I hope this doesn’t come across wrong, but I actually had a New Year’s resolution last year that worked.
One of my resolutions for 2021 was to join a rock or R&B band, which seemed like a big goal since I hadn’t really played the sax for about 25 years. Back then a boss I really admired had told me it wasn’t appropriate for a professor to play saxophone in a rock band because it “sent the wrong message to students.” Although I didn’t agree, I subconsciously found myself dutifully playing less and less until three months later I had stopped altogether.
Since I didn’t have any students to send wrong messages to last year, I figured it was safe to again take the rock 'n soul plunge. Although I enthusiastically suck as a musician, I figured if any band gave me a shot to play, they would never fire me for not obsessively practicing and trying hard enough. And they also wouldn’t fire me for smoking all of their weed, or throwing a TV out of hotel window, or ODing on heroin in the back of a tour bus. They might fire me for enthusiastically sucking but not for the other stuff. A Motown-like band called the X’Plozionz gave me a shot.
This is Spinal Tap is a hilarious rockumentary spoof about a fictional rock band (Spinal Tap) where everything goes wrong. My first gig was the remake of the Spinal Tap movie. It was July’s Cortland County Fair. We played on a flatbed trailer, and our opening act was the 4-H Animal Judging competition. That’s where you win a Blue Ribbon if you raise the county’s fattest turkey. Since barnyard animals can’t tell time, everything ran late. And since barnyard animals don’t ask where the nearest restroom is, they conveniently used the dance floor as their bathroom. Some people were dancing and trying to wipe off their feet at the same time. Others were doing the Gangnam Style horsey dance in honor of the opening act.
News of our animal-friendly show got around. We blinked and we had recorded a Live at Budokan album. We blinked again and we were the first American band to perform at Eurovison.
Actually neither of those happened, but this month we did get named as the What’s Hot in Syracuse band of January 2022 (and also What’s Hot in the Finger Lakes). The magazine is on newsstands and an earlier draft of the story is posted below.
It’s another New Year for us. I hope you have incredibly great fortune in making your New Year’s Resolutions and goals come true this year.
See you at Eurovision!
The X'Plozionz!!! The Rock and Soul Party Band of the Finger Lakes
(Story from What's Hot (Syracuse Edition) January 2022 pp. 10-15)
When the lead singer of a band looks like a defensive tackle for the Buffalo Bills, three things happen. People stop, look, and listen.
First, they STOP talking. Second, they LOOK and see his firecracker red suit and matching red glasses, Fedora, and shoes. Then, they LISTEN to this “All Pro” performer when he snatches his microphone and begins channeling the singing voices of everyone from Wilson Picket and the Temptations to Rick James and Bruno Mars.
Mr. E Hunner is the dedicated front-man singer of one of the funkiest, eclectic Rock & Soul show bands in the Finger Lakes. “The X’Plozionz!!! have been around for about 10 years,” said Hunner, “We went dormant because of COVID. Now we’re back, and we’re bigger and badder.”
When the band’s beloved drummer passed away during COVID, the band wanted to honor his aspiration to move from being a fun party band to being "the Rock and Soul show band of the Finger Lakes." “To put on that kind of show we needed the right mix of people, songs, and places to play,” said Hunner.
The Right People
Along with Hunner, The X’Plozionz!!! are anchored with long-time bassist, John Busch, widely known in Central New York as an owner of the original Third Rail in Cortland and former bass player for the eclectic “Eddy’s Basement” band back in the 80’s. Caine Davenport – the youngest band member at 25 – was brought on as the lead guitarist because of his versatility. He elaborates, “Motown songs have a dance kick and need to be note-for-note like they sound on the record. But then the next minute you need to be able to play a crazy rock solo for Sharp-dressed Man or Radar Love. Then I'll need to do another change-up and play a jazzy-type solo for something like Crystal Blue Persuasion or I Can't Go For That.” Busch added, “A lot of guitarists can rock out, but to find someone like Caine who can also play with discipline, precision, and finesse was key . . . plus he sings.”
Next came the return of singer-keyboardist-guitarist, Steve Giocondo, who had left the band years before to write music and perform as a solo act. “His keyboard work give us that big sound. It fills out some songs and gives other songs a real rocking rhythm,” said Busch.
The two rookies in the band are drummer, Drew Martin, who was previously with Holy Smoke, and saxophone player, Brian Wansink, a recently retired Cornell professor. “Drums and horns were really the two things that helped the Motown Sound really pop,” said Busch. “They put the icing on the cake.”
The Right Songs
Martin’s big drum bang opened The X’Plozionz!!! recent lounge show at the Tioga Downs Casino and Resort. Martin and Busch kicked off the song Boogie Shoes and then settled into it’s toe-tapping, head-nodding groove while the microphone stand stood empty. After two minutes of grooving, it was time for the crowd to stop, look and listen.
From the side of the stage, Mr. E. Hunner appeared, gyrating and finger-snapping. His red Boogie Shoes dance-stepped to the beat as he funkily dance-stepped to the microphone. When he cooly arrived, he snapped his head to the audience, snatched the mic, and shot his finger high in the air until the downbeat. Then, at the very instant he belted out the opening line of the song, he dropped his finger to point at the audience, as if he insisted they put on their Boogie Shoes and dance. And dance they did.
Hunner’s a show unto himself. His spins, his moves, and his gestures all echo the classic stage showmanship of Motown charisma. He continued grooving and spinning with funky, fun versions of Knock on Wood, Play that Funky Music, and Come and Get Your Love before handing off his magic microphone to Giocondo and then Davenport who changed the pace with Brown Eyed Girl and Jenny Jenny (8675-309).
Giocondo said, “Because we have three singers, a keyboard, and a sax, we can play a lot of dancing fun songs that other bands can’t play. One minute we'll be playing some 80s stuff like Baker Street or Maneater, and the next minute we'll light it up with Kung Fu Fighting or Uptown Funk.”
The Right Places
“We’re having a blast, and they're having a blast, Giocondo continued. "It doesn’t matter where we are – casinos, county fairs, dance clubs, weddings, or company parties – we’re going to do everything we can to make sure people have a legendary good time.”
“I love to see a table of people laughing and pointing at each other as they're singing along to Super Freak. I love seeing strangers all of a sudden spontaneously start a Congo line to Love Train, or a seeing a wedding party of grandkids and grandmas line-dance to Uptown Funk. And I really crack up seeing people in suits or tuxedos doing Karate moves when we play Kung Fu Fighting.
"They’re spending time and money to be here with us. We're going to make darn sure they look back and say, “I had a great weekend.”
Here's an easy New Year's Resolution: Trick yourself into eating better.
You can easily set up your kitchen (and some habits) that lead to eat better or less. But since you will know what’s going on, you won’t have to feel tricked.
Quartz used this "Trick yourself" title for a catchy story on my Cornell Food and Brand Lab colleague, Aner Tal. It’s about 3 minutes long and has a lot of eye-opening tips and insights. What’s unusual is how Aner describes why these work in a suave James Bond style and how Quartz cleverly illustrates them. Too cool for school.
Here’s some of what they mentioned:
1. Use lighter plates
2. Use smaller plates
3. Cut your food into pieces
4. Don’t watch TV when you eat
5. No scary movies
6. Don’t shop when you’re hungry (you don't buy more, you buy worse)
7. Deprivation always backfires
Some of these might sound pretty basic, but it’s Aner's description of how they work and Quartz's funny illustrations that really make them pop.
Aner flew out to visit me from Israel a while back, and we were talking about how people react after they hear about some of these discoveries.
Some people hear about suggestions like these and say to themselves “That would never happen to me,” so they don’t try to do anything different, and nothing changes in their life. Other people say to themselves, “Yeah, that makes sense” but they never do it, so, again, nothing changes in their life.
No one is going to hear about 7 discoveries and make 7 changes in their life. It’s too much. But you can make 1 or 2 of them. After they become habits, you can always come back to the table for another course.
Yes, this is the season of weight gain. But this is a horrible month to be on a diet. You ruin the JOY for you and the joy to the world. So, what’s a person to do when cookie trays are a passin’ and Christmas Carols are a pumpin’?
We've run a 4-year study called the Healthy Weight Registry. We wanted to discover what perpetually skinny people do to stay perpetually skinny. One thing we've asked them is what they do during the holidays that the rest of us don't do. They do a lot of crazy cool things they need testing, but one that's relevant to us cookie lovers is this: When they were at a holiday party and they tried something they didn't absolutely LOVE, they simply didn’t eat the rest of it. They either didn't take it or they didn't finish it. They left it.
• That no-bake brownie-mix brownie? They left it.
• That gluten-free Avocado Cupcake? They left it.
• That Thumbprint cookie with the real thumbprint? They left it.
When we first read this "Leave it if you don't love it" idea, my researchers and I were all trying to finish up our Avocado Cupcakes so we could be the first to say "That's nothing new. That's totally obvious."
There's never been a cookie in the world that isn't worth choking down, but there might only be 2 out of 10 that are really worth LOVING.
"Leave it if you don't love it."
No one has a cousin named Tarzan. No one has a best friend named Goat Boy. That’s because we’re not raised by apes or goats, but we're all raised, socialized, and helped by other people.
Some of these people are obvious: parents, close relatives, coaches, and some teachers. But a lot of others aren’t nearly so obvious. They might be that person who recommended we go to one school versus another, helped get us a job, helped lend a hand during a difficult time, or saved us from a desert island that one time by paddling through shark infested waters using only his right arm.
With Thanksgiving coming up, it can be a nice chance to hit pause and think of 2-3 nonobvious people who might have done a small thing that made a big difference in our life. Doing something as simple as this can do your soul good. On one extreme, it reminds us that we aren’t the self-centered Master of our Universe as we might think when things are going great. On the other extreme, it reminds us that there are a lot of people silently cheering for us when we might think things aren’t going so great.
What do you suppose would happen if you tracked these people down and game them a call? It’s four steps:
1. Find their phone number and dial.
2. “Hey, I’m ___; remember me? How are you?”
3. “It’s Thanksgiving. I was thinking of you.”
For about the past 30 years, I’ve tried to do this each Thanksgiving. It used to be the same 3-4 people (advisors and a post-college mentor), then a couple more, and this year I’m adding a new one. For some reason, I always look for an excuse why I shouldn’t make these calls. I always find myself pacing around before I make the first call. Part of me thinks I might be bore them, or they already know it, or it’s interrupting them, or that it’s too corny.
Yet even if I have to leave voice messages, I’m always end up smiling when I get off the phone. I feel more thankful and centered. Maybe they feel differently too.
Still, there’s some years I never made any calls, because I had good excuses. Maybe it was too late in the day, or they were probably with their family, or I called them last year, or I didn’t really have enough time to talk. I’m sure they had some good excuses – way back when – as to why they didn’t have time for me. I’m thankful they didn’t use them.
If you can think of 2-3 people you’re thankful for who might not know it, you don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving next year to tell them. They won’t care that you’re a little bit late or a whole lot early. It’s only 4 steps.
Halloween is like Thanksgiving for candy bars.
We were talking about Halloween Trick or Treating last night, and people were talking about what they were going to do with all of the left over candy that they bought, or which their kids bring home. Nobody planned on throwing it out. They would all eventually eat it. Probably pretty quickly.
This reminds me of a study we did for the New England Journal of Medicine that showed that every year Americans start gaining more weight from today and for the next two months. The key take-away is that we shouldn't wait until January 1st to make a resolution to lose weight. We should make a Halloween resolution to not gain weight.
Below are some nice details related about the study. The Blue line is the Americans, and you can see that just before November starts, the average weight of Americans grows higher and higher until just after January, when it drops again.
Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving . . . the summer is almost over but the indulgent holiday season is near. This study we conducted found that many of us spend months getting rid of that excess weight gained during the holiday season. The study showed that according to yearly national weight patterns, it takes American’s nearly between Thanksgiving and Easter.
We also found in a similar study that the weight of Americans begin rising around Thanksgiving, and peak around Christmas and the New Year. It isn’t until after Easter, about a 5 month period, that weight patterns even out.
We also analyzed yearly weight patterns in Germany and Japan. Similar to the US, those in Germany weighted the most around Christmas/New-Year period and those in Japan weight the most during Golden Week in April – a major Japanese holiday. Each country also showed a peak in weight for New Years.
Everyone gains weight over the holiday -- starting on Halloween Instead of making a New Year’s Resolution, the best time to make a resolution to keep the pounds off this holiday season might be now.
I once saw a photo of a 35-year old man defiantly showing a tattoo on his big upper arm that read "9-11-2002 -- Never Forget." Right date; wrong year. But I don't think anyone was going to tell him that.
Today's the 20th Anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This was a defining moment for many Americans, as in "Where were you when you heard about World Trade Center being attacked?" Since it was so defining, it's curious why its 20th Anniversary seems to be slipping by so quietly.
One exception of this that's most vivid to me came in the form of a poem that a friend wrote a couple weeks ago and sent to me. It was written by Michael Antunes who is the Top 40 rock saxophonist (On the Dark Side, Tender Years) and actor (Eddie and the Cruisers). Michael said I could share it.
There are a lot of themes associated with 9-11: Heroism, innocent lives lost, reversals of fortune, resilience, and so on. There's a lot to memorialize, a lot to remember, and a lot to celebrate.
While I wish I saw more unified or institutional efforts to do so, it's also important that we take the individual initiative -- like Michael did -- to memorialize, remember, or celebrate in a way that is personally meaningful to us and to those we share it with.
Thinking back to the "Never Forget" 9-11 tattoo that had the wrong year on it, I'm no longer convinced that our deliberate, individual efforts at memorizing, remembering, or celebrating have to be on the right day or even have to have the exact year right. What's most important is that we do it in a way that's meaningful and memorable to us.
[This is a modification from a post I made a year ago].
The 23rd of this month is the 31st anniversary of the day when the University Registrar weighed five copies of my signed dissertation, stamped it with a red smiley face, and said, “Congratulations, Dr. Wansink.” Within 20 minutes I was shifting my Mercury Lynx into 5th gear on the 3000 mile, unairconditioned, cross-country drive to start teaching the next Tuesday. All I needed was a t-shirt that said “Yesterday I couldn’t even spell ‘Perfessor,’ and today I are one.”
I annually celebrate this signature day with good steak, good wine, and having good friends over for a dinner party. I also celebrate it by writing down the best lessons I learned over the past year. Usually, they're the lessons I learned the hard way.
Over 30 years, I’ve written down a ton of annual lessons in 30 different notebooks. Some is advice people gave me, and some is based on my own experience – things that are useful to me and might be useful to students and friends. Maybe it will give them a boost or save them some pain.
In the spirit of counting to 30 today, here’s a sample of some of these that might be a boost or save a stumble.
Advice to Graduate Students
1. “The ‘P’ in PhD stands for Perseverance.” – The smartest and most talented people in PhD programs aren’t always the ones who graduate.
2. “It’s an N-period game.” When I had to find a new advisor and defend a new dissertation proposal with four months notice, the game theory economist who gave me this advice was implying that there are a lot of second and third chances in academia as long as you keep swinging. Related to this . . .
3. “Choose your best friend as your advisor.” I heard this from a Med School professor friend who then said “And choose your older brother to be your second committee member, and choose your favorite uncle to be your third.” We tend to choose our dissertation committee based on who’s most famous. Consider which professors most want you to graduate. [Read more]
4. Be a Visiting Professor. Suppose don’t get a good offer when you graduate from your PhD program (or you get turned down for tenure). If you “settle” for a tenure-track at a school you’re not crazy about, you’ll be perceptually anchored to that type of school by both you and by others. Being a 1- or 2-year visiting professor keeps you from getting anchored, gives you more time to strengthen your vita, and lets you swing again.
5. Do solution-focused research. Developing theory is prestigious, but coming up with a solution to an everyday problem is super gratifying. (Again, this is totally my personal preference and advice to myself.) [Read more]
6. Go to a different conference outside your field every year. Even if it’s an on-campus mini-conference in anthropology, you’ll learn a lot and it will keep you humble.
7. Leave town for your sabbatical. Moving is a hassle and there are 100 great reasons why you should spend your sabbatical at home (your spouse’s job, your kids, your doggy, your home, and so on). But I’ve never know anyone who went away who didn’t claim it was a career highlight. I’ve also never known anyone who spent their sabbatical at home and remembered anything about it two years later.
8. Writing a book is useful. Almost all academic authors are disappointed their books aren't cited more or sell more. Still, writing a book is worth it because it motivates you to organize, distill, and share what you understand about your topic, and they clarify the gaps you might want to fill in next.
9. A Leave-of-Absence is Transforming. Again, this is about moving away and clearing your head. Leaving town to take a 1- or 2-year paid leave of absence is incredibly revitalizing to every single person I've known. It either gives you amazing confidence that you can hugely succeed at something else, or it gives you amazing appreciation for academia. Maybe both.
10. Being fired is a temporary setback. Whether you don’t get tenure or whether something else in your career goes haywire, they say life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond. If things are looking too dark, contact me and I’ll help you, or find you some help.
11. Never retire. One of the great beauties of academia is you can always keep doing the parts of it you love most -- even if you don't go into work. (Here are some ideas on doing it without having later regrets.)
12. 90% of reviewers are great coaches. Reviewers have either made my papers better or they‘ve made me a better researcher. If it wasn’t for reviewers, some of my papers would have never been read by anyone other than me.
13. Create a Best Practices Guide for writing journal articles. – Find 30-40 favorite papers written by other researchers and list out the different strategies, tactics, and words you see them use (perhaps unconsciously) in their abstract, their opening-line, their first paragraph, their introduction, their background, theory section, tables, and so forth. When you’re finished distilling this, you’ll have a Best Practices guide that’s personalized to what you like in a paper and will be your writing guide. When I did this, my acceptance rate almost tripled. Also, papers became a lot easier and more fun for me to write.
14. Use a 2-2-2 strategy to unclog your pipeline. If a manuscript gets desk-rejected, I try to send it to the next journal within 2 days. If it gets conditionally accepted, I revise it and send it back within 2 weeks. If it gets a revise-and-resubmit that doesn’t require any additional studies, I send it back within 2 months.
15. Field studies are worth the hassle. They’re messy, hard to coordinate, inefficient, error-riddled, and harder to publish than lab studies. Still, they are usually much more memorable and impactful.
16. “Ideas are cheap; but execution is what pays.” Even a mediocre brainstorming session will generate 3-4 publishable ideas, and almost none will be followed up on. Edison said something like “Publishing in the Journal of [insert favorite journal here] is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Executing is what matters.
17. “You can either read a lot or you can write a lot, but you can't do both.”
18. "Write the first two hours of every day." The guy who told me this, pretty much said it like a command: no email, no breakfast, no class stuff. Before breakfast and before the kids wake up. It sets a productivity vibe for the whole day. [Read more]
19. Write down the 3 specific things you'll finish each day. Better to have three things completed than 20 things pushed ahead an inch. [Read more]
20. "Imagine your brother, daughter, or younger self in the front row of your class." This will lead you to give your class sessions more context and more “So what?” It’s also help you cut loose a bit and give the class more punch, fun, and humor.
21. "Teach for where a student will be in 10 years." The guy who told me this is a legend. The idea is to try to get students to visualize their most successful self in 10 years. If we can teach to that ten-years-from-now person, we’ll be teaching them something they couldn’t just learn from an online class.
22. Education is a buffet; be something unique. Some courses are meaty and some are refreshing; some professors are fiery and others are more chill. You don't need to be like everyone else. By being your best genuine, earnest self, and you’ll be adding variety to their educational buffet.
23. Hold class previews for participation classes. Non-native English speakers and shy students have a hard time participating in class, but class previews help them. An hour before each class, I hold a class preview and we briefly discuss the day's discussion questions ahead of time. Anyone’s welcome to show up. [Read more]
24. Ask good students who the “must-take” teachers are. See if you can sit in on a couple of their class sessions (most are flattered and only 2 ever turned me down). Take notes about the good teaching ideas you can use.
25. “Don’t become a parody of yourself.” Good teachers slowly start to exaggerate the things they’re good at, and they eventually take it over the top and become a parody of themselves. Dramatic teachers will overfocus on drama. Entertaining teachers will overfocus on entertainment. Cool professors teachers will overfocus on coolness, and so on. [Read more]
Fun, People, and Things
26. “Fun people accidently say stupid things. Don’t beat yourself up.” Some academics over-edit everything they say before they speak. If you're more spontaneous, you won’t be happy if you try too hard to change.
27. Dress-up and show-up early for Meetings. This is one way to show respect for the profession and for my colleagues. (Again, this is totally my advice to myself.) Like a US Marine Colonel once told me, "Early is on time. On time is late."
28. Don’t apologize for who I am or hide from it. I’ve had senior colleagues give me well-meaning advice that I should never mention to anyone that I shop at Walmart, play sax in a rock band, go to church, host board game nights, do stand-up comedy, or go thrifting. What you love doing isn’t worth being self-conscious over. If those things are that big of a deal at your school, you’d probably be happier at a different school anyway. [Read more]
29. The more 1-on-1 fun stuff I do with different colleagues outside of work, the more I love my job. The crazier the stuff we do, the more we both seem to love it and remember it.
30. “Max out your TIAA-CREF retirement contribution. Then add more.” The guy who told me this was a retired English professor -- who had two very nice homes. It’s not flashy or cool to save money instead of spending it, but no one over 50 regrets having done so.
Having an academic mind is a Blurse. It's both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because we are almost always looking for better ways to learn or to improve. It's a curse because we're not always very open to what others have found. We feel we have to do it ourselves, or discover it ourselves. If we hear something from someone else, we might think it doesn't apply or that we're the exception.
Ten of the lessons I mentioned are advice someone gave to me. The main reason these stuck with me was because I had just finished really screwed up doing it My Way:
• #3 only registered when I was told I was being kicked out of the PhD program
• #18 was a great idea only after I had just been fired for not publishing enough
• #20-21 were brilliant the day I got the second lowest teaching evaluations in the school
• #26 resonated only after I'd been hissed at in class after making an unfunny comment
Hopefully these might give you a boost or save a stumble. Maybe you might even come up with your own list to share with your students and friends.
Being a scholar and an academic is an unbelievably great calling. Good luck having many, many great years, each more amazing than the one before. Let me know how I can help.
Eating a balanced diet used to be easy when you were little. Your grandmother put a variety of things on the table, you’d eat a little of each, and – ta-da – that was nutrition! Since then, eating’s gotten strangely complicated, with the Atkins diet, flexitarian diets, paleolithic diets, velociraptor diets, and so on. Each one makes a magical case for why we should only eat meat, or never eat meat, or eat only vegetables, or eat only bananas or grapefruits or cabbage and so on. It makes it harder to eat nutritiously than it was when your grandmother said, “Make sure you take a little of everything.”
We just submitted an interesting study that shows there might be an easier way for people to eat called the Half-Plate Rule. Half of their plate had to be fruit, vegetables, or salad, if so, the other half of their plate could be anything they wanted. Steak, bread, pasta, foie gras, Pop Tarts . . . anything. They could also take as many plates of food as they wanted. It’s just that every time they go back for seconds or thirds, half their plate still had to be filled with fruit, vegetables, or salad.
Could a person load up half of their plate with Slim Jims and bacon? Sure, but they don’t. Giving people freedom – a license to eat with only one guideline – seems to keep them in check. There’s nothing to rebel against, resist, or work around. As a result, they don’t even try. They also don’t seem to overeat. They want to eat more pasta and meatballs or another piece of pizza, but if they also have to balance this with a half-plate of fruit, vegetables, or salad, many decide they don’t want it bad enough.
Nobody likes be told they can’t do something. With the Half-Plate Rule there’s nothing you can’t eat. You just have to eat an equal amount of fruit, vegetables, or salad. At some point, getting that fourth piece of pizza just isn’t worth having to eat another half-plate of salad. But, most important, you’re the one who made the decision.
Interestingly, what we found was that although it's easy to understand the Half-Plate Rule, it's not alway easy to follow if the only thing on the table is pizza or take-out food. There have to be fruits, vegetables, and salad in the house before you can eat them.
All my best in half-plate happiness and health.
Lots of new careers start in the summer. Some of them start off on the right foot, and people move quickly ahead. For others of us, there can be lots of missteps.
For new professors, summer is when you move and set up shop in a new town. I've set up a website (at AcademicsOnly.org) that can help you do this, and here's a graphic that summarizes some of the information in something you can tape to a filing cabinet. Although I intended it to be for new professors, it now seems to fit with a lot of other careers.
Congratulations on your great new job, and good luck starting off strong.
Most of our puzzling problems or potential opportunities are unique to us. This is why you can’t Google the solution without getting some pretty lame advice. Advice from the Web or from YouTube is either obvious, or you don’t want to do it, or it doesn’t apply to you and your situation.
Last month I gave a guest Zoom lecture for an online course for graduating students. Part of the lecture was how they can change habits and get out of unwanted ruts. There was Q&A at the end, and the last question was “How can a person find time to think more deeply about how to solve problems or make opportunities in their life?”
This is a great question because we all have tons of things in our lives that we would like to be better but we’re not sure how to do it. We might try half-heartedly do one or two obvious things and shrug when they don’t work. These can range from important things like “How do I find an exciting job where I’ll learn a lot” or “How can I find a great spouse,” to small, but nagging little problems like “How can my stop dog, Spot, from making spots in my apartment,” or “What should I do about all of that junk in the garage?”
But we don’t usually try too hard to solve these problems. That is, we usually don’t come up with the right answers because we don’t think in a focused, deep way about how to solve them. We moan about them, we avoid them, or we settle for an expedient band-aid solution.
Still, no one’s better able to find the unique-to-you answers to these problems better than you. If you had an easy strategy to come up with the answers, your answers might not be perfect, but they would be a huge move in the right direction.
When this person asked this excellent question in this class, I shared something with him and with the I’ve been experimenting with and modifying for couple years. It’s been working well for me and although it was a bit off-topic from my lecture. I thought it would be useful as they venture off to great new possibilities. Over the past years, I’ve distilled into three steps:
Step 1. Find 30 Minutes of Undistracted, No-Phone time. Find 30 minutes of undistracted, nonelectronic time, and grab a journal or a piece of paper and pen. This can be first thing in the morning (best) or just before bed (next best). At the top of the paper write down “10 Actions for . . . . “ and then plug in your problem or opportunity.
Step 2. Write 10 Actions that would Solve the Problem that’s Most on Your Mind. Write down 10 actions that you believe you could realistically take (if you wanted) to help start solving your problem. The more specific your answer the better. Your first 3-4 actions will come fast because they are obvious, but they’re also the actions you probably don’t want to take, or this wouldn’t be a problem. The next 3-4 are going to take thought, because you’re stretching past the obvious. The last 3-4 will be difficult to generate and might seem pretty wacky, but it’s often where your real turn-around insights will happen. The key take-away is that you must write down 10, even if a bunch of them seem too far out of the box.
Step 3. Pick the Best 2-4 Ideas and Schedule a Time to Do Them. Schedule your 2-4 best and easiest ideas into your to-do list or calendar. You can do more, but usually 2-4 is enough to get you unstuck and to make huge progress.
If an example would be useful, let me show you want this has looked like for me so far this week.
Most mornings I think of one thing that’s on my mind that I’m unsure how to tackle. Yesterday was Monday and my topic was how can I change the home page for a website I’m creating for family meals. Today’s topic was how I can learn 14 new-to-me songs in four days for a new band I just joined. Here’s what the first 30 minutes of my day looked like yesterday and today:
Step 1. Find 30 Minutes of Undistracted, No-Phone time. I did them first thing in the morning. I laid on my home office couch with a journal and a pen. This was before anyone else was up, and before I turned on my computer or checked my phone.
Step 2. Write 10 Actions that would Solve the Problem. This took me about 25 minutes with the webpage issue, but it took me about 45 minutes with the new songs issue because the problem was so unfamiliar to me that I spent a lot of time holding a pen and staring at the paper. I spend a bit more than 30 minutes because I felt I was on a roll. You’ll also notice below that for the web page, I put down 11 ideas on the page (and a couple others on the next) since things were flowing.
Step 3. Pick the Best 2-4 Ideas and Schedule a Time to Do Them. For the website issue, I acted on idea last night and put the others on the calendar for next Monday (after the 3-day weekend). For the songs, I started this morning and created templates for them. I’m sure have lots of problems, and I’ll change them, but at least it will get me over this 4-day hump.
This is fairly personal, and I never shared this approach with anyone (other than my brother and wife) until this person asked during class. There might be a ton of ways you can modify it to work for you, but the main ideas are: Pick an undistracted (no phone) time with pencil and paper, write down 10 (ten) specific actions, and immediately do them or schedule them.
Here’s why this topic came to mind for a column – a full month after the original question was asked.
Last weekend a former graduate student is moving with his family to start a new job, and he has 400 things on his mind. He asked me about two questions/problems/issues he’s facing. After talking, I described this approach to him as a way of tackling the other 398 issues he’ll be facing daily once he drives the moving van into town.
He said, “I do something similar. I come up with 3-4 ideas. I just never do anything about them, and then I forget them.”
I told him the key isn’t usually the first 3-4 solutions to the problem. It’s the next 6-7 pretty great ones come up after you’ve stared at a blank page for 20 minutes. And writing them down helps with remembering. And having them in a journal keeps them organized.
Good luck with trying this out. Give it a week and email me and let me know how its working for you and how you might have adjusted or modified it.
In the meantime, I better get back to playing a lot of wrong notes so I can get them out of the way.
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