Building a Solid Foundation for Sleep


More and more people these days seem to be complaining about trouble sleeping. Because one of the pillars of physical health is ensuring you get enough high quality sleep, there has been a lot written on the subject. I’ve had my fair share of difficulty sleeping, but recently have generally been able to keep my sleep debt to a minimum. In this blog post, I wanted to share a few unique techniques and insights I’ve had about sleeping well.

Aside from all the usual advice (avoid caffeine completely, especially if you are a slow caffeine metabolizer; avoid alcohol; get exercise every day; learn how to deal with or eliminate stressors, etc.), there are three targeted techniques I use.

Establish a Sleep Baseline

How much sleep do you need? The answer is easy – you need as much sleep as your body tells you it needs. In other words, you need to learn to listen to your body and prioritize sleep above other activities. Think about it: what are the things your body needs in order to live? In order of “time to death”, they are: air and water, and then food, sleep and exercise. You wouldn’t think of foregoing breathing so you could watch a TV show, or skipping meals so you can check your social feeds, or allowing yourself to get parched so you can play a videogame, so why would you skip sleep to do these less important things?

To establish a baseline, pick a time when you have no incumbrances to getting all the sleep you could want. The holidays are here, and this is a good time to try this, as are vacations. Take a week and give yourself permission to sleep as much as you want for the whole week (while avoiding caffeine!). There are two important things to keep in mind:

  • You should track exactly how many hours of sleep you get in this baseline period.

  • You should keep in mind that for the first day or days, you may be catching up from accumulated sleep deprivation. Disregard the data from these days.

Once you have established a somewhat regular pattern and have zeroed in on a regular number of hours, this becomes your baseline. It is your target. For many people, this target will be somewhere around 8 hours, as that is typical.  If it is a lot less than 8 hours, there is a very very slight chance that you are one of the few who truly need less sleep, but chances are better that you didn’t really let yourself sleep, and you should consider trying it again.

As you age, your baseline may change, so it’s a good idea to repeat the baseline measurement every few years.


Track Your Sleep, But Don’t Lose Sleep Over It

This is really easy.  Every morning, simply write down if you hit your target for that night. It literally only takes a couple of seconds to write this number down, so no excuses to not do it. This is the easiest form of tracking, you simply get a pass or fail. Even if you are just 15 minutes shy of your target, this is a fail.

Be honest with yourself and grade yourself accurately. At the same time, be gentle with yourself! It will be hard to hit your target at first, and there will be all sorts of times when it will be basically impossible. But you need to keep striving, and the best way to do that is to have a little logbook to look at and think, “Oh, gee, I’m missed my target 3 days running. I really need to make sure I head to bed a little earlier tonight or take a nap this afternoon.” Don’t beat yourself up if you fail, but do take the steps necessary to get back on track.

Personally, I track my sleep in more detail. I write down the exact number of hours as well as the quality of the sleep, and use these to compute a “sleep grade” for each day. I also look at my 7-day running average. I find these useful, and can share the exact formulas I use if you’re interested. But you don’t need to get this fancy. The simple pass/fail technique should give you the bulk of the benefits you need by simply making you aware of your actual sleep patterns.

Another bonus you may want to add on: also track your mood. You may find that when you lack sleep, you are more irritable and don’t handle stress as well. You shouldn’t be surprised by this – how many times have you seen a grouchy child miraculously cured by a nap? The same principle holds for adults, we just learn to cover up and ignore the effects of lack of sleep.


Iterative Visualization – Building Colorful Cubes in your Mind

Invariably, even if you exercise and eat right and do all of the right things, there will be days when you find it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep. Again, all of the usual advice applies here: establish a bedtime ritual, ensure you have a distraction free sleep environment, get fresh air, etc.  But here’s a particular technique I’ve developed and honed over the years that always works for me.

The technique is based roughly on the classic “counting sheep” and also on some forms of meditation, but differs from them significantly, in a number of important ways. The problems I’ve found with counting methods are:

  • Simple counting is too easy and fast – I can count and let my brain race around worrying about things at the same time.

  • Simple counting is boring and not challenging.

  • Simple counting ignores your physiology.

This technique attempts to address these shortcomings by replacing the counts with other memorized sequences (colors), engaging the visual centers of the brain, providing a task to be accomplished with waypoints, and linking it all to your breath. Sounds complicated, but it’s really quite simple.  Here are the steps:

  1. Establish your breath. After the lights are off and you have found a comfortable sleeping position, establish your breathing rate by simply counting in your head to 100. It also helps to visualize the numbers themselves as you say them in your head, so you begin to engage both the auditory and visual portions of your brain. You can do this step as fast as you like. The whole point of this step is to distract yourself from your breath long enough that it falls into its natural rhythm.

  2. Build the cube. The task you are to complete, in your mind, is building a 6 by 6 by 6 cube, made of smaller cubes. Imagine something shaped like a Rubik’s cube, only bigger (see the image at the beginning of this post). Each of the 6 horizontal layers of the cube are built from smaller cubical blocks, all of the same color. These follow the colors of the rainbow. So the first layer consists of 36 red blocks, the second layer of 36 orange blocks, then yellow, green, blue, and purple. All in all, you will only “place” 216 blocks in total, but you will do it in such a way that you are almost guaranteed to fall asleep before you finish. Here’s how:

    1. Place one block per breath. Do not change the pace of your breath, keep it slow and rhythmical, as established in step 1. As you exhale, imagine the next block being placed into its position. Imagine it as the appropriate color and mentally say to yourself the name of the color as the block is placed.

    2. Build “concentric cubes.” In other words, first build the 1x1x1 cube (this is trivial, you just place the first red block, and say “red”). Then build the 2x2x2 cube on top of the 1x1x1 cube, then the 3x3x3 cube on top of the 2x2x2, and so on.

    3. Always build the top layer first, then the right side, and then the front side. See the diagrams below.

    4. If you ever lose your place, don’t get frustrated, rejoice! This means you’re starting to fall asleep. Then simply step back to the last step you can remember and continue building from that point.

    5. If you manage to build the whole cube, don’t fret! Just build another one – maybe vary the color scheme a little.

At an average of 10 breaths per minute, this technique will likely get you to sleep in less than 20 minutes. Personally, I rarely make it to the purple layer, which accounts for almost half of the blocks, so I’m usually out in 10 minutes.

How does it work? First, it engages the visual, spatial, auditory and language portions of the brain at the same time. It also engages the somatosensory regions by having you focus on your breath. By doing this, it makes it difficult for you to be distracted by stray thoughts. Second, it provides waypoints, milestones of progress to keep you focused, and each successive waypoint takes slightly longer to reach, making the task progressively more difficult, thus keeping you engaged. Third, it replaces the “boring” elements of counting with something a bit more playful and fun, making the task a bit less arduous.

I sometimes add a little variety to the task. For example, I sometimes build an “all blue” cube (e.g., midnight, navy, royal, cornflower, sky, powder), an “all green” cube (forest, jungle, kelly, lime, olive, mint), etc.  Sometimes even just trying to remember the names of 6 shades of a given color is enough to put me to sleep!


So there you have it: establish a baseline, track your sleep nightly, and when you have trouble sleeping, build the cube. I’d be interested in knowing how these techniques work for you.




The Waiting is the Mindful Part


What do you do when you arrive at a meeting place early, or suddenly discover you have 15 minutes to “kill” while waiting for a train or riding the subway? Chances are like many people today, you’ll do one of two things: you’ll either fret about the waste of your valuable time, or you’ll whip out your phone or tablet and “fill” the time checking messages or otherwise “catching up”.

I’m increasingly doing neither, and instead taking a third option. I view the extra time as a gift, a special opportunity to meditate – literally! In other words, I do … nothing.

Like many people, I’ve always thought that meditation was a good idea, but felt like I never really had the time, and really, how could it possibly be that beneficial? A couple of months ago, though, I started taking a class on mindfulness and emotional intelligence. This is the “Search Inside Yourself” course that has been getting some attention in the press lately, and which, amongst other skills, teaches meditation as a way to practice mindfulness. Chade-Meng Tan, the founder of the class, offered three simple practices to the class on our first day:

  • Commit to one mindful breath per day.

  • Strive to do all things with mindfulness and self-awareness.

  • Randomly wish happiness upon at least two people per day.

Of course, he knew very well that one breath would lead to another, and that 2 wishes would lead to 10. I’m now consistently meditating at least 15 minutes every day, and reaping the benefits of increased focus, reduced stress, and greater feelings of physical, mental, and emotional awareness.

You’re probably thinking like I used to, that you don’t have the time to meditate. I would argue, you don’t have the time to not meditate. Gandhi once quipped that his life had become so busy that he needed to meditate for two hours instead of one. Like sleeping, eating well, and exercising, meditation is something which bestows the most benefits if you do it every day, and which you need even more when things get busy. And it can help you even if you only take “one mindful breath.”

You will always have little bites of time to work with – maybe when you’re walking between meetings, or to and from your parked car, or waiting in line or for a friend to show up. How can you make use of these little slices? Try this: Write yourself a note that simply says, “One mindful breath” and stick it to your phone (or better yet, change your phone’s wallpaper). That’s it. If, when you take out your phone, you can’t take one mindful breath, that’s okay, don’t beat yourself up about it. But maybe you can, and maybe it will lead to a number of mindful breaths, and maybe you’ll sit down and find yourself focusing on those breaths – and you guessed it, suddenly you are meditating. After a while, you’ll find that you naturally use these times to do mini recharges, and you won’t need to check your email, and you won’t need to get frustrated. Those extra breaths will fill the space just as well, and  simultaneously fill you with calm, clarity, and peace of mind.


Dear Me – Words of Wisdom to My Younger Self


Sept, 2013

Dear Me,

I’m sending you this letter from 30 years in the future.  Even at your age, I’m sure you’ll recognize that although you think you know everything, every year you seem to learn a lot more, so by extrapolation (remember that word from algebra?), by the time you’re me, you’ll know a boatload.  Below, I try to distill all of that into a few key pieces of advice.  Some of this will sound familiar from my blog (that’s what people call publicly published personal journals these days), but there is a lot more here that I haven’t found time to write a blog post about – maybe I will someday. I know you will only half listen, and that’s okay.  If just a few of these get through to you, we’ll both be happier and healthier…

  • First and foremost, in everything you do, strive to do the “right” thing.  This is called conscientiousness, and is the single most important thing you can learn.  To help you do this, find an exemplary person, and when making any decision, ask yourself “What would s/he do?” This could be Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr. or any other of a host of exceptional leaders.  Or, more likely and more practically, this may be your parents, aunt or uncle, grandparents, minister or priest or rabbi, or teacher.  Using your parents or other close caregivers has the great advantage that you know how they behave very well, whereas you usually only know about famous people from second-hand sources.  This goes for the smallest decision (“Should I wash my hands?”, “Should I use my turn signal?”) to the largest (“Should I marry this person?”, “Should I attend college?”).  Better yet, find several such people, and if what you’re planning to do goes against what they all would do, please take the time to carefully consider that.
  • Notwithstanding the above, be aware that your parents and all such mentors are human, and not perfect.  Always question why they do what they do, and don’t be afraid to do something different.  Most of the time, you’ll discover they were right, but occasionally you will discover they were wrong.  This is especially true for things which are clearly a matter of opinion, like: “Who is the best sports team?”,  “Who should I vote for?”, or even “What religion should I follow?”
  • Here’s a nifty litmus test I use when making hard decisions that involve changing my current course:  I ask myself, “Later on, would I regret not taking this new path?”  If the answer is that I would regret it, I know I have to take that path, no matter how hard it may be.
  • Habits define you.  Identify your bad ones and do what it takes to eliminate them.  At the same time, replace them with good ones.  Do this continuously.  Do this for both behavioral and mental habits.
  • Realize that thoughts lead to words, and both thoughts and words lead to action.  If you find yourself thinking negative thoughts, stop yourself (literally say “Stop” in your head) before they grow into something worse.  Catastrophizing often becomes a self-fulling prophecy.  Likewise, if there is something you want to do or accomplish, start by writing it down, and telling others.  (See Thoughts, Words, Labels, and Actions for more details).
  • Every human deserves your respect.  You should try hard to assess everyone you interact with, but not to judge them.  Strive to always give everyone, even people you feel you know, the benefit of the doubt.  Do not assume the worst.
  • Read the book How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.  Read it multiple times over the years and try hard to internalize its lessons.  It’s title makes it sound like some sleazy how-to book for salespeople, which couldn’t be further from the truth.  It is genuine, and immensely useful.  Yes it was written in another time, but because it gets at the roots of what it means to be human, it is timeless.  Close behind it is Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.  Read them both!
  • When you are a young adult, and even more so when you are older, don’t feel bound by your decisions, large or small.  It’s easy to have thought patterns like, “Oh, I just spent a gazillion dollars and 4 years to learn to be a nanoimmunobiologist, so I’d better find a job and be one for the rest of my life, even though I think it’s boring and immoral.”  Don’t fall into that trap, it will ruin your life.  Constantly examine yourself and your life, and if you don’t like what you see, reinvent yourself.
  • “Acting the part” can take you farther than you might think (just watch the film Catch Me If You Can – when it comes out in about 20 years).  Of course, don’t try to deceive others like the main character in that film does, but mentally telling yourself things like, “Ah, I’m now a platoon leader – I should act like a platoon leader,” can go a long way towards turning you into what you aspire to be.
  • Appearances do matter.  Not just to others but to yourself.  Like it or not, we are hard-wired to make an initial assessment of whether we like someone within 7 seconds of meeting them.  This doesn’t mean you have to wear a business suit all the time (unless you want to or have to), but it does mean that you should be thoughtful of how you look when in the presence of others, and even when you’re alone.  Don’t make your physical appearance an obsession.  If you’re spending over an hour putting yourself together in the morning, you may want to think about whether you’re overdoing it.  Also, make sure you “dress the part” – this signals both others and perhaps more importantly you, yourself, about how you intend to act.  Going to work in the garden? Dress like a gardener.  Going out on the town?  Dress like a reveler (but not a revealer).  Going for an interview, dress like an interviewee.  Going to work as a <blank>, dress like a <blanker>.
  • Find a uniform.  This basically means, find a practical, sharp, acceptable way of dressing that is compatible with your lifestyle and personal style, and buy those clothes in bulk.  This guarantees you look good and relieves you of any decision making when it comes to getting dressed in the morning.  (Of course, have some variety!)
  • You will hear the saying: “It’s not what you know but who you know.”  There is some truth to that, but I’d revise it: It is both who you know, and what you know.  By “it”, I mean the ability to follow the path you have laid out for yourself, and achieve the goals you set for yourself.  Getting a job as a supervising manager at an architectural firm through your college buddy won’t do you any good if you know nothing about architecture and managing.  On the other hand, you may be the best architectural manager in the world, but without connections in that world, your options for employment will be extremely limited.  Make real connections, though, not just exchanging contact information with everyone you run into, especially after you start using the internet.
  • Money can buy happiness, but you quickly reach the point of diminishing returns.  Be prudent with your money, and learn to track your finances, but don’t be a spendthrift.  You can always make more money.
  • Learn the essential difference between an asset (something which makes you money) and a liability (something which costs you money).  Maximize the money you put into assets and minimize the money you put into liabilities.  The book Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki can help you understand this key truth.
  • Don’t assume that what works for the “average” person will necessarily work for you, but do try it as a starting point.  Chances are you will have to modify it a bit to suit you, and maybe even throw it out and try something else that your gut tells you is right when you realize it doesn’t work.  If you only do what the average person does, you will only have an average life (at best).  Since you only get one life, chances are you’d like for it to be a bit more than average.  (See You Are Not an Average, Joe for more details.)
  • Take the time to learn how to give talks and presentations well, and how to convince others – it is an invaluable skill regardless of your career path.  Continue to sharpen this skill throughout life.
  • Try hard to eat well every day, sleep well every night, and move your body to the point of sweating doing something you enjoy regularly (most days).  Always monitor what you eat and how it makes you feel.  Figure out how much sleep you need and make it a very high priority.  Don’t exercise for exercise’s sake, but do something you love doing, even if it isn’t considered “working out”.  Track these three things – you may be surprised how much they affect not only your mood but your overall happiness. (See: Living the SWEET Life, Daily)
  • Explore what you can do with your body.  Don’t be satisfied with just one physical activity – try as many as you can.  Dancing, skydiving, yoga, rock climbing, tai chi, hiking, fencing, parkour – there are so many amazing things you can do with your body!  Your body is your vehicle through life – learn everything you can about it, through direct experience.  And learn how to maintain it properly – you’ll be happy you did.
  • To quote a good friend of mine, “TV is for people who have forgotten they are going to die.”  Same goes for video games.  Like sugar in your diet, these have their place in limited quantities, but by no means should they be your default activity.  Even worse is “adult” content or other bizarre, extreme, or disturbing videos/books/games. It’s not just harmful to you but to others as well, and should have no place at all in your life.
  • Choose your friends carefully, and your spouse even more carefully.  Don’t date and don’t hang out with people because they are an easy choice and you are lonely.  Hold out for the special people.  Love is a choice, not something that happens to you.
  • Ultimately, you must find your own path through life.  It may take you your entire life to discover who you are – always strive to find out.  Once you think you “know” who you are, you know it’s time to take action to learn more and try something new.
  • Love means doing something for someone, even (or especially) when you don’t want to.  This is the meaning of sacrifice and giving.
  • Last but not least, here’s the secret to happiness: “The trick is to find some way in which you work with other people that you respect in pursuit of a noble end in a way that uses your strengths.” – Jonathan Haidt.  In other words, after ensuring your physical health, you can pursue happiness by ensuring that how you spend your days is something that you a) are passionate about, b) can do better than most people, and c) supports you monetarily.

Thanks for listening.  If you have any questions, feel free to send them my way.

And don’t forget to save this letter and refer back to it often.  : )  (That’s a sideways smiley face – you’ll understand that a lot more in about 10 years).

All the best,



P.S.  Remember that book See You At The Top you recently read by Zig Ziglar, that you took some notes on?  After writing this letter, I went back and found those notes (yes, you’ve kept them all these years), and it all sounded so familiar, except I’ve relearned these things the “hard” way.  Here’s what Zig said (I think I may have modified a few of these or even inserted some from Stephen Covey, but the core is still there):

  • Common sense demands that you like yourself – you’re the only you you’ve got.
  • To improve your self-image, improve the image of yourself – dress up.
  • Read inspirational biographies.
  • Listen to speakers who build mankind.
  • Take “baby-steps” towards positive self-image.
  • Smile, greet, and compliment others.
  • Do something for someone who can’t repay the favor.
  • Be careful of your associates.
  • Make a list of your positive points, keep it with you.
  • Make a list of past accomplishments, review and revise it often.
  • Avoid pornography, violence, soap operas, and astrology.
  • Realize that behind every success is a series of failures.
  • Learn to speak in public.
  • Look yourself and others in the eye.
  • Maintain your health and physical appearance.

P.P.S. A woman named Mary Schmich will also write some great advice in 1997 – you should read that, too.


A Simple Recipe for Flow


A few days ago, my wife wrote down a simple stir-fry recipe for me to cook.  I’m on nurse duty, and this particular recipe is the kind of comfort food she needs to help her recuperate.  I’m a decent cook (and, the recipe is simple), so after one go, I managed to memorize it.  I just finished cooking my third (and this time, double!) batch of it, and am feeling mighty good.  How can it be that this simple act of getting my mis-en-place, chopping, and then sequencing the frying could be so satisfying?  The answer is twofold: flow and acts of kindness.

You may have heard of flow (a.k.a. “the zone”) elsewhere.  If not, it’s simply the concept of “a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of [an] activity.”  It also happens to be one of the fundamental ways to help improve happiness, and according to “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky, for me personally it is one the the most effective ways to build happiness.   No wonder I feel so good!  But, I am not a chef, nor do I aspire to be one.  How can it be that cooking this meal got me into a flow state?

One common mistake for those seeking flow is to look in the wrong places.  I’m a data scientist by profession, so naturally I’d expect to achieve flow when I’m writing code or analyzing data, and indeed I do (lucky for me, or I’d have to seriously consider another profession!)  But that doesn’t mean that I can’t find flow in doing such “mundane” things as preparing a meal or going for a bicycle ride.  According to Lyubomirsky, “we can experience flow in almost anything we do, however monotonous or tedious it might appear.”  It helps that this this particular activity was also a way for me to “invest in social connections” via an “act of kindness” (in this case, the most important social connection I have – the one with my spouse!) – both activities that Lyubomirsky also proposes to help increase happiness. So naturally I’m feeling quite good right now.

If you’re interested in ways to improve flow (and happiness!) in your daily life, I highly recommend reading Lyubomirsky’s book (esp. Chapter 7), or the book by the originator of the concept – Flow by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.  You may find ways to turn the mundane into the sublime.



You Are Not an Average, Joe


When I was applying for scholarships for college, my father said something that I thought was nonsensical at the time.  I was bemoaning the acceptance rate statistics, and Dad said something like, “It doesn’t matter how many scholarships are awarded or how many people apply, you only need one scholarship.”  Being a  mathematically talented teenager, I “knew” this kind of advice was utter nonsense.  Of course it mattered!  If the acceptance rate was only 5%, then naturally I only had a 5% chance of getting the scholarship, and if the supply was limited, then the more people that applied, the worse my chances.  Right?

With time, I’ve come to realize the wisdom in what Dad said, and even from a mathematical standpoint, that he was actually correct.  It is a subtle but critically important distinction that we all would do well to internalize.  In statistical language, it means not confusing summary statistics with point observations or samples.  In layman’s terms it means: you are not an average anything (at least, not necessarily).

It is all too common to hear advice like “you should work out 3 times per week for 30 minutes,” or “the average person needs 8 hours of sleep,” or “you should eat like a caveman.”  The problem with these broad prescriptions is that they are not based on your particular needs, and they may or may not actually apply to you. You always need to examine where these recommendations come from, what assumptions they make, and whether they will likely be beneficial for you personally.  Statistically speaking, there is a very good chance that as long as they are based on solid science across a large sample, they actually will apply to you.  But you should be prepared to “reject the null hypothesis,” or to say it more concretely: “your mileage may vary.”

In other words, don’t assume that what works for the average person will necessarily work for you, but do try it as a starting point.  There is a very good chance it will work for you – after all, there is definitely something to be said for the “wisdom of the crowds.”  On the other hand, you may have to modify it a bit to suit you, and maybe even throw it out and try something else that your gut tells you is right.  More importantly, actively look out for situations where you are being treated or acting like everyone else when you shouldn’t be.  Yes, “most” people can tolerate gluten, but that doesn’t mean you can.  “Most” people happily guzzle soda made with GMO-based corn syrup, but that doesn’t mean you should.  “Most” people aspire to get a decent job working for a company, buy a house, get married, and have kids, but you should carefully consider whether that’s the best path for you.  “Most” people blindly follow in the footsteps of their parents when it comes to religion, but why would you make such an important decision by accepting the default?

If you only do what the average person does, you will probably only have an average life (or worse).  To be happy and healthy, you need to be productive and strive towards fulfilling your best true self.  That involves finding your strengths (i.e., those aspects of your self where you don’t fall into the middle of the bell curve, i.e., you are not average), and doubling-down on them – not just settling for what is “normal” or “expected.”  Since you only get one life, chances are you’d like for it to be a bit more than average – it’s up to you to discover how to make it great and to march resolutely down your own path.

In the end, I worked hard on my applications, and I did get that one acceptance to a very selective college and that one scholarship I needed, and the experiences I had because of those “lucky breaks” have had a positive lasting impression on who I am and how I approach life.  But to think of them as lucky breaks isn’t right.  It’s clear now that I was not an average applicant. Rather, I was an outstanding one – I just didn’t realize it.  But on some level, Dad did.

P.S. Many of the concepts here are based on a basic understanding of statistics, a subject I and others have suggested should replace Calculus in high school curricula.   If you want to learn more about statistics in a fun way, I heartily recommend The Cartoon Guide to Statistics.



Thoughts, Words, Labels, and Actions


While reading Gandhi’s autobiography recently, an interesting non-sequitur caused me to rediscover an important motivational technique.  Gandhi said something* about the need for his followers to internalize the British government’s rules before engaging in civil disobedience, and that they should do this via their thoughts, speech, and actions.  This 3-step progression is a natural way to build momentum and ensure that your intentions get translated into actions.

Some people find it difficult to go straight from intention to action.  The gulf seems so large, that often intentions die before they become reality.  How can you address this?  I’m reminded of a common idea from the study and practice of influence, in which it’s suggested that you get people to agree to your proposal by starting them off saying yes to a small part or small detail, and then build a series of yeses on that small seed.  You’re much more likely to win over the undecided if you build support this way.

So if you find yourself failing to go straight from thought to action, try one or two intermediary steps.  First, write your intention down.  Then tell someone, especially someone you know will ask you about it later.  Or, broadcast it to the world, or your world (social networks make this really easy these days). I find it also helps to name the thing you are trying to do by giving it a label or code name.  By attaching a label, you not only make it a real “thing” in your mind, but also make it easier to bring it up in conversation.  It also gives you the opportunity to give it a whimsical name that you associate with the positive side of the effort, which also acts as a code phrase between you and your confidants.  Which sounds better coming from your friend or loved one, “How’s the weight loss program coming along?” or “How is Project Slim Jim?”

As a personal example, a few years ago, I needed to drop about 10 extra pounds.  It wasn’t enough for me to just think that I wanted to drop the pounds.  I tried that for a while, and although I was able to eat a little less and exercise a little more, it just didn’t translate into losing weight.  So I started “writing down” my intention on a daily basis, by recording my weight.  That was it – just weighing myself every day, and writing that number down.  I also told my wife that I was doing it.  That one little change made all the difference, and within 6 months I had safely reached my target weight and maintained it for some time afterwards.  In the last year or so, though, it inched back up.  What happened?  A combination of life changes and the fact that I had stopped weighing myself.  Needless to say, I’m back on the scale every day now, and re-dropping those excess pounds, as part of “Slim Jim – the sequel”.

Another example: I wanted to read more books.  So I wrote down that goal, but initially I didn’t share it with anyone.  Needless to say, I didn’t really get off my butt and start doing something about it.  As it turned out, around the beginning of the year, the website Goodreads was making it easy to make my intention even more concrete by allowing me to “challenge” myself to read a certain number of books this year, and then broadcast that to all my Facebook friends, along with a notice every time I finished a book.  After I’d taken that simple, little step (of writing it down, labeling it as a “reading challenge”, and telling the world), suddenly I started to collect and organize my to-read list, and really start reading.

The inverse of this works for things you don’t want to do – bad habits, catastrophizing, and dwelling on the negative.  In these cases, the best course of action is to simply stop thinking and talking this way by catching yourself and literally mentally telling yourself “Stop,” followed by replacing the negative thought or speech with a positive one.  This technique (from what is called cognitive therapy), along with rationally examining your negative thought patterns, can go a long way towards keeping you on track and focused on the right things.

Do you have a goal you want to achieve, but just can’t seem to get started or have a hard time maintaining the effort needed to accomplish it?  Try the age-old technique that Gandhi hinted at: write it down, give it a name, tell others, and update them on your progress.  You’d be surprised at how much easier it makes turning your thoughts into actions.

I’ve tagged this post with the “happiness” tag for a simple reason: studies show that successful people are happier, healthier, and live longer.  And what is success, but accomplishing the goals you have set out to achieve?  I hope this simple technique helps you along the path to success and happiness.

* I’ve lost the exact quotation, but Gandhi makes use of the “thought, words, actions” triplet often in his writings, and even extends it, for example, in this oft-cited quote, “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.”


The Perfect Happiness Storm


Singing in the RainThis year, instead of my traditional review of TED talks, I’m going to link to a single page on the TED site – but first let me explain why.

As I grow older, my need for gifts at Christmas diminishes, but this year my wife hit the nail on the head when she gave me a small pocket book titled “Be Happy.”  Each page has a one line aphorism like “Get a good night’s sleep” or “Keep learning” or “Don’t isolate,” along with a simple cartoon illustration.  In 60 lines of text and less than 300 words, it pretty much condenses all you need to know about how to achieve happiness with about 95% accuracy.

The reason it was so apt is that I’ve come to realize that finding the key to happiness has been at the core of my being my entire adult life, and with my wife’s help, I’m just now beginning to really get what it means to be happy. Although I’m still not all the way there yet, at least I feel like there is a path for me to follow that will take me progressively closer.  As I mentioned in my previous post, an analysis of CNN Money’s “Best Advice I Ever Got” leads to “follow your passion” as a very common piece of advice.  After doing that analysis, I started thinking about what I’m passionate about – what should I be “following”? I started listing things, and the one that resonated with me the most was “finding meaning and happiness, knowing myself.”

There seems to be an increasing interest in happiness, not only on a popular level (as one indicator, searches for “happiness” have been on the rise in the last few years), but also in terms of the scientific study of what makes us happy (see, for example, Happiness: No Longer the Dismal Science, or Maslow 2.0: A New and Improved Recipe for Happiness).

This year, I discovered a new feature that LinkedIn put together – soliciting The Biggest Ideas of 2013 from about 60 different influencers.  Many of the so-called big ideas are just whatever the author happens to be working on (i.e., they were using this feature as a self-promotion tool).  So in an attempt to discern the larger themes, I ran all of the text of these ideas through a textual analysis.  Naturally some terms like “social media” and “data” rose to the top as being important themes for this year’s big ideas.  But to my surprise, “happiness” was also relatively high on the list.

Last, but not least, Netflix recently recommended, and I happily watch The Happy Movie.  It was great.

So it’s all coming together – a book and a movie about happiness arrive at the same time that some scientists and influencers are focusing on happiness, while simultaneously and independently, I decide that happiness is my passion.  Naturally, I went to the TED site to see what those bright people might have to say about it, and you know what I found?  A whole collection of talks that TED had already organized around just this topic!  So, to start the new year off, here’s a dose of happiness talk, curated by the fine folks at TED.

As I’ve learned elsewhere, one of the components of happiness is sharing your passion with others, so I’ll try to do more of that here on this blog by following up on the themes I discover as I try to discover the secrets of happiness.

Happy New Year!



I Ride My Bike Every Day, Life is Good


This morning I got a little reminder of the wonderful gift of life.  I had to drop off a rental truck a few miles from my house, and needed to get home.  My usual ride (my wife) was busy, so I just took her “cruiser” bike, threw it in the back of the truck, and pedaled my way home after dropping the truck off.  It was a bit cold (in the high 30’s), but otherwise a nice day for a ride.  I must have been quite a sight, all bundled up against the cold, riding a too-small-for-me bright orange cruiser with a wicker basket on the front.  And a big-ass smile on my face.

Until a few years ago, I used to be a fairly avid cyclist.  A 20-mile quick training ride was the least I’d consider worthy of my time.  Unfortunately, a just-serious-enough knee injury has kept me out of the saddle, but as I dismounted this morning, I was reminded of those physical feelings I used to get.  The cold-numbed thighs and cheeks, the wobbly legs and sore backside.  It didn’t take much – just a few miles on a simple one-geared coaster-braked cruiser – to drop me right back into that euphoric state of mind.  I really missed riding.

I recently read a couple of articles on CNN Money in which they interviewed dozens of highly successful people and asked them to name the one piece of advice they had received that they considered most valuable.  Being a data scientist, I naturally viewed this as an opportunity to mine the answers for wisdom.  I ran the text of the answers through a simple auto-summarizer that I like to use (more about that in an upcoming blog post), and categorized the results.  The second-most important theme that emerged was the hackneyed, but nevertheless true-to-the-core aphorism to “follow your passion.”  (The most important theme?  I’ll also cover that in that other blog post.) Until this morning, I had forgotten about how much I loved riding a bike.  That passion had fallen by the wayside, much to my physical and, more importantly, mental detriment.

A few years back, my wife bought some blank notebooks.  They were a very simple design, with a string-clasp closure, and a cover with a line-drawing of a boy on a bike and the caption, “I ride my bike every day.  Life is good.”  I thought they were cute, but didn’t really get them until now.  The notebook covers, assuming you use them often enough, are a constant reminder to find those things which bring you joy, and to make doing them a habit, a part of your daily routine.  For me, that coincidentally happens to be riding a bike, and so I’ll be prioritizing replacing my 20-year-old road bike with something that is gentler on my aging body in the coming year.

I was originally going to title this post “Life: Love It or Leave It,” but decided that could easily be misinterpreted if taken literally.  But metaphorically, it is spot-on.  As we turn the page to a new year, it’s time to ask ourselves, “What is my ‘bike’?”