3 Reasons to Experience Hunger

First World Problems by Know Your Meme

All those first world feels.

Of all our most basic, primal urges hunger is probably the most compelling.

Sure there’s practically an entire sub-genre of TV and movies about the crazy (often comedic) things people will do for sex, sure people hallucinate of thirst in the desert, but there is a unique power to hunger. Hunger will make people steal, kill and completely abandon any rationality outside of getting something to eat. Extreme hunger can essentially make you lose control of your actions.

The thing is, most people who I expect to be reading this don’t ever experience real hunger. Most people living in a developed nation are lucky enough to never have to feel real hunger unless they choose to.

I think, at least once, they should choose to.

Finding Hunger

Now that’s not to say people in developed nations have never been hungry.

That would be silly. You may even be hungry as you read this. I’m not talking about the normal, day-to-day, haven’t eaten in a bit hungry though. I mean a hunger with teeth. A hunger that drapes over you and weighs you down like chains. If the hunger most people feel was a mosquito or a pesky fly the hunger we’re looking for is a 400 pound silverback gorilla full of steroids and cocaine.

So how do you find this kind of hunger? Well, don’t eat.

The easiest and safest way is to perform a 72 hour fast. That means nothing with any calories to it for 72 full hours. This is including time spent sleeping, so an example fast would be to eat breakfast at 7 a.m. on a Friday and then ingest nothing but water until eating breakfast at 7 a.m. the following Monday.

A slightly less strict fast could include black coffee which, thought it has no calories to it, is a bit of an appetite suppressant.

Shorter fasts of 24 hours or 48 hours can also be a good experience, and we regularly perform 16 or so hour fasts for health reasons, but I think the 72 hour fast is the pinnacle to shoot for in order to get the full experience.

That being said, please only give it a try if you know you can do it safely. If you have some medical condition that precludes you from this sort of self-imposed asceticism then don’t even try it. Additionally, while there are some apparent health benefits from shorter fasts when done more frequently, anything beyond a 24 hour fast is likely to do more harm than good if performed more than once a week.

Personally, I wouldn’t recommend more than a single 24 hour fast a week and probably wouldn’t perform a fast longer than that but once per year. I don’t know of any health benefits of fasting for greater than 24 hours – the goal here is to trade a little bit of physical detriment once for a lasting bit of mental benefit.

So that’s how you go about becoming hungry, but whats the point of doing it?

Why Intentionally Experience Hunger?

Some of you are probably asking, “Why in the world would I want to purposefully make myself suffer like that if hunger is such a powerful and unpleasant urge?”

That’s a fair question. Here’s why I think it’s worth experiencing at least once in your life.

  • It Builds Gratefulness – I understand that here in the U.S. we have a vernacular penchant for hyperbole.

    Even so, when someone tells me they’re starving because it’s noon and they didn’t have their bagel this morning I want to seize them by the shoulders and shake them.

    You can argue that it’s just an expression but given the emphatic way I’ve heard plenty of people express that sentiment I have to believe there’s more to it than that. I would never think these people really think they are in mortal peril, or minutes away from succumbing to starvation, but they genuinely feel an extreme sense of discomfort and are compelled to complain about it. What’s worse is that it’s often accompanied by a general sense of entitlement – as though they have suffered some great wrong in having to miss breakfast for some reason.

    Feeling real hunger, the kind of hunger that comes from a fast of greater than 24 hours, shows you what it’s like to be less privileged. It reminds you of the kind of things that millions of people around the world have to contend with on a daily basis. It gives you a glimpse, though you have the safety net of a fully stocked refrigerator, of a life where you have no idea where your next meal is coming from (or if it’s coming at all).

    Hopefully, all of that makes you more grateful for what you do have, less entitled feeling and ideally less likely to waste food.

    As a side benefit, the first thing you eat at the end of your fast will almost certainly be the most delicious thing you’ve ever tasted.

  • It Builds Toughness – I would say that one of the traits that bothers me most in people is being a complainer, but I fear that would be complaining about complainers and I’d become the very thing I despise. Regardless, if you’re whiny – I don’t like you.

    I think one of the biggest factors in causing someone to become a habitual whiner is being given the gift of a relatively pampered life. As I noted, income inequality and other social problems aside, the majority of people in a developed nation at a socioeconomic level of lower-middle class or higher lead what I would consider a comfortable life on a global scale.

    People who fall into this category never experience the kind of genuine hardship others do, but still find things to complain about. There are even memes built around first world problems.

    Being able to willfully put yourself through that kind of hardship and make it through it will make all the other difficulties you have to face not seem quite so bad. Knowing that you went 72 hours without giving in and eating, no matter how violently your stomach was screaming at you, helps you recognize that the stupid little thing bothering you at work or the annoying person holding up the line at the coffee shop is not that big of a deal.

    It toughens you up a bit and keeps you from complaining about trivial things by showing you there are much, much worse things that you could be experiencing.

  • It Builds Self-Control – Hunger is a seriously powerful urge.

    That can cause serious problems when you’re trying to lose weight and get in shape and you’re tempted by all of those high calorie treats that don’t fit your macros right now. One minute you’re doing fine, then you walk by a Cinnabon and before you know it you wake up caked in the frosted carnage of a 10,000 calorie cinnamon roll rampage.

    Resisting that kind of temptation takes a lot of willpower.

    You can certainly set up barriers, like removing all the tempting foods from your house, but that will only get you so far. You need to build up your willpower.

    One of the best ways to do that is to force yourself to experience the hardship of extreme hunger in a controlled situation and practice fighting it. Your willpower isn’t as limited as you think. They key is to find ways to exercise it.

    Showing the kind of force of will necessary to go 72 hours without food, shackled with the weight of extreme hunger particularly in the presence of temptation, proves you’re strong enough to walk by that box of donuts at the office and leave them be. In my experience once you’ve developed the discipline necessary for a long fast forcing yourself to deny other immediate pleasures in favor of longer term benefits becomes much easier.

These were the main reasons that came to mind to practice a bit of hunger at least once in your life. Can you think of any others? If you’ve tried it out I’d love to hear about how it went.

Photo Credit: Know Your Meme

Our Top 13 Articles of 2013

JANUS by RedJinn

As 2013 draws to a close we wanted to collect together all the articles from last year that were both our personal favorites and the favorites of our readers. We think that every year the most important thing you can do is be a little bit better that year than you were the previous, so hopefully these will give you a head start on 2014. Chronological order is boring, so they aren’t sorted in any particular order.

Enjoy.

1. Language Learning for Introverts

Speaking a language is a skill. Like any other skill, if you really want to get good at it then it’s going to require practice. For languages that means lots of time talking, meeting new people, socializing, getting out there and making mistakes. If you’re an extrovert that all sounds great.

But if you’re an introvert – that’s terrifying.

Introverts and extroverts just don’t function the same as each other. As a result, trying to force an introvert to study like an extrovert or vice versa is never going to work as well as finding a learning style that’s tailored to how that person learns best.

Thankfully if you’re on the introverted side of things, all is not lost.

2. The Epic Guide to Becoming Healthy and Achieving Your Fitness Goals

If you’re just starting out on the journey to change your health for the better – whether by shedding excess fat, gaining muscle or both – or have already begun but not found any success, the sheer volume of information out there on what to do can be staggering and contradictory. This is particularly frustrating when you don’t have any good way to sort out the good advice from the bad. We decided to help take some of that confusion away by condensing our tested and proven methods into one easy to digest guide.

This is a guide to our philosophy for attaining epic health and fitness. Everyone should be healthy and fit, and everyone can do it.

3. Scientific Sleep Hacking: Easy Ways to Optimize Sleep

There’s something about sleep and sleep optimization that seems to captivate people in the productivity and lifestyle design communities. I suspect it’s mostly because people who are deep into lifestyle design also tend to be fairly ambitious and, as a result, the thought of spending less time asleep and having more time to accomplish things is tantalizing.

Our very first experiment in fact was with trying to switch to a polyphasic sleep schedule. I called it a success at the time, but I recognize now it was a failure.

I’ve not abandoned my interest in optimizing sleep though, and since then over time I accumulated a collection of methods for optimizing sleep that are backed not only by my own personal experiences, but more importantly by actual research.

4. 20 Easy Ways to De-Stress and Relax

Are you stressed out?

I know, I know – stupid question. Everyone’s stressed out. It’s just a condition of modern life. We all have pressure from work, family, finances, health concerns and a million other things. There aren’t really many good options for escaping it.

The problem is being stressed out all the time can literally kill you or at least set in motion changes that can bring about a much earlier demise than would have otherwise been in your future. Health problems ranging from heart disease to diabetes to acne can be caused or exacerbated by being too stressed out, and if you’re trying to lose weight the cortisol it floods your system with will make things exponentially more difficult for you. Being stressed is serious business.

So what can we do about it?

5. Seven Lessons Learned from 80 Days Around The World: The Epic Lives of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland

It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t read or at least heard of the popular novel, Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. At the time Verne was one of the most popular authors alive, and the book inspired people to travel and adventure and much debate arose questioning whether or not it was in fact possible to travel around the world in 80 days.

The story of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s competition is an obscure but fascinating tale within which are lessons I think are as amazing as they are important. Which is why I’m sharing with you a brief summary of their story and some of the amazing lessons I’ve learned from it.

6. Flow 101: How to Love Your Work

For a lot of people, work sucks.

It’s built right into our cultural perceptions and usage of the word. When there’s something you don’t want to do, or something that’ll be difficult and unpleasant what do we tend to say – that’ll be a lot of work. Clearly ‘work’ as a concept tends to have some pretty negative connotations.

That doesn’t have to be the case though and, personally, I think the world would be a better place if we could correct this issue. Work can be fun, enjoyable and positive. You can love your work again, or at least change your work to make it something you love by using a single principle as your guiding compass.

Flow.

7. Workouts for Wimps: Your First Pull Up

Pull ups are easily one of, if not the, most psychologically intimidating exercises for people who are just starting out.

There is hope though. I have gone from being completely unable to do a single pull up to currently doing multiple sets of them with additional weight hanging off of me and you can do the exact same thing. All you have to do is follow these easy progressions and you’ll be rocking out pull ups in no time.

8. Why Chinese is Easy

I’ve heard it since I was little – Chinese is THE hardest language in the world! Back then before I knew anything about the language I would stare at the beautiful characters and wonder, exactly what makes it so hard to learn Chinese? It wasn’t until I got much older and decided to tackle learning the language that I have come to think that not only is Chinese not the hardest language to learn, but that I think the reason why people say it is is because of a fear of something different.

This is not to say that learning a language is easy – all languages require that you give time, dedication, a lot of hard work and effort in learning and practice and even to go out of your comfort zone regularly. However, I disagree that Chinese is any harder than any other language.

9. Want to Be Incredible? Break Your Kettles and Burn Your Boats

Timid people don’t make history.

Timid people back down when they’re faced with a challenge. Successful people are the bold ones, the ones who go all in and understand that the only two ways to truly be defeated are to quit or to die.

Xiang Yu knew this was true as early as 208 B.C. When his small army crossed the Yellow River to reinforce Julu (an area that’s now the city of Xingtai in Heibei province) he found his 50,000 men faced by a Qin army of 400,000 soldiers. Knowing that his men would have to fight their hardest to defeat an army that outnumbered them so badly he ordered them to save three days worth of food, destroy their kettles and cooking utensils and sink the boats they’d used to cross the river.

10. Why ‘I Don’t Have Time’ Is a Bullshit Excuse

Out of just about every excuse in the world, the one I most despise is also the one I seem to hear most frequently – I don’t have time.

I don’t have time to learn a new language, I don’t have time to workout and get fit, I don’t have time to start a business, I don’t have time to do this or that or anything else.

Bullshit.

Not only am I going to explain why it’s an inane excuse, I’m going to show you ways you can ‘find the time’ to do everything you could possibly want to do and more.

11. Stop Fishing: Overcoming the Drug of Consumerism

Henry David Thoreau, one of my favorite authors, once said “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after.”

I think this is an excellent reflection of the consumerism driven cycle most people get trapped in and then spend their entire lives fulfilling. Consumerism dominates modern life, at least here in the U.S. but I would wager throughout the developed world as well.

It’s a pervasive thing that really saturates our culture. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except it almost always leads to an artificial and transient state of happiness that leaves people unfulfilled. In other words it tends to make life suck.

So how do we break out of the consumerist cycle?

12. 13 Mental Traps You Need to Avoid

In almost all situations the best way to reach the most beneficial option in a tough decision is solid, rational thought. There’s something to be said certainly for going with your gut at times, particularly in situations where an immediate decision is required to get you out of danger. For bigger less immediate decisions though taking a long objective look at things gives you the best vantage point from which to make the best decision.

The problem is, in a lot of ways our brains suck at rational, objective thought.

Thankfully we can fight their influence once we know what to look out for. Here are thirteen of the more common ones and some easy ways to counteract them.

13. Easy Ways to Maximize Limited Language Learning Time

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

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

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

Now kick off 2014 to a great start and get on course to end next year even better than this one.

Photo Credit: RedJinn

Retain Holiday Peace Through One Second Meditation

Buddha Dog by SuperFantastic

This dog clearly knows how it’s done.

The holidays are stressful.

Whether it’s fighting through the grocery store the day before Thanksgiving trying to find the last few ingredients on your list, having to listen to a semi-inebriated rant by that one relative whose ideas on equality hail from a time when the phrase ‘coloreds only’ didn’t necessarily mean you were doing laundry or dealing with the near anarchy of a major retailer on Black Friday – it helps to have some way to maintain your centeredness. When you factor in all the horrible physical side effects of stress not having some way to deal with it all may genuinely be killing you.

Thankfully, one second meditation is an easy technique you can use at any time anywhere to regain a little bit of your inner peace.

Learning to Meditate

The first step is learning to meditate. If you don’t know how yet, go check out our beginner’s guide to meditation first. If the turkey’s in the oven and the relatives are banging on the door already and you seriously need the TL;DR version here you go, meditation in 3 easy steps:

  • Step 1: Close Your Eyes – Not necessary once you’re used to meditating, but it helps if you’re a beginner.

  • Step 2: Focus On Your Breathing and Nothing Else – Put all your attention on breathing in, and breathing out. Other thoughts will pop into your head, ‘Am I doing it right?’, ‘What should I have for dinner tonight?’, ‘Boy, it’s dark with my eyes closed’, but you need to acknowledge their presence and then let them float away. Don’t try to fight it, that’s like trying to read this sentence without picturing a pink elephant, just accept them and then let them continue on their way.

    If it helps you can create a mental cue to signal the brushing away of unnecessary thoughts. This can be as esoteric sounding as the stereotypical ‘ommm’ sound or you can just say ‘hmm’ to yourself and let go of the thought.

  • Step 3: Be Empty – Eventually, the thoughts will taper off and stop pestering you and you’ll be left with an entirely empty mind focused completely on your breathing. Congratulations! You’re meditating! Remember this feeling.

Once you understand how to meditate, it’s time to compress the time you need to do it down to as small a period as possible.

Meditating in a Moment

Once you’re comfortable meditating for longer periods of time, say five to ten minutes, start practicing reducing that time by setting progressively shorter timers. It’s easiest to start with a minute and then cut down from there. Set a timer and meditate for a single minute. Focus on using your mental cue to brush those nagging thoughts away.

Next time set a timer for 45 seconds once you’ve got that down. Then set one for 30 seconds and then for 15. Below that there’s really no point in setting a timer. You likely also won’t have time to have thoughts pop up, so the real goal of meditating in a moment is brushing out all the clutter in your head right that moment to let a breath of fresh air in.

As a result of a moment being such an immeasurable, transient thing just focus on using your cue to empty your mind. Close your eyes for a second, take a deep breath and go ‘omm’ or ‘hmm’ or whatever. As you do, smile and breathe out all the thoughts that were occupying your head.

There you go, you just meditated in a single moment.

When to Take Momentary One Second Meditation Breaks

Honestly, whenever you’re stressed.

It doesn’t just have to be through the holidays, this is a skill that will serve you well forever. Anytime you feel stress getting the best of you, close your eyes for a second and empty your mind. Anytime you find yourself getting really angry over something, use your mental cue and exhale all of that away. You can even use it when you’re feeling nervous or worried about something and need to calm down a bit.

Once you’re used to the technique you can even use it in times when you’re not stressed or anything but just need a small moment of clarity, maybe when you’re working on a project or experience writer’s block. Even when you’re just trying to get some sleep and your mind won’t quiet down, a moment of meditation can silence all those buzzing thoughts keeping you awake.

Have you used super-compressed one second meditation in order to get you through stressful situations or ride out a wave of anger? Do you have any tips that would make the process easier to learn or implement? Share your experiences with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Bruce

Screw Time Management – Manage Your Energy

Sad Clock by Elena Fidanovska

Sorry Clock, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. You’re just not as important to me.

Time management is a big deal for a lot of people, especially if you’re in the category of people concerned with accomplishing a lot of things. I’ve written about time management before along with other strategies like timeboxing for getting the most out of your time.

The problem is I see a lot of people focus entirely on time management at the expense of other areas. They become obsessed with trying to squeeze every little productive moment out of their day and in the end wind up less productive than they were before. Their problem isn’t that they’re poor at managing their time.

Their problem is they don’t know how to manage their energy.

The Failure of Time Management

Ok, so I’ll admit – time management is still important.

Regardless of how well you manage your energy if you procrastinate and screw around all day or waste lots of time on things that are unimportant or superfluous then you’re not likely to be very productive. That being said, for most people it’s easy and intuitive to make at least the most basic of changes to improve their time management.

Where you run into problems is that time management, particularly in the productivity and lifestyle design communities where it’s endemic, becomes an obsession.

Using myself as an example, for a while I got caught up in the obsession in an attempt to achieve all of the things I was working on. I had to fit learning a second language, training clients at the gym, teaching English online, writing articles, working on our book, my own fitness, practicing instruments, parkour and martial arts training and a number of other pursuits into my schedule all on top of the day to day trappings of life.

Faced with this mountain of tasks I went kind of insane with time management and optimization techniques, but I still never could manage to get everything I wanted done. What’s worse, my performance across the board started to suffer. The quality of everything I was doing dropped sharply. I felt horrible. I wasn’t sleeping well. I was tired, stressed and depressed constantly.

It was hell.

After a while, I had to come to terms and say screw it – clearly something was not working because everything was falling to pieces. It was useless to me to optimize my time if I didn’t have the energy to actually produce quality work.

So I turned my tactics around and starting focus on managing my energy levels instead of my time.

Finding Your Energy Rhythm

What gets measured, gets managed. Conversely, it’s extremely difficult to manage something you don’t measure. How are we possibly going to manage our energy if we don’t start by identifying exactly what it is we’re managing here?

The first step then is to take a look at your energy patterns throughout the day. To that end I’ll begin by defining what we’re talking about whenever I say ‘energy’. I’m not talking about the mystical, pseudo-scientific woo version of ‘energy’. This isn’t going to involve spirits, chakras, or harmonizing with the Earth Mother (whatever that means). Nor am I necessarily talking about the strict scientific definition of ‘energy’ in terms of electric, kinetic or potential energy – though defined loosely in physics terms as ‘the capacity to do work’ it’s probably the closest.

When we talk about ‘energy’ here I mean solely the kind of energy people get when you drink some espresso, get a good night’s sleep, or find yourself in a flow state. It’s both physical and mental in that you can have a lot of mental energy but have no physical energy (e.g., fatigue) or have plenty of physical energy but very little mental (e.g., depression).

Got it? Excellent.

So the goal is to take a look at an average week and determine when you feel like you have the most energy and when you have the least energy on a day to day basis. Keep a journal for a week, make notes on your phone, whatever it takes. The goal here is to identify if there are any patterns, do you have more energy in the mornings or in the evenings. Do you have a mid-day slump and then a bit of a rebound? Write it all down and find out.

Take as detailed notes as you can too, because there may be other factors. Do you always find yourself more drained after certain activities? Are there things that always leave you feeling more energetic and pumped up? Identifying these things is important to getting better at managing your energy.

Everyone’s going to be a little different. Some highlights from my own notes showed that it takes me about 20 minutes to feel fully energized after I wake up, workouts give me more mental energy, I tend to slump around 1:30 to 2 p.m. everyday and I’m an introvert – social interaction drains my energy while alone time recharges it.

First, figure out your energy rhythms. Then you can move on to the next step.

Block Out High & Low Energy Times

Once you’ve got some patterns identified in your energy rhythms you need to slowly start reorganizing your activities around these patterns. In other words, try to do most of your really important work during the times when you’re naturally more energized and try to schedule your relaxing and recharging time for when you’re naturally in a slump anyway.

I know that I tend to hit a slump mid-day, so I don’t try to get important work done (or often, any work done) during that time. It’s far less productive for me to force myself to work through the low energy periods. When I do, I produce seriously shitty work and I just drain myself further leading to misery and substantially longer recovery times. Not terribly conducive to getting things done.

Conversely, I know when my energy levels tend to be highest, so I schedule my most important work then or the work that I am least enthusiastic about or dreading most.

Blocking your normal high and low energy periods out like this doesn’t have to be any kind of strict schedule. It can just be a general understanding that around one time you feel better and around another time you feel drained and planning things accordingly. You can be as strict in your scheduling or as general as you like provided you’re cognizant of your rhythms and plan accordingly.

The point is to maximize your efficiency so you’re getting your best work done when you’re best able to do it, and your hardest work done when you’re least likely to give in and put it off while not trying to force work during times when you have to struggle extra hard to complete it.

This alone will get you pretty far, but there are a handful of other tactics that can assist a broader energy management strategy.

Work Cycles and Planned Breaks

Work is a fight.

It can run the range from a fun, lighthearted sparring match to a 100 man kumite to the death – but either way every task you do is one you’re stepping into the ring with.

So which sounds like a better plan, going in for ten rounds with zero rest in-between or having a little time now and again to sit down and have some water? Sure if it’s just for fun you can probably go a little longer, but if it’s a tough fight you’re going to want a minute to rest between rounds.

If that’s the case, why don’t people treat work the same way?

Rather than sit down and spend four hours fighting your way through a difficult task, take little breaks in-between to have some water and tell Mick to cut you. Your work’s a champ, it’s not about to get tired and give up on you. I’ve found that a standardized 90 minute work period followed by a 15 minute break gives me the best results. It’s a long enough work period to get a substantial amount of work done followed by a long enough break to relax, but neither feels too long.

This tactic allows you to maintain the energy you’ve got, and often even recharge a little, to avoid getting crushed by the attrition of painful or grinding work. You can certainly adjust based on case, if the work’s fun or enjoyable go longer without a break and if it’s hellish take them more frequently.

Nap When Needed

Naps are awesome.

They help you recharge. They help refresh your brain and tidy things up in there. They improve mood and creativity. They lead to better, more restorative sleep during the night. They’re just wonderful.

So why not take one?

Most people have a time during the day when you have a really bad slump. For a lot of people this is in the middle of the day – this has led a lot of people to suggest that humans in general are naturally biphasic (hardwired to sleep twice in a day/night cycle rather than just overnight.) Whether that’s true or not, taking a short nap is the single best way to deal with that slump in my opinion.

I take between a 20 minute and one hour nap almost everyday between 1:30 and 2 p.m. when I hit my normal daily slump. Whether I nap longer, or shorter, or not at all is entirely dependent on how I feel and how much I think I need. If I’m feeling absolutely destroyed I’ll take a little longer and if I feel pretty good or have a lot to get done I may skip it or just take a speedy caffeine nap.

Experiment a little with naps during your lowest energy periods and see how much of an effect it makes. Generally naps also allow you to get the same amount of rest in a shorter period of sleep overnight as well, so beyond the immediate effect of bringing your energy back after the mid-day dip you may find your energy levels are higher in general with less overnight sleep.

That being said, if you’re not getting enough sleep then fix that first. The easiest way to guarantee your energy levels stay in the gutter all day is to be running on four hours of sleep.

Obey Your Biofeedback

That’s basically a fancy way of telling you to listen to your body – which is really the core of this whole exercise.

If you have downtime scheduled because you normally feel terrible during a certain time but you feel great then for some reason, go ahead and get something done. Conversely, if you feel awful when you normally expect to be 100%, don’t stress out about skipping whatever work you had planned. Do it when you’re recharged and refreshed and ready for it.

Be honest here though, because this isn’t license to just say, ‘Meh, not feeling it,’ whenever work comes up and procrastinate until the end of time.

You need to be listening to your body enough to know when you can be productive and when you can’t and do your best to follow that. If you find that you never feel 100%, then you should examine why you never feel good. This can be a sleep issue, a diet issue, being overly stressed or just not knowing well enough what things genuinely recharge you. Examine your habits and what things you think are draining you so much and start experimenting with ways to correct the problem.

Use Deliberate Practice

Like with a lot of things, deliberate focused practice can help you increase your energy levels throughout the day. This works a lot like how working on increasing your willpower works – intentional practice forcing yourself to extend your energy a little past it’s normal limit followed by enough recovery time to reset.

Treat your energy levels like a muscle. When you lift weights you’re not getting stronger right then, you’re wrecking things and providing the stimuli to get stronger. When you’re actually getting stronger is later that night when you’ve had dinner and are asleep in your bed. Without adequate recovery exercise can be useless or even detrimental.

When working on your energy levels you shouldn’t push yourself until you’re completely burned out – that isn’t going to help. You need to push yourself just a little beyond your threshold then take enough time to recover. Once you’re recovered you can push just a little farther than that and so on.

Just like there are practical physical and genetic limits to how much you can build your muscles there’s a limit to how much you can build your energy reserves. Just like sometimes a shit day comes up and you can’t move a weight you’ve lifted for reps a week ago sometimes no matter how much you’ve trained your energy maintenance other factors are going to wreck you.

Both of those are fine. You can still work to feel a little better overall by deliberately pushing your limits in a controlled way.

Everyone’s a little different, but overall I think this strategy of managing energy rather than time tends to give much better results. Time is a lot less flexible than energy, and though we all only have 24 hours in a day even if you somehow had double that if you were too drained to get anything done it wouldn’t matter – you’d still get nothing done.

Stop worrying so much about fine tuning your schedule and start paying more attention to working along your natural energy rhythms to get the most, and best, work done that you can.

Have you tried managing your energy instead of your time? Do you think it’s better or do you think I’m totally wrong here? Let us know in the comments.

Photo Credit: Elena Fidanovska

13 Mental Traps You Need to Avoid

My Prison is an Open Cage by Pensiero

If you want to make good decisions, or at least less wrong ones, it’s important to avoid these common mental traps.

In almost all situations the best way to reach the most beneficial option in a tough decision is solid, rational thought. There’s something to be said certainly for going with your gut at times, particularly in situations where an immediate decision is required to get you out of danger. For bigger less immediate decisions though taking a long objective look at things gives you the best vantage point from which to make the best decision.

The problem is, in a lot of ways our brains suck at rational, objective thought.

We suffer from a host of cognitive biases that disrupt our ability to make good, rational decisions. These likely conferred an evolutionary advantage in the past when focusing on the negative or over emphasizing imagined patterns made you more likely to survive to reproducing age and less likely to get eaten by a Smilodon. In modern times, they tend to just get in the way and encourage us to make bad decisions.

Thankfully we can fight their influence once we know what to look out for. Here are thirteen of the more common ones and some easy ways to counteract them.

The Common Cognitive Biases

There are definitely more than thirteen cognitive biases total, but these are the ones that seem to pop up the most and the ones which have the potential to cause the most problems on a day to day basis. In a lot of respects just knowing about these biases and the tendency of people to default to them can help you avoid them – if you’re aware of the trap you can tell when you’re about to walk right into it.

The Anchoring Effect / Focalism

Focalism is a cognitive bias rooted in our tendency to fixate on a specific number and then base all of our further calculations on that value. That means for example in a negotiation if you set the initial price higher and then ask people how much they think it’s actually worth they will tend to guess higher. It also leads to our tendency to fixate on the price of things on sale in terms of the money saved from the original price rather than evaluating it by the price itself.

If you intend to spend $200 and someone says they have a $500 item on sale for $350 or an item at full price for $190, you’re more likely to evaluate that based on the reduction in price rather than the fact that the final price of the sale item is still more than you intended to spend. In other words you’ll likely pick the item on sale regardless of whether it’s the best choice. This also leads to our tendency to pick the middle option when given a set to choose from.

If you offer people an item for $100, $300 and $1,000 the high anchoring point of the $1,000 option makes the $300 option more attractive than if you were only given the $100 and $300 option.

Unfortunately, the Anchoring Effect is one of the hardest to counteract. Being aware of it doesn’t always actually help. There is some evidence suggesting expertise in a relevant field can help, but it’s inconclusive. As it stands the best way to counteract it is to recognize when faced with a variety of options that you’ll tend to overestimate based on the value of the most extreme anchor point.

Negativity Bias

We tend to fixate more on negative news than positive news. This isn’t just a general observation either, our amygdala (one of the parts of your brain responsible for the creation of long-term memories) is specifically primed to search out negative experiences and make them into long-term memories first. Our limbic or emotional processing system also puts a strong prevalence on negative information and stimuli over positive.

From an evolutionary perspective this was probably useful for keeping us alive in the past. Knowing that fire will hurt you is more important to your survival than knowing that hugs feel good. In modern times though it can encourage us to focus too much on the negative. This can make us excessively risk averse, and interfere with the way we accept criticism and praise.

The best way to combat this bias is to make a concentrated effort to be mindful of all the positive things that happen. Don’t go too far into optimism and begin overestimating the positive things, but be aware of them. Also recognize that you’re more effected by negative input like criticism than you are by positive input like praise.

Neglect of Probability

Humans suck at intuitive estimations of probability.

Even worse, when we actually have the math done for us and know the statistics, we still tend to just ignore probabilities all together. Take most people’s fears for example. A lot of people are afraid of being in a plane crash or killed in a terrorist attack or something like that. At the same time, they don’t think twice about hopping in their car, running down their stairs or eating three pounds of fast food a day.

The fact is though, you’re way, way, way more likely to die in a car crash, or falling down your stairs, or from a heart attack than any of those other things. More people have been shot and killed in this country by toddlers this year than have been killed by terrorist attacks. Chances of dying in a car accident are 1 in 84, chances of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 5,000 at least. More people are shot and killed in a year in the U.S. than the number of people around the world killed by terrorist attacks.

The problem is, even when you give people these statistics their behavior doesn’t change. You can tell someone 200 lbs. overweight that heart disease is the number one killer of people in the U.S. and they’ll still be more scared of someone breaking in and murdering them than they will be of eating crappy food.

The best way to get over this bias is to actually allow statistical information to inform your behavior. When you see a statistic like 1 in 87 people die in a car accident, actually become a more careful and aware driver as a result of it. Worry less about the things that are statistically unlikely and more about the things that are more likely.

Ingroup Bias

The Ingroup Bias ties into our tendency of giving preference to those we consider to be in our own ingroup, our general circles of association. It’s a type of automatic tribalism that encourages people to treat people in their own group better and people in groups considered to be outside of one’s own group worse.

This is reflected in the sense of ‘other’ that is often exaggerated by the force of the Ingroup Bias. We show favoritism toward groups we consider ourselves as belonging to in terms of treatment and allocation of resources and over-estimate the abilities and positive features of those groups.

In it’s milder forms, this can lead to unnecessary competition and the exclusion of people that would actually be helpful to your goal. In it’s more extreme forms it can lead to racism and genocide. It’s important to recognize whenever you start to feel competitive (outside of a genuine competition of course) or start to think of people in terms of ‘them’ vs. ‘us’ that the people you’re referring to in the ‘them’ group are likely not all that dissimilar to you.

The Gambler’s Bias

The Gambler’s Bias, also sometimes called the Gambler’s Fallacy, is the tendency for people to think that past outcomes affect future results of genuinely randomized systems. In other words, people who are doing well at a dice game might say they’re “On a hot streak,” or conversely someone who’s been losing consistently may say they’re “due for some good luck.”

In reality in a random system past outcomes have no effect on future outcomes. If you flip a penny and get 10 heads in a row, the odds of landing a tails is exactly the same on the 11th flip as it was on the 1st. Now what makes this confusing for some people is that the odds of landing 10 heads in a row do differ from those of landing other possible combinations.

Where this gets people in trouble is that they think they’re ‘lucky’ or, in the opposite case, ‘overdue’ for a win. That encourages them to continue to bet beyond when it’s prudent to do so. It also encourages people to overestimate the odds of a positive outcome in situations.

The best way to avoid this fallacy is to understand that the concept of ‘luck’ – an invisible or indeterminate force that tilts probabilities in favor of or against specific individuals – is as imaginary as the concept of fairies or Santa Claus. In a randomized system no matter what your past wins or losses were you are no more guaranteed a win than when you first started.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is basically the tendency for incompetent people to overestimate their ability and for skilled people to underestimate their ability.

Put another way, people who are unskilled or non-proficient in something are much more likely to rate their ability in that thing as being above average. This is mostly because they’re not proficient enough to recognize their own lack of skill and suffer from a general case of anosognosia. On the inverse most skilled people assume everyone else is equally as proficient and as a result fail to accurate estimate their own skill level in relation to others.

Always reevaluate and test your presumptions about how skilled in something you actually are as time goes on and don’t just assume your initial assessment is correct. In general if you think you’re better than average at something you may not be and if you think you’re at or below average you may be better than you think. Don’t assume though that just because you think you’re bad at something means you’re actually good at it – actually test and compare to others.

Selection Bias

Selection Bias is the tendency of people to pick out the examples of something that make a certain pattern while unconsciously disregarding examples that contradict that pattern. It’s similar to the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon where you learn of something new, maybe a new word or you hear a new song, and then suddenly it starts popping up everywhere you go seemingly by coincidence.

In the same manner Selection Bias causes us to pay attention to the things we’re primed to pay attention to for some reason at the exclusion of other things. This causes us to erroneously perceive patterns that don’t necessarily exist. In the case of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon it generally comes down to the thing you’re now noticing everywhere having been there all along but you never payed attention to it until primed to.

This isn’t a terrible bias in terms of causing problems, but it can make people believe or do odd things based on ‘patterns’ they’re seeing that just aren’t there. It also causes us to pick out things that reinforce our current beliefs at the cost of blindness to examples that contradict those beliefs. If you start seeing patterns pop up do some objective analysis and see if there’s anything actually going on there before you start coming up with crazy ideas.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation Bias is kind of the big brother of Selection Bias in that it causes people to fixate on things that confirm their opinions and beliefs and ignore things that run contrary to them.

Conservatives will watch FOX News and liberals will watch MSNBC. You’ll also tend to associate with people who hold the same views rather than those who hold differing views. In more extreme cases you may also blind yourself to good evidence contrary to your position. A person who thinks dreams foretell the future for example will remember the one time they dreamed about a car accident and then had one and completely ignore the thousands of dreams they had that never came true.

Confirmation Bias can be dangerous because it blinds us to truth for the sake of feeling good about our opinions. A good exercise for working on confirmation bias is to expose yourself to material contradictory to the beliefs you hold on a regular basis. Approach it honestly though, going into it with the attitude of ‘debunking’ it is just another expression of confirmation bias.

Change Aversion

People are terrified of change.

This may tie into the fact that humans experience a sense of loss much more forcefully than a sense of gain. We’re extremely loss averse as well. Regardless of the cause, people are almost always more willing to stick with the status quo than to change things up.

This may not sound so bad at first, but the reason this habit can be detrimental lies in the fact that it encourages us to disregard options that may be objectively, empirically better just so that we can feel better about avoiding change. We will willfully choose the worse situation we have now rather than choose to change things for the better.

This self-destructive homeostasis can stop us from improving our lives and the lives of others. Whenever you’re thinking of making a change, make an objective pro-con list. That way you tally the relative scores up and make a more informed decision as to whether you really should keep things the same or whether changing things up would be more beneficial without the tendency to give more weight to keeping things the same.

Herd Behavior / The Bandwagon Effect

People also really want to fit in.

They want to fit in so much in fact that like the Asch experiments showed decades ago people are even willing to sacrifice their own morality in order to follow the influence of the group. Most people are much more willing to go with the flow and conform at the expense of their own conscience and free agency than they are to actually exercise them in defiance of the herd.

Most people are at least aware of the tendency toward the mob mentality or herd behavior but that isn’t always enough to be able to fight the effects of it. In important decisions or with positions on important topics it’s always important to stop every now and again and closely examine the impetus for why you think the way you do on it. Can you rationally defend your position or choice based on hard evidence? If not, you may need to take a closer look at it, particularly if you’re on the side of the majority since you may just be following the group.

Post-Purchase Rationalization

Post-purchase rationalization is pretty much exactly what the name says it is – the rationalization of the decision to purchase a specific product after it’s been purchased. It’s usually most prevalent in more expensive purchases because more expensive purchase often involve more pre-purchase research and deliberation and hold a lot more emotional investment.

The danger of post-purchase rationalization lies in its ability to blind us from seeing when we’ve made emotional decisions or errors in our reasoning and prevents us from correcting them in the future. If you bought something and it turned out to be a huge waste of money, just admit that you made a mistake and move on. Spending additional effort to overcome the cognitive dissonance between the expectations of the product and emotional investment pre-purchase with the reality of the product and the disappointment post-purchase is just a further waste of your time.

If you want to take this a step further, apply that reasoning to the rest of your life and stop rationalizing your bad decisions away. Recognize why they were faulty and resolve not to do it again in the future.

Projection Bias

There are two biases that are frequently labeled ‘projection bias’, so I’m just going to lump the two together since they really boil down to the same problem – in general we’re very bad at imagining a mind substantially different from our own and, as a result, have a tendency to project our current mind onto all conceptual models of minds we’re working with.

What does that mean?

First, it means we tend to naturally assume everyone else thinks in a manner very much like our own way of thinking. Currently it is impossible for you to really experience any mind other than your own in a direct sense. You can interact with other people and through that develop models and understand that they too have a sense of mind but you can never completely verify it through direct experience.

This is where we get ‘brain-in-a-jar’, Matrix-esque, solipsism arguments. I can’t prove to you, at least not completely, that I’m not a very well-constructed figment of your imagination.

This is a problem because in practice people often think very, very differently. Not just in terms of conclusions but in the methods used to arrive at those conclusions. Assuming that everyone else thinks the same as you is only going to cause difficulty.

Second, it means we tend to be unable to predict our own future states of mind as being anything different from our current ones. Basically, we assume our minds will never change.

Again, in practice, this is almost never the case. Our tastes, preferences and opinions are changing constantly. Something that we want now we may not want in the future and our wants in the future may be for things we couldn’t even fathom now. That makes it very hard to make truly informed decisions on things that will have a large effect on your life far down the road like career choices.

So what’s the best way to overcome this bias? In my opinion a great deal of fiction reading can help. Fiction allows you the closest proxy to being able to occupy another person’s head for a while. It exposes you to alien thought processes and reasoning and helps you develop a much better theory of mind – an ability to place yourself in another’s shoes.

Immediacy Bias

Anyone who’s ever lost weight will be keenly familiar with immediacy bias.

Immediacy bias is the tendency to choose things that offer gratification immediately, even to a net detriment, over things that provide gratification in the future, even to a net benefit. In other words you’re much more likely to choose the thing that makes you happy now (candy, procrastination, etc.) over the thing that will make you happy in the future (healthy food, work, exercise, etc.).

It’s obvious why this is a bad thing – we are more than happy to completely destroy our futures for a little bit of immediate pleasure than to have exponentially more pleasure on a delayed timescale. The immediacy bias is like rocket fuel for self-destructive behaviors.

One way to mitigate the effects of immediacy bias is through cultivation of your willpower. Now, willpower is a finite resource and, while you can build Batman levels of will, you’re going to run out eventually.

In order to assist your willpower it’s best to do things to limit your agency in situations where you know you’re likely to give in to temptation. Like Odysseus ordering himself bound to the sails in order to hear the Sirens without drowning himself, placing obstructions in your way in advance when you know you’re going to be tempted into irrational decisions takes your willpower out of the equation – or at least gives it a big boost.

These may be the most common, but there are a lot of other cognitive biases that lead people into bad decisions. Being aware of our human tendency to make irrational decisions for bad reasons is one of the best first steps in making not quite so bad decisions.

Do you have any good tricks for overcoming some of these mental traps? Any other that you think should be included? Leave a comment and let us know!

Photo Credit: Stefano Corso

Progression Vs. Position: How to Balance Happiness and Self-Improvement

Round & Round at the Vatican by Andrew E. Larsen

Life is a lot like a big, endless staircase. Is your happiness based on what stair you’re on, or how fast you’re climbing?

Complacency and a fire for constant self-improvement seem to be diametrically opposed.

The drive for self-improvement spurs us on to always be better than we were yesterday. It pushes us to keep fighting, keep training, keep working for that next goal. People who are particularly driven by a desire for self-improvement tend to be very ambitious and the heart of ambition is a hunger to improve or to succeed. That ambition makes a person work hard, but it also ties their mood to their progress. They always want more and they’re often not happy until they get it.

On the other hand you have people with a high sense of complacency. These people are happy with what they’ve got almost no matter where they’re at in life. Their happiness is tied to appreciating what they’ve got rather than with getting something else. This sounds nice in theory, but complacency encourages stasis – if things are fine how they are why should you work for something better? People who are too complacent run the risk of living a life dictated by others rather than the one they actually want to lead.

So how do you find happiness while still retaining your motivation for self-improvement? By focusing on progress rather than position.

A Change in Viewpoint

The main problem with both of these ways of viewing the world, the ambitious person always improving and never happy with where they are and the complacent people who are happy but never improve, is that both of their senses of happiness are tied to their position.

Both derive their sense of worth from where they currently are in their progress through life. They interpret that information differently, the ambitious person is unhappy with their position and the complacent person is overly happy with their position but for both where they are right now is the main concern.

Imagine some people standing on a stair case. Our ambitious person, Ms. A, sees someone on a higher stair than she is. She looks down at the stair she’s on, lower than where she wants to be, and she gets depressed. She’s motivated to climb those stairs to get where she wants to be, but at each step she judges herself by the step she’s standing on at that moment and as a result is never truly happy until she’s standing on the stair she wants to be on.

On the other hand we have our complacent person, Mr. C, standing on another stair near the bottom. He didn’t really choose to be there, and he thinks it’d be nice to be up there at the top of the staircase, but he’s decided he’s happy with where he’s at. He figures he is where he is and he should just be happy with the stair he’s on. He is genuinely happy, but he’ll die there without ever seeing the top of the stairs.

For both of them their happiness is based off of what stair they’re on at that moment. That’s the problem – it’s often framed as a choice between one or the other, ambition or complacency. There’s another option.

Rather than base your happiness on position, you can base your happiness on progression.

Imagine another person on that staircase of success, we’ll call her Ms. Z. Now Ms. Z looks up the staircase and sees people up at the top and wants to be up there too. Unlike Ms. A and Mr. C though she doesn’t base her happiness on what stair she’s on, she bases it on whether or not she’s moving.

As long as Ms. Z is climbing up those stairs, no matter how slow, she’s happy. Like Ms. A she’s motivated to keep progressing, but she doesn’t have all the unhappiness Ms. A gets from not being on the stair she wants to be on. Ms. Z is progressing so she’s happy. In fact she’s just as happy as Mr. C, but unlike Mr. C who will stay on the stair he was placed on his entire life Ms. Z will end up higher up than where she started.

Embracing Momentum

Ms. Z is an example of someone who bases their happiness on progression.

When you concern yourself primarily with whether or not you’re improving rather than how good you are at that moment you get all the motivation of a strong drive to improve with all the in-the-moment happiness that would get embracing a complacent worldview. By embracing the concept of only caring about maintaining that momentum you can be happy and fulfilled feeling while still possessing the impetus to be better each and every day.

So how do you switch from being position focused to progression focused?

The biggest thing is to stop worrying so much about where you are now or where you want to be. Recognize that the only thing that really matters is the present moment and that the only thing you have control of in the present moment is whether you’re making progress toward something or stagnating.

You need to start to shift your values toward the velocity you have in approaching your goals rather than your current position in relation to them. That means that a millionaire who has stopped improving is less successful than a penniless homeless person who’s actively working toward improving their situation.

Once you shift your thinking to fall more in line with progression based value as a preference over position based value you’ll find that success and failure isn’t such a big deal anymore. You won’t feel worthless when you haven’t made it to your goal as long as you’re still moving toward it. Even better you won’t be left with the boring, unfulfilled feeling of sitting on a plateau for your whole life.

Have you made the shift to a progression based value system? Do you think the position based one is better? Do you see things in a completely different way from both? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Photo Credit: Andrew E. Larsen

Why You Need to Stop Waiting for Your Hero Moment

Pixelblock Danger by Cold Storage

It’s dangerous to go alone, take this!

Ah, the Hero Moment.

It’s so endemic to our storytelling, so ubiquitous and pervasive in everything – movies, TV shows, books, video games – that most people don’t even notice it even as it shapes their own understanding and expectations about their own lives. The Hero Moment meme seems built in to our way of thinking, whether genetic or just as a result of socio-cultural forces, and it directly interferes with our ability to do what we need to do in order to have the highest chance of success.

In other words, the Hero Moment is poisoning the way you think about life and making it harder for you to achieve your long term goals.

We want to stop that.

What’s The Hero Moment?

The Hero Moment is that standard moment in fiction where some huge, defining, life-changing thing happens to the protagonist thrusting them into the main issue of the story. It’s usually accompanied by finding out there’s something special about the protagonist.

Harry Potter finding out he’s a wizard is a perfect example. The beginning of just about any Zelda game is another. Meeting Ben Kenobi was Luke Skywalker’s Hero Moment. The arrival of River on Serenity changed all those character’s course. The common thread here is one big thing happens that changes the protagonist’s life forever.

It’s always a single drastic event.

That’s important, because it’s the main reason this particular meme is so subversive to the way we approach our goals. Life doesn’t work that way.

The Million Dollar Idea Myth – Waiting for a Boat at the Airport

When it comes to assessing your future and your goals, people put way too much emphasis on looking for a single, life-changing moment and severely under-emphasize the importance of consistent, grueling day-in day-out work.

That’s so freaking important I’m going to say it again.

In bold and italics.

People severely overestimate the value of a single life-changing moment and severely underestimate the importance of persistent, daily, habitual work.

People are looking for that Hero Moment. People are waiting for that moment when they’ll hit it big. In the abstract they’re waiting to have their own Hagrid come and tell them they’re the Chosen One. In the real world, this manifests itself as the myth of the million dollar idea.

Everyone is looking for that million dollar idea, that entrepreneurial lottery ticket that’ll turn them into the next Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos. They think it’s just like the Hero Moment – one minute they’re sitting there in their boring day job and then BAM they’re hit with a great idea, flip their desk and run out to make their fortune. People expect there to be something out there that’ll make them hit it big.

That’s just not how it works though.

Success takes work. Steve Jobs failed a ton, and pulled long hours to get where he got. Jeff Bezos didn’t just think up Amazon one day and go pick up his billionaire license – it took hard work every single day. It took struggle.

People don’t think of that though. They don’t sit and dream about how they’re going to lose sleep and work hard and devote 100% of their life to this big goal of theirs, they expect it to fall down their chimney like Santa Claus and be handed to them all nicely wrapped and ready to go.

It’s not surprising this is the model in media, after all it makes for a much shorter, sexier narrative. Hard work is perceived as so boring in most stories it gets glassed over in a couple minutes with a quick montage. Having a character spend ten long years of struggle to become a hero is not nearly as convenient as having Dumbledore show up at your house with some dwarves or being given the single most powerful piece of jewelry on the planet by your uncle.

Overcoming the Poison of Inaction

The reason this all is so bad for us is because it encourages us to sit around and wait for success to fall into our laps.

Success is not a well-trained puppy that will come whenever you call it. Success is a rabid, steroid filled grizzly bear on meth with a rocket launcher – if you want to capture it you’re in for a fight.

Sitting around forever trying to dream up this million dollar hit-it-big idea and expecting it to just come to you is wasting your time. You’ll never get anywhere doing that, and even if you do actually come up with an idea, statistically speaking it’s probably going to fail.

The way people finally succeed and get to a point where they’re living a fulfilling life that they actually want to be living is by putting in the hours every single day, no matter what, and failing over and over and over again until their sheer persistence finally gets them through.

Unlike all the fictional hero stories, this is how it works in the real world. Look at just about any biography of any extremely successful person and you know what common theme will be – lots of hard work and even more failures and an attitude of not giving up until they get where they wanted to be.

That’s the kind of attitude you need to cultivate in order to be successful.

You need to stop waiting for some big thing to happen and you need to start putting in the effort every single day to make something happen. Don’t focus too much on one area, try lots of stuff. If you’re having trouble putting in the hours each day, find some way to make yourself accountable until you’ve developed it into a habit.

In the end it’s going to be this attitude that gets you through, not waiting around for your radioactive spider to come along and chomp you into success.

Have you fallen into the trap of waiting around for your Hero Moment or your big Million Dollar Idea? How’d you get out of it? What are some tricks you’ve used to build a good daily work habit? Help us out and share with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Cold Storage

Flow 101: Figuring Out What Makes You Happy

Math Everywhere by Thowi

Unlike a math test, flow testing can actually be enjoyable.

In the last Flow 101 article I explained exactly what flow is and how you can apply some of its principles to your work and life in general to make the things you do more engaging, fulfilling and enjoyable. The only catch is, what if your work is such that you genuinely can’t do anything to make it put you in a state of flow?

What if your work is so awful, or even so intentionally temporary (waiting tables for a Summer, etc.) that it’s just not ever going to provide an opportunity to be fulfilling no matter what you do? Further complicating matters what if, like most people out there including myself for the longest time, you have no idea what it is you actually want to do?

How do you figure out what will really make you happy?

The flow test.

Be Are a Machine Gunner, Not a Sniper

Most people, when it comes to trying to figure out what makes them happy in life, think they’re snipers.

They conserve their ammunition, they plot and plan and select their targets carefully. They’re only willing to commit to a shot if they have a high certainty of it being a hit. There’s an emphasis on strategy and planning and tactics. This is completely the wrong way to go about things.

The problem with being a sniper is you spend way too much time in your head plotting things out. The truth of the situation when it comes to figuring out what makes you happy is that more often then not the model we’ve built in our head and the reality of whatever it is we’re chasing almost never line up. People spend half their lives lining up their shot, picking a vocation, getting a degree in the field they think they’ll love and then, when they finally pull the trigger – oops, wrong target.

Then they’re stuck. The damage is done and they’re invested in something they don’t enjoy nearly as much as they thought. At best most people repeat the same cycle at this point retreating back to the planning phase and spending a ton of time prepping for their next shot with no more of a guarantee the target will be the right one than they had the first time around.

So what’s the better option? Being a machine gunner.

A machine gunner’s got plenty of ammo. A machine gunner doesn’t have to be choosy about her target selection, in fact she doesn’t even have to have a target – there’s enough ammo to burn she can just fire in the general direction of a target to provide some suppressing fire. Sure she still has to pick targets to a point, but she can be broad about it. She can open up on groups of targets and as a result has a lot more options.

That’s the way you should treat your search for what really makes you happy. Don’t plan and focus too much on one thing, don’t conserve your ammunition – you’ve got plenty – go out and try hundreds of different hings as fast as you possibly can. The goal is not to pick something and fixate but to cultivate a sense of activity ADHD. You want to try something, determine if you enjoy it or not and, if not, chuck it aside and move on to the next thing immediately.

How best can you facilitate this rapid testing? That’s where the flow test comes in.

Running a Basic Daily Flow Test

The flow test is an easy way to cover a lot of potential targets quickly with a minimal amount of effort. It’s your machine gun. There are a handful of different ways to conduct flow tests, but the easiest in my opinion is just an hourly check up.

Set some kind of reminder each hour, whether that’s an alarm on your phone or watch or an hour long egg timer or whatever and then every time that alarm goes off stop what you’re doing and note down the following info on a sheet of paper or Evernote or wherever:

Time:        Current Activity:        In Flow?        Mood:

‘Time’ is obviously the time you’re making the note. ‘Current activity’ is whatever you were doing when the alarm went off and you stopped to make your note. Could be working, exercising, doing laundry, whatever. You can be as precise as you feel necessary but sometimes being more detailed can help fine tune things.

For ‘In Flow?’ a simple yes or no is generally sufficient. To recap, being in flow means you’re in the zone. You’re pumped and feel unstoppable and are rocking through things feeling like whatever you’re doing is effortless. ‘Mood’ is however you were feeling while you were doing whatever it was you were doing when you stopped to make your note. Again, you can be super descriptive here or you can put in simple responses like ‘excited’, ‘bored’ etc.

Do this on a daily basis for a couple weeks while trying to do as many different activities as possible and then go back and look for patterns. Are there things that just never put you in a state of flow? What about the opposite, is there anything that consistently puts you in a state of flow?

If you find that your work never puts you in a state of flow and you’re constantly using mood adjectives like ‘depressed’, ‘annoyed’ or ‘bored’, then you probably need to find a new line of work.

Take a look at what does put you into flow, or even just make you feel a little happier. You might be surprised. Personally, I always knew I enjoyed writing – but doing a little flow testing showed me just how often it puts me in that state where I go into a near trance and am just a fulfilled, delighted productivity machine.

By constantly asking yourself whether the activity you’re engaged in is producing flow for you as well as what general mood it puts you in and then trying as wide a variety of things as you possibly can it gives you the data to figure out what really makes you happy rather than just picking something you think will make you happy. From there you can refocus your efforts on those areas and start to shift your life toward doing more things that make you feel fulfilled and happy.

Have you tried any flow testing before? What kinds of things put you in a state of flow? What things just never do it for you? Share your experiences with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Thomas W

Flow 101: How to Love Your Work

Flow by Alejandro Juarez

Flow isn’t just important in parkour, it’s important in not despising your work.

For a lot of people, work sucks.

It’s built right into our cultural perceptions and usage of the word. When there’s something you don’t want to do, or something that’ll be difficult and unpleasant what do we tend to say – that’ll be a lot of work. Clearly ‘work’ as a concept tends to have some pretty negative connotations.

That doesn’t have to be the case though and, personally, I think the world would be a better place if we could correct this issue. Work can be fun, enjoyable and positive. You can love your work again, or at least change your work to make it something you love by using a single principle as your guiding compass.

Flow.

What is ‘Flow’ Exactly?

Flow, loosely defined, is that feeling of being in the zone when doing something. It’s that sense of being one hundred percent in the moment, of effortless and exhilarating activity, of rocking things out with no sense of struggle.

We say someone is ‘in flow’ or in a state of flow when they’re experiencing this. Think of an experienced traceur moving effortlessly through an obstacle filled environment, reacting instinctively, gliding through like a river around and over rocks and pebbles. That’s a person in flow. Think of a writer who sits down and loses themselves at the keyboard, fingers flying in a creative frenzy until a short time later there are several thousands of words on the page and a smile on the writer’s face. That’s flow. Think of someone playing a video game who tears through a level with perfect efficiency and dominates her opponents without taking a scratch the whole time reacting without having to think about what she’s doing. That’s flow.

This state of flow is essentially an optimal experience. Entering a state of flow both signifies and creates a sense of fulfillment and elation that makes each experience being in flow addictive and pleasurable. In general, when you’re in flow you’re happy.

Criteria for Creating Flow

One of the people responsible for studying and defining this concept of flow is Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The main criteria he lays down for what best leads to experiences of flow are:

  • A clearly defined goal.

  • Immediate feedback on progress toward that goal.

  • A task that is challenging, but not to the point of impossibility.

  • Clear indicators of when the goal is completed.

The gamers among you, along with the more astute people ought to recognize immediately that the list of flow creating conditions is almost word for word the foundation for good game design. Think about the last really great game you played and examine it along the items above.

  • A clearly defined goal – Finish the level, beat the boss, rescue the princess, capture the flag, eliminate the enemy team, etc.

  • Immediate feedback on progress toward that goal – Moving to the next level, progress indicators, intermediate bosses, leveling up, increasing scores, etc.

  • A task that is challenging, but not to the point of impossibility – Tic-tac toe gets old quickly because it’s too easy, you almost always tie. Conversely games that are too difficult (Ninja Gaiden series anyone?) quickly get hurled across the room in frustration. The best online games always happen when you’re matched against a team of similar skill level making it a challenge, but one where victory is still within reach.

  • Clear indicators of when the goal is completed – Did you die? Start over. Did you beat the level? Hooray! Here’s some fanfare and a big ‘You win!’ screen. Video games always make it extremely clear when you’ve met your goal, when you’ve failed and when you’ve got a little more to go.

This general set up that all games, intentionally or not, are designed to be perfect flow inducing environments in my opinion leads to their extremely addictive quality. Particularly as an escape mechanism when your life is spent in work and activities you hate and you never really achieve flow having an artificial means designed to let you experience that state fills a deficiency in your life.

Finding or Creating Flow in Your Work

So what’s the best way to create flow in work that you generally hate? A lot of it comes down to manipulating the variables above to find something that feels a lot like a video game. In other words you want to have clearly defined goals, clearly defined progress and it needs to be at the right balance of skill level and difficulty.

Challenge Vs. Skill Flow Continuum

Manipulating the balance of challenge level vs. skill level makes a huge difference in finding states of flow.

The first thing to do is make sure that you’ve defined clear goals. Proper goal setting is huge when it comes to success in general, but it’s also what makes finding a good state of flow possible. A good goal should be something that’s challenging enough to be worth pursuing, but still within the bounds of achievability. A good clear goal might be the completion of a project, or finding five more clients. Whatever fits your work.

It’s vital that the goal you make must be challenging but not impossible and on top of that it must have a clearly indicated completion point. Memorize 10 guitar chords is a goal that has a clear state of completion, learn to play guitar is not. We want specific – not nebulous.

Next make sure that you’ve set up milestones or progress markers so that you can track your progress. Have things in place, whether they’re smaller goals that add up to your larger goal or some kind of system of points to mimic the way the games work. Are you moving forward? Are you not making progress? You should always be able to tell if you’re looking to create a flow conducive environment.

A good example of something that’s used gamification to apply principles of flow to fitness is Fitocracy.

I’ve loved Fitocracy ever since I got to play with it in beta because it makes fitness fun. Exercise, like work, has a lot of negative connotations to a lot of people, but Fitocracy changes that. You have a clear goal (level up), an indicator of progress (points earned from workouts), a variable skill level (leveling up is easier for beginners and becomes more difficult as you get more fit) and a clear point of success (a hearty congratulations on leveling up from FRED).

Working to apply these principles to your work doesn’t guarantee you’ll start enjoying it, but it creates an optimal environment for finding joy in what you do when previously it was all pain and struggle. Sometimes the trick isn’t changing your current work environment to facilitate entering a state of flow, but rather finding other work that naturally puts you in a state of flow. I’ll cover that, including an easy test to see what you’d love to do most, in the next article on flow.

Have any personal experience wit flow? Any tips on the best way to get into a state of flow or understand what it feels like? Leave a comment and let us know.

Photo Credit: Alejandro Juarez

Scientific Sleep Hacking: Easy Ways to Optimize Sleep

There is Plenty to Do in a New Empty Apartment by Bealluc

Some sleep hacking ideas get a little ridiculous – let’s start with what the research says first.

There’s something about sleep and sleep optimization that seems to captivate people in the productivity and lifestyle design communities. I suspect it’s mostly because people who are deep into lifestyle design also tend to be fairly ambitious and, as a result, the thought of spending less time asleep and having more time to accomplish things is tantalizing.

Our very first experiment in fact was with trying to switch to a polyphasic sleep schedule. I called it a success at the time, but I recognize now it was a failure.

I’ve not abandoned my interest in optimizing sleep though, and since then over time I accumulated a collection of methods for optimizing sleep that are backed not only by my own personal experiences, but more importantly by actual research.

To Hack or to Optimize?

I recognize I used it in the title, but I needed something to get your attention. Honestly I rather dislike the idea of ‘hacking’ sleep. It feels adversarial to me, like one is attempting to game the system or to cheat somehow. In my experience that breeds the kind of attitude I’ve fallen victim to in the past of trying to be extreme about it. Being extreme about it is almost never sustainable.

Instead I like to think about it as optimization.

Optimization isn’t adversarial, it’s complementary. Optimization isn’t so much about gaming the system you’re working against and bending or breaking the rules to get what you want, it’s about working within the system to reshape things so as to be more beneficial.

Another key difference is that sleep optimization is not about sleeping less – at least not necessarily. A lot of the sleep hacking community seems devoted entirely to the reduction in hours spent sleeping, consequences be damned. Optimization can certainly shave a few unnecessary hours off your time spent asleep but its primary goal is to help you feel as best as you can and recover as much as you can.

We’re not looking to break sleep and conquer it, we’re looking to redirect it so that we get the most out of it and can use it to fit our schedule without all the struggle.

Monophasic, Biphasic or Polyphasic

Right off the bat, polyphasic is out.

In the past I would’ve suggested giving it a try if you thought you could swing it, but having given it a try myself and having dug a lot deeper into the research supporting it (there really isn’t any), research suggesting it’s either unsustainable or flat out detrimental such as Dr. Piotr Wozniak’s and trying to hunt down confirmed successfully long term polyphasic sleepers (there really aren’t any save Steve Pavlina and his claims are still questionable) – I just can’t recommend even trying it.

To the best of my evaluation science as a whole pretty much doesn’t support the viability of polyphasic sleep and I agree with that position.

Biphasic sleep, on the other hand, shows a great deal of promise.

Biphasic sleep (essentially taking a nap somewhere around that midday slump) has a lot of research backing it as beneficial, both to memory, general cognitive performance and quality of sleep in general. There’s also strong evidence supporting the claims that a midday nap reduces the time you need to sleep overnight by more than the time actually invested in the nap.

This research reflects my personal experience (or maybe it’s the other way around). I’m a big fan of naps. Whether that’s just normal daily scheduled ones or short, focused caffeine naps taking a little bit of time in the afternoon to grab a quick nap makes a huge difference in both quality of sleep and the the amount of sleep you need in a night. I also appears to have a strong beneficial effect to memory and creativity.

Better Sleeping Through Science

There are a lot of recommendations out there for how to optimize sleep.

The problem is, not all of them are effective – some do absolutely nothing and others may even prove detrimental to the end goal of getting the most restorative sleep possible in the most efficient way possible. We need some way to separate the wheat from the chaff without having to spend a ton of time with self-experimentation.

To that end I’ve only included things on this list that have some type of research backing them that shows a positive effect. Before some people start yelling about how something can be true even if it hasn’t been proven in a double-blind study, I agree. Some things certainly could have a high efficacy but either haven’t been verified in a controlled setting or have traits that make isolating them in a proper study a logistical impossibility.

That’s fine, and I encourage you to properly experiment yourself with these things to get an idea of whether or not you think they work. I’m not interested in things here though that people think work, I only want things that have been proven to work. That seems like the most logical place to start, then you can start adding your own unproven strategies on top of the foundation of what we know is effective.

Sanitize Your Sleep Environment

When I say sanitize here I don’t mean in the traditional sense of clearing it of bacteria and pathogens and things (though, you know, that’s probably not a terribly bad idea too), but rather sanitizing it of interfering stimuli. Things like light and noise can severely disrupt both your ability to fall asleep quickly and the quality of your actual sleep.

The first thing is to clear your room of any electronics that make noise or give off any light. Claims have been made that even the electromagnetic field generated by said electronics can disrupt sleep although there’s been no studies to confirm it. I’m much more concerned with the bright LEDs and whirring fans of a computer, the glow of an excessively bright alarm clock or anything else that gives off light or noise. Get those out of there, or silence them and cover up the lights.

Next deal with outside sources of light and noise. If you live in a big city spend a little extra to get some light/sound canceling curtains like the thick ones they use in hotel rooms. Even getting some ear plugs and a sleeping mask can go a long way. Neither are terribly expensive and they’re worth the myriad benefits of getting a good night’s sleep.

Eat for Sleep

Your nutritional habits have an immense effect on just about every other physiological process you go through. Sleep is no different. Going to bed hungry can impair your ability to fall asleep quickly. There is absolutely no research supporting the claim that you burn fewer calories at night and that eating late at night will make you gain fat. I’ll say that again because this is a frustratingly persistent misconception.

Eating before bed does not make you gain weight.

The difference between what your body burns when you’re sitting in your chair watching TV and when sleeping is about the same. The importance is the macro composition and net energy expenditure over a longer period of time than just 24 hours.

The primary reason, as best we can tell anyway, your body needs to sleep is so it can fix everything you tore up through the day and clean house a bit. Providing your body a little food not only removes the difficulty of falling asleep through the discomfort of hunger but it supplies your body materials to facilitate the repair work it needs to overnight.

The studies here on the actual effects on quality of sleep have been somewhat mixed in terms of quality, so I’ll concede this tactic is not 100% proven but does show some strong statistical promise of being beneficial. In general the best results have been seen through the consumption of fats and protein prior to sleep with some small additional benefit appearing to come from choosing a slower digesting protein.

My recommendation, based on said research and my own personal experience, would be to go for some cottage cheese (maybe a cup to a cup and a half at least) as a pre-bed snack. You get a little fat and some slower digesting caseinate protein in a relatively small package.

Have a Sleeping Ritual

Without getting into motor patterning and neuroscience and things our brains very much like to go on autopilot when we’re doing something we’ve done repeatedly for a long time. If you’ve ever zoned out on the drive to work and realized disconcertingly on arrival that you kind of blanked out and don’t remember the drive at all that’s sort of what I’m talking about. When we do something repeatedly our conscious minds tend to shut off and we go through the motions automatically.

We can use this propensity for switching to autopilot to help us get to sleep quickly (and wake up) by employing sleep rituals.

A sleep ritual is basically a sequence of actions that you do in the exact same way, in the exact same order, whenever it’s time to sleep. This can be anything you want really, as long as it doesn’t directly interfere with said sleep. Go have your pre-bed snack, let the dog out, brush your teeth and do your other pre-bed stuff then go to sleep. Do that the same way in the same order over and over again and eventually your brain will get the hint and as soon as you go through that ritual it’ll know it’s time to sleep.

It’s important here too to keep your sleeping space sacred. Particularly if you have trouble sometimes falling asleep your bed should be reserved for only sleep and sex. Don’t eat in bed, don’t watch TV in bed, don’t even read in bed (though reading before bed can help you get to sleep, do it somewhere else then go through your pre-bed ritual before slipping between the sheets).

That way your brain has a very clear delineation around your bed that this is where sleep happens and that’s it. If you’re going there, you’re probably going to sleep. Just like the ritual it primes your brain to start the sleep process and get you to sleep quickly.

Be Active

Exercise has been proven over, and over, and over again to have a positive effect on sleep quality.

So go exercise!

Seriously you should be doing this one anyway. In terms of sleep it doesn’t necessarily have to be actual structured exercise either, as long as you’re up and moving around and being active in a general sense your sleep quality will improve as a result. Go for a long walk every day, or go play some games outside. Practice parkour. Whatever.

The point is making a habit of being physically active not only improves your general health but also helps your sleep. To borrow Pokemon terminology, it’s super-effective.

A slight word of caution though – don’t go overboard. Daily heavy lifting followed by HIIT or Met Con workouts or anything that causes too much stress on your system can interfere with sleep. You’ll know if you’re over-training though, so just be cognizant of how you feel.

Use Substances Appropriately

To my knowledge there are no recreational substances that have a positive effect on sleep quality. Caffeine quite obviously serves no other purpose than to specifically inhibit one’s ability to fall asleep. Alcohol tends to make most people sleepy and can make you fall asleep faster but it severely damages the quality of sleep, dehydrates you and can disrupt sleep cycles for a few days following (have you even gotten drunk and then woke up the next morning thinking, ‘I feel super!’?) Marijuana use has been linked to both longer sleep periods and reduced quality of sleep which is doubly counter-productive.

That’s not to say that you can’t still enjoy these substances, but you need to do it intelligently. The effects of these on sleep can last a lot longer than the recreational effects last. Coffee, for example, can disrupt sleep patterns hours after the buzz that you drink it for has faded away. Similarly, even if you’ve sobered up, alcohol can still have an effect on your quality of sleep.

So what do you do? Ideally, you should cut off your use of these substances three or four hours prior to when you intend to sleep. For me 3 p.m. is the limit for caffeine intake if I don’t want it to interfere with my sleep.

Obviously with alcohol this becomes something of a problem since socially it’s most common use is late in the evenings. In general if you’re consuming large volumes of alcohol prior to 3 p.m. there’s a chance you have other problems you need to address. When it comes to alcohol the best things is to just understand the effects of it and regulate your use accordingly.

Every now and again going out and drinking late in the evening is fine, but if you do it every night or even every couple nights it’s going to have a cumulatively detrimental effect on your sleep and your health and everything else will likely suffer as a result. So keep it reasonable. You should also drink a good bit of water before bed to try to mitigate the dehydrating effects of the alcohol. You may have to wake up a few times to go to the bathroom, but interrupted sleep is preferential to the dehydration.

Chill Out and Light Some Candles

Falling asleep is a process that, physiologically anyway, starts well before your head hits the pillow. Putting yourself in an environment before bed that facilitates and encourages those process to start will help get to sleep much more quickly when you actually do head to bed and will make for more restful sleep since you’re primed beforehand.

The first step is to limit your exposure to full spectrum light. Exposure to bright full spectrum light inhibits the brain’s production of melatonin which is a chemical that helps put you to sleep. For hundreds of thousands of years the Sun going down has meant it’s bed time for humans, our brains still operate that way. Shutting off the lights and switching to a non-full spectrum light source encourages the brain to up-regulate melatonin production.

That means no bright computer or phone screens and no TV among other things. It doesn’t mean you necessarily have to sit in the dark though, candles are a good source of gentle non-full spectrum light. So shut off the lights and the bright electronics about 20 – 30 minutes before bed. If nothing else, a house filled with candles every night is a good mood-setter for some sexy time.

The next environmental factor to change is the temperature. People sleep best at an average temperature between 60 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5 to 20 degrees Celsius for our international readers). That’s just a touch chillier than normal room temperature, so turn the AC on gently, open some windows a crack (provided that won’t let too much noise in) or don’t cover up so tightly. You’ll get a much higher quality of sleep.

Putting it All Together

You can certainly experiment with additional tactics to improve sleep quality, but these are the best place to start in terms of building a strong foundation of practices that have been proven to be effective. To recap for all you tl;dr folks.

  • Remove noise & light stimuli from your sleeping environment.

  • Eat some slow digesting protein 15-20 minutes before bed.

  • Follow a pre-bed ritual ever single night.

  • Be physically active or exercise regularly.

  • Limit caffeine and alcohol use.

  • Eliminate light exposure 20-30 minutes prior to bed time and sleep in a 60 to 68 degree Fahrenheit room.

Do you have anything else to add? Something I missed? Have you had success with any of these tactics? Share your experiences with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Bealluc

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