“Girls with dreams become women with vision.”
This was written on one of my birthday cards last year. I have a lot of dreams, from running my own company, getting a phd and finally writing a book about start-ups. Living in London, I am surrounded by ambitious women with equally bold dreams. However, the devil is in the detail and turning dreams into a vision whilst juggling all the competing demands of work, friends, family and life in general can be tough. Alex Hess, a partner at a private equity firm, philanthropist and mother said at a recent Eyedea event: “The desire to always want do more when there is never enough time is a trap that catches us all.”
What if we could just do more things a little bit better and a little bit faster? New York Times reporter, Charles Duhigg, has attempted to solve this conundrum for us and compiled his lessons into eight neat chapters in his recent book: smarter, faster better. The Secrets of Being Productive. As can be expected from a Pulitzer price winning author, the book is a pleasure to read and provides inspiring tales of Jack Welsh’s turn around of General Electric to how Disney’s Frozen became a hit (and almost didn’t get made), alongside a set of practical recommendations from agile thinking to forecasting the future. I have road tested his tips this year and below is a summary of my personal highlights on how to do more things better.
Set your goals
The first step in achieving anything is to define your ambition and set yourself goals. Duhigg identifies two types of goals: SMART goals and stretch goals. A SMART goal is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and can be accomplished within a specific timeframe. Stretch goals disrupt our complacency and help us to keep going. Becoming a business owner is my personal stretch goal. It shifts my attention to a possible new future which I paint in my head in great detail. I imagine my business cards, my seat in first class airport lounges and being cheered on by my future employees. In reality, however, this journey can be audacious and outright terrifying. We therefore need SMART goals to help put the impossible within reach. Ask yourself: What realistic progress can you make towards your stretch goal in the next day, week, month? Breaking a big ambition into proximal goals makes the large objective more likely to occur.
How do you know which one is right for you? The most powerful idea for me was there is not only one future, but simply a field of possibilities. Duhigg suggests to imagine various options – some of which might be contradictory- so you are better equipped to make wise choices. Seek out different perspectives, listen to stories of success and failure of others. By finding information and then letting yourself sit with it, the various alternatives become clearer.
Everyone who has ever (unsuccessfully) tried to stick to a diet knows how hard it is to stay motivated when confronted with a chocolate brownie. Even if we pin photos of all the Victoria Secret Angels on our fridge door. The crucial element, according to Duhigg, is to transform your chores into a set of meaningful choices. The choices that are most powerful convince us that we are in control and endow our actions with larger meaning. We resist the brownie because we want to, not because we have to. We can achieve anything if we set our minds to it, but we need a constant reminder on why we chose to do something. I am choosing to start my own business as I believe that the company I want to work for doesn’t yet exist. I want to integrate my family with my work and one day bring my kids to the office. I am also passionate about creating employment opportunities for others. This helps me to stay focused on the big picture. It also helps to get smaller tasks done. Duhigg describes how he began scribbling at the top of each manuscript two or three sentences on why it was important for him to read it, for example: ‘It will help me find the right character for chapter I’. Self-motivation becomes easier when we see our choices as affirmations of our deeper values and goals and the feeling of self-determination is ultimately that keeps us going.
This sounds well and good, but as John Lennon said: Life happens while you are busy making other plans. Sudden phone calls, a theatre ticket a friend offers, a crisis at work: life has a habit of being terribly distracting. Duhigg advises that to be genuinely more productive we must take control of our attention. We must build mental models that put us firmly in charge. We have to make decisions including the decisions on what deserves our attention. To stay focused on your SMART and stretch goals he describes a handy trick: envision what you expect to happen. Sit each morning quietly for a couple of minutes and run through the following questions:
- My goal for the day. – Find an accountant
- What will happen first? – Send emails to friends who started businesses and ask for recommendations.
- What distractions are likely to occur? – When I open my inbox, there are likely to be 30 emails from work demanding my attention.
- How will you handle that distraction? – I will ignore them until 11:30am.
- How will you know you’ve succeeded? – I’ll have sent at least 3 emails and made a long list of accounts found online
- What is necessary for success? – I’ll need to put tea next to me, so I’m not tempted to get up and get one
- What will you do next? – I’ll prepare a call list for the next day.
This should only take a couple of minutes, but this should makes it easier to decide where focus should go when real life interferes
Find your cheerleaders
Duhigg does not expand much on the role others can play in helping you to achieve your goals. Yet, having people to cheer you on is one of the most integral ingredients for success. Being bold requires courage, determination and grit. Simon Sinek, the best-selling author of Start With Why and third most popular TED talker, has put it poignantly: ’Courage comes from the feeling we have that someone has our back.” Whether it is the friend, who understands that you cancelled the last three brunch dates because you study best in the morning, your gym buddy, the friend you schlepp along to countless networking events or a text message with an article that totally solved a particular problem you were having. You have to build a team of cheerleaders around you that help you stay focused, dispel your doubts and cheer you on until you reach your finish line
This post first appeared on the Eyedea website. Eyedea is a London-based society for young professional women that hosts speaker and charity events aiming to inspire and connect young female professionals.