How I Made it 21 Days With No Food
When Mahatma Gandhi broke his 21-day fast, having restored independence and peace to India through the simple act of not eating, it is said that he slowly sipped a half cup of orange juice, diluted with water, over the course of half an hour. Those around him — his advisers, reporters, family and friends — sipped juice with him, in complete silence.
This morning, in honor of the master, I took my first sip of orange juice, diluted with water. There was no silence, however, because I immediately screamed with joy. “ORANGE-GASM!” I cried.
Seriously. You have no idea how good orange juice tastes.
My experiment was to endure 21 days with no food, to promote the principle of mindfulness. I wanted to show that ordinary people can do extraordinary things by harnessing the power of their minds, using mental techniques I call “mind hacking” (check out the book here).
At times, I felt like a master craftsman, with a workshop full of mental tools that I could use for different problems and temptations. I would reach for the right tool whenever I was struck with hunger or weakness, which was pretty much all the time. I’ve recapped some of these tools — or “hacks” — in my previous updates:
- Why I Am Going 21 Days Without Food
- 21 Days Without Food: Week 1 Update (with photos)
- 21 Days Without Food: Week 2 Update (with photos)
- 21 Days Without Food: Week 3 Update (with photos)
These mind hacks are easy-to-use techniques that you can use to accomplish your own big goals, whether that’s starting a business, finding a better job, or creating new positive habits. Coming out of this experiment, I am more convinced than ever that the obstacles to your success are largely in your own mind. Here’s how to hack your way out of them.
Mind Hack: I Think I Can
On the first day of my 21-Day experiment, I ran a 5K road race.
My family does a “Fun Run” every New Year’s Day, and I wasn’t yet hungry, so I ran the race with my nine-year-old. About halfway through, Luke got tired and started telling me he couldn’t complete the race. I told him that saying “I can’t do it” was draining his willpower battery, and he should try telling himself, “I can do it.” Within minutes, his attitude had completely changed, and he enthusiastically finished the race, proclaiming, “Now I understand why people like running!”
This, of course, is the mind hack from The Little Engine That Could: “I think I can.” As simple and cheesy as it sounds, I swear to you that it works. Going into the 21-day experiment with the attitude of “I can do this” made all the difference. The last three weeks were difficult, to be sure, but I never doubted myself.
Believing that you are capable, through the simple repetition of the phrase, “I can do this,” is incredibly powerful. Next time you doubt yourself, try it.
Mind Hack: Tiny Goals
Another hack we used on our New Year’s Fun Run was to give Luke small goals: “run to that stop sign,” “run to that mailbox.” Small, Achievable Subgoals (SAS) is the way to hack your mind into achieving the Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals (BHAG). Remember: SAS = BHAG.
I tell the story of endurance artist David Blaine in my book Mind Hacking, and how he trains for his high-stamina stunts. Here’s a guy who has been encased inside a block of ice, buried underneath a 3-ton tank of water, and sealed inside a Plexiglas case dangling over the River Thames for a month and a half. Here’s how he prepares for these events:
“I make tons of weird goals for myself. Like, when I’m jogging in the park in the bike lane, whenever I go over a drawing of a biker, I have to step on it. And not just step on it — I have to hit the head of the biker perfectly with my foot, so that it fits right under my sneaker. Getting your brain wired into little goals and achieving them, that helps you achieve the bigger things you shouldn’t be able to do.”
(David Blaine, as quoted in Roy Baumeister and John Tierney’s Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.)
Each day, I would merely try to make it through one day, not the entire 21 days. If that seemed like too much, I would try to make it through one hour, or one minute, or just one moment if necessary. That’s why the motto of 12-step groups is “one day at a time”: Anyone can accomplish a tiny goal, and those tiny goals add up.
Mind Hack: This Moment
Sometimes, the physical discomfort was nearly unbearable. I’d be lying in bed, shivering with cold and hunger, not wanting to stand up lest I faint. In those moments, a helpful mind hack was, “What am I experiencing in this moment?”
The answer might be, “The fabric of the bedspread,” or “A sensation of emptiness,” or “The thought of food.” You just answer the question, then ask it again. Every time, the answer is different, because every moment is different.
I discovered something fascinating with this hack: any moment is endurable. No matter how bad things get, you can always live through this moment, because you’re already in it! The true terror is the projection of the future: the thought that things will always be this bad, which of course they won’t. Things change. Eventually, the storm clouds roll away.
Next time you’re feeling depressed, hopeless, or afraid of the future, use this hack. All you have to do is live through the present moment, which you’re already doing. In this moment, the problem is already solved. It’s a total perspective shift.
Mind Hack: The Mirror Effect
Last year, my wife broke her shoulder. It took her several months to recover, and she spent a great deal of time in pain and physical therapy. But whenever I asked her how she was feeling, she would unfailingly respond, “I’m feeling better and better.”
Not once did I hear her complain about the pain, the sling, the exercises. It was always some variation of a positive response: “It’s stronger every day,” or “It’s healing quickly.” It was inspiring. For some folks, her injury leads to frozen shoulder, where you can’t lift your arms over your head for the rest of your life. Within a few months, she enjoyed a full recovery.
I made it my goal to respond with the same level of perfect optimism during my 21-day experiment. People constantly asked me how I was feeling. The smart-ass response would be, “STARVING.” But instead, I always responded, “I feel surprisingly good!”
I noticed a strange “bounceback effect” that happens every day, whether you’re aware of it or not. When people ask you how you’re doing, and you reply, “My back hurts and I got a terrible night’s sleep,” they say to themselves, “Oh, that’s too bad.” They feel sorry for you. That shows up in their faces, and is immediately reflected back to you, thus reinforcing your sorry state.
If, instead, you say, “I’m excited about today,” they get just a tiny bit brighter. Your enthusiasm makes them curious, and a little bit more excited themselves. That also is immediately reflected back to you, thus reinforcing your positive attitude.
If I replied, “I feel terrible,” I would get the bounceback body language, “Poor John. Why is he doing this to himself?” They’d frown and feel sorry for me. When I replied, “I feel terrific,” it would catch them off guard. They’d smile and say, “Is he for real? Maybe this crazy bastard is on to something.”
And the crazier thing was, it worked. Even if I didn’t legitimately feel good when I said it, saying it usually made me feel better. I really did feel surprisingly good.
Every person around you is a mirror, reflecting back to you your own chosen mental state. It’s a human feedback loop. If you want to feel better, tell people you’re feeling better. If you want to feel awesome, tell people you’re feeling awesome. Don’t hold back. Pour positive energy toward the other person, and it comes back to you like a giant reflective satellite dish.
Mind Hack: Breathe
I have new respect for the power of breathing correctly.
Most of the time, we are terrible breathers. We hunch over our computer keyboards, our shoulders slumped, struggling to suck enough air into the top quadrant of our lungs.
Try this now: sit up straight, and focus on breathing from the belly — from the abdomen — filling your lungs from the bottom up to the top. Have you ever seen a baby breathe? The baby’s belly rises and falls, in deep abdominal breathing, the way our bodies were designed.
Try this for ten breaths, picturing life-giving oxygen pouring into your lungs and nourishing your muscles and tissues and brain. Ten breaths. Stop reading and try it now.
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I am not exaggerating when I say, Breathing was my food. Every day at lunchtime, instead of eating I would take a brisk walk outside, just focusing on this simple breathing exercise. I’d do it again during the supper hour, and it felt terrific. I felt so charged and refreshed that I’m committed to making this a part of my lifestyle going forward.
This NPR story outlines the research on how deep, focused breathing has been “scientifically proven to affect the heart, the brain, digestion, the immune system.” I’m not getting all Breatharian on you here, I’m just telling you that breathing is one of the simplest hacks you can use to improve your daily performance.
The best part is, breathing is easy and free. Just carve out one or two moments of your day to step aside and focus on your breathing. Or download one of those apps that blacks out your computer at preset intervals, forcing you to take a “breathing break.” It feels freaking fantastic.
Mind Hack: Nourish Others
I cooked for my family every night.
They felt terrible about it, but I wanted to cook for them. It is difficult to explain, but the act of cooking was nourishing for me.
First, I was motivated to make everything taste as amazing as I possibly could. I was cooking on raw instinct, pulling together flavor combinations I never would have imagined while eating. “Sun-dried tomatoes?!” I would exclaim. “Yes, please!” (The world’s top chefs should just do an extended fast.)
The smell of the cooking food, and imagining the nourishment that the food would bring, seemed to replenish me as well. Sitting with the family at the dinner table, sipping my seltzer water, brought me comfort. For them, it was probably slightly creepy, like the Three Little Pigs finding out the waiter is the Wolf, but it was nice for me.
Speaking of fables, my son Isaac reminded me of the story of a man who makes a bet that he can survive an entire night outside, naked, in the dead of winter. He secretly arranges with a friend to build a roaring fire on a distant mountaintop. As the man shivers uncontrollably through the night, he keeps his concentration focused on the fire, imagining the warmth that it is giving off, which keeps him alive through the night.
That illustrates the point of this 21-day experiment perfectly: the mind has real control over the body. And we can magnify the laser-like power of our minds when we focus on nourishing others.
And now, speaking of nourishment, it’s time to eat an entire farmer’s market. I’ll see you in about two weeks.
Sir John Hargrave is the author of Mind Hacking: How to Change Your Mind for Good in 21 Days, now available worldwide. Click to read the followup…