How to Reprogram Your Brain for Writing Greatness
The following is an excerpt of my podcast interview with Sir John Hargrave, author of Mind Hacking: How to Change Your Mind for Good in 21 Days. For the full interview, please listen below:
When did you first start writing professionally?
I started the first comedy site on the web back in 1995, it was called zug.com. It actually was that comedy site that got me into mind hacking in a roundabout way. What had happened was we specialized on zug.com with these pranks and high-profile stunts. I had gotten a credit card in the name of Barrack Obama, and this was really easy to do because you could just call up American Express using your legitimate credit card and say I want to add an additional cardholder. So I added Barrack Obama to my account, and now that I had a Barrack Obama credit card I started making all of these purchases with it. It was totally legal, but the day that Barrack Obama secured the Democratic presidential nomination, suddenly the Secret Service had to protect him and apparently I was high on the watch list.
They showed up at my house and I welcomed them in. I said, "I'm going to record this meeting," and I pulled out my tape recorder. As soon as they saw the tape recorder, they scattered. They're like, "This is over, this conversation is over," and they left.
It was a really terrible time. I'm making light of it but that night was terrifying for my wife and I because we didn't know if they were going to come back or if they were going to haul me off to jail, it was really awful.
Through some difficult conversations that night my wife and I kind of came to the conclusion that my drinking and my drug use we're probably at the root of a lot of really destructive behaviors that I was taking. And so I decided I was going to get sober that night, and it really kind of took this call from the Secret Service to wake me up.
I loaded all my alcohol and my drugs into the car and I go to this dumpster behind a local supermarket and I decided I'm going to throw them all away. I'm going to just go cold turkey and I found that I couldn't do it because my mind was telling me you'll never have fun again. If you get rid of all of this your life is over, it's going to be so boring without all this.
So what I had to do was I had to hack my mind or basically create a new way of thinking about the act of throwing away all these drugs and alcohol. So I focused on the muscle movement and they talk about one day at a time in the program and this was one step at a time. Literally throwing these alcohol bottles, drugs into this dumpster, and by just focusing on the muscle movement and didn't think about the long term, I was able to get through it. That was really my first mind hack and since then to stay sober I've developed a whole series of these hacks or tricks to reprogram my mind. I'm happy to say I've been sober for 12 years and it's been the greatest journey and it has been so much fun. I have way more fun sober than I ever did back then.
What exactly is mind hacking?
I use hacking in the positive sense. So hacking originally meant like a really clever kind of trick or technique to use to improve your life and that's the true meaning of the word hacking. So the original hackers, the original computer programmers, the guys who invented the Arpanet and the internet, those were the legends and heroes, my personal heroes. So I've been a geek my whole life and I just love computers, I love technology, I love hacking in the true sense of the word. So what we're doing with mind hacking is we're finding those tricks or techniques to reprogram the mind. Different ways of thinking to change our lives in a positive direction.
Sort of thinking of your mind as a computer that can be hacked into and reprogrammed with the new operating system or with a new set of algorithms that make it in a different way?
We really do have the capability of reprogramming our mind. Most of us don't think like that on an everyday basis, right? When our mind tells us something, we tend to believe it. If our mind gets worried about finances or starts obsessing about a conversation we had with a coworker, we just roll with it and we're really slaves to our mind in that sense. When you realize that, actually, you don't have to believe everything you think, actually you're the programmer that's in charge of this thing called your mind and you can reprogram it, you can choose what to think, that is an awesome power and it is a power. It's a power, it's like a superpower when you really get control of this and learn how to reprogram it.
What are some hack writers can do to help them focus?
I have a whole section in the book about creating a distraction-free work zone. I think the defining feature of our age is interruption. Every app, every program, every operating system, all have these alerts and messages. The folks creating these apps it's in their best interest to interrupt you as often as possible and we kind of allow that by default. So you really have to take control of your own mental space and that means you got to turn things off. You really have to try to live a clutter-free and distraction-free environment.
One of the exercises in the book is you just spend an hour just cleaning up and turning off as many of those alerts and interruptions as you can. Because all the research shows we can't multitask, multitasking is a myth. Every time you're interrupted by something you lose the flow, you lose the state and there's a switching cost, the mental switching cost to getting back into the zone of whatever you were doing.
The second thing you can do is making a habit out of writing. I've studied great writers in their workday habits and almost all of the greats get up early in the morning and they start writing first thing. It's just like going to work, you just punched the clock and you start writing words on a computer. I know some folks are not early morning people but you can change your habits. You can become an early morning person, the advantage to doing it early in the morning is you get up before everybody else, you avoid a lot of those interruptions. So you have dedicated time, you're fresh, you're right out of sleep and you can get a lot done beforehand and that gives you this feeling of energy throughout the day that, like, "I wrote 2000 words today. I accomplished something already and now what more can I do?" So you're kind of rolling this positive snowball of energy and we talk a lot about that in the later part of the book. These snowballs of energy is really what you want to build in your life, versus writing later in the day when you're tired, when you're distracted, procrastinating, reading reddit for half an hour, not getting anything done. So sit down, write, and don’t even care about how good it is, just get the words out. When you come back later the next day and look at it, I think you'll find that like, it's not as bad as you might've felt.
Email is the worst time-killer ever. Most of the time email is low-value work, so in other words, you can chew up a ton of time with email and you start this response cycle, right? Where people now are like emailing you back and you're stuck in this loop and meanwhile you feel like you're getting stuff done but its usually low value. Writing is high-value work, so writing is the hard work that you need to do first before you get into the email. Email is better later in the day when you're already tired and you can just kind of like churn through a lot of stuff easily. But the writing, the hard work, the valuable work is good first thing.
What is your morning routine?
What I do actually, first thing is I meditate when I get up. I do not look at a screen. I don't check my phone. It's just 20 minutes silent. You focus on the breath and when you notice yourself wandering from noticing the breath, you just go back to the breath and that's it for 20 minutes. It has made such a difference in my life because what you find is that that practice of noticing that your mind is wandering pays off in everyday life. So in other words, for meditation, we're not developing the skill there on the couch, we're developing the skill for everyday life.
So then what happens when you're in traffic and you find yourself getting angry at the guy in front of you, you say, "wait a minute I don't have to think this." In other words, that mindfulness that literally the sense of being aware of your own mind and the emotions going through it, that you've been practicing 20 minutes every morning, now are paying off in real life situations and that's the magic of meditation. I never hear people talk about that that clearly but that is why meditation is so good.
Okay, so you get up in the morning and you meditate for 20 minutes and then you begin your writing?
Basically, the idea is to do the hard work first and then you've got this feeling of accomplishment and that energy snowball starts to roll. For me, I have about an hour I give each morning to writing, then I've got other things that are pressing into my time. So I'll get up at 5:30, I'll meditate 6:00 to 7:00 is kind of that time to write. But if I'm on deadline, you know, I'll spend some larger chunks maybe on the weekend on Saturday or Sunday and it could be up to four hours depending.
You talk about "debugging our minds," explain what that means and how that might apply to writers.
When you're writing a new application or program, you look for bugs. This is called debugging. When you find a bug you try to rework it and reprogram it until it works correctly. Debugging our minds is a similar process where we try to become aware of those negative thought loops, and it's so difficult in real life because we believe what our minds tell us. So if our mind is telling us, for example, you need to obsess about this relationship with your mother in law or you need to worry about this job promotion, we tend to believe it.
But by being mindful or meditating and developing these practices, this awareness of the mind, we can start to see those negative thought loops and we can start to figure out, okay what do I want? Do I want to think about my job or my mother in law or my kids or my finances or my life? What do I want? Now that's one of the most difficult things to figure out--what do you want? What do you want out of life? And when you ask most people, they might say, "Uh, a pony?" Most people don't know what they want--they haven't thought it through. So figuring out what you want is really an important part of this process. Then you replace that negative thought loop, that you found through debugging, with your positive thought loop. In my case, you know, from sobriety means the end of all fun to sobriety is the foundation of all good things in my life.
Share some debugging practices.
In the book, we have an exercise called "The $20 Million Dollar Inheritance." Imagine that a great aunt, who you never knew existed, leaves you $20 million dollars and now you don't have to work, what do you do? What do you do with your life at this point? The goal is really to let your imagination run and say, what do I want?
So for example, some of my thought loops over the past few years have been: I really want to be a model human and I want our company to be a model company. Being a model human doesn't mean I want to be a perfect human being. It just basically means that I want to be someone who other folks would want to model themselves after. And this company, Media Shower that we run, like I want it to be a company that is respected worldwide, that is seen as a model for other companies. It is so powerful how the repetition of that thought loop has changed my life. It almost is like a kind of magic that starts to work its way into your life and you start to undertake projects and think about things in a way that you never thought before. That's been my experience but try it, it's so much fun and it's so interesting to watch how your life changes when you start implementing these things.
It's interesting you bring up the word repetition because I know that comes up as one of the hacks in your book. What's the importance of repetition and how one might put that into practice in their life?
Repetition is very important and also repetition is very important. Regardless of how you might feel about the President of the United States, watch how often he uses repetition to get his message across and watch how often that constant repetition starts to become reality for people. Watch, advertising works on the same principle. If something is repeated enough, we become familiar with it and we began to trust it, that's the concept of branding and marketing.
My book Mind Hacking has a bright yellow cover. Audible started running these ads that showed that cover again and again to people who had already viewed it and the sales started to go through the roof. That repetition, that constant repeating of an idea or a phrase or a thought is extremely powerful and it's how we learn as humans.
Now, the great news is you can repeat things in your own life, like in your own head. For me, I mentioned my morning routine but after then I write, then I have a shower, I have breakfast and then I come back and I have a number of just daily thought loops that I just repeat to myself. Some might call these affirmations but I like calling them positive thought loops instead, it sounds a little less New Agey.
I mentioned that I have a list of positive values that I repeat to myself every morning, truthfulness, tranquility, self-esteem, self-gentleness, effectiveness, optimism, humility, things like that. I've got a whole list of these and I basically just read them through. I keep them in a text file, and then I read these and just visually see them and kind of say them to myself and over time these habits gain a kind of magic. They work their way into yourself and they become part of the fabric of your being. So you choose them with great care, but then repeat them to yourself again and again and you'll find that you start becoming them.
I have a list of values that I want to live out in my life and then I have what I guess you might call affirmations. "I'm happy, well, and filled with perfect life." There is another one that I always use. I love this one. "All suggestion of age, poverty, limitation or unhappiness is uprooted from my mind and cannot gain entrance to my thought." I have people all the time saying, "Oh I feel so old, but it's not money or not enough stuff to go around and I just look at them and I say, all suggestion of age, poverty is uprooted from my mind. They think I'm insane, but I really don't care. I don't care anymore, I don't care.
Then I have goals like personal goals that I want to achieve this week and I want to achieve this year and then I want to achieve in five years and I'll repeat those to myself as well. But the whole process takes maybe five minutes in total.
You wrote that it's important to write stuff down. Why?
There's a great story in the book about Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert. He basically used this technique where he started writing things down in a notebook 20 times each day. The first affirmation he wrote was "I will become successful in the stock market." He made a number of very unlikely stock picks that paid off very well for him and it really worked. So he then went back to get his MBA and he had to take his GMAT, a standardized test and he said, "I will a score in the 93rd percentile on the GMAT," which is very difficult to do and repeated that every day, 20 times writing it down. When he got his score, he scored exactly in the 93rd percentile.
He's got a number of stories like that where he said I realized that everything I knew about how the universe was wired was wrong. In other words, we have a lot more control over the universe than we think we do. There's something about that act of writing it down and I think maybe it's partly because you're spending actual time doing it. You start to become much more invested in the outcome than just kind of a wish that it's going to happen like you know, a New Year's Resolution that you never followed through on.
I think also something about the act, it's a meditative exercise writing it down or typing it, that's how I do it—I type it. But there's something meditative about doing that 20 times in a row, almost hypnotic that you start to retrain your brain to look for those opportunities when they arise in your everyday life that sort of get you toward that goal. So it's almost like priming your brain or priming your mind to look and recognize those opportunities throughout your everyday life that are going to get you in the direction of that goal. It's a cool experiment to try.
Every writer has the experience of self-doubt. No matter how good you are or experienced, you're just like this stinks. Every sentence I write I don't like the sentence. What's a hack for that?
I have found a little hack that is very useful. Imagine that you've got your inner critic sitting next to you when you're writing. Walk the inner critic to the door, ask him to leave, then shut the door. The deal with the inner critic is tomorrow you get to come in and you get to be ruthless. If you want to delete everything I write that's fine--tomorrow, but today is not your day. Today you're going to sit outside, and I'm just going to write. I find that helpful to make a clear delineation between the writing process and then the editing process. Because we have to do both as writers. But if you can lock that guy or gal to the door, shut it, and then just write and not worry about the inner critic, then you're going to find the next day when the inner critic comes back it's actually not as bad as you thought and there's some pretty good stuff in there.
You say it's important for writers to get out more.
As writers, I know that we're often introverted and we'll spend time writing as if it's a solitary exercise. But it's important to get out of your comfort zone and go meet other writers. I have a great place in Boston called the Writers' Loft, that's created by my friend Heather Kelley. I mentioned it in the book where they have all these meetups on a regular basis, where writers get together, they do workshops. I highly recommend these things because you get such a broader scope and by exchanging ideas it makes you clarify your own ideas.
The other tool I recommend is meetup.com because in every city there are tons of great meetups where you can meet with like-minded people and there are great writer meetups. You can meet with really high-quality people and exchange high-quality ideas and it really does improve the value of what you're doing.
To close off, I thought it would be cool to give my listeners one last hacking exercise.
Here's one that you can play today. "What Was My Mind Just Thinking?" The goal is as many times as possible today, try to catch yourself thinking, try to ask yourself, "What was my mind just thinking?" We gamify a lot of the exercises in the book, so you actually score points. We have a worksheet that you can score points. There's an app that goes along with it to help keep track of how many times you're able to catch yourself thinking and literally ask yourself the question, what was my mind just thinking? You think this is going to be really easy and it is for like five minutes and then you'll find that you get lost in the mind. So it really is a kind of mindfulness, but it's a way to do it that's really fun and kind of a personal challenge.