I had a sudden realization today.
I’ve spent the last year deeply focused on improving how I care for my body. And I’ve gotten back in shape my making better choices. I’ve started eating better; I do yoga 6-7 times a week; I do cardio in between; I sleep more. And the results have been incredible. I’ve lost 40-some pounds and I’ve never felt better or had more energy.
So why am I not applying this same principle, with the same dogged determination, to improving my mind?
Empty Mental Calories
I had this thought this morning while simultaneously listening to 1310 The Ticket here in Dallas and browsing the Reddit’s r/funny page.
For a few seconds, in my mind, I was outside of my body watching myself do this. I noted how it was like watching myself consume a bag of Skittles or eat a bag full of french fries. This snapped me into fully conscious reality, and that’s when I had my sudden realization.
I wouldn’t sit here, normally, eating Skittles and french fries. Anymore, I wouldn’t even consider it. A series of healthy, productive choices over time have virtually eliminated those thoughts from my head.
It’s not that I always avoid wonderfully tasty treats like Skittles, french fries, or their unhealthy kin altogether, but I simply view them as what they are: treats. And treats are meant to be doled out sparingly. Now that I eat well and exercise regularly the vast majority of the time, I can indulge in treats without guilt, which I do.
So I was a bit jarred by the realization that simply through lazy, rote choice-making, I was too often making “Skittles and french fry” choices with what I was choosing to consume mentally.
The problem? Just as we are we eat, I also believe that the output of our brain is very much a function of what we put into it. We are what we eat just like we are what we see and hear.
While I love 1310 The Ticket, specifically for how often it makes me laugh literally out loud when I’m by myself, there is no reason to have it on as background noise for hours at a time during the day. Similarly, while r/funny often delivers chuckles, even guffaws, and provides useful fodder for fun links to share on social networks, there is no reason to navigate there in the morning, which just so happens to be my most mentally active and creative time of day.
I realized that The Ticket and r/funny, and what they represent – essentially empty mental calories – need to be treated like Skittles and french fries are: as treats. To be doled out sparingly.
The Power of Choice
But an epiphany like this, no matter how great it might sound, is meaningless without action to back it up.
I am proud to say that this morning I made immediate choices based on this realization with the humble understanding that it would take similar choices tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, and so on, to create the same kind of respectful and productive mental habits that I’ve developed physically.
So I shut of The Ticket and enjoyed the clarity of thought that can come with silence.
And I kept Reddit off my computer screen, instead opting to read a number of useful articles I’ve bookmarked that provide useful work knowledge.
And when I went to work out, I listened to this podcast with Chris Brogan and Brian Clark instead of The Ticket or turning on the gym TV.
And while I drove into work, I listened to another Chris Brogan podcast instead of turning on the radio.
I plan to do the same when I drive home later today.
And when I’m faced with a choice tonight about how to spend my time, instead of aimlessly wandering to Facebook or Reddit or somewhere else, out of habit, I’ll first consider doing something mentally productive. And that, to me, is the key. What’s the default?
For me, I’ve switched my default eating habits to go ones. So now, when I want to splurge or treat myself, it’s a non-habitual choice I make. I enjoy it even more and it doesn’t change my trajectory.
The same goes with exercise. My default is to find a yoga class every day. Even when I don’t, I almost always do some type of exercise. So when I want a break, it’s a non-habitual choice I make. I enjoy the rest, but the habit doesn’t change.
Now I want the same to be true mentally.
Modern life, especially the Internet, is so full of attention deflectors and stealers, and frankly I have not been as good as I need to be at blocking them out. But like so many other elements of life, it just boils down to choice. And a choice today will beget a choice tomorrow and so on, and that’s what creates a habit. Good or bad.
I finally respected my body enough to make a concerted effort to develop good food and exercise habits. It was hard for a while, but now it’s easy. Let me clarify: the choices are easy. Because are they are the habit. They are the default.
The same can be true for the mind, and I’ll be much, much better off when I start habitually making better mental consumption choices.
I’m glad I got this jolt of perspective today.
More importantly, I’m glad I immediately starting making better choices as a result.
What neglected area of your life can you start improving right now simply by making better choices?