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

Is Your Inner Monologue Helping or Hurting Your Success? Four Ways to Change Your Mindset and Be More Positive

The Mighty Hunter by James M. Turley

“Thoughts become things.” – Buddha

Before you begin a task or attempt to learn something new, does it make sense to first insult yourself or the subject? To tell yourself that it’s hard or you aren’t smart enough to do it?

It’s not intentional, but often people do it anyway. It’s forgivable – our brains do appear to be wired for negativity, or we remember negative experiences more often than positive ones. However, it’s not inexcusable forever. As soon as you want to do something new or need to gain a new skill, your mindset and how you approach it can have a huge impact on whether or not you will succeed.

Sometimes it’s a memory from childhood (negative emotions around something you had a bad experience with coming back to haunt you) or a cultural negativity toward a subject (X language is HARD!) or a simple fear of failure. There’s lots of ways negativity infects our thoughts and impacts our performance and ability to learn new things.

To make matters worse these negative thoughts not only hurt your chances of success, they also increase your stress levels which leads to, among many things, elevated cortisol, decreased memory, weight gain (or difficulty losing) and disrupted sleep. You are pretty much screwed. Except that you’re not.

The more you allow these negative thoughts to seep into your brain, the more you become them. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy, so-to-speak. But you can break this negative mindset and instead retrain yourself to think positively. Vain affirmations not necessary.

Four Ways to Change Your Mindset and Be More Positive

1. Practice Mindfulness

Being mindful is to pay attention to the present moment without judgment, or “living in the now.” When you are mindful you are focused on the task at hand – not distracted by other things or, worse, past experiences or worrying about the future. In other words, practicing mindfulness allows you to be more balanced and positive which will then enhance your mental performance.

So how can you practice being more mindful? You can start meditating daily or, if you prefer moving meditation give that a try. By taking breaks to clear your mind, doing one thing at a time and being slow and deliberate about it and paying attention to your thoughts to prohibit worrying about the past or future you will slowly build the habit of mindfulness.

Want another reason to practice mindfulness? There is some evidence that being mindful can increase the gray matter in the brain’s hippocampus, an area of the brain important for learning, memory and emotion, while also reducing gray matter in the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with stress and anxiety.

2. Redefine Failure

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” – Henry Ford

Have you failed yet today?

Changing your attitude toward failure can go a long way to giving you a more positive attitude and getting rid of negative thinking. Don’t treat your failures as something to be ashamed of, be proud of them! Through your failures you not only learn, but you also grow in your experience and insights.

If a fear of failure is preventing you from even beginning to take action, take a closer look at it. What will happen if you fail? What are the possible scenarios? How can you prevent the worst? And, most importantly, if the worst happens anyway, is it the end of the world?

The answer to that last one is that, more likely than not, it wont be the end of the world. Like Henry Ford was getting at, you need to remind yourself that when you do fail that the world isn’t over; You can still take action, or get back up and try again, this time a little wiser than you were before.

Not convinced? Need more reasons to go fail? We recently posted an article just on Why You Need to Go Out And Fail.

3. Be Diligent

When you are studying Chinese grammar you can complain about how hard it is or you can, using smart techniques, keep working on it bit by bit every day.

If you are taking on a huge project it can get overwhelming and a little voice in the back of your head might start telling you that it’s impossible to complete. The negatives thoughts can paralyze you – if you let them.

When those negative thoughts creep into your head take a moment to refocus, take a break if you need to. Divide the huge task into small, manageable chunks and have some way to positively reward yourself when you have completed your smaller goals, preferably with something like a nice green check mark on a calendar to indicate your progress and success.

Over time, the small successes build up and not only boost your overall optimism and positivity toward that particular goal, but you will be able to apply these same principles toward other goals you take on.

4. Take Control

Taking control is probably the most important of all of these lessons. Positive people don’t just have a good day, and success doesn’t just happen by accident – they make these things happen.

One of the causes of stress and self-directed negativity are hopes and wishes lacking action. Being passive won’t get you closer to your goals and most certainly won’t bring you success. Be pro-active and actively work toward success, whatever that may look like for you. Whether it’s constructing your ideal life, being able to speak another language, starting a business or getting healthier.

You have control over your actions and reactions – you have a choice. The more you are passive about goals and creating systems and situations that move you closer to success, the wider the gap gets between you and positivity and success.

I know it’s ridiculous to just expect everyone to suddenly change their actions, but it’s not ridiculous to suggest that you make it a habit. By combining the above advice about mindfulness with the goal of taking more control, you can slowly build this into a habit. Be mindful, take note of negative or passive thoughts and actions, and build the habit of changing them into action and positivity.

Being positive is ultimately about mindful action and re-framing typically negative situations like failure.

Have you struggled with negative thoughts? What has or hasn’t worked for you? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

Photo Credit: James M. Turley

3 Reasons You Should Wake Up Early and How to Actually Do It

Good Morning by Frank Wuestefeld

Seeing the Sun rise is just one of the perks of waking up early.

I have never in my life been an early riser.

In fact I was quite the opposite – a quintessential night owl who was more likely to be heading to bed when most others would be waking up. On top of that when you did finally wake me up I was generally grumpy, malicious and horrible to be around. For the first few hours I’d shuffle around filled with hate for everything until I woke up all the way.

That is until recently, when I finally made the transition to being able to wake up early and actually feel happy and energized.

Now I love waking up early. So what are the benefits to getting up early instead of sleeping in late?

Reasons to Wake Early

  • Increased Productivity – Waking up early allows for you to get substantially more done, both in that it affords you a lot of additional productive time and in that it gives you the time each morning to plan out the remainder of your day in such a way as to be as productive as possible. I know I can get more done in the morning between when I wake up and when I head into the gym to train clients than many people get done in their entire day – and I get my to-do list in order and my most important tasks for the day selected so that productivity echoes throughout the remainder of my day.

    Now, it may not seem like it would really allow you to be that much more productive since you aren’t really gaining any additional time. You still need as much sleep, so part of waking up earlier is going to sleep earlier. Your number of waking hours really shouldn’t change. So if we aren’t gaining more time, aren’t we just changing when we’re productive from later to earlier? How does that translate to more productivity?

    The trick is in the timing of things. Productivity is a lot like boiling water – it takes a lot more energy to start the water boiling than it does to keep it boiling. In other words, the toughest part about being productive is the very start of being productive. Taking care of that earlier in the morning lays the foundation for you to coast on that momentum the rest of the day. On top of that, it’s a lot easier to get distracted or run out of steam in the evening and just say, “Screw it I’ll do it tomorrow.”

    Just like how you should take care of your most important tasks for the day first to ensure you get them done, you should focus on being productive first so that you guarantee you get what you need to do done.

  • Less Stress – One of the biggest benefits I’ve noticed is that I no longer spend the majority of my mornings stressed to my limit and on the verge of murdering someone. It used to be I’d roll out of bed filled with hate with barely enough time to get ready and into work. I’d shuffle in clearly having just rolled out of bed four or five minutes late in the mood to tear the head off anyone who gave me a good excuse. If I’d ran out the door without time to finish my coffee, it was even worse.

    Essentially, I started out every morning stressed and annoyed. Can you imagine the kind of effect that had on the rest of my day?

    Not only did that mood ripple through the rest of everything I did that day but it meant by the time I was home after work I just felt wrecked. I had gone through such a stressful morning each day that I didn’t want to do anything in the evening but relax – not exactly conducive to getting anything important done. Add to that the cortisol and all the other physiological effects of all that stress and you have a recipe for a lot of compounding problems.

    Getting up early means I have plenty of time to have a cup of coffee (or too) get ready at my leisure and get some things done. I even have some time to do things I enjoy before I head in to work, like reading, meditating and exercise. That means when I do arrive at work in the morning I get there early and in a bright, cheerful mood that would’ve made the former me want to punch the current me in the teeth.

    Much like being stressed out and angry set the tone for the rest of my day previously, being in a good mood tends to carry me throughout the rest of the day making each day fun and productive.

  • Serenity – Just like your mood in the previous section impacts the remainder of your day in a strong way, your environment at the start of your day can set tones that will stay with you, if not for the rest of the day then for a substantial part of it. Starting your day peacefully in the calm of the early morning quiet sets you up for a much more relaxed day than leaping out of bed and dashing to the car with mismatched socks on and burnt toast jammed in your mouth.

    At the risk of waxing poetic there’s a serene, meditative quality to the time before the majority of the world has woken that is unique. Going for a walk in the near silence of dawn as you watch the Sun rise is an amazing and incomparable experience and, even if for some reason it doesn’t contribute to making your day better, it will contribute to making your life better.

How to Actually Wake Up Early

Learning to wake up early can be a bit difficult. I certainly didn’t have an easy time of it – it was a huge struggle and something that I’m still a little surprised I pulled off. If I can do it though, anyone can. Here are the biggest things that I found to be instrumental in making the switch from night owl to early bird.

  • Moving the Alarm Clock – I have a severely unhealthy obsession with the snooze button. If I can, I will always snooze. It is a tragic flaw of mine. As a result of that I find the snooze button to be one of the most damnable inventions ever to plague mankind and I sincerely hope whomever invented it was set on fire and torn apart by alligators.

    The snooze button serves no purpose but to ruin your day with false promises. Like some sinister drug pusher it snares you at your most vulnerable by tempting you with more sleep at a time when your dream addled brain is most likely to be craving just that. It promises to quiet that shrieking alarm clock and allow you a bit more sleep. It never seems that bad either – just five more minutes. That’s all. It won’t hurt.

    But it’s never just five more minutes, is it? Five turns into ten, then twenty, then thirty, and before you know it you realize you needed to be showered, fed and out the door ten minutes ago and your whole morning is screwed. The worst part? You’re not going to feel more rested after 5 more minutes of sleep. No one ever woke up feeling crappy, hit snooze and shut their eyes for five minutes, then reopened them feeling rested and energized. The snooze button tempts you at your weakest with a siren song of false promises that it can’t even deliver on and then ruins your whole day.

    So how do you resist the sinister silver-tongued snooze button? One way is to put your alarm clock as far from you as you possibly can without reducing its effectiveness in waking you up. That forces you to get up out of bed to turn it off, and once you’re up and moving around the temptation of five more minutes of sweet slumber is much easier to resist. If you find that’s not enough, or for some reason your situation makes it impossible to get your alarm far enough away to force you out of bed, make it a rule that you must leave the bedroom for something immediately after shutting off the alarm.

    This can be to get a glass of water, use the restroom, do some jumping jacks, whatever – the point is to get you away from your bed long enough to escape the mental fog present that clings to you following your escape from dreamland. Once that’s been dealt with you’ll find it much easier to resist the urge to return to bed and you can get on with your day.

  • Get to Sleep On Time – If you’re trying to get up at 5 a.m. you’re going to have a much, much harder time of it if you’re going to sleep at 1 a.m. than if you’re asleep by 10 p.m.

    Waking up early isn’t about reducing the total number of hours you’re sleeping. Not getting enough sleep will cause a ton of health problems. I can’t overstate how much you need 7 to 8 hours of sleep. With that being the case if you’re going to push your waking time to earlier then you need to push your sleeping time to earlier too.

    If you’re having trouble getting to sleep on time there are a handful of things you can do. The first is to limit your expose to electronics and media long enough before bedtime to allow your mind to wind down. You should also begin limiting your exposure to light about an hour or so before you want to go to sleep in order to encourage your body to begin producing melatonin.

    Reading before bed is a good option as a way to wind down a bit, but I would recommend reading on a physical book if you can. Now, we’ve pretty much gotten rid of all our books, so if you have to I recommend at least reading in the dark with the brightness on your device turned low enough so as to not be too hard on your eyes.

    Exercise in general will help you get to sleep easier as well, though some people have issues with exercising before bed. Some people it winds down, other people it keys up – figure out which one you are before committing to lots of exercise right before bed.

  • Do Things Gradually – Don’t try to go from waking up at 8 a.m. to waking up at 6 a.m. in one go. That’s too much of a change to throw on yourself all at once. You may do it once or twice but in the end you’re setting yourself up for failure. You’re just going to get discouraged when you eventually fail and then give up.

    Instead, make the change as gradual as possible. Wake up five or ten minutes earlier each day, or each couple days even if it’s a bit harder to adjust, until you get down to the time you want to be waking up at. Each successive success at waking up on time will make you feel a little more confident that you can do it and before long you’ll be at your goal.

    The change each time doesn’t have to be drastic. The point here is to go slow, so don’t push it and just let yourself adjust each time before you make the next small jump earlier a bit.

Have you tried any of these strategies to help yourself wake up earlier? Do you actually enjoy waking up earlier? Why? Let us know in the comments!

Photo Credit: Frank Wuestefeld

How to Actually Accomplish the Stuff on Your To-Do List

To-Dos by Courtney Dirks

Sure you can make a to-do list, but can you actually cross everything back off of it?

I am a man who enjoys his to-do lists.

There’s just something about getting out a physical piece of paper and a pen and actually putting the things I need to accomplish in a day down in ink that feels really good. It makes it feel like I have something concrete to work from, something to keep me on track and focused. When I make a really solid to-do list I feel like there’s absolutely no way I won’t get all of that stuff done.

And by the end of the day, I haven’t done any of it.

So what’s going on? How do you make the jump from making a great to-do list to actually doing what’s on it?

Listing Vs. Doing

To-do lists are a really effective tool, and they genuinely do contribute to helping you accomplish the things you need to do in a day. The problem is that there’s often a disconnect between listing things and doing things.

This disconnect, when manifested like it has in many of my to-do lists past, leads to a long string of great to-do lists that just never get done. The most frustrating part in my experience is that when you make a to-do list and then don’t actually do anything on it you still have the list as a physical representation of all the stuff you should’ve done that day but didn’t adding insult to injury.

Having quite a bit of personal experience with writing things down and then never doing them, I’ve found most often fixing the problem lies in utilizing a handful of techniques that get around the most common obstacles to completing your lists.

Timeboxing

I’ve talked about timeboxing before and for good reason – it works. If you’ve never tried timeboxing before, you essentially allot a specific duration of time to work on a task and limit yourself to that duration of time to do it. As soon as your time runs out, you stop and move on to something else. It doesn’t matter if you’ve completed your task or not – when time’s up, you’re finished.

So how does timeboxing help get around some of the obstacles that are most common in preventing people from completing their to-do lists?

  • It Gets You Started – As a personal trainer, I come across a lot of people who have a desire to get in shape and improve their health, but lack the motivation to actually do workouts at the frequency they need to in order to succeed. Whenever I have a client who struggles with not feeling like working out, I make their first goal to just come to the gym.

    I don’t tell them to workout. I don’t care if they walk in the door and then walk out. I just tell them that I’ll be looking at their visits history and as long as they scan that card to get in the days I tell them to then I’ll be happy. Everyone agrees that even if they don’t have the motivation to workout they at least can muster up enough to come over to the gym swipe a card and leave.

    What I’ve found is, even when people leave their house with the intent of checking in and leaving, once people get in the door they’re almost guaranteed to workout. Now we’re usually not talking a personal record breaking lifting session here, but they do something. In the end, that’s the important thing.

    Once you get started in a task, even if you don’t want to do it, it’s much easier to continue to work on it for a while. Much like it takes less energy to keep water boiling than it does to make it boil, it takes a lot less energy on your part to keep doing something than it does to get started. Timeboxing helps you take that first step by forcing you to choose a task and focus on it for the allotted time. Once you’re rolling most of the hard work is done.

  • It Removes Task Dread – The brilliant part about timeboxing, in my opinion, is that it sets boundaries. People respond well to boundaries.

    Imagine if you were enrolling in college, or signing the papers for a mortgage and, rather than saying you’ll be on track graduate in four years or your home loan will be repaid in fifteen years, they told you that you’ll graduate eventually, or that your home will be yours someday they guess. I don’t know about you, but I would get up and leave.

    Without an end date in sight it’s hard to justify investing those kinds of resources into something. Tasks are no different. You’re never going to start a task that seems endless.

    When something looks to be so huge that you just can’t imagine ever being able to actually finish it, maybe cleaning out the garage for the first time in 8 years for example, it makes it so daunting and painful sounding that you just avoid it.

    Timeboxing removes that apprehension by placing boundaries on the task. Rather than, “I am faced with the endless task of cleaning the Augean stable is my garage,” it’s “Yeah, I’ll clean for an hour and then be done.”

    The second is a lot less painful sounding, and it gets you started which will lead to the momentum to keep going. I should note though that even if you get really into it, stick to your boundaries. Even if you really get into it and are rocking things out, stop at that hour mark. If you don’t, you’ll start eroding your trust in your own boundaries and it may make it more difficult to get started next time.

  • It Forces You to Take Breaks – Taking breaks has huge psychological benefits. Not only does it help you refocus, but it also keeps you from falling into a repetitive mode of thinking and getting bored with whatever you’re doing. Best of all, by not getting bored and by having a scheduled break to look forward to, it’ll keep you from giving in to the temptation of time sinks like Facebook.

    Since timeboxing restricts how long you can work on something, it forces you to take little breaks between tasks. After the break you can switch tasks or do another block of the same task – either way you’ve had five to ten minutes in between to stretch out, get your social media fix and let your mind wander.

    It may not seem like much, but all those things will make a huge difference not only in how easily you accomplish your tasks, but also your creativity and focus as well.

  • It Eliminates Multi-Tasking – Much in the way that breaks are good, multi-tasking is bad. As Ron Swanson would say, “Don’t half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing.”

    Multi-tasking can be seductive because it makes it feel like we’re getting more done when really we’re just doing less and more poorly at that. Doing one thing and doing it well is a much better way to go about things. Timeboxing reinforces that by limiting you to a single task for your allotted time. When you’ve only got an hour to do as much as you can on a task or finish it, you don’t have time to multi-task. You have to focus on whatever it is you need to be doing right then and that means you’ll be able to work a lot better and more efficiently.

Making Good To-Do Lists

Sometimes it’s not that you’re having trouble getting your list done, but rather that you’ve gone and made a really crappy to-do list.

That’s alright – I used to make tons of them.

The two biggest things I see when it comes to poorly constructed to-do lists are overloading it with way too many tasks and, possibly even worse, not including fun tasks.

When your to-do list has 400 things on it, you’re just setting yourself up to fail. Overloading yourself and then having to face the shame of an uncompleted to-do list at the end of the day is not the way to be productive. Instead, limit yourself to a smaller number of tasks that you know you’ll have the time for. Even better, pick a few out of those limited tasks to be designated as your most important tasks for the day and make sure they get done first. That way, even if something gets in the way and you don’t finish your list, you can still feel good about getting the most important things done.

On that note, reading your to-do list should not feel like reading your jail sentence. If you wake up in the morning already annoyed at how terrible your day is going to be because of all the painful stuff on this horrendous to-do list you have to do – then you’re just going to be miserable all day and likely not get any of it done anyway.

Always put some fun stuff on your to do list. Preferably fun productive stuff, but just something fun and relaxing. Having something to look forward to will make a big difference in how you feel and your success rate in actually getting your lists completed.

Do you have any other suggestions for getting things done? Have you used timeboxing before and, if so, what did you think? Tell us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Courtney Dirks

The 330 Day Productivity Challenge

Prague Orloj by Luca Gennari

330 days of consistent productivity – can I pull it off?

It’s been a while since I’ve put myself up for any kinds of challenges so I decided recently that I was way overdue for one. The problem was, I wasn’t sure what kind of challenge I should take.

On top of that, things have been kind of crazy lately and my normal writing schedule has been completely obliterated. As a result I have a huge backlog of articles I’ve been wanting to write and publish, but haven’t been able to actually sit down and take care of all of them. Additionally having recently wrecked one of my ankles in a bad landing while practicing vaults, I’ve been struggling to get my old mobility back now that it’s finished healing.

As a result I’ve decided to make this latest challenge all about productivity.

Specifically long term productivity.

Tortoise or Hare?

In general when it comes to productivity styles there tend to be two categories of people – tortoises and hares.

Like the fable I’m borrowing the titles from, tortoises take things slow and gradually. They focus on consistency of work over quantity of work. They’re less concerned with getting a lot done right now than they are with getting a little done at a time that will eventually accumulate into a large volume of work. Tortoises tend to not have a lot to show for their work at the outset, but wind up with a lot in the end.

Tortoises are marathoners.

Hares work the opposite way. Rather than focus on taking things slow and gradually they like to work fast and frenetically. They focus on insane bursts of super-productivity followed by stretches of repose – quantity of work done in a specific period of time is more important than working consistently. After a productive period a Hare will often have a large volume of work to show for their effort but will then take a long break where they don’t get much if anything done.

Hares are sprinters.

Now, I don’t honestly think there is any inherent advantage of one approach over the other. There are advantages and disadvantages to each.

Personally I have always been a hare. My habits when it comes to productivity are to go a long stretch where I just don’t get anything done. I feel out of it. Uninspired and entirely devoid of motivation. Then, out of nowhere, in a manic burst productive fervor I will destroy a week’s worth of tasks all at once. I’m the kind of person who goes two weeks without doing any work and then in one coffee fueled frenzy writes ten thousand words. I’m the kind of person who will stay up until 4 a.m. because I’m so fired up I can’t sleep until I finish whatever I’m working on.

I wrote my 34,000 word graduate thesis in 5 days. We’d had roughly six months to work on it, and I basically did nothing until that last week, at which point I went into a sleep deprived, hyper-caffeinated, cloistered work mode and got the whole thing done. I’ll have you know I got an A on it too.

In writing this, describing the peaks and valleys of my surges of productivity, it occurs to me it sounds a little like I have some kind of psychological problem. I guess that’s something to worry about another time.

So what’s the point of this tortoise and hare business?

Changing Teams

Like I said I don’t think there’s anything inherently better or worse about either modality. Unlike the original fable in real life there are times when it’s more beneficial to be a tortoise and times when the advantage is the hare’s.

That being said, I have noticed that a pretty large number of successful people tend to be tortoises rather than hares. I also realized that, there being advantages and disadvantages to each, the best possible state to be in would be one where you could switch from one method to the other as the situation dictates.

That’s how this latest challenge was born.

As I said, I am a dyed in the wool hare. (Died in the fur? Whatever)

I think it would be extremely beneficial to me to train myself to embrace tortoise-hood in order to learn how to change from one way to another whensoever the situation I’m in predicates an advantage of one over the other. So I’m going to work to become a tortoise.

The Challenge Goals

The bread and butter of tortoise style productivity is an extremely long stretch of consistent productivity over the manic bursts I’m accustomed to.

That being the goal, rather than set a hard number of things to accomplish which would tempt me to work ahead in bursts and then take some time off I’m going to make my goal to perform certain actions every single day. I’ve done 30 day challenges similar to this in the past, but 30 days has never been long enough to actually force any kind of change in my behavior or habits.

So I’m turning it up to 11.

Rather than 30 days my challenge is to go for 330 days without missing a single day of productivity. Specifically, in order to target a handful of areas I particularly want to work on, my challenge will be to:

  • Write One Article Per Day for 330 Days

  • Mobilize My Ankle for 4 Minutes Per Day for 330 Days

  • Learn 15 New Words Per Day for 330 Days

I’ll write a post about how I intend to tackle this challenge tomorrow when I begin it, but those are the goals I’m shooting for. Ideally by the end of it I’ll have spent enough time in a consistent productive mode that I’ll finally be habituated to it and will be able to switch back and forth from one method to another.

What do you think? Can I do it or am I just setting myself up for failure? Have you ever tried doing something consistently for close to a year? How did it go? Any productivity tortoises out there want to share some tips? Let us know in the comments!

Photo Credit: Luca Gennari

Using the New Memrise App to Learn Everywhere

Memrise Logo

Memrise’s new free app means you can learn efficiently anywhere. Except the bathroom – that’s weird.

To say that I am a big fan of learning would be a monumental understatement. I really think continued learning is one of the most important things you can do with your life.

That dedication to always learning new things means that when new tools come up to make it easier or more efficient I am all over them. The latest of those is the free app out now from Memrise – and it is fantastic.

Best of all when used properly you can learn a substantial amount of information with a fairly minimal time investment and not even feel like you’ve studied.

Enter the Memrise App

I’ve been a big fan of the Memrise site for a long time now. If you’ve never used it, it’s basically a community driven Spaced Repetition System (SRS) learning tool that comes with user generated memory hooks (‘Mems’ as Memrise calls them) already built in for you. Along with Anki it’s my favorite way to memorize large volumes of information, like target language vocabulary for instance, permanently. Right now Memrise and the associated app are both free, although there are plans to have paid courses in the future.

Previously, the single flaw I really found with Memrise was the fact that there really wasn’t a good way to make it mobile. They had a beta app out but it really wasn’t the same – you could also pull the site up in the mobile browser but it was honestly a bit of a pain to use that way. I don’t mind sitting down and putting an hour in doing my reps on Memrise, but I think SRS tools really shine when you can use them in your downtime.

That’s all been fixed by their new app.

The free Memrise app syncs with your account on the website so that all of the courses you’re subscribed to are available on your phone. The interface works perfectly, and all of the really large courses I’ve subscribed to load quickly. It even gives you the option of downloading the courses to your phone so that when off wi-fi you don’t burn through all your plan’s data usage.

How to Use the Memrise App Efficiently

In my opinion where the Memrise app really shines is as the perfect way to make little chunks of inevitable downtime extremely useful. Since – if you’re like me – your phone goes with you everywhere, you can study everywhere. Combine this with the fact that the heart and soul of SRS is small chunks of spaced out study rather than large sessions and it makes for a perfect opportunity for learning.

Every time you have a few moments – waiting for a bus, standing in line, waiting to be seated at a restaurant, etc. you can pull out your phone and learn or reinforce five or six new vocab words. There are lots and lots of these little chunks of dead time each day, and over the course of a month it adds up to hours and hours of study time. The best part is, you don’t feel like you’ve actually studied, you just realize one day that you know a ton more vocab than you did a couple weeks ago.

Let’s face it, you’re going to pull out your phone during these times anyway, why not personally benefit from it?

A good trick I’ve found is that I made it a rule that I have to do one round on Memrise before I can open Facebook, Twitter or my E-mail on my phone. I don’t think I’m alone in admitting that I do this compulsively, so it makes for a lot of opportunities to learn. Best of all, the courses are broken into small manageable chunks which are further broken into small learning sessions. Each session takes me 30 seconds to a minute to complete so I’m really not inconvenienced at all by doing it before I get to whatever I was originally going to do on my phone.

You can find Memrise on the Apple App Store for iPhone and on Google Play for Android.

Have you tried out the Memrise app? What did you think? Come up with any other good tricks for getting the most out of it? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Memrise

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