Progress, am I making any? Try a quick annual report to find out.

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In a year of GREAT books in’18, James Clear’s Atomic Habits, An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits was among the best. So many engaging concepts about behavior change, along with pragmatic tips to make those big ideas actionable in a crazy busy life.

Like a handy 3 step method I tried for tagging a small number of habits that have a large potential for increasing happiness.  Or the idea to write up a quick look-back/look-forward report each year when it comes to habits you’re trying to build or improve.

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No more BS new year/new me lists – a habit 3-step for better outcomes anytime

As ballast to a pretty freaking volatile year on a lot of fronts, I’ve been exploring the world of habits with an eye on the question of “What should I do more or less of next year to really grow and increase happiness?”

I say exploring because I’ve wanted to go a little deeper, looking for a better grasp of habits/behaviors and how they actually work. Disconnected from the inevitable resolution and list mania this time of year. A period which has all too often for me delivered a short-term dopamine spike with limited long-term impact. Because the list I come ends up way too long with items too lightly considered to give much hope of appreciable progress in any one area.

It’s not that starting voice acting, learning piano, becoming an old guy clothes model and getting a black belt are bad ideas necessarily (maybe the model part if you’ve been told you have a face for radio as I have) … it’s that meaningful progress on multiple of these, particularly if they’re ALL new and whipped up in a year-end dash, is pretty unlikely.

Happy to report that several months into this deeper look at habits, I’m finding some promising practices for a different outcome in 2019. Most notably an actionable 3-step for zeroing in on the habits (existing or new) that have the highest potential for cranking up your happiness and lowering your stress:

  1. Identity – Think about your potential habits through the lens of who you want to become
  2. Cull – Make a big list of possibles (to add, drop, improve) then cull to 5 top prios
  3. Design – Get experimental about designing your day/week to best support these top 5

athb.jpgInspiration for these 3, and a fresh lens on this whole topic of why we do what we do and how to change that, came from James Clear’s great Atomic Habits, An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits.  It’s a briskly-paced mix of engaging umbrella concepts about behavior change and pragmatic tips to make those big ideas actionable in a crazy busy life.

I’d already begun to look deeper at what gave me joy/growth and what didn’t, but Clear’s book threw an actionable net around a bunch of good but disorganized ideas swimming around in my mind about where I wanted to grow.  

To the 3-step…

Step 1: Think about your potential habits as extensions of your identity

An umbrella concept I really connected with in Atomic Habits is this idea of framing the habits you want to build through the lens of who you want to become, instead of strictly what you want to do.  

As Clear puts it:

“True behavior change is identity change.  You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity. […] Improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are”.  

I.e. the goal is not to learn an instrument, the goal is to become a musician.  Not to learn Spanish but become a Spanish speaker.  

Asking this question of “what habits actually support something I really want to become or become more fully?” can really help sort the wheat from the chaff of the long list of personal growth ideas you may have entertained but not necessarily found the mojo to act on.

And that’s important because trying to take on too many habit changes is very likely a recipe for never getting beyond dabbler stage on any one of them (to borrow from another great related read, George Leonard’s the Mastery). Intuitively we know time is scarce but the notion of getting better at all sorts of new things is just so appealing, at least at the beginning, that we keep options open on too many possibilities instead of focusing in on a few.

So there’s a huge gain to be had of thinking more critically about the habits you want to try/improve, both in terms of potential meaning to you and a more manageable number.  Which brings me to step 2…

Step 2: Inventory all the possible habits you want to improve and CULL the herd

In addition to the Identity frame, Clear also introduced me to another device for considering my improvement wish list with more rigor and whacking it down in a way I hadn’t succeeded in doing before. Warren Buffet’s 25-5 theory which goes something like this:

  • In any area of your life where you want to make progress (career, etc.), list out 25 highest pri things you want to work on
  • Then ruthlessly narrow that list down to 5 you REALLY prize.  
  • Ignore the other 20 until the top 5 are done.  

300px-At_the_drafting_race_from_The_Powerhouse_Museum_CollectionWhen I did 25-5 on my personal growth list the ignore part was HARD but sort of freeing. I landed on a mix of stuff. Some I’ve dabbled in but need to refire/stop sucking at. Some I’m already doing (fitness for example) but want to build stronger habits around because it provides such reward. And some I set aside for another day.

  1. Fitness – keep being an active person, in more ways
  2. Mindfulness – become more present to the life that’s happening right now
  3. Gratitude –  become more other-focused in my gratitude practice
  4. Writing – become a regular writer on personal and professional topics
  5. Learning – start down the path of becoming a Spanish speaker

Who knows yet how well I’ll do on these, and just as importantly how I’ll fare on ignoring the ones that didn’t make the cut. But already I’ve seen some cool progress on one of these top finishers, Mindfulness, that illustrates the value of this habit 3-step as  it plays out…

Step 3: Design/experiment with daily and weekly routines to support your highest pri habits

When I culled my habit wish list to 5 I found I naturally started to think more closely about how to be more successful with each one. And with fewer things to focus on I got more curious about where I was on each, how to measure progress, and what shifts I could make with a little tweaking.  

A good example is my attempt to become more mindful/present through meditation, a habit I’ve been dabbling with on and off for about a year. The greatest appeal for me of becoming more mindful is this notion that life is happening right now… not in some imagined future to fret over (which I do), or some past era to relitigate (which I also do). Anything that helps me get in touch with that and be more present for the moments and people around me is a good thing. And when I do it more, I feel and perform better. Simple as that.  

3stepsHeadspace has been a good tool for me and when I looked at my stats recently (something I hadn’t really thought to do before), I saw I did 20 sessions in ‘17. Then 85 this year.  Better, but still sort of meh/dabbley. More importantly though, I noticed a quarter of those 85 sessions came in the last 30 days.

That’s because after finishing Atomic Habits I started playing around with a morning routine to carve out some habit time before the rest of the fam gets up. As part of that experiment, I moved meditation from a floating activity, “sometime in the afternoon if I can get to it”, to be THE first thing that happens in the morning routine. 

Bam! Couple small changes and my frequency went way up, I got more reward, and I began to look forward to that opening move for the day.  

That stretch of about 5/wk now gives me confidence to set a bigger goal for next year of 200 sessions. And given how great I feel when wrapping up each time, that’s already something I’m excited about getting after. Quite the contrast to items on previous years’ lists where I’d begin without much thought on the WHY?… how to reach the goal or what the benefits would be if I did?  

Again, this is the time of year given to big dreams of habit improvement and happiness bumps. We’ll see over time how well I do. I’m going to write up a quick look back/look forward report (another good Clear tip) to get the accountability rolling and have something to look back at this time next year. I’ll call it my Janus report.

But I can tell you now that the early returns are good from:

  • thinking about habit possibilities through the lens of identity and who I want to become
  • ruthlessly culling my wish list to a manageable number of the most important ones
  • and getting more intentional about designing the day/week to support them

I’ve already seen the benefits like with my meditation uptick above. And when I look back at how some of my more established positive habits like fitness developed over time, I can see some of these same steps at play in the rearview.  

If nothing else, I hope you take from this a good book rec if you’re interested in why we do what do. The 3 step I’ve outlined here represents just a small share of the many cool ideas in Atomic Habits (and on Clear’s site) that I bet can spark new ideas for habits you want to add/drop/improve in the New Year.  Plus there are cool drawings.

Happy ‘19.  

janus.jpg

Going blind while trying to see… the trap of asking customers the wrong questions for growth

foggy-glass

In all my marketing and customer experience travels, “understanding customers” (something that could have such power for uncovering growth clues) has often turned out to mean one of these not so valuable things:

  • Whatever’s loudest right now in customer support tickets and/or feature requests from existing customers.
  • Regularly fielded satisfaction surveys of existing customers that mostly tell you what the crowd you already won over thinks of the thing you’ve already built.
  • Complicated, time-consuming research projects that are often triggered by some urgent thing and then are superseded by events by the time they actually get done.

I say “not so valuable” because efforts like these, which tend to start through the lens of confirmation over curiosity, leave you largely in the dark about what you should do NEXT or DIFFERENTLY.  

That’s because people who continue to stay with you (and thus fill out support tickets, feature requests and sat surveys) are by definition going to focus a lot of your attention on today’s offering, and incremental opportunities to improve it.

They’re a whole lot less likely to help you see the opportunities in what you don’t offer, in jobs you don’t help them solve for today.  

After all, if those missing things were important enough, these customers would already be gone. And for those still around, getting them to think beyond the contours of what you offer today takes a different kind of digging that can feel off topic or disconnected.  

So it’s easy to end up doing lots of customer support listening, feature asks, sat surveys and the like, all while going increasingly blind to important shifts in customer needs happening right under your nose. Shifts that may well hold HUGE growth clues… about how you could do what you do today dramatically better.  Even better… about where else you could help customers make progress in their lives.

Clues that are also masked by the siren song of only managing to the numbers of your existing offering, rather than constantly challenging yourself to think creatively about what the offering could be, what customer progress it should support.  

“Why should we change the flux capacitor, it continues to be our most chosen time travel unit, and our last three feedback surveys have shown customers rate it pretty highly?”

Raise your hand if your ideas have ever run into that kind of a blocker from a colleague using numbers from folks you’ve already convinced to defend turf, budget, focus, etc… resources that might be better used to explore reaching people you’re losing or haven’t yet served?  

As common as this narrow line of sight can be, the good news is there’s a whole bunch of actionable, customer learning work you can do to open up the field of view. Without breaking the bank or having to bring on lots of complicated systems to make your curiosity engine go.

Work that helps you uncover deeper insights you can use to fashion a meaningfully better experience – from day-to-day improvements to big innovation jumps.

I can testify with confidence to this potential after 18 months of having my hands happily in the learning mud, working directly with customers in the wellbeing realm. It’s been an amazing stretch with all sorts of cool outcomes, like finding a big customer segment that’s underserved, yet already has 2-3x average lifetime value, and shares clear views on the jobs we could help them do to increase that value equation yet further.  

And now I’m going to write about these travels, with a practitioner’s bent towards pragmatic how-to sharing on the anchors of some of our most helpful discoveries:

  • Cancel customers should become a religion, and you CAN reach them
  • Existing customers have lots of valuable stuff to say if you ask them about everything BUT your existing product
  • Live conversations are easier (and more powerful) than ever to schedule and have yourself, with the right tools
  • Surveys/quant has its place, but don’t sleep on qualitative patterns that emerge from a surprisingly small number of touches
  • Above all… ask why, why, why, and then why some more.  Curiosity beyond your product, toward your customer, will uncover the really good stuff… that all parts of your org can use.  

Leaning in on these has turned what I often used to think of as a rabbit hole into a clear path toward customer understanding that’s strewn with opportunities for growth. A path I’ll wager organizations of all shapes and sizes can pursue to powerful effect.  

calAlong this way, I’ve taken inspiration from a number of books I plan to write about as well.  High up on that list is Competing Against Luck by Clayton Christensen. It’s a super engaging read that reframes figuring out growth through a fascinating lens/question… what job do people really hire your product to do and how could you help them do that job better?  Sounds simple but the answers – about what you really compete with, where you should focus improvement efforts – are often a whole lot different than you think.  

Don’t believe me? Google Clayton Christensen Milkshake.  Happy reading.

Food for brain brawn… why you might dig Genius Foods by Max Lugavere

gfLots of interesting books going down my hatch of late thanks in part to a more intentional sleep routine I’ve been working on. Been a mix of fiction, some mindfulness stuff, a cool tome on how insight happens, and a somewhat steady diet of books on eating and wellbeing. All this reading’s had me thinking about some sort of virtual book club to gab with other folks on good books. Still noodling on that one but in the meantime figured I’d try my hand at a quick written recap of a good one I’ve found myself telling friends about a bunch lately… Genius Foods by Max Lugavere.

TLDR:

Great accessible read on the relationship between what you eat and how (well) your brain functions. Lugavere is a journalist by trade so the book hums along at a nice, clever clip while managing to unpack some pretty scienc-ey stuff (including the whole systemic inflammation idea which I found more graspable here)  in ways you can get your head around and use.

You might like this if:

You’re interested in low carb/higher fat approaches (including keto) – to my eye Genius Foods isn’t a strict prescription/call to arms for a ketogenic diet. It does though share a lot of philosophical ground so can add to your understanding of keto-ville and other very low carb paths. Even if you’ve already dug into other popular books on these topics. For example, I’ve read Grain Brain by Perlmutter and found Genius Foods to cover new terrain as well as similar stuff but in different ways.

You’re as curious about food’s impacts on the brain as on the body – Plenty of stuff to chew on here about long-term effects of nutrition and brain health, but also lots to consider about the near-term gain potential of eating change for day-to-day mental sharpness and clarity… not to mention mood, physical output, etc.

You have loved ones with or at risk of brain disorders like Dementia/Alzheimers – that was my starting interest. The author’s mother was diagnosed with dementia at a relatively young age so he set off to understand more about it and went deep on potential food connections.  I’m seeing it up close as well so am interested to learn all I can about potential choices each of us can make now to lower risk down the road.

You’re interested in practical ideas for incorporating lower carbs/higher fats – lots of books of this ilk have a plan to follow at the end and Genius Foods is no exception. I found examples spread throughout the course of the book just as helpful… like the deeper dive on a short list of brain-friendly foods and how to work them into daily life. Recipes so far have been helpful too though I’ve just tried a few (“cheesy eggs” are delish).

Some favorite concepts:

Hormesis, helpful stressthere’s so much talk these days about constant stress triggered by modern diets, life.  And for good reason…activities that cause the body to consistently flip on its self-preservation mode (versus the episodic “a tiger is about to eat me” response that the system was designed for) leave lots of our parts overstressed and prone to wearing out faster. But Hormesis is this notion that small doses of certain kinds of intermittent stress cause cells to adapt and grow in really helpful ways.  Some you may already do, and others that are pretty enjoyable like working out, hot/cold stress such as sauna/plunges, trying your hand at new things, fasting, eating those antioxidants, etc.

Sauna-Bath-Public-Domain

Neuroplasticity, brain growth can still happen – super cool and hopeful thing we now know that our brains are much more capable of growth and change than we thought even as we get older! Used to be there was this fixed view that after a certain peak age in our 20’s/30’s, the old noodle is on a steady decline to nowhere.  Not much to do about it. Well not so any more. We’re coming to understand that choices we can make (nutrition yes, but also things like mindfulness training for example) at any age of life can promote growth in parts of the brain that help us function better, and shrinkage in parts that don’t.  While I still sometimes dream of shoulder boulders from working out, I’m more excited these days about the potential for brain brawn so this is a super encouraging idea to explore.

There’s lots of other really interesting stuff in Genius Foods too, including a very helpful walkthrough of evolving discussions on fats and cholesterol.  And this concept, whether you want to be low carb forever or not, of becoming more metabolically flexible so you can ebb and flow more easily between burning carbs OR fat for fuel.  

All in all an engaging read on this most elemental of systems for health and happiness, the space between our ears.

5 things that got me out of sleep hell, and 5 that didn’t

Lots of voices I pay attention to have been preaching the better sleep gospel for a while, placing it right up there with nutrition, exercise, human connection and stress management on the wellness priority list.

It wasn’t until I hit a prolonged crappy stretch myself though that it really popped me in the nose just how profoundly sleep impacts daily happiness, much less long-term health.

After a bunch of experiments to get out of the bad way I was in, I’ve managed to pull the nose of the sleep plane up and wow, cruising altitude… with all its fluffy clouds and blue skies…is SO much better.

So I’m glad to share this rapid fire inventory of 5 things I tried that worked best, along with notes on 5 that didn’t do as much.

First, a quick recap of the crappy stretch, case any of it rings familiar…

In the midst of a bunch of life stressors (a mix of work and personal things that all seemed to egg each other on), I was rarely getting more than 5–6 hours a night, often less.

I’d wake up multiple times and worst of all… STAY awake often for hours at a time. It seemed the second my eyes would flutter open, a bunch of exaggerated worries would rush in like shoppers at a holiday sale, setting my mind racing on all sorts of amplified questions… “what’s going to happen, what if, why didn’t I”.

The resulting impacts ranged from general foggy-ness to low mood, anemic energy at the gym to, on some bad nights, a sort of anticipatory dread as the inevitable sleep fight approached. All in all, just a really big drag for me and no doubt the folks around me.

So I got into big time experimentation mode and here’s the recap of what’s gotten me to a reliable 7+ hours a night, and a lot less waking up.

Hope it helps. Other ideas welcome. Sleep’s a process. I’m in a better mode now, but always looking to find and share new stuff.

The 5 with biggest impact:

1. Trade afternoon coffee for evening tea — I used to love a big dose of java in the late afternoon. I’ve swapped that now with herbal tea. Still get the ritual and mental break, but now a longer break from caffeine before sleepy time.

2. Less booze, earlier — evening vino (or a wee dram as my Scottish brothers and sisters say) is an awesome part of the unwind at day’s end. But I’ve found I run better if I have one glass less, and imbibe no later than 8ish. Booze helps you fall asleep but it also makes you more likely to wake up, pee, etc. in the 2nd half of your night.

3. Reading (less blue light) before bedtime — aside from all the sciency stuff about less blue light from screens…big reasons I love this one… I’m reading more (like Black Swan Green, funny/sad, Brit-humor) which is fun and good for my brain. Also means I’m spending less time with my stupid phone. Recently layered on a pair of Swannies blue light blocking glasses to fuel that end of waking hours descent into sleep. Digging so far.

4. Quiet mind practices — this work to get out of your head and put some distance between you and the thought river flowing by has lots of bennies in terms of daily presence with folks in your life. But I’m finding it also really helpful for fighting the “wake up and worry” tendency that used to keep me up for hours. Two biggies for me… meditation (using Headspace, reading stuff like 10% Happier, Real Happiness), and 5 Minute Journaling.

5. Bedroom to sleep chamber mods — dark and cool… that’s what helped us. We got curtains, close doors to rooms where add’l natural light will peak in next morn, set the Nest to a lower temperature (mid-60’s) and rock ceiling fan.

The 5 with littlest impact:

1. Sleep tracker app — tried one of these for a while. Was interesting at first to see the curves and stuff. But ended up just confirming the crappiness, and not really actionable. Plus made me more, not less, connected to my stupid phone at bedtime.

2. Computer app for blue light — cool idea for your laptop to turn down the lights a bit after a certain hour in the name of better sleep. But for the most part just encouraged me to stay pecking away at the screen later than I should (and more separated from the peeps in my life) and was a pain when in different time zones on travel. Blue blight blocking glasses above proving a better fit for me.

3. Wake up light — idea behind this is great…. more natural waking, without the brain slammer of an abrupt alarm. In practice I found it less helpful. Not as needed in summer months when mother nature’s doing that work. And in winter, more of a full room wake move so tends to lock you and your partner into same time whereas a quiet alarm might not. Still use it for the better alarm sound options, but not sure I’d buy again given the price.

4. Melatonin/Benadryl — I’m not against an assist every now and again. And in a couple of desperate spots I did find that a Benadryl knocked me out. But I’d wake super groggy and doesn’t tackle the underlying sleep foes. Melatonin just didn’t work much for me.

5. Counting and flexing — In the depths of my wake up for hours stretch, these two came up a lot when I looked for tips on getting back to sleep. Counting sheep, or burpees, or whatever didn’t work for me any better at 46 than at 6. And the flexing deal where you go from feet on up, flexing muscles along the way, just made me more alert, and feel sort of like a dufus to boot. Been better for me to not get into these stretches in the 1st place.

Oh and one more thing that doesn’t help… 3 kids, a dog and a cat…but all so worth it (except for perhaps the cat).

How I meal’ed this — tuna cakes a la Herm

I love hearing from customers at our nutrition company how they take our meals and riff them up — heat them in a certain way, style on their plate, add stuff, mix with other stuff.

Great case in point… Herm, a customer and fellow gym mate kept coming up to me before class and saying “dude, you HAVE to try warming the tuna cakes… game changer!”

The tuna cakes photo on our website.

They’re indeed a big fave of mine so I was intrigued but I’ve always thought of them as an eat cold, right out of the container kind of dish. No more, thanks to Herm and his chef-level prescription for how to dial up our meal…

  • heat the tuna cakes — I did a quick pan crisping hit, then microwave pulse
  • make a bed of the fennel apple salad (cold) on your plate and drizzle the pesto sauce on top (also cold)
  • then lay the tuna cakes on top for a next level combo of flavors and warm + cool/crunchy goodness

So I did it last night and damned if he isn’t right… a meal I already loved and eat a ton, got yet better. My daughters and I took a few snaps, including my youngest playing chef and doing some drizzle work. Outcome isn’t going to win any food photography prizes but sort of fun to get our stylist on.

And reminds me of the enduring wisdom in playing with your food, prepared meal or no.

Active life gear tip: footgasms footwear… Allbirds

I’m not in Mephisto or Ecco land yet… that “style be damned” place where older folks went when I was a lad to plunk down some serious bread on elfish looking shoes that pampered their feet and seriously lightened their pocketbook, all in the name of comfort.

That said the pure comfort factor of what goes on my feet is definitely rising in importance as my 40’s unfurl. Even while I’m still somewhat moved by what a shoe looks like.


I’m sort of in the middle of that comfort vs. look continuum. Where one end is “to hell with how they look, give me max comfort for my beleaguered pavement pounders and I’ll pay” and the other is “shoes are the exclamation point… like the glasses of your lower half, they’ve got to be at least as great to look at as they are to walk in”.

At the same time I’m also trying to walk more than ever as a general matter, part of the simplify/take in the world around me jag I’m on with things like our 1 car (for 5 people) experiment, walking kiddos to school every day challenge, etc.


So I was pumped recently to come across Allbirds, a new shoe that’s sort of a sneaker, slip on and casual shoe love child. Had them now for several months during which I’ve worn them a ton just bopping around on the weekends, rolling to work and as my go to shoe for air travel.

Verdict so far? Major, major love for any situations where you’re on your feet aplenty on pretty even surfaces (sidewalks, roads, office floors, airports, train stations, etc.). With just a few questions still to be settled. Here’s the quick rundown:

Pro’s

  • Wicked comfortable, like sort of a footgasm kind of thing. The sole is squishy without being too much so. They’re wool (weird to think of I know) so super flexible and there was zero wear-in time to get comfortable. They immediately felt incredible.


  • Light as a feather. Again, the wool thing. Oddly haven’t gotten hot for me either (I’ve been wearing with socks in DC area summer, some say you can roll commando in them… pas moi). And the lightness makes them super easy to pack/throw in your bag if you need to.
  • Cool looking in a funky, unexpected sort of way. Subjective as hell, true. But I’ve got Vans, Blundstones, and hyper-colorful workout (Metcons) sleds in my closet and I get WAY more…”cool shoes, what are those?” comments with these suckers.
  • P.S. the packaging cleverly combines shipping box and shoe box for less material used… nicely done.


TBD’s/possible cons

  • Foot sloshing — yes a technical term. These foot haulers are very flexible and light. Most of the time that’s a big part of their comfort awesomeness. But I tried them on a light trail walk with some ascents and descents and my feet were all over the place/sloshing over the side of the sole. Same likely true for any meaningful running/sports play stuff. I.e. don’t retire your sneakers or hiking boots.
  • Durability — remains to be seen. Pretty good so far but I notice a little tufting of the wool by the laces and wool generally doesn’t feel like it’d be tough over the long haul in this use. But solid to this point after pretty heavy use.

At $95 a pair they’re not super cheap but foot happiness has been plentiful so if the durability holds up they could land way high up on the value scale among their competitors in my closet.

One other note, my wife got herself a pair (diff color but still a little weird when we don them at the same time) and has proclaimed her Allbirds the most comfortable shoe she’s ever owned, hands down.

So even if you’re not ready to give up on ribbing your Mephisto/Ecco-wearing parents or grandparents, you can still prioritize supreme comfort like an AARP boss to indulge your feet without throwing in the towel on look or breaking the bank either.

Waiting for slowpokes sightseeing at Cawdor Castle in Scotland