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Using “Small Moves” as Leading Indicators

In recent years, I’ve incorporated ideas from The Twelve Week Year (by Brian Moran) into my routines, and found them very  helpful.

My top takeaway from this book is the idea of setting quarterly goals rather than annual or monthly goals. When you set goals you intend to accomplish in 12 weeks, every week matters. It’s easier to stay focused on them and get them done. The 13th week of the quarter is used for reflection and planning.

The second crucial takeaway from this book is the idea of setting “leading” indicators.

When you set a goal, you also need to set metrics to tell whether you are on track for completing it. For example, I’m writing a book, and a standard metric would be pages written in a day, or chapters written in a month.

The problem with most metrics is that they are “lagging” indicators. They are backward looking. They tell you what happened in the past. If you don’t get the number of pages written in the time allotted, you know you failed. The poor performance on the metric just makes that explicit.

What is needed to keep on track is leading indicators. These are metrics that predict whether or not you will succeed.

So, for example, for working on the book, that might be hours spent during the week writing. If all that is needed to finish the book is to put in sufficient hours, then hours will predict your eventual success on the book.

If you get low scores on leading indicators, you know you haven’t been putting in the effort where it needs to go.

On the other hand, if you get high scores on your leading indicators, but you don’t actually accomplish the goals on schedule, it turns out that you don’t actually know what exactly is needed to achieve the goal.

For example, I learned that I need about twice as much time writing during the week to make the kind of progress on the book that I want to make (About 20 hours a week rather than 12.)

The trick is to figure out the leading indicators that in fact predict success. After having used the “12-week year” method for about six months, I can tell you that it’s not so easy. Time on task is not always a good leading indicator!

What’s helped me to set “leading indicators” better is the ideas from Small Move, Big Change by Caroline Arnold. Her book is on habit change. Her thesis is that you should change habits by finding the small action to focus on that will make it easy to change a whole pattern. So, for example, to get more organized, she set up a routine of always putting the keys in exactly one place. That anchored many other small actions, making her whole day smoother. By focusing on crucial small actions, she was able to make significant changes in her routines.

I applied this idea to my productivity. My “lagging” indicator for productivity is the number of “pomodoros” (concentrated 25-minute segments) that I work each week.

Sometimes I do well, sometimes not so much. Looking it over, I decided that the biggest problem was that when I was tired or having trouble, my breaks would drag on too long. I would slip  down a slope of reading “one more page” in the newspaper, or watching “one more show” on TV, or reading “one more chapter” in a novel.

Since I am also trying to root out the duty premise, forcing myself to go back to work was not an option. At these moments, I was not willing to end the break. But I needed some way to change the dynamic of the break.

I came up with a simple change. Before I read any page of the newspaper, or watch any show, or read any chapter in a novel, I first read at least one paragraph of Ayn Rand. Then when I get to the end of the page or chapter or program, I need to read another paragraph of Ayn Rand to continue.

Reading Ayn Rand is also a break–but a more intellectually stimulating one.

If I’m tired, one paragraph is about all I’m good for, and I usually realize I need a nap, not a pleasure break. That’s a much more effective use of time.

Usually I read a lot more than one paragraph of Ayn Rand. Sometimes that becomes my entire break, and I go back to work. Sometimes I take the pleasure break when I finish, but it has a different quality. I’m more energized for it, and it’s always shorter. I never get into the vicious cycle of “not feeling like” getting back to work.

Now, my leading indicator for productivity is: do I read at least one paragraph of Ayn Rand before any of these three “break” activities? This turns out to be an excellent predictor of my actual work.

This particular intervention works for me, but it is idiosyncratic. It’s just an example a small concrete action I took to take to change a pattern.

The moral of the story is: if you are not achieving a goal on the time scale you have set, trace back to find the pattern of failure. See if you can find some small action to break that pattern. Then turn that new action into a metric–a leading indicator of whether you will achieve your goal on schedule.

 

July 11, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The Real Value of Small Steps

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The importance of taking small steps is well known. It’s the most likely advice you’ll get if you’re bogging down on something. “Try taking a small step.”

And yet, I have often found this advice unhelpful. I’m sure that is partly because I break down tasks into smaller steps all the time–almost automatically–so I don’t normally need to be reminded about this.

But when I have bogged down or gotten stuck–and did need some advice–smaller steps themselves rarely seemed to help.

For example, in the past I’ve tried to take a “smaller step” in writing and had it backfire. I recall one time I was having trouble getting my head around a chapter, so I decided to review some notes from previous days. Though this seemed like a very small step, somehow it was not a good next step, and my head was spinning after 15 minutes. I needed to take a nap to recover normal mental functioning after that allegedly “small step.”

Moreover, I’ve often found that small steps didn’t help me when the task was not motivating. When you resist doing some unpleasant task you think you “should” be doing, a small step is supposed to get you “over the hump” so you’ll do the unpleasant task. But I would see this as manipulative–which made me resist taking the small step!

In these kinds of cases, even if you carve out small steps, you wind up slogging forward, forcing yourself to pick up one foot after another. That is the kind of struggle and strain that I am opposed to on principle.

But on the other hand, there is something very important about taking small steps, and I think I finally understand the true reason why small steps can help you when work is bogging down–and why it didn’t help in those cases.

Small steps reinforce your freedom of choice–if you are only committing to the small step. Once you’ve taken it, you get to choose freely again whether you will continue or not. No harm, no foul if you don’t.

Here’s a simple example of what I mean. A male friend of mine doesn’t like to shave. But every day, when he confronts the choice to shave, and doesn’t want to, he asks himself if he’d be willing to just do a quick electric shave for 20 seconds so he doesn’t look unkempt. More than 99% of the time, he is willing to do that. Usually, at 20 seconds, he wants to spend a little more time finishing off his shave. But he knows he is free to stop, and perhaps 3% of the time, he does stop. In this way, he has a good shave almost every day, without ever forcing himself to do something he doesn’t want to do. Even though he doesn’t like shaving.

Here’s a more complicated example. I mentioned I had had some problems with writer’s block recently. I had deep resistance to writing newsletters. I dealt with it by giving myself total freedom of choice.

I realized that I couldn’t diagnose the problem unless I tried to write an article. I had 10 possible article topics, all of which I felt blocked on. I decided to pick one and start working on it, to help me understand the obstacle.

But because I was afraid I would force myself to write the article, I had to promise myself that I was only doing the work to figure out what the conflict was. I did not actually have to write the article.

Over two days, I spent 4 1/2 hours of concentrated time working on that article. Every time I felt strain, I switched from my writing notebook to my journal. And after figuring out the immediate problem, I didn’t want to go back to writing. So, I promised myself, again, that I was just doing this to understand the block. I did not have to finish the article.

With this method, I was able to work steadily, willingly, on something I was willing to do (figure out the source of the block) without doing what I was not willing to do (write the article). I did figure out the source of the block, and the next day I wrote an article on a completely different topic using what I’d learned. (I never did finish that test article, and probably never will.)

This advice complements the microresolution literature. (See Small Move, Big Change by Caroline Arnold.) For example, I have recently made a microresolution that I will turn on an exercise DVD every morning. I am not making a commitment to exercise every morning, just turn on an exercise DVD, knowing that I can then choose freely to exercise or not. Likely, I will.

Small steps like these are the means of helping you retain your sense of ownership and control of the task when it is not going well. They permit you to choose freely to challenge conflict as you go, rather than force yourself through the conflict.

As a result, you can use small steps to do unpleasant tasks without feeling like you’re making yourself do them–and without manipulating yourself.

A small, small step in a good direction–with no commitment beyond it–can help you out of inertia. A small step loaded with good intentions for the future will not.

This is a deep change in perspective for me. For years, I have been looking for some method that will guarantee I follow through in the future on an intention I set now. But that is on a mistaken premise. That is taking habit as the model for action.

It is true that when an activity becomes highly automatized (habitual), you need only initiate the first step, and the later steps follow unthinkingly. This is how you can shower and dress in 11 minutes flat, or deal cards while carrying on a conversation, or mow the grass with the same route every time.

But most productive activities (such as writing) require significant volitional control. You cannot succeed on autopilot.

And volition only controls this moment. You can choose only now, so you can choose only your next step.

And when you acknowledge that–when you allow that you can stop shaving, or stop writing, or stop exercising should you so choose–you eliminate all of the artificial conflict created by “duties” and “shoulds” and “musts.” You replace them with a sense of freedom and control over your own actions.

That–the reaffirmation of your own agency–is the motivational value of small steps.

 

July 4, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Achieve Your Lifetime Goals by Thinking About Them Every Year

“Change your smoke detector batteries when you change the clocks to or from Daylight Savings Time. Otherwise you’ll forget.”

This little trick suggests a way to help you achieve some of the most important goals you’ll ever set: your lifetime goals.

Your lifetime goals are the things you’d like to do, either in the next 3-5 years or just “sometime.” Write a book? Visit Hong Kong? Be on a TV show? The list may be long, as it includes both the fun things and the serious things you want to accomplish.

Perhaps you haven’t called these “lifetime goals,” and perhaps you’ve never tried to write them down. But you have them–everybody has them. They are the goals you daydream about in your spare time, and, if you never pursue them, they are the omissions you regret the most at the end of your life.

To make sure you accomplish them while you’re still on the planet, I recommend you follow a practice like the smoke alarm rule. Choose an annual event as a time to review your lifetime goals to see how you might achieve some of them in the upcoming 12 months.

The annual review solves two cognitive problems.

First, you need to bring your lifetime goals nearer to the top of your mind so that you can spot opportunities for achieving them. You need to make a new list, and review last year’s.

Over the course of a year, lifetime goals fade into the background where they rarely occur to you. So go through your list asking, “can I plan this into the upcoming year?” Even goals you can’t pursue this year will start percolating, and you will be much more likely to notice a new opportunity, if it arises later in the year.

Second, you may need to challenge old assumptions about how and when you can accomplish the goal. Those old assumptions may be subtly preventing you from seeing new possibilities.

The context changes. Old decisions go out of date. New opportunities arise.

Maybe you were waiting until you completed a training program (or your kids did) before starting a business. Did you (or they) finish? Maybe you were concerned about the political situation in Hong Kong or Egypt and were waiting for a better time to visit. Has the situation changed? Yearly is a good frequency to check.

If you don’t revisit your goals, you’ll be stuck operating on old “can’ts” and “won’ts” that are out of date. The things you wanted to do in your lifetime will be buried in forgetfulness.

So, pick a yearly event that works for you. Maybe your birthday is the ideal day. Perhaps the first day of school is the day you get down to the business of planning the year. Or maybe your summer getaway offers the reflection time you need.

Then, think about your goals every year at that time. Because you don’t want to forget to achieve your lifetime goals.

Note: There is a simple procedure for identifying lifetime goals in chapter 5 of Alan Lakein’s  book, “How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life .” See my recommendation: http://thinkingdirections.com/articles6Lakein.htm

 

December 31, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Deja Vu All Over Again

“How did I wind up here again?” We’ve all had the experience: a bad situation keeps repeating itself. Maybe it’s a confrontation with a particular person that keeps coming up and going badly. Maybe it’s the feeling of being overloaded by the administrivia again–even though you cleared it out last week. Maybe it’s seeing a project fizzle to a stop again. You keep gearing up on it, taking a step, and it never gets any momentum.

When you are feeling “deja vu all over again,” chances are you are “flailing” on the task. Flailing means trying the same approach again and again, without getting a different result. When this happens, you always need to step back, and change something farther back in the process. The mistake is always a few steps back, not right before you get in the mess. Here are a few ways you can take some steps back:

  1. Ask the experts–they often know a better way to approach problems. For example, there are great books on how deal with confrontation–and they all involve doing preparation before the confrontation occurs. (One I like is Difficult Conversations by Stone et. all.)
  2. Use a creativity process. Brainstorming and other creative processes are designed to help you generate alternatives. Brainstorming comes in many forms. A good book on it is: The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking by Paul Sloane.
  3. Sometimes you can just experiment. Write down how you always do the task. Then systematically change the process piece by piece to see what makes a difference.

The bottom line is: when you are flailing (doing the same thing, again and again, and expecting a different result), you need to stop what you’re doing and make a radical change.

Unless you like having deja vu all over again.

 

October 29, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Align Strategic Decisions with Long-Term Priorities

Marcia Yudkin is a veritable sage who has taught me many things about marketing and writing. She’s given me permission to share this article from her “Marketing Minute” which concretizes the need to align strategic decisions with your long-term priorities. Mr. South does not see the implications of his choices.

In “The Millionaire Next Door,” Thomas Stanley and William
Danko contrast wastrel “Dr. South,” who spent more than 60
hours to get the best deal on a $65,000 Porsche, and frugal
“Dr. North,” who spent just a few hours six years ago to buy
a three-year-old Mercedes for $35,000. “Dr. North” spends
30 hours a month on his investments, compared to four hours
a month for “Dr. South.”

Although both men earn roughly the same as medical
specialists, the Norths have a net worth more than 18 times
that of the Souths. Such is the impact of strategic
decisions.

In marketing, what do you spend your time and resources on?
Like “Dr. South,” are you researching and bargaining hard
on expenses that feed your ego and make you look impressive?
Or like “Dr. North,” do you focus more on your long-term
sustainability?

To be a quietly well-heeled “Dr. North” in marketing, make
sure you are serving customers who can and will stick with you,
and that you’re doing your utmost to keep them happy.

Marcia Yudkin is the author of 6 Steps to Free Publicity, Marketing for Introverts and many other books and ebooks. She helps entrepreneurs and business owners attract ideal clients, turn their knowledge into products and earn what they deserve. Sign up for her free weekly ezine, the Marketing Minute, at www.yudkin.com.

 

 

July 16, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Resources for Learning to Get to the Point

“Getting to the Point” in communication is an art. I don’t know any book or course that truly explains it. I think there are three parts to developing the skill.

First, you need to know your purpose in the conversation. This involves knowing what you want to get out of it, and also what the other person wants to get out of it. The best book I know for clarifying this issue is, Getting Through to People by Jesse Nirenberg. It has great ideas but it is out of print. (Women–you’ll need to overlook the fact he writes to men, not women. It’s one of only two books I’ve ever read that seemed to do that.)

Second, you need to know how to condense a complex thought into its essence. At some level, you can do this if you ask yourself to put the thought in one sentence. But if your sentence is still long and complicated, you need more practice formulating clean sentences. This is something you can learn by practice.

The best book I’ve found to practice this is Joseph Williams Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, which includes exercises. (He also has a version without exercises, called Style: Toward Clarity and Grace.) Although this book is on writing in general, a lot of space is devoted to making individual sentences clear and direct. His biggest tip: make the grammar match the action. So, put the agent as the subject of the sentence, and put the action as the verb.

(If that amount of grammar is too complicated for you, I recommend doing the exercises in Rex Barks: Diagramming Sentences made Easy by Phyllis Davenport.)

If you want an in-depth course on this, I used to teach this skill as part of a course on “condensation,” which is a study skill for extracting the main points and theme from a piece of writing. It’s currently only available for Deluxe and VIP members of the Thinking Lab.

Third and finally, you need to notice during the conversation that it’s time to get to the point–and then “one-sentence” your thought or use the “pyramid” technique. This may require you change long habits of speech!

The best way to practice this is to join a Toastmasters club.  (http://www.toastmasters.org) These clubs are all over, and each meeting has a section called “Table Topics” in which you are asked a question and give an extemporaneous 1-2 minute answer. Every time you do this, you get a chance to practice “getting to the point” at that moment.

I hope this doesn’t make “Getting to the Point” sound ridiculously complicated. Like most skills, the best way to get better is by trying to do your best and learning from experience. Books help– but only if you have been trying on your own and can read the book in light of your firsthand experience.

 

July 7, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Preparing for a Difficult Conversation

Whenever you have a difficult conversation ahead, it pays to get a quick overview of the issues sooner rather than later. That first quick overview helps you gain perspective on the situation, and identify problem areas so you can avoid mishandling the conversation and damaging the relationship. An excellent resource for this is the book Difficult Conversations by Stone, Patton, & Heen.

In the book, Stone and his associates explain a several-step process to prepare for a “difficult conversation” about someone’s misbehavior. Their in-depth process can be translated into these four overview questions:

a) What’s my story? What impact has the situation had on me?

b) What’s their story?  What might their intentions have been?

c) What have we each contributed to the problem?

d) What do I hope to accomplish by having the conversation?

When you have a difficult conversation coming up, it’s worth spending three minutes answering each question (12 minutes total) to get a good quick sense of whether you’re prepared for the conversation.  The more you’ve thought about both perspectives, the better you will be able to keep the conversation amicable and on track.

I recommend this book, and there is much more detailed information in it (including advice on whether to have the conversation at all). But if you haven’t read it, you can still benefit by getting a quick overview using these prepared questions before you you jump into the conversation.

 

 

June 9, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Recommendation: The Marketing Minute

Often I recommend books in this newsletter. Today I’d like to recommend a person: Marcia Yudkin, a business and marketing consultant who I have learned a tremendous amount from over the years.

One of my favorite resources from Marcia is her weekly “Marketing Minute” newsletter, which you can read in one minute. She has let me share a sample which is timely and relevant to this audience:

The Marketing Minute
by Marcia Yudkin, Marketing Expert and Mentor
Marketing Minute newsletter

It’s almost that time of year when people resolve to change. I agree with blogger James Clear that neither willpower nor discipline are needed to create the new you.

Instead, connect what you already do or experience with what you want to start doing, and the new habit gets established easily.

“Write down two lists,” Clear explains his report, Transform Your Habits.  “On the first list, put all the things you do each day without fail, like getting in the shower in the morning or turning out the light at night, and on the second, list things that happen to you each day without fail, like a traffic light turns red, a commercial comes on TV, etc.  Then make these be prompts or triggers for new routines.”

For example, if you shower every morning and want to start flossing, place floss right next to the shampoo in the shower and use it there.  If you check your overnight orders each morning and want to start blogging, click right from the order-checking to your blog and write a sentence or a paragraph right then.

 

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That piece of advice is relevant to everyone on the list. Here are a couple of other recommendations that might be appropriate for some of you:

Writers: My all-time favorite product of Marcia’s is Become a More Productive Writer, a 4-session audio course that I went through some years ago. I did every single exercise, and I recommend you do, too. You can see my testimonial for it on the page.

Solopreneurs: I have worked with Marcia for years. She has gazillions of ideas for how to market your business effectively. You can see a range of her books and products here. If you want to create an online information business, I recommend her upcoming course, Launch Your Information Empire, which includes personal coaching from her. She has excellent advice for solopreneurs.

December 28, 2013 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Book Recommendation: Leave the Office Earlier

I’ve recommended three top books on time management in the past. (Getting Things Done, How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life, and The Pomodoro Technique). Each of those explains a system or philosophy of time management.

If you are looking for an integrated system to implement, read one of them. But if you want a shot in the arm to spur you to be more productive at work so you can have more time at home, read Leave the Office Earlier by Laura Stack.

The book reads part as diagnostic manual, part as encyclopedia. It opens with a 100-item questionnaire you can use to find your “Productivity Quotient.” The 100 items are then organized into chapters around 10 topics including “Reduction” (as in getting rid of things),  “Discipline,” and  “Vitality” (which is on the role of health in productiveness). Within a chapter there are sections of 2-3 pages each for the relevant item from the questionnaire.

Each short section is interesting, practical, and encouraging. You get specific ideas for how to solve specific problems. The advice runs the gamut from pointers on when to throw something away, to strategies for working with people who process information differently than you do. I suggest reading a few sections at a time. Put it on your bedside table and dip into it every night.

I recommend this book for its consistent can-do, optimistic approach, coupled with its fresh, essentialized look at the many issues involved in productivity. I had seen many of the ideas in some form or another, but Laura Stack presented them in an interesting way that helped me see new value in them.

For example, there are many prioritization tools that involve drawing four quadrants and labeling them, such as this:

Another variation uses “have to/don’t have to” across the top, and “want to/don’t want to” across the side, instead of urgent/important. You list your tasks in the appropriate quadrant. If possible, try to avoid tasks in the 4th quadrant: “don’t want to and don’t have to,” or “not important and not urgent.”

Laura Stack labels her quadrants differently: “high vs. low value” and “deadline vs. no deadline.” This changes the point of the exercise.

This is a subtle difference, but it changes the focus. The point becomes: try to work on high value projects with no deadline! I find this labeling much clearer and more motivating–because it focuses you on your long-range, high value goals.

I found the most interesting section in the book was the chapter in which she distinguished working hard from workaholism. Her advice had more credibility than other treatments I’ve read, because she is clearly pro-hard work. (I think you can tell that from the book. I’ve met Laura Stack, so I can testify to it. She is a productive dynamo.)

Taken together, the advice filled me with optimism and practical ideas for shifting the balance in my life. If things have gotten a bit out of control, I think you’ll find it helpful, too.

 

November 8, 2013 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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