Niraj Shah is the co-founder of Mind: Unlocked, the new solution that integrates evidence-based mental wellbeing and mindset optimisation tools into your busy 21st century life.
In this interview, Niraj reveals how having suffered a serious stroke at the age of 30 left him with no choice but to cultivate an “obsession” with improving his wellbeing, brain function and vitality.
Niraj also gives some tips and tricks to use if you’re just getting started with meditation – and why it’s crucial to experiment with different practices before choosing the right one for you.
He also delivers a fascinating insight into his views on the problem of ‘digital balance’ in the 21st century.
Niraj explains how big technology platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Netflix are not set up in a “fair and transparent” way, and he reveals how they exploit our psychological vulnerabilities.
He also provides some simple hacks we can use to take back control of our screen time and digital lives.
It was really great to spend some time with Niraj and download some of the wisdom he’s acquired from his inspiring journey!
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Niraj, thanks for taking the time to speak to Human Window. Tell us a little bit about your new start-up, Mind: Unlocked.
At Mind: Unlocked, what we do is help people solve everyday mental wellbeing problems, like dealing with stress, sleeping better or having a better relationship with technology.
But the way that we do that is through a very evidence-based and practical approach. We do this through events and have started building our own tech products. That’s what we’re all about.
What prompted you to found the company and what’s your story up until this point?
I’ll give you the brief overview and then we can delve into it if that’s something we want to do.
In my 20s, I had a work-hard/play-hard type lifestyle, like many of us do. I felt very indestructible with it, but when I got to my late 20s, I started becoming interested in health and well being.
I started going to the gym and cleaning up my food, along with all the things we need to do because we can’t get away with them any more.
The irony is that after a good year of that process, at the age of 30 and out of nowhere, I had a very serious stroke. It was a cerebellar infarct, which basically means the part of my brain which controls balance and some motor function was completely knocked out. I was incredibly fortunate to have made a recovery from that.
That incident took my interest in health to an absolute obsession with wellbeing, brain function and vitality.
First of all, I needed to understand what the hell had happened to me. When they told me I’d had a stroke, I didn’t even know what that was, except that it happens to older people.
The second thing was that they didn’t find what the cause was. So that meant that I needed to now do everything within my power to minimize the chance of it happening again.
With that kind of brain injury, in the first year to two years, the recurrence incidence is actually very high. So for me, it was about how I could reduce those odds. I also knew that I would be very lucky to make a full or near-full recovery.
So that’s what set me off on this path. Then ironically, around that time, I was looking to leave my corporate job and start a business anyway, as it was something I’d wanted to do for a long, long time.
I’d been spending my evening and weekends researching and learning – and I wanted to do something in health and technology.
I recovered, worked for a couple of start-ups to get experience. I also worked on my own projects on the side, and then at the end of a year-and-a-half, I’d got absolutely nowhere with it.
I had the deep frustration of being a first-time entrepreneur and not knowing what to do.
So I turned to Real Estate out of desperation. I had no interest in it, but I knew it was a very logical place to go. I’d been investing in stuff for quite a long time as a side-hobby, so I knew that the market conditions were ripe to do something.
That was my first business, the first one that actually worked. That taught me everything about entrepreneurship and it went reasonably well.
From there, I co-founded a Real Estate technology business, and that brought me back into technology.
I got to a point where I fundamentally wasn’t interested in Real Estate but I was interested in working with great people and doing great deals to make our customers really happy.
I thought that I was at a point where I could have some freedom to step away from it and actually do something in health and technology like I wanted to in the first place.
That process basically led to Mind: Unlocked. I went through a process of mentoring other entrepreneurs in the wellness industry to learn about it, looking at a whole load of things. I knew that this space of wellbeing and the mind was where I wanted to be, so that’s where it started from.
The reason I’ve gone into that depth is to talk about these ideas and how they were pretty much forced upon me.
My mission now is to make these things I’ve learnt more accessible so that everyday folks don’t need to have a stroke before benefitting from them.
I’ve heard you describe meditation as a ‘secret advantage’ for you. What do you mean by that?
Where this all came from – and this is the case for my co-founder Jessica Warren and me both – is that meditation has been huge in our lives, starting when we had very busy corporate jobs.
What I mean by a ‘secret advantage’ is that we see meditation as a foundational mental wellbeing habit. It’s a singular activity that has multiple benefits.
The way that I came to meditation is that post-stroke, my neurologist was really ahead of his time. He said that until you’ve made a full physical recovery, you’re only allowed to do Yoga.
So I started doing Yoga again. I’d had some childhood practice, being of Indian origin. As soon as I started Yoga, I absolutely loved it. That led to dabbling in meditation.
Then a couple of years into my first business, things were going pretty well but it was very overwhelming and I had lots going on in my life. It got to a point where I just couldn’t sleep.
I was having some pretty bad insomnia and that’s what led me to go from being a dabbler in meditation to being committed to meditation.
Somebody I knew suggested that I should just commit to meditation rather than just dabbling in it and use it to help me sleep.
The first day, my sleep got a little bit better. The next night it got a little bit better and within a few days, the insomnia was gone.
First of all, I was super-relieved. But secondly, I’m actually quite skeptical, logical and analytical. Number one, I wanted to know what else meditation could do for me, if it had helped with my sleep? Number two, what was the evidence base, what’s the research like?
I’m not that interested in somebody just telling me that it’s been around for thousands of years so it must be relevant, because I find that to be a flawed and illogical argument.
When I started really exploring meditation, I just found that it made me a way better entrepreneur because I could focus better, which is a challenge in the world that we live in.
It meant that I could deal with stress responses much faster. It also really improved my relationships because it meant that I suddenly started becoming more present and becoming an active listener.
All of those thing really help when you’re negotiating, trying to make deals, and then outside of work, with personal relationships and that side of things.
When we talk about meditation being a foundational benefit, it has those benefits around stress and anxiety, sleep, focus and even creativity.
That’s partly why we go on about meditation so much.
Do you have any tips for someone who’s just starting out and looking to improve their meditation practice?
Yeah, for sure. I think one of the frustrations we have is that we see a lot of conflicting advice in the meditation space. That’s not really very helpful, and a lot of it is not based on anything.
I know that there are some meditation folks who might find that a little bit offensive, but what I mean is that it’s not based on objective data.
Admittedly, we take a really practical approach to meditation at Mind: Unlocked. So we don’t really look at the spiritual side of things, even though those things are there.
In terms of advice, I think the most important thing is that it needs to be treated a bit like exercise or sports. It’s an umbrella term for a number of different things.
Just because one meditation session didn’t work or you don’t feel it did anything, it’s really important to try a variety of different meditative techniques. They are as different for the mind as boxing is to swimming or to running.
One of the things is experimenting to find types of meditation that you particularly like. The other is because it seems like this simple thing, we equate that it should be easy.
Actually, it’s not easy and it’s understanding that trying to meditate for half an hour if you haven’t really done much meditation before is the equivalent is deciding that you’re going to do a weights session for two hours if you’ve never been to the gym before.
So I think it’s really important to start small. There are some really good apps out there. Our favorite is Insight Timer because it has such a wide variety of meditations on it and it’s also free to access.
There are also misconceptions about how we need to be in this zen lotus position. That’s great for Instagram. I have a lot of fake meditation photos like that. But the reality is that the only important thing is to be comfortable in a place that you can find some relative stillness for a period of time.
The other big issue is that we just don’t know if we’re doing it right – and that takes a bit of guidance and practice.
What I would say is that if somebody commits to meditation for two or three weeks and meditates for 10 minutes a day, you will probably start to notice the benefits.
Once you start to notice the benefits yourself, then it doesn’t matter what the evidence says. Once we know something is doing us good, we do more of it. There will be a point where you will know [it’s working] and that you were about to react with anger or something else.
It’s not about becoming more zen, it’s about becoming more resourceful so that we can choose the way we react to suit our goals and needs better than how we instinctively react.
It’s about creating a space between the stimulus and the response. But it’s not even a conscious thing.
What typically happens is that somebody realizes later that they would have reacted in that pattern but they didn’t, because they’re more conscious of what’s going on. That’s a difficult thing to describe until you experience it.
So would you say that you’re here to help the ‘meditation skeptics’ get a programme in place so they can start to experience the benefits?
Very much so. First of all, I’m in that group. I love the wellness industry but I know that the way I am is that I need to understand the robustness behind something to really put my time and effort into it.
We started it as an events thing. I arranged a couple of events to see what would happen and who would come. The people who came were very much like myself and a bit like Jessica as well, in that they would describe themselves as pragmatic, practical and wanting to integrate things into very busy 21st century lives.
They were also a little bit skeptical about some of the claims. We just went one layer deeper to look at what some of these claims say rather than taking them at face value.
Another thing you’re big on is the idea of finding a ‘digital balance’ in the modern world. Could you give us your take on it?
This is my nerd-out subject, it’s where I spend a lot of my time learning.
A couple of years ago, I knew that my relationship with technology was not a good one. I couldn’t explain to you what that was, but I knew I wanted to change it.
Whenever this subject comes up, most people have a reaction of ‘I need to do less of’. Whether it’s picking up the phone, whether it’s email, whether it’s video games or Netflix. Most people know that the way they’re behaving is not how they want to behave.
So we instinctively know that something’s not right. It started with fixing my own tech habits and doing some research. I wanted to find out what was happening at a brain-chemistry level.
Technology exploits our psychological vulnerabilities. That’s a quote from Tristan Harris, who’s an ex-Google employee who has now become one of the most vocal people in the fight for making technology fairer.
Technology is amazing. We run a tech business and I have every gadget under the sun. I love technology to bits but it’s just that the was that big tech is set up, it’s not a fair fight.
What I mean by that, is that there is some deception around what these products are really doing and how they’re going about it.
We talk about exploiting our psychological vulnerabilities. Probably the most important concept there is that we’ve evolved for survival, not for happiness.
All of our instincts are based on what our brain thinks is going to help us survive. A good example of that is that there is a trigger, and then there is an activity and then there is a reward.
Whatever that trigger is, is different for everyone. For me, when something becomes uncomfortable or I find something boring, that’s when I find myself picking up my phone and scrolling through Instagram.
The reward to the brain, in this case, is one of safety. The brain likes this activity because it thinks it’s a safe activity. We’re wired not to want to do things that put our chances of survival at risk, and often the safest thing to do nothing.
Have you been to the end of your Facebook feed? Have you completed YouTube? Have you finished Netflix yet? It sounds quite flippant, but all of these products used to be finite.
Facebook used to be a wall, YouTube and Netflix didn’t auto-load videos.
Video games used to be based on levels and lives. Now they’re just open-ended and the way you get better is to invest more time and invest more money.
The point is this: the tech industry realised that when they take away the stopping cues, we just carry on. The reason we carry on is because we’re neurologically hard-wired that if we’re faced with a choice of doing nothing and something, we choose nothing because that’s where safety often is.
Once we understand that, then we realise that actually we’re being exploited.
These are all great things, I get a lot of value out of them. But it’s not set up in a fair way, where it’s a transparent exchange.
It’s up to us to understand that’s an example of how a lot of tech products are set up. For a lot of people, once they become aware of that, they can actually do something about it.
We’ve seen companies like Apple introduce things like Screen Time and Night Shift on iPhones. Do you think tech can come in and help solve the tech problem?
I think tech has to be a big part of the solution, for mental health and wellbeing in general, not just the way that we use our devices.
The reason I say that is because if we look at the scale of these problems around stress, anxiety, insomnia, tech addition – they are acute around the world. Technology is the only distribution system we know that can make the solutions affordable and accessible.
We could go into a long discussion about the fundamental problem that technology has accelerated on an exponential curve and the human brain hasn’t. That’s a whole separate discussion.
The industry is reacting because it has to. The likes of Apple and Google are not putting these things in place for any other reason than they really have to, because people are becoming more aware and are demanding these things.
It’s almost like it’s a pre-emptive reaction to them knowing what’s coming. None of that transparency helps their business models, which are all built on capturing our attention for as long as possible.
What I would say about the tracking is that it’s a really good way for us to understand our tech habits for what they are, instead of what we think they are.
We always have a cognitive bias about what we think we’re doing versus what we’re actually doing.
For example, I’m a pretty heavy email user and I would have told you before I started tracking this stuff that I probably open my email 20 times a day, which sounded like a lot for me.
The first day I downloaded a tracker, I’d opened my email 50 times by lunchtime. So there’s a disconnect between what I think is happening and what’s actually happening.
What’s happening is that I was almost going there unconsciously and habitually. A two-year-old will take an hour to put on their shoes but they take 10 seconds to unlock your iPhone, find YouTube and Peppa Pig.
It’s because they’ve become conditioned to know where this stuff is, and that’s exactly what’s happening with me and email.
One of the great hacks we can do about our tech uses it to move our apps around, put them in specific folders, put entertainment apps in a folder that’s three screens away.
On my phone, it’s called ‘Time Suck’, so I know that when I go there, it’s entertainment time and not false positivity time or pass the time because something has become uncomfortable time.
Habit change is difficult, but environment design isn’t. Another example is your physical environment. When I’m working and I need to focus, I put my phone a couple of meters away, just so that I can’t reach it. Every time I go to reach for it and it’s not there, but I can still see it, that’s enough to be a pattern interrupt for me to ask myself what I was doing.
As a general thing, if we make desirable habits easier, like putting our gym kit in our bag in the morning so it’s all ready. And make undesirable habits harder, that’s much easier than trying to use willpower or discipline.
The other example I can give on environment change is our digital environment. I’ve talked about moving apps into folders. It’s also good just to habitually move the locations of those apps around. So that when we mindlessly go to where email was, we can catch ourselves before we go there. We can just check in and ask, is this actually what I want to be doing right now or is it my psychological vulnerabilities being exploited.
Mobile phones have only been around for about 20 years. That’s the reason that it’s come to the fore. You’ve got to bear in mind that in the last 20 years, the world has changed dramatically.
It starts with the always-on and always-free internet. It’s just around 10 years since the first iPhone came out and started the smartphone revolution.
That’s when the internet went mobile and social. We’re only eight or nine years into these problems being created. It’s only in the last couple of years that the likes of Tristan Harris have started saying that actually, this really suits Google, Apple, Facebook and YouTube, but it doesn’t actually suit us in terms of our goals and our happiness.
I do think that it’s going to get a lot better faster, but in the two to five years it might take for that to happen, we’ve really got to take charge, because nobody else is really helping us.