Archive | Book & Product Recommendations

Thinking About Affirmations

I’m reading my friend Alan Zimmerman’s book, The Payoff Principle, which explains the process he teaches for achieving “what you really, Really, REALLY want.” He is inspiring me on many levels, including convincing me to take a second look at some practices that have not worked for me in the past. One is affirmations.

Affirmations are positive, “can do” statements that you tell yourself. They are supposed to change your mindset, and some say that they help you to achieve your goals.

I have criticized “affirmations” in the past. In many cases, they are attempts to brainwash yourself. They are often justified by a vague “law of attraction” argument, which is that what you “put out into the universe” will come back to you. It’s easy to be skeptical of them. It’s no surprise that they’ve been satirized on sitcoms and late night TV.

I have used “affirmations” myself, but only as part of a very specific writing process I learned from Jerry Mundis. He recommended writing down the “can do” statement (“I can write easily and well”) followed by objections, then repeating that process in various ways 15 times. I found that Jerry’s exercise cleared out all of the negativity, doubts, and distractions that assailed me when I sat down to write, leaving me free to concentrate.

Alan has convinced me to try his unique approach to affirmations, which he claims helps you achieve your goals. He first has you identify 50 goals for life, across very specific categories. Then you turn the goals into statements that “affirm achievement.” These you repeat to yourself three times a day. You continue affirming the achievements until each goal is reached, which sometimes takes years.

If you’re interested in trying this process, I recommend you buy Alan’s book and learn it from him. It’s in Chapter 11.

What I want to share is why I’ve decided to try it. One factor is that Alan has tremendous credibility with me. He’s a person who walks his talk. He shared personal and customer testimonials showing people succeeding using his method. He pointed out specific failings of some of the other methods of affirmation that were clarifying. He thinks it’s a crucial piece of the overall success. Alan’s credibility got me to seriously consider it.

But his argument was not enough for me to try it. I never take advice like this unless I see for myself why I believe it should work. What is the causal factor here? After all, if I’m going to put in say 20 minutes a day doing these, that’s over 100 hours a year. That’s a serious commitment of time and energy. I need to be convinced it can work.

What was really unusual about Alan’s approach is that he argued you need 50 different affirmations, specifically designed to cover all areas of life. This stunned me when I read it. I’ve never seen anyone advocate having more than a handful of affirmations–or perhaps one in each major life area. In general, 50 goals seems totally overwhelming. My head explodes at the thought of tracking 50 goals. It would be impossible.

On the other hand, he is not arguing that you track 50 goals, just that you remind yourself of them 3 times a day.

And on the other, other hand, it is certainly true that I have 50 or so goals floating around my head. I’ve never found an effective way to prioritize that many goals, so the lesser goals are all achieved “catch as catch can.” I have always felt a bit of loss as I’ve accepted that a particular goal doesn’t fit on one of my prioritized lists.

Rather than pretending I have even more hands, I’ll just say and…

And, I’ve been thinking a lot about the need for a “top of mind” standard for decision making. In order to make a decision quickly, you need to be satisfied with the decision you can make based on a short (3-minute) warmup of top of mind issues. (Three minutes is a rule of thumb I use–it’s enough time to get the obvious issues into awareness.)

And, here Alan is giving me a method for making sure that all 50 of my top goals stay top of mind. This ensures that they will be factored into any decision I make.

And, one of the benefits I’ve seen from affirmations is that they give you “the words you need for the time when you will need them.” They help you hold the context when self-critical thoughts go through your mind.

The bottom line? I have decided to test drive Alan’s method of “affirming achievement” for three solid months, because I think this may be a way to keep all of my goals top of mind, without feeling overwhelmed by trying to track them all. At that time, I will make a conscious decision for whether to continue for a full year. By then, I believe I’ll know whether this is a practice for the rest of my life. My only concern going in is: will these goals use up critical crow space and make it harder to do concentrated work? I’ll find out.

My reason for sharing this is not to convince you to try affirmations, but to show you the kind of reasoning process I use to consider advice from other people with whom I respectfully disagree.

Though Alan and I share critically important values, we have very different philosophies. He’s religious, I’m not. I’m an egoist. I believe he would say he is an altruist. In his book, he makes quite a few statements that I disagree with. But rather than dismissing his comments, or jumping into an argument with him, I take the time to identify the facts he is looking at. What is he seeing? What is a plausible explanation for his conclusion? Is there a context in which it make sense to me?

Then, and only then, do I ask myself to form my own conclusion about those same facts. Using this method, I’ve learned a lot from Alan, and from a lot of other  people with a diverse range of views. You can, too.


August 5, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling

Do you have the slightest desire to persuade another person to take an action that you believe is clearly in his or her best interest? If so, run out and buy a copy of Neil Rackham’s 1988 book, SPIN Selling.

Rackham presents the most rational approach to selling that I’ve ever seen. The approach is 100% manipulation-free and gimmick-free. It is fully consistent with the ideas of “Rationally Connected Conversations” that I’ve been sharing–indeed it has already informed my understanding of that method. Moreover, Rackham’s book is one of the most clear, compelling, objective explanation of any kind of method that I’ve ever read.

Most of the people reading this article aren’t interested in selling per se. But who isn’t interested in persuading loved ones to take actions that you see are in their best interests? The method that Neil Rackham explains could easily be adapted to personal persuasion situations.

Rackham’s method involves a special questioning technique. Stephen Covey famously recommends to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” That’s excellent advice as far as it goes. Rackham breaks down the steps needed to understand the other person’s context.

“SPIN” in the title stands for the four types of questions to ask: Situation questions (S), Problem questions (P), Implication questions (I), and Need-payoff questions (N). The first two types of questions are straightforward and commonly understood. By asking situation and problem questions, you find out the problem another person is having which you might be able to help solve.

Unfortunately, if you stop questioning there–if you immediately jump into asserting you have a solution–or in a personal situation, giving advice–Rackham explains that you will almost certainly get objections rather than agreement.

For example, I’ve been making the case that it’s important to reframe “have to’s” by embracing your power of choice. I am getting a lot of objections to this idea.

Let me give a bit of background in case you haven’t read my recent articles on this topic: I literally go through a decision process which involves identifying negatives and positives for not doing things I feel I “have to” do. Most of the time, this process results in my being motivated to take the critical action, without any need to force myself. Sometimes, I change my mind about whether I will take the action I felt I “had to” take. Consistently using this tactic makes my work incredibly more productive and enjoyable.

But I have been getting pushback, because it takes effort to go through the decision process. Although most people don’t like the pressure of “having” to do something, it doesn’t seem all that bad to them. It seems like it just takes a little effort to make themselves do it. The extra effort to identify values doesn’t seem necessary–especially if the selection will turn out to be the same. I might have intrigued them with the idea that reframing and embracing choice is a good thing, but they don’t see the urgent need for it. The “product” I’m selling seems to be too high cost for the benefit it provides.

My error is that I have been trying to offer a solution as soon as the problem is identified. Rackham’s method adds two more steps between identifying a problem and offering a solution.

First, Rackham recommends you draw out the negative implications of the problem using implication questions. These are very specific questions designed to find out if the problem is really big enough to put in time, money, or attention on to solve.

For example, I might draw out a person’s problems with “have to” with the following implication questions:

In the past, when you have applied pressure like this to yourself, was there any downside? For example, do you find that you get irritable? Could that have any repercussions?

How do you react to delays, difficulties or mistakes when you work under this kind of “have to” pressure? How do these everyday challenges affect your energy when you are doing something because you “have to”? What about when you “want to”?

After you’ve made yourself do this task, will you feel pride in having finished, or just relief that you don’t have to do it any more? Will you be more or less motivated to do this kind of task next time? Have you noticed any decrease in motivation to do things you “have to” do over time? Does it get easier or harder?

I believe I know the answers to these questions. It was asking myself these questions that led me to the conclusion I should always reframe “no choice” using a decision process. But the other person needs to see the issues himself, in a concrete, personally-relevant form. By asking implication questions, I could help the other person see, in his own concrete, specific situation, just how big the problem is.

And then, Rackham suggests asking “Need-Payoff” questions: questions that will elicit–in his words, not yours–what the benefit would be from eliminating these problems.

For my example, a needs-payoff question might be: “So, what would be the long-term benefit of reducing your resistance?” or “If you could avoid that feeling of irritation and frustration, what would that mean to you?”

The effect of asking these questions is that the person you’re talking to names explicitly what would be “in it” for him. Out will come a clearly identified need that is indeed worth time, effort, or money to meet.

If not, well, there is no point in offering the product or the advice, because you have not established the value of it to him in his own mind.

A subtle but real effect of Rackham’s SPIN process is that you change the discussion from how to solve a problem (remove a negative) to how to gain an urgently desired positive. Instead of your offering something that the other person “should” want, he becomes curious about how to gain a value. That’s the ideal opening for you to share your solution.

I just finished reading the book, so it will take me awhile to internalize Rackham’s advice. But I am wildly excited at the prospect of being able to draw out people so that they see the need for what I’m offering before I start explaining what it is.

How am I going to proceed? Happily, the last chapter of the book has specific advice for how to turn theory into practical action. Even if you’re not interested in sales or persuasion at all, it may be worth buying the book to read this one chapter. He recommends four rules:

Rule 1: Practice Only One Behavior at a Time
Rule 2: Try the New Behavior at Least Three Times
Rule 3: Quantity Before Quality
Rule 4: Practice in a Safe Situation

Do these rules sound familiar to you? I’ve never seen such a simple, essentialized set of advice for learning skills before. These insightful rules are going to streamline my own personal development and my teaching from hereon in.

My standard for publicly recommending books is that they have my top recommendation: they are so good they are worth re-reading. Every other book I’ve recommended so far, I had already re-read. I haven’t re-read this one yet, but I am certain I am going to. I made myself slow down and take notes on every chapter as I went through it.

Neil Rackham is a firsthand thinker, who has written a clear, essentialized, compelling book on an important topic. If you are interested in understanding values and/or communicating values and/or developing values in any form, this book is worth reading.

April 29, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The Alternative to a “No Choice” Rule

I am halfway through The Beck Diet Solution: Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Person. Judith Beck’s exercises, combined with MyFitnessPal, are helping me adhere to a lose-a-pound-a-week diet. I don’t agree with everything in the book, but I give it a qualified recommendation.

My biggest reservation concerns Beck’s advice to tell yourself you have “no choice.” To help avoid overeating, she recommends you make a written food plan the day before (which is good). But if you are tempted to eat something which isn’t on the plan, she says:

Tell yourself that you don’t have a choice. You made a plan, and you’ll follow that plan–no ifs, ands or buts.

Firmly saying, NO CHOICE, decreases both the struggle and the discomfort.” [Emphasis in the original.]

I disagree deeply. Telling yourself you have “no choice” may sometimes give the illusion of reducing struggle in the short term, but in the long term, it sets up a vicious cycle of suffering and increasing struggle. Think: lose weight, then gain it back plus a little extra, repeated ad nauseam.

Telling yourself you have “no choice” is wrong for many reasons. The primary reason is that it’s not true. A decision made today does not constrain your behavior tomorrow. You still face a choice. Telling yourself that you have “no choice” doesn’t change that fact. Rather, it’s an attempt to manipulate yourself into pretending there is nothing more to think about.

I don’t believe in telling “white lies,” and I don’t believe in trying to fool yourself into pretending that things are other than they are. In this case, it’s particularly destructive. You are trying to get yourself to do something that at some time in the past you predicted would be the right course of action in this present moment, because by some convoluted reasoning you think that manipulating yourself to do it would be easier and more comfortable than just making a fully conscious rational choice now.

Look at the psychological ramifications of such an approach:

This method works by moral pressure. When you feel the temptation or resistance, you shout it down with “NO CHOICE.” What backs up “no choice”? It’s unspoken but it’s understood: if you give in, you are no good. This is motivation by guilt and fear.

Notice the mechanism by which motivation by fear functions: by shutting down thinking. You are not to think for one second about this decision. You are to go by faith that what you concluded yesterday is still correct today. You are not allowed to question that.

And notice the implicit premise in this approach: it doesn’t matter how you feel right now. Your feelings are irrelevant to your choices. Feelings should not be given credence. You can suffer those contrary feelings or suppress them, but don’t take them seriously.

This is the exact opposite of what I teach. The best policy, in dieting as in life, is full awareness. That means thinking more actively when you face a problem, so that you can get to the bottom of it. That means introspecting feelings more deeply when you’re in a conflict, so that you can understand the values at stake in the moment. That then permits you to make choices based on pursuing values rather than avoiding threats, which serves to integrate your value hierarchy, reducing conflict over the long term.

There’s a lot I could say about how the “no choice” method sets up a vicious cycle, but I expect the most urgent question on everyone’s mind is, what do you do instead?

The appeal of the “no choice” method is that it’s fast and simple, and when you use it, you get instant results. It is rewarded with a shot of pride–or to be more exact, a shot of relief. You’ve passed the test for the moment. You’re a good person.

The alternative I have developed is pretty much the opposite in every respect. It starts with the premise that you’re a good person. That is not in question. Nor is it a test: you sometimes (though not so often) will decide to eat the forbidden food as a result of examining your feelings, but you will be morally satisfied with your decision. When you are first introduced to my method, it does not seem particularly fast or simple. But once you have practiced the method, it becomes fast enough and simple enough and gratifying enough that you will be willing to use it any time you are conflicted about doing something that you believe you should do.

Here is how the method works:

When you feel you have “no choice” but to eat what you planned, you first remind yourself of what that means: it means that yesterday, you concluded that the best way for you to reach your health goal was to eat this and not something else. My assumption is, if that is true, then when you look at the issues fully, the decision to follow your plan will become a no-brainer. The next steps help to look at the issue fully.

To do that, you remind yourself that your conflict or resistance or temptation is a feeling, and that all feelings are caused by the idea that some value of yours is threatened by your intention to stick to your meal plan in this moment.

This means that there is a contradiction between yesterday’s conclusion and some idea (you don’t know what yet) that underlies the feeling. Right now, all you know is that one of them must be mistaken. It cannot both be better for you to eat the food right now, and better for you not to eat the food right now. Two contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time.

The “no choice” method assumes you were right yesterday. But that is just an act of faith. You have some evidence that there is an issue you hadn’t considered. The full awareness method says, let’s look at it.

You want to figure out what is best for you in this moment. To do that, you need to activate the full value context. The method I use for this is something called “Decision Cards,” which I learned from P. J. Eby. In short, you start by listing all of the negatives of each option. You examine them carefully, identifying “intolerable” negatives and adjusting your options (and sometimes your attitude) until you see you face two tolerable options (though they might be unpleasant).

Once you have established that the two options are tolerable, you reconceive all of the motivation in terms of pursuit of values. Motivation by fear is an attempt to protect a value. It can be translated into motivation by values by identifying that value. So, for example, a negative of sticking to your plan might be that you will be distracted by the craving for a candy bar. This means that a positive of eating the candy bar is short-term concentration and reduction of distractions.

Once you have translated all of the pros and cons into positives for each option, it is a simple judgment call to decide which is the best. You then give a one-sentence reason for your conclusion. Why is this the better choice? With the choice and the reason, you will feel motivation to follow through at that instant.

Most of the time, this analysis turns your choice into a no-brainer, and you act on it. You get the same jolt of pride that the “no choice” method gives, but without the need to suppress or suffer emotional conflict. And you get an added bonus: that contradictory idea has been disintegrated. It has a little less hold on you. It will be a little easier to stick to your meal plan tomorrow.

Some of the time, you will decide to have one cookie, perhaps to celebrate the completion of a task. You’ll enjoy the cookie thoroughly and go back to work. Then you might choose to spend an 5 extra minutes on the Stairmaster that night, so that you can make your weight-loss goal, despite eating a cookie that was not on your plan. You end the day satisfied that you have many options for losing weight, glad that you can fit in the occasional little treat. You are more willing to stick to your meal plan tomorrow.

Finally, some of the time, you will realize later that you were mistaken.  Suppose you decided, “I am going to eat one cookie now, because it will satisfy my craving and let me concentrate.” But then you see in hindsight that you ate 3 cookies, and promptly dozed off. So you couldn’t concentrate anyway. And then, one hour and fifty-eight minutes later, you were craving more sugar.

You have now given yourself evidence that sugary snacks undermine concentration–something you obviously didn’t know, or you wouldn’t have thought you’d be able to concentrate. You can feel satisfied that you have learned a real lesson, from firsthand experience, which will make it more compelling for you avoid sugary snacks in the future. You will see more clearly the risks of not sticking to the meal plan.

In contrast, if you had just eaten the cookies without this kind of thought, you would properly feel guilty about it, and that guilt would overshadow and confuse any evidence you might get about the effect of the sugary snack on your energy level. You would not associate any loss of energy with the sugary snack. Rather, you would attribute it to guilt. You wouldn’t learn anything from your mistake–but you would reinforce the idea that you really are no good. You would be discouraged, and less interested in even looking at your meal plan for the next day.

The principle is: trust full awareness. If your preconceived notion is clearly the best course for you, then examining any conflict about it will turn your choice into a no-brainer. And if it isn’t, choosing based on the full value context will help you untangle the value issues at stake, helping you see all issues more clearly. Over the long term, that makes sticking to a diet–or creating any other life-affirming habit–that much easier.

March 18, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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:


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

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

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



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.  ( 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

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes