Slicing Projects

Rather than looking at tasks, projects or decisions as items that must be completed, slice them into the smallest possible units of progress, then knock them out one at a time. This strategy relieves the pressure of thinking we need a perfect plan before we begin something — after all, if your first step is “open a new Google Doc for this week’s newsletter” and not “pick a perfect topic, write a perfect lede and have a perfect organization,” you either have achieved that micro-goal or you haven’t. There’s no gray area.

Tim Herrera writing in the New York Times 

Do you like Cake? Delaying gratification

“Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experience the pain first and getting it over with. It is the only decent way to live.” ~  M Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled

A financial analyst was locked into a cycle of procrastination.

Peck asked, "Do you like cake?" She replied that she did.

"What part of the cake do you like better, the cake or the frosting?"

"Oh, the frosting!"

"And how do you eat a piece of cake?"

"I eat the frosting first, of course."

Having gained this insight, Dr. Peck started probing her work habits. Invariably she would devote the first hour or so of each day to the most gratifying and easiest of her tasks and the remaining hours never quite accomplishing the more onerous chores. He suggested that she force herself to do the objectionable tasks during the first two hours, then enjoy the remaining time.  

There is a critical moment early in your day when you make the decision as to whether you will plunge into the difficult tasks in front of you or not. Don’t allow yourself to decide – just act.  When taking the easy road is not an option, and you just plunge into the difficult tasks, you save yourself time and energy.. and make it easier to avoid those detours.

Motivation doesn’t equal Achievement

You might think it is safe to assume that, once you motivate students, the learning will follow. Yet research shows that this is often not the case: motivation doesn’t always lead to achievement, but achievement often leads to motivation. If you try to ‘motivate’ students into public speaking, they might feel motivated but can lack the specific knowledge needed to translate that into action. However, through careful instruction and encouragement, students can learn how to craft an argument, shape their ideas and develop them into solid form. 

A lot of what drives students is their innate beliefs and how they perceive themselves. There is a strong correlation between self-perception and achievement, but there is some evidence to suggest that the actual effect of achievement on self-perception is stronger than the other way round. To stand up in a classroom and successfully deliver a good speech is a genuine achievement, and that is likely to be more powerfully motivating than woolly notions of ‘motivation’ itself.  

Carl Hendrick writing in Aeon

Career Success is Not Enough

Success spares you from the shame you might experience if you feel yourself a failure, but career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfillment. If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.

David Brooks writing in The New York Times

Saying "no" to 1,000 things

People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying "no" to 1,000 things.

Steve Jobs 

Defeating Procrastination

Procrastination is a side effect of the way we value things. Task completion (is) as a product of motivation, rather than ability. In other words, you can be really good at something, whether it’s cooking a gourmet meal or writing a story, but if you don’t possess the motivation, or sense of importance, to complete the task, it’ll likely be put off.

Getting something done is a delayed reward, so its value in the present is reduced: the further away the deadline is, the less attractive it seems to work on the project right now. 

People who characterize themselves as procrastinators…discount the value of getting something done ahead of time even more than other people. 

Procrastination, in psychological terms, is what happens when the value of doing something else outweighs the value of working now.

This way of thinking suggests a simple trick to defeat procrastination: find a way to boost the subjective value of working now, relative to the value of other things. You could increase the value of the project, decrease the value of the distraction, or some combination of the two.

Elliot Berkman and Jordan Miller-Ziegler


err in the direction of kindness

Accomplishment is unreliable. “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.

Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf — seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness.

Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

And someday, in 80 years, when you’re 100, and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been. I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.

George Saunders Commencement Speech 2013

The Perfect Parent Trap

When perfectionists become parents, their mindsets don't change; they just shift their unreasonable expectations onto their children. Now their kids must be perfect too. In fact, a number of studies have found that perfectionists are so busy worrying about the drive for excellence that they aren't sensitive are responsive to the children's real needs.

Perfectionist parenting is anxious parenting. So that their children never make mistakes, these parents are overprotective, controlling, authoritarian, intrusive and dominating.

(Not that any of it helps: Research at Macquarie University in Australia showed that perfectionist parents’ tendencies to admonish kids and emphasize accuracy didn't decrease errors in children's work.)

Unsurprisingly kids of perfectionists are perfectionists too, adopting the same unreasonable expectations and exaggerated responses to failure. As a result, they're more likely to be anxious and obsessive. According to the University of Louisville researchers Nicholas Affrunti and Janet Woodriff-Borden, every time parents rush into fix something their kids learn their mistakes of threatening and they come to believe they can't be trusted to handle new experiences on the run.

And through their parents’ disengagement, kids learn that love is conditional. The only way to get it? Achieve.

Ashley Merryman, co-author of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, writing in ESPN the Magazine, May 11, 2015 issue

The Secret to an Exceptional Life

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers suggests context and hard work are more critical than raw talent when it comes to achievement. He offers Christopher Langan as an example of how the range of opportunities presented to us can made a major difference as to whether we gain traction in life.

Einstein's IQ was 150. Langan’s IQ was a blistering 195. But Langan spent his days working on a horse farm in rural Missouri. Why didn’t he rise to exceptional achievement? According to Gladwell, there was no one in Langan's life to encourage and help him develop his exceptional gifts. He grew up in a small town in Montana with an abusive stepfather in abject poverty.

Gladwell writes, "He had to make his way alone and no one--not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses--ever makes it alone."

You didn’t rise alone. Is there someone to whom you should show gratitude? Someone who poured? themselves into making you who you are? Is there someone who you could cultivate, radically altering the kind of person they become?

Stephen Goforth

Is Talent Overrated?

It is mid-1978, and we are inside the giant Procter & Gamble headquarters in Cincinnati, looking into a cubicle shared by a pair of 22-year-old men, fresh out of college. Their assignment is to sell Duncan Hines brownie mix, but they spend a lot of their time just rewriting memos. Neither has any kind of career plan. Every afternoon they play waste-bin basketball with wadded-up memos. One of them later recalls, "We were voted the two guys probably least likely to succeed." These two young men are of interest to us now for only one reason: They are Jeffrey Immelt and Steven Ballmer, who before age 50 would become CEOs of two of the world's most valuable corporations, General Electric and Microsoft.

Contrary to what any reasonable person would have expected when they were new recruits, they reached the apex of corporate achievement. The obvious question is how. Was it talent? If so, it was a strange kind of talent that hadn't revealed itself in the first 22 years of their lives. Brains?

The two were sharp but had shown no evidence of being sharper than thousands of classmates or colleagues. Was it mountains of hard work? Certainly not up to that point. And yet something carried them to the heights of the business world. Which leads to perhaps the most puzzling question, one that applies not just to Immelt and Ballmer but also to everyone: If that certain special something turns out not to be any of the things we usually think of, then what is it? If we believe that people without a particular natural talent for some activity will never be competitive with those who possess that talent - meaning an inborn ability to do that specific thing easily and well - then we'll direct them away from that activity.

We'll steer our kids away from art, tennis, economics, or Chinese because we think we've seen that they have no talent in those realms. In our own lives we'll try something new and, finding that it doesn't come naturally to us, conclude that we have no talent for it, and so we never pursue it.

A number of researchers now argue that talent means nothing like what we think it means, if indeed it means anything at all. A few contend that the very existence of talent is not, as they carefully put it, supported by evidence. In studies of accomplished individuals, researchers have found few signs of precocious achievement before the individuals started intensive training.

Similar findings have turned up in studies of musicians, tennis players, artists, swimmers, mathematicians, and others. Such findings do not prove that talent doesn't exist. But they do suggest an intriguing possibility: that if it does, it may be irrelevant.

Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated

Trusting Ourselves to Live Without Self-Made Barriers

My weekend of "sleeping" on the decision of whether to apply for a potentially exciting job evolved into a familiar frenzy of circular, useless thought and internal list-making, as well as reading everything I could get my hands on, including a book one of my journalism professors gave me, titled "Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes," which I have yet to finish for good reason.

I initially plunged into the book, knowing my super-speedy reading skills would yield another "achievement" of having yet another book to bring up at parties or feel particularly good about myself when I can tell others, "Yeah, I've read that," as if some book fairy was waiting on the last page to plant a huge gold star on my forehead for being on the fast track to personal enlightenment. There I go again. Fast as I can. Trying to get to the finish line before anyone knows I'm in the race. But something slowed me down. Something made me stop trying to rush through a book intended to help me enjoy, or at least cope, with life's gentle lulls.

Amid my mental commotion, I managed to pick up another book by Geneen Roth, "Women Food and God." That one was impossible NOT to read in about three hours - again, for good reason. It was a book I needed to read ten years ago. And it led to a few realizations:

The constant drive I feel to keep climbing whatever ladder happens to be in front of me at the moment has a lot to do with the fact that weight loss has somehow programmed to me think that PROGRESS is actually REPAIR for a person I've always been convinced is broken. I'm not skinny enough, so I "fix" myself with a rigid diet. I'm not smart enough, so I digest information at every possible opportunity to seem less inadequate. I haven't accomplished enough, so I keep seeking professional outlets for which to prove to a judgmental world that I'm aware of my shortcomings and want to overcome them.

This self-inflicted rat race has never been about personal growth; it was always about internal repair. And these moments of murky transition scream to my compulsions, saying, "Wait, there is no way that YOU could be good enough to slow down. You've never been good enough. What makes you think you are now? Keep pushing. Keep working. Keep killing yourself to prove you have value. It's the only way."

Any sort of educational, professional or personal structure I've ever maintained in my life was an excuse to keep a cage around Broken Me. I adhere to strict, torturous diets and workout plans because if I don't, Broken Me (who obviously can't be trusted) will screw up and gain weight. I maintain impossibly difficult schedules because Broken Me would waste her life away if left unattended. I've spent my life devaluing everything about myself in order to justify having my own predetermined life track. I've also convinced myself that if I don't spend a life obsessively submerged in all that I love, simply loving it has no value in itself, hence the all-too-predictable desire to jump at the opportunity to apply for the job.

And the truth is, I would love that job. I would learn from it. But, would I grow? My news judgement and management skills would likely improve. I would be able to gain a new type of experience. But, would taking on a position like that enhance my education or serve as yet another comfortable crutch for a girl who convinced herself long ago that she couldn't stand on her own two feet?

Alex McDaniel

10,000 hours of deliberate practice is not enough

In a study of violin students at a conservatory in Berlin in the 1980s.. there was something.. that almost everyone has subsequently overlooked. “Deliberate practice,” they observed, “is an effortful activity that can be sustained only for a limited time each day.” Practice too little and you never become world-class. Practice too much, though, and you increase the odds of being struck down by injury, draining yourself mentally, or burning out. To succeed, students must “avoid exhaustion” and “limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”

Everybody speed-reads through the discussion of sleep and leisure and argues about the 10,000 hours (necessary to become world-class in anything).

This illustrates a blind spot that scientists, scholars, and almost all of us share: a tendency to focus on focused work, to assume that the road to greater creativity is paved by life hacks, propped up by eccentric habits, or smoothed by Adderall or LSD. Those who research world-class performance focus only on what students do in the gym or track or practice room. Everybody focuses on the most obvious, measurable forms of work and tries to make those more effective and more productive. They don’t ask whether there are other ways to improve performance, and improve your life.

This is how we’ve come to believe that world-class performance comes after 10,000 hours of practice. But that’s wrong. It comes after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, 12,500 hours of deliberate rest, and 30,000 hours of sleep.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang writing in Nautilus

Getting closer to the truth

Most of us view the world as more benign than it really is, our own attributes as more favorable than they truly are, and the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be. We also tend to exaggerate our ability to forecast the future, which fosters optimistic overconfidence. In terms of its consequences for decisions, the optimistic bias may well be the most significant of the cognitive biases. Because optimistic bias can be both a blessing and a risk, you should be both happy and wary if you are temperamentally optimistic.

Optimism is normal, but some fortunate people are more optimistic than the rest of us. If you are genetically endowed with an optimistic bias, you hardly need to be told that you are a lucky person -- you already feel fortunate.

An optimistic attitude is largely inherited, and it is part of a general disposition for well-being, which may also include a preference for seeing the bright side of everything. If you were allowed one wish for your child, seriously consider wishing him or her optimism. Optimists are normally cheerful and happy, and therefore popular; they are resilient in adapting to failures and hardships, their chances of clinical depression are reduced, their immune system is stronger, they take better care of their health, they feel healthier than others and are in fact likely to live longer.

Of course, the blessings of optimism are offered only to individuals who are only mildly biased and who are able to “accentuate the positive” without losing track of reality.

Optimistic people play a disproportionate role in shaping our lives. Their decisions make a difference; they are inventors, entrepreneurs, political and military leaders -- not average people. They got to where they are by seeking challenges and taking risks. They are talented and they have been lucky, almost certainly luckier than they acknowledge. Their self-confidence is reinforced by the admiration of others. This reasoning leads to a hypothesis: the people who have the greatest influence on the lives of others are likely to be optimistic and overconfident, and to take more risks than they realize.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Activity is not accomplishment

John Henry Fabre, the great French naturalist, conducted a most unusual experiment with some Processionary Caterpillars. These caterpillars blindly follow the one in front of them. Hence, the name. Fabre carefully arranged them in a circle around the rim of a flower pot. So that the lead caterpillar actually touched the last one., making a complete circle. In the center of the flower pot he put pine needles, which is food for the Processionary Caterpillar. The caterpillars started around this circular flower pot. Around and around they went, hour after hour, day after day, night after night. For seven full days and seven full nights they went around the flower pot. Finally, they dropped dead of starvation and exhaustion. With an abundance of food less that six inches away, they literally started to death, because they confused activity with accomplishment.

Zig Ziglar, See You at the Top

Why is it so impossible to get everything done?

Several research studies have shown that people never get more done by blindly working more hours on everything that comes up. Instead, they get more done when they follow careful plans that measure and track key priorities and milestones. So if you want to be more successful and less stressed, don’t ask how to make something more efficient until you’ve first asked, “Do I need to do this at all?”

Simply being able to do something well does not make it the right thing to do. I think this is one of the most common problems with a lot of time-management advice; too often productivity gurus focus on how to do things quickly, but the vast majority of things people do quickly should not be done at all.

If you think about it, it’s actually kind of ironic that we complain we have so little time, and then we prioritize like time is infinite. So do your best to focus on what’s truly important, and not much else.

Angel Chernoff

Improving your inner circle

I reviewed my life when I turned forty. I had the desire to keep going to a higher level and to make a greater impact, but I realized that I had leveraged my time as much as I possibly could, and it would have been impossible to sharpen the focus on my priorities any more than it already was. In other words, I could not work harder or smarter. That left me only one choice: learning to work through others.

John Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership

Sabotaging Yourself

From time to time a project will come along that seems so big and challenging you start to question your ability to succeed. It could be as epic as writing a book or directing major motion picture or it could be something more pedestrian like passing a final exam or delivering an important speech to your corporate boss. Naturally, some doubts will float through your mind when ever failures possible.

Sometimes, when the fear of failure is strong, you use a technique psychologist call self-handicapping to change the course of your future emotional state. Self-handicapping behaviors are investments in a future reality in which you can blame your failure on something other than your ability.

You might wear inappropriate clothes to a job interview, or… or stay up all night drinking before work – you are very resourceful when it comes to setting yourself up to fail. If you succeed, you can say you did so despite terrible odds. If you fall short, you can blame the events leading up to the failure instead of your own incompetence or inadequacy.

When you see your performance in the outside world as an integral part of your personality, you are more likely to self-handicap. Psychologist Phillip Zombardo told the New York Times in 1984, “Some people stake their whole identity on their acts. They take the attitude that ‘if you criticize anything I do, you criticize me.’ Their egocentricity means they can’t risk a failure because it’s a devastating blow to their ego.”

David McRaney, You are Not so Smart

Observed Behavior is Changed Behavior

When the lead singer at the concert asks you to scream as loud as you can, and then he asks again, going, “I can’t hear you! You can do better than that!” have you ever noticed that the second time is always louder? Why wasn’t everyone yelling at the top of their lungs the first time? Some really cool scientists actually tested this in 1979. (They) had people shout as loud as they could in a group and then alone, or vice-versa. Sure enough, the overall loudness of a small group of people was less than any one of them by themselves. You can even chart it on a graph. The more people you add, the less effort any one person does.

If you know you aren’t being judged as an individual, your instinct is to fade into the background. To prove this, psychologist Alan Ingram ruined tug-of-war forever. In 1974, he had people put on a blindfold and grab a rope. The rope was attached to a rather medieval-looking contraption that simulated the resistance of an opposing team. The subjects were told many other people were also holding the rope on their side, and he measured their efforts. Then, he told them they would be pulling alone, and again he measured. There were alone both times, but when they thought they were in a group, they pulled 18 percent less strenuously on average.

This behavior is more likely to show up when the task a hand is simple. With complex tasks, it is usually easy to tell who isn’t pulling their weight. Once you know your laziness can be seen, you try harder. You do this because of another behavior called evaluation apprehension, which is just a fancy way of saying you care more when you know you are being singled out. Your anxiety levels decrease when you know your effort will be pooled with others’. You relax. You coast.

David McRaney, You are Not so Smart

It's all about the long term

If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people. But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few (people) are willing to do that. Just by lengthening the time horizon, you can engage in endeavors that you could never otherwise pursue. At Amazon we like things to work in five to seven years. We’re willing to plant seeds, let them grow—and we’re very stubborn. We say we’re stubborn on vision and flexible on details. In some cases, things are inevitable. The hard part is that you don’t know how long it might take, but you know it will happen if you’re patient enough. So you can do these things with conviction if you are long-term-oriented and patient.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder

PS: The title of this post comes from the title of the first shareholders letter Bezos' sent in 1997.