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Build a smarter life, one small habit at a time.

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Welcome to Nela’s blog!

I am a growth mindset hacker, writer, and entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. My blog is a collection of ideas on how to implement small habits that can help you build a smarter life so that you can learn something new, be more productive, work smarter instead of harder, and maximize each day. Each blog post is a response to an answer posted on the Q&A website Quora. I write on a variety of topics including building self-discipline, developing a growth mindset, strengthening motivation and willpower, goal setting, focus and concentration, deep work, mastery, productivity tips and hacks, morning routines, and positive psychology.

Where can you find my published work? 

You can follow my work on Quora, where I’ve been a Top Writer for the past 3 years. With answers that have reached over 21 million views, I contribute to a community of 300 million monthly users, where I have over 43K followers. My articles have been published on Inc., Time, Forbes, Business Insider, Huffington Post, Slate, and Apple News, and translated into over a dozen languages including French, Swedish, German, Spanish, Italian, Slovak, Chinese, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Brazilian-Portuguese, Finnish, and Greek.

I am the author of two e-books:

The first one is called Your STUDY SMARTER 30 Day Plan, and it’s created for busy students who want to study smarter and maximize brain power while maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

The second one is called 5 Keys to Self-Discipline to Help You Transform Each Dayand it’s a collection of tips for anyone who wants to transform their lifestyle and work on achieving their goals in small steps each day.

What’s new?

I am also super excited to announce my online course called Imagine What’s Possible: A Beginner’s Guide to the Growth Mindset. It’s an introductory course on how we can use a growth mindset as a supertool to overcome personal challenges and achieve goals we set for ourselves.

In the course you can explore the following:

  • Discover how your attitude and mindset are critical to success
  • Differentiate between a fixed and growth mindset way of thinking
  • Identify “fixed mindset” behavior that you can correct
  • Apply “growth mindset” behavior through practical tips
  • Practice what you’ve learned with exercises and templates specially designed for this course.

Learn more about it here.

 

How can I be a growth mindset person if I’m naturally a fixed mindset person?

I’ll start by saying that we should challenge what we perceive as “natural.” Your mindset is not something you’re born with, and it’s not necessarily part of your DNA. What does happen over time is this: you adopt a certain mindset about your abilities very early in life, due to your environment and messages you receive from parents, teachers, and other adults. These messages shape your understanding of how you “should” function in the world, what’s acceptable and what isn’t, what your strengths and weaknesses are, etc. The result? You develop either a fixed or growth mindset — or, as is the case with most people, you have a combination of both.

And that’s OK.

The question is this: how do you become a growth mindset person?

We need specific steps, tips, and ideas on how to start implementing habits and ways of thinking that empower us to change our mindset.

Where can you begin?

Idea #1. Use your everyday life as an experiment.

Ever since reading Carol Dweck’s book on the topic of mindsets, I’ve completely changed my attitude about how my brain is capable of functioning. Now that I’m beginning to understand the difference between fixed and growth mindsets, I see patterns in how I viewed my own abilities as I was growing up. I used to think in a fixed mindset way — I believed I was born with a set of skills and abilities that are part of my DNA and cannot be changed. It didn’t even occur to me that a mindset can be changed if we work on building new skills and habits continually over time.

For the past four years, I’ve used my own life as a growth mindset experiment. It’s taught me so much! I switched focus in my career and now I love the work that I do. I improved my personal life and started appreciating every nuance of friendships and partnerships. I incorporated new habits like running, working out regularly, doing deep work in the mornings, having a gratitude practice. And because of writing articles on this topic on Quora and other websites, I created an online course on developing a growth mindset.

Idea #2. Focus on what you have, instead of experiencing FOMO.

FOMO — the “fear of missing out”— is a real struggle for many people. We are social creatures, so it’s no surprise that we look to one another to see how we stack against people in our social circle. This is nothing new. But with smartphones and social media taking over our daily life, our social circle no longer includes just family, friends, classmates, co-workers, and neighbors. We are part of a global stage and that means we compare ourselves with everyone who has an amazing Instagram account or creates fun TikTok videos. So it’s us against the world!

The downside to all this? By witnessing the lives of others we become increasingly frustrated with our own. We see only what we don’t have, which this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic has become even more of an issue since we spend more time at home and on our devices, observing people who are more productive, more creative, more successful in their day to day lives — or so we think. How do we change this point of view? A simple way is to incorporate a 5-minute gratitude practice into your day. Write down 3 things (also people, experiences, even pets) you are grateful for having in your life right now. For more details on how to do it, read this answer.

Idea #3. Stop a negative habit if it doesn’t make you feel good.

It’s likely that you already know where your weaknesses lie. If you’re stressed out (and who isn’t nowadays?), you may turn to chain-smoking, binge drinking, or eating junk food. We know that we do those things as a coping mechanism to deal with stress. So the question is not why, but rather who is in charge? If we’re going to be completely honest, the only person in charge is (and always should be) YOU.

So let’s figure out a way to get rid of a bad habit. If you have a nagging feeling that you’re doing something that’s not beneficial to you, step one is to acknowledge there’s a problem. If you create an awareness instead of staying in denial, this will allow you to move on to step two — figuring out what to do about it. Create a plan to attack it in stages. Reduce the amount of chips or candy you have each week (instead of every day, try having them every other day), go to bed 30 minutes earlier (set up a bedtime routine to keep you on track), or talk to a friend who has quit smoking (ask them how they did it). What’s step three? Keep pushing yourself, stay disciplined every day because all the small steps will keep you focused on the goal.

Idea #4. Push yourself to go outside your comfort zone.

As part of my growth mindset experiment, I decided to try a few new things that I wouldn’t have even contemplated during college. Running, for example. As a fixed mindset person, I used to think you can only be a natural runner — a super athletic person with extraordinary lung capacity. But I started the Couch to 5k program and eventually ran for 45 minutes to an hour without stopping — and found it to be not just possible but actually fun. Another great example is meditation. I thought that people who meditate must sit in complete silence, with eyes closed, for hours. Not for me! Then I started a 10-minute guided meditation with the Headspace app, and now it’s one of the best parts of my day.

What can you do that’s new, different, perhaps something you’ve always been curious to try out? Explore what that is for you. Do the research. Find an app to track your progress. Find an online community and talk to someone who’s an expert in that field. Start with baby steps — try the new activity for 10 minutes a day, and add it to your weekly schedule. Experiment with it. Push yourself. Grow.

Idea #5. Redefine what it means to become a better version of yourself, for YOU.

Don’t let the phrase “better version of yourself” lead you to believe it’s something abstract or unreal. It’s as real as you want to make it. This means different things to different people. What is better for me is perhaps not interesting to you, but the important part is to figure out what YOU think this better (or even ideal) version of you looks like. Start with that first step. Visualize it. Who would this version of you be — someone with a badass job? A French pastry chef? A game app developer?

The next step is to be honest with yourself. How bad do you want to become this version of you? If you really are dedicated to it, you’re more likely to achieve it. Step three is to find out what it will take to get you there. Write down what you’ll need. Research it. Talk to people who will encourage you on your quest and who are also going through something similar; there is tremendous power in sharing goals with others. And the final step is to make it real: do something every single day that will get you closer to where you want to be. Today it may take 10 minutes but over the weekend you’ll devote a full hour to it. One by one, step by step, you’ll keep yourself focused on growth — in a real, growth mindset kind of way

How do I reparent myself regarding discipline?

 

I love the way this question was put together. It shows awareness, wisdom, willingness to make a change. And best of all — it shows hope that you’ll learn how to gain skills that are important to your self-development.

Based on your choice of words, it’s obvious you don’t need to learn about the importance of self-discipline. So I’ll skip that part.

I’ll get straight to the how.

Here are five tips for you to try out.

Tip #1. Kick-start your focus.

The way you start the day — any day — is going to set the tone to whatever you do, try to do, want to do, and then actually do. You can choose to be reactive, which can mean you wake up, get your phone, and start checking emails, Twitter, or Instagram. You might watch the news and get caught up in world events, none of which you can control. Or, you might answer calls or respond to text messages that your friends start sending you as you’re having breakfast. If you’d like to create a different beginning to your day, get proactive by training your brain to be focused as soon as you wake up.

What’s an easy way to do this?

Start your day with this question: What is the one thing I am committed to completing today? This technique trains your brain to focus on identifying goals that are important to you and forces you to prioritize the single goal you believe to be the most relevant in this moment. How do you start? Put it in writing. Write it in large letters on a sheet of paper and hang it on your bedroom or bathroom wall. Read it out loud as you start your day, for example as you’re brushing your teeth or getting ready for work or school. Come up with an answer on the spot and answer it out loud. Then follow up by taking action — focus your energy throughout the day to completing your one thing.

Tip #2. Dive into deep work.

You can say a lot of things to describe the benefits of leading a self-disciplined life, but being spontaneous in managing your day-to-day activities isn’t one of them. There’s time for spontaneity, and then there’s time to do what you need to do. In other words, timing — just like in most other aspects of your life — is everything. Being self-disciplined means you do deep work (concentrating on complex cognitive tasks such as studying, problem-solving, writing) first before you do anything for pleasure. It means you are aware of which times of day should be devoted to doing it, and which times can be allotted to entertainment and socializing.

What’s an easy way to do this?

Make the most of your mornings by building a habit of doing your deep work early. This means taking full advantage of your circadian rhythm (your body’s biological clock), which is your natural rhythm that “knows” what are the optimal times for you to perform certain tasks. For most people, the early morning hours are optimal for deep work. Specifically, the brain’s peak performance is 2-4 hours after we wake up. So if you wake up at 6, then your peak times are between 8 and 10 a.m. Working early allows your brain to focus fully on the problem at hand, with fewer distractions, and less inputs from your environment.

Tip #3. Postpone what gives you pleasure.

If doing deep work early helps you focus better and get the biggest responsibilities out of the way, what you’re also doing is postponing things that are more pleasurable. What’s the point of doing something difficult first in order to reward yourself later? You’d be surprised how far-reaching this practice can be. In a study performed by Stanford University scientists, results showed that delayed gratification can increase your chance at succeeding in many areas of your life — your education, career, short and long term goals, even your personal life choices. This study is now famous and is called the Marshmallow experiment.

What’s an easy way to do this?

Start by observing the things you’d like to indulge in whenever the opportunity presents itself — for example, eating a large slice of chocolate cake or having a second portion of what you already ate for dinner. Then, resist the temptation to immediately choose to treat yourself by thinking of one reason why not to indulge: maybe you’re focused on your new fitness goals or developing better eating habits. And follow up — take your attention away from the distractions and focus on your priorities for the day: complete your homework, go outside for a run or brisk walk, listen to a podcast on an interesting topic, or prepare dinner early so you have time to watch a movie later.

Tip #4. Don’t let social media run your life.

Leading a self-disciplined life means you learn how to say no to many different things: no to giving in to temptations to indulge in pleasant activities, no to your desire to procrastinate on daily priorities, no to distractions that take over your day. They may seem harmless to begin with, but distractions can easily make you slip from your work. One minute you’re just catching up with a childhood friend on WhatsApp, and the next thing you know it’s two hours later and you haven’t picked up your notes to start prepping for your exam. But when you turn off what distracts you, you have a better chance to actually get stuff done.

What’s an easy way to do this?

Be aware that distractions come from different sources, not just your electronic devices. Your goal is to dial down all types of distractions so they’re not in your way. First, set your phone to Airplane mode when you need to focus on your work — try it for a 2-hour period. Next, let people around you (family members, friends, or roommates) know you won’t be available during that time. Check your email and social media apps 2–3 times during the day; start around lunchtime and then check later in the afternoon. Avoid browsing the Internet or reading news all day long; close all tabs in your browser so you’re not tempted to do yet another Google search.

Tip #5. Make discipline your best friend.

Like with all other areas in your life, self-discipline is for the most part all about attitude. What’s your understanding of self-discipline? Does it sound like a practice that is uncomfortable, unusual, harsh or maybe extreme? If it does, it’s time to take a second look because the attitude you have towards self-discipline will either help you or deter you from practicing it in your daily life. For me, it’s never been about what I “should” do or what feels uncomfortable to do. It’s all about what it can afford me. With daily practice, self-discipline trains my brain to prioritize the things I can control, allows me to let go of what I cannot, and frees me up to focus on my personal goals.

What’s an easy way to do this?

Instead of focusing only on daily schedules and tasks, start thinking about your future and what you want to accomplish in 5, 10, and yes even 20 years. Even if practicing self-discipline may feel like you’re sacrificing some things right now (chatting with friends or indulging in a delicious dessert), think about what leading a self-disciplined life will afford you. Write down a list of new habits you’re practicing (or want to start practicing) that can add up to bigger results a year from now. Create time in your calendar to practice them — even a 30-minute session is enough to begin. When you understand the benefits of leading a self-disciplined life, you are more likely to nurture it. It will become a lifestyle that will take you into the future you want for yourself.

👉🏾 📖 If you’re curious to learn more, I recommend a few books on this topic. First, Stoic philosophers have written about self-discipline a long time ago and they wrote about it so well that their advice holds true to this day. Two books in particular made a lasting impression on me: Marcus Aurelius: Meditations and Seneca: On the Shortness of Life. I also found two modern-day Stoics whose work has earned my greatest respect. I recommend their books: Jocko Willink’s Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual and Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living.

How do I become a better student without sacrificing my precious time?

 

I would reframe this question.

When we say we must sacrifice something, it sounds like we must remove something of value that is important to us. As a result, we feel like the cost is too high. But, if we ask ourselves how to best maximize it, we feel smarter about how we use the time we have. As a result, we feel like we’re making progress.

Let’s face it, time is indeed precious — it’s a valuable commodity.

We cannot get more than 24 hours in a day.

So what do we need to do to maximize the time we have and be a better student in the process?

#1. SIMPLIFY: Commit to reaching one study goal a day.

The best way to get your mind focused on what’s important to successfully pass your exams is to start the day with a question, “What is the ONE thing I am committed to completing today?”

  • Here’s why. This question will encourage you to think strategically about the day, keep you focused on your top study goal, and force you to prioritize the one goal that you want to reach by the end of the day. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have many study goals, but it does means that you can finish one today (read a certain number of chapters or practice exam questions, for example), so that you can concentrate better on your other goals in the days that follow.
  • Here’s how to practice it. Write the question in big bold letters on a sheet of paper and hang it on a wall. Pick a location where you can easily see the question as soon as you wake up (next to your bed or the bathroom mirror, for example). Then, read it out loud as you start your day. Take a few moments to think what you want to prioritize, and then come up with an answer and say it out loud too. Later, as you go through the day, make sure you’re working on completing what you’ve identified as your study goal for that day.

#2. PRIORITIZE: Do the most challenging cognitive task first.

Timing is everything! Doing complex cognitive tasks first means taking advantage of your circadian rhythm — your biological clock that dictates which activities you’re more likely to do best at certain times of the day.

  • Here’s what happens. For most people, your brain’s peak performance happens 2-4 hours after you wake up. This is the time when your brain can focus on analytical thinking that requires the most concentration. For studying, this can be reading, writing, critical thinking, or problem solving.
  • Here’s when it should happen. If you wake up at 8, your peak times are between 10 and 12. And just because it’s noon, it doesn’t mean you have to stop; extend this time for another hour or so to maximize your peak performance and wrap up an important section, chapter, or lecture.
  • Here are the benefits. Doing your hard work early in the day allows your brain to focus fully on the problem at hand, with fewer distractions, less inputs from your environment, and with a lot of energy that you’ve gained from a restful night. That’s a much better strategy than leaving your toughest studying for nighttime, when you are mentally exhausted.

#3. TIME IT: Use a timer to divide your day into short study periods.

For most efficient studying, you don’t need to be sitting at your desk for hours. Use a timer to better manage your study session. That way you allow your brain to focus in a more targeted and effective way. Here are some examples.

  • Review study material. Set the timer to 30 or 60 minute increments to maximize concentration; or, for really short bursts of study, try the Pomodoro technique which consists of 25 minute blocks of time, followed by 5 minute breaks.
  • Practice exam questions. Use the review questions from your textbook or you can create your own questions based on the most important concepts from each chapter. Write the questions down on a sheet of paper. Then, use the Pomodoro technique to rehearse for the exam. Give yourself only a short time to answer each question.
  • Take frequent breaks. When you’re done with one timed segment, step away from your desk and do something completely unrelated to work: get some fresh air, stretch, have a snack, grab a cup of coffee or tea.

#4. IGNORE: Eliminate distractions that stand in your way.

If you’ve ever found yourself checking Facebook for a few minutes and then you realized that two hours flew by, you know what distractions can do to your day. No wonder you feel overwhelmed! After all, you don’t have a lot of time left to review or study. Here’s what can help.

  • Check email and social media apps 2–3 times a day. For example, you can catch up around lunchtime, later in the afternoon, and in the evening.
  • Set your phone to Airplane mode. You can also turn off the volume and put the phone away for a few hours so it’s not within easy reach.
  • Avoid constantly browsing the Internet or reading news. Leave these activities for later after you’ve completed all the tasks you need to cover.
  • Set expectations with other people. Humans can distract us too. Let your friends and family members know you won’t be available in the next few hours. You can catch up and chat over lunch or in the afternoon.

#5. TAKE NOTES: Write stuff down.

Don’t just sit and read the textbook passively. Taking notes as you’re reading improves your brain’s cognitive skills, makes retention of information easier, and boosts memory.

  • Write down what’s relevant. This includes key concepts, ideas, and topics. Don’t waste time writing every single word from a lecture. Instead, boost your critical thinking skills by identifying what is relevant to the topic. Don’t know what’s the best way? Try the Cornell Method.
  • Use an outline or a list format. This saves time, enables you to skim the material when you need it, helps you locate information faster, and makes the review process easier.
  • Organize with color. Get notes more organized with multi-colored pens, markers, or highlighters to emphasize the most important sections. Use one specific color to highlight top priority concepts, then pick other colors to identify second level priority items such as examples and additional information.

How can we have a growth mindset in life, and why?

 

Interesting question. I’ll try to provide the why, what, and how.

First…

🧐 THE WHY.

Why is having a growth mindset important?

Because it puts you in the role of the main hero of your own life story.

You’re the hero when you choose to change something about you that you don’t like.

You’re the hero when you decide to stop running away from problems.

You’re the hero when you don’t allow fear to affect your decisions.

You’re the hero when you use critical thinking to overcome an obstacle that has been bothering you for years.

You’re the hero when you say no to a way of thinking that no longer benefits you.

👉🏾 THE WHAT.

What does a growth mindset even mean?

There are two general types of mindsets, according to the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck.

  • A fixed mindset — when we believe that our skills and strengths are set in stone, and that we possess only a certain level of intelligence, a set of strengths, personality type, even moral character (f.ex., we believe we’re good at math and science, but clueless when it comes to learning a new language).
  • A growth mindset — when we believe that we can develop our skills and strengths through continuous efforts, and grow with our life experiences (f.ex., even though we’ve struggled in math class, we don’t let that deter us from pursuing a graduate degree in finance or accounting).

💡 THE HOW.

How can you practice a growth mindset?

It’s the little things that count. You can do something every day to grow your mindset.

Tip #1. Learn something new every day.

It can be anything from brushing up on your history knowledge by watching documentaries on the Roman Empire, to researching something more practical such as how to incorporate strength training into your daily workouts.

Tip #2. Absorb knowledge wherever and whenever.

Studying shouldn’t be limited just to the classroom. You can read books on a topic that you find intriguing, or take an online class, or watch free tutorials on YouTube on developing a skill you always wanted to possess.

Tip #3. Surround yourself with growth mindset people.

People closest to you (family, friends, or your partner) can impact your mood, attitude, belief system, and even what you perceive to be your strengths or weaknesses. Your inner circle should include people who are optimistic and have a can-do attitude towards solving problems.

Tip #4. Change how you perceive success.

Instead of thinking that success is being the best, start thinking of success as doing your best. Focus on finding ways to improve how you work and manage your personal development, from planning a difficult task ahead of time to waking up 30 minutes earlier so you can build a positive habit.

Tip #5. Challenge how you experience failure.

Instead of seeing your failures as confirmation of your inability to do something, start training your brain to see failure as a setback. This is more motivating and helps to build character. Be honest with yourself how you may have contributed to failing, then come up with ways to do better next time.

Tip #6. Don’t take it easy.

Next time you are successful at reaching a goal, don’t just sit back and expect things to go smoothly forever. Maintain that level of success, from making a plan to improve a skill important for your personal development, and then pushing yourself to a more advanced level.

Tip #7. Welcome new opportunities.

Next time you’re faced with a new problem, start by asking yourself, What if? This question is open-ended and trains your brain to think beyond just reacting with a yes or no. It allows you to look at a situation from other angles, practice critical thinking skills, and gives you time to dream up different solutions.

I want to study, but I waste my whole day and can’t concentrate. What should I do?

 

How about making a study plan that is simple to follow?

I do know this. Being distracted and not knowing how to focus can make each day a challenge. Creating to-do lists all the time is not the best path to staying motivated. Checking the mobile phone on and off throughout the day won’t help you get any closer to a goal (but it will keep you up to date on the news!).

If it’s too complicated, you won’t do it.

If it takes too much time, you won’t be motivated to continue.

If it feels like a chore, you’ll give up — sooner rather than later.

So how about simplifying everything about the study process?

Simplifying tip #1. Commit to reaching ONE STUDY GOAL a day.

Narrow down your workload instead of overwhelming yourself. The best way to get your mind on board to concentrate on studying is to start the day with a question: “What is the one thing I am committed to completing today?”

  • Why it’s important: It will encourage you to think strategically about the day, keep you focused on your top study goal, and force you to prioritize the one goal that you want to reach by the end of the day. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have many study goals, but it does means that you can finish one today (read a certain number of chapters or practice exam questions, for example), so that you can concentrate better on your other goals in the days that follow.
  • How you can practice it: Write the question in big bold letters on a sheet of paper and hang it on your bedroom or bathroom wall. Pick a location where you can easily see the question as soon as you wake up (next to your bed or the bathroom mirror, for example). Then, read it out loud as you start your day. Take a few moments to think what you want to prioritize, and then come up with an answer and say it out loud too. Later, as you go through the day, make sure you’re working on completing what you’ve identified as your study goal for that day.

Simplifying tip #2. Tackle the most difficult study material EARLY.

It’s all about taking advantage of your circadian rhythm, which dictates which activities we’re more likely to do best at certain times of the day. That way you maximize your peak performance time.

  • What is peak performance time? For most people, your brain’s peak performance happens 2-4 hours after you wake up. This is the time when your brain can focus on analytical thinking that requires the most concentration. For studying, this can be reading, writing, coding, analyzing, critical thinking, or problem solving.
  • When should you study? If you wake up at 8, your peak times are between 10 and 12. And just because it’s noon, it doesn’t mean you have to stop; feel free to extend this time for another hour or so to maximize your peak performance and wrap up an important section, chapter, or lecture.
  • What are the benefits? Doing your hard work early in the day allows your brain to focus fully on the problem at hand, with fewer distractions, less inputs from your environment, and with a lot of energy that you’ve gained from a restful night. It’s the exact opposite of what can happen if you leave the majority of studying for nighttime, when you’re exhausted.

Simplifying tip #3. Work in SHORTER TIME increments.

You don’t need to be sitting at your desk for hours in order to pass an exam with top marks. Use a timer to better manage your study session. That way you allow your brain to focus in a more targeted and effective way. Here are some examples.

  • Read and review study material. Set the timer to 30 or 60 minute increments to maximize concentration; or, for really short bursts of study, try the Pomodoro technique which consists of 25 minute blocks of time, followed by 5 minute breaks.
  • Practice exam questions. Use the review questions from your textbook or handouts prepared by your professor; you can also create your own questions based on the most important concepts from each chapter. Write the questions down on a sheet of paper. Then, use the Pomodoro technique to rehearse for the exam. Give yourself only a short time to answer each question. Use each 25-minute block of time to cover several questions, and go down the list until you’ve covered them all.
  • Take breaks. When you’re done with one timed segment, step away from your desk and do something completely unrelated to work: get some fresh air, have a snack, grab a cup of coffee or tea.

Simplifying tip #4. Become a master at TAKING NOTES.

Don’t just sit and read the textbook passively — write stuff down. This improves your brain’s cognitive skills, makes retention of information easier, and boosts memory.

  • Write what’s relevant. This includes key concepts, ideas, and topics. Don’t waste time writing down every single word, Instead, boost your critical thinking skills by identifying what is relevant to the topic. An excellent example of how to write relevant information is to use the Cornell Method.
  • Create bulleted lists. This saves time, enables you to skim the material when you need it, helps you locate information faster, and makes the review process easier.
  • Use color. Get notes more organized with multi-colored pens, markers, or highlighters to emphasize the most important sections. Use specific colors to highlight top priority concepts, then pick other colors to identify second level priority items such as examples.

Simplifying tip #5. Eliminate your DISTRACTIONS.

Don’t let distractions rule your life. Here’s how an average scenario looks like: you think you’ll spend ten minutes browsing Facebook or Twitter, and next thing you know two hours pass by. In addition, you start to feel overwhelmed and even stressed out with all that information overload. It’s time to minimize the noise.

  • Check your email and social media apps only 2–3 times a day (around lunchtime, later in the afternoon, and evening).
  • Set your phone to Airplane mode when you need to focus, or simply turn off the volume and put it away for a few hours.
  • Avoid browsing the Internet or reading the daily news; leave these activities for later after you’ve completed all the items you need to cover.
  • Set expectations with others by letting them know you won’t be available in the next few hours; this can apply to family members, classmates, and close friends.

😴 Finally, don’t forget to get enough sleep. Neuroscientists believe that sleep can help us learn and memorize better, and also give our brain time to get rid of unnecessary waste. Conversely, chronic sleep deprivation can reduce our cognitive abilities, negatively impact our concentration, and even reduce IQ.

How can I improve my time management at home?

Create your own recipe for managing time at home. Then stick with it every single day.

It’s something all of us can benefit from, especially now that we’re spending more time at home due to COVID-19. Think of it as a skill that you’re practicing. In the beginning, it will feel awkward. You’ll think it’s hard to stick to a routine. But if you keep at it (no matter what emotions you experience in the beginning), you’ll notice that after the first week it will start happening more naturally. Within a month, you’ll feel the benefits to the extent that you’ll be glad you turned your life around.

So how do you start creating this recipe?

Tip #1. Use your circadian rhythm to figure out what to do and when.

When you get to know your circadian rhythm (the 24-hour biological cycle in which your body responds differently to physical and mental challenges at certain times of day), you can better select activities to help you be more productive. Here’s how.

  • Mornings are great when you need to be most mentally alert. Some scientists call this the brain’s peak performance time, and it’s roughly 2-4 hours after we wake up. If you wake up at 7, your peak times are between 9 and 11 a.m. Use this time for cognitive tasks: problem-solving, learning complex concepts for the first time, researching and taking notes, etc.
  • Afternoons are optimal for collaborating and performing physical activities. Use this time of day to schedule meetings, brainstorm ideas with others, and work together on group projects; or to do work that requires more coordination and physical strength (home improvement, construction projects, physical exercise, etc.).
  • Evenings are the ideal time for strategic thinking. Your brain thinks differently at the end of the day, so it can thrive if you allow it to be more creative. If you’re setting goals, either personal or professional, this is when you can outline your next steps and think about the big picture. You can also use this time for creative outlets: playing a musical instrument, painting, drawing, or writing.

Tip #2. Put a stop to endless task lists with one question. 

Simplify your life and maximize focus by asking yourself this question each morning: What is the one thing I am committed to completing today?

  • Why should you start your day this way? This technique encourages you to think strategically about your day, keeps you focused on your goals, forces you to prioritize what’s most important, and serves as a personal promise to yourself that you will follow through.
  • How can you incorporate it into your day? Write your question in big bold letters on a sheet of paper and hang it on your bedroom or bathroom wall. Read it out loud as you start your day, and come up with an answer on the spot. Then, as you go through the day, make sure you’re working on completing what you’ve identified as your one thing.

Tip #3. Practice a morning routine to give you energy.

The biggest benefit to creating a morning routine is that you become the master of your own time really early. A morning routine can start with just a few simple activities.

  • Eating a balanced breakfastIt should take about 5 minutes to prepare, and can be oatmeal or yogurt with fresh fruit and nuts such as walnuts, almonds, and cashews.
  • Doing a short workoutHow short? It can be only 15 minutes! This really helps if you can’t find the motivation to keep working out on a regular basis. It can be anything from a morning yoga routine to a 20-minute power walk.
  • Mapping out the day. Think about how you will structure your day as you’re having breakfast or going on your morning walk. Visualize what you’ll be accomplishing before lunch, in the afternoon, and in the evening.

Tip #4. Use a timer for everything you do.

When you divide up your work during the day into smaller increments, it becomes more manageable, and your brain is able to focus better on each task. Here are a few examples of how and when to use a timer.

  • When you are learning new information. Set the timer to 30 or 60 minute blocks. When you’re done with one segment, step away from your desk and do something else to give your brain a chance to rest: take a 5 minute walk, look out the window, grab a cup of coffee or tea.
  • When you’re working towards a deadline. Use the Pomodoro technique which gives your brain a 25-minute time block to concentrate, followed by a 5-minute break.
  • When you’re taking a break. Don’t let your evenings pass you by. Give yourself targeted time to relax and do something fun: watch a movie, ride your bike, read a book. Before you begin, set your timer to 2 hours, then go do your thing.

Tip #5. Deliberately remove distractions from your day.

Distractions are everywhere around us, from loud noise to phone calls and incoming text messages. The bad side to all this is poor focus and reduced productivity, so we need to be deliberate in removing distractions from our lives.

  • Be smarter when you use your phone. Adjust the setting to Airplane mode so incoming calls and text messages don’t interrupt your work. Set aside several times during the day to check your email and social media. Don’t let others own your time; that’s your job.
  • Set expectations with roommates, friends, and family. Let them know you’re not available for a few hours when you need to do your hard work. Say you’ll call later or catch up in the afternoon when you finish up what’s most important.
  • Shut out the noise with noise-cancelling headphones or silicone ear plugs, and listen to music that can help you focus better. For example, try instrumental or classical music such as Mozart, Vivaldi, or Bach.

What takes less than five minutes to do right now to save hours of stress later?

 

Here’s an idea that takes less than five minutes.

Ask yourself this short question every morning:

What is the one thing I am committed to completing today?

WHAT IT MEANS

What is this “one thing”?

I’ll give a few examples of what I mean by “one thing.” It can be a single task, activity, or project that I promise myself I will finish completely by the end of that day. It can be any of the following:

  • Writing. An outline for an article I’m preparing, a plan of work for the upcoming week, notes from a book I’m reading, a blog post, a letter to a friend I want to reach out to today.
  • Doing tasks. Proofreading work before publishing, cleaning up and organizing my inbox, preparing for a meeting or presentation, sending off an email with a completed task or project.
  • Running errands. Setting aside time to buy groceries for the week, do laundry, pay a utilities bill, prepare meals ahead of time.
  • Making progress on a project. Reading one chapter from a book and taking notes, doing preliminary research on a work topic, listening to a 30-minute podcast, finishing homework due the next day.
  • Personal development activities. Working out, asking a mentor for career advice, creating a strategy on how to build a new habit in the following month, scheduling one hour in the evening to read a novel or practice a foreign language.

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS

What do you gain from starting your day with a question?

  • Reducing stress related to decision-making. Our brain functions so much better when it’s not overwhelmed with with evaluating priorities, considering the pros and cons, and going back and forth on small things that can be a huge waste of time. If you have to make a choice on something, you should do it as early in the day as possible.
  • Maximizing willpower when it’s at its peak. We all have only a finite amount of willpower that we can distribute on what we want to do each day. It’s not negotiable. So, in order to maximize it, it’s best to have a plan of attack early in the morning so you know exactly where to focus your energies, and why.
  • Encouraging strategic thinking. In order to accomplish something that is of value to you, you’ll need to assess what needs to be completed on that particular day. Maybe you know there’s a deadline at work for one project that you can’t delay any longer, and asking the question will push to you think about what you need to do right now.
  • Staying focused. Once you ask the question, you’re much less likely to give a frivolous answer, and instead you’ll push yourself to be honest about what’s top priority for you. Maybe you didn’t give it a lot of time or maybe you procrastinated, but that’s over now. The question is out there, and now you have to address it and move on to the next step, which is action.
  • Developing critical-thinking skills. By posing the question to yourself, you’ll come up with a few scenarios of what the answer might be. Maybe it’s starting a difficult task, or analyzing a problem you haven’t been able to solve for days, or finishing up an assignment that needs some fine-tuning. Either way, you’ll need to figure out your why and how before you give an answer, and that will keep your brain alert and focused so it can operate optimally the rest of the day.

HOW YOU CAN PRACTICE IT

How can you ask yourself this question each morning?

  • Write it down. Take a large sheet of paper and write the question in big bold letters with a thick marker.
  • Hang it on your bedroom or bathroom wall. The point is that you make it easy to see every day.
  • Ask the question out loud. You can do this as you are brushing your teeth, stepping into the shower, or getting dressed.
  • Take a few moments to think about your answer. Ask yourself what’s on your agenda for the day, then pick one thing that has top priority for you and give an answer out loud to yourself.
  • Keep your answer top of mind as you go about your day. This will help you to avoid getting distracted by other things that might take you away from what’s important to you.

Last tip: Start working on your “one thing” early. Your brain is more capable of tackling analytical and complex problem-solving tasks in the first few hours of the day; for most people, this is how your circadian rhythm works. Make the most of those first hours and get the hardest work out of the way so you can move on to more pleasant activities later, such as working out, catching up with a friend over the phone, or watching a movie.

How can I become less emotional and more stoic?

 

I’d like to start with one observation. Being emotional is not a bad thing. In fact, it is a positive thing to be in tune with your emotions, to give yourself the space to feel them and acknowledge them, and to understand their value. But if you often find yourself being emotional about every single thing you encounter during your day, and if those emotions are what drives you to make decisions in the moment that will likely not be the best choice for you, your health or well-being, and ultimately your future — then yes, it can be beneficial to practice habits to keep those emotions in check.

Instead of letting emotions take over, you can develop skills that will help you make better and smarter decisions. Use logic (not panic) when you’re trying to overcome an obstacle. Use critical thinking skills (instead of mimicking what other people do) to understand a problem. Learn to work with feelings of discomfort (instead of saying, I can’t do it!) and allow yourself to be outside your comfort zone often, so that when you are experiencing a time of turbulence — like we are currently experiencing in the COVID-19 pandemic — your brain will be better equipped to deal with the changes in your life.

Here are three things you can do to keep emotions in check.

#1. Ride with the turbulence.

It’s an absolutely normal thing to encounter unexpected situations in your life. Granted, this current situation is beyond out of the ordinary, but it’s not the first time you’ve encountered a turbulent time, right? In fact, more often than not, our week takes a different turn from what we imagine it should be. In the past, you would think that you have ten days to complete a project and then suddenly the deadline gets pushed up so you have only three days left. These days, it’s the opposite — you have more time on your hands. What do you fill it with? It’s best to be careful not to let emotions take over your whole day, whether they’re feelings of anger, sadness, helplessness, or frustration. It may actually benefit you if you were to go with the flow, and take each day as it comes.

How can you do it?

Step one is this — be aware of the thoughts that are running through your mind as you’re reacting to the unexpected event. The thoughts might sound something like this. It’s the end of the world! I’ll never see my friends again! We will never feel safe going to the movie theater! Step two is this — tell yourself that whatever emotion you are feeling is only going to be temporary. You can say, Of course I’m upset, no wonder — everyone else is going through the same thing! It’s normal to have an emotional reaction right now but it will pass! And step 3 is this — ask yourself, What can I do right now to make myself feel better? You can choose to get off Twitter, turn off the TV for one hour, take a few deep breaths, do a crossword puzzle (try the Word Calm app), make yourself a snack, or write in your journal so you give your brain the time and space to process what’s going on.

#2. Start seeing obstacles in a new light.

While you’ve been stuck at home during quarantine, have you found yourself awfulizing with thoughts like, If only I weren’t at home all the time I’d still be following my diet but now I can’t? Or, if this didn’t happen, I’d be celebrating my birthday with all of my friends? In those moments when you’re trying to rationalize your decisions, you’re blaming the obstacles (in this instance, the current situation) for not allowing you to achieve a goal. You’re giving external factors top priority and more importance than anything you can do. But what if obstacles were to serve a different purpose in your life? Instead of using them as an excuse to avoid something or even to quit something, what if you could use them to your advantage?

How can you do it?

In his book Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual, retired US Navy SEAL Jocko Willink has a power tip for how to deal with obstacles. When you reach an obstacle, instead of saying, Oh no! you should embrace it and say, GOOD! Why talk about an obstacle in a positive light? It’s a subtle switch of your mindset that can yield big results because it affects how you react to a problematic situation, gives you a feeling of control, and allows your brain to be more flexible instead of rigid. If you’ve been getting bad grades in your college courses in the past year, GOOD! Now you’ll have more time to prepare and organize your study days more effectively. If you’ve been complaining that the apartment is a mess because your busy schedule doesn’t give you time to clean things up, GOOD! Now you’ll have the time to tidy up. If you feel bad that you haven’t been reaching out to friends as much as you used to, GOOD! You can send a quick text message or make a call to let them know you’re thinking about your friendship.

#3. Give yourself the time to grow your mindset.

Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford, wrote a book called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dr. Dweck makes an important distinction between two mindsets: fixed and growth mindset. A fixed mindset is when you think the world is “fixed” i.e. everything stays the same forever, and people never change and are incapable of being in control of their lives. You’re lucky if you have good genes, a particular talent or gift; conversely, if your IQ isn’t stellar, too bad because you can’t do anything to improve your intellect. Translated into the current situation, having a fixed mindset can mean we see the world as completely out of our control. Governments are in power, presidents can harm or save the population of their country depending on decisions and laws they put into effect. And we the people just react and receive — the news, new laws, curfews, and restrictions. That way of thinking can make us feel powerless. Here’s where having a growth mindset can prove helpful.

How can you do it?

Shift your focus from generalizing and awfulizing about the global health crisis to identifying something that is within your control and that you can work on every single day. Instead of scrolling through the news on Twitter for hours and getting more and more anxious, identify one area of your life that you can improve and that has a positive side effect of making you feel better about yourself. For example, take that extra time you have to practice a skill like painting or making bread. Schedule 10–15 minutes each morning to do a simple workout routine that will get your endorphins going and you’ll benefit from this “happy” hormone, especially now. Next time you talk to a friend over the phone, ask them about their day and if there’s something that’s bothering them — then offer to help them solve a problem or reach a decision that’s best for their situation. Being proactive means you’re no longer reacting — you’re taking control of your lives in a rational and logical way.

How do you improve your self control?

 

You don’t do it all at once — you do it in stages. In small steps. In actionable, easy to follow steps. Steps that you repeat today. Tomorrow. Next week. All month. All year.

What does it mean, do it in small steps?

Start here: read these tips and choose one to practice immediately. Not tomorrow, not next week. Right now.

Tip #1. Take ownership of your day.

To be clear about this tip — making a decision isn’t about mumbling a few words to yourself like, “I want to get task X done at some point today.” It’s more about training your brain to get focused on what it needs to do as soon as you wake up. Here’s how I practice it. I start my day with this question: “What is the one thing I am committed to completing today?” This technique helps my brain evaluate the goals that are important to me right now and forces me to prioritize one goal that needs attention immediately. In addition, I give myself the time to think about what’s important in my life, instead of letting other people or situations dictate what I should or shouldn’t be doing.

How can you do this?

Put it in writing. Write it in big bold letters on a sheet of paper and hang it on your bedroom or bathroom wall. Read it out loud as you start your day, for example as you’re brushing your teeth or getting dressed. Come up with an answer on the spot and answer it out loud. Then follow up by taking action: focus your energy throughout the day to completing your one thing.

Tip #2. Maximize your willpower reserves.

When you wake up, it’s common to feel a sense of overwhelm because there are so many things you need to do, from small routine tasks to working on large projects towards bigger goals, both professional and personal. Your first response might be to delay doing anything because it’s hard to decide what to do, which translates into a bad habit of procrastinating. That’s a self-imposed obstacle. Why? Because you (and I and everyone else) have a finite amount of willpower that takes you through the day. And that willpower gets weaker and weaker as the day progresses. So if you think you’ll do your homework after dinner, think again. Chances are you’ll put if off and turn on the TV instead.

How can you do this?

Practicing self-discipline means that if you want to focus on priorities, you should work on them early. As early in the day as possible — in fact, I start right after my breakfast. Do that task that you’ve been putting off all week before lunchtime. Write up a plan for the school or work week ahead of time. Finish up doing homework or reviewing your exam questions that you’ve been procrastinating on for days because you’d rather do something more fun. The benefit? You gain a sense of accomplishment early that will make you feel better about the whole day.

Tip #3. Pick one positive habit and keep it simple.

OK, so you’ve figured out that there’s something in your life you’d like to change because you don’t like what you’re currently doing. It can be a fitness goal (to start running in the mornings like you used to in college), a health benefit (to stop eating dinner in restaurants three times a week), or better manage your time (to get more sleep instead of watching Netflix until 2 a.m.). All those new habits you want to acquire will need self-discipline, time, and repetition. If this sounds unappealing, it’s because you make it sound that way: you feel like you have to be doing something difficult when you’d rather be relaxing.

How can you do this?

First, stop telling yourself that keeping a life-changing habit is a way to punish yourself. That’s the wrong attitude to have for anything in your life. If you keep thinking this way, you might give up on many things that can make a huge difference for you. Instead, think of a new habit as a choice that you make in order to become a better version of yourself. And next, make the change as easy as possible by starting with tiny steps. Instead of saying I have to work out for two hours each evening after work, I switch to a home workout of 30 minutes. Or, I go to bed 15 minutes earlier and read so I can fall asleep faster.

Tip #4. Learn how to control “busy” thoughts.

When I was in my teens, I first started noticing thousands of thoughts bouncing around in my mind. The more I read books, absorbed new information from classes in school, talked to my friends, interacted with family members, and observed the world as a young adult, the more confusing everything seemed. I started to awfulize about so many things. I thought it’s just me! Surely nobody else thought this way. And then as I grew up I realized that it’s not just me, it’s all of us. The older we get, the more cognitive input we have, and we often struggle to categorize this input. What’s relevant to our life and what isn’t? Which problem do I need to solve? Is this something I can control, or can I let it go?

How can you do this?

If you feel overwhelmed, have negative or self-critical thoughts, or find yourself ruminating on past events and personal failures, you are not alone. Remember: even though you may think it, you are not your thoughts. You are much bigger than your thoughts! Next, start considering a few habits to reign in those thoughts and categorize them as either relevant or just dramatic. You can start with a 10-minute meditation to calm your thoughts and even slow down the chaos. You can also devote 30 minutes a day to walking in a park while listening to a podcast so you can tune out the busy noise around you.

Tip #5. Say no to distractions.

If you think all the gadgets we have at our fingertips today are to blame for getting distracted easily, think again. Even the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote about this in his book On the Shortness of Life. Distractions and pointless activities were very much a challenge for people in ancient Rome! For example, Seneca describes people’s struggles with gluttony, vanity, focusing on materialistic things, and always trying to impress others. Sound familiar? Maybe today we don’t host lavish banquets to impress guests with an endless feast of food and wine, but we do pay attention to what’s shown on social media and we observe the images of surreal lifestyles on Facebook or Instagram. And that often leads to feelings of dissatisfaction, envy, and self-criticism.

How can you do this?

If you regularly check Instagram, Facebook, or other social media, then take everything you observe and read with a grain of salt. Chances are those pictures and updates are not a real representation of everyday life, but rather a tactic someone is using to sell a product, service, or brand. Next, don’t waste time on distractions if they don’t serve the purpose of adding value to your life. Set your phone to Airplane mode when you need to focus. Let people know you won’t be available for a few hours until you get important tasks done. Check email and social media apps in the afternoons and evening. Close all tabs in your browser that may be tempting you to unfocus from your top priorities for that day.

If you found these tips useful, you might enjoy my e-book called 5 Keys to Self-Discipline to Help You Transform Each Day. Learn more about it here.

What have you realized by staying at home during this lockdown?

 

Quite a few things.

🚙 I realized how much I took my daily routine for granted, didn’t think much about it at all. Drive to work, take a walk close to my office around lunchtime to get some much-needed sun, go to the gym in the evenings, shop in my favorite grocery store and chat with the friendly employees. It all feels like luxury and freedom now.

😁 I realized how much I miss seeing people smile. Much as though I appreciate wearing a mask outside or at the store (and I always feel relieved when I see people wearing one), I miss that random smile from a stranger on the street or a neighbor taking their dog out for a walk. I’ve started looking for the smile that reaches people’s eyes when they pass by me, and we often nod our heads and say hello and that feels nice.

💔I realized how fragile we all are. How human, emotional, worried, spontaneous, cautious, anxious we are. How much we need to share our thoughts and feelings and experiences with one another, no matter how tough we may appear on the outside.

👬🏿 I realized how this pandemic brings out the best in people and also the worst in people. When something of this magnitude hits the entire planet, you look to your loved ones, your close friends, your neighbors, a mentor, a grandmother or grandfather, a partner. You seek solace, you seek wisdom — and most of all, you seek a calm voice telling you it’s going to be all right. That’s what you need right now. A leader. A wise person, someone to rely on and to trust. What you don’t need is someone who awfulizes, who focuses only on themselves, who creates drama and who has meltdowns on a daily basis because they cannot continue leading a lifestyle they’re used to. They can’t party. They can’t entertain or be entertained. They can’t get attention because everyone is busy just trying to make it through this day and the next.

🗒 I also realized how important it is to structure your day. Little habits, small things you do, the meals you prepare, the work that you organize and divide up in small chunks. All of the scheduling and preparing and planning truly helps. It makes each day and week go by faster. And it beats sitting on the couch and watching TV for hours and hours.

🏃🏾‍♀️Speaking of exercise, I realized how important it is to move my body. Any form of exercise, no matter how small or insignificant, is something I look forward to nowadays. Going to the gym was a habit, but I did it automatically because it was something I put on the schedule — like a maintenance plan. Now, I take brisk walks between meetings in my home and I log the steps with a pedometer app so I can see how much these small steps add up. And when I go outside for an evening walk, I love the moment of being outdoors, in the fresh air, feeling free.

🌺 I realized that I missed spring of 2020. In a few weeks it will be summer, and an entire season went by and I missed it. I did hear birds and their wonderful singing, and yes I saw trees going into full bloom. But I didn’t have the time to go out there and walk slowly and enjoy it.

🥖 I realized that bread-making is a true skill. I now understand how much time and love and effort goes into making dough, letting it rest, kneading it to perfection, being patient, and baking it at the right temperature. Not just buying it at the store and then eating it, often in a hurry, for lunch. I admire and salute all bakers over the world for their craft.

😃 I realized how smiling and laughter possess a healing power. We need more of both.

👩🏻‍🤝‍👨🏿👬🏿👩🏾‍🤝‍👩🏼I realized how important it is to reach out and talk to other people. Often times, we are all busy and and rushing to get from one place to the next. It’s work and school and all other obligations, and there’s rarely time to stop and look up, take time to process what is happening, and then find a few moments to reach out to someone and talk to them about it. Having a conversation is very important. Sharing your life with others is important. Asking them how they’re doing, telling them about your day, asking questions, making that connection, no matter how small — that is truly priceless. Let’s always remember we’re here to support one another, in any small or big way we can. It will make any turbulent time in life, not just this one, a little bit easier to overcome. ♥️