The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.Richard Feynman
As I lie in bed struggling to fall asleep, I think to myself: “Damn it, you’ve done it again. You had 2 precious hours of undisturbed freedom and what have you done with them? Nothing!”
The mere thought of having squandered these 2 hours was driving me nuts. Because free time is a rare thing. And once you have kids, it’s like water on Dune: everyone is ready to kill for it. But if you have too much of it at once, it will drive you crazy.
Well, that’s what happened to me.
I was going mad trying to find out how the last 2 hours went by without notice. How could this happen? After all, the whole evening started as planned.
I opened my laptop and looked at my to-do list. I picked a task, opened a new tab, and started reading up on it. Then I saw a tab with a YouTube clip I started watching a few days ago and never got to finish it. So I briefly switched tabs and… poof! Suddenly, 2 hours were gone. Next thing I knew it was late, my eyes were dry, and I needed to get some sleep ASAP. But after spending 2 hours in a completely useless YouTube spiral, all I could do was lie in bed wide awake.
That’s when Feynman’s quote came to mind. It’s the kind of principle I truly love, because it applies to everything in life. From the way we pick our lovers, to the way we do our work or spend our free time ⏤it all boils down to the same thing. Your brain’s natural tendency is to fool you. And it’s your responsibility to guard against it.
But it was a bit too late for that now. So instead of trying to force shut down my hyperactive brain, I decided to make a list of the most common ways we’re fooling ourselves. And how to fix them.
The five ways your brain is fooling you
What you’re thinking: I’m hungry.
How you’re fooling yourself: What you’re feeling is most likely a craving, not hunger. Your brain is designed to send out hunger signals in response to temporal cues (most people eat at a specific time every day) or visual cues. Remember that time when you went to the fridge after seeing a delicious Häagen-Dazs commercial? That’s not hunger!
How to fix it: Drink more water. Our brains sometimes misinterpret the signal for thirst as hunger. Also try fasting from time to time, so you remember what hunger really feels like. It will also show you that skipping a meal or two won’t cause you to become unconscious. And stop watching so many commercials.
What you’re thinking: I’m too tired.
How you’re fooling yourself: You’re most likely lazy or unmotivated. I know the feeling. After working 10-12 hours, the last thing you want to do is hit the gym. But there’s a difference between physical tiredness and mental fatigue. Spending a whole day at the office can be mentally exhausting, but that has nothing to do with your physical energy. And after sitting for 8 hours straight, your body really needs some exercise.
How to fix it: Start with something really light and see how it feels. Tell yourself that you will only do it for 10 minutes and if you’re still tired it’s OK to stop. In most cases, the increased blood flow will free up your brain and you will feel more energized afterward. Also, having a training partner who will hold you accountable and drag you to the gym may help.
What you’re thinking: I’m NOT overworked.
How you’re fooling yourself: That’s exactly what you thought last time before falling asleep on your desk. You need to get stuff done. I get that. But you and I both know that there’s a point of diminishing returns. When you go past a certain level of exhaustion, you become less productive. And you start making mistakes.
How to fix it: Your body will give you signs when you’ve emptied the tank. Learn to recognize them. For me, it’s dry and itchy eyes, as well as an inexplicable stubbornness to keep doing whatever I’m currently doing. (Remember the YouTube video?) For you, it may be heavy eyelids, a bad mood, or just a certain time of day. Whatever the signs may be, once you see them, it’s time to take a break.
What you’re thinking: I’m don’t have time.
How you’re fooling yourself: You never have more or less time. Every day, no matter how full of important tasks and meetings it may be, has exactly 24 hours. No more, no less. You decide how to spend those hours.
How to fix it: First, realize that a lack of time is just a lack of priorities. We make time for what’s truly important. So get your priorities straight and start getting good at saying No.
What you’re thinking: Just one more episode.
How you’re fooling yourself: Come on, you don’t need me for this one. You know very well how many times this has worked. Exactly zero times! Watching a few episodes now and then is fine. Finishing the whole season in one night isn’t.
How to fix it: Set a limit beforehand. Before you even turn on the TV or grab your laptop, tell yourself how many episodes you have time to watch. Then, no matter how interesting the plot gets and what cliffhanger comes along, you stick to that limit. Nothing’s gonna happen if you watch the rest on different days. Trust me.
Our brains are always playing tricks on us. So the next time you find yourself using one of these excuses, remember what Feynman said. He didn’t call it the first principle for nothing. And if it worked for a Nobel laureate, it just might work for you and me too.
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Recommended reading: Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman by Richard P. Feynman