Stop procrastinating, Get Creative work done & use the Flow Loop

Drink coffee, duh.

How can we be more productive?
Simple: Drink coffee, take smart drugs, use the pomodoro technique, break your project down into smaller tasks, listen to classical music (specifically this song), remove distractions from your workplace, meditate, listen to isochronic tones, use transcranial stimulation, and just don’t procrastinate.

What about that last part?

You know how you’ll have everything laid out, your textbook is open, or you have those meeting notes you need to compile in front of you, or you have all your ideas and references for your paper ready… but you just for some reason can’t open up Microsoft Word? For me, I can feel the exact moment when the rational part of my brain is trying to push me to get started and I feel an actual physical pain- and I just can’t open the damn word processor. Then I’ll open up Netflix and let out a sigh of relief. That’s the thing you don’t want to do.

Maybe not everyone has that strong of an Instant Gratification Monkey (copyright – Tim Urban) ruling their brain, but I’m sure everyone has experienced some degree of this, and maybe wrestles with procrastination on a daily basis. So how can we get ourselves to get stuff done without waiting for the Panic Monster© to kick us into gear? Here’s what’s worked really well for me:

Do two pushups or squats and take a shower.

It’s more like “Do two pushups or squats when you are distracted, and take a shower when you are lacking creativity.” This has been really effective, so give me a moment to explain why it works. If we’ve learned anything from Simon Sinek, it’s that unless we know the “why” behind something, we probably won’t do it.

The combo
Ever since I can remember, I loved combos. Whether it be in Dance Dance Revolution or some fighting game, flappy bird or even a game like Zelda where you combine the use of multiple items to get through the quest- everyone has to love combos.

Those are all examples of combos within a realm of unproductivity, and in another article I talked about the unproductivity combo dealt upon you by the internet’s “hook”. This a concept from Nir Eyal’s book “Hooked“. Basically the hook is comprised of 4 parts: a trigger, behavior, reward and investment and it explains why it’s so difficult to peel yourself off of Twitter or Facebook or Imgur or Reddit once you’ve invested a little time into it.

This article is about the flip side of that coin: how to put yourself into a loop of enhanced productivity rather than just trying to keep yourself from being unproductive. The “combo” in this productivity hack productivity tip lies in the 5 ideas behind it (since when did everything become a “hack”?)

1) Use mindfulness to catch the monkey in your brain
The first step is not actually “do 2 pushups”, it’s to notice that you are becoming distracted. While it sounds simple and almost like a non-step, this first part is the most important, and it comes from something I picked up from Psychiatrist Judson Brewer. He gave a talk called “a simple way to break bad habits” where he talks about how you can use mindfulness to stop cravings that lead to bad habits. Judson described an incredibly successful experiment designed to help people abstain from cigarette smoking. People were instructed to simply be curious about their smoking cravings when they appeared. The point was to analyze and understand that craving. To not focus on “oh my god, I need a cigarette.” but to focus on “Oh I suppose I’m a little tired or irritated with my slow internet, so I am expecting a cigarette would release me from this uncomfortableness.” Just by taking a moment to really understand the craving, the participants had much more success with abstaining from smoking.

Like Vision said about that thing on his face: “I wish to understand it. The more I do, the less it controls me.

I gave this a shot and started trying to analyze what was going on in my head as I was becoming distracted. Usually it was something I could put my finger on: I was irritated with how slowly I was progressing in the project, or I couldn’t get my mind off of something someone said, or I just really wanted to watch an episode of the Simpsons. Taking notice of this craving to get distracted helped way more than I expected. It was enough to be able to say “That’s a stupid reason to stop working…” and the craving would pass. Unfortunately it doesn’t work all the time. Particularly when my willpower is low and my mindset switches to “who cares, I know why I have the craving, I just want to look at this video and I’m going to do it” This is where part 2 comes in.

2) Link a good habit to a bad one
Concept #2 comes from behavior master BJ Fogg. BJ describes in his TED talk how there are 2 very effective ways to create new positive habits: (a) Change your environment or (b) tack the habit you want to create onto an existing behavior. Since we don’t want to rent a hotel every time we want to make a new good habit, we’ll use the second option. BJ talks about how he was able to get in about a 100 pushups a day by simply pairing his new behavior – pushups, with a very commonly occurring behavior – going to the bathroom. So every time he gets up to pee, he’ll do two pushups right afterwards. You might say “Why not 10 at a time, he could end up doing 500 pushups per day” – the small number of pushups doesn’t have to do with fatigue, but the likelihood of him actually doing it. For example, if you’re trying to get yourself into the habit of running every day, you’re more likely to commit to it and and successfully make the habit- if your target is 200 meters every day rather than 5 kilometers. No matter how tired or demotivated you are, a jog up and down the street is do-able. You’ll probably end up actually doing more, maybe even 1km instead of 200 meters, but the point is that day by day you’re making the habit. You can do all sorts of things with this concept like get yourself to start flossing right after you brush your teeth. I chose to do squats or pushups when I notice I am distracted or attempting to procrastinate.

3) Why the pushups?
When I first started this, the idea was just “If I’m gonna slack off, I might as well make the habit of getting some exercise” but this ended up helping me in a way I didn’t expect- it was giving my brain a small enough boost to get me back to work.  Several studies have shown that exercise, particularly high intensity exercise increases BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), which stimulates the production of new neurons. BDNF is very important to learning, memory and higher thinking. I doubt 2 pushups is going to grow me another hippocampus, but it will increase blood flow, getting more energy and oxygen to the brain, making it perform a little bit better. Better performance means better willpower, which is usually enough to make me decide to keep working instead of looking at Reddit. If not, I might be able to get myself to do 5 or 10 more pushups to get a sufficient boost.

Another thing that might happen is my desire to procrastinate will be less than my desire to not have to get up and do pushups (of course this might take a couple rounds of pushups to actually be the case.) These two situations are usually enough to keep me on task. And even when it’s not, this small practice is reinforcing my ability to be mindful. So then I can catch myself on other things. If I find myself stuck looking at Facebook or whatever for too long, I can take a moment and think “Hey, maybe I shouldn’t continue doing this and actually get some work done” and if I don’t have the willpower to get to work, I do 2 pushups.

4) Take a break and let your subconscious do the work
If the task at hand only requires the will to do it, you can continue using the pushup technique. What if you have the procrastination in check but you’re doing something that requires creativity and you just can’t come up with a good idea? That’s where the shower comes in. Surely anyone has had the experience of being in a shower and having a good idea suddenly hit them out of nowhere. The fact that the subreddit /r/showerthoughts has 8.2 million subscribers shows how common that is. While of course it’s not always an option, if you are in an environment where you can take a break and hop in the shower- great. The warmth of the shower will cause you to release dopamine, and increased dopamine flow is linked to better creativity. However it doesn’t have to be a shower – you can replace it with taking a walk, sitting in a quiet place, gardening, painting or something “slow” like that. The key with the shower is not the warm water, or the act of washing, but the quiet isolation of the shower room.

My good friend says he always gets his best ideas when he’s sitting on the plane after phones have to be switched off. When Salvador Dali needed creative inspiration, he would hold keys in his hand as he relaxed on his sofa and when he dozed off, the keys would drop and wake him up. He would then quickly jot down whatever ideas he had in that moment. Thomas Edison did something similar with ball bearings and relaxing in his chair.Albert Einstein supposedly had one of his insights about the nature of light when he was rowing a boat in the middle of Lake Geneva. So what do these and being in the shower have in common? In all of these, you’re not really doing anything. Your mind is not focused on any particular task and probably not straining itself to consciously come up with ideas.

Engineering professor Barbara Oakley has a good explanation for what’s going on here. She says there are two modes for the brain to be in: a “focus mode” where you are focused on a particular task, and another state where you are relaxed called the “diffuse mode”. You can think of these states as your brain being two different types of pinball machines. The focus mode brain has many bumpers, so once the pinball takes off it’s easy for the ball to get stuck in a certain area. The diffuse mode brain has less bumpers, so the pinball bounces much farther around throughout the machine. Being consciously focused, you are actively trying to solve a problem using thinking patterns you are familiar with. However, when you are relaxed and not straining your brain to apply itself to a certain task, your subconscious can do work in the background and play with scenarios related to less commonly used thinking patterns.


In his book “Originals,” Adam Grant says that (the right kind of) procrastination is actually one of the traits of creative people who have original ideas. John Cleese has talked about the importance of “letting your ideas bake” and how a piece of writing he had completed, lost and then had to rewrite from memory was much better than the original. He said “I began to see a lot of my best work seemed to come as a result of my unconscious working on things when I wasn’t really attending to them.


5) The Flow State Loop
Steven Kotler wrote a book about the “flow state” called The Rise of Superman, a state he describes as an optimal state of consciousness where you feel totally absorbed in the task at hand and all aspects of performance, mental and physical, go through the roof. If you’ve ever had the experience of doing something challenging that you love and 4 hours went by and the only reason you realized was because you really had to go to the bathroom, you were probably in a flow state. If you’ve worked on a paper with only 3 hours left until the deadline and your typing speed doubled and you suddenly had superhuman ability to recall any and all of the information necessary for the paper, you were probably in the flow state.

Steven says that in order to wilfully put yourself in that state, you need to be aware of a 4 part cycle that starts with [1] working through a phase where you really have to work hard to the point that your brain is almost overloading itself and struggling to remain focused on a difficult task. The next step [2] is to go into a “release” phase where you take your mind off the problem. Steven says in an interview with Big Think:

what happens in flow is we are trading conscious processing which is slow, has very limited RAM, the working memory can only hold about 4 items at once and it is very energy inefficient, for subconscious processing. Which is extremely fast, it is very energy efficient and has pretty much endless RAM. So to do that, you have to move from struggle, you have to stop thinking about what you were trying to think about basically, take your mind off the problem. You go for long walks, gardening works very well, building models works very well.

The third part of the cycle [3] is being in the state of flow. After you’ve taken your mind off the problem, you come back to it and (if you’re really lucky) your brain will start to release a bunch of performance enhancing chemicals and you’ll begin to work incredibly effectively. The last part [4] is a recovery phase which is sort of like a hangover. The chemicals that enhance performance (norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin and endorphins) are also the feel good chemicals, so you go from this amazing “high” when the flow is kicking in to feeling pretty crappy once those chemicals are used up. So it’s also important to deal with that neurochemical hangover by getting the proper vitamins, minerals and some sunlight. Then you’ll want to get up the willpower to get back to step one of the cycle, the struggle phase, so you might need to do something like …a couple pushups perhaps.

Reinforcing the loop
The best thing about this process is that you can get better at each step. The more you practice mindfulness, the more you can be mindful of your cravings. Every time you anchor the squats or pushups to your distraction, it becomes more of a habit. After a while, the minimum number of pushups or squats you do goes from 2 to 5 or 10. Steven Kotler says you can even get better at identifying what specific routines can put you into flow to the point that you can start to consistently invoke it.

Of course pushing your brain to the point where it goes into overdrive performance isn’t all that easy right off the bat. This process I’ve described is set up to encourage flow, but it’s not a sure thing. For me, I notice I can get into a mini-flow if I’ve cycled between grinding really hard and getting my mind off the task a couple times in the span of 2 or 3 hours.

What’s really important is making sure you’re taking your mind off the task in the right way. Steven Kotler says that one of the only things that you can’t do during the release phase is to watch television, because it will actually change your brain waves in a way that blocks flow. It took me a while to notice that if I worked on something, then took a break by playing a game or watching Netflix, I didn’t get those creative ideas appearing in my head. This doesn’t mean you have to absolutely bar yourself from browsing the internet until you finish the entire project, you just need to set that type of break for after you’ve gotten some ideas from your subconscious mind.

This makes me wonder how many creative insights may have been denied by people being constantly stimulated by smart phones. Most of us can’t even cross the street without replying to a text or scrolling through the Twitter feed. I wonder if Einstein would have been able to have those insights about the nature of light if he had a smart phone to look at on his boat, rather than the clouds above.



Eating Once a Day: Questions

A bit more than a month back, I made a blog post called “Longevity & Why I Eat Once a Day” and posted a video version of that post on Youtube, which unexpectedly took off. It was awesome to see that so many people found the video interesting, and I had a lot of fun reading the questions and comments. I tried to answer what I could but obviously I can’t write a response for all 1700 comments. Since several questions were asked multiple times, I thought I’d take a minute to give some simple answers to some of those questions. I will be expanding this as more comments come in, or correcting some information if necessary.

Do you still do this?
Yes, but I’ve been playing around with it lately. I’ve been experimenting with eating once every other day not specifically to lose weight, but just to see if it’s do able. Also trying eating 2 days then not eating 2 days. It’s surprisingly not that big of a difference in terms of effort, and more surprisingly: hunger bothers me less and less than I would think.

How can you stand to be hungry all day? I don’t even want to live longer if I have to force myself to suffer all the time.
This is a very reasonable concern and it’s sort of hard to get the point across unless you’ve experienced it for yourself. The point being: It’s really not that bad. Sure, the first week I felt a bit hungrier than I would have liked and I even would go on reddit to gawk at the /r/food pictures when I wasn’t eating. But after the second week it didn’t bother me too much. By the third week hunger rarely crossed my mind and I would even go an hour or two past my usual eating time without noticing.
I think we have the ability to addict to nearly anything, so it’s very understanding that the idea of “giving up” food sounds so terrible. Some people even mentioned “How can hunger be good for us if it feels so bad, and eating feels so good?” Not to be extreme, but then shouldn’t heroine or cocaine be incredibly good for us? Trust me, you adapt to the hunger much faster than you’d expect. (Assuming you’re not eating a bunch of low fibre high carb junk)

Have you noticed any changes? In mood / energy / sleeping?
Energy levels are much higher and much more stable. Since I feel better, I’m generally in a more positive mood throughout the day. A big thing I noticed was needing less sleep. I used to have to sleep at the very least 8 hours to not feel like a fat labrador retriever in the morning, but now 6-7 hours tops is enough for me and I don’t need an alarm clock. 

Weight Loss? Do you workout? Can you maintain muscle mass on this?
Weight loss isn’t a goal for me but I’ve lost maybe 4 kilos of total weight since I’ve started this. After getting more serious about my workout (while continuing the one meal a day), my muscles have gotten bigger, more defined and I feel stronger.
I mainly do calisthenics-y exercises: pullups, handstands, L-sits, kettle bell swings, pushups, squats. Try to make sure to get a full body workout every other day and on the other day, I regularly do pushups and squats throughout the day to keep me focused after working at the computer so long. Sorry I don’t have any specific body fat stats or  squat / bench stats, but I can do more pullups/pushups & longer L-sits et cetera if that tells you anything. I’m not worried about losing muscle mass. Could I build muscle faster on more calories and more meals a day? Sure, probably.
A lot of people were pointing to the Nun Amen Ra video (eats once a day, bodybuilder) and he’s pretty jacked.

What do you eat? How many calories do you eat? What’s the macronutrient ratio?
I’m not much of a gif maker, but I gave making one a shot to show what I eat. It’s usually a variation of that- some berries, fruit and vegetables blended up + eggs, avocado and some meat or fish or maybe both. The total in that gif is probably around 1500 calories tops and lately I eat probably around 1200 calories. While I don’t know the specific ratio, you can kind of guess that it will be Fat > Protein > Carbohydrates. Fat, Fiber and Vitamins & Minerals are top priority for me. Protein comes second in priority, and poor carbohydrates get somewhat shunned.
(In the gif, it’s kind of confusing and I think I made it look like I ate a plate of veggies, a smoothie, a plate of eggs and meat and a second plate of eggs and meat. The plate of veggies is just what’s in the smoothie and the first plate is the same as the second plate, just unprepared.)

Low carb high fat? Enjoy your heart disease. (I have a video addressing this:)

What time do you eat? What’s your window for eating?
I used to eat right before bed because the food would get me real sleepy. I heard your digestive system works best around noon somewhere so I gave that a shot. Felt a lot more light in the morning when I ate at noon compared to eating at night so I stuck with it. I try to keep my window down to 1 hour. If you need a longer window than that to get down all the food you planned to eat, you’re probably eating too much (unless you have some athletic goals).

Do you drink anything during the fast?
Sure – I have plenty of water, maybe 2-3 cups of coffee a day and some ごぼう茶 (Gobou Tea) if I have any. The tea was recommended by Yoshinori Nagumo, the author of that book 空腹は人を健康にする (Hunger makes you healthy). I try not to go over 3 cups of coffee because I get sorta jittery. Coffee is an excellent hunger suppressor too. Go ahead and drink whatever teas you have, I’m sure they’re fine or maybe even better than the coffee. Too much caffeine may make you feel pretty crappy though.

Is the Japanese book you mentioned available in English?
Not yet, sorry. Available in Japanese and German only it seems

How can you say carbs aren’t necessary?
Because… they’re not necessary for survival. I wouldn’t recommend a zero carbohydrate diet or try to argue that it’s particularly healthy but… you’re not going to die and might not even have any particularly bad ailments if you don’t eat them (assuming you’re getting all your vitamins and minerals etc.)
Someone brought up fibre and it made me realize I should have at least made a sidenote about it. My explanation regarding how carbohydrates and glucose can really screw up your metabolic engine failed to mention fibre. Fibre is wonderful in mitigating that spike in blood sugar that results from high glycemic load foods like candy, bread, low fat snack bars etc.
So no, I am not suggesting carbohydrates from veggies and fruits will make you fat or that they are bad at all.

What do you think about a vegan diet?
If you’re doing it for moral or environmental reasons, that’s great – no debate there. Is it healthy? Sure (assuming you’re not eating junk and are supplementing properly). Is it the healthiest I’m not convinced that it is. Sure, veganism can keep you very healthy and I’m not surprised that a lot of vegan people look great. But you’re gonna have a tough time arguing why it is the best diet. I won’t get into it too much here, but it’s too restrictive: you’re cutting off access to some wonderfully nutrient dense foods. You also need to be careful with supplementation to make sure you’re getting everything the body needs to run really well. Among other points, one really big thing for me is getting enough DHA (fatty acid found in fish).
DHA is pretty huge for us, it’s widely understood as the key nutrient to our evolution as a species. It’s very important for the brain and it’s even more important for in utero babies. When pregnant mothers aren’t getting enough DHA, their babies are shown to have less cognitive ability and visual acuity compared to babies whose mothers that were getting enough. If you’re vegan make sure you’re supplementing with it (there are vegan grade supplements out there). If  your vegan sister/wife/cousin/coworker is pregnant, please encourage them to supplement DHA as well.

The X people of Y location eat like Z and frequently live to be 100! Athletes eat 6 times a day and are super ripped and look great! This has to be wrong.
This line of thinking sort of misses the point I was trying to communicate in the video. Think about it like this: There’s a beautiful woman on a remote island and suddenly a foreign looking man comes out of the forest and says “Hello there young lady! Surely you would like to spend the night with a master navigator like myself! I came here on a Kayak, the best method of travel. Obviously this method is best because as you can see, I am now here on the island.” then another man comes out of the forest and says “Wait just a moment, sir! She should spend her time with me, for it is I who is clearly the master navigator and used the best method- canoeing to get here! Obviously this is best because as you can see, I am here” Then a third guy busts in trying to sell her on how sailing is the best and the woman decides to leave.
The point is, there are many ways to be healthy. This is one of them. You can be very healthy on one diet while someone else is very healthy on another diet. If you have different goals or ideas of what is “healthy”, then it makes sense that you might want to lend yourself to a specific diet. Maybe you want to get jacked, or be a power lifter or a sprinter, then sure, you’ll want to have a different diet.
The point is – Methods for being healthy don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Sure the Okinawans ate a high carbohydrate low fat diet and lived to 100 – which isn’t the same as what I’m advocating in the video, but that doesn’t nullify the idea that this way of eating can be healthy or other ways of eating for that matter.
By the way, forget about the high carbohydrate intake: What about the Okinawan’s fibre intake? Or the fact that they’re eating so many awesome fermented foods that promote GI microbiome health? They’re also practicing calorie restriction: they have a phrase 腹八分 harahachibu, meaning “8/10th stomach” or “eat until you’re 80% full“. There’s so much more to health than just macronutrients.

What about gastrointestinal distress? Wouldn’t the stomach get too acidic?
If the question was whether the stomach would start to eat at itself without food to apply the stomach acid to, then I would say that’s not quite how the stomach works. The epithelial cells in your stomach will still secrete mucus and bicarbonate to protect itself from the acid even if there’s no food. Actually your stomach will probably get less acidic because there’s no food coming in, the stomach isn’t prompted to secret any extra acid to digest it.

Shouldn’t you snack or eat multiple meals per day to keep your metabolism up?
I saw this a couple times in the comments and wasn’t quite sure what part of metabolism people were referring to, whether it be anabolism or catabolism.
The idea of eating more meals per day doesn’t make much sense unless your aim is to eat a lot of food. If you’re a body builder and you want to get in as much food as possible, you’re going to have to eat multiple meals a day because you simply can’t fit all the food an athlete like that needs in your stomach at one time. In this case, I guess you really are “upping your metabolism” because your body is in more of an anabolic state.
If you’re referring to needing to keep your blood sugar up, I explained why this is unnecessary at 6:05 in the video.
If your goal is to lose weight (upping catabolism), then this makes even less sense, because your body starts to burn your body fat after you deplete your glucose stores. So unless your snacks are pure fat, then you’re having your body re-starting and re-stopping protein and glucose metabolism and it doesn’t get around to breaking down the fat in your body.
Unless you’re taking a dump every interval between snacks, your body is probably still processing the nutrients you took in since the last time you ate. So your body might not even be able to tell the difference between 3 meals a day or 6 meals a day.

Alcohol? No Thanks!
I was kind of confused when I saw a couple comments about alcohol. I don’t recommend alcohol consumption at all, when I mentioned it I was just trying to make an analogy. At most, I’ll have some beers maybe twice a month.

What about the cons of this way of eating?
It does take a while to get used to the hunger. For a while it was sort of a big deal for me, but that goes away if you’re patient enough. (It’s 8PM now and I haven’t eaten since yesterday, but just thought of my hunger as I am writing about it now)
No health complications that I’ve noticed, I haven’t passed out on the train or anything like that. I was doing a 4 day fast recently, and on the 3rd day I felt lightheaded after standing up when I had been sitting down for a long time. This passed in about 40 seconds and didn’t come up again. (I can see how that would worry someone though)
Social Life – At first I thought weakened social life was going to be a big thing that would deter me from doing this.
However, it’s not like I eat breakfast lunch and dinner with someone every day. If I have plans with a friend, I’ll just make the meal that I get with them my main meal. If I have to stretch my eating window out a little bit to make sure I get enough nutritious food it’s not that big of a deal. Even when I was a recruitment consultant trying intermittent fasting and doing multiple meetings a day, I’d just get a coffee and politely say I already had something to eat. As long as you’re not staring at the person while they eat it’s not a big deal.
I can definitely see how this would still be a hamper on some people’s social life, but there’s nothing wrong with switching it up here and there. Sometimes I’ll eat 2 or 3 meals a day on the weekend with friends, no big deal – I just go back to one meal a day the next day.

How do you recommend I start?
You might want to try just reducing your eating window. If you usually eat breakfast at 9am and then dinner at 8pm, try to have your dinner at 5pm. Then try skipping breakfast or having dinner even earlier. Baby steps are best, you’ll ease into the feeling of hunger. If you are able to, sure you can just straightaway cut down to one meal a day, but chances are this will make you way more hungry than you’re used to and you’ll be turned off to the idea.

Oh yea this is why starving kids in Africa live so long. This is such bullshit
Har har. Obviously I’m not saying less food = more health ad infinitum. You want to get enough food and enough nutrients of course, though what you really need might be a lot less than what you think you need.

■Hope this clears some things up! I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I’ll share what I’ve learned as best I can. Thanks for reading. Will expand this as I can when more good questions come up