I smoked tobacco from age 15 to age 24.
I was never a heavy smoker, but I felt stupendously cool in my teens cutting class and hanging out at a cafe playing Chess, having coffee or chai tea, and rolling loose-leaf tobacco into hand-rolled cigarettes, or, cash permitting, Marlborough Reds.
Despite it being incredibly stupid with hindsight, I remember it being a pretty good time.
One of the other kids I played Chess with went on to become an International Master in Chess (right below Grandmaster) and went on to study at Harvard. He smoked, too, though I'm pretty sure he quit after only a couple years of teenage rebelliousness.
Gradually, other types of tobacco became interesting to me. I think I first smoked steamed tobacco -- shishia -- from an Arabic-style hookah, for the first time, when I was 17 years old. My girlfriend was a graduate student -- I always got along better with people older than me -- and she got me into it. We'd smoke shisha and talk about philosophy and computers a lot.
Cigars came along around age 20 or 21. If you want to feel max-cool while max-killing-yourself, cigars are the way to go.
Oh my goodness. If you can manage to not get sick from a cigar (harder than it sounds), well, cigars look max-cool. Ever see Jay-Z smoke a cigar? Jay-Z was the thing back in the early 2000's, and who could forget him with a big ol' cigar in the music video, and throwing money around? The imagery is of course very appealing to teenage suburban boys, which I guess is the point.
For what it's worth, I haven't smoked a single time in 7 years and this post isn't about tobacco, but it'll serve as a useful lens.
II. DIFFERENT NATURAL STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
We all have areas of our lives that come easier or hard to us.
Some people find money management coming easily and intuitively to them. They always have enough spare cash in their checking account, they claim all the relevant tax deductions, they put some money away in a retirement account every year, their net worth grows every year.
For other people, money is a great mystery and a great source of pain and aggravation. For whatever reason, they're not sure where their money goes and they keep running out of it. This happens often enough to people making mid-five-figures USD and up, who have no major surprise expenses, and no major commitments.
Some people find it easy to navigate nutrition, eating well, and keeping the physique and health levels where they want. They never think about it and it just happens.
For other people, it's a mighty struggle and there's lots of failures along the way.
Some people can easily negotiate and ensure they get good pay, good roles and authority when they take a new job, and see their career on a constant upward trajectory.
Other people don't even counteroffer the first pay offer when it's expected to do so, get stuck with a set of roles and duties that don't challenge them, and their career is often stagnating and aggravating.
There's dozens of other skills and skillsets of around this importance. Friendships, taking good leisure, recharging, sleeping well, planning, ensuring you're doing your most important work regularly, and a whole host of other things.
And it's strange. Often, for whatever reason, one person might have great money management, but struggle mightily with diet. Someone might have their fitness on lockdown, but hate their career and feel stuck and stagnant.
III. BULLHEADEDNESS APPLIED TO ONE'S WORST AREAS
This post is about separating the learning of fundamental mechanics from applying learned mechanics to make gains in a difficult area of your life.
That might sound like a simple sentence, but I actually believe it's one of the great keys to life.
It's not everything, but it's a very big piece of the puzzle.
Most people do not "practice the fundamentals" in areas that come easily and natural to them. They only research and design training programs in areas where they're struggling. I believe this is a mistake.
Someone with excellent money management skills will often not study and tune-up in that area, because it's already "above the bar" for them -- they're happy with that area. If they're struggling with diet, they'll try to make meal plans and nutrition logs and whatever -- all good stuff, really -- but keep falling off and failing.
The person who naturally eats well and struggles with money does the opposite. They don't go deep into nutrition and eating, because they're happy there. Meanwhile, they keep trying to put together budgets, track spending, pay more attention to money -- all good stuff, really -- but keep falling off and failing.
I recommend you do the opposite: learn fundamentals of self-management, tracking, learning, and improvement in an easy and naturally-skilled area for you first.
Then, and only then, do you apply your newly mastered self-management skills to the most difficult area.
IV. QUITTING TOBACCO
I'd been ruining my health in my early 20's, and one day I realized it. We need not get into why epiphanies and realizations happen -- it's beyond the scope of this post -- but sooner or later, they tend to happen. We get fed up and want to make improvements.
Here's the thing: I genuinely liked tobacco.
I used to smoke four types of tobacco: commercial cigarettes (Marlboroughs), hand-rolled cigarettes from loose-leaf tobacco, shisha, and cigars.
I'm not sure I designed this plan intentionally -- I kind of bumbled into it -- but looking backwards, I quit in a way that made a lot of sense for me.
I quit smoking commercial cigarettes in 2006, but kept smoking hand-rolled tobacco, shisha, and cigars.
Around 2008, I quit cigars. In 2009, I finally tossed out shisha. I haven't smoked since.
The rationale went something like this: I never liked commercial cigarettes as much as loose-leaf tobacco anyways. It cost more, and I enjoyed rolling cigarettes. Commercial cigarettes also have more additives that are bad for you.
So I quit cigarettes. I could still smoke as much as I wanted, and it wasn't a sacrifice. If I wanted max-pleasure or max-coolness, I could smoke shisha or cigars (which are actually the worst of all, but I didn't smoke cigars too often).
Sooner or later, I quit hand-rolling cigarettes too. I then had two options: I could smoke the steamed-not-burnt shisha, which is slightly healthier. And if I wanted to really be indulgent, I could have a cigar.
At no point did I really suffer in this process; I kept cutting the least enjoyable type of tobacco for me.
The hierarchy of how much I enjoyed tobacco had been,
Commercial cigarettes --> hand-rolled cigarettes --> cigars --> shisha.
I quit them in that order. It wasn't actually hard. Shisha was the hardest -- I genuinely enjoyed it -- but wasn't all that hard.
V. GAINING THE "GRADUATED QUITTING SKILL"
The skill that I'd built, without fully realizing it, was the "graduated quitting skill."
I still eat some junk food. I don't particularly like it, and am moving away from it.
So I sat and thought about it.
My favorite type of junk food is, by far, ice cream.
The type of junk food I eat the most often, by far, is ice cream.
Now, many people, if they wanted to quit junk food, would start by trying to quit... their favorite thing.
And they'd fail, and hate themselves for it, and wonder why it happened.
Earlier this year, I decided to start slowly culling junk food entirely from my diet.
The idea came to me when I read about Dwayne Johnson ("The Rock") saying he remembered the last pack of candy he ever ate, 15 years ago or something. That was the flash of inspiration.
I said: "Huh! Ok! I can do that."
So the last few months, I've been looking for moments to quit... my least favorite types of junk food, forever.
I don't like cookies very much at all. I figure, I'd always prefer to eat ice cream over cookies, every single time. If I'm going to eat junk food, cookies are a waste for me. I just don't like them very much.
Here's (presumably) the last cookie I'll ever eat, on 31 April 2016 --
I photographed it and really ate it slowly, enjoying it. It was nice.
Since then, cookies have become anathema to me -- like cigarettes, even. I just won't ever eat them again. (I'll have an ice cream, though, maybe.)
I'm in no hurry to quit more things. I want to acclimate and get used to things in this way.
But sure enough, every time I got a tiny little cookie on a saucer plate with a coffee, I'd take it and throw it away.
The worst was when I was going to a little cafe in the Balkans and had struck up a friendly relationship with them, and they brought me a selection of beautiful cookies. I really hated having to refuse those, but I did. Cookies became like cigarettes for me.
You know what I like even less than cookies?
Every time I eat a pastry, I feel yucky. They're not satiating. I just... don't like them very much.
On 22 May 2016, I figured, this would be a good final pastry to ever have --
And I strongly suspect I'll never eat a pastry again.
I'm not in a hurry to quit anything else.
Pizza will probably be next, but we'll see.
V. LEARNING THE MECHANICS AT LOW-RISK, LOW-COST, ON EASY STUFF
Quitting your favorite food is hard.
At least, it's harder than quitting a food you don't like anyways.
But I dare say, "always saying no" to a particular type of food is a skill, independent from the food you're actually quitting.
If you absolutely hated turkey, for instance, how hard would it be to swear an oath that you'd never eat turkey again?
You'd really only have two times it'd be an issue.
The first is when the only food around was turkey, and you were hungry. I can imagine a few scenarios where that would happen. Not many, but a few. (There's only turkey sandwiches left at some event you went to, and you hadn't eaten all day, for instance.)
And then, if you're American, you'd have to find a way to navigate Thanksgiving.
That'd be the big problem one.
But right there, as you see, are three of the core skills required for successful dietary adherence --
1. Preparation: keeping a good supply of food choices you like around, so you're never forced into the "bad food or hunger" decision.
2. Ability to tolerate hunger / fast for a limited time: when you do (rarely) wind up in the "turkey or hungry" situation, ability to just say "No, I've quit turkey forever, I won't eat it" -- and be hungry for a few more hours. It won't kill you.
3. Ability to navigate social pressure and social conventions: perhaps the skill for dietary adherence. How do you tell Aunt Selma you're not eating the turkey she slaved over? How could you possibly impose on Aunt Selma and Uncle Ben to ask them if they'd prepare another type of meat? How can you handle the awkwardness of smuggling in a couple protein bars to Thanksgiving dinner? This one is the killer.
But again, these three skills are independent of which food you're quitting.
It's far easier to quit a food you don't like very much than to quit a food you love.
But doing so -- quitting something you don't like -- also teaches the fundamental mechanics of food preparation, tolerating hunger, and navigating social conventions.
VI. BAD AT PLANNING AND PROCRASTINATING YOUR LIFE'S MOST IMPORTANT CREATIVE WORK?
You already know what I'm going to say.
Let's say you've got some life's work that's important to you.
Let's call it writing a novel.
Let's say there's two big reasons the novel isn't getting written.
1. You're planning poorly, your mornings are stressed and frantic, and you're tired in the evenings. You don't set aside enough time to work on your novel, and it doesn't happen. This is true on most days; probably 6 days out of 7, you planned the day poorly and it's frantic.
2. When you do have time to work on your novel, you're terrified and/or uncreative, or for whatever reason, you procrastinate writing the novel.
You already know what I'm going to say.
Work on the planning skill independently from the novel.
I know that sounds stupidly obvious when I put it this way, but it's not what most people actually do.
Most people (1) have missing skills and missing fundamentals, and (2) have areas that they struggle to make progress in.
Learn the mechanics independently of the "hard areas."
In the "novel is hard to write, and I'm bad at planning" territory, start clearing more free space and planning time... for something that's incredibly easy for you to do.
Maybe you're one of those people who has no problem keeping their inbox at zero all the time.
If so, you might try waking up early enough before work and answering email to zero before the day gets underway.
Thus, you learn to wake early and work on the thing you chose to work on firsthand, on something that's easy for you.
(If answering email is hard for you, substitute something that's easy and no sweat for you.)
In doing this, you learn the mechanics of clearing time and space in the mornings for doing what you want.
Once you've got that locked down, and can reliably clear space in the mornings, then you can start working novel-writing into that time.
VII. BEATING YOU OVER THE HEAD WITH THE MAIN IDEA
I'm just going to repeat myself again, because it's important.
There's a whole lot of skills and sub-skills that are critically important.
Most of them, in isolation, are not very hard to learn.
You very likely don't have all of them on lockdown, just because, most of us don't.
Learn those skills in a domain that's easy for you.
Then transfer those skills over to the domain that's hard for you.
Practice quitting stuff you dislike anyways. There are core skills involved in quitting things that transfer over between domains.
Practice planning, setting up your environment, communication, workflows, managing resources, self-management, working hard, concentrating, etc -- on areas you're already pretty good at, and like to do.
This means you get skill gains and the morale-enhancing benefits of winning regularly, instead of the vicious spiral of failure, backsliding, and wondering what happened.
Separate out "learning fundamental mechanics" from the "hard areas for you."
I dare say it's life-changing.
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I run my own small business. It's grown slowly but steadily over the last 6 years. I used to be regarded by various friends, family, misc associates as a strong creative writer. I have really fallen off the writing work since the business began growing. I am going to give this technique a try Sebastian. Thank you as always for the intellectual nourishment. As a quick postscript: I recently read an interview with Henry Rollins where he outlined some of his techniques for getting through his exhaustive music listening duties (including the goal of "two new albums a day"). I'll try and find it and post the link here. His unflinching discipline and approach to productivity is quite inspiring.
I eat pretty well and take pretty good care of myself. But it's taken quite a while to get here - before 2006, I had a pretty standard American diet. Lots of pizza, junk food, fast food, liquor, soda, sweets, etc. I smoked cigarettes, cigars, sheesha, and other kinds of tobacco.
Since then I've refined my diet and I eat pretty well. I have more energy, feel better, look better, and God willing, I'll live a lot longer as a result. It's a gradual process though, and I'm still improving. There's a few things I use to do it:
First, I'm all about incremental improvement - I think trying to crash change your diet is unlikely to work unless you have immense amounts of willpower and self-discipline. If you do have these Herculean amounts of will and discipline, you know who you are and don't need my advice. If you're more mortal, then you'll want to pick one or two things to be refining in your diet at a time.
Second, there's two ways I quit food or habits I don't like - "hard quitting" (cold turkey) and "soft quitting" (gradually reduce my consumption and eventually eliminate it). I pick which of these routes to go based on how convenient it is to quit something outright and if there's any detox process. If there's detox (like there was with nicotine), I think it's better to just get it over with once instead of constantly feeling deprived as your body re-adjusts to its new biochemical levels. The most successful method for quitting smoking is cold turkey, isn't it? Something like 80% of successful attempts to quit smoking are cold turkey? I don't have the statistics onhand, but that's the general idea. Quitting something like sugar, bad oils, or excess salt might be easier to do incrementally, since you need to replace the consumption with something else.
Which brings us to third point - I actively introduce new good behaviors before and during the time I quit something. Now, I don't know if the following is a good strategy, but it's what I did - when I started cutting down the sweets I ate, I increased my consumption of the kinds of salty foods I already ate: Chips, french fries, nuts, etc. Later I cut the salt content back. I don't know if that's a good habit, but it's worked okay for me. I also try to actively introduce fruits and vegetables before I quit something - it's hard to go from no fiber food that's highly processed to stimulate you immediately to fruits and vegetables. Fruit tastes bland compared to ice cream. So I introduce fruits and vegetables first, get comfortable with them, then increase my consumption of them as I decrease or eliminate bad consumption.
Everything you eat is primarily made up of three macronutrients, or building blocks: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
Today I'm going to focus on what I've learned about carbohydrates, because they make up the bulk of most people's diets and they offer the biggest opportunity for diet improvement.