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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)


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.


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?


A New Kind of Nervous

The last nine days have been fantastic for me. I’d like to think that’s because of changes I’ve been making in my approach to my projects and to-do lists. As a result, I’ve made solid progress every day on everything I’ve committed to. I feel great, because I’ve been eating smart and exercising well. I’m pointed in the right direction, because I’ve had the time to consider what I’m working on and why, rather than just going heads down on my to do list. And I’m feeling really balanced, in no small part because I’ve been able to spend a lot of quality time with Gwen.

All of this is making me incredibly nervous. I’ve suddenly started worrying my virtue is unsustainable. I’m at that point on the anxiety curve where every day I keep pulling this off feels like I’ve gotten a reprieve from the usual order of things. I’m not yet used to this enough to think of it as the new normal. If I can keep this up for another week, I’ll feel better. Until then, I keep thinking, “Maybe the reason this is working is just a fluke. Maybe it’s because of the calendar. Maybe it has nothing to do with me.”

The weird part for me is that I’ve never had this experience before. I’ve never been one to question when things go right. I’m curious about where this reaction is coming from, but the thing I need to do is keep telling myself is that even if things go pear-shaped for a day or two, I can recover. I won’t have to start over from the beginning. I’ve gotten myself this far, and I can get myself back to this point again if I need to.


Do Not Want

On the day after Thanksgiving, Becky has this Fourth Friday Challenge for me:

“Anti-Gratitude List, or ‘I cursed the day these things were born/created/developed.’ At least five, please.”

This one is surprisingly hard for me. I don’t follow the code of the hater. In high school, I noticed how much time and energy some people wasted on hating other people or things that they couldn’t change. Doing that wasn’t a personality trait that I had, and I decided that I would stomp it out whenever I noticed it rearing its ugly head. So I’m going to have to go into a brainstorming rant to come up with this list. Let’s start the clock.

  • Willful ignorance / limited rationality / a lack of desire to discover someone else’s perspective.
  • Not running the damn tests.
  • Not reverting out changes that break the build.
  • Committing new code to the repository when the build is already broken.
  • People who don’t understand how a four-way stop works.
  • Things that sound all-natural but whose ingredient lists make it clear they’re not.
  • The belief that businesses exist solely to maximize profits.
  • That bananas go from being tasty to being not-so-tasty but still edible in such a short period of time.
  • The myth of effective multitasking.

That’s what came out in the first five minutes. There was more there than I thought, and there’s probably still more yet if I want to keep digging. I realize now that because this sort of thing is not normal for me is exactly why Becky asked me about it. Well played, Becky. Well played.


Listen and Change

I should stop being surprised by how much my training as an actor and an improviser is useful beyond performance. Today’s epiphany was about feedback.

As an actor, you have to learn to take the note. This was hammered home to me during my sophomore year in college. After one of the last rehearsals before our play opened, the assistant director was giving me feedback on some lines I had fumbled. I was working through them, and in the process I was explaining why I’d messed them up. The director — my friend Rob — looked at me and said, “Paul. Take the note.” And I got it. The AD wasn’t asking me questions, so no answers were required. He was telling what I needed to fix, and my commentary on why I’d done what I had didn’t matter to that. I stopped talking, acknowledged the input, and next rehearsal I fixed it.

Sometimes, when we get feedback on something we’ve done, we don’t always want to take the note. When someone says, “Could it do this instead?” our instinct is to say that would be hard, or to say that they shouldn’t want it to do that, or any of many other variations on “no” that use more words than that. We don’t really listen to what they’re saying because we’ve become defensive and feel the need to justify what we’ve done. Fortunately, there’s way out of this.

First, take the note. Listen to what they’ve said and what concern it expresses. Why are they asking for this change to the feature? What’s at stake here for them? They wouldn’t bring it up if it didn’t matter to them, so your first job is to figure out what’s important here. It’s not about you at this point, so don’t just wait for your turn to talk — listen.

Then, do what a good improviser would do and ask “How could I say yes to this?” The reason you’re getting this feedback is because the person giving it to you perceives a gap between what is present and what is needed. Feedback systems exist to close that gap. That means that we have to be open to changing based on feedback. If not, we’re running in open-loop control.

Saying yes can be hard, of course. Maybe there’s a powerful reason why you can’t do exactly what they’re asking for. If so, see if you can propose an alternative that captures the essence of the concern they’re raised. Maybe you think what they’re asking for is a bad idea. In that case, you really need to figure out their perspective, because you probably don’t have the same understanding of the situation. Dig deeper into the reasons for their request, being open to the possibility that that there’s something you don’t know that makes their position make sense. And maybe you just don’t know how to get around what’s preventing you from giving them what they want. In that case, collaborate on a solution with them. Tell them, “I’d like to find a way to do that for you. I’ve got these problems that I’m not sure how to deal with. Can you help me work through them?” You may not always be able to get to yes together, but you have to try.

In order for feedback systems to work, we have to (a) listen to the information we’re getting, and (b) act on that information to change the situation. These can be hard things to do, but a simple place to start is by taking the note and considering how to to say yes.