Exhaling on the scale

The first time I noticed it, I smiled and thought, What a strange thing to do. Then I noticed it again the next day, and realized it was an unconscious habit. Every morning, before stepping on the scale, I breath out deeply, as if that will make a difference in the results. 

It doesn’t make any sense. Yet I think I figured out why I do it: it gives me the perception of control without having to do the more challenging work required to affect the outcome. It’s as if I’m telling myself, “Well, I haven’t exercised for the last few days, and I ate and drank too much last night…but I can do this!” Then I slowly blow out a gust of air. Whoooooooosh.

It would be funny except that I do something similar when it comes to work. 

Like many people, I have a fuzzy notion of the important things I’d like to accomplish. Yet there’s usually enough uncertainty or doubt surrounding those things, or they may seem too big, that they trigger anxiety and resistance. To deal with that, I would find myself filling my day with small tasks and activities, chipping away at an infinite todo list. I would feel busy, but all I really accomplished was avoiding the difficult work required to do something meaningful. 

So lately I’m trying something new. Every Monday I have a short call with a friend, and we each share the top three things we need to do during the upcoming week to make progress towards our big goals. We don’t talk about everything we might do or could do. We just list three specific things we will do, work that will move us in the right direction.

On the next call, we’ll talk about what happened in the past week, discuss adjustments we might make, and share our goals for the following week. There’s no judgment or competition. Just learning and encouragement to focus and to keep going. The mutual accountability helps us maintain both motivation and momentum.

A nice phrase to describe what we’re sharing is our “essential intent,” a phrase from Greg McKeown’s Essentialism. The phrase is usually applied to longer timeframes, but I’ve found it useful as a way to describe nearer-term goals, too. What is the essential thing you intend to do this week/month/year/life? Think of it as a way to distill the truly important from the sea of possible activities, and to state it in a way that’s both actionable and measurable.

Reflect for a moment on your own big goals for your work and life. Do you know your essential intent for this month or this week? For tomorrow? Are you doing work what matters, or are you exhaling on the scale? 


How I’ll topple a domino that’s 21 feet tall

It’s only been three weeks since my last day working in a big company,  yet my to-do list is already overwhelming. No matter how busy I am, the list only seems to grow.

A simple change change in perspective helped turn stress and panic into focus and progress.

The ONE Thing

A friend recommended a book call The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. Just 13 pages in, it grabbed my attention with a metaphor about dominoes, citing a physics journal article that described “how a single domino is capable of bringing down another domino that is actually 50 percent larger.”

A domino that’s 2 inches tall can topple one that’s 3 inches tall, which can topple one that’s 4 1/2 inches, and so on. The 13th domino would be over 21 feet tall, and the 23rd domino would be as tall as the Empire State Building.

“Getting extraordinary results is all about creating a domino effect in your life…Highly successful people know this. So every day, they line up their priorities anew, find the lead domino, and whack away at it till it falls.”

So I started to think, “What’s my next domino?”

What's your ONE thing?

The best staff meeting ever

That question was in my head when I was in last week’s staff meeting. I used to dread such meetings, but now I look forward to them. The “staff meeting” is just my wife and I talking over coffee every Sunday morning, reviewing clients and products, progress and challenges.

As I was going through the list of things I was working on and planned to do, she stopped me and said: “Don’t worry about all of that.” She explained how the work I was doing for one particular customer was the main priority that would lead to more clients and revenue. “Just get this one thing right.”

My wife didn’t need to read a book to see the benefits of extreme prioritization. We agreed on the ONE thing, and that simplified everything. It’s not that the other tasks disappeared, but that each day I know what I have to focus on above all else. That clarity enables me to realize a much higher return on my time and effort.

The next time you’re overwhelmed by your to-do list, whether it’s for your work, family, or health, think of how you’ll answer if someone asks you: “What’s your ONE thing?”

Then do all you can to topple that next domino.

***

p.s. In looking into this different kind of domino effect, I came across this demonstration video by a physics professor. He started with a domino only 5 millimeters high.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y97rBdSYbkg[/embed]

36 times an hour

We check email 36 times/hour “It’s terrible,” she said. “I can’t focus any more. I can’t even read a book.”

I was talking with a smart, successful woman who’s an investment analyst, and we were talking about how she works. The best times to do the deep thinking required for her work. How to avoid being overwhelmed by news, email, and interruptions.

As we spoke, she was looking at her Blackberry. I asked her, “Did you know people check email 36 times an hour?”

“My God,” she said. “I bet I’m worse.”

Why it’s important

I used to think that those who ranted about the evils of email were missing the point. It’s not email per se that’s the problem, I figured, but how people are using it. As people used more modern platforms, their email usage would naturally decline.

But I failed to see just how insidious email can be. And how, if people don’t change their email habits, they may not be able to develop other, more productive work habits.

Why is email so bad? Simply put, people spend too much of their day on email, use it to store knowledge which should be available to others but isn’t, and are interrupted by it throughout the day to the point of lowering their performance on other work.

Here are some statistics:

Of these, I find the last statistic is the most damning. There’s plenty of brain science that shows attention is a limited and precious resource. And that you expend that resource when you’re switching contexts. So if you’re constantly checking email, you simply have less capacity to pay attention and your performance degrades.

“Those distracted by incoming email and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQ - more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana, said researchers...Those who are constantly breaking away from tasks to react to email or text messages suffer similar effects on the mind as losing a night's sleep.”

But if it’s so bad, why do we do it?

Why we do it

Perhaps the simplest explanation for our email habits is the way we’re wired. For example, we seem to be designed to respond to intermittent reinforcements. Checking email is akin to using a slot machine. Every so often, we get a good message so we keep checking in hopes of getting another one.

Email can also be a source of issues and news that threaten us in some way. And so, just as we used to scan the savannah for danger, we feel the need to keep checking email just to make sure everything is okay.

And lastly, everyone else is doing it. So there’s social proof that checking your email in meetings, in elevators, while driving, and while crossing the street is not as harmful as we know it to be.

There are, of course, other reasons. Because it’s easy to mark progress as you process email (“Inbox zero!”), you get a sense of accomplishment from doing it. And because processing email feels like work, it’s an easy alternative to the much more difficult job of creating something of value.

What we can do

In understanding and changing my own email habits, the two books I’ve found the most useful are “Your Brain at Work” and “Manage Your Day-To-Day”. The first applies scientific research to motivate better ways of working. The second is a compendium of practices and perspectives from people as varied as Seth Godin, the designer Stefan Sagmeister, and the author Steve Pressfield.

These great resources have many good suggestions. Here are three to get you started:

  1. Turn off notifications. You already check email so often that you don’t need extra nudges to do so.
  2. Set boundaries. Check your email at scheduled times and work through it during those times as opposed to checking and processing throughout the day.
  3. Reserve distraction-free blocks of time. Schedule time in your calendar in which you don’t use email or other communications tools. Then use this time for your most demanding, creative work. (For many, this is in the morning when they first wake up. So the very common habit of checking email first thing in the morning is among the worst ways you can start your day.)

Yes, it's just email. But controlling your email is an important steps towards mastering how you spend your time and attention, both of which are key to your effectiveness and fulfillment.

36 times an hour

We check email 36 times/hour “It’s terrible,” she said. “I can’t focus any more. I can’t even read a book.”

I was talking with a smart, successful woman who’s an investment analyst, and we were talking about how she works. The best times to do the deep thinking required for her work. How to avoid being overwhelmed by news, email, and interruptions.

As we spoke, she was looking at her Blackberry. I asked her, “Did you know people check email 36 times an hour?”

“My God,” she said. “I bet I’m worse.”

Why it’s important

I used to think that those who ranted about the evils of email were missing the point. It’s not email per se that’s the problem, I figured, but how people are using it. As people used more modern platforms, their email usage would naturally decline.

But I failed to see just how insidious email can be. And how, if people don’t change their email habits, they may not be able to develop other, more productive work habits.

Why is email so bad? Simply put, people spend too much of their day on email, use it to store knowledge which should be available to others but isn’t, and are interrupted by it throughout the day to the point of lowering their performance on other work.

Here are some statistics:

Of these, I find the last statistic is the most damning. There’s plenty of brain science that shows attention is a limited and precious resource. And that you expend that resource when you’re switching contexts. So if you’re constantly checking email, you simply have less capacity to pay attention and your performance degrades.

“Those distracted by incoming email and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQ - more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana, said researchers...Those who are constantly breaking away from tasks to react to email or text messages suffer similar effects on the mind as losing a night's sleep.”

But if it’s so bad, why do we do it?

Why we do it

Perhaps the simplest explanation for our email habits is the way we’re wired. For example, we seem to be designed to respond to intermittent reinforcements. Checking email is akin to using a slot machine. Every so often, we get a good message so we keep checking in hopes of getting another one.

Email can also be a source of issues and news that threaten us in some way. And so, just as we used to scan the savannah for danger, we feel the need to keep checking email just to make sure everything is okay.

And lastly, everyone else is doing it. So there’s social proof that checking your email in meetings, in elevators, while driving, and while crossing the street is not as harmful as we know it to be.

There are, of course, other reasons. Because it’s easy to mark progress as you process email (“Inbox zero!”), you get a sense of accomplishment from doing it. And because processing email feels like work, it’s an easy alternative to the much more difficult job of creating something of value.

What we can do

In understanding and changing my own email habits, the two books I’ve found the most useful are “Your Brain at Work” and “Manage Your Day-To-Day”. The first applies scientific research to motivate better ways of working. The second is a compendium of practices and perspectives from people as varied as Seth Godin, the designer Stefan Sagmeister, and the author Steve Pressfield.

These great resources have many good suggestions. Here are three to get you started:

  1. Turn off notifications. You already check email so often that you don’t need extra nudges to do so.
  2. Set boundaries. Check your email at scheduled times and work through it during those times as opposed to checking and processing throughout the day.
  3. Reserve distraction-free blocks of time. Schedule time in your calendar in which you don’t use email or other communications tools. Then use this time for your most demanding, creative work. (For many, this is in the morning when they first wake up. So the very common habit of checking email first thing in the morning is among the worst ways you can start your day.)

Yes, it's just email. But controlling your email is an important steps towards mastering how you spend your time and attention, both of which are key to your effectiveness and fulfillment.