Stop Lying to Yourself – How to Cultivate Self-Awareness

self-awareness-lying-to-yourself

The easiest person to lie to is yourself.

Out of everyone in the world, the person who lies to you the most is almost certainly you.

Most of the time it’s not something we think about. It’s just a sort of automatic response, or a defense mechanism. We look at the things we’re working on, at the general state of our lives or goals, how we’ve been performing in various areas and – rather than making an objective assessment – we tell ourselves whatever it is we want to hear.

The worst part is since it’s something we do all the time without thinking about it for what amounts to most of our lives, it’s hard to spot. It takes real effort to figure out when we are, and aren’t, being honest with ourselves and that’s why so few people wind up doing it.

Let’s look at some ways to change that.

The Importance of Honesty

There are a few different ways that I’ve found people lie to themselves consistently. The first I see all the time being involved in the realms of fitness and self-improvement, and that’s lying about progress. Sometimes these also take the form of lying to yourself about your own commitment or performance as well. What are some examples?

  • A person wants to learn to speak Cantonese. They say they’re studying hard, but really they’ve been skipping days and their practicing has mostly been short Memrise sessions stuck in here and there.

  • A person wants to finish a novel. They start off pretty strong but they tell themselves more and more that they’re too busy, that other work is getting in the way and making them too tired to be creative, that they’ll definitely get more done on it as soon as things calm down.

  • A person wants to lose weight. They tell themselves they’ve been eating healthy. In reality, they’ve eaten out and gone way over their calorie budget ten times in the last two weeks but they say it was only one or two little cheat meals. The scale hasn’t moved because of water weight.

  • A person wants to start getting more sleep. They tell themselves all day long that they’re definitely going to stick to that schedule they set. No caffeine after noon, no alcohol after eight, cut down light exposure and thirty minutes of light reading before bed at ten. At one a.m. they turn Netflix off and tell themselves that it’s fine, they’ll definitely do better tomorrow.

Any of those sound a little familiar?

A related type of lie that falls into this category is when we use dodgy, passive excuses as assessment for our progress. Things like, “I’m doing my best.” Or maybe, “I’ve been trying hard to [insert goal activity here].” These soft excuses have the same kind of effect as the more blatant ways we lie to ourselves.

So what’s the problem?

This type of self-deception robs us of the clarity we need to actually make progress in our lives. It’s a kind of self-preservation, a natural avoidance of things that are difficult or make us uncomfortable. It’s present in everyone and I’m sure in the (at least geologically) recent past when humans still had to be concerned about being eaten as often as they had to be concerned with finding food, and when a broken leg or a small infected cut could be a death sentence, it was a useful survival mechanism.

Now that natural inclination to avoid difficulty and discomfort and take the path of least resistance causes more harm than it does good.

These lies allow us to ignore multiple types of discomfort. They not only allow us to avoid the discomfort of actually trying hard (avoiding overeating, sticking to study sessions, working out), but also to avoid the discomfort of recognizing that we are failing.

To a lot of people being forced to face the realization that you’ve failed, or not worked as hard as you could have, or weren’t ‘strong’ enough to resist temptation, is more discomforting than the behavior they avoided in the first place. These lies and excuses often feign success or provide some kind of external excuse for any noticeable lack of progress. This makes it next to impossible to actually make any progress because to make progress you’d have to fix what’s wrong, and to fix what’s wrong you’d have to admit something is wrong in the first place, which requires you to crawl out from under the safety blanket of lies.

The second way I see people lie to themselves is just as damaging, but works in almost the opposite way. Rather than destroy their progress by telling themselves they’re doing much better than they actually are, they destroy their progress by convincing themselves they’re worthless or incapable. For example:

  • A person who has always wanted to learn to play guitar, but who tells themselves they’re awful at it anytime they practice. They feel like they’ll never be good enough to actually play in front of anyone.

  • A person who would love to be able to speak German on a trip they have planned to Berlin next year, but who tells themselves they just don’t have a head for languages and they’re far too old to learn a new one now anyway.

  • A person who wants to get fit who, after a minor setback like a day or two of going over their calorie budget, tells themself that they’re weak and pitiful and it’s a waste of time to even try to get in shape so they might as well gorge themself on junk food.

While the first type of self-deception is all about artificially building yourself up and pretending you’re doing better than you really are, this second type is all about lying to yourself about how poorly you’re doing or will inevitably do.

This kind of deceit does just as much to arrest or even reverse your progress as the others do. Rather than stop you from making progress by convincing you that you’re already succeeding, it stops you from making progress by convincing you that you can’t succeed, or that you’re not worthy of success. Either kind leads to the same end result. The key commonality between the two is that they’re both built around one thing, the very same thing that is necessary to stop lying to yourself.

Self-awareness.

How to Cultivate Self-Awareness

Thankfully, half the battle (or at least maybe a quarter if you want a more reserved estimate) is recognizing the need for improving your self-awareness in the first place. It takes a small amount of self-awareness in the first place to realize that you need to build more of it, and that can be the toughest hurdle to clear for some people.

Once you know that you need to work on your self-awareness, there are a lot of different strategies you can use to start building it up and to reduce that innate habit of lying to yourself. Rather than try to list as many as possible individually, I’ve found they can generally be grouped into one of three categories – quantification, introspection, and monitoring.

  • Quantification is anything that adds objective, measurable data points to whatever goal you’re working toward. For example if you’re working on getting stronger, noting down the workload of your lifting sessions (weight, sets & reps, rest times, etc.) will give you clear numbers on whether or not you’re improving. You can’t lie to yourself about how you’re getting stronger if the numbers say you haven’t increased the workload of your lifts over a reasonable period. Even just marking down days you’ve done an activity in a don’t-break-the-chain type system, like checking a box on a calendar every day you study your target language or every day you hit your macro targets, adds a reference-able set of data to tell you if you’re being honest with yourself about how you’re doing.

    Hopefully you already have set solid, quantifiable goals as opposed to nebulous ones and have something here you can work off of.

    One key thing I want to note here is that you have to not cheat, and you have to actually act on the data you wind up with. I’ve seen with all the quantified self stuff getting marketed lately people who will get so fixated on one aspect they ignore everything else. If you get so obsessed with getting steps on your FitBit that you let it bounce around on the dryer to hit your targets, or if you decide you’re going to go ahead and mark off that you studied today even though you didn’t because you don’t want to mess up your streak, it’s not going to actually help you succeed.

  • Introspection is the process of sitting down and – with an obvious goal of being as brutally honest as possible – examining your progress, behavior, attitudes, etc.

    We do an annual review once a year to go over all of our goals from the previous year, how well we did in accomplishing them, what areas we fell short in, what things can be improved, and what things we excelled at, among other things. It’s kind of like the type of extended performance review you might get at a job, except applied to our lives. It’s an excellent way to take a hard, critical look at how we’ve been doing and correct any behaviors or attitudes that may be making things harder on us rather than better.

    Introspection doesn’t have to mean a big yearly review with a long worksheet though, it might be taking some time at the end of a project to ask yourself how it went, what went well and what needed improvement. It could be just taking five minutes in the morning for some quiet meditation on your work habits, or your progress toward your goals, or even just noting down at the end of the night what things you did well that day, what things you struggled with, and what your goals are for the next day. The core idea is to make sure that at least some time is set aside purposefully for you to take a look at yourself and your behaviors and analyze them is a constructively critical fashion.

  • Monitoring is kind of a sibling or an off-shoot perhaps of quantification. It’s the act of setting up someone or something external to yourself to check in on your progress and make sure you’re staying on course.

    A digital example might be something like RescueTime, which keeps track of how much time you spend doing various things on the computer and lets you know if you waste several hours a day on Facebook or Reddit or something when you should be getting work done. A human equivalent might be as simple as a friend who you agree to go to the gym with to work out regularly, or someone who checks in with you to make sure you got your writing done that day.

    These external checks help add an additional layer of complication to self-deception, because we also have to deceive them to get away with it. You can’t convince yourself you’ve been working out more than you actually have if your friend is complaining you skipped out on the last gym sessions. Does that mean you can’t lie or cheat when using some kind of external monitor? Well, no, and that’s something you have to watch out for. Bringing yourself to lie to someone else though is a lot harder than being deceptive to yourself.

Depending on your goals, there are strategies and tools that fit into each of these categories you an use to help cultivate, and reinforce, your sense of self-awareness in order to stop lying to yourself so much.

While these three can help with both types of self-deception – falsely building yourself up, and falsely putting yourself down – it’s important to note the second type is also helped immensely by working on embracing positive self talk.

It may sound like something from a feel-good pseudo-psychological self-help book, but any time you think to yourself something that’s expressing a negative self opinion stop what you’re doing and contradict it with something positive. If you think, “I’ll never be smart enough to learn how to speak Lithuanian,” then stop what you’re doing and tell yourself something positive like, “Fuck that. I’m goddamn brilliant and if I want to speak Lithuanian there’s nothing that’s going to stop me.”

Working on overcoming negative self-talk is a topic requiring an article and guide all on it’s own, but just keep in mind that negative self-talk is almost always going to make things worse, not better, and you should do whatever you can to think of yourself more positively.

It’s also worth noting that if you’re constantly down on yourself, and always feeling like you’ll never be good enough to accomplish the goals you set out for yourself, or that nothing’s worth it and you should just give up, you may want to consider talking to your doctor about the symptoms of depression. Sometimes the issue isn’t that you’re not trying hard enough, it’s that there’s some kind of chemical imbalance somewhere that needs fixed. Don’t be afraid to explore other potential causes.

Do you have any other suggestions for how to be more self-aware and stop lying to yourself? Have you ever come to the realization that you’ve been deceiving yourself about something? if you’ve got any good advice for everyone leave a comment and share it with us!

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!

9 Reasons You Should Be Reading Fiction More

Benefits of reading fiction

There are tons of benefits to reading fiction you might be missing out on.

I love to read. Always have. To the point where as a little kid I would routinely get lost in the grocery store because I refused to put my book down even when walking and I wouldn’t notice my mom or grandma had turned off at some point.

I’ve noticed something though in my time spent within the circles of self-development and entrepreneurial minded folks – as much as many of them profess a deep thirst for reading so many disparage or at best ignore fiction.

Their reading lists are packed full of non-fiction, how-to books, motivational stuff, etc. with not a moment spared for a good story. I’ve had people tell me that reading fiction is a ‘waste of time’, or that it’s silly to devote hours to ‘entertainment’ when they could be reading something instructional. They say that, unlike fiction, non-fiction has value.

Fuck those people.

Not only does fiction have value, I’d argue it has a type of value that you can’t get from non-fiction. Here’s why you should make room for reading fiction again.

The Many Benefits of Reading Fiction

Whether you are a voracious reader like myself (I have such a close bond with my Kindle Paperwhite I named him Steven) or someone who considers getting through one short book a year an accomplishment, there’s so much you can get out of diving into a great work of fiction.

  • Reading Fiction Reduces Stress – Fiction reading is an excellent way to reduce your stress levels, something that everyone can benefit from. An ’09 study from the University of Sussex suggested just six minutes of fiction reading can reduce stress markers by up to 68%. Similar studies have noted that, while non-fiction reading can also reduce stress, fiction provided exponentially higher reductions in stress markers. It’s more relaxing to lose yourself in a story than it is to try to process and remember important information.

    Stress is a serious factor when it comes to maintaining good health. Success in weight loss, getting stronger, learning new things effectively, maintaining productivity – all of these things are sabotaged by unchecked stress levels. Making sure to keep stress low is probably one of the biggest positive changes you can make in your life.
    People who read regularly sleep better, show higher overall self-esteem, and report lower rates of depression. Making time for more fiction reading could actually save your life.

  • Reading Fiction Improves Your Vocabulary – All reading improves your vocabulary, but fiction reading does it best because for the vast majority of fiction word choice, sentence structure, and the composition of the prose itself is a concern.

    Non-fiction, when it does improve your vocabulary, has a tendency to do so in a utilitarian and technical way. After all, that’s generally the goal – to get whatever information the author is trying to impart across to you in a way that is most easily understandable while possibly introducing some new terms for things or concepts you may be unfamiliar with. The focus is on clarity above all else.

    In fiction the author stills seeks to convey a type of information, maybe particular emotions, better understanding of human nature, a moral about problem solving, or something like that. The difference is the goal of a fiction author is to convey that story as artfully and beautifully as possible. This builds both a reader’s functional vocabulary but also their sense of flow, meter, and adeptness in their use of language. Rather than teach technical words it helps expand the precision and depth with which we can describe the world around us and convey nuances in meaning.

  • Reading Fiction Boosts Your Creativity – What comes hand in hand with the expansion of vocabulary? A huge boost to your creativity.

    Creativity, boiled down to its essence, is the ability to make connections between otherwise disparate concepts and ideas to forge something novel. (It should come as a hint that Latin ‘novus’ grew into both a noun for a fiction book and an adjective for something new and innovative.) Can absorbing a lot of non-fiction provide a lot of new ideas for you to start linking together? Sure.

    Fiction does it even better though because fiction is nothing but ideas linked and scrambled into something interesting. It’s all ‘what if’s. What if a boy went on the classic hero’s journey but in space with a laser sword and (spoiler warning) what if the antagonist was his dad? What if magic was real and people got invited to go to a secret magical school via train in a castle in England? What if you could write down the stream of consciousness of people going about their day in Dublin but relate it to the structure of a Homeric epic poem? What if a woman and her son were trapped in a hot car in the midsummer sun by a rabid dog and cell phones hadn’t been invented yet?

    Reading fiction cultivates your creativity in the same way that artists cultivate their skills by looking at and copying or mimicking beautiful paintings or drawings. Exposure to another person’s creativity is the best way to spark your own. It makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange exposing you to wonderful new things and forcing you to see the mundane from brand-new perspectives.

  • Reading Fiction Develops Your Theory of Mind – Theory of mind is one of the things that makes humanity special within the animal kingdom. It’s what sets us apart with chimpanzees, ravens, dolphins, and possibly elephants and pigs. Theory of mind is essentially the ability to recognize that another creature has its own mind separate of yours and then modeling it in your own mind to theorize about what and how they’re thinking.

    Doing that might seem obvious to you now, but humans don’t pick that ability up until they’re about three or four years old. Kind of like an understanding of object permanency, it’s why small children think if they can’t see you then you can’t see them. The only thing that exists for them is their own mind and whatever they’re feeling or thinking everyone else must be too.

    Theory of mind is vital for social interactions – and therefore vital for business and all sorts of other aspects of life. It cues you in when someone is trying to deceive you, because you can theorize that the grinning used car salesman is actually more interested in getting as much money from you as possible than he is in being your best friend. It lets you connect better with people because you can put yourself in the shoes of your significant other, family, or friends, and work through problems in a more cohesive way.

    Fiction reading is on the very small list of things that actively improves your theory of mind. Studies have shown not only do the regions of the brain responsible for our theory of mind light up when reading fiction, but when tested fiction readers do far better at tests of theory of mind such as guessing emotional state from non-verbal or visual cues. Guessing at the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of characters and keeping straight all of the social ties and interactions within a narrative lets our brains practice those skills for use later with real people.

  • Reading Fiction Cultivates Empathy – If there’s something I definitely think we could use more of in 2017, it’s empathy. Empathy is similar to theory of mind, except instead of allowing us to postulate what the other person may be thinking, empathy allows us to connect with an understand what another person is likely feeling.

    Why’s that important?

    Empathy is one of the key driving forces behind people not being complete and utter dicks to one another. Empathy and understanding is a key force behind charity and positive social change. Empathy puts you in another person’s shoes so you can see the humanity with a person you might otherwise hate. A lack of empathy is part of what turns people into homophobes, racists, and serial killers. Not categories you want to be in.

    Spending time reading fiction directly contributes to making you a more understanding, less shitty human being.

  • Reading Fiction Exposes You to Culture – Part of that increase in your capacity for empathy comes from being exposed to a wide variety of people in a wide variety of situations and being made to understand their personal struggles within them. Another part of it comes from being exposed to new cultures.

    Fiction reading is an incredible avenue for being exposed not just to real cultures, but to constructed or fictional ones. Even fictional cultures have some kind of basis, intentional or not, in existing real-world cultural systems. Whether it’s experiencing a facsimile of classical Hellenistic culture through the Iliad, the racial prejudice of the southern U.S. through To Kill a Mockingbird, or even the ideas of family and honor presented by non-historical cultures like those in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, all of these things expose you to new ways of thinking and living.

    Fiction from cultures outside of your own, even if they aren’t directly writing about their own culture, also broadens your understanding. Which is why I always advocate reading from authors with diverse cultural, racial, and national backgrounds.

  • Reading Fiction Builds Your Self-Confidence Model – When people reading fiction are run through an fMRI brain scan the same brain regions light up that would light up if they were having that experience firsthand. This is tied in strongly with why fiction helps us build both empathy and theory of mind, it forces us to experience something that someone else with a different background would experience.

    Psychologists have found that this enables people to build internal models of self-confidence and fuel introspection and personal understanding.

    Basically, reading about how some badass protagonist believed in themselves and stood up to defeat the antagonist despite overwhelming odds can contribute to making the real you more confident by providing a sort of comparison model in your subconscious to emulate. This process also allows for unbound self-exploration. Our normal day-to-day emotions are often obfuscated by the forces of peer pressure, normative expectations, and a thousand other factors outside of ourselves. It can make it difficult to understand how you actually feel about things and get in touch with your emotions.

    Reading fiction creates an environment not only free of outside pressures (everything occurs entirely in your own mind), but also provides a safe analogue for examining your own emotions by letting another character experience them. Rather than go through the difficult process of coming to terms with emotions related to a trauma you’ve experienced, you can be a neutral observer as a character you identify with struggles with the emotions related to their own trauma. Through witnessing and experiencing their journey, you can learn about yourself without the fear and vulnerability normally associated with deep introspection.

  • Reading Fiction Improves Your Focus – The nature of the modern world is one in which we are constantly pestered and distracted by a thousand little things all constantly clamoring for just a few seconds of our attention. Being able to sit and really focus on a single task is an increasingly rare skill.

    To learn how to focus better you have to practice focusing better.

    What better way to do that than by committing to sit down with a compelling narrative and devote an entire hour (or however long) to a single, focused task like reading? The feeling of focus and the ability to tune out distractions that comes with getting lost in fiction is something that can be cultivated through reading and then applied to other areas like work or study where it’s a key tool for productivity. A little time spent reading fiction can mean more productivity later.

  • Reading Fiction Provides New Perspectives for Problem Solving – Exposure to all these new and myriad ideas and situations also benefits your capacity for problem solving.

    One way of looking at the structure of fiction is to view it as an argument. The Dramatica theory of story structure for example is one method that I like of analyzing fiction this way. As an example, you could take Star Wars IV: A New Hope as being an argument about the value of trusting in your instincts. Throughout the story both sides of the argument are presented through the characters’ actions and, in the end, the story comes to the conclusion via Luke turning off the targeting system and successfully murdering hundreds of thousands of people on the Death Star that trusting your feelings is good.

    When reading fiction we’re exposed to tons of these little mini-arguments and problems and presented not only solutions for them but examples of ways other people, real or otherwise, have approached the task of solving difficult problems and overcoming obstacles. This helps build in your mind a repository of different frameworks with which to tackle difficult problems. The wider variety of frameworks, the better the problem solver you become and the less trouble obstacles in your life present to you.

Making the Most of your Fiction Reading

The best part is, in addition to all these great benefits, reading fiction is fun.

It’s something most people will naturally enjoy. Even better when they’ve studied it they’ve found that all these benefits from reading fiction come no matter what type or quality you’re reading. You don’t have to be a huge snob and force yourself to trudge through Dostoevsky and James Joyce when you’ll get the same benefits from Brad Thor and Stephenie Meyer. I still think you should do your best to read from a wide range of genres and a diverse mix of authors, but you don’t have to read fiction you don’t enjoy to reap all the benefits – do what makes you happy.

If you need a boost of encouragement, or even some suggestions for new books you might like, Goodreads is a good place to check out for fiction reviews, recommendations, and a system where you can challenge yourself to read a certain number of books before the year’s end. You can try it out if you need that extra little bump of motivation although seriously with all those benefits I hope you don’t need more convincing to get started reading more.

Have any other benefits you think I’ve missed? Experiences of your own with the life improving effects of good fiction? Share in the comments! I love hearing from everyone.

Language Learning Excuses

No More Language Learning Excuses

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

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

Here’s why you’re wrong.

Common Excuses for Not Learning a Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    You’re wrong.

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

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

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

    Of course. Potentially.

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

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

Don’t Discourage Yourself

Everyone can learn a second language.

Everyone.

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

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

A Beginner’s Guide to Practicing with Intent

Working the Heavy Bag by David Schroeder - Deliberate Practice

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

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

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

You need to practice with intent.

Focused, Deliberate Practice

So what does it mean to practice with intent?

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s where the deliberate practice comes in.

Getting the Most from Your Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Put Your Deliberate Practice Time In

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

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

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

Photo Credit: David Schroeder

How to Achieve Your Goals By Not Setting Goals

Goal by Humbletree

Sometimes goals get in the way more than they help.

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

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

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

The Problems with Focusing on Goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Systems Focus Over Goals Focus

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

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

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

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

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

Building Good Systems

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Humbletree

Get More Done By Limiting Yourself

Restricted by Martin Cathrae

Sometimes restrictions can help more than they hinder.

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

Or are they?

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

When Choice Is the Enemy

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

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

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

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

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

Using Limits As a Tool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Martin Cathrae

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

Torsten, Math Teacher by Blondinrikard Fröberg

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

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

How Perceptions Affect Performance

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

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

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

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

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

Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how do you stop sucking so bad at learning?

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

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

Photo Credit: Blondinrikard Fröberg

Why Habit Building Is the Foundation for Success

Briofitas by Carmen Jost

Habit building is a sturdy foundation to build skills on top of.

“…we are we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” -Will Durant

The quote above, often mis-attributed to Aristotle, is used so much I was a little hesitant to use it here. It’s so true though, and sums up he point I intend to make so well that I couldn’t help it.

It’s not that you can’t reach success or excellence without using habits to drive your progress – but more that using habits to drive your success is the closest you can get to a guarantee that you’ll get there. Habits, like the Colorado river cutting away at the Grand Canyon, are an extremely potent force when leveraged over a long enough period of time. So what makes habit development so important?

The Cumulative Power of Habits

The primary power of habits lies in their cumulative nature, in what I tend to call skill accretion or sometimes goal accretion.

Skill accretion is the gradual build up of skill over time, little by little. It’s the most consistently successful way to build new skills in my experience, or to increase proficiency in skills you already have, because its gradual compounding nature means you don’t have to suffer through all the ups and downs and struggles of trying to rapidly acquire a skill. As a method its reliability stems from its sustainability.

As a self-defense instructor I have seen people on both ends of the spectrum in terms of approach to skill building. I’ve had students who went all out with five and six hour training sessions day after day who had dreams of being the next big UFC fighter, and I’ve had students who committed themselves to thirty minutes a day plus regular classes, or even just ten minutes of review practice each morning.

After a year – almost without exception – the people who committed to the small, daily, sustainable levels of training surpassed the skill levels of the people who went all out at the beginning. Generally, because the people that go all out just don’t last that long.

That’s not to say some don’t make it, but it’s pretty rare to find someone who is able to sustain that level of training effort over the long haul unless they are extremely committed, motivated, and disciplined. I’ve only had a few students that were able to pull it off.

That sustainable cumulative nature means that building easy habitual actions that move you a little further toward your goal, whether that’s completion of something like a project or building of a particular skill, will net you a far greater amount of progress in the long run than if you try to make a hard all out push.

Building those habits allows you to make those small incremental improvements an automatic, unthinking process.

Habits and Chunking

The use of habits as a tool also strongly facilitates the breaking down of large, difficult tasks into manageable bite-sized pieces or chunks – something I call chunking.

This is important because a lot of tasks can feel relatively insurmountable if you’re approaching them as one complete unit.

An easy example is writing a novel. Having a basic goal of reaching the 80,000 word mark, a general average for most novels, seems daunting when you’re approaching it all at once. When you’re looking at that 80,000 word goal all at once it can seem like you’ll never get there – even typing for hours it can feel like you didn’t even make a dent. For most people the thought of writing that much, of writing a complete novel, just feels like something they would never have time for.

When you break it down though, 80,000 words is only about 1,334 words or so per day spread over two months. If you’re in no real hurry you could write 220 words everyday and have that 80,000 word book finished in a year. For scale, I’ve written about 650 words so far in this article in the span of about thirty minutes.

In comparison to the whole 80,000 word novel, that bite-sized chunk of about 1,400 words looks effortless.

Using the process of habit building you can make it even more so.

Habituating the action of writing 300 words every morning when you sit down with your coffee would be simple. It wouldn’t take any time out of your day – you can likely write far in excess of 300 words in the time it takes you to finish a cup of coffee – and when you make it a habit it becomes and unconscious action. Much like brushing your teeth in the morning, it becomes something you no longer have to think hard about or put effort in to.

So in a year’s time, with zero additional time investment and little more effort than is required to remember to brush your teeth in the morning, you could have a complete novel finished in a year’s time.

These things are what makes habit building such a powerful tool.

You can habituate almost anything. You can use habits to complete things like books, work projects, gradually cleaning out your bursting inbox or messy garage. You can use habits to learn things or improve at things, learning a second language, playing an instrument, improving your coding skills.

The key is recognizing how useful habit creation can be, and then bringing that usefulness to bear in achieving your goals.

Are there any other ways habit building has helped you in reaching your goals, building a skill, or completing a daunting project? Leave a comment and share!

Photo Credit: Carmen Jost

The 5 Key Elements for Successful Fat Loss

Bathroom Scale by Mason Masteka

We talk a lot about efficiency here – not necessarily because we feel everything has to be optimized and made super-efficient, but rather because a lot of things in life get severely over-complicated. As a result people struggle with things not because they can’t do them or they’re too difficult, but instead because they get too caught up in minutiae to make any real progress.

Fat loss is an excellent example of that process in action.

There’s so much information on fat loss out there that it can be staggering. Should you or shouldn’t you eat breakfast? Is meal timing important? Should I go paleo, eat vegan, use a detox program, do a juice cleanse? Should I sprint, run a 5k everyday, lift heavy, not lift at all?

It goes on and on.

Time and time again with my coaching clients I find people have gotten so wrapped up in all these little things that they completely miss the big important variables that are going to have the biggest effect.

Fat Loss the 80/20 Way

we’ve already gone over the 80/20 approach to nutrition. Most of that will carry over here, just because nutrition is a large part of the fat loss equation, but this will be a bit broader of a look at things.

You’ll find – like most cases where you break things down to find the highest return variables – that these aren’t the big, flashy, cool, sexy, technical sounding things. Sure, it sounds cool when you can sit around and spend twenty minutes explaining the intricacies of carb cycling and gluconeogenesis to somebody, but if you don’t have the boring stuff taken care of it’s not going to get you far.

So what are the five high return variables you should be worrying about first in fat loss?

1. Maintain an Overall Long Term Calorie Deficit

If you want to lose fat, you need to be in a calorie deficit overall. The best way to achieve this for most people in my experience is through creating a small weekly calorie deficit in their diet.

There have been a lot of arguments lately over the whole ‘Is a Calorie a Calorie’ thing. Don’t worry about any of that for right now. If you’re overweight, treating all calories equal and ensuring you’re in a deficit on a weekly basis will get you substantially further than stressing out over whether you’re getting fat calories, protein calories, or carb calories.

In order to figure out a caloric deficit, you first have to know how many calories you need to eat to maintain your current weight so you can subtract from it. You can use the Harris-Benedict equation, the Katch-McArdle equation, or the old 12 x bodyweight in pounds equation, though all of these have fairly high margins of error.

The best way is to keep a completely accurate food log for one week and compare it to changes in your weight over that week. If you stayed the same that’s likely roughly your maintenance range. Once you’ve gotten that rough estimate introduce a deficit by cutting it down a bit and continue to monitor things. Don’t assume you’ll get one calorie number to stick to and that’ll be it – expect to constantly be rechecking and updating your deficit as you see what changes your body is going through.

2. Focus on Whole, Nutritious, Unprocessed Foods

Going back to the ‘Is a Calorie a Calorie’ thing, you find in some cases the extreme If It Fits Your Macros adherents. They insist that you can consume nothing but pizza, beer, and ice cream and still lose fat.

Technically, they’re right.

As long as you kept yourself in that caloric deficit we talked about above you could lose fat that way. The problem is for most people it presents a lot of problems. The most obvious problem is, in general those things tend to be less nutritious in a holistic sense.

I don’t mean holistic in the way someone might apply it to a crystal healer, I mean holistic in the sense of having all the vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and other things that come along with eating your fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed meats. While they aren’t something you should stress out over too much in relation to more important things like macronutrients and calories, being deficient in them because all you eat is junk food is not going to do you any favors.

Additionally, due to the high caloric density of most of those types of foods, it’s hard to only eat enough that you stay under your necessary caloric deficit. Even if you manage to avoid the temptation of having just one more slice of cake, or a couple more beers, you are likely to find yourself going to bed hungry. Going to bed hungry is a surefire way to ensure you’re going to decide to give up on your eating plan.

Can you still have some junk food? Of course. As long as it doesn’t put you over your calories – but I strongly recommend keeping it at or below 20% of your total calorie intake. Fill the rest with vegetables, meats, and other whole foods and you’ll find it much easier to stick to your deficit.

3. Prioritize Long Term Adherence

Which brings us to number three. Adherence.

Anyone can follow the most painful, complicated, intricate diet and training program in the world for a day or two. Maybe even for a week. That’s not going to help.

You need to treat this like a marathon, not like a sprint. You need to avoid looking at this like something you’re going to suffer through for a couple months so you can not be embarrassed at the pool or the beach, and instead look at it as something that you are changing about your entire life. These new habits and ways of looking at things are for life.

For life.

This also means you need to not make it completely fucking miserable.

I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve had try to convince me to let them eat at some insane deficit like 1,000 calories below their maintenance per day, or want some super hardcore P90-Cross-X-Fit-Whatever workout program for them to do everyday because they feel like they need to drop fat right now.

Approaching it this way is like tackling an Ironman triathlon with the expectation of sprinting through the whole running portion. You are guaranteeing you’ll crash and burn, and then inevitably wind up back where you started.

Adherence is probably the single hardest thing about fat loss, but if you focus on making it a priority you’re setting yourself up to be substantially more successful than everyone else.

4. Exercise

Can you successfully lose fat entirely by diet changes alone with no additional exercise? Absolutely.

But why make it harder on yourself?

Do not try to use exercise as a way to create a substantial calorie deficit or as a way to ‘work off’ the extra stuff you ate that you shouldn’t have or as a way to ‘earn’ that pint of ice cream you want to have. It doesn’t work that way.

You should use exercise for two things – the first is to add and maintain muscle mass for a passive benefit to your metabolism and your overall calorie burn throughout the day, and the second is as a way to subtly help ensure that the deficit you created is in fact a deficit given the potential inaccuracy of those calculations you did.

Note here that when I say exercise, that might mean walking the dog everyday. That might mean playing basketball, soccer, tennis, whatever. Unless you have some specific additional goal to train for or really enjoy a particular form of ‘traditional’ exercise like running or weight lifting don’t worry so much about it. Go find something active that you really like to do and do it as often as you reasonably can. If you have to force yourself to do it, it probably won’t help your adherence.

5. Focus on Processes Instead of Results

Many of the problems I talked about in points above (wanting to go all out too soon, not being able to adhere to changes, doing unpleasant forms of exercise, etc.) are all strongly influenced by having a results focus instead of a process focus.

What that means is, people fixate on something like ‘I want to lose 30 lbs. by the end of next February’. In general, this type of goal isn’t always bad – but when it comes to things like fat loss it can lead to some problematic behaviors.

First and foremost is the tendency of people to start to get discouraged if they don’t see continual improvements. When it comes to fat loss, you’re almost guaranteed your weight is going to do crazy things for no apparent reason to you. You’ll retain water sometimes, gain five pounds over a weekend for no obvious reason, and other strange things. Biology is messy.

Many people have this happen and then panic that they won’t make that 30 pound goal or whatever in time. Then they fall into stress behaviors, or make panicky decisions, and generally just screw things up even worse.

Instead, focus on the process. Make a goal like ‘I’m going to stick to my calories everyday for two weeks’, or ‘I’m going to go run with the dog for 30 minutes twice a week this whole month’.

Those types of goals not only keep you motivated since they’re easy to achieve, i.e., the power to accomplish them is entirely within your control unlike the 30 pounds thing, but that via achieving them you’ll find that you’re more likely to meet that goal of losing 30 lbs. than if you had made that your goal in the first place.

Process focus will always outperform result focus.

Going on from There

Once you’ve got all these big return variables down, you can start worrying about the little things more if you want to. Situationally some of them can have a fairly big effect. They key is to leave them for after you’ve got these other five things down, and to not let focusing on them interfere with any of the more important variables.

Do you have anything you’d like to add to these five? Do you have any tips you’ve found useful for following any of them, or for better ignoring all the little relatively unimportant things? Share them with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Mason Masteka