Sweep. Prime. Focus.
The world is in excellent shape.
Right now we may be living through the most peaceful moment in human history. Our life expectancy has more than doubled since the year 1900, and during our lifetimes billions of people have risen out of poverty. And while we are in the midst of a pandemic with social unrest, we are still living longer, wealthier, safer lives than any generation that has come before us.
Few people believe this. Renowned medical doctor Hans Rosling dedicated his life to combating global ignorance on the state of the world. His team creates brilliant presentations as well as a simple test -- the now infamous Rosling Test that you can take for free -- which has stumped countless people from every continent and walk of life. From normal folks to Nobel prize winners, eminent scientists, and heads of the most powerful corporations and governments, we are so ignorant about the state of the world that on average chimpanzees score twice as high as sapiens!
Nearly everyone seems to think the world is worse than it actually is. In fact, the world is so wealthy and safe right now that people are more likely to die from sugar than gunpowder.
And yet, as confused as we are about the outside world, we may be even more confused by the inside world.
While the outside world is safer than it seems, our inner worlds are more treacherous.
We are facing epidemic levels of anxiety -- as well as loneliness, sadness, grief, hopelessness, depression, and existential dread. Those of us not chronically affected by these ailments still experience undesirable moments of stress and distraction.
Suicide kills more people than all other violent actions combined -- including all the fighting in war-torn countries and crime-ridden cities worldwide. We are now more likely to die by own hand than someone else's. This is historically unprecedented.
Our inner worlds need attention.
Every individual is unique, yet we all can divide our lives into four primary categories: health, love, work, and play. We can subdivide them to suit our own needs. For instance, this is how I view my life:
HEALTH: mind, body
LOVE: partner, tribe, community
WORK: career, projects, money
PLAY: leisure, adventures
To paraphrase the philosopher Naval Ravikant: the most important things in life -- peaceful minds, fit bodies, homes full of love, fulfilling careers, etc. -- these things cannot be purchased. They must be earned. We have to build them. And to do this, we must prioritize our minds above everything else.
What good is a healthy body if our minds are tormenting us? How can we have a fulfilling relationship with our partner if we are filled with anxiety and dread? How can we realize our full potential, be present for our adventures, and savor our children and the moments that matter most in our lives?
Just as we are instructed on planes to adjust our oxygen mask before helping others, we need to place the health of our minds above everything else in our lives.
There are numerous ways to care for our minds. We all know some first principles: get enough quality sleep, eat healthy food, exercise, make time for loved ones and relaxation, etc. Much has been written already on these.
Below are three additional and neglected areas that I believe are vital to cultivating a healthy mind: sweeping, priming, and focusing.
Simply put, sweeping gets all of the shit out of our heads.
Imagine a pile of rocks tumbling around inside a dryer. That’s what a typical person’s mind is like. We have thoughts and feelings constantly emerging in consciousness. We have a continual stream of negative information pouring into our minds from glowing rectangles everywhere. All of this stuff mashes together and swirls around inside our heads.
And most of us never take a moment to stop the dryer and get all the rocks out! Sweeping is the simple act of doing just that.
When we empty our minds, we feel lighter and more relaxed, like we finally “got that thing off our chest” and breathed a sigh of relief. There are many ways to sweep our minds:
TALK IT OUT: I use a free app called Otter. I just push a button and talk. That’s it. Otter records and transcribes in real time everything I say. And then saves it to my account in the cloud. (My cousin Scott used this to help him write several books; I used it write my first drafts of this essay while I was walking my dog.) It's been a game changer for me.
TALK TO OTHERS: Your partner can give you space to share what’s on your mind. You can also use a therapist. (Therapy is all about mind sweeps.) The best selling book on amazon right now for business mentoring is called The Coaching Habit. The author argues that the two most important questions you can ask people to help them grow are these:
What’s on your mind? And what else?
Essentially, he argues that the foundation of effective coaching is helping people to sweep their minds.
CARRY A NOTEPAD: My buddy Morgan carries a little notepad around with him everywhere he goes. He captures all his random thoughts in it. (Keep Notes is a fantastic digital notepad.) Morgan is in good company with this practice, joining the ranks of Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, Beethoven, and Mark Twain.
JOURNAL: Our very own Ben Klutsey has a daily journaling practice he has shared with us called Morning Pages. Popularized by Tim Ferriss after reading The Artist’s Way, every morning Ben takes pen to paper and gets everything out that is tumbling around inside his head.
Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, puts it this way: “Once we get those muddy, maddening, confusing thoughts [nebulous worries, jitters, and preoccupations] on the page, we face our day with clearer eyes.”
WEEKLY DEEP DIVE: David Allen has probably done the most to popularize mind sweeps. Allen invented what may be the most popular method for achieving high levels of productivity. Corporate executives and other professionals worldwide swear by his system -- called Getting Things Done (GTD). Many are as devout as religious followers.
Allen’s mantra is that our minds are for having ideas, not holding them. We need to get all the clutter out of our heads so our minds can attend to whatever task is before us. We cannot be at our most productive and creative when our minds are distracted.
This is why the cornerstone of the GTD philosophy is a weekly mindsweep. It involves writing down every single thing that grabs our attention. It means really digging around to pull out all the rocks from the dryer. And then when we think we’re done, reviewing a Trigger List to help us discover even more rocks that are lurking back in the shadows.
For my deep dive, I set a timer for 15 minutes, put on some music like Deep Focus or Quiet Moment, and capture each thought on its own little piece of paper. And then, for round two, start the timer again and use a Trigger List. My brother Scott and I used to do weekly sweeps together. Sometimes Maryrose and I still do. Accountability buddies are useful for making sure we do our weekly deep dive sweeps.
Bruce Lee famously advocated to empty our minds and build a Mind Like Water. This is what we get from regular mind sweeps.
Once our minds have been swept, they are ready to be primed.
Priming is putting our minds into a mental state we desire.
Consider music. Millions of people right now are listening to music to help them enjoy their work. Every Ironman triathlon begins by blasting Black Sabbath to get the contestants amped. And in the greatest movie ever made, all Patrick Swayze has to do to woo the Doc is find Otis Redding on the radio.
Priming is a way to help get us ready for whatever task is before us. We can prime our minds through actions like singing, dancing, and chanting. Navy Seals have a quick breathing exercise they use to prime their minds in a flash.
Priming can also be a superpower with life-saving benefits. Should our minds begin to break down, we can help restore them with medicines like Prozac and psilocybin, as well as exercises like finding happy faces and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
Consider how often negative thoughts and emotions arise in your consciousness. Ask yourself: how long do they linger there? How often are you anxious, sad, angry, etc? What effect does this have on your general well being? How often do you spend trapped in these negative states?
By regaining control of our mental state, we can escape whatever emotional prison holds us hostage.
There are two priming techniques emphasized below. They are free. They are simple to learn. And people have been doing them both for several thousand years.
The first technique has been discovered independently by Buddhists, Christians, Native Americans, Taoists, and tribes throughout Africa -- a technique often used in conjunction with prayer. It has calmed the minds of saints and sinners alike, and even helped restore the lungs of 9/11 survivors damaged by all the ground glass and dust.
The technique is called Resonant Breathing. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system to calm us down by lowering blood pressure and anxiety, making us feel relaxed. Called a “stress reset button,” resonant breathing releases happy juices into our brains: the feel-good hormones serotonin and oxytocin.
James Nester writes in his bestselling book Breath that “there is no more essential technique, and none more basic.” This is how to do Resonant Breathing:
RELAX. Sit comfortable and straight. Exhale.
INHALE. Slow & soft for about 5.5 seconds. Use your nose if you can. Fill your lungs from the bottom, so your belly expands first instead of your chest.
EXHALE. Without pausing, exhale softly (through nose or mouth) for the same time: about 5.5 seconds. Bring your belly in as you empty your lungs.
REPEAT. Without pausing, continue the process.
CIRCLE. Each breath cycle should feel like a circle. You’ll have about 5.5 circles per minute.
NOTICE. Shoot for 5.5 minutes or so. Notice how you feel.
That’s it! 5.5 in. 5.5 out. 5.5 per minute for 5.5 minutes. Try just a few circles to start and see if you notice any changes. If you’d like, there are several apps you can use to help get you started. Paced Breathing and The Breathing App are both free and popular.
Resonant Breathing is a perfect way to fill tiny gaps of time throughout the day. For instance, when I find myself waiting unexpectedly for a moment -- to be let into a Zoom call, sitting at a red light, put on hold, etc -- I'm doing my best to get in a few resonant circles instead of defaulting to reaching for my phone to scroll.
The second priming technique is called Tummo. It’s gone by different names, including Tibetan Inner Fire. It triggers the sympathetic nervous system. This stimulates our organs, fills our muscles with blood, and boosts our brains with adrenaline and norepinephrine.
While Resonant Breathing is slow and calming, Tummo is fast and intense. Tummo makes us feel strong, in control, and ready to crush. In Change Your Breath, Change Your Life, Outside magazine explains why it’s so popular now for athletes and health advocates to regularly practice Tummo. As Professional surfer Koa Smith says, “I breathe and it scrapes away all the bullshit.”
The “Ice Man” Wim Hof achieved global fame through his practice and marketing of Tummo combined with cold immersion. He’s used it to break 26 world records, including being submerged in ice for nearly two hours without his core body temperature changing. Under scientific scrutiny, he teaches people in ten days to use Tummo and cold immersion to gain influence over their body temperature, heart rate, and immune response.
The VICE documentary on Wim is worth watching in full. Even the trailer is enough to get you excited to try some weird breathing. Maryrose and I did a Wim Hof workshop together; here’s me getting into the ice while the other folks are chanting and doing synchronized movements (both priming) after our group Tummo session.
Tummo is harder to explain in writing, so here’s a free guided video and a free three-part workshop by Wim that you can use whenever you want. There are also free live workshops online. I love doing my own version of Tummo and make time almost every day for at least a quick round. I usually do three rounds outside while listening to the album Pilgrim Heart. Between rounds I switch to Resonant Breathing for a few calming circles. I always feel awesome afterwards.
As an aside: One time with entheogens I achieved a state of detached awareness (self, space, and time all disappearing). Recently I returned to a similar state simply by mixing Tummo with a few other priming techniques. It was bizarre and amazing.
There is another breathing technique considered even more powerful than Tummo. It has the most excitement within the scientific community, as the list of confirmed health benefits is long. It’s called Sudarshan Kriya (SKY) Breath Meditation. Cool enough, years ago the guy who invented it was touring America and came to a town in Iowa where I was living in a tipi. My buddy Callahan and I got to spend an evening hanging out with him. He was perhaps the most calm and peaceful person I’ve met.
Questions we can ask ourselves:
What mental states do we want to spend our time in?
Have we optimized them, or is there room to improve?
What specifically can we do to prime these states?
Every day, we have a choice: induce the mental states we desire, or passively become trapped inside the mental states foisted upon us.
Once we have swept and primed, we are ready for the holy grail: focus.
Focus is our ability to control our attention.
For years I struggled to really benefit from various meditation aids. And I think part of the reason is that instruction often starts with focus. Whenever I would sit down and try focusing, my mind would just tumble around all the rocks inside my mental dryer. That would feel frustrating. And trying to ignore or repress all these thoughts and feelings, as Alan Watts says, is like “trying to smooth rough water with a flat iron. You’re just going to disturb it all the more.” Once I sweep and prime, however, my mind is more ready to focus.
The purpose of meditation isn’t to focus on some random thing while sitting alone in a room. Nor is it to simply bring awareness to our tumbling dryer of chaos -- though this awareness helps lead us to the point: to learn how to focus our minds. The true magic happens when we bring the focus we cultivate in meditation into our daily lives.
The ultimate superpower is being able to control our attention and focus it on what matters most: the people, the projects, and the principles that give our lives meaning. This allows us to be fully present for the moments of our lives that really matter.
Mr. Money Mustache says it best: the key to living the good life is being able to focus on what matters most while ruthlessly stripping away everything else.
Think about what matters most to you. All the stuff, the experiences, the people. Your favorite artwork, your upcoming vacation, your spouse, etc.
Psychologist Sam Harris points out that meaning is a function of attention. The art on your wall gives you pleasure only when it has your attention. The same with your vacation. How meaningful is that beach sunset with the family if your attention is wholly occupied by the nagging project at work, or the Instagram feed on your phone?
It doesn’t matter what we have, where we are, or who we are with, if our attention is hijacked.
I like to think of attention as a laser. The scope is narrow, and it cannot hit two things at once. But it has a powerful impact on whatever it focuses on -- which is why there are so many internal and external distractions trying to get a hold of it! We must be super protective of our laser so it doesn’t get wasted on stuff that doesn’t matter to us. After all, the laser is also the only means through which we experience our existence. The quality of its focus is the quality of our life.
Harris explains attention with a house fire analogy. It’s worth quoting at length:
Many of us have thought about what we would grab from our homes in a fire. Just imagine, your family is safely out of the home in the street. And you have a chance to grab something. What would it be? Photos? A computer? Your father’s watch? You can’t fit much in your hands.
In some sense, we’re always in this situation. We’re always deciding what to grasp. What matters? What is worth paying attention to in this moment? Because you can only pay attention to one thing at a time. . . It’s as though we continually wake up in the burning house of the present, only to find that we’re holding and even struggling under the weight of some worthless object.
That’s what bickering with your spouse is like. That’s what rumination is like. That’s what most of our worrying is like. That’s what comparing ourselves to others is like. That’s what envy and regret are like. That’s what pride is like. I mean, really, the Tate Gallery was on fire, and rather than rescue a Picasso or a Da Vinci, you risked your life to grab some chairs from the coffee shop?
Without a meditation practice, you will just find yourself holding something. Staggering under some burden, again and again. Reacting to something. Brooding about something. Fixating on something, helplessly. Without a choice. Without the possibility of choice. Meditation is nothing more or less than the art of choice.
It’s about paying attention to what really matters.
When we give our attention to our projects, they progress. When we give our attention to our partner, we help them get a full mind sweep and feel truly appreciated. Many people have pointed out that giving others our full and nonjudgmental attention is the purest and perhaps most important form of love.
And when we give enough attention to our principles, they govern our lives, rather than being governed by internal emotions and external pressures. Our attention, focused effectively, sets us free to live our lives on our own terms.
There are numerous tools for improving focus, from apps like Waking Up and Headspace to meditation retreats and sit spot challenges. Maryrose and I like to do a one-minute exercise with our dog Ollie. Together we give him our full attention and see what kind of pets he likes best. He loves it. There are also plenty of free resources online, though I find it hard to imagine a better use for our money than modest investments in improving our mental health.
We all have the capacity to build healthy minds. Healthy minds lead to fulfilling lives. And fulfilling lives lead to making the world around us better.
How do we best leave a positive mark on the world?
Almost a hundred years ago the theologian Reinhold Niebur wrote his famous Serenity Prayer, now popularized and quoted like this:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
We often default to thinking that we make the world better by “setting our dumb neighbors straight,” convincing them to adopt whatever opinions we happen to hold: philosophic, religious, political, or otherwise.
That is, we try to change other minds by forcing ours upon them. And yet, as Niebur helps us see, it’s far more effective to focus on changing ourselves. For example (since the United States is in election season), as unsettling as it may be, we have a 1 in 60 million chance our vote will make a difference in the upcoming presidential race.
And while it would be essentially impossible for us to change the minds of a statistically significant portion of the populace to impact the results, how many people right now are engaged in political debates (at the expense of their mental health) trying to do just that?
Consider, how did you come to hold your current political views? Did they all show up at once after someone online set you straight? How often has someone with different views convinced you to adopt their politics after a heated exchange? Has anyone ever changed their mind this way? And, yet, have we each not been guilty of taking this fruitless approach at some point in our lives?
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”
The truth of the matter, as Leonard Read and others have evangelized, is that trying to force people to change their minds is not effective -- but inspiring them is.
“...the courage to change the things I can…”
Excellence is inspiring. And excellence is the inevitable result of attention combining with effort over time. When we have the courage and focus to build ourselves to the point of excellence, we inspire people and gain influence over their minds. Becoming excellent in our personal lives has a positive impact on our partners, tribes, and communities. Becoming excellent in our professional lives means we are creating real value for the world.
Excellence radiates outward. Like light, it attracts the attention of others and helps them to see their own path forward. This is the hallmark of effective leadership.
We best answer Marc Andressen’s call to build by first building ourselves. And while the world will probably be okay regardless of what we do, our lives and the lives of those that matter most to us will be tremendously impacted by the health of our minds.
Whether our goal is to make the world a better place, or simply to be fulfilled, we must give our attention to cultivating a healthy mind.
In the words of Longfellow:
Lives of great men all remind us We can make our lives sublime, And, departing, leave behind us Footprints on the sands of time.
Every day: Sweep, prime, and focus.