Tuesday Tool: Spaced Repetition, Spaced Repetition, Spaced Repetition

One of my intentions for 2018 was to take up language learning again – and this was one area of self-improvement in which I fully expected to fail spectacularly!

Ever since school, languages have been something I presumed I was inherently “bad” at, and in that typical ego protecting fashion, which we can all be prone to engage in, I shied away from them in the last ten years to avoid feeling stupid.

In my exploration and openness to all things personal development in the last year though, at one point about three months ago, I sat down and identified some lapsed skills that I wanted to reintroduce into my life in 2018, and languages were high on the list.

My desire was driven partially out of embarrassment at the lack of effort I have made in the past, partially out of a desire to be able to speak Italian with my wife, and partially just for the hell of it as it is a cool sounding language.

Obviously, having attempted learning the “normal” way via school, I wasn’t keen to sit down with my head in grammar and noun books, getting frustrated. So, after a bit of research, I came across a book called Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget it, that promised to make language learning fun again…

In the book, I was introduced to Spaced Repetition Systems. Which I was vaguely aware of and will probably write about again, but having never really tried them out with any seriousness all I can say is: WOW – they are life-changing.

Since early Jan, and using just the first 15 minutes of my commute, I have used Anki to teach myself 750+ words in Italian, and I am now putting together my first sentences, using the same system.

The next step in my plan is to start immersing myself in the language by watching Italian films, increase comprehension using phrase cards that I will make and revise through Anki and, eventually, become fluent enough to start practicing in conversation with people I know who speak the language.

Anyway, if you are unfamiliar with Spaced Repetition Systems and you have some knowledge that you want to learn efficiently, I highly recommend you research it – and if languages are your thing, in particular, I cannot recommend the book Fluent Forever, highly enough.

Monday Meditation: Embracing failure is the foundation for success

I’ve taken up bouldering in the last year (indoor only for now), and yesterday I went climbing in the morning for a couple of hours.

While there, it occurred to me that one year ago not only was I less capable than I am now – after all, skills improve over time – but I was also far more afraid of falling.

Don’t get me wrong; when I am at the top of the wall and need to do a tricky move to complete the climb, I am still scared, and I sometimes abandon the climb if I don’t feel the attempt is safe. But what I don’t do is worry about falling, and, as a consequence, I don’t worry so much about failing. Rather, I ask myself, is this within my abilities? If yes, then I attempt the move. If no, then I climb back down.

In the former case, when I am going to try for the final or tricky hold, I allow myself to think: I could fall, I should be prepared. This is for the simple reason that if I acknowledge this possibility, I can plan for it, and in the process, I allow myself permission to brace for that outcome so that the landing will be, at the very least, a less bad one. As a result, I not only feel more secure in making an attempt, but more assured that in the case of failure I will have done whatever I can to help myself recover.

This is a pivotal issue for many people, and it was for me too. Namely, they are afraid to fail, so they do not try, or, potentially even worse, they recklessly delude themselves with the nonsensical mantras: “I cannot fail” or “Failure is not an option.”

Climbing, with its inherent risk (and I have seen some bad falls), has taught me, out of necessity, that if you accept the possibility of failure you can turn fear into mindful preparation so that you can make an attempt and just fall if you need to.

In this way, I am teaching myself that “Failure is just an outcome,” and that “Failure is something I can ameliorate.” – I am not its slave, and this gives me the courage to strive.

The first two approaches, of the coward or the blowhard, will either paralyse you or make you take foolish risks. And they will also prevent you from admitting and embracing the truth, that failure is always out there, underneath everything you do.

I now know, from learning to fall, that failure is always a possibility, but that accepting this is the foundation of deliberate progress and measured success – that taking the appropriate attitude to benefiting from the occurrences of failure can allow you to fall, as you sometimes must, as gracefully as you can.

Thursday Tracker: People are lying to you – Progress (here, Weight-Loss) is messy – Here is the truth

At the start of 2017, I weighed just under 90 kilos. And I was not in any way toned.

As a 6ft Tall Man (183cm), that put me well into the Overweight category with a BMI of around 27.

This was not what I had in mind when I envisioned turning 30 and was the direct result of 3 consistently bad life choices:

Drinking Alcohol (bingeing)

Eating an unhealthy diet (sweets and meats)

Not exercising enough (or at all, apart from walking, which I enjoyed)

At that time, I had also decided to start tracking my life statistically, and weight seemed like an obvious place to start.

The great news is that thanks to some simple lifestyle interventions (not dieting), which I will discuss fully in other posts, I have managed to lose 10 kilos in just over a year.

And since I have been, literally, charting my progress that whole time, I have also learned what progress really looks like, and realised I have been unconsciously lied to for a long time.

To begin with here is my average weight in kg per quarter since Jan 2017:

1.PNG

So far so simple. Do the right things, see the benefits over time.

On some level, this view is useful. Unlike all of the facebook posts that depress you on (I suspect) a daily basis, wherein someone boasts about how they dropped x pounds/kilos, and make it look as though it were something that simply happened overnight, this is what weight loss actually looks like.

It takes time and you need to accept that fact for genuine weight loss/muscle gain of any kind.

Your body is organic, and just like a plant, it won’t grow overnight, no matter how well you care for it on any given day. Consistency is key.

But, in saying that, this graph is still a lie. Because this graph makes it look like progress was steady, and tapered off nicely.

It will probably demotivate you to some degree, just like the insta-dream-body facebook posts, because it doesn’t feel like it matches your experience, and therefore you might think that there is something special about why I achieved this, but you can’t .

But if we zoom in a little, and look at the same data, averaged by month this time, this is what we see instead:

2.PNG

 

Now the story is different. More believable, less simplistic.

There is a distinct lack of any progress initially, as my early interventions had minimal effect, followed by a precipitous drop, tapering off, and then some backwards motion in December (too many mince pies), followed by getting back on track to my initial target weight (78 kg).

This is much more realistic. This should motivate you. This shows you the following:

You will try things, they will fail, then something will work, progress will be rapid, but then taper off as your body reaches a new equilibrium, and, you WILL likely backslide at some point, but that’s okay, because as long as the trend looks like graph 1, you can accept the reality of graph 2, and know that you can get back on track

BUT…

This graph is also a lie. And if you expect anything in life; skill gain, weight loss etc. to go relatively smoothly, like this, then you are lying to yourself and bound to be demotivated by the truth.

That’s because this is what progress really looks like:

3.PNG

 

This is a true story of progress.

It is messy. It is unpredictable. It is the complexity of real life charted on a simple graph.

As you can see, on any given day my weight could be a kilo or more in either direction. And at one point I got down to 78.3 kg only for my weight to climb again in December. Which I was not totally unprepared for, given the time of year.

Biology is complicated, you step on the scale the day after a lot of salty food and you’ve retained water, BAM, you are a kilo and a half heavier. Three days later, fully back to your normal (healthy) eating pattern, you are two kg down again and feeling smug.

This is what I now know, from personal experience and data. I’ve internalised knowledge that I had seen written a thousand times, but never integrated into my attitude to life:

Progress is messy and the noise of its messiness is IRRELEVANT to your progress.

All that matters is the overall trend.

But, the noise is also REALITY, and you, therefore, need to accept that no matter what you do, no matter how hard you work, or strive, or push on any given day, that when you zoom in close (as when you step on the scale), progress looks stochastic, and can feel demotivating.

It doesn’t come all at once, like people on social media accidentally portray, it comes in fits and starts. It seems and feels random. It is never, ever going to be a straight line.

So you can track yourself, but you must analyse the averages, believe in the purpose of the bigger picture, and ignore stories of overnight success. The truth is that they have zoomed out so far that they are only showing you 2 useless data points, Then and Now.

Then and Now may indicate the trend, but it doesn’t reveal the truth about progress.

 

Wednesday Wisdom: Wanting what you have trumps having what you want…

“It is the privilege of the gods to want nothing, and of godlike men to want little.” – Diogenes the Cynic

Diogenes the Cynic famously lived in a barrel on the street, and when asked by Alexander the Great what he wanted in life, Diogenes apparently requested only that Alexander move to the side as he was blocking the sun.

What can be possibly be learned from a man who lived in a barrel (apparently quite contentedly)?

Many things – little about personal hygenie I would imagine – but this most importantly of all: We should always be wary of the fact that material attachment is a potential path to disappointment, upset and ultimately, self-debasement.

Why?

Because in order to achieve or attain the thing we want we often merrily sacrifice what we already have.

How many people have neglected their loving children so they can go and get drunk with their fair-weather friends?

How many people have worked late every night in a job they will one day leave only for their neglected spouse to one day leave them?

How many people have worked exclusively for a promotion, sacrificing their peace of mind, time, energy and passion, only for the pressures of the new role to make them want to quit?

How often have you sacrificed the precious things you already have for the imaginary things you probably shouldn’t want? And how often has that actually helped you be “happy”?

Maybe if we stopped trying to have everything we supposedly wanted and started focussing more on wanting the things we already have, we could come to the simple truth: we already have everything that we need.

Inspired by a quote I read in this excellent source of daily wisdom:

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living: Featuring new translations of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius

Tuesday Tool: The True Value of Early Rising – and How to Do It using an App

Today I am going to outline how I used my AITMR method (Analyse, Identify, Tweak, Measure, Repeat) to change my entire life by changing one simple thing: the time I got out of bed.

This method is useful for many things, but this example also happens to be, in my opinion, THE most important part of becoming a person you are proud to be. Enabling you to engage with life fully.

Until around ten months ago my morning routine looked like this:

1. Wake up at 7.45 or 8.00
2. Struggle to get out of bed because I went to bed too late
3. Rush to get ready
4. Throw myself out the door
5. Cram onto a busy commuter train
6. Stumble into work at 9 am (maybe) tired, cranky and irritable

My routine now looks like this – mostly:

1. Wake up between 5.00 and 6.00, depending on time to bed that was possible (this morning I got up at 5.15 as I went to bed at 9.45)
2. Have time to make my coffee and breakfast while listening to some non-fiction audio as I wake up fully
3. Do 15 to 30mins of Yoga
4. Do 20mins of Meditation
5. Get ready at a relaxed pace, and in good time to get an early bus/tube
6. Spend 10 to 15mins on bus and tube ride using an SRS (Spaced Repetition System) [currently Italian]
7. Get to work by 8 am so I have an hour to do my gratitude journal, philosophical reflection and some non-fiction or fiction writing – as well as relax before the day begins

How did I do this? Did I become some sort of motivational superhuman all of a sudden?

No. Sadly not!

I realised something 12 months ago, or more accurately, I realised it again for the umpteenth time:

My life was messy, I was a chronic procrastinator (I always have been), and as a result I wasn’t doing 90% of what I regularly claimed I wanted to do with my personal time.

After recovering from the familiar panic this repeat-realisation induced, and rather than make lots of vague and sweeping promises to myself to be better as I had attempted and failed many times before, I decided to tackle my existential crisis as I would a systemic problem in work.

I resolved to try to use the AITMR method that I devised (and probably stole unconsciously) to: analyse the issue in detail, identify points of high-potential for change (inflexion points), tweak one of those things, measure it over time, repeat as needed.

Basically, rather than make broad changes, I chose to first look for a single inflexion point in my personal life, that is to say, one very specific thing in my life that, if I could just change it, could radically shift the curve of my personal progress on goals out of its decline.

After some journaling (the best method of self-analysis), it didn’t take me long to realise what that obvious point could be:

 

ANALYSE:

I realised, after some reflection, that every day, my cognitive journey was as follows:

1: Get up Tired and Unmotivated
2: Wake up as the day passed and got motivated to do something in the evening
3: Have all my energy and willpower drained by 8+ hours of work
4: Get home and abandon my plans due to exhaustion
5: Go to bed late after wasting the evening with “relaxing” things like gaming and TV
6: Repeat the whole cycle the next day.

And that I was, therefore, wasting my time trying to “get things done” in the evening, by which time I was inapable of mustering the motivation in spite of all my high-minded intentions during the day.

I just didn’t have any willpower left in the tank to get anything done by then.

 

IDENTIFY:

I suspected that although I considered myself to be a “night-owl,” that I was, in reality, giving all of my high-willpower, high-productivity hours to work, which meant I was really just a night-sloth.

Now, I’m not disparaging using the evening solely for relaxation. This is fine if you have no personal ambitions, or if your job fulfils those desires for you. But I did and do have personal ambitions that my work does not fulfil, so it just wasn’t good enough for me.

Clearly, if the evenings were of no productive use to me, I needed to make time in the morning to pursue my own goals – but how?

Get up earlier.

Easier said than done for a recalcitrant late-riser.

 

TWEAK:

I have a problem with alarms. Namely, the snooze button. I will snooze until a minute after I needed to be up and out of bed. Then panic.

After some research, I discovered something interesting that I decided could do the trick: Alarms that force you to get out of bed to turn them off.

A simple and brilliant tweak that short-circuits a bad habit, as once you are out of bed and put your coffee on, there is little reason to go back (assuming you went to bed on time).

I promptly downloaded one of these apps (Alarmy on Android) – and also bought a cheap fitness band with an alarm function (Mi-Band).

The former was to force/motivate me into getting up. The latter was to wake me just before the unignorable alarm so that I had a chance to get up without the prompt, training myself. And also to avoid waking my wife!

The alarm, which I have used largely successfully ever since, requires that I go scan the washing up liquid in my kitchen. Beside which I now keep my B-Vitamins so that I always remember to take them (2-birds with one stone).

 

MEASURE:

I have a spreadsheet, that I will discuss some other time, on which I track many data points about myself. I had just started this at the time, so I added a column for Time to Bed, and Time Woke Up. With a simple Success/Fail metric – as in:

Bed before 10:30pm = Success

Up by 6:30am (my initial goal) = Success

Tracking my progress in this way let me see, very quickly, that I was getting up earlier more often.

But as I also tracked the things I was doing with that extra time on the sheet, I could see my TV and Game usage dropped massively over the course of a year (I wouldn’t be bothered gaming at 6:30am, unlike in the evenings), and also that my Meditation and Yoga started happening, daily.

 

REPEAT:

Seeing the progress I had made was a HUGE motivator, not only to continue with the practice but also to tweak it further.

Slightly earlier bedtime, slightly earlier wake up.

Over the course of a year I have trained myself to consistently, and usually happily, get up at an average time of 5:30 am.

Bed time is still tricky, partially due to bad behaviour on my part, but also due to work and to socialise. I will talk about this again as I strive to improve the situation through future tweaks.

 

RESULT:

I am now, closing in on a year later, to my utter shock and surprise, an eager, bright eyed and bushy tailed morning person. This is after 15+ years (I’m 31) of being a self professed “night-owl” – which I am starting to think is really just the codeword for being unexceptional in our electrically charged 24hr society where you need to work through the middle of the day (for the most part, job dependent), and wherein are then encouraged to spend (or squander) your free time consuming entertainment before pouring yourself into bed.

So, the next time you are struggling with large amorphous life issues, rather than try to tackle them holistically, why not try the AITMR method or something similar.

Try to identify that one thing you need to change for the better, and get tweaking. You might be surprised by how far-reaching the results could be.

And… GET TO BED EARLIER!

Be honest with yourself: You are not doing anything useful past 9 pm anyway.

Monday Meditation: Are you becoming the person you would most admire?

This weekend was an accidental experiment of the old and new.

What do I mean by that?

I had one “good” day and one “bad”.

I mean that on one day I set out to be the man I wish to be. A man who dedicates himself to contentment, equanimity, creativity and mindful living. I meditated, I exercised, I wrote with passion, and I met the challenges of the day with good grace.

On the other, I was the man I used to be every day, until a relatively short time ago. A man who dithers, takes minimal action, waits for life to offer him happiness on a platter, and bemoans his circumstances. A man who woke up late, wasted the morning, struggled to get out of the house, paid little attention to everything he should be grateful for; his health, his comfortable lifestyle, his lack of basic needs.

That latter man can stay in the weekend. I will be busy being the former.

Meditating on it this morning, I find I am grateful this happened, that I spent a day feeling utterly bereft of life-fulness.

Why?

Because it reminded me that the man I am becoming, day by day, through a commitment to regular meditation, purposeful exercise, moral diet, self-reflection, focussed commitment and shameless creativity; is a man I would have looked up to just a few years ago. A man who I would have secretly envied, a man who one cannot deny has earned every drop of contentment he can wring from life.

So, to meditate this morning, ask yourself what man (or woman) are you choosing to become?

Someone you would have admired as a child, or looked up to as a teenager?

Or are you becoming (or have you become) a person you wouldn’t even want to spend a day with, let alone 24 hours every day, for the rest of your existence?

It’s a hard question to give an honest answer to, but I truly believe that an honest answer to it will change your life.

Have a life-full week.