Shut Up and Do Something

The Gnome in Somebody's Front Yard by B Tal

Please don’t be an Underpants Gnome.

This may come across a bit as a personal rant, so I apologize in advance, but I’m sick to death of people who whine about their situation or talk about improving it but never actually do anything.

I call them Underpants Collectors – inspired both by Steve Kamb of Nerd Fitness’s excellent article and the hilarious South Park episode that inspired it. Underpants Collectors are people who want to accomplish something, lose weight, learn a new language or maybe start a business and quit their 9 to 5 but never actually do anything to get there. These people feel like they’re working hard, but they never actually reach their goal.

If this sounds like you, keep reading – we can fix it.

Two Examples of Voracious Underpants Collectors

Here are two examples, pulled from real people I know whose names have been changed to avoid embarrassment. Keeping with our South Park inspiration, let’s call them Stan and Kyle. Stan and Kyle are Underpants Collectors – people who, like the gnomes in the episode, have a starting point and an ending point but nothing in between so they just sit at step 1.

Stan is severely overweight. I’m talking obese. He knows it too, he’s been trying to lose weight for years. He picks a plan he likes or starts an exercise routine and sticks to it for a little while then quits. He talks about how he knows he needs to eat better while simultaneously cramming a fast food burger into his mouth. Stan gives every impression of knowing what he needs to do, and he knows that he has the knowledge to lose the weight, but he’s never successful.

After a while Stan starts to get whiny. It’s so hard to lose weight, he’s been trying for so long. Nothing ever seems to work. He talks at length about how great it would be to lose weight and how much he wants it, then skips his scheduled workout to catch American Idol. Internally Stan’s started to cast himself as a victim in all this and is steadily building an enormous collection of underpants.

Kyle is in a similar boat. He really wants to quit his job and start his own business. He has dreams of being self-sufficient, maybe not independently wealthy but able to make a comfortable living while setting his own hours and working from home.

Kyle talks endlessly of this goal. He obsesses over every scrap of information on starting your own business or making money online. He recommends get rich quick (and slow) books to all of his friends and family. Hour after hour of every day are devoted to reading and researching and learning about starting a business – and that’s it.

His obsession with figuring out what the best thing is to do means that he never actually does anything. His days are spent pouring over blog posts and growing a formidable pile of underpants.

Embracing Action

Do you see what the shared problem is between Stan and Kyle?

Both of them need to shut up and do something! They need to stop worrying about getting everything perfect or talking about what they need to do and just do it. Sometimes this is also called paralysis by analysis, but what it’s called doesn’t matter – it’s a waste of time and will never get you anywhere.

The fact is when it comes to accomplishing something, anything at all, the person who does something completely wrong is still going to get farther than the person who does nothing at all. I don’t care if you’re doing something as moronic as the Shake Weight – that’s still better than doing absolutely nothing.

Even if you fail it’s better than inaction. I love to fail. Failing is probably the single best learning experience you can have and if you never try you can never have the opportunity to experience it.

So if this sounds like you, if you’re the kind of person who reads tons of books and blogs and tutorials on how to do something and you talk about your goals all the time but never actually do anything about them – shut up and do something. Don’t collect underpants, go accomplish something.

Have any other advice for Underpants Collectors? Are you a former time-waster who’s taken charge and actually gotten things done? Think I’m being too mean to the whiners who never actually do what they want to do? Share it in the comments!

Photo Credit: B Tal

What You’re Probably Doing Right Now That’s Killing You

Two New Bottles by Brother O' Mara

Not all things that kill you are so clearly labeled.

There’s something you’re doing that’s making your life shorter. This is something that most of our U.S. readers do on average for at least 11 hours each day. It’s even something that I would bet you’re probably doing right now as you read this. Ready for the big revelation? Are you sitting down? Well then stand back up because that’s what’s killing you – sitting.

Yes, you heard me right. The more you sit in a day the sooner you are likely to die.

The Slow Seated Death

So what’s the big deal? Can sitting really be killing me?

As it turns out, yes, it can. More and more studies are being done and they all confirm that, even after correcting for other lifestyle choices such as diet, physical activity and whether or not participants smoked, people who sat 11 hours or more per day were 40% more likely to die within the next three years than those who sat less than 4 hours per day.

Another study showed that those who sat for greater than 6 hours but still exercise were 37% more likely to die than those who spent less than 3 hours seated and exercised. When you compare the groups that exercise with sample groups who didn’t, you find the people who sat for 6 hours and didn’t exercise were 94% more likely to die and those who sat for 3 hours were 48% more likely to die than the group that sat the least and exercised.

For the statistically inclined the studies in question came up with P-values of <0.00001. For the non-statistically inclined this means that the correlation between sitting and increased mortality would not occur simply at random 99.999% of the time. In other words, the studies here are statistically significant. They also showed a strong dose-response association which means that the bigger the dose (the longer you sit) the bigger the response (the more likely you are to die).

Even more concerning is the fact that these studies indicate that the effect of exercise done around the long blocks of sitting don’t cause a very large statistical difference in the mortality rates for those who sit a lot. That means that while it’s still important to be exercising you can’t fully out-exercise the negative results of spending all day planted in a chair, at a desk or on the couch.

While it may not sound like a big deal compared to the increased chance of death, sitting all day also drastically stretches and extends your glutes (your butt muscles) and shortens and tightens your hip flexors (the muscles that you use to take a step forward).

When you place a muscle in its weakened, stretched position and leave it there for long periods of time the muscle itself becomes weaker and inactivated. That means it can’t produce as much force. Conversely, when you hold a muscle in a shortened position it becomes tight and overactive.

This imbalance in the force-couple relationship between your glutes and hip flexors causes a whole host of problems ranging from severely limiting your range of motion on exercises like the squat to causing the knee to bend medially to causing lower back pain and predisposing you to ACL tears. All of these are very bad.

Fixing The Problem

The first step in making this right is to recognize just how much you sit in a day. If you’re like the average office worker or student it’s probably a lot – particularly if you get home and chase it with couch time. The first step is going to be taking active measures to reduce the total time on your tush.

One of the ways to do that is to work at a standing desk. Now it should be noted that other studies have shown spending an excessive amount of time standing in one spot without moving around can be fairly detrimental to your health as well, so a standing desk is no panacea. As long as you recognize that you need to take occasional breaks to move around, stretch, walk some laps or do a little mobility work the standing desk will make a huge difference. Some people have even go so far as to create treadmill desks so they can walk slowly while they work.

If you’re not ready for that kind of change or don’t want to be the only person in your office with a weird desk, find some way to set a reminder to get up for at least 5 minutes every half hour. Set an alarm on your computer or watch or buy a $2 egg timer if you have to, but obey what it tells you and get up for 5 minutes twice every hour.

You don’t have to go sprint or anything, just getting up and walking around to break up the long blocks of sitting has been shown to have a real positive effect on people’s health.

Lastly, if you’re ready to start restoring power to your inactive glutes and stretching out those tight hip flexors start spending a few minutes each day in a proper squat stretch or indigenous squat and in the couch stretch. These two alone don’t take very long and when done for a few minutes daily will go a long way to correcting the mobility issues created by years of sitting. Doing some foam rolling on your glutes, TFL and adductors wouldn’t hurt either.

In our office we have a standing desk set up with three positions so that we can work standing, work while in a full squat or work sitting on the floor in full lotus or seiza. All these options, coupled with the fact that I’ve made hourly breaks an unbreakable habit, mean I’m never stuck in one position for too long and can still get all my work done.

All these are just some of the options for correcting the issues, the important thing is to be aware how profound of a negative effect being stuck in a chair all day can have and begin taking steps to fixing the problem. Have any other suggestions or a unique way you keep out of chairs all day? Share it with us in the comments, we’d love to hear it.

I’d also like to leave you with this infographic from Medical Billing and Coding because I think it sums everything up in a well-presented way.

How Sitting is Killing You

Photo Credit: Brother O’ Mara

Don’t Bench Press ’til You French Press – A Guide to Caffeine for Performance Enhancement

Black, White, Coffee by Bitzcelt

The drug of choice for millions can give you better workouts.

Caffeine is the number one most consumed drug in the world. It’s in soda, chocolate, coffee, tea, energy drinks and even a lot of herbal supplements. Most people are extremely familiar with – if not dependent on – the energy boost it provides. I know I tend to be somewhat less than peppy if I miss my morning coffee. What most people don’t know is that caffeine is an extremely effective performance enhancer for training.

If you know how and when to supplement with caffeine you can not only improve your endurance, but improve your strength output and prime your body to burn more fat during exercise than it normally would. That means you get more out of every workout for the price of a cup of coffee. Sounds good to me.

The Benefits of Caffeine

Researchers and exercise physiologists have been studying the effects of caffeine as a performance enhancer since at least 1978 and study after study has confirmed the same conclusion – it works. In fact, with all the solid data on the clear benefits of caffeine supplementation it’s a wonder it hasn’t been banned in more sports. Here are just some of the benefits caffeine offers.

Improved Endurance

The most obvious benefit to caffeine supplementation is it’s ability to improve muscular endurance. That means that you can go harder for longer without having to take a rest. Formerly it was thought this was a result of caffeine’s ability to release fat stores into the bloodstream to be used as fuel saving your muscle’s glycogen stores and allowing them to last longer. Now though research has shown caffeine also stimulates the release of calcium stored in muscle – the release of this calcium increases both endurance and overall power output.

On top of all of that, caffeine has the neurological effect of distorting your perception of exhaustion, meaning that even when your energy stores are used up your brain thinks it can keep going allowing you to push past your normal point of failure.

Regardless of how it works, researchers agree that caffeine supplementation can improve an athlete’s endurance from 5% all the way up to 25% depending on the person. A five percent increase may not sound like much, but when you’re trying to push yourself to run just a little bit farther it can make all the difference.

Increased Strength Output

When it comes to maximal strength training the best way to get stronger is to move heavy weights. The heavier weights you can move the stronger you can become and the more muscle you can build. Caffeine can help you do that more quickly by increasing the total amount you can lift.

This effect may be due to the release of fat stores and calcium that we mentioned or it may be an effect of the widening of blood vessels and increased blood oxygenation that caffeine produces – either way the result ranges from a 3% increase in strength output all the way up to an 18% increase in some studies.

To put that in perspective, for someone with a non-caffeinated 1RM bench of 200 pounds that could mean an increase of 36 pounds. That’s an impressive return for doing something as easy as downing a cup of Starbucks.

Better Fat Metabolism

More concerned about losing weight than about running farther or getting stronger? No problem, caffeine still has you covered. Caffeine stimulates the release of stored fat into the bloodstream for energy and causes the body to place a preference on using fat as energy over carbohydrates.

Best of all, this effect lasts for at least a few hours on average. That means that the increase in free flowing fatty acids is there both during your workout to fuel your efforts, and after your workout to help replace muscle glycogen stores. This means caffeine before your workout makes you burn more fat during and after that workout and may also aid in recovery.

If you’re trying to lose those last few stubborn pounds caffeine supplementation can be the thing that finally gets you past the plateau.

Beyond all of these benefits there are tons of tertiary benefits to regular caffeine consumption including lowered risk of cardiac disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s – so even if you’re not using it directly as a performance enhancer it helps keep you healthy.

A Few Precautions

Caffeine is a drug.

That means that like with any other drug there are potential side effects and dosage control is very important. Thankfully, the list of potential detriments from caffeine is relatively minor and, unless you’re pouring an entire bottle of caffeine pills down your throat, it is relatively difficult to overdose.

Blood Pressure, Increased Heart Rate & Dehydration

The first potential problem we’ll address right away is dehydration. The diuretic effects of caffeine are way, way overblown. In people who are completely unconditioned to caffeine there’s a slight diuretic effect but even this is weak enough to be insignificant in terms of increasing risk for dehydration. Be intelligent – you know when you need fluids so get them.

When it comes to increasing blood pressure and heart rate caffeine does have a slightly stronger effect but only in people who have not had caffeine for 4 to 5 days. If you have a cup of coffee everyday anyway, and have been for more than a few days, than caffeine doesn’t have any effect on your blood pressure or heart rate and won’t unless you go cold turkey for a while then reintroduce it.

If you have heart problems and hypertension and have never had a coffee or a soda in a month or two than you should be a little careful, everyone else is fine.

The best part about this conditioning is studies have shown that while the detrimental effects follow a curve of diminishing returns the benefits do not. That means if you consume some caffeine everyday you still get the full performance enhancing benefit with none of the detrimental side effects.

How to Use Caffeine to Improve Performance

Ok, so you’re convinced now right? You know you should be supplementing with caffeine to improve your workouts and you want to know how.

The first step is choosing the right source for your caffeine. Caffeine is in a lot of things nowadays and you have a lot of options. Since we’re ingesting this caffeine with the goal of using it to improve exercise performance – and therefore I assume health is important to you – we can eliminate all sugary drinks first offhand. That means no sodas, energy drinks or chocolate.

So what’re we left with? Tea, coffee and caffeine pills are the main contenders remaining. Tea has a lot of general health benefits, but it has relatively low caffeine content so I would exclude it as well. That leaves coffee and caffeine pills.

The final decision between the two comes down a lot to personal preference. Some studies have shown a statistically stronger benefit to ingesting the pure caffeine pills over the coffee, and it is much easier to control the dosage. That being said, coffee is really good – so it’s your choice.

As far as the dosages go, the general recommendation is 3 to 6 mg per kg of bodyweight. Several studies have shown benefit from dosages as low as 1 mg per kg of bodyweight though, so you may need to do a little personal experimentation and see what works best for you. The best time to ingest the caffeine is between and hour and 30 minutes prior to exercise.

An average 20 oz cup of coffee (a Venti for you Starbucks patrons) has 400 mg of caffeine, which would be more than enough for most people. A standard caffeine pill is 200 mg, meaning it also would be more than enough for anyone weighing less than 200 kg (about 440 lbs.) – so you’re covered whichever way you go.

If you’re feeling non-scientific about it 12 to 16 oz of coffee should be enough. Getting more than you need doesn’t diminish the effects, so if you like coffee you might as well go for the large or have them drop a shot of espresso in there.

You can overdose on caffeine, but that usually requires between 150 to 200 mg per kg of bodyweight in humans which translates to 80 to 100 cups of coffee for most people. It’s a little easier with caffeine pills, and some people have had problems with as little as 2 grams so don’t go crazy. Normal usage won’t have any detriments though.

So there you have it – improved endurance, strength, fat loss and tons of other benefits and all you need is a single pill or a medium cup of coffee. With all the benefits, the ease of use and the almost complete lack of negative side effects why would you not want to boost your workouts with caffeine supplementation?

Do you use caffeine regularly for the performance enhancement effects and if not do you think you’ll give it a try? Have you noticed a direct effect from it? Share your experiences in the comments!

Photo Credit: Bitzcelt

Special thanks to my father-in-law Bill for the title.

Learn Languages Better with Short Study Sessions

Stopwatch by Wwarby

When it comes to language learning, sometimes shorter can be better.

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s feeling like I’ve wasted time.

Now that doesn’t mean I have to be productive 24/7, I consider having fun or relaxing valuable uses of my time in most cases – I just hate working hard toward a goal and feeling like I have nothing to show for it.

When it comes to language learning that trait used to make me a huge perfectionist. If I was going to spend a few hours on Anki trying to learn 30 new words for the day I needed to really know them at the end of it or I would feel like all that time doing SRS reps was a waste. To be fair I understand it wasn’t, but it was still kind of discouraging nonetheless setting out to learn 30 words and only remembering 20 or so the next day.

Then I figured out the trick to learning more effectively and keeping myself motivated – short, targeted study sessions.

The Benefits of Brief Language Learning Sessions

Motivation – I noticed that if, instead of trying to do a massive amount of studying in one go, if I just sat down to learn 10 words instead of 30 I could get all of them without any problem. Even if it’s something as minor as learning a small handful of words the fact that I could consistently achieve the goals that I set had a surprisingly strong motivational effect. It also boosted my confidence and made me eager to go study each day.

Retention – Of course you might say 20 words out of 30 per day is still better than 10 out of 10. That would be true if I stopped there, but once my motivation was back I started adding more brief study sprints. If I broke up the words into ten in the morning, ten in the afternoon and ten at night I could learn all 30 with no problem and spend less time overall to do it. I’m assuming something about the study sessions being in smaller, more digestible chunks helps me handle the volume of new information better.

Avoiding Burnout – Maybe this should be lumped under motivation, but I think it’s important enough to get its own category. In the same way that timeboxing helps you to go complete tasks you really don’t want to do, breaking study sessions up helps you work on language learning even when you don’t feel like it. When you know you’ve only got ten words to learn and then you’re done, it’s hard to justify blowing it off no matter how out of it or demotivated you feel.

Maintaining Focus – When you dive in to study a huge volume of stuff all at once, there’s a tendency for most people to wander. I see it all the time at commercial gyms when people contract ‘screwarounditis’ – they drift aimlessly from machine to machine, do a few reps of each and leave. Whether it’s exercise or language learning when people come into something without a concrete plan and are presented with a million options for what to do they often just screw around. By having tightly restricted study sessions with a clear goal you avoid this bad habit and maximize the efficiency of your learning periods.

The Caveat

It would be irresponsible of me to suggest you study less and not mention the one caveat – non-study learning time.

I say this because I’m worried some people will look at this and take it as an excuse to study less. That’s not the point. In terms of effort and reward you still get out whatever you put in. Having shorter, more efficient study sessions is a great way to maximize your return on that effort, but it won’t get you all the way to fluency unless you combine it with countless hours of non-study learning time.

What do I mean by that? I mean all the time you can pack in where you are experiencing or using the language but not actively studying it. Watching TV or movies, reading, listening to music or chatting with friends in your target language are all good examples. That time, where you actually use what you learned in the study sessions, is key if you want to be conversant.

Do you prefer shorter study sessions or longer ones? Do you have any other tips or benefits to it that I missed? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Wwarby

How to Achieve Your Goals by Redefining Your Identity

Fill in the Blank by Darkmatter

Your self-identity is more malleable than you would think.

“If you fall in love with the process, the results come easy.” – Unattributed

I’m not sure who said that first – I’ve heard it attributed to about 50 people including Arnold Schwarzenegger – but it really doesn’t matter because it’s good wisdom. If you stress out over the results too much reaching your goal becomes more difficult, but if you can fall in love with the process that will get you there you’ll find yourself reaching your goal without even thinking about it. So how do we make ourselves fall in love with processes? Easy.

By redefining our identities.

You Are What You Do, And You Do What You Are

I know that sounds like an empty fortune cookie-esque statement at best and self-contradictory at worst, but bear with me for a minute here. The fact is, who you are is largely defined by your habits. What you do in a day really makes up the majority of your identity.

For example, if you spend your whole day in school attending classes and doing homework in the evening, those actions define you as a student or if you spend hours and hours every day playing video games those actions define you as a gamer. Now these aren’t exclusive categories, and I’m not going to go into discussions of stereotypes and self-identification and all that either, but a lot of it comes down to how you view yourself as a person.

Now it should be noted that either the behavior or the identity can come first and they’re self-reinforcing. That is, you think of yourself as a gamer because you play video games all the time, and because you think of yourself as a gamer you do what you think a gamer should do and play video games all the time. Additionally it should be noted there are varying levels of personal choice involved in the establishment of these identities – you have a lot more choice to not be a gamer than you do to not be a student for example due to compulsory schooling.

Alright, so our actions influence our self-identities and our identities influence our actions and there are instances where we can directly influence both via our own conscious decisions.

So why is this important to achieving goals?

Because our self-identities are an extremely strong psychological influence on our actions. If you strongly self-identify as a vegan it would be difficult for you to force yourself to eat meat and conversely if you strongly identify as a meat lover it would be difficult for you to go without meat for an extended period of time.

Remember the quote up top? The best way to achieve a goal effortlessly is to fall in love with doing the small things you need to do to get there. If you love working out, you’ll get fit whether you want to or not. If your goal is to learn to play guitar and you love practicing so much that you want to do it all the time, you’ll find yourself a great guitarist before you know it. Now, forming habits and falling in love with an activity are difficult – particularly if conflicts with our current self-identities. By tinkering with your self-identity you can not only remove this conflict but instill a strong psychological pressure to do the thing you need to do on a regular basis to reach your goal.

Act Like the Person You Wish You Were

So how do you go about redefining your self-image? The best way is to do it gradually.

Using myself as an example, I used to strongly self-identify as a fat guy. To be fair, I was a fat guy – but I let that thinking define a large part of who I considered myself to be. As a result, I did what I thought were ‘fat guy’ things. I ate a ton, prided myself on being able to finish ridiculous portions of things, and expressed a general dislike of exercise.

Now, I also really loved parkour and martial arts. That meant that I really didn’t want to be a fat guy. The problem was it was such an entrenched part of my identity it was hard to force myself to engage in the behaviors necessary to actually be able to do all the things I wanted to do. I needed to get fit, but my habits made it hard for me to train and easy to eat tons of junk.

It wasn’t until I really started thinking of myself as a ‘fitness guy’ that I started building positive exercise habits. From there it compounded upon itself until I got to where I am now – a personal trainer who absolutely loves to train. Being a personal trainer is such a large part of my self-identity now it’s as difficult to not train as it used to be to train when I thought of myself as a fat guy.

Another good example comes from starting this blog. It was extremely hard for me at the beginning to develop the habit of writing on a regular schedule. I had a lot to say and really wanted to write – but I just couldn’t make a habit out of it.

Then I forced myself to start thinking of myself as a writer. What do writers do? They write! All the time, or at least everyday. I kept reminding myself that I was a writer, and that as a writer I needed to write something, that was what I did.

So everyday, being a writer and all, I’d sit down and write something. Maybe a paragraph, maybe a post, whatever. The point was that I wrote every single day because that was just what a writer did. Before long that developed into a strong habit, and then further reinforced my self-identification as a writer. “After all,” I could say, “look how much I’ve written over the past month! I must be a writer.”

The trick is to figure out who you want to be, and then act like that’s who you already are.

If you want to be the girl who speaks ten languages, figure out what that girl would do everyday (study, talk with language partners, watch foreign language TV) and start doing it. If you want to be the guy who’s really great at martial arts, figure out what that guy would do everyday (practice, practice and probably more practice) and then get to it. The sooner you start pretending to be the person you wish you were, the sooner you’ll wake up one morning to find that’s who you really are.

So what do you think? Have you ever tried getting to your goals by changing your identity? Do you think it would be too hard for you to pull off? Let us know in the comments.

Photo Credit: Darkmatter

6 Excellent Reasons Why We Don’t Own a TV

Garbage Day by TJDewey

Sorry TV, we just don’t need you anymore.

When meeting new people most aren’t that surprised by our desire to travel the world, few are daunted by our outspoken rejection of the broken corporate lifestyle and most aren’t put off by the fact that we eat like cavemen – but there is one thing about us that consistently shocks people.

We don’t own a TV.

I guess it’s telling of the hold that television has on us culturally that, of all the ways in which we lead our lives down the path of non-conformity, it’s the absence of a flashing advertisement box that most people find inconceivable.

So why don’t we own one? I think Jonathan Fields Milburn of The Minimalists answers that question best saying, “Because I’d watch it. A lot.” Just in case that isn’t good enough for you though, I’ve put together a list of six reasons why we think owning a TV is a terrible idea.

1. Time

I have to credit my friends Jason and David for making the time thing click in my brain. In high school they were both crazy about the show 24. At the time it was considered really clever that it was one full day of 24 one hour episodes. When they explained it to me, I realized that meant that if you never miss an episode, you’re losing an entire 24 hour day to vegetating in front of the television.

That realization was a wake-up call for me, but as it turns out it gets much worse.

According to Nielsen in 2010 the average American watches five hours of television per day. Five hours. If you add all of that together that means you’ll spend 35 hours in front of the TV each week, about 150 hours each month and 1,825 hours each year.

So if you’re an average TV watcher every year you lose 76 full days to TV. About two months out of every year go solely to watching TV. Assuming an average lifespan that comes out to at least 12.5 years of your life sitting in front of the TV.

I’ll understand if you just threw up a little.

Twelve and a half years is a complete lifetime for some people. To think that sheer amount of time could be spent on something as wasteful as TV is mind-boggling.

2. Money

Having a TV is expensive.

Beyond the initial cost of the actual television itself – which can be substantial if your ego demands you have the latest greatest HD flatscreen – there are all the ancillary costs to think about. There’s cable to pay for, premium movie channels, DVD or Blu-Ray players, a theater style sound system, movie rentals and purchases, even the electricity cost of having all those things (made words by the fact that TVs and cable boxes are notorious vampire appliances sucking up power even when turned ‘off’).

Add to that the fact that according to another report by Nielsen the average household had more TVs than people and you have a substantial initial investment followed by nearly as substantial recurring costs. Is it seriously worth it?

You could easily save $5,000 on the initial investment (I’ve seen people spend more than that on a single TV or sound system, so it’s a reasonable estimate) and then a good $1,000 or so each year on those incidental costs. Cable alone here in Cincinnati can run around $600 per year, and that’s not counting movie rentals premium channels or electricity.

I can think of tons of things I would rather spend an extra $600 a year on than something that wastes all my time.

3. Freedom from Advertising

In 2011 $72 Billion was spent on television advertising. That’s more than was spent in Internet, radio, newspaper and magazine ads combined. You might say they don’t affect you, but they do.

With an average of 8.5 minutes of commercials per half hour of television, that means you’ll spend twenty two days of your life, nearly a month, just watching advertisements.

Now I’m not necessarily saying that all advertising is evil, but in most cases it’s not necessary. It’s not meaningful. Though they are trying to persuade you otherwise, advertising is not going to substantially improve your life.

So why spend almost a month of your existence watching it?

4. Increased Creativity and Intelligence

Doing creative things or being exposed to creative activities directly correlates to being more creative overall. That means that engaging in a passive activity like watching television is likely to do little to nothing to help make you a more creative person. If you have goals like ours of pursuing a life based around achieving freedom by creating something meaningful and helpful to others, than damaging your creativity is like shooting yourself in the foot.

You may argue that some TV shows themselves are creative enough to be inspiring, but let’s be honest – 90% of what’s on TV is just a regurgitation of the same old tropes and themes. That’s not even counting the countless hours of reruns people sit through on a regular basis.

TV may also be causing you to miss out on the opportunity to be more intelligent. Studies (1, 2) suggest that reading has a direct positive affect on your intelligence. When you read a lot, you become smarter.

Conversely, other studies (1, 2) suggest that TV watching correlates strongly with decreased intelligence and poor educational performance.

In other words, people who read a lot are on average significantly smarter than those who watch a lot of TV.

Why spend five hours each day damaging your mind when you could be improving yourself?

5. Improved Sleep

Even though it’s frequently repeated that the best way to get a good night’s sleep is to stop any form of electronic entertainment at least an hour before bed, around 75% of people still report watching TV right up to when they go to sleep.

Is it any wonder than that terrible sleep quality, and all the physical problems associated with it, are a common woe in our society?

People who shut the television off more than an hour before bed consistently report an easier time getting to sleep, feeling more rested upon waking and having deeper, uninterrupted sleep patterns. That’s not even counting the habit of many to stay up late and sacrifice hours of sleep every night just to watch a specific show.

Considering most people already suffer from a severe lack of sleep it’s ridiculous to compound the problem with TV.

6. Higher Quality Relationships

When you’re not spending most of your family time silently transfixed on your flat screen an interesting thing tends to happen. You actually have conversations.

When you remove TV from the picture you have five more hours everyday to actually connect with your loved ones, or even to go out and meet new friends – something you can’t do sitting on your couch watching American Idol.

Don’t argue that you have to watch TV to be able to discuss all the popular shows with friends and coworkers. People have been having conversations just fine for all the millenia that preceded the invention of television. You’ll manage. Besides, the thought of spending five hours everyday on something that adds no value to my life just so I can spend more time talking about that thing that adds no value to my life makes me want to slam my head into the wall.

It’s better to spend time creating meaningful, valuable relationships than it is to sit in front of a box and drool.

Common Excuses

As I mentioned before, TV is deeply ingrained in our cultural identity. As a result, suggestions to eliminate it are often met with fervent opposition or even, on one memorable occasion, genuine outrage.

That knee-jerk reaction tends to cause people to scramble for excuses for why a television is an essential part of their existence the loss of which would render their lives bleak and meaningless. Let’s look at some of the more common ones.

  • TV entertains me / makes me happy / relaxes me, therefore those 5 hours each day are not wasted. – At first glance this sounds like a valid argument, particularly because who am I to say what you should judge as a worthwhile expenditure of your own time. The thing is if you take an honest look at some of the other things you could be doing, you’ll find there are plenty of activities that are equally entertaining, joyful or relaxing that have genuine positive benefits for your life and none of the damaging effects of constant TV viewing. While I can’t make the decision for you I’m certain if you made an effort you could easily find better things to fill that time.
  • I only watch educational programs / documentaries. – Nice try, but even prolonged exposure to educational TV in children had an overall negative correlation with intelligence. Comparatively reading, including fiction, had a strong positive correlation on intelligence. Honestly, while there are some quality educational programs out there, the majority is Ancient Aliens, Ghost Hunters, Doomsday Preppers and similar drivel.
  • I have to see what happens on [insert popular show here]! – You don’t. You really don’t. I understand that people often form extremely strong psychological bonds with characters on TV. That’s what the show’s writers, producers and actors are going for. In reality the world is not going to end if you miss your favorite show. Your life may actually improve because of it.
  • I need it for the news. – Television is easily the worst medium for getting the daily news. Even excluding the fact that some national news networks have shown to actually leave people less informed than people who don’t watch news at all (*cough* Fox *cough*), it’s an overall inefficient medium. If I want to know what the latest developments on the Syria massacres are I can either sit through four hours of banal election coverage and punditry until they decide to run the story I’m waiting for, or I can just get online and find it. TV news forces you to sit through all the fluff for the stories you want, if your goal is to become informed it’s the very worst way to do it.

How to Kick the TV Habit

So you’ve come around and decided I have a good point, but aren’t sure if you’re ready to sell your flatscreen yet? The best way to do it is to ease into it. Commit to a full week with all your televisions unplugged and stashed away in a closet somewhere. Once you see a week’s not so bad, try thirty days.

Before long, you’ll find not only do you not miss it, when you do go back you’ll miss all the great things you did in its absence. Few things make you feel like you’ve got no time to get anything done than wasting that time on TV.

Honestly, once you’ve kicked the addiction you don’t have to completely swear off TV or media altogether. TV and movies done right and treated as a social experience can be a great way to connect with people. One of the best movies Caroline and I ever saw was the second Twilight movie – not because the movie was actually good, but because we went on a Wednesday on a school night to the 10:30 pm showing and had the theater to ourselves to play Statler and Waldorf.

For all the reasons I gave here, I really don’t think TV is pure evil. I like TV, just like everyone else. It’s the addiction that causes most of the problems.

We do subscribe to Netflix, and watch occasional things on Hulu for free (with AdBlock turned on mind you). Now, before you cry hypocrite, it’s an extremely rare thing. We go to great lengths to make sure that our TV time doesn’t cause a detriment to the rest of our lives and average about a single half hour show a night and the occasional movie ever other weekend or so.

They key is finding the right balance.

If you are going to try to kick the habit I would suggest going a full month with no TV – including things like Netflix – before slowly reintroducing it in moderation. We’ve fallen victim to compulsive marathons of shows we really like in the past, and it doesn’t help if you’re replacing five hours of TV with five hours of Netflix.

Do you think you can toss out your TV? Have you actually done it, or tried to do it? Do you have any other suggestions, or do you think I’m out of my mind? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: TJDewey

How Mario Kart 64 Taught Me the Key to Success

Mario Kart! Let's Go! by Pixteca

A wise guru indeed...

For me growing up there were three games that formed the Holy Trinity of the Nintendo 64: Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, & Mario Kart 64.

Ok, so Starfox 64 and Super Smash Bros. 64 also deserve honorable mention, but Holy Quinary just sounds like a shrine to Sliders so we’ll stick with the Trinity.

Out of all those games, Mario Kart 64 easily had the biggest impression on me.

Why?

Because it taught me the secret to leading a happy, successful life.

Wisdom from the Road

Jump back a decade or so and there I am sitting in my room with friends racing full tilt around the Rainbow Road.

I was Yoshi – because we all know that Yoshi is the best – and I was losing. Badly.

Every lap I’d fought my way up to the front of the pack, and every time some catastrophic slip up had plummeted me back down to last. You should know, as an aside, that I did not handle frustration well as a child. By this point I was absolutely furious.

With each stupid turtle shell, each accidental hop off the edge into oblivion, each star-powered buffoon that blasted me out of the way I became increasingly agitated. I didn’t even notice that the more angry I got, the more I wanted to hurl my controller through the TV, the worse my racing got.

Finally, on the very last lap, something snapped.

Rather than give in to the substantial rage that had built inside me, I just let it all go. Maybe you could call it defeatism, but I think that sounds too negative. I realized at this point that I was at peace with whatever happened. I just didn’t really care anymore.

And you know what? My racing improved.

When before everything that could go wrong had been, now everything aligned perfectly. I was untouchable. I was in the zone.

I rocketed up to first like it was nothing and won the race. At first, I considered myself lucky. As time went on though I began to wonder if there was more to it than that.

I tested my theory out through more and more races and it held. The more agitated I got, the worse I played. The more detached I got, the better I played. At first I just thought learning to detach myself from worry and frustration over the outcome was just a handy trick to rock my friends on Mario Kart. Then I learned to apply it to the rest of my life.

Embracing Relaxation

When I made a conscious effort to do in the rest of my life what I did in Mario Kart – stop worrying and let things flow – I found that everything I did came easy to me.

No matter what it was, even things I had formerly had a really hard time with, everything always just seemed to work out in my favor. On the rare occasion things would still go wrong, it always seemed like it wasn’t so bad and some other opportunity would present itself as a result of the problem that was even better than the original.

The more I taught myself to relax and not worry, the more successful and happy my life became.

Everyone called me lucky, but I knew I was making my own luck.

How it Helps

This isn’t just anecdotal, studies have shown that people who are considered ‘lucky’ often are just benefiting from being more relaxed and mindful.

In Dr. Wiseman’s study referenced above participants were given newspapers and asked to count the number of photos in them. The group who considered themselves lucky correctly completed the task in a few seconds while the group who considered themselves unlucky took an average of two minutes.

What was the difference?

The people who considered themselves unlucky were almost always too stressed out and focused on the task of counting the photos to notice the headline inside that read “Stop Counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.”

When you learn to let go of your worries you allow your relax and be observant. When you’re observant, you miss fewer opportunities.

Relaxing in this way also opens up the doors to intuition. It taps into a process akin to the Taoist concept of Wei Wu Weiaction without action.

Wei Wu Wei in very simple terms is being so attuned to the current moment that without effort you automatically take the most correct or beneficial action. It’s a topic that deserves volumes all on it’s own, but the best example is if you’ve ever been in ‘the groove’ or ‘the zone’ while playing a sport.

That feeling where everything is going right, when you’re no longer thinking about what you’re going to do you just act, that’s Wei Wu Wei. Most people that get pegged as ‘naturals’ in some activity or another are just people who are intuitively good at putting themselves in this state.

Being able to consciously put yourself in ‘the zone’ makes you act like you’re a natural at everything you set out to do.

How to Relax

Now some of you might be saying, “Wait, I am stressed all the time. You can’t expect me to just decide to not be stressed!”

It came naturally to me, but some people are just naturally high-strung. Caroline’s been learning how to de-stress and not worry so much ever since we met. Luckily, there are some techniques you can use.

  • Take a long deep breath – I know it’s kind of stereotypical, but that’s only because it works. Stopping to shut out the world long enough to take a deep breath helps get your attention off of whatever is stressing you. Breath control also triggers physiological responses that produce a calming effect.
  • Exist in the moment – When you’re taking that deep, slow breath focus all of your attention on it. Nothing else exists, there is no past, no future, there is only the experience of that breath. Understanding that the past is gone and the future doesn’t yet exist helps you focus on the present moment. When you do that, you find there’s no need to worry about the future anymore.
  • Accept the stress – If you’re still feeling stressed after doing some controlled breathing, confront that feeling. Acknowledge the fact that you’re stressed, and dismiss it. Tell yourself that you understand why you’re so stressed, but you don’t need to be anymore and let all those feelings drift away. It sounds like hippie stuff, but trust me – it works.
  • Face your fears – If you’re stressed out from worry or fear, and the realization that the future doesn’t exist and is nothing to be scared of hasn’t helped, play through the worst case scenario in your mind. Chances are, unless you’re going to literally die as a result of failure, the worst case scenario isn’t the end of the world. Once you see that even if everything fails you’ll still be fine, you can brush away the fear and be present enough in the moment to succeed.

These are just a few ways, there are even more involved methods like meditation, the point is just to get you started.

The more you teach yourself to let go of worry and stress and be present, mindful and relaxed the more successful and happy you’ll become. All because of a particularly enlightening game of Mario Kart.

Do you have any other tried and true methods for learning to let go of stress? Have you stumbled upon any other great truths while playing video games? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Pixteca

3 Must-Have Fitness Apps

iPhone 4S by MattsMacintosh

One of these isn't required to get fit, but it definitely helps.

There are a lot of fitness apps out there. A whole lot. It’s not surprising given the wide proliferation of smart phones, but with so many options to choose from both paid and free, how do you know which fitness apps are really worth it?

We’ve narrowed the list down to three must-have apps. Unlike most fitness app reviewers, we don’t just look at whether the app does what it says it will or has boatloads of features. Instead we think the things that make a really fantastic fitness app are all about fun, motivation and convenience. They have to make working out something you enjoy, motivate you to go out and do it and be as convenient and intuitive as possible to let you use them whenever and wherever you need to.

1. Fitocracy

Fitocracy Logo

Fitocracy - A great way to get more awesome.

Fitocracy easily wins the number one spot on our list. If you have even the tiniest inkling of geekiness or competitiveness, you will love Fitocracy. It turns your fitness program into a game. Every time you log exercises you earn points to level up. Just like a video game there are Quests to complete and Achievements you can earn that represent huge milestones in your fitness journey. The app is free for iPhone, if you’re an Android user there’s no version out for you yet – but don’t let that stop you from using the site, you’ll be happy you did.

Why do we love it so much?

In addition to being free and convenient, it really makes working out fun. There is a serious motivating factor to the quests and achievements and few things make you want to go workout more than knowing you’re just a few hundred points from leveling up. What we love even more is the fantastic community that has grown on the site. If you’re feeling competitive they’ve recently added PvP battles to make that community even more motivating. You can get the app in the iTunes store or go the Fitocracy website to sign up and get it.

2. Zombies, Run!

Zombies Run Logo

What could be more motivating than zombies?

Making the second place spot is Zombies, Run! This app follows the same gamifaction principles Fitocracy does, but with a twist. In Zombies, Run! you take on the role of Runner 5, a scout/resource gatherer for one of the few human colonies that has survived the zombie apocalypse. Each mission is played through your headphones in-between your music as you run. Along each run you can pick up random items to distribute to the base once you get back and grow the township. Random zombie chases will keep you pushing yourself, don’t run fast enough and you may have to drop a precious item to distract the zombies.

Why do we love it so much?

I have always hated to run. Always. I’ll lift, I’ll sprint, whatever, I’ve never been a runner. This app makes me want to go out running. The missions are genuinely fun, and the story is written and delivered well enough to keep me wanting to find out what happens next. I even want to run longer because the longer I run, the more items I can find and the more I can grow the township. It’s coming to Android on June 14th, but you can get it now on iPhone from the iTunes store or the Zombies, Run! website for $7.99. It’s worth the price.

3. RunKeeper

RunKeeper Logo

RunKeeper. If you run, you should have it.

RunKeeper comes in at three almost just out of sheer usefulness. RunKeeper does an absolutely fantastic job of tracking your runs, walks, hikes, bike rides and just about every other exercise that can be tracked by GPS. It also has coaching available which you can set up manually, so implementing a Couch to 5k training regimen or doing rounds of Tabatas is no problem. It also keeps track of all of your data over time and lets you know when you’ve set personal records. Best of all it automatically syncs with Fitocracy and soon will sync with Zombies, Run! too.

Why do we love it so much?

It makes Fitocracy and Zombies, Run! complete with spot on GPS route tracking and automatic coaching programs to improve pacing or structure some interval training. It’s intuitive, convenient and even though it uses the GPS is pretty easy on the battery. You can pick it up on the iTunes store or on the RunKeeper website. The app itself is free – you can pay for a premium account but so far I haven’t found it necessary, the basic version is great as it is.

If you own a smartphone and you have any interest at all in fitness, do yourself a favor and go give these apps a try. All of them are fantastic at making exercise easy, rewarding and extremely fun.

Do you have any other fitness apps you absolutely love? Do you have any of these three? Tell us what you think in the comments!

Photo Credit: Matt’s Macintosh

Memorize Any List In Order Forever In Under 30 Seconds

Tallin, Estonia by Claudio Ar

Your Memory Palace doesn't have to have such moody lighting - unless you're a supervillain.

I used to have an atrocious memory.

If I didn’t take a list when going shopping, I would forget to buy things I needed. If you told me your name, you could expect to tell me again the next several times we met. If it weren’t for automated reminders no one I know would ever get a birthday card. Even phone numbers weren’t safe in my cerebral sieve.

Thankfully I was able to fix all that with a technique that’s easy to learn, incredibly effective, and can be used in the blink of an eye to not only memorize any sequence of facts but to memorize them in proper order – the Memory Palace.

The Memory Palace, also called the Method of Loci isn’t a new technique. It has a track record going back to at least the 6th century B.C. and has been used by eight-time world memory champion Dominic O’Brien to memorize 54 decks of cards in order (2,808 cards if you’re trying to do the math) after seeing each card only once. Now I don’t expect you’ll be needing to pull off any feats like that anytime soon, unless you’re trying to show off or win a few drinks from friends, but it comes in handy for a million other things too – shopping lists, language learning, studying for exams and anything else where you need to memorize a sequence of facts quickly and permanently.

So What Is a Memory Palace?

The Memory Palace technique works by drawing on the power of associative memories and the fact that people are very good at remembering places they know very well. A Memory Palace is any place that you know extremely well, your home for instance, that you can vividly imagine and attach items to in your imagination in order to be remembered.

Essentially, you visualize you walking through your Memory Palace and ‘see’ all the things you need to remember in sequence added to the memory. The strong emotional ties to your Memory Palace help hold the data in your head.

How Do I Use the Memory Palace Technique?

1. Pick Your Palace

Technically your palace can be anywhere that you can visualize. That being said, there are a few tips that will make it a little easier to use. First off, the more vividly you can visualize the location, the stronger the association will be. It’s fine to use an imaginary place, but only if you can really visualize it.

Secondly, the bigger the location, the more you can memorize. That doesn’t mean you have to pick some enormous place to start out with, in fact it’s probably better you start out small, but as you get better at it you can start graduating to larger and larger locations. You’ll be mapping out a path through your Memory Palace soon and the more stops you can have in it the more hooks you’ll have to hang data on.

Using myself as an example, I’ve chosen our house. It’s small enough to remember easily, but large enough to accommodate lots of stops. Best of all, I see it everyday so I can visualize it perfectly with almost no effort.

2. Pick a Path

Step two is to choose a familiar path through your already familiar location. If you’re using a real location, and you should be if it’s your first time doing this, pick a path you regularly take in real life.

If you chose your school, then use the path you take from class to class everyday. If you use your work, use the path you take from the front door to your desk, or wherever you have to go each day. Much like the location itself, the more familiar the path the more effective the technique. To start with this path doesn’t have to have a lot of stops, but as you work up to memorizing longer lists you’ll need to extend the path as necessary.

Having chosen our home as my location, I’m going to make my path through it similar to the one I take coming home. I come in through the garage, walk through the living room and then the kitchen on my way to the stairs. Before I go upstairs I take my shoes off and toss them in the closet, then go up to our home office. I could have chosen something more complicated, but that’s one that I’ve probably actually walked hundreds of times by now and it’s easy to remember.

3. Take a Practice Walk

This step isn’t as important the more you use the technique, but starting out it’s crucial. You need to visualize yourself walking through your Memory Palace along the route you just defined. This visualization needs to be as vivid and sensory as possible.

Don’t just think through it as quick as you can, stop in each area of the path and try to think about every little thing you see, what you smell, what you hear, you can even reach out in your mind and touch things. As you’re going through you need to also pick out as many little identifying items or landmarks on your path. You’ll need those as anchors for installing memory hooks in the next step.

I have my location and my path, so now I run through a practice visualization. Our old garage door grumbles and shudders as it goes up. Caroline’s Camaro is in there, shiny after just being washed. I run my hand over it and feel how smooth and cool it is. I smell the unmistakable scent of fresh cut grass as I walk by the mower, stained green from recent use. I open the door and step up into our house. It’s cool and dark in the hallway from the garage. I move the barrier that keeps the dog from getting back there and head into the living room. I can smell food cooking in the kitchen. As I walk by the pool table I feel the felt and the tiny little tear on the end by the door.

I’ll stop there, but you get the idea. I would go on like that until I got to the office. Remember to make it vivid.

4. Install Your Memory Hooks

The next step in preparing your palace is to place your memory hooks. I’ve written about memory hooks before if you aren’t familiar with them. The idea is to take your list of items you have to remember and hook each item into a place along your path through the Memory Palace.

Each hook should not only be as vivid as everything else you’ve imagined, but it should also be weird or ridiculous. Things that are strange are a lot easier to remember than things that aren’t. Don’t just picture whatever you have to remember lying there, make it interesting.

So let’s say for our example I had a shopping list to memorize. We’ll say that list is bacon, avocados, chicken, eggs, spinach, bell peppers, carrots, and onions.

I open our garage like normal but it doesn’t complain like normal. All the moving parts have been oiled up with bacon grease, and there’s bacon wound around the springs. Even the chain has been replaced by a knotted rope of bacon. I touch the car like before and pass the mower. This time, I don’t smell grass, I smell guacamole. I swipe a finger over all the green coating the mower and taste it. Avocados! When I open the door to the house the cool, dark hallways has become the back of the dairy section at the supermarket and a giant chicken is stocking cartons of eggs…

Ok, you get the point. I would go through that whole list making some kind of weird incident for each item making it as sensory of a visualization as possible.

5. Use It

Once you’ve made all your associations and memory hooks, you’re ready to use your Memory Palace to recall that info whenever you need it. Once you get to the store, walk back through your path in your head and experience all those crazy things again, (the bacon door, avocados on the mower, etc.) and you’ve got your list.

The best part is because of how quick our brains work you can construct and imagine a pretty long sequence of events in a fraction of the time it would take for a person to physically do all of that. That means that you can access your list quickly.

Additional Tips & Tricks

That’s the basic way of using the Memory Palace, but there are lots of little ways to play around with the technique. If you need to remember multiple long lists simultaneously, you can set up several different locations or even multiple paths through the same location.

You can also embed other memory techniques within your Memory Palace. So if you needed to remember the colors of the rainbow in a list with other things you could see the grave of ROY G. BIV (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet) in your path with a rainbow etched into it.

Similar techniques can be used to encode lots of information into one hook. If I needed to remember to get three packs of bacon and two pounds of avocados in my previous example, I could add a giant ‘three’ written in bacon on the garage door and had two avocado smeared lawnmowers stacked on top of a giant scale. You can fit a surprising amount of information into each hook as long as your imagination and visualization skills are strong enough.

Have you got any other creative tips or tricks for using Memory Palaces? Have you tried this technique out and had success or problems with it? Share it with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Claudio Mufarrege

Learn Efficiently by Understanding Comfort Zones

Empire State Pigeon by ZeroOne

Getting out of your comfort zone doesn't have to be this extreme...

Learning a new skill is hard, time consuming work. Whether you’re learning a new language, learning to play guitar or learning to breakdance – it all takes a lot of effort. Luckily, we can make it an easier and more efficient process if we understand our comfort zones. Few people do, and I see the same problem coming up again and again in people learning all sorts of different skills. They either don’t understand their comfort zones, or they understand them but don’t know where to focus their efforts to maximize learning. As a result, they either sit at a standstill and never progress, or they drive themselves into the ground and never make any progress. So how do they fix it?

Understanding Comfort Zones

Comfort zones are exactly like they sound – the zones of differing levels of comfort for an activity. By comfort, I mean any type of comfort, social comfort, mental comfort, physical comfort, emotional comfort, whatever. The type of comfort applicable will depend on whatever skill it is you’re trying to learn.

Now you can divide these zones into as many as you like in general but for our purposes only three are important. These three zones are the Easy Zone, the Challenge Zone and the Frustration Zone. Each of these is represented in the picture as a concentric circle. The green is the Easy Zone, the yellow is the Challenge Zone and the Red is the Frustration Zone. Let’s look at each one of these in detail as applied to someone learning a new language.

Comfort Zones Diagram by Adam Wik

These are the three basic comfort zones you can occupy while trying to learn a new skill.

The Easy Zone

Any practice or learning that requires little to no effort and generates little to no discomfort falls in the Easy Zone. In the case of learning a new language, some things that would fall into the Easy Zone might be occasional work with a computer program, a one hour language course conducted mostly in your native language or for some people, flipping through some flashcards.

Lots and lots and lots of people fall into the trap of never leaving the Easy Zone. This isn’t surprising, people don’t like to be uncomfortable. The problem is, practice in the Easy Zone is just too easy. The reason it’s called the Easy Zone is that nothing you do here is any real challenge. As a result, you’re never pushed beyond your current limits and never make progress. People who focus all their efforts in the Easy Zone feel like they put in a lot of time, but they stagnate because it’s halfhearted.

The Challenge Zone

The Challenge Zone is the sweet spot. This is where all the most efficient learning happens. Practice here is challenging, like the name would suggest, but not so difficult as to be frustrating. For a language learner this might be writing a letter or e-mail in the target language, ordering a meal in the target language or having a short conversation. Anything that causes a good bit of discomfort goes here, whether that’s the mental discomfort of struggling with new sentence structures in an e-mail or the social discomfort of having to have an actual conversation with a native.

The reason the learning happens here is because this is the not-too-hot not-too-cold Goldilocks zone. When you focus your efforts on this zone you’re working on things that are far enough beyond your current level to challenge you, which is what forces you to grow. The real trick is to not go too far into…

The Frustration Zone

If you hit the Frustration Zone, you’ve gone way too far. The Frustration Zone encompasses any practice that causes so much discomfort, is so difficult or so stressful that it burns you out and makes you frustrated with your attempts. Some examples for a language learner might be trying to understand an entire movie, read a whole book or take a college course in the target language way before they’re ready.

Now that isn’t to say those three things aren’t great ways to learn a new language, but if you jump into the them too early they can seem impossible. After a while of throwing yourself at something that seems impossible, frustration inevitably sets in. Frustration leads to quitting, or at best a lot less practice because you dread doing it. A lot of people dive into things with the best of intentions and wind up pushing it too far. They never get any further than the people who keep it too easy because they burn out and quit before they make any real progress.

Making It Work

The first step to making your learning more efficient is to figure out where the Challenge Zone is. Sit down and think about all the practice you could possibly do, and figure out what makes you uncomfortable or what seems hard but isn’t so daunting that you would have almost no chance of success. Once you’ve got that, just focus all your efforts into those activities.

The list will change from person to person and from skill to skill, but as long as you keep most of your practice time in-between way too easy and way too difficult, you can guarantee you’ll be learning something and you won’t be likely to give up in frustration.

Have any experience stepping outside your comfort zones? What are some things you’ve found help you learn more efficiently? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: ZeroOne