Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Riddle of the Box

How often do you think "outside the box"? How often does anyone? In my humble opinion, this kind of thinking, even though frequently discussed, rarely happens in practice. Almost every problem you solve is done by techniques you understand, by tools in your box. The same is true for almost everyone else, and for the problems they solve.

Plane Geometry begins with five axioms (assumptions) and builds an entire branch of mathematics from that. The axioms are the framework of the box, and the resultant proofs are only accepted when methods are shown to be inside the box. If you change even one assumption, you build a different kind of geometry and define a different box.

One of the great intellectual accomplishments of all time was Sir Isaac Newton's three laws of motion and the calculus invented to provide a mathematical basis for them. If ever out of the box thinking took place, wouldn't this be such an occasion? The idea was certainly original, but Newton framed his ideas with tools he created in a box of his own invention. Modern science starts by building the box first as a frame of reference.

Finally, consider Jefferson's concept of inalienable rights. He called them self evident truths, making them his axioms and defining the shape of his box. Others might question whether they were true, or if they were self evident, or what rights are inalienable, but in all cases the box structures the thinking whether you accept the assumptions or not.

Even when ideas make radical changes, the process is the same. Commerce and development were the result of one set of assumptions, ecology and green living the result of another. Even cradle to cradle thinking about a sustainable future is redefining the box.

That's the riddle: rational thinking is the process of connecting inspired ideas to some framework and exploring the resultant consequences. Imagine coming into a darkened building. Just as you turn on a light as you enter to see inside a room, inspiration lights up the box so we can see what is inside it.

We always think inside some box. This is great news. By adding to our tools and redefining the shape of our box, we add new rooms to our intellectual building which we can fill with resultant discoveries. If you gave a problem you can't solve, look for another tool or another box. Don't try to think outside the box. Look for a better box.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Price of Free

From time to time we all get offers of free stuff, either as an invitation to buy into more for a price or in an attempt to cement loyalty. The front-end is almost always good, but the total deal can be costly. Let's look at some of the more common offers and how you can benefit from them.

Accidental Death Insurance

Your bank offers $1000 of free accidental death and dismemberment insurance with the option to buy more: from $25,000 at $2 per month to $300,000 at $25 per month. You can ignore the offer, sign up for the free piece, or select one of the paid options.

At a minimum, you should take the free part. Insurance is an investment, and as an investment it requires intelligent management and you need to really understand what is being offered. Accidental death accounts for a small fraction of deaths so the odds of a payout are low. Getting an insurance quote will tell you if the offer is competitive. The rest is cost benefit analysis. Buying the extra insurance is an economic decision.

The first thousand dollars is not. In exchange for your contact data, which the bank already has, your heirs have a small chance of collecting a modest policy. This is a no cost no brainer. Take the free piece and evaluate the rest.

Loyalty Programs

Somebody offers you a discount or goodies for your loyalty. You can recognize these because you take a loyalty card or key tab with a bar code for each transaction. The store gets a customized buying history and the assurance of you as a customer. You get some savings or offers.

This one is a tossup. Your buying history has value, your loyalty even more value, and the payback may or may not be worth it. If you don't want something traced back to you, skip the program and pay cash. If you have privacy concerns, this is probably A bad choice. If you are going to be a repeat customer anyway, these programs can save you money.

Credit Card Reward Programs

Reward programs are credit card versions of loyalty programs. As long as you don't buy what you don't need, eliminate interest by paying when due, and don't pay more for the card than the rewards, the program can make financial sense for you.

Bank Giveaways

When I refinanced my mortgage recently, the bank offered me $50 if I opened a free checking account and set up automatic payments through it. I didn't need the account, but I was going to set up an automatic payment system somewhere. I accepted the offer, set up an automated deposit to the checking account just ahead of their withdrawal, and applied the $50 to mortgage principal
Free Meal Seminars

This offer shows up as an in invitation to a free meal while listening to an expert speak on retirement planning or financial services. Do you like the restaurant? Does the topic interest you? Is the presenter really am expert? Do you have the time? If you answered yes to all these questions, consider going. if not, your time is worth more than the Chicken Alfredo, or it should be.


The business of business is business, but it cannot happen without you. These programs can be win- win --- the business has already assured their side of the win. If you pay attention, you can get some tangible benefits. If not, stay away because by default the business will win big at your expense. Don't let the program change your plan and never let it change your plan. As always, caveat emptor.

Jay Elkes

Monday, September 13, 2010


There are two kinds of people in the world: those who get distracted from time to time, and those whose environment is unending distractions and interruptions. Either way, we all need to deal with distractions. Recently, the GTD (Getting Things Done) Virtual Study Group discussed distractions. Here are some ideas I picked up.

One of the fundamental ideas of GTD is getting everything out of your head. Internal distractions are nothing if not stuff that pops into your head. While washing the dishes or browsing the web don't seem like things you ought to put on a list, you can eliminate them as distractions by doing exactly that.

Interruptions (external distractions) come from emails, phone calls, or people showing up. Truthfully, this is your life showing up, just not at a convenient time. In such cases, you need to deal with both the activity that has been interrupted and the cause of the interruption. First, put what you were doing or a reminder of it somewhere you will come back to it. GTD suggests an Inbox when at your desk, a folder otherwise. Actions triggered by the interruption get noted, filed and processed the same way. Note cards you can keep in a stack are a good idea if you are on the move.

Sometimes, even with lists, you cannot get engaged in whatever you are supposed to be doing. This can mean you need focus at a different level. If you are unable to do something, maybe need to look at or update the plan. If planning isn't helping, consider your goal. If that doesn't help, should you be doing this at all?

The VSG comes with its share of geeks, myself included, and a couple geeky software ideas were also mentioned. One which works on both the PC and the Mac is Rescue Time at Since it records what is done when on your computer, it makes you aware of the distractions you yield to.

When all is said and done (or not), sometimes we just need a gentle nudge to get back into focus. Other times, you just need to shut up and get back to work.

For information about Getting Things Done, check out the book of the same title by David Allen. More information is available at The GTD Virtual Study Group holds periodic teleconferences which you can join live or hear on Podcasts at Further information is available on Facebook, Google Groups, or emailing Tara Robinson via

Jay Elkes

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Truth Is Out There

One thing I've learned recently is that rumors can have anniversaries. Another is that the Internet is not a reliable source of information. The truth is out there, but finding it and verifying it can be tricky. A convenient example showed up in my email yesterday.


The gist of the (incorrect message was:

Planet Mars will be the brightest in the night sky starting August. It will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye. This will cultivate on Aug. 27 when Mars comes within 34.65M miles off earth. Be sure to watch the sky on Aug. 27 12:30 am. It will look like the earth has 2 moons.

This story dates back to the year 2003 when Mars did make a close approach to Earth. No, it never looked as big as described here, and no, it never will unless you become the first person to go to Mars. Nonetheless, the story spread via email and each August it shows up again. I'm thinking of holding a Mars Hoax party to celebrate the anniversary.


What I do find dismaying is that people pass this kind of story on with no verification. There are many ways to check things out. Here are a couple you may find useful.


First, there are websites you can check for hoaxes on.


Second, you can dig out actual data through WolframAlpha, which may be the Internet's best calculation website:


Mars in 2003


vs 2010


You will see the distance to Earth near the top and a drawing of relative positions if you scroll down. Comparing the two will show you that Mars was close in 2003. This year, Mars is on the far side of the Sun and nearly impossible to see.


My thought for the day: Before you put a CC Everybody onto an email, ask yourself if what you are sending out can be checked.


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Skills of Life: Capturing the Stray Thought

At one time or another, we all need to capture a phone number, write down an address, or remember to buy cat food. Frequently, the note is lost or buried where it cannot be found. Stray ideas may have almost nothing to do with anything else. They belong in a capture mechanism which ensures they will get to the next step. Here are some basic strategies for keeping these notes where they belong so you have them available as needed.


Perhaps the easiest approach is a pad of paper with edges that can be torn off cleanly. A separate section in a loose leaf notebook or planner works equally well. The rules of engagement are as follows:

·         A piece of paper collects only one piece of information. For example, during a  phone call, you are given the name and number of someone else you need to call. Don't write it at the bottom of a page of notes, use a new piece of paper. Capture the name of the person you are calling and the phone number. You might also want to capture who suggested the call, why it is useful, and the date the note was made. Another call or another lead goes on another piece of paper.

·         Never use the back side of this paper.

Your goal is to do something with that sheet of paper at the first opportunity. You might make the call, in which case the paper can be discarded without losing anything else. If you decide to make the call later, the paper can go into a tickler file or a calls folder, again without creating a problem elsewhere. Finally, you might want to copy the information onto a calendar or a contacts list for later use. If the paper has anything else on it, you are forced to handle it more than once.


Plan B is to reserve a section of your notebook or planner for input, capturing multiple items on a page. In a situation where many things may show up in a short amount of time, you aren't constantly looking for more paper. Also, the list may give you a better sense of how close you are to being caught up. The down side is that you will have to transcribe each item into its own calendar entry or list unless you can take action  on each item in turn. Effort saved at the front end comes at the cost of more handling later on.


Electronic organizers can emulate either of these approaches. I prefer to put each thought or potential task as an item of its own and leave its category unspecified. Later, I can update it or change its category to include in an appropriate list, for example call, visit, or email.


Decide now how you will capture the stray thought that may show up and how you will integrate it into your life. In the end, a thought is not captured until you store it where it will be available when needed. Success is measured by the potentially conflicting goals of easy to capture, easy to find, and easy to handle when needed.



Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Extreme Common Sense and Consumer Credit

Are you buying on credit because you don’t have the money with you, or because you don’t have the money yet? If the first, consider taking the time to get the cash before you by something nonessential – it will give you time to think instead of react on impulse. If the second, your financial future may be at risk. Credit cards can be an amazing convenience or a horrible trap. It depends on how you use them.

Imagine yourself as the owner of an upscale coffee shop watching your customers. One by one, they come in, order coffee, and pay for it with credit cards. It is the same transaction, over and over, and your business depends on exactly that. On the other side of the counter, each customer comes with a unique story. Let’s guess at a few.

You see Jane once a month. She comes in once a month, buys her drink, then sits at a table to pay her bills while drinking it. Jane doesn’t have the money with her, but she has the money in the bank. The debt will be paid when it is due. She is still buying something she doesn’t strictly need, but her credit is under control.

Bill is one of your regulars. He stops by every morning for coffee and a pastry on his way into the office. Bill pays his card when due, so his credit is under control too. From a financial point of view, his $5 per day would better serve him as $200 a month going into an investment program – he could fully fund an IRA with it. Using cash to make discretionary purchases might make him think twice.

Then there’s Sam – thank God for Sam. He’ll be back later for lunch, and he’ll use plastic then too. Sam doesn’t have the money yet, but payday is next week. He expects to have the money to pay off the card by the time it’s due, and he will if things go according to plan. Sam sits down at his table and plays with his new IPad – the one he expects to pay off in a few months. If he does, all he’s done is add cost to his purchases. If not, life is about to get expensive.

So what are the lessons here?

·         Treat luxuries as luxuries, not as entitlements. Credit can be a useful convenience, a bad habit, or a dangerous addiction. Ask yourself if five years from now you’ll wish you’d made the purchase or not.

·         If you’re buying something you don’t need, wait until you have the money to pay for it. You can reinforce this if you stop by the bank and get cash to pay for that high ticket item. The extra inconvenience and seeing the money being spent may slow you down. If not, enjoy your purchase – you’ve earned it.

·         Even if you choose to use a credit card, wait to buy until you have the money to pay the debt off immediately. Credit is a convenience only when you aren’t paying for it.

·         If you use credit to tide you over, pay it back aggressively. You can count on the tide going out again soon – your creditors do.


Monday, March 15, 2010

Buyer Be Thorough

Caveat emptor (buyer beware) is ancient advice and certainly qualifies as common sense. Since today's purchases can be complex contracts with multile decision points, there can be many places where you need to pay attention. For somplicity sake, let's consider four distinct groups.

The Purchase

This is where every transaction starts, and the advice for it is old, tested and trustworthy.
  • Know what you really want ahd ask for it.
  • Know what you are willing to pay before you negotiate.
  • Be ready to say no and walk away.
There is nothing new here. Just keep your coat on and your credit card in your pocket.

The Upsell

The hamburger principle: condiments (ketchp, mustard, pickles, onions) are free.

The pizza principle: each topping is extra, certain combiations offered as packages.

The more expensive a product is, the more likely upsells will be attempted, cars, boats, homes and electronics are filled with upsells. There is nothing wrong with an upsell -- it may be what you want. My pizza is topping-heavy because that's what I want. Look at each item and eah package as a seperate transaction. Know what you want, know what you are willing to pay. Hold the anchovies and ask if the onions are a condiment or a topping.

The Extended Warranty

In  Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive: Outsell, Outmanage, Outmotivate, and Outnegotiate Your Competition (Collins Business Essentials) Harvey Mackay says "if you can afford to buy your way out of a problem, you don't have a problem." An extended warranty is not an upsell because you get no new features. They ar a form of insurance -- pay now to manage a problem you may or may not have later.

Unless your lifestyle or intended use is hazardous to the product, my rule of thumb is nver buy an extended warranty for a product you can afford to replace. Keep the warranty money in a safe place and use it to replace the rare item that fails with something new. Insure yourself, save money, and get a new product if somethng does fail instead of the older model which has already shown it can fail. On the other hand, if the extended warranty is free, take it.

The Money Back Guarantee

We all take card for test drives. It only makes sense. If a product offers a money back guarantee, trat the guaruntee as a distinct item. Note the terms and conditions of the guaruntee and evaluate the product as the guaruntee period comes to a close. If you aren't satisfied, ask for your money back.


Shopping can be a fine hobby, but buying should always be a business. If you are buying a contract insead of a product, tehre is much more to think about than just the bottom line.


The Aladdin Factor  Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive: Outsell, Outmanage, Outmotivate, and Outnegotiate Your Competition (Collins Business Essentials)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Rocks in the River

Here's the truth about white water rafting:

  • The rocks are already in the river
  • The water will barely notice your raft.
That said, there are things you can control (or at least influence):
  •  You get to choose the river and when you take the trip.
  •  You get to choose what you do to get ready.
  •  You can invite others, but they can say yes or no.
  •  You get some choice over the raft and the guide.
Life is a lot like that:
  • The rocks are already in the river. Problems will show up, and most of them will be at least partly visible in advance.
  • The water will barely notice your raft. Most of what you do is not going to be noticed by the rest of the world.
  • You get to choose the river and when you take the trip. When you make a choice, you enter a river. Big choice, big river.
  • You get to choose what you do to get ready. There is no substitute for preparation and planning.
  • You can invite others, but they can say yes or no.
  • You get some choice over the raft and the guide. Look for a good mentor before you launch the boat.
Either way, the point is to enjoy the ride.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Automate Your Savings, Not Your Finances

I am a big fan of "pay yourself first," a concept shared in many books from The Richest Man in Babylon to THe Automatic Millionaire. It took me a moment when someone suggested unautomating finances to realize he was making a valid point -- a point I want to share with you today. Saving should be automatic, Investing should become automatic, and spending should be entirely manual. Let's examine all three points.

Saving should be automatic. This is the heart of paying yourself first. If you can divert 10% of your income into a savings plan, the consequences over a lifetime are spectacular. The keys are to start as early as possible and to be as aggressive as possible in your savings program. I first did this by continuing to live at my current level after I was given a raise. The raise itself went into a tax-sheltered savings program which turned out to be a lifesaver a couple decades later.

Investing should become automatic. Have you ever noticed that when apolitician talks about investing in the future, he's talking about spending money we don't have to implement something later generations may benefit from but will certainly pay for? On a personal level, investments are a long term strategic decision. THey need careful consideration, periodic review, and -- if you can get it -- expert advice. You want your automatically generated savings to fund your investments, but don't put everything in automatic until you've applied due diligence.

Spending should be entirely manual. I had always known this advice, but hadn't really said it that way before I heard about unautomating finances. While I believe in a life of convenience and comfort, putting some pebblres in the way of automated spending is probably a good thing. Here are a few things to watch for:
  • Habitual spending -- David Bach tgalks about the Latte Factor, money you spend routinely without thinking about it. If you take the time to think, you'll be a lot less likely to make coffee a ritual.
  • Subscriptions -- pay attention to how often you read magazines or take advantage of things you buy through a "xxx of the month" club. If more than half go unused or aren't really appreciated, shutting the automated cash flow of the subscription off or down may make sense. If you pay for hundreds of TV channels, does the cable company have a cheaper package you can live with?
  • Watch your credit spending. Credit scards make spending easy, they don't make paying for it easy. Using credit you will pay in full before interest accrues is okay, but even then when your fingers reach for plastic ask your self if thius expense is necessary.
  • Unshop aggressively. Don't be afraid to return something.
Finally, paying a credit card is not spending. If you cannot pay completely when the bill comes due, keep the card in your pocket until you can. When you don't pay off the card, you are buying a lending service. You are spending more by not paying than you are by paying. Credit should be something you have but rarely use.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Dealing With Big Changes

We live in an uncertain world where we are forced to make decisions with less than perfect information. Even if the information we got was good when we got it, the situation may have changed. If it hasn't, it almost certainly will. With lives, fortunes and families at stake, decisions can be stressful. Several years ago, I came up with a rule of thumb to help me. I hope it helps you.

The rule is this: don't make big changes for small reasons. When the consequence of a change is big, your reason for doing it should be big too. 

I like this rule because it encourages me to consider consequences directly. Is a decision likely to matter in a year, or two, or ten? If so, it qualifies as a big decision. If not, I may be fretting over something unimportant. Some decisions are clearly big ones, others clearly small. The rest may or may not, but a little thought will probably allow you to decide.If not, it is probably a big decision.

Next I consider motivation. What is my reason for making the change? Am I achieving a life's goal (big)? Am I reacting to something I don't like but might be able to change (small)? Great things can happen with enough motivation, but each of us scores motivation differently. 

Let's consider a deliberately unclear example. Imagine that you are offered a new job at a different employer for a modest but not great pay increase. Do you accept the offer? Different people will answer this question differently precisely because they measure consequences and reasons differently.

Depending on your situation, a job change can be anything from a modest change to a huge one. To answer this, look a few years out and consider who else is affected. Trust yourself and get the best information you can. Changing the kind of work you do or moving to a new home will tip the scales toward big. 

Now consider your reason for changing. How much money is involved? What are the prospects at the old and new job? Are the people at the old or new job a factor? Is the reason big enough to justify the change? 

This rule is rarely going to cause you to decide against a potential change. More often, you will see that the consequences aren't as daunting as you thought (not so big) or that your reasons are big enough to justify the action. Either way will lower your stress and make you feel better about your decision. 

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Staying Half a Step Ahead

If you are half a step ahead of a situation, your stress level is minimal. If you are half a step behind, the stress is nearly continuous. It is only one step, but it makes all the difference for your stress, your health, and your life. Consider the following example.

If you have an appointment to go to at an address you've never visited, when do you research the directions you need. I've seen too many people trying to do a quick internet map search when they should be on the road. If everything goes perfectly, they will arrive just on time. If not, they are setting themselves up to be half a step behind.

To get half a step ahead, consider doing your research anead of time. You could research the day before and put directions in your calendar so you can have it available when you need it.

This is just basic planning and applies more broadly than directions. What meetings or appointments do you have in the next few days? What information or materials will you need for each. Can you get that information or those materials ready ahead of time?

The key is to understand that preparation for an event is part of planning for the event. Make a habit of identiofying what needs to be done in advance, then do it in advance. Take the steps you need to take, but take them just a little sooner. You'll thank yourself later.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Book Review: The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

Professionals spend years developing expertise. We expect it as one of at least three characteristics that define a profession.
  • Selflessness -- put the needs of the person you serve above yourself
  • Skill -- expertise in a body of knowledge
  • Trustworthyness -- following a code of ethical conduct
Unlike most professions, airline pilots have a fourth; discipline -- developing and applying a consistent set of behaviors when things go wrong. As a surgeon, Atul Gawande led a team to develop a surgical checklist for the World Health Organization as a means of improving outcomes in hospitals around the world. This book is both the story behind that project and a collection of stories showihng the value of checklists in any complex profession.

Checklists are useful in two kinds of situations. The most common is in routine circumstances to make sure everything that should happen does hapen. They are also useful in high risk situations for a team to consider the problems which might arise and outline a contingency plan.

Although the book offers guideliens for deveoping checklists (simple, clear, focused on vital items only, etc.) it does so in the context of stories which illustrate their value. The book males a strong case for the use of checklists. I would have liked to see something more explicit in implementation guidelines.

The author strongly makes the case that checklists can save time, money, and lives. Even so, professionals resist using them. High priced, high tech solutions with similar success get aggressively marketed and enthusiastically implemented. It seems to me that developing and implementing checklists is appropriate technology which makes extreme common sense everywhere.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Power of Feedback

"You can't possibly win," Mike said as we competed against each other. In the next sentence, he told me why, and I knew he was right. I changed my tactics instantly, and suddenly Mike was on the defensive trying to remember what he had said.

More often than not, it pays to listen. Mike had given me a critique -- a commentary on my performance which offered neither criticism nor ideas for improvement. In this case, I didn't need advice on what to do instead. All I needed was to understand the folly of my original tactics. In some respects, the commentary we get fits into a rough scale.
·         Criticism -- a comment with no attempt to be helpful. Sometimes the intent is to hurt.
·         Constructive criticism -- offering something the speaker thinks may help.
·         Critique -- a performance appraisal
·         Feedback -- offering specific data about something so actions can be adjusted.

Toastmasters ( use the term evaluation and try to give useful feedback. We see the results of nonverbal feedback every day. Feedback tells me how hard I should strike each key as I type. Feedback allows me to control a car and keep it on the road. Feedback is a necessary part of every functioning system.

Your life, and the lives of those around you, will be better off if you can avoid criticism in its negative sense, and offer and accept feedback in the positive sense. It is a skill we can develop like any other. Here's a quick plan for developing the ability to give and receive feedback.

Ask others to give you feedback. Open yourself up to the possibility of criticism. If you are lucky enough to get helpful feedback, great. If not, accept the data and let the criticism roll past you. As people see you benefit from their remarks, they will get more supportive with them and may ask for your thoughts.

Offer to provide feedback. Ask someone if they would like some feedback and provide it only when asked. Try to sense how much feedback they can handle. Often, a single point to grow on is most helpful. Occasionally, offering a complete list will be useful if there is time and need to get into detail. Beihg thorough cna be appropriate -- being viscious or petty never is.

Expand your circle of trust. Invite people to provide you feedback without requiring them to accept it from you. Look for more people and more situations where you can build the trust needed for an honest exchange of opinions.

Evaluate the feedback quakuty you get. Good intentions don't guarantee good ideas. Acccept the comments you've requested graciously, but decide for yourself what helps and what doesn't. If you find yourself disagreeing, look for a difference in perspective. Assume the other guy knows something you don't and try to find out what it is. If you can't, thank him and move on.

Evaluate the feedback quantity you get. If you get the same feedback from more than one person, it's probably time to pay attention. If one person calls yiou a horse -- laugh. If two people call you a horse -- suspect a consipiracy. If ten people call you a horse -- buy a saddle.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Extreme Common Sense

.Would your life be better if you abandoned self-defeating habits and replaced them with others designed to reinforce your success? Obviously, it would. In later postings, we will explore ideas in detail. For now, let's take a survey of the half dozen ideas that are central to my concept of extreme common sense. 

Pay yourself first. Abandon the habit of automatic spending. Replace it with an automatic savings program.

Money cannot solve everything, but the lack of it creates new problems. In The Richest Man in Babylon, George Clason offers basic and time-tested advice in the form of a story. The fundamental idea of saving "a part of your earnings is captured in the quote "A part of what you earn is yours to keep." 

A more comprehensive and more current representation of the same message in David Bach's Finish Rich books including The Automatic Millionaire. Bach recommends automatic withdrawal from your wages as the key to his plan, financed by controlling habitual expenditures. If you can replace a habit of automatic spending with automatic savings, your financial outlook can improve dramatically.

Write down everything. David Allen says your mind is a great place to have an idea, but a terrible place to store it. Relieve your stress by capturing ideas and actions instead of depending on your memory. 

Allen has written two books as alternate views of a system that takes you from capturing an idea to implementation. The first, Getting Things Done, defines a five step process for managing your actions and using them to support projects and goals. The second, Making it All Work, offers a different perspective and newer examples. Either book goes far beyond simply capturing ideas, but that's where you need to start.

Decide what you want. Think big, be specific, and yes, put that in writing too. 

There are many books on this subject offering different points of view but conveying the same meGoalsssage. Anthony Robbins focused on the power of decisions in Awaken the Giant Within. Brian Tracy covered the importance of goals in Goals! How to Get Verything You Want--Faster Than You Ever Thought Possible. Rhonda Byrne took the perspective of visualization and the law of attraction in The Secret. Check out one or all of these, but in the end you still need to do something. 

Take Massive Action. Think about all the ways your goals can be achieved and pursue as many of them as possible. Share your ideas with people and encourage them to participate. Think leadership, not salesmanship, and you'll be on your way. 

Seek Continuous Improvement. We fikk our lives by doing things, most of them repeatedly. The Japanese offer a philosophy of continuous improvement in those things we do called kaizen. If you aren't fluent in Japanese, check out One Small Step Can Change Your Life by Robert Maurer. It is one small book that will change your life. You understand, I hope, that this habit is pointless unless you've decided what you want and are taking action.

Accept 100% Responsibility. Jack Canfield thinks this is so important he made it the first chapter of The Success Principles. Successful people say "I must do something"; unsuccessful people say "something must be done." I saved this for last because it reinforces all the other habits.

  • Be 100% responsible for paying yourself first. Your employer has already done his part -- more if he offers a financial match in a savings program. 
  • Capture your ideas and actions into a consistent framework. Another quote from David Allen "there's no point in having the same idea twice unless you like having the idea." Asking a good thought to show up twice is a bad iea. 
  • Only you can decide what you want. People can help, but you need to point the way.
  • Nothing says responsibility as loudly as taking action.
  • You are responsible for the quality and speed of your work. Take responsibility and seek to be smarter about how you do things. 
None of these books will help unless you're prepared to follow through on their teachings. Developing improved habits is work, but I hope you can see the extreme common sense in how these ideas relate to each other. Don't thry to adopt all these ideas at once -- pick the one that seems like it might have the biggest payoff for you and start there. Email me at to let me know which one that is.


Thursday, January 7, 2010

Don't Assume Against Yourself

After writing my blog article What Are You Assuming? (see ) I found myself thinking more about assumptions people make. I ended that article with the advice to make assumptions your tool, not your prison. This time, let's look at one way people imprison themselves with assumptions.

If you hear yourself saying "he won't ..." or "they don't..." you are making an assumption against yourself. The best case is you catch yourself thinking this way and the thought is one more obstacle toward your goal. Anything else reduces the chance of getting what you want to zero because you stop yourself from asking. You may be saving the other guy time by doing so. More likely, you are denying him an opportunity as well as yourself.

Rather than assume against yourself, take some action to find out if what you want is possible. If you cannot take that action immediately, add it to your actions list. Be specific. WIll you research it on the Internet? Make a phone call? Ask someone at the next opportunity? Put it in writing. Forgetting to take action is as effective a block as assuming against yourself.

Asking someone for something is a skill. One book I like on this subject is The Aladdin Factor by Jackk Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen. They would tell you to ask as though what you want is reasonable and with the expectation of getting what you want. The book offers much more help on developing this skill.

Don't assume against yourself. Be confident in asking for what you want. If you aren't, who will be?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Raise Your Personal Standards

Successful businesses, and for that matter successful people, succeed because they set high standards for themselves. The standards at a five star restaurant aren't higher than a McDonalds, they are just directed toward different goals. As individuals, we should pay attention to our standards and work to raise them. If your standards are set to accept an average life, average is the best you can hope for.

In broad terms, standards exist to simplify interfaces, eliminate the need to rethink a problem, or to improve quality. The challenge is to make a standard useful, efficient, and effective. A standard is like a goal since it gives you something to achieve, and unlike one since you should achieve a standard continuously and / or consistently.

One area where society has effectively adopted many standards is electrical engineering. Everything from wall outlets to light sockets operates within well defined standards and tolerances. Electrical standards are examples of defined interfaces. If you plan to sell a gadget in the United States, you use an electrical standard that works in virtually every wall socket in the country. On a personal scale, a handshake is a widely accepted standard for greeting other people -- an interface between you and the person yhou are meeting.

Businesses operating in chains develop standards for the franchise. Allowing for tolerances, a Big Mac and small fries in Boston is difficult to tell from one in San Francisco. Buildings, products, procedures and policies are all standardized so decisions don't get remade and results are predictable.

If you walk into a WalMart, off to one side you'll see a bay of shopping carts. On the far side of the bay, you'll see that the wall is actually a garage door. As shopping carts are collected, they can be pushed through the open garage door so you can pull one out. Employees need to collect the carts, but this one standard minimizes that job. The long term benefit of reduced work overwhelms the cost of building the door. Including it as a standard part of building design also saves on time and effort.

Okay, it is unlikely that you will need to manage hundreds of shopping carts or anything else similar to a large retail outlet. Even so, here are some you might consider as you develop some personal standards.
  • I behave ethically and honestly in my dealings with others.
  • I seek win-win agreements when I negotiate.
  • When I make an appointment, I keep it and am on time for it.
  • I maintain a weight of ...
  • I keep my desk clean and orderly (one I need to work on).
Put another way, a standard is a measure of what you are willing to tolerate. You raise standards by being less tolerant of the chaos around you and more tolerant of the people around you. If you raise your standards, your life will improve. If you don't know what your standards are, it may be time to define them.







Sunday, January 3, 2010

What Are You Assuming?

Several years ago, I was a member of a project team assigned to develop a tool for a custom computer system. At one point, the problem we were researching seemed unsolvable. Any progress we made in one direction created an obstacle in another. Nearly desperate, we decided to see if we could simplify our assumptions.

The assumption we made reframed the problem so well the solution became nearly trivial. Once we verified that the process could be reversed, weeks or months of effort simply disappeared from the project plan.

Assumptions are both useful and dangerous because they change your point of view. The biggest problem most people have in this area is that they make assumptions without realizing it. If you recognize that you are making an assumption, many options become available. Here's one technique for dealing with assumptions once you know you are making them.

Identify the assumptions you are making. Formal problem solving would have you put them in writing. For example, the entire discipline of plane geometry is built on an explicitly defined set of axioms. Entirely new branches of mathematics have been created by changing one of these axioms.

Consider how the situation would be different if the assumption were changed or eliminated. Can you make an assumption that is less limiting, or more limiting? Is it necessary to know if the assumption is valid before you take action?

Seeif there is some way to test the assumption. Engineers sometimes devise smoke tests (simple experiments) to verify assumptions. One famous case where this was not done was the mirror to the Hubble pPace Telescope. NASA concluded that a full test conducted in Earth's gravity would be extremely expensive since the mirror would be used in the zero gravity of Earth orbit. It turned out that the mirror was far enough off that a student with hand tools would have seen the problem.

Consider the cost / benefit if you change your assumption. Our software project became feasible when we changed ur assumption to simplify the problem we were dealing with. THe original assumptions may have allowed more options. More likely, the project would have failed to produce any result.

Assumptions allow us to make decisions quickly because they allow a point of view which focuses on relevant issues. If an assumption gets you focusing on the problem rather than the solution, it may be time to apply the above technique or something like it. Make assumptions your tools, not your prison.