Category Archives: Balance

Find the 15-Minute Competitive Advantage

Just because this is a time of transformation doesn’t mean that it’s easy to sell transformational ideas. Economic uncertainty has reduced the audience for bold, grand rhetoric. Besides, even in boom times innovation is risky. Innovators often have to ease anxieties by sounding conservative while doing something radical.

We all want breakthroughs; it’s just that we can’t know exactly which of the bold new ideas will break through. For every Mustang, there’s an Edsel. For every flip phone, there’s a flop. (Apple’s track record — iPod, iTunes, iPhone — is extraordinary but atypical.) It’s is also hard to get traction for ideas that are so far ahead of their times that the infrastructure or human habits do not yet support them. For every dream of cheap renewable energy, there’s the reality of still-high costs of wind turbines or solar panels.

As many technology companies have seen to their peril, you can leap much too far into the future by seeking revolution, not evolution, leaving potential users in the dust. But steady progress — step by single step — can win internal support and the external race for share of market or share of mind. Especially if you take each step quickly.

Consider Woody Allen’s comedy routine about the first landing of UFOs on Earth and our first contact with an advanced civilization (AKA advanced competitor). Allen wrote that most worries about planetary takeovers involve aliens that are light years away and centuries ahead of us in technology, bringing devices we can’t understand or communicate with, which enables them to control everything. Not to worry, Allen said. If we can’t understand or communicate with their systems, we’ll just ignore them, doing our work the way we always do until they leave in frustration. Instead, he argued, the advanced civilization that we should really worry about is one that is just 15 minutes ahead. That way they’d always be first in line for the movies, they’d never miss a meeting with the boss… and they’d always be first in every race.

Call this the “15 minute competitive advantage”: changing in short fast bursts rather than waiting for the breakthrough that transforms everything. If every proverbial 15 minutes, you learn something and incorporate it into the next speedy step, you’ll continue to be ahead. And a few time periods later, transformation will be underway.

Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, praised the value of cheap, fast experiments at a recent CEO meeting. He recalled watching Toyota’s method of continuous improvement on the shop floor: simplifying, speeding, and taking costs out with each round. Bolt instead of weld, tape instead of bolt, hold instead of tape. Cook’s advice is to turn business concepts into hypotheses to test fast. This is the essence of rapid prototyping, and it doesn’t require total transformation.

Stay a little ahead of the competition while close enough to what customers can understand and incorporate, and the innovation idea is easier to sell. Here are some characteristics of innovations most likely to succeed at gaining support:

Trial-able: The idea or product can be demonstrated on a pilot basis. Customers can see it in action first and incorporate it on a small scale before committing to replace everything.

Divisible: It can be adopted in segments or phases. Users can ease into it, a step at a time. They can even use it in parallel with current solutions.

Reversible: If it doesn’t work, it’s possible to return to pre-innovation status. Eventually you want life to be unimaginable without it, but at least in theory, it’s possible to go back to zero.

Tangible: It offers concrete results that can be seen to make a difference in something that users need and value.

Fits prior investments: The idea builds on “sunk costs” or actions already taken, so it looks like not much change is involved.

Familiar: It feels like things that people already understand, so it is not jarring to use. It is consistent with other experiences, especially successful ones.

Congruent with future direction: It is in line with where things are heading anyway. It doesn’t require people to rethink their priorities or pathways, even though of course it changes things.

Positive publicity value: It will make everyone look good.

These principles leave plenty of room to promote revolutionary ideas under cover of evolutionary change. But to find and grow a market for anything — whether green products or new health delivery plans — means staying close to what users can adopt easily and then leading them to the next iteration.

Innovators who take risks must reduce the risk for others. Think long-term trends but short-term steps —15 minutes at a time.


Bob Sutton’s 15 Beliefs:

  1. Sometimes the best management is no management at all — first do no harm!
  2. Indifference is as important as passion.
  3. In organizational life, you can have influence over others or you can have freedom from others, but you can’t have both at the same time.
  4. Saying smart things and giving smart answers are important. Learning to listen to others and to ask smart questions is more important.
  5. Learn how to fight as if you are right and listen as if you are wrong: It helps you develop strong opinions that are weakly held.
  6. You get what you expect from people. This is especially true when it comes to selfish behavior; unvarnished self-interest is a learned social norm, not an unwavering feature of human behavior.
  7. Getting a little power can turn you into an insensitive self-centered jerk.
  8. Avoid pompous jerks whenever possible. They not only can make you feel bad about yourself, chances are that you will eventually start acting like them.
  9. The best test of a person’s character is how he or she treats those with less power.
  10. The best single question for testing an organization’s character is: What happens when people make mistakes?
  11. The best people and organizations have the attitude of wisdom: The courage to act on what they know right now and the humility to change course when they find better evidence.
  12. The quest for management magic and breakthrough ideas is overrated; being a master of the obvious is underrate
  13. Err on the side of optimism and positive energy in all things.
  14. It is good to ask yourself, do I have enough? Do you really need more money, power, prestige, or stuf
  15. Jim Maloney is right: Work is an overrated activity

How to Defeat Burnout

“Do what you love.”

We’ve all heard this advice before. It’s great advice, though not many people truly take it to heart.

But sometimes doing what you love isn’t enough to keep you going. Inspiration, passion, and motivation are difficult things to hold on to. They always seem to slip away right when you need them most.

You know that feeling. Where you’re that close to finishing a project, or achieving a goal, or crossing a task off your to-do list … but you just can’t muster the energy. You’ve lost interest. You’re exhausted. Drained. And you don’t know why.

That’s burnout. It’s something many of us are all too familiar with. I’d like to share with you a few ways that I fight burnout – or prevent it from catching me in the first place.

1. Achieve in increments. When you only focus on a big goal someday, it’s easy to get burned out by the daily grind. It’s like driving toward a mountain in the distance. You can drive for hours, but the mountain doesn’t seem to get any closer. And spinning your wheels gets real tiring real fast.

The solution is to give yourself a way to measure and record every little step forward you take. Here’s how:

  • Get a journal, notebook, or calendar. Writing things down is important.
  • Identify milestones on the road towards your goal.If you’re writing a book, you could treat each chapter as one milestone. Or, even better, treat each 500 words or 1000 words as a milestone.
  • If milestones aren’t obvious, create them. For example, if you’re training for a marathon, hold yourself to a progression of distance. If you start out running at your maximum distance, you’ll plateau very quickly. Instead, start at a shorter distance – even if it’s very easy for you – then work your way up slowly.
  • Track milestones in a simple, visual format. Think of the progress bar on a download. One glance tells you exactly how much progress has been made. The format you choose doesn’t need to be detailed or comprehensive. It just needs to show that you’re moving forward day by day.

Learn to appreciate the little accomplishments. Let yourself enjoy the feeling of getting things done.

2. Train your muse. One of the biggest myths about inspiration that it’s random. One day you’re inspired and motivated, the next day you’re burned out – and there’s no way around it. Or so they say.

In fact, inspiration is just like any other skill. It may start out as unreliable, but it can be trained and developed into something you can rely on.

So how do you train your muse? The best way I’ve found is immersion. Surround yourself with things that inspire you and reflect your goals. Great composers listen to music. Great authors read voraciously. Great marketers attend seminars. Great productivity-ists subscribe to Zen Habits. And so on. Immersion trains your mind to work efficiently in the ways you need it to.

The more that your inspiration becomes a part of your life, the less likely it is to run out when you need it most. With that in mind, be creative. What ways can you connect with your inspiration on a daily basis?

3. Work less. Cut down on the amount of energy and time you spend working. If you have sick days or vacation days left, take advantage of them. Or, if you’re self-employed, force yourself to work fewer hours each day – even if that means turning down new projects.

Working less doesn’t mean you have to slack off or get less done. It does mean that you:

  • Eliminate unnecessary tasks.
  • Take strategic breaks.
  • Stop multi-tasking.
  • Seek help from other people.

4. Define success realistically. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having big dreams and big ambitions. But if you’re constantly frustrated by a lack of progress, it might be time to take a step back and examine your goals. Are they achievable? Are you holding yourself to a reasonable timeline?

Here’s a good way to do this. Get a piece of paper and write down your big, ambitious goal. Then write down at least 10 specific, concrete steps that will allow you to achieve that goal. Be as detailed as possible. If you can’t come up with a series of down-to-earth steps to get you from here to your dream, that’s a sign that you need to either redefine your goals or rethink the way you’re pursuing those goals.

5. Get more sleep. You’ve heard this before, I know. So have I. But that didn’t stop me from going against my better judgment and tiring myself out by staying up late to work. Getting enough sleep takes a conscious decision – and, just like any good habit, takes time to develop.

One of the biggest barriers for me in this area is procrastination. I have a tendency to put things off throughout the day, then stay up later as a result. What’s keeping you from getting the rest you need?

6. Take it slow(er). The world tells us to rush things: “Get there faster. Make money quicker. Retire sooner.” And while these things aren’t necessarily bad, they can easily get us in over our heads. If you’re feeling burned out and overwhelmed, it’s time to slow down.

A few ways to take yourself out of 24/7 high gear:

  • Spend at least 10 minutes a day in a quiet place, away from distractions. Breathe.
  • Put together a playlist of slow, relaxing music. Listen to it whenever you start feeling frazzled.
  • Take a butcher knife to your to-do list. Set a limit to the number of tasks you  take on each day and stick to it.
  • Extend your deadlines. Do you absolutely, positively have to get this done now? Just remember – this isn’t an excuse to procrastinate.

7. Get a second opinion. It’s hard to spot burnout from the inside. Your close friends and family are likely to identify the signs of burnout long before you do. So listen to what they’re saying. The next time your spouse, parent, or best friend tells you you’re working too hard, take it seriously.

8. Set clear boundaries. Burnout happens when we allow work to overflow its boundaries and interfere with every other part of our lives. So set strong boundaries. The clearer the better. In writing, if possible.

For example, instead of saying: “I’ll spend at three hours every night with my family,” make it clearer: “I won’t work after 8 o’clock. That’s 100% family time.” Clear boundaries are easier to stick to and harder to rationalize away.

Once you’ve set up your boundaries, make them public. Let your family know that you’ve set aside time just for them. They’ll hold you accountable to your promises. Let your clients know that you’ll be unavailable during certain hours. This will reduce the temptation to fudge on your boundaries.

9. When you’re working, focus. I’ve found that concentrating on work is actually less exhausting than allowing yourself to be wishy-washy about it. When you decide that it’s time to work, buckle down, eliminate distractions, and do it wholeheartedly. There’s something amazingly refreshing about pure, sharp focus.

10. Create outlets. If you’re a person of diverse interests (and really, who isn’t?), it’s likely that you have several very different goals and ideas bouncing around in your head at any given time. These ideas need outlets. If you hold them inside, they’ll eventually start interfering with your focus and creating unnecessary frustration, leading to burnout.

In other words, I think it’s okay – healthy, even – to start a few side projects as outlets for creative energy. Just make sure that you keep your priorities straight and your side projects fun. If these side projects become sources of stress, cut them out immediately.

11. Know when to power through it. This is going to sound out of place given what I’ve said above, but it’s powerful – if applied correctly. Sometimes the solution for burnout is just to power through it. Sometimes burnout can be an illusion. In these cases, the best choice is to refuse to use burnout as an excuse, ignore the fact that you feel burned out, and just work through it. It’s like a runner gaining her second wind and coming out stronger on the other side.

However, just as an experienced athlete knows when to push through the pain and when to pull back, you’ll need to be very careful how you take this particular piece of advice. Until you develop a keen awareness of your own tendencies, it’s usually better to err on the side of caution and pull back when you start feeling burned out.

12. Never accept defeat. Burnout is an obstacle like any other. It can hold you back for a while, but it’s not the end of the world – unless you let it defeat you.

If you have a great goal in mind, don’t give up on it, no matter how apathetic, exhausted, or frustrated you might feel. If everything I’ve said up until this point fails, do this: hold on to your dream – even if it doesn’t feel like much of a dream at the moment. Hold on to it anyway. That way, when the storm clears, your dream will still be intact, ready for another try.

Get more inspiration from Jeffrey at his blog, The Art of Great Things, or subscribe to his feed.

Eblin’s 5 questions for struggling leaders

Question 1: 
What am I trying to do that extends beyond the actual time available to me to personally do it?

Question 2: 
What am I trying to accomplish by doing that?

Question 3
Given the role that I’m in, what should I be trying to accomplish instead?

Question 4: 
What resources (people, systems, processes) do I need to acquire or develop to cover whatever still seems worthwhile in my answer to Question 2?

Question 5: 
What opportunities do I have to shift from retail leadership (being personally present or involved in everything) to wholesale leadership (leveraging and involving others to act on the overall plan)?

What are you noticing about limits lately? What are you doing to adjust?  I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories about changes you’re making to deal with the limits leaders face.

Happiness Through Chaos

I oftentimes find myself in work situations where I’m juggling so many balls that I nearly fall off the deep end – this week (so far) has been one of those situations. Traveling, meetings, e-mail, phone calls, dinners, more meetings, interviews, crisis management, more e-mail – you get the idea.

Only when I can quiet the cacophony down and take what I call a “100,000 foot” view (like now while I write this on a plane) do I realize that the very thing that puts me near this precipice also makes me happy.

How can this be? Am I some kind of strange thrill seeker that can only enjoy life if all heck is breaking loose and I’m in the middle of it? Am I incapable of taking satisfaction of the “still spaces” in our lives?

This used to really gnaw at me when I was younger, because of the preconceptions I had of what constituted “happy”. I didn’t think work could ever equate to happy. It was a barrier to get around, or crash through. It was only a means to an end (i.e. I need to make a living so I could have the capacity to be happy outside of my work).

Now I realize that happiness can be found in many, many places. I can experience a blissful state as I hike in a pretty and peaceful mountain valley, my mind clear and my heart soaring. But I also can get it in a conference room when my heart is racing and my mind is going through its paces at a mile a minute. Or in an airport as I’m sprinting to catch my next plane.

The key is to be in a workplace that matters to you and draws on your core talents and abilities – if you are not, then yes, the happiness part isn’t going to work I’ve been in that situation before. When you can thrive on any chaos, and actually enjoy it, then you know you’ve found the right place. If it truly is a grind, then get out!

If I can offer any useful advice through these self described “ramblings”, it is exactly this – if you aren’t happy with your work life, take whatever steps you can to change, and keep trying until you too can stop worrying and love the “daily grind”. While I know it’s easy to feel “locked in” and be afraid to take a chance and make a change – I’ve been there – the rewards are well worth the effort.

James Michener spoke much more eloquently about the “happy place” I’m talking about in this famous quote:

“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both”

While I’m no master yet, that’s what I’m shooting for. Now it’s back to the chaos – have a great rest of the week!

Seven Questions That Will Change Your Life

Self-reflection is the name of the game. When you look back at your week, are you happy with what you’ve done? Was it productive or wasteful?

Alex Shalman asks himself seven questions each week to keep him on track. Whether or not you think all seven are necessary, looking back at your actions objectively will work in your favor. Try them out now:

  • 1. What will I try to improve on next week?
  • 2. What was I most proud of this week?
  • 3. What was my biggest accomplishment this week?
  • 4. What have I done to get closer to my life goals this week?
  • 5. What was hard for me this week, and why?
  • 6. What was my biggest waste of time this week?
  • 7. What did I do this week that made me ashamed?

If this becomes a regular thing, it could well change your life. If you’re a practicing GTDer, fit some of these questions in your weekly review.
Seven Questions That Will Change Your Life – [AlexShalman]

How To Get The Perfect Nap

Here’s how to get a good nap:

  • 1 The first consideration is psychological: Recognize that you’re not being lazy; napping will make you more productive and more alert after you wake up.
  • 2 Try to nap in the morning or just after lunch; human circadian rhythms make late afternoons a more likely time to fall into deep (slow-wave) sleep, which will leave you groggy.
  • 3 Avoid consuming large quantities of caffeine as well as foods that are heavy in fat and sugar, which meddle with a person’s ability to fall asleep.
  • 4 Instead, in the hour or two before your nap time, eat foods high in calcium and protein, which promote sleep.
  • 5 Find a clean, quiet place where passersby and phones won’t disturb you.
  • 6 Try to darken your nap zone, or wear an eyeshade. Darkness stimulates melatonin, the sleep- inducing hormone.
  • 7 Remember that body temperature drops when you fall asleep. Raise the room temperature or use a blanket.
  • 8 Once you are relaxed and in position to fall asleep, set your alarm for the desired duration (see below).

How Long Is A Good Nap?

THE NANO-NAP: 10 to 20 seconds Sleep studies haven’t yet concluded whether there are benefits to these brief intervals, like when you nod off on someone’s shoulder on the train.

THE MICRO-NAP: two to five minutes Shown to be surprisingly effective at shedding sleepiness.

THE MINI-NAP: five to 20 minutes Increases alertness, stamina, motor learning, and motor performance.

THE ORIGINAL POWER NAP: 20 minutes Includes the benefits of the micro and the mini, but additionally improves muscle memory and clears the brain of useless built-up information, which helps with long-term memory (remembering facts, events, and names).

THE LAZY MAN’S NAP: 50 to 90 minutes Includes slow-wave plus REM sleep; good for improving perceptual processing; also when the system is flooded with human growth hormone, great for repairing bones and muscles.

Snooze, You Win – [MensJournal]