This works in two ways at least: habit-forming and piggy-backing.
Taking regular positive steps, however small, can lead to positive habits. Activities such as writing, expressing gratitude, meditating or taking exercise, when practised daily can form growing, long-lasting habits. It doesn’t even need to take much time. One minute a day is infinitely better than nothing at all, is less than 0.5% of your day, and can lead to much greater things. (Nobody starts a 40 cigarette a day habit by smoking 40 cigarettes on day one…)
Getting things done feels good. Success, however small is its own reward. If you have something that needs doing but you’ve been putting it off, you can use the momentum and positive feeling from completing another task to power you through. I find that doing some gardening is great prep for doing a job I really don’t want to do. Even taking a walk can help break the barrier of ‘I can’t be arsed.’
If you’re stuck, if you’re lost, if you’re procrastinating, try doing something positive yet irrelevant. See if it helps.
If you found this post useful, please take the action of sharing it with someone you think might benefit from it. You just never know where that might lead…
I don’t often break into science. But today I’m going to make with the (pseudo)science.
It’s been suggested that we require at least 3 positive experiences per negative experience to feel truly happy. (Read more about Dr Gottman’s theory here).
Our daily experiences follow a kind of inverse power law (see the graph for what that might look like). What this means is that the more significant the event, the less often we experience it. We enjoy – our suffer – life-changing events relatively infrequently but things like getting caught in traffic or spending time with a loved one might be a lot more frequent.
I think there’s a tendency to only celebrate the big wins: completed projects, new jobs or contracts, marriages, the start (or end) of the football season… But I suspect that to get our fill of positive experience we have to celebrate the small or even tiny victories. It’s only fair. Small negative events can nag. Might as well enjoy the positives too?
This morning, I shared a pleasant conversation and a laugh with a stranger. I’m calling that a win.
When I was much younger I used to play pool with my Dad. I had a habit. If I couldn’t find a direct shot I’d go for a ‘Hit and Hope’. I’d just hit the balls hard with the intent that something good might happen.
It rarely did.
Over time, I became a lot less discerning about when I played a H&H shot. I stopped taking the time and effort to find a genuine shot. I’d just give the cue ball a slap and watch what happened. It was easy. It was addictive. It was unsurprisingly ineffective.
It was the opposite of purposeful.
Sometimes you need to apply a large blunt force and hope for the best. But don’t make it a habit.
These are things we might tell ourselves. They can be comforting, cushioning thoughts. For physical, hands-on activities it might well be true. But for knowledge work, for making change, I suggest that all we need is the following:
• Focus – to know our destination
• Brainstorming – to find the path
• Making a plan – to help us find our next step
• Ask questions/Google/for help – when we’re stuck
• Will – to take all the steps needed
There are things we do for fun and there are other things we do to achieve a given goal. These activities may vary in intent between days or people. Some people run for fun, others for competition; sometimes those that run for fun need to run for a bus.
I would go a step further and suggest that whenever we deliberately do anything it is either to enjoy the activity or the end result, or to gain the benefits of the activity or end result, or some combination. That might sound obvious but being obvious, believed in, respected and considered are all different beasts.
During our waking hours we’re always doing something, even if that something is twiddling our thumbs. In business and in everyday life there will be dozens, if not hundreds, of activities each day that we undertake for a purpose other than personal enjoyment.
Hopefully, we know why we’re taking on these tasks but how often do we check that what we’re doing is moving us toward our goals? Potentially everything we do is another step towards awesome, but only if it’s in the right direction.
I’m not suggesting that we gather metrics and analyse performance for every email written or every sandwich eaten (but some people might want to…) but there should be a line in the sand, placed with intent and forethought. We can give ourselves permission to do certain things without subjecting our performance to analysis – and it can be a great big list. I suggest though that the default should be to develop and apply a system of analysis on anything not on that list. Emails, meetings, networking, blogging; tasks short, long, simple or complex should all be subject to the same rigorous application of post-activity analysis.
This all sounds like hard work and it can be. We could simply chose not to bother. But if a task is worth doing isn’t it worth checking to see if we did it well?
When times get hard, when threats or opportunities or temptations arise, know what you believe in.
Some beliefs are easy, trivial, commonplace. Others are more controversial or nuanced, unique to yourself, your family, your organisation.
Evaluate your beliefs, record them. Return to them frequently because when the situation is stressful or diverting it’s all too easy to forget what you believe in. And that’s when your beliefs are most important.
The Head and Shoulders effect. I named this after the 90s TV adverts for the shampoo. Their tagline was “I never knew you had dandruff.” In the adverts, one surprised individual asks their well-coiffed friend why they are using an anti-dandruff shampoo when they clearly don’t have dandruff.
More generally, the question might look like: why are you taking a preventative measure for something I didn’t realise needed preventative measures?
It always struck me as wrong and illogical as a question (but great advertising if you look at their sales results).
Recently, I’ve come across this style of question in real life (adverts don’t count as real life, despite what they want us to believe). I’ve been asked why I was watching what I was eating since I was already slim. The answer is that I’m slim because I watch what I eat (mostly…).
I think the Head and Shoulders effect nicely illustrates confirmation bias: our tendency to interpret information in a way that tends to confirm our beliefs.
There’s a darker angle to confirmation bias. I see this as the flip-side of the Head and Shoulders effect: “I’m taking measures, why aren’t I seeing results.”
I think the answer – and the problem – here is that sometimes we shouldn’t be comparing our progress to where we were at the start of the journey but to where we would be today if we hadn’t chosen to make a change.
For example, it’s very easy for me to feel bad about the slow progress I’ve had trying to improve my running fitness but if I instead think where I would be if I hadn’t done any training at all suddenly it’s obvious what the value is.
I think today’s lesson is to be kind to ourselves by realising that we can’t always directly measure the impact of our efforts because we can’t know what would have happened if we hadn’t tried, and to treat ourselves to a great shampoo.