You’re Not Bored – You’re Boring

Yawn by Bark

You’re even boring this poor dog.

There are few things you can say that make me quite as angry as “I’m bored”.

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you’re in a relatively modernized country and have access to reliable Internet. That single resource means that you have absolutely no excuse to ever consider yourself bored.

Boredom is a unique affliction in that, by definition, you could potentially do anything to fix it.

It’s that reason that I think the real problem when people always find themselves feeling bored is that in reality they’re just boring people.

I’m Bored = I’m Boring

There are a lot of ways to be boring, so I’m not going to outline all of the things that can lead to being a severely boring person. It might be that you’re stuck in a rut, that you’re scared of trying new things, or maybe you’ve just been raised in a way that discouraged expanding your horizons.

There can be lots of causes, but the single common symptom to being a boring person is frequently feeling bored.

If you’re frequently finding yourself saying, “I’m bored,” then you’re probably a pretty boring person. That’s a bad thing. You probably don’t want to be boring. Sure, you can argue that point – but being a boring person means a lot of time spent on mundane, uninteresting things. You’ve only got so much time to spend here in existence (until they finally invent replacement robot parts or something) so in my view you should get the most out of it.

Fighting Boredom

As I mentioned, there are way too many potential causes of being a boring person to recommend courses of action for each. You might need to overcome your fear of new things or figure out how to haul yourself out of your rut or whatever.

There are some easy things you can do right now though to start dealing with the symptoms of being a boring person, namely the boredom itself.

  • Learn Something New – Since we’ve established you’ve got an Internet connection by virtue of you currently being reading this you’ve also got access to hundreds of thousands of free educational materials that are seconds away at every single moment.

    There’s YouTube University, Coursera, edX, and Open Culture to name a few.

    If it comes down to it, you can even resort to the ‘Random Article’ button on Wikipedia.

    If you can genuinely say there’s not a single thing there that interests you in the least then I can’t help you.

  • Make Something – People who make things are interesting too. If you’ve already got a hobby that you’re ‘bored’ with then pick a new one and get to it. It can be something physical like a woodworking project, crocheted amigurumi or counter-culture needlework piece, or something like writing prose, poetry, or a blog post, or drawing or painting something.

    Doing creative things both helps you fight off a boredom and it helps fuel further creative efforts. The more creative things you do, the more creative you wind up being and the less bored and more interesting you wind up being.

  • Limit Exposure to Mindless Things – While having access to something like the Internet is definitely a huge aid in eliminating boredom, it can be a bit of a double edged sword.

    Things like Internet and TV can act kind of like a boredom suppressing drug. It’s easy to fall into mindless TV watching for a few hours and feel like you aren’t bored anymore, but it’s just glossing over the symptoms in the most superficial way. It’s a bandage. Really not even that, because a bandage is actually a little useful.

    You know when you decide to vegetate in front of a TV that you’re still bored, you’re just bored in a distracted way. That’s not the point.

    If you find yourself falling into this kind of trap go in the opposite direction. Go out and do something. Get outside and away from TV and Internet and phones and everything else. Whether that means going somewhere in a city or off into the woods the point is to disconnect a bit and find something to be present in.

These are just a few examples, with things like Project Gutenberg or the expansive Kindle library available to you and all the other resources out there you have no excuse.

Boredom is a choice.

Next time you’re bored get up and do something about it rather than sitting around and moping.

Have any other suggestions for not being so bored or boring anymore? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Bark

7 Life Lessons from Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee by Chris Zielecki

Bruce Lee had a lot of good advice – and not just about martial arts.

It’s no secret – after over a decade of practicing and eventually teaching Jeet Kune Do, and being involved in parkour for nearly as long, Bruce Lee is a huge role model for me.

It’s not just his discipline, martial arts skill and fitness that inspire me though. Bruce Lee was fascinated by philosophy (it’s even an enduring legend he was a philosophy major, although technically he majored in drama) and it shows in his interviews and writing – he had a lot to say on how he best thought to live a good life.

In that spirit I’ve collected seven of his lessons here for you to make your life better.

1. Simplify Everything

“It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.” – Bruce Lee (Tweet This)

One of, or arguably the only, foundational tenet of Jeet Kune Do is to keep what’s useful and discard what’s useless.

In Jeet Kune Do it doesn’t matter how much you personally like a certain strike, lock or other technique – if there’s an objectively better, simpler, more efficient way of doing the same thing you ditch the old one and embrace the new. Tradition is subservient to utility.

This is a lot like how the scientific method works. If someone is wrong about something they’re overjoyed to be proven wrong, because it means progress.

You can embrace the same values throughout your life, both in terms of the physical and mental. For starters, an easy way to simplify the physical side of things is to look around at all the stuff you have and ask yourself if trying to go a little more minimalist wouldn’t be a good idea.

When it comes to the mental side of things, embrace the idea that being proven wrong is a good thing.

Stop clinging to old ideas, habits and ways of thinking just because they’re what you’ve always been used to. Stop feeling like you have to save face or get defensive. Hold on to concepts and positions you can legitimately defend but as soon as they’ve been shown to be illogical or that there’s a better way, abandon them without remorse.

Don’t think of your life as a building being built, think of it as a statue being chiseled out of marble – you need to keep chiseling away until you have something beautiful or you’re just going to be left with a chunk of rock.

2. Live for Yourself

“I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.” – Bruce Lee (Tweet This)

The more you try to build your life around the expectations of others, the more you set yourself up for unhappiness and disappointment.

Whether it’s feeling like you always have to buy the next best thing or get the latest piece of technology or feeling like you have to follow the standard track of college and a steady job and a house in the suburbs – if it’s not what you really want don’t do it!

I don’t want to go off on a non-conformist rant here, because non-conformity in and of itself is not purely a good thing. I can’t tell you how many people I see on a day to day basis though who seem to be going through the motions because it’s what society, family or whoever expects of them. Figure out what makes you happy and pursue it however you best can.

On a side note, this goes both ways. Don’t try to pressure people into a path they don’t want to follow just because you don’t like it or it’s not what you expected of them.

3. Don’t Wait, Act

“To hell with circumstances, I create opportunities.” – Bruce Lee (Tweet This)

If you’re always waiting around for the right opportunity it will never come.

To paraphrase W.B. Yeats, don’t wait to strike while the iron’s hot – make it hot by striking. If there’s something you’ve always wanted to do figure out how to accomplish it and get started. Sure patience is a virtue, and good things do come to those who wait, but better things come to those who get off their asses and get them on their own.

It’s easy to delay things by saying it’s not the right time, or the circumstances just aren’t good right now. Nine times out of ten this is just fear talking. People use this as a way to avoid failure by never trying.

Stop that.

You need to take control of your own life and work toward whatever it is you want. You can’t get where you’re going by standing still, so quit wasting time – shut up and do something

4. Be Mindful and Positive

“As you think, so shall you become.” – Bruce Lee (Tweet This)

Now to clarify here, I’m not talking about any of that ridiculous “law of attraction” stuff. I give everything in The Secret as much credit as I do the Tooth Fairy. If you’d like to make a positive claim about it feel free but I’m going to need some evidence.

That being said, while it isn’t going to magically bring you good fortune (“Accio winning lottery ticket!”), your state of mind will strongly influence your own actions and influence your mood and attitudes.

If you’re always dwelling on how terrible things are, how you’re a failure or not good enough, how you’d love to accomplish some goal but you know it’ll never happen – then you’re going to sabotage your own efforts.

One of the biggest determining factors in whether someone succeeds or fails at a goal is whether or not they give up. When you focus on the positives and keep a good outlook you’re that much more likely to be able to persevere. As long as you don’t quit you’re guaranteed to accomplish your goal eventually.

Well, or die trying, but in that case it won’t really be important to you anymore.

The key is to be mindful of your internal monologue and aim to be positive, supportive and confident.

5. Always Fight Bias

“Take no thought of who is right or wrong or who is better than. Be not for or against.” – Bruce Lee (Tweet This)

I don’t take this to mean that you should be indecisive about everything, that would be a bad idea. What I take from this is that you should not let flawed reasoning, bias and personal opinion color your decision making – if someone or something is objectively right then they’re right, whether you like it or not.

I see this as largely complimentary to point number one. If we allow ourselves to fall into all the common mental traps that lead us to make flawed, biased conclusions then it’s impossible to properly determine and excise the things that are holding us back.

Do your best to approach every conflict objectively and dispassionately. Make a habit of stepping outside of your preconceived notions and looking at issue from the opposite viewpoint of what you instinctively gravitate toward.

A good exercise that I employ is to regularly seek out authorities on a subject who hold a position contrary to my own and read as much of their arguments as I can with an attempt to be as objective as possible.

This encourages you to question your reasons for coming to your own decisions and correct them if they’re faulty.

6. Learn About Yourself Externally

“To know oneself is to study oneself in action with another person.” – Bruce Lee (Tweet This)

We are terrible at coming up with accurate models of ourselves in our own heads.

It’s not necessarily for conscious reasons – people just have a subconscious tendency to picture themselves a certain way and then delude themselves into thinking that’s accurate. It’s very easy to overestimate your good qualities and underestimate the negative things about you because, when it comes to evaluating yourself, you’re by definition the single most biased person in existence.

Instead aim to learn about yourself through observation of your actions and interactions with other people.

You may think you’re a super kind or thoughtful person, but don’t just take your own word for it – critically examine how you treat other people. Are you really as thoughtful as you thought you were?

One of the best judges of a person’s character is to observe how they treat someone or something from whom they have nothing to gain and nothing to fear. You should hold yourself to the same standard in order to determine if you actually exemplify all the traits you desire.

7. Be Yourself

“Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself.” – Bruce Lee (Tweet This)

I know. Everyone tells you to be yourself.

It bears repeating though, because it’s easy to lose yourself and start acting like someone else. Check every now and again by asking yourself if what you’re doing is what you really want to do or if you’re doing it for the sake of others.

I don’t need to tell you how or why to be yourself, but it’s on you to keep yourself on the right track.

There are way, way more quotes and more lessons from Bruce Lee on how to lead a better life.

Do you agree or disagree with the ones here? Have one you’d really like to add? Share it in the comments!

Photo Credit: Chris Zielecki

How Pain Warps Your Decision Making

Wretched by Piers Nye

An instinct to avoid immediate pain is something we never grow out of.

I do my very best to be in the presence of people who are much smarter than myself as often as possible. One such person, Jonathan Fass, recently posted an interesting thought on Facebook.

Paraphrasing a bit, he asks whether you’d rather have a fingernail torn off or get an unexpected punch in the stomach. He surmises most people would choose the punch – something I agree with. The pain of a blow to the stomach seems mild and temporary compared to the shudder inducing thought of having a nail torn off.

This is extremely irrational though. Tearing a fingernail off, while painful, is not extremely threatening outside of the ever present risk of infection to exposed tissue. A strike to the stomach on the other hand can be deadly. Outside of Jonathan’s example of Harry Houdini there are plenty of other examples of punches to the stomach causing internal bleeding and ruptured organs which are easily fatal.

Even with that information, I think a lot of people would still chance death to avoid the pain of having a fingernail removed. Ask your followers and see. This kind of behavior isn’t just limited to physical pain though, and that’s where it starts to ruin your decision making.

The Power of Pain Avoidance

I’ve written before about some of the mental traps we fall into that stop us from making better decisions. One of the bigger ones is this instinctual inclination to avoid pain and discomfort at all costs.

In studies people have been found to be more motivated by the avoidance of pain than the gain of pleasure. We see this at play in the way a lot of companies structure advertisements and promotions – people are more likely to act in order to avoid losing $5 than they are in order to gain $5.

This is essentially the same type of thinking that leads us to instinctively make the choice above of taking less painful but potentially lethal damage than an extremely painful wound with little chance of permanent damage.

It may seem abstract when talking about it in terms of choosing between a punch and losing a fingernail, but we apply it to every kind of pain and that’s where we get in trouble.

Non-Physical Pain

Imagine these things: quitting a stable but unfulfilling job to pursue a dream, asking out a guy/girl you’ve had a crush on for a long time, talking to strangers in a foreign language in order to learn, and sticking to a strict weightlifting program.

What do all of them have in common?

They all take resolve and willpower to do, because they all have the potential to cause discomfort and they all have an easy out.

It’s scary to quit your job to chase your dream because of the potential for failure and all the perceived pain and discomfort that will come with it. It’s easy to never go talk to that guy or girl to avoid the emotional pain of being rejected. You might decide not to practice a foreign language with someone because of the potential for making painfully embarrassing mistakes. Plenty of people put off working out because of the amount of discomfort they expect it to cause.

This makes no sense.

Like the fingernail and the punch, choosing the option that avoids the potential for immediate discomfort leads to situations with the potential for more severe or long lasting damage.

Sure, it would be uncomfortable right now to drag yourself out of a warm bed extra early and go strain and struggle to get a lifting session in before work. The less painful option right now would be to say ‘screw it’, stay in bed and get some extra sleep.

In ten years though when you’ve got 30 extra pounds hanging of of you, when you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, further down the road when you have a massive heart attack, was that worth another 30 minutes in bed?

This follows for the other examples too. Is living the rest of your life stuck in a miserable job worth avoiding the potential pain of failing on your first attempt to pursue your dreams?

Is never learning that language you’ve been wanting to learn for however long and missing out on all the experiences and benefits that come along with it worth not facing the immediate pain of an embarrassing mistake or two?

In all of these cases choosing to ignore your instinctual drive to avoid the immediate pain leads to a worse outcome than accepting the immediate discomfort for longer term benefits.

So how do you avoid falling into this way of thinking?

Taking a Step Back

Some people may be tempted to conclude that the best thing then is to go in the opposite direction and always choose the course of action that leads to the most immediate discomfort. Beyond leading to rhabdo stricken Crossfitters this kind of thinking is likely to lead you into as many bad decisions as the opposite way of thinking. The trick is learning not to think in absolutes, but to take a step back and rationally evaluate the potential outcomes on a case by case basis.

Here are a few tips on how you can do that.

  • List Worst Case Scenarios – I recommend a similar tactic when addressing the fear of failure. Sit and write down the absolute worst case scenarios you could foresee coming from each choice. Chances are you’ll find that one of them is not nearly as bad as the other – that’s the choice you should probably make.

  • Get a Second Opinion – If you know your decision making is likely to be biased or compromised, take yourself out of it as much as possible.

    While your bias toward avoiding immediate discomfort will skew your decisions other people are not affected by this bias in regards to making decisions for you. If I’m in a position where I know I’m likely to make bad decisions out of my inclination to avoid something I find uncomfortable I’ll have Caroline consider it and see if her decision differs from mine and why. That way I have an objective viewpoint to help me pick what would be best for me in the long run, not just right this minute.

    Have someone you trust critique your decision whenever you find yourself making it on instinct or feel like your rational thinking might be compromised.

The important thread through both of these is doing what you can to take a step back and be as objective as possible in your decision making. When you understand that you’re likely to make bad decisions based on pain avoidance it’s easier to take deliberate steps to correct it.

Do you have any other tips for correcting or mitigating the effects of this particular bias? Help everyone out and share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Piers Nye

Stop Thinking Every Little Bit Counts

African Pygmy Hedgehog by Adam Foster

Little things may be cute, but they’re not always helpful.

Not only is thinking it probably false in relation to whatever it is you’re working toward, it’s probably directly sabotaging your progress.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking this way – stories of how every little bit helped someone in their endeavor are popular. You hear about candidates winning by a single vote, or people taking small, seemingly insignificant steps toward their goals which add up over time into something huge. People like to hear about these types of things.

The problem is it puts the focus on the wrong areas and leads people to make bad prioritization. Bad prioritization leads to failed goals.

The Forest for the Trees

The realms of fitness, time management and language learning are rife with tips, tricks and advice – I directly contribute to all of it.

If you approach this huge volume of information with the mindset that ‘every little bit helps’ then you’re going to get into some trouble because there’s going to be a lot of little bits to follow.

This may not seem like a bad thing. You might figure if you can cram together enough easy tricks you can lose those ten pounds or learn a new language without much extra effort, but you have to remember that you have a finite amount of resources. You don’t have unlimited time, energy or willpower. You can’t do it all.

You have to prioritize.

Imagine you have someone trying to lose weight. She has a terrible diet, eats lots of junk food and drinks nothing but soft drinks. She’s also completely sedentary and sits at a desk all day.

She reads a bunch of tips online and decides to walk an extra five minutes everyday, switches to sitting on a stability ball instead of a chair, adds cinnamon to her cereal every morning because she heard it helps blunt insulin, takes green tea capsules and cranks her showers extra cold to take care of that brown fat.

Honestly, you could pick ten or fifteen more things she could do that I hear recommended under the ‘Every Little Bit Helps’ standard, but I’ll keep it there for brevity’s sake.

After six months, all things being equal, she’ll likely be heavier than when she started.

The reason for this is simple, she ignored the big important stuff in favor of a bunch of small changes that didn’t add up to much but took all her resources.

Remember the 80/20 rule – roughly 80% of your results are going to come from 20% of your efforts, so if you want to make the most progress in the shortest amount of time you should focus on the high return variables in the 20% rather than the low return variables that fall in the 80% of things that will only get you 20% of your results.

Back to our weight loss example, imagine our subject combines those extra five minutes per day and maybe skips a TV show or two to make time for three 30 minute lifting sessions per week. She focuses on heavy, compound lifts to make sure she gets the most out of her time spent. Rather than make a hundred little changes to her diet like adding cinnamon to things and popping a million supplements she ditches soft drinks and tracks her calories or macros.

Those two large changes, adding in three lifting sessions per week and controlling her macros, will net her orders of magnitude more progress than all the little changes combined.

Language learning is no different. If you’re spending all your time on little tips or focusing too hard on passive learning like listening to target language music all the time but neglecting the important things like actually using the target language to talk to people – you won’t get very far.

Every little bit doesn’t count if you ignore the important stuff. Hit the big variables first if you want to succeed. (Tweet that.)

There’s a story I’ve heard a thousand times that I kind of hate to repeat here but I think it makes a good point.

A guy had a big jar, some large rocks, some gravel and some sand. When he tried to fill it with the sand and gravel first the big rocks wouldn’t fit. When he put the big rocks in first and then the smaller gravel and sand everything fit because the smaller stuff filled in the gaps.

The point of that story is usually something to the effect of ‘Worry about the big things first and the small stuff will fall into place’. I’d rework it a bit to be ‘Focus on the things with the biggest return first, then worry about all the little stuff.’

There’s certainly a time and a place for small tweaks like meal timing, cinnamon for glucose regulation, & reading blogs on how to make the best flashcards ever – but that time can only come after you’ve dealt with the big stuff.

Get your priorities in order and stop telling yourself every little bit counts.

You’ll get a lot farther a lot more quickly.

Have you ever gotten bogged down by minutiae and lost sight of the important stuff? How’d you get over it? Any advice for other people overwhelmed by all the little things? Leave a comment.

Photo Credit: Adam Foster

You Don’t Matter (and Why That’s Great)

Big Andromeda Galaxy by Gianni

Relax. You’re insignificant and no one cares what you do.

Everyone does it. Day in and day out, mostly subconsciously, and it sabotages everything you do. Worst of all it’s so ingrained into our basic natures that you do it all daylong without realizing how you’re shooting yourself in your own foot. You’re probably doing it right now.

No matter what you do you worry about what people think of you.

How do I look? Do they like me? Do they respect me? What do they say about me behind my back? Will they think this is a stupid thing to do? What if they find out about this, or that?

It’s exhausting. It’s crippling. It’s absolutely stupid too.

The fact is you don’t matter – and that’s a great thing.

Understanding Insignificance

At first it might sound depressing or harsh, but in the grand scheme of things you really don’t matter.

It’s difficult for our brains to properly comprehend truly massive quantities of things – they’re just not built well for it – but let’s relate it to water. Imagine your city or town is a swimming pool, now drop a single droplet of water in, that was you.

Comparing yourself to the global population would be like dropping that same droplet into Lake Michigan.

If you zoom out even farther the entire planet Earth would be a droplet of water dropped into the Pacific or Atlantic of the Universe. You’d be smaller than a single molecule of water in that droplet.

Individually you are about as important to the Universe a single bacterium living in a fish at the bottom of the ocean on the other side of the globe is to you.

You don’t matter.

Alright, now that you are hopefully disabused of the notion of any kind of exaggerated importance, where’s the good part?

The good part is once you realize how unimportant you are you can stop worrying so much about what people think about you because they’re probably not even thinking about you in the first place.

Hero of Your Own Story (and No One Else’s)

I can’t remember who said it, but someone once told me one of the most important thing in character development in fiction is to remember that every single character thinks they’re the hero of the story.

In a work like the Harry Potter series each character behaves like the books are named after them. In their mind it’s Neville Longbottom (or whomever) and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry is just a supporting character who gets in a lot trouble.

The reason this is such a vital thing to remember when developing lifelike fictional characters is because that’s how everyone actually thinks.

You don’t consider yourself the sidekick to someone else’s story. You’re Hamlet, not Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In your head the world revolves around you.

What you have to remember is that everyone else thinks the same way. Even to the people who care about you the most like your friends and family, you’re probably a sidekick at best. That means they aren’t actually thinking about you all that much.

Recent estimates put the average number of thoughts per day for an adult at around 50,000. Breaking that down if we assume most people are awake for about 16 hours that’s 3,125 thoughts per hour and around 52 per second. That’s nearly a different thought every second.

So let’s assume we’re even dealing with someone you’re close to, and they think about you or judge you in some way 50 times per day (likely a higher number than what actually happens).

That’s only 0.1% of their thoughts for the day that are directed at you. That’s less than one minute spent thinking about you.

How stupid is it then to let the fear of what people with think about you determine your actions? How ridiculous is it to abandon your dreams because of what others might think about you when in reality they are barely going to think anything about you at all regardless of what you do?

Add in to that the fact that, like you, everyone is probably spending way too much time worrying about what you and others think of them to actually have critical thoughts of others.

In other words, in a room of ten people all ten are going to be worrying what everyone thinks of them and no one will be thinking anything of anyone else.

Haters Gonna Hate

Clearly worrying about what others think of you is pointless – so stop doing it!

Embrace the fact that you’re a tiny, insignificant piece of carbon on a pale blue dot in a back corner of an indifferent Universe surrounded by people who consider you little more than background scenery in their own personal tale.

It can be good to care (a little) what the people who are truly important to you think – the people who will be with you for the rest of your or their lives – but stop worrying about everyone else.

People are going to be critical of you. Give them the finger and keep doing your thing. Mediocrity never pissed anyone off.

The people who do great, incredible things aren’t the ones paralyzed by the doubt of whether or not their actions ill be accepted or ridiculed. The people who do great things are the ones who don’t give a damn about everyone thinks.

No one cares what you do, and that frees you to do whatever makes you happy.

Get to it.

Photo Credit: Gianni

Gaming Your Way to Your Goals

Mario Kart by Miki Yoshihito

I play a lot of video games.

At least, I do when I don’t keep too close of an eye on myself. I, like many others who would self identify as ‘nerdy’, have that particular combination of addictive personality and attraction to escapism that leads to looking away from the screen for a moment and thinking, “4 a.m.? Wasn’t it just 10:00 a minute ago?”

Uncontrolled this can be a problem – my bank account and productivity levels both suffer when a bunch of new games come out all at once – but looked at the right way I’ve found it actually can be extremely helpful.

The same things that make you determined to do whatever it takes and burn up entire days to finish that level, get that new item or earn that really hard achievement can also make you finally get fit, learn a language or do whatever else it is you’ve always wanted to accomplish.

Escapism, Flow and Instant Gratification

Someone who studies game design professionally could probably add to this list, but to me three things stand out as the pillars of an addictive game – escapism, flow and good old gratification.

Games allow you to step into the shoes of someone else and lead a completely new life. They let you escape from your problems. As a kid they let me escape from the mind numbing monotony of school. As an adult they let me escape from the equally mind numbing grind of an uninspiring day job. Most of all they let me escape the fact that I was leading a boring, predictable and unfulfilling life.

The most interesting thing to me is they don’t even have to let you step into the shoes of a life that’s necessarily better than your current boring one. Sure most people would trade lives with bad asses and heroes like Cloud or Link – but who would honestly trade lives with Lee Everett or Isaac Clarke?

TV, movies and books all provide the same opportunity for escapism, and all three of those are also the domain and downfall of plenty of nerdy folk (I, personally, devour books like bacon wrapped candy), but none of them have the other two qualities that make games so potent.

Flow is one of the most enjoyable states you can be in while doing something.

It’s also a state that video games are directly designed to put you in.

People have understood the power of flow for a long time. Whether it’s called something else or not (being ‘in the zone’ in sports, ‘wei wu wei’ in Zen Buddhism, etc.) people have recognized that the particular feeling of being completely in the moment and fully focused on a task while at the same time acting in an effortless unthinking way feels like the pinnacle of human experience.

The goal of entire genres of games is to induce this state in you. There is a wonderful feeling to a perfectly executed Super Mario speed run. The kind of level where you burn straight through without getting touched, grabbing every coin, tearing through every enemy and doing it all with a sense of calm focus like the entire universe has aligned to get you to that castle (even if the Princess isn’t actually in that one).

On top of that tendency to place you in a state of flow, games also have another thing designed to push our subconscious happy buttons – a reward structure.

We like instant gratification. We like bells and whistles and fanfare when we’ve done something good.

The problem is, most of life doesn’t work that way.

You want to be fit? You need to put the work in and stick to your nutrition and exercise long term. You want to speak a second language? It’s going to take some time, and there’s probably not going to be a clear ‘ding’ when you’ve achieved fluency.

Games on the other hand give us a clearly defined goal (finish this level, defeat that boss, earn this achievement, get the highest score) and then immediately reward you for completing them. Even the leveling process in RPGs which can be a lot more time consuming – it’s called grinding for a reason – has that extremely satisfying point where you level up.

So how do we take these three things and apply them to making our real lives better?

Gaming Your Goals

Not all of these principles need to be applied to everything you do, but the more you can use them the easier building the life you want will be.

  • Embracing Escapism – I think this is the easiest one for most people, and if you’re particularly nerdy you’ll probably find this comes naturally provided you can change your ways of thinking.

    When you fall in love with the process the results come easily.

    If you’re trying to get in shape but you view working out as a painful, frustrating process and are topping that off by denying yourself the foods you love and forcing each meal to be full of foods you find boring or dislike – of course you’re going to fail.

    When you learn a language by studying for hours and hours when you hate studying and see language learning as grinding hours spent slamming your head into vocab lists and flipping through flashcards until you’re ready to jump through a plate glass window – of course you’re going to fail.

    Instead, you need to see things things as fun instead of work. That’s the reason you can sit for hours and kill rats over, and over, and over, and over again until you hit the level you’re shooting for but cringe at the idea of a 30 minute workout. One is supposed to be fun in your mind and the other is supposed to be work.

    So rethink things!

    When I was fat working out seemed painful. Over time though and the more I did it the more I learned how fun it can be, and now I want to lift. I would lift weights just to life weights. The same goes for practicing languages.

    If you can’t change your mind and begin to consider something fun, limit or drop it entirely and find something that is fun to you. Hate flashcards? Watch movies in your target language instead. Hate running? Try some HIIT workouts with kettlebells or practice some parkour.

    Find a way to make the things you feel you have to do into the things you want to do.

  • Finding Flow – This one’s a bit trickier, since some activities are well built for inducing flow and some are going to take a lot more work.

    The best way to start is to try to identify the things you can do that will get you closer to your goals that are also well suited to inducing a state of flow.

    There are a handful of markers for flow, but the three that I think are most important are having a clear goal, a clear indicator of when that goal has been completed and a task that is challenging enough to not be boring, but not so challenging it feels impossible.

    What are some examples?

    If you’re learning to play guitar working your way through a new song meets all three criteria. On the fitness side it’s easiest for fitness skills rather than just strict workouts, so working on nailing that 20 second handstand would be a good fit. You can also just work on finding that mindful active meditation state. When it comes to language learning Memrise does an excellent job of hitting all three criteria, likely because it’s essentially a game in and of itself.

    The point is to find whatever best puts you in state of flow and then focus your efforts on that. Just like with embracing escapism the goal here is to make it fun!

  • Generating Gratification – Lastly we have the problem of adding gratification into goals that might otherwise not have any built into them.

    The key here is to find ways to make your gratification as immediate as possible. It would be annoying if you filled up that experience bar but then had to wait three days to get the benefit of leveling up. That’s a lot like what most of life is like.

    Instead find ways to make it more like a game. The easiest way to do this is to just actually make a game out of it.

    In some cases this might’ve been done for you already. Fitocracy and Zombies, Run! both do an excellent job of it. Duolingo makes language learning into a game, and there are even games out there like guitar hero but with a real guitar that teach you to play while you play.

    In the absence of some good product that does the gamification for you, you’ll have to add your own rewards and gratification.

    Sometimes it can be enough just to have a clearly defined goal that, once achieved, you can hum a little tune and spin your sword around (or, whatever you’ve got on hand) and revel in the accomplishment of it all.

    If that’s not enough for you set up specific rewards you’ll give yourself once you hit each goal. Pick things you really want and incentivize progress as much as you can, the better the thing you get when you hit your goal the more driven you’ll be to get there.

    Don’t be afraid to brag a bit too – sharing your accomplishment is another strong form of gratification.

Usurping these traits from games can make gaming your own goals feel a lot less like work and a lot more fun, which means you’re a lot more likely to actually accomplish them and make your life as fun and exciting as the people in the games you play.

Except, again, maybe Lee Everett.

What have you done to turn making your life more epic into a game? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Miki Yoshihito

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

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