Focus on the Few Major Items

Cal Newport writes, “in many cases, contributions to an outcome are not evenly distributed,” in his book Deep Work. Across many different domains, several of which Newport mentions in his book, we find an 80/20 split emerge terms of relationships between important things. Newport states that 80% of computer program crashes are caused by just 20% of the known bugs, and in other areas of science and society, we see similar 80/20 splits.

 

Newport believes that this 80/20 split also applies to the goals in our lives, and considers how we should approach our lives is we believe that 80% of our outcomes will be based on 20% of what we do. He writes, “many different activities can  contribute to your achieving these goals. The law of the vital few, however, reminds us that the most important 20 percent or so of these activities provide the bulk of the benefit.”

 

We do a lot of different things throughout the day, but a lot of what we do is relatively short and doesn’t have a really large impact on the outcome of our life. There are really just a handful of things that we actually do that really make a big difference. Exercising, fighting off the desire to eat pie for breakfast, engaging with some type of productive hobby, and doing something meaningful with our family have large impacts on the outcomes we see in life. The millions of small things we do, pick out socks, play cards, scroll through social media, and drive to work, fill in the rest. They might be important in some way, but they are not the key factors that determine the outcomes of our lives.

 

What we should do, Newport argues, is think about those handful of thing that really make a difference. We should prioritize those moments, and make sure they have our full focus and attention, so that we maximize the areas that truly matter. We can then divert our energy away from the things which don’t matter, cut out any unnecessary clutter in our routines, and do our best at managing the big factors which have the biggest influence on the outcomes we see in life.

Afternoon Creativity – The Inspiration Paradox

“The Inspiration Paradox – the idea that innovation and creativity are greatest when we are not at our best, at least with respect to our circadian rhythms,” is an idea that Daniel Pink writes about in his book When. Time is important for us human beings. We all have experienced first hand how frustrating it is to have someone energetically talk to you either first thing in the morning, or late at night after your typical bed time. We all know there are times when we like to work out, and times of the day when all we feel that we are able to do is sink into a comfy chair and absorb a TV show. The fact that we all have cycles and time preferences for certain activities is largely ignored, however, by most of us and by the schedules we have to adopt for life, work, school, and family.

 

Pink thinks this is a huge problem and provides insight from the studies of time and timing to help us design new schedules and better consider the times at which we engage with specific activities. One area that I found fascinating was Pink’s recommendations for when we should do our analytic work versus when we should do our innovative and creative work. He writes,

 

“Our moods and performance oscillate during the day. For most of us, mood follows a common pattern: a peak, a trough, and a rebound. And that helps shape a dual pattern of performance. In the mornings, during the peak, most of us excel at … analytic work that requires sharpness, vigilance, and focus. Later in the day, during the recovery, most of us do better on … insight work that requires less inhibition and resolve.”

 

Things like daily writing (focus work that requires deep thought on a given topic) and mathy tasks are good things to work on in the morning. The majority of people are roughly morning-ish people, and their brains are the most attentive and best able to focus to complete analytic work in the first several hours after waking up. Things that require focus and attention are best when done earlier.

 

Contrasting analytic work is creative work, which requires some focus, but also works best when our brains are not too narrowly focused on a single area. Brains that can pull from various sources and different fields are more creative than brains that are dialed into one specific channel. In the afternoon, after we have recovered from our daily trough, our brains are more engaged, but still a bit distracted. According to Pink this sets our brains up for creativity and innovation, taking existing ideas and combining them in new and novel ways. We actually do our best creative work when our brains are not quite firing on all cylinders. The paradox in the first quote of this piece is referring to our brains being the most creative when they are not exactly the most efficient and effective – at least in terms of how we would analytically measure our brains.

 

Keeping this in mind can help us organize our days in ways that work better with the mental capacities we will have at a given time. We shouldn’t fill our mornings with administrative low value add tasks. The mornings should be the times when we tackle the big items that require analytic focus and resolve. Our trough should be the time that we pack in the emails that don’t take much brain power and just need to get sent out today. Finally, our creative brainstorming should take place in the afternoon, when we no longer have to fight off an afternoon nap, but are not too focused on a specific area and can use our brain’s flexibility to pull together new thoughts.

Economics Suggests We Should Change Our Routines

Dan Pink looks at earnings calls for major companies in his book When. It turns out, for major companies reporting earnings on conference calls, scheduling for the early morning is best. Pink writes, “afternoon calls were more negative, irritable, and combative than morning calls.”

 

In the book, Pink explores how we react to the day and behave at different times. There are points where we are more and less likely to be energetic, alert, and focused, and times when we are more likely to be lethargic, irritable, and distracted. The takeaway from his research is that we should organize and schedule our days so that we are engaged when we need to be, handling the right tasks at the right time for our brain, and adjusting our schedules to fit our current states of being. Doing so would be a radical shift in how we think about the way we work.

 

We are still stuck in an economic model of jobs that better fits industrial assembly lines than knowledge work. When you needed someone on an assembly line pushing a button to make widgets, then it made sense to have 8 hour (or longer) shifts throughout the entire day to ensure that the factory could produce widgets. However, in a world where our output is dependent on our brain power, this model doesn’t work so well. Having someone work more hours doesn’t equate to more output. Additionally, if performance substantially declines during the day or if performance and behavior experiences wild shifts as we become hungry and tired, then we could have negative productivity. This is part of what is being explained by Pink with the earnings calls above.

 

Right before lunch and in the afternoon, the quality of calls was worse. People were less optimistic, less happy about the business, and company share prices were likely to take a hit. Our  bodies were overwhelming our rational brain power and hurting the companies. “Economic rationality is no match for a biological clock forged during a few million years of evolution.” What we need to do is recognize how our brains work and how they respond to the world so that we can organize our shifts and schedules in ways that actually help economic performance and productivity. As it is now, we have people work through long stretches where their brains are simply not primed for good economic productivity, and then we suffer with poor output. Rather than taking advantage of the natural cycles of the human brain and productivity to do good work, we push people to slug through the day and feel miserable about their low performance. Everyone is worse off in this system, but we could change it by better aligning our schedules with our circadian rhythms and body-clocks.

Rhythms and Routines

I started a new job a few months back and my commute time has doubled. I was already driving a good distance across Reno, NV (I know it is not LA, San Francisco, or Washington DC but it was still not fun), and now I am driving about twice as far to our State Capitol in Carson City to work for the Legislature. My drive time is now about an hour both ways, for a total of two hours of commuting daily. In addition, where I work has less amenities in the office, which means I need to bring more, prep more, and plan more with what I eat and what I need for the day. What this new job has created for me, with new limitations on my time, is a daily routine where my entire day feels like it is in a time crunch and where I need to be on point at every second if I want to fit in everything and be prepared to have a successful day at work.

 

I am leaning very heavily into my daily routines now. I wrote in the past about Colin Wright’s thoughts on routines in his book Come Back Frayed and Michael Bungay Stanier’s views on habits in his book The Coaching Habit. Today I have another quote from Wright and his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. Right now I am relying on a particular rhythm to help me be successful and live life the way I want to live. But, the rhythm I am building right now does not have to be permanent. I do not need to live this way forever and I can choose whether I want to maintain this rhythm and let it dictate my life, or whether I want things to change. About our rhythms and routines, Wright includes the following, “Many of us fall into rhythms relatively early in life, and then decide, either consciously or subconsciously, that the rhythm we’ve come to know is the totality of life. This is it. This is how things are. The evidence of me experiencing life in this fashion seems to be supported by the hypothesis that this is how life is meant to be; the only way it can be. But this isn’t the case.”

 

I know I can change my daily routine and I’m sure future jobs will necessitate a change in my routine, but a bigger question for me to think about is whether I want to change the general rhythm of my life or whether I want to continue with the general orientation of current life. I try to exercise daily. I try to do a lot of reading, especially during my lunch break, and I try to write each morning. Many of my evenings end up being spent with my wife watching tv, especially if we eat, but none of these pieces of my routine have to be a constant part of my life forever. For me, and for anyone else, little experiments in life are always possible. I could decide that I want to try something different from running or spin biking and try a boxing gym for workouts. I could decide that I don’t want to pursue reading any further and try doing things that are more social and engaging. And at an even bigger level, I could decide that I don’t need to live in a house and could find a small apartment, spend less money on my living arrangement, and take a more flexible job closer to home with different hours to open up different parts of the day.

 

What is important to remember, and what Wright is saying in his quote, is that life is flexible and full of possibilities. We don’t have to settle into any one particular way of living and we can try on different life styles. Just because we were raised a certain way, just because we happen to find ourselves relying on (or simply falling into without noticing) specific routines does not mean that our lives have to be set in one particular way from now until we die. We can have great success and achieve a lot of goals within our routines, but by shaking them off and experimenting, we might find new avenues of life that resonate with us on a more profound and meaningful level, or we might just find a renewed passion for something in life that we did not know could give us meaning and value.
Training Daily

Training Daily

Life is hard and each day can be its own struggle and battle, but learning measured approaches to life can give us the tools and training that we need to face those challenges successfully. We all hope to have success, to have an easy life with plenty of opportunities, but we know we will face failures, frustration, confusion, and stagnation. If we can build a solid routine, we can face these obstacles nobly and act accordingly to move forward.

 

In his book, Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday writes about the daily effort to prepare ourselves for the challenges life will present us with. Holiday writes, “My friend the philosopher and martial artist Daniele Bolelli once gave me a helpful metaphor. He explained that training was like sweeping the floor. Just because we’ve done it once, doesn’t mean the floor is clean for ever. Every day the dust comes back. Every day we must sweep.”

 

Anyone who has ever gone to the  gym knows you don’t leave looking like an Avenger after just one workout. It is continual effort that slowly gets us where we need to be. Accordingly, for us to build our mental fortitude and prepare for failures and successes, we must build our self-awareness, focus on disarming our ego, and concentrate on growth, learning, and improvement daily. If we do not, the skills that will help us climb from our low point will grow dusty and be buried in the daily grit of life. Each day doesn’t need to be a grueling exercise, but we do need to continually dust off our skills for approaching life.

Resistance to Change

A short section in Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit is titled “One of the laws of change: As soon as you try something new, you’ll get resistance”.

I think we have all experienced this at one time or another in our life. We end up in the habits and patters in our lives because it is easy. We get used to doing the same thing each day and become accustomed to the same routine. Changes and adjustments to that routine become incredibly difficult and we often find ourselves doing the same things and then reflecting back and wondering why we didn’t make the change we wanted or why we couldn’t fit in something new.

Bungay Stanier doesn’t see these habits and the resistance to change as a necessarily bad thing. If you can develop a great routine that is helping you to be healthy, encouraging meaningful relationship with those around you, and allowing you to accomplish the most important things in your life, then you can use the power of habit to your advantage. The grooves and tracks in life that make change hard, can be an advantage when you don’t want to think about working out in the morning or after work, but instead go to the gym out of habit. What is important with habits is to remember that they shape the structure of our lives, but that we can control them so that they shape us in the ways that we desire. Bungay Stanier writes, “We live within our habits. So change the way you want to lead, and build the right coaching habits.”

The book is specifically about coaching and adopting the right mindset and habits to be a strong coach in life, in the professional space, and in sports. But awareness of our habits and actions is powerful and applies to every part of our life. Recognizing when we have let a habit set in is crucial for change and for living an intentional life. If dessert is a habit after dinner that you don’t consciously think about or if the doughnut on Friday is automatic, then you will never be able to change the behavior. If you can see when you are on auto-pilot you can begin to change yourself and your routine so that the same decisions do not exist and you break out of the habits you dislike. It is not easy and you will feel push back from your own habits and the structures in place around you (like friends, timing, and physical space) but you can adjust all of these things in turn to build the new habit that you would prefer.

Translating New Insights Into Action

A challenge in my life lies between my routines and implementing the changes that I want to see in terms of habits, new activities, or improved uses of time. Routines help me get more done, help me make sure I get a workout in, and allow me to build a productive flow to my day. They also take some of my agency away and put me in a place where I am just reacting to the world flowing past me on auto pilot. I want to be engaged in the world and like anyone I crave change from time to time, but I also like the stability and comfort that comes with routines.

 

The tension between routines and the changes we want in our lives came up in Michael Bungay Stanier’s book, The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, & Change the Way You Lead Forever. Stanier has three reasons why training and coaching sessions likely fail to make a big impact in your life and fail to change your actual behaviors. First he argues that many training are overly theoretical and don’t get into the practical realities of your life and the changes you want to make. Second, he writes, “Even if the training was engaging — here’s reason number two — you likely didn’t spend much time figuring out how to translate the new insights into action so you’d do things differently. When you got back to the office, the status quo flexed its impressive muscles, got you in a headlock and soon had you doing things exactly the way you’d done them before.”

 

For us, change needs to be concrete and practical. Theoretical ideas and assumptions about change just wont do, and ideas about change that require us to alter our behavior on our own often times fail to make an impact. The routines that we build are important and need to be continuously monitored and evaluated. When we see that we are becoming too set in our ways, it is important to make adjustments. When we sense that we are too comfortable or that something we have adopted into our routine is no longer helping us to be the best that we can, we must find a way to adjust.

 

Doing this however, is not an easy task and requires that we change more than just one piece of our routine. For example, I like to write in the mornings when I wake up, but I have had a habit of being distracted on my phone rather than getting my writing in. Simply deciding I won’t be distracted by my phone has not been successful, but what has helped make the change I want is leaving my phone plugged in by my bed when I wake up, so that when I write it is not in the same room as me. I had to alter the status quo and my physical environment to ensure my routine functioned as well as possible. Even then it is still a challenge since I use my phone as a light to walk out of my room in the morning. A small flashlight has been the other key change in my routine, but simply deciding that I would change my behavior by not looking at my phone was not enough.

 

Awareness of our routines, of what we are happy or frustrated with, and of concrete actions that can change our behavior are key if we want to function at our highest level. If we want to make a change we need to be self-aware and understand our routines and habits. Without awareness, we can only ask ourselves to adopt a different behavior while the status quo remains and pushes us back into our old ways.

Resistance to Change

A short section in Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit is titled “One of the laws of change: As soon as you try something new, you’ll get resistance”.

 

I think we have all experienced this at one time or another in our lives. We end up with the habits and patters of our lives because it is easy. We get used to doing the same thing each day and become accustomed to the same routine. Changes and adjustments to that routine become incredibly difficult and we often find ourselves doing the same things each day and then reflecting back and wondering why we didn’t make the change we wanted or why we couldn’t fit in something new.

 

Bungay Stanier doesn’t see these habits and the resistance to change as a necessarily bad thing. If you can develop a great routine that is helping you to be healthy, encouraging meaningful relationship with those around you, and allowing you to accomplish the most important things in your life, then you can use the power of habit to your advantage. The grooves and tracks in life that make change hard, can be an advantage when you don’t want to think about working out in the morning or after work and when you want exercise to be something you do out of habit. What is important with habits is to remember that habits can be tools to shape the structure of our lives so that we achieve the outcomes we desire. Bungay Stanier writes, “We live within our habits. So change the way you want to lead, and build the right coaching habits.”

 

The book is specifically about coaching and adopting the right mindset and habits to be a strong coach in areas of life, business, or sports. However, the awareness of our habits and actions is powerful and applies to every part of our life (not just the coaching side of our lives). Recognizing when we have let a habit set in is crucial for change and for living an intentional life. If dessert is a habit after dinner that you don’t consciously think about or if the doughnut on Friday is automatic without pause, then you will never be able to change the behavior. If you can become aware of times when you are on auto-pilot, you can begin to change yourself and your routine so that the same decisions do not exist and you break out of the habits you dislike. It is not easy and you will feel push back from your own habits and the structures in place, but you can adjust all of these things to build the new habit that you would prefer.

Building Habits

In my last post I wrote about how much of our life happens on auto-pilot in habitual decisions and actions that often don’t even reach our conscious mind. Not everything we do needs to be a conscious action (think about how tired your brain would become if you had to focus on every step you took and how annoyed you would be if you had to think about every blink), but becoming more aware of our subconscious or unconscious decisions is incredibly valuable if you actually want to make a change in your life. Michael Bungay Stanier looks at the ways we can actually change our habits in his book The Coaching Habit and he identifies five specific components to changing behavior. He writes, “To build an effective new habit, you need five essential components: a reason, a trigger, a micro-habit, effective practice, and a plan.”

 

If we think about the habitual actions that we barely notice, we can see that we will never actually change those habits if we don’t recognize those habits through self-awareness. It is not enough to just think to ourselves that we want to write more, exercise more, or have a more tidy home. We have to actually recognize what habits are shaping the end state that we want to change. We have to have awareness of a problem, issue, or thing that could be different, and then we have to dive deeper to understand what it is that leads to the thing we want to change. It all begins and is shaped by a self-awareness that is like pancake batter poured in a single spot. You focus on one thing but your awareness and recognition slowly spreads outward around that one thing.

 

Changing a habitual action requires steps to avoid our initial habit. You start with a recognition that there is a habit, but from there you have to recognize what that leads you into the original habit that you want to change and why you want to do something different. Do you automatically roll out of bed and grab your phone as a flashlight and then find yourself checking emails or Facebook for 30 minutes instead of making your coffee? What can you do to prevent yourself from grabbing your phone? Perhaps getting a flashlight by your bed, leaving your phone in another room, or maybe installing the clapper. Each of these solutions can be thought of as a micro-habit to try to replace the trigger. It is not a huge change on its own and may not even seem related to your original barely recognizable habit, but it may shape your behavior in a powerful way. And finally, you have to practice your new habit and trigger avoidance and have a plan for how you will pull it all together.

 

This is a very quick and simplified version of changing a habit, but throughout you can see the importance of self-awareness in making changes in your life. Habits stick because they go unnoticed. We don’t recognize what it is that drives our unconscious habitual decisions, so we end up with the same habits shaping our same behaviors and actions. We must be aware enough to recognize the change we want, what leads to the behaviors we want to avoid, and be aware enough to plan ahead to make those changes easier.

Translating New Insights Into Action

A challenge in my life lies between my routines and adjusting to implement changes that I want. Routines help me get more done, help me make sure I get a workout in, and allow me to build a productive flow to my day. They also take some of my agency away and put me in a place where I am just reacting to the world flowing past me on auto pilot. I want to be engaged in the world and like anyone I crave change from time to time, but I also like the stability and comfort that comes with routines.

 

The tension between routines and the changes we want to make came up in Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, & Change the Way You Lead Forever. Stanier has three reasons why training and coaching sessions likely fail to make a big impact in our lives and fail to change our actual behaviors. First he argues that training is often overly theoretical and doesn’t get into the practical realities of life and the changes we want to make. Second, he writes, “Even if the training was engaging — here’s reason number two — you likely didn’t spend much time figuring out how to translate the new insights into action so you’d do things differently. When you got back to the office, the status quo flexed its impressive muscles, got you in a headlock and soon had you doing things exactly the way you’d done them before.”

 

For us, change needs to be concrete and practical. Theoretical ideas and assumptions about change just wont do, and ideas about change that require us to alter our behavior on our own often fails to make an impact. The routines that we build are important and need to be continuously monitored and evaluated. When we see that we are becoming too set in our ways, it is important to make adjustments. When we sense that we are too comfortable or that something we have adopted into our routine is not helping us be the best that we can be, we must find a way to remove that thing.

 

Doing this however, is not an easy task and requires that we change more than just an individual item in our life. For example, I like to write in the mornings when I wake up, but I have had a habit of being distracted on my phone rather than getting my writing in. Simply deciding I won’t be distracted by my phone has not been successful, but what has helped move the status quo is leaving my phone plugged in when I wake up, so that when I write it is not in the same room as me. I had to alter the status quo and my physical environment to ensure my routine functioned as well as possible. Even then it is still a challenge since I use my phone as a light to walk out of my room in the morning. A small flashlight has been the other key change in my routine, but simply deciding that I would change my behavior by not looking at my phone was not the change that worked for me as well as changing the system and environment.

 

Awareness of our routines, of what we are happy or frustrated with, and of concrete actions that can change our routine are key if we want to function at our highest level. If we want to make a change we need to be self-aware and understand our routines and habits. Without awareness, we can only ask ourselves to adopt a different behavior while the status quo remains the same and pushes us back to our old habits.