Sustainable Fat Loss Part 3: Strategy and Tactics

Photo by Charlie Solorzano on

Alright, here’s the challenge: create sustainable, effective, enjoyable fat loss for virtually any reader in no more than 3 articles. Contact me here with any complaints or questions. (Article 1 can be found here, and article 2 can be found here.) This is article 3 of 3.

In post 1, we talked about the importance of taking care of your emotions on a physiological basis, and in post 2, we talked about the principles of long term, sustainable fat loss.

Today, we’re drilling into the specifics of what to actually do to lose weight in a sustainable fashion.

I want to start by saying this.

(If you’re tempted to disagree, suspend your disbelief for just a moment.)

Your body can HAPPILY survive off of less total energy than you’re currently giving it.

Let that sink in.

Okay, to be honest, for me, I read that line somewhere, and I thought – “nope.”

“Any time I try to eat less, I feel awful.”

“That sounds nice, but how does one actually implement it without feeling deprived?”

This is how.

This is the secret. Brace yourself, because it’s not very exciting advice. But it works. Okay, ready?

Eat mostly unprocessed or minimally processed foods.

That’s it.

Okay but hear me out:

Unprocessed or minimally processed (aka “unrefined”/”minimally refined”) foods are generally nutritious, fibrous, satiating, and tend to have more bulk but less total energy in them.

They feed you, they feed your gut biome (more than half of the cells in your body are actually *non-human* micro-organisms that are critical to your health); they provide lasting energy, they give you the vitamins and nutrients you need, and they make it much easier to maintain a sustainable, mild calorie deficit.

To illustrate that last point, imagine this:

You’re really hungry.

You’re starving for food.

I say, “here, you can have one piece of really greasy, fast food pizza. But that’s it. If you’re still hungry, you can’t have any more. Sorry, you’ve already reached your ‘calorie limit.'”

^That’s what “counting calories” feels like, if you’re eating highly processed foods.

(Also, your gut microbiome is left very unhappy with what you’ve given it.)

But imagine you’re really hungry, and I say,

“Here, you can have baked potatoes, chicken, grilled veggies, all with some delicious sauce, and you can have as MUCH of them as you like! Come back for seconds. Have more. Here, you can even have some dessert. You’re actually still at a bit of a calorie deficit.”

^That’s what eating mostly unrefined foods feels like.

(Oh, and your gut microbiome is left feeling really happy.)

Sure, is it possible to overeat on minimally processed foods? Yes, absolutely – but it’s difficult to do.

So just as a brief reminder:

You still do, at the end of the day, want to be in a gentle calorie deficit.

(If you want to lose weight.)

But if you’re eating minimally refined foods, that’s much easier than you might think. And no, you don’t have to count calories.

Here are three reasons why:


Off the bat, basically all veggies are so nutritious, fibrous, low on calorie content, and physically filling (in terms of volume), that you can have as MUCH of them as you want. Snack away. Really. Have more. They also feed your gut microbiome very well. (Those lil guys are hungry, they need to eat too!)

Certain legumes like black beans and lentils are also incredibly fibrous and good for you, so I’m gonna lump them in with veggies; have as much of them as you want.


And lean meat (like chicken, turkey, pork), is not only nutritious, satiating, and low in calories, but your body burns 30% of the calories in these protein sources simply by digesting them.

(This is a real thing, and it’s called the “thermic effect of food.”)

So you can also have as much lean meat as you want.


And because this isn’t a “low carb” diet, you’re encouraged to have lots of starchy carbs and whole grains, like potatoes, brown rice, farro, etc.

(Yeah, these are all unrefined foods.)

“People say carbs aren’t satiating? There are not a lot of foods – calorie for calorie – that are as satiating as a baked potato. What people really mean, when they say that, is ‘refined carbs aren’t satiating.'” – Andy Galpin

There’s a lot of hating on carbs these days. I get it: pastries, donuts, white bread, these are all carby foods, and they’re not particularly good for you… so people think “okay, carbs are bad.” But these are all examples of refined carbs.

But potatoes? Brown rice? They’re unrefined whole foods. For long-term, sustainable fat loss, these are great.

Yes, really.

The real question isn’t “low carb” or “high carb,” it’s actually “processed or minimally processed.”

So go ahead, have plenty of minimally processed carbs.

How to eat:

It’s pretty simple:

Just try to eat more of the less-processed or unprocessed stuff, and try to eat it first.

To make that happen, follow the “dessert method”:

When you’re hungry, start by getting in lots of healthy, unrefined food, first.

Then, if you’re still hungry after, have moderately refined food “for dessert.” If you still want after that, have some highly refined food too; you don’t have to be perfect.

Just focus on prioritizing the act of adding in minimally processed foods.

Massively helpful tip: In general, but particularly whenever you find yourself eating high-calorie refined food, really taste and savor your food, being consciously aware of what you’re doing, while sipping lots of water. And stop when you’re full – even if there’s some left on your plate. (Despite what your parents may have told you, you don’t have to finish your plate. Save some to enjoy later.)

And finally, some specifics of what to eat:

In case you’re a bit confused about what counts as “minimally” vs “highly” processed, here’s a (non-comprehensive but helpful) list*, to give you an idea:

Unprocessed or Minimally-Processed Foods

Generally, these are foods that won’t even need a “nutrition facts” label on them. Eat LOTS of these! They’re INCREDIBLE for fat loss!!!

Plants/ “Fibers”: VEGGIES OF ANY KIND!!! Beans, lentils.

Proteins: Chicken, turkey, pork, eggs, fish, plain Greek yogurt, cottage cheese.

Carbs: Potatoes, farro, brown rice, fresh or frozen fruits of any kind, steel cut/old fashioned/rolled oats, quinoa, corn, sprouted grain bread.

Fats: Olive oil, avocados, avocado oil, nuts like pistachios and almonds, many cheeses (particularly sharp, aged ones), unsweetened cacao.

Hydration: WATER!!! Drink Lots! Hot or iced tea, or coffee, without any sugar in it.

Miscellaneous: Spices; cook and spice things to your heart’s content.

Massively helpful tip: Want to speed this process up, feel incredible, and start seeing some results sooner? Just TRIPLE the amount of vegetables you’re eating. Roast them in the oven (throwing in some olive oil and spices), sauté them on the stove, find some salads you love, and generally include them with as many meals as you possibly can. You can even sneak them into shakes using blender. (I fill a Nutribullet with a scoop of chocolate protein powder, half a banana, ice, almond milk, and as much kale as I can fit. Fresh out of the blender, it actually tastes incredible, just like a chocolate milkshake.)

Alright, so that’s unrefined foods. Doesn’t sound too bad, does it??? Actually sounds kinda good, right?? It’s totally possible to just live off of unprocessed foods and feel great. But if you’re still a bit hungry after eating from this section, feel free to move down the list:

Moderately Processed Foods

Here are just a few examples of “moderately processed” foods:

Carbs: Bread – particularly white bread (whole wheat is definitely better/less refined), pasta, bagels, tortillas, white rice, instant/flavored oats.

Proteins: Lean deli meat.

Fats: Sesame oil, flaxseed oil, and high-oleic oils; “expellar-pressed” canola oil, mozzarella/mild/medium cheese, most regular peanut butter, and my favorite: dark chocolate.

If you ate plenty of minimally refined foods first, were still a bit hungry, and then had some moderately processed food after (like some whole wheat pasta, dark chocolate, or even some white bread) then I’d say: GREAT JOB.

You’re doing this exactly right.

If you still want a treat after that, by all means:

Highly Processed Foods

Think “fast-food,” “packaged and preserved,” and “obvious treats.” You don’t have to cut these out entirely, but you’d be amazed just how much you reduce your intake of these foods by focusing on adding in and prioritizing unrefined options.

Carbs: Baked goods like pastries, donuts, cookies, cakes, Twinkies; packaged energy bars, french fries, sugary cereals, “non-sugar syrups and spreads” that are actually very high in sugar, any beverages that are very high in sugar (read the label, you may be surprised), and all foods with 10+ grams of added sugar.

Proteins: Highly-refined high-fat deli meats like salami, pepperoni, and most cold cuts, hot dogs, deep fried meats, most protein bars, high-fat ground meat like burger patties (and most fast-food in general).

Fats: Canola Oil, Vegetable Oil, and most other cooking oils, processed cheese (like those pre-cut, plastic-like American cheese squares), anything deep fried.

Moderately helpful tip: When I’m feeling really low, and I want to just forget everything and jump right to one of these treats, sometimes I ask myself: “Would I rather have the healthy, good-feeling body I want, or this bowl of ice cream?” That usually makes me stop and think just long enough to get in some minimally processed food first.

*Oh, and thanks to Precision Nutrition for help with building this list – particularly for their info regarding fats and oils.

Last – How to make this happen:

This is all actually extremely doable. It’s not rigid, it’s flexible. You’re not cutting out anything; you can eat whatever you want. You’re just doing your best to get in more unprocessed foods, from now on.

It’s a little slow, so you have to manage any expectations for quick results, but yes, it works.

And results last.

Plus, taking care of your body like this feels amazing. If you’re wondering if it’s worth it – it is.

As far as I can see, there is literally one thing standing in your way.

There’s one last action item to ensure your results:

Do whatever you need to do to make sure you always have minimally processed options (that you enjoy), ready to eat.

Always, from here on out.

Whether it’s grocery shopping or ordering meal kit deliveries, whether it’s cooking every day or batch-cooking meals, do whatever you need to do to always have unrefined options on hand.

How good would it feel to always have plenty of your favorite lean meats (like grilled chicken), your favorite veggies (like pre-made salads), and your favorite minimally processed carbs (like oatmeal and potatoes) stocked, cooked, and ready to go???

How nice to have them on hand; to never feel “hangry” again? How easy would it make all this?

I guarantee you, if you made the decision to make that happen – if you made a promise to yourself to prioritize continually having these foods ready and available – sustainable fat loss would be virtually inevitable. You’d feel incredible, you’d look incredible. Your energy, mood, biomarkers, cholesterol would massively improve. Your sex appeal would surge (not that any of this blog’s readers need it!). Even your teeth would be healthier. And you’d drop body fat. Not overnight, but sustainably, and forever.

You can make that decision right now if you want. You can make it happen.

(And remember, you don’t have to decide to be perfect all the time – “imperfect consistency” is the goal!)

Plus, once you make a habit out of keeping your fridge and pantry stocked with mostly unrefined foods, it’s actually pretty effortless. It becomes natural; it becomes automatic.

(In fact, taking good care of your body ultimately makes life easier.)

I encourage you to make the choice:

From now on, do whatever you need to do to keep your favorite minimally-processed options at the ready.

And if you make that decision: sustainable fat loss will be virtually inevitable.

And it will have been achieved in no more than 3 articles, as promised.

Reach out with any questions, and let me know how it goes.


Sustainable Fat Loss Part 2: Six Principles for Lasting Fat Loss

Sometimes, all it takes is one light-bulb moment. Photo by Emmet on

Alright, here’s the challenge: create sustainable, effective, enjoyable fat loss for virtually any reader in no more than 3 articles. Contact me here with any complaints or questions. (Article 1 can be found here.) This is article 2 of 3.

Last post, we focused on the importance of neurotransmitters and mood support so as to mitigate emotional eating. We went over interventions like sunlight exposure, caffeine, and certain amino acids, to boost mood and reduce appetite.

Today’s article is about the general philosophy behind sustainable fat loss (in contrast with rapid fat loss or crash diets.)

People (my previous self included) seem to have the idea that for some reason, they can’t lose weight. That the laws of thermodynamics don’t apply to them.

They have this irrational, sneaking suspicion that somehow weight loss just “won’t work for them” because somehow their body is the “exception to the rule.” (I know it doesn’t make logical sense, but this is exactly how I felt.)

I had to challenge this belief and prove myself wrong. So, I decided to undertake a 30-day experiment to lose as much fat as possible, as quickly as possible. (Read about it here.)

Using a strict diet and fairly aggressive fasting, I lost about 10 lbs in a month and continued to lose weight over the next couple of weeks.

(I guarantee you, if you fast long and hard enough – if you just stop eating – you’ll eventually lose fat too.)

Yes, I proved that I could in fact lose weight.

And I admit – the benefit to rapid fat loss was that I felt empowered.

(Sometimes, an aggressive and rapid start is actually a great way for people to motivate themselves. They get a dopamine boost out of seeing the scale number go down, which causes them to “buy in” and keep going.)

That’s sort of how I felt one week in. My rapid results motivated me hard to keep up the process for 30 days and make some real progress. And I loved the difference in how I looked.

Here’s the catch: I eventually stopped the experiment and went back to real life.

And eventually – slowly – I gained the weight back.


After a while, I realized that I’d ultimately need to change my approach; change my way of thinking, to allow for sustainable fat loss.

And the mindset behind sustainable fat loss is vastly different than that of a 30-day rapid fat-loss challenge.

So, for lasting, enjoyable fat loss, I’d like to present six extremely useful principles to keep in mind.

To cue up principle number one, I’m going to pose a question:

What’s the single most important factor in long-term weight loss success?

Take a guess.


The single most important factor is that you find something you can stick to.

(It will not matter if you’re in a calorie deficit, or you’re following the perfect diet, or doing the perfect exercises – if it’s so grueling that you can only manage to stick with it for a little bit.)

Which brings us to our first point:

1. If this is just something you’re “doing right now,” the weight will come back.

You need an approach that you can personally do forever. Yeah. Which implies: you have to enjoy the process you’re following. Find a way of doing this that you like, that isn’t too difficult, that you can do indefinitely.

The number one priority: find something you can personally stick to.

2. Focus on ADDING IN nutritious food and healthy habits, rather than limiting yourself.

Instead of removing certain foods, allow yourself to eat anything. But focus on adding in healthy foods (and prioritize getting in lots of them, before you eat other options).

Similarly, focus on adding in healthy habits, one at a time. For example – you could try to add in one delicious salad (or serving of your favorite vegetables) a day, and make it a personally important ritual. A habit like that seems small, but is extremely powerful.

3. “Imperfect Consistency” is key.

Sustainable fat loss is not about having the perfect plan. It’s not about eating perfect foods. It’s not about having perfect meals with zero treats, or forgoing salad dressing on your vegetables (I’ve done that!). It’s not even about being consistent all the time.

It’s about being able stick with something (imperfectly), over the long run. If you can follow the advice I will give in the next article just pretty consistently – even just 50% of the time – you will lose weight.

Please, do not do everything “perfectly.” Just try to be somewhat consistent and roughly stick with it. Dial it up or down as needed. Find what works for you, that you can do, in an ongoing fashion. Fudge it if you need to. If necessary, find even just one piece of advice you can take away and implement in an ongoing fashion.

Do your best, dial it way back when needed, be imperfect. But stick with it over the long run.

4. You win when you follow the process, not when you lose the weight.

One more time:

You win when you follow the process, not when you lose the weight.

People often like to lose weight to look better, to feel sexier. You know what’s sexy? Great self-care. Taking good care of your body. Each and every time you eat a healthy meal, that’s a victory. That’s when you get your dopamine hit. Also, since permanent fat loss takes longer than rapid fat loss techniques, trying to get that dopamine hit from looking at the scale is a fool’s errand.

Sustainable fat loss comes at a price: it’s slow. But on the other hand: it works. It’s enjoyable. It’s permanent. So forget about linking your feelings of encouragement to a scale. Get encouraged each time you eat healthy food. Get encouraged each time you buy healthy food.

In other words: be “process oriented,” not “outcome oriented,” as I describe here. I’ve already improved and dialed-in the process for you; all you’ve gotta do is associate pleasure with following it. And once your body associates pleasure with eating the right types of foods – once you have a “Pavlovian response” to healthy choices – you have effectively automated your fat loss.The second you actually associate pleasure with the strategies we’ll describe, the second they become enjoyable habitsthat’s when weight loss inevitable.

Soon, you’ll get to that point where you get a massive dopamine rush just from making healthier choices, from eating certain foods, from grocery shopping, from following the process well.

And THAT is when you’re unstoppable.

5. Try what I say, but ultimately, do what works for you.

Okay, look – I’ll makes some excellent suggestions on what I believe to be the best strategies for lasting fat loss for most people. I think you should give them a try.

But at the end of the day, you’ve gotta do what works for you. If you find that you have to tweak what I say – or if you find something else entirely that works for you – then do that. Do what feels good and works.

But remember: you’ve gotta be able to do it – “imperfectly consistently” – forever.

6. Prioritize self-care above all else.

As I alluded to earlier, lasting fat loss is about taking care of your body. It’s about self care; being kind to yourself. Eating lots of unhealthy, refined foods and consuming too many calories in general is not being kind to yourself. (I’ve this referred to as “energy toxicity” – it’s very hard on your body. It increases your risk of all-cause mortality.) Please don’t do that. But also: eating in a super constricted fashion and feeling miserable all the time isn’t self care either, that’s just self-torture.

Please don’t do that either. Be good to yourself. Lose weight as part of your self care. And you know what? Don’t take it too seriously or stress out about it too much – remember, you’re ultimately just doing this to be kind to your body. Relax and enjoy.

So from now on, be the type of person who takes good care of your body.

(And as a friendly reminder from last article: getting good sleep, keeping up your exposure to daylight, getting some protein and some movement in – all just to improve your mood – are also all great forms of self-care.)

Excellent. You’re now ready for the specifics. Keep everything I mentioned here top of mind as we go forward.

Sustainable Fat Loss Part 1: Biohacking for Emotional Eating

It’s really all about the neurotransmitters.

Alright, here’s the challenge: create sustainable, effective, enjoyable fat loss for virtually any reader in no more than 3 articles. (Article 2 can be found here, and article 3 can be found here.) Contact me here with any complaints or questions. This is article 1 of 3.

The first thing we’re going to do is use powerful tools to quickly and effectively tackle emotional eating.

“Emotional eating” occurs anytime someone uses an unhealthy “treat” food, not because they are hungry, but rather to improve their mood.

(By this definition, I suspect most all of us eat emotionally at times.)

When someone eats due to their emotions, what they’re really doing is using food to create more “happy” neurotransmitters.

And you know what? It’s an effective strategy.

That’s because treating yourself to tasty food will certainly have a rapid effect on your neurotransmitters and make you feel good.

I don’t know you, and I don’t know your particular struggles or overall mental health level. Coping with stress through food may be the best strategy you currently have access to. So I’m not going to tell you to stop – because I don’t know specifically what this coping mechanism is accomplishing for you.

I will however provide you with some alternative mood-boosting strategies that I suggest you at least consider first whenever you feel tempted to eat for emotional reasons.

I have to quickly begin with the basics:

The Foundational Behaviors

To maximally improve your mood, there are a few daily, baseline behavioral tools that are extremely important:

1. Do everything you can to get good sleep.

2. Get as much daylight into your eyes as you can throughout the day (not through a window or sunglasses, but directly into your eyes*).

3. Exercise (or just move!), purely for the emotional benefit.

4. Eat protein (such as chicken, turkey, pork, or fish) as a regular part of your diet.

*If the light is so bright that it’s painful or uncomfortable, then at that point you should wear sunglasses for safety reasons.

Alright, so I’m going to hope you’re doing your best to get those foundational behaviors in every day.

But I understand; that might not quite be enough to quell emotional eating.

So I would like to present you with some more targeted, fast-acting interventions, based on your specific emotional eating patterns.

*It is at this point where I have to point out that I am not a doctor, that you should consult your doctor before doing anything mentioned below, and that this is purely informational in nature. I can’t diagnose or prescribe anything.*

If you ever find yourself eating emotionally, which of the 3 categories below describes you most?

1. Are you eating to seek “comfort” because you’re feeling sad? Perhaps you’re tearful, guilty, lonely, low self-esteem, irritable, or generally down?

2. Are you eating for “entertainment,” perhaps because you’re feeling bored? Maybe you’re feeling that life has no sparkle or excitement, and that you can get some joy through food?

3. Are you eating out of pure stress? Do you feel anxious, scared?

If you ever find yourself relating to one or more of those, find the relevant chapter(s):

1. “Comfort eating” to soothe sad, emotional, bleak, or irritable feelings:

It sounds like you’re low in serotonin, and unconsciously trying to get more of it through food.

This may be the most common cause of emotional eating.

Here’s the good news: we have something for this.

5-HTP is the direct precursor to serotonin, and can be taken orally.

We have good science (experiments/scholarly articles) showing that 5-HTP ingestion increases serotonin and satiety, effectively reducing appetite. It has a very straightforward and well-understood mechanism of action, and it makes sense that serotonin support might reduce emotional eating, because serotonin is the neurotransmitter associated with pleasant, happy feelings of “enough.”

(If you’re doubtful, I recommend you read through the actual scholarly articles on 5-HTP aggregated here on

This intervention is wonderful because it has minimal side effects, it can be used as needed, stopped as needed, and it’s inexpensive – here’s a $20, third-party-tested option from a brand I’ve used that I have no financial affiliation with.

Ultimately, 5-HTP seems to produce a subtle but noticeable mood-boosting, satiety-inducing effect that can help people reduce their need for “comfort food.” It can also help people feel more satiated from the food they do eat. It’s not a magic pill, but it’s a very logical counter to most emotional eating. I can’t promise it’ll work for you, but it’s inexpensive, low risk, and easily available on Amazon, so it’s worth a shot.

How much do people take? People start with low a low dose (of, for example, 50-100 mg), and slowly add more as needed (waiting an hour before adding more, up to a total dose of 200 mg), until they notice an effect. Some sources have people taking a second dose per day, but just start with one.

How quickly does it take effect? I’ve heard it takes one to two hours to reach peak concentration, but in my experience, the effects are noticeable about 20 minutes after ingestion. People take it either daily or as needed.

Common drug interactions? First, I want to point out that unlike St. John’s Wort (a serotonin-boosting herb with an unclear mechanism of action that lowers the efficacy of oral contraceptives), I see no evidence that 5-HTP interacts with birth control pills.

There is one very common interaction to be aware of: if you’re already taking an antidepressant, sorry, you’re not going want to take 5-HTP. You’d be taking a powerful serotonin-booster on top of another powerful serotonin booster, and it’s too much.

Note: One potentially milder option here is to take tryptophan. Tryptophan, aka “L-tryptophan” is an amino acid (the stuff protein is made of) which then converts to 5-HTP, which then converts to serotonin. Since it’s “upstream” in the serotonin pathway, it’s less direct, but it’s taken for essentially the same benefits. Tryptophan is much stronger when taken on an empty stomach, because it competes with other amino acids for transport across the blood-brain barrier. I personally notice it taking a little longer to kick in that 5-HTP, having an effect in about an hour or so. That being said, it’s been a lifesaver for me. Find it here.

If you can’t take 5-HTP or tryptophan, getting a hot shower or even blasting the heat in your car can effectively boost endorphins and serotonin, and may be another fast-acting intervention to try before eating emotionally. Also, the daylight that I mentioned earlier will powerfully boost serotonin and help with this particular type of emotional eating. (It works in a dose-dependent manner; the more you get, the stronger the effect.) Finally, getting a hug from a loved one or cuddling a pet is another powerful serotonin booster that can give you the same soothing feeling you may be trying to get from food.

2. “Pleasure eating” from boredom and lack of excitement:

It sounds like you’re low in dopamine and trying get more of it through food.

Guess what: we have something for this.

Tyrosine (or “L-tyrosine”) is an amino acid precursor to dopamine that works like a charm at boosting mood and drive.

How much do people take? I started out by ingesting one 500 mg capsule of tyrosine, with the plan of taking somewhere between 1-3 capsules, early in the day. Turns out, 2 capsules (1 gram) seemed to do the trick for me. I just take it occasionally as needed.

This amino acid works best taken on an empty stomach, when it doesn’t have to compete with other amino acids for transport across the blood-brain barrier. Don’t take it too late in the day, because it is energizing and could interfere with sleep.

How quickly does it take effect? In my experience, about an hour after ingestion, and sometimes later, you’ll often notice a subtly better, more driven, excited mood.

Common drug interactions? Don’t take it with any dopamine-boosting medication or MAOIs. Don’t combine it with unhealthy, dopaminergic activities like smoking.

There’s another great option here, though:

Black coffee is an excellent, low-calorie mood booster that contains caffeine – which, according to working scientist and Stanford professor Andrew Huberman, increases the “number and efficacy” of dopamine receptors in the brain. Black coffee also very conveniently blunts appetite. (And it may just give you the energy to go out and exercise, too.) Just don’t take it too late in the day, and don’t take it with sugar.

Black coffee and tyrosine are some of my personal favorite mood-boosting interventions. If you’re trying to get more “zest” out of your life through eating sugary, refined food, maybe try these first.

3. “Numbing Eating” when you’re just stressed and anxious:

Sounds like your cortisol is really high.

I’ve got you covered.

Ashwagandha is a fascinating plant that has potent and well-studied cortisol-reducing effects when ingested.

I know – it’s got a crazy sounding name. It sounds “woo-woo.” So I encourage you to look at where you’ll find 35 trials on the substance with a total of 2,021 participants.

In fact, 6 of these studies with a total of 350 participants showed a “notable improvement” in anxiety symptoms, and 3 studies, measuring cortisol, showed “notable decrease” is the stress hormone. Many of these studies were randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled experiments.

How much do people take? 300-600 mg per day is the standard dose. I made the mistake of starting out taking a 1000mg capsule of ashwagandha, and found it too soothing (to the point where it made it hard to think and focus). I’ve since figured out that 450 mg of ashwagandha, as needed, works very well for me personally.

Since scientists are still examining the long-term effects of ashwagandha, it’s probably smart to avoid taking it for more than a month at a time.

How quickly does it take effect? The mechanism of action and time of action behind ashwagandha are much less understood than that of 5-HTP or tyrosine. Personally, I feel its effects in an hour. For some people, it’s 2-3 days. For others, it’s a couple of weeks. And we don’t know exactly how it’s accomplishing what it’s doing. All we seem to know for sure is that it works very well at reducing cortisol.

Common drug interactions? Since this is an herb with an unknown mechanism of action, I have little information about its interaction with other common drugs. You’d have to check with your doctor.

So, while there’s admittedly still some mystery behind the mechanism of action behind ashwagandha, we do have very strong evidence of its powerful ability to reduce stress and cortisol. And because of this, I believe ashwagandha may be a relevant, helpful tool you if you find yourself eating due to stress.


At the core, if you’re eating emotionally, you’re actually unconsciously eating to modulate certain neurotransmitters and hormones.

But there are other ways to accomplish the same thing.

Certain foundational practices – like quality sleep, exercise, sunlight, and getting adequate protein – are critical for facilitating generally healthy neurotransmitter levels.

But we also have specific, fast-acting, and highly directed interventions to reduce your emotional eating based on the way you’re feeling. And we can do this by tackling the emotions at their molecular source: focusing on serotonin, dopamine, and cortisol.

Excellent. You’ll now be moving into all of this with a significant emotional advantage. You’re ready for article 2.

CAFFEINE: Underrated Uses & Risks

Caffeine is one hell of a drug.

Caffeine is a stimulant, and one of the most widely used performance-enhancing compounds in the world. Unlike some supplements and compounds, caffeine is extremely well studied.

Just so we’re on the same page, I’ll briefly give you a little background, and point out that various experiments suggest that caffeine:

  • May have neuroprotective effects with regard to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
  • May have protective effects against heart disease and diabetes
  • Is associated with reduced risk of liver and colorectal cancer
  • Is linked to a reduced risk of suicide and improved mood
  • Increases metabolism by 3-11% and fat burning by up to 13% in a dose dependent manner
  • Suppresses appetite
  • Has well-documented cognitive and performance-enhancing effects

I’d also like to tip my hat to Andrew Huberman (Ph.D., professor of Neuroscience at Stanford), and his incredible podcast, where – while continually referencing studies and clearly explaining mechanism – Huberman makes some excellent points about caffeine.

He argues that, in addition to having many benefits (including an inverse association with depressive symptoms) caffeine:

  • Allows you to essentially “borrow energy” from your future self (Huberman’s wording)
  • “increases the number and sensitivity of dopamine receptors in the brain,” (!!!) essentially making things that would feel good feel even better
  • works as a “reinforcer” (!!!) – making you want to ingest more of things that have caffeine in it, and making you want to do more things that are associated with caffeine consumption

Both from personal, anecdotal experience, and from following the logic of the the podcast (that I’ll leave you to judge for yourself) I believe these statements are generally accurate.

In other words…caffeine is one hell of a drug.

That being said, here are what I believe are 2 underrated risks of caffeine:

ONE: When taken in excess doses, too late in the day, it can fuck up your sleep.

Okay, I KNOW, you’re thinking “this is obvious, everyone already knows this.”

But people are underestimating the risk here.

According to Matt Walker, probably the world’s foremost expert on sleep, even people who insist they can “take an espresso shot and then fall asleep afterward” are still getting lower quality sleep due to that caffeine, they’re just not aware of it.

And if you do reduce your sleep quality due to caffeine use, you’re gonna need more caffeine the next day. This can result in a sort of downward spiral of increased caffeine need and poorer sleep. (All the while interfering with your “compensatory sleep,” or ability to nap to recover.)

Caffeine has an average half life of roughly 5 hours (meaning generally, 5 hours after consumption, half of it is still left in your system, unmetabolized. A quarter of it is still hanging around ten hours later.*) You want a minimal amount left in your system before bed. So to figure out your personal caffeine use limits, it’s really both the timing and total dose that matter here.

*it’s a non-linear function, sorry guys

Also, everyone’s body handles caffeine a little bit differently. Some people might need to stick to a very low dose of caffeine, very early in the morning (and some can be more flexible, having more, a bit later in the day). But no matter who you are: please, take some care to stay out of this downward spiral caffeine/sleep rabbit hole!

TWO: Caffeine and sugar, together, can act as potent double-reinforcers.

Bro, I saw caffeinated donuts for sale the other day. Incredible.

It’s honestly a pretty smart idea because that’s probably about as addictive as you can (legally) make something, without putting nicotine in it.

We’ve established that caffeine is a powerful reinforcer that makes you want more of the things that contain it. Sugar does effectively the same thing. Sugar consumption causes a rapid increase in dopamine – and rapid increases in dopamine cause rapid drops afterward, which cause a strange type of pain that’s interpreted as a feeling of craving. Further, experiments show that even if you completely numb someone’s mouth and eliminate their ability to taste, that person will prefer a sugary beverage over a non sugary one, even though they can’t taste the difference.

(In other words, it’s not just the taste of sugar, it’s something about what it’s actually doing inside you, that is habit-forming.)

So if I wanted to design a totally legal, nicotine-free product, to make you keep coming back for more, it would have lots of sugar, and lots of caffeine.

In other words, it would probably look a lot like a caffeinated donut.

(Or better yet, a really caffeinated, really sugary beverage – the sugar would probably hit faster in liquid form.)

Alright, so every once in a while, a caramel latte is probably fine. But the advice here is try to separate your sugar from your caffeine, so you don’t have these two powerful habit-formers coreinforcing each other. (In case you were wondering, caffeine’s subtle metabolic-boosting effects are not enough to offset it being paired with sugar.)

If you need sugar in your coffee, here’s a hot take: I recommend a non-nutritive sweetener like erythritol.

Here are what I believe are 2 underrated, powerful, caffeine uses:

1. Leverage (borrowing)

I talked in this article about investing your resources, and we’ve already established that caffeine allows you to borrow energy from your future self.

(Now I’m gonna talk about money for a second, so I can make an analogy…)

In finance, a powerful tool is leverage, where you borrow money to invest for greater returns. Of course, if you borrow money to make risky investments, you’re amplifying risk. But if you’re borrowing for a well-considered, intelligent investment, leverage is extremely powerful (and indeed often necessary to allow you to do things you couldn’t otherwise accomplish – like buying a home).

Think of caffeine in the exact same way.

You can use caffeine to borrow energy, essentially “using leverage,” to “make an investment” in order to accomplish something particularly beneficial.

One of the hands-down most powerful way to do this is by borrowing energy to exercise (in effect, borrowing energy to create more energy – because with the right intensity, exercise can actually be energizing). Plus, exercise can powerfully boost your mood and overall health.

In my view, this is one of the highest reward and lowest risk ways to put the power of caffeine to good use.

It’s strategic because the benefits are recursive – i.e., the exercise itself tends to create more overall health/energy, which then allows for more exercise, and so on. It also has beneficial ripple effects on sleep, mental function, etc.

(See this article about compounding non-financial resource investment.)

You could also “borrow energy” via caffeine to get really important work done, assuming you’re being careful with dosage and timing.

2. Reinforcement

Since we know caffeine is a reinforcer (again, that means it makes you want to ingest more things that contain it, and do more things that are associated with it), it’s possible to use the substance to associate pleasure with productive activities.

Again, in my opinion, one of the most powerful options here is exercise.

Having (non-sugary) caffeine right before exercise – or “pairing” caffeine with exercise, so to speak – can reinforce exercise as being pleasurable, in a surprisingly potent way.

Of course, you could use intentionally use caffeine to reinforce just about any useful activity.

But caffeine’s energizing, exercise-performance-enhancing effects lend it very well to reinforcing exercise.

Alright, that just about sums up today’s post.

Use caffeine responsibly; it’s a powerful substance. Watch your total dosage, and avoid taking it too late in the day.

(As of this writing, I personally stop all caffeine consumption by 2pm at the latest, and often earlier, like noon or one.)

Also, try to separate caffeine from sugar.

But caffeine is an extremely effective, highly studied performance enhancer that you can use strategically to associate pleasure with useful activities and “borrow energy” from your future self to accomplish things – and it seems exceptionally well-suited for use alongside exercise.

Investing vs. Spending Your Resources

Screenshot of “Age of Empires 3,” a game where you have 3 types of resources (food, wood, gold) which you want to be continually investing. (Life gives us similar opportunities to invest our personal resources, but also tempts us with frivolous ways to spend them.)

Concept of the day: you can either be spending or investing with regard to each resource you have, in every area of your life.

Spending” is trading one resource for another.

When you spend, you lose something to gain something else, and the transaction is complete.

Can you think of some expensive item you bought (particularly one that you didn’t end up even liking much?) That’s an obvious financial spend. Money lost, item gained, nothing else significant happened.

“Investing” is trading a resource for the ability to get more resources (or another type of resource that’s worth more).

When you invest, you start by doing something that looks a lot like spending, but then you ultimately end up with more value then when you started.

Financially, if you invest, you trade money for the reasonable expectation you’ll eventually acquire more money.

Unlike spending, investing can be stacked, or repeated. For example, if you’re a clever, responsible investor, then theoretically you can invest, get more money, and then invest that money, and so on.

At the end of the day, both transactions involve resources and trades – but investing can be done recursively (repeated in a compounding fashion).

None of this is particularly new when you’re talking about money, or financial resources.

However, I’d like to broaden the definition of “resources” today.

Because, in fact, you can be investing or spending in every area of your life, with many types of resources.

And many of what I would argue are your most important resources are not physical or tangible. Unlike money, they might not be easy to quantify.

(But don’t let that be an excuse to overlook or undervalue them.)

Here are some of what I consider to be your foundational, critical resources, listed in no particular order. Like money, they can all be invested wisely, or spent frivolously.

(If low on time, feel free to just read the headlines, or jump around. You’ll still get the gist of the article.)

Physical Energy

(We’re going to start really basic here. But don’t discount the importance of this resource.)

Question: How are you spending your limited amount of energy per day? You only have so much of it, so you might as well prioritize your energy spend.

But you also have another option. Like with money, you don’t have to simply spend – you have the ability to invest it to get more of it.

To illustrate “spending” vs. “investing” your physical energy, let me ask:

Are you someone who’s trying to exercise, but you’re really just spending all of your energy trying to outscore everyone else at Crossfit, and then feeling exhausted throughout the week? (Because I’ve done that.)

Or, are you training in an intelligent way – using exercise as a part of your self-care – as an investment to actually increase your energy throughout the week? (See Goldilocks Training.) This is probably a wiser mindset to have.

Further, if you want to increase your physical energy, and you consider other resources at your disposal, you could invest your time, money, mental energy, etc. into deliberately improving your sleep. (That would almost certainly increase your physical energy – and would be an exceptionally wise investment, in my opinion.)

Physical energy is foundational and extremely valuable, as it will help you in regard to virtually every other resource I will mention.

This is a resource I highly recommend prioritizing.

Social/Emotional Energy

Are you a fairly introverted person who already has plenty of social time in your life, and now someone else (who you don’t even like that much!) is trying to get you to spend time with them? Seeing that person would be a social energy spend (it’ll drain your social energy).

On the other hand, are you a fairly extraverted person who isn’t quite getting enough time around others, and now someone (who you actually do like!) wants to meet for coffee? That’s a social energy investment. (You’ll actually feel more energized afterward).

(I’m kinda oversimplifying here with polar opposite examples, but see Introversion, Extraversion, & Energy for more detail.)

Anyway, consider spending carefully – particularly if you’re introverted – and investing intelligently, to overall maximize your social/emotional energy levels.


Are you doing some job that simply takes time and energy, without helping you learn anything or providing you with new opportunities? If so, you’re spending time (a resource we’ll touch on later), and skills already acquired, in return for money.

(Nothing wrong with that, I’d just classify it as a spend, or resource trade, rather than an investment – unless you really enjoy what you’re doing, which we’ll also touch on later.)

On the other hand, are you taking a class or doing some job that teaches you new things, helps you meet new people, and/or provides opportunity for advancement? That’s a skills/opportunity investment.


Are you investing money, time, or energy into improving your health (which will then create more physical energy, well-being, earning power, etc.)?

Or are you spending your health to get some other resource, like money?

Your health is one of those foundational things that will almost certainly affect everything else on this list, so I highly recommend prioritizing it.


Did an earlier “spend” of time, money, energy, skills, etc, actually make you significantly happier, preferably (but not necessarily) in a repeated fashion?

Then maybe it’s not a spend after all, but an investment – with a genuine R.O.I. (Return On Investment) in terms of overall happiness.

I will say, buying physical objects usually counts as a spend.

But (just as an example) if this amazing pair of running shoes I’m wearing makes me really happy, every time I put them on – and helps me get out the door and improve my health – then in my mind, that particular purchase is actually more of an investment than a spend.

Similarly, you could be doing a job that doesn’t particularly improve your skills or provide new opportunities, but brings you a sense of purpose/satisfaction/meaning. That would almost certainly improve your happiness/well-being.

(On the other hand, you could take a job that makes you miserable but pays a lot; i.e., you could, with the right job, spend happiness to get money.)

At the end of the day, you’re going to want to always keep in mind how other investments or expenditures will ultimately affect your happiness.


Time is a resource that we usually either spend or invest for other resources.

For example, you can invest some time into improving your skills, which may in turn be invested for money and happiness/well-being.

However, you can also invest time (as well as mental energy) to make time – for example, taking a little time to plan or streamline a system to make subsequent work go faster. You can also invest money for time (by paying someone else to do something for you, freeing up your own time).

And, by investing time into your health, you may end up actually increasing the total amount of quality, healthy time you have on this earth.

Mental Energy

“Mental energy” – is this starting to get too abstract and intangible? Then let me ask you some questions:

How much actual, focused, difficult problem solving can you do in a day?

How many smart decisions can you make in a row, before the quality of your decisions starts to falter (you experience “decision fatigue”)?

Similarly, how much self control can you exert, when exposed to repeated, varied, highly tempting stimuli, in succession? (And then offered a doughnut?)

If you’re a human, there’s a finite amount of all of the above. This is mental energy.

Either prioritize your spend wisely, or invest it (in, say, using your intelligence to try to figure out how to improve your health or get better sleep, which will in turn increase your mental energy.)

Social Connection/”Network”/Relationships

In terms of simple career success, “network” can be invaluable (i.e, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”). Both typical work acquaintances, but also more informal family, friends, and other connections can all be considered valuable resources.

But even setting aside career success, in terms of life in general: if you want to lead a happy, meaningful life, then people/connection/family/friends/relationships are some of your most precious resources.

Investing time, physical and mental energy into your relationships is generally a very wise move.


You already know about money. It’s great to have and typically valued very highly.

But ultimately it’s just one of many types of resources that can be spent or invested.

Okay, well, those are some examples of what I consider to be some noteworthy resources.

(Tip: try to avoid over-focusing on one resource – like money – to the point of experiencing both a) diminishing returns in that area and b) significantly neglecting other areas.)

Also, try to avoid just frivolously “spending” your valuable resources.

Instead, ALWAYS BE INVESTING your resources, to create either:

a) more resources


b) different resources that are more valuable.

Then repeat the cycle.

Goldilocks Training

woman lacing up her gray and pink nike low top athletic shoe
Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom on

Alright, I’ll just say it – when you exercise, you’re exercising too hard.

(Yes, you – even if you barely ever exercise.)

You are making life miserable for yourself.

And every time you exercise – while pushing too hard – you’re reinforcing to yourself that “exercise sucks.”

You’re too goal-oriented when exercising. Way back in school, you were told “run a mile,” and you had to go out at complete the whole mile, and it was awful.

Now, that’s what you think of whenever you think of exercise.

Every time you do get yourself out the door to exercise, that’s the only way you know how to go about doing it.

E.g., “Okay, I’m going out the door, and I’m going to run a mile.” (Or jog for a full ten minutes. Or whatever.)

And you either succeed and run the whole mile (or finish whatever goal), but it feels really hard. Or you quit, and feel like you failed.

Or, maybe, you go too easy, and all you ever do is nothing.

(Or something that is so slow and easy it doesn’t challenge you at all.)

Which means you’ll never really trigger those endorphins, or hit that “runner’s high,” that you’ve heard about but have never experienced, because “exercising is miserable.”



Okay, obviously, I don’t really know for sure if all of the above applies to you. Maybe I’m wrong, I’m just guessing.

But I’m willing to bet it does, because I think it applies to most people.

I have good news though: if any of that rings a bell – there is a way out.

There is another way to think about – and go about – exercising, which I call “Goldilocks Training.”

(Yes, it’s in reference to the proverbial “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” where our interloper protagonist trespasses into a house of three bears, steals porridge that is “not too hot, not too cold, but just right,” and then does some other burglar stuff. Anyway. It’s the “just right” part that matters.)

The “Goldilocks training” theory is simple:

There IS a level of intensity of training that feels maximally enjoyable, while still creating significant, often surprisingly rapid, improvement.

There IS a Goldilocks level of “not too hard, not too easy,” that’s just right, that actually feels good.

(Yes, it feels good.)

And you probably don’t believe me, because you probably always exercise too damn hard.

The idea that “exercise can feel good” is a really tough pill to swallow for people who have never experienced the phenomenon before.

Even now you’re probably shaking your head, going, “yeah, Dolan, I don’t know about that. I’ve exercised before and it’s always sucked. Every time. I’ve never experienced a ‘runner’s high’ or anything like that. What you’re saying doesn’t apply to me, to my body.

Okay, okay.

I absolutely believe you –

Exercise has always been unpleasant, every time you’ve ever done it.

Maybe you’ve tried some form of exercise 1000 times and none of them has ever been enjoyable.

But I’m here to tell you, the 1001st time can be different.

(Actually, it may take a little practice, so it might be more like 1002nd or 1003rd, but bear with me.)

Up until now, you’ve been distracted from the possibility of enjoying exercise.

By thinking you had to achieve a goal when training (e.g., “run a mile”, “run for an entire twenty minutes” “finish a workout class,” “finish this hike”), you’ve been missing out on something much more important.

So going forward, when it comes to exercise, I suggest experimenting with completely dropping that outcome-orientated attitude.

Instead, I suggest entirely focusing on something different – striving for the “Goldilocks level” of intensity (and time).

Be willing to shamelessly modify any goals you had coming into the workout – and instead, completely prioritize mindfully noticing your body, to try to hit your own personal Goldilocks level.

(It’s worth mentioning that in my experience, it seems like it’s always the smartest and most elite athletes who seem to happily and shamelessly modify workouts to make them easier, when needed. They listen to their bodies. While elite athletes are, admittedly, relentless about consistently getting out the door to train, the actual training itself is frequently modified, adjusted, to be the “just right” level of intensity. This prevents injury and allows for sustainable training over the long run. On the other hand, novice athletes tend to have it backward – they’re lackadaisical about actually getting out the door and being consistent, but once they are out, they feel they need to force themselves through a workout to the bitter end, even if their body is begging them to adjust it. Be smarter than that.)

So here’s what I suggest:

Go a bit easier.

Yes, get out the door, for sure. But then listen to your body, and tone it back.

Because I think most people (even if they barely ever exercise ever) actually overshoot their Goldilocks levels.

Your personal Goldilocks level of difficulty (at this moment) may just be a short walk.

It may be a medium-length walk. Or maybe a walk on a slight incline. Or a brisk walk.

Or it may be a walk-jog, or gentle run.

(You know that when you go on a run, you don’t have to run the whole time. You know that, right??)

Whatever your personal Goldilocks level of training is, at this moment, remember: it’s not static.

What may be the perfect level to train at today may not be the perfect level for you tomorrow.

And if you’re continuously training at just the right intensity, you’ll notice your own Goldilocks level will improve.

So, for right now, just try to exercise with the goal of enjoying exercise.

Have the intention of hitting your Goldilocks level.

JUST focus on finding the right zone of intensity.

Forget about everything else.

(And do that from now on.)

(Tip: to make sure you are hitting your Goldilocks level, you do want to feel at least a little challenge. So if you’re out there walking, and you feel no difference in your breathing, no challenge whatsoever, you may want to walk a little faster.)

But other than that, you now have permission to cut your hikes short (yeah, without getting to the top!). You have permission to take walk brakes. You have permission to slow down. You have permission to modify your workouts while your doing them, and deviate from the workout plan of the day.

Soon, you’ll get really good at tuning into your body to notice that golden zone of intensity. You’ll get so mindful, so dialed in to what your body needs, you’ll be able to increase the level of challenge a bit while still keeping it really enjoyable. You’ll start to improve surprisingly quickly.

And you’ll find yourself wanting to come back and exercise in that Goldilocks zone again and again, causing a pretty addictive virtuous cycle.

But it takes a very different mindset than the one you probably currently have.

So go try this new attitude out.

And stick with it for at least a few workouts in a row.

And if you’re having trouble getting out the door and starting, I highly recommend a little coffee (or caffeine in your favorite form) to get you started.

But let go of rigid exercise goals, ease up, and aim for some flexible Goldilocks training.

And let me know how it goes.

Elite Problem-Solving

(Chris Pine, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh!) Ryan, an analyst, uses his savvy to solve CIA-level geopolitical problems.

Good evening and welcome back to the blog. In a previous post I touched on and defined problem solving, how I see it. Today, we’re taking it up a notch.

As a brief refresher, I defined “problem solving” very specifically – dealing with ambiguous situations in which you don’t even know how you’d go about finding the answer.

I suggested viewing “problem solving” as its own meta-skill that can be improved.

Now, we’re going to practice improving it. (And actually enjoying solving problems.)

Why? Because various problems (or “challenges”), big or small – are bound to come up in life, and rather than wish they didn’t exist, I suggest aiming for being the type of person who can handle them with ease.

(That’s a wish that’s actually within your sphere of control, because it’s about you and how you respond.)

Instead of having a problem-free life, I want you to become an elite-level problem solver.

That’s a crucial distinction. At the end of the day, most of us don’t truly want a totally problem free life, where everything is delivered, solved, blended, and fed to us – like the lifestyles of the characters in Wall-E.

(Disney Pixar, Wall-E. Directed by Andrew Stanton.) A life where every problem is solved for you, just sit back and consume!

Instead, we want to be the type of people who can handle whatever comes up (like Ethan Hunt from Mission Impossible, or Jack Ryan or James Bond. One gets the sense that they could handle – or figure out how to handle – pretty much anything, right?)

(Tom Cruise, Mission Impossible III – one of the better Mission Impossible movies, in my opinion, and directed by J.J. Abrams!) Ethan Hunt solves “impossible” problems and so can you!

Even if you don’t actually want to work for the CIA or MI6 and fight bad guys like these fictional characters, wouldn’t you at least like to have their problem-solving acumen? Yeah.

So how do you get there?

There are some tips and tricks (“best practices,” if you will) for problem-solving, that are quite useful to keep in mind when tackling difficult, ambiguous situations.

I’ll summarize them neatly at the end of this post (but I already touched on most of them here, so I’ll be brief).

However, I’ve come to believe that truly becoming an elite-level problem solver ultimately boils down to one key, major shift in mindset.

I believe this one shift in mindset/ piece of advice – when followed diligently – has powerful recursive, compounding effects.

Here it is:

Practice using all problems as training grounds to enjoy problems.

Get that? Practice using all problems you face – every little challenge – as opportunities to ENJOY the process of facing and solving problems.

In other words, associate pleasure with the challenge of problem-solving itself, and use each new problem as an opportunity to reinforce that association.

Or, restated one last time, think: challenge= pleasure

(And each new challenge/problem is an opportunity to reinforce this.)

If you actually ENJOY facing and solving ambiguous problems, you will do it more often, more effectively, and with a better attitude, and that will ultimately cause you to become better at it.

Yes, I get it – “problems” don’t initially present as “fun.” And most people, at first, don’t like the feeling of struggling with something they don’t have any answers for.

But by viewing problems as opportunities to become like _________* (*insert favorite fictional problem-solver here, such as Batman); by viewing problems as opportunities to strengthen your association between enjoyment and challenge, you’re setting yourself on a path to actually take some pleasure in the process, and become an elite problem-solver yourself.

And that may be worth your while.

Alright, quick sum-up:

As stated here, at the core of most every challenge lies “problem solving,” which is its own meta-skill that can be improved.

But at the core of improving problem solving lies linking enjoyment to the process itself, and using challenges as opportunities to strengthen that link.

(And a little inspiration from looking to movie characters can help with this association.)


Last, if you’re interested, I did promise a very quick summary of tips and tricks (or “best practices”/ “qualities to remember”) while solving difficult, ambiguous problems.

I’ve organized it into a nifty mnemonic, SPAR:

S Self-assurance in the face of ambiguity. Practice having self-assurance even when you don’t know what to do. This is one of the few places where the phrase “fake it till you make it” is actually quite helpful – at least try to act self-assured, because it’ll eventually help you feel self-assured when dealing with stressful ambiguity (a phenomenon I somewhat touch on when I discuss The As If Principle here).

P Pure – focus PURELY within your sphere of control going forward – don’t focus outside your sphere of control by casting blame or bemoaning what’s already happened; it’s wasted effort. Be warned, these behaviors are oddly quite tempting, so people tend to indulge in them a lot. Instead JUST focus purely on solving the problem. Just focus PURELY on what you can control.

A – Attitude, emotions, while in the thick of it. Practice actually enjoying the process, as we’ve discussed throughout this article. Eventually, you may find yourself with a calm smile and sense of humor even in the midst of “impossibly stressful” challenge.

R Risk tolerance. Practice gently expanding your risk tolerance over time, particularly by facing gradually increasing perceived risks that don’t actually pose a significant real risk (like public speaking, or making friends with someone new).

Congratulations – you’re now on the path to becoming an elite problem solver.

And next time you face some difficult challenge – say, missing your first of multiple connecting flights and having your bags get lost – you’ll think: “good.”

Good problem-solving practice.

Paradoxical Intention – Do Worse.

What if you took all of the pressure off of yourself?

What if instead of trying to do well, you just lowered the bar and aimed for a “C-“? Or “D+”?

What if instead of trying to be perfect, you aimed for mediocre?

Sure, it sounds weird enough, in our society driven by performance and personal success… but isn’t it kind of a relief to think about? Doesn’t it feel like a weight lifted off your shoulders?

“Paradoxical Intention” is a term I specifically picked up from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (at the end of the book, when he describes some of his therapeutic techniques).

In it, Frankl gives some examples of “paradoxical intention” at play.

For example, he retells the story of a certain man with a stutter that had been with him as long as he could remember – except, that is, for one time:

As a twelve year-old, this guy once tried to hitch a ride on a streetcar, but was eventually caught by the conductor.

In an attempt to “elicit sympathy,” he tried to “demonstrate that he was just a poor stuttering boy.”

And that was the one time in his life he couldn’t stutter.

Fascinating, right?

Or there’s another example, in the book, of a patient with a fear of excessive sweating around people – and, sure enough, his anticipatory anxiety caused him to sweat a lot.

Frankl advised him to “resolve deliberately to show people how much he could sweat.”

The man would say to himself something like, “I only sweated out a quart before, but now I’m going to pour at least ten quarts!”

That one tip relieved all the pressure he had put on himself. After a single session, his ten-year phobia was gone.

There’s even an a story of a man with “incurably” awful handwriting, advised to write with the “worst possible scrawl” – who suddenly found it difficult to write with messy handwriting.

So what’s paradoxical intention? In a nutshell, it’s Viktor Frankl’s psychiatric technique to invite the patient to “intend, even if only for a moment, precisely that which he fears.”

This creates a “reversal of the patient’s attitude” to “ridicule [those fears] by dealing with them in an ironical way.”

In that respect, and with a little bit of a sense of humor – the “wind is taken out of the sails of the anxiety.”

I personally have dealt with anxiety for the majority of my life – putting immense internal pressure on myself to achieve extremely well in school, and applying the same type of internal stress on myself regarding career success and achievement.

But, in an example of paradoxical intention, I noticed something not too long ago.

During the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, when people weren’t supposed to be achieving, you were supposed to just stay home – those particular anxieties were completely gone.

Sure, it was an enormously difficult time in many other ways – as a country, as a world, we were trying to survive, to look after loved ones, particularly those with compromised immunities. But it was collectively, socially, okay to experience negative emotions, to stay home, to just “survive” and not “accomplish.”

And because of that, my lifelong “high-achiever” anxieties — this particular brand of negative emotion — vanished.

You know, maybe we’re all putting too much pressure on ourselves – whether it’s to perform well (in any field), or to achieve amazing things in our careers, or get to sleep right now at night….or to not sweat so much in front of others, or to write perfectly….

Maybe we could all benefit from some paradoxical intention.

Perhaps instead of trying to do a perfect job, we should just try to do…I don’t know…worse. What a relief that might be to those of us with type-A personalities, to lower the bar a bit.

And who knows, maybe, with that stress off our backs, we might just accidentally end up doing a better job.

I think we’ll certainly be happier for it.

So usually I’d send you off by wishing you good luck and success, but maybe today I’ll just say:

Lower the bar on yourself, and have fun.


“Hygge” – The Danish Word for that Cozy Feeling

Have you heard about it yet?


It’s a Danish word to capture a certain special feeling – one that we don’t really have a good word for in English.

But we’re starting to catch on here and the States – and in the rest of the world – because boy is it nice.

For those not yet in the know, “hygge” is a word that captures a special, certain cozy feeling you may get, for example, when sitting by a fireplace or candles, with some tea or a hot drink, with loved ones or good friends around, just relaxing – perhaps reading a book.

(Not cozy enough an example for you?)

Imagine being in a cozy cabin, out in the wilderness, with some close friends – the forest outside is beautiful but cold and wet, yet you’re safe and warm, with people you like, protected from the outside world. That’s hygge.

Or imagine it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas and you’ve just eaten a big meal, and now you’re relaxing afterward with your favorite relatives or friends, sipping coffee, just feeling content, with soft warm lights around. That’s hygge.

The technical definition of the term – at least according to the most reliable source I can think of, Wikipedia, is – “coziness and comfortable conviviality with feelings of wellness and contentment.” That’s pretty good – a lot better than the totally inaccurate google translation (which is “fun”).

But I’d suggest it’s only in thinking about times in your own life that you’ve personally really felt cozy and content – or imaging situations where you really would – when you truly understand the term. So see if right now, you can think of a cozy moment from your past, and remember how it felt. Or imagine your own special, ideal safe haven, and see how that feels. Take a moment.

Good:) I think you get it.

Now, I’ve read one entire book about the subject (Matt Weiking’s Little Book of Hygge), so I’m pretty much an expert by now…

But after spending some time reading about it, one thing really strikes me above all else:

How important and prioritized hygge is in Danish culture.

The entire culture – down to the government structure itself, a welfare state, with strong safety nets, free healthcare, generous family leave and unemployment – seems to prioritize hygge above all else.

While in America we’re focusing on personal accomplishment, GDP, career growth, money, buying things – which all sounds pretty nice, too, at least on the face of it – Danes seem to have universally agreed that there’s something more important.

That difference in priorities – that a whole country seems to agree on – is what really fascinates me.

And I think that’s where you can make the biggest difference in your own life as well. Not so much in the little tricks for creating hygge (which I will certainly give you in a moment!), but in a fundamental shift in priorities.

Because focusing on hygge really does seem to make people happier.

Danes are consistently some of the very happiest rated people in the WORLD. And while it’s hard to prove specific causal relationships, it certainly appears as though the fundamental priorities and attitudes of Danish people and government, including a healthy respect for hygge, may be a big contributing factor.

Now I don’t know about you, but when I hear that people in a certain place are really happy, I think “whoa, I gotta learn from that!”

I find it genuinely thrilling. I get intensely curious. It’s exciting. It makes me want to deconstruct what they’re doing, and do whatever’s within my sphere of control to see if I can incorporate any of it into my own life.

With that in mind, here are some things you can try, right now, to have more hygge in your life:

#1!!! PRIORITIZE hygge. I don’t know what is, but you’re consciously or subconsciously prioritizing something in your life right now. You have some root command in your operating system. It may be pursuit of money, prestige, popularity, good grades, career advancement, or even video game success. But what I’d suggest is experiment with de-prioritizing whatever that is, and shifting gears towards focusing on coziness and togetherness, and just see how it goes.

I think that’s the most important thing. But here are some more hygge tips, tricks, and ideas:

  • Spend time with people you care about; make time for loving relationships. Oxytocin, the love hormone that I touch upon within this article, is an enormous factor in hygge. While cozy hygge feelings can be achieved alone, togetherness (i.e, tribe, relationships) is so, sooo important to hygge. It really makes all the difference. Prioritize your relationships and spend time in small groups with people you really enjoy. (Also, most of the tips below can be done alongside others, to really make them hygge.)

  • Take time to just relax, enjoy, be “lazy,” even if it doesn’t accomplish anything. Hygge isn’t about success, money, accomplishment – it’s about enjoying the now.

  • Treat yourself. Chocolate, baked goods, a movie, a bath, whatever you personally consider to be a treat – indulge.

  • Spend time in nature.

  • Light a candle; maybe take a candle-lit shower.

  • Have a hot cocoa with whipped cream, or coffee, or tea, and – as Matt Weiking says – “give it the attention it deserves.”

  • Snuggle up with a good book, and plenty of blankets and cushions. A cozy reading hour with friends is very hygge.

  • Vote for more Danish-like hygge-prioriziting policies.

  • Incorporate warm, cozy 2700k color temperature lights in your life.

  • Last but not least, spend time by a crackling fire. (Again, preferably with others.)

Well there you have it:) Those are my top hygge tips.

Take a moment to de-prioritize accomplishment, and focus on cozy contentment with other people you love.

But really, this is a short list, so I have to ask – what are your best hygge ideas? What makes you feel cozy and content?

Let me know.

With warmth and coziness,


Problem Solving – The Ultimate Meta Skill

Good morning, and welcome back to the blog – if you can master today’s skill, I believe you can succeed in just about anything.

That’s because, unlike specific skills – such as knowing how to change a tire, or do a deadlift – this meta skill applies to just about everything.

The skill is “problem solving,” but I have a very specific type of “problem solving” in mind; a very specific definition of the term:

Overcoming challenges which you don’t even know how to go about approaching.

(In school you’re often taught exactly how to solve very specific types of problems, then given exercise sheets to practice it. You don’t know the answer, but you know the process you’re supposed to use; how to get to the answer.

That’s not the kind of “problem solving” I’m talking about. Life is often much more ambiguous.)

It was only recently that I really started to think about this phenomenon with any sort of self-awareness.

I was playing a video game with my brother (he was watching and helping), when I got to a point in the game which I had no idea what to do. No idea how to go forward.

I didn’t even know how to go about learning how to go forward.

(Also, I don’t really play video games very often, so I felt totally lost.)

I looked to my brother, the veteran gamer, for guidance, and he smiled just said,
“well, time to go about doing some problem solving, Dolan.”


In other words:

“I’m gonna have to figure this out, even though I have no idea how to even go about figuring this out. That’s the point.”

And really, life is the same way.

Want to lose weight? Want to make more money? Have deeper relationships? Are you doing your taxes for the first time? Changing a tire? (Assuming you haven’t picked up that specific skill yet.)

You’re going to be faced with figuring it out, even if you may currently have no idea how to even go about figuring it out.

So how do you deal with this type of real-life ambiguous problem solving?

Well, I find it helps to think of “problem solving” or “ambiguous problem solving” as its own skill, that you can get better at as you do it more. And you can practice recognizing situations where you use this skill.

But I can also give you three tips when it comes to problem solving:

  • Practice being totally comfortable with not immediately knowing how you’re going to find the answer. Think “I’m going to do this, and I have no idea how I’m going to do this, but that’s okay.” Take a sip of tea. Relax and look at the ambiguity as if you’re viewing it from above, fascinated and amused. Might as well get comfortable.
  • Practice self-assurance. Realize that in the past, you’ve already done this over and over again with problems you had no idea how to solve. You’ve looked up at metaphorical mountains that, at the time, seemed impossibly tall. And yet, you’ve overcome them, and you’re still alive today. Sure, as you look back now, perspective might make your past accomplishments seem quite doable. Like learning subtraction. Or getting through high school. But at the time, looking forward, they seemed impossible. Remember? Be assured, any “impossible” tasks now are gonna appear just the same way when you look back later.
  • Focus purely within your sphere of control. What is within your sphere of control to do? Your sphere of control is actually probably much more limited and manageable than you might think. And to be honest, you’re likely wasting a lot of energy focusing on things outside your sphere of control. (Trying to change the past isn’t within your sphere of control, so while you can spend as long as you want wishing for things to be different, saying, “how I have not solved this already?! Who’s to blame for this?!”, none of that will actually help solve a problem.) Just focus on what you can do, going forward.

Okay – to summarize (and keep this short!), problem solving is its own meta-skill which you can improve, and self assurance, comfort with ambiguity, and – critically – focusing within your sphere of control are all trainable aspects which make for excellent problem solving.

Oh, and if you really want to train your problem solving skills, try an escape room – or maybe just sit down and play a good video game. 🙂