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One thing I often hear from people is: “If I am only more persistent I could do this or that.”
Persistence is a trait we all want to have more of. Yet, somehow, and for many things we want to accomplish, persistence simply isn’t there. I don’t want to admit it myself, but I’ve given up on many projects that, if I’ve stuck with for long enough, would probably bring me more money and happiness in the long run.
I’ve had enough!
I couldn’t stand watching myself giving up on so many goals I wanted to accomplish so I looked for some external help. Books.
Lately I’ve been reading a book called “The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonial who is a psychology instructor at Stanford University. The insights shared are simply amazing. I’ll try to review some of the key principles and how they can apply to keeping your persistence high while learning web design. I’ll also take some principles from other books I’ve read on motivation, like “Switch” from Chip and Dan Heath and advice from the go-to person for personal productivity, Tony Schwartz.
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There are thousands of “mind tricks” to increase your self-control. However, the best improvements come from “tuning” your body, like focusing on meditation, for example.
Studies have shown that people who meditate have more gray matter in their brains than people who don’t. What does this mean? Well, the amount of gray matter you have is affecting your self-control as well as your decision making. The more you have of it, the better.
According to the author, starting to meditate 5 minutes a day and then increasing it as you feel comfortable is probably the best way currently known to science to instantly increase your self-control (and with that, persistence when dealing with new challenges).
You can start by sitting still and slowly inhaling and exhaling. Try not to move or think about anything, and if a thought comes, throw it away immediately.
As long as you make the efforts to slowly inhale/exhale, not think of anything and not move, even if you’re bad at it, you should get better with time. Ever heard of brain plasticity? Your brain literally changes as you try, and do, new things. Otherwise people who meditate wouldn’t have a larger amount of gray matter.
Another thing that affects self-control is heart rate variability, which, according to Wikipedia, is “variation in the time interval between heartbeats”. One of the ways to improve heart rate variability is to do exercises such as meditating.
Also, if you’re feeling anxious and out of self-control, and instant cure is to try to calm down by slowing down your breathing. Inhale slowly and exhale slowly.
Personally, this has been a big revelation to me. If I wanted to improve my self-control and persistence, I thought I needed to use various “mind hacks” to think different about myself. This turned out to be wrong. I’ve noticed that when I feel that I’m out of control, the state I was in was being in a rush and not calm.
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Now comes the part when we talk about psychology and what parts of your thinking you need to change in order to improve your persistence and willpower.
One thing we often do when we achieve something is reward ourselves. Finished a job that was tough? Sure, you can slack on those other goals for the next few days. Or eat that candy you’ve always wanted. This happens all the time with all sorts of goals.
I’ve recently started programming using one course and at the end of each lesson the course gave me a pretty difficult assignment I needed to complete. It took me around 5 hours on average to complete each assignment, but once I was done, I was so happy that I started slacking on my other long-term goals.
In other words, being good gave me permission to be bad.
How this Applies to Learning Web Design
I’m pretty sure learning web design isn’t your only goal. You probably have many other goals in life and reach certain milestones once in a while. Don’t let reaching those milestones give you an excuse to slack in your web-design goal, since that can ultimately cause you to give up (saying “I don’t have enough time today”, then saying the same thing tomorrow etc.).
One way to get rid of this “habit” is to think of the consequences of not doing (your learning web design habit) today and always putting it off. All the missed income opportunities, and the potential experience you could get doing projects of various kinds. How will delaying this decision all the time affect your future?
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Studies have shown that the more specific our goals are, the bigger the chances are that we are going to complete them. If your goal is just to “learn” web design, then you need to change it immediately. What does ‘learning’ exactly mean to you?
Is it watching Lynda videos? Is it making a sample project for someone? You’ll know that you’ve defined what ‘learning’ means once you look at what you need to do and don’t need to think further, but just spring into action. If you look at a goal saying “I need to learn to design today”, you won’t know how to go into action immediately, since you need to figure out what exactly you need to learn.
But if your goal is: “Spend 30 minutes to read X book where I left off” then things get much clearer.
Except for knowing what to do, it’s important to know when to do it. DO NOT OVERLOOK THIS! If you want to really stick to your learning habit, then starting with either doing it first thing in the morning or at a specific time (set up an alarm to remind you) will improve your chances of persisting through the challenges you are bound to encounter.
I’m not giving this kind of advice without personally spending time testing it. When I wanted to learn (in my example, it’s web development), it’s usually the first or the second thing I’m doing in the morning since my experience has shown that my “self-control” is at its peak in this morning period (it might be different for you, observing yourself can ultimately tell you this).
When I started meditating, it was really painful to do at the beginning. My attention span was short (after all, with all the browsing, Facebook and Skype these days, it’s nearly impossible to have a long attention span) and it was really hard to “clear up” my thinking even for 2 minutes. This exercise came in handy, if a thought appeared while meditating, I needed to immediately throw it out and get my mind in a “clear mode” again. After 2-3 days (like with any other practice) this became easier. Meditating for 5 minutes without thinking about anything became a habit after 2 weeks. After that, I tried to extend my meditation time for 10 minutes, but found it to be more efficient if I just meditated for 5 minutes twice a day. Once in the morning, once in the evening.
I was all about “strength of will comes from having the right mindset” so it was difficult to accept that it was all physiological, not psychological. And who can blame me, after all, with so many books telling you that your success depends on “how you think” and “having the right thoughts makes all the difference”.
The other thing the book said is to spend more time sleeping and exercising. Those two weren’t a big problem for me since I spent plenty of time on both. But reflecting on the time I didn’t exercise, I was reminded of the many ‘depression moments’ I had sitting on my chair and not exercising. There are many studies that show that moving helps you stay happy and healthy and my personal experience showed this is totally true.
I think that in the personal development field, physiology is under-rated. What you do during the day, the amount of physical activity you do, affects your thinking greatly. Just look at those athletes…do they look depressed to you? On the other hand, take a look at people with sedentary jobs like secretaries etc. Which group do you think has more ‘depression moments’ in their life? Therefore, before trying to change your thinking, please, please, try to get your physiology in shape.
Set up a time to meditate for 5 minutes a day this week. Also, focus on, and observe, yourself this week. When are you most likely to complete your goals? At what time are you most likely to slack off? When you’re thinking of slacking off, try meditating for a couple of minutes, think of the consequences of always putting off. In a few weeks, I’ll write part 2 for this article on how some other principles have helped me personally stick to my learning habit and not give up. Good luck with your learning!
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