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

Stop Thinking Every Little Bit Counts

African Pygmy Hedgehog by Adam Foster

Little things may be cute, but they’re not always helpful.

Not only is thinking it probably false in relation to whatever it is you’re working toward, it’s probably directly sabotaging your progress.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking this way – stories of how every little bit helped someone in their endeavor are popular. You hear about candidates winning by a single vote, or people taking small, seemingly insignificant steps toward their goals which add up over time into something huge. People like to hear about these types of things.

The problem is it puts the focus on the wrong areas and leads people to make bad prioritization. Bad prioritization leads to failed goals.

The Forest for the Trees

The realms of fitness, time management and language learning are rife with tips, tricks and advice – I directly contribute to all of it.

If you approach this huge volume of information with the mindset that ‘every little bit helps’ then you’re going to get into some trouble because there’s going to be a lot of little bits to follow.

This may not seem like a bad thing. You might figure if you can cram together enough easy tricks you can lose those ten pounds or learn a new language without much extra effort, but you have to remember that you have a finite amount of resources. You don’t have unlimited time, energy or willpower. You can’t do it all.

You have to prioritize.

Imagine you have someone trying to lose weight. She has a terrible diet, eats lots of junk food and drinks nothing but soft drinks. She’s also completely sedentary and sits at a desk all day.

She reads a bunch of tips online and decides to walk an extra five minutes everyday, switches to sitting on a stability ball instead of a chair, adds cinnamon to her cereal every morning because she heard it helps blunt insulin, takes green tea capsules and cranks her showers extra cold to take care of that brown fat.

Honestly, you could pick ten or fifteen more things she could do that I hear recommended under the ‘Every Little Bit Helps’ standard, but I’ll keep it there for brevity’s sake.

After six months, all things being equal, she’ll likely be heavier than when she started.

The reason for this is simple, she ignored the big important stuff in favor of a bunch of small changes that didn’t add up to much but took all her resources.

Remember the 80/20 rule – roughly 80% of your results are going to come from 20% of your efforts, so if you want to make the most progress in the shortest amount of time you should focus on the high return variables in the 20% rather than the low return variables that fall in the 80% of things that will only get you 20% of your results.

Back to our weight loss example, imagine our subject combines those extra five minutes per day and maybe skips a TV show or two to make time for three 30 minute lifting sessions per week. She focuses on heavy, compound lifts to make sure she gets the most out of her time spent. Rather than make a hundred little changes to her diet like adding cinnamon to things and popping a million supplements she ditches soft drinks and tracks her calories or macros.

Those two large changes, adding in three lifting sessions per week and controlling her macros, will net her orders of magnitude more progress than all the little changes combined.

Language learning is no different. If you’re spending all your time on little tips or focusing too hard on passive learning like listening to target language music all the time but neglecting the important things like actually using the target language to talk to people – you won’t get very far.

Every little bit doesn’t count if you ignore the important stuff. Hit the big variables first if you want to succeed. (Tweet that.)

There’s a story I’ve heard a thousand times that I kind of hate to repeat here but I think it makes a good point.

A guy had a big jar, some large rocks, some gravel and some sand. When he tried to fill it with the sand and gravel first the big rocks wouldn’t fit. When he put the big rocks in first and then the smaller gravel and sand everything fit because the smaller stuff filled in the gaps.

The point of that story is usually something to the effect of ‘Worry about the big things first and the small stuff will fall into place’. I’d rework it a bit to be ‘Focus on the things with the biggest return first, then worry about all the little stuff.’

There’s certainly a time and a place for small tweaks like meal timing, cinnamon for glucose regulation, & reading blogs on how to make the best flashcards ever – but that time can only come after you’ve dealt with the big stuff.

Get your priorities in order and stop telling yourself every little bit counts.

You’ll get a lot farther a lot more quickly.

Have you ever gotten bogged down by minutiae and lost sight of the important stuff? How’d you get over it? Any advice for other people overwhelmed by all the little things? Leave a comment.

Photo Credit: Adam Foster

Level Up Your Notes with The Cornell Note Taking System

OR by Thomas Leuthard

Even if you do it in a nice cafe, taking notes can be painful if you do it the wrong way.

I used to hate taking notes.

As more of an experiential learner sitting and taking notes did not come naturally to me. It was boring, tedious and seemed like a complete waste of time compared to other ways of studying – even in a traditional classroom / lecture environment where my other options were limited.

Other people in class could sit through one lecture, take fantastic notes and have everything learned inside and out. It was basically sorcery to me.

That is, until I learned a better way to take notes.

Dead Notes vs. Living Notes

A lot of my problems with note taking at the time stem from the fact that I was taking what I now like to call dead notes.

That doesn’t mean I was hanging out with a shinigami, it means my notes didn’t have any life to them. They were just textual summaries and paraphrasing of whatever material was presented in the lecture.

My notes were no better than if I had left my iPhone sitting out to record the class for me like a technologically updated Real Genius clip. They didn’t add anything, they just repeated information for me.

What I needed were living notes. Notes that didn’t just parrot back information from whatever material I was studying, but instead helped me think critically about the material, observe and create connections and develop my own summary of the information to encourage a deeper understanding.

That’s where the Cornell Note Taking System comes in.

Cornell Notes

Cornell notes, named for the university at which they were invented, are a perfect example of living notes.

Rather than just serve as a way to blandly record the information provided by the lesson or source material, Cornell note encourage you to ask questions about the material while taking notes and to formulate your own answers from the material.

This action encourages you to consider the structure and implications of the material you’re studying and, more importantly, to create connections both within the material and between the material and other disciplines.

These connections facilitate a deep knowledge of the source material that bring on all the added benefits of interdisciplinary and lateral analysis.

Essentially, you know the material and don’t just memorize it.

So how do Cornell notes work?

You’ll first divide your note page into three sections. On top you’ll have two columns, one on the left about 2″ across or so and one on the right about 6″ across. At the bottom is another section that goes all the way across the page and is about 2″ from top to bottom, or about the height of a short paragraph.

In the top right hand column, the biggest section, you’ll write your actual notes. Don’t write things down word for word from the material – condense everything as much as you can using shorthand and paraphrasing and stick to the main ideas.

As soon as possible after the lesson or the study session, you’ll fill the left hand column with questions and key words based on the material you’ve written in the larger note-taking column. These should be questions you might expect would be asked on an exam, questions intended to clarify the material and establish continuity between different areas of the topic.

After 24 hours, cover the right hand side of the notes so only the question column is visible. Read your questions and keywords and answer them as best you can without looking at your notes. Once you’ve done that you can uncover the notes to see how you did, then revise and update your questions and keywords.

Lastly, after you’ve gone through that and updated your questions, think for a bit about the underlying principles that form the foundation of the things listed in your notes. Think about how you can connect the things you wrote and the ideas in the material t other ideas and how they can be applied. Then in a short paragraph summarize all of the material in that bottom box we’ve left empty until now.

That’s it!

Rather than just be boring notes for you to re-read later in an attempt to memorize things, Cornell notes encourage you to really think about the topic while you make them and then, once you’re finished, provide a pre-built quizzing system for you to review in an active way rather than just passively re-reading information until your eyes glaze over.

In essence, it automatically converts your notes into flashcards.

This way you developed a better understanding from the start and have an easy and useful tool for reviewing on a regular basis. Combined with a spaced repetition learning schedule this style of notes makes hard to not learn things.

You can find Cornell’s template on their site in PDF format.

Have you tried out Cornell notes? Do you prefer it? Hate it? Found some way to make it even better? Tell us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Thomas Leuthard

How to Learn Multiple Things Simultaneously and Remember Everything

The Juggler II by Helico

Trying to juggle multiple hobbies or learning multiple things simultaneously can be difficult,

I have what I like to call ADADD – Auto-Didactic Attention Deficit Disorder.

When it comes to learning things I have serious trouble picking one thing and sticking to it. I try to tell myself to focus on a single thing – learning / improving my Korean for example – but then I decide I’d also like to learn to play the ukulele, and I really need to work on my handstands, and it would be fun to learn to juggle, and I’d really like to learn more programming and so on and so forth.

In the past before long I would wind up stretched so thin between all my interests I looked like Lady Cassandra O’Brien. I’d be trying to learn ten things at once and in the end wouldn’t really do well at any of them.

While you could certainly take the moral of this story as ‘Focus on one thing at a time,’ I just couldn’t handle that.

So I figured out a way to make it work.

Spaced Repetition

One of the best ways I’ve found to learn new vocab quickly is through spaced repetition learning. For whatever reason in the past I never really connected that strategy with my other areas of learning though.

That was a mistake.

Applying a spaced repetition system (SRS) learning strategy to the other things I was learning made it so that when my ADADD inevitably dragged me off by the collar to some other unrelated interest when I returned to the former one I still recalled everything I’d learned. Actually remembering the things you learn tends to make a large difference in the efficacy of skill acquisition.

Vocabulary is an easy thing to learn with an SRS because for the most part it’s easy to find pre-built structures like Memrise and Anki to just walk you through it. For other things you have to be a little more creative.

You can certainly build your own decks in things like Anki, Memrise or SuperMemo but I honestly think it’s easier at times just to do things manually with good old fashioned note taking.

If you don’t share my penchant for the old school feel free to use those tools instead of my way.

Manual SRSing is going to require a good note taking system first and foremost. Personally I recommend the Cornell note taking system – if you’ve never used it before I’ll be explaining how I use it in an upcoming article.

During each study / practice session take notes on the things you’re learning. After the session is over, take a short bit of time to review your notes from the activity. Then review those notes again on a spaced repetition schedule. Personally, I like reviewing at one hour, one day, ten day, thirty day and sixty day intervals for most things although you can increase the interval frequency for things you find more troublesome to recall.

If you’re interested in making it a little more automatic, I also recommend reviewing the notes quickly from your last study / practice session before each new session. That should give you both an easy refresher and an automatic structure for repetitions.

In addition to the SRS style of memorization, there’s another method I like to use to increase recall when I’m trying to do ten things at once.

Chunking

A part of why vocabulary is easy to recall when you learn properly is because it already comes in easy to digest little chunks. We call them words.

Other topics though don’t always come in bite size little pieces like that though. This can make a big difference in how easy it is to actually remember things.

As an example of what I mean, take this string of numbers 15552340660336.

For most people, being asked to remember that would be a little painful. It’s a lot to swallow. If you break it up into chunks though, like this 1 (555) 234-0660 336 it turns into a telephone number with an extension and most people would have an easier time remembering it.

The same thing happens when we’re trying to learn, process and retain information. If you’re trying to force these huge pieces of data into your head it’s going to be a lot more difficult than if you broke them into smaller chunks and ingested them that way.

I call this chunking since you’re breaking up everything into the smallest most digestible chunks you possibly can.

Try not to go too far though, sometimes small groups of things are easier to remember than individual things. When learning chords on the guitar for example trying to learn twelve in one sitting is probably overdoing it, but only trying to learn one per session is going a bit too light. Shooting for three is a bit more of an appropriate amount and by making them three related chords will make them all easier to remember.

Each individual thing is going to deconstruct a little differently, the key is to find the appropriate sized chunks both for you and for the area of learning and then break everything down to that level to use with your SRS note taking.

Time Limits

Another key area is limiting your time spent in each topic.

This may not be an issue for you if, like me, you get sidetracked and wander from thing to thing, but for some they’ll spend long tracks of time focusing on one area then switch to another. Later, they realize that despite all that study or practice time they really don’t have a good recall of what they went over.

Quality will also beat out quantity, and short, focused study sessions are going to be much better for you than long drawn out ones. You can use a time constraining technique like time boxing if you need to. I find that for me an hour – maybe two – is more than sufficient to get a good amount of focused intentional study or practice in without being so long as to damage my later recall.

Keep your study sessions short and you’ll be able to remember more from each area than if you drag them out beyond your limits.

Additional Applications

While I’m long out of university and primarily apply these methods to my personal interests (there are a lot of them) these strategies can be applied to more traditional education as well.

You can use these techniques to juggle a large volume of coursework at once, prepare more efficiently for multiple exams or even to read multiple books at once without damaging your recall. Combine this method of multiple-topic studying with a few basic speed reading strategies and you can process a lot of information quickly with high retention rates.

Have you tried any of these to juggle multiple topics at once? Have you had better success at paring own and focusing on one thing at a time than I have? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Helico

The Four Stages Between Beginner and Mastery

Untitled by Mariusz Sikorski

Mastery of martial arts makes for a good model of mastery of any skill.

There are a lot of books out there telling you how to become a master at this or that.

Some of them are good, others not so much, but what I’ve found is that so many stop short of where I’d consider actual mastery. On top of that, in the ones I’d consider more helpful anyway, I’ve found there’s a common theme of leading people through four distinct stages.

If you want to learn something from absolute beginner to master level it makes sense then to be as familiar with these stages as possible to not only ensure you’re on the right track, but also to know ahead of time where you’re going.

The Four Stages

Since it’s a field I’m very familiar with and tends to be a process that most consider a journey in and of itself, I’m going to use learning a martial art as our example going through the stages. This applies to every skill though, so feel free to substitute in whatever you’re learning.

  • Pre-contemplation / Unconscious Incompetence – At this stage you’ve not really begun to consider learning the skill. It may have crossed your mind, but you haven’t actually made a firm decision to master it or even necessarily begin learning.

    In general, the majority of people are in this stage of the majority of skills in existence simply by virtue of there being so many things out there you’ve never even thought about learning.

    At this stage you are in a state of unconscious incompetence. That means that not only are you not proficient in the skill, you’re not consciously aware of the things you’re not proficient at. Essentially, you not only don’t know what to do, you don’t even know what it is that you don’t know how to do.

    In our martial arts example, this would be the person who has never seriously considered learning a martial art. They walk by a school teaching Rex Kwon Do and they have no idea what they’ll need to be proficient in to master it – maybe it’s striking, maybe grappling, maybe the buddy system – they don’t know the first thing about it.

    Thankfully this stage is easily surpassed by a quick Google search, watching some YouTube videos or, in the case of our prospective martial arts master, walking in and listening to a pitch on the Rex Kwon Do 8 week mastery course.

    Out of all of the stages, this one is the briefest for things you actually want to learn.

  • Contemplation / Conscious Incompetence – At this stage you’ve done enough learning to leave the unconscious incompetence phase, but still haven’t progressed to anything that could be considered overall competency.

    You’re still incompetent, but now you know what it is you’re not proficient in.

    This is the easiest stage to get into, but a little learning can be a dangerous thing and it’s the stage that requires the most effort on your part to leave. At this stage it’s tempting to lose yourself in the acquisition of knowledge in your chosen field because most people conflate knowledge with skill.

    Knowledge is not skill.

    It’s at this stage that our prospective martial arts master may be tempted to lose himself in books and videos rather than practice.

    Our example student has ditched Rex Kwon Do and decided on a more serious school.

    She’s done extensive Google searching on the style of karate the school teaches. She’s read tons of books and watched YouTube videos and sat in on a bunch of classes. The thing is, that’s not going to help much.

    If you took someone who’s read every self-defense book ever written but never practiced a bit and pitted them against a guy who had only learned one kick but practiced it 10,000 times and pitted them against one another – my money would be on the person who practiced.

    For our student to progress to master, there’s only one thing that’s going to help her (even if she finds a Mr. Miyagi style guru)…

    Practice.

    That’s the main reason moving from this stage to stage three is likely the hardest part, it requires a lot of time and effort in terms of practice to become competent in the things you’re learning once you know what it is you actually need to become competent in.

  • Action / Conscious Competence – This is the stage that most people mistakenly consider to be mastery, the stage where you are competent in the majority if not all of the aspects of the skill in a conscious, thinking way.

    You are proficient in the skill, but it still requires a great deal of concentration and mental effort to display that proficiency.

    Let’s fast forward a bit with our martial artist. She’s put the time in and now she’s a black belt.

    Belt factory schools aside, that’s a huge accomplishment – but any martial artist who’s studied in an art with belt rankings will tell you that’s not the end of the road, it’s the start of a new one.

    Our martial artist is skilled at what she does, but she still has to think about it.

    In martial arts that’s a problem. Thinking is slow and you honestly don’t have much time for it in a fight, even a planned one like a match. Sure it’s excellent that she can punch through concrete now. Sure it’s satisfying that to all her friends and family she looks like a deadly master of the fist. The thing is she really hasn’t mastered things yet.

    Unfortunately this is where most people stop. That satisfaction feels good, so people just accept that as the finish line and leave it at that. To truly master their skill of choice though there’s one more stage they have to reach, and to reach it they’re going to have to keep doing what they did in phase 2 – practice.

    After practicing enough, one day you’ll realize you’ve finally left stage three and are finally in the final stage.

  • Maintenance / Unconscious Competence – This is the true mastery stage. At this stage not only can you display your proficiency in the skill, but you can do it in an autonomic unconscious manner.

    This is the state of a skill where you don’t think about doing it anymore, it just happens. This is essentially wei wu wei. The skill has become second nature to you, and expressing that skill is no more difficult or requires no more conscious direction than breathing.

    Returning to our example, at this stage our martial artist has reached 5th dan (or whatever appropriately high rank in her chosen art). She doesn’t think about what she’s doing anymore, it just happens. She could win fights with her eyes closed. She’s like Ip Man – capable of taking out ten opponents without a second thought.

    The only way to get to this point is to practice and practice and practice until things become so ingrained in your subconscious that they no longer require active thought.

    In my opinion it’s actually easier to get here from stage three than it is to get to stage three from stage two, provided of course you stick it out and don’t quit.

    Obviously depending on the particular skill you’re learning this stages may look a little different.

    That’s ok.

    The important part is that once you can recognize which stage you’re in for each skill you’re actively pursuing mastery in you can better evaluate what’s required of you to progress to the next stage. Equally as important you can avoid the common pitfalls of each stage, like getting stuck in an endless cycle of knowledge gathering without any actual practice.

    Are you learning any skills right now? Where are you at on the four stage model? Tell us in the comments!

    Photo Credit: Mariusz Sikorski

The Easy Way to Kill Procrastination

Time Lost by Matt Gibson

You won’t get it back, so don’t waste it.

Procrastination is a huge problem for a lot of people.

It was also always a huge problem for me for the longest time. Enough so that I had a Pearls Before Swine comic tacked to my office door to remind me not behave that way (protip: turns out taping funny comics to your door doesn’t do much to help productivity).

Chances are good you’re even reading this while putting off work right now, in which case I apologize for the link to the comics. That probably didn’t help you much.

To make up for it, I’d like to share my personal favorite strategy for killing procrastination and ensuring that you get a good bit of productivity out of each and every day.

The Procrastination Death Spiral

I recently shared this strategy with our e-mail subscribers and a handful of people had questions about it so I decided it’d be best to elaborate in an article.

(Not signed up to get e-mail updates? Head over to our About page and get signed up! You’ll not only get special subscriber only content that’s not on the site but also our 68 page getting started guide. Get to it.)

Procrastination comes from two main sources – apprehension and indecision.

You wake up in the morning or you head in to work and you run a quick check of everything you’ve got to do today. Immediately you feel like someone dropped a heavy rock on your stomach. Your to-do list is ten miles long and every single thing on it is miserable.

You steel yourself and dive into the first task headfirst. You’re tough. You can do this. An hour later you’re on Facebook poking around, or maybe YouTube or Netflix if you work from home. You feel a bit guilty about not being productive and try to dive back in but the fire’s gone. You might make a weak attempt, but before long you’re back to screwing around and your day’s wasted.

Sound familiar? What happened?

Apprehension.

Most people don’t have the willpower to fight through that much unpleasant work. Sure you can build up a tolerance, but in the end your subconscious is not a fan of being tortured by a litany of dreadful tasks.

Whether you consciously realize it or not, facing a huge list filled with work you despise destroys your motivation. That dread you feel is potent procrastinatory poison that drains dry your drive to work and leads right to Facebook, or whatever your particular time-sink drug of choice is.

Indecision is the other frequent cause of procrastination. What’s that look like?

You sit down at your desk and get ready to get to work. What should you do first though? There are a ton of things you could work on, but you’re not sure what you should do right now. That little bit of indecision is the wedge that drives open your resolve just enough to let some temptation in.

You figure you’ll check your e-mail really quick. There are six different things in there you need to respond to that weren’t originally part of what you planned to do today. You deal with all of those and wind up back whee you started. You’ve done a lot of e-mailing though, so maybe five minutes on Facebook or Twitter is in order. You see a link with a title like “12 Most Embarrassing Cat Photos of Despotic Dictators”.

Click.

Like a former drug addict coming off a hard relapse you come to a few hours later with a vague sense of unease over the fact that you have no idea what happened to the past four hours. You’ve seen some weird things, probably been to a few dark corners of the Internet and somehow wound up on a Wikipedia article about the Volsunga Saga.

What you haven’t done is any real work.

Any strategy for eliminating procrastination has to address both of these factors if it’s ever going to be effective.

That’s where the Most Important Tasks list comes in.

Killing Procrastination with Preparation

I can’t claim this strategy is my invention – honestly I think every idea that can be expressed about fighting procrastination already has been – but it’s one that’s worked particularly well for me over the years.

It requires a bit of preparation though. The night before, either right before you go to bed or earlier in the evening, write down the five most important things you have to do the next day. These should be things that can reasonably be completed, but if not you can put in a goal-oriented tasked based around that bigger task.

So instead of “Write my novel” you would put down “Write 2,000 words of my novel”.

You’re going to order your list as follows:

  1. An Easy or Fun Task – This should be either the easiest or second easiest thing you have to get done, or something you’ll actually enjoy doing.

  2. The Most Difficult or Painful Task – This should be the thing that you least want to do. The thing you dread putting on your list.

  3. The Second Most Difficult Task

  4. The Third Most Difficult Task

  5. Another Easy or Fun Task – If you don’t have a second task that sounds fun, schedule in some mandatory play for this task. Lighten up.

Then, the next day when you sit down to work, you just run through your list in order.

Having a structured list laid out for you ensures that you never have to be indecisive about what to do next, just follow the list. Since you did it the night before you also don’t have to worry about indecision over what to put on the list screwing up your work for that morning.

Structuring the list in this way also deals with the apprehension problem.

Starting off with something easy and fun means there’s a very low barrier to entry. You can jump right in and get started in a good mood because the first thing is easy and fun. Once you’ve warmed up on that you’ll have enough motivational momentum to tackle the toughest task you set in the second spot on the list.

If you tried to do it first, it’d be too painful to want to get started and if you put it off until last your motivation would be too sapped by the time you got to it to face it. This way you’re in the best possible mindset to get it taken care of.

After that, you have the promise of some fun just a few tasks down the list. Each task you do leads to an easier task after that second difficult one and at the end you get rewarded with some fun.

Nothing to be scared of.

Like I said there is a lot of advice out there on productivity. Different things are going to work better or worse for different people. This has been my single favorite though, so give a try and see if it works for you too!

If it has, or if you’ve found some way to modify things to make it more effective for you, share it with everyone in the comments! I’m sure there are other people who would find your modification useful as well.

Photo Credit: Matt Gibson

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