Weekend Reading #10

If you're an astute reader of The Workologist you may have noticed that I missed publishing a Weekend Reading article last week. I was deep in the midst of moving so I ended up having to skip it in favor of spending the day hauling all my stuff over to a new house.

Now that I'm more or less moved in I want to make up for my negligence by making today's edition, the 10th, extra good.

Before we launch into the best stuff I've come across in the past week, I figured I'd mention the guest article I wrote for the VIA Institute on Character about how to use self-experimentation and self-data collection to apply your strengths in new ways. My colleague Jeff Fajans makes an appearance as well.

Alrighty -- without further ado let's get into this week's top picks.

Humans Need Not Apply (15:00) - YouTube via CGP Grey

CGP Grey makes the best informational videos and his latest is on a whole different level. He makes an excellent case that sometime in the relatively near future we are going to face a seismic shift in the labor market as automation/robots become better at a myriad of jobs than humans. It's scary and thought provoking and worth a watch. On a side note, CGP Grey is also a co-host of a podcast that has cracked my lineup and is now a show I look forward to every week (which is pretty hard to do). It's called Hello, Internet and it is also worth your time.

You Can Learn Anything (1:30) - YouTube via Khan Academy

This is a cutesy and super short video that encapsulates the nature of having a growth mindset pretty well. Sure, there are genetic differences in IQ and we all have different strengths/weaknesses but the research shows that believing you have the ability to improve and learn is the first step to actually making it happen.

Why Self Awareness is the Secret Weapon for Habit Change - 99U

The examples should sound familiar: We get necessary and helpful feedback from a boss or colleague, only to snarl under our breath, but failing to realize the foolishness on our end. We become aware of our declining efficiency, so instead of treating the disease we treat the symptoms and we chug coffee only to crash an hour later face-first into our keyboard (and then we go searching for productivity hacks because our workload is too high).

Great article from Paul Jun about why self-awareness is so important yet difficult to cultivate. It's similar to the idea I wrote about regarding the importance of self-reflection (I even called it the most important habit).

The Makers - Vimeo

This is a Vimeo channel with tons of relatively short videos about people who make things. It's one of my most reliable motivation/inspiration boosters that I like to turn to when I'm feeling kind of blah. From a guy who takes bread and butter to a whole new level to a guy who makes blowpipes in the Amazon rainforest, there is an awesome array of people doing awesome things on this channel.

Out of the Doldrums - JD Roth

JD Roth wrote one of the first blogs I ever started reading regularly, Get Rich Slowly (I was super into personal finance for awhile). On his personal website he's been covering a lot of interesting topics including the idea of flow and finding meaning. What JD calls the doldrums I recently called a ["productivity valley."]( ) It's nice to see that I'm not the only one who experiences cycles like this.

As always, thank you very much for continuing to read this site. Traffic numbers have been steadily increasing and for that I'm very grateful. Please don't hesitate to share this site with your friends/colleagues/acquaintances/pets -- it means a lot to me! Also, please follow me on Twitter or drop me an email to say hi.

Photo by NH53

How to Make Reflection an Automatic Part of Your Life

I've written about why I think building the habit of reflection is arguably the most important habit you can develop. In the aforementioned article I briefly referred to the idea of scheduling reflection into your routine but never went into much detail about what that looks like or shared the specific templates I use in my own reflection. I'd like to rectify that today.

One of the tricky things about making the time to regularly reflect is that you often don't think about doing it until you're kind of beyond the point where it would be most helpful. For example, before I made this a regular part of my routine I would find myself needing to "get away" and spend some time in reflection when shit had essentially been hitting the fan for awhile and I knew something drastic needed to be done. If I had taken the time to reflect before that point then I probably wouldn't have ever gotten to the point where the proverbial fecal matter was getting thrown around.

Reflection can happen across a broad continuum. Reflecting on a single project and the progress you're making on it would be a very micro-level type of reflection. On the other extreme end of the reflection continuum pondering the "big" questions about life, the universe, and everything is a completely different flavor of reflection. Given the vast differences in the reflection you can be doing it can be helpful to think about what type of reflection would be most valuable to you and your current situation. For that reason I schedule the more micro level reflection to happen more frequently than the huge macro-level type of reflection. David Allen's book Making It All Work uses an altitude metaphor which I think is a great way to think about the various levels of reflection and what kind of detail you should go into for each one.

From Making It All Work, the four levels of reflection are:

  • 20,000 Feet Reflection (every 2 months)
  • 30,000 Feet Reflection (every 4 months)
  • 40,000 Feet Reflection (every 9 months)
  • 50,000 Feet Reflection (every year)
  • [Grab the templates I use here]

For each of these I have an item in my task management software that says, "Conduct 'X' Review," that pops up at the proper interval. That way I don't have to remember to do it -- it just shows up automatically. In terms of actually conducting the review, I just open the required template and spend some time jotting down my answers to the prompts. After responding to the prompts (and saving the document in Evernote) I'll go back and read the previous reflection (i.e. if I just responded to the 30,000 foot review I'll go back and read the 30,000 foot review I did 4 months prior). I like to wait until after I respond to the latest template before going back and reading what I had written before because I don't want to bias my current response. Plus, it's cool to see the similarities and differences afterward.

Setting up a system like this ensures that you're being reminded at the appropriate intervals to think about the larger questions -- the questions and ideas that will ensure you're moving in the right direction and allocating your time and attention as well as you possibly can. There's no reason to rely on your brain to remind you to take time to reflect when something like a calendar can do the job much better. Waiting until you feel an urgent need to spend time in reflection is usually a sign you've waited too long.

Photo by Hege

Why Regular Reflection is the Most Important Habit

By all accounts, I probably got my undergraduate degree in the "wrong" thing. I spent four years earning a secondary education social studies degree and then spent a year and a half teaching before moving on to graduate school in a completely different field (psychology). I did well in my education course work and by most accounts I was a very good teacher who would've become great with time. However, I eventually realized that the confluence of several factors resulted in teaching not being the right career for me. Those factors are beyond the scope of this article but I do want to address how I got into this situation in the first place and how fixing the problem that got me in this situation has had huge results in the rest of my life.

Sometime in my junior year of high school I decided I was going to be a social studies teacher. I don't remember the exact moment I made the decision, but I do remember spending at least a year before college telling people that was what I was going to do. At the time, it felt like the right decision. I loved (and still love) history and I had some great role models I could look to as I began creating my teaching career. Once I made that decision, though, I never once stepped back and assessed whether it was still the right decision. I got on a path and kept my head down until I popped out the other side (four years later) with a teaching certificate and a gnawing sense this wasn't what I really wanted to be doing any longer. 

There's one habit that would've prevented all of this -- a practice of regular reflection. 

Regular reflection is the simple process of looking back at your decisions, actions, and thoughts and making behavioral changes based on what you see. At a very high level, regular reflection will keep you from the multi-year wastes of time that my undergraduate degree could be viewed as (which, admittedly, is a little harsh considering I use a lot of what I learned in teacher education school in my writing and coaching now). At a lower level, a practice of regular reflection will help you stay on the right path with smaller habit changes and projects.

Regular Reflection and Habit Change

A lot of habit change is a process of trial and error because there are a myriad of strategies and methodologies for any kind of habit change. What many people do is choose one and just plug away at it until they either fail (most commonly) or got lucky on their first try and successfully change the habit (much more rarely). The smart thing to do is to periodically check in with yourself and ask questions like:

  • How has this been working for me in the past week?
  • What was I doing when it seemed like things were going very well for me?
  • What was I doing when it seemed most difficult? 

Asking these questions gives you an opportunity to look at some data (whether actual quantitative data you've collected on yourself or just your thoughts and impressions from whatever time period you're reflecting on) and make any behavioral changes necessary to attain greater success. The flip side is to never reflect on how well you're doing and just hope you get lucky. 

How to Build Reflection Into Your Life

You can easily build a habit of reflection into your life by taking advantage of the repeated scheduling capabilities of your task management software or calendar. I have weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly repeated tasks that remind me to look at my corresponding reflection checklists. For example, every Sunday my task management software tells me to complete a Weekly Review and on the first Sunday of every month I have a reminder to complete my Monthly Review. This takes care of actually remembering to do the review, but the next step is to actually complete some kind of review.

I think checklists of questions to answer through writing are the best way to systematically build reflection into your life. My various checklists have been cobbled together based on my own experiences, goals, and on the suggestions of various books I've read over the years. I've shared my Weekly Review checklist before but you can see it again here. My Monthly Review checklist can be seenhere. As you might be able to tell with the differences between the Weekly and Monthly Reviews, as the review becomes more infrequent the nature of the reflective questions become "bigger." My Quarterly Review deals with long-term goals and Areas of Responsibility and my Yearly Review deals with my values and personal vision. I encourage you to use my checklists or other templates you find around the Internet as a first draft and then tweak them to match your exact specifications. Then, write (and save) your answers to the questions in your checklists to get yourself thinking reflectively. Saving your answers provides a great history of how your thinking and goals have evolved over time.

Without building a habit of reflection you're forcing yourself into a low-odds game where every decision you make has to be perfect. That's what happened when 17 year-old Sam made a decision that Future Sam was supposed to adhere to for the rest of his life. Don't put that kind of pressure on yourself. Trust that you've built a safety mechanism, regular reflection, into your life and you'll likely to start finding much more success and happiness.

Photo by b-leam