Part 9 and the conclusion to the Improving Your Odds for Success series.
An infinitely excellent morning to you! Yet again I’ve had one too many shots of espresso so I’m going to jump right in and hope that I can finish this blog in time to watch the sun rise over the Rincon Mountains.
I’m well into a series of articles on laying out a framework to effect change in your life. If you haven’t been following, you might want to start here and read through in order to catch up.
Today, I’d like to wrap up the series with a review and illustrate how to apply this system in practice using the example of wanting to lose weight. (Please note, I am not attempting to offer weight loss advice. I’m simply using weight loss as an example to illustrate a framework you can use to affect positive change in your life. If, despite this note, you decide to take this as advice, do consider chatting with your doctor about what you’re about to do.)
Plan: Create your success equation, measurement strategy, and timeline
Your success equation is comprised of a dependent variable on the left and an independent variable on the right. I’ve written at length about how to go about selecting those variables so today I will simply present you with a sample equation
y = f(x)
and define y to be health and x to be exercising. The dependent variable “health” originates as a top level goal to lose weight. Recall however, that we do not consider weight in the working equation and instead focus on what causes or limits success (which brings us back to a work-driven strategy vs. a wish-driven one).
I decided to measure success in the following ways (see here for a discussion):
- Track daily whether or not I’ve exercised (i.e., the independent variable) with a prominently displayed wall calendar with an entire year on one page. If I exercise I reward myself with a big red X through that day (H/T Jerry Seinfeld via Lifehacker).
- Track health weekly (i.e., the dependent variable) by recording how I feel in my notebook I’ve reserved precisely for this purpose. If you’re more of a numbers person, you could use a scale that defines how you’re feeling from 1 to 5 or 10. Alternatively, you could use something like blood pressure or resting heart rate.
As for the top level, I suggest checking in on the metric only at the very end of the period you’ve established for your study.
Next are the boundary conditions: setting the weekly collaborator review, the length of time to run your experiment, and the length of time for the subsequent “break” before setting up your next project.
For the weight loss example, I decided to:
- Meet with collaborator on Saturdays to analyze data.
- Run the experiment, the one with health as the dependent variable and exercise as the independent variable, for three months.
- Take a break for one month.
Do: Work the process
Before closing out the day, I lay out the following day in my trusted notebook. To what extent you do this I’ll leave to you but I recommend at least writing out the one thing you’re going to do tomorrow that is related to the independent variable in your success equation.
Since, in this example, I’ve decided to focus on exercise, I’ll write out tomorrow’s date on a clean sheet of paper in my notebook (see here for a notebook recommendation), and I might simply start by writing the word “exercise” out and draw a box around it to keep it from getting lost on the page. Or, perhaps I’ll schedule when and what I’ll do for my daily exercise directly in my calendar.
Upon getting up in the morning, take the time to note what you wrote the night before even if it’s just one word. Although in the beginning this simple reminder is unlikely to have much of an impact on the trajectory of the day, as you start working the process over the next three months and make adjustments to your independent variable it will make a difference.
From this point forward your only job will be to take note of the events that led to success or failure with respect to the independent variable in your success equation. In addition to providing some context like the time of day, what was going on, what worked, what didn’t, and who you were with, be sure to note:
- How you felt in general (e.g., tired, stressed, happy, sad, angry, distracted, etc.)
- How the choices you made related to the independent variable made you feel. For example, say you had planned on exercising after work but decided at the last minute not to. How did you feel before/during/after your made the decision? This isn’t about making yourself feel bad. Remember, you’re a scientist now so just jot down some notes and move on.
One thing I’ve learned is, regarding events that lead to failure, it can often be more inciteful to write about your moments of success/failure as close as possible to when they happen. While the requirement is to track the data before closing out your day, when these moments arise, I urge you to record them while fresh in your mind.
Regardless of when you chose to do it, trust me when I say, there is incredible value to this process that goes beyond collecting facts to be analyzed with your collaborator.
Indeed, there is something about committing yourself to writing about the details surrounding a life event that forces you to be present for it regardless of the outcome. Although counter intuitive, what I’ve found is that in being honest and objective about the facts that surround the bad choices I make, over time I seem to iterate towards making fewer bad choices. Even more importantly, if I do end up making a bad choice (e.g., eating a pint of ice cream like I did last night before I went to bed – dammit) I don’t beat myself up about it and move on.
At the end of the day, just make sure you haven’t forgotten anything and get things ready for tomorrow!
Review: Meet with your collaborator
Each week you’ll meet with your collaborator and share the data you’ve collected about your successes and failures. Over time, patterns will emerge that will hint at ways in which you can make minor adjustments to the independent variable in your success equation (and in turn, your life) so as to reduce the likelihood of making decisions that lead to negative outcomes.
Let me share a personal example.
Having stumbled headfirst into an unexpected period of melancholy due to circumstances at work, I set out on a course to learn what patterns would improve my well-being. As a result, I decided to conduct an improvement project that had exercise as the independent variable in my success equation. Over a period of time, the data I collected made it abundantly clear that if I didn’t exercise in the morning it most likely wasn’t going to happen. As a result of this, we slightly modified the independent variable in my success equation by changing it from “exercising” to “exercising in the morning.” From that point forward, my focus was on what leads to success/failure with regard to exercising in the morning.
Skipping over the details, it’s interesting to note where I ended up. Today I have a canned workout I can do anywhere – in the living room, hotel, park, jail cell. I don’t need any equipment and I can break it up into 3 five-minute sessions.
I call it my Engineered by Design™ workout and it involves five minutes of active stretching, five minutes of core and lower back, and five minutes of cardio & strength. When I’m at home and feel so inclined I also add a five-minute block that involves foam rolling (when in Europe I swap that out for cigarette rolling).
By dividing my routine up this way, I am setting myself up for success. I always can find time/energy to do at least the five-minute active stretch set. Even on my most time-compressed mornings, what usually happens is once I complete the active stretching, momentum takes over and I usually manage to finish the full 15-minute program. Furthermore, on the days when I have more time, like on weekends, that momentum usually gets me all the way to the gym.
Although the outcomes to your experiments will be unique to you, by being present for your successes and failures, recording important details about them in your notebook, and meeting with your collaborator weekly to search for patterns and solutions, you’ll be more likely to work your way through the challenges that will always be present in any improvement project and iterate towards success.
Renew: Take measure, celebrate, and look forward to your next project
At the end of the three months, it’s time to take a break from collecting and reviewing data. It’s also a great time to check in on how things are going with your top level goal which in this example was losing weight.
Take a peek…did your weight go down? If it didn’t, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, celebrate your success with respect to the dependent variable in your success equation namely your health. If it did go down, don’t let it get to your head.
This is also a great time to acknowledge the hard work of sticking with your project for three months. I don’t know about you but I think I’m going to head to Santa Monica with my family for a couple of days, walk along the beach, drink some margaritas, eat at my favorite sushi place, have some brats and beer in Venice, and catch up with old friends (sadly the restaurant my wife and I have been growing old with has closed).
Now, just because I’m taking a break doesn’t mean I’m going to stop exercising. I am however, going to back off on trying to effect change and instead focus on having fun and doing things that are less scripted. For example, if you’ve been hitting the gym, this would be a great time to go on some hikes, play soccer with your kids, or take some long bike rides with your spouse.
Once you’re done celebrating and feel rested, it’s time to reassess the entire process again. Don’t feel like tackling something big because of bad timing or low energy? Totally OK – just pick an independent variable that won’t require as much effort/energy. Continuing with this example which has health as the dependent variable, here are a few ideas for independent variables that don’t have an activation barrier as high as “exercising:”
- Make lunch for work *
- Get 7 1/2 to 8 hours of sleep a night
- Take family walks
- Walk up stairs (instead of elevator or escalator)
- Pick parking spots that are far away from your destination
- Writing your spouse/child a daily note
The sun is starting to fill my day signaling it’s time to wrap this one up. Since January, we’ve been talking about strategies for effecting personal change. Although I’ve offered a lot of specific ideas and suggestions along the way, here in summary are the steps that I believe are fundamental to effecting positive personal change:
plan, do, review, and renew.
That’s it – and that’s also what I think it means to live a life Engineered by Design™.
Last year I mentioned I write this blog for my six year old son. My wife works in another state during part of the week so I consider myself to be a part-time single parent. Because of this and my desire to be present for my family, I go to great lengths to try and compartmentalize my days.
However, last Tuesday, we had some issues at work that spilled into my time with my son and as a result, I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t the best dad. The following morning, I felt like a turd about it so when my son asked me to stay with him for his morning guitar lesson I obliged his request rather than rush off to work. While watching him struggle to do his best I reflected on a note I had put in his lunch box just two days earlier that said:
This is Papa.
Try your best.
Don’t be a jerk.
I love you.
Photo credit above: I found out my son’s French teacher asked to take a picture of him with the note. I emailed her to ask her for it to use with this post.
I couldn’t help but tear up – I should have written the note to myself (and to some of the folks running for President).
God bless the child indeed.
Here is Sonny Rollins playing a song of the same name. Even if you don’t like jazz please consider taking a listen. When Jim Hall comes in on the guitar it gets me every time and when I listen to the song in its entirety, it gives me faith in humanity in a way that few other songs do. Dammit, there come those tears again.
Next week I’m planning on writing an article about willpower – a key ingredient to any success equation so please stay tuned or, if you haven’t already, consider subscribing to receive this in your inbox (over there on the right sidebar).
* On the topic of making and taking lunch for work, in case you’re interested, here is the inexpensive and practical container I use to take salads to work. Because I carry it in my Trader Joe’s insulated lunch bag it keeps my entire lunch cool.
Video not displaying properly? Click here.
I wanted to share with you this video but unfortunately it is down as of publication time.