How to Game Your Environment to Work Better

Optimize environment for productivity

A messy environment can do more harm than you realize.

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

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

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

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

Making Your Environment Work for You

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

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

Remove Negative Environmental Factors

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

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

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

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

Maximize Positive Environmental Factors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating and Using a Personal Language Learning Notebook

Language Learning Notebook

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

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

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

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

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

Prepping the Language Learning Notebook

First things first, you’ll need a notebook.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Use Your Language Learning Notebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make It Your Own

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

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

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

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

Stoicism and practical philosophy

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

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

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

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

The Stoicism Cheat Sheet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Higher Productivity Through Periodization

Periodization for productivity

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

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

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

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

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

Using periodization.

What Is Periodization?

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

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

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

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

Applying Periodization to Productivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embracing a Periodization Mindset

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

Yeah. At least, on a surface level.

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

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

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

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

7 Questions to Help Find Purpose in Life

Find purpose in life through introspection

You can find purpose without staring wistfully out over a scenic vista – but you can still go do that too.

Some people seem to be born knowing what they want out of life.

They have their career picked out before they’re out of high school, they have a plan for exactly the family life they want, they know exactly how they want to be spending their days.

Most of us are not that lucky.

Most people wind up rolling into adulthood a little lost. Maybe you never knew what you really wanted to do and have cruising along waiting for it to come to you but it hasn’t. Maybe you thought you knew what you wanted only to find, four years of university education later, that you were wrong – and now you feel trapped in a career you don’t enjoy. Whatever the reason, it’s not uncommon to find people who feel like they don’t have any real purpose in life.

If that’s the case, it’s time to start figuring one out.

Don’t Find Purpose, Figure Out or Choose a Life Purpose

First there’s a little bit of housekeeping that I think needs to be done when it comes to thinking about the concept of a ‘purpose in life’. Some people treat the idea as if there is one special thing that you were born to do. I reject that idea completely.

Not only does it require the existence of some kind of ‘higher power’ which is almost certainly not the case, it’s kind of an offensive concept in my opinion. I would find it oppressive and horrible if I were told by a parent, government official, or whomever else you want to use as an example that I had one ‘job’ or ‘calling’ or ‘purpose’ to fulfill that had been decided for me without my input or consent and I had no choice in the matter. Making the thing doing the choosing some deity doesn’t make it any better.

You and only you get to choose or even create your purpose in life. That’s why I dislike the general language that gets used most of the time when people discuss these things. It’s always ‘find purpose’ or ‘discover purpose’ and that frames things in a way that makes purpose in life out as this fixed, pre-determined thing that you have to hunt down. Your purpose in life can be built, it can change, it’s a malleable thing not a stone tablet with an unalterable decree chiseled into it.

That sense of purpose can mean different things to different people too. For our purposes I’m going by the necessarily incomplete working definition of being the thing that makes you eager to get out of bed in the morning. The thing that makes you want to hop out of bed and start your day as opposed to the things that make you have to get out of bed and start your day.

It might not be tied to your work either. Discussions of finding your ‘true purpose’ get framed that way a lot – and I genuinely do think it’s good to try to earn a living doing what you love.

I’m a realist though. One awfully close to the optimist line, but a realist nonetheless. Not everyone can make money off of the thing they choose as what gives them purpose. Sometimes it’s just not something you can monetize at all. Sometimes it’s something that will earn you some money but never let you earn enough to provide a comfortable living for you or your family. It’s all well and good to tell people to do what they love and assure them they’ll make ends meet – but that’s just not the case for most people. It doesn’t have to stop you from pursuing whatever gives you purpose though, it just means you’ll also need something to earn a living.

With all that out of the way, let’s look at some things to ask yourself that will help point you in the right direction for creating some purpose in your life.

7 Questions to Find Purpose in Life

  • What do you hate about your current situation?

    I realize most articles like this tend to focus only on the positive stuff, but negative things are just as much an indicator of what direction you might want to go in. Hell, at times they may even be easier to tap into than the positive emotions. It’s easy to lie to yourself about what you think your hopes and dreams are, but you everyone knows it when there’s something they just hate.

    This question is a little bit of a preparatory step for the others. Think about what things in your life, or aspects of your life, are there that you just can’t stand right now. It can be big things or small things. You might hate that you don’t make enough to not stress over keeping your family fed each month, you might hate that you don’t exercise like you tell yourself you want to, you might hate that you watch so much TV or spend so much time playing video games. Whatever it may be, think for a minute on all the things about your current situation that upset you.

    Keep these things in the back of your mind as we you go through the rest of these questions because these are the things that you’re looking to change if you can. Anything that will help remove or address some of the things you come up with should get a little extra consideration when you’re choosing.

  • What pains/struggles are you willing to tolerate long term?

    Now that you’ve considered what you hate about your situation now, start thinking about what things you might find unpleasant that you would still be willing to put up with long term.

    The fact is everything has a shitty side to it. There’s going to be a downside to whatever you pursue as purposeful and if you can’t handle that or if the downside outweighs the positive side then it’s not a good choice as the thing to give your life purpose. If you think playing in a band would give your life purpose but don’t want to travel or hate being around crowds, it might not be a great choice. If you think it would be incredible to teach young kids and have an impact on their lives, but can’t handle early mornings / late nights, bureaucracy, or a relatively low income, then becoming a preschool teacher might not pan out.

    It’s a question of what are you willing to put up with. In pursuing my writing I understand the kind of grind involved to do it. I definitely don’t enjoy the hard work of it sometimes, but it’s something I’m willing to put up with. If you don’t know where your line is for what kinds of things you can put up with long term it’s going to be hard to figure out what’s sustainable.

  • What reliably puts you in a flow state?

    Now that you know what kinds of things you’re willing to tolerate, it’s time to think about what kinds of things or what specific activities tend to put you into a flow state.

    What’s a flow state? Put simply it’s when you get so dialed into something that you would forget to eat or sleep if someone didn’t stop you. It’s when you feel like you’re ‘in the groove’ and an activity is simultaneously challenging enough to be fun but not so much that it’s stressful. If you’ve ever sat down to do something, gotten super into it, and then looked up to realize several hours had passed and wondered where the time went, you were probably in a flow state.

    Being in the flow state is great for all sorts of reasons. Things that tend to put you into it are things that you’re likely to consistently enjoy, which makes them good candidates for choosing something to give purpose to your life. Things that you come up with from this question are a great place to start exploring your options.

    That being said, it’s not a guarantee that something will be a good choice. I get into a flow state all the time playing certain video games, but if I tried to make playing video games my purpose in life I know there just wouldn’t be enough there for me overall to be satisfied. The odds of ever making any money off of it are also low which, while not a deal breaker, is still a consideration.

  • What would you spend time on if you were going to die in a year? Or, what would you do all day if forced out of your normal routine?

    This is sort of two questions in one, or two questions that get at the same concept. First, if you were going to die in one year exactly – guaranteed, no escape, you will be dead – what would spend most of that year doing? Would you spend as much time as humanly possible with family? Are there things you would want to accomplish before you were out of time? Would you just want to spend that last year in a blur of sex, drugs, and parties?

    Most importantly, how does what you would do differ from the things you do right now? Would you watch as much TV? Would you keep putting off learning the piano/how to dance/whatever? Would you want to make sure you’re remembered for feeding the hungry?

    The second question gets at the same idea, but with less of the skew towards the wild, consequence-free options that knowing you’ll be dead in a year provide.

    Imagine you were barred from doing anything you normally do everyday, or from coming home except to sleep at night. Maybe someone’s put a Battle Royale style bomb collar on you and outside of going to work if they catch you going home or falling into your normal routine through the day they’ll detonate it.

    What do you choose to do all day?

    You’re pretty sure if you pick ‘sit at a coffee shop and dick around on Facebook/Reddit/YouTube/whatever’ the person holding the remote is going to consider that as being too close to your normal routine and press the button that turns your skull into a fireworks display. Do you go find some classes to enroll in? Spend your free time hiking around whatever local parks or woods are available? Hit the library for some good books?

    Both these questions are trying to get at what things in your life are things you actually want to do as opposed to just being a part of what I call your ‘holding pattern’ – the stuff you do to occupy your time and distract you from the meaninglessness of life in a safe, non-threatening way until the next task necessary for your continued survival comes around.

    I know that sounds brutal, but it’s true. Your holding pattern (constantly checking Facebook, zoning out in front of the TV, compiling a thousand Pinterest boards, etc.) is a way for you to spend time with no risk of failure or negative stimuli that makes you feel ‘good’ by distracting you from life.

    Knowing what is, and isn’t, part of your holding pattern by thinking about those two questions will help you narrow down what might be a fulfilling purpose for you. Things that are in your holding pattern won’t be a good choice for creating purpose.

  • What do you do, or not do, now that would piss off ten year-old you?

    Imagine you could somehow pop yourself as a ten year-old forward in time to hang out with you for a single day in the present. We’ll also assume when they get popped back they’ll have no memory of it to avoid all the obvious,
    “I’d spend the whole day making them memorize a list of winning lottery numbers,” type answers. What would ten year-old you think about where you’re at? What would they say about what an average day is like for you?

    Think about it broadly, but then focus in on two specific aspects of it – what do you do that would upset ten year-old you, and what do you not do that would upset ten year-old you?

    Would the job you have currently horrify your anachronistic doppelganger? Would they get upset that you don’t get out and do more things? Did you always used to love to draw, play an instrument, dance, or whatever else but gave it up at some point because of the burdens of adulthood?

    Not everything ten year-old you wants for current you is going to be a good thing, I know ten year-old me would probably be very upset I don’t just eat ice cream all the time since there’s no one to stop me. Sometimes you have a good reason for not wanting to do something now that you loved as a kid. That’s fine, and you should be honest about it.

    Sometimes though there really isn’t a good reason. Sometimes you gave up on something because you felt there wasn’t enough time, or that you would never be ‘good enough’, or you had someone discourage you from it along the way telling you it wasn’t realistic or it was a kid thing, or whatever. When you frame the question this way it makes it easier to take a look at whether you really want to be doing the things you’re doing and whether there are things you aren’t doing that you would enjoy. These can be good jumping off places for figuring out where you might want to invest more of your purpose.

  • What do you avoid doing because it’s uncomfortable or scary?

    This is more of a general personal growth kind of question, to be honest. It helps identify areas that you might be struggling in or need to grow into, which in turn helps expand your experiences making it (hopefully) easier to figure out what you might want to choose to be your purpose.

    Take a look at all the things you have to, or want to, do today, this week, this month, this year. What of those things have you been putting off because you’re scared/uncomfortable/anxious about some aspect of it?

    To give a micro example, I hate talking to people on the phone. I am solidly in the ‘Just text or e-mail me, please’ generation. Sometimes though I have to call someone. I always instinctively put it off because it makes me uncomfortable. If I’m not careful I’ll avoid it so long I miss my opportunity, or bad things happen, or best case scenario I just look like an ass who doesn’t care enough to get back to people. I know if something makes me uncomfortable I have to make myself do it as soon as possible so that it doesn’t become a big problem.

    On a larger scale than the daily to-do list often the things we’re most apprehensive about doing, or which make us most uncomfortable when we think about doing them, are the most important things we could do right now. Things tend to make us uncomfortable because they’re important – even if we don’t realize that’s the reason. Important things often come with stakes, with a risk, with some kind of personal investment. Those things freak us out.

    When you take a look at what things you want to do that you’ve been putting off because you’re scared to get started, you get a picture of the areas that you need to focus hardest on. When you start growing in these areas it makes it easier to figure out what you might want out of life.

  • What would you do if you had unlimited funds?

    I had to include this one, even thought to be honest I sort of hate it.

    Mostly because the honest answer is probably “Accidentally destroy the global economy by buying a ton of shit I don’t need.”

    So try to think of it a year in to your unlimited funds adventure. You’ve bought all the expensive stuff you wanted and won’t care about before long. You’ve burned through the crazy bucket-list type stuff like having someone fly you up to the International Space Station for dinner. Now what?

    What do you do for the rest of your life now that you don’t have to work? How do you stop from getting bored out of your mind?

    I put this one last because I don’t think it’s necessarily the best way to really think about it, partially because it’s unrealistic, and partially because having that kind of financial power would probably skew your choices significantly, but as a last thing it can at least provide a small amount of insight into where your personal priorities lie.

Keep Testing and Re-Evaluating

Hopefully these questions will help get you on the path to figuring out what it is you really want. This is a process that will require constant testing and evaluating. You might decide down the road that what you want out of life has changed, that your old purpose in life no longer applies and it’s time to create a new one. The important part is to always be assessing whether the trajectory you’re on is the one you actually want to be on, or one that you’ve found yourself on without realizing.

I want to note too that sometimes feelings of hopelessness, or that you’re lacking a purpose, or that the things you used to love doing just aren’t enjoyable anymore, are signs of clinical depression. It’s absolutely worth it to talk to your doctor if you’ve been feeling that way and nothing seems to help – depression is often a chemical issue and is something that can be treated, but it’s important to recognize it’s an illness and not just something ‘in your head’. Treat it like you would cancer or another serious affliction and get a doctor to help you overcome it.

If you have anything to add, or any questions about the questions, make sure to leave us a comment!

Want More Productivity? Sleep More

Sleepy Kitten Working on Her Productivity

Sleep is a vital element to being productive.

We talk a lot about productivity on here for two primary reasons – the first is we have a lot of projects we’re passionate about and if we didn’t have a strong interest in productivity ourselves none of them would ever get done, and the second is everyone always wants to be more productive. It’s one of those areas that everyone uniformly wants but struggles with.

While there are a lot of things you can do to increase your productivity it can be easy to get bogged down in the little things. Apps, complicated organizational or notebook systems, specialized methods like timeboxing, and things of that nature all seem cool and exciting.

The problem is when you worry too much about that sort of thing it’s easy to completely ignore the stuff that doesn’t seem as cool – and that’s the stuff that’s actually going to help the most.

Sleep Is a Key Foundation of Productivity

These things getting left by the wayside when people focus on their productivity are often the most foundational elements of being productive. The one we’re going to look at today – because frankly it’s the most important one – is sleep.

If you want to be productive but don’t get eight hours of sleep a night, then you’re shooting yourself in the foot before the race even starts.

Sleep gets a bad reputation nowadays as something for the lazy, or the unambitious. It’s seen as a weakness. People say things like, “Sleep is for the weak,” or, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” They act like it’s something to boast about when they go long periods without sleeping or rely on caffeine and other stimulants just to function every day. People act like the truly productive, the hardest of hard workers, sleep little or pull frequent all-nighters in the name of productivity.

All of that is stupid.

Lack of Sleep Destroys Productivity

In a University study from June of 2000 researchers found in the thirty-nine subjects they tested going without sleep for seventeen to nineteen hours caused them to perform as badly on tests as when they tested at a blood alcohol content of 0.05%, with many being worse when tired than when inebriated. Beyond nineteen hours many participants performed worse than they had at a blood alcohol content of 0.1%.

Now, for reference, in most places in the U.S. the legal limit for driving is 0.08%. Seventeen hours of being awake would be waking up at 6 a.m. and staying up until 11 p.m. – which is not an unlikely scenario for many people. People on that schedule could be nearly as impaired as if they were too drunk to drive.

Compounding the problem is the issue of sleep debt.

If you only get three hours of sleep one night, but make sure you get eight the next night, that doesn’t reset you to where you would’ve been if you had gotten two nights of eight hours of sleep. Sleep deprivation accumulates in what’s usually called sleep debt or a sleep deficit.

Research has shown two weeks of getting less than six hours of sleep per night reduces your cognitive ability as much as going a full twenty-four hours without sleeping. A single week of only getting four hours of sleep a night reduced participant’s performance equivalent to going three full days without sleeping.

If you’re getting under six hours of sleep every night, for example if you have to get up around 6 a.m. for work everyday and regularly stay up until midnight, you are performing at a cognitive level equivalent to being too drunk to legally drive.

Caffeine and stimulants may make you feel like they’re making up for it but, just like like drinking a bunch of espresso when you’re drunk, it doesn’t make you perform better it just gives you more energy with which to perform poorly.

Sleep debt is why it’s a stupid idea to think you can be more productive by working late or pulling all-nighters. Let’s assume two example people, Jane and Jim. Both of them have to get up at 6 a.m. every morning for work. Jim routinely stays up until midnight to get a little extra work done. Let’s assume for the sake of the example that Jim genuinely spends those two extra hours working and not on Netflix or Reddit or something. Jane goes to bed at 10 p.m. every night to get a full eight hours.

At the end of the week Jim has put in fourteen more hours of work than Jane. That sounds pretty good, until you realize he’s been performing at a level equivalent with being drunk. Not just for those extra fourteen hours either, but for all of Jim’s productive hours he’s been performing at a severely reduced level.

That means in Jane’s 112 waking hours she’ll not only have been able to do better work, she’ll also have done more work than Jim in his 126 waking hours. Do you think you could get more work done in an hour sober, or after six beers?

Productivity isn’t about the sheer number of hours put in, it’s about the amount of quality work accomplished.

If you’re worrying about productivity apps and don’t-break-the-chain charts but only getting six hours of sleep every night, your priorities are way out of order.

How to Make Sure You’re Sleeping Enough

Okay, so you get now that getting eight hours of sleep every night is crucial for being productive –
how do you go about doing it?

Like with productivity itself there are all sorts of low impact high excitement things out there to help you sleep more and better, and none of them are worth a damn if you don’t have the boring basic stuff down first.

  • Keep to a Regular Bedtime – We have no problem with the concept of waking up at the same time everyday, so why do people balk at the concept of going to sleep the same way? I’m not sure if people associate a set bedtime as something for children, but going to sleep at a variable time is a great way to not only accidentally stay up too late and deprive yourself of vital sleep, but also a great way to reduce the quality of the sleep you do get.

    Set a specific time every night as the time you go to sleep. Stick to it. Don’t make excuses for why you need to stay up a little longer. Don’t let other people talk you out of it. Do you know what’s not childish? Making a decision to do something and sticking to it even when you don’t feel like it.

  • Avoid Stimuli Before Sleeping/In Bed – If you know when your set bedtime is,
    then you can avoid watching TV, playing video games, browsing the Internet, or doing other overly stimulating things for an hour beforehand. You should also avoid doing all those things in bed. Your bed should not be the place you hang out in the evening watching TV and eating snacks and playing around on your iPad.

    Your bed is for sleeping, and having sex. If you’re not doing one of those two things, do it somewhere else – and to be fair one of those things can be done somewhere else too. Don’t sit in bed and watch TV until you feel tired. When you get in bed it should be because you are intending to go to sleep. If you toss and turn and aren’t asleep after fifteen minutes, get up and do something relaxing (not TV or anything with a screen) and try again as soon as you start to feel tired.

  • Avoid Caffeine After Noon and Alcohol Before Bed – Caffeine can stay in your system for longer than you think. Keep all your caffeinated drinks to before noon to be certain the stimulants aren’t keeping you from getting to sleep or reducing the quality of the sleep you’re getting.

    Alcohol is no different. Avoid drinking too much close to bedtime since alcohol before bed severely reduces the quality of the sleep you get. It’s fine every now and again, but don’t make it a habit or you’ll ruin your sleep.

These few things might not seem like much, but that’s kind of the point.

They don’t seem cool or flashy but, unlike that fancy app you bought with the expensive peripheral wearable, they’ll actually get you eight hours of quality sleep every night.

Get your sleep in order, and then you can worry about filling in the little details later. Your productivity will increase without you feeling like you’ve even done anything.

Have any other recommendations for getting a better night’s sleep for productivity’s sake? Have a personal example of how sleeping better made you better able to get things done and perform well? Share them with everyone in the comments!

Our Five Step Creative Process

five-step-creativity-system

Creativity is something you can cultivate with a proper system.

We create a lot of things.

Caroline and I write all the non-fiction content for this site, we produce our own fiction writing, we record a podcast, I draw a webcomic, she does freelance webdesign work, the list goes on. As a result a question we get asked a lot by friends is how in the world we manage to come up with ideas for everything.

Being creative isn’t a talent or something magical, it just comes down to having the right kind of processes and systems to keep things rolling. Here’s the basic system we follow that helps us keep the creative ideas flowing.

Five Steps to Creativity

Usually when creativity comes up as a topic it tends to get talked about in semi-fanciful, artsy kinds of ways as though it’s a kind of mystical force or divine blessing. In reality, creativity is more about showing up and putting the work in, just like everything else is.

These are the five steps that we use to make sure we do just that.

  1. Absorb Ideas, Experiences, and Content – A large part of creating something new is finding inspiration. Again not in a mythological muse sense where it’s suddenly bestowed upon you, but by absorbing enough ideas that you’re able to see connections between things where you didn’t see them before. Creativity doesn’t happen in a void – you need to take in material before you can generate your own.

    Now if you’re working on creating something specific – developing a novel, painting a picture, writing a song, etc. – then you can focus in a little on devouring things relevant to that area. If you’re writing a sci-fi novel, read science fiction books, and watch science fiction TV and movies, and play science fiction video games. It’s usually a good idea to focus in on the best examples of whatever area you’re focusing on, but sometimes you can find inspiration or learn a valuable lesson from looking at terrible examples of things as well.

    You should also always have a broad goal of taking in as many ideas and experiences and things as possible overall. Not only will this help you to generate new ideas when you’re not working on a specific niche but sometimes creativity comes from finding that connection between two disparate ideas. Writing a science fiction space war story but inspired by the mythological Hero’s Journey and old samurai films? Congratulations you just came up with Star Wars.

  2. Deconstruct and Play with the Material – The next step is to take all that material you’ve absorbed and to pull it all apart and tinker with it.

    Look at each thing in turn and try to figure out what makes it so great, why you or other people enjoy it so much, what techniques the creator used to develop it and why you think they did so. It is possible to over analyze things but in general the more you can pull everything apart the better.

    Once you’ve done that start mixing things up and playing around with all of it. How is this piece of material similar to this other one? How are they different? What connections can I make between this thing and that other thing? Questions like these help spark those little insights that lead to the type of consistent creativity we’re after.

  3. Allow Things to Cook – Walking away from a project for a little while is one of the best ways to reset your mind so you can come back to it with renewed creativity. Whatever thing you’re working on set it aside for a little while and work on something completely different, or maybe even on nothing at all. The point is to get it out of your conscious mind so that it can cook for a while in the unconscious parts of your brain.

    Different projects will benefit from different amounts of time spent left alone. As a rule I always let each piece of fiction I write sit for at least one month before I come back to it to begin the editing process. Sometimes deadlines prohibit you from putting things on the back burner for too long, but any time you can step away for a while it’s a good idea to do it.

  4. Be Receptive to Sparks – All of that absorption, deconstruction, and time spent letting things stew in your unconscious is going to be for nothing if you’re not ready when the ideas jump back out at you. All of the steps up to this one are built around priming your brain to have those little sparks of inspiration, to have an idea suddenly pop into your head making a new connection or seeing something from a new angle. You have to be ready for it.

    In the past I would’ve recommended carrying around a little notebook, and you can certainly still do that if you want to feel old school or just have an affinity for that sort of thing, but it’s the age of the smartphone now. There are plenty of excellent ways to record ideas so you don’t lose them later. I’m a big fan of Evernote so I use that a lot to record ideas that come to me when I’m doing other things. I take thirty seconds to jot the idea down in there when it comes to me (make sure you put down enough notes, I’ve lost several ideas wondering what in the hell I had meant by single-sentence ideas I had put down) and then review them all later when you have the time. I also like to use the voice recorder if ideas come to me while I’m driving since typing on your phone and driving simultaneously is a very bad idea.

  5. Get Feedback – One of the biggest advantages Caroline and I have for being creative is that we have each other.

    Having another person to bounce ideas off of, to look at things from a different perspective, and to critically evaluate the things you’ve come up with so far is an invaluable part of being creative. You effectively double the chances of being able to come up with something if you’ve been struggling with it for a while.

    It can be a friend, a spouse, something like a writer’s group, or even something online like Reddit. Any opportunity you have to get good feedback from someone is a huge benefit.

This process definitely isn’t the only way to boost your creativity, but we’ve found it does help immensely.

In the end being creative and coming up with new ideas is almost never about coming up with something new out of thin air – it’s about making connections between ideas where no one has before or in a way that no one’s considered.

Do you have your own system for generating consistent creativity? Have you struggled with being creative or finding inspiration in the past? Leave a comment and share with everyone!

Alternative Uses for the NaNoWriMo System

NaNoWriMo Typewriter

The NaNoWriMo system can be used for more than just writing a novel in a month.

NaNoWriMo is a big part of our November every year. A lot of planning and prep work goes into setting everything up, blocking out enough of our schedules for extra writing time, warning friends and family that we might not be heard from for little chunks through the month while we hunker down to catch up on word counts, and then even more time in November gets devoted to the actual writing part.

By the end of each November though, we each have a complete novel of at least 50,000 words.

That’s a fairly big accomplishment in a fairly small time table, and it’s all thanks to how NaNoWriMo itself works. With the new year approaching I thought we could look at some ways you can apply that system to other things you’ve been wanting to get done for a long while.

How Does NaNoWriMo Work?

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. It’s a big challenge event where everyone tries to write 50,000 words of a novel (or whatever, if you feel like bending the rules a bit) between November 1st and November 30th. It’s not a challenge against other people so much as a challenge to yourself to see if you can pull it off.

Technically you could sit down the night of the 30th and hammer out 50,000 words but the idea behind the challenge is to use steady, consistent, disciplined work to turn the fairly monumental seeming task of writing a novel into something simple. It just takes a bit of math:

50,000 words / 30 days = 1,667 words per day rounded up.

That’s about three pages single-spaced. Most of the articles on this site are a minimum of 1,000 words and we try to keep things succinct. Writing speeds obviously vary from person to person and based on the type of work, but the idea of NaNoWriMo is to hammer out a rough draft as fast as possible and most people seem to be able to manage between 500 to 1,000 words per hour.

That means somewhere between an hour to two hours of work per day for a month gets you an entire novel written.

An hour or two is not that hard to spare, most people watch more than an hour or two of TV every day and having to catch up in December is a small price to pay for having written your own novel. So many people are successful every year at NaNoWriMo precisely because this system of breaking the project down into manageable daily chunks works so well. Some people even go well and beyond that 50,000 word mark by doing extra words daily or going long on the weekends.

It’s a powerful system. So how can we use it for other goals?

Applying the NaNoWriMo System Elsewhere

Here are a handful of different goals you might have and ways to apply a NaNoWriMo style work model to them. Hopefully this will serve as some inspiration as well since this list is comprehensive in neither the things you can apply this system to nor the ways in which you can apply this system for the things which are listed.

  • Cleaning / Organizing your Home – It’s not spring cleaning time yet, but it will be soon. Especially if you let it slide for a while the clutter and the mess can start to build up and eventually get to the point where it seems like it’ll be an impossible task to get things in order again. Instead of tackling it all at once hit one room (bedroom, office, kitchen), one section of each room (half the bedroom, cooking area of the kitchen, etc.) or even one thing (bathtub, stove, desk) and clean and/or tidy up just that small piece. The next day pick a new one. Then the next day another new one, and so on. Before long everything will be clean and tidy even if you had really let it go before.

    Bonus points if you keep up with the small daily cleaning tasks and keep everything nice instead of letting it slide back to how it was.

  • Getting Fit – Commit to a small workout at least three times per week. Don’t worry so much about having the perfect workout program or even spending a lot of time on it. If you’re currently not exercising at all or are fairly out of shape even doing a five minute bodyweight workout at least three times a week will start showing benefits.

    If you need to lose weight calculate an estimated average daily calorie expenditure and try eating 500 calories fewer than that everyday for a month. As long as you’re actually tracking things and sticking to it for the month you should lose at least a couple pounds. Five minutes to workout and a measly 500 calories fewer every day is not a hard price to pay for a month.

  • Learning Something New – Learning a skill is another area you can apply the NaNoWriMo system to with a lot of success. Learning an instrument? Do an hour of practice each day for a month, or pick a new chord to master each day, or pick a new section of a song you like to work on for an hour or so everyday.

    Learning a new language? Use a frequency list and tools like Memrise to break the vocab up into manageable chunks and learn as much as you can in a month. Or maybe work in a session of something like Duolingo every day. However you want to break things down the important thing is to be consistent and do a little every day.

These are just a few ideas off the top of my head – there’s really no limit to the kinds of tasks you can apply the NaNoWriMo system to if you’re creative enough about it. Every enormous tasks, no matter how daunting it seems, is really just a collection of smaller, more manageable tasks piled on top of one another. When you identify them and attack them all individually before you know it that enormous tasks is all finished and you can move on to something even better.

Have any other insights you’d like to share on applying the ideas used to make NaNoWriMo so easy to other large tasks? Share them with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit:

A Beginner’s Guide to Practicing with Intent

Working the Heavy Bag by David Schroeder - Deliberate Practice

You have to practice with intent, it’s not good enough to just show up.

It’s easy to look at someone who is clearly one of the best in the world at what they do and assume that they got to be that way because they had some kind of natural talent for it. While natural talent might skew things a little, we almost always find out in reality these people put in countless hours grinding away practicing and honing their skill set to get to that level.

The easy assumption then is that if you just show up and put your hours in you can become great at something too, but often that’s just not the case. It’s not enough to just show up and mindlessly put your reps in. You need deliberate practice.

You need to practice with intent.

Focused, Deliberate Practice

So what does it mean to practice with intent?

Practicing with intent – also called deliberate practice or focused practice – means that you’re approaching every practice session with some kind of mindful goal. You aren’t just grinding in repetitions of whatever skill you’re practicing and letting your mind wander, you’re focused on what you’re trying to improve.

When Bruce Lee went into a training session he would always have a very clear goal to work on. It might have been to solve a specific attack, to hone a technique or strike to get more speed or power out of it, or to root out openings and weaknesses in his form.

He made sure every technique and movement he practiced was worked on specifically and deliberately until it was as close to perfect as he could get it before moving on. Now most people don’t need quite that level of dedication, and perfect can sometimes be the enemy of good, but imagine if Bruce Lee had practiced without that level of intent.

Imagine you have two identical Bruce Lee clones. Bruce A spends two hours hitting the heavy bag. He’s got no plan, he just wants to get two hours of practice in and figures the bag work is a good option. Bruce B comes to the heavy bag and spends two hours practicing only his straight blast, making notes occasionally along the way and using small adjustments to figure out what elbow position and other elements generate the most striking power.

At the end of the day, both Bruce A and Bruce B have put in two hours of practice – but who do you think will have improved the most?

It’s easy, especially with repetitive tasks, to fall into a type of mindless practice like what Bruce A was doing. Our brains seem to like tasks like this because they can automate them and shut down or focus on other things. The problem is if you’re trying to improve a skill, that is the last thing you want. You can let your mind wander off like that if you’re building a habit, but if you’re going to improve you need to be cognizant of what’s going on.

That’s where the deliberate practice comes in.

Getting the Most from Your Practice

When teaching students at our self-defense academy we emphasize these main points in our teaching as ways to ensure everyone is practicing with intent. You can use these to check and ensure that your own deliberate practice sessions are providing you the most return in skill improvement on your time investment.

  • Make it Repeatable – This might seem kind of obvious, but it’s important to double check that whatever you’re practicing is repeatable. Focus in on a specific piece of the skill that you can drill over and over again rather than something that is going to be a little different each time. You should also focus in as much as you can on one element – if you’re learning an instrument for example pick a single chord, a certain scale, a small section of a song, etc. Focusing on little pieces will build into a larger skill set.

  • Have a Set, Specific Goal – Don’t go into your practice session with a loose idea (or no idea) of what the goal is for that practice session. Randomly kicking a heavy bag for five hours probably won’t do much more for you than making you tired. Spending one hour with the goal of getting full rotation of the heel on your supporting leg while kicking will make your kicks better.

    Your goals can be structured like that in a ‘I will specifically practice X’ or they can be an end-point goal like ‘By the end of this session I will be able to Y’. Either is fine. Saying ‘I will spend an hour refining my ability to draw hands’ or ‘I will be able to draw a superb hand by the end of this hour’ are both fine – ‘I’m going sit and draw for an hour’ not so much.

  • Embrace Feedback – Every time you have a session of deliberate practice make certain that you have some kind of feedback system in place to ensure that you’re making some kind of improvement on the skill you’re working on. With some things the feedback system will be inherent – you know if you play a wrong note, miss a shot, can’t remember a vocab word, etc. – with others it will be less obvious. Even if you have to enlist a friend or a camera to watch you to check form or watch for certain things you need something to let you know how you’re doing in the moment. If you can it’s also helpful to use this feedback during the practice session itself to make little adjustments and corrections to whatever you’re practicing.

  • Make it Difficult – This might sound like a strange recommendation, but the fact is if you’re practicing something that’super easy for you then it means you’re probably not really growing in that skill.

    You have to be a little outside of your comfort zone to grow. When choosing something you need to devote some deliberate practice too select something that you find difficult, but not frustratingly so. If you need to practice the basics, find ways to dial in on something specific enough to make it a challenge again. Throwing a jab cross hook combination is something that would be too easy for me on its own to really help me grow – but if I focus on throwing that combo as fast as possible, or dial in on making sure my form is as perfect as possible on each repetition, or practicing it under the duress of having a partner feeding me their own combinations that I have to defend against, that’s when I’m going to improve.

Put Your Deliberate Practice Time In

You can make yourself better at nearly anything you want to improve in – but you have to put the time in.

Deliberate practice isn’t going to be some kind of magical fix that will make you an expert at something overnight. It requires effort and it requires time. If you use the tips above and put the work in though you can vastly improve at all sorts of things in a relatively short time.

Do you have any other tips you’d like to add about intentional, deliberate practice sessions? Have you struggled with it at all or run into problems? Share with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: David Schroeder

Mastering Your Monkey Mind

Jodhpur by Garrett Ziegler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Micro-Journals and Daily Check-Ins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meditation

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

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

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

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

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

Sensory Mindfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus: Self-Talk and Examination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t that scary?” Fear Monkey asks.

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Garrett Ziegler

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