Category Archives: Personal Development

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.

A Fresh Approach to Goal Setting

Having written about the top 10 mistakes we make when launching self-improvement initiatives, it occurs to me that I ignored the biggest one of all: Choosing the wrong objective/goal/resolution in the first place. I confess that I’ve been guilty of this error in judgment quite often. I’ve committed to what could and should be good for me rather than what I really want.

feel goodI was introduced to a book by Danielle LaPorte’s a couple of years ago – The Desire Map: A Guide to Creating Goals with Soul. With that auspicious title, I opted to take a leap of faith and work through the exercises to see what they might reveal.

Danielle’s basic thesis: “Knowing how you want to feel is the most potent clarity you can have. Generating those feelings is the most powerful thing you can do with your life.” To that end, she walks readers through an exploration of the five major areas of life:

LIVELIHOOD & LIFESTYLE Career, money, work, home, space, style, possessions, fashion, travel, gifts, sustainability, resources
BODY & WELLNESS Healing, fitness, food, rest & relaxation, mental health, sensuality, movement
CREATIVITY & LEARNING Artistic and self-expression, interests, education, hobbies
RELATIONSHIPS & SOCIETY Romance, friendships, family, collaboration, community, causes
ESSENCE & SPIRITUALITY Soul, inner self, truth, intuition, faith, practices

She asks readers to turn off their analytical (and ofttimes judgmental) brains and explore the answers to four foundational questions:

  • In every area of my life, what am I grateful for? What’s not working?
  • What are my core desired feelings?
  • To generate my core desired feelings, what do I want to do, experience, or have?
  • What three or four intentions and goals will I focus on this year?

I’ll confess that I rolled my eyes a bit when reading about core desired feelings. I thought, “How do I know what my core desired feelings are?” Yet clear patterns emerged when working  systematically through the exercises. I could identify circumstances where I activated desirable feelings and those where I decidedly did not. I came up with words to describe how I’d like to feel in each area of my life, and then settled on four adjectives that best capture my desired state:

ENERGETIC – INQUISITIVE – JOYFUL – CONNECTED

Knowing that’s how I’d like to feel, it’s much easier to consider opportunities and assess the degree to which they are likely to evoke those feelings. They also provide the litmus test on whether or not to keep doing some of the things on my plate. And, of course, I can challenge myself to make a daily, weekly, and monthly plan to increase the core desired feelings in each area of my life. (I’m reminding myself of that commitment with a sticky note on my computer stand!)

One final piece of advice from Danielle’s book:

Set out to do three or four things this year with gusto and excellence, rather than doing a dozen things just sufficiently. The momentum and satisfaction you’ll gain from pulling off just a few amazing endeavors will far outweigh anything you could gain from doing a bunch of things halfway. Trust your inner guidance and don’t worry so much about getting it right.”

Charting the Road Ahead

“Vision without action is hallucination. Action without vision is random activity.”
– Edie Raether

the road aheadThe trees are ablaze with Fall colors in my corner of the world, with autumn leaves falling all around me. It’s a gentle reminder to bring the year’s projects to completion, harvest the wisdom reaped during the year, and lay the groundwork for the coming year’s activities.

While thinking about next year’s plans, I came across a few notes from a talk given by self-improvement guru Edie Raether many years ago. She’s entertaining and very sharp.

Early on in her talk, she reminds the audience that human beings are fundamentally pleasure-oriented creatures. We seek positive emotional states and make decisions in pursuit of them. In fact, what we choose by emotion, we justify by logic. As such, it’s crucial to figure out what floats our boats before getting too embroiled in the planning process. To that end, it’s a good idea to spend some time reflecting on our past experiences and discern patterns surrounding our greatest joys and greatest disappointments.

Armed with a sense of what brings happiness (fulfillment, peace, etc.), we must dare to ask ourselves: What would we do if we knew we couldn’t fail? This question isn’t a cliché; it’s a call to take our dreams seriously enough that we name that place where we’d like to go. We must focus on all the ways we might get there, leaving aside the 100 “yeah, buts…” that cloud our thinking. We must be ready to create a new future and be open to serendipity. (She asks: “When opportunity knocks, do you complain about the noise?”)

She then served up the following 5 steps:

  1. Have a vision. And for every vision, there is a re-vision.
  2. Make a plan. Figure out what you’ll need for the journey, where you’ll need to go, and who’ll you’ll want for traveling companions. Be specific. Define milestones.
  3. Commit. As a case in point, she noted that George Burns booked the Palladium in London for his 100th birthday. He was routinely asked, “Do you think you’re going to make it to 100?” George would reply, “I have to. I’m booked.”
  4. Take action. “Fake it until you make it.” This saying is not an encouragement to be phony; it’s a mandate to live the dream.
  5. Believe. Barbra Streisand always knew that she would be a star even though she did not have the traditional “look.” She believed in her talent, her passion, and her drive.

Man’s Search for Meaning

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche

If you’ve never had the chance to read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, it’s time that this best-selling book finds its way onto your reading list. It may not change your life, but it will certainly give you a new lens through which to view it.

Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who was transported and processed at the Auschwitz concentration camp in October 1994 alongside his wife. He survived months of slave labor at a camp affiliated with Dachau before his liberation by American soldiers the following year. Sadly, his mother Elsa and brother Walter died in Auschwitz; his wife Tilly died in Bergen-Belsen.

How does someone find meaning in such dire circumstances?

concentration campConfinement in the camps bought harsh working conditions, insufficient nourishment, lack of sleep, and a host of psychological pressures. Yet through it all, there were prisoners who devoted their energies to comforting others and sharing their meager scraps of food. They’d lost everything, but they retained the ability to choose how they’d respond to their circumstances. They exercised control over their mental and spiritual well-being.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation,… we are challenged to change ourselves.”
– Viktor Frankel

Pain and suffering find a way into every person’s life. How we face these challenges determines the quality of our character. The extreme conditions in the camps forced the prisoners to adjust their core attitudes toward life. They stopped asking life what it would do for them; they started asking what life expected of them.

Each of us comes into this life with a purpose to be served. Our distinctiveness has a bearing on the work that we’ll do as well as the lives we’ll touch. If we accept these responsibilities, we can learn to bear almost any hardship. This awareness gives us a sense for the unfinished (or unrealized) work that awaits completion through our efforts. It helps us see the faces of loved ones whose happiness and well-being demand our presence and participation in their lives. No other person can walk in our footsteps; no one can be replaced. As Frankl says:

“Being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets oneself – by giving himself a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”

To that end, Frankl cautions against aiming at success. The more we set our sights on it, the less likely we’ll attain it. Success ensues as an unintended side effect of dedication to a cause greater than oneself. He asks us to listen to our conscience and carry out its directives to the best of our ability.

I’ve certainly never experienced any trauma or tragedy comparable to the Holocaust. Yet I draw comfort and inspiration from Frankl’s words at a time when our country seems to be in such turmoil and armed conflicts abound. Even Mother Nature seems to be lashing out in response to our questionable stewardship of her bounty. It’s easy enough to feel discouraged. Here again, Frankl cuts through all the noise with a clear and compelling message:

“For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become worse unless each of us does his best.”
– Viktor Frankel

Seriously – read the book!

21 Ways to Sustain Inner Peace

I’ve had an especially rough week. Too much to do, too much stress, and too little sleep alongside a substantive family emergency. I decided to revisit a set of practices that Mary Lynn Hendrix derived from The Work of Katie Byron.

inner peace

  1. Take responsibility for your beliefs and judgments. Avoid the temptation to judge others; focus on cleaning up your own stuff. Be compassionate and forgiving.
  2. Notice when you’re minding other people’s business. Did they ask your advice? Could you apply that advice to your own life?
  3. Hold lightly what you think you know about yourself. Challenge your beliefs. Consider the payoffs (and the costs) of hanging on to them.
  4. Practice “detaching” from your body and your story. Experiment with a third person narrative of your life and events to see what new insights this practice yields.
  5. Speak in the present tense. Experience life in the moment. Avoid the temptation to ruminate about the past or worry about the future.
  6. Learn to love the work that’s right in front of you. Love doing dishes. Love the laundry. Love writing that 1-page memo on which you’ve been procrastinating all day.
  7. Listen to your body. Practice stillness to give it space to speak. Explore what’s really going on when it twitches, tingles, aches, tenses up, etc.
  8. Practice narrating event as if you were a roving reporter. Focus on the facts: What is happening right now? What’s drawing my attention? Where are my hands, feet, arms, legs, etc., and what are they doing? What do I see? Don’t get caught up in the interpretation of the facts or fear of what’s coming in the next moment.
  9. Practice taking what others say at face value. Resist the temptation to assign deep meaning or hidden motivation. Let them finish uninterrupted while giving them your full attention. Once you’ve really listened, then you can consider how you might respond.
  10. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Don’t fret excessively about what they’ll think. Don’t use words to manipulate others.
  11. Watch life’s recurring dramas as if they’re theatrical plays. Take heart in knowing that you can leave your seat, exit the playhouse, and step outside at any time. The play will still be there later.
  12. Rewrite the drama. Consider how it would play out through the mind and eyes other playwrights. Notice how your experience of it changes.
  13. Exercise polarity. When ruminating on a negative thought, take yourself to the opposite pole to experience something positive. Come back to the positive pole every time you feel yourself slipping.
  14. Awaken self-love. Make a list of everything you love about someone else and share it with them. Now look at the list and see how many of those things are also true of you.
  15. Live your truth. Move, respond, and speak with genuine intention and interest. Don’t compromise your integrity with false excuses or explanations.
  16. Ask for what you want. People don’t know what you want unless you tell them. If they are unwilling or unable to give it to you, find ways to give it to yourself.
  17. Be open to life’s lessons. Recognize that the people and circumstances that come into your life are there to teach you about who you are.
  18. Practice self-gratitude. Stop looking outside yourself for validation.
  19. Use vanity mirrors sparingly. Don’t get caught up in a reflection that doesn’t tell the story of who you are.
  20. Stop justifying yourself. Notice how often you provide explanations for yourself and your words, actions, decisions, etc. Who are you trying to convince? Practice right thoughts, decision-making, and action, and stand firm.
  21. Be grateful for criticism. Say (or think) “thank you” to the slings and arrows, even though it hurts. That attitude enables you to hear the feedback and use the information in a way that serves you.

The Power of Onlyness

“I believe that at the root of our humanity is a passion to create value with heart, to work alongside others who care, and to make a difference.”
– Nilofer Merchant

Ranked #22 on the 2017 Thinkers50 global ranking of management gurus, Nilofer Merchant has launched over 100 products that have generated nearly $2 billion in sales. She’s a published author who thinks deeply about strategies, frameworks, and cultural values. Her latest book is a clarion call to identify, embrace, and actuate our distinctiveness in a way that promotes the common good. She titled it The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World.

Ms. Merchant shares her perspective on onlyness within the context of inspirational narratives (including her own). The successes generally adhere to the following story arc:

Individuals tap into ideas or issues that prove deeply meaningful. Their histories, backgrounds, and surroundings influence what they notice and what evokes their response. When an idea or issue comes to the fore and ignites passion, it gives clarity of purpose going forward.

Individuals bring their distinct gifts, skills, experiences, passions, and insights to the enterprise. They value themselves for who they are, just as they are, without getting tripped up by what other people think. They simply focus on doing what they can. This orientation toward action confers its own reward. As Ms. Merchant says, “discovering yourself is a function of being yourself.”

the power of onlynessThey align with others who share their passions, purpose, goals, and values. Ms. Merchant argues that onlyness does NOT result in loneliness. Quite the contrary! Cultivating community transforms the individual from being the “only one” who gives voice to an idea or issue into a powerful force for change based on the scale and strength of the collective. Finding community may take time and effort. Social media helps! It may also mean letting loose the bonds with other communities for which the pressure to conform has proven stifling. Yet it promises the freedom to feel deeply attached to the world and others while standing firm in one’s own beliefs and ideas.

They invest the time and energy to forge trusted, cohesive communities. Such communities balance the distinctive ideas and contributions of the individuals with the overarching mission and goals of the collective. They forge trust. Ms. Merchant writes:

“To move an idea into reality, everyone involved with it needs to know how to be curious enough to discover the right problems to solve. They need to listen to one another as options are explored, and be vulnerable enough to accept help from one another. Also, they need to tussle together on tough decisions so that, ultimately, they can lean on one another as they prepare to move into action.”

They commit to taking effective action. They build frameworks that enable individuals to contribute based on what they see while ensuring that the end results contribute responsibly to the overarching purpose. They foster collaboration using all relevant technology and make sure there’s ample room for in-person gatherings. They give ideas room to grow without suffocating them with unrealistic expectations or a mandate to be “successful.” To that end, side projects and extracurricular activities can provide relatively low-risk testing grounds.

Mr. Merchant warns that the road ahead may not be clear, and the journey may take a number of twists and turns. That’s OK! As she says: “Until you do the actual work, the strength and specificity of your goal will not become clear – to you or to others.”

While Ms. Merchant’s book contemplates making a dent in the world, I find the concepts germane to crafting one’s life plan. It argues for spirited and intentional exploration rather than adhering to a conventional road map. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

How to Form Good Habits

“Habits are the behaviors that I want to follow forever, without decisions, without debate, no stopping, no finish lines.”
– Gretchen Rubin

build good habitsThe books that I’ve been reading lately provide roadmaps for living a healthier, happier life. While it’s easy to get my head wrapped around all the good advice, it can be hard to get my body and spirit on board. Inertia and procrastination often rule the day. So I was understandably intrigued when I read the title for Gretchen Rubin’s book – Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits – to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life.

According to Rubin, habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life. It takes work to forge good habits. Once they’re set, it becomes second nature to integrate them into our daily routine. Moreover, a consistent practice alleviates the energy drain of exercising will power in the face of indecision. Just do it!

I can bear witness to the psychic energy drain tied to a lack of daily rituals. I’ve worked from a home office for over 20 years, so I have the freedom to tackle projects any time of the day or night. When I have a thin backlog and extended due dates, it’s easy for me to procrastinate. Unfortunately, I don’t really enjoy the “free time” because I know I should go to my office and knock the work out. It takes real effort to force myself to get rolling, yet I feel so much better when I’m fully engaged and making progress. It would be so much easier for me to simply set aside regular office hours and stick to them!

A cornerstone in habit formation lies in understanding one’s “tendency” with respect to honoring commitments. Rubin characterizes the four major personality types as follows:

  • UPHOLDERS honor commitments to themselves and others.
  • QUESTIONERS honor commitments to themselves and question commitments to others.
  • OBLIGERS honor commitments made to others but waiver in their commitments to themselves.
  • REBELS have an uneasy relationship with commitments whether made to themselves or others.

the four tendencies

Apparently, most folks tend to be Questioners or Obligers. Questioners need to learn how to translate external commitments into something that resonates internally. Obligers (like yours truly) need to create some form of external accountability to help meet internal goals and deadlines.

Better Than Before is filled with guiding principles and recommendations to aide in habit formation. Here are ones that I found especially useful:

When we’re clear on our values, our goals, and the reasons behind the choices we make, it’s easier to institute habits to support them. Clarity calls for us to sort through and resolve conflicting goals. It requires that we get real about what we’re doing (and not doing). It asks that we take note of bad habits that we hide from others; it’s a sign that we may be out of integrity with our values and/or goals.

The best time to start a new habit is NOW. It doesn’t need to be perfectly conceived or executed. It just needs to get off the ground and put into practice one day at a time.

We manage what we monitor. If we create specific, measurable goals and create a system for tracking progress, we’re far more likely to stay the course. For the Obligers among us, the experience of following through on internal commitments increases confidence in our ability to sustain good habits.

When we schedule specific, regular times for recurring activities, it’s more likely that we’ll do them. Scheduling helps make the activities automatic, thereby eliminating the bandwidth it takes to debate whether or not to take action. For example, I’m much more consistent with exercise when I’ve given myself a “fitness appointment” on my calendar. Scheduling also helps us confront the natural limits of a 24-hour day.

Accountability increases the likelihood that we’ll meet our commitments. I’ve been experimenting with this strategy to help me achieve personal goals. For example, I’ve improved my eating habits by declaring my intention to prepare all of the recipes in health-promoting cookbooks and documenting my efforts on a website. I also engage the services of a wonderful coach with whom I have monthly check-ins. Because I’m investing time, effort, and money in this relationship, I make good use of his wise counsel and make positive changes.

Good habits are more likely to stick when they’re convenient and pleasurable. Bad habits are easier to break when taking action proves inconvenient. The harder it is to do something, the harder it is to do it impulsively.

When we anticipate and minimize temptation, we’re less likely to get derailed. This approach calls for eliminating triggers and developing plans to address stumbling blocks when they arise (e.g., schedule disruption, social pressure, loneliness, boredom). For example, a few calisthenics or a short walk works for me when I’m bored and tempted to snack. It perks me up and provides a distraction while my cravings subside. (Ah – if only I craved dark, leafy greens!)

Habits work best if the rewards are intrinsic – e.g., challenge, curiosity, skill development, mastery. Rewards should encourage and support good habits. For example, a reward for healthy eating and weight loss might be a new outfit that accentuates progress. A pint of delicious ice cream derails progress.

In conclusion, Rubin notes: “We can build our habits only on the foundation of our own nature. When we understand clearly the internal and external levers that move habits, we can make change much more effectively.”