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!


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.

Learn as You Go

It’s amazing what you learn as you begin a project or goal. Many times you believe you have it all figured out and then as soon as you begin to do the work, you find it’s completely different than you envisioned and a major adjustment is needed. Sometimes this turns out to be a good thing because the goal turns out to be much simpler than you had imagined. Humans have a natural fear of the unknown and by Starting Small, we can bring some clarity to the goal and reduce the fear that existed before the project began.

Just this week, my team had a meeting to discuss initiatives we’ve been working on for a few months now. We gave two projects the green light to begin because we felt the best way to dial them in completely was to start using them and find out what needed to improve by experience rather than keep forming strategies around the ideas. There are limits to the Start Small method though and I don’t recommend throwing something out there if there are consumer or worker safety concerns. For the majority of personal and professional goals, it works out great to figure things out through experience rather than devote a ton of time to planning the whole thing out only to find it doesn’t work in the real world.

I recently had a customer who was dead set on purchasing an expensive product based on the specifications. Just to be sure, we decided to show the product in action at a different customers’ site and 10 minutes into the visit, the customer came to the realization that the product wouldn’t work with their material and they would need to continue researching alternatives. In this case, they were able to learn from experience without spending money or time to find out something didn’t work in their world. I’m willing to bet you have similar opportunities to learn by someone else’s experiences, Start Small and get out there!