Fasting from Good Stuff

I grew up in a religious tradition that valued the practice of fasting.  I’d fast from food for a day (or sometimes two or three) from time to time, and I always found the experience valuable.  Regardless of religious significance, fasting has a lot of benefits.  Fasting from food for a few days will teach you a lot about yourself.  You’ll learn how strong your will-power is.  You’ll find out that emotional outbursts and lack of self-control are closer to the surface than you thought once nutrients are lacking.  You’ll go through ups and downs, and during the ups you’ll think more clearly and deeply than ever.  Perhaps most of all, you’ll become ridiculously attuned to and aware of food and all its visual, conceptual, and olfactory beauty!

I haven’t fasted from food in several years.  But the practice of fasting more generally is something I’ve found to be very useful as a way to help optimize my outlook and performance.

Our family has adopted “Screenless Tuesday”.  This is not some kind of puritanical or anti-technology exercise.  We just decided to try it out for the heck of it, not because of any particular problem.  We love it.  Even the kids, who in a typical day can be found all around the house on Kindles, laptops, iPhones, and streaming video on the TV.  They love screens, yet we all really enjoy screenless Tuesday.  It provides an excuse to do things we enjoy – in my kids case drawing, playing games and Legos, etc. – but that take more effort to get into.  It also makes us appreciate screens more, and use them with more purpose (especially on Monday and Wednesday).

I typically pick a day each week to designate as social media blackout day, where I never open Twitter, Facebook, or the like.  Again, not because I think these amazing tools are negative, but because I think they’re wonderful.  It feels good to challenge myself, and going without them brings so much clarity and understanding about what makes them valuable.  So many of the things we do and tools we use are never considered in depth.  We talk trash about them because we’ve never really considered how valuable they are and in what ways.  Going without helps clear things up.  It also helps reveal the aspects that aren’t valuable and makes me a better user.

I occasionally fast from other things for a day, a week, a month or more.  Caffeine.  Alcohol.  Cigars.  In these cases it’s typically because I value these pleasures so much I don’t want to become dependent on them, or mindlessly consume them without enjoying it.  When I realize I’ve had a beer without really noticing it or enjoying it, it’s time to reset.  I love these consumables too much to down them without real pleasure.  A week or two without coffee makes that next cup a divine encounter.

Just knowing you can do something for a period of time is powerful.  You gain confidence, learn discipline, and become good at working hard and succeeding by doing it.  And small challenges that you can do teach you the thought and will patterns needed to do it with bigger things.  You feel a lot of pride by picking something to fast from (not for guilt or shame or fear or the approval of others or disdain for the thing, but just because) and doing it.

Kevin Kelly, founder of WIRED magazine talked about this in an episode of the Tim Ferris podcast I recently listened to, and I love what he said about it.  He talked about abstaining not because the things are bad, but because they are good.  That’s what makes it an effective practice.

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