can be accomplished by the simple act of describing what you care about, or more technically, affirming your values. Sound simple? It is! Yet how often do we do it? Let’s try some value affirmation now. EXERCISE: WHO AM I AND WHAT DO I CARE ABOUT? The list below contains words related to values. Take some time now to look through this list and think about what’s important to you. Then do the following: 1. Pick the three values (from either column) that are most important to you right now. Don’t worry about getting this exactly right. You can always change your mind later. If you think of a value that’s important but it’s not on this list, just note it down instead. 2. Write a paragraph about why each of the three values is important to you. Possible core values • Connecting with nature • Being curious • Being fair or just • Being loyal • Being honest • Being helpful • Being sexually expressive • Being genuine, friendly, open • Being responsible, reliable • Being ambitious, industrious • Being competent, effective • Protecting myself • Being authoritative or in charge • Being intimate • Enjoying food and drink, and other physical pleasures in life • Having a positive influence
• Being authentic
• Being self-sufficient
• Being analytical (e.g., solving problems, figuring things out)
• Self-development, self-awareness
• Engaging fully, being mindful
• Caring for the planet
• Creating beauty
• Making a contribution
• Being courageous
• Being adventurous
• Seeking stimulating environments and activities
• Self-care: being active and fit
• Self-care: eating food that gives me sustained energy and health
• Being spiritual
• Being loving and caring
• Being respectful to elders and tradition • Being self-disciplined • Being appreciative of music, art and/or drama • Being creative, innovative, inventive • Being wise • Resolving disputes • Being constructive (e.g., building things) • Being organized • Engaging in clearly defined work • Looking my best • Being competitive (power) • Caring for others • Accepting (e.g., self, others, life) • Being practical (e.g., working on practical tasks) • Connecting with animals
USING YOUR VALUES TO CHOOSE YOUR GOALS AND ACTIVITIES
We’ve all spent time drifting. Like an unpiloted ship at sea, we’ve been pushed here and there by the forces around us. Sometimes we’ve tried too hard to please others. Sometimes we’ve rebelled, and done the opposite of what others wanted. Sometimes we’ve simply lost our way. No matter what we’ve done, we’ve always done something. Even giving up is doing something. We’re getting older and time is passing. We have no choice about that. But we do have some say over the direction we take. We can choose to guide our life according to other people’s desires or our own short-term impulses. Or we can choose to guide our life based on our most deeply held values. There are two major steps to making values the “compass” of your life:
1. State your values What do you care about? Claim it for yourself. Values are entirely your choice. Nobody can tell you what you should or shouldn’t value. 2. Experiment with values-based activities Find concrete activities that put your values into play. See if you find those activities enjoyable and/or meaningful. If not, experiment with other activities. Suppose, for example, that when you clarify your values, you realize you love being creative. Now you need to find a goal that supports that value. You may experiment with painting, but after doing this for a while, discover you don’t actually enjoy it. You might then decide to experiment with a different form of creative expression, such as writing. It’s quite normal for there to be a discrepancybetween what we think we like doing and what we actually do. Values can guide us to certain activities, but only experience will teach us which of those activities is best for us. Consider the value “self-care: being active and fit.” There are literally hundreds of ways to put this value into play. We could go to the gym, take a regular walk or bike ride, or join a yoga class. It’s usually impossible for us to use our mind to figure out what activity will be best for us. But it is possible to open our mind and let experience teach us what’s best for us. This brings us to a crucial distinction . . . The difference between values and goals Values describe how we’d like to behave in life, the qualities we’d like to bring to our ongoing behavior—such as to be loving, caring, kind, honest, open, engaged, appreciative, sensual, sexual, enthusiastic, disciplined or active. We can think of a value as a quality of action: a quality we want to model or embody in our behavior. We can use values as our compass. We can let them guide us as we travel through life. Goals can be completed, achieved or ticked off a list as done whereas values can never be finished in this way. If your goal is to go for a 20-minute walk at lunchtime, you can achieve that: done! But if your value is self-care—taking care of yourself, looking after yourself—that value is never done; it’s there for the rest of your life, until your final breath, and in each moment you can choose to act on it or not. Here are a few examples of values, goals and desired outcomes and how they work together to build an enriching life: Desired outcome: To be fit and healthy Values: Self-care and self-development
Goal: Go to the gym at 6 a.m. this Monday
Desired outcome: A good relationship with my friend
Value: Being caring and loving
Goal: Help my friend move out of her apartment this Friday
Desired outcome: Enjoyment
Value: Being playful and creative
Goal: Engage in my hobby this Saturday morning
Another important difference between values and goals is that you can fail to achieve your goals but you can never permanently fail at your values. You could fail to go to the gym, for example, or fail to help someone or fail to engage in your hobby. But this wouldn’t cancel out your values of self-care, being caring or being playful. The goals weren’t achieved, true, but the values persist—and there are many, many ways, both great and small, you can still act on those values—today, tomorrow or a year from now. This is such a critical point that it bears repeating. You can never permanently fail at your values; in each and every moment, you can either act on them or not. The figure opposite shows how our values help us move toward what we want. First we identify and affirm our values. For example, just before lunch, we might remind ourselves of our values, by saying, “My value is self-care. I want to eat healthy food because it makes me feel healthier and gives me sustained energy to do fun and challenging work during the day [value affirmation]. I commit to having a salad for lunch [goal].” Then, when we engage in the goal, we mindfully notice whether or not it serves our value. Did we in fact feel healthier and have more energy during the day? Sometimes we will discover that the goal does not serve the value. Perhaps the salad left us feeling fatigued, and we need to think about modifying our lunch plans somewhat? To use an example in the physical activity area, we may want to live the value “improving fitness” via the goal “riding a bike for an hour a day.” However, after a week, we may discover that we hate riding a bike. That is when we need to consult our value again and choose a new exercise goal. If we keep reminding ourselves of our values, and experimenting with life, we will often find an activity that affirms our value and is also something we love or enjoy (or at least find easier to maintain than something we absolutely detest).
USING SETBACKS AS FUEL In the health domain, it’s natural to experience setbacks, but these setbacks only become a problem when they cause us to move away from our values. Say, for example, we gain 17 pounds over the holidays and are feeling miserable about it. It would be natural to say, “It’s no use. Self-care is obviously not one of my values. I obviously don’t value taking care of myself.” This conclusion is probably wrong. Your value of self-care is undoubtedly still there and there are millions of ways you can still act on it, even though you failed at this one particular goal.
HEALTH AS THE ULTIMATE DESIRED OUTCOME Why do we think of health as an extra in our life, as something we’ll get to once we’ve taken care of the “important things”? Why do we never seem to have time to exercise or shop for healthy foods and cook healthy meals? We’re in such a rush that a multibillion-dollar industry has arisen to provide us with fast food. The supermarket is filled with highly processed unhealthy foods that can be prepared in just a few minutes. But the major problem with putting our health second is that health underpins all our other values. If we’re sick in bed or have little energy, we’ll be less able to express friendship and love, influence the world and do things that are enjoyable. If we eat a diet that doesn’t give us sustained energy, then sometimes we’ll have a lot of energy, and other times we’ll be tired and grumpy. And this moodiness may well push other people away from us. At an intellectual level, we all know health is important, but all too often this knowledge does little to influence how we live. We frequently act as if our body and brain are self-maintaining machines that will never break down. This is because most of what goes on in our body is invisible. We can’t see all those toxins and free radicals and hormones and biochemical processes we read about. We can’t see the bacteria and viruses in our environment, or our immune system fighting them off. And we can’t see when our body is nutrient-deficient and vulnerable to these pathogens. We don’t notice when our body is becoming gradually but increasingly ineffective at processing sugar, a precursor to diabetes. We don’t see our brain cells dying and our arteries clogging. When we hit middle age, we often don’t notice the gradual loss of muscle mass with each passing year. What we do see are the long-term consequences of unhealthy behavior: sickness, reduced cognitive function, decreased emotional wellbeing, reduced physical function and chronic disease. But do we really want to wait for these long-term consequences to happen before we change our life? Let’s return to our ultimate questions: 1. How will weight loss improve my health? 2. How will improved health help me develop friendship and love? 3. How will improved health help me positively influence the world?
4. How will improved health help me give and find joy?
To help you answer these questions for yourself, we encourage you to consider each of the nine benefits of a healthy diet and exercise below.
IMPROVED ABILITY TO THINK Regular aerobic exercise is associated with better impulse control, faster processing speed and better memory. Increased consumption of fruit and vegetables is associated with better cognitive function.
IMPROVED ENERGY LEVELS Low to moderate amounts of exercise increase feelings of energy and reduce feelings of fatigue. Low-GI foods—such as brown rice, cherries, spaghetti, whole wheat bread and some bran-based cereals—give you sustained energy over time
IMPROVED PHYSICAL FUNCTION Exercise can be used to improve your strength, balance, agility and ability to play and do physical work. It also improves your quality of sleep. If you’re overweight, a reduction of as little as 5 percent of your weight can reduce chronic physical pain and increase mobility, especially when you combine a healthy diet with exercise.
PROTECTION FROM ILLNESS Exercise reduces the risk of developing coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. It lowers your blood pressure and plays an important role in weight management. Moderate levels of exercise are also associated with boosts in immunity. Fitness enthusiasts report fewer colds than their sedentary peers. About 40 minutes of brisk walking, five days a week, reduces sickness. Engaging in moderate to vigorous exercise reduces the chance of
upper respiratory tract infections by 23 percent.
If you’re overweight, modest drops in weight—about 5 to 10 pounds—can result in clinically significant reductions in blood pressure, and in the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Importantly, modest weight loss is associated with a lower risk of dying from any cause.
Probably one of the best things you can do to protect yourself from illness is increase your intake of fruit and vegetables. That will reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
IMPROVED WELLBEING Exercise reduces stress and its negative biological consequences. Research also suggests that on the days we exercise, we tend to have higher levels of life satisfaction than on days when we don’t. If you’re overweight, even small amounts of
weight loss can improve your self-esteem and reduce depression. A recent study suggests that the more fruit and vegetables you eat, the happier you tend to be. The wellbeing benefit peaks at about seven portions of fruit and vegetables per day.
INCREASED OPPORTUNITIES TO SOCIALIZE AND HAVE FUN There’s no reason why exercising and healthy cooking have to be drudgery. If we’re creative, we can make them fun. We can cook a healthy meal for our friends, for example, or take a cooking class to meet new people. Many forms of exercise take place in a social context, such as biking groups, cross-fit classes, team sports, and so on. We can sometimes make exercise more fun by turning it into a challenge. We can join competitions or just compete against ourselves, seeking to improve our speed or strength.
INCREASED SELF-DISCIPLINE Self-control or willpower can be likened to a muscle. The more you work it, the stronger it gets. Those who exercise regularly, for example, demonstrate improved self-discipline in areas unrelated to exercise. Such people engage in more healthy eating, have improved emotional control, are better at monitoring their spending and have improved study habits. This means that if you pick one domain for staying self-disciplined, such as diet or exercise, you’re likely to see benefits in other areas that require self-discipline.
SLOWED AGING What would you do if we told you there was a fountain of youth but you’d have to walk 1,000 miles to get to it? You couldn’t take any vehicle or ride any animal. Would you do it? If you did walk 1,000 miles, you’d be pretty angry when you discovered
there was no fountain of youth at the end of the trip. But the walking would have done you a world of good. Just about any activity, including walking, washing the dishes and mowing the lawn, is associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to everyday exercises, resistance training is beneficial in preventing arteriosclerosis and age-related decline in muscle mass and bone density. Aerobic exercise, meanwhile, offsets age-related decline in the immune system. Aging can bring a disturbing loss of muscle. We can lose more than 8 percent of our muscle between the ages of 40 and 50, and this loss accelerates to greater than 15 percent per decade after age 75. When we lose muscle, we lose not only our strength but our ability to function in the world. We struggle to lift boxes, play with our children, avoid falling, and climb the stairs. The good news is, much of this muscle decline can be offset with regular exercise. The images opposite nicely illustrate this point. They are cross sections through the human thigh. The dark gray is muscle, the light gray is fat (adipose tissue). Note how the thigh of an active 40-year-old and an active 70-year-old look similar, in terms of the amount of muscle. But notice how little muscle and how much fat there is in the thigh of an inactive 74-year-old.
In many ways, fruit and vegetables are the fountain of youth. Increased intake of fruit and vegetables is associated with a decreased rate of arteriosclerosis, arthritis and cataracts. Increased vegetable intake is also associated with decreased age-related decline in cognitive function.
Unhealthy behaviors can accelerate the aging process. For example, being overweight in midlife and later life increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The more unhealthy behaviors you engage in, such as smoking, inactivity and low vegetable intake, the more likely you are to show age-related decline in memory and cognitive ability.
IMPROVED APPEARANCE We live in a society that puts excessive
emphasis on being thin and young. We will have much more to say about the damaging effects of these unobtainable ideals later in the book, but for now we wish to acknowledge that one reason we exercise and eat healthy food is to improve our appearance. We don’t want to look like an anorexic (hopefully) but we do often want to look a bit leaner in our clothes. Exercise, healthy diet and weight loss can often help. The interesting thing is, if we exercise regularly, we can look leaner even if we don’t lose weight. This is because a pound of muscle is smaller and smoother than a pound of fat. Imagine a baseball worth of muscle on your biceps. Now imagine a pile of jelly that has about 15 percent more size than the baseball and is crammed into your biceps. We’re sure we would all prefer the size and look of the baseball than the jelly!
We have to be careful when we set appearance goals. We don’t want to cling to them too tightly. The first eight benefits of diet and exercise listed above are almost exclusively for the self. “Improving appearance” is one of those activities that can be done for others. There is nothing wrong with wanting to make a positive impression on others, but we must always be aware that this goal has its dangers. We risk living so much for others that we lose our self. We can forget to care for ourselves and to live inside our own values. As humans, we probably can’t help but worry about our appearance, but we can choose to hold our appearance goals lightly and not let them dominate our lives.
It is important to remember that the goal of “looking good” is itself always in the service of other values. If you want to look good in order to find a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife or sex partner, then it’s in the service of values such as love, intimacy, sexuality or sensuality. If you want to look good in order to have others treat you with respect or approval, then it’s in the service of values such as respect or appreciation. If want to look good in order to stop criticizing yourself and start accepting yourself, then it’s in the service of self-acceptance. If you want to look good because it helps you to influence others, then it’s in the service of influence.
There are many different ways of serving all these values, without actually needing to look good. Please note, however, that we’re not against looking good. We’re not advising you to give up on it. We’re just warning you that if you get too hung up on that particular goal and lose sight of all others, it’s going to create more problems than it solves.
Matching your values to your health goals
Now that we’ve reviewed the benefits of healthy diet and exercise, it’s time to connect our health behaviors to our most deeply held values. Use the values-clarification exercise below to develop your own health goals.
EXERCISE: CLARIFYING YOUR VALUES
Keeping your values and goals uppermost in your mind will help you get where you want to be.
It would be easy to dedicate an entire book to the ways in which you can best support your meditation practice, but I’ve suggested here what I consider to be just a few of the most important, in the hope that they’ll help strengthen your practice of mindfulness in day-to-day life. Needless to say, the theme that runs throughout is one of awareness, an understanding of both oneself and others. It’s about developing a gentle curiosity: watching, noticing and observing what’s happening in every aspect of your life – how you act, how you speak, and how you think. But remember, it’s not about trying to be someone else, it’s about finding a sense of ease with you as you are, right now.
Perspective – choosing how you see your life
For meditation to be effective it doesn’t really matter how you view your life. But it can be useful to acknowledge the general theme, because that way you can be more alert to the tendency to slip into negative patterns of thought. And it’s this increased awareness that provides the potential for sustainable change.
It’s also useful to notice how your perspective can shift – how one day you can get on a crowded train and not be too bothered about it, and yet on another occasion it appears to push every button you have. The good thing about this realisation is that clearly it’s not what’s happening outside of ourselves that causes us the most difficulty, but rather what’s going on inside our own minds – which, thankfully, is something that can change. Noticing these shifting perspectives from day-to-day, and from moment to moment, can be a very strong support for your daily meditation.
Communication – relating to others
If you want to find a greater sense of happiness through the practice of meditation, taking out your frustrations on others is unlikely to encourage a calm and clear mind. Communicating skilfully and sensitively with other people is therefore essential on the road to getting some headspace. This could mean applying a greater sense of restraint, empathy or perspective to your relationships – or maybe all three!
That said, there are some people who, no matter how well intentioned you are, will still choose to pick a fight. In these situations there is often little you can do. Trying to empathise with them and recognise those similar states of mind within yourself can be helpful, but if someone is consistently unpleasant towards you, then it might be best to just stay well clear – if you possibly can that is.
Appreciation – smelling the roses
Have you ever noticed how much emphasis some people place on even the smallest amount of difficulty in their lives, and how little time they spend reflecting on moments of happiness? Part of the reason for this goes back to the idea that happiness is somehow ‘rightfully ours’, and that everything else is therefore wrong or out of place.
The idea of taking time out to be grateful may sound a little trite to some, but it’s essential if we want to get some more headspace. It’s very difficult to be caught up in lots of distracting thoughts when there is a strong sense of appreciation in your life. And by developing a more heartfelt appreciation of what we have, we also begin to see more clearly what’s missing in the lives of others.
Kindness – towards both yourself and others
When you’re kind to someone else it feels good. It’s not rocket science. It feels good for you and it feels good for them. It makes for a very happy, peaceful mind. But whilst you’re at it, how about showing yourself some of that kindness – especially in learning to be more mindful. We live in a world with such high expectations that we can often be critical of our own progress in learning something new.
Fortunately, meditation has a strange way of bringing out the kindness in people – and practising kindness in everyday life will simply feed back into your meditation. Kindness makes the mind softer, more malleable and easier to work with in your practice. It creates a mindset that is less judgmental and more accepting. Clearly this has profound implications for our relationships with others.
Compassion – in the shoes of others
Compassion is not something that we
can ‘do’ or ‘create’, it already exists in each and every one of us. If you think back to the blue sky analogy, the same principle applies to compassion. In fact, you could say that the blue sky represents both awareness and compassion in equal measure.
Sometimes compassion will arise spontaneously, like the clouds parting to reveal the blue sky. At other times we might have to make a conscious effort, which is a bit more like imagining what the blue sky looks like, even when it’s obscured by clouds. But the more you imagine this scenario, the more likely it is to happen naturally. Compassion is a lot like empathy really, putting ourselves in the shoes of another and experiencing a shared sense of understanding.
Balance – a sense of equanimity
Life is not unlike the sea, ebbing and flowing throughout our lives. Sure, sometimes it’s calm and serene, but at
other times the waves can be so big that they threaten to overwhelm us. These fluctuations are an inevitable part of life. But when you forget this simple fact, it’s easy to get swept away by strong waves of difficult emotions.
By training the mind through meditation it’s possible to develop a more balanced approach, so that you experience a greater sense of equanimity in life. This shouldn’t be confused with a boring existence where you float along in life like some emotionless grey blob. In fact it’s quite the opposite. Having greater awareness of your emotions means that, if anything, your experience of them will be heightened. It’s just that in being less caught up in them, you will no longer feel as though you’re at their mercy.
Acceptance – resistance is futile
No matter how fortunate your circumstances, life can at times be both
stressful and challenging. We often try to ignore this fact and therefore feel frustrated and disappointed when we don’t get our own way. Much like compassion, it can be useful to think back to the blue sky analogy when you reflect on acceptance.
With that in mind, the journey to acceptance is about discovering what we need to let go of, rather than what we need to start doing. By noticing moments of resistance throughout the day, you can start to become more aware of what prevents acceptance from naturally arising. This in turn will allow you to view the thoughts and feelings that arise during your meditation with a much greater sense of ease.
Composure – letting-go of impatience
For many people, life has now become so busy, so hectic, that a sense of impatience is perhaps inevitable. In these
moments, you may notice your jaw tightening, your foot tapping, or your breath getting increasingly shallow. But by noticing the impatience with a genuine sense of curiosity, the very nature of it begins to change. Somehow the momentum slows down and its grip is released.
Impatience is just as likely to show up in your meditation practice as it is in everyday life – one simply reflecting the other. In fact, if you’re like most people you may well find yourself asking, ‘Why am I not experiencing results more quickly?’ But remember, meditation is not really about achievement and results – which is why it’s such a nice change of pace from the rest of life. Instead it’s about learning to be aware, to rest in that space of natural awareness with a genuine sense of ease.
Dedication – sticking with it
Mindfulness is about a fundamental shift in the way you relate to your thoughts
and feelings. While that may sound exciting, or perhaps a little overwhelming, it’s done by repeating the exercise little and often. So this means practising meditation on a regular basis, no matter how you feel. Like any other skill, you’ll become more confident and familiar with the feeling of mindfulness the more often you apply it.
By practising in this way – little and often – you can slowly start to build up a stable sense of awareness in your meditation, which will naturally feed through to the rest of your life. Likewise, by being more mindful in everyday life, it will have a positive impact on your practice. If you’re really clear in your motivation, knowing why you’re learning meditation and who those people are around you that are likely to benefit from your increased sense of headspace, then you’re unlikely to have trouble sitting down for ten short minutes each day.
Presence – living life skilfully
Living skilfully can mean having the presence of mind to restrain yourself when you think you might say or do something you’ll later regret. It can also mean having the strength and stability of awareness to respond sensitively to difficult situations rather than reacting impulsively. So living skilfully requires a certain amount of discriminating wisdom.
Unfortunately, wisdom can’t be learnt from a book, no matter how profound the writing. Instead it relates to an experiential understanding of life, which meditation can help to enhance. In the same way that compassion and acceptance are reminiscent of the blue sky analogy, so too is presence. Because wisdom isn’t something you can ‘do’ or ‘make happen’ – it’s there in all of us. By becoming more familiar with that space within ourselves and trusting our instinct more fully, we can then learn to apply this quality of discriminating wisdom in everyday life. In short, we can begin to live more skilfully in the world.
Research shows that a relaxed demeanor, gentle eye contact, and a half smile, when combined with slow speech and a warm tone of voice, builds trust and increases comprehension in the listener’s brain. But here’s the problem: When was the last time you consciously relaxed or consciously maintained a gentle gaze when talking to someone? Have you ever consciously spoken a little slower, or consciously increased the warmth in your voice? In our NeuroLeadership class, all of our students had difficulty doing this, and most had trouble maintaining eye contact for more than a few seconds at a time. Instead they—as do many people, especially during work—spoke rapidly with little awareness of the other person. And nearly everyone used too many words when they spoke. This turns out to be one of the least effective ways to convey important information.
The first thing to remember is that a listener’s brain can only recall about 4–7 words with accuracy. When researchers at the University of Missouri tested young and old adults, they found that even a single sentence composed of 10 words was difficult to recall accurately. If you have something important to say, say it briefly and slowly, with as few words as possible! This makes your message more powerful, and the brevity eliminates irrelevant information. When you don’t stay on point—or when you try to verbalize the endless inner dialogues that occur when your mind wanders—you make it neurologically impossible for the listener to pay attention to and understand what you are really trying to say.
Irrelevant speech also interferes with judgment and learning. Scientists at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Ohio found that when two people talk at the same time, it degrades each person’s ability to pick up important verbal cues. In fact, any background conversation—as when you’re sitting in a restaurant or a cubicle in a crowded office—will interfere with your brain’s ability to perform mental tasks. Even hearing traffic noise in the background is enough to impair a person’s ability to learn. Our advice: if the conversation is important, find the quietest place possible so that you can fully concentrate on each other and on every word you hear.
The more slowly you speak, the more the listener’s comprehension will increase,while at the same time relaxing both the speaker’s and listener’s bodies.The result: less stress and greater understanding. But as we mentioned earlier, people have a hard time slowing down and speaking briefly. To solve this problem, we guide all of our students and workshop participants through a highly unusual and entertaining game. It trains your brain to speak more efficiently and effectively, and you only have to practice the game three times with three different people to improve your speaking clarity.
Here’s what you do. Find a partner—a friend, a colleague, even one of your kids—and sit down facing each other. Bring your chairs close together, with knees almost touching, so that you can closely observe the other person’s face. You both hold up your fists in front of you, and then you raise one finger for each word you speak. When you run out of fingers, you must fall silent, even if you are halfway through a sentence! Then your partner speaks, raising one finger with each word and stopping when the 10-word limit is reached. As you both talk, listen closely to the tone of your voices and pay attention to your partner’s subtle facial expressions.
The Superslow Speaking Game
Counting your words on your fingers slows down your rate of speech. But some people, when playing the 10-10 game, will still talk rapidly. In our workshops, we have participants experience what it’s like to put two-second pauses between each word. Try it now: Say—whatever—you—want—for—the—next—minute—or—two. Then try it with a friend. This game will make you more aware of what words sound like. In the silence between each word, you may at first hear your inner speech, then your mind goes silent. When you return to normal speaking, you’ll automatically speak a little slower and be more mindful of what you say and how fast you talk.
The exercise forces you to slow down, and the finger counting ensures that you speak briefly. Your brain will soon adjust to the exercise and select better words that convey more meaning than the way you normally converse.
When we explain this strategy to our students—and to the many professionals we train in corporate settings—many people seemed shocked! “It’s not possible,” they say, “I have to explain everything for them to understand me!” But that’s the problem: you think that more words will help the other person comprehend the depth of the situation, but it ignores the fundamental rule of consciousness: the listener’s brain can only absorb about 10 words, and then it needs time—silence—to integrate them in a meaningful way.
It takes about three or four minutes playing the 10-10 game—10 words, 10 fingers—to realize how profoundly intimate your conversations will become. Often it starts out awkwardly, so that’s what you say to your partner. “This feels weird,” you might say. And the other person might respond, “I know just how you feel.” But if you stay deeply relaxed and trust your intuition as you allow a spontaneous conversation to emerge, you’ll often find yourself talking about deep feelings and problems. After 10 minutes of practice, you’ll feel much closer to your partner, even if you are paired up with a stranger, which is what we have people do in workshops. It is not unusual to see tears running down some of the participants’ faces.
When you play this game with children, they love it. They don’t feel overwhelmed by your words. Because they feel that you are really listening to them, they will speak more openly about difficult issues.
The research is clear: rapid speaking can cause people to distrust you, whereas slower speaking will deepen their respect.A slow voice has a calming effect on someone who is feeling anxious, whereas a loud, fast voice can stimulate anger or fear.[And if you are speaking to someone with any form of language disability, it is essential to talk slowly, articulating one word at a time. Slowness and brevity—it’s a recipe that enhances social empathy with everyone.
You’ve probably heard that early risers are more productive than people who wake up later in the morning. It’s a common assumption that getting up early is the key to enjoying explosive productivity. But does being an early riser truly make you more productive?
It’s an intriguing idea: all you have to is get up at 5:00 a.m., and you’ll see a major increase in the volume of work you get done.
But scientists claim the connection is one of correlation, not causation. While early risers are often productive, it’s not because they wake up early. They’re productive due to other factors.
Several years ago, researchers in Switzerland and Belgium tracked the brain activity of 16 early risers and 15 late risers. These subjects got the same amount of sleep each night (seven hours), but the former got out of bed four hours earlier than the latter. The researchers found there was little difference in performance between the two groups on a series of tasks.
Given these findings, why do so many productivity experts recommend getting up early? I think I’ve figured out the reason. Early risers tend to act with intention, an idea we explored in the section The Importance Of Intentionality. The problem is, the experts seldom mention this when they advise becoming an early riser.
When you decide to get up early, you do so with a purpose in mind. There’s a reason you want to get an early start. This reason drives you, prompting you to take action. It’s why you’re more productive when you wake up early.
I’ll use an example from my own life. As I mentioned, I used to wake up at 4:00 a.m. years ago. I did so to create websites and write. These were my intentions. Both were clearly defined in my mind as I climbed into bed each evening.
Because I had a purpose, I knew precisely what I was supposed to be doing each morning. Moreover, because I understood my reason for doing the two activities (to build a business), I woke up excited to get started. As a result, my productivity soared. I was able to complete a significant volume of work in the first three hours of my day.
(This was after I stopped going to bed at midnight each night. I started going to bed earlier to make certain I received enough sleep to perform well the following day.)
The point is, my productivity wasn’t due to simply getting up early. It was due to having a clearly-defined intention. A purpose.
So is it necessary to start your morning routine at 5:00 a.m.? In my opinion, no. It’s far more important that you wake up with intentionality, ready to take deliberate action. That, I believe, is the key to experiencing a truly productive and meaningful day.
Having said that, I confess that I’m a strong advocate of waking up early (I get up at 5:30 a.m. these days). It’s not an overstatement to say that becoming an early riser changed my life.
ALCOHOL IS A TRICKY SUBJECT. BUDDHA DIDN’T DRINK—never, ever, not at all. In his rules for monks and even novices, “intoxicating liquors” were completely forbidden. This is one of the few places where Buddha got really picky about food and pretty specific about alcohol’s ills, too. He outlined these six serious dangers: “diminishing of wealth, increased quarreling, a whole range of illnesses, ill repute, exposing oneself, and weakening of the intellect.”1 Buddha knew even then what a night of top-shelf margaritas could lead to. And yes, he mentioned “exposing oneself.” These spring break traditions are older than you think. This doesn’t necessarily mean you
shouldn’t drink. The Buddha became extremely celibate, too, and that doesn’t mean you have to give up sex.aa But there are a few things to consider about drinking.
What does it mean to be extremely celibate? He didn’t even have sex with himself.
First and foremost, drinking counts. Many alcoholic drinks are loaded with carbohydrates, which quickly become simple sugars. And alcohol itself goes straight to the mitochondria to be metabolized,2 and so contributes to overworking these little cellular factories. Drinking outside your eating window will defeat the purpose of Buddha’s Diet. You might as well eat a sundae. Second, for lots of people, alcohol makes you hungry. Numerous studies have shown that people eat more after they have a drink.3 You start with a beer, and next thing
you know you’ve got a bowl of chips. You grab some cheese and crackers to go with that glass of wine. Or you reach for the ice cream. Pretty soon you’re having alcohol and a sundae. The whole diet is out the window. Third, alcohol really does cloud our judgment. This is probably why Buddha didn’t like it. And he really didn’t like it. He once said that if “repeatedly pursued,” alcohol would lead to rebirth in hell, which is about as tough as he gets.4 Any diet requires you to exercise discretion. Overeating is certainly not the worst thing you can do under the influence, but it may be the most common. It’s just hard to make good choices when you’ve had a few drinks. So even during your regularly scheduled meals, you’ll want to be careful. Finally, even for the most abstemious among us, alcohol is often part of a larger
celebration. And those festivities don’t necessarily end at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. or whenever your predetermined eating window closes—at least not the good ones. This makes it harder to stick to the diet. If that’s the case for you, you might limit alcohol to only those special occasions. It’s much harder to decline a glass of champagne to toast a birthday than to decline it on a regular Tuesday night. You can make these late-night celebrations your cheat day for the week. (We have a chapter on cheating coming up.) Having said all that, there is some reason to believe moderate drinking could be healthy—at least wine and other drinks without a lot of carbs. (Beer is pretty universally agreed to be bad. Sorry.) Wine, in particular, has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, which could counteract the metabolic stress of eating too much sugar.
Be careful though. If you are having two glasses of wine at night to “unwind,” it’s important to think honestly about whether alcohol has become something of a crutch. Alcohol shouldn’t be what you reach for to calm your nerves—just as food shouldn’t be what you reach for when you’ve had a sad or stressful day. Buddha advocated mindfulness rather than intoxication to still our minds. He wanted us to wake up, not pass out. There is no real consensus on how much alcohol is too much, although just about every health authority agrees you need to set limits. Each country’s health department makes a different recommendation and there is a lot of variation.6 The U.S. guideline for women, for example, is over four times higher than Finland’s, and two times higher than Germany’s—which are not exactly teetotaling nations. And ironically, there’s
some evidence that these guidelines are entirely counterproductive anyway. In one recent study, when students were told the precise alcohol content of various beverages, about 90% of them used the information not to moderate their consumption, but to select the most alcoholic, in the hopes of getting drunk more quickly.7 And those same researchers found that regardless of whether the students knew the national guidelines, 77% of the women and 100% of the men said they drank “more than they personally believed was responsible.” We all have to find our own middle way. For some, that may be drinking only on special occasions. For others it will be something more—but not too much more. Special occasion or not, we recommend limiting your alcohol intake to no more than two standard drinks per week. Why two? For one thing, that seems to be the
threshold at which alcohol starts to cause measurable sleep problems—and we have a whole chapter soon on the importance of sleep. Beyond one to two alcoholic beverages per week, scientists find that the more you drink, the less you sleep.8 And what is a “standard” drink? The official U.S. definition is 14 grams of actual alcohol—which is the amount in roughly 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or a single shot of harder stuff like whiskey or gin. It’s not much—if you have a pint of beer or a tall glass of wine, that already counts as a bit more than one. You can have both your drinks on one night, or divide them across two. That’s it. You may find this is still too much drinking (and calories) to get to your goal. Or you may find you can imbibe more often, depending on how the weight comes off. As with everything in Buddha’s Diet, you need to pay attention to how alcohol
affects you and your body and adjust accordingly. But it’s a good place to start. The most important thing is to make a choice and stick to it. Choose now. What about nonalcoholic drinks? Buddha didn’t have a lot to say about that. In fact, drinks are technically exempt from his no-eating-after-noon rules. Of course, he lived before refrigeration. Milk required finding a cow, and juice would have been available only when fruits were in season, and probably not in large amounts. (Making your own juice without a fancy juicer is hard.) These days, some Buddhist monks in Thailand have been exploiting this liquid loophole—with disastrous effects. Researchers there found that some drinks can have as many calories as four servings of rice.9 With so many monks drinking sugary sodas and fruit juices all afternoon, obesity and diabetes are now serious
problems. Lots of studies link liquid calories to weight gain, and drinks with added sugar seem to have a direct effect on your waistline.10 This is one place where you need to be stricter than the Buddha. Drinks count. Don’t drink anything with calories after hours—and avoid sugary drinks any time as much as possible. Buddha and his monks were probably drinking water most of the time—and so should you. Water is calorie-free and healthy, and staying hydrated is important. In Buddhist temples today, water is often offered as a symbol of purity, clarity, and calmness. Offer some to your body on a regular basis. Black coffee and plain tea (black or green) have few to no calories, so you can drink these any time. The situation changes quite a bit with fancier coffee (or tea) drinks. Starbucks has somehow convinced otherwise intelligent adults that a
20-ounce milk shake is a reasonable snack. It’s not. These drinks can have over 500 calories, as much as a small meal, and about half of it from sugar, which is the worst. This is a huge tax on your metabolism. Treat it as a dessert. What about a middle ground, like a splash of milk in your coffee or a bit of honey or sugar in your tea? An ounce of milk has somewhere between 10 and 20 calories, depending on whether it’s skim or whole or something in between. That’s not a lot. But the time-restricted feeding experiments allowed no calories after hours—zilch, zero, none. All those mice got was water. We don’t know how things would have turned out if they spiked the water with a little milk or sugar, so we are advocating complete metabolic rest outside your eating window. The safest approach is to have your tea or coffee plain. The science is somewhat mixed on
caffeine—some studies suggest it’s good for you,11 others not so good.12 If you like it, there’s no compelling reason not to drink it. Some people find it reduces their appetite, which might be helpful in the early days of changing your eating schedule. But if it keeps you up at night, switch to decaf. Remember that good sleep helps weight loss as well, so if caffeine is keeping you up, you may be sabotaging the diet. Would Buddha drink diet sodas? They are filled with scary-sounding ingredients, and while scientists don’t worry so much about artificial sweeteners causing cancer anymore,13 they do seem to disrupt our metabolisms in ways we don’t yet fully understand. Some studies also suggest that people who drink diet soda unconsciously compensate by overeating elsewhere,14 so they may not be effective in cutting calories to begin with. One study of several hundred
senior citizens found that those with a daily diet soda habit added a full three inches to their waistline on average over ten years, compared to less than an inch for those who abstained.15 The greatest concern these days is that artificial sweeteners can induce glucose intolerance, which means disrupting the body’s ability to handle ordinary sugar. Because they pass through our stomachs undigested, these artificial sweeteners interact directly with all the good bacteria living in our guts. Called the intestinal microbiota, those microscopic creatures are vital to our digestive systems, and play a role in everything from obesity to diabetes. And somehow the sweeteners throw them out of whack. In one study, giving perfectly healthy volunteers the maximum recommended dose of an artificial sweetener for just seven days produced measurable impairment to their glucose
metabolism.16 So we suggest keeping clear of these on Buddha’s Diet.
When all else fails, drink some tea. Really. You’ll be amazed how many problems it can solve. We like to think of it as Buddha’s whiskey.
What does it mean to be extremely celibate? He didn’t even have sex with himself.
Well, what you say to start the conversation depends on a few things, like:
-The environment. The way you start a conversation during the day may be a bit different than the way you start the conversation at a nightclub.
-The girl. If she’s in a rush, you’ll have to move the conversation quickly. Whereas, if she’s standing and watching a street performer, you know she has some time, and there are plenty of things to talk about.`
-Your goals. Maybe you’re not super interested in the girl and you just want to build some social momentum. Or, maybe your intuition literally forced you to talk to this girl because she caught your eye so strongly.
Whatever the situation, this chapter will help you start the conversation well and move things forward with the girl.
(Keep in mind – when you’re in a naturally social environment, like perhaps a social sport, house party, or a get together with new friends, you can be pretty casual with the way you start a conversation. That’s because it’s expected to be social in these types of situations. We’ll go over this as well.)
We’ll talk about 5 easy ways you can start a conversation with any girl…
Let’s get right into it…
Here, you basically state your interest from the beginning. This is one of my favorite ways to start a conversation, because it cuts through the bullshit.
When it’s best to use: Anytime.
You can say:
“Hey, I know this is really random, but I saw you walking by and I thought you were cute. So, I had to say ‘Hi’. I’m [Your name].”
It’s very important to say this one slowly and shake her hand afterward.
You want to say it like this…
“Hey… I know this is reaaaallly random… but I saw you walking by… and I thought you were cute… So I had to say ‘Hi’…I’m [Your name].”
By delivering it slowly, you’ll come
across as more confident and she’ll hang on your words. By shaking her hand, you’ll initiate physical touch from the beginning, which will make her more comfortable with you.
Going “direct” is powerful because it shows confidence, and if she stays in the conversation, it’s a sign that she’s at least somewhat interested in you.
Here, you pick out something from the environment, and use it to start the conversation.
When it’s best to use: At a bar or club, or when the two of you are stationary (in one place, perhaps looking at something like a street performer).
For example, let’s say the two of you are staring at one of those street performers who pose as a statue.
You could say, “I always confuse these things with real statues. My friends always make fun of me for it.” This is a fun, tongue-in-cheek way to initiate the conversation.
If you’re in a bar or club, you could even say something simple like, “Do you know what the name of this club is?”
The key is to deliver this with a slight smile, so she knows you’re being playful. You want it to come across in more of a fun way rather than a serious tone.
The “situational” conversation starter can be powerful because it already gives you a topic to discuss. It can also be a great way to make her laugh from the beginning. However, make sure not to stay on the topic too long, as it can go stale and get boring. There’s only so much you can say about a street performer.
The “Where is Starbucks?”
You’re walking down the street and you stop a girl, then ask her where the nearest Starbucks is.
When it’s best to use: During the day while you’re walking in a city that has Starbucks (if that city doesn’t have Starbucks, any other popular café/restaurant will do).
Here’s the key to pulling this one off…
First, spot the girl you want to talk to. Typically, she’ll be walking towards you on the sidewalk.
Once you’re within 10 feet of her, slowly raise your hand in front of you to get her attention. She’ll usually see your hand and your eye contact before she gets to you.
Then, plant your feet and stop in front of her.
Ask, “Hey, do you know where the nearest Starbucks is?”
Before she can fully respond, cut her off and say, “Actually, I just thought you were cute and I wanted to meet you. I’m [Your name].”
(It’s important to do this BEFORE she finishes giving you the directions, because the social tendency is to give the quick directions and immediately walk away.)
This conversation starter is powerful because it allows you to gauge her vibe and attractiveness before you show your interest. For example, simply by her response and the way she starts to deliver her answer, you can tell how open she is to having a conversation with you. For example, if she smiles and lights up little bit, you know you have a good chance to
make something happen.
Plus, if she’s not as attractive as you thought she was from afar, you can just ask the Starbucks question and let her give you the directions, then walk away. It’s very low risk.
The Simple Introduction
Here, you don’t try to get too cute. You just give her a simple, “Hey, how’s it going? Or, “Hey, I’m [Your name]. How’s it going?”
When it’s best to use: At bars and clubs and other social environments.
It’s important to deliver this with confidence, strong eye contact, and a lower tone of voice. Otherwise, you’ll come across in a platonic “just friends” sort of way, and you’ll often get brushed off by women.
It’s powerful because of its simplicity. You don’t have to dig for what to say. You know that you have this simple conversation starter in your back pocket.
The Seahorse vs Octopus
I’ll go out on a limb here and say you probably haven’t heard of this one…
Typically I’m not a huge fan of routines and opinion-type of conversation starters. When my friend came to me with this conversation starter, I laughed out loud. Then, I saw him use it over and over again – and women would light up (he’d often bring them home).
I started using it as well – and it got me some hilarious (and very satisfying) results.
When it’s best to use: Anytime, but especially at night in bars and loungey types of places.
Here’s how to use it…
You go up to a group of girls and say,
“My friends and I have been having an interesting discussion and wanted your input.”
Once they oblige, you say, “I’m thinking of getting a more non-traditional pet. And it’s between a seahorse and an octopus. Which would you get?”
What I’ve found is that girls typically have a weird obsession with one of those two animals – and they light up when you ask the question.
It’s powerful because it’s a very fun way to start the conversation, and engages women right away. Plus, it’s great to use when you’re talking to groups of women.
There you have it – you now have 5 ways to start a conversation with any women and in any environment.
You no longer have an excuse to not
approach and start conversations with women you desire.
Now, it’s time to put this knowledge into action.
Action Tip: Pick at least one of these conversation starters and use it THIS week.
Many scientists believe that it is the gesture that allowed humans to become more social beings. Gestures do much more
Crossed arms can make a person appear defensive.
When you see this signal in any situation in which you’re trying to persuade someone, you have some work to do. Closed arms scream, “I’m defensive and closed to what you are.” Folded arms, even when done innocuously, are perceived as a negative stance, and subconsciously, your conversant will presume you are not open to what is being said or that you may even be borderline hostile. Be careful not to do this in a work setting, as it can instantly peg you as closed-minded.
What to watch for: When you use it to bond. For women, crossed arms can be an incredibly warm and comfortable posture, especially if they are doing it to camouflage big breasts—or even tiny breasts. It’s a natural, instinctive way for women to self-nurture and, when done in
groups, can even serve as a bonding mechanism. If you were to come to my block, you’d see five moms standing on the sidewalk, all of us with our arms crossed. Objectively, you might think that means five closed minds, but because we are mirroring each other, we are actually holding rapport with this supposedly hostile gesture. Of course, this gesture is also used to keep our body heat in and warm us up—always remember to look at the context.
What you should work on: Loosening up, both yourself and the other person. If you see a person with their arms crossed during a talk or a presentation, make eye contact with that person for a few extra seconds, making sure he knows you are focusing on him. Often, I will ask that person to participate in a part of the seminar. For example, who will I ask to demonstrate the proper handshake? The person who has his arms folded. This affords me the opportunity to make this person feel special as well as force him to open his body language. If you’re in a one-on-one setting, hand something—a pen, a piece of paper—to the person with crossed arms and say, “Hey, did you see this? Can you take a quick look at this for me?” As he reaches for the paper, instead of just handing it over, hold on to it for a beat longer than usual, so you create a break in his body language. Anything you can do to open up a person’s body movements will help cue that person’s brain to open up as well.