Stop Thinking Every Little Bit Counts

African Pygmy Hedgehog by Adam Foster

Little things may be cute, but they’re not always helpful.

Not only is thinking it probably false in relation to whatever it is you’re working toward, it’s probably directly sabotaging your progress.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking this way – stories of how every little bit helped someone in their endeavor are popular. You hear about candidates winning by a single vote, or people taking small, seemingly insignificant steps toward their goals which add up over time into something huge. People like to hear about these types of things.

The problem is it puts the focus on the wrong areas and leads people to make bad prioritization. Bad prioritization leads to failed goals.

The Forest for the Trees

The realms of fitness, time management and language learning are rife with tips, tricks and advice – I directly contribute to all of it.

If you approach this huge volume of information with the mindset that ‘every little bit helps’ then you’re going to get into some trouble because there’s going to be a lot of little bits to follow.

This may not seem like a bad thing. You might figure if you can cram together enough easy tricks you can lose those ten pounds or learn a new language without much extra effort, but you have to remember that you have a finite amount of resources. You don’t have unlimited time, energy or willpower. You can’t do it all.

You have to prioritize.

Imagine you have someone trying to lose weight. She has a terrible diet, eats lots of junk food and drinks nothing but soft drinks. She’s also completely sedentary and sits at a desk all day.

She reads a bunch of tips online and decides to walk an extra five minutes everyday, switches to sitting on a stability ball instead of a chair, adds cinnamon to her cereal every morning because she heard it helps blunt insulin, takes green tea capsules and cranks her showers extra cold to take care of that brown fat.

Honestly, you could pick ten or fifteen more things she could do that I hear recommended under the ‘Every Little Bit Helps’ standard, but I’ll keep it there for brevity’s sake.

After six months, all things being equal, she’ll likely be heavier than when she started.

The reason for this is simple, she ignored the big important stuff in favor of a bunch of small changes that didn’t add up to much but took all her resources.

Remember the 80/20 rule – roughly 80% of your results are going to come from 20% of your efforts, so if you want to make the most progress in the shortest amount of time you should focus on the high return variables in the 20% rather than the low return variables that fall in the 80% of things that will only get you 20% of your results.

Back to our weight loss example, imagine our subject combines those extra five minutes per day and maybe skips a TV show or two to make time for three 30 minute lifting sessions per week. She focuses on heavy, compound lifts to make sure she gets the most out of her time spent. Rather than make a hundred little changes to her diet like adding cinnamon to things and popping a million supplements she ditches soft drinks and tracks her calories or macros.

Those two large changes, adding in three lifting sessions per week and controlling her macros, will net her orders of magnitude more progress than all the little changes combined.

Language learning is no different. If you’re spending all your time on little tips or focusing too hard on passive learning like listening to target language music all the time but neglecting the important things like actually using the target language to talk to people – you won’t get very far.

Every little bit doesn’t count if you ignore the important stuff. Hit the big variables first if you want to succeed. (Tweet that.)

There’s a story I’ve heard a thousand times that I kind of hate to repeat here but I think it makes a good point.

A guy had a big jar, some large rocks, some gravel and some sand. When he tried to fill it with the sand and gravel first the big rocks wouldn’t fit. When he put the big rocks in first and then the smaller gravel and sand everything fit because the smaller stuff filled in the gaps.

The point of that story is usually something to the effect of ‘Worry about the big things first and the small stuff will fall into place’. I’d rework it a bit to be ‘Focus on the things with the biggest return first, then worry about all the little stuff.’

There’s certainly a time and a place for small tweaks like meal timing, cinnamon for glucose regulation, & reading blogs on how to make the best flashcards ever – but that time can only come after you’ve dealt with the big stuff.

Get your priorities in order and stop telling yourself every little bit counts.

You’ll get a lot farther a lot more quickly.

Have you ever gotten bogged down by minutiae and lost sight of the important stuff? How’d you get over it? Any advice for other people overwhelmed by all the little things? Leave a comment.

Photo Credit: Adam Foster

Level Up Your Notes with The Cornell Note Taking System

OR by Thomas Leuthard

Even if you do it in a nice cafe, taking notes can be painful if you do it the wrong way.

I used to hate taking notes.

As more of an experiential learner sitting and taking notes did not come naturally to me. It was boring, tedious and seemed like a complete waste of time compared to other ways of studying – even in a traditional classroom / lecture environment where my other options were limited.

Other people in class could sit through one lecture, take fantastic notes and have everything learned inside and out. It was basically sorcery to me.

That is, until I learned a better way to take notes.

Dead Notes vs. Living Notes

A lot of my problems with note taking at the time stem from the fact that I was taking what I now like to call dead notes.

That doesn’t mean I was hanging out with a shinigami, it means my notes didn’t have any life to them. They were just textual summaries and paraphrasing of whatever material was presented in the lecture.

My notes were no better than if I had left my iPhone sitting out to record the class for me like a technologically updated Real Genius clip. They didn’t add anything, they just repeated information for me.

What I needed were living notes. Notes that didn’t just parrot back information from whatever material I was studying, but instead helped me think critically about the material, observe and create connections and develop my own summary of the information to encourage a deeper understanding.

That’s where the Cornell Note Taking System comes in.

Cornell Notes

Cornell notes, named for the university at which they were invented, are a perfect example of living notes.

Rather than just serve as a way to blandly record the information provided by the lesson or source material, Cornell note encourage you to ask questions about the material while taking notes and to formulate your own answers from the material.

This action encourages you to consider the structure and implications of the material you’re studying and, more importantly, to create connections both within the material and between the material and other disciplines.

These connections facilitate a deep knowledge of the source material that bring on all the added benefits of interdisciplinary and lateral analysis.

Essentially, you know the material and don’t just memorize it.

So how do Cornell notes work?

You’ll first divide your note page into three sections. On top you’ll have two columns, one on the left about 2″ across or so and one on the right about 6″ across. At the bottom is another section that goes all the way across the page and is about 2″ from top to bottom, or about the height of a short paragraph.

In the top right hand column, the biggest section, you’ll write your actual notes. Don’t write things down word for word from the material – condense everything as much as you can using shorthand and paraphrasing and stick to the main ideas.

As soon as possible after the lesson or the study session, you’ll fill the left hand column with questions and key words based on the material you’ve written in the larger note-taking column. These should be questions you might expect would be asked on an exam, questions intended to clarify the material and establish continuity between different areas of the topic.

After 24 hours, cover the right hand side of the notes so only the question column is visible. Read your questions and keywords and answer them as best you can without looking at your notes. Once you’ve done that you can uncover the notes to see how you did, then revise and update your questions and keywords.

Lastly, after you’ve gone through that and updated your questions, think for a bit about the underlying principles that form the foundation of the things listed in your notes. Think about how you can connect the things you wrote and the ideas in the material t other ideas and how they can be applied. Then in a short paragraph summarize all of the material in that bottom box we’ve left empty until now.

That’s it!

Rather than just be boring notes for you to re-read later in an attempt to memorize things, Cornell notes encourage you to really think about the topic while you make them and then, once you’re finished, provide a pre-built quizzing system for you to review in an active way rather than just passively re-reading information until your eyes glaze over.

In essence, it automatically converts your notes into flashcards.

This way you developed a better understanding from the start and have an easy and useful tool for reviewing on a regular basis. Combined with a spaced repetition learning schedule this style of notes makes hard to not learn things.

You can find Cornell’s template on their site in PDF format.

Have you tried out Cornell notes? Do you prefer it? Hate it? Found some way to make it even better? Tell us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Thomas Leuthard

You Don’t Matter (and Why That’s Great)

Big Andromeda Galaxy by Gianni

Relax. You’re insignificant and no one cares what you do.

Everyone does it. Day in and day out, mostly subconsciously, and it sabotages everything you do. Worst of all it’s so ingrained into our basic natures that you do it all daylong without realizing how you’re shooting yourself in your own foot. You’re probably doing it right now.

No matter what you do you worry about what people think of you.

How do I look? Do they like me? Do they respect me? What do they say about me behind my back? Will they think this is a stupid thing to do? What if they find out about this, or that?

It’s exhausting. It’s crippling. It’s absolutely stupid too.

The fact is you don’t matter – and that’s a great thing.

Understanding Insignificance

At first it might sound depressing or harsh, but in the grand scheme of things you really don’t matter.

It’s difficult for our brains to properly comprehend truly massive quantities of things – they’re just not built well for it – but let’s relate it to water. Imagine your city or town is a swimming pool, now drop a single droplet of water in, that was you.

Comparing yourself to the global population would be like dropping that same droplet into Lake Michigan.

If you zoom out even farther the entire planet Earth would be a droplet of water dropped into the Pacific or Atlantic of the Universe. You’d be smaller than a single molecule of water in that droplet.

Individually you are about as important to the Universe a single bacterium living in a fish at the bottom of the ocean on the other side of the globe is to you.

You don’t matter.

Alright, now that you are hopefully disabused of the notion of any kind of exaggerated importance, where’s the good part?

The good part is once you realize how unimportant you are you can stop worrying so much about what people think about you because they’re probably not even thinking about you in the first place.

Hero of Your Own Story (and No One Else’s)

I can’t remember who said it, but someone once told me one of the most important thing in character development in fiction is to remember that every single character thinks they’re the hero of the story.

In a work like the Harry Potter series each character behaves like the books are named after them. In their mind it’s Neville Longbottom (or whomever) and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry is just a supporting character who gets in a lot trouble.

The reason this is such a vital thing to remember when developing lifelike fictional characters is because that’s how everyone actually thinks.

You don’t consider yourself the sidekick to someone else’s story. You’re Hamlet, not Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In your head the world revolves around you.

What you have to remember is that everyone else thinks the same way. Even to the people who care about you the most like your friends and family, you’re probably a sidekick at best. That means they aren’t actually thinking about you all that much.

Recent estimates put the average number of thoughts per day for an adult at around 50,000. Breaking that down if we assume most people are awake for about 16 hours that’s 3,125 thoughts per hour and around 52 per second. That’s nearly a different thought every second.

So let’s assume we’re even dealing with someone you’re close to, and they think about you or judge you in some way 50 times per day (likely a higher number than what actually happens).

That’s only 0.1% of their thoughts for the day that are directed at you. That’s less than one minute spent thinking about you.

How stupid is it then to let the fear of what people with think about you determine your actions? How ridiculous is it to abandon your dreams because of what others might think about you when in reality they are barely going to think anything about you at all regardless of what you do?

Add in to that the fact that, like you, everyone is probably spending way too much time worrying about what you and others think of them to actually have critical thoughts of others.

In other words, in a room of ten people all ten are going to be worrying what everyone thinks of them and no one will be thinking anything of anyone else.

Haters Gonna Hate

Clearly worrying about what others think of you is pointless – so stop doing it!

Embrace the fact that you’re a tiny, insignificant piece of carbon on a pale blue dot in a back corner of an indifferent Universe surrounded by people who consider you little more than background scenery in their own personal tale.

It can be good to care (a little) what the people who are truly important to you think – the people who will be with you for the rest of your or their lives – but stop worrying about everyone else.

People are going to be critical of you. Give them the finger and keep doing your thing. Mediocrity never pissed anyone off.

The people who do great, incredible things aren’t the ones paralyzed by the doubt of whether or not their actions ill be accepted or ridiculed. The people who do great things are the ones who don’t give a damn about everyone thinks.

No one cares what you do, and that frees you to do whatever makes you happy.

Get to it.

Photo Credit: Gianni

How to Learn Multiple Things Simultaneously and Remember Everything

The Juggler II by Helico

Trying to juggle multiple hobbies or learning multiple things simultaneously can be difficult,

I have what I like to call ADADD – Auto-Didactic Attention Deficit Disorder.

When it comes to learning things I have serious trouble picking one thing and sticking to it. I try to tell myself to focus on a single thing – learning / improving my Korean for example – but then I decide I’d also like to learn to play the ukulele, and I really need to work on my handstands, and it would be fun to learn to juggle, and I’d really like to learn more programming and so on and so forth.

In the past before long I would wind up stretched so thin between all my interests I looked like Lady Cassandra O’Brien. I’d be trying to learn ten things at once and in the end wouldn’t really do well at any of them.

While you could certainly take the moral of this story as ‘Focus on one thing at a time,’ I just couldn’t handle that.

So I figured out a way to make it work.

Spaced Repetition

One of the best ways I’ve found to learn new vocab quickly is through spaced repetition learning. For whatever reason in the past I never really connected that strategy with my other areas of learning though.

That was a mistake.

Applying a spaced repetition system (SRS) learning strategy to the other things I was learning made it so that when my ADADD inevitably dragged me off by the collar to some other unrelated interest when I returned to the former one I still recalled everything I’d learned. Actually remembering the things you learn tends to make a large difference in the efficacy of skill acquisition.

Vocabulary is an easy thing to learn with an SRS because for the most part it’s easy to find pre-built structures like Memrise and Anki to just walk you through it. For other things you have to be a little more creative.

You can certainly build your own decks in things like Anki, Memrise or SuperMemo but I honestly think it’s easier at times just to do things manually with good old fashioned note taking.

If you don’t share my penchant for the old school feel free to use those tools instead of my way.

Manual SRSing is going to require a good note taking system first and foremost. Personally I recommend the Cornell note taking system – if you’ve never used it before I’ll be explaining how I use it in an upcoming article.

During each study / practice session take notes on the things you’re learning. After the session is over, take a short bit of time to review your notes from the activity. Then review those notes again on a spaced repetition schedule. Personally, I like reviewing at one hour, one day, ten day, thirty day and sixty day intervals for most things although you can increase the interval frequency for things you find more troublesome to recall.

If you’re interested in making it a little more automatic, I also recommend reviewing the notes quickly from your last study / practice session before each new session. That should give you both an easy refresher and an automatic structure for repetitions.

In addition to the SRS style of memorization, there’s another method I like to use to increase recall when I’m trying to do ten things at once.

Chunking

A part of why vocabulary is easy to recall when you learn properly is because it already comes in easy to digest little chunks. We call them words.

Other topics though don’t always come in bite size little pieces like that though. This can make a big difference in how easy it is to actually remember things.

As an example of what I mean, take this string of numbers 15552340660336.

For most people, being asked to remember that would be a little painful. It’s a lot to swallow. If you break it up into chunks though, like this 1 (555) 234-0660 336 it turns into a telephone number with an extension and most people would have an easier time remembering it.

The same thing happens when we’re trying to learn, process and retain information. If you’re trying to force these huge pieces of data into your head it’s going to be a lot more difficult than if you broke them into smaller chunks and ingested them that way.

I call this chunking since you’re breaking up everything into the smallest most digestible chunks you possibly can.

Try not to go too far though, sometimes small groups of things are easier to remember than individual things. When learning chords on the guitar for example trying to learn twelve in one sitting is probably overdoing it, but only trying to learn one per session is going a bit too light. Shooting for three is a bit more of an appropriate amount and by making them three related chords will make them all easier to remember.

Each individual thing is going to deconstruct a little differently, the key is to find the appropriate sized chunks both for you and for the area of learning and then break everything down to that level to use with your SRS note taking.

Time Limits

Another key area is limiting your time spent in each topic.

This may not be an issue for you if, like me, you get sidetracked and wander from thing to thing, but for some they’ll spend long tracks of time focusing on one area then switch to another. Later, they realize that despite all that study or practice time they really don’t have a good recall of what they went over.

Quality will also beat out quantity, and short, focused study sessions are going to be much better for you than long drawn out ones. You can use a time constraining technique like time boxing if you need to. I find that for me an hour – maybe two – is more than sufficient to get a good amount of focused intentional study or practice in without being so long as to damage my later recall.

Keep your study sessions short and you’ll be able to remember more from each area than if you drag them out beyond your limits.

Additional Applications

While I’m long out of university and primarily apply these methods to my personal interests (there are a lot of them) these strategies can be applied to more traditional education as well.

You can use these techniques to juggle a large volume of coursework at once, prepare more efficiently for multiple exams or even to read multiple books at once without damaging your recall. Combine this method of multiple-topic studying with a few basic speed reading strategies and you can process a lot of information quickly with high retention rates.

Have you tried any of these to juggle multiple topics at once? Have you had better success at paring own and focusing on one thing at a time than I have? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Helico

Do You Actually Need to Learn Grammar?

Modern Swedish Grammar by Karen Horton

Books like these can be helpful eventually, but you shouldn’t obsess over it.

There are two general schools of thought when it comes to language learning and grammar. The first follows a strongly analytic model focused on explicit grammar learning. People in this group emphasize the primary importance of learning grammar before and above anything else. For them, grammar tends to take the central role as the most important aspect of learning a new language.

The second group holds the opposite views. That school of thought follows a strongly deductive model focused on implicit grammar learning. People in this group think the study of grammar essentially impedes language learning and that it should be ignored – as long as you can communicate you’ll pick it up eventually.

So which way is actually more effective for language learners?

Implicit Vs. Explicit

The truth is the best way to go is somewhere a little in the middle, but closer to the implicit side.

To say that grammar is unimportant would be completely wrong. If vocabulary is the material you’re constructing things with then grammar is the foundation those things are built upon. It’s absolutely important to have an understanding of grammar to communicate effectively.

The catch is, it’s not necessary to have an explicit knowledge of grammar, only an implicit one.

What’s the difference?

If you ask a PhD. linguist what the difference between the simple past and past perfect tenses are, or how to properly use a past participle, you could probably get a very long, detailed in-depth explanation of the specifics of how those things work. The linguist has an explicit knowledge of how the grammar works because he knows all the behind the scenes mechanics of it.

If you ask a 7 year old the same questions, you’ll probably get a shrug and be asked what those words even mean.

Even so, both the linguist and the 7 year old can use sentences like ‘I went to the store’ and ‘I’ve been to the store’ correctly. The 7 year old can probably even tell you the sentence ‘I’ve been to the store last week’ sounds off to a Standard American English dialect listener.

The 7 year old has an implicit knowledge of the grammar in that even if he can’t tell you why something is wrong, he knows instinctively that it sounds wrong.

This is an important distinction, because the linguist has spent countless years of study and research into grammar and language while the kid has just hung around English speakers and talked to them for 7 years or so and they both have essentially the same ability to communicate.

Sure the linguist will be able to communicate better or sound more intelligent by virtue of having a larger vocabulary, but vocab and grammar are separate things – if you restricted both to the first thousand most common words or so they should be equally able to express themselves.

If our goal of learning a new language is to be able to communicate in it (which is the case for most people) why worry about all the extra study and effort of explicit grammar knowledge if implicit knowledge will yield the same end result?

Everything In Its Time

You can speak a language fluently without any explicit knowledge of its grammar.

But, honestly, I think you should reach some level of explicit knowledge of the grammar at some point, even if technically you don’t have to.

In the beginning, grammar study will likely just get in your way beyond the very basics. You’re a lot better off spending a small amount of time to learn the essentials like how to make a basic sentence or ask a question and then trying to get as much exposure to the language as possible. Focus on learning as much important vocab as possible as quickly as possible and immerse yourself in speaking partners and content that interests you.

The more you’re exposed to and, possibly more importantly, the more you make mistakes and get corrected by others the more quickly you’ll find you just know how to structure a sentence without thinking about it. Once you’re comfortable having basic conversations without thinking about grammar too much, then you can worry about actually studying some of it.

See the learning method of the kid is great – barring some external factors or developmental problems everyone learns their native language that way just fine – the thing is it’s really slow.

Avoiding painful grammar study at first will let you focus on the things that really matter starting out, but you’re an adult and there are benefits to that a child doesn’t have. You can selectively choose what grammar areas to study in order to learn them more quickly where a child would have to just keep trying and being corrected until they get it.

The key thing to remember with grammar study is that you should only study the grammar you absolutely feel you need or genuinely want to.

Don’t get hung up on the grammar.

If you really like studying it, go for it. Most people don’t seem to though, so don’t unnecessarily punish yourself thinking you absolutely have to slam your head into verb conjugation charts and noun declension exception rules until you’re ready to hurl yourself out a window.

Do you hate learning grammar? Do you love it? If you’ve learned or are learning another language how much time do you devote to grammar study? Share it with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Karen Horton

The Four Stages Between Beginner and Mastery

Untitled by Mariusz Sikorski

Mastery of martial arts makes for a good model of mastery of any skill.

There are a lot of books out there telling you how to become a master at this or that.

Some of them are good, others not so much, but what I’ve found is that so many stop short of where I’d consider actual mastery. On top of that, in the ones I’d consider more helpful anyway, I’ve found there’s a common theme of leading people through four distinct stages.

If you want to learn something from absolute beginner to master level it makes sense then to be as familiar with these stages as possible to not only ensure you’re on the right track, but also to know ahead of time where you’re going.

The Four Stages

Since it’s a field I’m very familiar with and tends to be a process that most consider a journey in and of itself, I’m going to use learning a martial art as our example going through the stages. This applies to every skill though, so feel free to substitute in whatever you’re learning.

  • Pre-contemplation / Unconscious Incompetence – At this stage you’ve not really begun to consider learning the skill. It may have crossed your mind, but you haven’t actually made a firm decision to master it or even necessarily begin learning.

    In general, the majority of people are in this stage of the majority of skills in existence simply by virtue of there being so many things out there you’ve never even thought about learning.

    At this stage you are in a state of unconscious incompetence. That means that not only are you not proficient in the skill, you’re not consciously aware of the things you’re not proficient at. Essentially, you not only don’t know what to do, you don’t even know what it is that you don’t know how to do.

    In our martial arts example, this would be the person who has never seriously considered learning a martial art. They walk by a school teaching Rex Kwon Do and they have no idea what they’ll need to be proficient in to master it – maybe it’s striking, maybe grappling, maybe the buddy system – they don’t know the first thing about it.

    Thankfully this stage is easily surpassed by a quick Google search, watching some YouTube videos or, in the case of our prospective martial arts master, walking in and listening to a pitch on the Rex Kwon Do 8 week mastery course.

    Out of all of the stages, this one is the briefest for things you actually want to learn.

  • Contemplation / Conscious Incompetence – At this stage you’ve done enough learning to leave the unconscious incompetence phase, but still haven’t progressed to anything that could be considered overall competency.

    You’re still incompetent, but now you know what it is you’re not proficient in.

    This is the easiest stage to get into, but a little learning can be a dangerous thing and it’s the stage that requires the most effort on your part to leave. At this stage it’s tempting to lose yourself in the acquisition of knowledge in your chosen field because most people conflate knowledge with skill.

    Knowledge is not skill.

    It’s at this stage that our prospective martial arts master may be tempted to lose himself in books and videos rather than practice.

    Our example student has ditched Rex Kwon Do and decided on a more serious school.

    She’s done extensive Google searching on the style of karate the school teaches. She’s read tons of books and watched YouTube videos and sat in on a bunch of classes. The thing is, that’s not going to help much.

    If you took someone who’s read every self-defense book ever written but never practiced a bit and pitted them against a guy who had only learned one kick but practiced it 10,000 times and pitted them against one another – my money would be on the person who practiced.

    For our student to progress to master, there’s only one thing that’s going to help her (even if she finds a Mr. Miyagi style guru)…

    Practice.

    That’s the main reason moving from this stage to stage three is likely the hardest part, it requires a lot of time and effort in terms of practice to become competent in the things you’re learning once you know what it is you actually need to become competent in.

  • Action / Conscious Competence – This is the stage that most people mistakenly consider to be mastery, the stage where you are competent in the majority if not all of the aspects of the skill in a conscious, thinking way.

    You are proficient in the skill, but it still requires a great deal of concentration and mental effort to display that proficiency.

    Let’s fast forward a bit with our martial artist. She’s put the time in and now she’s a black belt.

    Belt factory schools aside, that’s a huge accomplishment – but any martial artist who’s studied in an art with belt rankings will tell you that’s not the end of the road, it’s the start of a new one.

    Our martial artist is skilled at what she does, but she still has to think about it.

    In martial arts that’s a problem. Thinking is slow and you honestly don’t have much time for it in a fight, even a planned one like a match. Sure it’s excellent that she can punch through concrete now. Sure it’s satisfying that to all her friends and family she looks like a deadly master of the fist. The thing is she really hasn’t mastered things yet.

    Unfortunately this is where most people stop. That satisfaction feels good, so people just accept that as the finish line and leave it at that. To truly master their skill of choice though there’s one more stage they have to reach, and to reach it they’re going to have to keep doing what they did in phase 2 – practice.

    After practicing enough, one day you’ll realize you’ve finally left stage three and are finally in the final stage.

  • Maintenance / Unconscious Competence – This is the true mastery stage. At this stage not only can you display your proficiency in the skill, but you can do it in an autonomic unconscious manner.

    This is the state of a skill where you don’t think about doing it anymore, it just happens. This is essentially wei wu wei. The skill has become second nature to you, and expressing that skill is no more difficult or requires no more conscious direction than breathing.

    Returning to our example, at this stage our martial artist has reached 5th dan (or whatever appropriately high rank in her chosen art). She doesn’t think about what she’s doing anymore, it just happens. She could win fights with her eyes closed. She’s like Ip Man – capable of taking out ten opponents without a second thought.

    The only way to get to this point is to practice and practice and practice until things become so ingrained in your subconscious that they no longer require active thought.

    In my opinion it’s actually easier to get here from stage three than it is to get to stage three from stage two, provided of course you stick it out and don’t quit.

    Obviously depending on the particular skill you’re learning this stages may look a little different.

    That’s ok.

    The important part is that once you can recognize which stage you’re in for each skill you’re actively pursuing mastery in you can better evaluate what’s required of you to progress to the next stage. Equally as important you can avoid the common pitfalls of each stage, like getting stuck in an endless cycle of knowledge gathering without any actual practice.

    Are you learning any skills right now? Where are you at on the four stage model? Tell us in the comments!

    Photo Credit: Mariusz Sikorski

The Easy Way to Kill Procrastination

Time Lost by Matt Gibson

You won’t get it back, so don’t waste it.

Procrastination is a huge problem for a lot of people.

It was also always a huge problem for me for the longest time. Enough so that I had a Pearls Before Swine comic tacked to my office door to remind me not behave that way (protip: turns out taping funny comics to your door doesn’t do much to help productivity).

Chances are good you’re even reading this while putting off work right now, in which case I apologize for the link to the comics. That probably didn’t help you much.

To make up for it, I’d like to share my personal favorite strategy for killing procrastination and ensuring that you get a good bit of productivity out of each and every day.

The Procrastination Death Spiral

I recently shared this strategy with our e-mail subscribers and a handful of people had questions about it so I decided it’d be best to elaborate in an article.

(Not signed up to get e-mail updates? Head over to our About page and get signed up! You’ll not only get special subscriber only content that’s not on the site but also our 68 page getting started guide. Get to it.)

Procrastination comes from two main sources – apprehension and indecision.

You wake up in the morning or you head in to work and you run a quick check of everything you’ve got to do today. Immediately you feel like someone dropped a heavy rock on your stomach. Your to-do list is ten miles long and every single thing on it is miserable.

You steel yourself and dive into the first task headfirst. You’re tough. You can do this. An hour later you’re on Facebook poking around, or maybe YouTube or Netflix if you work from home. You feel a bit guilty about not being productive and try to dive back in but the fire’s gone. You might make a weak attempt, but before long you’re back to screwing around and your day’s wasted.

Sound familiar? What happened?

Apprehension.

Most people don’t have the willpower to fight through that much unpleasant work. Sure you can build up a tolerance, but in the end your subconscious is not a fan of being tortured by a litany of dreadful tasks.

Whether you consciously realize it or not, facing a huge list filled with work you despise destroys your motivation. That dread you feel is potent procrastinatory poison that drains dry your drive to work and leads right to Facebook, or whatever your particular time-sink drug of choice is.

Indecision is the other frequent cause of procrastination. What’s that look like?

You sit down at your desk and get ready to get to work. What should you do first though? There are a ton of things you could work on, but you’re not sure what you should do right now. That little bit of indecision is the wedge that drives open your resolve just enough to let some temptation in.

You figure you’ll check your e-mail really quick. There are six different things in there you need to respond to that weren’t originally part of what you planned to do today. You deal with all of those and wind up back whee you started. You’ve done a lot of e-mailing though, so maybe five minutes on Facebook or Twitter is in order. You see a link with a title like “12 Most Embarrassing Cat Photos of Despotic Dictators”.

Click.

Like a former drug addict coming off a hard relapse you come to a few hours later with a vague sense of unease over the fact that you have no idea what happened to the past four hours. You’ve seen some weird things, probably been to a few dark corners of the Internet and somehow wound up on a Wikipedia article about the Volsunga Saga.

What you haven’t done is any real work.

Any strategy for eliminating procrastination has to address both of these factors if it’s ever going to be effective.

That’s where the Most Important Tasks list comes in.

Killing Procrastination with Preparation

I can’t claim this strategy is my invention – honestly I think every idea that can be expressed about fighting procrastination already has been – but it’s one that’s worked particularly well for me over the years.

It requires a bit of preparation though. The night before, either right before you go to bed or earlier in the evening, write down the five most important things you have to do the next day. These should be things that can reasonably be completed, but if not you can put in a goal-oriented tasked based around that bigger task.

So instead of “Write my novel” you would put down “Write 2,000 words of my novel”.

You’re going to order your list as follows:

  1. An Easy or Fun Task – This should be either the easiest or second easiest thing you have to get done, or something you’ll actually enjoy doing.

  2. The Most Difficult or Painful Task – This should be the thing that you least want to do. The thing you dread putting on your list.

  3. The Second Most Difficult Task

  4. The Third Most Difficult Task

  5. Another Easy or Fun Task – If you don’t have a second task that sounds fun, schedule in some mandatory play for this task. Lighten up.

Then, the next day when you sit down to work, you just run through your list in order.

Having a structured list laid out for you ensures that you never have to be indecisive about what to do next, just follow the list. Since you did it the night before you also don’t have to worry about indecision over what to put on the list screwing up your work for that morning.

Structuring the list in this way also deals with the apprehension problem.

Starting off with something easy and fun means there’s a very low barrier to entry. You can jump right in and get started in a good mood because the first thing is easy and fun. Once you’ve warmed up on that you’ll have enough motivational momentum to tackle the toughest task you set in the second spot on the list.

If you tried to do it first, it’d be too painful to want to get started and if you put it off until last your motivation would be too sapped by the time you got to it to face it. This way you’re in the best possible mindset to get it taken care of.

After that, you have the promise of some fun just a few tasks down the list. Each task you do leads to an easier task after that second difficult one and at the end you get rewarded with some fun.

Nothing to be scared of.

Like I said there is a lot of advice out there on productivity. Different things are going to work better or worse for different people. This has been my single favorite though, so give a try and see if it works for you too!

If it has, or if you’ve found some way to modify things to make it more effective for you, share it with everyone in the comments! I’m sure there are other people who would find your modification useful as well.

Photo Credit: Matt Gibson

Gaming Your Way to Your Goals

Mario Kart by Miki Yoshihito

I play a lot of video games.

At least, I do when I don’t keep too close of an eye on myself. I, like many others who would self identify as ‘nerdy’, have that particular combination of addictive personality and attraction to escapism that leads to looking away from the screen for a moment and thinking, “4 a.m.? Wasn’t it just 10:00 a minute ago?”

Uncontrolled this can be a problem – my bank account and productivity levels both suffer when a bunch of new games come out all at once – but looked at the right way I’ve found it actually can be extremely helpful.

The same things that make you determined to do whatever it takes and burn up entire days to finish that level, get that new item or earn that really hard achievement can also make you finally get fit, learn a language or do whatever else it is you’ve always wanted to accomplish.

Escapism, Flow and Instant Gratification

Someone who studies game design professionally could probably add to this list, but to me three things stand out as the pillars of an addictive game – escapism, flow and good old gratification.

Games allow you to step into the shoes of someone else and lead a completely new life. They let you escape from your problems. As a kid they let me escape from the mind numbing monotony of school. As an adult they let me escape from the equally mind numbing grind of an uninspiring day job. Most of all they let me escape the fact that I was leading a boring, predictable and unfulfilling life.

The most interesting thing to me is they don’t even have to let you step into the shoes of a life that’s necessarily better than your current boring one. Sure most people would trade lives with bad asses and heroes like Cloud or Link – but who would honestly trade lives with Lee Everett or Isaac Clarke?

TV, movies and books all provide the same opportunity for escapism, and all three of those are also the domain and downfall of plenty of nerdy folk (I, personally, devour books like bacon wrapped candy), but none of them have the other two qualities that make games so potent.

Flow is one of the most enjoyable states you can be in while doing something.

It’s also a state that video games are directly designed to put you in.

People have understood the power of flow for a long time. Whether it’s called something else or not (being ‘in the zone’ in sports, ‘wei wu wei’ in Zen Buddhism, etc.) people have recognized that the particular feeling of being completely in the moment and fully focused on a task while at the same time acting in an effortless unthinking way feels like the pinnacle of human experience.

The goal of entire genres of games is to induce this state in you. There is a wonderful feeling to a perfectly executed Super Mario speed run. The kind of level where you burn straight through without getting touched, grabbing every coin, tearing through every enemy and doing it all with a sense of calm focus like the entire universe has aligned to get you to that castle (even if the Princess isn’t actually in that one).

On top of that tendency to place you in a state of flow, games also have another thing designed to push our subconscious happy buttons – a reward structure.

We like instant gratification. We like bells and whistles and fanfare when we’ve done something good.

The problem is, most of life doesn’t work that way.

You want to be fit? You need to put the work in and stick to your nutrition and exercise long term. You want to speak a second language? It’s going to take some time, and there’s probably not going to be a clear ‘ding’ when you’ve achieved fluency.

Games on the other hand give us a clearly defined goal (finish this level, defeat that boss, earn this achievement, get the highest score) and then immediately reward you for completing them. Even the leveling process in RPGs which can be a lot more time consuming – it’s called grinding for a reason – has that extremely satisfying point where you level up.

So how do we take these three things and apply them to making our real lives better?

Gaming Your Goals

Not all of these principles need to be applied to everything you do, but the more you can use them the easier building the life you want will be.

  • Embracing Escapism – I think this is the easiest one for most people, and if you’re particularly nerdy you’ll probably find this comes naturally provided you can change your ways of thinking.

    When you fall in love with the process the results come easily.

    If you’re trying to get in shape but you view working out as a painful, frustrating process and are topping that off by denying yourself the foods you love and forcing each meal to be full of foods you find boring or dislike – of course you’re going to fail.

    When you learn a language by studying for hours and hours when you hate studying and see language learning as grinding hours spent slamming your head into vocab lists and flipping through flashcards until you’re ready to jump through a plate glass window – of course you’re going to fail.

    Instead, you need to see things things as fun instead of work. That’s the reason you can sit for hours and kill rats over, and over, and over, and over again until you hit the level you’re shooting for but cringe at the idea of a 30 minute workout. One is supposed to be fun in your mind and the other is supposed to be work.

    So rethink things!

    When I was fat working out seemed painful. Over time though and the more I did it the more I learned how fun it can be, and now I want to lift. I would lift weights just to life weights. The same goes for practicing languages.

    If you can’t change your mind and begin to consider something fun, limit or drop it entirely and find something that is fun to you. Hate flashcards? Watch movies in your target language instead. Hate running? Try some HIIT workouts with kettlebells or practice some parkour.

    Find a way to make the things you feel you have to do into the things you want to do.

  • Finding Flow – This one’s a bit trickier, since some activities are well built for inducing flow and some are going to take a lot more work.

    The best way to start is to try to identify the things you can do that will get you closer to your goals that are also well suited to inducing a state of flow.

    There are a handful of markers for flow, but the three that I think are most important are having a clear goal, a clear indicator of when that goal has been completed and a task that is challenging enough to not be boring, but not so challenging it feels impossible.

    What are some examples?

    If you’re learning to play guitar working your way through a new song meets all three criteria. On the fitness side it’s easiest for fitness skills rather than just strict workouts, so working on nailing that 20 second handstand would be a good fit. You can also just work on finding that mindful active meditation state. When it comes to language learning Memrise does an excellent job of hitting all three criteria, likely because it’s essentially a game in and of itself.

    The point is to find whatever best puts you in state of flow and then focus your efforts on that. Just like with embracing escapism the goal here is to make it fun!

  • Generating Gratification – Lastly we have the problem of adding gratification into goals that might otherwise not have any built into them.

    The key here is to find ways to make your gratification as immediate as possible. It would be annoying if you filled up that experience bar but then had to wait three days to get the benefit of leveling up. That’s a lot like what most of life is like.

    Instead find ways to make it more like a game. The easiest way to do this is to just actually make a game out of it.

    In some cases this might’ve been done for you already. Fitocracy and Zombies, Run! both do an excellent job of it. Duolingo makes language learning into a game, and there are even games out there like guitar hero but with a real guitar that teach you to play while you play.

    In the absence of some good product that does the gamification for you, you’ll have to add your own rewards and gratification.

    Sometimes it can be enough just to have a clearly defined goal that, once achieved, you can hum a little tune and spin your sword around (or, whatever you’ve got on hand) and revel in the accomplishment of it all.

    If that’s not enough for you set up specific rewards you’ll give yourself once you hit each goal. Pick things you really want and incentivize progress as much as you can, the better the thing you get when you hit your goal the more driven you’ll be to get there.

    Don’t be afraid to brag a bit too – sharing your accomplishment is another strong form of gratification.

Usurping these traits from games can make gaming your own goals feel a lot less like work and a lot more fun, which means you’re a lot more likely to actually accomplish them and make your life as fun and exciting as the people in the games you play.

Except, again, maybe Lee Everett.

What have you done to turn making your life more epic into a game? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Miki Yoshihito

3 Reasons to Experience Hunger

First World Problems by Know Your Meme

All those first world feels.

Of all our most basic, primal urges hunger is probably the most compelling.

Sure there’s practically an entire sub-genre of TV and movies about the crazy (often comedic) things people will do for sex, sure people hallucinate of thirst in the desert, but there is a unique power to hunger. Hunger will make people steal, kill and completely abandon any rationality outside of getting something to eat. Extreme hunger can essentially make you lose control of your actions.

The thing is, most people who I expect to be reading this don’t ever experience real hunger. Most people living in a developed nation are lucky enough to never have to feel real hunger unless they choose to.

I think, at least once, they should choose to.

Finding Hunger

Now that’s not to say people in developed nations have never been hungry.

That would be silly. You may even be hungry as you read this. I’m not talking about the normal, day-to-day, haven’t eaten in a bit hungry though. I mean a hunger with teeth. A hunger that drapes over you and weighs you down like chains. If the hunger most people feel was a mosquito or a pesky fly the hunger we’re looking for is a 400 pound silverback gorilla full of steroids and cocaine.

So how do you find this kind of hunger? Well, don’t eat.

The easiest and safest way is to perform a 72 hour fast. That means nothing with any calories to it for 72 full hours. This is including time spent sleeping, so an example fast would be to eat breakfast at 7 a.m. on a Friday and then ingest nothing but water until eating breakfast at 7 a.m. the following Monday.

A slightly less strict fast could include black coffee which, thought it has no calories to it, is a bit of an appetite suppressant.

Shorter fasts of 24 hours or 48 hours can also be a good experience, and we regularly perform 16 or so hour fasts for health reasons, but I think the 72 hour fast is the pinnacle to shoot for in order to get the full experience.

That being said, please only give it a try if you know you can do it safely. If you have some medical condition that precludes you from this sort of self-imposed asceticism then don’t even try it. Additionally, while there are some apparent health benefits from shorter fasts when done more frequently, anything beyond a 24 hour fast is likely to do more harm than good if performed more than once a week.

Personally, I wouldn’t recommend more than a single 24 hour fast a week and probably wouldn’t perform a fast longer than that but once per year. I don’t know of any health benefits of fasting for greater than 24 hours – the goal here is to trade a little bit of physical detriment once for a lasting bit of mental benefit.

So that’s how you go about becoming hungry, but whats the point of doing it?

Why Intentionally Experience Hunger?

Some of you are probably asking, “Why in the world would I want to purposefully make myself suffer like that if hunger is such a powerful and unpleasant urge?”

That’s a fair question. Here’s why I think it’s worth experiencing at least once in your life.

  • It Builds Gratefulness – I understand that here in the U.S. we have a vernacular penchant for hyperbole.

    Even so, when someone tells me they’re starving because it’s noon and they didn’t have their bagel this morning I want to seize them by the shoulders and shake them.

    You can argue that it’s just an expression but given the emphatic way I’ve heard plenty of people express that sentiment I have to believe there’s more to it than that. I would never think these people really think they are in mortal peril, or minutes away from succumbing to starvation, but they genuinely feel an extreme sense of discomfort and are compelled to complain about it. What’s worse is that it’s often accompanied by a general sense of entitlement – as though they have suffered some great wrong in having to miss breakfast for some reason.

    Feeling real hunger, the kind of hunger that comes from a fast of greater than 24 hours, shows you what it’s like to be less privileged. It reminds you of the kind of things that millions of people around the world have to contend with on a daily basis. It gives you a glimpse, though you have the safety net of a fully stocked refrigerator, of a life where you have no idea where your next meal is coming from (or if it’s coming at all).

    Hopefully, all of that makes you more grateful for what you do have, less entitled feeling and ideally less likely to waste food.

    As a side benefit, the first thing you eat at the end of your fast will almost certainly be the most delicious thing you’ve ever tasted.

  • It Builds Toughness – I would say that one of the traits that bothers me most in people is being a complainer, but I fear that would be complaining about complainers and I’d become the very thing I despise. Regardless, if you’re whiny – I don’t like you.

    I think one of the biggest factors in causing someone to become a habitual whiner is being given the gift of a relatively pampered life. As I noted, income inequality and other social problems aside, the majority of people in a developed nation at a socioeconomic level of lower-middle class or higher lead what I would consider a comfortable life on a global scale.

    People who fall into this category never experience the kind of genuine hardship others do, but still find things to complain about. There are even memes built around first world problems.

    Being able to willfully put yourself through that kind of hardship and make it through it will make all the other difficulties you have to face not seem quite so bad. Knowing that you went 72 hours without giving in and eating, no matter how violently your stomach was screaming at you, helps you recognize that the stupid little thing bothering you at work or the annoying person holding up the line at the coffee shop is not that big of a deal.

    It toughens you up a bit and keeps you from complaining about trivial things by showing you there are much, much worse things that you could be experiencing.

  • It Builds Self-Control – Hunger is a seriously powerful urge.

    That can cause serious problems when you’re trying to lose weight and get in shape and you’re tempted by all of those high calorie treats that don’t fit your macros right now. One minute you’re doing fine, then you walk by a Cinnabon and before you know it you wake up caked in the frosted carnage of a 10,000 calorie cinnamon roll rampage.

    Resisting that kind of temptation takes a lot of willpower.

    You can certainly set up barriers, like removing all the tempting foods from your house, but that will only get you so far. You need to build up your willpower.

    One of the best ways to do that is to force yourself to experience the hardship of extreme hunger in a controlled situation and practice fighting it. Your willpower isn’t as limited as you think. They key is to find ways to exercise it.

    Showing the kind of force of will necessary to go 72 hours without food, shackled with the weight of extreme hunger particularly in the presence of temptation, proves you’re strong enough to walk by that box of donuts at the office and leave them be. In my experience once you’ve developed the discipline necessary for a long fast forcing yourself to deny other immediate pleasures in favor of longer term benefits becomes much easier.

These were the main reasons that came to mind to practice a bit of hunger at least once in your life. Can you think of any others? If you’ve tried it out I’d love to hear about how it went.

Photo Credit: Know Your Meme

How to Use Negative Emotions As Motivational Rocket Fuel

I Sublimate My Rage Through Needlework by Cross-Stich Ninja

Always a good option.

To get motivated when you aren’t, you first need to find the motivation to motivate yourself.

I recognize that sounds like word soup or an antimetabole, and it kind of is. At the very least it suffers from the problem of infinite regression. After all, how can you get up the motivation to motivate yourself if you don’t have enough motivation to be motivated in the first place? Turtles all the way down.

Thankfully, there are some forces that are a lot more powerful than our conscious minds. Forces we can use as an external push to provide a solid foundation for all those turtles and kick start some motivation without effort on our part.

The Power of Negativity

In general, humans seem to be creatures motivated in a primary way by negativity over positivity.

People tend to remember negative memories stronger than positive ones, they tend to react more strongly to losing something than gaining something and they tend to be more effected by avoiding discomfort than seeking pleasure. Anyone working in customer service will tell you that almost no one calls in to say how great service was, but plenty of people will call in to complain about even relatively minor problems. A bad experience is more likely to spur you to action than a good one.

There are a lot of ways to harness these tendencies and we’ve talked in the past about using similar principles to set up barriers. We’re going to focus on providing the kick start for getting motivated though, and that’s going to involve three primary negative emotions: Revulsion, Fear & Anger.

Revulsion

Personally I think revulsion might be one of the most instinctual, primal & difficult to resist emotions we have so I give it the most weight. Don’t agree? Let’s try a little thought experiment.

Picture a friend or family member vomiting violently into a poorly maintained public toilet, perhaps in a truck stop or something similar. When they’re finished, imagine dunking your head in there.

I’ll wait a moment while those of you with easily upset stomachs or particularly vivid imaginations collect yourselves.

Revulsion is a strong enough force that it tends to completely eliminate any semblance of choice in our decision making. A lot of this is a result of our neurology, our brains make our decisions for ‘us’ before our consciousness is aware of it, but an average properly functioning human would not see voluntarily dunking their face into a vomit filled toilet as a true choice. It probably wouldn’t even register as a possibility.

Another way to illustrate this is to imagine someone walking up to you and pointing to some dog poop nearby and asking, “Hey, aren’t you going to eat that?” It’s an absurd question because you normally wouldn’t have even considered it. You don’t have to stop every time you see dog poop and ask yourself whether you want to eat some or not.

This is the kind of feeling you want to cultivate around not doing whatever it is you’re trying to get motivated to do.

You need to imagine how things will go if you don’t do what it is you’re trying to get motivated to do an fixate on how disgusting and revolting that future would be to you. Imagine not finding a career or starting a business you love and spending the rest of your life in a tedious job you despise. Imagine not learning that language you want to speak and missing out on all the great conversations, relationships, travel, books, music & movies that come with it. Imagine not trying to get in shape and just getting fatter and sicker and weaker.

Then feel disgusted about it.

Once you’ve cultivated that disgust you can use it to automate your actions a bit. Eventually you can get to the point where certain things, skipping a workout to lay around and watch movies and eat ice cream for example, feels like as much of a viable option as going for a swim in sewage pit.

If you’re not able to generate a very strong feeling of revulsion

Fear

Fear is another powerful primal emotion. Physically I think fear’s a little easier to overcome than revulsion – for example when Fear Factor was on everyone talked about contesting eating disgusting things more than they did them doing scary stuff – but it’s still a strong motivator.

The key here is to follow the same kind of pattern as with developing a sense of revulsion except envision outcomes that terrify you instead. Imagine being publicly humiliated when you fail to reach your goals. Imagine breathing your last breath with the realization that you never accomplished anything you actually care about.

Once that sense of fear is established you can apply it the same way. Allow the thought of being lazy and blowing off what you need to do to reach your goals tie into the thought of where you’ll wind u as a result.

Remind yourself of the consequences of not doing what you need to do and let the fear of them push you into action.

Anger

I list anger last because I think it’s the hardest to really control out of all of them. On top of that, if focused inward anger can wind up hurting your motivation more than giving it a little push.

The key here is to find something to act as a lens with which to focus all of the anger outward. Then you can harness that energy to provide a solid base for building up some motivation.

It may differ from person to person on what works best as that lens, but I think the one that resonates with people most easily is revenge. Now this may just be a reflection of growing up as a shy, fat, nerdy kid and suffering the slings and arrows of public high school as such – it’s hard to say.

Most people have someone though, either now or in the past, who bullied them, talked down to them, denigrated their efforts, belittled them, whatever. Most people have someone in whose face they’d like to throw their success accompanied by a little dance and some select waving of middle fingers. Latching on to that drive and having something to prove to somebody lets you grab on to anger and make sure it doesn’t get turned in on yourself by affixing it to an external entity.

To be fair, even externally focused, this is probably the most potentially detrimental or self-destructive of the three. I know some people are going to click with this one most though, so it’s worth mentioning as an option.

Have you used any of these emotions to provide fuel for your motivation? Do you have something better? Tell us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Cross-Stitch Ninja

Page 5 of 18« First...34567...10...Last »