Note: A version of this post originally appeared on NirandFar.com, a blog on behavior and technology.
WELCOME TO MY COMMUNICATION VORTEX
It’s 2 AM and you’re exhausted, but unable to sleep. You’ve been cycling through Facebook, email, and other online media for hours. You want to stop, but you can’t. This technology-induced insomnia will likely ruin your next day (or two) of productivity — and you’ve really achieved nothing according to your list of to-dos. Late-night surfing has become a bad habit you’d like to break, but just can’t figure out how.
Sound familiar? Let’s take a look at some data, narrated by my inner monologue.
Inner Monologue: “Wow, 12AM, I should get into bed.”
Lights turned off, head on pillow. Check.
Inner Monologue: “Hmm, I’m a little bored. I had those articles I was going to read…and I’m not that sleepy yet.” I reach for my phone. “I love you, smart phone.”
One article later.
Inner Monologue: “What a great article! I should share it.” Switch to Facebook news feed. “Oh, look at Amanda’s adorable baby!” Like. Scrolling down. “Ha! Teslas ARE awesome.” Continue scrolling. “Puppies and kittens AND a baby hedgehog all in one photo!?” Like. “Oh, I should send that Tesla pic to Aleks … and email her to catch-up.” Switch to Gmail. “Hmm, inbox full. I’ll just respond to two.” Mid-response, a new post from TechCrunch pops up. ” Oh, what’s this? Smartwatch?” Click.
And, like that, I’m sucked into my seemingly inescapable cycle of social media-email-news…welcome to my communication vortex.
WHEN HABITS ARE EASIER TO MAKE THAN BREAK
Habits are a complicated beast. Though modern technology has the power to form good habits, it can also reinforce bad ones. Technology enables a faster cycling through what Nir Eyal calls, the Hook Model, a four-phase process, which creates and strengthens our compulsions.
I realized I had a real problem when I mentioned to a trainer that I was running on a treadmill because it was easier to read and write emails on my phone than if I ran outside. It was a wake-up call that made me realize my technology habits might be affecting other areas of my life.
I decided to take a closer look at how technology affects the three habits I try the hardest to keep in good standing: eating, sleeping, and exercising.
Imagine you’re at work. It’s 11:30 AM and you are feeling peckish. You are swamped answering emails and your mind is deep in your work. Not to worry, you brought an apple as a healthy snack. You look up twenty minutes later to notice you are no longer hungry. But you realize the apple remains while a chocolate-chip cookie you tucked in your desk “in case of emergency” is gone!
How did this mindless eating happen? For many, the trigger for making poor eating decisions is not only hunger, but stress.
An interesting study related to making healthy food choices helps us answer why we often pick the cookie, not the apple. First, students were given a string of numbers to remember and recall, taxing their mental faculties. Afterwards, they were asked to walk down a long hallway where they were presented with two snack options: a fruit salad or a slice of chocolate cake. The fruit salad was clearly the healthier choice, while the chocolate cake was the more indulgent option. The researchers found that the test subjects who had memorized more numbers were also more likely to choose the chocolate cake.
The study’s authors theorized that people make decisions using either their rational or emotional brain. When we have to mentally juggle too much information, such as a long string of numbers, our ability to access the rational side of our brain can be impaired, leaving room for the emotional brain to take over.
Excessive technology use may have the same effect on our internal struggle between good and bad habits. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Email, and other technologies make us perform mental juggling acts, perhaps increasing the difficulty of holding ourselves accountable for rational decisions.
I’ve heard I should always schedule important meetings in the morning because my levels of serotonin are highest then – meaning I’d be able to make better decisions. But as you read above, I’ve developed some bad habits around my slumber. Turns out, it might not only be what I’m looking at on my phone that is keeping me up, but the phone itself. Light interferes with the production of melatonin, a chemical trigger which tells the brain to go to sleep. In fact, recent studies found that the blue light emitted from computers and other devices may even be linked to depression.
Even small devices, such as our cell phone, produce enough light to disrupt our sleep cycles and of course any sound from those late-night videos or games you (or your partner) are playing don’t help either. The more you surf, the less likely you are to sleep.
The research on physical exercise overwhelmingly points to a number of positive health benefits. But email, TV, and the multitude of apps on our devices are just a few of the distraction, which can hold us back from hitting the gym to break a sweat. As children, we would go out and play if we had nothing to do. But as adults, we have trained ourselves to think exercise is a chore and turn to our gadgets when feeling bored.
It was clear I had some bad habits around eating, sleeping and exercising, but how was I going to get myself cleaned up?
I took a second look at the Hook Model and realized that when it comes to breaking habits, triggers are often too ingrained to be erased; the habit loop can only be identified and re-trained. Identifying triggers requires some self-discipline and experimentation.
Re-wiring habits is even trickier. The key in changing habits is to associate existing triggers with new, more powerful rewards. There are a few more things involved in cultivating this change, but generally, if you can train yourself to believe a reward for a “good” habit is more pleasurable than a reward for a “bad” habit, you’re on an upward path. Similarly, when the pleasure associated with the reward of an existing habit is diminished, there is a greater chance another stronger reward will take its place.
But technology can lead to a vicious cycle of diminishing satisfaction. The more technology we use, the more we attempt to cram into our days. This is often referred to as “time deepening,” but this phrase is a misleading because filling life with more and more activities and distractions makes time (and our various rewards) feel shallower, not deeper. Restated another way, the more we try and get done, the less satisfaction we get from each individual reward, making us more likely to seek new rewards at an even higher frequency.
So, are we doomed to be cranky, flabby, lazy insomniacs? Thankfully, no.
MAKING FRIENDS WITH BOREDOM
Take a common trigger, like boredom. When it hits, we generally check email, eat, watch TV, or procrastinate, all of which make the problem worse by fueling guilt-induced stress. To break it, we need to train ourselves to acknowledge, anticipate, and here’s the kicker … embrace feeling bad.
The key tool I use to achieve this state of bliss are “mini-sabbaths,” small breaks from the constant connectivity of our everyday lives. Linking back to the Hook Model, here are four tips for taking mini-sabbaths at each point in the habit cycle that I’ve found to be effective methods for wrangling-in my own technology vortex.
(1) ANTICIPATE TRIGGERS
- Try a quick 3-minute meditation in preparation for sleep to allow your mind to embrace boredom.
- Disable all push notifications on your devices.
- Leave your phone at home from time-to-time, particularly when going to the gym. Get a workout buddy to keep you honest.
(2) ACKNOWLEDGE ACTIONS
- Buy an alarm clock and keep your phone in another room, not by your bed.
- Only keep healthy food at home so you have to go through the hassle of going to the store to get junk food.
- If you like to exercise to music but find yourself tempted to check email, splurge for an iPod instead of taking your phone.
(3) EMBRACE NEW REWARDS
- At bed time try listening to soothing music to help you relax instead of surfing the web when insomnia strikes.
- Challenge yourself to drink a large glass of water and wait 10 minutes before snacking. Often times, you may think you feel hungry when you’re actually just dehydrated.
- Pick a mantra. Select one positive word you want to embody and repeat it to yourself over and over again while you exercise. Envision yourself becoming more and more like that word with each additional step you take.
(4) COMMIT TO REWIRING
- Learn more about your own hooks and commit to understanding your weaknesses.
- Track how you spend your time by using software or recording with pen and paper. Regardless of how, take the time to learn as much about yourself so you can be more effective in making lasting changes.
- Be kind to yourself. Acknowledge that you will fall into old habits from time-to-time and let yourself get back to your new healthier routines without the self-inflicted guilt, which can often trigger stress and cause bad habits to return.
As the weather turns, it’s important to eat things that help both your mind and body feel nourished. In my childhood, on test days, my father used to make me eat “brain-foods.” These often included fish, dates, and nuts.
Specifically, dates provide glucose, the type of energy “preferred” by the brain. Walnuts contain protein, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E which was suggested in a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology to prevent cognitive decline, particularly in the elderly.
Combined, a few dates and walnuts make a light snack that provides sustained energy. Dates provide a spike from sugar while the protein from the nuts kick in slightly later to help to sustain your blood sugar for longer.
In the recipe below, the sweet and nutty flavors of the classic brain-foods, dates and walnuts, are complemented by the creamy profile of feta and the fresh, palate-cleansing properties of mint and cloves.
DATES STUFFED WITH MINT, FETA, WALNUTS & CLOVE AGAVE SYRUP
12 dates (Medjool work well)
12 large washed fresh mint leaves
12 walnuts, lightly toasted
6 oz feta (prefer creamier Bulgarian-style feta)
3 tbsp amber agave syrup
First, make the clove syrup by grinding the cloves, then adding in the agave syrup and mashing the cloves and syrup together with a pestle or other mashing tool.
Next, to prepare the dates, slice them lengthwise, cutting only 3/4 of the way through and remove the pit.
To assemble, place the fresh mint leaf into the crease and press against the insides of the date. Then, add the feta and press it in using half the walnut. Finally, top with a few drops of the clove agave syrup.
It’s important to me that anyone who comes to my house feels comfortable and well-fed. I’ve several friends with serious dietary issues related to wheat and dairy, and many who are vegan. I’m a fan of making my own pasta, but often, these friends can feel left out. This dish, a zucchini ‘pasta’ with ‘creamy’ roasted red pepper sauce, provides an easy substitute that keeps every type of eater included, even those that dislike the “slimy texture” of or have other complaints about zucchini (a.k.a. courgettes.)
Note: I have ordered the ‘pasta’ recipe first for purposes of the image flow on the blog, but when executing this dish, it’s better to make the sauce ahead of the zucchini ‘pasta’.
Serves 6. Prep time: 5-10 min Cook Time: 5-10 min
Zucchini’s mild flavor and texture make it a fantastic substitute for pasta. I recommend using a mandoline if you like finer cuts of pasta such as angel hair or fettuccine–or just want to save time. Note: the thicker the cut, the less your mind will be “tricked” into thinking it’s pasta. (It will never be fooled fully, FYI.) Regardless, if you have serious food restrictions or are just trying to reduce your carb intake, these noodles make a great dish that can be paired with any of your favorite sauces, including the one below.
6 large zucchini
3 tbsp olive oil
dash of salt
pinch of pepper
DIRECTIONS: Peel the zucchini and, using a cross-slicing mandoline, cut into angel hair sized pasta (or size of your choice.) Heat a pan to medium heat and add olive oil. Add pasta, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and toss until zucchini frequently for 3-5 minutes. (Tongs are useful for this step.) Once the zucchini is slightly limp, like a regular wheat-based noodle, remove from the heat. (Then, toss with warm sauce of choice.)
CREAMY ROASTED RED PEPPER & CASHEW SAUCE
Serves 6. Prep time: 30 min Cook Time: 30 min
A take on a classic Romesco sauce, I replaced the almonds and hazelnuts with cashews for a softer taste that places more emphasis on the roasted red peppers. I also add thyme blossoms for a subtle note.
6 vine ripe tomatoes (medium in size)
3 red bell peppers
1 bulb roasted garlic
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 bay leaves (fresh or dry)
1/2 cup raw cashews
1 sprig of fresh rosemary
1/2 tsp chili powder (paprika or cayenne, depending on your spice tolerance)
4 tbsp fresh thyme blossoms (or fresh thyme leaves)
ground black pepper
Large pot for boiling water
Oven with broiler setting (or grill)
DIRECTIONS: The steps you will take are to (1) roast the garlic (2) roast the peppers (3) peel the tomatoes (4) simmer the sauce (5) puree the sauce and (6) toss with prepared zucchini pasta and garnish. Some steps overlap others, so read ahead to save time.
(1) Put the small saucepan over a low heat with 2 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil and the entire bulb of garlic, peeled. Stir occasionally until a light golden color and soft in texture. (Quick way to do this, cut off the bottom of the bulb, place in a large container and shake vigorously for 30-40 seconds.) You can keep the garlic cooking while you prepare the peppers and tomatoes.
(2) Turn on your broiler to medium-high heat. Place the red bell peppers on the highest rack, closest to your broiler. Turn every 2-3 minutes, until you can see that the skin has bubbled up and darkened. Place immediately into a sealed container (the steam helps the skin separate from the flesh of the peppers) and let cool. While the peppers are cooling, complete step 3: peeling the tomatoes. Once you’re done with the tomatoes, the peppers should be cool. You can then, remove the top, seeds, and skin of the pepper with your hands (easiest). Dice and set aside.
(3) To skin the tomatoes, lightly cut (score) an “x” at the bottom of each tomato. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Have a large bowl of ice water ready. Drop each tomato into the boiling water for about 30-45 seconds, then remove and quickly plunge into the ice water. You should see the skin of the tomato curling back from the place where you made the “x”. Peel off the skin and remove the base of the stem. Dice and set aside.
(4) In the same pot as the garlic, remove all but 4 cloves of garlic and set aside for later use. Add the diced tomatoes, diced roasted red peppers, 3 bay leaves, 1 sprig of rosemary, a dash of salt, and a pinch of pepper. Simmer for approximately 15 minutes.
(5) Remove rosemary & bay leaves from the simmering mixture, adding the remaining mix to your blender, along with the cashews and chili powder. Puree on high until it becomes silky in texture. Add additional salt, pepper, and olive oil to taste.
(5) Toss with the prepared zucchini ‘pasta’ and garnish with thyme blossoms and roasted garlic. Alternatively, you can store the sauce in a sealed container in your fridge for up to a week, or freeze if you’re truly planning ahead.
The starting point for any good meal is great ingredients. I’m fortunate to have access to wonderful produce–both down the street and a strones throw away on on charming local islands. Below is a quick snapshot of “souvenirs” from a short afternoon trip to Vashon Island.
Cashews are something I grew up with, regularly inserted into our family’s diet whether toasted, raw or ground into a creamy sauce for something delicious and spiced. But I rarely translated these delicious nuts into my non-Indian cooking. I’m fortunate enough to have been introduced to a wonderful vegan chef, Chad Sarno whose use of cashews inspires me–especially when I might feel helpless without dairy.
A quick variation in my own kitchen was to take two of my favorite salad staples, kale and radishes, and make them just a bit more decadent for a recent at-home asado (…where they were served with rosemary-smoked chicken and roasted yams. Sorry, Chad.) In this salad, I love the combination of bitter, sweet, creamy–and how each time I get a bit of radish, it cleanses my palate and takes me through all those experiences again.
- 1/4 cup cashews (raw)
- 1/4 cup of water
- 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (coconut oil also works, but changes the flavor quite a bit)
- 1/4 clove of garlic
- juice of 1/2 a lemon
- 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 4 blackberries
- pinch of salt
- 1 bunch white radishes, sliced lengthwise (A bit sharper than your normal red radishes, which are a fine substitution.)
- 1 bunch lacinato or “dinosaur” kale (Now is the season to plant them. We do in pots on our patio!)
- 1/2 cup roughly chopped parsley (curly or Italian)
- 2 tbsp good quality extra virgin olive oil
- 1 cup of blackberries, cut in half, lengthwise
- 1/4 cup of hemp hearts for topping (optional)
Blend all of the ingredients for the dressing in your blender until smooth. Drizzle in extra lemon juice or olive oil and blend further, depending on the needs of the resulting emulsion.
Place the dry, washed kale in a large bowl. Drizzle with olive oil, and massage for 30 seconds. Next, add the dressing and massage until evenly distributed. Then, toss in the rest of the ingredients except the blackberries and hemp hearts. Sprinkle the blackberries and hemp hearts on top as a garnish and serve.
When it comes to food preference predictability, I’m pretty easy to get to know. I like heat, but more than heat, I like creamy textures and bright notes that balance sweet and sour flavors. This dish takes sweet roasted carrots to a new level by incorporating a member of the same family (apiaceae), fresh-tasting cilantro, a dash of lemon juice, a smidge of harissa, pine nuts and the creamiest hummus imaginable.
HELLO. MY NAME IS SHARBANI AND I LOVE CILANTRO
Let’s start with cilantro. As you may be able to tell by the presence of roots, I didn’t find the cilantro photographed above in the local store. I found it at one of the largest markets I’ve even been to–and possibly the most magical place ever to find mass quantities of cilantro–La Merced in Mexico City. As my friends and I drove into the market, we passed what appeared to be an entire smaller market (yet still larger than my local farmers’ market) devoted only to cilantro. I rolled down the windows and inhaled deeply to experience the scent of one of my favorite ingredients. (If this sounds awful to you, there’s a reason why and it’s not that I’m insane.)
HELLO. MY NAME IS SHARBANI AND HUMMUS SAVED MY LIFE.
Moving on from my love of cilantro, let’s talk about hummus. No, it’s not made of magic, but it might as well be. Hummus has helped me through college, breakups, and life–and out of plenty of awkward conversations. Ok, so it hasn’t technically saved my life, but emotionally, maybe.
I fear that I learned too late in life that not all hummus is the same. The first time I had freshly, homemade hummus at a Middle Eastern friend’s house, I felt I had been duped by all previous hummus in my life. It was so creamy, so perfect. But I couldn’t seem to shake loose any secrets from apparent experts over the years to come.
That was until I was recently gifted Jerusalem by two lovely Egyptian friends. The secret, it turns out, is baking soda! Baking soda is alkaline and helps to soften chickpeas (and other legumes) faster by weakening pectic bonds. Adding acids, such as lemon juice or vinegar, will actually hinder this process. (This also works for lentil dishes such as dal.)
All the way at the bottom of this post is the recipe from Jerusalem. (If you care at all about hummus, take the time to try it at least once.) I highly recommend purchasing the whole cookbook – it’s one of the best I’ve read in years! (Meaning not only are the explanations great, but I have actually been using the recipes without excessive tweaks!)
SO, TAKE ME BACK TO THE DISH
Yes, so the delicious picture on top. The sliced carrots were tossed in olive oil and salt, then roasted at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for 15-20 min and finished with lemon juice. They were then piled on top of the hummus (mixed with some spicy harissa) with sauteed bitter, leafy greens, then sprinkled with toasted pine nuts and cilantro.
HUMMUS FROM JERUSALEM
- 1 1/2 cups/250 g dried chickpeas
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 6 1/2 cups/1.5 liters water
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons/270 g light tahini paste
- 4 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed
- 6 1/2 tablespoons/100 ml ice-cold water
The night before, put the chickpeas in a large bowl and cover them with cold water at least twice their volume. Leave to soak overnight.
The next day, drain the chickpeas. Place a medium saucepan over high heat and add the drained chickpeas and baking soda. Cook for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the water and bring to a boil. Cook, skimming off any foam and any skins that float to the surface. The chickpeas will need to cook between 20 and 40 minutes, depending on the type and freshness, sometimes even longer. Once done, they should be very tender, breaking up easily when pressed between your thumb and finger, almost but not quite mushy.
Drain the chickpeas. You should have roughly 3 2/3 cups/600 g now. Place the chickpeas in a food processor and process until you get a stiff paste. Then, with the machine still running, add the tahini paste, lemon juice, garlic, and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Finally, slowly drizzle in the iced water and allow it to mix for about 5 minutes, until you get a very smooth and creamy paste.
Transfer the hummus to a bowl, cover the surface with plastic wrap, and let it rest for at least 30 minutes. If not using straightaway, refrigerate until needed. Make sure to take it out of the fridge at least 30 minutes before serving.