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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.

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Entries in productivity (32)


9 Things, Part 6

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 #6: Have Grit

At first, this sounds like a strange thing to tell someone they need to do. “Go out and develop some grit, ok?” That doesn’t seem possible. It’s either something you have or don’t, right? Not exactly. Like being a realistic optimist (from Thing #4), it’s a mindset, and like willpower (which we’ll talk about in Thing #7) it’s possible to develop.

When the book talks about grit, it means persistence and the commitment to long-term goals. The ability to keep going in the face of setbacks is what gets you to the finish line. As it turns out, research indicates that a key difference between people who have this tenacity and those who don’t is how they see their abilities. Carol Dweck has spend decades studying this phenomena and divided people into two groups. The first is the entity theorists, who have what she calls a fixed mindset. Entity theorists hold that abilities like intelligence are like height: You have fixed amount of it, and you can’t increase it. The other group is the incremental theorists, who have a growth mindset. Incremental theorists believe that abilities are like muscle strength: They can be improved through the right kinds of effort. People who fall into the former category explain setbacks as a lack of ability. They tend to say things like “I’m just not good at this.” The latter tend to blame on more controllable factors — like not working hard enough, using the wrong strategy, poor planning, or the infelicities of the situation. Entity theorists lack the grit to improve; incremental theorists respond to difficulty by trying harder.

As it turns out, research has shown that the incremental theories are right. Ability is not like height, and it can always be improved. The difficulty comes in convincing yourself of this. To develop grit, you have to be willing to examine your beliefs and when necessary, challenge them.

Five years ago today, I started a new job. I left my old one because there were certain things that I wanted to do — particularly in project management — that I wasn’t going to get a chance to unless I made a change. I wanted to be project manager because I thought I could be a great one, while I could never be a great software engineer. For a few years I continued to believe that last part, but I realize now that I was wrong. The reason I wasn’t going to become a great software engineer was not that I couldn’t, but that I wasn’t doing the right things to improve. The last year has been one of tremendous technical growth because I’ve focusing on the right things. I’m a much better engineer now than I was five years ago. One of the challenges facing me in the next year or two is figuring out whether I want to focus even more strongly on that path or pursue other growth opportunities instead, but I know that it’s my decisions about what I do that really determine my potential.


9 Things, Part 5

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 #5: Focus on Getting Better, Rather Than Being Good

For me, the research behind this tip is the most interesting in the book. I’m only going to give you a taste, but the gist of it is: Nothing kills performance like anxiety. If your goals force you to be perfect, you get anxious. The resulting mistakes lead to more anxiety, and a vicious circle results.

The solution is to focus on learning and improvement. When you see mistakes not as failures but as opportunities for learning, you stay motivated despite setbacks. And counter-intuitively, research shows that when we give ourselves permission to make mistakes, we make fewer of them. The trick is to measure your progress not by some absolute standard by but comparing yourself to your own past performance. This keeps the focus on getting better, rather than being good.

In the summer of 2010, I ran a weekly series of 5K races, held every Wednesday evening. My only goal each week was to beat my previous week’s time. Out of the ten times I attempted this, I succeeded eight. I felt pretty good about that. Then I took a step back to look at my times in an absolute sense, and I noticed that I hadn’t just gotten a little bit faster. I’d taken almost four minutes off. I’d started out running a mile in about nine minutes, but in less than three months, I was able to do it in under eight. I’ve seen these results echoes in other arenas as well. When I was working on the novel, I eventually realized one of my sub-goals was to write more than number of words I’d averages up to that point. Each day I would push the envelope just a little but. Pushing myself to write just a little bit more helped me write a lot better. All it took was a focus on improvement.


9 Things, Part 4

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 #4: Be a Realistic Optimist

Here’s the skinny: Research indicates that believing you will succeed at your goal does help you achieve it, but only if you believe you will have to work to get there. Believing you will achieve success easily actually makes it less likely you will. Why? If you think success will just happen, you don’t focus on the steps you need take (which Thing #1 reminds us is important). If you think the path to success will involve obstacles, you plan to deal with them, which means that when you do encounter them (as you always will, even if you think you won’t), you’re better equipped to overcome them. Optimism gives you emotional resilience in the face of setbacks, but it has to be combined with a realistic assessment of the situation in order to carry you to success.

This is one tip where I can’t offer a specific example of how I’ve done this, because it’s a mindset — albeit a mindset I do share — rather than a technique. But it does allow me to share a fantastic quote on the subject I found yesterday from Carol Dweck.

“Effort is one of the things that gives meaning to life. Effort means you care about something, that something is important to you and you are willing to work for it. It would be an impoverished existence if you were not willing to value things and commit yourself to working toward them.”


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.


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.