How Nutritious is Your Mental Diet? - Part 2/2

By Ciaran O'Regan

Pre-flight checklist:

  • As per the title, this is part 2. To get part 1 click here...

  • Reading time: 15-17 minutes (without watching the videos)

  • This ramble is literally about the quality of our mental diets. As such, if you are going to read this in a distracted manner due to flicking back and forth between social media notifications or while watching TV or some shit then just save yourself the irony and stop reading now.

  • To take a concept from the great book by Cal Newport: go Deep or go home!

Let us begin part 2....


My definition of what constitutes an investment activity:

Investment activities are those with which we bargain with the fabric of time itself by making in the moment short term sacrifices of easy pleasures in order to acquire some future benefit. Performance of these activities more often than not requires discipline in order to overcome "the resistance".

There are a few quite obvious activities that fit the Investment category such as the actual paid work that puts food on the table and a roof over your head. The chores you need to do in order to live in habitable order such as making your bed, doing laundry, food shopping, cooking, etc. etc. would also fit here. Depending on your individual circumstances, you may find you have some free time after these necessities are accomplished but are unsure of what other Investment activities you could be doing during this time.

It is this rudderless ambiguity surrounding free time that leads us towards chasing short term pleasures flitting from stimulus to stimulus with a sort of restless anxiousness (think of a person at a great restaurant with a delicious meal in front of them but will still have their face buried in their phone brainlessly scrolling some newsfeed at the expense of embracing their present situation).  

Some example symptoms of this restless anxiousness would include buying shit for entertainment rather than necessity, using social media as a crutch to fill time by mindlessly scrolling rather than as a selective tool to accomplish some specific task, and, of course; eating hyper-palatable nutritionally sparse processed foods out of PURE BOREDOM. I am a firm believer that we spend large chunks of our time doing nutritionally sparse Withdrawal activities like this because we do not have a "noble aim" to steal a phrase from Dr. Peterson below. 

"If you don't have a noble aim, then you have nothing but, but, shallow trivial pleasures. And they don't sustain you." - Jordan Peterson

If you do not have any activities that you could classify as "noble aims", here are 3 foolproof foundation stones of micronutrient dense Investment activities that offer us all good places to start: 

1). PHYSICAL TRAINING: These are Investment activities that offer a challenging enough physical stimulus to force your body to want to adapt in order to better deal with future stressors of a similar kind (i.e. "if it doesn't challenge you it doesn't change you" - cheesy but accurate fitness cliche). Developing your body is an Investment activity which could be defined as a noble aim for a number of reasons. The most glaringly obvious however is that the better you take care of your meat vehicle, the more useful you are going to be to those around you. There are the obvious practical reasons for this such as being better at moving couches and having more energy to get everything done, but, there are less obvious benefits to having a hard physical practice in your life. One is that there can be powerful socialization benefits when exercising in a group or taking part in a sport. Another, is that you will also have a mind that simply works better. Let me reiterate the latter, exercise contributes powerfully to your mental diet because if you are not physically active enough, your brain will NOT work properly.  

"If the body be feeble, the mind will not be strong. Not less than two hours a day should be devoted to exercise, and the weather should be little regarded........... Brute animals are the most healthy, and they are exposed to all weather, and of men, those are healthiest who are the most exposed." - Thomas Jefferson (1786)

2). SELF-EXPRESSION/DEVELOPMENT: These are investment activities involving learning and refining challenging skills such as practicing a musical instrument, creative writing, drawing, painting, designing stuff, building stuff, studying educational content that improve how you operate in the world (Stoicism is a good place to start), learning new languages, etc. These actions are noble as without people doing them, there would be no meaningful advance to our cultures. Apart from providing sources of knowledge and beauty to others, these activities give the creators meaning and direction by acting as vehicles for the "development of human potential" to steal a phrase from Joe Rogan. 

While art is obviously a form of self-expression, it is also a method of self-development. What has "art" got to do with self-development you may ask? Well this is where the French philosopher Marcel Proust comes in. Proust went so far as to suggest that art was the meaning of life in his epic novel "In Search of Lost Time" (which I have yet to read as it is literally double the length of "War and Peace"). 

"Artists are people who strip habit away and return life to its deserved glory." - Marcel Proust

When you "strip habit away", you are simply exposing yourself to new things and thereby learning through these new exposures. Hence, when you really think about it, "art" is simply continuous self-development and self-expression through whatever your chosen medium may be. 

3). ALTRUISM:  Last but for sure not least, is the activity of being cool to people. Altruism is essentially the awareness that our actions have repercussions on the wider world, and, that we are going to choose to act in ways that takes the greater good into account. When we do act this way, we also feel great on a personal level so it is a win win situation. This is the easiest one to illustrate because all I need to do is bring it down to one simple example: gifts. We all know it feels 10X better to give presents than to receive them. Aims do not really get more noble than trying to leave the world in a better state than if you had not been here at all. 

"The meaning of life lies in the nobility of the individual" - Jordan Peterson

Investment activities like the 3 I mentioned above, are essentially what give our lives meaning and purpose (without trying to be too grandiose about it LOL).

"A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself." - R.W. Emerson.

While I have just mentioned how important Investment activities are, It can't be Investment all the time or else we would simply burn out. This is where Withdrawal activities come in to play. 


This is my own definition of what constitutes a Withdrawal activity:

Withdrawal activities are those which offer immediate pleasure with a no more obvious benefit than the fact that it acts as a respite from the fatiguing efforts of investment periods. These activities are often easiest to identify by their provision of instant gratification rather than the delayed gratification that accompanies activities of the Investment category.

The reason we can't always veer in the direction of short term easy pleasures in the form of a lifetime of Withdrawal activities, is best summed up by this beautifully simple and eloquent quote I heard from a badass weightlifting coach and all round philosopher in his 60's on this episode the Tim Ferris podcast

"Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life." - Jerzy Gregorek

Just as some actual ice cream can be super enjoyable and exciting when enjoyed as a treat in an otherwise healthy physical diet, our Withdrawal activities essentially act as short term enjoyable pleasures in our mental diets that allow us rest and recovery from the efforts of our Investment activities. In fact, if you really think about it, effortful and uncomfortable investment activities actually ENHANCE the enjoyment from the pleasure and comfort of subsequent withdrawal activities. Just think about how fucking deliriously beautiful a warm fire is after a long run in winter weather so cold you feel like your finger nails are on fire, or the inverse situation in which arrive back into an air conditioned building after a grueling run in sweltering heat. We NEED suffering and discomfort in our lives in order to truly appreciate pleasure and comfort.  

But since we can't just fill up all of our blocks with Investment activities all day every day or else we would burn out, and, therefore need to have rest and relaxation in the form of Withdrawal blocks in our diets to some extent, the question is how much Withdrawal blocks do we use? Well just like an ATM machine has Withdrawal minimums and maximums, so does our mental diet. 

withdrawal minimums and maximums

I have read enough books and heard enough interviews from old and wise people to have learned that when push comes to shove and they talk about regrets from life, it is the things they didn't do that bugs them and not the things they did do but failed on. No matter how old you are, if you are totally honest with yourself, I would hazard a bet you would come to the same conclusion as these wise old people. As such, I do not want to have any regrets when it comes to that moment in which I return my borrowed carbon to the universe. Therefore, the more confident I am that I am in the process of successfully squeezing every last drop out of myself in whatever activities I do, the more happy and content I am with life.

Hustling 100% of the time with Investment Activities "all day err day" is not feasible however as you will run out of gas sooner or later thereby taking away from your ability to do future Investment Activities. It is for this reason, therefore, that instead of focussing on how many Investment blocks we should be doing, an easier way to view it is to determine how many Withdrawal blocks we should be doing. 

With actual food there are objective means of estimating things like how much of certain vitamins and minerals we need etc. from the caloric load of our diets. This thereby allows us to be flexible with how much "junk" food we fit in if needs must. With this more abstract mental diet concept however, the problem lies in determining how much Investment vs. Withdrawal time we spend in our 100 blocks. 

Just like there are minimum nutrient amounts which we need to not be deficient, and maximum amounts that once approached can become toxic; the same can be said for Withdrawal activities. 

This is where Dr. Jordan B. Peterson and Fyodor Dostoevsky will help us by defining minimums and maximums for our Withdrawal activities......

Withdrawal Minimums

As mentioned above, Withdrawal activities are essentially pleasurable in the short term and offer rest and recovery from our effortful and fatiguing investment activities. Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is one of the sharpest dudes I have ever heard speak and has been a huge influence on my world view since luckily coming across his work in November of 2016, and, in a recent lecture of his mentioned what I think to be be one of the most beautifully simple ways of addressing the conundrum of the how much should we rest question.

What Peterson said about the idea of work and rest, to paraphrase, is that we should not work so much that we fry ourselves thereby taking away from our future ability to work.

Given then that Investment activities can be seen as work, and Withdrawal as rest, Peterson's aforementioned constraint therefore provides us with a minimum amount of rest/Withdrawal activities we need to do so that we do not negatively affect our ability to do future work/investment activities.

But then what is the maximum?

Withdrawal Maximums

So since Investment activities constitute work, and, Withdrawal activities constitute rest, Withdrawal activities can only truly function as rest once it is not adding to your allostatic load by throwing more stress into the pot:

All credit to  Wikipedia  for definition.

All credit to Wikipedia for definition.

But, you may find yourself asking, how can Withdrawal activities ADD to the total stress your body undergoes? 

Let's go back to the spuds vs. pop tart example as a way of illustrating this point. Pop tarts are fine once they are part of an overall nutritionally dense and varied diet. Our whole diet cannot constitute foods like pop tarts, however, because you will not get the required nutrition and your body will simply not work properly thereby adding to your physiological stress whether you subjectively feel the difference or not. 

Now lets take this analogy to a Withdrawal activities such as watching TV shows and the point becomes even more clear. TV shows are perfectly fine to watch (especially Game of Thrones, American Gods, and The Wire) once they have the right "set and setting" to steal a phrase from the famous psychonaut Terence Mckenna.

All credit to  Wikipedia  for the definition.

All credit to Wikipedia for the definition.

Just for the craic, here is a sample conversation that may take place between us about the information thus far with me playing the archetypal monk lad sitting cross legged on a rock up a mountain, and you playing, well, you:

You: "What is the right set and setting for a Withdrawal activity like watching my favourite show to truly be a Withdrawal activity though? How can I be sure that I am not adding to the stress pool of my allostatic load?"

Me: "Only you know that."

You: "How could I possibly know that?"

Me: "When watching your show, does your brain wander and drift to things you have yet to do such as household chores? Work tasks? The training session you skipped or gave sub-par effort on? Do you find yourself thinking back to that important email you haven't responded to or job you want but haven't applied for? Do you experience restlessness even though it is your "favourite show" and you by all rights should be enjoying it?

You: "Ya, sometimes. So what? What has that got to do with stress?"

Me: "All of those drifting thoughts are because of T's you have left uncrossed and I's you have left undotted. Each time your mind drifts like that toward something you have yet to do, or, was supposed to do but didn't, or, you do not even know what you need to do but you just have this relentless restlessness nagging at you letting you know you need to do something else with your time, you get a little bit of a stress response that manifests itself in the body the same way regardless of the source thereby adding to your allostatic load." 

You: "...............................the fuck does that mean?" 

Me: Loses all patience and foregoes the monk act: "Make your fucking bed, do your fucking study, and don't be a lazy slug skipping training next time before you watch your show!!! Get your shit together and earn your rest or else you will be stressed out even more because your conscience knows you don't deserve to rest and will wreck your head because of it!" - Goes back to closing my eyes and looking all serene and shit on my rock....

"Always let your conscience be your guide." - Pinocchio

The easiest way to illustrate this point is that sense of restlessness we all have experienced after our first few days on holidays if we have no real plans or any real definite stuff to do. Another is that restlessness you may have when at a family event because there was a bunch of work taks you were nonchalant about the day before and now are constantly popping up at the back of your mind and affecting your ability to truly relax and enjoy quality time with your family. Even if you think you have all your shit together but still do not know why you feel restless, delve into the 3 foolproof foundation stones I mentioned above until you actually find your noble aim.

This concept of meaningful work providing a level of purpose and thus happiness to our lives is by no means a novel idea. Dostoevsky for example wrote the below quote in the 1800's: 

"Deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence; they go stark, raving mad." - Fyodor Dostoevsky

Essentially, what I am getting to with the admittedly quite random combination of the above fictional conversation, Pinocchio video, and Fyodor Dostoevsky quote is that, if we are truly honest with ourselves, we fucking know when a Withdrawal activity is actually providing us with true rest and recovery because our conscience is at ease and we can truly relax and be present in the moment. Hence, we know our Withdrawal maximum has been reached once our conscience starts nagging at us to get back to work. 

The Wise Old Version of You...

Our 100 blocks can't be all Investment in nature all the time or else we would burn out and take away from our ability to do future Investment activities thereby limiting how much we can work toward our noble aims. 

Similarly, our blocks can't be Withdrawal in nature all the time either or else we would get quickly disillusioned in a world of shallow-hedonistic-materialistic-hollowness finding ourselves drifting from quick dopamine hit to quick dopamine hit in search of short term novel enjoyments and go "stark, raving mad" to quote the great Mr. Dostoevsky.

By truly listening to ourselves and acknowledging the signs and signals our bodies give us, however, we can identify the minimums and maximums of the blocks we can allow for our Withdrawal activities. Thus we will know how many blocks we have left over to spend on our metaphorical micronutrient dense Investment activities. We will, therefore, be making the absolute most of our time as temporarily assembled clusters of atoms as everything we do will have a purpose.

"Do nothing which is of no use." - Miyamoto Musashi

You may still be wondering why maximizing the number of Investment blocks and the quality and depth of experience of our Withdrawal blocks is even important in the first fucking place.

Maybe the aforementioned concept of the "noble aim" Dr. Jordan Peterson talked about is too esoteric and has gone over your head, maybe you see no problem in rudderlessly wandering your way through your free time with no real direction or purpose scrolling news feeds and allowing yourself to watch hour after hour of reality TV in a state of relentless niggly agitation. 

Here is a fictional scenario that may clear things up: live your life as if you are being followed around by a camera crew who are filming your day to day experiences so that your Great Great Grandkids whom you will never meet can learn how to live when they are the age you are now. What kind of nutritional content would the wise old version of you look for in the 100 blocks of consciousness lived out each day? To put it even more simply, how would the wise old version of you live if trying to leave a positive legacy for loved ones?

"So be wise, because the world needs more wisdom, and if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise and then just behave like they would." - Neil Gaiman

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