Vitamin or Pain Killer?

Prologue to “The Vitamin”, a blog containing quick reads that aim to supplement your mind and help you design your personal health experiment.


Think about the last time you had a cold. What was your method to combat the cold? My guess is for some of you it was slurping chicken noodle soup. For others it was taking Nyquil. And for some of you, it was grabbing a pouch of Emergen-C and chugging it with a glass of water. In that moment, we desperately want the cold to go away, and we follow these remedies in hopes that relief will be immediate, but know that it’s going to take time.

We recognize that a little effort now is worth the potential of long-term gain.


Let’s consider another scenario — one that’s top of mind for all of us Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

“Product market fit” is mentioned whenever people evaluate how a business is doing. In this article, we see the “vitamin” being used to describe a business that only offers a “nice to have” and does not solve a “need to have” (aka painkiller).

While this makes sense, I would argue that those pain points are largely determined by people who don’t know exactly what they want. In other words:

People want painkillers because they solve the problems that are easiest to recognize and feel the most painful in the moment.

But what’s the point if the solutions for those problems aren’t contributing to your end goal? They just provide short term relief.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe there is great need to solve important problems like healthcare and climate change over the flurry of silly apps out there. I just think this mentality of painkiller > vitamin perpetuates into our life as urgent activities > important activities. (Read this Quora post on Jedi time tricks for some great insights.) My belief is it should be the other way around.


Vitamins are necessary for us to achieve long-term success.

So what do I mean when I say vitamin? I don’t mean it in the biological sense of organic compounds that provide nutritional value (although I’m a big proponent of those too). I’m talking metaphorically about the supplements for our minds.

Some of you might say “I don’t need vitamins. I get plenty of nutrition through what I eat already.” Hell, I used to say this! Whether that be in the biological sense or metaphorical sense, it is natural to think that you are doing everything you can to stay physically and mentally healthy.

Some ways that we supplement our minds are reading books, taking classes, talking to peers and mentors…and the list goes on. The problem that I see in myself and others around me is this rarely becomes a habit. We say we want to read more or take a bunch of classes, but it dwindles down to a one-time event that happens over vacation because you “finally have the time”.

It’s like those 3-day detoxes. You binge on the nutrition-high and think that’s enough. Well, I say slow and steady wins the race just like in “The Tortoise and the Hare”.

What we need are simple actions that build up to automatic habits.

(Take the Tiny Habits course for proof that it works.)


The purpose of this blog, carefully titled “The Vitamin”, is to provide small nuggets of actionable information acting as our mindful life supplements. Most of the content will come from books and articles I’m reading. Here’s a sample of what you can expect:

Willpower is a limited resource. There was a great study done in 1996 that demonstrated that people who had to use willpower to eat radishes (with the temptation of chocolate cookies in the room), were less able to complete a subsequent strenuous task. They had already used up all their willpower in fending off the whiffs of chocolate.
Apply It: Plan ahead for times of depleted willpower. Pre-make dinners over the weekend, so that after a long day’s work, you avoid temptation to overeat.

There may be times that you try out an idea and you fail. That’s OK. It could mean that it doesn’t work for you. It could also mean that more attempts are needed. Whatever the reason, keep taking those vitamins because it’s the only way to test their effectiveness on your long term health.

Conduct an experiment on yourself to design your best life.


Said eloquently by Greg McKeown, author of “Essentialism” — the most valuable asset we have is ourselves. We owe it to ourselves and the world we live in to be constantly improving ourselves in order to make the biggest contribution.

Invest in yourself. Protect your most valuable asset and do something amazing.

I’ll leave you with a couple things to ponder before the next post:

  • What is most pressing on your mind these days? (i.e. what are those events/things that you feel you often need painkillers for?)
  • What are your life goals?

Please share if you’re willing. I would also love to hear thoughts on how this blog could be more useful. Looking forward to the dialogue!


My name is RJ Cheng and I’m a product designer in SF. I am obsessed with behavior change and am on a mission to help people lead healthier lives. If you have similar interests, I would love to chat! Reach me on Twitter or email.

*Thank you to Cynthia Barboza for reviewing earlier versions.