Death by a Thousand Cuts

“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. … The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.”
― SenecaOn the Shortness of Life

It’s one of the immutable laws of the universe that time is the one thing you can never get more of. It should be guarded carefully. In today’s world it’s far too easy  to make little commitments that can drain away the limited amount of time we have on this earth. One manifestation of this subtle erosion is being too free with your email address.

Psychologically there are few more powerful motivators than a free giveaway. But once that transaction has been completed, you are subject to an unspoken, and unavoidable sense of obligation. The perceived value of the gift does have some effect on the level of the obligation you feel, but every freebie you accept comes with a string.

Free is virtually ubiquitous in the online world – but there is always a hidden cost

Digital products are incredibly cheap to create and distribute. Some of these are very useful. The only thing that is universally demanded in payment is an email address.

Sure, the vendor needs the address to deliver you the goods, but that is never the end of the transaction. By clicking submit you are granting someone access to your life. You are opening a channel to your limited attention and you are committing a tiny slice of your valuable time to their enterprise. This is where many of us can get into trouble.

Your email address is a valuable commodity

Statistically email is the single most effective channel for selling things to you later. The moment you sign up for your free gift you will begin receiving a series of messages designed to convince, cajole, and sometimes beat you into submission to purchase something from the sender.

Ignoring the problem is not a solution

I tend to fall into the habit of either deleting, or simply ignoring, these messages. Neither of these approaches is a true solution however. Most of the people writing the subject lines for these automated communications are good. Even though I know I will probably find useless junk inside I cannot help but click on some of them. Even the few seconds it takes to realize my mistake add up. That’s time that I will never get back. Even worse, I tend to get behind on the deletions when busy. In only a few days I inevitably have an inbox that is overflowing with meaningless attempts to attract my attention. These can quickly bury the truly important communication I need to be doing.

There are only two ways out of this barrage.

1. Unsubscribe ruthlessly

Scroll all the way to the bottom of every junk email and hunt for the unsubscribe button in the microprint of the disclaimer, then jump through whatever hoops are required to get off that list. Make a habit of this. Any time something shows up in your email inbox that isn’t a “Hell Yeah!” in the words of the great Derek Sivers, take the time to end that digital relationship. This takes time, but I consider it an investment worth making. Think of it like a satellite TV package. Every time you opt out, you shut down one of the channels in your programming package that you mindlessly flip through searching for something of interest. Taking away one of those channels makes it that much easier to realize that there is nothing on and that you should get up and do something useful.

2. Resist the urge to sign up in the first place.

This path is much harder to walk. If you are a curious person who is bent on success and trying to learn, you will be drawn to anything that claims to give you a leg up. The arguments that go through my head range from: “How do you know its a scam until you read through it” to “If its useless, I’ll just unsubscribe”. It is VERY hard to convince myself that in general:


That’s it. You can rescue hours of your time and free yourself from the frustration of a massive number in the unread email ballon with these two simple steps. It’s not a free solution, but with a little effort and a little discipline these two actions can help you avoid a death by a thousand cuts.

The Re-read List

I read a lot of books. Usually around two a week. Last year’s total was 110. My reading is pretty evenly split between fiction and non-fiction. I’m convinced you can learn a lot from both. The books I read give me ideas for new ways to live and new things to try.

Every year around this time I look back over the lists from the last few years and pick out the best of what I’ve read. These become my re-read list for the new year.

Why do I waste my time reading books again? The best books have depth, Subtleties that the reader picks up only after the second or third time through. Also, I find that it is impossible for me to fully absorb the lessons of an important book in a single reading. From a neuroscience perspective, spaced repetition reactivates the neural pathways formed during the initial learning and reinforces the stored information for easier recall. So by curating my reading list to titles that changed the way I see the world, I am re-exposing myself to important ideas and creating cross connections that help me stretch myself and grow.

My re-read list has grown over the years, and it has changed with the seasons of my life, but there are several core titles that are always included and I thought I would share those with you today. So, without further ado, The re-read list for 2018…

  1. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success – Carol S. Dweck – This is the book someone had made me read when I was ten. It is also a must for anyone who will be raising children in the near future. Most of my thoughts on the book are summarized here.
  2. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance – Angela Duckworth – Grit is the secret to success, regardless of any natural gifts you might think you’ve been given (and if you do, go back and read Mindset first). Persevering in the face of difficulty not only enables real learning, but also builds self-confidence, Duckworth has the research to back that up.
  3. The Gift of Fear: And Other Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence – Gavin de Becker – Fear is rampant in the world today. This is a problem. Understanding what you should and should not be afraid of and how to react in dangerous situations is an essential skill and this book will teach you.
  4. The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives – Leonard Mlodinow – This might be my most re-read book. Humans want to see patterns everywhere, even where they don’t exist. We are also terrible at probability and statistics. This book explains how to at least understand those weaknesses and how to avoid being controlled by them.
  5. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business – Charles Duhigg – Habits are the operating system for the vast majority of our daily lives. Understanding how to build them and break them is like learning to hack that system.
  6. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion – Robert Cialdini – The modern world is filled with people and companies trying to influence your actions. This book tells you their playbook and arms you against their attacks.
  7. Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator – Ryan Holiday – Media as I knew it in my younger days is dead. The twenty-four hour news cycle and the advent of blogs and social media have combined to form a world where once reputable outlets are subject to the nefarious levers of those wanting your attention. I almost quit the internet after reading this book and absorbing its implications. It is fake news self-defense 101.
  8. Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman – We are irrational beings. There is not getting around that fact. The only hope is to understand our limitations and try to catch ourselves when we follow poorly hard-wired rules built into our DNA Millions of years ago. This book tells you how and explains how those rules were discovered.
  9. Meditations – Marcus Aurelius – It seems impossible that the writings of a Roman Emperor, writing two thousand years ago, could have anything relevant to say about modern life. This book disproves that in the first ten pages. I have found so much wisdom in Marcus’s writing that I have given several copies of the book away and gone on to dig deeper into other stoic writers work.
  10. Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain – John Ratey – This book will give you a reason to exercise that has nothing to do with looking good in the mirror at the gym. Ratey walks you through he connection between brain health and physical activity and backs up his arguments with case studies from fighting PMS to helping poorly performing Chicago school kids.
  11. Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement – Katy Bowman – Reading this book will make you sit up straighter. It walks you through tissue adaptation, and explains how modern life results in many of the chronic aches and pains that crop up as we age. Then is gives you step by step fixes for each and every problem. It’s no magic bullet, they all take dedication and effort, but if you stick with her prescriptions, you will return to the strong supple form of your active youth.
  12. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School – John Medina – Have you ever felt like the study methods everyone uses are inadequate? This book not only explains why, but lays out a path to better retention. Then for good measure he digs into the myth of multitasking, the effects of the learning environment on recall, and how memories are encoded into our brains at the cellular level.
  13. Do The Work: Overcome Resistance and Get Out of Your Own Way – Stephen Pressfield – This short book is written mostly for writers,butit applies to anyone doing creative work of any kind. Pressfield coins the term Resistance describe the overpowering fear that accompanies an attempt to build something out of nothing and describes his method for overcoming those fears and getting to done.
  14. Principles: Life and Work – Ray Dalio – This is a new one for me. I read it for the first time last year and was so impressedI bought two copies and gave one away to the CEO of my company. Ray Dalio is a maverick investor who has seen trouble on the horizon in the stock market multiple times and has managed to protect his clients for those collapses. The fascinating thing to me however was his deliberate approach to life. He works hard every day to understand failures and build systems than will prevent their recurrence. He insists on radical transparency, both in business and in life, and does not allow problems to be ignored. I’m looking forward to getting more familiar with his principles again soon.
  15. Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise – Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool – Ericsson is the father of the 10,000 hours rule. His research indicates that anyone reaching world class proficiency in any field needs to accrue roughly 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. The key though is deliberate. It needs to be challenging. You need to be failing. A lot. You need to be pushing yourself beyond what you are capable of. Mastery is never easy.
  16. Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging – Sebastian Junger – This book is about why we are so lonely in the most connected world in history. Junger is an excellent writer, and he is at his best here. Humans were meant to be in close contact with other humans. Without that small group interaction we are psychologically unprepared to deal with the world and there are consequences.
  17. Antifragile: Things that Gain From Disorder – Nicholas Nassim Taleb – Some things get stronger when they are stressed. Unfortunately many of the systems on which the modern world is built don’t have this capacity. Taleb not only details the fragility around us, but gives a blueprint for building anti-fragility into your own life. This book opened my eyes, and I reread it to remind myself how thin the boundary is between order and chaos.

Ok, that’s my list. What other titles do you think should be on there? Which of these have you read? What did you think of them? I’d live to hear what you have to say. Let me know in the comments.

Killing My Zombies – Year Two – There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

In 2016 I quit drinking for a year to break the habit of cracking open a beer as soon as I got home from work. In 2017 I tried something even more difficult; I decided to not eat free food.

Most people I told about this experiment thought I was crazy. Many told me that they were resolved to eat only free food to balance out the universe. Even after I explained my purpose, some people just couldn’t believe I would pass up free meals for a year. The more I heard this, the more motivated I was to follow through. It was obvious that there were some important things to learn here.

My Motivation

Before I dig too deeply into those lessons, I need to explain the origins of this idea.  First let me take you back to college. My social security statements for four of my college years show that I somehow lived on almost nothing. In 1995 My total income was $5,751. In 1996 that dropped to $2,641. In 1997 it was $2,834. In 1998 I landed a research position on campus and it jumped back up to $7,702.

I had no significant scholarships and no college fund. I had a few loans to help with tuition, but I graduated with less than $15,000 in debt, so it’s safe to say I was living pretty frugally. I was working two or three part time jobs, but the pay was terrible.

As you might imagine, free food was a godsend (free beer was even more compelling, but that’s another story). I sought free meals out wherever I could find them, and I ate as much as I could manage. I took food home with me if I could get away with it. This became a habit.

Since graduation I’ve never run short of money again. Unfortunately my free food habit was already ingrained in me. My career has mostly been in the manufacturing industry. Working lunches on the company, and vendors picking up the check at dinner are common enough for my habit to be dangerous. I made another career change three years ago, this time to a corporate headquarters, and things got worse. Virtually every day there was free food available, and I ate it.

Last year I decided to change that.

The Rules

On January first I started turning down free food. No free samples at the grocery store. No donuts. No working lunches. No vendor dinners. I didn’t go near all of the free candies and snacks that inevitably show up around the holidays. If I wasn’t paying for it, I couldn’t eat it.

I ended up having to define the rules a bit more specifically as the year wore on. It felt like eating on the company credit card while traveling or during business lunches was close enough to eating for free that I decided that these were out of bounds. I also ended up allowing people to buy my lunch if I could reciprocate later. Family dinners were also allowable exceptions.

How It Went

I wasn’t perfect, but in general I was successful. I allowed myself to indulge at company’s annual meeting to avoid making a scene in front of the board members. I also suspended my rules a few times when traveling with others from work to keep from having to split checks or bring my own food into restaurants. I mostly avoided vendor dinners, but there were two that I could not escape.

Despite these exceptions, I was roughly 98% successful. My resolve was tested many, many times, but I won most of those battles.

What I Learned

  1. People love free food – The number one thing that I learned is that people have trouble even comprehending someone giving up free food. Many took my project as a judgement of their actions. It wasn’t. Others were convinced I was doing it for health reasons and no argument I made could convince them otherwise.
  2. There are almost always strings – I would say 70% of the opportunities to eat free food are attempts to manipulate your behavior. Sometimes it is to subtly tie together the good feelings surrounding food to a company or a person. Sometimes it is a bribe to bring you to a meeting, or a discussion that you would otherwise avoid. Sometimes is it a positive reinforcement for behavior that others want you to repeat (blood drives come to mind). In general, I despise being manipulated, so avoiding free food seems like a good policy.
  3. Some people get mad – Refusing free food causes some people to interpret your behavior as rudeness. They told me that I was rejecting their hospitality (despite the fact that it was often the company’s money they were intending to spend). This one seemed silly to me. It was like a drug dealer getting indignant about someone refusing to accept a free sample.
  4. It didn’t cost me any more – You would think that skipping free food would mean I was spending more. That really wasn’t the case. I didn’t do an in-depth analysis here, but our average family food bill did not increase, so I feel pretty confident that this is true.
  5. I ate a lot less and I ate a lot better – Free food tends restrict your choice. You either eat what is free, or you don’t eat. By avoiding free food I also avoided eating things that I would normally not eat. I also ate less food overall, since I would need to pay more to get more. Consequently I had fewer post lunch food comas.

What’s Next

I was really pleased with how this one came out. I think the overall impact on my life was even greater than kicking my automatic drinking habit. My 2018 project might be more ambitious yet. The plan is to build on my success by not eating fast-food. Since virtually all of the food that is brought into the office is fast food, this is basically a continuation of my 2017 project.

One of the side effects of last year’s project was a propensity to run through a drive through to pick up something for lunch on the days that I failed to pack anything. I justified it in my mind by telling myself that I was paying for it, so it was acceptable. This year I want to make it even harder on myself and hopefully drive the behavior of being prepared and making a lunch for myself every day. We’ll see how that goes.

Do you have a personal quest that you are taking on this year? If so I’d love hear about it. Just let me know in the comments, or drop me a line at

Happy New Year!




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