The Secret to Doing Better Next Time

Did something go badly? A “discussion” with a spouse or coworker that ended in acrimony? A proposal that flopped?

When something goes badly, you may be tempted to forget about it and just try to do better next time.  But the secret to doing better lies in thinking more about that failure now, even though it’s a little unpleasant.

Right now, in hindsight, you have a lot more information and a lot less pressure to figure out a better approach. It’s a golden
opportunity to learn something. Just ask yourself:

“What do I wish I had done differently?”


“Knowing what I know now, what could I do differently another time?”

Sometimes, you’ll see you missed something that you think you should have known. Maybe you realize that some technique you learned in a class would have helped.

If you have an acrimonious discussion, perhaps you would recall that techniques like “I language” or “active listening” are supposed to help. If you had a dud of a proposal, you might recall a technique for a “potential problem analysis” that could have helped. (These techniques exist–see references at the bottom.)

There’s no reason to kick yourself for forgetting theoretical material in the heat of the moment. At first, everyone has trouble applying new concepts they’ve learned from books and classes. To use those concepts, you need to reflect on how they apply to real, concrete situations in your life.

Your failure offers a perfect opportunity to do that. By looking back at how to apply that book-learning now, you can turn it into practical knowledge that you can call on the next time. When you review theory using a personally important example, the theory becomes practical.

Other times, you will realize that you don’t know anything you could have done differently. That can be instructive in a different way.

Suppose you conclude that you don’t know how to avoid “pushing the buttons” of the other person, or you don’t know how to
establish the value of your services in a proposal. Having articulated what you don’t know, you can now look for those who do know how to do that . . . and you can learn from them.

This sets you up for success. You learn much more from an expert’s books or classes when you come with ready-made personal examples you can relate the ideas to. A burning urgency to apply the skill to your life right now is the best motivation to learn.

One way or another, thinking about how you’d redo a failure is guaranteed to help you learn how to do better next time. And that sure beats the alternative: Fail, fail again, in exactly the same way as before.

Notes: You can learn more about “I language” and “Active Listening” from Thomas Gordon’s Book, “Leader Effectiveness Training: L.E.T..”  You can learn more about a “potential problem analysis” from Kepner and Tregoe’s, “The New Rational Manager: An Updated Edition for a New World.” My recommendation for Kepner and Tregoe’s book is here.



January 8, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

A Good Time to Take Stock

The new year is a time of rebirth. To begin on an inspiring note, I suggest you spend a little time taking stock of your achievements from the year that is ending. Make a record of your accomplishments–everything you did or said or bought or made happen that you’re proud of. This is not a journalistic account of the ups and downs of the year; it includes only the successes. They’re what matter most in the long run; they’re worth pausing to reflect on to give you fuel for the coming year.

This is similar to advice I relayed some time ago to record three good things at the end of each day. It is not a mindless  exercise in feel-good, rah rah positive thinking. Reviewing your actual achievements is much more profound than that. It reaffirms emotionally that these successes are good and important, and keeps that context activated.

There is an added benefit to reviewing the whole year. You get to see the brightest achievements all in one list–a list as long as you can make it. To make sure you remember the highlights, I recommend you review your calendar or some other record of your activities; it’s surprisingly easy to forget important achievements from months ago.

If it was a difficult year, you can see clearly all you accomplished in the face of adversity. If it was an unusually good year, you get to count up the amazing total of successes. When you see the year as a whole, you add to the sense of yourself as one who achieves something over time. As you do this over many years, you can reflect on long-term improvements that you see from year to year.

I think you will also find that reflecting on the successes of the previous year puts you in a good frame of mind to look to the
future. As you review, you will find some unfinished business. Seen in the context of all you did accomplish, it’s natural to treat these items as next year’s successes, rather than last year’s failures. I always find the process leaves me inspired to achieve more in the future, because I am building on the success of the past.

This reflection takes a little time, but the time has a payoff. Reviewing your achievements across the year gives you a sense of yourself, and helps you keep your life in perspective.

A productive and happy new year to you.



January 6, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

To Resolve or Not to Resolve

Do not make any New Year’s Resolutions this year.

At least, not unless you’re mentally ready for the commitment. How can you tell? Here are three tests:

Test 1:
Is your goal concrete and specific? A goal to do “more” with friends is vague. It would be better to plan to have two get-togethers a month.

Make sure you know exactly what success means, or you’ll likely drift into failure.

Test 2:
Have you worked out the steps you’ll take?  For example, if you are resolving to exercise three times a week, you need to know what time of day you’ll do it and what kind of exercise you’ll do. It often takes some experimenting to find out what is doable for you.

Make sure you have figured out doable steps to achieve your goal, so you can hit the ground running.

Test 3:
What will this new activity replace? Next year, you will still be allotted only 24 hours a day. To start a new activity you have to cut out an old one. What will be supplanted? TV time? Housecleaning? Sleep? Lunch with friends? Work?

Make sure your new activity edges out something less important, or you’ll decide to quit.

In short, make sure your resolution is clear, doable, and important before you commit to it.

If you’re not mentally ready to make your resolution on January 1,  I suggest starting a New Year’s Campaign to learn how to achieve that important goal: what concrete, specific form it will take, what doable steps will lead you to it, and what less important activity it will replace. You can always set a mid-year resolution once you know your goal is clear, doable, and important.

Happy New Year!

January 1, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The “AND List”

The “AND” list is a basic tactic for addressing resistance and temptation in the moment. You can use it when you aren’t instantly motivated to do what you “should” be doing. This tactic helps you acknowledge your own mixed motivation so that you can act consciously and decisively in the face of it.

I’ve decided the “AND List” is important enough that I’m including it in my book, and probably in future all-day workshops.

Here’s how you do it, in short: Write, “I am ambivalent” at the top of the page. Then list every evaluation related to what you can, should, might, or want to do–or can’t, shouldn’t, won’t, or don’t want to do. Start every evaluation with the word AND. When you have no more such thoughts to express, pause to re-read. Then make a judgement about what you will do.

Here are the detailed instructions:

1) Write down “I am ambivalent” at the top of a page.

It is important to acknowledge your motivational state in a neutral way.

2) Make an “AND list”

You will list of all your evaluations related to the action(s) you should, could, or want to do right now. For example:

I am ambivalent

AND I should make that phone call.

AND I don’t feel like it.

AND it’s really tricky.

AND I wish it were over.

AND I would rather get outside while it’s light.

AND I need to figure out what to say in the call.

AND I need to get to the store before it closes.

AND I would like to take a break.


Notice that each statement following “I am ambivalent” begins with the word, “AND.” In capitals. This little word is how you acknowledge that your motivation is contradictory and ambivalent.

There are three rules for the AND statements:

First, include thoughts that relate to a specific action that you could, should, or want to do now. This is an tactic to untangle your current motivation. Focus only on actions you are considering doing right now.

Second, every thought should express some kind of evaluation or intention regarding the potential action. Do not just make a list of options. This is a list of motivations, not of choices. You may have several different motivations for the same choice.

Third, it’s important to get competing actions onto the list. To help trigger your thoughts about the competing action(s) (the ones that are not the one you “should” be doing), consult this list of intention words:

Should       Shouldn’t
Can            Can’t
Will             Won’t
Might          Might not
Must           Mustn’t
Have to      Don’t Have to
Want to      Don’t Want to
Wish to       Don’t Wish to

What are those other actions that are on your mind, that you shouldn’t be doing, or wish you were doing?

When you have listed all the actions you can, should, might, or want to do–or can’t, shouldn’t, won’t, or don’t want to do, and have expressed your evaluations about them in an AND statement, you are done with this step. 10-20 items is common.

3) Review, Judge, and Act

Re-read your AND list. Cross out ones you reject. Circle important truths. When you are finished, ask yourself, “which of these actions am I going to take right now?”

Pause and listen for an answer.

That is your considered judgment. Then act on your considered judgment.

* * *

This is a simple tactic, very useful, which applies a communication idea to your personal thinking. The inspiration for the “AND List” is the “Yes, And…” mental set you use in improv (where you never say “no” to what the other person does) and the advice to replace “But” with “And” in difficult conversations. Try it, you’ll like it.

March 26, 2014 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Keep It Interesting

Boredom kills concentration, productivity, and pleasure. It’s hard to motivate yourself to pay attention when you’re bored out of your mind. If you find yourself bored in a meeting or on a project, you need a remedy. Here are three things you can do.

One idea is to take a quick timeout to pick favorites. If you’re in a meeting, what do you like best about the person speaking? Or the meeting setup? If it’s a project, what is your favorite task? What do you think is most important about the project? You can stop to pick favorites anytime, anywhere. It takes only a moment, but it gives you an important mental refresh .

For example, I pick favorites when I go to museums. After I’ve looked around a room, I stop to choose my favorite painting. After I’ve been through all the rooms in a section, I choose my top favorite for that section. If I don’t pick favorites, I get museumitis–that glassy-eyed, mentally numb state which comes from looking at each item with equal intensity. By picking favorites, I get much more out of my visit.

You will always have some kind of favorite, or some positive you can focus on, and identifying that it is pleasurable. It perks up your attention, because you have to look—really look–to identify it. That process clears your head, and helps you come back to your work a little fresher.

If there doesn’t seem to be any way to pick favorites, a second idea is to add variety to the process. Old familiar routines may be efficient, but they can become boring. When that happens, look at the task fresh and find a different way to do it.

For example, when you proofread a report, you may become bored if you previously read earlier drafts. To concentrate fresh, print out the report in a weird font before proofing. Or proofread backwards (one paragraph at a time, starting from the end).

It’s amazing how a small mechanical change can help you experience something as fresh. (Even sitting in a different part of the room in a meeting can help.) Just by taking a moment to find some way to change the routine can help you concentrate and get the job done.

Finally, my fallback when I’m bored is to criticize (silently) the thing that’s boring me. It’s always easy to criticize–and as long as you don’t just blurt out the criticisms, you can learn something without any negative impact.

In a meeting, I’ll write criticisms at the side of my notes. I might argue with the points being made by the speaker. Or I might analyze the delivery. Anything is fair game. As soon as I start evaluating, I perk up and start paying attention. My own analysis adds interest. Sometimes I learn what not to do, and sometimes I reflect on my thoughts and ask a question or raise a concern, if that’s appropriate. I retain much more with the information than if I had just tried to force my eyes to stay open.

When you’re bored, your mind is craving useful work. Each of these three suggestions perks up your attention by giving you something useful to do with your mind–whether it’s find favorites, explore something new, or look for problems. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Next time you are stuck in a situation feeling bored, know that you can create your own sparks of interest with one of these suggestions.

February 20, 2014 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Reset Your Counter

Here’s an excellent piece of advice I got from small-business coach Mark LeBlanc: Whatever you are tracking–time spent during the day, exercise periods during the week, or sales during the month, make sure you reset your counter mentally at the end of the tracking period. Don’t let there be a mental carryover to the next period. That carryover has only one effect: to demotivate you.

If you did well, the carryover effect can demotivate you, because you feel like you can slack off. For example, after they have a great week in sales, salespeople often have a low week for sales. Ditto, if you put in 20,000 steps on your pedometer one day, you feel like you don’t need to worry about getting to 10,000 that day. It will average out.

What happens? You lose your momentum, and it’s harder to get going the next day!

That’s because, after a low, the carryover effect can demotivate you, too. You aren’t experiencing success.

Moreover, sometimes, you feel like you have to make up for the low. If you made no sales, you’ll feel like you need to make twice as many sales this week. But if you couldn’t do those in sales last week, how could you do twice as many this week? It can seem like an insurmountable obstacle.

When you set a target for a day, week, or month, you set a stretch goal, one that you think you can do, and will be proud to accomplish. A goal set at the right level of difficulty motivates you to do your best work. If you change that goal because the last period was high or low, you guarantee you will get worse overall results, because you will not be motivated to do your best.

So, how do you “reset the counter”? I do it with journaling. First, I look at what I did get done–high, low, or on target–and acknowledge it. Part of acknowledging it is recognizing that the time period is over. You can never increase the number of steps you took yesterday or the number of sales you made last month. If you missed your target, you will feel some grief. On the other hand–if you met or exceeded your goal, take a moment to celebrate. Experience that satisfaction.

It takes just a sentence or two to acknowledge what happened. And then one more sentence to shift to looking at the future. Today starts the counter anew. You can look toward achieving your stretch goal today, this week, or this month.

January 30, 2014 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.



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

Three Questions for Reflection

As those of you who have taken my freebie “Jump Start Your Thinking” class know, I like to collect questions. Questions are the spur to thinking. The right question at the right time can trigger important learning.

Here is a set of questions I collected from Glenna Salsbury, a well-known speaker. She asked her children these questions every night when she tucked them into bed:

  • What’s the best thing that happened today?
  • How do you feel about you today?
  • What shall we pray about together?

She offered them as a way to build communication with your children, and make sure you have deep values conversations with them.

Now, I don’t believe in prayer, and I don’t have any children, but I see the value in these three questions. They spur serious reflection on what is truly important.

“What’s the best thing that happened today?” focuses your attention on success. Reminding yourself of what has gone well helps you maintain a benevolent view of life and be resilient. Choosing the best of what is good takes a little more effort–and reinforces your values.

“How do you feel about you today?” brings out self-esteem issues–positive or negative. Either is worthy of attention. When you notice earned pride in yourself, you can recognize what you did to earn it and reinforce that action. When you notice what you don’t like about yourself, you take the first step to change it.

“What shall we pray about together?” isn’t appropriate for me, but I recognized the intent. It takes a special attention to notice your deep desires, and this question helps you do it. I rewrote it as, “What are you wanting, deep in your soul?”

To transform them for journaling, you can just edit them a little more:

  • What’s the best thing that happened today?
  • How do I feel about me today?
  • What am I wanting, deep in my soul?

That makes a series of questions suitable for a daily journaling or an occasional reflection, that can help you pause for a moment and see what’s important right now.


The Jump Start class mentioned in this article is a freebie held every other month or so. For information on the next one, or to get a recording, visit the Jump Start page.

December 20, 2013 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Tip: Three Reasons to Learn a Formula

At a humor workshop I attended recently, Judy Carter taught us a formula for creating a joke around something mean that someone said to us.

The steps were:

  1. Remember exactly what words were used, plus the tone and body language, so you can act it out.
  2. Backtrack: what negative personality trait does this comment reveal? (Critical? Controlling? Depressed?)
  3. What would be the most unsuitable, most ridiculous profession for someone with that trait?

Using these elements, she gave us a formula for delivering a very funny joke. How do I know the formula worked? We tried it, and everyone who followed the formula got a laugh. The people who didn’t flopped. Even I, renowned for my inability to deliver a punchline, was able to get laughs by following the formula.

So, here’s the surprising part: how few people tried the formula! I was the only person at my table of nine who followed the steps. Everyone else just tried to make up his own funny line. Puzzled, I asked why? The answer: “We don’t do formulas.”

Why not? Formulas contain the condensed wisdom of experts. They provide a roadmap that avoids three problems:

  • Bogging down: Novices get mired in unnecessary details. Judy’s formula ensured that the setup was short and sweet. Nothing kills a joke faster than an  setup that drags on.
  • Getting the order wrong: Necessary information has to go first. The punch line has to be last! If you deliver infomration out of order, you kill the joke.
  • Not knowing to stop: It’s harder than you think to shut your mouth and let the audience laugh.

This is not just for comedy. The formulas I teach in Thinking Tactics provide the same benefits as Judy’s. Consider the basic formula for dealing with confusion:

  1. Gather Data (what do I know? what do I need to know? what else is relevant?
  2. Challenge First Thoughts
  3. Sum Up

This formula stops you from bogging down: Rather than focusing on what you’re confused about, you go straight to getting clear on what you think you know. Much easier.

This formula stops you from getting the order wrong: It makes you gather data first, before you criticize. This stops you from criticizing your ideas prematurely, which can shut off important information.

This formula helps you know to stop: In class, I teach you that all you need to clear confusion is a good next step, which you get by summing up. You don’t need to answer every question. Knowing this helps you move on rather than go in circles trying to answer the unanswerable.

So, next time some expert offers you a formula he or she has worked out, give it a test drive. See how it works. After you’ve had some success, you can better understand why it works–and then adapt it to your particular style.

Learn Thinking Tactics formulas for dealing with all kinds of mental obstacles in my upcoming Thinking Tactics Workshop.

December 12, 2013 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Tackle Tough Long-Term Issues with Three Pages a Day

In Thinking Tactics, I teach a set of thinking procedures that each take under 10 minutes. They can be used to clarify most confusion, resolve most conflicts, and figure out the next step on most projects.

But not everything.

Sometimes you face a bigger issue–one that cannot succumb to a few minutes of targeted thinking. Maybe you are considering a major life change–a change of career. Or maybe you face a long-term health issue that has scrambled your priorities. Or you’re just trying to determine a long-range strategy for your business or your life. With long-term, complex issues, you can’t expect to address all the issues in just one focused thinking session.

In these cases, I recommend a practice I learned from Julia Cameron, which she calls “morning pages.” Every morning, without fail, fill three pages in a notebook with “thinking on paper” If you have nothing to say, write anyway. Use this time to reflect on what’s happening in your issue, what’s not happening, or what you want to happen. There is always another angle to explore.

Elsewhere I’ve explained the benefits of “thinking on paper.” [See Note.] The added benefit of “3 Pages a Day” is that you give yourself a structure that helps you systematically reflect on difficult issues, without being overwhelmed or pressured for a solution. Three pages is short enough that you can sit with any unpleasant thoughts for that time. And there is no pressure to answer right now, just to fill the pages. But it is also long enough for you to make a little progress in each session, and each session builds on the previous. That means you can take the space to get the closure or clarity that you need.

This kind of frankness with oneself is invaluable. Your friends may get tired of discussing your issues, but you never do. Cameron reported that after she wrote three pages a day for a while, she got angry that the same problems came up again and again. That motivated her to solve those problems, once and for all. Me, too. After a while, the problems sound like whining, and I decide to do something about them.

“Three pages a day” or “Morning Pages” is a helpful technique when you don’t really know where to start fixing a situation. You don’t have a plan–you just have a general dissatisfaction with how things are going. It provides emotional support, and a structure for sorting out an amorphous blob of issues.  It’s an excellent practice to use in difficult times–regardless of what makes them difficult.

Note: Thinking on Paper is a valuable skill I have discussed elsewhere. You can get an introduction from these free resources:

Short Article
Free Teleclass

Or more in depth training with these paid products:

Thinking on Paper minicourse
Tap Your Own Brilliance (4 class set with 2 bonus classes)

November 20, 2013 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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