Our Five Step Creative Process

five-step-creativity-system

Creativity is something you can cultivate with a proper system.

We create a lot of things.

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

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

Five Steps to Creativity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative Uses for the NaNoWriMo System

NaNoWriMo Typewriter

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

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

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

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

How Does NaNoWriMo Work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Applying the NaNoWriMo System Elsewhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit:

A Beginner’s Guide to Practicing with Intent

Working the Heavy Bag by David Schroeder - Deliberate Practice

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

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

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

You need to practice with intent.

Focused, Deliberate Practice

So what does it mean to practice with intent?

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s where the deliberate practice comes in.

Getting the Most from Your Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Put Your Deliberate Practice Time In

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

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

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

Photo Credit: David Schroeder

Mastering Your Monkey Mind

Jodhpur by Garrett Ziegler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Micro-Journals and Daily Check-Ins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meditation

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

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

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

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

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

Sensory Mindfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus: Self-Talk and Examination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t that scary?” Fear Monkey asks.

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Garrett Ziegler

5 Quick Ways to Combat Procrastination

Stop Procrastinating by Lynn Friedmen

Sometimes a little bit of procrastination isn’t a bad thing. It can be a good way to clear your head and come back to something with a new viewpoint or to hop over to work on another task for a while.

If you spend hours every day trying to combat procrastination though, that’s a problem.

When you can’t seem to get anything done because you’re always getting distracted, putting things off, and avoiding the tasks you need done the most in favor of other things your ability to be productive and successful plummets. If that’s a problem you face often, a few of these quick tactics to get yourself back on a productive track might be just what you need.

Changing Your Mindset

Before we get into the meat of how to actually combat procrastination, I wanted to take a second to talk about how we think about procrastination first.

The single worst part about procrastination is the way essentially everyone beats themselves up for it after it happens. Almost universally after a person recognizes they’ve procrastinated on something they start feeling bad. They kick themselves for wasting so much time. They wonder what’s wrong with them that they couldn’t just buckle down and get the work done. They feel ashamed over their procrastination, which can just drive them into feeling depressed and procrastinating more, which leads to even more procrastination and less productivity.

Stopping that reaction is the first step.

Even though this is an article on how to combat procrastination, and it’s goal is to help you stop procrastinating, I still want you know it’s okay to procrastinate.

Procrastination is a natural part of the work process. Frequently it’s the result of external factors anyway – boredom or dissatisfaction over repetitive uninspiring work, nebulous or too far-off deadlines, or any number of other things.

Not wanting to do the work in front of you is a valid feeling and you should acknowledge it, and accept it, and not beat yourself up for it. It’s far better to say to yourself, “Okay, I’ve been totally procrastinating on [X Project]. What’s been making it so hard to work on it?” than it is to say to yourself, “Ugh, I’ve procrastinated so much on [X Project]. I’ll never get it done. I’m so useless.”

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s look at those five quick ways to combat procrastination I promised.

1. Divide and Conquer

This is easily my favorite tactic so I made it first. I’ve talked in other articles like our intro to Timeboxing on breaking things up into manageable chunks and it’s a principle I find myself applying all over the place.

Two frequent causes for procrastination are the lack of a concrete goal/deadline, and a task being so overwhelming it’s daunting to even think about starting to tackle it. Breaking a task up into smaller more manageable pieces solves both of these issues.

When it comes to a lack of a goal or nebulous deadline, chunking the task allows you to set personal goals and deadlines to lead up to completion of the final project. Imagine your personal goal is to write a novel by the end of the year. Where do you start? There are so many things that need to get done to write a novel it can leave you feel aimless in terms of what you should do next. On top of that it’s really easy to tell yourself you’ve got all year, what’s the difference if you start tomorrow instead of today?

If instead you break that goal up and say you’re going to write one chapter a month, or even further to 2500 words per day, then you have both a clearly defined goal to work toward and a much closer deadline. It’s easier to see the end of the day or end of the month fast approaching than it is the end of the year.

This also makes a huge task less daunting. Writing a whole novel can feel like such a monumental task you just can’t muster the motivation to get started. An 80,000 word novel divided into a year is just 220 or so words per day. That’s a little less than a printed page of writing per day, I’ve already written double that to get to this point in the article. When a task is that small (do you really not have ten minutes to spend today to wind up with a novel in a year?) it’s hard to find reasons to justify putting it off.

2. Discuss Your Project With Others

Another common source of procrastination I see is a feeling of being stuck, of not knowing where to go next on a project or task even when you have a well-defined goal.

Caroline and I do a lot of writing, so I see this most within the sphere of creative pursuits, but it applies elsewhere as well. Sometimes when you’re faced with a task there are so many moving parts or things that you need to consider it feels so much easier to just let it go and focus on something else.

This often personally expresses itself for the two of us in fiction writing. We’ll hit a point in a story where we know what we want to happen next (we both heavily outline our stories in advance, something we’ll talk about in a minute) but we don’t completely know how to get there. As a result we pop over to Facebook, or Reddit, or remember that we wanted to get some guitar practice in or need to do a load of laundry. The writing never gets done, and when we come back to it we really haven’t thought it through and we’re just stuck in the same place we were before.

The best solution we’ve found for this is to discuss whatever it is we’re working on at that moment with each other. Either by saying, “Hey I’m stuck, will you talk this through with me?” or by one of us seeing that the other is starting to drift into procrastinating and starting to ask questions about the story – “What’s going on right now? What’s going to happen next? Why would so-and-so do that?” etc.

Almost without fail something about talking it over with someone else helps get over those (likely self-imposed) mental blocks put in place as a result of thinking of it as ‘work’. You can do this with all sorts of work, not just creative stuff. Grab a co-worker, a friend, a family member, whoever is handy and will care enough to talk the project over with you and ask if they have ten minutes to discuss it.

Even if you don’t necessarily get enough help with it to get you past the problem, it’s usually enough to get your brain refocused and ready to tackle it again rather than slacking off.

3. Make an Outline

This comes back to problem of procrastinating due to feeling lost. In a sense, this method to combat procrastination could even be considered an offshoot of number one up there.

Either way, outlines and lists are an excellent way to make something that feels directionless into something with a very clear progression from one thing to the next. On top of that there’s something about lists that human brains seem to really like. Part of that is why it’s so popular to structure articles like I’ve structured this one – as a list.

Outlines and lists make things easier to plan, easier to understand, easier to work with and restructure if necessary. It also helps you both to better view the project on a big-picture level and to take that big-picture view and deconstruct everything like we discussed in the first tactic in order to make things more manageable.

Even if you’re someone who prefers to fly by the seat of their pants when it comes to projects, trying to make a quick outline next time you start drifting into procrastination territory can make a big difference.

4. Offer a Reward

At our core we are still simple biological creatures (assuming any biological thing can be called simple) and we follow most of the basic patterns and processes that other biological creatures follow. One of the biggest of these is the reward response.

Rewards are a big motivator.

It can seem kind of cheap to essentially bribe yourself into getting something done, but when it comes down to it providing or withholding a reword based on whether or not you completed what you set out to do can be an extremely powerful tool to get you back to work. This reward can be as simple as a literal food treat, some ice cream or going out to dinner someplace you love, or it can be something else you want. If you’ve been daydreaming about going hiking or playing a new game that just came out, then tell yourself you can do it as soon as you finish whatever it is you’re struggling to work on.

You may think that would encourage you to just fly through your work to get to your reward, which might be true, but that’s okay. The most important thing is that it gets you to do something a little productive rather than doing things that aren’t productive at all.

Which brings us to the last one.

5. Embrace Imperfection

Perfectionism is a parent of procrastination. It is the sworn enemy of ‘finished’. To best combat procrastination then, we need to avoid giving in to perfectionist urges.

Again this might show itself more strongly in creative pursuits, but it’s present in some degree in any and every kind of work. When you give in to the idea that you have to make whatever it is you’re working on completely perfect, you are guaranteeing that you will never be finished with it. If you’re never going to be finished with it, you’re inevitably going to start avoiding it.

Instead of focusing so firmly on the ideal of finishing something as perfectly as you possibly can, get comfortable with resetting your goals to be based around getting it done – in whatever state it’s in – and then revising things after the fact.

If you struggle often with perfectionism fueled procrastination you can even make it a personal challenge to yourself to finish a task or project at the minimum viable level and then go back through and refine it into something more polished when you’re done. Productivity challenges like NaNoWriMo are built entirely around this premise. No one expects you when writing an entire novel in a single month to produce a great work. They expect it to be shit. It will be.

It will be finished though.

That’s the real crux of it. Once it’s finished, it’s easy to go back and turn it into something you can be proud of that everyone loves.

These are just five easy little tactics you can start using to combat procrastination, but it’s definitely not anywhere close to exhaustive. If you have any tactics you find effective for getting back to work share them with us in the comments. Let us know as well if you’ve had any luck with any of these tips or if you’ve struggled with them.

Photo Credit: Lynn Friedman

The 5 Key Elements for Successful Fat Loss

Bathroom Scale by Mason Masteka

We talk a lot about efficiency here – not necessarily because we feel everything has to be optimized and made super-efficient, but rather because a lot of things in life get severely over-complicated. As a result people struggle with things not because they can’t do them or they’re too difficult, but instead because they get too caught up in minutiae to make any real progress.

Fat loss is an excellent example of that process in action.

There’s so much information on fat loss out there that it can be staggering. Should you or shouldn’t you eat breakfast? Is meal timing important? Should I go paleo, eat vegan, use a detox program, do a juice cleanse? Should I sprint, run a 5k everyday, lift heavy, not lift at all?

It goes on and on.

Time and time again with my coaching clients I find people have gotten so wrapped up in all these little things that they completely miss the big important variables that are going to have the biggest effect.

Fat Loss the 80/20 Way

we’ve already gone over the 80/20 approach to nutrition. Most of that will carry over here, just because nutrition is a large part of the fat loss equation, but this will be a bit broader of a look at things.

You’ll find – like most cases where you break things down to find the highest return variables – that these aren’t the big, flashy, cool, sexy, technical sounding things. Sure, it sounds cool when you can sit around and spend twenty minutes explaining the intricacies of carb cycling and gluconeogenesis to somebody, but if you don’t have the boring stuff taken care of it’s not going to get you far.

So what are the five high return variables you should be worrying about first in fat loss?

1. Maintain an Overall Long Term Calorie Deficit

If you want to lose fat, you need to be in a calorie deficit overall. The best way to achieve this for most people in my experience is through creating a small weekly calorie deficit in their diet.

There have been a lot of arguments lately over the whole ‘Is a Calorie a Calorie’ thing. Don’t worry about any of that for right now. If you’re overweight, treating all calories equal and ensuring you’re in a deficit on a weekly basis will get you substantially further than stressing out over whether you’re getting fat calories, protein calories, or carb calories.

In order to figure out a caloric deficit, you first have to know how many calories you need to eat to maintain your current weight so you can subtract from it. You can use the Harris-Benedict equation, the Katch-McArdle equation, or the old 12 x bodyweight in pounds equation, though all of these have fairly high margins of error.

The best way is to keep a completely accurate food log for one week and compare it to changes in your weight over that week. If you stayed the same that’s likely roughly your maintenance range. Once you’ve gotten that rough estimate introduce a deficit by cutting it down a bit and continue to monitor things. Don’t assume you’ll get one calorie number to stick to and that’ll be it – expect to constantly be rechecking and updating your deficit as you see what changes your body is going through.

2. Focus on Whole, Nutritious, Unprocessed Foods

Going back to the ‘Is a Calorie a Calorie’ thing, you find in some cases the extreme If It Fits Your Macros adherents. They insist that you can consume nothing but pizza, beer, and ice cream and still lose fat.

Technically, they’re right.

As long as you kept yourself in that caloric deficit we talked about above you could lose fat that way. The problem is for most people it presents a lot of problems. The most obvious problem is, in general those things tend to be less nutritious in a holistic sense.

I don’t mean holistic in the way someone might apply it to a crystal healer, I mean holistic in the sense of having all the vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and other things that come along with eating your fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed meats. While they aren’t something you should stress out over too much in relation to more important things like macronutrients and calories, being deficient in them because all you eat is junk food is not going to do you any favors.

Additionally, due to the high caloric density of most of those types of foods, it’s hard to only eat enough that you stay under your necessary caloric deficit. Even if you manage to avoid the temptation of having just one more slice of cake, or a couple more beers, you are likely to find yourself going to bed hungry. Going to bed hungry is a surefire way to ensure you’re going to decide to give up on your eating plan.

Can you still have some junk food? Of course. As long as it doesn’t put you over your calories – but I strongly recommend keeping it at or below 20% of your total calorie intake. Fill the rest with vegetables, meats, and other whole foods and you’ll find it much easier to stick to your deficit.

3. Prioritize Long Term Adherence

Which brings us to number three. Adherence.

Anyone can follow the most painful, complicated, intricate diet and training program in the world for a day or two. Maybe even for a week. That’s not going to help.

You need to treat this like a marathon, not like a sprint. You need to avoid looking at this like something you’re going to suffer through for a couple months so you can not be embarrassed at the pool or the beach, and instead look at it as something that you are changing about your entire life. These new habits and ways of looking at things are for life.

For life.

This also means you need to not make it completely fucking miserable.

I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve had try to convince me to let them eat at some insane deficit like 1,000 calories below their maintenance per day, or want some super hardcore P90-Cross-X-Fit-Whatever workout program for them to do everyday because they feel like they need to drop fat right now.

Approaching it this way is like tackling an Ironman triathlon with the expectation of sprinting through the whole running portion. You are guaranteeing you’ll crash and burn, and then inevitably wind up back where you started.

Adherence is probably the single hardest thing about fat loss, but if you focus on making it a priority you’re setting yourself up to be substantially more successful than everyone else.

4. Exercise

Can you successfully lose fat entirely by diet changes alone with no additional exercise? Absolutely.

But why make it harder on yourself?

Do not try to use exercise as a way to create a substantial calorie deficit or as a way to ‘work off’ the extra stuff you ate that you shouldn’t have or as a way to ‘earn’ that pint of ice cream you want to have. It doesn’t work that way.

You should use exercise for two things – the first is to add and maintain muscle mass for a passive benefit to your metabolism and your overall calorie burn throughout the day, and the second is as a way to subtly help ensure that the deficit you created is in fact a deficit given the potential inaccuracy of those calculations you did.

Note here that when I say exercise, that might mean walking the dog everyday. That might mean playing basketball, soccer, tennis, whatever. Unless you have some specific additional goal to train for or really enjoy a particular form of ‘traditional’ exercise like running or weight lifting don’t worry so much about it. Go find something active that you really like to do and do it as often as you reasonably can. If you have to force yourself to do it, it probably won’t help your adherence.

5. Focus on Processes Instead of Results

Many of the problems I talked about in points above (wanting to go all out too soon, not being able to adhere to changes, doing unpleasant forms of exercise, etc.) are all strongly influenced by having a results focus instead of a process focus.

What that means is, people fixate on something like ‘I want to lose 30 lbs. by the end of next February’. In general, this type of goal isn’t always bad – but when it comes to things like fat loss it can lead to some problematic behaviors.

First and foremost is the tendency of people to start to get discouraged if they don’t see continual improvements. When it comes to fat loss, you’re almost guaranteed your weight is going to do crazy things for no apparent reason to you. You’ll retain water sometimes, gain five pounds over a weekend for no obvious reason, and other strange things. Biology is messy.

Many people have this happen and then panic that they won’t make that 30 pound goal or whatever in time. Then they fall into stress behaviors, or make panicky decisions, and generally just screw things up even worse.

Instead, focus on the process. Make a goal like ‘I’m going to stick to my calories everyday for two weeks’, or ‘I’m going to go run with the dog for 30 minutes twice a week this whole month’.

Those types of goals not only keep you motivated since they’re easy to achieve, i.e., the power to accomplish them is entirely within your control unlike the 30 pounds thing, but that via achieving them you’ll find that you’re more likely to meet that goal of losing 30 lbs. than if you had made that your goal in the first place.

Process focus will always outperform result focus.

Going on from There

Once you’ve got all these big return variables down, you can start worrying about the little things more if you want to. Situationally some of them can have a fairly big effect. They key is to leave them for after you’ve got these other five things down, and to not let focusing on them interfere with any of the more important variables.

Do you have anything you’d like to add to these five? Do you have any tips you’ve found useful for following any of them, or for better ignoring all the little relatively unimportant things? Share them with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Mason Masteka

New Guide: Learn 1,000 Words in 30 Days

Learn 1000 Words in 30 Days by Adam Wik

If you’ve always wanted to learn a second language but have struggled to get to even a basic speaking level even after years of classes and study, you’re not alone. Just about everyone has a story about how their four years of classes in Spanish, French, or any other language during high school or college left them totally unprepared to converse with native speakers. It isn’t a problem with the students – the problem is no one is ever taught the most effective ways to learn.

For the past month we’ve been working on a guide that details the process Caroline and I use to kick start all of our language learning projects and enables us to learn a substantial volume of new vocabulary in a very short time so we can start speaking and practicing the language as soon as possible. We’ve finally finished, and the 60 page guide is available for download at a special discount to celebrate its launch.

The guide works through the processes, techniques, and tools you need to learn 1,000 new words in as few as 30 days – but the principles and systems within can be applied to any language learning goal.

You can get the guide on Amazon for Kindle. It’ll be discounted to 99 cents until Wednesday, June 24th after which it’ll go back to the full price of $2.99 so now’s a great time to get it.

6 Ways to Overcome Procrastination

Procrastination by Pete Zarria

At some point or another, everyone has procrastinated. Whether there is a big project to complete, or a new habit you’re trying to build like practice a language or exercising, procrastination has gotten the best of all of us.

Nobody is immune, but it can be beaten.

Procrastination is, more often than not, us taking the easiest possible route. We’re wired to be like this – if we weren’t naturally discouraged from doing challenging tasks everyone would all be super fit, speak a dozen languages and being productive would be our default.

But there are small, easy methods you can employ to reduce the difficulty of challenging tasks and make being productive your default. Today, we present to you six of our favorite methods to beat procrastination and accomplish our goals more often:

1. Find Your Why

Why do you want or need to do this task in the first place? What will be the reward for completing it?

Sometimes we lose sight of why we took on a habit or project in the first place, so it’s important to remind ourselves what motivated us in the first place.

Are you preparing for a race? Want to connect with your German friends on a deeper level?

2. Make it Ridiculously Easy to Comply

Want to go to the gym every morning? Then pack your gym bag before you go to bed and set it either next to your bed or next to the door on our way out. Learning a language? Just practice for ten minutes. And make it easy to practice – have your flashcards ready and in a place where they will be in your way when you go to do another task, like leaving them on your keyboard. If you have a digital app you like, such as Memrise, do it while you wait for a program to load or while you wait for your morning coffee. Practicing an instrument? Leave it out. Set up a place for it outside of its case where it will be safe but easy to grab and highly visible.

The point is, do whatever you can to make complying as easy as possible and eliminate any potential deterrents. You only have so much willpower, when that starts to run out it is easy to put things off for another day.

3. Have a Friend Help Keep You Accountable

It’s easy to explain away to yourself why you didn’t do that thing you were supposed to do, it’s a lot harder (and embarrassing) to have to admit to a friend that you didn’t do that thing.

Find a trusted friend and tell them your objective and agree to do something embarrassing or to donate some cash to an organization you dislike if you fail to meet your goals. They’ll help encourage you and keep you on track, and you’ll have even more reason not to put that thing off.

Bonus points if your friend joins you in your goal. Everything is better with a friend.

4. Set Up Reminders

For certain things, it’s easy to have them set up in a place where they are in your way. It’s easier to remember to do a thing when it’s often in your way or in your line of vision. But for certain tasks this isn’t exactly possible.

For those things, set up reminders. Stick post-it notes in places you frequently look (like along the sides of your computer monitor) and reminders on your phone at ideal times to do this task.

5. Daily Practice

Overcoming procrastination is akin to getting rid of a bad habit and building a new, better habit. To beat procrastination, it requires daily practice. Starting easy, just shoot for 5-10 minutes per day of completing the task. After a week, increase the time a little, but not too much so it wont overwhelm you.

To keep track of your progress, get out a sheet of paper and make a chart of 7 columns and 4 rows. For each day you hit your minimum required for your task, you get a nice big green circle on that day. Post this chart somewhere highly visible, so that you will see it often. Once it’s posted and you’ve started, don’t break your chain! No matter what, make sure that your daily minimum is met.

The chart will serve in part to remind you to keep on track, and part as a point of pride – be proud of your successes!

6. Do the Hardest Part First

More often than not, the hardest task is the one we need to do most. Commit just to doing that hard thing. Break it down into smaller, more manageable chunks and then knock that sucker out.

By comparison, everything else afterward will feel like a breeze to complete.

Getting the big, hard task done will likely not only require the most willpower to get done, which is why you should tackle it first and not last, but it will also serve as a powerful boost in momentum once it’s complete.

So complete that really hard task first thing and make today a successful day. Then, ride the motivational momentum through the rest of your day.

Bonus: 7. Time Box Your Goal

Time boxing is a powerful and easy to implement method to get things done whether you really want to do them or not, and as a result becomes a huge source of productivity, momentum and creativity.

Get a timer, either on your phone or a physical timer (we prefer an egg timer and to just leave our phones completely alone) and set a time limit for doing your task. You will spend ONLY that time doing ONLY that task. Set a reasonable amount of time – enough to get the task done but not so much that you are completely demotivated to even begin. Commit so that once that timer starts, you get immediately to work. No distractions, just the task. As soon as the timer goes off, you are done. Drop it and leave it. You are completely off the hook from this task! You’ve officially met your minimum required work, so get up and go do something completely different. Get a glass of water or go for a short stroll. Bask in your success.

Was this article helpful? What methods have you tried, and what was your experience? Let us know in the comments below!

Photo Credit: Pete Zarria

A Basic Model for Personal Development

Framework by Markus Stöber

It’s important to have the right framework in place for successful personal development.

Personal development is something we talk about a lot here – primarily because the one thing I know for certain that everyone has and has control over is themselves. No matter what other variables there may be, I know for certain (at least until someone develops serious A.I. anyway) that anyone reading this has a self that they can improve.

To this end we tend to focus on more ‘high level’ or specific aspects of personal development. I wanted to reverse that a bit and look at the bigger picture structure most successful personal development follow. I know as a self-defense instructor how important it is to go back and refine the basics, so I’d like to go back and refine the basics of personal development.

The Foundational Model for Successful Personal Development

Nearly all successful personal development starts with the same foundational structure. Technically it’s the same basic structure for successful completion of goals, since in the end succeeding in personal development is just successfully achieving a bunch of goals that all, in some way, improve you or your life.

That basic foundational structure follows a three step pattern: Identify Your Targets, Determine Available Actions, Test and Review.

That’s it.

Well, ok, that’s not totally it. We’ve written a lot on here about all the minutiae that can go into all of those individual steps and different applications and strategies for different goals and all these other finer details. Boiled down to it’s essence though all those other things we tweak and refine to optimize things are just finishing touches. If we’re building a house those things are the paints, the trim, the lighting. The three part structure above is the foundation and the frame.

You can live in a house with ugly paint much easier than you can in a house with a badly poured foundation and rotting frame.

So what are these three items and how do we make sure they’re in place when we’re setting up our foundations?

Identifying Your Targets

You could also call this ‘determining your goals’ if you like, although I find that for personal development thinking of it as target areas is a bit easier.

At this stage you’re figuring out what area you want to improve in. The easiest thing is to just list them out in a broad sense first by larger category. Some common areas might be Health, Relationships, Finance, Learning, etc. Though they can be more specific if you have something specific that plays a large part in your personal development, a writer might list Writing, an aspiring musician might list Music, someone who just really loves cooking might list Cooking. You get the idea.

You’ll notice, especially if you’re a good goal-setter, that these violate the general rules of proper goal setting in that they are far too vague and non-specific. That’s intentional. For personal development I’m not so worried about very specific goals, just general areas for betterment. While a good goal might be ‘Lose 5 Pounds by the End of Next Month’ it lacks the continuous progressive feel we’re aiming for here. You’ll meet that goal and have to make another one, whereas identifying targets for personal growth should only need to be done once.

Once you’ve identified them you can also prioritize them, especially if you’ve found yourself with a very long list. Doing so will help you figure out where to invest the most energy for the next step and help you avoid burning yourself out or overextending yourself.

Determine Available Actions

Now that you’ve got your list of target areas for personal development, it’s time to figure out what to do about them.

Determining available actions is exactly what it sounds like. Look over your list of target areas you wish to improve in and figure out a single action you can take in each that will lead to personal development in that area. When doing this, try to keep in mind which of your target areas were most important to you so that you can choose actions for those areas that are more demanding and assign less demanding actions to the target areas that are of lower value to you.

For example, let’s say a person listed Health, Finance, Learning, and Writing as their target areas in descending order of importance to them. The next step would be to figure out one single action for each that will make an improvement in that area. Since Health is the most important target area the action chosen for it can require a much larger personal investment than Writing, which is the least important to this person.

For Health they may decide to begin lifting weights three times a week – an action which requires a fairly large investment in terms of energy and dedication. For Finance they choose to create and start keeping a budget, Learning they commit to reading a single short article each day on various topics, and for Writing they will write an extra 250 words per day – a very minimal investment in terms of energy assuming they already write daily.

The idea here is both to fill in each target area with a definite, concrete action to take and also to ensure that you’re not going to totally overwhelm yourself. Having a single action to focus on keeps you from falling into the paralysis of having too many choices to make or options to worry about. You have one thing to focus on and can forget everything else. Prioritizing your actions around which target areas for personal growth are most important keeps you from grinding yourself into the ground with it.

Imagine if that person committed to lifting three times per week, starting a side business, reading two full non-fiction books per month and writing an extra 2,000 words per day. Some people might be able to pull that off, most people would get a week or two in and then collapse under the pressure.

The next and final step is to actually go out and do the things you’ve committed yourself to.

Testing and Reviewing

The very final step, if you can really call it that since this is largely a cyclical process, is to test and review the actions you’ve chosen.

What that means is that you’ll implement all of the available actions you chose in the last step, carry on with them long enough to determine their overall efficacy, and then review what went well with those actions and your implementation of them and what went poorly.

After you’ve reflected on these things, you can go back to step two and either determine additional available actions to improve on your chosen target areas, or you can further refine the ones you’ve chosen.

There are a couple things to keep in mind during this process. The first is that you make sure to allow yourself ample time to truly gauge the efficacy of the actions you’ve chosen. Using the Health example from the previous section, if you commit to lifting weights three times per week, but then determine after two weeks of lifting that it doesn’t seem to be working and you give up – you’ve not really properly evaluated its efficacy. Some things, like a lifting program, may take a month or two to properly evaluate. Make sure you know what a reasonable period is for expecting discernible results.

Another aspect to keep in mind is adherence.

On one hand, if you showed poor adherence to an action item and didn’t see any results that doesn’t necessarily mean that the particular action itself is ineffective. If you decide to lift three times per week and after two months see no results, but only actually lifted an average of one to two times per week or less because you couldn’t stick to it, that doesn’t mean that particular lifting program is ineffective.

On the other hand, while it may not be evidentiary of the inefficacy of that particular action, it may be indicative of either a larger problem in terms of the work load you’ve taken on, your level of discipline and ability to handle multiple commitments, or the amount and investment level of action items you chose in the second step.

If you can’t stick to any of the action items you’ve committed yourself to, then you have a larger overall problem to fix and might need to go back and choose actions for everything that are less taxing and require less of a personal investment to stick to.

Remember – a tiny action reliably performed always has a greater effect than an enormous action performed sporadically.

Once you’ve tested and reviewed, you can repeat the process and either build upon those actions or re-work things and choose new ones as the situation warrants.

As long as you’ve got this framework down, you’ve got the basic tools for successful personal development. Choose where you want to improve, determine a concrete action to take that will enact improvement in each area, then follow through with that action until you can evaluate its impact and repeat the process. There are certainly other finer details to consider, but as long as you’ve got this process down you’ve got a well-laid foundation to build the rest on top of.

Have anything you’d like to add to the process? Any tips or suggestions for ways to make it better, or problems you’ve run into? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Markus Stöber

Habit Change as a Language Learning Tool

Forgotten Habit by Trường Đặng

Being about three quarters of the way through the first month of our semi-unofficial Swedish challenge, I’ve noticed one of the biggest obstacles starting out was that I had almost entirely lost my study habit. With so many other things going on I’d frequently forget to do my vocab study until way late in the day. Then I’d either have to grudgingly accept that I was going to be behind and have to do extra to catch up, or force myself to grind it out before bed when neither my heart nor head were really into it.

As a result I fell a bit behind and have had to play a lot of catch up. (I’ll post a full analysis of how well I did at the end of the month challenge period.) It got me thinking a bit about how hard it could be for people who had no past experience building that habit. After all, I’ve done this all before and have a solid handle on how to bring that daily Memrise habit back. If you struggle to build habits or have never done it before I’m sure it’d be even more difficult.

So here’s how to build a habit that will stick, and how to use it to aid your language learning.

What’s a Habit Anyway?

There is some discussion to what really constitutes a habit, so I figure it’s best to clear up specifically what we’re talking about before we dig into the meat of things. The way we’ll be defining it here is that a habit is an action that you perform without conscious impetus to do so. An action which you would do completely on autopilot and which often would feel very strange to not do.

A couple easy examples are brushing your teeth in the morning or buckling your seat belt when you get into a car. You probably don’t have to tell yourself to do either of these things. For most people it’s entirely automatic to stumble into the bathroom half asleep after waking up and immediately start brushing their teeth. Similarly when you sit down in the car seat you probably reach for the seat belt unconsciously. Both these actions would also feel wrong to skip. You would have to force yourself to not brush your teeth and the fact that you hadn’t would probably grate at you in the back of your mind. Starting to drive off without buckling up would also take a conscious decision and feel very viscerally wrong (I hope).

Both of these things are the kinds of habits we’re talking about. You could maybe also call them ‘compulsions’ although that tends to hold a more negative connotation.

Bad habits follow the same rules. Biting one’s nails is an easy example. A person does it unconsciously, compelled without realizing that they’re doing it, and it would feel viscerally wrong somehow to consciously force themselves to not do it when compelled.

Positive or negative all of the habits we’re talking about here will have these basic qualities. Primarily because all of them follow the same pattern of activation.

How Habits are Triggered

All habits follow the same cyclical pattern of activation and reinforcement. This habit cycle starts with some kind of cue or trigger, the cue or trigger then causes you to unconsciously perform the habitual action, which then provides some kind of reward. It is, in essence, the same kind of positively reinforced classical conditioning used to train animals today. You probably don’t even recognize this Pavlovian response happening (quick aside to note, as an animal lover, that despite the potential value of his research Pavlov was a monster to those dogs), but it’s being built and reinforced every time you engage in the habit.

First comes the cue, something that occurs that triggers your habit response. In the case of brushing your teeth in the morning it’s probably waking up and heading into the bathroom or whatever part of your morning routine that precedes it. That action triggers the behavior in question, brushing your teeth in this case, and then you get the reward. The reward in this case being the personal satisfaction of having avoided future discomfort, or knowing that you’ve improved your appearance, or whatever subtle psychological trigger is present in you for completing that task.

The cue may be something obvious, or it may be something very discreet. In the case of buckling up in the car or brushing your teeth it’s fairly obvious what triggers it, but some habits are caused by more obfuscated forces. For example, an emotional eater might find a snack half finished without even recognizing that they had even felt lonely, bored, or whatever emotion happened to trigger that response.

The reward may be something very obvious as well, if the habit you’re trying to break is having a cookie for dessert every time you finish lunch the reward is pretty obvious – the cookie and all the pleasant hormones that come with a sugary treat. In other instances, brushing your teeth or buckling up for example, the reward may be something you don’t notice like the feeling of contentment, security, and having avoided future danger and all the feel good hormones that releases.

Regardless of whether it’s a positive habit or a negative habit they all follow this same cycle of trigger and reinforcement. The good thing is, once we understand this cycle and how it works, we can manipulate the variables to create more good habits and erase all of our bad ones.

Building a Language Learning Habit

Since I mostly want to focus on using habit creation to aid language learning, I’m going to save how we manipulate the habit cycle to erase bad habits for another article and focus on how to build new habits – specifically ones for language learning.

For our example habit, since it’s the one I had to rebuild, I’m going to choose vocab study. In my case it was using Memrise, but this could be putting some time into Anki or your other SRS of choice, or even a quick study session on Duolingo or a chat with somebody on iTalki. You can substitute any behavior you want in for the habit and play with things to see what works for you.

The first thing we need is something to set off the habit.

Creating a Habit Cue

The easiest way to create a habit cue is to build upon an action that is already habitual, or inevitable enough for one reason or another that you are already certain that it’s going to occur essentially everyday. It’s also important, or at least extremely helpful, to pick a habit that occurs at roughly the same time everyday and to make sure it’s the time of day you want to perform this new habit we’re building.

For me, I wanted to make sure I got to my Memrise practice as early as possible in the day because it’s important to me and I like to tackle the things that are most important as early as possible. I also feel like I study better early than later in the evenings.

To that end, I decided to make my cue sitting down with my morning coffee. I love my coffee and, unless we run out and I don’t realize soon enough to order new beans, Caroline and I both have two cups every morning (burr ground, drip, Chemex – for any fellow coffee nerds). That made it a perfect habit cue for me to utilize. It’s an essentially inevitable part of my routine and it’s first thing in the morning which is what I want.

You can create your own cues at certain times if you don’t have an activity you already habitually do then by setting alarms on your computer, phone, watch or whatever. I personally find this method a little harder to stick to, and in my experience it seems harder to bind the action to the timer in the first place than to bind it to another action, but you can experiment.

Once you’ve got your habit cue, you can move on to creating the actual habit action.

Developing a Habitual Action

One of the biggest mistakes people make when developing an action into a habit is to try to do too much too quickly.

If you were to commit yourself to studying 200 new words per day on Memrise everyday after sitting down with your coffee, you might get a few days in through sheer force of will – but soon you just won’t feel like it. You’ll miss a day, then maybe two or three, and your efforts to build that habit will have been wasted.

Good dog trainers will tell you that when building a response in a dog you want to avoid a ‘miss’ at all costs. A ‘miss’ meaning a failure to perform the behavior. If you’re trying to teach a dog to sit ideally you give the command, the dog sits, you mark the correct behavior with a clicker or similar marker and then give a reward like a treat. If the dog ‘misses’ – does something other than sit like jump up – you don’t keep giving the command, you regress to an easier behavior then work back up.

This is because you want to condition in the cleanest response possible and avoid conditioning in additional, unwanted behaviors or making the desired action you’re pairing with the command less clear. Conditioning your own habits follows similar rules, you want to avoid a miss – in your case failing to perform the new habitual action – at all costs.

The easiest way to ensure that you aren’t going to miss is to start your habitual action out so small that it would make you feel foolish not to do it. So in our case you could make it to learn 5 new words on Memrise. If you need something even easier than that, you could make it just to sit down with your coffee and open the Memrise app.

That’s it. Just open it. You don’t have to do any actual studying if you don’t want to.

That kind of action ensures that you’ll always actually do it. After all, if you’re so lazy or opposed to study that you can’t even be bothered to take two seconds to open the Memrise app on your phone, then you have much bigger problems to address first.

Eventually you can build upon that foundational habit to get to a genuinely productive habit. So after a week or so of just opening up the app, you can bump up to 5 words studied every day. After a week of that, when it feels easy and automatic, make it 10 words per day instead and so on. If you miss, then just regress back to an easier stage until you’ve got a good consistent stretch of hits or successes and then try increasing the load again.

The biggest key here is to start small. Choose something that takes a minimal amount of time, maybe less than 30 seconds, requires almost no effort, and is relevant to the larger habit you’re building. The relevancy is important, conditioning yourself just to pick up your phone might not cut it – you could wind up on Facebook or playing games. Conditioning yourself to open Memrise (or Duolingo, iTalki, whatever) is relevant because it’s a necessary first step to the larger habit we’re gunning for.

Now that we’ve got a habitual action developed and tied to the habit cue we created, now we need to finish things off with a habit reward.

Finding a Habit Reward

Technically speaking you can develop new habits while neglecting this step. This is primarily due to the fact that in general we like accomplishing things and even if you don’t consciously build in a reward for the new behavior your brain will release some of those feel good hormones when you actually do the thing you’ve been wanting to do.

That being said, you can encode the new habits much, much faster by actively building in a habit reward.

A habit reward can be anything at all that makes you feel good. I personally like to make them a little more psychological for most things rather than physical, both for convenience of use and because there’s no worry about negative side effects, but you can choose something physical if that works better for you.

By a psychological reward I mean an active confirmation that you have done something to be celebrated. So using our previous example after you finish your Memrise session for that day (whether that was just opening the app or doing 50 words), you put a big grin on your face, tell yourself that you just did something awesome, give yourself a big thumbs up, then flex and roar out a Randy Savage-esque ‘OH YEAH!’.

Ok, so you don’t have to do all that. The point is to really feel like you’ve done something great though, whatever you need to do to generate that feeling. Your brain really likes that feeling, and will release a lot of chemicals like dopamine that make you feel happy and actively reinforce the behavior we’re trying to habituate.

If you need a physical reward, try to choose something that has other positive effects on your life rather than negative ones. If you use a pint of ice cream as a reward, for example, and wind up eating a pint of ice cream everyday on top of everything else, you might wind up with other problems as a result of your work to create that habit. A small piece of candy or something else sweet but healthier like a piece of fruit are decent options, or using an activity you like as a reward for successfully completing the behavior you’re habituating. Directly physical/chemical rewards like food, drink, or maybe sexual favors from a partner are all potent, but difficult to implement well.

Immediacy can make a big difference as well, which is another reason I prefer psychological/psychosomatic rewards, the longer your reward takes to trigger after the habit you’re developing is completed the less effective it is at reinforcing that habit.

This is one reason habits like going to the gym or eating healthier are notoriously hard to develop – the rewards (being fit, losing weight, etc.) are all far delayed from the habit. If someone gave you $5 immediately after you finished every workout, you’d build that habit in no time.

Putting All of It Together

Doing those things in order will eventually lead you to having a strong study habit conditioned in that you’ll do automatically every morning without thinking about it – like I do now.

In practice, what the above looks like is this – the first week every morning as soon as you sit down with your coffee you open the Memrise app. Immediately after opening it, you may a big deal out of it and jump up and down and celebrate because you’re the best for opening that app. Maybe after the fanfare you study a bit, maybe you just close it. Doesn’t matter.

The next week, having done that every morning for the previous week, you bump it up. Now, after you sit down with your coffee, you immediately open the Memrise app and learn 5 new words. Once those 5 words are done you congratulate yourself like you just beat the Technodrome level on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles NES game. Again, maybe you do more words after that, but it’s no big deal if you do or don’t.

The next week, after never failing to do 5 words each day the previous one, you repeat the process but bumped up to 10 words, and so on. Before long when you sit down with your coffee you’ll be pulling Memrise up before you even think about it.

You can use this habit building process for any language learning element to learn faster, and more effectively. That can mean developing a vocab learning habit like what was outlined here, or maybe you build a habit to chat with a native speaker on iTalki or HelloTalk each evening. The point is to build well-ingrained habits that sequentially bring you closer to your goal of speaking a new language.

Have you tried these methods to habituate your language learning process? Have any suggestions to make it easier or areas where you had particular trouble? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Trường Đặng Rok

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