Wednesday, February 16, 2011

assume you are average

Let's face it; we're human. We have this intrinsic gravitational pull to compare things together. We compare ourselves, our stuff, our achievements, etc with others. We love to compare.

But why?

It's because of our desire to fit in, to belong with a group. Maslow's third tier in his hierarchy of needs is dedicated to mankind's desire for love and acceptance. We want to be accepted. The next highest tier looks at man's need for self-esteem or confidence. We want others to perceive us a certain way. We want others to respect us, to look up to us.

And so we need a benchmark to measure ourselves against. We want to know what the norm is, so we can discern how we are doing in comparison with everyone else. If we excel at something, we only excel at something in relation to how others are faring. If we want to be better at something, we need to know how others are doing.

Sometimes, comparisons can be deadly, like eating disorders that many young women develop by constantly comparing themselves to how they believe beautiful women should look like. Or we get depressed because we feel like we can't measure up to society's standards of what a smart college student is, or even that we are a failure in our parents' eyes because we aren't a doctor or lawyer and we are Asian (or not).

But we can also use comparison for our advantage. Remember when I talked about the dangers of perfectionism? It's the same kind of concept here.

Just because you know that your job wasn't completed perfectly doesn't mean that everyone else does. Remember when your parents signed you up for piano lessons and your teacher would make you have recitals? Remember how you would cringe and feel like a failure every time you messed up a note, but when you talked to everyone afterward, you realized the only person who noticed was you? Yeah, that's pretty much how the rest of the world is, too.

When people pay you to fix stuff for them, they're not really paying you to do an amazing job (well kinda, but stick with me here); they're paying you to just do a better job than they could. People don't expect you to do things perfectly, just better than them.

This means that all the people you're intimidated by, aka all the bestselling authors, influential businessmen, etc aren't any different than you and I; they've just learned to do things better than everyone else.

So find the benchmark, and learn how to become one step above it. For 99% of things in life, this is good enough. Lower your expectations (counterproductive though this may seem), but the projects you'll complete will be good enough to get the job done well while still impressing others. How do I know this?

Because I am average, too. And I am very impressed by people who know how to do things I don't have any idea of how to do, like change the transmission of a car. Or write a software program. The average person has no idea how to do this stuff. If this is your field, major or interest, you can safely assume that a business will hire you to write a program for their company, and they have absolutely no idea what any of your technical jargon means.

No, I am not endorsing slacking off; I am encouraging productivity and a mindset of increased job satisfaction. Think of it as diminishing marginal utility. The more effort and time you put into problem solving, the better the solution becomes. But once you've solved all the main problems, all your left with is basically minutiae, whose results are not worth the amount of time you have to put in. I hope I am being clear here. Your goal is to add value, so do not waste your time on tedious details that do not provide much output for the amount of input you invest in it.

I landed a gig doing website maintenance for an engineering professor on campus. How? Honestly, I have no idea. I had never even used Dreamweaver before. I walked into the job with only basic HTML knowledge (and we're talking REALLY limited HTML here), but this professor is elderly and didn't really know anything about all. So I got by because I knew more than he did, and what's more, he is actually quite impressed by my technical knowledge. I knew enough to fix his website problems, and that was enough. But if I couldn't fix his problems, if I couldn't complete the task he hired me for, there would be no point in me taking the job, and it would certainly be unethical for me to charge him.

Comparisons are not inherently good or bad; they are merely a tool to help you understand which actions are bringing you value. Ever heard the phrase that 85% is good enough? Comparisons tell you where the 85% mark is.

Monday, February 7, 2011

something is better than nothing

What's a college student to do when she realizes she has three midterms, a job interview, and class registration all in one week?

Well if you haven't already realized, the "she" is me, and I usually start by running around like a chicken with its head cut off. Then I sit down, make a to-do list, get overwhelmed by the to-do list, then tuck myself into bed and whimper.

After that, I snap out of it, prioritize my list, and start my tasks using the Snowball effect. And all would be nice and dandy if life worked just like that and I accomplished all my goals. However, let's be realistic. We have time constraints that prevent us from accomplishing all that we would like to do, even if we're still feeling motivated. The fact is, sometimes at 2 AM, I'm feeling productive and ready to get a bunch of stuff done, but it would be unwise to stay up another 2 hours, because I would be tired the next day and unable to focus on my work.

So when I have a task that will take many hours to complete but only have a fraction of the time to do it in, I find it extremely easy to procrastinate, saying that I'll do it "later," when I "have more time." As we know, later never comes with more time, so I have to figure something else out to maintain productivity even when the satisfaction of achievement isn't involved.

To get around the time constraint and to compensate for the lack of euphoria of completing a task, just work on your task for however long you have.

For instance, at work, I'm supposed to be overhauling our website. There are many revisions on each of the say, 50 pages or so, that will take me hours to complete. While yes, all 50 pages must be revised, I do not have hours and hours of time, energy and resources to just sit at the computer and edit web pages in one sitting. No, for a big project like this, I'll choose three web pages that require major revisions, and I'll get to work emailing the people I need updated information from, etc. This is what I call the "something is better than nothing" approach.

I realize that this seems like a fairly obvious tip, but let's unload this a little more. People know that it's best to break up big projects into smaller, bite-sized pieces to accomplish tasks. Yet so few people do it. I know this, and I still don't do it as often as I should. This is called cognitive dissonance.

What is preventing me from putting this into practice? I hate feeling like I spent a bunch of time on a zillion different things without accomplishing anything. This makes me not want to work on starting a new chapter on a tedious subject (ahem, economics) if I only have 15 minutes, because I won't have enough time to finish it.

The magic of this tip comes from a mindset change. Fifteen minutes of reading a chapter is better than nothing at all. Likewise, $10 of savings/week is better than $0/week. I think a lot of times we feel like our contributions are just a drop in the bucket. We feel like they're so small, they don't matter at all.

This is why we're so surprised at the end of the month when we look at our bank accounts and see that our $5 daily coffees added up to over $100. The little things DO matter. We can harness this for our benefit by eliminating the useless little things while progressively chipping away at our goals/tasks.

The other part of this mindset shift is that we have to set our own goals customized to our life/schedule/finances, etc. And we have to allow ourselves to be satisfied with our progress.

I constantly have to remind myself to be pleased with myself after I accomplish even a little something. Today, I spent 30 minutes working on the website overhaul, and I told myself I accomplished something today that I should feel proud of. I also spent 1.5 hours wading through my economics book. This is also something I should be proud of. Even though I didn't finish my website task and even though I didn't finish my chapter, I finished 3 web pages and I got to the halfway point of my chapter. Now I need to allow myself to feel pleased. When I don't, it's because I'm letting my perfectionism get the best of me, or because I am comparing my progress to what I think it should be. This is dangerous, but can be twisted into a very useful lifestyle hack. I'll be exploring this concept more in a later post.

it's now or never

Cheesy as this title is, it's so true.

There are so many things that we put off completing because we are too swamped, too tired, too overworked, too cranky, too this and too that. But we'll work on it later, we'll swear.

How many times has this happened to you? Just today, I told myself I was too tired to wake up early this morning to finish some reading before class. Then I told myself I was too busy to finish a bunch of projects at work that have been dragging on and on. Then I realized how stupid I was being.

"Later" never comes about. Now is the new later. I realized I had to just suck it up and get 'er done.

Procrastination is such a sneaky bastard. Even knowing how bad I am when I procrastinate doesn't make me change anything. What actually happens is that I get annoyed with how much I'm procrastinating, but I tell myself I'll motivate myself and process through why I'm procrastinating later.

Get it?

Being aware of my own procrastination habits just make me feel more bad and guilty for not doing the things I know I should be. To deal with this cognitive dissonance, I simply push all thoughts of work away and focus on something else that is generally not at all what I should be doing, ie blogging instead of studying for midterms. So what can I conclude? Procrastination simply leads to more procrastination.

So how to break this cycle?

I use the "Snowball effect" to increase productivity.

The "Snowball effect" is a method that is used to pay off debt. It involves listing the various debts you owe in the order of smallest to greatest, and paying off the smallest amounts first. It harnesses the psychological high of achieving small feats in order to keep the debtor motivated to tackle the largest debts. Critics of the "Snowball effect" argue that it's not financially the smartest thing to do, since interest rates on the bigger debts will make the total amount you owe higher than if you paid them off first. This is beside the point. If most people were faced with $10,000 of debt, what do you think they would do? They would probably try really hard to save money and live frugally and at the end of the month pay off as much as they could and then get really discouraged that they still owe $9,500 and figure it's not worth depriving themselves of lattes and going out to lunch just to save their credit score. So they stop their debt repayment efforts altogether and push their guilt to the back of their mind.

Similarly, when I make a to-do list, I write out every single gosh darned task that I know I need to do. While most people would then prioritize them and adjust their time to spend more on the biggest tasks, I actually organize them by the time/effort it will take me to complete them. For instance, my psychology homework takes very little time, concentration and critical thinking. I would start off doing it before I start my economics homework, which takes upwards of 2-3 hours of extreme focus to complete.

Start small, go big.

Psychology is more powerful than you think. Learn to harness it.