How To Remember Anything Forever with Memory Hooks

At Rest by DigitalART2

Now you can learn to never forget too.

I have always had a serious problem with remembering things.

I forget people’s names after I meet them. I could never memorize any vocabulary in foreign language classes. I forgot to do my homework. I forget everyone’s birthday. Sometimes, I walk into a room and can’t even remember why I went in there in the first place.

It’s kind of a big problem.

Or at least, it was a big problem until I figured out a nice little trick to chisel anything I need to remember into my brain, with only a half-second of effort. Now, I can read a vocab word, hear someone’s name or be presented with an interesting bit of information just once and never forget it.

So what’s the big trick?

Tapping Into Emotional Memory with Memory Hooks

What does emotional memory mean? To simplify it a bit in order to not get too bogged down in psychology and neurology stuff, there are several ‘levels’ to our brains. To generalize a bit, the really analytical stuff, math, logic, language etc. all happens in the higher, newer levels of your brain. All of the more subconscious stuff, emotions, impulses, desires, heart and breathing regulation & long-term memory, for example, are down on the lower, more primal levels of your brain.

Now, if you’re like me in the past, you try to memorize something by activating those higher levels of the brain. Usually by sitting and repeating it over, and over, and over until it is drilled into your brain. The problem is our brains don’t really like that.

Our brains may be built to hold a lot of information, but when it comes to living things efficiency is always the rule. This is one reason people like taking the path of least resistance. Our brains are no different, they don’t want to just suck up every last tidbit of information and store it forever, that would be inefficient. Your brain only likes to store things that matter.

Sure, to you, all those words on your vocab list do matter. To your brain though, not so much. Your brain really only wants to store information in the long term that it knows will really impact your life. For instance, it’s not necessary to remember for twenty years that there were exactly 134 tiles in the back-splash of your parents’ kitchen when you were a child. It is important to remember that planting your hand firmly on the burner of a hot stove is a stupendously bad idea.

How does your brain tell which one of these things is important to file away for life? By the emotional response the event triggers.

Counting the number of tiles in your parents kitchen is likely to elicit no real emotional response – other than boredom which is anathema to our brains. Slapping your hand down on a hot burner, however, will trigger lots of emotions – pain, fear, excitement, possibly confusion. All of these emotions trigger the release of lots of chemicals in your brain, it knows it’s something really important and it remembers it.

Here’s a good test, which is easier to remember – an exciting, wonderful or traumatic event from your childhood, or what you ate for breakfast last Tuesday? Which memory is more vivid?

Unless you have a very unique brain, or a car crashed through your wall while you were having breakfast last Tuesday, the childhood memory is probably way easier to recall, even though it was so much farther in the past.

This is the reason why the old-school, repeat-it-10,000-times rote memorization method just doesn’t work. There’s no emotional attachment, other than boredom, so your brain just doesn’t want to hang on to that information.

The trick then is to find a way to make your brain form an emotional attachment to the information.

Hooking Up Your Memory

What’s the best way to form an emotion attachment to the info? Memory hooks.

A memory hook is a strong visualization of some kind that hooks a strong emotion into the memory of whatever information you’re trying to store. Essentially, you take whatever information it is, a name, a vocab word, a definition, whatever, and then come up with some kind of visual that reminds you of that piece of information.

The visual can be anything, though it needs to be as vivid and detailed as you can come up with, and needs to have some kind of emotion tied to it. Any emotion will work, although I usually go for humor since coming up with ridiculous situations is easier for me. Longer, more involved action sequences also tend to work better than isolated mental images too.

Rather than try to explain the process, I think it’s a little easier to just walk you through one I used during our Korean challenge to memorize the phrase ‘chalmokkesumnida‘.

Now, chalmokkesumnida is a phrase used to begin a meal, similar to ittedakimasu in Japanese on bon appetite in French. Since that was the case, I wanted to have some kind of mental image that tied into meals.

When I say ‘chalmokke’, to me it kind of sounds like ‘Chow Monkey’ in English. Now a Chow Monkey would obviously be some kind of monkey that brings chow. Alright, so far I’ve got a monkey bringing food to someone or something.

Next, the ‘sumnida’ part kind of sounds like ‘Suupa da’ or ‘It’s super’ in Japanese. So now, the people the monkey is bringing the food to speak Japanese. From there, I figure if anything is going to be super, it’s chow monkey. Ok. He’s now a food delivering monkey superhero, complete with a cape, mask, and big ‘C’ emblazoned on his chest delivering food to hungry people everywhere, or at least in Japan.

Now, we take it one step further. You have a hungry family all sitting around their breakfast table in Japan one morning, a father, mother, and two kids. There’s no food on the table, and one of the childrens’ stomachs growls loudly. Suddenly, Chow Monkey blasts through the wall like a furry, simian Kool-Aid Man and dumps a breakfast feast onto the table. There’s food from everywhere, it’s like all the buffets of the world rolled into a giant katamari of breakfast-deliciousness. Their eyes glistening in hunger, everyone at the table shouts ‘Chow Monkey suupa da!’ with joy and dives into the food as Chow Monkey soars away to save another hungry family.

Is that ridiculous? Sure. But now every time I sit down to eat, I think of Chow Monkey and ‘Chow Monkey suupa da’. From there ‘chalmokkesumnida’ flows right out.

Now, written out like this, it makes it look like an extremely involved process. Really though, all of this happens in a split second. Your brain comes pre-installed with a fantastic imagination, and it doesn’t take much thought to come up with something goofy like this. Chow Monkey was born a few seconds after sitting down to eat with some Korean friends.

It may seem silly, but next time you need to remember something give it a try. Before you realize it, whatever you were trying to memorize will be burned into your mind like the Banana Phone song. Just see if you don’t think ‘chalmokkesumnida’ next time you sit down to eat.

Have you had any success with this technique? Share some of your mental images and memory hooks in the comments!

Update: If you’re interested in learning more about memory hooks I discuss them and the above example in more detail along with other memory strategies in my book How to Learn 1,000 Words in 30 Days on Amazon Kindle.

Set Goals. Fulfill Your Dreams

Greatest Goal II by Scott Wills

Setting goal posts in your life is the best way to realize your dreams.

It is extremely difficult to achieve your dreams if you are a failure at setting goals.

As someone who always used to really, really hate planning and goal setting, believe me – it makes all the difference. I used to be of the opinion that setting goals just kind of got in the way. They were nice to have as a general reference point, but they weren’t important to the actual process of being productive.

Honestly, me feeling that way was probably largely a result of how terrible I was at setting proper goals. I was really terrible too. Being so awful at it made it even harder to achieve what goals I did set, which just made me more frustrated with goal-setting in general.

Eventually, I learned what I was doing wrong. I wasn’t S.M.A.R.T.

Get S.M.A.R.T.

Jokes about my general lack of intelligence aside, what I was missing out on was the S.M.A.R.T. method of goal setting. That’s Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely.

Sticking to this method makes sure that your goals aren’t absolute failures like my old ones were. What does all that mean? Let’s take a look.

Specific

It is absolutely pointless to make goals if they are vague. Sadly, I didn’t realize that years ago when I was making goals like, “Exercise more”, “Lose weight” or “Make more money”. That’s like someone asking where you’re going and replying with, “To a building.” Technically, if your goal is “Lose weight” than you could drop half a pound and be done.

Goals must be specific to be worthwhile.

Change “Exercise more” to “Complete 3 strength training sessions per week” and “Lose weight” to “Lose 5 pounds per week” and you’ve got some specific goals.

Measurable

This should go without saying, but a goal that isn’t measurable isn’t really attainable. Even if it should go without saying, that didn’t stop me from setting ridiculous, unmeasurable goals in the past. Here’s a particular gem, “Get better at guitar”.

It boggles my mind at this point that I could set as stupid a goal as that and still be literate. Not only does it fail our first criteria by not being specific, how will you ever know when you hit ‘better’? Is better being able to play a bunch of scales, is better memorizing a song, is better rocking a Jimi Hendrix medly while blindfolded upside-down in a shark tank? Who knows?

If you don’t assign a quantifiable component to your goal, than there is no way to ever know when you reach it. Only a moron would make a goal that is, by its very nature, unreachable. Don’t be a moron.

So how would that nebulous, immesurable goal be improved? Well, how about, “Memorize three songs” or “Perform at least 2 songs in front of an audience”. Even, “Practice guitar for 1 hour 4 times per week” would have worked.

Attainable

Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be ambitious. In fact, I’m all for setting big goals, since most people seem to really throw their all into something when it’s a really ambitious goal. Try to keep your goals ambitious but realistic. After all, setting a goal that is essentially impossible is about as futile a gesture as you can make.

Sadly, I don’t have any examples of my past stupidity to showcase for this part. My goals were always too vague to ever really be considered unrealistic. The key is dancing right on that line between ambitious and crazy. A blatantly unattainable goal like high-fiving the Queen of England or learning to communicate with algae via telepathy is pointless is one thing. A crazy sounding but attainable goal is another entirely.

My best advice is to use your gut to figure out if something is attainable or not, don’t always listen when other people call you crazy for it.

Relevant

By relevant, I mean relevant to your life. Your goals should be something that you are passionate about, that you have a reason for doing. When you’re committing to something to something to sit down and set some goals toward its completion, take a minute to think about your reasons for doing it.

If you honestly can’t think of any good reasons for setting the goal or for accomplishing what you’re setting the goal toward, then you’re probably not gonna care much about the goal.

For example, if your goal is to lose 30 pounds, then you better have a really good, relevant, personal reason for setting that goal. Whether it’s health, wanting to be able to do more active things or whatever. You need a reason.

If there isn’t a real, driving reason behind a goal then there’s no reason to stick to it.

Timely

Timely may be last, but that’s only because if the order was rearranged the acronym would be all messed up.

Not giving goals specific, timely deadlines is one of the biggest mistakes bad goal setters make. It may seem harmless, but “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

For those not familiar with Parkinson’s Law, this basically means that no matter how difficult a task actually is, work on it will fill however much time you set for it. If you set too distant of a deadline or, even worse, none at all than inevitably things will pop up to fill that space. Other projects with nearer deadlines will be moved to the front of your list, you’ll procrastinate, you’ll not know where to begin, you’ll fret about doing it properly, etc.

If you make your goal, “I want to lose 30 ponds by the end of the year” then there’s no real pressure to get started. You have the whole rest of the year! You can start working out tomorrow. In the end, you’ll probably put it off so long that you’ll never really commit to it in the first place.

If, on the other hand, we make that “Lose 30 pounds in 4 weeks” then you know the very same day you made the goal you would be giving all your junk food away, restocking the fridge with healthy food and probably going for a HIIT session. All because you know if you’re going to make your 4 week deadline, you need to be working now.

Using the S.M.A.R.T. method, I’ve been able to train myself to set goals that actually help me get where I want to go, rather than get in my way and demotivate me when I inevitable fall miles short of attaining them. Hopefully, it can do the same for you.

Have you had any success with the S.M.A.R.T. model, or do you use another goal setting technique? We always love to hear about other stuff that works.

Workouts for Wimps: Your First Real Pushup

The Art of the One-Handed Pushup by Andy Carvin

This baby can do a one-armed pushup - why can't you?

The pushup is one of the most timeless, absolutely essential bodyweight exercises there is. Along with squats and a few others, the pushup in some for or another is the foundation of every bodyweight strength training regimine out there – or at least every worthwhile one. If you want to get in shape, and you don’t have access to free weights, you better be able to do pushups.

So, what if you can’t?

What if you’re too weak or too overweight to do even a single standard pushup? No problem! There are lots of alternatives that you can use to work your way up to it. All of these have been tested and proven both by myself and Caroline. I was the kid that got laughed out of gym class for being too fat to do a single pushup, and Caroline was the yoga nut who weighed next to nothing but had never done a day of strength training in her life. Between the two of us, we know these should work for everybody.

Anyone can build the strength to do push ups if they follow the right progression. (Tweet this!)

The Staircase Progression

Staircase progressions are the method I used to get my 55 year-old mother, who I don’t think had even done one single pushup in her entire life, to get to the point where she was doing full sets of standard pushups on the ground. We’re not quite to one-armed pushups yet, but we’ll get there.

How it works:

All strength building works on the principle of progressively increasing resistance. Your body adapts, you up the resistance, it adapts again, etc. So if you’re not strong enough to do even one pushup, you need to start with something easier and work your way up to it progressively.

Making a pushup easier is all about physics. As excited as I get about physics, I’m not gonna go into details here – let’s just say the higher your head is in relation to your feet, the easier the pushup is and vice versa (this is also a handy way to increase the intensity, when you’re ready). A staircase provides a perfect platform to progressively increase the resistance on your pushups. You can find one just about anywhere, each step is equally spaced between the one above and below it, and you can easily measure your progress.

Start with your hands on the highest step you can reach with your arms straight out in front of you and your toes down on the floor touching the bottom step in a standard pushup position. Lower yourself to the stair as if it were the ground and you were doing a regular pushup. If the highest step you can reach is too easy, and chances are it will be even if you can’t do a single pushup on the floor, go down to the next step and repeat. When you finally hit a stair that’s low enough that you can’t do at least five pushups in a row, stop and take note of the stair one higher than that one.

That stair is where you’re going to start your actual workout. Now you may have an existing strength training routine, though if you can’t even do one pushup I’m guessing you don’t. If you do, you can work it around your pushup training routine which will be as follows – 3 days per week, with at least one rest day between each, you will do five sets of five pushups on the stairs. The first week you will start on the last stair that you were able to do five consecutive pushups on. The second week, you’ll move down one stair which you should then be able to do five consecutive pushups on. The following week you move down again. Eventually, you hit the floor – and I don’t mean from exhaustion – and can start doing pushups there.

Take a moment to congradulate yourself, and then get ready to start learning one-armed and handstand pushups…

Tips and Tricks

If you don’t have any other strength training routine, such as what might be included as part of a beginner’s fitness plan for example, then I would suggest taking around a 30 to 45 second rest between each set. That is, do five pushups, rest for 45 seconds or so, and then do another set of five. If you find that 45 seconds is too short, and you can’t do 5 full pushups with good form, then increase the rest time until you find your sweet spot.

If you find yourself requiring excessively long rest periods (2 minutes or more) then you may want to try an incidental training pattern. On your strength training days, everytime you go up or down the stairs stop and do one set of pushups. With the longer and more variable rest periods, you don’t have to worry about stopping at five total sets for a day, but do still give yourself the rest day. Then just bump down a step the following week like normal.

When doing the pushups, it helps the most if you lower yourself very slowly (count to 5 from top to bottom) and push back up very quickly (faster than you can count to 1). This will help build the necessary strength up as quickly as possible. Try not to rocket your upper body off the staircase. You can work your way up to plyometric and clapping pushups when you get to the ground.

Getting Negative

Don’t worry, I don’t mean mentally. In weight training, a negative is the part of the movement when gravity is doing most of the work – in our case, the part where you’re lowering yourself back toward the ground. Negatives are the way that I went from no pushups to handstand pushups.

How it works:

The negative is also called the eccentric contraction and, unlike eccentric relatives, is extremely beneficial and something you should get better acquainted with. A majority of the strength building activity in an exercise occurs during the eccentric phase of the movement. That means that if you just do that part, you can still get a majority of the benefits.

To do a negative pushup, you start at the top of the standard pushup position on the floor. Then, you lower yourself down as slowly as possible. Seriously, I want your arms shaking a little by the time you get to the bottom. Once you’re at the bottom, instead of struggle and fight and try to push your way back up with your arms, just get up. Yep, get back up on your hands and knees and put yourself in the top position and lower yourself down again. It’s that easy. If it seems like cheating, well, it kinda is – but it works.

Do five sets of five negatives three days a week with a day of rest between each training day and 30 to 45 seconds rest between sets. After one full week of training, try to work one single standard pushup into each set of negatives as the first rep. If you still can’t do it, increase each negative by five seconds, i.e., lower yourself five seconds more slowly with each rep, and try again for one pushup per set the following week.

Once you go a week of doing one full pushup in each set, go for two full pushups in each set for the next week. Keep increasing each week and before long, you’ll be doing five sets of five full pushups on the ground with no problem.

Tips and Tricks:

This method is pretty straightforward, so there aren’t really a lot of tips and tricks to it. If you’re concerned that you’re so weak you’ll get about halfway down the first negative and then plant your face into the floor like a scared ostrich, by all means put a pillow or rolled up towel between your face and the floor.

If you are having that much trouble with the negatives, you an also try the old fashioned knee pushups, where you use your knees as the fulcrum for the pushup instead of your toes. In my experiences, however, it’s hard to make the jump from knee pushups to standard pushups. What I did, back in my whale days, was to do negatives with my hands on a slightly elevated platform. In my case it was an office chair jammed up against the wall so it wouldn’t roll out from under me. A set of stairs, as mentioned above, makes a nice choice too. Anything stable that gets your hands a little higher than your toes will work.

There you have it – you now have no excuses for not being able to do pushups. Once you master this movement, you’ll be well underway to having the basics of bodyweight exercises under your belt. At least, until you decide your ready to go one-armed…

Anyone else have any helpful tips or tricks to add, or some other method they used to build up to standard pushups? We’d love to hear it!

Timeboxing 101: What, Why and How

The Passage of Time by ToniVC

With timeboxing, you can make the clock work to your advantage.

Timeboxing, or one of the many variations on it, is easily one of the best techniques for being more productive throughout the day. Timeboxing allows you to get the motivation up to do the things you don’t want to do, focuses your attention on the tasks that really need to be prioritized, stops you from wasting time on pointless tasks and makes Parkinson’s Law work for you. Oh, and I think it’s kind of fun too.

So what is timeboxing? Essentially, it’s taking a task and assigning a fixed period of time for its completion. Once you hit that time limit, you stop working and move on to something else, regardless of whether or not you actually completed your task.

How does quitting before we’re finished help? Well, let me show you.

Some Benefits of Timeboxing

Motivation

The first benefit of timeboxing is that it gets you rolling on daunting or unpleasant tasks. Think of something that you need to get done, but just can’t get the motivation up to do. Maybe it’s something huge like writing a 200 page thesis, maybe it’s something that you just really hate to do like clean out the garage, maybe it’s both.

When you’re faced with these kinds of tasks, most people’s natural inclination is to put it off. They procrastinate an do their best to avoid it, and waste a lot of valuable time in the process. The hardest step to take is always that first one.

Setting a timebox for these tasks removes that feeling of dread. For example, you could sit down and commit to working on your thesis for 30 minutes, after which you can go relax. Whether you write 5 words or 5,000 in that 30 minutes is irrelevant, as long as you sit and write for 30 minutes. Suddenly, that doesn’t seem so bad. 30 minutes is nothing, and its easy to sit down and start if you know you’ll only have to siffer through 30 minutes of work.

The same goes for my cleaning example. If you say you’re going to go work on cleaning the garage for an hour and then quit, it’s not too hard to commit to. You know you won’t be slaving away all day out there, and chances are even if you aren’t finished by the end of that hour you’ll have gotten a lot done.

Timeboxing also becomes a little bit of a game. It’s kind of like a race, or one of those really frustrating Super Mario levels where the screen moves to the right and you die if you go too slow. Trying to see just how much you can accomplish before that timer sounds is a really good way to get pumped about whatever you’re trying to work on. This is particularly great for tasks like cleaning that will need to be done again, because you can continually try to beat your previous best and accomplish more within that timebox.

Time Bandits

No, not the movie. The second benefit of timeboxing lies in managing time-sinks. A time-sink is more like a heatsink than a kitchen sink, in that it sucks up all of your time (although the visual of all your time going down the drain is a good metaphor for it too). Basically, anything that you are prone to spend way too much time on everyday is a time-sink.

Some very common culprits are checking e-mail, social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and catching up on your RSS reader, but there are lots of others. Timeboxing this activities and having a set cut off time will not only force you from burning too much time away on them, but also help you speed up the task itself. If you only have 10 minutes everyday to process your inbox, before long you will have found every trick imaginable to make that process as speedy and efficient as possible.

Timeboxing relaxation and reward time can also help us not get too carried away when we take a break and need to get back to work. It’s cool if you want to take a little time to chill out and play a game or something, but when you completely lose track of time and spend 8 hours straight stabbing things in Azeroth, that tends to hurt your productivity a bit.

By setting a timebox, you can allow yourself to relax and play, but not run the risk of getting so carried away that nothing else gets done. Play for an hour, timer goes off, work for an hour or two, timer goes off, play for an hour, etc.

This also works for combating perfectionism. Being a perfectionist over things is like being a walking time-sink factory. If all you do is obsess over the details and fret about whether or not something is absolutely perfect before you consider it done then everything is going to take ages to finish. By putting things in timeboxes you force yourself to call it quits and consider something finished when your time is up, regardless of how well it’s done. It may hurt, but it’s for your own good.

Dining on Elephants

You know the old, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” saying. Honestly, it’s a little to cliche for me – but I have to admit it’s got a bit of a point. When you have some giant, monster task the best course of action is always to divide and conquer.

Timeboxing gives you the perfect way to do just that, since you can isolate a specific area of a project, devote a set amount of time to it, and then move on to the next area. Not only do you guarantee you won’t waste too much time on one specific area of the project, but you also break the whole thing down into tasty, manageable chunks.

Once you have the task divided up, progress will start accumulating incrementally and before you know it, you’ll be all finished. How easy is that?

Our Friend Parkinson

We’ve mentioned Parkinson’s Law a few times before – “Work expands to fill the time alotted for its completion.”

Timeboxing takes that law, which is normally a very annoying thing, and makes it into our friend. By limiting the amount of time allotted for the completion of a task, we also reduce the amount of work. When you only have a short time to finish something, the process gets streamlined and prioritized so that only the truly important things get completed.

Since time is usually the easiest variable to manipulate, using it to leverage Parkinson’s Law against a normally difficult task is a great way to maximize your efficiency when working on something. Having a restricted deadline gives you no choice but to focus on the task at hand and completely ignore any distractions that may pop up. If you only have 15 minutes to rock something out, you’re not going to waste that time to go answer the phone, stop to check your e-mail, or go see what people have been talking about on Twitter.

There are lots more reasons why timeboxing is so effective, but I don’t want to get into too much here. There will be time for that later. The important thing, now that you know how much better you life can be with timeboxing, is that you know how to get started in the first place.

How to Start Timeboxing

Getting started using timeboxing is easy and, best of all in my opinion since I am a raging cheapskate, it’s free. Well, it can be free. You can buy stuff to help out too. All you need to get started is yourself, a task to accomplish, and some way to keep time. Since you probably have a watch, clock, phone, computer and various other electronic devices with clocks or timers on them, this shouldn’t be a problem.

Cheap though I may be, I actually went out and bought a mechanical kitchen timer for like $2, and made it my official timeboxing timer. I like using it a lot better, both because it’s loud and mechanical not electronic so I have less worries about it malfunctioning, but also because having bought something specifically for timeboxing makes me want to do it even more. Even if it is just a $2 hunk of plastic and springs.

Now that you have what you need, time for step one.

Find a Task

The first step to get started is to find a task. This can be any task at all, but there are some that lend themselves a little better to timeboxing. The first are tasks that you are having a lot of issues getting the motivation up to do. Usually, these are either big things, like writing a novel, or unpleasant things, like cleaning out the attic.

The second category of tasks that lend themselves to timeboxing are time-sink tasks. Things that you waste way too much time on when you do them. Like I said before, e-mail is one of the biggest culprits here with social media being a close second for most people.

It’s good to start small until you get the hang of it, but pick something and move on to step two.

Consider Your Goals

There are lots of things you can accomplish with timeboxing, and knowing why you’re getting into it in the first place is important. Once you’ve picked your task, take a few minutes to think about what you want to really accomplish by timeboxing it.

It may be that you want to get the motivation to take the first step, chip a little into some monumental task or just mitigate the damage of something you usually spend too much time on.

Regardless of your reason, it’s important to take a second to figure out what it is before you move on to step three…

Set a Time

How much time you set is going to depend largely on what your goals for the action are.

Do you want to get the courage up to get started on a hard or boring task? Set a short time, 15 to 30 minutes maybe, that you know won’t be too painful or difficult to commit to.

Do you want to make incrememntal progress in something big? Set a longer time frame of an hour or maybe even two hours if you’re feeling motivated, just don’t go too overboard and burn yourself out.

In the beginning, the important thing is to just wing it and not worry too much about setting the perfect amount of time for your timebox, the more you play around with it, the more you’ll develop a nice intuitive feel for how long you should set for each task.

Get Busy

I would say this is the easiest step, but come on, this whole process is cake, and it’s not even a lie. No party submission position necessary here. Once you have your time set, get to work on your task, but make sure to always stop working when your time ends.

This is really important, because if you don’t, you’re not timeboxing. You’re pretending to timebox, but just doing what you always do anyway. That cake is a lie.

Work until time runs out, and then move on to step five.

Reward Yourself

When the timer goes off and you’re done with your task, reward yourself! There are lots of reasons why using rewards is great, but the best one is that this will keep you motivated and excited about timeboxing. On top of that, it will keep you fresh and happy when you move on to your next task, timeboxed or not.

Congratulations! You now know everything you need to know to get started timeboxing! Be sure to come back and let us know how it goes, and if you’ve been doing it for a while, we’d love for you to share any tips you’ve come up with to make timeboxing more effective.

The Science of Rewards

Lollipop by Sister72

Having the right reward can make all the difference.

Anyone who has been around children for an appreciable amount of time knows that the best way to get them to do something they don’t want to is to use a reward. Kid doesn’t want to go to the doctor so you promise them a new toy afterward if they behave, grades are slipping so you offer to pay $10 for every A you see on their report card, etc. Once they’ve been rewarded enough times for doing it, going to the doctor or getting better grades doesn’t become such a battle anymore. They may even start to enjoy it.

Ok, you may call those bribes, not rewards – doesn’t matter. The basic mechanism is the same regardless. The child has a behavior you want to correct, you offer a positive stimulus for engaging in the desired behavior and the child starts associating the behavior with the reward and begins to enjoy it. Easy.

Now, if this sounds a little bit like dog training that’s because, well, it is!

A part of dog training anyway. Don’t get insulted though and think I’m insinuating that your children are dogs (not that there would be anything wrong with that, I’m quite fond of dogs), classic conditioning is used as a part of dog training because it’s effective. Not just in dogs, but in pretty much all animals. Even better, we can use it on ourselves to motivate and condition us to achieve our goals.

Hormones & Neurotransmitters

The reason it’s so effective, in humans at least, is because of how our brains respond to rewards. That good feeling you get when you meet a goal, that high that comes from winning or earning a trophy, the sense of triumph when you beat a game on expert mode or unlock a new achievement on Steam. These feelings aren’t just all in your head.

Er, Ok, they are just in your head, but not in the imaginary way.

They’re a result of your brain chemistry. Of chemicals which are all in your head but more in a physical sense. Your brain likes rewards. It can’t help it, it’s a part of all of us. So when you set a goal knowing that there’s a reward at the end if you accomplish it, your brain starts releasing all sorts of very pleasant chemicals when you think about it. One of the strongest of these is dopamine.

Dopamine is some really strong stuff. It’s the main neurotransmitter linked with desire. When we get what we want, we get a good dose of dopamine and we feel good. When we don’t get what we want, we get starved of dopamine and get an unpleasant cocktail of stress hormones like cortisol. Not fun.

If you want a good example of how it feels to get a good shot of dopamine, think of the feeling of really deep love. Dopamine is one of the main chemicals released as a result of strong, devoted, never-want-to-be-apart love. Being with, or even just thinking about, the person you have those feelings for triggers a dopamine release. The cutoff of the dopamine supply is one reason why losing deep romantic love can feel like you’re dying.

So when you set a reward, thinking about earning that reward gives you little shots of happy, motivating neurotransmitters and thinking about failing to earn that reward gives you little shots of unpleasant, stressful neurotransmitters.

Just having a reward to work toward will naturally make you more motivated to succeed, and more concerned about failing. Additionally, if you make it a repeat process, your brain will start to associate that large dose of dopamine you get from finally earning that reward with whatever productive activity you assigned it to, making you want to do it more often with or without the reward.

The Price of Ownership

There’s a famous experiment that was run by Cornell University, where researches first gave students mugs with the school logo on it and then offered to trade the mugs for chocolate bars and then later gave students chocolate bars and then offered to trade them for school mugs.

Of the first group, almost none were willing to trade the mugs they had been given for the chocolate bars. It didn’t matter how much the students said they liked chocolate, the majority still chose to keep their mugs.

Now, before you attribute this to high school spirit, caffeine addiction or a sample set full of dieters – when the situation was reversed and the students who were given the chocolate bars were offered the mugs as a trade, the majority decided to keep the chocolate.

It turned out that no matter what it was, the students were always more likely to keep what they had rather than trade it away. This is usually referred to as the endowment effect.

The endowment effect basically means that when we assume ownership of something, we automatically make it a part of ourselves. Once we’ve made it a part of ourselves the loss of it triggers all those bad stress hormones and unhappy feelings triggered by losing a valued possession. This doesn’t just have to happen with things, it happens for ideas and people too. The best part is, you don’t even have to actually own something for the endowment effect to take hold, just the anticipation of owning something is enough to trigger it. Having someone tell you they are going to give you $50 and then later deciding not to feels just as bad as having someone just take $50 from your wallet.

That means that when you set rewards, you’re investing a part of yourself into attaining that reward. By having something that you know you will get when you accomplish your goal, you make failing to accomplish that goal just as painful as losing what you promised yourself as a reward. Believe me, that makes for a very strong motivator.

Putting It Into Practice

How do we make use of all this handy new information about rewards? Well, we start setting rewards! Ok, so there are a few little things to watch out for.

First of all, try not to shoot yourself in the foot with your reward. It’s ok if you want to make your reward for losing ten pounds a day long ice cream binge, just as long as you get right back to the habits that lost you those ten pounds after your glutton day.

An even better idea would be to reward yourself with something that itself continues to contribute to your goals. For example, “When I lose 10 pounds I’ll buy myself a new set of free weights”. Not only is a shiny new set of weights going to be a decent motivator (we’ll get to picking things you care about in a second), it’s also going to directly further your goals.

It’s also important to pick rewards that you actually want and to save the higher value rewards for the higher value goals. If you’ve got something you really want to accomplish or are really struggling finding the motivation for, give it one of the biggest, best rewards you can think of.

That should get you started with using rewards to keep yourself motivated and accomplishing things. Are there any other tricks you like to use when setting rewards? We’d love for you to share them with us in the comments.

Conquering the Fear of Failure

Flying by FelixTsao

Failing isn't really as scary as it looks.

Fear of failure is a seriously crippling thing. It’s also deeply rooted in our subconsciouses. How fun. Fear of failure makes us freeze out on stage and forget all of our lines. Fear of failure makes us not commit to things, to never get started in the first place or – worst of all – to purposefully sabotage projects that are going well before they really get going.

I have no science to back this claim up, but I would still bet that if you went around and asked everyone why they don’t quit their job and follow their dreams, why they haven’t sold all their junk and run off to travel the world or probably even why they aren’t trying to improve themselves that the most common answer would be – fear of failure.

Being afraid of failing is a natural thing. That being said, it’s still not a good thing. It keeps us from going where we want to go and doing what we want to do. It makes us miserable, anxious and in a lot of cases depressed. I’m sure someone smarter than I could devise a way to turn those around and harness fear of failure to make it work for them.

The Problem with Being Scared

In some cases fear is a good thing. If you’re in danger you need to know about it. Fear keeps us from doing a lot of really dangerous, crazy things. The thing is the world’s a much safer place than it was 50,000 years ago (not that I’m complaining), but our brains don’t know it yet.

Your brain can’t really distinguish the feeling it gets from turning a corner and finding an irate mother grizzly and the feeling it gets from being in the spotlight in front of a huge crowd. In one of those cases, that fear response is appropriate. In the other, not so much.

When that fear response is triggered, as I’m sure you already know, your body goes into ol’ fight-or-flight mode. That means a big dump of performance enhancing stress hormones into your brain, adrenaline and cortisol being two big players. This big release of hormones and neurotransmitters is fantastic if you need to run from a smilodon, pick up a car or fight off an assailant. They are not so fantastic when you’re trying to remember your lines, or get the motivation up to follow your dreams.

On top of those direct fight-or-flight triggers, fear of failure often grows into a sort of general dread about what might happen. Dreading something means it creates a lot of stress, stress means lots of cortisol and lots and lots of constant cortisol release means you’ll start feeling really run down before long.

That feeling of dread also causes us to do really stupid things. How many things do you wish you could do, but are too scared to do because you’re afraid of failing? How often have you passed up a really fantastic opportunity just because you didn’t think you were good enough, or you were worried it wouldn’t work out?

I have even known someone personally who had planned to start her own business, put tons of work into it, even gone and done pitches for prospective clients, but when inquiries started rolling in for work – she dropped it. Excuses were made, she said it would be too difficult, it just wasn’t the right time, blah blah blah. It was obvious though, she was just too scared that she would fail if she kept going so she chose to give up instead.

How to Fight Your Fear of Failure

Fighting isn’t really the best word for it in my opinion. I think it’s a bad idea to fight your fears, in fact, I pretty much always think it’s a bad idea to fight something that’s part of your nature. It’s too tough of a battle to really end well. Instead of fighting your fears, you need to learn to dismiss them.

As I pointed out, nowadays the physiological fear response we experience is unnecessary for 99% of the situations we feel it in. It sounds silly, but our brains don’t know that the audience isn’t going to savagely maul us if we mess up. In fact, because of our fantastic imaginations, a majority of people way, way, way overestimate the potential consequences of their actions.

We can fix that.

Next time you realize you have some dread, a gnawing fear or a deep apprehension of the future, stop and ask yourself, “Honestly, what is the worst case scenario?”. Give it some really good thought too, sit down and work it out. Think about what the absolute total worst that could happen is.

Ok, now you might be a little more scared, but bear with me. Now that you’ve come up with the worst-possible-case-doomsday-apocalypse outcome, how likely is it really to happen? Is it even that bad? What would you do if it did happen?

Now think about what probably would happen if you failed. Is it really that bad? What are you so scared of? Let’s look at a real world example.

Say you want to quit your day job and start your own business, but you haven’t yet. You’re too scared that you’ll fail and lose everything. Let’s even say you’re the sole income supporting a wife and two kids. What is the worst possible thing that could happen?

The business tanks, you have no income, you lose your house, your wife leaves you to avoid having to eat the children and you wander the streets for the rest of your life, destitute and abandoned. Then you get hit with a meteor.

Honestly though, what are the odds of that? What might really happen if you fail?

The business tanks, you support yourself on whatever savings you have until you find another 9 to 5 or try another business venture. Maybe things get so bad you have to sell your house and downsize, boo hoo. Maybe you can’t find a job and have to flip burgers for a while. Oh well. You won’t be on the streets, you won’t be starving and you won’t be dead. Why is that so scary?

If you fail, you just roll with it. Cut your losses and try something new or admit that you did your best and go find another job in whatever industry you left, or maybe somewhere else. Once you’ve actually sat down and thought things out, it’s just not that scary anymore.

Failing Before You Start

Now that you know that the outcome of actually failing – precisely what you were so afraid of – isn’t actually a big deal, it’s even worse to let fear of failure stop you from working toward your dreams.

I’m always completely amazed when people say they wish they could do something, but are too afraid of failure to start, and then get frustrated that they can’t follow their dreams. It amazes me because if you never try, all you can do is fail.

I understand completely the fear of striking out, but refusing to swing or even to step up to the plate all because you might strike out is ludicrous. In order to avoid the unpleasantness of failing, people make themselves fail from the outset by giving up.

I’m reminded of a quote from the signature of a member of a Parkour community I was a part of four or five years ago, I’m not sure who to attribute it to but it went something like this – “The only way to fail is to give up or to die, and I’m not giving up.”

The point is, as long as you’re alive and willing to keep trying, you haven’t failed yet. If that’s the case, why be so scared of failing? If giving up is the only real way to fail, why give up to avoid failure?

Getting Used to Being a Failure

If you are particularly scared of failing, I highly suggest you try this.

In the past, I used to be afraid of failure in a lot of areas. I was great at rolling with the bad stuff when it came my way, but there were a lot of opportunities that I could have taken that I passed up because I was scared of the potential consequences. Learning to look at things honestly and see how inconsequential the consequences of failure usually are helped a ton.

If you need a little more help getting over it, I suggest you try a little exercise to condition yourself to failure. Every so often, maybe once a week, find something you’re doing and allow yourself to fail at it.

It’s best to pick something inherently benign (I don’t want a flood of e-mails blaming me for failed marriages, that’s your fault) since you want to make sure there won’t be any bad consequences from the failure. Honestly, whatever you pick you’ll start to see that your failure really didn’t matter. The world is still here. No one died. Your life isn’t ruined.

After a few of these practice sessions failing, when you actual find yourself faced with something you’re scared of failing at, you can think back to those times and remember that it really isn’t such a big deal – there’s no reason to be nervous.

The only way to fail is to give up or die.

Have any of these techniques worked for you? Have you used some other way to conquer your fear of failure? Tell us about it!

The Paleo/Primal Diet 101: The Basics

Caveman by Sabeth718

Thankfully, eating like a caveman is a lot easier than it used to be.

I eat like a caveman.

Well, ok, not exactly like a caveman. We don’t know with 100% certainty how pre-agricultural man ate and I admit to enjoying the occasional bottle of wine, bar of chocolate or aged cheese – all of which I can pretty comfortably say wouldn’t have been easily available 20,000 years ago. Let’s not get too bogged down in particulars here though, compared to the vast majority of my modern man compatriots I eat like a caveman.

So why do I eat like a caveman and not the way everyone else eats? Let’s take a look at two average specimens of good ol’ Homo Sapiens and see if we can’t solve this riddle.

  • Caveman – Our paleolithic specimen is tall, even by today’s standards. He’s what most people would probably call ‘ripped’ (think Olympic gymnast or sprinter) with a body used to running down animals twice his size for dinner and running from animals twice his size to not be dinner. He gets a good nap in everyday, and even has straight, cavity-free teeth.
  • Businessman – Now our modern day speciman on the other hand, is several inches shorter than his ancestor. What he lacks in height, he makes up in girth as he’s currently 60 lbs. overweight. He gets winded if he takes the stairs at work, and needs several strong stimulants to make it to lunch which comes from a box or a drivethrough window. Oh, and he’s already losing his hair at 30.

So what happened? In a word, agriculture. Mankind had just spent around 100,000 years slowly adapting and evolving to live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. 100 millenia’s worth of subtle, trial-and-error tweaks had made us pretty good at living in that environment.

Then, we had to go and mess things up.

Ok, so agriculture wasn’t all bad. We wouldn’t be here today without it. Agriculture provided a surplus of food, which let us settle down and invent the Internet. Eventually, anyway. The problem is, this all happened in the span of about 10,000 years. That may seem like a long time, but in evolutionary terms that is less than a blink of the eye.

It’s like waiting until you’re 95 years old and then deciding you want to be a professional linebacker – our bodies just couldn’t handle the sudden change. We had enough food to survive, but that food made us sicker, shorter and weaker than we had been a few thousand years previous.

The main culprit? Grains. We didn’t really eat grains before we domesticated them. They can be hard to find, they have to be processed to be consumable, and they have comparatively little to offer nutritionally.

Grains, unlike some other plants, don’t want us to eat them. They are full of two very nasty chemicals, lectins and gluten. Both of these cause systemic damage to the human body, causing inflammation, intestinal damage, allergic reactions and all sorts of other unpleasant things.

On top of this, grains consist almost entirely of carbohydrates. Extremely dense sources of carbohydrates are extremely diffcult to find when living as a hunter-gatherer and as a result, made up very little of our ancestors’ diet. Our bodies adapted to make the most of the carbohydrates that they could get.

The basic process is that carbs are turned into glucose which is then used for energy and to feed your brain and help some other body processess. The extra glucose is then stored as fat since, back then anyway, big doses of carbs were few and far-between and times of starvation were a real risk.

There’s more to the process involving Insulin and some other fascinating bits of body chemistry, but I’ll leave that for another time. The point is, too many carbs in our diet nowadays makes us fat. We don’t have to battle a horde of irate bees over their honey to get a sugar rush anymore, we just have to open a box of cookies or down a soft drink. That’s bad.

So how do we fix it? We eat like cavemen! Or at least as close to it as necessary to get the benefit of expressing our genetics in the way evolution shaped them to be expressed.

What do I eat?

  • Meat – Sorry vegetarians, but this lifestyle probably isn;t going to work for you. I’m being all-inclusive with this category. Beef, pork, chicken, fish, eggs, & any other animal it is societally acceptable to consume. You want all your meat to be grass-fed, not grain-fed. It’s worth checking into, since eating a grain based diet is just as bad for the animals you eat as it is for you. You want your eggs to come from free-range chickens (Omega-3 enriched are a nice bonus) and your fish to be wild, not farmed.
  • Vegetables – Go crazy. Eat as many different vegetables as you can handle but stay away from the extremely starchy vegetables whenever possible. This includes potatoes. Sorry. Also stay away from corn. Corn is a grain, not a vegetable, and is particularly bad for you, especially since it is in everything now.
  • Fruits – This is the only place you should be getting your sugars from. I indulge in a bar of dark chocolate every once in a while too, but it is extremely rare. Too many fruits may hamper weight loss efforts a bit, but for overall health they’re great.
  • Fats – Stick to good, naturally made fats. That means no to margarine, shortening, canola oil, vegetable oil and peanut oil. The why’s are somewhat complex, but you’re far better off sticking to olive oil, lard, butter, avocado oil & one of my personal favorites, coconut oil.
  • Extras – Things like nuts and seeds can make a fantastic paleo appropriate snack, or a good way to bump calorie intake up a bit if you’re having trouble adjusting to the diet changes. Be careful though, nuts and seeds pack a lot of calories in a little package and shouldn’t be eaten in too large of amounts.

That’s it! That’s what I eat. Now on to what’s equally as important.

What do I not eat?

  • Grains – This one should’ve been obvious. This also includes anything that has grains in it. That means no bread & no baked goods. It also means no corn and nothing with high fructose corn syrup in it (trust me, you won’t miss that).
  • Refined Sugar – All the sugar in my diet comes from either fruit, honey or the previously mentioned occasional treat. No more soft drinks, no more sugar in your coffee and no more candy.
  • Dairy – There’s a lot of arguments about this one. On one hand, our ancestors never would have drank milk past infancy, and certainly not that of another species. That being said, a lot of people can handle milk tolerably well, and butter – though our ancestors may not have had it – seems to not have any of the detriments of other dairy items. Personally, I avoid milk, eat lots of butter (from grass-fed cows), and enjoy a good aged cheese now and again.
  • This is the basic outline of what it means to eat like a caveman. I could explain all the health benefits, talk about all the people who have gotten into the best shape of their lives eating this way or share my own personal story, but who cares about all that? My advice, try it for 30 days. 30 days is nothing, and if you don’t feel like a whole new person you can always go right back to eating donuts and drinking soda.

    Anyone have any personal success stories they would like to share? Leave them in the comments!

5 Easy Ways to Improve Your Quality of Life

Checklist by Adesigna

You'll be doing yourself a big favor by checking a few of these off your list.

You’re going to hear this from me a lot, so get used to it – before long, you’re going to be dead. I don’t mean that as a threat or anything, I’ll be dead too, it’s just that we really don’t get very long to live. As a male in the U.S., ranked #36 in world life expectancy at the time of writing, I’m told I’ve got about 75 years total. At 23 years old, that means one full third of my projected life is gone already, and most of that time has been spent wasting away in compulsory schooling.

With that in mind, don’t you think it’s a good idea to try out this list of 5 easy little things that you can do to improve your quality of life for what time you do have here?

  1. Smile More – This is number one because it’s the easiest and will have a big effect not just on you, but everyone around you. Smile more. It’s not hard, and the positive effects it will have will make a noticeable difference in your life. You’ll be happier, people around you will be happier and everyone will like you more. It doesn’t just improve your quality of life, it helps improve their quality of life too. Everybody wins.
  2. Be Grateful – Appreciate what you have and don’t let it get you down when stuff goes wrong or when you can’t get what you want. Calm down, chill out and take a moment to realize that you’ve got it pretty good. Now, I’m not saying you should get complacent, but if you can read this and live in a modern industrialized nation then it’s reasonably likely you have nothing major to complain about.
  3. Go Play – I considered saying, “Get Some Exercise” instead of “Go Play”, but that sounds too much like work. Don’t get me wrong getting some physical exercise will make you happier (endorphins and such), but why stop there? Go play! I don’t mean video games either, go play a good physically active game. ‘We don’t stop playing when we get old, we get old when we stop playing’ and as over-used as that saying is its got a lot of truth to it. Taking some time for a game of Ultimate or tag will do more for improving your quality of life and well-being than you think.
  4. Get Some Sun – Sunlight is an extraordinarily powerful thing. We are built with a natural need for sunlight, to the point where not getting enough of it can cause clinical depression. Exposure to sunlight doesn’t just provide us with the ever essential Vitamin D, but also gives a natural sense of well-being and contentedness. Besides, the majority of us spend way too much time entombed indoors bathed in harsh incandescence. Get outside or buy some full spectrum lights.
  5. Be Social – Even if you’re a hardcore introvert, stepping out of your shell a little bit and socializing with people – in person, not online – will improve your quality of life more than you think. You don’t have to go crazy, but take a chance and meet someone new, or at least spend a little extra time in the good company of the friends you already have. Life is to be enjoyed, and sharing it with people you care about is one of the best ways to do that.

Now these five things may not be completely life-changing (I did say 5 easy things), but they will all make a noticeable difference in how much you enjoy the time you’ve got. In the end, that’s the important thing.

Do you have any easy changes you’ve made that have made a big improvement in the quality of your life? We’d love to hear them!

Learn Languages with Chrome

Cloud Gate by Anca Mosolu

This isn't the chrome we mean, nor is it what we mean when we refer to 'The Cloud'...

No, not chrome the metal – Google Chrome. After I talked about using it to automatically translate pages you would normally view in your native language into your target language, several people have been asking how to do it. Enough people have asked that I decided to just make it into a quick how-to.

For those who have been living under rocks for the past year or two, Google Chrome is a web browser developed and released by Google. Personally, I’m fond of it. Not just because it’s fast, but because of all the handy little tricks you can make it do – at this point, I’ve almost completely been converted over from Firefox. You can get Google Chrome from Chrome’s download page.

Now that that’s taken care of, to make Google Chrome translate pages from your native tongue to your target one, open Chrome (derp) and go to the Options menu by clicking on the little picture of the wrench (spanner if you’re across the pond) and selecting Options.

The Options menu will open, and you then select Under the Hood.

Once you’ve done that, go to where it says Web Content and click on the button that reads Language and Spell-Checker Settings.

This opens a new menu where you can add and select new languages. Click on the Add button, and use the drop down menu that opens up to find your target language. Once you’ve found it, select it. After you’ve selected it, it will be added to your Languages list. Click Display Google Chrome in this Language and it will then prompt you to restart. Make sure you don’t have any important windows open (though Chrome will save them for you) and click Restart.

Congratulations! Chrome is now in your target language! Now, in addition to being able to learn all of the words relating to just operating Chrome, every time you visit a page in your native language, a bar will appear at the top of the screen asking if you wish to translate this page into your target language. All you have to do is click the word for ‘Yes’ (usually the one on the left) and Chrome will automatically translate everything it can on that page into your target language.

So to recap, that’s: Options>Under the Hood>Web Content>Language and Spell-Checker Settings>[Your target language]>Add>Restart (The button, not your computer).

Now, it is still important to seek out genuine, native speaker written content whenever you can. This is an automated translator and it is hardly perfect. That being said, Google Translate is one of my favorites as far as actually coming up with proper translations. If you want similar functionality, but just can’t bear the idea of changing your browser into all your target language (why not?), you can always go download the Google Translator Chrome extension.

Once it’s installed, it will add a little translate icon to the top of Chrome, which you can then click and have it translate the page you’re on into the language of your choosing. The best part about using either of these methods, is that when a page is translated you can hover over a word to see what it originally said. This is a fantastic way to let you read a little beyond your level in your target language, without needing to constantly reach for a dictionary or copy/paste into a translator.

Any other tricks you know to make Chrome (or any other browser) help you learn a language? Share them with us in the comments.

Learn to Write in Your Target Language Without Ever Studying

Hangul Street Sign by Camera on Autopilot

Learning a new writing system can be easier than you think.


So far I have learned to write in two syllabaries (Hiragana & Katakana) and two alphabets (Hangul & Cyrillic). That’s not counting English, German and Chinese since I learned English natively, the German is barely different from English’s and learning to write in a logography is an entirely different process. Mostly by accident, I approached the learning of each one in a completely different way and by doing so have figured out what the biggest roadblock is when trying to learn a new writing system.

Too much studying.

Hiragana and Katakana I learned almost entirely by traditional study. Cyrillic I learned with half study, half use and Hangul I learned entirely by use after trying to study it a year ago and failing. After my experiences with Hangul I realized that the harder I worked and the more I studied, the worse my gains were.

Hiragana / Katakana

I learned to write in Hiragana and Katakana in an environment that most people would think is the best you can get, a structured college course at a big university. Ironically, not only did it take the very longest to learn, but I still go blank on some of the Katakana at times. Since the textbook the professor selected used only Hiragana and Katakana after the first chapter, we spent the first two weeks of the class just learning the syllabaries.

Every lesson and all our homework for the first week consisted of essentially nothing but writing each character over, and over, and over, and over, and over again with the goal of memorizing them all. Can you guess how well that worked? Everyone did terribly.

By the end of the week, most people had only a halfway decent grasp of the characters. Nevertheless, our teacher kept going and we started on the first chapter. I kept up the memorization tactics, and tacked on the new homework on top of it. Being forced now to read and write in Hiragana, I noticed my recognition of the characters getting faster. I also noticed I was able to recall a lot more of them when I was writing. I chalked it up at the time to my continuation of the list writing, as well as making little flashcards for each character and studying them obsessively. Oddly enough, my Katakana recognition and production didn’t improve nearly as fast as my Hiragana.

Cyrillic

Fast forward a few years and you find me in a Russian class at the same university. Our professor tells us the first day that we have to learn how to read and write Cyrillic first, in both print and cursive, before we can get going on the textbook. I think I audibly sighed when she told us. Here we go again, weeks and weeks of memorization and repetition.

Figuring I’d get a head start, I dove into it as soon as I could. I made my flashcards and I started doing my list writing. Didn’t help a bit. I progressed just as slowly as my classmates, all of us moving at a rate dismally reminiscent of my previous experiences in my Japanese class.

Fed up with it, and not wanting to waste anymore time before learning what I really cared about, speaking Russian, I just skipped ahead and started going through the first chapter of the textbook on my own. It was slow, since I didn’t really know how to read Cyrillic, but I made it work by flipping back to the chart at the beginning of the book to remind myself of the sounds each character stood for. By the time I hit the end of the chapter, something interesting had happened.

I knew the Cyrillic alphabet.

While the rest of the class was still struggling terribly, I had ditched the idea of studying and had just started working on other things is which I was forced to use Cyrillic. I started to think I was on to something.

Hangul

Fast forward one more time, to just before I graduated. Caroline and I wanted to learn Korean, but the university we attended didn’t offer it anymore. We decided we would just study it on our own. After all, we’d been through enough language classes, we could figure it out as long as we had a proper textbook. One college level textbook on Korean later, we dove right in.

If I were continuing the pool metaphor, this would be the point where I realized it was empty, and I broke my spine from the fall.

I failed miserably at learning Hangul, let alone Korean. I had used all my old methods, repetition, flashcards, rote memorization. Yet by the end of it, I only knew the sounds of five or six of the letters – and even then I often got them mixed up. Feeling defeated, I pretty much gave up.

Fast forward again (last one, I promise) to this year. I find myself working as a waiter in a new Korean restaurant. I write down the orders I take in English, while everyone else writes them using Hangul. All of the notes and things they post are in Hangul (though they usually realize and put English under it a while afterward). I am essentially surrounded by Hangul.

I frequently find myself asking the other servers, the chefs and anyone else who speaks Korean to tell me what the Hangul says. After a few times of having my poor English handwriting read the wrong way, I pick a few dishes and learn how to write them copying the other servers, and start writing those few dishes in Hangul instead of English. Before long, without ever really studying what sound each letter represents, I find I can kind of figure new words out. Not long after that, and my Hangul is now better than my Katakana.

Applying What I Learned

I’ve said it several times already – the key to learning a new language is to practice it, not study it. That’s why I had such success with Hangul, and such failure with Katakana. The Hangul I was forced to use because of being at work so much. Katakana I studied a ton but, since Katakana words come up a lot less in Japanese than Hiragana words, I never got to use it all that much.

So rather than studying, start reading. Find a basic chart of what sound each character makes, and set it off to the side. Google should be able to find one for you, if not any good basic textbook for your target language should start with one. Once you have that chart set aside, find something in the target script to read.

Newspapers are good, since they’re easy to find online, but anything will work. Again, Google is your friend here. You can find lots of reading material by translating the word ‘news’ or any other topic of interest into your target language via Google Translate and pasting it into the search box.

It will be extremely slow going. At first, you’ll probably be spending equal time looking at what you’re trying to read, and the chart you set aside for help. That’s alright, before long you’ll be looking at the chart less and less. Pretty soon you won’t need it at all. Congratulations! You can now read in the script of your target language.

Once you have that down (or concurrently if you like) start learning to write some words in your target language using the native script. Using very common nouns is a good place to start. A good way to both learn the script and tie the new word in with its real world equivalent rather than its English translation is to carry a notepad around and write the word down every time you see that item. For example, every time you walk by the fridge, scribble down the word for refrigerator in your target script. It may not be the most practical, but it will definitely help you a ton.

Another way is to write words from English using the target script. This can be a little more difficult though if the target script contains characters for lots of sounds that just aren’t present in English.

So what are your thoughts? Have you had more success with immersion, studying, or a little bit of both?

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