Learning To Focus: Mind Your Mind

thought synthesizer
Once you’ve finished properly preparing your body, the next step is to ensure that your mind remains focused on your work and doesn’t get distracted.

Prepare Your Mind – Eliminate Distractions

  1. Never start working without first knowing what you want to accomplish.
  2. For each work session always try to have at least one set, concrete goal. For larger tasks, try and break it down into smaller, well-defined chunks and work on one chunk at a time.

  3. Focus on one task at a time.
  4. Studies show that multitasking leads to reduced efficiency. Every time you switch between tasks, your mind goes through the stages of goal shifting (changing what you want to accomplish at that instant) and rule activation (changing the set of mental structures required to perform each individual task). Each switch takes a distinct amount of time that can quickly build up when constantly going back and forth between tasks.

    Another ramification here is that, before starting to work, you should always

  5. Clear out your workspace, both digitally and physically.
  6. Remove all non-work-related distractions or activities from the picture. This means silencing your cell phone, disconnecting from chatting programs, and closing all webpages or programs non-essential to the current work at hand.

    Similarly, if you sit down to work at a table that is covered in empty food containers, papers, or any other bunch of random clutter this actually reduces your work efficiency. The more items in your field of view that your brain has to process the harder it is to focus on the task at hand. A clean environment is also mentally associated with ‘getting things done’ just because cleaning itself is so often procrastinated that just being in a clean room makes you think that you’ve already started working.

  7. Set aside a specific amount of time for a given session.
  8. Use a timer.
    If you have a large, indefinite amount of time to accomplish a task it is often difficult to really get into the flow of working on it. It becomes easy to let yourself get distracted. This is generally what happens when people “pull all-nighters.” They viewed staying up all night as an option and therefore failed to work efficiently from the start. If instead you set a smaller, specified amount of time to work with and a clear goal for what to accomplish you will find yourself moving through tasks at a very satisfying rate.

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.

How to Trick Yourself to Beat Procrastination: Why Many Lazy People are Ripped

Lazy GorillaThis morning I was walking to a class and found myself stuck behind a giant 300+ pound gym junkie ambling along at a pace that my grandmother could put to shame.

I don’t know about all of you, but while going to the gym is something that I try and do regularly, it is usually not something that I do easily. It is always a mental struggle against my own laziness to get me out the door and on my way. And yet I know many people who I would deem far lazier than I am that spend 2+ hours at the gym every day.

Strange as this may seem, I believe that there are three separate, logical reasons for this phenomena.

  1. Endorphins feel good – once you get to a certain level of physical fitness, working out ceases to be as much of an effort and actually becomes pleasurable.
  2. The power of routine – when doing something difficult becomes a part of your daily routine, getting yourself to do it ceases to be a challenge.
  3. Tiered procrastination – doing a difficult task is far easier when you know that it is putting off doing an even more difficult one. This is the reason that I will be discussing today.

How it Works

Have you ever found yourself cleaning your room or doing dishes instead of doing homework? Why is it that cleaning then is so easy but when you have no obligations at all during a day it seems so difficult?

Webster defines procrastination as “to put off intentionally the doing of something that should be done.” In essence this stems directly from one of the base laws of physics: an object will always attempt to take the path of least resistance. When applied to humans, this is sometimes referred to as the Principle of Least Effort (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principle_of_least_effort).

Taken to its extreme, this would mean that people would sit around and do nothing whenever possible. And while this is, sadly, sometimes the case, usually it just means that when presented with two or more things to do we will generally try and take the easier task. One could then be thought of as procrastinating as long as they are doing anything but the most difficult of the tasks laid out before them. This explains both the gym phenomena and that of the dishes.

If you have some difficult work to do such as math homework or doing your taxes, suddenly going to the gym or doing the dishes becomes the easier of the two options. And yet you can do it without feeling entirely guilty because after all, at least you are doing something productive.

How To Use It

What makes a task easy or difficult to do is all about how you approach it in your mind. The next time you have a lot of work to do, take a step back and think. Instead of getting intimidated and thinking “this is a ton of work, what’s on tv?” think “that essay is going to be a paint to write, let me delay that by doing this other required reading.” Or, if you really don’t want to do any of your work at the time, instead of just watching tv try going to the gym. You will find that making yourself go then suddenly has become a whole lot easier than usual.

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.