“I’m experimenting and my body is a great place for me to experiment.”
This is the beginning. Thanks for being here.
This email is the first in a series of extracts of the most useful, counterintuitive or inspirational ideas from my new book You Are What You Don't. My hope is that these are snippets you can cut out and keep for your own life. And, if you want more context and a longer extract, visit my new site YouAreWhatYouDont.co.uk.
A Quick Catch Up:
You Are What You Don't is the story of seven experiments in positive constraints. Positive constraints are:
Yours. They're free decisions to restrict your own behaviour in some way (not other people's!).
Habit-killers (and creators). By encouraging unconventional new behaviours, positive constraints tend to target and replace old habits that no longer serve us.
Experiments. They take us all the way back to first principles. Instead of starting by pushing a supermarket trolley, clicking on an EasyJet flight or dipping into our wallets, we can start with a more fundamental question: what's the new best way for us to secure our food supply, travel abroad or get stuff?
Far from focusing on constraints, restrictions or limitations, this is a book about transformation, re-connection and life-changing discovery.
You Are What You Don't has seven chapters, so there will be seven of these emails, sent out every Friday. The six other chapters focus on my experiments and discoveries with:
No Mobile Phone
But we'll start today with...
For my first experiment, I quit walking for a day. Why? We're about to find out...
Dr Tal Shafir, researcher in movement-emotion interaction at the University of Haifa in Israel, describes the phenomenon: “When we make a gesture and the movements are related to a specific emotion, it can elicit or create that emotion in us.” I couldn't have put it more precisely (I could probably have put it slightly less dryly – but that's academia for you).
Dancing is a happy movement, so it creates in me the emotion of happiness. Shafir demonstrated this effect by teaching a group of 29 volunteers four tightly choreographed sequences of movements that projected happy, sad, fearful and neutral emotions. She then recorded the impact of these movements on the emotional state of the volunteers and found that happy movements make you feel happy, sad movements sad, fearful movements fearful and neutral movements, well, neutral.
Let's dance! Read more on youarewhatyoudont.co.uk.
Ben Fletcher at the University of Hertfordshire used a neat cognitive trick to help a group of 55 healthy, overweight and obese people lose an average of five kilos each over the course of three months. Fletcher and his team simply asked the volunteers to spend a month trying new activities unrelated to dieting or exercise, such as interacting differently with a person, not watching television for a day or taking an alternative route to work. The intervention was called Do Something Different. The hypothesis was that these new activities would “expand their behavioural repertoire”, which would have a knock-on effect for their weight by disrupting “the chains of habits that maintain unhealthy living”.
By focussing on their habitual behaviour rather than their food, Do Something Different “adds a sense of agency in that individuals became more aware of themselves and of being in control of their actions”. Not only did the participants lose weight during the month-long Do Something Different intervention, they continued to lose weight for two months after – and those who were also dieting lost no additional weight. The success of the intervention was as a result of increased behavioural flexibility: just the sort of learning that positive constraints foster. If you can't walk, then you must do something different: you must run, skip and dance.
Read more about Do Something Different on youarewhatyoudont.co.uk.
It might sound counter-intuitive, but limits, whether arbitrary or necessary, create creativity. Without the frame, without limits, art loses its meaning, becomes indistinguishable from real life or is simply unsatisfying, like French cinema or an unmade bed (joke). The skill is to push against boundaries without breaking them.
Take the game of golf, for example: all you have to do is get the little white ball from the tee into the tiny hole 400 yards away. Now, the easiest way of doing that – spoiler alert – is to lean down, pick up the ball, walk 400 yards and put it in the hole. Hole in one every time. That, however, would not only be astonishingly boring, but would also take away the skill of the game. The skill of golf lies in the limiting rule that to get the little white ball from the tee into the tiny hole 400 years away you must use a metal stick. And the difference between a pointless task at the end of short walk and the limit-inspired skill of Tiger Woods? An audience of millions and about $640 million in the bank.
It's not just fun and games either. Architects develop their skill by creating buildings that exist not purely in the limitless world of the imagination, but in the real world, hedged in on all sides by limits: budget, material, geometric and geographic constraints. What limits do you work with? The curriculum for a teacher, bricks for a builder, a word count for a journalist, a hundred metres for an athlete, recipes for a chef, maths for an engineer – all are necessary limits without which our work is meaningless. You can think of these as gaps to bridge, obstacles to overcome or constraints to transcend – the point is that it's only when problems get difficult that solutions get interesting. And sometimes we need to make things difficult for ourselves before we can reach our potential. That's where these experiments in positive constraints come in handy...
Read more about constraints and creativity on youarewhatyoudont.co.uk.
I hope you've enjoyed these snippets and found them to be useful little thought-pokings. If you have, I'd be grateful if you share them with your friends, colleagues and neighbours. These emails will go out every Friday and the more people who join the mailing list, the more people will hear about the life-changing possibilities of positive constraints. That's what I want.
I also want to make these emails even more useful to you, so if you've got anything to say or share, simply reply to this email and I'll be sure to get back to you.
See you out there!