To a Stronger Second Half

It’s the first week of a January 2017.

I’d like to raise a glass of my homebrew to the new year.

When I crack open the bottle and pour it gently, perfectly into a glass half the size of the bottle, it’ll be brilliantly clear. So clear you can see the other side of the room through the beer. For the vast majority of beer styles, this brilliant clarity is the goal. In homebrew competitions this brilliant clarity is often what moves a beer into the second round of judging. Despite appearance accounting for three of 50 points. Now, if I grab a second glass and poured the remainder of the bottle in it, the second glass is likely going to be cloudy, hazy, and in at least one case – murky. In competitions, it’s this glass the second round judges are evaluating. It’s in this second round evaluation where the judging is more critical, the faults weighed heavier. This is where winners are declared. This is where everything matters more including appearance. Yet, this is where I regularly present the worst half of a beer.

This phenomenon of performing worse when it matters more isn’t unique to my homebrewing or even homebrewing. It’s also the consistent story – as you read in Rebuilding Blocks – of my kubb team’s experience at the US National Kubb Championship. We’d handily win the group play and position ourselves well in for the more competitive bracket play. Unfortunately, it’s here in these more competitive matches where our performance falls apart because we’re fatigued from playing too hard, too intensely in the early rounds. In the heat of the Eau Claire summer sun this past July, I had the epiphany, “kubb is an endurance sport.”

Like I said, this isn’t unique to homebrewing. Or kubb for that matter.

The gym air is filled with freshly declared resolutions. There’s a renewed optimism, a renewed enthusiasm, to achieve a new level of success. At the office, new strategic initiatives – and their respective clusters of projects – are kicking off (I know cause we’ve been working on them since Sept). It’s tempting to go into these new efforts with the throttle fully open. It’s tempting to overload this quarter, this month, this week with every success and performance metric for the year. Often however, it’s these early stages where we have the least information about the actual, specific, detailed challenges to our success, where we have the least structural support for our progress, and we simultaneously have the greatest chance of fatigue and burn out. This temptation, here in this first breath of the new year is in many ways self-sabotage. Perhaps counter-intuitively the best thing we can do is temper our enthusiasm for the new, under-committing, and celebrating the small, early, steady wins.

There’s going to be a second quarter. There’s going to be a second half of the year. Let’s position ourselves to be able to perform then with the same level of enthusiasm we have now. This means, rather than launching 34 brand new projects this week, launching three of the most well-understood, most foundational initiatives across January. Then, with laser focus, making clear, steady, progress on them throughout the quarter. Then kicking off the next three. Repeat.

The only way for me to sustainably put the clear beer on the bottom half of the bottle is to improve my process for pulling more yeast out of suspension prior to bottling. The only way to sustainably make deeper into the U.S. National Kubb Championship bracket is to play well with more ease. This improves the early rounds and the subsequent rounds. The way to sustainably kick this year off is to focus on fewer and more foundational efforts.

Where are You in Your Calendar?

Your email inbox is one thing.

Other than turning the spam filter to 11, having an unguessable address, and or sending everything to dev/null – if you have an email address – it’s going to receive email. Your email inbox is, painfully, for others.
You’re calendar is something completely different.

Nothing goes on your calendar without you explicitly accepting it and – at least implicitly – committing to it.

Yet, if you ask anyone – anywhere on the corporate ladder – if they have a commitment today, this week, or even this month (!) that’s just for them, selfishly, guiltlessly, just for them, for their fulfillment, their response is likely:

“I can do that?”

or, slightly the better

“I’ve tried that. It always gets bumped by someone else’s meeting request.”

The need doesn’t go away. It just manifests itself in sneaky and unhealthy ways. People I’ve spoken with have confessed to blocking off afternoons in fictitious conference rooms (CC 86) with fictitious people (Mr. Nunyobizniz) just so they can get some actual, focused, uninterrupted, work done. They’ve taken a day off, to ensure no one expects them to respond.

They’ve found all to often, the moment there’s an opening in their schedule they’ll receive an absolutely-urgent meeting request. If it’s outright declined – the sender will be at their desk insisting upon acceptance. It says you’re available!

A damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t scenario.

What to do?

First – explicitly schedule that solo work – and protect it. Just as you would your most important meeting. It is an even greater commitment.
I know. That sounds somehow strange and counterintuitive.

It’s as if we’ve been taught meetings with others belong on the calendar but not our commitments. The project status meetings are scheduled but not the work in-between them. It’s as if 9-5 is open season for meetings and the actual work must happen outside of those hours. It’s as if serving others is always more important than completing the work we we’ve been hired for.

This is one of the ancillary benefits of the scheduling (and keeping!) your Bi-Weekly Preview. It preemptively closes these open spaces in the calendar week-after-week-after-week. It asks you to answer the following question for each unscheduled hour:

“What’s the most significant thing I can do at this time with the energy I honestly anticipate having?”

Perhaps;
– prep or recap time for those important meetings with others (a significant step in making meetings more effective).
– the solo work that you’ve mentally pencilled-in, but haven’t actually committed to by scheduling it.
– a visit to your favorite art gallery.
– a leisurely walk down the riverfront and back.
– a game of solo kubb.
– the first step in that project you keep putting off (if it’s considering why you keep putting it off).
– exploring a new tool or technique that could substantially improve your everyday work.
– staring across the Endless Bridge envisioning where you and your team will be this time next year.

You get the idea.

These are just some of the things you have guilt-free permission to schedule into your work day this week. The degree in which others see the details while stalking your Outlook is completely up to you. Feel free to set everything as ‘Private’. ๐Ÿ™‚

Oh, and when you do receive those inevitable requests for your attention during those commitments. Decline them. You have a prior commitment with someone you don’t spend enough time with.

This isn’t just a challenge between 9am and 5pm. We have spouses, children, friends. There are those in our life we love and enjoy spending time with. There are an infinite number of professional events we could attend every night of the week.

It’s easy for the wants, needs, and aspirations of others to crowd out our own. It’s easy to move heaven and hell for their basketball game, their networking event – but not your yoga class or learning a new song on your guitar. It’s easy to decompress in-front of your spouse’s favorite Netflix exclusive rather than studying to increasing your beer judge ranking.

Yet, resentment and burn-out fester when we don’t serve ourselves the way we serve others. When we don’t commit to our own happiness the way we commit to others’.
Every day there is time to put the things most fulfilling to you – selfishly fulfilling to you – on your calendar. Explicitly and obviously scheduled on your calendar. Something to anticipate, something to refuel you, something to pull you through all those meetings with others.

The Bi-Weekly Preview isn’t restricted to the work day. It’s for your entire day. It’s for all of you.

The Before 2020 List

A few years back, when the weather wasn’t conducive for playing kubb outside, I started a mindful meditation practice. It quickly provided me much the same mind calming benefit indoors as kubb does outdoors.

After steadily building a daily practice for about a year, my schedule shifted, my priorities shifted. Today my practice is much less frequent.

In fact, my practice is currently a bi-weekly guided meditation class at my neighborhood gym. Though I can (and have) successfully maintained my practice solo – having an appointment involving other people at a specific time suddenly makes it An Important Meeting.

There’s the added benefit of a yogi focused on keeping it fresh through a new technique or suggestion. I always leave refreshed, more centered, and more proactive.

It’s easy to allow each day to bleed into the next. Easy to commute into work on Monday and commute home on Friday without knowing quite sure what happened in-between. You probably replied to some emails and sat in some meetings.

But what did you accomplish?

It’s not that you or anyone else is disappointed in your work. You’re actually moving things forward quite nicely.

It’s just…

It’s just that it you feel like you’re only reacting, just putting out fires, never moving the big, important work forward. Never quite being able to work on the most exciting projects, or solving the most irritating problems. Always feeling behind – not to mention running late. Or, not quite sure where to best apply your energy.

In working with the most ambitious, creative, and driven professionals, I’ve found they continually struggle with two things;
– blocking off time for planning their work (and keeping that commitment to themselves) and

– ensuring all their most important commitments have an appropriate place on their calendar within the next two weeks.

If there was one key technique, one key habit providing the benefits of the How To Use a Calendar program in concentrated form it would be The Guided Bi-Weekly Preview.

Clients have asked me what they need to get the most out of The Guided Bi-Weekly Preview. Perhaps counter-intuitively, you need two things:

– Some sense of all your current commitments, their milestones and deadlines.

– At least one trusted list. This list isn’t a ‘To Do’ list or even a ‘Someday Maybe’ list- it’s far too exciting, far too inspiring to include ‘vacuum stairs’. It’s an ‘Won’t It Be Amazing When I’ list. This list is for all the things ‘You’re too busy’ for, all those things the resistance is keeping you from.

A ‘Bucket List’?

Um, sure, if you must be pessimistic about it. I prefer “Before 2020” for that begins to answer When?. The 3-5 year time frame is long enough to dream outside of your daily banality, yet short enough to be see the end. Whether or not it’s a Bucket List really depends on where you’re at in 2020 ๐Ÿ™‚

I don’t care if it’s currently empty. I care that it’s where you go when you’ve have an idea for something fitting that description. I care that during your Weekly Preview you ask, “What’s one small step I can take next week?”

For an extremely limited time, just Fri Sep 16th in fact, Iโ€™m offering four 1-on-1 sessions of my Guided Bi-Weekly Preview for just $250.

Estimate 2x the 1st Time

Over the weekend, I replaced a broken bulb in my van’s tail lights.

The van told me which one was broken. A quick YouTube search told me how to fix it, and a quick Google search told me the part number.

Easy.

So, I headed to my neighborhood auto parts store and picked up a 2 pack of bulbs.

I promptly swapped out both bulbs – just to make sure. It took minutes.

Until I discovered that I replaced the wrong side – and had somehow lost the original bulbs.

So, back to the auto parts store for another 2 pack.

Which was a nice reminder to: Always estimate 2x the 1st time.
– always pick up 2x the parts you think you’re going to need. For you’ll either use them on this project, use them on another project, or be able to easily return them. All are fine.
– always estimate 2x the time you think you’ll need. For you then you won’t feel rushed and you’ll be able to accommodate any unexpected ‘discoveries’ and you’ll either have plenty of time to test and clean up, you’ll need the time to finish the core task, or you’ll have just found time for something else. All are wins.

Sure, in the moment it feels like excess. Too many parts, too many tools, too much time. Once you factor in unknown unknowns (and considering this is the first time – there will be lots) that excess is just the price of learning. The price of solving the problem calmly and mindfully and successfully.

A second $6 pack of light bulbs is a small price to pay to not have to run across town once more.

Measuring Growth in Your ‘Return on Lifestyle’ Business

In almost all cases, growing a business means one of the following:
– ever-increasing revenues
– ever-increasing share price
– ever-increasing customer count
– ever-increasing headcount

These are the metrics reported in the business section. These are the numbers that get everyone – the leadership team, the shareholders, early investors, the office space owners, the entire supporting ecosystem of vendors – of a given organization excited. Both when these numbers are going up and when they’re going down. Though, it’s only defined as growth when they’re going up.

I say in almost all cases, because the vast majority of the companies you and I interact with everyday are the kind of organizations measured by this definition of growth – both internally and externally. Why? Because that was their strategy from early on. Whether because the founders originally intended the company to be huge or because that’s how the investors and shareholders see a path to an exponential monetary return. The intention was to create a company as an asset of ever increasing value, that could be – eventually – sold for a profit.

Just because this is the most obvious definition of growth, it doesn’t mean it’s the only definition of growth. Nor does it mean it’s the right definition for your organization. Especially if your entire full-time staff is you (you’re a freelancer, solo practitioner, independent consultant, etc). Maybe, you have one other partner with 50% ownership. Maybe you’re the sole owner of a 10 person firm. In all these cases, your company is one of the thousands of extremely small companies. In all these cases the above definition of growth is toxic and cancerous. Especially if you have kids. Doubly-so if you’re the primary bread-winner for your family. This definition of growth will destroy your business and your most-treasured relationships. Maybe even you.

Yes, growth is just as valuable as it is to companies 10x, 100x, and 1000x your size, but what that growth looks like, is very, very different.

Growth here is more like maturity;
– an ever-increasing clarity in identity
– an ever-increasing in focus on doing your one thing amazingly well
– an ever-increasing service to that one tight niche you’re expert in,
– ever-chipping away at the waste around it.

Growth as a ruthless elimination of the fat in your business, through both automation and saying “No” frequently.

Despite the hype and the catchy title, this is what Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Work Week is actually about. A ruthless elimination of the low value effort so you can maximize your 164-Hour Life Week.

Low value work is all the stuff that doesn’t excite you about your work. It’s up for you to decide precisely – but it’s likely paperwork, administrative stuff, maintenance stuff. All of this stuff can be automated (via a technology wholly or some sort of Mechanical Turk) or simply ignored.

Don’t want to answer the phone? There are a number of services that will do that for you.
Same for your email inbox.
Same for most every aspect of your business.

You’re not trapped by the painful parts of your business. You’re not trapped by some definition of What a Business Is Supposed To Be. It’s your business. You own it. Take control of making it serve you.

For example, about five years ago, I stopped billing my services by the hour. Hourly billing is terribly common for even the smallest professional services firm. Some clients insist on it for low level positions. Even early in my career, I found it distracted me from better serving my clients. In short, it was waste in my business. Where as some people would find a better time-tracking system, I just said, “No, I don’t do business this way”. My annual revenues since making the change have been about the same as before, so from a big company ‘growth’ measure – it was a horrible move. Yet, it has freed up so much of my time, freed up so much of my headspace, dramatically improved my client relationships, and how I feel about my work. Positive growth.

Professional service firms with fewer than 10 full-time employees are – in the most positive and fulfilling definition of the word – lifestyle companies. Their primary function is to deliver, not an ROI, but a ROL – Return on Lifestyle.

Some Ways to Measure ROL Growth:
– The business fully covers your health, dental, and retirement accounts.
– Every quarter you’ve fulfilled some crazy life goal (run a marathon, vacation in an exotic location, write a book).
– The absence of drama in your daily life is palpable.
– Rush hour traffic is more curiosity than annoyance.
– Your weekly calendar is an even mix of work, family, community, and personal commitments.
– There’s not a single active, bullshit project taken “because we need the money.”
– You’re in the best mental & physical shape of your life.

Do these metrics mean your business is somehow less of a business than those traded on the stock markets?

Yes.

Because it is.

Across every GAAP measure. The amount of paperwork you’re compelled to file is a small fraction of what they have to file. The problems your business has are a small fraction of theirs.

Unlike these businesses, your business evaporates the moment you get hit by a bus.

So what? Embrace it. Commit to it.

It doesn’t mean your business can’t have a disproportionately positive impact on the world. It can – and that positive impact will drive your demand.

If your business is so in demand that you might need to hire help. First do these things:
1. Raise your fees. (See #4)
2. Declare when you’ll take on a new client project, just like an in-demand hotel (e.g. “We’re not booking for Feb 2017”). Hold firm.
3. Be exponentially more selective.
4. Work one less day a week.
5. Stop taking on new clients or projects.

I’ve seen too many very small businesses interpret a spike in short-term demand for a long-term trend (hiring spree, move to a huge new office) only to be in a position of unwinding all of that a few, short months later. These five strategies have a far higher ROL than presuming the demand is sustainable. In fact, they actually test resilience of the demand. That doesn’t mean they’re easy strategies to employ – they’re just far easier strategies than growing your overhead.

Your Calendar is Your Humanity

Before I understood how to use a calendar, I had blank, 3*5 index cards. I’d carry a fat stack of them, bound with a bulldog clip, in my messenger bag. I’d use them for everything; idea capture, task capture, ad hoc business cards, inspirational quotes, everything. One discreet notion per index card, detailed specifics on the back if needed.

When it was time to work, I’d go through the binder, find the card with the best combination of urgent & enjoyable and I’d get started. The first step:

Place the selected index card between keyboard and monitor.

That way, when I got distracted, when I forgot what I was doing, when my attention was pulled away, I would just look down at the card to get back on track.

This worked really well, and if you find getting back into a task after being pulled away difficult, I highly recommend the visual reminder of an index card.

Notice however, none of the items I selected were ever sufficiently compelling to keep me from being distracted, either by internal or external stimuli. I was always looking for something more urgent, more interesting, more exciting, than the card I selected. Which meant every task took longer than it should.

Then, I determined my distractibility was a problem. I turned first to naps then to meditation to tame my monkey mind and identify what was actually important. I reconfigured my office to be more comfortable and enjoyable to work in. I increasingly said ‘No’ to the small ball work the seems so prevalent. All of this helped evaporate my guilt of disconnected for minutes (hours! weekends!) at a time. Simultaneously, the number of nights and weekends I spent on client projects was reduced to zero.

It turns out, most everything doesn’t need to happen immediately – if at all. That tweet doesn’t actually require a reply. Nor does that email. No one cares if you don’t publish another podcast. No one cares if you don’t publish that blog post. Some things, in fact, can be left unresolved without consequence.

It turns out, not one of those index cards ever included anything actually satisfying;
– have lunch with your wife,
– take a nap,
– contemplate the sunrise,
– hug your kids,
– go to bed by 10pm.

In the end, that fat binder of 3*5 To Dos turned out to be a precious collection of brain farts, drunken texts, chindogu, and deck chair rearrangements. Each one assumed it was more necessary than the next, that only I could perform it, and that I was some immortal vampire desperately looking for something, anything to keep me from realizing I’d lost my humanity (perhaps I had).

Let’s make three assumptions:
1. We’re here to make a unique, positive, and lasting contribution to the world.
2. Tomorrow is not guaranteed.
3. The world will keep spinning.

Now, without looking at your To Do list, close your eyes, take three clarifying breaths (in through the nose and out through the mouth), and complete this sentence:

Across all my entire life, the one thing I most wish I could do at this moment is __________________.

Whatever your answer is, I bet it was far more exciting, interesting, and satisfyingly human, than anything in your collection of To Dos.

Imagine doing that thing, from start to finish. What’s actually keeping you from doing that thing right now. Yes, right now. The number of things you’re completely restricted from doing right now are very few. Surprise yourself and just do the thing. If you are in fact totally hampered from completing it at this moment, take the first step in fulfilling your wish:

Open up your calendar and schedule it for the first absolutely possible moment you can.

Maybe that’s later today, maybe that’s tomorrow morning. No later. Now, set it recurring. If not every week, every month.

Welcome to your calendar practice.

It’s not just for doctor appointments and staff meetings. It’s for all of you. It’s for trips to art museum, it’s for dates with your spouse, it’s for bike rides with your kids, and neighborhood kubb games.

It’s your calendar that contains the unique activities most likely to make you smile and remind you why you’re here.