What if You Have it Backwards?
When intuition fails
If you want to feel more in control of your life, try not eating for five days.
Don't do it for some imagined weight loss benefit. You'll get the weight back almost immediately. Do it to learn what you're capable of. To surprise yourself with the strength you didn't know you had.
Fasting is a powerful tool for training discipline since we often feel that our lives are ruled by food. We get "hangry." We need our three meals a day. We need a snack to get through the afternoon slump. We need a little dessert at the end of the meal.
When you cut that out, you realize how subjective that need is. It's a gut impulse that often goes unchecked. But when we look at that gut impulse and say "no, not today" it shirks away surprisingly quickly. It’s almost embarrassed to have disturbed you.
But I must admit this is not everyone's experience fasting. It's not always easy. When I first started exploring fasting seven years ago, it was a much less popular practice, and the stories online were few and far between. They all seemed to fall into one of two camps.
In one camp, you had the people who were wrecked by the fast. They couldn't sleep, had constant headaches, spent most of the day lying in bed, and generally seemed miserable. They might make it to five days, but not without immense struggle.
In the other camp, you had people who thrived while fasting. They were active, working, sleeping, and living their normal lives. Maybe they couldn't lift quite as much weight or run quite as far, but they weren't suffering in their bedroom for five days.
What I realized is that your experience fasting depends on your relationship with energy. If you take a fearful, conservative approach to fasting, your body will dramatically reduce the amount of energy it gives you to use. You'll be lethargic, exhausted, miserable.
But if you take a proactive, optimistic approach to it, your body will give you as much energy as you want. If instead of trying to take it easy you maintain your normal activity level, your body will keep supplying energy from your fat to fuel the amount of activity you're doing. By walking, working, and exercising, you're signaling to your body that you're working on getting it food and it should keep you going. If you're hiding in your bedroom, there's no reason for your body to turn up the metabolism and make you feel alive.
We assume the order of operations is: body gives me energy, I do stuff. But it seems the order really is: I do stuff, my body gives me energy. We don't eat to fuel ourselves for activity, we eat to refuel. Anyone who has done long distance running knows this is the case. You don't eat 2,000 calories right before a marathon.
Our intuition is that we should listen to our bodies and vary our activity levels accordingly, but it's really the opposite. We should do the level of activity we want our bodies to support, and the body will adapt to support it. Our intuition has it completely backwards
Where else might this be the case?
One common intuition is that we need to get our lives to a certain level before we have kids. We need to hit a certain income level, get a certain sized house, reach a career milestone, get out of debt.
It's an easy intuition to hold. A child is a massive financial stress after all. Why would you add another financial stressor to an already stressful situation?
Perhaps our intuition is backwards though. Talk to career driven people with kids, and many will say their career picked up more after they had them. Did the kids add financial stress? Definitely. But they also added meaning, and people will work much harder when they have a good reason.
The intuition is that we need to create some degree of order before we add chaos. But perhaps adding chaos is what generates the motivation we need to create order. Each of us has a baseline level of chaos we're willing to tolerate, and we're only driven to make a change once that level of chaos is exceeded. Efforts to reduce the chaos below that level are often procrastinated because we aren't truly motivated by them.
Put another way: how much faster and more thoroughly do you clean your house when you know you have guests coming over?
A child is the ultimate form of chaos, but if chaos begets order, then you might hit your pre-kids goals faster after kids. Or you'll realize you have different goals entirely.
Staying with the work theme, our intuition is certainly backwards when it comes to meaningful work. We assume that we need to find the work that's meaningful to us, then do more of that. When in reality, it's the work we do more of that becomes more meaningful.
There are caveats of course. Doing more of something you hate is unlikely to make you love it. But if you're willing to push through the shit on something challenging, you will grow to like it more over time. Meaningful work doesn't pull you through tough periods. Pushing through the tough periods makes it more meaningful.
This concept of push and pull gives us another clue to when we should challenge our intuition. We may think the solution to a problem is to be "pulled" by some latent mental facility. This is almost never the case. The solution requires us to push through, by getting out of bed and walking, by getting through a tough period of work, by adding more chaos, by going down the hill to reach a higher peak.
Yet, there is a compelling counter argument here as well. I'm incapable of regularly writing for more than 30-60 minutes at a time. At some point in that period I'll hit a point of maximum resistance where I find it almost impossible to keep going. I'll start to be constantly distracted by anything in my periphery.
The solution I've found to those moments is not to try to force myself through them. Rather, I should go do something else non-indulgent for a period and then return to writing. Perhaps a walk, or going to the gym, or reading a book. The brief lapse seems to let me come back refreshed, wherein I end up accomplishing much more writing over the course of a day despite spending fewer minutes in front of my screen.
Maybe the answer is we need to lean into macro challenges while finding the easiest way to manage micro challenges. The hour-by-hour challenge of continuing to write is less important than the month-by-month challenge of continuing to write.
Our fascination with productivity may be a symptom, too, of confusing the micro for the macro.
We want everything faster. We don't want 20 year careers, we want 2 year jobs. We don't want to spend years recomposing our bodies, we want 90 day challenges and fad diets. We don't want 7% annual compound interest. We want to buy an NFT that goes up 10,000% in a month.
When we want everything now, every moment is precious. Any minute not directed toward that goal is wasted. But when we zoom out and reframe our goals to be on the spans of decades or lifetimes, the day to day variances matter much less. If your goal was to write one or two great books before you died, a month spent goofing off with your kids is unlikely to impact it. If anything, it may help.
This confusion of the micro for the macro, the short for long, the now for future, is wrapped up in many of the problems of intuition. We don't want to take one step back to take two steps forward. Three steps forward sounds much better. Yet all meaningful progress seems to require some element of sacrifice. If we're unwilling to give up some of what we have, we're unlikely to reach more of what we want.
There's a question my friend Justin turned me onto that I rather like: "What do I have to give up to get this?" It's easy to say yes to everything, tricking ourselves into believing we are masters of the universe who can fit an inhuman amount of projects into our calendars. But we can't. So instead of blindly saying yes to new opportunities, or assuming we can charge in some direction without some cost, we should also ask what we must give up to get what we're aiming for.
Often the answer is time. Is that goal worth giving up years of your life that you could have put towards other things?
Often it’s status. What will your friends or family think of you if you give up on a lukewarm yet prestigious position to pursue something that lights you up?
Often it’s money. Can you push through years of reduced earnings to reach a sufficient point of mastery on whatever craft you want to focus on?
Our intuition seems to prefer the immediate and the easy. The urgent but maybe not important. So we should ask ourselves: what if our intuition has it backwards. What if the problem is the solution? And what if we need more chaos to create order? It might provide the clarity we need.