Stop Lying to Yourself – How to Cultivate Self-Awareness

self-awareness-lying-to-yourself

The easiest person to lie to is yourself.

Out of everyone in the world, the person who lies to you the most is almost certainly you.

Most of the time it’s not something we think about. It’s just a sort of automatic response, or a defense mechanism. We look at the things we’re working on, at the general state of our lives or goals, how we’ve been performing in various areas and – rather than making an objective assessment – we tell ourselves whatever it is we want to hear.

The worst part is since it’s something we do all the time without thinking about it for what amounts to most of our lives, it’s hard to spot. It takes real effort to figure out when we are, and aren’t, being honest with ourselves and that’s why so few people wind up doing it.

Let’s look at some ways to change that.

The Importance of Honesty

There are a few different ways that I’ve found people lie to themselves consistently. The first I see all the time being involved in the realms of fitness and self-improvement, and that’s lying about progress. Sometimes these also take the form of lying to yourself about your own commitment or performance as well. What are some examples?

  • A person wants to learn to speak Cantonese. They say they’re studying hard, but really they’ve been skipping days and their practicing has mostly been short Memrise sessions stuck in here and there.

  • A person wants to finish a novel. They start off pretty strong but they tell themselves more and more that they’re too busy, that other work is getting in the way and making them too tired to be creative, that they’ll definitely get more done on it as soon as things calm down.

  • A person wants to lose weight. They tell themselves they’ve been eating healthy. In reality, they’ve eaten out and gone way over their calorie budget ten times in the last two weeks but they say it was only one or two little cheat meals. The scale hasn’t moved because of water weight.

  • A person wants to start getting more sleep. They tell themselves all day long that they’re definitely going to stick to that schedule they set. No caffeine after noon, no alcohol after eight, cut down light exposure and thirty minutes of light reading before bed at ten. At one a.m. they turn Netflix off and tell themselves that it’s fine, they’ll definitely do better tomorrow.

Any of those sound a little familiar?

A related type of lie that falls into this category is when we use dodgy, passive excuses as assessment for our progress. Things like, “I’m doing my best.” Or maybe, “I’ve been trying hard to [insert goal activity here].” These soft excuses have the same kind of effect as the more blatant ways we lie to ourselves.

So what’s the problem?

This type of self-deception robs us of the clarity we need to actually make progress in our lives. It’s a kind of self-preservation, a natural avoidance of things that are difficult or make us uncomfortable. It’s present in everyone and I’m sure in the (at least geologically) recent past when humans still had to be concerned about being eaten as often as they had to be concerned with finding food, and when a broken leg or a small infected cut could be a death sentence, it was a useful survival mechanism.

Now that natural inclination to avoid difficulty and discomfort and take the path of least resistance causes more harm than it does good.

These lies allow us to ignore multiple types of discomfort. They not only allow us to avoid the discomfort of actually trying hard (avoiding overeating, sticking to study sessions, working out), but also to avoid the discomfort of recognizing that we are failing.

To a lot of people being forced to face the realization that you’ve failed, or not worked as hard as you could have, or weren’t ‘strong’ enough to resist temptation, is more discomforting than the behavior they avoided in the first place. These lies and excuses often feign success or provide some kind of external excuse for any noticeable lack of progress. This makes it next to impossible to actually make any progress because to make progress you’d have to fix what’s wrong, and to fix what’s wrong you’d have to admit something is wrong in the first place, which requires you to crawl out from under the safety blanket of lies.

The second way I see people lie to themselves is just as damaging, but works in almost the opposite way. Rather than destroy their progress by telling themselves they’re doing much better than they actually are, they destroy their progress by convincing themselves they’re worthless or incapable. For example:

  • A person who has always wanted to learn to play guitar, but who tells themselves they’re awful at it anytime they practice. They feel like they’ll never be good enough to actually play in front of anyone.

  • A person who would love to be able to speak German on a trip they have planned to Berlin next year, but who tells themselves they just don’t have a head for languages and they’re far too old to learn a new one now anyway.

  • A person who wants to get fit who, after a minor setback like a day or two of going over their calorie budget, tells themself that they’re weak and pitiful and it’s a waste of time to even try to get in shape so they might as well gorge themself on junk food.

While the first type of self-deception is all about artificially building yourself up and pretending you’re doing better than you really are, this second type is all about lying to yourself about how poorly you’re doing or will inevitably do.

This kind of deceit does just as much to arrest or even reverse your progress as the others do. Rather than stop you from making progress by convincing you that you’re already succeeding, it stops you from making progress by convincing you that you can’t succeed, or that you’re not worthy of success. Either kind leads to the same end result. The key commonality between the two is that they’re both built around one thing, the very same thing that is necessary to stop lying to yourself.

Self-awareness.

How to Cultivate Self-Awareness

Thankfully, half the battle (or at least maybe a quarter if you want a more reserved estimate) is recognizing the need for improving your self-awareness in the first place. It takes a small amount of self-awareness in the first place to realize that you need to build more of it, and that can be the toughest hurdle to clear for some people.

Once you know that you need to work on your self-awareness, there are a lot of different strategies you can use to start building it up and to reduce that innate habit of lying to yourself. Rather than try to list as many as possible individually, I’ve found they can generally be grouped into one of three categories – quantification, introspection, and monitoring.

  • Quantification is anything that adds objective, measurable data points to whatever goal you’re working toward. For example if you’re working on getting stronger, noting down the workload of your lifting sessions (weight, sets & reps, rest times, etc.) will give you clear numbers on whether or not you’re improving. You can’t lie to yourself about how you’re getting stronger if the numbers say you haven’t increased the workload of your lifts over a reasonable period. Even just marking down days you’ve done an activity in a don’t-break-the-chain type system, like checking a box on a calendar every day you study your target language or every day you hit your macro targets, adds a reference-able set of data to tell you if you’re being honest with yourself about how you’re doing.

    Hopefully you already have set solid, quantifiable goals as opposed to nebulous ones and have something here you can work off of.

    One key thing I want to note here is that you have to not cheat, and you have to actually act on the data you wind up with. I’ve seen with all the quantified self stuff getting marketed lately people who will get so fixated on one aspect they ignore everything else. If you get so obsessed with getting steps on your FitBit that you let it bounce around on the dryer to hit your targets, or if you decide you’re going to go ahead and mark off that you studied today even though you didn’t because you don’t want to mess up your streak, it’s not going to actually help you succeed.

  • Introspection is the process of sitting down and – with an obvious goal of being as brutally honest as possible – examining your progress, behavior, attitudes, etc.

    We do an annual review once a year to go over all of our goals from the previous year, how well we did in accomplishing them, what areas we fell short in, what things can be improved, and what things we excelled at, among other things. It’s kind of like the type of extended performance review you might get at a job, except applied to our lives. It’s an excellent way to take a hard, critical look at how we’ve been doing and correct any behaviors or attitudes that may be making things harder on us rather than better.

    Introspection doesn’t have to mean a big yearly review with a long worksheet though, it might be taking some time at the end of a project to ask yourself how it went, what went well and what needed improvement. It could be just taking five minutes in the morning for some quiet meditation on your work habits, or your progress toward your goals, or even just noting down at the end of the night what things you did well that day, what things you struggled with, and what your goals are for the next day. The core idea is to make sure that at least some time is set aside purposefully for you to take a look at yourself and your behaviors and analyze them is a constructively critical fashion.

  • Monitoring is kind of a sibling or an off-shoot perhaps of quantification. It’s the act of setting up someone or something external to yourself to check in on your progress and make sure you’re staying on course.

    A digital example might be something like RescueTime, which keeps track of how much time you spend doing various things on the computer and lets you know if you waste several hours a day on Facebook or Reddit or something when you should be getting work done. A human equivalent might be as simple as a friend who you agree to go to the gym with to work out regularly, or someone who checks in with you to make sure you got your writing done that day.

    These external checks help add an additional layer of complication to self-deception, because we also have to deceive them to get away with it. You can’t convince yourself you’ve been working out more than you actually have if your friend is complaining you skipped out on the last gym sessions. Does that mean you can’t lie or cheat when using some kind of external monitor? Well, no, and that’s something you have to watch out for. Bringing yourself to lie to someone else though is a lot harder than being deceptive to yourself.

Depending on your goals, there are strategies and tools that fit into each of these categories you an use to help cultivate, and reinforce, your sense of self-awareness in order to stop lying to yourself so much.

While these three can help with both types of self-deception – falsely building yourself up, and falsely putting yourself down – it’s important to note the second type is also helped immensely by working on embracing positive self talk.

It may sound like something from a feel-good pseudo-psychological self-help book, but any time you think to yourself something that’s expressing a negative self opinion stop what you’re doing and contradict it with something positive. If you think, “I’ll never be smart enough to learn how to speak Lithuanian,” then stop what you’re doing and tell yourself something positive like, “Fuck that. I’m goddamn brilliant and if I want to speak Lithuanian there’s nothing that’s going to stop me.”

Working on overcoming negative self-talk is a topic requiring an article and guide all on it’s own, but just keep in mind that negative self-talk is almost always going to make things worse, not better, and you should do whatever you can to think of yourself more positively.

It’s also worth noting that if you’re constantly down on yourself, and always feeling like you’ll never be good enough to accomplish the goals you set out for yourself, or that nothing’s worth it and you should just give up, you may want to consider talking to your doctor about the symptoms of depression. Sometimes the issue isn’t that you’re not trying hard enough, it’s that there’s some kind of chemical imbalance somewhere that needs fixed. Don’t be afraid to explore other potential causes.

Do you have any other suggestions for how to be more self-aware and stop lying to yourself? Have you ever come to the realization that you’ve been deceiving yourself about something? if you’ve got any good advice for everyone leave a comment and share it with us!

Why Walking Is Crucial to Getting Fit

Walking to lose weight and get fit

Getting out in nature should be reason enough to do more walking.

When most people think of starting an exercise program there are certain images that tend to come to mind – hard work under a barbell or on a weight machine, dripping sweat going all out on a stationary bike or on a long run. These are all great things to aspire to in a fitness program. The thing is, they all share a common trait. They’re all intense.

When people think of getting fit they almost always fixate directly on the intense side. It’s understandable, that stuff just feels like exercise. It immediately gives you the physical feeling of having accomplished something. The problem is, this fixation often causes people to completely ignore the relaxed options in a fitness program like walking.

And you really should be walking.

Why Walking Is So Important

Okay, quick caveat for the people who will want to get technical: Can you get fit without including any walking in your routine? Yes. Can you get fit by only walking? Also yes.

I wasn’t being hyperbolic in the title, I do think walking is crucial for most people looking to get in shape, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get there without it. I also don’t want to make it sound like walking is all you need – all the quantified-self gadgets like FitBits have convinced a lot of people walking a certain number of steps is the magical key to getting healthy and fit and it doesn’t quite work that way.

Like so many things it’s best to stay somewhere around the middle. Walking has so many benefits, especially for your average person who’s looking to lose some fat and hopefully get a little stronger without having to spend hours in the gym everyday, that it’s a huge detriment to leave it out.

Why do I consider walking such an important addition?

The main reason is that it makes for a solid calorie burning option that doesn’t ever grind you down. Everyone’s different but an extra mile walked in a day burns around 100 calories. That adds up to an extra 700 calories burned every week, which adds up to the 3500 calories needed to shed a pound of fat about every five weeks.

At a pound lost every five weeks you would be down ten pounds in a year. That may not be an incredible amount, but it’s substantial enough when you consider a one mile walk will probably take you less than thirty minutes.

You don’t have to stop at one mile though, because walking adds very little to training stress and won’t leave you feeling completely beat like heavy lifting, sprints, or a longer run can. This is especially important for two groups – people just starting out and people who are at higher levels and are pushing the limits of their training.

If you’re in the first group, chances are your recovery sucks. All the time I see people trying to dive into the hardest exercise program they can find and then learning the hard way that when you have a stressful job, kids,
shitty eating habits, and routinely get by on five hours of sleep a night you can’t take on something that intense without crashing. The other group tend to understand good recovery practices, but are pushing their training so hard they can’t do anything else to optimize their recovery. Walking provides both a way to burn additional calories without destroying themselves.

The low impact nature of walking also makes it great for people who are starting out severely overweight, or with an injury or other medical concerns that make it dangerous or ill-advised to engage in higher intensity activities.

Since you’re down in a lower cardio zone you’re also putting your body in an aerobic state where it will tend to use stored fat for fuel rather than drawing energy from your glycogen and glucose stores. If your goal is to be losing as much fat as possible then keeping your body in a state predisposed to burning fat as fuel is going to help.

On top of these benefits, relaxed continuous movement like walking is one of the best ways to build up your bodies vascular system – arteries, blood vessels, etc.

Building up your vascular system this way benefits all your other training making your heavy lifting and your higher intensity cardio more effective by providing better internal structure. It’s also a great stress reliever, which for some will be as big a benefit as everything else.

How to Program In Walking

Unlike other things, there really aren’t many things to consider when programming walking in to your fitness routine. Since it’s not a big stressor you can use it as a warm up or cool down around your lifting or more intense cardio. I also often recommend just adding in an evening walk of a couple miles if it won’t interfere with your schedule as a way of ensuring at least a minimum amount of daily activity.

If you’re unable to do a more varied exercise program you can always just start with daily walks as well. A past client was unable to lift or run due to an injury and he managed to lose over fifty pounds without doing any exercise other than walking.

A key thing to remember though is that walking won’t make up for a poor diet. Really, no amount of exercise is going to make up for taking in way too many calories. You need both sides of the equation to make things work well. This is part of why I think things like the FitBits wind up being so misleading – people think they can walk their 10k steps and then eat an entire pizza for dinner and still lose weight. That’s not likely to work.

Whether you’re just starting out, or have been training for a long time, the list of reason’s you need to be including walking in your training is extensive. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring one of the most powerful tools you’ve got available to you in your efforts to get in shape.

Have any other suggestions for people who are trying to include more walking in the fitness programming, or even a success story of your own built around getting out there and walking more? Leave a comment and tell us about it!

Why You Need Two Types of Reading to Learn a Language

intensive reading extensive reading language learning

Failing to use both intensive and extensive reading when learning a language is a big mistake.

Most people who are learning a second language understand how important it is to read material in their target language.

Even if your goal is purely conversational – maybe you just want to be able to watch movies or only need to use the new language in business calls – and literacy isn’t a concern at all, reading is still too powerful a tool to pass up. I’m all about having conversations as soon and as often as possible in your new language, but I’d never do it at the complete expense of reading.

The problem is, most people don’t recognize the differences between the two ways to approach reading in a target language. If you aren’t making full use of both, you’re making things unnecessarily hard on yourself.

Intensive Reading vs. Extensive Reading

It’s easy to think of reading in a target language like you might think of reading in your native language, as a relatively passive & relaxed kind of activity. That’s one way to do it, but there’s a second option you’re missing out on if that’s the only way you’re approaching your reading. You need a good balance between Extensive and Intensive reading, not just a focus on one or the other.

So what’s the difference between the two?

Extensive Reading

Extensive reading, to make a fitness analogy, is your relaxed low intensity steady state cardio. It’s going for a long walk at the end of the night or spending a little time just strolling leisurely on the treadmill. This type of reading is the kind of reading most people do in their native language – broad, relaxed, and casual. Think about curling up somewhere cozy with a novel, that’s the feel of extensive reading.

Extensive reading will technically take up more of your time than intensive reading. So what’s it good for?

  • Increasing Reading Speed/Fluency – Extensive reading is great for increasing your reading and comprehension speed since it’s a lot of slow constant practice. The more time you spend reading the more comfortable and habitual it feels as your brain builds all the little shortcuts to make for more rapid word and idea association.

  • Internalization of Grammar – Another benefit of extensive reading’s nature of being long and somewhat repetitive is that you’ll start to internalize common grammatical structures without thinking about it too much. When you’re exposed to the past participle form three hundred times reading a novel for an hour you stop thinking about it.

  • It’s Relaxing – I really enjoy learning languages, in the way other people might enjoy playing games or some other hobby, but even I hit times when studying or practicing just feels like work. Extensive reading is prefect for those times because the idea is to do it for fun. You’re not really worrying about whether you understand 100% of the material, or that you’re looking up unfamiliar words and adding them to a study list, it’s just the literary equivalent of plopping on the couch and watching some TV.

The keys to extensive reading is to set aside a moderate to long stretch of time to read, and to select something that’s either appropriate for your level of understanding, or even something a little below your level.

The goal here isn’t to have your dictionary and notebook handy, but just to read. Make sure you do pick something interesting, the goal here is to have fun. Novels (especially bilingual reader versions), magazines, and comic books are all good options in my opinion, but you may personally love reading personal style blogs or online automotive reviews – just find whatever is most enjoyable.

Once you’ve got something all you have to do is read. That’s it. Relax and enjoy. It’s not supposed to be intense, unlike…

Intensive Reading

If extensive reading is your long slow steady state cardio, then intensive reading is your high intensity interval training. This is the reading equivalent of doing hill sprints – short, intense, and focused.

The purpose of intensive reading is to dive deep into focused study of a text that’s beyond your current level, but not impossibly so, and deconstructing it as much as possible to tease out colloquialisms, implied or finer meanings of words, non-standard grammar usage, etc. What does intensive reading help most with?

  • Learning Colloquialisms – This depends a little on the material you’re selecting, a formal business report for example is less likely to contain the number of colloquialisms a blog post might, but intensive reading is a great way to single out and deconstruct usages that are more reflective of real life and less the inside of a textbook.

  • Developing Targeted Vocab Lists – Intensive reading also provides a good source for building vocab lists or study decks around things you’re interested in, or things relevant to the reason you’re learning the language in the first place. If you’re learning German because you’re being sent to a conference on gardening, then material on gardening and botany will provide more useful vocab for you than a book for tourists.

  • Comprehension Testing – Since you’re taking the time to dig deep into whatever material you’ve selected for reading, it provides an excellent opportunity for comprehension testing. After your first pass reading you can circle back and start deconstructing everything to see if you actually understood the material and what things tripped you up or meant something other than what you originally thought.

It’s important for intensive reading practice to keep sessions short. Treat it like you’re cramming for a test the next morning on whatever it is you’ve chosen to read, make lots of notes, look up words you don’t know, dig into unfamiliar grammars and usages to see if you can work them out.

Like those hill sprints, these should be brief but difficult. Pick a text that provides the right amount of brevity and challenge, you want it to be above your current reading and comprehension level but still fairly short. Wikipedia articles, news sites, and blogs are often good choices depending on how casual of language you’re looking for since they tend to be short and focused but still interesting.

Treat it like studying because that’s exactly what it is.

Finding the Right Balance

I would never prescribe someone nothing but slow, easy walks for someone looking to get fit nor would I prescribe daily hill sprints and barbell complexes – you need to have an appropriate balance of both to be successful.

Now where that balance is will certainly differ from person to person. Someone just starting out who is untrained and substantially overweight might do lots of walking and only one higher intensity session per week, someone who’s a high level athlete with an understanding of proper recovery might be able to handle five higher intensity sessions a week. The trick is figuring out what works best for you.

The balance between extensive reading and intensive reading is the same.

Some people might do better with more relaxed extensive reading to complement their other studies, especially if there’s severely limited amounts of time available for focused study that could be better spent with a teacher or native speaker. Others might find that they do better with a lot of deep dives into particular topics, especially if their reason for learning is tied to topics or factors related to the sorts of reading material they’re diving in to. There isn’t a perfect ratio for everyone, but the key is to be sure that you’re not devoting all your time to one and not any to the other.

Do you have any thoughts on extensive or intensive reading you want to add? Any tips for making either more effective or pitfalls to keep an eye out for? Share them with us!

How to Game Your Environment to Work Better

Optimize environment for productivity

A messy environment can do more harm than you realize.

As a part of starting to write more fiction I took the advice of smarter people than myself and made Stephen King’s On Writing a piece of my required reading.

One of the things that jumped out at me is how much he emphasizes setting aside a special area just for you to do your writing in. King argues that having a special place that is set up specifically for you to write and do nothing else not only helps you ignore distractions, but also helps trigger that creative mindset because your subconscious knows when you sit down in that particular spot it’s time to write.

This is powerful advice. Our environments have a huge effect on our behaviors and moods that we can’t always be aware of.

So why limit the benefits of reshaping our environment to just writing?

Making Your Environment Work for You

The environment people are in constantly shapes what they do, think, and feel. This is visible on a large scale in things like the way the presence of animals that were more or less easy to domesticate (horses, sheep, and cattle in Europe vs. lions, water buffalo, giraffes, etc. in Sub-Saharan Africa) made things like widespread agriculture more or less feasible which affected the lives and futures of everyone living there. It’s visible on smaller scales in the way that people given smaller plates will eat less, or the way people will generally be more cheerful in a bright, sunny room than a dark one.

Once you understand the effect that your surroundings can have, you can start to take control of it. These environmental forces can work both for or against you – so why not make sure you’re giving yourself a boost instead of shooting yourself in the foot before the race even starts?

Remove Negative Environmental Factors

The first step should always be to remove whatever negative elements are in the environment you’re trying to optimize.

Depending on what environment you’re talking about and what you’re optimizing for, this can mean a wide variety of things. Are you wanting to sleep better? Then removing things that give off light like electronics (or at least unplugging them so the LEDs turn off) and setting up curtains or blinds sufficient to keep the room dark at night would qualify as removing the negative factor of there being too much light.

If you want to optimize your environment for losing weight and getting fit, then emptying your house of all the junk food and other stuff that doesn’t fit within your macro and calorie plan would be a good start. Do you need somewhere to be as productive as possible? Then making sure that place is set up with something to block you from social media (or maybe the Internet entirely) will help cut down on distractions.

There isn’t a definitive list of negatives to remove – instead you should approach your area first with the question, “What is my goal here?” Then once you’ve answered that ask, “What things in this space hinder my progress toward that goal?” After that it’s just down to removing them or at the very least putting things into place to mitigate their negative effects.

Maximize Positive Environmental Factors

Once you’ve gotten all the stuff out of there that was holding you back, start priming your environment with things that will support your success.

Again, there’s no definitive list here, it will depend on what particular goals you’re trying to optimize your environment for. Better sleep might be aided by regulating the temperature of the bedroom and getting your bed set up with the right pillows and blankets. Your fitness goals might be be made easier to achieve by keeping your gym clothes out and ready to go so there’s no excuse to skip the gym, or by ensuring your fridge is stocked with prepared meals that fit your eating plan.

Even something as small as making sure that your desk is tidy or that you have a nice big window letting a lot of natural light in to your chosen work area can make a surprisingly big difference. The idea is to follow the reverse process of what we did above, identify what things will make you more likely to do what needs to be done to reach your goal, and optimize your environment around those things.

If you can, there’s a lot of benefit as well to assigning a certain goal task or activity to a very specific controlled area and ensuring that you only do that thing in that area and nothing else. For example, if you have an area set up to work, or write, then only do that there – don’t put Steam on that computer and also use that spot to play games or waste time on Facebook and Twitter. If you want to get better sleep, then your bed should be reserved for sleeping or for sex (to be fair, sex is one activity I’ll concede can be done just about anywhere) and nothing else. No eating in bed, no watching TV in bed, no reading in bed, etc.

This specialization of the area helps condition your brain into triggering the habits built around your goal whenever you’re in the area. If all you do in bed is sleep, your brain knows it’s time to sleep when you get under the covers and will help you fall asleep faster. If all you do in a certain chair or at a certain desk is write, your brain knows when you sit down there that, even if it’s feeling uninspired or wants to do something else, it is time to get some words down.

Even if you don’t go to the extremes to optimize your environment to suit your goals, be aware of the ways it might be affecting you. Knowing that it might not be your fault you keep getting distracted and can’t get work done, or knowing that there are ways to help trick yourself into being more productive that you don’t even need to think about can be an empowering idea.

Do you have any other thoughts on ways to reshape our environments to be more successful? Have you had firsthand experience with some of the benefits of a good environment or the effects of a poor one? Leave a comment and share!

5 Reasons You’re Failing to Get Fit

Weight Loss Obstacles

These common obstacles might be what’s holding you back from reaching your fitness goals.

Getting fit, particularly to a basic level, is simultaneously frustratingly simple and incredibly complex.

It’s simplicity comes from the fact that there are really only two things you need to do once you boil it down. The first is to take in fewer calories than you burn or inversely to burn more calories than you take in. The second is to regularly move in some way that challenges your body. That’s it – and technically you could probably leave that second one off if you really wanted.

The problem is we’re not dealing with simple math or well-engineered machines here, we’re dealing with biology.Biology is messy. There are thousands of chemical processes going on all with their own variables and differing levels to which we even understand them. Compound that with psychological and sociological components that come with behavior modification, and what should be a simple process of just showing up and doing the work gets complicated.

That complexity can make it difficult to figure out what the problem is when you’re failing to make progress. Thankfully, I’ve found that it’s almost always something out of this handful of issues holding people back.

The Short 80/20 List of Fitness Progress Roadblocks

This is by no means an exhaustive list of what could be secretly sabotaging your efforts to lose weight and get fit, but these are absolutely the most common. Following the 80/20 pattern 80% (probably more actually) of people wind up being held back by 20% (probably less) of the potential problems. More likely than not if you have the basics in order and still aren’t seeing progress one or more of these is going to be the culprit.

  • Lack of Sleep – Sleep is an essential part of fitness. Sleep deprivation cripples testosterone production (reducing it by up to 15% in one study), increases stress hormones like cortisol, and predisposes you to poor decision making which is likely to lead to poor dietary choices and skipped or half-assed workouts.

    Don’t think that just because you’re not dozing off in the middle of the day it means you aren’t sleep deprived either. It only takes getting a little less than six hours of sleep on average to start accumulating the negative effects of sleep deprivation. Especially if you’re also putting additional demands on your system through activity and calorie deficit, you need to make sure your sleep is good enough.

  • Snacking & Untracked or Poorly Tracked Calories – It’s extremely easy throughout the day to grab something little to eat without thinking about it. Maybe it’s because you still carry a habit of using food as a reward, maybe it’s because of social pressures like presence of that box of doughnuts in the break room. Whatever the reason, I frequently find people who are trying to watch their calorie intake who will snack on “little” things throughout the day and then not bother to track them in whatever system they’re using to monitor their calories.

    Those little snacks add up though, and before long they’ve eaten a calorie surplus everyday for the past two weeks when MyFitnessPal or whatever says they’ve been in a deficit. It looks and feels to them like they should be losing because it’s so easy to forget all those little snacks when in reality they may even be putting on fat.

    This sometimes also pops up with the “Well, fuck it” attitude people get when they make a small indiscretion. They have a minor slip, maybe one of those office doughnuts, and then don’t bother logging it and figure that since they already screwed that day up in regards to their diet they might as well have an entire pizza for dinner that night and just try again tomorrow.

    If your tracking system says you’re in a calorie deficit but you’re still gaining weight, dial in and make absolutely certain there aren’t calories going unaccounted for.

  • Overtraining – I strongly considered not including this one at all, but I recognize it probably ought to be included just in case with certain caveats. Those caveats tie in to the reason I thought about leaving it out, and that’s because I consistently see people getting so scared of overtaining (even when there is no real danger of it being a problem for them) that they severely undertrain.

    Overtraining, or more accurately not allowing yourself adequate recovery, will impede your progress. For the large majority of people though their level of fitness won’t be high enough to be concerned about overtraining in the traditional sense until they’re at or nearly at their goals. Instead what I think most people should be watching out for is either their fear of overtaining causing them to not train hard enough, or that they’re currently putting themselves on a program they can’t handle long term, whether that’s physically or socially or whatever.

  • Misjudged Activity Levels – Whenever I take on a personal training client they have to go through a number of assessments and discussions related not just to where they would like to get from a fitness standpoint but also where they are starting out from. One of the things I always ask, usually tied to the process of figuring out a starting point for calorie and macro goals, is for people to tell me how active they are on an average day not counting workouts.

    On a scale of 1 to 5 with a 1 being completely sedentary and a 5 being extremely active a lot of people will place themselves at a moderate 3. Then when I start asking about their day they tell me something along the lines of they wake up and sit in the car for an hour on the way to work, then sit behind a desk for eight hours, then an hour sitting in the car heading home, then they sit and catch up on things in their home office, then sit down for dinner, then sit on the couch with the family to watch TV and relax until bed.

    These people seem strangely shocked when I let them know that in reality, they are a 1 on the activity scale. It’s deceptively easy to trick yourself into thinking you’re more physically active on a day to day basis than you actually are. When you’re trying to get fit, even if you’ve developed and are sticking to a good workout habit, take the time to make sure you’re not then spending the entire rest of the day sitting. Upping the general amount of movement you do throughout the day can make a big difference.

  • Poor Progress Tracking – This last one is maybe a little bit of a trick answer. Sometimes the problem that’s causing you to not be making progress is that you are making progress. You just don’t know it.

    If you’re only tracking your weight in pounds and even that only sporadically than you might lose four pounds of fat and gain five pounds of muscle between weigh-ins and think you’re doing something wrong. If you only keep an eye on your lifts you might think you’ve stalled out when you can’t add more weight but don’t realize you’ve dropped 2% bodyfat in that time. Remember how biology is complex? Well that means that progress in something like fitness is rarely linear. Before you declare that you’re failing, make sure you’re tracking a range of different indicators of progress over an appropriate amount of time. You might be succeeding and not even know it.

If you feel like you’ve stalled out on your fitness goals, or just were never making progress to begin with, checking off each of these problems should remove whatever obstacle is stopping you. The key is to never stop testing, evaluating, implementing adjustments, re-evaluating, and then doing the whole thing over again. As long as you stick with it you’ll get there eventually.

Have any other common problems you’ve run into? Other helpful suggestions for people who feel like they’re stuck, or a question for everyone to help you get back to making progress toward your goals? Leave a comment!

9 Reasons You Should Be Reading Fiction More

Benefits of reading fiction

There are tons of benefits to reading fiction you might be missing out on.

I love to read. Always have. To the point where as a little kid I would routinely get lost in the grocery store because I refused to put my book down even when walking and I wouldn’t notice my mom or grandma had turned off at some point.

I’ve noticed something though in my time spent within the circles of self-development and entrepreneurial minded folks – as much as many of them profess a deep thirst for reading so many disparage or at best ignore fiction.

Their reading lists are packed full of non-fiction, how-to books, motivational stuff, etc. with not a moment spared for a good story. I’ve had people tell me that reading fiction is a ‘waste of time’, or that it’s silly to devote hours to ‘entertainment’ when they could be reading something instructional. They say that, unlike fiction, non-fiction has value.

Fuck those people.

Not only does fiction have value, I’d argue it has a type of value that you can’t get from non-fiction. Here’s why you should make room for reading fiction again.

The Many Benefits of Reading Fiction

Whether you are a voracious reader like myself (I have such a close bond with my Kindle Paperwhite I named him Steven) or someone who considers getting through one short book a year an accomplishment, there’s so much you can get out of diving into a great work of fiction.

  • Reading Fiction Reduces Stress – Fiction reading is an excellent way to reduce your stress levels, something that everyone can benefit from. An ’09 study from the University of Sussex suggested just six minutes of fiction reading can reduce stress markers by up to 68%. Similar studies have noted that, while non-fiction reading can also reduce stress, fiction provided exponentially higher reductions in stress markers. It’s more relaxing to lose yourself in a story than it is to try to process and remember important information.

    Stress is a serious factor when it comes to maintaining good health. Success in weight loss, getting stronger, learning new things effectively, maintaining productivity – all of these things are sabotaged by unchecked stress levels. Making sure to keep stress low is probably one of the biggest positive changes you can make in your life.
    People who read regularly sleep better, show higher overall self-esteem, and report lower rates of depression. Making time for more fiction reading could actually save your life.

  • Reading Fiction Improves Your Vocabulary – All reading improves your vocabulary, but fiction reading does it best because for the vast majority of fiction word choice, sentence structure, and the composition of the prose itself is a concern.

    Non-fiction, when it does improve your vocabulary, has a tendency to do so in a utilitarian and technical way. After all, that’s generally the goal – to get whatever information the author is trying to impart across to you in a way that is most easily understandable while possibly introducing some new terms for things or concepts you may be unfamiliar with. The focus is on clarity above all else.

    In fiction the author stills seeks to convey a type of information, maybe particular emotions, better understanding of human nature, a moral about problem solving, or something like that. The difference is the goal of a fiction author is to convey that story as artfully and beautifully as possible. This builds both a reader’s functional vocabulary but also their sense of flow, meter, and adeptness in their use of language. Rather than teach technical words it helps expand the precision and depth with which we can describe the world around us and convey nuances in meaning.

  • Reading Fiction Boosts Your Creativity – What comes hand in hand with the expansion of vocabulary? A huge boost to your creativity.

    Creativity, boiled down to its essence, is the ability to make connections between otherwise disparate concepts and ideas to forge something novel. (It should come as a hint that Latin ‘novus’ grew into both a noun for a fiction book and an adjective for something new and innovative.) Can absorbing a lot of non-fiction provide a lot of new ideas for you to start linking together? Sure.

    Fiction does it even better though because fiction is nothing but ideas linked and scrambled into something interesting. It’s all ‘what if’s. What if a boy went on the classic hero’s journey but in space with a laser sword and (spoiler warning) what if the antagonist was his dad? What if magic was real and people got invited to go to a secret magical school via train in a castle in England? What if you could write down the stream of consciousness of people going about their day in Dublin but relate it to the structure of a Homeric epic poem? What if a woman and her son were trapped in a hot car in the midsummer sun by a rabid dog and cell phones hadn’t been invented yet?

    Reading fiction cultivates your creativity in the same way that artists cultivate their skills by looking at and copying or mimicking beautiful paintings or drawings. Exposure to another person’s creativity is the best way to spark your own. It makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange exposing you to wonderful new things and forcing you to see the mundane from brand-new perspectives.

  • Reading Fiction Develops Your Theory of Mind – Theory of mind is one of the things that makes humanity special within the animal kingdom. It’s what sets us apart with chimpanzees, ravens, dolphins, and possibly elephants and pigs. Theory of mind is essentially the ability to recognize that another creature has its own mind separate of yours and then modeling it in your own mind to theorize about what and how they’re thinking.

    Doing that might seem obvious to you now, but humans don’t pick that ability up until they’re about three or four years old. Kind of like an understanding of object permanency, it’s why small children think if they can’t see you then you can’t see them. The only thing that exists for them is their own mind and whatever they’re feeling or thinking everyone else must be too.

    Theory of mind is vital for social interactions – and therefore vital for business and all sorts of other aspects of life. It cues you in when someone is trying to deceive you, because you can theorize that the grinning used car salesman is actually more interested in getting as much money from you as possible than he is in being your best friend. It lets you connect better with people because you can put yourself in the shoes of your significant other, family, or friends, and work through problems in a more cohesive way.

    Fiction reading is on the very small list of things that actively improves your theory of mind. Studies have shown not only do the regions of the brain responsible for our theory of mind light up when reading fiction, but when tested fiction readers do far better at tests of theory of mind such as guessing emotional state from non-verbal or visual cues. Guessing at the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of characters and keeping straight all of the social ties and interactions within a narrative lets our brains practice those skills for use later with real people.

  • Reading Fiction Cultivates Empathy – If there’s something I definitely think we could use more of in 2017, it’s empathy. Empathy is similar to theory of mind, except instead of allowing us to postulate what the other person may be thinking, empathy allows us to connect with an understand what another person is likely feeling.

    Why’s that important?

    Empathy is one of the key driving forces behind people not being complete and utter dicks to one another. Empathy and understanding is a key force behind charity and positive social change. Empathy puts you in another person’s shoes so you can see the humanity with a person you might otherwise hate. A lack of empathy is part of what turns people into homophobes, racists, and serial killers. Not categories you want to be in.

    Spending time reading fiction directly contributes to making you a more understanding, less shitty human being.

  • Reading Fiction Exposes You to Culture – Part of that increase in your capacity for empathy comes from being exposed to a wide variety of people in a wide variety of situations and being made to understand their personal struggles within them. Another part of it comes from being exposed to new cultures.

    Fiction reading is an incredible avenue for being exposed not just to real cultures, but to constructed or fictional ones. Even fictional cultures have some kind of basis, intentional or not, in existing real-world cultural systems. Whether it’s experiencing a facsimile of classical Hellenistic culture through the Iliad, the racial prejudice of the southern U.S. through To Kill a Mockingbird, or even the ideas of family and honor presented by non-historical cultures like those in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, all of these things expose you to new ways of thinking and living.

    Fiction from cultures outside of your own, even if they aren’t directly writing about their own culture, also broadens your understanding. Which is why I always advocate reading from authors with diverse cultural, racial, and national backgrounds.

  • Reading Fiction Builds Your Self-Confidence Model – When people reading fiction are run through an fMRI brain scan the same brain regions light up that would light up if they were having that experience firsthand. This is tied in strongly with why fiction helps us build both empathy and theory of mind, it forces us to experience something that someone else with a different background would experience.

    Psychologists have found that this enables people to build internal models of self-confidence and fuel introspection and personal understanding.

    Basically, reading about how some badass protagonist believed in themselves and stood up to defeat the antagonist despite overwhelming odds can contribute to making the real you more confident by providing a sort of comparison model in your subconscious to emulate. This process also allows for unbound self-exploration. Our normal day-to-day emotions are often obfuscated by the forces of peer pressure, normative expectations, and a thousand other factors outside of ourselves. It can make it difficult to understand how you actually feel about things and get in touch with your emotions.

    Reading fiction creates an environment not only free of outside pressures (everything occurs entirely in your own mind), but also provides a safe analogue for examining your own emotions by letting another character experience them. Rather than go through the difficult process of coming to terms with emotions related to a trauma you’ve experienced, you can be a neutral observer as a character you identify with struggles with the emotions related to their own trauma. Through witnessing and experiencing their journey, you can learn about yourself without the fear and vulnerability normally associated with deep introspection.

  • Reading Fiction Improves Your Focus – The nature of the modern world is one in which we are constantly pestered and distracted by a thousand little things all constantly clamoring for just a few seconds of our attention. Being able to sit and really focus on a single task is an increasingly rare skill.

    To learn how to focus better you have to practice focusing better.

    What better way to do that than by committing to sit down with a compelling narrative and devote an entire hour (or however long) to a single, focused task like reading? The feeling of focus and the ability to tune out distractions that comes with getting lost in fiction is something that can be cultivated through reading and then applied to other areas like work or study where it’s a key tool for productivity. A little time spent reading fiction can mean more productivity later.

  • Reading Fiction Provides New Perspectives for Problem Solving – Exposure to all these new and myriad ideas and situations also benefits your capacity for problem solving.

    One way of looking at the structure of fiction is to view it as an argument. The Dramatica theory of story structure for example is one method that I like of analyzing fiction this way. As an example, you could take Star Wars IV: A New Hope as being an argument about the value of trusting in your instincts. Throughout the story both sides of the argument are presented through the characters’ actions and, in the end, the story comes to the conclusion via Luke turning off the targeting system and successfully murdering hundreds of thousands of people on the Death Star that trusting your feelings is good.

    When reading fiction we’re exposed to tons of these little mini-arguments and problems and presented not only solutions for them but examples of ways other people, real or otherwise, have approached the task of solving difficult problems and overcoming obstacles. This helps build in your mind a repository of different frameworks with which to tackle difficult problems. The wider variety of frameworks, the better the problem solver you become and the less trouble obstacles in your life present to you.

Making the Most of your Fiction Reading

The best part is, in addition to all these great benefits, reading fiction is fun.

It’s something most people will naturally enjoy. Even better when they’ve studied it they’ve found that all these benefits from reading fiction come no matter what type or quality you’re reading. You don’t have to be a huge snob and force yourself to trudge through Dostoevsky and James Joyce when you’ll get the same benefits from Brad Thor and Stephenie Meyer. I still think you should do your best to read from a wide range of genres and a diverse mix of authors, but you don’t have to read fiction you don’t enjoy to reap all the benefits – do what makes you happy.

If you need a boost of encouragement, or even some suggestions for new books you might like, Goodreads is a good place to check out for fiction reviews, recommendations, and a system where you can challenge yourself to read a certain number of books before the year’s end. You can try it out if you need that extra little bump of motivation although seriously with all those benefits I hope you don’t need more convincing to get started reading more.

Have any other benefits you think I’ve missed? Experiences of your own with the life improving effects of good fiction? Share in the comments! I love hearing from everyone.

Creating and Using a Personal Language Learning Notebook

Language Learning Notebook

I’m a fan of Code and Quill notebooks, but there are lots of options for putting together a language learning notebook.

Confession time – I am a bit of a notebook addict.

Okay, ‘a bit’ is too soft of phrasing. A serious notebook addict. I tend to fall more on the eco-conscious, paperless, ‘let’s digitize everything’ side, but there is just something about the experience of sitting down with a nice, physical notebook to draw or write in that I just love. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that a notebook has always factored heavily in my language learning.

Regardless of my proclivities for fine stationary, I’ve found keeping a notebook like this to be a huge benefit to learning a language. It helps with motivation, planning, lesson structuring, memorization – just about every area of language learning except conversing with another human being. The trick is in knowing how to make the most of it.

Let me show you my favorite ways for building and benefiting from a personal language learning notebook.

Prepping the Language Learning Notebook

First things first, you’ll need a notebook.

Personally I am very fond of Code and Quill notebooks, particularly for language learning. They’re reasonably priced, come in both hard and soft cover, have lay-flat binding, offer a range of sizes, use paper with little to no bleed through, and they have both dot grid and indent ruled pages which make them great for working with languages with non-romanized writing systems like Mandarin, Russian, Greek, Korean, etc.

For my language journals I prefer the Monolith since I like a larger notebook, but all of them are good. You can buy them directly from their website if affiliate links bother you, or you can get the Monolith, the Origin, or the Traveler through Amazon and we’ll get a small cut.

As much as I like them you can really use any kind of notebook or journal you want for this task, even a ten cent spiral bound notebook from a back to school sale. I would recommend finding one you really like though because the more you like the notebook itself the more inclined you’ll be to use it.

Once you’ve got your notebook there are a lot of different ways you can set it up in order to facilitate better language learning. Take everything here as more of a suggestion than a rule – I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of how I set things up but personalization is fantastic. It’s your notebook.

I always like to start mine off with a goal sheet at the very front, and then planning, resources, and the meat of the notebook after that. Here are my general set-up pages:

  • Goal Page – The goal page tends to go right up at the front for obvious reasons. This isn’t just a sheet with ‘Goals’ written in big letters at the top and then ‘Speak Japanese’ (or whatever language) scrawled underneath. I tend to lay out my goal page first with a specific big picture goal and a time frame for it. For example a specific big picture goal might be ‘Test at B2 Level in Swedish’ or ‘Be able to understand an entire film in Cantonese’. Then I set a time frame that I want to shoot for and write that down next to it.

    Even though for me (because I just really enjoy learning languages) these tend to be fluency oriented goals that doesn’t mean yours have to be. If you’re just learning German to prep for a couple weeks of studying abroad or to not look like an ass on a business trip, then your goal might be something like ‘Be able to order food at a restaurant’ or ‘Be able to have a basic five minute conversation’ along with a much shorter time frame. That’s totally fine.

    Below the big picture goal, I like to put a halfway goal or a benchmark goal. So using my first example, this one might be ‘Test at A2 Level in Swedish’. Sometimes I include time frames with these, sometimes not. If it helps you to stay on track, go for it. Below that I’ll mark down another benchmark goal that’s about halfway to my halfway goal, like ‘Test at A1 Level in Swedish’. Finally, I like to list out any recurring goals or habit goals I think will help me get there. Things like ‘Do at least one 10 minute Memrise session per day’, ‘Schedule two iTalki sessions with a native speaker per week’, etc. These last ones are all recurring, repeatable goals that keep me on track and making progress.

  • Planning Page – Following the goals page I usually lay out my planning page or pages. The idea here is to lay out as much as I can about how I intend to reach all those goals I just set on the previous page. I like to structure it around a series of questions I ask myself and then write down the answers to. First, what level am I at currently? You might not be starting this out at zero, and it’s nice to have a good appraisal of where you’re actually beginning.

    How will I measure progress? Having as quantifiable a way as possible of measuring progress is way more important than you think for staying motivated and knowing you’re on the right track. It can be as simple as the progress bar on Memrise, Anki, or Duolingo, or it can be as complicated as posting a weekly YouTube video in your target language or having a native speaker give you a full assessment via Skype or in person. The point is to plan out and write down how you intend to gauge your progress as you learn.

    When will I fit this into my schedule? Learning a language takes time. Like learning an instrument, you need to set aside specific times to study and to practice. Not knowing when exactly you plan to do these things is a surefire way to wind up too busy to do them or just outright forgetting. Like with the others, go as specific or general as you need here – anywhere from ‘Every Tuesday and Thursday evening I’ll study for an hour’ to ‘3 p.m. to 4 p.m. daily I study vocab, and 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. is conversation practice’. Know how much time you’ve got and how you plan to spend it.

  • Resource List – On my resource list pages I like to, well, list all my resources. This is partially to not forget new things when I come across them, and part to make sure I have a wide variety of study tools to pull from since I get bored easily. Put down specific things like ‘Memrise 1,000 word Frequency Deck’ or ‘My Korean Book 1’ and general stuff like ‘Watching movies’ or ‘Reading online news’. The idea is to make this more expansive than limiting so I always leave a blank page or two where I can fill in books, specific YouTube channels, podcasts, websites, and whatever else I find as I go.

    You’ll always find more great resources after you’ve started, so leave plenty of room and always be hunting out things to fill that blank space with.

  • Optional: Table of Contents – I don’t use this one much myself, since I like flipping around in my notebook more to be reminded of all the things I went over and generally if there’s something I want to ‘look up’ it’s easier to use Google than my personal notes.

    Still, some people really like having a table of contents. If you do think you’ll want one just leave a couple blank pages before you start your actual note taking and then as you fill the rest of the notebook flip back in whatever increments you want things organized in and write down the name of that section and the page number. Once your notebook’s filled your table of contents will be finished too.

Those are the main prep pages I like to start with. If you can think of others you think would help you then definitely add them (and leave a comment about it to help the rest of us out too). After those we get into the meat of the notebook itself.

How to Use Your Language Learning Notebook

Now that you’ve done all your prep work, how do you make the most out of the journal itself? Here are some of my favorite ways that I’ve found help me the most – again, feel free to mix and match and add your own as necessary.

  • Taking Notes – I realize you don’t need to be told to take notes in a notebook, but it’s still worth mentioning. Copying down vocab lists, summarizing lessons, writing out grammar ‘rules’ in your own words, transcribing dialogue from shows and movies, these are all great ways to help solidify and retain what you’re learning in your study sessions.

  • Lesson Review Outlines – A lesson review or lesson review outline is different from regular notes in that rather than copying things down as you learn them, you basically try to summarize the entire lesson on a sheet or two immediately afterward from memory. These give you a good outline to then compare and review against your lesson notes because it tells you what stuck from the lesson and what elements you didn’t remember as well. They’re also a good resource for building…

  • Quizzes – It might seem like cheating to take a quiz that you put together yourself since theoretically you had to already know all the answers to make the quiz, but writing out basic quizzes from your notes and lesson reviews and then circling back to them a few days, a week, or a month later and seeing how well you do is a great test. That spaced repetitive recall pattern also helps you remember things better for longer.

  • Lesson Records – This is more for people who are incorporating classes or things like iTalki sessions with a native speaker. The idea here is to note down things like the date and length of the session (if necessary), what you focused on, key notes from the lesson, what new things you learned, and a study or topic to-do list before the next session.

    More than once I have finished out a lesson over Skype and, due to timezone differences, gone straight to bed only to realize the next morning that I had basically forgotten everything we went over. I’ve also had times where I had to go longer than a week between sessions and totally lost the thread of what we were working on before the following session. Keep good records, don’t waste your lessons.

  • Progress Reviews – Just having written down some way to quantify progress at the beginning of the notebook isn’t going to do much if you don’t actually sit down and measure your progress against it.

    I like to include a half-page to a page in regular increments where I assess where my current progress level is, and then refer back to my previous progress review entry to get a feel for what kind of rate I’m progressing at. Not only does this help motivate me, it’s helpful to be able to see if something has caused my progress to slow or if the addition of new study materials or habits has accelerated my learning. I know. I’m a huge nerd. It’s fine.

  • Compositions and Dialogues – Writing out your own little diary entries, made up conversations, stories, or whatever else in the target language is a great way to practice new vocab and grammar in a way that’s not as abstract as memorizing lists and trying to internalize rules outside of actual context. You can write about whatever you want, it’s always good practice.

    Personally, I like to write things out by hand in my notebook, then transcribe them from there into Lang-8 or to send them to native speakers I know to get the mistakes corrected, then go back and correct all my errors with a red pen in my physical notebook. Then every now and again I’ll go back through the old corrected entries and see if I’m still making the same errors or if there are certain things I need to focus on more because I keep screwing them up.

  • Visual Vocab – Do you like to doodle? Rather than write 犬 on one side of the page and ‘dog’ next to it, draw a little dog and then write the word over it, or inside it, or whatever without having to involve the English word ‘dog’.

    Even if you can’t draw well at all it doesn’t matter – these are your personal notes not a contest submission. The point is to help your brain associate the word in your target language with the thing it represents, and not teach your brain to associate the word in the target language with a word in English, which it then associates with the thing it represents. It seems like a small distinction, but it can make a big difference in how well words come to mind when you’re speaking and listening.

  • Study Log – Like the table of contents, this is one I don’t tend to use much but enough people have expressed how much they feel it helps them so you can include one if you like. A study log is just a section, usually reserved at the end of the notebook, where you can log the date, duration, and method for your study sessions.

    I prefer tracking my progress in other ways, but if you think you’ll be most motivated by seeing that you’ve put in an hour of study every day for the last ten days or if you need to track your study hours for work or school or some other reason then leaving a couple pages at the end works well for it.

Make It Your Own

These are just some of my personal favorite ways to use the notebook, but I’m sure this is not in any way an exhaustive list of all the ways you can use it to study better and more efficiently.

Add in whatever other suggestions you come across that you think will help, or things you think up that you enjoy having in there. The idea is to build something for your learning process that you can get excited about and feel invested in, and personalization is a great way to accomplish that.

Have you tried putting together a language learning notebook? Do you have any other ideas for using one you think everyone will find helpful, or things you’ve had trouble with? Leave a comment and let’s talk about it.

The Stoicism Cheat Sheet: 15 Ways You Can Start Practicing Stoicism Right Now

Stoicism and practical philosophy

Applying the principles of Stoicism to your life doesn’t have to mean spending hours and hours pouring through works from classical antiquity.

Stoicism – or at least a modernized evolution of it – has become increasingly popular over the last ten years or so. More and more athletes, celebrities, political and business leaders, and other public figures talk about how much they enjoy Marcus Aurelius, or how much their following of Stoic practices has helped them in life.

For someone who is interested in seeing what it’s all about though, it can be hard to really dive in and get a good handle on things quickly. There is quite a lot of material out there and the writings of Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca and others from that section of classical antiquity can feel a bit opaque and stuffy even in spite of their beauty and wisdom.

What if you just want to get started applying Stoic philosophy to your life right away? How can you get started putting these things to practice without having to do countless hours of study in philosophical texts?

The Stoicism Cheat Sheet

Quickly before we get to that we need to handle a small bit of housekeeping. First, these are primarily the bits of Stoic philosophy that are applicable and beneficial to modern living. It doesn’t improve your life to know what the Stoics thoughts were on the elemental structure of matter because we have modern science now and particle physics and atomic theory and the like. So we’re just worrying about the practical, actionable stuff here.

Second, remember that Stoicism isn’t a religion – it’s philosophy. That means that these principles aren’t handed down by some unassailable divinely omniscient beings, they’re just ideas from people who put a lot of time and effort into figuring this shit out. Don’t get too hung up on whether a particular interpretation or another is closer to what Aurelius or some other ancient philosopher meant to get across. Just worry about whether or not that interpretation leads to a principle or action that will benefit your life in some way. Take what you want from this list, leave what doesn’t click for you. The point is just to get you started on some things that’ll make your life a little better.

  1. Learn to separate what you can control from what you can’t control. A lot of things in life are entirely or at least largely out of our control. The only things that are completely under our control are our thoughts, reactions, desires, and everything else that happens in your head. If you can’t control it, or change it, then it’s useless to be worried, upset, or anxious about it.

  2. Remember that everything in existence is impermanent. Don’t get attached to material things or get obsessed with the acquisition of stuff. Over-attachment leads to suffering, because inevitably you will lose whatever it is you’ve attached yourself too. Practicing a practical, non-ascetic level of minimalism is a good idea. This doesn’t mean to avoid developing real relationships or to not form attachments with people, just to recognize that you need to cherish that attachment while you have it and not squander that time because they won’t be around forever.

  3. Consider potential problems and consequences before they arise to lessen their influence. In the morning or before you set out to do something, think about what all might go wrong. Maybe you might get stuck in traffic on the way to work, or the project you’ve been working on might be poorly received. Knowing what problems might come your way, you can recognize that if they do come up they won’t actually be all that bad. You can accept them when they come and roll with them, because you already knew they might be coming. You can also better take steps to avoid them entirely.

  4. Remember that you are insignificant. You are an infinitesimally small piece of an incomprehensibly vast universe. From many perspectives, nothing you could ever possibly do will make any kind of difference or matter at all. So don’t be egotistical, and don’t worry so much about things.

  5. Practice temperance, self-discipline, and intentional discomfort. Take what opportunities you can to practice being in control of your own self. Don’t stuff yourself at meals, don’t give in to the temptation to have a second dessert, don’t let your laziness dissuade you from working out, etc. Practice making yourself uncomfortable in order to become comfortable with discomfort. Take an extra cold shower. Fast for a day. Deny yourself social media for a week. This type of practice builds up both your self-discipline and your grit.

  6. Pursue harmony in living. Look for balance in life, and for areas where you’re struggling against the natural state of things. It’s a fallacy to think that just because something is ‘natural’ it’s inherently good for you, hemlock, cancer, and Ebola virus are all natural but very bad. However, the forces of natural selection have not built humans well for spending 16 hours a day seated in an office chair, car, or sofa, or for living on a huge daily surplus of calories. Make sure you’re not hurting yourself by doing things contrary to what you’re built for.

  7. View obstacles as opportunities. When you find yourself blocked by a wall, see it instead as a challenge, or an opportunity. Cultivate a mindset like a parkour athlete, where each obstacle isn’t a hindrance but instead is a canvas on which to express themselves through movement. This applies to more metaphorical obstacles as well – the appearance of an obstruction is outside of your control, but whether you treat it as a calamity and let it deter you or whether you treat it as a blessing and use it to your benefit is entirely your choice.

  8. Always consider the other person’s point of view. Recognize that most people hold the opinions they have because of a genuine conviction that it’s the right thing, just like you. When meeting someone with conflicting ideas, always try to consider it from their perspective and consider what reasoning might help them understand why you hold a different view. Now, this isn’t to say that all ideas and positions are inherently valid – the ideals of Neo-Nazis and white supremacists for example are flatly reprehensible – but you should consider that even if the position is awful, the person may not have come by it through evil intent. They may have been indoctrinated, misled, or never properly exposed to alternatives. Seek to understand people rather than destroy them.

  9. Be a citizen of the world, and a creature of Earth. Race, nationality, political and religious identity, all of these things are arbitrary and divisive. Don’t use these things to exclude people for bullshit reasons. All of humanity is your family. In the same way you are in fellowship of every living thing on Earth, and should treat life and the environment with respect and care. This doesn’t mean you have to be flatly accepting of everyone – if someone is evil, unjust, or seeks to harm you or others then treat them accordingly, just don’t mistreat people for made up, dumbass reasons like ethnicity or nationality.

  10. Don’t wait, act. Don’t decide to start something new tomorrow, or in a week – start it now. You don’t have much time. No one does. So why always say you’re going to start making your life better tomorrow, or next year. Today is the best day to start, and right now is the best time. Quit fucking around and get to it.

  11. Re-examine first impressions. It’s normal for people to base their continuing opinion of other people and things based around a very quick first impression. Always remind yourself that a first impression is often an illusion, a poor reflection of the reality of a person or a thing affected by a thousand little transient factors. The more you can keep yourself from relying always on these first impressions the better you can understand others.

  12. Don’t suppress emotion, but don’t be a slave to it. Try to think of emotions like anger or sadness in the way you might consider physical sensations like hunger, or pain. It would be a poor goal to try to never again feel pain, or hunger, because then you wouldn’t know when you’re injured or starving. At the same time, you don’t want to let them control you and collapse into a wailing heap because of your pain or give in entirely to your hunger and eat until you’re sick. People with high pain tolerance don’t feel less pain, they are just practiced at not letting it affect their behavior. That is how you should approach other emotions. Don’t attempt to never feel angry, but don’t allow that anger to affect your behavior or cause you to lash out at others or become irrational. You are in control, not your emotions.

  13. Don’t worry too much about the judgement and opinion of others. So long as you are doing what you know is right, moral, and just, then it doesn’t matter what other people think of you. If doing the right thing, or what is best for you, means getting laughed at or ridiculed by others than those people can go fuck themselves – the opinions of people who would mock you for living true to yourself and acting with integrity aren’t worth shit.

  14. Don’t be immediately judgmental of others. This is the flip side of the previous point and ties in with always considering the point of view of others. If someone is doing something that you consider wrong, consider if they have reasons for behaving that way and whether or not they are primarily under that person’s control. Instead of judging someone, try to understand them and find out if what you see as a personal failure or flaw isn’t in actuality a problem or affliction you could help that person with.

  15. Cultivate and adhere to ideals of practical wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. These are the primary four virtues of Stoicism. Read, learn, discuss, and work to continually be building actionable and practical wisdom. Seek to support and further the spread of justice and fairness both in your actions and the actions of others. Always act with courage, don’t let fear stop you from actions you know to be right or beneficial to yourself and others. Try to maintain temperance in fulfilling your wants and needs – keep to moderation – don’t eat too much, party too much, or go overboard in execution of things. Similarly, don’t be neglectful of things either.

These quick guidelines will get you started putting the principles of Stoicism to work in improving your life right away. Don’t try to think of them as commandments, so much as a short list of good advice.

Do you have anything you think you would add for people wanting to apply the ideals of Stoicism to their life? Anything you don’t think is such a good idea, or something you have more questions about? Leave a comment!

An Introduction to Understanding Body Types

Body Types or Somatotypes are Bullshit

The three body types pop up often in fitness discussions – but do they really matter?

If you’ve been wanting to get fit for any amount of time you’ve probably run across the idea of the three body types – Endomorph, Ectomorph, and Mesomorph.

Usually this seems to come up in one of two types of discussions, the first being ones about whether or not ‘X diet’ or ‘Y fitness program’ is right for your particular body type and the second tends to be focused on blame shifting (things like, “Well of course he got fit, he’s a mesomorph. I’m an Endomorph so it’s basically impossible for me to get in shape.”) or on telling people why they’ll never make it.

What really is the deal with these body type categories though? Do they actually matter at all, or is it just a bunch of bullshit?

Let’s take a look.

The Origins of Somatotypes

The three body types (endomorph, ectomorph, and mesomorph) are technically named ‘somatotypes’. The word was coined in the 1940s by the creator of the designations William Herbert Sheldon combining ‘somato-‘, a Greek root that means ‘body’, with the word ‘types’. Since it just means ‘body types’, I’ll continue to use that instead of the needlessly scientific sounding alternative.

There are a lot about these body types and their creation by Sheldon that we’re not going to go into much because we’re going to focus on the bits that will matter for you from a fitness standpoint. That being said, some of the history is nice to know when considering how to think about these categories – so here are some quick bullet points to keep in mind.

  • Sheldon firmly believed and proposed that the body types he was describing were also linked to a person’s psychology and behaviors. He proposed that a person’s body type indicated personality, morality, and future potential or lack thereof. This is obviously false.

  • The research and the ideas Sheldon was putting forward were based heavily in the ideas of eugenics, which is generally just racism and xenophobia with the word ‘science’ scrawled across it in spray paint.

  • Sheldon developed these body types by obtaining copies of thousands of nude photos taken for a different, previous medical study of Ivy League students without getting anyone’s consent or approval.

  • Even though formulas were later applied to quantify some of this, his original body type designations were created based entirely on visual observations of photos of nude students and therefore aren’t what you might consider ‘scientifically rigorous’.

Now you might be saying, “Wait a minute, it sounds like these are arbitrary classifications pulled out of the ass of a more-likely-than-not racist eugenicist who effectively stole a collection of photos of nude college students without anyone’s consent to stare at all day for his ‘study’. Why should I even care about these?”

For the most part – you shouldn’t. At least, not the crazy racist pseudo-psychology stuff. The thing is even though most of the ridiculous and/or downright offensive stuff has fallen away the three body types have largely endured. You’ll find references to them a lot in the fitness world and there are some things about them that can be helpful for people trying to get fit.

So what are they?

The Three Body Types Explained

We’ll pretty much only be focusing on the modern conceptualization of these and leaving out the the awful stuff that was originally tied to it. The three body types are endomorph, ectomorph, and mesomorph – not to be confused with Animorphs who are Earth’s first and last line of defense against the Yeerk invasion and are too distracted by the horrors of war to worry about diet and exercise.

  • Endomorphs are categorized as people who have a super easy time putting on weight (generally meaning bodyfat) and an equivalently more difficult than average time losing it. These are the stereotypical ‘I eat one doughnut and gain twenty pounds’ people, or the folks who are always trying to lose weight but never seem to be able to.

  • Ectomorphs are the opposite end of the spectrum. People in this category are what are usually called ‘hardgainers’ in the weightlifting community. Think Captain America before the super soldier serum.
    These are people who find it hard to put on weight (usually meaning muscle) and seem to always stay skinny, but can never put on any muscle no matter how much they eat and lift.

  • Mesomorphs are more your post-super soldier serum Captain America types. People in this body type tend to have narrow waists, broad shoulders, lose fat easily and build muscle like it’s nothing. Folks in this category are the types who could live on nothing but cakes and pizza and still look like a swimsuit model, or who can accidentally look at a barbell for too long and have suddenly gained 10 lbs of muscle.

Now these shouldn’t be necessarily taken as a sliding scale, where a 1 is an endomorph and puts on weight easy, a 10 is an ectomorph and loses weight easily, and a mesomorph is a 5 right between the two. Instead it’s more like a triangle spectrum, where each body type is one of the points and people fall somewhere within the bounds of the triangle.

Alternatively you could think of having three body type buckets and you have ten ‘points’ to distribute between all three. If you go Endo/Meso/Ecto then a 8/1/1 distribution for example would be a ‘pure’ Endomorph, but most people would be more like a 6/1/2 or a 3/2/5 or something like that. So just keep in mind that this is not an A, B, or C kind of choice.

Why Understanding Body Types is Useful, and How it Can Hurt You

A general understanding of the three body types can be excellent jumping off point to figuring out what you need to do in order to get to the fitness level you want to be. At least, so long as you don’t take things too far or give these ideas more power than they ought to have.

Do you feel like you mostly fit in the ectomorph category and struggle with building muscle?
Then you should probably make sure your calorie intake and protein consumption is high enough, de-emphasize cardio, and prioritize strength training. Are you probably a endomorph and feel like losing weight is impossible? Then you might want to start with making sure you’re not going overboard on calories, fix your sleep, start a habit of frequent easy movement activity like daily walks, and begin an appropriate strength and cardio training program. Are you a mesomorph and can eat whatever you want and do a handful of push-ups and look like a pro athlete? Well, then you have it kind of easy – but you should still strength train and keep an eye on your calorie intake at a minimum because your ability to skate by on minimal effort will probably dissipate with age.

Beyond that use as a general starting point, there really isn’t any need to get hung up on these body types. I frequently see and hear people both online and in person working as a personal trainer use these body types as an excuse or as a way to make themselves feel better for giving up. I’ll hear things like:

“There’s no point in trying to lose weight, I’m an endomorph. It’s just in my genetics to be overweight.”

“Of course he looks great, he got lucky genes. He’s a mesomorph and looks great no matter what he eats. Must be nice to have it so easy.”

“Why are you trying to lift weights? You’re an ectomorph, you should try running marathons or something instead, that’s what you’re built for.”

“I wish the damn Andalites would finally show up and help us. Maybe I should ask Cassie to go on a date if we make it back from tonight’s mission.” Wait. No. That was an Animorph one again. Sorry.

The point is people let the ideas of these body types and lumping themselves into one of these categories dictate what they think they’re capable of. That’s wrong.

Do genetics play a role in metabolic rate? Sure. But in studies the max range they’ve found between the metabolisms of people is around 600 calories in an extreme case. Around 96% of people fall within the range of 1,840 to 2,160 kcal burned per day resting. That means if you think of the least fit person you know and the most fit person you know they both probably have resting metabolic rates within 300 kcal of each other. Even in the extreme case people in that last four percent fell between 1,680 and 2,320. That means even that possibility of having a resting metabolic rate difference of 600 calories between you and a friend is about 1/2 of a percent.

To put it into context, a Pop-Tart is 200 kcal. Not a pack, that’s 400. A single Pop-Tart.

So before you whine about how you have bad genetics and a slow metabolism and that’s why you’re still overweight and that friend of yours is so fit, recognize that even if that’s true (and it probably isn’t) and you have an exceptionally unlikely low metabolism and your friend has an exceptionally unlikely high metabolism they are still only burning 3 Pop-Tarts more calories per day as a result of that.

Saying you have ‘bad genetics’ or a ‘slow metabolism’ is a bullshit excuse.

On one hand, this is great – it means there is not some invisible immutable force stopping you from succeeding.

On the other hand, this is harsh – it means the fact that you haven’t gotten fit is at least in a significant way if not totally due to your own failings.

Don’t Let the Idea of Body Types Own You

What’s the takeaway here?

The concept of these three body types is still prevalent – honestly even among fitness professionals. You’re going to her this stuff come up. Use it as a starting point for introspection and examining your situation but don’t let it own you. Falling into a kind of fatalistic, hard-deterministic way of looking at your health and fitness because a racist pervert in the ’40s wanted to psychoanalyze people based on how fat or skinny they were is a bad plan.

Having mental models about how your body currently tends to react to things is good, letting arbitrary categories force you to give up and not try to get fit is bad.

Do you have any other questions about these body types? Any ways I didn’t mention they can be used positively,
or ways they get used negatively that you think people should watch out for? Leave a comment and share them with us!

Higher Productivity Through Periodization

Periodization for productivity

Keeping productivity up when you have a high number of projects to juggle can feel next to impossible.

Whether they’re all work related or it’s a mix of business and personal tasks when you start juggling too many different things then something inevitably gets dropped. When you’re in charge of a big project at your office job, trying to schedule things for the family, get your weightlifting in,
keep the house clean and the fridge stocked, learn a new language or skill, and work on some entrepreneurial endeavor all at once things wind up being a mess.

Caroline and I have been there. We are notorious for getting excited about and picking up new projects while still working on old ones. I’ve seen what tends to happen – one or more things get neglected.

Maybe you wind up going a month or two without lifting because of spending too much time on other things. Or maybe you just can’t fit the time in for building your own side income stream and it gets forgotten. How do you make sure you can handle progressing in all these things and getting all this stuff done without accidentally abandoning or neglecting some of them?

Okay – the easy answer is to chill out and stop overloading yourself, but if you’re essentially a pathological goal starter ambitious like us that’s not terribly satisfying. There is a trick I’ve found for making it work out though.

Using periodization.

What Is Periodization?

Periodization is a training methodology used in higher level athletes and weight training in order to maximize results while reducing potential detriments of training, and to prep athletes to compete without the training itself potentially interfering with the athletes ability to compete.

There are a bunch of different types of periodization for a bunch of different purposes, ranging from pursuing different opposing goals in cycles (a cycle of training for speed, then a cycle for max power, etc.) to cycling in order to taper appropriately for an event (such as higher volume / lower intensity cycles shifting into lower volume / higher intensity cycles with more technique focus). The important takeaway here for how we’re going to apply it is to think of it as focusing on a single goal for a set period to the exclusion of other goals.

For example, if I want to work on my endurance at a high level and want to work on my overall maximum strength the type of training needed to improve my endurance would hinder the type of training needed to build max strength and vice versa. To avoid that I’d pick one and work on that for a period while lightly maintaining the other, then switch.

That’s how we’re going to handle your productivity problems.

Applying Periodization to Productivity

So how do we take a sports and weightlifting concept and apply it to productivity?

Well your overloaded project list is a lot like an overloaded list of training goals – when you pursue them all some inevitably interfere with the others. Like an athlete using periodization to make their conflicting training goals play nice together you need to separate these projects into their own little blocks.

The first step is to figure out exactly how many projects (or project categories) you have. You need to have an idea of how many different segments we’re going to build out in the periodized task framework. These can be a bit more on the specific side like noting a concrete task (write weekly article, run 5k, vacuum house, etc.) or they can be more categorical (writing, exercise,
housework, etc.) – the key is to think about how many tasks you have and what feels like it will be more manageable for you.

If you have specific tasks that get repeated regularly, then you might be better off getting more specific. If, on the other hand, you have a lot of varying tasks that fall under a broader category,
then a higher level approach may work better for you. Don’t stress about it too much, you can always rework things if you feel like one way isn’t working out as well as it could.

The next step is to determine and lay out your time scale. Periodization in weightlifting can be scheduled out over a year, two years, four years, etc. depending on the athlete and the goals. Generally I don’t advise using a scale of months or years for the type of periodization we’re using to be more productive because few things have those kinds of timescales in regards to goals and deadlines.

Days and weeks on the other hand tend to work well in my experience. The idea here is to match your tasks out to the number of periods you’re dividing your timescale into. So for example I have Mondays and Thursdays blocked out entirely for work related to Road to Epic, Tuesdays are devoted to working on our podcast, Wednesdays to my fiction writing, Fridays to freelance art/graphic design work and my comics, and Sundays to housework like cleaning or home improvement projects. Sundays are left open, and work related to the day-to-day operation of our brick-and-mortar self-defense school is spread out over the whole week.

This kind of week blocking works well for me for two main reasons: The first is that I’ve broken things down into broad categories that tend to have a large variety of tasks related to them, and so having an entire day or more to devote to whatever things need to be done ensures I have enough time to actually do them. The second is that I already have most of my personal development habits (language study, fitness, meal prep, etc.) locked in and so I don’t need that structure to maintain them.

If you came up with more of a specific repeatable task list, then you can try blocking out hours instead of days. Making 7 a.m. your running time every other day, or blocking out a specific hour each night for language study. Take care if you go this specific route not to overload yourself though, you run the risk of just circling around to the original problem and setting yourself up for a daily schedule that’s untenable.

Embracing a Periodization Mindset

Now, you might be saying, “Wait a minute – isn’t that just making a schedule?”

Yeah. At least, on a surface level.

The real key to making this type of system work though is embracing the mindset behind periodization, which is to not worry about anything but what that periods focus is.

If it’s a Road to Epic day and I get contacted about graphic design work, or figure out a great bit of plot for a story, or get the urge to go dust the furniture – then too bad it’s not the day for that. Now that doesn’t mean I won’t respond to the e-mail, jot down my story idea, or make a mental note that dusting is going to come first on Sunday, but I hold firm to a rule of not working on anything but Road to Epic stuff those days.

You can be even more exclusionary than that if you want, I know I can let myself get diverted for a quick e-mail or a note and come back to my work without totally getting derailed but I know not everyone can. What makes this work better than just making a plain old schedule is that you need to have strict guidelines in place in order to keep you on the right thing through that entire period.

Do you have any personal experience with using periodization as a productivity tool? Any ways you can think of to make things work better or roadblocks you’ve found applying the system for yourself?
Share them with everyone in the comments!

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