The Negative Cycle

One of the worst things we humans do, in my experience, is create negative cycles in our head. It’s one of the main goals of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to find and remove these things, to solve current problems and change unhelpful thinking and behavior.

Depicting_basic_tenets_of_CBTGenerally, it works a little like this: Our negative thoughts lead us to have negative feelings. These negative feelings lead us to have negative behavior. This behavior, in turn, gives us more negative thoughts. At some point, we need to break that cycle and create new patterns. Naturally, this is much easier said than done.

For me, I’ve noticed that I’m generally a very happy-go-lucky person. I expect the best in every situation, and I rarely assume that things will go badly for me. Generally, this works out well for me, and I have been very fortunate in my life so far. Even in very dark situations, such as when my father was dying of cancer, I was able to see the bright side of everything; he would be out of his suffering soon, he’s lived a full and complete life, he’s been a great father to my sister and me, etc.

My own Achilles Heel, however, comes in relationships. My first ever panic attack came during the months following the end of my longest relationship. We had been trying to patch things together, but I’d come to the conclusion that it wasn’t going to work. I had the same kind of anguish-like scenario pop up when my most recent girlfriend and I decided to go our separate ways – despite loving each other very much, there were simply too many outside factors that complicated things for the relationship to work.

For me, the negative circles almost always appear in relation to petty things like jealousy and the often irrational fear of losing a romantic partner. It gets worse when I do lose a romantic partner; it’s like my brain works overtime to create all kinds of (often wildly unlikely) negative thoughts, which leads to negative feelings, which leads to negative behavior – and back again.

I haven’t been able to figure out why it happens in situations related to romantic relationships and almost no other situation, but it’s definitely something that I feel I can afford to work on.

Talking to My 18-Year Old Self

A popular question to ask people is what kind of advice they would have for their 18-year old selves. It’s an interesting exercise; the kind of thing that makes you look back on your life since you were eighteen and what kinds of lessons you’ve learned that you wish you learned earlier. It’s been a question I’ve been asking myself quite a lot these past few days and weeks; and I think I’ve finally come to the most obvious answer, an answer that I think I should have seen from the beginning.

Talent and smarts just aren’t enough if you’re not ready to do the hard work.

For way too long, I was able to coast on the fact that I was smart, clever, well read, creative and a fast learner. School was never a challenge, and I was often found performing way below my ability because I just didn’t feel challenged enough. After school, when I began working, it was very much the same thing. I would get the job done, but just barely so, because I knew I was destined for higher things.

When I started working on my own online projects, I got a lot of quick wins. People would love my ideas, offer to help out, throw time and attention my way and things went off to a flying start. But then they fizzled out because I wasn’t happy with how much time it took to lead something to success. Far better to find a new project and get all that attention and appreciation for my creativity instead.

This happened too often and continued for too long. I know that I could be sitting on a small fortune in Internet startups had I just learned the lesson of perseverance earlier in life. It wasn’t until CSICON, which I launched in 2011, that something changed. I decided this was a project that I needed to stick to for the long haul, and put in the work hours needed. I’ve launched other projects since then which are all equally dear to me, as more and more of the daily operations of CSICON have been lifted by other people.

There’s such an enormous difference in actually putting in the hard work than in just having a great idea and expecting things to happen because you’re clever.

Physical Media Just has to Go

Over the past twenty-five years, I’ve bought more than a thousand books, close to 1500 audio CDs, 200+ DVDs and a vast amount of video games. I’ve been a collector of many things, but physical media has to be one of the biggest ones. Assuming an average cost of $20 per book, $15 per CD, $10 per movie and $40 per video game, we’re talking upwards of $50,000 or more. Had this money been invested even in the simplest of index funds over this time, I would probably have a quarter of a million dollars at the moment.

It’s not that I regret buying them. I love the knowledge and entertainment that I’ve gathered from all of these things, and they’ve made me a richer and more complete person. I’ve grown as a person from these books and been entertained by the music, movies and video games. But they’re taking up so much space. The entire wall behind me where I’m sitting now is covered, corner to corner, by books. There are another two book shelves in my living room, packed with even more books.

When I moved to this apartment with my then-girlfriend, carrying my furniture up to the third floor (no elevators) was a piece of cake. Carrying all the books, CDs and movies however? That’s a different story altogether.

I began working on this issue two years ago, when I ripped all of the audio CDs I wanted to keep to my computer, gave away the rest to friends who wanted them and threw away the ones that were remaining. I’ve also given away at least a hundred books over the past year or so, and will now start doing the same to my remaining books and movies.

Part of the reason is to reduce the workload involved in my next move, but the biggest part of it is something completely different. We’re in a paradigm shift right now, where we simply don’t need physical media any longer. All the movies I watch now are streamed from my file server or Netflix, through my Apple TV – or just viewed on one of my three computer screens as I work on something completely different. I’m re-watching Daredevil right now; no physical media involved.

As for books, the same thing goes there as well. I’ve bought about ten books in the past two months, all of them through the Kindle and Audible marketplace. I can read them on my iPad or Kindle, or I can listen to them on my iPhone during my commute. I get through books faster this way and it has the added advantage of allowing me to be more flexible regarding my reading hours. Also, lugging around heavy books isn’t a problem any longer.

Going all-digital for my media means I’ll have to repurchase some of my old books when I want to read them, of course, and there’s plenty of books that I will never get rid of due to the nostalgic value they have to me. There are even a couple of DVDs, like the special 3+ hour version of Dune that I bought in Japan, that will likely stay in my collection for a long time.

Have any of you migrated from physical media to digital media over the past couple of years? What kinds of lessons did you learn, and what do you think about the way you live your life now?

Quitting Smoking

As far as bad habits go, smoking has to be one of the biggest ones out there. There are no positive effects of smoking to speak of; it drains your wallet and it’s bad for your health. Smoking a pack a day can set you back as much as $3000 or more every year, which is money that would have been much better suited to work for you at the markets, accruing interest rates via index funds and stock equity.

I was a smoker on and off for the past 12 years. I managed to quit a couple of times, but it often took me only a couple of weeks or months before I fell back into the habit. It took a long time for me to realize what it was that was causing me to relapse. It wasn’t until I started studying the neurochemistry of smoking and talking to people who had managed to successfully quit that I began to piece things together. Barring all of the obvious health-related concerns as regards lung and heart function, let’s take a look at the brain and the actual chemistry of the habit.

Nicotine acts on nicotinic cholinergic receptors, triggering the release of neurotransmitters that produce psychoactive effects that are rewarding.

With repeated exposure, tolerance develops to many of the effects of nicotine, reducing its primary reinforcing effects and inducing physical dependencies in the form of abstinence. With repeated exposure to nicotine, neuroadaptation (tolerance) to some of the effects of nicotine develops, which leads to the number of binding sites on the nicotinic cholinergic receptors in the brain to increase.

The negative affect that typifies the response to nicotine withdrawal probably results in part from a cascade of events involving increased levels of extra hypothalamic corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) and increased binding of CRF to corticotropin-releasing factor 1 (CRF1) receptors in the brain, thereby activating the CRF–CRF1 receptor system, which mediates responses to stress. This is why so many smokers find it to be an effective stress relief, and why people who quit often find themselves irritable and frustrated over the next few days.

If a smoker were to cease all forms of tobacco use, the worst parts of the neurochemistry of smoking will have been flushed out in three days, but it takes about three to months for the billions of nicotinic receptors in their brains to return to normal levels. Even a single hit of nicotine from tobacco can cause these receptors to quickly up-regulate again, which is why someone trying to quit can find themselves right back were they started after the addiction tells them, “you can have just one”. It’s never just one.

Interestingly, nicotine replacement therapy does not have the speed or power to sustain the billions of up-regulated receptors. Research shows that people on cessation medication are losing these receptors at the same rate as if they quit cold turkey, which is why doctors and counselors recommend medications in tobacco treatment – they help manage withdrawal while allowing the addiction to continue dying away uninterrupted. The only thing that can cause these billions of nicotine receptors to return is tobacco use.

The medication and other treatment options are so successful, in fact, that we need only look at the statistics to see how they differ. Even though far more people report being able to quit cold turkey, the actual statistics are closer to 5% of all people quitting cold turkey being smoke-free one year later. Cold turkey is the most frequently tried way of quitting, however, so there’s a massive built-in selection bias that makes this method seem most successful. Simply because so many people try it, odds are that the person you meet who successfully quit smoking used this method.

If you compare this to the method that involves counseling and treatment medication, however, you’re going to be seeing success rates closer to one third of all smokers being smoke-free a year later. Especially if you get a prescription for Varenicline (Chantix in the USA and Champix in Canada, Europe and other countries), you can find enormous relief from the habit, as it simply makes smoking far less pleasurable. Instead of containing nicotine and supplanting the habit, it displays full agonism on the α7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. In contrast, nicotine gum or patches only supply a steady stream of nicotine into the body and lessen the craving for smoking that might otherwise appear.

I’m quitting smoking again now. I’ve quit cold turkey many times in the past, and have almost always fallen back into the habit again within a year and a half. This time, I’m going to go for the patch for a month or so. If that doesn’t work, I’m aiming for a prescription of Varenicline so that I’m completely smoke-free by August first. It’s going to be such a relief.

The Information Diet

Over the years I’ve tried many different food diets. I’ve been an omnivore, vegetarian, vegan, Paleo, fruitarian, and everything else in between. Trying different diets is a very interesting way of figuring out how your body reacts to certain stimulus. The same can be said for going on an information diet.

On the information diet, you purposefully limit yourself to certain types of information. Think of politics as snack food, for example. If you’re on any kind of food diet, you would limit yourself to not eating snack food. Similarly, if you’re on an information diet, you might limit yourself to not consuming any information about politics.

For the longest time I spent my life trying to gather as much information about everything as I could. I would find a new subject that I knew nothing about, and then set about to devour all the information that I could find about that subject. In this way, I picked up information about hypnosis, transport layer protocols, gardening, nutrition, biology, and everything in between. I regarded this as a way of strengthening myself as a person. By knowing a lot about all kinds of things, I would be a better person.

Without getting into the debate of generalist versus specialist – I prefer being a generalist myself – I’ve come to understand that this is not a healthy way to approach information. It’s like stuffing your mouth full of everythimg you can find just because you’re hungry. What I’ve done now, for the past couple of weeks, is to approach information in a way that is very similar to my approach towards nutrition. Just like I want to divide my daily diet into certain percentages of fat, protein, and carbohydrates; I also want to divide my daily information diet into specific proportions.

We only have a very limited amount of time and attention in a given day. I would much rather spend this time and attention learning things that benefit me as a person, rather than reading the latest theories about what people think might be going on in the television series Game of Thrones. Instead of spending hours doing fundamental analysis of various stock, I trust that the index fund that I purchased is the best choice for me at the moment. Similarly, I no longer find much need to spend hours reading Twitter and Facebook, as the information people share with me there is rarely relevant to what I need to know. Instead I spend my free time studying things that are currently interesting to me. I listen to audiobooks, view recordings of lectures, read books, meditate, and do research on the topics that interest me.

For me, and information diet is not just a great way of learning more in less time, it’s also a great way of reclaiming lost time that would otherwise be spent chasing down pointless leads.

So what kind of snack food are you eating on your information diet? What kind of things can you eliminate?

Ways of Being Wrong

In school, we learned that being wrong was the worst thing imaginable. We were graded based on how right we were on our tests, and were told that our entire future was based on how much we managed to get right. While that might be a useful strategy when it comes to testing how well we understand the basic concepts of math; as far as life strategies go, it’s absolutely dreadful.

In life, it’s rarely as simple as doing the right thing or the wrong thing, because that sort of thing can be dependent on so many external factors that don’t care what you’re doing. The most important thing you can do is to have the right strategies for making decisions.

Say you lose a couple of thousand dollars at the stock market. If you did all the analysis required, made an intelligent investment decision based on your risk/reward ratio, but still lost a bunch of money, you didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, you just lost some money despite doing everything right. Shit happens, right? Don’t beat yourself up over it.

But that’s not how most people take it. Most people look at the red numbers in their balance and think they made mistakes and now they’re bad people. No matter how right our process was, we look at the end results and judge ourselves based only on the results.

We do this all the time. It might be relationships that we end for the right reason only to miss them when we see the former partner later on. It might be a job that we leave for a very good reason, only to see the company do amazingly well a few years later. It’s a crippling way of thinking, and one that I wouldn’t recommend for anybody.

Next time you’re facing some sort of difficulty or loss; just ask yourself that one question. Did you do the right thing based on the information or position you had at the time? If you did, try not to beat yourself up about whatever happened next; you did what you could.

Calendar Events and Tasks – What’s the Difference?

When it comes to handling my daily life, there are two application families that I simply couldn’t live without. I say application families as the actual app differs from time to time; while I always have one app of each family. They are:

  • A Calendar App. At the moment, I’m using Sunrise Calendar.
  • A To-Do List App. At the moment, I’m using Todoist.

These two apps quickly fill up with things and more or less control my day in one way or another, but in subtly different ways – and that’s what I want to spend this entry discussion; the differences between tasks and calendar events, and how easy it is to get things confused if you put an activity in the wrong place.

A calendar event is almost always a meeting with another person. Let’s say I’ve arranged to meet at a specific person at a specific time and place; I would put that into my calendar in order to keep track of it. I might also send them an invitation using that same calendar event. Simple.

I will also use the calendar to keep track of relevant happenings that I might not be directly involved with or which I don’t require an action from my side. This could be, for example, my friends’ birthdays, international holidays, quarterly reports from companies I’m interested in, etc. I don’t always need to act on this information, but I’m interested in knowing when in time it occurs so that I can shape and adjust my life accordingly.

Calendar events are also often things that happen whether or not you’re there to witness them. Is there a meeting at two o’clock? It’ll probably happen even if you’re not there, so into your calendar it goes. Is there a film festival this coming weekend? Put it in your calendar, you might not be going, but you want to know that it’s there, in case nothing else pops up. It’s also a great place to put your friends’ birthdays, anniversaries and so on. Things you might not need to act on, but things that are good to know on the date they happen.

A to-do list item, however, is simply something that needs to be done. Vacuuming your apartment is something that has to be done at some point, and it makes no sense to schedule it on Thursday at 6pm. As long as you get it done before Friday evening, when your guests arrive, you’re fine. Same thing goes for buying a birthday present for your nephew; you don’t have to do it on Saturday at 2 PM to 2:30 PM, but you have to do it at some point before his birthday.

That’s the important bit about the difference between calendars and to-do items, obviously. Calendars are used to track when in time something happens while to-do items are used to track things that need to get done. If you want to know that you’re going to have to be on the plane that leaves the airport at 4:45 PM, you want that in your calendar, not your to-do list. On the other hand, if you want to remember to pack your passport and your swimming trunks, those should be on your to-do list with a deadline of about six hours before then.

I use my calendar to keep track of things that I need to do at specific times, such as record podcasts, go to the cinema, travel, be on vacation or similar. I use my to-do list to keep track of the things that I need to get done, such as clean the oven, replace my toothbrush, call the doctor, buy a birthday present or change the bed sheets. Some of these are automated to the degree that the task “Buy a new toothbrush” pops up in my list automatically every tenth Monday. the task “Brush the dog” shows up every other Thursday. “Replace the bed sheets” shows up every Friday.

Summing up

Essentially, the rules are simple:

  • Calendars contain things that will be happening on a specific date/time, not thing that need to be done by a specific date/time.
  • The to-do list contains things that need to be done by a specific date/time, not things that need to be done on a specific date/time.

I’ll be writing another entry a little further down the line with ways of making your calendar and to-do list work better for you.