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New Year’s Resolution: Getting Your Brain Back

braindanceWhen you think about it, that brain of yours is both the cause of and the solution to every one of your problems.

With the right thoughts, you can trigger yourself into actions that will change your life – or even the entire world. With the wrong thoughts and actions you can just as quickly end up dead. And in between, you can experience complete joy or utter dissatisfaction purely through different perceptions of an identical set of circumstances.

It is both obvious and miraculous to state all of this, and thus it is pretty ridiculous that we don’t put a higher priority on maintaining our and improving our own noodles in a more systematic way.

Imagine that you’re an Olympic athlete, or at least a well-muscled Underwear model. Your body is the key to your success. What if you were forced to live on a cruise ship with no weight training facility and a 24-hour buffet stocked mostly with beer and cake? Would the input to your body affect its performance?

Similarly, suppose that you’re a rising star of an Engineer at Google (which is statistically much more likely given this blog’s readership). Your career will live or die based on how much brilliance you can crank out of your brain and deliver to the world in usable and elegant form. Given this fact, should you feed your mind with whatever happens to be sloshing past in society’s slop trough? Viral posts forwarded by your Facebook friends or the latest update from the stock speculators on Wall Street? Or is there a better diet available for that high-performance machine?

Let’s take Mr. Money Mustache himself as an example. I’ve always had a cordial relationship with my own mind, and it has helped me accomplish some worthwhile life goals in the past. But as I worked through my twenties, I found I was renting that mind out to an ever-greater degree for pay as a software engineer. The more information and algorithms I burned through at work, the less fire I had left to do much real thinking about anything else after hours.

It wasn’t always like that. When I started that career, my phone was a dumb brick with an LCD screen, and only rarely did the odd email trickle in to my computer’s small, low-tech Microsoft Outlook window. Social networks were not yet invented, books were made of paper, and I was in heaven whenever I could spend a long day deeply wired into the compiler, debugger, logic analyzer, and on a good day even the soldering iron. The concentration I could summon back then seems to be in another league, considering how long it has taken me today to get even to the fifth paragraph of this completely non-technical article.

But a funny thing happened over the years. Wi-Fi was invented so suddenly my laptop was always offering up servings from the Information Buffet. I advanced a rung or two on the corporate ladder, so I became ensnared in more emails, documents, and meetings. The Internet started producing ever more distracting options for slacking. And I started a construction company on the side, which opened up a whole firehose of new information to guzzle. Gradually, I became less and less effective at my job, and I started delegating the fun but difficult technical stuff to people who could dig in and get it done properly. I started to feel pretty useless.

Luckily for me I had also been working on the early retirement project in the background, and at this point in the story it came to fruition. I quit the entire corporate world in 2005, never to look back.

Ahhhhh…

Suddenly, everything was great again. I felt like I got my brain back. I would wake up each morning and break into a broad grin as I realized that all those projects, meetings, and emails I had been dreaming about no longer existed in my world. They were gone, replaced only by that blue Colorado sky outside my window, and the short walk to the kitchen where there was food and equipment in place for the preparation of a fine breakfast. I started learning again – reading books, doing new things, and meeting new people. Although we had a new baby at the time, plus I stumbled into some foolish business hardships during those first few years of retirement, there was no question that they were a time of great education, easy focus, and some pretty good accomplishments.

But secretly, complexity was brewing in the background and planning its next attack. In 2007, Apple dropped the iPhone bomb on the world, and within just a few years there were two of them in our household. Two otherwise capable adults found themselves unnecessarily swiping and pecking around on the little screens for hours. The baby became a boy, full of information, curiosity, and urgent requests for attention that did not care what you happened to be working on at the moment. And worst of all, Mr. Money Mustache was born.

This blog started as just a quiet writing outlet, where I would collect a few of my own thoughts, and send them out to a very tiny collection of strangers throughout the Internet. But gradually, the blog grew and the tide turned. More information started coming back in my direction. Comments, emails, tweets texts, and Facebook messages started as a trickle, but grew and grew into an overflowing torrent. Not a torrent of crap like you get by watching the news, but one of fascinating, useful information from genuine and brilliant people. So much information and so many opportunities to have fun and do good things for the world.

This is a wonderful problem to have. I’m ridiculously lucky. But it turns out it is still a problem, since human attention only scales up to a certain degree. At a certain point, you end up hearing from amazing people and thinking about amazing things all day and still not keeping up with it all. I started ruthlessly skimming and archiving emails, turning down anything involving more commitment than walking down to the Indian Buffet for lunch, and still not keeping up. Dropping the ball on even the most golden of opportunities, and probably mildly pissing off a friend or two due to email inattentiveness. Although my mind was busier than ever, my productivity was dropping in most areas of life. You can see the results in the slowing writing schedule on the list of all posts.

Getting Your Brain Back

Luckily, this problem has a solution: I call it Getting Your Brain Back, but it is a time-honored problem that has been solved by many people in the past. Originally limited only to company CEOs and world leaders, the excess of information has trickled down to the rest of us. To survive in this flood, we need to learn how to swim, in much the same way as busy and important people have always done.

The problem is that I’m taking in too much peripheral information and scattering my attention around. Instead, I should be feeding my mind in rich, controlled meals and giving it plenty of calm resting time between them.

Paradoxically, if you take in less random information, you will find that you can devour more useful stuff, and produce much more as a result.

New Year’s Resolution

byebye_twitterIn the olden days, I would have just made some top-level plans: “In 2015, I will spend less time and get more done. I’ll finish the house, publish my first book, write a blog post every week, and move up another level of physical fitness.”

But we’ve learned from the study of human habits that if you want macro-level changes in your life, you need to attack them with micro-level changes in your daily routine. Through the 365 chances we get every year, tiny things add up to surprising results more quickly than your intuition would suggest.

So this year, I resolve to change only a few things to change the balance and focus of information:

  • I removed the phone charger from my bedside table and put it in my office instead. No more mindless surfing before bed or immediately upon waking.
  • I uninstalled the Twitter app completely from my phone. This will seem insignificant to normal people, but any blogger will recognize it is a massive change. A nonstop stream of information candy and ego dopamine, gone from the day. I can still use Twitter from the real computer.
  • I cleaned up the longstanding pile of move-in debris from my office and replaced it with a tidy arrangement of heavy barbells and dumbells. Now instead of being faced with a mess when I come in here to write, I get the invitation to do a few quick lifts, then sit down and get some shit done.
  • I am giving up pointless casual drinking (disguised as the well-deserved beer or red wine at the end of a good workday), although keeping social drinking because it’s less frequent.

These changes alone have been very powerful (I actually cheated and started in mid-December), but to make them even better, I am using the concept of the keystone habit to replace the sad craving left behind by each bad habit with something good and equally rewarding.

  • When I wake up (usually before sunrise), I still immediately feel the urge to check my phone. This urge reminds me to go to the couch in my quiet office, flip on a little lamp, and read more of whatever book I am currently working on. I write down notes as I read each book and it tends to lead to a better and more motivated day.
  • When I find myself swiping through the screens full of apps on my phone and find Twitter is missing, I am reminded to put the phone back down and pull the little oldschool notebook out of my pocket – this is where I keep current ideas and my to-do list.
  • When the sun goes down and I suddenly feel the usual craving for an adult beverage, it reminds me to do something useful and physical instead. I pour a glass of cold water and step out to the back patio where I keep the squat rack permanently loaded to remove all barriers to this ultimate of exercises.

With these tricks, I have cut out most of the brain’s junk food and replaced it with things that are actually good for mental function. I still need plenty of computer time to keep up my cherished hobby of being Mr. Money Mustache, but now it comes in shorter, focused sessions at this bigass desktop computer in a quiet room with no distractions.

If all goes well it will mean getting more done with less unsatisfying gear-grinding. Better days and calmer nights. All in all, a worthwhile resolution in my books.

What are you changing this year? Are you going after big objectives or tiny habits?

 

  • Robert January 10, 2015, 4:42 pm

    Seems MMM you are on the same track as a book I got for Christmas. “The Organized Mind” (Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload) by Daniel J. Levitin. Multi and over tasking is a myth. Interesting read so far.

    Reply
  • SoCold January 10, 2015, 6:17 pm

    I’m also giving up “pointless casual drinking.” I really love beer and wine and can’t imagine giving them up entirely. But from now on I’ll keep it for the not-frequent times when I’m socializing with friends or colleagues.

    Reply
  • CAtoTX January 11, 2015, 11:09 am

    Actually I am proud of you for working on giving up mindless evening alcohol consumption. Your earlier blog posts sometimes came off as defensive about how much/when you drank (I have money now so I can do it if I want to, look, I’m making my own beer so it’s okay, look, I pre-drink before I go out & have a flask so it’s cheaper).

    I have some friends who post on Facebook how they can’t wait to get home and have that glass of wine—or three. Pretty soon it is an addiction, a habit, a whatever, no matter what people say about the health benefits. I mean drinking water has many health benefits, too, but I’ve never seen someone post that they can’t wait to get home and down a bottle of it.

    Also IMHO, the most frugal approach to drinking is to NOT build up a tolerance and to only imbibe occasionally & moderately.

    Okay getting down off soapbox now. Except to add that the day you decide to retire from the blog…when your heart is no longer in it…well we know that day will come and we will survive. Don’t let your fans influence that decision. Your family is more important.

    Reply
  • Edgehatfield January 11, 2015, 11:22 am

    I feel compelled to re-post this link from a previous comment, for those who enjoy a cocktail, beer or glass of wine on most days. Great read, very detailed and thought-provoking. MMM — it’s *good* for you!

    http://www.psmag.com/navigation/health-and-behavior/truth-wont-admit-drinking-healthy-87891/

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache January 12, 2015, 11:12 am

      Great link, Edge. I agree that light drinking is probably not bad for most people (although for non-millionaires it can be devastating for your finances since you could easily double your grocery bill).

      For me, it is probably less good as I am more hangover-prone than I should be as a proper descendant of England. Plus it makes me gain fat and especially lose mental focus the next day, which is what this post is really about.

      Reply
  • cornelia January 11, 2015, 2:04 pm

    Deleted the Facebook App from my smartphone.
    Replaced Netflix with NYimes.com and BostonGlobe.com (my local)
    Thank you for the kick in the ass!!

    Reply
  • Jarvis January 11, 2015, 3:12 pm

    To improve how frequently and consistently I workout, I created a google spreadsheet and invited my wife and some of my friends as contributors with their own tabs. It has been a great success so far. Simply knowing that some of my friends are going to check and see what I did for my workout over the last few days is great motivation to get out there and get it done. I highly recommend something similar to anybody doing workouts. Care for an invite and a tab on the spreadsheet, if you don’t have one, MMM?

    Reply
  • Marcus January 11, 2015, 5:22 pm

    Great post you have captured what I have been feeling for a long time. Recently the ideas and inspiration from this blog, the Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris and I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi I have changed a fair bit in my life:

    -No TV unless it’s Cricket. (I live in Australia)
    -No smart phone as it ensures I think for myself. (They have street directories and maps for a reason.)
    -I already don’t have Facebook, Twitter or any of the social medias.
    -No credit card.
    -No loans besides the mortgages.
    -I already had budgets and savings goals I just needed to supplement them with the other changes.

    Goals:

    -Train at least 3 times a week. (A small but achievable goal giving me greater chance of success.)
    -Earn at least $1 profit from a business that is not my 9-5 job. –
    -Break/gain 5 x habits in the next 12 months.
    -Give away/sell/throw out all stuff I don’t need and don’t buy anything unless it’s completely necessary.
    -Get myself out of my comfort zone more often.

    With the combination of goals that create time and positive goals that use that created time I feel I am better utilising the left over brain power after work. The excercise portion of the goals assists in feeling better and clearing my head. I’m still in the very early stages of where I would like to be but hey, we all have to start somewhere!

    Thanks for all of the useful posts and inspiration.

    Cheers mate, Marcus

    Reply
  • Peter January 11, 2015, 8:54 pm

    Great article! I recently moved my cell phone from the bedside table to a dresser at the other end of the bedroom. It’s still my alarm clock so I can’t take it completely out of the room. I’ve replaced random facebook/twitter/reddit swiping with reading at night, currently churning through “The Path Between the Seas” which is a great book on the construction of the Panama Canal. I save my working books for morning/lunch time – as they tend to get my mind churning on short and long-term vision for my life. These small changes have give my mind more space to focus on what matters and actually start to accomplish something significant this year.

    Reply
  • EHN January 11, 2015, 11:23 pm

    Following the advice in the forums, for the new year I switched from a Tmobile unlimited data plan to a Ptel Paygo SIM card in my old GSM smartphone, and am using only the 500MB of free data I get with having a FreedomPop Photon wifi hotspot.

    That way, I read more substance on the bus to and from work, and save money at the same time, but still have data for when I need it (maps and directions, etc.).

    Reply
  • jestjack January 12, 2015, 1:19 am

    What a timely blog! I hope to make changes this year to be more productive….in other words…”less talking…more doing”….It seems media gets in the way of getting things done now. I need to get some things done at some rental properties and get some properties rented that have sat for too long. Cutting down on TV and internet should help. Never have been a fan of the “smart phones”….I still use my wife’s cast off flip phone.. This pay as you go phone just celebrated it’s 10th birthday…

    Reply
  • KJ January 12, 2015, 5:22 am

    This is a resolution I’ve also being try out since mid-December. I found out that the more I am “addicted” to my smartphone and this “swarm” of information, the more moody I get when I don’t receive it. It carries into other parts of your life and having instant gratification becomes the norm instead of patience and self-restraint.

    While I can’t stop carrying my iPhone since I do answer emails for school work and my part time job, I try put it on do not disturb unless I am expecting a call.

    Do I still check it frequently? Yes, every hour or so. But at least now I don’t immediately reach for my phone and disrupt my focus whenever the phone, and subsequently the table, vibrates.

    Reply
  • Jeremy E. January 12, 2015, 10:45 am

    My new years resolution seems pretty small, but if I succeed it will save me a lot of time. It’s to not use the snooze button the entire year. I’m hoping changing this small habit will allow me to eat a good breakfast every morning, and prevent me from occasionally being 5-10 minutes late for work.

    Reply
  • Brandon Cronan January 12, 2015, 12:25 pm

    What about pointless casual weed smoking?

    Reply
  • Obs January 12, 2015, 11:12 pm

    Interesting post. I have long known that my main vice is Reddit, but I’ve yet to kick the habit. I suppose it could be worse, but I know I’d be a better person if I could really go cold turkey. Video games are a distant second. They are not as edifying as many other pursuits, but compared to Reddit they are downright educational. As always, thank you for your thoughts.

    (I don’t agree on the alcohol thing though. The preponderance of evidence seems to suggest it’s healthy. Although I can’t imagine it’s as healthy as the physical exercise you are replacing it with.)

    Reply
  • Max January 13, 2015, 4:32 am

    NEVER MISS LEG DAY!!!

    But in all seriousness- I like the suggestion about having weights already racked and sitting there as a reminder. It “tricks” your mind into just going over there and getting it done- no hesitation.

    Reply
  • Matty Books January 13, 2015, 7:08 am

    This is great stuff, and so true. How often we try to make the large sweeping changes . . . partly because we don’t want to put in the work of the small daily changes. Change takes work. And the work to make the change starts with the daily grind. I can relate about the drinking alcohol because i have worked hard and feel i deserve it. I have fallen into this over the last year or so. A hard day at work rewards me 2 heavily hopped brews, and an hour later i am asleep and my belly grows bigger. I have also chosen, before i read the article, to only drink in social contexts, which has helped me enjoy my nights and not feel entitled to get what i think i deserve. Thanks MMM. I will re-read this again once i hit submit.

    Reply
  • Scott January 13, 2015, 5:46 pm

    Listen up MMM, there is no way to live well today on anything less then 287K per year. See this article for clarification and I expect your website to shutdown immediately or succumb to complaining: http://www.businessinsider.com/why-a-6-figure-salary-wont-make-you-rich-2015-1?utm_content=buffer7b547&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

    Reply
    • Eldred January 14, 2015, 6:47 am

      Oh, MAN! Let me make that kind of income for even THREE years and I’d have enough to retire…

      Reply
  • InsiderAccountant January 15, 2015, 4:08 am

    Hey MMM, it sounds like you just need to re-implement the theory of your Low Information Diet (or a “Low Distraction Diet”) you wrote about some time back. I have been doing it for the last 3-4 months, and haven’t found any disadvantage in not knowing things like the latest “news”. And since I’m not on Facebook or Twitter, which makes me very strange as a 32 year old, I don’t have those things wasting my time either.

    As a partner in a large accounting firm I don’t give out my mobile number to clients and don’t have work emails going to my phone, so this helps me screen out work from my private life as well. I’ll admit that I am unusual in this area too though, as most of my peers are answering emails at all hours.

    I really do think that all of those things above that I am “going without” are completely unnecessary for me to live a happy and satisfying life. People should try giving them up – it’s a great feeling!

    Reply
  • mike January 17, 2015, 10:47 am

    Will be very interested to hear how the no drinking thing goes… I’m a big fan of a nice craft brew or local whiskey at the end of the day. Would only give it up for a massive amount of positive result.

    Reply
  • Court January 17, 2015, 11:09 am

    So many times I read this blog and I feel like you might be singing a song that I really like, but don’t know the words to just yet. I say that because I am actually doing a decent job on some things , but still so horrible on others. It’s a work in progress. My input into my mind has been worked and reworked after I realized I could cut down on bad dreams if I didn’t feed my mind horrible images all day. I cut down on TV and tweaked a few things here and there but never saw any benefit financially because I just spent EVERYTHING. So this year my focus is on :
    1)Financial literacy and health (your blog has helped turn some scary things into not so scary things, thank you!)
    2) Educational advancement, the work I want to do requires a degree but I know that I can figure out a way to make this happen without agreeing to indentured servitude to some school.
    3) General rework of my thinking. Even though there are plenty of things in my life that have been proven wrong I still choose to believe them, out of convenience and familiarity. I want to spend some time trying to be more honest about some of these things because I am allowing them to hinder my progress.

    It’ll be an interesting year I’m sure!

    Reply
  • YourNeighborChristina January 20, 2015, 8:11 am

    Hurray for cutting back on drinking and phone usage! I am pretty much only a social drinker, and I can advertise the benefits as follows: when you go out to the ole Northern Sun, you only need a pint or two to feel all warm and happy. You are a great cheap date!

    Happy 2015 Mr MM and family!

    Reply
  • Lisa January 20, 2015, 6:37 pm

    This year, I’m also giving up the occasional drink (and I’ve also decided to keep social drinking since that doesn’t happen too often). The “I deserve this” drink was just an excuse for me to get buzzed. Now, I’m feeling healthier and more clear-headed! Plus, it also makes social drinking more special.

    Reply
  • Eric January 28, 2015, 8:15 pm

    If you find yourself frequently checking a given website (Reddit, Facebook, etc), I’ve found it very helpful to change your computers’ hosts file to point facebook.com to 0.0.0.0. The next time you reflexively type fac and hit enter in your browser in a slow moment, you’ll get a 404 error rather than being greeted by a huge list of pointless listicles. And then you can remember why, and go back to what you actually wanted to do, rather than getting sucked in.

    I believe there are also browser extensions that do this, but this will block the site at the machine level, and work across all browsers at once.

    Reply
  • Sena Ustun December 23, 2015, 11:07 am

    As a non-American, the biggest issue I notice with Americans is that they don’t specify the time they will use to work and the time they will use to get relaxed. As we are getting closer to have another new year, my suggestion to you is to work for a predetermined time each day and don’t work more once the clock says it is the leisure time. I think that one of the reasons Americans are so obsessed with the idea of retirement is that they work for more hours than Europeans or Canadians do. Thus, it is a pain in the ass to get to work each day and get to your second job once you are done with the first one. I suggest that just focus on the thing you are dealing with and you will be more productive.

    Reply
  • Kevin May 18, 2017, 9:31 pm

    one of your best posts. i’m definitely in the camp of “overly distracted and consuming to much peripheral information” as i was literally fighting my own brain just to get through this post. we have to remember that social media companies literally employ teams of people whose job it is to hack the human psyche and trap our attention. you just have to stop, as hard as that can be. you’re always going to be able to rationalize it to yourself as keeping up with current events, or keeping in tune with the lives of your friends, but ultimately it’s 90% BS that just takes you away from fulfilling you own life. just stop it. cut the cord. another key piece of advice: unsubscribe from all email lists and alerts. o lordy does that ever simplify my day. my inbox was being filled with pseudo-spam from Ebay, Amazon, YouTube comment alerts, Cineplex, Facebook messages, etc. remove the temptation to go on 10min (and invariably hour-long) sojourns into Pointless Internetland in the middle of your working day or during what is supposed to be morning or evening downtime. our brains were not meant to handle that kind of constant stimulation, and it just adds stress and decreases happiness in the long run. instead spend a half hour meditating. you’ll be brutal at it initially as your mind searches for stimulation in all kinds of weird ways, but over time you may get to enjoy moments of peace, and overall the practice will carry over into your daily life with better focus and a sense of the big picture when faced with temporary calamities and empty distractions.

    Reply
  • EarningAndLearning June 22, 2017, 12:45 pm

    Great post on getting your brain back. Some real gold here, thank you.

    I deactivated my Facebook account about 6 months ago and haven’t missed it. I also put my Twitter and Instagram apps in a folder on my iPhone so I have to swipe and click and swipe and click to open them. Just not seeing them on my main screen has been a help, and the hassle of opening them gives me just enough pause to remind myself that I should not waste too much time on social media.

    I also just cut the cost of my cell phone plan in half (down to about $35/month, yay) which means way less data, so that means less browsing on social media as well. Thanks for the push to do that! I’m in Canada so the prices aren’t quite as good as in the States, but this is a baby step towards pay-as-you-go, which would ultimately be the cheapest.

    And email, oh EMAIL. I read yesterday that email is like a To Do list where anyone can just add something in. That made me think! And resolve to not let others determine my To Do’s for the day before I have.

    And after reading this post, I’m also resolving to “feed my mind in rich, controlled meals and give it plenty of calm resting time in between.” And to take in less random information, so that I can “devour more useful stuff, and produce much more as a result.”

    Thanks for the inspiration MMM!

    Reply

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