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Why Choosing to Disconnect Could Be Just What We Need for Deeper Connection

Shane Breslin

Words are important.

The old “sticks and stones might break my bones, but words can never hurt me” line never fully rang true for me. Because I know how powerful words can be.

Words, used with casual flippancy or malicious intent, can cause untold hurt. Words, used in the right way, can change the world for the better.

Words carefully placed and strung together with honesty of intent can evoke powerful emotion in the listener or reader. Emotion is a key factor in our unconscious mind, and some studies in the fields of neuroscience, behavioral science and biology suggest our unconscious mind is responsible for 95% of all our decisions, behaviours and patterns.

So words are important.

For the past two Januarys I’ve decided to select a focus word for the 12 months ahead.

Last year my focus word was AWARENESS.

I was going through a reawakening, a shift in who I am, of where I am in the world, of what I should be doing and who I should be doing it with.

And I felt that a focus on awareness would be valuable. It definitely proved valuable, in ways that are hard yet to quantify, and are not yet proving valuable in monetary or material ways, but I think are priceless at a deeper, more spiritual level.

For 2019 my focus word is CONNECTION.

CONNECTION to myself, to the person I am becoming, trusting that the path I am on is the right path and requiring me to disobey the urges I have to beat down the real me and continue to present a false veneer to the world.

At some level, this must be working. I met with a former work colleague recently, someone I always respected for his warm integrity and his sense of fairness and humanity. We had shared an office and many, many meetings for several months a few years back. When we met for coffee recently, he said to me, “It feels like this is the first time we’ve met.”

Such growth or expansion — I’m searching for the right word — is accompanied by a lot of pain and suffering. This trying to figure out where next without a map has been desperately painful for me, beset as it is by the incessant hum of self-loathing, the almost non-existent self-worth and almost ever-present self-doubt. It has also been desperately painful for those closest to me to witness all this and keep supporting me through it, while they and I struggle to understand or articulate exactly what is going on.

I am often stuck fast between the pain that finding my way inflicts on my loved ones in the moment, and the pain that recoiling from this path might inflict on them indefinitely. I greatly regret that this path requires that suffering, and I yearn for a Zen state of higher consciousness and calm, but I’m not there yet and I know it’s still some distance away. I choose the psychological pain of tackling the present moment head on instead of distracting myself from it, because I believe at some deep untouchable level that this is the only right choice.

To hear that from my friend and former colleague, that it felt like the first time we’ve met, that it felt like he was meeting someone new and different and maybe reborn, tells me that the pain of the journey is a worthwhile pain, and that further rebirths lie ahead if I can stick to the path.

So connection to myself, the true reality of myself, firstly. A case of putting my own oxygen mask on first.

CONNECTION also to others. A deeper connection to people who matter. Dr Zach Bush, one of the most phenomenal human beings on the planet, and someone for whom the future of the planet occupies a critical part of his thinking, told Rich Roll recently, “You and I are here together right now, and the odds of that are zero, so clearly we are here for a reason.”

“We are together right now, and the odds of that are zero.”

I think of that sentence a lot. When I allow it to — and my self-protecting lizard brain does its best to resist, and very often sabotages things entirely — that sentence enlightens and uplifts every moment I spend with another person.

So connection to others, too, and allowing the magic of those zero odds connections to change the world.

And CONNECTION to the planet. I spoke to Masami Sato of the B1G1 initiative for my podcast recently, and she told the story of how, in her 20s, she became so disillusioned by the world and the damage that all our countless small daily actions and transactions can inflict on it, that she retreated to rural Japan to try self-sustainability. After two years, however, she realised that it was an impossible dream, and that a better course of action is to participate in the world with the full intention of allowing those actions and transactions to impact in a positive way, rather than a mindless negative one.

Connection to the planet is hard when you’re scrabbling to put food on the table, and the green beans from Kenya and the avocados from Peru are on special offer in Lidl.

The interconnectivity of everything is mind-boggling. Being aware of that connection is a necessary first step, I think. At our home, we still don’t grow any of our own food or keep our own chickens, but I suspect it’s not far away. It feels necessary.

The Obstacles to Connection

All this superficial connection inundates real connection, drowning it out so that we find ourselves with 900 Facebook friends and almost no-one to call when we feel like throwing ourselves off a bridge.

There are obstacles to CONNECTION, and perversely I think, some of the biggest obstacles are the incessant connectivity we all experience virtually every moment of every day.

I recently downloaded the Words With Friends app to play with Lorraine and a few friends. The relentlessness of the advertising is obscene. (And yes, I realise I can pay a few euros and switch off the ads … and I realise also how logical and necessary just paying for something is as a first step to quieting the relentless advertising. Increasingly, the world in which we live is an ad-supported model, where we get everything for free but at the psychologically catastrophic price of literally endless messages aimed at selling us stuff we would rarely seek out and definitely do not need.)

Social media, where connection is literally the engine and the fuel and the destination, is increasingly a massive factor in killing our ability to truly connect at a meaningful level.

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and others are incredibly powerful tools, allowing us the capability to join communities and build meaningful friendships with people on the opposite side of the world who we could never hope to meet in the ordinary world that existed just a couple of decades ago.

And yet we have lost something vital too, with all this superficial connection inundating real connection, drowning it out so that we find ourselves with 900 Facebook friends and almost no-one to call when we feel like throwing ourselves off a bridge.

We have limitless opportunity for connection, but this is a knife that cuts both ways, and the assault on us from outside is also limitless, and our brains have become conditioned to restlessness, which impacts on everything from our sleep to our energy to our productivity.

Disconnecting could be the route to reconnecting again.

Disconnecting will be different for everyone, depending on how desperate the need and how deep the yearning for the meaningful connection that can follow.

It can be as simple as killing all our phone notifications, or removing the social media apps. (Instagram, for those who use it, can be a real challenge, given that it’s effectively locked to your phone. WhatsApp is similarly phone-centric but it is at least a closed environment. And the ugly reality that Facebook owns all of these, and everything you do there, suggests that we are seeing just the tip of an iceberg that could sink all our boats…)

It could require something more, such as intentionally giving ourselves at least 10 hours a day phone-free (eight hours of restorative sleep and an hour either side).

It could require one day every week without our phone, which might sound like hell on earth to some, depending on the depth of the addiction.

Or it could mean a spa treatment or a retreat or a pilgrimage. Getting away from it all used to be almost exclusively a physical thing, but with our digital lives and responsibilities pursuing us everywhere we go, the need is more psychological than it has ever been.

Whatever the triage and the treatment, there’s little doubt, I think, that choosing to disconnect can bring about the most meaningful connection we’ve had in ages.

Connection to ourselves, to each other and to the planet. Connection where all of us are better off.

Happy disconnecting!


(Main photo credit: Israel Palacio on Unsplash)

Happiness Hacks, #6: How To Say No

Saying no can be the hardest thing. But it can also be the most liberating. Learning how to say no can transform your lives by opening the doors to the things that make you want to say yes. Here are some thoughts from some intelligent minds on how and why we should say no.

“If it’s not a ‘hell yes!’, it’s a ‘no’.”

— Derek Sivers, serial American entrepreneur

“Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.”

— Jerzy Gregorek, Olympic weightlifting coach

“No man can succeed in any endeavour he does not like.”

— Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich

“The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.”

— Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister

“Say ‘no’ to a lot of things so that you can say ‘yes’ to the ONE thing.”

— Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, entrepreneurs, authors of The One Thing

“Until you learn how to confidently say no to so many things, you shall always say yes to so many things. The real summary of a regretful life is a life that failed to balance yes and no. A life that failed to recognize when to courageously say NO and when to confidently say YES!”

— Ernest Agyemang Yeboah, Ghanaian writer

“No is such a liberating word. Everyone’s always looking for more time. That’s what everyone wants. No is one of the few things that gains time. Whenever you say no to something, you gain time.

— Jason Fried, CEO of software company Basecamp

(Photo by Andy Tootell on Unsplash)

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I Gave Up Social Media For a Month. Here’s What I Learned

On March 1st, I made a spur of the moment decision in a fit of … what was it? Anger? Frustration? Clarity? I announced to my family, friends and anyone else who happened to be shown the message by the various algorithms at play that I would give up social media for a month.

Shane Breslin

By Shane Breslin

I had a big month ahead of me, I said, a month where deep productivity and headspace was required. I deleted the Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn apps from my phone.

(I don’t classify YouTube as social media so that stayed — The Nerdwriter and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver are just about my only recurring “television” appointments these days. Day-to-day I make my living by helping individuals, businesses and nonprofits navigate the confusion of the online world to achieve their goals, but I’ve always been confused by Snapchat, so that wasn’t there to delete.)

While the primary driver, as I told myself and my friends, was the need to find a new level of personal productivity and that the time-suck of social media was swallowing hours of my day when I didn’t have hours to waste, a motivating factor that was just as powerful was more subconscious: the feeling that social media in all its many guises, and for all its incredible, era-defining benefits, was causing some seriously negative tremors deep within my psyche.

Depression, social media and the happiness matrix

I’ve spoken and written at some length about dealing with regular bouts of fairly debilitating depression for more. That situation was ongoing for than 20 years, perhaps longer, before I took some firm steps to address it, but I had a feeling was that the combination of particular personality traits that made me susceptible to depression with the feverishness and 24/7 world of social media was not helping.

Over the past 18 months or so I’ve committed to a journey of self-exploration. One of the exercises I regularly take, and encourage others to take, is what I loosely call a “happiness matrix”: an A4 sheet of paper with four boxes each to represent everything that’s in my control, everything I’m choosing to do.

  • A: Is this pleasurable and good for my soul?
  • B: Is this not pleasurable but good for my soul?
  • C: Is this pleasurable but not good for my soul?
  • D: Is this not pleasurable and not good for my soul?

I’ve found that every choice I make about everything — what time I get up, how I spend the first two hours of my day, who I spend time with, where I live, what I put in my body, and everything else — fits snugly into one of those four categories.

My aim is simple: to do more things from A and B categories, and fewer from C and D.

When I asked myself the question about social media, the answer was a hard one, however. It didn’t fit snugly in any category. There were times when it was definitely in A. I’ve made some friendships that I hope and expect will last a lifetime, and those friendships would just not have been possible without Facebook (Facebook is, unsurprisingly, the primary influence among all the different platforms.)

Very occasionally it was B. Speaking on Twitter about my experiences with the service offered by the Samaritans was definitely not pleasurable, but I got something deeply valuable out of it, and hope that my messages gave some value and meaning to others.

But I couldn’t deny that on many occasions there was a hollowness about much of social media that saw much of my time there enter into categories C and D.

What sort of things?

On Instagram, I joined a pod. I thought I was joining some likeminded people who might support each other in helping to learn better the techniques of that particular platform. Instead it quickly became clear that several people in the group were obsessed. I hesitated to say demented, but that’s what it felt like. The “rules” were that everyone in the pod must commit to turning on notifications for everyone else’s Instagram posts, and then liking and commenting on them within minutes of each post being published. In this way, it might game the Instagram algorithm into thinking that these posts were gaining good traction early, and thus give it a better chance of appearing to more people and even making its way — O Holy Grail! — to the Discover tab. What happened there? Well, clearly, great treasures awaited. In the form, I guess, of higher reach, more followers, more hearts, more comments.

On Twitter, I found that my own stream, built haphazardly over eight years, was filled with the loud hum of incessant and irrelevant retweeting, incessant and self-serving tweets sent by various automated schedulers and incessant angry noise. (Twitter, for all its intrinsic and undeniable in-the-moment value, often feels like a million pissed off people shouting in a lift.) Added to that, every second or third notification was a new follow from a clearly fake bot. (The New York Times “The Follower Factory” exposé in January was clearly an influencing factor in my growing awareness of how shoddy so much of Twitter especially had become.)

Twitter is still the social network I love the most, but I fear, from a business perspective, that it will never work, and it may well be doomed to fail. One analyst suggested recently that it has dipped to sixth most popular social platform in the US (behind Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat) in terms of time spent. This is despite the PR perfection of having a President who uses the service as his personal global loudspeaker.

Facebook: A 21st Century Pandora’s Box

And then there was Facebook.

The big daddy of them all.

The Pandora’s Box of the 21st century, unleashing its combination of hope and the seven deadly sins on the world every minute of every day.

There were already whispers about the growing Facebook data storm at the time I started my social media break. For anyone paying attention, Facebook’s access to and use of data has been well known for the longest time. Max Schrems, a bright Austrian lawyer and activist, has been taking legal actions against Facebook for years. The General Data Protection Regulation, the new EU law which could change the world as we know it when it comes into force in May, is prompted in large part by EU legislators who have been closely scrutinising the way Facebook has been amassing terabyte upon terabyte of personally identifiable data on billions of people around the world.

Still, the revelations when they came, through a Channel 4 News secret camera exposé to the offices of Cambridge Analytica and an admission by Facebook that 87 million accounts were mined by third parties with distinctly ulterior motives, were damning, and didn’t do much to dissuade me from my decision to give this whole thing a break.

So what happened when I decided to give up social media?

Firstly, it became clear that using social media had become a deep-rooted habit.

I might be reading a book or newspaper article, come across a paragraph I liked and before I knew it my phone would be in my hand in readiness for the pic to share.

Same thing with an early morning sunrise, a blossoming daffodil or a smoothie. I found myself composing the first words of the post or tweet in my head before waking up to the fact that no, I wasn’t allowing myself to do this for a while.

Such moments were both liberating and very fucking frightening for me.

It was good to be able to resist, but it was scary to think how deep a grip these services, powered as they are by multi-billion-euro, profit driven companies, had taken on my senses.

It struck me that this could actually be classified as a form of madness. This hour-by-hour, even minute-by-minute compulsion has set in with vast swathes of people in the space of just ten years.

The external and internal dangers of social media

Where do we go from here?

There are benefits. Massive benefits. If you have a message that would benefit the world, and it’s compelling enough, the world can hear about it

For all the benefits, though, there are massive dangers.

Those dangers are external:

  • trusting massive companies, all of whom are compelled to report continued growth in their quarterly profit announcements;
  • the erosion of personal privacy, and all the dangers, known and unknown, that go with that
  • the ease of one-to-one communication that sees Facebook cited in one in every three divorce cases (and those figures are from as long ago as 2015)

Those dangers are also internal, and this is the part that is, I think, the thing we most need to do something about.

I’m drawn to psychology — how people behave the way they do, and why — and I fear that the combination of social media with the smartphone is a perfect storm that arrived in around 2008, and in the decade that followed has had a lasting negative impact on human psychology that will not be fully understood for another generation or so.

Back to social

I’ve been easing my way back in.

Slowly, steadily, with a new understanding of the pros and the multitude of cons.

I unfollowed everyone on Twitter and started anew in a bid to bring only people who add value into my headspace.

I have made a decision to stop posting video content to my habits of happiness Facebook page and I don’t have any real desire to, for the time being at least.

I acknowledge that buried within the noise and restlessness and threat of social media there is still a massive opportunity for deep and meaningful human connection, connection that can positively impact on the world without any negative undertones.

I understand now, more fully, the benefits and both the external and more importantly the internal dangers of all social networks.

Throughout my self-exploration journey, I’ve committed to controlling the controllables.

My habits and use of social media is controllable.

The fact of social media is not.

This is the world.

Like the real world off the Internet, it offers the best and the worst of everything, and each of us can only do what we can.

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(Photo credit: Tim Bennett on Unsplash)

Happiness Hack #5: What if we could only subtract to be happy?

Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychology professor, speaks persuasively about mental health and the complexity of our lives.

Most cases of mental illness, says Peterson, are not actually mental illness at all. They are instead a result of desperate complexity which, added to over time, eventually resulted in a blow-out at the weakest point (depression, alcoholism, gambling or a thousand other possible outcomes).

Depression and anxiety are the two conditions that make up the great majority of all mental illness. By several estimates, depression and anxiety affect somewhere in the region of 10-15% of adults at any given time. 

Some other numbers:

  • More than 1 in 7 of employed people in the United Kingdom are effected by a common mental condition
  • Mental illnesses are responsible for 1 in every 8 “sick days”
  • Mental health and behavioural issues are the primary driver of disability worldwide

In short, mental illness is a big f***ing issue.

The more I read and study and ponder and listen, the more strongly I come to believe that depression and general anxiety disorder are not illnesses at all, not by any accepted definition of illness.

That does not denigrate depression and anxiety. It does not diminish them at all. I know first hand only too well how debilitating depression is. While I’ve experienced panic attacks on more than one occasion, I have not suffered from anxiety disorder, or at least not being diagnosed, but having listened to those who have lived with anxiety for years, it is painfully obvious that it is equally incapacitating. And that incapacitation is absolutely real.

The fact that it is real, however, does not mean it is an illness. Instead, what Peterson has said and written repeatedly — and as both an internationally renowned psychology professor, a practising clinical psychologist and someone with the personality to be totally without fear in speaking what he sees as the truth, he is someone whose opinion I highly respect — is that depression and anxiety are, for the overwhelming majority of the time, less medical illnesses than more symptoms of the terrible complexity in our lives, the terrible challenges of living as a human being.

(This is not a new point of view. In 1960, psychologist and academic Thomas Szasz wrote a scathing paper that claimed that mental illnesses were a myth, and effectively an heir to the likes of witchcraft, demons and theological beliefs, and that the real problem is the big challenge that faces us all, once our basic needs of survival, shelter and security are met, namely how we choose to live. Szasz was both criticised and acclaimed throughout his life, and his paper has been negatively critiqued in recent years.)

I don’t say that mental illnesses are myths. Depression, or anxiety, are very real, but all of this calls to mind something I’ve been thinking of in relation to my own situation, and something I feel strongly about: that my depression was much more of a symptom than an illness. Jim Carrey, the actor, is someone who might share this view. He has made a compelling connection between the terms depressed and deep rest, in that being depressed is a sign that your mind and body needs deep rest to reset and refresh.

Complexity of being, and its relationship to mental health

Given that we’re all products of our environments, the complexity of the world around us has added greatly to the complexity in our own internal worlds. For the vast majority of people in what we might call “the western world”, the basic needs of human existence — air to breathe, drinking water, food to eat, a safe place to sleep — are taken absolutely for granted.

And when that happens, we are faced with different challenges, many of them related to the way we think and what we do. And I humbly suggest that because our basic needs are met each day, the way we think and the things we choose to do are potentially more complex now than at any time in human history

So if we accept that the complexity of our lives is one major cause for what we call mental illness, what can we do about it?

Where are we given to complexity?

Let’s think for a minute of a few ways in which we voluntarily impose utter complexity on our lives.

Complexity in relationships

We don’t talk clearly and honestly and openly with our partners, families and friends. We prefer, instead of clarity and honesty and openness, to “keep up appearances”. We prefer, instead of clarity and honesty and openness, to skirt around deep issues because dealing with them brings us intense short-term discomfort.

Complexity in finances

Is there any area of our lives that are typically more complex than our finances? Everything about the finance industry is confusing. It appears deliberately so. There’s an adage that goes “the confused mind never buys”, but when it comes to finances that just isn’t true. Almost everyone selling us financial products, from investments to insurance to indebtedness, does so in a manner that is entirely cloak and dagger. We buy often because we feel that we must. Health insurance? It’s better to have it than not, we think to ourselves, so we look at the headline factors and gloss over the six pages of small text where there be dragons. Even something as small as a mobile phone contract is dense and virtually illegible. We sign it because signing it gets us our phone and internet. We routinely hit “Accept” on terms and conditions screens without thinking for a moment what exactly we’re accepting.

Complexity in health

From yoga to meditation to spiritual retreats to “couch to 5k” to the latest must-have superfoods to grocery shopping in aisles adorned by hundreds of thousands of products, right through to the list of drugs and other medications we ingest to combat countless illnesses or conditions, our health has surely never been more complex.

In all of this there is a massive conundrum at play, and it is this.

We know, deep in our heart, that simplicity will solve many of our problems. And yet we are compelled to move in the opposite direction.

We are compelled to consume. We are compelled to buy more, collect more, do more. We are compelled to make things more complex rather than less.

But what if we decided to take firm action, to set an intention and follow through on it, to make things less complex?

Mental health: What if we decided to subtract rather than add?

Whether we know it or not, and most of us don’t, we spend almost every minute of every day trying to solve our own complex swirl of competing and conflicting thoughts and emotions.

The way we typically do that is to add something new:

  • A new car
  • A new dress
  • A new television set
  • A new gym membership
  • A new job
  • A new app
  • A new workflow
  • A new project
  • A new holiday
  • A new sexual partner
  • And on, and on, and on…

But instead of adding something new, what would happen if we took something away?

It’s an open question.

I don’t know the answer.

But I think it’s worth trying.

Some things you could subtract, and see what happens.

  • Your smartphone (at least for a day)
  • Facebook (or Twitter, or Instagram…)
  • Email notifications
  • Those shoes/shirts/jeans you never wear
  • Some of the half-dozen small subscriptions that leave your bank account every month

Point to note: Subtracting often involves saying no. And any chance we get to practise saying no is definitely a good thing.

Point to note #2: This owes lots to something in software development called “scope creep”, also known as “kitchen sink syndrome”.

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Happiness Hack #4: Defining, Interrogating and Overcoming Fear

This blog post is all about overcoming fear (with a personal example from the lowest point of my life in 2016, and a journal exercise that changed the life of bestselling author, speaker, investor and podcaster Tim Ferriss)

Fear can be healthy. Fear can keep us alive.

Fear can also ground us, prevent us from doing the things we most need to do. Learning to deal with the fear effectively – feeling the fear and doing it anyway, as the title of Susan Jeffers’s classic book went – is a gateway to personal satisfaction and happiness.

I’m going to stick with money for the example here, but this can equally apply to whatever is your greatest fear in life.

October 2016 was a time when it felt like everything was falling down around me. I walked out of a job that was very far away from my values. (I didn’t know this at the time, as I had never taken the steps to define my values). There were days when I could hardly get out of bed.

At the back of everything were my fears around money. That I was now finally unable to provide for my family, the fears that had dogged me for years – that I was a fraud, that I was an imposter, that I would eventually be shown to everyone as the complete inadequate I had always felt myself to be – were becoming reality.

I’m not sure how or why it happened, but I vividly recalling sitting with a pint of Guinness, a pen and a notebook in a local country pub, and setting out my fears around money in depth and at length.

I analysed everything – present concerns such as bills and groceries and utilities, and future, less tangible but no less real concerns like retirement and quality of life and education funds for our two young children.

After about an hour and a half, I came up with a number.

It was a number: annual earnings required, in euros. The number might have scared the living daylights out of me as it was far in excess of anything I had ever earned in my life.

But it was a specific number, and specificity and definition are, I’ve found a perfect antidote to fear.

The old horror masters knew. They knew that the essence of terror was in the imagination, and once you show the beast on screen, the beast by some marvel of the human mind becomes much less terrifying. Keep it out of shot for as long as possible, though, and the audience will generate its own fear.

So it was for me.

Defining the fear, getting really specific about it, makes the fear dissipate.

When the fear dissipates, great things become possible.

(Those great things, of course, generate their own fears. But fear is innate. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to overcome it and prevent it from holding us hostage all our lives.)


Tim Ferriss, the bestselling author, speaker, podcaster and bipolar depressive, talks about an exercise he calls fear-setting, which he says has completely changed his life over the past 15 years and has helped him to get through 50+ major depressive episodes.

It is related to the philosophy of stoicism and includes exercises to separate controllables from uncontrollables. Fear-setting is a written exercise he uses whenever he is faced with a decision that is making him fearful or anxious.

It consists of a 3-pages journal exercise about the thing he’s putting off or is somehow anxious or fearful of.

Page 1: What if I…?

Ferriss’s personal example question was: “What if I stepped away from my business for one month?”, and beneath that he wrote a list of things he was fearful of happening if he took that step.

So this part of the exercise is:

  • Define the list of things you are afraid of happening if you take the step you’re fearful of.
  • What could you do now to prevent each thing from happening?
  • If the worst happened, what would it take to repair that thing afterwards?

Page 2: What might be the benefits of an attempt or a partial success?

If you attempted whatever you’re considering, what might the upsides be?

What skills might you learn? What experiences might you experience? What memories might you create? What relationships might you build?

Page 3: What might be the cost of inaction?

The costs might be emotional, mental, physical, financial or spiritual.

Three columns:

  • Six months from now
  • 1 year from now
  • 3 years from now

People, says Ferriss, are very good at considering what might go wrong if we try something new, but we don’t often consider the cost of the status quo.

So the question is, “If I avoid this action or decision, what might my life look like in six months to three years?”

Tim Ferriss’s Conclusion

It is an exercise that takes possibly 1-2 hours, and Ferriss says it was life-changing for him. He can trace all his biggest wins (plus all his biggest “disasters averted”) back to the fear-setting exercise, which he does at least once a quarter.

You will find, he says, that some of your fears are very well-founded. But crucially, you should not conclude that without first putting them under the microscope.

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Happiness Hack, #3: Goal Setting That Works: Six Key Steps to Setting and Achieving Any Goal in 2018

Goal setting is not something I’ve done enough of in the past. Or to put it more accurately, goal setting properly is not something I’ve done enough of.

I’ve definitely made the double mistake of (a) setting goals only about things I wanted – a new car used to be a common one for me – and (b) failing to set the goal properly: i.e. with a reason behind it and a plan in front of it.

A goal without a plan is just a wish

– Antoine De Saint-Exupery

So this month’s Happiness Hack is all about goal setting the right way – giving you the best possible chance of achieving it.

This approach to goal setting, which is a product and combination of lots of wisdom from too many places and teachers to mention (among them Hal Elrod, Jim Rohn, Gary Vaynerchuk, Tim Ferriss, Mel Robbins, Lewis Howes, Anthony Robbins, Napoleon Hill and others) makes it much more likely that (a) I will set the right goal and (b) I have the best chance of making it happen.

1. List Your Categories

When it comes to goal setting, a spread of goals across a number of categories is important. Focus too narrowly – on money, for example – and you’ll leave out areas that are essential to keep you balanced. These are the six categories I’m currently focused on:

  • Health
  • Finance
  • Family
  • Work (you might have career, or business)
  • Personal
  • Happiness (equally you could have something like spiritual health, or peace of mind)

You might have one or two more, for example your hobbies, or a side-business, or a different set entirely, but it’s important to list out the categories which each goal will belong to. This will mean your goal setting exercise ticks as many parts of your life as possible, and ensure you’re progressing all the areas and leaving none behind.

2. Get Specific

Being as specific as possible with each goal is essential.

For example, if you are setting a finance goal, you might be tempted into a goal such as “clearing my debt” or “saving €10,000”. But these, I have found, are just not specific enough and can often stray into the territory of “wishful thinking”. And I know from experience that a wish is not a goal.

Lack of a specific goal will bring lack of clarity, which will bring lack of focus, and before you know it you’ll have completely forgotten what the goal was, never mind got anywhere close to achieving it. (Trust me, I’ve done exactly that…)

3. Finding The Why

Goals with a reason are much more likely to be realised.

Knowing why you have each goal adds greatly to the specificity of the previous step. If there is a compelling reason why you need to achieve this goal, rather than simply want to achieve it, then you’re already a part of the way there.

Add a “so that” to the goal. For example: “I want to save €8,500 [the specificity!] so that we can visit my brother and his family in Australia for three weeks in February 2019 [the reason!]”.

Knowing why you want to achieve something will give you a momentum that will keep you moving forward, every day and every week.

4. Chunk It Down

Now that you’ve set your goals, that’s the easy part done.

The hard part – the part that turns this from something intangible into a real, living goal – is what comes next. Failing to do this bit is where so many goals come apart.

Take that goal of saving €8,500 for a three-week trip to Australia.

If you’re anything like me and, I think, most people, that’s just too big for the mind to truly grasp. If we can’t grasp it, we can’t fully believe it. If we don’t believe it, the chances it’s going to happen are probably somewhere between slim and none.

Instead, though, consider this.

If we chunk that big goal down into the exact number of steps needed to make it happen, an interesting thing happens.

The smaller steps are much less daunting. Suddenly, they become totally believable. And if we fully believe something, it’s not only more likely to happen – it’s almost inevitable that it will.

What the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.

– Napoleon Hill

So this part is vital. It takes focused thought, but it could be the best couple of hours you spend this year.

That “save €8,500” could be broken down into something like:

  1. Open dedicated savings account for Australia trip
  2. Transfer €653 per month to that account for 13 months
  3. Set up standing order on __ day of the month so that the transfer is made automatically

If you can’t afford to transfer that amount per month, don’t fret just yet. You just need a few more chunks and actions to generate extra income or make extra savings. For example:

  • Generate income from unwanted items
    • Make a list of unwanted items from garage/attic/spare room
    • Take 5-10 good quality photos of each item
    • Write descriptions for each item
    • Upload each item to online selling platform (e.g. eBay, Done Deal, Adverts, Craigslist, etc.)
    • Deposit any income into savings account

You could add another series of steps for “Earn €200 per month extra on the side”, for instance, which might involve a small side business, or an extra part-time job for a couple of months, or hosting guests on Airbnb.

It’s important that each action single item is broken down so that it takes no more than an hour or two.

If it’s any bigger, it probably needs to be chunked down again!

5. Schedule Everything

Now that you have broken each goal into its smaller, easily manageable, 1-2 hour actions, an extra step is required: scheduling.

Having the big goal, and setting down the list of actions required to get you to that goal, is fantastic.

But life and everything that goes with it is likely to get in the way unless you take the time to schedule your action plan in every week and every month.

Whatever type of planner you use – a diary, an online tool, a whiteboard or just a notebook on your desk – take the time to enter all those tasks in, month by month, week by week, right down to hour by hour.

All of this might sound like overkill, but that €8,500 and that unforgettable trip Down Under, or whatever your goal, won’t just happen without a clear and well-defined plan.

6. Announce it

Here’s where The Fear can set in.

What? You mean, tell people?

Yes! It’s essential!

It could be a friend, a family member, a peer – but it must be someone who you value, respect and trust.

Because there’s a reason you’re telling them. The act of telling them is a major part of achieving the goal. It keeps you accountable. It’s proven that if we have people we need to be accountable to – who we feel we might in some way let down if we don’t deliver – then this greatly increases the urgency with which we approach the task.

And there’s little doubt that when things become urgent, they usually get done.

So don’t be afraid. Find someone who is willing to take on this great responsibility – the responsibility of knowing in detail what you’re aiming for, and who you can talk to during the journey when things get sticky. Because things always get sticky.


This goal setting exercise is the ultimate cure for procrastination.

Procrastination, after all, owes less to us dragging our feet and more to the fact that, if we’re honest, we’re not really clear on what, exactly, needs to happen next.

Get clear on that, and don’t be surprised to find those goals coming firmly into view before too long.

And there’s no doubt in my mind that making progress towards the things that matter to us is an essential part of happiness.

Try it, and let me know how you get on by leaving a comment below or messaging me on Twitter.

Happiness Hack #1: Tackling Overwhelm with the Open Loops List

I’ve found that one of the biggest factors that adversely affect my peace of mind are “open loops”.

Unfinished business.

Stuff piling up in email inboxes, to-do lists, in-trays, online productivity tools or just in your head.

Stuff you said you’d do, but never got to.

This month’s Happiness Hack aims to help limit the often unseen, but generally negative effects of these open loops.

1. Get all the open loops together (think of it as an “Open Loop Party”)

The list should preferably be written down, on real paper with a real pen.

(The Internet is amazing for many things, but there’s something about the touch of pen and paper which has a direct connection with your brain.)

2. Beside each item, write down what it might take to “close the loop”

It might take a 1-minute phone call or a quick text.

It might take half a day of your time. It might require a trip halfway around the world. Right now, tt doesn’t really matter what it takes. You don’t need to close them all, because…

3. The point of this exercise is not to close all the loops

That would be way too ambitious! No, the point is to collect them all together, out of your head. Your brain will thank you for defragging it

Of course, if you can close some or even most of them easily, go right ahead and do it.

But what I found is that the act of writing down the open loop, and thinking about it rationally for a few seconds, suddenly made it seem much less troublesome. You’ll possibly find that several open loops are not important enough to worry about. So you can go ahead and close them, without needing to do anything more.

This Open Loops exercise might take a focused hour. It might take a day.

Either way, I know it will be time well spent.

If you do the exercise, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Either email me by reply, or post or message me on my new Facebook page – link below.