Friday, 13 July 2018

Why 10 x more doesn't equal 10 x the value ​

As children when we like something, we want more of it. We like playing with a certain toy so the logic goes that more toys will be better. This line of thinking carries through to adulthood.

We get value from one book, so we think having 10 of them will bring us 10 times the same value. We get value from one t-shirt but surely 10 of them will provide more value. A roof over your head is valuable but an extra bedroom, bathroom, double garage, workshop and annex will better...right?

Yes and no.

We get trapped in the thinking that if something brings us x amount of value then say - 10 of them will bring us 10 times more value. However, in economics, the law of diminishing returns states that if one factor of production (number of workers, for example) is increased while other factors (machines and workspace, for example) are held constant, the output per unit of the variable factor will eventually diminish.

How does this apply to the real world? Here's Mark Manson's thoughts:

“Diminishing returns means that the more you experience something, the less rewarding it becomes. The classic example is money. The difference between earning $20,000 and $40,000 is huge and life-changing. The difference between earning $120,000 and $140,000 means your car has slightly nicer seat heaters. The difference between earning $127,020,000 and $127,040,000 is basically a rounding error on your tax return.

The concept of diminishing returns applies to most experiences that are complex and novel. The number of showers you take in a day; the number of chicken wings you inhale during happy hour; the number of trips home to visit your mother in a year — these are all experiences that start out highly valuable at first but then diminish in value the more frequently you do them (sorry, Mom).”

Or, for example, if you go from living on the street to living in a studio flat that’s a huge improvement! But if you then go from the studio to a one bed, sure it's an improvement but likely not as much. And then you upgrade to a 2 bed house, the second bedroom would certainly provide utility and value in terms of guests being able to stay, more storage space, a home office, but since you can only sleep in one bedroom at a time it doesn't improve your quality of life 1 for 1. The difference is incremental, iterative. What’s more, too big a house could cause further problems such as high mortgage payments, more to clean, more repairs, higher insurance etc.

Obviously if you have a true need for a bigger home, a second car or multiple TVs because your family is growing then go for it. I'm not here to judge. The point is not that it's bad to want or to have more than one house, car, phone, gadget but to understand that with each item, the value you derive from the second, third on so forth is not 1:1.

Once we understand this we might be able to curb our desire to equate more with better, and be a little more mindful in our purchases and wants.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Consumption overload

Recently I've been thinking a lot and talking with friends about the sheer volume of content there is to consume. Not only are we expected to keep up with the news that is directly relevant today, but also our friends, our circles of interest, the latest TV series, world news and more. And even if you choose follow only one information outlet, topic or creator there are a multitude of platforms on which to consume their information.

I'm no historian but I imagine information was first passed through speech, then drawings, writing, radio, television, the internet and beyond. As technology progresses there are more and more ways to communicate and a lower threshold for entry. Anyone who owns a smartphone has almost infinite ways to both create and share information.

However, this democratisation of communication comes at a cost. The words of James Gleick can't say it any better - "When information becomes cheap, attention becomes expensive". And since with most outlets you can subscribe for free it's so easy to opt-in. So much so, that everything has become a firehose of information and we need a way to control it.

I've tried almost everything throughout the years, searching for the perfect way to manage and stay on top of all of my media, from read it later apps to RSS feeds. Yet algorithms, muting and curation can only do so much. As The Minimalists say "the easiest way to organise your stuff is to get rid of it." And this can also be applied to the media we consume.

About 10 years ago, after reading the 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris, I stopped regularly reading traditional news. Tim called it selective ignorance - "From this point forward, I’m going to propose that you develop an uncanny ability to be selectively ignorant. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is also practical. It is imperative that you learn to ignore or redirect all information and interruptions that are irrelevant, unimportant, or unactionable. Most are all three." The idea behind it is that if something is truly relevant, important and actionable, someone will tell you about it.

Decide what type of media is relevant, important and most importantly actionable to you and your current life situation today. And once you’ve done that you then need to refine, refine, refine.

It's simply no longer enough to know your preferences. You have to work towards your preference and forsake all others.

I used to think that knowledge is power. But not the kind of knowledge that is gleaned from skim reading the headlines or listening to podcasts on double speed. I want to read with depth. I want quality over quantity. There’s no prize for reading more books or keeping up with more newspapers nor does anyone else care.

And yet, there is one fear I harbour about this selective consumption. Won't I simple be creating a bubble for myself? By just reading one newspaper, won’t my information be biased? An informational walled rose garden that is rich, beautiful and well-watered but only contains a single species of flower.

Here's Ryan Holiday on such a question:

"One of the most powerful things you can do as a human being in our hyperconnected, 24/ 7 media world is say: “I don’t know.” Or, more provocatively: “I don’t care.” Most of society seems to have taken it as a commandment that one must know about every single current event, watch every episode of every critically acclaimed television series, follow the news religiously, and present themselves to others as an informed and worldly individual. But where is the evidence that this is actually necessary? Is the obligation enforced by the police? Or is it that you’re just afraid of seeming silly at a dinner party? Yes, you owe it to your country and your family to know generally about events that may directly affect them, but that’s about all. How much more time, energy, and pure brainpower would you have available if you drastically cut your media consumption? How much more rested and present would you feel if you were no longer excited and outraged by every scandal, breaking story, and potential crisis (many of which never come to pass anyway)?"

Yes, you run the risk of not knowing something but you’ll never know everything so stop trying. There's a reason why people become specialists in their fields, or are world champions at a particular sport; it comes from putting more wood behind fewer arrows and making sacrifices to continually do so.

The reason I find this important is that I thought by consuming more information I would have more to write about here on this blog. But the paradox is that all that time consuming content, ate up the time I would use to create - to write. And if this has affected me, how might your consumption be encroaching on your life?

Drop me a comment if you find the level of media simply overwhelming and any tips to manage it.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

What is mindfulness and what is it good for?

Mindfulness seems to be everywhere, from mindful eating to mindful leadership. And while that’s entirely admiral it doesn’t really tell us what mindfulness is.

Mindfulness can be defined as - “the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the experiences occurring moment to moment and without judgement.”

For me that’s a little vague so the best way to explain mindfulness it through the analogy of health. Health can be abstract as well, but we usually know when we feel healthy and when we’re feeling unhealthy. Also we usually know when we are doing or eating something that is unhealthy versus healthy. So mindfulness is something we all already possess but through practice we can cultivate it to be stronger. Just like an athlete trains regularly so that they can be ready to compete when needed, we can also do contemplative practices, such as meditation, to cultivate mindfulness.

Mindfulness can be applied to many areas of life but for me, at least, the single greatest benefit is the ability to think and be aware I am thinking.

Here’s is what neuroscientist Sam Harris has to say on the matter from his book Waking Up:

“In the beginning of one’s meditation practice, the difference between ordinary experience and what one comes to consider “mindfulness” is not very clear, and it takes some training to distinguish between being lost in thought and seeing thoughts for what they are. In this sense, learning to meditate is just like acquiring any other skill. It takes many thousands of repetitions to throw a good jab or to coax music from the strings of a guitar. With practice, mindfulness becomes a well-formed habit of attention, and the difference between it and ordinary thinking will become increasingly clear. Eventually, it begins to seem as if you are repeatedly awakening from a dream to find yourself safely in bed. No matter how terrible the dream, the relief is instantaneous. And yet it is difficult to stay awake for more than a few seconds at a time.

My friend Joseph Goldstein, one of the finest vipassana teachers I know, likens this shift in awareness to the experience of being fully immersed in a film and then suddenly realizing that you are sitting in a theater watching a mere play of light on a wall. Your perception is unchanged, but the spell is broken.”

To be aware of thinking in the moment - especially those moments when we need it most, such as arguments, high pressure environments, anxiety inducing experiences - gives us the gift of choice.

As famed psychologist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl says: “Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

With less mindfulness:
Stimulus > response

With greater mindfulness:
Stimulus > choice > response

Mindfulness drives the wedge of choice between stimulus and response. When we are lost in thought we don’t have the ability to choose which thoughts to follow. To be able to disentangle your self from the reactivity of your thoughts and begin to choose how you respond allows for greater mastery over your general wellbeing.

To come full-circle - mindful eating and mindful leadership are examples of where you can get a little more granular with it’s application. You may have decided that you want to lose some weight or eat healthier. Are you aware that you will habitually snack on some nuts should someone place a bowl of them in front of you even if you aren’t hungry? Are you aware of when you are full when eating a meal? Maybe you want to your employees to respect you more. Are you aware of how you are perceived by them when you tell them to do one thing and do another yourself? Are you aware of how you celebrate their successes in relation to giving constructive feedback?

Mindfulness allows us to untangle ourselves from our habitual responses.

Meditation is a deliberate form of practice that cultivates mindfulness just as exercise does for our health. Greater health is a foundational value that supports our lives in a myriad of ways, such as a stronger immune system, the ability to play with our children without getting out of breath or being mobile enough to pick something off the floor. And it’s benefits compound. Those who exercise regularly are healthier than those who do it once a week, so the more you flex your mindfulness muscles the better able you’ll be to call on it when needed.

What do you think - is mindfulness as important to your life as health? Are you cultivating it in your own life and if so how?

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

30 days without Instagram

Over a month ago I decided to deactivate my Instagram and apart from Facebook which I very rarely check I have no other social media. I did so because I found it was becoming a distraction in my life and was subtracting value, rather than adding it. One of the best ways to find out the value of something is to temporarily, voluntarily deprive yourself of it. Here are my thoughts on the experience:

I didn’t miss anything
Immediately on reactivating my Instagram I looked at a bunch of people’s profiles I’d been yearning to see and it turned out I hadn’t missed anything. Most of the people didn’t actually post that much and what they did post wasn’t anything groundbreaking or momentus. This made me realise that I can probably go a day or two without checking Instagram and still be fine.

Follow less people
Stop trying to keep up with everyone and everything, it's simple not possible. I currently follow about 70 and want to get that down to even less. If that's too extreme for you then try to keep it under 150 which is Dunbar's number which is the suggested number of relationships we can maintain. This has a two-fold impact: there is less to keep updated with and the deeper and richer those remaining connections and interactions can be.

Use social media as a social tool
Like any tool there is a wrong way and a right way it can be used. I realised I had been doing it all wrong - jumping into the app, see what’s new, scroll, like, rinse and repeat. But that is a highly passive way to interact and doesn’t build much connection. Going forward I want to be more interactive on it by posting comments on posts and sending messages to people who have added value to my day, I want to continue the conversation that their post started or that sparked interest.

I replaced the time
Since I was no longer spending time in the app I found myself spending my time much more constructively by reading a lot more books. Also I physically replaced its location in my dock with my Kindle app and I’ve squirrelled away Instagram in a folder so it’s now less tempting.

What story do you want to tell?
The way I see it is that you can use Instagram as a personal account and post everything from selfies to quotes or you use it as a business/brand/personality and keep all your posts within a certain subject. Some people use it as a digital journal to flick back through and remember fond memories. Others to promote their business. Or as a creative outlet for showing their physical or digital creations. In my opinion I would just pick one and stick to it. This helps to solidify what you are using the service for and feel less that the service is using you.

I’d do it again
If you have a big project coming up, you’re feeling time stressed, noticing low self-esteem or any of the other negative effects of social media then don’t hesitate to hit that deactivate button! The beauty is you won’t lose anything when you want to come back and in the interim you won’t get any notifications and people won’t be able to find or interact with you.

During my time off I came across two great articles from Cal Newport who has been very vocal against social media:

  1. Beyond #DeleteFacebook: More Thoughts on Embracing the Social Internet Over Social Media

  2. On Analog Social Media

Here are Newport's helpful tips:

I’ve evolved a more nuanced philosophy that I call slow social media.

Here are the basic principles:

• Only use a given social media service if it provides valuable benefits that would be hard to replace. Use these services only for these purposes.

• Delete all social media apps from your phone. (Few serious uses for social media require that you can access it wherever you are throughout the day.) Instead, access social media through a web browser on your laptop or desktop, once or twice a week.

• When logged onto a social media service, don’t click “like” or follow links unrelated to your specific, high-value purposes — these activities mainly serve the social media conglomerate’s attempts to package you into data slivers that they can sell to the highest bidder.

Adding these restrictions also has the benefit of clarifying the true value of the activities that keep you in the social media orbit. If you find that the extra obstacle of using a web browser instead of your phone prevents you from using a given service for more than a month, than you should quit it altogether.

(Emphasis mine) - admittedly I will find this hard but I’m going to try it.

I don't think social media is an inherently bad thing. But I do think it has evolved too quickly for us to understand the longterm effects on our well-being. Added to that, the "free" business model and tactics these services employ to get us to stay engaged should lead us to use it with caution.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

What is the purpose of meditation?

Meditation is the practice through which we cultivate mindfulness (non-judgemental, present moment awareness).

Ok...? So you’re probably thinking - why do I need to cultivate mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the benefit you get from meditation. Much like you get increased strength, agility and mobility from regular exercise or a stronger immune system from eating healthy.

You can think of meditation as being the third cog in the trifecta of optimal health.

As with exercise and healthy eating, meditation needs to be practiced daily for optimal benefit. Cultivating the habit of meditation is crucial.

The act of meditation is to focus your awareness on one thing, such as the breath. Then, whenever you are aware you no longer focusing on the breath, you gently and compassionately redirect your attention to the breath. The principal is to breathe and be aware you’re breathing. When you’re not focusing on your breath you are, in effect, lost in thought. Which is how we spend most of our days - in our heads - reliving a past event or imagining a potential future one.

When you first begin to meditate you may not be able to focus on even half a breath before your mind interjects. Don’t be discouraged by this as it’s the same as being only able to do one press up. If you do it regularly enough, you eventually might be able to make it to one full breath without the mind interjecting - and that’s after years of practice.

But don’t be discouraged! Meditation is not ridding your mind of thought but being able to notice when you are distracted, as it is happening. This is the crucial element.

Just as you want your immune system to kick in as soon as it realises it’s been poisoned, just as you want your muscles to propel you to run away from danger when attacked, you should also want to be aware of when your mind may be clouding your judgement - distanced from the reality of the moment.

But..! I hear you cry, what’s wrong with reacting by shouting at someone who has made me angry?

In theory...nothing. However, when we feel attacked, threatened or under stress we do not have the ability to respond with our full potential. Instead we react from our habitual conditioning - our upbringing, environment, judgements, prejudice, past events etc. All of which can have nothing to do with the moment at hand. Unless...we practice meditation.

Shane Parish of Farnham Street Blog puts it this way:

"Stress causes both mental and physiological responses and tends to amplify the other biases. Almost all human mental biases become worse in the face of stress as the body goes into a fight-or-flight response, relying purely on instinct without the emergency brake of Daniel Kahneman’s “System 2” type of reasoning. Stress causes hasty decisions, immediacy, and a fallback to habit, thus giving rise to the elite soldiers’ motto: “In the thick of battle, you will not rise to the level of your expectations, but fall to the level of your training.”

Seen in this light; if you were running a marathon (which life can often feel like!), you might be able to accomplish it as you are right now, but ideally you would fare much better if you trained regularly.

The same goes for meditation. It is your training for life. In particular those stressful situations, so that you rather than reacting habitually, you can respond mindfully.

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