Windows of Opportunity

The game show Jeopardy has been in the news this past year for several reasons, the most tragic of which was the passing of longtime host Alex Trebeck. Another reason was their all-time champion competition which crowed Ken Jennings as the show’s greatest winner. This was due in part to him being fast on the buzzer, having a wide range of knowledge, and good game board strategy. Recently Jennings stood in as the first post-Trebeck host. Despite his skills at the game, he is very humble about the streak of 74 games in a row that made him famous. In a recent article on SI profile, Jennings highlighted an important decision that helped him win that first game during final Jeopardy. The answer to the last question (or is the question to the last answer) was Marion Jones. Jennings only wrote “Who is Jones?” which might not have been enough information for the judges to consider it correct. As he says in the SI profile:

“That’s the moment it all hinges on,” says Jennings of the split-second decision to accept a Marion-free Jones. “It’s comforting to think of the world as a meritocracy, that the right people succeed, but that’s not always true. My whole life hinges on whether or not I put a first name down and whether the judge nods right there. I feel extremely fortunate and I think about it literally every day, because I love what I do.”

One of the great mysteries is why some people achieve enormous success while others doing the same thing get very little. Those who thrive usually credit it to their determination, hard work, intelligence, or skill. A few honest people also point to luck as Jennings does above, but it is also more than that. In 2003, Jeopardy eliminated a rule that forced champions to retire after winning five games. When he went on the show in 2004, this rule change allowed him to go on his record winning streak. Compete two years earlier and he would have finished as another anonymous five time champion. Ken Jennings took advantage of a Window of Opportunity.

In a recent blog post, Tiago Forte wrote about how our opportunities are not unlimited. They come in specific Windows of Opportunity, an idea he learned from Space Adventures founder Eric Anderson. As Tiago writes:

A Window of Opportunity, according to Eric, is “A rare set of circumstances and a brief moment of time in which an otherwise impossible outcome is potentially achievable.”

He then shows how understanding this idea can change the perspective on timing when crafting goals.

Windows of Opportunity is a revolutionary way to think about goal-setting, because it recognizes that there is now one factor that is decisive in your ability to reach your goals: timing. Timing has become even more important than vision, hard work, or planning. That “T” at the end of SMART, which stands for “Time-bound,” is no longer an afterthought tacked on at the end – it is the most important element of your goals.

Read the rest of Tiago’s article on the Forte Labs website.

Basecamp’s Written Approach to Communication

It is a cliché nowadays to say how much people hate meetings. However, very few organizations have found a way to successfully avoid having them on a regular basis. It would seem there is a natural tendency for people to come together in a real or virtual room to discuss issues or advance projects. However, some organizations have tried to eliminate meetings by crafting a different priority straight into their DNA.

Basecamp, a company that produces project management and internal communication software, has decided that the company works best when its employees focus on written communication. According to their Guide to Internal Communication:

You can not not communicate. Not discussing the elephant in the room is communicating. Few things are as important to study, practice, and perfect as clear communication. Real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time. Internal communication based on long-form writing, rather than a verbal tradition of meetings, speaking, and chatting, leads to a welcomed reduction in meetings, video conferences, calls, or other real-time opportunities to interrupt and be interrupted.

Basecamp Press Resources

Why do they believe long form writing is the better way? It has to do with an understanding that most communication is asynchronous.

Communication shouldn’t require schedule synchronization. Calendars have nothing to do with communication. Writing, rather than speaking or meeting, is independent of schedule and far more direct.

Read the entire Guide to Internal Communication to learn more about how Basecamp encourages employees to keep each other updated on their projects.

Reflections on How to Read Self-Help

Throughout my life I have been a regular reader of self-help books. Whether they spoke about yoga, leadership, productivity, habits, or grit, I often found fascinating tips and tricks to apply. However, there are times when I feel burned out by self-help material. Sometimes it can feel trite or repetitive to the point of annoyance. In down times it makes me wonder whether one can really change at all.

Recently, I was pointed to a fresh understanding of the value of self-help books in an article on Tom Cleveland’s blog called How to Read Self-Help. In the article, Tom reflects on the paradox of people’s feelings towards these books.

We’re embarrassed by self-help, but we’re also attracted to it. We like reading it, but we’re skeptical that it works. We suspect self-help isn’t useful, but every serious list of business books turns out to be comprised entirely of self-help books.

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As he explores it further, Tom comes to the realization that that subject of self-help is more complex than it first appears.

I’m going to argue that it’s both. Some self-help is terrible, individualistic hucksterism that the US has exported around the world. But good self-help also exists, and it provides a high-leverage way to lead a better, more fulfilling life.

He then formulates a theory about the way that self-help works. To find out what it is, read the full article.

Making Successful Resolutions

With 2021 a reality, many people around the world made New Year’s Resolutions. Unfortunately, most of those resolutions fail to make an impact. According to U.S. News, 80% of people give up on them within six weeks. Does this mean resolutions are useless to make? Not necessarily.

In an article from Forbes Magazine, journalist Jennifer Cohen shares reasons why people fail to achieve their resolutions. In those reasons are embedded ways to make them successful. For example:

We Fail To Pick Realistic Goals

According to Statista, the most common New Year’s resolutions are to lose weight, exercise and eat more healthfully. These are achievable goals, yet so many of us can’t follow through. It’s because we don’t take an approach that’s rooted in reality.

Ask yourself the following question—which goal is more achievable? Losing 100 pounds or cutting refined sugars from your diet? The answer is obvious. If you cut sugar from your diet, you’re more likely to lose weight. 

You should also keep in mind that choosing realistic goals or resolutions and achieving them improves our mindset. Even a small victory is still a victory (like 30 days without sugar) and you end up preparing yourself for a much larger one.

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Not sure what resolution to make? Then you might benefit on a period of structured reflection. The good folks at Getting Things Done created a simple document to guide a review of the past year and to look ahead at the new one. The PDF handout can be found here.

Wishing you all a Happy New Year!

The Benefits of Gratitude

As 2020 comes to a close I think we all agree that this was a tough year. The stress of the pandemic, the summer of protests, and the Presidential election were unavoidable. However, after enduring these challenges the end of the year offers a time to reflect on our journey. Specifically, it is a good opportunity to take stock of what we are grateful for in our lives.

Gratitude offers a surprising amount of benefits. In an article from Time Magazine published several years ago that still has great merit today, journalist Jamie Ducharme highlighted seven specific benefits of living with gratitude. One of the seven she highlights is that gratitude can ease depression.

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(Susan Peirce) Thompson, the cognitive scientist, says experiments have shown that people whole partake in the “three good things” exercise — which, as the name suggests, prompts people to think of three good moments or things that happened that day — see considerable improvements in depression and overall happiness, sometimes in as little as a couple weeks. “If there were a drug that did that, whoever patented that drug would be rich,” Thompson says. “Gratitude is very powerful.”

Read the other six benefits on the Time Magazine web site.

With this last post of the year, I want to say thank you for following these weekly musings on productivity, leadership, and libraries. I wish everyone a Happy New Year full of good health, success, and lots of love.

Make a habit about not worrying about your habits

Developing great habits is one way to succeed at life. Whether it is being productive, healthy, or financially free, our habits drive our daily behavior towards the longer term goals that inspire us. However, there are many days, especially this year, where sticking to good habits is a struggle. Whether it is the temptation to watch TV instead of work, eat a big bowl of ice cream, or splurge on a fancy new toy, it is easy to slip out of our desired habits. When they happen should we feel guilty about these indulgences?

In a recent blog post, Darius Foroux argues that we should stop worrying about missed habits. Being too strict around them is actually counter productive. He writes:

We humans have this tendency to take everything to the extreme. And when it comes to habits, I found that majority of my friends, family, readers, and students have an all or nothing mentality.

You either work out every day or you do nothing. You either write every day or you do nothing. Why so serious? The reason for this is negative self-talk. We assume that we messed up if we miss our habits for a few days.

Darius Foroux

Foroux advises that we not worry about missing one day of a habit.

If you practice true mindfulness, there are no streaks. There’s only now. You shouldn’t care about what you did yesterday. Only care about what you’re doing today. And always try to make the best of it.

Every day is a new day that has nothing to do with yesterday.

Read the full post on his web site.

The Cost of Perpetual Crisis

I was speaking with a colleague recently who confessed that he was lacking ambition. This is a man recently promoted to a challenging position and very active in his profession. Yet now he was wondering if it was time get a new job. As we talked it occurred to me that his true problem had nothing to do with ambition, it was all about being stuck in perpetual crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic presented leaders across the country with a new type of challenge. Normally when we face a crisis there is a limited time frame in which it happens. For example when a hurricane threatens there are stages of events from tracking the storm, boarding up, hunkering down as it passes, then cleaning up afterwards. Due to the short term duration of most crisis we often move on shortly afterward with our longer term goals secure.

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However, when a crisis persists we face a different struggle. COVID-19 is a long term problem that has placed many aspects of our lives on hold indefinitely. Vacations, conferences, social events, and more have been replaced by virtual meetings which provide limited appeal. Long term disruptions force us to place our ambitions off to the side while we handle the slow day to day grind of survival. When we lose focus on long term goals, the short term needs become a path to burnout and dissatisfaction.

Is there a secret to staying ambitious in the face of a long term crisis? For me, I realized that it is okay to let long term goals lie fallow for a while. In fact, it is a good test to see they were really wanted in the first place. The crisis can serve as a reflection point to see if the direction you are heading is still one worth traveling. Our goals may still be desirable, but we have to practice flexibility to keep them alive. For example, as a seminar presenter I no longer have the option of in person training. However, virtual presentations allow me to keep my toes in the water. In fact it provides valuable experience so that down the road when in person events resume I will be able to offer more training options than before.

2020 has been a very long year. It is okay if your ambitions and goals have been set aside. With 2021 closing you may want to be kind to yourself and allow your goals to lie fallow for the rest of the year. Even COVID-19 will pass, allowing for a restitution of normal to take hold and a long term perspective to return. Crisis leads us to reevaluate our lives. Allow yourself the freedom to explore new opportunities with the lessons learned from this year. That will help make 2021 the best year yet!

Why Did I Make that Dumb Decision?

Have you ever made a decision you quickly regretted? We have all made choices in our life that seemed well thought out at first, only to have the results turn out sour. Decision making is something we do every day, but very few people take the time to examine their decision making process. Even fewer attempt to understand the hidden factors that effect our cognitive process and cloud our view of the world.

In a recent workshop for PCI Webinars I explored the role that fallacies and probability play in our decision making process. I started out the webinar with a quote from former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld that demonstrates the complexities of our ability to understand the world.

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.” – Donald Rumsfeld – US Secretary of Defense – 2001-2006

To learn more about six big fallacies the effect our decision making and to discover how our inability to understand probability leads to bad choices, read the text version of the workshop on the Efficient Librarian web site.

What is Your Next Action?

One of the most fundamental moves in productivity is identifying your next physical action.

You may have heard this statement before especially if have studied Getting Things Done (GTD). In fact the question is at the center of the David Allen’s famous workflow diagram. Why is it so important to identify your next action in a very specific way? Because vagueness is the antithesis of productivity.

The reason is simple to understand. When our actions are undefined the mind has nothing to focus on. Sure it may have a sense of what our completed projects will look like in the end, but to get there involves a series of steps. Most of the time our next actions are self evident and require little thought. However when a project becomes stuck it creates stress and avoidance. That is when defining the next physical action is vital to forward progress. Getting specific forces the mind to focus through visualizing success. Often it only takes a minute to figure out an appropriate next action.

In the book Getting Things Done David Allen provides a classic example of what it means to think this way. Imagine you are overdue to take your car in for an oil change. The next action for almost everyone is not “change the oil” unless you are a DYI car mechanic ready for grease. The next physical action might be any of the following:

  • Call to schedule an appointment at your favorite garage
  • Talk to your colleague down the hall who recommended a shop
  • Search the Internet for local oil change deals
  • Check your calendar for an open day/time on your vehicle in
What is your next action?

Not having clarity on the next action could mean that oil change will not happen for a long time. Deciding on the next physical action creates greater clarity and makes it far more likely for the project to be completed.

Your challenge is to identify all the stuck projects in your life and decide on a next action for all of them. Taking these steps will boost the odds of completing them while reducing your stress level at the same time. Sounds like a win-win!