Donations and tax

Donations and tax

Over the past few years I’ve been increasing the amount I give to charity*.

As giving has taken up a larger proportion of my income, I’ve done some digging into the rules around donating to charity – specifically those on tax – to see how I might be able to give more with the amount I have.

While the obvious things are easy, finding and getting my head around the relevant tax rules took longer than I expected. In the hope of saving someone else (and future me!) some time, here’s my current understanding.

Note: I’m not an accountant, and I’m definitely not qualified to give tax advice. Almost everything here comes from the tax relief section on the gov.uk website. Before making any decisions, check that what I’ve written is correct and applies to your situation!

Summary – key things to know about UK income tax and giving to charity:

  • UK charitable donations are fully tax-deductible.**
  • Some of the tax relief can go to your chosen charity automatically (i.e. ‘Gift Aid’).
  • You might be eligible for extra tax relief, which you can claim back by asking HMRC to reduce your tax bill.
  • Extra tax relief can be significant! Depending on your tax rate, tax relief can give you a 1.25x-2.5x donation multiplier.
  • There’s some flexibility around which tax year you account for donations in.  If you’re earning less this year than last year you might be able to significantly reduce your tax bill this way!

How UK Income Tax Works

Before we go into donations and claiming tax back, a brief summary of UK income tax.

UK income tax is progressive, i.e. increases with income.

Capture
UK income tax brackets 2018/2019 (source)

The chart below shows what total income tax looks like for various income levels, and how that breaks down into the various bands. I’ve included data up to £200k since beyond that it just goes up linearly, and if you’re in that band you should probably consider investing in proper tax advice!

 

chart (3).png
Click here for an interactive version of this chart.

A few things you’ll notice about the chart:

  • If you earn less than £11.85k per year, you pay no tax.
  • As you go further to the right from there, you always pay more tax overall.
  • The top line generally gets steeper as you go right, but this isn’t true everywhere.
  • The steepest part of the chart is between £100k and £123.7k, where you gradually lose your personal allowance.

The steepness of that top line represents your marginal tax rate – i.e. how much tax you’ll pay on every extra £1 you earn at that level. This is a useful thing to look at, because it affects the ‘donation multiplier’ you’ll get at that level – i.e. how much your chosen charity will get for every £1 in net income you give up.

Here’s another chart which shows that relationship more clearly:

UK Income Tax - Rate & Donation Multiplier
Click here for an interactive version of this chart.

While your average tax rate might be interesting to you, the marginal tax rate is generally more useful (unless you’re planning on donating 100% of your income!).

What does this second chart show? Pay attention to the yellow line, showing the donation multiplier for £1 at each level:

  • When you earn below £11.85k, your donation multiplier is x1. This makes sense, since there’s no tax to deduct. For every £1 you give to charity, you lose £1.
  • When you earn £11.85k-£46.35k, your donation multiplier is x1.25. If you’re in this bracket, you’re in luck – your tax deduction is fully taken care of by Gift Aid, so all you have to do is remember to tick that box when you donate and the charity gets an extra 25% directly from the government.
  • In the bracket £46.35k-100k and again from £123.7k-£150k, your donation multiplier is x1.67. At this point the 25% in Gift Aid doesn’t fully cover your tax deduction, so you get to claim back some extra tax from HMRC (see below for more on how to do this).
  • At £100k-£123.7k, not only are you in the top 0.1% of global earners, but you’ve hit the donation multiplier sweet spot of x2.5. You can more than double your*** money with every donation! You can give £2.5 to charity and lose only £1. This is because you’d be paying 40% in tax while your personal allowance would be reduced by 50p for every £1 increase in your salary, resulting in an effective 60% marginal tax rate. Again, you’ll get to claim back a lot of tax on any donations.
  • Beyond £150k – congrats! You’re comfortably in the top 0.1% of the global population, earning almost 150x the global average salary. Not only that, your donation multiplier is x1.8, so you only give up 55p for every £1 you give to charity. And giving to charity can raise your tax-free pension allowance.

How to claim tax back

So how does this claiming tax back thing work?

As I’ve covered above, if you’re a basic rate taxpayer (i.e. your total taxable income is up to £46.35k) then you don’t need to worry about claiming tax back – Gift Aid takes care of it.

Beyond that there are three options I’m aware of: Payroll Giving, doing a tax return, or asking HMRC to change your tax code.

Payroll Giving is great, but your employer needs to be set up for it. If they are, then all you need to do is tell your employer your intended monthly donation. They’ll take it straight out of your gross salary and give it to your charity of choice, without any tax being deducted.

If you fill in a Self Assessment tax return, there’s a section on charitable donations. Doing one isn’t exactly fun, but it’s not as difficult as it sounds (and I’ve heard it’s much easier than the US system!). All your employer’s data will be imported already, so you only need to fill in additional details on your donations and any other relevant sections. If you’re doing regular donations then the next option is probably better for you, but if you want to be able to do things like optimising the tax year of your donations then you’ll need to fill in a Self Assessment tax return. And if you earn over £100k you’ll have to do one anyway.

Until fairly recently, I thought those were the only two options. It turns out there’s a third one! If you give regularly and don’t fancy filling in a tax return, you can just ask HMRC to change your tax code. All you need to do is tell them how much you’re donating every month, and they’ll change your tax code to increase your personal allowance – thereby reducing the amount of tax you’ll pay. I think you can probably do this over the phone, but I found their online chat function easy enough. (obviously always make sure you keep a record of all your donations)

When to claim tax back

This might sound niche at first, but it can be very useful and is not so well known.

When you fill in a Self Assessment tax return, you do that for the previous tax year (April-April). And you have until January 31 in the following year to do this.

Now it turns out that you’re allowed to account for donations made in the current year as if they happened last year. Specifically: “you can also claim tax relief on donations you make in the current tax year (up to the date you send your return) if you either: want tax relief sooner, or won’t pay higher rate tax in current year, but you did in the previous year”.

What does this mean? Well, consider an extreme case where last tax year you earned £123k and this year you think you’ll earn £10k. Without this rule you’d get no tax relief on donations made now, but with it you can still get the 2.5x multiplier on your donation by submitting it in your tax return for last year!

Another scenario where this is useful is if it’s coming up to the end of the tax year and you haven’t decided where to donate to yet. As long as you make the donation before you submit your tax return, you’ll be able to count it as taking place this year for tax reasons.

Other things to consider

That’s probably enough on tax for one post. Here are a few other things to consider:

  • Which charities will maximise the impact of your donations?
  • Should you give now or give later?
  • How much should you give right now? Hopefully this post helps you think about the tax aspects of that. You can find the spreadsheet behind each of the charts here (and 2017/2018 version here), including a calculator sheet for any given income/donation amount. Many people have signed the Giving What We Can pledge to donate 10% or more of their income for the rest of their lives.
  • Could you donate appreciated assets (like property, shares, or bitcoin) instead of income? In this case you can get Gift Aid on both income tax and capital gains tax.
  • Some employers will match your donations, doubling your donations again with no extra effort involved.
  • If you don’t live in the UK, you’ll obviously have to follow different rules. Ben Kuhn has a great post on giving in the US.
  • If you’re earning a lot but aren’t sure where to give yet, consider setting up a donor advised fund.
  • Is earning to give (i.e. maximising your income and resulting donations) the most promising career path for you? Are there other things you should be considering if you want to maximise your impact on the world?

*See this post or Effective Altruism

** In this post I’ve focused on income tax. I haven’t taken into account National Insurance payments in any of the calculations, as these aren’t deductible. I also haven’t modelled the impact on other things like student loan repayments or pension allowance increases. As for income tax, there are some limits to the amount you can claim back, but they’re quite high – “Your donations will qualify as long as they’re not more than 4 times what you have paid in tax in that tax year”. 

*** Obviously the recipient charity’s money rather than yours. Still, pretty cool!

Ten day Vipassana meditation course: my experience

You can find a slightly shorter version of this post here in case you don’t want all the detail, though I’d recommend reading the full version if you have the time. If you’re thinking about taking the course, this post might be helpful to read too. 

I just came back from a 10-day Vipassana course. It was a unique and tough experience full of ups and downs, and very different from what I expected.

I’d been interested in meditation for a few years,  but hadn’t had the discipline to put it into practice. I chose this course because it’s a 10-day immersive course with no communication throughout. No phones, no talking to the other meditators. Not even any eye contact or gestures. I liked the idea of the lack of distraction. Other than that I have to admit I didn’t know too much about this specific course before I went, and that became apparent as soon as I got there!

Upon arrival, we made a vow to live by a number of rules, most of them not too taxing: no killing, stealing, lying, or intoxicants, and complete sexual abstinence. We also agreed not to leave before the end of the course.

Each day of the course started with a gong at 4 AM and finished with a talk at 9:30 PM, with around 11 hours of meditation in between. The rest of the time was made up of meal and rest breaks.

During our first morning meditation I was slightly surprised to hear chanting in a language I didn’t recognise. I later learned that this was Pali, the language spoken by the original Buddha, Siddharta Gautama. It was a little offputting, but I didn’t think too much of it. After all, the introduction had said that this technique was completely non-sectarian, and that people of all (or no) faiths, religions, or cultures could practice it. It also explicitly said that there was no question of conversion. Just a meditation technique.

We started by learning Anapana meditation, which focuses on the breath. This was similar to the techniques I’d learnt in using mindfulness apps like Headspace and Calm, but without any counting or mantras – just a pure focus on the breath and the sensation it leaves on the nostrils.

The first few days were tough, physically and mentally. My back and knees were aching from sitting cross-legged for 11 hours every day. I wasn’t getting enough sleep at night, so I had naps during my meal breaks and occasionally during meditation times. Even when meditating in the hall I often had little involuntary micro-sleeps, where I could feel dreams creeping in to my meditation. This made it difficult to observe reality “as it is”. But I powered through, being determined to improve my willpower, ability to focus, and control of my emotional reactions. And maybe I’d even get some more insight into the illusion of the self and a better experiential understanding of my mind.

The difficulty of the practice was offset by the evening talks. The talks are recordings of S. N. Goenka, who set up the course. The whole series was recorded in 1991, and has been used on these courses since. He seemed like a great speaker, likeable and full of wit and wisdom, with stories beautifully illustrating the ridiculousness of the human condition.All the things we crave, even though they’ll never make us happy. All the things we’re worried about, when in in reality they’re not actually that bad. Many of the ideas really resonated, and reminded me why I was there. I’d come out of the talks eager to get back to meditating. For these few days I felt like going on this course was one of the best decisions I’d ever made, and I thought I’d want to tell everyone to take it when I got back.

Much of this changed on day five. We’d been taught a new technique – proper Vipassana meditation – on day 4, and were putting this into practice. This technique is more nuanced than Anapana.  it involves scanning your body for sensations, and learning to be equanimous towards them. To notice them, be aware that they are impermanent, accept them as they are, and then move on. The idea behind this type of meditation, and the entire course, is that repeated conditioning of this type could change the habit pattern of the mind and make us more able to deal with difficulties on a daily basis. While Anapana trains awareness and focus, Vipassana also strengthens equanimity. We were told that this technique is there to purify the mind.

I liked the idea behind Vipassana, but it was tough. During some of the daily sittings we weren’t supposed to change posture or open our eyes for an entire hour, which inevitably means there’s a lot of pain and many urges to try to feel equanimous about.

The change for me came during the talk at the end of day five. Goenka explained the reasoning behind Vipassana meditation, which had been handed down through the generations from the original Buddha himself, who had come up with it while in deep meditation. At first the explanation sounded vaguely plausible, like a useful high-level psychological model of how we react to stimuli. In this theory, every time we react to a sensation with craving or aversion we generate a sankhara – which I interpreted as an analogy for a reactive emotion – leaving a lasting trace on the body and mind. Not only does it make us blind to what’s really happening, but it conditions us to be more miserable in the future. An example can be anger, where we can be completely engulfed by it for a short period, and the physical tension caused by it can have lasting (if subtle) effects. These effects can build up over time.

Ok so far. I can swallow that.

Supposedly then, the goal of Vipassana meditation is to stop generating new sankharas, and erase all the old ones. All of them. Through meditating and being equanimous towards our sensations, we stop generating sankharas. When this happens, old sankharas come up, and manifest themselves as sensations on the body. When we’re equanimous to those, they also pass away.

Hmm, ok. A little far fetched, but just maybe there’s a meaningful analogy there.

Then Goenka described the Final Goal: complete Liberation from these sankharas, followed by Enlightenment. These sankharas hold us back from observing reality as it is, and through being liberated from them we can observe what’s actually happening. We can train our meditation-sharpened mind to feel ever subtler sensations, right until we can’t go any further. At this point we’re able to feel the vibration of each individual subatomic particle in our body.

A lesson in particle physics. It turns out that there are only 4 types of fundamental particle, called kalapas, and they each have their own characteristics. Earth, Fire, Water, and Wind. These characteristics relate to emotions – for example, Fire is anger. When we feel a sensation of heat in a location on the body, that’s the manifestation of prior anger through a concentration of Fire kalapas in that area. Goenka emphasised the power of personal experience over observation-based science, proudly saying that Buddha had figured this all out by himself while sitting under a tree, just feeling his own particles vibrate. After all, this was obvious to anyone looking hard enough: “it’s just the Law of Nature. The law is universal. ”

In addition to this, while reaching Enlightenment, the Buddha witnessed all his past lives and cleared all the sankharas from those. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention: rebirth is a thing, and when one organism dies its consciousness is transferred into another organism. That’s why the best thing you can do in life is to clear all past sankharas, liberate yourself, and save all future incarnations of your consciousness from the misery that otherwise awaits them. Don’t worry too much about alleviating the apparent causes for suffering – poverty, starvation, cruelty – as long as you’re working on clearing your own sankharas and giving the gift of Dhamma to others. You can do this by teaching them, volunteering to help on a course, or donating to the organisation. Hmm.

At this point I’d had enough. Suddenly my mind snapped from thinking this was the best thing I’d ever done to thinking I’d been deluded into joining a cult, and I saw everything differently. I became a lot more aware of the chants, which felt like odd rituals. (to be fair, we were never required to respond, and any chants we chose to participate in were voluntary)

A few things on which I’d earlier given Goenka the benefit of the doubt started unraveling, and after a short walk I decided I was wasting my time and would have to leave. After all, I’d gained the benefits of wanting to focus my mind and of seclusion. I figured I could just not tell anyone I was back, and carry on a non-religious meditative practice while reading, writing, and listening to music at home. I started to get really excited by this idea.

I decided that before I leave I should speak to the teacher. It was now day 6, which I’d previously heard was notorious for people leaving. Only around 3 out of 60 of the male students had left so far. I wasn’t worried about looking like a failure for leaving, but I did have a slight hint of worry that maybe my mind was somehow tricking me into not continuing to do something difficult. A few friends of mine had done it, and one had specifically told me to ignore anything that seems like bullshit and focus on the parts that are valuable or useful. When I spoke to the teacher he also reminded me of the value people get from the courses, and the reported benefits, so I agreed to stay another day to see how I’d feel then.

On day seven I got into meditating again, and felt my mind focus more. I constantly had to remind myself why I was there – to “purify my mind”, in their language. I slept more, there wasn’t too much superstition in the evening talk, and I felt ok. On days eight and nine I decided since I was there I might as well commit to the technique properly, and so I did almost the complete 11 hour schedule on both days. (I “slept in” until 6AM on day 8 to catch up on sleep)

I spent a lot of time in the meditation sessions just thinking, and since I wasn’t too worried about the exact technique anymore I didn’t feel too guilty about this. My thinking was very scatter-brained at first but by day nine my mind felt very focused and patient and I had long, slow thinking sessions. I went for a lot of meditative walks.

On day 10 the requirement for Noble Silence was lifted, and we were allowed to talk to each other. I was shocked to realise that everyone else’s experiences had been completely different. Some people bought in to the whole thing – one person I otherwise got on with very well had previously met a monk whom he believed capable of experiencing vibrations in his body at the most fundamental subatomic level. Some others bought the particle theories, but not the rebirth. Others still were on the fence about everything, but vowed that the technique worked. I found a handful of people in the same situation as me – revulsed by the pseudoscience and thinly veiled religious aspects, acknowledging that there were benefits but unsure whether these were from the specific technique or just from abstaining from everything which would otherwise be distracting and doing some meditation.

And that’s the stage I’m at now. I do feel a bit different, but I’m completely put off by the cult feel of Vipassana and the way people are persuaded (almost manipulated, in some ways) to swallow the probably useful and certainly testable meditation technique with completely made up theories about kalapas and rebirth, strung along by a far off dream of Universal Truth, Enlightenment, and transcendence of mind and matter.

And all this while being told that Dhamma is “so logical, so pragmatic, so scientific”, and free of “rituals, rites and ceremonies”. I guess it is, apart from the chanting in a language we don’t know. And the repetition of certain phrases. Oh and we can’t point our feet towards the teacher or lie down in the hall. And all the teachers are men. The female teacher in the instructional videos always sits there in silence. Oh and we have to obey their arbitrary version of morality. And the teachers sit on a raised chair, next to a sort of altar covered in white cloth, underneath a huge projected image of the great Goenka. But apart from those, and the other rituals, rites and ceremonies, there are none.

On the other hand, the course is completely free. At the end, you donate what you like. Absolutely no pressure, and no one is (at least visibly) keeping track of who donates. Anyone, with any or no income, can do it. That part really impressed me. And when you try to leave, the people who are volunteering to teach, clean, or cook for you try to persuade you to stay! Bizarre.

Some things I’ve noticed since leaving the course yesterday:

  • Buying a train ticket was harder than I thought. The man at the counter didn’t have infinite patience as I slowly decided which ticket I wanted without acknowledging his question first.
  • The music I’ve listened to has felt more intense. I think I’ve been able to pick out new parts in songs I’ve listened to a lot before.
  • When I poured myself some tea, I could really hear it going in to the cup without looking out for that. It sounds stupid, but it felt kind of nice.
  • I feel like I have more self control and focus. I’m better at single tasking and less likely to be pulled into another task. I’ll catch myself getting the urge to do something else, pause momentarily, and then the urge will disappear.
  • I have a lot of motivation, and a feeling that time is precious.
  • I’ve been smiling a lot, felt appreciative of people and their actions, and been completely undisturbed and mostly amused by anything that might otherwise be annoying.

To be continued…

To get an idea of the nicer side of Vipassana and its goals, this essay is a good place to start: https://www.dhamma.org/en/about/art

And if you’re seriously considering doing the course yourself, this post gives a more balanced view of the good and the bad parts.

Ten day Vipassana meditation course: my experience (short version)

You can find slightly a longer, more detailed version of this post here. I’d recommend reading that version if you have the time! If you’re thinking about taking the course, this post might be helpful to read too.

I just came back from my first Vipassana meditation course. It was a unique and tough experience full of ups and downs, and very different from what I expected.

It’s a 10-day immersive course with no communication throughout. No phones, no talking to the other meditators. Not even any eye contact or gestures.

We had to live by a number of rules, most of them not too taxing: no killing, stealing, lying, or intoxicants, and complete sexual abstinence.

Each day of the course started with a gong at 4 AM and finished with a talk at 9:30 PM, with around 11 hours of meditation in between. The rest of the time was made up of meal and rest breaks.

We started by learning Anapana meditation, which focuses on the breath. The first few days were tough, physically and mentally. My back and knees were aching from sitting cross-legged for 11 hours every day. I wasn’t getting enough sleep at night, so I had naps during my meal breaks and occasionally during meditation times.

At first, the difficulty of the practice was offset by the evening talks. The talks are recordings of S. N. Goenka, who set up the course. He seemed like a great speaker, likeable and full of wit and wisdom, with stories beautifully illustrating the ridiculousness of the human condition. All the things we crave, even though they’ll never make us happy. All the things we’re worried about, when in in reality they’re not actually that bad.

A few days into the course we were taught proper Vipassana meditation – scanning your body for sensations, and learning to be equanimous towards them. To notice them, be aware that they are impermanent, accept them as they are, and then move on.

The change for me came during the talk at the end of day five. Goenka explained the reasoning behind Vipassana meditation: suffering is not inevitable, it comes about due to our aversion to certain sensations or craving for other sensations. If we come to accept reality as it is, we can be at peace with anything and act with love and compassion.

In this theory, every time we react to a sensation with craving or aversion we generate a reactive emotion that leaves a lasting trace on the body and mind. An example can be anger, where we can be completely engulfed by it for a short period, and the physical tension caused by it can have lasting effects which build up over time.

This sounded like it could make sense. But then Goenka went on to explain that through Vipassana meditation we can stop generating these emotions, and reach our Final Goal of Enlightenment. Not only that: we can train our mind to feel ever subtler sensations, until we can feel the vibration of each individual subatomic particle in our body.

This theory, and the belief in rebirth, means they think the best thing you can do in life is to clear all past reactive emotions, liberate yourself, and save all future incarnations of your consciousness from the misery that otherwise awaits them. Don’t worry about alleviating the apparent causes for suffering – poverty, starvation – as long as you’re on you’re on the path to Enlightenment and sharing this gift with others. You can do this by teaching them, volunteering to help on a course, or donating to the organisation. Hmm…

After this talk I felt like I’d been deluded into joining a cult. I thought about leaving, but remembered a friend who’d done the course and told me to ignore anything that seems like bullshit and focus on the parts that are valuable or useful. I managed to get back into meditating, and felt my mind focus more. On the remaining days I did close to the complete 11-hour meditation schedule.

So… how do I feel after doing the course? I do feel a bit different, but I’m put off by the cult feel of Vipassana and the way people are persuaded to swallow the probably useful meditation technique with made up theories about subatomic particles and rebirth, strung along by a far off dream of Universal Truth, Enlightenment, and transcendence of mind and matter.

On the other hand, the course is completely free. At the end, you donate what you like. Absolutely no pressure, and no one is (at least visibly) keeping track of who donates.

Some things I’ve noticed in the since I left the course yesterday:
  • Buying a train ticket was harder than I thought. The man at the counter didn’t have infinite patience as I slowly decided which ticket I wanted without acknowledging his question first.
  • The music I’ve listened to has felt more intense. I think I’ve been able to pick out new parts in songs I’ve listened to a lot before.
  • When I poured myself some tea, I could really hear it going in to the cup without looking out for that. It sounds stupid, but it felt kind of nice.
  • I feel like I have more self control and focus. I’m better at single tasking and less likely to be pulled into another task. I’ll catch myself getting the urge to do something else, pause momentarily, and then the urge will disappear.
  • I have a lot of motivation, and a feeling that time is precious.
  • I’ve been smiling a lot, felt appreciative of people and their actions, and been completely undisturbed and mostly amused by anything that might otherwise be annoying.

To be continued…

To get an idea of the nicer side of Vipassana and its goals, this essay is a good place to start: https://www.dhamma.org/en/about/art

And if you’re seriously considering doing the course yourself, this post gives a more balanced view of the good and the bad parts.

Should you do a Dhamma Vipassana course?

If you’re considering doing a Vipassana meditation course with the Dhamma.org organisation, you’re probably trying to decide whether it’s worth giving up ten days of your time. Here are some pointers from my experience. Hope they’re helpful. There’s more detail on my experience in this post.

 The Good

Environment: if you’re looking for an ideal place to meditate, there won’t be many places that compare to Dhamma centres. Peace, quiet, no communication, no responsibilities, lots of other focused meditators around you in the meditation hall, and places to walk around if you need some space.

Discipline: eating only what they give you, only at set times, following a schedule for a whole day, and coming out of your usual routine.

Cost: the entire course is donation based. At the end of the course, you pay what you think it’s worth based on what you can afford. There’s no pressure to make a donation, and as far as I could tell no one would even have noticed if I hadn’t donated. All of the teachers and staff are volunteers, so the running costs are actually pretty low. Most of the costs come from the food. Once you’ve done a course you can come back to volunteer in return for using their facilities.

Practicality: the course isn’t an academic exercise or a philosophical exploration of mindfulness. It’s very much practical and experience-oriented. For 11 hours each day you sit there in silence. You get instructions on different meditation techniques, including Anapana and Vipassana, and you try to work continuously to put them into practice. In this sense it’s a good fit for someone who’s read a lot about meditation, but hasn’t been able to make progress on actually doing it.

Intensity: the discipline and environment combined with the duration of the course means that you can get into a deeply calm state, which would be difficult to do anywhere else. This might then allow you to make more progress in meditation than you could at home.

Technique: the techniques they teach focus on improving awareness and equanimity, both of which I personally felt I improved at. Equanimity means accepting things the way they are, which makes it easier to deal with difficult situations.

The Bad

Duration: ten days is a long time. And it’s ten days of only Vipassana course, 24/7. No reading, writing, exercise, or contact with the outside world. Only you can know how much these ten days are worth to you, and what you’re giving up.

Sleep: the schedule allows for only 6.5h of sleep each night. While they claim that proper meditation means you need less sleep, for me it meant that I ended up taking naps during all of the meal breaks to catch up. I know a few others did this too.

Superstition: mixed in with the useful meditation technique is a daily evening talk explaining why the technique works and why it’s important to practice it. This relies on Buddhist beliefs like rebirth, enlightenment, and the idea that experienced meditators can feel individual vibrations in their body at the subatomic(!) level. This really put me off, and I got close to leaving when they first started talking about it.

Patriarchy: it’s never made explicit, but it was an uncomfortable theme for me throughout the course. In each of the evening video talks, S. N. Goenka’s wife sits next to him and never says a word. In the meditation hall with us we had both a male and a female teacher, to address each gender group separately. When instructions common to both groups were given, this was always done by the male teacher.

Conversion: while they say they’re not trying to convert anyone to their way of life, they really are. The talk on the last day made it feel like I’d attended a Buddhist Alpha Course. This doesn’t affect the usefulness of the technique, but it made me doubt why I was there throughout. It made me doubt that the technique had any use at all, and it made it harder to practice.

The Equanimous

Meals: there are only two meals per day; at 6.30am and 11am. At 5pm you can have a piece of fruit. Personally I found this useful since it forced me to realise that I don’t need to eat as much as I normally do, and it’s actually much easier to focus when you’re a little hungry. I know not everyone liked this though.

Observation: you spend most of the time in your own head. That’s great if you like it (which I do), but some people struggle with this and have difficult experiences. I saw a few people leave, some crying, and there was one meditation session where a woman suddenly screamed because someone had brushed against her while walking past.

Pain: sitting down for 11 hours a day is painful. My back hurt, and so did my knees. Part of that is by design – what would the point be in an intensive practical course on changing your response to pain, without experiencing any pain? On the other hand, pain isn’t fun.

Boredom: ten days of meditation, with breaks in between where you do nothing but eat, sleep, walk, shower or go to the toilet. That’s literally it, the entire time. Again though, that’s kind of the point. Through experiencing this boredom you can change your response to it, accept it, and become more capable of focusing on boring tasks.

Segregation: there’s complete gender segregation throughout the course. This is done to reduce distraction (for most people). There are separate accommodation areas, dining areas, shower blocks, and walking areas for men and women.

Testimonials: many people who do the course say it has changed their life, even when they don’t believe the pseudoscience parts. There are people who do the course multiple times, even every year. On the other hand, most sceptical people probably wouldn’t go on the course, or would leave before the end. And there are a lot of biases at play here – it’s a tough experience, and our brain tries to find reasons to rationalise our decisions in hindsight. We’re in a big group of people, and the atmosphere is conducive to agreement. Primacy bias means we’re likely to more strongly remember the pleasant final day of the course than the rest of it. And of course we’re happy when we get to talk again!

Evidence: empirical evidence for the benefit of these courses is limited. Studies have been done on meditation, but the few meta-analyses I found come out with moderate to no benefit compare to active treatments (exercise/drugs/etc). On the other hand, the potential side effects of sitting around not doing much are limited. I haven’t been able to find any studies focused on Vipassana, or on similar duration intensive courses, and it did feel like that was an important part of this experience. (many of the studies look at part-time courses). It’s unclear whether any benefit would come from the seclusion and discipline, or from the actual technique. But I’m not sure it really matters – not everyone has a similar place they could go to to spend ten days in silence and be dependent on others, with no obligation of payment.

So… should you go? 

It’s up to you! I think it mostly depends on how much you value your time, whether you can afford to give up your responsibilities for ten days, and whether you think you could sit through sermons on things you completely disagree with. If you can manage those, then I feel like the course can be valuable.

To help you get an idea of some of the good parts of the teachings, it’s worth reading The Art of Living.  For the bad parts, check out the Day Six Dhamma Discourse on YouTube, and skip through the part around 40 minutes in when he talks about rebirth.

Some tips if you do decide to go:

  • Have a clear reason for going. You can repeat this to yourself while you’re there to remind you why you’re doing it when you have doubts.
  • Understand that there will be mysticism, pseudoscience, and thinly veiled religion. At times you’ll feel like you’re a cult. Be prepared for it so it doesn’t throw you off and distract you from what you actually want out of the course. (unless you’re a beginner Buddhist planning for Enlightenment, in which case go ahead!)
  • Ensure you’re well rested before you go. The course doesn’t give you time to catch up on sleep, and I felt like I wasted parts of the first few days falling asleep during meditation because I was tired when I arrived.
  • Take clothes that will cover you, even if you’re a guy. T-shirts are fine, but shorts and vests aren’t.
  • Take flip flops or slip-on shoes, as you’ll be taking them on and off a lot.
  • If you’d like to sit through the entire course but you’re not sure you’ll be able to, just promise yourself you won’t leave on days 2 or 6. (or on the evening of day 5). These are seen as the toughest days, but actually I think a lot of people leave on day 5/6 just because that’s when all the pseudoscience comes out. If you go in armed with the expectation of pseudoscience and that promise to yourself, making it through to day 7 can help you get more out of the course.
  • Every evening there’s a chance to ask the teacher questions in public. Even if you don’t have any questions, I’d recommend sitting in to listen to the answers to other people’s questions.
  • Don’t worry about taking things you think you’ll be tempted by (e.g. phone/notebook), as you can put them in a locker for the entire course. At least this was the case at Dhamma Dipa in UK, where I did my course – it might be worth checking if your centre has lockers too.

Charity as an investment

As a society we have a weird relationship with charitable giving.

I think most people want to make a difference to the world, at least to some extent. For those who don’t directly have the impact they want through their jobs, this often takes the form of charitable giving.

But all too often people talk about giving “to charity” in a vague way, as if every kind of charitable donation is the same. It’s almost taboo to talk about where you donate to, or to try to compare different charities. Obviously charities generally have good aims, but unfortunately none of us have unlimited resources and so it makes sense to think carefully about where we give.

Isn’t it weird that people make decisions in a very different way when they’re investing money (for their own gain) vs donating money (for others’ gain)? In a way these are really the same thing, it’s just that when you’re donating you’re investing for someone else’s benefit rather than your own.

In fact, viewing giving to charity as an investment can be a very useful way to think about things. When you start to view charitable giving as investing, two things happen:

  • A shift of emphasis from how much you give to where you give
  • A choice between giving money now vs investing money to give more later

I think it’s worth briefly exploring these two points.

How much to give vs where to give

When donating to charity, the amount we’re able to give will always be limited. It will be limited by our income, our living expenses, and potentially expenses for others who might depend on us. This amount will be different for each of us. Personally I try to make sure I donate at least 10% of my salary each month as soon as it hits my bank account, and occasionally make additional donations based on how much I can afford to give at the time.

But while how much we’re able to give is limited, we have complete control over where we give to. Just like with savings and investing. Imagine we have £100 to invest, and we’re given the choice between two investments:

  • Investment A: high expected returns, low variance (i.e. low risk)
  • Investment B: unknown (possibly negative) expected returns, unknown variance

Most people would rightly choose to put the full £100 in investment A, with higher expected returns and lower risk.

Now imagine we have a similar choice when deciding to donate £100 between two charities:

  • Charity A: high expected impact, low variance
  • Charity B: unknown expected impact, unknown variance

Even if these charities happened to focus on different problems, as long as we found a meaningful way to compare their impact I think we’d still like to give the full £100 to charity A.

But how do we find a charity like charity A? This is the idea behind GiveWell, who’ve made it their mission to help donors do as much good as possible by identifying those charities which can make the biggest difference with any additional donations. Their (short) list of current recommendations can be found here.

For anyone based in the UK, Giving What We Can makes it easy to set up a regular direct debit to one of these recommended charities, on which you can then collect Gift Aid (i.e. get full tax relief). This is how I’ve set up my monthly direct debit, which currently splits my donations across GiveDirectly, the Against Malaria Foundation, and Deworming the World Initiative.

Giving now vs giving later and the impact of compound interest

Why should we donate any money to charity now? Surely if we want to have a really big impact we should save that money, allowing it to grow exponentially through the benefits of compound interest, and donate a larger sum later?

That’s one way of looking at it, but it’s not the whole picture. First of all, while the amount of money might look like it’s increasing, it won’t necessarily increase in real terms (compared to inflation). And it’s not easy get consistent returns without some risk.

More importantly, this way of looking at things ignores the compound benefits of giving to charity. There are two angles here: making a difference through donations gets harder over time, and helping people now allows those people to help others in future.

As we solve problems through charitable donations, for example through eradicating malaria just like smallpox was eradicated a few decades ago, some of the most cost-effective initiatives (like distributing malaria nets) won’t be an option anymore. Because of this, making the same amount of difference will cost more money in the future – and by holding on to the money rather than donating it, people would have unnecessarily died from malaria in the meantime.

There are other compound benefits to giving to charity: by helping those in need, we empower them to continue to help themselves and others in a similar position. For example, a charity like GiveDirectly allows its recipients of cash transfers to make small initial investments or reduce their ongoing costs, helping them potentially dig themselves out of poverty forever. These kinds of interventions could have a lasting impact, and the sooner they take place the more impact they’ll have.

More on this

If you like the idea of making a difference, and you think the approach of viewing charity as an investment makes sense, I’d recommend reading Will MacAskill’s excellent book Doing Good Better. If you prefer reading shorter pieces, the Effective Altruism blog is a great place to start.

Why WordPress beats Medium for building a personal blog

[Warning: this is quite a technical post. If you don’t plan on running your own blog or have an interest in SEO, you’re probably better off skipping this one! ]

Medium – the good

I love Medium. After using it to find and read great content, I started my own blog there just over two years ago. It’s a great place to find an audience for your content – several of my posts got thousands of reads, and I’m not sure I could’ve got anywhere near that if I’d gone with another platform.

In fact, I’m not sure I would’ve even got started on another platform. The simplicity of Medium’s writing experience – literally as simple as log in and start writing – was what I needed. Everything automatically looked great, and procrastinating by editing themes wasn’t even an option.

But Medium has its issues. I’m not going to do a full comparison of Medium against other platforms as there’s a lot of content that does that out there already, but I’m going to go through the issues I’ve had with the platform and why I’m considering moving my blog elsewhere. You might notice that this is the first post I’ve written on WordPress, and the content is being automatically copied across to my old Medium blog.

The issues I’ll go over apply if you’re trying to find your own space on the web for your writing and as a hub to other projects you’re involved in. They don’t apply if:

  • You want to start a regular writing habit with no goal other than improving your writing (go with Medium)
  • You’re a professional writer and you’re trying to get your content noticed by others with the goal of being featured in publications (go with Medium)
  • Most of your content focuses on writing, and you value a community of other writers to get feedback from (go with Medium – The Writing Cooperative is great for this)

The bad

The issues came when I tried to use my Medium presence to promote other projects I was working on.

After two years of writing on Medium, I had a few successful posts which ranked fairly high in Google for their keywords (e.g. if you search for “workflowy gtd” you’ll find my post on using Workflowy to implement the Getting Things Done framework on the first page).

In other words, my blog was starting to get some credibility with search engines – a rare and valuable commodity on the Web.

What can you do with that commodity? In the field of SEO (Search Engine Optimisation), there are two big benefits you can get from content like that:

  • A boost for the rest of your content on the same domain – e.g. if that page was on harald.co/workflowy, then other pages on harald.co would get a small boost up in their Google rankings for those keywords
  • A boost for content you link to from that page – for example, if I put a link to harald.co/projects on that page, then harald.co/projects would also get a small boost in its Google ranking.

Using these benefits to promote a website is referred to as content marketing. Content marketing is a key tool in SEO, which is all about improving search engine rankings. And these rankings are more important than ever, with the shift to mobile and search engines being the primary portal to the Web. (this study says 51% of traffic is driven by search results, far more than social media or other traffic)

The issue with Medium is that it’s difficult to get either of these benefits. The first one is possible, but it’ll cost you. On top of the price for the domain itself, Medium now charges a $75 fee for linking your posts to your own domain – and even then you don’t have much flexibility in how this is used. (a domain can only be linked to a specific publication, not to your own profile)

The second one isn’t possible at all. To understand why, a short tangent on how search engines work.

How search engines work

At a high level, using Google as an example, search engines use a three step process for analysing content and deciding its ranking:

  1. Google keeps a list of pages it knows about on the Web, alongside associated links and keywords. (this list is called its index)
  2. Google’s bots regularly visit all the pages in the index. They look for links from those pages, and follow the links to find new pages. (this is called crawling)
  3. Google adds new pages it finds to its index, and updates keywords and links for pages it already knew about. (this is called indexing)
  4. When someone performs a search for a specific keyword, Google consults its index to find the most relevant pages for that keyword.

I’ve obviously missed out a lot of detail here! If you’re interested in SEO, Moz has a good beginner’s guide.

Back to Medium: why should it be any different from other sites?

The issue is with how Medium tags links. In the second step, where Google’s bots look for links, there’s a way to tell them to ignore a certain link. You can do this by adding a small bit of code to the link saying “rel=nofollow” – often referred to simply as nofollow – which means that Google won’t follow that link and the page being linked to won’t get the SEO benefit of that link.

Medium tags all its outbound links as nofollow. Why? Probably to avoid people abusing it for their own SEO purposes and flooding it with low value content – useless pages full of links which exists only to boost the pages they link to.

The downside is that, from an SEO perspective, outbound links from Medium posts are basically useless!

Enter WordPress

I initially preferred Medium over WordPress because of the simplicity, and lack of setup required. At this point I think the costs outweigh the benefits, so I’ve set up a new blog on WordPress.com – a hosted version of WordPress, which means you don’t need to worry about writing code or installing anything. It takes a bit longer than setting up a Medium blog and costs £30 per year, but in a few hours you can have a blog set up using your own domain (mine is http://www.harald.co), and have full control over how all your links are tagged.

I  still cross-post everything to Medium, with the required SEO modifications, so I can keep getting the benefits of the Medium readership I’d built up and I can always switch back if I want to. It’s worth pointing out – WordPress.com doesn’t support automatic exporting to Medium like self-hosted WordPress does, but I think that’s a small price to pay for the convenience.

One last note: WordPress isn’t the only platform that allows you to do this, but I think it’s the best choice right now. It’s definitely the most popular, by far, and it’s fairly priced. I looked into Ghost and Svbtle as two good alternatives, but settled on WordPress in the end because of its larger user base and better pricing.

Any thoughts/suggestions? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter!

Bananas, Porridge, and The Importance of Controlled Experiments

This was meant to be a story about how bad bananas are, and how natural isn’t always better. But it’s not. It’s a story about how bananas are probably ok, and control groups are important.

Crash

For a while now, I’ve been getting occasional symptoms of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Shakiness, clamminess, irritability, and a fast heartbeat. It’s no big deal, but it’s annoying when it happens in certain situations, like at work.

I noticed that it seemed to happen more often after I ate certain things. I started paying attention to my diet (see this post on a few things I did, like giving up soft drinks) and figured I was probably doing ok. Sugar crashes tend to be caused by overreaction to sharp sugar spikes, and I thought I was doing a pretty good job of avoiding these.

But I was still getting the symptoms.

So maybe I was still doing something wrong?

By the book

There’s only so much you can learn by reading. Despite trawling through tables on glycemic index (and, more to the point, glycemic load) values for all sorts of foods, I was still getting these sugar crashes. Where to go next?

In The Four Hour Body, I read that Tim Ferriss used a continuous glucose monitoring device to keep track of his sugar levels for a while. The one he recommended was ridiculously expensive (£1k+!), but after a bit of research I managed to find a disposable one that would last two weeks for £60.

So I bought one and, with some help, bravely implanted it in my arm. (thanks mum!)

Then for two weeks I kept track of what I ate and how it affected my sugar levels.

Bananas

Here’s one thing I noticed: when I had my usual breakfast of porridge oats with banana, my blood sugar shot straight up and crashed down quickly afterwards. (for reference, non-diabetics tend to have blood sugar levels of 4–6mmol/l before meals, and 6-8mmol/l a while after eating)

Now I knew bananas weren’t low in sugar, but I didn’t think they’d have that much of an effect! All this time I’d been having that breakfast because I thought it would give me a good mix of quick and slow release energy to keep me going all morning!

I figured it was time to change my ways. But maybe I could do a few comparisons first.

I measured my blood sugar over a few other meals, and it was stable.

I decided to see how a banana compared to pure sugar. Here’s porridge oats with three teaspoons of sugar:

Almost identical to one banana! Crazy, I might as well have been having sugar with my porridge all this time. Right?

Oops

On the very last day my sensor was active, it occurred to me that I should do one last breakfast experiment: a control group. Just to see — what would happen if I had just porridge? No banana, no sugar, nothing else. Just porridge.

Two things:

  1. It’s disgusting. Seriously, don’t do it.
  2. Surprise! The effect on my blood sugar was the same.

Here’s pure porridge (oats + semi skimmed milk):

Spike, and crash! Like the other two cases. So my conclusions were wrong!

Why?

It turns out that the assumption I’d made at the beginning was wrong*.

I’d been reading too many food and nutrition blogs, and took them at their word when they told me that “oats are a source of slow-release energy”. It turns out they’re not**.

I’d somehow selectively ignored the data that said that oats are, actually, quite high GL. One serving of oats is about halfway between a banana and a can of coke, in terms of its impact on your blood sugar.

What did I learn?

Sometimes you need to trust the way you feel over what you’re reading. Oats definitely won’t be my go-to breakfast anymore.

I also learnt that it’s easy to make conclusions based on very little data. It’s important to conduct experiments designed to disprove your hypothesis, not just to support it!

And finally… if you’re one of the people I spoke to after my first two bowls of porridge, I take back everything I said about bananas! (probably*)


* As someone pointed out to me after reading this, technically I never controlled for the milk in my porridge, which also contains some sugar. My sensor has expired now, but if I had another chance I would do another test with just oats and water. And one where I just eat a banana, to see what that does.

** Someone else pointed out that there might be a difference between different types of oats. As I was eating Tesco’s cheapest oats, it might be worth re-doing this experiment to control for that.