How the Internet Redesigns your Mind

The following is the transcript for the video by the same name on my channel “What I’ve Learned,” originally posted on March 10th, 2017.

Imagine for a second that everyone had a magical cube in their pockets. With the right permutation, you could materialize all kinds of food or drink.

At first there was only one cube in existence and nobody knew what it did until after about a year of fiddling with the thing, someone found the permutation for water. After that, they started to quickly figure out how to make more things like tea and avocados and all kinds of vegetables.

Over several years, they figured out how to manufacture the cubes efficiently and inexpensively and with a lot more cubes and plenty of people to play with them, things rapidly progressed to the point where they were making more complex things like kimchi, butter or yogurt. Cube users were increasing exponentially and the whole world was excited about this- it was going to cure world hunger, standard of living would increase across the globe, everyone would have infinite access to healthy foods! Along the way people figured out how to make snacks like oreos. A couple days later beer was added to the list, and discussions began about whether or not to let minors have a cube. Then a bunch of hard liquors came out and a few people became slightly worried about the whole situation. Then a couple weeks later two guys from Virginia show up and say “Hey uhhh we just made cocaine with the cube.”  Most people thought it might be better if everyone didn’t have infinite supply of cocaine at all times, but at this point millions of people already had cubes and it was drastically improving their lives.

For the first time in most of these people’s lives, they were in a situation where they had access to a huge variety of choices at all moments during the day . They could do anything from having the highest quality nourishing meal, to deciding to add just one or two cookies to their lunch, or they could say “Work’s not going so well, maybe a spot of cocaine would help.” And that’s kind of what we have with the internet.

It’s unrealistic to say you get pathologically addicted to the internet as fast as you would to cocaine, but just as the mystical cube people can choose to nourish or poison their bodies at any point in the day, the internet allows us to subject our brains to information that enriches our intellect and gives us new perspectives, OR we can choose streams of information that leave us thinking “What I have been doing the last 30 minutes?”

The thing is, the problem goes deeper than just the minutes you lost to twitter, facebook or reddit. The way you use the internet literally changes your brain’s default way of operating, and part of it has to do with how intimately your brain interacts with tools. A 2010 research article from the association of psychological science found that when you are using a tool, your brain understands the tool not as something you are manipulating with your hands, but as an actual part of your body.

For example if you have someone hold a marker and then you could ask their brain to describe their right hand, the brain might say something like “I have 6 rods coming out of a meat filled slab. 5 of the rods are bendable and 3 of them are attached to a rigid, meatless rod.” Kind of like you are what you eat, from your brain’s perspective you are what you use.

Amazon | The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains | Carr,  Nicholas | Neuroscience

But what about more abstract tools? In Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows,” which is about how the internet affects your brain, he explains how different tools change our perception of the world and the the actual way we think, and not just what we think about.  One example is the very simple and useful tool that is the map. Without the map people would rely on their sight as well as their understanding of intricate smells and sounds to create a 3D landscape in their minds. The map then simplifies this complex process down to just visualizing your position in space as a point on a 2D plane. 

Another example is how originally our perception of time was an understanding of how cycles and rhythms of the natural world relate to each other. With the advent of the mechanical clock, we began to look at our day as just a compilation of neatly segmented slices of time.  

Even something as simple as the spaces between words can be considered a tool that changes the way we use our brains. Forawhile,therewerenospaces betweenwordsandeverythingwasjustjammedtogether,soyouhadtoreadthetext outloudtoseewhereonewordbeganandanotherended. This complicated and tiring task of pronouncing everything out loud meant people didn’t read for very long periods of time. Putting spaces between words made the task of reading much easier to the point that people could read silently to themselves for much longer stretches of time. Because people now had something they could engage with and stay concentrated on for hours at a time, deep focus became a more widespread skill. 

Naturally, we are wired in a way that our default state is to be always alert to new stimuli or pieces of information. From your brain’s perspective, being ready to rapidly switch your attention from gathering berries to examining the noise of a snapping twig is much more helpful for survival than the ability to contemplate one story or one subject for hours at a time. Getting distracted was useful. While there are some situations like hunting in which the ability to focus was necessary for survival, the book acted as one of the first tools that developed the contemplative and creative mind by rewiring the brain for enhanced concentration.

However, the recent internet environment is one that wires peoples’ brains for enhanced distractibility. At all times you have multiple streams of information in the form of notifications, advertisements, suggested videos, and messages from your friends and even something as innocent as a blog post or text article is usually peppered with hyperlinks you can choose to click on. Our brains are naturally on the alert for new information, and the more we’re exposed to this kind of virtual interface, the more our brain decides to rewire itself to respond to and even crave these internet distractions. Try and think about how long you usually stay on one tab, one application or one video at a time. Might be no
longer than a couple minutes or even a few seconds.

How many tab switches does it take to get a proper email written? If you’re on your computer, how many tabs do you have open right now? You might have flipped over to facebook in just the course of this video without even realizing it. I’ve even found myself opening up reddit on my phone while watching a movie on my TV that I’m enjoying. I’m already entertained, so what am I doing? 

Amazon | The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the  Frontiers of Brain Science | Doidge, Norman | Neuroscience

Findings in neuroplasticity research are consistently showing that the brain has the remarkable ability to literally rewire itself to be more suited to its environment. In stroke patients, because paralyzed limbs were a result of damage to the the area of the brain that controlled that limb, the assumption was there would be very little room for recovery. But, by doing things like putting a patient’s good hand in an oven mitt and taping it up with duct tape, they had no choice but to try to use the dysfunctional limb. In response their brains reconfigured themselves to map different areas to controlling that and remapped themselves to assign different neurons to the task of operating that limb. This produced remarkable recoveries of function in their dysfunctional limbs.

By the same token, you can exercise or let atrophy different modes of thinking. Maybe at some point you finally set some time aside to work on that big project you’ve been meaning to do, only to find yourself feeling uncomfortable and asking yourself “Why can’t I focus?”
The reason is the same as why most people can’t sign their names with their left hand. You don’t usually 

Alright, so what if we are gearing our brains to be distracted? Maybe things take a bit longer to do- that’s not that terrible.  

The problem with getting distracted has to do with how your short term memory processing works. Your brain, ironically, can be compared to a web browser. For example, when you’re shopping on Amazon, you might want to go back a couple pages to double check the price of something. You can do this by clicking the back button because the web browser stores those pages in its recent history. When you’re doing something like reading a book, your brain is processing and storing the information in short term memory so it can relate the paragraph you’re reading to the last couple paragraphs you just read. If you get distracted by a text message while you’re reading, you might find that when you go back to the sentence you were just on, you’re asking “Wait, who are they talking about?” This is because getting distracted and shifting your attention to the text message is like clearing your recent browser history. Your brain can’t hit the back button to review what it just read because it dumped what was in the short term memory to focus on the text message, so you have to reread the last paragraph or two. 

Being distracted like this gets in the way of the insightful, creative thinking necessary to complete fulfilling and ambitious tasks. You process information in the short term memory like this when you’re doing anything from working on a business idea, to practicing piano or writing an article. With enough time and uninterrupted focus, the information slowly trickles from your conscious short term memory to your subconscious long term memory.  And it’s only when information is in the long term memory that you can make insightful connections with other pieces of information you’ve picked up in the past. The reason you get those Aha! Moments and creative insights out of the blue is because in the background, your subconscious long term memory is processing new and old bits of information and making connections between them. This is also why you might not feel any improvement while practicing piano, but you’re suddenly better the next day. It’s because you focused and practiced long enough that the information went from your short term memory to your long term memory and the long term memory then did its processing job. 

When something distracts you and pulls your focus from the task at hand, this transfer of information from short term to long term memory gets interrupted. Unfortunately you can’t really be aware of this subconscious long term memory process is being disrupted. The reason you didn’t come up with any good ideas during the brain storming session or are having trouble grasping the material for a class could be that you’re clearing your brain’s recent browser history too often by getting distracted and you’re not letting your long term memory connect the dots for you.

The primary message of Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work” is that the ability to focus and concentrate deeply is crucial for being successful in fulfilling endeavors, whether it’s learning a new skill, writing a book, developing a business plan for a new company or creating a piece of art. To be truly productive and successful professionally or creatively in this competitive and fast moving world, you need to set up long blocks of time where you can work completely uninterrupted and you’ll need to have developed a mind where distraction is not the default mode.

When people are picking out what to eat they kind of have it in the back of their mind how that piece of food is going to change their body. They can expect that while processed junk food does taste good, it will make them gain weight and have less energy. But I don’t think enough people are thinking “Is the way I’m about to use my smart phone right now going to change my brain’s default setting to be more focused or more distracted?” 

Looking at a couple memes for 5 minutes when you need a quick break from work probably doesn’t feel like a big deal and it probably isn’t. Then again, your brain has the annoying ability to quickly habituate towards activities that provide enjoyment for very little energy. Have you ever been in that situation where it’s 4PM, you’ve been working pretty hard and you get the idea to go get a cookie. You figure just one cookie isn’t going to make you fat and it will help you get through the last bit of the day, so you get the cookie. But then the next day, 4PM rolls around and you suddenly have a craving for something sweet…

Looking back on my cube analogy, cocaine may seem like too intense of an example for the bad aspects of the internet. Well, research has shown that the difficulty with cocaine isn’t just that it rewires your pleasure center to make you addicted to it, cocaine actually damages the dendrites of the neurons in the prefrontal cortex- this is the area of the brain that is responsible for executive control. Executive control is essentially the ability to stay rational, maintain focus and exert willpower in order to achieve some sort of long term goal. This means that at the same time one area of the addict’s brain is wired to crave cocaine, the area that he needs to rely on to resist these cravings is damaged. So, it’s this kind of rewiring of the brain in a way that interferes with your ability to reach your personal potential that I’m pointing to when I make the comparison to certain negative aspects of the internet. 

While it happens slowly, these quick or instant bursts of new and interesting information from the internet can become a slippery slope into a brain that enjoys and desires distraction and prefer instant gratification. Also, consider this: in cases of people truly addicted to the internet they also have severely reduced executive function, similar to the cocaine addicts.

In many ways, the internet is an incredibly useful and helpful tool. But a deeper understanding  of which aspects of the internet affect your brain in what ways is necessary to modify your usage in a way that keeps your brain functioning the way you want it to. We’ll be looking at this more in depth soon, so stick around.


Why Habits form & How to build them [Transcript]

At my last company, there was a manager who usually got up at 4:30am, ran for 2 hours, and got to work before everyone else. He was always at the top for sales achievements and worked pretty much like a robot. At first I just figured he was some sort of superhero, “Batman??” “It’s not batman!” However, once I realized that he simply repeated a set of actions over and over again until it became an automatic habit, it seemed doable even for a mere human like myself. While difficult, he just needed to establish the routine: Wake up early, resist urge the to go back to sleep, lace up his shoes instead of checking email, get out the door and run, resist multiple urges to stop and rest, get back home and take a shower. After a while, all these willpower expensive actions melted down into a seamless habit.

I have developed a consistent habit myself. It’s not a lengthy routine, but it’s something I’ve been doing ever since I can remember in response to stress. Anytime I’m feeling anxious about something, I unconsciously chew on one of my fingernails. …Of course this isn’t a habit I wanted to develop or one that I want to keep.

So what is it about habits that makes something like biting your fingernails so hard to stop, while making something like running a couple half marathons per week possible? There’s three things to know about why habits develop whether you want them to or not.

The average brain is made up of 40% gray matter and 60% white matter. White matter lies under the gray matter and is composed of long nerve fibers insulated by myelin sheaths. Myelin is the fatty tissue that makes white matter white, and it’s one of the reasons people can get good at things. As you repeat an action, the neurons associated with that action will have their axons wrapped in myelin. So every time you put in an hour of practice, you earn yourself another wrap of myelin around the neurons used for that activity. More myelin means nerve impulses can travel more quickly and efficiently across the axons. This means the action can be done more easily, skillfully, and will require less concentration. A bare, un-myelinated neuron will have a signal speed of 2 miles an hour. The signal speed of a fully myelinated neuron is about 200 miles an hour. Practice makes perfect because practice makes myelin and myelin makes perfect.

This is one of the key principles in “The Talent Code”. Author Daniel Coyle explains that most athletes, singers, or musicians that we would normally refer to as “talented” are actually incredibly diligent individuals. They have put in hours and hours of practice until their brain was packed full of myelin associated with their craft.

So in the same way that Alain Martel is very good at billairds, I’ve unfortunately gotten really good at biting my fingernails to deal with anxious feelings. It’s a bit of a stretch to compare the two, but I’d argue that our brains are both generally trying to do the same thing: make things easier. When I was still a kid, my brain identified biting fingernails as the easiest method for coping with daily stresses. Little by little the nerve impulses for the neurons associated with chewing on my fingernails have gotten so efficient, that the action takes place without me putting any conscious thought into it. Alain Martel on the other hand, has put so much concentration into perfecting certain billiard motions that his brain has dedicated plenty of myelin to ensure this task could be done incredibly well.

The second thing to know is about willpower. By the 1980s, the theory that willpower is a learnable skill was generally accepted. It was understood as something that can be taught the same way kids learn to do math and say “thank you.” In the power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks about how a group of PhD candidates totally changed our understanding of willpower.

Mark Muraven and other psychology PhD candidates at Case Western started asking questions about the existing view of willpower. After all, it didn’t make much sense: if willpower is a learnable skill, how can we be super diligent some days and end up binge watching a TV show for the majority of other days? That would be like forgetting how to ride a bike every other day.

Muraven conducted an experiment where they set out two bowls in a room: One with freshly baked cookies, and one with radishes. One group of participants were told they could eat as many cookies as they liked, and another group could eat the radishes but were told they could not eat any of the cookies. Afterwards, they gave each group a very difficult puzzle to try and solve. The group that got to eat cookies merrily tried again and again at cracking the puzzle. On the other hand, the radish group muttered to themselves and were visibly frustrated, saying they were “sick of this dumb experiment.” The conclusion was that the amount of willpower you have is finite, and it’s more like a muscle: you can tire it out if you work it too hard. Since the radish eating group expended willpower by resisting the cookies, they had much less fuel left in their willpower tank to use on solving the puzzle.

Another experiment was conducted where participants had to do a four-month money management program. This required them to keep detailed logs and deny themselves luxuries like eating out or going to the movies.

What they found was that “People’s finances improved as they progressed through the program. More surprising, they also smoked fewer cigarettes and drank less alcohol and caffeine… They ate less junk food and were more productive at work and school. … As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives—in the gym, or a money management program—that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked. Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything.”
The third thing to know is about your built in autopilot. In the 1990’s a neurologist named Ann Graybiel figured out a way to get sensors into rats skulls to measure what was going on inside. After she got over 100 sensors in their heads she put the rats into a very simple T-Shaped maze. At the tip of the T was a rat, partitioned off from the other side of the T which had a piece of chocolate. Along with an audible click, the partition would be pulled away and the rat was allowed to go searching for the chocolate. On the first couple times through the maze, the rat moved very slowly, scratching at the walls, sniffing around, until it found the piece of chocolate. After running through the maze many many times however, the rat would immediately go down the T, turn left and get the chocolate.

Here’s what brain activity looks like for the first time, and here’s what it looks like the 150th time. The first time shows the brain lighting up when the rat scratches or sniffs at something. After having repeated the “get chocolate” cycle multiple times however, the rat’s brain nearly falls asleep while looking for the chocolate and then wakes up when it gets it. What Graybiel demonstrated was that “a task-bracket or “chunking” pattern of neuronal activity emerges when a habit is formed, wherein neurons activate when a habitual task is initiated, show little activity during the task, and reactivate when the task is completed.”

What this means is that your brain is taking series of actions and grouping them down into a single task, making the process require much less conscious effort. The part of the brain responsible for this is the basal ganglia. It was really interesting to read about this while watching my niece try to walk. She deliberately puts her arms in the air to balance herself as she stands up, slowly lifts one knee up while shifting her weight, puts her foot down a little bit in front of her, then repeats with the other leg. It’s all done with very careful deliberation. Obviously for us there’s absolutely no thought put into walking. My niece still has to concentrate to perform such a basic task because her basal ganglia is still working on “chunking” that action. This can apply to much more complex things like the entire set of actions that make your commute to work possible. Everything from putting your foot in your shoes and tying them to getting in your car, putting your seatbelt on and so forth until you’re actually sitting in your office chair. Chunking can make all the actions leading to completing a workout at the gym easier to do, but it can also apply to all the actions associated with putting yourself on the couch with netflix and beer.

The other part of Graybiel’s discovery is that habits need a cue to kick your brain into autopiloting the task. For the rat, its cue was the click sound it heard as the partition opened up. For my diligent colleague who ran every morning, the cue was probably his alarm going off. When I’m writing, I have a habit of suddenly opening up a new tab and typing in . It happens so fast now that the page has already loaded by the time I think “Hey wait this isn’t what I wanted to do…” The cue for this particular behavior is finding myself stuck on the phrasing for a sentence. Habit cues can be pretty much anything from feeling bored or irritated to the clock striking 3:00.
So that’s the behind the scenes on building habits, but now what? How do you actually build the habit? You can probably find all kinds of tools and tricks, but for me at least, they usually just get in the way. I tried a bunch of habit tracking apps until I realized it was just making the process harder as I had to also make the new habit of remembering to track my other habits.

Utilizing cues however, has proven to be very important. You can use new cues to create new habits, or use old cues replace bad habits with good ones. For example: New Habit – Meditating for 20 minutes. Cue – finishing brushing my teeth. OR Bad Habit – Wasting time on reddit. Cue – feeling “stuck” on my writing. So I keep the cue but replace the bad habit with standing up and walking around for 2 minutes. If you have a bad habit of say buying a cookie every time you finish lunch, replace the action with buying a cup of tea instead. If you want to make the new habit of studying every night, make sure it comes right after something, like finishing dinner or finishing showering

Being consistent with your cue is particularly important. A little while ago, I decided I was going to write at least 2000 words every day, but I never got it done consistently because I just worked on it whenever I had extra time. Then, I finally paired writing 1000 words with the cue of finishing my morning exercise and the other 1000 words with the cue of finishing my afternoon meal.

Once the cue is set, just… do it. And then do it again. All you really need is the right cue and the right mindset when building the habit.

Carol Dweck, professor of Psychology at Stanford, analyzed 2 groups of kids struggling with their grades. One group was taught that every time they “push out of their comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in their brain [would] form new, stronger connections, and over time they [would] get smarter.”

The kids who were not taught this growth mindset lesson “continued to show declining grades, but those who were taught this lesson showed a sharp rebound in their grades.” Carol says this kind of improvement has been shown with thousands and thousands of kids, especially struggling students.”

Once I adopted this kind of growth mindset towards building habits, habit building started to actually feel …fun. As Carol puts it, I used to be “gripped in the tyranny of now,” and not able to appreciate the “power of yet.” Once I understood why and how habits form, I gained the confidence that things would get easier if I persisted. This confidence made it easy to consistently get a workout done first thing in the morning – a habit I had been meaning to make since forever. Every morning, it became a little bit easier to get out of my warm bed and lace up my shoes rather than scrolling around on my phone. Of course when I was actually running, my legs would still hurt and I would have the urge stop and take a rest, but the next time always took a little bit less willpower to keep going.

So while you’re going about your day, just remember that whatever you’re doing -whether it’s watching cat videos or learning guitar, your brain is making it just a little bit easier for to keep doing that.


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.



How the internet ruins your productivity by design

Content hubs are designed to keep us accessing them as frequently as possible. It’s hard to notice this can lead to addiction-esque symptoms: eroded willpower and decreased ability to concentrate.

The age of mental “peak performance” 

The big trend lately is for people to be in business for themselves. According to, more than 1 in 3 workers in America are earning a living from freelancing. For some it’s a result of the 2008 economic shock, others just don’t feel challenged at their workplace. In either case, chasing your ambitions requires better efficiency and more productivity. “Peak Performance” is a term that’s being used not only for athletes’ physical performance, but for people just trying to get ahead at their work place, and more so for those working on their entrepreneurial endeavors.  With a lot of popular books like “The Four Hour Work Week” popping up, people are becoming more aware of the fact that doing a 9AM to 5PM job for 40 years is a shitty deal.


One new way to get ahead is by using cognitive enhancers, known as “Smart Drugs” or Nootropics. Nootropics are “are drugs, supplements, or other substances that improve cognitive function, particularly executive functions, memory, creativity, or motivation, in healthy individuals.” For most people, Ritalin or Adderall would come to mind, but there are many new substances, all with different types of positive effects on concentration, willpower and creativity- which work very differently on the brain with little to no reported side effects (yet). Some with a bit of red tape around them and some that you can easily get without a prescription. Nootropics span from artificially synthesized substances like “Modafinil” (Benzhydrylsulphinylacetamide) to the naturally derived “Huperzine A” which comes from firmoss.

In the aggressively competitive world of silicone valley, Nootropics are seen not just as a pick me up, but sometimes as a necessity. Tim Ferris painted a good picture of the situation in his interview with CNN Money “Let’s just say you’re a 24 year old start up co founder, just got a seed round of funding from a big venture capitalist. Kind of bright eyed busy tailed, ‘holy shit I’m in silicon valley’ and you feel intense pressure to compete against the half a dozen other companies that are trying to do the same thing. Just like an olympic athlete who’s willing to do almost anything, even if it shortens their life by 5 years to get a gold medal, you’re gonna think about what pills and potions you can take because the difference between completely failing, losing all your money and going home with your tail between your legs, making a million dollars and making a billion dollars is right up here” (Points to his head)

Some silicone valley folk have gone as far as taking very small doses of Lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD, to enhance their productivity and creativity at work. These “Microdoses” of acid are having very profound effects on the user’s output without any hallucinatory distractions.

Most of us aren’t at the level of seeking out illegal substances to amp up our game. For myself and a lot of people I know, it’s not so much of “Holy shit I need to write 20,000 lines of code by tomorrow morning or I’m fucked”, but something like “OK It was 45 minutes ago that I woke up and I’m still in bed looking at reddit. What the hell is wrong with me?” There are some days where I wonder if I’m hitting even average performance, much less peak performance.

Too long to read the whole post right now? The video version of this blog post is now available!
The internet and our brains

It’s being suspected that some people’s inability to concentrate or lack of willpower is caused by the internet and the near constant stream of novel information they’re accessing all the time. In Gary Wilson’s TEDx Talk he explains that several studies about “Internet Addiction” and its detriments have been popping up since 2009. Gary says “So far, all brain research points in only one direction: Constant novelty at a click can cause addiction“. It wasn’t until after I saw Gary’s talk that I thought the way I use the internet could be harming my productivity.

Until recently, I was a recruitment consultant in Tokyo for 3 years. This was one of the most educational, exciting and competitive times of my life. I met all kinds of fantastic people, but this environment really makes you start to evaluate yourself as a person based on how much you can output in as little time as possible. I wanted be at the top of the scoreboard, and some days I was five times as productive as I ever was in college, but sometimes I couldn’t focus for more than 20 minutes. I was always looking for the magic pill or trick that could improve my performance, but I didn’t know that how often I checked my Facebook feed could be affecting my performance in a bigger way than just the time I lost by opening up the app.

Unsurprisingly, this addictive nature is actually designed into most apps. Nir Eyal explains in his book “Hooked” how websites, apps, platforms et cetera need to be designed in such a way that the product is addictive for the user or the company won’t have a competitive edge.

This technique to magnetize users to the content is called “The hook”. In this video book summary narrated by Nir Eyal, he explains that  the hook is an “experience designed to connect the users problem to a company’s solution with enough frequency to form a habit“. The hook has 4 parts- a trigger, an action, a reward and an investment. All the hooks start with an external trigger like “Click here!” or “Swipe right!” or an internal trigger. The internal triggers are what is critical to the user of forming the habit of using the company’s service. “Internal triggers are things that tell us what to do next, but where the information is not contained in the trigger but instead formed through an association or a memory in the user’s brain. So what we do when we’re in a certain place, situation, around particular people, taking part in a routine and most frequently when we experience certain emotions dictate what we do next. The action that we turn to with little or no conscious thought. It turns out that the most frequent internal triggers are these emotions, but not just any emotions but they’re specifically negative emotions. So what we do when we’re feeling bored or lonesome or lost or fearful or uncertain or confused dictates the technology that we turn to next with little or no conscious thought.

As I wrote out the previous paragraph, I experienced this first hand. I couldn’t quite think of how to phrase one sentence and I felt a slight sense of uneasiness as I struggled to think of what words to use. Right away I opened a new tab and typed in “”. This all happened in under two seconds without deliberation.

Actions are influenced by triggers, but what constitutes an action? Behavioral scientist BJ Fogg describes an action as “the simplest behavior in anticipation of a reward,” which for me was a click on reddit, but it could also be a swipe on imgur or tinder, or even a scroll on Facebook or twitter. Pretty simple process then: A trigger [I feel bored] arises, so I take a simple action [open up reddit] in anticipation of a reward [a funny image or video].

When discussing human behavior, most of us have an inkling that the neurochemical dopamine influences our actions. This, for the most part is correct. However, dopamine is widely misunderstood as the neurochemical that makes you feel good because you did something. Actually, as Standford lecturer Robert Sapolsky explains in this excerptdopamine rises in anticipation of a reward rather than in response to the reward itself. Not only does it rise in anticipation of a reward, but it spikes when you are uncertain of whether or not you will get the reward. Dr. Sapolsky talks about an experiment in which they had monkeys pull a lever in anticipation of a reward. When the situation went from ‘You will get a reward after every 3 pulls’ to ‘maybe you’ll get a reward after a couple pulls’ you see a massive spike in dopamine. As he put it, “it’s one of the biggest rises in dopamine in the brain, short of cocaine.”

This is very important because it means that a company’s content doesn’t even have to be good to get you to keep coming back. It just has to be designed in a manner that keeps us anticipating and searching for rewards. For example, take a look at the feed on Facebook. Is that cute girl from high school posing with a Starbucks cup that interesting? How about the picture of someone’s lunch that comes next? Neither of those probably interest you, but the new tech article your best friend posted that comes afterward might be. The feed is taking advantage of that spike in dopamine that we experience due to the anticipation of a possible reward, so we keep scrolling and scrolling, excited at the possibility that something good will pop up.

“It’s addictive, but I’m not addicted

“Addiction” is thrown around in contexts like “Oh gosh this is so addicting!” all the time. However, hearing someone say “I need to get treatment for my addiction” has a completely different nuance. Using it that way would suggest the “addiction” is affecting their lives and needs to be fixed. Why people turn to drugs despite the social and legal repercussions is complicated, but it can boil down to the fact that the users aren’t satisfied with their lives.  It may even be that they’re not satisfied with the current year, the month or the moment that they are experiencing. People pursue success in business, fitness or relationships mainly because they are anticipating some reward – usually a good feeling that comes with achievement. “But why work towards these types of fulfillment for so long when you can invest a couple seconds snorting cocaine or taking some pill?” Surely a terrible mindset, but not completely different from getting the rewarding delicious flavor of a donut immediately, rather than chasing the great feeling of women complimenting your hard earned six pack? Or even swiping through a couple profiles on tinder to feel excited when you see a sexy girl versus investing a couple more minutes to read a chapter of that book that you like. When you look at it like this, the idea of not just substances, but behaviors being addicting is more plausible.

How are we to notice that the internet could be affecting us? I mean I’ve had high speed internet ever since I was in High School. David Foster Wallace told a joke at his commencement speech for Kenyon College class of 2005 that went like this: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way who nods at them and says ‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’ and the two young fish swim on for a bit and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’ ” Gary Wilson also mentions the fish situation in his talk to show how hard it is to realize how the internet is affecting heavy users. He explained how the only symptom that did cause internet porn loving men to realize it was having an effect on them was Erectile Dysfunction. Young men are being diagnosed with and medicated for ADHD, Social Anxiety Disorder and depression due to symptoms like less interest in day to day activities, lowered ability to concentrate and eroded willpower. They are going to psychologists and psychiatrists to treat these symptoms, but don’t realize it could be alleviated by simply changing their behavior.

One study in China shows how Internet Addicts have impaired executive function control ability. Executive Functions are “a set of cognitive processes – including attentional control, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, as well as reasoning, problem solving, and planning – that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals.” Having an impaired attention control, inhibitory control and ability to “select and successfully monitor behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals” would definitely explain my unfinished to do lists.

 If you have enough willpower to right away stop continuously swiping, scrolling and clicking then great. But for myself and a lot of people, it’s not so simple to get out of the habit. The idea is not to immediately stop using all these platforms, but to pull yourself out of the ‘hook’ inherent in their design. There’s nothing wrong with taking a 10 minute break from work when you need to and doing something that you enjoy. When you’re unconsciously spending more time than you intend to, then there’s an issue.

Getting out of the hook
The good news is that understanding how your brain is being manipulated by this “hook” was the first step towards avoiding it. In his TEDMED talk, Judson Brewer describes a two part technique that several smokers have used to successfully kick their smoking habit. The idea is for the participants to just be mindful about smoking. That is – to be aware and really think about what the experience of smoking is like – feel the heat of the cigarette as you take a drag, to smell the smoke and taste the tabacco. One subject used the method and quickly realized smoking smells bad and tastes like shit. She started to become disenchanted with her behavior. The other part of the technique was to be mindful about what the craving felt like when it came up. They’d crave a cigarette and then notice their body was a little tense, heart rate maybe sped up a little bit, and some noticed they were fidgeting in their chair. By simply being mindful about these aspects, subjects were able to step out of the craving and realize what exactly it was and let it pass. Next time you feel the urge to check twitter, take a moment to think why you’re doing that. Maybe you’re a little bored or frustrated with the task at hand. Maybe you’re hungry so your concentration has waned. Then, think about the experience of twitter itself. Scrolling through that feed for more than 5 minutes, is it really engaging you in a fulfilling way? Are you really happy that you’re 10 minutes in and still spending your time scrolling through all those tweets hoping a good one will pop up? It will take a bit of time and practice, but you’ll quickly learn to catch yourself and reel yourself back in.

You could always Louis C.K.’s method if you’re getting impatient: