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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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Paul Tevis

Entries in things i have learned (121)


Ignorance is No Defense

You’re not allowed to buy things for yourself between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’m amazed at the number of people I’ve encountered recently who aren’t aware of this rule.

To clarify, this isn’t some overly-restrictive law that says you can’t purchase anything that you’re going to use. You can still buy gas and go to the grocery store for yourself. If it’s something you regularly consume, you’re allowed to continue getting it. It’s those special things, those one-time purchases, those things that could conceivably be bought by someone else as a gift for you that you are forbidden from buying for yourself during this period. If you find yourself thinking about getting something like this between Black Friday and Christmas Eve, stop yourself and instead casually mention within earshot of a spouse/significant other/relative/close friend/other person who might be trying figure out what they could possibly get you for Christmas what it is that you’re thinking about getting yourself, but do not buy it. This may require a bit of patience and some restraint, so resolve to be strong. Under no circumstances should you buy this thing until after whatever gift-exchanging rituals you observe are concluded.

On behalf of tormented would-be gift-buyers everywhere, thank you for following the rules.


9 Things, Part 10

So that’s my reflections on Heidi Grant Halvorson’s 9 Things Successful People Do Differently. In some ways, the nine things could be boiled down to three:

  1. Figure out exactly what you want and how you will know when you’ve gotten it. (Get specific.)
  2. Actively do those things that will help you get there. (Use if-then plans, measure work remaining, be a realistic optimist, believe you can improve, and build your willpower muscle.)
  3. Actively avoid those things that will prevent you from getting there. (Focus on getting better instead of being good, don’t tempt fate, and focus on what you will do instead of what you won’t.)

And that makes sense.

I love the book because of how concentrated it is. It’s just enough theory balanced with the right amount of advice to be useful. At some point I’ll probably read Succeed, particularly because I’m interested in learning more about the research behind these ideas. (I’ve elided much of the research in 9 Things in these summaries, but it’s fascinating to me.) For now though, I’m happy with what I’ve gotten out of half an hour of reading.


9 Things, Part 9

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 #9: Focus on What You Will Do, Not What You Won’t Do

It should come as no surprise that thought suppression doesn’t work. Just try not thinking about dancing wheels of cheese. Every time you encounter something that reminds you of the concept you’re trying not to think about — in this case, dairy products, round objects, or moving rhythmically to music — it’s going to come back. The harder you try not to think about it, the more you can’t escape it. And the more you think about something you’re not supposed to do, the more likely you are to succumb. (This is another good reason to plan your way around sources of temptation.)

So, given that willpower can be worn down over time, and you can’t always avoid problematic situations, what’s the best way to keep from giving in? Remember those “if-then” plans we talked about back in Thing #2? You use them, with one trick: You can’t suppress your thoughts, but you can replace them. Figure out whatever it is you’re supposed to avoid doing, and come up with something to do instead of it whenever you’re tempted to do it. Things like “If I get excited about a project at a convention, I will think about it for at least a week instead of committing to it right away” or “If I read an email that makes me angry, I will wait for five minutes instead of replying right away.”

My biggest success with eating healthier came by focusing on what I would eat, instead of what I wouldn’t. I’ve got a list of things I need to have every day: fruit, nuts, whole grains, leafy greens, brightly colored vegetables, and green tea. When I look at a menu, I’m trying to find things that will help me tick boxes off my checklist. I hardly notice the things I’m not supposed to have. Once I’ve gotten my daily quota of each of things I’m trying to eat, I’m generally full enough that I’m not really interested in anything else. There is a list of things that I’m supposed to avoid, but because I’ve been consciously replacing those things with healthier alternatives, I rarely crave them anymore. And I hardly ever think of dancing wheels of cheese.


9 Things, Part 8

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 #8: Don’t Tempt Fate

Remember how I said that willpower is like a muscle and that you can make it stronger? It’s also like a muscle in another way: It can get tired from overuse. If you know this, you can plan around that limitation and not making achieving your goal harder than it needs to be.

Willpower helps you resist temptation; planning helps you avoid it altogether. Many of us think we have more willpower than we do. As result, we have an unfortunate tendency to assume we’ll be able to handle trouble when it arises, and so put ourselves in situations where it does and we have to. Studies have shown that people who have stopped smoking and who plan to avoid situations where they will be tempted to smoke are less likely to smoke again than people who don’t — and that those people who don’t try to avoid temptation express greater confidence in their willpower than people who do.

If willpower is like a muscle, then something else to avoid is lifting too much at once. Don’t start two high-willpower things simultaneously, like trying to quit smoking and lose weight at the same time. Research shows that taking on two projects like this makes it more likely you will fail at both.

My experiments in limiting work to capacity aren’t just about available time. In the process of determining my limits, I’ve several times run up against cases where I had the time available to do something, but I just couldn’t bring myself to spend the time on it. This is why I try to change only one thing (or sometimes two things) about my routine at a time. Following my existing habits is pretty low-willpower. Developing new ones (or getting back into ones that have been disrupted), though, requires a lot of focus. This ties into the notion of building up willpower (which we talked about in Thing #7) and taking advantage of one of my most trusted techniques: incremental change. Because, as has been pointed out to me repeatedly, slow progress is still progress


9 Things, Part 7

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 #7: Build Your Willpower Muscle

A host of research experiments have demonstrated that self-control is more like a physical strength than we previously realized. Willpower is something that we can use up — after which point we have to let it recover. It’s also a capability we can improve — with regular workouts. And because achieving so many of our goals requires us to resist temptation, developing the willpower muscle is a key to success.

There is growing body of research regarding things you can do to replenish your willpower when it wanes, but one of the easiest things you can do to increase it is to pick a behavior that requires you to suppress a simple urge and do it every day. (Some examples from the research are giving up a favorite sweet, refraining from cursing, using your off-hand to open doors or brushing your teeth, and not starting sentences with the word “I.”) The simple act of making your bed every morning will improve your capacity for self-control. You can then take that improvement and use it to resist whatever temptation is holding you back from achieving your next goal.

Milo of Croton was a wrestler who won six victories at the ancient Olympic games. According to legend, one element of his training regimen involved lifting a newborn calf over his head. As the calf grew older, he continued to do this every day, such that after four years, he was able to carry a full-grown bull. I have a ton of little routines I go through every day: Scrubbing my to-do list, tracking what I eat, keeping the house clean, writing in this blog, and half a dozen more. Each of these requires an act of will; together they’re a big bull. That’s why I started with a calf, with only two or three of these to begin with until built up my strength through repetition. Then I moved on to a bigger (metaphorical) bovine.