Why You Need Two Types of Reading to Learn a Language

intensive reading extensive reading language learning

Failing to use both intensive and extensive reading when learning a language is a big mistake.

Most people who are learning a second language understand how important it is to read material in their target language.

Even if your goal is purely conversational – maybe you just want to be able to watch movies or only need to use the new language in business calls – and literacy isn’t a concern at all, reading is still too powerful a tool to pass up. I’m all about having conversations as soon and as often as possible in your new language, but I’d never do it at the complete expense of reading.

The problem is, most people don’t recognize the differences between the two ways to approach reading in a target language. If you aren’t making full use of both, you’re making things unnecessarily hard on yourself.

Intensive Reading vs. Extensive Reading

It’s easy to think of reading in a target language like you might think of reading in your native language, as a relatively passive & relaxed kind of activity. That’s one way to do it, but there’s a second option you’re missing out on if that’s the only way you’re approaching your reading. You need a good balance between Extensive and Intensive reading, not just a focus on one or the other.

So what’s the difference between the two?

Extensive Reading

Extensive reading, to make a fitness analogy, is your relaxed low intensity steady state cardio. It’s going for a long walk at the end of the night or spending a little time just strolling leisurely on the treadmill. This type of reading is the kind of reading most people do in their native language – broad, relaxed, and casual. Think about curling up somewhere cozy with a novel, that’s the feel of extensive reading.

Extensive reading will technically take up more of your time than intensive reading. So what’s it good for?

  • Increasing Reading Speed/Fluency – Extensive reading is great for increasing your reading and comprehension speed since it’s a lot of slow constant practice. The more time you spend reading the more comfortable and habitual it feels as your brain builds all the little shortcuts to make for more rapid word and idea association.

  • Internalization of Grammar – Another benefit of extensive reading’s nature of being long and somewhat repetitive is that you’ll start to internalize common grammatical structures without thinking about it too much. When you’re exposed to the past participle form three hundred times reading a novel for an hour you stop thinking about it.

  • It’s Relaxing – I really enjoy learning languages, in the way other people might enjoy playing games or some other hobby, but even I hit times when studying or practicing just feels like work. Extensive reading is prefect for those times because the idea is to do it for fun. You’re not really worrying about whether you understand 100% of the material, or that you’re looking up unfamiliar words and adding them to a study list, it’s just the literary equivalent of plopping on the couch and watching some TV.

The keys to extensive reading is to set aside a moderate to long stretch of time to read, and to select something that’s either appropriate for your level of understanding, or even something a little below your level.

The goal here isn’t to have your dictionary and notebook handy, but just to read. Make sure you do pick something interesting, the goal here is to have fun. Novels (especially bilingual reader versions), magazines, and comic books are all good options in my opinion, but you may personally love reading personal style blogs or online automotive reviews – just find whatever is most enjoyable.

Once you’ve got something all you have to do is read. That’s it. Relax and enjoy. It’s not supposed to be intense, unlike…

Intensive Reading

If extensive reading is your long slow steady state cardio, then intensive reading is your high intensity interval training. This is the reading equivalent of doing hill sprints – short, intense, and focused.

The purpose of intensive reading is to dive deep into focused study of a text that’s beyond your current level, but not impossibly so, and deconstructing it as much as possible to tease out colloquialisms, implied or finer meanings of words, non-standard grammar usage, etc. What does intensive reading help most with?

  • Learning Colloquialisms – This depends a little on the material you’re selecting, a formal business report for example is less likely to contain the number of colloquialisms a blog post might, but intensive reading is a great way to single out and deconstruct usages that are more reflective of real life and less the inside of a textbook.

  • Developing Targeted Vocab Lists – Intensive reading also provides a good source for building vocab lists or study decks around things you’re interested in, or things relevant to the reason you’re learning the language in the first place. If you’re learning German because you’re being sent to a conference on gardening, then material on gardening and botany will provide more useful vocab for you than a book for tourists.

  • Comprehension Testing – Since you’re taking the time to dig deep into whatever material you’ve selected for reading, it provides an excellent opportunity for comprehension testing. After your first pass reading you can circle back and start deconstructing everything to see if you actually understood the material and what things tripped you up or meant something other than what you originally thought.

It’s important for intensive reading practice to keep sessions short. Treat it like you’re cramming for a test the next morning on whatever it is you’ve chosen to read, make lots of notes, look up words you don’t know, dig into unfamiliar grammars and usages to see if you can work them out.

Like those hill sprints, these should be brief but difficult. Pick a text that provides the right amount of brevity and challenge, you want it to be above your current reading and comprehension level but still fairly short. Wikipedia articles, news sites, and blogs are often good choices depending on how casual of language you’re looking for since they tend to be short and focused but still interesting.

Treat it like studying because that’s exactly what it is.

Finding the Right Balance

I would never prescribe someone nothing but slow, easy walks for someone looking to get fit nor would I prescribe daily hill sprints and barbell complexes – you need to have an appropriate balance of both to be successful.

Now where that balance is will certainly differ from person to person. Someone just starting out who is untrained and substantially overweight might do lots of walking and only one higher intensity session per week, someone who’s a high level athlete with an understanding of proper recovery might be able to handle five higher intensity sessions a week. The trick is figuring out what works best for you.

The balance between extensive reading and intensive reading is the same.

Some people might do better with more relaxed extensive reading to complement their other studies, especially if there’s severely limited amounts of time available for focused study that could be better spent with a teacher or native speaker. Others might find that they do better with a lot of deep dives into particular topics, especially if their reason for learning is tied to topics or factors related to the sorts of reading material they’re diving in to. There isn’t a perfect ratio for everyone, but the key is to be sure that you’re not devoting all your time to one and not any to the other.

Do you have any thoughts on extensive or intensive reading you want to add? Any tips for making either more effective or pitfalls to keep an eye out for? Share them with us!

How to Game Your Environment to Work Better

Optimize environment for productivity

A messy environment can do more harm than you realize.

As a part of starting to write more fiction I took the advice of smarter people than myself and made Stephen King’s On Writing a piece of my required reading.

One of the things that jumped out at me is how much he emphasizes setting aside a special area just for you to do your writing in. King argues that having a special place that is set up specifically for you to write and do nothing else not only helps you ignore distractions, but also helps trigger that creative mindset because your subconscious knows when you sit down in that particular spot it’s time to write.

This is powerful advice. Our environments have a huge effect on our behaviors and moods that we can’t always be aware of.

So why limit the benefits of reshaping our environment to just writing?

Making Your Environment Work for You

The environment people are in constantly shapes what they do, think, and feel. This is visible on a large scale in things like the way the presence of animals that were more or less easy to domesticate (horses, sheep, and cattle in Europe vs. lions, water buffalo, giraffes, etc. in Sub-Saharan Africa) made things like widespread agriculture more or less feasible which affected the lives and futures of everyone living there. It’s visible on smaller scales in the way that people given smaller plates will eat less, or the way people will generally be more cheerful in a bright, sunny room than a dark one.

Once you understand the effect that your surroundings can have, you can start to take control of it. These environmental forces can work both for or against you – so why not make sure you’re giving yourself a boost instead of shooting yourself in the foot before the race even starts?

Remove Negative Environmental Factors

The first step should always be to remove whatever negative elements are in the environment you’re trying to optimize.

Depending on what environment you’re talking about and what you’re optimizing for, this can mean a wide variety of things. Are you wanting to sleep better? Then removing things that give off light like electronics (or at least unplugging them so the LEDs turn off) and setting up curtains or blinds sufficient to keep the room dark at night would qualify as removing the negative factor of there being too much light.

If you want to optimize your environment for losing weight and getting fit, then emptying your house of all the junk food and other stuff that doesn’t fit within your macro and calorie plan would be a good start. Do you need somewhere to be as productive as possible? Then making sure that place is set up with something to block you from social media (or maybe the Internet entirely) will help cut down on distractions.

There isn’t a definitive list of negatives to remove – instead you should approach your area first with the question, “What is my goal here?” Then once you’ve answered that ask, “What things in this space hinder my progress toward that goal?” After that it’s just down to removing them or at the very least putting things into place to mitigate their negative effects.

Maximize Positive Environmental Factors

Once you’ve gotten all the stuff out of there that was holding you back, start priming your environment with things that will support your success.

Again, there’s no definitive list here, it will depend on what particular goals you’re trying to optimize your environment for. Better sleep might be aided by regulating the temperature of the bedroom and getting your bed set up with the right pillows and blankets. Your fitness goals might be be made easier to achieve by keeping your gym clothes out and ready to go so there’s no excuse to skip the gym, or by ensuring your fridge is stocked with prepared meals that fit your eating plan.

Even something as small as making sure that your desk is tidy or that you have a nice big window letting a lot of natural light in to your chosen work area can make a surprisingly big difference. The idea is to follow the reverse process of what we did above, identify what things will make you more likely to do what needs to be done to reach your goal, and optimize your environment around those things.

If you can, there’s a lot of benefit as well to assigning a certain goal task or activity to a very specific controlled area and ensuring that you only do that thing in that area and nothing else. For example, if you have an area set up to work, or write, then only do that there – don’t put Steam on that computer and also use that spot to play games or waste time on Facebook and Twitter. If you want to get better sleep, then your bed should be reserved for sleeping or for sex (to be fair, sex is one activity I’ll concede can be done just about anywhere) and nothing else. No eating in bed, no watching TV in bed, no reading in bed, etc.

This specialization of the area helps condition your brain into triggering the habits built around your goal whenever you’re in the area. If all you do in bed is sleep, your brain knows it’s time to sleep when you get under the covers and will help you fall asleep faster. If all you do in a certain chair or at a certain desk is write, your brain knows when you sit down there that, even if it’s feeling uninspired or wants to do something else, it is time to get some words down.

Even if you don’t go to the extremes to optimize your environment to suit your goals, be aware of the ways it might be affecting you. Knowing that it might not be your fault you keep getting distracted and can’t get work done, or knowing that there are ways to help trick yourself into being more productive that you don’t even need to think about can be an empowering idea.

Do you have any other thoughts on ways to reshape our environments to be more successful? Have you had firsthand experience with some of the benefits of a good environment or the effects of a poor one? Leave a comment and share!

Creating and Using a Personal Language Learning Notebook

Language Learning Notebook

I’m a fan of Code and Quill notebooks, but there are lots of options for putting together a language learning notebook.

Confession time – I am a bit of a notebook addict.

Okay, ‘a bit’ is too soft of phrasing. A serious notebook addict. I tend to fall more on the eco-conscious, paperless, ‘let’s digitize everything’ side, but there is just something about the experience of sitting down with a nice, physical notebook to draw or write in that I just love. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that a notebook has always factored heavily in my language learning.

Regardless of my proclivities for fine stationary, I’ve found keeping a notebook like this to be a huge benefit to learning a language. It helps with motivation, planning, lesson structuring, memorization – just about every area of language learning except conversing with another human being. The trick is in knowing how to make the most of it.

Let me show you my favorite ways for building and benefiting from a personal language learning notebook.

Prepping the Language Learning Notebook

First things first, you’ll need a notebook.

Personally I am very fond of Code and Quill notebooks, particularly for language learning. They’re reasonably priced, come in both hard and soft cover, have lay-flat binding, offer a range of sizes, use paper with little to no bleed through, and they have both dot grid and indent ruled pages which make them great for working with languages with non-romanized writing systems like Mandarin, Russian, Greek, Korean, etc.

For my language journals I prefer the Monolith since I like a larger notebook, but all of them are good. You can buy them directly from their website if affiliate links bother you, or you can get the Monolith, the Origin, or the Traveler through Amazon and we’ll get a small cut.

As much as I like them you can really use any kind of notebook or journal you want for this task, even a ten cent spiral bound notebook from a back to school sale. I would recommend finding one you really like though because the more you like the notebook itself the more inclined you’ll be to use it.

Once you’ve got your notebook there are a lot of different ways you can set it up in order to facilitate better language learning. Take everything here as more of a suggestion than a rule – I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of how I set things up but personalization is fantastic. It’s your notebook.

I always like to start mine off with a goal sheet at the very front, and then planning, resources, and the meat of the notebook after that. Here are my general set-up pages:

  • Goal Page – The goal page tends to go right up at the front for obvious reasons. This isn’t just a sheet with ‘Goals’ written in big letters at the top and then ‘Speak Japanese’ (or whatever language) scrawled underneath. I tend to lay out my goal page first with a specific big picture goal and a time frame for it. For example a specific big picture goal might be ‘Test at B2 Level in Swedish’ or ‘Be able to understand an entire film in Cantonese’. Then I set a time frame that I want to shoot for and write that down next to it.

    Even though for me (because I just really enjoy learning languages) these tend to be fluency oriented goals that doesn’t mean yours have to be. If you’re just learning German to prep for a couple weeks of studying abroad or to not look like an ass on a business trip, then your goal might be something like ‘Be able to order food at a restaurant’ or ‘Be able to have a basic five minute conversation’ along with a much shorter time frame. That’s totally fine.

    Below the big picture goal, I like to put a halfway goal or a benchmark goal. So using my first example, this one might be ‘Test at A2 Level in Swedish’. Sometimes I include time frames with these, sometimes not. If it helps you to stay on track, go for it. Below that I’ll mark down another benchmark goal that’s about halfway to my halfway goal, like ‘Test at A1 Level in Swedish’. Finally, I like to list out any recurring goals or habit goals I think will help me get there. Things like ‘Do at least one 10 minute Memrise session per day’, ‘Schedule two iTalki sessions with a native speaker per week’, etc. These last ones are all recurring, repeatable goals that keep me on track and making progress.

  • Planning Page – Following the goals page I usually lay out my planning page or pages. The idea here is to lay out as much as I can about how I intend to reach all those goals I just set on the previous page. I like to structure it around a series of questions I ask myself and then write down the answers to. First, what level am I at currently? You might not be starting this out at zero, and it’s nice to have a good appraisal of where you’re actually beginning.

    How will I measure progress? Having as quantifiable a way as possible of measuring progress is way more important than you think for staying motivated and knowing you’re on the right track. It can be as simple as the progress bar on Memrise, Anki, or Duolingo, or it can be as complicated as posting a weekly YouTube video in your target language or having a native speaker give you a full assessment via Skype or in person. The point is to plan out and write down how you intend to gauge your progress as you learn.

    When will I fit this into my schedule? Learning a language takes time. Like learning an instrument, you need to set aside specific times to study and to practice. Not knowing when exactly you plan to do these things is a surefire way to wind up too busy to do them or just outright forgetting. Like with the others, go as specific or general as you need here – anywhere from ‘Every Tuesday and Thursday evening I’ll study for an hour’ to ‘3 p.m. to 4 p.m. daily I study vocab, and 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. is conversation practice’. Know how much time you’ve got and how you plan to spend it.

  • Resource List – On my resource list pages I like to, well, list all my resources. This is partially to not forget new things when I come across them, and part to make sure I have a wide variety of study tools to pull from since I get bored easily. Put down specific things like ‘Memrise 1,000 word Frequency Deck’ or ‘My Korean Book 1’ and general stuff like ‘Watching movies’ or ‘Reading online news’. The idea is to make this more expansive than limiting so I always leave a blank page or two where I can fill in books, specific YouTube channels, podcasts, websites, and whatever else I find as I go.

    You’ll always find more great resources after you’ve started, so leave plenty of room and always be hunting out things to fill that blank space with.

  • Optional: Table of Contents – I don’t use this one much myself, since I like flipping around in my notebook more to be reminded of all the things I went over and generally if there’s something I want to ‘look up’ it’s easier to use Google than my personal notes.

    Still, some people really like having a table of contents. If you do think you’ll want one just leave a couple blank pages before you start your actual note taking and then as you fill the rest of the notebook flip back in whatever increments you want things organized in and write down the name of that section and the page number. Once your notebook’s filled your table of contents will be finished too.

Those are the main prep pages I like to start with. If you can think of others you think would help you then definitely add them (and leave a comment about it to help the rest of us out too). After those we get into the meat of the notebook itself.

How to Use Your Language Learning Notebook

Now that you’ve done all your prep work, how do you make the most out of the journal itself? Here are some of my favorite ways that I’ve found help me the most – again, feel free to mix and match and add your own as necessary.

  • Taking Notes – I realize you don’t need to be told to take notes in a notebook, but it’s still worth mentioning. Copying down vocab lists, summarizing lessons, writing out grammar ‘rules’ in your own words, transcribing dialogue from shows and movies, these are all great ways to help solidify and retain what you’re learning in your study sessions.

  • Lesson Review Outlines – A lesson review or lesson review outline is different from regular notes in that rather than copying things down as you learn them, you basically try to summarize the entire lesson on a sheet or two immediately afterward from memory. These give you a good outline to then compare and review against your lesson notes because it tells you what stuck from the lesson and what elements you didn’t remember as well. They’re also a good resource for building…

  • Quizzes – It might seem like cheating to take a quiz that you put together yourself since theoretically you had to already know all the answers to make the quiz, but writing out basic quizzes from your notes and lesson reviews and then circling back to them a few days, a week, or a month later and seeing how well you do is a great test. That spaced repetitive recall pattern also helps you remember things better for longer.

  • Lesson Records – This is more for people who are incorporating classes or things like iTalki sessions with a native speaker. The idea here is to note down things like the date and length of the session (if necessary), what you focused on, key notes from the lesson, what new things you learned, and a study or topic to-do list before the next session.

    More than once I have finished out a lesson over Skype and, due to timezone differences, gone straight to bed only to realize the next morning that I had basically forgotten everything we went over. I’ve also had times where I had to go longer than a week between sessions and totally lost the thread of what we were working on before the following session. Keep good records, don’t waste your lessons.

  • Progress Reviews – Just having written down some way to quantify progress at the beginning of the notebook isn’t going to do much if you don’t actually sit down and measure your progress against it.

    I like to include a half-page to a page in regular increments where I assess where my current progress level is, and then refer back to my previous progress review entry to get a feel for what kind of rate I’m progressing at. Not only does this help motivate me, it’s helpful to be able to see if something has caused my progress to slow or if the addition of new study materials or habits has accelerated my learning. I know. I’m a huge nerd. It’s fine.

  • Compositions and Dialogues – Writing out your own little diary entries, made up conversations, stories, or whatever else in the target language is a great way to practice new vocab and grammar in a way that’s not as abstract as memorizing lists and trying to internalize rules outside of actual context. You can write about whatever you want, it’s always good practice.

    Personally, I like to write things out by hand in my notebook, then transcribe them from there into Lang-8 or to send them to native speakers I know to get the mistakes corrected, then go back and correct all my errors with a red pen in my physical notebook. Then every now and again I’ll go back through the old corrected entries and see if I’m still making the same errors or if there are certain things I need to focus on more because I keep screwing them up.

  • Visual Vocab – Do you like to doodle? Rather than write 犬 on one side of the page and ‘dog’ next to it, draw a little dog and then write the word over it, or inside it, or whatever without having to involve the English word ‘dog’.

    Even if you can’t draw well at all it doesn’t matter – these are your personal notes not a contest submission. The point is to help your brain associate the word in your target language with the thing it represents, and not teach your brain to associate the word in the target language with a word in English, which it then associates with the thing it represents. It seems like a small distinction, but it can make a big difference in how well words come to mind when you’re speaking and listening.

  • Study Log – Like the table of contents, this is one I don’t tend to use much but enough people have expressed how much they feel it helps them so you can include one if you like. A study log is just a section, usually reserved at the end of the notebook, where you can log the date, duration, and method for your study sessions.

    I prefer tracking my progress in other ways, but if you think you’ll be most motivated by seeing that you’ve put in an hour of study every day for the last ten days or if you need to track your study hours for work or school or some other reason then leaving a couple pages at the end works well for it.

Make It Your Own

These are just some of my personal favorite ways to use the notebook, but I’m sure this is not in any way an exhaustive list of all the ways you can use it to study better and more efficiently.

Add in whatever other suggestions you come across that you think will help, or things you think up that you enjoy having in there. The idea is to build something for your learning process that you can get excited about and feel invested in, and personalization is a great way to accomplish that.

Have you tried putting together a language learning notebook? Do you have any other ideas for using one you think everyone will find helpful, or things you’ve had trouble with? Leave a comment and let’s talk about it.

Higher Productivity Through Periodization

Periodization for productivity

Keeping productivity up when you have a high number of projects to juggle can feel next to impossible.

Whether they’re all work related or it’s a mix of business and personal tasks when you start juggling too many different things then something inevitably gets dropped. When you’re in charge of a big project at your office job, trying to schedule things for the family, get your weightlifting in,
keep the house clean and the fridge stocked, learn a new language or skill, and work on some entrepreneurial endeavor all at once things wind up being a mess.

Caroline and I have been there. We are notorious for getting excited about and picking up new projects while still working on old ones. I’ve seen what tends to happen – one or more things get neglected.

Maybe you wind up going a month or two without lifting because of spending too much time on other things. Or maybe you just can’t fit the time in for building your own side income stream and it gets forgotten. How do you make sure you can handle progressing in all these things and getting all this stuff done without accidentally abandoning or neglecting some of them?

Okay – the easy answer is to chill out and stop overloading yourself, but if you’re essentially a pathological goal starter ambitious like us that’s not terribly satisfying. There is a trick I’ve found for making it work out though.

Using periodization.

What Is Periodization?

Periodization is a training methodology used in higher level athletes and weight training in order to maximize results while reducing potential detriments of training, and to prep athletes to compete without the training itself potentially interfering with the athletes ability to compete.

There are a bunch of different types of periodization for a bunch of different purposes, ranging from pursuing different opposing goals in cycles (a cycle of training for speed, then a cycle for max power, etc.) to cycling in order to taper appropriately for an event (such as higher volume / lower intensity cycles shifting into lower volume / higher intensity cycles with more technique focus). The important takeaway here for how we’re going to apply it is to think of it as focusing on a single goal for a set period to the exclusion of other goals.

For example, if I want to work on my endurance at a high level and want to work on my overall maximum strength the type of training needed to improve my endurance would hinder the type of training needed to build max strength and vice versa. To avoid that I’d pick one and work on that for a period while lightly maintaining the other, then switch.

That’s how we’re going to handle your productivity problems.

Applying Periodization to Productivity

So how do we take a sports and weightlifting concept and apply it to productivity?

Well your overloaded project list is a lot like an overloaded list of training goals – when you pursue them all some inevitably interfere with the others. Like an athlete using periodization to make their conflicting training goals play nice together you need to separate these projects into their own little blocks.

The first step is to figure out exactly how many projects (or project categories) you have. You need to have an idea of how many different segments we’re going to build out in the periodized task framework. These can be a bit more on the specific side like noting a concrete task (write weekly article, run 5k, vacuum house, etc.) or they can be more categorical (writing, exercise,
housework, etc.) – the key is to think about how many tasks you have and what feels like it will be more manageable for you.

If you have specific tasks that get repeated regularly, then you might be better off getting more specific. If, on the other hand, you have a lot of varying tasks that fall under a broader category,
then a higher level approach may work better for you. Don’t stress about it too much, you can always rework things if you feel like one way isn’t working out as well as it could.

The next step is to determine and lay out your time scale. Periodization in weightlifting can be scheduled out over a year, two years, four years, etc. depending on the athlete and the goals. Generally I don’t advise using a scale of months or years for the type of periodization we’re using to be more productive because few things have those kinds of timescales in regards to goals and deadlines.

Days and weeks on the other hand tend to work well in my experience. The idea here is to match your tasks out to the number of periods you’re dividing your timescale into. So for example I have Mondays and Thursdays blocked out entirely for work related to Road to Epic, Tuesdays are devoted to working on our podcast, Wednesdays to my fiction writing, Fridays to freelance art/graphic design work and my comics, and Sundays to housework like cleaning or home improvement projects. Sundays are left open, and work related to the day-to-day operation of our brick-and-mortar self-defense school is spread out over the whole week.

This kind of week blocking works well for me for two main reasons: The first is that I’ve broken things down into broad categories that tend to have a large variety of tasks related to them, and so having an entire day or more to devote to whatever things need to be done ensures I have enough time to actually do them. The second is that I already have most of my personal development habits (language study, fitness, meal prep, etc.) locked in and so I don’t need that structure to maintain them.

If you came up with more of a specific repeatable task list, then you can try blocking out hours instead of days. Making 7 a.m. your running time every other day, or blocking out a specific hour each night for language study. Take care if you go this specific route not to overload yourself though, you run the risk of just circling around to the original problem and setting yourself up for a daily schedule that’s untenable.

Embracing a Periodization Mindset

Now, you might be saying, “Wait a minute – isn’t that just making a schedule?”

Yeah. At least, on a surface level.

The real key to making this type of system work though is embracing the mindset behind periodization, which is to not worry about anything but what that periods focus is.

If it’s a Road to Epic day and I get contacted about graphic design work, or figure out a great bit of plot for a story, or get the urge to go dust the furniture – then too bad it’s not the day for that. Now that doesn’t mean I won’t respond to the e-mail, jot down my story idea, or make a mental note that dusting is going to come first on Sunday, but I hold firm to a rule of not working on anything but Road to Epic stuff those days.

You can be even more exclusionary than that if you want, I know I can let myself get diverted for a quick e-mail or a note and come back to my work without totally getting derailed but I know not everyone can. What makes this work better than just making a plain old schedule is that you need to have strict guidelines in place in order to keep you on the right thing through that entire period.

Do you have any personal experience with using periodization as a productivity tool? Any ways you can think of to make things work better or roadblocks you’ve found applying the system for yourself?
Share them with everyone in the comments!

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:

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