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Education Productivity

Optimizing Environments for Studying and Other Things

“There are nearly endless opportunities to improve each day and finding them largely boils down to being curious. People who are better, in the end, are usually curious in the beginning.” 

James Clear (Author of Atomic Habits)

“Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction, and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives.”

William A. Foster (United States Marine & Medal of Honor Recipient)

A huge part of being socialized is being able to regulate our emotions and there are tons of ways to do this. Exercise, diet, meditation, vices, art, work, etc. But the most effective way to regulate our emotions is to regulate our environment.

The best way to not be stressed is to stay away from stressful places.

The Best Study Environments

If you’ve read my other posts on studying, I frequently emphasize learning principles to design systems that work best for ourselves. One of the fundamental principles for creating the best study environments is known as State-dependent Learning. This is the idea that people can more easily recall information if their physical or mental state is the same as their time of encoding.

This suggests that our physical and mental states are influenced by our environment. For example, when students are in a classroom they may be feeling more alert and aware than at home which influences how they encode and recall.

When I was younger, I noticed that I was much better at math inside my math class than at home or anywhere else. In class, I was sharp as a tack but the second I was anywhere else, it took me more than twice as long to answer the same questions. I didn’t understand it then, but now I know that it was because I learned the material in that classroom, everything about the classroom became subconsciously associated with the material. When I took in all the stimuli from the classroom (i.e. decorations of the class or the arrangement of the chairs) I was able to fire the specific neural pathways faster because of all the cues affecting my internal state. I could still fire the same neural pathway at home, it just took a little more energy and time because I didn’t have all the external cues from the classroom (where I encoded the information) influencing my internal states or acting as anchors for recognition.

Implement Cues

When we’re getting started it’s nice to have a cue that lets us know when it’s time to get to work. Cues are the 1st stage of the habit cycle and are crucial in creating (or destroying) habits.

When I was in high school, I had a small study lamp that would click whenever I turned it on. Since I had so many days where I sat at that desk and did my homework, I created a subconscious connection between the click of the lamp and getting to work. It’s like once the lamp clicked, so did my mind and I was ready to study.

The click of the lamp was my cue to get started.

Now, the cue doesn’t have to be a click of a lamp. It can be anything really, as long as we associate it with studying or getting to work.

In college, I had a study playlist that would get me into full flow once it got going. After college, I created new playlists with different kinds of music. (Today, the Hamilton instrumentals have been keeping me on track). However, cues can be more than auditory. It’s also lighting and position, the decorations in the room, smells., or tastes.

Any and all of our senses can be used to create cues that trigger our habit cycles.

Simulate the Test Enviornment

This is one of the most fundamental principles for creating a study environment. There have been studies that show studying in an environment similar to test helps with remembering. This is, in part, because of the cues and state-dependent learning. While we’re learning, the signals from the room are subconsciously connected to the concepts, and seeing those signals may help trigger the neural pathway we want. This is partly why I suggest that silence is better than music while studying because we usually take tests when it’s silent.

Simulating the test environment gets more important as we get closer to the exam date. Now, I want to emphasize that it’s still possible to study in a completely different environment and perform well on an exam. It would require more effort and active recall, but it still works. Studying in a similar environment as the test simply makes things easier to recall later.

Routines

Location and time matter. Learning in the same place makes it easier to encode and retain information. Recalling that information would be even easier if we tried to remember it in the same place that we learned it.

This is partly why I performed so well in high school. I had a rigid schedule where I learned the same subjects every day at the same time in the same place. I noticed that students had a hard time retaining information during distance learning and part of that was because many of the students took it upon themselves to do their work “whenever they felt like it.”

While I’m a huge proponent of people creating their own schedules, without a routine our brain will have a more difficult time filing that information away.

Let me give an example: if we learn math in the morning at our kitchen table, then we will subconsciously associate the kitchen with that specific math concept. Now, let’s say we learn the next topic at the kitchen table again. Our brain will create a little folder in our minds where we associate learning math at the kitchen table and it will be a litter easier next time to learn math there. But let’s say we decide to do our math assignments in the evening in the living room. We’ll notice that we’re still able to do the lesson, but there will be slight resistance. Our brain will have a harder time recalling the math concepts when we’re in a different location or at a different time. This may not seem like much, but over time we’ll have to put in significantly more energy just to keep it all straight.

Music

So here’s the deal with music and studying. Studying in silence is better for two main reasons:

1) We can dedicate more of our cognitive load to the course material

2) We are simulating the test environment by studying in silence. In almost every exam I’ve taken, it was silent so it helps to have silence associated with the concepts, at least in preparation for the test.

But if I have to be honest, I love studying and working to music.

Music is a huge part of my life and it brings me so much pleasure.

Yes, there is a slight productivity hit from studying to music but I think it’s worth it if it makes the experience a little more enjoyable. I’m all about prioritizing my experience of the process over productivity.

If I’m constantly excited and enjoy the process, then I’m naturally going to be working more often.

So I want to get into which music is best for studying. Typically songs with lyrics tend to distract our minds. Even if we aren’t trying to pay attention to the lyrics, our minds will be subconsciously trying to decode the messages in the songs which takes up a significant amount of cognitive load. So studying while listening to music without lyrics or instrumentals is the best of both worlds.

Additionally, songs with more rhythmic qualities tend to be more distracting than songs with less. So I recommend listening to songs with relatively little drum instrumentation. Unfortunately, this means one of my favorite genres, hip hop, isn’t ideal for studying. I tend to work and study to classical or movie scores.

Listening to music also helps mask feelings of effort, our brains release dopamine when we listen to music which helps with our reward systems. Music has also been proven to have an analgesic effect, so it literally hurts less to study with music on.

Lighting

The best lighting for studying is a well-lit room where everything is easy to see. Low or dim light makes it difficult to see and it also signals to our brain that it’s time to go to bed. In low lighting, we’re extremely susceptible to slipping into stage 1 of sleep. Our brain emits alpha waves and lowers our levels of mental arousal. This prevents us from focusing or paying attention as well as we could.

If lighting the entire room isn’t feasible, I recommend having a study lamp that at least illuminates the workspace. Not only for the lighting but having something that’s associated with just studying helps with creating habit-forming cues.

Desks

Sitting or standing, it doesn’t matter which team you’re on. Naturally, we don’t want to sit for long periods of time, but we also don’t want to study for long periods of time either.

I’ve seen a lot of conflicting stuff when it comes to sitting vs. standing desks, but I recommend splitting up studying into modified Pamadoros and getting up and walking around, changing up the environment a little bit during the breaks. I don’t think the issue lies in which desk we have, but in doing things for long periods of time when we’re designed to switch things up every once in a while.

The desk needs to have adequate space to work. It also should be inviting and functional. When I finish my work, I try to clean up my workspace so it’s nice and clean which encourages me to get to work the next time. When my space is cluttered (which is when I’m in the middle of projects), I’m less likely to work again. I call cleaning my workspace after I finish resetting to zero. I try to do it whenever I can because it helps me hit the ground running the next time.

Libraries vs. Coffee Shops

Which is better for studying? This depends on a few different things:

1) Our goals and where we are in relation to it.

Let’s say we’re learning something new, the deadlines are pretty far away, and we have a study group that wants to meet at a coffee shop. Sure! This would probably work. But let’s say we’re not really strong on the material and the test is coming up in a few days, then we should probably spend some time in the library alone running through active recall drills. For me personally, I used libraries to learn new information and coffee shops to review old information. Where we are and where we want to go play a huge role in how we choose or design our environments.

2) Our internal states.

Renowned neuroscientist, Dr. Andrew Huberman, says our brains are constantly determining if our internal states are aligned with our external surroundings. We can think of the library as quiet and still while the coffee shops are busy and loud. If our internal state is still and quiet, then studying at a library may be our best bet. If we’re feeling a little more stimulated and anxious, maybe studying at a coffee shop would be better for us because we will have that matching of the internal and external.

Discover how we feel and go to the place that matches that.

For some, knowing how we are feeling can be a difficult thing. Mindfulness practices are great for developing the skills and abilities to identify what we’re feeling. Making the best choices for ourselves always starts with knowing what we want and need.

Study Groups vs. Studying Alone

I’ve written a post on Group Studying vs. Solo Studying that goes over the 80/20 on that subject, but bottom line is that each has its advantages and it depends on what we want to accomplish. I recommend studying alone if you are learning the material for the first time or if you’re still shaking on most of the main ideas. Groups can be powerful for reviewing content that we are already familiar with or learning how to approach 1 or 2 main ideas.

Know what’s needed and plan accordingly.

More On Environments

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

Marcus Aurelius (Emperor of Rome, Stoic Philosopher, & Author of Meditations)

Environmental influence is nontrivial and determines our constraints, but it also goes deeper than what’s physically around us. Our environment has physical, social, and mental components.

Our physical environmental influence consists of all the tangible aspects around us. This includes, but is not limited to, the location, lighting, desk, and music. Changing our physical environment is probably the easiest to change compared to mental and social environments. Spending some time cleaning or reorganizing will usually do the trick.

Our social environments are created by the people involved in our pursuits. The people may be in our physical space or not, they could be involved with the project from afar, or they could even be consumers. The thing to keep in mind is that the social influences of our environment come from our relationships with those people. Tending to the relationships, or adjusting our perception of the relationships is our key to optimizing our social environment.

Our mental environmental influences consist of all the nontangibles and other things floating around in our heads. If we can remember that our environment isn’t just what is around us, but also what is goes on in our minds, then it’s a little easier to determine what is part of our mental environment. Optimizing our mental space is a little more difficult than our physical space. In order to do this, we have to adopt new philosophies and perspectives. I highly recommend Stoic philosophy for this. However, the most influential factor of our mental environment is our perception of the physical space. Our perceptions are within our control and with some practice, we can shift our perceptions so they create an environment better suited for our pursuits.

Our environments influence us and determine our constraints, to an extent, but our perceptions could transform an otherwise destructive environment into something supportive.

“When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstance, revert at once to yourself, and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better group of harmony if you keep on going back to it.”

Marcus Aurelius (Emperor of Rome, Stoic Philosopher, & Author of Meditations)

The key to controlling our environment is finding the strength to accept that our interpretation of our environment is just one of many and to actively seek a framework that transforms the challenges of today into what makes us phenomenal.

There are infinite ways to perceive something and if we’re in a position where our environment seems to be crushing us, then our only way out is to look for other ways to see the situation.

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910)

Our environments are a combination of what’s going outside of us, but also inside as well. As long as we know ourselves and what we want to accomplish, we have the power to transform our environments into beautiful places, or at least less miserable places.

The Hero of Heroes: The Osiris Myth & Attention

“Where you spend your attention is where you spend your life.”

James Clear

The Hero of Heroes

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been obsessed with discovering what makes people win. I used to think what made someone good at one thing was different than what made them good at another, and while there is some truth to that, I’ve noticed that there are a few things that make people good at everything. It’s almost like a Pareto distribution of skills necessary for winning. There are a handful of skills and traits that we can learn which can help us get to the top of all the pyramids, so to speak.

While analyzing the “winners” of our society, I’ve noticed that they all possess certain trains to get to the top of their fields. What makes a successful professor is different from what makes a successful athlete is different from what makes a successful musician, or businessman, or mother, or soldier, or fashion designer…you get the idea. Each one of these people has developed themselves in the areas they need to in order to reach the top of their game.

Well, life is more than just one game, it’s a series of games.

So that poses the question, what are the traits and skills we need to develop to win the series of games?

In some ways, that’s different from what it takes to win one particular game, but in other ways, it’s also the same. That led to me looking for patterns, not only in successful people of my time but in the heroes of the myths of all cultures.

For generations, even predating written history, people have been trying to figure out this question and share their findings with the ones who inherit their world. They shared these ideas through stories of heroes that would display the traits and ways of being necessary for “winning.”

Let me give an example, Hercules is a kind, strong, brave, and persistent young man and because of that, the story ends well for him. When little boys are told the story of Hercules, they want to emulate his heroic qualities and be one themselves. Adults are happy to tell them this story because they know (on a subconscious level) that these lessons will help the children in winning the game of games, life. The same can be found in religious stories, ancient myths, and popular culture. The Avengers is a perfect example of this. Spider-man is my personal favorite.

So I started thinking, what if I analyzed what was common among all of these hero myths?

Will I find the skills needed for success everywhere?

I don’t think I know exactly what will make someone successful everywhere, but I have compiled some commonalities between the heroes in every story I’ve come across. This is a pretty big idea so I’m going to be going over each of them with their own blog post.

These series of posts will not be an exhaustive list of these traits and skills, but they are the ones that I’ve found to be most important. This post is going to focus on the power of attention.

Attention

Eye of Horus

This story has a similar arc to Disney’s famous The Lion King, one of my favorite movies of all time. I’ll be making various connections to The Lion King and it’s relevance to the modern world throughout the story.

This story is one of the oldest, but most elaborate and influential, myths of the Egyptian Gods. This is the Osiris Myth.

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It begins with the god Osiris, the King of Egypt, ruling a fair and prosperous kingdom. Osiris is extremely wise and well-liked by his subjects. He’s harsh with his judgments but fair with his punishments.

Osiris is analogous to Mufasa in The Lion King. They are both a representation of The Wise King archetype.

Osiris was married to Isis, the Goddess of health, marriage, and fertility. They had a good marriage and Isis was lovingly devoted to Osiris. Osiris also had a brother named Set, the God of deserts, disorder, and violence.

Isis seems to be the ancient Egyptian representation of the anima. Set is analogous to Scar from The Lion King. Like Scar and Mufasa, Set’s relationship to Osiris represents “the hostile brothers” archetype.

Set was jealous of Osiris and his power. He wanted to be the King of Egypt. Osiris knew his bother had these feelings but chose not to acknowledge them. Instead, he was willfully blind to his brother’s hostility. Set used his brother’s voluntary ignorance against him and killed Osiris. Set chopped Osiris up into little pieces and spread his body parts across Egypt.

These different pieces ended up representing the different districts in ancient Egypt and were thought to be the origins of their old borders.

Mufasa was killed by Scar because Mufasa did not want to see the evil in his brother. He chose to be willfully ignorant. Just like in The Lion King, Set was able to kill Osirus because Osirus didn’t want to see the evil in Set. This is one of the biggest lessons I took from this story: Willful ignorance is strong enough to take down a good, powerful, and wise leader. Or maybe the ancient Egyptians were trying to say that only willful ignorance is strong enough to take down a wise, powerful, and good leader. Either way, willful ignorance is destructive and the forces working against us will use our ignorance to catch us off guard. Choosing to not see the evil will kill us, maybe when others may need us the most.

Of course, when a king dies it’s big news and it’s not long until Isis finds out. She’s furious and goes around to each district gathering Osiris’s parts. Eventually, she finds his phallus and impregnates herself. Once she’s pregnant, she leaves for the underworld where she can raise her baby, the hero, Horus the Younger, away from the disorder and violence of Set’s reign.

Horus the Younger is commonly depicted as a falcon-headed man because he represents attention. The agent of attention is born from the wise king and the anima. I think it’s also worth mentioning that Horus is raised in the underworld. To the modern person, the underworld has connotations of Hell or other terrible places but in ancient Egyptian mythology, the underworld was another dimension where the gods could watch the humans from afar. Horus, the agent of attention, is raised in a world separate from the one he will inherit. Similar to how children are raised in environments separate from “the real world.”

This is where the Osiris myth diverges from The Lion King a bit. In The Lion King, Simba (Horus analogous) “grows up” with Timon and Pumba singing Hakuna Matata, whereas Horus was raised in the underworld by Isis. Those are obviously different, but in some ways they are similar. Both of our heroes are learning the ways of the world in a safe haven away from the real burden of responsibility.

As Horus gets older, he learns the truth about his father. That Set usurped him and is running Egypt into the ground. Horus decides to return to Egypt, confront Set, and avenge his father.

This is like when Simba decides to leave Timone and Pumba to go take his rightful place as king. This is the quintessential coming of age story (at least for boys), a boy leaves his friends so he can go an answer the calling to be greater. Usually catalyzed by a woman, in Simba’s case, it’s Nala.

When Horus returns, Set tries to win Horus over the same way he did with Osiris. But Horus has something is father didn’t, the gift of true attention. With his attention, Horus could see Set for what he was, an agent of betrayal and malevolence. When Horus confronts Set, they have a great battle. Set tears out one of Horus’s eyes, but Horus ultimately defeats him in the end. Since gods cannot truly be killed, Horus banishes Set from the Kingdom.

This is one of my favorite parts of the story because it has so many of the lessons that make this story worthwhile. 1) Attention is the one thing that will give us a fighting chance against the forces of malevolence. 2) When we are confronting the forces of malevolence and disorder, we will get hurt in a serious way. 3) We’ll never truly destroy the forces that are working against us, we can only fight them off and make them leave temporarily.

Horus picks up his eye and returns to the underworld, where Isis had kept all the pieces of Osiris. Horus gives Osiris his eye, restores attention to the old corpus of wisdom, and together they both rule Egpyt into prosperity and peace.

The ancient Egyptians believed that the pharaoh represented the union between Osiris and Horus. A good ruler needs to have the wisdom of the past as well as attention to the present in order to lead the people into a prosperous future. I think it’s great that Horus knew that to do what’s best for Egypt, he needed to give attention to the wisdom of his dead father. There is powerful meaning to be found in the journey of giving the attention of the youth to the wisdom of the old that runs deep within the soul of every human being. There are so many myths that depict that exact journey. It is not solely attention nor wisdom that will lead us to freedom and prosperity, but the union of both in a way that allows us to recognize and overcome the forces working against us.

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Attention is what’s needed to brings us to the top of every hierarchy and overcome the forces of evil, so to speak. This idea has been expressed through archetypal images and myths throughout history and cross-culturally.

What’s at the top?

I think the image on the back of the American dollar bill depicts this perfectly. Attention is the thing that is at the top of the pyramid, but it’s also more than that too. Attention transcends the rest of the pyramid, it’s almost as if the ones who are paying attention are no longer part of the rest of the pyramid. (I’ve noticed this to be true in my experiences as well.)

Attention is the thing that will take us to the top of every hierarchy and overcome the forces of evil, so to speak.

But why? Why does attention sit on top of the hierarchy?

I’m not sure if I’ve come up with the answer to this question, but one of the answers I’ve come up with is that with the power of attention we can plan for the unknown, create the future, avoid danger, and predict the future.

I believe this is a huge part of the reason why so many internet influencers (and the Kardashians) make so much money. When you harness people’s attention, you have the ultimate power. Our attention is the most powerful thing any of us has to offer. That’s why companies are willing to pay millions of dollars for advertisements and people will dedicate their lives to being famous. Attention is the real currency, everything else is illusory.

Paying attention to where we pay attention is critical for living a powerful and fulfilled life. When we pay attention to our minds, we can improve our mental health. When we pay attention to ur bodies, we can improve our physical health. When we pay attention to anything, we can improve it. What gets measured gets managed, and what gets managed gets improved. Attention is the first step to all of that.

I recommend looking into mindfulness exercises and practices. Meditation is a fantastic way I try to train myself in paying attention to my mind and myself. There’s so much research today that grounds the value of paying attention to ourselves in hard science.

Pay attention to where you pay attention. It’s the most valuable thing we have to offer.

The Myth of Motivation

“We are always complaining that our days are few, and acting as though there would be no end of them.”

Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD)

Missing Pieces

Motivational books, speakers, quotes, videos, blog posts, you name it, are fantastic for getting us pumped up enough to dominate any obstacle in our way. When we’re motivated we can do anything, but motivation doesn’t stick around for very long and can be difficult to recover when lost. Action beyond motivation is necessary for achieving many of the goals we set for ourselves.

Acting only when we feel motivated and expecting to accomplish all our dreams sets us up for massive disappointment and wasted energy.

Substantial achievement requires acting even when we don’t feel like it. If I only studied when I felt like studying, I would never have even finished high school let alone a chemical engineering degree. If I only blogged and made music when I felt like it, then I wouldn’t have a blog and a YouTube channel. If I was only a good boyfriend when I felt like it, then I wouldn’t be in a happy relationship. I can literally go on forever about this.

Motivation is a fantastic tool, but it isn’t reliable enough to take us to the promise land, so to speak. So that poses the question:

What is motivation missing?

Without discipline and purpose, motivation is only a short term solution. Motivation fueled by purpose and discipline is enough to get us anywhere we need to go. Discipline gets us through when we don’t want do and purpose gets us through when things are hard. They both give us access to action beyond motivation.

I talk about purpose at length in the following posts:

This post is going to mainly focus on discipline. What it is, why it’s necessary, how to develop it within ourselves, and specific methods to create action beyond motivation.

Discipline

“Discipline equals freedom.”

Jocko Willink (Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual)

When most people think of discipline, they think of punishment. That is not what I am talking about here. What I mean by discipline is taking on the challenge of creating a relationship with ourselves to know ourselves as people who do the right things. Knowing ourselves as the kind of people who can focus on the task in front of them as do it as well as they possibly can.

I like to think of discipline as a way to learn how to deliberately narrow our focus to the one thing that our highest selves want to be doing. Without discipline, we are victims to our circumstances, environments, and unconcious desires.

I spent a few weeks trying to wrap my head around discipline and in doing so I had a fantastic conversation with my girlfriend. She was telling me about how her relationship with discipline can be broken up into two sub categories: taking responsibility and making decisions. She told me that when she started taking responsibility for everything in her life, there were endless opportunities for decisions. When we take responsibility, we empower ourselves, which gives us a vitalizing freedom and insight into what we can and cannot change. Once we see our options, it is up to us to do something about it (or not). Taking responsibility gives us options.

Let me root this in a simple example. Let’s say we are trying to study for a test, but can’t get ourselves to crack open the book and start. What we lack is discipline. A disciplined person would just sit down and start working without wasted energy deditated to convincing themselves that studying is a good idea.

In order to navigate our way from not being able to open the book to sitting and starting flawlessly, we first need to take responsibility for our learning. We can take on the perspective that how much we understand and how much we are able to demonstrate that is solely a function of our own effort and dedication. Once we genuinely take that on, we can see the decisions to be made in front of us. We can either study or not. The choice is ours and not up to our professors, our parents, or the economy (common scapegoats people love to use). Now we can make the decision to study or not. That is where we want to be mentally. We can choose to not study, but if we run through this thought process and still decide not to, the pain is so much worse. Nothing sucks more than suffering and knowing that it’s all because of you and your stupid choices. More often than not, we will end up doing what we “should” be because of loss aversion. People will go to greater lengths to not lose $5 then gain $20.

If we take responsibility for our lives, we can see how much power we truly have. Usually, it’s much more than we like to think. Opportunities for decisions appear to us and all we have to do is make a choice. Taking responsibility and making decisions are what we need to create a foundation for developing discipline.

Access to a New Life

Most of what we want to accomplish takes tremendous amounts of effort, time, energy, and attention. Our resources are best spent moving closer to those goals, not convincing ourselves we need to.

Here’s a fun little exercise to show us how we have have access to a new life. I stole this from one of Jordan Peterson’s lectures.

Ask yourself – How many hours a day do I waste? Write that number down…..really write it down.

Now, let’s say you value your time at $50/hour, which is probably on the low end.

How much money do you waste per day?

Most people write anywhere from 4-6 hours. Let’s say we waste 4 hours a day valued at $50/hr. That’s a loss of $200/day or $1000/work week. That’s $52,000/year wasted, at least. That is the cost of a lack of discipline. If you value yourself higher, then the cost is even more expensive.

I do this exercise with my students at the beginning of my classes and it’s always so funny to see the look on their faces when they’re present to how much time they really have access to. The best part of this exercise, is that I don’t define waste. The students waste 1/6 of their day by their own standards!

Discipline is more than just preventing waste, it helps develop a powerful relationship with ourselves. While preventing wasted time and developing a powerful relationship with ourselves provide incredible benefits, the real sweetness of discipline comes from accomplishing what we set out to accomplish. This is how we live a life by design.

Since external discipline can be hard to find in some occupations, cultivating self-discipline is key in making all of this possible. We need to learn how much self-discipline we have and how we need to adjust. Some people are too lax with themselves while others are too stern.

How to Develop Discipline within Ourselves

“A paradox of life: The problem with patience and discipline is that developing each of them requires both of them.”

Thomas M. Sterner (The Practicing Mind)

We can increase our discipline by changing our self image. If we think of ourselves as lazy, then we will be lazy. If we think of ourselves as focused, then we will be focused. The trick is actually believing it. Our identity is one of the strongest motivational forces if we learn how to use it correctly. We hate being wrong and being wrong about our identity is something we will go to the ends of the earth to prevent, this is known as identity defense. I go more in depth about changing our self image to create a better life for ourselves in these two posts:

Work on changing our identity to someone who is disciplined and the discipline will follow.

We can also do short term challenges which train the “discipline muscle.” These challenges will give us opportunities to be disciplined if we don’t have something else requiring that of us.

An example is taking cold showers for 30 days. It’s tempting to want to take a hot shower (especially for me), but with the challenge in place we can decide to stick to our word or give into to our animalistic needs. Doing something like cold showers is great because it’s excuse proof. We’re already taking showers daily (I hope) so it’s already integrated into our routines, we just need to make a simple and small adjustment. Remember: anyone can do anything for a month.

Another method for increasing discipline is setting up a system that requires you to show up every day. Yes, I do mean every damn day. This is powerful because it forces us to act even if “we don’t feel like it.” At first, it will be painful, but after each day the part of us which perservies will become stronger and stronger until we have the self-discipline to get through it. Create a nice reward for yourself afterwards, but also create a punishment so you have even more of a reason to do it. Make it short and manageable so you actually will do it every day.

An example of this in my life are my exercising habits. I used to hate working out and I never had the discipline to do it, until I told myself I wasn’t going to eat in the morning until I did a few kettlebell swings. The reward is eating and the punishment is going hungry. Pretty simple if you ask me. It’s also effective if you ask me, because I’ve been working out every day for the past 2 months and I don’t plan on stopping.

Now you could say, “Chris why don’t you just eat anyway if you don’t feel like working out?” and my reply to that would be because it destroys the relationship I have with myself. Letting ourselves slide with things has a detrimental effect on how we relate to ourselves and I’ve worked too damn hard to develop a positive and strong relationship with myself where I know myself to be a person who follows through on his commitments.

Getting Started Anyway

Acting when we aren’t motivated is difficult. It’s expensive in terms of cognitive load, not because the tasks are hard, but because we have to overcome so much within ourselves to get going.

Since I’m a physics nerd, I’m going to put it like this: Action beyond motivation is like overcoming friction. Friction is a force that works against another force, usually slowing or preventing the displacement of an object.

There are two types of friction – static friction and kinetic friction. Static friction is tougher to overcome than kinetic friction. You can try this with a box sitting on the ground. If you apply a pressure on the box, you will notice that it takes more pressure to get the box moving than to keep the moving moving. The same principles apply without work. If we find ways to overcome the static friction, to get started, then we won’t have to push as hard to keep it going.

Procrastination is a huge ally to static friction, usually we procrastinate because we feel like overcoming that static friction is too expensive. Just finding ways to get started is the secret to action beyond motivation.

Methods to Fight Procrastination

There are a ton of methods to get started, but I’m just going to share two of them right now.

One of my favorite methods I use to fight procrastination and overcome static friction is The 5 Second Rule. I first heard of this idea from the renoun and respected author and motivational speaker, Mel Robbins. It’s pretty simple, right before you get yourself to do something just count down from 5 then begin.

5…4…3…2…1… Go!

There is something about counting down that primes our minds for overcoming that static friction. I do this all the time when I’m working out. Right before I do a set (that I really don’t want to do) I count down from 5 and begin. Once I start, I just focus on getting through it. The push I give myself (the willpower I exert) to start is more than enough to keep the workout going as long as I keep pushing.

This idea set me free from believing that it’s going to be hard to get started and it just keeps getting harder. The opposite is actually true, getting started is the hardest part and it gets easier over time.

Something I do want to mention about this technique is how it is easier to get derailed if we are interrupted.

Let me use the example of my workouts again. I can use the 5 second rule to get started and push through to the finish line, but if I’m interrupted while I’m doing my workout the process has to start over again. I will have to overcome the static friction and the same force applied will not be adequate enough to get started. Beware of interruptions when doing high cognitive load activities.

Another fantastic method of fighting procrastination and overcoming static friction is implimenting starting rituals. Starting rituals are fantastic for tricking our brain into doing things we don’t want to do.

In this post, I talk about the habit cycle and how we can design the lives we want if we work on designing our habits. As most of us know, its difficult to get us to do what we tell ourselves but with knowledge of the habit cycle, we can see our patterns and manipulate them to our own advantage. The first stage of the habit cycle is Cue. This means our cravings and responses which come afterward are influenced by cues.

We are extremely susceptible to subconsciously perceiving cues and we can use this potential vulnerability to create powerful starting rituals. Doing the same thing over and over right before you do an activity primes your brain to do that activity.

Let me solidify this with an example. I remember to brush my teeth when I walk into my bathroom and see my toothbrush. As much as I’d like to say I remember to brush my teeth every morning, the truth is that I’m reminded by the cue. Walking into the bathroom is my starting ritual to brushing my teeth. Another example is when I’m blogging. I always grab a drink, place it on my right side, turn on classical music, set my pomodoro timer, and start typing away. All the things I do before I actually start blogging I consider my starting ritual. Doing these things helps me “get ready” to work and it really helps with overcoming the huge amounts of static friction which come with writing.

I’ve tried to blog without the ritual and it ended in disaster. I would try to tell myself all those little routines are BS and I should just start writing, but I end up writing for a short amount of time and I’m easily distracted. This results in worse writing and wasted energy. Starting rituals really help us get in the mode. Don’t sleep on them. The best part is that we can create our own starting rituals, which I think can be a lot of fun.

Like with any habit, it takes a while before our brain starts to understand these cues and cravings so stick with it for at least 5 session. I give six more methods of overcoming static friction and enginerring compliance in my post Understanding Change.

Aim for the Success Spiral

The Matthew Effect (also known as the Matthew Effect of Accumulated Advantage or the Matthew principle) was popularized by American sociologist, Robert K. Merton, and is named after The Parable of Talents from the biblical Gospel of Matthew.

“For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

Gospel of Matthew (25:29 Revised Standard Version)

Regardless of religious affiliation, The Matthew Effect is a phenomena we can observe time and time again even in the modern world.

I just recently started seriously investing in the stock market and I see exactly how people who already have money can make more money with their money. People who invest more money have the potential to make more money, people who invest little money have the potential to make little money.

This is also visible in something a small as a bank account, the more money we have in the account, the more money can we get back in interest. People that don’t have a lot of money in their bank account are subject to low interest yeilds and overdraft fees, which prevent them from effortless wealth building.

On an academic level, students who get A’s on the first few exams are going to have an easier time getting an A on the final exam. The students who failed the first few exams are more likely to fail the final, unless they put in even more effort than the A students.

When it comes to exercise, it’s actually easier to work out once you’re in shape and healthy. If you aren’t, exercise can seem like an impossible mountain to climb and are more likely to become even unhealthier.

In my Understanding Habits and The 1% Rule post, I talk about the the Two Life Path from Jeff Olsen’s book The Slight Edge which clearly illustrates The Matthew Effect.

Our choices compound on each other, and while it doesn’t seem like it in the moment, the good choices can easily becomes great and the bad choices can easily become terrible. We just need to add time.

This knowledge is powerful because we can use it to our advantage. All we have to do is aim for the success spiral. Once we reach a critical point of good decisions, the benefits compound on each other and create even more benefit as long as we don’t destroy the structure.

Focus on making the small wins and watch them evolve into big ones. It’s much easier to win once you’ve been winning. On the flip side, take the small loses and they can spiral out of control. At that point, it becomes too easy to lose and seemingly impossible to win. Don’t let it get to that point, take your wins everywhere you can! There’s no win that is too small.

You did half a push up? Fantastic, next time you’ll done 1. The time after that you’ll do 2. Keep that up for a year and you’ll be surprised how far that can take you.

A big part of aiming for the success spiral is tracking your habits. Tracking is important because we can see how we’ve been performing over time and determine if we are on a success spiral or if we need to make changes.

For the past few months I’ve been using the Streaks app on iOS and I highly recommend it. Best $5.99 I’ve spent this year for sure. Creating streaks builds momentum and that momentum gives us an extra push. Remember, kinetic friction is easier to overcome than static friction. It’s easier to maintain a streak than to start one. I also reward myself whenever I finish my streaks, so I have incentive to start again the next day. I got more in depth about building and breaking habits in my post Types of Habits and Designing Our Lives.

Good Feelings Come After Action

“Chase after money and security, And your heart will never unclench. Care about people’s approval, And you will be their prisoner. Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.”

Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching)

Waiting until we feel good about doing something is similar to waiting until we feel motivated to do something. It’s futile and we will never get enough done to obtain significant achievement. Action beyond motivation is the muscle we need to develop within ourselves and the same principles can apply to action beyond feeling good.

What makes people happy is not obtaining goals, but observing themselves move towards a goal. Knowing that our actions are “correct” gives us bursts of dopamine, which makes us feel really good. The truth is that the good feelings come after the actions. We will feel like doing it, once we are doing it. I come up against this every time I start reading or writing a blog post. Every time it’s a struggle to start, but once I’m started I tend to lose myself in my work and I feel genuine pleasure while I’m doing. I feel the feelings I was waiting to feel to start while I was doing the work.

Good feelings comes after accomplishment, not before. Do good, feel good.

Categories
Education Lifestyle Productivity

Types of Habits and Designing Our Lives

“Most habits take on one of four common forms: things you want to start doing, things you want to stop doing, things you want to do more, and things you want to do less.”

Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)
My habits in their natural habitat

Before I dive into this post, I have to make a few honorable necessary mentions. Most of this information is from James Clear’s amazing book Atomic Habits, which I highly recommend. He explains the importance of developing systems and focusing our attention at the level of the habit in a seemingly effortless and powerful way. I also have to mention Josh Kaufman’s The Personal MBA, a must read book for entrepreneurs looking for well packaged high quality information. I think my must read book list needs some updating. Kaufman goes over more than just business, he also lays out a wealth of knowledge regarding habit formation and lifestyle design.

Intentionally creating our own lives starts with understanding our every day actions and how they develop into habits. I like to think of habits as belonging to the four categories mentioned above – Things We Should Start Doing, Things We Should Stop Doing, Things We Should Do Less, and Things We Should Do More. Meditating on these categories and articulating which habits fall into each category is a fantastic exercise in identifying key habits. Identifying which habits we want to start, stop, or change is the first step in creating our lives by design. Another way I like to identify habits is to categorize them as Old Habits – things I want to do less or stop all together – or as New Habits – things I want to do more or start doing.

The Habit Cycle

Understanding the Habit Cycle is like learning the anatomy and physiology of habits. The Habit Cycle explains how habits come to be and what we can do to make that process easier or harder.

According to Clear, habits have 4 stages that they follow. Cue. Craving. Response. Reward. Understanding each stage will help us intentionally create habits that we want in our lives and destroy the habits we don’t.

The Cue is the external stimuli that triggers the brain to start the behavior. When we see a cue, we get a Craving, which is the motivational force behind the habit. The Response is action or set of actions we take to potentially satisfy the craving. The Reward is what makes it all worth it and the last stage, the satisfaction of the craving.

The Habit Cycle – James Clear

Let me give an example to ground this in real life.

Let’s say I’m working on a blog post and I reach an issue in articulating what I want to say. Cue – I encounter a difficult situation. I start feeling stuck and my motivations change. I just want to be relieved of my frustration. Craving – yearning for relief. Despite my best intentions, I reason with myself that I am going to die sooner than I’d like and my experience of life is all that truly matters so I should stop blogging and play video games. I save my blog post, turn on my PS4 and have a good ol’ time. Reponse – leaving the challenging situation to play games. I feel delighted that I get to play my video games and my relief has come. Reward – obtained relief from tension caused from blogging. In this case, I layed out my provility to play video games when I’m confronted with difficult situations. Identifying the steps in this habit cycle helps me take the steps I need to ramp this up or turn it down depending on what I want for my life. For me, I love developing myself to overcome challenges in anyway possible so I’m going to try to break that habit and replace it with a new and more positive one.

If we pay enough attention to what causes our cravings, then we can take premeditated steps to intentionally create our ideal lives. We do not have to let the habit cycle run over and over, we can stop it at any point. We just need to know how.

Breaking Old Habits

Breaking old habits is a skill worth practicing. On our journey, we pick up ways of being or thinking that may have been useful in the past, but no longer serve a purpose to us in the present. I know I have more than a few habits holding me back from bringing about my Jungian Self.

The first thing we need to do when we’re breaking habits, is identifying the things we do that are not bringing us closer to where we want to go. Once those habits are identified, we can practice a few things to make those habits more difficult for us to live out.

Harness Friction

One of my favorite ways to break bad habits is to add friction to the mix. Friction can be thought of as obstacles preventing us from completing an action.

I’ll give an example to bring this down to Earth.

Let’s say we have a habit of spending too much time on our phone in the morning. The first thing we do when we wake up is check out phone and we end up losing track of time and it throws off our whole day.

Analyzing this situation in terms of friction, we can see that we are only partaking in the “bad” habit because there’s nothing stopping us from doing it! If we were to set our phone on the other side of the room before we go to bed, then there will be a lot of friction between us and checking our phone in the morning.

Those small, yet big, steps of getting out of bed and walking over to your phone gives you enough time to develop the willpower necessary to not act out the habit. Friction is what makes or breaks my habit formation 90% of the time. I’m so sensitive to friction, but I choose to use my susceptibility to measure the effectiveness of my environment.

I love using friction to my advantage. I can increase the friction to prevent actions that I don’t want, or I can decrease it and it’ll be easier for me to build the habits I desire.

Invert the Habit Cycle

Another effective way to break old habits is to invert each step of the habit cycle.

The first step is Cue. If we can cut out the cue completely, or at least make it invisible, then we have a fighting chance to break that specific habit loop. Let me give an example, if I see my PlayStation controller in my room I’ll get an urge to play and I’ll have to use willpower to fight off the craving. Instead of using willpower to break the habit cycle, I put my PlayStation controller in a place that makes it difficult for me to see it and the craving never exists in the first place.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Now, I still may get cravings to play video games, but this way I can control for at least 1 variable. To break the habit cycle at the cue stage, we can make our cues invisible.

The second step is Craving. To stop a craving we can use willpower to resist it (but that takes too much energy), we can make the cue invisible, or we can make the craving seem unattractive.

Let me put it this way, let’s say I have a craving to eat a snack at midnight. I can think about how good it will feel to satisfy my midnight craving and how happy I will be enjoying my little snack – thinking like this will just make me want to eat more.

Or I can think about how I’m developing a habit that could lead to an unhealthy lifestyle which consequently leads to a shorter and lesser quality functional lifespan. I can imagine my body failing me in ways that I take for granted now and the frustration I will feel confronting my true powerlessness.

Once the snack is framed like that, it’s much easier to say “How about a hell no.” Making things unattractive can stop a craving dead in its tracks.

The third step is Response. To stop the habit in the response stage, Clear recommends to make the response difficult. This goes hand-in-hand with my “add-friction” tip from earlier. If we add friction between us and our response, then we are much less likely to act out the response. This makes sense when we think about what the purpose of habits are.

We have habits to save cognitive load, and overcoming friction would add cognitive load, which works counter to habits. We have habits to make things easier, so making a response more difficult will cut off the habit before we get our highly sought after reward.

The fourth and final step is Reward. We love the reward because of one simple reason. It is satisfying. If we make the reward unsatisfying, there goes all the power!

Imagine, sacrificing what mean most to you only to receive a lackluster reward. The visceral and lingering feelings of disappointment will power through any urge to perform those sets of actions again. If we feel like what we doing isn’t worth it, then we aren’t going to do it again. Simple as that. Find what makes the reward sweet and ruin it.

Be weary that there aren’t just clever mind tricks that play into our breaking and forming of habits, but our emotional states as well. We tend to break the “good” habits and start the “bad” habits when we’re feeling H.A.L.T. – hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. When we identify with one of these 4 emotional states, we are way more susceptible to aiming down and following through with it. We are pretty tough people, but we only have so much willpower. Save your willpower for when we’re feeling one of the four detrimental emotional states. We should invert the habit cycle whenever we can so we can have the energy to fight when we need to.

Creating New Habits

Once we set ourselves free from our old bad habits, we can finally create new habits! But that poses the question:

How do we create new habits that last?

We can approach this a few different ways. If you’ve read my other blog posts, specifically about studying, then you know I’m all about finding a bunch of ways to do things and modifying them to create my own personalized system.

Optimize to Win

In his fantastic success manual, Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss talks about the importance of meditating every day. While I do recommended practicing meditation, that isn’t what I want to focus on. People tend to have a difficult time creating a habit from meditation, after all most of the benefits only occur when meditation is being practiced as a habit.

Tim says when you start a new habit, you want to rig the game to win. It takes 5 sessions to make something a habit, and it doesn’t matter how long the sessions are. Keep it simple and make the first 5 sessions short. The first few times stepping up to the figurative plate will take significant willpower, but once we developed a little habit it gets easier over time. Optimize to win. Eventually our actions will eventually become what we are, I talk a little bit about this in my post Hypnotic Rhythm.

We don’t have to stop at making it short, we can make it easy too! When I first started working out consistently, I made my first 5 sessions short and easy and now it feels a little weird if I don’t get at least a little exercise.

Another thing we want to keep in mind when we are trying to create new habits is knowing that we only want to do things when we believe it will pay off for us. If we believe it won’t pay off or it’ll actually harm us, then we won’t do it. To take advantage of this bit of knowledge, we should presence ourselves to why starting this new habit is worthwhile. Be advised, this is different for everyone and requires rigorous self reflection.

Encourage the Habit Cycle

Another effective way to create new habits is to encourage each step of the habit cycle.

The first step is Cue. The cue usually kicks off the habit, but if we’re making new habits we might need a little extra help with this step. Make the cue obvious. I lay out my yoga mat and have my kettlebell out in the open so I don’t have to spend any time setting up. Working out consistently has always been difficult for me, but when I set out my equipment in a place that’s easy to see it’s much easier to just start working out. Making cues obvious can also be thought of as a method of removing friction.

The second step is Craving. This comes after the cue and gives us that feeling that we should be doing something. Craving a good habit is an interesting feeling, but one that we should try to encourage. Encourage the craving by making it attractive. Imagine, actually craving to workout or study. It’s not that hard when you think about how good you will feel once you finish or how much longer you’ll live if you’re healthy. Find reasons to pick the good choice.

The third step is Response. Once we have the craving to do something, our next move is to act. If we want the habit, to stick then we need to make it easy. I’ll use the example of my yoga mat and kettlebell again. Since the mat and kettlebell are already set up in the center of my room, it’s easy to just start working out. It’s actually easier to workout than it is to ignore the equipment! That’s why I put it in the middle of my room. I’m making it harder to ignore working out (stopping the old habit) and easier to start working out (creating the new habit).

The fourth and final step is Reward. This is what makes it all worthwhile. If we want to keep a habit going, we have to make the reward satisfying. Since I absolutely adore my video games, that’s usually the go-to treat for me after doing something difficult. Creating new habits is not easy and responding to those changes takes a lot out of us. I also love watching carefully written television like The Sopranos, Game of Thrones(Seasons 1-4), and Westworld. When I have the time I also love to cook. Sometimes I’ll make a really nice meal to reward myself for creating new habits. Find what makes you happy and indulge once everything is said and done.

Developing New Traits

The best part about knowing all is this is discovering that traits and skills can be developed through simple habit formation. This means we can create habits of traits that we admire in our role models within ourselves!

There was a study at Harvard which suggested that the most productive people don’t wait to be told what to do. Successful people take initiative and we can use the knowledge of breaking and creating habits to create the habit of taking initiative within ourselves!

The best best part – this doesn’t have to stop at initiative!

We can create a habit of being honest, courageous, hard working, dedicated, reliable, or any other trait that we would like. It’s not an easy task by any means, but it is possible with serious attention, dedication, and time.

The Issue of Willpower

Creating habits takes willpower. Sometimes it requires a lot and sometimes it requires a little. If we are trying to create new habits, we. need to find ways to minimize how much willpower we’ll need or designing our lives will be too difficult. We can minimize will power through optimizing our environment. I talk a little bit about that in Strategies for Better Studying Part 4.

If we set up our space to encourage the new habits and add friction to discourage the old habits, then willpower won’t be necessary!

James Clear talks about different ways to minimize required willpower by adjusting our actions to the habit cycle. At first, the changes will requires a huge amount of willpower, but every time we run through the loop we strengthen the neural pathways and the required willpower becomes less and less.

Josh Kaufman also talks about habit cues in his fantastic book, The Personal MBA.

“Habits are easier to install if you look for triggers that signal when it’s time to act. For example, if you want to take vitamins, it’s easier to remember to take them if you use another habitual action as a trigger for the action. Instead of relying on your mind to remember to take your vitamins in the middle of the day, you can use brushing your teeth in the morning or evening as a reminder.”

Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)

In addition to building a guiding environment, we can reduce willpower by focusing our attention on one habit at a time. Kaufman also mentions this in The Personal MBA.

“For best results, focus on installing one Habit at a time. Remember, you only have so much Willpower to use each day, and overriding your default mode of action depletes it quickly. If you try to install too many Habits at the same time, you probably won’t succeed at adopting any of them for long. Focus on installing one Habit until taking action feels automatic, then move on to the next.”

Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)

Creating and destroying habits takes a bit of practice, patience, and discipline. If these methods don’t work, try longer. We are surprisingly malleable creatures despite our proclivity towards habits and routine. Getting better: at first it’s uncomfortable, but later will be worth it. Perhaps the real lesson is to learn how to internalize discomfort and push forward, for once we do this we can do anything. Feel free to pick and choose which parts of this post you like and go forth to design your dream life!

Start by winning the moment right in front of you.

Categories
Lifestyle Productivity

Understanding Habits and The 1% Rule

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC)

The other day I was thinking about how my life, and everyone else’s, is the accumulation of all the little moments of our lives. A lot of people I’ve talked to, including myself, are waiting for this imaginary future when their lives can finally start, but it’s a delusion. Our lives are happening right now and how we live in each moment decides what our lives actually are. So when I think about lifestyle design, or living my life by my own design the question arises –

How can I have the life I’ve always wanted?

Well if our lives are the sum of all the smaller moments, then living the life I’ve always wanted means to be the person that lives that ideal life in every moment. Everything I want to be, I ought to strive to be in every moment. If I do this, then over time I will have many small moments of me living out my ideal life and it will eventually be indistinguishable from my life as a whole. I can build my dream life one moment at at time. Thinking about this excited me, but at the same time terrified me.

How was I supposed to keep up with a demand that high?

How will I actually be able to build my dream life?

Through one decision at a time. Every moment I’m confronted with potential and I have a choice to turn it into something good or something bad. All I have to do is choose good every time right?

Yes, but the fact is I’m human, we’re all human, and for whatever reason we won’t always choose the good option.

So what can be do to make up for this peculiar quality?

Build habits. James Clear is a fantastic author who wrote the book, Atomic Habits, which outlines exactly that. Clear suggests that success (or how I like to think of it – ideal lifestyle design) is not a one time transaction, but the product of daily habits. In other words, we slowly build the kind of lives for ourselves one moment at a time. This phenomenon can work in our favor and take us towards our best life or can work to our detriment and create holes for ourselves indistinguishable from Hell.

This idea is relevant to self-talk and our thoughts as well. If we tell ourselves that we are capable and strong people often, then we are more likely to believe it. However, on the flipside, if we tell ourselves that we are weak and not good enough, then eventually we will believe that as well. I try to avoid saying things that make me weak, because my thought habits are pretty easily malleable.

I’ve seen this idea pop up in multiple places. In Atomic Habits, Clear states that habits are the compound interests of self-improvement and in The Slight Edge, Olson suggests that everything is curved in life especially the results from our seemingly tiny decisions.

The Slight Edge Two Life Path

Making the kinds of choices to propel our lives forward is a difficult thing to do and that’s where habits come into play. Building habits will help us stay on the upswing even when we don’t “feel like it.” Typically, making upswing choices takes a lot of willpower and if we are presented with a crossroads and have low willpower, then chances are we’ll make a choice that brings up on the downswing. Habits are our brain’s way of automating familiar and old tasks so it can focus on other areas and mastering new tasks. Put more simply, habits save cognitive load.

Life operates by design or by default, the best part is we get to decide.

The 1% Rule

“Small helpful or harmful behaviors and inputs tend to Accumulate over time, producing huge results. According to Lean Thinking by James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones, Toyota’s approach is based on the Japanese concept of kaizen, which emphasizes the continual improvement of a system by eliminating muda (waste) via a lot of very small changes. Many small improvements, consistently implemented, inevitably produce huge results”

Josh Kaufman (1976 – )

The idea behind the 1% rule is pretty simple – 1% for better or worse seems insignificant in the moment, but over time it will add up to who we are on a day-to-day basis. Renowned authors James Clear, Josh Kaufman, and Jeff Olsen all noticed the 1% rule independently of each other and I think that means there’s something objectively true about the observation.

YouTuber and Productivity Guru Thomas Frank also brings up the 1% rule in this video!

Thomas Frank is super cool

I love the advice Thomas gives in the video to set a scheduled release date and aim to get 1% better every time. It doesn’t matter what domain you are improving, as long as it is consistently improved we can use time to our advantage rather than our detriment. I did this with music production, with every project I aimed to get better at making melodies, or mixing drums, or sampling and now that it’s been a few years, I can do all of those things fairly well. I also did this with blogging. I have experimented with a different aspect of blogging with every post and over time my blogging skills have improved. I can honestly say that using the 1% rule to approach any new skill is the most effective way to learn something without being let down by unrealistic expectations. Things like The Transition Curve are also things to keep in mind when we are trying to learn a new skill.

While this is a fantastic discovery for those of us who feel up to the challenge, but like I mentioned in my post Tracking vs. Loss Aversion, I talk about the importance of not just chasing a carrot, but also running from a stick. The stick in this case is the compound effect of getting 1% worse every day over time.

Based on a True Story

Getting 1% better for a year makes us about 38 times better than we were when we started, while getting 1% wrose for a year makes us 3% of what we were when we started. If we aren’t getting 1% better, than we’re getting 1% worse. It sounds like a wild accusation, but let me use science to explain.

Since we’re relatively large creatures, compared to subatomic particles, our bodies follow laws of conventional science (non-quantum laws), which means we adhere to the 2nd law of thermodynamics. The 2nd law states that entropy is always increasing. Entropy can be thought of as a measure of chaos or disorder. So the natural state of things is that they decay over time. Which means, if we aren’t actively trying to be 1% better, then we are truly getting 1% worse.

Progress is a Long Game

New habits don’t seem to make a difference until we reach a critical point. We expect to make linear progress, but our progress has more of a logarithmic behavior. James Clear calls this the expectancy curve. I talk more about the Expectancy Curve in my post The Valley of Disappointment.

The point when reality meets our expectations is known as the critical point

In order to notice the powerful outcomes, we have to stick with a skill longer than the valley of disappointment lasts. We must allow time for our habits to develop and not let our own disappointment take us out, especially at the beginning. The best way to avoid disappointment and see massive results is to set up a system that works for you.

Set Up Systems, Not Goals

“How you do anything is how you do everything.”

Dr. Andre Pinesett

Rather than try my hardest at one thing, or only do my best work when I’m blogging, I choose to try to do my best in every little thing I do. I do this for many reasons:

  1. To know myself as someone who always does their best
  2. So I don’t have to try harder than usual at any given time

I’ve developed a habit of being excellent, at least as much as I can be, all of the time. This is because I truly believe that how I do one thing is exactly how I do another. If I half ass a blog post, you can bet real good money that I’m half assing everything else I’m doing too. A big part of designing our lives is to pay close attention to how we decide to approach situations and decide if that is the kind of person that we would like to be.

When I work with my students on math problems, I do not only see how they perform academically, but I also see how they approach new challenges in general. Most get frustrated and try to ignore the problem. Some double down and use even more firepower to get through it. A few of them just lie and tell me that they understand it when they clearly do not. I don’t make judgements on their choices, I see my job as someone who ought to help them elevate their own problem solving skills by meeting them at their level.

I personally believe that the students who double down when they are confronted by challenges will be the most successful and most satisfied with their lives. Life is full of challenges and if we were only allowed to get one thing from our education it ought to be the ability to surmount challenges healthily. Using these tiny, low risk, problems as practice in developing ourselves in this skill is one of the best things we can do for ourselves.

So rather than just trying really hard in one area, we should apply Leonardo’s personal mantra to every aspect of our lives:

“Ostinato rigore” (Constant rigore)

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)

We need consistency because we fall to the levels of our training, not to the levels of our goals. If our training is rigorous, then we will fall to the level of excellence. If we’re having trouble changing habits, then we should pay more attention to our systems.

Goals are the results of what we want to achieve and Systems are the processes that get us there. Here are a few reasons why we should have goals, but we shouldn’t focus on them:

  1. Winners and losers often have the same goals. Some people think that winners are more ambitious goals, but that isn’t the case. People who win do not win because they have ambitious goals.
  2. Achieving a goal is satisfying for a moment. The next moment, we need a new goal. If we don’t have one, we can easily spiral into depression. It’s also easy to fall into black or white thinking. Achieve goal and be happy or fail and be disappointed. If we fall in love with the process, rather than the outcome, we give ourselves permission to be happy.
  3. Solving problems on the goal level is usually only momentary. Solving problems on the systemic level will prevent similar problems from occurring in the future.

With all my content creation, blogging, YouTube Videos, and Music, I don’t try to just make 1 song every day, or 1 blog post every day. I aim to produce a little every day or write for an hour every day. Back in college, I used to tell myself that I needed to make a beat a day if I wanted to be a good producer. While its a good goal to have, I noticed that once I made the beat, I wasn’t motivated to keep going. Sometimes I wasn’t even able to make something because looking at the task at the level of making an entire beat was too big! Now I have a simple step by step system that I can run whenever I feel unmotivated or uninspired that produces content. Every step of my content creation process is crystal clear to me so all I have to do is focus on putting one foot in front of the next, rather than just trying to get to the finish line.