An Introduction to Speed Reading

Speed Reading by Rachel Strum

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Vs. Speed Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Stop Sub-vocalizing

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Use a Pointer

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

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

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

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

3. Don’t Be Linear

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

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

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

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

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

4. Actually Practice Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Rachel Strum

How to Find Native Speakers and Learn Any Language Anywhere

Anonymity and the Internet by Stian Eikeland

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

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

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

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

The Interconnected World

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

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

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

Finding Native Speakers Abroad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Native Speakers Locally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Stian Eikeland

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

Creative Independence by Nattu

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

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

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

Shadowing.

What’s Language Shadowing?

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

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

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

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

What’s Language Shadowing Good For?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Shadow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Nattu

Flow 101: Figuring Out What Makes You Happy

Math Everywhere by Thowi

Unlike a math test, flow testing can actually be enjoyable.

In the last Flow 101 article I explained exactly what flow is and how you can apply some of its principles to your work and life in general to make the things you do more engaging, fulfilling and enjoyable. The only catch is, what if your work is such that you genuinely can’t do anything to make it put you in a state of flow?

What if your work is so awful, or even so intentionally temporary (waiting tables for a Summer, etc.) that it’s just not ever going to provide an opportunity to be fulfilling no matter what you do? Further complicating matters what if, like most people out there including myself for the longest time, you have no idea what it is you actually want to do?

How do you figure out what will really make you happy?

The flow test.

Be Are a Machine Gunner, Not a Sniper

Most people, when it comes to trying to figure out what makes them happy in life, think they’re snipers.

They conserve their ammunition, they plot and plan and select their targets carefully. They’re only willing to commit to a shot if they have a high certainty of it being a hit. There’s an emphasis on strategy and planning and tactics. This is completely the wrong way to go about things.

The problem with being a sniper is you spend way too much time in your head plotting things out. The truth of the situation when it comes to figuring out what makes you happy is that more often then not the model we’ve built in our head and the reality of whatever it is we’re chasing almost never line up. People spend half their lives lining up their shot, picking a vocation, getting a degree in the field they think they’ll love and then, when they finally pull the trigger – oops, wrong target.

Then they’re stuck. The damage is done and they’re invested in something they don’t enjoy nearly as much as they thought. At best most people repeat the same cycle at this point retreating back to the planning phase and spending a ton of time prepping for their next shot with no more of a guarantee the target will be the right one than they had the first time around.

So what’s the better option? Being a machine gunner.

A machine gunner’s got plenty of ammo. A machine gunner doesn’t have to be choosy about her target selection, in fact she doesn’t even have to have a target – there’s enough ammo to burn she can just fire in the general direction of a target to provide some suppressing fire. Sure she still has to pick targets to a point, but she can be broad about it. She can open up on groups of targets and as a result has a lot more options.

That’s the way you should treat your search for what really makes you happy. Don’t plan and focus too much on one thing, don’t conserve your ammunition – you’ve got plenty – go out and try hundreds of different hings as fast as you possibly can. The goal is not to pick something and fixate but to cultivate a sense of activity ADHD. You want to try something, determine if you enjoy it or not and, if not, chuck it aside and move on to the next thing immediately.

How best can you facilitate this rapid testing? That’s where the flow test comes in.

Running a Basic Daily Flow Test

The flow test is an easy way to cover a lot of potential targets quickly with a minimal amount of effort. It’s your machine gun. There are a handful of different ways to conduct flow tests, but the easiest in my opinion is just an hourly check up.

Set some kind of reminder each hour, whether that’s an alarm on your phone or watch or an hour long egg timer or whatever and then every time that alarm goes off stop what you’re doing and note down the following info on a sheet of paper or Evernote or wherever:

Time:        Current Activity:        In Flow?        Mood:

‘Time’ is obviously the time you’re making the note. ‘Current activity’ is whatever you were doing when the alarm went off and you stopped to make your note. Could be working, exercising, doing laundry, whatever. You can be as precise as you feel necessary but sometimes being more detailed can help fine tune things.

For ‘In Flow?’ a simple yes or no is generally sufficient. To recap, being in flow means you’re in the zone. You’re pumped and feel unstoppable and are rocking through things feeling like whatever you’re doing is effortless. ‘Mood’ is however you were feeling while you were doing whatever it was you were doing when you stopped to make your note. Again, you can be super descriptive here or you can put in simple responses like ‘excited’, ‘bored’ etc.

Do this on a daily basis for a couple weeks while trying to do as many different activities as possible and then go back and look for patterns. Are there things that just never put you in a state of flow? What about the opposite, is there anything that consistently puts you in a state of flow?

If you find that your work never puts you in a state of flow and you’re constantly using mood adjectives like ‘depressed’, ‘annoyed’ or ‘bored’, then you probably need to find a new line of work.

Take a look at what does put you into flow, or even just make you feel a little happier. You might be surprised. Personally, I always knew I enjoyed writing – but doing a little flow testing showed me just how often it puts me in that state where I go into a near trance and am just a fulfilled, delighted productivity machine.

By constantly asking yourself whether the activity you’re engaged in is producing flow for you as well as what general mood it puts you in and then trying as wide a variety of things as you possibly can it gives you the data to figure out what really makes you happy rather than just picking something you think will make you happy. From there you can refocus your efforts on those areas and start to shift your life toward doing more things that make you feel fulfilled and happy.

Have you tried any flow testing before? What kinds of things put you in a state of flow? What things just never do it for you? Share your experiences with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Thomas W

Flow 101: How to Love Your Work

Flow by Alejandro Juarez

Flow isn’t just important in parkour, it’s important in not despising your work.

For a lot of people, work sucks.

It’s built right into our cultural perceptions and usage of the word. When there’s something you don’t want to do, or something that’ll be difficult and unpleasant what do we tend to say – that’ll be a lot of work. Clearly ‘work’ as a concept tends to have some pretty negative connotations.

That doesn’t have to be the case though and, personally, I think the world would be a better place if we could correct this issue. Work can be fun, enjoyable and positive. You can love your work again, or at least change your work to make it something you love by using a single principle as your guiding compass.

Flow.

What is ‘Flow’ Exactly?

Flow, loosely defined, is that feeling of being in the zone when doing something. It’s that sense of being one hundred percent in the moment, of effortless and exhilarating activity, of rocking things out with no sense of struggle.

We say someone is ‘in flow’ or in a state of flow when they’re experiencing this. Think of an experienced traceur moving effortlessly through an obstacle filled environment, reacting instinctively, gliding through like a river around and over rocks and pebbles. That’s a person in flow. Think of a writer who sits down and loses themselves at the keyboard, fingers flying in a creative frenzy until a short time later there are several thousands of words on the page and a smile on the writer’s face. That’s flow. Think of someone playing a video game who tears through a level with perfect efficiency and dominates her opponents without taking a scratch the whole time reacting without having to think about what she’s doing. That’s flow.

This state of flow is essentially an optimal experience. Entering a state of flow both signifies and creates a sense of fulfillment and elation that makes each experience being in flow addictive and pleasurable. In general, when you’re in flow you’re happy.

Criteria for Creating Flow

One of the people responsible for studying and defining this concept of flow is Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The main criteria he lays down for what best leads to experiences of flow are:

  • A clearly defined goal.

  • Immediate feedback on progress toward that goal.

  • A task that is challenging, but not to the point of impossibility.

  • Clear indicators of when the goal is completed.

The gamers among you, along with the more astute people ought to recognize immediately that the list of flow creating conditions is almost word for word the foundation for good game design. Think about the last really great game you played and examine it along the items above.

  • A clearly defined goal – Finish the level, beat the boss, rescue the princess, capture the flag, eliminate the enemy team, etc.

  • Immediate feedback on progress toward that goal – Moving to the next level, progress indicators, intermediate bosses, leveling up, increasing scores, etc.

  • A task that is challenging, but not to the point of impossibility – Tic-tac toe gets old quickly because it’s too easy, you almost always tie. Conversely games that are too difficult (Ninja Gaiden series anyone?) quickly get hurled across the room in frustration. The best online games always happen when you’re matched against a team of similar skill level making it a challenge, but one where victory is still within reach.

  • Clear indicators of when the goal is completed – Did you die? Start over. Did you beat the level? Hooray! Here’s some fanfare and a big ‘You win!’ screen. Video games always make it extremely clear when you’ve met your goal, when you’ve failed and when you’ve got a little more to go.

This general set up that all games, intentionally or not, are designed to be perfect flow inducing environments in my opinion leads to their extremely addictive quality. Particularly as an escape mechanism when your life is spent in work and activities you hate and you never really achieve flow having an artificial means designed to let you experience that state fills a deficiency in your life.

Finding or Creating Flow in Your Work

So what’s the best way to create flow in work that you generally hate? A lot of it comes down to manipulating the variables above to find something that feels a lot like a video game. In other words you want to have clearly defined goals, clearly defined progress and it needs to be at the right balance of skill level and difficulty.

Challenge Vs. Skill Flow Continuum

Manipulating the balance of challenge level vs. skill level makes a huge difference in finding states of flow.

The first thing to do is make sure that you’ve defined clear goals. Proper goal setting is huge when it comes to success in general, but it’s also what makes finding a good state of flow possible. A good goal should be something that’s challenging enough to be worth pursuing, but still within the bounds of achievability. A good clear goal might be the completion of a project, or finding five more clients. Whatever fits your work.

It’s vital that the goal you make must be challenging but not impossible and on top of that it must have a clearly indicated completion point. Memorize 10 guitar chords is a goal that has a clear state of completion, learn to play guitar is not. We want specific – not nebulous.

Next make sure that you’ve set up milestones or progress markers so that you can track your progress. Have things in place, whether they’re smaller goals that add up to your larger goal or some kind of system of points to mimic the way the games work. Are you moving forward? Are you not making progress? You should always be able to tell if you’re looking to create a flow conducive environment.

A good example of something that’s used gamification to apply principles of flow to fitness is Fitocracy.

I’ve loved Fitocracy ever since I got to play with it in beta because it makes fitness fun. Exercise, like work, has a lot of negative connotations to a lot of people, but Fitocracy changes that. You have a clear goal (level up), an indicator of progress (points earned from workouts), a variable skill level (leveling up is easier for beginners and becomes more difficult as you get more fit) and a clear point of success (a hearty congratulations on leveling up from FRED).

Working to apply these principles to your work doesn’t guarantee you’ll start enjoying it, but it creates an optimal environment for finding joy in what you do when previously it was all pain and struggle. Sometimes the trick isn’t changing your current work environment to facilitate entering a state of flow, but rather finding other work that naturally puts you in a state of flow. I’ll cover that, including an easy test to see what you’d love to do most, in the next article on flow.

Have any personal experience wit flow? Any tips on the best way to get into a state of flow or understand what it feels like? Leave a comment and let us know.

Photo Credit: Alejandro Juarez

Scientific Sleep Hacking: Easy Ways to Optimize Sleep

There is Plenty to Do in a New Empty Apartment by Bealluc

Some sleep hacking ideas get a little ridiculous – let’s start with what the research says first.

There’s something about sleep and sleep optimization that seems to captivate people in the productivity and lifestyle design communities. I suspect it’s mostly because people who are deep into lifestyle design also tend to be fairly ambitious and, as a result, the thought of spending less time asleep and having more time to accomplish things is tantalizing.

Our very first experiment in fact was with trying to switch to a polyphasic sleep schedule. I called it a success at the time, but I recognize now it was a failure.

I’ve not abandoned my interest in optimizing sleep though, and since then over time I accumulated a collection of methods for optimizing sleep that are backed not only by my own personal experiences, but more importantly by actual research.

To Hack or to Optimize?

I recognize I used it in the title, but I needed something to get your attention. Honestly I rather dislike the idea of ‘hacking’ sleep. It feels adversarial to me, like one is attempting to game the system or to cheat somehow. In my experience that breeds the kind of attitude I’ve fallen victim to in the past of trying to be extreme about it. Being extreme about it is almost never sustainable.

Instead I like to think about it as optimization.

Optimization isn’t adversarial, it’s complementary. Optimization isn’t so much about gaming the system you’re working against and bending or breaking the rules to get what you want, it’s about working within the system to reshape things so as to be more beneficial.

Another key difference is that sleep optimization is not about sleeping less – at least not necessarily. A lot of the sleep hacking community seems devoted entirely to the reduction in hours spent sleeping, consequences be damned. Optimization can certainly shave a few unnecessary hours off your time spent asleep but its primary goal is to help you feel as best as you can and recover as much as you can.

We’re not looking to break sleep and conquer it, we’re looking to redirect it so that we get the most out of it and can use it to fit our schedule without all the struggle.

Monophasic, Biphasic or Polyphasic

Right off the bat, polyphasic is out.

In the past I would’ve suggested giving it a try if you thought you could swing it, but having given it a try myself and having dug a lot deeper into the research supporting it (there really isn’t any), research suggesting it’s either unsustainable or flat out detrimental such as Dr. Piotr Wozniak’s and trying to hunt down confirmed successfully long term polyphasic sleepers (there really aren’t any save Steve Pavlina and his claims are still questionable) – I just can’t recommend even trying it.

To the best of my evaluation science as a whole pretty much doesn’t support the viability of polyphasic sleep and I agree with that position.

Biphasic sleep, on the other hand, shows a great deal of promise.

Biphasic sleep (essentially taking a nap somewhere around that midday slump) has a lot of research backing it as beneficial, both to memory, general cognitive performance and quality of sleep in general. There’s also strong evidence supporting the claims that a midday nap reduces the time you need to sleep overnight by more than the time actually invested in the nap.

This research reflects my personal experience (or maybe it’s the other way around). I’m a big fan of naps. Whether that’s just normal daily scheduled ones or short, focused caffeine naps taking a little bit of time in the afternoon to grab a quick nap makes a huge difference in both quality of sleep and the the amount of sleep you need in a night. I also appears to have a strong beneficial effect to memory and creativity.

Better Sleeping Through Science

There are a lot of recommendations out there for how to optimize sleep.

The problem is, not all of them are effective – some do absolutely nothing and others may even prove detrimental to the end goal of getting the most restorative sleep possible in the most efficient way possible. We need some way to separate the wheat from the chaff without having to spend a ton of time with self-experimentation.

To that end I’ve only included things on this list that have some type of research backing them that shows a positive effect. Before some people start yelling about how something can be true even if it hasn’t been proven in a double-blind study, I agree. Some things certainly could have a high efficacy but either haven’t been verified in a controlled setting or have traits that make isolating them in a proper study a logistical impossibility.

That’s fine, and I encourage you to properly experiment yourself with these things to get an idea of whether or not you think they work. I’m not interested in things here though that people think work, I only want things that have been proven to work. That seems like the most logical place to start, then you can start adding your own unproven strategies on top of the foundation of what we know is effective.

Sanitize Your Sleep Environment

When I say sanitize here I don’t mean in the traditional sense of clearing it of bacteria and pathogens and things (though, you know, that’s probably not a terribly bad idea too), but rather sanitizing it of interfering stimuli. Things like light and noise can severely disrupt both your ability to fall asleep quickly and the quality of your actual sleep.

The first thing is to clear your room of any electronics that make noise or give off any light. Claims have been made that even the electromagnetic field generated by said electronics can disrupt sleep although there’s been no studies to confirm it. I’m much more concerned with the bright LEDs and whirring fans of a computer, the glow of an excessively bright alarm clock or anything else that gives off light or noise. Get those out of there, or silence them and cover up the lights.

Next deal with outside sources of light and noise. If you live in a big city spend a little extra to get some light/sound canceling curtains like the thick ones they use in hotel rooms. Even getting some ear plugs and a sleeping mask can go a long way. Neither are terribly expensive and they’re worth the myriad benefits of getting a good night’s sleep.

Eat for Sleep

Your nutritional habits have an immense effect on just about every other physiological process you go through. Sleep is no different. Going to bed hungry can impair your ability to fall asleep quickly. There is absolutely no research supporting the claim that you burn fewer calories at night and that eating late at night will make you gain fat. I’ll say that again because this is a frustratingly persistent misconception.

Eating before bed does not make you gain weight.

The difference between what your body burns when you’re sitting in your chair watching TV and when sleeping is about the same. The importance is the macro composition and net energy expenditure over a longer period of time than just 24 hours.

The primary reason, as best we can tell anyway, your body needs to sleep is so it can fix everything you tore up through the day and clean house a bit. Providing your body a little food not only removes the difficulty of falling asleep through the discomfort of hunger but it supplies your body materials to facilitate the repair work it needs to overnight.

The studies here on the actual effects on quality of sleep have been somewhat mixed in terms of quality, so I’ll concede this tactic is not 100% proven but does show some strong statistical promise of being beneficial. In general the best results have been seen through the consumption of fats and protein prior to sleep with some small additional benefit appearing to come from choosing a slower digesting protein.

My recommendation, based on said research and my own personal experience, would be to go for some cottage cheese (maybe a cup to a cup and a half at least) as a pre-bed snack. You get a little fat and some slower digesting caseinate protein in a relatively small package.

Have a Sleeping Ritual

Without getting into motor patterning and neuroscience and things our brains very much like to go on autopilot when we’re doing something we’ve done repeatedly for a long time. If you’ve ever zoned out on the drive to work and realized disconcertingly on arrival that you kind of blanked out and don’t remember the drive at all that’s sort of what I’m talking about. When we do something repeatedly our conscious minds tend to shut off and we go through the motions automatically.

We can use this propensity for switching to autopilot to help us get to sleep quickly (and wake up) by employing sleep rituals.

A sleep ritual is basically a sequence of actions that you do in the exact same way, in the exact same order, whenever it’s time to sleep. This can be anything you want really, as long as it doesn’t directly interfere with said sleep. Go have your pre-bed snack, let the dog out, brush your teeth and do your other pre-bed stuff then go to sleep. Do that the same way in the same order over and over again and eventually your brain will get the hint and as soon as you go through that ritual it’ll know it’s time to sleep.

It’s important here too to keep your sleeping space sacred. Particularly if you have trouble sometimes falling asleep your bed should be reserved for only sleep and sex. Don’t eat in bed, don’t watch TV in bed, don’t even read in bed (though reading before bed can help you get to sleep, do it somewhere else then go through your pre-bed ritual before slipping between the sheets).

That way your brain has a very clear delineation around your bed that this is where sleep happens and that’s it. If you’re going there, you’re probably going to sleep. Just like the ritual it primes your brain to start the sleep process and get you to sleep quickly.

Be Active

Exercise has been proven over, and over, and over again to have a positive effect on sleep quality.

So go exercise!

Seriously you should be doing this one anyway. In terms of sleep it doesn’t necessarily have to be actual structured exercise either, as long as you’re up and moving around and being active in a general sense your sleep quality will improve as a result. Go for a long walk every day, or go play some games outside. Practice parkour. Whatever.

The point is making a habit of being physically active not only improves your general health but also helps your sleep. To borrow Pokemon terminology, it’s super-effective.

A slight word of caution though – don’t go overboard. Daily heavy lifting followed by HIIT or Met Con workouts or anything that causes too much stress on your system can interfere with sleep. You’ll know if you’re over-training though, so just be cognizant of how you feel.

Use Substances Appropriately

To my knowledge there are no recreational substances that have a positive effect on sleep quality. Caffeine quite obviously serves no other purpose than to specifically inhibit one’s ability to fall asleep. Alcohol tends to make most people sleepy and can make you fall asleep faster but it severely damages the quality of sleep, dehydrates you and can disrupt sleep cycles for a few days following (have you even gotten drunk and then woke up the next morning thinking, ‘I feel super!’?) Marijuana use has been linked to both longer sleep periods and reduced quality of sleep which is doubly counter-productive.

That’s not to say that you can’t still enjoy these substances, but you need to do it intelligently. The effects of these on sleep can last a lot longer than the recreational effects last. Coffee, for example, can disrupt sleep patterns hours after the buzz that you drink it for has faded away. Similarly, even if you’ve sobered up, alcohol can still have an effect on your quality of sleep.

So what do you do? Ideally, you should cut off your use of these substances three or four hours prior to when you intend to sleep. For me 3 p.m. is the limit for caffeine intake if I don’t want it to interfere with my sleep.

Obviously with alcohol this becomes something of a problem since socially it’s most common use is late in the evenings. In general if you’re consuming large volumes of alcohol prior to 3 p.m. there’s a chance you have other problems you need to address. When it comes to alcohol the best things is to just understand the effects of it and regulate your use accordingly.

Every now and again going out and drinking late in the evening is fine, but if you do it every night or even every couple nights it’s going to have a cumulatively detrimental effect on your sleep and your health and everything else will likely suffer as a result. So keep it reasonable. You should also drink a good bit of water before bed to try to mitigate the dehydrating effects of the alcohol. You may have to wake up a few times to go to the bathroom, but interrupted sleep is preferential to the dehydration.

Chill Out and Light Some Candles

Falling asleep is a process that, physiologically anyway, starts well before your head hits the pillow. Putting yourself in an environment before bed that facilitates and encourages those process to start will help get to sleep much more quickly when you actually do head to bed and will make for more restful sleep since you’re primed beforehand.

The first step is to limit your exposure to full spectrum light. Exposure to bright full spectrum light inhibits the brain’s production of melatonin which is a chemical that helps put you to sleep. For hundreds of thousands of years the Sun going down has meant it’s bed time for humans, our brains still operate that way. Shutting off the lights and switching to a non-full spectrum light source encourages the brain to up-regulate melatonin production.

That means no bright computer or phone screens and no TV among other things. It doesn’t mean you necessarily have to sit in the dark though, candles are a good source of gentle non-full spectrum light. So shut off the lights and the bright electronics about 20 – 30 minutes before bed. If nothing else, a house filled with candles every night is a good mood-setter for some sexy time.

The next environmental factor to change is the temperature. People sleep best at an average temperature between 60 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5 to 20 degrees Celsius for our international readers). That’s just a touch chillier than normal room temperature, so turn the AC on gently, open some windows a crack (provided that won’t let too much noise in) or don’t cover up so tightly. You’ll get a much higher quality of sleep.

Putting it All Together

You can certainly experiment with additional tactics to improve sleep quality, but these are the best place to start in terms of building a strong foundation of practices that have been proven to be effective. To recap for all you tl;dr folks.

  • Remove noise & light stimuli from your sleeping environment.

  • Eat some slow digesting protein 15-20 minutes before bed.

  • Follow a pre-bed ritual ever single night.

  • Be physically active or exercise regularly.

  • Limit caffeine and alcohol use.

  • Eliminate light exposure 20-30 minutes prior to bed time and sleep in a 60 to 68 degree Fahrenheit room.

Do you have anything else to add? Something I missed? Have you had success with any of these tactics? Share your experiences with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Bealluc

How to Recharge with the Caffeine Nap

Be My Guest and Take a Rest by PoYang

A little bit of coffee and 15 minutes of sleep can work wonders.

We’ve all been there. You had a rough night and didn’t get nearly enough sleep – maybe it’s because you were out partying, maybe it’s because you were up late finishing a project, maybe you were up half the night with a shrieking infant – it doesn’t matter.

Now it’s about 1 p.m. the following day and you basically want to die. You’re miserable, exhausted and likely to tear the head off the next person who comes near you. You can’t go back to bed though, there’s work to do and just quitting in the middle of the day to go sleep is going to make things even worse. So what do you do?

You use the caffeine nap.

What’s a Caffeine Nap?

The idea behind a caffeine nap is to give your brain a concentrated blast of everything it needs to feel better in the short term without giving in to the longer term solution of actually getting some sleep. It’s basically a nap on steroids. Or, well, stimulants.

Sleep, on its own, is obviously the best long term solution to being excessively tired. The problem is that it’s generally very time consuming. You have to be able to sleep long enough to get through enough REM cycles to actually recover. On top of that if you check out mid-day to go sleep for 6 hours you’re going to wake up at 9 p.m. fully rested and not be able to get back to sleep. That just leads to screwed up circadian rhythms which is taking you down a whole other rabbit hole of problems.

Caffeine, on its own, is also an o.k. short term solution but often just isn’t enough. Due to its lipid solubility caffeine gets into your system and across the blood-brain barrier pretty quickly. Caffeine is more like a bandage though. It covers the problem up and makes it a little better short term but it won’t get you through the day. Before long you’re going to crash, and even while the caffeine is working you tend to still feel like a confused and ornery mess, just one with plenty of energy.

A caffeine nap combines both of these things (plus an additional third one I like to add which I’ll get to later) to not only give you a good sustained boost of energy, but also to clear away as much of the mental fog as possible that administering caffeine alone wouldn’t remove. It’s not a complete substitute for a full night’s sleep, but it will make you feel better enough for the rest of the day to get everything you need to do done without having to worry about being pressed with assault charges when the well meaning barista gets your order wrong.

When to Use a Caffeine Nap

A caffeine nap is never going to be a substitute for a good night’s sleep. Ever.

Where it’s extremely useful is when you just can’t make it through the rest of the day but you’ve got a ton of stuff to do. This doesn’t just have to be because you’re flat out sleep deprived, anytime you feel yourself crashing you can use a caffeine nap to get back on your feet for a while.

The best times for these are a little bit before you need to do whatever it is you need to feel better for, but not so far ahead that it’s like six or seven hours away. The effects of a good caffeine nap do last a while, but they start to taper off after a few hours. You need at least 15 to 20 minutes to get a good caffeine nap as well, so make sure you’ve got at least that much.

I also wouldn’t recommend a caffeine nap if it’s getting to close to when you’ll be able to go to sleep anyway. You are going to be knocking back a good dose of caffeine, and we don’t want the residual effect to disrupt your sleep patterns the next night or else you’re going to be pushing yourself into a bad cycle of general sleep deprivation.

Essentially anytime you need a boost around mid-day or earlier and you’ve got at least 15 minutes to steal away for a nap, a caffeine nap is the way to go.

How to Take a Caffeine Nap

Our goal for a caffeine nap is two-fold, the first aspect is to get a good solid dose of stimulants into your system and the second is to get enough sleep to let your brain recharge a bit.

The trick to it lies in the fact that we can’t let your brain have too much sleep or it’ll go into full repair mode and then you’ll feel more zombified when you wake back up, and we also can’t let the stimulants take effect too long before the sleep or you’ll never actually wind down enough to get any rest.

So here’s what you do:

  1. Ingest a Dose of Caffeine Combined with a Dose of Glucose – There are a lot of options here as to what your drug of choice will be. Ideally you want something you can drink quickly. Caffeine begins to take effect in as little as ten minutes due to its easy absorption, although it can take up to an hour for it to reach full absorption. That means that a hot coffee might not always be the best choice, they’re hard to drink very quickly without risking burning yourself.

    You also want something that has a decent sized dose of glucose with it. Glucose has a synergistic effect with caffeine and in studies has been shown to have a much stronger effect in increasing energy and mental acuity than either caffeine or glucose alone. We obviously want the strongest effect we can get, so adding some sugar to that caffeine will make a big difference.

    In my opinion, that means the best option here is going to be something small and easy to drink, or normal sized and at a temperature allowing rapid consumption. Personally, my two drinks of choice are either an iced coffee loaded up with sugar or a double shot or more of espresso loaded up with sugar. If you want to get a little crazy you can always go for an iced green eye (triple shot in a drip coffee) with sugar.

    Normally I would consider dumping sugar into any form of coffee upsetting – I like mine black – but in this case we’re not out to enjoy this as a beverage we’re approaching this as a dose of a drug. That being said, I don’t recommend turning to soft drinks or energy drinks for a caffeine nap. If you have to, fine, but those things are full of a ton of other crap that’s just not good for you. No reason to not go with the better option if you’ve got the choice.

  2. Take a Fifteen Minute Nap – Now that you’ve downed your dose of drugs, lay down somewhere comfy and dark for a fifteen minute nap. Be absolutely sure to only nap for fifteen minutes. Set a loud, annoying alarm that’s guaranteed to wake you up to make sure you don’t exceed it.

    Much more than fifteen minutes of sleep and your brain will begin to shut down so it can go into repair mode and defragment. Once it does that booting it back up is a long, difficult process. That means you’re going to feel like crap again when you wake up which is definitely not the goal. Everyone’s a little different, but keeping it to no longer than fifteen minutes is a pretty good general rule.

    Don’t worry if you can’t really fall asleep. Just laying there and dozing a little works nearly as well since it allows your brain to start recovering without diving all the way into full on REM sleep. Just make sure to hold to the fifteen minute rule. When that alarm goes off you get up and go back about your day no matter what.

That’s it! Two easy steps and you’re done. Done right and you should feel a ton better – maybe not 100%, but enough to finish out the day with a minimum of pain before you can get to bed and get an actual good night’s sleep.

Caffeine Nap Artistry

The best part the caffeine nap is that it’s versatile. You can play around with it a lot to find ways to make it better or more convenient for you. You can have one first thing in the morning to give yourself an extra boost immediately if you wake up mid-REM sleep and feel groggy. You can leave a pad and pen nearby when you take them or have Evernote ready to catch any inspiration that may pop up as you wake back up (people often find inspiration coming out of sleep, adding a couple nootropics to that is a recipe for interesting ideas). If you’re worried about needing a refresh on the read unexpectedly, or you just hate yourself enough to do them this way instead of with coffee, you can keep a bottle of 5 Hour Energy and four or five sugar packets in your glove compartment.

The more you play around with them the more you’ll find ways to make it work better for you.

Have you tried caffeine naps before? How’d it go? Have any little adjustments or tips you think make them better? Share them with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: PoYang

How to Actually Accomplish the Stuff on Your To-Do List

To-Dos by Courtney Dirks

Sure you can make a to-do list, but can you actually cross everything back off of it?

I am a man who enjoys his to-do lists.

There’s just something about getting out a physical piece of paper and a pen and actually putting the things I need to accomplish in a day down in ink that feels really good. It makes it feel like I have something concrete to work from, something to keep me on track and focused. When I make a really solid to-do list I feel like there’s absolutely no way I won’t get all of that stuff done.

And by the end of the day, I haven’t done any of it.

So what’s going on? How do you make the jump from making a great to-do list to actually doing what’s on it?

Listing Vs. Doing

To-do lists are a really effective tool, and they genuinely do contribute to helping you accomplish the things you need to do in a day. The problem is that there’s often a disconnect between listing things and doing things.

This disconnect, when manifested like it has in many of my to-do lists past, leads to a long string of great to-do lists that just never get done. The most frustrating part in my experience is that when you make a to-do list and then don’t actually do anything on it you still have the list as a physical representation of all the stuff you should’ve done that day but didn’t adding insult to injury.

Having quite a bit of personal experience with writing things down and then never doing them, I’ve found most often fixing the problem lies in utilizing a handful of techniques that get around the most common obstacles to completing your lists.

Timeboxing

I’ve talked about timeboxing before and for good reason – it works. If you’ve never tried timeboxing before, you essentially allot a specific duration of time to work on a task and limit yourself to that duration of time to do it. As soon as your time runs out, you stop and move on to something else. It doesn’t matter if you’ve completed your task or not – when time’s up, you’re finished.

So how does timeboxing help get around some of the obstacles that are most common in preventing people from completing their to-do lists?

  • It Gets You Started – As a personal trainer, I come across a lot of people who have a desire to get in shape and improve their health, but lack the motivation to actually do workouts at the frequency they need to in order to succeed. Whenever I have a client who struggles with not feeling like working out, I make their first goal to just come to the gym.

    I don’t tell them to workout. I don’t care if they walk in the door and then walk out. I just tell them that I’ll be looking at their visits history and as long as they scan that card to get in the days I tell them to then I’ll be happy. Everyone agrees that even if they don’t have the motivation to workout they at least can muster up enough to come over to the gym swipe a card and leave.

    What I’ve found is, even when people leave their house with the intent of checking in and leaving, once people get in the door they’re almost guaranteed to workout. Now we’re usually not talking a personal record breaking lifting session here, but they do something. In the end, that’s the important thing.

    Once you get started in a task, even if you don’t want to do it, it’s much easier to continue to work on it for a while. Much like it takes less energy to keep water boiling than it does to make it boil, it takes a lot less energy on your part to keep doing something than it does to get started. Timeboxing helps you take that first step by forcing you to choose a task and focus on it for the allotted time. Once you’re rolling most of the hard work is done.

  • It Removes Task Dread – The brilliant part about timeboxing, in my opinion, is that it sets boundaries. People respond well to boundaries.

    Imagine if you were enrolling in college, or signing the papers for a mortgage and, rather than saying you’ll be on track graduate in four years or your home loan will be repaid in fifteen years, they told you that you’ll graduate eventually, or that your home will be yours someday they guess. I don’t know about you, but I would get up and leave.

    Without an end date in sight it’s hard to justify investing those kinds of resources into something. Tasks are no different. You’re never going to start a task that seems endless.

    When something looks to be so huge that you just can’t imagine ever being able to actually finish it, maybe cleaning out the garage for the first time in 8 years for example, it makes it so daunting and painful sounding that you just avoid it.

    Timeboxing removes that apprehension by placing boundaries on the task. Rather than, “I am faced with the endless task of cleaning the Augean stable is my garage,” it’s “Yeah, I’ll clean for an hour and then be done.”

    The second is a lot less painful sounding, and it gets you started which will lead to the momentum to keep going. I should note though that even if you get really into it, stick to your boundaries. Even if you really get into it and are rocking things out, stop at that hour mark. If you don’t, you’ll start eroding your trust in your own boundaries and it may make it more difficult to get started next time.

  • It Forces You to Take Breaks – Taking breaks has huge psychological benefits. Not only does it help you refocus, but it also keeps you from falling into a repetitive mode of thinking and getting bored with whatever you’re doing. Best of all, by not getting bored and by having a scheduled break to look forward to, it’ll keep you from giving in to the temptation of time sinks like Facebook.

    Since timeboxing restricts how long you can work on something, it forces you to take little breaks between tasks. After the break you can switch tasks or do another block of the same task – either way you’ve had five to ten minutes in between to stretch out, get your social media fix and let your mind wander.

    It may not seem like much, but all those things will make a huge difference not only in how easily you accomplish your tasks, but also your creativity and focus as well.

  • It Eliminates Multi-Tasking – Much in the way that breaks are good, multi-tasking is bad. As Ron Swanson would say, “Don’t half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing.”

    Multi-tasking can be seductive because it makes it feel like we’re getting more done when really we’re just doing less and more poorly at that. Doing one thing and doing it well is a much better way to go about things. Timeboxing reinforces that by limiting you to a single task for your allotted time. When you’ve only got an hour to do as much as you can on a task or finish it, you don’t have time to multi-task. You have to focus on whatever it is you need to be doing right then and that means you’ll be able to work a lot better and more efficiently.

Making Good To-Do Lists

Sometimes it’s not that you’re having trouble getting your list done, but rather that you’ve gone and made a really crappy to-do list.

That’s alright – I used to make tons of them.

The two biggest things I see when it comes to poorly constructed to-do lists are overloading it with way too many tasks and, possibly even worse, not including fun tasks.

When your to-do list has 400 things on it, you’re just setting yourself up to fail. Overloading yourself and then having to face the shame of an uncompleted to-do list at the end of the day is not the way to be productive. Instead, limit yourself to a smaller number of tasks that you know you’ll have the time for. Even better, pick a few out of those limited tasks to be designated as your most important tasks for the day and make sure they get done first. That way, even if something gets in the way and you don’t finish your list, you can still feel good about getting the most important things done.

On that note, reading your to-do list should not feel like reading your jail sentence. If you wake up in the morning already annoyed at how terrible your day is going to be because of all the painful stuff on this horrendous to-do list you have to do – then you’re just going to be miserable all day and likely not get any of it done anyway.

Always put some fun stuff on your to do list. Preferably fun productive stuff, but just something fun and relaxing. Having something to look forward to will make a big difference in how you feel and your success rate in actually getting your lists completed.

Do you have any other suggestions for getting things done? Have you used timeboxing before and, if so, what did you think? Tell us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Courtney Dirks

Tortoises, Seinfeld and Productivity: How to Use the Chain System

Jerry Seinfeld by Alan Light

Jerry Seinfeld knows a thing or to about being consistently productive.

Yesterday I introduced my latest challenge, attempting to change my productivity style from oscillating between frantic productive bursts and long depressive periods of idleness to a nice steady stream of consistent if small accomplishments.

As I explained in the other article, I’d like to go from being a hare (someone who sprints through tasks in bursts then goes through an extended cooldown period) to a tortoise (someone who works consistently on tasks for an extended period of time). To get used to working as a tortoise I’m challenging myself to go 330 consecutive days writing one article, learning 15 new words and mobilizing my ankle for 4 minutes every single day. So how am I going to pull it off?

That’s where Jerry Seinfeld comes in.

The Seinfeld Method

Or, more specifically, where Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity method comes in.

The Seinfeld method goes by a bunch of names including the Chain System and “Don’t Break the Chain”. It’s impossible to say if Jerry Seinfeld can be credited for inventing the system, but honestly it doesn’t matter if he did or not. When you look at the sheer volume of consistent work Jerry Seinfeld has produced over his extensive career it’s clear he’s doing something right.

As the story goes a young comedian was performing in a club when he met Seinfeld and he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get a bit of advice from someone who’s regarded by many as one of the greatest comedians of our time. Jerry Seinfeld told him that the secret was to write something everyday, whether it was good or not was irrelevant – just sit down and get something on paper every single day.

To make sure that you do it everyday, he told the young comedian, get a year calendar and put a check mark on it everyday you write. After a while you wind up with a long chain of check marks and it creates a psychological pressure to not break that chain. Hence the other names.

I intend to use the Seinfeld method for my challenge using a big chart I’ve made with 330 squares on it. I’ve marked off some important milestones as well, such as the 100 day marks and where I’ll have hit 1,000 words, so that I have some short term goal posts to aim for outside of the end of the 330 days. Since I’m grouping all tasks together I’ll be using checks instead of lines (which we’ll get to in a moment).

How to Use the Seinfeld / Chain Method for Productivity

Want to give this system a try yourself or follow along with your own challenge? Here are the basics of how to set it up along with a few modifications for different situations.

  1. Choose Your Timeframe – The first thing to do is to choose how long you’re going to apply the Seinfeld Method. That’s not to say that you have to have a limit, you can set off to do it indefinitely, but having some target date to shoot for I think provides a little extra motivation. People like finish lines. The trick is to pick something far enough away to be effective (over 30 days) but not so far as to be potentially discouraging (over 2 years).
  2. Choose Your Task(s) – You can pick one task or many, it’s up to you, although I would advise against starting with too much. The goal is definitely not to overwhelm yourself here. You want to choose a task or tasks that will help you toward some goal but are simple enough to complete without too much struggle. Run 5 miles is probably a bad choice. Run one mile is better. Go for a run is best. Similarly write 30 pages is not so good, but write 500 – 1,000 words is. The idea is for each day’s task to be small, relatively insignificant accomplishments that will add up to something great when compounded over a great deal of time.

    A slight word of caution though, try to avoid time limits. Set minimums instead. If you make your goal ‘write for 1 hour’ then spend most of that hour screwing around and getting distracted it just wastes your time. There can be exceptions (my own stretching goal being one) but in general it’s better to set a minimum accomplishment like a word count.

  3. Get a Calendar, App or Chart – Depending on your personal style you can go as digital or analog as your heart desires. There are lots of apps out there that you can use specifically for this method, Goal Streaks and Way of Life being to for iPhone at least that are decent. Personally, I tend to like to make a big chart since it invests a little of me in the project. Alternatively you can always go the traditional route and just buy a year calendar. Find what you like and go with it.
  4. Get Started – Start that day or the next day. Don’t put it off – the longer you wait the less likely you are to really get into it. Dive in while you’re pumped and use that momentum to keep you going through the first stretch. If you’re going with a single task you can choose whatever symbol you want to mark off your successes, a check mark, a big green circle, a smiley face, whatever.

    If you’ve chosen multiple things to track you can use this method as well, or you can use the line method instead. To do it that way you’ll need one color marker for each task you’ve selected. Then you just make a long connected line through each day you’ve completed that task with its respective color. Before long you’ve got a rainbow of success streaking across your calendar and you won’t want to stop.

  5. Make a Provision for Speedbumps – Eventually, something will come up completely outside of your control that prohibits you from completing your task. If you get food poisoning for instance, you’re not likely to be going for a run that day. Now it would be wrong to mark that day with a check since you didn’t actually do your task. Conversely it hardly seems fair to have a break in your glorious chain just because some moron didn’t cook your chicken right.

    The solution in my opinion is to have a ‘N/A’ mark to indicate that day was neither a success nor a failure. You could even put a big ‘S’ for ‘Sick’ on there. The point is just to have some kind of alternative ready for the unavoidable consequences of life. Just don’t use those an excuse to slack off without feeling guilty.

You’ll quickly find using this method that once you get rolling it really is hard to stop. In terms of psychology the fear of loss is much, much stronger than the anticipation of gain. I suspect it’s that fact that makes it so difficult to look at a long chain of successes and allow yourself to break that chain and lose your long streak of accomplishments.

Have you ever used the Seinfeld Method? Have any tips or suggestions to make it more efficient or effective? Share them with us!

Photo Credit: Alan Light

Workouts for Wimps: Your First Pull Up

Kyra on the Monkey Bars by OhKyleL

Don’t look so down, you’ll get your first pull up eventually.

Pull ups are easily one of, if not the, most psychologically intimidating exercises for people who are just starting out.

If you grew up in the U.S. you may still be haunted by memories like mine – as a fat kid in junior high I was subjected to the most distilled form of public humiliation inflicted by a school upon its students, the Presidential Fitness Test.

The mile run wasn’t so bad, I managed to walk most of it and still get in under the 12 minute cut off. The push up test wasn’t too bad either – sure I was fat but one of the benefits of moving a large volume of lard around on a regular basis was at least enough strength to outdo some of my skin-and-bones peers. At 26 push ups or so in a minute I wasn’t the best, but I wasn’t the worst of the boys either.

Then there were the pull ups.

Some of you are already nodding in solidarity as you read this, but if you were never a fat kid you may not understand my vitriol and psychological baggage in regards to this particular exercise. Imagine being an obese middle schooler for a moment. Your self-confidence is already severely damaged by a horrendous body image and the crushing force of being immersed on a daily basis into a viciously hierarchical social structure. (Seriously, there are no creatures more emotionally and psychologically destructive than teenagers)

Now that baseline of negative self-esteem is the norm for day to day activities. From there, picture yourself being commanded to come over to the pull up bar, in front of everyone, in a gym uniform that pretty much by definition accentuates how fat you are. You are then told to grab the bar and do as many pull ups as you can. You jump up and grab on and fight, struggle and squirm – hoping with all your might to get at least one so you won’t be the very worst of everyone.

After several seconds of futile dangling and thrashing on the bar like a panicked whale being airlifted back to sea by helicopters, it becomes clear that you aren’t going to even do a single one and you’re told you’ll be tested on how long you can hang there instead. So, publicly defeated, you are forced to hang there in your shame in front of everyone as they judge your inadequacy.

You can see why some of us are a bit scarred from these experiences. There are few things more satisfying than your very first pull up, and few things more frustrating than being unable to do one. (Tweet this.)

There is hope though. I have gone from being completely unable to do a single pull up to currently doing multiple sets of them with additional weight hanging off of me and you can do the exact same thing. All you have to do is follow these easy progressions and you’ll be rocking out pull ups in no time.

Getting Your First Pull Up

The way this program works is to slowly build you up through exercises progressing from easier to more difficult all the way up to a pull up. You’ll want to start at the beginning and then work your way up – you’ll do at least three workouts per week with each workout consisting of three sets of each exercise of how ever many reps you can do up to 12. Once you hit 3 sets of 12 reps on an exercise you can then move up to the next one for your workouts.

I’ll lay out the program in an easy to follow way at the end – first though let’s look at the movements we’ll use.

1. Bent Over Dumbbell Rows

Many people will actually be able to skip this step, but this is where you’ll start if you are a complete, absolute beginner. To perform a dumbbell row you’ll find a bench, couch, wall or pair of chairs about knee height. Hold the dumbbell in your right hand and place your left knee on the bench, then bend over and place your left palm on the bench so that your left arm is straight below your shoulder. Your right leg should be straight down to the ground and you should be bent over with your back flat like a table and your right arm hanging straight down holding the dumbbell.

From there you want to use your shoulder muscles to pull the dumbbell straight up to your right armpit, kind of like starting a pull lawnmower. Make sure to pull with your shoulder and arm muscles and not twist your torso to the left to cheat. Once you’ve done your set on the right side, switch to your left.

Once you can do three sets of twelve repetitions on each side without any trouble increase the weight you’re using. When you can do it with 30 pound dumbbells for three sets of twelve you’re ready to move up to the next weight. If you’re a little heavier yourself, make it 40.

Don’t have dumbbells? No problem, pack a backpack or tripled-up shopping bag full of cans, books, rocks or whatever you’ve got on hand and weigh it to see what you’re working with. You can also make fairly heavy dumbbells by filling an empty plastic milk jug with sand and then running water into it until all the sand is thoroughly soaked.

2. Inverted Bodyweight Rows

Our second movement on the path to your first pull up is the inverted bodyweight row. To do an inverted row ideally you’ll need some kind of bar between chest and knee height – playground equipment, a tree branch, smith machine or broom stuck between two chairs all work.

All you do is lay beneath your bar of choice and pull your chest up to it keeping your body rigid and your heels on the ground like a hinge. The more horizontal you are the more difficult the movement becomes, so if you start out with a chest height bar you can slowly move your feet away from it to increase the difficulty. If you can’t find anything else to use, you can also do these by lying underneath a kitchen or dining room table facing up so your head is poking out one side and pulling yourself up to the edge of the table.

Once you can perform three sets of twelve completely horizontal with your feet on the floor, prop your feet up on something like a chair so your feet are the same height or higher than your hands to increase the difficulty. Once you can do three sets of twelve with your feet elevated without any issues move on to…

3. Assisted Pull Ups or Negative Pull Ups

The next step gives you the choice between using either assisted pull ups or if you’re more comfortable with them negative pull ups.

Assisted pull ups can be done a handful of ways. The most ideal though hardest to do for most people are band assisted pull ups. These are done with an assistance band or a bunch of surgical tubing lopped over the bar and then beneath your feet to help take some of the weight off of the pull up.

Since these can be expensive, the next option would be self-assisted or partner assisted pull ups. For partner assisted pull ups you bend your knees and have a friend stand behind you and hold on to your feet or knees, As you do your pull up they help push you up just enough that you can complete the rep but not so much as to make it too easy. Self-assisted push ups are done by placing a chair behind you then bending your knees and placing the tops of your feet on the back of the chair so that you can push up with your legs as needed while you do your pull ups.

For band assisted pull ups, reduce the strength/size of the band every time you reach three sets of twelve reps. For partner or self-assisted pull ups when you can do three sets of twelve take one leg away so only one leg is using the chair or friend as assistance. When you can do three sets of twelve that way, move on to the next movement.

If you find the assisted pull ups aren’t really doing it for you, give negatives a try. To do a negative you either use a stepping stool or just jump to get into the top position of the pull up with your chin above the bar. (Careful not to lose any teeth here if you’re jumping)

Once you’re in the top position lower yourself back down as slowly as possible. From the bottom climb or jump back up and repeat. When you can do three sets of twelve reps with each rep taking at least 25 seconds to get from top to bottom then you can finally move on to…

4. Your First Real Pull Up!

Ok, so technically this will be your first real chin up, but that’s ok. What’s the difference? A chin up is done with your palms facing toward you and a pull up is done with your palms facing away from you. It may seem like a minor difference, but chin ups are actually much easier than pull ups.

The way you’ll make the jump from negatives to pull ups is to start by working in a single chin up rep at the beginning of each set of negatives. Then next workout go for two chin ups and ten negatives, then three and nine and so on.

Once you can do three sets of twelve chin ups (honestly, once you can do three or four per set really) you’ll be more than able to do a pull up, and likely will be able to do several.

The Full Pull Up Progression

Here’s the full progression laid out in one big list.

Done three days per week with one day of rest between each workout. When you can complete three sets of twelve of each exercise move down to the next on the list.

  • 3×12 Bent Over Dumbbell Rows – Increase weight up to 30 lbs. then move on to next movement.

  • 3×12 Inverted Bodyweight Rows – Move feet away from bar or elevate feet once parellel to increase difficulty. Move on to next movement after 3×12 with feet elevated becomes easy.

  • 3×12 Assisted Pull Ups or Negative Pull Ups – Move on when 3×12 assisted pull ups with only one foot under assistance is easy, or when you can complete 3×12 negative pull ups with a 25 second descent on each rep.

  • 3×12 Mixed Chin Ups & Negative Pull Ups – Start with one chin up and eleven negative pull ups per set, then two chin ups and ten negatives, then three chin ups and nine negatives until you achieve 3×12 chin ups.

  • Go Rock Out Some Pull Ups!

Additional Tips

The first thing to note is since you’re moving your own bodyweight being able to perform your first pull up may come down to both increasing your strength and decreasing your bodyweight so you don’t have to lift as much. That means if you’re particularly heavy, learning how to get your nutrition into check and shed some excess fat can make a big difference.

The second thing is to do your best not to cheat. That means when doing your actual chin ups and pull ups when you get to that point resist the urge to bend your legs and wiggle and fling yourself around. Sure it makes it easier, but you’re cheating yourself out of the benefit of doing a strict pull up or chin up and you’ll find your progress stalling out quickly.

Have you tried this program to finally get your very first pull up? How did it go? Do you have any suggestions or additional tips to help out? Let us know!

Photo Credit: OhKyleL

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