Mar 242011

The pace of change over the last 30 years has been incredible. The variety of media has exploded and all of it is clamoring for attention. The population keeps getting concentrated more and more in the major metro areas. We are immersed in constant background noise and distractions.

Much has changed since my Betamax lost to VHS in the VCR wars of the early 80’s.  We now have five hundred or more TV channels, all of which can be easily recorded on DVRs for viewing at any time. In case that is not enough flexibility, services like Hulu and ESPN3 stream TV over the net whenever you want it. There are more movies than ever, many of which are available on demand from Netflix or your TV provider. The magazine rack is miles long, with printed products that have subdivided into smaller and smaller interest groups. The web offers zillions of websites, blogs, youtube videos, and podcasts, all offering more noise and distractions. None of this has killed the radio — the radio dial has stations literally on top of each other, satellite radio delivers hundreds of stations, and others like Slacker and Pandora stream radio wirelessly to cell phones.

On the personal messaging front, e-mail, SMS text messages, Facebook notices, and voice mail notifications beep, vibrate, and generally clobber our daily lives. People have crazy expectation of “real time” — if you don’t respond to someone’s text within a few seconds, the other party often wonders if you are angry with them.

Everywhere I go, it is loud. The hustle and bustle, the Kesha and Black Eyed Peas ringtones, the bleeps of BlackBerrys and iPhones, the general crowding at popular spots, the spray painted industrial ceilings without any sound absorbing material, all contribute to the din.  It seems like a quiet dinner or a cup of coffee on a tranquil patio is extinct.

How can one think about the meaning of life, his purpose in life, her mission this year — without a bit of meditation while in his or her personal fortress of solitude?

We have to make a choice to leave the smartphone on the kitchen table and go for an hour’s walk (or at least turn off all the smartphone’s tones and vibrations during the walk). We have to decide to eat dinner without leaving the TV blaring in the living room. We have to go drink that first cup of coffee while watching the sun rise majestically in the east. And we have to focus for a half hour or hour at a time, without distractions, on tasks that we have decided are strategically important.

If you choose to stop the noise and the distractions, even for just one hour each day, you will find yourself recharged and refocused, optimistic about the potential this day brings.

Mar 202011

The first day of Spring has arrived in North America. Grass is already turning green, we’ve had some fantastic weather, the trees are blooming, and the song birds are frisky on the patio, driving our cat crazy. Life is good.

I find the first day of each season a great marker to review and fine-tune yearly resolutions. Whoever came up with resolutions as only a start-of-the-year item got it wrong. Resolutions should be a year long event where we improve ourselves on the path to “be all you can be.”

Time for a grade. Here are my resolutions from the beginning of the year, and my assessment of my progress:

1. I will plan the one most important, strategic task I will do tomorrow every night before going to bed. This is my Strategic Big Rock (SBR) of the day. I will write it down on my daily plan for the morning.

To qualify as a ‘strategic task’ in my book, a task must pass my test of future value.  I look at any task and ask two simple questions – If I work on this task, will the result continue to produce value one month from today?  Will it continue to produce value six months from today?  A task is not strategic if the answer is ‘no’ to either of these questions.

I got off to a great start in January and February but the final two weeks of the winter quarter had significant breakdowns in this habit.  Still, I grade my effort as an A- and feel that I’m well on the path to success on this front. Changing one’s habits is never easy as pie.

2. Work on the one SBR task as early as possible the next day, with a goal of finishing it before lunch.

Other people’s issues and urgencies tend to invade our agenda as the day goes on.  The sooner I can get focused on my SBR, the more likely real progress will be made.  Every day, I will write down in my journal exactly what happened.  In my opinion, there is no greater motivator in the world than Pale Ink, a topic of its own that is coming to soon.

I only managed a B here. My log showed that only 50% of days did I even start on the SBR before noon.  All too often, I counted on a burst at 6 pm to make up for procrastination earlier in the day.  I can do better this.

3. On the fitness front, I will work out daily all of 2011, alternating between aerobic and strength training every other day.

In other words, I will lift weights on odd days and put in aerobic work on even days or vice versa.  My goal is to have a maximum of 24 days off, without a workout, in 2011.  And like everything else, I will jot down what I did daily in my journal.  Its far to easy to have selective memory if you don’t make accurate notes.

To quote Larry the Cable Guy, I got’r’done on the fitness front. Celebrating an A+. I missed one day in the winter quarter, but had four days where I worked out twice, putting me at net +3 workouts going into the Spring. I’m especially proud of the fact that I injured my back playing basketball but still managed to put in the sessions, albeit a bit less aggressively than normal while nursing the back.

4. Start a sideline venture in partnership with my wife that is up and running, selling product to customers by July 4, 2011.

This is my only resolution that is not about changing my habits for the better but rather it is a specific project which promises to be both exciting and difficult.  More to come as the venture progresses, but, like everything else, our first job is to create a good plan with bite-sized steps before we try to eat this elephant.

We made progress but the timetable seems too tight. We will have to really put the pedal to the metal in the spring time and see if the July deadline is makeable. I’m rating the winter effort only a C.

5. Reduce watching useless television by half.

I really don’t watch much TV right now, but it is really hard to find value in 95% of time spent when watching the tube.  No matter how you look at it, TV is quite successful at addicting us to hours without productivity.  So, I will do three things on this front.
a. I will watch no TV for half the days of 2011.
b. I will strive to have activities planned to do while watching TV.  For example, having the TV on while folding laundry or walking on the treadmill is far better than sitting on the couch.
c. I will keep a clear log of all my TV time spent.  Pale Ink is powerful stuff.

This one is a C- because I just did not start in January and ignored it all the way until Ash Wednesday. I’m now on the right path as a Lent observance but this was a good lesson of start right away, or the resolution will (almost) get away.

6. Improve my diet, especially adding more portions of vegetables and fruit.

Last year, I dumped 27 pounds using the pale ink method… I wrote down everything I put in my mouth.  I used the excellent app on the iPhone that they acquired from Daily Plate.  I got away from writing it down over the last number of months, but now realize that although I’m not looking to lose a lot of weight in 2011, writing it down helps with good diet decisions every day.  The ‘cost’ is only two minutes per meal (cheap!) but offers great benefits.  So, I’m committed to writing down everything I eat and drink in LiveStrong’s application all year.

I earned a B in writing it down and using LiveStrong, missing some days.  However, the focus on more veggies and fruit came in as a B- as I know I have more room to add a better mix to my diet.

7. I will schedule two one-hour sessions per week for personal improvement activity.

I always have things I want to learn, things I want to do that are completely outside my mainstream flow of life.  For example, for years I have said that I want to learn Spanish.  I have lots of tapes and CD’s and books.  Yet, I have not ever gotten started.  I have wanted to write a few simple programs in Javascript, but have not yet learned Javascript at all.

I will change this ‘never get started’ scenario by putting sessions on the calendar for personal improvement items every week.  I may have to change locations (library or Starbucks perhaps?) just to put walls around the time, but I will do it.

Wow, this one never got out of the gate.  An F, pure and simple. Time to get the habit sparked.

8. Post to two to three times each week.

Back in 2002, I did a podcast series that was very fulfilling but time consuming.  Interestingly, the term podcast didn’t even exist then, so engineering the audio took lots of time.  OptimismMan is the next step in my underlying drive to share my thoughts and ideas in hopes of helping others.  I will stick with it.  WordPress technology makes this very easy to do so there are no excuses.

I am feeling good about my Optimism Man momentum although I had a week or two with a bit less activity than hoped. Still, a solid A rating.

9. Eliminate all complaints.

Sounds a bit crazy I know, but I have experience.  I gave up complaining for Lent last year — it turns out to be much harder to do than giving up beer or chocolate, because you have to be conscious every waking hour.  It turns out that it can be done.  I engaged my family.  They became quite adept at spotting a complaint and telling me about it on the spot.  The trick was to put a tally application on my smartphone so that I could quickly and easily log each complaint.  The same power of pale ink, writing it down when it happens, works on this front too.

I have managed to really make this a good habit. It helped that I focused on this one last year as well. All in all, eliminating complaints is going well. Another A rating.

10. Change my discretionary spending habits for the better

Last year, I started jotting down (yes, in the smartphone again) every time I spent money on a discretionary item.  My definition of discretionary is not necessary, which is an interesting concept in our current age: is spending on your smartphone service ‘necessary’?  (I think it is ;-) )   A better example for discretionary for me is ‘do I need another T-shirt when I have a hundred in my closet’ but its really up to each person to define their own version.

This year, I will do two things.  First, I will get rid of impulse purchasing completely.  If I see something that I want, I will write it down in my task management software for one week minimum before returning to the scene on the crime to purchase it.  I think most things, once you think them over, wind up not getting purchased at all.  Secondly, I will continue to write down all purchases… little purchases, often small and mostly useless, tend to add up.  If you don’t write them down, its easy to forget where the money went.

Got an A here too.  I have it all jotted down and even managed a 6 week period without a single purchase in the discretionary category.

Spring Time Adjustments / New Targets

Lots of A’s but one F. #2 and #7 will be the focus of the Spring.

I think the list is ambitious enough without adding more. Overall, I’m happy with 2011’s progress on nearly every front. One simple way to make things better will be to review this list twice each week.  In the winter quarter, several weeks would speed by without a true review of what I want to have happen regarding resolutions.

Mar 172011

Does the news matter? News is packaged up for us in many forms, the most traditional being television, radio, and newspaper, and the up and coming being delivered over the internet.

I did a bit of an experiment recently — I carried a little notebook with me and kept score for two weeks time, jotting down how many news stories I heard from all these sources, whether a story was positive (optimistic) or negative (pessimistic), and whether I though the content of the story would matter to my life one month hence.

The first thing I realized is that “news” is bombarding people from every side. I averaged hearing or reading more than 22 news stories each day, and I really was not looking for it.  I only watched a news program a couple of times on TV and I didn’t ever start an RSS news program on any of my devices.

Secondly, I found that I judged 94% of the stories I heard as negative / pessimistic. If I didn’t occasionally read tech and innovation news, the negativity would approach 98%. While this was anticipated, I could not help but wonder what the effect of all this chronic negativity has on people. The old adage is that good news doesn’t sell newspapers but the constant stream of gloom can’t be good for happiness, reduction of stress, and positive achievement.

The most important revelation I found was that in that bombardment of 312 news articles I noted during the two week period, not in one story — not one — did I find lasting value — in other words, not one story would matter to my life one month from now.

If something does not matter 30 days from now, I think it should be considered entertainment. The news is entertainment masquerading as important information. But shouldn’t entertainment be uplifting? At least 50% of the time? Is that too much to ask? Clearly the news, at a 90%+ negative / pessimist rating is not. I find this lack-of-relevance amazing — it highlights the important difference between “searching for something” or “stumbling into something that is broadcast” to you.

When you Google for something, you are looking for something that is relevant to you. Because of this, the information found has a decent chance of lasting value. But the news just comes at you — one minute they are ranting about oil prices (but I will pay whatever is charged at the pump anyway), the next minute a little girl is missing in a city on the other side of the country (very sad but it will not change anything in my life here in Texas), and then flood waters are washing away someone’s house that was built in a flood plain and they don’t have insurance (bummer!).

We have a choice: It is time to proactively invest our time in something other than broadcast news. Time is our most valuable and fleeting resource. Would it not make far more sense to listen to a great audio book when commuting to the office rather than finding out the stock market is plunging today due to worries about Spain’s debt obligations? Yes, it takes a bit of foresight and planning, but it is well worth the discipline. Even if you don’t learn a lot, you will improve your optimism and that will improve your life in incredible ways.

Amazon bought — I think it was a good decision by Jeff Bezos.

I.M. Optimism Man

Mar 112011

There is a simple reason all of us are surrounded by unlimited opportunity to succeed:

Opportunities are usually disguised as hard work,
so most people don’t recognize them.

Ann Landers

Mar 072011

Education improvement seems to take baby steps in the right direction, but there are plenty of opportunities to do better. An example of baby steps is the long-running “Read to Succeed” campaign in Texas.

Parents set the example…

Teachers might be on board but parents are — too often — not leading by example. “Do as I say and not as I do” does not work in real life. Too many parents don’t read, preferring to waste nearly a thousand hours each year watching television instead. The example they set by their actions speaks far more loudly than the words they perhaps preach to their kids. Kids rarely get limits on the TV and therefore, reading does not become a major activity at many homes in this age of the time-delayed DVR.

Limits improve quality. To encourage your kids to read more and learn more, set limits on consumption and set a good example with your own actions. If you tell your kids they will get their choice of one or two shows (or video games) each day, kid’s adjust quickly and complaints disappear within a week or two. Kids, with limits, will naturally reserve their TV time for the best shows, instead of wasting it on barely-ok-whatever-is-on. Adults could and should do the same and only watch the cream of the entertainment crop.

Reading is a good step, but writing is a leap…

Furthermore, reading is but one good step in the right direction toward success — if you want to teach kids how to succeed, I believe a far better sound-byte message is to convince them to write.  “Write to Succeed” changes the equation dramatically for the better.

There are lots of opportunities to write if you look for them:

  • When you get your kid to read a book, ask them to write you a short book report about it. You will be amazed at how this one step changes comprehension.
  • Encourage your kid to write a story every week and send the stories to grandma, Uncle Jim, and Aunt Donna. It fosters creativity and improves relationships with the extended family.
  • When your kid has a good idea for something they want to accomplish, ask them to create a step by step plan on paper, that you can later review and help adjust. Learning to think on paper will serve them well for the rest of their life.
  • Get your kids to write a script for a camcorder movie, then help them create it.
  • Convince your kid to keep a journal, so that they can remember their childhood when they are twenty or thirty.
  • Conduct a goals session — you will be amazed how far a kid can progress once they have picked goals that they want to achieve.
  • Teach them how to outline their story first, then finish it out in a subsequent passes. Consider using re-arrangeable index cards. It is a great way to start.
  • As they get a bit older, inspire them to be part of the yearbook staff or the school paper.
  • Do as you say, and look for opportunities to write for yourself.

Any of these steps will take their learning, imagination, and confidence to new levels. Writing changes everything because it introduces action and the need to reconcile your thinking. Reading is fuel but writing converts that fuel into motion.

When you write, you learn to think and plan on paper. You can’t help but become more logical in your approach to life and accomplishment. These habits, learned early in life, will help a kid succeed far more than reading alone.

Reading helps set a foundation, but writing turns things into action and success. Write to succeed!

Mar 012011

Albert Einstein, a pretty thoughtful guy, defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  Yet many people do exactly this, with their careers, their parenting, their relationships with others, falling into a rut of wishful thinking with little connection to reality.

Your daily decisions pave the road of your life. Each day, you can make decisions that will change your future outcome. Each and every day, some small step, some action on your part can adjust your life’s course.

All you have to do is realize that change is good, that change is a tool, and that change is a must. The problem is that people perceive risk in change so they often avoid it.

If you feel stagnant in your career, you must make decisions and take actions to change things, if you want your outlook to improve. If you continue to do the same things each day, things will not change much. End of story. If you have a pessimistic and cranky boss, change your approach with him. Most people tend to avoid and withdraw from engaging such managers. Take advantage of this reality. Overwhelm him with your energy for a month. Go hyper-proactive. See what happens… I suspect something will if you do. If that doesn’t work, try Plan C, but try something different or expect nothing to change.

If you feel you have tried everything and are out of ideas, seek the advice of three wise people you know. Take each one to lunch or for a coffee on the Starbucks patio – most people really thrive on being asked for their advice, and a free lunch is usually welcomed as well. I’ll bet you come back with three ideas to try from each, plus a better relationship with a wise friend. If you try a dozen tactics and nothing else, decide to change jobs. Life is too short and there is too much opportunity to live under a black cloud. From personal experience, it is best to find a job before you quit the current one.

The same “crazy to expect progress without change” equation is true of all facets of life. Let’s look at parenting. If your kid is not motivated by your current motivation/discipline tactics, change them and see what happens. Don’t fall into a rut. Some parents yell at the kids to clean up their rooms, but the rooms still look like bomb went off day in and day out. The parent yells more, but there is no change. Time to try Plan B. Perhaps clean up the room, but take away all privileges like TV, iPhone, and other assorted electronics for three days. Explain that each time you have to clean up the room, that will be the price/result. See what happens. If that doesn’t work, there is always Plan C.

If you play on a sports team but ride the bench far too often, change what you do. Sometimes the coach says one thing but really wants something else. Not every coach is a great communicator. Ask more questions, and jot down the answers after practice. Look for trends. Search for what you can do differently. Do different things than expected – some attempts may work, some may not, but avoid the crazy expectation of better results without changing what you are doing. There is always something that will change the chemistry. Experiment.

If you are a student but your current lifestyle and study habits are getting you mostly C’s with a few B’s, time to change your methods. Maybe a lot of your college friends study in the quiet of the library but you find yourself falling asleep there. Move to the student union, or perhaps the back of the cafeteria where few people sit. If that doesn’t work, try something else like studying early in the morning before the campus wakes up. Be determined to find the system that will work for you. Above all, don’t procrastinate – that never works well.

If fishing with minnows for hours without getting a bite, the wise fisherman will change to worms, then later to crawdads, and then to something else, until something works.

Take this change/experiment approach to all facets of life. There is a magical aspect to coming up with Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C. Not only is does change logical, it also dramatically improves one’s optimism, reduces stress and frustration, and treats failures as small obstacles to overcome, not major dead-ends without hope. Never forget that optimism tends to help you succeed.

The Optimistic Few don’t get frustrated, but rather embrace change as a great tool to help them succeed.