How to live

Daily Rules

A while back I wrote a personal short thought on some Daily Rules that I set myself, and I’ll list them here directly:

  • Breathe
  • Think
  • Read
  • Write
  • Move
  • Laugh
  • Talk
  • Work Deeply

Today I would like to go through them more deeply, and do my usual thing of turning a short thought I once had into a full essay (which is, in fact, the main idea behind the publishing of the small thoughts).

Breathe

“It’s meditation for people who can’t meditate.” Belisa Vranich

While breathing may appear to be a very strange piece of advice, and one that was not explained in my short thought, there is some logic to this madness. Of course, without breathing you won’t last long, but what I really meant was controlled breathing.

This is not an esoteric technique from the Far East, or anything like that. It can be expressed in a multitude of ways, from true deep meditation where you slow down your breathing to only a handful of breaths a minute, to a more everyday occurrence where you make a conscious effort to control how deeply your breathe, and focus on the breath.

This is because breathing is one of those few processes in the body that straddles both the conscious and unconscious. You breathe whether you think about it or not, which is not the same as talking or running, or reading or writing. These are things that you must consciously decide to do.

So, breathing can be considered a bridge between your conscious mind and your unconscious mind. This is not some type of spiritual mumbo-jumbo, but very rooted in science.

You probably take around 20,000 breaths per day, and most of them you don’t give a second thought to.

If you consciously control your breathing, you can affect various other bodily processes which are normally not under your direct control, such as your heart rate.

Essentially, what happens when you take deep controlled breaths, is that your brain receives the (unconscious) message that all is well, and this actually causes an almost immediate reduction in stress, and a feeling of calm. Studies have shown that a sustained practice of this can vastly increase a chemical in your brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid (what, you’re telling me what you haven’t heard of this before…joking!) that has calming and anti-anxiety effects.

Think

Thinking is another one in this list that may appear paradoxical, after all, we all think, and perhaps even overthink, something that has often been referred to as the Monkey mind. A great exercise is to try and not to think of anything, and you’ll see how incredible difficult this really is, and the harder you try, the more badly you will fail.

However, my advice here is not to try and clear the mind, which apparently can be achieved through years or decades of dedicated meditation (worth trying!), but to actually direct your thoughts towards certain matters vs other matters.

In some ways, thinking in perhaps the cornerstone daily rule that makes all the others work. There has been some incredible research done in the last few years about the human brain, and especially about your attention.

Essentially, your satisfaction and happiness in life do not come from your objective material condition such as health, wealth, and social standing, but more on what you pay attention to.

So if you’re incredibly wealthy, but you focus all your attention on your cheating wife and gold-digging friends, then you will not be satisfied, while if you have lost your legs, but choose to focus on positive things, like the fact that you still have your arms and eyes and a fully functioning brain which means you can appreciate books, you will live a better life.

This flies completely against what the advertising industry is selling, which is an endless cycle of consumption, and that your life will get immeasurably better after the next purchase. Deep down, I believe most people caught in this trap know very well that it is a silly treadmill, that no matter how much they collect, there is no feeling of satisfaction going down that path.

And so, if you direct your thinking in certain ways, you’ll find that you can be very satisfied, and happy, right now. Most of my essays in some way or form tackle this subject, so I won’t cover it again in depth now.

However, it does lead me nicely to my next point.

Appreciate Now

I recently read an incredible insight by Irvine, the modern Stoic author, who said that we must keep in mind that anytime we do something, it could well be the last time we do it, and one day for sure, it will be the last time we do it.

And that it is very much worth keeping this in mind, because it makes life a far richer experience. Just yesterday I was sitting on a leafy veranda of a coffee shop overlooking the independence monument in central Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and I realized that the sip from the glass of water with ice, could well be the last sip of water that I ever have.

From this insight, came an incredible experience of drinking this water, something that I must have done tens of thousands of times in my life, and it was absolutely fantastic, and in that moment, I was very much in the present, with no thoughts and worries about what has previously happened or will happen, and was enjoying life, right now.

This is a rare thing, being able to enjoy the present in such a way, and it is perhaps the single best way to live.

In fact, we are often living what we may once have thought of as a dream, having gained the job we wanted, the partner we wanted, and perhaps even the car or gadget that we once wanted.

And yet, we quickly tire of the things we have, and we crave for something else, something more. In fact, more than just getting tired of what we have, we often begin to despise our current situation, which was once the height of our desires!

This is called Hedonic Adaptation and it is one of main sources of human suffering. The inability to be happy with that which you already have. Of course, you if believe that living in the present is key, then you easily realize the mistake that people are making by doing this.

If you live right now, then the way you behave right now can be assumed to be the way that you will behave in the future, so if you’re not able to be happy right now with what you have, it doesn’t matter how much you gain or lose in the future, as you will still not be happy, because you are not able to live right now. New desires will form in your head, and you will pine for something bigger and greater.

Read

I am very biased on this point, being a incredibly voracious reader, but I believe that, objectively speaking, it is a great habit to cultivate.

There is a fantastic quote by Mark Twain worth repeating:

"The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read."

And this rings ever so true. We have some of the highest literacy rates in the world nowadays, and most people squander it by almost never picking up a great book, and being able to be transported to alternative realities, far flung places, and even back into the past, to converse directly with some of the greatest minds that have ever lived.

And considering that books prices have only been going down, this is something that is incredibly accessible to anyone living in a developed nation.

And yet, most people find books “boring” or “not exciting enough”. Blame for this must partly be placed into mobile phones and our increasingly digital lifestyles, which have caused our attention spans to rapidly diminish, with a study from Microsoft claiming that the attention span of the average person is now lower than that of a goldfish.

I’m not sure if that is true, but it is scary that we even entertain this idea.

By reading, you can live one thousand lives during your lifetime. That is an incredible opportunity, don’t squander it.

Write

I’m not talking about becoming an author, or doing as I do which is writing essays and then placing them publicly for all to see. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s fine.

What I am talking about is keeping a journal of sought, whether physically written down or digital is irrelevant, but a place where you write down your thoughts on your life as they happen, so you can one day look back and see the type of person that you once where.

I’ve been doing this already for a couple of years, using a specific type of software, and it is incredible when I look back at what I was writing and thinking even just two years ago, and how some things have changed a huge amount, and others have stayed exactly the same.

The benefits of keeping a journal don’t just extend into the future, there is also many practical uses for your life right now. You can use the journal as a confidant for secret information that you would otherwise not be able to discuss, in fact, you can discuss entire situations with yourself, and analyze them, and it gives a richer fabric to your life, because it starts to feel that you are somewhat in control of your emotional responses to life (you are), instead of being a passenger on a ship that you have no way of steering (which is also the case!).

Move

I struggle with moving enough each day. Phnom Penh, where I live right now, has been planned badly and has essentially no sidewalks on most roads in the entire city, which is an incredible shortsighted on whoever originally planned the roads. But perhaps some leniency should be given, as it was probably before the advent of the car.

Anyway, this makes it very difficult to get even a few thousand steps into my life each day, and I either have to specifically go to the riverside promenade for a walk, or I can go to the gym and walk on a treadmill (hardly fun).

With this, I manage to get around 5,000 steps a day, but I always feel much better when I am on holiday somewhere else in the world and I manage to fit in 10,000 to 15,000 steps each day. I actually end up feeling more energetic, not less.

Of course, walking is not the only type of movement you should engage in, essentially any type of exercise is better than no exercise, and that is because our bodies see exercise as a positive stressor, and then overcompensate and build excess capacity to deal with the stressor the next time around.

It is postulated that most health problems in the modern world come from either a bad diet or a lack of exercise, and so it makes sense to tackle the easier of the two on a daily basis. Food is an incredibly difficult daily challenge to tackle, because it tempts us continuously, but that is a discussion for another very worthwhile essay.

Laugh

Children laugh far more than adults do, and perhaps that is a shame, as there are many situations in life (or perhaps the entirety of life?) that should be amusing, and yet we become more and more serious as we grow up.

Laughing is not only good for you psychologically, but there are studies that have physiological benefits as well.

For this, I recommend a variety of things, from taking a more light-hearted approach to life in general, to specifically seeking comedic materials in terms of books, films, comedy shows, and sharing a joke with people that you know.

It adds another great dimension to life, and there is an interesting thing that you should know. Mind over body works both ways. So not only does being happy make you smile, but smiling can actually make you happy. It is an incredible life principle, and very well worth applying.

Talk

Human are social animals by default, and spending time talking to people is a great way to fulfill that basic human need for contact.

However, being careful who you speak to and about what is important. Ideally, if you can speak about ideas and concepts instead of things, people, and events, all the better.

Remember that if you hang around people with undesirable traits, some of those may well rub onto you, and it is said that you are the average of the five people you spend most of your time with.

Be careful.

Work Deeply

For many of us, work will occupy large amount of time in our lives, and depending on opinion of your work, this may be a source of joy or a source of misery.

The number one point of enjoying work is giving work meaning, and doing things well has always been inherently more meaningful than doing things badly, and this is where working deeply comes into play.

Being able to focus on one thing only for an extended period of time, is where you can get into that magical state know as “flow”, where time appears to stop, and you work at a heightened capacity.

The main thing about flow is not just the capability of doing large amount of high quality work, but that it is actually enjoyable both during the work time, but also after as you glow in the light of your accomplishments. I highly recommend the book “Deep Work” by Carl Newport on this matter, an absolute must-read.

Conclusion

And there you have it, some of my daily rules to lead my life. Of course, you are different to me, and this is just a starting point. Think carefully about what your rules should be, and then implement them and live a great life.

But remember, focus on habits instead of specific goals, because habits will stick with you for your entire life, while goals are whimsical, they come and go.