There are 100 things on your mental To-Do list. Daily duties (like email and planning dinner) and pre-scheduled stuff (like meetings and appointments). But what remains are the big things that are easy to put off because they don’t have hard deadlines – things starting a new initiative, exploring a great idea for a side hustle, finishing a pet project, or taking the first step to follow that crazy dream you’ve had for 10 years. These are the things that could have the biggest impact on you, come the end of the year.
But these projects are also the easiest things to put off or to only push ahead 1 inch each week. If you push 100 projects ahead 1 inch each week, you’ve made 100 inches of progress at the end of the week, but your desk is still full and you’re feeling frustratingly resigned to always be behind. This is an incremental approach.
A different approach would be to push a 50-inch project ahead until it is finished and falls off the desk; then you could push a 40-inch project ahead until it falls off; and then you can spend the last of your time and energy pushing a small 10-inch project off your desk. This is the “push-it-off-the-desk” approach.
Both approaches take 100-inches of work. However, the “push-it-off-the-desk” approach changes how you think and feel. You still have 97 things left to do, but you can see you made tangible progress. For about 12 years, I tried a number of different systems to do this – to finish up what was most important for the week. Each of them eventually ended up being too complicated or too constraining for me to stick with.
Eventually I stopped looking for a magic system. Instead, at the end of every week, I simply listed the projects or project pieces I was most grateful to have totally finished. Super simple. It kept me focused on finishing things, and it gave me a specific direction for next week (the next things to finish). It’s since evolved into something I call a “ 3-3-3 Weekly Recap.”
Here’s how a 3-3-3 Weekly Recap works. Every Friday I write down the 3 biggest things I finished that week (“Done”), the 3 things I want to finish next week (“Doing”), and 3 things I’m waiting for (“Waiting for”). This ends up being a record of what I did that week, a plan for what to focus on next week, and a reminder of what I need to follow up on. It helps keep me accountable to myself, and it keeps me focused on finishing 3 big things instead of 100 little things. Here’s an example of one that’s been scribbled in a notebook at the end of last week:
Even though you’d be writing this just for yourself, it might improve your game. It focuses you for the week, it gives you a plan for next week, and it prompts you to follow-up on things you kind of forgot you were waiting for.
Sometimes I do it in a notebook and sometimes I type it and send it to myself as an email. It doesn’t matter the form it’s in or if you ever look back at it (I don’t), it still works. I’ve shared this with people in academia, business, and government. Although it works for most people who try it, it works best for academics who manage their own time and for managers who are supervising others. They say it helps to keep the focus on moving forward instead of either simply drifting through the details of the day or being thrown off course by a new gust of wind.
I’ve also used this with others who I work with, and we usually use it as a starting point for our 1-on-1 weekly meetings. They usually email it to me and it’s a useful check-in. It helps them develop a “Finish it up” mentality, instead of the “Polish this until its perfect” mentality. Also, you can give feedback on what they’re choosing to focus on, and you might be able to speed up what they might be waiting for (especially if its something on your desk).
Good luck in pushing 3 To-Dos off your desk and getting things done. I hope you find this helps.
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.
In the last two weeks, I had two totally divergent adventures with some converging insights you might find useful. One was GenCon and the other was the Global Leadership Summit.
GenCon invades Indianapolis every year with 70,000 people who crowd into the convention center, the football stadium, and into five hotels because of one reason: They all love games. Not things like Monopoly or chess, but super-complicated European boardgames, role-playing games, strategy games, deck-building games, and so on. Over the four days of the convention, there are over 1500 different events ranging from tournaments, film festivals (about games), dances, concerts, auctions, costume parties, virtual reality dungeon crawls, and lots of long lines.
It was my first time, and it's a people watching spectacle. I had tons of questions for people, such as 1) Why do you come here for 4 days and only play one game over and over, 2) Why did you get married here? and 3) Why are you dressed up like a hawk? I realized that when I asked these "Why?" questions, people would often give me short, unthinking answers.
My big breakthrough was when I asked the same questions without using "why": 1) What is it about this game that makes it so addictive, 2) When was it you decided to get married here? or 3) What were some other costumes you were thinking about, and how did you narrow your costume down to a hawk? At this point people really opened up, and our conversations were a lot more interesting and fun.
One Take-away: Rephrase Why questions into What or When questions.
Why: I don’t know, but it seems to work
Global Leadership Summit 2019
The Global Leadership Summit is held in Chicago about the same time as GenCon every summer. But it's also simulcast to 400 locations and over 405,000 people. You also don’t have to dress up like a hawk to go there. For two days you hear great business speakers. (You can download the notes from the speakers below at the link at the bottom).
One speaker was a hostage negotiator with the FBI for many years, and he had tons of great insights:
● Mirroring - Repeat the last words that they just said. It lets them know you are listening. With upper inflection, it is an invitation to expand on what they just said.
● "You’re right" is what we say to people who we have to maintain relationship with and you just want to shut up. It's better to say "That's right." It's what husbands always say.
● Effective pauses - give people the chance to talk. 2/3 people are not comfortable with silence.
● Don't say "I understand." That's what people say when they want you to be quiet so they can talk.
But one thing he said really caught my still sensitive GenCon ear. He said, “People get threatened and defensive when they hear the word ‘Why?’ It reminds them of having to explain why they did something wrong as a child, or it reminds them of when they have had to justify a less-than-intelligent decision as an adult.”
Instead he said that using other words – like when, what, or how – causes a person to think more and to think more collaboratively:
• What happened that led you so see things that way?
• Where have you seen this before?
• How are we going to [go to Disneyland if your grades don’t improve]?
This whole cast of speakers was great. The conference sent around bullet points from all of the speakers, and you can download them below. Definitely worth downloading and either reading now or copying over to your notes app to read later. No Darth Vader costume required.
One Take-away: Rephrase Why questions into What or When questions.
Why: It makes people less defensive and more collaborative
When you ask people what they’re most proud of, people usually mention about the same types of things: their kids, a career accomplishment, or how they lived their life.
But it’s an unfair question that totally catches people off guard and they usually blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. It’s like when you see somebody blindsided on a talk show by being asked, “What’s the funniest, most hilarious thing that ever happened to you?” or “What’s the most amazing, incredible, phenomenal experience you’ve ever had?” You’re just not going to get the real answer with 1.2 seconds of thought. But what’s interesting is when people voluntarily say what they’re proud of or what their most amazing, incredible, phenomenal experience was. When they volunteer this out of the blue, it means they’ve given it a lot of thought.
There’s an famous man at the University of Chicago and who’s a legend in academia in the area of how people make decisions. Let’s call him Adam. We became friends and during a late dinner Chicago a couple years ago, our conversation turned to parents. Although Adam’s parents had passed away long ago, he said – out of the blue – “What I’m most proud of in all my life, is how I was there for my parents in their later years.”
What? That’s what he’s most proud of? I don’t even know what that means.
Here’s a guy who’s published libraries of stuff, whose work has changed at least one industry, who has two successful kids, and what he’s most proud of is “how I was there for my parents in their later years”? This wasn’t a “tell me the funniest thing that ever happened to you” kind of answer. He had clearly thought about this a lot.
Taking care of aging parents is particularly very emotionally hard. It’s good if you can see it as a blessing, but even a saint can’t see it as a blessing day after day while they are trying to juggle the rest of their life. Having both a wife and brother who do this daily, I can see the grinding burden it can have even on very strong people.
What’s interesting about Adam’s perspective is that it is very forward looking. It says “Regardless of how I feel today, how will I look back on this moment in the future?” If the answer is “With great pride in how I handled it,” that’s powerful to keep in mind. It even goes beyond “no regrets” thinking.
Right now it’s 4:08 AM, and for the next week, I’m sleeping here on the couch in my 92-year old Dad’s room in the retirement home (or trying to). Although I’d rather be staying and eating with my brother, I think it means more to my Dad that I’m staying here.
If someone asked you today what you’re most proud of, what’s a nonobvious answer you might answer?
It's useful to also think about how this looks down the road. If you think about what going to do today, or this month or this year, what will you be most proud of having done in five years? It’s a great set of farsighted glasses to try on.
I retire from Cornell tomorrow, two days after I turned 59. My Mom and Dad both retired from their union jobs within days of their birthdays, and I never remember them saying much about their jobs after they retired. Someone else took my Dad’s place on the production line, and someone else took my Mom’s place filing papers.
But academia is different. It’s one profession you never really have to retire from. A lot of us have a lot to say, and we’re passionate about saying it even when we’re officially through with our job. Many academics imagine themselves retiring in their early 70s, and then transitioning to half-time until they pad-lock our office door shut to keep us out.
Even retirement parties are somewhat pro forma. If you feel you have a calling, you don’t feel any different the day after retirement except you're just no longer being paid. I just had my retirement party last month, and it seemed like a birthday party, except that people gave speeches and gave me a nice, cherry wood Cornell captain’s chair with a metal plaque on the back of it.
In 30 years of academia, I only once went to a retirement party that didn’t seem like a birthday party, and it had a striking effect on me. It was about 15 years ago and I was asked to be one of two faculty speakers at the annual Spring meeting of the university’s Business Advisory Committee.
What excited me the most was the other faculty speaker. He was one of the most notable economists at the University. He had won a boatload of awards and occupied a rare niche at the intersection of economics, real estate, finance, and law. He was widely published, widely influential, and people—even his economist colleagues—often spoke of him in awe. This year was his retirement year, and his speech would perhaps be his Last Waltz in front of a group like this. We got to know each other throughout the day and at the closing reception.
On the rainy long ride home, we sat next to each other in the back of the chartered bus. I asked him which of his many accomplishments he most proud of, and which had the most impact. At one point, however, I asked a question that was not met with the same warmth and candor. I asked, "In light of all of the remarkable things you’ve accomplished so far in your career, what’s your biggest professional regret?"
Silence .Then he said, I don’t have any regrets. If I had to do it again, I would do everything pretty much the same way. After another much longer pause he said something like this:
“Well, maybe I have one regret. My work lies at the intersection of four areas – economics, finance, real estate, and law. I have a very complete picture of how these interact and how they influence everything from real estate prices in ghettos to land speculation prices in the middle of nowhere. The problem is that I’m the only one who sees the big picture. My papers are published in econ journals and finance journals, while others are published in real estate journals and law reviews. Nobody else sees the big picture because they only read one type of journal.”
I said, “Would it be easier for people to see the big picture if you were to write a book that pulled all of this together? That way, everything would be in one place and you could connect all the dots.” He chuckled and immediately dismissed this, “I don’t know about marketing, but in economics they don’t reward books.” After 45 years of research, he was retiring with one needless regret. This was unfinished business that he would now have the chance to finish, but he was still letting a now irrelevant barrier get in the way.
The metaphor of an "unwritten book" can be a useful metaphor for us who are feeling that our routine is getting too predictable, who are feeling restless, or who find themselves retiring with a feeling there's something more to contribute.
Most people have at least one metaphorical book that would take our ideas or interests to a new level of expression. Importantly, it doesn’t need to be writing a book. It might be starting a website and blog, or teaching an adult ed course we’ve wanted to teach. It might be mastering a musical instrument and joining a band, starting a photo travelogue, moving to that lake house you always dreamed of, or starting an online business.
What’s interesting is that most of these “unwritten books” probably wouldn’t even have to wait until you retired. They were something that could have been started much earlier if we would have removed our make believe barriers.
Time to start the next chapter.
It's been said that the most frequent last words of adventurous, partying males are probably:
1) “Hey, watch this,” or
2) “Here, hold my beer.”
If we heard either of these, we'd probably yell “STOP, Don’t Do That!” But giving well-intended advice in less obvious situations is trickier, so we've grown more hesitant to do so. We’ve all been burned by giving advice and having someone stare a hole through us.
As a result, even as mentors we can we be hesitant to giving a young person advice about their future. We might say “I will give them advice if they ask.” Yet even if they us ask "What do I do?" we can be too carefully non-committal in giving them any advice that's useful (“Well, what do YOU want to do?”).
Last month I had an interesting conversation with a person who said his son had been adrift in high school. It all turned in the right direction for him one day when an adult he casually played chess with said, “If you work hard, you could be a high-school chess champion.” He focused, and it happened. The Dad then said something similar had happened to him 50 years ago. He had been adrift in high school – good grades but adrift – when a someone told him “If you work hard, you could be on the debate team.” He focused, and it happened.
These two mentors (even if they didn't know they were mentors) had each given these young people a specific vision of what they could be: A chess champion and a debate champion. They just didn't say “You’re sharp,” or “You talks good.” They gave a specific direction that an adrift student could paddle toward. They decided to Be the One who pointed at an island the students could paddle to.
It can be easy to say “Good job,” or “You’re creative,” to a young person. Those are compliments, but they don't give useful paddling directions. A student might be earnestly good at school but not see where to take their life other than in the general direction their parents, friends, or placement office talked about.
Suppose we took the risk that those two mentors took, and we told a younger person “You’d make a great ________,” or “Have you ever considered ____; I think you’d be really good at it.” They might feel a bit flattered, but they might also feel a bit motivated to paddle in a direction they hadn’t thought of. Even if they went in a totally different direction, if we motivated them in a hopeful way, we accomplished more than if we would have said, "Well, what do YOU want to do?"
Let’s circle back to last month’s conversation about the two mentors who laid out specific visions to the guy and to his son. Things worked out for both of them. Ten years later, the son had graduated from college, started his own business, and was coaching chess champion hopefuls on the side. Forty years later, the dad had retired as a Fortune 500 CEO to produce a movie. Partly because two mentors decided to "Be the One" who gave them direction.
There's a reemerging movement around this Be the One notion. Although it's sort of aimed at teachers, a surprising amount of it still applies to any mentor who takes the extra effort to say the right words at the right time. You can check out Ryan Sheehy's Twitter for a booster shot.
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I'm Brian Wansink, and I've been lucky to work with lots of wonderful researchers to discover insights on how to help people become more effective, happier, and more meaningfully connected with each other.
See what works for you, and share it with others.