6 Ways to Overcome Procrastination

Procrastination by Pete Zarria

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

Nobody is immune, but it can be beaten.

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

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

1. Find Your Why

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

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

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

2. Make it Ridiculously Easy to Comply

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

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

3. Have a Friend Help Keep You Accountable

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

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

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

4. Set Up Reminders

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

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

5. Daily Practice

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

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

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

6. Do the Hardest Part First

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

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

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

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

Bonus: 7. Time Box Your Goal

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Pete Zarria

A Basic Model for Personal Development

Framework by Markus Stöber

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

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

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

The Foundational Model for Successful Personal Development

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

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

That’s it.

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

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

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

Identifying Your Targets

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

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

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

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

Determine Available Actions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Testing and Reviewing

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

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

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

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

Another aspect to keep in mind is adherence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Markus Stöber

Habit Change as a Language Learning Tool

Forgotten Habit by Trường Đặng

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

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

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

What’s a Habit Anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

How Habits are Triggered

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

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

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

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

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

Building a Language Learning Habit

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

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

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

Creating a Habit Cue

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

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

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

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

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

Developing a Habitual Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding a Habit Reward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting All of It Together

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Trường Đặng Rok

How to Stay Productive with Block Schedules

Blocks (explored) by Matthias Rhomberg

Block scheduling has proven to be the most effective to keep me on track without causing too much pain.

For the longest time, I found myself stuck in a bit of a quandary.

On one hand I really needed a schedule to keep me on track. Call it ADHD, general flightiness, whimsy capriciousness, whatever – if I didn’t have a schedule keeping me on track I would derail and do a thousand different things that weren’t actually the things I needed to do that day.

On the other hand when I created a rigid schedule for myself, like the kind that Caroline uses so well to keep herself on track, I chafed under its oppressive rule. It was nice to have something to keep me doing what I needed to be doing right then, but instinctive defiance of authority is a severe character flaw in me and it drove me mad.

So how do you compromise having enough structure to keep me on track but still allowing enough freedom to stop my instinctive rebelliousness from manifesting? Block scheduling.

Linear Scheduling vs. Block Scheduling

Block scheduling isn’t complicated, but it’s still easiest to explain it in contrast to a more traditional linear scheduling system.

Linear scheduling is what most people would probably think of as a schedule. Each task for the day or appointment or whatever is mapped out to a specific time slot. If you think of putting things in on your Google calendar or whatever that’s what a linear schedule looks like. Here’s an example of what one might look like for one of our days:

  • 6 a.m. – Wake up & make coffee

  • 6:15 a.m. – Meditate

  • 6:45 a.m. – Memrise

  • 7 a.m. – Lift

  • 8 a.m. – Shower

  • 8:30 a.m. – Daily Prep / Writing

  • 10 a.m. – Teach at Wik Academy

  • 11:30 a.m. – Eat

  • Noon – Walk with dog

  • 1 p.m. – Practice an instrument

  • 2 p.m. – Write

  • 4:30 p.m. – Eat

  • 5:30 – Teach at Wik Academy

  • 8:30 – Eat

  • 9 p.m. – Language study

  • 10 p.m. – Read, go to sleep

This is just a basic outline, not every day looks quite the same, but that is a good example of a linear schedule. Every section of the day is devoted to one or two tasks. It’s certainly fantastic for keeping a person on track and some people do very well with this type of schedule. I don’t.

I find it too repressive, personally. Some days I may feel like writing at times outside the time I have reserved for it, or may feel like moving other things around. There’s certainly room for flexibility in a schedule like this, but over time I found I moved things around so much and so frequently the schedule was rendered effectively useless.

I’ve since switched to block scheduling, which looks something like this:

  • 6 a.m. to Noon – Meditate, Memrise, Lift, Coffee, Shower, Write, Teach at WAMA, Eat

  • Noon to 4 p.m. – Walk, Write, Instrument practice, Play

  • 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. – Teach at WAMA, Language study, Eat, Write

  • 10 p.m. on – Relax, Read, Sleep

The block schedule contains all the same tasks in a general sense, but just less rigidly tied to a specific timeslot. If, in my 6 a.m. to Noon block for example, I want to save meditation for closer to noon and get to writing as soon as I get up then that’s not a problem. It provides the skeleton of a structure for the day but doesn’t flesh it out enough to feel extremely restrictive. I can have the small bit of guidance to keep me in line without feeling bound to doing certain things exactly when I’m told.

Why Not a To-Do List?

In looking at my general problems with a rigid schedule you may ask, “Why not just not schedule anything at all, but use your daily to-do list to make sure you do all the things you need to do for the day (writing, meditation, Memrise, etc.) while retaining the freedom to do them when you want?”

That certainly may be a viable option for others who have found that a strict schedule is just too rigid of a structure for them to follow comfortably. I tried it as well, and for me it just didn’t work out.

The primary issue for me was that it just wasn’t enough structure to make sure I was good about managing my energy well. I had a severely bad habit of putting things on my to-do list off until I got overwhelmed by things, or underestimating the available time I had to complete tasks and spending too much time on leisure, video games, and things like that and then realizing that I’d burned the day away without getting to the important stuff.

I’ve instituted other fail-safes to compensate for my bad habits and, to be fair, I think I could likely make that system work now. With them though, and for anyone else out there who falls victim to similar habits, the block schedule was just enough to keep me in line. It served as a loosely organized daily to-do list, reminding me that during this block I needed to get these few things done and then I could have my leisure time.

I encourage you to play around with a few different options for a week or two at a time to see what allows you to be the most productive while still giving you the highest comfort level available. Not everything that works for me will fit everyone. Caroline, for example, does best with a super rigid schedule. The key is to find what works for you.

Do you have any suggestions for ways to make the block scheduling better? Things that have worked for you that others might find useful? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Matthias Rhomberg

Video Games, Process, & Success Dependence – How to Set Better Goals

Europa Univeralis IV Starting Screen

Europa Universalis IV players are often good examples of process driven individuals.

In general, people tend to fall into one of two categories in their approach to accomplishing a task. Either they’re result driven, or they’re process driven.

In my experience, of these two the process driven people tend to have more long term success when it comes to achieving the more difficult tasks. It seems to take far less willpower, or mental fortitude if you want to call it that, to tackle more difficult goals for those who are strongly process driven compared to those who are strongly result driven.

So how can we use that observation to help us set better goals, even if we naturally tend toward a result focus?

Result vs. Process in Video Games

The easiest way, for me anyway as a gamer, to demonstrate the two types of people is to look at the behaviors and attitudes of common players of two games.

On one hand you have players of a game like Awesomenauts (feel free to sub DOTA2 in here if you like, I just wanted to give Awesomenauts a shout out because I enjoy it). Awesomenauts players tend to be very strongly results focused. The game itself lends itself to this attitude – it’s a MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) and, like traditional sports, your objective is to defeat the other team in a clearly defined manner.

You will frequently see players have severe meltdowns if it looks like they’re going to lose. The rage quit (abandoning the game in a fury because it doesn’t look like you’re going to win for you non-video game folk) is a semi-common occurrence, even though there are penalties built in to discourage it. Players can behave like irrational, whiny children who aren’t getting their way if it looks like they aren’t going to be victorious.

This attitude I thinks stems from, or is at least bolstered by, the game’s subconscious push for people to be results driven. Players fall into a myopic obsession with winning, with the result of the game, and as a result cannot enjoy the experience of playing unless they win, or feel like they’ll win. All that matters to them is the outcome.

Contrast that with players of some of Paradox’s grand strategy games like Crusader Kings II or Europa Universalis IV (EU4).

These games have no real win condition. Sure, you can try to conquer the entire globe, and there are ‘points’ so you could argue the objective the game sets for you is to get the most of them but it’s downplayed so much as to be essentially arbitrary.

Even in multiplayer EU4 players are essentially expected to create their own personal goals and ‘win’ conditions. I’ve noticed this structure seems to make people much more process focused. You won’t often see people rage quitting an EU4 game because ‘winning’ is a concept so divested from the core game and determinant on the whims of the player it would be foolish. EU4 players care more about the experience of playing, or the process of it, than they do about winning. Regardless of the result, they enjoy the process.

Before I get any hate mail from Awesomenauts players these are generalizations. Not every Awesomenauts player is a petulant child and not every EU4 player is a refined statesperson – but by looking at these generalizations we can see things that apply to tasks outside of gaming.

Are You Sabotaging Yourself by Being Too Results Focused

For a lot of people, their instinctive approach to set better goals is one falling much closer to the results focused manner the Awesomenauts players we discussed above approach their game.

It may be an endemic issue to U.S. culture, but a lot of people feel pushed to get results no matter what. They put the end result first, and approach things with that attitude of staking everything on ‘winning’ or accomplishing their goal. This can be a strong motivating factor, which is definitely a positive aspect, but it also ties the emotional payout of the experience into a very singular, specific factor.

That obsession with winning increases the reward payout of achieving the win condition – meeting your goal – but it also proportionately increases the emotional pain of not achieving the win condition – of failing to meet your goal.

In other words the more you conflate achieving your goal with being the most important best feeling thing in the world, the more failing to achieve it seems like the worst thing ever.

If you have the idea of losing tied to this strong emotional idea of pain, failure, and disappointment it’s easy to bail rather than risk experiencing that. That’s why rage quitting happens. It’s less painful emotionally to say, “Fuck this, if I can’t win I’m going home and taking my ball with me,” than to actually experience that loss. It’s an issue of pain avoidance, which is a very, very strongly wired an impulse in living things.

So why does that matter for my goals and learning to set better goals?

Let’s take fitness as an example. Partly because it’s common, partly because the societal connotations of pain & struggle being necessary for weight loss already tint it with the specter of pain avoidance.

Suppose you want to lose 15 pounds. You get really pumped about your goal. You’re seriously going to do it this time. You’re pumped. You are entirely and completely invested emotionally in that goal of being 15 pounds lighter.

Now suppose you’re three weeks in and, for whatever reason – a few too many drinks out with friends, general weight fluctuations, getting sick and missing some workouts, whatever, you hop on the scale and you’re back up five or six pounds. Maybe even back to where you started. It’s at this point that you’re most likely to throw in the towel, maybe not even consciously, but when your success is so strongly tied to reaching that goal and you see yourself sliding in the wrong direction that little voice that says, “Dude, just eat the pizza. Go get a box of doughnuts too. It’ll be fine,” gets a lot louder.

The same applies to your actual workouts – if all you’re focused on is the result, not seeing tangible progress destroys your motivation. If you look like you’re going to fail, it’s easier to just quit. Even though quitting’s the best way to guarantee failure.

Compare this with someone who has a purely process focused attitude toward fitness.

This person does it for a love of doing it, rather than solely to achieve an end result. To quote Gerald, “The journey is the destination, man.” Like the EU4 players they don’t care about what happens in the end, win or lose they’re there because they derive their fun from the process.

Ironically here the person who is less directly focused on and invested in that specific goal, losing 15 pounds for example, is the one who would have the easier time reaching it. If you stick to your macros and lift because you want to lift, because you have fun doing it, you’re not going to self-sabotage and quit like the person who slogs through it because they want that end result.

Developing Process Driven Goals

Shifting your focus to process driven goals instead of success dependent ones isn’t that hard externally – it’s a fairly simple process to rework outcome driven goals into process driven ones – but it can be extremely hard to change your mindset to embrace process driven goals more naturally.

The first step in changing a results driven goal into a process driven one is to figure out what processes are going to be most instrumental in making progress toward the result driven goal itself. We’ll go back to fitness as our example again.

If your outcome focused goal is to lose 15 pounds, a piece of the process to achieve that goal may be lifting weights three times per week. That process then becomes your goal – instead of setting out to ‘lose 15 pounds’ you set out to ‘lift three times per week’.

I’ll note here though that one of the finer points of this process is also asking yourself, “What can I do that falls into that category of helpful processes that I also enjoy?”

If you despise lifting weights, then just changing your focus to being process driven may not be enough if the process you choose is lifting weights. You may be better off making your process goal ‘swim three times per week’ or something like that which you particularly enjoy.

It can be very hard to change a long standing opinion on something. While you can grow to enjoy an activity you currently despise, it’s often a grueling process. It’s much easier to figure out something you enjoy that also helps you progress toward your goal than it is to learn to love an activity that you dislike.

In the end, that becomes the crux of it. Once you can find an activity related to your goal that you can wake up in the morning and think, “I really can’t wait to go X,” rather than “Ugh, I have to go Y again,” the easier and more quickly you’ll achieve those goals.

Do you have any suggestions on how to become more process driven or get away from outcome oriented goal setting to set better goals? Share them with us in the comments!

Conquering Your To-Do Lists Before They Conquer You

Compartmentalized Trays by Roo Reynolds

Compartmentalizing your tasks can make them much, much easier to handle effectively.

Caroline and I are both severe to-do list addicts (Caroline perhaps even a little more than me).

This can be both a blessing, and a curse. On one hand it makes it very easy to organize our tasks and have a good plan going forward for what we need to be working on. It gives a nice shape to conquering our goals, like a step-by-step quest list in a video game, and takes a lot of the uncertainty and nebulousness away from what we’re working on.

On the other hand, it provides an easy platform upon which to load so many tasks that we inevitably break under the pressure of all of it. After all we’re both very ambitious people – giving us a blank sheet to list everything we want to do is like setting us lose in an Indian buffet, we’re going to load our plates up like we haven’t eaten in weeks. As a result our to-do lists crush us and we wind up being even less productive than if we hadn’t bothered with them at all.

So what’s the trick to making effective to-do lists that help you get things done, but don’t grind you into the ground? Compartmentalization.

Compartmentalization and Chunking

Compartmentalization, or chunking as I like to call it because it’s easier to type and reminds me of the Goonies, is basically taking your insurmountable pile of tasks and placing them in easy to conquer compartments or breaking them down into manageable chunks.

This method of managing your to-dos has a range of benefits:

  • Less Procrastination – A common cause for procrastination is the discomfort caused by facing a task that looks utterly daunting. We’ve talked about this a bit when discussing timeboxing, when you have a huge, impossible looking task in front of you it’s all too easy to deflect and put it off until later. It’s a natural expression of pain avoidance and is hard to fight on your own since it’s so deeply wired into our behavior.

    By breaking down those big, scary tasks into smaller, easy to manage chunks it makes it less scary and easy to overcome the urge to procrastinate. It’s easy to put off cleaning the entire garage, but if all you have to do is tidy up a single shelf it’s hard to put off. After all, that’ll take like 5 minutes. When you add up a bunch of those little tasks over a week or two though, suddenly you’ve cleaned the entire garage.

  • Harder to Burn Out – Chunked to-do lists make it much, much easier to avoid burnout for similar reasons to why they help avoid procrastination. Breaking up those enormous looking tasks make it feel a lot more like you’re working on a wide variety of things rather than one big project. Slogging along writing a book may feel like an endless task, driving you to burnout since you don’t feel like you’re making progress. Focusing on completing chapters instead gives you tangible markers of progress and keeps you from feeling overwhelmed.

    Compartmentalization like this also helps you avoid the type of overloading we always fell prey to. Breaking things down into small chunks make it easier to see things in the big picture, and when you can do that it’s far easier to prioritize. What really needs to get done immediately / today and what can wait for a day or two?

  • Improved Energy Management – This ties in a lot with the burn out benefits above. I’ve talked in the past about how energy management can be a lot more important than time management. We all get 24 hours, and it’s great to try to spend them efficiently, but if you feel like shit all day your best laid plans gang aft agley.

    Chunked lists make it easy to schedule in time to relax and recharge without feeling like you’re being lazy or slacking off. You know you’ve gotten everything you needed to get done completed, and at the same time have plenty of time to recharge and tackle the next day fully energized and guilt free.

Weekly/Daily Lists – My Favorite Method for Chunking

While there are a lot of different options for ways to chunk up or compartmentalize your to-do lists (and I encourage you to play with others to see what you like) I am personally very fond of the Weekly/Daily list division.

I’ve found that in addition to all of the general benefits listed above, Weekly/Daily lists also help me be far more proactive about my tasks by providing me with a small glimpse at the bigger picture. Trying to cram everything on only a daily to-do list always made me myopic and short-sighted – having an entire week to play with gives me the perspective to arrange things out ahead of time and further avoid my tendency to overload myself.

I’ve also found that keeping the division at days and weeks rather than further out, like having a monthly to-do list for example, is short enough to not fall victim too much to Parkinson’s law while still being long enough to give me the freedom to strategize my tasks out into the future.

So how do you use a Weekly/Daily list?

Either at the end of the week, or at the beginning of the next if you prefer that more from a psychological standpoint, list out all of the things that you need to get done in the coming week. In general, I prefer to prioritize larger projects here over smaller things, but there’s totally a place for little to-dos like ‘mow the lawn’ or ‘buy groceries’.

At the end of each night, or again first thing in the morning if you prefer, write down all of the things you need to get done the next day (or that day if you’re the morning planner type). These can be either smaller chunks of the larger weekly tasks, (e.g., if a task for this week is write five articles then a daily chunk of that task might be write one article, or come up with five article ideas, etc.) or individual small tasks that needn’t be chunked like mowing the lawn.

You focus only on your daily list each day, and when you’ve finished it you’re done. You can spend the rest of the day relaxing.

Tips For Getting the Most Out of a Weekly/Daily List

While it’s a fairly easy process to build and use weekly/daily lists, I’ve found in my time experimenting with them that there are some finer points that make them more useful and make the whole process a little easier.

  • Monthly Reviews – Like I noted above, having a monthly to-do list on top of a weekly & daily one tends to wind up being more problematic than helpful. Aside from encouraging falling into Parkinson’s law it makes it easier to procrastinate, and sometimes makes it harder to focus in on the things that are really important in the immediate sense. That being said, looking out a month ahead can give the benefit of having a clear long term goal to work toward.

    The solution is to have a single monthly review day, similar to a severely pared down version of our annual review process. On your monthly review day you take a retrospective look at the previous month, figure out what went well and what didn’t, and then set some lose targets for the following month to serve as a foundation or inspiration for your weekly lists.

  • Avoid Scope Creep – If you’ve never worked in an industry like web or software design, scope creep is when you’re nearly finished with a project for a client and they send you the dreaded, “Hey, could we also do x,y,z?” Your two week project becomes a three week project, then a four, and a five, and so on.

    When it comes to weekly/daily lists, avoiding scope creep means not allowing yourself to add anything to your daily lists on that day. If you finish all your day’s work before noon, that’s it. Don’t add anything else. The minute you give in to the urge to add just a couple more things the sooner you’ll be building an infinite to-do list again, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid. There will be days when you need to make adjustments, but it should only be for things that are extremely urgent or emergencies. If you finish your list, it’s time to relax.

  • Use a Today/Tomorrow Board – Sometimes things do need to get pushed back, either because something else came up or you just over-scheduled yourself. I like to manage this process by keeping my daily lists on what I call my Today/Tomorrow Board.

    My Today/Tomorrow Board is just a small marker-board that I have divided in half horizontally. In both the top and bottom sections I’ve written ‘Today’ and ‘Tomorrow’ in one of the corners. In one box I have a little mark next to ‘Today’ and in the other box next to ‘Tomorrow’.

    In the half with ‘Today’ ticked, I write my daily list for that day. In the other box, ticked ‘Tomorrow’, I write the next day’s tasks as I think of them. Then when the day’s finished, I can move any tasks I haven’t scratched off my list down to the ‘Tomorrow’ section as well as whatever else I determine I need to do the next day. The next day I just erase my tick marks and switch them, so yesterday’s ‘Tomorrow’ box becomes today’s ‘Today’ box and the other the new ‘Tomorrow’ box.

    While there are certainly other ways to manage things like this, I’ve found this system works particularly well for me since it’s always sitting on my desk. I can glance up and get a quick snapshot of what else I have to work on for the day, as well as what I’ll be working on tomorrow. It also makes it easy for me, when I remember something spur of the moment that need to get done, to add it quickly to my tomorrow list before I forget.

  • Don’t Drift from Your Daily List – Lastly, it’s extremely important not to let yourself lose focus on your daily list, the things you have set to complete today. It can be tempting to start thinking about the rest of the week, what other things need to get done, etc. Once you do this though it’s easy to completely drift away from what you actually need to be doing – the things on that day’s list.

    Once you’ve chunked everything out, forget that everything exists except for that day’s list. Nothing should occupy your concern except for the things you’ve laid on the table before you for that day. Personally, having my Today/Tomorrow Board has been a big help on this front for me as well, as it’s psychologically comforting to me to being to place something on the ‘Tomorrow’ list and say “Ok, it’s written down for tomorrow, I know it will get done then, I can forget about it.”

Finding What Works for You

These methods for compartmentalization are my personal favorites, and I’ve gotten a lot of benefit out of them, but everyone works a little differently. I strongly encourage you to try them out along with some other methods to see what fits your personality and work style best.

If you’ve found any others you particularly like, or discovered any other tips for making the weekly/daily lists even more effective, leave a comment and share with everyone! It always helps to hear about other people’s experiences.

Photo Credit: Roo Reynolds

Lessons from the Routines of Famous Creators

I’m a big believer in routine. I think that a lot of what contributes to determining whether a person succeeds or fails in their endeavors is whether or not they have a routine in place – a system – that acts as a benefit or detriment to their progress.

So I was excited to find this visualization of the daily routines of 25 famously creative individuals by Podio and the one below from Infograph We Trust. Let’s take a look and see what learn from them.

Sleep

I’ve said before, sleep is super important.

When we look at the 25 people in question the average amount of time spent per day sleeping was 7.65 hours. Of course, this is a mean and of a relatively small sample size at that so take from it what you will. Within those 25 we have a few outliers such as poor Voltaire clocking in at only four hours of sleep per day and Mozart with a meager five. On the other end of the spectrum is Balzac with around ten hours of sleep per night.

Overall though the majority fall between the seven and eight hour range. This follow pretty closely with the current general guidelines on how much sleep is considered healthy. Stepping outside the chart itself, you’ll notice a mild correlation between amount of sleep daily and lifespan – not to say this implies causation, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

An important thing to take away from this for me is that to be a successfully creative it isn’t necessary to deprive yourself of sleep in the name of overzealous production. In fact, it would seem if given the option of spending more time on sleep or more time on creative work itself the individuals here at least were better off getting extra sleep rather than putting in more work hours.

Quality beats quantity here, and sufficient sleep appears to be an important factor in keeping to a high standard of quality.

I’d also like to note that five of our twenty five here were nappers, depending on whether you include poor insomniac Kafka or not. Napping doesn’t mean you’re lazy, and can actually be a big help in boosting your productivity and creativity.

Creative Work Habits

Our sample twenty five here don’t follow any apparent pattern of when they favored creative work. Some worked in the mornings immediately after waking, some worked late at night and others worked in little intermittent spurts throughout the entire day. Don’t assume just because some people say it’s better to do creative work in the mornings or evenings that it’s true for you. Experiment and find what works best for you then schedule your work times for when you feel most creative or engaged.

Another thing of note is that, with the exception of Kant and his hour or so of creative work a day, the majority of the twenty five in the graphic made their creative work a priority. It wasn’t just some extra thing tacked on to their day, it was clearly a major focus for each of them.

I don’t think this means that there’s any kind of magic number of work hours you have to put in on your creative endeavors, but I do think it’s strongly indicative that all these individuals were passionate about their creative work. It was a defining part of their lives, and they treated it as such. In other words, don’t phone things in.

While most of these individuals lived during times when the modern concept of exercise was essentially unheard of, it’s interesting how many of them included something that could be categorized as exercise very near to when they routinely engaged in their creative work. At least fourteen of them enjoyed going for walks around when they were trying to be their most creative.

If you’re feeling stuck or uncreative, try taking a short walk and letting our mind wander then coming back to things.

Leisure Time

It stands out to me that the majority of these twenty five creative individuals, though they clearly considered their creative work time an integral part of their day, weren’t chained to their desk/easel/piano/whatever.

For nearly all of them their leisure time either matches or exceeds their creative time. Being fair, this does include listed mealtimes and everyone has to eat, but it’s still telling that even the most creative people around are still able to get plenty of time to relax and de-stress.

For those on the list with day jobs in addition to their creative work, there always seems to be at least a small buffer of leisure time before they get into the creative stuff.

I can relate to that personally. I can never go from training a client or teaching a class straight into creative work like writing, I always like to have at least a little chill out time in between as a buffer. Keep that in mind if you feel like you have to go right from your other work into that creative project you’ve been working on – you’ll probably be better off if you take a little break in-between to recharge.

24 Hours

Out of everything, the most helpful thing to me in seeing so many famous creative individuals’ daily routines all together is that it’s a convenient reminder that we all get twenty four hours in a day.

Successful people and absolute failures alike each get the same amount of time everyday – the important variable is how that time is spent.

Hopefully if nothing else this has inspired you to take a look at your own daily routine to see if there are any areas where you can make adjustments to improve your creativity or well-being. If anything jumps out at you from these graphics, or you have a particular area in your daily routine you’ve recently changed and want to share it with everyone, leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Podio, Infographic We Trust

Why Behavioral Change is Hard and What You Can Do About It

Adventure Time - "Dude, sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something." by Jake the Dog.

Want to make a big behavioral change in your life? Maybe you want to get fit or commit to learning a language or instrument, or even to start meditating.

At some time or another, everyone sets goals they hope to attain someday that will require significant changes to their lifestyles. Unfortunately though, most will fail to achieve those goals.

Every new year, gyms are crowded with well-intentioned “resolutioners” who want to become healthy, perhaps lose some pounds, and be a better version of themselves in the new year. By February the number of those who stick around will be halved, then by March that number halved again. Only a very small percent of those who started will stick around.

Behavioral Change Motivated by Negative Emotions

A lot of the people at the gym are motivated by the things that make them upset or by a negative conscious. They’re upset about being overweight, feeling guilty for not exercising as often as they should.

The same goes for many other pursuits, even learning instruments – they focus too much on what they can’t do, or the guilty feelings for missed practice sessions.

Studies have shown that those seeking to make long-lasting behavioral changes are most successful when they are self-motivated and founded in positive thinking.

So don’t focus on the negatives – focus on the good that will come from that behavioral change, on how good it feels to know you’ve hit your targets along your way to that goal. Focus on the wins you have had – it’s better to exercise once a week for 15 minutes, than not at all.

Your inner dialog effects your success rate, your confidence and your moods. The more you can make it a positive voice instead of a negative one, the happier and more successful you’ll be.

Visualizations and personal mission statements have been shown to help people succeed in their goals and in changing the tone of their inner voice.

Practice visualizing succeeding in your goals and make time at the beginning of your day to recite your personal mission statement, like “today will be a productive day – I’ll practice Spanish and go to the gym.” Or “I’m hardworking and make awesome videos – I dedicate myself to making the best videos available.”

“The most successful people recognize, that in life they create their own love, the manufacture their own meaning, hey generate their own motivation.”
– Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Take on More than You Can Handle

Your willpower is finite and so is your time. Taking on too many goals at once will not only drain your willpower and motivation, but will lower your focus and ability to devote time to meet those goals.

Once one thing fails, it’s easy to slip into a negative mind-set and let it all fall apart.

People who seem to be able to “do it all” and “magically have time for everything” didn’t start out that way – they built it up slowly.

To ensure your goals will be successful, start with just one or two and add to it as you feel able to. Once meeting your first couple goals is so easy and habitual that you do it without even thinking, then you can add more.

Stay in Your Comfort Zone

A lot of behavioral changes will require that you do something uncomfortable. They will make you do things you don’t normally do, in the name of making you into a better person.

Practicing a language requires you get out of your comfort zone – you’ll eventually need to go out and practice speaking with other people.

Eating healthy foods, hitting calorie and macro targets, exercising all require that you get out of your comfort zone. It’s just easier to not do those things, and eating ‘bad foods’ make you feel really good right now.

An simple way to address the comfort zone issue is to break it up into small, swallow-able chunks and to congratulate yourself on the successes you do make.

Practice speaking in your target language for just a few minutes, and build it up from there. Same goes for exercising – don’t try to go all out and lift or run for an hour. Eating healthy food all day isn’t easy for everyone, so start with just one meal.

Once those small commitments aren’t painful anymore, then you can increase the time or difficulty.

“We avoid risks in life, so we can make it safely to death.”
-Philosoraptor

Make Things as Hard as Possible

Sure, you can keep track of how much you’ve spent on ‘entertainment’ in your head. And you can remember to practice playing your ukulele for fifteen minutes a day if it’s hidden in it’s case and tucked in the closet, right?

Right?

Nope.

We aren’t perfect, so the more we can make behavioral change easier to do than to not do, the better. Rather than fully putting away your instrument after practice, keep it somewhere in the open where it is easy to see and think “Yeah, I’ll just grab it and practice for a few minutes.” The hassle of taking something out of it’s case is small, but enough to discourage someone from doing it.

If keeping to a budget is difficult, forcing yourself to only spend cash on your entertainment will eliminate the need for (often wrong) mental math and keeps you on track to that big goal.

If you want to exercise early in the morning, keep your exercise clothes out ahead of time – set them out before going to bed so that it’s in your way and easier than not to put them on and go work out. Put your meditation and language-learning apps on the front screen of your phone so you’ll have that many fewer steps to comply.

Vague, Un-actionable Goals

We’ve talked a lot about how having vague goals practically ensures failure. When you have a big goal like “lose weight,” “learn guitar” or “become financially independent” it’s incredibly easy to become overwhelmed by the enormity of the task and paralyzed by not knowing what to do.

Take the time to make your goal specific and then explicitly list out the steps required to achieve that goal – this will go a long way to ensure your success. Once you’ve completed the goal and actions-to-goal sheet, put it somewhere easy to see and take a look at it from time to time to remind yourself that your goal is doable, and you know exactly how to do it.

Breaking down big goals into smaller, mini goals will help not to feel overwhelmed and will give you clarity. You know what you need to do and you know you can do it. The only thing is to actually do it.

Don’t Build New Habits

One of the easiest ways to achieve a goal is to incorporate it into who you are, to make it a part of your habits and being. Unfortunately, many people don’t take the time to do this. We want to skip the hard work of behavioral change and just reap the benefits – but it doesn’t work like that.

If your goal is to workout three days a week for an hour per session when you haven’t set foot in a gym for the past year, starting there is likely to fail. Going to the gym three days a week is something you aren’t used to doing and the time commitment will wear you out.

If you want to make meditation, language practice or instrument practice into a daily activity, the same idea applies – jumping into a huge time commitment will wear down your willpower.

Instead of taking on a big commitment that is a huge behavioral change, start with a small change. Meditate or practice for just five minutes per day. At the beginning, five minutes may seem ridiculously easy, but the point is to make the act of practice a habit. Once that is down, you can slowly increase the time.

Don’t forget to track your progress toward those habits, too. Using the Seinfeld chain method, keep a piece of paper on a wall and mark it for each day you successfully complete the goal task. Having a visual reminder of your successes will keep you positive, motivated, and ingrain this habit.

Focus on the act of complying, not with the results. Making the task become a habit and a part of your lifestyle will ensure not only success, but sustainable success. Results will follow.

Don’t Identify Triggers

Have you ever had a day when something is just off and when one thing is off it spirals downward until everything has gone wrong and you just give up?

Sometimes it’s easy to point to what went wrong – but often it’s not so easy. Say you went over on your calories at lunch and beat yourself up over it, then by dinner time thought, “ugh, I screwed up. Forget it, let’s eat pizza for dinner.” Maybe you did this consciously, maybe unconsciously.

Keeping a journal during your change and having regular check-ins once or multiple times per week will help you to identify triggers that caused you to de-rail your progress. Once you can identify those triggers, then you can work on creating a plan to deal with them. If you went over your calories at lunch – remember that it’s not a big deal, keep your dinner to what you planned. Remember that there will be bumps along the way.

Behavioral Change is a Process

Changing your habits and behaviors is hard work. Humans are complex and even under ideal circumstances, they can fail.

You don’t exercise once and suddenly become a gym-rat or play guitar once and suddenly become a riff-master. It takes patience and persistence. Learn to love the process and the results will come.

The key to successful behavioral change is simple though: don’t give up. The path to successful behavioral change is never straight and often requires starting over and over. But that’s okay – failures are a way to start again with more knowledge than before (what worked? What didn’t?) Take a break if you need to, but then get back to it.

It requires an immense amount of courage to get out of your comfort zone and to become more than average. If you have any major behavioral changes you want to make in your life it’s important to remember exactly what you’re doing you’re trying to become more than average. To become awesome – or epic.

If it were easy, everyone would be their ideal selves.

“The higher the mountain, the more treacherous the path.”
– Frank Underwood

How Mindful Meditation is a Workout for Your Brain

Meditation

You don’t need to be a monk to meditate, nor do you need a huge time commitment.

For the longest time the idea of meditation always conjured up images monks sitting cross-legged on mountaintops, cliffs, under waterfalls or some similar wilderness space all while being completely silent for hours on end. I thought it was a spiritual thing and the benefits were all just myths or pseudoscience.
However a growing body of studies caused me to take a second look at it and since experimenting with it personally, I highly recommend everyone give it a try.

What Is Mindful Meditation

There’s several different ways to meditate, however most of the scientific research focuses on mindful meditation, or Zazen (literally: seated meditation.) As such, that’s what we’re going to focus on in this article.

In mindful meditation, you focus on one specific thing – it could be a sensation or your breathing. The point is to focus on this one thing and when you catch your mind wandering, you gently bring it back to that focal point.

We train our bodies in a gym – doing reps to increase our strength and cardio to improve heart health. Meditation is like going to the gym, but for your brain. Unlike a gym, it’s cheaper and doesn’t require any fancy clothes and doesn’t have any potential for worrying about how you look in front of others.

Zazen is not so much about spirituality as much as it is about training your concentration and attention – the ability to be present, quiet your mind and focus on one thing.

Our brains have to process a lot of information – this information is like confetti being released from a ceiling and you are your brain trying to grasp on to each of them. Our attention is everywhere and it decreases our focus, productivity and increases our stress levels. With meditation, we learn to slow down and control that flow of information.

Mindful Meditation Works by Literally Changing Your Brain

Technology has enabled scientists to get a better understanding of what happens in our brains when we meditate and how it affects our brains. Thus far have been absolutely fascinating.

Using fMRI scans one of the biggest things scientists have learned is that it causes a decrease in beta waves, meaning our brains stop or slow down processing information.

In addition to controlling the flow of information, it also increases gray matter which has a huge impact on our lives, as I’ll describe below.

What Does This Mean For You?

Increased Focus

During mindful meditation, we are practicing holding on to a singular focus and bringing it back when our mind drifts – this practice enables us to be better at focusing even when we are not meditating.

Decreased Anxiety

This was a huge one for me, as I am prone to trouble with anxiety. Consistent meditation loosens the connections of particular neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex – commonly called the “me center.” This part of the brain processes information relating to ourselves and our experiences.

Typically, the neural pathways from bodily sensation and fear centers to the Me Center are strong – when you experience a negative or upsetting situation a reaction is triggered in your Me Center that makes you feel scared or under attack.

Meditation loosens these connections, meaning our reactions are more toned down and under control. Something
that would have previously lit up the Me Center would barely register.

As this connection is weakened, the connection in our Assessment Center is simultaneously strengthened. So, when we encounter a scary situation, rather than being gripped by fear and anxiety we are able to calmly and rationally assess the situation.

Decreased Stress

Meditation also helps reduce stress – part to lowering anxiety, but also in part by helping us perform while under pressure.

Increased Memory

One of the more fascinating discoveries is that meditation can help improve memory recall. Multiple studies have found that those who meditated were able to focus and remember facts better than those who did not.

Increased Gray Matter

Meditation has also been linked to increased gray matter in the hippocampus and frontal areas of the brain. More gray matter can lead to more positive emotions, longer lasting emotional stability, less stress, and heightened focus. Even ore, it’s linked to diminished age-related effects on gray matter and reduces the decline of our cognitive functioning. How cool is that?

Not enough for you? How about increased creativity, lowered blood pressure, reduced pain, increased compassion, confidence, well-being and overall quality of life. If you suffer from anxiety or depression meditation is one of the most powerful things you can do to help.

Meditation is not a cure-all for every ailment, however it is incredibly beneficial. So why not give it a shot?

How to Meditate

In order to glean the highest benefits of meditation, you need to integrate it into your lifestyle. You’ll benefit from just two minutes a day, or if you are ready to jump into it, meditate for between 10 to 30 minutes.
You can go it by yourself, or you can use an app to help. I’ll explain both ways for you here:

On your own

  • Find a comfortable, quiet place and sit. You can sit on the floor or in a chair – whichever doesn’t matter. As long as your back is straight, you are comfortable and there will be no or limited distractions.
  • Rest your hands on your thighs or rest them together in your lap.
  • Close your eyes, and take a few slow, deep breaths. Notice any sensations you feel – the sensation of your back against the chair, your feet on the floor, the weight of your body on the cushion. Notice your muscles in your face, shoulders, stomach, and legs. Don’t try to change anything, just notice it.
  • Take another deep breath and relax your facial muscles. With another breath, relax your shoulders. Go on from head to toes.
  • Just breathe. Focus on your breaths, flowing in and out. The only thing going on in your mind should be “breathe in, Breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.” Count your breaths up to ten, and then restart.
  • It wont take long for your mind to drift, to start thinking about the things you have to do today or anything that troubles you or excites you. This is natural. Acknowledge it, don’t chastise yourself over it and bring your focus back to your breath. Pick up where you left off.
  • At the end of your meditation (you can set up a timer) take a final breath, and bring your attention back to the room. Notice how you feel now. Slowly open your eyes.

As you progress, this process will become a lot easier. After a couple of weeks meditation you’ll begin to reap the benefits – a sense of calm and control, increased focus and less stress, among the many others.

When you meditate is up to you, however I highly suggest making it a part of your morning routine. I like to call it my start-up process. I have found that doing it first thing assists in feeling calm and focused throughout the day. However, you can also meditate before bed or midday – and you should if you are feeling particularly stressed. Just take a ten minute break to meditate.

Mindful Meditation with Apps

Calm

Calm is my favorite app for meditating. With it you have two options: guided meditation or a timer and doing it yourself. Two of the sets of guided meditation are free, while the rest are accessible for between $0.83-$1.66 per month.

The major benefits to Calm for me are the background white-noise options – you can listen to babbling brooks, a sunny meadow, or rain on leaves. I’ve found personally that having some form of white-noise while I meditate helps me keep that singular focus.

Calm App

Calm’s main screen.

Calm App

Calm’s Guided Meditations.

Additionally, you can choose the noise to signal the end of your session from a pre-set selection. I like them because most of them are non-jarring noises like a singing bowl or harp. Or, you can have no noise set.

Furthermore, Calm logs your sessions and helps keep you motivated.

Breathe

Breathe is a little bit different from Calm in that before you get to the meditation it forces you to take note of your current state by asking you some questions such as how you are feeling mentally and physically, and what words you’d use to describe them. From this, it offers up suggestions for guided meditations or you can go it yourself with just a timer.

Additionally, it has options to help teach you how to meditate, a list of guided meditations if you’d like to skip straight to one, and to see your progress.

Breathe App.

Breathe’s Main Screen.

Breathe App.

Breathe also teaches how meditation works.

Honorable mention: Headspace.

Headspace is also a cute little app that also teaches you about meditation and how to meditate. I like the app, however I feel that its use is stunted – your only option is to use the first 10 guided meditation sessions before you have to pay for more. There’s no option for “just meditate _ minutes.” However, if you like it the full version is not expensive at all.

Challenge

So here we challenge you to try meditation for just one month. Using the setup below, make this a part of your lifestyle by implementing it small chunk by small chunk:

  • Week 1: Meditate just one minute every day.
    Commit to just sitting down and taking one minute out of your day to meditate. Just one minute. You can do that, right?
  • Week 2: Meditate 5 minutes every day.
    Now that you made it through a week of one minute, time to increase the work. Try for just five minutes each day.
  • Week 3: Meditate 10 minutes every day.
    Again, if you made it five, you can do ten.
  • Week 4: Meditate 15 minutes every day.

Note and observe any differences you felt before and after meditation.

If you take up the challenge, come back and tell us how you felt in the comments below! If you are a seasoned veteran, we invite you to share your thoughts and tips as well.

Photo Credit: Sebastien Wiertz

The 80/20 Guide to Nutrition

Homework by Nathaniel Watson

Nutrition doesn’t have to be this complex – as long as you know what to focus on.

Nutrition is a complicated thing.

It doesn’t have to be, at least unless you really want to start getting into the energy pathways and biochemical stuff. If you’re just looking to lose weight, get a bit stronger, or just be overall healthier the nutrition knowledge required to get you there is actually pretty simple. The problem is the fitness industry in general (Yes I realize I am, de facto, a part of that industry but I’m trying to do better here) emphasizes all the complicated – and often expensive – aspects of nutrition first and ignores the things that matter most.

Nutrition and all the goals linked to it follow the 80/20 principle as much as anything else does. There are a minority of high return actions that will lead to a majority of your results and a majority of low return actions that will lead to a minority of your results – in other words about 20% of what you do will get you about 80% of your results, while the other 80% of what you do will only be worth about 20% of your results.

The best course of action then, with anything, is to focus on that 20% of actions first that will give you 80% of your results.

So What’s Really Important?

Going from most important at the top to least important at the bottom, I’d divide things up as follows:

  1. Calories

  2. Macronutrients

  3. Micronutrients

  4. Meal Timing

  5. Supplements

If you flip the list over it could be a ranking for things you’re most likely to see articles about in health & fitness magazines.

The problem is that complicated and detailed processes are sexy and make us feel like we’re doing something. They also offer people an out as for why what they’re doing now isn’t working. They follow a program for a week or two, possibly with poor adherence, don’t see the results they want and then see a magazine article telling them the secret to weight loss is five small meals a day while carb cycling and taking green tea extract.

‘Oh,’ they say to themselves, ‘no wonder I’m not losing weight. I’ll do that instead.’

Then inevitably they don’t get anywhere on that plan and come across something a few weeks or a month later and decide to try that. They wind up feeling like they’ve worked super hard and tried everything and nothing’s worked, when really they’ve just bounced from one complex thing to another. It’s like nutritional busywork.

I’ve had people in consults at the gym complain about how they have so much trouble losing weight. When I ask about their nutrition habits they rattle off twelve supplements they’re taking and explain how they eat six meals a day timed at very specific intervals and avoid gluten like the plague – but it’s still not working. They wonder if they have thyroid problems or are just genetically predisposed to be overweight.

Then when I ask how many calories they actually get in a day, they say they have no idea.

Why people have a tendency to ditch the boring, unremarkable but effective things for the flashy, sexy but useless things deserves an article of its own. For now though, lets look at the order in which you should be focusing on things.

Calories

Calories are the most important variable in any kind of physique change.

I’m going to say it one more time because the ‘A calorie isn’t always a calorie’ rhetoric has been pretty loud lately.

Calories are the single most important variable in weight loss or gain.

Now I will concede that the primary thing calorie balance will affect is weight change. What types of tissue that weight consists of is largely determined by other factors like training and your macronutrient breakdown (which is why it comes next in the hierarchy).

It doesn’t matter what else you’re doing in your diet, if you want to lose weight but are in a positive energy balance because your’re getting too many calories on a daily basis you’re not going to get there. Trying to out exercise your diet is a bad plan as well – it just leads to running yourself into the ground trying to make up for all the junk you ate. You should train to meet a training goal, not to balance out your calorie budget.

If you have no idea where to start, you should head over to my article on calculating calories for different training goals and figure out where you need to be.

Macronutrients

Macronutrients – Macros from here out because I’m lazy – are the second most important thing after calories.

If you want a more in-depth explanation you can read my full beginner’s guide to macros, but the basic explanation is that macros are the basic units of nutrition – Protein, Fat, and Carbohydrates. Like with the letter ‘Y’ and its occasional vowel status we can also add Fiber and Alcohol as sometimes being considered macros depending on the circumstances and who you’re asking.

In the general sense your macro breakdown is one of the primary factors in determining if it’s muscle or fat tissue that you’re gaining or losing as a result of your calorie balance. While manipulation of them is not necessary to reach most physique goals it does make things much, much easier and more efficient.

Additionally, some of the more fine-tuning oriented physique goals like a body recomposition that don’t involve a lot of actual weight change are going to be more heavily influenced by what you’re doing with your macros than other goals.

I’ll have the second part to my macros article up soon which will go over in more detail how to arrange your macros for various goals and will update this article once it’s up.

Micronutrients

Micronutrients are next on the list in order of descending importance.

Where macronutrients are the big units of nutrition like protein and fat, micronutrients are all the little things like vitamins and minerals. I also include water here which we’ll get into in a minute. In general the primary distinction is that while a macronutrient has caloric value, micronutrients provide no calories.

If you live in a developed country chances are pretty low that you’re going to be deficient enough in any micronutrients to cause any severe health problems. As a result, it’s not as important to be concerned with them if your calories and macros aren’t already taken care of.

That being said, there’s a decent difference between your micronutrients being at sufficient levels to get by without anything like scurvy or goiters showing up and being at optimal levels. Everyone is going to be a little different in their needs here, but you should aim for eating a lot of fibrous vegetables and getting at leat one or two servings of fruit per day. Ideally changing it up as often as possible, don’t just eat bananas everyday because they’re convenient.

A multivitamin isn’t a bad idea but it’s not a replacement for fruits and vegetables. There are just too many phytonutrients and zoonutrients that aren’t going to get into a multivitamin (things like lycopene, flavonoids, and indoles). Think of a multivitamin as an insurance policy just in case you don’t get enough fruit and vegetables in a day.

I also include water here because, while water is definitely important in terms of survival, most people reading this aren’t going to be in danger of getting so little water they have severe health problems. Like the micronutrients there’s a difference between enough and optimal, but worrying too much about whether you’re getting 6 cups of water or 8 in a day won’t matter much if the other stuff we’ve gone over isn’t where it needs to be.

When it comes to water recommendations there are just too many variables like climate and activity levels to give any kind of catch-all recommendation for an amount. Instead I like Lyle McDonald’s recommendation of trying to have at least five clear urinations per day.

That means five trips to the bathroom per day where your urine comes out clear, not yellow or dark. If you can manage that you know you’re getting enough water for your situation.

Meal Timing

Meal timing is next step down on the ladder of importance, and one step higher on the ladder of things you’re likely to see people needlessly obsessing over.

I cannot count how many people, clients and otherwise, I have come across who were concerned with getting their meals timed exactly perfectly. This can range everywhere from the bodybuilding (and lately weight loss) apothegm of having to have five small meals a day as evenly spaced as possible, or to being concerned with whether they should eat their post-workout meal within 30 minutes or an hour of finishing – Thor help you if there’s a protein shake or pre-workout supplement involved in there somewhere.

This is not to say that meal timing can’t play a role in the effectiveness of your nutrition program, but most people put way too much focus on it. It’s like worrying about whether you should put summer or winter tires on a car that’s missing its engine.

Most people probably won’t need to worry much about meal timing. My personal inclination is toward intermittent fasting, and its a protocol I use with a majority of my clients. That being said everyone’s different and it’s complicated stuff. I’ll be putting together an article (or a series of them more likely) on all the details, but for now I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Get your calories and macros down and sort out your vitamins and minerals first.

Supplements

At last we come to the end of our list – supplements.

Supplements are big business and they feed into people’s quick-fix inclinations. As a result they wind up being an area people spend way, way too much time worrying about. In our car without an engine analogy supplements are the sound system. Nice to have, makes the trip easier, but it isn’t going to help get you from point A to point B much in and of itself.

You can do just fine with zero supplements but they can be helpful at times, so here are the handful I would recommend if you really want to do some fine tuning and have a little extra money to throw around.

  • Whey Protein – Not necessary since you should be trying to get as much of your protein from whole food sources (i.e., meat) as possible on account of all those zoonutrients, but I’ll concede it’s a lot more convenient and potentially more economical if you need a higher protein intake to use shakes to fill in the gaps.

  • Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) – Only really necessary if you’re going to train fasted. So if you’re on an intermittent fasting schedule and prefer morning workouts or just prefer training fasted for any reason then getting some BCAAs before and after will make a substantial difference. If you don’t fall in this category these aren’t really necessary.

  • Fish Oil – Fish oil & omega-3 fatty acids have strong evidence to support that they’re beneficial in a mild way to a wide range of areas including mildly reducing inflammation & blood pressure, strongly reducing triglyceride levels and mildly enhancing brain function. That means while not vital, it at least helps a lot things a little bit.

  • Caffeine – Caffeine obviously gives you energy and has been shown to improve performance in training sessions. I would not personally bother with an expensive pre-workout supplement that’s got a bunch of extra filler and costs an arm and a leg when you can get an equivalent boost to performance by downing a cup of a coffee or an espresso 30 minutes or so before training. I would not recommend this if you train later in the evening though since quality sleep is more important than a slightly enhanced training session.

  • Vitamin D – Vitamin D deficiency can be a problem depending on your habits and where you live, particularly in the winter. Being in Ohio I will occasionally supplement some vitamin D during the colder months since I’m indoors a lot more and mostly covered up. If you can, you’re much better just going outside and getting a bit of sun. It doesn’t take much to get enough.

  • Creatine – If your goal is to build muscle creatine can definitely help. It’s probably the single most researched supplement out there and is safe and generally pretty inexpensive. It’s not magic though, and some people have unpleasant side effects like digestive problems, so your mileage may vary. The one possible exception is if, against all better judgement, you’re a vegan or vegetarian then it’s much harder to get enough creatine from dietary sources and you’ll probably benefit more from it than others.

That’s it. That’s really all I’d recommend and conditionally at that. Please don’t run out and buy everything on that list because you probably don’t need it – but understand which ones might be helpful for you once you’ve got the rest of the stuff in this article nailed down.

If you prioritize things along these lines and focus on the high return variables like calories first, you’ll make a lot more progress toward your goal a lot more quickly. Just remember not to lose track of what’s most important and to stay consistent and you’ll get there.

Have any questions or anything to add? Leave a comment and let us know!

Photo Credit: Nathaniel Watson

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