Category Archives: Mental control

Overwork: Preventing burnout

Rules-of-ProductivityAs discussed in the previous post, overwork can easily lock you into a vicious cycle leading to complete burnout (even if it is related to a subject that really inspires you). Burnout is a terribly frustrating experience, especially if you are used to being highly productive. It destroys inspiration and natural interest and, if not properly dealt with, can lead to months of grinding below-par productivity. It is certainly to be avoided at any cost.

This post will therefore discuss a few ways in which you can build an environment in which burnout is automatically prevented. As with all other guidelines given on this blog, the central principle is constructing a micro-environment where doing the right thing happens automatically and naturally.

The first and most important guideline is to set up a range of relaxing activities which you have no choice other than to attend. Regular sports practices, music practices, poker evenings or family outings fall in this category. These are typical events which you might resist going to at first, but, when you are actually there, you suddenly become very glad that you actually went. A fixed schedule of such activities will give your mind a welcome (and automatically enforced) break from your primary occupation and will definitely have a significant positive influence on your productivity (and your general life satisfaction).

Secondly, it really helps to ensure that your immediate working environment contains some healthy distractions such as a musical instrument, a pair of free-weights or just a fairly quiet walking path where you can stretch your legs and get some fresh air. Whenever you feel like your focus is waning, it can be very helpful to take a break and make use of one of these distractions. And no, Facebook or YouTube don’t count as healthy distractions.

Finally, it is very helpful to ensure that your environment contains some opportunities for quiet time whenever your mind becomes overburdened. Just a few minutes on a quiet rooftop, in a quality massage chair or following a slow yoga routine can really provide a very welcome rebalancing of your internal chemistry after a period of sustained effort. Taking a few minutes to just decouple and take a step back can also lead to valuable productivity-boosting insights. 

I again have to emphasize that it is vital to build these guidelines into your environment. If you just make a new-year’s resolution that you will maintain a better work-life balance, but leave your environment unchanged, I can guarantee you that nothing will come of it. Invest the little bit of effort necessary to set up this intelligent micro-environment. It is definitely worth it.

Filed under: Mental control – Advanced control

Overwork: The vicious cycle

work-vs-inspirationThe vicious cycle of overwork is one of the biggest enemies of highly productive people. It goes like this: the more overworked you become, the less productive you become, the longer hours you feel you have to work, the more overworked you become. This is frustrating, demoralizing and unhealthy and can kill your healthy obsession before you ever get the chance to really produce something of note.

Breaking the vicious cycle of overwork is quite simple really (in theory): You simply have to realize that there exists an optimum number of hours you can work in a given week, month or year before your productivity (and various other areas in life) start to suffer. The less simple part is finding out where that number lies and sticking to it in daily life.

One thing that really helps in this regard is to actually work all the time you work. It is amazing how many people think that working and going to work is exactly the same thing. It’s not. Two people can be at the office for exactly the same number of hours, but have vastly different outputs, simply because the one allows himself to be constantly distracted by everything imaginable, while the other puts his head down, really gets into the job and then allows the brain’s natural interest in the subject to drive him forward, forgetting about time, forgetting about eating and never even thinking about the myriad of distractions that plague the working man of today.

If you really have found your healthy obsession, it will take only a few minutes of conscious focus to kick-start a long period of near-optimal productivity. In fact, this is one of the most natural tests of a healthy obsession. If you repeatedly fail to get your brain to naturally focus on the subject matter at hand, you really should carefully consider whether this really is your calling. And remember; you always have the option of shifting down instead of shifting up.

If you have truly found your healthy obsession, however, one of the best skills you can develop is the skill of recognizing the vicious cycle of overwork already at an early stage and taking corrective action regardless of how difficult it might be. Ignoring these warning signals can bring only grief and frustration. The next post will look at some strategies for preventing the vicious cycle of overwork and get out quick if it starts to suck you in.

Filed under: Mental control – Advanced control

Overwork: Too much of a good thing

UpwardsSuccessfully developing a healthy obsession and shifting your life into top gear is wonderful both for yourself and for society, but it does have a potential downside…

The problem is this: While doing something stupid like constantly increasing your intake of McDonald’s “happy” meals will eventually make you fat and unhealthy and thereby create some forces opposing this behavior,  doing something smart like allowing yourself to become totally immersed in a creative subject area that really interests you will stimulate further interest, strengthen your self-esteem, bring you a nice pay raise and win you the respect of many people, thereby further reinforcing this trend. This is very cool except for one little problem: you will soon find yourself regularly working 70 or 80 hour weeks. And that is not sustainable.

burn-outOverwork has several rather serious consequences. Firstly, it can easily lead to something called burnout. This is when the brain is simply pressed beyond what it can take and just becomes totally useless, robbing you of any creativity and energy that you might have thought you had left. You simply cannot get any work done in this state and, if you are used to being highly productive, this is terribly frustrating. Someone who does not respect her own limits actually ends up working more and more inefficiently as she pushes her brain further and further past its healthy operating point. Thus, she is constantly working harder and producing less. That is very much not cool.

Secondly, if you push yourself far enough, it can actually make you physically ill. In the life expectancy calculator on the top right, overwork subtracts about three years from an average lifespan. OK, it’s not nearly as bad as smoking, but still; that’s more than a thousand good days down the drain. Also, if you are ill, you cannot work and therefore, by driving yourself past your limits, you will simply be reducing your productivity.

Thirdly, it can have a very negative effect on your family and social life. Strong social networks and regular social contact is fun, emotionally fulfilling, stimulating to your creativity and a source of an additional five years to your life. A strong and real (not Facebook) social network is also an excellent rainy day insurance policy. Friends and family can be of immeasurable value during hard times – both practically and emotionally.

tortoise and hareAll three of these factors have the potential to really hurt your productivity (value added per hour worked). This is the total opposite of what we want and can lead to a very demoralizing spiral of reducing output despite longer working hours (discussed further in the following post). Such a vicious cycle is a real motivation-killer and should be avoided at all costs by any individual with ambitions to really do something special in this world.

Sometimes you have to slow down to speed up. From personal experience, I know that this is very hard to do, but if you get it right consistently, wonderful things can happen.

Filed under: Mental control – Advanced control

Taking mental control to the top level

There is this old saying: “If you want something done, give it to the busiest person.” Earning the title of the busiest person – the person whose time is constantly in high demand – is not easy, especially in the tough economic times we face today. Doing this requires a sustainable shift up in performance as described in the previous section of this mental control category, but even this is not quite enough. The following few posts will therefore discuss the last few details necessary for complete mental control.

OverwhelmIn particular,  two primary “busy person” challenges will be discussed in quite some detail over the following posts: overwork and overwhelm. If not managed well, these two factors can completely ruin potentially great contributions to society by sapping energy, enthusiasm and focus. However, if you manage to set up your working environment in such a way that you can capitalize on the most lucrative opportunities coming your way without burning out or getting lost in a marsh of multitasking, some very cool things can happen.

Making a truly meaningful contribution without falling prey to overwork and overwhelm is very challenging though. It requires a good deal of discipline, some honest prioritizing and regular, but polite use of the word “no”. Most importantly, however, it requires an intelligent micro-environment where a healthy balance and sufficient focus happens automatically. We will build such an environment in this section.

the brainFinally, to put the next few posts in the correct perspective, it can be useful to quickly summarize the mental control philosophy followed in this category of the One in a Billion project. Mental control is about using your limited willpower to set up intelligent micro-environments where the desired behavior happens automatically (basic control), harnessing the brain’s most powerful drivers for good and productive purposes (intermediate control), and taking good care of your brain when you reach that high performance zone (advanced control).

Such a brain can sustain remarkably high performance and creativity almost effortlessly and, frankly speaking, is quite possibly the most valuable thing in the world. If you want to become truly wealthy (in every sense of the word), developing such a brain is the best place to start.

Filed under: Mental control – Advanced control

Building towards sustainability: Technology vs. lifestyle change

There are few people around today who will deny that society is on a highly unsustainable path. We therefore know that we have to make some serious changes, but just what these changes should look like remains a topic of great debate. Two general pathways are usually considered: a technology pathway where our brilliant scientists develop a wide range of new gadgets which solve all of our problems and a lifestyle change pathway where people willingly reduce their consumption.

1 and a half planets

It is a fairly safe bet that we will ultimately need both of these solutions, but it is highly likely that the lifestyle change pathway will turn out to be much more important than the technology pathway. For example, given the fact that we already consume like we had 1.5 planets and the top 10% is responsible for about 60% of total resource consumption, we would need about 9 planets to sustain our society if everyone consumed like the top 10%. The chances that technology can extract the resource equivalent of an additional 8 planets from the one planet we have is close to zero, especially if we consider that the resources that made our entire industrialized society possible, fossil fuels, are rapidly depleting and causing climate change.

Consumption distribution

It is easy for the layman to look at sensationalist headlines proclaiming revolutionary new breakthroughs in solar power, nanotechnology or 3D printing and conclude that the power of human innovation is limitless. However, the scientists and engineers responsible for developing and deploying this new technology know that such headlines are far removed from objective reality and that the actual real-world impact of many so-called breakthroughs will be much smaller than reported. I know because I am one of those scientists.

That being said, however, technology has a vital role to play in the longer term to allow us to transition from fossil energy (which currently supplies close to 90% of our total energy needs) to alternative and sustainable sources. Using current technology, no amount of lifestyle change can sustain 7+ billion people on this earth without the use of fossil fuels.

8-energy use

Fortunately, we humans are an innovative species and technology will keep on marching forward, especially as innovation becomes more and more important to secure the future of our civilization. However, decarbonizing our totally fossil fuel reliant economy while maintaining current levels of consumption will be very difficult, let alone securing the tenfold increase in total consumption required to advance the living standards of billions of developing world citizens to Western standards.

This is where lifestyle change comes in. As often mentioned on this blog, a little bit of mental control can bring great gains in health, wealth and happiness on a fraction of current consumption. In fact, developed world citizens are already decreasing their consumption (although very unwillingly). Median American wealth and income have fallen to levels last seen in the early 90s while Europe is mired in a never-ending recession with record unemployment. It is therefore clear that we can therefore either do it the easy way (mental control and lifestyle change) or the hard way (unemployment and bankruptcy).

RealMedian-Household-Income

The problem is that our consumerist society has conditioned us to unthinkingly chase happiness through consumption and ignore or deny any problems created by this paradigm. This is a very dangerous game to play and we will need to see a large scale paradigm shift fairly soon if we are to avoid a few very unpleasant surprises in the 21st century.

Filed under: Crisis analysis – Mental control

Are humans smarter than bacteria?

So, is a population of humans smarter than a population of bacteria? I really hope so because, if not, humanity is doomed to follow the bacterial growth curve shown below.

Bacterial growth curve

The bacterial growth curve shows what happens when a small population of bacteria is introduced into a Petri dish with a fixed amount of food. Bacteria-in-a-petri-dish-compressedFirst, the population goes through a lag phase as it adapts to its new environment. Then comes the exponential growth phase where the population doubles time and time again. Eventually, however, the fixed supply of food begins to dwindle and the wastes excreted by the population begin to accumulate within the finite environment, bringing an end to the exponential expansion (stagnation phase). And finally, the lack of food and the high concentration of poisonous waste products lead to a catastrophic death phase.

This simple analogy is surprisingly applicable to our global civilization. Humanity had a very long lag phase spanning many millennia before we discovered the best “food” on our finite planet: fossil fuels. Today, we still rely on fossil fuels for almost 90% of our energy needs. Virtually everything you see around you was made through or with fossil fuels. Even the actual food you eat every day is heavily dependent on fossil fuels with 1 calorie of food requiring about 10 calories of oil to produce.

Global population

Just like the bacteria in a Petri dish convert their finite store of food (energy) to waste products in order to fuel an extended exponential expansion with no regard for the future, so has humanity converted its primary energy source (fossil fuels) to waste products (primarily the greenhouse gas CO2). Within only 150 years – about 0.075% of human history – human population exploded by 500% and per capita consumption by 800%, causing the total rate of resource consumption and waste excretion of the human race to increase by a factor of 50.

Now, after almost 2 centuries of unchecked exponential growth, we are entering the stagnation phase of the human growth curve. The plateauing of our primary fossil fuel, oil, has led to a permanent quadrupling in price, causing a seemingly never-ending economic stagnation in all oil-importing developed nations. Concerns about climate change, primarily caused by CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion, are increasing year by year. We therefore seem to be adhering perfectly to bacterial growth theory.

The obvious next question then becomes: how do we avert the death phase of the bacterial growth curve? Some people maintain that we are so smart that we can find the technology to replace fossil fuels and grant the Western consumerist lifestyle to 10 billion people. As will be discussed in the next post, however, this is essentially impossible.

No, the one and only way in which we can avert the death phase of the bacterial growth curve is by exercising mental control as discussed in this chapter of the One in a Billion project. If we keep on following our basic instincts, consuming more and more every year, there is absolutely no reason for us to deviate significantly from bacterial growth theory. However, that which makes us different from bacteria is our ability to control our basic instincts, willingly decrease our consumption and, in so doing greatly increase our health, wealth and happiness. This is what this blog is about.

Published under: Crisis analysis – Mental control

Artificial hell manipulation

OK, this will be the last weird heading for quite some time, I promise.

Let’s briefly recap from a previous post: our brains are hardwired to magnify both the potential pleasure and potential pain from any future event – something I like to call mythical utopias or artificial hells. The resulting instinctive drive towards instant pleasure and away from instant pain has a very powerful influence on our day-to-day actions and is responsible for a large portion of the vast array of long-term problems we face today.

However, if we can manipulate these very strong natural drives to result in day-to-day behavior which will be beneficial in the long-run both to ourselves and to our planet, the future suddenly looks a lot rosier. The previous four posts (1, 2, 3, 4) discussed how this could be done for mythical utopias and this post will strive to attain the same outcome for artificial hells.

So, wfear-of-public-speaking-cartoonhat do you think our most common fears are? Well, this mostly depends on which poll you read, but two fears that often come out on top are the fear of spiders and the fear of public speaking. The really scary long-term trends in our society today – things like resource depletion, climate change, the degenerative disease epidemic and rapidly growing global economic imbalances – are not even on the radar for most people.

For reference, spiders kill less than 10 people per year and public speaking is even more harmless. By comparison, climate change is already killing 100000-500000 people yearly (again depending on who you believe), while cigarettes kill about 5 million. One in ten tobacco-related deaths result from second-hand smoke, implying that, if you’re a non-smoker, your chances of being killed by a spider are 50000 times less than being killed by smoker.

So, why mention these numbers? Well, in short, it is simply meant to demonstrate that our drive away from instant pain is completely screwed up. Yes, it worked very well for the vast majority of human history in order to motivate us to avoid dangerous animals or rejection from the tribe, but in our modern fossil fuel-powered world of material affluence, it has become completely outdated.

OK, so how do we then upgrade our instinctive drive away from instant pain? Well, that is quite simple really. One simply needs to educate oneself about the real threats to our society to the point where any personal actions that will worsen these trends evoke about the same feelings as a big tarantula crawling up your leg.

This really is much easier than you might expect, primarily because a large amount of high-quality information about the real threats to our society is available today. Three good videos are attached below this post. Please take the time to view them. Correctly shaping your brain’s perception of instant pain can contribute greatly to automatically shaping your actions towards sustainability – something which not only brings great gains to the planet, but also to yourself.

An excellent documentary about the limits of our finite planet:

A quick documentary on climate change:

An excellent presentation series about the lack of sustainability in our social systems starts here:

Filed under: Mental control – Intermediate control