Pick Up The Phone

If you want to get something done – you need to pick up the phone.

Sending text messages or emails to make something happen is a delaying tactic that I realize I’ve used for years. You need to do something so you send a message, thereby creating the illusion of progress. But in actuality you are putting off the hard choice or difficult decision.

The message you sent will end up bouncing back and forth in the ether and the result you are looking for will take days to accomplish, rather than minutes.

People respond well to one on one interactions. The result of our ever-connected society is that we are less connected than ever. A voice on the other end of the line is a welcome respite to the pile of emails and messages we now deal with on a daily basis.

A phone call also pushes your agenda to the top of the pile, as it can’t be ignored or delayed like an email can. They either answer or they don’t.

Emails are great for solidifying what was discussed on the phone and for sharing information, but when you need something done it is time to pick up the phone.

Practice in Public

When I was younger I really wanted to play guitar.  Even as a young child, when asked by my parents if I wanted to take music lessons, that was the instrument I enthusiastically requested.  Then they put me into violin…

Later I got my wish in the form of a cherry red Stratocaster.  Weekly music lessons were started and my teacher jumped right in to teaching me Metallica licks.  I would take these home and practice without the amplifier, wanting to get it right first.

Later still, I bought myself a nice little acoustic in Greece while traveling.  One of the guys I was with was already really good and a bunch of us started playing together.  We’d trade off rhythm for lead, but when it was my turn I would usually play very softly, as if only for myself.

Looking back at those years I can see that my approach was all wrong.  I treated it like a solo activity even when in a group.  Scared of hitting a wrong note in public, I didn’t hit any notes at all.

Practice Required

Getting better at any skill requires dedicated practice.  That’s a no-brainer.  And a lot of that practice will be done in private.  But to advance quickly you need to receive feedback.  That’s why it is important to devise ways to practice in public.

Hanging it on the line does three things:

  1. Gets you the quick feedback you need
  2. Forces you to deliver imperfect attempts
  3. Trains you for the spotlight so you don’t choke when put on the spot

This doesn’t mean you should never practice scales in your bedroom again.  The idea is to prepare first, then perform what you’ve learned – no matter the level of development.  If you started playing guitar last week then I want you on stage playing Mary Had a Little Lamb this weekend.

Don’t Fear the Spotlight

Practicing in public is about devising ways to showcase your progress and release your work into the world.  Yet it can be difficult to do.  We fear being put on the spot; being ridiculed for our feeble first attempts.  While there may be some ribbing at first, those same people will quietly respect you for attempting something in public.

With a bit of practice that fear will subside and your skills will continue to grow.  You’ll be getting the quick feedback required to progress and confidence in your skills will soar.  And it doesn’t take much practice before you are far better than everyone around you who doesn’t practice at all, making your skills seem even more impressive by comparison.

If the ultimate goal is to showcase your skills in public then get used to practicing there as well – warts and all.  Progress will come faster and you will develop confidence in your skills.

I think it’s time to dust off that guitar.

The Two Sides of Improvement

We all have things we want to get better at; skills to learn and improve, projects to complete, or physical actions related to our health and appearance.  We often hang the success of these goals on the power of our self-discipline.  Conversely, failures to perform are blamed on a lack of discipline.

But discipline is only one half of the story.

Imagine waking up every morning, jumping out of bed into your running shoes, and heading straight out the door for a run.  Later, at the end of the day, you stuff your face with ice cream right before bed.  At the end of the month your weight hasn’t changed despite all the miles you’ve put in, and you bemoan your lack of self-discipline in achieving your goals.

Waking up to run each day takes discipline though, so it isn’t as if that is impossible to tap into.  The obvious culprit here is the nightly ice cream party.  And avoiding that doesn’t take discipline; it takes self-control.

The Two Sides

Simply put, discipline is what we do.  The actions we take.  It is the force that requires us to move, to put on those running shoes, or to sit at the desk and start writing.

Self-control is what we don’t do.  It’s what we bring in to play when we go to bed early to ensure a good night sleep, order salad instead of fries, or put down that ice cream scoop.

Discipline is what we do.  Self-control is what we don’t do.

This isn’t just semantics.  Recognizing that these are two distinct operating modes allows recognition of how they can be used in different situations.  Each requires different strategies to ensure success, and each can be strengthened through practice.  Recognizing which tool to use in different circumstances helps stack the deck for a positive outcome.

Discipline

If discipline affects what we do and the actions we take, then how to best stack the deck in our favor to ensure success?

Discipline is the precursor to habit.  While it is difficult at first to wake up every day and go for a run, or floss every night, or write for 30 minutes, eventually the repeated action becomes a habit and is completed almost on autopilot.  The inflection point that triggers the habit routine becomes very small and is the lever where your discipline needs to be applied.

The key is to identify that lever then create optimal conditions for completing it.  Make it too easy to fail.

If you are trying to work out in the mornings, prepare your gear the night before so it is ready.  Put it on and then just focus on getting out of the door.  If you get outside you’ve won for the day, and at this point it is easier to just keep moving than it is to go back inside.

In The One Thing, author Jay Papusan figures that it takes around 66 days to build a new habit and encourages us to choose One Thing to focus on at a time.  At the end of each period the action has become a habit and the discipline required to execute it is minimal.  A new action is then chosen and will be “stacked” on top of the previous one.

Remove the obstacles to discipline and identify the lever where its application will have the greatest affect.

Self-Control

Often referred to as will power, this is described by the American Phsychlogical Association as “the ability to delay gratification, resisting short term temptations in order to meet long term goals”.

Self-control is what you don’t do.  It is avoiding the things that move your life in the direction opposite that you want it to go.  And it is the more difficult skill to master.

Our desires are formed from thousands of years of evolution and many of them rest deep in our lizard brain.  They can never be expunged and must be resisted time and time again.  Sometimes we win the battle and others we lose.  What can we do to improve the odds in our favor?

Environment design is the first place to start.  Just as we are often driven by our base desires, we are also inherently lazy and will gravitate towards the easiest option in many instances.  Trying to lose weight?  Get rid of all junk food in your house and keep a bowl of apples on the counter.  Want to spend less time on social media?  Delete the apps from your phone and only check it from your laptop.

Make it hard to do the things you want to avoid and easy to do something more positive.  Delay the gratification of these actions and use them as a reward, rather than a crutch.

I love reading, but there was a point where I would read when I should have been writing.  At the end of the day I hadn’t written a thing but had polished off another book.  Something had to give.  I made a deal with myself that I could start reading (reward) once I had written something (trigger).  A single paragraph was enough, but this had to happen each time before I picked up that book.  This helped establish a healthier balance and I was able to get things back under control.

A second technique that helps with self-control is to pre-determine your responses.  Use an “If this then that” statement as a guide.

“If we go to a restaurant then I’m going to order a salad.”

“If they bring drinks I’ll have one and then switch to water.”

“If I’m invited out then I’ll take a raincheck.”

Make your decision ahead of time so that you’ve already practiced the response.  This especially helps in situations where your default (easiest) decision is one that you are trying to stop or minimize.  Eventually these decisions will become the new default decision once they have been applied enough times.

Divide and Conquer

Changing out bad habits and developing new ones can be a big job, but is made easier by separating techniques for the things you do (discipline) and the things that you don’t do (self-control).  They are two sides of the same coin and, when used together, will help you achieve your goals more effectively.

One or the other will usually come more naturally to most people.  The trick is to realize where you are flagging, then take steps that are tailored towards specific action to stack the deck in your favor.