Monday, December 12, 2011

7 Billion and Counting

With the world population now at 7 billion, what can we do to have a greener, more sustainable life style? When I heard this question recently*, I  wanted to share my thoughts on it. After all, what could be more sensible than protecting the only planet we have? My thought was the environmental slogan "reduce, reuse, recycle," but on reflection we can and should do more.


This thought can be expressed with another slogan "do more with less." Although usually used to justify budget cuts, the thought can guide us here. If we reduce our usage of something, say  a plastic water bottle, we don't need to figure out what to do with it later. Some water distributors have redesigned their bottles to have less plastic in them. As consumers, we can and should reward efforts like this.

We can do our part more directly. By planning our day to be more effective, we can reduce personal consumption without impacting life style.


We might not want to refill bottled water, but aluminum thermos bottles offer a highly reuseable way to approach this problem. If you don't want to refill the plastic bottle, can you find another use for the bottle itself?


Plastic water bottles are the poster child for recycling. We can and should take the effort to see that they get directed into recycling systems.


The point of buying bottled water in the first place is reliable, portable clean water. If we work to make tap water cleaner, we might be willing to reuse or even abandon the bottles. In the meantime, Brita is selling bottles with their filter built in, rethinking the concept of reuse. Reduce, reuse,and recycle can mitigate a problem but only rethinking can really solve one,


A more sustainable life style improves the quality of life for everyone. Everyone can and should help. If you think you can afford to just toss that bottle away, you don't understand the rest cost.

A poster child puts a face on a problem, allowing us to connect with the problem in a way that would be otherwise unavailable. We can't foresee the consequences of many of our actions, but we should be guided by probable consequences we can see. 

Make a list of things you can and will do right now to to make the world a better, more sustainable place. This should be an action list, not a wish list.    With 7 billion of us and counting, this should create many ideas and a lot of results.

* I heard this question, and some answers, at a Toastmasters Table Topics contest. Contestants are asked  a question and challenged to give a one to two minute answer without preparation. It is a great exercise in extemporaneous speaking. You can learn more about Toastmasters at

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Thinking About The Box

When we work on problems or projects, others often encourage us to think outside the box. Unfortunately, this is one of the most inside-the-box pieces of advice anyone can give. When offered, the usual meaning is to not limit our thinking. In my view, it is often more useful to think about the box, rather than outside it.

What Is "The Box"?

The box is often used as a metaphor, but when applied to our thinking it is very real if not physical. When we start to think about anything, our assumptions and beliefs define the boundaries of what we consider. We don't usually think about them as much as within them. By staying within them, we define a box for ourselves.

Real world constraints can also be a wall of this box, but more often our beliefs are more limiting than the constraint. A baby elephant that learns it cannot pull free from a tied rope won't even attempt to pull free when it grows to an adult strong enough to do so. The rope is a constraint to a baby elephant, but the adult it becomes is limited by old beliefs based on facts no longer true
Why We Want To Think Outside The Box

The vast majority of problems can be solved with tools immediately at hand. The tools are there because they have solved problems in the past. If a problem seems difficult, one approach to a solution is to look for a tool you don't know about.

For example, try to calculate the sum of all integers from 1 to 2000 (1+2+3...+2000=). This can be solved by grade school addition over a period of several minutes if you're careful enough not to make even one error over the many additions required, or it can be solved in a moment in your head with a change in perspective. 1+2000=2001, 2+1999=2001 ... 1000+1001=2001. That means there are 1000 pairs of numbers, each totaling 2001, so 1000*2001=2,001,000. Pair wise addition and multiplication provide tools to greatly simplify the problem.

For some problems, nobody has a tool to offer a solution. In those cases, looking for solutions outside the box can be either useful or necessary. Even in those cases, however, it is often more useful to think about the box rather than outside it.

Newton's Box

If you look casually, Newton's three Laws of Motion seem like a perfect example of thinking outside the box. Instead of limiting his thinking to things he could touch, Newton pushed out from the box to imagine planets in orbit to offer universal laws which hold even today. If anyone was capable of out of the box thinking, it was Newton. While he may have been capable of it, that wasn't what he chose to do.

Newton invented and validated calculus, a whole new branch of mathematics to calculate objects in motion. By doing so, he created a new tool built on the set of tools his peers commonly accepted. This allowed him to see the space outside the existing box by using the box itself as a frame of reference. The result was a bigger box with a better set of tools.

Thinking About The Box

Since the box was made up of assumptions and beliefs, Newton was able to solve a previously unsolvable problem by testing each and seeing if another could take its place. If we cannot solve a problem by thinking within our assumptions and beliefs, the time has come to think about them.

One approach which can work is to present your problem and your thinking to a colleague. Ask the colleague to question anything that isn't either proved or nearly so. You shouldn't have to prove that 2+2=4, but you may want to note it as an assumption. I shared a problem once, meticulously defending each step of my thinking until I stopped in mid sentence, staring at the answer. She didn't see it, but I did.

Another strategy is to explicitly write down every assumption and belief that may touch on the problem you are addressing. Then you walk through them one at a time until something gives. This approach is almost guaranteed to be labor intensive. It is not guaranteed to produce a result.

Eureka Moments

Every once in a while, ideas pop into existence as if from nowhere. These eureka moments typically occur when one thing connects with another, but even then they aren't useful until they can be connected back to known ideas, methods, and tools.

In the early 1600s, Johannes Kepler noticed a similarity between properties of geometric solids and the number and relative distances of planets in the heavens. He was elated that this showed geometry underlying the Solar System. Given this relationship and his inspiration, he looked meticulously at the data and found nothing. His eureka moment died because he could not connect his out of the box idea back to the box.

The idea that continents drift was first suggested in 1596 by Abraham Ortelius, but it wasn't until plate tectonics offered an explanation in the 1960's that the idea was commonly accepted.


Eureka moments -- out of the box thinking with no connection to the box itself -- do happen, but they only become significant when they can be grounded by recognizing their connection to the existing body of knowledge represented by the box itself. Therefore, it is frequently more useful to think about the beliefs and assumptions which act as the boundaries of our thinking to see if the box can be made bigger.

In his book Getting Things Done, The Art of Stress Free Productivity, David Allen develops a five step model for project planning he calls the Natural Planning Model. Step one includes identifying beliefs, assumptions and constraints so you can think within them. I talk about this on a radio broadcast you can listen to on YouTube. Find it here

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

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Monday, April 18, 2011


In his book Good To Great, Jim Collins covers the value of a "stop doing" list. His focus is on enduring organizational success, but the concept applies equally well for individuals. Our goal should be to decide yes or no, then either "just do it" as Nike recommends or "just say no". Real life is rarely that simple. Here are some of my key don't do items.
Don't assume against yourself. When you assume that something can't be done, it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. I put this at the top of the list because it stops everything else. Henry Ford expressed it this way: Whether you think that you can, or that you can't, you are usually right.

Don't make big changes for small reasons. It is sometimes difficult to know whether a decision is big or small, but some decisions are obviously big. When your decision is big, the payoff should reflect it. Using liposuction to lose five pounds would be making a big change for a small reason. Using it to lose 105 pounds would still be a big change, but the reason behind it is big enough to consider.

Don't bet against the house if your goal is to win the bet. If the occasional lottery ticket is your idea of fun, go ahead. If it is your retirement plan, think again. Lottery tickets, roulette wheels, and other similar games assure the operator a profit. The more you play, the more you lose.

Don't over promise and under deliver. In Star Trek, Scotty consistently under promised and over delivered. In Star Trek Next Generation, Geordi LaForge delivered exactly what he promised, no more or less. Presumably, those who over promised and under delivered never got into, much less out of Star Fleet Academy. We can have an honest debate on whether under promising and over delivering erodes the trust of our colleagues. Over promising and under delivering is a formula for failure.

Don't spend what you don't have -- or what you do. There are cases where strategic borrowing makes sense, but they are rare enough that the act of borrowing should cause you to recheck your math. A store may sell you a TV for two years interest free, but make sure they don"t bundle in a loan insurance, an extended warranty, or some other gimmick to make money on something other than interest. Better yet, wait until you have money. Even then, shop intelligently. Warren Buffet owes a lot of his success to not buying things he could afford but didn't need.

Success is achieved by what you do, but your chance of doing the right things can be improved by identifying

Saturday, April 2, 2011

What Got You Here Won't Get You There

What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More SuccessfulWhat Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful by Marshall Goldsmith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As an executive coach, Marshall Goldsmith is known for helping successful people become even more successful, and this book provides an overview of his methods for those of us who are unwilling or unable to hire him directly.
The thesis of the book is that for successful people, social flaws which create problems for colleagues are the limiting factor of success. THe book draws on his decades of 360 degree feedback reports -- his tool of choice -- on his clients. From these feedback reports, Goldsmith and his client identify one characteristic to fix, recognizing that an improvement there will positively affect other areas as well. They further enlist those colleagues in an improvement process that can take 12 to 18 months.

The analysis leads to the identification of one of the twenty character traits Goldsmith has identified as something he can help with. The process begins with an apology acknowledging the problem and the hope of cooperatiuon from the person apologized to. From there, the stage for self improvement is set.

The heart of the book is twenty specific complaings. Goldsmith acknowledges that any one person will have very few of these traits. Each trait is listed and described in the text. He offers a simple regimen for improvement.

The book is valuable as a catalog of inerpersonal character flaws we can all work on and the starting point for improvement.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Whisper from the Past

It sounds like a plot from a movie: a message with critical information arrives mysteriously at the critical moment, changing your plans, your actions, and your destiny. No, this isn'tyour future self breaking laws of physics to share a stock tip. It isn't Obi Wan Kenobi advising you to use the force. It's more like Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns, leaving herself a voice mail about a critical item she'd forgotten.

The obvious place to put date sensitive reminders is the calendar. It can be great for appointments, date sensitive reminders, or even things you might want to do. Paper calendars come with limited storage capacity and electronic ones may have a lot of competition for your attention. Here are a few other ways people have built to preserve and deliver those whispers from the past.

The Tickler File

Create a set of 43 folders -- twelve with Month names and 31 with numbers 1 to 31 for days of the month. For items less than a month ahead, put a note in the folder with the corresponding date. For items up to a year in the future, drop the item in the month you want to see it and put it in the corresponding day at the start of the month. You get free delivery of actual paper as far as one year ahead. Just remember to check the folders daily.

Scheduled Email Delivery
You can send an email into the future, either with or without attachments. The Internet offers a number of reasonable choices, including the following:
  • is a good reminder to yourself with no account needed. The message gets returned to you at the date and time specified.
  • and require accounts but offer more flexibility, including delayed email to others complete with attachments. Because they have accounts, you can review your scheduled notes and adjust them.
If these services go out of business, or the account you are mailing to gets closed, or there is an Internet problem when the mail is scheduled, delays or failed delivery are possible. You probably don't want to do this with anything really sensitive. Even if the message can be stored securely, risk probably outweighs reward.

Use Tasks Instead of Calendar

Outlook allows you to created tasks with specific dates instead of (or in addition to) the calendar. Other task managers have similar features. You have far better control over your data than storing an email in the Cloud.
 Keep a separate checklist of tasks you do every day or nearly so. Mine includes daily medication, feeding the pets, daily exercise, and other things I should do daily. This avoids recurring tasks filling up my calendar or action lists.

  • Use a tickler file to send physical paper, tickets, bill reminders, etc. to yourself up to a full year ahead.
  • Use time delayed email to send yourself or others in the future.
  • Put time markers on action items to clear thye clutter from your electronic calendar.
  • Beware of masked women in skin tight vinyl and their evil, rich bosses.
  • If you hear a whisper telling you to use the force, think April Fools joke before grabbing your light sabre.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Book Review: The Go-Giver by Bob Burg and John David Mann

Some books offer powerful ideas wrapped in the context of a simple story. The Richest Man in Babylon offers financial basics. The Goal teaches the theory of constraints. Now The Go-Giver  teaches what it calls the five laws of Stratospheric Success.

Subtitled "a little story about a powerful business idea" the book offers five related ieas, each given its turn as the story progresses over a week. In the story, the maiun character (Joe) is exposed to each idea in turn from a series of mentors. The story is not compelling: the ideas it illuminates are.  The ideas are summarized here.

It's worth mentioning that though the subtitle talks about a business idea, the idea itself applies just as well to interpersonal connections outside business. This is good because my measure of success isn't limited to work alone.

The message of giving and receiving bears a famuily resemblance to any example which tells you to sow the seeds first and reap the rewards later. Another part encourages you to give value to as many people as possible ala Harv Eker's Secrets of the Millionaire Mind. Burg's own message from other books, that people buy from those they klnow, trust and like, is also present. The ideas are tied ttogether well and the connected web site provides more information on implementation.

The Go-Giver is written in the form of an epic hero's journey, but happily it's nowhere near that long. The entire book can be read at one sitting.If you prefer, you can take one chapter at a time and act on the lessons as the story suggests. Either way, this book is strongly recommended for your to-read shelf.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Effective Listening

We all breathe every minute of every day, but that does not make us good at it -- just barely good enough for routine purposes. Athletes learn to breathe effectively for their respective specialties, as do actors and yoga masters. The rest if us do well enough with inhale then exhale.

Listening is another matter. Unless we go into a soundproof isolation booth, sounds reach our ears all the time. That's hearing, not listening. Like breathing, the standard Mark 1 human rarely listens effectively.

Listening is a skill we can all improve without the sweat of a jock, the method of a thespian, or the discipline of a guru. Because it helps us understand and deal with others, it can offer huge payoff in either competitive or cooperative situations. By any measure of success, it is a skill that can make you more successful.

Because it is a skill, not a talent, effective listening can be learned and developed with practice. It is Personal Development 101, and we can all benefit from a refresher course and an opportunity to practice.

For those of you near Columbus Ohio on March 17, 2011, my friend Janna Yeshanova-Stephens is offering a free one hour workshop that evening. Check out for more about Janna, or to learn more about or register for the free workshop.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Where Is It?

Panic erupts. Something you need is missing. It may be important, it is definitely urgent, and it's missing. Keys, glasses, cell phones, and other small, useful items mysteriously disappear when you need them most. Let's look first at ideas to proactively avoid losing things, then at strategies for when they get lost anyway.

Avoiding the Problem

Think about the last thing you lost. Where does it belong? Equipment, supplies and reference material all belong somewhere. That spot, wherever it is, is the easiest place to find whatever you're looking for. Take a moment to put it back where it belongs if you can. If you can't, put it in an inbox.

In his book Getting Things Done, David Allen discussed many reasons for using an inbox. He points out that if you try to avoid an inbox your house, your entire house becomes an inbox. If that describes your house and your life, no wonder stuff gets lost. Create an inbox, or at least an in area, and put stuff there if you can't put it away properly.

To avoid locking yourself out of your house or car, make a habit of having keys in your hand when closing the door. Lock the door with the key, or with the remote. Don't lock the door and push it closed unless the key us in your hand.

This Jedi Mind Trick can help you remember where you put something as you put it down. People learn things through visual, auditory or kinesthetic means, each according to his or her gifts. Which ever you prefer, your memory works best when you create links all three ways. Watch yourself put those keys down. Feel them as they leave your hand. Say to yourself "the car keys are on the bathroom counter under the toothbrushes" and be specific as you do it. In the best case, your learning processes have built strong links. In the worst case, you were paying attention at the time.

Okay, But My Keys Are Lost NOW!

You looked where they belong, where you thought they were, and the floor under where you thought they were. Either they weren't in the inbox or the inbox idea is looking better -- for later. For now, some serious searching is in order.

Picture the item in your hand. Where were you and what were you doing the last time you saw it? Who else was there? Retrace your route, looking most carefully at the last place you were and where you had them last. Is there someone you can talk to?

If that hasn't helped, it's time to make a list. Where have they shown up when lost the past? Where could they be? Who might have seen them? Could someone have moved them? Are there other ways you can look, other people you can ask?

In the end, of course, things do get lost That's why we have hide-a-keys, spare pens, and contingency plans. If life isn't about things, and of course it isn't, it really shouldn't be about missing things.


Develop the habit of limiting the places you put things. Pay attention when putting things down. Visualization can help as you put something down or as you realize it's missing. If you have to search, have a search plan, and always have a backup plan.

Location:Columbus,United States

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Empty Email Inbox

In an article for, Gina Trapani describes the Trusted Trio of folders she uses to keep her email inbox empty. Jim McCullen has developed a methodology for using email to manage action lists he calls Control Your Day. My system owes thanks to both and works well in an Outlook environment.

Trapani directs her email into one of three folders: Followup, Hold, or Archive. Followup requires some action that cannot be done quickly and immediately. Hold is for items that have no specific action but may need attention in the next day or two. Everything else goes into Archive.

McCullen uses Outlook rules, categories and search folders to make his system as automated as possible. Messages are dropped into an archive immediately and flagged as an @Inbox category. He sees and acts on them through a corresponding @Inbox (virtual) search folder. Other rules add other categories to messages as they arrive.

I use McCullen's rules to move incoming messages into a real archive folder, tag them with the @Inbox category and see them through the search folder the way he does. I have also created category / search folder pairs for Followup and Hold the way Trapani uses them.

The Process

As email arrives, it is automatically moved to the archive and tagged for the @Inbox virtual inbox. The message may be deleted but it will never be moved from the archive folder. If I need to find it, there is exactly one place to look.

Now the message is in the virtual search folder @Inbox, which will fill quickly unless I take action. Since I have the infrastructure ready, actions are simple to process.

Delete: For the (many) messages that have no value now or ever, the Delete key deletes the message from the archive and takes it off the @Inbox list. It is in the deleted items folder where it will stay until it gets purged, available for recovery but out of my world.

Reference: If I want to keep the message but have no specific plans, a single click on the category box toggles the @Inbox category. It stays in the archive where it can be found later.

Defer: If I want to bring the message back to my attention on a specific date, I can defer it. Outlook allows me to tag the message to show up on a specific date, or I can forward a copy to

Followup / Hold: With the press of a function key, I can tag the message into either Followup or Hold for any later action I want to take. The @Inbox search folder is empty, and further action takes place in Followup.

The most common Followup action is a reply to the originator or a forward to someone else. If I need to take some different action, I can forward the message into my action list. I use Toodledo but there are many choices. I can alsoforward to Evernote, which acts as an electronic notebook. Messages go there when I might need them away from my desk.

Setup for Outlook

1. Create a folder which will serve as your mail archive.
  • Right click Inbox and select New Folder...
  • Give the folder a name. McCullen recommends creating a new folder for each year -- for example 2011 Processed Mail. Trapani calls it Archive.
2. Set up categories you need. This includes @Inbox, Followup, and Hold. It should also include categories for messages if they can be identified by rules.
  • Select Edit -> Categorize -> All Categories...
  • Select New ...
  • Give the category a name. Assign Function keys to Followup, Hold, and any other category you will use frequently.
  • Select Edit -> Categorize -> Set Quick Click...
  • Set Quick Clicj to toggle the @Inbox Category.
3. From Search Folders, right click to create a new search folder for each category.
  • Right click on Search Folder and select New Search Folder...
  • Under Organizing Mail Select Categorized Mail
  • Select Choose... and pick the category corresponding to your category.
  • Click OK then OK to save the new folder.
4. Create a rule to move mail from your Inbox to your archive folder and flag it to the @Inbox category. Have it process any mail currently in your inbox.
  • Select Tools -> Rules and Alerts...
  • Select New Rule...
  • Your rule should look like this:
Apply this rule when message arrives
On this machine only
Assign it to the @Inbox Category
and move it to the 2011 Processed Messages folder
  • Save your work and apply the rule to all messages currently in your inbox.
5. If you have mail in other folders, for example project folders, identify and apply any additional category tags. Then add them to the @Inbox category and drag them into your archive folder.

6. Take each email in @Inbox through the process, identifying necessary Followup, Hold and action items.

7. Go celebrate. Your inbox is empty, your messages are all in one searchable archive, and you can identify appropriate Followup actions. Life is good, or at least a little better.