Notes on A Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

  • How much I’d Recommend: 9/10
  • Date finished: 7/21/21
  • Notes on A Nervous Planet, Recommend borrowing from your local library

It’s a lovely book of short articles Matt Haig wrote about battling with anxiety and depression in his life. It’s quite funny and very informative. It actually made me feel very peaceful knowing someone out there is going through very similar things in life. I finished this book in 2 days and wrote down a lot of quotes. I am almost inclined to buy a copy of this book and keeping it to go back and read more – which doesn’t happen to me a lot. I’d still say, borrow it from the library first and see if it’s your cup of tea because it seems that people who’s never had anxiety/depression (or won’t admit they have) won’t be enjoying this book much.  

  • Couldn’t aspects of how we live in the modern world be responsible for how we feel in the modern world? Not just in terms of the stuff of modern life, but its values, too. The values that cause us to want more than we have. To worship work above play. To compare the worst bits of ourselves with the best bits of other people. To feel like we always lack something.
  • If the modern world is making us feel bad, then it doesn’t matter what else we have going for us, because feeling bad sucks. And feeling bad when we are told there is no reason to, well, that sucks even more.
  • it sometimes feels as if we have temporarily solved the problem of scarcity and replaced it with the problem of excess.
  • for instance, personally I need to know why i have a fear of slowing down, like i am the bus in Speed that would explode if it dropped below 50 miles per hour. The reason is simple, and partly selfish. I am petrified of where my mind can go, because I know where it has already been.
  • I am a catastrophizer. I don’t simply worry. No. My worry has real ambition. My worry is limitless. My anxiety – even when I don’t have capital-A Anxiety—is big enough to go anywhere. I have always found it easy to think of the worst-case scenario and dwell on it.
  • i worry that I upset people without meaning to. I worry that I don’t check my privilege enough. I worry about people being in prison for crimes they didn’t do. I worry about human rights abuses. I worry about prejudice and politics and pollution and the world my children and their entire generation are inheriting from us. I worry about all the species going extinct because of humans. I worry about my carbon footprint. I worry about all the pain in the world that I am not actively able to stop. I worry about how much I’m wrapped up in myself, which makes me even more wrapped up in myself.
  • Years before I ever had actual sex I found it easy to imagine I had AIDS, so powerful were the British Government’s terrifying public awareness TV slots in the 1980s.
  • I stepped off the Paris Metro and into wispy mouth-burning clouds of tear gas. At the time, covering my face with a scarf just to breathe, I thought it was a terrorist attack. It wasn’t. But simply thinking it was one was a kind of trauma. As Montaigne put it, “He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears.”
  • Even the best news channels want high ratings, and over the years they work out what works and what doesn’t, and compete ever harder for attention, which is why watching news can feel like watching a continuous metaphor for generalized anxiety disorder. The various split screens and talking heads and rolling banners of incessant information are a visual representation of how anxiety feels.
  • The whole of consumerism is based on us wanting the next thing rather than the present thing we already have. This is an almost perfect recipe for unhappiness. We are not encouraged to live in the present. We are trained to live somewhere else: the future.
  • To see the act of learning as something not for its own sake but because of what it will get you reduces the wonder of humanity. We are thinking, feeling, art-making, knowledge-hungry, marvelous animals, who understand ourselves and our world through the act of learning. It is an end in itself. It has far more to offer than the things it lets us write on application forms. It is a way to love living right now.
  • Far and away the biggest regret [old people] had was fear. Many of Bronnie’s patients were in deep anguish that they had spent their whole loves worrying. Lives consumed by fear. Worrying what other people thought of them. A worry that had stopped them being true to themselves.
  • How to stop worrying about aging: understand that old people aren’t actually that worried about old age.
  • There was no clocks until the 16th century. 16th century pocket watches didn’t even have minute hand. But now, we have time, we were told what to do where to be when to do something. We often find ourselves wishing for more hours in the day, but that wouldn’t help anything. The problem, clearly, isn’t that we have a shortage of time. It’s more that we have an overload of everything else.
  • Don’t play the ratings game. The internet loves ratings, whether it is reviews on Amazon and Tripadvisor and Rotten Tomatoes, or the ratings of photos and updates and tweets. Likes, favorites, retweets. Ignore it. Ratings are no sign of worth. Never judge yourself on them. To be liked by everyone you would have to be the blandest person ever. William Shakespeare is arguably the greatest writer of all time. He has a mediocre 3.7 average on Goodreads.
  • Life isn’t about being pleased with what you are doing, but about what you are being.
  • How to be happy: Do not compare yourself to other people x10.
  • The cure for loneliness wasn’t always to have company, but to find a way to be happy with your own company. Not to be antisocial, but not to be scared of your own unaccompanied presence. She thought the cure to misery was to “decorate one’s inner house so rich that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone.”
  • When I first became ill, age the age of 24—when I “broke down”—the world became sharper. I felt the wearying pressure of advertising, the frantic madness of crowds and traffic, the suffocating nature of social expectation. But when I am well I forget those things. The trick is to keep hold of that knowledge. To turn recovery into prevention. To live how I live when I am ill, without being ill.
  • Don’t grab life by the throat. Life should be touched, not strangled.
  • To be aware of breath is to remember you are alive.
  • We are frequently encouraged to want the most extreme and exciting experiences. To act on a heady impulse for action. To “Just Do It” as Nike always used to bark at us, like a self-help drill instructor. As if the very point of life is found via winning a gold medal or climb Mount Everest or headlining Glastonbury or having a full-body orgasm while sky-diving over the Niagara Falls. And I used to feel the same. I used to want to lose myself in the most intense experiences, as if life was simply a tequila to be slammed. But most of life can’t be lived like this. To have a chance of lasting happiness, you have to calm down. You have to just be it as well as just do it.
  • Don’t let anyone or anything make you feel you aren’t enough. Don’t feel you have to achieve more just to be accepted. Be happy with your own self, minus upgrades. Stop dreaming of imaginary goals and finishing lines. Accept what marketing doesn’t want you to: you are fine. You lack nothing.

FIRE Progress: After Tracking Every Dollar for 18 Months

A year has passed since my first post about tracking expenses. It was hard at times, especially at the beginning of COVID lockdown in March 2020 where the stock market tanked for a few weeks. It was difficult to see my “networth” plummet 40% all in one night. In this year, I’ve continued tracking my expenses on google sheet (click here to get a template) and learned a couple of lessons from tracking my expenses.

1. I changed from habitually eating out everyday to eating out only once a week and KEPT this habit.

It has been a year since I have limited my dining-out-habit, so I don’t quite remember what it was like when I ate out almost every single day anymore. I now have a budget of $150 a month for restaurant bills. I would like to reduce it down to under $100 in the next 6 months. But it is nice to eat out on Saturday after cutting two lawns with Mr. Code Junkie. Saturdays become more of an exciting ritual of hard labor followed by our favorite food.

I originally started by making my favorite coffee drink at home (lavender latte with oat milk). Then, I stopped drinking coffee altogether because it affected my sleep & appetite. Slowly, I started realizing alcohol also affects my sleep & next morning’s energy. So I quit drinking as well. I still enjoy going to coffee shops or bars with friends, but I would have some seltzer water instead.

I realized it was hard for me to change a habit (or almost an obsession, like coffee and chocolate), but it was REALLY hard only for the first 3-5 times I say “no” to that habit/obsession. The more I say no every time the option presents itself (like friends asking me to go to coffee, or walking by the chocolate aisle in a shop), the easier it is next time to control my cravings & dependencies on the habit/obsession.  

2. Reflect on the money spent and evaluate whether it was worth it

Having tracked every single expense, I was able to go back at the end of the year to see what I’ve spent my money on for the whole year. I found that I bought some stupid stuff this past year: reserved a van for Vegas (I really thought we could pull off living the Van-Life ) and ended up not using it, bought a work-out program and only used maybe once, bought more garden seeds than i can plant. Admitting making mistakes is part of the journey. It is also helpful for me to make better decisions in the future.

3. Budget for Incidentals (on top of emergency funds)

There are some expenses I did not budget for. In 2020, I had some health issues that ran up the medical bills. Even though I saved money for emergencies, I realized that these incidentals were not emergencies. There should always be a budgeted item for incidentals (whether it’s medical last year or home improvement this year). Since then, I have adjusted my budget to include about $3,000 – $5,000 incidentals a year. This has also been added to my retirement calculation so that I will have enough money in retirement if something breaks.

4. Able to make bigger decisions about finances (e.g., buying an investment property)

Earlier this year, I bought my very own first rental property because I had saved up enough portfolio to justify taking out a portion of it as down payment for a rental house. I wouldn’t have been able to confidently pull the trigger had I not track all my income & expenses to know I have the capacity. Here’s a short video on how to calculate rental property investments from my favorite real estate podcast. 

5. Having more meaningful money conversations with friends and family

Some of my friends are very supportive of my FIRE plans, but others think it’s a bit luxurious to be able to think retirement in general (let alone in 5 years). Regardless, sometimes we talk about prices of vaccums and rice cookers, sometimes we talk about buying/selling houses, and I can see from their point of view a lot better now. I can see both ways, one way of wanting to spend money and buying the best thing, and another way of saving money and finding alternative solutions to the problem. For example, you can buy a $150 rice cooker, or you could just use a pot to make rice. Same goes for coffee!

6. Having a constraint (budget) makes you more creative

Earlier this year, I had to furnish the tiny barn after spending a lot of money on the construction already. So I was trying to find creative ways to furnish it. I found these two chairs from our neighbor’s lawn for free while walking my dog, and I carried them both home (looking like a weirdo). They were two very old wooden chairs and one of them was a little unstable, but I Youtube’ed how to refurbish old chairs. I repaired, spray painted, and re-upholstered them with Riflepaper fabric. 

Another example – I had some leftover wall paint from renovating the barn. I really wanted to use them to paint the cabinets in my rental house, but I realized that the finish for these paint were eggshell (they are not shiny & smooth) and that might make the cabinets hard to clean. Instead of buying new paint, I found some polyurethane to apply to the top of the cabinets to give them a shinny & smooth protective coat. They came out great and I saved some $$$. Here’s a before & after photo for your enjoyment!

7. I enjoy the things I purchase more

Because I realized that every dollar I spent is earned with my own time, I am more careful with spending. I am spending less on things I love to buy but do not bring me as much joy: clothing, entertainment, drinks, candles, fancy arts & crafts tools, and decorations. The only  thing I bought relating to arts & crafts were some watercolor trays (with colors) and cold-pressed paper which brought me a lot of joy to learn how to do watercolor.

8. Getting closer to financial freedom

As I sent my friend hillsandhigher off to her retirement in Italy this July, I am truly envious! Although, fairly speaking my friend has been saving up for years for this moment and seeing her success makes me feel that it is possible to retire early.  I am making small but steady progresses here and there: renting out the barn, the house, and becoming a real estate agent. I’ve been watching my networth grow after recovering from the ecnomic down caused by COVID and steadily climbing. It encourages me to work harder towards my financial independence.

9. No-buy days

I now try to schedule no-spend days where I don’t buy anything. I find it an easy hobby to just log onto Amazon and buy something small, like a $10 charger, a $50 blender, or a nice little alarm clock! When Mr. Code Junkie took a business trip for a few days, I decided to not buy anything (including groceries) and see what I can make out of things I have at home. I discovered so much food in plain sight that I did not eat before! I am planning on implementing this in the next 12 months of FIRE journey.

10. Buy less, use less, waste less

Sounds more like a “Live, Love, Laugh” banner. 

Buy less: I strive to be a minimalist, mainly because clutter stresses me out. There are some side benefits for being a minimalist. When I started gathering things I don’t need around the house, I know I should not by stuff I don’t truly NEED because I will be donating them 3 months down the line. I try to save items I want to buy for at least a month and see if I actually need it before purchasing. However, this does not apply for things like: AC filters. You really should change your filters every 3 months!

The other day, we were having 4th of July cook out with greyhound parents, and for some reason we were talking about what temperature we leave our AC on. The AC for our house is always set around 78, if we turn it on at all. I grew up without AC so it is not as difficult to sit in the heat.  One of the greyhound parents K said they leave their AC on 72 during the day and 68 at night because they like to sleep in the cool. When I said I only turn it on occassionally and it stays at 78, our friends were all shocked. Although, after hearing this, K’s bf would not allow her to turn the AC lower than 77, to save their utility bills. Sorry K… Alas, sometimes it is wonderful to have AC, especially after you cut grass on a hot day!

What are some of your discoveries, tricks, and tips on tracking expenses and living frugally?

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

  • How much I’d Recommend: 8/10
  • Date finished: 6/30/21
  • Why We Sleep, recommend borrowing from your local library

It’s a pretty enjoyable book, but you know that feeling when you have a bad cough and look up on WebMD and try to self diagnose and you feel like you have cancer? That’s kind of how I feel about reading this book. It feels like if you miss one night of sleep, hell, just a few hours of the sleep, you might as well just end right there because your brain will not recover completely ever again, you will have hyper tension, which leads to heart disease and cardiac arrest, you might get depression, schizophrenia, and just die from lack of sleep.

Other than that, it’s a pretty easy read. Here’s some notes from the book.

  • If sleep does not serve an absolutely vital function, then it is the biggest mistake the evolutionary process has ever made.
  • We sleep for a rich litany of functions, plural – an abundant constellation of nighttime benefits that service both our brains and our bodies.
  • Two main factors that determine when you want to sleep: 1 circadian rhythm (internal clock), 2 Melatonin (chemical sleep pressure)
  • Circadian rhythm is not precisely 24 hours but slightly longer.(24 hours and 15 minutes)
  • Sunlight methodically reset our inaccurate internal timepiece, even during an overcasting day.
  • It controls timed preference of eating and drinking, moods and emotions, amount of urine, core body temperature, metabolic rate, release of hormones.
  • Suprachiasmatic nucleus – samples light inside your eyes to reset the 24 hour cycle.
  • Morning larks and night owls are not “by choice”. Usually it’s genetically determined. 40% of people are early larks, 30% night owls, and another 30% lie somewhere in between with a slight leaning toward eveningness.
  • Melatonin: there is a significant sleep placebo effect – the most reliable effect in all of pharmacology. Over the counter melatonin is not regulated by FDA and can be 83% less than that claimed on the label, to 478% more than stated.
  • It feels harder to acclimate to a new time zone when traveling eastward than when flying westward. It’s easier for you to stay up a little longer (stretch your internal day) than to going to bed early (shorten your internal day). Ability to learn reduces and short term memory loss due to frequent time-zone travel
  • While you are awake, you produce adenosine. Caffeine can occupy the receptors of adenosine to make you feel that you are not sleepy. Caffeine peaks at 30 minutes after drinking, half-life is 5-7 hours.
  • Circadian rhythm and sleep-pressure do not sync up with each other. They are two separate systems that are ignorant of each other.
  • If you feel sleepy mid-morning, you are likely not getting enough sleep, or the quality of your sleep is insufficient.
  • Am I getting enough sleep?
    • After waking up in the morning, can you fall back asleep at 10 or 11 am? if so, you are not getting sufficient sleep quantity and/or quality
    • Can you function optimally without caffeine before noon? If no, then you are most likely self-medicating your state of chronic sleep deprivation.
  • What you experience during deep NREM sleep is one of the most epic displays of neural collaboration that we know of. Though an astonishing act of self-organization, many thousands of brain cells have all decided to unite and “sing” or fire, in time. It is a highly active, meticulously coordinated state of cerebral unity.
  • We do not dream in deep NREM sleep, nor do we keep explicit track of time. It is a near state of nocturnal cerebral meditation (different from brainwave activity of waking meditative states).
  • The brain paralyzes the body so the mind can dream safely.
  • Both NREM and REM sleep are equally important. When sleep deprived, the brain will attempt to get NREM sleep first, but in subsequent nights, the brain will get more REM sleeps. But none of this would ever “gain” back the sleep you lost.
  • Birds and aquatic mammals can sleep with one side of the brain at a time, leaving another side of the brain alert or conducting life-preserving tasks.
  • Humans sleep a little lighter in one side of their brain when they are in new environment to ensure safety.
  • REM sleep require both halves of the brain to be equally asleep.

How should we sleep: 1) mono phase – sleep once a day for 8 hours 2) biphase- sleep sleep the regular 8 hours but take a 20-40 min nap during mid afternoon.

  • Myth: Early 17 – 18 century Western Europe had a new way of sleeping: two long bouts of sleep separated by several hours of wakefulness. There is no anthropological reasons to do this, suggesting it is not the natural, evolutionarily programmed form of human sleep. It is rather a cultural phenomenon popularized with Western European migration. No biological rhythm of brain activity, neurochemical activity, or metabolically activity that would hint at a human desire to wake up for several hours in the middle of the night.

humans are special when it comes to sleep:

  • We have 20-25% REM sleep when primates usually have 9%
  • We sleep 8 hours when other primates sleep 10-15.
  • we sleep laying flat (exclusive terrestrial sleepers) while other primates prefer sleeping on branches or in nests
  • Extra REM sleep allows 1) our degree of sociocultural complexity and 2) our cognitive intelligence

What may at first blush have seemed like a modest asset awarded by REM sleep to a single individual is, I believe, one of the most valuable commodities ensuring the survival and dominance of our species as a collective.

  • Drinking while pregnant is not recommended because alcohol (even 2 glasses of wine) will disturb baby’s REM sleep which prevents baby’s brain development. Drinking while nursing is also not recommended for the same reason.
  • Teenagers’ sleep have more NREM to help them mature their frontal lobe and aid their transition into early adulthood. Young children’s circadian rhythm makes them sleep earlier at night (and more) and rise earlier than their parents while adolescents’ circadian rhythm makes them stay up at night, and rise later than the parents.
  • Adults lose their deep sleep (NREM) as they age. Their sleep become more fragmented (waking up at night) mostly due to medication and weakened bladder. Senior adults circadian timing regresses, leading to earlier and earlier bedtimes.
  • Sleeping (NREM) helps slowly upload all your information absorbed during the day into your memory, salvage those that appeared to have been lost soon after learning. Naps make your memory better.
  • Sleep (NREM) also help us forget – we have yet to harness this power to battle trauma, drug addiction, and substance abuse.
  • A pianist would practice a piece for many times and cannot play it perfectly, but after she goes to sleep, and next morning she wakes up, can simply play it perfectly. Sleep helps our motor skills so simply “learn offline.” Similarly, chromic lack of sleep increase sports injuries in adolescent athletes.

The Tyranny of More

Since I got my real estate agent license, I have been paying more attention to houses around me. This Sunday I went for a run and saw these two houses side by side. One on the left is probably 5 bedrooms with 6 bathrooms, a two-car garage, and a pool in the back, while the one on the right is probably a 2 bedroom 1 bath with no garage. (After researching, I actually found the one on the left was built after tearing down two houses and combine two regular lots into one.)

It seems that we all have agreed that more is better, without further consideration.

The real estate market has risen to a new record high in 2021. Many people changing their minds to buy new construction instead of existing houses. Who doesn’t like everything new, new paint, custom cabinets, a fresh coat of paint, and spotless countertops? People would go $100,000 or more in debt to buy a new construction than to fix up an older home that’s smaller.

Newly constructed houses are getting bigger and grander. A nuclear family of 4 suddenly needs 5 bedrooms (one for each person, a couple of guest bedrooms, and a library), preferably with a pool, two-car garages, and 6 bathrooms. This need for more space also became more exacerbated post-COVID-19 lockdown. People seem to want designated space in their homes for offices as well.

US-wide, homes built in the last 6 years are 74% larger than those built in the 1910s, an increase of a little over 1,000 square feet. The average new home in America, be it a condo or house, now spreads over 2,430 square feet. It is also important to note that households have been getting smaller over the same period parallel to the rise in living space. In 2015, the average number of people in a household is 2.58, compared to 4.54 in 1910. This means that today the average individual living in a newly built home in the US enjoy 211% more living space than their grandparents did, 957 square feet in total.

“More” is preventing us to have a close community.

Since the pandemic, a large portion of my friends started working from home. Many of them felt lonely. I volunteer at Crisis Textline and “isolation,” “relationship,” and “loneliness” have increased noticeably since 2020, no doubt largely influenced by the lockdown and restrictions. Despite human’s desire and biological needs to be together as a community, our desire for “more” is stopping us from having a true community.

Having a bigger house and more possessions makes us more isolated than ever. When was the last time you asked to borrow something from your neighbor? If you were missing something at home, is your first thought going to the store to purchase it or to borrow it from friends? Mine is the former. Having financial independence, not relying on people is taught to me as great traits of survival. Yet, we humans are designed to want to be needed, and be in a community, supporting each other. 

Since COVID, I have met friends who also have greyhounds and we now swap dog-sitting when one of us is out of town. Not only does it save so much money, but we started doing other things together like having game nights, and going to play pickleball together. I have never had friends who are in the “love to hang out” category (my friend types are usually either “we wear the same pants” or “I don’t want to hang out with you after work”). Not having a lot actually made me a better friend because I can ask for favors and return favors when my friends need me. Should I have had everything, and not needing anyone or any help, it would’ve been a much lonelier existence. 

In Mark Manson’s article “1,273 People Share Their Best Life Lessons from 2020,” he mentioned that the #1 lesson was “You Only Really Know Who You Are When Everything Is Taken From You.” Really, life is too short and we spend a lot of time worrying about getting “more” stuff: bigger houses, better cars, more clothes, more money, more friends, more success, more power. We never stopped to ask, do we actually need all those things? If those were taken away from us, what would we do? 

If you are considering buying a bigger house, perhaps reconsider; buy a smaller size house and use that extra money to do something else. 

What should we do with having “more” things?

  1. consider what is “enough” for you, in all aspects of life. Do I really need that new pair of running shoes, a new candle, a new iPad, a new GoPro, and a new fancy environmentally-friendly ziplock bag? Do I need to move to a more crowded city for a higher paying job but end up saving less? Do I need more money, status, power, and satisfaction?
  2. challenge yourself to have less, owning less, wanting less, and see what you can do. For example: what would happen if you didn’t have electricity for a night? What would happen if you lived out of one room of the house for a day? 
  3. redefine what is “enough.” Maybe it’s a smaller house, maybe it’s an apartment, maybe it’s a 4 bedroom instead of 5, maybe it’s to move back with your folks for a while and that’s totally ok! Actually, I miss having my mom do my laundry… a lot…, and my dad’s cooking.
  4. be surprised by the result! and understand what is truly essential to you. Free yourself from the so-called “must-haves.”

You will find that you can live with a lot less, consume a lot less, and be calm and content. And if you decided not to, at least it is a well-thought-out decision instead of a mind-numbing, knee-jerking reaction to the gigantic swinging capitalistic hammer.