Round Tuit Revisited

Cousin Ed was a big man. I mean, a big man. He and my father had barely known each other growing up, but had reconnected years later when Ed began working on a nearby Air Force base. Ed was the kind of man that got things done, and in that respect, he and my father could not have been more different. My father made list after list of things to do, and little ever got crossed off. When Ed came over he’d pull the list off the fridge with a grin, and look at my father, one of his eyelids sagging in a permanent half-wink, and grin like a schoolboy before getting to work.
Whenever Ed asked him if a certain project was done yet, my father would reply that he would get it done when he could “get around to it”. One birthday, after years of this broken record of an exchange, a Hallmark card showed up for my father from none other than Cousin Ed, and the inside was labeled in large letters “Round Tuit”. He said that he was officially sending my father the “round tuit” he had been waiting for all these years in order to get started on his projects.
Now, my father was by no means a lazy man. In fact he worked 60 hours+ a week for years running his own freelance writing business. But what is it about some tasks that makes us procrastinate? Why do we delay something we have taken the time to write down in order to remember to do it?

 

The Science of Procrastination

According to a report from the BBC, our brains have two areas that activate at different times depending on what activities we engage in. One is the attention network and the other is the default network. These networks are neural pathways within the brain. Think of them as a connection of way stations that serve as a railroad track between areas of the brain or your nervous system. For example, when you are playing the board game Operation with your five year old niece and trying with all your might to stop your hand from shaking as you remove the Butterflies in Cavity Sam’s stomach, and your little monster of a relative is barely suppressing an evil cackle, excitedly longing for that annoying buzzer to blow up in your face, your attention network is on high alert.
What people who have trouble with focus find is that their brains tend to drift into default state more easily, taking them away from the task at hand. This means they are not only more likely to stop mid project (not start at all), but are also much more prone to making mistakes while working, particularly if the work is not interesting to them. In one test, researchers occasionally interspersed female faces among a long and steady line of male visages. Testers were told to hit the space bar every time a face appeared except when it was a female face. Those with high mistake rates were the ones who struggled to activate and keep their attention systems engaged. But, if you think this may be you and are already feeling discouraged, simply turn it around and claim that you have a neural default system to rival the strength of The Mountain from Game of Thrones. Now that’s something to be proud of!

 

The Path Through Procrastination: Grit?

On the other side of the procrastination coin, is what Angela Duckworth has simply termed “Grit”. In her book of the same title, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance and on her website, Duckworth defines the word as “…the tendency to sustain interest and effort toward very long term goals,” she delves into research that shows how this measure of “stick-to-it-iveness” outperforms IQ, test scores, physical well-being, and a host of other markers across industries to indicate who will and who will not be successful. Personally, I like to call this the “ability to get shit done”, but hey, Angela is the one who wrote the book.

In a book review in the New York Times, Judith Shulevitz breaks down the importance of grit into a simple math equation (don’t close the browser just yet, even my useless brain could grasp this one). If achievement of some sort is your goal, whether that is in a professional career or personal passion, then the formula looks like this:

Talent x Effort = Skill
Skill x Effort = Achievement

If you agree with this formula, which looks reasonable enough, then you will notice that effort (grit, in a sense) counts twice. Shulevitz goes on to argue that this is what makes the high achiever’s in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers capable of practicing for those interminable 10,000 hours. That’s why grit is more indicative of success. It’s simply a tool we need to pull more often from our toolbelts.

 

How to Keep Track of Your “Round Tuit”

I can hear you mumbling under your breath, “Okay, so my brain is different? I wasn’t born with the trait of hard work that some social psychologist re-branded and used to sell books? I just need to work harder? Thanks for the insight. Earth-shattering, no really it is.”

But wait, hold on, please. Just a moment before you go. There are practical solutions. You know that brain wandering referenced above? The tendency of the default system to overrule your attention system? There is a practice that can help with that, and it’s been around for thousands of years. It’s called mindfulness training, and one of its greatest benefits is simply that it teaches its practitioners how to live in the now, and train the wandering mind to wander a little bit less. Ignore Silicon Valley’s obsession and the Instagram posts about meditation and Matcha lattes and instead look at the research. It’s impressive.

And what about grit? Duckworth says simply to find something you already have interest in, practice at it a lot, and (most importantly) make a connection in your brain between this work and how it can improve the world. This higher purpose can help keep you both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated. Your practice here will train your ability to set a task and achieve it, which will bleed into the rest of your life.

And if all this fails or sounds too difficult, there is always the blue collar approach. Find a smart-ass, hardworking family member to write the words “Round Tuit” on an over-stylized, five dollar greeting card, or legal pad paper, or any scrap of trash and just keep it in your pocket. When you realize you are procrastinating, simply pull it out, stand it up on your desk in a place of honor, and get to work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Upgrade Your Mental Software

You’ve likely seen both sides of the coin. When someone is physically fit to a seemingly inhuman level, or mentally capable beyond understanding, we say things like, “He’s a machine,” or “She’s not human.” On the other hand, if someone doesn’t show the emotions or behaviors we consider normal (think Mark Zuckerberg recently in front of the Senate), then we refer to that person as a “robot”. Whatever your personal opinion, of Artificial Intelligence, however, there is certainly something we can gain from the metaphor.
On a recent podcast, Aubrey Marcus made the assertion that everyone has routines. Whether they are good or bad, by adding small, valuable steps into your current routine, you will eventually create  a habit. Now once something becomes a habit, it then begins to seep into your unconscious, and you will begin to take the action without thinking about it, thereby skipping the time necessary for your brain to create an excuse. He says this is like “upgrading our software.”
For those of you that just left the farm for the big city, Holly Golightly style, here is the definition of software: “the programs used to direct the operation of a computer…”
While we are not robots and don’t want to be (no matter how awesome Ex Machina was) the idea that you can upgrade your software, as Marcus explains, by building habits into your daily routines is a lesson too valuable to let go.

Consider this example:
You’re a normal American. You don’t like going to the gym after work. In fact you hate it so much you pay for a monthly membership that you don’t use. But you like the sauna, and you like reading Danielle Steele (everyone has a guilty pleasure). So you change your routine. Every time you get to the gym, you spend ten minutes in the sauna. You then workout. After you finish leaving half your water weight on the Stairmaster, you hit the showers. After that you treat yourself to a chapter Danielle’s latest masterpiece, either in the gym somewhere on a couch if you’re bougie enough for that kind of gym or in the front seat of your car in the gym parking lot if you are like the rest of us.
By adding a positive activity before something you don’t like, and then a positive activity also directly afterward, you are building habits and routines into your daily ritual, giving your mind things to look forward to that are directly tied to the healthy habit. If the sauna is at the gym, and your brain associates Danielle Steele with the gym parking lot, then your brain will want you to go to the gym. Something you used to talk yourself out of is now a part of your day that you can’t live without. In fact, when done correctly, you will stress at the thought of skipping a day, as your brain will crave the endorphins created both by these two pleasurable activities and the exercise itself. Talk about hotwiring your brain!
So think of something you wish you had more “willpower” to accomplish and instead build a positive routine around it. Upgrade your mental software to the point where you are just following your own programming without a second thought, and watch the results follow.

You Get What You Celebrate

While it may be a cliché in the workplace, it is also indisputable that “What gets measured, gets managed.” In other words, as soon as something becomes a KPI, gets placed on a performance review, is tied to compensation, or becomes the CEO’s new hot button, it is almost certain that performance around this new metric will rise.
Well that’s simple then. In your business, if you want to improve something, simply begin measuring it and stack ranking the results. You are almost guaranteed to see your work or your team’s work improve in this area. Without getting too deep into the pros and cons of the KPI culture in corporate America, there are some drawbacks to this approach however, and there are times when it can backfire. Instead of delving into those examples (maybe another time…), let’s instead consider an alternative.
In a recent interview, Frank Blake, the former CEO of Home Depot made a comment that you could say is a close cousin to “What gets measured, gets managed,” but takes a different approach and arguably stands to make a more positive cultural influence on your organization: “You get what you celebrate.”
This sounds incredibly simple, and essentially it is. However, how often do you see bosses, parents, etc. who desire a certain behavior attempt to get there via either negative reinforcement or management via measurement as referenced above? Blake, however, speaks to how he encouraged a culture customer service at Home Depot beyond what a survey could measure. He drove this behavior via hundreds of handwritten notes to employees who demonstrated these qualities. He inspired this focus with break room TVs that celebrated above and beyond customer service stories. This is the transformational approach – the cultural approach – to achieving a behavior you desire. This is effective at work, at home, in parenting, and in relationships. So the next time you want to influence a positive change, think about it differently. Can you make the change come about via celebration?

Productivity Points 1.0

 

There is so much to be written about productivity and how to maximize it, that there is little use in trying to capture it all in one work, no matter the distance between the covers. Few readers would have the patience to read it, and no writers would have the lifespan to write it. Instead it is best to take productivity pointers in bite sized chunks. If you come across one hundred different ways to improve you productivity, and want to try them out, chances are you try a handful. If instead you were to encounter two of them every week for a year, I’d wager your success with implementation would rise significantly. In that spirit, I will mostly keep these productivity points short.
In a recent blog post, Sam Altman, of Y Combinator fame, wrote a laundry list of productivity practices he has come to implement over time. They range from his sleeping and eating habits to the ideal length of a meeting (which is often zero minutes). A couple of his points stand out as particularly striking and worth an attempt at trying out.

Examine What You Are Working On:

One of the most basic and absolutely most influential aspects of productivity is the importance of what you are working on and your interest level. If you love something enough, you do it in your free time. You find a way to squeeze it into your day. Imagine having just half of that interest in your work projects?

But I get it. In the corporate world, you don’t always get to choose. Don’t pretend you don’t have influence here, though. Most employees do. What boss does not like a direct report coming to them with a project they’d like to contribute to? If you don’t like what you are working on, and you truly can’t influence it where you work, then maybe it is where you work that you need to change.

Prioritize, Prioritize, Prioritize

There are a number of ways to practice this. Start the day with your most challenging project. You should be at your most energized and will not want to tackle this item later when you are drained. You will also feel accomplished when it’s done, which can spur further productivity. Bonus tip: Don’t schedule meetings at this time. Your productivity is wasted in meetings.

Another way of saying this is to “Eat the frog”, which comes from quote people love to attribute to Mark Twain (I’m unsure if it’s accurate and you can’t believe the internet when it comes to Mark Twain quotes). He is reported to have said that if you start the day eating a live frog, you at least know the worst of your day is behind you. Tackle your worst project first. Everything else will feel smooth from there on out and it will relieve the stress you are placing on yourself by leaving that item hanging over your head all day long.

The third skill to learn here is to become good at saying, “No.” Learn what is important to get done and what is not. You don’t have to fix every problem or put out every fire. You will get yourself into trouble if you try. Saying no to something is simply allowing yourself to say yes to something more important when it arises, if it’s not already staring you in the face.

Use a Full Spectrum LED

For the most actionable item on the list, try this. Full spectrum LED lights have a host of benefits, including helping with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) for those of us in the colder, darker climates. Altman says he uses his for 10-15 minutes every morning while he works through emails, and it is the one of the best things he has implemented. Not what I expected to find in this article, but mine will be getting delivered by Amazon by the end of the week…

Make Smaller Maps

The bigger the map, the bigger the potential mistakes. Work with closer goals and course correct along the way.

Show of hands, who has been to the Mountains of Kong? Oh really? I doubt it. The Mountains of Kong are a non-existent mountain range that magically spanned the continent of Africa for much of the 1800s. James Rennell, Johann Reinecke, and John Cary all displayed this massive range on their maps and engravings, while famous explorers such as René Caillié, Lemon Lander, and Hugh Clapperton all included this on their maps as well. There are various lessons you could derive from this story, but the one I want to focus on relates to a phrase from Scott Berkun’s book A Year Without Pants. Not only does the book have one of the best names ever penned, but useful nuggets are buried throughout its pages regarding modern work and the accompanying challenges around remote workspaces, project management, and culture.
One of the more striking bits of wisdom in A Year Without Pants is Berkun’s supplication to his readers to “Make smaller maps.” Berkun’s point is that when creating a road map for a project or goal, if you set out every piece in advance for a large project, all the way to completion, and then attempt then to follow it, you run the larger risk of being drastically wrong. However, if you work with smaller maps, simply moving yourself in the direction of where you need to go, or even think you need to go, you are much more likely to discover mistakes and course correct along the way. You are not blinded by the destination way off in the distance, leading you further afield. You instead focus on the goal just in front of you, which in turn moves you in the right direction. The faulty pieces of your map come more easily to light and you can fix them, creating a stronger product or process.
So work with smaller maps, make sure your progress is accurate and building soundly upon your previous steps. While you certainly need to be aware of what is on the horizon, if you have created a map with a destination deep in the Mountains of Kong, and are so gung-ho about getting there that you fail to realize your blunder until it is too late, you are going to have a long, embarrassing road home.

How to Battle Commitment Regret

We all know the feeling. It’s the night before an event, or worse, the morning of, and as you scroll through your mental preparations, you have two desires. One is to kick yourself for having said yes. The other is to rewind the clock and not agreed to whatever event is looming on the horizon. Why did you tell your boss you would attend that seminar? Why did you agree to brunch with that friend from high school you haven’t kept up with? Why did you tell your coworker that you would help her with that project?
When a commitment is far enough away, still nebulous and vague, there is no pain or discomfort associated with agreeing to it. In the heat of a moment we often agree to things without thought. We make commitments without regards to the repercussions. The next step in the process? Complain to our loved ones that we wish we’d never said, “Yes.” And one of the more masochistic parts of this phenomenon? We do it over and over again.
Esther Dyson, however, is a Swiss-born American journalist also known as a businesswoman, investor, and philanthropist, who has figured out a way to guard herself against this weakness. In a wonderful piece of advice you can make your own, she advises you to ask one simple question when something comes along that will eventually take your time or effort, but requires a decision today:

“Would I say yes if it were on Tuesday?”

This metaphorical Tuesday could be any day of the week, but what Esther is essentially doing is taking that event and putting it front and center. What changes to your schedule would you have to make if your commitment were coming due this Tuesday? What inconveniences would arise? Is this something you truly want to do or are you going to say yes because it is easier? It is only easier because the pain is so far away! Pull that discomfort into the here and now, and you will save yourself that Monday night regret when your next future Tuesday comes calling.

Wait…Be More Impatient?

We all know that person or have that friend (or if we are being honest, it is ourselves…) that is impatiently waiting for something that is years away. It is often a promotion we want to earn, a skill we want to master, or a job we want to have. We talk about it constantly, dream about it on a nightly basis, and oftentimes pin our very happiness to it. We don’t allow ourselves to be content, because this thing, this change in our life, is the key to the rest of our lives. Or so we think.

But that is not necessarily the point I want to make here. Let’s go in a different direction. What is striking, and often blind to us and our friends and family that, is that this impatience is not wrong, but just grossly misplaced. Patience is a virtue, but only in the right context. While we pine away for mastery of a skill, appointment to a job, or a lifestyle above and beyond our current means, we are extraordinarily patient with the activities that will get us there.

Gary Vaynerchuk makes a great point in a recent video when he says that we need to “Stop being patient with the micro and impatient with the macro. Impatient about milestones you want to hit years from now but wasting time watching TV.” The macro is that lifestyle you want, whether it is a larger house or nicer apartment with a fancy car, or an early retirement cruising the Caribbean. That’s the big picture. That’s the macro. It is likely far away. However, the micro, what you are doing today to get yourself there, the steps you are taking in that direction, is the micro. What work have you put towards learning the language you always wish you knew? What work have you put towards learning the guitar? To saving enough money to go to Europe? To learning that skill that will get you promoted? Or offered a new job somewhere else? Oh you bought a seventh jacket to add to your closet but don’t have enough money to go to Bali? You don’t have the body you want because you go to happy hour every day after work instead of the gym? You didn’t get promoted, but you’re caught up on every season of Survivor? My sympathies.

Too many people need to flip their behaviors. Be patient with the macro. Those are significant life changes. However, to make those things happen, get more impatient, much more impatient, with the micro.

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