On Sitting Straight

This week’s book learning is from Willpower by Roy Baumeister.

3 groups were asked to do the following in a 2 week period –

  1. Regulate emotions: Hold emotions back every time they felt a strong surge
  2. Regulate posture: Remind themselves to sit straight every once in a while
  3. Regulate food: Regulate what they ate

2 weeks later, the 3 groups were tested on their willpower by squeezing a hand grip as hard as possible for as long as possible. The “sit straight” group did markedly better.

But, when the participants were asked to retake their test after their mental energy was depleted, the 3 groups performed equally poorly.

It turns out that their willpower muscles hadn’t gotten powerful in the past 2 weeks but thanks to reminders to regulate posture, their stamina had increased! So, willpower depletion was a slower process.

Those who followed it up by regularly exercising self control by sitting straight got progressively better in the 2nd test too. Not surprisingly, they did better at other goals too. These students reported more physical activity, less alcohol and cigarettes, cleaner rooms, and healthier food – signs of improving self control.


“Willpower is like a muscle.”
Sketch by EB

So, how do we increase our willpower stamina? Concentrate on changing a habitual behavior –

– Remind ourselves to sit straight every once a while (e,g, set an alarm 3 times a day)
– Use a different hand for routine tasks like using the mouse with your left/weaker hand
– Change speech habits e.g. avoid “like,” “uhm” etc.
– Always keep your room clean and never leave dishes in the sink
– Avoid curses, taboo words and expressions of anger as they take willpower too

Learning to listen to my gut

Perhaps it’s a skill that is honed or perhaps I unconsciously trained out that feeling in my stomach for many years. 3 times this year, my gut told me I was doing the wrong thing. 3 times this year, it’s intuition proved right and I’ve paid the price.

I’ve learnt to listen to my gut on many a small decision. Over the past couple of years, I’ve learnt that my gut gives me a signal if it feels the food on the plate isn’t right. It’s also serves as a lovely early warning system for an experience or person. Again, unerringly right.

But, when it comes to bigger or longer term decisions, I’ve been consciously overriding it with thought. Most times my thoughts agree with my gut and perhaps I’m faced with a recency bias as I write this; but I can’t recall a single big decision in the past year where my gut has been wrong in making a decision.

In one instance, it’s been repeatedly telling me an engagement doesn’t feel right. It’s high time I learnt to listen to it.

Emotionally (un)intelligent signage

Male and female restroom signs at a hotel I visited recently.


I stopped and looked twice to make sure I was entering the right door. Why make it so darn complex? There are times when innovation is simply unwelcome. Let’s go back to why they were created and make sure we don’t let some artsy design get in the way of it’s original purpose.

Another such example was an attempt at innovation on a restaurant’s lunch menu. It had all sorts of interesting names for it’s savoury crepes and one of them was called “Calamari.” I promptly ordered Calamari and was looking forward to my dose of seafood. Calamari turned out to be a ham and cheese crepe.


And, finally, a positive shout out to Auckland airport. This is brilliant emotionally intelligent signage – we don’t really want to know if a flight is “scheduled,” we just want to know what we must do. “Relax,” “New Time,” etc., fixes that.

Well done Kiwis!

H=S+C+V and the “most-of-it” rule

Happiness = Set point (50%) + Living conditions (10%) + Voluntary choices and actions (40%)

Our set point is our balance point where we return to on most days. This means we all have a happiness range and our set point is somewhere in the middle of the range. This determines 50% of our happiness.

Living conditions involve better clothes, houses, cars, etc. All of this accounts for (only) 10% of our happiness.

Our voluntary choices and actions constitute a whopping 40% of our happiness and this post recommends the “most-of-it” rule to earn your stars on this.

On most days, 70% of what happens to us is good. On good days, this goes up to 80%, then up to 90% on amazing days, and a whopping 95% on extraordinary days. Finally, to present the other end, I’d wager that we have 40%-50% good stuff happen to us on a bad day.

There are 3 things to note here –
1. We vastly exaggerate negative events in our mind. Try journaling all the good and bad things that happen to you in a day and you’ll know what I mean.

2. Even on extraordinary days, we have an idiot or two who, knowingly or unknowingly, threatens to muck things up. That’s just life. There may be the occasional day in your life when everything goes perfect but on most days, your victory lap always finds a critic.

3. Our happiness largely depends on what we choose to focus on. I’m learning to focus on “most-of-it.” On 90% of the days in our life, most of what happens to us is good/works out just fine. It’s a worthwhile check if you are feeling unhappy – is “most of it” working?

If the answer is yes (and it generally is), you have no excuses. No moaning allowed. There will always be dampeners and problems. Expect them.. and eat them for breakfast.

Not what, but how

For most social interaction, “why” isn’t a necessity. It’s a great-to-have and makes a huge difference. For example, if you meet a customer service person whose life mission is to serve or to excel in service, you feel the difference. The “why” naturally translates to the “how.” The “why” is an intrinsic choice, however. It can’t be easily trained.

Training employees to embody a “how” is easier. If done well, it can mask the lack of “why” because employees have been trained to behave in a certain way and do so in a way that feels genuine. Most air hostesses at Singapore Airlines are trained to exude a certain positivity – whether it is their life mission to serve, the act of putting on a Singapore Airlines uniform seems to bring out the best in them.

Instead of focusing on the “how,” too many training programs focus on the “what.” They train their employees to say please, sorry,  and thank you a lot with other phrases that sound nice on paper. All of these miss the point – it’s not what you say but how you say it that makes an impact on a person.

People don’t remember what you say or do, they remember how you made them feel.

Power cuts and bonding

A friend’s mom explained that her wonderful singing abilities were thanks to power cuts. As soon as their house had a power cut, dad would begin to sing and daughter would promptly join. As a family, they were actually very underwhelmed by the coming of the inverter as the lack of power cuts robbed the family of some precious bonding time.

I have a lovely power cut experience too. As a kid growing up, we used to have power cuts in the middle of the night. As it got too hot to sleep, we would all troop outside for some fresh air and we would be greeted by cheers and calls from all over the street as our neighbors would do the same. We met a couple of these neighbors last year and we went back to discussing some fond memories standing outside our homes during power cuts.

It’s a nice reminder that technology cuts both ways. On the one hand, we are able to stay in touch with more friends and family than ever before and yet, on the other, it also means we can build virtual islands around us and avoid the kind of stuff that actually builds great relationships.

Learning to embrace the pain and the chaos

“If the whole world was blue, there would be no blue. We need something that is not blue to understand blue.” | Eckhart Tolle (paraphrased)

The more the pain and chaos, the more we learn to appreciate those moments of joy and calm. Joy, however, is different from happiness. Joy is a feeling while happiness is an ability.

Pain and chaos are just feelings. They are a part of this marvellous piece of engineering we call life. Like all feelings, they can be understood, accepted, and embraced. Understanding comes with self awareness, accepting comes with proactivity, and the embracing comes with wisdom. Rafael Nadal plays through pain every single time he steps into a tennis court. He’s a great athlete but an even greater role model simply because he’s learnt to embrace the pain.

The pain and the chaos are just part of the infinite game. We just have to learn to play it, to celebrate the wins, to learn from the defeats, and move the hell on. Can’t change the waves but can learn how to surf.

Let me say that again – pain and chaos are just feelings that can be accepted and embraced. Happiness is a skill we develop that we can apply even during the worst of times. The moment we learn to make that distinction, life will never be the same again..

The Hug

I am a huge fan of the hug. I’ve been a huge fan for a long while.

The hand shake is a nice way of greeting people – especially ones you’ve never met. Bill Clinton innovated by making sure he used his other hand to touch people on the elbow making it a touch more personal. The hand shake is safe and that’s its greatest strength.

The hug, on the other hand, is unsafe. It’s the sort of betrayals that came with the hug that gave birth to the phrase “being stabbed in the back.” The hug is a wonderful show of love and trust in any relationship simply because it requires us to be vulnerable for those few seconds as we give ourselves completely to them.

The hug will never be the norm in politics or business – both low trust environments. But, in our personal lives, let’s remember to hug away!

And when we hug, let’s make sure we give what I call a “full on” hug i.e. a tight frontal embrace – anything less than this doesn’t qualify.

And guys, just hug already. Macho doesn’t build great relationships.. affection sure does.

The illusion of safety

During his days as a Professor, a student ran up to Albert Einstein after an exam and said -“Professor, I’m not sure if you realized that the questions you asked were exactly the same as the ones you asked last year.”

Einstein famously replied – “Yes, but the answers have changed.”

Safety is self delusional. We need a healthy amount of self delusion to be happy. But, too much stifles us. It’s tempting to always look at what’s been tried and tested.

The trouble with tried and tested is that it neglects context. What worked yesterday is unlikely to work today. The knock-on-door-and-push-the-sale car sales men of yesteryear are all but gone. Selling today works with different rules – trust and permission being the foremost among them.

Standing still isn’t different from moving backwards. In some ways, it’s worse.. it’s often easier to change the direction of a moving object than to make it move in the first place.