I missed two appointments this past weekend and last Friday I would have missed a doctor appointment if my doctor hadn’t taken the day off.
This is a problem that needs to be addressed.
There are basically two parts of keeping track of an appointment. The first is writing it down and the second is reading it.
If you have a good scheduling habit.
I don’t have one of those.
When I a young man I had an very good memory and very simple responsibilities so I didn’t develop a good scheduling habit. Basically I went to work and then went to the theater where I either had rehearsal, a meeting or beers with friends. When I grew older it became clear that I needed a way to keep track of my growing list of obligations and commitments.
I thought that the problem was finding a system that I could consistently use. I longed for the iPhone for decades before it was invented. Before that I tried notebooks and dayplanners and calenders and loose leaf systems and journals and even hired a personal assistant for a few months. Nothing worked. I thought it was because I didn’t have the right device.
The truth is that I did not develop a good scheduling habit.
Now I have the right device, a magical appliance that goes whereever I go. A phone and a computer and a sound system all in one that I always have with me. I have multiple scheduling options. At work I have Outlook and at home we use Google Calendar. Both update to the magical device in my pocket.
So what’s the problem now?
I have still not developed a good scheduling habit.
I want to acknowledge that I have made progress. I actually have a nascent scheduling habit. I am now aware that my life is more complicated and my memory is not what it was when I was 20 so I need to write everything down. It’s much better than it was BUT, obviously, there is room for improvement (see missed appointments above).
What’s missing is the habit of writing everything down and then always looking at both calendars.
Especially on weekends. Weekends and holidays are problematic because I don’t automatically open my computer and check my email and calendar. I have this strong belief that my weekends are full of free time even though every weekend for the past 45 years has been full to bursting. I’m apparently a slow learner.
As I said, there are two steps to scheduling:
Writing it down at the time that the appointment or commitment is made
Reading it and being aware of it when the appointment or commitment is scheduled.
So I going forward I need to make sure I put everything in my schedule and check that schedule every day.
Reading: The reading of my schedule I can do that at the end of my journaling which I plan to do every morning, even on weekends. I do my journaling in my computer which has access to everything. My schedule will also be available on my phone. It seems to me that I should figure out how to integrate my work schedule (on Outlook) and my personal/family calendar (on Google). I am not the only one using either system so I can’t delete either one but I’m sure there’s an effective way for them to talk to each other.
Writing: I need to always make sure I take the time to enter my appointments into my calendar. What stops me is:
Embarrassment at taking time away from whomever I am talking to to write down the appointment.
A mistaken belief that I will remember and/or enter it later.
I just have to change my behavior.
If anyone has suggestions, ideas or foolproof hacks that they use, please enter them in the comments below.
Scheduling is challenging for me because I haven’t cultivated a scheduling habit.
Step 1 of scheduling: Writing appointments and commitments down.
Step 2 of scheduling: Reading your schedule so you know what you have to do.
Weekends and holidays are challenging if you don’t look at your calendar on those days.
Three Steps to
Do you have a good scheduling habit?
If not, consider what you need to do to create one today and take steps to put it in place.
If you have a good system, share it with others readers (and with ME!!) in the comments below.
PS Checking my schedule(s) now….Back to school night? What the heck is that?
I started this blog to provide a forum for my ideas AND to document my own transformation and to create public accountability for changes I want to make in my life. Some posts will be full of philosophy and others will have practice tools. Others will be about my own struggles and successes and the steps I am taking to minimize the former and maximize the latter. This is one of those.
You’re going along, making progress toward your goals, getting things done, enjoying life and then suddenly everything stops. Your momentum is gone, you’re cranky and tired and it seems like you’re back where you started.
Have you ever had this experience? I’m was the middle of it a few days ago.
First take a STEP BACK and assess. What have you accomplished? What have you learned? Is your goal still appropriate?
If you determine that you’re still aimed in the right direction but you’re not satisfied with your velocity try STEPPING UP. Assess what you’re doing and assess what you’re not doing and be honest with yourself. You might want to ask yourself the 7 hard questions I covered in another post (and will expand on in future).
But if things were going well before and now you’ve faltered I may have a very simple solution for you.
Look at what you were doing when things were going well.
Look at what you’re doing now.
I took a look and it was immediately clear that after I came back from vacation in August I stopped setting my priorities in the morning. After I got an ear infection a couple weeks ago I stopped writing my nightly gratitude list and poem and I stopped using my task tracking tool.
All these habits were young and hadn’t carved a groove in my brain yet so they were easily disrupted. (Let me be honest with myself and you: I stopped doing them. Nothing forced me.) None of these habits are essential to survival so when I stopped doing them the world kept on spinning.
But it started spinning more slowly and with less purpose. The gratitude list and poem were like an extra boost of fuel. The priority list and the task tracking (I’ve been using Omnifocus) keep the engine running smoothly. Dropping these habits slowed my momentum until I felt like I was not moving. I felt overwhelmed and wondered whether I was doing the right thing.
The interesting thing is that things that worked in the past will probably work now. Sometimes we stop doing good things for no good reason. Maybe our gym closes or we sprain our ankle so we stop exercising. Maybe our notebook gets filled up or we lose it so we stop journaling. Maybe our library card expires so we stop reading. Maybe we go to a wedding or a funeral and we start smoking or drinking or eating cake again. We intend to pick up this habit again or put that one down but we never get around to it.
Sometime we stop doing good things for reasons that seem good at the time. We stopped going bowling because it hurt our wrists. We stopped taking morning walks because our dog died. We stopped going to classes because we graduated.
The problem is that those habits may have been essential to our success in ways that we were not aware of.
Little habits can make a big difference. Meditating for 10-20 minutes a day several times a week can have a profound impact on you relationships and your mental health. Taking a walk at lunch time to that healthy salad place could add several years to your life and make you more effective at work. A regular bowling night with the guys or poker night with the girls or movie night with the family could provide a support system that is essential to your happiness and success.
The big secret of this post is that the little things matter. If you find yourself longing for the good old days, look at a time when things were working well for you and write down the things that YOU were doing on a regular basis. Don’t focus on the environment because all that is beyond your control. Look at your actions. If you stopped doing any of those things you should seriously consider starting up again. And don’t let a change in the environment stop you. If you gave up exercise because your tennis partner moved away or your knees are shot, start a new fitness habit. Maybe try swimming.
I’m starting those habits back up and I’ve started a new morning routine that I’ll tell you about in other post. It’s already made a huge difference.
I really hope you find this helpful. Let me know if it does in the comments box below.
If you’ve lost momentum, take a look at your habits.
Are there habits or daily practices that you’ve stopped?
Perhaps small behaviors were making a big difference.
Three Steps to
Think about a time when things were going very well.
Identify what you were doing on regular basis then that you’re not doing now.
Consider bringing some of those old habits back to life.
I did not do the Malibu Triathlon this past weekend. I had an ear infection last week and it seemed prudent not to swim in the ocean when my ears weren’t fully recovered and not to ride my bike when I was slightly dizzy all the time.
Those are my reasons for not doing what I said I was going to do.
I have to say that I was partly relieved and partly disappointed when I made this decision. I don’t want to let circumstances stop me from keeping my word and honoring my commitments. I don’t want to be that kind of person. At the same time it seemed like it might be dangerous to go forward with the infection.
I talked to a few people and made a decision. The word decide comes from the latin word for cut. When you decide you cut off the other options and follow the living branch that is left.
So I go forward.
But what can I learn so that I reduce the times I don’t fulfill my commitments?
It is difficult to avoid germs completely but there are two things that jump out.
First of all it is clear that I have too many things going on to do everything well. I need to focus and simplify. That will guide my decisions going forward.
Second of all I need to be careful about how I tell my own story. If you look back at the post I wrote a few weeks ago it is clear that I was feeling overwhelmed and scattered. I predicted (jokingly) that my head was going to explode. Surprise! My head actually imploded.
More to the point, I let myself feel sorry for myself rather than dealing with what was ahead of me. I know that I could have handled the huge amount of stuff I had on my plate if I had been purposeful, careful and confident.
A lesson learned.
Now, when is the next Triathlon…?
Is This The Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy? (Hint: Ask Your Dog)
I just started the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and it’s very interesting. It’s a short book about the history of humankind, looking specifically at the development of language, the development of agriculture and the development of science as three pivotal points in human history.
We’re not the first animals to use language. Monkeys, apes, wolves, crows and other creatures warn each other about predators and proposition each other all the time. What we do that is unique is that we make stuff up. We can talk about stuff that doesn’t exist.
In other words, homo sapiens create stories.
According to Harari, this ability helped us to kill all the other non-sapiens hominids and take over the world. Yay us!
We create legends and dress codes and instruction manuals and laws and songs and parking spaces and states and ads and games and curriculum and news. All these things are not real outside of language. We made them up and then we agreed on them.
Stories are super powerful. (I don’t just mean the ones with superheroes in them either.) Stories about gods and nations and money have inspired and/or killed hundreds of millions of people. Stories are the motivation behind almost every move we make. How many times are you driven to do something because of a basic drive like hunger? You probably stopped screaming about being hungry or thirsty around the time you learned how to ask for something to eat.
Stories are so integral to our lives that it’s easy to forget they are there. Fish don’t know what water is and we don’t notice the fictional soup we swim in.
By the way, a good way to tell if something is actually real (like a person or a car or an apple) or a consensually agreed upon fiction (like a parking space or money or school spirit) is to ask yourself if your dog or cat recognizes it in the same way you do.
Look around right now and identify what is real and what is a story. I’m writing this (all non-real) in a Starbucks (a corporation is a “legal fiction”). There are lots of packages and furniture in this building but the reason for them and most of the activity that is going on is based on invented laws and customs. All of commerce is a consensual hallucination. It is a very powerful and useful one and it’s not going away…but it is a great big story.
So what? Culture is, at it’s core, invented. Great point, John. Next you’ll tell me that water is wet and there are a lot more people in California than there are in Siberia. Big deal.
Here’s the point.
If we notice the stories we live inside of we can get power over them. Once we recognize the story we can change it. A lot of stories are consensual so if you want to change it in a meaningful way you have to get other people to change their story as well. People like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Junior and Nelson Mandela change history in part by telling a better story.
If you change your story you change your perception of the world around you.
But there are also a lot of stories that only you know and the only person who has to change the story is you. In my experience, when people want to accomplish something great and they don’t, the biggest obstacle is their own story.
The biggest obstacle is their own story.
Let me say that again but more directly…
and more forcefully
and in blue
with a larger font.
The biggest obstacle in your life is probably your own story. One that you made up years ago. An antiquated and useless work of fiction with no relationship to reality that needs to be tossed out or seriously rewritten.
Here’s a simple example of how this works.
You have a story that goes like this:
“Because of ____ and ____ I can’t achieve _____.”
As a result of your belief that this story is real, you don’t TRY to achieve _____.
Please note that your dog doesn’t even know about this story and if you told it to him he wouldn’t understand it. Thus it is a work of fiction.
Please note that I am NOT saying that the power of positive thinking will give you super human strength. What I am saying is that this story keeps tons of people from even trying. You can’t do anything if you take no action and if you KNOW (because of your story) that your action will not succeed you will not take action.
In his book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell talks about dyslexic people like Gary Cohn (COO of Goldman Sachs) and Brian Grazer (Co-owner of Imagine Entertainment) who succeed in part because their learning disability taught them early on that failure wasn’t fatal. They kept trying because they knew from experience that the downside (failure) wasn’t so bad. They’d done that a lot. Their story might go like this:
“I might as well try _____ because the worse thing that can happen is that I fail and that’s not a such a bad thing. I don’t like it but it won’t kill me and I can learn from it.”
I have a huge aversion to failure. Huge. One of my worst stories goes like this:
“If I fail then it will confirm that I am a loser so I should only do things that I know I can succeed at.”
I’m giving that up.
Here’s another one:
“People don’t want to hear from me and if I keep talking about optimism and goal setting and creating habits they will think I’m a delusional loser.”
Note that I’m apparently very worried about being a loser. This worry is a story I made up in 7th grade when I thought I was a loser. I’ve actually worked very hard since then to not be a loser. This has been a tremendous waste of time and energy because, really, who cares? There are really only three people on earth who’s opinion means anything to me and one of them is me. The other two just want me to be happy and occasionally rub their feet so I am free to drop that story as well.
Here are some stories that most people tell themselves:
The world is against me.
I don’t deserve to be happy/successful/loved.
My parents screwed me up.
My responsibilities keep me from being happy.
I am a victim-y, victimized victim and my role in life is to suffer silently as I am victimized.
Someday I will take action so I should not take action now because today is not someday.
By the way, if you read all this and don’t think it applies to you, like you think you don’t base the way you live and act on a work of fiction, you’re delusional.
Here’s another way to ferret out your story. Think about that crazy relative of yours who supports that other candidate for president, the candidate that no one in their right mind would support. You can recognize that your relative is living based on a fictional world view, right?
Okay now think about your own political views from your relative’s point of view. They think that you’re completely nuts to vote for your candidate.
All the evidence that both of you have for the political views that you have are completely invented. Those deeply held political beliefs are works of fiction supported by more works of fiction. That’s why people can live in the same world and believe such different things. Beliefs are made up.
Here’s my proof.
I asked my dog who he was going to vote for and he had no opinion on the matter and was not interested in anything I had to say about it.
So think about that set of political opinions that you have about Trump or Clinton or Bernie or Key or Trudeau.* Think about the evidence you have accumulated to support those opinions. Do you see that every single bit of that is in the non-real realm.
Now I admit that I am being extreme to prove a point. I understand that most of modern life is comprised of made up stuff that every sane human had agreed to believe in (money, ethics, language, laws) and that it’s impractical and insane to reject those things.
The point I am making is that your personal relationship to any concept including money is in your control in a way that your relationship to mass and gravity is not. If you are literally under water you may die. If you are financially under water you may feel like your life is over but, in fact, it isn’t.
Now since my dog doesn’t understand the important consensual hallucination that we call money, perhaps he’s not the most useful arbiter of what is real. Imagine a person who you don’t know. If you told your disempowering story to them would they accept it without any explanation?
YOU: I have to keep the job I hate because my parents will freak out if I quit.
STRANGER: Are you under 18?
YOU: No, I’m 40.
STRANGER: Are you nuts?
YOU: I can’t get a promotion because my boss doesn’t like me.
STRANGER: That’s too bad. She told you that and there’s nothing you can do about it?
STRANGER: No, she didn’t tell you that or no, there is something you can do about it.
STRANGER: Why do you think she doesn’t like you?
YOU: She didn’t smile at me one time.
STRANGER: Are you nuts?
It’s actually very difficult to dig in and identify your stories. The most disempowering ones are often the hardest to identify and re-write.
Be tough on your stuff.
Then change your story.
Changing your story is only powerful if it changes what you do.
“When you understand, that what you’re telling is just a story. It isn’t happening anymore. When you realize the story you’re telling is just words, when you can just crumble up and throw your past in the trashcan, then we’ll figure out who you’re going to be.”
― Chuck Palahniuk,
Okay, enough of my story. What’s your deal?
The ability to make up stories has given human beings the ability to create civilizations, organizations and advanced technology.
Stories can also stand in the way of progress, both personally and on larger scales.
Realizing that our stories are just made up can give us power over them if we recognize them.
Three Steps to
Write down the reason why you haven’t taken action to reach a goal you want to reach. This is a story.
Identify the parts of the story that are not real (Hint: your dog would not recognize their reality).
Rewrite the story in a more empowering way.
* Yes, I have international readers and I am pandering to them. Sue me!
What do Trips, Illness and Celebrations Have In Common?
Newly hatched habits are cute and cuddly—everyone loves them—but they’re basically defenseless and they must be carefully protected. Special days (like holidays) and special circumstances (like illnesses or vacations) can be deadly to young, defenseless habits.
I get on the train in the morning and I meditate and then I write.
At 12:00 I get a notice on my computer to go to the gym. I get to the gym and I work out.
I’m a meditating, working out, writing, productive monster!!!
But what if I don’t go to work on the train? Do I do all those things anyway?
Actually I sometimes do but not regularly. On vacation in Hawaii I kept up with my workouts and mediation but I didn’t write. In Maine I went for one run and that was it. No meditation. No writing.
I had a great time but it broke up the flow of getting things done and establishing patterns and it took an effort to get back on track. Some habits, like writing a gratitude list and a poem every evening, were all but killed by a break in routine.
Actually they did die. Who am I kidding. The trip to Maine put them in the hospital and then Labor Day pulled the plug.
But I’m going to bring them back to life. In this grotesquely extended metaphor that is making everyone uncomfortable including me, I am going to open up the skylight during a thunderstorm and shoot lightning into their cold, dead bodies until they rise from the slab as I laugh like a maniac,
Okay, back to practicality.
The key is to create structures that support positive action. Habits are structures. So are support groups, calendar reminders, accountability buddies, temptation bundles, motivational kitty posters and bets. The secret is to create structures that work even when you travel or have a day or two with a weird schedule.
I have a mild illness right now and I’m not going to work today. That means no train and no outlook calendar reminder. Depending on how I feel I may forgo the workout but I’m going to meditate and write and I’m going to figure out a way to support those habits even when I’m at home.
PLEASE let me know if you have systems or structures that work on normal days and unusual days.
Now it’s time to roll back the skylight and let in the lightning.
I’m grateful to have people like you who read my blog.
I’m grateful for the support and help I get from Shelley.
I’m grateful for my air conditioner.
IT’S ALIVE!!! IT’S ALIVE!!!!!!
An NFL team in LA
Moved to Saint Louis one day
Then they came back
But alas and alack
They still didn’t know how to play
These are some questions to answer when you want to start a project or make a change or figure out what’s wrong with your life or your career.
Number 6 Will Blow Your Mind!
Just kidding. They all will blow your mind if you’re able to dig in and answer them. I think there are always things that will be revealed when you look into these questions. New paths will open up and you’ll find new sources of power and freedom.
What are you not willing to do? (Or what are you not willing to give up?)
Most good things cost something. To be in good shape you have to spend time to work out and not eat everything you see. To have a clean house you have to spend time cleaning it (or spend money hiring someone to clean it for you).
A lot of people I talk to have goals that they think they want to reach but there are crucial activities or that are necessary to reaching that goal that they aren’t willing to give up and, in many cases, they’re not aware of that unwillingness. A good friend of mine would like to married and have a family. The problem is that he likes living alone and he doesn’t want to give up his independence. Every once in a while he realizes this and for a month or so he stops wishing for the thing he doesn’t want to pay the price for.
There is freedom and power in recognizing what you don’t want to do. Once you do that you can decide change you mind and pay the price OR give up the idea that you want to reach that goal.
What are you not being honest about?
If you are human you are probably deceiving yourself and other people about something. If you don’t think you are then I am willing to bet that you are deceiving yourself about how you’re not deceiving yourself. Maybe you’re overweight because you’re eating more than you admit to yourself. Maybe you’re straight up lying to your wife, personal trainer or your boss about everything.
If you want to get something done and you don’t know why it’s not happening look again. You probably know what the problem is but you don’t want to admit it because it involves dishonesty.
Dishonesty is like rotten wood. It’s nasty and it ruins the structure and it’s might be hidden. It needs to be found and removed.
What are you blaming on someone else?
“If only they wouldn’t stop me from doing X.”
“I’d be ____ if it wasn’t for ____.”
If you can figure out what you’re blaming other people for you will, in most cases, see how much power you actually have.
Who should you talk to?
In many cases the most effective next step is to talk to someone. It’s that person you don’t want to call who has the expertise or access that you need. Maybe you don’t want to call them because you’re intimidated of them or ashamed of asking for help. Perhaps there’s some personal mess you have to clean up that you don’t want to deal with. Maybe you need an answer from them before you move on but you don’t want to get a “no” so you just don’t ask.
You know who I’m talking about. The second I asked the question, their name popped into your mind.
Call them right now.
What do you have to do that you don’t want to do?
This is either in your mind all the time or you have rejected the idea of doing it so strongly you’ve lost track of what it is. If you want to run that 5K in 6 weeks you have to start training now. If you want a new job you have to update your resume. If you want to raise money you have to ask people for money.
What story are you telling?
A client of mine wanted a new job. He told me that he was frustrated because everyone else gets job offers out of the blue. There must be something wrong with him or the world because he didn’t get these kind of job offers.
We talked about this belief he had and it turned out that I was one of the people who he thought got job offers out of the blue. I assured him that I didn’t and suggested that his story, based on misunderstandings, was causing as much (or more) suffering than his job.
What sad stories are you telling yourself that you could give up? If you have a belief that you are the victim of circumstance you might want to take a look at that. Those kind of tragic stories are usually a justification for not taking responsibility for our own happiness.
Again, if you don’t think you have any stories like this, look again. Most human beings do.
If you knew you had 12 months to live what would you do?
Please keep in mind that your time on this planet is probably limited. It is for most people. (I personally plan to live forever but it’s not for everyone.) If you don’t have a quick answer for this question, that’s fine. If you do the next question is “why don’t you do it now even if you’re not going to die?”
To answer that question you might want to look up at the previous 6 questions.
2 weeks ago I set the following goals to be reached 9/6 (two days ago).
Define metrics for The Three Simple Steps (Done – Installed Google Analytics)
Experiment with audio and video versions of the blog (Not done)
Finish up the tech stuff on this blog (This is a badly written goal. I can’t tell if I reached it or not)
Create a nice landing page for www.thethreesimplesteps.com (Done!)
Create a Facebook group for Three Simple Steps (Done)
The next goals were for 6 weeks from now (my birthday).
Post a blog post (at least) 3 times a week. Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Build an audience of 1000 people for The Three Simple Steps (metrics to be defined later)
Take on 15 clients.
Publish my second Bobby Blinx novel: The Space Academy.
I wanted to take a breath and assess where I am. I’ve actually accomplished quite a bit over the past two and a half weeks but I feel all over the place. I strongly suspect that I am trying to do too much at once and I need to focus. I also think I need to Step Back and plan more granularly.
Here’s the crux of my problem. I have a few goals that will take a big effort on my part and one goal I don’t know how to reach and it’s making me nervous.
Big Effort 1: Malibu Triathlon 9/18 I’m not as ready for this Triathlon as I’d like to be. For several months I focused my workouts on weights and just did a little cardio. I haven’t been swimming much and I haven’t been biking much. I have under 2 weeks of training to go.
I can swim (slowly) a half mile. I did it in the pool last week and I’m going to do it again today.
I can bike 18 miles. My bike is awesome and the bike path is all along the coast. There are some long inclines but no crazy cut-back mountains.
I can jog 4 miles (and if I can’t I can walk). Last year this was the worst part. I find that 5k is one mile longer than I want it to be. This thing is an extra mile on top of that and the finish line looked a lot closer than it was. Lot’s of folks who were ahead of me and on the way back encouragingly lied as I huffed past: “Almost there!”
It won’t kill me…probably.
Big Effort 2: Bobby Blinx 2: The Space Academy 10/12
I announced that I would have the second book our on my birthday. That means that it has to be ready for publishing a week before that. There’s a lot to do before then.
Bottom Line: This is what I need to do.
Rewrite one chapter
Hand it to the proofreader
Get a cover designed
Recruit a launch team
Put it all together in a clean copy
I can do that in a month. right?
Big Effort 3: Take on 15 Clients 10/19
I have to get moving on this. I currently have 4 clients and I LOVE working with them. I am talking to a new one tomorrow. Everyone I have talked to has been very interested.
Bottom Line: This is what I need to do.
I need to get the word out
I need to get business cards
I need to map out my curriculum
WFT Goal: Build an audience of 1000 people 10/19
I have no idea how to expand my audience. Currently I have had 92 unique visitors and I want to increase that to 1000 by October 19. I am not at all clear how to make that happen. I was envisioning a community of readers who would follow my story and comment on my ideas and offer input. I know I have readers and I’m really enjoying creating this blog but the audience (that’s you by the way dear reader) has been quiet and I’m not clear that my story or my point is coming across. Based on the numbers, most people come and read one or two posts. That’s totally great but it’s not what I imagined would happen. Or rather I imagined that many would visit and some would stay.
Bottom Line: This is what I need to do.
Figure out what to do
It’s funny, I was in a panic about this until i started writing.
Basics of Habit Forming 102 Apps, Games and Conspiracies
Habits start off as actions that we decided to do. Then we do them again and again until they we don’t know why we do them.
Habits have a structure.
CUE: (I’m on the train to work and I finished meditating)
ACTION: (pull out the Macbook Air and start writing)
REWARD: (sense of accomplishment and the unnamed good feeling that I get from writing or expressing—lets be cute and call it “content creation contentment” or CCC)
Bad habits have the same structure.
CUE: (Leave morning meeting)
ACTION: (Go get cup of coffee and bag of animal crackers from kitchen. Drink and eat)
REWARD: (Sugar, carbs, caffeine)
Creating a new habit is not easy but there are some tricks. One technique has been studied by Professor Milkman* from Wharton. I heard about her work on the Freakonomics podcast (which I highly recommend but the ideas are not really new. She just studied them and confirmed that they work.)
This is putting the good with the good. Long before I head about this from Professor Milkman, my wife applied it to great effect. She was binge watching Battlestar Gallactica but her rule (for herself) was that she could only watch the show while walking on the treadmill. For months she exercised nearly everyday for at least 45 minutes.
In the study (“Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling” Milkman, Minson and Volpp, Management Science Vol 60, Issue 2, Feb 2014) Milkman and her colleagues gave people audio books (including the Hunger Games) that they could only listen to when they were at the gym.
Other examples that Milkman suggested on Freakonomics is only going to your favorite burger joint with a difficult relative or only listening to your favorite band when you’re cleaning the house.
A commitment device is similar but is more like creating a situation where you must do the right thing because you have no choice or because the consequences of not doing what you want will be bad. The classic commitment device example is from The Odyssey. Ulysses wants to hear the song of the Sirens without crashing his ship so he has his first mate tie him to the mast. He’s stuck so he can’t do what he wants to do (steer the ship toward the rocks where the Sirens await).
Commitment devices that don’t involve beautiful singers who want to eat you include:
Cutting up credit cards
Not keeping foods or drinks you want to avoid in the house
Giving your gaming system away
Games and Bets
Making a game out of something you want to change and putting something at stake can combine elements of temptation bundling with commitment devices. I have had bets to lose weight and stop smoking. The Game On Diet has worked for several of my friends and I recommend it. It’s fun. Pact is an app where you can win or lose money based on whether you are doing what you said you’d do.
Rituals and Secret Societies
One way to create a habit is to make a it important. Make it magical and mystic and powerful.
Another way to start a new behavior or break a bad habit is to get support. Tell your friends what you want to do or join a group of people committed to the same thing.
I have this goofy dream of creating little secret groups that have handshakes and passwords and hermetic routines. These groups wouldn’t have world domination or espionage as their goal. They would be designed to help their members create new habits and reach their goals.
Imagine that you want to keep track of your spending so you can budget effectively and you have a hard time keeping track of what you spend on nights out. That night you’re out at a restaurant and you spot mysterious, cloaked figure watching you and your party from a corner.
Who could it be?
This is the Sacred Ghoul of Accountability!
This is really your friend Pat from the Tuesday poker game but tonight, by prearrangement at the last meeting of the Hermetic Society of Bacon and Eggs she’s wearing the cape of the Ghoul of Accountability and she’ll keep an eye on you until you give her the secret sign. The private signal that tells her and the other members of your secret cabal (that may or may not be watching in disguise) that you successfully photographed and filed the dinner receipt in your accounting program and you only ate one piece of bread.
And no butter.
Okay, maybe it’s an idea that’s ahead (or behind) it’s time.
Over the past year or so I have formed some great habits and replaced some bad habits and I am applying my learnings to coaching other people. Here are some things I’ve learned that you might find useful.
According to research on habits cited by Charles Duhigg in his excellent book The Power of Habit, habits always consist of cues, action or behavior and a reward. If you have a habit you want to get control over, the most effective thing is to identify those three things.
Habits rely on cues. My cue for meditation is currently getting on the Metrolink train to work. This is also my cue for writing. My cue for working out is a daily appointment in my outlook calendar on my work computer.
These have been very effective but there is a problem. When I am on vacation or working from home I don’t get on the train so I often don’t meditate or write. I also don’t open Outlook if I’m not working so that workout cue doesn’t get triggered. I have other goal structures in place to get me to do those things but the main habit that works so well on workdays is not available.
Here’s a great example of the power of habit. I got on the train and started writing this. Typically I meditate for the first 20 minutes of the train ride. I started writing and instead and I’m feeling very antsy. I have to meditate.
You don’t have to stop reading for 20 minutes but I’m going to stop writing.
Please imagine a time lapse of me sitting on a train apparently doing nothing.
I’m back. Sorry for the pause.
(Did you notice? No? Did you imagine me on the train doing nothing? No? When you read something do you imagine a person writing? I don’t. It’s a strange relationship when you think about it, writer to reader. To me it feels more like a brain to brain communication than a face-to-face conversation does. It can be more intimate and, at the same time, less personal. That’s something to explore on another day.)
Back to habits.
The action or behavior is really what we think of as the habit. That’s what we want to start (or stop) doing.
One of the best ways to change a bad habit is to change the action while keeping the cue and the reward. There is a groove in your brain already to start doing something when you are in some place or situation or when something happens. If you notice that and choose a different action rather than try to ignore the cue you’ll tend to be more successful.
When the cue comes up do something else rather than ignoring the cue. Getting on the train to go to work used to be a cue for me to pull out my phone and play Words With Friends, Two Dots and Angry Birds. I replaced the action with meditation and writing. When I stopped drinking alcohol I replaced the action of buying wine with buying decaf coffee. If you don’t replace the action the cue will start an tickle in your brain and you’ll want to do something. It’s actually easier to do something else and satisfy the brain’s need to scratch that itch rather than to try to ignore it. The groove is carved, might as well use it.
By the way, the action may be “quietly fume resentfully” or “feel helpless and sorry for myself” or “get pissed off and yell.” Changing habits may help you change relationships.
Actions are usually very obvious. Cues are usually less obvious but once the habitual action is identified it’s not that hard to pick it out. (Hint: It’s the thing that happens before the habitual action. If nothing happens then it’s probably boredom or anxiety.)
The rewards are usually gross and squirmy and hidden under a rock. They may require a Flashlight Of Honesty (+3 wisdom modifier) and the Scalpel of Self-Examination (usually used with the Shield of Objectivity which can provide +4 protection against self-disgust if used correctly).* You might also enlist the help of a therapist, a coach, a good friend or a support group.
Obviously rewards include hits of sugar, dopomine, adreneline and personal satisfaction. There’s also approval, accolades and love. These may be easy to spot.
Less obvious are things that don’t seem like rewards but are extremely common and very motivating. Many of these fall into the category of BEING RIGHT. Being the ‘quietly righteous victim’ is a strangely common and attractive reward. Another gross reward is the thrill of getting something you’re not supposed to have. Many adults have secret vices only because they are getting back at dead parents for not letting them stay up to watch The Six Million Dollar Man when they were 8. Avoiding anxiety is a strange reward for procrastination since it often causes anxiety later but it seems like that’s the jackpot for goofing off.
The very worst are zombie rewards. These are rewards that have died long ago but their corpses are rattling around eating that grove in your brain even deeper. This is an extended—and I think entertaining—metaphor for actual neuroscience. Mice that have been rewarded over and over again for doing something that will hurt them (like hitting an electrified plate) keep hurting themselves even after the reward stops coming. This is obviously true of addicts and even normals (as we addicts call people who haven’t yet admitted that they are addicts).
So if you want to replace a habit it’s important to figure out what your reward is and how the new action will reward you.
Here’s a habit that I want to replace. In the morning I usually lie in bed half awake and half dozing for 15-30 minutes. I set an alarm and then hit the snooze. This is not a good habit. Interrupted dozing might feel nicer than getting up but it doesn’t do anything for you. If you’re not going to sleep you may as well get up and start a productive, relaxed day with a shower and breakfast and a little time with the family. Maybe even exercise or meditate. I produced an interview with Ariana Huffington who is now on a mission to get everyone to get enough sleep and she hates the snooze button.
I just have to say that if you have a bad habit that you can’t kick it’s possible that you have an addiction. I would advise you to get help. I did. It’s worth it.
Pick a habit to replace one you want to get rid of. If you can’t think of a good one here’s a list of good ones:
Meditate 10 minutes a day
Walk for 20 minutes
Smile at a stranger
Let me know how it goes!
*I apologize for the Dungeon and Dragon references. I can’t help myself. They’re habitual.
The Importance of Names (or That Which We Call, Arises)
I love Gimlet Media and all their podcasts but I’m not a big fan of the name Gimlet. I think names are pretty important and I love the stories behind names.
My Son’s Name
My son is called Yogi. Yogi is his grandmother’s maiden name. His official name is actually Robert Yogi Wenk Sylvain in part because we wanted him to have an out in case he hated having a unique name that some people might associate with a cartoon bear and others with an old baseball player. Also, Robert Yogi was the name of his great-grandfather and Robert Sylvain is the name of my father and my brother.
So we have a lot of history and coolness in one name.
I have to mention that Yogi Berra is one of my favorite people ever but as a Red Sox fan I could never name my son after a Yankee. Yogi is NOT named for Yogi Berra.
Yogi loves the name Yogi, by the way and doesn’t like being called Robert.
When I was born I was called “Sonny” for the first few days of my life and that was almost my name – Sonny Sylvain. Can you imagine? I can’t. What would I be like now if my name was Sonny? I’m pretty sure I’d own a restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire or maybe be in the vending machine business in Ohio or Michigan.
Here’s why I was almost Sonny. I was the 38th grandchild of Henry and Eliza Sylvain. None of my aunts and uncles had named any of their sons after Pèpére (that’s grandfather in Canadian French) and my parents felt obligated to rectify that with me.
But they hated the name Henry. They thought I would be crippled by the name so they settled on the nickname “Sonny.”
(For the record, I like the name Henry. My favorite Shakespeare play is Henry IV, Part 1. If I ever used a pen name it would be Hal Silver or Hal Prince.)
When Pèpére heard that they were going to name me after him he told his wife of 40 years that his name was really John Stanislaus Henry Sylvain. She didn’t believe him until he pulled out his birth certificate. She wrote a letter to my parents that arrived a few days after I was born. My mother says my father’s relief was palpable. “That’s a nice name!” he said in stunned surprise.
So I’m happy to report that my name is John Stanislaus Henry Sylvain II.
(How someone born to lumberjacks in the woods of Quebec ended up with two middle names is an intriguing detail currently lost to history.)
The Purple Crayon of Yale
I was one of the founding members of the The Purple Crayon, an improv group at Yale that is (I’m very proud to say) still going strong several decades later. The group was started by Eric Berg who had spent half a year learning a long form improv called The Harold from Del Close. The form was called “The Harold” because someone said “what’s it called?” back in the late Jurrasic and someone else said “Harold!” (In the spirit of George Harrison’s answer to a reporter who asked him what the Beatle’s haircut was called. “Arthur,” George replied.)
So we were trying to come up with names (some were leaning toward “Yux et Veritas,” heaven forfend). Eric was training us to keep in mind things that everyone could relate to like myths, legends and great literature (rather than pop culture). I vividly remember that I was walking along right here:
Thinking about naming the group and how it should relate to something everyone had in common.
Everyone knows the stories from Greek and Norse myths. Everyone knows stories from the Bible. What else is there?
Everyone knows classic children’s books.
Like the one about the kid named Harold who creates his world with his imagination.
And his Purple Crayon.
Boom. *Mic drop before mic dropping was a thing.*
Sacred Fools Theater
The naming of Sacred Fools is a terrific story that was in print somewhere once but I can’t find it so I guess I’ll have to tell it again. The short version is that we inadvertently stole the name and most people don’t know where it came from. The long version is below…
Three Simple Steps
All of this is to say that names are very important, not only on a marketing and search engine level but really on a metaphysical level. Names are incredibly powerful things. To a large degree we define our world with language. We identify who we are in relation to the word based on words. That creature is “Mama.” That building is “Home.” That is a “Dog.”
The first thing that God had Adam do was to name everything.
“And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them; and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.”
In fact naming is so important that it was only after all the animals were named that God and Adam figured out that none of them would make a good companion for Adam. This suggests a comedy sketch that writes itself.
GOD: How about this one. I think you two make a great couple.
ADAM: I don’t know. It’s not really my type.
GOD: Well what type is it exactly.
ADAM: I think I’ll call it a Komodo Dragon.
GOD: Well, when you put it that way I can see what you mean. Not really a good match.
ADAM: No. The deadly bacteria infesting the mouth kind of puts a damper on kissing.
GOD: Kissing is important to you then?
ADAM: Well. I was thinking maybe once in a while.
GOD: How about this one. I think you would be great together. What’s her name?
ADAM: You mean the hedgehog?
GOD: Hmmm. Let me ask a seemingly unrelated question. Do you like ribs?
So now we come to the crisis.
I came up with the idea and the name of the three simple steps about a decade ago but I didn’t do very much with it. A little over a week ago I launched this blog with all kinds of fanfare and excitement (that fanfare and excitement was mostly inside my own head so you’re forgiven if you didn’t see it on the news).
Last night I published the latest post and then did a google search to see if “three simple steps” would lead to my site.
A man named Trevor Black has written a self help book called Three Simple Steps. He published it a few years ago.
WHAT?!?! How did I miss that?
So after kicking myself a bit and doing a little whining to my poor sleeping wife I realized that ‘simple’ was a nice appealing word but it wasn’t REALLY accurate and it wasn’t essential.
How about three super steps or three smart steps?
My wife grunted in disgust and fell back asleep.
Purple Crayon? Hedgehog? Komodo Dragon?
Wait. What about Essential?
Three Essential Steps. That’s a NICE name!
So I immediately got www.threeessentialsteps.com and then www.3essentialsteps.com. Now I have to figure out how to move everything over there.
So maybe that’s it.
But I’d love more ideas. Let me know if you got a good one. I’d also like to hear any stories about great names.
And finally, if you want to get a weekly notification of new blog posts along with news and links to interesting tools and content, sign up for my newsletter. It was going to be The Three Simple Steps Newsletter but now I might just call it Arthur.
PS The Longer Version of the Sacred Fools Name
We started the theater and needed to establish a non-profit corporation so we could open a bank account and take donations and exist. The sadly late and fantastically great Jim Ponichtera (a fellow Purple Crayon) was our pro-bono lawyer and to get the organization to exist we needed a name. Michele Dunn and I brainstormed about 200 ideas for names and many people added suggestions and at our third meeting we had a series of votes to get to the name. We were down to the last 10 (“The Candy Store,” heaven forfend, was the clear leader at that point) when a guy named Mark called out “How about Sacred Fools.”
Late to party as it was, the suggestion got added to the final rounds and ended up winning. I voted for it because it seemed to allude to the special and crazy place that artists hold in society. Traditionally the fool was the only person who could make fun of the king and tell him thing he didn’t want to hear. That’s what I thought I was voting for.
The next day Jim did the name search and shortly thereafter filed the Sacred Fools Theater with the Secretary of State.
A couple weeks later we had the name. A day or so after that Mark came up to me after a meeting and said “we can’t use the name Sacred Fools.” Turns out it was the name of a group he had been part of in New York and he’d stolen the name. “Jon Kellam came up with it and he’s pissed.”
Jon Kellam and I had a talk and I apologized and he reluctantly accepted. He and I later became friends. Jon actually named Zoo District Theater and Wolfskill Theater so he’s got some naming skills.
The irony is that the name Sacred Fools refers not to medieval fools or to artists in general but specifically to the sacred clown shaman of the Lakota people. That’s what Jon was referring to when he came up with the name for his short-lived company in New York. There have been thousands of Sacred Fools over the past 20 years and 99.9% of them have no idea where the name came from or what it means.