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

How to Achieve Your Goals By Not Setting Goals

Goal by Humbletree

Sometimes goals get in the way more than they help.

As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about productivity and efficiency and getting a lot of things done everyday, you would think that I would be someone who really likes goals. In reality – I sort of hate them.

For a lot of people goals hurt more than they help when it comes to accomplishing things.

So why do I hate goals so much, and what do I recommend using instead that works so much better?

The Problems with Focusing on Goals

For some people goal setting can be an enormous help. It can serve as a motivating factor, something to keep you on track, and a way to maintain focus. For others though they can wind up doing a lot more harm than good, and a lot of that comes down to how likely you are to fixate on that goal. The more you fixate, the more problems they tend to cause. These are the ones I tend to notice most often in people who become too goal oriented.

  • Goals Hamper Long Term Progress – I realize this sounds contradictory, but the nature of goals means that unless you’re good about constantly creating new ones they will eventually get in the way of long term progress for a handful of reasons. Goals are built as fixed points of achievement with a clear, definitive ending. Because of this it’s common for people to stop their progress once they’ve reached their goal.

    If your goal is to finish the book you’re writing, it’s easy to reach that goal and then completely abandon your writing for a long while. If your goal is to run a 5k, once you’ve done it it’s easy to slack off on your training because you’ve hit your goal. You’re done.

    This attitude ruins continual progress because it makes it feel natural to stop after you’ve hit your goal. With many things you then wind up backsliding in regards to progress and by the time you set another goal you might be back to where you started the first time. That’s not a productive method if you want to be making constant incremental improvements.

  • Goals Bring You Down – Another thing I see a lot is the way in which goals, again mostly just due to their nature, start to bring people down and instill a very negative view in them.

    Even if you don’t originally intend to mean it that way a goal is you saying to yourself, “I am not good enough. I will be good enough / happy with myself when I have accomplished X.” You have a goal of losing ten pounds because you think you’re too fat, you have a goal of reaching a business benchmark because you’re not successful enough. All of these things essentially are you saying that you will be happy when you accomplish this certain thing, which implies that you aren’t happy now.

    On top of the negativity already inherently implicit in that kind of thinking, there’s also the stress of potential failure and the hard hit to your self-esteem if you aren’t able to reach your goal.

    After all the built up pressure of trying to meet a goal by its deadline, and the ingrained feelings of not being good enough until you meet this goal, it can be absolutely crushing if you don’t make it. In my time as a personal trainer I’ve seen people set (against my advice) very ambitious weight loss goals, invest a lot of emotional energy in them, and then completely fall apart when they don’t reach them – which usually leads to them falling into worse habits and gaining weight as a result of being distraught and feeling like a failure.

  • Goals Assume Too Much Agency – This ties in strongly to the above point on making you feel like a failure if you don’t accomplish them, but goals make you feel like you’re in more control of things than you really are.

    Initially it might sound nice to feel like you’re in control, but in the end it just sets you up for feeling worse if you fail. Going back to the example of people losing weight, there are a lot of factors physiologically that can determine how easy it is for you to lose weight (or gain muscle). Some of these are mostly out of your control. The problem is focusing on a goal tends to make you gloss over the fact that these things can be outside of your control so when you fail to reach it – even if it was through no fault of your own – you’re still likely to feel like you have failed somehow. Beating yourself up over things you had no say in is not going be conducive to making progress.

So with all these issues with goals, what’s the better option?

Systems Focus Over Goals Focus

Instead of a goal focus, try having a system focus instead.

A system focus is where instead of fixating on the end result (the goal) you fixate on the process itself (the system). If your goal is to write a novel your system might be to write 500 words everyday. If your goal is to lose weight your system might be to lift weights three times per week. If your goal is to learn a language your system might be to do ten lessons with an iTalki teacher every month.

Focusing on the system completely bypasses all of the problems listed above with goals, but will still get you to that end point that you’re chasing after. Systems are continual, so they don’t encourage you to stop making progress just because you’ve hit your goal marker.

Systems are both recurring and ideally small enough in scope to not be a set-up for failure. Writing a novel is a huge task, and there is definitely an element of potential failure or far of failure there. Writing 500 words per day is no big deal, that’s like a page and a half or so depending on how you measure. There should be no real pressure that you might not be able to complete that. Even if you do, going back to the recurring nature of systems, it’s not a big deal because you get to try again tomorrow.

This also makes systems much more controllable. Certainly nothing is ever 100% under our control, but since systems focus on actions rather than meeting conditions it’s much easier to make sure you do genuinely have enough control to do them. Using the words example again something might occur that will stop me from meeting the condition of ‘Have Finished Novel’, but it’s much harder for conditions to arise that would stop me from taking the action of ‘write 500 words’. Especially since even if those conditions do arise, I can just make sure to hit my 500 words the next day.

Building Good Systems

Transitioning from goals to systems is easy. Just take your goal and then determine what actions will need to be taken to reach it, then choose the smallest, easiest action that will still create progress and assign it a recurring schedule. Then you’re done.

For example, your goal is to get to a 400 lbs. squat. The action that will lead to that goal is lifting (squatting specifically, but possibly also accessory work) and you can assign the recurring schedule of three times per week. So instead of focusing on “I’m going to squat 400 lbs. someday” focus on “I’m going to squat heavy 3x per week.”

Some goals might break down into multiple systems, so a goal of ‘Lose 20 lbs.’ might break into something like ‘Workout 3x per week’ and ‘Eat within my macro limits at least 6 days per week’. That’s fine, just make sure you don’t accidentally overwhelm yourself.

Do you have any other thoughts or advice on goals? Do you like them or do you find they get in the way more than they help? Share with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Humbletree

Get More Done By Limiting Yourself

Restricted by Martin Cathrae

Sometimes restrictions can help more than they hinder.

People don’t usually like to have themselves limited. We like to be free, to have lots of options, for there to be no constraints on what we can do. The motivating factor behind a lot of people’s decision to chase financial independence through entrepreneurship or self-employment is specifically to have more control over their schedules, choices, and life. Constraints are bad.

Or are they?

Like so many things limits and restrictions don’t have to be bad thing if you can find a way to use them to your advantage. When you do they can act as a powerful motivational tool, creativity booster, and more.

When Choice Is the Enemy

It’s easy to romanticize complete and total freedom as an unambiguously positive thing, but in reality a lot of problems can stem from having too much freedom.

The first is something that people often call the Paradox of Choice. The short explanation of the paradox of choice is that in stead of having access to more options or choices being freeing or empowering, it actually makes it more difficult to just pick something and causes more anxiety and negative reactions than if there were fewer options from which to choose.

As a very basic example, imagine a restaurant menu that has fifteen dishes on it that you know you’ll really like. Having that many options makes it that much harder to just pick one than it would be if there were only a handful of things you knew you liked or fewer.

This also ties into the related problem of Paralysis by Analysis. Essentially that’s when you spend so much time deliberating over what would be the best choice or the most optimal course of action that you wind up not making a decision at all or continually putting it off. Using our menu example this might be wrestling over getting something new that you might wind up disliking, or going with a tried-and-true favorite that you know you’ll like but then missing out on trying something new – only to have completely failed to choose what to eat by the time the server comes back for your order.

On top of these problems, having a lot of options leads to decision fatigue. This is where each little choice you have to make slowly erodes your resolve and your willpower as the day goes on until there’s nothing left. In that state of depleted willpower at the end of the day it’s exponentially more difficult to be disciplined and stick to your diet or whatever other positive habits you’ve tried to build for yourself and on top of that it primes you to make poor decisions over good ones.

Using Limits As a Tool

To counteract these negative effects of having too much choice, the best thing to do is put yourself back in a situation where the presence of all these options isn’t so overwhelming that it’s going to stop you from getting to work.

By placing your own carefully selected limits and restrictions on yourself you can eliminate the problems caused by the paradox of choice and also make sure you’re engaging in behaviors that will help you be more productive and avoid things like procrastination and burn out.

  • If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed on a daily basis by all the things you have to get done then write out a short list every evening of the most important things you need to do the next day. Make it a relatively small list – we’re trying to work within limits here remember – no more than maybe six things. Then out of that short list choose the single most important thing that needs to get done and commit to doing that thing first thing in the morning and nothing else until it’s completed. This restriction will fore you to work through the important stuff in your day and not get distracted by every little thing you need to do.

  • Use time limits on your habits in order to make them stick better. We’ve talked in previous articles about habit building and timeboxing on how starting small and having a set time constraint can make a big difference in adherence and reduce the pressure to avoid the task or habit. If you want to exercise limit yourself by saying the only exercise you need to do is get your gym clothes on and walk out the door. Or maybe drive to the gym. Nothing else. Chances are once you get started you’ll keep going and actually work out, but if not it’s fine. The important thing is it’s hard to convince yourself you’re not capable of putting shoes on and walking out the door. Limit yourself to two minutes of language learning, or to a single Memrise session. You’ll find it easier to keep making progress once you’re started.

  • You can also use limits to force creativity. It’s an extremely common practice for writers to place some kind of crazy restriction on themselves to spark creativity, whether it’s just in a practice creative writing session or in an actual work. Some incredibly creative work has come up because people limit themselves to 500 words, or 140 in the case of Twitter. Dr. Seuss wrote Green Eggs & Ham limiting himself to only using fifty words. Some of the most impressive parkour runs I’ve seen have been from people at our gym limiting themselves to only using two rails, or not touching the same obstacle twice. Limits can be a strong force for squeezing out creativity you didn’t know you had.

Limits can be a frustration, or they can be an asset. It all depends on how you approach them and how you make use of them.

Are there any other ways you can think to apply your own restrictions to yourself to be more productive instead of having them be a negative thing? Leave a comment and share with everyone!

Photo Credit: Martin Cathrae

Why Some People Suck at Learning (and How to Fix It)

Torsten, Math Teacher by Blondinrikard Fröberg

For some people learning new things is just harder than it is for other people. They struggle to pick up things that they see other excel at easily. They fail to acquire skills even though they feel like they’ve given their best. Put simply, they suck at learning.

As it turns out, the reason things are so much harder for them than others might be entirely in their head – and it’s something that can be fixed.

How Perceptions Affect Performance

Social psychologist Emily Balcetis and her team wanted to find out why some people struggle with exercise while others don’t seem to have any problems. They devised a study where participants had their hip to waist ratio measured – a basic metric for how fit or overweight they were – and then were asked to run a short distance. Before they ran it, participants had to judge approximately how far they thought it looked from the start line to the finish.

When the research team matched the participants’ waist to hip ratios with their estimates of the distance they had to run they found a statistically significant correlation between the two. In other words, the more out of shape a person was the farther they thought the distance they had to run looked. Their fitness level actively influenced their perception of their environment and the task ahead.

Dr. Balcetis’s research team also came to the conclusion in a second experiment that people who had committed themselves to a reasonable goal that they felt could be accomplished in a timely manner also perceived exercise in general as being easier – regardless of fitness level.

Put together, this means that people who perceive themselves as being unfit will also think of exercise as being more difficult than it actually is and that have goals that you perceive as being attainable can mitigate that added mental difficulty. Our perceptions of ourselves, our abilities, and our goals have a direct effect on how we experience the world.

So what does all this exercise stuff have to do with learning?

Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets

Dr. Balcetis’s research shows that our perceptions of ourselves affect the difficulty or ease with which we undertake tasks. If we think of ourselves as being out of shape, then we will experience physical tasks as more difficult than if we thought of ourselves as being in shape.

The same is true of mental tasks like learning new things. If a person considers themselves to be a poor learner, or to be bad at a certain thing, then they’re likely to experience learning or practicing that thing as being more difficult than they otherwise would.

This ties strongly into something called the Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset.

People generally fall into one or the other category in regards to how they perceive themselves. Those with a Fixed Mindset have the attitude that there are things they excel at, and things that they are poor at, and those things are for all intents and purposes unchangeable – they’re a fixed quality.

Often you’ll see this in kids being raised with a particular parenting style. If you’ve ever heard a parent praise a kid for being naturally good at certain things (drawing, sports, music, math, whatever) but then when that kid struggles in another area they tell them something along the lines of, “Oh well X just isn’t your thing.”

If you’ve ever heard someone say, “I’m just not a math person,” or something along those lines as an adult that’s precisely what we’re talking about. One I hear a lot on account of my passion for language learning is “I just don’t have a head for language learning,” or one of its variants. In some cases (particularly it seems with math for whatever reason) some people even seem to be proud of their assertion that they’re just naturally and irrevocably ‘bad’ at this particular thing.

People with a Growth Mindset, on the other hand, approach things with the worldview that everything they do can be improved upon. They may feel they are naturally inclined toward one thing or another, but they don’t feel like there is any one thing that they can’t potentially learn to do well. Where someone with a Fixed Mindset gets a bad grade on a math test and thinks, “Eh, I’m just bad at math. Oh well.” the person with a Growth Mindset gets a bad grade and thinks, “I’m bad at math. I should work hard to get better.”

People stuck in a Fixed Mindset then wind up being terrible learners in a general sense for two reasons.

The first is that the attitude of ‘I’m just good at X’ and ‘I’m just bad at Y’ is at its core a defeatist view. If you feel like you can never improve and do poorly on something your first time, you’re probably going to give up on it. After all, if you ‘suck at language learning’ why would you invest hundreds to thousands of hours trying to learn a new language? From that viewpoint hard work is disincentivized. It then becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy because if you suck at something you aren’t going to get better without putting hard work in.

The second issue is that, relating back to the original point we discussed above about things perceived as being difficult also being experienced as being more difficult regardless of other factors, if you think you’re bad at something and that trying to improve it will be extra grueling because of your inherent ineptitude it will actually wind up being more difficult for you. A person with a Fixed Mindset makes it so that even when they do try to work hard at something, they’re making that hard work even harder because of their attitude.

So how do you stop sucking so bad at learning?

The first step is taking a look at your attitudes on learning in the first place and making sure that they’re set up to put you in the best place for it. If you’ve always had a Fixed Mindset start working to change it. Now you’re probably not going to be able to just ‘decide’ one day to change your entire worldview in relation to how you view your ability or inability to learn new things. You can start out slowly though by picking something you’ve always thought you were just naturally ‘bad’ at and telling yourself that you can get good at it through some hard work – then actually do the work for a little while and prove to yourself that everyone can improve.

Do you have any thoughts on Fixed vs. Growth mindsets? Have you had any success transitioning from one to the other? Share with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Blondinrikard Fröberg

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

Why Habit Building Is the Foundation for Success

Briofitas by Carmen Jost

Habit building is a sturdy foundation to build skills on top of.

“…we are we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” -Will Durant

The quote above, often mis-attributed to Aristotle, is used so much I was a little hesitant to use it here. It’s so true though, and sums up he point I intend to make so well that I couldn’t help it.

It’s not that you can’t reach success or excellence without using habits to drive your progress – but more that using habits to drive your success is the closest you can get to a guarantee that you’ll get there. Habits, like the Colorado river cutting away at the Grand Canyon, are an extremely potent force when leveraged over a long enough period of time. So what makes habit development so important?

The Cumulative Power of Habits

The primary power of habits lies in their cumulative nature, in what I tend to call skill accretion or sometimes goal accretion.

Skill accretion is the gradual build up of skill over time, little by little. It’s the most consistently successful way to build new skills in my experience, or to increase proficiency in skills you already have, because its gradual compounding nature means you don’t have to suffer through all the ups and downs and struggles of trying to rapidly acquire a skill. As a method its reliability stems from its sustainability.

As a self-defense instructor I have seen people on both ends of the spectrum in terms of approach to skill building. I’ve had students who went all out with five and six hour training sessions day after day who had dreams of being the next big UFC fighter, and I’ve had students who committed themselves to thirty minutes a day plus regular classes, or even just ten minutes of review practice each morning.

After a year – almost without exception – the people who committed to the small, daily, sustainable levels of training surpassed the skill levels of the people who went all out at the beginning. Generally, because the people that go all out just don’t last that long.

That’s not to say some don’t make it, but it’s pretty rare to find someone who is able to sustain that level of training effort over the long haul unless they are extremely committed, motivated, and disciplined. I’ve only had a few students that were able to pull it off.

That sustainable cumulative nature means that building easy habitual actions that move you a little further toward your goal, whether that’s completion of something like a project or building of a particular skill, will net you a far greater amount of progress in the long run than if you try to make a hard all out push.

Building those habits allows you to make those small incremental improvements an automatic, unthinking process.

Habits and Chunking

The use of habits as a tool also strongly facilitates the breaking down of large, difficult tasks into manageable bite-sized pieces or chunks – something I call chunking.

This is important because a lot of tasks can feel relatively insurmountable if you’re approaching them as one complete unit.

An easy example is writing a novel. Having a basic goal of reaching the 80,000 word mark, a general average for most novels, seems daunting when you’re approaching it all at once. When you’re looking at that 80,000 word goal all at once it can seem like you’ll never get there – even typing for hours it can feel like you didn’t even make a dent. For most people the thought of writing that much, of writing a complete novel, just feels like something they would never have time for.

When you break it down though, 80,000 words is only about 1,334 words or so per day spread over two months. If you’re in no real hurry you could write 220 words everyday and have that 80,000 word book finished in a year. For scale, I’ve written about 650 words so far in this article in the span of about thirty minutes.

In comparison to the whole 80,000 word novel, that bite-sized chunk of about 1,400 words looks effortless.

Using the process of habit building you can make it even more so.

Habituating the action of writing 300 words every morning when you sit down with your coffee would be simple. It wouldn’t take any time out of your day – you can likely write far in excess of 300 words in the time it takes you to finish a cup of coffee – and when you make it a habit it becomes and unconscious action. Much like brushing your teeth in the morning, it becomes something you no longer have to think hard about or put effort in to.

So in a year’s time, with zero additional time investment and little more effort than is required to remember to brush your teeth in the morning, you could have a complete novel finished in a year’s time.

These things are what makes habit building such a powerful tool.

You can habituate almost anything. You can use habits to complete things like books, work projects, gradually cleaning out your bursting inbox or messy garage. You can use habits to learn things or improve at things, learning a second language, playing an instrument, improving your coding skills.

The key is recognizing how useful habit creation can be, and then bringing that usefulness to bear in achieving your goals.

Are there any other ways habit building has helped you in reaching your goals, building a skill, or completing a daunting project? Leave a comment and share!

Photo Credit: Carmen Jost

Fitness & Motivation Lessons from Pokemon Go

A Wild Pikachu Appears by Sadie Hernandez - Pokemon Go

Unless you’ve been stuck inside Rock Cave for the last few months without an HM05, you probably know about Pokemon Go. As a side-effect of its wild popularity, people have been touting it as being one of the most successful fitness apps to date and some have even been suggesting it’ll have a big effect on fighting obesity.

While I think it’s being a little optimistic to think a little extra walking is going to get everyone fit, it definitely is getting otherwise sedentary people out and moving around – so what is Pokemon Go doing so differently from the Fitbits, Jawbones, VivoFits, et al. that never sparked nearly as strong of a fitness craze as expected? Moreover what lessons on motivation and taking control of our own fitness can we take away from its successes?

Pokemon Go vs. Fitbit

When Fitbit launched people thought that it would have a huge impact on lowering obesity rates and helping to improve overall fitness levels. Gamification (adding game elements like scoring and competition to encourage user engagement) was, and still is really, a hot and exciting method for getting people to do things – particularly in conjunction with the growing quantified self movement. Fitbit ticked both boxes. It provided a solid game element in trying to score your recommended 10k steps per day, providing badges and rewards for meeting goals, and in allowing you to compete with friends, and it gathered enough data on steps, stairs climbed, calories burned, sleep quality, weight change, etc. to be a solid entry in the self-quantification realm.

It’s done well, but it never took off quite like Pokemon Go has. I think the key reason being the Fitbit focuses on gamification, while Pokemon Go approaches things from the opposite direction with ‘fitnessification’.

Alright, I made that word up for lack of a better one and it needs work – the point is that while Fitbit attempts to make fitness into a game, Pokemon Go takes an existing game and plugs in a fitness element.

This might not seem like an important distinction, but it makes a noticeable difference. No matter how many game elements are included in the Fitbit system, your overall goal is still to walk. You can look at it as getting 10,000 points per day if you want, but you know you’re doing it for fitness. Sure the badges and the competition and things motivate you, but beneath that you understand the point is to get you to walk.

Pokemon Go is the opposite. The point is not to walk, that’s just something you tend to have to do in order to play the game. Your goal is to catch Pokemon, take gyms, things like that. The fact that you have to be up and moving around most of the time to accomplish that is secondary.

This is a much better approach to things, because in the end what people care about is having fun. Things like Fitbit, Fitocracy, Duolingo, or HabitRPG attempt, to varying degrees of success, to inject the fun of a game into a productive activity. That certainly helps, but it will never be as successful as injecting a productive activity into a game.

Wii Fit did an alright job of helping people take some steps toward fitness, but in the end it fell to the same problems – the design of all the games was built around making fitness fun, rather than starting with something already fun. After a while people just tire of it and it gets relegated to the closet.

Imagine if you took something like Final Fantasy VII but changed the battle mechanics so that you had to do push-ups or squats to win battles. You wouldn’t play that game to get fit, you would play it because it’s a good game. You would do a ton of push-ups and squats too, not because you think you should exercise but because Sephiroth murdered Aerith and is killing the planet and that bastard has to pay.

Lots of people would probably wind up in the best shape of their lives too.

So, assuming you’re not a game or app designer, what’s the takeaway here?

The Secret to Staying Motivated

If you’re struggling, rather than approaching things like Fitbit and trying to inject fun into your fitness routine (or whatever you’re trying to improve) take the better route – find something fun that also has some small element of what you’re trying to improve in it.

If the prospect of going to the gym or out for a daily run makes you want to crawl back into bed then why force yourself to do those things just for the sake of progress when there are fun options out there? Take a martial arts class, a dance class, a parkour class, go rock climbing, or kayaking, or swimming, go play basketball, or tennis, or even something like tag.

Are these things necessarily going to get you in the same kind of shape adhering to a well-structured strength and conditioning program would get in?

Almost certainly not.

But Pokemon Go alone isn’t going to have anyone dropping a hundred pounds and running in marathons either. Small progress is something though and – unless you’re missing out on potentially better progress by stressing over the small stuff – that small amount of progress is leaps and bounds better than making no progress at all.

Embracing this mindset will make it much easier to continually make some kind of progress in your goals. Any time you’re trying to think of some way to make something you don’t want to do but feel you need to do into something fun, change the equation around and try to think of or create something fun that contains aspects of your goals.

Do you have any examples of other ways to incorporate learning or fitness goals into games instead of the other way around? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Sadie Hernandez

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

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