Stop Lying to Yourself – How to Cultivate Self-Awareness


The easiest person to lie to is yourself.

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

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

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

Let’s look at some ways to change that.

The Importance of Honesty

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

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

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

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

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

Any of those sound a little familiar?

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

So what’s the problem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How to Cultivate Self-Awareness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Walking Is Crucial to Getting Fit

Walking to lose weight and get fit

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

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

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

And you really should be walking.

Why Walking Is So Important

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

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

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

Why do I consider walking such an important addition?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Program In Walking

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

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

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

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

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

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


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:

Page 1 of 912345...Last »