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Navigating Crucial Life Moments Masterfully: Part 1

Red pill in one hand, blue pill in other hand

Bite the Bullets (A quick summary if you don’t want to read the whole article)

  • “Any set of facts can be used to tell an infinite number of stories” is a foundational truth which, if subscribed to, enables you to consider the perspectives of others, resolve issues more quickly, and grow as individuals (111).
  • Knowing yourself and how you typically respond or behave in crucial moments will help you address your weaknesses and also catch and correct yourself when your bad habits rear their ugly heads in the moment.
  • Being able to pause in a crucial moment for even 5-10 seconds to reassess the story you are telling yourself can break the string of adrenaline-fueled responses for just long enough to regain your composure and remind yourself of the desired outcome.

Savor the Summary

When I first picked up the book “Crucial Conversations:  Tools for Talking when Stakes are High,” I assumed the focus would be on mastering conversational skills, but I learned so much more. Even the authors admit near the end that “what we were most interested in was not writing a book on communication. Rather, we wanted to identify crucial moments … when people’s actions disproportionately affect their organizations, their relationships, and their lives” (222). 

While they built their narrative around conversations as a type of crucial moment, the following will be what I found most valuable in terms of generic tools that will drastically improve how you a) perceive the world and b) act on these new perceptions to create a better world for yourself.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves (Perception)

In life there are facts and then there are the stories you apply to facts to create meaning. It is these stories you tell yourself that makes a world of difference in the actions you take in life, your mental state (e.g. happy/sad), and general perception of the world. The authors define this process as the “Path to Action,” where 

1) you see and hear something (facts) which is followed by 

2) a story you tell yourself to apply meaning after which 

3) the story makes you feel certain emotions which 

4) lead you to taking a certain action (109)

For example, below is an indisputable fact that would be the same to all viewers, and then two different stories that could be applied to the fact to create meaning:

Fact: The sun rose today. 

Story 1: The sun rose today to blast me in the eyes and punish me for staying up late last night (victim).

Story 2: The sun rose today to give me light so I can gaze upon this beautiful world once more (victor).

As you can see, the stories you tell yourself can dramatically impact your life experience. The person telling themself Story 2 is much more likely to have a positive day, having started it off by telling themselves a story that leads to gratitude and positive feelings.

On the other hand, the person telling themself Story 1 is arguably going to have more negative feelings about their day by playing the victim in their story, and is less likely to accomplish something beneficial that day. The good news is, stories can be rewritten to put you back on a better path. I think the authors said it best: 

“Don’t confuse stories with facts. Sometimes you fail to question your stories because you see them as immutable facts. When you generate stories in the blink of an eye, you can get so caught up in the moment that you begin to believe your stories are facts” (115). 

I must have read this line at least 10 times because it applies to all facets of life and can be the difference in whether you succeed or fail in a conversation, goal, career, or relationship. And oftentimes, the stories we tell ourselves shackle us to failure but are subtle in the way they do this.

Three common types of stories that are sinister in this way the authors describe as villain, victim, and helpless stories (117-119). Imagine the fact that you had to work late and you were not happy about it. Below are three stories you may tell yourself that apply to that fact that lead to no or negative action:

  • Villain: I had to work late because my boss is a lazy jerk and pawned one of his projects off on me.
  • Victim: I had to work late when everyone else gets to leave on time. Why me?
  • Helpless: I had to work late and will need to work late every night this week because there are crazy deliverables due this week.

In each of these stories, an excuse is made for why you are in an undesirable situation, none of which give you the power to fix the situation or prevent it from happening again. You are either putting the blame on someone else (villain), excusing yourself of any blame (victim), or coming up with excuses for future events that are “impossible” to prevent (helpless).

While it is very difficult to prevent yourself from telling these stories initially, an arguable superpower to have is being able to notice when you are telling this kind of story so you can rewrite it with one that is more empowering like the following:

  • Empowering: I had to stay late because I said “yes” to helping my boss out even though I was already overloaded. 

This subtle change in the story where you assume responsibility puts the power back in your hands to prevent the situation from happening again (e.g. “since it was my fault, in the future I won’t offer to help out when I am already busy”). More generally, it is this ability to pause and consider alternatives to what you see as the current “truth” that will undoubtedly enrich your life.

Pause in the Moment

Have you ever wanted the ability to alter reality? What if I told you all it takes is 5-10 seconds for you to change your whole world? When in the middle of a crucial moment like an argument with a loved one, taking a few seconds to gather yourself and reevaluate the story you are telling yourself about the moment can completely alter your reality for the better.

For example, I was recently arguing with my wife and the energy was only getting more negative with each minute that passed. Both of us believed the other person was at fault and were trying to force our stories on to each other which never works out well. Luckily there was a few seconds of silence during which I happened to remember I was reading Crucial Conversations and decided to put it to the test and challenge my story.

I asked myself, “what if I am at fault?” Even if I wasn’t, taking the time to consider that another possibility exists made me soften and become more open to hearing her side of the story. This completely changed the direction of the conversation and allowed us to right the course back towards an amicable resolution. 


The stories you tell yourself determines the “reality” in which you live, and since you apply these stories to events almost as they happen you can’t tell the difference between your story and the factual event. This split second meaning has the power to shape how you react to anything from a single event to how you live your entire life, and so it truly is a superpower to be able to pause in a moment and challenge the story you are telling yourself to reshape your reality.

I urge you to try this out as it has reshaped my life and that of many others for the better, and if you find it valuable and want to learn how to take that skill to the next level, dig in to the details of Crucial Conversations and check out Part 2 of this blog series!

The Real Secret to Work-Life Balance

a lady balancing with the sun shining behind her
You need to have faith in yourself enough to know that taking a break is not going to cause your career to halt, but in fact will give you the space to make better decisions about your priorities. Click To Tweet

Bite the bullets (a quick summary if you don’t want to read the whole article)

  • We have a running meter of needs we balance every single day
  • These needs, unlike Maslow’s Hierarchy, do not progress from bottom to top, rather in the order they deplete
  • The primary categories of these needs are physiology, security, relationships, cognition, and tranquility
  • If we ignore these needs, they will affect our behavior in dramatic ways decreasing the amount of control we have over ourselves and our lives
  • Life is a balancing act, but it’s not just balancing “work” and “life”.
  • You’ve got to remember that working on yourself, and prioritizing your needs is what will eventually lead to total balance. Not just balancing a career and a personal life.

Even easy lives are hard

Maybe one of your days looks like this: Get up. Go to work (or school). Realize you’ve got more to do than you had planned. Feel stressed. Get a text from someone in your family. Oh shoot, you haven’t called home in longer than you’d thought! Think about something that’s been bothering you. Get home. It’s later than you thought. You’re too tired to do anything so you watch Netflix. Answer emails from work. Mindlessly scroll Instagram (or any other infinite scroll app) in bed. Sleep. Repeat.

There’s an underlying current to why your life is out of balance: priority. If you think of your life in terms of two simple categories: “work” and “life”, then you’re limiting your choices of what to prioritize. Here, we’re going to explore the many pieces of your life that you can choose to focus on and why it’s important to take time to do so.

Head up! The next few sections are a deep dive into some psychology and biology. It’s fine to skip them if that doesn’t interest you, but I would recommend two things if you do:

  1. Think of your life in broader terms than just “career” and “personal life”.
  2. Look at the section on power levels to get a feel for the categories in your life and consider which of them you’re strong at feeding and which you regularly neglect
If you think of your life in terms of two simple categories "work" and "life", then you're limiting your choices of what to prioritize. Click To Tweet

Our biology plays a role

Have you ever been hangry? If you haven’t heard the term, it means what it sounds like: hungry + angry = hangry. When some people don’t eat for a while, they get grumpy, snippy and even confrontational.

A study from Jonathan Levav of Columbia Business School, conducted in Israeli prisons in 2011, found that judges were more likely to dispense unfavorable sentences in parole hearings (I.e. denying parole) the closer they got to a meal break. The authors argue that the hungrier the judges became, the more likely they were to drift towards an easier decision of saying ”no” rather than weighing the harder option of granting parole.

Deciding what to eat and getting into a fight with your significant other is an uncomfortable experience, but imagine having to decide the fate of a person standing before you while on an empty stomach. The weight of the decision is much higher. Whether we think about the time we snapped at a friend, or a judge doling out justice, there is an arrow pointing to a fact of our existence: our basic biological needs affect our behavior.

Our basic biological needs affect our behavior. Click To Tweet

Addressing our needs as priorities: Maslow’s take

The concept that we have needs that change how we act is an old idea. If you’ve taken an intro to psychology class, you’ve no doubt run into good old Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

The idea is: we have needs stacked like a pyramid we fulfill from bottom to top in order to reach a state that Maslow described as “self-actualization.” Self-actualized people, like Einstein, go on to do great things with their lives.

There are some glaring flaws in this model—which I’ll get into in a second—but before I do, let’s walk through the pyramid from bottom to top:

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
The original pyramid derived from Maslow’s published theory of motivation.

As you can see, you’ve got physiology at the bottom, those are things that you need because your body needs them: food, water, sleep, sex, a thing called “homeostasis” (the body’s natural chemical balancing forces) and excretion. Once those basal needs is the need for security; essentially a safe place where you won’t get sick or hurt. Next is love, which encapsulates our relationships and need for affection. After that is “esteem,” which is a need to prove one’s self, both socially and to themselves (e.g. achieving self-confidence). Finally is the fabled “self-actualization,” originally described as a “a new discontent and restlessness” to “become everything one is capable of becoming.”

These ideas sound great. You work your way up the pyramid and then you reach the top and presto, you are creating the next Mona Lisa. But we all know that doesn’t seem to happen a lot. Tom Cruise would be self actualized by these standards, but the media doesn’t shy away from how hard his personal relationships have been. This is true for a lot of celebrities. On the other hand, we’ve all met someone who is content with a simple life, unburdened by a “restlessness” to be everything they can be. It’s really easy to criticize this model and there is a reason for that.

These ideas were originally published in Psychological Review in 1943 in a paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation.” That’s right. Motivation. Not a theory of greatness. Not a theory of behavior. In the work, Maslow says directly that this is a model to guide future research, not a research study itself. It was a skeleton to develop further understanding of what motivates people. It was never intended as a way to live life. On top of that, the pyramid visualization that has become synonymous with the hierarchy of needs didn’t show up until much later. We can do better!

Meet the POWER LEVELS: Our priorities change every day

Here is a new mental model to guide your thinking about prioritizing your life. It works well for me, and you can test it yourself. It’s not a theory of motivation as much as a theory of well-being. There is a strong case for the idea that when you’re well, you’re more motivated.

There is a strong case for the idea that when you’re well, you’re more motivated. Click To Tweet

First, I want to wholly dismiss the concept that you need to work through a static pyramid from the bottom to the top. Human needs don’t work that way.

We need to drink water every hour. We need to eat a few times a day. We need enough sleep every day. We need social contact at least a few times a week. We need to pay our rent or mortgage every month. Each of these requires constant maintenance, and regular attention.

Your need can’t be solved once, they need to be maintained over time. Not only that, they each have different rates for resetting.

Here I present these needs as power levels that contribute to your overall well-being. If they are not met, your ability to do good work, to make decisions, to learn, to be a good friend or significant other is lowered.

It looks like this:

As you can see, the basic ideas of a hierarchy are hidden in there, but these are hopefully more useful in a day-to-day sense.

Now let’s flip it on it’s side:

There are five high level categories broken into fourteen sub-categories.

Each sub-category contributes to the overall level in its parent category, and each category contributes to the overall level that is you; your sense of well-being.

Here’s the kicker: these need attention in a dynamic way. Because they deplete at different levels, the priorities of each category (and even subcategory) change over time. That means you need to pay attention to your mind and body to stay happy.

They deplete like so on each of their respective timelines:

I want to highlight one major modification before digging in. I’m going to ask you to buy into an assumption. Transcendence and self actualization have been replaced by a more humble term: tranquility.

Tranquility is a concept stolen from a stoic philosophy; you can think of it as an overall chill-ness with whatever is happening. I’ve found this is a great ideal to strive for, because it is attainable both when happy and sad. It’s also much more maintainable than just trying to be happy 100% of the time. The world hits you with good stuff and bad stuff, it’s better to be tranquil and still feel what emotion you naturally feel. In short: Shoot for happiness, miss it for contentment and settle for tranquility.

As I mentioned before, you go through life and the “levels” in each of the subcategories deplete over time or based on events that happen in your life. The good news is you’re probably already taking care of a lot of these things. When you get hungry, you eat; thirsty, you drink. But then problems arise, or maybe you are having trouble getting something that you say you want. What gives? Below is a breakdown of each category and sub-category. I’m going to skip ones that are self explanatory.

Really important note: rather than focusing on working your way from most basic to complex, this is a dynamic model. That means the order of importance of each of these is based entirely on their level. For instance, you might be having a rough time financially, and need to solve difficult problems to fix that. It might seem counterintuitive, but if you have been neglecting your friends to focus on this problem it’s probably time recharge that level. What will surprise you is that you’ll probably have a clearer head when you come back to it.

The simplified version of Power Levels

If the breakdown of each subcategory is overwhelming, just remember that the top level categories deplete over time and that you need to watch how that process happens:


  • Sleep
    • Affects mood, cognitive clarity and decision making.
    • Depletes: daily
  • Sex
    • Varies by person. Lack can cause irritability.
    • Depletes: varies by libido
  • Food
    • Low blood sugar affects mood and mental clarity.
    • Depletes: every few hours
  • Water
    • Even mild dehydration can impair cognitive function and decrease mental performance.
    • Depletes: hourly
  • Exercise
    • Regular exercise improves memory, mood and thinking skills.
    • Depletes: daily


  • Physical
    • Having a physically safe place to live decreases stress
    • Depletes: depends on geographic location
  • Financial
    • Obsessing about money (or a lack of money) causes stress. Can also affect entire physiology category if you can’t afford food.
    • Depletes: weekly/monthly


  • Interactions/ face time
    • Every person needs some amount of social interaction. This has less measurable but important effects on thinking and mood.
    • Depletes: varies by person
  • Challenges
    • When you have a conflict in a relationship it affects other aspects of life.
    • Depletes: based on conflicts in relationships


  • Interest (in whatever you’re doing)
    • Disinterest in whatever your task at hand will mean that you need to exert more effort into whatever you’re doing at any given time. This can take away focus and effort from other parts of life.
    • Depletes: based on what you’re spending your time on
  • Stimulation
    • We need a certain amount of mental stimulation in our week. The type of mental stimulation goes hand in hand with interests.
    • Depletes: weekly


  • Mindfulness
    • Mindfulness has a ton of benefits. They range from better mental performance to lower blood pressure.
    • Depletes: daily
  • Gratitude
    • Gratitude is the antidote to anger.
    • Depletes: daily
  • Comfort
    • Important to manage but not over optimize.
    • Depletes: based on situation

How does this relate to work-life balance?

In order to maintain total well-being, you need to constantly prioritize and re-prioritize what needs attention. It’s easier to think of each of these as a part of a whole. It takes a lot of patience and practice to master when to re-prioritize.

Within the power levels, you need to ruthlessly prioritize whatever needs your attention. For example, if you notice your lips are dry, drink some water. If you notice that you’re starting to act irritably, maybe it’s time for snack. If you haven’t done something that makes your heart sing for quite some time, it may be time to go to a movie.

You need to have faith in yourself enough to know that taking a break is not going to cause your career to halt, but in fact will give you the space to make better decisions about your priorities. When you prioritize things that need your attention right when they need it, your overall well being improves. And when your well being improves, you get better at prioritizing what’s important! Positive feedback loop.

The best place to start is with some simple mindfulness. Remember that your needs operate on a sliding scale. When you recognize needs are dynamic, life becomes more interesting than “I have too much to do.” Suddenly, you gain control over what you choose to do. If you choose to work late because that’s your priority and it’s nourishing you, then all the better. But if you find that you’ve been working late too many days in a row. It may be time to take some of those “important tasks” and ruthlessly re-prioritize them against your whole life.

Do you know your greatest enemy?

Presidents Obama and Trump laughing together

Hint: It’s not either of these guys!

Bite the Bullets (A quick summary if you don’t want to read the whole article)

  • Human behavioral biology is a multidisciplinary field that describes the fundamental biology behind what we do
  • There is a balancing mechanism in our bodies we cannot escape called homeostasis. Almost everything our body does is dictated by it.
  • All we eat and do affect us on many different biological levels, which in turn affect our behavior and thinking in a “homeostatic” way.
  • How we think affects our biology, which in turn affects how we think in a feedback loop
  • That’s why when we make decisions, it’s important to keep that in the back of our mind. It informs the context in which we make decisions.
  • For all these reasons you are your greatest enemy, but you can be your own best friend!

The great contradiction

There is a devilish problem in our society. It tricks even the smartest of us into making easily avoidable mistakes. It’s one of the reasons we get mad in our cars, why we get into fights and it’s very simple. It was the thing that our current president constantly exploits. The great contradiction is: we are irrational but we make decisions as if we are not. It’s not a terrible thing by itself, that we don’t act rationally most of the time. However, pretending we do means that we are often wrong without even knowing it. How can we limit how much our biology is exploited?

Enter behavioral biology!

This field describes the patterns of our decision making in a way that can help us deal with the fact that we’re irrational. In order to get clear on how our brains are manipulating us, we need to go through some of the building blocks of our brain itself. There are three crucial systems that are important to know to understand the symphony that is our behavior.

These fellas work together to make you who you are! It’s going to seem like we’re walking away from the core concept at first. Really, we’re on a grand journey that gives us a big picture understanding of what’s going on when we do and feel things. I promise it’s worth it!

We are irrational but we make decisions as if we are not. Click To Tweet

Homeostasis means balance

Yin and Yang: the elegant fight for balance of the universe. It turns out that the concept of yin and yang is spot on for describing a very important facet of our behavior as it relates to our biology: homeostasis. The break down of the word is homeo meaning “similar to” and “stasis” meaning balance. When you read homeostasis, just think balance.

For every action in your body, there is a reaction that serves as a balancing force. There’s a really interesting example of this: temperature. Under normal conditions, we sweat when we’re hot, and that cools us down.

That’s homeostatic or balancing process. Something in our brain senses a change that puts our body’s temperature out of balance. Then, it sends signals to regain balance. The Yin of being hot, the Yang of sweating to cool down. As you can imagine, there are countless more processes just like this! All of them in a constant state of organized chaos.

Just a taste of how complex this gets: when our body balances the acidity of our blood, it causes an imbalance in our temperature, so we sweat. That causes an imbalance in the amount of salt in our blood stream and that causes us to get thirsty. When we happen to drink a beverage that is acidic (like soda), the whole thing starts over. This goes on and on for as long as we’re alive.

It’s this beautiful and complex orchestra playing inside of us, balancing and counterbalancing all the important systems in our bodies. That’s important part of homeostasis: if you change something in one place, it changes something else somewhere entirely different. These systems are all interconnected, all following a similar pattern. For every Yin there is a Yang. This process, of course, affects our behavior.

The squishy squirty thingies in your head

What actually happens inside of you when your body gets hot and needs to cool down? There is a thermometer inside the part of your brain known as the hypothalamus (don’t worry about what it’s called). It senses heat and then tells other glands to send the message to parts of your body to cool down. That process is mediated by hormones in your bloodstream. (For the curious: this system of sensing something and then sending out some hormones is called the endocrine system).

That thermometer accepts signals from other regions of the brain and connects to this system through a weird little sack dangling off of it called the pituitary gland. In this analogy, this is like an A/C unit. That’s what sends the signal to cool you down.

Here’s all you need to remember: one part of your brain tells another part of your brain to squirt some hormones to some other glands that then cause your whole physiology to change. It’s just like a thermometer tells the A/C unit to turn on and start pumping cool air through the vents to change the temperature of the house.

There are little blobs in your head, squirting hormones in your bloodstream right now as you read this. It’s the same reason you feel your heart race when you get on a roller coaster, or get those butterflies in your stomach when you hold hands with that special someone. Utterly crazy.

There are little blobs in your head, squirting hormones in your bloodstream right now as you read this. Click To Tweet

The child in your head

We now know about homeostasis: things stay in balance for the most part and when they get out of balance, a bunch of things happen to balance them again. We also know that there is a system of glands squirting hormones around telling our bodies to react to help maintain that balance. What’s kicking off the process?

There is another collection of brain blobs are together known as the limbic system. Most of our basal emotions and, just for fun, where some of our learning happens, occurs in the limbic system [1]. The important part for us to explore at the moment is that the limbic system on a whole covers a lot of stuff from emotion to learning to consciousness.

It’s a long list, but the thing to remember is the gross oversimplification that it regulates emotion by telling the first gland (hypothalamus) in that process we covered above to kick things off. It’s the kid in you that just wants to go after things impulsively, or gets irrationally scared in the dark. That kid is stomping on the sack triggering your hormone releases.

It’s also important to remember specifically the piece that’s telling you to specifically excrete fear and arousal hormones. It’s called the amygdala and we’ll see it again in a bit.

The monk in your head

Whew, that was a lot of brain blobs that we just covered. There is one final blob we need to get through for this crash course. That’s the most interesting and important blob of all: the frontal cortex! I’ll steal the description of what it does straight from Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave. He describes the function of the frontal cortex as “doing the harder thing when it’s the right thing to do.”

In this case, “right” doesn’t mean morally right, but what’s the right thing in the context of what’s happening. What will offer the most utility in a situation. Lying is a great example, because it requires a ton of suppression of other parts of your brain, and thus a lot of work on the part of the prefrontal cortex. It’s usually not the morally right thing to do, but it’s the harder thing to do and you are telling your brain it’s the thing that’s happening. That’s what we mean by “right” in this case.

For our purposes, the calming of the kid in our brain is what the prefrontal cortex does. It’s like a very meditative monk that can drop the wisdom on the kid before she’s about to stomp around and release a bunch of hormones into your bloodstream. This is mediated by a lot of systems working together, but we’ll keep things simple for now [2].

“I know you’re afraid of the dark, but this is your home and there are locks on the door. There is nothing to be afraid of.” Remember how I just mentioned the amygdala? Quelling your fears is an example of the amygdala first telling you there is something wrong and then your prefrontal cortex telling your amygdala that all is quiet and well.

All together now

We’ve covered the building blocks of what causes our rationality and decision making to totally fall apart. It all comes down to these systems that we just explored working together in harmony (or disharmony if you’re trying to get something difficult done).

Imagine a scenario: you see a cutie that you’d like to chat with. What’s actually going on in your head? First the visual sensory information flows in. It bounces around the processing centers and you might get a little initial hit of arousal from the amygdala telling the hypothalamus to squirt some excitement hormones in you. Then the prefrontal cortex comes in!

It starts to go over all the terrible things that could go wrong in the hypothetical situation of you talking to this stud muffin across the room. It also tells the amygdala to trigger, but this time it’s a fear response! Now your endocrine system thinks you are in physical danger, so you start sweating in a classic fight or flight response.

Maybe you end up talking to this person and saying some completely silly stuff that you normally wouldn’t say. Now it should make a lot of sense why it’s so hard to accomplish such a simple task! Your prefrontal cortex, limbic system AND endocrine system are doing a lot of work. With all that extra burden, how can you expect to be clever?

A vital part of this interaction is seeing that the effects are a two-way-street. That is to say: you feel and think things because of your biology, which in turn causes your biology to change. You can think your body into having a physiological reaction and you can calm your thinking by say, slowing your breathing [3].

Of course, I’m leaving out a lot of steps in this process, but that’s the basic ping pong that happens in your brain any time anything happens to you. This is the beauty of human behavioral biology and how this affects you is really extensive. Think about every time you make a decision, try to convince someone of something, or need to get some important work done. There is a cocktail of context that you might be neglecting: your biology.

There is also a wealth of information in observing your own behavior with this tinting your self-reflection. The thing that I’ve mentioned several times on this site is the example of people getting irritable when they’re hungry, which is a pretty common occurrence. Taking that concept further, and knowing everything is interconnected, imagine how your thinking, attitude and mood are affected by something like chronic stress.

When things don’t go exactly as planned, you end up with a lot of valuable and actionable insights about your body specifically. Your personal internal interactions are worth getting to know intimately, because no one on earth can feel what physical responses you experience to certain stimuli. It sort of muddies the lines between the quirks each of us have individually. Every action has a reaction, which probably tugs on some string in another part of the unravelling sweater of systems inside of you.

The simple bow on these very complex systems and information is this: it’s useful to remember specifically how human you are in a biological context. When you’re trying to learn a new behavior or a habit, your strategy might start with how you’re going to navigate the interactions between the parts of your brain. When you’re getting impatient with yourself or reacting, let the fact that this is a symphony of hormones remind you to slow down and take a breath. Your body has to balance a whole lot after all.

When you’re getting impatient with yourself or reacting, let the fact that this is a symphony of hormones remind you to slow down and take a breath. Click To Tweet

Who is your greatest enemy? YOU ARE! You’re brain is constantly out to get you. The good news is, you can learn to become your best friend. Mastering your biology is a step towards overall self mastery.


[1] Parts of the limbic system and what they do:

  • The amygdala, which means almond.
    • Responsible for fear, arousal and motor outputs.
  • The hippocampus, which is latin for seahorse.
    • Does a bunch of things and still isn’t fully understood, but at least tackles emotional processing, memory consolidation and spatial cognition (i.e. remembering where your house is).
  • The septum, a term for any structure that’s the “midline” of something.
    • In this case it’s the midline of the brain. Connects a bunch of parts of the limbic system.
  • The thalamus, the thing above the hypothalamus.
    • It relays sensory input such as pain.
  • The ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens.
    • Cores to dopamine transport.

[2] Speaking of complex systems, dopamine is another super interesting topic that we don’t have time in this overview to dive into. Since you’re here in the annotations, I’ll tell you the most interesting counterintuitive tidbit about dopamine. It’s not so much of a reward hormone as it is an anticipation hormone. That is to say, dopamine peaks in our bloodstream when we anticipate we’re going to get a treat rather than after we get it. We’re most excited and elated to get the new shiny and it’s all over as soon as we get it. Tragedy of the human race, isn’t it?

[3] Before any of you come at me with pitchforks: I’m not saying you can cure a serious illnesses by just thinking. Additionally, don’t take this to your friend with major depression and say “look, thinking can change your physiology!” This is a much more complex mental illness and I’m not endorsing the concept of “just think your way to being happy.” If you must connect this concept to something like mental illness, the place to look is in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This is the same physical mechanism, and backed by supporting scientific evidence. Here’s a place to start: https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/cognitive-behavioral-therapy/about/pac-20384610

The Greatest Drug In the World?

A cup of milk on coffee beans and a cup of coffee on milk beans

The fiend and the friend

Let’s take a deep breath: in through your nose, count to four, out through your mouth, count to four. Okay, let’s begin. This is going to be hard for both of us. We’re drug addicts after all.

Within six inches of my left hand is a cup of hot brown bean juice. Not just any bean; little crushed-up, dried-out beans from a warm part of the world. It tastes bitter, and most people find it unpleasant when they first experience it. Obviously, we’re talking about the “C” word: coffee!

When I started drinking it—similarly to the beastie boys—I liked my sugar with coffee and cream. Now I’m thoroughly addicted to the hot brown liquid: I all but mainline it. Spending twenty-two dollars on a bag of specialty beans handpicked on a fair-trade certified-organic farm in Ethiopia. Milk in my single origin specialty? Are you a monster?! I drink it black; each cup poured by hand with precisely weighed beans, a timer, and 200-degree water. That or an espresso pulled from a fancy machine at a local shop. I’m aware of my depravity. But I feel justified!

You see, I’m in good company. After all, 85% Americans drink a caffeinated beverage every single day. On top of that, we regularly read of all the benefits. (Thanks caffeine informer.) Caffeine seems to lower the risk of depression, diabetes, and overall increases livelihood and productivity. That must make it the “perfect drug”. I’m skeptical.

I know what I feel like when I take in too much caffeine. Or if I drink coffee on an empty stomach. Or when I am sleep deprived and try to compensate with a caffeinated beverage. It’s not so magical when I’m tossing and turning at 1 a.m., and I’ve got to get up in 5 hours.

Here, I’m going to outline how to boost positive effects and limit the adverse effects of caffeine. We’ll look at how caffeine works in the brain, what the potential long term effects could be, and most importantly, how to use it like a pro.

Caffeine Makes You Less Sleepy

Caffeine has a ton of effects on our bodies. There have been studies that show it can increase athletic performance, the military has done studies on how to create the perfect dose for soldiers, and there are even more studies on how it improves academic and professional performance. The best-understood chemical pathway is what it does to prevent sleepiness: it works by tricking you into feeling less tired.

I don’t know if they still teach this in grade school, but I remember learning: “mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell.” That is to say: mitochondria are where our cells get their energy from. Most of us stop there, but to understand how caffeine tricks our brains it’s helpful to revisit what that actually means.

See, mitochondria create energy for our body in the form of ATP. That stands for Adenosine Triphosphate. Not too surprising to find out that’s made of a molecule called adenosine with three phosphates attached to it. Throughout a few different chemical pathways, those phosphates get cut off and are used to power various things in our cells. As the ATP that the mitochondria produce gets chopped up for the phosphates, adenosine builds up as a byproduct outside of cells [1].

Adenosine is one of the things making us feel sleepy. When it builds up outside of cells after the phosphate has been used, it attaches to “adenosine receptors” that poke out all over the surface of each cell. That triggers another long chemical pathway, which eventually tells your brain it’s time to go to bed, and you get that sensation of fatigue.

What does this have to do with caffeine? Caffeine is a trickster that looks just like adenosine to those receptors. It goes and attaches to them, blocking a *real* adenosine that would have done so. Instead of a message that reaches your brain and muscles saying “I’m tired,” you get one that says “all systems go!!!” That feeling of fatigue goes away. Problem solved, I’m no longer sleepy. But wait! There’s more!

Caffeine Has Side Effects

Anyone who’s had too much coffee could tell you some of caffeine’s less mild symptoms: rapid heart rate, fidgetiness, mild anxiety, insomnia to name a few. It seems clear from the research [link to compound study] that the effects of regular caffeine use are not harmful to our health, but I often wonder about a more nuanced story.

When doctors say that daily ingestion of coffee and caffeine are totally fine, they are talking about a dose of about 400 mg for the “average person”. What does that actually mean? Well, 400 mg is usually described as “four cups of regular strength coffee.” It turns out that’s not accurate at all.

For example, a single Grande (roughly 16oz) of Starbucks brewed coffee contains a whopping 310 mg! That’s for a single medium-sized cup of coffee. (Just for reference: one spoon of instant coffee is about 60 mg of caffeine). If you have one of those in the morning, that’s 77.5% of your total daily limit. If you spring for a Venti instead (20oz), you’re ingesting about 410 mg of caffeine. When you finish that cup of joe, you’re already 10mg over the *daily* recommended dose. That’s precisely where things get tricky: dosage.

The short term side-effects of caffeine are utterly dependent on the dose of caffeine you’re ingesting. You drink more than 400 mg in one go at “average body weight,” you’ll experience that fuzzy feeling of being over-amped. That’s a minor caffeine overdose. Specifically, if you feel those adverse effects I mentioned earlier—anxiousness, sleeplessness, high blood pressure—you are experiencing an overdose.

This is all for the “average consumer,” but what about high caffeine sensitivity? What about people who are below average weight? The standard recommended dosage goes out of the window. This is the part where it’s important to know ourselves better than a doctor’s general recommendation. That way we can build a caffeine dosage that serves us rather than hurts us.

How to dose like a pro

Remember a good rule of thumb is an actual “average” cup of coffee is going to contain about 300 mg of caffeine (~5 small spoons of Folger’s instant coffee powder). That’s one good measure to remember because if you’re drinking about half of that, it’s one-hundred-and-something milligrams of caffeine and if you’re drinking twice that it’s closer to six-hundred-and-something milligrams.

With that in mind, there are three easy to remember categories for caffeine sensitivity: hyper (high) sensitivity, normal sensitivity, and hypo (low) sensitivity.

  • People with high caffeine sensitivity experience the effects of an overdose around 100mg of caffeine. That’s about one shot of espresso or half of small coffee.
  • People with normal caffeine sensitivity experience overdose at over ~400 mg of caffeine. A medium cup of coffee to two cups of coffee.
  • Finally, people with low caffeine sensitivity don’t really feel the wakeful effects of caffeine at a normal dose. They may not experience even a mild overdose at any level. (This represents about 1 in 10 people; rare, but not extremely rare.)

These numbers are super helpful to get a benchmark, but the best thing to do even if you’re not a heavy coffee drinker is to take a couple days where you actually write down how much caffeine you’re consuming, and how it makes you feel. I can quote the recommended dose and the genetic factors all day, but you’re going to know yourself and what works for you best. You will only have to do this once or twice to get your personal benchmark.

The other side of caffeine sensitivity is something you’re probably much more familiar with: caffeine tolerance. It’s been shown that the timeline for tolerance to build and/or decline is shorter than you might think. You can develop “near complete tolerance” in as few as one to four days.

You can think of tolerance like this: your body sees that adenosine receptors are not doing what they are supposed to do. Your brain is good at compensating for imbalances like this, so it produces more than usual. You notice the effect of this pretty quickly because now one cup of coffee doesn’t cut it, and change your behavior: you drink more coffee. Boom. Now you’ve got a caffeine tolerance.

If you’ve been guzzling cup after cup for a few days and immediately stop, your tolerance disappears in about a week. One week of detox will get you back to feeling like a rockstar after just one dose. More on tolerance.

This leads us to the idea of a “dosing schedule.” To make your own dosing schedule, figure out where you fall on the sensitivity spectrum (you probably already know) and try staying within the boundaries of overdose. When you experience the sensation of tolerance, rather than increasing your dose, decrease it. This will give you sustainable benefits rather than a series of peaks and valleys.

The High-Risk Coffee Drinker

We’re going to finish with a bit of somewhat dismal educated speculation. It calls back to that skepticism towards the idea that “caffeine is a perfect drug.” One of the primary and well-studied side effects of caffeine is high blood pressure. It’s often presented with the caveat that the effects wear off as caffeine does, after a few hours. I’ve seen little research about what that means in terms of daily dosing for years.

A quote directly from Mayo Clinic on the complications of high blood pressure:

The excessive strain on your artery walls caused by high blood pressure can damage your blood vessels, as well as organs in your body. The higher your blood pressure and the longer it goes uncontrolled, the greater the damage. Source

   Why is it so bad to have damage to your blood vessels? For a lot of reasons. It causes a laundry list of health issues: risk of aneurysm, metabolic syndrome, and even dementia. One of the best-understood causes of arterial plaque buildup [5] is, you guessed it, damaged arteries. That’s the precursor to heart disease and heart attacks. Not so fun.

    The short version of how this works: Prolonged high blood pressure causes inflammation and damage to the arterial walls. “Bad” cholesterol [6] tends to stick in parts of arteries that have damage or inflammation. The areas where the plaque builds up can eventually break apart and lead to heart attacks and/or strokes [7].  

    I want to make it clear that I’m not building a narrative against caffeine entirely, but highlighting the lifestyle that leads to long term adverse health outcomes. I call the person that’s prone to this “the high-risk coffee drinker”. The hard thing for me to accept is: I am this person.

    It goes something like this: I’ve got too much to do and not enough time. My intuition tells me that if I want to get all this work done, I need to make time. In response to this demand, I stay up late and get up early. That next day, I’m exhausted. I still have things to do, and I need to be bright for the day, so I drink a few cups of coffee to compensate for the lethargy. My blood pressure goes up, and I’m stressed so I eat crap food to comfort myself (probably high in bad cholesterol). The cycle continues.

I know I can get away with that for a while, but it’s vitally important to me to not fall into a habit of getting stressed, messing up my sleep and using caffeine as a workaround. Caffeine is a really potent stimulant, and it can help improve performance on a lot of tasks. It’s also usually weaved into tasty beverages which are fun to share with friends. That’s why the problem isn’t measured in cups, it’s measured in prolonged habits over days that turn into years.

Coffee isn’t going to kill you by itself, but it’s better to use it effectively than mindlessly. Come up with a dose that works for you. Be honest with yourself when you’ve gone too many days relying on stimulants to get things done. If you’re like me, and you constantly have a cup on hand, try taking a break for a week and see how you feel. You might like the peace and quiet in your mind.

Notes and addendums

[1] I’m oversimplifying a lot of things so that we can understand this at a high enough level to be useful. This is going to happen a bit in this post so I won’t disclaim it anymore after this note.

[2] Caffeine Informer has made an absolutely excellent tool for exploring this: https://www.caffeineinformer.com/the-caffeine-database

[3] For the nerds: caffeine sensitivity is affected by two core things. The first and most important is how fast you metabolize it in your liver. This is expressed by two specific genes: one well understood called CYP1A2 and the gene that regulates it called AHR. These directly affect metabolism.The second is to a lesser extent and can be roughly categorized by how many and what type of adenosine receptors you have in your brain. People with less adenosine receptors on average are going to be more sensitive. People with the “wrong type” are going to be hyposensitive. Additionally, the adenosine receptors play a larger role relating to tolerance: when you drink a lot of caffeine for an extended period, your brain compensates by popping more receptors on the outside of your cells, reducing sensitivity.

[4] Fun fact: Echinacea, yes the cold-remedy, actually increases the blood concentration of caffeine when taken in conjunction. If you’ve got a cold and you’re taking supplements with echinacea while drinking caffeine, you could be increasing both positive and negative effects.

[5] This is also called atherosclerosis.

[6] Bad cholesterol: Low-density lipoproteins (LDLs). This as opposed to “good” cholesterol: high-density lipoproteins (HDLs).  LDLs are found in things like avocados, olive/vegetable oil, and nuts. HDLs are found in animal fats like bacon, lard and milk products. [https://medlineplus.gov/hdlthegoodcholesterol.html]

[7] Final nerd aside: That mechanism is from two big problems. The first is hypoxia (low oxygen) to the places that the blood is flowing simply because with a narrower artery, the blood can’t flow as well. The second problem arises when the plaque breaks from the wall of the artery and causes a blood clot. A blood clot blocking blood flow to the heart is what causes a heart attack. Blocking blood to the brain causes stroke. They are actually the same thing in different places in the body.

What’s in an “S”?

A baby sitting next to the letter S

What is a letter? A shape of light with meaning pounded in to memory as a child? A swirl of ink that when captured by the eye explodes in the mind with sound?  A resurgence of pain, emptiness and frost biting the heart?

What is in an ‘S’?

From plural to singular,

Parents to parent.

Fostering Sustainable Behavior

hands holding a sapling

Fostering Sustainable Behavior

Authors:  Doug McKenzie-Mohr and William Smith

Summary provided by Tyler Capps

Bite the Bullets

  • Increase the benefits and decrease the barriers to the desired behavior
  • Decrease the benefits and increase the barriers to the competing (undesired) behavior (find tool here)
  • After people agree to a small request, it is much easier for them to agree to a larger one
  • The causes of human action are much more complex than our explanations of them

Savor the Summary

Whether you are looking to change your behavior, your customers’, or the world’s, Fostering Sustainable Behavior provides many tools and tips that will help you achieve your goal. And while the examples provided in the book are centered around sustainability relating to saving energy and minimizing waste, the tools and ideas shared are also valuable in generating sustainable behavior in the sense that the behavior persists throughout time. It is the latter type of sustainability that will be the focus of this article.

And while there are many examples and tools presented in the book (making it worth it’s cheap price tag or browsing online for free),There are four stand-out core concepts that will likely help you achieve your desired results, the first of which is the following.

Desired Behavior, Increasing Benefits and Decreasing Barriers

Something that may seem obvious to most people is that if it is desired to make someone behave in a certain way or make a specific decision, make that decision even more desirable. A classic example is related to how cell phone companies want to sell as much as possible. While the function the phone serves alone is quite desirable, giving the product the additional benefits of looking sexy and being a status symbol make it that much easier to convince people to buy one.

Slightly less obvious may be the idea that reducing the barriers to the behavior can be equally as powerful in convincing people to behave a certain way (5). With respect to the cell phone example, although people may be aware of how awesome phones are, getting a new one might be difficult because of barriers such as cost, access to a store, or not having cell service where they live. But if the phone was cheaper, easier to buy, and if it would work in their home, people would find it much easier to make the decision to buy new phones more often.

Undesired Behavior, Decreasing Benefits and Increasing Barriers

On the other side of the equation, we have to deal with competing behaviors that could cause the target audience to make an undesirable decision. Using eating unhealthy as an undesirable behavior, making unhealthy foods less desirable is a great way to drive people to eat healthier. For example, using an extrinsic motivator such as promising to give five dollars to a friend every time you eat pizza (or your comfort food of choice) makes it less appealing to make that decision. Although on the gloomier side of things, I’ve found that intrinsic motivators such as reminding myself that a family member with poor eating habits had serious health complications makes it much easier for me to avoid eating poorly.

Increasing the barriers to the undesired behavior is also quite effective. For example, removing unhealthy foods from the home makes it that much harder to cheat on your diet during your moments of weakness. Not having that bag of chips or squirt bottle of fudge on hand adds a layer of difficulty to eating poorly that is sure to reduce how often this undesired behavior takes place (5).

Obtain a Small Commitment, Then Build on It

After assigning the benefits and barriers to the appropriate desired and undesired behaviors, a great way to kickstart a new behavior is to start small. Getting people to agree to a small request has proven extremely effective in having them adopt a new behavior. For example, “a sample of registered voters were approached one day prior to a U.S. presidential election and asked: ‘Do you expect you will vote or not?’ All agreed that they would vote. Relative to voters who were not asked this simple question, their likelihood of voting increased 41% (47).”

Getting people to make a small commitment, in this case having them say they will vote, becomes a part of their identity and people want to act consistently with how they perceive themselves. Having told themselves “I am someone who votes” makes it that much harder for them to not vote come election time, as it goes against a part of their being (48).

Going back to the unhealthy eating example, on the mornings that I tell myself “I am a healthy person,” it makes it that much easier to avoid temptation like when someone brings in doughnuts to work. Although this may seem like a small achievement, it lays the foundation for building up to greater behavioral changes.

The Causes of Human Action are much more Complex than Our Explanations of Them

Although we may have identified a few barriers and benefits that contribute to a person’s behavior, it is always wise keep in mind the words of Fyodor Dostoevsky:

“Don’t let us forget that the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex than our subsequent explanations of them.”

Meaning: no matter how well someone thinks they’ve defined the causes of a behavior or action, they are likely only seeing the tip of the iceberg. So, if the approach someone has taken to persuade their target audience is unsuccessful, it is likely not considering what is below the surface that prevents the audience from adopting the behavior.

For example if the messaging isn’t vivid, it may not stick with the audience for long enough to convert their behavior (86). This is just one of many additional factors that could guide the behavior of a given audience (many more of which can be found in my Invisible Influence article), but the main idea here is to iterate the approach. Starting with small group, learn from what worked or didn’t, and then update which barriers are being targeted or improve the messaging on the next round of implementation.

There is always more that can be done to create long-lasting behaviors in oneself and others, but reading Fostering Sustainable Behavior will provide a great overview of the options available. If there isn’t time to trudge through the whole book, building a campaign around the bullets mentioned at the beginning of the article will surely be a great start. If you want to take it a step further and start creating change today, try using our tool!

Fostering Sustainable Behavior Tool

hands holding a sapling

This is a tool that will help start you on your journey to creating long-lasting behaviors (download link at end of post). The purpose of the tool is to help you identify the benefits of and barriers to the desired behavior. The behaviors could be anything such as consistently exercising, having people support your business proposal, and so on.

To use the tool, download the template using the link below and fill in the template starting with the left-hand column. The way to read this document is for the benefits/barriers you write in the left-hand column, use the same numbered lines in the right-hand column to list ways how you can increase/decrease the associated benefits/barriers.

For example, if the behavior was “to improve sleep” and a barrier was “using the phone too much in bed,” you might put in the right-hand column “set alarm outside of bedroom and don’t allow phone use in the bedroom” as a way to decrease this barrier to your desired behavior.

We hope this helps and please let us know if you found this useful or have recommendations for how the tool could be improved.

Fostering Sustainable Behavior Tool (click to download Word doc)

More Smarter: Tools to Sharpen the Mind

pencil sharpener

More Smarter:  Tools to Sharpen the Mind, as Based on Dan Hurley’s Smarter

Summary provided by Tyler Capps

Bite the bullets (a quick summary if you don’t want to read the whole article)

    • There are different types of intelligence, and ALL can be improved with practice
    • Sleeping around 7 hrs per night, consuming caffeine, exercising, and having one to two alcoholic drinks per night are each associated with better cognitive ability
    • Brain training games/apps with proven results:  Lumosity (app), dual n-back (many websites/apps), BrainHQ (app)
    • Other practices with proven results:  Mindfulness meditation, learning a new/challenging skill (e.g. how to play a new instrument), exercise

Savor the Summary

As is the case with most people at some point in their life, I’ve recently felt as if my intelligence has started to plateau and that learning new information is becoming more difficult. Being aware that there is a lot of research on how any and everything can affect brain health/function, I decided to start my journey to building a healthier/stronger brain by reading something that provided a good summary of the space. Dan Hurley’s Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power, is a book that attempts to do just that.

Throughout the piece, Hurley presents many different branches of research and supplements this by offering himself up as a guinea pig to put the research to the test. I appreciated this approach as I often find research without the support of real-life examples, or vice versa, leaves out a critical piece of information necessary to fully support an argument. And while I won’t be chronicling his adventures of brain training, I will be using Hurley’s findings associated with brain training games, learning new skills, exercise, and brain boosting beverages as launching points to provide a brief overview in to the world of improving intelligence.

Brain Training Games:

In The World Economic Forum’s “The Future of Jobs” report, hundreds of executives were surveyed, the results of which showed that four of the top ten skills to have in the workplace by 2020 are associated with fluid intelligence. These four skills are the ability to identify patterns, think logically, solve new problems and the number one in demand skill, complex problem solving. Needless to say, if there are games out there I can play that’ll improve how I think and make me more valuable on the job market, sign me up!

Throughout Smarter, Hurley introduces multiple brain training games that aim to improve fluid intelligence, crystallized intelligence (ability to use stored skills, knowledge, and experience), or both. One game specifically aimed at improving fluid intelligence is “dual n-back,” a fairly simple game challenging players to remember patterns. Specifically, this game presents a shape in a “tic-tac-toe” matrix, changing the position of the shape during each turn and also playing a sound on certain turns. The challenge is for the player to remember when the shape was in the same position “n” turns before (where n is chosen as 1, 2, etc.) while also remembering if the sound was played “n” turns before. A few studies have shown that playing this game for as little as 20 minutes a day can improve fluid intelligence, which again is a type of intelligence that is in high demand in today’s job market.

A few other brain training games Hurley mentions are actually collections of games provided in apps such as BrainHQ and Lumosity. Similar in their approach, both provide multiple games that can vary in difficulty and attempt to attempt to improve both types of intelligence. However, when looking at which game has more proof in their pudding, BrainHQ by far has the better pudding. While Lumosity even admits on its website that they have only performed one study to validate the benefits of using their games, the benefits of BrainHQ’s games have been reviewed and proven in countless research studies. Having tried both of them, BrainHQ appears to more accurately adjust to my current skill level and thus better tailors the games for rapid incremental growth.

Regardless of which brain training game you choose, true value is created when you flex your brain to learn a new skill.

Learning New Skills:

Similar to brain training games, stretching the boundaries of the brain also has proven benefits that increase intelligence. In Hurley’s self-experimentation, he puts this theory to the test by attempting to learn a new instrument, which is associated with growing white matter in the brain. White matter is what allows nerves in the brain to communicate Similar to highways, the more white matter there is the more quickly you can process information and make decisions. Hurley didn’t decide randomly that learning an instrument could possibly make him smarter.

There are many studies that show white matter structure is improved by practicing an instrument. But these physical enhancements to the brain are also possible via different approaches. Learning almost any new skill gives your brain the opportunity to grow. For example, if you start practicing how to shoot a bow and arrow with your hands while writing a poem with your feet, over time this will become easier and easier because the brain is strengthening the connections between the parts associated with each task. This is often more elegantly summarized as “cells that fire together wire together.”

And while mental exercise and stimulation provides a plethora of benefits, combining it with physical exercise can take you to a whole other level.


We have all been told how consistent exercise is associated with many physical health benefits, but did you know it also strengthens the brain? Getting your heart pumping pushes more blood through the brain, bringing much needed oxygen to help it produce the energy it needs. Exercise also helps with the physical growth and regeneration of nerve fibers, and even as little as 20 minutes of exercise can boost your memory and general cognitive functioning.

So if you didn’t already have enough reasons to hit the gym or go for a run, hopefully the “pump” it can give your brain will be the extra nudge you need.

Brain Boosting Beverages:

In addition to getting physical and mental exercise, some of your favorite drinks can also improve your intelligence. For many people it will be welcome news that coffee is one such beverage that boasts this benefit. Specifically, the caffeine in coffee increases alertness and attention, allowing the intelligence you already have to produce more complete thoughts thus leading to better decisions. Think of it as an enabler. Your brain wants to produce coherent thoughts and think through things thoroughly before making a decision, and caffeine is your friend that yells “you should totally do that!”

Some will also be happy to hear that when the caffeine is wearing off and the sun is setting, a few drinks of alcohol can also lead to some brain enhancements. Before people get too excited and start lining up the long island iced teas, this benefits only outweigh the health risks when limiting consumption to two drinks per night maximum. The results of one study show that for participants who were tasked with learning words, those who drank after studying were better at recalling the words, mentioning that:  “The causes of this effect are not fully understood, but the leading explanation is that alcohol blocks the learning of new information and therefore the brain has more resources available to lay down other recently learned information into long-term memory.” [Anecdotally, the two people I know that were valedictorians of the undergraduate careers were both regular drinkers], making me think it’s time to give consistent drinking in moderation the old college try.

While many still think that smarts are completely defined at birth, Dan Hurley’s Smarter provided a great overview of some science disproving that belief. And while there is much more that can be done, starting your day off with some exercise and coffee before practicing some brain training games and learning new skills, then ending the day with a glass of wine is a great start to building a better brain.

Think faster. Think better. (A beginner’s guide)

A man looking at papers hung on a wall

Bite the Bullets (A quick summary if you don’t want to read the whole article)

  • Mental models are thinking tools that simplify complex parts of life into simple, memorable and actionable pieces
  • They are important because they make it easier to avoid making the same mistakes more than once
  • Some quick google-able ones: Principle of Charity, Pareto Principle, Occam’s Razor, Hanlon’s Razor
  • Frameworks are collections of mental models that work together
  • One approach to creating any new mental model:   Figure out where you have repeated behavior or problems  
    Take extra time up front solve the problem sustainably (rather than with duct tape)  
    Condense the solution into an easy-to-remember principle or rule  
    Apply it to similar problems and improve it

What’s a mental model and why should I care?

In its most basic form, a “mental model” is something in your mind (mental) that represents (models) a pattern, structure or fact outside of your head. In this context, it’s a simplification of a complex system, so that the brain can keep track of the important parts of a complex system it wouldn’t otherwise be able to.

However, mental models can be as simple as memory mnemonics (e.g. ”Righty tighty, lefty loosey”) or as complicated as mind maps used to make decisions based on probability. An example you may have already heard of before is Occam’s razor, which roughly states the simplest explanation is usually correct.

Our lives are filled with traps that prevent us from making good decisions. One very important use of mental models is avoiding these traps. We can rely on mental models to trick ourselves into doing the right thing more often.

Sometimes I get into fights with the people I care about. When I’m in a conflict, all I can think of is what the other person did wrong. I get so worked up imagining their bad behavior, I don’t pause to think about what their actual intention was. What if I do pause for just a minute and consider if they are trying to hurt me, or if they have accidentally hurt me? Almost every time, I realize this person I care about is not trying to hurt me.

Instead of going through the heartache of imagining how my loved one is trying to tear me down, I skip to the part where I trust that they have good intentions. This is a great mental model to adopt. It’s called “The Principle of Charity.”

My version of the Principle of Charity states: you should go into any interaction with the charitable notion the other person knows what they are talking about and has positive intentions. In other words, assume their intent is positive and their thinking logical. It’s simple, but powerful.

The key to any of mental model is to try it out, see if it works repeatedly, and then change your habits around using the model instead of your default behavior. If you do these optimizations over and over and over, you end up with dramatically positive results. Decisions that used to take a long time, or cause you angst, are really simple because you’ve trained yourself.

There’s a trick here too, you might have noticed I just presented another mental model for measuring mental models! The most powerful mental models are ones that can be described as “meta-systems.” Literally meaning “beyond the system.” (Or in this case acting on other mental models). 

Imagine three buttons: one you push for a bowl of cereal, one push for milk and one you push to vend a spoon.

The meta button would be one you push, which activates all three buttons.

Our goal is to create mental models that are as meta as possible but still practical.

A few useful mental models

I find myself using these most days. There are some great lists that others have compiled as well; this is just a taste. You’ll recognize a couple from earlier.

  • Try it first  
    • I’ve had friends tell me in various ways: “I know if I did yoga every morning before work, my life would be better.” Replace yoga with crossfit, swimming, cycling or whatever physical activity you fancy. When I follow up with: “have you ever done yoga in the morning before work?” The answer is almost always “No.” What that tells me is they don’t actually know if doing yoga before work is going to better their lives. They haven’t tried it, but they feel guilty that they can’t get up early enough to make it a habit. It’s better to approach things like this with a simple caveat: “I think yoga in the morning will make my life better.” Two words. Big difference. The goal then is not to do yoga every morning, but to try yoga in the morning maybe for a few days, then decide if it actually makes your life better based on the results.
  • Test assumptions (idiom: When you assume you make an ass of u and me)  
    • Assumptions are a little dangerous. They are necessary to make decisions, but wrong assumptions lead to wrong decisions. That means when we are measuring their “meta-ness” in a system, it’s going to be high. The actual mental model here is not to avoid assumptions entirely, but to make assumptions smarter: to test their validity. Reflect on each assumption to create a test for whether or not it’s true, and run that test.  
      • E.g. assumption: I assume my roommate didn’t drink all my milk. Test: yup, milk is still there. The example of the milk may be a little silly, but the point is you can derive much more from a tested assumption than one you’re unsure of.
      • One last very common example. Assumption: “I’m the type of person who goes to the gym every day.” That assumption, if untested turns into a belief. In this case, the test is a simple count of the times in the recent past that you’ve gone to the gym. Once again, replace gym with any activity you want to be true about your identity. “I’m the type of person who paints every day.” The take home is assumptions about our identities need to be tested. If they turn out to not be true, it’s valuable information for us to act on.
  • The Hangry Rule (Physiology wins)  
    • Check out Maslow Revisited for a full break down of this. There’s a series of Snickers commercials showing famously angry actors eating a Snickers bar and turning back into normal, calm people. They finish with the tagline “You’re not you when you’re hungry.” This is true for when you’re thirsty and tired as well. It’s important to manage your physiology in unison with making hard decisions or doing work. If you don’t, you’ll make more mistakes.
  • Pareto principle, the 80-20 rule  
    • If you’re unacquainted, this is a powerful rule of thumb to have in your back pocket. This is the simple observation that most things in life are unevenly distributed. It was noted in the 19th century by an italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto when he observed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. It turns out it’s a very common distribution. The more useful version is “80% of results come from 20% of the effort.” That means finding that 20% is the most important step before starting out.
  • Hanlon’s Razor  
    • “Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity.”[1] In other words, the bad thing someone just did to you was probably a mistake and not a personal attack. This helps with things like avoiding road rage; people do stupid stuff all the time in traffic. It’s equally perilous to assume every person is an idiot, but giving people the benefit of the doubt and being forgiving is just a better headspace.

Frameworks and making new mental models

The next logical step is compiling several models you find useful into a set that works together. I call this a framework. Some models work better when coupled with others. They have stacking effects.

Over the years, I’ve picked up a bunch of different tools for studying, some ideas about the best way to retain information and, through trial and error, the best ways for me personally to engage with material. I put all these mental models into a basket and call it my “learning framework.” The best way for me to learn something with as little wasted effort as possible.

Frameworks are really powerful, because once you create one that works, you can offload all that thinking into a practice. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time. It’s an organized approach to making personal experience useful in the future.

Making a framework is a great way to get started creating your own custom mental models. When you take general strategies you’ve found from other people and put them into a framework, you’ll start to see gaps where there isn’t already a strategy for a specific part of the problem. Usually those gaps can be filled by tweaking a model you’ve already heard of. Bingo! That’s a new mental model. It turns out this is a good recipe for any mental model. It’s just easier if it already fits into a system, or is based on an existing mental model.

It goes like this: start with a difficult task. As soon as you try to solve pieces of it, you’ll see there are things you need to figure out on your own that look like problems you’ve seen before. So, learn what you need and solve your own problems. This is where a lot of people stop. There are two differences between a one-off solution and a mental model: 1) how condensed it is into an easy to remember principle or set of rules and 2) if it can be applied to similar problems. When you apply the solution to a new problem, it will be easier to apply to others. The real secret is you’ve already got the tools to do this, you just need to figure out how to remember them and reuse them. That’s the mental model for creating mental models. Meta, right?


  1. This was the best source for when I tried to track down it’s origins, which isn’t saying much. Some say it’s actually “Heinlen’s razor:”, because this appeared in Logic of Empire in 1941: “You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.”
  2. Bonus mental model:  First Principles Thinking. This is a tool that comes from Physics, but was recently popularized by Elon Musk. The basic concept is reasoning from the simplest and most fundamental observations rather than by analogy. It’s accomplished by questioning the problem until you reach some fundamental truth and then thinking hard about what that truth means.  
    1. For example, say you want to buy an engagement ring and you’re trying to figure out the cost. One way is go look at prices at a store like Tiffany’s. This would be reasoning by analogy. “A wedding ring can cost anywhere from few hundred to a few thousand.” Another way to think about the cost of a ring is to look at the cost of the materials. A few grams of gold and a diamond might cost a lot less, even including the cost of having a jeweler set the stone. 

Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior

A fork in the road, with trees

Author:  Jonah Berger

Summary provided by Tyler Capps

Bite the Bullets:

  • Most people can see that others are affected by social influence but believe they aren’t affected by such influences (pg. 5). Accept that you are human and can be influenced so you can increase your awareness and limit undesirable influence in your life.
  • “Whether trying to win a contract, get someone to do something, or just have people like us, subtly mimicking their language and mannerisms is an easy place to start” (pg. 57).
  • Be aware that “Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd” (pg. 61). E.g. a restaurant with more Yelp reviews will gain more customers but this does not guarantee that their quality is better than a similar restaurant with less reviews.
  • Choosing which tasks to perform in public versus in private can greatly impact performance (e.g. performing simpler, hardwired tasks (e.g. exercising) in public can improve results, while performing more complex tasks which require practice (e.g. calculus/building furniture) in private yields better results.

Savor the Summary:

Invisible Influence is a book that is easy to digest and will have you asking yourself: “do I do that?” Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at UPenn’s Wharton School who has researched social influence for more than 15 years, takes readers through a series of common experiences and details how they were likely influenced by hidden forces.

Berger starts by attacking what could get in the way of you absorbing the rest of the material by letting you (yes you the reader) know that you’ve been influenced by the concepts he mentions throughout the remainder of the book. “Whether buying clothes, voting on political issues, or driving courteously, people recognized that social influence had an impact. Except when it came to them. People could see social influence affecting others’ behavior, but not their own” (pg. 5).

Aptly placed at the beginning of the book, Berger tries to subtly persuade the reader that they are subject to influence as well. And personally, I was persuaded. This quote forced me to think, “Is it really reasonable that others can be persuaded by marketing and not me? Why would companies/organizations spend so much on marketing if it truly had no effect?”

Fun fact, the U.S. is projected to average an annual marketing spend of 200 BILLION dollars between 2015 and 2019. Do you think this much money would get spent each year if only a handful of people were influenced by the advertisements? In any case, I found it reasonable to accept that we are all influenced by both these visible and hidden forces to varying degrees and proceeded to read on.

After Berger breaks down the reader’s defenses and prepares them to absorb new information, he immediately offers a powerful tool to add to one’s influencing tool belt. Detailing the results of a negotiation exercise, he mentions that “People who mimicked their [negotiation] partner were five times as likely to find a successful outcome. While almost no one who didn’t mimic found an acceptable agreement, people who subtly imitated their counterpart reached a deal two-thirds of the time” (40).

You have likely witnessed this effect many times before without knowing exactly what was happening. While having dinner with friends, you may have reached for your glass to take a drink and noticed almost immediately afterward your friends unconsciously do the same. While almost unnoticeable to the untrained eye, this is one of many unconscious signals that demonstrates affinity between people, and can be used to the advantage of those aware of the effect. For example, those who employ mimicry in an artful manner can gain the favor of their interviewer during an interview, help them sell more product in a retail environment, and as previously mentioned, improve the outcome of a negotiation (41). Mimicry is a powerful tool when used appropriately. It is good to note that being obvious or overusing it will have the opposite of the desired effect as the person being mimicked may find it awkward or, if they are aware of your intention, conniving. As with most interpersonal skills, balance is key in choosing when and when not to employ mimicry.

Imagine that you have never read this blog before, but you saw that it has been reviewed by only 24 people with an average rating of four stars. Now imagine that there was an extremely similar blog that also had an average rating of four stars, but was reviewed by 376 people. Which would you go to first? Regardless of how you answer, odds are you would choose the site with more reviews. Similarly, people often go to THE pizza place everyone talks about when planning their trip to New York City, or watch the more popular videos on YouTube even when there are equally as good (or better) pizza and videos out there. Chances are that you’ve heard of this before by the names of groupthink, mob mentality, and the like but Berger details layers of the concept that may be less familiar.

One of the main layers of logic supporting this concept is that “providing information about others’ choices [has] a big impact” on the choice the new individual is currently making (pg. 47). Have you ever been in a classroom or meeting where the presenter asked for a “show of hands” if you supported their most recent statement? Now think of a time when you disagreed with the presenter but the majority of others raised their hands. Most likely you either raised your hand with them or didn’t raise it when being asked who votes in the opposite direction. A great example Berger shares is the research sociologist Matthew Salganick performed regarding how people would react to very obscure songs if presented in random order with no additional information vs. in order of how many people had downloaded the song. As you might expect at this point, being presented with what other listeners downloaded (or liked) resulted in the subsequent users downloading the same songs more frequently than those not presented with a download count (pg. 47).

An additional layer to this research of how crowds draw crowds is the order in which options are presented. In order to better control his experiment, Salganick created eight different study groups in which all groups started with zero downloads and the groups of subjects in one group were indistinguishable from the others in terms of genre preference. What resulted was each group showing a completely different list of what songs were most popular, which was largely driven by who started downloading first. For example, if the first person to download songs preferred country and downloaded songs within that genre, it was more likely that the downloads of others would at least start with one of the country songs first downloaded even if that wasn’t their favorite genre (pg. 52). As you can imagine, who downloaded first was completely random in each group but the effect was the same. The songs that were voted up first ended up getting more attention than the rest and rose to the top as the most popular in the group.

Another type of influence Berger details is known as “social facilitation” (189). Put more simply, social facilitation is the case where an individual’s performance depends on if they are working alongside others or being observed. In my opinion, this is most “visible” type of influence Berger describes and is also the one that I have found easiest to implement in my life.

The first type of social facilitation that Berger describes is known as the “coaction effect,” or what I like to call the “buddy bump.” This is the case where working alongside others performing the same task can improve output or results, but there is a kicker. This only works if the task is relatively simple and does not require much mental effort. For example, I take example of this effect by running sprints with my friend. I’ve found that when I do sprints with my friend not only do I run faster than I would alone, but I also run more sprints. Obviously there is the competitive aspect of this activity that improved my results, but there is an additional layer of the innate desire of wanting to perform better when being observed.

This is the second type of social facilitation known as the “audience effect” (189). In the previous example where I was sprinting alongside my friend, we were both performing the same activity simultaneously. But similar results can be achieved simply by knowing others are watching. Keeping with the theme of exercise, I’ve also found that when I work out in the gym where others are potentially watching, I tend to lift more weight or perform more repetitions. I’m almost certain no one is watching me but the thought that someone could be is enough to make me try harder. Again, I’d like to caution that working alongside someone or with an audience is most likely to produce better results when the tasks performed are simple and don’t require much thought. For example, if the task is complex and not yet committed to memory such as taking a driver’s test, having a passenger in addition to the instructor made it more likely for the individual to fail (190).

For anyone trying to limit the impact of unwanted influences in their life or wanting to take advantage of the powers of subtle persuasion, Invisible Influence brings to light the once “hidden forces that shape behavior.” Whether you are trying to get someone to like you, drum up customers/followers, or be more productive with your time, Jonah Berger shares how subtle persuasion can help you achieve these goals and more.