NYR 1904: “Learn A New Language.” Part 3: Flashcards.

One of the most common and effective ways to pick up vocabulary is through the use of flashcards. My approach to flashcards is based on three ideas:

  1. Keep it simple,
  2. Make it personal, and
  3. Have a system.

Keep It Simple

I once had a history teacher who required us to make flashcards based on our assigned readings. On the front of the card would be the name of a subject, say, “The Spanish American War.” On the back we would write a set of facts in a consistent structure: the years covered, the people involved, societal developments, watershed moments and so on.

I’d had a lot of success using flashcards in the past, but I struggled using these as a study tool.

Why?

Because they had too much information. In my experience, the best flashcards have something simple on the front that tests your ability to recall something equally simple on the back. Studying capitals is a perfect example. If the front of the flashcard says “Hungary” and I can come up with “Budapest”, pass. If not, put it back in the deck and try again.

“Buddha is a pest when he’s hungry.” You’re welcome.

But this idea of loading down the back of the flashcard with numerous facts made me feel obligated to recall all of them at once. If the front of the flashcard read “Spanish American War” and I could remember the years involved but not the world leaders… then what? I treated it as a “fail,” which lead to a frustrating loop as I tried to memorize every detail and never made any progress.

When I write flashcards, I try to distill them as much as possible down to a single concept that’s being tested. It can be tempting to try and save time by testing multiple concepts at once, but in my experience this costs more time in the long run.

Make It Personal

Technology allows us to make flashcards that are more immersive than ever before. Here’s a method I picked up from a great language learning blog, Fluent Forever.

  1. Get a list of words you want to learn. I used this one, courtesy of the same website.
  2. Find the definitions in your target language. Start by typing the words into Google Translate. Let’s use the word “Alive” as an example. You’ll get two answers in Italian, viva (feminine) and vivo (masculine). Congratulations: you’ve stumbled upon a (delightful) grammatical concept. But remember, this is a vocabulary flashcard, not a grammar flashcard. Pick the masculine for now and we’ll get back to the grammar part later.
  3. Verify accuracy. Try Googling the word, and seeing what images come up. Vivo presents a bit of a problem due to the tech company of the same name. Here’s a fun strategy that can help: instead of just typing the word by itself, try typing a popular movie quote that incorporates the word as it is commonly used. For example, you could type È vivo! Frankenstein Junior (It’s alive! Young Frankenstein). Now search, review the images, and see if there are any screenshots from the scene you had in mind. In this case:

Frank

Bingo!

Of course you can always check a language forum or phone a friend (a buddy of mine speaks fluent Italian, and I pestered him constantly with these types of questions). Once you’re confident that you’ve got the right word, pick an image that brings the word to mind and put it on the front of the flashcard, and the solution on the back.

This sounds like a lot of work, but remember: you’re learning as you’re doing this. And the more personal the flashcard, the better your chances of remembering it.

When I had to come up with an image for “alive,” the first thing that came to mind was this:

Lion King

My wife, on the other hand, insists that this Jello commercial I’ve never heard of is more appropriate. To each his own.

Have a System

When it comes to flashcard software, there are lots of options. I’ve used Anki for over eight years to memorize all sorts of things, and highly recommend it. The main benefits from using Anki:

  1. You can make great flashcards. You can easily incorporate images, sound, even videos.
  2. You can study anywhere. Using the app on your phone or a computer, you can run through your flashcards whenever you have downtime, and don’t even need internet access. That’s what I did when studying Italian, and I found I was able to get a lot of flashcards done without having to devote a significant time-block to it.
  3. You can make the most of your studying through spaced repetition. 

From Wikipedia:

Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect.

To put it differently: the more times you get a notecard “right”, the longer Anki will wait before showing you that notecard again. There’s good science behind this, and the result is a more efficient approach to recalling large amounts of information.

Flashcards are a great way to get started with language learning. If you stick with it, you’ll find yourself remembering dozens of words in a matter of weeks. However, to tackle other areas such as grammar, pronunciation and eventually fluency, we’re going to have to bring out the big guns. More on that next week.

See you then!

NYR 1904: “Learn A New Language.” Part 2 – The Most Important Word In Language Learning.

“Good morning,” I said to Elizabeth and Mrs. McKaig, shivering as I took my seat at the table. It was my senior year of high school, and as students rushed to first period I could hear the sounds of leaves crunching beneath their feet through the paper-thin walls of the classroom.

The word “classroom” is a bit misleading. Technically it was one of many relocatable classrooms. We called them “ReLos” for short; most people would call them “trailers.” Whatever you called them, they didn’t do much to keep the cold out.

“Good morning,” Mrs. McKaig replied cheerfully.

I heard the heater click on beneath my feet, and smiled. Mrs. McKaig had been my Latin teacher for the better part of four years. A lot had changed since we first started studying the misadventures of Lucius Caecilius Iucundus in this book my freshman year:

cambridge latin

Back then, we probably had thirty students in Latin I. A few less in Latin II, far fewer in Latin III. Now here we were in Latin IV, and the only ones left were me, Elizabeth, and Mrs. McKaig.

In a class of two students, it seemed silly for Elizabeth and I to sit at our desks while Mrs. McKaig lectured at the front of the classroom. So we sat at a small table together, huddled around the heating vent as Elizabeth began to translate last night’s homework, an excerpt from Virgil’s Aeneid. I knew it would be a while before it was my turn, and my mind began to wander.

I was thinking about the TV show Family Guy; I’d stayed up watching reruns of it the night before on Adult Swim. As I felt the air begin to rise from the heating vent, I remembered the warm feeling of my body sinking into bed under the weight of my comforter, shifting positions so I could comfortably watch the TV while lying down, my eyes getting heavier as the flicker of the television and the murmur of the dialogue lulled me to…

“David?”

I felt a firm but civil hand shaking my shoulder. I immediately looked up from my desk and saw Mrs. McKaig. Her expression was one of disappointment, but not surprise. I looked down and saw drool on my sleeve.

“Sorry,” I mumbled.

A few seconds of silence.

And Elizabeth continued.

Now, this certainly wasn’t my first (or last) time falling asleep in a classroom. But guys… this was pretty bad. I mean, I literally fell asleep while a fellow human being was reading to me from across the table.

This is not the way to learn a language.

And it wasn’t Mrs. McKaig’s fault. She was a sweet lady, and actually one of my favorite teachers. It was my fault because I was there for the wrong reasons. I took Latin because it was supposed to help me with my SAT scores, and sticking with it until Latin IV was more a function of inertia than passion.

Years later, I now find myself studying languages as a hobby, and have found it to be incredibly fulfilling. Looking back, I’ve come to believe that the most important ingredient for success in this area can be summed up in a single word. It’s a word that I don’t use very often, and which acts as a sort of compass as I’m navigating the peaks and valleys of studying something difficult.

Delightful.

Studying a foreign language should be a delightful experience. The successes and the roadblocks should fill you with delight as you encounter them. And if you find yourself getting frustrated, or feel like it’s become a chore, you should pause and reevaluate your perspective.

For example, when I started studying Italian one of the first things I learned how to say was “I love you.” I mean, my wife and I were planning a trip to Italy, so being able to say “I love you” had to be a top priority. A quick Google search got me the answer: “ti amo.”

But as I started using Rosetta Stone, I noticed something strange. The program kept showing pictures of people who clearly loved each other–husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, mother and daughter–but they weren’t saying “ti amo.” They were saying “ti voglio bene.”

I typed it into Google Translate, which returned “I love you” as a translation.

So wait… why do Italians have more than one way of saying the same thing?

As I continued with the course, I noticed that sometimes the husband and wife actually would say “ti amo.” But if it was a brother and sister, or a mother and child, they would only say “ti voglio bene,” never “ti amo.”

Now, there are two ways to respond to this:

  1. Italians have more than one way to say, “I love you?” Great, more stuff to memorize. How do I know which one to use? How do I know there aren’t three, four ways to say I love you? Where does it end?
  2. Italians have more than one way to say “I love you?” Well isn’t that delightful!

If you pick the first option, you’re not going to get very far studying languages (or really any subject that’s broad and challenging).

But if you pick the second option, nothing can stop you. Having a sense of playful curiosity, you’ll be compelled to investigate more. You’ll look at language forums online and find out that “ti amo” is reserved for romantic interests, while “ti voglio bene” is used to express a special kind of love that isn’t necessarily romantic, but is still appropriate to say to a romantic partner.

Then you might reevaluate your own language. I mean, has there ever been a time that you wanted to express love to someone you cared about, but saying “I love you” would have been weird because of the romantic baggage that comes with it?

Maybe instead of asking, “why do Italians have multiple ways of saying ‘I love you,'” you might ask, “Why do Americans have only one?” And maybe that question will start you down a path toward having a more balanced perspective on the world as you start to gain insights into another culture. How positively delightful!

Over the next few weeks we’re going to get into the nuts and bolts of studying language, but just remember that first and foremost this is supposed to be enjoyable. And if you find yourself going down a rabbit-hole, keep going. That’s where the real learning comes from (and the fun).

Next week, we’ll be diving into the practice of spaced repetition, a concept that will help jump-start your learning and save you a lot of time. See you then!

NYR 1904: “Learn A New Language.” Part 1 – Mi Dispiace…

“Mi dispiace…Non posso pagare,” I said to the gray-haired gentleman standing in front of me.

“Perche no?” he asked.

Good question. But first, let’s rewind a little bit.

It was a beautiful afternoon in Rome. My wife and I had just finished touring the Colosseum, and on our way back to the hotel we noticed a quiet little restaurant called Ristorante Mario’s. We were both hungry, and I’ve always had a penchant for the plumber of the same name. We decided to stop, have a late lunch, and split a bottle of wine.

I don’t actually have a picture from that day, but here’s a snapshot of the restaurant from Google Maps:

Marios

Google Maps is amazing, by the way.

We sat down at the table on the far right of the picture, her back to the street. The wine came out immediately; after a few minutes sipping and chatting about the places we’d been and the pictures we’d taken, my wife reached underneath her chair to retrieve the phone from her bag.

And her bag was gone.

We snapped into panic mode, frantically searching in places that made progressively less sense. I checked under my chair, then under our table, then under the other tables, then behind the plants next to our table… I could feel people starting to stare.

When I finally came to grips with the idea that we’d been robbed, I ran out into the street, glaring up and down the Piazza Del Grillo at the dozens of people walking by. Even now I’m not sure what the plan was if I actually saw somebody holding my wife’s bag. It was just something to do, in a moment where I felt frustrated and completely powerless.

Our waitress came back out with our plates. All I could think to say was “no no no” as she started to place them on the table. She gave me a confused look, set the plates down and went back inside.

The gray-haired man came out soon after. I gathered that he was the manager, or perhaps the owner. I said,

Mi dispiace… non posso pagare.”

I was apologizing, and explaining that we couldn’t pay for anything (including the wine we’d already started on).

When he asked why, I gestured toward my wife.

Mia moglie… la sua borsa e stato rubato.

His eyes softened, and his tone changed from annoyance to concern. As he spoke, I picked up “Dov’era” and responded,

“Sotto la sedia.

He nodded, then began speaking very quickly, gesturing toward the street, then toward our seats. He asked us to sit down and finish our meal, on the house. And I think he also suggested that the thieves were probably French, not Italian.

“No, grazie,” I replied.

After all, my wife’s bag had contained a lot more than just her phone. At this point, it was looking like the rest of our short time in Rome was going to be spent in a hotel business center, making calls, cancelling credit cards and wiping away tears.

Thankfully it didn’t take as long as I thought. Within an hour we were back at the hotel and had cancelled all of her credit cards over the phone. The silver lining was that we didn’t lose her passport, thanks to these little guys:

But the worst part wasn’t the cards or the bag or the cash that we lost. It was the phone. Because with it, we lost every picture she’d taken on the trip so far.

After a (completely understandable) period of moping around and feeling sorry for ourselves, we came up with a plan. We were going to:

  1. Buy a cheap bottle of wine,
  2. Take it to the roof of our hotel, and
  3. Finish it while we came up with a new plan.

The new plan turned out to be even better than the first one.

It was dusk, and at that moment we vowed to revisit every site we’d been to that day, taking a new picture together at each one. I opened my own Instagram account, and made my first post:

(Russell Crowe and I have lost touch since then)

We stumbled through dark cobblestone streets, recreating old memories and making new ones. We worked up an appetite, and at that point we both knew there was only one place to go: back to Ristorante Mario’s. 

As we approached the restaurant we noticed a long line of people waiting outside. A little dismayed, we started discussing other options. Just then, the same waitress who served us before came out and immediately recognized us. Delighted (and a little surprised) by our return, she ushered us toward the exact same table we sat at the first time, where we proceeded to have the best meal I’ve ever had in my life.

Not just because we were there for almost three hours, or because we ate all the food and drank all the wine and I ordered a cappuccino at the end and the waitress rolled her eyes because apparently that’s frowned upon in Italy.

It’s the best meal I’ve ever had because of what it stood for. We had bounced back. We took a crisis that easily could have been the worst memory of our trip to Italy, and turned it into one of the best.

And to cap it all off, when we got back to the hotel and started to upload the pictures I took, we noticed something amazing: through some miracle of science involving iPhones and Google and Clouds, almost all of Liz’s photos had been uploaded! To this day I have no idea how this happened.

And I’d spoken Italian!!!

I’d been studying for the better part of a year in preparation for our trip, and this was just one of many times when I’d been able to speak, clearly and correctly, in the native tongue of a foreign country.

This is something I’ve always wanted to do, and so I wasn’t surprised to find it was near the top of many people’s lists for New Years Resolutions.

In this series, I will be going over my various approaches to language learning over the years, as well as the new language I’m studying in 2019.

Next week I’ll talk about the lessons I learned during the rocky start of my language journey: highschool Latin class.

See you then!

NYR 1903: “Drink Less.” Part 4 – Closing Thoughts.

It’s late March, and so far I’ve had 107.8 drinks in 2019. Here’s a snapshot of the last 30 days:

Not bad. I’m on pace to hit my goal; most days I’m not drinking at all, and on the days that I do I’m keeping it within a reasonable range.

Which is great… but don’t get too excited. Warm weather is (hopefully) just around the corner, and that means pool parties, cookouts, golf, weddings and bachelor parties. If you look at last year’s data, over 60% of my drinking was in late spring/early summer. So I’m cautiously optimistic about my numbers.

To wrap up this series, my original plan was to write about what I’ve been drinking lately. I was going to break it down into three categories (beer, wine and liquor) and talk about easy ways to reduce intake, mostly by opting for drinks with more volume and lower ABV, like this:

And fewer drinks that are low volume and high ABV, like this:

I even had a joke lined up about martinis in particular, involving Mrs. Shellhammer from Miracle on 34th Street inviting Santa Clause to stay at her house indefinitely after drinking just one of them.

I figured a final post on drinking strategies and tactics would be fun to read about and fun to write about, and a light way to end a series on a heavy subject.

But it felt like a missed opportunity, and a little dishonest.

And honesty is really all I have to offer you guys, because I don’t have any solutions at this point. Most of the Personal Development content out there appears to be written by people who already have their problems figured out, and they have a plan in place to help you get there, too. This isn’t meant to be a jab at those writers – I genuinely believe that there are solutions to the struggles we face as we try to better ourselves – I just haven’t found mine yet.

Instead, I had the genius idea of starting this blog prior to solving anything. And so you get to watch me stumble through the beginning of the journey, hitting plenty of road blocks along the way. If I’m not honest about those, what happens if you encounter them, too?

If anyone out there is trying to cut back and having trouble, I don’t want them to read a bunch of tips and tricks and wonder why it’s not working for them. The truth behind my cutting back is a lot more simple, and a lot more difficult. Here it is:

The reason I’ve been able to cut back is because I’m taking it seriously.

Shifting my attitude towards drinking has been the biggest factor in my success so far. How did that shift happen? Four main things:

1. I started tracking my consumption.

By using the DrinkControl app to monitor my progress, I’ve kept my overall consumption at the front of my mind. This has allowed me to be more choosy when deciding when to drink, and given me a better idea of what drinking moderately means to me when I choose to do so.

2. I read a book.

This Naked Mind, by Annie Grace. This book breaks down the various reasons why we drink, and picks them apart one by one. I probably agree with about 80% of the content (the author takes the position that there are zero benefits to drinking whatsoever – I’m not there yet), but just reading the book reduced my urge to drink in a lot of situations, and as a result my consumption took a huge dip right after reading.

3. I changed my lifestyle.

Or I guess you could say my lifestyle changed me. The biggest thing: having kids.

Practically speaking, having a Mimosa or a Bloody Mary with brunch used to be a very enjoyable pastime… before I had kids. Because here’s the deal: for me, day-drinking was almost always accompanied by a crucial element: the afternoon nap. And at this stage in my life, the afternoon nap isn’t always in the cards.

More importantly, the idea of being too hungover to play with my kids makes me really, really sad. That happened a few times in 2018, and a few is way too much. I don’t want to miss out on this amazing stage in my life as a parent, and I also need to be aware of the example I’m setting.

The other big lifestyle change has been working out more. An upcoming workout can be a great deterrent against unnecessary drinks (not to mention a useful excuse in social situations).

4. I got others involved

External expectations are a huge motivator for me, and writing about this has helped to clarify my thoughts on a complicated issue. Once I got over the hump of telling people about my goals, things got much easier. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback and support from readers, which has helped me to stay on track. Like I said in a previous post, you don’t have to start a blog and publish everything you’re drinking online; but if you do decide to be more transparent about this subject, you may be surprised.

And on that note, I wanted to mention one last thing I’ve been doing with DrinkControl.

One of the app’s premium features allows you to create your own customized drinks for recording purposes. If you have a particular cocktail or alcohol brand that you drink regularly, you can save that template for easier recording in the future. It’s also useful for tracking purposes, if you’re interested in knowing how much of a certain drink you’re having. What I’ve recently done is created a new drink within the app, called simply “A.”

And the “A” stands for “alone.”

I decided that every time I drink by myself, I’ll record it as an “A.” I figured it would be useful to know how often this happens, and get an idea of what percentage of my total drinking is done by myself, with no social benefit whatsoever.

And I haven’t drank alone since.

Thank you for reading, and for the support and encouragement.  I’ve enjoyed writing this series, but I admit I’m looking forward to moving on to something a little lighter in April. See you then!

NYR 1903: “Drink Less.” Part 3: To Drink, Or Not To 🍹

When I reviewed last year’s data, I noticed that, day-to-day, I drank far more often than not.

I started to go through the numbers and compare it to my calendar, trying to remember what, exactly, I was doing at the time I was having all those drinks. And I realized something: it turns out, almost any event can be considered a “drinking occasion.” Here are just a few I came up with:

  • It’s a holiday
  • A friend is in town
  • Somebody was born
  • Somebody died
  • Somebody got engaged
  • Somebody got married
  • I’m about to give a toast
  • I’m giving a toast
  • I just gave a toast
  • A sporting event is on
  • I’m playing video games
  • My favorite show is on
  • My wife’s favorite show is on
  • I had a great day at work
  • I had  terrible day at work
  • I had a normal day at work, but one of my friends had a great/terrible day
  • I’m on vacation

As an adult, it’s basically acceptable to drink at any time other than work (and even that depends on your industry, I guess). So if you want to cut back, it pays to be choosy when deciding when you want to partake.

This week I want to go over my current approach to these scenarios. Rather than go through each one, I’m going to talk about three broad categories, based on intention: Drinking To Be Social, Drinking To Enjoy Something More, and Drinking To Unwind. I’ve found that most of the scenarios I mentioned earlier fall into one of these three.

Drinking To Be Social

Idea: Most, if not all, of my friends drink. If I were to cut back, it would be at the expense of my social life and my friendships.

My Thoughts: Have you ever heard the phrase, “You are the average of the five people you hang out with the most?” The idea is that our personalities are a function of who we associate with, and so if you want to develop different habits, you should look around, see what your friends are doing, and consider making a change.

So, if most of my friends drink and I want to cut back, does that mean I need to drop all of the drinkers and get new friends?

No. Because my friends aren’t “drinkers.” They’re people.

And there’s more to them than just drinking. So rather than throw away a relationship that I may have spent years cultivating (and potentially hurting another person in the process), my approach has been to simply be transparent about my goals.

I’m not saying you have to start a blog and publish a record of every drink you’ve ever had. But simply saying “no thanks, I’m trying to cut back,” should do the trick. And in some cases I’ve had friends tell me that they’re considering cutting back themselves; they just haven’t said anything because they were worried about how I was going to react.

Of course, people can react negatively. If drinking has been a cornerstone of your friendship from the beginning, an adjustment period is to be expected. But if, after a reasonable amount of time, they can’t seem to tolerate your new choices… that is a tough situation. I haven’t personally encountered that scenario, but if you do then maybe it is time to move on.

But talk to them first; don’t confuse having one-dimensional friendships with having one-dimensional friends.

Drinking To Enjoy Something More

Idea: “You know what would make this concert/movie/show/board game/sporting event/presidential debate even better? Drinks.” Basically, any activity that you would otherwise enjoy on its own would be more enjoyable if you drink alcohol while participating.

My Thoughts:

Does it make sense to drink while watching a TV show? I think it depends. Let’s look at two scenarios:

Exhibit A: As I’m drafting this post, I’m huddled in my bedroom listening to the baby monitor while my wife is hosting several of her friends for, wait for it, a Book Club/Baby Shower/Wait The Baby Was Just Born So I Guess This Is a Sip n’ See But Without The Mom Or The Baby/The Bachelor Finale Party (long story).

Anyways, they’re watching The Bachelor and talking and having fun, and yes drinking wine. Here, I think it’s pretty easy to argue that drinking adds value because of the social component.

I’m not going to weigh in on whether the Bachelor is a “good” show or a “bad” show, but I think fans and critics alike would agree that it is a ridiculous show. And so when it comes to the fun of having friends over, watching the show and seeing how everyone reacts while going through this outrageous journey together, I get it. And I can see how drinking fits nicely into the picture.

Exhibit B: Liz and I used to watch Mad Men together. Quick tangent: along with Breaking Bad, Mad Men is one of those shows that has me convinced that we are living in a golden age of television. There are so many incredible shows on right now, and there’s more quality content out there than anyone can reasonably handle. And so when I’m watching a show like Mad Men, I try to appreciate it like I would any other form of art, giving it my silent and undivided attention.

Over time, I developed the habit of drinking while watching Mad Men.

My drink of choice typically aligned pretty closely with what Don Draper was drinking on the show. Usually something “big and brown,” like a scotch or bourbon on the rocks. The idea was simple: Mad Men was a boozy show, and drinking allowed me to immerse myself further into the experience.

I’ve decided that this is a waste, and drinking for the sole purpose of appreciating a show more (or any form of entertainment) doesn’t make much sense. I may have felt like I was enjoying it more, but really my drinking was detracting from the experience. So I try not to do this anymore, saving my drinks for social occasions.

Drinking To Unwind

Scenario: You’ve had a hard day at work and you’re stressed. You finally got the kids down and you want to feel like an adult again. You just need a break, alcohol will help with that, and you deserve it.

My Thoughts: Out of all the reasons to drink, I find this one to be the most difficult to defend. For me, drinking as a reaction to life’s challenges and problems is a recipe for disaster.

Because drinking isn’t magically going to make those problems go away. In fact, it usually makes them worse by postponing them or hindering your ability to think critically and work through them. So when I have the urge to drink for this reason, I try to internalize the idea that my mind is simply playing a trick on me, and I redirect toward something more innocuous (La Croix) or positive (working out).

Having said that, I think there’s a case to be made for having a drink in the evening as a means of transitioning from work to leisure at the end of the day. Many of us employ similar rituals in the evening (taking a bath, going for a run, making tea) and I don’t see a problem with having a drink in the evening for this purpose. Ultimately it comes down to being honest about what my intention is (which isn’t always easy to do).

To summarize: a big part my approach to cutting back over the past year has been limiting my drinking to those occasions where I felt that there was a significant social benefit. I dropped my overall intake by 20-30%, and looking back on it I don’t think I missed out on very much.

Now that we’ve talked strategy on when to drink, in next week’s post I’ll talk about my approach to deciding what to drink. See you then!

NYR 1903: “Drink Less.” Part 2 – Drink Tracking Q&A.

Years, lovers and glasses of wine; these things must not be counted.  – Anthony Capella

In last week’s post, I wrote about how my goal was to have fewer than 700 drinks in 2018, and I ended up drinking 692.6. This year, my New Years Resolution is to have fewer than 500 drinks in 2019. Click here if you’d like to see a spreadsheet which details every single drink I’ve consumed since October of 2017. I’m sure you have questions.

Where did these numbers come from?

I input these manually, using an app called DrinkControl. The app is free, but if you decide to pay for the premium version (as I did) you get the added feature of being able to export your data as a .csv file, which I then uploaded and published with Google Sheets.

Can’t I just keep a tally, rather than using a complicated app?

The app is very user-friendly and not too complicated. But yes, you can certainly keep a tally on your own, and simply record the number of drinks you consume in a given night. I experimented with this approach a few years back, but a big question kept coming up: What, exactly, counts as a drink? 

If I take a sip of my wife’s wine at a birthday party, is that the same thing as ordering a giant 25.4 oz Foster’s Oil Can to go with my Bloomin’ Onion at Outback Steakhouse? This illustrates an important point: if you’re serious about drinking less, you shouldn’t focus on the number of drinks you buy, but rather the amount of alcohol you’re consuming.

And this is where DrinkControl earns its keep. The app calculates your number of “drinks” by taking the number of ounces you consumed multiplied by the alcohol by volume (ABV), and applying a U.S. standard where one drink = 14 grams of pure alcohol.

That sounds like a lot of work… aren’t we splitting hairs here?

Absolutely not. Hands down, the most eye-opening part of this recording process has been the importance of monitoring ABV, and with beer especially.

For example: let’s say that (hypothetically) I drank a lot of beer in college while watching football. I’d sit down with my friends and easily drink six beers in a 3-4 hour stretch. At the end of the game I’d feel buzzed for sure, and certainly be in no condition to operate heavy machinery. But the rest of the day would be pretty manageable, especially considering my responsibilities at the time were fairly minimal.

Fast-forward: now I’m an adult in the real world, and I decide to meet my friends to watch a game at a local brewery across the street. It’s half-time, I’ve had three beers and when I stand up to go to the bathroom…

Whoa.”

I’m actually pretty tipsy. What happened?

Well, in college I was drinking 12 oz cans of Busch Light (which, let’s be honest, I still drink today). Now I’m drinking these:

Juicy Jay’s, the flagship IPA at Legion Brewing. These are delicious, and come in at a formidable 6.3% ABV. And Legion isn’t serving 12 ounce bottles; they’re serving pints. You want to know how many cans of Busch Light I’d need to drink to equal three Juicy Jays? Almost seven. Lovely. And so the football game ends and the Panthers lose and I stumble home, right about the time the girls are waking up from their naps… fantastic. Did I mention I have work tomorrow? ABV is important, and I’ve found that using the app keeps you honest about it.

What if I don’t know ABV?

Most of the time it’s on the bottle, if not you can usually Google it. If you’re still not sure, here’s what I usually go with: Beer=5%, Wine=14%, Liquor=40%.

What about keg stands?

Well, first of all we may want to consider phasing out keg stands in 2019. That being said, you may encounter circumstances where it’s hard to tell exactly how much you’re drinking.

Punch is a good example. In this case just do your best: if it’s a wine-based punch like a Sangria, then just treat it like wine. If it’s a punch made with liquor or Everclear, then treat each drink as a double and just make sure you’re not wearing your Fraternity/Sorority Letter Shirt because you know you’re not supposed to be drinking in your Letters.

Won’t This Take All The Fun Out Of My Drinking?

Maybe. I honestly have no idea.

This is the most common, and perhaps most important, question I’ve received on this topic. And unfortunately I don’t have a good answer for you.

Because everyone is different; for some, tracking consumption sounds like a tedious exercise at best, and at worst an onerous chore that runs completely counter to the purpose of drinking in the first place. Not only that, but there’s also the concern of what other people will think of you if they know you’re doing this. Why are you counting your drinks? Do you have a problem?

I’m not going to tell you “you shouldn’t care what other people think,” because I’m sure most people (like me) already know this and yet still struggle with it. If you do feel like you’re overly concerned with the opinions of others, consider reading this post on why you should stop caring what other people think. For what it’s worth, I’ve been recording my drinks for well over a year now, and I don’t think anyone even knew I was doing it.

And for me at least, I don’t feel that it’s taken away from the fun at all. It’s kind of like the dichotomy we talked about in my last post on getting organized. Just as I don’t believe having a clean house comes at the expense of having fun, I don’t believe having a disciplined approach to monitoring alcohol consumption takes away from the experience of drinking with friends.

So if you’re interested, give it a try! I’d love to hear about your experiences and perspective.

In next week’s post, we’ll talk about specific strategies for reducing your overall intake without succumbing to FOMO. See you then!

NYR 1903: “Drink Less.” Part 1: 2018 In Review.

I’m not really sure how to write about this, or if I should even be writing about it at all. Well, here it goes.

When I first started outlining the blog, I shared a few of my early ideas with friends and family. Feedback was generally positive: everyone seemed to like the idea of tackling common goals in a public forum, and when it came to things like “Work Out” and “Get Organized,” I was usually met with enthusiastic questions and suggestions. But when I mentioned that my March series would be “Drink Less,” the responses I received were… mixed.

Many were excited: “Nice! I’ve been meaning to cut back myself.”

Some were concerned: “So… how are things going at home?”

And a few seemed almost angry: “Why would you want to drink less? That sounds terrible.”

I’ve already written (and discarded) several drafts for this introduction. In every case, I was trying to keep all of my readers happy; I wanted to write in a way that resonated with Reader A without offending Reader B, a way that Reader C wouldn’t think was too preachy, and that wouldn’t make Reader D feel like they were being targeted. This timid approach to writing resulted in plain vanilla commentary at best, and at worst a blank page accompanied by the temptation to just skip this subject entirely and move on to something easier.

Why is it so hard to write about this? Perhaps a better question: why is it so hard to talk about this?

Over the past two months, I’ve written articles on Working Out and Getting Organized, and I’ve tried to distill these somewhat abstract concepts into more specific, measurable approaches. However, when it comes to drinking I can only think of three broad ways to approach the issue, and each can result in a lot of backlash:

I’m just going to quit drinking. “Wait seriously? You’ve got a good job, family, social life… at least I thought you did. I’m sorry did something happen that I don’t know about? Haven’t you heard of the 2010 study proving that people who drink in moderation actually live longer?  What’s your problem with alcohol, anyway? It’s literally been a part of the human condition for 10,000 years. And take a look at the the countries that don’t allow alcohol – they’re not exactly utopias.”

Fine. I’m going to drink, and simply not concern myself with the consequences. “Well that’s a terrible idea. Did you actually read the fine print on that 2010 study? The study compared moderate drinkers to ‘abstainers’ who ‘were significantly more likely to have had prior drinking problems, to be obese and to smoke cigarettes than were moderate drinkers.’ So at best, the jury is still out on the ‘health benefits’ of moderate drinking. Don’t make me give you the run-down of the scientifically proven harmful effects of alcohol. You already know that it hurts your brain, your heart, your liver and your immune system. Did you know it was also a carcinogen?”

FINE! I’m going to drink, but in moderation. “People try, and fail, to do this all the time. You’re just going to fall back into the same old habits, because ‘moderate drinking’ is not actually a thing. The whole idea that having two drinks a day is ‘responsible’ is bullshit. Alcohol is an addictive substance, plain and simple, and any attempts at moderation are just delaying the inevitable.”

Perfect. So, here’s my New Year’s Resolution I guess:

In 2019, I am going to drink, not talk about it, and try not to think about it too much. I will occasionally feel some guilt and self-loathing, but I will simply cross my fingers and hope to never suffer any real long-term consequences.

Joking aside, that’s kinda been my approach to this topic for quite some time – until last year.

In 2018, I reduced my alcohol intake significantly (20-30%) compared to the prior year. I know this, because in 2018 I recorded every single drink I consumed, using an app called DrinkControl. Here were the results:

My goal was to drink fewer than 700 drinks, and as you can see I drank 692.6. You can also do some back-of-the-napkin math and realize that, in 2017, my daily average must have been pretty high… just below the Liver Warning Threshold on a Tylenol bottle. Yikes.

Let me hit the pause button, because I realize that some people might feel like this 700 number is still far too high. And in my case in particular, I agree. Which is why in 2019 I’m going to set a goal to drink even less.

But I say “in my case in particular” because I’m not going to try and have a “how much is too much” debate here. Each one of us has a different relationship with alcohol, and the purpose of this blog is to figure out how to set goals and accomplish them, not tell people how to live their lives.

That being said, I’ve talked to a lot of people about this, and many seem to want the same thing. They don’t want to quit drinking altogether, but they do want to cut back. They don’t want to feel like they need to drink, but would like to have the option if they want to. They want to be able to “take it or leave it,” while at the same time never feeling like they’re missing out.

That is quite a wish-list, and I don’t have all the answers. But over the next few weeks, I’ll try to explain the strategies and tactics I used to cut my alcohol consumption significantly, and with very little drama.

I know this is a touchy subject, and I want to give it the respect it deserves, but we’re also going to try and keep it light here. So I’d like to end with a quote that I came across recently by author Charles H. Baker Jr. from 1939:

We are still heartily of the opinion that decent libation supports as many million lives as it threatens; donates pleasure and sparkle to more lives than it shadows; inspires more brilliance in the world of art, music, letters, and common ordinary intelligent conversation, than it dims.”

See you next week!