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S: Hello and welcome to the Optimized Geek. I’m your host Stephan Spencer. Today we have Justin Dudek with us. Justin is a Quantified Self behavior hacker. If you haven’t heard of Quantified Self or QS, the Quantified Self Movement is a group of citizen scientists who study their own health through various biomarkers and through tracking behaviors in order to optimize themselves. Justin’s been doing this for over three years now. He also has a Bachelor of Science in Social Psychology from Arizona State University. He and I met at the BIL Conference, which is built as the anti-Ted, it’s part of the unconference movement. It was at BIL 2016 that Justin and I met. He was speaking on the topic of how to build a better you by using old family photos, which is one of the things we’ll talk about as well as other quantified self topics in this episode. Justin has tracked everything from heart rate variability, sleep, arranged various behaviors including bad habits to break and good habits to build. He’s experimented with everything from neurofeedback, Pavlok, which is electroshock punishment, that does not sound fun, smart drug psychedelics, kundalini yoga, holotropic breathing, ice pads, and a lot more. I think you’re going to really enjoy our episode today so let’s dig in. Justin, great to have you on the show.
J: It’s great to be here, Stephan. Thank you so much for this opportunity.
S: Let’s talk about how you got started in the Quantified Self Movement. Why are you tracking all these things? You hooked up all these different devices to yourself. For example, you tracked your sleep pretty regularly, like every night for multiple months. Why would you geek out like this and track all these different things?
J: I learned about the Quantified Self Movement probably four years ago finding various videos online on YouTube and Vimeo, presentations of people speaking at these Quantified Self Conferences and sharing what they were tracking. It became clear that when you look at your own physiology or your own body through your blood or other tests that you can conduct to yourself, you find that a lot of the practices and recommendations that you hear from professionals, whether it be doctors or experts in various fields, sometimes that information works for you in phenomenally good ways, and other times it doesn’t really apply to you. For some reason your body or your mind just doesn’t jive with some of the everyday general recommendations for solving some of your problems. I like the idea of diving into me and looking at myself from an n=1 experimental perspective because I wanted to find what really worked for me and what my body was responding to in different ways versus just reading literature on what the general population might be advised to do with diet, or sleep health, or mental personal growth work, or anything like that.
S: What would be the biggest breakthrough that you got through studying your own behaviors and biomarkers?
J: There’s a couple of things that jump out at me for behaviors. A few key moments that’s really changed my trajectory in the last couple of years for how I’ve worked on different habits to build and also habits to break. I would say the number one that I’m playing with right now is practicing the impulse control that I’ll receive at any time from my own brain, from my mind, from my thoughts. The impulse to let’s say do a habit that you may classify as a bad habit to break or the impulse to avoid a good habit that you want to consistently maintain. Looking at that thought or that physiological reaction and practice the art of letting it just pass. I’ve tried a lot of different things to temper that will power, or that muscle of saying no to my own thoughts and beliefs. What I have found from this practice is that new habits, healthy habits are much easier for me to start and detrimental habits are much easier for me to break and to keep from reappearing. Aside from that, the other main thing that I look at is my environment and how that influences me. When I studied at Arizona State University, I emphasized on influence and persuasive psychology as well as environmental psychology. I looked a lot at my own environment, both inside my apartment where I live and the world that I step out to everyday, and observe, in some ways measure how it impacts me day to day. That gives me more power to control what I introduce into my life, either through bringing obvious possessions into my apartment or even the type of people that I interact with when I step outside. Those are the two biggest major shifts for me in the past year, looking at those two different muscles.
S: Got it. What would be some of the habits that you have impacted through this work? Like you’ve tried to or you’ve had success with breaking some bad habits, what were some of those habits? What were some of the new habits that were positive habits that you replaced the bad habits with?
J: One thing I want to address about breaking habits is that habit in my opinion, based on what I’ve read and sort of the belief that I had around habits is that a habit is never really broken. Over time, it can reduce to pretty much zero frequency of occurring but we always have the impulse within ourselves to fall back to our old behaviors and patterns even after we’ve grown out of them. One example is I have a very dear friend of mine who has been sober for over 18 years. He’s a big advocate of the Alcoholics Anonymous program and he’s been a sponsor for others that are struggling with bad habits. He never refers to himself as being cured or that he’s broken the habit completely. A recovering alcoholic or a recovering drug addict will always say that the addiction stays with them. I look at that for bad habits as well. The addiction to the habit or the reoccurrence of the habit is pervasive throughout your whole life until many, many years of practice. I don’t look at my habits as have I broken them or not. I look at how frequently are they popping up and what are the levers that I can pull that reduce the ones that I want to break eventually and which ones do I want to have more prominently in my day to day. For me personally, I have a couple of bad habits that I’ve been breaking such as distractions from internet, phone, and TV consumption, having a sweet tooth or consuming foods that I know are not healthy for me. I’ve also had issues with consuming too much pornography or consuming mind altering substances like marijuana or alcohol with some less than desirable rates than I’d like to admit. Although really that’s a part of my history so I’m working out of that now. What I’ve been practicing has really brought many of these habits down to zero for many great lengths of time. It’s also really interesting when you measure yourself every day, you see how your life and the circumstances going on in your life at any moment can impact sort of flare up these behaviors as again, you’re never really fully over the behaviors, they eventually can manifest under times of extreme stress or lack of sleep. Regulating that is really the key to regulating your behaviors, monitoring your stress and sleep habits. As for good behaviors, I’ve had a daily habit of reading every day, meditating every day, pretty much exercising now every day, working on eliminating either debt or increasing savings, improving my sleep habits and my rituals for falling asleep more productively. Those are the kinds of habits that I’m working on in the last year. Other habits I’m looking at increasing for 2017 are more random acts of play as I call them. I found a really big influence between intentional non productivity as actually increasing happiness, and connection with other people, and how that actually influences the bad behaviors and the good behaviors in the right directions. That’s one thing I’m looking at for next year.
S: Awesome. Let’s go into these negative habits or the detrimental ones. I myself have had a lot of issues with sugar. My whole life I was addicted to sugar. Over the last year, I think it’s been a year, maybe a bit less, but it’s been a number of months where I’ve been off of sugar. I’ve spoken about this on a couple of episodes of the show how I’ve been able to accomplish that through just an identity shift, through the understanding of the difference between restriction and suppression which are cabalistic terms. I’m curious what was it for you that got you to really change your eating habits, just to lay off the junk food and processed food, sugar, whatever it was, your vices that you would go to when you’re tired and your will power was drained. What would be kind of the secrets to success from your standpoint?
J: Like I mentioned, the behaviors never really go away. The first step that I took was don’t allow these items in my house, don’t allow them in my refrigerator or in my cabinets. That’s a lot easier said than done for many people. I addressed my shopping habits and my meal plan for the week. Interestingly though, I found that when I was still exhausted or stressed out, I would even leave my apartment, drive or walk to a grocery store, buy a bar of chocolate, bring it home, and just devour the whole thing. Even when I didn’t keep it in my house, I still have the impulse to go and get it. That first behavior of just not keeping it in the house is one of the eight methods of behavior change used by animal trainers. If the stimulus is not present, it’s out of sight, out of mind. You’re not going to as likely go and search for this item if it’s not in your house to then consume it or use it.
S: That’s great for kids too. If you’re a parent, one of the first rules of good parenting is simplifying the environment. Get that cookie jar, whatever, out of the house and you’re going to make your life a lot easier.
J: Yeah, for sure. I found that too. If I worked at different offices that had a cookie jar present across the room, I would go and I would grab a cookie multiple times throughout the day. That’s never good for your health and your weight. After getting it out of the house, I started to realize that what’s this energy that’s pushing me out the door to the grocery store to go and succumb to this impulse. That energy really for me identified as stress and lack of sleep. I used to call it my avoidance patterns. Going and getting sugar or bad food was a way that I avoided certain feelings and sensations of discomfort. If I was overworked and stressed too much, rather than sitting and dealing with that in a productive way, whether I’m taking personal responsibility for the amount of work that I’ve taken on and creating a new plan to reduce that clutter in my life or even just processing emotionally the frustration that I’m in. Rather than doing that, I would avoid all of those feelings and senses and instead bathe myself in these bad habits that would distract my mind because the dopamine released, the happiness molecules released from those habits would wash away the senses of discomfort. When I broken to that, I started to look at what would make me happier and also less stressful from day to day. That is where I started to really focus on my sleep, I focused on communing with friends and colleagues that would provide me energy and create an uplift in my life rather than spending time with anyone who might pull that energy out of me. When I started to look at it from a stress reaction, and this is a lot when I was working with the heart rate variability monitors and the heart rate tracking, I used to wear a band around my chest and measure myself throughout the entire day to see where stress would be coming from. It was interesting to receive a phone call, not know who is calling me, because my phone may have been flipped over and I didn’t see the ID and I would have a sort of stress reaction not knowing who it was. If I would turn it over and it was a family member or a close friend, usually my heart rate would then go back down. But if I would turn it over and it happen to be my boss calling me, I would notice that my heart rate would elevate in just a matter of seconds because I was nervous about the phone call that might be taken place just then. By looking at that over several days, you start to get a sense of how you can work on your stress and how you can reduce your stress. When I started to regulate my stress levels, the other behaviors started to move in the directions that I wanted to, a lot more than just focusing on the behaviors themselves. I actually don’t focus on not eating bad food or anything like that, or consuming alcohol, I just focus on making myself happier every day and less stressed. Now I’m ending up in a much better place with all of the behaviors that I’m looking at.
S: Great. What would be the bad habit that just seems to be really hard for you to break or to reduce significantly? Are there any of them?
J: Yeah. I would say digital distraction on the internet and the phone, really not that much television but I can find myself sometimes just disappearing into Instagram, YouTube, or a Facebook newsfeed for, “Oh hey, there goes 15 minutes, where did time just go?” “Oh wait, 20 minutes just went by and I thought I had some appointment that I had to be at.” That’s really pervasive because we work so closely around these technologies, they’re just embedded into our lives at this point. Whereas consuming alcohol or something like that, you can really regulate yourself by either not having it present or setting certain guidelines for when it’s okay to be drinking alcohol or consuming certain drugs. In terms of consuming bad food, I simply don’t keep it in the house anymore. That’s really worked out well long enough that even when I go out with friends, I tend to air on the side of eating the healthier end of the spectrum, in my case what I consider healthier.
S: You experimented with the Pavlok, which I’ve seen these videos. It’s just ridiculous to me. Why would you shock yourself because you just went to go have a cigarette or whatever? I mean of course the cigarette is going to eventually kill you if you do enough of them but there’s got to be a better way. Is there a better way or is Pavlok something that you’re just totally sold on and you’re shocking yourself right and left to keep you on the straight and narrow?
J: I don’t actually use the Pavlok anymore. I ran personal experiments with it for about I think 120 days or so. I was testing different behaviors. These that I’m looking at now and a few others that I just sort of created on the fly to see what Pavlok would do to me. The technology and the methodology works. There’s a reason why the inventor of [00:15:02] created this and it’s because there’s many studies from decades ago, I think they’ve been even repeated more recently, where psychologists met with people who were habitual smokers. When they were administered shock, they did reduce the amount of smoking that they did. When they left the laboratory where they were no longer shocked, the habit of resisting the cigarette would be a little bit more pervasive and carry over. What I have found though is that after studying more animal training, I now understand that this method falls under the category of punishments. The issue that I have with punishments is that if the device is ever removed or the shock cannot be administered then the habit can reappear. I found this to be true. Every time I decided to not wear the Pavlok or sometimes I would even wake up and forget to wear it, I would notice that the behaviors would creep their way back into my day to day. At the same time, I was playing with things like stress reduction and more play and better sleep, and I found that these things consistently would make my behaviors move in the right directions. Whereas a punishment method, if it only works when I’m wearing the wristband and I decide to not wear the wristband one day, or maybe it was just uncomfortable and I didn’t want to wear it, or I don’t like wearing gadgets to sleep with, I prefer to not be wearing the shockable device or a tracking device as I sleep, then I can’t use that to wake up with a more efficient alarm clock of an electric shock. Again, if you stop using it, I found that the behaviors would just come back. To me it didn’t seem like a valid tool to use for the rest of your life. I do understand its value if you’ve got a bad habit or a behavior that will hurt you over time, something like cigarettes or excessive drinking, or something like that. It’s a perfectly reasonable method to pull back away from that habit and from those substances. I think that can be very productive but in my opinion, it must be counterbalanced by looking at what some of the root causes are of your attraction to those habits and how your stress and your sleep levels influence that.
S: Yeah. I also think it depends on how you’re wired, like how your brain is wired whether you’re going to respond well to the negative reinforcement, the punishments, like wearing a rubber band and then snapping it when you do a habit you’re trying to break. I don’t think that works well for me. For example, I don’t think I’m wired well for that. I need more of the positive reinforcements. Apparently, it’s working for some people because Pavlok is in business and selling their devices, so good for them. Let’s go to porn as a bad habit. What would be a typical day of porn watching before you instituted these new habits and replaced the bad habits? What is it now, like is it completely gone? I don’t know if this is something that would affect your day, like it would be detrimental to your day. If you went into work drunk, you’d probably get fired, but spending 20 minutes or whatever watching porn before you go into work probably wouldn’t get you fired. Let’s talk about that.
J: Sure. I rank some of my habits that I’m working on, breaking or reducing, I rank their toxicity in sort of how much time that they consume. This is why internet distraction is such a challenge and also a habit that I want to really work on because you can find just 50 minutes disappearing or 20 minutes disappearing. Pornography for me many years ago was something that would pop up and sometimes be an hour or more of an evening just wasted. When you think about how many hours you might have wasted on any bad habit and what you could have been doing instead to help yourself, to build yourself up, it’s not something you want to keep around. It’s the one habit that will appear last under my highest moments of stress, sleep deprivation and overworked. Pornography now is sort of the last habit. If it ever comes back up for me, I know that I’m in pretty deep in terms of my stress levels and I need to really focus on rebalancing myself in a hurry. Lately, my longest stint was probably I think 300 days without looking at pornography. And then as of late, it will appear maybe once a month, maybe once every two months, every three months, something like that. That’s the schedule that I’m working on right now. Again, I don’t focus on it as much as I focus on the issues of stress, happiness, and communing with others. Actually that’s really important with a lot of these habits, I look at the avoidance that’s going on, why am I doing these habits versus anything else? I think the weird thing is that I look at a lot of these small habits and it’s not like I’m going to a meeting for anyone of these habits. No one of these habits is so toxic that I’m a porn addict or I’m watching it four hours a day or something like that. Many people struggle with degrees of severity like that. That’s a terrible situation that they’re in. The interesting thing about me is that I’m spread across a lot of different habits. I think a lot of people are like this too, where the habit in it of itself isn’t so severe that it warrants going to AA or drug recovery, or something like that. When you combine them all together, you realize that a lot of these things will add up to multiple infractions per day. One thing I found that really emphasized the reduction of pornography is my interactions with other people, going out and being social, and having fun, and playing, intentional non-productivity more often. When I felt like I was well connected with either my family or my community of friends and peers, that behavior basically would disappear.
S: Tony Robbins talks about getting distinctions which will help you to make a shift, like a shift in identity so that you’re not the kind of person who does XYZ sort of behavior. For me, one of the distinctions that was really groundbreaking in my life was the difference between restriction and suppression. People know what suppression is but they don’t know what restriction is typically. Suppression, you’ve taken those urges, those desires for the short term gain, the long term pain, whether it’s a cupcake or whatever, and you push it down. It’s still there, it’s uncomfortable, it doesn’t feel good, it’s suffering, it sucks. Whereas restriction is empowering and it feels amazing to say no to that cupcake. When you understand the distinction, the difference between those two things and you can say, “Alright, I just hit the click point, I just made that shift where I’m out of suppression now and I’m in restriction.” That is really powerful. Have you experienced that sort of click point moment?
J: On several occasions, the one that comes to mind right now is for a couple of weeks throughout this year I focused on never using the word try. I could never just try something. If I was going to do something or offer something to somebody else, it always had to be a statement of full complete intention. It’s either I’m never trying something again, I’m only intending to do something, I’m only committing to doing something. Now, I notice that I almost never use the word try anymore because it’s a nonsense word. It gives you so many opportunities for a copout. When I sort of condition that out of myself over the course of a couple of weeks, that actually made it much easier for me to say no to a lot of things because my commitment was to intention and intentional decisions of living. It’s easier to placate someone if you can sort of fain effort and support rather than saying, “No, I can’t help you. I’m sorry.”
S: Yeah. It’s the cowardly way out to say I’ll try to make that appointment or whatever.
J: Yes, yes.
S: It gives your brain an out that pretty much negates the commitment you just made, which was not just a half-hearted commitment but it was an outright lie. When you say something that’s untrue, that’s a lie, but when you don’t say something and you know you should, you know you should clarify it, it’s a lie too. You’re lying to yourself if you believe that you are just skirting the truth, you didn’t actually lie because it wasn’t said, it was unsaid expectation. The unsaid expectations are just as valid as commitments. If you’re not speaking your truth against those unspoken expectations, you’re lying, I think.
J: Yeah. That took a lot of emotional work for me this year and the last year and a half or so to process. It’s a scary experience when you come to that conclusion. I think it’s a very healthy conclusion but when you finally realize or when you first realize, “Oh my goodness, I’ve been lying to not only to myself but to the people that I’m around.” You can feel a lot of shame, guilt, and frustration about what you’ve been doing this whole time by just your unintentional choice of words and whatnot. Getting over that can be scary. I think a lot of these habits, there’s always shame around a lot of these habits and guilt that we have. You never decide to do one of these habits that you want to reduce and then feel good about it afterwards. I’ve often looked in the mirror the moment after I’ve taken a drink and then like, “What are you doing? Why are you doing this? You’re better than this.” It’s really easy to shame and guilt yourself. From a language perspective, that’s why I don’t count my “bad behaviors” anymore, and I actually don’t count my good behaviors anymore, numerically. I think one of the common pitfalls of behavior change is people look at their behaviors as some game where if you’re trying to quit smoking or drinking, you’ll take a tally every day of what you’re adding up. That only gets worse as you go along. It only becomes a worse situation with each infraction of that habit that you do all day. I changed my language probably I think six months ago or so. I take a measurement of my effort to resist the impulse. As long as I exert an effort, I’m a winner for that category of behavior. Even if I have the impulse to eat a piece of cake, if I can take a moment and sit in stillness for 10 or 15 minutes and meditate. My goal with that practice is to let the impulse pass, to ignore it, and to move on to something else. As long as I exert that effort, even if I want that piece of cake when I’m done, I can eat that piece of cake and I’ve still won for the day. I still mark myself as a positive checkmark on my effort to avoid that less than stellar piece of food. That language has really changed my behaviors and their trajectories, because if you’re counting every time you’re doing something wrong, you’re only focusing on what you’re doing wrong. If you’re counting your effort to do something better, then you are inspired to just get better and better each day. You come up with new ideas about how you can exert more effort differently because the way you measure that actually triggers new questions about how you can do things differently tomorrow versus if you just keep adding a checkmark every time you take a drink, or have a cigarette, or eat a piece of cake, you’re not really left with an open ended question, you’re just looking at it at the end of the day thinking, “Geez, today sucked. I guess I’ll try again tomorrow and see if I can stick to zero the whole time,” versus creating a list of, “Oh wow, I didn’t try hard enough today but what can I do tomorrow that would actually demonstrate more effort in resisting this impulse?”
S: Yes. I like the framing, it’s good. Have you heard of or read this article on Reddit called No More Zero Days?
J: I haven’t read the article but I assume it’s about keeping track of the number of days that you sort of keep flawless in terms of your habits or tracking.
S: It’s kind of almost the opposite of that where you were just describing like just setting yourself up to win by counting the successes and making it easy for yourself to succeed rather than accumulating all these loses. No more zero days means if you have one major goal, project, whatever, and if you found yourself again not doing anything to move that project or goal forward and it’s let say 11:58PM, two minutes before midnight, you do two minutes of writing a paragraph, or making a list, or you’re meditating, or listening to a YouTube clip or something on that topic so that you accomplish something even if it’s just two minutes, and thus it’s not a zero day. Your commitment is to simply not have any more zero days where you’ve done nothing to move your life forward in those major areas.
J: Right. Yeah, I love that approach. I’ve actually recently started that without even knowing that that’s what it was called. I noticed that in the last couple of months, I had some really high stress periods of a lot of work, especially through the holidays and whatnot. I found a couple of days where a lot of the behaviors that I wanted would disappear or fade and the behaviors that I didn’t want would come back. I added to my list this one line, how much effort did I exert today or how hard did I try to make it a little bit easier for a behavior tomorrow. It’s at least not surrendering to the behavior as a whole. It’s yes, today might have sucked but I still have one muscle to exercise that will make tomorrow better. That can be as simple as if I needed to go to the gym, I might as well get my gym clothes ready tonight. If I need to eat healthier tomorrow, let me do the dishes today because then I’ll be much more inclined to cook a full meal and healthy food in a cleaner kitchen versus if it’s left messy or anything like that. That’s my sort of saving grace. If today’s looking really bad, I always have that one last chance to prepare tomorrow to be better.
S: Yup, that’s good. It’s a good way to reset. Back to the idea of reducing digital distractions, do you use any particular app to measure what you’re doing in terms of social media avoidance and things like YouTube and all that, or are you just tracking that by hand or you’re not even tracking it?
J: Yeah. I used to look a lot at that very closely with different apps like Rescue Time or Newsfeed Killer for Facebook or on the Mac, there’s self control where you can upload a list of URLs or IP addresses and you can click a timer button, it turns it off for you for whatever length of time that you set. That became difficult though because a lot of the work that I do online requires me to access a lot of these sites that I also share for personal use. When you work in online marketing, it’s tricky to just turn off Facebook because a lot of your work happens to be on Facebook.
S: Yup, I can relate.
J: Again, this was back to counting the negative behavior and I really don’t do that anymore. Now I work on influencing the environment around me to reduce the number of distractions. I was having a hard time preparing myself for sleep early enough. Also, I found that I would be staying up in bed with my phone on, and browsing a couple things before bed, which is a terrible habit for you especially if you’re staring at this bright screen the whole time before you try to fall asleep. The irony is that I brought my phone in because I wanted to track my sleep. And yet if I’m trying to track my sleep and I have my iPhone with me, then I’m also looking at Facebook for the last 20 minutes of the day to see if anything is worthy of looking at and there never is. And then I found that my sleep quality was going down. Well guess what, because I had the excuse of, “Oh, I got to bring my phone into the bedroom,” then I would also have the phone in there to waste time on the first moment I woke up or just before going to bed. I implemented a no cellphone in the bedroom rule. I bought an analog alarm clock. I have to charge my phone in other rooms of my apartment, I don’t have a phone charger in my room. That made a significant difference. My sleep quality went up and I reduced the opportunity for those periods of distraction to appear. Another thing I did was I setup a timer switch or rather an outlet timer on the outlet that connects to the majority of my electronics in my office, my computer, and also my wireless router. My TV streams Netflix and things like that off of the wireless router. And so since it’s time to turn off at 8:30PM every night, that is my signal that I can no longer be consuming online material. I can always just flick the switch and turn it back on if I have to work later or if something is really important that I need to be watching or reading on one of these devices. But for the most part, six days out of the week, if not full week goes by, where all of my devices tend to turn off by 8:30PM. There’s an hour and a half window where I’m not wasting time on these types of distractions. It was also really helpful on the cellphone because if I saw that the wireless signal disappeared from my cellphone, that was another reminder that I am in a phase where I should be winding down and not consuming more content. Another thing I did was unsubscribe to every newsletter that I ever subscribe to. Thinking that, “Oh, this is good material to read or this will help me someday in the future.” If it is, I’ll find it later. It doesn’t really matter. Also, same thing with that outlet timer, my wireless internet doesn’t turn on in the morning until 8:30AM. I wake up around 6:00AM every day to start my morning routines of reading and meditating and exercise. I can’t even really get online to start exploring everything until 8:30AM. There’s a two and a half hour window there that I can’t get distracted. That’s been an environmental influence that I’ve implemented that’s really helped reduce that amount of distraction.
S: Oh, that’s awesome. I love that. What’s the outlet timer? Is it just a something you find on Amazon or is there a particular name?
J: Yeah. The one I have is by a company. It looks like it’s by APC. I’m sure they stand for something but I can’t read the fine prints. They are available on Amazon, I think if you just search outlet timer. They’re programmable for every day of the week. I think it was only $15 or $20 and it’s literally been one of the best investments of the year for me.
S: That’s awesome. Let’s move to the some of these quantified self, more biohacking type things. You’ve done neurofeedback, you’ve done holotropic breathing which I haven’t even heard of before, you’ve done ice pads, let’s talk about these. Let’s start with the holotropic breathing, what the heck is that?
J: My experience with holotropic breathing is sort of a different breathing pattern that trigger certain kinds of physiological responses. It could be fast breathes in and out, longer inhale exhale with rhythms, several seconds long of inhale and exhale. They tend to create different effects. In some cases, people refer to is as a hyperoxygenation where you just fill your body with more oxygen. It does a lot of different effects to the body. My experimentation with it though was as an emotional release. Also as a concentration when I would things like ice pads, I would really focus on breath in order to endure the discomfort. I noticed a few years ago when I would practice different breathing patterns that I would start to feel tingly sensations across my face and through my arms and whatnot. Really, the way I explain it back then and that it was explained to me as I was working with different practitioners on this is is this is an energy that is being released or is releasing from your body that’s been sort of built up. I look at it as a technique as sort of a trauma release, as a stuck energy that you need to get moving again. It can be a very emotional practice. If you’re doing strict breathing for several minutes with a very challenging rhythm and intensity, so many parts of your brain are saying, “Stop, this is uncomfortable. Why would you keep doing this? This is weird. Just take it easy.” As you push through those mental barriers, I would have random fits of crying or even anger, and I would scream or yell. One thing I found with emotions is that in order to experience elation and happiness, you have to dip into the negative, you have to go to both sides of the spectrum, you can’t choose just one over the other. Working with emotions through things like these, these breath techniques and ice pads and whatnot really made it easier to resist those impulses, because those impulse is in the thoughts of around these negative behaviors. There’s always some physiological aspect to it that appears, maybe even before the thought manifest of this discomfort, or this queasiness, or this tightness, or this feeling of stuckness that you might have in your chest, or your shoulders, or your posture, or your structure. The more I studied in myself what those sensations were, I’m better able to sense when they’re coming on. I also sort of have a bank now of techniques that can reduce those sensations and help them dissipate. Holotropic breathing being one of them. If you ever feel stuck doing some of these rapid invigorating breaths, we’ll change the direction of your thoughts and your motivation very quickly. In fact, I’ve been practicing recently doing intense inhale exhale first thing when I get out of bed in the morning. I feel more amped than a cup of coffee when I go that route because it almost excites me in a way that you don’t normally get until later in the day. Instead, I’m artificially creating this in my body and you just sort of get energized. I think it’s a valuable technique people can practice. I recommend watching some videos or reading articles online, don’t just start breathing randomly and chaotically. It can be a risky or in some cases dangerous practice if you’re not careful with it. Make sure you do some homework on it first or work with someone who has studied this before you just dive in.
S: Yeah. I learned a really cool breathing technique from my wife. She was doing Nam yoga and they taught her this technique where you just breath in and you hold it, then you don’t hold it for very long though, then you breath in a little bit more, so you don’t exhale and you just transqueeze it a little bit more of air into your lungs. And then a little bit more even after that, and then you hold it, and then after a handful of seconds then you start tapping on your chest, keep holding it, and then you eventually let all the air out. You do this a couple of times, it’s really invigorating. It just feels like you’re so much more awake and it feels amazing. Why kundalini yoga over let’s say hot yoga, or iyengar yoga, or suspension yoga, or a number of other different forms of yoga?
J: I love them all. I’ve done a fair amount of hot yoga this year too. What I like practicing is it’s not so much the method of what I’m doing, whether it be yoga or ice pads, I like taking my brain and putting it through a test where the thoughts come up that are, “Stop doing this, this is uncomfortable.” You just work through that sensation, you ignore it, you say no to it because you know that at the end of the day this practice is not going to really harm you or kill you at the point that you typically want to start giving up. Hot yoga was great for that because that’s such an uncomfortable situation and you just get through it eventually. My first experience of kundalini yoga was actually New Years Eve of last year. It was actually a kundalini workshop that went from I think it was something like 10 o’clock at night, crossing over the New Year. Multiple hours of really interesting chants, very interesting repeated motions and breath patterns similar to holotropic breathing, anywhere from 7 to 11 minutes at a time of each pattern. My friend invited me to this and I thought, “Okay, let’s try this. Let’s just see what happens.” To follow the same breath and postural pattern and yoga pose for 11 minutes without stopping is such a test for the brain. I’ve been going to a various kundalini classes in my area ever since and they’re not as extreme as this one perhaps workshop for the New Year but it’s one hell of a way to start a New Year by just sort of pushing through these mental barriers as you cross into the New Year. I’m actually doing that again this Saturday. It’s going to be my new MO for each year I think. For me, yoga is difficult, hot yoga is difficult, all the different methods are. For me personally, I love working with the breath because I focus so much on it in meditation, or in exercise and lifting, or in my ice pads, or even just this I’m trying to relax myself in the middle of the day. To combine sort of frustrating poses or movement patterns with a frustrating breath combination. For me, it breaks me through all kinds of mental barriers of resisting those hardships. When you resist in one category, it’s so much easier to resist those impulses, or the frustration, or the desire to stop in all other categories. Again, I don’t focus on reducing negative behaviors much anymore. One of the only things I do focus on is how much am I testing my brain on that one muscle day to day because if I can get through a 30,000 pound workout, then I know that every other thing after that is just a piece of cake. Even avoiding a piece of cake is just so much simpler.
S: True. I did a 49 minute marathon of chanting. This was at Oneness University in India four years ago. It was amazing. It was a transformative experience. In fact, my wife was with me, wasn’t my wife yet at the time, and she had an out of body experience from doing that. We just repeated over and over again. I am existence, consciousness, bliss, I am existence, consciousness, bliss. I am existence, consciousness, bliss for 49 minutes, nonstop. It was amazing. I had no idea that I could even do something like that. I did and I’m so glad I’ve done it.
J: Usually after those practices, your body is just vibrating with happiness, or just the sensation that is just tickling all over. It’s the only way I know how to describe bliss is after those intense practices.
S: Yeah. Also the deep breathing. We had exercises at the Oneness University campus where we just almost caused ourselves to pass out but we entered into different realms through this breathing exercise. You can’t knock it until you try it. You have no idea what it’s like until you actually experience it.
J: Right. Really quick, the great thing about breath work, this is one thing that attracts me to it, is that it actually changes the wave patterns going on inside your own brain. They monitored this and measured it through, especially holotropic breathing, where your resting state, your day to day business, eating, breathing, driving, and even fight or flight or frustration reactions typically happen when your brain waves are in a beta state in a frequency of, I forget the exact hertz but it’s measurable on EEG machines. This is a lot what neurofeedback gets into, it’s changing those states through mediation and different practices. Holotropic breathing, hyperoxygenation, and all these different breath patterns have been documented to shift a person into an alpha state where the alpha state is known for being a creative place where you’re less inhibited by the desire to fight or flight and more open and expansive to what’s going on around you. I think that’s why when I first wake up in the working, when your metabolism is just starting to drive and you’re just starting out the day, you’re probably coming out of a beta state. When I work on a lot of intense breath patterns to shift into a place of openness and ready to experience the day with innovation and novelty, I think that’s one of the reasons why the day is just so much more exciting to me.
S: Yeah. Are you using neurofeedback devices, EEGs and things to track what’s going on in your brain or was that just a face a few months where you were experimenting with that and then you stopped?
J: Yeah. I went through a couple of different courses on that and I’ve never owned the device personally though. Unfortunately, the technology is still pretty expensive. I do use biofeedback though with things like heart rate variability through the HeartMath Company. I have the app on my phone and I rate myself that way every morning and monitor myself there, which is similar because if you’re in a state of relaxation and ease then typically you’re more likely to be able to switch to an alpha state versus the beta state. I don’t necessarily have the ability to detect what state I’m in at any moment without measurements. Since it’s not really available to me every day, it’s not something that I can really confirm.
S: Okay, got it. Earlier, you were talking about what’s these different habits, how would they correlate with the quality of the sleep that you’ve been getting, were you getting quantitative feedback on the quality of the sleep or were you just feeling better or worse depending on what was going on for you at the time? Were you using a Zeo Sleep Tracker or anything like that?
J: I used to use the sleep cycle app on my phone but I stopped using it when I was reducing digital distraction earlier this year since I didn’t want the phone in my bedroom anymore. That’s been several months, probably over a half year now since I’ve stopped using those apps. I don’t look at the sleep quality, I just know that when I have a bad night of sleep or if I have to stay late up to work or for whatever reason, if I’m sick or just not sleeping right, the first signal is that my heart rate variability tanks the next day. In terms of a scoring and I don’t know exactly how they calculate the score, but I can lower my score between 300 and 500 points when I’m trying to meditate and look myself up just because I’ve had poor sleep or just too few hours of sleep. It’s noticeable if I align the day right to go to bed early and wake up a little bit later the next day to rebalance myself and my score will jump back up 400, 500 points back to where I was at with baseline. Also, I do take a note in my daily behavior tracking of if it was a particularly bad night sleep or just few hours, typically if it’s less than six hours I’ll make a note because that’s when I start to really get into the danger zone. I haven’t looked at the graph in a long time but it was noticeable that low or poor quality sleep was correlating with a lot of those avoidance patterns or those behaviors that I wanted to break. They would start to reappear based on sleep length and quality. That’s all quality to go because I’m measuring my own feelings about these habits and maybe miscounting one or two here and there but to me it’s just sort of an intuitive thing at this point.
S: One last topic I want to hit before we close out the episode. That is, using old family photos to hack your behaviors and to optimize yourself, how do you do that? I know you spoke about this at the last BIL Conference and I’ve said it on your session, I was impressed by it. In a nutshell for listeners who hadn’t heard that talk, what’s the gist of it?
J: A lot of the areas we’re covered around behaviors refers to identity, or beliefs, or framing the language around good behaviors and bad behaviors or how you perceive your habits. Nothing rattled my own beliefs and identity and my language about certain areas of my past faster than diving into my old family photography. I was seeing a therapist at the time and she asked me the question, “When is the last time you saw yourself as a five year old kid?” I realized that our generation, I’m 30 something so I’m right at the cross of millennial, we transition from hard photography into digital photography. For the longest time, when you’re moving around, when you’re jumping around of colleges and careers, you tend to lose track of a lot of your old family photographs if you’re not around your photo albums any longer. I realized it’s been over a decade since I’d seen myself at such a young age. I happen to live close to my mother so I collected four boxes, literally hundreds if not thousands of photographs of our family, even photos I’ve never seen, family, dead relatives, long past of my parents and them growing up, and what their childhoods were like, and their school photos and whatnot. I went through every single photo in all the boxes. A lot of them rung just something in me. I felt a very visceral response to looking at a select number of photos. I narrowed it down to about 20 that would just ring my bell every time I looked at it, whether it would make me want to cry, or make me feel really happy, or just maybe would make me angry because it was a picture of me when I used to be really overweight and I didn’t like myself being in that state back then. And so then I made a meditation practice out of it where I would be hooked up to my heart rate variability device and do a 20 minute meditation and then I continue with another 10 minutes where I would cycle through these photographs, either all 20 of them or sometimes I would just concentrate on one of the photos for the whole 10 minutes. The thoughts that came up in my mind, it sounds obvious but they were thoughts that I never had before about my history, about my identity, and about the way that I perceived my family members, my parents, the relationship with my siblings, and whatnot. It opened up a lot of emotional resources. It let me take my personal history and flip it like an hourglass, and then realign and rearrange it the way that I wanted to at that moment. The thought about me being unhealthy when I was younger and overweight was crippling for many years but knowing who I am now and where I’m at and how that identity can actually serve me from where I used to be, it let me look at all these pictures of myself when I didn’t appreciate my body. Also, just define it in a new way, understand how the environment was different back then, understand how the hardships were different back then that I never understood back then but I understand them now. After a lot of emotional releases of doing this practice, I did it for probably 90 days, everything just seemed easier. The stress of interacting with family, or close friends, or relationships really dissipated. It’s never gone but I just see things in a different way now.
S: Did you find that some relationships in your family transformed because of this practice?
J: They’re still transforming. It definitely takes a long time. This is just something that I did earlier this year. But yeah, I am much more open to talking about all of these experiences that I had when I was growing up. Also, even experiences that I’m having now with my brothers and my family. It’s interesting to try to introduce them to these concepts but I find that it’s actually really easy if you can introduce them to the photographs. I’ve started to share these photographs with more family members and many of them are saying, “Wow, I looked at my own family photo albums,” or I had an aunt reach out to me and say, “I saw your talk. I looked up at my old photos and it did change things. I did feel moved just in that moment.” Maybe they’re making better decisions now than they were before. It’s a guessing game as to what’s going to shift but I think if you have to move something in your body, in your mind, I think it’s a great technique to just start moving something because it’s so connected to your identity and personal beliefs. If you want to rattle that and create a new structure, I think these photographs are a really cool key to doing that.
S: Yeah, really powerful. That brings me full circle to where we were talking earlier in the episode about the No More Zero Days article that went viral on Reddit. One of the aspects of that article I really liked was that there are three yous, past you, present tense you, and future you. The exercise of going into your old family photos, creating this collage or collection of photos of you at different stages, as a child or younger self, will help you connect to the younger you, would help you forgive your younger you, and to connect more with younger you, connect with your inner child. Yeah, what an amazing access point to use those old photos. And then future you, you could actually do the opposite of that kind of opposite work. You use a tool, an online tool that you upload a photo to, like a headshot, and it will digitally age that photo so you can see what you would look like in say 20 years. That helps you get in touch with future you so that you will be more empathetic of future you and make better choices because you want to treat your future, for me it’s future Stephan, I want to treat future Stephan with a lot of care and empathy and he’s my bestfriend. He is my best friend, I want to take really good care of him. I don’t want to eat a bunch of junk food for example. Having a photo of you as a child and a photo of you as an elderly person, a digitally edited to be like 20 years older than you actually are, having those side by side will help you be in touch with both of those sides, I think it’s kind of a cool idea.
J: Yeah. The next stage of the practice that I’m implementing is taking the 20 plus photos that I found that really ring something for me. Getting them retouched, redevelop, and even enlarged, and placing them around my home, my apartment, in different environments for different purposes. For instance, I found many photos of my mom and my dad working when they were much younger and that they built the original house that I grew up in and framed it all, and did all the construction themselves with family friends and whatnot. I now have in my office pictures of my dad working. This is sort of creating an energy for me, this is my space productivity and this is my space of building a foundation for me to grow and even build my own family on. I’m using that energy from those photographs to influence my state in this room versus in my bedroom I have pictures of myself when I’m much younger as a child playing, or pictures of my parent when they’re taking care of me, or me and my brothers. That’s much more of a family oriented, a warm sensation that I have in that room. I’m playing with these photographs not just in a meditative state in the morning but I’m seeing where I can place them around my home to trigger certain kinds of attitudes depending on what my goal is in each space.
S: I love that. That’s a great idea. You have to let me know how that goes.
S: Thank you Justin for sharing so much of yourself and your openness and vulnerability, this is just a real treat to interview you and open up the realm of possibilities for my listeners of what they could do by tracking different behaviors, tracking different biomarkers, and really getting interested enough in their own biology and psychology to become a citizen scientist of themselves, that’s pretty awesome. I hope listeners that you will take some action from this episode. There’s a lot here so if you go to the Optimized Geek website, optimizedgeek.com and download the checklist which encapsulates a bunch of these ideas into one action based checklist as well as review the shownotes from the episode with the links to the different tools and resources that we’ve talked about, things like HeartMath, Pavlok, and there’s the Ted talk on porn that I mentioned. We’ll provide links to all of these different things in the shownotes at optimizedgeek.com. Thank you for listening, listeners. Thank you Justin again for joining us today. We’ll catch you on the next episode of the Optimized Geek. This is Stephan Spencer signing off.