The trouble with FIRE

Half the idea is sound and the other half feels like a misplaced priority.

The idea of becoming financially independent is great and, given the current economic situation in most countries, there is little surprise in its popularity. Add to it a generation almost mindlessly entrenched in minimalism, the thought of FIRE—Financial Independence, Retire Early—seems oddly like it belongs to the wrong generation yet seems fitting on some counts. However, half of the idea should simply be commonplace—the FI bit—while the remainder—the RE bit—is worth thinking long and hard about, or even simply discarding altogether.

My personal opinion is that FIRE should stand for ‘Financially Independent and Retiring Early’ because that expansion just makes a lot more sense than the most popular one (see above). However, there are slight alterations of these four words in the expansion depending on whom you ask so there is probably still some hope.

FIREy aspirations

The core idea of FIRE sounds simple enough: earn and save enough money, generate enough assets, so as to be able to retire early (think mid- to late-30s) and live out your life by periodically withdrawing your savings and passive income with discipline and never work to earn for your life ever again.

This is a great idea. On the face of it it seems as close as we have ever gotten to the utopian Star Trek idea of an earth where money has no meaning and working to earn a living is a thing of the past. Everyone is given all they need to live because living is their right, and everything else is cherry on the cake. But I digress: the appeal of FIRE lies in the sense of freedom it seems to be synonymous with, but like everything in life it comes at a cost.

The Four-percent rule

The primary motivation behind FIRE, indeed what is making many people retire at all, is a strong belief in the so-called ‘Four-percent rule’. This was a figure born out of studies of market growth over a few fifty-year periods from the mid-1920s to the early-1990s. It was found, by William Bengen among others, that withdrawing at a steady rate of 4% every year would exhaust a retirement portfolio in no sooner than 30 years.

In other words, if you build up your savings while you work in such a way that withdrawing 4% every year will help you maintain your current expense and lifestyle, you can continue to live as you are living currently for at least 30 years.

Again, this sounds great and the mathematics is simple too. If you spend 10,000 units of currency every month, or 120,000 units per year, you would need a corpus of 7,584,946 to retire safely. At simply 120,000 as the 4% of a whole you might expect 3,000,000 instead of over twice that, but the seven-million number takes into account an inflation of 2%, which is really a liberal estimate.

To retire safely you need not worry past this so long as you can sustain the most minimal life you can think of. The four-percent rule, in other words, is a lot less practical in its approach for a majority of the population than it sounds like on paper.

Culturally and socially, we tend to have several reasons for spending. The rule breaks down if you spend, for example, 5% one year for some reason. If you have a sudden medical expense, you have no choice but to eat into your principal and risk living at a 3% withdrawal rate for the rest of your life. The thougt of this does not ease my discomfort. As someone who believes in having enough to be mentally unperturbed the idea of FIRE sounds like someone wanting to stop working early at the risk of living an extremely frugal life with no prudence or peace of mind.

Think of sudden, unexpected medical bills for example; or a child’s education; or any of a million other unforeseen bulk expenses that might come your way. The FIRE plan makes space for none of these. It makes the classic mistake of building on ideal expectations.

Between a rock and a hard place

If I had to opt for it, I would favour a corpus built with the expectation of a no more than a 2% withdrawal rate. The above seven-million number would then double. It is clear to see now how FIRE is attacking you from two sides: on the one hand is a push to be financially independent which requires making more money, on the other is a push to retire early which requires relying heavily on probabilities and passive incomes. This all rests on the common understanding that life will be led with incredible calculation, frugality and with little room for expansion.

I do not believe in living out one’s years miserably. I also do not believe in splurging left, right and centre. Occam’s razor then dictates eliminating one of two curbs: either forego financial independence or retire in your later years. The former is stupid, the latter is much less a trade-off than it appears.

FIRE is all about living sometime later instead of living now and being prudent about the future.

Stefanie O’Connell made a good point about this in The Financial Confessions podcast in December of 2019. She says—

A lot of the way people who are FIRE spend their time is exactly how I spend my time. The only difference is I don’t have five-million dollars in the bank. I do need the money. But … if I were to just prioritise having a million dollars in the bank … at the expense of everything else I spend my money on, I don’t know that I would have the quality of life and joy that I have along the way. And that’s not a trade-off I’m willing to make, and I think … asking people to … defer this gratification … is maybe not necessary … Maybe it’s just a change of work culture, maybe it’s much more simple and much more accessible and I think that’s the other piece of this puzzle where I think the criticism of FIRE is legitimate is that a lot of this is not accessible to a lot of people.

She goes on to point out rightly that if you do not have a huge salary and if you have a non-zero cost of living and if you are not lucky enough to graduate without debts, a lot of the things that eat into your expense and prevent you from building a corpus quickly enough to retire early essentially make FIRE an impractical idea that will forever remain out of your reach.

How about sound financial health instead?

The simplest, most practical approach would be to enjoy your job so you can do it long enough without feeling like it is a burden on you every morning. Earn for several years too, and live a decent, even frugal life but without the sort of frugality that borders on misery. Build a corpus but for certain peace of mind rather than to retire unusually early.

Further, what happens after the 30-year pillow that the four-percent rule affords? Do FIRE people who retire at 35 not expect to live past 65? Or are they gambling on being able to re-enter a career then, or even on being able to make money from interests and rent at that point? And what if you have a hobby or some venture that grabs your interest later in life; you will have nothing to invest in that because the four-percent rule you had such faith in in your twenties now has you shackled forty years later.

Just draw from the lessons of FIRE that encourage saving, investments and asset building. You may not have a million dollars in the bank, but considering you do not have a million years to live either, perhaps this trade-off is worth it. At the cost of a slightly smaller bank account, you get to actually live your life without worrying about a four-percent withdrawal rate; you get to live your days satisfied and peacefully, without worrying about not having money; you get the peace of mind that comes with being able to not count every penny you spend all while distancing yourself from the uncertain promises of an early retirement. In short, strive for FI and drop the RE.

Attention Management

For productivity and a meaningful life, stop trying to manage your time and start managing your attention.

We are, as Tim Harrera puts it, ‘overstimulated, under-focused navigators of the modern world’. Every which way we look there is a gadget of some kind, some sort of distraction, waiting for us. The old world had distractions too but nothing of the magnitude we find today. With this come two buzzwords: productivity and time management, and they are both hornets’ nests.

The problem with time management

Productivity is generally a reference to getting significant work done. It is about achieving a meaningful number of self-defined accomplishments consistently. And the most popular route to that is time management.

The trouble with time management, though, is that we are severely limited by design: we have 24 hours in a day and, as Adam Grant wrote in the New York Times, ‘focusing on time management just makes us more aware of how many of those hours we waste’. Further, time management can often ironically go against our priorities. In an interview with Roger Dean Duncan for Forbes Maura Thomas says—

Time management teaches us to say ‘no’ more often and ‘do less’. But saying ‘no’ deprives the world of those unique gifts. And because many people ‘have to’ work, the things they say ‘no’ to tend to also be the things that nurture and sustain them: things like hobbies, recreation, family time, and volunteer activities.

So it is settled. Time management can potentially be a waste of time. The real solution, as a series of Times newsletters brought to my attention all through 2019, is attention management.

Attention management, unlike time management, is not corporate speak. It is an approach backed by science and incredible spirit. It is about prioritising the people and work that matter with the understanding that when something really matters it makes little difference how long it actually takes in your day. By managing attention rather than time priorities work their way into the system inherently. ‘Attention management’, says Adam Grant, ‘is the art of focusing on getting things done for the right reasons, in the right places and at the right moments.’

The reason time management became as popular as it is today is because it redefined the meaning of productivity in our lives. But it is important to remember, as Dr Grant says, ‘Productivity isn’t a virtue. It’s a means to an end.’ Productivity and time management rely on will power, understating the why will automatically draw your attention to a task and, says Dr Grant, ‘you will be ‘pulled into it by intrinsic motivation’.

Why attention management works

I have previously spoken several times about intentional living. Choosing what we do carefully, no matter what mould it fits into or does not, knowing that every step we take is intentional, goes a long way in improving our quality of life. Little did I know that in describing intentional living I was in a way describing attention management. ‘Attention management allows us to be more proactive than reactive,’ says Ms Thomas. ‘It allows us to live lives of choice rather than reaction and distraction.’

Such choice is key to attention management. Whereas time management lets you allot time slots for whatever tasks come your way and asks you to cull them as they come, in effect making you flail around in the winds of chance, attention management takes a fundamentally reversed approach and asks that you pick your tasks based on what they mean to you and devote your attention to them.

Think in terms of meaning and focus rather than time. Do not focus on when and how quickly you want to finish something, focus instead on why you want to do it. That will justify why a task deserves your attention and time, and if it does deserve all that, you will have no reason not to focus on that task.

Managing distractions

The key to managing attention is identifying obstacles. There are two types of obstacles: actual distractions and perceived distractions. The former we are quite familiar with; the latter is less precisely spelt out although we are all probably aware of it.

‘Intrinsic distraction’ as I like to call perceived distraction is a problem that often goes unrecognised. Ms Thomas points out, ‘Even when there is no distraction, we distract ourselves by expecting one.’ This tends to add up quickly and has the effect of unaccomplished tasks demoralising us and making us feel unproductive. Since productivity has been linked so often and so closely with time management, that is often all we look at while we seek a solution, leading to a vicious circle.

There is renewed focus on attention management today thanks to the information age in which we live. Unlike before, when we accessed data as we needed and with specificity (say from books in a public library), we are now surrounded by data that itself beckons us constantly and often even commands us, with no target, motivation, rhyme or reason. The fact that we can get quick answers, no matter how little they may be vetted, prompts us to constantly seek answers. We are addicted to distracting ourselves because of its convenience and reliability.

However, the fact that gadgets are our primary distraction today does not mean we must advocate for an ‘unplugged lifestyle’. Tim Herrera calls this ‘a silly idea that is an impractical solution to a practical problem. Rather, the point is to notice your surroundings, to be mindful of the world you’re navigating, and to give yourself permission to slow down and just … observe.’ Once again, this is about being mindful of what we give our attention to—this is about living intentionally.

Attention residue

The big question that needs to be answered is ‘Why?’. Why should we choose what we pay attention to? Why not pay attention to everything? In understanding this I like to draw attention to the phrase ‘paying attention’. Think of attention as something you keep in your wallet. You pay it out every time you choose something to pay attention to. That means you will soon run out of it and can only rejuvenate it (see below), say, the following day. So choosing what we pay attention to is important for attention management. After all, there is hardly any management needed if a resource is infinite.

The technical term for this is ‘attention residue’. Attempting a tough or disliked task soon after an interesting one can make it harder to finish the disliked task because your capacity to pay attention has drained out. Studies on such ‘contrast effects’ of attention support the classic advice to start with what you dislike or find tough and then set aside tasks you like as a reward for later. While managing attention, always keep track of attention residue.

Cal Newport writes about attention residue in his book ‘Digital minimalism’. Mr Newport is an ardent advocate of quitting social media altogether, and Mr Herrera surprisingly agrees with him despite having called the idea impractical (see above). In any case, this is what Mr Newport says of attention residue:

Every time you switch your attention from one target to another and then back again, there’s a cost. This switching creates an effect that psychologists call attention residue, which can reduce your cognitive capacity for a non-trivial amount of time before it clears. If you constantly make “quick checks” of various devices and inboxes, you essentially keep yourself in a state of persistent attention residue, which is a terrible idea if you’re someone who uses your brain to make a living.

Despite liking his books, such as ‘Deep work’ and ‘Digital minimalism’, I have always disagreed with Mr Newport’s insistence that quitting social media is the only option. It reminds me of the vain attempts many made all through history to oppose change and new technology. Change on a natural level cannot be fought; it can merely be adapted to. Limiting social media use, for example, and cutting down the number of social networks we are active on to no more than a couple is often a more pragmatic approach.

Rejuvenation

The fact that we can run out of our capacity to pay attention means we must find ways to rejuvenate ourselves and refill our stores of attention. This calls for a balance between our focused and diffuse modes of thinking.

Paying attention means working in our focused mode. It gathers a lot of energy, sets up neural patterns and allows us to accomplish tasks via honest work and efficiency. This can be strengthened in the diffuse mode, where we are not focussing on any specific activity and are instead lost in thought. This includes a casual walk, sleep, exercise and various forms of relaxation. The diffuse mode strengthens the neural patterns set up in our focused mode allowing us to focus better over time. Like life itself, what we need is a balance between the two.

Ms Thomas says, ‘Our challenge is that now in any pause of activity, we immediately pull out our phone, and engaging with e-mail, social media, or other communication tools destroys the opportunity to daydream.’ She calls the diffuse mode ‘in-between moments’. She continues, ‘When we are daydreaming, we’re not actively controlling our thoughts, we aren’t focused on anything in particular, and we don’t have a lot of external stimulus. This is when our minds can wander and “stumble” into connections and insights that are otherwise crowded out.’

Striking this balance can prove to be rejuvenating and enriching to our life both immediately (trust me, I have experienced it) and in the long run.

Achieving this can be easy and fun too and never takes time for itself. Rejuvenate your attention by making small changes in how you live rather than by making it another big task in your day. Rob Walker, the author of ‘The art of noticing’ asks his readers to practise noticing things that they normally would fail to notice: ‘Walk to every corner of [a] building and just see what you see. Off to the doctor? Stay off your phone in the waiting room and … notice the people around you.’ This boosts intentional living and gives your mind pause from the constant onslaught of information it is otherwise subjected to.

The next time you find yourself wondering how you can accomplish things in your day, stop allotting time to everything. Instead ask yourself what really matters to you and choose how you allot your attention. Time will fly like it always does, but at least it will be pleasant this time—and it will be worth it.

An excellent book weighed down by a couple of dangerous ideas

Be louder. Interrupt? Stomach, not throat. Screamin’ Saturdays? Reservation for women. There is a lot to unpack in this book.

‘Outspoken’ is one of those books you do not expect to be drawn into because you picked it up as a casual read but then leaves you with strong conflicting thoughts you find hard to leave unaddressed. The hilariously assertive tone of Veronica Rueckert’s book is best encapsulated in its blurb. ‘Are you done with the mansplaining?’ It asks, ‘Have you been interrupted one too many times? Don’t stop talking. Take your voice back.’

If you think the book tones it down you would be mistaken, because the dangerous message at the end is just that: women should learn to be assertive, even rude, and interrupt people during conversations the way way men do. I disagree wholeheartedly, you simply do not level the playing field by stooping down to someone else’s level. I would have liked this book a lot better if it said everyone should learn not to cut people off and that everyone (especially men?) should listen more to others and not discount them.

That said, it would be just as premature to dismiss the book based on its end goal because the many titbits Ms Rueckert leaves on the way there have quite a lot to offer. And they in fact are what prompted my review of this book.

The voice coach

As a Peabody-winning communications coach Veronica Rueckert is at in her comfort zone at the start of the book, a big chunk of which speaks about your voice—literally, your voice and how to control it, how to improve it, how to breathe better et cetera. To me this was an unexpected start to the book but one that I went on to find rather engaging.

At the end of the second chapter we are still discussing our voices but, in her weakest aspect, Ms Rueckert prompts readers to consider if they are unable to handle their voices better they perhaps should pick a different career path altogether. Never again does she display such pessimism, though, as page after page this book is full of modern-day examples (think AOC, Hillary Clinton and reservation in India) of how women can be heard.

As a man, I felt this book would not speak to me but I picked it up to see if there was something I could learn from it anyway. Surprisingly, the book was open and welcoming, and it felt like a genuine conversation with the author not designed especially for readers of a specific gender.

Speaking up does not work

The crux of the problem Ms Rueckert tackles is summed up in a Yale University study she quotes. Victoria Brescoll studied the extent to which men and women in and out of power speak in different workplace situations and found a stark difference:

Women who shy away from talking too much on the job for fear of a social backlash may be right to worry. If men assert their voices on the job, they appear more likely to be clapped on the back and given a promotion, whereas a woman who does the same thing may find herself sinking to the bottom of the hierarchy.

It is at this point that one expects the narrative to shift focus from women and call for a much-needed change in workplace and social cultures. But the book carries on for quite some time convinced that women can bring about the change entirely from their end. I would, myself, have preferred to read pointers on how a cultural shift may be brought about where women are given as much space as men to voice their thoughts.

On a personal note, I was quite pleased that a study was conducted that showed men spoke up disproportionately more than women in the workplace. I have often told my wife this too while encouraging her to speak up; the next time it comes up in conversation I know I have a study to back my words.

What prompted Ms Rueckert to steer this way was likely the identification of fear as a factor that prevented women from speaking up. ‘Anytime fear enters the talking equation’, she says rightly, ‘we should send out warning flares because silence and fear have no place in our culture … and fly in the face of … egalitarianism and democratic participation.’

Snap, crackle, pop?

The troublesome part of the book comes about halfway through when discussions on interruption pop up. Funnily there is a section on ‘How not to be interrupted’ followed by one on ‘How to interrupt’. This was by design no doubt but I found it made for a curiously ineffective, not to mention hilarious, organisational structure.

Ms Rueckert describes snapping back as an option to prevent being interrupted with an unintentionally humourous description of how to go about it. The alternative to snapping back, the book goes on, is to continue talking with a louder voice until the interrupter ‘cedes the floor’.

And how does one interrupt? Identify ‘jump in’ moments where you can worm your way into a conversation and once you are in, keep going and ‘don’t give anyone else a chance to talk once you’ve made the conversational cut’.

Such dangerous advice, following several pages of complaining about how men do not give women the chance to talk, weakens the good advice spread over the rest of the book.

Society at last

It is only towards the final third of the book that any acknowledgement comes about the fact that society is to blame for silencing women’s voices. A key example of how restructuring workplaces and social organisations can help women be heard is that of India. Ms Rueckert quotes the UN describing the steps taken by the former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s Congress government in 1993 calling it ‘“one of the best innovations by grassroots democracy in the world” when it approved a constitutional amendment that required village councils to reserve one-third of their seats for women.’

The key takeaway is that over time, such forceful inclusion of women led to both men and women recognising that women’s voices had a legitimate place in society and at workplaces.

California took up similar measures and now has in place a law requiring company boards to elect at least two women members by the end of 2021. Examples like this one, and examinations of women active in—and famous around—the world today are an important part of what makes this book relevant to our times.

It has something for both men and women to read and learn from. It does not carry any groundbreaking content but why should it? Effective presentation and consolidation of ideas, with a balance between storytelling, facts and instruction, is after all what makes a book of this sort worthwhile. Yet, it feels a bit lacking. Perhaps a follow-up is due, where the ideas of this book are visited but in greater depth. And perhaps then Ms Rueckert will talk more about her vocal and communication skills because those were the parts that, to me, made this book enriching.

Meet the combined power of one-percent and your environment

Downright the best—and possibly only—book you need to learn to break bad habits and build good ones effectively.

I cannot emphasise just how good this book is. This book is really good. The basic premise of Atomic Habits is two-fold: one, that forming and breaking habits is not so much about willpower as it is about our environment and the systems for change that we implement; and two, that the smallest and seemingly most unimportant changes compound over time to give remarkable results. This goes both ways: it builds bad habits if you let it or you can use it to build good ones; and it breaks bad habits too, or, if you do not pay enough attention, lets good ones decay.

James Clear takes a straightforward and practical approach throughout the book with a time-tested formula: anecdote followed by statement followed by research followed by guidelines. This rhythm acts like pentameter throughout the book which is itself divided into five parts corresponding to the four steps of habit-building (or breaking) and one part discussing some advanced tactics that discusses such things as talent and motivation.

One of the reasons I enjoyed this book was its no-nonsense approach. It starts by outlining the process in which our brain looks at habits and patterns with cues, cravings, responses and rewards. This is a pretty familiar idea these days although it is outlined differently at times. Nir Eyal in his book Indistractable talks about this as well; as does the McMaster course on ‘Learning how to learn’, although they use slightly different terms: cue, routine, reward, belief. The underlying idea is pretty similar: if you can manipulate one or more of these for your benefit, you can build and break habits as you like.

While speaking of small steps Mr Clear makes sure to clarify that he is not speaking of minute steps that attempt to drill muscle memory into us or normalise a habit out of nowhere, like flossing just one teeth to start with. Instead he refers to picking the simplest act possible that, when repeated over time, compounds to something meaningful and life-altering. The keyword here is compounding as he explains early on in the book: a daily 1% change amounts to you becoming three-and-a-half times better at that work in a year; a daily 1% deterioration will likewise see you dropping to a perfect zero in a year. Mathematics always clears things up nicely.

Here is an extract (with possibly inaccurate punctuations as I dictated this while I was reading) where the idea of small changes is explained:

We often dismiss small changes because they don’t seem to matter very much in the moment. If you save a little money now you’re still not a millionaire, if you go to the gym three days in a row you’re still out of shape, if you study Mandarin for an hour tonight you still haven’t learnt the language. We make a few changes but the result don’t seem to come quickly, so we slide back into our previous routines… unfortunately the slow pace of transformation also makes it easy to let a bad habit slide. If you eat an unhealthy meal today the scale doesn’t move much, if you work late tonight and ignore your family they will forgive you, if you procrastinate and put your project off till tomorrow there will usually be time to finish it later. A single decision is easy to dismiss. But when we repeat one-percent errors day after day by replicating poor decisions, duplicating tiny mistakes and rationalising poor excuses our small choices compound into toxic results. It’s the accumulation of many missteps, a one-percent decline here and there, that eventually leads to a problem.

As the book proceeds to set up the four ways to deal with habit-building (or -breaking, the two are symmetrical)—namely making cues obvious (or invisible), making cravings attractive (or unattractive), making responding easy (or difficult), and making rewards satisfying (or unsatisfying)—we see Mr Clear addresses why we would want to do this in the first place. When asked this question most of us respond with our end goals, the place where we all want to see ourselves eventually, but this approach in ineffective, he explains, because ‘winners and losers have the same goal’. This was eye-opening to me. But of course: nobody who loses set out to lose; what differentiates people is their approach, or their ‘system’ as the author calls them. He explains this beautifully—

Prevailing wisdom claims that the best way to achieve what we want in life … is to set specific actionable goals … results have very little to do with the goals I set and nearly everything to do with the systems I followed. What’s the difference between systems and goals? … Goals are about the results you want to achieve, systems are about the processes that lead to those results … If you want better results then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead … The purpose of setting goals is to win the game, the purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long term thinking is goalless thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment, it’s about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.

This idea too is touched upon in the McMaster course on ‘Learning how to learn’ that I talked about earlier (take this course if you have not already, you will thank me for it). The process versus the product, the system versus the goal. Defining goals is great because they give us an end point but what gets us there, or anywhere at all, is our process or system.

With this set-up Atomic Habits, much to my pleasure, eschews magnanimous agendas around goals and definitions and motivation and instead attacks the most practical arm of the problem: the system we set up for ourselves and how our environments can enable or weaken our systems.

This is not to say he lays blame on the environment or encourages you to use it as an excuse, rather he details how you can take control of designing your environment for your benefit, rather than living in an environment someone else designed for you—and this does not involve redoing your walls or laying out your home from scratch, so rest easy.

As much as I am tempted to go on I will stop this review here because I hate to spoil such a great book with summaries and pointers. Make time and read this book. This is not one of those self-help books that should really have been a simple essay. The structure and narrative is central to making readers understand the insights contained in it and the basic push the book makes is this: you are stuck in your identity (e.g. I am not a morning person, I am not good at art, this just isn’t for me) which is what makes all your attempts at building and breaking habits fail. Do not make habits tasks; make habits your identity and they will succeed. Of course this is easier said than done, which is why you should read this book; it will make building and breaking habits as easy to do as they are to talk about.

Read this book.

A guide to fighting distraction from the man who helped tech become a distraction

Nir Eyal tries to convince readers that it is them and not their gadgets or environment that is the problem, and he does it rather well.

As far as Indistractable goes Matt Haig’s testimonial nails it; this book, he says, is what we need to ‘focus on what is important, rather than the dazzling, illuminated, unsatisfying distractions of modern life’. If there is just one thing you need to know about Indistractable this is it. I normally only review books that, to a good degree, evoke a considerable response in me—whether in a good way or not. To speak highly (or low) of such a book simply makes it particularly good (or horrible) for me.

Hardly any review of Mr Eyal’s latest book can avoid talking about the elephant in the room: his earlier best seller, nay tech-world bible, Hooked was the literal antithesis of Indistractable. Few authors can get away with such a 180º turn. While Hooked talks so effectively about how technology can be built to develop habit forming practices in users that it is among the most faithfully read books among software designers trying to rope users in and make them addicted to their product (think of Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or some games you found yourself unable to put down), Indistractable does the exact opposite, explaining to people how they can refuse to be distracted by the things around them and focus on what matters.

Mr Eyal himself argues that it is not a 180º as much as ‘an insight that I have into both questions’. Yet, one cannot help but wonder if he is simply trying to redeem himself from the aftermath of Hooked1. Putting all that aside we had better look at Indistractable based solely on its merits and not with any perceived context. And I do think that, as it stands, this is a pretty good book.

Indistractable is divided into four parts (with a couple more flanking them). The shadow of Hooked appears to loom large on occasion with Mr Eyal insisting that the route to becoming indistractable is not about avoiding potential distraction but learning to handle ourselves better. Even if I am wrong about this being prompted by the author’s previous book, I tend to agree with this fundamental principle he enforces. A digital detox, he insists, is not the answer. He makes it a point, repeatedly, to take the blame away from gadgets and software. The antidote to getting distracted is to plan ahead and follow through on your intentions, he says and I agree, somewhat.

The four-step process involves mastering internal triggers, making time for traction, fighting back external triggers, and preventing distraction altogether with pacts. The term ‘distraction’ is defined as arising from the word ‘traction’ which refers to any action that pulls us towards our goal. This definition is important to keep in mind throughout this book as it sets the stage for what we can consider a distraction in the first place before we attempt to deal with it.

One of the arguments Mr Eyal makes to clarify why blaming technology will not do, which I particularly liked, involves a game of billiards. The coloured balls go into the pocket because of the cue ball, but the cue ball is not responsible. He points out that the real responsibility lies in the player whose actions are the root cause for the coloured balls to be pocketed; the cue ball was simply a proximate cause. Smartphones and other gadgets are proximate causes, he says. And, further, they offer us an escape from reality—particularly social media—which is fundamentally what distraction is: an escape from reality.

Anther cause for distraction is boredom, says Mr Eyal, but I find it hard to agree with his argument especially since I have myself called for people to allow themselves to be bored a lot more. However, I do agree that his other proposed reasons, such as our inherent negativity bias, rumination etc., can well be causes that prompt us to look for distraction. To deal with it then, we need ACT—Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Mr Eyal compares this to smoking and quotes an interesting study as an example. Flight attendants with a smoking habit were put into two groups and asked to go off on a three-hour and ten-hour flight and rate their craving. It was found that those on the ten-hour flight had much less craving after three hours than their counterparts on the three-hour flight. The reason for this was acceptance: the flight attendants had accepted that they were not allowed to smoke while on a flight and that they would not be able to smoke until they landed. So, after three hours, the group which knew they could smoke felt a greater craving than that which knew they could not smoke for another seven hours. It was not about how long it had been since they last smoke so much as how long they had left to be able to smoke.

The approach to acceptance comes down to four of its own steps: one, look for the emotion preceding distraction; two, write down the internal trigger; three, explore the negative sensation with curiosity instead of contempt2; and four, be extra cautious during liminal moments. Funnily, Mr Eyals cites impulsive searching on Google as an example of urges to accept before bringing under control. The next time you want an answer to something, do not whip out your smartphone and google it; be more mindful, pause, take note and then work on whether you really need to do it right then and now. This reminds me of another book called The knowledge illusion which does a good job of addressing why we like to Google: it gives us the feeling that we know something while in fact we do not know it, we just were able to access it—the access to knowledge is addictive because it is mistaken with the possession of knowledge. This is a uniquely 21st century problem. In any case, the first step is to acknowledge it and not blindly fight it.

On a similar note—beware I do not know how scientific this is—trying to will our way through distraction i.e. planning to simply control distraction through our will power will be futile because, says Mr Eyal, will power is an emotion like any other: it ebbs and flows based on the environment you are in. So if will power is what you plan to use, do not fall for the idea that you ran out of it, know that your environment and lots of other subsidiary factors can affect, exhaust and even replenish it.

There are a couple of mathematical bastardisations in the book, much like in a corporate motivation book3. One of these is B=M+A+T which is supposed to stand for Behaviour being a combination of Motivation, Ability and Trigger. The reason this equation stood out is because, following this, Mr Eyal talks about how this formula led Mike Krieger to develop the infamously addictive Instagram. The app has a motivation in the form of its social offerings; ability in the form of prompting next steps for users with likes, infinite scrolls and such; and triggers such as notifications—the ‘pings, dings and rings’ as Mr Eyal refers to them so often in this book. The environment Instagram created in this way routinely makes our will to resist it flail.

Speaking of our environment, an interesting point made in this book involves keeping our environment tidy in order to keep our mind sharp and undistracted. Apparently, a study by Princeton researchers4 showed that the more clutter we have in our view, the poorer our performance of tasks gets. So keeping our environment tidy is, among others, a key external trigger that we can exploit to make ourselves indistractable. This applies as much to the digital world as to the physical.

After discussing identifying internal and external triggers, and traction and distraction, all of which tell us how we can deal with distractions, Mr Eyal discusses how we can prevent ourselves from sliding into distraction. In the final chapters of his book he recommends using pacts or pre-commitments to ‘remove future choice and overcome our impulsivity’. I particularly liked this idea. This is something that can be used along with techniques like calendar blocking. He starts off with the story of Ulysses where the titular character demanded that his deck hands tie him to a pole with ropes until his ship crossed a particular island from where singing could be heard—songs that could deviate and sink ships. In effect, although the song (which was supposed to be beautiful by the way) could distract him, tying him made it physically impossible for him to give in to that distraction.

Of course not all of us can tie ourselves up, and tying is, more often than not, not even a real solution to the distractions most of us face (how many open tabs do you have right now and how many do you need?) the spirit of Ulysses’s story is that he used the idea of pacts to force himself to focus. Named after the man himself, a Ulysses pact is a freely-made decision designed and intended to bind oneself in the future. Mr Eyal cites fixed retirement accounts, medical planning and the like as real world examples where we already use pacts: we promise to do something setting it up so the cost of not doing it is harder to bear than actually doing it.

Mr Eyal recommends we cement intentions when clear-headed with effort pacts which make distractions harder to reach, price pacts where we set aside money that we lose if we do not finish a task and identity pacts where we think of actions as our identity rather than actions that we need to choose to do. This last one especially can do with an explanation and the one Mr Eyal gives is interesting, not to mention particularly relevant to me: do not think, he says, of what you can or cannot do; think instead of what you are—I am indistractable—and strengthen this by teaching others because teaching empowers us to improve ourselves while helping others5. In what sounds like clever marketing he even encourages us to share this book with others as a form of teaching—well, Mr Eyal, consider this review my teaching.

Overall this is an interesting book filled with actionable advice, sometimes even specific apps or technologies we can use to help our journey towards becoming indistractable. It is hard to say how applicable such unusually specific suggestions are; app recommendations do not make for a particularly evergreen read, moreover it makes the book sound like a blog post. Perhaps it does aim to leave paper for the web at times since Mr Eyal has a web page set up for this book where worksheets and downloads are available: these are tools of the sort that I have seen before but rarely found real benefits from so I will refrain from commenting on them.

This book is more practical than philosophical, even a bit too practical at times—if something can even be that one wonders, but then I find that any other description of this book falls short. If you want more perspective on how to save yourself from distraction, this is a good book, but, despite its planned division into four parts, it offered to me, in the end, more insights into how triggers around us—especially technologies—work us than anything else, and followed it up with some handy but nonetheless popular solutions that lay blame primarily on anything but technology.

With this I want to finally bring Hooked back to the picture, because I think that while technology is not the only problem we have, it is part of the problem and it most certainly is not entirely blameless. When Mike Krieger designed an app adhering to the principles of B=M+A+T with the express intention of keeping us on the app for as long as possible, and when Facebook and Twitter and Google (especially with YouTube) have worked so hard for so long to make sure their apps can retain users and increase the time they spend on their apps and websites—not for social engagement, rather for increased exposure to ads and for the subsequent revenue that flows from this—and when there is talk of legislation to ban techniques like infinite scrolling which literally make social media and other websites endless wells, it is obnoxious to claim that software developers and tech companies are blameless.

Thankfully we have, of late, seen some companies accept and address this issue. Mr Eyal’s recommended ACT is probably something tech companies can benefit from too. Apple introduced a host of features to prevent overuse of devices—and in turn of certain other tech products like social media—and smaller companies like DuckDuckGo and Mozilla have been fighting with similar interests in mind although their size and reach seem to restrict each other. Technology is to blame in part but technology can also provide answers and work on making products less about user retention and more sincerely about user experience and value gained, which will deal with distractions too.

In the final bits of the book is an interesting set of chapters that talks about helping children with distractions and making sure they can keep things under control. The same is then extended to society as a whole; Mr Eyal talks about two especially interesting ideas while comparing uncontrolled gadget usage in otherwise unconventional situations to smoking. Smartphone overuse, for example, he prophecies will one day be looked back at like smoking was in the 60s. We should develop a ‘social antibody’ to this, he says, urging people to decently, often indirectly, nudge others to make them aware of their smartphone usage so they can rethink their decision to use their device in that particular situation. We need to make people aware when they are phubbing he says, using the portmanteau created by Australia’s Macquarie dictionary to mean snubbing someone by using your phone in their presence.

However, what turned my thoughts about the book from decent to doubtful was this bit in chapter 29, during the final quarter of the book, when Mr Eyal says the following:

Of course technology plays a role. Smartphone apps and video games are designed to be engaging, just as sugar is meant to be delicious. But like the parent who blames a ‘sugar high’ for their kid’s bad behaviour, blaming devices is a superficial answer to a deep question.

While I agree that the ‘sugar high’ is a myth—and science has said as much—what I find troubling is Mr Eyal’s outright refusal to say that smartphone apps and video games are designed to be addictive and therefore distracting. ‘Engaging’ is one of many intentions, but rarely is it either the primary one or the most critical. Softening the blow hurts more than helps Mr Eyal’s case. It would have been great to see Mr Eyal admit the addictive quotient built into these things rather than insist that technology can never be a root cause. It would have been great to see him accept technology’s flaws and then point to counter examples of how technology can be useful in broader terms than just suggesting specific apps that may soon become irrelevant (knowing technology years). It would have been great to see this book teaching people to reign themselves in while also being a prominent voice to call tech companies out on their nastier habits.

Despite leaving me with mixed feelings, this book does have something for everyone and is certainly worth a read if you have time to spare. After all, knowing how our enemies work is half the battle won.


  1. The word is, not only did Mr Eyal work with several tech companies and help them build products, he has also of late defended his methods as useful outside tech too (such as in helping someone build positive habits like exercise) and, in 2018 commented about how simply turning off addictive apps can help. I have not read Hooked myself so I cannot make any comments on it, but Mr Eyal’s path from Hooked to Indistractable has been an interesting one. ↩︎

  2. This is a comma on thread throughout the book: go easy on yourself when you fail or when something is negative because that will allow you to get back on your feet faster than if you were hard on yourself. ↩︎

  3. Such gimmicks are why I used to detest a certain class of self-help books, but Indistractable thankfully has a lot more to offer that more than offsets its embrace of silly maths. Classics like Who moved my cheese and Jonathan Livingston Seagull do not resort to low measures. ↩︎

  4. The study and its authors are unnamed in Mr Eyal’s book but it could be this one by Prof. Sabine Kastner↩︎

  5. This is a high point in the book, a great explanation of why we need to teach others something even if we are not perfect at it ourselves. As a teacher myself I am intimately familiar with the imperfection Mr Eyal speaks of (and he is a teacher too). But, to say nothing of the fact that we may never be perfect, teaching what we do know well enough empowers us to become better learners (or even just learners in the first place) while also helping others. ↩︎

Random approaches to better living

Knowing what is enough, working on traction, and developing the beginner mindset can enrich our life.

‘Better living’, as interesting as the idea sounds, is hard to define in a manner that would please everyone. For my own part I think of it as living happily and productively, nothing more. And to that end I have of late been entertaining three ideas in my mind that I now feel have matured enough to put to words. In short, defining what is ‘enough’ for us, identifying traction, and developing the beginner mindset are three key ways of ensuring ‘better living’ — at least in my humble opinion.

As a practising Stoic stumbling through the philosophy on a daily basis I do not find myself quoting Diogenes often. Diogenes was a Cynic and their school of thought differed from that of the Stoics on a fundamental level. Yet the story of Alexander meeting Diogenes has always interested me: when Diogenes the Cynic was sunbathing one afternoon the great king Alexander supposedly visited him and asked if he wanted anything (I get the feeling there is more to this story that is lost in history). I will let Plutarch continue with the rest of the tale—

…when that monarch addressed him with greetings, and asked if he wanted anything, ‘Yes,’ said Diogenes, ‘stand a little out of my sun.’ It is said that Alexander was so struck by this, and admired so much the haughtiness and grandeur of the man who had nothing but scorn for him, that he said to his followers, who were laughing and jesting about the philosopher as they went away, ‘But truly, if I were not Alexander, I wish I were Diogenes.’ and Diogenes replied ‘If I wasn’t Diogenes, I would be wishing to be Diogenes too.’

Diogenes obviously comes off as an arrogant man in this story. (There are other versions of this tale as well and Diogenes appears arrogant in every single one of them.) Needless to say, I prefer the Stoic approach to this myself: the Stoics believed in knowing one’s preferred indifferents, those things which one might possess—intentionally or otherwise—which one can enjoy without dependence or fear of being crippled should it be lost.

What this comes down to is knowing what is enough. This does not mean giving away all of one’s possessions, rather it means gaining better perspective about what one does have and deciding educatedly from that point on. Diogenes needed nothing from Alexander because he had ‘enough’. The trouble with a lot of people is not knowing what enough is, which is not the same as wanting more: one can entertain the idea of a life with more while still living a perfectly content life in the present with what one has. Simply put, not knowing ‘enough’ means being a slave to desire to the point where one cannot progress without first getting more — a vicious cycle that never ends.

True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
now dead,
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.

I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22’
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace!”
Kurt Vonnegut

This also brings to mind a story involving Joseph Heller, the author of the wonderful book Catch-22. Kurt Vonnegut wrote back in May 2005 for the New Yorker about Heller, describing how, when the two were at a billionaire friend’s party, Vonnegut asked Heller how he felt about the thought that their host probably made more in a day than Heller’s magnum opus would make in a lifetime. Heller replied that he had something their host could never have: the knowledge that he has enough. This idea is key to a better life for one simple reason: it clears your mind. Knowing what is ‘enough’ helps you be grateful for things you have and lets you pursue things you want with clarity without blindly falling for them.

The second thing is handling distractions. By ‘distraction’ I do not refer solely to what people usually think about when they hear the word. These are more than just entertainments or any of the various forms of addictive, habit-forming activities that give people a dopamine rush. Some of the ideas I discuss under controlling distractions come from an interesting book called Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life by Nir Eyal. The argument is that acknowledging what we think and feel is the first step towards overcoming obstacles that make us unproductive.

The words traction and distraction both come from the Latin word ‘trahare’ which means to pull; traction then is action that pulls you in your intended direction, i.e. towards your goal, while distraction is action that does not. In other words, traction is positive intent while distraction is a lack of intent. The first step at every stage is to categorise an action as either traction or distraction.

While the categorising is simple enough, choosing the tasks one intends to do is often neither simple nor straightforward. From this stems the ancient Greek idea of Akrasia. Simply put someone who is akratic lacks command; more specifically, this translates to a lack of self-control or, even more specifically, akrasia is one’s tendency to act against one’s better judgement. Plato asks if one knows an action to be the best course to take, why would they not do it? Why, in other words, do we watch that one extra show on Netflix knowing that is not the best course of action?

Nir Eyal argues that the way to overcome this is not simply to make up one’s mind — a brute force attack such as that would prove to be feeble. Backed by lots of research he says it is futile to rely on will power, rather we should be employing methods that help make us more conscious of our choices. This is a long term approach of sorts.

Sensations that lead us towards distractions often crest and subside; they rarely stick to an eternal upwards path. We need to take time and identify these, a process called ‘surfing the urge’. Literally, take time off from whatever you feel like doing, even if it is just ten minutes; and in those ten minutes let it sink in that this is what you want to do, and then, at the end of ten minutes, do whatever you want — even if it still happens to be the most distracting of choices.

This seems simple but is quite a powerful approach. By pausing for ten minutes before starting that one last episode on Netflix we are explicitly acknowledging our action — whether it is traction or distraction — and we are letting it sink. It is highly possible, says Eyal, that in those ten minutes we realise better and change our mind. But it is equally possible that we do not. Either way, we are now more aware of our choices than we were before and this translates, in the long run, to a habit of making better choices consistently or at least of being able to control and brace ourselves against poorer choices more effectively.

It is time to learn one of those oddly specific words from the Orient that refers to something I have noticed for an incredibly long time with my own journeys in learning. Shoshin loosely translates to beginner’s mindset. I have often noticed when I start to learn something new that I have an immense openness to the learning process, but this fades over time. It never disappears entirely, but neither does it stay the same after a while as it was when I started out. This is also not a drive to learn: the drive never disappears. This is simply an openness to ideas. Seeing how a word like Shoshin exists I cannot help but think this is something lots of others experience too.

To be productive and in turn to live a better, happier, healthier and more meaningful life (in my opinion — need I say it anymore?) the third approach is to try to develop Shoshin. Start looking at things — really looking at things — like you do not already know them. Live through questions, ask questions, look stupid, admit ignorance and focus on learning something new all the time. Relax from the pressure to have all the answers before taking a single step because then you will never take any step ever. Every good book ever written was written by a learner sharing their experience, never by a master claiming to know it all.

Call it divergent thinking, unlearning, adaptability or whatever else, putting the effort to constantly empty your mind before doing something and building up the enthusiasm for the task we are about to do can have a huge impact on how we work.

Shoshin

There is another way to look at all this: as kids we were open to more possibilities than we are as self-perceived ‘experts’. For some years now I have referred to this with myself as ‘aiming for the ideal’. This also brings to mind Alain Souchon’s song Foule Sentimentale in which he sings ‘On a soif d‘idéal’ — we are thirsty for the ideal. As we grow we are told more often about the impossibilities than about possibilities which makes us unknowingly build a walls and moulds around ourselves which in turn forces us to fit everything we come across into these familiar moulds. Break free.

One simple method to consciously overcome this is to improve our listening skills in a particular way: the next time someone is talking and they say something you already know, hold yourself back from pointing out that you are aware of it. Instead listen and build on it, reciprocate and drive the conversation forward with the hope of learning something. This way you will not end up curbing your own learning and self-improvement by ending conversations with the explicit acknowledgement that you are already aware of something.

This is perhaps what feels easiest among the three ideas discussed in this essay but its simplicity is deceptive because we are, as humans, predisposed to showing off what we know. This is not negative; our society is built to reward our capabilities and skills more than our enthusiasm to learn and we are eager to score points in this regard. Get over the mind block that you know something if you want to learn something effectively.

I doubt the reason for this is arrogance in a majority of cases although it might appear like that on first glance. Perhaps most of us are simply enthusiastic when we recognise that we already know something; equally, perhaps we learn over time to recognise and point out that we know something. With this we inadvertently come in the way of our own learning.

A follow-up to this essay is in the works and in it I expand on the idea of embracing the beginner’s mindset by simply slowing down in life — by which I mean hustling in a planned and intentional fashion, not being lazy. Until then these three powerful ideas should provide ample food for thought: by defining ‘enough’ we develop contentment and clarity; by identifying traction we slowly take control of our choices and, in turn, our life; and by adopting the beginner’s mindset we ensure that we can make the most of the time we spend doing productive things, be it work or learning or anything else. The end result would undoubtedly be a better, happier daily life.

Secrets of staying motivated

A bunch of practical ways to stay motivated, plus things that do not work. Fair warning: there is no magic potion in this essay.

Staying motivated seems to be a daily struggle for a lot of people. Those of us who have found this—luckily, perhaps—rather easy to do are no strangers to the oft-posed question, ‘How do you do it? How do you stay motivated?’ The answer is quite simple, really; it is simple enough that it turns a lot of people of, but that changes nothing. The secrets, if I may call it that, to stay motivated are contained in an exposition that need not be longer than two sides of a foolscap.

Motivation needs to be replenished

The first step is to think of motivation like water, nay, like alchohol. It is like water in that taking a sip is never enough; you need to replenish your stores every once in a while, all day long, all your life. And it is like alchohol in that you can quickly get addicted to it and this can be a terrible thing. This, in a nutshell, is why so many people think motivation does not work for them: it does work, but only briefly, only for a while after they devour their motivation—be it a book, a film, a quote or even time spent with somebody. They feel it never ‘works’ because it does never lasts.

That is lesson one: You cannot expect to get motivated once and for life, if you choose to get into it expect to keep refuelling yourself.

Take time off and use a crutch

Sometimes the trouble is not refuelling our motivation but having no idea where to get the fuel from. In such cases it helps greatly to look to something else that does motivate us. Your field might be mathematics, and you might feel unmotivated, but perhaps you are still excited about clay modelling or that painting project you started six months ago. Drop whatever it is that you feel unmotivated to do, even if only for a little while, and do something that you are in fact full of excitement for. But stay aware of this at all times because it is easy to get carried away and not come back eventually to your original task.

That is lesson two: When you feel unmotivated about something, drop it and work on somethng you do feel motivated to do, then return to the original task.

Is it motivation or discipline you need?

A lot of people far too often mistake motivation with discipline. They do not want to do something simply because they are too lazy to do it, but they put a spin on it making it look like they lack motivation because it sounds—and makes them look—better. However, the fact is that a lot of what we credit to motivation is due actually to discipline and consistency. This reminds me of what William Faulkner used to say: ‘I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.’ Motivation and inspiration are great, but a lot of them are born out of consistency.

Try to work on your discipline rather than on seeking things that motivate you; motivation then becomes a perk that pushes you further ahead on the path you are already set on rather than fuel that gets you somewhere in the first place.

And that is lesson three: Seeking motivation becomes more meaningful when you establish a constant foundation on which to build yourself; discipline is key to building such a foundation.

Understand promotion and prevention mindsets

Motivation comes in two forms: promotion motivation and prevention motivation. The former is the stronger and more obvious of the two, it is what drives people, and is what people commonly associate with motivation. The latter is a bit indirect and is rarely seen or used as a form of motivation to the point where, ironically, people who do use it might mistake it for an absence of motivation. In a study published back in 2017 researchers found that the best way to stay motivated is to identify your progress and switch from one form of motivation (or mindset) to another.

Promotion mindset is when you are motivated by your end result, by the outcome of your project—be it preparing for class or trying to get fit. This is when you think of the great changes you can bring about by teaching students or by hitting the gym regularly. However, you cannot rely on this alone as you progrss towards your goal. Halfway through switch to prevention mindset, where you start focusing not on the end result but on all the things you have to stop yourself from doing to get there. For example, you might start off by planning everything you want to do for your students—such as fun new activities and dividing focus across a broad set of topics—and the things you want your students to do; but, as you progress, slowly switch to taking note of things you want to avoid—such as unplanned class hours, or too many wayward activities that teach little—and the things you want your students to avoid.

That is lesson four: Once you know what you want to achieve, track your progress and transition from a promotion motivation mindet to a prevention motivation mindset.

Cheer for yourself: set aside time and space

Goals come in various sizes: big or small, long term or short et cetera. If your goals are closer together, getting from one to another will itself serve as a huge motivator. En route, then, you might need a temporary boost or two at best. What is important, in the midst of all this, is to keep track of your progress and to do that effectively you need to set time aside for yourself, to examine where you were, where you are and where you want to go. Use this time also to do something completely unrelated that can free up or relax your mind. None of this has to be lone outing, though, so go with your spouse or colleagure or any friend you like. Or go out alone because that works too.

Equally important, create your space. Something as simple as a desk will go great lengths in helping you create a mindset for yourself that will drive you forwards. A little music in your earphones or some candles or even incense or a trip to the gym before work, pick from any of a million possibilities that exist to help you create a space for yourself—both physically and mentally—to help you find that zeal to work. The point here is simple: cheer yourself on, because no matter how much your family and friends cheer you on, you will go nowhere if you do not cheer for yourself.

In the midst of all this, however, do not fall prey to that oft-quoted reason for neither working nor feeling motivated: that there is something wrong with the place itself. Create your space and your time knowing that it is you who has to get somewhere and nothing outside you is to blame.

That is the final lesson: Create your own time and space—even if only mentally, without disrupting anybody’s physical space around you—and use that to cheer yourself on and create an environment that makes you want to work, all the while never becoming enslaved to it.


Keep at all this consistently and motivation becomes an extension of who you are. You will achieve self-sufficiency and, while you can continue to seek beacons elsewhere or in others, this will be by choice nor need because you will, yourself, always be what drives you on.

The ‘secrets’ for staying motivated then are pretty simple; as promised, they are in fact not much more than two sides of a foolscap.

A practical guide to always doing your best

A book that offers something new by not offering anything radical. A book that believes not in always being your best but always doing your best.

Many a self-help book starts by setting itself a tall order so it comes as no surprise when it falls short of delivering. Todd Henry’s book, Die empty, sets out with a somewhat grandiose aim too but, surprisingly, it manages to deliver a practical, actionable set of advices to help readers as promised—and keeps it up at least during the first chunk of the book. As it progresses it appears to be drawn out, starts targeting businessmen (seemingly unaware of this) and relies heavily on clichés. Yet, if you patiently pick up titbits you might come away gaining a lot from this book; not a lot of which will be new to you, but rather a lot of which you will find is told in an effective, eye-opening manner designed to make the idea last in your mind. In the end that is what makes Die empty a book worth reading.

The purpose of it all

The book starts of with an anecdote—one of many to come—in which Mr Henry speaks of how the urban planner and artist Candy Chang once created used a large chalkboard to make a work of art covering one wall of an abandoned home in her neighbourhood. On it she wrote the prompt ‘Before I die I want to __________’ several times and left chalks around for passers by to fill in the blanks. And many did, enough to spread the exercise to over a hundred cities around the globe. Mr Henry uses this to explain what connects a lot of people: the simple fact that we are aware of our limited time here on earth and that we all have something we want to do. Consistent practises can help us unleash our best work everyday, he says, so in the end we don’t regret how we spent our lives.

It was my wife who brought this book to my attention when she shared with me another of Mr Henry’s anecdotes. (It turns out, however, that this isn’t from Die empty but from Mr Henry’s previous book The accidental creative although he recounts it again briefly in this one.) A friend once asked a strange and unexpected question: ‘What do you think is the most valuable land in the world?’ It is neither Manhattan, says the friend, nor the oil fields of the Middle East, nor the goldmines of Africa. The most valuable land in the world is the graveyard; in the graveyard are buried all of the unwritten novels, never-launched businesses, unreconciled relationships. In short, all things that people thought they would get back to ‘tomorrow’, but their tomorrows soon ran out. This is a great idea, and Mr Henry uses this to urge readers to empty themselves of all the creativity lingering inside them. Rely on sustained effort, he says, not accident. The effort will be well worth it.

People often regret not having treated their life with purpose, he points out while clarifying the purpose of his book: to bring a newfound clarity and sense of urgency to how you approach your work on a daily basis. ‘In writing this book’, he says, ‘I’m taking my own advice and not leaving my best, most important work inside me.’ Good point, I remember smiling to myself.

The ‘sense of urgency’ can understandably be mistaken for a mindset of getting things done urgently, at all costs. Mr Henry rightly takes time to correct this. He compares this to Karoshi, an idea that has long interested me, saying, specifically, that the idea behind Die empty is not about working all the time, or working past reasonable limits; never ignore everything else in your life to get things done. Don’t work frantically, says Mr Henry, reiterating a point he mentioned multiple times in the book: make steady, critical progress. Dying empty is not the same as living ‘like there’s no tomorrow’.

Karoshi is a Japanese term that refers to occupational sudden death, or dying from overwork.

What counts as work?

The core belief of this book, therefore, is that your days are finite, that you have the capacity to make a contribution to the world, and that you cannot work with huge expectations in return for what you do. Making a point I particularly liked, Mr Henry talks of the overemphasis of what he terms ‘celebrity and recognition’ that is rampant in society today. This sort of outlook is unquestionably dangerous; one needs to work without expecting such recognition (more on this in a moment).

Another much-needed clarification Mr Henry provides has to do with what ‘work’ is: ‘Your body of work,’ says he, ‘should consist of what’s most important to you.’ He quotes Steve Jobs’s famous speech at this point, where the co-founder and former CEO of Apple famously said he stands before a mirror and asks himself, ‘if today were the last day of my life would I want to do what I’m about to do today? And whenever the answer has been “no” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something ... Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is one of the most important tools I’ve encountered to help me make the big choices in life.’ That should help you pick what you work on.

A lot of people suffer from ‘purpose paralysis’, the fear of getting things wrong, and—here is something Mr Henry puts beautifully—they get frustrated ‘when the daily grind of work doesn’t seem to reward [their] pursuit’. This makes it all the more important to understand what one means when one refers to their ‘work’. Your work, he says rather succinctly, is your effort to create value where it didn’t previously exist.

He then goes on to describe three types of work, explaining how most of us always tend to focus on two and ignore one of these: mapping, meshing and making. Mapping is planning out your approach; making is actually doing the work; meshing is the so-called ‘work between the work’, skill acquisition, broadening your focus onto other areas of your industry or even other industries etc.—activities that ‘stretch and grow you’.

Mr Henry calls the ‘Developer’ mindset one where we focus equally on all three; this is what we should all strive to develop. But most of us fall, instead, into one of three other categories of mindset. Some of us focus on mapping and making, forgetting meshing. He calls this the ‘driver’ mindset—which makes us narrowly effective but generally unable to take advantage of opportunities; drivers have will and determination but they end up putting this to little use. Next, some of us focus on making and meshing, forgetting to map. This is the ‘drifter’, who goes by whim, and, because he has no map, cannot plan, has no strategy, and ends up with many wasted opportunities, failing to follow through on ideas effectively. And finally some of us focus on meshing and mapping—the ‘dreamer’—becoming obsessed with ideas and personal growth, which sounds effective but without focusing on ‘making’ dreamers never work on something long or well enough for it to matter.

To explain how the work we do can affect people and contribute in ways we cannot always imagine or do not always expect, and to see why we should work anyway, regardless of whether we see these effects ourselves, Mr Henry relates the tale of the Detroit-based singer–songwriter Sixto Rodriguez who released songs for a few years in the 70s in the United States but remained practically invisible there: his music never took off. Unbeknownst to him his album reached South Africa when someone from the US carried it on a trip there and, over the next two decades he became a cult icon in South Africa, no less than The Beatles. He was so far disconnected from all this that not only did he have no idea about his fame and impact, but also was believed to be dead already. It was only towards the end of the 90s—when someone realised Rodriguez had actually been living a quiet life in the States and tracked him down and he flew to South Africa to perform live—that he realised how important his work had been to so many people.

You do not always know the full impact of your work, as Mr Henry points out. You might never know it in all your life. And then he asks, had Rodriguez not received recognition, would it have diminished the impact of his work? I understand that not all of our work can have the same impact as Rodriguez’s, and to think that someone somewhere is looking at our work as central to their life would be taking it a bit too far, but the point is still valid: work without expectations because recognition is not alone what makes your work meaningful.

Flashy statements and clichés

Despite the unambiguous, action-oriented suggestions, the book is not entirely free from clichés and flashy terms such as ‘the seven deadly sins of mediocrity’, listed as rather cheesy acronyms going from A to G: aimlessness (define your aim), boredom (maintain disciplined curiosity), comfort (step out of your comfort zone), delusion (know your limits and your capabilities alike), ego (get over it, accept failure, grow), fear (try to question rather than fear the unknown), guardedness (remedy relational outages in your life). These ‘seven deadly sins’ do serve a purpose ultimately in that they define the purpose of the subsequent chapters of this book, each of which deals with one sin and methods to overcome it (mentioned briefly above in parentheses).

In speaking of passion Mr Henry talks about ‘productive passion’, i.e. passion driven by compassionate anger, the sort of unrest that makes you feel like you want to step in either on behalf of those who are suffering or in order to solve a problem. Choose a battle line that will shape every step you take, he says and goes on to quote how the Boka restaurant group’s statement ‘blow people away’ offered a targeted purpose of every person working for the company, from the managers to the waiters: Did what you do blow them away? Will this blow people away? What can I do for my customers today to blow them away?

There are other clichés too, such as maintaining a notebook where you jot things down, a practice that I have myself been employing for years now and one that has been around for centuries. Make a list of everything you want to do or know you should have done but have not. These form your open loop, says Mr Henry, and then suggests you start working daily to close these loops. This amounts to clichéd advice and is not particularly helpful in any way in which it has not already been presented. He goes on to use this to suggest we develop a sense of curiosity. Pursue inspiration via probing questions and stay curious—do not sit back and wait for it. This, again, uncharacteristically of the rest of the book, is not all that actionable.

More cliches come in the form of step, sprint and stretch goals—merely fancy names for short-, mid- and long-term goals—and the suggestion of performing constant SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis on yourself. These are both classic techniques marketing executives have been taught for ages and every other self-help and personal development book targeting marketing majors mentions these almost matter-of-factly. It is also around this point that ‘Die empty’ lost me briefly, with a shift towards marketing jargon and suggestions seemingly targeted at businessmen, a direction the book was taking that I felt Mr Henry seemed blissfully unaware of.

And some other gems

As said earlier, to dismiss the book just because it carries some clichés would be wrong—although the existence of said clichés must be addressed, as they were a moment ago—because there are some impressive points Mr Henry makes throughout.

I like that there is a principle at the beginning of every chapter about what the chapter deals with and there are simple questions, called checkpoints, at the end of every chapter. This is in line with the generally action-oriented nature of this book and is a particularly good thing.

Another idea that appealed to me were Mr Henry’s thoughts on boredom not least because they were in line with my own thoughts and because they agreed with an essay I am currently working on (and which I hope to publish here sometime soon): boredom cannot be gotten over because we have (in our gadgets) a ‘seductive’ stream of entertainment. But, he points out, it is during boredom that we have our best ideas.

And then there is what he calls ‘the curse of familiarity’, how we often mistake a passing familiarity with knowledge. Although we have read a bit about things and although (or in my opinion ‘because‘) we have quick access to an endless stream of information via the Web, we end up believing we have the required knowledge at hand while, in reality, we have ‘not done the heavy lifting’ yet to fully understand how our newfound knowledge fits into our perception. If this idea appeals to you I recommend reading The knowledge illusion by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach as this idea is somewhat central to that book. In short, Mr Henry says intellectual growth occurs not from titbits of information but from considering and integrating it.

Towards the end of the book he takes a moment to further clarify what dying empty means from a positive sense. Do not ask yourself what you will do if today is your last day to live. Humorously, but also rightly, he points out that you might want to binge eat pizza and jump off a plane if today is your last day. Instead, he suggests that we ask ourselves how we would spend our day if we would be accompanied today by someone who would watch our every move, take detailed notes, draw conclusions and write a definitive book about us. On some level this technique sounds considerably less morbid and a lot pleasanter and more promising than the ‘last day alive’ scenario.

Live with a focus on E.M.P.T.Y., he says finally, putting forth a last cheesy acronym. Focus on your Ethics, focus on your Mission, focus on the People, focus on Tasks, focus on You.

I like books I can read in a few days. As dull as the comparison might seem, these are like soda cans rather than richly blended teas, best for when we are on-the-go, hurrying through our days, rather than sitting back one evening and sipping patiently. To me these serve as stepping stones between longer, more considered reads. And I am particularly overjoyed when such a book can offer as much as Die empty does because, in spite of falling in the self-help genre, the book offers more than just bland motivations or calls for action; it offers suggestions we can actually put to use and that alone, to me, makes this book worth reading.

Hamlet’s Blackberry

A timely philosophical reflection on the digital influences in our daily lives and how we can harmonise with them.

Although I read this book four years ago I was actually reading it four years after the book was first published. In the digital age that is a lifetime: between the book’s publishing and now nearly five million startups have come up, most have died, and nearly all of them had been madly vying for our attention. This madness is yet to die, which is what still keeps Mr Powers’s book relevant. That, reinforced by my insistence that the social media of today can potentially induce ADHD but I digress.

Unlike a lot of books that deal with these topics Hamlet’s blackberry is not driven by a hatred for technology or by glorious calls for abstinence. This is precisely what makes a reader like myself take Mr Powers seriously. Rather than citing examples of recent times, of people walking into lampposts or diving under trucks, lost on their phones, he talks about how our concern for modern technology is not entirely well-founded. Or at least has had predecessors. We have always been worried about the new but have turned out just fine as a society.

A lot of us are feeling tapped out, hungry for some time away from the crowd. Life in the digital room would be saner and more fulfilling if we knew how to leave it now and then.

It is as individuals, though, that we need to look into ourselves and Hamlet’s blackberry talks about this beautifully. Right at the start of the book Mr Powers talks about visiting his mother and how he could call her up and let her know he was running late. Technology made that possible with great ease: without it he would have either had no way of getting in touch with her or would have had to look for more time-consuming means, like a payphone. So technology is good he says, but focusses entirely on what happen after he keeps his phone down. He loses himself momentarily in memories of his mother making it appear like technology brought him closer. Perhaps it did, but the circumstances are just as important he points out. Had he called his mother and, soon after, checked his tweets or his Facebook timeline he would not have experienced the same bliss. With that he establishes a thread that stitches the foundation of his book.

Using technology can be a good thing but ensuring we have ample pockets of independent time between successive uses of technology is extremely important to keep our life well-balanced. It would, he says, ‘be saner and more fulfilling if we knew how to leave [the digital world] now and then.’

He proposes Walden zones (inspired by Thoreau) and speaks of how his own family takes the weekends off the web. Moments of disconnect like this not only keep us alertly in the present but also enrich those planned, intentional moments during which we actually do connect.

What sets this book apart is its philosophical approach. This is also what will ensure this book remains meaningful for years to come. Rather than offering absolute solutions that might lose validity with time Mr Powers explores the philosophies that ought to drive us to control our use of technology and help us reign ourselves in. This alone makes Hamlet’s blackberry worth having on our reading list.