How to Avoid Negative Self-Talk... And Have Far Better Health

Readers, please enjoy this post from Casual Kitchen's archives. I'm taking a break from writing for the next few weeks to work on some other projects.
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Susie* had been careful and disciplined with her diet. For the last three weeks, she'd been paying extra attention to what she ate. She cut out sugary drinks and reduced her between-meal snacking. And what little snacking she did do was on healthier foods like unsalted nuts, fiber-rich fruit, and so on. She was starting to find real success changing her eating habits.

Everything was going great.... until last Friday.

That's when Susie went out with a big group of coworkers after work. It was fun. She had a couple of big, sugary frozen margaritas. Somebody ordered a big platter of chicken wings, and she ate... several. And then, for dinner, she had a huge burger and a ton of fries.

So when Susie woke up Saturday morning, this is what she said to herself:

Great job Susan. Really good. You really blew it with your diet, didn't you? Jeez, you are such a glutton. Absolutely no self-control. You've just ruined your diet.

Readers: what is Susie likely to do next? Do you think the odds are good that she'll return to her prior habit of cleaner eating? Or will her diet go off the rails?

Would you believe that Susie's own words play a gigantic role in determining the answer?

One of the most important insights in Martin Seligman's striking book Learned Optimism is the strong link between what Susie says to herself and her future actions. Let's take a moment and analyze her self-talk:

You really blew it with your diet
Jeez, you are such a glutton
Absolutely no self-control
You've just ruined your diet

What do these sentences have in common?

For one thing, they're judgmental and pessimistic. Deeply so. Dr. Seligman would say they are permanent, pervasive and personal. Sure, admittedly, Susie experienced a setback in her diet. But what she's doing here is taking a one-time mistake and extrapolating it into permanent negative traits. This is a single instance of poor eating, but according to her self-talk, she views it as "proof" that she's a diet-ruining glutton with no self-control.

Look, we all screw up occasionally. We're only human. And from time to time, we all use negative language when we're angry at ourselves for screwing up. Take it from me, an expert negative self-judger: it is really, really hard to avoid doing this.

The problem is, this negative explanatory style sets us up for future failure. Our negative explanations usually become self-fulfilling. With her negative self-talk, Susie is actually increasing the chances that she will revert back to her old, unhealthy eating habits.

So what's the solution? The solution is to train yourself to dispute these negative statements--and to do so instinctively. Here's an example of what Susie could say next:

No, wait. Stop. Just because I overate on a single Friday night does not mean I "blew it" with my diet. It does not mean I am a glutton. In fact I've eaten really well for three full weeks! If anything, that is proof that I do have a lot of self-control. I just had a one-evening letdown in my eating habits. There's no way my diet's "ruined." It's up to me to decide how I eat going forward.

Unlike the first set of Susie's statements, all of which are either false or cartoonishly exaggerated, these disputative statements have the benefit of actually being true.

In fact, it's usually quite easy to find evidence to support your disputations. As Seligman says: "most of the time you will have facts on your side, since pessimistic reactions to adversity are so often overreactions." We tend to catastrophize in reaction to our setbacks, and our minds reach for extremely negative conclusions. And once again, our negative internal explanations can lead us into a self-fulfilling prophesy. In Susie's case, it may mean actually behaving in the future like a glutton with no self-control. It's the exact result she dreads.

Okay. You've heard Susie's initial negative self-talk and you've heard her disputation of that self-talk. What do you think her most likely course of action will be now? I'd bet she gets right back to her established pattern of clean eating.

Our minds are always chattering away, constantly making predictions, judgments and explanations. And when we experience a failure or a setback, our minds instantly leap to the most dire negative explanation. Once again, the secret is to dispute that instant negative explanation. Change it.

Our observations of reality are both highly subjective and self-fulfilling. We owe it to ourselves to see ourselves in a positive--and accurate--light.

This post is gratefully dedicated to Dr. Martin Seligman and his book Learned Optimism.

* not her real name--in fact I pretty much made this person up.




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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

Temporary Austerity

Readers, please enjoy this post from deep in Casual Kitchen's archives. I'm taking a break from writing for the next few weeks to work on some other projects.
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Unless you've never heard of a place called "Europe" before, you've probably seen the phrase fiscal austerity quite often in the media over the past few years. Usually, it's in the context of fiscally challenged countries like Greece or Cyprus: countries needing to slash government spending quickly and aggressively to fix a severe debt or deficit problem.

Here at Casual Kitchen we use the concept of fiscal austerity too, but we apply it to household budgeting. And for the past two summers we've been doing what we call temporary austerity: each year, for just a few months, we aggressively reduce our spending--and reap the benefits.

How do we practice temporary austerity? We choose, for a few months only, to emphasize things like cooking laughably cheap food rather than eating out, enjoying the summer at home rather than traveling, or inviting friends over for dinner rather than going out on the town. Our temporary austerity might also include enjoying mostly low- or zero-cost activities like running, hiking or playing tennis in our town's public courts. We even make a point to avoid TV and mass media, helping us to be even less tempted to go out and buy stuff.

In other words, for a finite time period, we center our lives around doing things that don't involve spending money, and reject (more than we already do) the default consumerist solution of using money to entertain ourselves.

The benefits of fiscal austerity are obvious, of course. You can ramp up your savings during these months to a level much greater than typical--it works for household budgets the same way it works for Greece or Cyprus. And money freed up during a period of austerity can fund all sorts of great things: future travel, aggressive debt reduction, investments in income-generating assets like dividend paying stocks, or pre-funding some major household expense.

But we also found that austerity involves much more than just saving money. We also found ourselves deliberately choosing to do less during these months, embracing a more tranquil, less busy and less chaotic daily life.

All of which led to a totally unexpected outcome: by doing less, we could do more.

The time we didn't waste on default consumer activity or passive media consumption opened up significant additional time for intellectual pursuits we deeply enjoy--like reading, writing and language learning. We planted basil and cherry tomato plants on the little balcony of our townhouse (we also planted horseradish roots outside our front door, sadly our community groundskeeping service mistook them for weeds and murdered them). Except for the unfortunate horseradish plantings, these were all tranquil, deeply satisfying and practically free pursuits that we could never have done properly if we'd spent the summer rushing around.

But what was most striking about this experience is how it made the past two summers among the best summers of our lives. I never really thought about this before, but it's not only true that the busier you are the more money you spend. It's also true that the busier you are the less meaningful life seems.

Finally, we never felt deprived in the least. Why? Because all along we knew the austerity was temporary. In just a few short months we'd go back to our normal lives.

Ironically, we didn't really want to.


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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

Compounding

We think about the word "compounding" in a needlessly narrow sense. Typically, we consider it only in the context of investment compounding. As in: If I save X dollars a month and it compounds at Y percent, I will have [buttloads of] dollars in 30 years.

Today I want to think about compounding more metaphorically and in a broader context. It's a much more powerful concept than it at first appears.

One aspect of compounding that's always interested me is how, over time, it transforms tiny differences today into enormous future differences. If you can stay patient, that is. Sticking with a simple (and once again, "narrow") financial example for the moment, imagine two median income households in the USA, and consider what happens if one household chooses to save and invest a couple hundred bucks a month while the other saves nothing.

At first, there's next to no difference between these households, either economically or in quality of life. To the typical middle class household, $200 doesn't really feel like all that much money. It doesn't feel like it really matters all that much whether you save it or not. Which is of course why many households fail to choose to save.

However, it's also true that saving a couple hundred bucks a month on a median household lifestyle would involve giving up very little. Hilariously little. Cancelling cable TV and getting a lowish-end cellphone plan would do it. Skipping a few dinners out per month would do it. So would choosing to drive a modest paid-off car rather than driving an expensive debt-financed car. Note also: combining all these steps would produce savings well beyond a couple of hundred dollars per month, all for a trivial change in living standards.[1]

So, for the average American household, is saving a couple hundred bucks a month trivial, or not? Certainly in the short run it may seem so. But in the longer run, these two households--with their "trivial" differences in living standards--will begin to diverge economically. Even at modest compounding assumptions of 7% a year (a reasonable guess at future returns for an ultra-low fee broad market index fund), a savings of $200 dollars a month compounds to an astonishing quarter of a million dollars after 30 years. Quite frankly, it's hard to believe such "trivial" incremental savings can morph into sums like this over time, but it's all thanks to compounding.

And that's just the money side of things--this post isn't even supposed to be about money! The truth is, compounding works in far more ways, on far more levels, and with far more nuance. When you start thinking conceptually about compounding, you begin to see many life domains where things start out very small, yet gradually transform into tremendous results over time. Just like that two hundred bucks, except better.

An example. Let's go back to that household above that decided to practice the act of savings, even at a "trivial" level of $200 a month. Actually, it's not trivial in the least, as we'll soon see.

Adopting this practice (think of it as a kata) will "compound" that family's future ability to navigate a wide range of psychological challenges, like deferring gratification, understanding desire triggers, and other psychologically manipulative aspects of modern consumer society.

Further, the meta-skill of how to get better at saving money also compounds: A family that can find a couple of hundred bucks a month in savings today will get far better at saving over time, leading to substantially more future savings.[2] Note further that once you're in a position where you are regularly producing excess savings, you'll gradually compound your competence at intelligently investing that savings. So, a saver will get better at saving, while also improving at investing, while also managing his psychology better, and so on. Level on a level on a level compounding.

What at first glance appears to be a trivial financial baby step later gives rise to a whole range of powerful skills:

* The ability to get better at saving and investing
* The ability to manage yourself psychologically
* The ability to visualize a future and plan for it
* The ability to maintain discipline and install good habits
* The skill of building skills

Better still, all of these skills compound too. You'll get better over time at each as you practice them, and, fascinatingly, your improvement in each augments improvement in all the others. All of a sudden we're talking about a matrix of second- and even third-order compounding.

And to take it one more step further, someone learning how to better navigate her psychology will improve at identifying instances where her ego subverts her efforts to grow. You could easily argue that ego management and ego suppression are the ultimate cross-domain skills.

At this point, an insightful reader should be able to see all sorts of life domains where these wide-ranging skills play formidable, and compounding, roles. Forget about turning a $200 a month into a quarter million bucks--you're thinking way, way too small!

Pushback
There's a predictable--and cynical--response to these ideas, and it deals with the presumed long-term timeframes involved. The pushback (actually it's an excuse) sounds something like this:

Compounding over 20 or 30 years? Years??? I'm already [insert your age here], which means in twenty to thirty years I'll be [choose an age that sounds old]. It's too late!

Let's start with a screaming logic problem. Obviously, the idea of giving up on doing something because you could have started earlier is a particularly toxic form of defeatism. It's also circular. Everybody starts when and where they start. If your first thought is it's too late for me, you're essentially saying that nothing is ever worth doing because you haven't already started. That sure makes sense.

Further, even the central premise of this complaint is flawed: In nearly all the domains we've discussed above, the compounding of skills is so rapid that you don't have to wait 20 or 30 years to get big results.

To see what I mean, think about the central topic of this blog: cooking easy, healthy and laughably cheap meals. This is based on the above skills of a) managing yourself psychologically, and b) visualizing a future and planning for it. Miraculously, you only have to "compound" of a habit of cooking simple and low-cost meals at home for a few weeks to develop substantial competence in effortlessly putting healthy, low-cost meals on your table.

Another example: in his brilliant book How to Be an Imperfectionist, Stephen Guise shows us how a laughably minimal exercise habit of "one pushup" quickly compounds into a well-grooved, consistent fitness habit. Forget years of compounding--that process took more like twenty to thirty days. Psychologically speaking, 20-30 days is about how long it takes us to permanently install a brand new habit.

Even in financial domains, where we typically do think in longer compounding periods, the premise that things take too long is still flawed. The ability to save money, for example, is a skill that compounds very rapidly. The average Your Money Or Your Life reader who quietly and sincerely completes the book's nine steps will develop skills at saving money they never dreamed of in a matter of mere months.

Finally, skills like the ability to manage yourself psychologically and the ability to visualize and plan for the future are intrinsically valuable skills that compound rapidly and can be used in almost any life domain. In other words, they merit practice no matter what your age or life stage happens to be.

Everybody typically thinks about compounding in the limited, long-term financial sense: that of investments requiring multiple decades to grow. Don't let that be you!


Recommended Reading:
1) Anders Ericsson: Peak
2) Stephen Guise: How to Be an Imperfectionist
3) Josh Waitzkin: The Art of Learning
4) Karl Sunstrom: Breaking Out of Homeostasis


Footnotes:
[1] In one of the many intriguing ironies of modern life, "giving up" things like televised media and vehicular status competition actually makes you happier. Anyone who's tried it knows it's true; anyone who doubts it hasn't tried.

[2] Saving $200 a month on a median income represents an extremely low savings rate, less than 5%. [Math: Median income in the USA is currently $59,000, thus $200 a month or $2,400 a year divided by 59,000 = 4.07%.] If you are familiar with just a few concepts from Jacob Lund Fisker's book Early Retirement Extreme, you could easily juice this savings rate enormously.



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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!


Money Sundays: How To Avoid the Next Enron (or WorldCom, or Theranos, or Toys R Us, or ...)

A reader asks:

How can one avoid buying or owning a stock that goes badly south a la Enron?

Three thoughts:

1) Learn to read financial statements. At the very least, learn to read them to a basic level such that you can make sure a company's cash flows from operations match up with (or better yet, exceed) net income on its income statement. The issue with Enron is that the cash didn't add up: the negative operating cash flows on Enron's cash flow statement didn't make sense when compared to the positive earnings on the company's income statement. This suggested earnings were being exaggerated somehow and simply weren't legit. Also, learn to read a balance sheet, and know how to differentiate a "good" balance sheet from a "bad" balance sheet. This might mean taking a intro to managerial accounting class, or getting a couple books out on financial statement analysis. Generally you'll want to stick to investing in companies with good (or better yet, great) balance sheets, preferably choosing companies that also pay consistent dividends. Note: It's okay to speculate in riskier companies, just don't do it with investment capital you depend on.

2) Avoid cult stocks, avoid overly popular stocks and avoid popular sectors. Don't get sucked in. Pay attention to which names "everybody" talks about, and if any stock you already hold becomes too popular or too widely held, cut it back. Think about it: Once everybody owns a stock, who's left to buy more? Also, it can really help to have friends and acquaintances across a spectrum of investment experience and sophistication here, and it helps to read publications across a spectrum of investing sophistication too. An example: if you see a stock you own mentioned bullishly on, say, the Motley Fool website, you should consider trimming it back. And if you see a stock you own mentioned bullishly in People Magazine... run. Likewise, if you have a few acquaintances who previously had no experience in--or interest in--investing, and they suddenly start buying up tech stocks like it's 1999 and they can't seem to shut up about them, that's a potential sign about future investment returns in that sector. It could also be a sign about the (likely very poor) investment potential of the entire stock market.

3) Final thought: you can't really avoid all possible instances where an investment goes badly south. It will still happen to you on occasion, even if you follow all these rules. That's the game: sometimes stocks go down, and sometimes they go down a lot. Therefore, be a second order thinker: let your understanding about this always-present risk inform your investment decision-making in the first place. Let it keep you humble as an investor, and let it drive you to select a range of different ways to protect your investment capital (e.g., have smaller position sizes, own more stocks, stick to mostly great companies with great balance sheets, hold larger cash positions, buy stocks only with long term money you don't need in the near term, etc.).


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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!


The Perfect Question to Ask Before ANY Purchase [For Anticonsumerists Only]

Readers, I've found the perfect question to ask yourself before making any significant purchase. It clarifies everything about your real reasons to buy. Here it is:

If you could tell no one, would you still buy it?

If your answer is yes, then you are probably buying it for the right reasons. However, if your answer is no, you're not buying the item for you. Its purpose is to impress others. And buying things to impress others is a checkers move. [1]

Now, there's a lot going on in the question above, much more than it might appear at first, so let's work through a practical example and unpack what happens psychologically. Let's say you're considering buying a high end watch. If you were to ask yourself would you buy it and tell no one--and no one would ever see it, know about it or hear about it--what would be your likely answer? Be honest.

Your answer would be no, you wouldn't buy it. Simple. If you were being honest with yourself, you'd want to have others see your purchase. Therefore you're buying it for them, not for you! It is a purchase made solely for the purpose of identity construction. Since you don't enjoy playing checkers with your life--you'd much rather play chess--you know you can safely avoid buying this product. It's incredibly helpful and clarifying to know this.

Now, why is this question for anticonsumers only? Because a consumerist will quickly and effortlessly rationalize it away. "Of course I'm buying this $50,000 Patek Philippe watch just for myself. Obviously I would still buy it even if I could never show it to anyone. Plus I'm just not the kind of person would buy something just to show off. I never status signal. That's crass behavior."

I hate to generalize, but I'm going to anyway: In stark contrast with consumerists, anticonsumerists tend to have a deeper understanding (and a deeper humility) about human nature. We are primates. Which means signalling behavior is a structural and foundational part of who we are, and nearly everything we do plays a role in establishing our place in various social hierarchies. Thus to say "I never status signal" is delusional. It's far more accurate to say we are never not status-signalling. [2]

So, after hearing the confidently-stated rationalization above, it's instructive to consider the following two-part question 1) will this person buy the watch, and 2) will he never show it to anyone?

The likely answer: Yes to the first, and a painfully obvious NO to the second. Of course he will show it off. This is why this question doesn't work for consumerists. It's too easy to rationalize away and then, later--after you've forgotten all about the question and your answer--act inconsistently with what you said.

But if you're aware of both your ego and your propensity to rationalize (and more importantly, your propensity to rationalize without thinking you do), the question works. Flawlessly. People with healthy egos know they signal, but they also try their best to avoid buying things to impress others. And they try their best to avoid deceiving themselves about their real reasons for buying things.

Thus thinking about whether you'd never show a new potential purchase to anyone clarifies these reasons. Suddenly, certain purchases seem… off. Ridiculous even. You can safely put your wallet back into your pocket and go on living your life, rather than living to impress everyone else.


READ NEXT: When It Comes To Banning Soda, Marion Nestle Fights Dirty
AND: Oppositional Literature: The Key Tool For Achieving True Intellectual Honesty


Footnotes:
[1] Once someone said to me, "But I like playing checkers!" Not in this metaphor you don't.
[2] Paradoxically, even the act of not status-signalling can be a form of status signal, depending on the nature of your social group. I'll kick your ass in frugality bro!!


I borrowed (okay, stole) the seed idea of this post from Wall Street Playboys, a provocative blog if there ever was one.


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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!