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.
Two Titanic Thoughts
April 15th is the No GPS Anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. It's a pretty easy date for Americans to remember because April 15th is also the day U.S. income taxes are due.
My niece is a teacher who had always wanted to visit a Titanic museum, so for Spring Break we picked her up for a Titanic-themed vacation. It was filled with frisky penguins, a ghost ship captain, indoor snow tubing, a killer iceberg, swimming, and 2000 miles of driving.
There’s a number of Titanic exhibits I've seen, like in Liverpool and Vegas, but this one (Pigeon Forge, TN) was set up so you could more closely identify with the people on board. For instance, you were given a biography card of someone on the Titanic, and you kind of followed that person around – where they slept, ate, and chilled out. Super-engaging.
At the end there’s a huge biography board where you find out if your character survives (about 1/3 do), what they looked like, and what happened to them afterward.
There’s probably 20-30 rooms with exhibits and actors, and interactive things like trying to walk on a 30-degree tilting deck. Yet the two things I’ve thought about many times in the past week both happened in the very last room. The one just before the gift shop.
There’s a climatic scene in the World War II movie Saving Private Ryan when the only surviving person in the battle, Private Ryan (ill-timed **spoiler alert**) is told by his dying Captain “to make his life worth it.” The movie then flashes to present day when he asks his wife to hopefully confirm to him that he lived a worthy life.
Did any of the survivors on Titanic's biography board do anything different after they were rescued to “make their life worth it?” To be sure, some people had some pretty tragic years that followed (suicide, prison, bankruptcy, multiple divorces and addictions), and some charmed-life rich people seemed to continue to have charmed lives. There was little indication of which people might have done something different to have make their life “worth it.” Sometimes it might be only the person themself who knows it.
If we were dramatically given a lucky lifeboat seat -- like the some of the Titanic survivors -- I wonder whether we’d try to make life “worth it?” Even if we didn’t know how, there’s a good chance that simply repeatedly asking ourselves that question might guide us in a good direction.
The second Titanic thought was also brought to light in that same dark room. While I was reading that bio board, a 90-year-old 6’4” ghost of the Titanic’s Captain Smith silently came into that somber room, walked over to a spot-lighted Captains chair, gathered the 20 of us together, and told two riveting eerie stories. Actually, he wasn't a ghost. He’s Lowell Lytle, the person who has portrayed the Captain for 30 years around the world, as his 4th amazing career.
The story he told the small collected group was what happened with the “Women and children first” directive that was given as they lowered the lifeboats. Men would get their wives and children loaded in the lifeboats, and they would then all wave goodbye for the last time as the lifeboats were lowered into the ocean. Three hours earlier they were having together and Dad was telling them to turn their iPhones off, three hours later they were gone.
We often think we’ll have plenty of time to thank people we’re grateful to, or to say “I love you” to people we love. Lytle's point was that we don’t need to wait until the lifeboat’s being lowered away before we say it.
My family spent a 10-hour drive home listening to the amazing ups and downs in Lytle’s real person life (Diving Into the Deep at Encourage Books). We’ve all had lucky breaks in life that merit us asking ourselves if we’ve tried to make our life “worth it.” We’ve also have people we’re grateful for who we need to thank, and we have people we love who are worth telling daily that we love them.
Two Titanic thoughts. I'm happy we can think about them and act on them a long ways from the nearest iceberg.
On New Years Day I asked everyone in the family to come up about 10 accomplishments or contributions they were committed to make in 2021. Last night we discussed them after dinner. The idea is a) if you don't specifically articulate something you'd like to accomplish, it probably won't ever be a clear enough destination for you to reach, and b) if you tell and remind other people of your intentions, they might be able to help.
There's a lot of things that derail our good intentions. About 5 years ago we did a cool study showing the average person (or at least in the US, Germany, and Japan) starts gaining weight in October, and it takes them from January to April to lose it. Some people saw this as discouraging (like the news headline below) because it meant that it would take them 4 months to lose the weight they gained in the last two.
There's a couple other ways to view this. First, your life can be so much bigger and more meaningful than what you weigh. You can contribute things and accomplish things that could overwhelm the importance of losing the 8 pounds you gained since October. If you list out the contributions and accomplishments you'd like to make, it might help put that in better perspective.
Second, the other good news here is that most people eventually did lose most of that weight. It happened slower than they wanted, but most good things -- like the other 9 things on your list -- it wouldn't be worth much to you or to others if any of these magically happened overnight.
There’s a story about a 66-year old guy who always wanted to go to college. After he retired, he was accepted to a local school, and showed up on the opening day of enrollment to sign up for classes. He’s waiting in line and the kid behind him says, “Can I ask how old you are?” The man answers him, and the kid says, “Wow, when you graduate in four years, you’ll be 70.” The man chuckled and said, “In four years, I’ll be 70 anyway.”
Imagine a year from now you're having lunch with a good friend and catching up on what happened in the past 12 months. What would you have had to contribute or accomplish that would lead you to say, "That was an amazing year"? What would the other nine accomplishments be?
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