Mental Hygiene 101

posted in: How to human | 3

Regular readers have recently been subjected to a series of articles on economics, ethics and generally abstract subjects, so I feel like I should bribe you guys with another piece of practical advice (given this is what most people are coming here for), before resuming the moral-political redemption of humankind.

TLDR version: Mental hygiene starts with physical hygiene. By cleaning up and taking care of yourself, you’re engaging in a sort of symbolical catharsis that has powerful psychological effects.

This is one of these surprisingly high-impact things that are kinda obvious in retrospect, and game-changing when experienced.

To be honest, I was kind of ambivalent about even posting this, but then I remembered people write international bestsellers of equal or lesser value, including ones whose entire point is covered in this free article. So reservations turned into moral duty. (Also, man, I should write a book, or sixteen.)

This is hands down the best way I’ve found for getting yourself out of a funk, whether a multi-year rut, or just defusing a random shitday.

At any rate, try this:

Step one: Clean your home from the bottom up – dusting, mopping, vacuuming, washing the windows, doing the dishes and making the bathroom sparkle. We’re talking “oh shit, mother in law is coming for Christmas” level of cleaning, the whole package. Then do your laundry, and put fresh linens on your bed. This will become important later.

There is a feedback loop between your surroundings and your mind – and here’s the trick, it works both ways. Your living space mirrors you because you’re creating it, but your mind also mirrors your environment.

(By the way, this is why I believe in totally judging a book by the cover – self-presentation is a direct expression of identity.)

This back-and-forth between mind and environment is a mixed blessing that needs to be actively managed – it can be a problem, because people who feel like shit usually make their surroundings look like shit, which makes them feel like shit further. It’s the broken windows theory on a personal scale – messiness and dilapidation encourage further deterioration.

It’s hard to pick yourself up when you see, walk around and step into twenty five hundred reminders of your inability to function like a normal human being on your way from the couch to the bathroom.

However, it is equally possible to consciously use environmental cues as a potent hacking interface for your mind. Wishing yourself into a better mood doesn’t work, because it’s like trying to open a door with a key that’s behind it, but you can manipulate your mental states by fixing your environment. Probably, twenty years of meditation can help too, but this is faster and easier for most people.

Every glance across your living room tells you who you are – either a person who is in control of your own life, or not. The key realization is that your subconscious notices and internalizes these signals all the time. So better make them helpful.



So yeah, clean your place.

By the way, there’s a good case for making your bed first thing in the morning, because then you start the day by doing something right, and you’re primed to do the next thing right as well, and the next.

(At this point, we’re also employing loss aversion: you just want to keep building on the progress you already made.)

Regular readers might recognize this as momentum-building.

This whole interplay of mind and environment (and interplay it is) is a yuuuuuge thing.

Step two: personal grooming – we’re talking scrubbing yourself from head to toe, shaving everything that your sex and genetic predispositions require you shave, brushing, flossing and mouthwash, manicure and pedicure, a “you’re getting married to the (wo)man of your dreams in ten fucking minutes” level of making yourself your best.

Actually pamper yourself – like, put moisturizer on your face, trim nose hairs, give yourself a face mask if you’re a lady (or even a fabulous dude), the whole package. The more you go above the scope of your routine, the better it will work.

There’s a special sub-hack at work here, in addition to the obvious continuation of the cleanup on another front:

Human brains famously suck at correctly judging causes and effects, and above all else, detest incongruence and cognitive dissonance. Because people who love themselves usually take good care of their bodies, you can confuse your brain into making you love yourself more by taking good care of your body, even if you didn’t feel like it at first.

When you trigger a state of cognitive dissonance by doing something you really, really, really didn’t feel like doing, your brain reconciles in the only way it can – by changing your mental state to be backwards-compatible with what you just did.

Since the act cannot be undone, the only way your brain can restore congruence is by changing your attitudes, emotions and beliefs. So it does.

Instead of basing actions on pre-existing mental states, you force yourself to do the action first, which produces the mental state. This is an idea we have explored before.

In this case, we’re just using this principle to help you love yourself more.

Self-respect -> Self-care 

but also

Self-care -> Self-respect.

There’s an idealist notion floating around that thought somehow shapes reality, when it’s actually usually the other way around: we invent mental models and experience mental states to justify and be congruent with what we already did for completely different (and often unknown to ourselves) reasons. Far from being rational actors, we are rationalizers.

For example, this is me about three times a week:

1. Don’t feel like running. Like, at ALL.
2. Put on running shoes.
3. Suddenly feel like running.


1. Don’t like self too much.
2. Take good care of self.
3. Like self a lot.

When you do something that is incongruent with your mental state, then your mental state will change to be congruent with what you did.

I’m pretty sure there’s an entire method of psychotherapy waiting to be developed in this.

It almost feels like cheating when you realize and start using this. It’s literally reprogramming yourself. (And by the way, also others. All sorts of actors from intelligence agencies to cults use this technique copiously in recruitment and manipulation. The finale of 1984 uses it. I suspect it’s how Stockholm syndrome works, too).

The trick is using sufficiently small triggers that don’t look binding and thereby bypass your personal Change Resistance Troll. Hey, there’s no commitment in just putting on running shoes, is there? And badum-tss, it works and suddenly you’re fifteen miles out and still accelerating.

And in the second example, your brain will go “hmm, guess I must have great self-esteem when I just took such great care of myself, even brazilian-waxing my genitalia”. It might not have been true before, but you made it true by acting like it was.

Here’s a bombshell: cargo cult logic and magical thinking actually work within the human mind. Not in the outside world, but within your mind, you can totally start from simulating effects and use that to bring about what are normally their causes. Inverted causality is completely normal psychologically. I suspect the fact human minds work like this is deeply complicit in the prevalence of superstitious thinking across cultures, which simply fails to properly compartmentalize the mechanisms as being strictly psychological (typically because said cultures lack the distinction between psychological and physical to begin with).

Yes, our brains are weird.

And after you cleaned your place and pampered your body, you get into your bed with fresh linens and you’re clean and perfect and on top of feeling physically amazing, you realize you got a ton done and will wake up in a better place tomorrow (both physically and psychologically).

Bonus tip:

Fill your personal space with reminders of your victories and awesomeness. For example, there’s a marathon medal hanging right next to my bed, and it’s the first thing I see every morning.

So what if I only ran one marathon. That shiny fucker is telling me first thing every day that I took a chubby guy who couldn’t run 200 meters without falling over, and turned him into a chiseled example of manhood who completed a marathon in the fucking Swiss Alps, two altitude kilometers up a massive mountain I would once have struggled to conquer while riding a funicular.

There also used to be a picture on my bedside table (since replaced for reasons of c’est la vie) of me and a fine young lady near the summit of Mont Blanc, which we climbed on a whim, turning back only like 300m from the top (safe turnaround time, ended up walking down all the way to fucking Chamonix anyway, through a pitch-black forest for the last hour). There was no upfront plan beyond “let’s see how far we can get, and turn back anytime it would be too much or late”. Being reminded of this is also incredibly salutary: “Heh, I might feel a bit under the weather right now, but I guess I’m kind of a badass. Or insane. But yeah.”

I’m not saying this to impress you, but to reinforce the point that you should be impressing yourself. If you aren’t, start now.

At least avoid humiliating yourself in your own eyes.

Your grandfather’s trusty old rifle hanging over the fireplace … I totally get it.

Medals, art and photos of your favorite memories > dirty underwear, old pizza and cum tissues.

P.S. Also when you have a nice clean place, people are more likely to sleep with you. Including people who live with you.

If you like people sleeping with you, you should buy me a coffee, because there is no connection between the first and second part of this sentence.