• Alyssa Barton

Mind Hacking: book notes

Updated: May 19, 2019


Hargrave, Sir John. (2016) Mind Hacking: How to Change Your Mind for Good in 21 Days. Gallery Books: New York, NY.


This book is hilarious and a super useful book on – you guessed it – mindfulness.

According to Simon & Schuster, Sir John Hargrave is the publisher of Bitcoin Market Journal (www.bitcoinmarketjournal.com), and a frequent speaker, teacher, and leader of the New Finance (which I read as digital currency) revolution. Sounds impressive to me.

What resonated even more for me than his credentials, nerd humor, and the giddy expertise in computer technology and programming he’s scattered throughout the book, is that Sir John’s journey into mindfulness started with alcoholism. He had me from the prologue, where two FBI agents pay him a visit to retrieve a fake credit card he took out in Barack Obama’s name as a prank. The incident resulted in him going stone sober off of drugs and alcohol to, as he puts it, save his marriage, family, and home. Before I jump into the merits of the book, I want to flag a concern: I’m not sure this book can be used in every case for addiction.

Alcohol is a nasty drug and can cause people a lot of harm, mentally and physically. I’ve written about some of the negative impacts of drinking before (for example, in my notes on Daniel Amen’s Unleash the Power of the Female Brain ), but it bears repeating that:

“Studies have shown that one drink a day increases the risk of breast cancer in women. Research has also shown that people who drink excessively have a greater risk of liver disease, heart disease, depression, stroke, and stomach bleeding, as well as cancers of the oral cavity, esophagus, larynx, pharynx, liver, colon, and rectum.” Drinking can exacerbate diabetes, high blood pressure, pain, and sleep disorders, may increase your chances for contracting STI’s, and increases your chances of being injured or even killed. https://www.rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov/How-much-is-too-much/Whats-the-harm/What-Are-The-Risks.aspx.

I know folks who have struggled and continue to struggle with alcohol use disorders and/or alcoholism, and I myself have experienced the difficulty of going sober for a diet necessitated by a health issue. Alcohol problems are super common in America today, and the definitions for these problems are blurry. For example, “alcohol use disorder” is “when a person has uncontrolled and problematic drinking,” but then alcohol use disorder is also often referred to as alcoholism. However, alcoholism is defined as “an addiction to the consumption of alcoholic liquor or the mental illness and compulsive behavior resulting from alcohol dependency.”

It’s my opinion, based on experience, observations, and reading up on the subject, labels aside: that people experience different levels of difficulty quitting alcohol. I don’t have any scientific data on this– and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it – but from what I’ve seen, our bodies and brains react to alcohol differently, along a spectrum of “problem drinking” that ranges from “not so bad” to alcohol dependent.

I’ve read about at least 3 theories or types of problem drinking that don’t all necessarily mesh, but I think that each of them is valid – what you experience will be based on your brain and body chemistry. These theories are:

1. Alcoholism as a physical addiction. Under this type of problem drinking, you’re physically dependent on the drug. Stopping use of alcohol has real and serious withdrawal consequences, from sweats and headaches to hallucinations and seizures. In this instance, the drug naltrexone has proven to be effective in stopping the brain chemicals responsible for triggering the physical urges and dependency. See, e.g., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6EghiY_s2ts

2. Alcoholism as a disease. Under this theory of problem drinking, you have a mental addiction sparked by psychological factors like feelings of loneliness, isolation, unhappiness, and what I interpret as a lack of mental resilience to better cope with pain, for lack of a better way to put it. See, e.g., this great tedtalk on why we should treat people with addictions as though they have a disease, instead of with judgment, presuming they have some type of character flaw or are sick by choice: https://www.ted.com/talks/johann_hari_everything_you_think_you_know_about_addiction_is_wrong?language=en

3. Alcoholism as a bad habit. Under this theory of problem drinking, use of alcohol really is just a bad habit that, if left unchecked, could develop into something worse. Jolene Park, a nurse, has a great ted talk on this type of what she calls “grey area drinking,” where she started to notice that drinking was leading to regrets and concern about her own health. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvCMZBA7RiA

Why did I get off on this tangent? The premise of Hargrave’s book is that he, a person addicted to drugs and alcohol, was able to achieve sobriety by “hacking” his mind using brain games and tricks to rewire his thoughts. While this might work for some folks closer towards the “not so bad” end of the problem-drinker-spectrum, it seems unlikely to me that it will be a silver bullet for those that are dependent.

Super long tangent aside, though I wouldn’t market it as an alcoholism cure-all, the book is an incredible resource whether or not you’re struggling with a substance use issue. As Hargrave puts it: “Think of the problems you’re facing in your life – whether that’s work, finances, health, relationships, kids – and reflect on how much time you spend thinking about them. If you hate that sense of obsessive worry and anxious doubt, then mind hacking is for you. You’ll learn how to debug the negative thought loops that are keeping you stuck, to untangle your spaghetti mess of thinking.” (p. 10).

Hargrave’s mind hacking technique is “a blend of creative and technical skills, an art and a science.” (p. 22). The process requires analysis (identifying the source of the “bug” in your mind causing negative thought loops), imagining (coming up with a better, more positive and productive thought loop in line with who you want to be and how you want to live), and reprogramming (changing your beliefs, habits, and life outcomes by replacing negative thought loops with positive ones). Easy enough, right?

You need to fundamentally understand and accept some Buddhist principles to jive with this thought loop replacement process. The first principle is that you are not your mind, and that your mind is more like an untrained dog that will run around and around a tree or knock you over if you don’t train it properly. The second principle is that we are living in an attention economy. While the Buddha might not have come up with this concept, I’m sure he’d agree: we’re living in a world where corporations, marketers and advertisers profit off of our attention via email, text, social media, the internet, television, and other daily distractions. It is in our best interest to tightly control what we pay attention to. This feeds into the final principle: that multi-tasking is not mentally healthy. Developing your concentration, and having a self-disciplined mind, is mentally healthier than engaging in behaviors that encourage a short attention span.

Because of these foundational principles, Hargrave starts off encouraging readers to cut off distracting devices and spend at least 20 minutes a day meditating. He offers several meditation techniques to try out, which he calls “concentration exercises” that will help you reclaim your attention and retrain your concentration. (P. 55). But we know its just mindful breathing.

The next step in mind hacking is to identify negative and destructive thought loops and learn to debug them. These negative thought loops are stories our brain tells us that are self-defeating, like “I would be happier if I had a drink” or I will never find true love.” (P. 76). There are a few methods he teaches that you can use to identify the source of these negative loops, and the main one that calls to me is the “5 Whys.”


Initially used by Sakichi Toyoda in Japan to identify the source of manufacturing problems, the “5 Whys” technique is simple. When a problem arises, ask “why” five times (or as many times as needed) to discover the root cause of any problem. By repeatedly asking “why” you might get down to a structural or system wide problem far down the chain from where the initial problem appeared. When it comes to perceived problems you are experiencing in your life, using the 5 Whys process can uncover some hidden negative thought loops that might be causing you pain, unnecessarily. For example, someone might approach a problem as follows:

  1. “I can’t get along with my bosses. Why?

  2. Sometimes I’m insubordinate. Why?

  3. Now that I think about it, it’s more like I don’t want to be forced to do something I don’t believe in. Why?

  4. Because I had to do that a lot growing up. I hated that my father was so dominating. Why?

  5. Because it made me feel like I can’t be trusted to make my own decisions.”

(P. 79).

Using this example, Hargrave shows how you can identify hidden issues within your brain – negative thoughts that may have been wired in since childhood - that can be reprogrammed. The first step is to uncover the negative thought loop. The next step is to interrupt it when you recognize that your brain is telling you this false story, i.e, the “I can’t be trusted to make my own decisions” story. The third step is to pivot and ultimately replace the negative thought loop with something positive that combats it, like: “I am reliable, intelligent, I make great choices and people trust me.” By repeating a positive thought loop (for example, as a daily affirmation), and pivoting to it each time the negative thought loop pops up, you can “debug” or “hack” your mind so that the positive ultimately replaces the negative.

Another fun and rewarding practice Hargrave supports is visualization, assuming the law of attraction really works. Chapter 2.2 covers techniques to imagine your “best possible future” by asking yourself simple questions:

  • What do you want?

  • What do you want your life to look like in 10 years – what is the best possible outcome?

  • Specifically, in ten years, “Where will you live? What will you do for work? For fun? Will you have a partner? What kinds of friends will you have? How much money will you have?...” etc. (P. 106)

Spend some time thinking these questions through – imagining scenarios in depth, getting into the specifics and details, and asking yourself what would really make you happy. Many people don’t give much thought to what’s going to happen tomorrow or next week, let alone in 10 years. But to live a fulfilling life, you need to start thinking about what you want and need to feel fulfilled. To identify core values, the author poses 5 questions that you can ponder:

  • What mood do you want to have?

  • What is one main thing you’ve always wanted to do?

  • What is THE one thing you’d like to have?

  • What is the one thing you’d like to contribute to the world?, and

  • What is the one adjective you’d like to be remembered by?

(P. 113)

In addition to using your imagination to visualize the future life you want to live and who you want to be, Hargrave advocates for other activities – all used by famous, historic and present successful people – to develop positive thought loops and ultimately manifest them, to become the person you want to be. These include using writing to document and track your good habits, the use of repetition methods to hammer your goals in until they are internalized (i.e., leaving post-it notes around your home as reminders, putting X’s on a calendar each day you achieve your goal, and mentally repeating positive thought loops to yourself while smiling), and mentally simulating events and outcomes the way you want them to be. Finally, as one of the final phases of mind hacking, Hargrave demonstrates how collaboration with others, and helping others to achieve their goals, is a way to help yourself.

You may have heard of many of the practices in Mind Hacking before. I had. But what I found unique is the suggestion that we can build these practices into our daily routines in a methodical, prescriptive way that advances until you reach the ultimate goal: rewiring your brain. The book gets a strong recommend from me.

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©2020 by Alyssa Barton