5 Quick Ways to Combat Procrastination

Stop Procrastinating by Lynn Friedmen

Sometimes a little bit of procrastination isn’t a bad thing. It can be a good way to clear your head and come back to something with a new viewpoint or to hop over to work on another task for a while.

If you spend hours every day trying to combat procrastination though, that’s a problem.

When you can’t seem to get anything done because you’re always getting distracted, putting things off, and avoiding the tasks you need done the most in favor of other things your ability to be productive and successful plummets. If that’s a problem you face often, a few of these quick tactics to get yourself back on a productive track might be just what you need.

Changing Your Mindset

Before we get into the meat of how to actually combat procrastination, I wanted to take a second to talk about how we think about procrastination first.

The single worst part about procrastination is the way essentially everyone beats themselves up for it after it happens. Almost universally after a person recognizes they’ve procrastinated on something they start feeling bad. They kick themselves for wasting so much time. They wonder what’s wrong with them that they couldn’t just buckle down and get the work done. They feel ashamed over their procrastination, which can just drive them into feeling depressed and procrastinating more, which leads to even more procrastination and less productivity.

Stopping that reaction is the first step.

Even though this is an article on how to combat procrastination, and it’s goal is to help you stop procrastinating, I still want you know it’s okay to procrastinate.

Procrastination is a natural part of the work process. Frequently it’s the result of external factors anyway – boredom or dissatisfaction over repetitive uninspiring work, nebulous or too far-off deadlines, or any number of other things.

Not wanting to do the work in front of you is a valid feeling and you should acknowledge it, and accept it, and not beat yourself up for it. It’s far better to say to yourself, “Okay, I’ve been totally procrastinating on [X Project]. What’s been making it so hard to work on it?” than it is to say to yourself, “Ugh, I’ve procrastinated so much on [X Project]. I’ll never get it done. I’m so useless.”

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s look at those five quick ways to combat procrastination I promised.

1. Divide and Conquer

This is easily my favorite tactic so I made it first. I’ve talked in other articles like our intro to Timeboxing on breaking things up into manageable chunks and it’s a principle I find myself applying all over the place.

Two frequent causes for procrastination are the lack of a concrete goal/deadline, and a task being so overwhelming it’s daunting to even think about starting to tackle it. Breaking a task up into smaller more manageable pieces solves both of these issues.

When it comes to a lack of a goal or nebulous deadline, chunking the task allows you to set personal goals and deadlines to lead up to completion of the final project. Imagine your personal goal is to write a novel by the end of the year. Where do you start? There are so many things that need to get done to write a novel it can leave you feel aimless in terms of what you should do next. On top of that it’s really easy to tell yourself you’ve got all year, what’s the difference if you start tomorrow instead of today?

If instead you break that goal up and say you’re going to write one chapter a month, or even further to 2500 words per day, then you have both a clearly defined goal to work toward and a much closer deadline. It’s easier to see the end of the day or end of the month fast approaching than it is the end of the year.

This also makes a huge task less daunting. Writing a whole novel can feel like such a monumental task you just can’t muster the motivation to get started. An 80,000 word novel divided into a year is just 220 or so words per day. That’s a little less than a printed page of writing per day, I’ve already written double that to get to this point in the article. When a task is that small (do you really not have ten minutes to spend today to wind up with a novel in a year?) it’s hard to find reasons to justify putting it off.

2. Discuss Your Project With Others

Another common source of procrastination I see is a feeling of being stuck, of not knowing where to go next on a project or task even when you have a well-defined goal.

Caroline and I do a lot of writing, so I see this most within the sphere of creative pursuits, but it applies elsewhere as well. Sometimes when you’re faced with a task there are so many moving parts or things that you need to consider it feels so much easier to just let it go and focus on something else.

This often personally expresses itself for the two of us in fiction writing. We’ll hit a point in a story where we know what we want to happen next (we both heavily outline our stories in advance, something we’ll talk about in a minute) but we don’t completely know how to get there. As a result we pop over to Facebook, or Reddit, or remember that we wanted to get some guitar practice in or need to do a load of laundry. The writing never gets done, and when we come back to it we really haven’t thought it through and we’re just stuck in the same place we were before.

The best solution we’ve found for this is to discuss whatever it is we’re working on at that moment with each other. Either by saying, “Hey I’m stuck, will you talk this through with me?” or by one of us seeing that the other is starting to drift into procrastinating and starting to ask questions about the story – “What’s going on right now? What’s going to happen next? Why would so-and-so do that?” etc.

Almost without fail something about talking it over with someone else helps get over those (likely self-imposed) mental blocks put in place as a result of thinking of it as ‘work’. You can do this with all sorts of work, not just creative stuff. Grab a co-worker, a friend, a family member, whoever is handy and will care enough to talk the project over with you and ask if they have ten minutes to discuss it.

Even if you don’t necessarily get enough help with it to get you past the problem, it’s usually enough to get your brain refocused and ready to tackle it again rather than slacking off.

3. Make an Outline

This comes back to problem of procrastinating due to feeling lost. In a sense, this method to combat procrastination could even be considered an offshoot of number one up there.

Either way, outlines and lists are an excellent way to make something that feels directionless into something with a very clear progression from one thing to the next. On top of that there’s something about lists that human brains seem to really like. Part of that is why it’s so popular to structure articles like I’ve structured this one – as a list.

Outlines and lists make things easier to plan, easier to understand, easier to work with and restructure if necessary. It also helps you both to better view the project on a big-picture level and to take that big-picture view and deconstruct everything like we discussed in the first tactic in order to make things more manageable.

Even if you’re someone who prefers to fly by the seat of their pants when it comes to projects, trying to make a quick outline next time you start drifting into procrastination territory can make a big difference.

4. Offer a Reward

At our core we are still simple biological creatures (assuming any biological thing can be called simple) and we follow most of the basic patterns and processes that other biological creatures follow. One of the biggest of these is the reward response.

Rewards are a big motivator.

It can seem kind of cheap to essentially bribe yourself into getting something done, but when it comes down to it providing or withholding a reword based on whether or not you completed what you set out to do can be an extremely powerful tool to get you back to work. This reward can be as simple as a literal food treat, some ice cream or going out to dinner someplace you love, or it can be something else you want. If you’ve been daydreaming about going hiking or playing a new game that just came out, then tell yourself you can do it as soon as you finish whatever it is you’re struggling to work on.

You may think that would encourage you to just fly through your work to get to your reward, which might be true, but that’s okay. The most important thing is that it gets you to do something a little productive rather than doing things that aren’t productive at all.

Which brings us to the last one.

5. Embrace Imperfection

Perfectionism is a parent of procrastination. It is the sworn enemy of ‘finished’. To best combat procrastination then, we need to avoid giving in to perfectionist urges.

Again this might show itself more strongly in creative pursuits, but it’s present in some degree in any and every kind of work. When you give in to the idea that you have to make whatever it is you’re working on completely perfect, you are guaranteeing that you will never be finished with it. If you’re never going to be finished with it, you’re inevitably going to start avoiding it.

Instead of focusing so firmly on the ideal of finishing something as perfectly as you possibly can, get comfortable with resetting your goals to be based around getting it done – in whatever state it’s in – and then revising things after the fact.

If you struggle often with perfectionism fueled procrastination you can even make it a personal challenge to yourself to finish a task or project at the minimum viable level and then go back through and refine it into something more polished when you’re done. Productivity challenges like NaNoWriMo are built entirely around this premise. No one expects you when writing an entire novel in a single month to produce a great work. They expect it to be shit. It will be.

It will be finished though.

That’s the real crux of it. Once it’s finished, it’s easy to go back and turn it into something you can be proud of that everyone loves.

These are just five easy little tactics you can start using to combat procrastination, but it’s definitely not anywhere close to exhaustive. If you have any tactics you find effective for getting back to work share them with us in the comments. Let us know as well if you’ve had any luck with any of these tips or if you’ve struggled with them.

Photo Credit: Lynn Friedman

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

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

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

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