What is Self-Improvement?
Self-improvement is the improvement of one's knowledge, behavior, social intelligence, habits, character or status by one's own efforts. It's the quest to make ourselves best in everything in life. This blog explains the 55 new hacks for self-improvement.
Focusing on self-improvement has presented many opportunities in our lives—like writing for books, speaking at live seminars, live speaker and traveling the world. Here are many specific new hacks that focusing on self-improvement and change your life:
Self Improvement Hack 1:
Make a Done List
Before you read this, I want you to leaf through your work diary. Is there anything inspiring in there? Were you impressed by how much you’ve achieved?
I know when I look through old work diaries, all I find are lists of meetings and to-do lists. Even on your phone or laptop, there are endless productivity apps enticing you in to make to-do lists in new and different ways.
The trouble with to-do lists, is I don’t think they make us any more productive. I don’t think they excite and stimulate our minds to want to get things done.
Usually, we don’t finish them anyway, which immediately has a negative effect.
Now I’m not saying we should do away with to-do lists. We all need reminders of what we’ve got to do. What I’m saying is, they serve a useful purpose of reminding us of things we need to do, but they’re not actually going to make us more productive.
What you need is a done list. Seeing what you’ve actually achieved will spur you on. Of course, you may look back and think how little you have achieved, but hopefully, this will also spur you on even more.
One of the dangers of to-do lists is we think we’re being productive because we’re ticking things off a list. But how many of those things you’re ticking off are things you truly value? The benefit of a done list is you only put things on it that are of value to you.
A good rule of thumb is only put things on it that at the end of the year you’d look back at and be proud of. One of the big differences of a done list, as opposed to a to-do list, is the positive effect it has on your brain.
A to-do list gets the things you have to do out of your head and onto paper. It unclutters your brain. The trouble is, how often do you complete the list? I find I do half of it and then the rest gets transferred to the next day’s list.
A long to-do list means: “we’ve got a lot to do” – it doesn’t mean we do a lot. Unconsciously it changes from a to-do list into a “what you haven’t done list” and creates more stress and anxiety. “To-do lists are about goals, a done list is about achievements.”
A done list of things you have achieved creates positive associations and creates new connections in your brain making you feel more positive about yourself.
Of course, the danger is to think that you feel you can only put big achievements on there, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. If this is the year that you decide to run a marathon, don’t just make an entry on the actual day you ran a marathon, put in an entry for how long you ran on each day you trained leading up to it.
Self Improvement Hack 2:
Don’t Break the Chain
What’s important is that you have achievable goals that you stick to. If you make your targets too hard, you either won’t achieve them and feel you’ve failed, or you’ll put them off for a day and then another day and before you know it, you’ve given up on the task completely.
Just try to do a little bit every day
When comic hopeful Brad Isaac asked Jerry Seinfeld if he had any advice he replied that the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day. How he made sure he kept to this was a done list in the form of a wall calendar.
If you’re building a house, you can stand back at the end of each day and admire how much you’ve built that day. But the trouble with a lot of our tasks on a day-to-day basis is that there’s no physical proof of what we’ve done.
That’s the great thing with a done list, as in the example of Seinfeld’s calendar, you can stand back and be proud of what you’ve achieved.
The thing with a done list is it can be about anything. What’s important is that it’s something of value to you. It could be steps towards starting your own business, it could be about how much weight you’ve lost, how much time you’ve spent reading a book;
if you’re some high flying businessman or woman it could be about how much quality time you managed to spend with your family. As I say, it can be about anything, but it has to be something that you value.
Don’t just get some cheap office diary, get a nice diary like a Moleskine; something you’ll treasure. After all, it holds your achievements for the year, so it should be something a little bit special. Try to review your day’s achievements and make your entry in your done list diary at the same time every day.
The more you can make a habit of it, the more likely you are to keep to it. The more of a habit you make of it, the more you start to create more engrained pathways in the brain to make it harder to stop.
Seinfeld’s motto “Don’t break the chain” has the obvious visual reminder of a calendar on the wall, but at the same time, it is creating an unconscious habit.
They say “history will be the judge”. Now your history will be there for you to judge. The more you can make a habit of it, the more likely you are to keep to it.
Self Improvement Hack 3:
Change Your Memories
“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” Marcel Proust
Most people would like to have a better memory, but you’ll already find lots of tips and techniques online to help you with that. What this hack is about is giving you better memories.
By that, I don’t mean giving you the tools to help you remember better. It’s about making the memories you have, better.
Memories are so subjective. Two people can remember the same event completely differently. If we all remembered an event in exactly the same way, there would certainly be far fewer disagreements. We truly believe how we remember an event is how it happened.
The longer ago it was, the more chance there is for your unconscious to embellish it. Here’s a perfect example: I remember when I was four, seeing a blue tin of salt in our kitchen at home.
On the front of the tin was an illustration of a boy throwing salt on a bird. I asked my mother about it and she said if you threw salt on a bird, it would help you catch it.
“It’s about making the memories you have, better.”
My memory is of me sitting underneath the hedge in our garden, with a handful of salt, waiting patiently for a bird to come along so that I could throw the salt over it. In my memory, my mother is watching me from the kitchen window while she does the dishes.
I spoke to her about the incident, and it’s true she was watching me from the window, but she wasn’t doing the dishes. She couldn’t have, the sink was on the other side of the kitchen.
But it was so much part of my memory. Then I thought about it some more and I realized in my memory of it, I see a view of my mum looking out of the window from inside the kitchen, which also wouldn’t have been possible for me to see as I was in the garden.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized I had added this image to my memory; it was as if my memory was a film, and I had edited a shot into that film.
Of course, whether my mother was washing dishes or not doesn’t really have any bearing on the story, but not remembering something entirely accurately can be a very harmful thing.
Loftus seeded the false memories with plausible information, such as the name of the mall each subject would have visited. When she interviewed the subjects later, a quarter of them recalled having been lost in the mall, and some did so in remarkable detail.
But the fact our memories can and do change can be a good thing. And that’s what this hack is about, making bad memories not so bad and good ones better.
The trouble is we have a natural bias to look for the negative in a situation. This stems back to our built-in survival instinct. It makes sense really. Once you’ve touched a boiling hot kettle, you don’t want to do it again.
Imagine you’ve just written a post online and you get 20 comments. Even if 19 are really positive and only one is negative, our natural tendency is to focus on the negative one. It’s why so many actors don’t read reviews, because even if most of the reviews are great, it’s that one negative comment that they’ll keep going over in their head.
In the same way, negative memories will eat away at us. Of course, you can’t get rid of memories, but how you think about them can go some way from turning a negative memory into, at the very least, a neutral memory.
Memories aren’t set in stone: every time we call up a memory it changes slightly. When you remember something, your brain is “rewiring” the connections between the neurons. Literally changing the structure of your brain.
When you recall a memory you are recreating, changing, and re-memorizing. The memory is subject to change every time you remember it.
The event you remember is never going to get totally rewritten. If, for instance, you have a memory of standing in front of the whole school and forgetting what you were going to say, the event won’t change; but the emotions attached to that memory can.
“When you recall a memory you are recreating, changing, and re-memorizing. The memory is subject to change every time you remember it.”
It’s called extinction training. The results were Dramatic: people who saw the squares within ten minutes of having their memories revived forgot their fear completely. However, the others who were not shown the squares again until hours later remained frightened.
Strong negative memories can create strong fears and affect your attitudes and behavior. For instance, the example of forgetting what you were going to say in front of everyone at school could create strong fears of public speaking later on in your life.
By actively thinking about the memory and trying to associate a different emotion with it, you’ll reduce the negative emotion associated with it and so reduce the fear it creates.
In the example of the school speech, you could try to associate it with positive memories of the occasion, like how you laughed about the whole thing later with your friends. Try to think of a positive experience you’ve had of speaking in front of a group of people and associate that happier emotional memory with the school speech.
Often when we share our fears it can lessen the power they have over us. Sharing them is often easier with someone who has been through similar experiences. This shows why recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous are so successful.
Sometimes it only takes a small extra connection to the past to help the memories flow. For example, bilingual Russian immigrants in America could recall more autobiographical details of their early life when they were asked questions about it in Russian rather than in English.
Every memory we retain depends upon a chain of chemical interactions that connect millions of neurons to one another. Those neurons never touch; instead, they communicate through tiny gaps, or synapses, that surround each of them.
When we learn something, chemicals in the brain strengthen the synapses that connect the neurons. Long-term memories, built from new proteins, change those synaptic networks constantly. So inevitably, some grow weaker and others, as they absorb new information, grow more powerful.
It’s not the 100 billion neurons in your head that are changing all the time; it’s the connections between them – the neural pathways. Imagine these as real pathways across a field.
If it’s a negative neural pathway every time you walk it, it’s like you are wearing away the grass and creating a path that it is harder and harder to get away from. Making an effort to create positive imagery helps you step off the path and create a new positive neural pathway.
“Every thought we have and every action we take creates new connections in the brain.”
By being kind you are creating a more positive outlook, which is far more likely to make you happier.
Dr. Lyubomirsky found that when describing their previous life experiences, self-nominated happy people retrospectively evaluated their experiences as more pleasant at both the time of occurrence and when recalling them. Unhappy people, however, evaluated their past life events relatively unfavorably at both time points.
But what was interesting was that objective judges did not rate the events described by happy people as inherently more positive than those described by unhappy people. This suggests that happy and unhappy people experience similar events but interpret them differently.
“Happy and unhappy people experience similar events but interpret them differently.”
But being kind won’t just make you happier; it can make you healthier as well. Acts of kindness are often accompanied by emotional warmth, which produces the hormone, oxytocin.
“Kindness really can have a powerful effect on melting away negative emotions.”
It’s been found that people value something more once they own it. If you give someone a bonus upfront and tell them that they’ll lose it if they don’t reach a specific target, they’re far more likely to reach that target.
A study showed that students gained as much as a 10-percentile increase in their scores compared to students with similar backgrounds if their teacher received a bonus at the beginning of the year. The condition was that the teachers would lose the bonus if their students didn’t reach a set target.
But there was found to be no gain for students when teachers were offered the bonus at the end of the school year.
It’s been called “the endowment effect”, but I think a better name for it is “the bird in the hand syndrome”.
I remember when I was in advertising and went on a factory visit whilst working on the Mars brand. I learned two important lessons. Firstly that too much chocolate in the hand, namely mine, made me sick and put me off chocolate for weeks.
Secondly, all the Mars employees got a bonus if they clocked in before 8.30 a.m.
But rather than seeing it as a bonus for getting in early, they perceived it as their pay getting docked if they got in after 8.30 a.m.
There have been many experiments that prove this “bird in the hand syndrome”. One found that students were surprisingly reluctant to trade a coffee mug they had been given for a bar of chocolate. This happened even though they did not prefer coffee mugs to chocolate when given a straight choice between the two.
It can’t just be explained away as an emotional attachment either. It seems it’s hardwired into us. It even affects those who buy and sell for a living.
It’s been found that we have a tendency to take risks when the outcome is presented as a loss, but avoid the same risks when an outcome is presented as a gain. This happens even when the objective outcome is the same.
Understanding this can have a big effect on how you communicate.
Here are some examples:
It’s much more powerful to say “Save 25%” as opposed to “Pay only 75%”.
“Stop eating foods that make you fat” will likely do better than a product that helps you “start eating foods that make you lose weight”.
Messages about how to avoid loss or pain will likely be more eye-catching and motivating than how to find the pleasure of satisfaction. Our natural tendency is always to go for the safe bet.
Something that’s good to remember, not only when you’re negotiating or communicating with others, but also when others are negotiating or communicating with you. “Our natural tendency is always to go for the safe bet.”
Self Improvement Hack 4:
Make a Better Impression
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Will Rogers
In a study of 130 diner restaurants, it was discovered that simply using high-quality cutlery, normally reserved for banquets, resulted in customers willing to pay 15% more for their food compared to people eating the same meal with lower quality utensils.
The research, carried out by a team from Oxford University, also showed that people eating with heavier cutlery thought the food was more artistically plated and tasted better.
“It is likely that the positive or negative values that we attribute to the cutlery get implicitly ‘transferred’ to our judgments of the food – a phenomenon that is often called ‘sensation transference’,” said Charles Michel who led the research.
This same “sensation transference” is exactly why having a good firm handshake isn’t an old-fashioned idea, but is actually something you will be unconsciously judged upon.
“Making a mistake or being a little clumsy makes you more endearing.”
It seems making a mistake or being a little clumsy makes you more endearing. Perfection creates distance and gives off an unattractive air of invincibility.
The recordings included the sound of the person knocking over a cup of coffee. When participants were asked to rate the quizzes on likeability they rated the people who knocked over the coffee cup as more likable.
The “Pratfall Effect” as it’s called, serves as a good reminder that it is okay to be fallible. Occasional mistakes are not only acceptable; they may turn out to be beneficial. Just so long as the mistakes are not critical.
And when it comes to your CV, make sure you print it out on really good quality paper. As your prospective employee sifts through a pile of CVs, the quality feel of the paper will really make yours stand out.
“Occasional mistakes are not only acceptable; they may turn out to be beneficial.”
Exercise More to Make Your Brain Run better
If you asked most people how to get a fitter, healthier brain they’d probably talk about doing brain training exercises or Sudoku.
But it’s actually just as important to make your brain physically healthy, as it is about giving it mental stimulation.
Twenty minutes of vigorous activity on three or more days a week, or 30 minutes of moderate activity on five or more days a week, will reduce your chances of getting Alzheimer’s by around 20%.
Even in the short-term, it can have a huge effect on how your brain functions.
You know that feeling at the end of a really busy stressful day when your brain feels “fried”. Well, that’s because it is fried. The stress hormone cortisol is released to keep you in a state of heightened alertness. It keeps your blood sugar and blood pressure up to help you escape from danger.
In the short-term, it’s meant to help you deal with life-threatening situations. Getting that document finished by the end of the day is hardly life-threatening, but unfortunately, you can’t tell your body that.
It’s called the “fight or flight” mechanism and that’s why exercise is so good at countering it. You don’t need to imagine you’re being chased by a saber-toothed tiger; just the act of running will help reduce the cortisol in your body. Even a brisk stroll will have a similar beneficial effect.
Most people believe it’s the more cerebral activities like reading, studying and discussing that improve our minds. But as well as reducing stress, exercise has actually been proved to increase the production of grey matter in the brain.
How do you prove this when there are so many factors to be taken into account when measuring an increase in cognitive performance?
Simple really: identical twins.
It’s like those old soap powder comparison ads.
Well, that’s the principle, but not something that’s very practical if you want to see the effect of years of difference.
Self Improvement Hack 5:
Un-Identical Identical Twins
What they found was it was not only their bodies that were different but also their minds. Brain scans revealed that the active twins had significantly more grey matter than the sedentary twins, especially in areas of the brain involved in motor control and coordination. Amazingly, the changes in their exercise routines had mostly begun within only three years prior to the tests.
Let Your Body Do the Talking
Everyone’s aware that your non-verbal communication has an effect on how others view you. But what’s just as important is the effect it has on you.
Self Improvement Hack 6:
The Fake Smile
No one likes a fake smile, but it’s better than no smile at all. Frowning, grimacing, and other negative facial expressions send signals to your brain that whatever you are doing is difficult or unpleasant. This leads to your body releasing cortisol in response, which in turn raises your stress levels.
So if you make yourself smile (it doesn’t have to be a full-on cheesy grin), you’ll feel less stressed and with the added bonus, it’ll make people around you less stressed too.
Be More Determined – Cross Your Arms
If you’re in someone’s company and you cross your arms, they may perceive you as being defensive.
But if you cross your arms when you’re on your own, it can have the powerful effect of making you more determined. When you’ve got a difficult problem to solve, holding your arms tightly against your chest will unconsciously help you stick at it.
Self Improvement Hack 7:
Stand Like Superman, Be Like Superman
It turns out all that positive psychology we often make fun of, actually does work. That doesn’t mean that the next time you’ve got an important meeting, you should preempt it by standing in front of the bathroom mirror, roaring and shouting, “I’m a tiger”.
But the next time you’ve got an important meeting, interview or public speaking engagement, try power posing.
Find somewhere private and spend two minutes standing tall with your hands on your hips like Superman or Wonder Woman. You can also vary it by holding your arms out like you’re addressing a crowd or holding your arms towards the sky. It seems hard to believe, but this will Dramatically increase your level of confidence.
Cuddy’s research has proved that if you adopt a ‘power pose’ for two minutes you get:
20% increase in testosterone (the hormone linked to dominance)
25% decrease in the stress hormone cortisol
Power posers were also 25% more likely to take a risk
Reported feeling more assertive, optimistic and able to think in more abstract terms.
I think you’ll agree, those are pretty good stats for just two minutes spent posing in private.
Be More Musical
“I live my day Dreams in music. I see my life in terms of music … I get most joy in life out of music.”
If you’re a musician, you’re in luck. Every time you play, you’re giving your brain one of the best workouts it can get.
Neuroscientists have shown that musical skill requires a suite of neural processes firing in tandem: perceptual, cognitive, motor, and executive. Making a career as a musician is like being a professional bodybuilder of the mind.
Steven Pinker and others feel that our musical powers – some of them at least – are made possible by using, or recruiting, or co-opting brain systems that have already developed for other purposes.
“Making a career as a musician is like being a professional bodybuilder of the mind.”
So maybe Einstein’s love of music was more than just a pleasant distraction from all that hard thinking he did. In actual fact, playing his violin was very much part of his working day. After a few hours thinking, he’d pick up his violin and then the ideas would start to flow.
It’s not surprising really as it’s now been found that playing an instrument is a very good way of switching the brain from the active brain to the default mode network, “the mind-wandering brain”, that’s so helpful for insight.
Music can also help your brain to grow. Harvard neurologist Gottfried Schlaug found that the brains of adult professional musicians had a larger volume of grey matter than the brains of non-musicians.
In a study by Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, 70 healthy adults between the ages of 60 and 83 were divided into three groups: musicians who had studied an instrument for at least ten years, those who had played between one and nine years, and a control group who had never learned to play an instrument or how to read music.
Then she had each of the subjects take a comprehensive battery of neuropsychological tests.
The group who had studied for at least ten years scored the highest in such areas as nonverbal and visuospatial memory, naming objects, and taking in and adopting new information. By contrast, those with no musical training performed least well, and those who had played between one and nine years were in the middle.
In other words, the more they had trained and played, the more benefit the participants had gained. But, intriguingly, they didn’t lose all of the benefits even when they hadn’t played music in decades.
After six months, those who had received piano lessons showed more robust gains in memory, verbal fluency, the speed at which they processed information, planning ability, and other cognitive functions, compared with those who had not received lessons.
“Musical training seems to have a beneficial impact at whatever age you start. It contains all the components of a cognitive training program that sometimes are overlooked, and just as we work out our bodies, we should work out our minds,” she says.
So if you want the keys to a fitter, stronger, more active mind, they’re piano keys.
Self Improvement Hack 8:
Don’t Get Labelled
“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” William Shakespeare
Wouldn’t it be nice if we got a warning like this every time we were unconsciously influenced by things around us? That’s the aim of this hack. It’s not about how you control your brain, but how outside influences control it.
Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones, but Words They Can Control You Language and how it is used as a very powerful effect on us.
I’ve often thought that when visiting websites, we more readily “accept cookies” because of the language used. Cookies collect data on the sites we use and also if you are buying something, your credit card details. Until the Internet came along, the only association with the term “cookies” was biscuits – and who doesn’t like biscuits?
I’m sure that the previous positive association has an effect. Imagine how differently we’d feel if every time we went to a site and the message popped up, “Do you accept shadowing?”.
Of course, the word “cookies” wasn’t called this to be less sinister; it actually derives from UNIX objects called “magic cookies”. Imagine if they used that? Who could refuse the offer of magic cookies?
These are just my thoughts, but there are very real and scary examples of language having a strong effect on people’s decisions.
“Language and how it is used as a very powerful effect on us.”
In an experiment, people were shown a simulated accident and then asked about the speed the cars were going when the accident happened.
When asked what speed the cars were going when they “hit” each other, the average was 34 mph.
When asked what speed the cars were going when they “smashed” into each other, the average speed was 41 mph.
People were influenced not just by what they saw, but the language the questioner used.
They were also asked if there was the broken glass at the accident. When the question was asked with the word “hit” 14% said there was when it was asked with “smashed” 32% said it was. In fact, there was no broken glass at all. Even just the fact that the question was asked, made people believe there was broken glass.
What’s in a Name?
When I was growing up there were no famous people called Neil, so when my namesake Neil Armstrong came to fame you can imagine my excitement. He wasn’t just the first man on the moon he was the first “Neil” on the moon.
That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for Neils.
But this attraction to any link to our own name isn’t something we grow out of, it’s just something we become less conscious of.
People are also unconsciously more likely to choose a road to live on that starts with the same letter as their name starts with. People are even more likely to do a job that has some connection to their name.
Another unconscious way a name affects our actions is where your name comes in the alphabet. This harks back to our school days, where people with N–Z names habitually wait behind people with A–M names, so making them more impatient. In my days it was surnamed and now it’s Christian names, but the principle’s the same.
“People are even more likely to do a job that has some connection to their name.”
Researchers found that N to Z’ers was quicker to respond to limited opportunities because they so often had to wait their turn.
When a limited number of free basketball tickets were offered to a group of graduate students, the further down the list they were, the quicker they were to respond.
In another study, the researchers found that Ph.D. students with later letter names were quicker to post their job-search materials online than the students with earlier letter names.
Even in business, the sound of a company’s name can have a powerful effect. A study in 1979 found that 38 of the top two hundred US brand names began with the dominant sounds K or C, and as many as ninety-three of them contained the ‘k’ sound somewhere in their names.
Self Improvement Hack 9:
Soft or Sharp
Now, look at these two shapes below. One of them is called “sharp” and one is called “soft”, which one do you think is which?
The majority of people say the one on the left is soft and the one on the right is sharp. And it’s not just the way the word looks; it’s the way the word sounds. Even pre-school children who can’t read, match up soft with the round, soft-edged picture and sharp with the jagged, spiky-shaped picture.
It could be worth considering if you are naming a new company or product as to whether you want it to be a bit “soft”. These qualities tie in with why so many of the top US brand names have a hard “K” sound in their name.
It’s easier to categorize relatively new companies. With older companies, there are so many factors that affect your judgment of them.
Here are some examples:
Self Improvement Hack 10:
An Uphill Battle
You would have thought when looking at a map, it would be pretty obvious to tell which place was nearer and which was farther away.
But just the language we use about locations can have an effect on how we view their geography. When we talk about going somewhere in a northerly direction we use “up”.
In one experiment in America, people were asked how much they thought a delivery company would charge for delivering an item between two locations. What they found, was there was a big difference depending on whether the trip was northbound or southbound.
The second group of people was more willing to Drive to a shop located five miles south of the city center, rather than five miles north. Again because reaching the northerly shop was thought to demand more effort than reaching the southerly shop.
Self Improvement Hack 11:
Think of a Colour
It may be nothing more than an association with big skies and the open sea, but seeing the color blue or working in a blue environment has been proved to make you more creative.
For example, when they were given toy parts in either blue or red, the toys that the volunteers constructed in blue were rated as much more creative.
Twelve judges saw greyscale versions of the designs and rated them in terms of practicality and appropriateness and originality (representing a creative streak).
“Seeing the color blue or working in a blue environment has been proved to make you more creative.”
The judges’ verdicts were largely in agreement – toys built from red parts were deemed more practical and appropriate than those built from blue parts, but less novel or original.
I actually chose blue illustrations for this book in the hope it would help stimulate your imagination and make you more engaged in the ideas in it. Not exactly brainwashing – more of a brain-rinse.
In the tests, however, red boosted performance on detail-oriented tasks such as memory retrieval and proofreading by as much as 31% compared to blue.
Of course, it also depends on the environment. In Glasgow, they wanted to make the city look more beautiful at night by installing blue lighting in prominent locations. Although it was never the intention, this blue light had a powerful effect of reducing crime in these areas.
They realized that the blue light, which is the same as the blue light from police cars, unconsciously made people feel that in those areas the police were watching them.
For half the men the cardboard was the color of deep blue, while for the other half, it was bright pink. After a full minute had passed, the men were asked to squeeze a measurement device known as a dynamometer.
They then spent a minute staring at the other color. Without fail, one after another, all thirty-eight men squeezed the device more weakly after staring at the pink cardboard, proving that the color pink has a strong tranquilizing effect.
“It just goes to show that whatever we think, how we truly see the world is never black and white.”
Self Improvement Hack 11:
Watch Cat Videos
“Always laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine.” Lord Byron
In a recent study by the Draugiem Group, it was found that 10% of employees with the highest productivity, surprisingly didn’t put in longer hours than anyone else.
In fact, they didn’t even work full eight-hour days. What they did do was take regular breaks. Specifically, they took 17-minute breaks for every 52 minutes of work.
And to be really productive, it’s just as important to concentrate on what you do in your breaks as what you do while you’re working.
Self Improvement Hack 12:
Laughing All the Way to the Bank
Once you’ve stretched your legs and got yourself a coffee, the last thing you should do is sit down at your desk and check up on what’s happening in the news. What you should be doing is sitting down at your desk and watching videos of epic fails, grumpy cats and sneezing pandas; whatever makes you laugh, in fact.
A study published in the journal Psychological Science found that subjects who watched brief video clips that made them feel sad were less able to solve problems creatively than people who watched an upbeat video.
If you have a project where you want to think innovatively, or you have a problem to carefully consider, being in a positive mood can help you to do that.”
“One of the other great benefits of watching things that make you laugh is that they’re fantastic stress busters.”
Don’t Be Biased
“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it.” Francis Bacon
How biased are you?
You might think you’re not that biased, but you are, we all are.
Cognitive bias is the way our mind skews our thinking or decisions. If you look up cognitive bias on Wikipedia, there is a list of over a hundred.
There is even one called “the IKEA effect: The tendency for people to place a disproportionately high value on objects that they partially assembled themselves, such as furniture from IKEA, regardless of the quality of the end result”.
Some social psychologists believe our cognitive biases help us process information more efficiently, especially in dangerous situations. The trouble is these biases still happen when we’re not in danger and can often lead to serious errors in judgment.
Often, the more experienced you are in a field, the more biased you become. A classic example of this created the central premise for the book and the film Moneyball. It showed the collected wisdom of baseball insiders over the past century is subjective and often flawed.
Statistics such as stolen bases runs batted in and batting average typically used to gauge players, are relics of a 19th-century view of the game and the statistics available at that time.
The Oakland A’s used a more analytical gauge of player performance to field a team that successfully competed with the big teams like the New York Yankees who had a payroll of three times as much.
“The more experienced you are in a field, the more biased you become.”
Self Improvement Hack 13:
You Be the Judge
Bias can be caused by so many different factors. In the following example, it is not by something lacking in the brain, but by something lacking in the stomach.
Parole applicants were clearly treated differently depending on when their cases came up. This is pretty shocking, but at least the bias can easily be counteracted by simply creating more breaks.
Now I want to test your bias.
Think about how you felt when you read that last paragraph. Did the fact that they were “Israeli” judges have any negative or positive effect on you? The thing is, people have quite polarized views about Israel and this can add bias.
In actual fact, it’s irrelevant that the judges were Israeli, it’s just that the study happened to take place there. The findings would have no doubt been the same in any country where there weren’t enough breaks in court sessions.
Still on the subject of food, but on a more personal level, there is another bias called “the current moment bias”. This is based on the fact that we have a really hard time imagining ourselves in the future and alter our behavior and expectations accordingly.
Now you might think you would be less biased than that. But then you would, wouldn’t you?
In fact, we all (well, nearly all) would. Only one in every 166 people believes they are more biased than the average person. It’s what’s called the bias blind spot. It’s the tendency to see ourselves as less biased than other people.
Self Improvement Hack 14:
Biased About Our Own Bias
Take doctors for example. When they receive gifts from pharmaceutical companies, they may claim that the gifts don’t affect their decisions about what medicine to prescribe because they have no memory of the gifts biasing their prescriptions.
However, if you ask them whether a gift might unconsciously bias the decisions of other doctors, most will agree that other doctors are unconsciously biased by the gifts while continuing to believe that their own decisions are not.
“This susceptibility to the bias blind spot appears to be pervasive, and is unrelated to people’s intelligence, self-esteem, and actual ability to make unbiased judgments and decisions.”
The trouble with this bias blind spot is we can try to push ideas through, even if they aren’t very good, purely because we thought of them. That’s why it’s always good to get the opinion of someone you trust in your ideas or projects.
“It’s always good to get the opinion of someone you trust on your ideas or projects.”
The strength of the blind spot bias will show through because what you’re really asking them is to confirm what you believe, that it’s a great idea. If they’re lukewarm about the idea, the first thing you question is their judgment and not your idea.
Another way to counteract your personal bias yourself is to give it time. Put your idea to one side and carry on thinking. When you come back to it later, you’ll find you will be able to judge it in a more unbiased way.
I think this is a great idea, although I think my idea of getting feedback from someone you trust is even better. But then I might be biased.
Self Improvement Hack 15:
Practice With Purpose
“Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.”
I’m sure you’re aware of the 10,000-hour theory made famous by Malcolm Gladwell, in which he argues that to become truly great at anything you need to spend at least 10,000 hours doing it.
But it doesn’t mean that just because you spend 10,000 hours doing something, you’re going to become great at it. Obviously, you do need to spend time working at it, but it’s how you spend that time that really counts.
It shouldn’t be practice makes perfect, it should be the right practice makes perfect.
If you do the same thing over and over again, once you get past a certain level you’re not going to be learning anything new.
Do you want to learn to ride a bike, or do you want to learn how to do a wheelie?
“It shouldn’t be practice makes perfect, it should be the right practice makes perfect.”
“Deliberate practice” is about pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, but it’s also about learning from it.
The two main differences were these:
In contrast, the worst performers were more likely to attribute failure to non-specific factors, like “My rhythm was off” or “I wasn’t focused” which doesn’t do much to inform the next practice attempt.
You want to create new neural pathways, so it’s also about training and learning in different ways.
Music is another area, where how you practice is vital. The difference between a good violinist and a great one is the quality and concentration of the time they spend practicing, not the length. In fact, it was found that the elite musicians actually practiced less, slept more and were less stressed.
Just doing the same thing over and over again, isn’t going to create fresh neural pathways in the brain. It’s the intensity and focus that hacks the brain into learning and remembering new things.
When most musicians sit down to practice, they play the parts of pieces that they’re good at. But expert musicians tend to focus on the parts that are hard, the parts they haven’t yet mastered.
Elite musicians don’t:
Go through their music without concentration.
Repeat skills they have already mastered.
Allow themselves to repeat or “get by” with mistakes, so that these become ingrained in their muscle memory.
Their aim is to reach a level just beyond the currently attainable level of performance by engaging in:
Being very focused.
Analyzing what they’ve done after getting feedback and how they can do it better.
Repeating areas of weakness and making constant refinements.
Whether it’s in the arts, sports or business, “deliberate practice” will have the strongest effect on your brain and therefore have the strongest effect on your future ability.
“Deliberate practice will have the strongest effect on your brain.”
Self Improvement Hack 16:
“What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.”
Everyone likes a bit of a moan, especially in Britain. We don’t like to complain, but we like to moan.
We moan as a way of letting off steam when we’ve had a confrontation at work, someone’s been rude or we’ve got angry about bad service or being treated unfairly.
But moaning can also unite us. It’s an ice-breaker, a way of creating a bond with someone you don’t know. Say you get in a taxi; you can immediately start a conversation by moaning about the weather or the traffic.
The trouble is if we moan too much it can be really bad for us.
The thing is, we see it more as a way of letting off steam than as negative energy. If someone told you about a person who was extremely negative, you probably wouldn’t be that keen to meet that person. You’d think their negativity would just bring you down.
But when we “have a bit of a moan”, we don’t really see it as being particularly negative, more of just a need to chat about something that’s been bugging you.
But unfortunately, even just the smallest of moans is still a negative thought. It may feel like you’re just getting something off your chest, but you’re sending it straight to your brain.
Because when we moan it creates the stress hormone, cortisol. And cortisol has a bad effect on the hippocampus, which is highly sensitive to negative stimuli.
“Even just the smallest of moans is still a negative thought.”
The hippocampus is the area in our brain that deals with the formation of long-term memories and spatial navigation and also one of the few regions able to produce new neurons. Severe damage to the hippocampus leads to memory loss as in Alzheimer’s and can also lead to the inability to form new memories.
Over time, repeated bouts of negativity will cause the hippocampus to shrink, resulting in “declines in cognitive function, including the ability to retain information and adapt to new situations”.
If that’s not bad enough, you’re not just affected by moaning, you’re also affected by listening to someone moan.
We all need to have a bit of a moan at times. In fact, research has shown that if we do keep things bottled up, it can reduce our life by up to two years. The aim is just to reduce the amount we moan.
Self Improvement Hack 17:
Don’t Moan. Complain
One thing you actually can do is to complain instead of moan. Complaining is a positive action and is much more likely to get a gripe out of your system.
Say, for example, your train was delayed for the third day in a row. By calling up the train company or writing them an email, you’ve acted, and just by doing this, your annoyance at it will subside. If you moan about it, it doesn’t make your annoyance subside, if anything it adds fuel to the fire.
You can actually feel the difference between complaining and moaning. Take the training scenario for instance. First, try to imagine you’re talking on the phone to someone from customer service at the train company and imagine the conversation you would have. Okay, now try imagining you haven’t complained, but you’re moaning to a friend at work about the terrible train service.
I don’t know about you, but when I did this I really noticed the difference. When I imagined myself complaining to customer service, I don’t know if I felt angry exactly, more of righteous indignation and forceful energy.
When I then imagined myself just moaning to a friend, I actually felt my shoulders drop and definitely felt more negative. I had to fight to stop myself shaking my head from side to side. Even if you didn’t feel exactly like that, it’s interesting to feel the difference between the two.
How To Complain
So to get the problem off your chest it’s best to complain about it, but it’s important to know the right way to complain. If you don’t, when you’re unsuccessful, it’ll just give you something extra to moan about – and that’s the last thing you want.
Dr. Winch says complaining the right way may not only create a solution; it can curb anxiety and improve relationships. He offers these seven tips:
A complaint should have a purpose
Before you share your woes, have a specific goal in mind.
The more you think about what you want to achieve, the more rational and level-headed you’ll be.
It makes it easier for the person dealing with your complaint. If you don’t know what you want, the other person may not know how to resolve the situation.
“Identifying a purpose is most important when complaining to a spouse, friend, or colleague,” says Dr. Winch, “because this is when you’re likely to take the least amount of time preparing. Don’t voice dissatisfaction until you’re clear about why you’re upset and what you want.”
Self Improvement Hack 18:
Start with a positive statement
Before you launch into the problem, set the stage for a positive outcome. Even customer service professionals will get defensive if you start out in anger.
State something positive, such as the fact that you’ve been a loyal customer or that you share a common goal. This makes the person less defensive and more likely to listen to what you say next.
Self Improvement Hack 19:
Deliver a lean complaint
“If the problem has been going on for a while, don’t go into each and every detail,” says Winch. Instead, talk about the most recent incident. Stick to the facts as much as possible and hold back on emotions.
End with another positive statement
Finish your complaint by ending on a high note. Tell the person if the problem is resolved, then it will improve your relationship. Or simply say something like, “I would really appreciate your help.”
The person will find you much more pleasant to deal with, and they’ll be more motivated to use their resources to help you than if they feel abused because you were having a go at them.”
Consider your listener
If you are complaining to a company, remember the person you’re talking to probably didn’t make the product or the company policies.
“A complaint is a request for help and when we ask for help, we ask nicely,” says Winch. “This can be tricky because we are not motivated to be nice when we are most annoyed.”
If you can’t control your emotions, then at least acknowledge them. “Tell them, ‘I’m sorry if I sound annoyed; it’s not you,’” says Winch. “Let them know it’s not personal. They will appreciate that.”
Self Improvement Hack 20:
Use social media properly
Complaining about social media can be effective because many companies monitor their accounts.
“If you complain on Twitter or Facebook, you’re likely to get a helpful response if you provide enough information for them to contact you,” says Dr. Winch. “If your flight was canceled, for example, you might get immediate results by posting your problem on Twitter rather than standing in line with everyone else for 45 minutes.”
Let it go
Whatever the outcome, be prepared to let it go instead of dwelling on it. Taking the time to complain properly can help.
You can’t complain about everything, but you can stop yourself moaning about it. Here are two tips that might help. Imagine you’ve got a boring document to write:
1. “But-Positive” – If you find yourself moaning “I’ve got this really boring document to write” add but on the end with a positive thought: “I’ve got this really boring document to write, but at least once I’ve done it, I won’t have it hanging over me.
2. Change “have to” to “get to” – You change a moaning voice, that implies whatever it is you have no choice in the matter, to a more empowered voice. Change “I can’t come out to lunch I have to write this boring document” to “I can’t come out to lunch, because if I get to write this boring document now, then it’s out of the way.”
Self Improvement Hack 21:
Don’t Get Stressed
“We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie.” David Mamet, Boston Marriage
When you hear the phrase “performance-enhancing Drugs”, you probably start thinking about the darker side of top-level sport. But the fact is we’re all affected by them.
Cortisol is most commonly linked to stress, but it is in actual fact a performance-enhancing steroid hormone. Its main purpose is to increase blood pressure and blood sugar, to give us focus and energy. The trouble begins though when we start worrying.
Whether it’s having to give a speech, organizing a big event or meeting a certain deadline, you need a boost.
You want focused performance energy, but you don’t want the worry – the performance anxiety. The trouble is, your adrenal gland can’t tell the difference between you needing the energy at work, to you worrying about it at night. The cortisol tap gets turned on and left on and that’s when you get all those negative effects that are associated with stress.
One of the problems is that we call it stress. The word “stress” has so many negative connotations, that when we tell ourselves we’re stressed, it’s just going to make it worse.
Take the term “performance energy” – it sounds like a good thing doesn’t it? Well, stress is just performance energy that’s outstayed its welcome.
So the first thing is to forget about stress and think instead of how to control your performance energy and make it work for you.
Self Improvement Hack 22:
Turn Performance Anxiety into Performance Energy
To start with, we often spend too much time thinking and not enough time planning and doing.
The danger is that the time we spend thinking leads to self-critical thoughts, which leads to stress, which leads to a big hit of cortisol and the next thing you know you’re bent over double, breathing into a paper bag.
If you’ve got a project to finish, don’t worry about whether you’re going to finish it or not, just get to work on it. If you’ve got a speech or presentation to make, don’t imagine how it’s going to go, just write down what you’re going to say and practice it.
Keep focusing on what you’re going to say and not the event itself. If you are starting to get nervous, practicing what you’re going to say gives your performance energy somewhere to go.
“We often spend too much time thinking and not enough time planning and doing.”
If you ever see a stand-up comedian perform on different nights, you’ll be amazed at how similar the performances are. All those moments that felt improvised and spontaneous are often written.
They’ve sweated over every single word. Now I’m not saying you have to go to those lengths but being well prepared will make you feel more confident and help you relax.
Of course, there will inevitably be times when self-critical thoughts will creep into your head and you’ll start feeling anxious. If this happens it’s good to have a few tricks up your sleeve.
Listening to music reduced the levels by 61%, having a cup of tea or coffee lowered them by 54% and taking a walk by 42%.
You could also try eating dark chocolate, which is a proven stress buster. So “death by chocolate” cake does kill. It murders stress. Maybe that’s why stressed backward spells desserts.
But what’s most important is to be well prepared. If you really want to challenge yourself you can create the symptoms of performance energy.
Run up and down the stairs a couple of times and then once you’ve got your breath back, try running through what’s causing you to be stressed. The increase in blood pressure will at least give you a feel of what it will be like on the big day.
“What’s most important is to be well prepared.”
It’s all about giving you confidence and helping you feel relaxed in the lead up to whatever upcoming event you’re getting stressed about.
Keep practicing and not thinking. Then when the time comes, you’ll have the focus of performance energy and not the stress of performance anxiety.
Self Improvement Hack 23:
Make Fewer Decisions
“An expert is someone who has succeeded in making decisions and judgments simpler through knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore.”
And as we normally have to make thousands of decisions each day, it’s not surprising that we often feel mentally drained by the end of it. This is just one of the reasons why it’s so important to get a good night’s sleep, as it has the effect of completely recharging our brains.
The fact that every choice you make is going to use up a little bit of your energy is why a lot of successful people reduce the number of daily decisions they have to make.
In a recent online Q&A session with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, there was one question quite a few people had on their minds: why does he always wear a dark grey T-shirt?
It’s not a question that’s on his mind of course, because he’s decided not to think about what he wears every day. Zuckerberg said, “I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life.”
“A lot of successful people reduce the number of daily decisions they have to make.”
He’s not the only one. Barack Obama is almost always seen in grey or blue suits. He says, “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
Steve Jobs was famous for his black crew neck jumpers, jeans, and trainers. He once even tried to get Apple staff to wear a type of uniform, but the idea didn’t go down very well.
Of course, the problem is not just about the number of decisions we have to make, but also the number of options we have to choose from in each decision. There’s no denying having a choice is a good thing, but there can be such a thing as too much choice.
In a study that was done into voluntary retirement plans in big companies, it was found that for every ten extra mutual funds that employees were offered, the rate of participation went down by 2%. Too much choice can just be too overwhelming, so we end up just not making a choice at all.
The other negative linked with more choice is that it increases your expectations. When you’ve had so many options to choose from, you expect the one you’ve chosen to be perfect. When it’s not, this leads to more dissatisfaction than if you’d had less choice in the first place.
Every time you make a decision, wrestle with a problem or think creatively, you use it up. Then you become vulnerable to decision fatigue, which is when your weary brain makes poor decisions or none at all.”
“Too much choice can just be too overwhelming, so we end up just not making a choice at all.”
This basically means that if you want to save your brainpower for important decisions or creative problem solving, limit what you have to think about every morning.
Narrow down your choice of clothes, get up at the same time, have the same morning routine. Your brain’s at its sharpest in the morning, so don’t pull it by humming and hawing over which cereal to have for breakfast.
While choice reduction can be really helpful, you shouldn’t be too strict with yourself. When you’re not so busy and at the weekends, making choices will actually become more enjoyable.
“Nowadays, I never have to rush through the process of putting together an outfit, so the whole experience has become a lot more enjoyable. It has really made me more appreciative of the clothes I own – they feel more special now when I don’t wear them every day.”
Whether you decide to have a very strict routine or not, what’s most important is that you’re in control of choosing when you have a choice.
Self Improvement Hack 24:
Count the Days, Minutes and Hours
Why is it so hard to keep New Year’s resolutions?
It’s not to do with our goals being unachievable, it’s because we call them “New Year resolutions”. If we called them “New Day resolutions” or even “New Month resolutions”, we’d be far more likely to keep to them.
The reason for this is that the smaller the unit of time a task is expressed in, the closer it seems and so the more likely you are to start working on it.
For instance, if you have a project deadline of three months, it’s better to express it as ninety days. Or if you have something you need to complete in three days, think of your deadline as 72 hours away.
In one experiment, 162 study participants were asked to imagine themselves preparing for a future event, such as a wedding or work presentation, and then told to consider the event in either days, months or years away.
Those who thought about the time until the event in terms of days imagined that it would occur an average of 30 days earlier than those who thought in terms of months or years.
In another experiment, 1,100 participants were asked when they would start saving money for retirement. Some participants were told they would retire 30 or 40 years from now, others that their work life would end in 10,950 or 14,600 days.
Incredibly, they found that people were likely to start saving four times sooner when the time until the event was expressed in days rather than years.
It’s all about a task being more urgent and needing our attention. If you had a resolution that in the next year you’ll get fit, it’s far more likely that you’ll be successful if you say that you’re going to get fit in the next 365 days.
If it’s expressed in days, you might even add some action like go for a run to your daily to-do list, which you’re unlikely to do if the goal’s expressed as a year.
You need to create an unconscious sense of urgency, rather than an unconscious sense that you can put it off until tomorrow.
Self Improvement Hack 25:
Look on the Bright Side
“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right.” Henry Ford
The classic question to find out whether you’re a pessimist or an optimist is whether you think your glass is half empty or half full.
Saying half empty and therefore being seen a pessimist would be regarded as the more negative of the two. But a characteristic most people would regard as negative doesn’t have to be seen that way.
If you can find the silver lining, you can turn a negative into a positive and a pessimist into a realist.
She then decided to find out if seeing the positive in a negative might actually be beneficial.
“If you can find the silver lining, you can turn a negative into a positive and a pessimist into a realist.”
The participants in the test took an impulsiveness survey. Afterward, some participants were told they’d scored very high on the test, suggesting they were impulsive individuals, while others were told they’d scored very low.
Next, the researchers led some of the test participants to believe that impulsivity had a silver lining of making you more creative. These participants read a fake news article that cited scientific evidence to support the impulsive-creative connection. Other participants, meanwhile, read a fake news article refuting that link.
Finally, the test participants all completed an “alternative uses” task. A standard measure of creativity that asks people to list novel uses for common household items.
The results showed participants in the group who were told they were impulsive and who read about its “silver lining” scored higher on the creativity test than those who didn’t.
So in a nutshell, telling people they were impulsive and that being impulsive was connected with being more creative, actually had the effect of making people more creative.
Of course, this isn’t really a hack you can do on yourself, but you could use it to help colleagues find the positive in a negative.
Take a Break
“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”
Five days on, two days off. That’s the work routine most people are used to. And for those two days off (commonly known as “the weekend”) most of us try to switch off and not think about work.
It’s vital to have time to switch off, especially if you’ve had a stressful week. But taking time off doesn’t just have to be about switching off. It can be a great opportunity to come up with new and innovative ideas.
If we keep doing the same thing the neural pathways in our brain become neural superhighways. The more ingrained they become, the harder it is to have fresh and original ideas.
But the brain is incredibly malleable, so if you can find new environments and influences, you’ll soon start creating fresh neural pathways.
Self Improvement Hack 26:
Even highly creative people like the renowned graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister can feel like they are repeating themselves and that their work’s getting stale.
“Outwardly our last year with clients had been the most successful to date, we had won the most awards in our brief company history and the then booming economy had filled our coffers. But actually, I was bored. The work became repetitive,” he said.
In that year he rediscovered his love for his job. He also found that everything that he designed in the next seven years had its genesis from ideas he had on his sabbatical.
This meant that even though one of his initial fears had been that his clients might leave, they actually really appreciated the freshness the year off had brought to his work. So over the long term, the sabbatical had paid for itself.
Of course, you don’t need to takes months off to get the benefit of “free thinking” time.
3M have their 15% programme, which means all their staff has 15% of their week to work on their own projects. The idea for Post-It Notes famously came out of this time. Google have their 20% time, out of which Gmail, Google Maps, Google Talk and AdSense were born. AdSense alone is responsible for 25% of Google’s annual revenue.
Taking time out not only re-shapes your mind but also what you produce. It’s an incredibly powerful tool that should never be underestimated.
“Taking time out not only re-shapes your mind but also what you produce.”
How many times have you heard someone say “I’ve got this great idea for a book/movie/business/product/app/website?” And how many of those people have actually gone ahead and done it?
People can no longer say there’s no outlet for their ideas. Anyone can now self-publish, put a video on YouTube, start a website/blog, or get funding on Kickstarter for a product or business idea.
I think the big problem is the fear of failure. And fear of failure is like nice Dry kindling to the fire of procrastination.
The important thing is to start. It’s all about learning on the job. Why do you think entrepreneurs always talk about “failing fast” and writers say, “writing is re-writing”?
Dr. Piers Steel of the University of Calgary is probably the world’s foremost expert on the subject of putting off until tomorrow what should be done today.
In an article he wrote for The American Psychological Association he said, “Essentially, procrastinators have less confidence in themselves, less expectancy that they can actually complete a task. … Perfectionism is not the culprit. In fact, perfectionists actually procrastinate less, but they worry about it more.”
The thing is no one gets it the right first time, you learn by doing. What’s most important is just to get started and not worry about whether what you’re doing is good or bad. As Margaret Atwood said, “If I waited for perfection I would never have written a word.”
A great way to force yourself to get started is with “morning pages”. This is an exercise popularized by Julia Cameron in her book The Artists Way. Write two to three pages of handwritten, stream-of-consciousness writing, first thing in the morning.
The thing about the morning pages is they’re not meant to be creative. They’re more like morning therapy. Write about what’s annoying you, your worries, your fears; just don’t think too much about it.
You don’t even have to read them back and you certainly shouldn’t show them to anyone else. It is like a warm-up before a race; no one judges an athlete on how good a warm-up he or she does before a race, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less essential.
By not really thinking about what you’re writing, you’re getting your unconscious involved. Our unconscious mind is a hugely powerful tool when it comes to coming up with ideas, but we need to get past our self-critical conscious thoughts to access it.
Another technique is to give yourself a deadline to come up with a certain amount of ideas for something. Whatever you’re working on, try giving yourself 10 minutes to come up with 10 ideas on the subject. What’s important is not to worry if these ideas are any good or not. Your only goal is to think of 10 ideas.
When you’ve got your 10 ideas, you may be surprised to find a few really interesting thoughts in amongst them. Like the morning pages, this exercise helps bypass your critical conscious mind and access your unconscious.
I’m sure you’ve been in a brainstorm where everyone starts to run out of ideas. Well, when this happens in one of my workshops, I get people to do this exercise. People who really feel they can’t think of anything else, suddenly find a second wind.
Once you’ve done your morning pages or have come up with 10 ideas, working on your project of choice won’t seem so daunting.
Self Improvement Hack 27:
Don’t expect perfection and just start.
If you could write 350 words a day and then do that five days a week (even tortured artists need a break at the weekend) for a year, you will have written 91,000 words.
There you go, you’ve written a first Draft of a novel. You see, it wasn’t that hard, was it?
Take Away the Context
When we’ve got a problem to solve, our mind’s tendency is to fixate on the common use of an object or its parts.
Self Improvement Hack 28:
Tease Your Brain
This unconscious cognitive bias that we have to fight is what makes brainteasers hard. To put it to the test, here are a few for you to see if you can beat your cognitive bias at its own game.
But if you take lifts out of the equation and you boil the problem down to “How do you make a journey go quicker?” Suddenly you’re not thinking about lifts at all, but probably about car, plane or train journeys. You make those journeys feel like they go quicker by finding something to take your mind of the time it takes.
All people needed to be was a distraction. The solution they came up with was to put in floor-to-ceiling mirrors. This made the lifts feel more spacious as well as distracting people from any fear of falling and being in a confined space with strangers.
Amazingly, in a survey after the mirrors had been installed, people commented on how much faster the lifts were, even though their speed hadn’t actually changed at all.
But the thing is, you’re assuming that the players’ helmets are still going to smash together. If you take away the problem of players’ helmets smashing together, you’re just left with “How do you stop two objects hitting each other?” Then it’s not about softening the blow but stopping the blow from happening in the first place.
While the idea is still in development and there are various issues to be addressed, there’s no denying it’s certainly a non-obvious and fresh way to look at the problem.
So the next time you’ve got a problem to solve, try to boil it down to its purest form.
Then try one of these techniques to help you come up with unbiased solutions. Just try typing your newly simplified problem into Google and you might find it gives you some interesting starting points in areas you’d never have expected.
“The next time you’ve got a problem to solve, try to boil it down to its purest form.”
The other obvious idea is to get the thoughts of people who aren’t aware of the original problem. State the problem with Dry precision and make sure you avoid the opinion of anyone who might be biased like…YOU!
Self Improvement Hack 29:
Keep Asking Why
“Curiosity is lying in wait for every secret.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Don’t come to me with questions, come to me with solutions.” Not the words of some impatient boss, but of your own mind. On second thoughts then, they are the words of an impatient boss.
Our brain has a lot on its plate, so it wants to solve problems quickly and get on to the next thing. It was different when we were young. Our brains were full of questions it needed the answers to.
We ask about 40,000 questions between the ages of two and five. Four being our most inquisitive age when we ask about three hundred questions per day.
But these were questions we needed answers to in order to understand the world around us. Once children get older their questioning starts to tail off. A lot of people lay the blame on a school system that seems to value answers more than questions. I’m sure that’s part of it, but I also think we don’t need the answers as much.
From an evolutionary point of view, our brains need just enough information to keep us safe and be able to function successfully in society. The answers to any other questions are just an added luxury.
But if you want to be a great problem solver, you need to cultivate a truly questioning mind.
“If you want to be a great problem solver, you need to cultivate a truly questioning mind.”
You need that natural curiosity of a four-year-old, but you want to be asking the questions that have never been asked before.
Take Isaac Newton; he didn’t have a to-do list, he had a why list.
When he was a student at Cambridge, he was uninterested in the set curriculum. At 19 he Drew up a list of questions under 45 headings. His aim was to constantly question the nature of matter, place, time, and motion.
He said he came up with the law of universal gravitation, “By thinking on it continually.” It wasn’t just because an apple hit him on the head.
Like Einstein who said, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious,” he didn’t believe he was a genius.
It’s the struggle to work things out that creates a great mind, not just having the answers.
I don’t think we can just blame schools and society for making us less inquisitive. We need to create our own desire for how and why things happen.
Leonardo da Vinci even created a word for it: Curiosity – an insatiably curious approach to life and unrelenting quest for continuous learning. That’s what made him such a great thinker, he wasn’t just interested in one subject.
He was a painter, but he was also a sculptor, architect, scientist, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, astronomer, cartographer, botanist, historian, and writer.
As well as being curious, it’s also very important to cultivate a thoughtful mind instead of a quick one.
Darwin, like Einstein and Newton, relied upon perseverance and continual reflection, rather than memory and quick reflexes. “I have never been able to remember for more than a few days a single date or line of poetry.”
Instead, he had “the patience to reflect or ponder for any number of years over any unexplained problem. At no time am I a quick thinker or writer: whatever I have done in science has solely been by long pondering, patience, and industry.”
In fact, if you look at Darwin’s notebooks, you will see that he already had the information he needed to come up with his theory of evolution. He had all the jigsaw pieces; he just needed time to put them together.
Self Improvement Hack 30:
Why, oh why, oh why?
Millions of people have been on walks in the countryside with their dogs and had to pick burrs out of their dogs’ fur afterward. But how many would have wondered why the burrs kept their stickiness.
But having this questioning nature isn’t just about discovering new ideas; it’s also a way of questioning something that already exists, that isn’t working.
Here’s an example of how the “three whys” get to the heart of the problem:
With an inquiring mind, you don’t know where you’re going or what the future holds. But what you do know is that when you get there it’ll be a lot more interesting.
Self Improvement Hack 31:
“Sleeping is no mean art: for its sake, one must stay awake all day.” Friedrich Nietzsche
This is the most important of all brain-hacks.
Sleep offers so many benefits. A lot of the time we think if we’re busy we can get by on less sleep and extra caffeine. But if you want your brain to function better and to be more productive, sweet dreams will always beat a strong coffee.
Now I’m sure you’ve experienced those annoying people who say they can function just as well on four hours of sleep as you can on seven or eight.
Well, they’re right and they’re wrong. Studies have found that a sleep-deprived person can, in fact, deliver exactly the same results in any exercise as someone who isn’t sleep deprived.
The problem comes when you lose focus. Whether we are sleep deprived or not, we’re all going to lose focus at certain times.
Dr. Clifford Saper, of Harvard University, said: “The brain of the sleep-deprived individual is working normally sometimes, but intermittently suffers from something akin to power failure.”
If you’ve had a good night’s sleep and you lose focus, your brain can compensate for that by increasing attention. But for anyone who is sleep deprived, they haven’t got the brainpower to steer themselves back to being focused.
What’s even worse, sleep-deprived people don’t realize their performance has decreased.
The A to Zzzzzzz of Sleep
A good night’s sleep returns your brain to full power. Creativity, ingenuity, confidence, leadership, and decision-making can all be enhanced simply by getting enough sleep.
But it’s not just lack of sleep that can have a negative effect on us. Oversleeping can be bad for us as well.
Regularly having more than nine hours of sleep a night or having less than five hours of sleep a night can both be really bad for you. Both markedly increasing your chance of cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks, strokes and angina attacks.
“A good night’s sleep returns your brain to full power.”
It also seems the optimum amount of sleep we should have a night isn’t eight hours, but seven. In fact, even one hour more or less than seven hours increased the likelihood of heart disease, the study found.
But don’t worry, this doesn’t mean your Sunday morning lie-in should carry a health warning.
The dangers associated with sleeping too long only affects you when it happens over a long period. If you’ve had a really busy week at work of early mornings and late nights, then a lie in is vital.
A single, proper lie-in can be all that is required to replenish the brain and boost energy, alertness and attention span after a week of restricted sleep.
The Nap Zone. Time to Hit Snooze.
We desperately try to fight it with double espressos, but your body and more importantly your brain, is telling you, it wants and needs, some shut-eye.
Our obsession with one long sleep has only been adopted since the industrial revolution. Before then most people would take naps. People used to have day beds in their living rooms and they were called day beds for a reason.
Sleep experts have found that daytime naps can improve many things. It can increase alertness, boost creativity, reduce stress, improve perception, stamina, motor skills and accuracy, brighten your mood and boost memory.
Taking a nap also helps in solidifying memories. When a memory is first recorded in the hippocampus (the area in the brain that converts short-term into long-term memory), it’s still fragile and can be easily forgotten.
Napping, it seems, pushes memories to the neocortex, the brain’s more permanent storage, preventing them from being “overwritten”. Sleep is a necessary process that clears the brain’s short-term memory storage so there is room to absorb new information.
So if you’re on board with the whole nap idea, how do you fit one in? It’s easy if you work at a company like Google and you have nap pods, but for everyone else, it’s a bit harder.
And that improvement in performance and alertness seems to be maintained for up to two and sometimes three hours after the nap.
However, the five-minute nap wasn’t long enough to create any benefit, and longer naps of 25 to 30 minutes led to the subjects being somewhat drowsy and less alert for up to an hour after the nap.
Now all you need to do is find a place to have a nap. If you feel uncomfortable putting your head down at your desk, try to find an empty meeting room, or if you’ve got a park nearby, try sitting under a tree. If you really can’t find anywhere, you can always sit on the toilet for ten minutes.
“You don’t need to nap for long to feel the benefit.”
And instead of having a coffee at the end of your lunch break, why not try having a nap instead?
You could even bring the subject up at work as a way to improve productivity. But if you are thinking of organizing a meeting about it, don’t arrange it for three o’clock!
Self Improvement Hack 32:
Health and Safety
The trouble is sarcasm is often used to convey thinly disguised disapproval, contempt, and scorn. Even if it makes you more creative, these aren’t very productive and helpful emotions to have at work.
One of the researchers, Francesca Gino, said: “Our research proposed and has shown that to minimize the relational cost while still benefiting creatively, sarcasm is better used between people who have a trusting relationship.”
If it’s amongst work colleagues and friends with whom you have a good relationship, then it’s a healthy way to put your brain into abstract thinking mode and make you more creative. But if it’s contemptuous or angry sarcasm, the negative emotions it creates outweigh the creative benefits.
Using sarcasm to purposely make people feel uncomfortable is definitely the lowest form of wit. Using sarcasm to tell a colleague in an unpatronizing way that you understand their plight, knowing that it’ll also make you both more creative, is the highest form of intelligence.
“Very often, gleams of light come in a few minutes’ sleeplessnesses, in a second perhaps; you must fix them. To entrust them to the relaxed brain is like writing on water; there is every chance that on the morrow there will be no slightest trace left of any happening.”
Have you had that feeling of having a great idea and then not being able to remember it later in the day? It’s incredibly frustrating.
The idea that was going to make you millions, save the world, inspire a nation…is gone.
Our thought process is very fluid and our thoughts often ephemeral. So don’t leave it for even ten minutes, write it down! It may not seem as elegant as it did in your head. It may not be fully formed. Don’t worry; just make a note of it.
“Don’t leave it for even ten minutes, write it down!”
They can be as simple as one line. This is one of them: “A man inherits all the magic tricks of a great magician.” As he looks at each one he thinks if there’s anything about it that inspires him. If there’s nothing, he puts it back in the Drawer and moves on to the next one.
I think what’s interesting is that if he doesn’t find an idea inspiring he doesn’t chuck it out; he puts it back in the Drawer. Six months or a year later he could have read something or have seen something that would suddenly make one of the ideas that he previously rejected, spring to life.
That’s why it’s so important to keep a record of your thoughts. You don’t know when the other pieces of the jigsaw are going to turn up.
“You don’t know when the other pieces of the jigsaw are going to turn up”
One of the other benefits of writing things down is you’re not just making a record of it on paper, but also in your long-term memory, the mind’s filing system. Once firmly lodged in your mind, your unconscious can start working on developing the idea.
The danger comes when we’re suffering from information overload from the Internet. A lot of what we read online just stays in our “working memory”, the temporary storage area for ideas. And this temporary storage area can only take so much information.
Every time we shift our attention, the brain has to reorient itself, further taxing our mental resources. Many studies have shown that switching between just two tasks can add substantially to our cognitive load. And that’s what we do a lot while we’re online. Flitting from one story to the next, following links, checking email and social media.
Even just reading an online article still creates more cognitive load than reading it in print. There are the distractions of links on the same page as well as the ones within the article. Even if you don’t click on the links in the article, you have still had to make the choice not to click on it and that in itself is distracting.
So how do you remember all the interesting things you read online? The obvious thing is just to bookmark the page. The trouble is, we get into the habit of just reading the title and then bookmarking the page to read later, which, of course, we never end up doing.
My advice is to take a leaf out of the book of another group of people suffering from information overload – the renaissance scholars. And the book you should take a leaf out of is what they called their commonplace books.
The commonplace book wasn’t a diary; it was a way to compile knowledge. They were filled with items of every kind: medical, recipes, quotations, letters, poems, ideas, speeches and proverbs.
So in a way, it wasn’t really that different from how we browse the Internet now. The big difference is how they kept a record of what they found interesting. They wrote it down.
So if you really want the best way to retain information from the Internet you should write it down. Obviously, this requires a lot of work. If you haven’t got time for this, cut and paste whatever you find of interest online into your own digital commonplace book.
If you don’t keep digital clippings, the interesting stories you read will be bundled in with everything else you’re bombarded with online and will be thrown out by your overloaded temporary memory. Surf and turf!
So wherever or whenever, if you have a thought or an idea, give that little spark a chance of greatness and write it down.
“Give that little spark a chance of greatness and write it down.”
Self Improvement Hack 33:
Notice Your Mistakes
“Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time.” George Bernard Shaw
How do you feel when you get an email that has a spelling mistake in it?
I know when I get one, I feel like the person sending me the email has written it in a rush. It makes me think they don’t see it as important because they haven’t checked it through properly.
The thing is, I know I send emails with mistakes in them as well. The problem isn’t always that we haven’t checked it through, it’s that we can’t see the mistakes.
It’s incredible really, but as you’ve just read, it’s because our mind reads the whole word and not every letter. Give it to a five or six-year-old to read and they’d probably have the same reaction as my spellcheck had: total meltdown.
When children are starting to read, they are reading each letter in the word, so to them, it looks like complete gobbledygook. This is because the word patterns in their brains have not yet become rigid.
Our word patterns are so rigid that once we read the scrambled letters as words, we no longer see them as a bunch of mixed up letters but as ordinary words.
The purpose of these rigid patterns is so that we don’t have to read every letter and can get the message quicker. What’s important to us is what is written, not how it’s written.
The trouble with pattern recognition systems is that they’re a shortcut, so it makes it harder for us to see our mistakes.
Try this test. Don’t think about it too much. Just say the answers to yourself in your head:
Q: What’s a common abbreviation for Coca-Cola?
Q: What do we call the sound a frog makes?
Q: What is a comedian’s funny story called?
Q: What do you call the white of an egg?
Did you answer “yolk”? If you did, that’s because of the mind’s liking for solving problems by creating patterns. It’s just trying to save you time, but it’s being a bit too clever for its own good. Because you answer them quickly you’re not really thinking about the answers, so your unconscious takes over.
It seems that the first three answers (Coke, croak, joke) all ended in the same sound, so when you get to the question about the white of an egg, it thinks what part of the egg ends in a “K” sound, oh yeah, “yolk!”.
Of course, if you think about it you know the real answer, but if you answer quickly, your unconscious takes over and looks for patterns. Obviously, the whole point of pattern recognition is to enable us to simplify and cope with a complex world, but as you’ve just seen, it’s not perfect. Perhaps as humans, we’re still in the beta testing phase.
Here’s another example:
After reading the
the sentence, you are
now aware that the
the human brain
Your mind is reading it for what it means, not for the actual separate words. And of course, that’s the important thing. But not if you’re checking an email, blog or document for mistakes.
The trouble is when we’re proofreading our own work, we have to compete with the version that’s already in our heads. So however hard we try, we read for meaning, so we end up not seeing our mistakes. When there’s a problem with the meaning our brain will pick up on it, but if it’s just a misspelled word, it’s a lot harder.
Obviously, whoever reads what you’ve written has the same unconscious patterning, which is why the previous exercises work for everybody. But the big benefit they have is that they are reading it for the first time, trying to discover its meaning – they don’t have a version of it in their heads as you do.
So that’s your first port of call: get someone else to read it before you send it off. This is fine for a document or blog, but you can’t ask someone to read every email you send.
“When there’s a problem with the meaning, our brain will pick up on it, but if it’s just a misspelled word it’s a lot harder.”
When you’re proofreading your own work, the secret is to make yourself as unfamiliar with your work as possible.
Try changing the color of the type and the typeface itself. Even making the type smaller than normal, or much bigger. The whole point is not to make it an easy read for yourself, and in that way, you’re more likely to notice small mistakes.
If you’re not sure about the content of what you’ve written, especially if it’s a longer length project like a book, don’t read it back straight away. Put it in a Drawer for a couple of weeks, then hopefully when you do read it, the memory of it won’t be as vivid. This will help it seem fresher on the page.
As the writer, Neil Gaiman says about his first Drafts: “Put it away, and come back to it after you are well into another project. Otherwise, you will never see the mistakes you have made – but everyone else will.”
Self Improvement Hack 34:
Write by Hand
“Men have become the tools of their tools.” Henry David Thoreau
Imagine ten years from now, it could be quite feasible that children wouldn’t be taught handwriting at school and would just learn to type. Would that be such a bad thing?
Yes, it would.
You might argue that typing is better because it’s easier to do and easier to read. But the reason that handwriting is harder is exactly why it’s so important.
As most people can type significantly faster than they can write, it’s like taking verbatim notes. But the trouble is, you’re not being forced to think about what you write.
When you take notes by hand you can’t write everything down. This means you have to think about the “essence” of what’s being said.
Writing by hand actually uses more of the brain, as you need to make several strokes for each letter. Your working memory gets activated, as well as brain areas used for thinking and language. On a keyboard, one tap creates an entire letter, so your relationship with making the letter is shorter and more superficial.
The more areas of the brain that are firing, the stronger connection is between the content of what you’re writing and your brain; therefore the more you’ll be able to remember later on.
Now you might argue that surely it’s better to take more comprehensive typewritten notes at a meeting, conference or lecture and then review and distill them at your leisure. But research has proved otherwise.