The English Learners' Blog

A blog for English learners and their teachers everywhere, initiated in 2010 with the contribution of students from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. More about me on the On-line Profile below. Welcome!

To Learn More, This High-Schooler Left The Classroom

To listen to the interview below, follow this NPR link.

Boy surrounded by the wonder of learning.
 Like a lot of students, 17-year-old Nick Bain says he really likes his school, but sometimes it can feel like a chore.

“It just feels a little bit like you just have to keep doing one thing after another, but without a whole lot of thinking about an education in general,” says Nick.

So one day he decided to write down what he was doing every 15 minutes at the Colorado Academy in Denver.

And in his seven-hour school day, Nick says there were only “2 1/2 to three hours that you actually really do need to be in class,” to get instructions from the teacher. The rest of the time was spent at lunch, getting books from his locker or reading.

“It occurred to me that maybe the way school is now is not the perfect way,” he says.

Motivation As A Powerful Force

Nick saw a TED Talk by education researcher Sugata Mitra about his famous experiment in India. It showed how children living in Indian slums could teach themselves to use a computer.

“It’s just incredible that that sort of intrinsic motivation exists,” Nick says. “It seems like a really, really powerful force.”

That led him to come up with his own unusual experiment in learning. He would spend the final trimester of his junior year learning on his own.

With enough convincing, he got his school and parents to sign off on the plan.

He’d take the same tests and write the same essays as other students, but wouldn’t attend class. He’d be graded on a pass/fail basis. It would be a self-taught and self-paced journey.

Nick would take seven courses, instead of the normal four, including calculus, Advanced Placement physics and advanced French.

He also designed some of his own courses: In one, he worked with local scientists on a climate change project; in another, he built a one-seat model aircraft.

He journaled along the way.

Nick’s Journal — March 24, 2015

“I’m again feeling that I’m not efficient enough, but maybe efficiency isn’t the most important thing. I definitely feel like I’m learning. But there isn’t that sense of constant urgency that causes one to save time in all sorts of ways when one is under the gun. But what that also means is that I can walk through the park, for example, to the gardens without feeling constant anxiousness about things.”

Thinking In French

Nick experimented with different ways to learn. First he tried to learn a bit of a subject every day. That didn’t go so well. Then he asked, “What if I spent 10 hours a day on one subject?”

Eventually, he found that being steeped in one subject all day led to more learning.

He figured that out one day at the Denver Botanic Gardens while reading Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days — in French.

“I’d been reading it, and reading, and I wasn’t really liking it because I wasn’t understanding some things,” he recalls. And then by the end of the day, “I realized I was reading the French as fast as the English.”

He discovered his learning wasn’t more efficient on his own because he was spending every waking hour learning. His mother, Lisa Bain, said this last trimester was the hardest she’s ever seen Nick work.

“It was hard to get him to relax,” she says. “It’s important to have downtime, and school sometimes allows you to have the downtime. But when you are self-directed, there’s no time that’s not something you could be doing.”

Nick’s Journal — March 6, 2015

“Noticed that I’m actually under a lot of pressure. Thought flexibility would make things less of a strain, but actually causes more of a strain. Constantly thinking: Is what I’m doing right now the best possible use of my time, and that seems to make me highly inefficient, actually. So it’s a lot harder than I thought, and less efficient than I thought. Realizing that I don’t ever feel finished with something, that there is always something I can be doing.”

Learning More Deeply

At the same time, Nick said his learning was more satisfying outside of school. It had more purpose and he was learning more deeply.

As the days passed, he started to relax into the joy of learning. He realized he wasn’t feeling that anxiousness he felt in school with a conveyor belt of assignments coming at him.

And because Nick was on a pass/fail system, he didn’t worry about the best way to get a good grade. Instead, he realized he was working hard at something because he wanted to.

Nick’s Journal — March 18, 2015

“I’ve been hesitating to note this (because of the possibility that it might not hold true), but I feel exactly as Nate Newman said he felt at Stanford: ‘This is the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.’ It’s always risky to say things like that because they may turn out differently with time. But I have never been so enthralled by learning, ever. I wish only that I could do it for years and years.”

The Value Of School

Nick is heading back to class for his senior year this fall, but that’s not because the experiment was a failure. In fact, he kept up with his classmates, passing his exams and classes. But one of the unexpected results of the experiment, he says, is that now he can see his school — and teachers — in a different light. He appreciates the role teachers play as curators of the best material.

“[There are] some huge benefits to learning with people that I really missed and I’m going to be glad to go back to,” he says.

“The greatest thing is really this,” he says of his experience: “I can be 45 years old, or 27, any age, or doing anything and become an expert on anything.”

“It makes me really excited for the rest of my life, I guess, because I know that it doesn’t have to stop when I stop school.”

Nick’s Journal — June 2, 2015

“Today was the last day of school. It did not feel like the last day of school. It was very strange. I rode my bicycle home, ate some fruit (it was a half-day), and wrote a 3 page essay on Kant and Voltaire. I think I would have laughed at myself pretty hard at doing something like this last year at this time.

“I think today is probably an appropriate time to end this log. Maybe I’ll sporadically note developments and general time usage over the next few weeks — at least some data would probably be helpful, I think. Otherwise, I don’t think I should even try to describe in a few broad statements the effect of these past months. Neatly summing it up here would not capture the magnitude of its value.”

Filed under: NPR, School No School

What’s going on under the skin?

This TED-ed series called Getting Under Our Skin is looking at this very topic. Browse through the selection of videos below to learn more about what may interest you. Enjoy the summer, stand up straight, be healthy and get savvier every day!

Filed under: 1►LISTEN▼, ■ Biology, TED

ONE Word>>>ONE LANGUAGE<<<ONE Song

One effective method of learning new languages is simply listening to music sung in that language.

There is something appealing to our senses in doing that – books, magazines, movies and other sources aside. While speaking with a colleague the other day about learning new words in German by listening to music, I was struck by this internal question: what songs would I choose if I were asked to make a list of songs in English to help a foreigner learn new words and phrases. 

For starters, I would choose songs that asked life’s biggest and most common questions, questions that deal with life-long obsessions, myths and even daily reality. One of the most pervasive topics in songwriting through the generation has been oneness:

Here are three of my personal heroes in this regard, three songs that capture a universal expression of the one.

ONE WORD (Joe Cocker), which tells a beautiful story of the meanings of peace in our life – meanings both commonly understood, and also oftentimes misunderstood;

ONE LOVE (Bob Marley), which speaks of the one-ness we experience in being together and comforting each other in times of need;  and 

ONE (U2), a song about discoveries we may be led to make through the inner journey of our lifetime. For starters. 

 Take a listen while reading, if you please. The lyrics to each song are under each player.

“One Word (Peace)”

A man stands on the corner holding a sign
People yell at him as they drive by
I wonder what they read, made them so upset
I looked at the sign and all it said:

One word: Peace
In the neighborhood, peace
One word: peace
In my own backyard, peace

A man in a foreign land kneels to pray
And wonders where the bombs will fall today
Our leaders tell me to fear him you see
Love conquers all is what I believe

One word: Peace
In the neighborhood, peace
One word: peace
In my own backyard, peace

Everybody’s talking about it
Everybody’s got to have their say
But to achieve it, there is only one way
And it starts with me and the word and the word is:

Peace
In the neighborhood
One word: peace
In my own backyard
Peace
One word

One word: peace
In the neighborhood, peace
One word: peace
In my own backyard, peace

***

“One Love, One Heart”

Let’s get together and feel all right
Hear the children crying (One love)
Hear the children crying (One heart)
Sayin’ give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right
Sayin’ let’s get together and feel all right

Let them all pass all their dirty remarks (One love)
There is one question I’d really love to ask (One heart)
Is there a place for the hopeless sinner
Who has hurt all mankind just to save his own?
Believe me

One love, one heart
Let’s get together and feel all right
As it was in the beginning (One love)
So shall it be in the end (One heart)
Give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right
One more thing

Let’s get together to fight this Holy Armageddon (One love)
So when the Man comes there will be no no doom (One song)
Have pity on those whose chances grove thinner
There ain’t no hiding place from the Father of Creation

Sayin’ one love, one heart
Let’s get together and feel all right
I’m pleading to mankind (one love)
Oh Lord (one heart)

Give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right
Let’s get together and feel all right

***

“One”

Is it getting better
Or do you feel the same
Will it make it easier on you now
You got someone to blame
You say…

One love
One life
When it’s one need
In the night
One love
We get to share it
Leaves you baby if you
Don’t care for it

Did I disappoint you
Or leave a bad taste in your mouth
You act like you never had love
And you want me to go without
Well it’s…

Too late
Tonight
To drag the past out into the light
We’re one, but we’re not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other
One…

Have you come here for forgiveness
Have you come to raise the dead
Have you come here to play Jesus
To the lepers in your head

Did I ask too much
More than a lot
You gave me nothing
Now it’s all I got
We’re one
But we’re not the same
Well we
Hurt each other
Then we do it again
You say
Love is a temple
Love a higher law
Love is a temple
Love the higher law
You ask me to enter
But then you make me crawl
And I can’t be holding on
To what you got
When all you got is hurt

One love
One blood
One life
You got to do what you should
One life
With each other
Sisters
Brothers
One life
But we’re not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other

One… life

One

***

Filed under: 5►LEARN MORE FROM:, 6►THEME CHEST, 9►EXTRA, ■ Arts/ Music/ Dance, ■ Empathy, ■ Lyrics, ■ YouTube

Breaking the language barrier | Tim Doner | TEDxTeen 2014

Laguage in its sense, in essence, represents a cultural world view. And if I can impart you with anything today […] it’s this:

you can translate words easily but you can’t quite translate meaning.

Illustration by Dawn Kim/TED | ideas.ted.com

Featured illustration by Dawn Kim/TED

 

During the past few years, I’ve been referred to in the media as “The World’s Youngest Hyperpolyglot” — a word that sounds like a rare illness. In a way it is: it describes someone who speaks a particularly large number of foreign languages, someone whose all-consuming passion for words and systems can lead them to spend many long hours alone with a grammar book.

But while it’s true that I can speak in 20 different languages, including English, it took me a while to understand that there’s more to language than bartering over kebabs in Arabic or ordering from a menu in Hindi. Fluency is another craft altogether.

I began my language education at age thirteen. I became interested in the Middle East and started studying Hebrew on my own. For reasons I still don’t quite understand, I was soon hooked on the Israeli funk group Hadag Nachash, and would listen to the same album every single morning. At the end of a month, I had memorized about twenty of their songs by heart — even though I had no clue what they meant. But once I learned the translations it was almost as if I had downloaded a dictionary into my head; I now knew several hundred Hebrew words and phrases — and I’d never had to open a textbook.

I decided to experiment. I spent hours walking around my New York City neighborhood, visiting Israeli cafés to eavesdrop on people’s conversations. Sometimes, I would even get up the courage to introduce myself, rearranging all of the song lyrics in my head into new, awkward and occasionally correct sentences. As it turned out, I was on to something.

IF THE STANDARD OF SPEAKING A LANGUAGE IS TO KNOW EVERY WORD — TO FEEL EQUALLY AT HOME DEBATING NUCLEAR FISSION AND CLASSICAL MUSIC — THEN HARDLY ANYONE IS FLUENT IN THEIR OWN NATIVE TONGUES.

I moved on to Arabic, which I’d study every morning by reading news headlines with a dictionary and by talking to street vendors. After that it was Persian, then Russian, then Mandarin … and about fifteen others. On an average day, I’d Skype with friends in French and Turkish, listen to Hindi pop music for an hour and eat dinner with a Greek or Latin book on my lap. Language became an obsession, one that I pursued in summer classes, school, web forums and language meet-ups around the city.

By March of 2012, media outlets such as the BBC and The New York Times featured stories about me, “The Teen Who Speaks 20 Languages!” For a while, it was a fantasy; it made what many thought of as a bizarre hobby seem (almost) mainstream, and gave me a perfect opportunity to promote language learning.

After a while, though, my media “moments” felt more like gruesome chores than opportunities to spread the word. Most news shows were interested only in the “dancing bear” act (“You wanna learn more about the Middle East? Cool… Say ‘you’re watching Channel 2’ in Arabic!”) As lighthearted as that might have been, it left me with an uncomfortably personal lesson in modern media: when the goal is simply to get the viewers’ attention, the real importance of a story often gets lost in translation.

When I was beginning to discover languages, I had a romanticized view of words like “speak” and “fluency”. But then I realized that you can be nominally fluent in a language and still struggle to understand parts of it. English is my first language, but what I really spoke was a hybrid of teenage slang and Manhattan-ese. When I listen to my father, a lawyer, talk to other lawyers, his words sound as foreign to me as Finnish. I certainly couldn’t read Shakespeare without a dictionary, and I’d be equally helpless in a room with Jamaicans or Cajuns. Yet all of us “speak English.”

My linguistics teacher, a native of Poland, speaks better English than I do and seems right at home peppering his speech with terms like “epenthetic schwa” and “voiceless alveolar stops”. Yet the other day, it came up that he’d never heard the word “tethered”. Does that mean he doesn’t “speak” English? If the standard of speaking a language is to know every word — to feel equally at home debating nuclear fission and classical music — then hardly anyone is fluent in their own native tongues.

Reducing someone to the number of languages he or she speaks trivializes the immense power that language imparts. After all, language is the living testament to a culture’s history and world view, not a shiny trophy to be dusted off for someone’s self-aggrandizement.

Language is a complex tapestry of trade, conquest and culture to which we each add our own unique piece — whether that be a Shakespearean sonnet or “Lol bae g2g ttyl.” As my time in the media spotlight made me realize, saying you “speak” a language can mean a lot of different things: it can mean memorizing verb charts, knowing the slang, even passing for a native. But while I’ve come to realize I’ll never be fluent in 20 languages, I’ve also understood that language is about being able to converse with people, to see beyond cultural boundaries and find a shared humanity. And that’s a lesson well worth learning.

Watch Breaking the language barrier, Timothy Doner’s talk at TEDxTeen 2014.

Filed under: 0►TRUST, 3►SPEAK▼, ■ How to Learn Languages

Aristotle and the Philosophy of Everyday Life

Many of the sayings we use daily were first coined by Aristotle (384-BC – 322 BC).
His studies in living the Good Life (nothing to do with Felicity Kendall looking seductive in dungarees and wellies) included advice like; moderation in all things, friends are worth more than gold and one swallow doesn’t make a summer. Fair enough, but how can we stop just quoting him and start living Aristotle’s Good Life? Much of his thinking seems surprisingly contemporary. He covers mindfulness, the value of teachers (his habit of wandering around the grounds of the school he founded, the Lyceum, in Athens, with his pupils trotting after him, led his pupils to be referred to as ‘the peripatetics”, or “people who travel about”) and the difficulties of adolescence.
So here’s BBC Radio 4’s guide to Aristotle’s ‘Good Life’

1. Value your friends

“For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.”

2. Keep learning

Aristotle considered happiness to come more often from “those who are highly cultivated in their minds and in their character, and have only a moderate share of external goods, than among those who possess external goods to a useless extent but are deficient in higher qualities.” So that’s something to bear in mind when you go over your overdraft limit.

3. Reward yourself for overcoming personal struggles

“I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is over self.”

4. Value teachers

The mean-spirited phrase ‘those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach” is a corruption of Aristotle’s ‘those that know, do. Those that understand, teach.” Aristotle saw happiness, fulfilment and a sense of civic duty all arising from education, and felt that “those who educate children well are more to be honoured than parents, for these only gave life, those the art of living well.”

5. Do it, don’t just talk about it

Actions speak louder than words. “Virtue is more clearly shown in the performance of fine actions than in the non-performance of base ones.”

6. Practise mindful meditation

A thought is just a thought. It doesn’t need to be acted upon. “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

7. And finally…

Aristotle’s ultimate, and most difficult realisation. “Happiness depends upon ourselves.”

Filed under: 1►ACTIVITIES & ELT RESOURCES, 5►LEARN MORE FROM:, ■ Books, ■ The Path of Metaphor, ■ Thinking Space

3 Ways to Speak English

Filed under: 3►SPEAK▼, CONVERSATION TOPICS▼, TED

Noam Chomsky on Language Aquisition

Filed under: 3►SPEAK▼, ■ YouTube

Why TED is “cleaning” every single one of our video files — all 1,700 of them

Originally posted on TED Blog:

Cleans

By Gwen Schroeder

When you watch a TED Talk, you see a speaker on a stage sharing a big idea. But for us in TED’s post-production department, we see each talk as the final product of a complex recipe. The speaker and their words are the most important ingredient, of course. But there are other, less-obvious ingredients in the video too — like the TED intro, the thank-you to our sponsor, the closing outro video message, as well as the lines of text overlaying the video itself, called “lower thirds,” that contain the speaker’s name, the date and the location where the talk was given.

Recently, though, we realized that we baked in a few too many ingredients. We need a simpler video file with fewer extras tacked on. Which meant we need to remake our library of 1,700+ talk videos without those extras — starting from scratch with the…

View original 803 more words

Filed under: TED

TED’s 30th anniversary + TOP 10 moments for women in TED

The article below was published on Glamour, March 5th 2014. Here it goes:

Today, TED announced that Charmian Gooch, an anti-corruption activist who cofounded the watchdog organization Global Witness, is this year’s winner of the $1 million TED Prize. (Gooch will explain on March 18 how, specifically, she will use the money to make her “wish” for the world a reality.) You can watch her incredible TED talk—and read through her detailed annotations—on ted.com. But that’s just one of many TED talks given by women that have inspired us. To celebrate Gooch’s win, and TED’s 30th anniversary (yes, TED turns 30 this year!), we asked Anna Verghese, deputy director of the TED Prize, to curate the top 10 moments for women in TED that we all need to see.

TED-Prize-Charmian-Gooch-Anna-Verghese
2014 TED Prize Winner Charmian Gooch (left), and TED Prize Deputy Director Anna Verghese (right)

“There are now more than 1,700 TED talks—”ideas worth spreading”—available online, many of them by badass women,” Verghese told Glamour. “I’m honored to make recommendations of just 10 of the many talks, from scientists to artists, writers to leaders, that have made me feel smarter and more prepared to take on the world in just 18 minutes or less.” Watch a few to get through the afternoon slump at work, or take ’em all in later. We guarantee you’ll be inspired!

Sheryl Sandberg: Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders 


“This is the talk that preceded [Lean In],” says Verghese. “[It’s] a great, unconventional, persuasive take on the way that women take themselves out of the running for leadership positions.”

Chimamanda Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story


“The young Nigerian author gives a beautiful, elegant, and at times hilarious talk about the danger of believing a single, narrow story about anything or anyone,” says Verghese. “My favorite anecdote: When she arrived at college in the U.S., her roommate asked to hear some of her ‘tribal music.’ Chimamanda pulled out a Mariah Carey CD.”

Amy Cuddy: Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are


“An essential talk for all young women! Cuddy is a psychologist and Harvard Business School professor who explains how our posture and body language shape not only how others see us but how we see ourselves,” says Verghese.

Leymah Gbowee: Unlock the Intelligence, Passion, Greatness of Girls

“The Nobel Prize winner from Liberia shares powerful stories about the unlocked potential of girls worldwide, who are still far from [being] treated as equal citizens,” says Verghese.

Brené Brown: The Power of Vulnerability

“This blockbuster talk came out of one of our TEDx events in Houston,” says Verghese. “Brené’s take on vulnerability—and why it’s essential to our relationships and to our success—has won her millions of fans worldwide.”

Elizabeth Gilbert: Your Elusive Creative Genius


“The author of Eat, Pray, Love offers unconventional advice on how to nurture your own creativity,” says Verghese. “Her advice: Take some pressure off yourself, but never stop creating.”

Courtney Martin: Reinventing Feminism


“A beautifully heartfelt talk, she describes the three paradoxes that define her generation’s question to define the term [feminism] for themselves,” says Verghese.

Angela Patton: A Father-Daughter Dance…in Prison


“The is the amazing and moving story of a group of preteen girls who organized a father-daughter dance in the prison where their fathers were incarcerated,” says Verghese. “I wept.”

Jill Bolte Taylor: My Stroke of Insight 


“Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroscientist who observed her own stroke as it was happening. This is one of the most popular TED talks of all time,” says Verghese.

Cynthia Breazeal: The Rise of Personal Robots

This MIT professor “talks about her love of robots—which began when she saw Star Wars as a girl (R2D2!)—and new kind of intelligent, personal robots she designs,” says Verghese.

Did any of your favorite TED talks by women not make this list? Do you love one of the talks Verghese selected? Share your top picks in the comments below!
Photos: James Duncan Davidson (Gooch); Mike Femia (Verghese); videos courtesy of TED

Filed under: ■ Conference Speakers, ■ GLOBAL, ■ Talks & Conferences, TED, Women

Shh…tresss

Stress. It makes your heart pound, your breathing quicken and your forehead sweat. But while stress has been made into a public health enemy, new research suggests that stress may only be bad for you if you believe that to be the case. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal urges us to see stress as a positive, and introduces us to an unsung mechanism for stress reduction: reaching out to others.

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Kelly McGonigal interviewd by TED Blog (January 8th, 2014)

The Science of Willpower: Kelly McGonigal on why it’s so dang hard to stick to a resolution

It’s the second week in January and, at about this time, that resolution that seemed so reasonable a week ago — go to the gym every other day, read a book a week, only drink alcohol on weekends — is starting to seem very … hard. As you are teetering on the edge of abandoning it all together, Kelly McGonigal is here to help. This Stanford University psychologist — who shared last year how you can make stress your friend — wants you to know that you’re not having a hard time sticking to a resolution because you are a terrible person. Perhaps you’ve just formulated the wrong resolution.

McGonigal has, for years, taught a course called “The Science of Willpower” through Stanford’s Continuing Studies program and, in 2011, she spun it into a book, The Willpower Instinct. The TED Blog spoke to McGonigal this week about how willpower is often misunderstood, and what we each can do to improve it. (We also asked her about today’s talk — Why dieting doesn’t usually work.) Below, an edited transcript of the conversation.

First question: why is willpower such a struggle?

It’s a great question. I define willpower as the ability to do what matters most, even when it’s difficult or when some part of you doesn’t want to. That begins to capture why it’s so difficult — because everything we think of as requiring willpower is usually a competition between two conflicting selves. There’s a part of you who is looking to the long-term and thinking about certain goals, and then another part of you that has a completely different agenda and wants to maximize current pleasure and minimize current stress, pain and discomfort. The things that require willpower pit those competing selves against each other. Willpower is the ability to align yourself with the brain system that is thinking about long-term goals — that is thinking about big values rather than short-term needs or desires.

The reason that so many things can trigger that kind of conflict is because that’s the essence of human nature. Modern cognitive neuroscientists see this as the fundamental structure of the human brain — that there are competing systems that think about the world differently and that respond to challenges differently. I think of it as: the immediate self versus the future self. We need both systems for survival.  But a lot of our modern challenges really tempt us to be in the mind-state of immediate gratification, or escaping immediate discomfort. It can be quite a challenge to access the part of you who is willing to take that big picture and tolerate temporary discomfort.

So, given this idea of two competing selves who want different things, how effective are New Year’s resolutions for tapping into the ability to think long-term?

I think it depends on how you go about making your New Year’s resolution. Typically, when people are making a New Year’s resolution, they don’t start with the right questions, so they end up making a resolution that is ineffective. Most people start with the question: “What should I do?” It may not even be a conscious, implicit kind of thing, but they start from: “What do I criticize about myself that it’s time to change?” Or “what is it that I don’t really want to do that I know I should do?” It’s kind of a typical self-improvement perspective. “I don’t really like exercise, I guess I should do it.” Or “my closet is a mess, it’s time to get organized.” “I’ve never had a clean desk in my life, but I think that good people have clean desks, so this is the year I’m going to have one.”

People come up with resolutions that don’t reflect what matters most to them, and that makes them almost guaranteed to fail. Even if that behavior could be very valuable and helpful — like exercise — if you start from the point of view of thinking about what it is you don’t really want to do, it’s very hard to tap into willpower. If there’s no really important “want” driving it, the brain system of self-control has nothing to hold on to.

The kind of New Year’s resolution that works is when you start really slowing down and asking yourself what you want for yourself and your life in the next year. What is it that you want to offer the world? Who do you want to be, what do you want more of in your life? And then asking: “How might I get there? What would create that as a consequence?” When you start from that point of view, then New Year’s resolutions can be incredibly effective. They begin to turn your attention to choice points in your everyday life where there really are opportunities to align your energy and attention in the direction that matters to you. I think most people start from the choice points, without wondering whether this is even the right thing to be choosing. People get to the behaviors too soon, in my opinion.

Any tips for how to find those big things and then narrow them down to specific resolutions?

A very practical way is to ask: At the end of 2014 — on January 1st, 2015, looking backwards — what are you seriously going to be grateful that you did? Is there a change you know that you’re going to be glad you made? What would that feel like? That can tap into something that feels really authentic.

I was just doing a radio interview at one of the NPR stations in New York, and I was chatting with the studio producer. I asked her if she had any New Year’s resolutions, and she’s like, “Oh yeah — to stay fit.” She sounded so not enthusiastic. Then after a few seconds of silence, she said, “I’m kind of thinking about finding a way to play the piano again.” She was lighting up a little more. “It used to be so important to me, and I really miss it. It’s like my soul wants to play the piano again, and it would be giving it back to my soul.” And I’m like, “That’s your resolution! What is this getting fit stuff?”

By the way, you can spend the first week [of the year] looking around. One year my resolution was to focus on being a better mentor, and to look for ways in every professional relationship to do that. You start looking around, and you see every conversation as an opportunity to choose that value and move toward that goal. Just spend a week saying, “If what matters is improving my health, if what matters is spending more time with my family, if what matters is reconnecting to creativity, what choices do I make every day that either could get me closer to that?”

So on those things you feel like you should be doing — the going to the gym or the quitting smoking — is there a way to build your willpower towards those things?

One of the things I always encourage people to do is to not try to do things alone, and to start outsourcing their willpower a little bit. If it’s exercising, you should be doing it with a family member, a friend, a co-worker. Or sign up for a series of classes after work. Because then, it’s like a bigger pool of possible willpower. If you’re exhausted after work, and you normally would say, “Screw it, I’m going home,” if there’s somebody who is going to meet you in your office, and say, “Hey, aren’t we going for a walk now?,” it doesn’t matter if you feel like it in that moment. There’s going to be a bigger pool of motivation that will support you through when you’re feeling most exhausted or least motivated.

Another thing I encourage people to do is — if there’s a behavior that they put off or don’t do because of anxiety or self-doubt or because it’s boring or uncomfortable — bribe yourself. If you hate exercise but truly, truly want the consequences of exercising, you should give yourself permission to do whatever you don’t want to let yourself do — like read trashy gossip magazines, or download a whole series of a TV show that you can plop on in front of you on the treadmill. As long as it doesn’t conflict with your goal, then you should go ahead and pair the thing you don’t want to do with a reward that you might otherwise not give yourself permission for. That can be very effective for beginning to prioritize and make time for things.

Also, give yourself permission to do small steps rather than think that there’s an ideal you need to meet. I wrote a review paper about two years ago showing that you can get pretty much the same health benefits from doing 5 to 15 minutes of exercise a day as from an hour. There are a lot of things like that, where we think, “I won’t get my novel done unless I can put aside a whole weekend to write.” Well, you could create a novel in a paragraph a day. So I encourage people to think: what’s the smallest step that they could take that is consistent with their goal? And not necessarily worry about whether they believe it’s sufficient.

That is actually very freeing.

New Year’s resolutions can be fun! If you think of them like a science experiment, you can always learn something from a resolution.  A lot of times, people aren’t willing to learn the lesson — and sometimes the lesson is that you think you want to change this, but you don’t really want to, and sometimes you don’t need to. That sometimes we look for the things we think we can control.

It’s funny how this happens sometimes even when we go after the things that really are core to our identity. I did this New Year’s resolution makeover once with this woman who had made the same resolution year after year to become a better cook, because she thought that’s what good moms and good wives did. She was a terrible cook, and she didn’t want to learn how to cook. That’s a mistake people make, is they think they’re just going to fundamentally change who they are with a resolution. “I’m going to become a morning person.” “I’m going to become a health nut.” “I’m going to become organized.” The best resolutions are ones that strengthen something you already are, but you may not have been fully investing in.

Derek Sivers: Keep your goals to yourselfDerek Sivers: Keep your goals to yourself I wanted to ask about the idea of working with other people and outsourcing willpower. Have you ever seen Derek Sivers’ talk on TED.com? It’s called Keep your goals to yourself and it suggests that people are more likely to achieve goals if they keep them private.

There is some data that suggests you might feel like you have accomplished your goal if you can create a public identity as somebody who is pursuing that goal. And I have overwhelming feedback from my students in my Science of Willpower class that, if they actually can truly create the identity — that they really sense that “I am someone that trained for a marathon,” or “I am somebody who is committed to this” — that it actually makes it easier to make choices.

People are really interested in creating habits, and there’s so much excitement now about habit design. Habits are really, really hard to create because they require complete automaticity. You need to basically be making choices in the absence of any motivation and it takes a long time to get that in place. But when you have a value or commitment, that’s something different. It can be a conscious choice that when you’re in a restaurant — if your identity is as somebody who takes good care of your health — then that becomes a default way to make a good choice in that moment. Anything that you do to create that identity can actually make it easier to make choices that don’t feel like deprivation.

That’s one side of that research. Then there’s the whole other side of how social support and pride can support having more strength to move towards your goals. If you know that other people are paying attention to you, and you know that you’re going to be able to celebrate your success — you’re going to be able to post on Facebook that you actually did run that marathon, or even that you just made it to spin class, or whatever your version of that is — that anticipating that social sharing is very motivating for people. It’s more motivating than even success in itself. The self-savoring is not as motivating as knowing you’re going to be able to savor a success with somebody else. Then when you hit the wall — when you experience setbacks — social support encouragement is also so important for getting back on track.

I think that from top to bottom, making your resolution social allows you to access different supports, both internal and external. One more reason to go public — being a role model for someone. People will do things when they know that they’re inspiring change in others. It’s a natural progression that you see in many areas — whether it’s people who are recovering from addiction, or someone embarking on a physical challenge. This is what people naturally do.

Sandra Aamodt: Why dieting doesn't usually workSandra Aamodt: Why dieting doesn’t usually work And did you see Sandra Aamodt’s talk, Why dieting doesn’t usually work?

Yes! My talk was right after hers at TEDGlobal 2013. I remember basically agreeing with everything she said.

So her idea — that the brain seeks to keep weight stable over the long-run, and so dieting can often backfire because it makes a person so focused on food — fit with the research you’ve looked at on willpower?

There are two things she said that really stood out to me, and that I agree with very seriously. One was that she talked about the importance of being kind to yourself. She made the point that self-compassion is much more motivating than self-criticism. That’s very important. When I first started teaching the Science of Willpower, it was the thing nobody believed — researchers and psychologists and writers have done a great job of getting this message out, because I don’t get near the resistance I used to get to the idea. And still, it’s so amazing how many people believe that they are more motivated by self-criticism and shame than anything else. They aren’t really paying attention to the effect on their behavior and choices when they are that hard on themselves.

The other thing I remember Sandra saying was about the futility of trying to lose weight. And that’s absolutely right. Whenever I’m in any situation where people are asking me to talk about losing weight, I always try to change the language to creating health because you cannot control weight. It’s exactly what Sandra said — the brain and the body, they will fight you. Losing weight is almost always a consequence of making good choices — but it’s not always a consequence. You can make good choices and not lose the weight. The most important thing in Sandra’s talk was the idea that making the healthy choices is going to give you the consequence of health, even if you don’t lose the weight.

She showed a really interesting graph of four health factors — eating fruits and vegetables, exercise three times a week, not smoking, and drinking in moderation — and how, if people who are overweight do just one of those things, their risk of mortality lowers to the same level as a normal weight person.

I hope TED has more talks from obesity experts, because nobody knows this research about how weight doesn’t predict health. There’s so much important science out there that people are not paying attention to. That was my favorite part of her talk.

Kelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friendKelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friend To bring it back to your TED Talk, How to make stress your friend, it sounds to me like what you’re saying about willpower is related — that it’s not so much whether you have willpower, but how you think about willpower.

I’ve been joking about that — that my work has always been to basically take an inner experience that people reject, force them to accept it and understand it, so that they can make peace with it. One of the reasons why I teach this Science of Willpower class and wrote the book is because I kept hearing from people that they felt like they had no willpower. They thought they were the only ones and that their willpower struggle was uniquely wrong with them — they were so lazy, they were so stupid, they were so hopeless. They didn’t understand the fact that we all experience willpower challenges. It’s part of what it means to be human.

It is similar to the way that I’m now trying to help people appreciate stress, and understand that this is human and that it can help us. It’s not always helpful, but there are aspects to it that, when we can make friends with it, we have a lot better chance of using it to good ends. I feel the same way about willpower. When you understand what a craving is and why it’s there, you can also appreciate the part of you who can make a different choice.

One of the big lessons from The Science of Willpower is if you really fight the inner experiences, it’s not going to end well. If you decide you’re going to fight cravings, fight thoughts, fight emotions, you put all your energy and attention into trying to change the inner experiences. People tend to get more stuck, and more overwhelmed. When you try to control the things that aren’t really under your control, you get to feeling more out of control. Whereas where you really have the freedom is in your choices.

That’s very similar to stress. If you think you can’t feel stress and that stress is always going to be toxic, you’re magnifying any of the toxic aspects of stress. By fighting stress, you’re making stress worse.

So, make friends with the fact that you can move towards goals that are really important to you?

Yes. Willpower is about being able to hold opposites. So I can feel the emotion, I can feel the craving, and at the very same time, I just make my awareness big enough to hold my commitment to make a different choice. Your ability to hold those opposites is what gives people willpower over time.

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