Why We Should Delight in the Little Things in Life

“Happiness, not in another place, but this place…not for another hour, but this hour,” Walt red poppies & daisiesWhitman assured us nearly two centuries ago.  Yet how few of us truly appreciate life’s simple pleasures: the ecstasy of a deep, dream-dazed sleep after a dozen miserable nights of insomnia or the glorious freedom of a Sunday morning with no one to see and nothing to do?  Do we rejoice at the sound of our lover’s key unlocking the door or the miracle of our lost dog finding his way home?  No, instead we moan about our mortgage, gossip about the inconsequential lives of imbeciles, gripe about having to go to yet another pointless meeting, and impatiently tap our feet and let out an exasperated sigh when an elderly coupon-clipping lady holds up the line at the grocery store.

Why do we become so joyless?  Is it because the glamorous lives of movie stars and social media influencers leave us perpetually unsatisfied and always wanting more?  because as we get older, we simply lose our capacity for wonder and become superficial social climbers obsessed with impressive job titles, designer handbags, and flashy cars?  Or is it because life almost never goes as planned and inevitably disappoints us?

According to Pema Chodron, the ordained Buddhist monk behind the much beloved Wisdom of No Escape, the great thief of joy is resentment.  When we forget what we have and only focus on what we lack and what we want, we conclude contentment is not in this place but another place, not in this hour but another hour.  We’ll be happy, we tell ourselves, when we get the hip mid-century living room or the stylish wardrobe befitting a Vogue cover.

But what does the attainment of our ambitions actually get us?  Do we feel less melancholic/despondent/angsty/anxiety-ridden when we fulfill our desires?  No, getting what we want only makes us want more: the vintage velvet coach doesn’t look quite as charming in real life as it did on our Pinterest board, the blouse and trousers don’t look as chic on us as they did on that perfectly-proportioned fashion model.  So we seek satisfaction in yet something else: a 1950s gold lamp, a Prada handbag hoping these things will finally satiate us.

For Chodron, the only way to escape this hedonic treadmill is to delight in what we usually neglect or ignore.  To be awake to the beauty of ordinary moments— the unparalleled pleasure of clean sheets fresh out the dryer or the delight of an impromptu picnic in a field of tulips or the delectable bliss of chocolate raspberry gelato— is to step beyond the smallness of our own experience, beyond our bottomless desires and endless “more, more, more,” and into a wider perspective that recognizes the preciousness of every fleeting instant of our finite time on Earth.  As Proust once reminded us, beauty exists not just in Italian Renaissance paintings but underdone, unsavory cutlets on half-removed tablecloths.  In a similar sentiment, Chodron urges us to marvel at the overlooked miracles all around us:

“That sense of wonder and delight is present in every moment, every breath, every step, every movement of our own ordinary everyday lives, if we can connect with it.  The greatest obstacle to connecting with our joy is resentment.

Joy has to do with seeing how big, how completely unobstructed, and how precious things are.  Resenting what happens to you and complaining about your life are like refusing to smell the wild roses on your morning walk, or like being so blind that you don’t see a huge black raven when it lands in the tree that you’re sitting under.  We can get so caught up in our own personal pain or worries that we don’t notice that the wind has come up or that somebody has put flowers on the table.”

For centuries, artists created “memento mori,” works meant to remind us of death’s inevitability.  Latin for “remember that you have to die,” a memento mori often featured a skull or an hourglass, unsettling symbols of mortality.  Though Jean Morin’s skull paintings or the elaborate crypts of friars’ bones beneath Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini church in Rome might seem morbid or disturbing, they communicate an important— perhaps the most important— fact of life: we will die“What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be,” reads a haunting inscription in the Santa Maria catacombs.  Whether you’re a pitiful peasant or a great king, in a hundred years, you— too— will be skull and bones, forgotten beneath the sands of time and reduced to a few insignificant words on a tombstone.

the skull jean morin

When we’ll perish, we cannot know.  We could die fifty years from now, an old woman who’s done everything she set out to do— won the Pulitzer Prize, beheld the majesty of the Sistine Chapel, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, seen Machu Picchu— or we could die unexpectedly on the way to work tomorrow.  The grim reaper rarely announces his arrival: we die suddenly of a heart attack and collapse over our morning coffee, we say “I love you” to our mother like we have hundreds of times, wave goodbye and never return.

Some say death is the domain of melancholy emo kids and brooding philosophers, but it’s actually something we should all ponder.  When we reckon with death— that we will most certainly die but we can never know how or when— we will finally live.  No longer will we overlook the loneliness-lessening comfort of recognizing ourselves in a character from a book, nor will we take for granted simple pleasures like a good laugh or hot chocolate on a chilly autumn afternoon.  We’ll no longer postpone visiting that quaint town in the English countryside or procrastinate on doing the things we’ve always wanted to.  Life with its clean sheets and tulip fields and chocolate raspberry gelato, we realize, is too precious to squander.

Triumphing Over Ego: Ryan Holiday on Passion & the Importance of Remaining a Student

ego is enemyWhat is ego?  According to Freud, groundbreaking progenitor of psychoanalysis, the ego is the part of the mind that mediates between the primitive hungers of the unconscious and the demands of external reality.  Ego is “I”- the wellspring of the self.  For others, ego is the source of individuality and innovation and, thus, of all human achievement.  For still others, ego is arrogance, a grandiose sense of one’s own importance that inevitably leads the extraordinary to their doom.  A defeated Napoleon retreating from a war-torn Moscow, his enormous army of 500,000 diminished to a mere 100,000 men.  A reckless, overconfident Icarus ignoring his father Daedalus’s warnings and flying too close to the sun.  An ambitious scientist so hungry to unlock the mysteries of nature that he oversteps the proper bounds of human knowledge and creates a monster.  History abounds with stories of such figures, proud men whose hubris precipitated their fateful end.  

It is the peril of ego that marketing genius and sage stoic disciple Ryan Holiday contemplates in Ego is the Enemyhis instructive handbook to being “humble in your aspirations, resilient in your failures and gracious in your success.”  A tour guide through the millennia, Holiday recounts the stories of remarkable men and women who transformed industries, revolutionized art forms, and won world wars by triumphing over the yearnings of what astrologer and spiritual guru Tosha Silver calls the “small self.”  

If you’re ambitious like me, when pondering ego, one question inevitably asserts itself: who are we if we’re not our “small selves”?  isn’t the “small self” behind history’s greatest achievements?  haven’t the most cutting edge visionaries, the most enterprising entrepreneurs been those very people who had “big” dreams?  whose faith in their capacity to do the impossible was so unwavering as to seem deranged?  This is where Holiday makes a crucial distinction: ambition, he clarifies, is often admirable; after all, where would mankind be without pride, determination, yearning, and something for which to aim?  There would be no advancement, no betterment, no change.  Not to mention the fact that longing for something instills life with meaning and purpose.  It is only when desire teeters on the edge of obsession, when self-confidence tumbles into arrogance, and when self-love metamorphoses into narcissism, its hideously conceited twin, that ego deludes us into believing the myth of our own importance and becomes dangerous:

“[the ego is] the petulant child inside every person, the one that chooses getting his or her way over anything or anyone else.  The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility-that’s ego.  It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent.

It’s when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us.”

The sagest of philosophers concur that the mark of true wisdom is an appreciation of one’s own ignorance.  “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing,” Socrates once said.  Though ego is often thought of as the architect behind all human accomplishment, nothing poses more of a stumbling block to genuine mastery of a domain than an exaggerated sense of self-worth.  Why seek out the tutelage of an expert in your field or practice for several hours a day if you’re already a virtuoso?  Ego assures us there’s nothing more to learn: we’re already talented/intelligent/skilled enough.  It is this cocky bigheadedness, this smug belief in our own superiority that sabotages our ability to improve.  As Epictetus so wisely noted, “It is impossible for a man to learn what he already knows.”  Only when we possess an earnest sense of humility can we admit a lack of knowledge- the essential first step to real growth.  It is those humble few who are willing to be eternal students and enroll in the endlessly enlightening school of life that end up making the most significant contributions to their fields.

To illustrate the life-altering power of remaining a student, Holiday recalls the story of Kirk Hammett, lead guitarist of 80s megastar band Metallica.  Rather than revel in the glory of having “arrived” after being asked to join the up and coming thrash metal group, Hammett decided to seek out the instruction of Joe Satriani, legendary guitar maestro.  The result?  By being humble enough to recognize he still had more to learn, Hammett was able to develop the distinctive style that would land him the #11 spot on Rolling Stone’s distinguished list of 100 greatest guitarists and catapult Metallica into superstardom:

“In April in the early 1980s, a single day became one guitarist’s nightmare and became another’s dream, and dream job.  Without notice, members of the underground metal band Metallica assembled before a planned recording session in a decrepit warehouse in New York and informed their guitarist Dave Mustaine he was being thrown out of the group.  With few words, they handed him a bus ticket back to San Francisco. 

The same day, a decent young guitarist, Kirk Hammett, barely in his twenties and a member of a band called Exodus, was given the job.  Thrown right into a new life, he performed his first show with the band a few days later.

One would assume that this was the moment Hammett had been waiting for his whole life.  Indeed it was.  Though only known in small circles at the time, Metallica was a band that seemed destined to go places.  Their music had already begun to push the boundaries of the genre of thrash metal, and cult stardom had already begun.  Within a few short years, it would be one of the biggest bands in the world, eventually selling more than 100 million albums.

It was around this time that Kirk came to what must have been a humbling realization-that despite years of playing and being invited to join Metallica, he wasn’t as good as he’d like to be.  At his home in San Francisco, he looked for a guitar teacher.  In other words, despite joining his dream group and literally turning professional, Kirk insisted that he needed more instruction- that he was still a student

Think about what Hammett could have done- what we might have done in his position were we to suddenly find ourselves a rock star, or soon-to-be rock star in our chosen field.  The temptation is to think: I’ve made it.  I’ve arrived.  They tossed the other guy out because he’s not as good as I am.  They chose me because I have what it takes.  Had he done that, we’d probably have never heard of him or the band.  There are, after all, plenty of forgotten metal groups from the 1980s.”

It’s easy to be students when we’re novices in our fields, when it’s so undeniably apparent that we know nothing, but the key to gaining true mastery and making a noteworthy contribution is remaining a student- even after we turn pro.  As we rise to the top of our professions and garner the esteem of the most prominent members of our domains, the tendency is to become complacent: we choose the harbor of the familiar over the expedition to the unknown.  Strengthening our command of a skill, deepening our expertise: all require we be vulnerable enough to risk looking like an imbecile.  But if we’re too egotistical, our very worth as a human being depends on being better than, recognized for.  Because we find being “less than” intolerable, we refrain from the very risks that would stretch our abilities and help us improve.  Like learning to ride a bike, it’s only the unflinching child who’s willing to stumble who ever parts with his training wheels:

“It is not enough to be a student at the beginning.  It is a position that one has to assume for life.  Learn from everyone and everything.  From the people you beat, and the people who beat you, from the people you dislike, even from your supposed enemies.  At every step and every juncture in life, there is an opportunity to learn- and even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let ego block us from hearing it again.  

Too often, convinced of our own intelligence, we stay in a comfort zone that ensures that we never feel stupid (and are never challenged to learn or reconsider what we know).  It obscures from view various weaknesses in our understanding, until eventually it’s too late to change course.  This is where the silent toll is taken.  

Each of us faces a threat as we pursue our craft.  Like sirens on the rocks, ego sings a soothing, validating song- which can lead to a wreck.  The second we let the ego tell us we have graduated, learning grinds to a halt.  That’s why Frank Shamrock said, ‘Always stay a student.’  As in, it never ends.” 

ryan holiday

As a lifelong proponent of passion, I’ve always cherished the idea that irrepressible vehemence for one’s vocation is what separated the exceptional from the mediocre.  It was when preoccupation verged on obsession, when zeal crossed the line into zealotry that- I thought- ordinary men became extraordinary.  However, throughout the ages, hysterical, irrational passion is what has led countless remarkable men to their doom.  Romeo is the quintessential example.  Enamored of the stunning Juliet, Romeo mistakes youthful infatuation for true love and allows his passion to interfere with his ability to make sound decisions.  Rash and foolhardy, Romeo marries a 14-year-old he barely knows, brutally murders her cousin, gets banished, and kills himself- all in a span of less than four days.  Had he taken the time to carefully consider any one of these decisions, his life (and Juliet’s) might have been spared.  

Though today Romeo & Juliet is seen as the pinnacle of romance (or, for teenage boys forced to read it against their will, as a syrupy, sentimental piece of 17th century chick lit), Shakespeare actually intended for these star-crossed lovers to warn against passion’s exhilarating- but intoxicating- effects.  Like a heady liqueur, passion entrances and elates- but ultimately hinders our capacity to make sober judgements:

Because we only seem to hear about the passion of successful people, we forget that failures shared the same trait.  We don’t conceive of the consequences until we look at their trajectory.  With the Segway, the inventor and investors wrongly assumed a much greater demand than ever existed.  With the run-up to the war in Iraq, its proponents ignored objections and negative feedback because they conflicted with what they so deeply needed to believe.  The tragic end to the Into the Wild story is the result of youthful naiveté and a lack of preparation.  With Robert Falcon Scott, it was overconfidence and zeal without consideration of real dangers.  We imagine Napoleon was brimming with passion as he contemplated the invasion of Russia and only finally became free of it as he limped home with a fraction of the men he’d so confidently left with.  In many more examples we see the mistakes of over investing, underinvesting, acting before someone is really ready, breaking things that required delicacy- not so much malice as the drunkenness of passion.”  

So why does our cultural admiration of passion persist- despite evidence that fervor unfettered usually leads to catastrophe?  For one, passion is glamourous.  It’s exciting to write a 20-page letter confessing your love to a long-time crush at 3 in the morning; it’s exciting to risk your life savings on a business idea.  More moderate, reserved qualities- caution, prudence, pragmatism- are depicted as disgraceful signs of cowardice- or worse, harbingers of failure.  But those who attain real, lasting success embody these very traits.  Rather than be rushed headlong by passion or naiveté, rather than let their desire to accomplish a particular goal persuade them to overestimate its feasibility, successful people weigh the pros and cons of their decisions and rationally consider their consequences- in other words, behave responsibly.  Does this mean they refuse to be daring, that they tremble at the thought of taking daunting risks?  No, they just don’t act hastily:

“What humans require in our ascent is purpose and realism.  Purpose, you could say, is like passion with boundaries.  Realism is detachment and perspective.”

4 of the Greatest Books on Happiness

 

1. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

flow

The taoists called it “wu wei,” or doing without doing.  Today, we know it more casually as being “in the zone.”  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, father of the optimal psychology movement, officially named it flow.  According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is an automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness: a psychological space in which real enjoyment is possible.  In his magnum opus Flow: The Psychology of Optimal ExperienceCsikszentmihalyi outlines the nine conditions an activity must meet to bring about this energized focus: 

1. there are clear goals every step of the way (the activity is rule-bound)

2. there is immediate feedback to one’s actions

3. there is a balance between challenges and skills

4. actions and awareness are merged

5. distractions are excluded from consciousness

6. there is no worry of failure

7. self-consciousness disappears

8. the sense of time becomes distorted

9. the activity becomes autotelic

The third condition (there must be a balance between challenge & skill) has always interested me.  For an activity to produce flow, it must first be tailored to our skill level: if it’s too easy, it’s boring but if it’s too difficult, it becomes frustrating and troublesome.  We can only achieve a state of flow when our skills are perfectly matched to the task.  A beginning surfer just learning the sport, say, could reach a “flow” state of consciousness by catching a wave that was just a little tougher than usual- not by trying to ride a 20-footer at Waimea.

Though hedonists have championed the delights of sensual pleasure for centuries, Csikszentmihalyi and his team found that indulgence can only provide momentary joy- not lasting happiness.  Turns out true contentment begins will the thrill of discovery and challenge- not the passive rewards of leisure.

The irony, of course, is that most of us search for happiness in the very mindless hedonism that makes us miserable.  Exhausted from a long day at the office, most us plop down on the coach, pick up the remote and opt for yet another episode of our favorite idiotic reality show because we want to relax, we want to “zone” out after work.  Sadly, passive amusements like television fail to transport us to that magical altered state Csikszentmihalyi calls flow for this very reason.  Because watching television forces us into the passive role of spectator, it can never supply us with the genuine opportunities for challenge on which happiness so much depends.

So how can we apply Csikszentmihalyi’s findings to our own lives?  If we want to be genuinely enthralled with life, we have to locate more opportunities for flow.  Remember: flow-that blissful place where time dissipates and you both lose yourself and find yourself-depends on the right balance between challenge and skill.  In other words, painting a portrait or climbing a treacherous rock face will produce flow- watching yet another tedious hour of television will not.  We must have the discipline and diligence to choose the challenge of a meaningful activity over the ease of something leisurely and trivial.  As Csikszentmihalyi discovered in his lifetime of research, superficial merriment or purely hedonistic indulgences can’t fulfill us in the long-term.  That’s why it’s so much more gratifying to resist the chocolate cupcake and go for a run than it is to yield to the craving: resisting temptation is a challenge, it’s an obstacle we have to overcome if we want to reach our goal of losing 20 pounds.  For Csikszentmihalyi, this is where real exhilaration resides: in the hard, single-minded pursuit of one’s goals.

2. The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell 

the-conquest-of-happiness

In modern society, most of us suffer not from depression or dejection but from a general malaise-a feeling, as Thoreau so aptly phrased, of “quiet desperation.”  In his (I think) often underrated masterwork, The Conquest of Happiness, brilliant philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell suggests what he calls a “cure for ordinary day-to-day unhappiness.”  An illuminating volume, The Conquest of Happiness is divided into two parts: one on the causes of unhappiness; the other on the causes of its converse. 

Fundamentally, Russell’s thesis rests on a rather simple premise: unhappiness derives from self-centeredness, the endless absorption with oneself; happiness results from genuine interest in the outside world.  If we are to uncover our zest for life, Russell argues, we have to be engaged with all the wonder and beauty around us.  Turns out meaningful work is also an essential ingredient to contentment and happiness largely depends on one’s ability to cope with petty annoyances.

Filled with sensible advice and sound reasoning, The Conquest of Happiness– it seems-manages its ambitious aim to cure “ordinary” ennui.  Russell brings his keen scientific mind to the task, methodically investigating every factor of well-being from family and work to excitement and boredom.  Told in his characteristically lucid, astute style, Russell’s voice is wise and matter-of-fact, precise but never pretentious.  Though The Conquest of Happiness is a work of philosophy, at its heart is not theory but common sense. Clever, practical, insightful…this is the kind of book you’ll want to read with a pen in your hand.

3. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

happinessproject

Self-help sensation The Happiness Project landed on the New York Times best-seller list within minutes of being published and spent an unheard of two years topping the charts.  But does The Happiness Project really deserve all the acclaim?What’s with all the hype? 

I don’t know about you, but the moment something’s all the rage, I can’t flee it fast enough.  Game of Thrones.  Pokemon Go.  Eat Pray Love. Maybe I’m just an obnoxious contrarian at heart but the second a book’s a bestseller, I have no interest in it anymore.

I maintained this close-minded, slightly prejudiced view toward popular culture when The Happiness Project first hit the shelves.  Because I’m deeply fascinated by positive psychology and am (like most) always on a sort of quest to be happier, Rubin’s experiment naturally appealed to me.  But I protested.  Like a pretentious hipster who claims to disdain any band in the top 40, I refused to pick up The Happiness Project because of its popular appeal.

Then, in the fall of 2012, I finally succumbed. 

On a balmy day in early September as crimson and yellow leaves began drifting to the ground, I bought a copy for $15.95 from my favorite used book store.  I probably read the whole thing in 2 days.  Turns out Rubin’s The Happiness Project lived up to the hype.

When the question of how to be happy has consumed philosophers and monks since the beginning of time, how-you might wonder-can a modern writer hope to uncover anything new about the topic?

While Rubin never purports to be original, the way she presents her findings is unlike any other book I’ve ever read.  Accessible and focused on taking real, actionable steps, The Happiness Project traces Rubin’s year long odyssey to decipher the puzzle of how to be happier.  Each month, Rubin tackles a different subject from love and leisure to money and passion and, for every topic, she aims to keep a new set of resolutions.  In September, for example, Rubin’s objective is to pursue a passion.  For the month, her resolutions range from the ambitious (“write a novel”) to the simple and everyday (“make time”).

In the spirit of Enlightenment thinker, writer, and fellow studious, Type-A nut case Benjamin Franklin, Rubin develops a “resolutions chart” to assess her progress toward her goals.  And like Franklin, Rubin’s aims represent nothing short of a “bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection.” 

Though it seems absurd to condense the fundamentally incalculable goal of attaining “moral perfection” to checks and pluses on a chart, I think what makes The Happiness Project resonate with so many people is its emphasis on what can be done right now.  Rubin’s happiness project isn’t an overhauling of her life: she’s not Thoreau abandoning the hurried pace of civilization for the quiet seclusion of Walden Pond, she’s not Elizabeth Gilbert galavanting across three continents to sip wine in Italy and meditate in India.  “I didn’t want to undertake that kind of extraordinary change,” she confesses in the introduction, “I wanted to change my life without changing my life, by finding more happiness in my own kitchen.  I knew I wouldn’t discover happiness in a faraway place or in unusual circumstances; it was right here, right now.”

While not everyone can abandon their lives to join the Peace Corps, Rubin’s philosophy asserts, certainly most everyone can do simple things like fight right and clean more.  With her emphasis on taking small steps over big gigantic leaps and implementing uncomplicated systems of accountability like her handy resolutions chart, Rubin offers her readers real ways to be happier in this moment…without having to do something as crazy/terrifying as moving half way across the world.  Blending the wisdom of the ages with personal anecdote and cutting-edge scientific research, Rubin will remind you of man’s extraordinary ability, as Thoreau once observed, “to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”

4. You are a Badass by Jen Sincero 

you are a badass

I’ll begin this review with three simple words: read this book.  This is one of those rare books that I can say truly changed my life…and will change yours.

The wonderful poet and diarist Anais Nin once said, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”  In my mid (okay, technically late) 20s, I think I’ve reached a point in my life where this observation is unsettlingly true.  If I continue to remain in the bud, if I continue refusing, as mythologist and scholar Joseph Campbell once penned, to “say a hearty yes to the adventure of my life,” one thing is certain: there are many thrilling, ecstatic, exhilarating, joyful, invigorating, earth-shattering experiences I’ll miss out on!  

In a voice that’s as outrageously candid as it is hysterical, Sincero points out that the decision to embrace your inner badass is no small matter: these are our lives we’re talking about.

 So, she asks us, will we squander the miracle of living and consign ourselves to mediocrity and quiet desperation?  Or will we have the boldness to chase after our dreams with a sledge hammer?

For most people, remaining securely in the bud is safe.  There’s no potential for heart-breaking humiliation or rejection or failure.  Though our lives are as bland and unexciting as saltine crackers, we remain tight in the bud because it’s easy: it requires little to no effort.  And most of us are lazy motherfuckers. We’re lazy and we’re eager to please and we’re scared.

Scared of what might happen if we blossom into the most exceptional versions of ourselves.

Scared of the expectations we’d have to live up to.

It’s absurd how terrified most of us are of leading lives we’re excited about; we prefer the security of the familiar to the terror of the unknown, even though we know flowers weren’t meant to be confined to their petals-they were meant to bloom.

Full of practical tips and sage advice, You are a Badass is a self-help book that will actually rouse you to radically transform your life-not just inspire you to half-heartedly commit for 5 minutes.  “I’m going to lose 20 pounds!” we usually declare at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s, convinced of our unwavering commitment.  Fast forward 6 days and we’re scarfing down Haggen Daz by the bucket full while sprawled out on the coach.

Why?  What happened to our convictions?

The sad truth is that the fire to revolutionize our lives quickly burns out.  Tedious day-to-day obligations-our mortgages, our phone bills-usually snuff out the grand ambition to reinvent ourselves.

Sincero empowers you with the tools to stop believing your same old lame ass excuses and start living a life you’re crazy about (all while swearing profusely and making you laugh out loud).  In You are a Badass, Sincero will teach you how to:

  1. challenge self-limiting beliefs and harness the power of positive thinking
  2. recognize the power of your thoughts to shape what you think is possible and manifest what you want
  3. meditate so you can connect with the Source and more fully enjoy the present moment
  4. cultivate gratitude so you can appreciate all you have now
  5. reform your self-sabotaging behaviors so you can build a life you’re actually psyched about

“Whatever you desire to do with your precious life-write jokes or rock out or start a business or learn to speak Greek or quit your job or raise a bunch of kids or fall in love or lose your flab or open orphanages around the world or direct movies or save dolphins or make millions or live in a canyon in a loincloth-” Sincero implores us, “believe that it’s possible. And that it’s available to you. And that you deserve to be/do/have it. Why not?”

The Zeigarnik Effect: Procrastination, Planning & Goal-Setting

Zeigernik EffectAccording to a phenomenon psychologists call the Zeigarnik effect, the human mind can only remember unfinished tasks. Like a song endlessly on repeat, chores left undone linger in the subconscious, expending precious cognitive energy until complete. In one experiment conducted by Florida State graduate student E.J. Masicampo, 2 groups of students were told to think about their most important examination: the first group was told to create a detailed study plan; the second group was told to simply think about the test. The control group was instructed to think about the most exciting upcoming event on their social calenders.

Afterwards, participants were asked to fill in the blanks of several words. Those in the second group who did not devise a study plan were more likely to fill in the blanks with words relating to finals. For example, a student in the second group would be more likely to fill a four-letter word beginning with the letter “e” with “exam” than a student from the first group.

Why? As the Zeigarnik effect demonstrates, creating a specific plan for executing our goals frees up mental energy for other cognitive undertakings. Those who simply thought about a daunting task (in this case, their most strenuous final exam) without developing a means of tackling it were subliminally controlled by the effects of procrastination.

procrastination

What does this mean for us and practical goal-setting? Masicampo’s findings suggest careful planning can liberate us from the persistent mental nagging associated with procrastination. If we outline how we will complete a task before actually completing it, we can focus more keenly on other matters. What’s essential here is that we don’t even have to finish the task: simply designing a systematic, step-by-step method for reaching our goals is enough to fend off the perpetual distraction of not having an item crossed off our to-do lists.

For me, these results were both sensible and shocking, logical and counterintuitive. On the one hand, it made sense that items yet to be checked off our to-do lists badger our minds and subconsciously control our attention. Yet the idea that meticulous planning is freeing also seemed like a load of horseshit. Deadlocking myself into some preconceived notion of how my day was to supposed to go always felt more like a prison. Since I can remember, I’ve scolded myself for my obsessive scheduling because I thought such micromanaging behavior was a coping mechanism, a vulnerability shield, for dealing with the excruciating fact that, as humans, we have little to no control. Scrupulous hour-by-hour scheduling in my day planner, I believed, was proof of a major character defect, if not a full-blown pathology.

I’ve always regarded my chronic fixation with time as a problem to be remedied rather than a talent to be applauded. “You’re too uptight,” I’d reproach myself, “Why can’t you just relax and be like everyone else?” But is it possible my penchant for planners is an asset rather than a flaw? According to social psychologist and vulnerability expert Brene Brown’s theory of a “strengths perspective,” almost all “flaws” are incarnations of our greatest strengths. When we reframe our most detested shortcomings as assets, we can see how they operate to serve us and, more importantly, we can cultivate a more forgiving relationship of loving kindness toward ourselves.

Take my Type-A lunacy. From a self-critical perspective, I could view my rigidness and refusal to stray from schedule as evidence of my being high-strung, or I could understand it as confirmation of my commitment and follow-through. Same goes for my willful goal-orientation. I could view my obsession with setting and achieving goals as an unhealthy and detrimental addiction, or I could adopt the outlook that the single-minded pursuit of one’s goals is admirable. How we perceive ourselves depends on our perspective at a given moment. And the amazing thing about perspective is that we always have the power to choose.

To return to Masicampo’s findings, science has confirmed time and time again that planning is critical to reaching our goals. So I suppose my fondness for calendars and day planners isn’t so bad after all.