The Power of Placebo: This Is What Happens When You Believe You’re Taking Steroids

Fifteen athletes were scattered around the room. Everyone was looking at Gideon Ariel.

“We’re going to give you steroids,” he lied.

It was 1972 and Ariel was conducting a study on athletic performance with his research partner William Saville. On this particular day, the two men were offering the athletes an interesting proposition.

Ariel explained that the study would last for 11 weeks. The athletes would lift weights for the first 7 weeks and those who made the most improvement during that period would be rewarded with Dianabol, an anabolic steroid, for the final 4 weeks of training.

What the athletes didn’t know was that the researchers were lying to them. After the initial 7-week training period, the scientists randomly selected six athletes as the winners. However, despite being told they were getting real steroids, the athletes actually received placebo pills.

What happened next surprised everyone.
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Two Harvard Professors Reveal One Reason Our Brains Love to Procrastinate

Sometime around 2006, two Harvard professors began to study why we procrastinate. Why do we avoid doing the things we know we should do, even when it’s clear that they are good for us?

To answer this question, the two professors — Todd Rogers and Max Bazerman — conducted a study where participants were asked whether they would agree to enroll in a savings plan that automatically placed two percent of their paycheck in a savings account.

Nearly every participant agreed that saving money was a good idea, but their behavior said otherwise:

  • One version of the question asked participants to enroll in the savings plan as soon as possible. In this scenario, only 30 percent of people said they would agree to enroll in the plan.
  • In another version of the question, participants were asked to enroll in a savings plan in the distant future (like a year from today). In this scenario, 77 percent of people said they would agree to enroll in the plan.

Why did the timeline alter their responses so much?

As it turns out, this little experiment can tell us a lot about why we procrastinate on behaviors that we know we should do.
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How to Stop Procrastinating and Boost Your Willpower by Using “Temptation Bundling”

Like many people, Katy Milkman knew she should be exercising more.

But each day she left her job as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania feeling exhausted and drained. By the time she made it home, all she wanted to do was curl up on the couch and read a book or turn on her favorite TV show. On this particular day, she wanted to read The Hunger Games.

That’s when she had an idea.

What if she created a rule for herself? What if she was only allowed to read The Hunger Games when she went to the gym?
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Lessons From a Vexillonaire: Creativity, Simplicity, and the Carefully Constrained Life

The flag of Chicago is widely regarded as one of the best city flags in the United States, perhaps in the world. It is certainly one of the most popular. You’ll find the flag of Chicago printed on t-shirts and mugs, tattooed on local musicians, and flying along streets, over rivers, and above doors throughout the city.

The flag has three white bars and two blue stripes. The white areas represent the three main sides of the city: North, West, and South. The blue stripes stand for the north and south branches of the Chicago River flowing into Lake Michigan. In the center of the flag, there are four red stars symbolizing historical events in the city like the Great Chicago Fire.
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Fast Growth is Overrated

We live in a world obsessed with what we do.

  • What did you earn from your job last year?
  • What place did your team finish in the standings?
  • What trophy did you win? What award did you get? What measure of social status did you receive?

In moderation, this focus on what is fine. I like getting results just as much as the next person. I like performing well. I like being on top of my game. Achievement can be a good thing.

However, our obsessive focus on what we’re winning can also blind us from understanding how, precisely, people become winners. If you focus too much on the finish line, you miss the strategy going on during the race.

As I continue to study top performers from all areas of life – athletes, artists, entrepreneurs, and more – I’ve begun to see similar patterns emerge among these people. Today, we’re going to venture to the world of weightlifting to uncover one of these patterns.

The Incredible Success of Yuri Vardanyan

Yuri Vardanyan is widely considered one of the greatest olympic weightlifters of all-time. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Vardanyan routinely set world records in the sport and his run of success from 1977 to 1985 is stunning. 1

Here are Vardanyan’s results at the World Weightlifting Championships and the Olympic Games during that time span:

  • 1977 World Championships – Gold
  • 1978 World Championships – Gold
  • 1979 World Championships – Gold
  • 1980 Olympics – Gold
  • 1981 World Championships – Gold
  • 1982 World Championships – Silver
  • 1983 World Championship – Gold
  • 1985 World Championship – Gold

Now for the important question:

What methods did Vardanyan use to achieve such an incredible run of success? Are there any lessons we can learn from him and apply to our own lives?
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Footnotes
  1. Despite being the gold medal favorite, Yuri Vardanyan did not compete at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles because the Soviet Union boycotted the Olympics along with 14 other countries.

Famous Biologist Louis Agassiz on the Usefulness of Learning Through Observation

Louis Agassiz, the famous Swiss biologist, placed a fish specimen on the table in front of his post-graduate student.

“That’s only a sunfish,” the student said.

“I know that,” Agassiz replied.

He continued, “Write a description of it. Find out what you can without damaging the specimen. When I think that you have done the work I will question you.” 1
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Footnotes
  1. This story about Agassiz has been told by two different sources. First, in The Autobiography of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, who was a student of Agassiz. Second, in Ezra Pound’s classic book, The ABC of Reading (Kindle). Pound’s version is known as the Parable of the Sunfish and deviates slightly from the original sources. I’ve done my best to represent Agassiz accurately here.

How to Fall in Love With Boredom and Unlock Your Mental Toughness

Whether we are talking about athletes, artists, or academics, the story is the same. If you want to fulfill your potential then you must practice a specific skill for a long time with remarkable consistency. Mastery is never an accident.

Somehow, top performers in any craft figure out a way to fall in love with boredom, put in their reps, and do the work.

Of course, whenever “experts” share stories about successful people they often leave out a key ingredient of the story. How, exactly, do top performers fall in love with boredom? Perhaps more important, how can you fall in love with boredom when you’re trying to build a habit that you know you should do, but you don’t really want to do.

Let me share two strategies that work for me.
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What I Do When I Feel Like Giving Up

I am struggling today. If you’ve ever struggled to be consistent with something you care about, maybe my struggle will resonate with you too.

It has been 939 days since November 12, 2012. That’s the date when I first published an article on JamesClear.com and it’s almost 2 years and 7 months ago. During these 939 mostly glorious, sometimes frustrating days, I have written a new post every Monday and Thursday. Week after week. Month after month. Year after year.

But today? Well, today I am struggling. Today, I don’t feel like writing. Today, I don’t feel like sticking to the routine. Today, I don’t feel like I have any great ideas and I don’t feel like I have enough time to make the good ideas great. Today, I feel like giving up.

Research from the University of Pennsylvania has shown that grit is the characteristic linked most closely to success. I could use some grit today.

Here’s what I try to remind myself of when I feel like giving up…
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Inside the Mind of a Mad Scientist: The Incredible Importance of Personal Science

For decades the world’s greatest doctors and researchers had believed that stomach ulcers and, eventually, stomach cancers were caused by stress, spicy foods, and too much acid in the stomach.

Barry Marshall wasn’t buying it. Marshall was an Australian physician and microbiology researcher and he believed that stomach ulcers were not merely the byproduct of a hectic life or an overly spicy dinner. Instead, he believed ulcers were caused by bacteria. More specifically, Marshall believed ulcers were caused by Helicobacter pylori.

There was, however, a problem with this theory:
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