Category Archives: Self Improvement

Self-Discipline: How To Refill Your Willpower Tank

brain gym

You’ve only got so much self control; Don’t waste it!

This article in ‘Psychology Today’ by Susan Krauss reports on Roy Baumeister’s work about how our self control can be sapped through overuse.

Personally, I’ve always had a mental model of willpower / self discipline / self control as a muscle that you could exercise and get to grow stronger. It turns out to actually be a tank that gets emptied but can be refilled and we can rely on random chance to do it for us, or be proactive and consciously and deliberately take actions that refill our willpower tank.

Oddly, the only thing proven to do so is consumption of small amounts of actual sugar. As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as rational creatures who, through strength of character, can be better people, maybe our natural level of self control is set through natural random chemical chance? It’s like those old Donald Duck cartoons where he’s in a dilemma and on one shoulder a little duck angel appears and on his other shoulder appears a little duck devil who argue it out into each of his ears. This ‘strength’ or ‘ego depletion’ theory implies that the angel gets weary and the devil gets his way until the angel rests up. And the best advice is to slip the angel a barley sugar or a powerade like it’s on a triathalon.

Krauss argues, and I agree, that if the model is that of a muscle that gets tired, then maybe the same progressive development can be applied to our willpower muscle that bodybuilders apply to their actual muscles. Keep working it out and it’ll get stronger over time but you need to keep increasing the weight / temptation to build it up. No pain; no gain.

No weight trainer or body builder says, “I’m going to curl this 20kg with my bicep forever,” yet you’re supposed to say, “I’m never going to have chocolate cake ever again.” That seems unrealistic, demoralising and potentially counterproductive. Weight trainers say, “I’m going to curl this 20kg weight 8-12 times or until I can’t, then rest, then do that set two more times. After time, that’ll get easier and I’ll increase the weight.” I don’t know what the cake equivalent is but it isn’t, “None ever again.” Work up to it.

Employers probably aren’t directly interested in employees’ cake avoidance or body building abilities but willpower / self control is likely a contributor to perseverance and grit which, as I write about frequently, are the most common precursors to success at work (or anywhere else for that matter.) So, if you’re leading someone at work who gives up, can’t focus for long enough or is constantly engaging in temptations that are distracting them from activities that should be adding value to their work and their lives, what can you do?

Well, if we’re stick to our weight training metaphor, you become their personal trainer. Not one of those old school cliche ‘Drill Sergeant’ types who shout, “You’re worthless and weak!! Give me twenty!!” Set challenging but realistic micro-goals that progressively build towards the desired target. Each success builds on itself, they’re more likely to buy-in to it and participate and, ultimately, you and they are more likely to achieve the end goal. But even the fluffiest of personal trainers aren’t pushovers. They don’t accept excuses and they demand honesty and effort.

And the irony is, given that sugar refuels our willpower tank, even if you do eat the cake, you may regret it but you’re less likely to eat more cake. So, in a tenuous way, you can have your cake and eat it too. Try a handful of dried cranberries. They’re the supposed ‘Superfruit.’ You never hear of ‘Supercake.’ (If you have heard of ‘Supercake’, please do let me know…)

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More ideas at http://gettingbetterbuyin.com/

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How Open-Minded Are You?

Minds are like parachutes

This blogpost might be challenging for some. It was for me. I like to think of myself as open-minded. (Actually, I just like to think of myself generally. But that’s something else I need to work on). But am I really that open-minded? How would I know? Is there a scale of 1 to 10 upon which I’m a 7?

Psychologist Carol Dweck led the way with research on fixed versus growth mindsets. Crudely and sweepingly summarised, there are two types of default thinking positions and if you don’t effortfully choose one, you likely have a default. The post explains more. I especially like point 2 – when you meet an idea, do you start in response with statements or questions? That was something of a relief to me as three of my five sentences in paragraph one were questions.

There’s a quote that the ability to change your mind is a superpower and another that the true test of intelligence is the ability to have two opposed ideas in your mind and retain the ability to function. If I’m having a good day after a good sleep and have eaten wisely without deadlines yelling at me, then I’m in a resourceful state and I’m certain I could manage that. Other days not so much. It’s the other days that can cause us and our people some problems. It’s for those other days that wee need to prep and practice so when it gets tough, our open-mindedness keeps goings.

Do read the article but if you’re having a low resourcefulness day, here’s 7 quick questions to assess yourself against:

  1. How do you respond when your ideas are challenged? (My new thing is ABC – always be curious – WHY are they challenging them?)
  2. Are your first responses statements or questions?
  3. Do you seek first to be understood or to understand?
  4. Do you use the phrase, “I might be wrong but…”
  5. How often do you interrupt?
  6. Can you simultaneously hold opposed ideas?
  7. How much effort do you put into testing your own views? Do you deliberately seek evidence to the contrary?

More ideas at http://gettingbetterbuyin.com/

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Career 2.0

volcano lightning

Taking photos of volcanos in action must be scary. That’s probably part of why they do it. Changing careers for many of us might be the scariest thing we ever do, or, more likely, contemplate doing but never actually do.

I threw myself into the internet to glean a bit of inspiration for this post. Not literally, we can’t actually throw ourselves into the internet… yet. Online research is fine but some sort of Tron-like immersion within the ethereal plains of the worldwide web seems impractical and risk-prone. If you think you have a problem now spending a lot of time ON the internet, just wait until you can spend a lot of time IN the internet.

I found one article about career transition and it used the metaphor of the software upgrade: Career 2.0. I think that’s part of the problem. Going from career 1.0 to 2.0 is blunt and quite a leap. Why not take an incremental leaf from Apple’s upgrade strategy and have career 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, etc rather than one substantive chasm-leaping transition straight to 2.0 when it’s thrust upon you? I know it’s a freakin’ pain every three days when those upgrade messages splash themselves across your screen or interrupt your other activities. Maybe this software upgrade imagery doesn’t stretch too far with career upgrades? For a start software can “live in the cloud,” whereas your job cannot. That said, I do have a guy on fiverr.com who does all my illustrations for me.

The term seems to have a bit of baggage and mixed perceptions too. One Forbes article seemed in favour of transitioning to something more in line with your values after slaving away for a while, having built up your CV, garnered some experience and contacts, and built up some reserves just in case it all goes south. (I don’t know why “in case it all goes south” is an expression for something going horribly wrong? I’m from the south. It’s awesome. If you want horrible, I’d go west). With a positive outlook, Forbes proffered some tips that I’ll share shortly.

The Harvard Business Review (HBR), on the other hand, took a dim view of career transitions. Their first article was about having to explain it when someone called you out on it, as if it would be an embarrassing blip. I know we could all use some tips on explaining gaps in the timelines of our CVs when potential employers ask about our unrevealed years in prison or that time we faked our own death. Any employer who claims to want to employ someone with problem solving skills, initiative and learning flexibility should realise that career transitioning is an absolute finishing school for that sort of thing. So, I wouldn’t worry too much about this, unless you ever get interviewed for a job as a reporter for the Harvard Business Review, in which case, you have been warned.

Let’s get back to those tips from Forbes. If anyone knows about career transition tips for mere employees, it’s the media outlet that relies on their listings of the 500 richest people on the planet in the same voyeuristic way that Sports Illustrated relies on their swimsuit issue. Now, I was primarily drawn to the Forbes article as their first example was that of a Navy Captain who became a circus manager. Possibly not that much of a lateral shift but definitely the adult version of running away to join the circus. Their key tips: know the underlying reason why, get fit, do it in stages, find a mentor, prepare for setbacks, volunteer or moonlight first, have some ‘rainy day’ money set aside, and do something every day to move towards what you’re after.

I MC’d an HR conference a while back where one of the speakers demonstrated a very useful technique I’ll call ‘Timelining’. You scribble an X/Y axis on a sheet of landscape paper – the bigger the better. The horizontal axis (X – c’mon team) is time, so mark out the years of your career. The vertical axis (Y) is satisfaction on a scale you’ll have to imagine yourself. You then mark out the various highs and lows and milestones on three timelines – career, personal and relationships. The second part is self-analysis – when were the sweet spots of mutually-intersecting highs and, vice versa, the lows? Then you ask yourself for both, why, what was happening in each type of scenario? I was coaching a forty year old man once with this activity and he had the epiphany that he hated working indoors. It had never occurred to him, then he transitioned on a dime and now he never met a grapevine he didn’t like. It’s a great technique – google a book called ‘Taking Charge’ by Chris Johnson.

I’m not going to completely dismiss HBR’s advice. How can I ignore phrases like “compelling narrative” or “professional reinventors”? If working for a living doesn’t pan out for me and I end up a crazy old guy in a shed, I’ll be an inventor working on my compelling narrative. And a time machine.

 

Debriefing: A Powerful Problem-Solving Tool (For the Whole Family)

debrief

This HBR article about debriefing is one I wish I’d written. (From meglomaniacal me, that’s high praise.) I’m often directing participants in my training workshops to conduct debriefs. I tend to use experiential models a lot. For non-trainers (muggles?), that means we do things, then learn from them in a structured way. I favour a 3-phased approach, repeated over and over:

  1. Frame the activity
  2. Conduct the activity
  3. Debrief the activity

I hear a lot of people using the word ‘debrief’ and its meaning seems to vary wildly. In that sense, the word ‘debrief’ is much like the word ‘spicy’ or the word ‘love.’ I try to consistently  summarise the meaning of it in my workshops, not just because we’ll use it in the workshops but because it’s one of the most useful things you’ll ever learn in life, not just for work, but for situations where things happen and you’d benefit from learning afterwards. That applies a lot outside work (hopefully.) Relationships and families could well do with that skill. It’d certainly give us something to talk about over compulsory sunday night family dinners.

To do something and to deliberately learn from it is what successful people do. That might even be a great definition of what success is. To do something and maybe learn from it or not learn from it is what most people do most of the time. Don’t be most people. They’re nice enough but…

The HBR article gives a great structure if you want to either learn debriefing yourself or communicate it to others:

  1. Schedule a regular time and place (ie make debriefing part of the way things are done around here!)
  2. Create a learning environment
  3. Review 4 key questions: What were we trying to accomplish?; Where did we hit or miss our objectives?; What caused our results?; What should we stop / start / continue doing? (I’m a big fan of stop / start / continue; That’s the name of one of my books ‘Stop Start Continue’!)
  4. Codify lessons learned (People after us will learn from our mistakes, not theirs.)

 

Mindset

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Here’s my latest podcast – this one on the subject of mindset. A quick 5-minute summary of some of the research around this and how it can affect / constrain / direct our decisions and behaviour (and the decisions and behaviour of the people we lead.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feedback: The Comedy Lab Experience

labI blog about engaging people – employees, customers, people generally. One major tool for achieving that is feedback, in the broadest sense of the word. I also have a bit of a sideline as a stand-up comedian. I have a show in the comedy festival coming up in May. As part of that, the festival folk run a series of shows beforehand as mini preview workshops. It’s a weird and surreal experience as a performer. Performing stand-up isn’t that normal generally but this is really putting ourselves out there.

The format has an MC who’s more of a facilitator. The ticket is free and the show is advertised as what it is – not a normal show. The crowd on my night was a whole lot of people who seemed to really know their comedy as consumers or fans or officionados. They were a good test crowd generally. They laughed if they thought it was funny and they didn’t if they didn’t. Which is what you want as a performer trying out stuff en masse for the first time. Each performer did 15 minutes then sat on a chair on stage for 10 minutes while the MC facilitated out questions to the audience. I’ve been doing comedy for 10+ years and I regret not having an experience like this sooner – undiluted, instant, specific reactions. Plus a fair few new ideas to build the content.

I thought it might be a good blog topic as I walked away, abuzz to get writing and re-writing the comedy but with a parallel thought as to how much this would be a useful idea to anyone in any kind of job. Plumbers, salespeople, neuro-surgeons (they don’t like being called ‘brain surgeons.’ You know what they say about brain surgery? It’s not neuro-surgery!)

The very next day I was running a training workshop (or as I like to call them, a ‘learning workshop. It was on communication for a team of sales reps for a wine brand. I told them the comedy lab story and they took it on board and put it in play for their own workshop.

It really worked.

Maybe ask yourself, how can you set up an environment at your workplace for newbies or not-so-newbies to bolster their ‘performance’ and hone their ‘material’ in a safe but constructively challenging way?

 

The Marshmallow Test For Grown-Ups

Marshmallows

I haven’t had a chance to more than scan this article yet but it’s on a subject close to my heart (and mind. And stomach.) It poses some modern parallels between adult workplace distractions and ill-disciplines and the classic self-discipline assessments and amusing video footage of the various Marshmallow experiments over the years, started out by Walter Mischel at Stanford back in the 60s.

I like the thinking behind the article so once I’ve ‘digested’ it a bit better, I’ll re-post some thoughts.

Marshmallows – 50% sugar; 50% gelatin, 100% evil.

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Intrapreneurship: The Key To Releasing Employee Engagement

intrapreneur

I’m writing a new book – this time about adding ten years to our lives. Part of that is having to pay for the extra years. Not that working is just about earning but wine doesn’t pay for itself. (Note to self: invent self-paying wine.) Engaged employees – engaged people – live longer, better lives.

So, for income, a sense of purpose and simply something to do, we’d like to keep working. You and me anyway – on our terms. I’ve been reading some interesting research on how those of us trucking on into our seventies and onwards in the workforce can’t rely on being perceived as hire-able in the traditional sense. Even now, over half the ‘workers’ above 65 are self employed. There are lots of reasons for that. Some reasonable reasons and some not so much.

Being self employed is tough and challenging and has no guarantees. You either dig that scene or you don’t. I do. I never thought I would.

To better tool ourselves up for a future with options, we need to bulk up the quantity and quality of our social and professional connections. That’s good for health, longevity and business. We could also prep for our potential launch into self employment by having a Brain-Based Boss who allowed, even encouraged, Intrapreneurship. ENtrepreneurs are those idealised risk-taking arse-kicking people who take new ideas and energy and try and implement and monetise them. The minority who survive are lauded as wealth and job creators for others. This is true although it is a gruesome attrition. So, INtrapreneurs would, in theory, take that same attitude and apply it in a job inside an existing company.

It’s a thing. There’s even a conference about it.

The poster child for Intrapreneurs is the inventor of post-it notes who was working for 3M at the time and they took the idea. Although, that guy, whose name I cannot remember, was just trying to keep his place in his choir’s hymnbooks. He was using company time and resources to do it. 3M might be cool and programme such time and efforts into their people’s jobs, not just allowing it after the fact but encouraging it hoping for that 1-in-a-1000 hit.

Employee engagement is helped significantly where there is an alignment between an employee’s personal goals and the goals of the organisation. (Not just saying that they do.)

Lessons From Louis CK For Problem Solving And Quality Management

Louis-CK-quote-moneyLouis CK is one of my favourite comedians, most deserving of his current commercial and critical acclaim. This early 2-minute videoclip of his seemingly has little relevance to workplaces but the process he describes has a real value. Many adults find annoying the behaviour of inquisitive children in always asking, “Why?” And so the behaviour is drummed out of us, yet it is this behaviour which can solve so many workplace problems. Or, at least, kickstart the solving.

Good old convenient ‘quote-meister’ Albert Einstein once said,

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask. For, once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than 5 minutes.”

I suspect that during those 55 minutes, Albert would ask “WHY?” a lot. Watch the video. Have a laugh. But laugh and learn.

Jerry Seinfeld’s Variation On The Endowed Progress Method Of Self Motivation

LS4

There’s a chapter in my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’ about the influence the perception of endowed progress has on our behaviour. Simply, we feel more inclined to pur in effort towards a goal when we think we’ve already made a committed start. There are neat studies showing how a loyalty card with two stamps already given from day 1 get better results than cards starting from scratch.

Seinfeld tells a story of how he got good at comedy writing. Who’d have thought? He got good at comedy writing by writing a lot of comedy. I recall reading Jules Verne’s biography. Verne said, “Writers write.” Except he would have said it in French. Good call though Jules. Tres bien.

Read Seinfeld’s story here. It’s a simple yet powerful idea that obviously brought him great results. The 2 principle traits of successful people are grit and self discipline. Seinfeld’s idea can help you improve both. If, as a side effect, it makes you funnier, well, that’s a side effect we can all laugh about.

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