7 Questions to Help Find Purpose in Life

Find purpose in life through introspection

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

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

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

Most of us are not that lucky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 Questions to Find Purpose in Life

  • What do you hate about your current situation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • What reliably puts you in a flow state?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What do you choose to do all day?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • What would you do if you had unlimited funds?

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

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

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

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

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

Keep Testing and Re-Evaluating

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

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

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

Want More Productivity? Sleep More

Sleepy Kitten Working on Her Productivity

Sleep is a vital element to being productive.

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

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

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

Sleep Is a Key Foundation of Productivity

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

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

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

All of that is stupid.

Lack of Sleep Destroys Productivity

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

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

Compounding the problem is the issue of sleep debt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Make Sure You’re Sleeping Enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Five Step Creative Process

five-step-creativity-system

Creativity is something you can cultivate with a proper system.

We create a lot of things.

Caroline and I write all the non-fiction content for this site, we produce our own fiction writing, we record a podcast, I draw a webcomic, she does freelance webdesign work, the list goes on. As a result a question we get asked a lot by friends is how in the world we manage to come up with ideas for everything.

Being creative isn’t a talent or something magical, it just comes down to having the right kind of processes and systems to keep things rolling. Here’s the basic system we follow that helps us keep the creative ideas flowing.

Five Steps to Creativity

Usually when creativity comes up as a topic it tends to get talked about in semi-fanciful, artsy kinds of ways as though it’s a kind of mystical force or divine blessing. In reality, creativity is more about showing up and putting the work in, just like everything else is.

These are the five steps that we use to make sure we do just that.

  1. Absorb Ideas, Experiences, and Content – A large part of creating something new is finding inspiration. Again not in a mythological muse sense where it’s suddenly bestowed upon you, but by absorbing enough ideas that you’re able to see connections between things where you didn’t see them before. Creativity doesn’t happen in a void – you need to take in material before you can generate your own.

    Now if you’re working on creating something specific – developing a novel, painting a picture, writing a song, etc. – then you can focus in a little on devouring things relevant to that area. If you’re writing a sci-fi novel, read science fiction books, and watch science fiction TV and movies, and play science fiction video games. It’s usually a good idea to focus in on the best examples of whatever area you’re focusing on, but sometimes you can find inspiration or learn a valuable lesson from looking at terrible examples of things as well.

    You should also always have a broad goal of taking in as many ideas and experiences and things as possible overall. Not only will this help you to generate new ideas when you’re not working on a specific niche but sometimes creativity comes from finding that connection between two disparate ideas. Writing a science fiction space war story but inspired by the mythological Hero’s Journey and old samurai films? Congratulations you just came up with Star Wars.

  2. Deconstruct and Play with the Material – The next step is to take all that material you’ve absorbed and to pull it all apart and tinker with it.

    Look at each thing in turn and try to figure out what makes it so great, why you or other people enjoy it so much, what techniques the creator used to develop it and why you think they did so. It is possible to over analyze things but in general the more you can pull everything apart the better.

    Once you’ve done that start mixing things up and playing around with all of it. How is this piece of material similar to this other one? How are they different? What connections can I make between this thing and that other thing? Questions like these help spark those little insights that lead to the type of consistent creativity we’re after.

  3. Allow Things to Cook – Walking away from a project for a little while is one of the best ways to reset your mind so you can come back to it with renewed creativity. Whatever thing you’re working on set it aside for a little while and work on something completely different, or maybe even on nothing at all. The point is to get it out of your conscious mind so that it can cook for a while in the unconscious parts of your brain.

    Different projects will benefit from different amounts of time spent left alone. As a rule I always let each piece of fiction I write sit for at least one month before I come back to it to begin the editing process. Sometimes deadlines prohibit you from putting things on the back burner for too long, but any time you can step away for a while it’s a good idea to do it.

  4. Be Receptive to Sparks – All of that absorption, deconstruction, and time spent letting things stew in your unconscious is going to be for nothing if you’re not ready when the ideas jump back out at you. All of the steps up to this one are built around priming your brain to have those little sparks of inspiration, to have an idea suddenly pop into your head making a new connection or seeing something from a new angle. You have to be ready for it.

    In the past I would’ve recommended carrying around a little notebook, and you can certainly still do that if you want to feel old school or just have an affinity for that sort of thing, but it’s the age of the smartphone now. There are plenty of excellent ways to record ideas so you don’t lose them later. I’m a big fan of Evernote so I use that a lot to record ideas that come to me when I’m doing other things. I take thirty seconds to jot the idea down in there when it comes to me (make sure you put down enough notes, I’ve lost several ideas wondering what in the hell I had meant by single-sentence ideas I had put down) and then review them all later when you have the time. I also like to use the voice recorder if ideas come to me while I’m driving since typing on your phone and driving simultaneously is a very bad idea.

  5. Get Feedback – One of the biggest advantages Caroline and I have for being creative is that we have each other.

    Having another person to bounce ideas off of, to look at things from a different perspective, and to critically evaluate the things you’ve come up with so far is an invaluable part of being creative. You effectively double the chances of being able to come up with something if you’ve been struggling with it for a while.

    It can be a friend, a spouse, something like a writer’s group, or even something online like Reddit. Any opportunity you have to get good feedback from someone is a huge benefit.

This process definitely isn’t the only way to boost your creativity, but we’ve found it does help immensely.

In the end being creative and coming up with new ideas is almost never about coming up with something new out of thin air – it’s about making connections between ideas where no one has before or in a way that no one’s considered.

Do you have your own system for generating consistent creativity? Have you struggled with being creative or finding inspiration in the past? Leave a comment and share with everyone!

Alternative Uses for the NaNoWriMo System

NaNoWriMo Typewriter

The NaNoWriMo system can be used for more than just writing a novel in a month.

NaNoWriMo is a big part of our November every year. A lot of planning and prep work goes into setting everything up, blocking out enough of our schedules for extra writing time, warning friends and family that we might not be heard from for little chunks through the month while we hunker down to catch up on word counts, and then even more time in November gets devoted to the actual writing part.

By the end of each November though, we each have a complete novel of at least 50,000 words.

That’s a fairly big accomplishment in a fairly small time table, and it’s all thanks to how NaNoWriMo itself works. With the new year approaching I thought we could look at some ways you can apply that system to other things you’ve been wanting to get done for a long while.

How Does NaNoWriMo Work?

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. It’s a big challenge event where everyone tries to write 50,000 words of a novel (or whatever, if you feel like bending the rules a bit) between November 1st and November 30th. It’s not a challenge against other people so much as a challenge to yourself to see if you can pull it off.

Technically you could sit down the night of the 30th and hammer out 50,000 words but the idea behind the challenge is to use steady, consistent, disciplined work to turn the fairly monumental seeming task of writing a novel into something simple. It just takes a bit of math:

50,000 words / 30 days = 1,667 words per day rounded up.

That’s about three pages single-spaced. Most of the articles on this site are a minimum of 1,000 words and we try to keep things succinct. Writing speeds obviously vary from person to person and based on the type of work, but the idea of NaNoWriMo is to hammer out a rough draft as fast as possible and most people seem to be able to manage between 500 to 1,000 words per hour.

That means somewhere between an hour to two hours of work per day for a month gets you an entire novel written.

An hour or two is not that hard to spare, most people watch more than an hour or two of TV every day and having to catch up in December is a small price to pay for having written your own novel. So many people are successful every year at NaNoWriMo precisely because this system of breaking the project down into manageable daily chunks works so well. Some people even go well and beyond that 50,000 word mark by doing extra words daily or going long on the weekends.

It’s a powerful system. So how can we use it for other goals?

Applying the NaNoWriMo System Elsewhere

Here are a handful of different goals you might have and ways to apply a NaNoWriMo style work model to them. Hopefully this will serve as some inspiration as well since this list is comprehensive in neither the things you can apply this system to nor the ways in which you can apply this system for the things which are listed.

  • Cleaning / Organizing your Home – It’s not spring cleaning time yet, but it will be soon. Especially if you let it slide for a while the clutter and the mess can start to build up and eventually get to the point where it seems like it’ll be an impossible task to get things in order again. Instead of tackling it all at once hit one room (bedroom, office, kitchen), one section of each room (half the bedroom, cooking area of the kitchen, etc.) or even one thing (bathtub, stove, desk) and clean and/or tidy up just that small piece. The next day pick a new one. Then the next day another new one, and so on. Before long everything will be clean and tidy even if you had really let it go before.

    Bonus points if you keep up with the small daily cleaning tasks and keep everything nice instead of letting it slide back to how it was.

  • Getting Fit – Commit to a small workout at least three times per week. Don’t worry so much about having the perfect workout program or even spending a lot of time on it. If you’re currently not exercising at all or are fairly out of shape even doing a five minute bodyweight workout at least three times a week will start showing benefits.

    If you need to lose weight calculate an estimated average daily calorie expenditure and try eating 500 calories fewer than that everyday for a month. As long as you’re actually tracking things and sticking to it for the month you should lose at least a couple pounds. Five minutes to workout and a measly 500 calories fewer every day is not a hard price to pay for a month.

  • Learning Something New – Learning a skill is another area you can apply the NaNoWriMo system to with a lot of success. Learning an instrument? Do an hour of practice each day for a month, or pick a new chord to master each day, or pick a new section of a song you like to work on for an hour or so everyday.

    Learning a new language? Use a frequency list and tools like Memrise to break the vocab up into manageable chunks and learn as much as you can in a month. Or maybe work in a session of something like Duolingo every day. However you want to break things down the important thing is to be consistent and do a little every day.

These are just a few ideas off the top of my head – there’s really no limit to the kinds of tasks you can apply the NaNoWriMo system to if you’re creative enough about it. Every enormous tasks, no matter how daunting it seems, is really just a collection of smaller, more manageable tasks piled on top of one another. When you identify them and attack them all individually before you know it that enormous tasks is all finished and you can move on to something even better.

Have any other insights you’d like to share on applying the ideas used to make NaNoWriMo so easy to other large tasks? Share them with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit:

Language Learning Excuses

No More Language Learning Excuses

One of the things that I’ve noticed about speaking several languages is that when people I meet for the first time find out a huge majority of them make some kind of excuse for why they don’t.

They say they wish they could learn another language but they’re too old now, or they don’t have the time or money, or they wish they had my talent for languages, and so on. None of these are valid reasons for not learning a second language if it’s something you really want to do. When you repeat these excuses to yourself it just internalizes this self-fulfilling narrative that you can’t do it. That you’ll never successfully learn a new language.

Here’s why you’re wrong.

Common Excuses for Not Learning a Language

This list is, sadly, not extensive. These are the handful I hear people telling me (and themselves) most often though.

  • I Don’t Have the Time to Learn a Language – Whenever people say “I don’t have the time for X,” I hear “I don’t make X a priority.” I get twenty-four hours everyday to play with. So do you. So does everyone else. The question is how you choose to allot that time. Tally up the amount of time you spend each day watching TV and tell me you couldn’t spare an hour of that if it meant speaking another language. If you really aren’t willing to drop an hour of TV, browsing Reddit, playing video games, or whatever else to be able to speak a new language then it’s not that you don’t have time it’s that you clearly don’t actually want to speak another language.

    Most of the time you don’t even need a full hour. You can make real progress by sneaking in five minute sessions on Memrise, or Duolingo. Unless your day is so full of tasks you must do for survival that you do not have even five minutes of down time to devote to bettering yourself, you have ample time.

  • I Don’t Have the Money to Learn a Language – When I learned Swedish I went from knowing only as much Swedish as I could pick up from my visits to the local Ikea to being able to have fluid conversations with natives without spending a cent.

    For that in particular I used Memrise to build my vocab as much as possible, Duolingo to start getting a handle on grammar and free exchange sessions on iTalki to practice and refine everything. I also did a quick Google search for ‘Online Swedish Lessons’ and ‘Free Swedish Lessons’ and found a plethora of resources to help fill in gaps. I could’ve paid for a dedicated teacher on iTalki, but I wanted to keep everything free and I like being able to help people out with their English in return.

    There are plenty of other resources out there completely for free. If you’re reading this you can at least afford the Internet, so you’re set.

  • I Don’t Have a Talent for Languages / I’m Too Old to Learn a Language – I combine these into one excuse because the response to both is the same.

    You’re wrong.

    That’s… pretty much it. There is no such thing as a ‘talent for language learning’ or an ‘aptitude for language learning’, at least not in any significant, meaningful kind of way. These are terms perpetuated by people who have never seriously tried to learn a language and want to make themselves feel better about not putting in the effort. Unless you have a diagnosed learning disability you have no excuse (and even if you do have one, you can still learn a new language).

    The same goes for being too old. The notion that children are better at learning languages is flatly wrong. The reason they seem to learn them so easily is because we never let them stop. They’re constantly hearing new words, being spoken too, and spend almost every waking moment being bombarded by the language – they can’t help but learn it. The ability to learn languages doesn’t diminish with age, it improves. You can understand things a child can’t, and don’t have to learn by sheer osmosis.

  • [X Language] Is Just Too Hard to Learn – Are some languages potentially more difficult to learn because of their differences with your native tongue (presumably English)?

    Of course. Potentially.

    The fact is it’s all relative though. Some English speakers pick up tonality like in Mandarin or Cantonese right off the bat, others don’t. Sometimes grammar that’s wildly different from English grammar makes learning more difficult, sometimes it makes it easier because the contrasts stand out and make it memorable. Personally, I had a much harder time memorizing the genders and understanding the lengthy sentence structure of German than I did memorizing the tones and understanding the grammar of Mandarin. It will differ for everyone.

    Besides, if you genuinely want to speak a language it shouldn’t matter if it’s hard or not. Don’t be a baby.

Don’t Discourage Yourself

Everyone can learn a second language.

Everyone.

The more you come up with excuses or tell yourself you can’t do it the more you poison your own attitudes. Remember that there are always options, always resources, and always people out there who can help you. If you want to learn another language the only thing out there that can stop you is yourself.

Have any other excuses you’ve heard people use for not learning a language that you think aren’t valid? Do you have your own excuse or struggle with language learning that you think is a real problem? Share with everyone in the comments!

A Beginner’s Guide to Practicing with Intent

Working the Heavy Bag by David Schroeder - Deliberate Practice

You have to practice with intent, it’s not good enough to just show up.

It’s easy to look at someone who is clearly one of the best in the world at what they do and assume that they got to be that way because they had some kind of natural talent for it. While natural talent might skew things a little, we almost always find out in reality these people put in countless hours grinding away practicing and honing their skill set to get to that level.

The easy assumption then is that if you just show up and put your hours in you can become great at something too, but often that’s just not the case. It’s not enough to just show up and mindlessly put your reps in. You need deliberate practice.

You need to practice with intent.

Focused, Deliberate Practice

So what does it mean to practice with intent?

Practicing with intent – also called deliberate practice or focused practice – means that you’re approaching every practice session with some kind of mindful goal. You aren’t just grinding in repetitions of whatever skill you’re practicing and letting your mind wander, you’re focused on what you’re trying to improve.

When Bruce Lee went into a training session he would always have a very clear goal to work on. It might have been to solve a specific attack, to hone a technique or strike to get more speed or power out of it, or to root out openings and weaknesses in his form.

He made sure every technique and movement he practiced was worked on specifically and deliberately until it was as close to perfect as he could get it before moving on. Now most people don’t need quite that level of dedication, and perfect can sometimes be the enemy of good, but imagine if Bruce Lee had practiced without that level of intent.

Imagine you have two identical Bruce Lee clones. Bruce A spends two hours hitting the heavy bag. He’s got no plan, he just wants to get two hours of practice in and figures the bag work is a good option. Bruce B comes to the heavy bag and spends two hours practicing only his straight blast, making notes occasionally along the way and using small adjustments to figure out what elbow position and other elements generate the most striking power.

At the end of the day, both Bruce A and Bruce B have put in two hours of practice – but who do you think will have improved the most?

It’s easy, especially with repetitive tasks, to fall into a type of mindless practice like what Bruce A was doing. Our brains seem to like tasks like this because they can automate them and shut down or focus on other things. The problem is if you’re trying to improve a skill, that is the last thing you want. You can let your mind wander off like that if you’re building a habit, but if you’re going to improve you need to be cognizant of what’s going on.

That’s where the deliberate practice comes in.

Getting the Most from Your Practice

When teaching students at our self-defense academy we emphasize these main points in our teaching as ways to ensure everyone is practicing with intent. You can use these to check and ensure that your own deliberate practice sessions are providing you the most return in skill improvement on your time investment.

  • Make it Repeatable – This might seem kind of obvious, but it’s important to double check that whatever you’re practicing is repeatable. Focus in on a specific piece of the skill that you can drill over and over again rather than something that is going to be a little different each time. You should also focus in as much as you can on one element – if you’re learning an instrument for example pick a single chord, a certain scale, a small section of a song, etc. Focusing on little pieces will build into a larger skill set.

  • Have a Set, Specific Goal – Don’t go into your practice session with a loose idea (or no idea) of what the goal is for that practice session. Randomly kicking a heavy bag for five hours probably won’t do much more for you than making you tired. Spending one hour with the goal of getting full rotation of the heel on your supporting leg while kicking will make your kicks better.

    Your goals can be structured like that in a ‘I will specifically practice X’ or they can be an end-point goal like ‘By the end of this session I will be able to Y’. Either is fine. Saying ‘I will spend an hour refining my ability to draw hands’ or ‘I will be able to draw a superb hand by the end of this hour’ are both fine – ‘I’m going sit and draw for an hour’ not so much.

  • Embrace Feedback – Every time you have a session of deliberate practice make certain that you have some kind of feedback system in place to ensure that you’re making some kind of improvement on the skill you’re working on. With some things the feedback system will be inherent – you know if you play a wrong note, miss a shot, can’t remember a vocab word, etc. – with others it will be less obvious. Even if you have to enlist a friend or a camera to watch you to check form or watch for certain things you need something to let you know how you’re doing in the moment. If you can it’s also helpful to use this feedback during the practice session itself to make little adjustments and corrections to whatever you’re practicing.

  • Make it Difficult – This might sound like a strange recommendation, but the fact is if you’re practicing something that’super easy for you then it means you’re probably not really growing in that skill.

    You have to be a little outside of your comfort zone to grow. When choosing something you need to devote some deliberate practice too select something that you find difficult, but not frustratingly so. If you need to practice the basics, find ways to dial in on something specific enough to make it a challenge again. Throwing a jab cross hook combination is something that would be too easy for me on its own to really help me grow – but if I focus on throwing that combo as fast as possible, or dial in on making sure my form is as perfect as possible on each repetition, or practicing it under the duress of having a partner feeding me their own combinations that I have to defend against, that’s when I’m going to improve.

Put Your Deliberate Practice Time In

You can make yourself better at nearly anything you want to improve in – but you have to put the time in.

Deliberate practice isn’t going to be some kind of magical fix that will make you an expert at something overnight. It requires effort and it requires time. If you use the tips above and put the work in though you can vastly improve at all sorts of things in a relatively short time.

Do you have any other tips you’d like to add about intentional, deliberate practice sessions? Have you struggled with it at all or run into problems? Share with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: David Schroeder

How to Achieve Your Goals By Not Setting Goals

Goal by Humbletree

Sometimes goals get in the way more than they help.

As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about productivity and efficiency and getting a lot of things done everyday, you would think that I would be someone who really likes goals. In reality – I sort of hate them.

For a lot of people goals hurt more than they help when it comes to accomplishing things.

So why do I hate goals so much, and what do I recommend using instead that works so much better?

The Problems with Focusing on Goals

For some people goal setting can be an enormous help. It can serve as a motivating factor, something to keep you on track, and a way to maintain focus. For others though they can wind up doing a lot more harm than good, and a lot of that comes down to how likely you are to fixate on that goal. The more you fixate, the more problems they tend to cause. These are the ones I tend to notice most often in people who become too goal oriented.

  • Goals Hamper Long Term Progress – I realize this sounds contradictory, but the nature of goals means that unless you’re good about constantly creating new ones they will eventually get in the way of long term progress for a handful of reasons. Goals are built as fixed points of achievement with a clear, definitive ending. Because of this it’s common for people to stop their progress once they’ve reached their goal.

    If your goal is to finish the book you’re writing, it’s easy to reach that goal and then completely abandon your writing for a long while. If your goal is to run a 5k, once you’ve done it it’s easy to slack off on your training because you’ve hit your goal. You’re done.

    This attitude ruins continual progress because it makes it feel natural to stop after you’ve hit your goal. With many things you then wind up backsliding in regards to progress and by the time you set another goal you might be back to where you started the first time. That’s not a productive method if you want to be making constant incremental improvements.

  • Goals Bring You Down – Another thing I see a lot is the way in which goals, again mostly just due to their nature, start to bring people down and instill a very negative view in them.

    Even if you don’t originally intend to mean it that way a goal is you saying to yourself, “I am not good enough. I will be good enough / happy with myself when I have accomplished X.” You have a goal of losing ten pounds because you think you’re too fat, you have a goal of reaching a business benchmark because you’re not successful enough. All of these things essentially are you saying that you will be happy when you accomplish this certain thing, which implies that you aren’t happy now.

    On top of the negativity already inherently implicit in that kind of thinking, there’s also the stress of potential failure and the hard hit to your self-esteem if you aren’t able to reach your goal.

    After all the built up pressure of trying to meet a goal by its deadline, and the ingrained feelings of not being good enough until you meet this goal, it can be absolutely crushing if you don’t make it. In my time as a personal trainer I’ve seen people set (against my advice) very ambitious weight loss goals, invest a lot of emotional energy in them, and then completely fall apart when they don’t reach them – which usually leads to them falling into worse habits and gaining weight as a result of being distraught and feeling like a failure.

  • Goals Assume Too Much Agency – This ties in strongly to the above point on making you feel like a failure if you don’t accomplish them, but goals make you feel like you’re in more control of things than you really are.

    Initially it might sound nice to feel like you’re in control, but in the end it just sets you up for feeling worse if you fail. Going back to the example of people losing weight, there are a lot of factors physiologically that can determine how easy it is for you to lose weight (or gain muscle). Some of these are mostly out of your control. The problem is focusing on a goal tends to make you gloss over the fact that these things can be outside of your control so when you fail to reach it – even if it was through no fault of your own – you’re still likely to feel like you have failed somehow. Beating yourself up over things you had no say in is not going be conducive to making progress.

So with all these issues with goals, what’s the better option?

Systems Focus Over Goals Focus

Instead of a goal focus, try having a system focus instead.

A system focus is where instead of fixating on the end result (the goal) you fixate on the process itself (the system). If your goal is to write a novel your system might be to write 500 words everyday. If your goal is to lose weight your system might be to lift weights three times per week. If your goal is to learn a language your system might be to do ten lessons with an iTalki teacher every month.

Focusing on the system completely bypasses all of the problems listed above with goals, but will still get you to that end point that you’re chasing after. Systems are continual, so they don’t encourage you to stop making progress just because you’ve hit your goal marker.

Systems are both recurring and ideally small enough in scope to not be a set-up for failure. Writing a novel is a huge task, and there is definitely an element of potential failure or far of failure there. Writing 500 words per day is no big deal, that’s like a page and a half or so depending on how you measure. There should be no real pressure that you might not be able to complete that. Even if you do, going back to the recurring nature of systems, it’s not a big deal because you get to try again tomorrow.

This also makes systems much more controllable. Certainly nothing is ever 100% under our control, but since systems focus on actions rather than meeting conditions it’s much easier to make sure you do genuinely have enough control to do them. Using the words example again something might occur that will stop me from meeting the condition of ‘Have Finished Novel’, but it’s much harder for conditions to arise that would stop me from taking the action of ‘write 500 words’. Especially since even if those conditions do arise, I can just make sure to hit my 500 words the next day.

Building Good Systems

Transitioning from goals to systems is easy. Just take your goal and then determine what actions will need to be taken to reach it, then choose the smallest, easiest action that will still create progress and assign it a recurring schedule. Then you’re done.

For example, your goal is to get to a 400 lbs. squat. The action that will lead to that goal is lifting (squatting specifically, but possibly also accessory work) and you can assign the recurring schedule of three times per week. So instead of focusing on “I’m going to squat 400 lbs. someday” focus on “I’m going to squat heavy 3x per week.”

Some goals might break down into multiple systems, so a goal of ‘Lose 20 lbs.’ might break into something like ‘Workout 3x per week’ and ‘Eat within my macro limits at least 6 days per week’. That’s fine, just make sure you don’t accidentally overwhelm yourself.

Do you have any other thoughts or advice on goals? Do you like them or do you find they get in the way more than they help? Share with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Humbletree

Get More Done By Limiting Yourself

Restricted by Martin Cathrae

Sometimes restrictions can help more than they hinder.

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

Or are they?

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

When Choice Is the Enemy

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

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

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

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

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

Using Limits As a Tool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Martin Cathrae

Why Some People Suck at Learning (and How to Fix It)

Torsten, Math Teacher by Blondinrikard Fröberg

For some people learning new things is just harder than it is for other people. They struggle to pick up things that they see other excel at easily. They fail to acquire skills even though they feel like they’ve given their best. Put simply, they suck at learning.

As it turns out, the reason things are so much harder for them than others might be entirely in their head – and it’s something that can be fixed.

How Perceptions Affect Performance

Social psychologist Emily Balcetis and her team wanted to find out why some people struggle with exercise while others don’t seem to have any problems. They devised a study where participants had their hip to waist ratio measured – a basic metric for how fit or overweight they were – and then were asked to run a short distance. Before they ran it, participants had to judge approximately how far they thought it looked from the start line to the finish.

When the research team matched the participants’ waist to hip ratios with their estimates of the distance they had to run they found a statistically significant correlation between the two. In other words, the more out of shape a person was the farther they thought the distance they had to run looked. Their fitness level actively influenced their perception of their environment and the task ahead.

Dr. Balcetis’s research team also came to the conclusion in a second experiment that people who had committed themselves to a reasonable goal that they felt could be accomplished in a timely manner also perceived exercise in general as being easier – regardless of fitness level.

Put together, this means that people who perceive themselves as being unfit will also think of exercise as being more difficult than it actually is and that have goals that you perceive as being attainable can mitigate that added mental difficulty. Our perceptions of ourselves, our abilities, and our goals have a direct effect on how we experience the world.

So what does all this exercise stuff have to do with learning?

Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets

Dr. Balcetis’s research shows that our perceptions of ourselves affect the difficulty or ease with which we undertake tasks. If we think of ourselves as being out of shape, then we will experience physical tasks as more difficult than if we thought of ourselves as being in shape.

The same is true of mental tasks like learning new things. If a person considers themselves to be a poor learner, or to be bad at a certain thing, then they’re likely to experience learning or practicing that thing as being more difficult than they otherwise would.

This ties strongly into something called the Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset.

People generally fall into one or the other category in regards to how they perceive themselves. Those with a Fixed Mindset have the attitude that there are things they excel at, and things that they are poor at, and those things are for all intents and purposes unchangeable – they’re a fixed quality.

Often you’ll see this in kids being raised with a particular parenting style. If you’ve ever heard a parent praise a kid for being naturally good at certain things (drawing, sports, music, math, whatever) but then when that kid struggles in another area they tell them something along the lines of, “Oh well X just isn’t your thing.”

If you’ve ever heard someone say, “I’m just not a math person,” or something along those lines as an adult that’s precisely what we’re talking about. One I hear a lot on account of my passion for language learning is “I just don’t have a head for language learning,” or one of its variants. In some cases (particularly it seems with math for whatever reason) some people even seem to be proud of their assertion that they’re just naturally and irrevocably ‘bad’ at this particular thing.

People with a Growth Mindset, on the other hand, approach things with the worldview that everything they do can be improved upon. They may feel they are naturally inclined toward one thing or another, but they don’t feel like there is any one thing that they can’t potentially learn to do well. Where someone with a Fixed Mindset gets a bad grade on a math test and thinks, “Eh, I’m just bad at math. Oh well.” the person with a Growth Mindset gets a bad grade and thinks, “I’m bad at math. I should work hard to get better.”

People stuck in a Fixed Mindset then wind up being terrible learners in a general sense for two reasons.

The first is that the attitude of ‘I’m just good at X’ and ‘I’m just bad at Y’ is at its core a defeatist view. If you feel like you can never improve and do poorly on something your first time, you’re probably going to give up on it. After all, if you ‘suck at language learning’ why would you invest hundreds to thousands of hours trying to learn a new language? From that viewpoint hard work is disincentivized. It then becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy because if you suck at something you aren’t going to get better without putting hard work in.

The second issue is that, relating back to the original point we discussed above about things perceived as being difficult also being experienced as being more difficult regardless of other factors, if you think you’re bad at something and that trying to improve it will be extra grueling because of your inherent ineptitude it will actually wind up being more difficult for you. A person with a Fixed Mindset makes it so that even when they do try to work hard at something, they’re making that hard work even harder because of their attitude.

So how do you stop sucking so bad at learning?

The first step is taking a look at your attitudes on learning in the first place and making sure that they’re set up to put you in the best place for it. If you’ve always had a Fixed Mindset start working to change it. Now you’re probably not going to be able to just ‘decide’ one day to change your entire worldview in relation to how you view your ability or inability to learn new things. You can start out slowly though by picking something you’ve always thought you were just naturally ‘bad’ at and telling yourself that you can get good at it through some hard work – then actually do the work for a little while and prove to yourself that everyone can improve.

Do you have any thoughts on Fixed vs. Growth mindsets? Have you had any success transitioning from one to the other? Share with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Blondinrikard Fröberg

Mastering Your Monkey Mind

Jodhpur by Garrett Ziegler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Micro-Journals and Daily Check-Ins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meditation

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

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

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

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

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

Sensory Mindfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus: Self-Talk and Examination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t that scary?” Fear Monkey asks.

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Garrett Ziegler

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