How to avoid the human death spiral

(This article was also published by The Ascent

I try to have a welcoming posture towards change, even when it's labeled as progress. However, I've noticed a nagging tension in myself that I can't pry away from. The feeling is like getting bubblegum stuck in your hair. Messy. Tangled. Frustrating.

Our intelligence to create is also the virtue that can be our poison. Maybe we are going so fast that we are leaving our souls behind?

Creativity births speed. And speed to be sure has legitimate advantages. We can do things more efficiently and sometimes, more effectively. In athletics, speed is often a critical component. In the service industry, speed is a significant ingredient of hospitality. In the medical field, speed can be the difference between life and death.

Speed is also the impetus to adrenaline. We like adrenaline. Once we've experienced the electrical charge of adrenaline, we chase after another hit like a hungry-dog-on-the-back-of-a-meat-truck.

It's like we're looking for a perpetual orgasmic existence - a never-ending drip of excitement. Slow and intentional becomes as boring as watching paint dry.

When we reach the bottom of our bag of tricks and can't figure out how to entertain our need for speed, the knee-jerk reaction is to look at what most of what everyone else is doing and then join them.

But therein lies the issue:  We join without thinking.

We simply trade the murderous intensity our current situation for another. The pivot usually offers false hope. The novelty of the new stimulus fuels us for a while, but when it wears off, two things can happen:

We keep up with the blistering pace.

Or, we recognize that the pursuit is fueled by blind enthusiasm and opt-out.

It reminds me of the ant death spiral.

Army ants are blind. But, they are creative and must be to survive. To eat, the first ant in line will travel on a hunt for food leaving behind a pheromone trail that signals the other ants to follow. When this system is working, it allows the entire army of ants to find food.

However, when the system is broken, it becomes an anomalous phenomenon. The pheromone trail becomes a loop causing the ants to flow back into the same path over and over again.

They travel at a fierce, unrelenting pace under the assumption that their activity will be fruitful. But since they are blind, all of the activity will lead to their doom. If the trail isn't broken for whatever reason, they will continue at this pace until they fall over in exhaustion.


It's humbling to watch those ants go round and round isn't it?  Their advantage in life - being able to create to survive - can also be their poison.

Life can paint a similar picture. On our quest, we too, can blindly jump in and follow the blind enthusiasm. Our advantage in life - being able to create to survive - can also backfire.

The speed created by following a fruitless chase creates an illusion of progression. The adrenaline blinds us to reality. If the trail isn't broken for whatever reason, we run the risk of circling forever.

There's a saying I once read that goes like this:

 "People don't take advice unless they were planning on doing it anyway."

What follows is a simple list to help both of us avoid the human death spiral: To side-step the endless circle jerk of perceived achievement masked by speed.

You might be already on your way to doing some of these things. This narrative is old news to you. If that's you, I'm proud of you. Press on.

Or, you might think all of this is bogus. You might be saying right now, "This guy is out of his mind. The whole point of life is to hustle and achieve my goals - not slow down." If that's you, I agree with you. Hustle and goal achievement are a part of life. But, you probably won't care to read any of what is to come.

Or, you might be on the fence. You might be that person who feels the chase is towards a finish line that doesn't exist and you're curious about what to do about it. You have direction, but you don't want to get consumed by speed. Overwhelm is creeping in, and it's claiming more real estate in your head and mind by the day. I wrote this post for you.


1. Write it down

We're all writers today, even if you don't consider yourself a "writer."

The amount emails and text messages you send on a daily basis proves that. So, let's take what you're already doing, and leverage it for a better result. 


Write all your worries and unfinished tasks down

Research has shown that by writing down your worries and unfinished tasks allows you to show up in each moment with more clarity and less fret. Writing this stuff done organizes your thoughts and opens up mental bandwidth to be pro-active on the things right in front of you instead of worrying about things that haven't happened yet or will never happen.


Write down what you're thankful for

Gratitude has a laundry list of benefits including greater optimism, heighten energy levels, less overwhelm and a higher likeliness for one to exercise to name a few. The key is to cultivate the state instead of waiting to feel thankful. One practical way to do this is to use the three blessing technique coined by Professor Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania. Before bedtime, take 10 minutes to list three things you're grateful for and briefly explain why.


2. Work like athletes

Rhythm is everything.

The exhale you just let out and the one you'll take in next. The sun rising and falling. Your eyes opening at first light and shutting at night.

But when our pursuits - largely our creative and professional ones - have no rhythm it soon becomes despair. And the great paradox of our time is that instead of re-arranging ourselves to follow a rhythm, we push even harder to make "the grind" work - similar to the ants moving faster in a circle that leads to nowhere.

When we look at athletes, there is no discrepancy in the fact that they cannot train every hour of the day. They train in rhythms: Intense intervals followed by intermittent renewal periods to allow for compensation. This cycle of work followed by purposeful rest is what propels them to be better athletes. Attempting to train all day long would plow them into the ground hindering their performance, not enhancing it.

Set time blocks of focused, intense work and protect that time passionately. By going deep during this time block, a few things will happen: You'll get more done in less time,  you'll free yourself from wanting to work when you're supposed to be resting, and the quality of your work will likely improve.


3. Schedule "mastery experience" time

It's arguably the most counter-culture piece of advice: Research shows that participating in "mastery experiences" helps people experience less overwhelm and recovery from the workweek.

In other words, throw yourself into something you're trying to improve with. This will obviously be different for everyone. Playing the harmonica. Writing that novel. Training for that Spartan Race. Nursing that garden. Restoring the 63 Impala.


At first glance, this can just seem like more busyness. But, we have to consider that our minds like to be busy on something we deem worth pursuing. By pivoting from "work" and focusing energy on a mastery experience based in leisure, it allows us to engage in something that we're not only good with but also enjoy doing. This is refreshing for both the mind and heart.

Contrast that to the findings of how binging on Netflix for the whole weekend might induce more anxiety and lower life satisfaction.


Wrapping Up

Just because it looks like others are circling going nowhere, it doesn't mean we have to join them.

You and I both have more agency in this matter than we think. To be sure, this process is like steering a ship - it's dynamic.

But, we can start to be more intentional with our time right now. We can begin to write things down to organize our thoughts. We can work like athletes to embed renewal into our days, weeks, and months to be the best we can be at what we do - without walking into the barn of burnout. We can pencil in mastery experiences into our schedule to feed our minds and souls in a way that success from work cannot.


Coming September 2016 

Hi, I’m Brian McFadden, teacher of the Ultra Wellness Program — the course that teaches business owners, independent workers, creative leaders how to get in the best shape of their life, for the rest of their life. If you're ready to upgrade your health, change your body and skyrocket your productivity, sign up for the presale list. By doing so, it'll give you the chance to register for the course before everyone else. Even better, you'll save hundreds of dollars on the cost of the program. Sign up by clicking here. 

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End notes:

Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being

The Power of Full Engagement: Mastering Energy, Not Time Is The Key To High Performance and Personal Renewal

“Recovery during the weekend and fluctuations in weekly job performance: A week-level study examining intra-individual relationships” from Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, Volume 83, Number 2, June 2010 , pp. 419-441(23)

Source: “Does watching TV make us happy?” from Journal of Economic Psychology, Volume 28, Issue 3, June 2007, Pages 283-313