The Power of the Action Item List

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How many times have you had a seemingly simple goal or plan fail along the way because you lost sight of the little things that were critical to a successful outcome? It’s happened to me many times, and I’ve learned to use action item lists to combat these failures. It’s not for lack of good intention or work-ethic that we fail; we just overestimate our ability to focus and remember our plan in the days or weeks that follow the creation of it. We leave a meeting with clear direction believing it will be easy to remember everything we had to do, and then the inevitable happens…..our attention is drawn elsewhere, then we sleep, and before we know it, we’ve lost focus or plain can’t remember what our part even was!

Action lists are incredibly powerful tools, and are simple to create and use. One of the reasons they work is because we remember more if we write it down. The second reason is psychological; creating a plan that gives us clear direction to achieve the goal gives us the confidence to go GET IT DONE! It also makes the goal appear much less daunting and uncertain than it did before we took the time to formulate a plan of attack and write it down. As we make progress and check off action items, it gives us even more confidence and security that we’ll achieve the goal on time.

With New Years around the corner, many of us will be creating personal goals to achieve in the coming year. Do yourself a favor and take the time to create a plan to achieve those goals and write it down. Then post it where you’re constantly reminded of each step needed to accomplish the goal so you don’t lose focus as unforeseen distractions unfold throughout the year. A white board mounted somewhere you frequently look works well. If you’re prone to watching TV instead of walking after dinner, mount it above the TV for instance. This reminds you that your time is better spent on achieving your goals. I recommend making the first few steps simple and easy so you can get a little traction and confidence going before things get tough.

Final words: This is going to take some humility to admit that you can’t keep everything straight in your mind for you to effectively use action item lists. Wear your action item lists as a badge of honor; after all, the reason you need them is because you’re someone who GETS IT DONE, and people respect and count on you to perform! There’s no shame in using all the tools available to you, so drop the ego, and make those lists!


Fake It Until You Make It?

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Faking until you make it is a well accepted and common practice in the workplace. This raises the question; if everyone knows about it, can’t we just be transparent about our skills and abilities? How much time and efficiency are we losing by pretending we know something we don’t, and then figuring it out on our own? What’s that doing to our mental health?

Faking it can lead to feelings of impostor syndrome, which Merriam-Webster defines as: a psychological condition that is characterized by persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one’s ongoing success. These feelings can lead to anxiety and depression and can happen even if you aren’t faking it, but it’s much more likely among those who are faking it because they have real reasons to fear they’ll be exposed. It’s normal to have some feelings of self doubt when taking on a new challenge, but faking it adds to the stress of trying to overcome the challenge.

I suggest a different course. Be open and honest about your skills without downplaying them or selling yourself short. This leaves the door open to ask questions and get the help you need to learn that new skill faster, and people will respect you for your honesty and genuine confidence. If you feel a skill is critical to getting hired or advancing, do the work to learn it before applying. Commit yourself to continuous learning throughout your career so you’re ready to take on new challenges and opportunities as they present themselves. It’s not healthy to live with the stress of being fake and you’ll feel better without that weight around your neck, so start being honest today!

Look Ahead for Success

Thanks to Lucas parker for use of the image.
Thanks to Lucas Parker for the image.

Hi everyone, this one’s for all my fellow mountain bikers and leaders. I’m just getting back from a mountain biking trip to Arkansas where I arrived at the conclusion there’s some similarities in what it takes to be successful on the bike, and in professional and personal pursuits.

One of the hardest things to train yourself to do when mountain biking is to look 10-15 feet down the trail instead of what’s right in front of your tire, but it’s a critical skill if you want to succeed on the bike. This gives your brain time to understand what’s coming (rock, turn, root) and formulate a plan to successfully go over or around it. If you look down and focus on what’s directly in front of your tire, you end up making continuous adjustments and not being comfortable with any amount of speed. This makes for a jerky and awkward experience which limits the fun and can discourage people from riding more.

The same thing happens in business to leaders who get bogged down in the daily business and don’t look up and out at what’s coming in the future. This doesn’t give them time to properly prepare for the next challenge and ends up adding to the stressful cycle they’re caught up in, fighting whatever fire is raging that day. It’s just as difficult to train yourself to look farther ahead in business as it is on the bike, but it’s also every bit as important to achieving success and enjoying the experience. Just like your brain figures out and automatically adjusts your body to compensate for obstacles in the trail, your team will figure out the best way to run the daily business if you tell them what’s coming.

The second similarity is the effect that confidence and drive have both on the bike and in business. On the bike, if you believe you’re going to crash, then you’re absolutely going to crash because you’ll be so focused on not crashing that you won’t be doing the things you need to be to take the trail on. You won’t be aggressively pursuing excellence, instead you’ll be trying to avoid failure…. The same is true in business if you focus on avoiding failure, as you’ll end up in a declining state because you aren’t pursuing the things that lead to success in the current or future environment.

Our actions follow where our thoughts are so show up each day with a strong drive and focus on how to be successful, not how to avoid failure. Inspire confidence in the team by looking ahead for opportunities and obstacles so a plan can be set in motion to find success. Show up strong. Get out there. Take some risks, and have fun doing it!

Stress Test to Ease Your Mind

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There’s nothing worse than wondering what unplanned issue is around the corner that’s going to impact your business or life, and for many, it can lead to anxiety and the feeling you’re not in control of the outcome. Given the current hiring situation mixed with supply chain interruptions, this is an all too common feeling among leaders trying to keep it all together. We’ve all come to expect the unexpected but few are preparing for it which sets them up for failure when the next calamity hits.

Rather than wait for the next interruption and then figure out how to react to it, I began performing stress tests on critical areas of the business to see how prepared we were and what steps we would take in each event. This has been incredibly powerful towards easing the anxiety associated with running a business dependent on international supply chains and it’s been a differentiating factor with customers who count on us to perform. I got the idea from the post-recession banking industry which was required to pass stress tests for liquidity in order to avoid needing a bailout in the event of another economic disaster. Given how unstable hiring and the supply chain have been recently, it’s been a lifesaver.

Running stress tests forces you to think about what could happen instead of worry about what might happen, which eases the mind and makes you feel more in control. Stress tests apply to your personal life as well. Looking to retire? Try living on the anticipated retirement budget for a few months to see if it’s feasible. Want to run a 5k in the middle of summer? You better get out of the air conditioned gym and try running outside to see how it feels. Be intentional about planning and preparing for the worst and put yourself back in control today.

Marginal Gains Theory

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The reason the Start Small method of achieving goals works, is rooted in the marginal gains theory. I’ve only recently heard of this theory and have to credit Joel Cochran for introducing it to me on an episode of the Proclivity Podcast. When I researched it a bit further, there’s a ton of evidence out there that supports what I’ve come to realize; making small gains yields big improvements in the long run. Essentially, the marginal gains theory supports the idea that 1% gains in many areas will cumulatively create a large positive impact.

The research and evidence supports the notion that as you make changes and see positive results, you continue to be motivated to achieve more gains and will look for ways to improve elsewhere. I believe this has the potential to help millions of people and organizations improve their results, so it’s my hope the theory will be taught in schools at scale someday. What better way to prepare someone for the world than giving them a tool to succeed in both their personal and professional lives?

Organizations already use the continuous improvement model but many times they make the same mistake individuals make; they take on huge projects that are difficult to complete and end up failing. If organizations were to take a 1% improvement approach, the projects would be much smaller, take less time to complete, and hold everyone’s interest long enough to make a positive impact. Over time, this could change the culture to one where employees are taking it upon themselves to make positive changes to benefit the organization.

The Start Small method and the marginal gains theory help build mental toughness, just like exercise helps build physical toughness. By being intentional about making 1% improvements, you’re changing the way you view the world and building the confidence that you’re in control of your life. I bet you can make a 1% improvement in your life before the end of the day!

Small Disciplines Lead to Greatness

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Achieving your goals really begins with creating the right mindset, but how do you do that in a way that’s sustainable in the long term? Creating good habits is the key to changing your mindset from one where you get tossed about by what the world throws at you any given day to one where you’re in control. Once you feel in control of the present, you can take the actions needed to change your future.

Good habits are dependent on your ability to be disciplined in your actions, and discipline doesn’t happen by flipping a switch, so you have to Start Small. Doing things like making your bed in the morning put you in control right away, and without being aware of it, gives you the confidence to do bigger things. Having your clothes laid out the night before makes you feel properly prepared and even more in control of the day. Packing lunch keeps you on track with nutrition because you won’t end up skipping it and suffering, or worse, eating junk because it’s convenient and then feeling guilty that you aren’t prepared and in control of your life.

These small disciplined actions change the way you think over time and can lead to bigger disciplines like creating a personal budget and saving for a house, setting time aside to learn new skills, etc. Whatever it is you want to accomplish; it begins with small disciplines that create good habits and change your mindset and locus of control. We all know what we need to do to be successful, most people just aren’t doing it because they don’t feel in control and make excuses for why they can’t accomplish things.

There’s power in being intentional and disciplined, even in areas that seem trivial or can be hidden from the world, because your biggest influencer is yourself. For example, we all know the bad feelings associated with procrastination and incomplete projects. Flip that feeling by being disciplined enough to set aside time to work on it. If you can make yourself feel good about your actions, you can achieve greatness. Start Small today by making your bed and see where it leads from there!

Live a Little

Motivated professionals love to work, and the argument could be made the world is a better place today because of their contributions, but how many end up regretting not living a little more when they reflect on their lives? My favorite TV commercial of all time is the old guy telling his grandkids how much he loved Harleys when he was younger. When they asked him about it, he had to tell them he never got it….he spent the money on aluminum siding instead! I put a link to the video above but it’s a great reminder that we’ll all die some day and most of us will get old enough to reflect on our lives.

I’ve always worked a lot, even when I was a kid, but as I get older I’m having to live with some regret despite achieving a lot of my personal and professional goals. Because I write every week about achieving goals, I feel the responsibility to remind everyone to live a little along the way. I don’t advocate quitting your job when you’ve got more responsibilities than savings though, just don’t spend your entire life working. Be intentional about creating balance between work and the rest of your life. If you enjoy work like I do, it’s really easy to dig into it for nine days or nine months, only to look up and find you missed some opportunities away from work to have new experiences.

One trap we fall into is thinking that if we push through this month or this year, everything will quiet down and we’ll have less on our plate at a later date. I do this a lot and find that it never holds true; the more value I provide, the more opportunities come my way to provide value. That’s a good thing but learning to manage it is a challenge, especially when ego and simple pride in your work get in the way.

Building a good team who shares your values and pride in the work your organization does is the best way to lighten your load enough to step away but keep an eye on them, there’s a few who will need to be encouraged to live a little as well. As a leader, you will be respected more by your team if you encourage them to enjoy life outside of work and get a higher quality of work being accomplished when your employees have some balance and aren’t burned out. Here’s to summer vacations!

Expand Your Knowledge to Expand Your Potential

Knowledge is powerful because it builds your personal and professional value. In turn, this value helps you attain better positions, more clearly understand yourself, and lead the life you want. Historically, higher education through a university was your only option for attaining knowledge but now there are many free or low priced options available that people can benefit from on their own schedule. Universities are great because they force you to think deeper and more broadly than most people would on their own but if going to college doesn’t fit your circumstances, don’t be defeated.

The recipe for success in gaining knowledge on your own is be curious and train yourself to explore knowledge in areas that interest you. Discover the art of reading or listening to podcasts from experts in your field; you’ll be amazed at the amount of material available. Following and learning from these experts will not only help you gain knowledge but help you see the opportunities that exist and experience the culture of people who are thriving in whatever it is you’re interested in.

Reading and listening to people you respect is the next best thing to having a mentor to help coach you on what it takes to be successful in your field or interest. You’ll find out how they achieved success and everything they’ve learned along the way. As you progress on this journey of knowledge, connect with like-minded people through forums and other channels at all levels of experience and knowledge who will answer questions and help you learn more. You’ll find that most people are helpful and enjoy sharing what they’ve worked so hard at learning because it makes them feel good about where they are on their own journey.

Like everything else in life, your results from this journey will be directly related to the effort you put into it. Dedicate time and be intentional about widening your viewpoint and it will soon become a part of your routine that you look forward to each week. Challenge yourself the same way a university would to hold yourself accountable when no one else is there to do it for you and you’ll be rewarded with the power of knowledge.

Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

How many of you avoid situations that make you uncomfortable, even if you know that behavior is holding you back from reaching your full potential? You’re not alone and it’s nothing to be ashamed of because you can change the behavior by Starting Small and working towards getting more comfortable over time. Here are two scenarios that hold people back from advancing in their organizations, despite being highly skilled or experienced in the fields.

Avoiding interaction with “higher-ups”: I’m not saying you should hang out in front of the top boss’s office all day attempting to get her attention to brag about your latest success, but don’t go out of your way to avoid management altogether because you’re uncomfortable speaking to people with more authority. Organizations are flatter than ever before and here’s a secret for you; management likes to talk to employees of all levels and not just about work either. Most executives are more approachable than they are perceived to be and they are interested in hearing what’s going on in your world because it helps them understand the current environment, both internal and external.

If you avoid interactions with people in other levels of the organization, it will hold you back because someone else in the organization is just as skilled but they’re doing a better job talking about successes and engaging with management. When a higher level position opens up, that person has an advantage you don’t. Be intentional about seeking interaction with management a little at a time. Talk to your boss’s boss at the company picnic or holiday party for instance. Be your own advocate because if you don’t, chances are no one will know how awesome you are because your boss may be taking credit for your ideas.

Spending money: Many of us in the business world are great at managing finances but are uncomfortable spending money on things, even if we know it would improve the customer or employee experience. Don’t go overboard and spend every dime, but take a look at your habits and views on money to determine if your personal habits are holding back your organization. Many of us would have a hard time spending our personal money on a lavish dinner so we avoid doing the same when entertaining employees or customers.

Begin to look at each opportunity not as a cost to the organization but as an investment in the future. Does the investment have a good chance at generating a higher return than its cost? An example is employee turnover. How much is it costing you in training costs and lost productivity because you don’t want to pay what your competitor is, spend to remodel the office, etc.? Develop your spending muscles by taking some employees out to lunch. It won’t bankrupt the company and it definitely won’t hurt morale. As time goes on, ramp up your spending to match your goals for growing market share, etc.

This is simple, basic stuff, but it affects individuals and organizations everywhere and it all goes back to being intentional about your goals and having the courage to gradually change behavior to achieve those goals. What other behaviors are holding you back? I’d love to hear them!

Don’t Overreact

Everyone has been through challenging times in their lives that are discouraging or even traumatic. Most of us tend to fight fire with fire when faced with these challenges and many times we end up making poor decisions because we’re being driven by emotions or ego in an effort to counteract the situation and immediately make it better. This reactionary behavior makes things worse, leading to more despair, more bad decisions, until something breaks the pattern, hopefully before hitting rock bottom in a dark place.

I recommend freezing in these situations and allowing your emotions to settle before making any large decisions. This does two things: 1. It allows you to reflect on how you ended up in the situation and whether or not the outcome was ever under your control to influence. 2. It will bring clarity to the situation and allow you to make an informed decision based on facts, not emotion. You’ll find that being intentional about this process will improve your decision making abilities and bring you peace of mind when you come to the realization that you don’t need to try and fix things immediately, especially when they’re outside of your sphere of influence.

Ego drives this type of reactionary behavior because we either want to show the world we never fail, or that we can fix other people’s failures. Certain cultures and demographics are more prone to reactionary behavior and decision making based on ego, which is why it’s critically important to build a diverse team. A diverse team that’s empowered to push back will keep the ego in check and allow for a well thought out decision to be made with input from several different perspectives.

Is your organization struggling to make meaningful changes or develop new ideas for problems that have plagued you forever? If the answer is yes, it’s probably time to look around and see if your team is diverse enough to reduce group think and empowered enough to push back against employees with strong egos who are having an outsized influence on the decisions.