Month: October 2021

Sherlock Holmes: Lessons on Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving

sherlock holmes


While a fictional character, Sherlock Holmes is an excellent example of critical thinking and problem-solving that we can all learn from. Here’s a breakdown of his philosophy and approach to thinking.


As many of you know, I’ve been reading fiction a lot more this year, so I’ve been going through a lot of classics I’ve never had the chance to before.

Recently I finished reading A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle (1887). It’s the first novel to feature the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes. The book is a short, fun, and clever read – which I recommend to anyone – and Holmes is a great example of rationality and critical thinking.

As a private detective and consultant, Holmes sets himself apart from other detectives in the book through his unique ability to observe and analyze a situation and draw conclusions that seem to elude the average mind. This is why folks in the book are constantly visiting him and asking him for his input and advice.

Sherlock Holmes knows how to see things others don’t through his keen sense of observation, he knows what facts to focus on and which to ignore, and he knows how to deduce those facts to their logical, inevitable conclusions.

While of course Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, he can still serve as a great role model when it comes to critical thinking and problem-solving.

Here are the big highlights and takeaways when it comes to his thinking philosophy.


Don’t fill your “brain attic” with useless knowledge

Sherlock Holmes sees his brain as an “empty attic” that can only be filled with so many facts and knowledge. Thus, he makes it an important point to never fill it with useless junk.

    “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing the useful ones.”

Dr. Watson, who narrates the book and begins as a roommate of Sherlock Holmes, is always intrigued by Holmes odd ways and philosophies.

When trying to figure out what makes Sherlock tick, Watson discovers that he has excellent knowledge in certain areas in life (such as chemistry, botany, anatomy, and geology), but is also terribly ignorant on other matters (such as politics, contemporary literature, and astronomy).

In fact, when pressed, Sherlock Holmes admits he didn’t know that the earth revolved around the sun. Dr. Watson is shocked by this basic ignorance, but Holmes responds…

    “What the deuce is it to me? You say we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or my work.”

This type of ruthless pragmatism is very characteristic of Sherlock Holmes philosophy. He doesn’t bother with a fact unless it has a direct impact on himself and his work.

To Holmes, a trivial or useless fact is just as good as a lie or a distraction from what really matters – something that only serves to crowd his brain attic.


The science of observation and deduction

Sherlock Holmes is best known for his power of deduction. Deduction is when you begin with a set of facts and then work your way backwards to their logical conclusion.

Throughout the book, Holmes makes many remarkable conclusions by observing simple facts and then reasoning backwards. One early example in the book describes how Holmes recognized Dr. Watson had just come back from Afghanistan.

    “From long habit the train of thought ran so swiftly through my mind that I arrived at the conclusion without being conscious of intermediate steps. There were such steps, however. The train of reasoning ran, ‘Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.’ The whole train of thought did not occupy a second, I then remarked that you came from Afghanistan, and you were astonished.”

By noticing physical features such as how the man walks, his mannerisms, his tanned skin, the features of his face, and how he moves his arms, Holmes was able to reason that this man was an English army doctor who had just come back from a hot region, therefore he must be coming back from Afghanistan (the British were fighting in Afghanistan at the time in the late 19th century).

Holmes makes many similar observations throughout the book, such as being able to estimate a person’s height based on his walking gait (as revealed by footprints in the ground), and noticing a cab must have stopped at the location of a crime (because the tire tracks are thinner than normal cabs).

A big part of Holmes’ genius is the ability to observe a tiny fact and recognize all the other facts that must logically be associated with it.

He goes on to tell Dr. Watson how his reasoning abilities are different than most people…

    “Most people, if you describe a train of events to them, will tell you what the result would be. They can put those events together in their minds, and argue from them that something will come to pass. There are few people, however, who, if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result. This power is what I mean when I talk of reasoning backwards.”

While most people observe “causes” and infer the “results” that will follow, Holmes prides himself in being able to start with the “results” and reason his way backwards to their original “causes.”


The value of strange facts

The stranger a fact is, the more revealing it can be.

According to Sherlock Holmes’ philosophy, ordinary facts aren’t very helpful because they can fit into a wide-range of scenarios. But a strange fact – a fact that stands out – can help you to narrow your options and point you in the right direction.

If a person is wearing a blue shirt, that doesn’t tell you much about them because a lot of people wear blue shirts. It’s too common to tell you anything important. But if a person is wearing a multi-colored armor vest, that raises all types of questions that could potentially lead you to an interesting truth.

Typically, the more bizarre a situation is, the more difficult you would think it is to explain. But for Holmes, using his power of deduction, he can take a mysterious fact and see how it illuminates the truth rather than hides it.

After solving a case, he explains to Watson…

    “All this seems strange to you, because you failed at the beginning of the inquiry to grasp the importance of the single real clue which was presented to you. I had the good fortune to seize upon that, and everything has occurred since then has served to confirm my original supposition, and indeed, was the logical consequence of it. Hence things which have perplexed you and made the case more obscure have served to enlighten me and to strengthen my conclusions. It is a mistake to confound strangeness with mystery, because it presents no new or special features from which deductions may be drawn. This murder would have been infinitely more difficult to unravel had the body of the victim been simply found lying in the roadway without anyone of those outré and sensational accompaniments which have rendered it remarkable. These strange details, far from making the case more difficult, have really had the effect of making it less so.”

If you know a strange truth, then you have to factor it into your understanding – that’s going to lead you down certain pathways, while blocking other ones.

This reminds me of a great quote by Isaac Asimov, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka’ but ‘That’s funny…’”

As a scientist, detective, or truth-seeker, strangeness often points you in a direction you need to pursue further.


The need for deep contemplation

While Sherlock Holmes is generally depicted as energized and pro-active throughout the book, it’s also noted how he has intense periods of contemplation.

Early on, his roommate Dr. Watson makes an alarming observation when Holmes gets into his solitary moods…

    “Nothing could exceed his energy when the working fit was upon him; but now an again a reaction would seize him, and for days he would lie upon the sofa in the sitting-room, hardly uttering a word or moving a muscle from morning to night. On these occasions I have notice such a dreamy, vacant expression in his eyes, that I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic, had not the temperance and cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion.”

There’s not much else said about these behaviors, so we have to speculate a bit. Since Holmes had a consistent schedule when it came to sleep, diet, and work, it’s safe to say these odd behaviors aren’t due to over-exertion or working too hard.

Most great minds need moments of healthy reflection to process all the information they’ve absorbed throughout the day. A hyper-active and hyper-observant mind such as Sherlock’s probably needs more time to digest and think than others.

The “dreamy, vacant expression” seems to refer to a person looking inward, tuning out the outside world, and thinking deeply.

There are other eccentricities to Sherlock Holmes that relate to his thinking and problem-solving abilities. The biggest one is probably his habit of playing the violin.

    “[His powers of the violin] were very remarkable, but as eccentric as all his other accomplishments. There he could play pieces, and difficult pieces, I knew well, because at my request he has played me some of Mendelssohn’s Lieder, and other favorites. When left to himself, however, he would seldom produce any music or attempt any recognized air. Leaning back in his arm-chair of an evening, he would close his eyes and scrape carelessly at the fiddle thrown across his knee. Sometimes the chords were sonorous and melancholy. Occasionally they were fantastic and cheerful. Clearly they reflected the thoughts which possessed him, but whether the music aided those thoughts, or whether the playing was simply the result of a whim or fancy, was more than I could determine.”

When left to his own devices and not playing a popular piece of classical music for Watson, Holmes seems to use the violin as an improvisational tool to get more in touch with his inner thoughts and feelings.

As a musician myself who likes to improvise, I often see music as a way to “think without words” – it’s another way for me to reflect on and digest my experiences that doesn’t require language or conversation.

It’s possible Sherlock uses the violin as a way to take a break from his busy mind (a form of leisure or self-care), or that he uses it as an extension of his mind to help think more clearly and get in touch with his gut and intuition.

Whatever the case may be, Sherlock’s violin playing is an important part of his daily routine and what makes him who he is.


Conclusion

Sherlock Holmes is a great example of an intelligent and inquisitive mind. A Study in Scarlet is a fun introduction to his strange ways and what makes him tick. I’m looking forward to reading more stories about him in the future to dive deeper into what makes him such a unique and memorable character.


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The Loss of Living a Singular Life


Where here should I start from?

Where does the beginning sit in a new story?

Is the beginning at the start of the new experience, or at the end of it.

I have been away inside new adventures for the last few weeks.

I swam in turquoise waters in Greece.

I witnessed a rocket blasting off to space at Cape Canaveral with a friend inside of it.

My eyes going from one world to another, adjusting to the new view.

Something happens when you change reality dramatically.

Where nothing is left the same.

People. Places. Streets. Words. You.

Skies. 

All speaking a new language.

Your inner compass becomes turbulent. Until it stabilizes.

But the beginning is not here yet. I can’t find it. 

The beginning is not inside the adventure. I looked. 

Maybe there will never be a beginning to think about again, because I will not need to begin again.

Is that possible even?

We seek new beginnings because wherever we are, is no longer needed, wanted, chosen. But what if you made your life exist inside many realities, where you leap from one to another. A new beginning would become irrelevant.

Wouldn’t it?

Loss would be minimized.

Love would become everything, everywhere, everyone.

You won’t have time to not love, as something new will always show up ready to be loved by you.

In the last few weeks I met people from all over the world, living lives I have never seen before.

Wanting things I have never wanted, because I didn’t know they existed. 

Living in a singular world creates immense loss.

I am just realizing that a monogamous relationship with life is not healthy.

We have created the concept of a new beginning because living a linear existence meant that we had to end one world to begin another.

What if we don’t have to?

What if we exist in many streets, and homes, and places, and most importantly inside many stories. All at the same time.

I don’t want to end my adventures.

I don’t want to begin anything else.

I just want to continue whatever this is.

Because this right here, feels like coming home.

With no beginnings, and no endings,

Christina


Christina Rasmussen is the creator and founder of The Life Reentry Institute, Second Firsts, and Star Letters, and the host of the Dear Life Podcast. Christina is on a crusade to help millions of people rebuild, reclaim, and relaunch their lives using the power of their own minds. Christina’s work has been featured on ABC News, NPR, The White House Blog, and MariaShriver.com. She is the bestselling author of Second Firsts: Live, Laugh, and Love Again, which has also been translated in Chinese and German and just released her second book Where Did You Go on expanding the mind in ways that allows co-creation with the forces of the universe. She is also writing her first work of fiction: a science fiction story about a woman on a quest to start over and begin a new life. You can find more information on her website and follow her on FB or Twitter.

Image courtesy of Andy Vu.

The Necessity of Mindfulness: Seeing Things as They Really Are

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by Sam Weston

There came a point when my life collapsed.

I won’t bore you with the details. But needless to say, I had some things on my mind one fine day when I went for an evening run in the country. It was beautiful – green trees nestled amidst sun-drenched fields – but I saw none of it. All I could see or hear was the storm inside my own head. What if I had done X? Or Y? What will happen now? What if Z happens? Will things ever get back to normal? Will I ever get back to normal? I felt like Sisyphus, forever damned to keep pushing that boulder up a mountain, only for that boulder to fall back to the bottom once I reached the top so I could begin the process anew.

Such had been the dystopian hellscape of my mind for weeks, even months, casting a long shadow over every lame, half-hearted positive thought. But, for some reason, today was different. I had stopped trying to “think positive thoughts.” I stopped trying to force it. 

And at last I actually saw the evening sun piercing through the trees. That’s all I did; I just noticed it. I was struck in that moment by the effect of the light glowing behind the new spring leaves, the intensity of the green before me. I breathed deeply, my nose flooding with the scent of flowers and pollen. My ears were assailed by the songs of thousands of birds, it seemed, a full evening orchestra from the canopy above. Although I had seen it all thousands of times before, it was as though I was just now seeing it for the first time. Continuing to breathe, tension that I didn’t even know I was holding just drained from my muscles. I was suddenly in my body again, grounded, connected, the volume of the world turned down. 

Blue Noise

The storm in my mind was still there but it was as though I was observing it from a distance, its noise growing fainter. And from that distance I saw the storm differently – quieter, less dominating of every aspect of my consciousness. I saw that there was just no point ruminating about the past, which was over, done; I could learn from it but no amount of fretting would ever change it. There was no point worrying about the future, which I could not know; I could plan for it, but being anxious about it wouldn’t help a damn thing.

In a sense the past and future were not real, or at least my nightmarish imaginings about them were not real. What was actually real was not the storm but these trees, these birds, this present moment. Suddenly, being so complete and content in the moment, I didn’t need everyone and everything in the world around me to be any particular way; I was strong and secure enough to accept it as it is. I could still try to make things better, of course, but this feeling of contentment didn’t need to depend on it

Even the “big questions” about the ultimate purpose and meaning of it all just felt less urgent than before; this moment was enough. What I realised was that this is, quite literally, what it is all about – everything we do, everything we achieve, everything we believe in, hope for, crave for, search for – it’s all about trying to experience this exact feeling of deep, complete contentment. And I had gotten it, not by solving all my problems or by achieving all my goals, but just by breathing and being present. 

For some reason, that was funny. And so I did something strange for me at the time. I laughed. Like some maniac in the middle of a field, I let out a deep, full-throated laugh. It had been too long.

Happiness and Truth

The Dark Side of Ganymede

It was just a glimpse and of course it didn’t solve all my problems, but it was enough to begin steering me in the right direction. At the time, I both knew about mindfulness and had no idea about it at all. With all the hype and, frankly, faddishness around the idea, it was impossible to not know something about it. I knew mindfulness was an ancient Buddhist practice which had become the latest plaything of the fashionable hipster, the flavour of the month. 

But it wasn’t until this moment that I felt the full force of what those hipsters had been going on about. It turns out there is a word for what happened to me. It is called “vipassana” – a word roughly translating to “insight,” “clear-seeing,” “special-seeing,” or my favourite translation, “seeing things as they really are.” 

The notion that the royal road to well-being and contentment might run through the valleys of truth and reality, in waking up from illusions and “seeing things as they really are,” might strike some as counter-intuitive. There is a marked cynical streak in our culture which says that happiness is incompatible with wisdom; we say “ignorance is bliss,” and speak of “vulgar truths” and “noble lies.” Gustave Flaubert said, “To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness. Though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.” 

Yet, from the point of view of various contemplative traditions, this is a strange view. It is precisely ignorance that produces so much of our misery. It is ignorance that is behind our irrational attempt to control things beyond our control, or to think that our well-being depends solely upon external conditions. It is ignorance that makes us think that ruminating about the past and worrying about the future will change anything, or to believe that happiness is only to be found in the future and after we achieve all our goals. It is ignorance of the deep well of contentment that can be found within, right now, beneath the storm of our overthinking mind, that keeps us mired in these illusions; and a fair definition of “wisdom” is any insight that wakes us from them. 

Seeing Things as They Really Are

Mindfulness is more than just a shallow admonition to “be in the present moment,” to repress past and future, which can be attacked – rightly – as a call to ignore all your worldly concerns, as an abdication of personal responsibility, and even as mindlessness. And yes, I’ve seen some who take up mindfulness with half an understanding of it based on what they see on Youtube or read on some blog use it in just that way, as an escape from reality. But what you really do in mindfulness is you use the present moment – by paying attention to your breath, body or senses – as an anchor to ground you, to gain a certain healthy distance from your thoughts and feelings; not so you can ignore them but actually so that you can observe them more clearly and rationally. This is the “special seeing,” the “seeing things as they really are.”

The “objective observer” stance dissolves the anxiety, anger, fear etc. that attends the thought, enabling you to better see which thoughts and feelings are based in reality and which are not, which thoughts are useful and which are pointless rumination, worry, or dissatisfaction. Far from being a way to avoid your problems, mindfulness makes you more effective at dealing with them.

Transformative Experience

Mindfulness doesn’t just transform the way you see your mind but the way you see the world. You experience the world at a deeper level, the level of bare awareness; that is, you see the world “as it really is” unfiltered by words and concepts. Here, the strange, enigmatic statements of mystics, speaking of “seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary,” suddenly make sense. In a deep state of mindfulness you really can become blissed out contemplating something as simple as the rise and fall of the breath, or the way the light is falling on a lamppost. Something as mundane as washing the dishes can suddenly be as entertaining and satisfying as watching your favourite TV show.   

Even sitting and waiting in traffic – something as tedious and annoying as an everyday occurrence can possibly be – can become an opportunity to just let go of everything and drop into the present moment, be aware of your breath, the sounds of cars and people around you, the road, the trees- everything. In these moments when you remember to be mindful you might just find that boredom is impossible and that in fact you’re no longer waiting at all; you’re just continuing to enjoy living your life.

Because the truth is, much of our life is mundane and repetitive; for much of it we are Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the mountain only to have it roll back down so we can repeat the monotonous process. So normally we seek out happiness by chasing after extraordinary experiences; that overseas adventure, that exhilarating thrill-ride, that momentous occasion. But extraordinary experiences – pretty much by definition – can only ever be a minority of the moments that make up our lives; otherwise they wouldn’t be extraordinary. 

Learning to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, therefore, is what is necessary if we are to actually live in each moment of our lives. We must see the beautiful in the mundane, the joy in the tedium, the sublime in the everyday. We must be able to see what we’ve looked at countless times before as if for the first time. As philosopher Albert Camus once said, we must imagine “Sisyphus happy.”  

The Necessity of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is more than an art, or a science, or even a religious practice: it is a necessity for living the good life. Without at least some degree of mindfulness you’re not really living, not really present to your own life; you’re a zombie, going through all the motions of life but unaware, uncomprehending. 

Masons handy work

That’s why mindfulness is not, as some seem to be treating it in the modern age, merely a treatment for anxiety or depression, and therefore only relevant to those suffering from mental illness; nor is it just an antidote to the stressed out, overworked modern age. It’s certainly not just a handy sleep-aid. It’s for everyone, everywhere, because it is the means by which we gain control of our own minds and actually, truly, live.

This is not to say that we can always be in control of our mind and always have perfect perspective. We are only human after all, and I remain agnostic on the question of whether anyone has ever reached such levels of sainthood that they have lived in a state of perfect mindfulness permanently. But this control of the mind, this freedom, this seeing things as they really are, is as good a definition of nirvana as I know.


Find more of Sam’s writing here.

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These 7 Productivity “Rules” Are Harmful, Anti-scientific Myths


I have a confession to make: I don’t obey any of the major productivity commandments. I often do work in my pajamas. Sometimes I work for hours without taking a single break. And I have yet to find a morning routine that sticks.

One thing I really hate is the preachy attitude of a lot of self-improvement content. Many productivity bloggers have this sort of tone which implies that the reason you’re so unproductive is that you haven’t followed their blog post instructions. Shame on you!

This leads people to try random productivity “hacks” that don’t work, and feeling like it’s their fault when they haven’t gotten that thing done yet.

If these work for you, great! But if not, I’m here to tell you that you can safely ignore these seven productivity rules. I’ve searched peer-reviewed study databases and found little to no evidence that these actually boost productivity. All they are is a massive guilt trip.

1. Don’t check email as soon as you wake up

This is the one I struggled with the longest. I tried and tried. I felt guilty when I failed. I convinced myself I was more productive when I managed. But just this morning, I rolled out of bed and checked my email.

The sky didn’t fall down.

Sometimes when I do this, I do get a niggling sense of unease. It prompts me to get up, get my coffee, and deal with the email that came in. But most often, it lets me have a way more relaxed morning. I’m not dreading whatever is sitting in my inbox — I’ve looked, and I’ve taken care of it.

It’s true that checking email less altogether reduces stress. Kushlev & Dunn found in their 2014 paper that of the 124 participants in their study who only checked email thrice daily were less stressed. (You’ll notice below, the benefits of less email touch on a bunch of things, only one of which is perceived productivity.)

Schematic taken from the Kushlev & Dunn 2014 paper

When you’re a freelancer, your day starts when you want. For me, my day starts as soon as I wake up. If you check your email as soon as you wake up, set aside your guilt. It’s not ruining your productivity and it’s not going to ruin your day.

2. You need a highly specific morning routine

This is one of the most pervasive productivity ideas out there: that you have to nail down what you do in the morning to have a great rest of the day. My mornings do typically have similar elements. I wake up, I checked my email, I put the coffee on, I play with my cats, not necessarily in that order. Sometimes I go for a run, sometimes I don’t. But I don’t have anything resembling the regimented morning routine the most productivity bloggers recommend.

This myth is SO pervasive that I checked on Google Scholar to see where the original source was. Who came up with the “science-backed” morning routine? The only evidence I could find was an article that cited Beethoven’s quirk of making coffee with exactly 60 beans as a morning routine.

The study did show that disruption to someone’s morning routine (e.g. not drinking coffee when they normally do) affected their day, but failed to take into account the fact that any kind of disruption is kind of jarring. Why did they miss their coffee? Did they wake up late? Did they have a fight with their partner? That kind of stuff throws you off your game — not just not getting your coffee.

There’s no peer-reviewed study that shows the productivity of people with morning routines with people without one. There’s no peer-reviewed study that says you have to nail down exactly what you do, in what order you do it, in order to have a great day.

3. You can’t wear pajamas to get sh*t done

I love my pajamas! I love the feeling of being in a cloud. I actually became more productive when I allowed myself to wear my pajamas during my day. Before, I used to force myself to put on makeup and a nice dress for my YouTube videos. Now? I give the camera my normal face and my ratty t-shirt. Nobody cares. I certainly don’t.

I was unable to find any empirical studies from a reputed journal on Google Scholar, but I was able to find a pop-sci article with quotes from alleged experts decrying lazy people who wore their pajamas all day.

Dr. Dragonette, a psychologist PureWow got to provide a quote for their pseudoscientific article, says: “What many might deem insignificant can actually lead to dwindling motivation and productivity as you subconsciously associate your pajamas with bedtime or relaxation time. So, by wearing relaxed clothes, your brain might start to feel sluggish too.”

(She’s the Executive Director from a rather expensive teen rehab clinic.) (The article also used an affiliate link to sell you clothes you can wear instead.)

She offered no potential neurological mechanisms for brains to become sluggish. She did not offer any empirical studies that say the same. The best she was able to provide was a study from a publication literally called Human Resource Development Quarterly that shows people feel nicer if they wear nice clothes.

All in all, there’s no scientific proof I was able to find that you accomplish less in your pajamas. And frankly, I find this productivity myth ableist, as with a lot of these other myths.

If you’re still in your pajamas at lunchtime, don’t beat yourself up. You’re doing just fine.

4. You can’t take breaks, AKA Deep Work

This is such a weird one because prevalent productivity hype has two theories. One, that you need to take regular breaks in order to get anything done; and two, deep work only happens if you manage to work uninterrupted for hours and hours.

(These are contradictory.)

Let’s start with the idea that productive work for hard tasks has to happen in big blocks.

Cal Newport came onto the productivity scene with his book, Deep Work, in 2016. In it, he collects a series of anecdotes from people he admires and respects, such as himself. I was unable to find any peer-reviewed scientific studies that back his claim up.

It’s a nice idea — the internet has ruined our attention span, we keep checking emails, it throws us off-kilter when we lose focus, etc. But it ignores the basic realities of living. Most of us simply cannot block the internet for hours at a time. When I’m creating products for my email list, which I’d consider a prime candidate for “deep work,” I need the internet open to research examples and formats. When I worked as an account manager, I had to be responsive to email.

Show me the peer-reviewed, well-methoded study that proves deep work works and I’ll take it all back. But until then? I’m calling bullsh*t.

5. You have to take breaks, AKA Pomodoro

Set aside everything you just heard about Deep Work, because the midnight sister to Deep Work is the totally contradictory Pomodoro technique.

The idea is you focus for 25 minutes and give yourself a five-minute break. While I was able to find many papers for the Pomodoro Technique™, I wasn’t able to find any empirical studies designed to prove or disprove its effectiveness. One PhD thesis from 2020 I found did say that “[m]ost participants found the PT® helpful for addressing their multitasking. However, there was little consensus on how the PT® helped participants or which aspects were helpful, with the same aspects (e.g. ticking timer, deferring potential interruptions) identified as helpful or ineffective by different participants.”

This roughly translates to, “It worked for some people, but it didn’t for others. I don’t know why.” The thesis did not include any potential neurological mechanisms why working for an arbitrary 25 minutes should make you more productive.

I often shock people when I announce my typical day is a long one. I start around 7:30 or 8 AM, and then I work until everything on my to-do list is done. If I stop to take any kind of longish break, like reading a book, playing a video game, or even lunch, I often lose my motivation to continue.

Instead, I take tons of microbreaks, as I described above. Then I get back to work. I do sometimes use an app called Forest which helps me focus when I want to, but only on my phone, which lets me check my laptop for whatever I like.

My method is not a scientific technique, but you also don’t see me peddling it to others and trying to claim it’s scientific. It works for me.

6. You need a consistent bedtime

“Go to bed on time every single night for healthy sleep!” insists just about every single productivity blogger.

Honestly, I go to bed when I’m tired. Sometimes that’s 9:30 PM. Sometimes it’s 11 PM. I searched for a study that could prove once and for all the consistent bedtimes boost productivity and performance, but all I could find was a study reviewing the time management habits of academically successful students, and those on academic probation (Hensley, 2018).

The study found that “course-takers with a history of academic struggles do not differ substantially from their classmates when it comes to when they study during the week or when they sleep and wake.” (Bolding mine.) The authors also noted “inconsistent sleep schedules for nearly all students, in contrast with prevailing recommendations to go to bed and awake near the same time throughout the week.”

Rough translation? High performers and low performers alike have irregular sleeping habits and it doesn’t seem to matter much.

7. Give up caffeine to attain peak productivity

It’s an addiction, OK? I love my coffee. Occasionally I’ll do a day without it to prove I still can, but most mornings include my French press.

I find productivity bloggers split on this issue. Some turn their love of coffee into a personality trait, referencing their steaming mug of java throughout their idealized morning routines and highly productive breaks. Others decry it as a dirty habit that’s holding you back from true productive potential. Honestly? I don’t think it’s true one way or another.

This is the one productivity rule that does actually have real science behind it. I just don’t think it’s persuasive. Intaking caffeine has been clinically demonstrated to “release the pre- and post-synaptic brakes that adenosine imposes on dopaminergic neurotransmission,” according to a rather dense paper from 2007.

(To be honest, I struggled reading that paper, so I looked for a rough translation. This textbook section explains the effect of caffeine on the brain, and concludes that “you get some stimulating effect from every cup of coffee you drink, and any tolerance you build up is minimal.”)

You should also recall that 62% of all Americans drink coffee every single day, according to the National Coffee Institute. And society hasn’t collapsed. (Well, maybe that’s debatable? But I doubt it’s due to the coffee consumption.)

Most productivity rules are pseudo-scientific BS

I hate to admit it because I bought into it for so long, but I genuinely believe most productivity “rules” are myths. And furthermore, people telling you about them are usually hypocrites. I don’t know a single person IRL who has a consistent morning routine. I don’t know of any real people who religiously go to bed at the same time. And yet most of us still manage to go about our days, getting stuff done.

Authors and bloggers will try to persuade you that their way is not only scientifically backed, but actually, the only right way to do things. (They also position productivity as a moral virtue which I find problematic all on its own, but that’s a separate issue.)

There are a few irrefutable rules: going outdoors makes you feel good. Relaxing is vital for health. Water is good for you. Sleep and eat when your body tells you. But beyond that, everyone is kind of making it up as they go along.

When you read those productivity articles, look for the source material. Don’t accept “science says so” — look for the science. Look for peer-reviewed studies describing potential neurological pathways and mechanisms to explain why this might be so. Look for people who don’t have anything to sell.

Take what you can from productivity gurus and ignore the rest. If it works for you? Great. If not? Don’t feel guilty.


Zulie Rane is a reader and a writer who believes in the power to change the world through the written word. You can find her writing on ZulieRane.com, posting selfies and art on Instagram at @zulierane and tweeting bad puns on Twitter at @zulierane.

Image courtesy of cottonbro.

How to Minimise the Inevitable Onset of Training Fatigue

How to Minimise the Inevitable Onset of Training Fatigue

Performance often declines as fatigue accumulates.

The question is …. How can you minimise the inevitable onset of training fatigue?

The concept of what constitutes fatigue has been an ongoing and fiercely debated topic, due to the complex mechanisms that constitute fatigue.

This relationship has intrigued coaches, sport scientists and athletes for years, and the reality is, there is no definitive answer as to why or how fatigue has an effect on performance.

What is clear however, is the detrimental effect fatigue poses to performance and increased risk of injury.

YES, BUT HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN FATIGUE?

There is a certain element of mystery surrounding the concept of fatigue.

Have you ever found yourself heading out for a run, 5 minutes in you are gasping for air and want to slow down, so you do.

As you reach the end of your street, you speed up to get home quicker. If you are really that exhausted, how were you able to speed up at the end?

It seems that the concept of fatigue may be a set limit by the body in order to ensure protection against physiological failure or damage to our muscles, the cardiovascular system and thermoregulation.

It would make sense that each individual would have their own set limits or parameters for fatigue based on their level of fitness.

For example, a fit individual is able to push their body’s oxygen carrying capacity, work through glycogen depletion further and takes longer to loose body heat than an individual who is not as fit and therefore does not have as developed thermoregulatory and energy system mechanisms.

SO, THE QUESTION REMAINS, HOW CAN YOU MINIMISE THE INEVITABLE ONSET OF FATIGUE?

This set limit of fatigue is the body’s defence mechanism to ensure there is not a complete failure of the system.

It would seem that the accumulation effect of glycogen depletion, failure to supply oxygen fast enough to the working muscles and failure in the thermoregulatory processes, triggers a response by the brain to indicate pain and a want to cease exercise as a proactive measure.

This could mean that the body’s signals are sent well before physiological failure which is what allows the ability to perform one final sprint, or interval of intense exercise at the end of activity.

Rather than slowing down before a lack of oxygen, high body temperature and high lactate levels, you slowdown in order to prevent them.

THINGS TO REMEMBER:

1. You are probably slowing down well before your body has actually reached a point of fatigue.

2. The symptoms (e.g. muscle soreness and difficulty breathing) are often what guide our perception of fatigue.

3. Performance and fatigue are regulated to prevent harmful limits from being reached. An ability to push as close to these limits as possible, will mean optimisation of performance.

Speak with a professional

Everyone has individual traits and abilities and if you’re new to exercise and sport it can be tough to know where to start safely.

Accredited exercise professionals are university-qualified who are equipped with the knowledge and skills to improve health, fitness, well-being, performance, and assist in the prevention of chronic conditions.

To find an accredited exercise professional near you, click here.

The Nike Run Club gives you the guidance, inspiration and innovation you need to become a better athlete. Join Nike Run Club to reach your goals and have fun along the way. Download to get started.

Written by Accredited Exercise Physiologist, Megan McMinn.

We have partnered with Nike Australia Pty Ltd for this article series. The views expressed in this article, unless otherwise cited, are exclusively those of the author, Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA). ESSA is a professional organisation committed to establishing, promoting and defending the career paths of tertiary trained exercise and sports science practitioners.

Nike had no role in the collection, analysis, or interpretation of data or research or the writing of this article.

Protect yourself from skin cancer when exercising this summer

Protect yourself from skin cancer when exercising this summer

Australia has the highest skin cancer rates in the world. This includes melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer (basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma). With summer approaching, more Aussies will be heading outdoors to exercise. So how can you protect yourself against skin cancer?

Two in three Aussies will be diagnosed with a skin cancer by the time they turn 70, so it’s something we all need to be aware of. Unfortunately, this is Australia’s national cancer.

Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer. In 2020 it was estimated that over 16,000 Aussies would be diagnosed with melanoma. That’s why Aussies need to get “skin serious”!

melanoma

Source: MSCAN

What causes skin cancer?

The most common cause of skin cancer is damage to the skin from ultraviolet (UV) rays. Skin cancer, including melanoma, is most common in people who have experienced sunburn during childhood or who work extensively outdoors. It affects people of all colours and races, but people with lighter skin tone and those who burn more easily in the sun are at greater risk.

Importantly, the most preventable cause of skin cancer is overexposure to UV radiation. In other words, spending too much time outdoors when the UV Index is three or higher and not practicing sun (UV) safety when outdoors.

So, should I stop exercising outdoors?

While regular physical activity is associated with a reduced risk of most cancers, skin cancer is an exception. Some research has found that a range of athletes, including hikers, tennis players and runners, exceed the recommended ultraviolet exposure limit by up to eight times. This is especially true in the summer months.

Does that mean you should stop exercising outside? Absolutely NOT!

There are still heaps of benefits of exercising outside! Being outdoors can have a positive impact on your mental health, improve your mood and can help to boost your vitamin D levels.

The key is to make sure you’re sun safe while exercising outside.

sun safety melanoma

How can you reduce your risk?

Thanks to campaigns like the “slip slop slap” campaign, skin cancer incidence in younger Australians are actually decreasing. For people aged less than 40 the incidence rate has dropped from a peak of 13 cases per 100,000 in 2002 to an estimated 9.4 per 100,000 in 2016.

We asked the Melanoma & Skin Cancer Advocacy Network (MSCAN) for their tips on reducing skin cancer risk, and here’s what they said:

Avoid peak UV times and seek shade

The sun’s UV rays are typically the strongest between 10am and 4pm. The risk of sun damage occurs when the UV level is forecast to be 3 or above, and the UV level changes throughout the day.

Check the UV level in your local area at the Bureau of Meteorology website, the SunSmart website or app. Limit exposure to the sun and stay in the shade as much as possible during these midday hours when the UV level is 3 or above.

Wear sun protective clothing, a broad-brimmed hat and sunnies

Clothes can provide great protection from the sun. Darker coloured clothing is typically more protective than lighter coloured and you may like to look for clothing that has a UPF rating.

Wearing a broad-brimmed (or legionnaire or bucket style) hat is also a great idea.

Sunglasses offer important protection, as UV light can have a harmful effect on the eyes and eyelids. It is possible to get a melanoma in the eye, called an ocular melanoma. There are Australian Standards for eye protection (AS/NZS1067), so choose category 2 or higher. These lenses absorb more than 95% of UV radiation (both UVA and UVB)

Sunscreen is your last line of defence

Sunscreen is important and is ideally used along with other sun protection (as outlined above).

Wear broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher

SPF – Sun Protection Factor – indicates what percentage of the sun’s UV rays it can block. The higher the SPF rating of the sunscreen, the greater the percentage of harmful rays it can block.

“Broad-spectrum” refers to the fact that your sunscreen will protect your skin from both UVB and UVA rays from the sun.

Don’t forget to check the expiry date of your sunscreen.

Sunscreen that doesn’t show an expiry date has shelf life of no more than three years. This can be less if it’s been exposed to direct sun or excessive heat. Sunscreen should be stored below 30°C. It might be a bit old if it changes colour from white to yellow, changes in consistency, or starts to separate.

Lather up! And often! Even on cloudy days

Amazingly, most people only apply 25-50 percent of the recommended amount of sunscreen. It’s important to later a thick layer or you won’t get the full SPF protection stated on the label. Seven teaspoons of sunscreen is required to cover your whole body, and it’s best to apply it about 15 minutes before going in the sun. Remember to cover tricky spots – the tops of your ears, back of your neck, top of your feet and your scalp. Lip balm with SPF is a good idea too.

Many sunscreens aren’t as protective after two hours, and no sunscreen is waterproof or sweatproof. Sunscreen labels may say “water-resistant” which means they have been tested to be effective for up to 40 minutes of swimming.  It’s important to reapply sunscreen immediately after swimming, sweating, or using a towel.

Remember that UV rays can be strong even on overcast days. Sun protection is required every day that the UV is 3 or above, even when it’s cloudy. Protecting yourself from the sun’s rays is important whenever you’re exercising outdoors.

Exercising after a skin cancer diagnosis

Research has shown that tailored exercise prescription can help with side effects of cancer treatment, especially fatigue associated with chemo and radiation. Being physically active before and after diagnosis can also help with treatment outcomes, quality of life and life expectancy.

To learn more about exercising during and after cancer treatment, download our FREE eBook.

Written in collaboration with Melanoma & Skin Cancer Advocacy Network (MSCAN).