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.

About the Biz

Retention starts with Why

Create and Keep

We now have a couple of groups that have passed the one month period of using their scorecards.  With our current sample size, 86% of our participants have stuck with the experiment after five weeks.  This data is certainly skewed because some of the retention is clearly because of personal relationships with the participants.  This data will become much more relevant when we move to our open beta and those relationships are not as close.  Looking at how people are using our framework, it is critical to think through why some people are sticking with it and some aren’t.

How do we understand more about retention?  When you are trying to start a movement or launch a product there are always two sides of the movement momentum coin.  The first is generating excitement to get people to join up.  When launching product this excitement generation can be economically quantified into the metric customer acquisition cost or CAC.  CFOs spend a large majority of their time calculating this metric and even more time talking about it to anyone who will listen.  And it is important.  If your CAC is not a small fraction of your customer lifetime value, your long term biz prospects are going to be grim.  This is one of the reasons why business execs won’t shut up about their CACs.

The other side of the coin is customer retention.  In my experience, far too little time is spent on retention.  Peter Drucker once said, “The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer.”  We spend a ton of time on the first part but rarely do we spend enough on the second.  When we talk about retention, product quality and customer service are the first two obvious factors.  If either of these suck, the good news is that you will have plenty of time on your hands to watch your customers floating over to a better option.  Quality product and customer service are a bare minimum, you’re not even in the conversation without them.  Those two factors alone don’t start a movement.

The power of why

Movements are started by taking a stand.  Wanting to help people is not enough.  No matter how well intentioned that goal is, almost all products and movements claim they want to help people.  You gotta know why.  Let’s look at a couple of fairly recent examples.  The first is the open source movement.  The stance behind the open source movement is that fundamental knowledge and technology should be free to the world.  A group of engineers and academics got together and built huge libraries of work on their own time because they felt that proprietary software was unethical and unjust.  Another example is net neutrality.  Net neutrality believes that all data on the Internet must be treated the same.  Internet service providers cannot discriminate or charge different types of data differently.  Both of these movements have completely changed how technology is developed and consumed by our world.

There are tons of examples of movements started by companies as well.  None of that happens without the why.  The why is what allows people to connect emotionally with the movement.  If you think about Apple, they have always been the computing company that is bringing the power back to the masses.  This is obvious in looking at their original Super Bowl ad that mimicked ‘1984’.  Apple users are the righteous outsiders, the creative, the free spirits, the cool ones.  People love to identify with that.  Nike is another good example.  ‘Just do it’ has been inspiring athletes for years.  A huge part of that identity is aspirational, when we think of these brands we think of a better version of ourselves.  This keeps people coming back.

What is our why?

What is our why?  Let’s start with a theory.  Our capitalist society has created a culture of victimhood.  Why?  Because victims are susceptible to marketing.  Being susceptible to marketing means that you are going to buy more.  We’ve trained folks that all the answers to your problems can be found by spending money.  Not by doing.  By buying.  It is insanely unethical that we allow pharmaceutical companies to advertise their drugs directly to consumers.  The drug pushers list a host of generic symptoms that 80% of the populace can identify with, then convince themselves they have.  This creates more victims.  The drug companies then tell them to ‘ask their doctor’ which creates a crazy burden on healthcare professionals who should be prescribing based on their diagnoses not by some unethical outside marketing effort.  That’s madness.

As another example, take academia.  Political correctness, while a noble idea at first, has gone completely off the rails.  Academia has created ‘safe spaces’ where students will never be exposed to ideas that threaten their delicate sensibilities.  They’re treating our students like victims.  You don’t grow as a person when you’re not allowed to leave the echo chamber.  The right has Fox News, the left has liberal academia.  The only way we are ever going to get back to a world of civil discourse is if both sides listen to what each has to say with some iota of empathy and humility.  These academic crooks that are creating victims by creating ‘safe spaces’ are also creating victims by continuing to raise tuitions to astronomical levels while hiding their money in off-shore accounts.  These scumbags are not too far from Trump University when it comes to contempt for their students.  Yet 90% of our children grin and bear it because of the nature of victims to accept the status quo.

Finally, let’s talk about Facebook.  Facebook is the echo chamber.  They make almost all of their money on marketing, so they want you as defenseless as possible.  Look how easy it was for Russia to manipulate the US election.  That doesn’t happen when people’s guards are up.  Facebook has lowered our discourse to the lowest common denominator.  There’s plenty of humor on Facebook but very little substance.  Very rarely do you see big ideas on social media.  Your status on Facebook is directly proportional to how curated your conversational style is.  If you see someone saying something that you don’t agree with, do you engage them and try to understand?  No, you either violently spit out your counter talking points or you unfriend them.  Almost all major innovation and breakthroughs come from passionate disagreement, not from apathetic echo chambers.  To grow we need to challenge and be challenged.  We need to feel uncomfortable.  Facebook is the opposite of that.

Here’s our why: we want to destroy the victimhood of America and the Western world.  This is not an easy message.  Being a victim means that you can give up responsibility for your current situation.  That’s a hard safety net to get rid of.  Dropping the victim mindset starts with acknowledging that you are where you are today because of the choices that you made and for no other reason.

There are a ton of other factors that contribute to retention.  We may cover more of these in a future post.  But if you’re trying to start a movement, it has to start with why.

About the Biz, Methodologies

Personal Development in only 3 minutes?

Gamifying the Experience

We’ve done several sessions of the full, mediated personal development plan.  The most common feedback question that comes back: this is great when it is moderated, but how can you ever turn this into software?  Will you use videos?  Will you just sell it to life coaches?  How will you introduce this to the average Joe or Jan on the street?

In one of my previous lives, I built a company where we developed video games.  We were always planning on making gamification a big part of driving personal development.  The original idea was that gamification would come in as an afterthought, as icing on an already tasty cake.  The more feedback we get, the more it feels like the entire system should be structured like a game from the get go.  The newbie level will be an introduction to the concepts and we will gradually unlock all the different pieces of know thyself and ultimately the entire development plan.  Yes, there may be videos along the way but everything will be introduced in very bite sized pieces.

The 3 Minute Rule

As I was explaining the idea of the Odyssey to one of my closest friends, whom I started the video game company with and who stayed in the industry, he brought up the 3 minute rule.  A lot of the titles that he publishes these days are mobile titles.  One of the golden rules for a mobile game is that you have to be able to have a satisfying experience in 3 minutes or less.  This means that you can play a round while on the subway or on the can.  It has to be an encounter that can give you a sense of accomplishment in that time frame.

Turns out the 3-minute rule has applications in a ton of other scenarios.  We all know that the average pop song is around three minutes.  The Beastie Boys actually had a song called the 3-minute rule, not that I would ever dare to categorize the Beastie Boys as pop.  Billy Joel also lamented the restriction in the Entertainer – “it was a beautiful song / but it ran too long / if you’re gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit / So they cut it down to 3:05.”

The 3 minute rule is also used in auctions and nautical measures.  Another interesting case is a philosophy that a venture firm proposed in the Harvard Business review about understanding your customers.  They found that you can learn a ton about them by asking them what they were doing three minutes before using your product and three minutes after.   These three minute chunks place the customer in context to see why they start using your product in the first place.  Similarly, the three minute chunk after they use your product gives you a sense of what they are doing with the outputs you provide, how you fit into the greater workflow.

The moral of the story seems to be that the human mind identifies three minutes as a minimal amount of time to get something necessary, like an errand, done.  I did some research on this to see if there is an evolutionary reason for the time period but failed to turn anything up.  If you have seen any research about this segment of time, please let us know in the comments.

Making Each Step Fun

The other rule that we want to pull from gaming is that it should be fun at every level of progression.  RTS(real time strategy) games were brilliant at this.  The early game was all about establishing a base, the mid game was about exploration and advancement while the end game was typically about destruction of the enemy.  Another good example of this is the game Rim World.  Although it sounds like some dirty space fantasy, it is actually a brilliant strategy game.  I don’t know anybody who plays it the same way.  My wife loves the early game of setting up the colony, where I love the end game.  My girls seem to enjoy the expansion that happens in the middle.  The point is that one game allows us all to enjoy it for different reasons.  This is what we want to bring to the Odyssey.

The Internet Quiz

Internet QuizSo how do we implement the 3 minute rule in personal development?  The first obvious way to do this is the internet quiz.  Half of the Know Thyself elements that we use are built around taking personality or character strength multiple choice quizzes that define some primary attribute(s) about yourself.  Buzzfeed made the internet quiz a staple over the last ten years so familiarity with the approach will not be a problem.

The next step is providing an enjoyable entry level experience.  This will start with narrowing the problem space.  Can we pick a couple of problems that are very common in the current zeitgeist and build a ‘make-your-own-adventure’ decision tree that will allow our users to address very real problems in bite sized chunks?  We hope so.

Finally, we need to build the entry level functionality with an eye towards the mid and end game.  Each step needs to be fun and each step needs to bring our users a step forward in their personal development.  Most of this will be presented by unlocking new functionality each step of the way until our users are working off of a full personal development scorecard.  Many of these ideas have been story-boarded and wire-framed.  Our next step will be getting some early user feedback.  Stay tuned!

About the Biz

The horrors of context switching

We’re all busy.  Being busy is fun.  It sure beats being bored.  But being busy can be very counterproductive if we are constantly flitting from task to task like a hummingbird on Red Bull.  While starting The Odyssey I have been working on starting another business and doing some consulting on the side.  This has put me in a state of regular context switching.  Context switching sucks.

When we’re context switching it becomes very difficult to find a state of flow.  When we can never get in the ‘zone’, working on things like our big rocks becomes almost impossible.  One of the best ways to avoid the costs of context switching is to be aware of them.  With that in mind, I dug up an old blog that I wrote about the perils of context switching and pasted it below.  It dives a little into agile development which isn’t super relevant to personal development but the costs associated with multi-tasking are relevant to everybody.  Enjoy!

Context Switching

Context switching is the bane of productivity. For those of you not familiar with the term: context switching is when one is forced to switch from one topic or work item to the next. This is also known as multi-tasking. Sadly, too many people believe they are excellent multi-taskers. This is nonsense. Nobody is an excellent multi-tasker.

The brain is single threaded. We are not processors that can be running two tasks in parallel. We don’t have the internal CPU for such a job. Every time we switch tasks, we have to rebuild our mental architecture. We have to tear down the thought processes for our current task and replace them with the thought processes for the new task. This takes time when we are working in a vacuum. But when’s the last time you worked in a vacuum? Think about how much more time this takes when we are getting interrupted on a regular basis.

This is the famous chart that Gerry Weinberg put together to illustrate the waste caused by context switching.

If the numbers aren’t working for you in the first chart, that is because several assumptions are being made. The chart below explains those assumptions in a little more detail.

If you don’t find these graphs shocking, you’re not reading them right. If you are working on two projects at one time, then you are losing a full 20% of your productivity. If you are working on 5? 75% of your productivity goes straight in the shitter. To say that another way, when you are working five projects, each project gets 1/20th of your time. Rebuilding your mental architecture each time gets 3/4ths of your time.

That doesn’t apply to me, I’m a great multi-tasker

Oh yeah? If you are such a good multi-tasker do these two simple tasks for me: recite the lyrics of your favorite song and calculate the square root of 2,116. The hitch? You have to do these two tasks at the same time. Start the lyrics now and do not pause. Before you finish those lyrics, come up with the answer to the math problem.

In my personal experiments, one of two things happen here. The person gives up OR they come up with the right answer to the math problem but keep losing their place in the song. Humans are NOT capable of multi-tasking. Unless you are a cyborg or have figured out how to split your brain, please stop claiming that you are a good multi-tasker. My crappy personal experimentation aside, the science is in. You can start here for more info: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95256794.

There is always some wise-ass at this point that asks the question: if that is true how can I drive and hold a conversation? OR, how can I chew gum and walk at the same time. The answer: habits don’t count. The things that you have done so many times where your lizard brain takes over and the action gets moved to auto pilot don’t rely on higher level thought. We are only talking about those tasks that take higher level thought. Which, hopefully, is most of the tasks you do every day at work.

Interesting sidebar edit: It took me an hour and a half to write 80% of this column. I received a phone call when I was almost done writing that I had to take. It took me another hour and a half to write the final 20%. Context switching in action.

So what do we do about this loss of productivity?

One of my old bosses had a great philosophy: you want to move faster? Do less at one time. This is another way of stating the old maxim that less is more.

Let’s get specific and address one of two primary issues where context switching is a huge killer: software development. We’ll cover the other productivity killing issue, meetings, in the next post.

Cut your WIP (work in progress) ASAP

This is where the less is more rubber hits the road. When it comes to agile, one of the questions we need to be asking ourselves all the time is how much we can cut our work in progress. This questioning is where Kanban can be incredibly effective. Kanban translates to ‘visual signal’ and was pioneered on the floors of Toyota plants back in the fifties. Most people will use Kanban to give the team and folks outside of the team insight on the progress of work. Boards like the one below can be seen in almost every agile shop out there:

Unfortunately, for most teams, that’s where the utilization of Kanban ends. This is a shame. If you end with just the visual representation of the work moving from stage to stage you are missing out on the critical improvements that Kanban can offer you and your team. As you dive deeper you realize that much of the benefit of Kanban comes from identifying and eliminating bottlenecks.

One of the ways to tell if you have bottlenecks is to identify where most of your cards are backing up on your Kanban board. If most of your cards are in your backlog (to do) or sitting in Done, this isn’t much of a problem for your team. If however, most of your cards end up sitting in develop or test for most of the sprint right up until the last day: you’ve got WIP problems.

WIP problems typically fall into two categories: context switching and process problems. These categories have a ton of overlap, so we’ll talk about both together.

Set fixed limits for WIP

In a previous life, one of the teams I worked with had six devs, three QA and a product owner. Our rule for this group was the team could only have six WIP cards that were between the backlog and the done swim lanes.

The reaction to this early on was unexpected. The developers complained that they would be sitting on their hands a lot waiting. Granted, there was some hand sitting but not nearly as much as you would think. Instead, the team gelled better than ever before. A lot of agile teams pay lip service to the idea that no matter the task, the whole team pitches in to move product through the pipeline. So dev will help with QA, QA will help with requirements definition, etc. The sad reality is that these teams almost always get siloed. Developers just work on dev and QA just works on quality.

What happened with our team after instituting very strict WIP limits is that the devs got a lot more involved with the QA process and helped test other developer’s stories. In doing that testing, they gained a much better understanding of how QA was writing test cases. Most QA folks can’t code so QA didn’t implement any stories but the QA team got much more involved in the definition of these stories. Our devs also learned how valuable a good unit test is.

In the end, the numbers told the final story. That team went from an average push rate (work items being pushed at the end of a sprint) of 17% to under 5%. And their overall velocity increased by 10%. What we found was that keeping the whole team focused on a small number of items at one time caused us to move a lot faster. Less is more when you limit context switching.

You will need to play around with what your WIP limits are but err on the side of less work items at first. Even though it may feel like some people are sitting around waiting to work, people generally like to work. Chances are, you will find them helping out with other jobs and understanding the process as a whole a lot better. You will also quickly identify your bottlenecks. For us, the bottleneck was QA. Having developers finish more stories was only backing up the QA machine in the production line. Having dev help out with QA made everyone faster.

Segregate the issues coming in from the field

Another issue that can completely destroy your team’s productivity is adding work items to the sprint after the sprint has started. This is agile 101. Most of you know this and know that most product owners would never dare to add a new work item mid sprint. But what happens when a defect comes in from the field? This issue turns out to be bad enough that the customer is genuinely pissed off and now you have your CEO breathing down your neck.

The most effective way I’ve found to deal with this issue is to build a dev support team. We had a rotating dev support team that was made up of one developer with another on back up. The person on the dev support team was only on that team for two sprints at a time. Then they would move to the backup position. When they were the primary support dev, their only job was to handle issues coming in from the field. When there were no issues coming in from the field, they would fix defects. They were never assigned story work.

This is another great anti-silo approach. This forces all of your developers to become familiar with the entire codebase. It also shows you as a leader, how your different devs react to stress.

What if I’m on a custom software team?

If you’re building custom software for clients, context switching comes with the territory. It can be managed but not eliminated. The most effective custom or outsource teams that I have worked with manage this in a couple of ways. First, they budget for the context switching costs. Most of these teams have been doing this long enough that they understand the impact of context switching WAY better than product development teams so they incorporate it into their estimates. They also mitigate some of the risk by trying to keep their resources on one project and only one project as long as they can. When that is not a possibility, the best outsource teams that I have worked with try to limit their resources to working on only one project per day. It’s easier to rebuild that mental architecture if you only have to do it once per day.


None of us can multi-task effectively which is why context switching is such a killer. Acknowledging that multi-tasking is the problem is the first step in the healing process. The more you can eliminate context switching from your life and the lives of your team, the more productive you will be. This is part one of the context switching topic wherein we covered the mechanics of context switching in the agile product cycle. In the next post we will cover the other big context switching time thief, meetings.