Scott Adams: How to Stay Energized

The sixth in a series of columns on failing your way to success, by the creator of "Dilbert"

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No matter what you’re doing, you’ll perform better if your mind and body are humming along at peak efficiency. You already know the obvious ways to keep your mind sharp and your personal energy high: eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, drink coffee, blah, blah. But I have a lesser-known trick for boosting personal energy that I’d like to share. I call it the Big Idea.

For most of my adult life I’ve had at least one change-the-world type of project percolating in my spare time no matter what else I’m doing. It could be as simple as a new business model I’m concocting in my mind or an invention I’m tinkering with. I’m not too concerned that my idea or invention will turn out to be a failure. I assume most of my ideas are flawed in some way. All I ask of my Big Ideas is that they have a nonzero chance of working as far as I can tell. That’s enough to keep me energized.

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If you’re concerned that your Big Idea is not likely to pan out, and therefore it is not “real” in a practical sense, that’s not a problem. Consider how you feel when you watch a well-made movie. You know the characters are actors and the story is pure fiction, but it still affects your body as if it were real. You feel anxious, or elated, or sad — whatever the filmmakers want you to feel. Fiction does a good job of tweaking our body chemistry. The Big Idea can influence your body chemistry too. A nonzero chance of improving the world is energizing.

Allow me to describe one of my Big Ideas so you can get a feel for how this system works. In the unlikely event that the idea I am about to describe is a good one, it will lower health care costs and dramatically improve the lives of people all over the world. It’s a big, big idea. I’m excited to share it, and that’s the point.

Oh, and it is almost certainly a bad idea for reasons I have not yet learned.

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That’s how these Big Ideas go; nearly all of them turn out to be dogs, and not the cute kind. But at the moment, I can see no problem with my Big Idea, so it charges me up. And I’ll stay energized until I read your comments here and learn that it has already been tried, or it is illogical or impractical for one reason or another. Then I’ll move on to the next Big Idea and repeat.

Today’s Big Idea — a hypothesis if you will — is that the citizens who have the best understanding of diet science have the healthiest body weights. I propose that knowledge, not willpower, is the key to good health.

I’ll give you a quick quiz to emphasize the point. If you’re hungry in the afternoon, and you have two choices for a quick snack, which one is a better choice if you’re trying to maintain a healthy weight?

1. Celery

2. Cheddar cheese

If your answer is celery, you’re probably overweight. The celery won’t satisfy your hunger, which means that later you’ll be cleaning out the snack drawer like an anteater. If you go with the cheese, the fat content is an appetite suppressant that will give you a fighting chance of resisting unhealthy snacks until dinner. The cheese has more calories than the celery, but it’s probably still the best strategy. Whenever possible, you want to avoid using willpower, and that means you want to suppress the hunger that is tempting you.

Here’s another quick quiz. Which food will make you fatter?

1. White potato

2. Pasta

If you said pasta, or you didn’t have an answer, you’re probably overweight. Pasta is substantially lower on the glycemic index than a white potato. And that matters more than the calorie count.

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Everyone knows an apple is a healthier choice than cake. But how much healthier would we be if we understood diet science at a deeper level? I think it would make a huge difference. If I’m right, diet experts could create a one-page set of diet instructions that would take a big bite out of obesity. (And it wouldn’t be like the government’s food pyramid that looks as if it were created by farm lobbyists.)

I came up with the hypothesis that knowledge could replace willpower by observing my friends and how they eat. My fittest friends know a lot about diet science. My friends who are sporting a few extra pounds seem to know less. My observations are purely anecdotal, and correlation doesn’t mean causation. But it wouldn’t be expensive — relative to the potential benefits — to test the idea that knowledge can make you lose weight more effectively in the long run than willpower alone.

So that’s my Big Idea. It’s simple and testable, and if the hypothesis proves true it could make a huge impact on the world. I’m energized about the possibilities.

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