A simple question that can change your path

I’m a big fan of simple mental models or thought experiments in the form of a question that immediately put things in perspective. Here’s one with many alternates that can serve to put you on the right path:

“Is what I’m about to do going to move me closer or further away from what’s important?”

Modify any of the words to get to the same version of the question. For example, “Is what I’m about to decide going to move for closer or further away from the person I aspire to be?”

Think like a pro athlete

One useful way to prompt intrinsic motivation is to think like an athlete. Set aside time for focused, deep work, either creating something valuable or “sharpening the saw “so that we are better creators.

At the highest level of athletics, professionals train hard in “sprints”, then rest, then reassess based on their performance on the battlefield. In our business lives, we tend to just plug away as though 10 hours of “work” is equal to 10 hours of output or value.

For many of us who are used to trading our time for money, it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like our time is intrinsically valuable, but it’s only as valuable as what it enables you to create, become, or deliver on the battlefield.

Results over effort

We don’t judge the quality of a book by the number of hours it took the author to write it. When a friend recommends a great movie we don’t ask what the film’s budget was. 

When we hire companies to do landscaping or cater a party, we don’t interrogate them about the tools they use.  And we don’t evaluate their work product by asking how many years they’ve been in business. We care about and discuss the thing that matters: the outcome.

When hiring someone to do anything, you get the best result when you review their work and have a human conversation that maps their interests and past performance to the outcomes you desire. Hiring a graphic artist? Don’t ask what software they prefer or how many years they’ve done work. Discuss and review their most comparable work product to the one you seek.

Investing in tomorrow

Remember when you first learned about compound interest? It wasn’t intuitive that starting with a penny on day one and doubling it each day for 30 days would net so much money. Investing time and attention works in a similar way, compounding, even if it’s not exponential.

One powerful lesson from any investment that repeats and compounds is that real progress or growth isn’t immediately obvious. Knowing this allows you to adjust your expectations and stay in the game.

Citing the above penny-doubling experiment, after 10 days (1/3 of the way!) you only have $10.24. What do you have on day 30? $5.4 million. 

Benefits of short-term pain

It’s obvious to me that any long-term physical or emotional pain I’ve endured was caused by my own unwillingness to endure short-term inconvenience or discomfort.

Discomfort could manifest in obvious ways like sacrificing long-term health through a lack of proper fitness, neglecting nutrition; or less obvious ways like avoiding uncomfortable but necessary conversations.

Being negligent and making excuses for what you know you should do today just make tomorrow more difficult. The opposite is also true. Slight inconvenience today, more gratifying tomorrow.

How reading a Google study helped me lose body fat

I read about a study at Google showing that office snacks in a shared work area saw a 40% decrease in the amount taken when jars had lids on them. That means that the extra “work” of taking the lid off a jar made those M&Ms 40% less desirable.

We can laugh at the ridiculousness of these psychological and cognitive tendencies, and we can put that knowledge to good use. When I learned this, I immediately made the rule that no junk food is allowed in my house. That doesn’t mean I never eat it, it just means I have to want it that much more because the “lid on the jar” involves the hassle of going somewhere to get my fix. This happens far less.

Interesting facts like this might make you a hit playing Trivial Pursuit. But I prefer to make them actionable by asking: how can I use this?

Track the things you care about

Each software tool comes with reports that summarize or detail my use. How much time did I spend today on each specific app? How many LinkedIn messages did I send last week?

If any of this is worth knowing, it’s only because I will take some action as a result. Most metrics are merely distractions that encourage you to take actions that benefit them (the makers of the software) not you.

If my toolbox started sending me weekly reports on my hammer usage it would be a ridiculous waste. I’ll use that tool when I need to. Just because something is easy to measure doesn’t mean it’s worth paying attention to.

What is this for?

People often spend hours nitpicking slide designs, the exact wording, and the perfect animated transition for a PowerPoint presentation. It’s rare to find someone in creation mode asking whether the presentation itself should instead be a memo or email.

Frequently reevaluating exactly what you’re trying to accomplish can save hours of wasted effort. It’s not enough to work hard. It matters what you’re hard at work on.

You should definitely labor over the exact specs of a screen door. But if you’re fitting it for a submarine you might want to start asking better questions. 

Skate to where the puck is going

Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky famously said that he doesn’t skate to the puck, he skates to where the puck is going. This seems like a useful analogy.

Communicate, behave, and dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Consume macronutrients in the amount that your ideal body and not your current one requires. Proactively look for business and tech trends to anticipate outcomes and look for what’s next, as opposed to what’s hot right now. The smartest and most forward-thinking world changers are living where the puck will be in five years from now.

Yet another useful cliche that prompts you to move in the direction of achievement. Whatever that means to you.

Learning how instead of what

Thanks to Google there is little value in memorizing facts. Critical thinking – the ability to analyze facts to form judgements – might be the most valuable skill to come out of any academic system.

We should be careful we don’t simply educate people so they know just enough to repeat what they heard, but not instill the importance of analyzing and questioning.

It’s hard to exaggerate the difference between teaching someone what to think, versus teaching them how to think.