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!

Maximizing Efficiency the 80/20 Way

Golden Section Ratio by Patrick Hoesly

No complex math is needed to put the 80/20 principle to good use, just a bit of forethought.

If you’re familiar with anyone involved in the realm of Lifestyle Design (See our Recommended Reading list), I’m sure you’ve come across the Pareto principle before. For anyone who hasn’t, the Pareto principle (a.k.a. the 80/20 rule) essentially states that in almost every situation 80% of the effects are a result of 20% of the causes.

For example, 80% of profits come from 20% of customers, 80% of problems are caused by 20% of clients, 80% of the weight you lose is a result of 20% of your behavioral changes, etc.

Of course, actual ratios are rarely so consistent. It may be 95/5, 70/30, or whatever. The consistent part, the part that’s important to take away, is that in every case a majority of effects are brought about by a minority of causes.

So, why is this important?

It’s important because it means that, in general, there are two types of actions – those which fall into that 20% that cause 80% of the results, and those that fall into the 80% that are only responsible for that last little 20% of results. I call the first, the 20% with the big effect, High Return Variables and the latter, the majority responsible for that paltry 20%, Low Return Variables.

The 80/20 Rule in Practice: Examples of High and Low Return Variables

The two easiest real-world examples of this principle that come to mind are weight loss, and language learning. Alright, that may be because I’m right in the middle of a weight loss challenge and a language learning challenge, but still.

Weight Loss – Losing weight is, at its very essence, a chemical process. More calories need to be burned than ingested and insulin levels need to be kept low enough to keep the body in a state conducive to fat loss and muscle building. While exercise is important for this, being mindful of what goes into your body is even more so. The person who exercises obsessively but eats a diet of junk will not lose nearly as much weight as the person who barely exercises, or even never exercises, but has a carefully controlled diet.

Language Learning – You can never learn a language just by studying, you have to get out there and use it, but you can roughly break language down into two components – grammar and lexicon. Grammar is learned, really learned, by chatting with people and getting corrected. Lexicon, by coming across new words or actively picking new words to learn.

In both grammar and lexicon, there are High Return Variables and Low Return Variables based on frequency of use. Frequency lists show that 80% of dialog is composed with 20% of available lexical items. That means that to understand 80% of what’s being said, you only need to know 20% of the words in the language. The same goes for grammar. Certain grammatical points will come up time and time again and be extremely useful, while others almost never get used. The person who focuses on the stuff that comes up the most often will get a lot farther a lot faster than the person who doesn’t.

Making the 80/20 Rule Work for You

In those two examples the individual who focuses their efforts on diet first and the individual who focuses their learning on the most common lexical and grammatical items first will show much more progress much more rapidly than individuals who waste their time on less important variables. The key then, in any endeavor, is to spend some time at the outset to determine which variables are the High Return Variables and which are not. Once this is determined, you can make them your primary focus. Work smarter not harder and all that.

So how do you determine what variables are High Return Variables? Well, that’s the somewhat tricky part because it will depend for each different goal or activity you’re applying it to. The best way to figure it out is to start by dropping any ‘I have to do this or that’ mentalities. Those will get you nowhere and the key here isn’t to just do it the way everyone else does, it’s to do it the most efficient way possible.

Once you’ve dropped any preconceptions on how something ‘has to’ be done, go through and dissect all the different variables/actions you can take to reach your goal. First, cut everything that isn’t absolutely necessary. Be brutal here and treat each action like it’s a lead weight on a sinking boat, if it doesn’t really need to be there – toss it. Also remove everything that doesn’t have some kind of directly measurable effect. This will come in handy in the next step, and if there’s no way to measure the effect of an action there’s no real way to evaluate it.

After you’ve dumped all the superfluous actions, go through those that you’ve kept and rank each of them according to how big of an effect they have based on whatever metric applies to them. Sometimes, you may not really know. That’s fine, in that case do a little testing of everything first. Other times you may just have to work through the possible benefits in your head of each action. You may not know for sure a website will get you more customers than business cards, but it’s easy to reason that a website has more potential than business cards, so you would rank getting a website higher than having business cards printed.

Now that you have a ranked list of all the actions to take, in order of highest magnitude to lowest magnitude of effect, get started. You don’t necessarily have to follow the list point by point, but you’ll do much better using it as a tool to focus your attention on what is actually going to matter.

Have any other suggestions for ways to use the 80/20 principle? Let us know.

Polyphasic Sleep: A False Start

Barely over a week has passed in our polyphasic sleep experiment and already it looks like we’re going to have to call it quits. We’ve both accepted new jobs and, while we tried to work around it, have found the two schedules just refuse to play nice together.

In my opinion, in the short-term it was a huge success. By the end of this past week we had adapted fully to the schedule, and both were really loving the few extra hours. It doesn’t seem like an hour or two extra would be worth much, but it felt like a ton of extra productive time.

Because of that, we definitely intend to pick this experiment back up once our schedules fall back under our own control. So far, we’ve had no issues adjusting back to monophasic sleep, so we’ve also been contemplating an on-off version.

Keep checking in for when we can pick things back up, as well as a more in-depth review of our short time experimenting with our sleep patterns. Do you have any experience with it? Let us know in the comments!

Experiment: Polyphasic Sleep

Caroline and I are two very ambitious people. This site, and it’s dedication to paving the way to being epic, is proof positive of that. We have a list of martial arts we want to learn longer than I can count, we both have around 10 instruments we want to learn, we’re currently studying Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Russian, German and French. We want to get in shape, and to get as good as possible at Parkour, breakdancing and acrobatics.

On top of all this, we’re renovating our house and working on starting two businesses, writing several blogs and I write on the side as the Cincinnati Martial Arts Examiner occasionally. We’re also both working on our own novels. Oh, right, we have to eat too. Forgot about that.

Frankly – there’s just not enough time in a day.

Pondering this perplexing problem I remembered something I had read about a few years ago while still in college called ‘polyphasic sleep’. As it turns out, it may be just the solution we’ve been looking for.

How it works

The theory behind polyphasic sleep (poly – many, phasic – parts/phases) is that rather than condense all of your sleep into one large block overnight, like most people do, you spread your sleep out into multiple parts over the course of the day and night.

Why would you want to do that?

Well, as it turns out we’re learning that the only part of sleep that actually seems to serve any rejuvenatory purpose is the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep. The REM stage is the part of sleep during which you experience dreams, as well as the part of sleep during which the brain is closest to being awake from an bio-electrical standpoint. The problem is, during normal overnight monophasic sleep it usually takes the brain about 90 to 110 minutes to complete a sleep cycle. That means only about 20-25% of the time spent sleeping at night is doing anything really functional.

That’s pretty inefficient. Polyphasic sleeping seeks to train the body to enter the REM stage as quickly as possible (if not immediately) upon falling asleep by severely limiting the duration of sleep. That means that the rest of the 75-80% of wasted sleep time can be skipped, dropping the amount of sleep needed to feel rested and rejuvenated to the neighborhood of 2 to 4 hours of total sleep.

Potential benefits

  • More Free Time – This is the big one really. I, for one, have issues getting up sometimes in the morning, and generally wind up spending between 6 to 8 hours a night sleeping. With polyphasic sleep that time can be reduced to 2 to 4 hours, meaning we gain between 4 to 6 waking hours a day to go do something epic.
  • Better Dream Recall – Supposedly, switching to polyphasic sleep greatly increases your dream recall. This may seem like a minor thing to most people, but I have some lucid dreaming experiments I’d like to play with down the road, and I know this skill will come in handy then.

Potential detriments

  • Sleep Deprivation – Some people say that a polyphasic sleep pattern is unhealthy to follow for extended periods of time because it causes sleep deprivation. Even those who do say it’s sustainable admit that the acclimation period when you first start has something of a zombifying effect until your body readjusts.
  • Social Problems – The other big problem most people cite is that it just doesn’t conform well with the rest of society. This seems to be the number one reason polyphasic people return to monophasic sleeping – either they felt it made social events or work difficult or it caused too much trouble within the family schedule. The reason I didn’t try this back in college was because I couldn’t easily fit the nap schedule around my classes.

Our experiment

Experiment might be a little too strict of a word here, since I doubt we’ll wind up being nearly as scientific about this as we should be, but oh well. Our plan is to try out a slightly modified version of what’s called the ‘Everyman’ sleep schedule.

We’ll start out by getting 3 hours of core sleep very night between midnight and 3 a.m. Then we’ll take two 20 minute naps through the day, one at 11 a.m. and another at 4 p.m., cutting our total sleep time down to around 4 hours.

After we’ve adjusted to that, we’ll try cutting the core sleep by an hour and seeing if we can adjust to that as well. That would cut us down to 3 hours of total sleep a night, giving us between 3 and 5 more useful hours a day on average.

We plan on trying a few other sleep schedules over time too, but that will come later. We’ll keep you updated with how things progress every now and then, as well as all the tips and techniques we learn while experimenting.

If you’re interested in learning more about polyphasic sleep right this minute, you can start with these two links:

Are you a polyphasic sleeper? Do you think all of this is absolute nonsense? Let us know in the comments.

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