Tag Archives: Learning

Harness the power of new year anti-resolutions

This post might seem a bit late because the new year has just passed and you already have your resolutions. However, there’s a very good reason for the timing of this injection of truth into your mental diet:

People have already given up on their resolutions or they’re about to.

I don’t want to presume that includes you but you will have no doubt made great promises to change in previous years, only to undo all the good intentions in very short order.

Why is failure to follow through with new year’s resolutions the standard rather than the exception? In short, we’ve been lied to by clever marketers with positive messages that completely ignore science and human experience.

Positive self-help crap is dangerous because it villifies the dark side of human psychology. I spent years avoiding subjects internally and in relationships because they were “negative”. That is, they were emotionally uncomfortable so surely focusing any attention on such things would be harmful right?

Wrong. The avoidance of painful emotions backfires for a number of reasons:

  1. Burying emotions increases shame, which is the greatest threat to your confidence.
  2. Acknowledging the negative is the path to resolving internal issues.
  3. There will be actions you will need to take in order to improve your psychology, relationships and your circumstances. Avoidance virtually guarantees inaction and worsening of problems.
  4. The “darkness” is more powerful motivator than the positive.

That last point is particularly relevant to the new year because countless people will have set resolutions and goals, usually according to the same old positive self-help mantras: “Focus on the positive”, “dream big”, “experience what it would be like to have your dreams now…”

Follow your anger

The brilliance of anti-resolutions is that you do virtually none of the traditional things when attempting behavioural change. Instead, here is a new blueprint for resolution making:

  1. Decide what you want to change
  2. Look backwards at your failed attempts to change in this area. Feel crappy about it.

Researchers have found that the most powerful motivator for change is disgust closely followed by anger. In fact, the anger is a precursor to passion. Passion is equal parts anger and love.

So “do what you love”, “follow your passion” and “follow your bliss” are great and sound good in your typical positive thinking articles, but they’re incomplete because they neglect the other, more powerful side of human psychology — dark emotions.

Set anti-resolutions instead

Anti-resolutions, as I call them, are the opposite of the usual resolutions people halfheartedly set and then give up on in short order. With anti-resolutions you instead set a negative goal – to not change, but instead to become aware that you suck in that area and really feel the suck.

Aim to increase that feeling until you’re so worked up about it that you MUST change.

Anthony Robbins says that if you create enough leverage, you can change anything. Unfortunately, because we’ve been taught the erroneous belief that uncomfortable emotional states are bad, we avoid the very things that will help us change in the most profound way. All emotional states have utility if we listen to them instead of trying to push them away.

Traditional self-help actually hinders your success

The research of Gabriel Oettingen et al, as detailed in Rethinking Positive Thinking supplies further evidence that imagining the successful completion of your goals by itself is a recipe for failure.

The more you envision successful goal achievement the less likely you are to achieve it. Imagining positive outcomes serves to demotivate us because at some level we feel it has been achieved.

Oettingen recommends a technique called mental contrasting that research has shown to be far more effective in helping people achieve their goals. Instead of looking ahead and only feeling great about the future success, mental contrasting also tasks us with acknowledging the internal obstacles we face and then coming up with a simple plan for moving in a different direction when the obstacle arises. The entire process has been coined WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan).

In summary, instead of setting resolutions that you probably already sense you’re going to quit on, anti-resolutions and feel sucky about the areas you’d like to change in. When you feel so much anger and disgust that you MUST change give, then you can give the mental contrasting technique a go.

For more on metal contrasting, check out the WOOP website.

 

 

 

 

 

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Creating a schedule for language learning that works

How can you learn a language effectively in the busy deadline driven world that we live in?

Learning a language takes work and often that means time we don’t have. It often leads us to try and “hack” the learning process in an effort to speak fluently without going through the teething stages that inevitably arise.

First, let’s tackle that idea of language “hacking”. The term “hacking” has become prominent over the years with a number of well known public figures using “hacks” to learn skills in record time. Tim Ferriss is probably the most popular proponent of hacking and he has carved out a niche in the skill-development field by focusing on these ideas.

In the language learning field, the Irish Polyglot Benny Lewis has used the term “language hacking” a lot and even produced a series of Teach Yourself language books with the hacking approach in mind.

Simply put, hacking is ruthless effectiveness. It is refining the content of a language down into usable chunks that can be systematically practised repeatedly.

So the first point in learning a language effectively with time pressure is this: Distill down the input you need to become fluent. Focus in on key structures, vocabulary and situations.

This distillation process is a skill in itself, which is why people who have learned multiple languages find subsequent languages relatively easy to acquire.

Materials/resources

Find a limited amount of quality material, preferably with audio, and focus on learning the language progressively every day.

The key here is every day. Find something that you can focus on often and work through the material progressively.

Good audio resources accompany many of the beginner language courses such as Teach Yourself, Routledge’s Colloquial Series and Assimil. The key is to process the lessons in a focused way. My personal approach is to spend a week on each chapter of a Teach Yourself book, listening and really getting inside each of the audio lessons. After the 19 or so weeks you’ll find yourself knowing the course inside out and more importantly, understanding the language contained within.

There is more you can do in order to really gain maximum benefits from audio lessons and I go deep into those ideas in my book Fluently Speaking. For example, shadowing the audio (speaking the language in sync with the speaker) is a great practice and one worth adding to your language toolkit.

Speak now

Begin speaking right away, even if it is to yourself at first. I like to acquire and organise the material I learn and package it in speaking challenges. Some of these speaking challenges, particularly early on, involve learning language for a specific situation and then videoing myself speaking it.

Speaking assignments like this are great at developing your internal language machine. Predominantly, however, you’ll want to speak with actual native speakers either live out in the world or with a tutor/speaker via Skype or similar. Italki is a popular service and I highly recommend going there for quality speaking partners and tutors.

Find topics or situational conversations you’d like to become proficient in and start engineering your learning around those areas. This is probably the most important key to “hacking” a language — learn that which is practical to you.

There you have it — language learning need not be complex. With a bit of thought you can begin learning a language immediately with a focus on progression and practicality.

The next post will cover language games and apps and how to integrate them into your language learning lifestyle.

My book Fluently Speaking — A Modern Guide to Mastering Any Language is available in the Amazon Kindle store and UK users can find it here in the Amazon UK Kindle store.

How to order food and drink in the Czech Republic

Snímek 076Czech can be a daunting language to learn for some but, like the 1000 mile journey that starts with a single step, it can be learned by making the effort early on to speak it as much as possible.

A friend of mine recently departed New Zealand to live in the Czech Republic and has faced the task of starting afresh — new culture, new people, places, weather, food and of course, language.

As he recounted his story of how he successfully acquired a coffee using nothing but Czech it reminded me of how exhilarating it can be to speak a new language and be understood. It also reminded me about how learning languages by making “missions”.

Missions (thanks to Benny Lewis for this idea) is the idea that you prepare for a specific encounter in a new language then go out and test it. Not only does this give you confidence it also provides the feedback you need to progress faster.

So, recounting my own encounters with the Czech language, here is my primer for the beginner or traveler seeking to be able to use just enough Czech to get by.

Note: If you are learning Czech, I have provided some grammar points which give you the jumping off point to learn more grammar. Having learned a lot of Czech, I recommend learning just enough grammar to know what’s going on but not too much too early. Grammar fatigue is definitely a diagnosable condition for learners of Slavic languages! Use one of the common textbook/audio programmes in the initial stages and you’ll go well, such as: Colloquial Czech, Teach Yourself Czech.

Before you start, check out this Czech and Slovak pronunciation guide.

From the top: saying hello, goodbye and thank you

Dobré ráno   Good morning (before 9am)
Dobrý den   Good day 
Dobrý večer   Good evening (after 6pm)

Děkuji (vám)   Thank you
Děkuji mockrát   Many thanks
Děkuji vám pěkně   Thank you kindly (lit. ‘nicely’)
Na shledanou   Goodbye

Making requests

Now you’ve said hello, how do you actually order something? A common way to ask for something in Czech and other Slavic languages is to say “I will give myself…” We would never phrase it that way in English, which serves to show how direct translation between languages is many times not possible.

Dám si jednou kávu prosím   I will have a coffee please (lit. ‘I will give myself a coffee please).

The above example is very common and is constructed from the verb dát – to give.

Alternatively, you could use the verb vzít si – meaning “to take”:
Vezmu si jedno pivo prosím   I will take a beer please

Using the imperative form, you could say:
Dejte mi…   Give me…

Dejte mi jedno pivo prosím   Give me a beer please

This form can sound very direct so use please (prosím) either at the beginning or end of the sentence.

Plurals

Plurals can get quite complicated in grammar terms, but for the most part they just require slight modifications to the noun. For example:

Dám si dvě kávy a tři piva prosím   I will have two coffees and three beers please

For plurals of 2-4 items the nouns decline (change ending) in a predictable way depending on gender. There are some different noun endings in each of the genders but here are the main ones

Feminine: káva => kávy   coffee, coffees
Neuter: pivo => piva   beer, beers
Masculine: salát => saláty   salad, salads
čaj => čaji   tea, teas (masculine noun with soft ending)

Plurals can get a bit daunting for a beginner and for the most part the ones above will fit a number of common menu items. At 5 items and beyond you encounter the Genitive case and the noun endings are completely different. However, there’s no need to worry about this in the beginning stages.

If you know the nominative noun form then you’ll be able to ask for what you want and refine later as you learn more grammar and the modifications needed.

More complex constructions

If you feel like going a bit further and want to be a bit more expressive, try using different forms, such as the conditional.

In English we’re just as like to say “I would like” as much as “I want”. In Czech the conditional is made in a similar way — using the past tense of the verb with some conditional language:

Já bych si dal   I would like (note the past tense of the verb dát)
Chtěl bych ten zákusek   I would like that cake (from the verb chtít – to want)
Rád bych   I would like (using the rád – to like)
Raději bych   I would rather

There is a wrinkle here, and this is where Slavic languages can seem overly complicated. For female speakers you’ll need to add an ‘a’ on the end of the past tense stem.

Já bych si dala; Chtěla bych; Ráda bych

Sometimes you need to know if the place you’re at has something. For this situation use the verb mít – to have in this case:

Máte zmrzliny?   Do you have ice creams?
Máte nějaké zákusky?   Do you have any cakes?

To ask for “what kinds of” you could say:

Jaké máte vino?   What sort of wine do you have?

With or without?

Asking for something with something else we use the instrumental case (don’t panic — it’s a simple noun ending change that is predictable and common). Use the preposition “s” like the s in silence.

Vezmu si jeden čaj s citronem   I will take a tea with lemon (citron – lemon)
Dám si jednou kávu s mlékem   I will have a coffee with milk (mléko – milk)

Instrumental endings
The prefix -em is for masculine nouns (usually these end in consonant) and neuter nouns (usually ending in o).

For feminine nouns, use the prefix -ou (pronounced like the word ‘owe’).

Já bych si dal palačinky se slehačkou   I would like pancakes with whipped cream (from the feminine noun slehačka – whipped cream).

Without — the Genitive case
The genitive case is simple in many ways as the instrumental. Use it after the word bez – without.

Dám si dvě kávy bez cukru prosím   I will have two coffees without sugar (from the word cukr – sugar).

So much grammar in such simple phrases

One thing you can see from these examples is how grammar is woven into the sentences in a seamless way. This is why studying grammar in isolation of sentences is not the optimal way to learn Czech.

Instead, focus 80% of your energy on learning phrases and sentences. Having learned just enough grammar to understand the different cases and how they work, set out to learn language you can use in everyday situations and use it.

I hope, however, this primer into the Czech language can at least get you to use it on your travels. In the next post I will script out a whole bunch of useful travel phrases so stay tuned.

Glossika language learning — totally worth the investment

glossikaIn November I stumbled across the Glossika language learning method and decided to invest in the Czech course to finally get me to fluency in the language. Needless to say that 6 weeks on I am pleasantly surprised and enthused by the results.

For years I had struggled with learning Czech. It was my first language so this was not totally a surprise. It also can be a devilishly difficult language — not because it is inherently difficult but more because the grammar complexity is something native English speakers aren’t used to.

So I learned Czech in fits and starts — a lot while I was in the country and only superficially elsewhere.

Without speaking Czech I felt as though I was losing the language and besides, I had other languages I wanted to move on to.

Glossika to the rescue…

Utilising a Mass Sentence method in a predetermined schedule, Glossika’s audio programme reinforces the conversational grammar and vocabulary native speakers use everyday.

This makes a lot of sense to me now that I have discovered the “grammar first” approach to learning languages is not only backwards it can lead to frustration and ultimately quitting the language.

Glossika works because it crams in simple and then more complex structures in a workable order and in a way that mirrors natural language learning.

While my main language learning project at the moment is conversational fluency in French using more textual analysis and audio listening techniques, Glossika is providing me with a structured and manageable way of building my Czech, seemingly effortlessly (I’m not forcing it).

I just plug in an listen to the spaced repetition audios (organised by day number) and then listen and read the new block of mass sentences when the schedule calls for it. This is great!

In short, if I was starting to learn a new language tomorrow, I would grab a Teach Yourself book or Assimil programme and become acquainted with the audio, vocabulary and simple grammar while using Glossika to consistently introduce and reinforce new structures.

Get speaking right away

In my last post I spoke about the need for input and lots of it. Listening to audio and understanding it thoroughly before moving on to my complicated language is how we naturally learn languages.

For me, it’s like the sun rising and gradually illuminating the land below — the darkness of ignorance in a language gradually subsides and you’re able to see and understand more and more of the language.

Glossika compared to other popular methods

Glossika contains far more audio and sentences than most language learning programmes you’ll find. I’m a fan of Assimil, however Glossika has far more language audio for you to absorb and a method for practicing it.

In my opinion, Glossika is far less tedious than Pimsleur and again, contains much more language for your brain to absorb.

I like Assimil and the Michel Thomas method, but I’ve found Glossika better in that it focuses on language you would use most of the time when speaking with native speakers. In the Czech programme, the focus is on the informal form of the language. I think a grounding in the formal structures is good, most of the usual language programmes focus specifically on that style.

It took me a lot of experimentation to arrive at what really works in language learning. Glossika really does give that missing piece I had been searching for and I heartily recommend it!

The path to true mastery of a foreign language

Learning a language is a massive undertaking and knowing where to start and how to progress can be incredibly difficult.

Also, how do you know how good your knowledge and facility with the new language is? What are the metrics?

These questions form the basis of an effective strategy for learning a foreign language and can be the start of a productive and rewarding experience.

However, the task is to stay on track and not feel like you’re not making progress. Continual improvement requires patience but you should also be mindful of the traps and pitfalls.

Trap #1: Collecting too many resources

I think one of the biggest challenges is finding the right content. After learning two languages to varying degrees (my French is very much still in progress) I can now, with the benefit of hindsight, see what I was doing wrong.

I wanted everything — every book, course and piece of content I could get my hands on. This, I believe, is the wrong way to go about learning a language.

For starters, it’s a strategy that is very much like consumerism — accumulation without necessarily deriving benefits from the acquisitions. Every piece of content, be that book or course, should be useful and studied to the point where it is fully comprehensible.

Don’t just grab everything. One or two really reliable sources up front is a good starting point. Once you’ve mastered these sources then move on and find new mountains to conquer.

Too many resources is one way to get confused and create overwhelm. Having laser-like focus on a few resources will serve you very well, in part because of the repetition factor. Think of how you learned your mother tongue. Words, phrases, intonation and word stress all sunk into your brain through constant exposure and repetition from our environment. 

Repetition is important, so finding a good resource to learn from is vital.

The resource(s) you choose should be suitable for your level but gradually allows you to increase vocabulary and recognition of the structure and sounds of the new language.

Output (writing and speaking) are not the focus in the early stage. Completely saturate your brain with the new language. Start to see the connections and repeat these learnings through a schedule of reinforcement.

Some resources have this repetition element built in. Glossika works on the basis of saturation of a large amount of sentences, almost as if you were growing up in the culture of the language you’re learning.

Trap #2: Focusing too much on grammar too soon

Glossika resources make a great analogy: To climb the mountain that is fluency in your target language you need to to rise above the forest that is the grammar. Getting stuck in the forest will only serve to keep you stuck and worrying too much about whether you’re getting everything right.

This is a bad place to be. You will make mistakes and this is actually the process of learning. Trying to be perfect will keep you stuck — you’ll be too afraid to converse for fear you get something wrong (and that people will laugh at you). This fear is understandable but it’s what Professor Carol Dweck calls the fixed mindset. Instead, take the growth mindset and realise that getting bogged down in the detail too soon is hurting your progress (and likely a justification for not willing to try speaking the language for fear of failure).

Is grammar important? Yes, but it will likely hinder your progress if you begin to obsess on the details to soon.

Remember this: The language should be fun, especially early on. Start from a position of enjoyment and begin speaking as early as possible. Do that and you’ll develop a foundation of language understanding and reinforcement that will serve you well as you progress.

Input and output

I always thought the aphorism “you have two ears, two eyes and one mouth for a reason” was irritating. It is a bit lame but is totally valuable advice for language learners in my opinion.

For the most part, be sure to take in the new language often then test your output in speaking and writing. I’m a big fan of the “more input is good” approach, as long as it is done in a progressive way and you’re listening and reading texts relevant to your current level.

Once you really understand the texts/audio, move on and conquer the next level and beyond. Repetition of these basic materials is vital for your progress. Learn and reinforce the language like a native would when learning as a child.

The benefit you have as an adult is that you can make the connection between words and objects/concepts much faster than a child can.

TOP TIP: Build up a log of new words and structures. I like to use a Google Spreadsheet for this. Any new words I find I write them into the spreadsheet with sheets for different things (expressions, common constructions, everyday nouns, emotions…) This way you can go back and revise new words and constructions, which you can then use in your writing and speaking.

Keeping score

Track your progress both in terms of inputs and outputs. Keep track of the reps you’re doing with your material. Repetition pays dividends and tracking this will give you a real boost in confidence.

Tracking outputs is tougher but it could be as simple as writing 20 sentences a day and/or tracking conversations. The latter is harder to quantify because to me speaking is the outcome of learning not necessarily a quantifiable metric.

In short

Live as if the language is part of your daily reality. Do whatever you can to get the target language in front of your eyes and ears often and reinforce everything you learn through repetition.

Don’t be concerned too much with all the resources you’ll need. Just get started on something that suits your level and absolutely own it! Make it a part of your being.

Practical philosophy to overcome modern ills

“Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.” – Epictetus

My wife is often the source of both inspiration and incisive comments. While this can be tough to handle sometimes (no one likes hearing the truth all the time!) my life is immeasurably better because of her honest appraisals of my conduct (a euphemism if ever there was one).

Anyhow, she made a comment a while ago that really rocked me. After reading a couple of articles on Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Blog, I expressed an interest Stoic philosophy as guidance for how to live a better life. She laughed and said that I already had a philosophy of life — hedonism! In that moment I had keen insight into why I needed to pursue a philosophy of life. Hedonism, while not inherently a bad philosophy of life, is the default approach to life most of us in industrialised nations take.

Hedonism: The satisfaction of desires is the highest good and proper aim of human life.

Hedonism is, at least for many, leads to an unrewarding way of life. The ancients in many schools of thought observed that the pursuit of pleasures for their own sake was not only easy to do (no special character development needed) it also had a cost associated with it.

This explains the popularity today of Buddhist retreats, Zen Buddhism and mindfulness in the modern world. The way many of us live today — in large industrial cities — is a relatively new state of affairs for the human animal to be dealing with. Couple this with the need to fulfill the numerous roles in the many relationships we have and it really is a perfect storm for burn out.

What people need are practical approaches to decompress and deal with the world, other than mindless shopping/consuming in the vain hope at the end of it we feel fulfilled and content.

Ancient philosophy as an operating system for your life

“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust.”
– Henry David Thoreau

The phrase “what’s your philosophy of life” might not be the most common dinner party question. In fact it probably isn’t something many people consciously think about. We tend to take on the attitudes, beliefs and approaches of those around us without much questioning.

Philosophy is also a word with baggage. To most people, philosophy is a purely academic exercise, and the joy of learning the wisdom of the philosophers is lost sometime between assignment one and the end of term exam.

This is unfortunate — philosophy  in the ancient Greek and Roman sense was practical philosophy. A student of one of the many schools in Athens and Rome would have as there goal the attainment of certain virtues in life through philosophical contemplation and the practice of key tenets.

I like Tim Ferriss’ take on philosophy — that it should be an operating system for making better decisions.

Any philosophy of life must address a few key questions:

  • What is our true nature as humans?
  • What should we value?
  • How should we act given our values/nature?
  • How does one go about dealing with problems, obstacles and misfortune?
  • What is our role in society?

Stoicism, self-control and virtue

“Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men’s desires, but by the removal of desire.” – Epictetus

Any philosophy of life, other than hedonism, will require self-control. While maximising our opportunities for pleasure seems logical, pleasure for pleasure’s sake ultimately isn’t a rewarding way to live for many people, and requires little or no self-control at all.

Hollywood offers the best examples of this — people who seemingly have it all are constantly destroying themselves and the lives of others through sexual excess, drugs, alcohol, aggression and a host of other destructive practices. According to hedonism, these people should be maximally happy, but we know for a fact that many of them aren’t. Fame and riches own them, and sadly it costs lives.

Failing to put our circumstances into proper perspective is part of the problem. The Stoics, for example, advocated forgoing pleasure and in some cases advise us to actively seek out discomfort so that we may have the proper appreciation of our circumstances.

With appreciation for what we have now we can abandon the suffering that stem from our desires, making it possible to live a life of durable happiness — a life that remains on a positive path despite what is going on externally.

The happiness conundrum

The Stoics were principally concerned with Eudaimonia — the Greek word that roughly translates as ‘human flourishing’. Roman Stoic Lucius Annaeus Seneca stated that such a condition can only be achieved by one who has a tranquil mind. This, to me, seems a much more worthy goal in life than the vague and undefined ‘happiness’ which can mean different things to different people. Tranquility, on the other hand, is a state of mind and we can then reason backwards and find ways of achieving this state.

The Stoics devised many practical ways to achieve a tranquil mind and the attainment of virtue (in the classical sense). This is good news for the modern man or woman trying to deal with life’s stresses, temptations, problems and challenges.

Because of this, stoicism is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. After Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism withered on the vine for centuries, only to emerge at several times throughout the past 1000 years.

Zen Buddhism has many cross overs with Stoicism but have different approaches to the same end. Stoic practices tend to be more about reflection and analysis of our lives whereas Zen focuses on meditation and mindfulness. As mentioned earlier, these are increasingly popular as people find them useful for achieving some inner peace in a mad world.

Simple stoic exercises can help you:

  • Develop an operating system for better decision making
  • Deal with stress and eliminate needless suffering
  • Tame pleasures rather than be owned by pleasures
  • Put the value of the people and things in your life in proper perspective
  • Increase your joy in the life you have right now (without trying to fill the void by consuming or chasing ‘external things’).

**Check out the online resources below for specifics on Stoic exercises and practice.

Concluding thoughts

I have lived my entire life to this point taking the easy road. After all, if I didn’t have to exert myself, why should I? Why would I wake up earlier? Why shouldn’t I eat that chocolate bar? The only problem with this style of living is that I ended up coasting through life never really achieving much of anything and infuriating people when I didn’t follow through in my role, whatever that was (husband, co-worker, friend…)

The Stoics were very astute in their observation that relying on external events of objects to create within us the positive emotions is a losing battle.

One of the more profoundly life-changing aspects of stoic principles is in extinguishing stress and eliminating anger. Epictetus probably said it better than anyone:

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

This quote is a central tenet in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The notion that between an event and our response is a judgment we make. Change the judgment, change the response.

At the end of the day, the philosophers of Ancient Greece and Rome had tremendous insights into human nature and how we can flourish, despite the travails of life. Can we gain from their works? Absolutely. Given that these philosophers lived in sophisticated societies at times of war, political turmoil and upheaval, their insights about how to live a good life are as relevant today as they ever were.

Philosophy of life and Stoicism online resources:

The real cost of the distraction epidemic

Every day we waste two of our most precious resources but most people won’t realise what it costs them until it’s too late.

In your typical day, how many distractions do you encounter? Chances are you probably don’t know the answer and you also probably don’t know how much it’s costing you. We tend not to notice how much time we waste in a typical day delighting our minds with minutiae and other trivialities but the cost of such distractions is more than just a unit of time. It’s also costing us quality of life.

On another level, a war is being raged to capture your attention and hold it. Modern culture is geared around consumption, to the point where governments regard us as consumers first and citizens second.

Western societies particularly have never been as unbalanced as they are now. Because consumption is king, everywhere around us are things screaming to grab our attention. Billboards, TV, mobile apps, news, the internet in general, everyone wants a piece of your two most precious resources: time and attention.

Time and attention

Distraction is just a way of life for most of us. We wake up and check our emails, Facebook, Twitter, maybe a cute YouTube vid of some cat somewhere doing something somewhat cute. We get to work and probably read something in transit that piqued our curiosity.

Throughout the day we’ll check sports results, news and other things that amount to attention leakage.

Why is attention important? We can never get time back, that we all know. What is sometimes forgotten is that what you do with your time is crucial to living a good life.

JOMO

The movement affectionately known as JOMO — the Joy of Missing Out — is the antisthesis of something that has become known as FOMO — the Fear of Missing Out. Think about that for a minute. Fear of missing out on what? Kim Kardashian’s latest belfie? (Yes, a picture of her ass). The latest fashion, what Rhianna is wearing, is she back with Chris Brown again? Why the fascination? Are famous people really worth looking up to when you look at many of the lives they lead and the fact they cannot get a moments peace from the paparazzi?

JOMO is the exact opposite of what marketers and the big businesses they represent want. They need you glued to social media, TV, the internet and following famous people on Twitter (as an example — I’m not picking on Twitter here!) In order to reclaim your life back from the obsession of checking our phones every 10 minutes we need to realise how a constant bombardment information is affecting us.

Stoic philosopher Lucius Seneca warns against such obsessions in his must-read letter, On the Shortness of Life:

“Vices beset us and surround us on every side, and they do not permit us to rise anew and lift up our eyes for the discernment of truth, but they keep us down when once they have overwhelmed us and we are chained to lust.

“Their victims are never allowed to return to their true selves; if ever they chance to find some release, like the waters of the deep sea which continue to heave even after the storm is past, they are tossed about, and no rest from their lusts abides.” – Lucius Seneca

*The full text of Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life can be found on Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Work Week Blog.

Distracted from what?

In order to be distracted you have be distracted from something. Now, if the purpose of your life as defined by you consciously or unconsciously is to indulge your attention in everything that comes your way then distraction isn’t really distraction for you. For those who want more from life, better quality relationships, a healthy state of mind and body, a degree of security and options… Distraction is our enemy.

How you use your time determines the quality of your life. It also contributes to a regret-free way of living. No one wants to wake up 20 years in the future only to realise that they’ve wasted their lives going from link to link on trashy news websites the internet, reading gossip magazines, playing video games constantly or watching endless reruns on TV.

Now, if you like these doing these things it isn’t a judgement on my part to tell you what you can and can’t read, do or watch. My main point is a Socratic one: that the unexamined life is an impoverished one.

If you key in on what you really value in life and operate everyday in accordance with those values, distractions are the enemy. All becomes clear when you realise what is truly worth valuing in life.

As Seneca warns, vice is the enemy of the good life. Anything external that captures your attention regularly and distracts you from truly important things in life is vice. Modern society seems fixated on the next novel piece of news, but honestly, how is that working out for you?

Chances are it’s not working out for you because multitude of messages dangled in front of you everyday aren’t designed to benefit you — they are designed to make it easier for you to hand over your attention and therefore your behaviour to suit others’ needs and desires.

Feather in the wind or iron fortress?

The bottom line is thus: you can either go through your day blown around in different directions by the external stimuli bombarding your senses or you can take reasonable steps to wall yourself off from the mortar fire ‘out there’ designed to capture your attention.

With a solid understanding of your values, and a goal-oriented approach to life, you can take control back of your attention and intentionally direct it to that which creates real meaning for you.

With that criteria in place, you can then ask yourself throughout the day: “Is this for who I am and what I want from life or isn’t it?”

Create an inner fortress — know who you are and what is really important to you in life. Living purposefully like this guards against the hounds gnashing their teeth at your attention and provides the motivation to seek out more good stuff and less mind-deadening crap so common in our modern world.

Next post: A philosophical approach that cures many of the ills of modern life.