Bite Sized

It’s amazing how much you can get done in a really short period of time when you break it into smaller pieces.

A big lesson I’ve learned relatively recently is that putting your goals into very small, very regular, and very intense time blocks works really well.

It’s natural to want to put our goals down in terms of milestones or accomplishments. “Clean the basement on Saturday.” Or maybe “Write a chapter this week.” Or even “lose 20 pounds by May.” We focus on the goal; the thing we want to be different in the world.

And then we never get there. The goals stay firmly wishes. We’re bad at estimating how long they’ll take – so we think we can clean the basement on Saturday, but even with the best of intentions we’re only a third of the way done by midnight and we’re not only exhausted, we feel guilty and down on ourselves. You try to write a chapter by the end of the week, but something keeps coming up and you never have enough time to sit down and write a whole chapter. And it turns out “until May” isn’t enough time to lose 20 pounds, so you’ve only lost half that by then and you feel horrible.

It doesn’t have to be like that!

Your goals need to exist in your daily life. They also need to not consume your daily life.

The way to balance those two needs is to focus on time, not on milestones. Don’t say you’ll clean the basement on Saturday. Say that every Saturday, you’ll clean the basement for 2 hours until it’s done. Don’t write a chapter a week; say that you’ll write for 30 minutes every day, regardless of how much or how little you write during that time. And don’t worry about losing any specific amount of weight by any specific time; set a daily diet plan and say that you’ll exercise for 15 minutes, twice daily.

When you commit to those, you can do them with tremendous intensity. You can block out other distractions for the amount of time needed, and be satisfied with yourself when their time is over for the day. You can reclaim your life, guilt-free, as you do whatever else you want. You’ll know you’ve moved towards you goals.

Instead of being mad at yourself for only partially accomplishing a goal, you’ll be proud of yourself every single day for moving closer. You’ll build habits and satisfaction.

These chunks can be well and truly bite sized. Even ten minutes of writing is more than zero. Even a dollar saved is more than no dollars. There is no increment towards your goal that is shameful, pointless, or “not worth it.”

No matter what your goal is, there is a bite you could take out of it today. If you’re not willing to, then it’s not really your goal – and that’s all there is to it.

The Bear

Some days you get the bear, and some days the bear gets you.

You don’t necessarily fall behind just because you have a bad day. If you’re relentless about your goals normally, you’ve gained ground every day. A day where you gain less ground isn’t the same as a day where you move backwards.

The bear got me today. I’ll get him tomorrow. And my scorecard is still way better than his.

Headache

My head hurts.

The nature of having young kids is that they do a phenomenal job of collecting germs. Germs to which they seem shockingly resilient, but which none the less lay waste to this poor old man’s immune system.

It’s not that bad. I’m more tired than I otherwise would be, and I have the standard suite of symptoms that accompany a head cold. But miracles of modern science abound, and I have plenty of medicines and chemicals to treat these symptoms and a safe environment in which to recover.

It did give me reason to reflect, as I recovered comfortably and safely, on how important it is to have a framework of goals, actions and principles that you establish in advance of these more difficult moments.

This morning I went to my eldest daughter’s karate belt test, despite the fact that in the moment I had very little desire to do so. But I have a firmly-held principle, written in the high times, that says “Attend as many of your children’s important milestones as you possibly can; only let actual inability prevent you from doing so.” Being tired and sick isn’t actual inability, so I went. The principle carried me when my immediate motivation wasn’t there.

Likewise, today would be a lousy day to start a blog or writing a book or a workout routine or a reading pattern or any of my other daily goals. If I didn’t already have those things in place, I wouldn’t find the motivation to start them today.

That’s why you can’t rely on motivation in the moment. No one is motivated every single day; some days just suck. And those are the days where you need that framework the most, because those are the days that have a tendency to turn into weeks, months, or the rest of your life if you let them.

That’s a headache far worse than this one.

No Status Quo

“You never use that mixer. Those things are pretty expensive; you could sell that one for $200, easy.”

“I might need it, though.”

“If you didn’t have a mixer, and you saw one just like that for $200 right now, would you buy it?”

“Probably not.”

“Why? You might need it.”

“Yeah, but I could spend that $200 on other stuff.”

“Exactly. Let me put it another way – if you didn’t have a mixer or $200, and I offered you one or the other as a gift, which would you want?”

“Definitely the cash.”

Do you see what happened here? The other person went from not wanting to sell the mixer (in other words, to valuing the mixer much higher than $200) to ‘probably’ not buying a mixer (in other words, valuing the mixer at somewhat less than $200) to definitely preferring the cash (in other words, absolutely valuing the mixer far less than $200). Each time, they were implicitly asked which they valued more, but three different answers were given.

Why?

It’s called “status quo bias,” and it’s ruining your life. Fortunately, once you know about it, it loses a lot of its power over you – if you’re smart enough to beat it.

“Status quo bias” means that you over-value stuff you own or your current situation, even if the post-change state would be much better. You see this manifesting most often when people are faced with a decision whether or not to change something.

A fellow reached out to me recently looking for advice on a difficult situation he was facing. He had a good job and a nice home situation. But he also had a really spectacular offer for a new job he was considering. There was nothing wrong with his current situation; he was happy. He was trying to figure out if the possible disruption to that was worth the probable (but of course, always uncertain) improvement to his situation by taking the new offer. He’d rattled off lists of pros and cons but his biggest impediment to the decision was that both potential scenarios were good; he was just trying to figure out which was better, for him and his family. That’s a tough decision, and I certainly couldn’t make it for him. But I was able to help him make the decision a lot easier.

I asked him simply: “Imagine you didn’t currently have either job. You currently live in another state and you’re unemployed, looking for your next role. You get two offers at the same time – one for your current job, one for this new one. Which would you take?”

His response was instantaneous. He’d take the new one.

You see, when laid out like that, almost everything about the new role was better than the current one. Almost all the points in the “pro” column for the current job were facets of the fact that he was already there. He wouldn’t have to relocate; he already knew the role; etc.

He wasn’t fairly evaluating the two options against one another, he was evaluating changing versus not changing.

Unfortunately, our brains are wired to be risk-averse and afraid of change in far greater proportion than they should be. Change requires effort and risk; but far less than we expect. And change and risk are by nature temporary; if you don’t do something because of them, you’re trading a lasting benefit for mitigation of a temporary cost, and compounded over time those decisions are making your life so much worse than it could be.

Any time you’re faced with a decision between an inactive and an active choice, such as “should I quit my job for this new role” or “should I move to a new house or stay here” or even “should I sell this thing I don’t use or keep it,” re-frame the choice as being between two active options. Ask “if I didn’t live in either house, which one would I pick,” and you’ll find an easier answer. The human brain is lazier than you realize, but it’s great at comparing two things and picking the one you want if the effort for either was roughly equal. So you have to trick your brain a little, but the end result is better decision-making.

Sometimes the decision will go the other way, and of course that’s fine. Sometimes you might say, “I actually would like the new house better, but they’re so close I don’t think it’s worth the challenge and hassle of moving,” and that’s both fair and okay. Sometimes you’ll say, “You know what, even if both were on the table, I would take the mixer, and thinking about it this way has helped me realize that I want to set more time aside to pursue baking because I love it so much.” The point isn’t to always pick the change (if that were the lesson here, we wouldn’t be talking about how to make good decisions at all, because the decision would be automatic), but to know which one you really want and to not let your lazy brain trick you into the call that will make you less happy in the long run.

Don’t give your current status any additional weight just because it’s grandfathered in. You can make your life from scratch, over and over again, as often as you want. You can make it better each time.

Starting Over

Have you ever thought about what advice you would give yourself 10, 20, or 30 years ago?

If you could talk to yourself when you were at the start of the journey you now consider yourself to be further along in, what advice would you give your past self?

That question has a million answers. You probably think you have some damned fine advice to offer your younger self, perhaps advice that you’d repeat to any other younger people who will listen.

So here’s the better question – if you know what you should have done when you were younger, why don’t you do those things now?

“Oh, if I could go back and do it all over, I’d definitely get into/out of this or that industry.” So why not now?

You can start over any time you want. Don’t be a slave to what you think you’ve earned, especially if it’s keeping you from doing so much more. The fact is, you almost certainly are smarter now than you were then. It was smart of your younger self to make a plan. Now it’s up to you to improve on it. You don’t have to take your marching orders from someone who had the same dreams as you but ten years less experience.

It’s never too late to take the advice your future self wants to give you.

Head Bus Boy

My first job where I was an actual employee of someone other than my family came when I was sixteen years old. There was a local catering hall in my town that employed a fair number of youths in basic positions. I approached the owner, made my case, and was hired on the spot as a bus boy. I was told to show up that Saturday at 6 AM, to wear a white button-down shirt, black pants and black shoes (a black vest and black tie were provided by the establishment from a large supply of cheap versions they kept on hand; smart of them).

I showed up early and worked from before 6 AM until just after 2 AM the (technically) next day. Despite the 20-hour shift, I felt wonderful. I was treated very well; plenty of free food (the family-owned-and-operated hall always made plenty of extra for the employees), lots of good music, and many of my co-workers were people I knew from school. Like any workplace of mostly teenagers, the environment was fun. Unlike many, the management actually encouraged that fun as long as the customers were happy and we worked as hard as we laughed.

The owners were a local Italian family (because this was a catering hall in New Jersey… who did you expect to run it?), and so the crew spent the after-hours cleanup time singing Frank Sinatra songs as we worked. Most people were told they could go home when the last party ended; the few that volunteered to stay longer for cleanup were compensated extra. I had worked over 20 hours (obviously with breaks and such, but not many), but I also left with over $250 in cash from my first night of work, ever. I was over the moon.

But that’s not all I left with. At the end of that first night, the owners called me into the small adjacent office and told me they’d never seen a kid work as hard as I did and not have a word of complaint or ask to go home even after all that time. They asked me if I wanted to be “head bus boy.”

Thinking back on it now, I laugh and laugh. “Head bus boy!” What a concept. It turns out they just wanted someone to coordinate getting the appropriate number of teenagers to show up for work each weekend, and it was easier for me to do that since I went to school with most of their employees. They offered me an extra dollar an hour and more hours during the week after school (most people only had the option to work weekends) to take on this responsibility. I eagerly accepted.

(It turned out to be a great move for me, socially. Suddenly I had the hookup, and word quickly spread that if you wanted to make the best money a sixteen-year-old high school kid could (legally) make, you needed to talk to Johnny Roccia. It also quickly got around that our after-work parties were the best, so that helped too. That’s not the point of this story – but it’s a nice reminder that there can be a lot of non-compensation benefits to your job!)

When I got home, my father was still awake. His son was at his first day of work, and he was eager to hear how it went. We stayed up even later and I told him everything, including the part where at the end of my very first day in the workforce, I’d earned a promotion.

My father has never, in all the years and accomplishments since, been more proud of me than he was that night. Nothing has ever topped it. I’m not sure anything ever will.

It was years before I first realized that some people were ashamed of their jobs, based on their relative social status. I was well into my 20’s before I came to understand that some people used the phrase “flipping burgers” in a derogatory way, instead of just as casual slang. For my father, that was such a ludicrous concept that I never even came up against it. There were no bad jobs inherently. There were bad bosses, and there were plenty of people who were bad at their jobs (my father had plenty of examples of each from stories of his own youth), but no work that needed to be done was inherently a “bad job.”

He taught me that respect (including self-respect, the most important kind) didn’t come from what you did. It came from how you did it. The way my dad talked about me, I could have been a Nobel-Prize-winning astronaut president. It didn’t matter that I was a bus boy. Because I was head bus boy.

Sometimes I drive by where that catering hall used to be. It’s not there any more and the staff have all moved on. I lost track of them years ago; I’m not sure where the owners and managers are now. I worked there for almost four years, and I loved every second of it. Sometimes when I drive by, I think of Mario, the owner (of course his name was Mario); his daughter Maria who ran the kitchen; and Gary, his right-hand man and general manager. The people who gave me my first promotion, who showed me that when you hustle and smile, there are people who notice.

Whatever you do, do it well. Do it with pride and with respect, especially for yourself.

Head Bus Boy.” Still cracks me up. And also makes me feel very, very grateful.

Yes First

I’ve mentioned before that my favorite word is “yes.”

I try to have a “yes first” philosophy in life. What does that mean, exactly? It means that I try very hard to cultivate “yes” as an instinctive, first answer. I want it to be my first impulse. You build those kinds of habits over time, but you can make the decision to start today.

It’s not just about the words you use. It’s about making those words true. Often I start with the “yes” and then work backwards. If I’m having a bad day, and my daughter asks if I want to play, some part of me can want to say no. To say I’m too busy or too stressed. Instead, I say “yes,” and then find a way to make it true.

It might be “yes, if you’re okay with it being just for a little bit before I have to get back to work.” Or it can be “yes, but the game has to be ‘help daddy clean the living room,’ and then we can do something else,” or even sometimes, “yes, I do, but I’m in the middle of a project, can we play in 20 minutes?”

“Yes, if” is still a perfectly valid version of “yes.” I started with the default that I would say yes, and then I looked for ways to fit that yes into my day or my life.

Try it with any type of goal. Ask yourself if you can accomplish some particular thing you’ve always wanted to do, and instead of listing reasons why you can’t, start your answer with “Yes, if…”

Assume the answer is yes, and then work out the details. The details are incidental; they’re minor compared to the core belief that you can do it.

“Yes, if” is a great way to stay positive while also respecting your time and other commitments. It also gets rid of sounding like you’re making excuses. If someone asks you for a favor, and you really would like to do it for them except you’re super busy right now, that can be true but still sound like you’re not willing to help or that you’re making an excuse. Instead, consider a rephrase: “Yes I can, as long as it isn’t time sensitive; but if I can help you with this after next Thursday I’ve got you.” (This is assuming, of course, that you legitimately did want to do the favor! But in general I think we could all stand to do a few more favors for others, and probably want to.)

“Yes, if” is also a great way to overcome your nervousness or anxiety about whether or not you have the ability to do something. Don’t worry about the voice in your brain that tells you that you can’t. Just say yes, and then figure out why you were right. Start with the yes. If you’re offered a promotion or a new task at your job, say “Yes! If I can take this task off my plate, I can completely commit to this new role.” Make the world fit to your yes.

All great things in life start with a “yes!”