About the Biz, Methodologies

Why can’t personal development be fun?!

Why Self Help Sucks

Look around the blogosphere today and you’ll see a ton of advice out there.   Here are just a few examples of recent titles:

  • How To Develop Mastery, Make Millions, and Be Happy
  • 7 Crucial Lessons People Often Learn Too Late in Life
  • You Make Or Break Your Life Between 5-7 AM
  • Surround Yourself with People Who Hold You to a Higher Standard than Yourself
  • 19 Tiny Habits That Lead to Huge Results

Most of this is really good advice.  We read it and we say, ‘someday I’ll pick up some of those habits.’  OR, we get a strike of inspiration and try one of the bits of advice for a day or two until we forget about it.  We forget about it because it doesn’t provide immediate results or some other piece of advice butterflied it’s way in front of our brains and we then focused on that.  Even more likely, we thought about trying it and realized it was just too hard.  So, I have to get up at 5 AM?  Really?  Who’s going to know if I get up at 5:15 or hit the snooze button until 6:45 anyway?  We then convince ourselves that we probably didn’t need that advice anyway.  Yeah, our lives aren’t great, but they’re not sooo bad, right?

Change IS hard.  Most of us fear it.  It is far easier to stick to the comfortable.  If you put yourself out there you could look like a fool or even worse, you could FAIL.  Oh, the horror.

I was talking to a life coach acquaintance of mine and she shared a really disturbing figure with me.  In her experience, life coaching only works for about 5% of all the people she coaches.  Five Percent!  That’s with people that have actually made a commitment and shelled out $250 an hour!   She stays sane because the 5% that stick with it make it worth it.  I don’t think this is an anomaly.

My wife is a family physician who has a fair number of patients with behavioral health issues and many more that deal with issues with diabetes or have serious trouble with medication adherence.  This is another group that sees a professional, works out a plan and universally struggles to stick with it.  Thankfully, her numbers aren’t as bad as 5% but they’re not a whole hell of a lot better either.


So what’s happening here?  When reading articles online, minimal attention is given to these good ideas.  They pass through the brain like a pleasant thought and last just as long.  There is zero accountability when it comes to reading self-help.  The exception is whatever accountability you impose upon yourself.

Accountability-personal-DevelopmentNobody cares if you hit your goals or not.  That’s why many self-help experts ask you to make these goals public and surround yourself with a support group.  Doing so raises the stakes and attempts to make people care.  These are great ideas – in theory.  These ideas are super hard to put into practice.  You know how busy other people are and you don’t want to impose.  It doesn’t matter to your lizard brain that your friends would probably be happy and honored to help.  It just sounds so cheesy and requires a level of vulnerability you’re probably not comfortable with.

Accountability is only part of the puzzle.  According to my life coach friend it’s only about 5% of the puzzle.  That’s primarily what her clients are paying her for, accountability.  I would personally put the pie slice quite a bit higher when accountability is applied, more along the lines of 20%.  This can soar far higher when a group dynamic is applied.  If you put group pressure in place by making things public or by adding an element of competition, we’ve seen the numbers get as high as 83% with our own experiments.  That percentage comes with a serious caveat, you only get those high numbers from competition when the majority of the group engages.  If only a minority engages, you end up back in the 20% range.  My wife sees higher accountability due to the authority of her role as well as the potential mortality of the consequences.  Things crystallize a bit when death is on the line.

Awareness and mindfulness

Mindfulness.jpgSo what other factors are in play?  After speaking with a bevy of life coaches, they all agreed that awareness and mindfulness were another big factor.  When we review our goals or talk about them with a coach or therapist, we leave those conversations or reviews feeling very inspired and pretty clear on what we should be doing.  However, when we smack into the stresses of real life, these great intentions vanish quicker than a hamburger at a Vegans Anonymous meeting.   Having the mindfulness to stick with your goals out in the real world is hard as hell.  If only we could program a little angel to be sitting on our shoulder to remind of us of our goals when the shit hits the fan…  That’s part of what the folks at the Track your happiness project are doing.  They have you check in on a regular basis throughout the day just to see how you are feeling and why.  Just participating in the project is having a positive effect on people’s overall happiness because they are made aware of it.  That’s the power of mindfulness.

Play / Fun


I think the biggest reason by far is that self-help or personal development is typically not very fun.  Coming up with your goals is fun.  Building the vision boards is fun.  Imagining how successful you’ll be when you hit those goals is fun.  But doing the work…not so much.  Remember when you were kid and you had to get your chores done?  I know I would either put it off for as long as possible and then slog through it dragging my feet.  Or, I would make a game out of it somehow and have fun getting it done.  Kids have been able to turn chores into fun since time immemorial.  Yeah, they typically don’t do as good of a job as an adult because the focus becomes the game, but they still get work done.

A good story on that front: my youngest daughter picked, quite literally, the shittiest chore out of the chore hat for last year – the weekly cleanup of the dog poop out of the dog run.  Every Sunday when it was time to get it done, the waterworks would turn on.  Keep in mind, she was only eight.  “I hate that job <deep breath, huge wail>; how come I got the worst job <sob>.”  So I started to help her out with it.  In this case it was me that turned it into a game.  We would always start by looking for the grossest poop of the bunch.  Then we would both point at it, take a deep breath, and yell ‘ewwwwww’ at the top of our lungs until we were out of breath.  But then, she picked it up.  Next we would look for all of the hidden poops, those that were under leaves or dog toys – a poop scavenger hunt.  And she picked those up.  By that time, all that was left were the easy ones and she got through those pretty quickly.  Before we knew it, the job was done.  I’m not going to say that left her looking forward to doing the chore the next week, but she always got it done.

One of my eldest daughters chores last year was to cook one dinner a week.  She likes to cook so this was not a huge deal for her.  Regardless, whenever I could, I volunteered to be her sous chef.  So she was the boss.  And that was definitely a good time for her.  It was also a great time for me.  I gained a ton of insight into her thinking patterns.  It was also a great chance to deepen my relationship with her.

The fun approach should be a guideline for life anyway.  Who are the teachers you remember most growing up?  They were always the ones that made learning fun.  The whacky science teacher or we even had a math teacher who was one of the coaches who just didn’t get most of the subject he was teaching.  The fun and funny part was that he was very open about it, happy to share his vulnerability and even getting the kids to help him figure out problems on the board.  In retrospect, I truly wonder if he didn’t really get it in the first place and that was just his style of finding engagement.

It’s easy to be the downer.  It’s a lot harder to pick people up.  To be the fun one.

So, how do we make self-help fun?  This is what Jane McGonigal has been spending her time doing for the last six years, trying to gamify life.  Her story is a truly spectacular and is really worth the 20 minute TED talk if you haven’t seen it already.  She has proven that some of this stuff can be made fun with her game SuperBetter.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the game but I love the idea.

I can’t remember who said it but I read it somewhere – “Flow is playtime for adults.”  Once you can really get into a task and your brain fully engages, it becomes fun.  We just need to figure out how to make it fun to get your brain to that point in the first place.  That’s one of the challenges we’re taking on in our software.

As you start thinking about your next attempts at personal development, think about those three factors – accountability, awareness and fun.  Any of the three will give you a better shot at success but if you can figure out a way to hit all three marks, you’re on your way to a better you.


Why is motivation so hard? : 5 Ways our users found to combat the pain


Why is motivation so hard to find?  Why only sometimes?  Why is it that other times it shows up like an old friend and sticks around for days or even weeks?  How can we drill these fields of motivation just below the crust of our psyche and turn them into a reliable source of energy and drive?  First we need to understand motivation a bit.

Let’s start with Daniel Pink’s amazing TED talk on motivation.  If you haven’t seen it, stop reading and watch it now.  It’s transformative work.  The link I gave is the animated version which I like even better than his TED talk because it feels more engaging.

Pink’s study on motivation is biased towards the workplace.  He claims that money is a very poor motivator for cognitive tasks.  Manual labor, sure, money works great as a motivator.  However, once you have to turn the brain up, even to a two or a three, money does the opposite of motivate.  Once the brain has to be engaged, the higher the monetary bonus, the worse the performance we get from people.  The science shows that corporate bonus incentives are actually hurting performance.  Crazy, right?

Now, there is a big caveat here.  This makes the assumption that people are getting paid enough to be comfortable in the first place.  These folks are getting enough money so that money doesn’t NEED to be part of the motivation conversation.

So what works in the workplace?  Turns out, three big factors hold sway.  The first is autonomy.  People hate to be micro managed.  When workers are given the respect to think for themselves, performance goes through the roof.  This is why things like 24 hour ship day or FedEx day are so successful.  Anytime you give employees free reign to create and BE creative, they reward you with incredible innovation.

The second is mastery.  People like to get better at things.  There was a long study on this in Cal Newport’s excellent book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You.  The title of the book came from a Steve Martin quote when someone asked him about his success.  Steve Martin was one of the hardest working guys in comedy.  He worked his ass off to hone his craft.  Newport also makes the argument that chasing your passion is a recipe for disaster.  He recommends that mastering a craft is the goal to happiness.  Shawn Achor, in his book, The Happiness Advantage, happens to agree with him.  One of Achor’s seven keys to happiness is to ‘exercise a signature strength’ or do something you are good at on a regular basis.  That craftsman’s attitude holds a ton of merit.  Even though I’m starting this business, I still consult on a regular basis to help companies with leadership vision as well as cleaning up their software development organizations.  Not only do I get paid well, but it feels great to do something at which I KNOW I excel.

The third is purpose.  When mastery and autonomy are linked with some unified purpose, amazing things begin to happen.  This is true both in the private sector and outside of it.  This is how we got huge success from companies like Apple and Google but also how things like Wikipedia and Linux came into being.  Once purpose falls out of sync with mastery and autonomy, really bad things start to happen.  Lehman Brothers anyone?

Great, so that covers the biz side.   But, what about motivation in your personal life?  There is definitely some crossover of mastery and purpose from the biz side.  We all want to improve.  We all want to chase something meaningful.  But why is it so goddamn hard to get off the couch and go for a run?  How do we find the motivation outside of work to hit our non-work goals?  To answer these questions we conducted several studies on the groups we had testing our methodologies.  We looked at who was successful, who was not and what factors motivated them to succeed.  Here are five of the most successful ways we found to get you up and rolling.

5 ways to get off your ass and get it done

# 1 – Reward your success

A friend of mine and one of the subjects of testing these methodologies found rewards to be a big secret of her success for hitting personal goals.  If you hit a goal or a milestone, give yourself an appropriate reward.  If you want a new pair of running shoes, allow yourself to buy them after you hit your step count goals for a full week.  I know this works for me.  I always give myself a reward for finishing a project or a blog post.  That could be an indulgent lunch or a 30 minute break to read.  Achor seems to believe that this is one of the seven keys to happiness – find something to look forward to.

# 2 – Understand what motivates you

People are motivated by many different things.  Some of us are very self-driven as long as we have purpose.  Some of us thrive on praise.  Some love to be challenged.  Others require some level of competition to get their engine started.  Still others need to know that results are around the corner.  What is it for you?  Select goals and next steps that allow for your motivation style.

# 3 – Make starting the task easy

This goes back to another of Shawn Achor’s ideas, the 20 second rule.  In his words, ‘inactivity is simply the easiest option.’  The science is in though, humans don’t like inactivity.  We’d rather be engaged.  So, we need to make the tasks around our goals easy to start.  If you want to start a running habit early in the morning, go to bed in your running clothes.  If you want to stop watching TV so much – take the batteries out of the remote.  Those were both examples from Achor’s tests on himself.  If the task you want to do takes less than 20 seconds to start, your chance of sticking with it is MUCH higher.

# 4 – Look at the big picture

This came from another one of my friends in the study.  His recommendation was to tap into the very powerful emotion of regret.  If you look 10 years down the road, what would you regret that you didn’t accomplish over the past 10 years?  Oh, I wish I knew how to ____.  You fill in the blank.  You only get one shot at this life.  Don’t play small.

# 5 – Don’t sell your attention so cheaply

William James said something along the lines of – at the end of your days, your life will have been what you paid attention to.  Give yourself time to not be distracted.  There are an infinite number of distractions out there, be conscious of them.  It’s up to you to carve out blocks of time to get the important stuff done.


Find your motivation.  Please share with us what works for you!


Embrace the Stress!

No worthwhile life is stress free

When did stress become such a bad word?  Maybe it’s because it’s around the New Year but I’m gonna lose it if I see one more article about “22 ways to live a stress free life.”  Stop and ask yourself for a second – would you really want a stress free life?  Sounds pretty horrible to me.

Stress reminds us that we are alive.  Evolutionarily, stress came packaged with the lizard brain.  This is the fight or flight response you learn about in grade school science.  The caveman version of stress (and Walter Cannon’s) is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack or threat to survival.  When we moved out of the caves and into the 20th and 21st century, stress came with us.  It too evolved.  Stress developed ways of convincing the lizard brain that a late book report, or showing up late to a meeting is the first world equivalent of facing down a hungry sabretooth.

I’m the first to admit that you don’t want to be under pressure ALL the time.  Everyone has seen the corporate stresshoppers bouncing around every downtown urban center in the world.  These poor bastards are constantly at the end of their collective ropes, one bad review from a coronary implosion.  The science is out on that level of stress.  Live in that pressure cooker for too long and you’re gonna pop.

Let’s take a second though and look at the other side of the spectrum.  Those that live without any stress at all.  Have you ever met a really happy trustafarian?  Maybe when they’re younger and having all the funds to do whatever they want is still new.  But even then, there is an almost frantic malaise that seems to emanate from their booze soaked pores.  History is spackled with these diminutive creatures.  Think of the entitled nobility of yore who turned political back-biting into blood sport simply because they were bored.  A trustafarian acquaintance of mine recently had a mental break due to his stress free lifestyle all while continuing to post ever happier pictures on Facebook.

A mental break from too LITTLE stress?  How does that even happen?

For most of our history as a species we have been simply struggling to survive.  To find our next meal.  To not end up as a chew toy for marauding wolf packs.  That was our purpose.  Live to tomorrow.  Make babies.  Feed babies.  Protect babies until they can protect themselves.

If you’ve ever read Harari’s excellent book Sapiens, he explains that a side effect to human survival is community.  As the size of community grows so do the fictions that allow us to relate to others.  These fictions can be religions, corporations, ethos, zeitgeists, etc… but they are completely man made meaning that they don’t exist in nature without man.  Each human’s personal fiction is how they fit (or don’t fit) into the community’s larger fictions.  In other words, their purpose.  Having purpose comes with its own stress, but it’s a good stress.  A real purpose is something that you stand up for, something you fight for.  Not having purpose comes with a different stress that often takes a longer time to realize.  This is the understanding that you are just a boil on the ass of society, not contributing ideas or even simple labor.  This is what happens to our trustafarians.  Their stress free lifestyle ultimately catches up to them when they finally come to the realization that they’ve made zero contribution to the collective fictions of society.

The stresses brought about by purpose typically come in the form of accountability.  This is holding yourself accountable to your own values.  To fighting for your purpose.  This is holding your friends and co-workers accountable for playing their own role in society.  To keeping their commitments, living ethically, not allowing #metoo moments to happen.  These stresses are the lube that keep the gears of positive human interaction turning.

Another super valuable stress is adapting to change.  Life is change.  Stephen Hawking said it best, “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”  Almost every blog you read on success will at some point mention that you have to take yourself out of your comfort zone.  The more often, the better.  Leaving your comfort zone is stressful.  Nobody wakes up in the morning wanting to do it, but the feeling and education you get after successfully navigating unknown waters is worth it.

That’s what the term deliberate practice means.  Working on a skill in an area where you are out of your comfort zone.  If you’re learning to play an instrument, you don’t learn much if you keep playing the same song over and over again.  You HAVE to keep challenging yourself to get better.  That challenge is stressful.  Stress is a required ingredient in improvement.

There have been a number of studies done on the benefits of stress.  Moderate amounts of stress can boost your brain power, motivation and memory.  I’m sure you’ve experienced this.  When trying to complete a project for a deadline, just having the deadline forces a high level of focus.  Often, it pushes you into the zone where the work just flows.  When you leave the zone, you feel great.

Finally, when you look back at history, some of the greatest humans alive came from times of extraordinary stress.  Whether the stressful times made the leaders or the leaders made the times is always up for debate.  If you look at the Caesars, Churchills, FDRs, Lincolns, MLKs, the Gandhis, they rose in times of great stress.  Now, look at the leaders over the last 50 years.  Not a lot to be proud of.  It’s been more a decline in the collective purpose of the race.  Do you think history will remember Clinton or Bush?  Not that times of peace or a bad thing, but there’s always evil to fight, whether that’s a Nazi empire, global warming or poverty.

Stress is important to our well-being both personally and as a society.  My recommendation is that the next time you see another article on how to totally eliminate stress from your life, ignore it.