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

An Introduction to Speed Reading

Speed Reading by Rachel Strum

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Vs. Speed Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Stop Sub-vocalizing

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Use a Pointer

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

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

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

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

3. Don’t Be Linear

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

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

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

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

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

4. Actually Practice Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Rachel Strum

Why You Need to Stop Waiting for Your Hero Moment

Pixelblock Danger by Cold Storage

It’s dangerous to go alone, take this!

Ah, the Hero Moment.

It’s so endemic to our storytelling, so ubiquitous and pervasive in everything – movies, TV shows, books, video games – that most people don’t even notice it even as it shapes their own understanding and expectations about their own lives. The Hero Moment meme seems built in to our way of thinking, whether genetic or just as a result of socio-cultural forces, and it directly interferes with our ability to do what we need to do in order to have the highest chance of success.

In other words, the Hero Moment is poisoning the way you think about life and making it harder for you to achieve your long term goals.

We want to stop that.

What’s The Hero Moment?

The Hero Moment is that standard moment in fiction where some huge, defining, life-changing thing happens to the protagonist thrusting them into the main issue of the story. It’s usually accompanied by finding out there’s something special about the protagonist.

Harry Potter finding out he’s a wizard is a perfect example. The beginning of just about any Zelda game is another. Meeting Ben Kenobi was Luke Skywalker’s Hero Moment. The arrival of River on Serenity changed all those character’s course. The common thread here is one big thing happens that changes the protagonist’s life forever.

It’s always a single drastic event.

That’s important, because it’s the main reason this particular meme is so subversive to the way we approach our goals. Life doesn’t work that way.

The Million Dollar Idea Myth – Waiting for a Boat at the Airport

When it comes to assessing your future and your goals, people put way too much emphasis on looking for a single, life-changing moment and severely under-emphasize the importance of consistent, grueling day-in day-out work.

That’s so freaking important I’m going to say it again.

In bold and italics.

People severely overestimate the value of a single life-changing moment and severely underestimate the importance of persistent, daily, habitual work.

People are looking for that Hero Moment. People are waiting for that moment when they’ll hit it big. In the abstract they’re waiting to have their own Hagrid come and tell them they’re the Chosen One. In the real world, this manifests itself as the myth of the million dollar idea.

Everyone is looking for that million dollar idea, that entrepreneurial lottery ticket that’ll turn them into the next Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos. They think it’s just like the Hero Moment – one minute they’re sitting there in their boring day job and then BAM they’re hit with a great idea, flip their desk and run out to make their fortune. People expect there to be something out there that’ll make them hit it big.

That’s just not how it works though.

Success takes work. Steve Jobs failed a ton, and pulled long hours to get where he got. Jeff Bezos didn’t just think up Amazon one day and go pick up his billionaire license – it took hard work every single day. It took struggle.

People don’t think of that though. They don’t sit and dream about how they’re going to lose sleep and work hard and devote 100% of their life to this big goal of theirs, they expect it to fall down their chimney like Santa Claus and be handed to them all nicely wrapped and ready to go.

It’s not surprising this is the model in media, after all it makes for a much shorter, sexier narrative. Hard work is perceived as so boring in most stories it gets glassed over in a couple minutes with a quick montage. Having a character spend ten long years of struggle to become a hero is not nearly as convenient as having Dumbledore show up at your house with some dwarves or being given the single most powerful piece of jewelry on the planet by your uncle.

Overcoming the Poison of Inaction

The reason this all is so bad for us is because it encourages us to sit around and wait for success to fall into our laps.

Success is not a well-trained puppy that will come whenever you call it. Success is a rabid, steroid filled grizzly bear on meth with a rocket launcher – if you want to capture it you’re in for a fight.

Sitting around forever trying to dream up this million dollar hit-it-big idea and expecting it to just come to you is wasting your time. You’ll never get anywhere doing that, and even if you do actually come up with an idea, statistically speaking it’s probably going to fail.

The way people finally succeed and get to a point where they’re living a fulfilling life that they actually want to be living is by putting in the hours every single day, no matter what, and failing over and over and over again until their sheer persistence finally gets them through.

Unlike all the fictional hero stories, this is how it works in the real world. Look at just about any biography of any extremely successful person and you know what common theme will be – lots of hard work and even more failures and an attitude of not giving up until they get where they wanted to be.

That’s the kind of attitude you need to cultivate in order to be successful.

You need to stop waiting for some big thing to happen and you need to start putting in the effort every single day to make something happen. Don’t focus too much on one area, try lots of stuff. If you’re having trouble putting in the hours each day, find some way to make yourself accountable until you’ve developed it into a habit.

In the end it’s going to be this attitude that gets you through, not waiting around for your radioactive spider to come along and chomp you into success.

Have you fallen into the trap of waiting around for your Hero Moment or your big Million Dollar Idea? How’d you get out of it? What are some tricks you’ve used to build a good daily work habit? Help us out and share with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Cold Storage

Flow 101: Figuring Out What Makes You Happy

Math Everywhere by Thowi

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

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

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

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

The flow test.

Be Are a Machine Gunner, Not a Sniper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running a Basic Daily Flow Test

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

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

Time:        Current Activity:        In Flow?        Mood:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Thomas W

Scientific Sleep Hacking: Easy Ways to Optimize Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

To Hack or to Optimize?

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

Instead I like to think about it as optimization.

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

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

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

Monophasic, Biphasic or Polyphasic

Right off the bat, polyphasic is out.

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

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

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

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

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

Better Sleeping Through Science

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

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

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

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

Sanitize Your Sleep Environment

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

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

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

Eat for Sleep

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

Eating before bed does not make you gain weight.

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

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

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

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

Have a Sleeping Ritual

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

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

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

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

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

Be Active

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

So go exercise!

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

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

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

Use Substances Appropriately

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

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

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

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

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

Chill Out and Light Some Candles

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

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

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

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

Putting it All Together

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

  • Remove noise & light stimuli from your sleeping environment.

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

  • Follow a pre-bed ritual ever single night.

  • Be physically active or exercise regularly.

  • Limit caffeine and alcohol use.

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

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

Photo Credit: Bealluc

Why ‘I Don’t Have Time’ Is a Bullshit Excuse

Explored #1 by Bethan

There’s some time, grab it!

Out of just about every excuse in the world, the one I most despise is also the one I seem to hear most frequently – I don’t have time.

I don’t have time to learn a new language, I don’t have time to workout and get fit, I don’t have time to start a business, I don’t have time to do this or that or anything else.

Bullshit.

Not only am I going to explain why it’s an inane excuse, I’m going to show you ways you can ‘find the time’ to do everything you could possibly want to do and more.

There Are 24 Hours in a Day

Assuming you are on Earth and not off somewhere traveling at such speeds as to be strongly affected by time dilation then you have twenty four hours in your day to play with. No more, no fewer. This has always been the case since the day you were born. It’s not as though you will ever have to worry about adjusting to having fewer hours per day to manage.

So how is it exactly that you don’t have enough time?

Think of everyone who has ever achieved greatness throughout the entire span of human history – Archimedes, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Ford, Jobs and anyone else you can think of who was successful – do you know how many hours they had to work with in a day?

Twenty four.

Same as you.

So clearly, ‘finding the time’ is not the issue. Inspirational men and women through time have demonstrably proven there to be ample time here on Earth to accomplish wonderfully incredible things, let alone the generally mundane stuff that most people use this excuse for. If Michelangelo can find the time to paint the Sistine Chapel, I’m reasonably certain you can find the time to workout three times a week.

Now I know that some of you are already going to start whining to the effect of, ‘You’re being too literal, when we say we don’t have the time we don’t mean the hours aren’t there we’re just too busy‘. Alright. Fine.

Still bullshit.

You Probably Suck at Managing Your Time

Most people just flat out suck at managing time. Certainly if you’re the kind of person who finds him or herself thinking that you wish you could do something but just don’t have the time to or are too busy then I can nearly guarantee you’re wretched at time management.

People love to say they’re too busy like it’s some kind of insurmountable external obstacle that they are in no way culpable for as it’s clearly dictated by forces beyond their control. It makes them feel like it’s not their fault for not trying to do whatever it is they wish they could do. It externalizes responsibility.

I think one of the biggest reasons people do this is fear. I think many people are just too terrified to fail so they’d rather stay stagnant where it’s comfortable and never even try. In reality you should embrace failure. It’s not something you should be afraid of.

People don’t want to admit they’re too scared to try though so they claim they don’t have the time to do it as a convenient excuse.

If you are someone, however, who honestly feels like you don’t have enough time to accomplish the things you want to accomplish then sit down one day and write out everything you did for every hour of the day up to that point. You can even go through and list everything you did that whole week if you’re feeling ambitious.

How much time did you spend watching TV? How much time did you spend on Facebook, or playing video games, or things like that?

If you’re anything like the average American you probably spend about three hours per day watching TV and about an hour per day playing games. That’s four hours everyday that you could devote to whatever it is you wish you could get done. That’s a full 1/6th of your whole day. More if you don’t count time spent sleeping.

You don’t even have to give up those full four hours, even shaving one off will make a big difference.

The question comes down to which is genuinely more important to you, being fit, learning a language or whatever it is you want to achieve or not missing Game of Thrones.

Reclaiming Your Time

The real key to it comes down to reclaiming your time for your own. Figuring out what your goals are and then, rather than making excuses for why you can’t pursue them, doing everything in your power to make it work. Here are a handful of tips to help you get started.

  • Prioritize – Figure out what is really important to you and cut out all the things you spend time on that don’t actually bring you toward something important. Don’t mistake this for a suggestion that all leisure time is evil, I watch TV and play video games too, the key is in knowing how much is too much.

  • Make Things Fun – If cutting down on things like TV and relaxation time are genuinely killing you, work to find things that are fun or help you relax that also further your goals, at least passively. If you want to be more fit, go play basketball or go for a walk instead of planting yourself in front of a TV or computer. If you’re looking to learn a new language watch TV in your target language instead of your native one. Find ways to combine your relaxation time with something helpful.

  • Eliminate Distractions – A great deal of time is wasted because the nature of our modern world is one rife with distractions. It’s common now to have all of your social networks right in your pocket, jumping and chirping with every update in an attempt to drag your attention away from whatever other thing you were engaged with. When you add on to that the time devouring void that is the Internet it’s easy to lose track of what you’re doing.

    Do whatever needs to be done to eliminate all of these distractions. Turn your phone off and put it in another room. Get a program like Rescue Time or one that shuts of your Internet if you don’t need it for your task. Whatever it takes – the key is to remove the temptation to engage with and become entranced by potential diversions.

  • Get Rid of Your TV – I think there are plenty of good reasons to give away your TV. Having a TV in your living room or bedroom is just an invitation to sit around and waste time. Get rid of it.

    That’s not to say that you shouldn’t watch any TV, just that it should be a focused activity like everything else you do. A lot of people just plop down in front of their set and then go hunting to see what’s on. Instead, pick what you want to watch beforehand, seek it out and watch it and be done. Hulu and Netflix are both great for this. We have a handful of shows we enjoy enough to watch deliberately like The Walking Dead, but we don’t spend much other time watching TV. As a result we spend an average of less than an hour a day watching things, and since I see all the shows I want to see I don’t feel like I’m missing out.

  • Recapture Down Time – There are a lot of small chunks of time spread throughout the day that tend to just get lost. These are moments in-between things or while you’re waiting. Moments spent in line for your espresso, waiting for a file to download or standing around until the elevator arrives.

    All of these moments can be recaptured and spent doing something very little that adds up into something substantial when leveraged over days and weeks. Pulling out your phone and doing three Memrise sessions takes a grand total of maybe five or six minutes. Three Memrise sessions adds up to about 15 new words, add in another five minutes to refresh old memories and in ten minutes per day you can learn 15 new words.

    You certainly can pull ten minutes together throughout the day, especially since it doesn’t have to be all at once. Doing a Memrise session every time you have to wait for the elevator in your building barely counts as effort, but compounded over two months that’s about 1,000 new words you’ve learned.

  • Timebox – Using timeboxing is an excellent way not only to ensure that you get everything on your to-do list done, but also to help motivate you to tackle the bigger tasks that you’ve been dreading. Best of all since the very nature of timeboxing, setting a specific temporal constraint beyond which you’re forbidden to work on a given task, means that it directly restricts you from getting too absorbed in one project to have time for everything else you need to work on.

These are just a few things you can do to ‘find the time’ that you swear you don’t have to accomplish your goals. If you can think of any others you particularly like definitely leave a comment and share them with everyone. Let us know too what you’re going to go out an accomplish now that the bullshit excuse of not enough time has been put to rest.

Photo Credit: Bethan

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