Brain Training

There is one fundamental tool I use all the time, because it’s so adaptable. I use it for myself and for a large number of my clients. I don’t know if there’s some official name for it, but I think of it as brain training.

We will all naturally gravitate towards activities that we find enjoyable and move away from those we don’t. It’s human nature and it’s hard to combat. We can force ourselves to do things that are “good” for us for a short period of time, but if they are too onerous, resistance will build and we will probably quit.

This led me to wonder whether I could just change what I like and what I don’t like. Could I prefer healthy foods to unhealthy ones? Could I prefer work to idleness? Discomfort to comfort?

The answer turns out to be yes, you can change virtually anything.

Most interesting was the discovery that our brains’ setpoints tend to fall in a very narrow range. It wasn’t a herculean task to change my brain to preferring to work over slacking off. It wasn’t like I was at a -10 and had to get to 10 to change my behavior. It was more like I was at -1 and had to get to 1. This turned out to be roughly true every time.

This is a very powerful tool, because you realize that you can essentially change your life just by moving the needle a tiny bit. Right now I’m on a cruise ship and I’m spending around 4-5 hours writing each day. There are any number of distractions, like laser tag, go karts, and huge waterslides, but I actually prefer to write. When I sit down with my laptop and a blank page, I feel great. When I go do the water slides I look forward to finishing up and getting back to work.

This is nowhere near my natural setpoint. In school and even in my own work after school, it was a big process to get myself in the groove. Not so any more.

This technique is equally effective when changing your perceptions of things, including of yourself. If you perceive the world as a great place full of great people and opportunities, wouldn’t you be happier than if you had a more cynical view? What if you saw yourself as someone competent and able to handle anything, versus someone fragile and helpless? Simply changing these perceptions will affect how you live your life.

And like preferences, perceptions also tend to live within a very narrow band. It doesn’t actually take much to tip the scales from thinking the world is a terrible place to thinking it’s a great place. This is a process I’ve gone through many times personally and with others, and it’s always a pretty small change.

Small change or big, how do you make it happen?

The first step is to clearly define what you want your new belief to be. Maybe it’s “washing dishes is enjoyable” or “I feel best when I’m productive” or even “people value the work I do”.

Understand that the empirical truth of any of these matters is a gray area. Do you like washing dishes? Well, you’re just a bag of meat and neurons, so there’s no reason it couldn’t go either way. Do you feel best when you’re productive? There’s no reason you couldn’t. Do people value the work you do? Some do, some don’t.

The absolute truth of nearly anything like this is arbitrary and subject to change. But your perception of it will have a concrete effect on your life.

Once you know what your new belief is, you must collect evidence to support it and ignore evidence to the contrary. The actual problem you’re trying to solve is that your brain is currently trained to see too much of the contrary evidence and not enough of the supporting evidence. So we must recalibrate it by training it to see the other side. And just as you bend metal a tiny bit by applying a lot of force, we must do the same to our brain.

The most reliable method I found for doing this is to keep a daily diary of evidence supporting your new belief. Set a rule that at the end of the day you must write down five or ten examples from your day that support your new belief.

For example, let’s say that your goal is to enjoy being productive. Your list might look like this:

1. In the middle of work today I had fifteen minutes where I was making tons of progress and I felt great.
2. Solving a really hard problem felt great when I was done
3. At the end of the day when my work is done, I feel accomplished and proud
4. I got complimented on my work today and it felt great
5. When I got to work late today I really felt bad

All of these are pretty minor things, but our opinions are mostly made of a large collection of minor things anyway.

The diary serves two main purposes. The primary one is to force you to think throughout the day of supporting evidence. In any given day there will be plenty of evidence for and against the new belief, but if you know you’re going to have to record only the evidence for the belief, that’s what you’ll be looking for.

The secondary purpose of the diary is to provide you with evidence whenever you are questioning your new belief. Is it really possible that you like working? Well, here are 50 bits of evidence from the previous 10 days that say that you do.

This process sounds very basic and simple, but it is incredibly effective. Don’t let its simplicity fool you. You can typically expect to see some results in one month and profound results in about three months. You can become an optimist, stop being a slacker, or get in better shape by preferring healthier foods.


Photo is from the Teamlab experience in Toyosu. It was really cool— way cooler than I expected. Check it out if you’re in Tokyo.

Just finished our last island trip for the season. Got solar power, furniture, and a ton of firewood this year.

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