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? 


Perfect just the way you are. And...

That’s the thing about Zen masters. You never really know when they’re joking.

Shunryu Suzuki is best known for founding the first Buddhist monastery outside Asia and one of the most influential Zen organizations in the US. In the late 1960s, he was giving a lecture on “non-gaining mind” in which he was emphasizing practice for its own sake, as opposed to some benefit in the future. The striving and clinging to expectations not only distorted your practice but could also leave you miserable. 

“You become very idealistic with some notion or ideal set up by yourself and you strive for attaining or fulfilling that notion or goal. But as I always say this is very absurd because when you become idealistic in your practice you have gaining idea within yourself, so by the time you attain some stage your gaining idea will create another ideal…Because your attainment is always ahead of you, you are always sacrificing yourself for some ideal. So this is very absurd. “

A student asked Suzuki to clarify what he meant, so he simplified it.

“You are perfect just the way you are. And there’s room for improvement!”

Although I’m not sure if Suzuki was kidding, something clicked for me when I read that. I had always thought that being content with the way things are would be a sign of laziness, something not to be tolerated. My way to motivate myself has been to keep focusing on the improvement, the thing to be fixed or made better.

But as I get older, I see it only leads to a life of never-good-enough. You race towards a finish line that doesn’t exist, unable to complete the simple declaration: “I will be happy when…”

What if you could tap into all the benefits of getting better without the stress and drama? What if you accepted yourself exactly as you are - and others exactly as they are - and still remained open and curious about further development?

An example of kintsugi, or making art from damaged pottery - Photo credit: June’s Child

“What’s one thing I could do better?"

Imagine you’re about to deliver a presentation. You’re nervous, and uncomfortable talking in front of groups. But you prepare as best you can, muster up your courage, and deliver the talk. 

Afterwards, you breathe a sigh of relief and ask someone the worst possible question you could ask:

“How did it go?”

At Zukunft Personal in Köln, September 2018

Just because everyone does it doesn’t make it good

The other person knows your anxious, and she wants to be supportive and encouraging. So she responds, “It went well!” 

And in that moment, you missed a chance to get constructive feedback and learn, and the other person is robbed of the chance to help someone. 

I realize this exchange is so common that it may seem strange to deviate from it. But ten years ago, I learned a better way from Keith Ferrazzi.

From criticism to contribution

It was 2008, and I was sitting in the Relationship Master’s Academy, a 30-person course from the bestselling author of Never Eat Alone and Who’s Got Your Back. It was that course that made me think differently about how to ask for feedback (and about relationships in general). Keith Ferrazzi taught me how to turn a potentially uncomfortable conversation into one that can benefit both individuals and even deepen the relationship. 

The problem, Keith pointed out, is the way we frame the question. “How did it go?” ( or“How did I do?”) puts the other person on the spot, uncertain of what they should say and worried about offending you. The only safe thing for them is to give you a generic, positive response. 

Instead, Keith suggested, you should explain that you’re trying to improve, and then ask, “What’s one thing I could do better?” That turns an imposition into an invitation. Now you’ve given them explicit permission to give you specific critical feedback. It’s no longer personal but about the learning, and they get to feel that they’re being genuinely helpful.

The cumulative power of “one thing”

I’ve been asking Keith’s question ever since, and it’s led to many interesting conversations. People seem grateful to be asked their opinion in this way, and they almost always come up with something I can do better.

“You should move side to side a bit less”

“That slide was hard to read”

“You should use some different examples”

“You talked really fast”

“You should hold the microphone closer to your mouth”

I listen intently to each bit of feedback. Sometimes I don’t agree or may get conflicting opinions. But I almost always learn about new ways I can improve and about things I need to keep working on. Each exchange is also a chance to practice, both offering vulnerability and receiving constructive criticism.

Try it for yourself. Asking “What’s one thing I could do better?” can help you with any skill you’re trying to develop or improve.

Your one word

At first I dismissed it as a gimmick. After all, what difference could one word make? 

But several of my friends have been doing it for years, and towards the end of 2018 they posted about their one word. My friend Fiona chose “energy” last year. She described how it helped her make better choices, and how she could build on that this coming year.

Whether privately or professionally, every time I had to take a decision I would ask myself the following question: "Will this decision increase my energy level?"

Having increased my energy level in 2018, I am now ready to work on my roots, my foundations, what makes me who I am and what makes me stand up. 

Anne-Marie Imafidon also wrote about her one word. She was featured in chapter 22 of Working Out Loud, and I’ve continued following her many accomplishments and accolades since then. She described the effects of choosing a word in past years and what’s next for her.

So 2019, for me will be the year of ‘Beyond’. I’m venturing beyond my normal boundaries and spheres of influence. I’m looking beyond the realms of what I’m doing now and what I’m currently capable of.

From reading their posts, I saw that your one word could be a kind of guidepost, something that reminds you of which direction you want to travel. At the end of last year I wrote about intentions and what would make the year great, and your one word can be another way to express what you intend to do and be.

My one word is “discipline.” Like Anne-Marie and Fiona, I feel like I’ve been building up to this word for some time, gradually developing habits - work, physical health, mental health - that make it possible for my one word to be more than just a wish.

For me, “discipline” isn’t about limits or stoic deprivation. Just the opposite. It’s about enabling me to make more mindful choices so I do what I truly intend to do. Whenever I have a choice to make, I remember my word and ask myself, “What would a disciplined person do?” Of course I won’t make the right choice each time, but it has already helped. (Some examples include work on important new projects, losing six pounds, and reducing time on my phone by more than 50% .)

What will your one word be? Where do you want to go?

My one word - Discipline.001.jpeg

What would make next year great?

Looking back, my career was a series of accidents, not intentions. All the major shifts were reactions to something someone else did, or opportunities that just popped up. I wasn’t purposeful or self-directed. Things just…happened. You could say that rather than me living my life, life lived me.

I’ve been working on changing that. Part of my approach involves keeping a journal in which, every day, I write down my answer to this simple question: 

What would make today great?

Those few minutes of thinking and writing in the morning help me focus my attention on what matters at different points throughout the day, and that helps me to make better, more mindful, choices. The days when I do what I intend to do are all extremely satisfying. 

A friend and I both use the same journal, and when we met for dinner in Stuttgart this month, I thought I would ask him a different question:

What would make next year great?

It led to an intimate discussion about what we each feel is important - relationships we want to deepen, experiences we want to have, meaningful work we want to do. Then we talked about steps we might take to make those things happen. It felt strange for me to chart such a course, but also exhilarating. It felt like I was trying, perhaps for the first time, to be “the author of my own life.” 

What about you? Are you living intentionally, or accidentally? 

What would make next year great?

What would make next year great?.jpeg

Note: Thank you for reading these posts, and for all the wonderful messages in email and on social media. This is my last blog post in 2018. I wish you all much joy and wonder, next year and beyond.

If you want to be the author of your own life

The first time I saw the phrase, I thought it was beautiful: “Be the author of your own life.” It seemed so appealing and uplifting, like “Be the CEO of your own career” or “Be the change you want to see in the world.” The prospect of self-determination inherent in the phrase, the power to actively craft your own future, seemed to offer both hope and inspiration.

But the more I reflected on it, the more it seemed like a cruel hoax.

After all, what prepares you to be the author of your own life? Is it the HR survey that tells you what your strengths are? The personality profile that describes your color or element and suggests jobs that are right for you?

Of course that’s not enough. You can’t be an author unless you actually write. And read. A lot. You need to do it every day, day after day, until you develop the skills, habits, and mindset of a writer. It’s your deliberate practice over time - experiments, feedback, connections - that enable you to develop the grit and heart and craft you need to make something great..

The same goes for an intentional life. You must explore, attempt, fail, learn, and adapt over and over and over again. Only through an endless series of small steps will you develop a sense of what feels right for you, broaden your understanding of what’s possible, and expand the perimeter of your potential. 

Crafting a life is not something you say or wish. It’s something you work on every day. Start now.

Author of My Own Life.JPG

Change your life in 5 minutes a day

I try to avoid sensational titles, and I don’t mean for this week to be an exception. “Change your life in 5 minutes a day” is based on my own experience. Sometimes, it only takes me three minutes.

Ancient wisdom

I’m referring to keeping a gratitude journal. Each morning, the first thing I do when I wake up is to reflect on what made yesterday a great day, and what three things would make today great. It’s so simple it verges on trivial, and yet so useful I never miss a day. I’ve been writing in it for over a year now. I even take it with me when I travel, just for those few minutes each day. 

Ever since the advent of positive psychology in the late 1990s - "the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels” - there has been a wealth of research on the benefits of varying gratitude practices. (You can find popular summaries here and here.) It’s not a new idea, though. Practicing gratitude falls into the category of “ancient wisdom,” and has long been advocated by a wide array of sources.

“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has." - Epictetus

“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice.” - Meister Eckhart

“When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food, and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies with yourself." - Tecumseh, Shawnee Chief

“A grateful mind is a great mind which eventually attracts to itself great things.’ - Plato

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others. - Marcus Tullius Cicero

In The Book of Joy, practicing gratitude is listed as one of “the 8 pillars of joy” by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. In The How of Happiness, it’s one of 12 practices advocated by Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky.

My own results

By the time I saw an ad for The Five-Minute Journal, I was convinced and ready to start, though it wasn’t easy in the beginning. I would forget to write in it, or find myself saying the same things a few days in a row. Then I put the journal in a place where I knew I would see it when I woke up, and writing in it gradually became something I looked forward to doing. It became a habit.

Over time, I became aware of certain patterns. The things that appeared on the list most often were particular people in my life, and the time I could spend with them. Searching for new things to write, I became more aware of just how many precious basics - good health, food, and shelter to name a few - I had taken for granted. The act of listing what I was grateful for day after day helped to shift my perspective from overly-negative to something more balanced, and that made me happier.

Writing down my intentions - What will make today great? - had a somewhat different effect. It helped me to focus my attention on what mattered at different points throughout the day, and that helped me to make better, more mindful, choices. When I reflected on a prior day, I noticed how doing what I intended always provided a sense of fulfillment or completeness. Instead of being buffeted about by things out of my control, I found I could “live intentionally,” and it proved to be extremely satisfying. 

I’ve found this simple practice so helpful that I included it as one of the five self-care practices in WOL-SC.

Getting started

You don’t need The Five-Minute Journal in particular to practice gratitude. Some of my German friends use Das 6-Minuten Tagebuch. (Though I do wonder why they need an extra minute.) A blank book will do, or even placing notes in a jar. 

You might also try DayCatcher, a more visual and creative way to practice gratitude which I started using just last week. At the end of a day, you choose a photo that captures one special moment from that day, and add a short note or caption. Doing this has already attuned my attention to look for my “catch” each day. It helps me to savor the best moments and be thankful for them right before I go to sleep. At the end of the year I can use it to create a beautiful album of memories.

Your mother or grandmother probably told you to “count your blessings.” And now science has caught up with her, explaining why the advice she gave was so good.

But do you put that advice into practice? Why not start today?

“Back in the game”

I almost passed over it because it was in Italian. But I clicked on the translation button, and even the mechanically generated prose was beautiful.

Marcello had participated in a Working Out Loud Circle in Bologna, organized by the same group that produced the Italian translation of the Circle Guides. He had put together a short video describing what the experience meant for him, and someone shared an excerpted quote of his.

“…an opportunity to put me back in the game, rediscover some skills that I had inside me, reconnect relationships, reactivate myself with a new enthusiasm to realize projects I care about…”

We could all use that kind of “reactivation” sometimes. Maybe your company is re-organizing again. Or you took time off for parental leave. Or you need to find a new job. These can be challenging times. Your confidence and even your sense of identity can be impacted.

Your inclination might be to withdraw, to wait for something better to turn up. But a better approach can be to do the opposite. To purposefully connect with people and create your own web of support and encouragement. Your network can be a lifeboat in a sea of change, helping you explore opportunities you would never reach otherwise. It can be a source of confidence, emotional support, and friendship. 

Marcello found all of that in his WOL Circle. It’s not the only way, of course. But small steps in a safe, confidential space can often be just what you need in times of change. Your Circle members, even when they’re complete strangers, can show you things about yourself you’ve stopped seeing or believing. They can also show you possibilities you haven’t considered. Week after week, as your network grows, so do you.

If you want more out of work and life, waiting on the sidelines is no place for you to be.

INTERVISTA A MARCELLO FINI BIBLIOTECARIO ARCHIGINNASIO BO

“The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on.”

What if, instead of constantly trying to fight against some of our cognitive and behavioral weaknesses, we could use them to our advantage?

In praise of mindlessness.png

Hidden persuaders

The title of this post is taken from the last line of Mindless Eating, by food researcher Brian Wansink. In the book, he writes that we make over 200 food decisions each day, and that we aren’t aware of most of them. The result is that what we eat and how much we eat are determined by an astounding array of “hidden persuaders.” Here are a few of them:

  • size of the plate or container

  • shape of the glass

  • distance to the food/convenience of accessing it

  • variety of food

  • number of people you’re eating with

  • distractions present (tv, radio, phone, reading, etc.)

  • labels/descriptions of the food

  • presentation of the food

The most famous example might be the popcorn study. Wansink gave people a free bucket of popcorn at a movie theater. Some had a medium bucket and some had a large bucket, though each was big enough that no one could finish all of it. Importantly, all of the popcorn was stale, having sat in sterile conditions for five days. Despite patrons saying, “It was like eating Styrofoam peanuts,” people with large buckets ate 53% more - an average of 21 more handfuls (or 173 extra calories). 

Study after study show the impact of hidden persuaders. If you eat with one person you’ll eat 35% more, and up to 96% more when you eat with a group of seven. If you’re given a half-pound bag of M&Ms you’ll eat an average of 71, but you’ll eat 137 (or 264 more calories) from a one-pound bag. Even experienced bartenders mistakenly pour 37% more alcohol into short, wide glasses than into tall, skinny ones.

How to avoid a lifetime of suffering

If you’re like me, you may believe you’re not fooled by such things, that you’re in control of your own choices. Alas, two decades of Wansink’s research shows that everyone thinks this way.

“We all think we’re too smart to be tricked by packages, lighting, or plates. We might acknowledge that others could be tricked, but not us. That is what makes mindless eating so dangerous. We are almost never aware that it is happening to us.”

Instead of fighting with yourself to become more disciplined, Wansink suggests you adopt simple “reengineering strategies” that make it easier for you to choose what you believe is in your own best interests. Want to eat more vegetables? Serve them family style or on larger plates. Want to drink a bit less wine? Serve it in taller, thinner glasses and keep the empties on the table.

“As all of our research suggests, we can eat about 20 percent more or 20 percent less without really being aware of it. You can eat too much without knowing, and you can also eat less without knowing it. The goal is to make small changes in our environment so it works with us rather than against us.”

Beyond popcorn

Reading Mindless Eating has already inspired me to change my environment when it comes to food. But the core idea applies to all sorts of things - from how much we use our phones to what kinds of media we consume.

Yes, our innate human tendency for doing things in a mindless, habitual way can lead to unhealthy choices - choices that may well be driven by external influences and the interests of others. But a short period of making mindful adjustments to your environment can help you create a kind of “positive mindlessness,” one that leads to choices that serve you well.

The next time you overindulge on popcorn or social media, don’t waste time berating yourself. Think instead of how the things around you may have led to that behavior. Choose to control your environment rather than have it control you.

Confessions of a public speaker

The universe, it seems to me, is a teacher with a perverse sense of humor. The latest evidence I have of this is my most recent presentation in Germany.

The day started off well enough. I rehearsed my talk, had a fine breakfast, and caught my taxi on time. I remember smiling to myself at my good planning. 

The first hint of trouble was when the driver asked, “North or South?” I had no idea what he was talking about, so he explained that it was a big conference center and there were multiple entrances. Since we were ensnared in traffic, and I could see signs for the North Entrance, I told him I would get out there.

The instant I stepped onto the curb, I knew I’d made a mistake. There were no signs for the event, no crowds. I walked the hundred yards or so to the door and asked a lone attendant for help. “Ah, that’s the South entrance,” she said cheerfully, and told me how to get there. “Just five minutes,” she assured me.

I started walking, looking up at the bright blue sky, squinting at the sun. It was starting to get hot. Then I looked down and noticed a white splat on my shoe. How did a bird do that? I wondered. On closer inspection, though, it wasn’t a bird’s doing. It was fresh paint. And it wasn’t just on my shoe.

There’s paint on the bottom of my pant leg, on the back of my other shoe, and on my other pant leg. I consider going back to the hotel and changing but I’m afraid it’ll take too long. I assess the damage, hope it might not be noticeable on stage, and head towards the South entrance.

Ten minutes later, I’m wandering around in a park of some kind. When I turn right as instructed, I’m at a highway on-ramp. By this time the sweat is dripping down my face and neck. I take off my jacket, and notice there’s paint on my thigh now too, spreading like a rash across my blue suit. Where is it coming from?! I frantically look for a source, and see wet paint on the straps dangling from my backpack.

I begin to panic. Gingerly holding my bag at arms length, I check and recheck Google maps as I walk, and I eventually find the elusive entrance. It’s now a full 30 minutes after exiting the cab. Wet from perspiration and paint-speckled like a robin’s egg, I’m eager to get to a sink and clean up as best I can. Perhaps no one will notice, I think. 

On my way to the restroom, I see someone I haven’t seen for a year. “John!” he shouts out, smiling broadly. He extends his hand, and then leans in close to me and whispers, “You have something on your trousers.” I smile a frozen, awkward smile, and quickly move on. I curse to myself and look heavenward.

In the crowded mens room, I mop myself up with wet paper towels, Then I take off my shoes and scrub each one. Don’t touch the pants! Don’t touch the pants! I keep repeating to myself, imagining how much worse large cloudy white swirls will look on stage. 

At this point, I’ve done all I can do, and it’s getting close to the time for my talk. I head towards the stage. 

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about what happened that day is that, details aside, it wasn’t so extraordinary. In the past year, I’ve prepared a workshop for hundreds of people only to have 8 show up. At the end of one long conference day, I had to compete with alcohol and food for a crowd’s attention, and lost badly. I’ve experienced a cornucopia of devious problems with slides, room configurations, and technology - and now paint. 

What’s the universe trying to teach me with all of this?

I think the point is that it’s all part of the practice. Not the practice of becoming a better speaker, but the practice of accepting anything that might happen in work and life. All you can do is work on your craft as best you can, focus on offering your gift instead of focusing on the outcome, and try your best to embrace the universe’s lessons with humility and a sense of humor.

***

Note: This post is inspired in part by a funny, insightful, and practical book of the same name by Scott Berkun. I’m grateful to Scott for sharing his own lessons, as they helped me.