Creating the life of your dreams is both easier than it’s ever been and harder than it’s ever been.
It’s easier because of all of the great resources that the internet makes available. You can learn pretty much anything from an expert on the topic, usually free or cheap.
Meaty courses from top-notch universities? Free.
All the raw material you could ever want to sift through? No cost (but a lot of work).
Just the highlights, hand-picked by any of a variety of curators? Free or cheap (plus a bit of work to find good curators).
But it’s harder than ever because of all of the other stuff that the internet makes available. You can keep yourself distracted in pretty much any way you can imagine, usually free or cheap.
The entire business models of social media and infotainment sites are wholly based on and optimized around hijacking your attention and keeping it with them for as long as possible.
And they’re really friggin’ good at it.
The problem is, to live the live you want, you must do it intentionally, and there are strong forces keeping you away. You’re only useful to them if you remain in a zombie-like state of mindless consumption.
What you need is a plan of attack.
You need to determine what is truly important and meaningful to you, and use that knowledge to design the life of your dreams. The life of your dreams can only be based on what you personally value, and that’s probably not thumbs up, hearts, or listicles.
After many years of experimentation1, I’ve cobbled together a system that’s transformed my life from depression to happiness, and so much more.
Here, I’m sharing that system, and building a community of folks from all walks of life, sharing what works and what doesn’t, so we can all lead better lives – by intention, not randomness.
The key ideas
The human mind is phenomenally complex, and our understanding of how it works is still in its infancy.
But one thing that’s become clear even at this early stage is that the mind/brain/body system is full of feedback loops: the actions of one part become the inputs of another part, which produces its own output, which another part takes in, and so on and so forth.
These feedback loops mean that small negative inputs can very easily start you on a downward spiral out of control and leave you in a horrible state.
You start feeling bad about something, and the bad feeling just hangs around for a while. As your brain tries to regroup and repair itself, you start feeling less energetic. You then find it hard to get up and accomplish anything useful. If this goes on for a while, you feel even worse because you haven’t accomplished anything useful, and when you feel even worse, you have even less energy to do anything. And on it goes. You’ve entered the downward spiral that we call “depression”.
But these feedback loops also mean that small positive inputs can start you on an upward spiral.
And if those inputs are implemented properly (by choosing the right ones, stepping just slightly outside of your comfort zone at any given time, and making them into habits), that upward spiral can, slowly but surely, transform your life entirely.
As you do this, you’ll develop good habits (which expands your comfort zone) and you’ll work out your self-improvement “muscles” (which enables you to stretch further outside your comfort zone) as time goes on. It’s even more powerful than compound interest, as the “interest rate” itself increases as you develop. You can do this, and success is inevitable unless you quit.
The human mind is not one coherent entity. It’s made up of a huge number of parts, most of which operate entirely outside your conscious awareness.
Our unconscious parts determine the vast majority of our experience.
Have you ever consciously controlled your hormone secretion? Well, that controls how energetic you feel, how well your body heals itself, how much cholesterol you make, and much more.
Those parts are all working toward the end goal of helping you survive and thrive, but they have very different ideas about what that means and how to go about it. And they don’t always communicate with each other very well.
This is the source of internal conflict: some parts are focused on your short-term wants and needs (like getting the pleasure and sugars from a dessert, or keeping you safe by fleeing from a scary situation), and others are focused on your long-term goals and aspirations (like being healthy and attractive, or experiencing the growth that comes with facing a scary situation head-on).
The primary role of your conscious mind is to mediate these internal conflicts, but that takes large amounts of energy. And with all of the demands of modern life, what wins out is often whatever’s easiest in the moment.
But this understanding of what’s going on can point to some possible solutions. Don’t use your limited willpower to make each decision when the conflict arises, but use it to greatly reduce the conflict before it happens. Find ways of making the short-sighted option more difficult and less appealing in the moment (and the better long-term option easier and more appealing). This can take forms like tweaking your environment, forming new and better habits, and over time, changing your idea of who you are at a deep level.
Expectations and identity
These feedback loops and the limited communication between our conscious mind and our unconscious parts lead to some strange and powerful consequences.
Our parts typically learn about us by watching what we actually do and observing the consequences. They judge us not by our ideals and our conscious mind’s stated goals, but exactly as we judge others (and often with far less compassion).
They form expectations about how the system will react to certain stimuli, and work to automate those actions to free up resources for handling novel situations when they arise.
These unconscious expectations control how you perceive yourself at the deepest possible level, what you expect to happen, and what actions you take. And because your actions come from the same source as your expectations, you usually get the results that you’re truly expecting deep down.
This is the source of the placebo effect, which is so wildly powerful that drugs are having a harder and harder time beating it in scientific studies.
If you’re truly, deeply expecting something to happen, your mind/body system has a staggering number of resources for making it so. It can help you feel better almost regardless of what’s wrong with you. It can also give you most of the benefits of physical exercise without you ever lifting a finger.
This is also the grain of truth in the so-called “Law of Attraction”. But for it to truly work, you have to embed those beliefs and expectations much more deeply than mere affirmations are capable of.
This framework also explains why you can be extremely effective in some areas of your life, but completely stuck in others.
Whether by intention or by happy accident, in the areas in which you’re doing well, you’ve discovered ways of making the right choices automatic. You’ve convinced all of your parts that the actions that will serve you best in the long-term are also the right ones in the here and now.
But in other areas, you haven’t. Maybe fast food and sweets are still easier and more pleasurable than real food. Maybe Facebook, Twitter, and email are still more appealing than working on that great idea for a book or a business. Maybe literally anything else still feels better than exercise.
When you recognize this for what it is, the way to lasting progress becomes clear: slowly but surely, start to train all of your parts. Find ways to show them that the wrong choices aren’t even that appealing in the short-term, and that the right choices are not only safe, but that they’ll make you feel better now.
It takes a lot of practice, but it’s the most beneficial thing you can possibly do for yourself (and for the world!), because it enables you to reach your full potential.