HR’s most important task. A real paradox (especially for MBAs)

I am in IESE Business School’s library today.  I am reading Jeffrey Pfeffer‘s article “HR’s most important task“. 

He starts: “Here is a paradox.  In the financial markets, investment information is rapidly and efficiently diffused.  New product and service innovations, be they junk bonds, new forms of options, or debt securities that allocate and price risk in an innovative fashion, get rapidly copied by competitors.  But, in the “managerial knowledge” marketplace, there is little evidence of much diffusion of ideas or innovative business models and management practices.

Although there is rapid diffusion of language – the language of quality or six sigma, empowerment or putting people first, employee and customer loyalty and so forth – in many cases, not much actually changes in terms of what occurs on a day-to-day basis and in fundamental organisational models.”

photo credit: AComment

He discusses a couple of examples.  Southwest airlines has seen profitability for over 20 years in an industry that is losing money.  Their organisation has been widely described in articles, cases and books.  There were no secrets to what they were doing.  It was decades before others began to imitate the Southwest model. 

Another well known example is Toyota (excepting events of the last few months).  Toyota for a decade was the automotive byword for quality and productivity.  Toyota would regularly give plant tours to its competitors – but those managers came home and repeated what they were already doing – perhaps mentioning some six sigma concepts once in a while to give credibility to their positions.

The task for HR?  Human Resources must be concerned with the mental models of the people in the company, particularly its leaders.  The role of the company’s execution leaders is to ensure that these mental models turn into disciplined action.

Why does management innovation take so long to spread?  What role do Business Schools have in accelerating this process?

Eat that frog. The only thing you need to know about time management.

Dimitri Uralov

Productivity put simple. This is a guest post by Dimitri Uralov, a Barcelona based entrepreneur and financial coach.  

When Conor offered me the chance to write a post on time management for this blog, we laughed as I commented that most people would probably find the truth about productivity too simple.

“Most people would probably find the truth about productivity too simple”

I am interested in time management. I spend a lot of time reading books on the topic, testing new systems and methods and trying the latest software. Invariably, I always come back to the same simple principle that has been guiding my productive life for the last several years.

Here it is.  Productivity boils down to one simple thing: your capacity to do the most important, and only the most important, and to stick with it until it’s done. Time management tools and strategies are useful, but always secondary.

Our time is limited and we will never accomplish everything that we and others put on our plate. The only question is whether what we choose to do takes us closer to our goals and allows us to make a difference or not.

The only thing you need to know about time management.

I can only really accomplish what really matters if I spend most of my time working on the most important tasks. If I’m doing something else, no matter what I choose to do (and what software or system I’m using for it), it will relatively be a waste.  (Conor has a good post that distinguishes great work vs bad work).

What are these most important things? I don’t think you need help with answering this question. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using the Eisenhower matrix, the ABC method of setting priorities or simply your gut feel.  We all happen to know what our most important tasks are.

The real problem is that these most important tasks are usually the most difficult and least “attractive” items on our agenda. They require time, effort and getting out of our comfort zone. So, humans as we are, we consciously or unconsciously choose to keep ourselves busy with other less important yet so much easier stuff.

I remember the first time I realized how powerful this “just-do-the-most-important” principle was. About two years ago, when I was working in a family office, my boss had a conversation with me. He was kind but honest. He complained about my productivity. He said it took me too much time to finish important projects. He didn’t know what I was doing, but he knew he didn’t like the results.

That came quite unexpected for me. At that time I considered myself to be a very good worker. I was always busy doing things. I was staying late to do more. I had my to-do lists all over the place. I would answer all e-mails and return all telephone calls quickly. I was up-to-date with everything happening on the markets. I was available and ready to help others. However, my boss felt that I was not achieving much.

So I decided to reassess the way I was working. I tracked my time and took records of my activities. Soon it became very obvious that most of my day was spent on unimportant stuff, such as answering e-mails or reading investment articles. Meanwhile, the important stuff was sitting on my desk and in my to-do lists, waiting to be dealt with.

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk

Eat that Frog.

Having realized I was always postponing the most important, I made a strong decision to change my working habits. Every morning I would arrive to the office, make a list using the ABC method, and then go directly to my most important task, the A1, resolving to do nothing else until it was completed. I would then go to A2, then A3 and so on.

As I adopted this simple productivity rule, my results changed completely. Difficult projects and tasks that used to take weeks were now done in days. I felt more energetic and motivated. For the first time I would have moments when all items on my to-do list were ticked. Eventually I would accomplish most of the tasks for the week in only 3 or 4 hours on Monday morning. The change was so amazing, that I even started to share my insights with other people.

Today, as an entrepreneur, the productivity issue has become more important than ever for me. To be honest, I sometimes find it quite difficult to control myself and keep focused. If there’s something good in having a boss, it is that you have someone who can warn you when your productivity has gone low.

Therefore, whenever I feel stuck among all the things I have to do, I go back to the same simple principle that has proved to work so well – I start doing the important things, and only the important things.

I grab a sheet of paper and write down my two or three most important tasks for the day. Yes, those that are usually also the most difficult and uncomfortable. I allow myself to forget about everything else, and then I focus on getting these two-three things done.

Once you eat a frog, nothing worse can happen in the day.

Sometimes it takes me the whole day to accomplish just one of these tasks. But I’ve discovered that I don’t really feel bad about it. I feel calm, concentrated and productive. I’m doing the right thing, the one that matters most. It is the best use of my time, and there’s nothing that can be compared to that feeling of fulfillment when it’s finally done.

I’ve also discovered that every time I concentrate my effort on the most important, the unimportant stuff takes care of itself. Problems solve themselves in my absence. I get less e-mail in my inbox. The phone is silent. Life flows.

And usually, if I manage to keep myself focused and avoid distractions, I end up doing much more than I would expect. It seems that things do not always take as much time as we think, especially those that initially look so big and difficult.

Therefore, the next time you feel tempted to test the next revolutionary time management system, think again whether you really need to overcomplicate it. Get back to the basics and ask yourself a simple question:

Are you inventing things to do to avoid doing the important and only the important?  (A good reminder from Brian Tracy)

I recognize that even when we know what we have to do, it is not always easy to stay focused and avoid distractions. I personally find it to be the most difficult part of the “art of productivity”. For that reason, in my next post I will share some of the tips that have proven most effective for me.

In the meanwhile, could you share your experience and insights on simple productivity in the comments?  What do you do to manage your time better?

Dimitri Uralov is managing partner of the Intelligence Consultancy – a company specialised in helping people and organisations to develop the full range of their intelligence. Next month he will run a 3-day workshop on leadership, productivity and personal branding in Barcelona.

How to ask the best questions

I have a page of notes in my notebook about asking questions.  In the spirit of breaking the mold of my blogging, I will dump it here unedited…  and a bit of commentary and James Joyce style flow of consciousness thinking to follow.

  • The best answer is a question.
  • Ask question = control power, help other learn.
  • Getting to an answer is easy, asking the right question is the challenge.
  • You don’t change your life by changing the answers, you change your life by asking new questions.  Change “what am I here for?” to “how can I best serve those around me?”  This immediately shifts the line of the answers.
  • “Nobody knows as much as everybody.”

And so to flow…

Steve Shapiro, my mentor at Accenture, has a nice story on his TEDx speech at NASA recently.  He talks of a situation familiar to many.  Can you remember the last time you lost your keys?  You searched.  You began in the obvious spots. Friends provided the wonderful advice “Where did you last have them? They’ll probably be there.”  You search.  In frustration you look in all sorts of places.  Eventually you find them.  The relief is palpable.  The same friend asks “Where did you find them?”  You answer “You know, it was strange.  I found them in the last place that I looked for them.”.

This is the danger of knowing the answer, of expertise, of experience.  We stop when we find the keys.  We stop when we find the first viable solution.  We stop when we get to good enough.  We don’t go on and come up with 10 more solutions that might actually be extraordinary.  I believe that forcing myself into the habit of almost always responding with a question might just allow me to get beyond the spot where I left the keys, the first viable solution.
Image credit: 37signals

“Don’t ask questions unless you genuinely want to know the answer.” Gary Cohen

Gary Cohen on a post on the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation website gives six ways to improve the way you ask. I like “don’t ask questions unless you genuinely want to know the answer.”  This can be a challenge.

John Baldoni in the Harvard Business Review writes a post Learn to Ask Better Questions. He offers 4 ways to improve your questions be curious, be open-ended, be engaged and dig deeper.

Another entrepreneurial friend of mine, Jonathan Davis of Hire Better told me how a mentor of his explained “problems rise to the level that they are allowed to rise”.  “Don’t provide the answer if your co-worker is responsible for the decision.”  In Jonathan’s company they have a fun way of returning responsibility to the person: “That’s your monkey”.

Problems are Like Monkeys

An employee approached Jonathan recently “would you have a quick look at my proposal.  I don’t know whether the client wants X”.  Before Jonathan could respond, the person saw his little wink and said “I know, its my monkey…  I just…  You are right…  it is my monkey.”  It is so difficult in these moments not to provide an answer when you feel you know the answer…  it is much more valuable to give a question that allows the person to grow.

Jonathan tells me that the US military has changed its command philosophy recently.  Gone are the days of 27 step process plans.  They have left details plans and moved to communicating why and how and letting juniors solve the what.  I’ll give an example of this idea:

If you give a friend directions to your house “turn left, third right, second left, straight through 3 traffic lights, past the big tree, left and first house on the right” – if they hit roadworks and have to divert, they are lost.  If you say “head north to the river, find the metal bridge and our house is the third one back on the south side” – they still have a chance of reaching your house even if there are roadworks, changes in road layout.  The first set of instructions are correct but highly brittle.  The role of the leader is to point out Everest, give some limits in terms of acceptable behaviour and values and then ask the junior officers to get there.  This is much more robust and allows the organisation to deal with changes in the environment.

The biographers of Rockerfeller often quoted people reporting that in meetings he would sit and not say anything.  Many times he would appear to not be listening.  However when he did speak, it was always a question that would break the status quo of the discussion and bring out new viewpoints on a challenge.  The same is reported of Michael Dell.  He doesn’t speak much in meetings, but when he does it is almost always a question.

As a business school professor I teach by asking questions, but I don’t teach the students how to ask the right questions.  Verne Harnish said “we are all good at finding the answer to a question – the best leaders help find the right questions”.

Who asks good questions?  What does a good question look like?

How to earn more money

High earning footballer, Leo Messi

Why do some employees earn massively more money than others?  Does Leo Messi or Christiano Ronaldo work harder than Bob Smith or John Doe?  More hours?  Better formatted CV?

The 5 Forces of More Money

In this post I do a quick thought experiment – using a tool from MBA Business Strategy 101 to look at personal life strategy.

In Business strategy, Michael Porter’s Five forces model of competition allows companies to understand why certain industries consistently earn more, how they maintain margins of 60% whilst others are destined to margins of 2-3%.

There are some simple insights in applying Porter’s five forces model to any given employee.

  1. Threat of new entrants – how easy is it for somebody to learn to do your job as well as you do?
  2. Intensity of competitive rivalry – is there solidarity and a code of honour between employees, or will other employees be willing to do your job for less money?
  3. Threat of substitute products or services – Can the work you do be outsourced?
  4. Bargaining power of customers – If you do your job as you’re told, then you’re easy to replace. “Nobody Cares How Hard You Worked. It’s not an effort contest, it’s an art contest. As customers, we care about ourselves, about how we feel, about whether a product or service or play or interaction changed us for the better.” Seth Godin, The Linchpin.
  5. Bargaining power of suppliers – If all of your monthly income goes out in mortgage payments, tax, car payments, food and none go to savings – you have no cushion, no safety net – you are a slave to your monthly wage.  If you have savings, other income streams, outside interests, hobbies, a network of friends who love you for who you are not what you do or the position you hold then you are not such a slave to the job.

If the threat of new entrants is high, competitive rivalry is high, substitutes are available, the company has many similar employees to choose from… then you will be earning minimum wage – either now, or soon.

“Linchpins”: The Valuable Cogs

In any mechanical system there is a linchpin – remove this, and everything stops.  There are many cogs that their removal is low impact, but the linchpin is vital.


What can you do to earn more money?

  1. Reduce threat of new entrants – Continually develop your skills, build your network of colleagues and seek harder jobs where it is hard for a new employee to do the same work to the same quality.  Is what you can do valuable and scarce?  Are you increasing this value and scarcity every day?
  2. Reduce competitive rivalry – Foster a profession-type attitude for your type of work – are there recognised accreditations and systems to manage reputution within your type of job?  You want a clear way to distinguish quality workers from cheaper less professional work (for example look how lawyers, doctors, dentists do it with accreditations, certificates, formal recognition).
  3. Reduce “substitute-ability” – If your job could be described in a manual then you can be outsourced.  If there is decision making, if there is variety… then your job is less easy to outsource. “There are no wonderful jobs left where somebody else tells you exactly what to do” Seth Godin.
  4. Reduce bargaining power of employer – build your own personal brand.  Be known for you.  Start a blog, start a movement, speak at conferences…  begin to be known in your own right.
  5. Reduce bargaining power of suppliers – Have a cushion of savings.  Don’t acquire too many things with monthly payments (house, car, boats, telephones, satellite TV, book club subscription, credit card payments etc).  Have the flexibility to change jobs, to be able to survive a time with lower income.
In the words of Seth Godin “Be a Linchpin”.

How do you lead people to excel?

I just watched Michael Feiner, a professor at Columbia Business school, on Authors@Google.  He talked about leadership.

Jack Stack, author of the great game of business says that there are two disciplines needed in a company: optimization and innovation.  I think that these overlap with the skills of management and leadership.  Management is about predictability and order, about planning and using resources to meet the plans These are skills of optimization.  Innovation would require leadership.

Leadership is three main things.  It is about:

  1. Establishing direction
  2. Building Alliances and Coalitions
  3. Motivating and Inspiring

How to do that?  Michael says that leadership is managing relationships. Managing relationships is one to one activity, 90% is bellow the surface – activity that is not visible.

How do you lead people to excel?  Here are Michael’s laws of leaders who lead people to excel:

  1. Law of Expectation – Pygmalion effect.  People live up to what you believe them capable of.
  2. Law of Intimacy – know people, what excites them, what frustrates them, passions
  3. Law of Building a Cathedral – connect the work to meaning (Laying Bricks or Building Cathedrals)
  4. Law of Personal Commitment – be available, respond
  5. Law of Accountability – targets matter, disciplined action is required
  6. Law of Pull vs Push – allow others to influence you (“help me understand why you feel that way?”)
  7. Law of The Mirror – a problem needs 2 people – (“what am I doing to contribute to this problem?”)
  8. Law of Winning Championships – none of us is better than all of us
  9. Law of Healthy Conflicts – dialogue, debate and disagreement necessary for growth
  10. Law of Leading bosses – Intellectual courage
  11. Law of Values based leadership – WYHA 2 WYHB (Move from “What You Have Achieved” to “What You Have Become”).

 The video is here (on the blog).

Have a great week.

The three types of work

There are only three types of work:

  • Bad work
  • Good work
  • Great work

I think you probably know what sits in each of these categories.

Bad work is pointless. It is a waste of time. It is the basis of Dilbert cartoons. Sadly, most organisations are superb at creating bad work: bureaucracy, meetings to plan other meetings, outdated processes that bear no relation to what customers require.

Good work is the bread and butter, the stuff you do well, you are trained to do.  It is comfortable and you probably do it well. Good work is necessary and there will always be some in your life.

Great work is the work that matters. It is meaningful to you, has an impact and makes a difference. It can be enjoyable, but it can also be quite uncomfortable. It is new and challenging so there exists a possibility of failure.

The answer is not to stop everything and focus only on great work.  I was reading the manifesto “Stop the Busywork: 7 counter-intuitive ways to find more time, space and courage to do more Great work” by Michael Bungay Stenier.  His years of experience coaching people suggest that most people lie in the range of:

  • 10-40% Bad work
  • 40-80% Good work
  • 0-25% Great work

Michael suggests an exercise: You draw a large circle on a page and create your own work pie chart – how much of what you do is bad, good and great?  What sorts of things fit into good and great?  What is in the great category that is also of immediate and strategic value to your company?

How to turn around a company

Photo Credit: Traffic signal Guy 14

A couple of years ago I had some discussions with Solera Capital about taking on a role in Europe leading the change at a company called Audatex, an insurance claims adjustment business.

Solera explained their simple, three part philosophy that they apply to managment of their acquired companies:

  • 30/30
  • 80/20
  • 90/10

30/30 – Every manager who controls resources is asked to come up with a workable plan to achieve 30% greater output using 30% less inputs.

80/20 – Every person in the acquired organisation is asked to drop 80% of their projects, to-dos, reports and focus on the 20% that they personally decide are the most important and valuable activities.  Solera are brutal in this process – if somebody has 20 projects, they must stop 16 and focus on 4.  They are not allowed to choose 5.

90/10 – If anybody does not achieve their objectives, they receive 10% of the “blame”.  90% goes to their boss.  The only reasons why somebody will not meet their objectives are that they a) don’t understand their objectives, b) don’t have the resources necesary to achieve their objectives or c) are not motivated to meet their objectives.  a) is bosses’ fault. b) is bosses’ fault.  c) is a personal fault, but the boss should have intervened and replaced the individual with somebody with the right motivation to take advantage of the opportunity.

Clear, brutal, and requires tough decisions; but highly effective looking at Solera’s track record.

On goal setting. How I do it. (Do not try this at home)

I was on the Air Europa flight back from Madrid sat with JC Duarte and Manuel Vidal-Quadras.  At a certain point we watched as JC pulled up an impressive iPhone application that allows him to track his time.  This led to a discussion about how to be effective with time.  I feel that I am not effective with my time and can easily waste hours on the unimportant (facebook, searching for information on Wikipedia and reading 10 other interesting but not directly relevant web pages).  I do however, tend to be good at achieving my goals. I know I could be a lot more effective, but keep myself to aim to achieve 3 important things each day.

I took some time to think about how I manage myself to achieve goals. I am interested in others’ strategys and tactics to effectively achieve the important things in their lives.

  1. Daydream & Visualise Benefits: I imagine myself in the future having accomplished the goal. I try to write a few words about this image. My top priority goal this year is write a book. I can see it available in all those airport bookshops that I pass on my travels.  I am too good at this bit and can sometimes end up living in a future, better world rather than being truly present in the here and now.
  2. Be Realistic: This is where I need to work harder. I find it easy to imagine the benefits and to be optimistic about achieving them, but hard to be realistic about the obstacles that stand in the way; and getting down to systematically overcome these obstacles.  I write two significant obstacles that will make it difficult to achieve the goal. Writing a book is a lonely process – I decided that I need to write 1000 words every day – and publish a blog post about once a week.
  3. Brainstorm: How can I overcome these obstacles?  The benefits can only come about if I am serious about overcoming the obstacles.  Is there a way to minimise the obstacles? How would someone else overcome these obstacles?  If I can’t see how to overcome the obstacles I think it is better that I admit that I am not going to achieve the goal.  I am not good at this.  I want to believe I can be great at everything.
  4. Action plan: 9 years of Accenture means I can do this in my sleep. Break the goal down into actions – list the actions.  Establish rewards for achieving significant progress points along the list of actions. Set dates. Write it down.  I like the feeling of crossing out actions as I complete them (like this).  No online tool has ever given me the same satisfaction as a big blue line drawn through the text on the page.  I have hired a coach to help me with the book. We have worked on a list of chapters – completing chapters is easier than completing the whole book in one go.
  5. Start: Just a few minutes right now.
  6. Public Commitment: I tell people that I will accomplish a goal.  I just told you that I will write a book.  I also want to give a speach to an audience of 5000 people one day.  I want to take my daughter to Disneyland (haven’t decided Paris or Florida).  I tell different people for different goals.  I have some sports/fitness friends and they know that I will run a sprint triathlon this year. It would be better if I was able to let them know about the obstacles and how they could help (sometimes with a simple “come on man”; the swim is the big challenge for me in the triathlon).  I attach a date to when I mean to achieve the goal.  June 6 is the sprint triathlon. August is the book. I need to decide what is the best age for my daughter’s first Disney experience…

My current list of life goals is on the right panel of this blog.

    Does meaning come from excellent execution or excellent execution from shared mission and vision?

    Should we focus on the ends to improve the means or focus on the means to improve the ends?

    Excellent people or excellent systems?  Photo Credit: kevin dooley

    On Monday I spent a couple of hours at IESE in a research seminar where Harvard Professor Julie Battiliana presented her research on professional and organisational identity in two Bolivian commercial microfinance institutions.

    BancoSol and Banco los Andes were both created in the early nineties in order to provide financial services to a large group of people that had never had access to banking services before.  They both target urban and rural poor who have no fungible collateral and need to borrow amounts under $1,000 to improve their incomes.

    When these organisations were started, they both faced an important foundational question: Who do we hire?  Who can sell our loans, evaluate customer capacity to repay, define terms, approve loans and (most challenging) collect on loans in arrears?

    BancoSol: Hiring Talent

    BancoSol took a strategy of hiring existing talent – they hired existing loan officers from commercial banks alongside social workers from existing NGOs.  The bankers would bring financial expertise and the social workers would bring the right attitudes towards the mission to assist poor who had no previous access to bank finance.  The employee induction and early training focussed around mission and values.  The CEO would regularly remind staff that they were doing “the most important work in Bolivia”.

    Banco los Andes: Build Strong Systems

    Banco los Andes bank took a very different strategy – they hired new graduates direct from college and put them through extensive process training.  The focus of the training was on following a strict process.

    A loan officer in commercial microfinance is a tough job – it requires the ability to be “caring but firm”. A typical day in the life of a Bolivian microfinance loan officer would be as follows:

    • Morning – (marketing) spend time in local markets making contact with stall keepers and traders
    • Afternoon – (sales) visit specific people in their place of work or home
    • Late afternoon – (collections) visit customers whose loans were in arrears
    • Evening – (review, approve) in the office preparing and approving paperwork

    One of these organisations became a great success and its company policies and procedures have become the basis for most of the world’s commercial microfinance organisations today.  The other had to make major structural changes and was stuck with intractable group identity conflicts.

    Which Strategy Succeeded?

    Banco los Andes with its strategy of hiring new graduates and training them intensively in operations was the success.  The intense focus on quality of execution allowed a pride and shared identity to arise in the staff of Banco los Andes.

    BancoSol never reconciled the bankers and the social workers and had two groups who identified more with “banker” or “social worker” than BancoSol.  The bankers thought the social workers were unprofessional “idiots” who didn’t understand commercial reality. The social workers thought the bankers lacked an ability to deal with customers as people.

    Building Systems

    My reflections as I sat and listened to this discussion about tension in organisations, professional vs organisational identity was that it is excellence in our work that allows true meaning and shared purpose to arise.  It is not enough as a leader to give nice speeches about mission and vision – there must be a relentless unwillingness to accept anything less than excellent execution.  It is not enough to sit in the tower and think, there must be a systematic getting out into the world and ensuring that processes are correct, quality is high and people are being held accountable for their goals.

    17 Daily personal habits for a fulfilling life

    I have been teaching MBAs for 12 years and I am often asked over a coffee a question on the general theme of “what should I do with my life?” or “how can I be a success?” to which I feel hugely under-qualified to provide answers.

    I have spent time reflecting on my own life (not a great source of wisdom) and speaking with lots of friends, colleagues and wise-seeming individuals (a great source of wisdom).  I have compiled a list of 17 daily habits that are common to the people who reach the end of their life, look back and say “I would be happy to do much the same again”.

    I was hesitant to share this material as I feel unqualified to talk about it (only half way through the average human lifespan, not yet a billionaire).  I showed it to my father a couple of days ago, only to discover the next day that he had passed it on to the boards of 3 global companies, some successful authors, some highly successful people… and they came back saying that this was inspiring and “challenging stuff”. I thank my father for doing what I was scared to do – share this stuff.

    17 Daily Habits for a Fulfilling Life

    The full document (8 pages) is available if you want here on Google Documents.

    1. Goal setting (Dreams to Goals to Actions)
    2. Time Management
    3. Fit mind and body
    4. Personal vision (What on Earth am I here for?)
    5. Integrity – build trust
    6. Personal finances in order
    7. Good social life
    8. Strong relationships with partner, family and kids
    9. Resilience (Head in the sky, feet on the ground)
    10. Self motivation
    11. Self acceptance
    12. Fun
    13. Attracts and uses mentors and advisors
    14. Is open and seeks coaching
    15. Giving with intention
    16. Gets others to do stuff
    17. Sets aside time for reflection

    I would appreciate your reactions in the comments (here) and this really is a work in progress to which I would love to see how we use the web 2.0 tools (facebook, twitter, linkedin) to collaborate and develop this material.3 Most Recent Blog Posts

    1. 3 Rules of Great Questions
    2. Making Committed Decisions
    3. Are you overwhelmed with problems?

    I have another question – how do you get people to change their habits?  Some of the early readers of this material said “really enjoyed reading this piece, but it is a bit like january resolutions-the new diet is a great idea but it is very hard to stop eating the things we like”.  If it is not a book, if it is not a course, if it is not new year’s resolutions… what does it really take to allow someone to reach an aha moment and implement change in their life (I need this answer more than most for my own life, I might have this list, but every day I am challenged to find the discipline to live it).

    Update: TEDx Talk on this Subject…

    In April 2013 I was fortunate to be invited to speak at the TEDx University of Navarra “Shaking the Ordinary” event.  The speech is now up on YouTube:

    Goal setting, Dreams – Goals – Actions

    We know what we need to do to be successful, but why do so few people manage to sustain the habits of regularly dedicating time to the activities that will bring them success?  Why do we sabotage ourselves?

    A nice thought about something you might like to have is a dream.  A dream written down and clearly visualised is a goal.  A tangible, measurable step written down and committed to is an action.  You will not achieve a dream if you don’t systematically work through the actions that lead to the goals that lead to the dream.  Dream – have a book published.  Goal – complete first draft of book by 31/1/2010.  Action – write 1000 words on goal setting.

    A writer is somebody who finds writing harder than anybody else.  My brother Aidan – set a goal 60 weeks ago – publish a blog article every Monday before 9:00am – and has consistently met it except for 2 weeks – the week his son was born and the week his son was in hospital with a worrying stomach condition.  How?  He made a verbal commitment to many of his friends.  He said to his wife that he would give her €100 every time he failed to publish by 9:00am.  He has paid 3 times (once he published the blog 20 minutes late).

    We need accountability partners (sadly we are less likely to cheat on our goals if committed to a friend than just to ourself).  The top performers all have coaches; it is too difficult to sustain high performance without help. 

    Malcolm Gladwell in the book Outliers made popular the idea that becoming excellent requires 10,000 hours of practice.  Your genes, your natural talent, luck becomes irrelevant when you achieve 10,000 hours.  In what will you spend the next 5 years accumulating your 10,000 hours of practice? 

    Most people never accrue 10,000 hours in anything.  Will you make the commitment to excellence, the commitment to mastery?

    Calendar Management (Pomodoro Technique, Rhythm); Self Discipline

    “We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret” Jim Rohn

    Routine sets you free.  Routines can break the tendancy to procrastination (“quieting the lizard brain” Seth Godin).

    Pomodoro technique – get a timer that clearly counts down 25 minute intervals.  Take your to-do list.  Prioritise number 1 important item.  Estimate number of 25 minute intervals.  Set the timer and work on the first timer.  Any interruption, reset the timer to 25.  At the end of a pomodoro take a proper 7 minute break.  After 4 take a 25 minute break.  How many pomodoros can you achieve in a day?

    Self discipline has been shown to be an “expendable” resource.  In order to have the greatest ability to maintain self discipline, we need to get enough sleep, face our anxieties, take time out to relax as well.

    Fit mind and body (Energy)

    Survey of centurions (people who live to 100) – two things in common:

    1. they exercise every day and
    2. they have a project which they must survive in order to complete.

    “Sharpen the saw”:  You only have one body – take time for repairs.  Take time to strengthen it.  Take time to rest it.  Keep fit, play sport, enjoy walking, don’t wait for the heart attack to let you know that you need to eat healthy, keep fit. 

    Personal Vision

    “What on Earth am I here for?”  Wrong Question – meaning is not to be found inside ourselves – “What do my parents, friends, family, society need from me?  How can I best help others?

    Jesus Christ once said, “Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self.”

    What drives you?  Guilt?  Resentment?  Fear?  Materialism?  Approval?  Social comparison?

    The Arbinger Institute distinguish between two forms of emotional living – “In the box” vs “Out of the box”.  “In the box” is reactive – your emotions are reactions to world and people around you.  If someone is late to your meeting, you are angry.  Out of the Box is that you are proactive about emotion – you choose the emotion that best serves the current moment.  You don’t react to people, but seek to understand what is happening in their life, what they are seeking, what they are lacking.  

    Henry David Thoreau observed that people live lives of “quiet desperation,” but today a better description is aimless distraction. Many people are like gyroscopes, spinning around at a frantic pace but never going anywhere.

    We are products of our past, but do not have to be prisoners of it.

    George Bernard Shaw wrote, “This is the true joy of life: the being used up for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clot of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

    Do you have a clear understanding of your values?  Have you spent some time reflecting on what is important to you?  Who are your role models that have lived these values in a strong way?  (What do you really want?)

    Why do many cancer survivors look back on the cancer as a gift? – they live the rest of their lives with a true understanding of how short a time we have and what is really important in the time we have.  The unimportant drops away and leaves a powerful clarity and focus.

    Communication in concise terms of your personal, company, project, goal vision. You are always selling.  People sign up for vision, fun and principle.

    “We die”.  What will you do the last hour?  Who will be there?  Who will you want to speak to?  What would you say?

    In the book “Superfreakonomics” there is a chapter that shows a high correlation with the arrival of television and an increase in crime.  The authors examine various hypothesis, but essentially find no link except a speculation that the arrival of TV also was the arrival of powerful advertisement campaigns that transmit the idea that “buy this product” = “get this life”.  The purchase of a €2 coca cola is not the purchase of sugar, water and some cola flavour in a red can…  No, it is access to a life full of exciting friends, fun parties and meaningful interaction.  The purchase of a car is not the purchase of a vehicle to get from A to B, it is access to a lifestyle.  You are not happy now, but the mere purchase of the right set of goods will transform your life into one of fulfilment.  This leads to frustrated people.  We believe the ads, but they are selling falsehood.   No thing, no object, no achievement will fundamentally change how you feel about yourself – only you can decide to change how you feel about life.

    Integrity – build trust, reliability (“Its a small world”)

    Are values worthwhile because they provide a ROI or are they valuable only in that they allow you to sleep well every night?  Warren Buffett – why is Integrity his number 1 criteria for selecting people in whom to invest?

    Aristotle believed that if an individual did not internalise an ethical value system before the age of 12 they would never really “feel” the need to live their values.  Aristotle separates the ingredients of a Person of Integrity into two levels, the first level are two virtues that are the foundation of all the rest.  The foundational virtues are:

    1. Courage and
    2. Self-Restraint

    The edifice of credible character is then built of the following lived virtues:

    1. Generosity
    2. Magnificence
    3. Greatness of Soul
    4. Balanced Ambition
    5. Gentleness (concerning Anger)
    6. Friendship
    7. Honesty
    8. Charm
    9. The Absence of Shame – Aristotle has a hard time with this idea, expressing that shame is a force that is necessary in youth to hold them back from overstepping bounds, but as wisdom develops with age an individual must remove the shackles of shame.

    Finances in Order

    Delayed gratification is necessary.  Nobody soaked in debt will ever be able to generate the focus to deliver impact in the important areas of their life.

    The test that has most correlation with success in life is a simple test devised by psychologists.  They bring a child into a room and sit them down.  The child is presented with a sweet.  The adult then says that they need to leave the room.  The child is most welcome to eat the sweet, but if it is still there when the adult returns, the child will receive 2 sweets.  50% of children cannot resist temptation and eat the one sweet, losing the opportunity to double their outcomes.  The children that don’t eat the sweet do not sit there staring at it – they have learnt to avoid looking at the temptation, they have learnt strategies to manage themselves.

    Accumulate education => Accumulate capital => Generate income => Grow expenses inside the limit of passive income.  Freedom = passive income > expenses.  Slave = 90% income as salary.  Keep expenses low, generate assets.

    Balanced, enriching social life

    Choose your friends.  You will become who you spend most time with.

    What is the most satisfying thing you can do for:

    • €10?
    • €100?
    • €1000?

    Happiness: It is all about shared experiences + intentional giving. 

    Unhappiness: it is all about comparing yourself to others, what you have, what you don’t have. What would you rescue from your house if you could only save one thing?  (95% choose photos).  Not plasma TV, not furniture.

    Strong close relationships – Marriage, Family, Kids

    Quality time vs time in the same room.  Intimacy.  Requires work to deepen relationships and maintain powerful connections.  It does not happen automatically – we are not genetically prepared to establish deep intimate relationships.

    Resilience (Head in the sky, Feet on the ground)

    Healthy balance between Principles and Pragmatism.  Get good at ignoring the little things.  Don’t wrestle with pigs.  You will get dirty, you will lose and the pig enjoys it.

    Self Motivation, Self Esteem, Self Belief

    You see what you are looking for.  Ask the right questions.  Change “why does this happen to me?” to “What am I grateful for today?”

    Get good at motivating yourself.  We are not computers – we are neurons floating in a sea of hormones and we need to be careful what hormones we let flood our brain – it will change what we see and believe.

    “The only source of good knowledge is bad experience” Tom Peters

    Climbing Everest, you will not always be going uphill.  Sometimes there are periods of downhill, but it is a necessary part of the journey.  Farmers don’t blame the winter – they accept that it will always come around and prepare to plant seeds in Spring.

    Survive => Thrive.  We are first generation that survival is guaranteed.  We are first generation where thrive is the aim – and we don’t have any history or knowledge or family role models that can guide us in a world where you really can avoid most hardships.

    The person who says “poor me” has clearly got low self esteem.  The person who says “I am the greatest” is also likely to have low self esteem.

    Self Acceptance

    You are the best you in the world.  You will be a terrible somebody else. 

    “The reward for conformity is that everybody likes you except yourself” Rita Mae Brown

    It is only in the tough times that you reach into yourself and truly see what is important to you.  In the easy times you lose yourself as you compare to everybody else – and lose clarity of what you will know is important when death is imminent.  The sharpest steel is forged in the hottest furnaces.


    Life is too short to not laugh regularly.

    Be accessible and approachable.

    Mentors and Advisors (Life Strategy)

    Have a list. Find your way to ask them.  Nick Luckock – “Apax doesn’t invest in first time entrepreneurs – they don’t yet know how much help they will need from others and how they can ask for it”.

    The ideal mentor is someone who you respect, can connect with on a personal level, and who is willing to impart their knowledge. But don’t expect them to solve all your problems.

    “A mentor’s role is to help you to make sense of your own experiences” Professor D Megginson

    Talking to someone who’s been through a similar experience or has achieved something that you would like to achieve will be constructive.

    Coach (Accountability and Balance)

    Cormac and his personal trainer: “I only work with the best”.   

    “I have no time for people not prepared to do the hard work.”

    Permission to hold me accountable for my own actions.

    Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell all have two things in common – they have been leaders of their respective fields, and they each have a coach.  The best in the world have coaches.  Is it coincidence?  We are not strong enough mentally to keep up the hard work and discipline over the long haul to reach excellence.  We need people around us who hold us accountable and push us to stretch.  Tony Nadal, the coach of Rafa Nadal, says that his role is to ensure “Effort and Commitment” – not tennis skills, not better strokes, not how to get fit.


    Auschvitz – 1 in 30 survived the camp.  Victor Frankl was one.  Why did some survive and others not?  It was not random.  The prisoners received bread rations only sufficient to keep them barely alive, yet some prisoners would take half of their bread and give it to someone that they saw needed it more than them.  Those that ate all of their bread survived a time.  Those that shared their meagre ration of bread were able to truly live.  You can take everything away from a man except his ability to choose his response to any given situation.

    Victor Frankl developed the Logotherapy process to help people find the ultimate meaning for their life, to find “a why that can overcome any how”.  There are three types of ultimate meaning:

    1. Serving others
    2. A Unique Contribution
    3. Finding Meaning in the Suffering Itself

    Giving with intention, giving what is special to you.

    “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give” Winston Churchill

    Getting others to do stuff for you

    Leadership is “Vision with bullying”. 

    A vision without execution is idealism.  Execution without vision is bullying.

    Volunteer for charities, clubs.  It is here that you will learn to lead.  Create change = upset someone, connect people, lead people.

    Reflection, Time to Think (Separation of Now and Future) “What have we learnt?”

    Incremental improvement always wins.

    Meditation – why?  Does it really provide the impact that many of its proponents suggest?  Commit to 10 days of self development activity every year.

    “We’ll pluck significance from the least consequential happenstance if it suits us and happily ignore the most flagrantly obvious symmetry between separate aspects of our lives if it threatens some cherished prejudice or cosily comforting belief; we are blindest to precisely whatever might be most illuminating”. Iain Banks, Transition, Patient 8262.

    • Impact = Self Understanding + Personal Habits + Social Systems
    • Life = Work + Social + Relationship + Logos (Meaning/Spiritual)
    • Success = Impact + Luck

    A fulfilling life?

    Why worry?  It should all come together in the end shouldn’t it?  Life should naturally turn out well.  I don’t like exactly where I am right now, but in a few years it will be better.  Doesn’t it just happen like that?

    I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres when I was 23 years old.  It changed an idea I had about life. It scared me greatly. 

    The book tells the story of an lieutenant that is stationed on a Greek Island as part of the Italian occupation during the second world war.  He gets to know the locals and falls in love with the daughter of a villager.  They enjoy happy times together.  The Allied forces take back control of Greece, and the Italian army beats a hasty retreat.  Our lieutenant has to depart but he and the Greek girl promise that he will return after the war.  Three years later, the war ends, peace arrives and our lieutenant, after years in camps and on the run, finally can make his way back to the Greek island.  He travels to Greece, catches the ferry to island and walks towards the village.  He reaches the village in the late afternoon and is walking up the final stretch of hill up towards the centre of the village.  He sees a woman in the square, his Greek girl.  She is holding a baby in her arms.  The lieutenant turns and walks away, never returning.  He travels the world.  Each Christmas the girl receives a postcard from some spot in the world – always anonymous and with no return address. 

    After many, many years, the man decides that he cannot live without seeing the girl at least one more time.  He is now in his 60s.  He makes his way to Greece, catches the ferry and repeats his journey of 35 years before.  He walks to the village.  He is walking up the hill towards the square and meets a young local boy.  He asks “does Pelagia still live here?”. The boy says “I don’t know any Ioanna”.  The man reflects and thinks.  “She will be old now, 60.  She was the daughter of Iannis”. The boy responds “that bitter old woman?  She lives slightly outside the village” and indicates the house.  Our lieutenant gets to the door and knocks.  When the door opens, the girl who is now an old woman stands for a few seconds in shock and then hits him with all of her force and slams the door shut.  He knocks and knocks and finally she opens. “Why did you do this to me?  Why did you abandon me?”.  “I saw you with a baby, I thought you had a baby, thought you had married, had found someone else…  I didn’t want to stir up…”  “Why?  Why didn’t you ask?  It was my sister’s baby.  I was babysitting”.

    Before I read this book I had the idea that life was like a 10 pin bowling alley when it is set up for a kid’s party.  They put foam into the gutters so that all of the balls will reach the end and take down at least a pin or two.  After reading the story, I realised that life does not have this foam protection.  Life has big gutters, and it is quite possible to put my life into the gutter and not hit a single pin.

    The positive thing is that it is never too late to start living the life we want.  Life’s gutters are all in my mind. The past is gone Today I can decide to head a new direction, and the final destination changes.  I only need change course by one degree and I may make a massive change in the new destination that I will reach and what will happen on the journey.

    Jim Rohn says “It is possible to design and live an extraordinary life”.  We measure life in hours, days, weeks and years – but this is not the right measure.  Life is experiences.  There are people that live 200 years of experiences in 40 years of life,  and there are people who don’t live even a single year of experiences in 90 years of clock time. 

    “We die”. This is how the Cluetrain manifesto begins.

    The human lifespan is 650,000 hours.  One of those hours is your last hour.  One of those days is your last day.  This is an inevitability of life.  We all will die.  In that last moment, what will we have with us?  Nothing.  What will we leave?  What will we remember?  What will flash through our minds?  What will it take so that in that moment, God turns and looks and says “now there is someone who really used the opportunity I gave her”?

    Steven Covey says “Begin with the End in Mind”.  Our end is a day where we face the end.  No more opportunities.  Our obituary will be written.  What will it say? 

    Alfred Nobel had a unique view of his obituary while alive.  He was one of three brothers.  When Alfred was 55, one of his brother’s died.  The newspapers confused the brothers and the next day’s edition came out with an obituary of Alfred.  He had the unique opportunity of reading his own obituary at the age of 55; and he really did not like it.  He was the inventor and mass producer of dynamite.  Reading his obituary was the inspiration to change his life and leave a different legacy.  Today we have the Nobel peace prize – because Alfred was so gutted to see that his legacy was going to be death and destruction that he spent the rest of his life creating the greatest current symbol of peace. 

    Aristotle said “we are what we habitually do”.  If something is important, you must do it every day.  If you say, “I will take some time next year and do that” – you will never do it.  If something is important and will be part of our legacy it needs to be done every day and become routine.

    “Carpe Diem. Momento Mori.”  Seize the day. Remember we must die.

    Legend has it that a slave would follow a Roman General on a victorious procession through Rome, his height of glory, reminding him that he is mortal.  In ancient Rome, the words are believed to have been used on the occasions when a Roman general was parading through the streets during a victory triumph. Standing behind the victorious general was his slave, who was tasked to remind the general that, though his highness was at his peak today, tomorrow he could fall or be more likely brought down. The servant conveyed this by telling the general that he should remember, “Memento mori.”  This finds ritual expression in the Catholic rites of Ash Wednesday when ashes are placed upon the worshipers’ heads with the words “Remember Man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”

    P.S. If you liked this post you might also like The complete guide to personal habits: 158 reflections on being your best self and 9 Reasons why you are Stuck.

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