Excellence: Hacks Will Get You Halfway There!
Everywhere we turn these days we are inundated with suggestions for being more efficient and productive. Want to do something better? HBR has a hack for that.
Want to change a behavior? Fast Company and Inc. both have 3-step solutions they’re happy to share with you. I’ll even offer my own hacks towards the end of this post. There is no shortage of good evidence-based ideas to become a better leader and a happier, more fulfilled human being. We know what greatness looks like since we can see it in our most inspiring leaders and those leaders are more than willing to share their 5-step process to achieving it. With advances in social behavior science and neuroscience we know more about creating change at the cellular level than ever before.
So why is it not working?
With so much excellent information one could argue that we should be seeing wide-spread evidence of improved efficiency, fulfillment and happiness across broad swaths of humanity, right?
Wrong. Survey after survey measuring markers such as worker fulfillment, happiness and engagement indicate that things are not improving:
Engagement at work hovers around 35 percent.
The number of individuals treating some anxiety or depression is not dropping.
Workers are feeling more pressure to perform for less fulfilling results.
Why is there such a paradox here? There is so much excellent information but not the corresponding excellent results. It turns out that information in the form of a hack or suggestion only gets us so far on the path to real and sustained change – the foundational elixir necessary to achieve excellence. The other half comes in the form of developing useful habits. Habits only occur when you complement the excellent hack with consistent practice and positive support. We know this intellectually but our emotional center of the brain can be vulnerable to an insatiable search for the Holy Grail of hacks – the one ‘lottery ticket’ that will deliver the goods. Global Creatives can be doubly vulnerable to the siren call of the perfect hack with our heightened external sensors sweeping the landscape for interesting and compelling new information.
It’s really challenging to convert really good work-hacks into solid work habits. There are lots of reasons for this but here are a few that get my attention:
Brain as Veto Machine
Our desire for new information beats out our desire for real change. Neuroscientists are learning that the brain is very wary of change. We may be drawn to a new idea, a new stimulus, but the brain will see this new idea as a threat and send an inhibiting response from upper echelons down to the bottom sensor tiers, basically vetoing the idea outright. This is not a bad thing. Habit formation would be nearly impossible if our brains were constantly accepting all new inputs and ideas.
Free Advice Overload
There is energy and excitement in others’ awesome stories. Consider Tim Ferris’ 5 Simple Things AM regimen. Super simple and inspiring, right? Yet what are the chances of you turning this into a habit? For one, once you begin practicing Tim’s model another excellent regimen will be vying for your attention the next time you open your Twitter account! For many of us the ‘lottery ticket’ belief is strong - that some new special information will change our daily experience. So we spend our time and attention hunting for this rare bird while we discard perfectly good data we already have.
Free Advice Doesn’t Work
The most compelling reason why hacks don’t convert to habits is that free advice doesn’t work. Study after study shows that we discount information that is given to us and yet we keep seeking information and people keep giving it. Often the intention of the advice giver is not always clear. Does HBR want you to be successful or do they want you to read their content? Our brains can discern not-so-holy intentions fairly readily even subconsciously.
In 25 years of education including 18 years of coaching creative individuals I have seen this play out first hand. New clients often think they need a tool or the special ‘rare bird’ mentioned above or that I am in possession of some secret formula to boost their efficiency. Well, maybe I do possess a formula but the real secret is not so much in the information I possess but in consistent support over a period of time.
Hacks + Practice + Positive Support
What one needs for real change is accurate, cutting-edge information balanced with consistent positive support to maintain focus on practices that reinforce what one already knows to be true. Check out Tim’s regimen again. Is he seeking new info? No. He is reconnecting to what he knows to be true, with actions that are connected to his bigger goals. He is practicing a regimen that is scientifically sound (affirmations, stating outcomes and acknowledging completions), that provides a positive launch to his day and most important works well for Tim. You can tell that Tim arrived at this place through research, trial and error and consistent engagement. This approach of combining accurate info, space to practice new habits and positive support happens to be a basic model for a coaching relationship.
So recognizing the irony in this moment, I offer my own fundamental hacks:
Have some understanding of how your brain works and doesn't work. There is a tremendous amount of science available now. If you suspect you have something like ADHD learn more about it and speak to a specialist. A survey like the Cognitive Peak Profile* can help to provide super useful information about how you cognitively process information and build knowledge.
Surround yourself with people who appreciate who you are and listen to what you have to say – good listeners.
Surround yourself with people who celebrate your strengths.
Shift your focus from seeking information to generating better questions – step into a curious mindset. Warren Berger writes about this in his excellent book A More Beautiful Question.
Develop some basic practices like our friend Tim. A regular regimen to remind yourself what works (a la REBEL) and tie these practices to your bigger game - your greater context – which is so key to fulfillment and a sense of happiness. This is especially important for us context-focused Global Creatives.
Locate your blind spots. I’ve worked with some super smart people who were completely unaware of some very real blind spots. Work with people who complement your blind spot areas, who value differences.
An Inspiration Based Practice Model
In addition to these hacks I offer a model for consistent practice. My posts in the coming months will be grounded in this inspiration based model. Get curious about your own essential elements and related behaviors that cultivate inspiration. Here are the 4 areas of interest I have identified to practice and pay attention to:
Refuel in your own sanctuaries
Connect with positive and supportive relations
Articulate your own vision through your own voice
Practice your craft to a level of mastery
The following excerpts are from Tim’s post mentioned above. Notice that they mix together portions of the above stated 4 areas.
The small things are the big things.
I use two types of journaling and alternate between them: Morning Pages and The 5-Minute Journal (5MJ). The former I use primarily for getting unstuck or problem-solving (what should I do?); the latter I use for prioritizing and gratitude (how should I focus and execute?)
Think of it as my boot-up sequence for an optimal day. The rest varies wildly, but the first 60 to 90 minutes after waking are what I focus on most.
Excellence is more a journey than a destination. Like Tim, locate a useful regimen to get in touch with this journey. Start with a small archive of hacks to resource, build awareness, exercise choice, return to a basic practice when you fall off the horse and above all keep it simple. Build your basic practice with my 4 areas of inspiration (or not). Locate resources to support your efforts especially like-minded souls who will model more than suggest. Above all balance new information (hacks) with some intention of integration and learning.
* The CPP offered through The Avalon Institute provides some really useful hacks. I share it here because for me the CPP fundamentally shifted my thinking about how my brain works - from a challenge perspective to a strength perspective. And in full disclosure, as a founding partner at Avalon, I may benefit financially from sales of the CPP.