Brick by Brick

No matter how impatient you feel, lasting progress is achieved brick by brick. This morning was spent moving bricks from my back yard into a toy trailer pulled by a toy tractor and driven by a 5-year-old. The easiest way to get the bricks close to the driveway was chunk them over the back fence one at a time.

I know that sounds tedious. It was. It was still the most efficient way to move them given the terrain and the equipment available. And I lucked out. My job was to keep the little kids occupied. No heavy lifting for me! That’s not to say I had a cool job. It’s blazing hot by 9am. And tedious though it may be, one piece piled on another piece, carefully placed atop another piece is a solid way to build accomplishment in any endeavor.

Some of us continually avoid the brick-by-brick building because we prefer excitement or fun. We like the adrenaline rush of winging it. But if you build a solid base, you can wing it, play in the moment, and still get good results. If you don’t build a solid base though, winging it can have disastrous results.

Why do we feel such reluctance to systematically tackle the difficult in our lives?

I’m sure the answer varies for everyone. If you have lots of anxious energy, you may feel like you’ll be bouncing off the wall in five minutes. If you are distracted, it may be hard to focus on one step at a time. If you’re motivated by deadlines, there may not be one. If you lack confidence, you may not feel you’re up to the task. You may not believe you have time.

But often, it’s like putting off doing the dishes. It’s not our favorite thing to do. We put it off. As time passes, we add dishes and the task grows. In our minds, it grows exponentially. Then it feels too big for the energy we have left.

The problem doesn’t lie in the size of the task or the particular job. It lies in the tricks our minds play. You may do dishes without hesitation but put off lifting weights. You may even know somewhere in the back of your mind that once you get started it won’t seem like a big deal any more, but still you stop yourself.

Nike’s ad people got it right when they told us to “Just Do It.” And that’s the thing about building. You have to just get on in there and take the first step. Do not hesitate.

If you still feel reluctant, offer yourself a series of rewards along the way. Focus on how you’ll feel when you get done with today’s brick. Brag to your friends on a regular basis. Tweet your own praises daily.

Break the task into the smallest pieces, then give yourself whatever you need to lift that first brick. The second will be easier. The third will be easier still. It’s never the lift we imagine it will be.

And as we lift and stack, we gain forward momentum. We begin to see progress. Progress feels exciting. Excitement keeps us motivated. Soon, we’ve built a forward-moving machine that will take us where we want to go.

Brick by brick builds walls, stairs, health, fitness, family relationships, knowledge, organizations, wealth, faith, hope, kindness, compassion, and joy.

Now you know what to do…it!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

How About a Ta-Da List?

Instead of a to-do list, how about a ta-da list? This post is for all compulsive list makers. Don’t worry, I’m one too. Many of my lists stay in my head, but once they become too numerous or too long, I put them on paper or on a screen. Doing so makes me feel organized. It can also leave me feeling discouraged when the lists get longer instead of shorter.

Obviously, discouragement won’t help me get tasks completed any faster so I’m filing away my to-do lists in favor of ta-da lists. A ta-da list can contain anything I accomplish. Sometimes that may be a task from my to-do list. Other times, it could be eating a healthy meal or treating myself kindly.

A ta-da list is a way to give myself credit for all that I do. And seeing it in black and white makes me realize I’m not a slug who never completes a to-do list. I’m a very engaged person who accomplishes an amazing amount then takes on even more.

It also lets me see where my time is going without getting lost in feelings of inadequacy or frustration. That can give the perspective I need to help align my priorities and goals with my activity. Rethinking my obligations shifts from a difficult task to a rewarding experience.

And ta-das are a reason for celebration. It’s so easy to focus on what I’ve failed to do rather than celebrate what I’ve done. Having a ta-da list shows me exactly how many reasons I have for jubilation!

It’s the beginning of a new week and a great time to start. Here are today’s ta-das so far:

  • Dried towels
  • Wrote draft of a children’s book 
  • Did yoga 
  • Contributed to critique meeting
  • Tweeted @Cooking2T 
  • Downloaded and installed software
  • Sorted and threw away misc stuff from porch
  • Made a list of fuses to order 
  • Resized a mat for the RV 
  • Moved kitchen items into the RV

But it would feel much different if I were to compare that to the multiple running lists I keep in color-coded steno books: Pink=personal, White=work, Gray=house projects, Teal=landlord projects. So, I think it’s best to create the master lists that will guide the overall direction of my personal, work, house, and landlord projects and then file them away for the week.

I’ll only work with my ta-da lists until an appointed review time. It will take some experimentation to determine whether weekly or monthly review will be most effective. At review time, I’ll compare my ta-da lists to my to-do list. What I’ll be looking for is a ratio of goal accomplishment to self-celebration that feels satisfying, positive, and encouraging. 

If I find I’m celebrating so much I fail to achieve any goal, I’ll adjust. If I see that I push myself so hard I don’t enjoy anything, I’ll adjust. If I only used to-do lists as a reference, I’d be more likely to measure success or failure and move on without analysis regarding improvement. The slight change in the system makes me more likely to become more and more efficient and effective.

It must be working already. It sometimes takes a whole day to write a blog post. It’s only 12:35 pm and I am ta-done!

If Your Work Does Not Garner Attention, Is It Worth Doing?

If your work does not garner attention, is it worth doing? In 2009, my son’s friend Ester directed the documentary film, Butterflies. The film follows the lives of six people dubbed weblebrities for gaining fame for doing nothing but appear on a website called YouTube. At the time, YouTube was only four-years-old and there was no such thing as an influencer.

In fact, although the film explores the power of the internet to challenge the future of traditional media, I don’t think anyone took the weblebrity phenomenon too seriously. I know I didn’t expect that 10 years later a 7-year-old could make $22 million in one year reviewing toys on YouTube.

As timing would have it, there was a synergy in the effects of the Real Housewives, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, smartphone cameras and YouTube. What was initially viewed by most as distasteful exhibitionism morphed into acceptable and then a model to emulate.

Growing alongside those franchises were FaceBook and Twitter soon followed by Instagram. While these are marketed as ways to connect, they are equally ways to garner attention. Clicks and likes became a measure of whether you matter in the world. The fact that likes are generated by the lewd, violent, or dangerous as well as the cute and cuddly lost any distinction.

Ten years after Butterflies, being a YouTube star has become a career goal. This is not inherently a bad thing. Using YouTube to showcase art, music, spoken word, fashion, dance, interior design, cooking, scuba diving, sailing, rowing, gymnastics, workouts, gardening, auto repair, appliance repair, history, 3D printing, and new technology is a great use of the platform. Showcasing new products is fine too. But hoping to be famous for being famous or outrageous has limited value to society.

On the other hand, being famous for being famous or outrageous now pays really well. Because we use money as a primary measure of success in this country, celebrity for celebrity’s sake has been legitimized. So what if you create an algorithm that improves hospital efficiency, design an improved washing machine, engineer a safer bridge, or improve the delivery mechanism for chemo? What if your true talent is caring for a disabled child or fragile senior?

What if the most significant contribution you make does not get any attention at all?

The truth is that the most important work you do in life may not garner much attention or much money. We used to know and accept this. We followed internal guidelines that focused on hard work, dependability, honesty, integrity and doing our best at any task we were given. Our sense of accomplishment was based as much on HOW we did the job as it was on what we achieved or how much we were paid.

When we tried hard and failed, we weren’t crushed as long as we had done our best. We absorbed the experience, learned something, and moved on. We expected less from others and more from ourselves.

During the past decade, there has been a shift from primarily internal to primarily external motivation and validation. And the shift hasn’t been to external validation from people who can look you in the eyes or hold you when you’re crying, but to validation from total strangers who only know a one-dimensional version of you and only care about you when you stand out from the digital noise.

Depending on someone else for a feeling of accomplishment or measure of success takes away our power. It leaves us vulnerable to a sense of self based on fickle trends and short attention spans. With more exposure to that vulnerability we are seeing skyrocketing rates of depression, anxiety, addiction, suicide, and mass killing. And why not?

When your sense of self is based on other people, how do you know you matter if you don’t get any likes? How do you know you’re living up to your potential if you turn off your phone to focus on your kids and can’t see whether you have any new followers? How can your accomplishments matter if only your boss knows you wrote the code to make a driverless car stop? If your friends aren’t DMing or tweeting you, do you even exist?

We can shift back to internal value systems, but it will take courage and introspection. It will take parenting differently. It will mean making a conscious decision that it’s more important to make a contribution than to be known for making that contribution. We can take back our power and choose not to react if our achievements are hidden, overlooked, or under-appreciated.

  • What if the only thing you accomplish in your career is making everyone else’s job easier? Is that a bad thing? Wouldn’t you appreciate someone else who makes your job easier or more pleasant?
  • What if your courage allows you to stop the line more often than anyone else when you see something amiss? You may be considered an annoyance to your supervisor, but you are contributing to quality and safety.
  • What if the only thing you give to society is making sure your children feel not just loved, but valued? That single accomplishment could save lives. When we have been valued, we are more likely to value others. Valuing ourselves and others makes it much more difficult to take another person’s life.
  • What if you never make much money, but give comfort and assistance to those who are struggling on a regular basis? Is this not a valuable and badly needed service?
  • What if your accomplishments are to keep your home clean, organized, and peaceful? Those are significant contributions to your family’s well-being. They provide a foundation for the family to excel.
  • If you are an agent for change, you may get more negative attention than positive. Does that mean your work is not worthwhile or that you should stop pushing for change?

Our sphere of influence may be as large as the universe or as small as our nuclear families. Within either realm, we have power and responsibility. What we do and how we do it matters. It feels great to have our accomplishments noticed and appreciated, but if the reward is not in the work itself we will never feel satisfied.

Considering our current focus on external response, it’s worth asking whether your work has to get attention for it to be worth doing. If it does, are you setting yourself up to feel perpetually dissatisfied?

Big questions may be hard to ask, but they’re so easy to answer! It’s just fear that keeps us from asking. I feel strongly about doing something that comes with internal motivation and reward. It’s the way to feel as though you haven’t worked a day in your life. And if you choose something you know is worth doing, it won’t matter a whit whether anyone notices or posts a like.


Removing Our Performance From the Context

Achieving our goals may be as simple as putting removing our performance from the context. Did you watch the World Cup wondering how the players were able to focus in spite of the incredible pressure of competing against the best of the best with the eyes of the entire world on them?
One of the secrets to success on this level is a training technique used by top athletes. That technique is to remove the task from the context. For instance, the basketball player shooting a free throw in a pressure situation has repeatedly practiced standing at a free throw line which is always the same distance from a goal that is always consistent in height and circumference, shutting his eyes, and making the shot. When he’s at the line in the last seconds of a game with his team two points behind, the player has been coached to remove the context from the task and shoot exactly like he does in practice. Use of this technique minimizes the psychological pressure of the specific situation and allows the player to perform consistently. Players who visualize and best master this concept are those who become dependable winners.

When we watch these winning athletes play, we often describe them as poised, composed, and cool under pressure. We recognize that they possess an air of confidence and we see that this gives them an advantage over their opponent. We also often believe that they are different from us. Not only are they physically superior, they must have mental superpowers or exceptional toughness. Some of us compare ourselves to these winners and determine that we can never compete at their level.

Because we know we are not professional or top tier athletes, we may fail to realize the impact on our psyche of having just compared ourselves to winners and determined we cannot measure up. Those of us who fall into the comparison trap (and to compare ourselves is always a trap) carry this judgement into our own fields of endeavor. We feel inadequate, inferior, shamed, and limited. Without even knowing it, we direct ourselves to feel afraid to step into the fullness of our own power and potential. Even so, we desire to be winners, so we try hard. Then we try harder. We work longer hours. We meet our goals, but we feel no joy. We feel no sense of accomplishment because we do not believe that we’re perfect or the best, so we do not allow ourselves to believe that our achievements count. We keep chasing perfection or promotion. We keep trying to win, but instead bend to outside pressure or begin to believe others’ perceptions of us.

We are aware enough to know that we want to feel better, so we create context designed to accomplish that purpose – We tell ourselves things like: I don’t know why my husband doesn’t realize how special I am and how much I give to everyone around me. I would have reached my sales goals if the company distributed accounts fairly. I work with a bunch of boors who have no taste and aren’t nearly as sophisticated as I am. I was on track for a promotion until my coworker started schmoozing our boss so he picked her instead. None of our assistants ever give me complete work so I spend all my time fixing their mistakes rather than excelling at my job. I always attract cheaters. I need a better job, but no one is hiring. There’s no way to have a full social life if I’m totally gluten-free. I can’t possibly find the time to cook with all the other things my family wants me to do.

This list will grow and evolve and provide the underpinning for the circular road of fear we are following. Our footsteps on this circular path get deeper and deeper. We create a groove and wear it into a smooth chute along which we glide round and round and round forward then backward again and again. Round, and round, and round, we are stuck and have disavowed ourselves of all responsibility for it. We believe we are limited by our lot in life, other’s behavior, and the curves life has thrown us. Seen in the context we’ve created, we have no control over our lives, no power to change, and sufficient reason to believe that we cannot win.

To further seal the fate we’ve created, we do one final comparison: I shouldn’t feel bad. There are lots of people who have it much worse than I do. We have sealed the deal. Since we have it better than some, and we will always believe we do, we tell ourselves we are winning. Even if we are aware that our bar has become so low that we demean, disgrace, and dishonor ourselves daily, we have created a context in which we can defiantly defend our position and hang onto our fear. On the surface, we may even manage to appear humble and noble. Surely you can see how superior we are to be sacrificing ourselves for the good of the family or the good of the business. Never mind that we’re destroying our relationships with anger or our quality of life with depression.

So what can happen if we use the athletes’ training technique and remove ourselves from the context we’ve created? Let’s say instead of pushing back against the sales manager we believe is limiting us by not giving us leads, we get to work 30 minutes early every day, or only take half of our lunch hour, and use the additional time to research and contact new prospects. Like an athlete in training, we do this every day whether we manage to set an appointment or not. We continue to do it when we are selling very little and when we are selling a lot. We are not swayed into complacency when we get the top salesman award and we are not distracted from our path when we have a slow month. Is it possible that training ourselves to keep forward momentum in good times and bad will lead to greater sales over time? Will it possibly make us feel like we have more control over our work situation? Will it possibly contribute to a calmer and more peaceful work environment when our energy is focussed on moving us forward rather than on angrily fighting an unfair system?

I will argue yes because I’ve been that new sales person more than once – the one that didn’t get an account list to work. Did I have a greater challenge than some of my co-workers? It certainly felt that way, but it also made me feel like I’d really won when I landed a good piece of business. It also gave me the training and confidence to leave my employer and start a business. It kept me going as I ran that business when I couldn’t see where the sales I really needed were going to come from. I just kept working, networking, reaching out, building relationships, and it kept paying off…eventually. It still does. While I no longer own that business, I have banked tons of great resources and goodwill that help me even now. The technique is to stick with my commitments and work toward the goal whether the crowd roars for me or against me.

I have enough perspective to know that I am not well suited to all endeavors, that I will fail and learn from that failure, that down time is critical to prolonged success, and that there will always be room for improvement. I feel happy about all of this because I trust my training and my process. These allow me to remove myself from context that would distract me and stay on course to feel powerful, peaceful, and proud of my progress.

How do you tune out distractions and stay on course?