Category Archives: Personal Development

Steady Change, Big Results

I just finished a series of posts on nutrition and am once again reminded of the difficulty of sustaining good eating habits. Having just read James Clear’s Atomic Habits, it seemed an auspicious time to revisit the topic of behavioral change.

James’ core thesis is that seemingly small and unimportant daily adjustments become the compound interest of self-improvement. Think about it. When we commit to being 1% better at any activity every single day, we’ll be 37.8% better at it by year end. Conversely, when we diminish competency at a rate of 1% per day, we’ll have .025% that skill one year later. He says: “Time magnifies the margin between success and failure. It will multiply whatever you feed it.”

identity-process-goalsJames defines three layers of behavioral change. Goals/outcomes provide a high-level description of a future state; they set the direction. Processes establish the systems and daily routines that produce favorable results; they chart and stay the course. A declared identity tells us who we wish to become. Why does identity matter? Because outcome-based habits that focus on achievement can be thwarted by an old, engrained identity. By contrast, identity-based habits motivate us to act according to who we believe ourselves to be. As such, when we’re tempted to forego the daily regimen, we can ask ourselves: Does this behavior (or lack thereof) cast a vote in favor of the person I’ve declared myself to be?

As covered in an earlier post, habits take the form of a cue, a craving, a routine, and a reward. Once formed, our brain activity drops precipitously between the cue and the reward. In a sense, we go on autopilot. It takes conscious effort to create good habits and break bad ones. We can make things easier on ourselves by shaping our environments such that we do not have to exercise extraordinary self-control or needlessly deplete our reservoir of willpower. James recommends the following high-level strategies:

To Form a Good Habit To Thwart a Bad Habit
CUE Make it obvious Make it invisible
CRAVING Make it attractive Make it unattractive
ROUTINE Make it easy Make it difficult
REWARD Make it satisfying Make it unsatisfying

The balance of his book provides concrete advice on how to enact each of these strategies along with engaging stories from those who model forwarding behavior. Here’s a high-level synopsis:

obvious, attractive, easy, satisfying

The Keys to Good Habits

Make it obvious:

  • Log your daily habits and rate them positive, negative, or neutral. Awareness is a precursor to change.
  • Set an intention and stick with it – e.g., whenever I am tempted to eat between meals, I will grab celery and carrots.
  • Add a new good habit on top of something you already do – e.g., whenever I go to the bathroom, I will follow up with 20 abdominal crunches.
  • Create an environmental cue that reinforces the desired behavior – e.g., put my guitar on a stand in my office to remind me to play. James says: “Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior… You can’t stick to positive habits in a negative environment.”

Make it attractive:

  • Tie a habit that you need to do with something that you want to do – e.g., while exercising on my portable Stairmaster, I’ll take a mid-afternoon work break to watch my favorite show.
  • Associate with people who model habits you want to emulate. Proximity and social norms powerfully influence behavior. Shared identity bolsters personal identity.
  • Increase motivation by reframing actions as things you “get to do” rather than things you “have to do.” Tie that sense of agency with a thought, feeling, or action that brings joy right before launching the routine.

Make it easy:

  • Remove barriers. Have all the necessary materials at the ready to engage in positive change.
  • Make good environmental decisions – e.g., join a gym that’s on the flight path to work, grocery store, or other frequent haunts.
  • Pay attention to the moment of choice every day and learn to master it – e.g., set the calendar to include self-care activities and treat these time slots as non-negotiable.
  • Create 2-minute routines – e.g., meditate for 2 minutes every day upon awakening. Extend the time in 1 increments when it feels natural to do so.
  • Leverage technology to automate habits – e.g., deduct X amount from the weekly paycheck and put it in a savings plan

Make it satisfying:

  • Find ways to give yourself immediate rewards for behaviors that provide long-term benefits. Choose rewards that strengthen identify and goals. (A brownie after a workout does not fit the bill!)
  • Reinforce good choices visually – e.g., place money saved on impulse purchases in a glass jar and watch it accumulate.
  • Place a habit-tracker in a prominent location to encourage yourself to stay the course and celebrate daily progress.
  • Commit to “getting back on the horse” if you break the chain. Be a person who does not falter twice in a row.

I really enjoyed this book and recommend that you grab a copy and read it. You’ll get far more benefit out of his words of wisdom with in-depth exposure. If it changes your life for the better, isn’t it worth the investment?

Personal Mastery

During my tenure as a management consultant, I was influenced heavily by Dr. Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. It argues that the only sustainable advantage any organization possesses is its ability to learn faster than its competition and sustain constant adaptation and improvement. Such organizations are fully grounded in reality yet have the capacity to ignite new and expansive patterns of thinking that galvanize collective aspirations and efforts.

Personal mastery represents a key cornerstone in a learning organization. As its tenets bear fruits on an individual as well as a corporate setting, I thought it merited consideration for healthy living.

Senge defines personal mastery as “the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively.” The practice of personal mastery enables us to live in service of our highest aspirations.

Exemplars of personal mastery share the following characteristics:

  • They are clear about what deeply matters to them. They sustain their focus on intrinsic desires, not the goals and actions to support them. This focus provides the agility to change strategies and tactics when higher order objectives drift from line of sight.
  • They are imbued with a higher purpose to which their vision and goals are aligned. Each feels connected to a broad and benevolent human endeavor that extends beyond the individual.
  • They see the truth of things as they are. They recognize that “an accurate, insightful view of current reality is as important as a clear vision.” It demands a commitment to uncovering ways in which we deceive or limit ourselves and challenging the mental models we’ve used to describe the world… even when those insights create discomfort or conflict.
  • They have a keen awareness of the structures within which they operate and use that knowledge to work within them and change them. They challenge assumptions that keep us stuck in dysfunctional patterns of thinking or behaving; they open up a range of possibilities for consideration.
  • continuous learningThey are deeply inquisitive and engage in the practice of lifelong learning. They are acutely aware of their growth areas, yet pursue self-improvement with no loss in self-confidence. Learning confers newfound expertise, skills, and insights, and expands their capacity to create and contribute. Individuals who develop personal mastery do not expect to “arrive”; they enjoy the journey.
  • They enroll their self-conscious in pursuit of their aspirations and values. This engagement enables them to take forwarding actions without having to give them much thought. It also provides the means to access intuition and integrate it with reason.
  • They connect deeply with others and revel in being part of a larger creative process. At the same time, they do not lose sight of their distinctiveness, personal goals, or desires.

Each of us has the capacity to practice the discipline of personal mastery. The promise of living fully and generatively holds great appeal. I suspect that the absence of clear and compelling higher order vision serves as a stumbling block to engaging wholeheartedly in this process. I feel that pain. As a person entering a new phase of life post-retirement, I don’t have a clear definition of how to write my next chapter. Yet as a practitioner of lifelong learning, I have faith that a new vision will emerge.

What captures your imagination? How might you make room to explore that interest and see where it leads? With whom could you engage in dialog to explore the insights that might emerge?

Principles for a Life Well-Lived

In last week’s posts, I shared thoughts on why I find Emilio Estefan’s life story inspiring. For those who haven’t had the opportunity to read his book, The Rhythm of Success: How an Immigrant Produced His Own American Dream, here are some of his principles for a life well lived.

  1. journey to successMake bold decisions and take responsibility for the actions and outcomes that come with them.
  2. Always find the positive side of any circumstance; be grateful for blessings, however small.
  3. Define success based on your foundational values and a knowledge of what makes your life satisfying and enjoyable.
  4. Know what gives your life meaning – e.g., family, a passion for the work, a sense of accomplishment – and let that be the driving force to embrace each day’s activities.
  5. Be open to change and all of the opportunities that it provides.
  6. Find your advantage, take pride in who you are, and work hard to leverage your skills, abilities, and passion to maximum effect.
  7. Honor your family. Commit to their well-being and take comfort personally and professionally in the support they provide.
  8. Be yourself; let your outward appearance and reputation be authentic reflections of who you are. “Don’t spend money you don’t have trying to impress others with a false image.”
  9. Get an education; keep developing skills and talents. Among other things, school provides discipline, teaches you how to learn, and confers a sense of accomplishment.
  10. Do what you love to do. It may take time and effort to find your passion. Commit to the process of discovery for the sake of enjoying your life’s journey. “You can pay off a debt, but you can’t pay off a regret.”
  11. Be meticulous with planning and execution. Time is a precious resource. Planning helps you get more out of what you do and what you have. Change your plans as conditions warrant.
  12. Work hard. Keep your commitments to yourself and others. Never give up. Ever.
  13. Work smart. Have a plan for each day and focus on the tasks and responsibilities that really matter.
  14. Think big and take calculated risks. Don’t be paralyzed by fear when pursuing your dreams. Take appropriately bold steps to let your passion, knowledge, and skills come to fruition.
  15. Have great companions on your life journey. No one navigates life alone.
  16. Expect resistance and make plans to address it. If you are rock solid in belief in yourself and your dream, stand firm. Fight the impulse to give into the idea that it won’t work. Find a way.
  17. Do it yourself. No one will hand you success on a silver platter; no one will work harder to fulfill your dreams than you. Grab the reins and go!
  18. Learn how to turn “no” into “yes.” Don’t be deterred by discouraging news or feedback. Take matters into your own hands. Visualize success and work hard to achieve it. Build a track record of success to support your positions and sway doubters.
  19. Embrace new markets. Introduce your offerings to others, and let their traditions, cultures, ideas, and talents influence yours.
  20. Take care of business. Have an organic understanding of all aspects of your chosen field – how products/services are produced, marketed, supported, and financed. Keep growing in your craft and your managerial skills.
  21. Think out of the box. Fresh ideas are the coin of the realm in business. Quality alone is not enough. Use your imagination, listen to your heart, and trust your intuition. Be resourceful.
  22. Renew. Revive. Don’t be wasteful. Be on the lookout for ways to achieve goals using less time, energy, and money. Give old things new life. Find ways to renew and recycle your skills and experience, too.
  23. Keep growing and innovating. “A successful business is one that never stands still.”
  24. Be a great boss. Take responsibility for your employees. Make sure they have a good livelihood and provide opportunities to meet their needs and realize their aspirations. Treat them well and motivate them to do their best work. Be loyal.
  25. Give back. Do as much as you are able to help others.

Self-Esteem

Gloria Steinem was an iconic figure during my formative years. A pillar of second wave feminism, she made headlines as a speaker, writer, editor, advocate, and community organizer. She embodied the winning trifecta of bold, brilliant, and beautiful. It would never have occurred to me that she ever experienced self-doubt. Yet in Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, she reminded me that even superachievers aren’t superhuman.

For each of us, the communities of which we are a part exert a profound influence on our sense of self. The dominant culture establishes social hierarchies and normative behavior based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexual orientation. In particular, Western civilization teems with disempowering messages for women:

  • Aristotle’s Politics shaped gender relations for centuries with such assertions as: “A husband and father, we saw, rules over wife and children… For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the elder and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature.”
  • A majority of U.S.-based Christian churches continue to place women in a subordinate role by virtue of their interpretation of Genesis 2.
  • Our history books assign power and agency to men. Even today, there are relatively few female role models in positions of authority.
  • Women are regularly chided for being “subjective” or “emotional” in their commentary and analyses rather than “objective” and “rational.”
  • Women are encouraged to be gentle, nice, and agreeable, never bold, powerful, and decisive.

Given the power of these external influences, it’s easy to quash an inner spirit. We become some version of what society expects of us or face substantial headwinds when charting a different course. Gloria’s root thesis: “Systems of authority undermine our self-authority to secure obedience; thus, self-esteem becomes the root of revolution.”

Gloria makes a distinction between core self-esteem and situational self-esteem. Core self-esteem entails a conviction that we are loved and lovable, valued and valuable as we are, no matter what we do. Situational self-esteem ties to evidence of being good at something, praised for something, overcoming obstacles, achieving goals, and/or aligned with the “right people.” The former confers a sense of inner peace and equanimity with which to engage the outer world. The latter places the outer world in control and tells us that we are never enough.

self-esteemSo how does the revolution begin? Gloria encourages us to go on a journey of self-discovery through which we:

  • See through our own eyes rather than those of the dominant culture
  • Give voice to our deepest thoughts, dreams, secrets, and desires and recognize that there is nothing shameful in owning them
  • Call out attitudes and patterns of behavior that have been treated as normal and dare to set different expectations
  • Bond with others who share similar experiences and are traveling on the same path to enlightenment
  • Achieve empowerment and self-governance
  • Find a balance of independence and interdependence

When we come into our own, we gain new eyes with which to see ourselves and a new perspective when looking outward. We experience an inner energy that is ours alone yet connects us with everything else. Core self-esteem becomes a self-reinforcing fountainhead of positive action for one’s self, one’s friends and family, and the world.

As one who has lived for over six decades, I’m not the least bit surprised that this work emerged as Gloria entered her 60s. There’s something wonderful about having a lifetime of experiences when settling in to who and what one will become in the final chapters of life. One feels less of a need to prove anything to anyone else and more of a determination to be fully authentic and fully alive. For me, these parting thoughts say it all:

“Our brains are ever subject to improving, diversifying, and sharpening, if we will only believe in them enough to stimulate them… When our talents are required and rewarded, we can stretch our abilities, use the energy of self-esteem to activate the unique mix of universal human traits we each possess, and uncover a microcosm of the universe within ourselves.”

A Good Life

Now entering my fourth month of quarantine, I’m getting lots of time to read (and re-read) a variety of books. This week, I re-encountered Jonathan Field’s book, How To Live A Good Life: Soulful Stories, Surprising Science, and Practical Wisdom.

If you haven’t read anything by Jonathan Fields, I encourage you to give this book a go. He’s a wonderful writer, and his advice strikes me as thoughtful and grounded in reality. As the Founder of the Good Life Project, he hosts a popular podcast to which I subscribe and also runs conferences for folks seeking to take their lives up a notch.

Jonathan’s formula for living a good life relies upon creating balance in each of three “buckets”:

vitality, connection, contributionThe VITALITY BUCKET acknowledges that we need to be feel sufficiently fit, energized, strong, and flexible to participate fully in life. It entails making life choices that minimize pain, disease, and disability (e.g., nutritious diet, daily exercise and stretching, good sleep habits, eliminating stress/tension). It calls for living peacefully in the moment with gratitude for what we have and optimism toward the future. (Not surprisingly, he’s a big fan of meditation!) It also means cultivating a growth mindset that is open to opportunity and bounces back from adversity.

The CONNECTION BUCKET recognizes that we are fundamentally social creatures. We need to give and receive love. We need to be seen, understood, and embraced by folks who share our interests and values. And we need to connect to something that is larger than ourselves. To fill this bucket, we must do the inner work to understand ourselves well enough to identify our tribes while developing the skills to engage with integrity and compassion. We must also do the legwork to cultivate relationships. (Hint: We need to get our noses out of technology to do it!) Along the way, we can work toward becoming an increasingly better version of ourselves.

The CONTRIBUTION BUCKET entails knowing that we are doing what we’re meant to do and lighting up along the way. For many of us, this bucket may be the toughest to fill. We may have gotten so enmeshed in what life expected that we bypassed figuring out what really matters to us. Jonathan invites us to explore the following:

  • Curiosity: Toward what do you feel a deep yearning to answer a burning question?
  • Fascination: What subject matter triggers an intrinsic desire to learn?
  • Immersion: In what activities do you become engaged and then lose all track of time?
  • Mastery: What expertise or skills would you like to develop at the highest level?
  • Service: Where do you feel most adept and/or energized when contributing to those around you?

He encourages us to identify key strengths (e.g., as revealed by things like the VIA Survey of Character Strengths). They may prove useful for identifying focal areas. Likewise, distinctive skills, talents, knowledge, and experience may come into play. That being said, we may not be excited about things at which we’re naturally gifted or acquired mastery. We’ll only fill our contribution bucket when we’re good at something for which we feel an inner spark.

All three buckets benefit from the art of saying NO. NO to patterns of behavior that drain our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual resources. NO to relationships that distract us from our journeys or are otherwise energy vampires. NO to letting our heads talk us into jumping on paths that our hearts know would be wrong for us.

Finally, Jonathan tells us to “think ripple, not wave.” Simple actions, moments, and experiences delivered with intention and integrity can propel us to a good life.

Be Your Own Life Coach

love your lifeThe late 20th century saw the emergence of “life coaches” as the natural outgrowth of the positive psychology movement. It asserted that people were far more likely to transform their lives by looking toward the future rather than dwelling on their past. To that end, life coaches work one-on-one with clients to support their clients’ personal growth, behavior modification, and goal-setting.

While we might all profit from having a trained mentor to help us chart our courses, that luxury carries a considerable expense. Thomas J. Leonard opted to bring the power of personal coaching to the masses though the aegis of his books. Here’s some sage advice from The Portable Coach: 28 Sure Fire Strategies for Business and Personal Success:

ONE: Take incredibly good care of yourself. Create positive energy in your home environment and personal relationships. Commit to your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being through nourishing daily rituals.

TWO: Focus on the here and now. If a hoped-for future captivates your imagination, the destination may become more important than the journey. Hold plans lightly and be willing to evolve and adapt along the way. A better future finds you when you make the most of the present.

THREE: Make bold choices when life throws you curve balls. Listen to your body and let it guide you. Make sure you don’t have to learn the same lesson multiple times.

FOUR: Build a super-reserve in every area of your life so that scarcity-based worrying does not stoke the fires of fear. The author provides a Super-Reserve Test that spans Home & Comfort, Transportation, Financial, Safety, Health,/Vitality, Opportunity, Space/Time, Calamity Protection, Supplies & Equipment, Relationships.

FIVE: Find out what others value highly and deliver it in excellence.

SIX: Strive to be a positive influence in other peoples’ lives.

SEVEN: Take pride in what you do and what you offer; let your light shine.

EIGHT: Take a penetrating inventory of what you find unattractive about yourself or your life. Eliminate or compensate for them on the road to becoming irresistibly attractive to yourself.

NINE: Don’t let your lifestyle get in the way of living a purposeful, fulfilling life.

TEN: Underpromise, overdeliver. Maintain a reserve of time. Exceed expectations for the joy of it, not through the drudgery of meeting obligations.

ELEVEN: Discover a vision for your life that you find inherently magnetic. Let it pull you toward it rather than push yourself elsewhere.

TWELVE: Eliminate delay. Respond to requests and opportunities immediately (even if that response is a NO). Figure out when and why you hold back (e.g., fear) and remove barriers.

THIRTEEN: Meet personal needs to be your best self – e.g., inspiration, information, support, solutions, focus, people, skills, networks, etc. Set up an automated needs satisfaction system!

FOURTEEN: Be attentive to details. Details, systems, and big picture stand in a 50-48-2 relationship to one another. Details keep you in the present and make things happen.

FIFTEEN: Stop tolerating things that are a drag on your life, energy, and performance. Get to the root of why you’re putting up with them and move toward a tolerance-free zone.

SIXTEEN: Teach people how to treat you well. Communicate so that people understand what you need and are happy to provide it for you.

SEVENTEEN: Own up to (and be compassionate toward) your worst weaknesses. Be responsible for how they affect you and others. Note the relationship between them and your greatest strengths. Focus your energies on the latter and find ways to make accommodation for the former.

EIGHTEEN: Stop numbing yourself with alcohol, narcotics, food, TV, and otherwise zoning out. Live fully in the moment, sensitive to all that surrounds you.

NINETEEN: Maintain everything in your life in good working order – your body, clothes, home, office, car, tools, equipment, lighting, sound, etc.

TWENTY: Develop more character than you need.

TWENTY-ONE: Choose to see the present moment as perfect; find the gift in everything.

TWENTY-TWO: Be unconditionally constructive with yourself and others. Be encouraging and respectful.

TWENTY-THREE: Orient your life around your values. They’ll help you set the right goals and make better decisions.

TWENTY-FOUR: Simplify your life. Get rid of things you don’t want/need. Automate administrative and financial tasks. Get help. Eliminate energy drains and proceed confidently toward areas with a high likelihood of positive returns.

TWENTY-FIVE: Attain mastery of your craft(s).

TWENTY-SIX: Speak the truth. Eliminate impediments to your ability to recognize truth. Live in integrity.

TWENTY-SEVEN: Be attentive to current conditions, trends, and events so that you can assess where things are going. Expand your circle to include several visionary types.

TWENTY-EIGHT: Be yourself without artifice. Hang out with folks who are likewise real.

A Year of YES

I discovered Grey’s Anatomy a few years ago. Binged watched it to get caught up. Then went on to enjoy two of Shonda Rhimes’ other series – Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder. They’re well-crafted TV dramas with compelling story lines, sharp dialog, and strong, capable women. No surprise given the powerhouse of a woman who stands behind these series. Yet even this highly successful woman had to go on a journey of discovery to find her best self.

I’ll share a few tidbits from Shonda’s book, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun, and Be Your Own Person. My heartfelt recommendation is that you get your hands on the book and read it for yourself. Quite a lot gets lost in the “highlight reel,” and you’ll miss the experience of reveling in her distinctive voice. But here goes anyway.

yesThe year of YES began after a family Thanksgiving gathering during which Shonda rattled off a list of A List engagements to which she was invited. Her older sister was unimpressed and knew that Shonda would turn them all down. As she said, “You never say yes to anything.” Indeed, Shonda had become quite comfortable living life as a busy TV executive and mother of three (which assuredly left her plenty occupied!) But she wasn’t breaking out of her shell and trying new things. So, she resolved to make the ensuring year one that included a lot more YES.

Initially, I thought, “That’ll never be an aspiration of mine. I’m the girl who can’t say ‘no’ and winds up spent and exhausted. I need a year of NO!” But as I went along on Shonda’s journey, I found myself wanting to get on the YES train.

Here are things to which Shonda said YES:

  • To anything and everything that scared here – e.g., a commencement speech at her alma mater, TV appearances, charity events, interesting parties

“Every yes changes something in me. Every yes is a bit more transformative. Every yes sparks a new phase of evolution.”

  • To her children when they said, “Wanna play?”

“The more I play, the happier I am at work. The happier I am at work, the more relaxed I become. The more relaxed I become, the happier I am at home. And the better I get at the playtime I have with the kids..”

  • To feeling unpleasant feelings rather than burying them under food

“Food feels so good when you put it on top of all the stuff you don’t want to deal with… It numbs you… [but] numb feels not just dead but rotting.”

  • To accepting any and all compliments with a clear, calm “Thank you”

“No one who succeeds is merely lucky… I am not lucky. You know what I am? I am smart, I am talented, I take advantage of the opportunities that come my way, and I work really, really hard. Don’t call me lucky. Call me badass.”

  • To saying NO without explanation

“I come up with three different clear ways of saying no: ’I am going to be unable to do that.’ ‘That is not going to work for me.’ ‘No.’’’

  • To having the difficult conversations

“No matter how hard a conversation is, I know that on the other side of that conversation lies peace. Knowledge. An answer is delivered. Character is revealed. Truces are formed. Misunderstandings are resolved. Freedom lies across the field of the difficult conversation.”

  • To surrounding herself with friends and colleagues who are the real deal

“The upside to culling people from my life is that my focus has become crystal clear… I now work to see people, not as I’d rewrite them, but as they have written themselves… people whose self-worth, self-respect, and values inspire me to elevate my own behavior.”

  • To telling her truth

“Happiness comes from living as you need to, as you want to. As your inner voice tells you. Happiness comes from being who you actually are instead of who you think you are supposed to be.”

At the finish line, Shonda described herself as being: “One hundred twenty-seven pounds thinner. Several toxic people lighter. Closer to my family. A better mother. A better friend. A happier boss. A stronger leader. A more creative writer. A more honest person… More adventurous. More open. Braver. And kinder. To others. But also to myself.”

Those are things to which I can say YES!

The Science of Success

I just finished reading TIME magazine’s special edition on the science of success. Not surprisingly, most of what they had to say lines up with books I’ve already read and covered in this blog! Some highlights:

  • successStellar CEOs tend to be utility players; they have a range of above average skills rather than a single standout ability. Beyond above average intelligence, they exhibit: self-compassion to overcome setbacks and stay on track; an ability to control their attention; a stellar work ethic; and, a growth mindset.
  • Highly accomplished people are paragons of perseverance. They work at their craft. They model ferocious determination.
  • There’s a clear link between healthy bodies and high achievement. Exercise activates the prefrontal cortex, increases attention and focus, builds confidence, improves mood, and relieves stress.
  • Successful people understand that “finishing strong” isn’t about catching up at the end of a race to make a respectable showing. It’s about consistently focusing and doing your absolute best at every moment, from start to finish.
  • Each individual has a distinctive biorhythm that dictates when they’ll have their peaks and valleys of energy. Know your type (i.e., lark or night owl), identify the tasks to be completed, and determine the right order in which to pursue them given varying energy levels throughout the day.
  • Failure is an essential element of success. We fail until we find the right answer or approach. If you live cautiously, you fail by default. Expect setbacks. Feel your failures and learn from them. Then move on to what’s next.
  • Luck favors the prepared.

The issue closes with the principles that have guided some of our highest achievers:

  • Jane Goodall, leading expert on chimpanzees, received this advice from her mother: “If you really want something and you work hard and you take advantage of opportunities – and you never, ever give up – you will find a way.”
  • Steve Jobs, microcomputer pioneer: “You’ve got to put something back into the flow of history… [so that] people will say, this person didn’t just have a passion; he cared about making something that other people could benefit from.”
  • Helen Keller, one of America’s most inspiration figures: “Resolve to keep happy… and you shall form an invincible host against difficulties.”
  • Warren Buffett, Chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, advises us to exercise restraint and practice humility. “You can tell a guy to go to hell tomorrow – you don’t give up the right. So just keep your mouth shut today and see if you feel the same way tomorrow.”
  • Shonda Rhimes, entertainment mogul, stresses swagger. “We all have something about ourselves to brag about, something that is amazing or special or interesting… I say we need to start a bragging revolution.”
  • George Washington Carver, agricultural scientist: “It’s not the style of clothes one wears, neither the kind of automobile one drives, nor the amount of money one has in the bank that counts. These mean nothing. It is simply service that measure success.”
  • Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State: “Whenever my father saw that I had to take on something difficult or do something that I might not have confidence about, he would say, ‘Strike it.’ That was his version of ‘go for it.’ To me that meant you have to believe in yourself and go after what you want.”
  • Pablo Picasso, Spanish painter: “Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.”
  • Maya Angelou, Pulitzer-prize winning poet, took her grandmother’s advice to heart: “If the world puts you on a road you do not like, if you look ahead and do not want that destination which is being offered and you look behind and you do not want to return to your place of departure, step off the road. Build yourself a new path.”

How Successful People Use Their Time

As a follow-up to last week’s post, I read Laura Vanderkam’s book What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast… and Two Other Short Guides to Achieving More at Work and Home. Here are some of the high points from her writing.

Mornings

stop watchOur highest value activities should revolve around nurturing our careers, nurturing key relationships, and nurturing ourselves. Unfortunately, many of us let these activities slip to the bottom of our “to do” lists.

Mornings are the best time to set priorities for the day and ensure that important tasks get on the schedule. It’s also the time to DO some of those tasks – e.g., exercise – while our willpower is at its peak.

Laura’s advice: Give your career, your family, and yourself the best of your day, not what’s left over when everything else has taken its toll. To that end, picture the perfect morning. Think through the logistics of making it happen. Build the habits that reinforce those priorities.

Weekends

We all need restorative down time to give a boost to our energy, motivation, and productivity. And yet research has demonstrated that it’s not rejuvenating to simply “veg out.” We need some form of stimulation to feel happy, creative, and whole. Common activities include exercise, team sports, coaching, music, art, hobbies, volunteering, adventures with family and friends, and leveraging work-related skills in alternate forums (e.g., a tech writer who crafts poetry).

While most folks bristle at the thought of planning for their off hours, Laura maintains that “rest time is too precious to be totally leisurely.” Absent a plan, time can easily be filled up with chores, errands, email, web-surfing, TV, and other people’s agendas. That being said, plans do not have to be rigid and detailed. Laura advises scheduling a few “anchor events” at key intervals throughout the weekend. Beyond giving the weekend structure, they fuel a sense of anticipation as the weekend draws near. Anticipation alone confers a sense of excitement and happiness.

Laura’s advice: Compress chores by creating a distinct window of time to do them (and allowing some to be left undone). Mine your list of “100 Dreams” for ideas. Use mornings wisely. Create traditions with family and friends. Schedule down time (e.g., meditation, nap). Make time to explore. Plan something fun for Sunday night.

Work

Successful people take their work seriously… and take their time at work seriously. Laura’s research suggests that they adhere to the following 7 principles:

  1. They keep track of how they spend their time and actively consider ways to use it more effectively.
  2. They develop plans for the coming day, week, month, and year. They carve out time for periodic review and make adjustments, as needed.
  3. They say what they’ll do and do what they say. To that end, they are choosy about what they allow on each day’s priority list. They are realistic about what they can get done and hold themselves accountable to their commitments.
  4. They know that some activities masquerade as “work” but don’t advance their professional or organizational objectives. Common “brier patches” include email, texts, meetings, and conference calls. Successful people find ways to communicate and collaborate effectively. They know that there is an opportunity cost for their time and that of their colleagues. (You don’t need an hour’s meeting to complete 15 minutes’ worth of work.) They also know that scheduled breaks and social time benefit work.
  5. They work at their craft. They stay abreast of developments in their fields and challenge themselves to remain at the top of their game.
  6. They remain employable through careful cultivation of their knowledge, skills, experience, networks, and interpersonal skills – a.k.a., “career capital.”
  7. They love what they do. They take pleasure in making headway on meaningful projects and find joy in the doing of them.

Make Good Use of Time

Over the years, I’ve read several books on time management. I’d like to be able to say that I’ve put all that good advice into practice. But the truth of the matter is that I’m regularly overbooked and need refresher courses (and inspiration) to do a better job managing my time.

My latest foray into this subject matter came by way of Laura Vanderkam’s book 168 Hours (for which the subtitle is You have More Time That You Think). The title comes from the total hours in one week – a period sufficient to get a true picture of how we spend our time and to consider how we might allocate this precious resource better.

week

Time is an interesting concept. One the one hand, it’s not infinite; there are a fixed number of hours in every week into which we must fit all of our activities. On the other hand, you can fit a whole lot of life into 168 hours when using time wisely. Unfortunately, many of us fritter that resource away and wind up feeling like we’re scrambling to get everything done.

Here’s the basics of Laura’s time management planning process:

First: Do a time log over the course of a few weeks to see exactly how you are spending your time. Categorize your time into meaningful categories and subcategories. Be especially attentive to how you spend your work hours. Pay attention to how much of that time is truly productive versus just logging hours. Once you’ve got meaningful data, ask yourself: Is this really how I want to spend my time? Where can I make adjustments?

Second: Create a list of “100 Dreams” (or “1000 Dreams”) to provide fuel for exercising your passion muscles. Consider how these items might factor into your work life and provide rewarding ways to spend non-work hours.

Third: Identify your core competencies. These are things at which you are natively skilled and for which you have sufficient interest, ability, and motivation for continuous improvement. They should be abilities that you can leverage in multiple spheres of influence and that you find meaningful and important. The happiest people spend most of their time exercising their core competencies. They get rid of, minimize, or outsource tasks that don’t leverage those skills.

Fourth: Start with a blank slate (Sunday through Saturday, 24 hours per day) and fill in the hours from the ground up. Start with the necessities and high priority activities – e.g., good quality sleep, personal hygiene, eating (including shopping and meal preparation), work, relationships (e.g., spouse, children, friends, colleagues). Think about what choices you can make to increase the percentage of time that exercises your core competencies. Most folks find that they have a lot of time remaining that can be filled with meaningful activities… some of which could simply be restful, restorative “me time.”

Fifth: Give some structure and purpose to leisure time. Laura says: “Time is too precious to be leisurely about leisure.” As a case in point, Neilson research tells us that the average American spends ~30 hours/week watching TV of which ~20 hours per week represents concentrated attention. Could that time be better spent thinking about creating a more vibrant career, more meaningful relationships, and/or improved health and vitality?

Finally: Be open and flexible as you start to re-architect how you spend your 168 hours per week. There may be things on your “list of dreams” that you thought were really important that turn out to be duds once you actually start factoring them in. That’s OK! You’ll be learning a lot about yourself in the process. It may even be the case that things you’ve always considered core competencies may not be things that really bring you joy or provide fuel for personal development. Again – that’s OK! Consider what else might provide a sense of freedom, excitement, or challenge.

One final piece of advice really landed for me: Learn how to fill bits of time with bits of activity. As a life long musician, I’ve allowed myself to become stuck on the idea that time spent practicing must come in hour long chucks. Yet if I have my piano or guitar at hand, there’s no reason why I can’t work on bits of music in 10 to 15 minute chunks.