3 Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo

I Will Find The Droids I'm Looking For by Stephan

Last month I decided to dive headlong into a new challenge – writing 50,000 words in 30 days for National Novel Writing Month. Ok, so really I decided to write 60,000 in 30 days but that’s not important. The important part was the challenge, and it was definitely a challenge.

As much fun as it was, and as happy as I am that I was able to surpass my goal of 60,000 words, I also must confess I’m glad that it’s over. I went into it thinking that, given the amount of writing I do on a regular basis, it would be a piece of cake. Unless we’re talking about a piece of lead cake wrapped in razor-wire and resting on a downed power line, I was way off. It was a grueling 30 days and seriously tested my ability to commit to a project like this. Having trudged through the hardship I’ve found my reward isn’t just 60,000 words of terrible first-draft fiction – the experience has also taught me a number of valuable lessons.

1. It’s Easy to Conquer Big Tasks Through Deconstruction

I’m sure everyone has heard the old saying about how one goes about eating an elephant – one bite at a time. While I’m not one to put stock in something just because it’s an old aphorism, I have to concede that the moral of that one holds true. In fact, the whole premise of NaNoWriMo is built around it.

To most people, writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days seems like a monumental task. It is, really, but that’s not to say it’s unobtainable. In the end it works out to only about 1,667 words per day. If we assume an average typing speed of about 80 WPM that’s only about 24 minutes per day. You can double that to account for pauses to think and distractions and round up a little to an even hour.

Everyone has at least one hour per day they can devote to writing. When you look at it in that light, it doesn’t seem so difficult anymore. In fact it, it seems a little surprising everyone hasn’t written their own novels.

This divide and conquer strategy can be applied to any big task, with or without a deadline attached. The trick is to go over whatever your task is and deconstruct it into manageable chunks.

Want to lose 20 lbs. in a month? That’s only 5 lbs. a week or roughly 3/4 of a pound per day. If you focus on just losing at least 3/4 of a pound everyday, you’ll hit your goal easily.

Want to learn to play guitar? Pick one thing per day to practice (a few chords, a scale, the first few bars of a favorite song) and before you know it you’ll be better than you ever expected to be.

2. You Can Develop New Habits

Not just bad ones either, good habits. Habits that you want to develop. It’s not even all that hard when you approach it the right way.

Like I mentioned before the whole premise of NaNoWriMo is to dissect this giant 50,000 word goal into daily, manageable bites to achieve it in 30 days. If you don’t want to fall behind, you have to be putting your time in every single day to at least hit that 1,667 word minimum. Interestingly, this has the side effect of teaching you a little bit about habit formation. By the end of the month, I found that if I went a day without writing anything it bothered me. Writing daily had become a new habit.

The true key to habit formation isn’t to possess some kind of superhuman willpower with which to force yourself to do something each day until it’s habitual. That will never work. You just can’t fight your nature like that for that long, in the end you’ll always lose. The key is to only commit to a little bit and slowly, as you acclimate, to increase the intensity.

Think of it like exercise. If you’ve never worked out before you wouldn’t jump in and expect to bench, squat and deadlift 300 pounds three days a week as your new routine. Even if, by some miracle, you could do it the strain it put on you would probably make you dread the second week. You would inevitably crash and quit. Instead, you start out at low weights and work your way up.

NaNoWriMo works the same way. If they asked people to write 5,000 words a day, it would never work. People would make a few days, but overall the task would prove too much and people would give up. For some reason, I always see people take this approach when trying to develop a new habit. They commit to working out every single day of the week or to studying for two hours every night or the like. It’s always too much and it never works.

Instead, take the NaNoWriMo approach. Start with something easy and work your way up. Five minutes of flashcards everyday for a week. Anyone could do that. Then bump it up to ten minutes. Still easy. Then fifteen. Before you know it, you’ll be studying for an hour every night just because you’re used to it. That’s how you develop a habit.

3. Procrastination Is Poison

I have a confession to make; I am a serious procrastinator. No matter what it is I’m trying to accomplish that sweet, seductive voice whispers in the recesses of my mind, “There’s always tomorrow… You can do it later… You’re not in the mood to work right now…” Always it tempts me away to other, more wasteful pursuits.

NaNoWriMo proved to be just what I needed to exorcise my procrastination demons, primarily just by being so demanding.

About halfway into the challenge, I faltered. Things got in the way, we had computer problems, excuses excuses excuses. Before I knew it, almost a full week had passed and I hadn’t written a word. Thankfully, NaNoWriMo gives you lovely charts and graphs plotting your progress and projecting just how many words you’ll need to write per day to finish.

My little lapse in attention had almost doubled what I would need to write every day if I wanted to finish on time. What was worse, each day I procrastinated added to the workload of the rest of my days which made them even more daunting which made me want to do the work even less. The more I procrastinated, the more hopeless my chances of finishing on time looked and the more I was inclined to procrastinate.

In the end, I sat down one day and pounded out about 10,000 words in one sitting. I’m still trying to get the blood stains off my keyboard, but it caught me back up to where I needed to be.

If you’ve set yourself to a task, particularly one with a deadline, it is vitally important that you don’t allow yourself to procrastinate. One way to avoid it is to challenge yourself to complete just a little extra work each day, or to pretend your deadline is before your actual deadline.

Now, you don’t have to give NaNoWriMo a shot to learn all these lessons, but I’d encourage everyone who’s interested to give it a shot sometime. If you’ve had a go at NaNoWriMo in the past and have some other lessons to add feel free to share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Stephan

NaNoWriMo Challenge: Write a 50,000 Word Novel in 30 Days

Remington by Mark Grapengater

Doing it all on a typewriter will not be part of the challenge

I realized today that it’s been a long time since I’ve tried to take on any challenges. It’s time that changed.

I have always been a voracious reader. When I walked into a library or bookstore as a kid I started drooling like a 400 pound man in a Golden Corral. By the time I was around 6 years old I had devoured every single book my parents had given me and Mom was forced to surrender her sizable Stephen King collection – by 7 I’d finished them all.

I remember the very first book report I ever delivered in school. The kid before me had just rocked his presentation of Green Eggs and Ham. As he passed me on the way to his seat he allowed himself a smug little smirk in my direction – he knew that’d be a tough act to follow.

I gathered my things and strolled to the front of the room. Turning to the class I unveiled my visual aid with a flourish, a posterboard Crayola marker drawing of a viking beheading a cannibal in battle. Eyes visibly widened as they took it in. I quietly cleared my throat.

“My book report will be on Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crighton,” I explained.

The look on the teacher’s face was fantastic.

However, I digress, the point is I really love to read. Bound to my love of reading is an equally strong love of writing.

The writing process has always fascinated me. Fiction writing in particular. The ability of someone to tell a truly riveting story, to shape genuinely human feeling characters and to carry an enthralling narrative to a neatly bound conclusion has always captivated me.

Good or bad, I’ve always wanted to write a novel.

Enter NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. In essence, it’s a yearly “contest” where people sign up and try to write a full 50,000 word novel in 30 days.

Now, the idea here isn’t to pump out a ready-to-publish novel in 30 days. First of all 50,000 words, while definitely within the bounds of what constitutes a novel, is really a pretty small novel. Maybe two Goosebumps books put together or so – about 200 pages depending on your formatting. Second of all, first drafts don’t get published – they get edited. And edited. And edited some more. Then, when you think you’re ready to go, they get edited. The goal here isn’t for everyone to just rock out fantastic books in under a month.

So what is the point? There are a few of them. The first is to get people who have always wanted to try to write a novel to step up and actually give it a shot. Having a 50,000 words written in one month framework helps people who have been toying with the idea of writing but who don’t know where to start a clearly defined path to follow (not to mention the giant community of supporters the site provides).

The second goal, one not necessarily stated, is to help people develop a little discipline. If you want to cross that finish line of 50,000 words, than you need to write around 1,667 words per day. Miss a day, and that means you have that much more to make up. Tackling this challenge helps teach people to sit down and commit a minimum amount of effort toward a goal every single day, without fail. I think that’s a much more valuable lesson than proving that everyone can write a novel if they want to.

My Personal Challenge

Remember how I mentioned I’d been thinking it’s been a while since our last challenge? Well, lucky me, NaNoWriMo will be held in November this year – and I’m doing it.

To make it a little more interesting, I’m going to let everyone here on Road to Epic follow along. Each week I’ll be posting that weeks worth of my writing. Now, don’t expect this to be refined, eloquent prose – you’re getting the raw, unedited first draft stuff. It probably won’t be pretty, but that’s alright. I’m also going to share my NaNoWriMo profile so anyone who wants to can follow along there.

That’s not all, I’m also going to commit myself personally to 60,000 words in those 30 days. 50,000 just isn’t quite enough in my opinion, I think I can do more.

The one caveat is, I’m not going to guarantee by the time I hit my 60,000 words and 30 days that my novel will be finished. I’m not sure how long I’m going to need to tell the story I want to tell, so if I need 70,000 or 100,000 words to do it that’s how many I’ll write. The first 60,000 of them however will be written between November 1st and November 30th.

Anyone done NaNoWriMo in the past? What do you think about the whole idea? Have any good story ideas you don’t want? Share in the comments!

Update: I’m finished! I managed to meet my 60,000 words plus a little extra – more coming on what I’ve learned from the whole experience soon. In the meantime, here are links to each update I’ve posted of what I wrote:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Photo Credit: Mark Grapengater

The One Reason People Fail at Developing Good Habits and How to Avoid It

As complicated as... by Aunullah

Developing good habits is easy... if you can avoid making it complicated.

Developing a new habit is difficult.

Okay, so that’s not entirely true. Let me rephrase that a bit. Developing a good habit is difficult.

It’s easy to develop bad habits. We do it all the time. People get in the habit of hitting the snooze on their alarm clock and curling back into oblivion. They get in the habit of spending their evenings mesmerized by a flickering television while mindlessly cramming snacks into their faces. They don’t usually get in the habit of eating healthy, working out, or spending a little time everyday learning something new.

Why is that? Let’s take a look.

Why People Fail

Developing good habits is fundamentally different from developing bad habits. The reason developing bad habits is so easy is because it’s almost always something part of us wants to do deep down. Not in the way that we want a goal, but in the way that we naturally always want to take the path of least resistance.

The same just isn’t true of good habits. Good habits are almost always something that we want to do because we know it’s good for us, but deep down don’t want to do because it involves work, difficulty, sacrifice or a break in our usual routine. No matter how much you gear yourself up and tell yourself that you really want to go workout first thing in the morning, by the time your feet hit the floor in the morning all you’re going to remember is your driving need for coffee.

Now, there are ways to get around our limited supply of willpower and make the habit stick. The thing is, just about everyone I’ve talked to who have tried it and failed had one single thing in common. They made the same mistake I did at first – too much enthusiasm.

Rewind a little bit to when I was first trying to take control of my life and start taking things in the direction I wanted them to go. Caroline and I decided that we were going to make some serious changes. We wanted to learn instruments, we wanted to learn languages, we wanted to write lots of articles, we wanted to practice our martial arts, we wanted to get in shape, we wanted to eat right, we wanted start businesses… oh, yeah, and we were still in college.

I remember one of the schedules we concocted in our fervor had every single minute of the day blocked out with a different prescribed activity. Literally zero free time.

I think it goes without saying that we failed, and we failed hard.

I don’t think we managed to stick to our ridiculous schedules for longer than one full week. Honestly, I’m impressed with myself for even completing one week.

There was just way, way too much stuff to handle all at once. There was no way we were ever going to manage that schedule long enough for any of those things to develop into habits because it was just too overwhelming. It seems really obvious to me know, and yet I still constantly see people making the same mistake I made without ever realizing it.

Developing a good habit is difficult. It just doesn’t make sense to try to developing 10 good habits all at once, but people still do it all the time! Then they get frustrated because they failed and wind up giving up until enough fire builds in them again and they make another futile attempt to will themselves into starting 10 new habits at once. It just doesn’t work.

How to Succeed

We may have failed back then at developing all those habits, but since then we’ve managed to pick up a lot of those habits successfully. What was the difference? Taking our time.

Rather than try to force ourselves to do everything all at once, we took it slowly. Ridiculous schedules were thrown out of the window – instead one item at a time got picked to be slowly developed into a habit. We would move onto the next item only after the first had been pretty well entrenched as a new habit.

It was very, very slow; but it worked. We started with working out. A time was chosen three times per week and we focused all the energy we’d formerly spread around all our other activities into just being absolutely sure that we managed to work out three times a week. It felt pretty good to make it a complete week without missing a single workout. It felt awesome to make it three weeks without missing one. By the end of two months of never missing a workout, we were elated.

By that point it had become automatic – exactly what we were going for. The key is to remember to not get too crazy with it. I know it’s hard, I really do. If you’re anything like me, when you decide you really want to do something you go all out. Fight the urge to spread yourself too thin and focus all that energy onto one single task.

Promise yourself that you are not going to worry about any of the other things, and all you want to do is stick to this one thing. To own it. Tell yourself that you are going to absolutely dominate this one thing. Then, and this is actually a pretty important part, actually go out and do it.

The best part is, you don’t even have to think of it as focusing on developing a new habit. Just focus on doing it when you said you would, on being there, and after a little while you’ll find you don’t have to force yourself. You’ll realize you don’t have to think about it anymore, that you just feel like doing it – you’ll realize you’ve developed a new habit.

What do you think? Ever had success trying to develop a bunch of new habits at once? Have something else you think should be added? Let us know in the comments!

Photo Credit: Aunullah

A New, Free, Open-Source Tool for Learning any Language

Benny the Irish Polyglot from over at Fluent in 3 Months has just announced a new, free, open-source tool called Learning With Texts or LWT. I could explain exactly what it is, but Benny does it better, so go ahead and check out the demo video below.

For more details beyond what you saw on the video or to jump right in and get started using Learning With Texts, head over to the Learning With Texts Introduction page on FluentIn3Months.com. Happy language learning!

How To Make Progress Without Even Really Trying

Path of Least Resistance by Billtacular

It's all about finding the path of least resistance.

Every living thing on Earth is really, really lazy – and you and I are no exception. There’s a good reason for it too, food and water can be hard to come by for species without supermarkets. Even we had to be concerned about finding enough food before about 10,000 years ago. Several billions of years of punishing any and all inefficiency shaped pretty much all life into remarkably efficient things and have hardcoded one basic tenet into all organisms – take the path of least resistance.

When you have limited amounts of energy to expend it just makes sense. If you burn up more energy to catch dinner than you take in by eating it, you’re just not going to last very long. Taking the path of least resistance meant using the least amount of energy necessary to achieve your goals. In the past, that meant effiency. Efficiency meant survival. Everything worked great.

Fast forward to now. Once we came up with agriculture, we set in motion the outsourcing of all our efficiency problems to technology. We don’t have to chase down a rabbit to get enough calories to keep our body working, or wrestle an elk to the ground to feed our family. We walk to the fridge, open it, and can eat more food in a sitting than our ancestors got in a week.

We just don’t have to worry about being efficient anymore, in fact, technology has made our lives so comfortable we have to purposefully do things that are inefficient from a survival standpoint to not get fat. If you tried to articulate to a person from 50,000 years ago that you go out and run around because you get too many calories each day then you better be wearing a poncho because their heads would probably explode with how ridiculous that is.

Times may have changed, but we haven’t – 10,000 years is a blink on the evolutionary scale. Less than a blink, really. If all of human history were one 24 hour period, agriculture would be discovered around 11:58 at night. We are still the same as our ancestors were back when dinner meant killing something twice your size and exercise meant keeping out of a Smilodon’s stomach.

That means that the proclivity for taking the path of least resistance is still alive and well within us. The problem is, it’s just not necessary anymore. It used to be the key to survival, now technology is. Embittered by its obsoleteness, that drive to take the path of least resistance now chooses to manifest itself as an affliction endemic to modern life, motivation-sapping laziness.

You know the feeling. You should go work out, but you really just don’t feel like it. You need to clean up your desk, reoganize your office, and tackle that stack of papers, but you can just worry about it later. You could be learning a new language, practicing Parkour, or working on starting your own business – but that’s hard, and improving your life can wait, you’re almost to the part where you fight Ganondorf.

So How Do You Fix It?

Good question. Thankfully, it’s easy to do. Even better, you won’t just be fixing the problem, you’ll be using the problem against itself to achieve your goals even faster. That’s a personal-development irimi-nage right there.

Step one is to identify and understand the problem itself. Here it is, you have a natural inclination chiseled into your brain to always favor the path of least resistance. That path tends to be the lazy one that leads you away from your goals and toward self-destructive, time-wasting activities.

Step two is to determine what about the problem we can change to remedy it, and the best way to make those changes. Now, some people might jump to the willpower fix. Sure, it may be easy to say, “Well, I’ll just fight it. Tough it out! I can make myself be productive!”

That may work for a bit, but there’s two problems. The first is, you have a finite amount of willpower. Eventually, it’s going to run out and you’ll be right back where you started. That’s just not sustainable. Secondly, you’re talking about fighting your very nature, here. There are some battles you should just avoid in the first place and fighting your base instincts like that is one of them.

So what can we change then? Look at things a slightly different way. The problem isn’t that you have a tendency to take the path of least resistance. The problem lies in where you wind up when you take that path. So what would happen if you redirected things and >made the path of least resistance go to where you wanted to wind up?

Rather than be naturally inclined to do things that work against you, you’d be inclined to do things that further your goals. That means you can get more productive things done without even really trying.

Step three is all about implementing it. This may take some creativity, but it’s usually not too difficult. Determine what things you can change (they’re usually little things) that will make it easier for you to do what you need to do than to do something that wastes time. It doesn’t just have to go one way either, like Caroline mentioned when she wrote about barriers, you can do the opposite and make it extra hard to engage in negative behaviors.

When you start putting these techniques into proactice, you’ll find yourself doing the things you need to be doing without even thinking about it. Before too long, you’ll find yourself progressing towards your goals without having to put in any extra effort.

I prefer ‘show’ over ‘tell’, so let’s look at some examples.

  • Pre-Arrange Your Workout – Have trouble going out in the morning for sprint training, heading down to the gym or going downstairs for a bodyweight strength training session? Get everything ready the night before. Lay out your gym clothes wherever you normally get dressed in the morning, have your shoes and your keys next to them ready to go if necessary. That way there’s no excuse not to get right in your exercise clothes and get started.
  • Freeze Your Credit Card – This is a really old one, but it’s still an excellent example. If you have issues controlling yourself when it comes to using the credit cards, drop it in a container of water and freeze it. That way, it’s a serious pain to pull it out and use it and you’ll only do it if you really need to.

  • Clean Your Fridge – Anyone who’s tried to lose weight knows struggling with temptation is brutal. So, why even let yourself be tempted? Donate all your junk food to people who can’t afford food in the first place, and stock your fridge and pantry with good, primal foods. That way, when you get hungry and go digging through the fridge, you only have good options. If you want to eat garbage, you’re going to have to go out of your way to do it and, chances are, you just won’t bother.

All these are just the obvious examples. If you’re creative, you can find tons of ways to make doing what you need to do easier, and doing what you shouldn’t be doing harder. If you’ve had any success with this, let us know how you did it! The options really are endless.

Set Goals. Fulfill Your Dreams

Greatest Goal II by Scott Wills

Setting goal posts in your life is the best way to realize your dreams.

It is extremely difficult to achieve your dreams if you are a failure at setting goals.

As someone who always used to really, really hate planning and goal setting, believe me – it makes all the difference. I used to be of the opinion that setting goals just kind of got in the way. They were nice to have as a general reference point, but they weren’t important to the actual process of being productive.

Honestly, me feeling that way was probably largely a result of how terrible I was at setting proper goals. I was really terrible too. Being so awful at it made it even harder to achieve what goals I did set, which just made me more frustrated with goal-setting in general.

Eventually, I learned what I was doing wrong. I wasn’t S.M.A.R.T.

Get S.M.A.R.T.

Jokes about my general lack of intelligence aside, what I was missing out on was the S.M.A.R.T. method of goal setting. That’s Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely.

Sticking to this method makes sure that your goals aren’t absolute failures like my old ones were. What does all that mean? Let’s take a look.

Specific

It is absolutely pointless to make goals if they are vague. Sadly, I didn’t realize that years ago when I was making goals like, “Exercise more”, “Lose weight” or “Make more money”. That’s like someone asking where you’re going and replying with, “To a building.” Technically, if your goal is “Lose weight” than you could drop half a pound and be done.

Goals must be specific to be worthwhile.

Change “Exercise more” to “Complete 3 strength training sessions per week” and “Lose weight” to “Lose 5 pounds per week” and you’ve got some specific goals.

Measurable

This should go without saying, but a goal that isn’t measurable isn’t really attainable. Even if it should go without saying, that didn’t stop me from setting ridiculous, unmeasurable goals in the past. Here’s a particular gem, “Get better at guitar”.

It boggles my mind at this point that I could set as stupid a goal as that and still be literate. Not only does it fail our first criteria by not being specific, how will you ever know when you hit ‘better’? Is better being able to play a bunch of scales, is better memorizing a song, is better rocking a Jimi Hendrix medly while blindfolded upside-down in a shark tank? Who knows?

If you don’t assign a quantifiable component to your goal, than there is no way to ever know when you reach it. Only a moron would make a goal that is, by its very nature, unreachable. Don’t be a moron.

So how would that nebulous, immesurable goal be improved? Well, how about, “Memorize three songs” or “Perform at least 2 songs in front of an audience”. Even, “Practice guitar for 1 hour 4 times per week” would have worked.

Attainable

Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be ambitious. In fact, I’m all for setting big goals, since most people seem to really throw their all into something when it’s a really ambitious goal. Try to keep your goals ambitious but realistic. After all, setting a goal that is essentially impossible is about as futile a gesture as you can make.

Sadly, I don’t have any examples of my past stupidity to showcase for this part. My goals were always too vague to ever really be considered unrealistic. The key is dancing right on that line between ambitious and crazy. A blatantly unattainable goal like high-fiving the Queen of England or learning to communicate with algae via telepathy is pointless is one thing. A crazy sounding but attainable goal is another entirely.

My best advice is to use your gut to figure out if something is attainable or not, don’t always listen when other people call you crazy for it.

Relevant

By relevant, I mean relevant to your life. Your goals should be something that you are passionate about, that you have a reason for doing. When you’re committing to something to something to sit down and set some goals toward its completion, take a minute to think about your reasons for doing it.

If you honestly can’t think of any good reasons for setting the goal or for accomplishing what you’re setting the goal toward, then you’re probably not gonna care much about the goal.

For example, if your goal is to lose 30 pounds, then you better have a really good, relevant, personal reason for setting that goal. Whether it’s health, wanting to be able to do more active things or whatever. You need a reason.

If there isn’t a real, driving reason behind a goal then there’s no reason to stick to it.

Timely

Timely may be last, but that’s only because if the order was rearranged the acronym would be all messed up.

Not giving goals specific, timely deadlines is one of the biggest mistakes bad goal setters make. It may seem harmless, but “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

For those not familiar with Parkinson’s Law, this basically means that no matter how difficult a task actually is, work on it will fill however much time you set for it. If you set too distant of a deadline or, even worse, none at all than inevitably things will pop up to fill that space. Other projects with nearer deadlines will be moved to the front of your list, you’ll procrastinate, you’ll not know where to begin, you’ll fret about doing it properly, etc.

If you make your goal, “I want to lose 30 ponds by the end of the year” then there’s no real pressure to get started. You have the whole rest of the year! You can start working out tomorrow. In the end, you’ll probably put it off so long that you’ll never really commit to it in the first place.

If, on the other hand, we make that “Lose 30 pounds in 4 weeks” then you know the very same day you made the goal you would be giving all your junk food away, restocking the fridge with healthy food and probably going for a HIIT session. All because you know if you’re going to make your 4 week deadline, you need to be working now.

Using the S.M.A.R.T. method, I’ve been able to train myself to set goals that actually help me get where I want to go, rather than get in my way and demotivate me when I inevitable fall miles short of attaining them. Hopefully, it can do the same for you.

Have you had any success with the S.M.A.R.T. model, or do you use another goal setting technique? We always love to hear about other stuff that works.

Timeboxing 101: What, Why and How

The Passage of Time by ToniVC

With timeboxing, you can make the clock work to your advantage.

Timeboxing, or one of the many variations on it, is easily one of the best techniques for being more productive throughout the day. Timeboxing allows you to get the motivation up to do the things you don’t want to do, focuses your attention on the tasks that really need to be prioritized, stops you from wasting time on pointless tasks and makes Parkinson’s Law work for you. Oh, and I think it’s kind of fun too.

So what is timeboxing? Essentially, it’s taking a task and assigning a fixed period of time for its completion. Once you hit that time limit, you stop working and move on to something else, regardless of whether or not you actually completed your task.

How does quitting before we’re finished help? Well, let me show you.

Some Benefits of Timeboxing

Motivation

The first benefit of timeboxing is that it gets you rolling on daunting or unpleasant tasks. Think of something that you need to get done, but just can’t get the motivation up to do. Maybe it’s something huge like writing a 200 page thesis, maybe it’s something that you just really hate to do like clean out the garage, maybe it’s both.

When you’re faced with these kinds of tasks, most people’s natural inclination is to put it off. They procrastinate an do their best to avoid it, and waste a lot of valuable time in the process. The hardest step to take is always that first one.

Setting a timebox for these tasks removes that feeling of dread. For example, you could sit down and commit to working on your thesis for 30 minutes, after which you can go relax. Whether you write 5 words or 5,000 in that 30 minutes is irrelevant, as long as you sit and write for 30 minutes. Suddenly, that doesn’t seem so bad. 30 minutes is nothing, and its easy to sit down and start if you know you’ll only have to siffer through 30 minutes of work.

The same goes for my cleaning example. If you say you’re going to go work on cleaning the garage for an hour and then quit, it’s not too hard to commit to. You know you won’t be slaving away all day out there, and chances are even if you aren’t finished by the end of that hour you’ll have gotten a lot done.

Timeboxing also becomes a little bit of a game. It’s kind of like a race, or one of those really frustrating Super Mario levels where the screen moves to the right and you die if you go too slow. Trying to see just how much you can accomplish before that timer sounds is a really good way to get pumped about whatever you’re trying to work on. This is particularly great for tasks like cleaning that will need to be done again, because you can continually try to beat your previous best and accomplish more within that timebox.

Time Bandits

No, not the movie. The second benefit of timeboxing lies in managing time-sinks. A time-sink is more like a heatsink than a kitchen sink, in that it sucks up all of your time (although the visual of all your time going down the drain is a good metaphor for it too). Basically, anything that you are prone to spend way too much time on everyday is a time-sink.

Some very common culprits are checking e-mail, social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and catching up on your RSS reader, but there are lots of others. Timeboxing this activities and having a set cut off time will not only force you from burning too much time away on them, but also help you speed up the task itself. If you only have 10 minutes everyday to process your inbox, before long you will have found every trick imaginable to make that process as speedy and efficient as possible.

Timeboxing relaxation and reward time can also help us not get too carried away when we take a break and need to get back to work. It’s cool if you want to take a little time to chill out and play a game or something, but when you completely lose track of time and spend 8 hours straight stabbing things in Azeroth, that tends to hurt your productivity a bit.

By setting a timebox, you can allow yourself to relax and play, but not run the risk of getting so carried away that nothing else gets done. Play for an hour, timer goes off, work for an hour or two, timer goes off, play for an hour, etc.

This also works for combating perfectionism. Being a perfectionist over things is like being a walking time-sink factory. If all you do is obsess over the details and fret about whether or not something is absolutely perfect before you consider it done then everything is going to take ages to finish. By putting things in timeboxes you force yourself to call it quits and consider something finished when your time is up, regardless of how well it’s done. It may hurt, but it’s for your own good.

Dining on Elephants

You know the old, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” saying. Honestly, it’s a little to cliche for me – but I have to admit it’s got a bit of a point. When you have some giant, monster task the best course of action is always to divide and conquer.

Timeboxing gives you the perfect way to do just that, since you can isolate a specific area of a project, devote a set amount of time to it, and then move on to the next area. Not only do you guarantee you won’t waste too much time on one specific area of the project, but you also break the whole thing down into tasty, manageable chunks.

Once you have the task divided up, progress will start accumulating incrementally and before you know it, you’ll be all finished. How easy is that?

Our Friend Parkinson

We’ve mentioned Parkinson’s Law a few times before – “Work expands to fill the time alotted for its completion.”

Timeboxing takes that law, which is normally a very annoying thing, and makes it into our friend. By limiting the amount of time allotted for the completion of a task, we also reduce the amount of work. When you only have a short time to finish something, the process gets streamlined and prioritized so that only the truly important things get completed.

Since time is usually the easiest variable to manipulate, using it to leverage Parkinson’s Law against a normally difficult task is a great way to maximize your efficiency when working on something. Having a restricted deadline gives you no choice but to focus on the task at hand and completely ignore any distractions that may pop up. If you only have 15 minutes to rock something out, you’re not going to waste that time to go answer the phone, stop to check your e-mail, or go see what people have been talking about on Twitter.

There are lots more reasons why timeboxing is so effective, but I don’t want to get into too much here. There will be time for that later. The important thing, now that you know how much better you life can be with timeboxing, is that you know how to get started in the first place.

How to Start Timeboxing

Getting started using timeboxing is easy and, best of all in my opinion since I am a raging cheapskate, it’s free. Well, it can be free. You can buy stuff to help out too. All you need to get started is yourself, a task to accomplish, and some way to keep time. Since you probably have a watch, clock, phone, computer and various other electronic devices with clocks or timers on them, this shouldn’t be a problem.

Cheap though I may be, I actually went out and bought a mechanical kitchen timer for like $2, and made it my official timeboxing timer. I like using it a lot better, both because it’s loud and mechanical not electronic so I have less worries about it malfunctioning, but also because having bought something specifically for timeboxing makes me want to do it even more. Even if it is just a $2 hunk of plastic and springs.

Now that you have what you need, time for step one.

Find a Task

The first step to get started is to find a task. This can be any task at all, but there are some that lend themselves a little better to timeboxing. The first are tasks that you are having a lot of issues getting the motivation up to do. Usually, these are either big things, like writing a novel, or unpleasant things, like cleaning out the attic.

The second category of tasks that lend themselves to timeboxing are time-sink tasks. Things that you waste way too much time on when you do them. Like I said before, e-mail is one of the biggest culprits here with social media being a close second for most people.

It’s good to start small until you get the hang of it, but pick something and move on to step two.

Consider Your Goals

There are lots of things you can accomplish with timeboxing, and knowing why you’re getting into it in the first place is important. Once you’ve picked your task, take a few minutes to think about what you want to really accomplish by timeboxing it.

It may be that you want to get the motivation to take the first step, chip a little into some monumental task or just mitigate the damage of something you usually spend too much time on.

Regardless of your reason, it’s important to take a second to figure out what it is before you move on to step three…

Set a Time

How much time you set is going to depend largely on what your goals for the action are.

Do you want to get the courage up to get started on a hard or boring task? Set a short time, 15 to 30 minutes maybe, that you know won’t be too painful or difficult to commit to.

Do you want to make incrememntal progress in something big? Set a longer time frame of an hour or maybe even two hours if you’re feeling motivated, just don’t go too overboard and burn yourself out.

In the beginning, the important thing is to just wing it and not worry too much about setting the perfect amount of time for your timebox, the more you play around with it, the more you’ll develop a nice intuitive feel for how long you should set for each task.

Get Busy

I would say this is the easiest step, but come on, this whole process is cake, and it’s not even a lie. No party submission position necessary here. Once you have your time set, get to work on your task, but make sure to always stop working when your time ends.

This is really important, because if you don’t, you’re not timeboxing. You’re pretending to timebox, but just doing what you always do anyway. That cake is a lie.

Work until time runs out, and then move on to step five.

Reward Yourself

When the timer goes off and you’re done with your task, reward yourself! There are lots of reasons why using rewards is great, but the best one is that this will keep you motivated and excited about timeboxing. On top of that, it will keep you fresh and happy when you move on to your next task, timeboxed or not.

Congratulations! You now know everything you need to know to get started timeboxing! Be sure to come back and let us know how it goes, and if you’ve been doing it for a while, we’d love for you to share any tips you’ve come up with to make timeboxing more effective.

The Science of Rewards

Lollipop by Sister72

Having the right reward can make all the difference.

Anyone who has been around children for an appreciable amount of time knows that the best way to get them to do something they don’t want to is to use a reward. Kid doesn’t want to go to the doctor so you promise them a new toy afterward if they behave, grades are slipping so you offer to pay $10 for every A you see on their report card, etc. Once they’ve been rewarded enough times for doing it, going to the doctor or getting better grades doesn’t become such a battle anymore. They may even start to enjoy it.

Ok, you may call those bribes, not rewards – doesn’t matter. The basic mechanism is the same regardless. The child has a behavior you want to correct, you offer a positive stimulus for engaging in the desired behavior and the child starts associating the behavior with the reward and begins to enjoy it. Easy.

Now, if this sounds a little bit like dog training that’s because, well, it is!

A part of dog training anyway. Don’t get insulted though and think I’m insinuating that your children are dogs (not that there would be anything wrong with that, I’m quite fond of dogs), classic conditioning is used as a part of dog training because it’s effective. Not just in dogs, but in pretty much all animals. Even better, we can use it on ourselves to motivate and condition us to achieve our goals.

Hormones & Neurotransmitters

The reason it’s so effective, in humans at least, is because of how our brains respond to rewards. That good feeling you get when you meet a goal, that high that comes from winning or earning a trophy, the sense of triumph when you beat a game on expert mode or unlock a new achievement on Steam. These feelings aren’t just all in your head.

Er, Ok, they are just in your head, but not in the imaginary way.

They’re a result of your brain chemistry. Of chemicals which are all in your head but more in a physical sense. Your brain likes rewards. It can’t help it, it’s a part of all of us. So when you set a goal knowing that there’s a reward at the end if you accomplish it, your brain starts releasing all sorts of very pleasant chemicals when you think about it. One of the strongest of these is dopamine.

Dopamine is some really strong stuff. It’s the main neurotransmitter linked with desire. When we get what we want, we get a good dose of dopamine and we feel good. When we don’t get what we want, we get starved of dopamine and get an unpleasant cocktail of stress hormones like cortisol. Not fun.

If you want a good example of how it feels to get a good shot of dopamine, think of the feeling of really deep love. Dopamine is one of the main chemicals released as a result of strong, devoted, never-want-to-be-apart love. Being with, or even just thinking about, the person you have those feelings for triggers a dopamine release. The cutoff of the dopamine supply is one reason why losing deep romantic love can feel like you’re dying.

So when you set a reward, thinking about earning that reward gives you little shots of happy, motivating neurotransmitters and thinking about failing to earn that reward gives you little shots of unpleasant, stressful neurotransmitters.

Just having a reward to work toward will naturally make you more motivated to succeed, and more concerned about failing. Additionally, if you make it a repeat process, your brain will start to associate that large dose of dopamine you get from finally earning that reward with whatever productive activity you assigned it to, making you want to do it more often with or without the reward.

The Price of Ownership

There’s a famous experiment that was run by Cornell University, where researches first gave students mugs with the school logo on it and then offered to trade the mugs for chocolate bars and then later gave students chocolate bars and then offered to trade them for school mugs.

Of the first group, almost none were willing to trade the mugs they had been given for the chocolate bars. It didn’t matter how much the students said they liked chocolate, the majority still chose to keep their mugs.

Now, before you attribute this to high school spirit, caffeine addiction or a sample set full of dieters – when the situation was reversed and the students who were given the chocolate bars were offered the mugs as a trade, the majority decided to keep the chocolate.

It turned out that no matter what it was, the students were always more likely to keep what they had rather than trade it away. This is usually referred to as the endowment effect.

The endowment effect basically means that when we assume ownership of something, we automatically make it a part of ourselves. Once we’ve made it a part of ourselves the loss of it triggers all those bad stress hormones and unhappy feelings triggered by losing a valued possession. This doesn’t just have to happen with things, it happens for ideas and people too. The best part is, you don’t even have to actually own something for the endowment effect to take hold, just the anticipation of owning something is enough to trigger it. Having someone tell you they are going to give you $50 and then later deciding not to feels just as bad as having someone just take $50 from your wallet.

That means that when you set rewards, you’re investing a part of yourself into attaining that reward. By having something that you know you will get when you accomplish your goal, you make failing to accomplish that goal just as painful as losing what you promised yourself as a reward. Believe me, that makes for a very strong motivator.

Putting It Into Practice

How do we make use of all this handy new information about rewards? Well, we start setting rewards! Ok, so there are a few little things to watch out for.

First of all, try not to shoot yourself in the foot with your reward. It’s ok if you want to make your reward for losing ten pounds a day long ice cream binge, just as long as you get right back to the habits that lost you those ten pounds after your glutton day.

An even better idea would be to reward yourself with something that itself continues to contribute to your goals. For example, “When I lose 10 pounds I’ll buy myself a new set of free weights”. Not only is a shiny new set of weights going to be a decent motivator (we’ll get to picking things you care about in a second), it’s also going to directly further your goals.

It’s also important to pick rewards that you actually want and to save the higher value rewards for the higher value goals. If you’ve got something you really want to accomplish or are really struggling finding the motivation for, give it one of the biggest, best rewards you can think of.

That should get you started with using rewards to keep yourself motivated and accomplishing things. Are there any other tricks you like to use when setting rewards? We’d love for you to share them with us in the comments.

Barriers Are The Enemy – Or Are They?

Rolling Roadblock by Brian Forbes

Would you let the sheep block you from the path, or would you block the sheep?

Barriers are a notorious, common enemy to anyone trying to reach their goals.They have many manifestations – something that gets in the way, laziness, etc. – but the result is always the same: they keep us from accomplishing our goals. There’s a lot of articles floating around the web on how barriers are evil goal and productivity killers and how you need to identify them and kick ‘em in the shins.

But what if we use barriers to our advantage? What if we flip them over and make them into a good thing? Is it even possible to use barriers to prevent ourselves from becoming derailed from the path to our goals? I think the answer is yes.

Use Barriers to Prevent Yourself from Getting Lazy

I can be quite a lazy person sometimes. There are some things that I just I prefer to take the path of least resistance on. Anything that I’m not in the habit of doing I find it hard making myself do it. I don’t mind cleaning every day, but with fitness despite how much I enjoy the activity, sometimes I just don’t feel like it. Especially whenever I’ve gotten out of the habit, it’s really hard for me to get back into it.

When I finally realized and acknowledged my own laziness, and found ways to combat it, I was finally able to stop saying “I should do x” and actually start doing it. Barriers became one of my favorite ways to make myself do stuff I’m not in the habit of doing.

Exercising is one thing that I’ve never had too much difficulty getting myself to do – except once I’ve fallen out of the habit and haven’t exercised in a while. Then, no matter how much I tell myself I want/need to start exercising again, it doesn’t really matter because I’ll often find some excuse not to do it. But, I’ve found a simple “barrier” that gets me used to it again, and back into the habit. It’s simple: It gets in my way.

Okay, well, exercise doesn’t just magically get in my way. I put the tools I need to work out in the way so that I’ll see it frequently on my way around the house. Rather than having the dumbbells off in the corner in a neatly arranged sequence, I pick out the ones that I need and set them in a high-traffic area of the house. That way, it’ll be easier for me to workout and I’ll think about it more often and my guilt will push me to complete the routine. Once I’ve gotten back into the habit, it’s not too difficult to put the equipment where it belongs and I’m much more self-motivated to go exercise on the allotted days.

Flip the Barrier Over to Do The Right Thing and Avoid The Wrong Thing

Another example of using barriers properly is how I used to spend my mornings. Frequently I’d wake up, make coffee, and then plop my butt down in front of the computer for a couple of hours reading the news, blogs, etc. and in general wasting valuable time. Without me even realizing it, I was throwing away around two to three hours every morning.

Then one day I decided that I needed to schedule my days to get more done, and to ensure that I knew what I needed to do every day. While scheduling, I remembered the old advice that exercising first thing in the morning would help you to feel great throughout the day and more productive. It’s something I’ve heard multiple times before – but never took to heart. So I started working out first thing, taking a shower, and then getting on with my day. Not only did it make me more cheerful and more productive, but I gained a ton of time in my day by just not being lazy in the morning. Another nice side effect was that I unintentionally changed my morning mood from a “perky-morning-people-should-be-shot” kind of person, to a “HIHOWAREYOUI’MFANTASTICTHANKS!!” kind of person.

As it turned out, my old morning routine was a barrier of its own, blocking my path and making it seriously difficult to build any momentum for the rest of the day.

I want to be productive somehow each day – so why was I wasting two hours every morning just sitting in front of the computer? The fact is, it was the easy thing to do. Even so, it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. Drafting that morning schedule and posting it in a conspicuous place built a wall of guilt around the office chair every morning. If you have a negative morning routine like what I had, use a barrier to get you to skip it for a new routine. Get up, go outside and breathe the fresh cool morning air, and go for a walk, do a body weight workout, or go to the gym.

Other Ways Barriers Can Help

Using barriers works for things you don’t necessarily enjoy but know you need to do too. Here’s some ideas of other ways barriers can help:

  • Want to learn how to do pull ups? put a pull-up bar over a frequently used doorframe or in a high-trafficked (by YOU!) hallway and every time you pass through, do a pull-up or negative.
  • Want to watch less TV? Cancel your subscriptions to cable networks, toss away all the batteries to your remote.
  • Want to eat less bad food? Donate everything in your house to others who need *any* food, and stop buying the bad food from the grocery.
  • Want to get more done in the morning? Change your routine.
  • Have difficulty spending less on impulse buys? Only carry cash to force yourself to think more carefully about your purchases.

Conclusion

Barriers can be a foe or a friend – even trivial ones. The key is recognizing what they are and either tearing them down where they cause problems or building them up where they’ll help out. Sometimes, we might not even realize something is a barrier – like my former morning routine.

If this article has helped you take control and use barriers to your advantage, let us know! We’d love to know about them, and I bet they might help other readers too.

Conquering the Fear of Failure

Flying by FelixTsao

Failing isn't really as scary as it looks.

Fear of failure is a seriously crippling thing. It’s also deeply rooted in our subconsciouses. How fun. Fear of failure makes us freeze out on stage and forget all of our lines. Fear of failure makes us not commit to things, to never get started in the first place or – worst of all – to purposefully sabotage projects that are going well before they really get going.

I have no science to back this claim up, but I would still bet that if you went around and asked everyone why they don’t quit their job and follow their dreams, why they haven’t sold all their junk and run off to travel the world or probably even why they aren’t trying to improve themselves that the most common answer would be – fear of failure.

Being afraid of failing is a natural thing. That being said, it’s still not a good thing. It keeps us from going where we want to go and doing what we want to do. It makes us miserable, anxious and in a lot of cases depressed. I’m sure someone smarter than I could devise a way to turn those around and harness fear of failure to make it work for them.

The Problem with Being Scared

In some cases fear is a good thing. If you’re in danger you need to know about it. Fear keeps us from doing a lot of really dangerous, crazy things. The thing is the world’s a much safer place than it was 50,000 years ago (not that I’m complaining), but our brains don’t know it yet.

Your brain can’t really distinguish the feeling it gets from turning a corner and finding an irate mother grizzly and the feeling it gets from being in the spotlight in front of a huge crowd. In one of those cases, that fear response is appropriate. In the other, not so much.

When that fear response is triggered, as I’m sure you already know, your body goes into ol’ fight-or-flight mode. That means a big dump of performance enhancing stress hormones into your brain, adrenaline and cortisol being two big players. This big release of hormones and neurotransmitters is fantastic if you need to run from a smilodon, pick up a car or fight off an assailant. They are not so fantastic when you’re trying to remember your lines, or get the motivation up to follow your dreams.

On top of those direct fight-or-flight triggers, fear of failure often grows into a sort of general dread about what might happen. Dreading something means it creates a lot of stress, stress means lots of cortisol and lots and lots of constant cortisol release means you’ll start feeling really run down before long.

That feeling of dread also causes us to do really stupid things. How many things do you wish you could do, but are too scared to do because you’re afraid of failing? How often have you passed up a really fantastic opportunity just because you didn’t think you were good enough, or you were worried it wouldn’t work out?

I have even known someone personally who had planned to start her own business, put tons of work into it, even gone and done pitches for prospective clients, but when inquiries started rolling in for work – she dropped it. Excuses were made, she said it would be too difficult, it just wasn’t the right time, blah blah blah. It was obvious though, she was just too scared that she would fail if she kept going so she chose to give up instead.

How to Fight Your Fear of Failure

Fighting isn’t really the best word for it in my opinion. I think it’s a bad idea to fight your fears, in fact, I pretty much always think it’s a bad idea to fight something that’s part of your nature. It’s too tough of a battle to really end well. Instead of fighting your fears, you need to learn to dismiss them.

As I pointed out, nowadays the physiological fear response we experience is unnecessary for 99% of the situations we feel it in. It sounds silly, but our brains don’t know that the audience isn’t going to savagely maul us if we mess up. In fact, because of our fantastic imaginations, a majority of people way, way, way overestimate the potential consequences of their actions.

We can fix that.

Next time you realize you have some dread, a gnawing fear or a deep apprehension of the future, stop and ask yourself, “Honestly, what is the worst case scenario?”. Give it some really good thought too, sit down and work it out. Think about what the absolute total worst that could happen is.

Ok, now you might be a little more scared, but bear with me. Now that you’ve come up with the worst-possible-case-doomsday-apocalypse outcome, how likely is it really to happen? Is it even that bad? What would you do if it did happen?

Now think about what probably would happen if you failed. Is it really that bad? What are you so scared of? Let’s look at a real world example.

Say you want to quit your day job and start your own business, but you haven’t yet. You’re too scared that you’ll fail and lose everything. Let’s even say you’re the sole income supporting a wife and two kids. What is the worst possible thing that could happen?

The business tanks, you have no income, you lose your house, your wife leaves you to avoid having to eat the children and you wander the streets for the rest of your life, destitute and abandoned. Then you get hit with a meteor.

Honestly though, what are the odds of that? What might really happen if you fail?

The business tanks, you support yourself on whatever savings you have until you find another 9 to 5 or try another business venture. Maybe things get so bad you have to sell your house and downsize, boo hoo. Maybe you can’t find a job and have to flip burgers for a while. Oh well. You won’t be on the streets, you won’t be starving and you won’t be dead. Why is that so scary?

If you fail, you just roll with it. Cut your losses and try something new or admit that you did your best and go find another job in whatever industry you left, or maybe somewhere else. Once you’ve actually sat down and thought things out, it’s just not that scary anymore.

Failing Before You Start

Now that you know that the outcome of actually failing – precisely what you were so afraid of – isn’t actually a big deal, it’s even worse to let fear of failure stop you from working toward your dreams.

I’m always completely amazed when people say they wish they could do something, but are too afraid of failure to start, and then get frustrated that they can’t follow their dreams. It amazes me because if you never try, all you can do is fail.

I understand completely the fear of striking out, but refusing to swing or even to step up to the plate all because you might strike out is ludicrous. In order to avoid the unpleasantness of failing, people make themselves fail from the outset by giving up.

I’m reminded of a quote from the signature of a member of a Parkour community I was a part of four or five years ago, I’m not sure who to attribute it to but it went something like this – “The only way to fail is to give up or to die, and I’m not giving up.”

The point is, as long as you’re alive and willing to keep trying, you haven’t failed yet. If that’s the case, why be so scared of failing? If giving up is the only real way to fail, why give up to avoid failure?

Getting Used to Being a Failure

If you are particularly scared of failing, I highly suggest you try this.

In the past, I used to be afraid of failure in a lot of areas. I was great at rolling with the bad stuff when it came my way, but there were a lot of opportunities that I could have taken that I passed up because I was scared of the potential consequences. Learning to look at things honestly and see how inconsequential the consequences of failure usually are helped a ton.

If you need a little more help getting over it, I suggest you try a little exercise to condition yourself to failure. Every so often, maybe once a week, find something you’re doing and allow yourself to fail at it.

It’s best to pick something inherently benign (I don’t want a flood of e-mails blaming me for failed marriages, that’s your fault) since you want to make sure there won’t be any bad consequences from the failure. Honestly, whatever you pick you’ll start to see that your failure really didn’t matter. The world is still here. No one died. Your life isn’t ruined.

After a few of these practice sessions failing, when you actual find yourself faced with something you’re scared of failing at, you can think back to those times and remember that it really isn’t such a big deal – there’s no reason to be nervous.

The only way to fail is to give up or die.

Have any of these techniques worked for you? Have you used some other way to conquer your fear of failure? Tell us about it!

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