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How to Stop Having Problems

How to Stop Having Problems

Today I saw a blog post by Jack Thomas that was a review of my book, You, Version 2.0.  In it, he mentioned the “Mmmmm Test” that I described in one of the essays in the book.  The funny thing about it is that I had completely forgotten I wrote about that, even though I’ve obviously been using it myself from time to time.  I guess I just forgot what I had called it.

You might be wondering what that has to do with stopping having problems.  It actually has everything to do with it, but first we’re going to have to travel together on a somewhat winding road for a little while, before it all becomes clear.

We’ll start with a problem I had – well, more like two of them.  Then I’ll explain what was happening with both of them, and then how you can generalize this concept to all problems.

About a week and a half ago I wrote about my efforts to develop skill at focusing on different projects at different times during the same day.  But when I went to carry out my new focusing scheme, I ran into some difficulty focusing on anything at all.  In fact, I ran into some major procrastination issues for a day or two.  Specifically, I couldn’t seem to get started writing up my idea for a course on how to stop procrastinating!  (Boy, did I feel stupid.)

Tomorrow Never Comes

There were two things going on.  First, when I stopped to think about it, I realized that I had fallen prey to “prerequisite-itis” again.  It’s that disease that makes you think that you can’t do what you want to do now, because there are other things you have to do first.  I wrote about this a little bit back in January, in Life Is Every Moment, where I pointed out that “going to” is always a lie.  You are not “going to” do anything.  You are either doing it or you aren’t.  (Steve Pavlina also just wrote a nice article on living in the now that touches on the same idea.)

Anyway, what I realized last week is that I was talking the talk but not walking the walk in one important respect.  The stuff that I’ve been saying for ages I want to do (like overhauling RuleDispatch), I haven’t actually been doing.  I’ve been focusing on things like the book and the idea of doing self-improvement courses based on my discoveries, while also doing my regular workload plus household chores and even bookkeeping for Leslie’s store.  Oh yeah, and signing, packing, and shipping books, too.  Meanwhile, I wasn’t really getting the level of intellectual challenge that I crave, so I was substituting by reading stuff off of reddit.

Lesson Number One: you can never get enough of what you don’t really want in the first place.

In other words, browsing the net for cool stuff was never going to satisfy my desire to make some cool stuff of my own.  And meanwhile, it was chewing up all the time I could’ve used to actually do something that I wanted to do.  So, I said to heck with the procrastination course (and almost everything else) for now, I’m going to code a bunch of cool stuff until I get the need out of my system.

Lesson Number Two: Life is every moment.  The life you want is not in some future time.  It’s now.  And now.  And now.  If you think that you’re ever going to get so “caught up” that someday you will be able to relax, you are simply fooling yourself.  Someday never comes, and even if it did, by then you won’t even remember what it was that you wanted to do in the first place.

I’m not saying to quit your job and go fishing.  I’m just saying that, if fishing is your passion, then you need some weekend fishing trips.  If you want to paint, then paint at nights and on the weekends.  Find a way to slot it in, because if you don’t, nobody’s going to do it for you.  Do not make the mistake of putting anything else “first”, in the sense that you have to be done with that thing before you can do the thing you want.  Yes, family may “come first”, but that’s first in priority, not first in sequence.  Don’t think “I’ll do it after I graduate/get the bills paid off/clean the house/etc.”.  Because those days never come.

But if instead you work on what you actually want to do, then you’ll suddenly find that you have some extra energy left over, to do the other stuff you thought you had to do first.  If you’re going to be in the rat race, you damn well better be getting some cheese on a regular basis.

And that all sounds very logical, but most of the time we don’t do it.  In my case, my “inner drill sergeant” thinks I should always be working and that I shouldn’t get any good stuff until all the work is done, permanently.  No ice cream until you eat your vegetables…  and mop the floor, write a book, put up the hurricane shutters, add wsgiref to the Python standard library, do the bookkeeping, get rich, and save the world, you lazy bastard!

And the thing that is key to not having problems, is being able to deal with beliefs and mental processing systems like the one that my “drill sergeant” carries.  Because the idea that I just gave you, about how “life is every moment”, is something I’ve been literally writing about here all year long, and yet I still don’t always do it, and neither do you.

And in just a moment I’ll explain what that key is.  But first, the second problem.

The Problem of Autonomy

Around the time I got done with the first major phase of the software project I wanted to do, somebody wrote a blog post in which they complained about not having heard from me in a while about the status of another hobby software project I’m involved with.  I don’t really want to get into a lot of details, because I wasted enough time on writing an equally snarky email to the guy – and then deleting it.  I was getting too upset and depressed over the whole thing and it was thoroughly ruining what was left of my weekend.

What annoyed me most was not that he had a completely wrong impression as to why I hadn’t yet answered his email, nor that he chose to air his wrong impressions in public.  What annoyed me most was that answering him was on my to-do list for this week, but his post made me really not want to write him, because it might make him think that he’s gettting a reply because of his asinine behavior, when in fact it would be in spite of it.

But alas, it’s a catch-22.  If, because of his blog post, I don’t write him, I would now be doing precisely the thing he accused me of in the first place!  Aaaargh.

Anyway, by the time I spent an hour or two trying to write an email that steered a careful middle path between polite rebuke and demented rant, I finally realized that it was not his fault I was polluting my life and time with negative emotion about the issue.  That was entirely my doing, and what’s more I could just stop, immediately.

And as soon as I realized that I could let go of the emotional aspect, it became clear what I should do in the practical sense: just do what I was going to do anyway, and answer the email at the time I planned to in the first place, as if his post had never been made.

To paraphrase an old saying, there is no problem so big that it cannot be ignored.  And sometimes, that is precisely the best solution.

There’s No Such Thing As Negativity

And that led me to thinking, yesterday and today, about what it means to be “negative”.  Because I was actually kind of surprised at how well that solution worked.

You see, I’ve been thinking for a while now about the need to eliminate negativity from my life, but yesterday was the first time I seriously put it into practice.  I guess that after going through so many mailing list flamewars about the open source projects I do volunteer work on, I’ve realized that I really need to learn how to deal with negativity.  Not just because of those projects – I could always stop volunteering, after all – but because if I do anything that has any impact on people’s lives, I’m going to get negativity from some non-zero set of people.  Some people are just generally negative, after all!

Now, I’m not discounting negative remarks about my work as simply being from negative people.  If anything, I’m far more accommodating of negative comments than I should be for my own well-being.  I can tell this by how disappointed (and occasionally depressed) I become when I realize that my giving in to others’ demands never actually reduces the total amount of negativity I experience.  (Because it’s just replaced by different people being negative, or the same people finding other things to be critical about.)

So, if I’m determined to make an impact with my life – or more precisely, determined to continue making an impact – then I have to learn to deal with negativity and neither take it personally, nor give in to demands in the hope of reducing negativity.  This was a case where “don’t associate with negative people” didn’t really seem like a practical option.

But what does “don’t associate with negative people” really mean, anyway?  Isn’t that a pretty negative statement?

The Negation Paradox

In fact, what I realized today is that negation doesn’t actually exist.  It’s a purely verbal construct, entirely imaginary.  And it is closely related to the source – and solution – of all mental problems.

If you’ve read much self-help literature, you’ve probably come across the idea before that the unconscious mind doesn’t understand negatives.  Saying “don’t do X” doesn’t mean anything to the subconscious mind, and it latches onto the “X” part and gives you that instead.

That’s all true, but I think it’s a little too shallow of an explanation to get to the meat of the matter.  The real key is that words are a summary of experience, not a description.  So, you actually can have a meaning in your mind for “don’t do X”, that actually means something positive.  But those words won’t translate for anybody else – which is one reason we have so many self-help books!

Let me try to explain by example.  I have had this belief that I am “not an athletic person”.  If the superficial explanation of the subconscious mind “not processing negatives” were correct, me having this representation should actually tend to make me more athletic!  After all, this belief has me representing the concept of athleticism, which then my subconscious mind should try to create more of!  At least, that would be the traditional self-help reasoning.

But this is confusing inputs with outputs.  If I say to you “I am not an athletic person”, the representation you form in your head is not necessarily the same as the representation I have in mine.  The trick is that words are a summary of some other experience, and when you read my words you will formulate an understanding from your own experience, and the result may not be the same thing.  In other words, you can’t input a verbal negative and expect the unconscious to process it meaningfully, but you can easily output a verbal negative that describes or summarizes some (positively-defined) experience.

So what’s really going on in my head when I say or think “not athletic”, is that I’m actually recalling experiences that can be summarized as “not being athletic”.  So it’s only verbally and superficially a negative concept.  In fact, it is a positive representation of things like klutziness, losing at sports, exhaustion, discomfort, fear, pain, etc.

So yes, it’s true that the unconscious mind “can’t process negatives”.  Where negatives come from is the conscious mind’s summarization or modelling of experiences using verbal labels.  We can take a stack of experiences, and label them something like “not being athletic”, and now that phrase has a positive meaning, which the unconscious can act upon!

So, “not being athletic” means a specific set of behaviors and feelings (and feelings are really a kind of behavior) that I engage in.  It is not some kind of “block” or negation of athleticism.  It is not that I am trying to be athletic and then am unable to do so!  It is rather that I actively engage in positive behaviors that have the label “non-athleticism”.

It’s All Behavior

Now, all of that might appear to academic or philosophical nitpicking.  But believe me, it goes to the very heart of every way that people can “get stuck” or experience problems.  It is not really true that we “have problems”.  In truth, we do problems.

So how does this happen?  It happens because, as described in Bypassing The Will, we originally learn verbal concepts as an expression of physiological states and motor programs.  When we learn the word “angry”, for example, we learn it through others labelling that behavior:  Either our own behavior, or the behavior of third persons.  The relatively recent discovery of “mirror neurons” shows us that we have neural circuits designed to fire off the same motor patterns that we see others expressing – a kind of “monkey see, monkey do” feature of the brain.  So, if we see someone described as “angry”, we can understand it in terms of what it would feel like for us to be doing the same things that the “angry” person is doing.

In the same way, we learn nearly all words that relate to feelings and behaviors, as labels for behavioral programs that can be run on our neurology and physiology.  We learn what “sadness” or “hunger” feel like.

And we even learn what “trying” feels like – it feels like frustration and effort.  It is overcontrol and muscle tension, maybe even some sweaty palms.  Trying means failing, and anything that you did to produce failure.  That is what it means, because when we say somebody is “trying so hard”, we specifically mean that they’re not accomplishing anything.

It is really really important that you get this point; I am not playing verbal games here.  Trying doesn’t mean failing per se.  It means the state of tension and frustration that occurs when you expect failure.

The key point is not that you should understand this fact about the word “trying” – although it’s very important.  The key point is that all words that relate to behavior, all the words that describe you being stuck or having some kind of problem, they all mean some physiological state and behavior!

They are not abstract mental concepts, although we tend to think they are.  What happens is that over time, the experiences that formed the meaning of a word or phrase tend to pass from conscious awareness.  You probably don’t remember any more the experiences that taught you the meaning of the words.  Perhaps at most you have a flickering awareness of images or sounds or feelings passing by as you hear or say the words that describe your problem.

In other words, your problem has thus become a vague blob of abstraction, perhaps backed by a very real feeling of frustration or fear or whatever sort of feeling it manifests as for you.  But this feeling is the end point, not the beginning.  Before you got there, you had to actually represent a sequence of experiences.

The Illusion of “About”

Let’s take another hypothetical problem.  Suppose that you hear about something bad that happened to somebody else, but the result turns out to be really good for you – so much so, in fact, that you are initially overjoyed and quite happy about the news.  And then you think about how it was bad for the other person, and so you then feel guilty “about” being so happy.

The peculiar thing about our brains, however, is that this feeling of “being guilty about being happy” is an illusion.  Really, you just feel guilty after feeling happy.  When you say, “I feel guilty about being so happy”, you are not actually happy any more, you’re just talking about the fact that you were happy.  Right now, you feel guilty instead.

And in the process, what you’re doing is building an associative link between happy and guilty – a one-way link, in fact, going straight from happy to guilty.  And if you do it often enough, you will never feel happy for long, because you’ll go straight from happy to guilty, even when you’re happy about things that aren’t actually bad for anybody else!

So now you get angry about that.  “Why can’t I just be happy without feeling guilty?” you demand.  And before too long, you don’t spend much time being guilty either, because now you’re on the express train straight to Anger Station.  Happy, guilty, angry, that’s how fast you go.  Maybe that’s not the feeling sequence you use, but everybody probably has at least one thing in their lives that goes something like this.  Boom, boom, boom, three or four emotions in half a minute and you get stuck in angry town or boredom city or “Why Me?” nation.

And you can sit there all day long, you can go to a psychiatrist and spill your guts for years, and none of it is going to change the simple fact that you’ve got some tracks in your brain that go where you don’t want to go, and you’re missing some that go to where you want to be.

Catching A Ride On The Clue Train

So the first step to dealing with a problem isn’t to understand it, in the psychoanalytical sense of understanding the causes or theorizing about it.  It’s to understand the experience.  To “experience your experience”, by looking at and listening to what goes by in your mind when a thing happens.  Dig deeper than the words that describe your problem, because the words are just a plot summary, and you need to watch the actual movie.

As soon as you do, you’ll be able to see that you don’t really have a problem.  You just have a behavior.  You made yourself a little “mashup” of a feeling here and an action there, maybe a screaming parent or teacher to add some tension, and presto!  Your personal drama was born.

When I think about the things I have trouble getting started on, I’m playing a little movie in my head.  While it can take a Hollywood movie several minutes to get you “hooked” and involved and feeling what the director wants you to feel, the movies in your head come with feelings pre-attached.  They’re coded right into your mental movie, as descriptions of what actions you should take with your entire physiology, from the sweat on your palms to the tension in the pit of your stomach.

So all you have to do to experience a “problem” is to play a movie of a “problem” state.  I can readily be “non-athletic” because I have that inner DVD all queued up and ready to play.  I can easily “procrastinate” for the same reason.  And when we play these movies in our heads, we instantly create whole-body physiological states, even if sometimes it’s only a fleeting trace.  But how much of a trace it is, depends on how much we “buy in” to the movie!

You see, it’s almost like the DVD player in your head has an “alternate points of view” feature.  You can play the movie back as if you’re in it, or you can just watch it as something happening apart from you.  If you do the former, you experience it in your body, because you’re playing it back in the command mode. That is, the mode for doing.  But if you do the latter, you’re playing it back in the mode for thinking, and that means you don’t really experience it (except maybe as an empathetic twinge or two for the poor fellow who’s having the problem you’re watching).

And so here is the big secret: if you look at the movie analytically, and you decide you don’t like what’s on…  then get your ass off the couch and change the freakin’ channel!


This is pretty much what I did last week when I was having procrastination trouble, and again yesterday when I was getting all emotional about stuff.  I looked at what I was doing, and decided I would rather be doing something else.  Then I found a different DVD to run in my head, and pushed “play”.  End of problem.

Surely it’s not that simple!

Sure it’s not simple.  It’s easy, but it’s not simple.  The complex part is this: you have to take your eyes off the bloody screen first.  You’ve got to stop being hypnotized by the movie you’re playing, because as long as you believe it’s real, it is real.  You’re dreaming while you think you’re wide awake, and that’s where the whole “negation” thing comes in.

You know that whole saw about “For five minutes, don’t think of a pink elephant”?  And you try, and you know what, for five minutes you can’t think of anything but pink elephants.  Go on, try it, I dare you.

Now try to not think of whatever your problem is.  Good luck!

You see, you really can’t think of a negative, when you deal in “primary process” thinking, which consists of mental movies and the feelings that go with them.  So you sit there and you try to “stop having a problem” or “stop procrastinating” or whatever.  And there is no such thing.  What happens is that you are first playing your “problem” movie and then going, “okay, stop that!”

And when you do that, what you are doing is building a new mental train track from “the problem” to “frustration at having the problem”.  And then maybe from there to “despair at not being able to solve the problem”.

You are starting at the wrong end of the movie, and you are going in the wrong direction.  Follow these simple steps instead:

  1. Rewind.

  2. Stop.

  3. Eject.

  4. Put in a different tape.

If you do this enough times, you will build a track from the start of your problem, to somewhere else that you’d rather be.  And the old track, that led from problem to frustration to despair, will go unused.

This is easy, but it is not simple.  You must not try to do it.  You must not fight your problem.  You must not make these “must nots” into mental movies of you struggling!  There are ten thousand ways you can screw this idea up and manage not to actually do what I’m saying, by playing various other tapes that interfere.  Don’t do that either.  When you start playing the tape of “This stuff never works for me” or “I can’t do this”, apply the same steps to that tape, too.  Do not be discouraged.  Do not be persistent.  Do not be anything, except aware of what movie you are currently playing.

And then rewind it, back to the beginning.  Stop it and eject it, letting go of what you experienced.  Start a new tape, and repeat as necessary.  Do not be deceived by the movies that come up and tell you it can’t be this easy, it’s not working, etc. etc.  Rewind them too.  Stop and eject.  Start new tape.  Repeat as necessary until you get to where you’re going.  That is all.


P.S. If you would like to learn even more about this technique from other perspectives, you’ll want to get your hands on a copy of You, Version 2.0 while they’re still available.

In the book, you’ll find a more extensive article that goes into quite a bit of detail about what you should put into your “different tape”, and why “rewinding” is so critical to this process working.  That article isn’t available online, though, so the only way to get it right now is by reading it in the book.  So don’t spend another day with a problem that you could be rid of; order the book today.

Join the discussion
  • Thank you, that was quite enlightening, as often.
    FYI: I saw the original blogger’s comment, checked the date of his original post, and decided he had to learn some patience. Just in case you worried too much about your reputation.
    (Plus: I am much more excited about other things you’re looking at. Yay RuleDispatch in PyCells!)

  • **But if instead you work on what you actually want to do, then you’ll suddenly find that you have some extra energy left over, to do the other stuff you thought you had to do first.**
    That’s one of life’s big paradoxes. I love things like this, entirely true.

    **In fact, what I realized today is that negation doesn’t actually exist.**

    That reminded me of the statement that every behaviour has a positive intent. Of course it is positive if you don’t label the behaviour with words! Being ‘shy’ is a negative thing in the genral context, but if you think about the reason for your behaviour you can see the positive intent.
    It’s also a good point why reading self-help (including this blog!) won’t help you. You must experience it for yourself. That’s what the name is there for SELF-help. If you would rely on somebodies words it would be HELP not self-help. I always read about something and acknowledge it. I think I understand it but only when I really experience the thing I come back to the words I read and there is a link created and my mind goes ‘AHA!’.

  • Ok… it took days and multiple times and viewpoints on this, but it clicked 🙂 Whether or not this is what everyone means by enlightenment, whether or not the dishes get done faster or slower, whatever. It’s just nice.

  • In your article “How to Stop Having Problems” you defined “trying” as failing or at least anticipating failure. I agree, but I think you shold now change the subtitle to your site, right?

  • Any, or I should say every solution is dirt simple in hindsight. But the truth is that most people don’t look back in the right direction for hindsight to be 20-20, and foresight is rare. Thank you for looking ahead, looking back, and honestly mapping some of the big potholes in the road.


  • REALLY REALLY LONG WINDED!!! Dude, do you ever know how to just get to the point? Pure genius in some of what you talk about. Just takes an extra effort to keep reading. Good content, just give it an extra once-through to shorten it if you can.

  • Hello and thank you!
    I have read several of your articles. You write from life and I can’t tell you how much your honest vulnerability makes your credibility. God, you’re real!!! Halleluliah!
    Thanks for putting reality into bite-size snack packages. I really can’t handle it any other way…
    You inspire me.

  • Hi there, this was great. You don't come across like a new-age asshole or former quarterback-turned-former drug-addict-turned-motivational-speaker. And it helps a ton. Whatever your doing to get your tone the way it is, I really appreciated the sincerity and honesty.

    I feel compelled here to promise you I'm gonna fix myself after reading this, but I don't want to employ any "gonna" or "try" BS, so I won't. I will say that whatever happens, you explained this approach in a really helpful and inspiring way.

    So with that, thanks for the love and the thoughts and I wish you the very best.




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Cover photo of "A Minute To Unlimit You" by PJ Eby
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