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John Fawkes

Self-improvement by Science

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Becoming superhuman through DIY brain-scanning

Have you ever wished you could look inside your brain and see what it’s doing in real time?  That you could directly measure your brain waves to see how different situations, behaviors, and even drugs affect your focus, stress levels, and ability to stay “in the zone?”  That you had some way of knowing for sure how well your feeble attempts at meditation are really working?  

I have, and my wish is about to come true.  I’ve long suffered from anxiety, lack of focus and poor impulse control, and improving on those weaknesses has been a long, slow process.  In two weeks I’ll be acquiring a biofeedback device that can directly measure stress, focus, and impulse control by reading my brain waves.  That device is called the Versus, and I expect it to dramatically accelerate my efforts at improving my mental fitness.

Full disclosure: My father is on the board of SenseLabs, the company that makes the Versus.   SenseLabs is giving me a free Versus, but I’m receiving no other compensation for this.  I’ll try and be as objective as possible. 

The Versus is essentially a small, portable EEG machine, coupled with a tablet app that connects to it to gamify the whole biofeedback process.  Compared to other brain-monitoring devices that have come on the market so far, the Versus offers more powerful EEG sensors that achieve greater resolution over a larger area of the brain, and can provide more detail about what’s happening in your brain.  Until recently, detail like this could only be provided by sensors that had to be stuck to your head with sticky goo, making them impractical for anyone who isn’t bald.  Since I am bald, I would have been fine with this, and in fact had visions of using such devices to engineer a subspecies of superhuman bald men.  With the arrival of the Versus, the Superhuman Bald Men will probably be confined to the real of historical fiction (which I’d totally ready by the way).  

I had the opportunity to test the Versus last month at an event held by SenseLabs.  It’s bulkier than other brainwave-sensing devices, and so far seems like it’s probably less comfortable, but apparently that extra bulk makes a big difference- the speakers at the event included experts in neuropsychology and human performance, as well as athletes such as olympic volleyball champion Kerri Walsh Jennings.  I was most impressed by UCLA women’s golf coach Carrie Forsyth, who said that the Versus helped her players drop an average of two strokes from their scores- a huge improvement for someone who is already playing at that level.  Throughout the conference the Versus was pitched as a way to train your brain to get into a “flow” state   

Indeed, so far the Versus seems to have attracted interest only among high-level athletes.  The cost of buying one right now (it’s still in pre-production) is $749- $499 for the headset itself, and $250 for a two-year subscription for one user to Genesis, the companion iPad app that provides brain-training exercises and progress tracking.  SenseLabs is continually developing the app and adding functionality, and there’s also an API that allows third-party developers to create their own Versus apps.  However, the price is very steep, and I can’t see this having mass market appeal until it gets more affordable. 

I’m going to start using the Versus in January.  I have high hopes that it will help me feel more relaxed, be more productive while I’ working, and of course, sleep better.  But I’m also going to go beyond just doing the exercises over and over under the same conditions- once I establish some baseline stats for myself, I’m going to test my performance on the different exercises under various conditions.  In two months I’ll know, among other things, how much drinking alcohol or spending a few minutes petting a cat really relaxes me, whether caffeine helps or hurts my focus, and how my mind changes after eating a big meal.  Later on I’ll even test a few supplements that most people aren’t familiar with, such as noopept, 5-HTP and carnitine.  

I was a huge fan of the Zeo Personal Sleep Manager before the company went out of business, and ever since then I’ve been waiting for something like this to come along.  If you’re thinking about investing in a headset of your own and becoming a real-life Robocop, or if you just want to know which drugs and meditation techniques are the most effective at quieting your mental chatter and helping you get into a flow state, I’ll be reporting my findings every week or two on this blog on and on mailing list.  Stay tuned, and happy holidays.  

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Everything entrepreneurs need to know about Zero to Launch- How Ramit Sethi helped me build an online business

I’ve wanted to run an online business ever since I was in college.  Having an online business means I can make a lot of money, be location independent, have a tremendous amount of freedom to determine when I work and what I work on, and best of all, the ability to make a huge difference in many people’s lives.  Before this year, I had made several abortive attempts to start blogs and online businesses, with varying degrees of success, but had never really fulfilled my dream of having a stable and lasting business that delivers massive value to a loyal following.  

In early 2014, when Ramit Sethi announced that he was going to offer a course on starting an online business, I knew that if I didn’t jump at the opportunity, I would regeret it for a very long time.  You see, by that point I had been reading his blog for years, and it had already changed my life.  I hadn’t bought anything from him other than the Kindle version of his book, but I had already used his advice to save thousands of dollars a year, land highly competitive jobs that much older, more experienced people were competing for, and even receive a few freelance consulting gigs.  I knew that Ramit’s blog is one of the most successful online businesses around, and that he’s done exactly what I want to do, so when he first launched his Zero to Launch Course in April 2014, I jumped at my chance to live the dream of running an online business.

Since then, I’ve built a blog, I’ve gotten traffic and subscribers, had readers ask me to coach them, and even been interviewed by an editor at Business Insider.  Most importantly, I’ve learned a lot about starting an online business.  I’ve also made some big mistakes which impeded my progress for the first few months, so I wasn’t an instant success like some of Ramit’s students, but I can see the path to success ahead of me.  Now, “online business” is a very broad subject, so I’m going to explain exactly what aspects Zero to Launch covers, what it doesn’t cover, what parts it does best and worst at, my personal experience, and my final verdict on this product, including who should and should not buy it.  

What Zero to Launch Teaches You

If you’re looking for the ultimate guide to all things online business…this isn’t it.  I’m certain that no such guide exists, because online business is just too broad of a topic.  Instead, ZTL balances breadth with depth, focusing on the earlier stages of starting a business according to one particular business model.  Specifically, this course will teach you how to start a blog that you monetize by selling information products and coaching/consulting services primarily through your mailing list.  It also focuses on the things you’ll need to do in your first couple years as you build an audience and launch your first 2-3 products.  Within this limited scope, Zero to Launch teaches you almost everything you need to know.  

The core elements of the course consist of four modules- Your Game Plan, Your Audience, Your Products, and Your Sales.  The Game Plan module, and part of the Audience module, actually come before starting your blog.  Do this part right, and you’ll start your blog knowing that you have a clear target audience, places you can reach that audience, solutions to their problems that you can package into products and services, and even other blogs to guest post on.  Do it wrong and you’ll struggle, as I did (more on that later). 

Once you’ve verified that you have a good niche, you can start your blog.  The course gives you solid instructions on building a blog, and even provides tools to make the whole process quick and easy.  It gives some guidance about the appearance and layout of your blog, but mostly tells you to get writing articles and promoting them, and not worry too much at first about cosmetic issues.  Ramit’s blog looked like shit for years, and it still built a following.

After that we have the products and sales modules.  The Products module shows you how to build a solid informational product- not a cheap $17 ebook, but video and multimedia courses ranging from $50 to over $10,000.  It also gets a little bit into services like coaching and master classes, but it’s less about product design than about researching your audience to be sure you’re giving them exactly what they need.  The Sales module has a ton of great information about writing sales pages and emails, and setting up email autoresponders to automate your sales cycle, digital downloads and membership sites.  I didn’t get that far into this phase, as I haven’t reached the point where I’m ready to monetize yet.  

There’s a Facebook group for ZTL students, where you can share your experiences, get advice both from each other and from Ramit, and see what’s worked for other people.  Finally, in addition to the course itself, you’ll also get occasional emails from Ramit with bonuses such as case studies, copywriting tips, and the results of experiments that Ramit has done that have made him millions of extra dollars by increasing his sales, mailing list signups and audience engagement.  

In short, this course gives you just about everything you need to start a blog, connect with a niche audience, build a mailing list, build products, and start making money- even passive income, if you set everything up correctly.  But there are also plenty of things that the course doesn’t really get into.  

What it Doesn’t Cover

There’s a lot that ZTL doesn’t get into, or at least hasn’t so far.  It doesn’t really get into other business models besides selling courses and coaching through your mailing list- anything involving selling physical products, affiliate websites or ecommerce stores is completely outside the scope of the course.  Ramit brings up the subject of monetizing blogs with ads, affiliate links and selling ebooks, but mainly to say that doing so would require far more readers, and selling higher-valued courses through your mailing list allows for more revenue with a smaller but more engaged list.  No argument here.  

The course also hasn’t covered SEO, social media or viral growth, and Ramit says that those are a waste of time for your first year.  Again, I agree with this completely, although these would be good topics to know about down the road.

Ramit brings up the topic of expanding beyond your initial niche, such as how he moved from talking about personal finance, budgeting and investing, to earning more money, and later on into subjects like psychology, social skills and fitness.  He doesn’t really talk about how to do this smoothly, except for telling you not to box yourself in with an ultra-specific website name that leaves no room for growth.  

There are also two very big topics that seem hugely important, but which the course hardly goes into at all.  The first is blog design- although Ramit is probably right when he says not to worry about design from a cosmetic standpoints at first, he also doesn’t go into much detail about designing your overall layout for ease of use and maximizing list signups.  He does give a few examples of websites that he considers to be well-designed, and they seem to come in a variety of layouts.  

Second, the course doesn;t say much about list segmentation.  He’s said in the Facebook group that this sin’t something to worry about early on, but it can become very important as your mailing list grows into the tends of thousands, and a lot of students will want to know more about it later on.

In short, the course glosses over a few subjects that Ramit doesn’t think are important until a year or two after you’ve started your blog.  I should not that he’s mentioned a few web design and segmentation tips in his emails, but overall it’s still something a lot of students will want to know more about.  

Accelerator Plugin

Zero to Launch also optionally can come with a tool called Accelerator.  Accelerator is two things- a web interface for quickly setting up your website, and a WordPress plugin designed by Ramit’s team which provides and integrates a lot of the tools you’ll need to build your mailing list, monitor your progress, and make sales.  The web interface would normally let you buy a domain name through Hover and sign up for hosting and launch a website through WP Engine in minutes, but I encountered some kind of very rare bug in the process which took a few days to fix- luckily both Accelerator and WP Engine have excellent tech support.  

Very lucky in fact, because I quickly ran into another bug- Accelerator comes with a few Zero to Launch WordPress themes.  Using these themes, however, crashed my site several times, erasing it altogether.  This problem kept recurring for two weeks during which I wanted to throw my laptop out the window.  It was eventually resolved jointly by WP Engine tech support, and one of Ramit’s people.  As I understand it, he wasn’t Accelerator tech support, but a guy who actually had a hand in designing accelerator.  I ended up just not using the ZTL premium themes; while I think the bug is fixed now, they’re nothing special and you’re better off shelling out for a separate premium theme like Genesis or Thesis.  

Once your site is set up, Accelerator allows you to quickly design effective email signup forms from templates and put them on your site.  It also integrates Mailchimp into your blog- no other email marketing programs yet, though I know a lot of people will want AWeber down the road.

Accelerator also goes beyond that by providing templates for landing pages, making it easy to direct traffic from external sources such as guest posts to a page expressly designed to get people signed up to your mailing list.  I can’t overestimate how important this is- for me, landing pages get a signup rate of about 50%, vs 1% for traffic that’s delivered to the front page of my blog.

By the way, that 1% figure used to be 0.5%- I doubled it by incorporating lightbox ads, another Accelerator feature.  These are popup ads that invite people to, again, join your mailing list, and they can be programmed to appear on certain pages, and only after certain time delays, to minimize annoyance.  Again, this is a crucial feature for building your audience.  Accelerator provides some basic traffic and conversion stats for your signup forms, lightboxes and landing pages- nothing as detailed as Google Analytics, but it’s easy to understand and all you need when you’re just getting started.  

Beyond audience building, Accelerator also makes it easy to sell products, both as downloads and access to membership sites, and both as one-time and recurring payments.  It doe this by integrating a service called Gumroad, and through that, another service called Wishlist Member.  I haven’t used these yet, but according to other students on the ZTL Facebook group, it’s very easy even for non-technical folks like me.  

Finally, buying into Accelerator also gives you access to monthly teardowns, in which Ramit critiques people’s copy, site design, positioning and choice of target market.  These are incredibly valuable for helping you to make sure you have the right market, understand that market on a deep level, and can communicate with your audience in a way that resonates with them.

How I messed up, and how I’m recovering

After a few weeks of research, I picked job hunting, and more generally career advice as my niche.  I’ve always been good at the process of job hunting, and several times I’ve beaten far more experienced candidates for highly competitive jobs.  Overall, it’s a skill that I’m better at than 90% of people, and I know I can add a lot of value.  I was able to make some solid connections with other bloggers, and over the next few months published more than half a dozen guest posts, interviewed a forum manager, and even got interviewed myself by an editor at Business Insider.  I also had a couple of readers reach out to me for paid coaching, which felt amazing, not to mention making me some money.  However, my mailing list didn’t grow anywhere near as fast as I wanted it to, and a few problems became apparent over time.  

First off, I was working a full-time job when I started my blog, but a few months later I quit that job to be a full-time freelancer.  Now I never intend to work a regular job again, and that creates two issues.  First off, I’ll no longer gain experience in that area- I was already worried about running out of stuff to write about, and now I probably won’t ever be job hunting myself again. Second, my enthusiasm for my niche has waned a bit- since I prefer self-employment, I’d rather help people with that than with job hunting, but I don’t feel experienced enough at freelancing to teach others to do it just yet. 

Second, it was difficult to find communities that I could reach out to directly.  I found a few forums devoted to specific professions, such as financial analysts and airline crew, but the only general job hunting/career advice community I found where I could easily address people was the r/jobs subreddit on reddit, and most people there were not open to my networking-based advice, and instead just wanted to learn a magic resume formula that would get them their dream job.  This left me with guest posting as my only good option.  

Third, and this is a big one, bloggers in the career niche tend to have low engagement from their followers.  I guest posted for blogs with tens of thousands of people on their mailing list, got people with over a hundred thousand Twitter followers to tweet an article of mine, only to get a bare handful of subscribers out of it.  What I eventually realized is that people tend to read career advice when looking for jobs, sign up for career blogger’s mailing lists, follow career coaches on Twitter, but then tune out once they get a job.  So I got surprisingly low traffic from my guest posts, and realized that it’s very hard to get loyal, consistent long-term readers in the career niche.  

To solve these issues, I re-did my Game Plan, and I’m taking my blog in a new direction by changing my niche altogether.  Instead of career advice, my blog is now going to focus on self-experiments in physical and mental performance.  I’m hugely into fitness and nootropics, and have gotten really into the quantified self movement over the last couple of years.  I’ve also recently been given opportunities to be an early tester for two different devices- one is a biofeedback device that measures brain waves and has been shown to have benefits like reducing anxiety and improving focus, and the other is a handy device that lets you measure your testosterone, vitamin D, inflammation, and a few other cool things at home. 

This is an area where I have a ton of knowledge and passion, will never run out of things to write because I’ll always be doing more things to write about, and there’s are several highly engaged and motivated subcultures that would be very interested in my blog, not to mention a lot of great bloggers in this niche who I can guest cross-promote with.  I love this subject and I’m in no hurry to monetize, so I’m going to focus on building my audience and developing a core group of loyal fans before I worry bout making money off my blog.  

Three lessons to be learned from my experience: first and foremost, be extremely thorough in developing your game plan.  Take as long as you need, because your success is heavily dependent on having a great niche and positioning before starting your blog.  Second, if you get Accelerator, pay attention to the monthly teardowns, as some of them are very helpful in clarifying market and positioning issues.  Finally, be active on the ZTL Facebook group; a couple of the discussions on there really helped me to understand where I went wrong. 

Final review of ZTL

So in conclusion, would I recommend Zero to Launch for someone who wants to start an online business?  Absolutely I would!  If you want to start a blog that will eventually become a very scalable, profitable business, allowing you to set your own hours and work from anywhere in the world, this course is a great choice.  Like Ramit’s other flagship courses, Earn1k and Dream Job, Zero to Launch has the potential to be life-changing.

The greatest strength of ZTL, as with most of Ramit’s courses, is how it teaches you to front-load the work.  By over-preparing at first, you can rep disproportionate rewrads later on.  On top of that, the Facebook group is a humungous value-add, and you can even get some personal attention from Ramit.

Accelerator is an incredible tool, despite the bugs I encountered.  It will save you tens of hours of time in launching and desiging your blog and integrating some of the tools you need, and make it easy to optimize your whole site to build your mailing list.  If I started all over again, I’d use it- though maybe not the themes it comes with.

Zero to Launch gives you everything you need to get your first ten thousand subscribers and make a solid living off your business, and I found myself only reading a handful of articles from other bloggers.  As mentioned, it is a bit thin regarding more advanced topics for established bloggers, but Ramit is coming out with a Zero to Launch version 2.0 in January, and I expect (and hope) that it will go a bit more into those advanced topics, as well as diving deeper into some of the common “failure points” where people go wrong with starting a blog.

In short, if you want to start an online business, join Ramit’s mailing list and buy Zero to Launch the next time he opens it up for sale, and sign up for Accelerator.  Thise course will help you build a money-making blog, and so so quickly.  If you have an online business but you’re in the early stages and having trouble growing, I think ZTL is still worth buying, though Accelerator might not be worth the cost if you’ve already set up some of the features it provides.  If you have a successful online business that’s already making good money, Zero to Launch 1.0 might be too basic for you, but you should still check out the 2.0 version when it launches in January, as it may well have enough advanced material to be worth your while.  

Historically, when Ramit updates his courses, it’s always in a big way, often increasing the total amount of content by 50% or more and tackling entirely new subjects that weren’t covered in the original version.  His courses tend to grow with their users.  The price also tends to grow, and I expect him to hike the price of Zero to Launch sometime soon.  So if you have any interest in this course, I wouldn’t put it off.  

If you want to become a successful blogger and a known authority on your subject of choice, build a business that brings in a steady stream of customers eager to buy your products, and live a rich life while helping others to do the same, Zero to Launch is by far your best option.  You can read more about it here, including case studies.  My favorite case studies can be found here, here and here.    

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The best way to start your day

“****!  I need to get to work by eight.  That means I need to be out of the house in a half hour.  ****!”

While I was at my last job, this was my first thought upon waking on most work days.  For all too many people, this is how they begin most of their mornings, day in and day out, for decades.  This makes for a lot of unnecessary stress, not to mention wolfing down crappy breakfasts, half-assed showering, and driving like a maniac to get to work on time.  In short, it’s no way to live.  

In the last few months, I’ve been developing a morning routine that works for me: one that leaves me feeling happy, energetic, and confident.  I wake up with time to spare, get ready without being in a huge hurry, then start working in a mental state that’s conducive to high productivity or lot’s of fun, depending on what I have scheduled for the day.  Here are the rules I follow:

Wake up with time to spare, after 7+ hours of sleep.  I wake up with plenty of time before I need to start working.  That’s easy for me because I’m self-employed and can set my own schedule.  You can follow this rule by waking up earlier, starting work later, or some combination of the two.  Either way, you need to get at least seven hours of sleep a night.  If you want to wake up earlier, that means going to sleep earlier, which is a whole big topic for another series of posts- I do give a few tips in my 5-day course though, which you can access for free by signing up for my newsletter.  I can’t give you a clear rule about how early to wake up; just make it early enough that you don’t feel rushed.  

 

Be out of bed within a half hour.  Don’t waste a ton of time lying awake in bed.  You want to be out of bed within a half hour of waking, and ideally within ten minutes.  Many people, myself included, find this difficult.  If getting out of bed is hard for you, keep a caffeine pill and a glass of water next to your bed, and take the caffeine pill as soon as you’re awake.  I find a 50mg caffeine pill and some water are all I need to be out of bed within 20 minutes.

Make your bed.  You’ll be glad of this when you get home in the evening and don’t have a chore to stress over before you can relax for the evening.  Or if you work from home like me, you’ll enjoy the benefit immediately, and all day long.    

Drink a glass of ice water once you’re out of bed.  A glass of ice water first thing in the morning is great for you, for a few reasons.  First off, you need water first thing in the morning, since you’ve just spent seven-plus hours not drinking any, and it will help you feel more energetic.  Second, thirst will cause you to overeat at breakfast, and the water will prevent this.  Third, the cold will help you to burn fat.  And fourth, the cold will boost your production of sex hormones, which is good for both libido and body composition.

Eat a high-protein, low-carb breakfast.  After making your bed and drinking your ice water, eat a small, simple breakfast with at least 30 grams of protein, some healthy fats, and few or no carbohydrates.  The protein will kickstart your metabolism for the day, while the fat will fuel your body and keep you feeling full for a long time.  Carbs, on the other hand, would make you feel groggy after the initial insulin spike- avoid them until later in the day.  You can disregard this rule if you’re following an intermittent fasting diet (which I’ll discuss in later articles), otherwise, aim to eat this breakfast within 30 minutes of waking.  

No more caffeine until after breakfast.  Drinking caffeine on an empty stomach can make you twitchy, agitated, and unfocused.  It can produce a crash later in the day, and can also kill your appetite so that you eat too little at breakfast.  Limit yourself to one caffeinated beverage, only after breakfast.  If you’re following an intermittent fasting diet, you can disregard this rule, but still need to limit caffeine on an empty stomach.    

Get anything done that would stress you out all day.  If there’s anything that you’re going to obsess over all day until it’s done, do it after breakfast.  One of the worst work/stress habits you can have is to try to do one thing with another thing eating away at the back of your mind the whole time.  Get the sources of your worries out of the way early.  

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