Remember today, for it is the beginning.
Today marks the start of a brave new future.
Start spending time with the right people. – These are the people you enjoy, who love and appreciate you, and who encourage you to improve in healthy and exciting ways. They are the ones who make you feel more alive, and not only embrace who you are now, but also embrace and embody who you want to be, unconditionally.
Start facing your problems head on. – It isn’t your problems that define you, but how you react to them and recover from them. Problems will not disappear unless you take action. Do what you can, when you can, and acknowledge what you’ve done. It’s all about taking baby steps in the right direction, inch by inch. These inches count, they add up to yards and miles in the long run.
Start being honest with yourself about everything. – Be honest about what’s right, as well as what needs to be changed. Be honest about what you want to achieve and who you want to become. Be honest with every aspect of your life, always. Because you are the one person you can forever count on. Search your soul, for the truth, so that you truly know who you are. Once you do, you’ll have a better understanding of where you are now and how you got here, and you’ll be better equipped to identify where you want to go and how to get there.
Start making your own happiness a priority. – Your needs matter. If you don’t value yourself, look out for yourself, and stick up for yourself, you’re sabotaging yourself. Remember, it IS possible to take care of your own needs while simultaneously caring for those around you. And once your needs are met, you will likely be far more capable of helping those who need you most. (Angel and I discuss this in detail in the “Self-Love” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
Start being yourself, genuinely and proudly. – Trying to be anyone else is a waste of the person you are. Be yourself. Embrace that individual inside you that has ideas, strengths and beauty like no one else. Be the person you know yourself to be – the best version of you – on your terms. Above all, be true to YOU, and if you cannot put your heart in it, take yourself out of it.
Start noticing and living in the present. – Right now is a miracle. Right now is the only moment guaranteed to you. Right now is life. So stop thinking about how great things will be in the future. Stop dwelling on what did or didn’t happen in the past. Learn to be in the ‘here and now’ and experience life as it’s happening. Appreciate the world for the beauty that it holds, right now.
Start valuing the lessons your mistakes teach you. – Mistakes are okay; they’re the stepping stones of progress. If you’re not failing from time to time, you’re not trying hard enough and you’re not learning. Take risks, stumble, fall, and then get up and try again. Appreciate that you are pushing yourself, learning, growing and improving. Significant achievements are almost invariably realized at the end of a long road of failures. One of the ‘mistakes’ you fear might just be the link to your greatest achievement yet.
Start being more polite to yourself. – If you had a friend who spoke to you in the same way that you sometimes speak to yourself, how long would you allow that person to be your friend? The way you treat yourself sets the standard for others. You must love who you are or no one else will.
Start enjoying the things you already have. – The problem with many of us is that we think we’ll be happy when we reach a certain level in life – a level we see others operating at – your boss with her corner office, that friend of a friend who owns a mansion on the beach, etc. Unfortunately, it takes awhile before you get there, and when you get there you’ll likely have a new destination in mind. You’ll end up spending your whole life working toward something new without ever stopping to enjoy the things you have now. So take a quiet moment every morning when you first awake to appreciate where you are and what you already have.
Start creating your own happiness. – If you are waiting for someone else to make you happy, you’re missing out. Smile because you can. Choose happiness. Be the change you want to see in the world. Be happy with who you are now, and let your positivity inspire your journey into tomorrow. Happiness is often found when and where you decide to seek it. If you look for happiness within the opportunities you have, you will eventually find it. But if you constantly look for something else, unfortunately, you’ll find that too. (ReadStumbling on Happiness.)
Start giving your ideas and dreams a chance. – In life, it’s rarely about getting a chance; it’s about taking a chance. You’ll never be 100% sure it will work, but you can always be 100% sure doing nothing won’t work. Most of the time you just have to go for it! And no matter how it turns out, it always ends up just the way it should be. Either you succeed or you learn something. Win-Win.
Start believing that you’re ready for the next step. – You are ready! Think about it. You have everything you need right now to take the next small, realistic step forward. So embrace the opportunities that come your way, and accept the challenges – they’re gifts that will help you to grow.
Start entering new relationships for the right reasons. – Enter new relationships with dependable, honest people who reflect the person you are and the person you want to be. Choose friends you are proud to know, people you admire, who show you love and respect – people who reciprocate your kindness and commitment. And pay attention to what people do, because a person’s actions are much more important than their words or how others represent them.
Start giving new people you meet a chance. – It sounds harsh, but you cannot keep every friend you’ve ever made. People and priorities change. As some relationships fade others will grow. Appreciate the possibility of new relationships as you naturally let go of old ones that no longer work. Trust your judgment. Embrace new relationships, knowing that you are entering into unfamiliar territory. Be ready to learn, be ready for a challenge, and be ready to meet someone that might just change your life forever.
Start competing against an earlier version of yourself. – Be inspired by others, appreciate others, learn from others, but know that competing against them is a waste of time. You are in competition with one person and one person only – yourself. You are competing to be the best you can be. Aim to break your own personal records. (Read The Road Less Traveled.)
Start cheering for other people’s victories. – Start noticing what you like about others and tell them. Having an appreciation for how amazing the people around you are leads to good places – productive, fulfilling, peaceful places. So be happy for those who are making progress. Cheer for their victories. Be thankful for their blessings, openly. What goes around comes around, and sooner or later the people you’re cheering for will start cheering for you.
Start looking for the silver lining in tough situations. – When things are hard, and you feel down, take a few deep breaths and look for the silver lining – the small glimmers of hope. Remind yourself that you can and will grow stronger from these hard times. And remain conscious of your blessings and victories – all the things in your life that are right. Focus on what you have, not on what you haven’t.
Start forgiving yourself and others. – We’ve all been hurt by our own decisions and by others. And while the pain of these experiences is normal, sometimes it lingers for too long. We relive the pain over and over and have a hard time letting go. Forgiveness is the remedy. It doesn’t mean you’re erasing the past, or forgetting what happened. It means you’re letting go of the resentment and pain, and instead choosing to learn from the incident and move on with your life.
Start helping those around you. – Care about people. Guide them if you know a better way. The more you help others, the more they will want to help you. Love and kindness begets love and kindness. And so on and so forth.
Start listening to your own inner voice. – If it helps, discuss your ideas with those closest to you, but give yourself enough room to follow your own intuition. Be true to yourself. Say what you need to say. Do what you know in your heart is right.
Start being attentive to your stress level and take short breaks. – Slow down. Breathe. Give yourself permission to pause, regroup and move forward with clarity and purpose. When you’re at your busiest, a brief recess can rejuvenate your mind and increase your productivity. These short breaks will help you regain your sanity and reflect on your recent actions so you can be sure they’re in line with your goals.
Start noticing the beauty of small moments. – Instead of waiting for the big things to happen – marriage, kids, big promotion, winning the lottery – find happiness in the small things that happen every day. Little things like having a quiet cup of coffee in the early morning, or the delicious taste and smell of a homemade meal, or the pleasure of sharing something you enjoy with someone else, or holding hands with your partner. Noticing these small pleasures on a daily basis makes a big difference in the quality of your life.
Start accepting things when they are less than perfect. – Remember, ‘perfect’ is the enemy of ‘good.’ One of the biggest challenges for people who want to improve themselves and improve the world is learning to accept things as they are. Sometimes it’s better to accept and appreciate the world as it is, and people as they are, rather than to trying to make everything and everyone conform to an impossible ideal. No, you shouldn’t accept a life of mediocrity, but learn to love and value things when they are less than perfect.
Start working toward your goals every single day. – Remember, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Whatever it is you dream about, start taking small, logical steps every day to make it happen. Get out there and DO something! The harder you work the luckier you will become. While many of us decide at some point during the course of our lives that we want to answer our calling, only an astute few of us actually work on it. By ‘working on it,’ I mean consistently devoting oneself to the end result. (Read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.)
Start being more open about how you feel. – If you’re hurting, give yourself the necessary space and time to hurt, but be open about it. Talk to those closest to you. Tell them the truth about how you feel. Let them listen. The simple act of getting things off your chest and into the open is your first step toward feeling good again.
Start taking full accountability for your own life. – Own your choices and mistakes, and be willing to take the necessary steps to improve upon them. Either you take accountability for your life or someone else will. And when they do, you’ll become a slave to their ideas and dreams instead of a pioneer of your own. You are the only one who can directly control the outcome of your life. And no, it won’t always be easy. Every person has a stack of obstacles in front of them. But you must take accountability for your situation and overcome these obstacles. Choosing not to is choosing a lifetime of mere existence.
Start actively nurturing your most important relationships. – Bring real, honest joy into your life and the lives of those you love by simply telling them how much they mean to you on a regular basis. You can’t be everything to everyone, but you can be everything to a few people. Decide who these people are in your life and treat them like royalty. Remember, you don’t need a certain number of friends, just a number of friends you can be certain of.
Start concentrating on the things you can control. – You can’t change everything, but you can always change something. Wasting your time, talent and emotional energy on things that are beyond your control is a recipe for frustration, misery and stagnation. Invest your energy in the things you can control, and act on them now.
Start focusing on the possibility of positive outcomes. – The mind must believe it CAN do something before it is capable of actually doing it. The way to overcome negative thoughts and destructive emotions is to develop opposing, positive emotions that are stronger and more powerful. Listen to your self-talk and replace negative thoughts with positive ones. Regardless of how a situation seems, focus on what you DO WANT to happen, and then take the next positive step forward. No, you can’t control everything that happens to you, but you can control how you react to things. Everyone’s life has positive and negative aspects – whether or not you’re happy and successful in the long run depends greatly on which aspects you focus on. (Read The How of Happiness.)
Start noticing how wealthy you are right now. – Henry David Thoreau once said, “Wealth is the ability to fully experience life.” Even when times are tough, it’s always important to keep things in perspective. You didn’t go to sleep hungry last night. You didn’t go to sleep outside. You had a choice of what clothes to wear this morning. You hardly broke a sweat today. You didn’t spend a minute in fear. You have access to clean drinking water. You have access to medical care. You have access to the Internet. You can read. Some might say you are incredibly wealthy, so remember to be grateful for all the things you do have.
A heuristic is a “rule-of-thumb”, advice that helps an Artificial Intelligent program or human think and act more efficiently by directing thinking in an useful direction.
Some of these heuristics are age-old wisdom, bordering on cliche, but most are actually helpful.
If you want something done, do it yourself
Comment: Obviously true, and doing it is usually very good for your self esteem. A surprising amount of work can be done this way, and experts are not always necessary. However, there is a risk of becoming overworked if you try to do everything yourself – we all need other people after all.
Never procrastinate anything you can do right now
Comment: Very powerful. There are many things that can be fixed or solved with a minimum of effort, but are often pushed aside as unimportant. Unfortunately they won’t go away, and in time the feelings of guilt for not having done them will make you even less likely of fixing the problems.
When you have several things you could be doing and don’t know which to do: Just do any one of them!
Comments: If you cannot decide between two or more possibilities, then there is a good chance that the differences don’t matter. However, most people begin to hesitate in this kind of situation (Fredkin’s paradox). If you are conscious of this, you can just choose one choice randomly or according to some standard method.
Always assume that you will succeed
Comments: If you don’t expect to succeed in an endeavor, then you will not do your best and will not notice possible solutions, while if you feel that you will eventually succeed you will concentrate all your power at the problem. Of course, there is no point in attempting what you cannot do, a certain amount of self-knowledge is always needed.
If you can’t find a solution, change the rules.
Comment: Remember that there are no no-win scenarios.
If you cannot do anything about something, there is no point in worrying about it.
Comment: Worrying is stressful, and in most situations doesn’t accomplish anything – it just wastes energy. Instead of worrying about things, either do something about them or find ways around the problem. One useful idea is to write down your worries on slips of paper, and then put them away in a box. Regularly, once a week or so, you open the box and see what you can do about the worries that are still relevant.
Do not rely on conscious decisions for speed – Just Do It
Comments: The conscious mind is surprisingly slow, conscious choices and actions are delayed for a significant time (a reflex acts within some tens of milliseconds, an unconscious reaction to external stimuli circa 100 milliseconds and a conscious choice several seconds). The duty of the conscious mind is usually to inhibit rather than start action, and if you become too conscious of what you are doing in a tense situation you will hesitate or slow down.
It is a good idea to learn to rely on your non-conscious mind, since our conscious mind is slow and has very low bandwidth while the other systems in our brains have a tremendous capacity and actually do most of the real work anyway.
Don’t try to explain away your actions for yourself
Comment: While we often do things we do not want to explain our real motivations for before other people (out of fear of embarrassment, anger or loss of image), it is a bad idea to try to convince oneself that the motivation was anything different from what it was. It will only reduce your self-knowledge with deliberate misinformation, and it is often valuable to understand what motivations you have (even if you dislike them or would never admit them in public).
Listen to your intuition, but do not believe it unconditionally
Comments: Intuitive or emotional thinking, analogies, “gut feelings” or “flashes of inspiration” can sometimes give fantastic new insights or show problems from a new direction. Unfortunately such thinking isn’t always reliable, and quite often completely wrong! Such insights should never be accepted because you admire their beauty or they are intuitive, only because they fit with reality.
When we were young life was easier, right? I know sometimes it seems that way. But the truth is life still is easy. It always will be. The only difference is we’re older, and the older we get, the more we complicate things for ourselves.
You see, when we were young we saw the world through simple, hopeful eyes. We knew what we wanted and we had no biases or concealed agendas. We liked people who smiled. We avoided people who frowned. We ate when we were hungry, drank when we were thirsty, and slept when we were tired.
As we grew older our minds became gradually disillusioned by negative external influences. At some point we began to hesitate and question our instincts. When a new obstacle or growing pain arose, we stumbled and fell down. This happened several times. Eventually we decided we didn’t want to fall again, but rather than solving the problem that caused us to fall, we avoided it all together.
As a result, we ate comfort food and drank alcohol to numb our wounds and fill our voids. We worked late nights on purpose to avoid unresolved conflicts at home. We started holding grudges, playing mind games, and subtly deceiving others and ourselves to get ahead. And when it didn’t work out, we lived above our means, bought things we didn’t need, and ate and drank some more just to make ourselves feel better again.
Over the course of time, we made our lives more and more difficult, and we started losing touch with who we really are and what we really need.
So let’s get back to the basics, shall we? Let’s make things simple again. It’s easy. Here are 60 ways to do just that:
Life is not complex. We are complex. Life is simple,
and the simple thing is the right thing.
– Oscar Wilde
Don’t try to read other people’s minds. Don’t make other people try to read yours. Communicate.
Be polite, but don’t try to be friends with everyone around you. Instead, spend time nurturing your relationships with the people who matter most to you.
Your health is your life, keep up with it. Get an annual physical check-up.
Live below your means. Don’t buy stuff you don’t need. Always sleep on big purchases. Create a budget and savings plan and stick to both of them.
Get enough sleep every night. An exhausted mind is rarely productive.
Get up 30 minutes earlier so you don’t have to rush around like a mad man. That 30 minutes will help you avoid speeding tickets, tardiness, and other unnecessary headaches.
Get off your high horse, talk it out, shake hands or hug, and move on.
Don’t waste your time on jealously. The only person you’re competing against is yourself.
Surround yourself with people who fill your gaps. Let them do the stuff they’re better at so you can do the stuff you’re better at.
Organize your living space and working space. Read David Allen’s book Getting Things Done for some practical organizational guidance.
Get rid of stuff you don’t use.
Ask someone if you aren’t sure.
Spend a little time now learning a time-saving trick or shortcut that you can use over and over again in the future.
Don’t try to please everyone. Just do what you know is right.
Don’t drink alcohol or consume recreational drugs when you’re mad or sad. Take a jog instead.
Be sure to pay your bills on time.
Fill up your gas tank on the way home, not in the morning when you’re in a hurry.
Use technology to automate tasks.
Handle important two-minute tasks immediately.
Relocate closer to your place of employment.
Always be honest with yourself and others.
Say “I love you” to your loved ones as often as possible.
Single-task. Do one thing at a time and give it all you got.
Finish one project before you start another.
When traveling, pack light. Don’t bring it unless you absolutely must.
Clean up after yourself. Don’t put it off until later.
Learn to cook, and cook.
Make a weekly (healthy) menu, and shop for only the items you need.
Consider buying and cooking food in bulk. If you make a large portion of something on Sunday, you can eat leftovers several times during the week without spending more time cooking.
Stay out of other people’s drama. And don’t needlessly create your own.
Buy things with cash.
Maintain your car, home, and other personal belongings you rely on.
Smile often, even to complete strangers.
If you hate doing it, stop it.
Treat everyone with the same level of respect you would give to your grandfather and the same level of patience you would have with your baby brother.
Apologize when you should.
Write things down.
Be curious. Don’t be scared to learn something new.
Explore new ideas and opportunities often.
Don’t be shy. Network with people. Meet new people.
Don’t worry too much about what other people think about you.
Spend time with nice people who are smart, driven, and likeminded.
Don’t text and drive. Don’t drink and drive.
Drink water when you’re thirsty.
Don’t eat when you’re bored. Eat when you’re hungry.
Exercise every day. Simply take a long, relaxing walk or commit 30 minutes to an at-home exercise program like theP90X workout.
Let go of things you can’t change. Concentrate on things you can.
Find hard work you actually enjoy doing.
Realize that the harder you work, the luckier you will become.
Follow your heart. Don’t waste your life fulfilling someone else’s dreams and desires.
Set priorities for yourself and act accordingly.
Take it slow and add up all your small victories.
However good or bad a situation is now, it will change. Accept this simple fact.
Excel at what you do. Otherwise you’ll just frustrate yourself.
Mature, but don’t grow up too fast.
Realize that you’re never quite as right as you think you are.
Build something or do something that makes you proud.
Make mistakes, learn from them, laugh about them, and move along.
1. Dwelling on one person too much. People change and they always disappoint. Never put anyone on a pedestal.
2. Not taking better care of your teeth. A little bit of maintenance every day prevents a ton of maintenance down the road.
3. Not wearing sunscreen. You don’t want to look like a worn leather bag when you are older.
4. Drinking and driving. It’s a stupid and selfish decision that will cost you and others.
5. Not apologizing. Arguments happen, but don’t let them ruin lifelong friendships.
6. Charging that big purchase to your credit card. You tell yourself you can pay it off in three months, but then another purchase happens, and then another. Then your car suddenly has engine trouble. Suddenly, you are in so much debt you don’t know what to do.
7. Smoking that first cigarette. Once you start, you cannot stop until it is too late.
8. Not taking a chance. Ask that girl out. Apply for that job you think you are underqualified for.
9. Forcing a long distance relationship. You could be spending a lot of time waiting for someone who is ready to move on.
10. Rushing marriage. You’re young, everything is fun, and marriage seems like the next logical step. Take a step back and wait. Marriage will always be an option, and divorce is a process you don’t want to experience.
Intelligence is flexible and there are a lot of things to give it a daily boost. For smart thinking your mind needs 3 things:
To be trained in thinking processes
To have plenty of information
To focus on a problem or idea
For example, Thomas Edison was able to think of his light bulb because:
He was a trained logical thinker
He knew a lot about electrical engineering
He focused on solving a problem
Here are a bunch of things to do every day to help your mind to think smart.
1. Drink 2 glasses of water within 30 minutes of waking up
Since you’ve been asleep for hours, your body has not gotten water for 6-9 hours. Water is needed for the filtration of waste products and fluid balance. Two big glasses of water offset the fluid deficit you had from sleeping. Studies on kids (study 1, study 2) show that drinking more water increases their ability to complete mental tasks. Make sure your brain is not dehydrated at the beginning of the day already.
2. Read a book summary during breakfast
Reading books is great, but breakfast is far more suitable for something shorter. Instead of reading news articles that have little impact on your life/intelligence, read best selling book summaries. You can find summaries by:
Googling your book title + summary, for example “7 Habits of Highly Effective People summary”
Use a summary subscription like Blinkist or getAbstract
3. Listen to stimulating podcasts/audiobooks during your commute
Even if you spend only 10 minutes on your bike like I do, load your phone up with intellectually stimulating audio. Good sources could be:
TED talks (their app lets you pre-download audio so you don’t eat your mobile data)
Blinkist has some of their summaries in audio form
Audiobooks you purchased
Podcast of your favorite authors
4. Drink green tea while working
Where caffeine makes many people anxious, green tea (especially Matcha tea) contains l-theanine. This aminoacid causes an increase in alpha brain waves in the brain:In practice this means that where coffee can induce anxiety, high quality green teas cause a relaxed focus without inducing sleepiness. This is also why l-theanine is available as a supplement to aid in relaxation and increasing cardiovascular health.
5. Take naps during the day
Napping helps your mind refresh. It’s been shown that napping during learning increases learning speed. Your mind has a rhythm that determines when it gets sleepy and when it needs sleep:As you can see on average people feel more sleepy than usual between noon and 4 PM. This is a perfect time to have a nap, and will increase your alertness and productivity for the rest of the day. Personally I’ve has good results with post-workday naps too (around 6 PM).
6. Don’t take sugar during the day
In fact, if you can cut it altogether. But if you can’t for whatever reason, just make sure not to have it during times where you need to focus. Sugar highs and the following lows are not good to keep your brain functioning smartly. What does work very well are fatty acids. Try to switch any sweet stuff during lunch for something more substantial like fish or eggs.
7. Do social media / meme websites only a couple of times a day
The brain adapts to the information you throw at it. If you bombard it work non-stimulating and fast switching information your focus will get destroyed. Keep your brain functioning on a higher level by throwing stimulating things at it. If you feel the need to procrastinate, set a timer and don’t get lost in mindlessly scrolling.
8. Play games instead of watching series or movies
Watching tv is a passive activity. Your brain is consuming information, but not processing or interacting with it. Substitute or supplement this entertainment with gaming. A 2014 study showed that even a simple game like Super Mario has visible impact on brain plasticity (flexibility). Another piece of research covered by Forbes shows the same. Actively engage your brain where you can, instead of letting it slumber passively.
9. Read a book instead of watching tv
Similar to playing games instead of watching tv, reading a book is an active exercise for the brain. Where watching video entertainment is a passive consumption of information, reading a book requires your brain to actively construct mental images of what you are reading.
10. Do some programming
Programming is a great way to learn to think logically and in patterns. Coding used to be hard to learn but with free websites like Codeacademy and free/paid platforms like Udemy it is easy and fun to learn. Consider it the next level of puzzles. As an added advantage learning to code in your free time increases your employability in the job market.
11. Watch TED talks while cooking
Preparing dinner is a great time to catch up on some cutting edge developments in Technology, Education and Design (ted.com). It turns what would otherwise be downtime into a fascinating and stimulating block of time. It’s like watching the news, only you are watching the world’s most inspiring individuals talk about their work.
12. Do some simple exercises during the day
The body and the mind are strongly connected. Physical fitness helps the brain function well. You don’t however have to go to the gym every day to benefit from this (though you can of course). Doing some push-ups throughout the day and walking or skipping up some stairs has a great impact already. Try to do something physical every hour or so, even if it’s just getting up, stretching a little and tensing all your muscles as hard as you can for 5-10 seconds.
13. Spend time with someone smarter than you
Habits are socially contagious. It is a well known fact in science that obesity for example spreads through social networks (link to research). The habits and thinking patterns of those you spend time with rub off on you. Expose yourself to people who are smarter than you in order to benefit from them.
14. Talk to people who disagree with you
Get into (friendly) discussions with people who disagree with you on any topic. Arguing with them allows you to either:
Sharpen your arguments
Be convinced that you are wrong
In both cases you win. In the first you convince the other person by out reasoning them, and I the second false logic you previously had is not eliminated.
15. Go for a walk in nature
Walking through nature has a number of benefits:
There is more oxygen since plants produce it
The human mind calms down when surrounded by plants
Walking helps your blood circulation
Having a walk in a park at lunch time can greatly help you work smartly for the rest of the day.
16. Carry a notepad
Great minds like Leonardo Da Vinci always carries a notepad. They used it to jot down ideas, sketches and questions they had for later review. Having a little book on you and writing down interesting things can greatly help you train your curiosity and logical thinking.
17. Take 10 minutes at the end of the day to plan tomorrow
By planning tomorrow the day before you begin the day with a plan. This allows you to work much more productively. Many people are busy all day, but not actually productive. A great part of being smart is knowing that hard work is inferior to smart work. Pick your battles in advance.
There’s this great line by Ani Tenzin Palmo, an English woman who spent 12 years in a cave in Tibet: “We do not know what a thought is, yet we’re thinking them all the time.”
It’s true. The amount of knowledge we have about the brain has doubled in the last 20 years. Yet there’s still a lot we don’t know.
In recent years, though, we have started to better understand the neural bases of states like happiness, gratitude, resilience, love, compassion, and so forth. And better understanding them means we can skillfully stimulate the neural substrates of those states—which, in turn, means we can strengthen them. Because as the famous saying by the Canadian scientist Donald Hebb goes, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
Ultimately, what this can mean is that with proper practice, we can increasingly trick our neural machinery to cultivate positive states of mind.
But in order to understand how, you need to understand three important facts about the brain.
Fact one: As the brain changes, the mind changes, for better or worse.
For example, more activation in the left prefrontal cortex is associated with more positive emotions. So as there is greater activation in the left, front portion of your brain relative to the right, there is also greater well-being. That’s probably in large part because the left prefrontal cortex is a major part of the brain for controlling negative emotion. So if you put the breaks on the negative, you get more of the positive.
On the other hand, people who routinely experience chronic stress—particularly acute, even traumatic stress—release the hormone cortisol, which literally eats away, almost like an acid bath, at the hippocampus, which is a part of the brain that’s very engaged in visual-spatial memory as well as memory for context and setting.
For example, adults who have had that history of stress and have lost up to 25 percent of the volume of this critically important part of the brain are less able to form new memories.
So we can see that as the brain changes, the mind changes. And that takes us to the second fact, which is where things really start getting interesting.
Fact two: As the mind changes, the brain changes.
These changes happen in temporary and in lasting ways. In terms of temporary changes, the flow of different neurochemicals in the brain will vary at different times. For instance, when people consciously practice gratitude, they are likely getting higher flows of reward-related neurotransmitters, like dopamine. Research suggests that when people practice gratitude, they experience a general alerting and brightening of the mind, and that’s probably correlated with more of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine.
Here’s another example of how changes in mental activity can produce changes in neural activity: When college students deeply in love are shown a picture of their sweetheart, their brains become more active in the caudate nucleus, a reward center of the brain. As the mind changes—that rush of love, that deep feeling of happiness and reward—correlates with activation of a particular part of the brain. When they stop looking at that picture of their sweetheart, the reward center goes back to sleep.
Now the mind also can change the brain in lasting ways. In other words, what flows through the mind sculpts the brain. I define the mind as the flow of immaterial information through the nervous system—all the signals being sent, most of which are happening forever outside of consciousness. As the mind flows through the brain, as neurons fire together in particularly patterned ways based on the information they are representing, those patterns of neural activity change neural structure.
So busy regions of the brain start stitching new connections with each other. Existing synapses—the connections between neurons that are very busy—get stronger, they get more sensitive, they start building out more receptors. New synapses form as well.
One of my favorite studies of this involved taxi cab drivers in London. To get a taxi license there, you’ve got to memorize the spaghetti-like streets of London. Well, at the end of the drivers’ training, the hippocampus of their brain—a part very involved in visual-spatial memory—is measurably thicker. In other words, neurons that fire together wire together, even to the point of being observably thicker.
This has also been found among meditators: People who maintain some kind of regular meditative practice actually have measurably thicker brains in certain key regions. One of those regions is the insula, which is involved in what’s called “interoception”—tuning into the state of your body, as well as your deep feelings. This should be no surprise: A lot of what they’re doing is practicing mindfulness of breathing, staying really present with what’s going on inside themselves; no wonder they’re using, and therefore building, the insula.
Another region is the frontal regions of the prefrontal cortex—areas involved in controlling attention. Again, this should be no surprise: They’re focusing their attention in their meditation, so they’re getting more control over it, and they’re strengthening its neural basis.
What’s more, research has also shown that it’s possible to slow the loss of our brain cells. Normally, we lose about 10,000 brain cells a day. That may sound horrible, but we were born with 1.1 trillion. We also have several thousand born each day, mainly in the hippocampus, in what’s called neurogenesis. So losing 10,000 a day isn’t that big a deal, but the net bottom line is that a typical 80 year old will have lost about 4 percent of his or her brain mass—it’s called “cortical thinning with aging.” It’s a normal process.
But in one study, researchers compared meditators and non-meditators. In the graph to the left, the meditators are the blue circles and the non-meditators are the red squares, comparing people of the same age. The non-meditators experienced normal cortical thinning in those two brain regions I mentioned above, along with a third, the somatosensory cortex.
However, the people who routinely meditated and “worked” their brain did not experience cortical thinning in those regions.
That has a big implication for an aging population: Use it or lose it, which applies to the brain as well as to other aspects of life.
That highlights an important point that I think is a major takeaway in this territory: Experience really matters. It doesn’t matter only in our moment-to-moment well-being—how it feels to be me—but it really matters in the lasting residues that it leaves behind, woven into our very being.
Which takes us to the third fact, which is the one with the most practical import.
Fact three: You can use the mind to change the brain to change the mind for the better.
This is known as “self-directed neuroplasticity.” Neuroplasticity refers to the malleable nature of the brain, and it’s constant, ongoing. Self-directed neuroplasticity means doing it with clarity and skillfulness and intention.
The key to it is a controlled use of attention. Attention is like a spotlight, to be sure, shining on things within our awareness. But it’s also like vacuum cleaner, sucking whatever it rests upon into the brain, for better or worse.
For example, if we rest our attention routinely on what we resent or regret—our hassles, our lousy roommate, what Jean-Paul Sartre called “hell” (other people)—then we’re going to build out the neural substrates of those thoughts and feelings.
On the other hand, if we rest our attention on the things for which we’re grateful, the blessings in our life—the wholesome qualities in ourselves and the world around us; the things we get done, most of which are fairly small yet they’re accomplishments nonetheless—then we build up very different neural substrates.
I think that’s why, more than 100 years ago, before there were things like MRIs, William James. the father of psychology in America, said. “The education of attention would be an education par excellence.”
The problem, of course, is that most people don’t have very good control over their attention. Part of this is due to human nature, shaped by evolution: Our forbearers who just focused on the reflection of sunlight in the water—they got chomped by predators. But those who were constantly vigilant—they lived.
And today we are constantly bombarded with stimuli that the brain has not evolved to handle. So gaining more control over attention one way or another is really crucial, whether it’s through the practice of mindfulness, for instance, or through gratitude practices, where we count our blessings. Those are great ways to gain control over your attention because there you are, for 30 seconds or 30 minutes, coming back to focus on an object of awareness.
Taking in the good
This brings me to one of my favorite methods for deliberately using the mind to change the brain over time for the better: taking in the good.
Just having positive experiences is not enough to promote last well-being. If a person feels grateful for a few seconds, that’s nice. That’s better than feeling resentful or bitter for a few seconds. But in order to really suck that experience into the brain, we need to stay with those experiences for a longer duration of time—we need to take steps, consciously, to keep that spotlight of attention on the positive.
So, how do we actually do this? These are the three steps I recommend for taking in the good. I should note that I did not invent these steps. They are embedded in many good therapies and life practices. But I’ve tried to tease them apart and embed them in an evolutionary understanding of how the brain works.
1. Let a good fact become a good experience. Often we go through life and some good thing happens—a little thing, like we checked off an item on our To Do list, we survived another day at work, the flowers are blooming, and so forth. Hey, this is an opportunity to feel good. Don’t leave money lying on the table: Recognize that this is an opportunity to let yourself truly feel good.
2. Really savor this positive experience. Practice what any school teacher knows: If you want to help people learn something, make it as intense as possible—in this case, as felt in the body as possible—for as long as possible.
3. Finally, as you sink into this experience, sense your intent that this experience is sinking into you. Sometimes people do this through visualization, like by perceiving a golden light coming into themselves or a soothing balm inside themselves. You might imagine a jewel going into the treasure chest in your heart—or just know that this experience is sinking into you, becoming a resource you can take with you wherever you go.
Luckily, there is a scientifically proven way to do itthat gives you the best chance of success.
Anyone who is trying to change their behavior without understanding this science needs to stop, now. Read up on the science. Learn to do it the more effective way.
Then, start again, with better strategies, and create the life you’ve always wanted.
Here’s the other thing you should know: behavior change is hard. Hard like algebra. You will work on it for “a while” before you get to that dream-life. What is “a while”? Years.
But that’s okay. The secret of self-development is that everybody has to work hard and put in a lot of work, if they want to achieve something great.
It just so happens that here at Fierce Gentleman we believe that every man is destined for greatness.
So, below we give you the keys to greatness: 10 scientific keys you need to change anything in your life.
Of course, information alone does not lead to life change. (That’s one of the keys.)
But never before has so much high-quality, scientifically-validated information been available for free, to anyone, to get their path started:
10 Scientific Keys to Change Any Behavior
Willpower is weak. Environmental influences are much more important than willpower. (1,2)
Information does not lead to action. Emotions lead to action. (Tweet this) This one is harder to back up with scientific studies, but it has long been my personal experience….over 8 years of studying both my own behavior, and the behavior of others who I’m trying to help. Information allows us to know in which direction we can go, but ultimately, emotions motivate us to take action. See also (2)
The Internet destroys your ability to focus. Unless you’re reading higher-level long-form articles, like this one. Read the book The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.
Facebook makes you unhappy. Delete your account (unless you’re using it for business.) (3)
Today’s processed foods are engineered to flood the reward centers of your brain, and potentially trigger food addictions that will wreck your health and wellbeing.Eat vegetables instead. (4,5)
Exercise makes your brain bigger. It also gives you more self-control, lifts depression, and stamps out anxiety. (6)
Meditation makes your brain bigger. It also gives you more self-control, lifts depression, and stamps out anxiety. (7)
Give up alcohol. The breakdown of alcohol in your body creates toxins that the body has to remove. It is also extra calories that will contribute to extra fat storage. The additional toxic load can make you sick. And drinking and driving or just being out around other drunk drivers can kill you. Give up alcohol. (1o)
Take time off work. Overwork drains your willpower and makes you stressed and sick. (Personal experience, common sense.)
Maximize neurotransmitters oxytocin, GABA and serotonin. Minimize activities that have you “chasing the dopamine dragon.” Activities that stimulate dopamine: shopping, gambling, pornography, binge eating. Activities that stimulate serotonin, oxytocin & GABA: getting a massage, swing in a hammock, spending time with loved ones, meditating, praying, listening to music, reading. (See The Willpower Instinct.)
When it comes to job coaching, almost every conversation I have with a client involves the topic of communication. The motives can vary widely: Some people want to be more assertive, others need help with conflict management, and still others find it hard to speak their minds in a group setting.
As I reflect on all the conversations I have, I realize that most of the time, we’re not talking about complex ideas. It’s really the basics about workplace communication that seem to trip most people up.
So, since we could all use a good reminder, here are the top five things I help my clients with when it comes to communication. Identify the ones that you need to work on, and start moving them into your conversation skill set today.
1. Stop Saying “But” and Start Saying “And”
Do you ever catch yourself saying things like, “I love that idea, but we need to do it differently?”
Instead, use “and:” “I love that idea, and I think a slightly different approach would be most effective.”
Hear the difference?
In her book Bossypants, Tina Fey breaks down the rules of improv. One of those rules is to always say “yes, and….” This shows respect for what your partner has to say (even if you don’t agree), helps you keep an open mind about the act, and invites you to contribute to the conversation by building on the other person’s idea or adding your own ideas. Same goes for communicating at work.
2. Stick With the Facts
Often, I’ll hear someone make a statement that most likely isn’t rooted in fact—like, “She’s out to get me,” “My boss hates me,” or “I know she’s sorry she hired me.”
I always respond with a few questions: “Is that a fact? Did she tell you that, or are you drawing a conclusion based on observations?”
Communicating effectively is difficult enough; don’t add to it by making up stories that aren’t based in reality. Good communicators stay rooted in facts.
Remember that the facts of any issue could be quite different from your perception of it. Maybe the way you see a situation has to do with your unique work style, or simply that your boss is totally stressed out and taking it out on you. No matter what, unless you have the facts, it’s best to refrain from color commentary and focus on getting to the root of the issue.
3. Avoid “Position Defending”
When people cite communication issues in the workplace, it’s often less about communication and more about defending their position.
For example, let’s say that two co-workers, Megan and Jason, are discussing a project. Megan says, “This project is overwhelming the team; we need more help.” Jason says, “We’ll be able to handle it. Everyone will just have to put in some extra hours.”
Instead of having a meaningful dialogue about what defines each of their observations, Megan gets frustrated because Jason “isn’t hearing her.” And Jason thinks Megan sounds like a broken record, going on about how overwhelmed she is.
That’s not communication. That’s position defending.
Great communicators, on the other hand, ask questions and strive to understand all sides of the issue—instead of constantly repeating their side of the story.
For example, Jason might say, “What parts of the project are overwhelming to you?” or, “Tell me more about what you’re seeing as the bottlenecks.”
Do you see how simply exploring others’ ideas can help you rise above your frustration and get you to higher ground?
In the iconic tome The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey espoused, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” We should all be willing to understand the other as much as we want our own point of view to be understood.
While you may think that silence is negative or uncomfortable, it serves conversation by allowing listeners time to process what’s been said and giving speakers time to organize their thoughts before responding—without feeling rushed.
So, the next time you’re in a dialogue and it deserves your full attention, find an opportunity to practice silence. Spend a few extra moments absorbing what’s been said and intentionally thinking through your response before you speak. Learn to value and leverage those moments of silence instead of fearing them—as a way to build a better dialogue.
5. Actively Engage the Other Point of View
When a U.S. college student recently returned from an internship with a major hotel chain in the U.K., I asked him what the most challenging part was.
The biggest challenge, he said, was communicating with his co-workers in a way in which they could truly understand him. To do that, he had to get a sense of where they came from, how well they spoke English, and their assigned job. And typically, that was different for each and every person.
What a great example of high performance communication!
For people to really hear you—and you to hear them—you need to understand that everyone carries filters, beliefs, assumptions, experiences, and cultural influences that shape their point of view. The most difficult part? You can’t physically see any of these things.
In short, just because you say something, it doesn’t mean that others hear you. Great communicators take time to understand where others are coming from, whether it’s influenced by cultural, professional, or personal factors. Once you understand those differences, you can communicate in a way that enhances your ability to be heard.
Great communicators may be born—but (er, and) they’re also made. Try using at least one of these strategies this week, and see how you can up your communication effectiveness. Your colleagues will notice, and you’ll find new confidence and level of satisfaction in your work.
We all know the uncomfortable feeling of anxiety. Our hearts race, our fingers sweat, and our breathing gets shallow and labored. We experience racing thoughts about a perceived threat that we think is too much to handle. That’s because our “fight or flight” response has kicked in, resulting in sympathetic arousal and a narrowing of attention and focus on avoiding the threat. We seem to be locked in that state, unable to focus on our daily chores or longer-term goals. As a Cognitive-Behavior Therapist with more than 15 years of experience, I have found a variety of techniques that I can teach my patients with anxiety disorders such as phobias, panic attacks, or chronic worry. Some are based on changing thoughts, others on changing behavior, and still others involve physiological responses. The more aspects of anxiety I can decrease, the lower the chance of relapse post-therapy. Below are six strategies that you can use to help your anxiety:
(1) Reevaluating the probability of the threatening event actually happening
Anxiety makes us feel threat is imminent yet most of the time what we worry about never happens. By recording our worries and how many came true, we can notice how much we overestimate the prospect of negative events.
Even if a bad event happened, we may still be able to handle it by using our coping skills and problem-solving abilities or by enlisting others to help. Although not pleasant, we could still survive encountering a spider, having a panic attack, or losing money. It’s important to realize that very few things are the end of the world.
(3) Using deep breathing and relaxation to calm down
By deliberately relaxing our muscles we begin to calm down so we can think clearly. If you practice this without a threat present at first, it can start to become automic and will be easier to use in the moment when you face a threat. Deep breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system to put the brakes on sympathetic arousal.
(4) Becoming mindful of our own physical and mental reactions
The skill of mindfulness involves calmly observing our own reactions, including fear, without panic or feeling compelled to act. It is something that can be taught in therapy and improves with practice.
(5) Accepting the Fear and Committing to Living a Life Based on Core Values
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an approach that encourages people to accept the inevitability of negative thoughts and feelings and not try to repress or control them. By directing attention away from the fear and back onto life tasks and valued goals, we can live a full life despite the fear.
Exposure is the most powerful technique for anxiety and it involves facing what we fear and staying in the situation long enough for the fear to habituate or go down, as it naturally does. Fear makes us avoid or run away, so our minds and bodies never learn that much of what we fear is not truly dangerous.