Eat first with your stomach
Since we are social, feeling creatures, humans especially suck at sticking to a diet. Friends laugh at our attempts to fast or eat clean and shove plates of fries under our noses. Swirling sadness and anxiety pry open ice cream tubs and general weeknight apathy sends us scrambling for UberEats.
But we know the right path. All around us we might see influencers or our more motivated peers diligently cooking, meal prepping and studying nutrition labels like they it’s required for the MCAT. And we’ve all likely had some success by measuring our food or stocking up the fridge with veggies.
But are those healthy habits and diets really so healthy? We all have stomachs that needs to be filled with food at regular intervals. The question is, whose stomach is it? Who are you eating for?
Eating for the calories
If you count calories, you are likely working to meet a certain target or ‘budget’ every day. If you spend more energy, you ‘get to’ eat more. When I worked at MyFitnessPal, we noticed the detrimental impact of what is essentially a reward/punishment system. It was effective in teaching people the basics of nutrition, but sadly turned eating into a transactional, antagonistic experience.
Personally, I got very good at sticking to my target numbers. This meant I always had energy, was rarely hungry and maintained my goal weight. However, it created a strange feedback loop where, instead of resting after a heavy training session (the natural response), I had to eat back all the calories I had burnt.
Fundamentally, if you are eating for a calorie target, you are not eating for your body.
Eating for the fridge
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely thinks we tend to open the fridge “when we are already hungry, and are looking for something to pop in our mouths right away.” The fridge tells you what you can immediately eat, a feature I use multiple times a day. But there’s a catch. If junk food is available and visible, it’s going in my mouth, whether I’m hungry or not. Placing sugary things around your house is really no different than leaving a trail of dog treats on the floor for your pooch to hoover up.
Another feature of my fridge is it makes me feel guilt. It makes me feel guilt when I see a 3 day old broccoli starting to wilt or a bag of spinach about to turn to soup. I hate wasting food and my fridge constantly reminds me that I’m only a few days or hours away from doing so. All the leftovers, rinds, crusts, spares and dregs I need to deal with inevitably end up in my stomach. I find myself ‘polishing off’ a loaf of bread before it dries out, ‘topping off’ my cereal with that last bit of milk or mounding up my plate because ‘there’s only a little bit left.’
My frugality and ethical concerns trumped simple feelings of hunger or fullness.
The Nearly Full Stomach
“Eight parts of a full stomach sustain the man; the other two sustain the doctor”Zen proverb
To shift slightly away from calorie algorithms and prison-like diets consider the bodily sensation that has helped humans eat since, well, forever: Satiety. It’s a fiendishly complex process, but all you need to know is that if you are human and possess a functional brain, it will probably tell you when your stomach is empty or full.
If that’s not enough, our ancestors (thanks lads) have handed down a heuristic that suggests to “eat until your stomach is 80% full”. I’m guessing this has been useful for thousands of years because it forces you to think before eating.
Here’s my rough guide to eating stomach first.
- Before you eat: When you are loading up your plate, take a second to consider how your stomach is going to feel 20 minutes into the future. Your eyes are actually a really good gauge, especially if you are not ‘starving’. Ask yourself, when all this food in front of me is in my body, how will I feel?
- While you eat: Eat slowly. Chew your food. Everyone from ancient Ayurvedic practitioners to your Grandma will remind you to do this for a good reason: it takes a little bit of time for your stomach to register as full. If you buy some time for your brain and you’re less likely to overeat.
- After you eat: This might be the most difficult in practice and a reason why we pay surgeons to slice open and staple our stomachs. It’s really up to you to decide what 80% means. We all know what our stomachs feel like once the plates are cleared on Thanksgiving. Work backwards from there and you’ll be on the right track.
The Art of Sighting
During the triathlon swim leg, it can be challenging to maintain a straight course. There are no lane markers or painted lines below you. Most of the time, the water is murky, opaque and churned up by hundreds of nervous feet.
In order to swim straight, a triathlete must learn the art of sighting. That is, lifting their head out of the water and looking for a stationary object, typically a colored buoy.
But what about what happens after your eyes lift out of the water? When you are trying to look for something?
The Art of Seeing by Aldous Huxley might have some answers.
Straining to see
“The anxious effort to do well defeats its own object.”
“Seeing is greatly lowered by distressing emotional states.“The Art of Seeing (1942)
The sky was black, the water was grey and the occasional white cap would slosh into my face when I came up to breathe. I’m 500m into 5km of swimming and I was doubting if I knew what I was doing, or where I was. “Where is the buoy… Is that the buoy? Are you sure? I think I’m going off course…” It’s exhausting to read these sort of thoughts, so you can only imagine how it feels to think them.
I’m also physically straining to see the next buoy to swim to. I know it’s yellow and I know roughly how far away it should be, but I’ve lost sight of it, and now it feels like I’m trying to will it into existence.
In Art of Seeing, Aldous Huxley argues the harder we strain to see, the worse we see. When I was sighting for the buoy I was very tense, stressed and straining my eyes to do things they don’t naturally do – similar to what I might do when I drive without glasses at dusk.
He offers some exercises to help, like blinking more or breathing more steadily but I would suggest something even simpler for swimmers. If you are struggling to see anything clearly when you sight in open water, stop swimming. Although it will feel like eternity, even a few extra seconds treading water can calm you down and you might be surprised to see the buoy swing back into focus.
The Mind’s eye
“We see familiar things more clearly than we see objects about which we have no stock of memories.”The Art of Seeing (1942)
I remember an art class where our teacher instructed us to carefully notice and draw the ‘edge’ of every object in a still-life scene. We weren’t allowed to lift our charcoal off the paper or look at what we had drawn until the timer rang. The end result was noticeably better than the drawings we had done before this exercise.
To use memory as an aid to vision, Huxely instructs readers to do something similar:
- Look at objects more analytically. (“For example, when looking at a house, note the number of windows, chimneys and doors. Follow with your eyes the outline of its silhouette against the sky. Let your glance run horizontally along the line of the eaves and vertically up and down the wall space between the windows.)
- Then, close your eyes briefly and conjure the clearest possible ‘mental image’ of what you have just seen.
- Open your eyes, compare the image with reality.
The sad fact is, most of us “spend our lives looking at one thing, and thinking of another”. Maybe that’s why reading a book is so painful for most people. Although this routine might sound both mundane and pointless, you will be improving your minds familiarity with every day objects that it needs to perceive.
Sighting while swimming could be a useful way to practice both relaxed concentration and more analytical looking.
When a 12 year old Carl Jung banged his head in a scuffle with a bully, he heard his inner voice telling him ‘this would be a good excuse not to go to school anymore’. Most of us aren’t as perceptive as Jung, and excuses like this can be hard to notice, automatic and influence our decision making.
When we exercise, excuses appear and invariably lead to a way out of doing the work. Excuses often sound intelligent, fair and rational. For example, “I don’t want to overdo it and get an injury” sounds perfectly acceptable to me, and I use it all the time because it gives me an easy way out. Like water running downhill, we find the path of least resistance, and over time, a groove will form.
Let’s look at a few different kinds of excuses that commonly appear during a run.
“I think I ate something bad last night, I don’t feel very good.”
Why do I always need the toilet before I race? I guess I’m no different than my competitors. We fill our body with water and calories and want to clear out anything extra. No one wants to stop, think about stopping or <insert worst case scenario>. Usually this is explained by nerves, or where the blood is rushing, but if you look at this phenomenon another way, an upset stomach 15 minutes before starting a race is a great excuse to not race. Likewise, if you’re doing 10x200m sprints, it’s interesting that you’re suddenly feeling a strong urge for the toilet on rep #8. It’s a good excuse to wrap up early.
“It’s so annoying, I was feeling great, but my leg is totally locked up.”
Athletes fear the cramp. It’s because of their power to stop you in your tracks. I believe cramps serve a similar purpose to pain in general. A cramp is a very bright neon sign that says “Hey, please check out this damage.” For good measure, they also immobilize the body part. A cramp is a big parking ticket slapped on the windshield and a wheel clamp. The maddening aspect of cramps is that the more you ignore them, or fight against them, the worst they get. The clamp tightens. Cramps are confounding, but also offer a very obvious excuse out.
“Let’s do the long run another day.”
When I’m nearing the end of a run, some strange things start happening. Although I had planned to follow my regular loop, all of a sudden I find myself hatching several new plans out of thin air. They involve stopping earlier, getting groceries, taking back streets, doubling back. Anything but what I’m doing now. If I had planned to run to the cafe, suddenly I’m deliberating if stopping at street before ‘counts’. Is that close enough? The water wants to run downhill.
“Omg we did it! We’re so strong. Ahh, let’s put our feet up.”
When we do something physically hard, like run up a steep hill, it’s pretty common to stop at the top. I do this all the time, but I’ve never questioned why. Is it because I’ve reached my physical limit at that exact moment? The fact that my heart rate continues to rise afterwards tells me probably not. I didn’t consciously tell myself I would stop. And even if I stopped because my body had slammed on some imaginary self-preserving hand brake, why does it seemed to happen so much more frequently at some obvious ‘finish line’ point, like the top of a hill?
One answer might lie in what you are thinking, rather than anything physical that is happening. Maybe I’m both encouraging myself as I run up the hill and congratulating myself at the top. With that warm congratulation, I automatically offer myself a nice sweet rest. I didn’t want to stop (I’ve got a time to beat), I didn’t need to stop (my legs feel fine), but I’ve listened to a very persuasive excuse.
Try it yourself: Next time you reach the top of a steep hill, don’t try and prevent yourself from stopping, but notice if you do anything else automatically. For example, when I finish running an interval on a track, I put both hands on my head and let out a big sigh. See what yours is.
We’ve looked at some common excuses that tend to appear when the run gets tough. Here are two strategies that, in different ways, work by challenging our usual automatic responses or habits.
Do the opposite
To treat a strong fear response, Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) asks patients to do what they are afraid of doing. If someone is fearful of rabbits (something that actually poses no real danger), they need to spend lots of time with rabbits. While spending time with rabbits, they should carefully look at what is actually happening and most importantly notice that they are safe. In doing so, they can learn to move against their surging emotional currents and hopefully start scratching a new groove for their habits to flow in. Our excuses that emerge when we exercise are also a kind of automatic emotional response and I think we can treat them in a similar way.
Stick the plan
The psychological concept of pre-commitment is a means of committing to a specific plan or decision before any excuse crops up. This could look like simple goal setting, like ‘run for 5 km’. No matter how small the goal, because we tend to automatically twist and bend things, it’s harder to complete than you think. Run 5km, no longer or less. Brag to your buddies that you’re going to do a thing, then do exactly that thing. It’s not about the content of that goal. The power of pre-commitment is in doing exactly what you stated.
As long as you run, excuses to stop running will present themselves. What’s important is to notice them and aim to prevent them from making you act in ways you didn’t intend.
The presenting of intent
Think about the project you’re working on. It’s likely focused on helping our customers achieve some sort of goal effectively. Maybe it’s surfacing a mistake in a pay run, or finding an old bill faster. As the designer, you create solutions to make that goal or outcome a reality. Jared Spool refers to design this way as “the rendering of intent.”
Discovery activities like talking to customers and studying analytics help product teams uncover what is happening, why, and what we’d like to change or do better. That’s the intention bit. Then we need to make that intention real, that’s the rendering. When designers share their work back to their peers and collaborators, we might be talking about drop-downs and buttons, but we are presenting a rendering of intent.
If design is about rendering intent, when we share our work, we should present clearly with strong intention. To explore this concept, let’s look at how it can play out in different scenarios.
Unclear intent, unclear presentation
What it looks like: Without clearly explaining the problem or the solution, your audience will be left wondering exactly what’s going on.
How to fix: Rather than working on the presentation, take a step back and ask yourself “What problem is this solving?” A good next step from there could be to spend time diverging, exploring and thinking through lots of options.
Unclear intent, clear presentation
What it looks like: The prototype is dazzling and everyone want to ship it, but it’s not solving the agreed on problem. You find yourself struggling to answer why you made certain design decisions.
How to fix: Step away from the tools. All the elements are there, but it’s important to return to research or re-interrogate the problem with others around a whiteboard. The design process is your friend here and there’s tons of methods that can be used to look at problem from a new angle.
Clear intent, unclear presentation
What it looks like: When we feel unsure about committing to a specific approach it’s easy to miscommunicate or even over-communicate rather than keeping things simple.
How to fix: Sometimes all it takes is rearranging your slide deck or talking through your work with peers to sharpen what you’re trying to say. These are quick tactical things that are easy to learn. If there’s good thinking, you’re 90% done!
Clear intent, clear presentation
What it looks like: It’s a cliche to say that good design is simple, but it’s true. The designer has done a ton of thinking, exploring and deliberating before settling on a strong approach that they feel confident in explaining (and defending if need be).
How to fix: Not much to fix here, but it’s important for a designer to remain flexible and open to feedback. Rather than dying on a hill, it’s more about having “strong opinions, loosely held”.
To present designs more effectively, aim to make a strong, clear argument for your solution. If you’re in a coaching position, here’s a few ideas I think might help designers:
- Remind the designer that at the end of the day, this is your work, your thinking and we trust you know what’s best.
- There’s usually not one ‘right’ answer – there’s many ways to solve a problem. As long as you think it through, and answer the goal, you should be fine!
Fighting the Water
Why is it difficult to relax?
- Relax? Sorry, I’m too busy trying to (dance, box, code, paint, sing…). I’m concentrating on that thing right now, no time to relax thank you very much.
- You can’t fix what you don’t notice, and it can be difficult to notice that you are physically tense or overthinking a movement. For example, I’m always surprised how different I feel after a massage. Maybe I did need that massage after all.
- If relaxing is the goal, trying to relax won’t get you there. Trying by definition is something forced and thought, rather than simply done. To illustrate this difference, consider how it feels to catch something reflexively compared to planning to catch something.
Let’s look at how relaxing might help you swim more easily.
I finally relaxed…I actually started to listen to my hands, to what’s going on in the water around me… I began to develop a relationship with the water, as opposed to just fight(ing) the water.Lionel Sanders (maybe the most powerful yet least graceful triathlete)
I know how to swim, but my stroke has many strange and curious habits (see above). I’m comfortable in the water, but I don’t have a great picture of what I’m actually doing in it. For example, when I kick, I don’t know what my feet are doing. I often forget that my hands cross over my body.
Also, rather than swimming smoothly, I rely on muscles to power through the water. My most dreaded swimming drill is kick board. I feel like I’m sinking, so I thrash my legs, which makes me feel like I’m sinking. Then, I get anxious that I’m holding up traffic, and I thrash even harder.
Do not frown when you read. Frowning is a symptom of the nervous muscular tension produced in and around the eyes by misdirected attention and the effort to see.Aldous Huxley
On Australia Day, I swam 5km in open water. It was a big distance and the water was rough, so I knew I had to conserve my energy and swim calmly. On the swim, I planned to focus on holding my head lower in the water, hopefully making me more streamlined.
After a few kilometers, it dawned on me that I was tensing my neck and back. I thought that’s what I needed to do to swim! So rather than trying to hold my head down, I stopped forcing it up, releasing these tense muscles and letting my head hang gently in the water.
I’d been so busy swimming, I’d forgotten that my body was effortlessly floating on the surface, without any added effort from me. Instead of groaning and pulling through the water, I imagined I was gently snorkeling over a beautiful coral reef. Although I didn’t suddenly start smashing PB’s and win the race, I finished feeling calm and refreshed, an achievement in itself.
I thought I was relaxed, but I was swimming like an angry man stuck in traffic. I’ve been drilling for years, yet coaching cues designed to help me relax floated over my head. So, bearing in mind the futility of words, I’ll leave you with this image to play with.
Imagine you’re lying face down in a cotton rope hammock that’s strung over a 100ft ravine. Every muscle in your body will want to tense and grab the hammock for support. Feel that tension. Now, imagine fully relaxing into the hammock. Completely release the weight of your head. Now swim.
When you first start cycling, the pain you feel in your body appears to be binary. Lungs or legs. On your first proper climb, both clamour for attention. Eventually, one will speak a bit louder or persuasively, and you’ll give up. Although “it doesn’t get any easier”, your body deals with pain much differently when your fitness improves. Less weaker links. A unified front. Your body starts resembling a factory, with every organ stepping up to the assembly line and contributing to the effort.
But aside from improving your fitness, is there a way to gain a hint of control over the suffering?
There is a point in every race when a rider encounters the real opponent and realizes that it’s…himselfLance Armstrong
A tell for when things are getting tough, even for the best cyclists in the world, is a tightening of facial muscles, nicknamed ‘pain face’. We can’t get in their heads, but it’s clear there is some serious shouting going on in there. Jens Voigt, famous hard man explains the dialogue in third person:
Body: “I can’t do it anymore.“
Brain: “Shut up body, do what I tell you!”
Body: “I can’t do it.. I want to pull over now.“
Brain: “Keep going. I want you to do what I tell you!“
It sounds like a joke, but “Shut up legs” likely went viral because of how familiar (and painful) this inner battle is to most cyclists.
The Smiling Horse
“Everybody tells me that I never look as if I’m suffering.”Miguel Induráin
Maybe some pro cyclists possess prenatural mental skills that allow them to more easily relax under a huge workload. One example of such a rider is Miguel ‘Big Mig’ Induráin. He still endured a lot of pain, but he believed his “strength was that I am more balanced and calmer than most other riders.” Miguel had a tremendously strong physique, but maybe his mind was like a giant hay bale, and he’s essentially a galloping horse (with a horse sized heart) until the finish line. Another example of ‘relaxed effort’ is the marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge, famous for smiling while smashing records. “When you smile and you’re happy, you can trigger the mind to not feel your legs.”
Two birds, one stone
“It means quieting the endless jabbering of thoughts so your body can do instinctively what it’s been trained to do without the mind getting in the way.Phil (six rings) Jackson
Since most of us aren’t as calm or strong as Induráin, are we stuck shouting at our own legs? I’ve definitely begged and pleaded my body to do things differently, but to be honest, I’ve always felt a bit ashamed doing so. Can’t my mind and body get along? Can’t we get up the hill together?
When I’m able to fully clear my mind of distractions and pedal freely, I can hear my legs and they are usually quite happy. The legs are working: they are pistons in the engine room of the Titanic, but they are not weeping and wailing. The mind is doing the weeping and wailing for them. In fact, they are pleased with the warmth of the sun and as long as I promise them some carbs, water, and a rest in the evening, they could think of nothing else they’d rather be doing.
Mindful exercise: It’s common advice to have ‘light hands’ while climbing. A death grip can make you tense up, and use unnecessary muscles and energy. Try visualizing two baby ‘chicks’, one in each of your palms, where the hoods would be. Don’t let them go (you’ve got to return them to the mother hen at the summit), but don’t squeeze them too hard. You’ll notice your attention quickly drift off. Return to the chicks, and hopefully they are still alive when you bring them back into your attention. Repeat until you make it to the top.
The Wim Hof Method – Book review
The rationale of yogic breathing exercises: Practised systematically, these exercises result, after a time, in prolonged suspensions of breath. Long suspensions of breath lead to a high concentration of carbon dioxide in the lungs and blood, and this increase in the concentration of CO 2 lowers the efficiency of the brain as a reducing valve and permits the entry into consciousness of experiences, visionary or mystical, from ‘out there’.Aldous Huxley – Heaven & Hell (1956)
Long suspensions of breath, increases carbon dioxide in your lungs and blood. We’ve known the mystical effects of carbon dioxide for hundreds of years. Breath becomes a tool to change body chemistry and interface previously thought untouchable systems.
Wim asks us to change our body chemistry with breath and cold water. Wim is interesting because he has approached these practices seeking wisdom (reading the Yoga sutras in Sanskrit apparently) and walking the walk / experimenting with all his physical stunts.
But in terms of actual substance, everything aside from the ‘basic breathing technique’, is a bit cringe.
The shadow library
“The shadow is the self’s emotional blind spot”. You could say that your shadow is reflected unconsciously in certain things you do: your responses, your aversions, addictions, and even the books you read.
Last year I read a lot of books, including quite a bit more fiction than usual. I was looking for shorter length books, most are under 200 pages, but otherwise my criteria was very open. Anything that stood out, or looked interesting got some attention.
Individually, many of the books that I read last year are objectively good. Well written, interesting, won awards, and I finished them all – which is saying something. But combined together, they paint quite a scary, obvious picture of my shadow. I will note that although the themes of these books are depressing and dark, I rarely felt sad reading them. I didn’t even select them thinking “I’d like to read a really fucked up book today”. I suppose that’s how the shadow rolls.
In the future I think I will treat books a lot like films or any other art form. With more respect to their emotional component. In a similar way you treat a shot of high grade Tequila or a small pistol, there’s a lot of power packed into a short novel or film, and should be enjoyed responsibly.
2022 reading list, proceed with caution
South of the Border, West of Sun – Haruki Murakami Nightclub owner rips his life apart over an old flame, who might represent the void. The Factory – Hiroko Oyamada Meaningless, Kafka-esque lifetime of work in a factory. What we talk about when we talk about love – Raymond Carver Broken marriages and tense relationships, manslaughter Raised by Wolves – Jess Ho Hospitality worker didn’t like her time in hospitality Night Train – Martin Amis Suicide, Crime, Policing Kitchen – Banana Yoshimoto Grief, loss, longing, nostalgia No one is talking about this – Patricia Lockwood Impact of the internet on our generation, grief Snow country – Yasunari Kawabata Flawed, depressed businessman falls in love with a Mountain Geisha Winter in Sokcho – Elisa Shua Dusapin Eating disorders, Innkeeper in snowed in hotel, fleeting relationship with traveller Love in Big City – Sang Young Park Authenticity in age of Tinder hook ups, Homosexuality No longer human – Osamu Dazai Lonely man wears mask to get by in society, doesn’t like himself Fuccboi – Sean Thor Conroe Masculinity, relationships for millennials Whatever – Michel Houellebecq “A depressed and isolated man”
The Terrible, Horrible Wave
“There’s never a point in surfing when you don’t have fear.”
Want to go for a surf? Before you jump in the water, be aware that the following events may happen:
- Shark attack
- Getting run over by another surfer
- Your board hitting someone else
- Getting ‘dumped’ by a wave and held under water
- Getting caught ‘inside‘
- Crashing into rocks
- Your board getting smashed
- Losing control of your board
- Getting in someones way, possibly starting a fight
- Rip currents
- A bad wipeout
- Getting too cold
Staring at the waves
My introduction to surfing was lying down on a foam boogie board. So, not exactly surfing, but it was still a novel, exhilarating experience. I had fun, but I sort of avoided the surfing bit. I remember paddling far out to the shoulder, where the waves weren’t breaking. I was scared. Lots of fear, not much action. Surfing (boogie boarding), was scary.
Since I had moved to San Francisco, I had taken up surfing, this time standing up. I had progressed a bit, but wanted more. So in 2022, I took a trip to El Salvador. I spent weeks and weeks surfing a point break, steadily improving. I took lessons. I observed others surfers, the best surfers I’ve ever seen, dance on waves with reckless abandon. I took better notice of the tides, wind, swell direction. But I was still scared. Any forward progress I made was coupled with the thought ‘I’m going to get seriously hurt.’ I was either mildly uncomfortable (if only my leash strap would stay still)… or blacked out in fear.
Not staring at the waves
“One thing you learn from surfing is how to operate in the present”Gerry “Mr. Pipeline” Lopez
In Melbourne, Australia, waves aren’t as consistent (and the water isn’t as warm) as the point breaks of El Salvador. Sometimes the wave pool is the only option to catch some waves after work. Since the pool is a controlled environment, it’s easier practice skills and try different things out.
At one point during a recent session in the pool, a surfer shouted out to his friend who was next in line “Good luck mate. 18 eyes are on ya”. On the next wave, I lost my balance and fell off. I wasn’t even the one getting trash-talked and it still affected me!
“What happened was that people felt shame more strongly and it made them angry. That affected their performance. I hadn’t expected that.”Trash Talk can really put players off their game
After that wave, I decided to try an experiment. Rather than focus on turns, or the latest advice I’d heard, I blocked out all the noise. Anything that wasn’t my wave needed zero attention. By ignoring everyone else, I found it easier to remain calm, and interestingly, could surf much better. Although it felt a bit strange purposefully ignoring most of the action, I did notice some benefits.
- I caught every single wave (except the one I mentioned)
- I got many more turns than usual
- Had more fun
- Felt less tired
- Felt happier and more relaxed after the session
- Felt less stressed in the lineup
- Felt calm while I was on the wave and had bandwith to ‘think’ on the wave
- Easily navigated around a surfer who fell off in front of me (and defused situation easily afterwards)
Is the goal to quieten the fear to nothing to surf at your best? Not quite. Tim Gallwey, sums it up nicely: “If (the surfer) wants to be in the flow, he could do that on a medium size wave. Why does the surfer wait for the big (scary) wave? The surfer waits for the big wave because he values the challenge it presents…It is only against the big waves that he is required to use all his skill, all his courage and concentration to overcome; only then can he realize the true limits of his capacities.”
Therefore, surfing should be viewed not as an exercise in quieting fear and relaxing, or a harsh battle against fear, but a ‘harnessing’ of fear to perform at your best.
Whole brain design
In 2023, it’s a bit passé to label an activity, person or job with ‘left-brain’ or ‘right-brain’. But most of us intuitively understand the difference. Left-brainers appear to be more organised and good with details and right-brainers thrive in creativity and innovation.
Designers lean on their right brain to empathise with people problems – “how products and services fit within people’s everyday lives as well as where they fall short, and who’s left out.”
Since the rise of consumer-friendly technology, designers have settled into the left-brain world of software, complementing the disciplines of product management (analytical and often with technical background) and engineers who ensure the systems are stable, performant, correct and maintainable.
Luckily, it’s really not so binary. Although designers are on the hook for how the product looks, we are largely concerned with making it enjoyable, learnable and effective for the user. From the tools we use like Figjam (right) and Google Sheets (left) to the skills we need like designing for emotion (right) and information architecture (left), designers need both sides of their brain firing. Xero sums it up perfectly: “You’ll have an analytical side and a knack for crafting beautiful user experiences.”
What makes product design so interesting is that there’s never a one size fits all approach to problem solving. There’s no right or wrong here. How you approach design problems will be shaped by your customers and their goals. At Xero, our payroll customers and the compliance rules they must follow are detail-oriented by definition.
All this might sound obvious, but I think friction can arise if designers don’t take the time to recognise the influence of their own thinking styles and patterns. For example, it’s not uncommon to hear a designer frustrated by “documentation slowing us down” or want to “lock down a solution asap”. These are two sides of the same coin, and might be avoided with some reflection.
Here’s a few simple questions to ask yourself:
- Do I bias more towards right or left?
- Am I uncomfortable with uncertainty (sometimes at the cost of creativity)?
- Am I avoiding (potentially useful) design methods because they are unfamiliar?
- Could I approach this problem more objectively?
- Am I thinking about this problem the same way as my cross-functional partners?
Effective designers should feel empowered to leverage either side of their brain, from beginners mind to the latest and greatest prioritisation framework. With our personal development it might help to purposefully focus some of our time on skills where we do not excel, to balance out our strengths.
By taking a step back and being intentional, we can focus on being more creative or systematic where needed.