I had the opportunity of interviewing Sir John Hargrave about mind hacking, a topic that I'm very interested in. If we all have the ability to reprogram our thoughts to gain or maintain new habits, then it is a skill that we all can benefit from. Actually, I talk a little bit about it on Soft Skills, but John talks more about it in detail on his new book.
John is known for being a prankster and I was a bit skeptical at first, but I also knew immediately that I wanted to interview him about the book. Mind hacking is a topic that many will find interesting, and by sharing some knowledge about the topic, I hope that it will help improve the careers and situations of many programmers who are wanting to develop new habits and practices.
Here's the video interview with John, check it out, and here is a Q & A I asked him to put together to share here.
What is “mind hacking”?
The idea behind mind hacking is that our brains can be reprogrammed. I wanted to write a user manual for the mind, a step-by-step process for reprogramming our thinking, like reprogramming a computer. Most self-help books have flowers or galloping horses on the cover. I wanted a self-help book that geeks will enjoy.
How do we learn to hack our minds? What's the first step?
The first step is becoming aware of the mind. I like using the analogy of a movie: at the beginning of the movie, you're analyzing the cinematography and the acting. Then, if it's a good movie, you get lost in it. You forget you're watching a movie. Our minds are the same way: we get lost in them.
Here's a simple thought experiment: just think about your mind for a second. When you do that, you see there is something called “you” that's separate from something called “your mind.” Intellectually this is easy to understand. In practice it's difficult, because we keep getting lost in the “mind movie.”
When we get lost, we tend to believe everything our mind tells us, including negative or self-defeating thoughts. This is why so many of us are anxious and depressed. It's a great relief to realize you don't have to believe everything you think!
One easy mind hack you can use to develop this mental awareness is just asking yourself, as many times as possible, “What was my mind just thinking?” By keeping track of how many times you're able to do this in a given day, you can start to develop the skill and power of mind hacking.
Many people have problems focusing their minds, either on short-term tasks, or long-term goals. What's a good mind hack to improve mental focus?
Every programmer knows that experience of being deep in your code, totally absorbed in concentration, then someone taps you on the shoulder, and it all just collapses. You know that feeling of frustration: now it will take me fifteen minutes to get back into the zone.
What you may not realize is the constant stream of similar interruptions you've allowed into your life, either through bad habits or laziness. One mind hack is the “One-Hour Investment,” where you take an hour to turn off all your chat windows, IM clients, junk email lists, and other interruptions.
Every app that you allow to interrupt your life — auto-updates, Google Now, etc. — creates an “open task loop.” All the research shows that these open tasks loops make us less productive and more anxious. So by consciously taking control of these interruptions, we become more productive and feel better.
You talk about “Concentration Training” as being like Jedi training in the Star Wars movies. Walk us through how it works.
There's a huge amount of research that shows that concentration training — which you may know as “mindfulness” or “meditation” — makes you more focused, productive, happier, and even healthier. The basic technique is simple: twenty minutes in the morning, sitting quietly, focusing on your breath.
Our technique improves on traditional meditation in two ways. First, you gamify the exercise by giving yourself an “Awareness Point” each time you notice yourself thinking, each time you get lost in the “mind movie.” Then you record your score each day, and track your progress over time.
Second, by rewarding yourself with Awareness Points every time you notice your mind wandering, you give yourself a little dopamine hit for returning the mind back to the breath. Most people feel bad when they notice their mind wandering: this technique makes you feel good.
You talk about “Simulation” as a mind hack that can help us achieve our goals. Isn't this just visualization or positive thinking?
There's a research study where they had two groups of students visualize getting an A in a particular class. One group just visualized the end result, and the other group simulated the entire process in their minds: studying hard, going to the library instead of parties, taking the test, then getting the A. The “simulation” group consistently outperformed the “visualization” group.
So simulating the process of getting to your goal — including how you will successfully overcome problems — is a powerful mind hack. This is the method that Jack Nicklaus used in golf. He simulated every shot in his mind first: the swing, the arc of the ball, the landing, and the ball in the cup. That's how he developed his positive approach to every shot.
It's more powerful if you can make your simulation a daily habit. The shower is a great time to run that mental simulation each day, or during your morning commute. It's a great way of filling your mental downtime.
In Mind Hacking, you talk about the “Reality Distortion Field.” What is it, and how can we create our own reality distortion field?
People who worked for Steve Jobs described him as having a “Reality Distortion Field.” You'd go into a meeting swearing that you couldn't make a software deadline, and you'd walk out of the meeting being absolutely sure that you could do it. Jobs believed in things so powerfully that he could affect the minds of others.
I believe we all have within us the ability to create this “reality distortion field.” If you believe in something so wholly — acting as if it is already accomplished — you can literally change the perceptions of others, like Jobs did. You “act as if.” You have to see the goal you want to accomplish — whether that's building an app or losing weight or finding a partner — then you act as if it's an inevitability. Fake it till you make it.
There's a weird kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in this: If you tell yourself you're good at socializing, for example, you'll probably seek out more opportunities to socialize, and you will become better at socializing. It's fun, like acting out a character in a play.
What are some of the books that inspired Mind Hacking?
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin was a big influence: Franklin invented a scientific method of self-improvement, where he wrote down the 13 virtues that he wanted to embody in his life, then he kept a daily log of how he did. It was the Quantified Self, hundreds of years before that was a thing.
How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big, the autobiography of Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams, is a terrific read. He talks about seeing failure as a building block of success, something that makes you more marketable. We bought everyone in our company a copy of this book.
Three psychology books I recommend are The Power of Habit, Willpower, and 59 Seconds, all of which use the latest research to give specific techniques on how to improve your thinking and reprogram your wetware.
Where can folks find out more about Mind Hacking?
Mind Hacking comes out in January 2016. You can preorder your copy here.