4 Strategies For Remembering Everything You Learn

chalkboard teacher black white

If you’re going to learn anything, you need two kinds of prior knowledge:

• knowledge about the subject at hand, like math, history, or programming

• knowledge about how learning actually works

The bad news: Our education system kinda skips one of them, which is terrifying, given that your ability to learn is such a huge predictor of success in life, from achieving in academics to getting ahead at work. It all requires mastering skill after skill.

“Parents and educators are pretty good at imparting the first kind of knowledge,” shares psych writer Annie Murphy Paul. “We’re comfortable talking about concrete information: names, dates, numbers, facts. But the guidance we offer on the act of learning itself — the ‘metacognitive’ aspects of learning — is more hit-or-miss, and it shows.”

To wit, new education research shows that low-achieving students have “substantial deficits” in their understanding of the cognitive strategies that allow people to learn well. This, Paul says, suggests that part of the reason students perform poorly is that they don’t know a lot about how learning actually works.

It’s a culture-wide issue.

Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel, psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis  and coauthors of “Make It Stick: The Science Of Successful Learning,” say that “how we teach and study is largely a mix of theory, lore, and intuition.”

So let’s cut through that lore. Here are learning strategies that really work.

Force yourself to recall.

The least-fun part of effective learning is that it’s hard. In fact, the “Make It Stick” authors contend that when learning if difficult, you’re doing your best learning, in the same way that lifting a weight at the limit of your capacity makes you strongest. 

It’s simple, though not easy, to take advantage of this: force yourself to recall a fact. Flashcardsare a great ally in this, since they force you to supply answers.

Don’t fall for fluency.

When you’re reading something and it feels easy, what you’re experiencing is fluency.

It’ll only get you in trouble.

Example: Say, for instance, you’re at the airport and you’re trying to remember which gate your flight to Chicago is waiting for you at. You look at the terminal monitors — it’s B44. You think to yourself, oh, B44, that’s easy. Then you walk away, idly check your phone, and instantly forget where you’re going.

The alternative: You read the gate number. Then you turn away from the monitor and ask yourself, what’s the gate? If you can recall that it’s B44, you’re good to go.

Connect the new thing to the old things.

“The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to prior knowledge,” the “Make It Stick” authors write, “the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later.”

When you’re weaving in new threads into your pre-existing web of knowledge, you’re elaborating. 

One killer technique is to come up with real-life examples of principles you’ve just uncovered. If you’ve just learned about slant rhyme, you could read poems that exhibit it. If you’ve just discovered heat transfer, you could think of the way a warm cup of cocoa disperses warmth into your hands on a cold winter’s day.

Reflect, reflect, reflect.

Looking back helps. In a Harvard Business School study, employees who were onboarded to a call center had 22.8% higher performance than the control group when they spent just 15 minutes reflecting on their work at the end of the day.

“When people have the opportunity to reflect, they experience a boost in self-efficacy,” HBS professor Francesca Gino tells us. “They feel more confident that they can achieve things. As a result, they put more effort into what they’re doing and what they learn.”

While reflecting may seem like it leads to working less, it leads to achieving more.

Stop using these 19 common words until you know what they really mean

Mouth tapeKatie Tegtmeyer/Flickr“Reticent” just means shy. It doesn’t mean reluctant.

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.

They’re just words, aren’t they?

Why shouldn’t they take on new meanings as people start to use them incorrectly?

Indeed, “silly” once mean “blessed” and then “pious.” There’s a certain justice in where it’s ended up.

Fundamentalists won’t have it, though. They insist on specific interpretations only.

Ergo, because you’re likely more righteous than I am and still want to climb some virtual, figurative ladder, here are 18 words and 1 phrase (consisting of three words) that don’t mean what many people think they do.

They come courtesy of Harvard linguist Steven Pinker and his book “The Sense Of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide To Writing In The 21st Century.”

I worry when books claim to offer a “Thinking Person’s Guide.” It’s so ineffably elitist. It suggests that some people don’t think, that they function like underintelligent organisms.

Still, you fancy yourself a thinking person, don’t you? So these suggestions are perfect for you. Pinker does explain, “Here is a list of words, which I am prepared to try to dissuade you from using in their nonstandard sense.”

So he’s not a complete meanie.

1. Appraise.

You, as a thinking person, must become frustrated every time you hear someone say they have “appraised the board of the current situation.” This literally means they have “valued the board of the current situation.” Which makes as much sense as most of what is usually said in board meetings. You apprise the board of something. Your pawnbroker appraises a necklace you picked up in a parking lot.

2. Begs The Question.

You know what this doesn’t mean? It doesn’t mean “raises the question.” It simply means “assuming what it should be proving.” For example, when you ask the nice tight-suited man at your local Gucci store, why you should pay more for Gucci products and he says you’ll be getting “Gucci quality,” that just begs the question.

3. Bemused.

It sounds almost the same as “amused,” so some people believe that “bemused” is, perhaps, a squeezing of “being amused.” Or maybe a stronger level of amusement. It isn’t. It’s just the state of being bewildered.

4. Clich.

Americans aren’t too good with French words at the best of times. Just ask them to pronounce — or spell, for that matter — “chaise-longue.” Clich is just a noun. It isn’t an adjective. It’s not risqu. It should be pass.

5. Disinterested.

I’m (not) sure you’re not one of these people, but some believe that this means the same as “uninterested.” Because discombobulated is the same as uncombobulated, I suppose. Save it. It only means fair and balanced like Fox News.

6. Enormity.

You might be enormously disturbed by this one. Enormity does not mean “extreme bigness.” It’s true, says Pinker, that some writers insist that enormity can mean “extremely big evil.” But enormity is always evil, alright? It’s not necessarily big.

7. Enervate.

I’ve made this mistake before. I think I’m going to make it again, just for snits and giggles. Enervate does not mean, has never meant, “getting on nerves” nor “to charge you up.” It actually means to sap or weaken. Let’s face it, though, the word is just too energetic to mean that.

8. Flounder.

“Flounder” and “Founder” are often used interchangeably, unless you’re talking fish or Silicon Valley. The truth is that that floundering simply means to flap about without any useful consequences. It doesn’t mean “sink to the bottom.” Although, I suppose you could flap around without any consequences until you sink to the bottom.

9. Fortuitous.

I’ve sunk to the bottom with this one, too, once or twice. It doesn’t mean “lucky.” It just doesn’t. It means “coincidental.”

10. Fulsome.

You’ve offered fulsome praise before, haven’t you? Perhaps even a fulsome apology. Please admit it. Please then admit that what you’ve offered is “excessively and insincerely complimentary praise.” Or, indeed, “an unctuous apology.” I’d like to offer a fulsome apology to the word “fulsome.”

11. Hone.

You hone in on things, I feel sure of it. At least, you’ve done it once or twice. Which would, in fact, suggest you’ve sharpened in on something. I get what you mean. A fundamentalist would not be happy, however. Please make sure you merely home in on things in the future.

12. Irregardless.

This word doesn’t exist. However, if you’ve invented it, I secretly admire you. For your courage, if not for creating a word that is, um, over-superfluous. There “irrespective” and there’s “regardless.” You may choose from those.

13. Meretricious.

This is one of those tricky words that seems to be about merit. In a way, it is. It lies somewhere along the axis of sleazy to tawdry. It means nauseatingly insincere. Which means it cannot mean “deserving of reward or praise.” Unless, of course, you liked praising the sleazy.

14. Opportunism.

This word is all about taking. It is not about creating. It means taking an opportunity or capitalizing upon it. It does not mean “creating or promoting opportunities.” So when a politician champions economic opportunism, he’s talking nonsense. But you already knew politicians talked nonsense, right? Except for Donald Trump. He’s just opportunistic.

15. Parameter.

You love setting parameters, don’t you? You’ve been in meetings where parameters were set and even drawn. But parameters aren’t borders or limits. They’re merely variables. I know it feels like a downgrade for the word. But look what the Catholic Church did to St. Christopher.

16. Reticent.

This just means shy. It doesn’t mean reluctant. Yes, shy people can be reluctant to do things. On the other hand, they could be reluctant just to do things with you. In fact, though they’re shy, they could be the most daring people of all.

17. Simplistic.

Please tell me you’ve never bought simplistic art. Oh, wait. Here’s some. Never mind. But “simplistic” means “navely or overly simple.” It doesn’t mean: “Gosh, this simplicity is so beautiful that it lifts my heart to the moon.”

18. Tortuous.

Roads can be tortuous, therefore twisty. They can’t be painful. If they were, they’d be torturous. They wouldn’t be tortuous. Is that logic too tortuous for you? In which case, this section must be torturous for you.

19. Urban Legend.

I know you come from New Jersey and think that Bruce Springsteen is your finest urban legend. He isn’t. He’s real. Urban legends are lovely stories told by drunken people playing poker. Stories that are entirely false. Bruce Springsteen is real. I’ve seen him in concert. Chris Christie has written him fan mail. Chris Christie is also real.

3 ways to schedule your workday for maximum productivity

So many of us are guilty of working an eight-hour day, only breaking to use the restroom or grab lunch. But our brains can only focus for about 90 to 120 minutes before they need a break, and we get stressed and tired when we sit at our desks for too long — so we’re not really making the most of our time in the office.

Podio, an online work platform, recently put together an infographic that features three alternative working patterns that can help workers stay focused, energetic, and productive:

8 hour workday

Why you should care about Microsoft’s latest legal battle

Should the U.S. government have the right to search emails stored abroad?

They say the Internet knows no borders. Well, that may soon change.

On Wednesday morning, a federal appeals court is set to hear arguments over the validity of a certain U.S. search warrant involving electronic records. At issue: Whether the United States government is entitled to compel tech companies based in the U.S. to hand over their customers’ emails when they’re stored on servers in data centers around the world.

However the court eventually rules, the decision will likely shape the contours of international state and business relations, where and how tech companies operate, the way law enforcement agencies conduct investigations, and the level of privacy enjoyed by citizens everywhere. What may seem like an arcane legal tussle is actually a vital (if unresolved) question about the future of Internet governance.

Here’s what you need to know about the case.

Who is suing who, and why?

In Dec. 2013, Microsoft received a search warrant from the U.S. Department of Justice that requested access to emails stored on servers in a data center in Ireland. The company, based in Redmond, Wash., challenged the order last year on the grounds that the Irish data center was subject to Irish laws. Federal authorities—seeking the records of suspects involved in a drug trafficking investigation—saw things differently: U.S. company, U.S. laws. So the case went to court.

Microsoft MSFT -0.26% lost the first ruling last year. But the software company has challenged that decision, too. Other tech companies such as Apple, Verizon, and Cisco, have joined the fray, rallying behind Microsoft as well. These corporations have not balked just to make investigators’ lives difficult, of course. Other countries have their own privacy laws that differ—and could conflict—with the U.S.’s rules, wants, and needs. And the decision to turn over the data has major implications for these businesses.

What’s at stake?

Right now, tech companies in Microsoft’s position are faced with a catch 22 when they receive search warrants of this sort. Comply with U.S. laws and break international (e.g. European) ones, or follow foreign rules in breach of federal orders. It’s not an easy choice.

If Microsoft loses the case, that means that U.S. tech companies may have no leg to stand on should they disagree with future government requests for data stored abroad. That could persuade potential privacy-minded customers, especially in foreign states, to take their business to other companies. In the wake of NSA spying revelations made public by Edward J. Snowden in 2013, U.S. companies have already suffered losses of trust and business in the billions, according to some estimates.

If the U.S. loses, that might inhibit the country’s criminal investigations and affect national security.

What might this mean for consumers?

Let’s say Microsoft wins. Civil liberties defenders might chalk up that outcome as a privacy win. Government, stay out of our inboxes!

But the decision could lead to hairy situation for investigators. It might also mean that anyone could then sign up for a Microsoft email account (and by extension, Google, Yahoo, etc.), list their country as a foreign one subject to different laws, and thereby evade the prying eyes of U.S. authorities. There is a way around this, of course: Gain access to the data through treaties with other nations. (Microsoft advocates for this.)

The arguments are set to air on Wed., and the courts will reach a decision in the coming months.

The Psychology of Delusions There are 5 major types of delusions.

This is where they come from.

A delusion is a fixed, relatively immutable, persistent, false belief with no basis in reality.

Piotr Marcinski/Shutterstock
Source: Piotr Marcinski/Shutterstock

We talk often about “deluded” people: “The person on the talent show is clearly deluded about their lack of singing ability.” “That politician has delusions of grandeur.” “She’s deluded if she expects to be promoted.” “You have to be deluded to believe anything salesmen say.”

A delusion is a belief held by an individual or group that is demonstrably false, patently untrue, impossible, fanciful, or self-deceptive. A person with delusions, however, often has complete certainty and conviction about their delusory beliefs. They resist arguments and evidence that they are wrong.

People have illusions about smell (olfactory), taste (gustatory), temperature (thermoceptive), and touch (tactile). They may experience highly disgusting or very pleasant or unusual smells when meeting a particular person. They may find ordinary foods (oranges, chocolate, milk) have different tastes than others experience. They may find cool objects burning hot or warm objects frozen; traditionally smooth objects (like a balloon or cat’s fur) may feel rough or uneven.

The most written about of all delusions, paranoia, has been shown to follow various stages: general suspiciousness; selective perception of others; hostility; paranoid “illumination” in which all things fall into place; and, finally, paradoxical delusions of influence and persecution. Delusions often totally preoccupy people and cause them considerable distress because they do not doubt their beliefs are correct.

Delusions differ from illusions. We have visionary and auditory illusions; for instance, that the sun goes around the earth or that ventriloquists’ dummies actually speak. We have selective memories/illusions of happy childhoods. These are things that seem true to the senses or memory, but are known to be false or have no basis in reality.

There are some caveats: Some religious delusions are impossible to verify and hence falsify. Other delusions have a self-fulfilling prophecy, such as a jealous person accusing and attacking an innocent partner, who then leaves them for another. In that sense, these people cause their delusions to come true.

Novelists and playwrights often have interesting characters with delusions. Commonly portrayed are delusions that a person is totally controlling one’s behavior or that one has committed a heinous or terrible crime or sin that merits severe punishment. There are characters who believe others to be mind readers, or that other’s trivial and insignificant events, objects, or remarks have personal meaning or significance. Religious delusions have also been well-known down the centuries.

Psychiatry and Delusional Disorder

Psychiatrists may diagnose someone as having a delusion disorder under a number of very specific situations:

  1. A person must manifest one or more non-bizarre delusions for at least a month.
  2. The person has not met other behavioral criteria to be classified as someone with schizophrenia.
  3. Audio and visual hallucinations are not prominent, though tactile and olfactory hallucinations may be.
  4. Despite the person’s delusions or their behavioral consequences, their psychosocial functioning is not essentially impaired enough to be considered particularly odd or bizarre.
  5. If the specific delusions impact a person’s mood, these fluctuations do not last very long.
  6. The disturbance is not the result of physiological or medical conditions, like the medication a person is taking.

Sometimes psychiatrists say it is difficult to distinguish from other disorders like hypochondriasis (particularly among those with little self-awareness); body dysmorphic disorder (preoccupation with imagined bodily defects); Obsessive Compulsive as well as Paranoid Personality Disorder.

The delusions of people with schizophrenia are often clearly bizarre, utterly implausible, not at all understandable; one might believe the brain has been replaced by that of another person or that one has shrunk to be three feet tall. On the other hand, non-bizarre delusions could be possible. For instance, people may feel they are being followed, photographed or recorded, that somebody is slowly poisoning them, that their partner is always cheating on them, or that their boss or neighbor is in love with them.

Some delusions cause people to make dramatic changes in their life: leave their job or partner, move from their house (or even leave the country), or dress very differently. The person with delusional disorder, however, appears normal when their delusional ideas are not being discussed.

People with delusions can become very moody, often causing their relationships and work to suffer. Interestingly, some cultures and groups have particular beliefs that may in other cultures be seen as clinically delusional.

It is a relatively rare disorder usually occurring later in life, particularly among people with relatives who have other disorders. Most appear argumentative and hypersensitive.  Many do not seek treatment and become, over the years, more and more isolated.

Types of Delusion

Psychiatrists have noticed five clear types of delusions:

  1. Erotomanic. These individuals believe someone is seriously in love with them, more in the Hollywood romance, even spiritual way, rather than in the sexual sense. It is often a famous person—a film star or famous athlete—but also can be powerful superiors at work. Whilst someone with this delusion can keep it a secret and do very little, others may expend a great deal of energy trying to contact their delusional lover via emails, visits, or stalking. Most are women, but men with the delusions tend to act more boldly and get in more trouble with the law, particularly if they believe their ‘lover’ is in trouble or imminent danger.
  2. Grandiose. These are sometimes called delusions of grandeur and manifest when a person believes (with no evidence) that they are special: they have amazing abilities or have made a vitally important discovery. Often the delusions are religious for those with the disorder, often believing that they have a unique and privileged relationship with the “The Almighty.” Sometimes they feel they are a prominent person and have special relationships with other prominent people.
  3. Jealous. This is clearly manifested in the strong, but unfounded belief that a partner is unfaithful and cheating on them: Odd bits of ‘evidence’ are put forward for these claims. They may hire a private detective, attempt to imprison their partner as well as physically and verbally attack them.
  4. Persecutory. This is the belief that someone or some group is conspiring against them. They could be cheating, spying on, harassing, or gossiping about them, or even attempting to poison or drug them. They are often angry and resentful with deep feelings of injustice. Many attempt to quell the persecution by legal means or appealing to authorities. It is the most common type of all the delusionary disorders. Some even get violent and aggressive towards those they believe are deliberately targeting them.
  5. Somatic. This is the delusion that one’s body is somehow strange or not functioning properly. It may be the belief that one smells odd, or that particular parts (nose, breasts, feet) are particularly odd, misshapen or ugly. Often people with these delusions believe they may have some internal bug or parasite that is destroying or affecting some very specific part of their body.

Cause

The causes of delusions are unknown. Current interests in neuropsychology have lead some to speculate that malfunctioning biological features may cause or exacerbate the problem. Some have implicated basal ganglia, others the limbic system and still others the neocortex. Investigations continue.

For others, genetic explanations are best because so many with delusional disorders have first-degree relatives with these and related disorders.

Other researchers point out that many with the disorder have had difficult childhoods characterized by instability and turbulence, callousness and coldness. They consider delusions to be an impairment in the ego defense system aimed to protect and bolster the self. They see the paranoid or persecutory delusions as an attempt to project onto others things they do not like to admit in themselves. Treatment includes traditional counsellng,psychotherapy, and the use of antipsychotic drugs.

Dissimulation and Delusions

Many rightly claim that in interviews and on questionnaires, people lie, fake, or deceive. Psychologists call this dissimulation, but have recently distinguished between two very different types of dissimulation:

  • Impression management. This is all about presenting oneself in a positive light, perhaps forgetting certain things and sharing small “white lies” about another.
  • Self-deception. Strictly speaking, this is not lying but is more like a delusion. If someone says they have a sense of humor, but everyone who knows them says they do not, they are deceiving themselves. Similarly, when someone feels ugly or plain whilst everyone else (friend, acquaintance, stranger) believes they are not, it implies a negative self-deception. At interviews, some forms of self-deception begin to get close to delusions.

To Stop Procrastinating, Start by Understanding the Emotions Involved

Time management goes only so far; the emotional reasons for delay must also be addressed

Chronic procrastination is an emotional strategy for dealing with stress, researchers say, and it can lead to difficulties in relationships, jobs, finances and health.
Chronic procrastination is an emotional strategy for dealing with stress, researchers say, and it can lead to difficulties in relationships, jobs, finances and health. ILLUSTRATION: YAO XIAO

Putting off a work or school assignment in order to play videogames or water the plants might seem like nothing more serious than poor time-management.

But researchers say chronic procrastination is an emotional strategy for dealing with stress, and it can lead to significant issues in relationships, jobs, finances and health.

In August, researchers from Stockholm University published one of the first randomized controlled trials on the treatment of procrastination. It found a therapy delivered online can significantly reduce procrastination.

Psychologists also are studying other ways people might be able to reduce procrastination, such as better emotion-regulation strategies and visions of the future self.

Scientists define procrastination as the voluntary delay of an action despite foreseeable negative future consequences. It is opting for short-term pleasure or mood at the cost of the long-term. Perhaps we didn’t finish preparing a presentation on the weekend because we had house guests. That is just intentional delay based on a rational decision, says Timothy Pychyl (pronounced pitch-el), a psychology professor at Carleton University, in Ottawa, who has published extensively on the topic.

What triggers procrastination and how can people overcome the urge to put off tasks? Prof. Timothy Pychyl of Carleton University joins Lunch Break for some advice. Photo: Getty

The essence of procrastination is “we’re giving in to feel good,” Dr. Pychyl says. “Procrastination is, ‘I know I should be doing it, I want to, it gets under my skin [when I don’t].’ ”

Ben Lockwood, a 39-year-old office manager in Chippenham, about 100 miles west of London, knows the feeling all too well. Even though he isn’t a lazy person, he says, he struggles with procrastination at work and in his personal life. He says he feels paralyzed by wanting to do everything perfectly, which then makes him feel anxious about getting started.

Instead of looking for a new job, he might go to the gym—a move researchers call “moral compensation.” That is when procrastinators do something to make themselves feel good or productive in order to avoid the task that needs to get done.

Mr. Lockwood says this pattern of behavior fills him with self-loathing. “I think I’d rather tell someone I robbed a bank than tell them I procrastinate,” he says.

Chronic procrastinators often hold misconceptions about why they procrastinate and what it means, psychologists have discovered. Many chronic procrastinators believe they can’t get started on a task because they want to do it perfectly. Yet studies show chronic procrastination isn’t actually linked to perfectionism, but rather to impulsiveness, which is a tendency to act immediately on urges, according to Piers Steel, an organizational-behavior professor at the University of Calgary.

TO PROCRASTINATE LESS, START BY DOING THIS

Tips from research led by Timothy Pychyl, Piers Steel and Alexander Rozental.

  • Break a long-term project down into specific sub-goals. State the exact start time and how long (not just “tomorrow”) you plan to work on the task.
  • Just get started. It isn’t necessary to write a long list of tasks, or each intermediate step.
  • Remind yourself that finishing the task now helps you in the future. Putting off the task won’t make it more enjoyable.
  • Implement “microcosts,” or mini-delays, that require you to make a small effort to procrastinate, such as having to log on to a separate computer account for games.
  • Reward yourself not only for completing the entire project but also the sub-goals.

People may assume anxiety is what prevents them from getting started, yet data from many studies show that for people low in impulsiveness, anxiety is the cue to get going. Highly impulsive people, on the other hand, shut down when they feel anxiety. Impulsive people are believed to have a harder time dealing with strong emotion and want to do something else to get rid of the bad feeling, Dr. Steel says.

Some people claim they purposely leave things to the last minute because they work better under stress, but true procrastinators get stressed out by the delay. It’s arguable whether the quality of their work is actually better than if they had started earlier, according to Dr. Pychyl.

Experts say the consequences of chronic or extreme procrastination can be serious: Marriages break up, people lose jobs and often feel like impostors. Fuschia Sirois, a psychology professor at the University of Sheffield, in England, recently began studying the effects of procrastination on coping with chronic illness.

The mental-health effects of procrastination are well-documented: Habitual procrastinators have higher rates of depression and anxiety and poorer well-being.

Less is known about physical effects, and especially serious health problems. In a recent paper, Dr. Sirois and colleagues found procrastinators with hypertension and heart disease were less likely to engage in active strategies for coping with the illness, such as finding meaning or taking action, such as arranging to exercise with a friend. They were more likely to adopt maladaptive behaviors, like being avoidant or blaming themselves for the illness and trying to forget it.

In addition, procrastinators often seem unable to see as clearly into the future about their choices and behaviors as non-procrastinators—a phenomenon she calls “temporal myopia.” Their vision of their future selves is often more abstract and impersonal, and they’re less connected emotionally to their future selves. Temporal myopia may be largely due to their high levels of stress which can shift their focus to more immediate rather than distant concerns.

“A lot of us think, I’m doing it for me” and that in the future we’ll benefit because of what we’re doing now, says Dr. Sirois. But procrastinators aren’t as good at envisioning this. Dr. Sirois, Carleton’s Dr. Pychyl and others are testing interventions for helping procrastinators better envision and connect with their future selves.

Focusing on time management alone will help procrastinators, but only so much, the scientists say. The emotional regulation component must be addressed as well.

Dr. Sirois and Dr. Pychyl also have focused on short-term mood repair as an anti-procrastination strategy. They teach people to recognize that they might have strong emotions, such as anxiety, at the start of a project but to not judge themselves for it. The next step is just to get started, step by step, with a narrow focus.

At Stockholm University, researchers set out to test whether a self-help treatment could have an effect on more-severe forms of procrastination, as the research in this area was lacking. Though there are many self-help books and experimental lab studies, the group wanted to design an intervention that, if shown efficacious, could be rolled out widely, such as via the Internet, said Alexander Rozental, a clinical psychologist and doctoral student who was an author of the study, which was recently published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

Some 150 participants were self-reported high procrastinators and were randomly assigned to complete the intervention, either by themselves, with the guidance of a therapist or to a wait-list control. The treatment program consisted of 10 weekly modules.

One component focused on goal setting, such as breaking down long-term goals into smaller and more-concrete sub-goals. Instead of saying one was going to work on a paper on Tuesday, participants were taught to be specific and divide it into manageable sub-goals: I am going to work on a paper for one hour at 11 a.m.

The intervention also employed a reward system. Participants would give themselves something positive, whether a cup of coffee or a break after accomplishing mini-goals, rather than wait until finishing the overall goal.

Another module involved exposing procrastinators to stressful feelings or thoughts in brief but gradually longer periods. The goal there is to help them feel that they are better able to manage their emotions and not to instinctively follow them.

The results showed that after intervention with both guided and unguided self-help, people improved their procrastination, though the guided therapy seemed to show greater benefit. The researchers, who have continued following up with the participants, will look at one-year outcomes later this year to see if the results were maintained.

They also are conducting a study of college students receiving either group therapy or Internet-based cognitive behavior therapy, where they will look not only at self-reported procrastination but also at real-life outcomes including academic grades and use of alcohol and drugs, Mr. Rozental says.

In Calgary, Dr. Steel’s lab is testing and helping to develop new software with a Hong Kong company, Saent, that helps by delaying the loading of websites such as Facebook for 15 seconds or so, using “micro-costs” such as requiring a password before surfing the Web. Sometimes these little bits of effort are all that are necessary to deter procrastinators from distraction, Dr. Steel says.

Mr. Lockwood, the procrastinator from the U.K., has developed his own strategies for helping him delay tasks. Since he’s had to pay late fees before for not paying bills on time, for no reason other than he didn’t put the check in the mail, he now makes sure he’s always stocked with stamps and envelopes at home and has online bill pay set up for as many places as possible.

But he wishes he could shake his procrastination in other areas of his life. He says his girlfriend is always planning their vacations because he has a hard time getting started and is reluctant to ask for time off. But he actually enjoys the act of planning trips. He says one day he would love to surprise her by coming up with the idea and doing the planning.

“If you’re an occasional procrastinator, quit thinking about your feelings and get to the next task,” says Dr. Pychyl. “But if you’re a chronic procrastinator, you might need therapy to better understand your emotions and how you’re coping with them through avoidance.”

Write to Shirley S. Wang at shirley.wang@wsj.com

Taylor Swift Is Dreaming Of A Very White Africa

In the video for "Wildest Dreams," Taylor Swift is all decked out in African colonial-era style.
In the video for “Wildest Dreams,” Taylor Swift is all decked out in African colonial-era style.
(YouTube )
From
The video for American singer Taylor Swift’s new song “Wildest Dreams” has been viewed more than ten million times in the two days since it debuted.

The video was shot in Africa and California.

In it, we see two beautiful white people falling in love while surrounded by vast expanses of beautiful African landscapes and beautiful animals — a lion, a giraffe, a zebra.

Taylor Swift is dressed as a colonial-era woman on African soil. With just a few exceptions, the cast in the video — the actors playing her boyfriend and a movie director and his staff — all appear to be white.

We are shocked to think that in 2015, Taylor Swift, her record label and her video production group would think it was okay to film a video that presents a glamorous version of the white colonial fantasy of Africa. Of course, this is not the first time that white people have romanticized colonialism: See Louis Vuitton’s 2014 campaign, Ernest Hemingway’sSnows of Kilimanjaro, the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia and of course Karen Blixen’s memoirOut of Africa.

But it still stings.

Here are some facts for Swift and her team: Colonialism was neither romantic nor beautiful. It was exploitative and brutal. The legacy of colonialism still lives quite loudly to this day.Scholars have argued that poor economic performance, weak property rights and tribal tensions across the continent can be traced to colonial strategies. So can other woes. In a place full of devastation and lawlessness, diseases spreads like wildfire, conflict breaks out and dictators grab power.

Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” are a visual representation of what the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina writes about in his Granta Magazine essay, “How to Write About Africa.”

“In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.”

Why be encumbered with the African people or show them in your “Wildest Dreams” video when they are busy mutilating each other and their genitals?

The bigger problem is that many Americans have never had an African history lesson. So we don’t totally blame Taylor Swift, but the people behind the video should have done a little more research. They should have wondered how Africans would react.

To those of us from the continent who had parents or grandparents who lived through colonialism (and it can be argued in some cases are still living through it), this nostalgia that privileged white people have for colonial Africa is awkwardly confusing to say the least and offensive to say the most. Allison Swank in her critique of the 1985 movie Out of Africaexplains it well when she considers the character of Karen Blixen, portrayed by Meryl Streep: “The nostalgia her character creates for a time when an elegant, strong white woman could run a farm in Africa covers up the ugliness of that {colonial] idea. It undermines key colonial truths, like the fact that her ‘strength,’ or privilege, relies on the colonial order.”

Across the continent, we are in the middle of an exciting African boom and a technologicaland leadership renaissance of sorts, led by the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the formerly colonized and enslaved. Waterfalls and mountains and majestic animals do not represent a full picture of our homelands.

Swift’s music is entertaining for many. She should absolutely be able to use any location as a backdrop. But she packages our continent as the backdrop for her romantic songs devoid of any African person or storyline, and she sets the video in a time when the people depicted by Swift and her co-stars killed, dehumanized and traumatized millions of Africans. That is beyond problematic.

And then she decided to donate the proceeds from advertisements linked to her video to the charity African Parks Foundation of America. If you travel to some of Africa’s parks, you’ll see the rangers and guides are black Africans.

So why not show them in the video?

James Kassaga Arinaitwe is an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow and a Global Fellow at Acumen. He worked as a special projects manager at LabourNet, an organization in Bangalore, India, that seeks to improve the lives of workers. He tweets @JamesArinaitwe

 Shadow Work and the Rise of Middle-Class Serfdom

 

Brett and Kate Mckay

shadow work illustration man wearing many hats

Meet Bill, an average American.

The first thing Bill does when he rolls out of bed in the morning is look at his phone. He checks for new texts and emails, peruses his Facebook feed, and then surfs around to various news sites and blogs.

Then he grabs a quick breakfast and it’s out the door for a 20-minute commute to work. But first he stops at a convenience store to fill up on gas and withdraw some money from the ATM.

Once at the office, Bill makes himself some coffee and settles into his desk. His computer prompts him, as it does every 90 days, to change his password. He then spends an hour going through his work email, before doing some copy making and filing.

At lunch, Bill eats at a “fast casual” establishment where he orders at the counter, brings his food to a table, and then cleans it off when he leaves.

Back at the office, there’s more email to answer and tasks to take care of.

After work Bill stops by a grocery store, and swipes and bags his items in the self-checkout line.

Once he arrives home, Bill makes himself dinner, and then cleans up the kitchen. Next he sits down at his computer to figure out which flights would be best for an upcoming trip he’s planning, and to book a hotel and rental car as well. Two hours later, Bill makes those purchases, and then shops for a new bag he’ll need for the trip, looking at numerous sites and reviews, and then putting in his credit card and shipping information once again to complete the transaction.

Then it’s a little more web surfing and one last check of his Facebook feed. Right before he turns in, Bill gets a text from a friend: “Hey man! Want to go mountain biking this Saturday?” “Sorry,” Bill replies, “I’m too busy. Maybe another time.”

While Bill hasn’t done anything physically strenuous during the day, he crawls into bed feeling exhausted. And with good reason — for in addition to performing his “real” job at the office, he also worked a wide variety of other positions: driver, news editor, gas station attendant, banker, waiter, bus boy, secretary, cashier, grocery bagger, cook, housekeeper, travel agent, and salesman.

Though Bill nominally only works a 9-5, he has in fact been toiling around the clock.

Are We Really Busier Than We Used to Be?

In the modern age, we have the same 24 hours a day that every human has enjoyed for thousands of years. But when you look around, you might be forgiven for thinking that time has somehow sped up and that our days have grown shorter. People seem harried and worn out. If you ask them how they’re doing, “Busy, busy, busy!” is often the answer.

40% of Americans say they’re overworked, half feel there are too many tasks to complete each week, two-thirds feel they don’t have enough time for themselves or their spouses, and three-fourths say they don’t get to spend as much time with their kids as they’d like. And as far as the other parts of life, well, they can’t be bothered with them at all.

Making small talk? Too tiresome.

Going out and socializing, even with old friends? Ditto.

Throwing a party? Too much work.

Going to church or doing service? Too busy.

Following basic manners and acting civil? Too tired to make the effort.

Cooking and eating real food? Too time-consuming; I’ll just get all my calories from a shake.

Putting on pants without an elastic waistband? Why bother?

Having hobbies? Ain’t nobody got time for that.

To explain what’s behind this apparent time crunch, the instinctive hypothesis is that we’re all simply working more — that jobs these days require us to toil for more hours than they used to.

Yet perception is not reality. Since the 1960s, work hours have actually decreased by almost eight hours a week, while leisure time has gone up by almost seven hours. Many will likely find this hard to believe, and that’s partly due to the fact that people routinely overestimate how much they really work by 5-10%. We also greatly underestimate our available leisure time; Americans think they have, at the most, about 16.5 hours of it a week. In actuality, nearly all of us have anywhere from 30-40 hours of leisure time at our disposal. And this includes both men and women, singles and marrieds, those with children and those without, and the rich and poor alike; in fact, lower income Americans have more leisure time than higher earners.

So what exactly is going on? What accounts for the gap between how our lives feel and how they’re actually structured?

How is it possible that we ostensibly have 40 hours of leisure time each week, and yet most of us feel we can’t even spare 20 minutes a day to read a book or meditate?

Stupefied by Shadow Work

Working women have long complained of having to hold down “the second shift” — i.e., having to do the bulk of childcare and housework after putting in time at a paid job. While it’s true and often reported that women continue to do more of these second shift chores than men, total working time for men and women these days is actually close to equal. That is, while working women do more housework, working men put in more hours at the office, so that the total working hours for each is close to the same.

Amidst the debate over which sex does more, few have noticed the fact that all of us — men and women alike — are working not only unpaid second shifts, but third, fourth, and fifth ones as well. Think about Bill’s day again: even though he had one official job, he wore many different hats.

As author and professor Dr. Craig Lambert explains, we all increasingly “find ourselves doing a stack of jobs we never volunteered for, chores that showed up in our lives below the scan of awareness.” Lambert calls these tasks “shadow work” and in his book of the same name, he describes this labor as “all the unpaid tasks we do on behalf of businesses and organizations.”

You perform shadow work whenever you do jobs that used to be done by a paid employee, but have now been outsourced to the consumer: pumping gas, booking a travel itinerary, bussing a table, and so on. We likewise do shadow work whenever we bank online or use an ATM instead of a teller, check-in to flights or a hotel using a kiosk rather than a human, and wait on hold for an hour to talk to a scarce customer service representative. When we can’t find a knowledgeable salesman to talk to and get a recommendation from at a big box store, and instead must take over his job and shop online, spending hours comparing model features and reading reviews, we’re doing shadow work then too. When we follow through on these online transactions, entering in our credit card number and address for the umpteenth thousandth time, we do yet more shadow work — this time as DIY cashiers.

We’ve all taken over a wide variety of jobs that used to be done by others, not only in the wider marketplace, but even just a few desks over; many paid positions have been subject to “job creep” in which a worker must perform the tasks that used to be done by three other people, and are not included in his official job description. Support staff — secretaries, assistants, and the like who used to make your coffee and copies, answer your mail, and keep track of your schedule, have largely been resigned to the dust bin of a bygone era. And yet the requirement of becoming a jack-of-all-trades has not been accompanied by an increase in wages.

Shadow work also includes tasks that have resulted from new practices and expectations, and which you must perform if you wish to use a particular service or simply keep your job. Think of kowtowing to the shoe-removing rituals required by airport security, filling out endless paperwork when you visit a new doctor, and of course doing your taxes, a chore which takes the average 1040-filer 23 hours of shadow work a year. Suppressing any normal, negative feelings, and putting on a consistently upbeat, friendly face — which more and more employers require of workers who interact with the public — constitutes tiresome shadow work too.

Finally, the realm of shadow work includes tasks that aren’t strictly necessary, but that we perform because of their perceived benefits. At least 2/3 of us surf the web for medical information, often coming up with our own diagnoses instead of, or before seeing a doctor; after our visit, we do more shadow work to decide between the various treatment plans the good doc described. Many folks who are looking for love report that online dating becomes like a second job, as they must spend hours perusing profiles, responding to messages, and setting up dates. And not only do we have to clean and organize our physical home these days, but we have to regularly tidy-up, back-up, and arrange the songs, emails, files, photos, and videos that line our virtual “shelves.” Plus, we must not only manage our real world selves and protect our physical privacy, but also monitor our online reputations andsafekeep the data we put in the cloud.

But perhaps the most taxing shadow work of all is managing our information intake. In times past, magazine, book, and television editors controlled the flow of information to the public. This restricted the media being put out, but also filtered it for quality and importance. The web has radically democratized this process, so that anyone with a computer can create their own videos, books, articles, films, and so on. This has left the consumer with the enormous and never-ending job of wading into the torrent of media online and sifting the wheat from the chaff.

This ever-increasing mountain of shadow work tasks has placed a unique burden on the modern citizen. Lambert argues that while shadow work has hardly put us in the position of medieval peasants, it has in fact created a new kind of middle-class serfdom. We are all Bill, logging hours for corporations we don’t realize we’re employed by, and working around the clock without pay.

Life as a Middle-Class Serf

Lambert calls shadow work such, because it takes “place in the wings of the theater while we are absorbed in the onstage drama of our lives.” Had it dropped into our routines all at once, we would have noticed, and may have howled in protest, but instead it has arrived slowly in dribs and drabs. It’s become our new normal and we’ve gotten so used to it that the phenomenon has largely gone unnoticed and unrecognized.

Taken alone, the tasks of shadow work seem laughably trivial. But it’s serfdom by a thousand cuts; together, our shadow work chores have shredded our days into what the author of Overwhelmed calls, “confetti time.” Rather than experiencing long, unbroken stretches of time in which we concentrate on completing tasks for a single role in our lives, we are constantly changing the hats we wear — toggling from husband to cashier, office worker to news editor, father to travel agent.

And while we were formerly forced to largely work during regular work hours and shop during regular business hours, technology allows us to produce and consume 24/7. We never fully clock out from our “real” jobs, nor do we ever fully take a break from the marketplace. Even when we’re not actively engaging in shadow work, in the back of our mind there’s that ever present niggling: Is there something I need to buy? Is there something going on I should know about? Should I check my phone? We’re always “on” and constantly mentally switching between roles.

The Hidden Thieves Stealing Your Willpower

It isn’t the time that shadow work tasks require that ends up being so draining (they may even save you time over the traditional route), but their effect on the psyche. Willpower is a finite resource. You only get so much of the fuel that allows you to focus and gives you the mental energy to tackle the world each day. And what saps this fuel is making decisions, weighing options, and exercising self-control.

Shadow work requires all three behaviors, and is thus a huge willpower drainer.

I have long felt that this is one of the single most overlooked facts in modern life; even Lambert largely misses it. I think it gets to the heart of why people feel overworked, worn out, and harried — why they just can’t be bothered to be civil or to socialize or to have hobbies, even though on paper they don’t seem to have that much going on. The stuff that’s eating away at their willpower aren’t the things you’d put in a planner, but the overlooked shadow work in the wings.

Shadow work does frequently give the average consumer more autonomy; you can do things when and how you’d like. But 100% autonomy is actually not a desirable state. “Submission” is a word with negative connotations, but times of psychic submission are in fact a mental necessity. Our minds need periods of rest where we can say to someone else, “You take care of all the details on this. I just want to enjoy the result!” It’s true that the rich have always enjoyed this kind of delegated caretaking the most, with their coterie of maids and servants standing by to fulfill their every need. But as recently as 50 years ago, everybody, from the overwhelmed housewife to the working class bloke, got to regularly enjoy at least a few brief moments of respite at stores, gas stations, and the like; nearly everyone had times both of serving and being served. Now we’re always waiting, and never being waited upon. We’re constantly tasked with shouldering all the responsibility, weighing all the options (of which there are more available than ever!), and making all the decisions. It’s exhausting.

Most wearying of all, is that one of the things which is supposed to act as our servant — the web — often becomes our master instead.

Take just the example of working in an office today compared to half a century ago. Imagine in your mind’s eye your 1960s desk. It’s got some paperwork on it, a picture of your kids, and nothing else. No computer. As you go about your work, there’s nothing to distract you; you can look at the files on your desk, or at a plant in the corner, and then back to your files. Now imagine your desk at work today. Right in the center is your computer where you do all your work. Every minute you have to resist the urge to check Facebook or look something up on google to focus on the task at hand. Each time you feel the urge to surf and resist it, you use up a bit of your willpower reserve. You’re thus actually working two jobs at once: one as Outgoing Accounts Manager, and the other as Chief Urge-Resister. Your job thus feels twice as taxing as it did a few decades ago, and you go home feeling like you just worked a double-shift. Because you pretty much did.

Once our willpower reserve runs low, “decision fatigue” sets in and we shy away from doing anything that’ll require mental energy or making choices, and just generally default to the path of least resistance.

It’s no surprise then, that the time we spend watching television — the ultimate in vegging out for the modern willpower-depleted serf — keeps increasing and currently stands at almost 3 hours a day, or half our total leisure time. That same leisure time everyone swears they don’t have.

Becoming the Lord of Shadow Work

Corporations love creating shadow work because outsourcing formerly paid jobs to the consumer increases their profits. But they also often claim it’s a win for everyone, as the consumer will ultimately save money and time as well. Of course the rhetoric doesn’t always match reality; oftentimes the cost savings never trickle down, and the new robotic customer service rep is less convenient than the flesh and blood variety. For example, airline ticket prices haven’t fallen now that we buy them online and check-in via kiosk. Similarly, self-check-out at the grocery store might sometimes be faster if you only have a few items — but not if you run into an error, and not if you have a whole basketful of groceries.

But shadow work does undeniably have its benefits. It lets you shop on your own time, manage your own information stream, and dine out more often than you might have otherwise (you may have to bus your own table, but you don’t have to tip).

Thus, Lambert goes out of his way to argue that shadow work in and of itself is not a problem, and is in fact an opportunity; it “can both add new tasks and open up possibilities.” But we can only take advantage of it if we’re fully aware of the phenomenon and the various ways it’s insinuated its reach into our lives. For most, the shadow work they perform goes unrecognized, though its effects are still felt; it’s as if someone sleepwalks through nightly workouts, and can’t figure out why they’re so fatigued during the day.

Hopefully this post has brought something that typically operates outside of consciousness to the forefront of your mind.

Now the task is to manage and direct your shadow work towards productive and desirable ends. Here are a few tips for doing so:

Develop a new mindset on busyness. Part of the reason people have failed to examine their perceived busyness more closely is that many don’t actually think it’s such a bad thing. Busyness these days has become a status symbol — a sign you’re someone who’s doing things in the world. People may complain that they’re overworked, but they’re often really just signaling their membership in the movers and shakers club. Our automatic equation of being busy with doing something right overlooks important facts — such as whether this busyness is actually making us happy, or even lending itself to our productivity! Someone may be expending their energy in a hundred different directions and feel entirely worn out, but be accomplishing very little.

Minimizing shadow work will make you feel less burdened, and it’s important you don’t interpret this greater lightness as doing something wrong. Again, sheer busyness itself does not equal productivity and creativity.

Outsource when you can. The DIY ethic is admirable, but only when you’re doing-it-yourself, for yourself! Putting in time for a corporation doesn’t satisfy the soul. So if they’re going to outsource jobs to you, consider passing the task along and outsourcing it to someone else. Yes, outsourcing usually costs money, but this upfront cost should be weighed not only against the time you save, but the physic energy and willpower you’ll preserve as well. Doing things like using a travel agent, hiring a tax preparer, and even riding the bus to work instead of driving yourself, can actually end up making you more money in the long run; if you feel so exhausted at night that you never end up putting in time on your side hustle, it’ll never get off the ground. The more you outsource tiresome tasks, the more time you’ll have for satisfying and creative pursuits.

Set no-brainer blocks on your devices. Instead of expending your precious willpower trying to resist the urge to check your devices when you’d like to be working on other things, take that possibility completely off the table by putting blocks on certain apps and sites at certain times. This post covers all the ins and outs of how to do that.

Clock out from production and consumption. The average modern American is either producing or consuming at any given moment during the day. Our identities are ever tied up in economic pursuits. Take a break from the marketplace by trying not only to keep regular working hours where possible, but to adhere to regular business hours when you shop. Just because you can buy some Beard Growth Spray on Amazon at 11 o’clock at night, doesn’t mean you should. Set parameters for your economic hours, consider taking a weekly Tech Sabbath, and make unbroken lengths of time — periods in which to pursue things for their own pleasures and ends, and simply to be a human — a sacred part of your routine.

Be a satisficer rather than a maximizer. Maximizers seek out every possibility and weigh every option before making a decision; satisficers pick the first thing they’re happy with and go with it. While maximizers do end up with better things because of all their effort, research has shown that they’re still less happy with what they get than satisficers! They can’t enjoy what they pick because they continue to wonder if they made the right choice, and whether there might be something else out there they’d like even better.

In our modern life, it pays to be a satisficer. There may be a dozen different powders for your balls out there, but just pick one and stick with it. That is, whenever you find a product or service you like, if you remain happy with it, keep on using it instead of constantly surfing reviews and perusing new products that are only infinitesimally different than the previous versions.

Be ruthless in filtering information. Everyone is now their own media editor, and how you perform at this task will have much to do with the quality of your life. Grade channels/sites; do they occasionally have excellent content, while 80% of it is junk? Give them an F. Does another media outlet have the reverse ratio of gems to crap? Give it a B-. Then, instead of randomly surfing, only frequent B-quality sites/channels. Imagine yourself as a real-life editor, and ask yourself if you would publish/broadcast the content that crosses your desk; if not, you shouldn’t consume it either.

If there’s a site you’ve come to trust, as you know they examine many sources and sides of an issue before presenting advice, go right to it when you have a question, rather than wading through everything yourself.

Also apply this mindset to your Facebook feed. Hide everyone and everything that doesn’t consistently share at least B-grade content.

When you start ruthlessly filtering your media consumption, you’ll often worry that you’re missing out on things — that you’ll miss something important amongst the 20% of good stuff a generally junky site puts out. But I’ve found that once you give up a particular media outlet for awhile, the tugging and withdrawal symptoms quickly go away, and you realize it was adding nothing to your life. Further, the important subjects that the junky site occasionally covered, invariably pop up on other sites, only executed far better!

Conclusion

Shadow work promises greater autonomy, but ends up making us feel more out of control — that we don’t have the time or energy to do the things we really want to. Don’t let yourself be added to the ranks of a corporation’s employees without realizing it, and don’t freely hand over the cream of your energy to the lords of media and commerce. Willpower is a man’s most precious resource; if you wish to be superhuman, rather than a serf, guard it closely and use it wisely.

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