The principle that changed my life

On Okinawa Island there are a lot of people over the age of 100; 3x more than in the United States. Many have wondered: how do Okinawans maintain such a high standard of health?

Researchers have traced their longevity to a Confucian practice calledhara hachi bu. Roughly translated it means: “eat until you are 80% full.”

This means Okinawans eat only about 1,800 calories a day. The result? Their rates of cancer, heart disease, and dimentia are much lower than the western world. [Source 1] [Source 2]

However, this isn’t an article about restricting your calories (although, based on the evidence, that might be a good idea).

I’ve been experimenting with hara hachi bu beyond dieting. I’m far from a master, but I wanted to share what I’ve experienced so far.

As Westerners, we believe in pushing up against the limits, and going over them: we’re pedal to the metal, giving 110%, and our amps go to 11. We max ourselves out in every facet of our lives: our finances, our relationships, our health, and our careers.

I love to work. For years, I would go to the office in the morning, and spend every ounce of creative energy that I had. I gave it all until I had nothing left. If I had extra time, I would pick up a new project. Over the years I became responsible for more and more things. I was consistently promoted, until I became the youngest Regional Director in the country.

When I wasn’t at work, I filled my time with side-projects: I volunteered on committees, I founded a business with some friends, and started working on my Masters Degree.

During this time I’d also gotten married, and we’d had our first child.

I loved the busyness. I was firing on all cylinders. Spinning all these plates in the air. The world was my oyster!

And it all worked fine until…

…I cracked.

You see, I had no reserves. The problem with being maxed out is you can’t deal with anything new. I couldn’t fit anything else in. I’d squeezed my schedule, my finances, my energy, and my family to the absolute limit. And then a crisis: the business I’d invested in went bad. I had no extra room to deal with a crisis: all those plates I’d been spinning came crashing down. I experienced depression for the first time in my life.

As I began the slow process of rebuilding, I decided I would start practicing a form of mental hara hachi bu at work. I became conscious of the amount of energy I spent at the office. I would deliberately pace myself so I that I spent only 80% of my mental energy throughout the day.

There’s not really a good way of describing how I determine whether or not I’m at 80%. It’s a state of being mindful. I try not to overstimulate my brain: I pick 2-3 big things to accomplish a day. After that, I focus on little things that don’t require as much energy.

The benefits have been huge.

First, and most importantly, I have space for crisis. If something unexpected and urgent comes in, I have the mental wherewithal to deal with it.

Second, I do better work. Instead of being overstimulated, my mind is more focused. By acknowledging my limits, I spend my resources more wisely.

Third, I’m in it for the long haul. I’m no longer at constant risk of burnout.

Like I said, I’m still not a master, but I’m trying to apply the “80% full” metaphor to other areas of my life: finances, social commitments, and the amount of media I consume.

Do you think hara hachi bu could work for you? Have you tried something similar?

You can reach me on Twitter here: @mijustin or 

Photo credit: Michael Himbault

Believe in me

This post is part of this week’s Startup Edition to answer the question: How did you get your first customer?

Your first customer will come one of two ways:

  1. A person will believe in you, and buy
  2. A person will believe in you, and convince someone else to buy

People that connect you with new customers are invaluable. They’re called boosters: people who are so passionate about what you’re doing, that they’ll share it with everyone they know.

This reminds me: when I was 18  I decided to start a video production company. I thought I could make money making wedding videos in the summer, and could pursue creative projects in the winter.

My parents thought I was a little crazy; maybe I should just keep the job I had at the hotel?

But I had a friend named Rebecca who believed in me. Rebecca was a bit older than me, in her 20’s, and had friends who were getting married. She started telling everyone about me, and my service. She vouched for me, and said I would do a great job. Every time she introduced me to someone she would say: “Justin has just started a video production company.”

This is how Rebecca ended up getting me my first paying gig: she had two friends that were planning a wedding, who signed up for a wedding video. I didn’t have a car, so she drove me to the rehearsal. Her enthusiasm gave me the momentum and confidence I needed. After that first gig I was able to go out and get new customers on my own, but Rebecca continued to be my cheerleader. Once, I even forgot my video camera at home while on-site at a shoot; she happily picked it up and brought it to me.

The truth is, I don’t think I would have made it very far without that first believer.

Sometimes you’re not looking for your first customer, you’re looking for your first booster: a passionate believer who will promote you to everyone they meet and cheer you on when you’re feeling down. If you encounter someone like this, and they’re actually convincing people to buy, count yourself lucky! Thank them: let them know you appreciate their help.

Derek Sivers has a great video on this topic.

This post is part of this week’s Startup Edition to answer the question: How did you get your first customer?

Don’t call it a comeback (working remotely)

Remote working has existed for centuries. And now is the perfect time for it’s comeback.

Before and after the Revolution

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, goods were manufactured by contracting individual craftsmen who worked out of their homes. The merchant would drum up sales, and would coordinate the production with at-home sub-contractors.

Even back then, home working was popular because it gave people more freedom:

The domestic system was suited to pre-urban times because workers did not have to travel from home to work which was quite impracticable due to the state of roads and footpaths. Workers had some flexibility to balance farm and household chores with [this other] work.

– Wikipedia, Putting-out system

This all changed with the Industrial Revolution: production was centralized in factories and cities.  For merchant capitalists, this made sense: it was cheaper and more efficient to produce goods in one place, with machinery.

The Information Age came, but work didn’t change

We’ve been in the Information Age for at least 25 years. We’ve made huge leaps in technology. Many of us would describe ourselves as Knowledge Workers: we don’t work in factories, we work at desks in front of glowing screens. We don’t make goods with physical materials, but rather things made out of bits. The great thing about bits + the internet is that the materials and means needed for production aren’t dependent on location.

But here’s the funny thing: the way work is organized hasn’t changed. Despite all these advances, most of us still work in central offices. Employees leave their computer-equipped homes, and drive long distrances to work at computer-equipped offices.

It’s management that’s broken

CEOs, like Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and Apple’s Steve Jobs, think that a central office fosters more innovation and productivity. I think they’re wrong. We’re still early in the research, but recent studies seem to dispute their claim.

Studies and data aside, we know, at least anecdotally, that distributed teams can create tremendous innovation. Automattic  created the world’s most popular publishing platform. 37signals helped create a programming framework that powers “tens of thousands of  applications”. At both companies, the majority of their employees work remotely (or have the option to do so).

It’s not remote working that’s broken, it’s management habits that needs to change.

Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.
– Jackie Reses, Head of HR, Yahoo

Managers have developed centuries worth of habits based on the central workplace. The hallmarks of office work (meetings, cubicle workstations, colocation) need to be seen for what they are: traditions we’ve kept alive since the Industrial Revolution. We need to question these institutions: are they really more innovative and efficient?

To succeed, we’ll need some practice

To give remote working an honest chance, there needs to be a paradigm shift. Managers need to practice new ways of organizing people, and producing results. Individual employees need a chance to practice self-management, taking initiative, and collaborating online. Developing new habits takes time and commitment.

What does success look like? Taking millions of cars off the road, because people no longer need to commute. Reducing stress and improving the mental health of employees. And ultimately, increasing innovation and producing better products (as shown by platforms like WordPress and Ruby on Rails).

Discuss this post on Hacker News.

More reading

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Telecommuting Creates Happier and More Productive Employees

Why remote workers are more engaged

Inside Automattic

Why I don’t read at work

I recently quit reading when I’m at the office.

I used to read blogs and news sites as a part of my daily work routine. Here’s why I decided to quit.

Reading isn’t really work.

This is the truth I didn’t want to admit: reading isn’t work. It’s easy to rationalize reading as work because in both cases, I’m staring at my computer screen. But if I’m reading, I’m not getting anything productive done. Reading is consumption. Work is about creating.

My regular habit was to get to the office and fire up my favourite link aggregator. But the mornings are really the worst time for me to read. Between 7:30am and 11:30am is when I have the most energy to work creatively. Instead of accomplishing something productive, I’ve been wasting precious, high-energy time on consuming content.

Work is exerting effort to achieve a task. Reading blogs doesn’t help me get stuff done.

Reading at the office is a form of procrastination.

Reading at work was a way for me to ignore the things I needed to face. I consumed links like I consume junk food, and I used the web as a way to escape.

Worse yet, reading on the net is like going down a rabbit hole. Too many times I’ve allowed myself a momentary diversion: I click one link, read for a bit, and then click another. The next thing I know, I’ve wasted a substantial amount of time.

There are better places to read.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m trying to keep my workplace purely for working. I do my best reading in places that are free from distraction: a park bench, a coffee shop, or at home after my kids have gone to bed. These are places where I can really focus on the words and reflect on what I’m reading.

I want my reading to be like eating at the best French restaurant. When the French go for lunch, they order only the best: the best wine, the best bread, the best entree. They sit and enjoy every bite. Contrast this with the idea of eating fast food at your desk: it’s rushed and ultimately unsatisfying. Reading at your desk is like eating fast food.

If I’m going to read, I want to read the best stuff at a time and in a place where I can give it my full attention. This makes my reading more enjoyable and more satisfying.

A Satisfying Read

For me, not reading at my desk has been a great decision. There have been some strong benefits: when I’m at my desk, I’m focused on getting things done. I also get to spend less time at my desk because, once my work is done, I go find a nice place to read. This means when I do read, I’m more mindful and get more out of it.

(Special thanks to Jason Rehmus for his help on this post)


One underlying theme in this post is that we simply spend too much time at our desks. We sit in front of computers for extended periods of time because it looks like we’re working. The truth is, we can’t be 100% productive sitting at a desk 9am to 5pm.

This is a topic I cover in my upcoming book: Hack Your Office. If you’re interested in receiving a sample chapter, sign-up here:


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Things I’ve quit doing at my desk

We need to think of our desks as workstations.

In reality, we do all sorts of things at our desks that aren’t real work (or affect our ability to produce our best work).

Here are things I’m trying to quit doing at my desk:

  1. Thinking: Nobody does their best thinking sitting at their desk. When you reflect on your biggest “Ah-Ha!” moments, how many of them occurred while you were staring at a screen? If you’re like me, your best thinking happens when you’re not at your desk: taking a walk, going and asking another person for help, drinking a coffee, in the shower. Your desk is for executing; do your thinking elsewhere.
  2. Socializing: When I sit down at my desk, I want to be in work mode. I want to prioritize my most important tasks, and then complete them with the fastest velocity possible. Socializing while I’m at my desk sullies the purity of the workstation. This is why the water cooler is actually a brilliant social construct: when you want to hang out, you can get up from your workstation and go to the socialstation. I think every office should have a socialstation, a place (or time in the morning) where team members can hang out, and talk informally.
  3. Procrastinating: Check Facebook, check Twitter, go on YouTube, check email, mindlessly read blog posts. I think that breaks, and downtime, are important in a work day. But again: I think maintaing the purity of my desk as a place where I work is important. If I need some “mindless” time, I think it’s better to walk away from my desk and have a place and time limit where I do that. It’s also important that we catch ourselves when procrastinating and ask ourselves: “Why?” Are we procrastinating because we’re tired? Hungry? Bored? Are we stuck on a problem? Are we just feeling lethargic and need to get up and move around? Figure out what’s at the source of your mindless net browsing, and deal with the problem.
  4. Sitting: for the past 18 months I’ve been using a standing desk. I’ve realized that the best part isn’t that I’m standing all day; it’s that I’m not sitting. A standing desk allows you to stand, sit, lean, and put one leg up while you’re at your workstation. Even better, I’ve felt more freedom to just walk away when I’m faced with a problem and need to do some thinking (or when I’m tired and need a break).

Many writers maintain a private writing hut. The hut has one purpose: it’s the place they go to write. They don’t do anything else there. Once they can’t write any more, they go do something else. I think we need to think of our desks in the same way: these are places where we get work done.

What do you think?

Justin Jackson

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