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

Level Up Your Notes with The Cornell Note Taking System

OR by Thomas Leuthard

Even if you do it in a nice cafe, taking notes can be painful if you do it the wrong way.

I used to hate taking notes.

As more of an experiential learner sitting and taking notes did not come naturally to me. It was boring, tedious and seemed like a complete waste of time compared to other ways of studying – even in a traditional classroom / lecture environment where my other options were limited.

Other people in class could sit through one lecture, take fantastic notes and have everything learned inside and out. It was basically sorcery to me.

That is, until I learned a better way to take notes.

Dead Notes vs. Living Notes

A lot of my problems with note taking at the time stem from the fact that I was taking what I now like to call dead notes.

That doesn’t mean I was hanging out with a shinigami, it means my notes didn’t have any life to them. They were just textual summaries and paraphrasing of whatever material was presented in the lecture.

My notes were no better than if I had left my iPhone sitting out to record the class for me like a technologically updated Real Genius clip. They didn’t add anything, they just repeated information for me.

What I needed were living notes. Notes that didn’t just parrot back information from whatever material I was studying, but instead helped me think critically about the material, observe and create connections and develop my own summary of the information to encourage a deeper understanding.

That’s where the Cornell Note Taking System comes in.

Cornell Notes

Cornell notes, named for the university at which they were invented, are a perfect example of living notes.

Rather than just serve as a way to blandly record the information provided by the lesson or source material, Cornell note encourage you to ask questions about the material while taking notes and to formulate your own answers from the material.

This action encourages you to consider the structure and implications of the material you’re studying and, more importantly, to create connections both within the material and between the material and other disciplines.

These connections facilitate a deep knowledge of the source material that bring on all the added benefits of interdisciplinary and lateral analysis.

Essentially, you know the material and don’t just memorize it.

So how do Cornell notes work?

You’ll first divide your note page into three sections. On top you’ll have two columns, one on the left about 2″ across or so and one on the right about 6″ across. At the bottom is another section that goes all the way across the page and is about 2″ from top to bottom, or about the height of a short paragraph.

In the top right hand column, the biggest section, you’ll write your actual notes. Don’t write things down word for word from the material – condense everything as much as you can using shorthand and paraphrasing and stick to the main ideas.

As soon as possible after the lesson or the study session, you’ll fill the left hand column with questions and key words based on the material you’ve written in the larger note-taking column. These should be questions you might expect would be asked on an exam, questions intended to clarify the material and establish continuity between different areas of the topic.

After 24 hours, cover the right hand side of the notes so only the question column is visible. Read your questions and keywords and answer them as best you can without looking at your notes. Once you’ve done that you can uncover the notes to see how you did, then revise and update your questions and keywords.

Lastly, after you’ve gone through that and updated your questions, think for a bit about the underlying principles that form the foundation of the things listed in your notes. Think about how you can connect the things you wrote and the ideas in the material t other ideas and how they can be applied. Then in a short paragraph summarize all of the material in that bottom box we’ve left empty until now.

That’s it!

Rather than just be boring notes for you to re-read later in an attempt to memorize things, Cornell notes encourage you to really think about the topic while you make them and then, once you’re finished, provide a pre-built quizzing system for you to review in an active way rather than just passively re-reading information until your eyes glaze over.

In essence, it automatically converts your notes into flashcards.

This way you developed a better understanding from the start and have an easy and useful tool for reviewing on a regular basis. Combined with a spaced repetition learning schedule this style of notes makes hard to not learn things.

You can find Cornell’s template on their site in PDF format.

Have you tried out Cornell notes? Do you prefer it? Hate it? Found some way to make it even better? Tell us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Thomas Leuthard

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

How to Learn Multiple Things Simultaneously and Remember Everything

The Juggler II by Helico

Trying to juggle multiple hobbies or learning multiple things simultaneously can be difficult,

I have what I like to call ADADD – Auto-Didactic Attention Deficit Disorder.

When it comes to learning things I have serious trouble picking one thing and sticking to it. I try to tell myself to focus on a single thing – learning / improving my Korean for example – but then I decide I’d also like to learn to play the ukulele, and I really need to work on my handstands, and it would be fun to learn to juggle, and I’d really like to learn more programming and so on and so forth.

In the past before long I would wind up stretched so thin between all my interests I looked like Lady Cassandra O’Brien. I’d be trying to learn ten things at once and in the end wouldn’t really do well at any of them.

While you could certainly take the moral of this story as ‘Focus on one thing at a time,’ I just couldn’t handle that.

So I figured out a way to make it work.

Spaced Repetition

One of the best ways I’ve found to learn new vocab quickly is through spaced repetition learning. For whatever reason in the past I never really connected that strategy with my other areas of learning though.

That was a mistake.

Applying a spaced repetition system (SRS) learning strategy to the other things I was learning made it so that when my ADADD inevitably dragged me off by the collar to some other unrelated interest when I returned to the former one I still recalled everything I’d learned. Actually remembering the things you learn tends to make a large difference in the efficacy of skill acquisition.

Vocabulary is an easy thing to learn with an SRS because for the most part it’s easy to find pre-built structures like Memrise and Anki to just walk you through it. For other things you have to be a little more creative.

You can certainly build your own decks in things like Anki, Memrise or SuperMemo but I honestly think it’s easier at times just to do things manually with good old fashioned note taking.

If you don’t share my penchant for the old school feel free to use those tools instead of my way.

Manual SRSing is going to require a good note taking system first and foremost. Personally I recommend the Cornell note taking system – if you’ve never used it before I’ll be explaining how I use it in an upcoming article.

During each study / practice session take notes on the things you’re learning. After the session is over, take a short bit of time to review your notes from the activity. Then review those notes again on a spaced repetition schedule. Personally, I like reviewing at one hour, one day, ten day, thirty day and sixty day intervals for most things although you can increase the interval frequency for things you find more troublesome to recall.

If you’re interested in making it a little more automatic, I also recommend reviewing the notes quickly from your last study / practice session before each new session. That should give you both an easy refresher and an automatic structure for repetitions.

In addition to the SRS style of memorization, there’s another method I like to use to increase recall when I’m trying to do ten things at once.

Chunking

A part of why vocabulary is easy to recall when you learn properly is because it already comes in easy to digest little chunks. We call them words.

Other topics though don’t always come in bite size little pieces like that though. This can make a big difference in how easy it is to actually remember things.

As an example of what I mean, take this string of numbers 15552340660336.

For most people, being asked to remember that would be a little painful. It’s a lot to swallow. If you break it up into chunks though, like this 1 (555) 234-0660 336 it turns into a telephone number with an extension and most people would have an easier time remembering it.

The same thing happens when we’re trying to learn, process and retain information. If you’re trying to force these huge pieces of data into your head it’s going to be a lot more difficult than if you broke them into smaller chunks and ingested them that way.

I call this chunking since you’re breaking up everything into the smallest most digestible chunks you possibly can.

Try not to go too far though, sometimes small groups of things are easier to remember than individual things. When learning chords on the guitar for example trying to learn twelve in one sitting is probably overdoing it, but only trying to learn one per session is going a bit too light. Shooting for three is a bit more of an appropriate amount and by making them three related chords will make them all easier to remember.

Each individual thing is going to deconstruct a little differently, the key is to find the appropriate sized chunks both for you and for the area of learning and then break everything down to that level to use with your SRS note taking.

Time Limits

Another key area is limiting your time spent in each topic.

This may not be an issue for you if, like me, you get sidetracked and wander from thing to thing, but for some they’ll spend long tracks of time focusing on one area then switch to another. Later, they realize that despite all that study or practice time they really don’t have a good recall of what they went over.

Quality will also beat out quantity, and short, focused study sessions are going to be much better for you than long drawn out ones. You can use a time constraining technique like time boxing if you need to. I find that for me an hour – maybe two – is more than sufficient to get a good amount of focused intentional study or practice in without being so long as to damage my later recall.

Keep your study sessions short and you’ll be able to remember more from each area than if you drag them out beyond your limits.

Additional Applications

While I’m long out of university and primarily apply these methods to my personal interests (there are a lot of them) these strategies can be applied to more traditional education as well.

You can use these techniques to juggle a large volume of coursework at once, prepare more efficiently for multiple exams or even to read multiple books at once without damaging your recall. Combine this method of multiple-topic studying with a few basic speed reading strategies and you can process a lot of information quickly with high retention rates.

Have you tried any of these to juggle multiple topics at once? Have you had better success at paring own and focusing on one thing at a time than I have? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Helico

The Four Stages Between Beginner and Mastery

Untitled by Mariusz Sikorski

Mastery of martial arts makes for a good model of mastery of any skill.

There are a lot of books out there telling you how to become a master at this or that.

Some of them are good, others not so much, but what I’ve found is that so many stop short of where I’d consider actual mastery. On top of that, in the ones I’d consider more helpful anyway, I’ve found there’s a common theme of leading people through four distinct stages.

If you want to learn something from absolute beginner to master level it makes sense then to be as familiar with these stages as possible to not only ensure you’re on the right track, but also to know ahead of time where you’re going.

The Four Stages

Since it’s a field I’m very familiar with and tends to be a process that most consider a journey in and of itself, I’m going to use learning a martial art as our example going through the stages. This applies to every skill though, so feel free to substitute in whatever you’re learning.

  • Pre-contemplation / Unconscious Incompetence – At this stage you’ve not really begun to consider learning the skill. It may have crossed your mind, but you haven’t actually made a firm decision to master it or even necessarily begin learning.

    In general, the majority of people are in this stage of the majority of skills in existence simply by virtue of there being so many things out there you’ve never even thought about learning.

    At this stage you are in a state of unconscious incompetence. That means that not only are you not proficient in the skill, you’re not consciously aware of the things you’re not proficient at. Essentially, you not only don’t know what to do, you don’t even know what it is that you don’t know how to do.

    In our martial arts example, this would be the person who has never seriously considered learning a martial art. They walk by a school teaching Rex Kwon Do and they have no idea what they’ll need to be proficient in to master it – maybe it’s striking, maybe grappling, maybe the buddy system – they don’t know the first thing about it.

    Thankfully this stage is easily surpassed by a quick Google search, watching some YouTube videos or, in the case of our prospective martial arts master, walking in and listening to a pitch on the Rex Kwon Do 8 week mastery course.

    Out of all of the stages, this one is the briefest for things you actually want to learn.

  • Contemplation / Conscious Incompetence – At this stage you’ve done enough learning to leave the unconscious incompetence phase, but still haven’t progressed to anything that could be considered overall competency.

    You’re still incompetent, but now you know what it is you’re not proficient in.

    This is the easiest stage to get into, but a little learning can be a dangerous thing and it’s the stage that requires the most effort on your part to leave. At this stage it’s tempting to lose yourself in the acquisition of knowledge in your chosen field because most people conflate knowledge with skill.

    Knowledge is not skill.

    It’s at this stage that our prospective martial arts master may be tempted to lose himself in books and videos rather than practice.

    Our example student has ditched Rex Kwon Do and decided on a more serious school.

    She’s done extensive Google searching on the style of karate the school teaches. She’s read tons of books and watched YouTube videos and sat in on a bunch of classes. The thing is, that’s not going to help much.

    If you took someone who’s read every self-defense book ever written but never practiced a bit and pitted them against a guy who had only learned one kick but practiced it 10,000 times and pitted them against one another – my money would be on the person who practiced.

    For our student to progress to master, there’s only one thing that’s going to help her (even if she finds a Mr. Miyagi style guru)…

    Practice.

    That’s the main reason moving from this stage to stage three is likely the hardest part, it requires a lot of time and effort in terms of practice to become competent in the things you’re learning once you know what it is you actually need to become competent in.

  • Action / Conscious Competence – This is the stage that most people mistakenly consider to be mastery, the stage where you are competent in the majority if not all of the aspects of the skill in a conscious, thinking way.

    You are proficient in the skill, but it still requires a great deal of concentration and mental effort to display that proficiency.

    Let’s fast forward a bit with our martial artist. She’s put the time in and now she’s a black belt.

    Belt factory schools aside, that’s a huge accomplishment – but any martial artist who’s studied in an art with belt rankings will tell you that’s not the end of the road, it’s the start of a new one.

    Our martial artist is skilled at what she does, but she still has to think about it.

    In martial arts that’s a problem. Thinking is slow and you honestly don’t have much time for it in a fight, even a planned one like a match. Sure it’s excellent that she can punch through concrete now. Sure it’s satisfying that to all her friends and family she looks like a deadly master of the fist. The thing is she really hasn’t mastered things yet.

    Unfortunately this is where most people stop. That satisfaction feels good, so people just accept that as the finish line and leave it at that. To truly master their skill of choice though there’s one more stage they have to reach, and to reach it they’re going to have to keep doing what they did in phase 2 – practice.

    After practicing enough, one day you’ll realize you’ve finally left stage three and are finally in the final stage.

  • Maintenance / Unconscious Competence – This is the true mastery stage. At this stage not only can you display your proficiency in the skill, but you can do it in an autonomic unconscious manner.

    This is the state of a skill where you don’t think about doing it anymore, it just happens. This is essentially wei wu wei. The skill has become second nature to you, and expressing that skill is no more difficult or requires no more conscious direction than breathing.

    Returning to our example, at this stage our martial artist has reached 5th dan (or whatever appropriately high rank in her chosen art). She doesn’t think about what she’s doing anymore, it just happens. She could win fights with her eyes closed. She’s like Ip Man – capable of taking out ten opponents without a second thought.

    The only way to get to this point is to practice and practice and practice until things become so ingrained in your subconscious that they no longer require active thought.

    In my opinion it’s actually easier to get here from stage three than it is to get to stage three from stage two, provided of course you stick it out and don’t quit.

    Obviously depending on the particular skill you’re learning this stages may look a little different.

    That’s ok.

    The important part is that once you can recognize which stage you’re in for each skill you’re actively pursuing mastery in you can better evaluate what’s required of you to progress to the next stage. Equally as important you can avoid the common pitfalls of each stage, like getting stuck in an endless cycle of knowledge gathering without any actual practice.

    Are you learning any skills right now? Where are you at on the four stage model? Tell us in the comments!

    Photo Credit: Mariusz Sikorski

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

The Cheat Code for (Nearly) Unlimited Willpower

Konami Code Graffiti by El Payo

For a long time now it’s been believed that your willpower, loosely defined here as your capacity to make yourself do/not do something contrary to your desires, is a finite resource.

It was said that you have a reservoir of willpower and every time you exercise your will to resist overeating, study or work when you don’t want to or anything else like that it drained a little willpower from your tank. In terms I’m more familiar with, your willpower is like your MP (Magic/Mana Points for anyone scratching their head) – a reserve of limited mystical power that allows you to do awesome things until you run out of it, then you need a bit of sleep or some manner of potion to recharge it.

The thing is, it turns out there’s a cheat that gives you nearly unlimited mana – er, willpower – by making it so it recharges every time you use it.

Playing By the Rules

I’ve written a bit about willpower before (because really, who wouldn’t want to be a bit more like Batman?), but I think it’s still important before we understand how to cheat that we understand how things normally work.

In testing willpower psychologists have found that doing a task that requires willpower makes people perform worse on a subsequent test. If enough time is given between tests the results even out and if the participants are given some glucose (in most studies a sugary drink) they perform better on the second test than without it.

What’s all that mean? It means your mana bar (willpower) is only so big and every time you use it for something it depletes, meaning you have less for the next time you need to use it. If you don’t have enough you can’t cast bigger spells (resist bigger temptations) and if you completely run out it’s hard to do anything at all.

There are three standard ways to replenish it:

  • Drink a Potion – This is the quickest way to go if you just got to the end of a tough level (came home from work) and you need a little boost to make it through the boss fight you stumbled into (having to clean the Augean stable you call a garage).

    Drinking down a mana potion or two (sugary drink) can give you back the little bit you need to cast the spell. It’s quick and easy, but not perfect. It’s hard to get back to 100% on potions alone, and it’s important not to overdo it. Too many potions and you may see your HP suffering. The real reason mages wear robes is to cover up their pudge.

  • Get Some Sleep – Sure this isn’t very helpful when you’ve got a big boss fight between you and the next save point, but stopping at an inn (or, you know, your own house) for a good night’s sleep will completely refill your mana (willpower).

    Just make sure you get enough sleep. If you skip out on sleeping or regularly get a bad night’s sleep you’re going to get fatigued. The fatigued status decreases your max mana (willpower) and makes it take longer to refill, so get your sleep.

  • Wait – The slowest and most painful option is honestly to just wait. Your mana bar (willpower) refills slowly on its own over time. Just don’t expect to win any battles while you wait.

Now even without cheating you can increase your mana bar (not going to say it this time) by leveling up. How do you level up?

Go win battles and earn some experience points, noob.

Using your mana to win battles (successfully exercise willpower) earns you experience. Earn enough and you level up which makes your mana bar a little bigger. You do have to actually win though. Losing a battle (skipping a workout, surrendering to either Ben or Jerry) isn’t going to earn you anything but shame.

Cheat Mode

Remember those earlier studies demonstrating the finite nature of willpower? Well some other researchers tried something a little different. They divided the testing groups into those who believed that willpower was a finite resource and those who didn’t.

They found that the people who believed willpower ran out performed as on the previous studies, worse on the second tests unless boosted by glucose. The second group though, those who didn’t agree with that view, didn’t behave at all that way.

People who thought willpower wasn’t decreased by exercising it saw no degradation in performance between tests. The people who believed that willpower was replenished by using it behaved exactly like that’s what was happening.

What’s better is that the researchers were able to take people who had previously believed willpower was finite and performed as such and then prime them by reading statements about willpower to make them behave like the group that performed equally well on both tests.

So what’s that mean for you?

It means your state of mind directly affects your willpower. By changing how you think about it, by telling yourself that using your willpower gives you more of it, you can turn on your own personal cheat mode.

This can be a little trickier than it sounds. Changing your views on something is not quite as simple as ↑ ↑ ↓ ↓ ← → ← → B A.

The easiest way is to keep telling yourself that every time you use your willpower you get more of it, then go practice on some easy battles. Remind yourself that every time you win, you get a bit more mana and after a while it’ll actually start working that way.

Sure, this little cheat isn’t perfect. There are still limits in the end so don’t go thinking this is going to allow you to stay awake for a week complete an Ironman and write a novel all at the same time. What it will let you do is win all the regular battles you face everyday with a lot less struggle and even the occasional boss fight when they come up.

Have you tried forcing yourself to believe willpower is increased by using it? Did you believe that from the start anyway? How has it helped you? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: El Payo

How to Master Skills Like the Huns

The Hun Lifestyle by Dandoo

Pillaging not necessarily required.

Lead by Attila and his descendants the Huns were one of the most successful civilizations of their time militarily, finding victory even over the Roman Empire and building an empire that stretched from southern Russia and Iran all the way to what’s now France. Attila even gets referenced in the Volsunga Saga of Norse mythology.

The success of Attila and the Huns obviously can’t be boiled down to a single factor, but the one that gets referenced the most is definitely the skill of their horsemen.

Like the Mongols centuries later, the popular legend is that the Huns learned to ride horses before they even learned to walk. They were claimed to live almost their whole lives in the saddle, and as a result they became some of the most expert horsemen that the world has ever seen.

While nowadays you probably don’t need to master your horsemanship, we can apply this same principle to get exceedingly good at any other skill you want to master.

Born in the Saddle

A lot of the credit for the impressive horsemanship of the Huns is given to the fact that they were introduced to horseback riding at an extremely young age and then it became a daily thing for essentially the rest of their lives.

Now I know since you’re reading this the ‘from a young age’ ship may have long since sailed. That’s no problem – we can still use the same kind of technique to achieve similar results.

The 10,000 hours theory put out by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers (which I think, by this point, just about everyone has either read or heard of) suggests that someone needs 10,000 hours of focused or directed practice to become world class at a skill. The actual research supporting that theory has been put into question a bit, but as a rough guideline it’s probably a practical estimate.

10,000 hours if you’re practicing something most of the day is going to be about 832 days – about two years and 3 months or so – since even if you’re doing it all day you still have to sleep. In terms of becoming world class at something two years or so is actually pretty quick. There are two catches though.

The first is that we don’t really care about being world class. The difference between being in the top 10% (better than 90% of the population) and in the top 1% (better than 99% of the population) is relatively small in skill, but enormous in the amount of work required to get from one to the other. This disparity is a result of the severely diminishing returns on your efforts once you get beyond average skill levels.

As an example getting good enough at guitar that you’re better than most people, good enough to put out a professional album for example or play small concerts, is going to be much closer in skill level to someone who’s a legend (say Jimi Hendrix for example) than an absolute beginner. Even so, it would require substantially more effort, and possibly a measure of luck, to get from expert to legendary than it took you to get from beginner to expert.

So why bother? I have broad interests and would much rather be better than 90% of people at a wide range of things than better than 99% at a single thing. Each takes roughly the same amount of effort.

The second catch is that Gladwell says we need 10,000 hours of intentional practice. That’s practice with a clear goal, with focus to it. Unless you have resources that rival Bruce Wayne’s you probably can’t devote entire days to intentional practice – you’ll be doing this more like the Huns and going about your daily business, just doing it while on your horse so to speak. If non-intentional practice counted as much as intentional practice everyone who commutes to work everyday would drive as well as professional race drivers.

This isn’t really such a problem though since we’re not really interested in hitting Gladwell’s world class goalpost. Our goal is to just get really good at something and, while intentional practice will play a part, you’re not going to need 10,000 hours of it.

So how do we actually go about doing it?

Putting it Into Practice

Now most things, unlike horseback riding, are not things you could conceivably do as you go about your business all day. (To be fair, you couldn’t ride around and do all your errands on horseback anymore either) So we’re going to use a couple different strategies to try to achieve the same general effect. The first involves making use of your downtime.

Filling the Gaps

I’ve talked about ways to make use of downtime in language learning in the past, and all of those strategies apply here as well.

The first is going to be filling your day with as much passive learning or practice as possible. For things that are more learning focused this means always being surrounded by the information you’re trying to absorb, but in the background. For language learning that would mean leaving the TV on to shows in your target language or listening to music or conversations in your target language while you go about your day.

For skills, which are by nature more active, passive learning is going to involve running through the skill in your head while you do other things. If you’re working on your Wing Chun for example you can run through your forms and techniques in your head while doing the dishes or whatever else needs to be done. You can passively practice in your head what you can’t necessarily actively practice physically at the time.

You also have the hundreds of little downtime periods every day that you can fill with active practice. Think of all the times you have a minute or two to wait, for the elevator, the bus, a file to download, etc.

All these times add up, so why waste them checking Facebook or screwing around on your phone?

Instead use them to get a little bit of practice in. These are the times to get more active practice in if you can – flashcards on Memrise for example, or running through a few martial arts techniques in the air – though if you need to passive practice works too (Busting out your gong fu moves at the bus stop may get more attention than you’re looking for).

The idea is just to squeeze as much practice time as possible out of these countless lost fragments of your day in order to compress them into something useful.

Greasing the Groove

Greasing the groove is a concept borrowed from Pavel Tsatouline’s Naked Warrior. Boiled down to its essentials, Pavel treats strength as a skill and seeks to improve it by small, relatively easy practice sessions spread out over the course of a full day.

For example, if you can only do a single pull up and want to be able to do ten, rather than doing a more standard workout of 5 sets of 1 pull up three times a week, you would set a timer and go do a single pull up every hour all day long.

This creates a simulated version of our ‘practice all day’ Hun method by making you practice all day just dispersed rather than constantly.

There are two sub-divisions of this method – the standard timer method and the cue method.

The timer method works just like what Pavel recommends. You set a timer on your watch, phone or whatever and every time it goes off you stop what you’re doing and do a short session of whatever it is you’re trying to become skilled at. If you’re learning a language that might be 5 to 10 minutes of conversation practice, writing or reading. If you’re learning martial arts that might be 5 minutes of shadow boxing. It really can be whatever, just keep it short and to the point.

The second method, the cue method, uses physical cues to replace the timer. You set up things in your environment that trigger a quick practice session of whatever it is you’re learning. When I was in high school and was first getting involved in parkour I hung a pull up bar in our stairwell and then tacked a piece of string across my door at waist height.

Every time I came up or down the stairs I’d do as many pull ups or chin ups as I could at that moment. Every time I entered my room I rolled under the string and every time I exited it I jumped over it (provided I wasn’t carrying a drink or something).

Since I was going in and out of my room a lot, that added up to lots and lots of pull ups, rolls and jumps everyday. Even more so compounded over weeks and months.

If you’re pursuing something more learning focused you can use notecards or sticky notes to learn things all day long. If you’re learning a language you can plaster everything with vocab and sentences so you’re surrounded by little cues to review those words, sentences or grammar.

These two aren’t equally exclusive either, so feel free to mix them together.

You may not have learned your skill of choice before you could walk like Attila and his horseback riding, but that doesn’t have to stop you from getting just as good at your skill of choice. Just try not to lead an army in conquest of most of the known world, ok?

While you still can’t neglect some intentional practice time, by remembering to practice passively as often as possible, fill in all those downtime gaps and use the grease the groove strategies you can easily become an expert in something in a relatively short time period.

Have you used these strategies in the past? What did you think of them? Is there anything you would add to make them better or more effective? Let us now in the comments!

Photo Credit: Dandoo

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

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