Killing My Zombies – The First Battle in a War on Mindless Habits

For the past few years I’ve been working toward living a more deliberate life. I want to do things on purpose. I want to identify the behaviors that I’ve put on automatic pilot and question them. This process lead to an unexpected change in direction that I thought I’d share.

I followed a very strict diet for all of October 2015. One of the things it didn’t allow was alcohol.  Others who’d followed the same diet told me that the first thing they did at the end of the thirty days was crack open a cold beer. When I got to the end of my thirty days I noticed something. I didn’t miss drinking.

That sparked a question: Why was alcohol even a part of my life? Surely I had a good answer.

The first justification that came to mind was that I drank to relax. We all do that right? You have a hard day and you just want to have a drink and unwind. But that made no sense. I’m a pretty relaxed guy. A lot of days I came home and really wasn’t all that stressed, but I still cracked open a hard cider as soon as I hit the door.

Next I tried to tell myself that it eased my tension in social situations. I clearly remember a time that I told Pam Slim how it had been necessary to have a few drinks at the closing party of World Domination Summit so I could dance without feeling self-conscious. Looking back that said a lot more about my insecurity than about my need for alcohol. Shouldn’t I just work on my confidence? Shouldn’t dancing be something I enjoy? Something free and spontaneous and fun?

The more I thought about the question the less I could justify the last 20 years of expense and risk and occasional bad choices.

Did I enjoy craft beers because I liked the taste? Or was it because they’re cool and it’s nice to be an expert in something so complex and specialized?

Did I enjoy having drinks with friends and coworkers because of the relaxed good times? Or was it because we just happened to see drinking as an integral component of getting together?

Does wine really have health benefits? Or is that just a very well placed study that  justifies having a glass or two with dinner on a regular basis?

Dissatisfied with all of those answers, I looked into my past to understand when the habit of drinking entered my life.

When I was younger, drinking was a novelty. In those days everything was better when you were a little buzzed. Bowling, pool, fishing, float trips, the beach, camping, the movies, golf, concerts, ball games, pretty much anything.

Had alcohol really made those things better? It seemed more likely that it was a fiction built in the days when alcohol was a forbidden fruit. I’ve since enjoyed many of them sober and have had as much, or more, fun.

As the years passed it seemed that drinking was a habit that my mind paired with certain situations. Stuck in an airport? Have a beer to pass the time. Meeting friends for dinner? Buy a round for the table. If I went to a work function or a training course and there was an open bar, it felt like I was almost required to have a drink or three.

I began to remember times when I really didn’t like the choices offered at events, but I still took something. I remember resolving to just drink water and then succumbing to the widened eyes, or the good natured ribbing of friends.

I even had a text conversation with someone about the awkwardness of being the one not drinking in a typical drinking situation. We ended updeciding that the strategy of pleading that I was training for some event ( I usually am) was a good means to dispel the tension.

After thinking through all of that I made a decision. I no longer enjoyed drinking and I couldn’t find any good reasons to continue, therefore I should stop. No more excuses, no more trying to fit in.

It’s been a year now and I have a few things to report.

First, I ended up having four beers and three ciders in the course of the year. I have to admit that three of the beers were a function of me not wanting to just throw away something we’d paid good money for (I bought them for Crystal). Two of the ciders I drank on New Year’s Eve to celebrate making it through the year with minimal drinking (Ironic I know).

There were a few things I learned along the way as well.

  1. I am spending less money.

    Even at the low end of the scale, a six pack a week, the total comes out to $32 a month. That is more than the cost of a gym membership, more than basic cable TV. Nearly as much as we pay for our high speed internet service. And there were certainly weeks in my past that went far beyond six drinks. When we eat out, the bill is 20%-30% less than before, since I’m not ordering from the bar. This was a totally unlooked for benefit.

  2. I never have to worry about anything when driving home.

    Whether I’m headed home from dinner with the family or making the long trek  back from a football game, that nagging worry in the back of my mind that I might be impaired, even though I believe that I am fine, is simply gone. I also never have to cringe when I see the silhouette of a spotlight on the driver’s side of a Dodge Charger after I’ve had a couple of beers.

  3. The morning after is never a problem.

    Though I’m far removed from the days of trying to reconstruct details of the night before, I still had days when my mornings were significantly affected by overindulgence. Now that’s a thing of the past.

  4. Our recycling burden is significantly reduced.

    Before this change, there were many weeks when the bottles overflowed the sides of the bin where we store them before dropping them off. Now most of what we have is plastic and paper.

You may be asking “Yeah, but what about the downside?”

There’s been some suffering through knowing smiles of those expecting me to regress when I told them I wasn’t drinking anymore. And I have to say that the closing party at World Domination Summit was not nearly as enjoyable this year. Apparently I am still not comfortable dancing unless I have had a little liquid courage. Nothing else.

I still don’t miss it and strangely I don’t think I will. It’s hard to believe that for two decades I seem to have been engaging in a behavior that conferred no benefits and resulted in significants risks and costs.

My next adventure is breaking the habit of free food. I have a feeling this one is going to be far more difficult, which probably means it is much more necessary.

How about you? Are there things that you do out of habit that have no real logical foundation on which to stand. Are you thinking about cutting them out of your life? If so and you want an accountability partner, send me an email. I’m happy to help and I’d love to hear from you.

 

How to Know When to Step Up

I sometimes read bad fiction. I don’t really enjoy it. I get frustrated by the cliche. I feel like tearing my hair over blatant inconsistencies. I sometimes have to put the book down an take a break. So why do I put myself through all of that?

Perspective.

Seeing bad fiction flying off the shelves of bookstores was what convinced me to write and publish my first book. I knew I could do better. Maybe not sell better, not at first, but I knew that my stories were good enough to find an audience. So far its only a very small one, but they are loyal, and growing.

Finding that perspective is an all important skill. No matter what your industry, when you begin to see that the quality of other’s work in your area of expertise is below what you can provide, it is an invitation. It means that you have grown to the point that you are ready for the next challenge. That it’s time to push into the zone of discomfort and take on more responsibility. That there is a market for your talent if you take a step out into the spotlight and share your skills with the world. It’s a skill that’s at the essential to becoming an entrepreneur.

How about you? What do you see that makes you cringe? Photographs with bad lighting and poor composition? Poetry with a clumsy meter and flimsy rhymes? Trainers who fail to understand the space they need to give their students to learn the material? A boss who insists on living in a tactical world when what your department needs is a long term strategy? Every one of these implies that you are ready. That the world needs you. It’s time to step up.

 

 

The Anxiety Spiral and Why You Should Get Off

“I am an old man and I have know a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”  – Mark Twain

Last Friday I got my weekly dose of short recommendations from Tim Ferriss and came across this gem from Neil Strauss. It’s long and some would say has a liberal bias, but it’s really great stuff. The gist is that people in the United States are living in the safest time in the history of humankind. Despite this fact, there is strong evidence that people are more anxious than they have ever been. Anxiety doesn’t really sound all that bad until you read Strauss’s definition.

“Where fear is a response to a present threat, anxiety is a more complex and highly manipulable response to something one anticipates might be a threat in the future.”

So, according to Strauss, our perception of the world is horribly warped. It is like a bad acid trip where the most innocuous things are transfigured by the drug into terrifying monsters that don’t exist. What is this drug that I’m referring to?

The Feed

Strauss hits the highlights, but I’ll recap for you.

  1. We are surrounded by an abundance of spin-doctored talk radio and twenty-four-hour, angled, faux-news channels that shape their messages to reinforce the tribal beliefs of their regular viewers.
  2. Twitter and Facebook allow, and even encourage, you to self select the version of the wold you want delivered to our omnipresent devices.
  3. Local news is often filled with the most compelling stories they can find. Too often these are gore spattered tragedies that we can’t help but watch and remember.

Why is this bad? Well we have something built into our brains called confirmation bias. We inherently seek out information that confirms things that we already believe. The internet makes this incredibly easy. It becomes even easier if you are force-fed by algorithms that are really good at finding things it thinks you will like.

Strauss cites the “Law of group Polarization” which states that people who believe similar things tend to become even more convinced that they are right after spending time together discussing them. Not only that, but they tend to have less empathy for those holding opposing views.

Finally, it is a proven fact that we remember, and recall to mind, negative events twice as easily as positive ones. That means the more terrible things you experience through The Feed, the more you will begin to believe that storyline is the reality. This is a held over survival strategy from long ago. It made sense when lots of things wanted to eat us. It’s far less useful now.

So back to our custom tailored Feed. Is it a stretch to think that the unprecedented connectedness of the modern world, the incredible availability of information, and the complementary ability to seek out and associate with those who are just like us in giant virtual groups, has accelerated this anxiety exponentially? I don’t think so.

So if we know that your brain, and your personality are altered by what you consume and who we associate with, it seems obvious that we need to pay as much attention to what enters our bodies through our eyes and ears as we do through our mouths.

Like any diet, there are several approaches. Fasting can work, but it’s not really sustainable. Moderation is a good solution, but unless it is coupled with diversity, there is a real risk of malnutrition.

As with most difficult problems, I find the solution is education. By understanding the manipulation methods, hard wired biases and irrationality of my brain, and searching for the facts behind the flashy propaganda, I can avoid most of the pitfalls to clear thinking. By limiting my exposure to algorithms I can stay as independent as possible. By limiting my attention to things that I can directly control I can avoid most of the anxiety.

How about you? How do you fight the fear?

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