The 5 Key Elements for Successful Fat Loss

Bathroom Scale by Mason Masteka

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

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

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

It goes on and on.

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

Fat Loss the 80/20 Way

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

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

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

1. Maintain an Overall Long Term Calorie Deficit

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

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

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

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

2. Focus on Whole, Nutritious, Unprocessed Foods

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

Technically, they’re right.

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

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

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

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

3. Prioritize Long Term Adherence

Which brings us to number three. Adherence.

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

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

For life.

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

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

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

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

4. Exercise

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

But why make it harder on yourself?

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

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

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

5. Focus on Processes Instead of Results

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

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

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

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

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

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

Process focus will always outperform result focus.

Going on from There

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

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

Photo Credit: Mason Masteka

6 Ways to Overcome Procrastination

Procrastination by Pete Zarria

At some point or another, everyone has procrastinated. Whether there is a big project to complete, or a new habit you’re trying to build like practice a language or exercising, procrastination has gotten the best of all of us.

Nobody is immune, but it can be beaten.

Procrastination is, more often than not, us taking the easiest possible route. We’re wired to be like this – if we weren’t naturally discouraged from doing challenging tasks everyone would all be super fit, speak a dozen languages and being productive would be our default.

But there are small, easy methods you can employ to reduce the difficulty of challenging tasks and make being productive your default. Today, we present to you six of our favorite methods to beat procrastination and accomplish our goals more often:

1. Find Your Why

Why do you want or need to do this task in the first place? What will be the reward for completing it?

Sometimes we lose sight of why we took on a habit or project in the first place, so it’s important to remind ourselves what motivated us in the first place.

Are you preparing for a race? Want to connect with your German friends on a deeper level?

2. Make it Ridiculously Easy to Comply

Want to go to the gym every morning? Then pack your gym bag before you go to bed and set it either next to your bed or next to the door on our way out. Learning a language? Just practice for ten minutes. And make it easy to practice – have your flashcards ready and in a place where they will be in your way when you go to do another task, like leaving them on your keyboard. If you have a digital app you like, such as Memrise, do it while you wait for a program to load or while you wait for your morning coffee. Practicing an instrument? Leave it out. Set up a place for it outside of its case where it will be safe but easy to grab and highly visible.

The point is, do whatever you can to make complying as easy as possible and eliminate any potential deterrents. You only have so much willpower, when that starts to run out it is easy to put things off for another day.

3. Have a Friend Help Keep You Accountable

It’s easy to explain away to yourself why you didn’t do that thing you were supposed to do, it’s a lot harder (and embarrassing) to have to admit to a friend that you didn’t do that thing.

Find a trusted friend and tell them your objective and agree to do something embarrassing or to donate some cash to an organization you dislike if you fail to meet your goals. They’ll help encourage you and keep you on track, and you’ll have even more reason not to put that thing off.

Bonus points if your friend joins you in your goal. Everything is better with a friend.

4. Set Up Reminders

For certain things, it’s easy to have them set up in a place where they are in your way. It’s easier to remember to do a thing when it’s often in your way or in your line of vision. But for certain tasks this isn’t exactly possible.

For those things, set up reminders. Stick post-it notes in places you frequently look (like along the sides of your computer monitor) and reminders on your phone at ideal times to do this task.

5. Daily Practice

Overcoming procrastination is akin to getting rid of a bad habit and building a new, better habit. To beat procrastination, it requires daily practice. Starting easy, just shoot for 5-10 minutes per day of completing the task. After a week, increase the time a little, but not too much so it wont overwhelm you.

To keep track of your progress, get out a sheet of paper and make a chart of 7 columns and 4 rows. For each day you hit your minimum required for your task, you get a nice big green circle on that day. Post this chart somewhere highly visible, so that you will see it often. Once it’s posted and you’ve started, don’t break your chain! No matter what, make sure that your daily minimum is met.

The chart will serve in part to remind you to keep on track, and part as a point of pride – be proud of your successes!

6. Do the Hardest Part First

More often than not, the hardest task is the one we need to do most. Commit just to doing that hard thing. Break it down into smaller, more manageable chunks and then knock that sucker out.

By comparison, everything else afterward will feel like a breeze to complete.

Getting the big, hard task done will likely not only require the most willpower to get done, which is why you should tackle it first and not last, but it will also serve as a powerful boost in momentum once it’s complete.

So complete that really hard task first thing and make today a successful day. Then, ride the motivational momentum through the rest of your day.

Bonus: 7. Time Box Your Goal

Time boxing is a powerful and easy to implement method to get things done whether you really want to do them or not, and as a result becomes a huge source of productivity, momentum and creativity.

Get a timer, either on your phone or a physical timer (we prefer an egg timer and to just leave our phones completely alone) and set a time limit for doing your task. You will spend ONLY that time doing ONLY that task. Set a reasonable amount of time – enough to get the task done but not so much that you are completely demotivated to even begin. Commit so that once that timer starts, you get immediately to work. No distractions, just the task. As soon as the timer goes off, you are done. Drop it and leave it. You are completely off the hook from this task! You’ve officially met your minimum required work, so get up and go do something completely different. Get a glass of water or go for a short stroll. Bask in your success.

Was this article helpful? What methods have you tried, and what was your experience? Let us know in the comments below!

Photo Credit: Pete Zarria

Stop Outsourcing Your Purpose in Life

Outsourced Sewer by Ed Yourton

Some things should definitely not be outsourced.

Just about everyone would say they want to find their purpose in life.

Sites like LifeHacker, TinyBuddha and the like are full of articles on it, books like The Purpose Driven Life consistently top the sales charts in the relevant categories – everybody seems to be desperately trying to figure out the plan that’s been laid out for them.

I think they’re completely missing the point.

Outsourcing Your Purpose

Nearly all of the advice given on the topic of life purpose is based around the idea of outsourcing your meaning in life. The language is always structured around the concept of ‘finding’. It’s always about ‘finding’ your life’s meaning, ‘discovering’ your purpose in life. The idea from the outset is always that your purpose in life is out there, pre-determined, and it’s your job to figure out what it is.

When we’re talking about material coming from authors with a religious bent, like the previously mentioned best selling The Purpose Driven Life it’s a little more understandable – no less awful, but understandable. Even from sources not overtly religious the topic is often couched in the language of pseudo-scientific, spiritual woo.

The general theme of it is that you have some purpose in life (determined by some deity, the universe, or whatever) and you need to find it or figure out what it is. Your agency in the matter is largely removed. The determination has been made and it’s your job to divine whatever result has been chosen for you and follow it. It’s destiny.

We’ll leave out for the moment my position of methodological naturalism and the fact that I’m an atheist. Obviously, given the fact that I see no evidence to convince me of the existence of souls, spirits, or any gods, the idea of some ‘higher power’ handing down anyone’s purpose in life is illogical to me. I’m going to humor the notion for a moment though to make a point.

Let’s assume that there is sufficient evidence for some higher power. I still can’t fathom why people can’t see how awful it would be for said higher power to be assigning people their purposes in life. What if said higher power assigns you a purpose in life you don’t care for? What if your parents determined your career and you had no option of changing? What if you lived in a strict caste system? This idea of having your purpose chosen from you from birth may be comforting to some in the sense that it takes a measure of responsibility off your shoulders, but when you stop to really consider the implications it’s awful.

You could certainly argue that your deity of choice would never make someone’s life purpose something they didn’t love, or that loving it is the nature of your life’s purpose, which is fine if we’re getting into the New Agey spiritual stuff. It’s easy to point to things like The Purpose Driven Life to show that some people think you may be assigned a purpose you don’t necessarily like. I’m not going to argue the theology of it.

Even if I grant that premise, I can’t guarantee that there’s anything I will love doing for my entire life. Tastes and opinions change, and while some may have something they can do for the rest of their life with satisfaction I cannot claim that everyone has something that fills that category for them.

So higher power or not, when we talk about ‘finding’ purpose or meaning in life it robs us of the agency of choice. It sets us up to think that our lot in life has been determined, that the rails have been laid and all we’re doing now is trying to find the right set to follow. It is outsourcing the determination of our purpose in life to en entity outside of ourselves – even if that entity doesn’t actually exist.

I find that notion abhorrent.

Choose Your Own Purpose

Life has no inherent meaning.

What’s so wrong with that?

We live in an unthinking, uncaring universe. There is no larger reason why you exist. There was no purpose for which you were born. You have no cosmic significance. Disabuse yourself of this idea that you are special or important in any way that isn’t manufactured. This is a very entrenched idea societally, so I’ll say it one more time:

There is no inherent meaning of life.

That’s a great thing, because it leads to two subsequent conclusions. The first is that if there is no inherent meaning to life, if there was no purpose for which you were born and no destiny for you to fulfill, it means that all meaning and purpose that there is in life is purely constructed – manufactured by ourselves and others. The second, which follows from that, is that if all meaning in life is manufactured rather than pre-determined we get to choose our own purpose in life.

Your purpose in life can be absolutely anything at all. You can choose to make whatever you want your purpose in life – make not find – and you can change it whenever you want. You could have a new purpose in life every year if you wanted. It’s entirely up to you to determine.

Why is this distinction important?

I’ve met a lot of people and read the accounts of even more who are entrenched in this idea of having some higher purpose in life that they need to find in order to be happy. Even the non-spiritual types express it as if they’re searching for some eureka moment where they hit on something that they feel like they could devote their life to in order to be happy.

Even though they don’t seem to recognize it as a relinquishment of control I see it drive people crazy. They start beating themselves up or begin to get downtrodden and depressed over the fact that they can’t seem to find this one magical thing they were ‘meant’ to do in life. They feel like until they find this one magical thing to give their life purpose they’re living an empty, pointless existence.

The whole time they’re excoriating themselves over their inability to figure out their purpose, they’re completely blind to the fact that they have the power to choose their own purpose. As soon as you realize that you and you alone have the power to create meaning in your own life it frees and empowers you to take charge of things.

Of course, once you come to this realization you may still have some trouble developing the self-awareness to determine what things actually make you happy right now for you to pursue. That’s fine. That’s a topic deserving of an article all of it’s own. Several, actually.

The important thing for now is to cultivate the understanding that your purpose in life is whatever you make it, whatever you choose it to be.

Have anything you’d like to add? Do you disagree entirely and think we all have some set purpose from birth? Let us know in the comments!

Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon

A Basic Model for Personal Development

Framework by Markus Stöber

It’s important to have the right framework in place for successful personal development.

Personal development is something we talk about a lot here – primarily because the one thing I know for certain that everyone has and has control over is themselves. No matter what other variables there may be, I know for certain (at least until someone develops serious A.I. anyway) that anyone reading this has a self that they can improve.

To this end we tend to focus on more ‘high level’ or specific aspects of personal development. I wanted to reverse that a bit and look at the bigger picture structure most successful personal development follow. I know as a self-defense instructor how important it is to go back and refine the basics, so I’d like to go back and refine the basics of personal development.

The Foundational Model for Successful Personal Development

Nearly all successful personal development starts with the same foundational structure. Technically it’s the same basic structure for successful completion of goals, since in the end succeeding in personal development is just successfully achieving a bunch of goals that all, in some way, improve you or your life.

That basic foundational structure follows a three step pattern: Identify Your Targets, Determine Available Actions, Test and Review.

That’s it.

Well, ok, that’s not totally it. We’ve written a lot on here about all the minutiae that can go into all of those individual steps and different applications and strategies for different goals and all these other finer details. Boiled down to it’s essence though all those other things we tweak and refine to optimize things are just finishing touches. If we’re building a house those things are the paints, the trim, the lighting. The three part structure above is the foundation and the frame.

You can live in a house with ugly paint much easier than you can in a house with a badly poured foundation and rotting frame.

So what are these three items and how do we make sure they’re in place when we’re setting up our foundations?

Identifying Your Targets

You could also call this ‘determining your goals’ if you like, although I find that for personal development thinking of it as target areas is a bit easier.

At this stage you’re figuring out what area you want to improve in. The easiest thing is to just list them out in a broad sense first by larger category. Some common areas might be Health, Relationships, Finance, Learning, etc. Though they can be more specific if you have something specific that plays a large part in your personal development, a writer might list Writing, an aspiring musician might list Music, someone who just really loves cooking might list Cooking. You get the idea.

You’ll notice, especially if you’re a good goal-setter, that these violate the general rules of proper goal setting in that they are far too vague and non-specific. That’s intentional. For personal development I’m not so worried about very specific goals, just general areas for betterment. While a good goal might be ‘Lose 5 Pounds by the End of Next Month’ it lacks the continuous progressive feel we’re aiming for here. You’ll meet that goal and have to make another one, whereas identifying targets for personal growth should only need to be done once.

Once you’ve identified them you can also prioritize them, especially if you’ve found yourself with a very long list. Doing so will help you figure out where to invest the most energy for the next step and help you avoid burning yourself out or overextending yourself.

Determine Available Actions

Now that you’ve got your list of target areas for personal development, it’s time to figure out what to do about them.

Determining available actions is exactly what it sounds like. Look over your list of target areas you wish to improve in and figure out a single action you can take in each that will lead to personal development in that area. When doing this, try to keep in mind which of your target areas were most important to you so that you can choose actions for those areas that are more demanding and assign less demanding actions to the target areas that are of lower value to you.

For example, let’s say a person listed Health, Finance, Learning, and Writing as their target areas in descending order of importance to them. The next step would be to figure out one single action for each that will make an improvement in that area. Since Health is the most important target area the action chosen for it can require a much larger personal investment than Writing, which is the least important to this person.

For Health they may decide to begin lifting weights three times a week – an action which requires a fairly large investment in terms of energy and dedication. For Finance they choose to create and start keeping a budget, Learning they commit to reading a single short article each day on various topics, and for Writing they will write an extra 250 words per day – a very minimal investment in terms of energy assuming they already write daily.

The idea here is both to fill in each target area with a definite, concrete action to take and also to ensure that you’re not going to totally overwhelm yourself. Having a single action to focus on keeps you from falling into the paralysis of having too many choices to make or options to worry about. You have one thing to focus on and can forget everything else. Prioritizing your actions around which target areas for personal growth are most important keeps you from grinding yourself into the ground with it.

Imagine if that person committed to lifting three times per week, starting a side business, reading two full non-fiction books per month and writing an extra 2,000 words per day. Some people might be able to pull that off, most people would get a week or two in and then collapse under the pressure.

The next and final step is to actually go out and do the things you’ve committed yourself to.

Testing and Reviewing

The very final step, if you can really call it that since this is largely a cyclical process, is to test and review the actions you’ve chosen.

What that means is that you’ll implement all of the available actions you chose in the last step, carry on with them long enough to determine their overall efficacy, and then review what went well with those actions and your implementation of them and what went poorly.

After you’ve reflected on these things, you can go back to step two and either determine additional available actions to improve on your chosen target areas, or you can further refine the ones you’ve chosen.

There are a couple things to keep in mind during this process. The first is that you make sure to allow yourself ample time to truly gauge the efficacy of the actions you’ve chosen. Using the Health example from the previous section, if you commit to lifting weights three times per week, but then determine after two weeks of lifting that it doesn’t seem to be working and you give up – you’ve not really properly evaluated its efficacy. Some things, like a lifting program, may take a month or two to properly evaluate. Make sure you know what a reasonable period is for expecting discernible results.

Another aspect to keep in mind is adherence.

On one hand, if you showed poor adherence to an action item and didn’t see any results that doesn’t necessarily mean that the particular action itself is ineffective. If you decide to lift three times per week and after two months see no results, but only actually lifted an average of one to two times per week or less because you couldn’t stick to it, that doesn’t mean that particular lifting program is ineffective.

On the other hand, while it may not be evidentiary of the inefficacy of that particular action, it may be indicative of either a larger problem in terms of the work load you’ve taken on, your level of discipline and ability to handle multiple commitments, or the amount and investment level of action items you chose in the second step.

If you can’t stick to any of the action items you’ve committed yourself to, then you have a larger overall problem to fix and might need to go back and choose actions for everything that are less taxing and require less of a personal investment to stick to.

Remember – a tiny action reliably performed always has a greater effect than an enormous action performed sporadically.

Once you’ve tested and reviewed, you can repeat the process and either build upon those actions or re-work things and choose new ones as the situation warrants.

As long as you’ve got this framework down, you’ve got the basic tools for successful personal development. Choose where you want to improve, determine a concrete action to take that will enact improvement in each area, then follow through with that action until you can evaluate its impact and repeat the process. There are certainly other finer details to consider, but as long as you’ve got this process down you’ve got a well-laid foundation to build the rest on top of.

Have anything you’d like to add to the process? Any tips or suggestions for ways to make it better, or problems you’ve run into? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Markus Stöber

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

Page 1 of 3412345...102030...Last »