Finding the right problems to solve

‘We create out of freedom a prison, tranquilising oneself with the trivial’ – paraphrased from The Denial of Death

Sometimes you stumble across an idea so simple and yet fundamentally important that it slaps you across the face like an ice-packed snowball. I’d been living in Bangkok for two years, immersed in ‘almost’ all of the wonderful temptations that most seductive of cities has to offer. As a break from my vices I found myself crunching through 400 pages of heavyweight psychology as I sought to find solutions for an agitated mind. To save you a little time I’ve tried to distill one of this book’s most important concepts (you can thank me later!). 

Essentially our brains are designed to solve problems: breathing – all good, food and water – tick, shelter – done, finding a mate (at least on a temporary basis) – Insta/Tinder! For many of us the basics are covered, so we sit back and bask in our own personalised bubble and feel great… but it doesn’t last… that wonderful supercomputer between your ears gets bored and starts to whir… and this is where the problems begin.

Without the right kind of focus, your brain will now lead you on a hedonistic jaunt towards a much less pleasant place called ‘Neurosis’. Here you will start to ponder what you ‘don’t’ have but would like to have, how you look, how popular you are, and seek a hundred micro shots of dopamine (the same chemical activated by cocaine) as people you don’t really know react to you latest Instaaaa upload. You are now a slave to your own addiction with your brain creating all manner of trivial distractions that seem impossible to ignore: your eyes will gaze down to your phone even as your best friend tries to tell you something important, you will get upset because just one of your 20 friends couldn’t make your birthday party, or simply overanalyse recent events, or situations yet to arise.

While most of my friends and colleagues considered me to be friendly and well balanced (which I was a decent proportion of the time!), I was also waging a constant war with my dopamine addiction and lack of focus on the ‘right’ problems. The sheer volume of time spent crafting my personal finances, scouring apps for my next date or seeking out more traditional routes to dopamine dosing was phenomenal. On the surface I’d solved life’s initial challenges a little too well: a great apartment, a healthy salary and an action packed social life. However, I’d failed to add new and productive challenges that would provide a long-lasting and stable focus, leading to a frequent feeling of emptiness or agitation in between the highs. A roller-coaster lifestyle always has a time limit.

As with any healthy drug addiction, recognizing that you have a problem is the first step. The key is then to focus on the ‘right’ kinds of problems to solve. What’s important to you may well be different to what’s important to me – and this is not the place for patronising advice – but your brain likes a meaty challenge. The ‘right’ kind of problem could be learning a new language, mastering a new sport, trying to get through one evening with your friends without looking at your phone, whatever’s going to require a little effort but provide ‘genuine’ enjoyment along the way. By focusing fully on fewer things and fewer people you will have better quality relationships, feel less agitated and have improved concentration (Greg Mckeown’s title Essentialism digs into this in a lot more detail and is well worth checking out). Wouldn’t it be awesome to look back on the last three, six or 12 months with a genuine sense of achievement and slightly fewer narcissistic selfies ;).*

It’s one of life’s great clichés, but this is not a dress rehearsal. As I reflect back on my time in Bangkok, single and definitely not fluent in Thai, I can only smile at the fun-fuelled but short-sighted approach that I’d been adopting (definitely tranquilising myself with the trivial too much of the time). I fully intend to continue enjoying the physical pleasures that come my way, but can already feel the benefits of locating some healthy challenges: building this site, setting up a business, meditation and being a little more selective with who I choose to spend my time with. Your ‘healthy’ problems will be different to mine, but finding them, while losing your ego and your phone from time to time may be one of the best life choices you make this year.

*A few narcissistic selfies is fine as sometimes you just look fucking a-m-a-z-i-n-g 😉

Recommended:

Having – Being – Doing (approach recommended by Tim Ferris / 4 Hour Work Week: select a limited number of things that you would like to have or achieve that will enhance your life, with a time frame.

Examples:

Having: A new laptop that would help you achieve work objectives and a time frame for saving the required cash / NOT drooling over a new pair of heels that would put your footwear collection into triple figures!

Being: Use an app such as Headspace to practice mindful meditation or contribute some time to volunteer, something mentally calming or selfless that you can do regularly** / NOT sending yourself crosseyed in a desperate attempt to make strangers stalk you on social media!

Doing: An adventure holiday, learning a sport or language, completing a fun run etc / NOT hooking up with a different girl every week for the rest of the year.

Recommended Further Reading:

Ernest Becker – The Denial of Death: not the lightest of reads – but a game-changer if you have the time and energy

Greg McKeown – Essentialism: deeper dive on doing fewer things, but doing them well

Meditation

I’ll write more on this, but it works – even the boffins at Harvard are convinced.

Highly recommend the Headspace app for beginners, and Waking Up app for the more advanced.

**Both meditation and altruistic or kind behaviour have been shown to create long lasting sensations of wellbeing.

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