A wake-up call about sleep

From a recent article, “You’re not getting enough sleep–and it’s killing you.”

“‘The decimation of sleep throughout industrialized nations is having a catastrophic impact on our health, our wellness, even the safety and education of our children. It’s a silent sleep loss epidemic. It’s fast becoming one of the greatest challenges we face in the 21st century.’ Walker, an expert in sleep at UC Berkeley and author of the best-selling book Why We Sleep, told a rapt TED audience on Thursday.”

Long positive from a brief negative

“I didn’t know.”

“I made a mistake.”

“I tried and failed.”

“I was wrong.”

“I apologize.”

For all but the most egregious transgressions, most statements like those refer to something that happened in a comparatively brief period of time. Maybe even in an instant.

But the learning, growth, and resilience that those moments serve up on the other side can last a lifetime.

If you’re dealing with a brief negative, do what it takes to turn it into a long positive.

Take time away

Sometimes, the best way to get unstuck from a project is to take some time away.

I’m traveling this week, and when doing so, I usually schedule a few posts ahead of time to go live on designated dates. It minimizes the potential risk of internet difficulties that can make it harder to write a post on the run. But one post in particular just didn’t feel right. The clarity of the messaging, the order of the paragraphs, the overall flow–none of it seemed to be coming together. So I forged ahead, saved a workable draft, and then took time away.

Because I’d started early enough, I had the luxury of coming back to the draft the next day with fresh eyes and renewed perspective. I moved a few sentences. Changed a few words. And everything fell into place. Five minutes (plus a previous night of sleep) was all it took.

Sometimes, sleeping on it works the other way—your fresh eyes the next day reveal that something you thought was good isn’t quite what it could be. I wrote about this method back in 2011, and still find it works today. But my experience this week was a timely reminder of just how much good time away can do.

The technology, connectivity, and ever-present buzzing of today’s world has left many of us trying to produce more with less time. But time is a critical ingredient for truly great work. A master craftsperson wants to build something right, not build it fast. An artisan baker can produce a great loaf of bread, but not without enough time to let the ingredients do their work. Athletes, thought leaders, writers, orators, scientists—they all may face deadlines or other real-world realities. But they also need and depend on time to prepare, create, and ultimately deliver work they’re proud of.

I’m a fan of deadlines. I think they motivate us to get started, to push through, and to ship instead of stalling. I’ve even written about the power of creating an artificial deadline to overcome inertia and get you moving. Sometimes sprinting is the antidote for too much standing still.

But if you’re constantly racing from one deadline to the next, and if you feel a pattern developing of repeatedly churning out work before it’s quite what you want it to be, consider building in more time to not work on the project.

Sometimes the surest path towards great work is to take time away from it.

To have ideas, don’t hold them

David Allen, author of the best-selling Getting Things Done, shared some of his best productivity tips during a recent episode of the Becoming Better podcast. You can read a summary here, or listen to the full episode here. My favorite takeaway:

Your head is for having ideas, not holding them. Our brains can only hold so much. The more tasks, to-do’s, deadlines, etc. that you store in your head, the more you’re depleting a finite resource, and the less brainpower you’ll have available for other more creative or challenging things. So just write it down. Appointments, assignments, dates and deadlines–anything at all that can be written down instead of committed to memory, get it out of your head and onto the calendar, page, or other system.

You might be able to free up time, energy, and intellectual power just by relying less on your memory.

Put a time on it

SNL (Saturday Night Live—a late-night live comedy sketch show, for the young and uninitiated) has enjoyed four decades on the air. If you’re part of SNL’s staff, you can’t get an extension for whatever you’re working on. You can’t claim you need more time to “get it perfect.” Saturday night at 11:30 p.m. sharp, the show goes on air. Live. To millions of viewers. As Lorne Michaels, its co-creator and current producer, has often been quoted as saying, “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s eleven-thirty.”

If you regularly plan to get things done “soon” only to find yourself finally delivering not-so-soon after, try treating your work like a Saturday Night Live episode. Make a specific deadline with a date and time. And treat it like a live television show that will go on air with or without you.

You might find yourself a lot more productive and reliable when you put a time on your promises.

The costs of late-night tweeting

A new study found that NBA players who tweeted between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. the night before a game scored fewer points and pulled down fewer rebounds the following day. The researchers concluded:

“…acute sleep deprivation, as measured via late-night Twitter activity, is associated with changes in next-day game performance among professional National Basketball Association athletes. More broadly, the use of late-night social media activity may serve as a useful general proxy for sleep deprivation in other social, occupational, and physical performance-based contexts.”

A professional athlete in any sport is, by definition, one of the best in the world at what they do. If late night social media activity can negatively impact performance in their sport, how do you suppose it impacts your performance on that exam, that meeting with a student, that important presentation, etc.?

Five reasons you might not be reaching your goals

If you’re having trouble achieving goals that matter to you, it might not have anything to do with your work ethic. The trouble might be with the goals themselves.

Here are five potential goal pitfalls and how to avoid them.

1. You haven’t identified your goals.
Sometimes hard workers get so engrossed in the effort that they’re not sure where they want that work to take them. Not everything in your life needs to have a goal attached to it. But you have to know where you’re headed to get where you want to go. Start by actually writing your goals down and describing them clearly.

2. Your goals are too nebulous.
Goals need to be specific if you’re going to set a plan and hold yourself accountable for reaching them. “Get better grades” is a worthwhile outcome, but it’s not specific enough to work towards. “Improve my grades in science and math,” “Improve my batting average to higher than .300,” or “Secure a solo for at least one recital this semester” are specific goals you can work towards.

3. Your goals are too grandiose.
Ambition is a valuable trait, and there’s nothing wrong with aiming high. But there’s a point at which you bypass a lofty goal and move into the realm of fantasy. And that’s just another way to let yourself off the hook. Here’s a good litmus test to make sure you aren’t making this mistake: If you can’t describe a detailed plan to reach your goal, you’re probably edging into grandiosity, which brings me to…

4. You don’t have a plan to reach them.
The most important ingredient in any goal-worthy pursuit is a detailed plan to achieve it. What exactly do you need to do? What are the obstacles? How will you know if you’re making progress? Crafting a detailed plan makes you accountable. You won’t be able to pretend that you’re moving forward unless you’re actually doing what you planned to do each day, week, or month. Start with the end goal in mind (see #1), but don’t forget your detailed directions to get there.

5. You don’t have enough help.
Nobody succeeds alone. Even the most determined of us needs others to help us achieve our dreams. Don’t forge ahead on a solo quest. Maybe you need guidance from your counselor, instruction from a tutor, or support from family and friends. Decide ahead of time who you’ll need in your corner to help you. As long as you’ve earned the help before you ask for it, people who care about you will want to do what they can to help you succeed.

Purported productivity

I came across an article yesterday—and I’m purposely not sharing the link here—about “microscheduling.” The latest in a never-ending series of purported productivity hacks that actually just help you add even more hours—and more work—to an already full day, microschedulers plan every hour, and in many cases, every minute of their day, from their meals to their email responses to their bathroom breaks. I couldn’t help but wonder how many hours all this meticulous microscheduling takes–hours that could have been spent actually getting those scheduled tasks done.

I hope we can all agree that being successful in school, in work, and in life requires that you regularly and willingly put your head down and focus on doing great work that matters. If you spend most of your day watching TV and eating Cheetos, you’re not learning, contributing, or benefiting as much as those who fill that time in ways that leave them proud of their efforts.

But our culture has somehow gotten to a place where we glamorize work-at-all-costs mentality. Long days, lost sleep, schedules without free time, overflowing inboxes, working nights and weekends, constantly available online—it’s all part of this narrative that those who get ahead are those who make the sacrifice. Sleep, family, fun, leisure, friends, sanity—you’ve got to give something up if you want to make it today!

But this notion that adding more hours and more work will automatically lead to more success is demonstrably untrue. Nobody is impressed just by how many hours you worked this week. Nobody cares how little sleep you had. Nobody will rave about you just because you answer emails at all hours. What gets you ahead is the work you produce. Yes, the quantity maters, but not nearly as much as the quality does.

Productivity isn’t a willingness to let work seep into every part of your life. Productivity is producing great work from focused but manageable workloads. That’s not the lazy way—it’s the effective way.

So before you add more hours, or yet another way to cram more work into non-work time, consider not just how much you’re trying to do, but how much uninterrupted, focused time you’re giving yourself to do it. Your reputation is built on the quality of your work, not on your willingness to sacrifice via hacks of purported productivity.

Ten ways to make valuable contributions

Too many high school students view their success in group activities as measured only by accolades or official titles. But there are lots of ways you can make valuable contributions that your group—and the colleges you apply to—will appreciate. Here are ten suggestions.

1. Improve relationships with constituents.
Be the server at the coffee shop who remembers people’s names, the member of student government who engages with the student body, or the lighting tech who gets others interested in coming to the performance. Helping connect the group with those outside of it is a valuable public relations contribution.

2. Solve the problems other people can’t solve.
What’s a challenge your group faces repeatedly and just can’t seem to solve? The ability to spot solutions is a valuable skill that can make you invaluable to the group. If you’ve got that talent, put it to work and let your fixes fly.

3. Manage complex projects.
Managing a fundraiser, planning a junior prom, organizing a team retreat—these are big jobs with a lot of moving parts, and plenty of potential for things to go sideways. But some people are at their best when they’re taking a complex job with a variety of inputs and shipping it out the door.

4. Inspire, teach, and make others better.
Ever seen that person that the rest of the group will follow to do almost anything? Those people are irreplaceable. And they don’t need to be granted authority to do it.

5. Become the domain expert.
What if you became the expert on once slice of your group’s work? The runner who knows the most about how elite distance runners train in the off-season, the writer with a deep understanding of the role of journalism in reporting news, the photographer who knows so much about lenses and exposures and lighting that they always get the perfect shot. When you know your stuff, and you share that knowledge, you’re making a valuable contribution.

6. Be a maximizer.
Do you look at things that are already good and ask, “How can this be even better?” Groups sometimes spend so much time fixing what’s broken that they miss opportunities to maximize their areas of strength. Amplifying bright spots is a sure way to improve just about anything, and if you’re the one who sees those opportunities, the group will look to you to keep sharing your talent.

7. Make new people feel at home.
It’s hard to be the new employee on his first shift, the recently promoted player at her first practice with the varsity team, or the new kid at school joining the history class discussion on day one. Can you make them feel at home? Can you make that transition a little easier so they can get comfortable and start making their own contributions? Most group memberships in high school don’t last forever, and turnover means there will always be new people joining who could use a friendly welcome to make things easier.

8. See what’s possible.
Not everyone can peer into the future and envision a way to make it better. In a group, instead of saying, “This is what we’ve always done,” this version says, “I see a new and better way.” Do you see that vision? Can you communicate it clearly and enthusiastically to your group? If so, chances are you’ll get some followers who support your vision. And once you’ve got followers, you’re a leader, with or without a leadership position.

9. Unleash your enthusiasm.
Are you inherently positive, always able to spot the good in any situation? Are you quick to smile and reluctant to let a bad mood get the best of you? Genuine enthusiasm is like a group pick-me-up. It makes everyone a little happier, a little more positive, and consequently, a little better at what they do.

10. Become the best.
I listed this last because it’s the hardest and the most exclusive. But it still deserves a place on the list. If you’re the very best musician in the orchestra, player on the tennis team, or mathlete in the math club, you’re making the group better with your excellence. If your talent and hard work puts you in that position, assume the mantle proudly. But don’t forget that there are plenty of other ways to contribute, and the point of being in any group is to help the group—not just yourself—be successful.

Self-explanations are the best explanations

I’ve written often that the surest way to learn any new material is to teach it back to an imaginary audience. The act of explaining something clearly and cogently activates a different part of your brain and is a lot more effective than passively reviewing or memorizing. Here’s more evidence–a study showing that self-explanation turns out to be more effective than teacher explanation, note-taking, and several other learning techniques.