I read recently on Leo Babauta's blog at Zenhabits.net, a line that really stuck with me. The rough idea is that your habits shouldn't be viewed as some difficult new undertaking that will make your life better, but as the living of your better life.
Well, here's some brainstorming on little ways to live my better life.
1. Clean a little every day
...take time each day to indulge in your passions.
A little bit every day, a small improvement here and there, an iota of practice; they all add up to what in the end is expertise.
Expertise is mighty sexy.
SRS stands for spaced repetition software.
It can be used to learn just about anything in a flashcard format, but I've most commonly encountered it in language learning.
SRS works by taking a deck of cards and initially introducing them to you one at a time. Instead of simply rating each card as right or wrong, you generally apply a rating to it based on your confidence on being able to remember that particular item.
After you apply your rating, the software will determine when to show you that card again. This is ideal because you spend less time studying cards that you already know the answers to and focus more of your energy on learning items that you don't already know.
Also, more exposures occur for items that are more difficult for you to remember, which aids in the memorization process. These exposures generally happen right before you are about to forget the item as well (ideally), which further aids in retention and learning.
I have a second grader who I tutor every Tuesday and Thursday, and his level of English is lower than the other kids who I teach in conventional class time elsewhere. I've noticed one important thing about our sessions. That is, when I cover up the Chinese characters that accompany his learning materials, he is lost.
When I ask him what his name is, who he is, how old he is, and really any other very low level question he sits for a second saying 'um' and then asks me for a translation.
However, in my class time I find ways to get my students to understand what I'm saying without translating for them. These kids seem to have the concepts stick far better than this particular tutee. Another important factor that I think is defining is these students' learning materials have no Chinese on the page, unlike my tutee whose book has characters under each line of English text.
What is it that defines the difference between my students?
I have been into self-improvement for a long time now. For almost five years now I have religiously followed a number of authors who speak to becoming a bigger, badder you.
However, the pursuit has always felt a little hollow to me. Becoming a better you has always felt to me to necessitate an overly inward eye. Many years ago I took a pledge around a campfire to live my life for others. While I was just a kid at the time, the pledge is still something that I take seriously, something that has been fed by my activities since.
This campfire experience is one that came back to me several years later when I sought to learn more about Buddhism. My interest was academic rather than spiritual, but I was struck by something on a deeper level nonetheless. I was watching a video series with basic information about what it was to be a Buddhist, and I was struck by a statement the monks said ad the beginning of each installment. "... to achieve enlightenment for the betterment of all beings..."
That is how self improvement reconciles with altruistic, charitable living.
That is how I want to live my life.
Remember when you were a kid and your mom would tell you to eat your veggies? Oh the torture of having to eat all of those nasty, green things before you could get to the good stuff. Oddly enough, down the road not a lot has changed. Well, for some people it hasn't.
Vegetables and leaves are one of the keys to a healthy life that most of us lack. If we added the green stuff to our diet, more than likely most of us would be, feel, and look much better. Yet a lot of people struggle with getting their vegetables in and a lot of that has to do with their taste. Here is how I, now a full blown vegetarian, went from hating veggies to loving them.
Why we hate those little green things
Ideally we will be mindful when we eat our food. We will endeavor to experience each bite as a new experience. In doing so we can get great satisfaction from our meal and cultivate an appreciation for the finer points of our food. Being mindful about our food can help us to really savor the flavors, but what if you just can't stand the food no matter how good it is for you?
We're hard wired to seek out energy-dense foods. Fats and sugars make for prime calories in the wild, so we're naturally inclined to like the way they taste. Veggies and leaves are two of the things that are all star at rounding out our nutritional bouquet. But unlike meats, which have fat in them and are thus immediately delicious, veggies and leaves have cellulose. Cellulose is hard for most of us to enjoy without first learning to like it, and so when given the choice between greens and meats, we go with the meats. Couple that with the fact that a lot of veggies are low in the sugars that makes fruit so good, and you have a food that isn't all that appetizing, especially raw.
One of the driving principles of this site, along with my life, is that little improvements turn into big changes. I always strive to be better at everything, absolutely everything. The key is that I don't try to tackle this mission all at once. That would be far too intimidating. I take improving bit by bit. The little bits build to big changes over time. Here's why little is so powerful.
The power of little
We've been encouraged for a lot of our lives to think big. We are encouraged to dream big and to make big plans. WE have been promised that big will give us better results than small. Our food portions are big. Our cars are big. Bigger is better and better is bigger. Yet big is made up of small. A big basket with a burger and fries wouldn't be full if it weren't for all of those individual fries. A house can't be big without rooms. A big plan is not big without the details that go into employing it.
When it comes to making a big plan or a big goal we need to focus on the big picture. But we also need to look at all of the little pieces that make up the big picture. It is lining up a thousand small pieces that we achieve our goals. Little things are indispensable for success. Small things often compound. For example, with good organization comes easier editing. Memorizing a couple words per day makes our vocabularies bigger over time. The small stuff builds us up to the big stuff, and each little change we make makes our lives better. If I focused on being a perfect person then I would inevitably fail. If instead I focus on being kinder, more productive, and more helpful then perhaps people will think I'm perfect. Every little change supports the journey. Through every single step, we get closer to wherever it is that we are going.
How mindfulness plays in
One of my favorite Chinese idioms is
I find this phrase incredibly inspiring, and it should be pretty familiar even to those who haven't studied any mandarin.
Growing up my mom would always encourage my brother and I through our drudgery saying "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time."
When there is a massive task in front of us, it is very easy to become paralyzed by how big it is. Often we don't know where to start. Once we do find a place to start our progress is so slow it barely seems to make a dent. It's all just a drop in the bucket, but we forget that with enough drops the bucket will eventually be full. A little bit of effort over a long time can yield big results.
In language learning, a great kick-start method to early fluency is to study the 3000 most frequent words. 3000 words can seem pretty daunting, especially if the language is very different from your own. However, we can make even the most daunting of tasks doable if it is broken down into just the right parts. If you study 5 words per day, you'll have conquered your list in 600 days. If you study ten words per day, it will take you less than a year. Five words is much more doable than 3,000, no?
When you're looking to make a change or an improvement, you begin with a huge amount of energy. You feel like barreling head-first into your goal and knocking to pieces. You feel like a receiver, ready to stiff-arm all obstacles out of the way. You're ready to blitz your way to success. You're ready to take your food mouthfuls at a time. You're ready to get all of your work done no matter how tired you get.
To use vocabulary learning as an example, studying the 3000 most common words in a language will lead to about 80 percent understanding in a language. You can split this up a number of ways. Maybe you choose to study 5 cards a day over 600 days, or 30 cards a day over 100. Maybe still you choose to take all 3000 in 30 days, or even a week. The last option is what I call a blitz.
Blitzing has the obvious pro of taking far less time than the million little drops method. If you can get through a list of 3000 vocabulary items and assimilate them in a week, why not? If you can build a vocabulary that unlocks 80 percent of the language you seek to speak, why not do so as quick as possible?