Identity Based Habits 101 – How to Build a Habit Forever

More Questions than Answers by An Untrained Eye

The best way to form a lasting habit is to completely re-imagine your identity.

Anyone who’s ever tried to build a new habit from scratch knows – change is difficult.

Think about it, how many times have you gotten really fired up about wanting to start something new, whether it was a new exercise program, studying a second language, writing a book or even just getting in the habit of stretching a little each morning?

As fired up as you were, how long until that initial motivation wore off and you were back to your old habits of not working out, studying, writing or whatever? For most people it’s usually not long at all. So what’s the trick to making a new habit stick if being really pumped about it initially isn’t enough?

The use of identity based habits.

What are identity based habits?

I’ve written about using identity based habits to achieve goals in the past, but in case you aren’t familiar with them the basic idea is that you can best solidify a habit by becoming the kind of person who would perform that action habitually.

Ok, that may actually sound more confusing – here’s how it works.

Without getting too much into discussions of free will, determinism and compatibilism, essentially all of your thoughts and decisions arise out of processes that begin unconsciously. In other words, while it may feel like you consciously decided to have a cup of coffee this morning in reality that decision was made well before you were aware of it by a long chain of neurological and causative factors.

In fact, studies have been done where researches hooked participants up to brain scanners and could accurately predict what the people were going to do when left alone in a room (for example, pick up a magazine, walk around, etc.) several moments before that person was aware they were going to do it. This was possible because regions of the brain the participants weren’t consciously aware of fired well before they had the ‘conscious decision’ to do what they were going to do.

Alright, so that’s kind of freaky – but what does it have to do with building habits?

Well what that demonstrates is that whether you like it or not, your decisions and behaviors really are largely if not entirely dictated by factors that exist outside of or independent of your conscious mind. In other words if you’re trying to form a new habit by sheer willpower alone, you’re already setting yourself up in a losing battle – or at least a battle over which you have very little control over the outcome.

Rather than just throw the dice and hope you roll high enough to form the habit (some D&D player somewhere is reading this and nodding), using identity based habits lets you rig the dice in your favor.

An identity based habit is formed by acting like the person you want to be until you actually become them. So, for example, if you’re currently overweight and want to get into the habit of lifting weights three times per week you would begin to think of yourself as ‘a weightlifter’ or maybe ‘an athlete’ – at the very least as ‘a fit person’.

Then, gradually, you would set yourself up to really live like you were already ‘a fit person’. You would do whatever things in your mind ‘a fit person’ does, maybe read about lifting and nutrition, talk about it with other people, and (most importantly in this case) lift regularly. Before long it become self-reinforcing and the new parts of your identity that you’ve been ‘faking’ would become part of your real identity.

In other words, by thinking of yourself as ‘a fit person’ and strongly identifying as such it becomes contrary to your nature to not go lift. Before long it will get to the point where it will feel strange to not do the very thing you’ve been struggling to make habitual.

This rigs the system by changing the environment, background causes and subconscious neurological factors that determine our choices before we are aware of them. Put simply, you’re making it hard to lose by playing a winnable game.

How to Establish Identity Based Habits

You may at this point be saying, “Ok, that makes sense, but how in the world do I just change my identity? Isn’t that as hard as changing my habits in the first place?”

Not quite as difficult, but to be fair there is some truth to it – suggesting that you should wake up tomorrow and just decide to have an entirely new identity is a lot like suggesting to someone suffering from depression to decide to cheer up – it’s not going to be that easy.

The best ways to make the transition process easier are by playing pretend and using small winnable goals to prove to yourself that you really are the kind of person who you want to be. We’ll look at playing pretend first.

Remember being young and playing make-believe? Well if you can’t try really hard because that’s exactly what we’re going to use to get your new habits to stick.

Rather than try to force yourself to genuinely believe right off the bat that you are now, say, ‘a person who can speak four languages’ rather than someone who speaks one pretend to be that person. Fake it ’til you make it, as the saying goes.

This works because in the end it doesn’t really matter if you believe it, as long as you pretend well enough to do the things the person you want to be would do, then eventually you’ll wake up one morning as that person. Using the above as an example, if you pretend like you’re the person who learns languages easily and do all the things that you imagine that kind of person would do (study up on target languages, read news in those languages, watch TV in those languages, etc.) than eventually you’ll have done so much of that you will actually be the kind of person who does those things – see how that works?

The other good way to ease into it is by using small goals as ways to prove to yourself that you can actually be the person you want to be.

By small goals I mean significant things that are still small enough to accomplish without much trouble. For example, if you want to redefine yourself as a writer you don’t want to shoot for writing a book in a week – that’s just setting yourself up to fail at which point you’ll doubt that self-image. Instead you would pick something like writing 500 words everyday. That’s maybe half a page or so.

That type of goal is achievable enough that you really have no excuse not to do it. No matter how busy you are you have the ten minutes or so per day necessary to write half a page worth of something. After a couple weeks, when you look back at all you’ve written, you can say to yourself, “Hey, look at all this I’ve accomplished. I guess I really am a writer!” Then you can kick it up a notch to 1,000 words per day or whatever the next step would be in solidifying that self-image.

Just like with faking it, before long you’ll find it just feels wrong to not write something each day. After all, you’re a writer and that’s what writer’s do. When you get to that point – congratulations, you’ve just formed a lifelong habit.

The best results will always come from not focusing on the end goal or result (I want to be fit) but instead by focusing on embracing and internalizing the process itself (I want to be the kind of person who trains regularly and eats right).

Have you ever tried to change your self-identity in order to better solidify or create a habit? How did it go? Do you have any other advice for other people who would like to try? Share it with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: An Untrained Eye

4 Quick Workout Tips for Super Busy People

Double-decker Bus Does Pushups by Michael Camilleri

I advocate doing push ups while you wait for the bus, I don’t advocate buses doing push ups.

Life is busy.

For all the same reasons you probably don’t think you’ve got time to learn a second language you may also think you haven’t got the time to spend hours every week getting fit and healthy. Now while I think most people do have some things that can prioritize around and cut from their schedule, I’m not going to say it’s as simple as cutting out TV time. Most people are genuinely busy and that can make fitting in a workout difficult.

Thankfully there are some ways that you can make it work and at least fit something in without having to sacrifice anything from your schedule.

Do What Fits Your Schedule

Even if you’re following a set program like Starting Strength or Wendler’s 5/3/1 it’s not the end of the world if you do a different workout instead that fits your schedule better that day.

Sure, if you’re consistently finding that you only have the time to do a workout from the program you’re following properly once a week, then it might be a good idea to either reevaluate your reasons for being on that program or reevaluate your schedule. If it’s just once in a while though Rippetoe is not going to hunt you down and punch you in the face.

Instead either pick a different workout that’s shorter like our 5 minute morning bodyweight workout or just do whatever you can from your normal workout in that time frame.

Even if that means only doing your warm up and your cool down that’s fine – it was something – and something is always better than doing nothing at all.

If you have a little more time you can prioritize what you do from the workout. If you’re more focused on your legs right now do your squats but leave the pressing for another day. Use the limited time you do have to hit what’s most important to you, which brings me to the next tip…

Be Efficient

If you have a very limited amount of time to get a workout in, it makes the most sense to get the most out of that short workout.

For that reason you always want to make sure to prioritize what you plan to do. Always put strength training above cardio. Gains in conditioning on the cardiovascular side of things diminish relatively quickly when you go for a period of time with no training. Gains on the strength side of things however last much longer when you have some time off and in fact can even be benefited by taking breaks. It makes a lot more sense then if you have a chaotic or busy schedule to not worry so much about the cardio side of things and to prioritize strength training.

Within the strength training you should always prioritize what you’ll get the most benefit from for your particular goals. If you have a sport or activity you really love or are actually training for, hit the most used muscle groups for it and leave the less used ones for another time. Alternatively you can hit whatever area needs the most work or feels the most recovered from the last workout.

Everyone’s prioritization is going to differ based on their goals – the important thing it to put the thought into prioritizing first.

A related option for prioritization is to do whatever exercise you enjoy the most. If you hate push ups, pick them as the thing to drop and leave in what you enjoy. Choosing to do what you consider fun will ensure you enjoy your brief workout and aren’t tempted to come up with excuses to skip it. That ties in to our next piece of advice…

Have Fun and Go Play

I think most people, if they had only 20 minutes of free time in a day, would rather do something fun than workout. Part of the problem here is that most people don’t find working out as fun as I do, but the other problem is that they think it’s one or the other – you can have fun and work out at the same time.

While it’s certainly true that a well-planned and structured fitness program is the best way to get you to your particular fitness goals for most people any kind of physical activity is a serious improvement from that they normally do.

So just go play.

Chase your dog around the park, race your kids, grab a handful of friends and play a pick-up game of something, go try out parkour. There are countless options.

Don’t really feel like doing that upper body workout today? When was the last time you climbed a tree? Not in the mood for those interval sprints? See who can get to the tennis ball faster, you or your dog. Anything that you really enjoy that gets you moving not only gets you a little bit of exercise, but it also makes sure you won’t hate it and fight to come up with excuses why you can’t do it.

Weave Exercise into Your Routine

I understand that for some people their schedule is so tight that even all of these options may not work, particularly if they’re struggling to find even a short chunk of time to get away and have a quick workout. Even if you fall into that category, there are options.

If you really don’t have 10 to 15 minutes in one single block for some quick activity then weave it into your day.

There are tons of things you can do both while you’re working on other things or during the hundreds of minutes each day you inevitably spend waiting on something.

If you sit all day consider switching to a standing desk. Every time you’re waiting for something to load on your computer hop up and do push ups until it loads. Do dips on the handrail of the elevator as you ride it up to your office or take the stairs and lunge your way up them. Hop down on the floor and see if you can hold a plank for the entire duration of the commercial break. Rock out some bodyweight squats while you wait for the bus.

There are countless options. The point is to just always be present in the moment with with whatever you’re doing and asking yourself, “Could I be exercising while I do this?”

These are just a few of our best quick tips for fitting some fitness time into a packed schedule, but there are lots more. I want to hear from all the other busy people – do you have any things you do that help you stay fit even when you’re super busy? Share them with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Michael Camilleri

Easy Ways to Maximize Limited Language Learning Time

Hangul by Chita21

It’s a fact of life – most people are busy.

You’ve got a full time job or school to worry about, possibly a family to take care of, and countless other responsibilities. Not everyone wants to spend their downtime studying either, you need a little time to relax and have fun too.

When you add all of that up, there isn’t always a lot of time left for learning a new language. If you’re living in a country that primarily speaks the language you’re learning it’s not as much of an obstacle, but not everyone has that luxury. Thankfully there are some tips and tactics you can use to get the most out of both the limited time you can dedicate to practice and all the downtime you’ve got throughout the day.

Optimizing Learning Time

First we’ll look at some things you can do to optimize the time you can specifically devote to studying your target language. A lot of these have to do with making sure you’re as focused and productive as possible.

  • Have A Plan – Don’t go into a study session not really knowing what your goal is for that session. Studying without a goal almost always leads to aimless screwing around and that’s almost never productive. Instead, go into each study session with a plan not only for what your specific goal for that study session is but also with a game plan for how you’re going to work toward or reach that goal during that session. It can be as simple as ‘Memorize these 20 new words’ or as complicated as ‘Be able to write a poem in my target language’, the important thing is to have a goal.
  • Eliminate Distractions – If you have an hour set aside to study, use that entire hour to study. Do not check Facebook, do not watch TV, do not listen to music, do not get distracted by texts from friends or check your RSS or go read blogs (even this one). You can use a program like Rescue Time or Freedom to shut off your Internet temporarily if you’re not using it to access your materials. If you have to just download everything you need or print it out then turn your phone off and rip out your modem – you’ve dedicated this time to studying and damnit, you’re going to spend that time studying.
  • Take Controlled Breaks – I know, I know I just told you to buckle down and study for the time you allotted, and you should, but you should also take a controlled five minute break every 20 minutes or so. It turns out we tend to remember things better the closer they are to the beginning and ending of our study sessions. By taking a very short break every 20 minutes or so you can maximize your recall from the study session much more than if you sat there and studied for an hour straight. This is not free license to give into distractions and goof off. Your breaks should be no more than 5 minutes and they should be something that you’re not going to get sucked into. That means yes to getting up and stretching, walking around or doing some push ups and no to checking Facebook, your e-mail or just about anything online.

Optimizing Downtime

So now you know how to get the most out of your structured study sessions, but what if you don’t have the time to have structured study sessions. My first question would be ‘How much time do spend watching TV every night?’. Even excluding that, there are thousands of little moments of downtime each day, times when you’re waiting on something or not doing anything, that you can add up into a substantial amount of study time.

  • Master Passive Learning – Just because you can’t go live in a country that speaks your target language doesn’t mean you can’t master passive, immersive learning by building your own language bubble. When you’re in the car, at the gym or anywhere else you can have your headphones in or music playing listen to dialogues in your target language that you’ve selected or listen to music in your target language. Label everything in your house in your target language using sticky notes. Use your relaxing TV time to watch TV in your target language. Essentially every time you can be exposed to input in your target language make sure you’re getting it.
  • Use In-Between Moments – There are countless moments in your day when you just sit there waiting for something. Maybe you’re waiting for an elevator, for a website to load, for the microwave to finish, for your turn to order at a restaurant – frequently with the proliferation of smartphones people use this time to check in on Facebook and Twitter. Instead, use them to practice a phrase or grammar structure you’re working on or to flip through some flashcards of new vocab.
  • Talk To Yourself – It doesn’t have to be loudly, particularly if you’re at work or on the subway or something (although muttering to yourself in a foreign language might guarantee people give you a little space to get comfortable), but talking to yourself in your target language is not only a good way to reinforce what you’ve learned and solidify it in your memory – it’s also a good way to develop the muscle memory for speaking. Speaking a language is a skill, and just like other skills the muscle you use to practice that skill (your mouth and related bits in this case) need to build up the motor pathways from repeated practice to make the skill feel most natural. The more you chat to yourself, even if you just move your lips and don’t vocalize, the more used to speaking that language you’ll get.

With all of these tactics you really have no excuse for being too busy to learn a language – so go get started! If you have any other helpful ways to pack more practice and study into limited share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Chita21

The 5 Minute Morning Bodyweight Workout

Watch the Watch by Nicolasnova

Only 5 minutes every morning to be healthier, happier and feel better all day long.

There are some days when getting yourself to the gym is a huge struggle. It’s understandable, sometimes you’re really just not feeling it. The worst part is then you feel like crap the next day because you’re full of regret for skipping a lifting day.

Rather than let that get you down, why not take 5 minutes every morning to run through a light workout? Sure, it’s no replacement for heavy lifting, but putting in 5 minutes every morning will ensure that even on days when you skip your regularly scheduled workout you’ll still have done something.

What’s even better is exercise in the morning helps energize you for the rest of the day, so getting in one of these quick 5 minute workouts will help pump you up and make you less likely to want to skip that proper workout anyway. On top of that some research suggests that a quick fasted workout in the mornings helps increase your metabolism for the rest of the day.

You do have 5 minutes to spare when you crawl out of bed right? Come on. No excuses. Pick one of these and do them every morning as soon as your feet hit the floor and you’ll feel much, much better through the rest of your day.

Basic Workout

This basic body weight circuit will get you moving and shake the sleep off of you but isn’t intended to be a full workout. This is something you can do in the morning everyday when you wake up – even on days when you’re going to lift heavy later.

  • 10 Burpees – To do a burpee squat down until your hands are touching the ground, then kick your legs back into the top of a push up position. Lower yourself to the floor and then reverse the motion doing a push up, then kicking your legs back under you and standing up. That’s one.
  • 25 Squats – Each squat should go as low as possible with your heels staying planted on the ground and your back staying straight. If you need to put your hands out in front of you and stabilize yourself with a bed or the back of a chair that’s no problem as long as you’re going through the full range of motion.
  • 25 Inverted Rows – These will require a good sturdy table or desk. Most kitchen tables work just fine. You want to lay halfway underneath the table holding on to the edge with both hands. Pull yourself up so your chest touches the edge of the table and then lower yourself back down for one rep.
  • 25 Push Ups – These should be good solid form push ups through a full range of motion. If you’re not sure you can do a good push up try one of these push up variations.

Starting out you can do just one round of the circuit every morning. As you get more used to it you can add rounds up to the point where you’re going through the whole circuit three times.

In general I wouldn’t recommend running through the circuit more than three times in the morning – the idea here isn’t to get a heavy workout just to wake you up and get the blood flowing and get your muscles primed for the rest of the day.

Intermediate Workout

If you barely break a sweat doing three rounds of the basic workout give this slightly more advanced version a try. Just like the basic version start out at one round and work your way up to three.

  • 15 Burpees
  • 20 Split-Squats – Place one foot behind you up on a chair or bed so that just your instep is up on the support. Putting most of your weight on your front leg lower yourself down so that your back leg forms a 90 degree angle with the ground and then press yourself back up. Do 20 on each side.
  • 15 Pull Up Negatives – Negatives mean just the part of the movement that is aided by gravity. In the case of pull ups that means the part where you’re lowering yourself back down. Get to the top of the pull up position by jumping into it and then lower yourself back down in as slow and controlled a manner as possible for one rep.
  • 25 Decline Push Ups – These are the same as regular push ups except you put your feet on an elevated surface like a bed or chair. The higher your feet in relation to your hands the more difficult they become.

Lastly, if this workout is just too easy for you give the advanced version a try.

Advanced Workout

If you’re looking for more of a challenge than give this workout a try. For most people each of these movements are a good workout on their own.

  • 25 Burpees
  • 15 One Legged Squats / Pistols – Hold one leg out in front of you, do a full squat on the leg you’re still standing on for one rep. Do 15 on each side.
  • 10 Pull Ups
  • 20 One Armed Push Ups – The same as a standard push up except performed on only one arm with legs spread wider than normal. Do 20 on each side.

So there you go. One of these will fit pretty much everyone’s level, so pick one and start doing it each morning. I’ll admit, depending on rest times if you’re going for 3 rounds it may be more like 15 minutes – but you should have 5 to 15 minutes to spare every morning to be healthier, feel better and be happier through the day. Like I said before, no excuses.

If you’re interested in more in depth calisthenics workouts you can also find other systems like Bar Brothers that might suit your needs.

Have you tried any of these out yet? What do you think? Have another morning warm up workout you particularly love? Share it with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Nicolasnova

365 Small Steps to Incredible

Interview Schedule by Wenzday01

Are a little better today at something than you were yesterday?

You can be incredible.

I mean that. You can be incredible. You can be the kind of person where people say, “Wow, I have no idea how he/she does it. I wish I could do that.” You can close your eyes at the end of each day reassured that you’re just a little better than you were the day before.

The best part? It’s easy to do and it only takes a few minutes a day.

The Power of Little Changes

Over enough time very small changes will accumulate into very, very big changes. You can see the evidence of that principle everywhere, a tiny bit of erosion every day over millions of years and you have the Grand Canyon. Through tiny, incremental changes single cell organisms diversified into the billions of species we know of and the even larger billions of species that’ve gone extinct before our time.

Lots of little changes add up to a big difference.

When you look at it through that lens, becoming incredible doesn’t look like such a daunting task – it just takes time. Unless you’re undead or some manner of cyborg you probably haven’t got eons to work with, but a year is a pretty long time on the scale of human life so let’s start there.

A Commitment to Improvement

You’ve got 365 days to play with in an average year. That’s 365 opportunities to become just a tiny bit better at something. 365 chances for you to improve yourself which, when added together, can make you incredible.

Imagine if you wanted to get good at playing guitar. Don’t you think you’d be pretty good if you got just a little better 365 times? Don’t you think you’d be pretty fit if you got just a little bit stronger or lost just a little bit of weight 365 times? Even a tenth of a pound of fat loss everyday (less than the 1.5 pound per week average) for a year adds up to 36.5 pounds of weight gone. That’s a big change.

The key is to make a promise to yourself to get just a little better at something every single day. Complete your run a second faster, write one more sentence, lift one more pound, learn one more word, meet one more person, spend one more minute meditating, practice one more parkour technique, whatever. Never ever settle for stagnation.

Paradoxically this is simultaneously easy and difficult. It’s easy because it generally only requires a few minutes per day – it’s not that painful to do just a bit more each day. It’s difficult because as a species we tend to be pretty lazy. We like to do the bare minimum to get by, so reminding yourself to go just that little bit further can get forgotten or ignored.

The best way to get around that is to write your goals down or put up reminders where you know you’ll find them. Stick notes up all over, put alarms and reminders on your phone, tell a friend to punch you in the face if you don’t do it – whatever works for you.

Don’t Worry About the Jones’

The goal here is to be incredible, sure. That definitely comes with a bit of egotism, but your primary drive shouldn’t be to be better than everyone else. That just gets frustrating. Instead you should worry about competing with yourself. If you’re better today than you were yesterday then that’s what’s important, not if you’re better than someone else.

If you stick to your commitment and improve every day – even if by a minuscule measure – by the end of the year you will have made an incredible improvement from where you were 365 days prior.

Are you committed to making yourself a little bit better every day? Do you think all this self-improvement stuff is a bunch of crap? Have any other tips to share to become incredible via incremental improvements? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Wenzday01

Shut Up and Do Something

The Gnome in Somebody's Front Yard by B Tal

Please don’t be an Underpants Gnome.

This may come across a bit as a personal rant, so I apologize in advance, but I’m sick to death of people who whine about their situation or talk about improving it but never actually do anything.

I call them Underpants Collectors – inspired both by Steve Kamb of Nerd Fitness’s excellent article and the hilarious South Park episode that inspired it. Underpants Collectors are people who want to accomplish something, lose weight, learn a new language or maybe start a business and quit their 9 to 5 but never actually do anything to get there. These people feel like they’re working hard, but they never actually reach their goal.

If this sounds like you, keep reading – we can fix it.

Two Examples of Voracious Underpants Collectors

Here are two examples, pulled from real people I know whose names have been changed to avoid embarrassment. Keeping with our South Park inspiration, let’s call them Stan and Kyle. Stan and Kyle are Underpants Collectors – people who, like the gnomes in the episode, have a starting point and an ending point but nothing in between so they just sit at step 1.

Stan is severely overweight. I’m talking obese. He knows it too, he’s been trying to lose weight for years. He picks a plan he likes or starts an exercise routine and sticks to it for a little while then quits. He talks about how he knows he needs to eat better while simultaneously cramming a fast food burger into his mouth. Stan gives every impression of knowing what he needs to do, and he knows that he has the knowledge to lose the weight, but he’s never successful.

After a while Stan starts to get whiny. It’s so hard to lose weight, he’s been trying for so long. Nothing ever seems to work. He talks at length about how great it would be to lose weight and how much he wants it, then skips his scheduled workout to catch American Idol. Internally Stan’s started to cast himself as a victim in all this and is steadily building an enormous collection of underpants.

Kyle is in a similar boat. He really wants to quit his job and start his own business. He has dreams of being self-sufficient, maybe not independently wealthy but able to make a comfortable living while setting his own hours and working from home.

Kyle talks endlessly of this goal. He obsesses over every scrap of information on starting your own business or making money online. He recommends get rich quick (and slow) books to all of his friends and family. Hour after hour of every day are devoted to reading and researching and learning about starting a business – and that’s it.

His obsession with figuring out what the best thing is to do means that he never actually does anything. His days are spent pouring over blog posts and growing a formidable pile of underpants.

Embracing Action

Do you see what the shared problem is between Stan and Kyle?

Both of them need to shut up and do something! They need to stop worrying about getting everything perfect or talking about what they need to do and just do it. Sometimes this is also called paralysis by analysis, but what it’s called doesn’t matter – it’s a waste of time and will never get you anywhere.

The fact is when it comes to accomplishing something, anything at all, the person who does something completely wrong is still going to get farther than the person who does nothing at all. I don’t care if you’re doing something as moronic as the Shake Weight – that’s still better than doing absolutely nothing.

Even if you fail it’s better than inaction. I love to fail. Failing is probably the single best learning experience you can have and if you never try you can never have the opportunity to experience it.

So if this sounds like you, if you’re the kind of person who reads tons of books and blogs and tutorials on how to do something and you talk about your goals all the time but never actually do anything about them – shut up and do something. Don’t collect underpants, go accomplish something.

Have any other advice for Underpants Collectors? Are you a former time-waster who’s taken charge and actually gotten things done? Think I’m being too mean to the whiners who never actually do what they want to do? Share it in the comments!

Photo Credit: B Tal

What You’re Probably Doing Right Now That’s Killing You

Two New Bottles by Brother O' Mara

Not all things that kill you are so clearly labeled.

There’s something you’re doing that’s making your life shorter. This is something that most of our U.S. readers do on average for at least 11 hours each day. It’s even something that I would bet you’re probably doing right now as you read this. Ready for the big revelation? Are you sitting down? Well then stand back up because that’s what’s killing you – sitting.

Yes, you heard me right. The more you sit in a day the sooner you are likely to die.

The Slow Seated Death

So what’s the big deal? Can sitting really be killing me?

As it turns out, yes, it can. More and more studies are being done and they all confirm that, even after correcting for other lifestyle choices such as diet, physical activity and whether or not participants smoked, people who sat 11 hours or more per day were 40% more likely to die within the next three years than those who sat less than 4 hours per day.

Another study showed that those who sat for greater than 6 hours but still exercise were 37% more likely to die than those who spent less than 3 hours seated and exercised. When you compare the groups that exercise with sample groups who didn’t, you find the people who sat for 6 hours and didn’t exercise were 94% more likely to die and those who sat for 3 hours were 48% more likely to die than the group that sat the least and exercised.

For the statistically inclined the studies in question came up with P-values of <0.00001. For the non-statistically inclined this means that the correlation between sitting and increased mortality would not occur simply at random 99.999% of the time. In other words, the studies here are statistically significant. They also showed a strong dose-response association which means that the bigger the dose (the longer you sit) the bigger the response (the more likely you are to die).

Even more concerning is the fact that these studies indicate that the effect of exercise done around the long blocks of sitting don’t cause a very large statistical difference in the mortality rates for those who sit a lot. That means that while it’s still important to be exercising you can’t fully out-exercise the negative results of spending all day planted in a chair, at a desk or on the couch.

While it may not sound like a big deal compared to the increased chance of death, sitting all day also drastically stretches and extends your glutes (your butt muscles) and shortens and tightens your hip flexors (the muscles that you use to take a step forward).

When you place a muscle in its weakened, stretched position and leave it there for long periods of time the muscle itself becomes weaker and inactivated. That means it can’t produce as much force. Conversely, when you hold a muscle in a shortened position it becomes tight and overactive.

This imbalance in the force-couple relationship between your glutes and hip flexors causes a whole host of problems ranging from severely limiting your range of motion on exercises like the squat to causing the knee to bend medially to causing lower back pain and predisposing you to ACL tears. All of these are very bad.

Fixing The Problem

The first step in making this right is to recognize just how much you sit in a day. If you’re like the average office worker or student it’s probably a lot – particularly if you get home and chase it with couch time. The first step is going to be taking active measures to reduce the total time on your tush.

One of the ways to do that is to work at a standing desk. Now it should be noted that other studies have shown spending an excessive amount of time standing in one spot without moving around can be fairly detrimental to your health as well, so a standing desk is no panacea. As long as you recognize that you need to take occasional breaks to move around, stretch, walk some laps or do a little mobility work the standing desk will make a huge difference. Some people have even go so far as to create treadmill desks so they can walk slowly while they work.

If you’re not ready for that kind of change or don’t want to be the only person in your office with a weird desk, find some way to set a reminder to get up for at least 5 minutes every half hour. Set an alarm on your computer or watch or buy a $2 egg timer if you have to, but obey what it tells you and get up for 5 minutes twice every hour.

You don’t have to go sprint or anything, just getting up and walking around to break up the long blocks of sitting has been shown to have a real positive effect on people’s health.

Lastly, if you’re ready to start restoring power to your inactive glutes and stretching out those tight hip flexors start spending a few minutes each day in a proper squat stretch or indigenous squat and in the couch stretch. These two alone don’t take very long and when done for a few minutes daily will go a long way to correcting the mobility issues created by years of sitting. Doing some foam rolling on your glutes, TFL and adductors wouldn’t hurt either.

In our office we have a standing desk set up with three positions so that we can work standing, work while in a full squat or work sitting on the floor in full lotus or seiza. All these options, coupled with the fact that I’ve made hourly breaks an unbreakable habit, mean I’m never stuck in one position for too long and can still get all my work done.

All these are just some of the options for correcting the issues, the important thing is to be aware how profound of a negative effect being stuck in a chair all day can have and begin taking steps to fixing the problem. Have any other suggestions or a unique way you keep out of chairs all day? Share it with us in the comments, we’d love to hear it.

I’d also like to leave you with this infographic from Medical Billing and Coding because I think it sums everything up in a well-presented way.

How Sitting is Killing You

Photo Credit: Brother O’ Mara

Don’t Bench Press ’til You French Press – A Guide to Caffeine for Performance Enhancement

Black, White, Coffee by Bitzcelt

The drug of choice for millions can give you better workouts.

Caffeine is the number one most consumed drug in the world. It’s in soda, chocolate, coffee, tea, energy drinks and even a lot of herbal supplements. Most people are extremely familiar with – if not dependent on – the energy boost it provides. I know I tend to be somewhat less than peppy if I miss my morning coffee. What most people don’t know is that caffeine is an extremely effective performance enhancer for training.

If you know how and when to supplement with caffeine you can not only improve your endurance, but improve your strength output and prime your body to burn more fat during exercise than it normally would. That means you get more out of every workout for the price of a cup of coffee. Sounds good to me.

The Benefits of Caffeine

Researchers and exercise physiologists have been studying the effects of caffeine as a performance enhancer since at least 1978 and study after study has confirmed the same conclusion – it works. In fact, with all the solid data on the clear benefits of caffeine supplementation it’s a wonder it hasn’t been banned in more sports. Here are just some of the benefits caffeine offers.

Improved Endurance

The most obvious benefit to caffeine supplementation is it’s ability to improve muscular endurance. That means that you can go harder for longer without having to take a rest. Formerly it was thought this was a result of caffeine’s ability to release fat stores into the bloodstream to be used as fuel saving your muscle’s glycogen stores and allowing them to last longer. Now though research has shown caffeine also stimulates the release of calcium stored in muscle – the release of this calcium increases both endurance and overall power output.

On top of all of that, caffeine has the neurological effect of distorting your perception of exhaustion, meaning that even when your energy stores are used up your brain thinks it can keep going allowing you to push past your normal point of failure.

Regardless of how it works, researchers agree that caffeine supplementation can improve an athlete’s endurance from 5% all the way up to 25% depending on the person. A five percent increase may not sound like much, but when you’re trying to push yourself to run just a little bit farther it can make all the difference.

Increased Strength Output

When it comes to maximal strength training the best way to get stronger is to move heavy weights. The heavier weights you can move the stronger you can become and the more muscle you can build. Caffeine can help you do that more quickly by increasing the total amount you can lift.

This effect may be due to the release of fat stores and calcium that we mentioned or it may be an effect of the widening of blood vessels and increased blood oxygenation that caffeine produces – either way the result ranges from a 3% increase in strength output all the way up to an 18% increase in some studies.

To put that in perspective, for someone with a non-caffeinated 1RM bench of 200 pounds that could mean an increase of 36 pounds. That’s an impressive return for doing something as easy as downing a cup of Starbucks.

Better Fat Metabolism

More concerned about losing weight than about running farther or getting stronger? No problem, caffeine still has you covered. Caffeine stimulates the release of stored fat into the bloodstream for energy and causes the body to place a preference on using fat as energy over carbohydrates.

Best of all, this effect lasts for at least a few hours on average. That means that the increase in free flowing fatty acids is there both during your workout to fuel your efforts, and after your workout to help replace muscle glycogen stores. This means caffeine before your workout makes you burn more fat during and after that workout and may also aid in recovery.

If you’re trying to lose those last few stubborn pounds caffeine supplementation can be the thing that finally gets you past the plateau.

Beyond all of these benefits there are tons of tertiary benefits to regular caffeine consumption including lowered risk of cardiac disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s – so even if you’re not using it directly as a performance enhancer it helps keep you healthy.

A Few Precautions

Caffeine is a drug.

That means that like with any other drug there are potential side effects and dosage control is very important. Thankfully, the list of potential detriments from caffeine is relatively minor and, unless you’re pouring an entire bottle of caffeine pills down your throat, it is relatively difficult to overdose.

Blood Pressure, Increased Heart Rate & Dehydration

The first potential problem we’ll address right away is dehydration. The diuretic effects of caffeine are way, way overblown. In people who are completely unconditioned to caffeine there’s a slight diuretic effect but even this is weak enough to be insignificant in terms of increasing risk for dehydration. Be intelligent – you know when you need fluids so get them.

When it comes to increasing blood pressure and heart rate caffeine does have a slightly stronger effect but only in people who have not had caffeine for 4 to 5 days. If you have a cup of coffee everyday anyway, and have been for more than a few days, than caffeine doesn’t have any effect on your blood pressure or heart rate and won’t unless you go cold turkey for a while then reintroduce it.

If you have heart problems and hypertension and have never had a coffee or a soda in a month or two than you should be a little careful, everyone else is fine.

The best part about this conditioning is studies have shown that while the detrimental effects follow a curve of diminishing returns the benefits do not. That means if you consume some caffeine everyday you still get the full performance enhancing benefit with none of the detrimental side effects.

How to Use Caffeine to Improve Performance

Ok, so you’re convinced now right? You know you should be supplementing with caffeine to improve your workouts and you want to know how.

The first step is choosing the right source for your caffeine. Caffeine is in a lot of things nowadays and you have a lot of options. Since we’re ingesting this caffeine with the goal of using it to improve exercise performance – and therefore I assume health is important to you – we can eliminate all sugary drinks first offhand. That means no sodas, energy drinks or chocolate.

So what’re we left with? Tea, coffee and caffeine pills are the main contenders remaining. Tea has a lot of general health benefits, but it has relatively low caffeine content so I would exclude it as well. That leaves coffee and caffeine pills.

The final decision between the two comes down a lot to personal preference. Some studies have shown a statistically stronger benefit to ingesting the pure caffeine pills over the coffee, and it is much easier to control the dosage. That being said, coffee is really good – so it’s your choice.

As far as the dosages go, the general recommendation is 3 to 6 mg per kg of bodyweight. Several studies have shown benefit from dosages as low as 1 mg per kg of bodyweight though, so you may need to do a little personal experimentation and see what works best for you. The best time to ingest the caffeine is between and hour and 30 minutes prior to exercise.

An average 20 oz cup of coffee (a Venti for you Starbucks patrons) has 400 mg of caffeine, which would be more than enough for most people. A standard caffeine pill is 200 mg, meaning it also would be more than enough for anyone weighing less than 200 kg (about 440 lbs.) – so you’re covered whichever way you go.

If you’re feeling non-scientific about it 12 to 16 oz of coffee should be enough. Getting more than you need doesn’t diminish the effects, so if you like coffee you might as well go for the large or have them drop a shot of espresso in there.

You can overdose on caffeine, but that usually requires between 150 to 200 mg per kg of bodyweight in humans which translates to 80 to 100 cups of coffee for most people. It’s a little easier with caffeine pills, and some people have had problems with as little as 2 grams so don’t go crazy. Normal usage won’t have any detriments though.

So there you have it – improved endurance, strength, fat loss and tons of other benefits and all you need is a single pill or a medium cup of coffee. With all the benefits, the ease of use and the almost complete lack of negative side effects why would you not want to boost your workouts with caffeine supplementation?

Do you use caffeine regularly for the performance enhancement effects and if not do you think you’ll give it a try? Have you noticed a direct effect from it? Share your experiences in the comments!

Photo Credit: Bitzcelt

Special thanks to my father-in-law Bill for the title.

Learn Languages Better with Short Study Sessions

Stopwatch by Wwarby

When it comes to language learning, sometimes shorter can be better.

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s feeling like I’ve wasted time.

Now that doesn’t mean I have to be productive 24/7, I consider having fun or relaxing valuable uses of my time in most cases – I just hate working hard toward a goal and feeling like I have nothing to show for it.

When it comes to language learning that trait used to make me a huge perfectionist. If I was going to spend a few hours on Anki trying to learn 30 new words for the day I needed to really know them at the end of it or I would feel like all that time doing SRS reps was a waste. To be fair I understand it wasn’t, but it was still kind of discouraging nonetheless setting out to learn 30 words and only remembering 20 or so the next day.

Then I figured out the trick to learning more effectively and keeping myself motivated – short, targeted study sessions.

The Benefits of Brief Language Learning Sessions

Motivation – I noticed that if, instead of trying to do a massive amount of studying in one go, if I just sat down to learn 10 words instead of 30 I could get all of them without any problem. Even if it’s something as minor as learning a small handful of words the fact that I could consistently achieve the goals that I set had a surprisingly strong motivational effect. It also boosted my confidence and made me eager to go study each day.

Retention – Of course you might say 20 words out of 30 per day is still better than 10 out of 10. That would be true if I stopped there, but once my motivation was back I started adding more brief study sprints. If I broke up the words into ten in the morning, ten in the afternoon and ten at night I could learn all 30 with no problem and spend less time overall to do it. I’m assuming something about the study sessions being in smaller, more digestible chunks helps me handle the volume of new information better.

Avoiding Burnout – Maybe this should be lumped under motivation, but I think it’s important enough to get its own category. In the same way that timeboxing helps you to go complete tasks you really don’t want to do, breaking study sessions up helps you work on language learning even when you don’t feel like it. When you know you’ve only got ten words to learn and then you’re done, it’s hard to justify blowing it off no matter how out of it or demotivated you feel.

Maintaining Focus – When you dive in to study a huge volume of stuff all at once, there’s a tendency for most people to wander. I see it all the time at commercial gyms when people contract ‘screwarounditis’ – they drift aimlessly from machine to machine, do a few reps of each and leave. Whether it’s exercise or language learning when people come into something without a concrete plan and are presented with a million options for what to do they often just screw around. By having tightly restricted study sessions with a clear goal you avoid this bad habit and maximize the efficiency of your learning periods.

The Caveat

It would be irresponsible of me to suggest you study less and not mention the one caveat – non-study learning time.

I say this because I’m worried some people will look at this and take it as an excuse to study less. That’s not the point. In terms of effort and reward you still get out whatever you put in. Having shorter, more efficient study sessions is a great way to maximize your return on that effort, but it won’t get you all the way to fluency unless you combine it with countless hours of non-study learning time.

What do I mean by that? I mean all the time you can pack in where you are experiencing or using the language but not actively studying it. Watching TV or movies, reading, listening to music or chatting with friends in your target language are all good examples. That time, where you actually use what you learned in the study sessions, is key if you want to be conversant.

Do you prefer shorter study sessions or longer ones? Do you have any other tips or benefits to it that I missed? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Wwarby

How to Achieve Your Goals by Redefining Your Identity

Fill in the Blank by Darkmatter

Your self-identity is more malleable than you would think.

“If you fall in love with the process, the results come easy.” – Unattributed

I’m not sure who said that first – I’ve heard it attributed to about 50 people including Arnold Schwarzenegger – but it really doesn’t matter because it’s good wisdom. If you stress out over the results too much reaching your goal becomes more difficult, but if you can fall in love with the process that will get you there you’ll find yourself reaching your goal without even thinking about it. So how do we make ourselves fall in love with processes? Easy.

By redefining our identities.

You Are What You Do, And You Do What You Are

I know that sounds like an empty fortune cookie-esque statement at best and self-contradictory at worst, but bear with me for a minute here. The fact is, who you are is largely defined by your habits. What you do in a day really makes up the majority of your identity.

For example, if you spend your whole day in school attending classes and doing homework in the evening, those actions define you as a student or if you spend hours and hours every day playing video games those actions define you as a gamer. Now these aren’t exclusive categories, and I’m not going to go into discussions of stereotypes and self-identification and all that either, but a lot of it comes down to how you view yourself as a person.

Now it should be noted that either the behavior or the identity can come first and they’re self-reinforcing. That is, you think of yourself as a gamer because you play video games all the time, and because you think of yourself as a gamer you do what you think a gamer should do and play video games all the time. Additionally it should be noted there are varying levels of personal choice involved in the establishment of these identities – you have a lot more choice to not be a gamer than you do to not be a student for example due to compulsory schooling.

Alright, so our actions influence our self-identities and our identities influence our actions and there are instances where we can directly influence both via our own conscious decisions.

So why is this important to achieving goals?

Because our self-identities are an extremely strong psychological influence on our actions. If you strongly self-identify as a vegan it would be difficult for you to force yourself to eat meat and conversely if you strongly identify as a meat lover it would be difficult for you to go without meat for an extended period of time.

Remember the quote up top? The best way to achieve a goal effortlessly is to fall in love with doing the small things you need to do to get there. If you love working out, you’ll get fit whether you want to or not. If your goal is to learn to play guitar and you love practicing so much that you want to do it all the time, you’ll find yourself a great guitarist before you know it. Now, forming habits and falling in love with an activity are difficult – particularly if conflicts with our current self-identities. By tinkering with your self-identity you can not only remove this conflict but instill a strong psychological pressure to do the thing you need to do on a regular basis to reach your goal.

Act Like the Person You Wish You Were

So how do you go about redefining your self-image? The best way is to do it gradually.

Using myself as an example, I used to strongly self-identify as a fat guy. To be fair, I was a fat guy – but I let that thinking define a large part of who I considered myself to be. As a result, I did what I thought were ‘fat guy’ things. I ate a ton, prided myself on being able to finish ridiculous portions of things, and expressed a general dislike of exercise.

Now, I also really loved parkour and martial arts. That meant that I really didn’t want to be a fat guy. The problem was it was such an entrenched part of my identity it was hard to force myself to engage in the behaviors necessary to actually be able to do all the things I wanted to do. I needed to get fit, but my habits made it hard for me to train and easy to eat tons of junk.

It wasn’t until I really started thinking of myself as a ‘fitness guy’ that I started building positive exercise habits. From there it compounded upon itself until I got to where I am now – a personal trainer who absolutely loves to train. Being a personal trainer is such a large part of my self-identity now it’s as difficult to not train as it used to be to train when I thought of myself as a fat guy.

Another good example comes from starting this blog. It was extremely hard for me at the beginning to develop the habit of writing on a regular schedule. I had a lot to say and really wanted to write – but I just couldn’t make a habit out of it.

Then I forced myself to start thinking of myself as a writer. What do writers do? They write! All the time, or at least everyday. I kept reminding myself that I was a writer, and that as a writer I needed to write something, that was what I did.

So everyday, being a writer and all, I’d sit down and write something. Maybe a paragraph, maybe a post, whatever. The point was that I wrote every single day because that was just what a writer did. Before long that developed into a strong habit, and then further reinforced my self-identification as a writer. “After all,” I could say, “look how much I’ve written over the past month! I must be a writer.”

The trick is to figure out who you want to be, and then act like that’s who you already are.

If you want to be the girl who speaks ten languages, figure out what that girl would do everyday (study, talk with language partners, watch foreign language TV) and start doing it. If you want to be the guy who’s really great at martial arts, figure out what that guy would do everyday (practice, practice and probably more practice) and then get to it. The sooner you start pretending to be the person you wish you were, the sooner you’ll wake up one morning to find that’s who you really are.

So what do you think? Have you ever tried getting to your goals by changing your identity? Do you think it would be too hard for you to pull off? Let us know in the comments.

Photo Credit: Darkmatter

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