Categories
Education

How to Conquer Test and Performance Anxiety

“I’m just not a good test taker.”

Liars (all around the world)

Why Anxiety?

Test and performance anxiety can be completely debilitating. Anxiety in general can destroy the best of us, but it can be overcome. First, we have to understand why we get anxiety in the first place.

Our brains have a threat detection system that’s constantly examining our surroundings. I talk a little bit about this in my post The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 1). When it notices something that could be a potential threat, now or in the future, it immediately tries to solve that problem. Our minds are constantly preparing for the worst-case scenario.

Needless to say, this process is stressful and if overdone could lead to anxiety. When our brains don’t know what to prepare for, this is exactly what happens. If the brain detects a potential threat but doesn’t know how to prepare for it, then it will try to prepare for everything.

Like literally everything.

Our minds will want to prepare us for a panther attack from the tress, and the next economic crash, and embarrassing moments, and food shortages, and life beyond school, and…and…and…you get the idea.

We are anxious because we’re trying to solve every possible problem at the same time, which is impossible. Our minds work hard to find solutions and when it can’t, it works even harder. At this point, our bodies will use their stress responses which have physiological effects. Our bloodstreams get flooded with cortisol and adrenalin, which is super useful in the short term, but terrible crippling over the medium to long term. This is why anxiety can be so taxing on the body.

These stress response systems aren’t entirely terrible. After all, they are fantastic indicators for potential threats now and in the future which is awesome because we can use that to our advantage. In the context of education, this means we can use our anxiety to determine if we have sufficiently prepared ourselves. This is a slippery slope and takes practice to identify how much anxiety is enough, but it’s a powerful skill once it’s been honed. The biggest difference between unnecessary anxiety and beneficial anxiety lies in our habits.

How much have we actually prepared for the threats in front of us?

How many hours have we put in to earn the calm?

Coping with Anxiety

“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

In terms of education and test-taking, anxiety can arise from not knowing what to prepare for. A big part of conquering anxiety is understanding why we get it, then taking the steps to solve the threats in front of us.

When riddled with anxiety, many people become paralyzed. Often it can seem like it’s impossible to move when anxiety has taken over. Not surprising considering that freezing is the first step of the stress response. I talk more about this and how to overcome it in The Relationship with Ourselves (Part 2). Part of getting through that paralysis is defining what it is we are anxious about.

Remember, our minds are constantly working to solve problems, and if the problem is not clear than our mind spins out and anxiety takes over. Conquering anxiety equals defining anxiety. We have to take the time to discover what it is that we are actually anxious about. I recommend writing it down and using Tim Ferriss’ Fear Setting Exercise. Once we discover what the worse case is, we can work on making that specific situation better, or if we can’t, then we can work to cap the downside – make sure the losses aren’t too extreme and/or irrecoverable.

“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.”

Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD)

Defining what needs to get done and what needs to be understood is incredibly powerful. I’ve noticed that whenever I’m feeling anxious or overwhelmed it’s because the tasks I need to complete aren’t crystal clear. When my goals are as clearly stated as actions that I need to take in the real world, the anxiety melts away.

For this reason, I’m a huge advocate of checklists. They are a fantastic tool for taking the huge ideas we have up in the sky and bringing them down to Earth in bite-sized actionable steps. I recommend reading The Checklist Manifesto. Dr. Atul Gawande beautifully outlines the power of checklists, how to make good checklists, and how to get everything done right. I’ll definitely be writing something on that book later down the line. His insight on checklists in unparalleled and incredibly powerful.

Get things articulated in small and simple tasks.

Another fantastic way of coping with anxiety is to shorten our timelines. When stress is high, focus on small increments of time. The higher the stress, the smaller the increment. Don’t worry about what’s going to happen in a year, or a month, or a week, or a day, or an hour. Focus on what’s right in front of you, even if that means tuning out everything and focusing on just getting through the next few seconds.

I’ve noticed that when I’m extremely stressed out, it helps to just focus on the next 3 seconds. I get through my rough patches 3 seconds at a time. When I’m less stressed, I’m in a more visionary state and I’m able to create and execute plans over weeks or (when I’m really on) months.

Focusing on the seconds or focusing on the months, time will pass either way. Adjusting our timeframes is a powerful way of maintaining control especially when we’re wrestling with something like anxiety.

I also talk more about anxiety and their relationship to education in my posts Strategies for Better Studying Part 2 and Part 3.

Yerkes-Dodson Law

Performance vs. Arousal Hebbian Yerkes-Dodson Curve

The Yerkes-Dodson Law is a relationship between nervous system arousal and performance developed by American psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson. The law states that arousal in the nervous system (stress) can actually help with performance, but only up to a certain point. In high amounts, arousal could be detrimental to performance (as most people with test anxiety know too well). This knowledge is powerful because it suggests that we actually need some level of stress to perform at our best. Most people’s natural reaction to test anxiety is to try to get rid of all of it, but we actually want to hold on to some of that stress. Yerkes-Dodson also suggests that if we’re not stimulated enough then our performance will suffer as well.

The graphic above shows the Hebbian Yerkes-Dodson Curve which is a simplified version of the original curve. It leaves our hyperarousal effect on simple tasks and the differentiation between difficult and simple tasks. There are a ton of interesting findings related to performance and stress that developed as a result of this work. For example, intellectually demanding tasks may require lower levels of arousal for concentration whereas tasks demanding persistence may require higher levels of arousal for motivation. Because of this, different tasks may have different Yerkes-Dodson curves but the Hebbian version is a solid average of most tasks.

Understanding the Yerkes-Dodson curve is crucial for managing stress and anxiety specifically to enhance or maintain a certain level of performance. We don’t want to completely avoid stress altogether, we just want to manage it enough to prevent performance impairment.

Stress Management

“Stress is a result of a lack of structure.”

Touré Roberts (1972 – )

When managing stress, we want to keep good stress (eustress) and let go of bad stress (distress). Here are a couple of methods that I use to help with stress management:

Entering the Sleep-like Brain States. Meditation, driving long distances, running, breathing, showering, and cleaning are a few of the things I do to get my mind in a sleep-like state. Taking time to unplug and step back from working on whatever I’m working on helps decrease my nervous system arousal. Most of the time, our brains are doing “duration, path, outcome” operations. It’s obsessed with how long something will take, the path we will take to get there, and what will happen once it’s all over. These are most of the operations we do in our day-to-day lives, but it’s taxing on the brain. Entering the sleep-like states replenishes our ability to continue using the “duration, path outcome” operations.

Define the stressor. Similar to anxiety, half of the battle is clearly understanding what it is that is stressing you out. I try to get this out in my journaling or other reflective writing. Honestly, sometimes I’ll just write what’s stressing me out in my notes app just so I have something to externalize my thoughts onto. This helps because once something is clearly defined, we can take the steps necessary to solve the problem.

Eating healthy and regularly. Studies have shown that eating breakfast regularly helps with mood stabilization. It’s also much more difficult to perform when our blood glucose levels are low. Doing difficult and stressful tasks requires a higher cognitive load. The higher demand for our mental faculty calls for higher physical demands on nutrition. It’s much easier to get stressed when we’re hungry. We can eliminate any extra stress but keeping our bodies happy and healthy.

On that note, avoiding stimulants. Caffeine is a big one. Caffeine and other uppers hype up the activity in the central nervous system, they literally chemically increase our arousal. All of our emotional states, like stress, are related to biochemical ratios in our bodies. Everyone’s body is a little different, and I urge everyone to pay attention to how each of the things they ingest makes them feel. We can control a surprising amount of our emotions from controlling what we take in. I personally try to keep off stimulating chemicals when I’m highly stressed. However, I do use caffeine on occasion if I don’t have the energy levels required to perform my best. Basically, I recommend generally avoiding stimulants but if you really want to try to only use them if your arousal levels are lower than the sweet spot.

This last method I wouldn’t try unless you need to really calm down. Six deep breaths trigger a parasympathetic response. If we can manage to get 6 deep breaths in, when the exhale is longer than the inhale, then our bodies take that as a signal to relax and starts to turn on our parasympathetic nervous system, the part of our brain the relaxes us. This is a physical way of lowering nervous system arousal.

Be aware that we do need some stress in order to perform at our best, so don’t just try to find ways to eliminate stress. It’s all about finding balance.

Confidence and Anxiety

Confidence has a significant relationship with anxiety. If we don’t believe that we can overcome a challenge, it’s really easy for us to shut down. We won’t prepare for the dangers to come and our minds will make us more and more uneasy as the danger gets closer. Confidence gives us a fighting chance to overcome anxiety. Without confidence, anxiety will win every time.

How to Increase Confidence

The tricky part about confidence is that we need to prove to ourselves that we have confidence before we can start having it. I talk a little bit about this in my post, The Relationship with Ourselves.

Rather than trying to talk ourselves into acting confident, we need to show ourselves that we are capable and get some wins under our belt. There are a few ways to do this. One of my favorite recommendations is to go out and learn something. Literally anything. Find a skill that has always seemed interesting and learn about it. Practice it. Invest in it. Confidence is a side-effect of watching yourself kick ass at something. People who are good at things are confident. People who seem confident, but aren’t competent are just arrogant. If you take shortcuts, you’ll know and you won’t exude genuine confidence. Building a relationship with ourselves and knowing ourselves as someone who is authentically confident is difficult and takes time, but it’s totally worth it.

Focus on building an identity and creating solid habits. Those are perfect ways of developing confidence within ourselves because when cultivating identity and habits, we’re already making constant little wins.

Last Thoughts on Anxiety

“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)

“There is nothing so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness it is in your expecting evil before it arrives!”

Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD)

Two different men from vastly different times and they’re saying the same thing. It’s not worth it to worry. Any suffering we are to bear will be experienced when we experience it. If the practices in this most don’t help, try to find ways to not participate in the madness of anticipating pain. Sometimes I drive myself crazy worrying about the future, but other times I can catch myself and remember that I’m only hurting myself by thinking that way.

Not all of our thoughts are true. Not all of our thoughts are useful.

I also recommend reading Stoic philosophy to learn how to operate in times of high stress and anxiety. Letters from a Stoic and On the Shortness of Life by Seneca are fantastic pieces of work and are both on my Must-Read Book List.

“Life is suffering.”

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Suffering, pain, death, and misfortune are all a part of life. Rejecting these parts makes things harder than they already are. If we learn to embrace hardships and learn to love our fate, amor fati, then maybe we will be relieved of a little pain.

In life, we perform. We are always performing. If people depend on us, we need to perform. Learning how to thrive when it is our time to shine is a skill that translates beautifully in any field. I consider performing to be a powerful meta-skill worth taking on.

During my freshman year of college, my friend and I performed at open mics twice a week and it really helped with my performance anxiety. The first time I went up on stage, my voice was shaky and played all of our songs super fast because subconsciously I wanted to get off the stage as fast as possible. But by the end of the first semester, the stage felt like my natural habitat and was a place for me to thrive and shine.

We get better at anything with deliberate practice and time. Performance and test-taking are just other skills to develop. Focus on developing yourself and giving your all. Know exactly what you need to conquer and be mindful of your stress levels and management techniques. Everyone can be a great test-taker, it just takes a little work.

Categories
Lifestyle

A Meditation on Death

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.
Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it, and that is how it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011)

In some cultures, the knowledge of death signifies the end of childhood. I see the knowledge of death, as the beginning of life. Only when we know the temporary nature of our existence do we acknowledge (or at least develop the ability to acknowledge) how precious it truly is.

The knowledge that I won’t be able to do things forever is fantastic motivation to actually do all the things I want to do with my life now. I get myself to write my blog posts because I know that one day I won’t be able to clarify what I mean or say anything at all. Like how Arthur Schopenhauer’s thoughts and messages are solidified in their current state, never to be worked on again. I’m sure if he were alive today, there would be a couple of things he would change. But it helps to keep in mind that one day, I won’t be able to do any of the things I can do now because I’ll be dead.

But as for today…

I am not.

What do we say to the god of death?

In celebration of that fact, I shall write my thoughts and make music. I shall make sure my energy is put to good use while I still have it, rather than just finding lifeless ways to burn it all. Dedicating my energy and attention to my works, not only gives me access to immortality, I could share my experience with others in hopes they can cultivate themselves to be better too.

I see my death as the day when my life is truly decided and it will be a culmination of all my decisions. That’s probably why it’s referred to as Judgement Day in religious contexts. All of our choices are set in stone and will be judged, not only by God but by all who lived with us and all who come after.

Right now, I have a say in how that goes and there will come a time when I won’t. And chances are when it arrives…

I won’t see it coming.

It gives me peace to know that there are things I can do that can take on lives of their own and impact people once I’m gone just like I can now while I am alive.

I think it’s so cool when I read books written by people who lived hundreds of years before me, and I can feel as if they’re still here gracing me with their company. We all have an opportunity to reach out to the people who will come after us and with the access to modern technology we can communicate more accurately than ever before. Back then, people captured their minds in books, but now we have so many different mediums that we can accurately capture more information, share it easily, and with a lower barrier to entry than ever before. We can capture ourselves in video and audio in a way that can perfectly capture who and what we are and share it with the world almost instantly.

“Often a very old man has no other proof of his long life than his age.”

Seneca (On the Shortness of Life)

Knowing I’m going to die makes me feel like I have to make my works NOW. This moment, right now, is my opportunity to create what kind of person I’m going to be for the people who will never know me personally. This is why I write about so many self-improvement topics and make music. Those are the things that have spoken to me on a deep level and I would love to share these things with others.

In my post Proclivity for Comfort and The Relationship with Ourselves Part 2, I mention how one of the tragedies of life is that we have to suffer to learn. I see my works as a way to help others learn the same lessons with less suffering. In a way, I’m trying to make my sacrifices worth it to others. Though my works, others can learn the things that made me strong without having to go through the same hell. But my works can only be created while I am alive, so today I must work on them so they can speak for me when I’m gone. Death is a powerful motivator.

One day we will lose it all, but today we haven’t so let’s make our time worthwhile.

I believe the knowledge of death is only powerful if we care about what the world will be like after we’re gone. If we don’t care, then we create a breeding ground for nihilism. We can be nihilistic, but we will lead a fruitless life that’s remembered horribly.

“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.”

Greek Proverb

Seeing death as motivation can seem insane, especially considering that human beings have a tendency to avoid and deny the thought of their own death. Robert Greene talks about this in-depth his ambitiously, but appropriately titled book The Laws of Human Nature, which is on My Must-Read Book List. He beautifully illustrates how humans naturally gravitate towards denying death, but when inevitably confronted with it, can turn it into something that fills our lives with a sense of purpose and urgency to actualize our intentions. He gives the message life by telling the story of American writer, Mary Flannery O’Connor.

When she was a young girl she was really close to her father. At the age of 10, she wrote a series of caricatures of her family titled “My Relitives.” Her family was shocked both by how they were portrayed and the cleverness of the little girl. Her father was especially impressed, showing it to visitors every chance he got. He saw a bright future in writing for his daughter. When she was 12, Mary discovered her father had a very serious illness (she later learned that is was lupus erythematosus), in which the body develops antibodies that attack healthy tissue. This resulted in him growing weaker and weaker until he finally died in 1941.

His death affected Mary deeply. She was too shocked to talk to anyone, but confined in her private journal. She would write about how “God has broken their complacency, like a bullet in the side.” Despite her anger with God, she was a devout Catholic and believed that everything happens for a reason. God must have a greater plan for her. Over time, she started to throw herself at her schoolwork and writing determined to bring her father’s predictions into reality. Mary was going to be a prolific writer, just like her father thought. She applied to the University of Iowa and enrolled in the famous Writer’s Workshop with a newer simpler name, Flannery O’Conner. She started writing short stories, which caught some attention, based on her experiences in the South.

Then tragedy strikes. In 1949, O’Conner got pretty sick. The doctors diagnosed her with a floating kidney. She gets surgery for it but she isn’t able to write her book because of her recovery time and strange pains developing in her arms. Another doctor assesses the pain in her arms and diagnoses her with rheumatoid arthritis. Along with the joint pains, she was also suffering from high fevers and had to be admitted into a hospital. She didn’t trust the doctors but didn’t have enough energy to argue with them either. The doctors give her massive amounts of cortisone to help with the pain and inflammation, but it prevented her from thinking clearly, made her hair fall out, and bloated her face. She also had to receive frequent blood transfusions. The times when her fever was highest, she would experience blindness and paralysis.

At this time O’Conner started to feel like she didn’t have much time left. Death was coming for her. So she ramped up her writer speed, as much as she possibly could. In the hospital, she finished her novel, Wise Blood, inspired by her many blood transfusions. It’s about a young man who thinks he has wise blood and doesn’t need any spiritual counsel. It details his fall into madness and murder.

After a few months in the hospital, O’Conner returned home hoping to recapture some familiarity. On a drive with her sister, O’Conner discovers that her mother, in cahoots with the doctors, lied to her about her rheumatoid arthritis and that she actually has lupus, the same disease her father died of.

With death staring her right in the face, she saw things differently. First, she was sad at the thought of all the books she has yet to write and all the places she will never see. She felt her world open up as she engaged with life outside of her hometown and it was heartbreaking to know that she was confined to her little room. She was destroyed from the idea that her father was wrong, that she would not be this prolific writer because her time was cut short.

But then she saw things clearly, for the first time. She saw that the most important things in her life were not where she lived, her friends, or even her family, but her writing. She told her mother that she was to have 2 or more hours every morning for writing and they are not to be interrupted for any reason. She focused all of her energy on her work. Writing with such vigor at home connected her more closely with her father. Being surrounded by the objects they were both surrounded by during her blissful years and feeling the pain he felt before he died made her connection to him even stronger. She began to write and write and write despite the pain. It was almost as if she was realizing the potential her father had seen in her as a little girl.

With the stakes higher than ever, O’Conner knew she had no time to waste. She realized with each passing day that she had less and less time than before. As a result, she threw herself even deeper into her work with more and more intensity. Writing allowed her to forget herself and rid her of the anxiety of her sickness.

Knowing about her death gave O’Conner an appreciation for time that I’ve never seen in anyone else. She took in as much as she could every minute as well as didn’t expect much from life. This new perspective gave her the ability to analyze her society in a deep way which inspired her next book. She basically says that if everyone could see what she has seen, that we all suffer and die and our time is short, then people would inevitably live differently. She says the blindness to this fact eats at our humanity and enhances our capacity for cruelty. (I think she’s so right.)

Since she was in her room most of the time, she was extremely lonely and used her characters to keep her company. She also didn’t want to be too intimate with people, since her time was coming to an end she didn’t want to have to say good-bye so soon.

O’Conner wrote with fervor until the day she died. She was buried next to her father. Pain or no pain she wrote with intensity and because of that, the world has been given an amazing writer until the end of time. The story of Flannery O’Conner is one I like to go back to whenever I feel like I’m losing perspective on life. Death gives us perspective and it can be the thing that gets our asses in gear. Ironically enough, it can be the thing that fills us with life.

The beautiful part is that we don’t have to actually be at death’s door to see life this way, all we have to do is take Flannery O’Conner’s story and see how it relates to us. In a sense, we are all already at death door, so we should take a note from Mary and use the knowledge of our impending death to fuel our works and restore our humanity.


In The Shortness of Life by Seneca, which is also on my Must-Read Book List, Seneca discusses how there is more life than time. So much more life that we actively try to find ways to burn it. This is most obvious when we’re bored. Boredom is the feeling when we’re existing more than we’re living. If life was so short, why would people spend so much effort trying to kill time?

Seneca argues that we only feel tired and unrested when we give ourselves to others. This could be in the form of giving your time, but it’s also deeper than that. He gives the example of the dinner party where a dinner guest asks what we do for a living. Someone who has a respectful career may say what they do with pride and how it brings them much satisfaction, but in fact, is withered down and exhausted. That person is not satisfied and unrested because all of the hours that they dedicate to that fancy career is time that is not for them. It is time given to the guest at the dinner party or to anyone they want approval from. The impressed look on the guest’s face when he replies with a fancy title is not for themselves, but for the one with the career. The sacrifices made for careers can easily become sacrifices made for impressing others, which is extremely unsatisfying.

It’s easy to dedicate ourselves to others, but in doing so we make life shorter and when death comes, we will be holding on so tight unable to let go.

It’s funny how seeing life as short, tends to give us this idea that we need to spend it better. I see Seneca’s approach as much more powerful – we have enough time if we were to give it to ourselves. When we only live for others, we lose ourselves and never truly feel rested.

Seneca says that people who say life moves quickly only believe so because they treat life as unimportant and easily replaceable. Because of this, it slips away from us.

From this perspective, life is about choices and how we choose to spend our life is on us.

Seneca also talks about how people are so willing to give their time, but not their money, and how backward that type of thinking is. Money can always be replenished, but time cannot. Meditating on death really nudges me to give someone my money rather than my time. I highly recommend that everyone read this book. It can do wonders for our perspective.


Occasionally, to force some perspective onto myself, I’ll think about the inevitable death of me and everyone I love. This neutralizes any shitty situation pretty quickly. To me, nothing is more upsetting than the destruction of me and everyone I love, but at the same time, it makes me so grateful for what I have now. Whatever painfully flawed moment that I’m dealing with in the present becomes an oasis in the middle of a desert when I’m present to THE END, so to speak.

Death is the fate we all share, no one can escape it. It helps us realize what is important. In the face of death, everything trivial melts away and we only see what matters. When it comes down to it, we have little to lose and a whole world to gain, so let’s embrace death and choose life. Choose to live at our highest intensity. Make bold choices. Decide for ourselves what our lives will be like. Nothing is decided until the very end, we are always in a state of rewriting and our story follows our trajectory. Death makes life matter now.

“the preoccupied become aware of it only when it is over.”

Seneca (On the Shortness of Life)
Categories
Lifestyle

Personality and Trajectory (Part 2)

“No matter who you are, The Man does occasionally bend his ear to you even if his eyes are looking elsewhere, he does now and then condescend to listen to your demands and let you appear at his side. But you never think to listen to yourself, to bend your own ear to what you yourself have to say.”

Seneca (On the Shortness of Life)

In Personality and Trajectory (Part1), I brought up the idea of studying our personality in order to tailor our life trajectory. When we clearly understand what our personal preferences are, we could start to build an environment that compliments them. Since building something like a life trajectory is a massive undertaking, I recommend starting with a rough sketch of our preferences, so to speak, and refining it from there. In that post, I proposed using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) as a means of creating this rough sketch of our trajectory.

This post is mainly going to focus on The Big 5 Model, also known as the five-factor model (FFM) or the OCEAN model. It will provide descriptions of each dimension of personality according to the FFM, as well as what success would look like for people who score high or low in each particular dimension. I will also discuss how we can use The Big 5 Model to add on to and polish our pre-existing trajectory framework based on MBTI.

Before I really get into this, I recommend checking out Jordan Peterson’s Personality and its Transformations Lecture Series. It’s free on YouTube and it’s filled with everything you need to know about personality, how it transforms, and much much more. Jordan covers The Big 5 Personality Traits as well as other concepts related to psychology and philosophy.

The Big 5

This model of personality suggests that there are 5 main dimensions to human personality. Each dimension, or factor, was determined through a factor analysis applied to personality surveys. The factor analysis was applied to the surveys to discern commonalities between descriptive words that people would use to describe themselves. This means that these experiments were based on semantic associations and not quantitative empirical data, however, no model of personality is perfect and knowledge of The Big 5 is extremely valuable for developing an even deeper understanding of our personalities.

Some critics of The Big 5 claim that 5 dimensions are not complex enough to capture a human being. While it is true that The Big 5 Model probably does not accurately capture a human being in its entirety, 5 dimensions do carry sufficient complexity to describe human behavior. Newtonian physics occurs in 3 dimensions (4 tops) and that’s enough to invite serious complexity. Add 2 more dimensions and we get the complexity of a human…sounds about right to me. 5 dimensions are plenty complicated, especially when we dive into how people’s personalities fit into these groups.

Another thing to keep in mind is, similarly to MBTI, these personality traits can fluctuate over our lifetime and that is okay. Humans are constantly growing and changing and personality goes along for the ride.

Our own personality should be one of the biggest factors when we are considering which choices to make when building our lives. If we’re high in extraversion, then we probably won’t want a job that sits us in front of computer screens all day with little social interaction. If we’re lower in conscientiousness, we wouldn’t want to be in a position of high power and authority because people are going to need things from us all the time and that would drive us crazy.

Before I get too ahead of myself.

The 5 dimensions of personality are:

  • Openness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism
Percentage vs Percentile

FFM is measured by percentiles. This is not to be confused with the percentage. Let me give an example to make this clear. If someone were to score 90th percentile in extraversion, this would be mean out of 100 people they are more extraverted than 90 of them while being less extraverted than 9 of them. This does not mean that they are 90% extravert and 10% introvert, although that is a common interpretation.

All the traits are normally distributed, meaning most people are in the 50th percentile range while there are very few who score high or low.

Openness

Or to be more specific, openness to experience. This dimension explores how open-minded someone is. Openness can be broken up into six subcategories which are:

  • Active Imagination
  • Aesthetic Sensitivity or Artistic Interests
  • Awareness of Inner Feelings or Emotionality
  • Preference for Variety or Adventurousness
  • Intellectual Curiosity
  • Liberalism
Potential breakdown of openness expression

Openness can be expressed through any of these six categories but does not have to be in all of them. For example, one who is high in openness may express it through their heightened preference for variety, but may not have a particular aesthetic sensitivity. However, that same person will most likely have a higher aesthetic sensitivity than one who is less open.

People who are high in openness tend to be more liberal, have more imaginative sexual fantasies, and experiment with drugs or participate in other risky activities. What is novel is exciting to the open person. Open people also need to be creative, if they aren’t they lose their vitality quickly.

Openness has also been found to be positively correlated with intelligence. Right now, it’s unclear whether intelligence may predispose the individual to openness or if openness predisposes intelligence but nonetheless they are correlated. (McCrae and Costa, 1987).

People who are low in openness tend to be more conservative, don’t like trying new things, and enjoy routines. Closed individuals are less flexible than their open counterparts and tend to be more analytical.

Individuals who score low in openness may do well at jobs that don’t require creativity and involve routines. Individuals who score high in openness may do well at jobs that require creativity and flexibility. Success to the open person can look like large blocks of time for creative work and exploration while success to the closed person can be predictable and orderly environments.

Conscientiousness

This is one of the biggest predictors of long-term life success. People who score high in conscientiousness tend to be responsible, organized, hard-working, intentional, goal-oriented, self-disciplined, and serious. These are the types of people who would spend all day chopping down trees to build a cabin if you left them alone in a forest with an ax. Conscientious people tend to be in leadership positions along with earning more and better work relationships. These folks also love to plan things.

Similar to openness, conscientiousness can be broken up into the following six subcategories:

  • Self-Efficacy
  • Orderliness
  • Dutifulness
  • Achievement-striving
  • Self-discipline
  • Cautiousness
Potential breakdown of conscientiousness expression

Conscientiousness can be expressed through any of these categories, but not all. People high in conscientiousness tend to be great at self-regulation and impulse control. When taken to the extreme, conscientiousness is responsible for the “workaholics” and “perfectionists“. These types rarely miss bill payments, take notes, keep promises, and are punctual. They are less likely to engage in risky behavior. High scoring conscientious types also tend to keep to-do lists and attend to tasks with little delay.

People who are low in conscientiousness tend to be laid-back, less achievement-driven, and are more likely to commit anti-social or criminal behavior. Especially if they are paired with low agreeableness. Nonconscientious types are also more likely to oversleep, be late, or avoid tasks that demand action.

Success for conscientious people looks like the most conventional sense of the term. They would excel in high-powered positions with clearly defined rules. Their life would be full of routines and order. Clean environments where everything is in its place.

Success for nonconscientious types may look like surrounding themselves with automated actions and little external responsibility. They would probably excel in positions requiring creative work with a fair amount of flexibility, not the types of jobs that require someone to show up and act on a regular basis. They would prefer a little more chaos in their environments and would probably be bothered by too much order. Nonconscientious types would probably love having pets (as long as they are conscientious enough to take adequate care of them!).

Extraversion

This trait is the dimension of positive emotion and an indicator of how outgoing or social someone is. Highly extroverted types love to be around people, go to social gatherings, and work well in groups. They also tend to seek out the company of others, are enthusiastic, energetic, and action-oriented. These people are the life of the party and love being the center of attention.

The six subcategories which extraversion is expressed are as follows:

  • Friendliness
  • Gregariousness
  • Assertiveness
  • Activity level
  • Excitement-seeking
  • Cheerfulness
Potential breakdown of extraversion expression

Unlike MBTI, there is no introversion dimension. In The Big 5 Model, introversion is just the absence of extraversion. Kind of like cold from the scientific perspective. There is no cold, just the absence of heat.

People who score low in the extraversion dimension are commonly referred to as introverts. Introverts have less enthusiasm and energy than extroverts, are less involved in social activities, and tend to be quiet and keep to themselves.

Matching a job to our level of extraversion is crucial in building a satisfying life trajectory for ourselves. Higher scoring extraverts may want to go into jobs that need a high level of interaction like teaching, sales, nursing, PR, or other service jobs. Introverts may want to find jobs that allow them to work independently or don’t require much social interaction. Excellent jobs for that could be authors, librarians, engineers, music or video editors, or computer scientists.

Success to an extrovert would require them to nurture their relationships carefully so they can have people there to celebrate their big wins with them. Success to an introvert would require them to create plenty of opportunities for space for recharging in between their other activities.

We can’t talk about this dimension without talking about Ambiverts. These types are equal parts of extroverted and introverted. They don’t have preferences for working in groups or alone. They are not uncomfortable in social settings, but being around people can tire them out. They love being the center of attention, but only for a short time. Some people think they’re quiet, while others think they are social. They lose themselves in conversation just as easily as they can lose themselves in their own thoughts. Ambiverts tend to do extremely well in both personal and professional settings.

Agreeableness

This is the social harmony and cooperation dimension. High scorers of agreeableness tend to be friendly, self-sacrificing, warm, polite, helpful, considerate, and generous. They usually take the Lockean approach to human nature and believe that people are fundamentally good. Agreeable people see others as decent, honest, and trustworthy much like themselves. Agreeable people are more than willing to put aside their own interests for the good of other people or social harmony. In unhealthy doses, agreeable people could end up as pushovers.

Agreeableness can be expressed in these six subcategories:

  • Trust
  • Morality
  • Altruism
  • Cooperation
  • Modesty
  • Sympathy
Potential breakdown of agreeableness expression

People who are low in agreeableness are known as disagreeable and tend to put their own needs above those of others. They are also more distant, less friendly, and less cooperative than their agreeable counterparts. Highly disagreeable people tend to gravitate towards anti-social or criminal behavior.

Success to an agreeable person will have a lot of social cohesion. They would love to be surrounded by people who like them and are great at building teams and maintaining relationships. Some great careers for agreeable types include nurses, counselors, teachers, or HR specialists.

Success to a disagreeable person will have a lot to do with how they feel about their own desires. Since social harmony is not a big goal of disagreeable folks, their own interests will take that place. So a successful disagreeable person would be more satisfied with getting what they want at the cost of social cooperation than being tactful and considerate of others’ needs. Some great careers for disagreeable people include scientists, critics, or soldiers.

Neuroticism

This dimension determines our susceptibility to negative emotion. Negative emotion being anxiety, fear, anger, frustration, envy, jealousy, depression, worry, or loneliness, not negativity. Highly neurotic individuals tend to respond worse to stressors and interpret them as more severe than they are. People who score highly in neuroticism have a harder time remaining emotionally stable and balanced. People who are high in neuroticism feel negative emotion faster and more intensely than less neurotic types. They are emotionally reactive and tend to give emotional responses to situations that normally wouldn’t affect many people. Highly neurotic types tend to be self-conscious, shy, and have trouble controlling urges or delaying gratification.

The six sub traits of neuroticism are as follows:

  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Self-consciousness
  • Immoderation
  • Vulnerability
Potential breakdown of neuroticism expression

Individuals who score low in neuroticism are known as emotionally stable. People with lower levels of neuroticism are desired in most professions because they tend to get less distracted by work, their personal lives, or other stressors.

High levels of neuroticism are associated with a higher risk of mental illness and less favorable results on measures of health and relationships. However, neuroticism provides a higher sensitivity to potential threats which is a useful survival mechanism. People with high levels of neuroticism also learn faster than their emotionally stable counterparts. I talk a fair bit about the utility in experiencing negative emotion in my post The Relationship with Ourselves (Part 2). We learn faster when we experience negative emotion and since neurotic types are more sensitive to negative emotion, they experience this sooner.

The knowledge of our own sensitivity to negative emotion is critical when examining the potential realities in front of us. Fairly neurotic types may want to consider that they don’t work well under pressure and plan ahead so their work can be done at a leisurely pace. Emotionally stable types may not have to exercise that type of consideration, but may keep in mind they would be fantastic for high-pressure careers like firefighting or surgery.

Methods of Identifying Personality

All of this knowledge is great, but how do we determine exactly where we land on each dimension?

There are multiple methods with some being more accurate and precise.

The easiest is taking a test while in a neutral psychophysiological state. There are tons of resources online. I recommend understandmyself.com. Make sure you are as neutral as possible. Don’t take the test upset, tired, or hungry. On the flip side, also don’t take it if you are happy, excited, or anxious! This knowledge is crucial to take into account when we plan our futures including study schedules, career goals, relationship choices, and other life plans.

Be sure to keep in mind that personality, especially since there are no flawless models, is just a starting point when it comes to designing a life trajectory. Paying attention to our inclinations is a promising way to know what kind of life fits us best. Knowing ourselves takes time because we have multiple levels all working together like an orchestral symphony. Personality is a great starting point for building a foundation for the knowledge and cultivation of our inclinations. People like Steve Jobs or Robert Greene achieved the levels of success they had because they took the time to get to know themselves and cultivated their personal interests.

Knowing ourselves intimately gives us access to deep satisfaction that we couldn’t get anywhere else. I was lucky enough to have parents support my inclination in music at a young age. I got to explore my love for music and the deeper I got, the more I fell in love with it.

Fast forward to post-college where I am forced to deal with the realities of life and decide what my life will mean, I learn that I’m high in trait openness. From my own analysis and reflection, I discovered that long periods of time where I can be creative will satisfy my openness appetite. Combining the knowledge of these two ideas, I spend years slowly molding my schedule into one that provides me ample time to be creative. Today, I can say with 100% certainty that it gives me inner peace and a pure sense of satisfaction to have connected with something deep within me. Getting to know ourselves is truly the best way to spend our time. It enriches every aspect of our existence.

Another method of identifying personality is writing an autobiography. Now, this doesn’t have to be some thick book. It could be short with just a few paragraphs. There are no rules for writing the autobiography other than you have to write it yourself. The real meaning lies in what we write and not how much we write. This method is less quantitative than the online exams but could offer deeper insights.

Articulating the past is helpful because we can clearly see how we understand the past. We can stand back, look at the picture as an outsider, and make sound judgments about what we think, or feel, or know.

Writing an entire biography is difficult, so to make it a little more manageable, just start by breaking our life story up into 5 epochs. The way in which we divide up our lives gives us a hint into what we value. For example, when I last did this exercise I noticed that my epochs were based on what my main occupation was at the time. This particular division suggests my proclivity towards high conscientiousness. The time before last, I split my life up by which people I spent the most time around, which can suggest my agreeable tendencies.

Write your story and see how you know yourself. It can be very interesting to examine our lives through our own eyes.

Relationships

The world of personality research has given us a wealth of knowledge that we can use to better understand ourselves and others. Relationships regarding personality are not blanket statements about any specific group of people. There will be exceptions in every case. For example, women tend to be more agreeable than men but that does not mean there are no agreeable men or disagreeable women.

One personality relationship worth paying attention to is between gender differences. Across cultures, women tend to report higher levels of neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, friendliness (extraversion subset), and emotionality (openness subset). Men, on the other hand, typically report higher levels of assertiveness (extraversion subset), and adventurousness (openness subset). There is much overlap between men and women except for the difference in neuroticism, which is the biggest and most prominent difference in these self-reported studies.

Each of these traits has been believed to have evolved out of survival. However, success in the modern world and survival in the wild require different abilities and skills. Agreeableness, for example, is great for caring for infants. That’s why we choose to take care of them if they’re crying at 3 in the morning rather than throw them out the window. However, agreeableness isn’t so great for moving up the corporate ladder. Sure we need some agreeableness to cooperate with everyone, but we need to be disagreeable enough to fight for opportunities and look out for our own interests. All of these traits are useful for survival, but not in the modern world. Some of them can do more harm than good, I talk a little bit about that in my post The Relationship with Ourselves (Part 2).

There are also trends with personality and birth order. Frank Sulloway, an American psychologist best known for his work on birth order personality research, argues that firstborns are higher in conscientiousness and lower in openness than their later-born siblings. He also argues that firstborns are more socially dominant. There have been other studies conducted that have fallen in line with Sulloway’s claims, but with a small correlation.

There are some correlations between personality and substance abuse as well. The personality profile of a typical heroin user would be low in neuroticism, high in openness, low in agreeableness, and low in conscientiousness. The personality profile of a typical ecstasy user would be high in extraversion, high in openness, low in agreeableness, and low in conscientiousness.

There are also connections between personality and health. Research has found that being high in conscientiousness can add 5 years to your life and being high in neuroticism is related to less favorable health outcomes. People who report high levels of conscientiousness, extraversion, and openness tend to have lower risks of mortality as well. It seems like it pays off to try to be conscientious, extroverted, and open.

Here are some connections between academic achievement and personality. Conscientiousness is predictive of GPA and exam performance. Students who report higher levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness tend to have higher GPAs and exam scores. Those who report higher levels of neuroticism tend to have less desirable academic outcomes.

Personality can also be a predictor of job performance. This is partly why I suggest using personality to help shape our life trajectory. We are more likely to enjoy jobs that we would excel in. People who excel in leadership positions are perceived to have low levels of neuroticism and high levels of openness while maintaining balanced levels of conscientiousness and extraversion. Studies have found that employees are less likely to view their supervisor’s actions as abusive if they consider their supervisor to be high in conscientiousness.

Professional burnout is highly correlated with high levels of neuroticism. People who report higher levels of agreeableness tend to make less money than their disagreeable counterparts.

Conscientiousness is the biggest predictor of overall job performance, the higher the conscientiousness the better their performance. Extraversion is the 2nd biggest predictor of overall job performance, the higher the extraversion the better their performance. Agreeableness and Neuroticism are tied for 3rd, lower levels of each being tied to higher performance.

Research on how the individual traits affected individuals and organizations at work found that individuals (or organizations of individuals) who are higher in openness are more proactive with tasks but less organized and proficient. Both of these effects are mutually exclusive. Those who are more agreeable tend to be less proactive with tasks. Those who are higher in extraversion are, on average, less proficient at tasks. Those who are high in conscientiousness tend to relate positively in all forms of work performance. Highly neurotic types tend to relate negatively to all forms of work performance.

In romantic relationships, personality could predict satisfaction and relationship quality during the various stages of a romantic relationship.

Dating couples’ studies suggest that people will have higher relationship satisfaction and quality if they see their partner with lower levels of neuroticism and higher levels of conscientiousness as well as see themselves with higher levels of conscientiousness.

Engaged couples’ studies suggest that relationship satisfaction and quality are higher among those who report their partner as high in openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness and lower in neuroticism. Satisfaction and quality are also higher for those who report themselves as higher in extraversion and agreeableness. Neuroticism predicts worse relationship satisfaction and quality for both self-reported and partner-reported studies.

Married couples, on the other hand, demonstrate higher levels of relationship satisfaction and quality when self-reporting higher levels of neuroticism, extraversion, and agreeableness as well as partner-reported agreeableness.

Personality can also show up with people’s political identification, but not with all 5 traits. People who are higher in conscientiousness tend to be more conservative, while people who are higher in openness tend to be more liberal. The other three traits have not been found to be linked to preferred political ideology.

Personalities are subject to change as our lives move and one of the traits the changes the most with age is neuroticism. Research has found that neuroticism tends to decrease with age and after major life events.


Similar to MBTI, The Big 5 has a few critiques as well. While The Big 5 is more based on empirical evidence, it is still limited in its predictive power and does not accurately encompass all of the human personality. However, it’s one of the best models we have and that doesn’t mean that we can’t use it to our advantage.

Since there is more research related to the Big 5, we can use what rings true from The Big 5, MBTI, our personal experiences, and other sources to clearly articulate our preferences. We can use everything we know about personality to create a more refined way of determining our life trajectory. Keep in mind which traits you have and how they will change and use that knowledge to inform your choices when you choose what you do for work, who you marry, where you live, and why you do what you do.

While it’s great to tailor our life trajectory to our personalities, that does not mean we should avoid exposing ourselves to the opposites of our preferences. Wisdom is always on the other side of what we are.

“Become who you are. Become all that you are. There is still more of you – more to be discovered, forgiven, and loved.”

Carl Jung (1875-1961)
Categories
Lifestyle Productivity

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 Productivity

Strategies for Better Studying (Part 3)

“Premature optimization is the root of all evil.”

Donald Knuth (1938 – )

Check out the first and second parts! This is part 3 of my buffet of study techniques. Be sure to check out my post on Active Recall and Spaced Repetition to learn the main principles which efficient and effective studying is based. Applying methods without understanding the principles is a great way to waste time and energy, but once we understand the principles then we can mix and match the different strategies to develop our own personalized study system.

Scope the Subject

I first brought up the idea of Scoping the Subject in my post on Note-Taking. Scoping the subject is most effective when we do it at the beginning of a study session or when we are learning something new. It is simply asking yourself how much you already know about a subject before diving in.

Scoping the subject has many forms. One of them is through a mind map, which I also talk about in my Note-Taking post. Through creating a mind map, we can easily visualize the information we know and how they are related to each other.

Another way to scope the subject is to skim through the chapter of a textbook and noting any recurring words, phrases, or topics that you are not familiar with. These little holes of unknown are going to be landmarks, so to speak, that our minds will be on the lookout for when we actually learn the material. This is gives our minds an aim. Without an aim, it is extremely difficult to know what to pay attention to. The idea of people needing aims and direction can be taken much further than studying and I talk a lot about it here. People need purpose and purpose only exists in relation to something else. Scoping the subject gives us that reference point necessary to relate to something.

One more extremely helpful aspect of scoping the subject is having a ready made list of the concepts that we need to know. This list can be prioritized which is key to scheduling and timetables.

Build Knowledge Frames

I brought this up in my note-taking post a little while ago. Knowledge Frames work fantastic with mind maps. In a sense, mind maps are a type of knowledge frame. Knowledge Frames can be thought of as a generalized representation of a concept which smaller details can easily be attached.

I originally head of this idea from Dr. Andre Pinesett, a Stanford trained medical doctor who is an expert in student success. He says that students should build a simple understanding of a concept, then expand on that simple frame by adding details to it later on. In one of this long-form videos, he brings up learning the flow through the heart, a concept which most people find difficult to commit to memory.

The best part about knowledge frames is being able to learn these complicated ideas easily and simply. I used knowledge frames to help me memorize blood flow through the heart during EMT school. I’ll show you how I did it here –

One could simply memorize the flow of blood through the heart:

Vena cava → right atrium → tricuspid valve → right ventricle → pulmonic valve → pulmonary artery → lungs → pulmonary veins → left atrium → bicuspid valve → left ventricle → aorta → the rest of the body…

….but that’s not intuitive if you aren’t familiar with anatomy. The best way to memorize the flow isn’t through brute force memorization, but through knowledge frames.

First, we have to create a simple and generalized conceptualization of blood flow through the heart:

The Heart

This is the heart, or at least an extremely simplified version of it. This box will be our initial knowledge frame. As long as we think about the heart like this, it will be easier to learn the smaller details. Now that we’ve build the foundational structure, let’s hang some details on it.

Blood only comes into the heart through the atriums, from the top. It starts a the right atrium.

Entry into the Heart

There are 3 valves between each opening so the blood doesn’t flow backwards. The names are tricuspid, bicuspid, and pulmonic. The tricuspid and bicuspid valves are between the atrium and ventricles and the pulmonic valve is between the right ventricle and the lungs.

I remember this through the classic mnemonic “Try it before you buy it.” The pulmonic valve is named such because it leads to the lungs and things related to the lungs are known as pulmonary.

Veins carry blood towards the heart and arteries carry blood away from the heart so the blood leaves the right ventricle through the pulmonary artery and enters the heart through the pulmonary veins.

Veins, Arteries, and Lungs

The blood enters through the superior and inferior vena cava and exists through the aorta.

Further Specify Enter and Exit

And there you have it! The entire flow of the heart in 4 steps. We can always memorize complex systems and ideas, but chances are there’s a way to understand these things that are less burdensome. Now that we’ve created a knowledge frame, I recommend drawing out the frame in its entirety for active recall.

I’ve also used this idea (before I knew it had a name) in my chemistry classes to learn VSEPR theory in a simple and intuitive way. I’ve also used it to understand cellular respiration and all its’ little details. It’s difficult and time consuming to create knowledge frames but once they are made, they are invaluable, our understanding becomes solidified, and our retention skyrockets.

Find ways to simply concepts, then hang the smaller details on your frame.

Clearly Articulate Failure and Success

“When things cannot be defined, they are outside the sphere of wisdom; for wisdom knows the proper limits of things.”

Seneca (Letters from a Stoic XCIV – On the Value of Advice)

This is an applied idea from the lessons in my posts about drifters and definitive purpose, the reality-possibility exchange, tracking and loss aversion, and the power of failure. We are purpose driven creatures and we need to strive towards something. Having something to specific to strive for does us a lot ot good not just because we experience dopamine releases observing ourselves move towards goals, but because it can help us stay on track.

Always set an intention with every study session, set clear boundaries for failure and success. This is so we know when we’ve finished studying and when we’re behind. I don’t mean using time as a measurement. Have concrete goals that you can measure yourself up against.

This can look many different ways depending on the situation. When I’m working with my students, my goal is usually to do practice questions that cover the topics they will be tested on until they are able to complete the problems without mistakes. Sometimes, I’ll have less qualitative specifications for a study session. If time is short, I may say that the student has to do at least 20 practice problems.

My girlfriend is currently studying for the MCAT and she has the goal of finishing 1 chapter of new information per day. This way, she’ll know when she will actually be done studying. Rather than aimlessly trying to “study as much as we can,” we know exactly when we are done for the day.

As with most of the things I like to share, this lesson can be taken much further than simply studying. Articulation is the highest level of understanding and paying attention to how well articulated our goals and boundaries are will change our lives for the better.

Apply this to any endeavor you choose and watch your accomplishments slowly grow.

Past Papers, Exams, and Essay Plans are Crucial

I mean this with my heart and soul. Textbooks, the internet, fantastic tutors, friends are all great resources but nothing compares to old exams and thorough plans.

When we study for an exam, we want to be able to answer the questions that come up on the test and the best way to do that is to practice recalling the concepts that will be covered on that test. When many students, including myself, try to create active recall questions they inevitably wonder if the questions they’re using are sufficient for the exam.

How do we know we’re studying the right questions?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard and thought “I didn’t study any of the stuff that was actually on the test.” There are few things that suck more than preparing for the wrong situation, especially if the stakes are high. Studying the wrong material sucks so bad. We put in the work, only to discover that we’ve sacrificed the wrong thing.

Nothing is better than studying old exams or past papers, especially if those tests were administered by the same professor! This way we’ll already know what their tests are like. We will know what types of questions to expect, the wording of the questions, the length of the exam, and so many other things. By reviewing an old test, we remove a lot of the uncertainty surrounding it, which gives us more confidence and lowers our need for anxiety. Anxiety is our response to preparing for unknown variables and studying past exams takes out many unknowns.

If old exams aren’t accessible, practice tests are usually supplied at the end of a chapter which cover the 80/20 of the need-to-know for most STEM classes.

If you have to write an essay, examine the structures and characteristics of past essays can provide a stronger structure to work with especially in timed constraints. Read over an old essay and ask:

  • How did they structure this paper?
  • Why did they structure it that way?
  • What are weakness of this paper? Avoid those.
  • What are strengths of this paper? Mimic those.

Plagiarism is a terrible thing, but finding inspiration from others is totally fair game. In Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, he talks about the uniqueness of each individual how that affects our ability to imitate. Kleon suggests that if one were to try to make a copy of another’s work, individualism would influence the work enough to create something new. I believe this is so true! By allowing ourselves to be influenced by our surroundings, we are naturally influencing the world around us. When we look over old papers, I suggest mimicking as much as possible. Allow your own voice to shine through, but steal the concepts, plans, and ideas and make them your own.

Once the ideas for the essay are gathered, write out an outline over and over and over and over and over until you can write that essay in your sleep.

Be Mindful of Diminishing Returns

“The last 10 percent of performance generates one-third of the cost and two-thirds of the problems.”

Norman R. Augustine (1935 – )

The idea of unproportional output to input is found in so many places and has been given many different names from many different people. The 80/20 rule is a fantastic example. I think everyone should spend a little time learning about these different observations and natural phenomena because the knowledge of these ideas changes how we would approach situations in a more powerful way. These ideas are powerful because they are based on the assumption that diminishing returns are something to pay attention to.

The Point of Diminishing Return is a phenomena of systems and it is the point when the ratio of output/input has decreased to a point where it’s no longer reasonable to continue. In terms of studying, this is the point when you would have to put in MORE effort to be able to learn LESS information. The point of diminishing returns eventually turns into Negative Returns, which should be avoided at all costs.

f(x) = x^(1/2) ish?

Derek Sivers has a fantastic story about him biking which illustrates this idea perfectly, I write about it in my post Another 5 More Tips for Better Scheduling. 45 instead of 43 is the preferred method of doing things.

Ramit Sethi also preaches his idea of “getting the big wins” and moving on with his life, which also is predicated on the idea of calling it quits at the point of diminishing return. Ramit calls it The 85% Solution – get 85% of it right and move on! I love this because it allows us the freedom to leave if something takes too much of our precious and nonrenewable attention. I do this all the time with my students, if we come across a problem that takes 20 minutes for us to complete I would either try to break down the concepts into smaller chunks or just leave it. I will literally say “don’t worry about this and plan to get it wrong on the test.” This idea shocks people, but it gives us the freedom to move on and cover other material. When it comes to studying rather than use the 85% solution, I say do the 90% solution – get 90% of it right and move on.

One thing to consider is where the point of diminishing returns actually is. One person’s point of diminishing return can look different from another’s. So the question is –

What determines our own point of diminishing returns?

I believe it’s a few different things, but the biggest factor lies in our trajectory. Our future plans decide where our point of diminishing returns are. This is another reason why Clearly Articulating Failure and Success is critical to being a better student. Where we are going decides what our present circumstances mean to us and through clearly defining where we are headed, we can more easily determine if our efforts are worth it.

We don’t have the energy to fight every battle. We must pick and choose. Know when it’s time to back away and know when it’s time to push.