04 Oct 2017

How I Motivate Myself to Learn

There’s two skills I’ve developed over the past few years that I value more than almost anything else I’ve ever done: learning how to code and building a habit of working out.

These two have one big thing in common: nearly everybody wishes they could do them. Most people my age, Millennials, wish they knew how to code. They’d have an in demand skillset that is applicable to any industry and as a result they’d be making significantly more money than they are today.

The same thing applies to working out. The only proof you need is to walk in a gym after New Years. Everyone tells themselves, “A new year, a new me” and eventually, they quit.

The people who consistently go to the gym are probably the minority in your life. The same thing would apply to software engineers.

The reason people quit going to the gym and the reason people don’t know how to program is the same: it’s fucking tough and results don’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of discipline and patience to work at either one of these with so little feedback in the short-term. The result is nice, but the road to the result isn’t.

But somehow, I still made it happen. Looking back, I think there are a few mental tricks that helped me embrace the suck.

Start small and show up

When I first started working out, I set up a schedule of three days a week. At first it was Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It was small but it seemed reasonable. It was a workout schedule I actually wanted. Starting with five days a week would have been overwhelming for a habit that was previously at zero.

But eventually those three days turned into a fraction in my head: 3/7. My three days aren’t even half of a week I thought. So I bumped it up to four days: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. I did that for a while and eventually my two straight days off, Saturday and Sunday, made me feel lazy. So I bumped that up to a five day schedule which I’m still on today.

I’ve recently started focusing on calisthenics in addition to weightlifting. One of the first movements I chose to develop is the handstand and I decided to continue with the start small approach. I’d try to do a few handstands when I do upper body - Monday and Thursday. The first few days sucked because I barely knew what I was doing. I was still watching YouTube videos to learn how to practice a handstand. But after just a few days, I started noticing small improvements. When I started to fall, it was no longer a guarantee I was going to fall. I could now rebalance myself 1/20 times even if the rebalancing only lasted for another half second. 1/20 isn’t much, but it’s better than 0.

Once I feel this change from 0 to 1, my first bit of short-term feedback, I know I’m starting to build some momentum. This is the point where doing a few handstands on Monday and Thursday turns into me doing them three or four days a week because I’m starting to see results. Wait even longer and you’ll be doing handstands for the hell of it because it’s just an enjoyable thing to do when you no longer suck.

Tell yourself you’re not average

Remember when I said most people wish they knew how to code and wish they regularly went to the gym? I always kept that line in my head when I felt like quitting.

Let’s say on January 1 a gym has 100 people in it. The owners know from previous years that in a month that number will be 20. Do you want to be in the majority or the minority?

I simply refused to let myself settle for the majority. Every day I didn’t want to go to the gym I’d just tell myself, “This is the first step to being in the group of 80.” If that didn’t work I’d pretend I had to tell the hottest girl in the world I wasn’t going to the gym today because I was tired. There’s no way I could actually say that out loud to her so before I knew it I’d be on my way to the gym.

Approach it like a baby

When you’re starting something new, picture yourself as a baby. If a baby is trying to learn to walk it doesn’t happen overnight. They don’t practice walking, take a few months off, and then try again. The reality is that the process takes time and the practice is relatively frequent.

Whenever I’m about to practice handstands, I take a moment to acknowledge the handstand is new to me and that I’m essentially a baby trying to learn how to stand on my hands. This puts the learning process in perspective which also reduces my stress so I’m not so hard on myself. Again, a baby doesn’t learn how to walk overnight and neither will I.

Experiment with practice

Depending on what you’re doing, it’s worth spending some time experimenting with how you practice. When I first started working out I’d do my cardio at home on a stationary bike. To help with the cardio, I’d watch an episode of Lost at the same time. I was going to be on the bike for 40 minutes either way but I found one episode of Lost was easier to digest than 40 minutes.

I’ve found drastic differences within music as well. When I’m practicing painting, I’ve noticed one continuous piece of upbeat music to be much better for pushing me into flow state. EDM sets, followed by podcasts and audiobooks, have been my new go-to pairings with workouts or other habits which don’t require constant thinking.

Reframe practice into different terms

For some reason I thought building a habit of weightlifting was like beating the final boss in a game. I expected everything else that followed to feel much easier.

The reality is it’s a lot like any other skill that takes time to develop. So when you move on to something else, in my case it’s digital painting, you realize the entire process essentially starts over. You go back to sucking which means you go back to finding reasons to procrastinate.

The difference is that it’s just a little bit easier than it was the time before because you’ve pushed through in the past and you know the process takes time. You’ve already proven it to yourself at least once.

In this case, I actually reframe my new habit as my old one. Rather than tell myself I need to sit down and practice painting, I pretend I need to sit down at my computer and “go for a run”. That habit has been built and it’s rare for me to bitch out. For some bizarre reason walking up to my computer, opening Photoshop, and telling myself I just need to run actually makes it easier for me to do. It may not make sense, but I’ll run with it.


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