Habit Change as a Language Learning Tool

Forgotten Habit by Trường Đặng

Being about three quarters of the way through the first month of our semi-unofficial Swedish challenge, I’ve noticed one of the biggest obstacles starting out was that I had almost entirely lost my study habit. With so many other things going on I’d frequently forget to do my vocab study until way late in the day. Then I’d either have to grudgingly accept that I was going to be behind and have to do extra to catch up, or force myself to grind it out before bed when neither my heart nor head were really into it.

As a result I fell a bit behind and have had to play a lot of catch up. (I’ll post a full analysis of how well I did at the end of the month challenge period.) It got me thinking a bit about how hard it could be for people who had no past experience building that habit. After all, I’ve done this all before and have a solid handle on how to bring that daily Memrise habit back. If you struggle to build habits or have never done it before I’m sure it’d be even more difficult.

So here’s how to build a habit that will stick, and how to use it to aid your language learning.

What’s a Habit Anyway?

There is some discussion to what really constitutes a habit, so I figure it’s best to clear up specifically what we’re talking about before we dig into the meat of things. The way we’ll be defining it here is that a habit is an action that you perform without conscious impetus to do so. An action which you would do completely on autopilot and which often would feel very strange to not do.

A couple easy examples are brushing your teeth in the morning or buckling your seat belt when you get into a car. You probably don’t have to tell yourself to do either of these things. For most people it’s entirely automatic to stumble into the bathroom half asleep after waking up and immediately start brushing their teeth. Similarly when you sit down in the car seat you probably reach for the seat belt unconsciously. Both these actions would also feel wrong to skip. You would have to force yourself to not brush your teeth and the fact that you hadn’t would probably grate at you in the back of your mind. Starting to drive off without buckling up would also take a conscious decision and feel very viscerally wrong (I hope).

Both of these things are the kinds of habits we’re talking about. You could maybe also call them ‘compulsions’ although that tends to hold a more negative connotation.

Bad habits follow the same rules. Biting one’s nails is an easy example. A person does it unconsciously, compelled without realizing that they’re doing it, and it would feel viscerally wrong somehow to consciously force themselves to not do it when compelled.

Positive or negative all of the habits we’re talking about here will have these basic qualities. Primarily because all of them follow the same pattern of activation.

How Habits are Triggered

All habits follow the same cyclical pattern of activation and reinforcement. This habit cycle starts with some kind of cue or trigger, the cue or trigger then causes you to unconsciously perform the habitual action, which then provides some kind of reward. It is, in essence, the same kind of positively reinforced classical conditioning used to train animals today. You probably don’t even recognize this Pavlovian response happening (quick aside to note, as an animal lover, that despite the potential value of his research Pavlov was a monster to those dogs), but it’s being built and reinforced every time you engage in the habit.

First comes the cue, something that occurs that triggers your habit response. In the case of brushing your teeth in the morning it’s probably waking up and heading into the bathroom or whatever part of your morning routine that precedes it. That action triggers the behavior in question, brushing your teeth in this case, and then you get the reward. The reward in this case being the personal satisfaction of having avoided future discomfort, or knowing that you’ve improved your appearance, or whatever subtle psychological trigger is present in you for completing that task.

The cue may be something obvious, or it may be something very discreet. In the case of buckling up in the car or brushing your teeth it’s fairly obvious what triggers it, but some habits are caused by more obfuscated forces. For example, an emotional eater might find a snack half finished without even recognizing that they had even felt lonely, bored, or whatever emotion happened to trigger that response.

The reward may be something very obvious as well, if the habit you’re trying to break is having a cookie for dessert every time you finish lunch the reward is pretty obvious – the cookie and all the pleasant hormones that come with a sugary treat. In other instances, brushing your teeth or buckling up for example, the reward may be something you don’t notice like the feeling of contentment, security, and having avoided future danger and all the feel good hormones that releases.

Regardless of whether it’s a positive habit or a negative habit they all follow this same cycle of trigger and reinforcement. The good thing is, once we understand this cycle and how it works, we can manipulate the variables to create more good habits and erase all of our bad ones.

Building a Language Learning Habit

Since I mostly want to focus on using habit creation to aid language learning, I’m going to save how we manipulate the habit cycle to erase bad habits for another article and focus on how to build new habits – specifically ones for language learning.

For our example habit, since it’s the one I had to rebuild, I’m going to choose vocab study. In my case it was using Memrise, but this could be putting some time into Anki or your other SRS of choice, or even a quick study session on Duolingo or a chat with somebody on iTalki. You can substitute any behavior you want in for the habit and play with things to see what works for you.

The first thing we need is something to set off the habit.

Creating a Habit Cue

The easiest way to create a habit cue is to build upon an action that is already habitual, or inevitable enough for one reason or another that you are already certain that it’s going to occur essentially everyday. It’s also important, or at least extremely helpful, to pick a habit that occurs at roughly the same time everyday and to make sure it’s the time of day you want to perform this new habit we’re building.

For me, I wanted to make sure I got to my Memrise practice as early as possible in the day because it’s important to me and I like to tackle the things that are most important as early as possible. I also feel like I study better early than later in the evenings.

To that end, I decided to make my cue sitting down with my morning coffee. I love my coffee and, unless we run out and I don’t realize soon enough to order new beans, Caroline and I both have two cups every morning (burr ground, drip, Chemex – for any fellow coffee nerds). That made it a perfect habit cue for me to utilize. It’s an essentially inevitable part of my routine and it’s first thing in the morning which is what I want.

You can create your own cues at certain times if you don’t have an activity you already habitually do then by setting alarms on your computer, phone, watch or whatever. I personally find this method a little harder to stick to, and in my experience it seems harder to bind the action to the timer in the first place than to bind it to another action, but you can experiment.

Once you’ve got your habit cue, you can move on to creating the actual habit action.

Developing a Habitual Action

One of the biggest mistakes people make when developing an action into a habit is to try to do too much too quickly.

If you were to commit yourself to studying 200 new words per day on Memrise everyday after sitting down with your coffee, you might get a few days in through sheer force of will – but soon you just won’t feel like it. You’ll miss a day, then maybe two or three, and your efforts to build that habit will have been wasted.

Good dog trainers will tell you that when building a response in a dog you want to avoid a ‘miss’ at all costs. A ‘miss’ meaning a failure to perform the behavior. If you’re trying to teach a dog to sit ideally you give the command, the dog sits, you mark the correct behavior with a clicker or similar marker and then give a reward like a treat. If the dog ‘misses’ – does something other than sit like jump up – you don’t keep giving the command, you regress to an easier behavior then work back up.

This is because you want to condition in the cleanest response possible and avoid conditioning in additional, unwanted behaviors or making the desired action you’re pairing with the command less clear. Conditioning your own habits follows similar rules, you want to avoid a miss – in your case failing to perform the new habitual action – at all costs.

The easiest way to ensure that you aren’t going to miss is to start your habitual action out so small that it would make you feel foolish not to do it. So in our case you could make it to learn 5 new words on Memrise. If you need something even easier than that, you could make it just to sit down with your coffee and open the Memrise app.

That’s it. Just open it. You don’t have to do any actual studying if you don’t want to.

That kind of action ensures that you’ll always actually do it. After all, if you’re so lazy or opposed to study that you can’t even be bothered to take two seconds to open the Memrise app on your phone, then you have much bigger problems to address first.

Eventually you can build upon that foundational habit to get to a genuinely productive habit. So after a week or so of just opening up the app, you can bump up to 5 words studied every day. After a week of that, when it feels easy and automatic, make it 10 words per day instead and so on. If you miss, then just regress back to an easier stage until you’ve got a good consistent stretch of hits or successes and then try increasing the load again.

The biggest key here is to start small. Choose something that takes a minimal amount of time, maybe less than 30 seconds, requires almost no effort, and is relevant to the larger habit you’re building. The relevancy is important, conditioning yourself just to pick up your phone might not cut it – you could wind up on Facebook or playing games. Conditioning yourself to open Memrise (or Duolingo, iTalki, whatever) is relevant because it’s a necessary first step to the larger habit we’re gunning for.

Now that we’ve got a habitual action developed and tied to the habit cue we created, now we need to finish things off with a habit reward.

Finding a Habit Reward

Technically speaking you can develop new habits while neglecting this step. This is primarily due to the fact that in general we like accomplishing things and even if you don’t consciously build in a reward for the new behavior your brain will release some of those feel good hormones when you actually do the thing you’ve been wanting to do.

That being said, you can encode the new habits much, much faster by actively building in a habit reward.

A habit reward can be anything at all that makes you feel good. I personally like to make them a little more psychological for most things rather than physical, both for convenience of use and because there’s no worry about negative side effects, but you can choose something physical if that works better for you.

By a psychological reward I mean an active confirmation that you have done something to be celebrated. So using our previous example after you finish your Memrise session for that day (whether that was just opening the app or doing 50 words), you put a big grin on your face, tell yourself that you just did something awesome, give yourself a big thumbs up, then flex and roar out a Randy Savage-esque ‘OH YEAH!’.

Ok, so you don’t have to do all that. The point is to really feel like you’ve done something great though, whatever you need to do to generate that feeling. Your brain really likes that feeling, and will release a lot of chemicals like dopamine that make you feel happy and actively reinforce the behavior we’re trying to habituate.

If you need a physical reward, try to choose something that has other positive effects on your life rather than negative ones. If you use a pint of ice cream as a reward, for example, and wind up eating a pint of ice cream everyday on top of everything else, you might wind up with other problems as a result of your work to create that habit. A small piece of candy or something else sweet but healthier like a piece of fruit are decent options, or using an activity you like as a reward for successfully completing the behavior you’re habituating. Directly physical/chemical rewards like food, drink, or maybe sexual favors from a partner are all potent, but difficult to implement well.

Immediacy can make a big difference as well, which is another reason I prefer psychological/psychosomatic rewards, the longer your reward takes to trigger after the habit you’re developing is completed the less effective it is at reinforcing that habit.

This is one reason habits like going to the gym or eating healthier are notoriously hard to develop – the rewards (being fit, losing weight, etc.) are all far delayed from the habit. If someone gave you $5 immediately after you finished every workout, you’d build that habit in no time.

Putting All of It Together

Doing those things in order will eventually lead you to having a strong study habit conditioned in that you’ll do automatically every morning without thinking about it – like I do now.

In practice, what the above looks like is this – the first week every morning as soon as you sit down with your coffee you open the Memrise app. Immediately after opening it, you may a big deal out of it and jump up and down and celebrate because you’re the best for opening that app. Maybe after the fanfare you study a bit, maybe you just close it. Doesn’t matter.

The next week, having done that every morning for the previous week, you bump it up. Now, after you sit down with your coffee, you immediately open the Memrise app and learn 5 new words. Once those 5 words are done you congratulate yourself like you just beat the Technodrome level on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles NES game. Again, maybe you do more words after that, but it’s no big deal if you do or don’t.

The next week, after never failing to do 5 words each day the previous one, you repeat the process but bumped up to 10 words, and so on. Before long when you sit down with your coffee you’ll be pulling Memrise up before you even think about it.

You can use this habit building process for any language learning element to learn faster, and more effectively. That can mean developing a vocab learning habit like what was outlined here, or maybe you build a habit to chat with a native speaker on iTalki or HelloTalk each evening. The point is to build well-ingrained habits that sequentially bring you closer to your goal of speaking a new language.

Have you tried these methods to habituate your language learning process? Have any suggestions to make it easier or areas where you had particular trouble? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Trường Đặng Rok

Learning Swedish – A Segmented Approach

Yellow Cross by Christer

How much Swedish can we learn in 3 months using a new method we’ve never tried before?

In a way, this is equal parts both a personal challenge and also an experiment. We’ve wanted to learn Swedish for a while now, mostly because of my ancestry (I’m told ‘Wik’ comes from the same Swedish root as the ‘vik’ in ‘viking’, and one of our family historians insists that there’s some evidence ancestors way back of ours were vikings).

It’s no fun if you can’t make it a challenge though, so I’ve been considering ways to ramp things up a bit. To add that challenge element I decided to see how far we can get in the language in 3 months with what I would consider a minimal amount of study. What I mean by that is, we’ll only be studying for a few hours each night on the side of our other projects – not spending 8 hours a day cramming.

I think this will be a bit more instructive since in the past when we’ve taken on a language challenge I’ve not only given us a longer timeline (6 months for Korean) but we also made it something of a side job. We dropped a lot of other projects to clear enough time every day to study intensely. It was certainly effective, but I know not everyone has the luxury to do so. Now we’ve got more writing projects to keep on top of and the responsibility of teaching classes at the self-defense school I opened, so we’ve less ability to just drop things and devote ourselves to language study.

Since we’re already making things interesting, I also wanted to change up our methods a little bit as an experiment.

Since we have less time overall, rather than focus on learning as much as possible in vocab and grammar and getting to speaking practice immediately, we’re going to segment things out.

  • Month 1 Vocab – The first month we’re going to spend entirely on vocab acquisition with no real worries about grammar, speaking, or listening practice. Right now the plan is to use an SRS system, likely Memrise, to memorize as many of the most commonly used Swedish words as possible.

    Ideally the goal here is to learn at least the first 1,000 most common words in Swedish before the first month is over so that the foundations are well laid for beginning grammar study.

  • Month 2 Grammar – The second month will be devoted entirely to grammar study. I expect there will be some inevitable continuation of vocab learning – 1,000 words will not be enough even if it’s the 1,000 most common – but learning new words won’t be the focus it’ll just have to come incidentally.

    I’m not certain yet what resources we’ll use to learn things on the grammar side, but I’ll figure it out before the second month begins. I’m certain with the Internet we will have no problem at all finding free, high quality resources for Swedish grammar study. If you do have any recommendations however, leave them in the comments.

  • Month 3 Speaking – The third and last month is when we’ll finally hit the speaking and listening practice. This basically goes against the way we’ve learned all of our other languages (speaking with natives as soon as humanly possible), but it’s this inversion that I think will make it more interesting for me. Knowing I have to wait until the third month to get to the part I really enjoy will probably also be an extra motivating factor.

    I’ll mostly be using iTalki as our primary resource for this last month. I’d like to primarily use language exchange partners where we can give them some English instruction and then they can help us out with Swedish, although if need be I’ll give in and pay for an actual official tutor on iTalki to walk us through speaking practice. It’ll depend largely on how well, or poorly, we feel we’re progressing.

Why the Compartmentalized Approach?

All of our language acquisition experiments so far have followed the same basic learning structure – memorize as much vocab as possible and get to speaking with natives immediately with a little bit of grammar study on the side to help gain a better understanding of things.

This approach has worked very well, particularly I think because language is a skill and the best way to learn a skill is practice, not study. It’s very intensive though. It can be done I’m sure in a more relaxed manner, and a lot of that intensity was likely a manufactured result of the time constraints I placed on us to ramp up the challenge aspect, but it’s a lot for some people to tackle at once.

I think this compartmentalized approach may be a little easier to swallow for some people. Rather than having a variety of things to work on, each month has it’s sole goal. We can throw ourselves into vocab acquisition and vocab acquisition alone for the first month with myopic fervor not worrying about neglecting other aspects of our study.

I think this will make it less stressful, but will it also make it less effective?

I don’t know.

That’s the fun part.

Currently I don’t think it will, but I’ll document our progress as we go along and we’ll see. The nice thing about a challenge like this is, even if I completely fail by general standards to meet the goals I’m setting for myself and it turns out on top of everything else that this different method I’m testing is an extremely inefficient way to learn a language, we’ll still speak more Swedish by the end of it than we do now. So no matter what, we win.

Any thoughts on this challenge / experiment of ours? Resources you think we should look into or use? Just want to cheer us on? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Christer

How to Stay Productive with Block Schedules

Blocks (explored) by Matthias Rhomberg

Block scheduling has proven to be the most effective to keep me on track without causing too much pain.

For the longest time, I found myself stuck in a bit of a quandary.

On one hand I really needed a schedule to keep me on track. Call it ADHD, general flightiness, whimsy capriciousness, whatever – if I didn’t have a schedule keeping me on track I would derail and do a thousand different things that weren’t actually the things I needed to do that day.

On the other hand when I created a rigid schedule for myself, like the kind that Caroline uses so well to keep herself on track, I chafed under its oppressive rule. It was nice to have something to keep me doing what I needed to be doing right then, but instinctive defiance of authority is a severe character flaw in me and it drove me mad.

So how do you compromise having enough structure to keep me on track but still allowing enough freedom to stop my instinctive rebelliousness from manifesting? Block scheduling.

Linear Scheduling vs. Block Scheduling

Block scheduling isn’t complicated, but it’s still easiest to explain it in contrast to a more traditional linear scheduling system.

Linear scheduling is what most people would probably think of as a schedule. Each task for the day or appointment or whatever is mapped out to a specific time slot. If you think of putting things in on your Google calendar or whatever that’s what a linear schedule looks like. Here’s an example of what one might look like for one of our days:

  • 6 a.m. – Wake up & make coffee

  • 6:15 a.m. – Meditate

  • 6:45 a.m. – Memrise

  • 7 a.m. – Lift

  • 8 a.m. – Shower

  • 8:30 a.m. – Daily Prep / Writing

  • 10 a.m. – Teach at Wik Academy

  • 11:30 a.m. – Eat

  • Noon – Walk with dog

  • 1 p.m. – Practice an instrument

  • 2 p.m. – Write

  • 4:30 p.m. – Eat

  • 5:30 – Teach at Wik Academy

  • 8:30 – Eat

  • 9 p.m. – Language study

  • 10 p.m. – Read, go to sleep

This is just a basic outline, not every day looks quite the same, but that is a good example of a linear schedule. Every section of the day is devoted to one or two tasks. It’s certainly fantastic for keeping a person on track and some people do very well with this type of schedule. I don’t.

I find it too repressive, personally. Some days I may feel like writing at times outside the time I have reserved for it, or may feel like moving other things around. There’s certainly room for flexibility in a schedule like this, but over time I found I moved things around so much and so frequently the schedule was rendered effectively useless.

I’ve since switched to block scheduling, which looks something like this:

  • 6 a.m. to Noon – Meditate, Memrise, Lift, Coffee, Shower, Write, Teach at WAMA, Eat

  • Noon to 4 p.m. – Walk, Write, Instrument practice, Play

  • 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. – Teach at WAMA, Language study, Eat, Write

  • 10 p.m. on – Relax, Read, Sleep

The block schedule contains all the same tasks in a general sense, but just less rigidly tied to a specific timeslot. If, in my 6 a.m. to Noon block for example, I want to save meditation for closer to noon and get to writing as soon as I get up then that’s not a problem. It provides the skeleton of a structure for the day but doesn’t flesh it out enough to feel extremely restrictive. I can have the small bit of guidance to keep me in line without feeling bound to doing certain things exactly when I’m told.

Why Not a To-Do List?

In looking at my general problems with a rigid schedule you may ask, “Why not just not schedule anything at all, but use your daily to-do list to make sure you do all the things you need to do for the day (writing, meditation, Memrise, etc.) while retaining the freedom to do them when you want?”

That certainly may be a viable option for others who have found that a strict schedule is just too rigid of a structure for them to follow comfortably. I tried it as well, and for me it just didn’t work out.

The primary issue for me was that it just wasn’t enough structure to make sure I was good about managing my energy well. I had a severely bad habit of putting things on my to-do list off until I got overwhelmed by things, or underestimating the available time I had to complete tasks and spending too much time on leisure, video games, and things like that and then realizing that I’d burned the day away without getting to the important stuff.

I’ve instituted other fail-safes to compensate for my bad habits and, to be fair, I think I could likely make that system work now. With them though, and for anyone else out there who falls victim to similar habits, the block schedule was just enough to keep me in line. It served as a loosely organized daily to-do list, reminding me that during this block I needed to get these few things done and then I could have my leisure time.

I encourage you to play around with a few different options for a week or two at a time to see what allows you to be the most productive while still giving you the highest comfort level available. Not everything that works for me will fit everyone. Caroline, for example, does best with a super rigid schedule. The key is to find what works for you.

Do you have any suggestions for ways to make the block scheduling better? Things that have worked for you that others might find useful? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Matthias Rhomberg

Video Games, Process, & Success Dependence – How to Set Better Goals

Europa Univeralis IV Starting Screen

Europa Universalis IV players are often good examples of process driven individuals.

In general, people tend to fall into one of two categories in their approach to accomplishing a task. Either they’re result driven, or they’re process driven.

In my experience, of these two the process driven people tend to have more long term success when it comes to achieving the more difficult tasks. It seems to take far less willpower, or mental fortitude if you want to call it that, to tackle more difficult goals for those who are strongly process driven compared to those who are strongly result driven.

So how can we use that observation to help us set better goals, even if we naturally tend toward a result focus?

Result vs. Process in Video Games

The easiest way, for me anyway as a gamer, to demonstrate the two types of people is to look at the behaviors and attitudes of common players of two games.

On one hand you have players of a game like Awesomenauts (feel free to sub DOTA2 in here if you like, I just wanted to give Awesomenauts a shout out because I enjoy it). Awesomenauts players tend to be very strongly results focused. The game itself lends itself to this attitude – it’s a MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) and, like traditional sports, your objective is to defeat the other team in a clearly defined manner.

You will frequently see players have severe meltdowns if it looks like they’re going to lose. The rage quit (abandoning the game in a fury because it doesn’t look like you’re going to win for you non-video game folk) is a semi-common occurrence, even though there are penalties built in to discourage it. Players can behave like irrational, whiny children who aren’t getting their way if it looks like they aren’t going to be victorious.

This attitude I thinks stems from, or is at least bolstered by, the game’s subconscious push for people to be results driven. Players fall into a myopic obsession with winning, with the result of the game, and as a result cannot enjoy the experience of playing unless they win, or feel like they’ll win. All that matters to them is the outcome.

Contrast that with players of some of Paradox’s grand strategy games like Crusader Kings II or Europa Universalis IV (EU4).

These games have no real win condition. Sure, you can try to conquer the entire globe, and there are ‘points’ so you could argue the objective the game sets for you is to get the most of them but it’s downplayed so much as to be essentially arbitrary.

Even in multiplayer EU4 players are essentially expected to create their own personal goals and ‘win’ conditions. I’ve noticed this structure seems to make people much more process focused. You won’t often see people rage quitting an EU4 game because ‘winning’ is a concept so divested from the core game and determinant on the whims of the player it would be foolish. EU4 players care more about the experience of playing, or the process of it, than they do about winning. Regardless of the result, they enjoy the process.

Before I get any hate mail from Awesomenauts players these are generalizations. Not every Awesomenauts player is a petulant child and not every EU4 player is a refined statesperson – but by looking at these generalizations we can see things that apply to tasks outside of gaming.

Are You Sabotaging Yourself by Being Too Results Focused

For a lot of people, their instinctive approach to goals is one falling much closer to the results focused manner the Awesomenauts players we discussed above approach their game.

It may be an endemic issue to U.S. culture, but a lot of people feel pushed to get results no matter what. They put the end result first, and approach things with that attitude of staking everything on ‘winning’ or accomplishing their goal. This can be a strong motivating factor, which is definitely a positive aspect, but it also ties the emotional payout of the experience into a very singular, specific factor.

That obsession with winning increases the reward payout of achieving the win condition – meeting your goal – but it also proportionately increases the emotional pain of not achieving the win condition – of failing to meet your goal.

In other words the more you conflate achieving your goal with being the most important best feeling thing in the world, the more failing to achieve it seems like the worst thing ever.

If you have the idea of losing tied to this strong emotional idea of pain, failure, and disappointment it’s easy to bail rather than risk experiencing that. That’s why rage quitting happens. It’s less painful emotionally to say, “Fuck this, if I can’t win I’m going home and taking my ball with me,” than to actually experience that loss. It’s an issue of pain avoidance, which is a very, very strongly wired an impulse in living things.

So why does that matter for my goals?

Let’s take fitness as an example. Partly because it’s common, partly because the societal connotations of pain & struggle being necessary for weight loss already tint it with the specter of pain avoidance.

Suppose you want to lose 15 pounds. You get really pumped about your goal. You’re seriously going to do it this time. You’re pumped. You are entirely and completely invested emotionally in that goal of being 15 pounds lighter.

Now suppose you’re three weeks in and, for whatever reason – a few too many drinks out with friends, general weight fluctuations, getting sick and missing some workouts, whatever, you hop on the scale and you’re back up five or six pounds. Maybe even back to where you started. It’s at this point that you’re most likely to throw in the towel, maybe not even consciously, but when your success is so strongly tied to reaching that goal and you see yourself sliding in the wrong direction that little voice that says, “Dude, just eat the pizza. Go get a box of doughnuts too. It’ll be fine,” gets a lot louder.

The same applies to your actual workouts – if all you’re focused on is the result, not seeing tangible progress destroys your motivation. If you look like you’re going to fail, it’s easier to just quit. Even though quitting’s the best way to guarantee failure.

Compare this with someone who has a purely process focused attitude toward fitness.

This person does it for a love of doing it, rather than solely to achieve an end result. To quote Gerald, “The journey is the destination, man.” Like the EU4 players they don’t care about what happens in the end, win or lose they’re there because they derive their fun from the process.

Ironically here the person who is less directly focused on and invested in that specific goal, losing 15 pounds for example, is the one who would have the easier time reaching it. If you stick to your macros and lift because you want to lift, because you have fun doing it, you’re not going to self-sabotage and quit like the person who slogs through it because they want that end result.

Developing Process Driven Goals

Shifting your focus to process driven goals instead of success dependent ones isn’t that hard externally – it’s a fairly simple process to rework outcome driven goals into process driven ones – but it can be extremely hard to change your mindset to embrace process driven goals more naturally.

The first step in changing a results driven goal into a process driven one is to figure out what processes are going to be most instrumental in making progress toward the result driven goal itself. We’ll go back to fitness as our example again.

If your outcome focused goal is to lose 15 pounds, a piece of the process to achieve that goal may be lifting weights three times per week. That process then becomes your goal – instead of setting out to ‘lose 15 pounds’ you set out to ‘lift three times per week’.

I’ll note here though that one of the finer points of this process is also asking yourself, “What can I do that falls into that category of helpful processes that I also enjoy?”

If you despise lifting weights, then just changing your focus to being process driven may not be enough if the process you choose is lifting weights. You may be better off making your process goal ‘swim three times per week’ or something like that which you particularly enjoy.

It can be very hard to change a long standing opinion on something. While you can grow to enjoy an activity you currently despise, it’s often a grueling process. It’s much easier to figure out something you enjoy that also helps you progress toward your goal than it is to learn to love an activity that you dislike.

In the end, that becomes the crux of it. Once you can find an activity related to your goal that you can wake up in the morning and think, “I really can’t wait to go X,” rather than “Ugh, I have to go Y again,” the easier and more quickly you’ll achieve those goals.

Do you have any suggestions on how to become more process driven or get away from outcome oriented goal setting? Share them with us in the comments!

Conquering Your To-Do Lists Before They Conquer You

Compartmentalized Trays by Roo Reynolds

Compartmentalizing your tasks can make them much, much easier to handle effectively.

Caroline and I are both severe to-do list addicts (Caroline perhaps even a little more than me).

This can be both a blessing, and a curse. On one hand it makes it very easy to organize our tasks and have a good plan going forward for what we need to be working on. It gives a nice shape to conquering our goals, like a step-by-step quest list in a video game, and takes a lot of the uncertainty and nebulousness away from what we’re working on.

On the other hand, it provides an easy platform upon which to load so many tasks that we inevitably break under the pressure of all of it. After all we’re both very ambitious people – giving us a blank sheet to list everything we want to do is like setting us lose in an Indian buffet, we’re going to load our plates up like we haven’t eaten in weeks. As a result our to-do lists crush us and we wind up being even less productive than if we hadn’t bothered with them at all.

So what’s the trick to making effective to-do lists that help you get things done, but don’t grind you into the ground? Compartmentalization.

Compartmentalization and Chunking

Compartmentalization, or chunking as I like to call it because it’s easier to type and reminds me of the Goonies, is basically taking your insurmountable pile of tasks and placing them in easy to conquer compartments or breaking them down into manageable chunks.

This method of managing your to-dos has a range of benefits:

  • Less Procrastination – A common cause for procrastination is the discomfort caused by facing a task that looks utterly daunting. We’ve talked about this a bit when discussing timeboxing, when you have a huge, impossible looking task in front of you it’s all too easy to deflect and put it off until later. It’s a natural expression of pain avoidance and is hard to fight on your own since it’s so deeply wired into our behavior.

    By breaking down those big, scary tasks into smaller, easy to manage chunks it makes it less scary and easy to overcome the urge to procrastinate. It’s easy to put off cleaning the entire garage, but if all you have to do is tidy up a single shelf it’s hard to put off. After all, that’ll take like 5 minutes. When you add up a bunch of those little tasks over a week or two though, suddenly you’ve cleaned the entire garage.

  • Harder to Burn Out – Chunked to-do lists make it much, much easier to avoid burnout for similar reasons to why they help avoid procrastination. Breaking up those enormous looking tasks make it feel a lot more like you’re working on a wide variety of things rather than one big project. Slogging along writing a book may feel like an endless task, driving you to burnout since you don’t feel like you’re making progress. Focusing on completing chapters instead gives you tangible markers of progress and keeps you from feeling overwhelmed.

    Compartmentalization like this also helps you avoid the type of overloading we always fell prey to. Breaking things down into small chunks make it easier to see things in the big picture, and when you can do that it’s far easier to prioritize. What really needs to get done immediately / today and what can wait for a day or two?

  • Improved Energy Management – This ties in a lot with the burn out benefits above. I’ve talked in the past about how energy management can be a lot more important than time management. We all get 24 hours, and it’s great to try to spend them efficiently, but if you feel like shit all day your best laid plans gang aft agley.

    Chunked lists make it easy to schedule in time to relax and recharge without feeling like you’re being lazy or slacking off. You know you’ve gotten everything you needed to get done completed, and at the same time have plenty of time to recharge and tackle the next day fully energized and guilt free.

Weekly/Daily Lists – My Favorite Method for Chunking

While there are a lot of different options for ways to chunk up or compartmentalize your to-do lists (and I encourage you to play with others to see what you like) I am personally very fond of the Weekly/Daily list division.

I’ve found that in addition to all of the general benefits listed above, Weekly/Daily lists also help me be far more proactive about my tasks by providing me with a small glimpse at the bigger picture. Trying to cram everything on only a daily to-do list always made me myopic and short-sighted – having an entire week to play with gives me the perspective to arrange things out ahead of time and further avoid my tendency to overload myself.

I’ve also found that keeping the division at days and weeks rather than further out, like having a monthly to-do list for example, is short enough to not fall victim too much to Parkinson’s law while still being long enough to give me the freedom to strategize my tasks out into the future.

So how do you use a Weekly/Daily list?

Either at the end of the week, or at the beginning of the next if you prefer that more from a psychological standpoint, list out all of the things that you need to get done in the coming week. In general, I prefer to prioritize larger projects here over smaller things, but there’s totally a place for little to-dos like ‘mow the lawn’ or ‘buy groceries’.

At the end of each night, or again first thing in the morning if you prefer, write down all of the things you need to get done the next day (or that day if you’re the morning planner type). These can be either smaller chunks of the larger weekly tasks, (e.g., if a task for this week is write five articles then a daily chunk of that task might be write one article, or come up with five article ideas, etc.) or individual small tasks that needn’t be chunked like mowing the lawn.

You focus only on your daily list each day, and when you’ve finished it you’re done. You can spend the rest of the day relaxing.

Tips For Getting the Most Out of a Weekly/Daily List

While it’s a fairly easy process to build and use weekly/daily lists, I’ve found in my time experimenting with them that there are some finer points that make them more useful and make the whole process a little easier.

  • Monthly Reviews – Like I noted above, having a monthly to-do list on top of a weekly & daily one tends to wind up being more problematic than helpful. Aside from encouraging falling into Parkinson’s law it makes it easier to procrastinate, and sometimes makes it harder to focus in on the things that are really important in the immediate sense. That being said, looking out a month ahead can give the benefit of having a clear long term goal to work toward.

    The solution is to have a single monthly review day, similar to a severely pared down version of our annual review process. On your monthly review day you take a retrospective look at the previous month, figure out what went well and what didn’t, and then set some lose targets for the following month to serve as a foundation or inspiration for your weekly lists.

  • Avoid Scope Creep – If you’ve never worked in an industry like web or software design, scope creep is when you’re nearly finished with a project for a client and they send you the dreaded, “Hey, could we also do x,y,z?” Your two week project becomes a three week project, then a four, and a five, and so on.

    When it comes to weekly/daily lists, avoiding scope creep means not allowing yourself to add anything to your daily lists on that day. If you finish all your day’s work before noon, that’s it. Don’t add anything else. The minute you give in to the urge to add just a couple more things the sooner you’ll be building an infinite to-do list again, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid. There will be days when you need to make adjustments, but it should only be for things that are extremely urgent or emergencies. If you finish your list, it’s time to relax.

  • Use a Today/Tomorrow Board – Sometimes things do need to get pushed back, either because something else came up or you just over-scheduled yourself. I like to manage this process by keeping my daily lists on what I call my Today/Tomorrow Board.

    My Today/Tomorrow Board is just a small marker-board that I have divided in half horizontally. In both the top and bottom sections I’ve written ‘Today’ and ‘Tomorrow’ in one of the corners. In one box I have a little mark next to ‘Today’ and in the other box next to ‘Tomorrow’.

    In the half with ‘Today’ ticked, I write my daily list for that day. In the other box, ticked ‘Tomorrow’, I write the next day’s tasks as I think of them. Then when the day’s finished, I can move any tasks I haven’t scratched off my list down to the ‘Tomorrow’ section as well as whatever else I determine I need to do the next day. The next day I just erase my tick marks and switch them, so yesterday’s ‘Tomorrow’ box becomes today’s ‘Today’ box and the other the new ‘Tomorrow’ box.

    While there are certainly other ways to manage things like this, I’ve found this system works particularly well for me since it’s always sitting on my desk. I can glance up and get a quick snapshot of what else I have to work on for the day, as well as what I’ll be working on tomorrow. It also makes it easy for me, when I remember something spur of the moment that need to get done, to add it quickly to my tomorrow list before I forget.

  • Don’t Drift from Your Daily List – Lastly, it’s extremely important not to let yourself lose focus on your daily list, the things you have set to complete today. It can be tempting to start thinking about the rest of the week, what other things need to get done, etc. Once you do this though it’s easy to completely drift away from what you actually need to be doing – the things on that day’s list.

    Once you’ve chunked everything out, forget that everything exists except for that day’s list. Nothing should occupy your concern except for the things you’ve laid on the table before you for that day. Personally, having my Today/Tomorrow Board has been a big help on this front for me as well, as it’s psychologically comforting to me to being to place something on the ‘Tomorrow’ list and say “Ok, it’s written down for tomorrow, I know it will get done then, I can forget about it.”

Finding What Works for You

These methods for compartmentalization are my personal favorites, and I’ve gotten a lot of benefit out of them, but everyone works a little differently. I strongly encourage you to try them out along with some other methods to see what fits your personality and work style best.

If you’ve found any others you particularly like, or discovered any other tips for making the weekly/daily lists even more effective, leave a comment and share with everyone! It always helps to hear about other people’s experiences.

Photo Credit: Roo Reynolds