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How to Fix a Trouble Area in Your Life

How to Fix a Trouble Area in Your Life

    We all have trouble areas in our lives. No matter how many you seem to knock off, there are always more to deal with.

    That’s not a bad thing, and it’s not a self-defeating attitude so long as you look at life as a journey in self-improvement. If we reached a point where there was nothing left to improve about ourselves, we may as well take a dive off a tall building; it’d be the only thing left to experience. Everything else would be pedestrian.

    Good thing it’s not possible to reach perfection. I don’t recommend that activity as much fun.

    But if (part of) life’s purpose is to constantly improve ourselves, we need a plan of action so that we can consistently conquer whatever we set out to conquer. Here’s the approach I take; it can be applied to just about anything you like.

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    1. Identify the Area

    It’s important to be specific about the issue you’re dealing with. There’s no point being obtuse in your definition; uncertainly leads to inaction. Don’t say, “I need to deal with my health.” Say, “I need to stop smoking,” or “I need to lose weight.”

    If the area you want to deal with is obtuse and multi-faceted, you may want to break it down into various components and take each on as individual, and most importantly, consecutive projects. Don’t try to take on a massive area of your life with many components all at once. This approach is prone to failure.

    2. Identify the Patterns

    Identifying the patterns involved with your bad behavior is important. It helps you narrow down the most effective solutions (that we’ll find later) and implement them at the right times and places.

    For example, if you want to stop impulse spending, identify the circumstances that lead to that spending; obviously, you need to be in a place that sells things. When you’re in a shop, do you ever refrain from impulse spending? Does it occur every single time without failure (unlikely even for the worst impulse spenders)?

    By the process of elimination you can determine the circumstances that must be present for the runaway behavior to occur. If you go to buy a rotisserie chicken and pasta salad and come home with a feast for two families and Coke to last the week instead, do you have just the cash you need or a wallet stocked with credit and debit cards? The impulse spending could be brought on because the knowledge that you have your debit card with you makes you feel relaxed about purchasing more than you came for.

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    A potential solution: take out cash for shopping on pay day. Make a list of what you need each time you go to the shop, estimate the price, and bring only enough cash to pay for the items.

    3. Determine the Causes

    This can be a tricky step, because sometimes the causes that motivate your behaviors are deep rooted and tough to spot. It can require some honest and often uncomfortable introspection, and in other cases, the causes are obvious and right in front of you. For instance, some freelancers are overweight because their fridge is a few meters away and there’s no obstacle to the temptation to grab a snack.

    On the other hand, smokers have been known to stick with the habit because they want the perpetual distraction—to prevent them from having to think about whatever tough emotional issues are in the back of their mind and might come to light in the absence of something distracting to do. So it can go either way—evident material cause or hidden emotional cause—and it’s up to you to discover it.

    4. Research the Issue

    Armed with some knowledge of your problem patterns and their causes, you can proceed on to doing some research on the issue. The introspective knowledge is important for framing the external information you’ll be digging through; it helps you sort through relevant and irrelevant material much more quickly.

    For instance, if you want to quit smoking, understand the process of nicotine addiction, the pitfalls people experience in trying to quit, and the consequences of extended cigarette use. Knowledge is power, and sometimes a deterrent too—but in this case we just want a thorough understanding of the area we’re dealing with. Usually research alone does not act as a deterrent. If knowing that cigarette smoking caused lung cancer would get you to quit, those nasty pictures on packs of cigarettes would’ve worked.

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    5. List the Solutions

    Part of your research will include finding known solutions. You want to find as many as you can and filter them for relevance and effectiveness. If something only worked for one other person but seems relevant to you, you might want to list it in case solutions that worked for a greater number of people don’t pan out, but if a solution seems to be effective for few and irrelevant to you, there’s little point taking note.

    If you take note of every proposed solution out there, you’d be trialling heaps of methods that don’t work and waste your time, since everybody on the Internet knows how to solve everybody else’s problems. Be selective, but be open, and try to order your list so that the most promising methods of solving your problem are at the top and the least promising are at the bottom.

    Think of your own solutions for the list too, since you’ll likely come up with a few when you’re identifying your patterns and causes earlier in the process. But other people’s solutions are a good place to start. There’s no point reinventing the wheel when certain methods have worked well for others.

    6. Test the Solutions

    Allocate a certain amount of time to test each solution in the list based on how long you’d guesstimate it needing before it takes effect. If you see results, stick it out unless you become sure that the results have ceased and a more effective solution is needed. And of course, be discerning and start with the methods that show the most promise for your situation and have worked well for others; don’t start with the methods that look easy but have worked for few others. There’s usually a reason that “solution” is so easy.

    7. Review Your Progress

    As you progress, make sure to review your process regularly. It seems like a given but you’d be surprised how often people keep trying to solve a problem using the same fix even when it doesn’t work. I knew a guy who used nicotine patches for six months while still smoking before he realized they weren’t going to do anything for him.

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    Is the solution working? What about the solution is producing results? In that light, are there other solutions that will work better or faster based on the way the situation is resolving itself? It could be worth giving the alternative a shot if there’s enough reason to believe it’ll work better.

    At the end of the day, the process of fixing problem areas in your life comes down to two basic principles:

    1. Understand the problem and the solutions available.
    2. Test, tweak, rinse and repeat until you succeed.

    If you can do this consistently, you can beat any problem; just give yourself enough time to test and tweak until you find out what works, and don’t expect miracles.

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    Last Updated on August 16, 2018

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    The power of habit

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to make a reminder works for you

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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