Editor’s note: James Altucher is an investor, programmer, author, and entrepreneur. He is Managing Director of Formula Capital and has written 6 books on investing. His latest book is I Was Blind But Now I See. You can follow him@jaltucher.
When I got separated from my ex-wife in November, 2008 I put an ad on Craigslist pretending to be a psychic and spent the day answering all the emails I got in return. I had various tricks to prove I was a psychic. For instance, if a woman wrote me and asked: prove you’re a psychic I would write back: when you were younger you had beautiful long hair. Then it was cut and you were horribly sad, all that beautiful hair lost. They would all respond, HOW DID YOU KNOW?
Then I had Thanksgiving dinner in the Red Flame diner on 44th Street by myself and had a Turkey sandwich.
It was the financial crisis, I was all alone, I spent the nights in cheap hotels, and the world was falling apart. I shut down a business I had been starting. It was a year and a half after I sold stockpickr.com and I felt I was ready to begin the next one. I started a business crowdsourcing ads. My partners were the guys who did Freakonomics. It was going well. Why did I shut the new business down? No reason at all. It’s probably still a good idea. I was just mired in my own negativity.
Meanwhile Andrew Mason spent that month, the worst month in financial history since the Great Depression, starting Groupon and became a billionaire.
Through the years I missed investing in Google. I missed investing in Foursquare. I missed, I lost, I suffered, I cried. I could’ve started other businesses instead of the ones I did. I could’ve accepted job offers instead of lying in my hammock crying about failures. We all have stuff to complain about. What a waste! It’s hard not to spend most of the day angry or scared or anxious. Particularly when running a startup.
I want to be productive, healthy, and happy. Better to avoid having 80% of my thoughts (or more on some days!) be “not useful”. In my worst days I easily could’ve spent a good chunk of my day wasting it by thinking thoughts that aren’t useful. That’s just as much a waste of time as playing dumb games or watching the Kardashians on reality TV.
Pretend your brain is a giant Gmail inbox. You can use filters to immediately label thoughts to get them out of your priority inbox and not have them bog down your productivity (or happiness). As soon as you see one of the below types of thoughts pop up, label it, filter it, and file it (thoughts have a way of racing past us). Many times, this has been the only way I’ve been able to pick myself up and get moving again.
Here are nine filters you can use to get rid of such negative thoughts:
1) Pessimistic thoughts: For instance, judging myself too harshly. Or assuming I’m no good at something so I shouldn’t even try. Or assuming I’m destined to be an unhealthy old man. These are all negative thoughts. If you can’t try something, then you won’t try something. You think Larry Page wanders around his bedroom late at night thinking, “man, I can’t do this!”
How do I know I can label them as “negative thoughts”? As opposed to negative reality? Because they have no basis in fact. I don’t know how I will be as an old man. And if I judge someone too harshly before I even know them—what’s the point? It’s one thing if they reach into my pocket and try to take my wallet. Then I can judge them: “This person steals things.” But until then, why judge? And yet I do. What a waste!
Or, before I give a talk, thinking that I’m going to do horribly despite the fact that I’ve prepared well and it’s a friendly crowd. All the evidence suggests that my negative thought is not based in reality and yet I’ll still think it. Not useful.
2) Vice – My vice thoughts start when I wake up. Who made me angry the day before? Do I look good in the mirror? Or when I look at the above picture of Larry Page (referred to as “human being #1” in my house) I get envious. Or am I constantly thinking of the waffles I’m going to eat at breakfast in the city later? That might be a fun thought (just like constantly thinking about sex) but it’s not necessarily one that will bring me closer to happiness or success. I can enjoy the waffle when I eat it. I don’t have to think of it every second of the day.
3) Perfectionism/Shame– I want to make more money. I want my kids to love me. I want a big house. I want, I want, I want. We spend our first few years of life being programmed by commercialism into thinking that some things are important: getting a college degree, owning a home, having as many people as possible love you (fame), getting attached to certain things (like the Dr. McCoy doll I have sitting right next to my computer that nobody better mess with), getting a private plane, having sex with as many people as possible. These thoughts of what a perfect life would be like are harmful.
What if you don’t get the college degree, or own the home, or get the yacht in the Mediterranean?
Perfectionism is a form of bondage. We want things to be “just right” or else we are unhappy. We become ashamed. Why, when I had $10mm, did I want $100mm? I had enough to live forever. And yet, some feeling inside of me thought I was imperfect, unloved, not good enough, unless I had that $100mm. And then, of course, I lost it all. And I really did feel shame. For years! Perfectionist thoughts are not only not useful, they are damaging.
4) Jealousy. – there’s that Sting song, “if you love someone, set them free.” A lot of people love others but don’t want the other to be free. They say, “I love you” but the love is tainted with need, with desire, with jealousy. How do you catch yourself when you feel this less pure form of love. Jealousy is like this also. Why did this friend sell his business for $80 million and I’m still working 29 hours a day. Or why did this other friend cash out when he was just a low-level employee of Facebook? It’s hard. But it’s still a type of thought that will bring you down, force you to live a lesser life than the person you were meant to be. When you think you have the purest motives, take a second to check yourself – what are your ulterior motives. What would happen if you don’t get what you want?
You might think that jealousy can be a motivating thought: If he can do it, why can’t I? But it’s not. It takes away from the thoughts of creativity, ingenuitiy, innovation, invention.
5) Painful – We just had the Thanksgiving holidays. This gives rise to a lot of pleasurable thoughts. But also painful ones. Often we’re put together with family and friends that bring back memories. Historical is often hysterical.
We remember the past, we remember the things that were done to us. Everyone shouts hysterically, confusing it with historically. I went to a Thanksgiving once where one sister threw coffee on another sister. What started out as pleasurable thoughts (“MMm, Thanksgiving!”) quickly turned painful. This Thanksgiving I spent the entire day on a plane. It was my best Thanksgiving ever!
It’s too much to say: I’m not going to think these painful thoughts. We’re not Jesus. But for me, just being aware that I’m about to go into a situation where painful thoughts might occur, helps me to label them and filter them when they come up. Or even stay away from the situation altogether (hence the plane ride on Thanksgiving).
6) Fear. Everything changes. I’m going to get older. I’m going to fail at some of the things I start. Heck, I have proof of that. Maybe some day my wife Claudia will hate me (I hope not.) Maybe some day my kids will. (One of them yesterday said to me, “I hate you”, and it made me afraid for a second that her words weren’t the senseless provoking of a nine year old but I suddenly pictured her as a twenty-nine year old saying it.)
But these fears of the future are just as useless as the painful thoughts of the past. They have nothing to do with how we can be happy and productive right now. Today. So they deserve to be labeled and put in the mental spam box. Some people live life as if today is your last day. Better to do the opposite, live each day as if it’s the first. A fresh start. Time for newness and confidence.
7) Obsessive. Perhaps the biggest time and life waster. One time I was so obsessed with another woman that I’d go to sleep with my phone right next to me wishing she’d call. I’d wake up disappointed she didn’t call and wondering what she was doing all night. I’d wait until I thought she was awake and then I would call and ask her to breakfast. If she couldn’t, I’d go to her area and wait around until she was available. I’d keep circling the block to see the light was on in her window. My entire day revolved around her. Of course she got sick of me. In which case I became more obsessive. What does this have to do with being an entrepreneur? It has everything to do with it. That valuable energy I was wasting could’ve been spent developing Groupon or heck, even Lycos.
Or sometimes when someone is angry with me, I can’t just give it up. I have to prove myself right. I have to make sure he or she knows how wrong he is. I play the argument over and over again. I can’t understand how they can think I’m wrong. Or what I did to deserve such harsh treatment. I’m RIGHT! So get with the program.
8) Sadness. I don’t want to suggest that it’s “bad” to feel sad. If someone close to you dies, you’ll feel sad. But often people stretch out the sadness until it becomes an addiction, an excuse to be pessimistic.” I’m “never going to be happy” because…X, Y, and Z.”
Our mind likes to be sad. It likes the barriers to happiness. Happiness is too wide open and scary. Sadness keeps us confined inside our boundaries. Those boundaries become the walls that pessimism lives inside of. It’s easy to be pessimistic because then we fool ourselves into thinking we don’t need to do too much. What if in 2004, some kid at Harvard didn’t say, “I’m going to make a little website that everyone on the planet is going to put all of their personal details on.” What if he said, instead, “Ahh, I don’t feel like it. Some girl who looks like the girl with the dragon tattoo just broke up with me and can I really compete against myspace.com anyway? Don’t be an idiot, Mark.” And he just went under his covers and cried. No good!
9) Unimprovement. We know exactly when we are thinking of things that are not good for us. Am I going to eat chocolate until 1 in the morning while watching the Real Housewives of Atlanta? Most likely this is not good for me (although “Real Houswives of Beverly Hills” is a completely different issue).
The mind is like a giant Gmail box. Emails are constantly coming in. Most of them are junk emails and are instantly filtered into the spam box. But many other emails come in that we don’t know what to do with.
In Gmail you can create filters. For instance, when someone sends me a receipt for my latest book “I Was Blind But Now I See” I am able to label the email “Bad Behavior” because when my next self-published book comes out (working title, “Bad Behavior”) I can easily filter every email with that label and send it to them.
It’s the same in our mind. If we use the above nine labels above, and then filter anything (or most things) with those labels into the “not useful” box as per this post, then here’s what happens:
A) Our brain gets quicker at noticing when we are thinking not-useful thoughts.
B) Your negativity is like a rock constantly being doused with water. Eventually the rock withers to nothing, although it takes time. It’s persistent practice.
C) We have more time for the useful thoughts – the thoughts that lead to productivity, minimalism, happiness, freedom.
D) We can identify which labels are occurring the most and develop problem-solving techniques to directly deal with them. Not every “not useful” thought should be treated the same.
Don’t believe me. Don’t pay any attention to this advice. Like everybody else, I’ve got 6,000 things to do today. And I know if any of the nine things above drag me down, I won’t get things done. I’m already feeling anxious about it. And I’m not helped by the 12 cups of coffee I’ve already consumed. In fact, I could be slipping into an obsessive panic.