The Cheat Code for (Nearly) Unlimited Willpower

Konami Code Graffiti by El Payo

For a long time now it’s been believed that your willpower, loosely defined here as your capacity to make yourself do/not do something contrary to your desires, is a finite resource.

It was said that you have a reservoir of willpower and every time you exercise your will to resist overeating, study or work when you don’t want to or anything else like that it drained a little willpower from your tank. In terms I’m more familiar with, your willpower is like your MP (Magic/Mana Points for anyone scratching their head) – a reserve of limited mystical power that allows you to do awesome things until you run out of it, then you need a bit of sleep or some manner of potion to recharge it.

The thing is, it turns out there’s a cheat that gives you nearly unlimited mana – er, willpower – by making it so it recharges every time you use it.

Playing By the Rules

I’ve written a bit about willpower before (because really, who wouldn’t want to be a bit more like Batman?), but I think it’s still important before we understand how to cheat that we understand how things normally work.

In testing willpower psychologists have found that doing a task that requires willpower makes people perform worse on a subsequent test. If enough time is given between tests the results even out and if the participants are given some glucose (in most studies a sugary drink) they perform better on the second test than without it.

What’s all that mean? It means your mana bar (willpower) is only so big and every time you use it for something it depletes, meaning you have less for the next time you need to use it. If you don’t have enough you can’t cast bigger spells (resist bigger temptations) and if you completely run out it’s hard to do anything at all.

There are three standard ways to replenish it:

  • Drink a Potion – This is the quickest way to go if you just got to the end of a tough level (came home from work) and you need a little boost to make it through the boss fight you stumbled into (having to clean the Augean stable you call a garage).

    Drinking down a mana potion or two (sugary drink) can give you back the little bit you need to cast the spell. It’s quick and easy, but not perfect. It’s hard to get back to 100% on potions alone, and it’s important not to overdo it. Too many potions and you may see your HP suffering. The real reason mages wear robes is to cover up their pudge.

  • Get Some Sleep – Sure this isn’t very helpful when you’ve got a big boss fight between you and the next save point, but stopping at an inn (or, you know, your own house) for a good night’s sleep will completely refill your mana (willpower).

    Just make sure you get enough sleep. If you skip out on sleeping or regularly get a bad night’s sleep you’re going to get fatigued. The fatigued status decreases your max mana (willpower) and makes it take longer to refill, so get your sleep.

  • Wait – The slowest and most painful option is honestly to just wait. Your mana bar (willpower) refills slowly on its own over time. Just don’t expect to win any battles while you wait.

Now even without cheating you can increase your mana bar (not going to say it this time) by leveling up. How do you level up?

Go win battles and earn some experience points, noob.

Using your mana to win battles (successfully exercise willpower) earns you experience. Earn enough and you level up which makes your mana bar a little bigger. You do have to actually win though. Losing a battle (skipping a workout, surrendering to either Ben or Jerry) isn’t going to earn you anything but shame.

Cheat Mode

Remember those earlier studies demonstrating the finite nature of willpower? Well some other researchers tried something a little different. They divided the testing groups into those who believed that willpower was a finite resource and those who didn’t.

They found that the people who believed willpower ran out performed as on the previous studies, worse on the second tests unless boosted by glucose. The second group though, those who didn’t agree with that view, didn’t behave at all that way.

People who thought willpower wasn’t decreased by exercising it saw no degradation in performance between tests. The people who believed that willpower was replenished by using it behaved exactly like that’s what was happening.

What’s better is that the researchers were able to take people who had previously believed willpower was finite and performed as such and then prime them by reading statements about willpower to make them behave like the group that performed equally well on both tests.

So what’s that mean for you?

It means your state of mind directly affects your willpower. By changing how you think about it, by telling yourself that using your willpower gives you more of it, you can turn on your own personal cheat mode.

This can be a little trickier than it sounds. Changing your views on something is not quite as simple as ↑ ↑ ↓ ↓ ← → ← → B A.

The easiest way is to keep telling yourself that every time you use your willpower you get more of it, then go practice on some easy battles. Remind yourself that every time you win, you get a bit more mana and after a while it’ll actually start working that way.

Sure, this little cheat isn’t perfect. There are still limits in the end so don’t go thinking this is going to allow you to stay awake for a week complete an Ironman and write a novel all at the same time. What it will let you do is win all the regular battles you face everyday with a lot less struggle and even the occasional boss fight when they come up.

Have you tried forcing yourself to believe willpower is increased by using it? Did you believe that from the start anyway? How has it helped you? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: El Payo

How to Master Skills Like the Huns

The Hun Lifestyle by Dandoo

Pillaging not necessarily required.

Lead by Attila and his descendants the Huns were one of the most successful civilizations of their time militarily, finding victory even over the Roman Empire and building an empire that stretched from southern Russia and Iran all the way to what’s now France. Attila even gets referenced in the Volsunga Saga of Norse mythology.

The success of Attila and the Huns obviously can’t be boiled down to a single factor, but the one that gets referenced the most is definitely the skill of their horsemen.

Like the Mongols centuries later, the popular legend is that the Huns learned to ride horses before they even learned to walk. They were claimed to live almost their whole lives in the saddle, and as a result they became some of the most expert horsemen that the world has ever seen.

While nowadays you probably don’t need to master your horsemanship, we can apply this same principle to get exceedingly good at any other skill you want to master.

Born in the Saddle

A lot of the credit for the impressive horsemanship of the Huns is given to the fact that they were introduced to horseback riding at an extremely young age and then it became a daily thing for essentially the rest of their lives.

Now I know since you’re reading this the ‘from a young age’ ship may have long since sailed. That’s no problem – we can still use the same kind of technique to achieve similar results.

The 10,000 hours theory put out by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers (which I think, by this point, just about everyone has either read or heard of) suggests that someone needs 10,000 hours of focused or directed practice to become world class at a skill. The actual research supporting that theory has been put into question a bit, but as a rough guideline it’s probably a practical estimate.

10,000 hours if you’re practicing something most of the day is going to be about 832 days – about two years and 3 months or so – since even if you’re doing it all day you still have to sleep. In terms of becoming world class at something two years or so is actually pretty quick. There are two catches though.

The first is that we don’t really care about being world class. The difference between being in the top 10% (better than 90% of the population) and in the top 1% (better than 99% of the population) is relatively small in skill, but enormous in the amount of work required to get from one to the other. This disparity is a result of the severely diminishing returns on your efforts once you get beyond average skill levels.

As an example getting good enough at guitar that you’re better than most people, good enough to put out a professional album for example or play small concerts, is going to be much closer in skill level to someone who’s a legend (say Jimi Hendrix for example) than an absolute beginner. Even so, it would require substantially more effort, and possibly a measure of luck, to get from expert to legendary than it took you to get from beginner to expert.

So why bother? I have broad interests and would much rather be better than 90% of people at a wide range of things than better than 99% at a single thing. Each takes roughly the same amount of effort.

The second catch is that Gladwell says we need 10,000 hours of intentional practice. That’s practice with a clear goal, with focus to it. Unless you have resources that rival Bruce Wayne’s you probably can’t devote entire days to intentional practice – you’ll be doing this more like the Huns and going about your daily business, just doing it while on your horse so to speak. If non-intentional practice counted as much as intentional practice everyone who commutes to work everyday would drive as well as professional race drivers.

This isn’t really such a problem though since we’re not really interested in hitting Gladwell’s world class goalpost. Our goal is to just get really good at something and, while intentional practice will play a part, you’re not going to need 10,000 hours of it.

So how do we actually go about doing it?

Putting it Into Practice

Now most things, unlike horseback riding, are not things you could conceivably do as you go about your business all day. (To be fair, you couldn’t ride around and do all your errands on horseback anymore either) So we’re going to use a couple different strategies to try to achieve the same general effect. The first involves making use of your downtime.

Filling the Gaps

I’ve talked about ways to make use of downtime in language learning in the past, and all of those strategies apply here as well.

The first is going to be filling your day with as much passive learning or practice as possible. For things that are more learning focused this means always being surrounded by the information you’re trying to absorb, but in the background. For language learning that would mean leaving the TV on to shows in your target language or listening to music or conversations in your target language while you go about your day.

For skills, which are by nature more active, passive learning is going to involve running through the skill in your head while you do other things. If you’re working on your Wing Chun for example you can run through your forms and techniques in your head while doing the dishes or whatever else needs to be done. You can passively practice in your head what you can’t necessarily actively practice physically at the time.

You also have the hundreds of little downtime periods every day that you can fill with active practice. Think of all the times you have a minute or two to wait, for the elevator, the bus, a file to download, etc.

All these times add up, so why waste them checking Facebook or screwing around on your phone?

Instead use them to get a little bit of practice in. These are the times to get more active practice in if you can – flashcards on Memrise for example, or running through a few martial arts techniques in the air – though if you need to passive practice works too (Busting out your gong fu moves at the bus stop may get more attention than you’re looking for).

The idea is just to squeeze as much practice time as possible out of these countless lost fragments of your day in order to compress them into something useful.

Greasing the Groove

Greasing the groove is a concept borrowed from Pavel Tsatouline’s Naked Warrior. Boiled down to its essentials, Pavel treats strength as a skill and seeks to improve it by small, relatively easy practice sessions spread out over the course of a full day.

For example, if you can only do a single pull up and want to be able to do ten, rather than doing a more standard workout of 5 sets of 1 pull up three times a week, you would set a timer and go do a single pull up every hour all day long.

This creates a simulated version of our ‘practice all day’ Hun method by making you practice all day just dispersed rather than constantly.

There are two sub-divisions of this method – the standard timer method and the cue method.

The timer method works just like what Pavel recommends. You set a timer on your watch, phone or whatever and every time it goes off you stop what you’re doing and do a short session of whatever it is you’re trying to become skilled at. If you’re learning a language that might be 5 to 10 minutes of conversation practice, writing or reading. If you’re learning martial arts that might be 5 minutes of shadow boxing. It really can be whatever, just keep it short and to the point.

The second method, the cue method, uses physical cues to replace the timer. You set up things in your environment that trigger a quick practice session of whatever it is you’re learning. When I was in high school and was first getting involved in parkour I hung a pull up bar in our stairwell and then tacked a piece of string across my door at waist height.

Every time I came up or down the stairs I’d do as many pull ups or chin ups as I could at that moment. Every time I entered my room I rolled under the string and every time I exited it I jumped over it (provided I wasn’t carrying a drink or something).

Since I was going in and out of my room a lot, that added up to lots and lots of pull ups, rolls and jumps everyday. Even more so compounded over weeks and months.

If you’re pursuing something more learning focused you can use notecards or sticky notes to learn things all day long. If you’re learning a language you can plaster everything with vocab and sentences so you’re surrounded by little cues to review those words, sentences or grammar.

These two aren’t equally exclusive either, so feel free to mix them together.

You may not have learned your skill of choice before you could walk like Attila and his horseback riding, but that doesn’t have to stop you from getting just as good at your skill of choice. Just try not to lead an army in conquest of most of the known world, ok?

While you still can’t neglect some intentional practice time, by remembering to practice passively as often as possible, fill in all those downtime gaps and use the grease the groove strategies you can easily become an expert in something in a relatively short time period.

Have you used these strategies in the past? What did you think of them? Is there anything you would add to make them better or more effective? Let us now in the comments!

Photo Credit: Dandoo

Retain Holiday Peace Through One Second Meditation

Buddha Dog by SuperFantastic

This dog clearly knows how it’s done.

The holidays are stressful.

Whether it’s fighting through the grocery store the day before Thanksgiving trying to find the last few ingredients on your list, having to listen to a semi-inebriated rant by that one relative whose ideas on equality hail from a time when the phrase ‘coloreds only’ didn’t necessarily mean you were doing laundry or dealing with the near anarchy of a major retailer on Black Friday – it helps to have some way to maintain your centeredness. When you factor in all the horrible physical side effects of stress not having some way to deal with it all may genuinely be killing you.

Thankfully, one second meditation is an easy technique you can use at any time anywhere to regain a little bit of your inner peace.

Learning to Meditate

The first step is learning to meditate. If you don’t know how yet, go check out our beginner’s guide to meditation first. If the turkey’s in the oven and the relatives are banging on the door already and you seriously need the TL;DR version here you go, meditation in 3 easy steps:

  • Step 1: Close Your Eyes – Not necessary once you’re used to meditating, but it helps if you’re a beginner.

  • Step 2: Focus On Your Breathing and Nothing Else – Put all your attention on breathing in, and breathing out. Other thoughts will pop into your head, ‘Am I doing it right?’, ‘What should I have for dinner tonight?’, ‘Boy, it’s dark with my eyes closed’, but you need to acknowledge their presence and then let them float away. Don’t try to fight it, that’s like trying to read this sentence without picturing a pink elephant, just accept them and then let them continue on their way.

    If it helps you can create a mental cue to signal the brushing away of unnecessary thoughts. This can be as esoteric sounding as the stereotypical ‘ommm’ sound or you can just say ‘hmm’ to yourself and let go of the thought.

  • Step 3: Be Empty – Eventually, the thoughts will taper off and stop pestering you and you’ll be left with an entirely empty mind focused completely on your breathing. Congratulations! You’re meditating! Remember this feeling.

Once you understand how to meditate, it’s time to compress the time you need to do it down to as small a period as possible.

Meditating in a Moment

Once you’re comfortable meditating for longer periods of time, say five to ten minutes, start practicing reducing that time by setting progressively shorter timers. It’s easiest to start with a minute and then cut down from there. Set a timer and meditate for a single minute. Focus on using your mental cue to brush those nagging thoughts away.

Next time set a timer for 45 seconds once you’ve got that down. Then set one for 30 seconds and then for 15. Below that there’s really no point in setting a timer. You likely also won’t have time to have thoughts pop up, so the real goal of meditating in a moment is brushing out all the clutter in your head right that moment to let a breath of fresh air in.

As a result of a moment being such an immeasurable, transient thing just focus on using your cue to empty your mind. Close your eyes for a second, take a deep breath and go ‘omm’ or ‘hmm’ or whatever. As you do, smile and breathe out all the thoughts that were occupying your head.

There you go, you just meditated in a single moment.

When to Take Momentary One Second Meditation Breaks

Honestly, whenever you’re stressed.

It doesn’t just have to be through the holidays, this is a skill that will serve you well forever. Anytime you feel stress getting the best of you, close your eyes for a second and empty your mind. Anytime you find yourself getting really angry over something, use your mental cue and exhale all of that away. You can even use it when you’re feeling nervous or worried about something and need to calm down a bit.

Once you’re used to the technique you can even use it in times when you’re not stressed or anything but just need a small moment of clarity, maybe when you’re working on a project or experience writer’s block. Even when you’re just trying to get some sleep and your mind won’t quiet down, a moment of meditation can silence all those buzzing thoughts keeping you awake.

Have you used super-compressed one second meditation in order to get you through stressful situations or ride out a wave of anger? Do you have any tips that would make the process easier to learn or implement? Share your experiences with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Bruce

Screw Time Management – Manage Your Energy

Sad Clock by Elena Fidanovska

Sorry Clock, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. You’re just not as important to me.

Time management is a big deal for a lot of people, especially if you’re in the category of people concerned with accomplishing a lot of things. I’ve written about time management before along with other strategies like timeboxing for getting the most out of your time.

The problem is I see a lot of people focus entirely on time management at the expense of other areas. They become obsessed with trying to squeeze every little productive moment out of their day and in the end wind up less productive than they were before. Their problem isn’t that they’re poor at managing their time.

Their problem is they don’t know how to manage their energy.

The Failure of Time Management

Ok, so I’ll admit – time management is still important.

Regardless of how well you manage your energy if you procrastinate and screw around all day or waste lots of time on things that are unimportant or superfluous then you’re not likely to be very productive. That being said, for most people it’s easy and intuitive to make at least the most basic of changes to improve their time management.

Where you run into problems is that time management, particularly in the productivity and lifestyle design communities where it’s endemic, becomes an obsession.

Using myself as an example, for a while I got caught up in the obsession in an attempt to achieve all of the things I was working on. I had to fit learning a second language, training clients at the gym, teaching English online, writing articles, working on our book, my own fitness, practicing instruments, parkour and martial arts training and a number of other pursuits into my schedule all on top of the day to day trappings of life.

Faced with this mountain of tasks I went kind of insane with time management and optimization techniques, but I still never could manage to get everything I wanted done. What’s worse, my performance across the board started to suffer. The quality of everything I was doing dropped sharply. I felt horrible. I wasn’t sleeping well. I was tired, stressed and depressed constantly.

It was hell.

After a while, I had to come to terms and say screw it – clearly something was not working because everything was falling to pieces. It was useless to me to optimize my time if I didn’t have the energy to actually produce quality work.

So I turned my tactics around and starting focus on managing my energy levels instead of my time.

Finding Your Energy Rhythm

What gets measured, gets managed. Conversely, it’s extremely difficult to manage something you don’t measure. How are we possibly going to manage our energy if we don’t start by identifying exactly what it is we’re managing here?

The first step then is to take a look at your energy patterns throughout the day. To that end I’ll begin by defining what we’re talking about whenever I say ‘energy’. I’m not talking about the mystical, pseudo-scientific woo version of ‘energy’. This isn’t going to involve spirits, chakras, or harmonizing with the Earth Mother (whatever that means). Nor am I necessarily talking about the strict scientific definition of ‘energy’ in terms of electric, kinetic or potential energy – though defined loosely in physics terms as ‘the capacity to do work’ it’s probably the closest.

When we talk about ‘energy’ here I mean solely the kind of energy people get when you drink some espresso, get a good night’s sleep, or find yourself in a flow state. It’s both physical and mental in that you can have a lot of mental energy but have no physical energy (e.g., fatigue) or have plenty of physical energy but very little mental (e.g., depression).

Got it? Excellent.

So the goal is to take a look at an average week and determine when you feel like you have the most energy and when you have the least energy on a day to day basis. Keep a journal for a week, make notes on your phone, whatever it takes. The goal here is to identify if there are any patterns, do you have more energy in the mornings or in the evenings. Do you have a mid-day slump and then a bit of a rebound? Write it all down and find out.

Take as detailed notes as you can too, because there may be other factors. Do you always find yourself more drained after certain activities? Are there things that always leave you feeling more energetic and pumped up? Identifying these things is important to getting better at managing your energy.

Everyone’s going to be a little different. Some highlights from my own notes showed that it takes me about 20 minutes to feel fully energized after I wake up, workouts give me more mental energy, I tend to slump around 1:30 to 2 p.m. everyday and I’m an introvert – social interaction drains my energy while alone time recharges it.

First, figure out your energy rhythms. Then you can move on to the next step.

Block Out High & Low Energy Times

Once you’ve got some patterns identified in your energy rhythms you need to slowly start reorganizing your activities around these patterns. In other words, try to do most of your really important work during the times when you’re naturally more energized and try to schedule your relaxing and recharging time for when you’re naturally in a slump anyway.

I know that I tend to hit a slump mid-day, so I don’t try to get important work done (or often, any work done) during that time. It’s far less productive for me to force myself to work through the low energy periods. When I do, I produce seriously shitty work and I just drain myself further leading to misery and substantially longer recovery times. Not terribly conducive to getting things done.

Conversely, I know when my energy levels tend to be highest, so I schedule my most important work then or the work that I am least enthusiastic about or dreading most.

Blocking your normal high and low energy periods out like this doesn’t have to be any kind of strict schedule. It can just be a general understanding that around one time you feel better and around another time you feel drained and planning things accordingly. You can be as strict in your scheduling or as general as you like provided you’re cognizant of your rhythms and plan accordingly.

The point is to maximize your efficiency so you’re getting your best work done when you’re best able to do it, and your hardest work done when you’re least likely to give in and put it off while not trying to force work during times when you have to struggle extra hard to complete it.

This alone will get you pretty far, but there are a handful of other tactics that can assist a broader energy management strategy.

Work Cycles and Planned Breaks

Work is a fight.

It can run the range from a fun, lighthearted sparring match to a 100 man kumite to the death – but either way every task you do is one you’re stepping into the ring with.

So which sounds like a better plan, going in for ten rounds with zero rest in-between or having a little time now and again to sit down and have some water? Sure if it’s just for fun you can probably go a little longer, but if it’s a tough fight you’re going to want a minute to rest between rounds.

If that’s the case, why don’t people treat work the same way?

Rather than sit down and spend four hours fighting your way through a difficult task, take little breaks in-between to have some water and tell Mick to cut you. Your work’s a champ, it’s not about to get tired and give up on you. I’ve found that a standardized 90 minute work period followed by a 15 minute break gives me the best results. It’s a long enough work period to get a substantial amount of work done followed by a long enough break to relax, but neither feels too long.

This tactic allows you to maintain the energy you’ve got, and often even recharge a little, to avoid getting crushed by the attrition of painful or grinding work. You can certainly adjust based on case, if the work’s fun or enjoyable go longer without a break and if it’s hellish take them more frequently.

Nap When Needed

Naps are awesome.

They help you recharge. They help refresh your brain and tidy things up in there. They improve mood and creativity. They lead to better, more restorative sleep during the night. They’re just wonderful.

So why not take one?

Most people have a time during the day when you have a really bad slump. For a lot of people this is in the middle of the day – this has led a lot of people to suggest that humans in general are naturally biphasic (hardwired to sleep twice in a day/night cycle rather than just overnight.) Whether that’s true or not, taking a short nap is the single best way to deal with that slump in my opinion.

I take between a 20 minute and one hour nap almost everyday between 1:30 and 2 p.m. when I hit my normal daily slump. Whether I nap longer, or shorter, or not at all is entirely dependent on how I feel and how much I think I need. If I’m feeling absolutely destroyed I’ll take a little longer and if I feel pretty good or have a lot to get done I may skip it or just take a speedy caffeine nap.

Experiment a little with naps during your lowest energy periods and see how much of an effect it makes. Generally naps also allow you to get the same amount of rest in a shorter period of sleep overnight as well, so beyond the immediate effect of bringing your energy back after the mid-day dip you may find your energy levels are higher in general with less overnight sleep.

That being said, if you’re not getting enough sleep then fix that first. The easiest way to guarantee your energy levels stay in the gutter all day is to be running on four hours of sleep.

Obey Your Biofeedback

That’s basically a fancy way of telling you to listen to your body – which is really the core of this whole exercise.

If you have downtime scheduled because you normally feel terrible during a certain time but you feel great then for some reason, go ahead and get something done. Conversely, if you feel awful when you normally expect to be 100%, don’t stress out about skipping whatever work you had planned. Do it when you’re recharged and refreshed and ready for it.

Be honest here though, because this isn’t license to just say, ‘Meh, not feeling it,’ whenever work comes up and procrastinate until the end of time.

You need to be listening to your body enough to know when you can be productive and when you can’t and do your best to follow that. If you find that you never feel 100%, then you should examine why you never feel good. This can be a sleep issue, a diet issue, being overly stressed or just not knowing well enough what things genuinely recharge you. Examine your habits and what things you think are draining you so much and start experimenting with ways to correct the problem.

Use Deliberate Practice

Like with a lot of things, deliberate focused practice can help you increase your energy levels throughout the day. This works a lot like how working on increasing your willpower works – intentional practice forcing yourself to extend your energy a little past it’s normal limit followed by enough recovery time to reset.

Treat your energy levels like a muscle. When you lift weights you’re not getting stronger right then, you’re wrecking things and providing the stimuli to get stronger. When you’re actually getting stronger is later that night when you’ve had dinner and are asleep in your bed. Without adequate recovery exercise can be useless or even detrimental.

When working on your energy levels you shouldn’t push yourself until you’re completely burned out – that isn’t going to help. You need to push yourself just a little beyond your threshold then take enough time to recover. Once you’re recovered you can push just a little farther than that and so on.

Just like there are practical physical and genetic limits to how much you can build your muscles there’s a limit to how much you can build your energy reserves. Just like sometimes a shit day comes up and you can’t move a weight you’ve lifted for reps a week ago sometimes no matter how much you’ve trained your energy maintenance other factors are going to wreck you.

Both of those are fine. You can still work to feel a little better overall by deliberately pushing your limits in a controlled way.

Everyone’s a little different, but overall I think this strategy of managing energy rather than time tends to give much better results. Time is a lot less flexible than energy, and though we all only have 24 hours in a day even if you somehow had double that if you were too drained to get anything done it wouldn’t matter – you’d still get nothing done.

Stop worrying so much about fine tuning your schedule and start paying more attention to working along your natural energy rhythms to get the most, and best, work done that you can.

Have you tried managing your energy instead of your time? Do you think it’s better or do you think I’m totally wrong here? Let us know in the comments.

Photo Credit: Elena Fidanovska

13 Mental Traps You Need to Avoid

My Prison is an Open Cage by Pensiero

If you want to make good decisions, or at least less wrong ones, it’s important to avoid these common mental traps.

In almost all situations the best way to reach the most beneficial option in a tough decision is solid, rational thought. There’s something to be said certainly for going with your gut at times, particularly in situations where an immediate decision is required to get you out of danger. For bigger less immediate decisions though taking a long objective look at things gives you the best vantage point from which to make the best decision.

The problem is, in a lot of ways our brains suck at rational, objective thought.

We suffer from a host of cognitive biases that disrupt our ability to make good, rational decisions. These likely conferred an evolutionary advantage in the past when focusing on the negative or over emphasizing imagined patterns made you more likely to survive to reproducing age and less likely to get eaten by a Smilodon. In modern times, they tend to just get in the way and encourage us to make bad decisions.

Thankfully we can fight their influence once we know what to look out for. Here are thirteen of the more common ones and some easy ways to counteract them.

The Common Cognitive Biases

There are definitely more than thirteen cognitive biases total, but these are the ones that seem to pop up the most and the ones which have the potential to cause the most problems on a day to day basis. In a lot of respects just knowing about these biases and the tendency of people to default to them can help you avoid them – if you’re aware of the trap you can tell when you’re about to walk right into it.

The Anchoring Effect / Focalism

Focalism is a cognitive bias rooted in our tendency to fixate on a specific number and then base all of our further calculations on that value. That means for example in a negotiation if you set the initial price higher and then ask people how much they think it’s actually worth they will tend to guess higher. It also leads to our tendency to fixate on the price of things on sale in terms of the money saved from the original price rather than evaluating it by the price itself.

If you intend to spend $200 and someone says they have a $500 item on sale for $350 or an item at full price for $190, you’re more likely to evaluate that based on the reduction in price rather than the fact that the final price of the sale item is still more than you intended to spend. In other words you’ll likely pick the item on sale regardless of whether it’s the best choice. This also leads to our tendency to pick the middle option when given a set to choose from.

If you offer people an item for $100, $300 and $1,000 the high anchoring point of the $1,000 option makes the $300 option more attractive than if you were only given the $100 and $300 option.

Unfortunately, the Anchoring Effect is one of the hardest to counteract. Being aware of it doesn’t always actually help. There is some evidence suggesting expertise in a relevant field can help, but it’s inconclusive. As it stands the best way to counteract it is to recognize when faced with a variety of options that you’ll tend to overestimate based on the value of the most extreme anchor point.

Negativity Bias

We tend to fixate more on negative news than positive news. This isn’t just a general observation either, our amygdala (one of the parts of your brain responsible for the creation of long-term memories) is specifically primed to search out negative experiences and make them into long-term memories first. Our limbic or emotional processing system also puts a strong prevalence on negative information and stimuli over positive.

From an evolutionary perspective this was probably useful for keeping us alive in the past. Knowing that fire will hurt you is more important to your survival than knowing that hugs feel good. In modern times though it can encourage us to focus too much on the negative. This can make us excessively risk averse, and interfere with the way we accept criticism and praise.

The best way to combat this bias is to make a concentrated effort to be mindful of all the positive things that happen. Don’t go too far into optimism and begin overestimating the positive things, but be aware of them. Also recognize that you’re more effected by negative input like criticism than you are by positive input like praise.

Neglect of Probability

Humans suck at intuitive estimations of probability.

Even worse, when we actually have the math done for us and know the statistics, we still tend to just ignore probabilities all together. Take most people’s fears for example. A lot of people are afraid of being in a plane crash or killed in a terrorist attack or something like that. At the same time, they don’t think twice about hopping in their car, running down their stairs or eating three pounds of fast food a day.

The fact is though, you’re way, way, way more likely to die in a car crash, or falling down your stairs, or from a heart attack than any of those other things. More people have been shot and killed in this country by toddlers this year than have been killed by terrorist attacks. Chances of dying in a car accident are 1 in 84, chances of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 5,000 at least. More people are shot and killed in a year in the U.S. than the number of people around the world killed by terrorist attacks.

The problem is, even when you give people these statistics their behavior doesn’t change. You can tell someone 200 lbs. overweight that heart disease is the number one killer of people in the U.S. and they’ll still be more scared of someone breaking in and murdering them than they will be of eating crappy food.

The best way to get over this bias is to actually allow statistical information to inform your behavior. When you see a statistic like 1 in 87 people die in a car accident, actually become a more careful and aware driver as a result of it. Worry less about the things that are statistically unlikely and more about the things that are more likely.

Ingroup Bias

The Ingroup Bias ties into our tendency of giving preference to those we consider to be in our own ingroup, our general circles of association. It’s a type of automatic tribalism that encourages people to treat people in their own group better and people in groups considered to be outside of one’s own group worse.

This is reflected in the sense of ‘other’ that is often exaggerated by the force of the Ingroup Bias. We show favoritism toward groups we consider ourselves as belonging to in terms of treatment and allocation of resources and over-estimate the abilities and positive features of those groups.

In it’s milder forms, this can lead to unnecessary competition and the exclusion of people that would actually be helpful to your goal. In it’s more extreme forms it can lead to racism and genocide. It’s important to recognize whenever you start to feel competitive (outside of a genuine competition of course) or start to think of people in terms of ‘them’ vs. ‘us’ that the people you’re referring to in the ‘them’ group are likely not all that dissimilar to you.

The Gambler’s Bias

The Gambler’s Bias, also sometimes called the Gambler’s Fallacy, is the tendency for people to think that past outcomes affect future results of genuinely randomized systems. In other words, people who are doing well at a dice game might say they’re “On a hot streak,” or conversely someone who’s been losing consistently may say they’re “due for some good luck.”

In reality in a random system past outcomes have no effect on future outcomes. If you flip a penny and get 10 heads in a row, the odds of landing a tails is exactly the same on the 11th flip as it was on the 1st. Now what makes this confusing for some people is that the odds of landing 10 heads in a row do differ from those of landing other possible combinations.

Where this gets people in trouble is that they think they’re ‘lucky’ or, in the opposite case, ‘overdue’ for a win. That encourages them to continue to bet beyond when it’s prudent to do so. It also encourages people to overestimate the odds of a positive outcome in situations.

The best way to avoid this fallacy is to understand that the concept of ‘luck’ – an invisible or indeterminate force that tilts probabilities in favor of or against specific individuals – is as imaginary as the concept of fairies or Santa Claus. In a randomized system no matter what your past wins or losses were you are no more guaranteed a win than when you first started.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is basically the tendency for incompetent people to overestimate their ability and for skilled people to underestimate their ability.

Put another way, people who are unskilled or non-proficient in something are much more likely to rate their ability in that thing as being above average. This is mostly because they’re not proficient enough to recognize their own lack of skill and suffer from a general case of anosognosia. On the inverse most skilled people assume everyone else is equally as proficient and as a result fail to accurate estimate their own skill level in relation to others.

Always reevaluate and test your presumptions about how skilled in something you actually are as time goes on and don’t just assume your initial assessment is correct. In general if you think you’re better than average at something you may not be and if you think you’re at or below average you may be better than you think. Don’t assume though that just because you think you’re bad at something means you’re actually good at it – actually test and compare to others.

Selection Bias

Selection Bias is the tendency of people to pick out the examples of something that make a certain pattern while unconsciously disregarding examples that contradict that pattern. It’s similar to the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon where you learn of something new, maybe a new word or you hear a new song, and then suddenly it starts popping up everywhere you go seemingly by coincidence.

In the same manner Selection Bias causes us to pay attention to the things we’re primed to pay attention to for some reason at the exclusion of other things. This causes us to erroneously perceive patterns that don’t necessarily exist. In the case of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon it generally comes down to the thing you’re now noticing everywhere having been there all along but you never payed attention to it until primed to.

This isn’t a terrible bias in terms of causing problems, but it can make people believe or do odd things based on ‘patterns’ they’re seeing that just aren’t there. It also causes us to pick out things that reinforce our current beliefs at the cost of blindness to examples that contradict those beliefs. If you start seeing patterns pop up do some objective analysis and see if there’s anything actually going on there before you start coming up with crazy ideas.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation Bias is kind of the big brother of Selection Bias in that it causes people to fixate on things that confirm their opinions and beliefs and ignore things that run contrary to them.

Conservatives will watch FOX News and liberals will watch MSNBC. You’ll also tend to associate with people who hold the same views rather than those who hold differing views. In more extreme cases you may also blind yourself to good evidence contrary to your position. A person who thinks dreams foretell the future for example will remember the one time they dreamed about a car accident and then had one and completely ignore the thousands of dreams they had that never came true.

Confirmation Bias can be dangerous because it blinds us to truth for the sake of feeling good about our opinions. A good exercise for working on confirmation bias is to expose yourself to material contradictory to the beliefs you hold on a regular basis. Approach it honestly though, going into it with the attitude of ‘debunking’ it is just another expression of confirmation bias.

Change Aversion

People are terrified of change.

This may tie into the fact that humans experience a sense of loss much more forcefully than a sense of gain. We’re extremely loss averse as well. Regardless of the cause, people are almost always more willing to stick with the status quo than to change things up.

This may not sound so bad at first, but the reason this habit can be detrimental lies in the fact that it encourages us to disregard options that may be objectively, empirically better just so that we can feel better about avoiding change. We will willfully choose the worse situation we have now rather than choose to change things for the better.

This self-destructive homeostasis can stop us from improving our lives and the lives of others. Whenever you’re thinking of making a change, make an objective pro-con list. That way you tally the relative scores up and make a more informed decision as to whether you really should keep things the same or whether changing things up would be more beneficial without the tendency to give more weight to keeping things the same.

Herd Behavior / The Bandwagon Effect

People also really want to fit in.

They want to fit in so much in fact that like the Asch experiments showed decades ago people are even willing to sacrifice their own morality in order to follow the influence of the group. Most people are much more willing to go with the flow and conform at the expense of their own conscience and free agency than they are to actually exercise them in defiance of the herd.

Most people are at least aware of the tendency toward the mob mentality or herd behavior but that isn’t always enough to be able to fight the effects of it. In important decisions or with positions on important topics it’s always important to stop every now and again and closely examine the impetus for why you think the way you do on it. Can you rationally defend your position or choice based on hard evidence? If not, you may need to take a closer look at it, particularly if you’re on the side of the majority since you may just be following the group.

Post-Purchase Rationalization

Post-purchase rationalization is pretty much exactly what the name says it is – the rationalization of the decision to purchase a specific product after it’s been purchased. It’s usually most prevalent in more expensive purchases because more expensive purchase often involve more pre-purchase research and deliberation and hold a lot more emotional investment.

The danger of post-purchase rationalization lies in its ability to blind us from seeing when we’ve made emotional decisions or errors in our reasoning and prevents us from correcting them in the future. If you bought something and it turned out to be a huge waste of money, just admit that you made a mistake and move on. Spending additional effort to overcome the cognitive dissonance between the expectations of the product and emotional investment pre-purchase with the reality of the product and the disappointment post-purchase is just a further waste of your time.

If you want to take this a step further, apply that reasoning to the rest of your life and stop rationalizing your bad decisions away. Recognize why they were faulty and resolve not to do it again in the future.

Projection Bias

There are two biases that are frequently labeled ‘projection bias’, so I’m just going to lump the two together since they really boil down to the same problem – in general we’re very bad at imagining a mind substantially different from our own and, as a result, have a tendency to project our current mind onto all conceptual models of minds we’re working with.

What does that mean?

First, it means we tend to naturally assume everyone else thinks in a manner very much like our own way of thinking. Currently it is impossible for you to really experience any mind other than your own in a direct sense. You can interact with other people and through that develop models and understand that they too have a sense of mind but you can never completely verify it through direct experience.

This is where we get ‘brain-in-a-jar’, Matrix-esque, solipsism arguments. I can’t prove to you, at least not completely, that I’m not a very well-constructed figment of your imagination.

This is a problem because in practice people often think very, very differently. Not just in terms of conclusions but in the methods used to arrive at those conclusions. Assuming that everyone else thinks the same as you is only going to cause difficulty.

Second, it means we tend to be unable to predict our own future states of mind as being anything different from our current ones. Basically, we assume our minds will never change.

Again, in practice, this is almost never the case. Our tastes, preferences and opinions are changing constantly. Something that we want now we may not want in the future and our wants in the future may be for things we couldn’t even fathom now. That makes it very hard to make truly informed decisions on things that will have a large effect on your life far down the road like career choices.

So what’s the best way to overcome this bias? In my opinion a great deal of fiction reading can help. Fiction allows you the closest proxy to being able to occupy another person’s head for a while. It exposes you to alien thought processes and reasoning and helps you develop a much better theory of mind – an ability to place yourself in another’s shoes.

Immediacy Bias

Anyone who’s ever lost weight will be keenly familiar with immediacy bias.

Immediacy bias is the tendency to choose things that offer gratification immediately, even to a net detriment, over things that provide gratification in the future, even to a net benefit. In other words you’re much more likely to choose the thing that makes you happy now (candy, procrastination, etc.) over the thing that will make you happy in the future (healthy food, work, exercise, etc.).

It’s obvious why this is a bad thing – we are more than happy to completely destroy our futures for a little bit of immediate pleasure than to have exponentially more pleasure on a delayed timescale. The immediacy bias is like rocket fuel for self-destructive behaviors.

One way to mitigate the effects of immediacy bias is through cultivation of your willpower. Now, willpower is a finite resource and, while you can build Batman levels of will, you’re going to run out eventually.

In order to assist your willpower it’s best to do things to limit your agency in situations where you know you’re likely to give in to temptation. Like Odysseus ordering himself bound to the sails in order to hear the Sirens without drowning himself, placing obstructions in your way in advance when you know you’re going to be tempted into irrational decisions takes your willpower out of the equation – or at least gives it a big boost.

These may be the most common, but there are a lot of other cognitive biases that lead people into bad decisions. Being aware of our human tendency to make irrational decisions for bad reasons is one of the best first steps in making not quite so bad decisions.

Do you have any good tricks for overcoming some of these mental traps? Any other that you think should be included? Leave a comment and let us know!

Photo Credit: Stefano Corso

Progression Vs. Position: How to Balance Happiness and Self-Improvement

Round & Round at the Vatican by Andrew E. Larsen

Life is a lot like a big, endless staircase. Is your happiness based on what stair you’re on, or how fast you’re climbing?

Complacency and a fire for constant self-improvement seem to be diametrically opposed.

The drive for self-improvement spurs us on to always be better than we were yesterday. It pushes us to keep fighting, keep training, keep working for that next goal. People who are particularly driven by a desire for self-improvement tend to be very ambitious and the heart of ambition is a hunger to improve or to succeed. That ambition makes a person work hard, but it also ties their mood to their progress. They always want more and they’re often not happy until they get it.

On the other hand you have people with a high sense of complacency. These people are happy with what they’ve got almost no matter where they’re at in life. Their happiness is tied to appreciating what they’ve got rather than with getting something else. This sounds nice in theory, but complacency encourages stasis – if things are fine how they are why should you work for something better? People who are too complacent run the risk of living a life dictated by others rather than the one they actually want to lead.

So how do you find happiness while still retaining your motivation for self-improvement? By focusing on progress rather than position.

A Change in Viewpoint

The main problem with both of these ways of viewing the world, the ambitious person always improving and never happy with where they are and the complacent people who are happy but never improve, is that both of their senses of happiness are tied to their position.

Both derive their sense of worth from where they currently are in their progress through life. They interpret that information differently, the ambitious person is unhappy with their position and the complacent person is overly happy with their position but for both where they are right now is the main concern.

Imagine some people standing on a stair case. Our ambitious person, Ms. A, sees someone on a higher stair than she is. She looks down at the stair she’s on, lower than where she wants to be, and she gets depressed. She’s motivated to climb those stairs to get where she wants to be, but at each step she judges herself by the step she’s standing on at that moment and as a result is never truly happy until she’s standing on the stair she wants to be on.

On the other hand we have our complacent person, Mr. C, standing on another stair near the bottom. He didn’t really choose to be there, and he thinks it’d be nice to be up there at the top of the staircase, but he’s decided he’s happy with where he’s at. He figures he is where he is and he should just be happy with the stair he’s on. He is genuinely happy, but he’ll die there without ever seeing the top of the stairs.

For both of them their happiness is based off of what stair they’re on at that moment. That’s the problem – it’s often framed as a choice between one or the other, ambition or complacency. There’s another option.

Rather than base your happiness on position, you can base your happiness on progression.

Imagine another person on that staircase of success, we’ll call her Ms. Z. Now Ms. Z looks up the staircase and sees people up at the top and wants to be up there too. Unlike Ms. A and Mr. C though she doesn’t base her happiness on what stair she’s on, she bases it on whether or not she’s moving.

As long as Ms. Z is climbing up those stairs, no matter how slow, she’s happy. Like Ms. A she’s motivated to keep progressing, but she doesn’t have all the unhappiness Ms. A gets from not being on the stair she wants to be on. Ms. Z is progressing so she’s happy. In fact she’s just as happy as Mr. C, but unlike Mr. C who will stay on the stair he was placed on his entire life Ms. Z will end up higher up than where she started.

Embracing Momentum

Ms. Z is an example of someone who bases their happiness on progression.

When you concern yourself primarily with whether or not you’re improving rather than how good you are at that moment you get all the motivation of a strong drive to improve with all the in-the-moment happiness that would get embracing a complacent worldview. By embracing the concept of only caring about maintaining that momentum you can be happy and fulfilled feeling while still possessing the impetus to be better each and every day.

So how do you switch from being position focused to progression focused?

The biggest thing is to stop worrying so much about where you are now or where you want to be. Recognize that the only thing that really matters is the present moment and that the only thing you have control of in the present moment is whether you’re making progress toward something or stagnating.

You need to start to shift your values toward the velocity you have in approaching your goals rather than your current position in relation to them. That means that a millionaire who has stopped improving is less successful than a penniless homeless person who’s actively working toward improving their situation.

Once you shift your thinking to fall more in line with progression based value as a preference over position based value you’ll find that success and failure isn’t such a big deal anymore. You won’t feel worthless when you haven’t made it to your goal as long as you’re still moving toward it. Even better you won’t be left with the boring, unfulfilled feeling of sitting on a plateau for your whole life.

Have you made the shift to a progression based value system? Do you think the position based one is better? Do you see things in a completely different way from both? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Photo Credit: Andrew E. Larsen

An Introduction to Speed Reading

Speed Reading by Rachel Strum

Ok, so you won’t be able to read quite that fast.

Speed reading is one of those things that, like sleep hacking, people with an interest in optimizing their lives tend to gravitate toward.

It’s easy to see why. People who are interested in optimizing their lives tend to be in love with self-improvement. The best path to self-improvement is learning. Learning means you need to absorb information. There are physical limits to the transmission and comprehension of sound and the comprehensible framerate of our vision has its limits as well – video and audio can only be sped up so much before we hit a wall. That leaves text as the most efficient medium for ingesting new information.

The thing is speed reading has a lot of unfounded cultural memes attached to it including being a scam, being an interesting but non-useful parlor trick like juggling or as being a magic thing existing only in the realm of the gifted or super-nerds.

It’s none of those. It’s not difficult and, though it does take practice, anyone can learn how to do it.

Reading Vs. Speed Reading

Personally, I don’t like to think of it as speed reading.

Calling it speed reading sets it aside as the exceptional thing, something more than regular reading. I don’t see it that way. The reason speed reading improves reading speed so much isn’t that it’s a trick or skill, it’s that the way we’re taught to read is often inefficient.

Speed reading is not exceptional, standard reading practices are just deficient. It’s more like reading vs. slow-reading. Learning and practicing speed reading is essentially just systematically breaking yourself of all the habits you picked up through a lifetime of being taught and of practicing a severely inefficient way to read.

The average reader reads at around 200 words per minute (wpm) with a comprehension of roughly 60%. Someone who enjoys reading and reads a lot tends to average in the neighborhood of 400 wpm with a comprehension in the 70-75% range. A casual tested reading speed for me is 830 wpm with a comprehension rate of 82%.

You can search for ‘reading speed test’ to try some out if you’re curious where you fall. Not only do I read comfortably four times as fast as the average person and twice as fast as avid readers but I also remember more of what I read. If I skim and speed up my tracking I can trade some comprehension for a bump up to the 1,000 wpm range.

I’m not telling you this to brag, just as an example of what you can get up to by unlearning the poor reading system you were taught as a kid. There are many, many people who make my 830 look glacial. These aren’t exactly scientifically rigorous tests either – I’d fairly assume my true reading speed may be at around the 600 wpm range. Either way, it’s a fair increase over the 200 wpm average.

Now I’m not going to try to make you a speed reader by the end of this article – I just want to give a basic outline of some of the things necessary for learning to read properly. You should note too that the goal of speed reading isn’t to permanently blow through reading material as fast as possible 100% of the time. Sometimes, particularly with fiction, I like to slow way down and enjoy things or even read particularly well constructed passages multiple times. The goal is to give you the tools to scale your reading speed up and down as the situation demands it.

So what kinds of things do you need to change in order to stop holding yourself back?

1. Stop Sub-vocalizing

What’s sub-vocalizing? It’s where you ‘hear’ every word you read inside your head as you read it and often unconsciously move your speech muscles to form the words without actually producing sounds. Just about everyone does it and it really needs to stop.

I suspect in addition to the reduction in cognitive load it provides the tendency to sub-vocalize stems from the fact that when we’re taught to read the standard procedure is to start by reading things aloud. Most kids are encouraged to read aloud and sound things out as they go, which isn’t such a bad way to start but it should be corrected once that foundation is built.

The reason sub-vocalization is such a big issue is that you can process text a lot faster than you can produce the sounds that accompany it. Sub-vocalizing every word you read binds your reading speed to your speaking speed. That’s too slow.

Some people may have a hard time imagining interpreting text without hearing it in their heads but you probably do it at times without realizing. Most people, for example, don’t hear the word ‘stop’ in their head when they see a stop sign. Even so, they get the information it’s intended to provide just the same. An easy way to try to read without sub-vocalizing, particularly if you’ve got it bad and actually move your mouth a lot, is to open and close your mouth when you read.

Try silently making an over-exaggerated ‘bababababa’ motion with your mouth like a fish out of water while you’re reading. You’ll probably still hear the words in your head, but it helps to get over the habit of actually moving your muscles to make the words without producing sound.

Not all sub-vocalization is bad, as it does correlate to an increase in comprehension. If you’re reading for speed don’t sub-vocalize, if you’re reading for memorization read aloud. You can also work on sub-vocalizing faster since there is a definite trade off in more speed to less comprehension when you don’t sub-vocalize. I should note too it’s impossible to completely stop sub-vocalizing physiologically. It’s just how we’re wired. Trying to fight it though helps to train you do it more efficiently.

2. Use a Pointer

You may think your eyes just scan straight across the line of words when you’re reading but in reality they twitch both forward and backward a handful of words the entire time you’re reading. You don’t notice while you’re doing it, but if you hook up a camera to someone’s eyes and watch them read you can see it happen.

In general, this is extremely inefficient. The best way to train your eyes to stick to what you want them to do is to use a pointer to track along the text at the speed you want to read. You can use your finger, a pen, whatever you want. The point is to have something to track along the text as a lead for your eyes. It’s inconclusive from my research whether or not this provides a tangible benefit to reducing the saccades – it may be the benefit stems more from having a tangible pacing object to keep you moving along smoothly.

At first this is probably going to slow you down since you’re not used to it. That’s ok. Keep at it and eventually it won’t feel so strange. Once you’re comfortable with it you can start using your pointer to go a little faster and encourage your eyes to track more quickly. Over time training your eyes this way makes it easier to scan quickly without losing as much information.

It’ll feel silly at first, but this is definitely a key piece of reading at your potential speed rather than the standard slow pace.

3. Don’t Be Linear

There’s nothing inherently wrong with reading linearly, but you shouldn’t feel it’s a requirement. Jumping around, skimming and hitting bolded information, bullet points and headers first is a good way to preview things and get an idea for what key concepts to look for when you get into the meat of that section.

Some texts will make this easier than others. Textbooks tend to be fairly scanable, and I do my best to highlight key parts of my articles to increase their scanability. Fiction on the other hand is going to be a touch harder, although I see few reasons outside of school reading assignments why you would want to zip through a work of fiction as fast as possible.

The more you have an idea of what information is likely to be important the more you can get key parts and skim through the things that are less relevant. Additionally by jumping around, working backward or quickly skimming you can skip over a lot of the grammatical and structural filler that aren’t always necessary for comprehension.

Learning to skim well takes practice. It feels a little like cheating, but the point here isn’t to just skip stuff for the sole sake of going faster – that leads to terrible comprehension rates and you’re not gaining anything. Learning to skim involves getting a feel for how to pick out the key bits of information while ignoring the extraneous bits.

Speed reading is, at it’s core, an enhanced skimming strategy. You’re trying to quickly absorb the relevant and important information while sorting out the extra stuff.

4. Actually Practice Reading

I realize this sounds counter-intuitive, but you shouldn’t practice reading while you’re actually reading.

What I mean by this is that if you want to actually read something for some purpose other than specifically improving your reading speed and comprehension rates, only read it for that purpose – don’t try to work on your speed reading at the same time.

Speed reading is a skill. As a skill, it needs to be practiced to become better at it. The best way to practice is by doing it deliberately and purposefully. You wouldn’t try to practice guitar and play a show at the same time. Don’t try to read something and practice at the same time either.

You should certainly apply your new reading skills to whatever it is you’re reading, but if you’re reading it for the information read it for the information. Set aside additional time with either that text or an entirely different one where your whole goal is to push the limits of your reading speed.

This is one thing which I think separates people who successfully improve their reading speed and comprehension levels from people who try it a bit and decide it’s stupid and doesn’t work. If you want to be able to do it you have to invest time in deliberate practice.

Additionally there’s a strong correlation to reading speed and vocabulary / word comprehension. In other words, the more quickly your brain can identify more lexical items the more quickly you can read. So boosting your vocabulary as much as possible can do as much for improving your reading speed as the techniques listed above.

These are the basic foundational blocks of speed reading. If you practice all of them you can see a lot of improvement in a relatively short time, just remember that speed reading is a tool and is appropriate in some areas and not terribly useful in others – knowing when to use it most effectively to learn is just as important as being able to do it in the first place.

Any speed readers out there have anything to add? Things that have worked well or poorly for you? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Rachel Strum

How to Find Native Speakers and Learn Any Language Anywhere

Anonymity and the Internet by Stian Eikeland

You too can learn a language with the modern wonder of the Webternets!

When you’re learning a new language immersion, exposure and practice are all extremely important. Unfortunately, when it comes to the standard system of classroom language learning or do-it-yourself book and audio programs, you don’t really get much of all three. As a result most people think the best way to learn a language quickly and effectively is to move to a country that speaks your target language.

What if you can’t reasonably do that though? While I think there are enough ways to travel cheaply that anyone who wants it bad enough can find a way, I recognize that not everyone can reasonably run off abroad to learn a language. So how do you find native speakers to practice with?

Thankfully the glory of the Internet provides plentiful opportunities to find a language partner or teacher, both locally and abroad.

The Interconnected World

That’s right. The Internet is more than just cats, naked people and Rick Astley. You can actually use it for something useful.

Anymore just about everyone has an Internet connection. Unless someone’s printed this article out for you clearly you’re one of them. That level of interconnectedness means that even if the closest person who speaks your target language is 12,450.5 miles away (technically the farthest they can get without going into space) if they’re online then you can talk to each other.

On top of that the Internet has provided an excellent if unintentional searchable database of people all over the world – including in your own city. While previously finding the handful of speakers of a more obscure language in a city of a million people required a lot of detective work, now if they’ve mentioned in a profile somewhere they speak it you can look them up in a few seconds.

Finding Native Speakers Abroad

While not necessarily true everywhere, chances are if you’re learning a second language there are more people who speak it natively elsewhere than there are locally. That’s kind of the nature of second language learning for most people outside of multilingual nations.

That means that finding people to speak with remotely, people who are off in these other countries that speak your target language natively, is often easier than finding people locally. We’ll start there.

  • iTalkiiTalki is a site dedicated to exactly what I’m talking about – connecting people who want to practice and learn second languages with native speakers half a world away. iTalki is excellent because you have the option of connecting with people for free to just chat, or paying for actual lessons with a qualified teacher. Seriously, with iTalki out there you have no excuses for not practicing your target language with a native.

  • Lang-8Lang-8 has a similar goal to iTalki, except it’s all about writing. That doesn’t mean you can’t use it to find people to speak with though. The text correction is valuable enough, but in the forums there are thriving language exchange communities and it doesn’t take long for most people on Lang-8 to accumulate a long friends list – most of those people will be more than happy to get on Skype and practice each others’ languages.

  • Google – Yeah, Google. You can search for language exchanges (there are tons of them) or even figure out the words in your target language for ‘forum’ and find some groups in your target language. Once you’re there start talking to people and you’ll eventually find someone willing to chat. Easy.

With Skype or some other video/audio/chat program if you prefer it’s easy to pick a time and have a conversation. If they’re learning your native language you can spend 30 minutes in one and 30 minutes in the other – everybody wins. You can even find pretty affordable teachers and have one on one lessons.

What if you want actual, face to face human contact though? What if you’re really sick of sitting in front of a webcam? No problem, find someone local.

Finding Native Speakers Locally

If you live anywhere even remotely near civilization and are learning a language that is even somewhat common I am comfortable saying there are at least hundreds of people near you to practice with. Probably more. You just have to find them.

Thankfully, that’s not as hard as it used to be.

  • MeetupMeetup is a site devoted to bringing together people with common interests in areas where they might not otherwise find each other. If you’re near a reasonably major city there’s probably a Meetup group dedicated to hanging out and speaking your target language. Do a search both in English and in the target language and see what comes up. You can join the group and then go to one of their Meetups and you’ll find yourself surrounded by other speakers and learners of your target language all there to learn and practice.

  • CouchsurfingCouchsurfing, technically, is for finding people to stay with when travelling. It has some awesome search functionality though, so you can use it to do a search in your own city filtered by language spoken. What you get is a long list of everyone on Couchsurfing near you who speaks or is learning your target language. Then you can send them each a message introducing yourself as a learner of their language and offering to meet for coffee or something and chat to practice. You can even open up your own home and host people from a country that speaks your target language.

  • Google – I won’t link to Google twice. It bears repeating though, you can find people locally using Google. Search for groups at nearby universities. Search for businesses in your area that originate in a country that speaks the language you’re learning. Here around Cincinnati there are tons of Korean restaurants, groceries and churches that I know just off the top of my head on top of a group at the University of Cincinnati even though Korean isn’t offered there. Go visit and strike up a conversation, ask if they know anyone who would be willing to practice with them. Make some friends. People in general enjoy helping others, so just go out and ask.

These are just a handful of ways to find people both locally and abroad to practice your target language with. If you go look you’ll find people, it really isn’t that hard. You have absolutely no excuse for not finding someone to practice with.

Do you have any to add? Anything particular methods you’ve found to be more or less effective? Share them with everyone in the comments.

Photo Credit: Stian Eikeland

Why You Need to Stop Waiting for Your Hero Moment

Pixelblock Danger by Cold Storage

It’s dangerous to go alone, take this!

Ah, the Hero Moment.

It’s so endemic to our storytelling, so ubiquitous and pervasive in everything – movies, TV shows, books, video games – that most people don’t even notice it even as it shapes their own understanding and expectations about their own lives. The Hero Moment meme seems built in to our way of thinking, whether genetic or just as a result of socio-cultural forces, and it directly interferes with our ability to do what we need to do in order to have the highest chance of success.

In other words, the Hero Moment is poisoning the way you think about life and making it harder for you to achieve your long term goals.

We want to stop that.

What’s The Hero Moment?

The Hero Moment is that standard moment in fiction where some huge, defining, life-changing thing happens to the protagonist thrusting them into the main issue of the story. It’s usually accompanied by finding out there’s something special about the protagonist.

Harry Potter finding out he’s a wizard is a perfect example. The beginning of just about any Zelda game is another. Meeting Ben Kenobi was Luke Skywalker’s Hero Moment. The arrival of River on Serenity changed all those character’s course. The common thread here is one big thing happens that changes the protagonist’s life forever.

It’s always a single drastic event.

That’s important, because it’s the main reason this particular meme is so subversive to the way we approach our goals. Life doesn’t work that way.

The Million Dollar Idea Myth – Waiting for a Boat at the Airport

When it comes to assessing your future and your goals, people put way too much emphasis on looking for a single, life-changing moment and severely under-emphasize the importance of consistent, grueling day-in day-out work.

That’s so freaking important I’m going to say it again.

In bold and italics.

People severely overestimate the value of a single life-changing moment and severely underestimate the importance of persistent, daily, habitual work.

People are looking for that Hero Moment. People are waiting for that moment when they’ll hit it big. In the abstract they’re waiting to have their own Hagrid come and tell them they’re the Chosen One. In the real world, this manifests itself as the myth of the million dollar idea.

Everyone is looking for that million dollar idea, that entrepreneurial lottery ticket that’ll turn them into the next Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos. They think it’s just like the Hero Moment – one minute they’re sitting there in their boring day job and then BAM they’re hit with a great idea, flip their desk and run out to make their fortune. People expect there to be something out there that’ll make them hit it big.

That’s just not how it works though.

Success takes work. Steve Jobs failed a ton, and pulled long hours to get where he got. Jeff Bezos didn’t just think up Amazon one day and go pick up his billionaire license – it took hard work every single day. It took struggle.

People don’t think of that though. They don’t sit and dream about how they’re going to lose sleep and work hard and devote 100% of their life to this big goal of theirs, they expect it to fall down their chimney like Santa Claus and be handed to them all nicely wrapped and ready to go.

It’s not surprising this is the model in media, after all it makes for a much shorter, sexier narrative. Hard work is perceived as so boring in most stories it gets glassed over in a couple minutes with a quick montage. Having a character spend ten long years of struggle to become a hero is not nearly as convenient as having Dumbledore show up at your house with some dwarves or being given the single most powerful piece of jewelry on the planet by your uncle.

Overcoming the Poison of Inaction

The reason this all is so bad for us is because it encourages us to sit around and wait for success to fall into our laps.

Success is not a well-trained puppy that will come whenever you call it. Success is a rabid, steroid filled grizzly bear on meth with a rocket launcher – if you want to capture it you’re in for a fight.

Sitting around forever trying to dream up this million dollar hit-it-big idea and expecting it to just come to you is wasting your time. You’ll never get anywhere doing that, and even if you do actually come up with an idea, statistically speaking it’s probably going to fail.

The way people finally succeed and get to a point where they’re living a fulfilling life that they actually want to be living is by putting in the hours every single day, no matter what, and failing over and over and over again until their sheer persistence finally gets them through.

Unlike all the fictional hero stories, this is how it works in the real world. Look at just about any biography of any extremely successful person and you know what common theme will be – lots of hard work and even more failures and an attitude of not giving up until they get where they wanted to be.

That’s the kind of attitude you need to cultivate in order to be successful.

You need to stop waiting for some big thing to happen and you need to start putting in the effort every single day to make something happen. Don’t focus too much on one area, try lots of stuff. If you’re having trouble putting in the hours each day, find some way to make yourself accountable until you’ve developed it into a habit.

In the end it’s going to be this attitude that gets you through, not waiting around for your radioactive spider to come along and chomp you into success.

Have you fallen into the trap of waiting around for your Hero Moment or your big Million Dollar Idea? How’d you get out of it? What are some tricks you’ve used to build a good daily work habit? Help us out and share with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Cold Storage

Language Shadowing: Learn a Language by Looking Like a Crazy Person

Creative Independence by Nattu

Shadowing is one of the most effective methods for increasing fluency and improving accent in a target language.

I’m certain my neighbors think I’m insane.

After all, on a fairly regular basis I can be seen strolling around the neighborhood talking to myself. However it’s not actually because I’m insane (though some people might contend that’s up for debate) – it’s because I’m practicing a second language using a tactic designed specifically to improve my fluency in production and speaking.


What’s Language Shadowing?

Specifically, Shadowing is a technique credited to Dr. Alexander Arguelles which he teaches and has employed himself in the past to learn something in the neighborhood of 38 language.

Dr. Arguelles’ Shadowing has a specific methodology to it, there are also more general or modified forms of shadowing like what I’d been doing for long before I learned of Dr. Arguelles’ work. In more general forms I’ve always called it parroting or mimicry rather than shadowing, but the terminology isn’t terribly important in my opinion.

Shadowing in general is the practice of taking recorded input in a target language and repeating it as you listen to it trying to match the speaker exactly as you hear it. Now this doesn’t mean repeating what they say after they say it, although that can certainly be helpful to. For shadowing or mimicry you really want to try to repeat simultaneously with the recording. Doing it this way will make it easier for you to check your pronunciation and timing more accurately as your memory of how the audio sounded is likely not going to be perfect.

Dr. Arguelles’ Shadowing takes it a step further by adding a physical distraction, walking, and by making the process a little more structured through the transition from blind shadowing (mimicking audio without text to accompany it) to shadowing while reading transcriptions.

What’s Language Shadowing Good For?

Shadowing on its own is not, in my opinion, a complete method for learning a target language.

That being said, it’s an extremely useful tool for increasing fluency and understanding as well as improving your accent and ability to be understood.

Shadowing makes you practice sounding as much like a native speaker as you possibly can as quickly as you possibly can. This has two primary effects on you, the first is it helps create all the neural connections in your brain to produce those phonemes, words and sentences quickly and accurately without having to think about it. This is extremely important when it comes to developing high levels of fluency since fluency itself requires the ability to respond without having to think too hard about it.

Shadowing helps overcome the tendency of people to translate back and forth between their primary and target language before responding – a tendency that slows everything down.

Additionally shadowing also helps develop the muscle memory in all the physical parts responsible for the production of those sounds. Depending on what your primary and target languages are there’s a decent chance there are a lot of sounds your mouth just isn’t used to producing.

The best way to correct this and get your mouth used to producing those sounds is through proper mimicry, that is to say repetition of the sound produced properly. Shadowing provides this practice and is one of the best tools to reduce your accent and get closer to native pronunciation.

Shadowing is best then as a single tactic in part of a larger language learning strategy. You don’t necessarily have to be at an intermediate level though to begin using it. Some recommend only shadowing with audio you can understand but personally I see a lot of benefit in using shadowing right from the beginning even with audio you can’t understand at all – you still get the benefit of the neuromuscular facilitation and you’ll sound a lot better when you get to the point where you can understand what you’re saying.

How to Shadow

I’m not going to go through the specific method of Dr. Arguelles’ Shadowing – for that just skip down to the bottom of the page and watch the video of him explaining it in detail (it’s an hour long, but worth watching, so if you don’t have time right now save it for later).

Personally I like to start shadowing from day one. I also like to shadow from more colloquial sources of speech rather than more academic sources. That means going to things like TV shows and movies in the target language, or just recorded conversations between native speakers if you have some friends who speak the language you’re learning, rather than audio lessons from a more structured textbook.

I prefer it that way because in my experience the audio samples from academic textbooks have a tendency to overcompensate in order to be more instructive and as a result come across more sanitized than how a native speaker would naturally speak. Instead, clip a little chunk out of a movie you like and practice with that – it tends to sound a lot more natural.

A slight word of caution though, particularly when just starting out and yet unfamiliar with the connotations of particular dialects choose an audio model as similar as possible to how you wish to appear to people. In other words, no matter how much you love the show, if you’re a guy and you learn Japanese mimicking Sailor Moon you run the risk of picking up all the feminine speech patterns. Likewise if you only shadow a language watching gangster movies, you might wind up with a gangster-esque accent eventually.

So try to stick to characters and people you want to sound like or at the very least mix it up as much as you can. Newscasters tend to be a good option as well. It’s standard for news anchors to train in the most neutral dialect of their country and, while they speak very clearly, they also speak quickly – both good qualities in selecting audio to shadow.

Once you’ve got your target language audio clip it down into a manageable chunk and listen to it on repeat for ten to fifteen minutes repeating it as close to simultaneously with the native speaker as possible. I like to follow Dr. Arguelles’ model a bit and go for a walk while I do it, since it seems to help my brain get used to producing the target language while I’m doing other things.

That may seem minor, but it makes a big difference when you’re trying to have a conversation in the target language someday while driving or doing something else. There’s a big mental difference between using a language while you focus on it completely and using one while multi-tasking that you tend to not notice until you’re in that kind of situation.

That’s it! Keep that up ten to fifteen minutes a day and play around with it to see what works best for you. I’ll leave you with Dr. Arguelles himself explaining his own particular method of shadowing.

Have you used shadowing or something similar to help improve a target language? What did you think? Were there any ways you found to make it more effective? Share them with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Nattu

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