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I’m an Agilist, a former software engineer, a gamer, an improviser, a podcaster emeritus, and a wine lover. Learn more.

Currently Consuming
  • The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses
    The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses
    by Eric Ries
  • The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How.
    The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How.
    by Daniel Coyle
  • Alexander Hamilton
    Alexander Hamilton
    by Ron Chernow

Paul Tevis

Entries in books (38)

Thursday
Dec012011

9 Things, Part 3

This post is part of my series on Heidi Grant Halvorson’s 9 Things Successful People Do Differently and my experiences with her advice.

Thing #3: Know How Far You Have to Go

There are two parts to this. First, you need feedback to know if you’re making progress toward your goal. If you don’t have that information, you can’t make adjustments to your strategies or behavior. Timely feedback — and making changes based on it — helps you moving in the right direction. Remember those if-then plans from Thing #2? Make sure that one of them is to assess your progress at regular intervals.

The other part is that you need to focus not on what you’ve done, but on what you have left. Research shows that doing too much of the former decreases your sense of urgency, making it harder to stay motivated to reach your goal. By looking at what you have to go, you keep your eyes on the prize and make it more likely that you’ll win it.

By now you probably know that I thrive on feedback and measure a lot of things that other people don’t, so the first part of this idea is something I’ve been doing on almost all of my projects for a while. When I was working on the initial draft of the novel, I knew I needed to keep tabs on my progress, so my goal was to keep my per-day average above 250 words a day. It was tough going for the first few weeks, and I struggled to maintain the pace. One of the biggest problems I had was I would write a ton one day and then coast. I knew how much I could slack and still keep my average above the threshold. This “spike-y” progress was both stressful and ultimately unproductive.

Around week six, I discovered the research that tipped me off to my problem and I changed my strategy. Every week after that, I set myself a writing quota of 2000 words. Every day, instead of looking at how many words I’d written that week, I looked at how many I still had to go. If the number of words I written that day was less than the number I’d have to average for the rest of week to hit my quota, I’d write more. Suddenly my output became a lot steadier, and I picked up speed. After two weeks, I had no trouble hitting my count. A few weeks after that, I raised my quota to 2500, and I hit it every week until I finished the draft. Simply by making myself aware of how far I had left to go, I got there faster.

Wednesday
Nov302011

9 Things, Part 2

This post is part of my series on Heidi Grant Halvorson’s 9 Things Successful People Do Differently and my experiences with her advice.

Thing #2: Use If-Then Plans to Seize the Moment

One of the keys to reaching your goals doing the right thing at the right time — or avoiding the wrong thing at the wrong time. One of the best ways to make sure your brain is ready to respond to these opportunities for success is to create contingency plans. Decide in advance when and where you will take the specific actions you’ve identified. Then formulate your plans in if-then form:

  • If I haven’t written 250 words on this story by the time I get home, then I will do that first.
  • If I find myself getting sucked into Wikipedia, then I will close the browser window.
  • If it is Tuesday, then I will go for a run after work.

My biggest successes with this technique have come with my use of the Getting Things Done system. Both the “inbox zero” and “context-dependent to-do list” components of the process are built around exactly this type of planning.

  • If I am checking my email, then I will process (deal with, file, or move to my to-do list) every item in my inbox and leave my inbox empty.
  • If I am at home and have a few minutes available, then I will pick something from the “at home” section of my to-do list and do it.

The reason this works is that the unconscious part of your brain operates on contingencies like this. By explicitly setting triggers for the behavior you’re after, you put that bit of your brain to work on your behalf. After seeing how effective this tip is I’ve started applying it to other areas as well, but in dealing with my email and managing my to-do list I’ve experienced its results firsthand.

Tuesday
Nov292011

9 Things, Part 1

This post is part of my series on Heidi Grant Halvorson’s 9 Things Successful People Do Differently and my experiences with her advice.

Thing #1: Get Specific

When setting goals, it’s best be clear about what you’re trying achieve. Instead of being vague — with goals like “eat healthier” or “get ahead at work” — be as specific as possible. How will you know you’ve achieved what you wanted? What does success look like? Make those conditions your actual goals. (The book’s example for “lose some weight” is “fit into my old size-eight jeans.”) This gives you less room to settle for less than what you want, and it helps your brain see the differences between that and where you are now. Research has shown that this last bit is particularly important in getting your brain to figure out what you need to do to achieve your goals and to help you along the way.

How have I seen this work? At the beginning of this year, I wanted to “get back in shape” and “run more.” I got back into running last year, but I didn’t do a race longer than 4 miles or a training run longer than 6 miles. My experience has been that my body responds pretty well to distance running, and in 2005, when I felt like I was in reasonable condition, I ran a couple of half-marathons. Getting back to that point seemed like a good benchmark, so I set myself the goal of running a half-marathon before the end of the year. That made me look at what races there were and what training I would need to do to get myself to that point. I found a great “bridge distance” 15K race in the middle of the year and trained for that before turning my attention to the full distance in October. As the race approached, I refined my goal: I wasn’t just going to run a half-marathon, I was going to run it faster than I’d ever run one before. And I did.

This is just one example of how I’ve experienced the benefits of being specific in setting goals. By being precise, I understood how far I needed to go to achieve what I wanted. I saw what steps I needed to take to get there. And I knew exactly when I had succeeded.

Monday
Nov282011

9 Things, Part 0

In February, Heidi Grant Halvorson wrote a blog post for the Harvard Business Review entitled 9 Things Successful People Do Differently that ended up being their most-read article ever. That led to an expanded version of it as an e-book, which is, from what I can tell, a boiled-down version of her book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. That e-book — which you can hear more about on this episode of the HBR Ideacast — is without a doubt the most important writing on productivity and effectiveness I’ve read this year. I say that because it is (a) tremendously practical, and (b) extremely short.

Dr. Grant Halvorson is a motivational psychologist whose research digs into the question “Why do some people succeed at reaching their goals while others fail?” The answer, as it turns out, has little to do with talent. Instead, it’s largely a matter of little differences in the way people make their goals and how they plan to achieve them. The e-book lays out nine specific you can do to take advantage of what this research tells us. It’s simple and profound stuff, and as I read it, I found a lot of resonance with my own experience. I’ve discovered most of them in one form another on my own and seen firsthand that they work; the book gave me the framework to understand why. I knew they worked for me, and the book gives me good reason to believe they’ll work for other people, too. So, for the next nine days, I’m going to take a look at each of the ideas in turn and show how they helped me succeed at my goals. Sound good?

Saturday
Nov262011

Not Hardboiled

A few months back I read an interview with Christa Faust about writing noir, and this this bit jumped out at me:

“No happy endings. Everyone goes down and winds up either dead or wishing they were dead. If your cool, witty, handsome, fedora-clad, jazz-enthusiast Detective Mary Sue walks away unchanged and unscathed at the end of the book, then it ain’t Noir. That’s Hardboiled. Bad, cliched, silly Hardboiled, but Hardboiled nonetheless. Repeat after me: Chandler = Hardboiled. Cain = Noir. Don’t make me explain this again.”

I was reading a lot of Chandler at the time, so this intrigued me. It took me a while, but I finally got around to reading some Cain. It was about time.

Looking at James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice through the long lens of history, I can see it is very much of product of its time while still being amazed that it was actually published in its time. I can only imagine that when it came out in 1934 it was both shocking and relatable. It tells the story of two people — desperate people — trapped in prisons of their own devising, struggling to find their way out. These characters must have been very familiar to Depression-era readers, particularly because of how understandable the book makes both Frank and Cora. Still, it doesn’t refrain from judging the terrible decisions both make, and it clearly repeats the Biblical pronouncement that the wages of sin are death.

So, yeah. Noir. No happy endings. Thanks, Christa. You won’t have to explain this again.