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

Gaming Your Way to Your Goals

Mario Kart by Miki Yoshihito

I play a lot of video games.

At least, I do when I don’t keep too close of an eye on myself. I, like many others who would self identify as ‘nerdy’, have that particular combination of addictive personality and attraction to escapism that leads to looking away from the screen for a moment and thinking, “4 a.m.? Wasn’t it just 10:00 a minute ago?”

Uncontrolled this can be a problem – my bank account and productivity levels both suffer when a bunch of new games come out all at once – but looked at the right way I’ve found it actually can be extremely helpful.

The same things that make you determined to do whatever it takes and burn up entire days to finish that level, get that new item or earn that really hard achievement can also make you finally get fit, learn a language or do whatever else it is you’ve always wanted to accomplish.

Escapism, Flow and Instant Gratification

Someone who studies game design professionally could probably add to this list, but to me three things stand out as the pillars of an addictive game – escapism, flow and good old gratification.

Games allow you to step into the shoes of someone else and lead a completely new life. They let you escape from your problems. As a kid they let me escape from the mind numbing monotony of school. As an adult they let me escape from the equally mind numbing grind of an uninspiring day job. Most of all they let me escape the fact that I was leading a boring, predictable and unfulfilling life.

The most interesting thing to me is they don’t even have to let you step into the shoes of a life that’s necessarily better than your current boring one. Sure most people would trade lives with bad asses and heroes like Cloud or Link – but who would honestly trade lives with Lee Everett or Isaac Clarke?

TV, movies and books all provide the same opportunity for escapism, and all three of those are also the domain and downfall of plenty of nerdy folk (I, personally, devour books like bacon wrapped candy), but none of them have the other two qualities that make games so potent.

Flow is one of the most enjoyable states you can be in while doing something.

It’s also a state that video games are directly designed to put you in.

People have understood the power of flow for a long time. Whether it’s called something else or not (being ‘in the zone’ in sports, ‘wei wu wei’ in Zen Buddhism, etc.) people have recognized that the particular feeling of being completely in the moment and fully focused on a task while at the same time acting in an effortless unthinking way feels like the pinnacle of human experience.

The goal of entire genres of games is to induce this state in you. There is a wonderful feeling to a perfectly executed Super Mario speed run. The kind of level where you burn straight through without getting touched, grabbing every coin, tearing through every enemy and doing it all with a sense of calm focus like the entire universe has aligned to get you to that castle (even if the Princess isn’t actually in that one).

On top of that tendency to place you in a state of flow, games also have another thing designed to push our subconscious happy buttons – a reward structure.

We like instant gratification. We like bells and whistles and fanfare when we’ve done something good.

The problem is, most of life doesn’t work that way.

You want to be fit? You need to put the work in and stick to your nutrition and exercise long term. You want to speak a second language? It’s going to take some time, and there’s probably not going to be a clear ‘ding’ when you’ve achieved fluency.

Games on the other hand give us a clearly defined goal (finish this level, defeat that boss, earn this achievement, get the highest score) and then immediately reward you for completing them. Even the leveling process in RPGs which can be a lot more time consuming – it’s called grinding for a reason – has that extremely satisfying point where you level up.

So how do we take these three things and apply them to making our real lives better?

Gaming Your Goals

Not all of these principles need to be applied to everything you do, but the more you can use them the easier building the life you want will be.

  • Embracing Escapism – I think this is the easiest one for most people, and if you’re particularly nerdy you’ll probably find this comes naturally provided you can change your ways of thinking.

    When you fall in love with the process the results come easily.

    If you’re trying to get in shape but you view working out as a painful, frustrating process and are topping that off by denying yourself the foods you love and forcing each meal to be full of foods you find boring or dislike – of course you’re going to fail.

    When you learn a language by studying for hours and hours when you hate studying and see language learning as grinding hours spent slamming your head into vocab lists and flipping through flashcards until you’re ready to jump through a plate glass window – of course you’re going to fail.

    Instead, you need to see things things as fun instead of work. That’s the reason you can sit for hours and kill rats over, and over, and over, and over again until you hit the level you’re shooting for but cringe at the idea of a 30 minute workout. One is supposed to be fun in your mind and the other is supposed to be work.

    So rethink things!

    When I was fat working out seemed painful. Over time though and the more I did it the more I learned how fun it can be, and now I want to lift. I would lift weights just to life weights. The same goes for practicing languages.

    If you can’t change your mind and begin to consider something fun, limit or drop it entirely and find something that is fun to you. Hate flashcards? Watch movies in your target language instead. Hate running? Try some HIIT workouts with kettlebells or practice some parkour.

    Find a way to make the things you feel you have to do into the things you want to do.

  • Finding Flow – This one’s a bit trickier, since some activities are well built for inducing flow and some are going to take a lot more work.

    The best way to start is to try to identify the things you can do that will get you closer to your goals that are also well suited to inducing a state of flow.

    There are a handful of markers for flow, but the three that I think are most important are having a clear goal, a clear indicator of when that goal has been completed and a task that is challenging enough to not be boring, but not so challenging it feels impossible.

    What are some examples?

    If you’re learning to play guitar working your way through a new song meets all three criteria. On the fitness side it’s easiest for fitness skills rather than just strict workouts, so working on nailing that 20 second handstand would be a good fit. You can also just work on finding that mindful active meditation state. When it comes to language learning Memrise does an excellent job of hitting all three criteria, likely because it’s essentially a game in and of itself.

    The point is to find whatever best puts you in state of flow and then focus your efforts on that. Just like with embracing escapism the goal here is to make it fun!

  • Generating Gratification – Lastly we have the problem of adding gratification into goals that might otherwise not have any built into them.

    The key here is to find ways to make your gratification as immediate as possible. It would be annoying if you filled up that experience bar but then had to wait three days to get the benefit of leveling up. That’s a lot like what most of life is like.

    Instead find ways to make it more like a game. The easiest way to do this is to just actually make a game out of it.

    In some cases this might’ve been done for you already. Fitocracy and Zombies, Run! both do an excellent job of it. Duolingo makes language learning into a game, and there are even games out there like guitar hero but with a real guitar that teach you to play while you play.

    In the absence of some good product that does the gamification for you, you’ll have to add your own rewards and gratification.

    Sometimes it can be enough just to have a clearly defined goal that, once achieved, you can hum a little tune and spin your sword around (or, whatever you’ve got on hand) and revel in the accomplishment of it all.

    If that’s not enough for you set up specific rewards you’ll give yourself once you hit each goal. Pick things you really want and incentivize progress as much as you can, the better the thing you get when you hit your goal the more driven you’ll be to get there.

    Don’t be afraid to brag a bit too – sharing your accomplishment is another strong form of gratification.

Usurping these traits from games can make gaming your own goals feel a lot less like work and a lot more fun, which means you’re a lot more likely to actually accomplish them and make your life as fun and exciting as the people in the games you play.

Except, again, maybe Lee Everett.

What have you done to turn making your life more epic into a game? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Miki Yoshihito

How to Use Negative Emotions As Motivational Rocket Fuel

I Sublimate My Rage Through Needlework by Cross-Stich Ninja

Always a good option.

To get motivated when you aren’t, you first need to find the motivation to motivate yourself.

I recognize that sounds like word soup or an antimetabole, and it kind of is. At the very least it suffers from the problem of infinite regression. After all, how can you get up the motivation to motivate yourself if you don’t have enough motivation to be motivated in the first place? Turtles all the way down.

Thankfully, there are some forces that are a lot more powerful than our conscious minds. Forces we can use as an external push to provide a solid foundation for all those turtles and kick start some motivation without effort on our part.

The Power of Negativity

In general, humans seem to be creatures motivated in a primary way by negativity over positivity.

People tend to remember negative memories stronger than positive ones, they tend to react more strongly to losing something than gaining something and they tend to be more effected by avoiding discomfort than seeking pleasure. Anyone working in customer service will tell you that almost no one calls in to say how great service was, but plenty of people will call in to complain about even relatively minor problems. A bad experience is more likely to spur you to action than a good one.

There are a lot of ways to harness these tendencies and we’ve talked in the past about using similar principles to set up barriers. We’re going to focus on providing the kick start for getting motivated though, and that’s going to involve three primary negative emotions: Revulsion, Fear & Anger.

Revulsion

Personally I think revulsion might be one of the most instinctual, primal & difficult to resist emotions we have so I give it the most weight. Don’t agree? Let’s try a little thought experiment.

Picture a friend or family member vomiting violently into a poorly maintained public toilet, perhaps in a truck stop or something similar. When they’re finished, imagine dunking your head in there.

I’ll wait a moment while those of you with easily upset stomachs or particularly vivid imaginations collect yourselves.

Revulsion is a strong enough force that it tends to completely eliminate any semblance of choice in our decision making. A lot of this is a result of our neurology, our brains make our decisions for ‘us’ before our consciousness is aware of it, but an average properly functioning human would not see voluntarily dunking their face into a vomit filled toilet as a true choice. It probably wouldn’t even register as a possibility.

Another way to illustrate this is to imagine someone walking up to you and pointing to some dog poop nearby and asking, “Hey, aren’t you going to eat that?” It’s an absurd question because you normally wouldn’t have even considered it. You don’t have to stop every time you see dog poop and ask yourself whether you want to eat some or not.

This is the kind of feeling you want to cultivate around not doing whatever it is you’re trying to get motivated to do.

You need to imagine how things will go if you don’t do what it is you’re trying to get motivated to do an fixate on how disgusting and revolting that future would be to you. Imagine not finding a career or starting a business you love and spending the rest of your life in a tedious job you despise. Imagine not learning that language you want to speak and missing out on all the great conversations, relationships, travel, books, music & movies that come with it. Imagine not trying to get in shape and just getting fatter and sicker and weaker.

Then feel disgusted about it.

Once you’ve cultivated that disgust you can use it to automate your actions a bit. Eventually you can get to the point where certain things, skipping a workout to lay around and watch movies and eat ice cream for example, feels like as much of a viable option as going for a swim in sewage pit.

If you’re not able to generate a very strong feeling of revulsion

Fear

Fear is another powerful primal emotion. Physically I think fear’s a little easier to overcome than revulsion – for example when Fear Factor was on everyone talked about contesting eating disgusting things more than they did them doing scary stuff – but it’s still a strong motivator.

The key here is to follow the same kind of pattern as with developing a sense of revulsion except envision outcomes that terrify you instead. Imagine being publicly humiliated when you fail to reach your goals. Imagine breathing your last breath with the realization that you never accomplished anything you actually care about.

Once that sense of fear is established you can apply it the same way. Allow the thought of being lazy and blowing off what you need to do to reach your goals tie into the thought of where you’ll wind u as a result.

Remind yourself of the consequences of not doing what you need to do and let the fear of them push you into action.

Anger

I list anger last because I think it’s the hardest to really control out of all of them. On top of that, if focused inward anger can wind up hurting your motivation more than giving it a little push.

The key here is to find something to act as a lens with which to focus all of the anger outward. Then you can harness that energy to provide a solid base for building up some motivation.

It may differ from person to person on what works best as that lens, but I think the one that resonates with people most easily is revenge. Now this may just be a reflection of growing up as a shy, fat, nerdy kid and suffering the slings and arrows of public high school as such – it’s hard to say.

Most people have someone though, either now or in the past, who bullied them, talked down to them, denigrated their efforts, belittled them, whatever. Most people have someone in whose face they’d like to throw their success accompanied by a little dance and some select waving of middle fingers. Latching on to that drive and having something to prove to somebody lets you grab on to anger and make sure it doesn’t get turned in on yourself by affixing it to an external entity.

To be fair, even externally focused, this is probably the most potentially detrimental or self-destructive of the three. I know some people are going to click with this one most though, so it’s worth mentioning as an option.

Have you used any of these emotions to provide fuel for your motivation? Do you have something better? Tell us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Cross-Stitch Ninja

The Cheat Code for (Nearly) Unlimited Willpower

Konami Code Graffiti by El Payo

For a long time now it’s been believed that your willpower, loosely defined here as your capacity to make yourself do/not do something contrary to your desires, is a finite resource.

It was said that you have a reservoir of willpower and every time you exercise your will to resist overeating, study or work when you don’t want to or anything else like that it drained a little willpower from your tank. In terms I’m more familiar with, your willpower is like your MP (Magic/Mana Points for anyone scratching their head) – a reserve of limited mystical power that allows you to do awesome things until you run out of it, then you need a bit of sleep or some manner of potion to recharge it.

The thing is, it turns out there’s a cheat that gives you nearly unlimited mana – er, willpower – by making it so it recharges every time you use it.

Playing By the Rules

I’ve written a bit about willpower before (because really, who wouldn’t want to be a bit more like Batman?), but I think it’s still important before we understand how to cheat that we understand how things normally work.

In testing willpower psychologists have found that doing a task that requires willpower makes people perform worse on a subsequent test. If enough time is given between tests the results even out and if the participants are given some glucose (in most studies a sugary drink) they perform better on the second test than without it.

What’s all that mean? It means your mana bar (willpower) is only so big and every time you use it for something it depletes, meaning you have less for the next time you need to use it. If you don’t have enough you can’t cast bigger spells (resist bigger temptations) and if you completely run out it’s hard to do anything at all.

There are three standard ways to replenish it:

  • Drink a Potion – This is the quickest way to go if you just got to the end of a tough level (came home from work) and you need a little boost to make it through the boss fight you stumbled into (having to clean the Augean stable you call a garage).

    Drinking down a mana potion or two (sugary drink) can give you back the little bit you need to cast the spell. It’s quick and easy, but not perfect. It’s hard to get back to 100% on potions alone, and it’s important not to overdo it. Too many potions and you may see your HP suffering. The real reason mages wear robes is to cover up their pudge.

  • Get Some Sleep – Sure this isn’t very helpful when you’ve got a big boss fight between you and the next save point, but stopping at an inn (or, you know, your own house) for a good night’s sleep will completely refill your mana (willpower).

    Just make sure you get enough sleep. If you skip out on sleeping or regularly get a bad night’s sleep you’re going to get fatigued. The fatigued status decreases your max mana (willpower) and makes it take longer to refill, so get your sleep.

  • Wait – The slowest and most painful option is honestly to just wait. Your mana bar (willpower) refills slowly on its own over time. Just don’t expect to win any battles while you wait.

Now even without cheating you can increase your mana bar (not going to say it this time) by leveling up. How do you level up?

Go win battles and earn some experience points, noob.

Using your mana to win battles (successfully exercise willpower) earns you experience. Earn enough and you level up which makes your mana bar a little bigger. You do have to actually win though. Losing a battle (skipping a workout, surrendering to either Ben or Jerry) isn’t going to earn you anything but shame.

Cheat Mode

Remember those earlier studies demonstrating the finite nature of willpower? Well some other researchers tried something a little different. They divided the testing groups into those who believed that willpower was a finite resource and those who didn’t.

They found that the people who believed willpower ran out performed as on the previous studies, worse on the second tests unless boosted by glucose. The second group though, those who didn’t agree with that view, didn’t behave at all that way.

People who thought willpower wasn’t decreased by exercising it saw no degradation in performance between tests. The people who believed that willpower was replenished by using it behaved exactly like that’s what was happening.

What’s better is that the researchers were able to take people who had previously believed willpower was finite and performed as such and then prime them by reading statements about willpower to make them behave like the group that performed equally well on both tests.

So what’s that mean for you?

It means your state of mind directly affects your willpower. By changing how you think about it, by telling yourself that using your willpower gives you more of it, you can turn on your own personal cheat mode.

This can be a little trickier than it sounds. Changing your views on something is not quite as simple as ↑ ↑ ↓ ↓ ← → ← → B A.

The easiest way is to keep telling yourself that every time you use your willpower you get more of it, then go practice on some easy battles. Remind yourself that every time you win, you get a bit more mana and after a while it’ll actually start working that way.

Sure, this little cheat isn’t perfect. There are still limits in the end so don’t go thinking this is going to allow you to stay awake for a week complete an Ironman and write a novel all at the same time. What it will let you do is win all the regular battles you face everyday with a lot less struggle and even the occasional boss fight when they come up.

Have you tried forcing yourself to believe willpower is increased by using it? Did you believe that from the start anyway? How has it helped you? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: El Payo

How to Master Skills Like the Huns

The Hun Lifestyle by Dandoo

Pillaging not necessarily required.

Lead by Attila and his descendants the Huns were one of the most successful civilizations of their time militarily, finding victory even over the Roman Empire and building an empire that stretched from southern Russia and Iran all the way to what’s now France. Attila even gets referenced in the Volsunga Saga of Norse mythology.

The success of Attila and the Huns obviously can’t be boiled down to a single factor, but the one that gets referenced the most is definitely the skill of their horsemen.

Like the Mongols centuries later, the popular legend is that the Huns learned to ride horses before they even learned to walk. They were claimed to live almost their whole lives in the saddle, and as a result they became some of the most expert horsemen that the world has ever seen.

While nowadays you probably don’t need to master your horsemanship, we can apply this same principle to get exceedingly good at any other skill you want to master.

Born in the Saddle

A lot of the credit for the impressive horsemanship of the Huns is given to the fact that they were introduced to horseback riding at an extremely young age and then it became a daily thing for essentially the rest of their lives.

Now I know since you’re reading this the ‘from a young age’ ship may have long since sailed. That’s no problem – we can still use the same kind of technique to achieve similar results.

The 10,000 hours theory put out by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers (which I think, by this point, just about everyone has either read or heard of) suggests that someone needs 10,000 hours of focused or directed practice to become world class at a skill. The actual research supporting that theory has been put into question a bit, but as a rough guideline it’s probably a practical estimate.

10,000 hours if you’re practicing something most of the day is going to be about 832 days – about two years and 3 months or so – since even if you’re doing it all day you still have to sleep. In terms of becoming world class at something two years or so is actually pretty quick. There are two catches though.

The first is that we don’t really care about being world class. The difference between being in the top 10% (better than 90% of the population) and in the top 1% (better than 99% of the population) is relatively small in skill, but enormous in the amount of work required to get from one to the other. This disparity is a result of the severely diminishing returns on your efforts once you get beyond average skill levels.

As an example getting good enough at guitar that you’re better than most people, good enough to put out a professional album for example or play small concerts, is going to be much closer in skill level to someone who’s a legend (say Jimi Hendrix for example) than an absolute beginner. Even so, it would require substantially more effort, and possibly a measure of luck, to get from expert to legendary than it took you to get from beginner to expert.

So why bother? I have broad interests and would much rather be better than 90% of people at a wide range of things than better than 99% at a single thing. Each takes roughly the same amount of effort.

The second catch is that Gladwell says we need 10,000 hours of intentional practice. That’s practice with a clear goal, with focus to it. Unless you have resources that rival Bruce Wayne’s you probably can’t devote entire days to intentional practice – you’ll be doing this more like the Huns and going about your daily business, just doing it while on your horse so to speak. If non-intentional practice counted as much as intentional practice everyone who commutes to work everyday would drive as well as professional race drivers.

This isn’t really such a problem though since we’re not really interested in hitting Gladwell’s world class goalpost. Our goal is to just get really good at something and, while intentional practice will play a part, you’re not going to need 10,000 hours of it.

So how do we actually go about doing it?

Putting it Into Practice

Now most things, unlike horseback riding, are not things you could conceivably do as you go about your business all day. (To be fair, you couldn’t ride around and do all your errands on horseback anymore either) So we’re going to use a couple different strategies to try to achieve the same general effect. The first involves making use of your downtime.

Filling the Gaps

I’ve talked about ways to make use of downtime in language learning in the past, and all of those strategies apply here as well.

The first is going to be filling your day with as much passive learning or practice as possible. For things that are more learning focused this means always being surrounded by the information you’re trying to absorb, but in the background. For language learning that would mean leaving the TV on to shows in your target language or listening to music or conversations in your target language while you go about your day.

For skills, which are by nature more active, passive learning is going to involve running through the skill in your head while you do other things. If you’re working on your Wing Chun for example you can run through your forms and techniques in your head while doing the dishes or whatever else needs to be done. You can passively practice in your head what you can’t necessarily actively practice physically at the time.

You also have the hundreds of little downtime periods every day that you can fill with active practice. Think of all the times you have a minute or two to wait, for the elevator, the bus, a file to download, etc.

All these times add up, so why waste them checking Facebook or screwing around on your phone?

Instead use them to get a little bit of practice in. These are the times to get more active practice in if you can – flashcards on Memrise for example, or running through a few martial arts techniques in the air – though if you need to passive practice works too (Busting out your gong fu moves at the bus stop may get more attention than you’re looking for).

The idea is just to squeeze as much practice time as possible out of these countless lost fragments of your day in order to compress them into something useful.

Greasing the Groove

Greasing the groove is a concept borrowed from Pavel Tsatouline’s Naked Warrior. Boiled down to its essentials, Pavel treats strength as a skill and seeks to improve it by small, relatively easy practice sessions spread out over the course of a full day.

For example, if you can only do a single pull up and want to be able to do ten, rather than doing a more standard workout of 5 sets of 1 pull up three times a week, you would set a timer and go do a single pull up every hour all day long.

This creates a simulated version of our ‘practice all day’ Hun method by making you practice all day just dispersed rather than constantly.

There are two sub-divisions of this method – the standard timer method and the cue method.

The timer method works just like what Pavel recommends. You set a timer on your watch, phone or whatever and every time it goes off you stop what you’re doing and do a short session of whatever it is you’re trying to become skilled at. If you’re learning a language that might be 5 to 10 minutes of conversation practice, writing or reading. If you’re learning martial arts that might be 5 minutes of shadow boxing. It really can be whatever, just keep it short and to the point.

The second method, the cue method, uses physical cues to replace the timer. You set up things in your environment that trigger a quick practice session of whatever it is you’re learning. When I was in high school and was first getting involved in parkour I hung a pull up bar in our stairwell and then tacked a piece of string across my door at waist height.

Every time I came up or down the stairs I’d do as many pull ups or chin ups as I could at that moment. Every time I entered my room I rolled under the string and every time I exited it I jumped over it (provided I wasn’t carrying a drink or something).

Since I was going in and out of my room a lot, that added up to lots and lots of pull ups, rolls and jumps everyday. Even more so compounded over weeks and months.

If you’re pursuing something more learning focused you can use notecards or sticky notes to learn things all day long. If you’re learning a language you can plaster everything with vocab and sentences so you’re surrounded by little cues to review those words, sentences or grammar.

These two aren’t equally exclusive either, so feel free to mix them together.

You may not have learned your skill of choice before you could walk like Attila and his horseback riding, but that doesn’t have to stop you from getting just as good at your skill of choice. Just try not to lead an army in conquest of most of the known world, ok?

While you still can’t neglect some intentional practice time, by remembering to practice passively as often as possible, fill in all those downtime gaps and use the grease the groove strategies you can easily become an expert in something in a relatively short time period.

Have you used these strategies in the past? What did you think of them? Is there anything you would add to make them better or more effective? Let us now in the comments!

Photo Credit: Dandoo

Screw Time Management – Manage Your Energy

Sad Clock by Elena Fidanovska

Sorry Clock, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. You’re just not as important to me.

Time management is a big deal for a lot of people, especially if you’re in the category of people concerned with accomplishing a lot of things. I’ve written about time management before along with other strategies like timeboxing for getting the most out of your time.

The problem is I see a lot of people focus entirely on time management at the expense of other areas. They become obsessed with trying to squeeze every little productive moment out of their day and in the end wind up less productive than they were before. Their problem isn’t that they’re poor at managing their time.

Their problem is they don’t know how to manage their energy.

The Failure of Time Management

Ok, so I’ll admit – time management is still important.

Regardless of how well you manage your energy if you procrastinate and screw around all day or waste lots of time on things that are unimportant or superfluous then you’re not likely to be very productive. That being said, for most people it’s easy and intuitive to make at least the most basic of changes to improve their time management.

Where you run into problems is that time management, particularly in the productivity and lifestyle design communities where it’s endemic, becomes an obsession.

Using myself as an example, for a while I got caught up in the obsession in an attempt to achieve all of the things I was working on. I had to fit learning a second language, training clients at the gym, teaching English online, writing articles, working on our book, my own fitness, practicing instruments, parkour and martial arts training and a number of other pursuits into my schedule all on top of the day to day trappings of life.

Faced with this mountain of tasks I went kind of insane with time management and optimization techniques, but I still never could manage to get everything I wanted done. What’s worse, my performance across the board started to suffer. The quality of everything I was doing dropped sharply. I felt horrible. I wasn’t sleeping well. I was tired, stressed and depressed constantly.

It was hell.

After a while, I had to come to terms and say screw it – clearly something was not working because everything was falling to pieces. It was useless to me to optimize my time if I didn’t have the energy to actually produce quality work.

So I turned my tactics around and starting focus on managing my energy levels instead of my time.

Finding Your Energy Rhythm

What gets measured, gets managed. Conversely, it’s extremely difficult to manage something you don’t measure. How are we possibly going to manage our energy if we don’t start by identifying exactly what it is we’re managing here?

The first step then is to take a look at your energy patterns throughout the day. To that end I’ll begin by defining what we’re talking about whenever I say ‘energy’. I’m not talking about the mystical, pseudo-scientific woo version of ‘energy’. This isn’t going to involve spirits, chakras, or harmonizing with the Earth Mother (whatever that means). Nor am I necessarily talking about the strict scientific definition of ‘energy’ in terms of electric, kinetic or potential energy – though defined loosely in physics terms as ‘the capacity to do work’ it’s probably the closest.

When we talk about ‘energy’ here I mean solely the kind of energy people get when you drink some espresso, get a good night’s sleep, or find yourself in a flow state. It’s both physical and mental in that you can have a lot of mental energy but have no physical energy (e.g., fatigue) or have plenty of physical energy but very little mental (e.g., depression).

Got it? Excellent.

So the goal is to take a look at an average week and determine when you feel like you have the most energy and when you have the least energy on a day to day basis. Keep a journal for a week, make notes on your phone, whatever it takes. The goal here is to identify if there are any patterns, do you have more energy in the mornings or in the evenings. Do you have a mid-day slump and then a bit of a rebound? Write it all down and find out.

Take as detailed notes as you can too, because there may be other factors. Do you always find yourself more drained after certain activities? Are there things that always leave you feeling more energetic and pumped up? Identifying these things is important to getting better at managing your energy.

Everyone’s going to be a little different. Some highlights from my own notes showed that it takes me about 20 minutes to feel fully energized after I wake up, workouts give me more mental energy, I tend to slump around 1:30 to 2 p.m. everyday and I’m an introvert – social interaction drains my energy while alone time recharges it.

First, figure out your energy rhythms. Then you can move on to the next step.

Block Out High & Low Energy Times

Once you’ve got some patterns identified in your energy rhythms you need to slowly start reorganizing your activities around these patterns. In other words, try to do most of your really important work during the times when you’re naturally more energized and try to schedule your relaxing and recharging time for when you’re naturally in a slump anyway.

I know that I tend to hit a slump mid-day, so I don’t try to get important work done (or often, any work done) during that time. It’s far less productive for me to force myself to work through the low energy periods. When I do, I produce seriously shitty work and I just drain myself further leading to misery and substantially longer recovery times. Not terribly conducive to getting things done.

Conversely, I know when my energy levels tend to be highest, so I schedule my most important work then or the work that I am least enthusiastic about or dreading most.

Blocking your normal high and low energy periods out like this doesn’t have to be any kind of strict schedule. It can just be a general understanding that around one time you feel better and around another time you feel drained and planning things accordingly. You can be as strict in your scheduling or as general as you like provided you’re cognizant of your rhythms and plan accordingly.

The point is to maximize your efficiency so you’re getting your best work done when you’re best able to do it, and your hardest work done when you’re least likely to give in and put it off while not trying to force work during times when you have to struggle extra hard to complete it.

This alone will get you pretty far, but there are a handful of other tactics that can assist a broader energy management strategy.

Work Cycles and Planned Breaks

Work is a fight.

It can run the range from a fun, lighthearted sparring match to a 100 man kumite to the death – but either way every task you do is one you’re stepping into the ring with.

So which sounds like a better plan, going in for ten rounds with zero rest in-between or having a little time now and again to sit down and have some water? Sure if it’s just for fun you can probably go a little longer, but if it’s a tough fight you’re going to want a minute to rest between rounds.

If that’s the case, why don’t people treat work the same way?

Rather than sit down and spend four hours fighting your way through a difficult task, take little breaks in-between to have some water and tell Mick to cut you. Your work’s a champ, it’s not about to get tired and give up on you. I’ve found that a standardized 90 minute work period followed by a 15 minute break gives me the best results. It’s a long enough work period to get a substantial amount of work done followed by a long enough break to relax, but neither feels too long.

This tactic allows you to maintain the energy you’ve got, and often even recharge a little, to avoid getting crushed by the attrition of painful or grinding work. You can certainly adjust based on case, if the work’s fun or enjoyable go longer without a break and if it’s hellish take them more frequently.

Nap When Needed

Naps are awesome.

They help you recharge. They help refresh your brain and tidy things up in there. They improve mood and creativity. They lead to better, more restorative sleep during the night. They’re just wonderful.

So why not take one?

Most people have a time during the day when you have a really bad slump. For a lot of people this is in the middle of the day – this has led a lot of people to suggest that humans in general are naturally biphasic (hardwired to sleep twice in a day/night cycle rather than just overnight.) Whether that’s true or not, taking a short nap is the single best way to deal with that slump in my opinion.

I take between a 20 minute and one hour nap almost everyday between 1:30 and 2 p.m. when I hit my normal daily slump. Whether I nap longer, or shorter, or not at all is entirely dependent on how I feel and how much I think I need. If I’m feeling absolutely destroyed I’ll take a little longer and if I feel pretty good or have a lot to get done I may skip it or just take a speedy caffeine nap.

Experiment a little with naps during your lowest energy periods and see how much of an effect it makes. Generally naps also allow you to get the same amount of rest in a shorter period of sleep overnight as well, so beyond the immediate effect of bringing your energy back after the mid-day dip you may find your energy levels are higher in general with less overnight sleep.

That being said, if you’re not getting enough sleep then fix that first. The easiest way to guarantee your energy levels stay in the gutter all day is to be running on four hours of sleep.

Obey Your Biofeedback

That’s basically a fancy way of telling you to listen to your body – which is really the core of this whole exercise.

If you have downtime scheduled because you normally feel terrible during a certain time but you feel great then for some reason, go ahead and get something done. Conversely, if you feel awful when you normally expect to be 100%, don’t stress out about skipping whatever work you had planned. Do it when you’re recharged and refreshed and ready for it.

Be honest here though, because this isn’t license to just say, ‘Meh, not feeling it,’ whenever work comes up and procrastinate until the end of time.

You need to be listening to your body enough to know when you can be productive and when you can’t and do your best to follow that. If you find that you never feel 100%, then you should examine why you never feel good. This can be a sleep issue, a diet issue, being overly stressed or just not knowing well enough what things genuinely recharge you. Examine your habits and what things you think are draining you so much and start experimenting with ways to correct the problem.

Use Deliberate Practice

Like with a lot of things, deliberate focused practice can help you increase your energy levels throughout the day. This works a lot like how working on increasing your willpower works – intentional practice forcing yourself to extend your energy a little past it’s normal limit followed by enough recovery time to reset.

Treat your energy levels like a muscle. When you lift weights you’re not getting stronger right then, you’re wrecking things and providing the stimuli to get stronger. When you’re actually getting stronger is later that night when you’ve had dinner and are asleep in your bed. Without adequate recovery exercise can be useless or even detrimental.

When working on your energy levels you shouldn’t push yourself until you’re completely burned out – that isn’t going to help. You need to push yourself just a little beyond your threshold then take enough time to recover. Once you’re recovered you can push just a little farther than that and so on.

Just like there are practical physical and genetic limits to how much you can build your muscles there’s a limit to how much you can build your energy reserves. Just like sometimes a shit day comes up and you can’t move a weight you’ve lifted for reps a week ago sometimes no matter how much you’ve trained your energy maintenance other factors are going to wreck you.

Both of those are fine. You can still work to feel a little better overall by deliberately pushing your limits in a controlled way.

Everyone’s a little different, but overall I think this strategy of managing energy rather than time tends to give much better results. Time is a lot less flexible than energy, and though we all only have 24 hours in a day even if you somehow had double that if you were too drained to get anything done it wouldn’t matter – you’d still get nothing done.

Stop worrying so much about fine tuning your schedule and start paying more attention to working along your natural energy rhythms to get the most, and best, work done that you can.

Have you tried managing your energy instead of your time? Do you think it’s better or do you think I’m totally wrong here? Let us know in the comments.

Photo Credit: Elena Fidanovska

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