How to Game Your Environment to Work Better

Optimize environment for productivity

A messy environment can do more harm than you realize.

As a part of starting to write more fiction I took the advice of smarter people than myself and made Stephen King’s On Writing a piece of my required reading.

One of the things that jumped out at me is how much he emphasizes setting aside a special area just for you to do your writing in. King argues that having a special place that is set up specifically for you to write and do nothing else not only helps you ignore distractions, but also helps trigger that creative mindset because your subconscious knows when you sit down in that particular spot it’s time to write.

This is powerful advice. Our environments have a huge effect on our behaviors and moods that we can’t always be aware of.

So why limit the benefits of reshaping our environment to just writing?

Making Your Environment Work for You

The environment people are in constantly shapes what they do, think, and feel. This is visible on a large scale in things like the way the presence of animals that were more or less easy to domesticate (horses, sheep, and cattle in Europe vs. lions, water buffalo, giraffes, etc. in Sub-Saharan Africa) made things like widespread agriculture more or less feasible which affected the lives and futures of everyone living there. It’s visible on smaller scales in the way that people given smaller plates will eat less, or the way people will generally be more cheerful in a bright, sunny room than a dark one.

Once you understand the effect that your surroundings can have, you can start to take control of it. These environmental forces can work both for or against you – so why not make sure you’re giving yourself a boost instead of shooting yourself in the foot before the race even starts?

Remove Negative Environmental Factors

The first step should always be to remove whatever negative elements are in the environment you’re trying to optimize.

Depending on what environment you’re talking about and what you’re optimizing for, this can mean a wide variety of things. Are you wanting to sleep better? Then removing things that give off light like electronics (or at least unplugging them so the LEDs turn off) and setting up curtains or blinds sufficient to keep the room dark at night would qualify as removing the negative factor of there being too much light.

If you want to optimize your environment for losing weight and getting fit, then emptying your house of all the junk food and other stuff that doesn’t fit within your macro and calorie plan would be a good start. Do you need somewhere to be as productive as possible? Then making sure that place is set up with something to block you from social media (or maybe the Internet entirely) will help cut down on distractions.

There isn’t a definitive list of negatives to remove – instead you should approach your area first with the question, “What is my goal here?” Then once you’ve answered that ask, “What things in this space hinder my progress toward that goal?” After that it’s just down to removing them or at the very least putting things into place to mitigate their negative effects.

Maximize Positive Environmental Factors

Once you’ve gotten all the stuff out of there that was holding you back, start priming your environment with things that will support your success.

Again, there’s no definitive list here, it will depend on what particular goals you’re trying to optimize your environment for. Better sleep might be aided by regulating the temperature of the bedroom and getting your bed set up with the right pillows and blankets. Your fitness goals might be be made easier to achieve by keeping your gym clothes out and ready to go so there’s no excuse to skip the gym, or by ensuring your fridge is stocked with prepared meals that fit your eating plan.

Even something as small as making sure that your desk is tidy or that you have a nice big window letting a lot of natural light in to your chosen work area can make a surprisingly big difference. The idea is to follow the reverse process of what we did above, identify what things will make you more likely to do what needs to be done to reach your goal, and optimize your environment around those things.

If you can, there’s a lot of benefit as well to assigning a certain goal task or activity to a very specific controlled area and ensuring that you only do that thing in that area and nothing else. For example, if you have an area set up to work, or write, then only do that there – don’t put Steam on that computer and also use that spot to play games or waste time on Facebook and Twitter. If you want to get better sleep, then your bed should be reserved for sleeping or for sex (to be fair, sex is one activity I’ll concede can be done just about anywhere) and nothing else. No eating in bed, no watching TV in bed, no reading in bed, etc.

This specialization of the area helps condition your brain into triggering the habits built around your goal whenever you’re in the area. If all you do in bed is sleep, your brain knows it’s time to sleep when you get under the covers and will help you fall asleep faster. If all you do in a certain chair or at a certain desk is write, your brain knows when you sit down there that, even if it’s feeling uninspired or wants to do something else, it is time to get some words down.

Even if you don’t go to the extremes to optimize your environment to suit your goals, be aware of the ways it might be affecting you. Knowing that it might not be your fault you keep getting distracted and can’t get work done, or knowing that there are ways to help trick yourself into being more productive that you don’t even need to think about can be an empowering idea.

Do you have any other thoughts on ways to reshape our environments to be more successful? Have you had firsthand experience with some of the benefits of a good environment or the effects of a poor one? Leave a comment and share!

9 Reasons You Should Be Reading Fiction More

Benefits of reading fiction

There are tons of benefits to reading fiction you might be missing out on.

I love to read. Always have. To the point where as a little kid I would routinely get lost in the grocery store because I refused to put my book down even when walking and I wouldn’t notice my mom or grandma had turned off at some point.

I’ve noticed something though in my time spent within the circles of self-development and entrepreneurial minded folks – as much as many of them profess a deep thirst for reading so many disparage or at best ignore fiction.

Their reading lists are packed full of non-fiction, how-to books, motivational stuff, etc. with not a moment spared for a good story. I’ve had people tell me that reading fiction is a ‘waste of time’, or that it’s silly to devote hours to ‘entertainment’ when they could be reading something instructional. They say that, unlike fiction, non-fiction has value.

Fuck those people.

Not only does fiction have value, I’d argue it has a type of value that you can’t get from non-fiction. Here’s why you should make room for reading fiction again.

The Many Benefits of Reading Fiction

Whether you are a voracious reader like myself (I have such a close bond with my Kindle Paperwhite I named him Steven) or someone who considers getting through one short book a year an accomplishment, there’s so much you can get out of diving into a great work of fiction.

  • Reading Fiction Reduces Stress – Fiction reading is an excellent way to reduce your stress levels, something that everyone can benefit from. An ’09 study from the University of Sussex suggested just six minutes of fiction reading can reduce stress markers by up to 68%. Similar studies have noted that, while non-fiction reading can also reduce stress, fiction provided exponentially higher reductions in stress markers. It’s more relaxing to lose yourself in a story than it is to try to process and remember important information.

    Stress is a serious factor when it comes to maintaining good health. Success in weight loss, getting stronger, learning new things effectively, maintaining productivity – all of these things are sabotaged by unchecked stress levels. Making sure to keep stress low is probably one of the biggest positive changes you can make in your life.
    People who read regularly sleep better, show higher overall self-esteem, and report lower rates of depression. Making time for more fiction reading could actually save your life.

  • Reading Fiction Improves Your Vocabulary – All reading improves your vocabulary, but fiction reading does it best because for the vast majority of fiction word choice, sentence structure, and the composition of the prose itself is a concern.

    Non-fiction, when it does improve your vocabulary, has a tendency to do so in a utilitarian and technical way. After all, that’s generally the goal – to get whatever information the author is trying to impart across to you in a way that is most easily understandable while possibly introducing some new terms for things or concepts you may be unfamiliar with. The focus is on clarity above all else.

    In fiction the author stills seeks to convey a type of information, maybe particular emotions, better understanding of human nature, a moral about problem solving, or something like that. The difference is the goal of a fiction author is to convey that story as artfully and beautifully as possible. This builds both a reader’s functional vocabulary but also their sense of flow, meter, and adeptness in their use of language. Rather than teach technical words it helps expand the precision and depth with which we can describe the world around us and convey nuances in meaning.

  • Reading Fiction Boosts Your Creativity – What comes hand in hand with the expansion of vocabulary? A huge boost to your creativity.

    Creativity, boiled down to its essence, is the ability to make connections between otherwise disparate concepts and ideas to forge something novel. (It should come as a hint that Latin ‘novus’ grew into both a noun for a fiction book and an adjective for something new and innovative.) Can absorbing a lot of non-fiction provide a lot of new ideas for you to start linking together? Sure.

    Fiction does it even better though because fiction is nothing but ideas linked and scrambled into something interesting. It’s all ‘what if’s. What if a boy went on the classic hero’s journey but in space with a laser sword and (spoiler warning) what if the antagonist was his dad? What if magic was real and people got invited to go to a secret magical school via train in a castle in England? What if you could write down the stream of consciousness of people going about their day in Dublin but relate it to the structure of a Homeric epic poem? What if a woman and her son were trapped in a hot car in the midsummer sun by a rabid dog and cell phones hadn’t been invented yet?

    Reading fiction cultivates your creativity in the same way that artists cultivate their skills by looking at and copying or mimicking beautiful paintings or drawings. Exposure to another person’s creativity is the best way to spark your own. It makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange exposing you to wonderful new things and forcing you to see the mundane from brand-new perspectives.

  • Reading Fiction Develops Your Theory of Mind – Theory of mind is one of the things that makes humanity special within the animal kingdom. It’s what sets us apart with chimpanzees, ravens, dolphins, and possibly elephants and pigs. Theory of mind is essentially the ability to recognize that another creature has its own mind separate of yours and then modeling it in your own mind to theorize about what and how they’re thinking.

    Doing that might seem obvious to you now, but humans don’t pick that ability up until they’re about three or four years old. Kind of like an understanding of object permanency, it’s why small children think if they can’t see you then you can’t see them. The only thing that exists for them is their own mind and whatever they’re feeling or thinking everyone else must be too.

    Theory of mind is vital for social interactions – and therefore vital for business and all sorts of other aspects of life. It cues you in when someone is trying to deceive you, because you can theorize that the grinning used car salesman is actually more interested in getting as much money from you as possible than he is in being your best friend. It lets you connect better with people because you can put yourself in the shoes of your significant other, family, or friends, and work through problems in a more cohesive way.

    Fiction reading is on the very small list of things that actively improves your theory of mind. Studies have shown not only do the regions of the brain responsible for our theory of mind light up when reading fiction, but when tested fiction readers do far better at tests of theory of mind such as guessing emotional state from non-verbal or visual cues. Guessing at the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of characters and keeping straight all of the social ties and interactions within a narrative lets our brains practice those skills for use later with real people.

  • Reading Fiction Cultivates Empathy – If there’s something I definitely think we could use more of in 2017, it’s empathy. Empathy is similar to theory of mind, except instead of allowing us to postulate what the other person may be thinking, empathy allows us to connect with an understand what another person is likely feeling.

    Why’s that important?

    Empathy is one of the key driving forces behind people not being complete and utter dicks to one another. Empathy and understanding is a key force behind charity and positive social change. Empathy puts you in another person’s shoes so you can see the humanity with a person you might otherwise hate. A lack of empathy is part of what turns people into homophobes, racists, and serial killers. Not categories you want to be in.

    Spending time reading fiction directly contributes to making you a more understanding, less shitty human being.

  • Reading Fiction Exposes You to Culture – Part of that increase in your capacity for empathy comes from being exposed to a wide variety of people in a wide variety of situations and being made to understand their personal struggles within them. Another part of it comes from being exposed to new cultures.

    Fiction reading is an incredible avenue for being exposed not just to real cultures, but to constructed or fictional ones. Even fictional cultures have some kind of basis, intentional or not, in existing real-world cultural systems. Whether it’s experiencing a facsimile of classical Hellenistic culture through the Iliad, the racial prejudice of the southern U.S. through To Kill a Mockingbird, or even the ideas of family and honor presented by non-historical cultures like those in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, all of these things expose you to new ways of thinking and living.

    Fiction from cultures outside of your own, even if they aren’t directly writing about their own culture, also broadens your understanding. Which is why I always advocate reading from authors with diverse cultural, racial, and national backgrounds.

  • Reading Fiction Builds Your Self-Confidence Model – When people reading fiction are run through an fMRI brain scan the same brain regions light up that would light up if they were having that experience firsthand. This is tied in strongly with why fiction helps us build both empathy and theory of mind, it forces us to experience something that someone else with a different background would experience.

    Psychologists have found that this enables people to build internal models of self-confidence and fuel introspection and personal understanding.

    Basically, reading about how some badass protagonist believed in themselves and stood up to defeat the antagonist despite overwhelming odds can contribute to making the real you more confident by providing a sort of comparison model in your subconscious to emulate. This process also allows for unbound self-exploration. Our normal day-to-day emotions are often obfuscated by the forces of peer pressure, normative expectations, and a thousand other factors outside of ourselves. It can make it difficult to understand how you actually feel about things and get in touch with your emotions.

    Reading fiction creates an environment not only free of outside pressures (everything occurs entirely in your own mind), but also provides a safe analogue for examining your own emotions by letting another character experience them. Rather than go through the difficult process of coming to terms with emotions related to a trauma you’ve experienced, you can be a neutral observer as a character you identify with struggles with the emotions related to their own trauma. Through witnessing and experiencing their journey, you can learn about yourself without the fear and vulnerability normally associated with deep introspection.

  • Reading Fiction Improves Your Focus – The nature of the modern world is one in which we are constantly pestered and distracted by a thousand little things all constantly clamoring for just a few seconds of our attention. Being able to sit and really focus on a single task is an increasingly rare skill.

    To learn how to focus better you have to practice focusing better.

    What better way to do that than by committing to sit down with a compelling narrative and devote an entire hour (or however long) to a single, focused task like reading? The feeling of focus and the ability to tune out distractions that comes with getting lost in fiction is something that can be cultivated through reading and then applied to other areas like work or study where it’s a key tool for productivity. A little time spent reading fiction can mean more productivity later.

  • Reading Fiction Provides New Perspectives for Problem Solving – Exposure to all these new and myriad ideas and situations also benefits your capacity for problem solving.

    One way of looking at the structure of fiction is to view it as an argument. The Dramatica theory of story structure for example is one method that I like of analyzing fiction this way. As an example, you could take Star Wars IV: A New Hope as being an argument about the value of trusting in your instincts. Throughout the story both sides of the argument are presented through the characters’ actions and, in the end, the story comes to the conclusion via Luke turning off the targeting system and successfully murdering hundreds of thousands of people on the Death Star that trusting your feelings is good.

    When reading fiction we’re exposed to tons of these little mini-arguments and problems and presented not only solutions for them but examples of ways other people, real or otherwise, have approached the task of solving difficult problems and overcoming obstacles. This helps build in your mind a repository of different frameworks with which to tackle difficult problems. The wider variety of frameworks, the better the problem solver you become and the less trouble obstacles in your life present to you.

Making the Most of your Fiction Reading

The best part is, in addition to all these great benefits, reading fiction is fun.

It’s something most people will naturally enjoy. Even better when they’ve studied it they’ve found that all these benefits from reading fiction come no matter what type or quality you’re reading. You don’t have to be a huge snob and force yourself to trudge through Dostoevsky and James Joyce when you’ll get the same benefits from Brad Thor and Stephenie Meyer. I still think you should do your best to read from a wide range of genres and a diverse mix of authors, but you don’t have to read fiction you don’t enjoy to reap all the benefits – do what makes you happy.

If you need a boost of encouragement, or even some suggestions for new books you might like, Goodreads is a good place to check out for fiction reviews, recommendations, and a system where you can challenge yourself to read a certain number of books before the year’s end. You can try it out if you need that extra little bump of motivation although seriously with all those benefits I hope you don’t need more convincing to get started reading more.

Have any other benefits you think I’ve missed? Experiences of your own with the life improving effects of good fiction? Share in the comments! I love hearing from everyone.

The Stoicism Cheat Sheet: 15 Ways You Can Start Practicing Stoicism Right Now

Stoicism and practical philosophy

Applying the principles of Stoicism to your life doesn’t have to mean spending hours and hours pouring through works from classical antiquity.

Stoicism – or at least a modernized evolution of it – has become increasingly popular over the last ten years or so. More and more athletes, celebrities, political and business leaders, and other public figures talk about how much they enjoy Marcus Aurelius, or how much their following of Stoic practices has helped them in life.

For someone who is interested in seeing what it’s all about though, it can be hard to really dive in and get a good handle on things quickly. There is quite a lot of material out there and the writings of Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca and others from that section of classical antiquity can feel a bit opaque and stuffy even in spite of their beauty and wisdom.

What if you just want to get started applying Stoic philosophy to your life right away? How can you get started putting these things to practice without having to do countless hours of study in philosophical texts?

The Stoicism Cheat Sheet

Quickly before we get to that we need to handle a small bit of housekeeping. First, these are primarily the bits of Stoic philosophy that are applicable and beneficial to modern living. It doesn’t improve your life to know what the Stoics thoughts were on the elemental structure of matter because we have modern science now and particle physics and atomic theory and the like. So we’re just worrying about the practical, actionable stuff here.

Second, remember that Stoicism isn’t a religion – it’s philosophy. That means that these principles aren’t handed down by some unassailable divinely omniscient beings, they’re just ideas from people who put a lot of time and effort into figuring this shit out. Don’t get too hung up on whether a particular interpretation or another is closer to what Aurelius or some other ancient philosopher meant to get across. Just worry about whether or not that interpretation leads to a principle or action that will benefit your life in some way. Take what you want from this list, leave what doesn’t click for you. The point is just to get you started on some things that’ll make your life a little better.

  1. Learn to separate what you can control from what you can’t control. A lot of things in life are entirely or at least largely out of our control. The only things that are completely under our control are our thoughts, reactions, desires, and everything else that happens in your head. If you can’t control it, or change it, then it’s useless to be worried, upset, or anxious about it.

  2. Remember that everything in existence is impermanent. Don’t get attached to material things or get obsessed with the acquisition of stuff. Over-attachment leads to suffering, because inevitably you will lose whatever it is you’ve attached yourself too. Practicing a practical, non-ascetic level of minimalism is a good idea. This doesn’t mean to avoid developing real relationships or to not form attachments with people, just to recognize that you need to cherish that attachment while you have it and not squander that time because they won’t be around forever.

  3. Consider potential problems and consequences before they arise to lessen their influence. In the morning or before you set out to do something, think about what all might go wrong. Maybe you might get stuck in traffic on the way to work, or the project you’ve been working on might be poorly received. Knowing what problems might come your way, you can recognize that if they do come up they won’t actually be all that bad. You can accept them when they come and roll with them, because you already knew they might be coming. You can also better take steps to avoid them entirely.

  4. Remember that you are insignificant. You are an infinitesimally small piece of an incomprehensibly vast universe. From many perspectives, nothing you could ever possibly do will make any kind of difference or matter at all. So don’t be egotistical, and don’t worry so much about things.

  5. Practice temperance, self-discipline, and intentional discomfort. Take what opportunities you can to practice being in control of your own self. Don’t stuff yourself at meals, don’t give in to the temptation to have a second dessert, don’t let your laziness dissuade you from working out, etc. Practice making yourself uncomfortable in order to become comfortable with discomfort. Take an extra cold shower. Fast for a day. Deny yourself social media for a week. This type of practice builds up both your self-discipline and your grit.

  6. Pursue harmony in living. Look for balance in life, and for areas where you’re struggling against the natural state of things. It’s a fallacy to think that just because something is ‘natural’ it’s inherently good for you, hemlock, cancer, and Ebola virus are all natural but very bad. However, the forces of natural selection have not built humans well for spending 16 hours a day seated in an office chair, car, or sofa, or for living on a huge daily surplus of calories. Make sure you’re not hurting yourself by doing things contrary to what you’re built for.

  7. View obstacles as opportunities. When you find yourself blocked by a wall, see it instead as a challenge, or an opportunity. Cultivate a mindset like a parkour athlete, where each obstacle isn’t a hindrance but instead is a canvas on which to express themselves through movement. This applies to more metaphorical obstacles as well – the appearance of an obstruction is outside of your control, but whether you treat it as a calamity and let it deter you or whether you treat it as a blessing and use it to your benefit is entirely your choice.

  8. Always consider the other person’s point of view. Recognize that most people hold the opinions they have because of a genuine conviction that it’s the right thing, just like you. When meeting someone with conflicting ideas, always try to consider it from their perspective and consider what reasoning might help them understand why you hold a different view. Now, this isn’t to say that all ideas and positions are inherently valid – the ideals of Neo-Nazis and white supremacists for example are flatly reprehensible – but you should consider that even if the position is awful, the person may not have come by it through evil intent. They may have been indoctrinated, misled, or never properly exposed to alternatives. Seek to understand people rather than destroy them.

  9. Be a citizen of the world, and a creature of Earth. Race, nationality, political and religious identity, all of these things are arbitrary and divisive. Don’t use these things to exclude people for bullshit reasons. All of humanity is your family. In the same way you are in fellowship of every living thing on Earth, and should treat life and the environment with respect and care. This doesn’t mean you have to be flatly accepting of everyone – if someone is evil, unjust, or seeks to harm you or others then treat them accordingly, just don’t mistreat people for made up, dumbass reasons like ethnicity or nationality.

  10. Don’t wait, act. Don’t decide to start something new tomorrow, or in a week – start it now. You don’t have much time. No one does. So why always say you’re going to start making your life better tomorrow, or next year. Today is the best day to start, and right now is the best time. Quit fucking around and get to it.

  11. Re-examine first impressions. It’s normal for people to base their continuing opinion of other people and things based around a very quick first impression. Always remind yourself that a first impression is often an illusion, a poor reflection of the reality of a person or a thing affected by a thousand little transient factors. The more you can keep yourself from relying always on these first impressions the better you can understand others.

  12. Don’t suppress emotion, but don’t be a slave to it. Try to think of emotions like anger or sadness in the way you might consider physical sensations like hunger, or pain. It would be a poor goal to try to never again feel pain, or hunger, because then you wouldn’t know when you’re injured or starving. At the same time, you don’t want to let them control you and collapse into a wailing heap because of your pain or give in entirely to your hunger and eat until you’re sick. People with high pain tolerance don’t feel less pain, they are just practiced at not letting it affect their behavior. That is how you should approach other emotions. Don’t attempt to never feel angry, but don’t allow that anger to affect your behavior or cause you to lash out at others or become irrational. You are in control, not your emotions.

  13. Don’t worry too much about the judgement and opinion of others. So long as you are doing what you know is right, moral, and just, then it doesn’t matter what other people think of you. If doing the right thing, or what is best for you, means getting laughed at or ridiculed by others than those people can go fuck themselves – the opinions of people who would mock you for living true to yourself and acting with integrity aren’t worth shit.

  14. Don’t be immediately judgmental of others. This is the flip side of the previous point and ties in with always considering the point of view of others. If someone is doing something that you consider wrong, consider if they have reasons for behaving that way and whether or not they are primarily under that person’s control. Instead of judging someone, try to understand them and find out if what you see as a personal failure or flaw isn’t in actuality a problem or affliction you could help that person with.

  15. Cultivate and adhere to ideals of practical wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. These are the primary four virtues of Stoicism. Read, learn, discuss, and work to continually be building actionable and practical wisdom. Seek to support and further the spread of justice and fairness both in your actions and the actions of others. Always act with courage, don’t let fear stop you from actions you know to be right or beneficial to yourself and others. Try to maintain temperance in fulfilling your wants and needs – keep to moderation – don’t eat too much, party too much, or go overboard in execution of things. Similarly, don’t be neglectful of things either.

These quick guidelines will get you started putting the principles of Stoicism to work in improving your life right away. Don’t try to think of them as commandments, so much as a short list of good advice.

Do you have anything you think you would add for people wanting to apply the ideals of Stoicism to their life? Anything you don’t think is such a good idea, or something you have more questions about? Leave a comment!

Higher Productivity Through Periodization

Periodization for productivity

Keeping productivity up when you have a high number of projects to juggle can feel next to impossible.

Whether they’re all work related or it’s a mix of business and personal tasks when you start juggling too many different things then something inevitably gets dropped. When you’re in charge of a big project at your office job, trying to schedule things for the family, get your weightlifting in,
keep the house clean and the fridge stocked, learn a new language or skill, and work on some entrepreneurial endeavor all at once things wind up being a mess.

Caroline and I have been there. We are notorious for getting excited about and picking up new projects while still working on old ones. I’ve seen what tends to happen – one or more things get neglected.

Maybe you wind up going a month or two without lifting because of spending too much time on other things. Or maybe you just can’t fit the time in for building your own side income stream and it gets forgotten. How do you make sure you can handle progressing in all these things and getting all this stuff done without accidentally abandoning or neglecting some of them?

Okay – the easy answer is to chill out and stop overloading yourself, but if you’re essentially a pathological goal starter ambitious like us that’s not terribly satisfying. There is a trick I’ve found for making it work out though.

Using periodization.

What Is Periodization?

Periodization is a training methodology used in higher level athletes and weight training in order to maximize results while reducing potential detriments of training, and to prep athletes to compete without the training itself potentially interfering with the athletes ability to compete.

There are a bunch of different types of periodization for a bunch of different purposes, ranging from pursuing different opposing goals in cycles (a cycle of training for speed, then a cycle for max power, etc.) to cycling in order to taper appropriately for an event (such as higher volume / lower intensity cycles shifting into lower volume / higher intensity cycles with more technique focus). The important takeaway here for how we’re going to apply it is to think of it as focusing on a single goal for a set period to the exclusion of other goals.

For example, if I want to work on my endurance at a high level and want to work on my overall maximum strength the type of training needed to improve my endurance would hinder the type of training needed to build max strength and vice versa. To avoid that I’d pick one and work on that for a period while lightly maintaining the other, then switch.

That’s how we’re going to handle your productivity problems.

Applying Periodization to Productivity

So how do we take a sports and weightlifting concept and apply it to productivity?

Well your overloaded project list is a lot like an overloaded list of training goals – when you pursue them all some inevitably interfere with the others. Like an athlete using periodization to make their conflicting training goals play nice together you need to separate these projects into their own little blocks.

The first step is to figure out exactly how many projects (or project categories) you have. You need to have an idea of how many different segments we’re going to build out in the periodized task framework. These can be a bit more on the specific side like noting a concrete task (write weekly article, run 5k, vacuum house, etc.) or they can be more categorical (writing, exercise,
housework, etc.) – the key is to think about how many tasks you have and what feels like it will be more manageable for you.

If you have specific tasks that get repeated regularly, then you might be better off getting more specific. If, on the other hand, you have a lot of varying tasks that fall under a broader category,
then a higher level approach may work better for you. Don’t stress about it too much, you can always rework things if you feel like one way isn’t working out as well as it could.

The next step is to determine and lay out your time scale. Periodization in weightlifting can be scheduled out over a year, two years, four years, etc. depending on the athlete and the goals. Generally I don’t advise using a scale of months or years for the type of periodization we’re using to be more productive because few things have those kinds of timescales in regards to goals and deadlines.

Days and weeks on the other hand tend to work well in my experience. The idea here is to match your tasks out to the number of periods you’re dividing your timescale into. So for example I have Mondays and Thursdays blocked out entirely for work related to Road to Epic, Tuesdays are devoted to working on our podcast, Wednesdays to my fiction writing, Fridays to freelance art/graphic design work and my comics, and Sundays to housework like cleaning or home improvement projects. Sundays are left open, and work related to the day-to-day operation of our brick-and-mortar self-defense school is spread out over the whole week.

This kind of week blocking works well for me for two main reasons: The first is that I’ve broken things down into broad categories that tend to have a large variety of tasks related to them, and so having an entire day or more to devote to whatever things need to be done ensures I have enough time to actually do them. The second is that I already have most of my personal development habits (language study, fitness, meal prep, etc.) locked in and so I don’t need that structure to maintain them.

If you came up with more of a specific repeatable task list, then you can try blocking out hours instead of days. Making 7 a.m. your running time every other day, or blocking out a specific hour each night for language study. Take care if you go this specific route not to overload yourself though, you run the risk of just circling around to the original problem and setting yourself up for a daily schedule that’s untenable.

Embracing a Periodization Mindset

Now, you might be saying, “Wait a minute – isn’t that just making a schedule?”

Yeah. At least, on a surface level.

The real key to making this type of system work though is embracing the mindset behind periodization, which is to not worry about anything but what that periods focus is.

If it’s a Road to Epic day and I get contacted about graphic design work, or figure out a great bit of plot for a story, or get the urge to go dust the furniture – then too bad it’s not the day for that. Now that doesn’t mean I won’t respond to the e-mail, jot down my story idea, or make a mental note that dusting is going to come first on Sunday, but I hold firm to a rule of not working on anything but Road to Epic stuff those days.

You can be even more exclusionary than that if you want, I know I can let myself get diverted for a quick e-mail or a note and come back to my work without totally getting derailed but I know not everyone can. What makes this work better than just making a plain old schedule is that you need to have strict guidelines in place in order to keep you on the right thing through that entire period.

Do you have any personal experience with using periodization as a productivity tool? Any ways you can think of to make things work better or roadblocks you’ve found applying the system for yourself?
Share them with everyone in the comments!

7 Questions to Help Find Purpose in Life

Find purpose in life through introspection

You can find purpose without staring wistfully out over a scenic vista – but you can still go do that too.

Some people seem to be born knowing what they want out of life.

They have their career picked out before they’re out of high school, they have a plan for exactly the family life they want, they know exactly how they want to be spending their days.

Most of us are not that lucky.

Most people wind up rolling into adulthood a little lost. Maybe you never knew what you really wanted to do and have cruising along waiting for it to come to you but it hasn’t. Maybe you thought you knew what you wanted only to find, four years of university education later, that you were wrong – and now you feel trapped in a career you don’t enjoy. Whatever the reason, it’s not uncommon to find people who feel like they don’t have any real purpose in life.

If that’s the case, it’s time to start figuring one out.

Don’t Find Purpose, Figure Out or Choose a Life Purpose

First there’s a little bit of housekeeping that I think needs to be done when it comes to thinking about the concept of a ‘purpose in life’. Some people treat the idea as if there is one special thing that you were born to do. I reject that idea completely.

Not only does it require the existence of some kind of ‘higher power’ which is almost certainly not the case, it’s kind of an offensive concept in my opinion. I would find it oppressive and horrible if I were told by a parent, government official, or whomever else you want to use as an example that I had one ‘job’ or ‘calling’ or ‘purpose’ to fulfill that had been decided for me without my input or consent and I had no choice in the matter. Making the thing doing the choosing some deity doesn’t make it any better.

You and only you get to choose or even create your purpose in life. That’s why I dislike the general language that gets used most of the time when people discuss these things. It’s always ‘find purpose’ or ‘discover purpose’ and that frames things in a way that makes purpose in life out as this fixed, pre-determined thing that you have to hunt down. Your purpose in life can be built, it can change, it’s a malleable thing not a stone tablet with an unalterable decree chiseled into it.

That sense of purpose can mean different things to different people too. For our purposes I’m going by the necessarily incomplete working definition of being the thing that makes you eager to get out of bed in the morning. The thing that makes you want to hop out of bed and start your day as opposed to the things that make you have to get out of bed and start your day.

It might not be tied to your work either. Discussions of finding your ‘true purpose’ get framed that way a lot – and I genuinely do think it’s good to try to earn a living doing what you love.

I’m a realist though. One awfully close to the optimist line, but a realist nonetheless. Not everyone can make money off of the thing they choose as what gives them purpose. Sometimes it’s just not something you can monetize at all. Sometimes it’s something that will earn you some money but never let you earn enough to provide a comfortable living for you or your family. It’s all well and good to tell people to do what they love and assure them they’ll make ends meet – but that’s just not the case for most people. It doesn’t have to stop you from pursuing whatever gives you purpose though, it just means you’ll also need something to earn a living.

With all that out of the way, let’s look at some things to ask yourself that will help point you in the right direction for creating some purpose in your life.

7 Questions to Find Purpose in Life

  • What do you hate about your current situation?

    I realize most articles like this tend to focus only on the positive stuff, but negative things are just as much an indicator of what direction you might want to go in. Hell, at times they may even be easier to tap into than the positive emotions. It’s easy to lie to yourself about what you think your hopes and dreams are, but you everyone knows it when there’s something they just hate.

    This question is a little bit of a preparatory step for the others. Think about what things in your life, or aspects of your life, are there that you just can’t stand right now. It can be big things or small things. You might hate that you don’t make enough to not stress over keeping your family fed each month, you might hate that you don’t exercise like you tell yourself you want to, you might hate that you watch so much TV or spend so much time playing video games. Whatever it may be, think for a minute on all the things about your current situation that upset you.

    Keep these things in the back of your mind as we you go through the rest of these questions because these are the things that you’re looking to change if you can. Anything that will help remove or address some of the things you come up with should get a little extra consideration when you’re choosing.

  • What pains/struggles are you willing to tolerate long term?

    Now that you’ve considered what you hate about your situation now, start thinking about what things you might find unpleasant that you would still be willing to put up with long term.

    The fact is everything has a shitty side to it. There’s going to be a downside to whatever you pursue as purposeful and if you can’t handle that or if the downside outweighs the positive side then it’s not a good choice as the thing to give your life purpose. If you think playing in a band would give your life purpose but don’t want to travel or hate being around crowds, it might not be a great choice. If you think it would be incredible to teach young kids and have an impact on their lives, but can’t handle early mornings / late nights, bureaucracy, or a relatively low income, then becoming a preschool teacher might not pan out.

    It’s a question of what are you willing to put up with. In pursuing my writing I understand the kind of grind involved to do it. I definitely don’t enjoy the hard work of it sometimes, but it’s something I’m willing to put up with. If you don’t know where your line is for what kinds of things you can put up with long term it’s going to be hard to figure out what’s sustainable.

  • What reliably puts you in a flow state?

    Now that you know what kinds of things you’re willing to tolerate, it’s time to think about what kinds of things or what specific activities tend to put you into a flow state.

    What’s a flow state? Put simply it’s when you get so dialed into something that you would forget to eat or sleep if someone didn’t stop you. It’s when you feel like you’re ‘in the groove’ and an activity is simultaneously challenging enough to be fun but not so much that it’s stressful. If you’ve ever sat down to do something, gotten super into it, and then looked up to realize several hours had passed and wondered where the time went, you were probably in a flow state.

    Being in the flow state is great for all sorts of reasons. Things that tend to put you into it are things that you’re likely to consistently enjoy, which makes them good candidates for choosing something to give purpose to your life. Things that you come up with from this question are a great place to start exploring your options.

    That being said, it’s not a guarantee that something will be a good choice. I get into a flow state all the time playing certain video games, but if I tried to make playing video games my purpose in life I know there just wouldn’t be enough there for me overall to be satisfied. The odds of ever making any money off of it are also low which, while not a deal breaker, is still a consideration.

  • What would you spend time on if you were going to die in a year? Or, what would you do all day if forced out of your normal routine?

    This is sort of two questions in one, or two questions that get at the same concept. First, if you were going to die in one year exactly – guaranteed, no escape, you will be dead – what would spend most of that year doing? Would you spend as much time as humanly possible with family? Are there things you would want to accomplish before you were out of time? Would you just want to spend that last year in a blur of sex, drugs, and parties?

    Most importantly, how does what you would do differ from the things you do right now? Would you watch as much TV? Would you keep putting off learning the piano/how to dance/whatever? Would you want to make sure you’re remembered for feeding the hungry?

    The second question gets at the same idea, but with less of the skew towards the wild, consequence-free options that knowing you’ll be dead in a year provide.

    Imagine you were barred from doing anything you normally do everyday, or from coming home except to sleep at night. Maybe someone’s put a Battle Royale style bomb collar on you and outside of going to work if they catch you going home or falling into your normal routine through the day they’ll detonate it.

    What do you choose to do all day?

    You’re pretty sure if you pick ‘sit at a coffee shop and dick around on Facebook/Reddit/YouTube/whatever’ the person holding the remote is going to consider that as being too close to your normal routine and press the button that turns your skull into a fireworks display. Do you go find some classes to enroll in? Spend your free time hiking around whatever local parks or woods are available? Hit the library for some good books?

    Both these questions are trying to get at what things in your life are things you actually want to do as opposed to just being a part of what I call your ‘holding pattern’ – the stuff you do to occupy your time and distract you from the meaninglessness of life in a safe, non-threatening way until the next task necessary for your continued survival comes around.

    I know that sounds brutal, but it’s true. Your holding pattern (constantly checking Facebook, zoning out in front of the TV, compiling a thousand Pinterest boards, etc.) is a way for you to spend time with no risk of failure or negative stimuli that makes you feel ‘good’ by distracting you from life.

    Knowing what is, and isn’t, part of your holding pattern by thinking about those two questions will help you narrow down what might be a fulfilling purpose for you. Things that are in your holding pattern won’t be a good choice for creating purpose.

  • What do you do, or not do, now that would piss off ten year-old you?

    Imagine you could somehow pop yourself as a ten year-old forward in time to hang out with you for a single day in the present. We’ll also assume when they get popped back they’ll have no memory of it to avoid all the obvious,
    “I’d spend the whole day making them memorize a list of winning lottery numbers,” type answers. What would ten year-old you think about where you’re at? What would they say about what an average day is like for you?

    Think about it broadly, but then focus in on two specific aspects of it – what do you do that would upset ten year-old you, and what do you not do that would upset ten year-old you?

    Would the job you have currently horrify your anachronistic doppelganger? Would they get upset that you don’t get out and do more things? Did you always used to love to draw, play an instrument, dance, or whatever else but gave it up at some point because of the burdens of adulthood?

    Not everything ten year-old you wants for current you is going to be a good thing, I know ten year-old me would probably be very upset I don’t just eat ice cream all the time since there’s no one to stop me. Sometimes you have a good reason for not wanting to do something now that you loved as a kid. That’s fine, and you should be honest about it.

    Sometimes though there really isn’t a good reason. Sometimes you gave up on something because you felt there wasn’t enough time, or that you would never be ‘good enough’, or you had someone discourage you from it along the way telling you it wasn’t realistic or it was a kid thing, or whatever. When you frame the question this way it makes it easier to take a look at whether you really want to be doing the things you’re doing and whether there are things you aren’t doing that you would enjoy. These can be good jumping off places for figuring out where you might want to invest more of your purpose.

  • What do you avoid doing because it’s uncomfortable or scary?

    This is more of a general personal growth kind of question, to be honest. It helps identify areas that you might be struggling in or need to grow into, which in turn helps expand your experiences making it (hopefully) easier to figure out what you might want to choose to be your purpose.

    Take a look at all the things you have to, or want to, do today, this week, this month, this year. What of those things have you been putting off because you’re scared/uncomfortable/anxious about some aspect of it?

    To give a micro example, I hate talking to people on the phone. I am solidly in the ‘Just text or e-mail me, please’ generation. Sometimes though I have to call someone. I always instinctively put it off because it makes me uncomfortable. If I’m not careful I’ll avoid it so long I miss my opportunity, or bad things happen, or best case scenario I just look like an ass who doesn’t care enough to get back to people. I know if something makes me uncomfortable I have to make myself do it as soon as possible so that it doesn’t become a big problem.

    On a larger scale than the daily to-do list often the things we’re most apprehensive about doing, or which make us most uncomfortable when we think about doing them, are the most important things we could do right now. Things tend to make us uncomfortable because they’re important – even if we don’t realize that’s the reason. Important things often come with stakes, with a risk, with some kind of personal investment. Those things freak us out.

    When you take a look at what things you want to do that you’ve been putting off because you’re scared to get started, you get a picture of the areas that you need to focus hardest on. When you start growing in these areas it makes it easier to figure out what you might want out of life.

  • What would you do if you had unlimited funds?

    I had to include this one, even thought to be honest I sort of hate it.

    Mostly because the honest answer is probably “Accidentally destroy the global economy by buying a ton of shit I don’t need.”

    So try to think of it a year in to your unlimited funds adventure. You’ve bought all the expensive stuff you wanted and won’t care about before long. You’ve burned through the crazy bucket-list type stuff like having someone fly you up to the International Space Station for dinner. Now what?

    What do you do for the rest of your life now that you don’t have to work? How do you stop from getting bored out of your mind?

    I put this one last because I don’t think it’s necessarily the best way to really think about it, partially because it’s unrealistic, and partially because having that kind of financial power would probably skew your choices significantly, but as a last thing it can at least provide a small amount of insight into where your personal priorities lie.

Keep Testing and Re-Evaluating

Hopefully these questions will help get you on the path to figuring out what it is you really want. This is a process that will require constant testing and evaluating. You might decide down the road that what you want out of life has changed, that your old purpose in life no longer applies and it’s time to create a new one. The important part is to always be assessing whether the trajectory you’re on is the one you actually want to be on, or one that you’ve found yourself on without realizing.

I want to note too that sometimes feelings of hopelessness, or that you’re lacking a purpose, or that the things you used to love doing just aren’t enjoyable anymore, are signs of clinical depression. It’s absolutely worth it to talk to your doctor if you’ve been feeling that way and nothing seems to help – depression is often a chemical issue and is something that can be treated, but it’s important to recognize it’s an illness and not just something ‘in your head’. Treat it like you would cancer or another serious affliction and get a doctor to help you overcome it.

If you have anything to add, or any questions about the questions, make sure to leave us a comment!

Want More Productivity? Sleep More

Sleepy Kitten Working on Her Productivity

Sleep is a vital element to being productive.

We talk a lot about productivity on here for two primary reasons – the first is we have a lot of projects we’re passionate about and if we didn’t have a strong interest in productivity ourselves none of them would ever get done, and the second is everyone always wants to be more productive. It’s one of those areas that everyone uniformly wants but struggles with.

While there are a lot of things you can do to increase your productivity it can be easy to get bogged down in the little things. Apps, complicated organizational or notebook systems, specialized methods like timeboxing, and things of that nature all seem cool and exciting.

The problem is when you worry too much about that sort of thing it’s easy to completely ignore the stuff that doesn’t seem as cool – and that’s the stuff that’s actually going to help the most.

Sleep Is a Key Foundation of Productivity

These things getting left by the wayside when people focus on their productivity are often the most foundational elements of being productive. The one we’re going to look at today – because frankly it’s the most important one – is sleep.

If you want to be productive but don’t get eight hours of sleep a night, then you’re shooting yourself in the foot before the race even starts.

Sleep gets a bad reputation nowadays as something for the lazy, or the unambitious. It’s seen as a weakness. People say things like, “Sleep is for the weak,” or, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” They act like it’s something to boast about when they go long periods without sleeping or rely on caffeine and other stimulants just to function every day. People act like the truly productive, the hardest of hard workers, sleep little or pull frequent all-nighters in the name of productivity.

All of that is stupid.

Lack of Sleep Destroys Productivity

In a University study from June of 2000 researchers found in the thirty-nine subjects they tested going without sleep for seventeen to nineteen hours caused them to perform as badly on tests as when they tested at a blood alcohol content of 0.05%, with many being worse when tired than when inebriated. Beyond nineteen hours many participants performed worse than they had at a blood alcohol content of 0.1%.

Now, for reference, in most places in the U.S. the legal limit for driving is 0.08%. Seventeen hours of being awake would be waking up at 6 a.m. and staying up until 11 p.m. – which is not an unlikely scenario for many people. People on that schedule could be nearly as impaired as if they were too drunk to drive.

Compounding the problem is the issue of sleep debt.

If you only get three hours of sleep one night, but make sure you get eight the next night, that doesn’t reset you to where you would’ve been if you had gotten two nights of eight hours of sleep. Sleep deprivation accumulates in what’s usually called sleep debt or a sleep deficit.

Research has shown two weeks of getting less than six hours of sleep per night reduces your cognitive ability as much as going a full twenty-four hours without sleeping. A single week of only getting four hours of sleep a night reduced participant’s performance equivalent to going three full days without sleeping.

If you’re getting under six hours of sleep every night, for example if you have to get up around 6 a.m. for work everyday and regularly stay up until midnight, you are performing at a cognitive level equivalent to being too drunk to legally drive.

Caffeine and stimulants may make you feel like they’re making up for it but, just like like drinking a bunch of espresso when you’re drunk, it doesn’t make you perform better it just gives you more energy with which to perform poorly.

Sleep debt is why it’s a stupid idea to think you can be more productive by working late or pulling all-nighters. Let’s assume two example people, Jane and Jim. Both of them have to get up at 6 a.m. every morning for work. Jim routinely stays up until midnight to get a little extra work done. Let’s assume for the sake of the example that Jim genuinely spends those two extra hours working and not on Netflix or Reddit or something. Jane goes to bed at 10 p.m. every night to get a full eight hours.

At the end of the week Jim has put in fourteen more hours of work than Jane. That sounds pretty good, until you realize he’s been performing at a level equivalent with being drunk. Not just for those extra fourteen hours either, but for all of Jim’s productive hours he’s been performing at a severely reduced level.

That means in Jane’s 112 waking hours she’ll not only have been able to do better work, she’ll also have done more work than Jim in his 126 waking hours. Do you think you could get more work done in an hour sober, or after six beers?

Productivity isn’t about the sheer number of hours put in, it’s about the amount of quality work accomplished.

If you’re worrying about productivity apps and don’t-break-the-chain charts but only getting six hours of sleep every night, your priorities are way out of order.

How to Make Sure You’re Sleeping Enough

Okay, so you get now that getting eight hours of sleep every night is crucial for being productive –
how do you go about doing it?

Like with productivity itself there are all sorts of low impact high excitement things out there to help you sleep more and better, and none of them are worth a damn if you don’t have the boring basic stuff down first.

  • Keep to a Regular Bedtime – We have no problem with the concept of waking up at the same time everyday, so why do people balk at the concept of going to sleep the same way? I’m not sure if people associate a set bedtime as something for children, but going to sleep at a variable time is a great way to not only accidentally stay up too late and deprive yourself of vital sleep, but also a great way to reduce the quality of the sleep you do get.

    Set a specific time every night as the time you go to sleep. Stick to it. Don’t make excuses for why you need to stay up a little longer. Don’t let other people talk you out of it. Do you know what’s not childish? Making a decision to do something and sticking to it even when you don’t feel like it.

  • Avoid Stimuli Before Sleeping/In Bed – If you know when your set bedtime is,
    then you can avoid watching TV, playing video games, browsing the Internet, or doing other overly stimulating things for an hour beforehand. You should also avoid doing all those things in bed. Your bed should not be the place you hang out in the evening watching TV and eating snacks and playing around on your iPad.

    Your bed is for sleeping, and having sex. If you’re not doing one of those two things, do it somewhere else – and to be fair one of those things can be done somewhere else too. Don’t sit in bed and watch TV until you feel tired. When you get in bed it should be because you are intending to go to sleep. If you toss and turn and aren’t asleep after fifteen minutes, get up and do something relaxing (not TV or anything with a screen) and try again as soon as you start to feel tired.

  • Avoid Caffeine After Noon and Alcohol Before Bed – Caffeine can stay in your system for longer than you think. Keep all your caffeinated drinks to before noon to be certain the stimulants aren’t keeping you from getting to sleep or reducing the quality of the sleep you’re getting.

    Alcohol is no different. Avoid drinking too much close to bedtime since alcohol before bed severely reduces the quality of the sleep you get. It’s fine every now and again, but don’t make it a habit or you’ll ruin your sleep.

These few things might not seem like much, but that’s kind of the point.

They don’t seem cool or flashy but, unlike that fancy app you bought with the expensive peripheral wearable, they’ll actually get you eight hours of quality sleep every night.

Get your sleep in order, and then you can worry about filling in the little details later. Your productivity will increase without you feeling like you’ve even done anything.

Have any other recommendations for getting a better night’s sleep for productivity’s sake? Have a personal example of how sleeping better made you better able to get things done and perform well? Share them with everyone in the comments!

Get More Done By Limiting Yourself

Restricted by Martin Cathrae

Sometimes restrictions can help more than they hinder.

People don’t usually like to have themselves limited. We like to be free, to have lots of options, for there to be no constraints on what we can do. The motivating factor behind a lot of people’s decision to chase financial independence through entrepreneurship or self-employment is specifically to have more control over their schedules, choices, and life. Constraints are bad.

Or are they?

Like so many things limits and restrictions don’t have to be bad thing if you can find a way to use them to your advantage. When you do they can act as a powerful motivational tool, creativity booster, and more.

When Choice Is the Enemy

It’s easy to romanticize complete and total freedom as an unambiguously positive thing, but in reality a lot of problems can stem from having too much freedom.

The first is something that people often call the Paradox of Choice. The short explanation of the paradox of choice is that in stead of having access to more options or choices being freeing or empowering, it actually makes it more difficult to just pick something and causes more anxiety and negative reactions than if there were fewer options from which to choose.

As a very basic example, imagine a restaurant menu that has fifteen dishes on it that you know you’ll really like. Having that many options makes it that much harder to just pick one than it would be if there were only a handful of things you knew you liked or fewer.

This also ties into the related problem of Paralysis by Analysis. Essentially that’s when you spend so much time deliberating over what would be the best choice or the most optimal course of action that you wind up not making a decision at all or continually putting it off. Using our menu example this might be wrestling over getting something new that you might wind up disliking, or going with a tried-and-true favorite that you know you’ll like but then missing out on trying something new – only to have completely failed to choose what to eat by the time the server comes back for your order.

On top of these problems, having a lot of options leads to decision fatigue. This is where each little choice you have to make slowly erodes your resolve and your willpower as the day goes on until there’s nothing left. In that state of depleted willpower at the end of the day it’s exponentially more difficult to be disciplined and stick to your diet or whatever other positive habits you’ve tried to build for yourself and on top of that it primes you to make poor decisions over good ones.

Using Limits As a Tool

To counteract these negative effects of having too much choice, the best thing to do is put yourself back in a situation where the presence of all these options isn’t so overwhelming that it’s going to stop you from getting to work.

By placing your own carefully selected limits and restrictions on yourself you can eliminate the problems caused by the paradox of choice and also make sure you’re engaging in behaviors that will help you be more productive and avoid things like procrastination and burn out.

  • If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed on a daily basis by all the things you have to get done then write out a short list every evening of the most important things you need to do the next day. Make it a relatively small list – we’re trying to work within limits here remember – no more than maybe six things. Then out of that short list choose the single most important thing that needs to get done and commit to doing that thing first thing in the morning and nothing else until it’s completed. This restriction will fore you to work through the important stuff in your day and not get distracted by every little thing you need to do.

  • Use time limits on your habits in order to make them stick better. We’ve talked in previous articles about habit building and timeboxing on how starting small and having a set time constraint can make a big difference in adherence and reduce the pressure to avoid the task or habit. If you want to exercise limit yourself by saying the only exercise you need to do is get your gym clothes on and walk out the door. Or maybe drive to the gym. Nothing else. Chances are once you get started you’ll keep going and actually work out, but if not it’s fine. The important thing is it’s hard to convince yourself you’re not capable of putting shoes on and walking out the door. Limit yourself to two minutes of language learning, or to a single Memrise session. You’ll find it easier to keep making progress once you’re started.

  • You can also use limits to force creativity. It’s an extremely common practice for writers to place some kind of crazy restriction on themselves to spark creativity, whether it’s just in a practice creative writing session or in an actual work. Some incredibly creative work has come up because people limit themselves to 500 words, or 140 in the case of Twitter. Dr. Seuss wrote Green Eggs & Ham limiting himself to only using fifty words. Some of the most impressive parkour runs I’ve seen have been from people at our gym limiting themselves to only using two rails, or not touching the same obstacle twice. Limits can be a strong force for squeezing out creativity you didn’t know you had.

Limits can be a frustration, or they can be an asset. It all depends on how you approach them and how you make use of them.

Are there any other ways you can think to apply your own restrictions to yourself to be more productive instead of having them be a negative thing? Leave a comment and share with everyone!

Photo Credit: Martin Cathrae

Mastering Your Monkey Mind

Jodhpur by Garrett Ziegler

Waiting around to pop into somebody’s head somewhere and cause havoc.

Imagine sitting down at your desk to work or possibly study early in the morning. You get everything ready to go, pull everything up on your computer, you have a nice hot cup of coffee or tea at hand. You are ready to get some shit done.

You put your fingers to the keys and… You know you didn’t look on Facebook to see if anyone had replied to that comment you left on your friend’s post. Let’s go look really quick. People keep talking about this Stranger Things show on Netflix, you should write that down to check it out later. Or you could probably pop over and add it to your watch list right now. Wow there are a lot of things in your watch list.

You should watch some of these to get them out of here. Why worry about getting that work done now? You’re not really feeling it, right? It’ll just come out awful and you’ll hate it. You always hate the stuff you do. Just pull up a show and chill for a little bit and you can get back to it feeling refreshed later.

If this kind of thought process sounds familiar, you have experienced ‘Monkey Mind’.

There are a couple different ways to conceptualize Monkey Mind. The most common one you see here in the West is the thought of your mind behaving like a monkey – or possibly the mind of a monkey – and jumping all around from thing to thing in a manic display of curiosity and inattentiveness. When you’re plagued with feelings of your brain being unsettled, uncontrollable, indecisive, and restless that’s Monkey Mind.

The conceptualization you see more in the East actually flips the terms a bit and generally calls it a Mind Monkey, or Mind Monkeys. This way of looking at it comes from a description of most people’s minds by Buddha as being filled with drunken monkeys. All these Mind Monkeys are always jumping around clamoring for attention and the struggle between the drunken lot of them makes it difficult to find any focus or calm within your mind.

Whichever way you prefer to frame it the end result is the same – lots of distracting self-talk and nothing getting done that you need to get done.

So what are some ways we can fight back against Monkey Mind and get things under control again?

Micro-Journals and Daily Check-Ins

Daily Check-Ins, or Micro-Journals if you prefer, are an excellent way to get your Monkey Mind settled down at the two times you likely need it to the most – in the morning right before you get to work, and in the evening right before you get to sleep.

The way it works is every morning you sit down and check-in by spending a couple minutes emptying out everything bouncing around in your head into a journal. Let your Monkey Mind have complete run of the place and just pour out everything you’ve got for a couple minutes. You don’t need to write out a chapter or anything, just two minutes or so to get down whatever is taking up the most space in your head right now.

You can write down things you’re concerned about and any worries, write out the day’s plans or goals, write whatever stream-of-consciousness gibberish is clanging around in there – anything that comes out.

Then, once you’ve got everything cleared out of your head, you can shut all those obnoxious thoughts in the journal and put them away for the day to focus on what you need to be focusing on. Do the same exact thing once more for a couple minutes before bed, and you’re all set.

Just like you brush your teeth first thing in the morning and then right before bed to scrub off all the gross stuff that’s accumulated there in-between, you’re emptying your mind of all the gross stuff that’s accumulated there and starting fresh.

While just doing the journaling will make a big difference for taming that Monkey Mind, I also like to use it to tidy up other areas of my mind while I’m at it. In the morning I like to jot down my plans for the day, and one or two reasons or ways I’m going to make that day a good day. At night I do a little planning for the following day, a write out a quick review of what went well that day and one or two things I could’ve done better, and then at least one thing I’m grateful for.

These extra little things aren’t necessary, but I find they improve my thinking and general mood a lot and only require another minute or two of time investment per day so I think it’s worth it.


Meditation is probably the most traditional method for dealing with Monkey Mind. Your meditation practice doesn’t have to be complicated or lengthy – while most of the research I’ve seen suggests the best results from twenty to thirty minutes of meditation per day you can still get a lot of benefit from just five minutes if you keep up with it.

You don’t need to worry about any kind of fancy guided meditations either, what works best for Monkey Mind is just focusing on your breathing and quieting your mind. That’s all we’re after anyway.

Find a comfortable place to sit where you’re relaxed but not so much that you’re in danger of dozing off. Close your eyes, and focus on paying attention to your breathing. Don’t try to alter it, slow it down, or mess with it at all, just focus on it. Devote all your attention to feeling yourself breathe in, and back out.

As random thoughts pop into your head acknowledge their presence, and then let them float away so you can keep focusing on your breathing. Eventually those distracting thoughts will fade away and you’ll be left with an empty, focused mind.

Over time the more you practice attaining that feeling of an empty focused mind the more easily you’ll be able to fall right into it. That skill is a huge benefit in quieting down the chatter of a manic Monkey Mind when you’re trying to fall asleep or buckle down and get something productive done.

Sensory Mindfulness

A quick way to accomplish something similar to the above is by taking a short sensory mindfulness break.

Sensory mindfulness breaks are basically a cheat version of sitting down and having a quick meditation session like what I described. To take a sensory mindfulness break stop what you’re doing and take a moment to focus in turn on each of your five senses picking one thing out from each that you’re currently experiencing and treating it as though it were the first time you ever experienced it.

So you can start with sight, and focus in on the color of your desk or the grain of the wood and shut everything out as though the only thing in the universe is that bit of wood grain. Devote all of your attention to it as though the secret of life and the key to happiness and all of life’s mysteries are in that wood grain.

Then pick a sound you’re hearing and do the same thing, then a scent, a taste (or the memory of one), a touch, etc.

You only need to spend about five seconds on each sense – the point is just to break your Monkey Mind from its manic hold on your thoughts by grabbing the steering wheel of your consciousness and forcing it to focus on a single thing intensely.

This is more of a quick-fix solution, and while it helps it’s probably not something you can rely on to completely overcome your Monkey Mind. The tactics above will be a better bet to gain more control of things, and then you can use the sensory mindfulness break as a little boost when you feel it creeping back in.

Bonus: Self-Talk and Examination

I consider this as something a little extra, since it’s not a tactic so much for combating Monkey Mind in general but rather a tactic for getting under control a few specific Mind Monkeys that seem to plague people disproportionately. I’ll call the the Fear Monkey and the Anxiety Monkey.

Maybe you could consider them the same monkey since anxiety is in a sense a subset of fear, but either way – in my experience when people talk about distracting, intrusive, nagging thoughts they often center around fears, worries, and anxieties.

Thoughts pop into your head about how your ventures will fail, that you’re not good enough, that you’ll never attain your goals or dreams. You can’t stop thinking about all the things that could go wrong. You know how it goes.

The best thing to deal with these particular Mind Monkeys is actually the opposite of the tactics I prefer to quiet the rest of their troop. Instead of training yourself to ignore them and let them pass, it’s more helpful to engage directly with these thoughts.

Have a little conversation with yourself where you examine each fear or anxiety and suss out exactly what the worst possible outcome would be if those worries came to pass.

For example: “You’re not good enough. Your business is going fail,” Fear Monkey says.

“Let’s say that’s actually true,” you concede, “what would happen then? I guess I’d have to go find a regular job again. I can pay the bills with that and try my hand at entrepreneurship again.”

“But what if you can’t find another job? What if no one will hire you?” he says.

“Well, worst case scenario I’d default on my mortgage and lose the house.”

“Isn’t that scary?” Fear Monkey asks.

“A little,” you say, “but I have friends and family who would let me stay with them if it came to it. I’d get back on my feet eventually. Even if the worst happens it won’t be the end of the world.”

Having those little conversations with yourself and your anxieties will help you consciously realize that, in general, most of the things we fear or are anxious about would not be all that horrible if they actually occurred. Tie into this the human habit of grossly overestimating the odds of negative consequences – meaning that this outcome that you fear that won’t actually be all that bad also probably won’t actually happen, and that Anxiety Monkey finds he really doesn’t have any reason to be there anymore.

These are a handful of ways you can combat all of those Mind Monkeys when they decide to take over and stop you from living a happy, productive life.

You can use all of them, or whatever one up there seems to work best for you, or even use these as jumping off point to determine another one that works best for you. The key in all of them is developing enough personal self-awareness to wrest control of your thought back to where you want it to be.

Have anything to add, or another technique you find particularly effective? Share it with everyone in a comment!

Photo Credit: Garrett Ziegler

The 5 Key Elements for Successful Fat Loss

Bathroom Scale by Mason Masteka

We talk a lot about efficiency here – not necessarily because we feel everything has to be optimized and made super-efficient, but rather because a lot of things in life get severely over-complicated. As a result people struggle with things not because they can’t do them or they’re too difficult, but instead because they get too caught up in minutiae to make any real progress.

Fat loss is an excellent example of that process in action.

There’s so much information on fat loss out there that it can be staggering. Should you or shouldn’t you eat breakfast? Is meal timing important? Should I go paleo, eat vegan, use a detox program, do a juice cleanse? Should I sprint, run a 5k everyday, lift heavy, not lift at all?

It goes on and on.

Time and time again with my coaching clients I find people have gotten so wrapped up in all these little things that they completely miss the big important variables that are going to have the biggest effect.

Fat Loss the 80/20 Way

we’ve already gone over the 80/20 approach to nutrition. Most of that will carry over here, just because nutrition is a large part of the fat loss equation, but this will be a bit broader of a look at things.

You’ll find – like most cases where you break things down to find the highest return variables – that these aren’t the big, flashy, cool, sexy, technical sounding things. Sure, it sounds cool when you can sit around and spend twenty minutes explaining the intricacies of carb cycling and gluconeogenesis to somebody, but if you don’t have the boring stuff taken care of it’s not going to get you far.

So what are the five high return variables you should be worrying about first in fat loss?

1. Maintain an Overall Long Term Calorie Deficit

If you want to lose fat, you need to be in a calorie deficit overall. The best way to achieve this for most people in my experience is through creating a small weekly calorie deficit in their diet.

There have been a lot of arguments lately over the whole ‘Is a Calorie a Calorie’ thing. Don’t worry about any of that for right now. If you’re overweight, treating all calories equal and ensuring you’re in a deficit on a weekly basis will get you substantially further than stressing out over whether you’re getting fat calories, protein calories, or carb calories.

In order to figure out a caloric deficit, you first have to know how many calories you need to eat to maintain your current weight so you can subtract from it. You can use the Harris-Benedict equation, the Katch-McArdle equation, or the old 12 x bodyweight in pounds equation, though all of these have fairly high margins of error.

The best way is to keep a completely accurate food log for one week and compare it to changes in your weight over that week. If you stayed the same that’s likely roughly your maintenance range. Once you’ve gotten that rough estimate introduce a deficit by cutting it down a bit and continue to monitor things. Don’t assume you’ll get one calorie number to stick to and that’ll be it – expect to constantly be rechecking and updating your deficit as you see what changes your body is going through.

2. Focus on Whole, Nutritious, Unprocessed Foods

Going back to the ‘Is a Calorie a Calorie’ thing, you find in some cases the extreme If It Fits Your Macros adherents. They insist that you can consume nothing but pizza, beer, and ice cream and still lose fat.

Technically, they’re right.

As long as you kept yourself in that caloric deficit we talked about above you could lose fat that way. The problem is for most people it presents a lot of problems. The most obvious problem is, in general those things tend to be less nutritious in a holistic sense.

I don’t mean holistic in the way someone might apply it to a crystal healer, I mean holistic in the sense of having all the vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and other things that come along with eating your fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed meats. While they aren’t something you should stress out over too much in relation to more important things like macronutrients and calories, being deficient in them because all you eat is junk food is not going to do you any favors.

Additionally, due to the high caloric density of most of those types of foods, it’s hard to only eat enough that you stay under your necessary caloric deficit. Even if you manage to avoid the temptation of having just one more slice of cake, or a couple more beers, you are likely to find yourself going to bed hungry. Going to bed hungry is a surefire way to ensure you’re going to decide to give up on your eating plan.

Can you still have some junk food? Of course. As long as it doesn’t put you over your calories – but I strongly recommend keeping it at or below 20% of your total calorie intake. Fill the rest with vegetables, meats, and other whole foods and you’ll find it much easier to stick to your deficit.

3. Prioritize Long Term Adherence

Which brings us to number three. Adherence.

Anyone can follow the most painful, complicated, intricate diet and training program in the world for a day or two. Maybe even for a week. That’s not going to help.

You need to treat this like a marathon, not like a sprint. You need to avoid looking at this like something you’re going to suffer through for a couple months so you can not be embarrassed at the pool or the beach, and instead look at it as something that you are changing about your entire life. These new habits and ways of looking at things are for life.

For life.

This also means you need to not make it completely fucking miserable.

I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve had try to convince me to let them eat at some insane deficit like 1,000 calories below their maintenance per day, or want some super hardcore P90-Cross-X-Fit-Whatever workout program for them to do everyday because they feel like they need to drop fat right now.

Approaching it this way is like tackling an Ironman triathlon with the expectation of sprinting through the whole running portion. You are guaranteeing you’ll crash and burn, and then inevitably wind up back where you started.

Adherence is probably the single hardest thing about fat loss, but if you focus on making it a priority you’re setting yourself up to be substantially more successful than everyone else.

4. Exercise

Can you successfully lose fat entirely by diet changes alone with no additional exercise? Absolutely.

But why make it harder on yourself?

Do not try to use exercise as a way to create a substantial calorie deficit or as a way to ‘work off’ the extra stuff you ate that you shouldn’t have or as a way to ‘earn’ that pint of ice cream you want to have. It doesn’t work that way.

You should use exercise for two things – the first is to add and maintain muscle mass for a passive benefit to your metabolism and your overall calorie burn throughout the day, and the second is as a way to subtly help ensure that the deficit you created is in fact a deficit given the potential inaccuracy of those calculations you did.

Note here that when I say exercise, that might mean walking the dog everyday. That might mean playing basketball, soccer, tennis, whatever. Unless you have some specific additional goal to train for or really enjoy a particular form of ‘traditional’ exercise like running or weight lifting don’t worry so much about it. Go find something active that you really like to do and do it as often as you reasonably can. If you have to force yourself to do it, it probably won’t help your adherence.

5. Focus on Processes Instead of Results

Many of the problems I talked about in points above (wanting to go all out too soon, not being able to adhere to changes, doing unpleasant forms of exercise, etc.) are all strongly influenced by having a results focus instead of a process focus.

What that means is, people fixate on something like ‘I want to lose 30 lbs. by the end of next February’. In general, this type of goal isn’t always bad – but when it comes to things like fat loss it can lead to some problematic behaviors.

First and foremost is the tendency of people to start to get discouraged if they don’t see continual improvements. When it comes to fat loss, you’re almost guaranteed your weight is going to do crazy things for no apparent reason to you. You’ll retain water sometimes, gain five pounds over a weekend for no obvious reason, and other strange things. Biology is messy.

Many people have this happen and then panic that they won’t make that 30 pound goal or whatever in time. Then they fall into stress behaviors, or make panicky decisions, and generally just screw things up even worse.

Instead, focus on the process. Make a goal like ‘I’m going to stick to my calories everyday for two weeks’, or ‘I’m going to go run with the dog for 30 minutes twice a week this whole month’.

Those types of goals not only keep you motivated since they’re easy to achieve, i.e., the power to accomplish them is entirely within your control unlike the 30 pounds thing, but that via achieving them you’ll find that you’re more likely to meet that goal of losing 30 lbs. than if you had made that your goal in the first place.

Process focus will always outperform result focus.

Going on from There

Once you’ve got all these big return variables down, you can start worrying about the little things more if you want to. Situationally some of them can have a fairly big effect. They key is to leave them for after you’ve got these other five things down, and to not let focusing on them interfere with any of the more important variables.

Do you have anything you’d like to add to these five? Do you have any tips you’ve found useful for following any of them, or for better ignoring all the little relatively unimportant things? Share them with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Mason Masteka

Stop Outsourcing Your Purpose in Life

Outsourced Sewer by Ed Yourton

Some things should definitely not be outsourced.

Just about everyone would say they want to find their purpose in life.

Sites like LifeHacker, TinyBuddha and the like are full of articles on it, books like The Purpose Driven Life consistently top the sales charts in the relevant categories – everybody seems to be desperately trying to figure out the plan that’s been laid out for them.

I think they’re completely missing the point.

Outsourcing Your Purpose

Nearly all of the advice given on the topic of life purpose is based around the idea of outsourcing your meaning in life. The language is always structured around the concept of ‘finding’. It’s always about ‘finding’ your life’s meaning, ‘discovering’ your purpose in life. The idea from the outset is always that your purpose in life is out there, pre-determined, and it’s your job to figure out what it is.

When we’re talking about material coming from authors with a religious bent, like the previously mentioned best selling The Purpose Driven Life it’s a little more understandable – no less awful, but understandable. Even from sources not overtly religious the topic is often couched in the language of pseudo-scientific, spiritual woo.

The general theme of it is that you have some purpose in life (determined by some deity, the universe, or whatever) and you need to find it or figure out what it is. Your agency in the matter is largely removed. The determination has been made and it’s your job to divine whatever result has been chosen for you and follow it. It’s destiny.

We’ll leave out for the moment my position of methodological naturalism and the fact that I’m an atheist. Obviously, given the fact that I see no evidence to convince me of the existence of souls, spirits, or any gods, the idea of some ‘higher power’ handing down anyone’s purpose in life is illogical to me. I’m going to humor the notion for a moment though to make a point.

Let’s assume that there is sufficient evidence for some higher power. I still can’t fathom why people can’t see how awful it would be for said higher power to be assigning people their purposes in life. What if said higher power assigns you a purpose in life you don’t care for? What if your parents determined your career and you had no option of changing? What if you lived in a strict caste system? This idea of having your purpose chosen from you from birth may be comforting to some in the sense that it takes a measure of responsibility off your shoulders, but when you stop to really consider the implications it’s awful.

You could certainly argue that your deity of choice would never make someone’s life purpose something they didn’t love, or that loving it is the nature of your life’s purpose, which is fine if we’re getting into the New Agey spiritual stuff. It’s easy to point to things like The Purpose Driven Life to show that some people think you may be assigned a purpose you don’t necessarily like. I’m not going to argue the theology of it.

Even if I grant that premise, I can’t guarantee that there’s anything I will love doing for my entire life. Tastes and opinions change, and while some may have something they can do for the rest of their life with satisfaction I cannot claim that everyone has something that fills that category for them.

So higher power or not, when we talk about ‘finding’ purpose or meaning in life it robs us of the agency of choice. It sets us up to think that our lot in life has been determined, that the rails have been laid and all we’re doing now is trying to find the right set to follow. It is outsourcing the determination of our purpose in life to en entity outside of ourselves – even if that entity doesn’t actually exist.

I find that notion abhorrent.

Choose Your Own Purpose

Life has no inherent meaning.

What’s so wrong with that?

We live in an unthinking, uncaring universe. There is no larger reason why you exist. There was no purpose for which you were born. You have no cosmic significance. Disabuse yourself of this idea that you are special or important in any way that isn’t manufactured. This is a very entrenched idea societally, so I’ll say it one more time:

There is no inherent meaning of life.

That’s a great thing, because it leads to two subsequent conclusions. The first is that if there is no inherent meaning to life, if there was no purpose for which you were born and no destiny for you to fulfill, it means that all meaning and purpose that there is in life is purely constructed – manufactured by ourselves and others. The second, which follows from that, is that if all meaning in life is manufactured rather than pre-determined we get to choose our own purpose in life.

Your purpose in life can be absolutely anything at all. You can choose to make whatever you want your purpose in life – make not find – and you can change it whenever you want. You could have a new purpose in life every year if you wanted. It’s entirely up to you to determine.

Why is this distinction important?

I’ve met a lot of people and read the accounts of even more who are entrenched in this idea of having some higher purpose in life that they need to find in order to be happy. Even the non-spiritual types express it as if they’re searching for some eureka moment where they hit on something that they feel like they could devote their life to in order to be happy.

Even though they don’t seem to recognize it as a relinquishment of control I see it drive people crazy. They start beating themselves up or begin to get downtrodden and depressed over the fact that they can’t seem to find this one magical thing they were ‘meant’ to do in life. They feel like until they find this one magical thing to give their life purpose they’re living an empty, pointless existence.

The whole time they’re excoriating themselves over their inability to figure out their purpose, they’re completely blind to the fact that they have the power to choose their own purpose. As soon as you realize that you and you alone have the power to create meaning in your own life it frees and empowers you to take charge of things.

Of course, once you come to this realization you may still have some trouble developing the self-awareness to determine what things actually make you happy right now for you to pursue. That’s fine. That’s a topic deserving of an article all of it’s own. Several, actually.

The important thing for now is to cultivate the understanding that your purpose in life is whatever you make it, whatever you choose it to be.

Have anything you’d like to add? Do you disagree entirely and think we all have some set purpose from birth? Let us know in the comments!

Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon

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