Suits and Pajamas: Dressing For Productivity


It is a fine Tuesday morning, and Joe Shmoe has a day where he has no scheduled obligations until after 12:00 pm. His alarm wakes him up at 8:00, and, after a period involving multiple uses of the “snooze button,” he finally rolls out of bed close to 9:00. Still in his pajamas, his plan was to check his email, eat breakfast, and get straight to work on some assignments. Fast forward to 11:30 where Joe has realized that clicking on links in emails can be quite dangerous and is only just starting to take out his work. He then gets a solid 15 minutes in before he breaks to start preparing lunch.

I am Joe Shmoe. I’m sure that most you are too.

This type of situation happens to all of us upon occasion (some more frequently than others). There are many approaches one could take to try and head off this behavior, but one of the most effective is also one of the easiest: before you do anything else in the morning, make sure to get dressed. The more professionally so the better. This works for two, very interrelated, reasons:

  1. Your own self image at any point in time is greatly affected by your dress.
  2. You are more likely to be productive when your brain recognizes a productive environment.

In this blog post, Judith Rasband discusses how when what you wear is not congruent with your environment, your own comfort levels are adversely affected. She even recommends testing this yourself by going out one time dressed completely inappropriately for the occasion (e.g. wear a suit to a barbecue, gym a stained shirt to the office, etc.). I myself have taken this sort of experimenting to the extreme on multiple occasions with some very pronounced results.

The phrase “Dress for Success” is often bandied around, but, unlike many sayings, this one is 100% true.

The specifics of what you wear can certainly affect the efficacy of this technique, and soon I will be publishing a series of posts on the simple aspects of dressing properly, but until then know that regardless of what it is that you put on as long as you are used to associating that dress witha  productive mindset it will still provide a marked boost in your productivity.

Memory Training Series #1: The Fundamentals

Photo: Mike Behnken
Dull Field
Photo: Mike Behnken - edited

If you had seen each of the above two photos separately amongst a collection of pictures, which one would you remember more clearly?

The obvious answer is the one on the left. Why? Because it is more vivid. The colors are popping out of the page. You can almost imagine running barefoot through those verdant fields, feeling the warmth of the sun on your face, the soft soil beneath your feet, and the light kiss of a breeze rustling through your hair.

I am now willing to bet that you will remember that picture for a long time after reading this article.

The Key to Making Memories Last

Simply put: utilize your senses. The more the better.

There was a study conducted a while back where participants were shown a series of pictures, each paired with a completely unrelated smell. They were then told to try and form a mental link between the picture and the smell. So, for example, if a picture of a dog was presented with the smell of chocolate, they would try to imagine a dog swimming in a river of chocolate.

Later, when shown a random sequence of images, whenever a linked picture came up the participants were shown to have brain activity in the regions of the hippocampus related to the sense of smell. This activity was not present for brand new pictures.

This study demonstrates a fact that I am sure everyone has realized on some level: the way the brain stores memories is intrinsically linked to our five (or six) senses.

I bet that at some point or other you have tried to memorize something via rote. Be it a name, a phone number, an address, or a useless factoid for a history class, you ended up repeating it over and over again to yourself until you reached a point where (you hoped) it would stick.

Yes, this can work. I myself memorized the first 100 digits of pi like that while bored one time in high school. This is, however, one of the slowest, least effective, and shortest lasting methods for remembering anything.

The Technique

The essence of the technique I am about to describe is to take whatever piece of information you want to remember and build around it a vivid sensory scene in your mind.

Lets say that you just met your brother’s fiancé, were told that her name was Joy Greenspan, and that it would be very embarrassing if you didn’t remember this fact at the family dinner later that night.

Step 1: Ask yourself what this name instantly brings to mind.

When I heard the name Joy Greenspan my first thought was of happiness and laughter for the first name and a wide green expanse for the last.

Step 2: Use these associations to build a scene in your mind that includes the subject.

Imagine Joy skipping across a green meadow, a broad smile on her face, periodically breaking out into laughter or song.

Step 3: Make it interesting

The stranger, funnier, more exotic the scene the more likely you are to remember it. Try and doctor each scene to stand out as much as possible. In this case, I changed “Joy skipping and laughing through a meadow” to “Joy skipping and laughing through a meadow until suddenly she trips and falls, slamming her stomach on a rock, then turning green and vomiting all over the hillside.”

Yes, this may seem a bit harsh, but it’s actually one of my tamer memory scenes. Remember, nobody has to know about this but yourself, so feel free to make it as offensive, shocking, or crude as you like. In fact, the more so the better.

It also helps if you can somehow link it back to what you are trying to remember. In this case, I built it the way I did by imagining her joy getting cut off and turning green. This forms yet another link between the first and last names.

Step 4: Add in as much sensory data as possible

Go over each part of your scene and try to add in sensory depth. For our example, imagine how her hair looks blowing in the wind, the sun on her face. Hear the crystalline notes of her laughter on the wind and smell the freshly cut grass. Imagine the sudden change when she trips: the sound of her retching across the grass and the rancid stench of her bile. Then contrast this in your mind to the joy of moments prior.

With practice, this whole process should only take you a couple of seconds, and can be applied to almost every aspect of life.

Even if you are not building a completely separate scene, whenever you want to remember something try linking it in with as many senses as you can. You many be surprised by the results.

Doing this can get a bit cumbersome for large strings of information, but there are some very simple techniques that will make those quite manageable as well (to be covered in a future post).

How to Break a Bad Habit: Start a Better One in its Place

Hands Cracking Knuckles

“Don’t crack your knuckles! You’ll end up with arthritis!”

I’ve long since lost count of how many times I heard some version of this phrase while growing up. I don’t even know if it’s a true statement. For every study or article that I’ve read pointing in one direction, another seems to show up contradicting it. But never have I seen a single study saying that claims cracking your knuckles is beneficial. So I decided to try and kick the habit.

The Problem

Eliminating bad habits is difficult.

As a general rule, it is easier to remember to do something than to stop doing something. This is because the way your brain works is through triggers.

  • You hear an alarm and remember to take out the trash.
  • You open up the door and instantly check for your keys.
  • A scent of hot dogs on the breeze reminds you that you were supposed to be eating at the in-laws for dinner.

In each of these cases, something happens that triggers a response in your brain, reminding you to do something.

Bad habits work in a completely opposite fashion. They are things that you do without thought. This means that while you usually only remember not to do something at the trigger, here the trigger is you having already done it. This is why they can be so difficult to eliminate.

The Solution: Positive Overlap

In her blog over at Snack Girl, Lisa Cain talks about the NoFizz challenge. This is a general challenge for people to start drinking water instead of soda. She quotes Bobby DeMuro, the executive director of NoFizz Charlotte, saying how when they started by just telling people what to avoid soda, it didn’t work so well. But, as soon as they started telling people to drink 60 oz of water instead, response skyrocketed.

This is an excellent example of a broad technique for eliminating bad habits. Rather than just deciding to stop doing something, find a positive action that you can do in its place. In the NoFizz challenge, that positive action is to drink water. For this positive action, it is easy to remind yourself to do it with simple triggers such  as leaving three water bottles spread around your house in obvious locations. Then, once you are drinking the water, that in itself reminds you of your goal to not drink soda while at the same time quenching your thirst and thus actually reducing your desire to drink it.

For some habits, finding an action with a suitable positive overlap can be more difficult.

When I was trying to stop cracking my knuckles, I first stopped to think: “why do I crack them in the first place?” I decided that it was because I tend to get restless and need to always be doing something with my hands. Working off of this, I decided to start carrying around a little stress ball, and any time I started to fidget i would just pull it out and start squeezing.

Yes, there were still times where I would catch myself cracking my knuckles. Once I trained myself to really start using the ball, however, not only did it remind me about my knuckles whenever I was using it, but it’s amazing how much harder it is to crack your knuckles with a ball in your hand.

And so I was able to kick the habit. And build up my forearm in the process.

To recap:
  1. Think about what caused the bait in the first place.
  2. Come up with some action that will both make performing the bad habit difficult and constantly remind you not to do it.
  3. Use triggers to train yourself to do whatever action you decided upon.

2 Quick Tricks For Watching Your Weight – Combating Your Sweet-Tooth

The two primary factors involved in gaining weight are lack of exercise and an unhealthy diet. The former takes a lot of physical effort and a modicum of mental effort, the latter takes a larger amount of mental effort but essentially no physical. Physical effort is unavoidable, but mental effort can be extremely variable based on the individual and the techniques used. T

An unhealthy die usually stems from either A. unhealthy meals and / or B. too much supplemental junk food. Adjusting your meals really doesn’t take too much willpower, just an initial expenditure of effort in figuring out how to adjust your meal content. Limiting junk-food intake, however, can be very difficult, especially for those like myself who are cursed with a strong sweet-tooth.

Here are two simple techniques that will greatly reduce the level of willpower needed to control your junkfood intake: (and, as we now know, willpower is not an infinite resource)

Technique #1: The Miser Method

I don’t know about you, but one thing that I definitely value more than my junk-food is my money. Even if you are really craving a chocolate bar, if you see that the cheapest one they have at the restaurant you are in is $10, odds are you will be able to resist buying it fairly easily. Even if you just shelled out $60 for a fancy steak.

Why is this? Because you know that you could go right across the street and buy the same bar from CVS for only $0.99. Even if you know that you probably won’t end up actually buying it from across the street, the fact that you could lets you resist the urge to buy now.

The Technique

Get out a piece of paper (or open a text document) and write down a list of all the unhealthy food that you enjoy eating. Now, figure out the cheapest place in your neighborhood that this food can be purchased. Usually this will be a big supermarket or wholesale store. Now write down on the paper the cheapest unit price of each item on the list. Familiarize yourself with all of these numbers (you can carry it with you too, but that’s not so important as long as you have a general sense of all the prices).

From this point on, use this list as your baseline. If you’re at school and feel an urge for something sweet from the vending machine, look at the prices. It will be a lot easier to stop yourself from buying that small Snickers bar for $0.75 when you know that you could easily get 3 or 4 for the same price.

One of the situations where this technique has helped me the most over the past three years is with buying ice cream. On my campus there is a Coldstone Creamery less than a five minute walk from my apartment. And I love ice cream. Yet I have only ever been to Coldstone once in the entire time I’ve been here. Why? Because I know that for the same price as a milkshake at Coldstone I could go next door to CVS, buy a whole tub of ice cream, and get many, larger milkshakes for the same cost.

The next problem is preventing yourself from buying too much when you’re at the cheaper place, but if you give yourself a monetary cap for those excursions it shouldn’t be too bad. (I’ll probably talk more about that technique in a later article.)

Technique #2: Stretching Sweets

If I offered you $50 to down a milkshake in 30 seconds, would you do it?

I’d be willing to bet that most of you just thought “yes.” But do you think that you would get the same enjoyment out of that milkshake drinking it like that vs taking your time to down it? Probably not.

Food stimulates your taste buds and can induce pleasure. Yet the enjoyment you can get from a small amount of food in your mouth is fairly similar to what you would experience from a large amount of the same substance. Two M&M’s may be a little bit more satisfying than a single one, but definitely not doubly so.

Next time you’re about to eat some junk-food, stop for a second. Take only half of what you were going to, but make a conscious effort to eat it at half the speed. This may take some getting used to, but once you do you will find that that small Crunch bar really did satisfy you just as much as the king sized one would have (as long as you’re not using candy as a meal replacement, which I hope not…).

I have friends who constantly remark on how I can stay so thin while at the same time seeming to eat so much candy. The answer is really very simple: I can spend two minutes eating a single peanut M&M.

What methods do you use to control your sweet-tooth?

The Easy First Step to an Amazing Memory

Nature vs Nurture is a question that has been debated for as long as man has been having debates. In the vast majority of cases that the argument can be applied to, the correct answer is usually at least a little of both. The same holds true for the case of human memory. Yes, some people may be born with innately better memories than others, but it is very rare that the proper training can’t easily make up for this difference.

When you go grocery shopping, if you need more than five or so items, you probably write down a grocery list for yourself. Were I to ask you why, no doubt you would answer along the lines of “because I wouldn’t remember all 20 things I need.” This may be true, but it is not because you are incapable of remembering that many items,just that you are not properly trained to easily do so.

In the Middle Ages, most commoners were completely illiterate. In a given community the only ones who could read or write were the priests and the scribes. Yet people still went shopping. Successfully.

When a message needed to be delivered somewhere, it was rarely done through letters. Instead, a courier would memorize the message and then at the destination would repeat it back verbatim. These couriers were not geniuses. They just trained their memories.

How many times have you met someone, exchanged names, and had them say “I probably won’t remember- I’m really bad with names”? Or have you used this excuse yourself? Because that’s all it is: and excuse. And this excuse becomes a crutch.

When I was entering 9th grade, it was at a new school where I barely knew anyone. When someone came up to me and said “Hi, my name’s Sam,” I didn’t really think about it much, figuring that would be happening so often during the day that it wasn’t worth really trying to remember. Later, when I was talking to Sam and couldn’t remember his name, I actually almost said “Sorry, I’m really bad with names.” But I stopped myself. At that point I asked myself “Am I really bad with names, or am I just too lazy to remember them?”

Freshman year of college I had a 30-person honors seminar where on the first day of class we played an icebreaker. The professor had us go in a circle, say our names and something interesting about ourselves. I ended up going last, and the interesting thing about myself that I gave was that I could go around the room and list everyone else’s names and something interesting about them. And I proved it.

I don’t believe that my memory is naturally better than average. I have, however, spent the past 8 years training it so that now I know it is. And yours could be too.

The first step to improving your memory is really very simple: just acknowledge that you can improve. And make an attempt to remember things instead of just assuming you will forget.