Where to Tap

Ever hear the story of the giant ship engine that failed? The ship’s owners tried one expert after another, but none of them could figure out how to fix the engine. Then they brought in an old man who had been fixing ships since he was a youngster. He carried a large bag of tools with him, and when he arrived, he immediately went to work. He inspected the engine very carefully, top to bottom. Two of the ship’s owners were there, watching this man, hoping he would know what to do. After looking things over, the old man reached into his bag and pulled out a small hammer. He gently tapped something. Instantly, the engine lurched into life. He carefully put his hammer away. The engine was fixed!

A week later, the owners received a bill from the old man for ten thousand dollars.

“What?!” the owners exclaimed. “He hardly did anything!” So they wrote the old man a note saying, “Please send us an itemized bill.”

The man sent a bill that read,

Tapping with a hammer............$2
Knowing where to tap...............$9998

Effort is important, but knowing where to make an effort in your life makes all the difference. And here’s something I’ve learned from experience and study: If you want to improve your life overall, the best place to tap is exercise.

I injured a tendon not too long ago and didn’t exercise for about a month. I’ve started again, and I’ve become a born-again exerciser! I’d forgotten how good it is for my sense of well-being. I have more energy, a better attitude, a gentler disposition. It’s easier to be the kind of person I want to be.

Our bodies need daily exercise, and when we don’t exercise, it makes us feel bad. I think it’s our natural state to be energetic and feeling good. But the lack of exercise prevents that. A consensus is building among doctors, psychologists and those trying to help others become saner, happier and healthier: Exercise is the place to start. If you were in a position to give advice, and someone unhappy or unhealthy came to you for guidance but you were allowed to give only one word of advice, the best thing you could recommend is: Exercise!

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

Basic Principles

A program director at the BBC asked Adam Khan, "What are the basic principles of your work?" Khan's answer was the following:


PURPOSE

Human beings need a sense of purpose to be happy, just as we need Vitamin C to be healthy. The higher quality the purpose, the more it will contribute to happiness. By high quality, I mean it should be something you personally feel is important and valuable or enjoyable, and something you feel confident you can accomplish.

Simplicity of purpose is important too: There is a kind of greed that is natural in people. We want more. And so we keep adding goals to our lives until it starts to stress us out. You have to constantly prune away the least important goals to keep a sense of purpose in your life, but not so much you get up into overwhelm. Read Why a Goal is Good.


THE BODY

If you're trying to be happy, it really helps to exercise. I see a lot or articles about how walking the dog and gardening can be considered exercise, but in my experience, working up a real sweat and breathing hard has a much more dramatic impact on a general feeling of well-being.

Eating right is also important. Taking care of your body. It is easier to be happy when the body is healthy. Read Administration of Food and Drink and Where to Tap.


EXPLANATIONS OF SETBACKS

Some ways of explaining setbacks can cause unnecessary negative emotions that spoil happiness. Specifically, it is important to train yourself to explain setbacks accurately. You do this by imposing the discipline of checking your explanations for mistakes: overgeneralizations, exaggerations, hasty assumptions, etc.

Sometimes you will find your explanations are neither true or false. Then the explanation needs to be assessed for its helpfulness.

This area is my hot spot. There has been a lot of research about it, showing how your explanations can affect your health and your ability to succeed. I have a few chapters on that in my book. The chapter called Fighting Spirit tells of an interesting study Seligman did on the Berkeley swim team. And another chapter, Optimism is Healthy, talks a little about the research on your explanations' impact on your health. Read more about how to change your explanations to improve your persistence: Antivirus for Your Mind.


INTERACTIONS WITH PEOPLE

One third of my book is on dealing with people. It is so important for happiness. It may be the most important. Conducting your relationships with openness, fairness, loyalty, etc., and choosing a few good people to bond with really makes a difference in how happy you will be. An alignment of purpose is also important. Conducting your relationships with deceitfulness will definitely reduce your personal happiness in the long run. Read Deep Honesty.


MATERIAL POSSESSIONS

Advertisers are of course interested in promoting the worldview that happiness comes from acquiring things. And I think humans have a built-in tendency to want to accumulate possessions. But this drive can be curbed, and it contributes to happiness to curb it, because the time and effort it takes to accumulate a lot of stuff could be better used if what you want is happiness. Read We've Been Duped.




INTEGRITY

Being true to yourself, learning to trust yourself, doing what you feel is right, not doing what you feel is wrong, speaking honestly: All these are important contributors to happiness. They help you like yourself, they make a big difference in the quality of your relations with others, and they will reduce stress in the long run. Read How to Like Yourself More.


SOLITUDE

Getting enough time away from other people is very important. It is calming, it brings sanity and clarity, and it is essential for the development of integrity. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to know what is really right for you, and what you really think and feel about something important, when you are in the presence of other people. We're social animals, and we are naturally and strongly influenced by the opinions of those around us. Going for walks by yourself, and spending time alone and thinking will make your long term happiness more likely. Read Solitude and Time.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

Why a Goal is Good

When Albert Einstein reached 70, he retired. He had reached his goals, assumed he had expended his usefulness to the world, and retired. He didn't set any new goals. He became depressed and listless, as people often do when they no longer have a sense of purpose. He stopped taking his dog for walks. Life lost its luster.

Then one day he realized it might not be over; he might still have something to contribute to the world. He decided to do two things:

1. develop a plan to control the destructive use of atomic power

2. to discover peacetime uses for atomic power

He came alive! The luster was back. He took his dog for walks again. He had a purpose. And as a result of his decisions and the ensuing efforts he made to make those goals a reality, medical and electrical uses for atomic power were found. He gave speeches and helped stir up interest in a worldwide police force that eventually culminated in the founding of the United Nations.

"Nothing contributes so much to tranquilizing the mind," wrote Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly, "as a steady purpose — a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye."

It is physically and psychologically healthy for a human being to have a strong sense of purpose. The state of mind you have when you're absorbed in the accomplishment of a purpose is called "flow," which is an engaged, pleasant state of focus. Those who have learned to develop a sense of purpose and who have learned to become engrossed in the achievement of purposes are the most likely to be happy and healthy. This has been shown in scientific studies and in everyday observations. Happy people are purposeful people because the most reliable self-created source of happiness is taking action along a strongly-held purpose.

Flow has been the subject of quite a bit of research. For example, swimmers who experienced flow while training made the most progress by the end of the training. In other words, experiencing frequent flow allowed them to develop their ability faster.

Another study accentuated those findings. It found that of all the things that influence how successful a person might become in their sport or skill — in whatever field — the most influential factor was how much flow they experienced while doing it. In other words, the amount of absorption they had was the best predictor of who would develop their talent the most.

A sense of purpose brings out the best in people. In his book, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys, Michael Collins wrote about the enthusiasm of the people in the Apollo space program in 1964. "…the goal was clearly and starkly defined," wrote Collins. "Had not President Kennedy said before the end of the decade?"

They had a clear goal that the people at NASA were excited about. The moon! The impossible goal! The goal they said could never be done! People showed up early, worked hard, and stayed late. As Collins put it, "People knew that each day was one day closer to putting man on the moon…" This is the electrifying power of a strong sense of purpose.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the principle researchers into flow, says we usually see work as a necessary evil, and we feel leisure is what we want: time on our hands. Free time. Time with nothing to do. We long for it. And yet, he says, "free time is more difficult to enjoy than work." Or as Jerome K. Jerome put it, "It is impossible to enjoy idling unless there is plenty of work to do."

Work provides clear goals more often than leisure and a clear goal is the first and most important requirement of flow. If you want to experience flow, you must have a purpose. Work provides a purpose. It provides something to become absorbed in, so it provides opportunities for flow. To get flow from leisure, you have to provide the purpose. Many people don't know that, which means many people don't get much enjoyment from their coveted leisure; it isn't satisfying like they wish it would be. Some even suffer during leisure.

Sandor Ferenczi, a psychoanalyst in the early 1900's discovered that anxiety and depression occurred more often on Sundays than any other day of the week. Since that time, many observers have noticed that vacations and retirement also tend to produce anxiety and depression. When we are not on the job — when we are not given a clear purpose — many of us are feel adrift and don't know what's missing. Clearly, a large percentage of people don't have a strong sense of purpose for their off time, and it's a shame. Purpose is king.

A purpose to sink your teeth into gives your mind a healthy, productive focus and prevents it from drifting into negativity. Without goals, wrote Csikszentmihalyi, "the mind begins to wander, and more often than not it will focus on unresolvable problems that cause anxiety."


POWER OF CAUSE

Goals put you in a causal position rather than a victim position and that is good for your psychological well-being. In the book, Survive The Savage Sea — the true story of a family who survived a shipwreck — the author and father of the family, Dougal Robertson, describes how their whole attitude changed when they shifted from "hoping for rescue" to "we're going to get ourselves to shore on our own; we're going to survive."

A ship was cruising by fairly close, seven days after their boat sank. They spotted it from their life raft. They lit off flares and yelled at the top of their lungs and waved their shirts in the air, but the ship sailed right on by. They were heartbroken.

Dougal looked at his empty flare cartons bitterly and, "something happened to me in that instant, that for me changed the whole aspect of our predicament," he wrote. "If these poor bloody seamen couldn't rescue us, then we would have to make it on our own and to hell with them. We would survive without them, yes, and that was the word from now on, 'survival' not 'rescue' or 'help' or dependence of any kind, just survival. I felt the strength flooding through me, lifting me from the depression of disappointment to a state of almost cheerful abandon."

Purpose has an almost magical quality. It can imbue us with extraordinary ability. It can make us almost superhuman — more capable than humans in an ordinary state.

Ulysses S. Grant was writing his biography near the end of his life. His publisher was Mark Twain. Even though Grant was famous and had been President, he was broke. Twain had assured him there was a market for the book if he could finish it. Grant had cancer and was dying. But he couldn't die. He had something to accomplish. It was very important to him to finish this book and do a good job because his wife would be destitute otherwise.

So he persisted. When he could no longer write, he dictated. Doctors said he might not live more than two or three weeks, but like I said, purpose has a mysterious power, and Grant continued dictating until he finished. He died five days after he completed his manuscript. And, by the way, Twain was right: The book, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, was very successful and is even to this day considered one of the best military memoirs ever written, and Grant's wife was set for life.

Charles Schulz declared many months ahead of time when he was going to end his comic strip. His last strip was published Sunday. The night before, Schulz died in his sleep.

After his family was shipwrecked, Dougal Robertson started adding up their stock. He discovered they had enough food and water to last them ten days. They were two hundred miles downwind and downcurrent from the Galapagos Islands: an impossible feat to get there. They were 2800 miles from the Marquesas Islands, but without a compass or means of finding their position, their chance of missing the islands was enormous. The Central American coast was a thousand miles away, but they had to make it through the windless Doldrums. They wouldn't be missed by anyone for five weeks, and nobody would have the slightest idea of where to start looking anyway, so waiting for rescue would have been suicide.

There were two possible places to be rescued by shipping vessels. One four hundred miles south; the other three hundred miles north.

Having roused himself enough to assess his situation accurately, his heart sank again. Their true and accurate situation wasn't very hopeful. His wife, Lyn, saw the look on his face and put her hand on his. She said simply, "We must get these boys to land."

This singular, clear purpose focused his mind the whole journey. The thought kept coming back to him, spurring him on, making him try when it seemed hopeless. This is the power of a definite, heartfelt purpose. They made it to shore alive.


THE MEANING OF LIFE

Purpose gives meaning to your life. In many ways, your purpose is the meaning of your life. That gives this subject a superimposing importance.

Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist in Germany when Hitler took power, and he spent many years struggling to stay alive in concentration camps. During that time, he lost his wife, his brother, and both his parents — they either died in the camps or were sent to the gas chambers. He lost every possession he ever owned. Because he already knew a lot about psychology and then experienced these extreme circumstances — and even managed to find meaning in his struggle — his slim book, Man's Search for Meaning, is definitely worth reading. His perspective on finding meaning in life is different from any other I have encountered. He writes:

The meaning of life differs from person to person, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion, "Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?" There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one's opponent. The same holds true for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment.

I love that line: "…to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment." And Frankl gives many good examples of what he means. For example, he tried to keep his fellow prisoners from committing suicide. The Nazi camps strictly forbid prisoners from stopping someone who was killing himself. If you cut down a fellow prisoner who was in the process of hanging himself, you (and probably everyone in your bunkhouse) would be severely punished. So Frankl had to catch people before they actually attempted to kill themselves. This, he felt, was a concrete assignment which demanded fulfillment. He was a psychiatrist and was the most qualified to answer this call from life.

The men would often confide in Frankl, since he was a psychiatrist. At two different times, two men told him they had decided to commit suicide. Both of them offered the same reason: They had nothing more to expect from life. All they could expect was endless suffering, starvation, torture, and in the end, probably the gas chamber.

"In both cases," wrote Frankl, "it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them." After talking with the men, he found one of them was a scientist who had written several volumes of a book, but the project was incomplete. It couldn't be finished by anyone else. The other man had a child in another country waiting for him.

Each of our lives is unique. The concrete assignment needing to be fulfilled is different for every person. And Frankl found that a person would not commit suicide once they realized their specific obligation to life — that life expected something of them.

Michael W. Fox, a veterinarian and author of Superdog: Raising the Perfect Canine Companion, was a lover of animals, as most kids are. One day he was walking home from school when he looked through a fence and saw a ghastly sight. It was the backyard of a veterinary clinic, and there was a large trash bin overflowing with dead dogs and cats. "I never knew the reason for this mass extermination," Fox said, "but I was, from that time on, committed to doing all I could to help animals, deciding at age nine that I had to be a veterinarian." Here was a concrete assignment life had presented to Fox, and he answered the call. He became a veterinarian and has done what he could to reduce the suffering of animals. He has spent his life educating people, writing books, and lobbying to create new legislation that reflects more respect for animals.

Dr. Seuss had a mission when he started. He wanted to turn children on to reading. "Before Seuss," wrote Peter Bernstein, "too many children's writers seemed locked into plots that ended with a heavy-handed call to obey one's elders. By the 1950s, educators were warning that America was losing a whole generation of readers." Dr. Seuss wanted to do something about that. And he did. He wrote books kids wanted to read. The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and forty-six others which have sold over two hundred million copies worldwide.


YOU MUST HAVE A GOAL

During the Korean War, the Chinese government systematically tried to brainwash the U.S. POWs. Their methods included deprivation and torture, and the captives suffered tremendously. At one point, in one of the prison camps, three-fourths of the POWs had died. Things were incredibly bleak for the rest of them, and they were all feeling desperate and hopeless.

Then one man said to the others, "We've got to stay alive, we've got to let others know about the horrors of Communism. We've got to live to bring back the armies and fight these evil people. Communism must not win!"

This was a turning point for every man there because their meaningless struggle was transformed into a mission. Simply staying alive against the odds was their goal. Their despair was turned into resolve. Their hopelessness was turned into determination. And their death rate went way down.

Speaking again of his experience in a concentration camp, Frankl wrote, "As we said before, any attempt to restore a man's inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal...Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost."

Sometimes it takes a scientific study to prove the obvious. At least you find out that what you think is self-evident is actually true. Researchers at New York State Psychiatric Institute asked an unusual question of suicidal people. Rather than asking what makes them want to die, the researchers asked what makes them want to live?

They studied eighty-four people suffering major depression trying to determine why thirty-nine of them had never attempted to kill themselves. The study revealed that age, sex, religious persuasion or education level did not predict who would attempt suicide. But not having a reason to live did predict it rather well. The depressed patients who perceived life as more worth living were less likely to attempt to kill themselves.

So now we know: Goals are very important. It's not just a nice thing. It's vital. Get yourself a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Look for something that fires you up, that you think is needed, that you feel is important, and that you can do something about.

If someone has no purpose at all, a small goal is a big improvement. But as the level of mental health increases, there comes a time when a full-on mission is called for as a context for your life.

You can still watch movies. You can still spend time conversing with your spouse. Walk in the woods. Go on vacation. But like a mantra you constantly return to, your definite purpose, your concrete assignment, is always there to give you a sense of purpose and meaning to your existence.


RIGHT NOW

Even if you have a large, overarching purpose, you can only take action in this very moment. It is an excellent practice to try to keep in mind one clear purpose for what you're doing now. And the question, "What is my purpose here?" can really straighten up and clarify your mind and your actions.

For example, if you are criticizing someone, ask yourself, "What am I after?" You may find what you're really after is to make the other person feel bad or punish them for something they did. That is an automatic, genetically-driven (and usually counterproductive) purpose. In other words, you didn't really consciously choose to pursue that goal. It happened without you. But now that you've asked the question, "What is my purpose here?" you can choose. You can think about what you really want in this situation. You may decide what you really want is that the person doesn't do it again. Then you'd have a clear purpose and a clear path for action — without games, without negative feelings. All you'd have is a simple request: "Please don't do that again."

Make it a regular practice to ask yourself what you want right now. What is your goal here in this situation? What are you after? What are you aiming for? Be clear always and consciously what your purpose is in this very moment. It is effective. It is therapeutic. It is healthy. And it will make you more productive.

One key to a strong sense of purpose is the practice of focusing only on what you want. When your mind wanders to other things, bring your focus back. Again and again. Your mind is very easily taken off track, so you have to keep noticing your attention has wandered and keep bringing your focus back to your purpose. When your mind starts worrying about problems that might happen, bring your mind back to your concrete assignment. When your attention becomes fixed on what you don't want, turn your attention to what you do want.

Keep your attention on the goal, and your sense of purpose will grow strong.

There isn't one "right" purpose which you must find and follow. Delete that kind of magical thinking from your thoughts forever! Any (constructive) purpose is better than no purpose and some are better than others. Some are good for now, but no good if pursued too long. The important thing is that you like the purpose and have a good level of accomplishment along that line.


SETTING YOUR COURSE

If you don't already have a strong purpose, how do you go about developing one? A high-quality purpose is more than something you feel you should do. That isn't good enough. A good purpose is something you feel a strong desire to do, even feel compelled to do, and something you feel is important — something you think needs to be done and ought to be done because it is right and good. Or something you feel strongly interested in, something that fascinates you and fills you with interest and curiosity.

If nothing comes to mind right now, that's not the end of the conversation. There is no such legitimate answer as, "I don't have one of those." Yes, you do. You may have forgotten it. You may never have dug deeply enough to find it in the first place. But you've got at least one. And all you need is one.

Most likely there was a time when you knew what your purpose was, at least in a general sense, but for one reason or another you discarded it; someone convinced you it was impossible or stupid, or you convinced yourself. It's now as if you've turned your back on it and are looking around saying, "I don't see any purpose I really want." No, of course not. It is behind you, so to speak. You've already picked it up, had it in your hand and then tossed it behind you where you are no longer looking.

Start right now with the assumption that there is a purpose which strongly compels you or strongly interests you, and commit yourself to finding it. If you don't already have a purpose, now you have one: Finding it. What interests you? What do you like to talk about? What do you daydream about? What do you think needs to be done? What do you think "they" ought to do? What do you "wish you could do" but know you can't?

A high quality purpose is concrete, challenging, and that you feel is achievable. That's where flow is. That's where motivation is. That's where confidence is. That's where ability is formed. That's where the fun is.

In a study at the University of Alabama, they found that people who considered their goal difficult but achievable were more motivated — they were more energized and felt their goal was more important than someone who had an easy goal or an impossible goal.

People who thought their goal was easy weren't as motivated. And people who thought their goal was impossible weren't motivated either. Remember, difficult but achievable. Not achievable in some abstract sense, but something you feel you could achieve. And something you feel challenged by.

John French, Jr., director of the project, did a study of 2,010 men in twenty-three different jobs, trying to find out which jobs were the most stressful. What they found was kind of surprising. The most stressful jobs were the most boring and unchallenging. These were the jobs that produced the most physical and emotional illness.

Says French, "One of the key factors in job satisfaction is self-utilization — the opportunity to fully utilize your abilities on the job, to be challenged, to develop yourself. Frustration and anxiety over not being challenged can have physically debilitating effects."

A big, challenging goal, if you feel up to it, will awaken the genius within, bring out your latent talents, give you satisfaction, and make the world a better place. Beethoven's goal was to create music that would transcend fate. Socrates had a goal to make people happy by making them reasonable and just. These are big goals, but they brought out the best in these people and wrote their names in history.


THE KILLER OF PURPOSES

Probably the biggest killer of purpose is all-or-nothing thinking. "I want to sail around the world," says a young man. But he is married and has a new baby. Obviously he can't go sailing around the world. Or can he? If he's thinking in all-or-nothing terms, he will, of course say "No, I can't go sailing around the world unless I want to be a jerk and leave my wife and child." But that's thinking in one extreme or the other, and life very rarely needs to be so black-or-white.

He wakes up one night with a realization. He has been blinding himself with all-or-nothing thinking! He comes up with a plan. He will set aside twenty dollars a week in a Sailing Fund. As he does better at work, he'll increase that amount. But for now, he uses the money for sailing lessons and boating safety classes and books on celestial navigation, always leaving aside a little to accumulate for the purchase of an actual boat. He learns about boat design.

It takes him three years before he learns enough to decide what design of boat he wants to get. It takes him another year to figure out what course he will chart, what places he will visit, etc. As his son gets older, they go sailing together on rented sailboats. His son learns how to sail. The father teaches him how to reef the sails, how to steer, how to navigate by the stars.

By the time the son is fourteen, the family decides to go for it. They sell their house, buy a sailboat, fill it with supplies, and what do you know? His purpose wasn't silly or impossible after all. It may be, in fact, the highlight of his life.

Another thing that kills dreams or prevents the development of a strong sense of purpose is that interest dies. But here you have to be careful. Did your interest die because you actually lost interest now that you know more about it, or did your interest die because of the way you're explaining setbacks to yourself?

There are certain ways to explain setbacks in your life that will kill your enthusiasm, destroy your interest, and prevent the development of a sense of purpose. If your interest has been killed by a feeling of defeat, you can revive that dormant interest and fill your life with purpose and meaning.

It's important that the goals you seek give you a sense of meaning — that they aren't only about material gain. It's true that any goal is better than no goal, but it's also true that if you have a choice, you ought to choose high-quality goals, goals that will give you a great deal of satisfaction and even meaning.

Susan Krause Whitbourne did a long-term research project, starting in 1966. She saw a particular psychological measurement steadily decline over the years. It's called "ego integrity," which is a composite characteristic having to do with honesty, a sense of connection with others, a sense of wholeness, and a feeling that life has meaning.

Between 1977 and 1988, ego integrity took a universal dive. The life-satisfaction scores were as low as they could go on her measurements. "People got caught up in chasing the materialistic dream," says Whitbourne, "They got recognition for their achievements, yet don't feel that what they are doing matters in the larger scheme of things."


SIMPLIFICATION OF PURPOSES

John is a waiter, and he discovered a fundamental principle of life. When he only has one table, he isn't stressed at all. He can concentrate and do a good job, and it is no problem. Two tables, okay. Still no problem. Three tables, and he has to start really paying attention, because it's like juggling — the more balls you have in the air, the easier it is to drop one. When John gets up to seven or eight tables, it becomes stressful. The juggling of tasks becomes too complex to handle well.

In the same way, the number of purposes you have is directly related to your stress hormone level. Depending on how you handle your goals, a strong sense of purpose can help you manage stress well, or it can make your general stress level much worse.

The problem is that the natural drift for people is toward complication. In other words, if you don't try to do anything about it, your life will get more and more complicated; you will collect more and more purposes. So you have to make a continuous effort to simplify your purposes. Your life will naturally and constantly drift toward complication, just as a rose bush will constantly try to sprawl. You must continually prune. You can't prune once and for all. You have to keep pruning.

For example, John wanted his guests to be happy. That was one of his purposes. He also wanted to get along well with his fellow waiters. And he wanted to please the cooks so their interactions were pleasant. And, of course, he wanted the managers to be happy with him. And so on. Too many purposes. His attention is scattered in too many directions. If he knew about simplifying purposes, he would have trimmed his purposes down to something manageable: To make the guests pleased with his service. That's enough to concentrate on, and that would keep his tension level lower, because it is manageable.

Manage your purposes. Make a list. What are the really important purposes? Trim the list down to something manageable; something simple enough that you can manage it without stress. Get few enough purposes that it feels good.

Be aware that after you trim your purposes, complexity will gradually creep back in. Simplifying your purposes is something you'll need to do once in awhile for the rest of your life.

Keep your purposes strong and clear, simple and heartfelt, and you will find the most powerful source of self-generated happiness that exists in this world. As George Bernard Shaw said, "the true joy in life is being used by a purpose recognized by yourself to be a mighty one." Experience the true joy in life. Be used by a mighty purpose. Find yourself a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment and get to work.

"The need for meaning in life goes far beyond the mechanical techniques of selecting a goal to be achieved by positive thinking. If a person selects a goal just to satisfy the demands of others he will quickly revert back to self-defeating trap circuits. He will rapidly lose ambition, and though he may try to appear as if he is succeeding in what he is doing, he will feel miserable because he is not really committed to this objective. All the success seminars in the world will not make a potential Mozart or Monet content to be president of the Chase Manhattan Bank. Positive therapy strives to help people acquire a deeply positive orientation to living by enabling them to recover a long-buried dream or to implant firmly the roots of a new one. This need for deep personal meaning has been succinctly expressed by Friedrich Nietzsche: 'He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.' The phenomenon was directly observed by Viktor Frankl in Nazi concentration camps. Those prisoners who had a deeply rooted reason to survive — a meaningful project, a loving family — best withstood that prolonged torture without reverting to counterhuman patterns of behavior." 
 - Allen Wiesen, psychologist 

"Morita therapists emphasize that it is important to find suitable constructive purposes and hold to them, thus guiding behavior in a positive direction. The other side of that coin is that all behavior, positive or negative, is purposeful. Whatever you do there is an aim to it, a goal toward which the behavior is directed. The goal may be destructive or constructive or mixed. For example, the shy person may avoid social gatherings in order to prevent the feelings of inadequacy and loneliness that he feels in such situations. In a sense Morita guidance asks the client to select constructive purposes and positive ways of achieving them instead of the already purposeful, but destructive behavior. Finding the purpose behind destructive behavior can be a useful undertaking because sometimes the original purpose can also be fulfilled in a positive way." 
- David Reynolds
founder of Constructive Living
leading Western authority on Morita and
Naikan therapies, the two most popular
forms of therapy in Japan 

"Frequently, success is what people settle for when they can't think of something noble enough to be worth failing at." 
- Laurence Shames 

"Man is by nature a productive organism. When he ceases his productivity — whether he is producing a pail or a poem, an industry or an ideology — his life begins to lose its meaning. Though he may be finally buried twenty years after his death, the person who has no raison d'ĂȘtre is not really alive. He is merely the ghost of who he once was or might have become." 
- Allen Wiesen, psychologist

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

Your Mouth Can Increase Your Stress or Decrease It

What you consume can have an effect on your stress hormone level, for better or worse. Obvious examples are caffeine and nicotine. Even in moderate doses, either of these can double the amount of adrenaline in your bloodstream.

The stress of something like an exam produces increased cortisol levels (cortisol is a primary stress hormone). Combined with coffee, however, the cortisol levels rise even more.

Coffee all by itself raises your cortisol level, increases your feelings of stress and anxiety, raises your blood pressure — and all this even if you are otherwise relaxed, and even for people who drink it regularly. It also makes hypertension medications less effective.

In a study, a fairly big dose of caffeine was found to mimic the symptoms of anxiety disorders. Withdrawal from caffeine does too.

You may be more sensitive to caffeine than other people. Studies have found that people with panic disorder (one of the five anxiety disorders) react more strongly to the same amount of caffeine than "normal" people. They experienced more fear, heart palpitations, nervousness, restlessness, etc. Caffeine can increase these kinds of symptoms in anybody. But for some people, it is more dramatic.

You may not have panic attacks, but just the fact that you are reading this indicates that your system might be more sensitive and react more strongly to caffeine than the average person. In one experiment, five out of six people were cured of their panic attacks by doing nothing more than giving up coffee. Caffeine apparently blocks the action of a brain chemical called adenosine, a naturally-occurring sedative.

In one study, people with panic disorder could reliably produce panic attacks with only four or five cups of coffee. Coffee can produce panic attacks in even normal people, but with higher amounts of coffee.

In another study, people were tested for anxiety, depression, and caffeine consumption. There was a direct correlation between the level of anxiety and caffeine consumption — but only in those with panic disorder.

In another study, panic disorder patients and normal people were given equal doses of caffeine (ten milligrams per kilogram of body weight). Then they were all tested for anxiety symptoms: fear, nausea, nervousness, pounding heart, tremors, and restlessness. The caffeine had caused a significantly greater intensity of these symptoms in the people with panic disorder than in the normal people.

Given all this, and given the fact that you'd like to reduce your stress, I suggest an experiment. Quit ingesting caffeine for two weeks. It takes about three days for withdrawal symptoms to completely subside (headaches, feelings of lethargy, etc.). After that, pay close attention to the general feeling-tone of your day-to-day experience. Your sense of relative ease, comfort, annoyance, distress, alarm, contentment, etc.

Then start drinking coffee again. The first day it'll feel great (as long as nothing too stressful happens). The next day and the next, pay attention to the general feeling-tone of your experience. If you're like me, you'll notice a more general feeling of alarm. And you'll notice circumstances feel more distressing. Then ask yourself what coffee does for you. You get a great feeling of relief in the morning with your first cup. After going all night without caffeine, your body is in the beginning of withdrawal, so it feels good to get a dose again. That's always the moment coffee advertisers display — that first cup in the morning. Also the general feeling of sharpness and alertness is a plus. But weigh the pluses against the minuses and I think coffee comes out on the short end of the stir stick.


SUGAR

I know there are studies showing sugar doesn't produce hyperactivity in children, but it does something to us all. Eating refined sugar — table sugar and corn syrup in particular — raises your blood sugar level (glucose) very quickly.

In one study, some people had panic attacks merely from an infusion of glucose (blood sugar). In another study, people were given 100 milligrams of glucose as a drink. In anxiety-prone people the lactate level in their blood was considerably higher than in the other participants, and it stayed higher for five hours! (Lactate all by itself can produce feelings of anxiety. Lactate is the byproduct of burning blood sugar.)

In several studies of people with anxiety problems, the simple injection of glucose into the blood stream caused symptoms of anxiety. It does not have that affect on most people. There could be a relationship to lactate, which is a byproduct of burning glucose and produces feelings of anxiety. If lactate produces anxiety, and if lactate is produced by burning glucose, then it makes sense that a rise in blood sugar would tend to produce anxiety.

Around the world, people consume far more carbohydrates than our bodies evolved to deal with. Why? Because it's cheap, it's filling, and it tastes great. But it has side-effects. Especially for people who are prone to stress or anxiety.


ALCOHOL

Even though alcohol is relaxing, it stimulates your body to produce stress hormones. A nasty self-feeding loop can form because of this. What do I mean? One thing that causes people to want to drink is the presence of stress hormones — the feeling of anxiety or tension. Alcohol relieves that feeling. It is relaxing. But the following day, the after-effect of alcohol is a higher level of stress hormones. And if the method you use to relieve that feeling is to drink alcohol, an unending cycle has been created. You're caught in a trap.

Alcohol inhibits the body's ability to make glucose from lactate. Lactate normally flows around in the blood stream and when it reaches the liver, it is resynthesized into glucose. Alcohol slows down your liver's ability to do this, which means that lactate levels rise in the blood, causing more anxiety and feelings of stress.

Lactate has a sister compound called pyruvate. When one goes up, the other generally goes down. Your anxiety level has to do with the ratio of one to the other. Higher lactate equals more anxiety. Higher pyruvate equals more ease.

The lactate to pyruvate ratio can be increased with any of these substances: sugar, caffeine, and alcohol.

So when you know someone who has a cup of coffee in the morning with sugar in it, and then has a few drinks in the evening and complains of anxiety or stress, you might want to enlighten them: These things are probably worsening their feelings of anxiety. Circumstances can cause stress, of course, but your own body's reaction to the circumstances can cause more stress and anxiety than you need to put up with.


OR THE BETTER

Scientists give rats a lot of stress and then see what they can do to reduce stress hormones. Something that successfully lowers stress hormones is vitamin C.

Researcher P. Samuel Campbell and his colleagues found that 200 mg of vitamin C per day reduced the level of stress hormones in the rats' blood. That's a pretty big dose for a little critter. It is the equivalent of several grams of vitamin C per day for you or me, which is actually in the range of what the famous chemist, Linus Pauling recommended. It is also in the range of what chimpanzees — our closest genetic relatives — get in their daily diet in the wild.

Other things that indicated a generally lower stress level for the rats taking the vitamin C were: 1) their adrenal glands didn't enlarge as much as they normally do when rats are constantly stressed, 2) they didn't lose as much weight as the stressed but unmegadosed rats, and 3) their spleens and thymus glands didn't shrink as much.

I'm not a biochemist or a doctor. You can do your own research and draw your own conclusions. I'm noting it here because it is relevant to our topic (reducing stress and anxiety) and can give you an avenue to pursue you might otherwise not have thought about.

 Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

How to Like Yourself More

It's impossible to like yourself much when you’re doing something you think is wrong. It doesn’t matter how much rationalization you do, or how thickly you try to cover it with justification, if you think it’s wrong or bad, and you keep doing it, you cannot like yourself. So the way to like yourself more is to clean up your integrity. You may not like to hear that, and I don’t blame you. It sounds like a horrible burden. But it’s not. It lightens your load and makes it more fun to be alive. Here are three steps to a self you like and respect.

Make a list of what you’re doing that you think is wrong and stop doing those things. You might keep backsliding for awhile, but if you keep at it, you’ll make it. Also make a list of things you should be doing and aren’t. Never mind what others think you should or shouldn’t do or what you’ve been told is right or wrong. Just pay attention to what you feel is right or wrong. And make sure you write it out. This, by itself, will give you some relief, because we are never as bad as we think we are. When you write it out, you’ll see that. The list will be finite. Work on one thing at a time. Then cross it off your list.

Make amends for anything you’ve done in the past that you feel guilty about. Some situations only need an apology, or just an admission that you did it. Other situations will require you to take some action to make up for the damage you did. Before you get started on this, you should know that it’s never as bad as you think it will be. It’s easier to make amends than it first may seem. Be creative. Make it fun. You may come up with a wild idea, but if it seems right to you, try it.

Forgive yourself for all the “bad” things you’ve done. This should be fairly easy since you’ve already taken responsibility for your past and present action. But to finish the job, you need to forgive yourself. To forgive yourself simply means to give up resentment against yourself, or give up the desire to punish yourself. Since you have taken and are taking responsibility for your actions, to continue to punish yourself or resent yourself is just silly. You are human. Humans make mistakes. You’ve recognized that and corrected your mistakes. That’s something to feel good about. So forgive yourself. A decision is all that’s required. Simply decide to stop resenting yourself and give up any intentions of punishing yourself.

Take these three steps to a self you really like. You’ll gain strength and confidence and the peace that comes from knowing you do what’s right.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

Cure for Normal

Therapists who try to help depressed people have a problem. Depression is characterized by a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. In other words, a depressive doesn't think his actions will make any difference. He's quite sure of it. He feels his situation is hopeless. He believes he can't do anything about his situation or his depression. He feels helpless about it.

The therapist knows better. If the depressive would change the way he thinks, he could reduce or even eliminate his depression. But here's the catch: Changing the way he thinks would take effort. And effort requires motivation. And motivation requires the assumption that his actions can have an effect.

In other words, before the depressive can get over his feelings of helplessness, he must first get over his feelings of helplessness.

Cognitive-behavioral therapists have actually found a way to do this. They give the depressive an antidepressant drug and then while he's feeling more hopeful and less helpless, they help him change the way he thinks.

Then they take away the drug and he doesn't (usually) lapse back into depression because he no longer thinks depressingly about his circumstances. Research has shown that the combination of antidepressants and cognitive therapy works better than either alone.

Now here's my point: Meditation does the same thing for the "normal" mental illness we all have.

Abraham Maslow wrote that in his studies of psychology, he came to the conclusion that many of the most cherished "laws of psychology" often turned out to be "no laws at all but only rules for living in a state of mild and chronic psychopathology and fearfulness, of stunting and crippling and immaturity which we don't notice because most others have this same disease that we have."

He wasn't the first to have noticed this. Freud wrote of the "universal neurosis in man." Buddha said that "all worldlings are deranged."

There is a kind of craziness we all share and it's hard to get out of it. The craziness is a self-perpetuating trap similar to the depressive's dilemma.

Most of us wish we could be more peaceful, feel more contentment, be better listeners, feel more forgiving and patient, and so on, but our own physiology defeats us. It's frustrating because we know we could be that way, but somehow, no matter how great our insights are on a relaxing vacation, when we get back into our daily lives, we are unable to be the people we want to be.

You know what I'm talking about, don't you? The problem is, you constantly release stress hormones into your body in response to the crazy world (and your ingrained mental responses to that crazy world). It is almost impossible to ingrain any new mental patterns because the anxious, agitated, frustrated, discontented state of your bodymind will continually thwart you. You're saturated with stress hormones and it causes the "psychopathology of the average" you can't seem to escape.

However, there is a way out. Meditation lowers stress hormones. Specifically, it reduces cortisol and lactate drastically. Read more about that here. So when you meditate a couple of times a day, twenty minutes a pop — enough to keep your stress hormone level low — you become calm. And in your new, calmer frame of mind and body, new habits of mind can form.

In this calmer state, you naturally and inevitably develop more serene, loving, and peaceful points of view and habits of action. These new ways of thinking and looking at the world and behavior can become natural and ingrained when you keep up your meditation practice, so even if you were to skip a day of meditation, your new habits would sustain your serenity and sanity.

It is worth taking the time to filter out your cortisol by meditating. It is the fastest, most efficient way to reduce your stress hormones.

If you did nothing, the cortisol in your bloodstream would eventually get used up or filtered out. The problem with just waiting is that while they are in your system, the stress hormones have an influence on your behavior. And the stress hormones influence your ways of thinking. They influence how you interpret the events of your life. And those actions and thoughts can make your body produce more cortisol.

Because your stress hormones have not yet been filtered out, you might snap at your spouse, for example, and that makes you a little more upset, especially when your spouse snaps back. It puts more cortisol in your system. It makes your life a little more upsetting, a little crazier. In this way, the craziness tends to perpetuate the craziness.

That new jolt of cortisol also stimulates more anxious thoughts or frustrating reactions, which come right around and boost your cortisol level some more. It is a cycle of insanity that is hard to get out of.

But meditation is a reliable way out of the madness. Read the literature to convince yourself. Or simply try it.

A tremendous amount of research has been done on the physical effects of meditation. This is not guesswork or based on mere anecdotal evidence. The research is solid and there is a lot of it. And the results all point in the same direction.

Meditation can make you an oasis of sanity in a crazy world. Learn how to meditate here.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

Peace at Will

Why do you like to pet a dog? Or spend time in nature? Or drink a glass of lemonade on the porch? Why do you do these things? Simple: To have a moment where you feel a sense of calm, of peace.

But you can create it at will. It's not that hard to create. You don't believe me? Try it right now. Take one minute and see if you can create a sense of calm relaxation.

One minute interlude...

How did you do it? You did one of three things: relaxed your muscles, changed your breathing, or changed the content of your mind.

You have the ability to create a moment of calm any time you want.

Up until now, you haven't taken the time to do it, even though you could. But that doesn't mean you will continue doing the same thing in the future, does it?

How to Make Lasting Changes in Your Life

You want to make lasting changes in your life. You’re tired of trying to make a change only to revert back to your old ways. You’ve come to the right place. I will share a secret with you: When you can learn — really learn something — you’ll be able to make serious changes, and make them last.

A lot of research has been done to discover the fastest, most efficient and longest-lasting way to learn something (at the end of the article you’ll find links to the research), and the key is spaced repetition. If you want to make lasting changes in your life, you need to understand how spaced repetition works.

When you first learn something — either a personal insight or something you read, or you hear someone say something and you think, “If I could remember that, it would change my life” — if you were never exposed to that insight or piece of information again and never recalled it, it would disappear from your memory (or be so difficult to remember it might as well have disappeared). This is the source of our failure to make lasting changes.

For you to integrate an insight into your life, you have to remember it long enough and often enough to make it stick. But if you’ve ever tried to make lasting changes with conventional methods like posting something on your refrigerator or bathroom mirror, you know it doesn’t work. The question is, “Why?”

The answer is simple: Once you’ve seen something several times and your mind knows what it is, you stop noticing it. So it stops reminding you. So you forget it, and if you forget an insight, it has no possibility of helping you make any lasting changes.

You must be exposed to your insights in a way that makes you notice them repeatedly. I’m going to describe five tools I have used to do just that. These are the power tools for making lasting changes: postables, a timeline, audio recordings, Resnooze, and real life. Let’s take them one at a time:

1. Postables. This is a system my wife and I have developed over a period of 25 years. We didn’t mean to develop it; it developed almost by itself, driven by our desire to make lasting changes and our frustration at having to “get” insights repeatedly.

You know what I mean? You get an insight, you know it’s going to change your life, and then a year later, you get an insight and realize you’ve had it before and nothing ever came of it.

Out of this frustration, we put a corkboard in the bathroom and began posting our insights on it. It is an excellent place because we do several things in the bathroom that require no attention. Brushing our teeth, for example. Having useful insights to read made it less boring and didn’t take up any time. We were there brushing our teeth or toweling off after a shower anyway.

But of course, after a very short time, we stopped seeing what was on the corkboard. The mind gets used to something within a few days and then it might as well be a blank wall.

We solved this problem by rotating the insights. I started a file I eventually came to call “postables” and we began to put each insight on a standard sized piece of paper, and then put it in the postables file. Then every day or so, I would pull a couple from the front of the file and post them, and take the two on the board and put them at the back of the file.

In our quest to make lasting changes, this was a breakthrough. It worked so well, we started using it a lot, and the file grew to be enormous, which meant the distance between our exposure to any particular insight began to expand. And it expanded too much — by the time we saw an insight for the second time, we had already forgotten it.

We had discovered by simple practical application what the pioneers in learning research also discovered: There is an ideal distance between exposures. If you’re exposed too often, your mind goes numb and you don’t learn. Your mind knows it just read that yesterday, and it gives the insight no attention.

But if you’re not exposed often enough, you have forgotten the insight and basically have to learn it all over again.

The analogy I have used that seems to really capture the problem is to imagine making a path across a grass-covered meadow. You walk across the meadow on the first day, tramping down the grass slightly. If you looked back immediately after you walked across, you would be able to see your path. But just barely.

If you came back the next day, you wouldn't be able to see your path any more. The grass you tramped down has popped back up.

But let’s say on the first day you went back over your new path several times while it was still visible. The next day you can still see the path a little, and if you do it a few more times, you can probably skip a day and come back and still see the path, and so on. The time in between repetitions can keep increasing with each repetition.

This is analogous to how learning occurs in our minds. Lasting changes can come about IF you can learn and remember your insights. And you remember them best if you employ spaced repetition.

So I changed the way I used our postables file. When I took a new insight off the corkboard, instead of putting it at the back of the file, I put it where it would be posted again only a day or so later. The next time I filed that insight, I put it a little deeper in the stack. And as it became familiar, I put it even deeper, etc.

I didn’t know until recently that scientists had discovered a very precise algorithm for optimal learning, and it looks just like what we figured out from trial and error. You need to space your exposure to an insight closely at first, and farther and farther apart the more exposure you get.

Of the five methods, using spaced repetition with postables is the most powerful (read more about it here). But the other four should not be discounted. They have their uses, and some are easier and might suit you better.

2. Timeline. If you go to an office supply store, you will find file dividers for the days of the month, the months of the year, and future years. You can use a set of these to help you make lasting changes in your life by devoting a file drawer to it. Put the days toward in front, months after that, and years in the back, up to five years in the future.

Once you’ve got it set up, the factor that makes it work is forming the habit of looking at that day’s folder — whatever day it is — every single day without fail. Do this by putting a reminder somewhere in your way so you’ll always see it first thing in the morning.

I always check my email first thing in the morning, so I put my reminder right over the button that turns on my computer. As soon as I push the button, I check my timeline. Today is the 7th, so this morning I pulled out the folder for the 7th, emptied its contents, and put the 7th at the back of the numbers, so the next one in line, right up front, is tomorrow, the 8th.

You can use the timeline to remember personal insights in the same way you can use postables, but with a timeline you can be very precise with your spacing. A new insight you’ve only seen once might go into tomorrow’s file after you read it. Tomorrow, you can decide whether it should go into the next day, or skip a day. You decide by how familiar it feels or by how consistently you’re using the insight in your life.

3. Audio recordings. This is one of my favorite ways to learn. I get bored easily, so I don’t like to drive or wash dishes or stretch (or anything else mindless or repetitive) without listening to something. I record my insights onto a digital recorder and put them on my iPod. I also buy audio books.

People have often commented, “How do you remember that stuff?” We might be talking about something and I will tell them about a study, and I’ll explain it with very specific details — numbers, dates, names, etc. When it happens once, nobody really notices. But when someone has known me for awhile, they will almost always remark that it seems impossible that I remember things so well.

But my memory is not remarkable. It’s just that I have heard that particular piece of information maybe ten times. Without even trying, the information has become very well-established in my memory. Read more about this method here.

4. Real life. Another way to remember an insight is to arrange your environment so it forces you to use or express the insight.

For example, you decide you don’t want to eat sugar any more, so you go through your house and throw away all the stuff with sugar in it. When you go to eat something and you reach for something sweet, you come up empty-handed. You’ve just used real life as a tool to remember.

That’s five tools for making lasting changes in your life. These tools, combined with the principle of gradually increasing the time between exposures to any particular insight or piece of information, can make your insights really stick, and prevent them from fading away.

In all the research I mentioned earlier about learning, this was shown to be one of the few laws of learning: Short spaces between exposures at first — increasing the time gradually between exposures — causes the most learning, the greatest retention, and is the most efficient and permanent way to learn something.

Use this knowledge to make lasting changes in your life. Employ one or more of the five tools and you will notice a dramatic improvement in your ability to learn.

In the past you may have had ten insights for every one that actually had an impact on the way you lived your life. Not any more. You’ll go ten for ten every time.

You have just gotten some new ideas. Will they make any difference to you? Will they change your life? Or will you go on and forget all about it? It depends on how soon you expose yourself to them again. The power is in your hands.

Learn more about the science behind spaced repetition: Spaced repetition in the practice of learning.

And this article has a great graph of the learning principle: Want to Remember Everything You’ll Ever Learn? Surrender to This Algorithm.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

Change the Way You Think

The way you habitually think has a profound impact on your daily moods, how successful you are, how well you deal with people, how much you exercise, how healthy you eat, and on and on. I have an idea to share with you that my wife and I developed — an idea that evolved organically into something that can help you change the way you think. Permanently.

It began because I would get insights into how I could make my life better, but then I forgot them. This is a normal human problem. How can you possibly change the way you think if you consistently forget your insights?

So I started writing down my insights. But then what? At first I created a file called “read again.” But after awhile this file got too big, and I wasn’t reading it very often. It seemed like a chore. I would have to make myself take the time to read insights I’d already gotten. I never felt like doing it because I like to explore. I like new ideas, new books, new insights. I’m sure you do too. But is this an effective way to change how you think? What should you do when you discover new insights? How can you make them stick?

I put a corkboard in the bathroom, right next to the bathroom mirror, so when I’m doing things like brushing my teeth or toweling off after a shower, when my mind is otherwise idle, I can look over and read my insights. You’ve tried to change the way you think, right? Have you tried posting something on your bathroom mirror? How well did it work?

After a few times of reading my insights on the corkboard, I stopped noticing them. My theory is that once your mind knows what something is, you tend to overlook it. Trying to change the way you think isn’t as easy as it seems because of this “extinguishing factor” — your mind gets used to things and stops noticing them.

So I started changing the insights as soon as I wasn’t noticing them any more — usually every few days. I took the insights down from the corkboard and put them in the back of the “read again” file and took a couple of new pieces of paper (the corkboard is big enough to post two pieces of paper at a time) from the front of the file, and posted them. This way the insights were rotated so I eventually saw them all. In our quest to change the way you think — to change thought habits — this was a significant improvement.

But I had a new problem. My “read again” file was so large, it would take months before I saw an insight again, and by then I had forgotten it. This wasn’t getting me the results I was looking for. It seems to change the way you think, having so much time between reminders is counterproductive.

I started deciding where to place the insights when I took them down from the corkboard. If the insight was already a well-established habit, I threw it away. If it was almost completely established, I might put it at the back of the file. If it was a fairly new insight, I would put it close to the front so it would come up again in a day or two. If I had already done this with one of the insights, I would put it a little farther back — say, a week away. And as it got more and more established and familiar in my mind, I would put it deeper and deeper into the file, further and further back.

This was it. This was the formula I was looking for. This made insights really stick in our minds.

Some of my notes are handwritten. Some are excerpts from books. When I read, sometimes I come across something I want to remember, and I mark the passage with a small Post-it Note. When I’m done with the book, I copy the pages I marked on my copy machine, highlight the passage, and put it in my read again file, which I have since renamed “the postables file.”

Recently, I have devoted, or rather I should say we have devoted (because it was my wife, Klassy’s, idea) a whole filing cabinet to the postables file.

Now when I take down a postable — a piece of paper with an insight on it — I put it in a file in its own category. If the insight is about exercise, it goes in a file called “working out.”

We’ve since replaced the corkboard with a magnetic dry-erase board, and replaced the thumbtacks with magnets. Much better.


The Content of Your Mind

Now some people might think this is ridiculous. I’ve got a file cabinet in my bathroom, for crying out loud! I post insights on our magnetic board almost every day.

I don’t know what most people would think of the idea since almost nobody knows about it. When we have guests over, nobody has ever commented on it other than to say, “I like that quote you have in the bathroom.” But we’ve never explained what it’s there for and nobody has ever asked.

But if anyone ever thought we’ve gone too far to capture insights, I would say this: The content of our minds has an enormous impact on the quality of our lives and on our effectiveness in the world. That’s a fact. We are simply being responsible for that fact.

Insights are often hard to hang on to. You think your new insight will change your life, and it really could if you somehow held onto it, but for the most part we don’t take responsibility for making sure the insight sticks — maybe because nobody came up with a good way to do it yet.

Well here’s at least one good way. It has been working for us for over twenty years. It's been a key ingredient in our success, in our marriage (we post insights on relationship issues), in our writing (we post insights on the craft of writing), our health (we post facts, tips, and insights about diet and exercise), and so on.

About a year ago, I found another way to accomplish almost the same thing. The Google Calendar. It’s easy to use: You type a message to yourself and tell it how often to remind you — every day, every other day, every week, once a month, whatever.

Google Calendar sends the message to your email inbox as often as you want.

When I first put a new insight on Google Calendar, I tell it to send me the insight every day. After a few days, I change it to every other day. Then every four days, and so on, as the insight becomes more well-established in my mind.

Making a new insight stick is like making a path through a meadow where one didn’t exist before. When you walk through the meadow once, you’ve tramped down the grass a little, but a couple of days from now if you came back to the meadow, you wouldn’t be able to tell where you walked. The grass has straightened itself out already.

But if you walked the path three times today and three times each day, after awhile, the path would become well-established.

Once the path is well-etched across the meadow, it becomes self-perpetuating. Anyone walking across the meadow takes the already-established path, which packs it down even more, making it more and more permanent as time goes by.

If you go over an insight often enough, it becomes like a well-worn path through your neurons, and the thought is easier and easier to think until it becomes the "natural" way for you to think — it happens automatically.

The “postables” idea and the Google Calendar service are two good ways to accomplish this. It doesn’t take much work, it doesn’t take much time, but it has a tremendous impact on the most important thing you need for personal change: To reliably alter your habitual way of thinking.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

How to Use Self-Help Principles So They Make a Difference in Your Life

This web site is like a box full of tools. As you browse, you'll find out what tools are available in your box. You'll see tools you will want to use. But please do not make the mistake of thinking you should be using all these tools. It's an easy mistake to make because it is obvious that simply knowing about the tools doesn't lower your anxiety level very much or make you feel better or reduce your stress. It is using the tools that makes the difference.

But listen to me. If you had a large, well-stocked toolbox down in the basement, but at the moment you're sitting on the porch drinking lemonade, you wouldn't think you should be using those tools. You don't need any of those tools to sip lemonade.

Use the tools when you need them or when you really want to use them. Read these articles to become familiar with what's here. Then when you come to an stress-producing situation, you will know you have a tool that can handle the job.

Or you could wait until you need a tool and browse through the site until you find one that will work.

Also realize that you might use a particular tool only once every other year. In a regular toolbox, you'll have a few tools that you use only rarely — for very specific jobs that don't come up very often — but when you're doing one of those tasks, that tool is just the thing.

Some other tools are used often, like a screwdriver.

Same for the tools on this site. Some tools, like focusing on a purpose, will be in almost constant use. Others have only a specific application that may not come up very often.

Another way the toolbox analogy fits is that you usually only use one tool at a time. You don't use a saw and a hammer simultaneously. When you're hammering, that's the only tool you're using at the moment. The tools in this book are much the same. When you're relaxing tense muscles, just relax tense muscles. Don't try to simultaneously remind yourself of a slogan and alter the way you're interpreting the situation. Choose a good tool and apply it. And only it.


USE THE RIGHT TOOL

If you want to remove a bolt, do not use a screwdriver. Use a wrench. In the same way, each of the tools on this site is good for certain circumstances and not very good for others. For example, I had something troubling on my mind and I felt agitated. So I meditated. It didn't work at all. I was more agitated afterwards than before.

I needed to think things through, which is difficult to do while meditating. So I tried a different tool: I argued with myself on paper and that brought me complete relief.

If you want less reactivity in general, by all means meditate. If you have a problem getting rid of a thought about something that does not require any thought on your part — because you are just obsessing about something and no longer have any good reason to think about it — meditation will probably do the trick. Focusing on a challenging purpose would work also.

If you have several different things on your mind and need to sort things out, making a list will probably help you.

If you're upset by a specific incident and it keeps coming up in your thoughts, arguing with yourself on paper is a good one.

If you feel somewhat alienated from people, work on developing your charisma or the bond of friendship.

If you feel physically tense, soak in a hot tub or listen to a relaxation tape or get a massage. Or exercise.

If you've been guzzling coffee or not getting enough sleep, you know what to do.

You get the idea. Use the right tool for the right job. As you can see, when you look at what your situation is, it's pretty easy to see what would be a good tool for the job. All you need to do is avoid saying "this is the best tool" and try to use it on everything. You wouldn't do that with a regular toolbox, would you? "I think this hammer is the best tool. So whatever I want to do, I'll use the hammer to accomplish it." You want to saw some wood, so you hammer and hammer, and eventually, get the plank into two pieces. Two ugly pieces. Then you need to make the boards level before you hammer them into place. How can you do that with a hammer?

Become familiar with the contents of your toolbox. Learn what each tool can do. And then when you want to manage some aspect of your life, deftly reach into your toolbox and apply the tool that will accomplish your purpose with the greatest effectiveness.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

Jack LaLanne's Diet

The legendary Jack LaLanne developed his way of eating over a long lifetime. And his vitality and strength at his advanced age are proof he knows what he’s doing. Let’s start with the basics. Jack LaLanne’s diet is low-fat. It includes a fair amount of lean protein. And he eats ample fruits and vegetables.

Jack LaLanne’s diet has very few grains, no flour and no sugar. He eats no red meat and no chicken. His lean protein consists of mostly egg whites and fish. He eats no cheese or milk products except he sometimes adds a little half and half to his morning smoothie.

Jack LaLanne’s diet includes vitamin and mineral supplements. And he drinks wine.

If you want more detail about it, I’ll point you to further resources at the end of this article, but that is Jack LaLanne’s diet in a nutshell.

Of course, Jack LaLanne’s diet isn’t the only key to his immense vigor. The other half of the equation is how he works out. Jack LaLanne’s main rule for working out is: Start easy, do what you can, and increase your workout gradually. If you don’t follow this rule, you are likely to hurt yourself and become discouraged.

For cardio, Jack LaLanne works out hard. He really pushes himself. Throughout his workout, he always tries to challenge himself. He changes his routine every three to four weeks to keep his muscles guessing (and growing).

He uses weights. He goes to failure sometimes but not every time. He works out every day, but he works out different muscle groups on different days. He works out about two hours a day. That’s cardio and strength training combined — two hours total.

After a lifetime of experimenting on himself, this is what Jack LaLanne came up with. It’s the key to his vitality and it could be the key to yours.

 Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

Slow Your Body and Mind Quickly

Here's a technique for getting into a relaxed, sometimes even blissful state quickly. I found it in the book, Richard Hittleman's Yoga: 28 Day Exercise Plan. He calls the technique Alternate Nostril Breathing. Here's how you do it:

1. Put your right hand up to your nose. Hold your index and middle fingers on your forehead to hold your hand stable. You'll notice your thumb is on the right side of your nose and your ring and little fingers are on the left side.

2. Now use your thumb to plug your right nostril. Take a slow, deep breath in through your left nostril, counting to eight. Slow down your in-breath so it takes eight seconds to fill your lungs.

3. Plug your left nostril (so both sides are now blocked) and hold your breath to a count of eight.

4. Now lift your thumb off your right nostril (keeping your left nostril plugged) and breathe out steadily, through your right nostril only, for a count of eight.

5. Do not pause at the end of the breath. Immediately start breathing in and breathe in through the right nostril to a count of eight.

6. Plug both sides and hold your breathe for a count of eight.

7. Now breathe out through your left nostril for a count of eight.

8. Start all over again, breathing in through your left nostril.

Breathe in and out as quietly as you can. This makes your breath slow and even.

This seems a lot more complicated than it is. It's very simple once you've done it a couple times.

This technique occupies your mind. All the holding and counting is absorbing. This simple activity successfully keeps out other thoughts, allowing you to get lost in it. It is easier to concentrate on alternate nostril breathing than on a mantra. And it is very relaxing.

It is a scientific fact that your nostrils normally change dominance. Throughout the day, without using any technique, the blood flow alternates every couple hours between the left and right sides of the nose, causing first one and then the other nostril to become more congested, allowing air to flow more easily into and out of the uncongested nostril.

Apparently this shift back and forth every 90 to 120 minutes is associated with brain hemisphere dominance. When the left nostril is more open, people test better on right hemisphere tasks like spatial relations. When the right nostril is more open, people do better at left-brain tasks like verbal expression.

I'm speculating now, but it's possible that alternate breathing balances the activity of the two hemispheres of your brain so that neither is dominating the other. What ultimate difference this makes, I don't know, but it sure feels good and is very relaxing. Doing it for a few minutes is a great preparation for mantra meditation too.

To make it easier to do this exercise, here is the technique in condensed form:

IN THROUGH THE LEFT

HOLD

OUT THROUGH THE RIGHT

IN THROUGH THE RIGHT

HOLD

OUT THROUGH THE LEFT

IN THROUGH THE LEFT

ETC.

Each in, out, and hold is done to a count of eight (approximately one second per count).

You can do a less complex version of this. Just plug your nose on one side, breath out, breath in, switch plugs, breathe out, breathe in, etc. Count to three on each side, or four or five. That is from the excellent book, Conscious Breathing: Breathwork for Health, Stress Release, and Personal Mastery.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.