Mastering Your Monkey Mind

Jodhpur by Garrett Ziegler

Waiting around to pop into somebody’s head somewhere and cause havoc.

Imagine sitting down at your desk to work or possibly study early in the morning. You get everything ready to go, pull everything up on your computer, you have a nice hot cup of coffee or tea at hand. You are ready to get some shit done.

You put your fingers to the keys and… You know you didn’t look on Facebook to see if anyone had replied to that comment you left on your friend’s post. Let’s go look really quick. People keep talking about this Stranger Things show on Netflix, you should write that down to check it out later. Or you could probably pop over and add it to your watch list right now. Wow there are a lot of things in your watch list.

You should watch some of these to get them out of here. Why worry about getting that work done now? You’re not really feeling it, right? It’ll just come out awful and you’ll hate it. You always hate the stuff you do. Just pull up a show and chill for a little bit and you can get back to it feeling refreshed later.

If this kind of thought process sounds familiar, you have experienced ‘Monkey Mind’.

There are a couple different ways to conceptualize Monkey Mind. The most common one you see here in the West is the thought of your mind behaving like a monkey – or possibly the mind of a monkey – and jumping all around from thing to thing in a manic display of curiosity and inattentiveness. When you’re plagued with feelings of your brain being unsettled, uncontrollable, indecisive, and restless that’s Monkey Mind.

The conceptualization you see more in the East actually flips the terms a bit and generally calls it a Mind Monkey, or Mind Monkeys. This way of looking at it comes from a description of most people’s minds by Buddha as being filled with drunken monkeys. All these Mind Monkeys are always jumping around clamoring for attention and the struggle between the drunken lot of them makes it difficult to find any focus or calm within your mind.

Whichever way you prefer to frame it the end result is the same – lots of distracting self-talk and nothing getting done that you need to get done.

So what are some ways we can fight back against Monkey Mind and get things under control again?

Micro-Journals and Daily Check-Ins

Daily Check-Ins, or Micro-Journals if you prefer, are an excellent way to get your Monkey Mind settled down at the two times you likely need it to the most – in the morning right before you get to work, and in the evening right before you get to sleep.

The way it works is every morning you sit down and check-in by spending a couple minutes emptying out everything bouncing around in your head into a journal. Let your Monkey Mind have complete run of the place and just pour out everything you’ve got for a couple minutes. You don’t need to write out a chapter or anything, just two minutes or so to get down whatever is taking up the most space in your head right now.

You can write down things you’re concerned about and any worries, write out the day’s plans or goals, write whatever stream-of-consciousness gibberish is clanging around in there – anything that comes out.

Then, once you’ve got everything cleared out of your head, you can shut all those obnoxious thoughts in the journal and put them away for the day to focus on what you need to be focusing on. Do the same exact thing once more for a couple minutes before bed, and you’re all set.

Just like you brush your teeth first thing in the morning and then right before bed to scrub off all the gross stuff that’s accumulated there in-between, you’re emptying your mind of all the gross stuff that’s accumulated there and starting fresh.

While just doing the journaling will make a big difference for taming that Monkey Mind, I also like to use it to tidy up other areas of my mind while I’m at it. In the morning I like to jot down my plans for the day, and one or two reasons or ways I’m going to make that day a good day. At night I do a little planning for the following day, a write out a quick review of what went well that day and one or two things I could’ve done better, and then at least one thing I’m grateful for.

These extra little things aren’t necessary, but I find they improve my thinking and general mood a lot and only require another minute or two of time investment per day so I think it’s worth it.

Meditation

Meditation is probably the most traditional method for dealing with Monkey Mind. Your meditation practice doesn’t have to be complicated or lengthy – while most of the research I’ve seen suggests the best results from twenty to thirty minutes of meditation per day you can still get a lot of benefit from just five minutes if you keep up with it.

You don’t need to worry about any kind of fancy guided meditations either, what works best for Monkey Mind is just focusing on your breathing and quieting your mind. That’s all we’re after anyway.

Find a comfortable place to sit where you’re relaxed but not so much that you’re in danger of dozing off. Close your eyes, and focus on paying attention to your breathing. Don’t try to alter it, slow it down, or mess with it at all, just focus on it. Devote all your attention to feeling yourself breathe in, and back out.

As random thoughts pop into your head acknowledge their presence, and then let them float away so you can keep focusing on your breathing. Eventually those distracting thoughts will fade away and you’ll be left with an empty, focused mind.

Over time the more you practice attaining that feeling of an empty focused mind the more easily you’ll be able to fall right into it. That skill is a huge benefit in quieting down the chatter of a manic Monkey Mind when you’re trying to fall asleep or buckle down and get something productive done.

Sensory Mindfulness

A quick way to accomplish something similar to the above is by taking a short sensory mindfulness break.

Sensory mindfulness breaks are basically a cheat version of sitting down and having a quick meditation session like what I described. To take a sensory mindfulness break stop what you’re doing and take a moment to focus in turn on each of your five senses picking one thing out from each that you’re currently experiencing and treating it as though it were the first time you ever experienced it.

So you can start with sight, and focus in on the color of your desk or the grain of the wood and shut everything out as though the only thing in the universe is that bit of wood grain. Devote all of your attention to it as though the secret of life and the key to happiness and all of life’s mysteries are in that wood grain.

Then pick a sound you’re hearing and do the same thing, then a scent, a taste (or the memory of one), a touch, etc.

You only need to spend about five seconds on each sense – the point is just to break your Monkey Mind from its manic hold on your thoughts by grabbing the steering wheel of your consciousness and forcing it to focus on a single thing intensely.

This is more of a quick-fix solution, and while it helps it’s probably not something you can rely on to completely overcome your Monkey Mind. The tactics above will be a better bet to gain more control of things, and then you can use the sensory mindfulness break as a little boost when you feel it creeping back in.

Bonus: Self-Talk and Examination

I consider this as something a little extra, since it’s not a tactic so much for combating Monkey Mind in general but rather a tactic for getting under control a few specific Mind Monkeys that seem to plague people disproportionately. I’ll call the the Fear Monkey and the Anxiety Monkey.

Maybe you could consider them the same monkey since anxiety is in a sense a subset of fear, but either way – in my experience when people talk about distracting, intrusive, nagging thoughts they often center around fears, worries, and anxieties.

Thoughts pop into your head about how your ventures will fail, that you’re not good enough, that you’ll never attain your goals or dreams. You can’t stop thinking about all the things that could go wrong. You know how it goes.

The best thing to deal with these particular Mind Monkeys is actually the opposite of the tactics I prefer to quiet the rest of their troop. Instead of training yourself to ignore them and let them pass, it’s more helpful to engage directly with these thoughts.

Have a little conversation with yourself where you examine each fear or anxiety and suss out exactly what the worst possible outcome would be if those worries came to pass.

For example: “You’re not good enough. Your business is going fail,” Fear Monkey says.

“Let’s say that’s actually true,” you concede, “what would happen then? I guess I’d have to go find a regular job again. I can pay the bills with that and try my hand at entrepreneurship again.”

“But what if you can’t find another job? What if no one will hire you?” he says.

“Well, worst case scenario I’d default on my mortgage and lose the house.”

“Isn’t that scary?” Fear Monkey asks.

“A little,” you say, “but I have friends and family who would let me stay with them if it came to it. I’d get back on my feet eventually. Even if the worst happens it won’t be the end of the world.”

Having those little conversations with yourself and your anxieties will help you consciously realize that, in general, most of the things we fear or are anxious about would not be all that horrible if they actually occurred. Tie into this the human habit of grossly overestimating the odds of negative consequences – meaning that this outcome that you fear that won’t actually be all that bad also probably won’t actually happen, and that Anxiety Monkey finds he really doesn’t have any reason to be there anymore.

These are a handful of ways you can combat all of those Mind Monkeys when they decide to take over and stop you from living a happy, productive life.

You can use all of them, or whatever one up there seems to work best for you, or even use these as jumping off point to determine another one that works best for you. The key in all of them is developing enough personal self-awareness to wrest control of your thought back to where you want it to be.

Have anything to add, or another technique you find particularly effective? Share it with everyone in a comment!

Photo Credit: Garrett Ziegler

Why Habit Building Is the Foundation for Success

Briofitas by Carmen Jost

Habit building is a sturdy foundation to build skills on top of.

“…we are we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” -Will Durant

The quote above, often mis-attributed to Aristotle, is used so much I was a little hesitant to use it here. It’s so true though, and sums up he point I intend to make so well that I couldn’t help it.

It’s not that you can’t reach success or excellence without using habits to drive your progress – but more that using habits to drive your success is the closest you can get to a guarantee that you’ll get there. Habits, like the Colorado river cutting away at the Grand Canyon, are an extremely potent force when leveraged over a long enough period of time. So what makes habit development so important?

The Cumulative Power of Habits

The primary power of habits lies in their cumulative nature, in what I tend to call skill accretion or sometimes goal accretion.

Skill accretion is the gradual build up of skill over time, little by little. It’s the most consistently successful way to build new skills in my experience, or to increase proficiency in skills you already have, because its gradual compounding nature means you don’t have to suffer through all the ups and downs and struggles of trying to rapidly acquire a skill. As a method its reliability stems from its sustainability.

As a self-defense instructor I have seen people on both ends of the spectrum in terms of approach to skill building. I’ve had students who went all out with five and six hour training sessions day after day who had dreams of being the next big UFC fighter, and I’ve had students who committed themselves to thirty minutes a day plus regular classes, or even just ten minutes of review practice each morning.

After a year – almost without exception – the people who committed to the small, daily, sustainable levels of training surpassed the skill levels of the people who went all out at the beginning. Generally, because the people that go all out just don’t last that long.

That’s not to say some don’t make it, but it’s pretty rare to find someone who is able to sustain that level of training effort over the long haul unless they are extremely committed, motivated, and disciplined. I’ve only had a few students that were able to pull it off.

That sustainable cumulative nature means that building easy habitual actions that move you a little further toward your goal, whether that’s completion of something like a project or building of a particular skill, will net you a far greater amount of progress in the long run than if you try to make a hard all out push.

Building those habits allows you to make those small incremental improvements an automatic, unthinking process.

Habits and Chunking

The use of habits as a tool also strongly facilitates the breaking down of large, difficult tasks into manageable bite-sized pieces or chunks – something I call chunking.

This is important because a lot of tasks can feel relatively insurmountable if you’re approaching them as one complete unit.

An easy example is writing a novel. Having a basic goal of reaching the 80,000 word mark, a general average for most novels, seems daunting when you’re approaching it all at once. When you’re looking at that 80,000 word goal all at once it can seem like you’ll never get there – even typing for hours it can feel like you didn’t even make a dent. For most people the thought of writing that much, of writing a complete novel, just feels like something they would never have time for.

When you break it down though, 80,000 words is only about 1,334 words or so per day spread over two months. If you’re in no real hurry you could write 220 words everyday and have that 80,000 word book finished in a year. For scale, I’ve written about 650 words so far in this article in the span of about thirty minutes.

In comparison to the whole 80,000 word novel, that bite-sized chunk of about 1,400 words looks effortless.

Using the process of habit building you can make it even more so.

Habituating the action of writing 300 words every morning when you sit down with your coffee would be simple. It wouldn’t take any time out of your day – you can likely write far in excess of 300 words in the time it takes you to finish a cup of coffee – and when you make it a habit it becomes and unconscious action. Much like brushing your teeth in the morning, it becomes something you no longer have to think hard about or put effort in to.

So in a year’s time, with zero additional time investment and little more effort than is required to remember to brush your teeth in the morning, you could have a complete novel finished in a year’s time.

These things are what makes habit building such a powerful tool.

You can habituate almost anything. You can use habits to complete things like books, work projects, gradually cleaning out your bursting inbox or messy garage. You can use habits to learn things or improve at things, learning a second language, playing an instrument, improving your coding skills.

The key is recognizing how useful habit creation can be, and then bringing that usefulness to bear in achieving your goals.

Are there any other ways habit building has helped you in reaching your goals, building a skill, or completing a daunting project? Leave a comment and share!

Photo Credit: Carmen Jost

Fitness & Motivation Lessons from Pokemon Go

A Wild Pikachu Appears by Sadie Hernandez - Pokemon Go

Unless you’ve been stuck inside Rock Cave for the last few months without an HM05, you probably know about Pokemon Go. As a side-effect of its wild popularity, people have been touting it as being one of the most successful fitness apps to date and some have even been suggesting it’ll have a big effect on fighting obesity.

While I think it’s being a little optimistic to think a little extra walking is going to get everyone fit, it definitely is getting otherwise sedentary people out and moving around – so what is Pokemon Go doing so differently from the Fitbits, Jawbones, VivoFits, et al. that never sparked nearly as strong of a fitness craze as expected? Moreover what lessons on motivation and taking control of our own fitness can we take away from its successes?

Pokemon Go vs. Fitbit

When Fitbit launched people thought that it would have a huge impact on lowering obesity rates and helping to improve overall fitness levels. Gamification (adding game elements like scoring and competition to encourage user engagement) was, and still is really, a hot and exciting method for getting people to do things – particularly in conjunction with the growing quantified self movement. Fitbit ticked both boxes. It provided a solid game element in trying to score your recommended 10k steps per day, providing badges and rewards for meeting goals, and in allowing you to compete with friends, and it gathered enough data on steps, stairs climbed, calories burned, sleep quality, weight change, etc. to be a solid entry in the self-quantification realm.

It’s done well, but it never took off quite like Pokemon Go has. I think the key reason being the Fitbit focuses on gamification, while Pokemon Go approaches things from the opposite direction with ‘fitnessification’.

Alright, I made that word up for lack of a better one and it needs work – the point is that while Fitbit attempts to make fitness into a game, Pokemon Go takes an existing game and plugs in a fitness element.

This might not seem like an important distinction, but it makes a noticeable difference. No matter how many game elements are included in the Fitbit system, your overall goal is still to walk. You can look at it as getting 10,000 points per day if you want, but you know you’re doing it for fitness. Sure the badges and the competition and things motivate you, but beneath that you understand the point is to get you to walk.

Pokemon Go is the opposite. The point is not to walk, that’s just something you tend to have to do in order to play the game. Your goal is to catch Pokemon, take gyms, things like that. The fact that you have to be up and moving around most of the time to accomplish that is secondary.

This is a much better approach to things, because in the end what people care about is having fun. Things like Fitbit, Fitocracy, Duolingo, or HabitRPG attempt, to varying degrees of success, to inject the fun of a game into a productive activity. That certainly helps, but it will never be as successful as injecting a productive activity into a game.

Wii Fit did an alright job of helping people take some steps toward fitness, but in the end it fell to the same problems – the design of all the games was built around making fitness fun, rather than starting with something already fun. After a while people just tire of it and it gets relegated to the closet.

Imagine if you took something like Final Fantasy VII but changed the battle mechanics so that you had to do push-ups or squats to win battles. You wouldn’t play that game to get fit, you would play it because it’s a good game. You would do a ton of push-ups and squats too, not because you think you should exercise but because Sephiroth murdered Aerith and is killing the planet and that bastard has to pay.

Lots of people would probably wind up in the best shape of their lives too.

So, assuming you’re not a game or app designer, what’s the takeaway here?

The Secret to Staying Motivated

If you’re struggling, rather than approaching things like Fitbit and trying to inject fun into your fitness routine (or whatever you’re trying to improve) take the better route – find something fun that also has some small element of what you’re trying to improve in it.

If the prospect of going to the gym or out for a daily run makes you want to crawl back into bed then why force yourself to do those things just for the sake of progress when there are fun options out there? Take a martial arts class, a dance class, a parkour class, go rock climbing, or kayaking, or swimming, go play basketball, or tennis, or even something like tag.

Are these things necessarily going to get you in the same kind of shape adhering to a well-structured strength and conditioning program would get in?

Almost certainly not.

But Pokemon Go alone isn’t going to have anyone dropping a hundred pounds and running in marathons either. Small progress is something though and – unless you’re missing out on potentially better progress by stressing over the small stuff – that small amount of progress is leaps and bounds better than making no progress at all.

Embracing this mindset will make it much easier to continually make some kind of progress in your goals. Any time you’re trying to think of some way to make something you don’t want to do but feel you need to do into something fun, change the equation around and try to think of or create something fun that contains aspects of your goals.

Do you have any examples of other ways to incorporate learning or fitness goals into games instead of the other way around? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Sadie Hernandez

The Basics of Programming for Strength Training

Math by Byron Barrett

Strength programming doesn’t have to be this complicated.

A problem I see repeatedly in people who begin a new fitness program – whether it’s strength training, bodybuilding, or something else – is what I call program paralysis.

Program paralysis is where a potential trainee spends so much time working on developing or finding the perfect training program that they either never actually manage to get started on it, or they over-complicate it to such a degree that they start it but then drop it after a few weeks because it’s too much for them.

It doesn’t have to be that complicated. If you’re a new lifter/trainee rather than stress over all the minute details just get these handful of things in line in your programming and you’ll be fine. These are mostly specific to strength training, but trainees focusing on bodybuilding and other aspects can take things away as well.

Practice What You Want to Improve

If you want to improve at a specific lift, you need to be performing that lift. Whether it’s a single lift or multiple, if you want to get better at them and be able to perform them more easily with heavier loads then they need to be included in your programming somewhere.

I realize this sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised.

This isn’t to say that the only way to improve at a specific lift is to perform it – accessory work can have a big impact but it should be done in conjunction with the lifts you’re aiming to improve at.

Perform Each Lift Between One and Four Times Per Week

Particularly for people starting out, there’s no real need to stress out too much over having X number of workouts per week. So long as you’re performing each lift at least once per week, you’ll see progress. Keeping it less than four helps allow for recovery and makes sure that you don’t start feeling overwhelmed or burnt out schedule-wise and wind up quitting.

If it works better for you this could be one single giant workout per week, or even seven different workouts per week – the point is more to find something you can stick with consistently. People stress out too much sometimes over feeling like they have to lift three times per week, or do a five day split because that’s what the forums told them, when they would make decent progress just getting a solid session in once per week.

It’s better to work each lift only once per week, then feel like you have to commit to more and have it fall apart because you can’t fit it into your schedule.

Keep the Volume Up

For your main lifts, the ones from the first part up there that you specifically want to improve on, you want to get the majority of your volume in the 70% to about 85% of one rep max (1RM for short) range. This range should keep providing you with returns for a while starting out. If you’re unsure of your 1RM in various lifts there are calculators online that can help you figure it out, or you can grab a spotter and just test things out.

On heavier workouts around or above that 85% of 1RM mark shoot for between ten to fifteen total reps per workout of those main lifts, and for lighter workouts closer to the 70% 1RM end you can dial it up to 25 to 40 total reps per workout. How you split those up into sets is up to you, and it matters more that you can get up to that total volume in the workout than it necessarily does that you can do however many in a single set.

Supplement those with accessory work that supports those main lifts or hit any areas where you seem to have specific weaknesses. The accessory lifts you can keep in the thirty to fifty reps per workout range. As for weight, for accessory lifts it’s generally easiest to follow the old bodybuilding stereotype and just pick a weight that allows you to do eight to twelve reps per set.

Things like periodization and other fancy programming schemes can help, but they’re not strictly necessary and they can very easily over-complicate things. The closest thing I generally recommend for beginners is changing up your accessory lifts every now and again and playing around with different set & rep schemes while keeping your total volume consistent – but that’s mostly to keep you and your body from getting bored with the workouts.

Continue to Follow a Progression

You won’t continue to improve if you never implement some kind of progression – if you only do the same thing over and over again you’re guaranteed to eventually stagnate.

Over time you should be adding weight, adding sets, adding reps, whatever it takes to progressively add volume over time. In a general sense any kind of progression will be helpful, although if your primary goal is increased strength you should start out prioritizing adding weight / load and if your primary goal is building muscle or bodybuilding you should start out prioritizing progressions that add volume – either additional reps, sets, or both.

Observe and Re-evaluate

It’s not necessary to have a ‘perfect’ program from the outset – but it is important to keep an eye on your progress and continue to re-evaluate things to make sure you aren’t continuing with something that’s not providing the results you’re after.

While over-training is generally not a problem for new lifters, it can happen. If you find that you’re not progressing and that you feel run down and beat all the time, then back off a little on the volume and do a little less until you feel good again and see yourself making concrete progress.

If you’re on the other end of the spectrum, where you aren’t making any progress but you feel perfectly fine all the time in regards to energy levels, then you probably aren’t doing quite enough and can increase your training volume and do a little more each week until you start seeing progress again.

I hope this goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway, if you’re seeing good progress keep doing what you’re doing! Seriously, don’t mess with things if you’re seeing progress. There’s no reason to tweak a good thing until it stops giving you some kind of return, then you can fix it.

If you keep these handful of criteria in mind you should be able to put together or select a good training program to start making progress. The biggest thing to keep in mind is that training volume is a huge predictor of results – if you want to get bigger and stronger more volume is almost always the answer.

Have any questions or something to add? Let us know in the comments!

Photo credit: Byron Barrett

5 Quick Ways to Combat Procrastination

Stop Procrastinating by Lynn Friedmen

Sometimes a little bit of procrastination isn’t a bad thing. It can be a good way to clear your head and come back to something with a new viewpoint or to hop over to work on another task for a while.

If you spend hours every day trying to combat procrastination though, that’s a problem.

When you can’t seem to get anything done because you’re always getting distracted, putting things off, and avoiding the tasks you need done the most in favor of other things your ability to be productive and successful plummets. If that’s a problem you face often, a few of these quick tactics to get yourself back on a productive track might be just what you need.

Changing Your Mindset

Before we get into the meat of how to actually combat procrastination, I wanted to take a second to talk about how we think about procrastination first.

The single worst part about procrastination is the way essentially everyone beats themselves up for it after it happens. Almost universally after a person recognizes they’ve procrastinated on something they start feeling bad. They kick themselves for wasting so much time. They wonder what’s wrong with them that they couldn’t just buckle down and get the work done. They feel ashamed over their procrastination, which can just drive them into feeling depressed and procrastinating more, which leads to even more procrastination and less productivity.

Stopping that reaction is the first step.

Even though this is an article on how to combat procrastination, and it’s goal is to help you stop procrastinating, I still want you know it’s okay to procrastinate.

Procrastination is a natural part of the work process. Frequently it’s the result of external factors anyway – boredom or dissatisfaction over repetitive uninspiring work, nebulous or too far-off deadlines, or any number of other things.

Not wanting to do the work in front of you is a valid feeling and you should acknowledge it, and accept it, and not beat yourself up for it. It’s far better to say to yourself, “Okay, I’ve been totally procrastinating on [X Project]. What’s been making it so hard to work on it?” than it is to say to yourself, “Ugh, I’ve procrastinated so much on [X Project]. I’ll never get it done. I’m so useless.”

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s look at those five quick ways to combat procrastination I promised.

1. Divide and Conquer

This is easily my favorite tactic so I made it first. I’ve talked in other articles like our intro to Timeboxing on breaking things up into manageable chunks and it’s a principle I find myself applying all over the place.

Two frequent causes for procrastination are the lack of a concrete goal/deadline, and a task being so overwhelming it’s daunting to even think about starting to tackle it. Breaking a task up into smaller more manageable pieces solves both of these issues.

When it comes to a lack of a goal or nebulous deadline, chunking the task allows you to set personal goals and deadlines to lead up to completion of the final project. Imagine your personal goal is to write a novel by the end of the year. Where do you start? There are so many things that need to get done to write a novel it can leave you feel aimless in terms of what you should do next. On top of that it’s really easy to tell yourself you’ve got all year, what’s the difference if you start tomorrow instead of today?

If instead you break that goal up and say you’re going to write one chapter a month, or even further to 2500 words per day, then you have both a clearly defined goal to work toward and a much closer deadline. It’s easier to see the end of the day or end of the month fast approaching than it is the end of the year.

This also makes a huge task less daunting. Writing a whole novel can feel like such a monumental task you just can’t muster the motivation to get started. An 80,000 word novel divided into a year is just 220 or so words per day. That’s a little less than a printed page of writing per day, I’ve already written double that to get to this point in the article. When a task is that small (do you really not have ten minutes to spend today to wind up with a novel in a year?) it’s hard to find reasons to justify putting it off.

2. Discuss Your Project With Others

Another common source of procrastination I see is a feeling of being stuck, of not knowing where to go next on a project or task even when you have a well-defined goal.

Caroline and I do a lot of writing, so I see this most within the sphere of creative pursuits, but it applies elsewhere as well. Sometimes when you’re faced with a task there are so many moving parts or things that you need to consider it feels so much easier to just let it go and focus on something else.

This often personally expresses itself for the two of us in fiction writing. We’ll hit a point in a story where we know what we want to happen next (we both heavily outline our stories in advance, something we’ll talk about in a minute) but we don’t completely know how to get there. As a result we pop over to Facebook, or Reddit, or remember that we wanted to get some guitar practice in or need to do a load of laundry. The writing never gets done, and when we come back to it we really haven’t thought it through and we’re just stuck in the same place we were before.

The best solution we’ve found for this is to discuss whatever it is we’re working on at that moment with each other. Either by saying, “Hey I’m stuck, will you talk this through with me?” or by one of us seeing that the other is starting to drift into procrastinating and starting to ask questions about the story – “What’s going on right now? What’s going to happen next? Why would so-and-so do that?” etc.

Almost without fail something about talking it over with someone else helps get over those (likely self-imposed) mental blocks put in place as a result of thinking of it as ‘work’. You can do this with all sorts of work, not just creative stuff. Grab a co-worker, a friend, a family member, whoever is handy and will care enough to talk the project over with you and ask if they have ten minutes to discuss it.

Even if you don’t necessarily get enough help with it to get you past the problem, it’s usually enough to get your brain refocused and ready to tackle it again rather than slacking off.

3. Make an Outline

This comes back to problem of procrastinating due to feeling lost. In a sense, this method to combat procrastination could even be considered an offshoot of number one up there.

Either way, outlines and lists are an excellent way to make something that feels directionless into something with a very clear progression from one thing to the next. On top of that there’s something about lists that human brains seem to really like. Part of that is why it’s so popular to structure articles like I’ve structured this one – as a list.

Outlines and lists make things easier to plan, easier to understand, easier to work with and restructure if necessary. It also helps you both to better view the project on a big-picture level and to take that big-picture view and deconstruct everything like we discussed in the first tactic in order to make things more manageable.

Even if you’re someone who prefers to fly by the seat of their pants when it comes to projects, trying to make a quick outline next time you start drifting into procrastination territory can make a big difference.

4. Offer a Reward

At our core we are still simple biological creatures (assuming any biological thing can be called simple) and we follow most of the basic patterns and processes that other biological creatures follow. One of the biggest of these is the reward response.

Rewards are a big motivator.

It can seem kind of cheap to essentially bribe yourself into getting something done, but when it comes down to it providing or withholding a reword based on whether or not you completed what you set out to do can be an extremely powerful tool to get you back to work. This reward can be as simple as a literal food treat, some ice cream or going out to dinner someplace you love, or it can be something else you want. If you’ve been daydreaming about going hiking or playing a new game that just came out, then tell yourself you can do it as soon as you finish whatever it is you’re struggling to work on.

You may think that would encourage you to just fly through your work to get to your reward, which might be true, but that’s okay. The most important thing is that it gets you to do something a little productive rather than doing things that aren’t productive at all.

Which brings us to the last one.

5. Embrace Imperfection

Perfectionism is a parent of procrastination. It is the sworn enemy of ‘finished’. To best combat procrastination then, we need to avoid giving in to perfectionist urges.

Again this might show itself more strongly in creative pursuits, but it’s present in some degree in any and every kind of work. When you give in to the idea that you have to make whatever it is you’re working on completely perfect, you are guaranteeing that you will never be finished with it. If you’re never going to be finished with it, you’re inevitably going to start avoiding it.

Instead of focusing so firmly on the ideal of finishing something as perfectly as you possibly can, get comfortable with resetting your goals to be based around getting it done – in whatever state it’s in – and then revising things after the fact.

If you struggle often with perfectionism fueled procrastination you can even make it a personal challenge to yourself to finish a task or project at the minimum viable level and then go back through and refine it into something more polished when you’re done. Productivity challenges like NaNoWriMo are built entirely around this premise. No one expects you when writing an entire novel in a single month to produce a great work. They expect it to be shit. It will be.

It will be finished though.

That’s the real crux of it. Once it’s finished, it’s easy to go back and turn it into something you can be proud of that everyone loves.

These are just five easy little tactics you can start using to combat procrastination, but it’s definitely not anywhere close to exhaustive. If you have any tactics you find effective for getting back to work share them with us in the comments. Let us know as well if you’ve had any luck with any of these tips or if you’ve struggled with them.

Photo Credit: Lynn Friedman

The 5 Key Elements for Successful Fat Loss

Bathroom Scale by Mason Masteka

We talk a lot about efficiency here – not necessarily because we feel everything has to be optimized and made super-efficient, but rather because a lot of things in life get severely over-complicated. As a result people struggle with things not because they can’t do them or they’re too difficult, but instead because they get too caught up in minutiae to make any real progress.

Fat loss is an excellent example of that process in action.

There’s so much information on fat loss out there that it can be staggering. Should you or shouldn’t you eat breakfast? Is meal timing important? Should I go paleo, eat vegan, use a detox program, do a juice cleanse? Should I sprint, run a 5k everyday, lift heavy, not lift at all?

It goes on and on.

Time and time again with my coaching clients I find people have gotten so wrapped up in all these little things that they completely miss the big important variables that are going to have the biggest effect.

Fat Loss the 80/20 Way

we’ve already gone over the 80/20 approach to nutrition. Most of that will carry over here, just because nutrition is a large part of the fat loss equation, but this will be a bit broader of a look at things.

You’ll find – like most cases where you break things down to find the highest return variables – that these aren’t the big, flashy, cool, sexy, technical sounding things. Sure, it sounds cool when you can sit around and spend twenty minutes explaining the intricacies of carb cycling and gluconeogenesis to somebody, but if you don’t have the boring stuff taken care of it’s not going to get you far.

So what are the five high return variables you should be worrying about first in fat loss?

1. Maintain an Overall Long Term Calorie Deficit

If you want to lose fat, you need to be in a calorie deficit overall. The best way to achieve this for most people in my experience is through creating a small weekly calorie deficit in their diet.

There have been a lot of arguments lately over the whole ‘Is a Calorie a Calorie’ thing. Don’t worry about any of that for right now. If you’re overweight, treating all calories equal and ensuring you’re in a deficit on a weekly basis will get you substantially further than stressing out over whether you’re getting fat calories, protein calories, or carb calories.

In order to figure out a caloric deficit, you first have to know how many calories you need to eat to maintain your current weight so you can subtract from it. You can use the Harris-Benedict equation, the Katch-McArdle equation, or the old 12 x bodyweight in pounds equation, though all of these have fairly high margins of error.

The best way is to keep a completely accurate food log for one week and compare it to changes in your weight over that week. If you stayed the same that’s likely roughly your maintenance range. Once you’ve gotten that rough estimate introduce a deficit by cutting it down a bit and continue to monitor things. Don’t assume you’ll get one calorie number to stick to and that’ll be it – expect to constantly be rechecking and updating your deficit as you see what changes your body is going through.

2. Focus on Whole, Nutritious, Unprocessed Foods

Going back to the ‘Is a Calorie a Calorie’ thing, you find in some cases the extreme If It Fits Your Macros adherents. They insist that you can consume nothing but pizza, beer, and ice cream and still lose fat.

Technically, they’re right.

As long as you kept yourself in that caloric deficit we talked about above you could lose fat that way. The problem is for most people it presents a lot of problems. The most obvious problem is, in general those things tend to be less nutritious in a holistic sense.

I don’t mean holistic in the way someone might apply it to a crystal healer, I mean holistic in the sense of having all the vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and other things that come along with eating your fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed meats. While they aren’t something you should stress out over too much in relation to more important things like macronutrients and calories, being deficient in them because all you eat is junk food is not going to do you any favors.

Additionally, due to the high caloric density of most of those types of foods, it’s hard to only eat enough that you stay under your necessary caloric deficit. Even if you manage to avoid the temptation of having just one more slice of cake, or a couple more beers, you are likely to find yourself going to bed hungry. Going to bed hungry is a surefire way to ensure you’re going to decide to give up on your eating plan.

Can you still have some junk food? Of course. As long as it doesn’t put you over your calories – but I strongly recommend keeping it at or below 20% of your total calorie intake. Fill the rest with vegetables, meats, and other whole foods and you’ll find it much easier to stick to your deficit.

3. Prioritize Long Term Adherence

Which brings us to number three. Adherence.

Anyone can follow the most painful, complicated, intricate diet and training program in the world for a day or two. Maybe even for a week. That’s not going to help.

You need to treat this like a marathon, not like a sprint. You need to avoid looking at this like something you’re going to suffer through for a couple months so you can not be embarrassed at the pool or the beach, and instead look at it as something that you are changing about your entire life. These new habits and ways of looking at things are for life.

For life.

This also means you need to not make it completely fucking miserable.

I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve had try to convince me to let them eat at some insane deficit like 1,000 calories below their maintenance per day, or want some super hardcore P90-Cross-X-Fit-Whatever workout program for them to do everyday because they feel like they need to drop fat right now.

Approaching it this way is like tackling an Ironman triathlon with the expectation of sprinting through the whole running portion. You are guaranteeing you’ll crash and burn, and then inevitably wind up back where you started.

Adherence is probably the single hardest thing about fat loss, but if you focus on making it a priority you’re setting yourself up to be substantially more successful than everyone else.

4. Exercise

Can you successfully lose fat entirely by diet changes alone with no additional exercise? Absolutely.

But why make it harder on yourself?

Do not try to use exercise as a way to create a substantial calorie deficit or as a way to ‘work off’ the extra stuff you ate that you shouldn’t have or as a way to ‘earn’ that pint of ice cream you want to have. It doesn’t work that way.

You should use exercise for two things – the first is to add and maintain muscle mass for a passive benefit to your metabolism and your overall calorie burn throughout the day, and the second is as a way to subtly help ensure that the deficit you created is in fact a deficit given the potential inaccuracy of those calculations you did.

Note here that when I say exercise, that might mean walking the dog everyday. That might mean playing basketball, soccer, tennis, whatever. Unless you have some specific additional goal to train for or really enjoy a particular form of ‘traditional’ exercise like running or weight lifting don’t worry so much about it. Go find something active that you really like to do and do it as often as you reasonably can. If you have to force yourself to do it, it probably won’t help your adherence.

5. Focus on Processes Instead of Results

Many of the problems I talked about in points above (wanting to go all out too soon, not being able to adhere to changes, doing unpleasant forms of exercise, etc.) are all strongly influenced by having a results focus instead of a process focus.

What that means is, people fixate on something like ‘I want to lose 30 lbs. by the end of next February’. In general, this type of goal isn’t always bad – but when it comes to things like fat loss it can lead to some problematic behaviors.

First and foremost is the tendency of people to start to get discouraged if they don’t see continual improvements. When it comes to fat loss, you’re almost guaranteed your weight is going to do crazy things for no apparent reason to you. You’ll retain water sometimes, gain five pounds over a weekend for no obvious reason, and other strange things. Biology is messy.

Many people have this happen and then panic that they won’t make that 30 pound goal or whatever in time. Then they fall into stress behaviors, or make panicky decisions, and generally just screw things up even worse.

Instead, focus on the process. Make a goal like ‘I’m going to stick to my calories everyday for two weeks’, or ‘I’m going to go run with the dog for 30 minutes twice a week this whole month’.

Those types of goals not only keep you motivated since they’re easy to achieve, i.e., the power to accomplish them is entirely within your control unlike the 30 pounds thing, but that via achieving them you’ll find that you’re more likely to meet that goal of losing 30 lbs. than if you had made that your goal in the first place.

Process focus will always outperform result focus.

Going on from There

Once you’ve got all these big return variables down, you can start worrying about the little things more if you want to. Situationally some of them can have a fairly big effect. They key is to leave them for after you’ve got these other five things down, and to not let focusing on them interfere with any of the more important variables.

Do you have anything you’d like to add to these five? Do you have any tips you’ve found useful for following any of them, or for better ignoring all the little relatively unimportant things? Share them with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Mason Masteka

6 Ways to Overcome Procrastination

Procrastination by Pete Zarria

At some point or another, everyone has procrastinated. Whether there is a big project to complete, or a new habit you’re trying to build like practice a language or exercising, procrastination has gotten the best of all of us.

Nobody is immune, but it can be beaten.

Procrastination is, more often than not, us taking the easiest possible route. We’re wired to be like this – if we weren’t naturally discouraged from doing challenging tasks everyone would all be super fit, speak a dozen languages and being productive would be our default.

But there are small, easy methods you can employ to reduce the difficulty of challenging tasks and make being productive your default. Today, we present to you six of our favorite methods to beat procrastination and accomplish our goals more often:

1. Find Your Why

Why do you want or need to do this task in the first place? What will be the reward for completing it?

Sometimes we lose sight of why we took on a habit or project in the first place, so it’s important to remind ourselves what motivated us in the first place.

Are you preparing for a race? Want to connect with your German friends on a deeper level?

2. Make it Ridiculously Easy to Comply

Want to go to the gym every morning? Then pack your gym bag before you go to bed and set it either next to your bed or next to the door on our way out. Learning a language? Just practice for ten minutes. And make it easy to practice – have your flashcards ready and in a place where they will be in your way when you go to do another task, like leaving them on your keyboard. If you have a digital app you like, such as Memrise, do it while you wait for a program to load or while you wait for your morning coffee. Practicing an instrument? Leave it out. Set up a place for it outside of its case where it will be safe but easy to grab and highly visible.

The point is, do whatever you can to make complying as easy as possible and eliminate any potential deterrents. You only have so much willpower, when that starts to run out it is easy to put things off for another day.

3. Have a Friend Help Keep You Accountable

It’s easy to explain away to yourself why you didn’t do that thing you were supposed to do, it’s a lot harder (and embarrassing) to have to admit to a friend that you didn’t do that thing.

Find a trusted friend and tell them your objective and agree to do something embarrassing or to donate some cash to an organization you dislike if you fail to meet your goals. They’ll help encourage you and keep you on track, and you’ll have even more reason not to put that thing off.

Bonus points if your friend joins you in your goal. Everything is better with a friend.

4. Set Up Reminders

For certain things, it’s easy to have them set up in a place where they are in your way. It’s easier to remember to do a thing when it’s often in your way or in your line of vision. But for certain tasks this isn’t exactly possible.

For those things, set up reminders. Stick post-it notes in places you frequently look (like along the sides of your computer monitor) and reminders on your phone at ideal times to do this task.

5. Daily Practice

Overcoming procrastination is akin to getting rid of a bad habit and building a new, better habit. To beat procrastination, it requires daily practice. Starting easy, just shoot for 5-10 minutes per day of completing the task. After a week, increase the time a little, but not too much so it wont overwhelm you.

To keep track of your progress, get out a sheet of paper and make a chart of 7 columns and 4 rows. For each day you hit your minimum required for your task, you get a nice big green circle on that day. Post this chart somewhere highly visible, so that you will see it often. Once it’s posted and you’ve started, don’t break your chain! No matter what, make sure that your daily minimum is met.

The chart will serve in part to remind you to keep on track, and part as a point of pride – be proud of your successes!

6. Do the Hardest Part First

More often than not, the hardest task is the one we need to do most. Commit just to doing that hard thing. Break it down into smaller, more manageable chunks and then knock that sucker out.

By comparison, everything else afterward will feel like a breeze to complete.

Getting the big, hard task done will likely not only require the most willpower to get done, which is why you should tackle it first and not last, but it will also serve as a powerful boost in momentum once it’s complete.

So complete that really hard task first thing and make today a successful day. Then, ride the motivational momentum through the rest of your day.

Bonus: 7. Time Box Your Goal

Time boxing is a powerful and easy to implement method to get things done whether you really want to do them or not, and as a result becomes a huge source of productivity, momentum and creativity.

Get a timer, either on your phone or a physical timer (we prefer an egg timer and to just leave our phones completely alone) and set a time limit for doing your task. You will spend ONLY that time doing ONLY that task. Set a reasonable amount of time – enough to get the task done but not so much that you are completely demotivated to even begin. Commit so that once that timer starts, you get immediately to work. No distractions, just the task. As soon as the timer goes off, you are done. Drop it and leave it. You are completely off the hook from this task! You’ve officially met your minimum required work, so get up and go do something completely different. Get a glass of water or go for a short stroll. Bask in your success.

Was this article helpful? What methods have you tried, and what was your experience? Let us know in the comments below!

Photo Credit: Pete Zarria

Stop Outsourcing Your Purpose in Life

Outsourced Sewer by Ed Yourton

Some things should definitely not be outsourced.

Just about everyone would say they want to find their purpose in life.

Sites like LifeHacker, TinyBuddha and the like are full of articles on it, books like The Purpose Driven Life consistently top the sales charts in the relevant categories – everybody seems to be desperately trying to figure out the plan that’s been laid out for them.

I think they’re completely missing the point.

Outsourcing Your Purpose

Nearly all of the advice given on the topic of life purpose is based around the idea of outsourcing your meaning in life. The language is always structured around the concept of ‘finding’. It’s always about ‘finding’ your life’s meaning, ‘discovering’ your purpose in life. The idea from the outset is always that your purpose in life is out there, pre-determined, and it’s your job to figure out what it is.

When we’re talking about material coming from authors with a religious bent, like the previously mentioned best selling The Purpose Driven Life it’s a little more understandable – no less awful, but understandable. Even from sources not overtly religious the topic is often couched in the language of pseudo-scientific, spiritual woo.

The general theme of it is that you have some purpose in life (determined by some deity, the universe, or whatever) and you need to find it or figure out what it is. Your agency in the matter is largely removed. The determination has been made and it’s your job to divine whatever result has been chosen for you and follow it. It’s destiny.

We’ll leave out for the moment my position of methodological naturalism and the fact that I’m an atheist. Obviously, given the fact that I see no evidence to convince me of the existence of souls, spirits, or any gods, the idea of some ‘higher power’ handing down anyone’s purpose in life is illogical to me. I’m going to humor the notion for a moment though to make a point.

Let’s assume that there is sufficient evidence for some higher power. I still can’t fathom why people can’t see how awful it would be for said higher power to be assigning people their purposes in life. What if said higher power assigns you a purpose in life you don’t care for? What if your parents determined your career and you had no option of changing? What if you lived in a strict caste system? This idea of having your purpose chosen from you from birth may be comforting to some in the sense that it takes a measure of responsibility off your shoulders, but when you stop to really consider the implications it’s awful.

You could certainly argue that your deity of choice would never make someone’s life purpose something they didn’t love, or that loving it is the nature of your life’s purpose, which is fine if we’re getting into the New Agey spiritual stuff. It’s easy to point to things like The Purpose Driven Life to show that some people think you may be assigned a purpose you don’t necessarily like. I’m not going to argue the theology of it.

Even if I grant that premise, I can’t guarantee that there’s anything I will love doing for my entire life. Tastes and opinions change, and while some may have something they can do for the rest of their life with satisfaction I cannot claim that everyone has something that fills that category for them.

So higher power or not, when we talk about ‘finding’ purpose or meaning in life it robs us of the agency of choice. It sets us up to think that our lot in life has been determined, that the rails have been laid and all we’re doing now is trying to find the right set to follow. It is outsourcing the determination of our purpose in life to en entity outside of ourselves – even if that entity doesn’t actually exist.

I find that notion abhorrent.

Choose Your Own Purpose

Life has no inherent meaning.

What’s so wrong with that?

We live in an unthinking, uncaring universe. There is no larger reason why you exist. There was no purpose for which you were born. You have no cosmic significance. Disabuse yourself of this idea that you are special or important in any way that isn’t manufactured. This is a very entrenched idea societally, so I’ll say it one more time:

There is no inherent meaning of life.

That’s a great thing, because it leads to two subsequent conclusions. The first is that if there is no inherent meaning to life, if there was no purpose for which you were born and no destiny for you to fulfill, it means that all meaning and purpose that there is in life is purely constructed – manufactured by ourselves and others. The second, which follows from that, is that if all meaning in life is manufactured rather than pre-determined we get to choose our own purpose in life.

Your purpose in life can be absolutely anything at all. You can choose to make whatever you want your purpose in life – make not find – and you can change it whenever you want. You could have a new purpose in life every year if you wanted. It’s entirely up to you to determine.

Why is this distinction important?

I’ve met a lot of people and read the accounts of even more who are entrenched in this idea of having some higher purpose in life that they need to find in order to be happy. Even the non-spiritual types express it as if they’re searching for some eureka moment where they hit on something that they feel like they could devote their life to in order to be happy.

Even though they don’t seem to recognize it as a relinquishment of control I see it drive people crazy. They start beating themselves up or begin to get downtrodden and depressed over the fact that they can’t seem to find this one magical thing they were ‘meant’ to do in life. They feel like until they find this one magical thing to give their life purpose they’re living an empty, pointless existence.

The whole time they’re excoriating themselves over their inability to figure out their purpose, they’re completely blind to the fact that they have the power to choose their own purpose. As soon as you realize that you and you alone have the power to create meaning in your own life it frees and empowers you to take charge of things.

Of course, once you come to this realization you may still have some trouble developing the self-awareness to determine what things actually make you happy right now for you to pursue. That’s fine. That’s a topic deserving of an article all of it’s own. Several, actually.

The important thing for now is to cultivate the understanding that your purpose in life is whatever you make it, whatever you choose it to be.

Have anything you’d like to add? Do you disagree entirely and think we all have some set purpose from birth? Let us know in the comments!

Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon

A Basic Model for Personal Development

Framework by Markus Stöber

It’s important to have the right framework in place for successful personal development.

Personal development is something we talk about a lot here – primarily because the one thing I know for certain that everyone has and has control over is themselves. No matter what other variables there may be, I know for certain (at least until someone develops serious A.I. anyway) that anyone reading this has a self that they can improve.

To this end we tend to focus on more ‘high level’ or specific aspects of personal development. I wanted to reverse that a bit and look at the bigger picture structure most successful personal development follow. I know as a self-defense instructor how important it is to go back and refine the basics, so I’d like to go back and refine the basics of personal development.

The Foundational Model for Successful Personal Development

Nearly all successful personal development starts with the same foundational structure. Technically it’s the same basic structure for successful completion of goals, since in the end succeeding in personal development is just successfully achieving a bunch of goals that all, in some way, improve you or your life.

That basic foundational structure follows a three step pattern: Identify Your Targets, Determine Available Actions, Test and Review.

That’s it.

Well, ok, that’s not totally it. We’ve written a lot on here about all the minutiae that can go into all of those individual steps and different applications and strategies for different goals and all these other finer details. Boiled down to it’s essence though all those other things we tweak and refine to optimize things are just finishing touches. If we’re building a house those things are the paints, the trim, the lighting. The three part structure above is the foundation and the frame.

You can live in a house with ugly paint much easier than you can in a house with a badly poured foundation and rotting frame.

So what are these three items and how do we make sure they’re in place when we’re setting up our foundations?

Identifying Your Targets

You could also call this ‘determining your goals’ if you like, although I find that for personal development thinking of it as target areas is a bit easier.

At this stage you’re figuring out what area you want to improve in. The easiest thing is to just list them out in a broad sense first by larger category. Some common areas might be Health, Relationships, Finance, Learning, etc. Though they can be more specific if you have something specific that plays a large part in your personal development, a writer might list Writing, an aspiring musician might list Music, someone who just really loves cooking might list Cooking. You get the idea.

You’ll notice, especially if you’re a good goal-setter, that these violate the general rules of proper goal setting in that they are far too vague and non-specific. That’s intentional. For personal development I’m not so worried about very specific goals, just general areas for betterment. While a good goal might be ‘Lose 5 Pounds by the End of Next Month’ it lacks the continuous progressive feel we’re aiming for here. You’ll meet that goal and have to make another one, whereas identifying targets for personal growth should only need to be done once.

Once you’ve identified them you can also prioritize them, especially if you’ve found yourself with a very long list. Doing so will help you figure out where to invest the most energy for the next step and help you avoid burning yourself out or overextending yourself.

Determine Available Actions

Now that you’ve got your list of target areas for personal development, it’s time to figure out what to do about them.

Determining available actions is exactly what it sounds like. Look over your list of target areas you wish to improve in and figure out a single action you can take in each that will lead to personal development in that area. When doing this, try to keep in mind which of your target areas were most important to you so that you can choose actions for those areas that are more demanding and assign less demanding actions to the target areas that are of lower value to you.

For example, let’s say a person listed Health, Finance, Learning, and Writing as their target areas in descending order of importance to them. The next step would be to figure out one single action for each that will make an improvement in that area. Since Health is the most important target area the action chosen for it can require a much larger personal investment than Writing, which is the least important to this person.

For Health they may decide to begin lifting weights three times a week – an action which requires a fairly large investment in terms of energy and dedication. For Finance they choose to create and start keeping a budget, Learning they commit to reading a single short article each day on various topics, and for Writing they will write an extra 250 words per day – a very minimal investment in terms of energy assuming they already write daily.

The idea here is both to fill in each target area with a definite, concrete action to take and also to ensure that you’re not going to totally overwhelm yourself. Having a single action to focus on keeps you from falling into the paralysis of having too many choices to make or options to worry about. You have one thing to focus on and can forget everything else. Prioritizing your actions around which target areas for personal growth are most important keeps you from grinding yourself into the ground with it.

Imagine if that person committed to lifting three times per week, starting a side business, reading two full non-fiction books per month and writing an extra 2,000 words per day. Some people might be able to pull that off, most people would get a week or two in and then collapse under the pressure.

The next and final step is to actually go out and do the things you’ve committed yourself to.

Testing and Reviewing

The very final step, if you can really call it that since this is largely a cyclical process, is to test and review the actions you’ve chosen.

What that means is that you’ll implement all of the available actions you chose in the last step, carry on with them long enough to determine their overall efficacy, and then review what went well with those actions and your implementation of them and what went poorly.

After you’ve reflected on these things, you can go back to step two and either determine additional available actions to improve on your chosen target areas, or you can further refine the ones you’ve chosen.

There are a couple things to keep in mind during this process. The first is that you make sure to allow yourself ample time to truly gauge the efficacy of the actions you’ve chosen. Using the Health example from the previous section, if you commit to lifting weights three times per week, but then determine after two weeks of lifting that it doesn’t seem to be working and you give up – you’ve not really properly evaluated its efficacy. Some things, like a lifting program, may take a month or two to properly evaluate. Make sure you know what a reasonable period is for expecting discernible results.

Another aspect to keep in mind is adherence.

On one hand, if you showed poor adherence to an action item and didn’t see any results that doesn’t necessarily mean that the particular action itself is ineffective. If you decide to lift three times per week and after two months see no results, but only actually lifted an average of one to two times per week or less because you couldn’t stick to it, that doesn’t mean that particular lifting program is ineffective.

On the other hand, while it may not be evidentiary of the inefficacy of that particular action, it may be indicative of either a larger problem in terms of the work load you’ve taken on, your level of discipline and ability to handle multiple commitments, or the amount and investment level of action items you chose in the second step.

If you can’t stick to any of the action items you’ve committed yourself to, then you have a larger overall problem to fix and might need to go back and choose actions for everything that are less taxing and require less of a personal investment to stick to.

Remember – a tiny action reliably performed always has a greater effect than an enormous action performed sporadically.

Once you’ve tested and reviewed, you can repeat the process and either build upon those actions or re-work things and choose new ones as the situation warrants.

As long as you’ve got this framework down, you’ve got the basic tools for successful personal development. Choose where you want to improve, determine a concrete action to take that will enact improvement in each area, then follow through with that action until you can evaluate its impact and repeat the process. There are certainly other finer details to consider, but as long as you’ve got this process down you’ve got a well-laid foundation to build the rest on top of.

Have anything you’d like to add to the process? Any tips or suggestions for ways to make it better, or problems you’ve run into? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Markus Stöber

Habit Change as a Language Learning Tool

Forgotten Habit by Trường Đặng

Being about three quarters of the way through the first month of our semi-unofficial Swedish challenge, I’ve noticed one of the biggest obstacles starting out was that I had almost entirely lost my study habit. With so many other things going on I’d frequently forget to do my vocab study until way late in the day. Then I’d either have to grudgingly accept that I was going to be behind and have to do extra to catch up, or force myself to grind it out before bed when neither my heart nor head were really into it.

As a result I fell a bit behind and have had to play a lot of catch up. (I’ll post a full analysis of how well I did at the end of the month challenge period.) It got me thinking a bit about how hard it could be for people who had no past experience building that habit. After all, I’ve done this all before and have a solid handle on how to bring that daily Memrise habit back. If you struggle to build habits or have never done it before I’m sure it’d be even more difficult.

So here’s how to build a habit that will stick, and how to use it to aid your language learning.

What’s a Habit Anyway?

There is some discussion to what really constitutes a habit, so I figure it’s best to clear up specifically what we’re talking about before we dig into the meat of things. The way we’ll be defining it here is that a habit is an action that you perform without conscious impetus to do so. An action which you would do completely on autopilot and which often would feel very strange to not do.

A couple easy examples are brushing your teeth in the morning or buckling your seat belt when you get into a car. You probably don’t have to tell yourself to do either of these things. For most people it’s entirely automatic to stumble into the bathroom half asleep after waking up and immediately start brushing their teeth. Similarly when you sit down in the car seat you probably reach for the seat belt unconsciously. Both these actions would also feel wrong to skip. You would have to force yourself to not brush your teeth and the fact that you hadn’t would probably grate at you in the back of your mind. Starting to drive off without buckling up would also take a conscious decision and feel very viscerally wrong (I hope).

Both of these things are the kinds of habits we’re talking about. You could maybe also call them ‘compulsions’ although that tends to hold a more negative connotation.

Bad habits follow the same rules. Biting one’s nails is an easy example. A person does it unconsciously, compelled without realizing that they’re doing it, and it would feel viscerally wrong somehow to consciously force themselves to not do it when compelled.

Positive or negative all of the habits we’re talking about here will have these basic qualities. Primarily because all of them follow the same pattern of activation.

How Habits are Triggered

All habits follow the same cyclical pattern of activation and reinforcement. This habit cycle starts with some kind of cue or trigger, the cue or trigger then causes you to unconsciously perform the habitual action, which then provides some kind of reward. It is, in essence, the same kind of positively reinforced classical conditioning used to train animals today. You probably don’t even recognize this Pavlovian response happening (quick aside to note, as an animal lover, that despite the potential value of his research Pavlov was a monster to those dogs), but it’s being built and reinforced every time you engage in the habit.

First comes the cue, something that occurs that triggers your habit response. In the case of brushing your teeth in the morning it’s probably waking up and heading into the bathroom or whatever part of your morning routine that precedes it. That action triggers the behavior in question, brushing your teeth in this case, and then you get the reward. The reward in this case being the personal satisfaction of having avoided future discomfort, or knowing that you’ve improved your appearance, or whatever subtle psychological trigger is present in you for completing that task.

The cue may be something obvious, or it may be something very discreet. In the case of buckling up in the car or brushing your teeth it’s fairly obvious what triggers it, but some habits are caused by more obfuscated forces. For example, an emotional eater might find a snack half finished without even recognizing that they had even felt lonely, bored, or whatever emotion happened to trigger that response.

The reward may be something very obvious as well, if the habit you’re trying to break is having a cookie for dessert every time you finish lunch the reward is pretty obvious – the cookie and all the pleasant hormones that come with a sugary treat. In other instances, brushing your teeth or buckling up for example, the reward may be something you don’t notice like the feeling of contentment, security, and having avoided future danger and all the feel good hormones that releases.

Regardless of whether it’s a positive habit or a negative habit they all follow this same cycle of trigger and reinforcement. The good thing is, once we understand this cycle and how it works, we can manipulate the variables to create more good habits and erase all of our bad ones.

Building a Language Learning Habit

Since I mostly want to focus on using habit creation to aid language learning, I’m going to save how we manipulate the habit cycle to erase bad habits for another article and focus on how to build new habits – specifically ones for language learning.

For our example habit, since it’s the one I had to rebuild, I’m going to choose vocab study. In my case it was using Memrise, but this could be putting some time into Anki or your other SRS of choice, or even a quick study session on Duolingo or a chat with somebody on iTalki. You can substitute any behavior you want in for the habit and play with things to see what works for you.

The first thing we need is something to set off the habit.

Creating a Habit Cue

The easiest way to create a habit cue is to build upon an action that is already habitual, or inevitable enough for one reason or another that you are already certain that it’s going to occur essentially everyday. It’s also important, or at least extremely helpful, to pick a habit that occurs at roughly the same time everyday and to make sure it’s the time of day you want to perform this new habit we’re building.

For me, I wanted to make sure I got to my Memrise practice as early as possible in the day because it’s important to me and I like to tackle the things that are most important as early as possible. I also feel like I study better early than later in the evenings.

To that end, I decided to make my cue sitting down with my morning coffee. I love my coffee and, unless we run out and I don’t realize soon enough to order new beans, Caroline and I both have two cups every morning (burr ground, drip, Chemex – for any fellow coffee nerds). That made it a perfect habit cue for me to utilize. It’s an essentially inevitable part of my routine and it’s first thing in the morning which is what I want.

You can create your own cues at certain times if you don’t have an activity you already habitually do then by setting alarms on your computer, phone, watch or whatever. I personally find this method a little harder to stick to, and in my experience it seems harder to bind the action to the timer in the first place than to bind it to another action, but you can experiment.

Once you’ve got your habit cue, you can move on to creating the actual habit action.

Developing a Habitual Action

One of the biggest mistakes people make when developing an action into a habit is to try to do too much too quickly.

If you were to commit yourself to studying 200 new words per day on Memrise everyday after sitting down with your coffee, you might get a few days in through sheer force of will – but soon you just won’t feel like it. You’ll miss a day, then maybe two or three, and your efforts to build that habit will have been wasted.

Good dog trainers will tell you that when building a response in a dog you want to avoid a ‘miss’ at all costs. A ‘miss’ meaning a failure to perform the behavior. If you’re trying to teach a dog to sit ideally you give the command, the dog sits, you mark the correct behavior with a clicker or similar marker and then give a reward like a treat. If the dog ‘misses’ – does something other than sit like jump up – you don’t keep giving the command, you regress to an easier behavior then work back up.

This is because you want to condition in the cleanest response possible and avoid conditioning in additional, unwanted behaviors or making the desired action you’re pairing with the command less clear. Conditioning your own habits follows similar rules, you want to avoid a miss – in your case failing to perform the new habitual action – at all costs.

The easiest way to ensure that you aren’t going to miss is to start your habitual action out so small that it would make you feel foolish not to do it. So in our case you could make it to learn 5 new words on Memrise. If you need something even easier than that, you could make it just to sit down with your coffee and open the Memrise app.

That’s it. Just open it. You don’t have to do any actual studying if you don’t want to.

That kind of action ensures that you’ll always actually do it. After all, if you’re so lazy or opposed to study that you can’t even be bothered to take two seconds to open the Memrise app on your phone, then you have much bigger problems to address first.

Eventually you can build upon that foundational habit to get to a genuinely productive habit. So after a week or so of just opening up the app, you can bump up to 5 words studied every day. After a week of that, when it feels easy and automatic, make it 10 words per day instead and so on. If you miss, then just regress back to an easier stage until you’ve got a good consistent stretch of hits or successes and then try increasing the load again.

The biggest key here is to start small. Choose something that takes a minimal amount of time, maybe less than 30 seconds, requires almost no effort, and is relevant to the larger habit you’re building. The relevancy is important, conditioning yourself just to pick up your phone might not cut it – you could wind up on Facebook or playing games. Conditioning yourself to open Memrise (or Duolingo, iTalki, whatever) is relevant because it’s a necessary first step to the larger habit we’re gunning for.

Now that we’ve got a habitual action developed and tied to the habit cue we created, now we need to finish things off with a habit reward.

Finding a Habit Reward

Technically speaking you can develop new habits while neglecting this step. This is primarily due to the fact that in general we like accomplishing things and even if you don’t consciously build in a reward for the new behavior your brain will release some of those feel good hormones when you actually do the thing you’ve been wanting to do.

That being said, you can encode the new habits much, much faster by actively building in a habit reward.

A habit reward can be anything at all that makes you feel good. I personally like to make them a little more psychological for most things rather than physical, both for convenience of use and because there’s no worry about negative side effects, but you can choose something physical if that works better for you.

By a psychological reward I mean an active confirmation that you have done something to be celebrated. So using our previous example after you finish your Memrise session for that day (whether that was just opening the app or doing 50 words), you put a big grin on your face, tell yourself that you just did something awesome, give yourself a big thumbs up, then flex and roar out a Randy Savage-esque ‘OH YEAH!’.

Ok, so you don’t have to do all that. The point is to really feel like you’ve done something great though, whatever you need to do to generate that feeling. Your brain really likes that feeling, and will release a lot of chemicals like dopamine that make you feel happy and actively reinforce the behavior we’re trying to habituate.

If you need a physical reward, try to choose something that has other positive effects on your life rather than negative ones. If you use a pint of ice cream as a reward, for example, and wind up eating a pint of ice cream everyday on top of everything else, you might wind up with other problems as a result of your work to create that habit. A small piece of candy or something else sweet but healthier like a piece of fruit are decent options, or using an activity you like as a reward for successfully completing the behavior you’re habituating. Directly physical/chemical rewards like food, drink, or maybe sexual favors from a partner are all potent, but difficult to implement well.

Immediacy can make a big difference as well, which is another reason I prefer psychological/psychosomatic rewards, the longer your reward takes to trigger after the habit you’re developing is completed the less effective it is at reinforcing that habit.

This is one reason habits like going to the gym or eating healthier are notoriously hard to develop – the rewards (being fit, losing weight, etc.) are all far delayed from the habit. If someone gave you $5 immediately after you finished every workout, you’d build that habit in no time.

Putting All of It Together

Doing those things in order will eventually lead you to having a strong study habit conditioned in that you’ll do automatically every morning without thinking about it – like I do now.

In practice, what the above looks like is this – the first week every morning as soon as you sit down with your coffee you open the Memrise app. Immediately after opening it, you may a big deal out of it and jump up and down and celebrate because you’re the best for opening that app. Maybe after the fanfare you study a bit, maybe you just close it. Doesn’t matter.

The next week, having done that every morning for the previous week, you bump it up. Now, after you sit down with your coffee, you immediately open the Memrise app and learn 5 new words. Once those 5 words are done you congratulate yourself like you just beat the Technodrome level on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles NES game. Again, maybe you do more words after that, but it’s no big deal if you do or don’t.

The next week, after never failing to do 5 words each day the previous one, you repeat the process but bumped up to 10 words, and so on. Before long when you sit down with your coffee you’ll be pulling Memrise up before you even think about it.

You can use this habit building process for any language learning element to learn faster, and more effectively. That can mean developing a vocab learning habit like what was outlined here, or maybe you build a habit to chat with a native speaker on iTalki or HelloTalk each evening. The point is to build well-ingrained habits that sequentially bring you closer to your goal of speaking a new language.

Have you tried these methods to habituate your language learning process? Have any suggestions to make it easier or areas where you had particular trouble? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Trường Đặng Rok

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