Mar 162012

It is almost the weekend, so thoughts are turning to non-work related activities. This weekend, I am planning on getting back into the shop and making some sawdust. In anticipating the smell of wood and the thrill of making something, I started thinking about discipline and hobbies.

There are a lot of hobbies out there. I couldn’t even begin to name all of them. I hear of new ones all the time. The dictionary defines a hobby as an activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation and not as a main occupation. That covers a lot of territory. This blog even counts as a hobby. My Irish whistle is another, as is reading, model ship building and Scrabble. I count many things as hobbies. However, I have more discipline around some activities than others.

Hobbies take some amount of time. To get better at a hobby requires additional time. To get really good takes even more. One struggle I have is trying to determine at what level I want to pursue a hobby. I obviously can’t take each hobby to an expert level without spending more time than is available. Some hobbies, just as Scrabble, I enjoy with my wife, but I am not going to study and memorize all the 4 letter words with a Z in them or the words containing a Q, but no U. I am happy to go off the words in my head at this point. This hobby is at a low level of discipline. I just do it when it is my turn.

Other hobbies, like the Irish whistle, I have been pursuing for a few years, but with not a lot of effort. I pick it up every now and then and tootle around for a few minutes. However, the time I spend on it is increasing. I was asked to play it with the church choir at Christmas. Suddenly the time involved peaked! I practiced every day. I was surprised how much better I became in a short few weeks. I had to buy an additional whistle in another key for this particular song. While browsing the web, I stumbled on a whistle lesson website. After mulling it in my mind for a few weeks, I signed up for lessons this week. I have decided to put a little more discipline into this hobby for the next few weeks at least. I will have to practice regularly and attend my online lesson weekly. The added motivation? I have to pay a little money each month to the site for the rights to the lessons. When money is involved in an activity, more attention is paid to it.

Then there is my big hobby, or my obsession. I have more woodworking tools than I can use at this point. I love making things and it seems every project requires a new tool. My wife has been wonderfully patient in this area. Some times I have to admit I am more of a tool collector than a tool user. About once or twice a year, I get the mood going and go out to the shop and actually make something. It takes me a long time, though, because I lack the discipline to get out there regularly. I have too many other distractions/interests/responsibilities. As a result, it has taken me a year to make a couple simple dressers or garden bench. I find the most difficult part is to actually walk to the shop. Once I am there, the next hour or so fly by.

I think the key to discipline in hobbies is to spend a little time deciding the level of expertise one desires in a hobby and then match the time commitment to the desire. Some can get obsessed and overdo the time commitment, to the detriment of other aspects of life. Keeping balance, even in hobbies, is important. When I was finishing my degree a few years ago, while working full time and trying to be a good father and husband at the same time, my boss took me aside one day. He said he was concerned about the time I was spending on school. He asked how important a 4.0 GPA was to me. When I answered it wasn’t all that critical, he asked why I was putting so much time in on the schooling. The class counted the same toward the degree, regardless of whether I got an A or a B. I saw his point and relaxed my internal standards a little, put less time into that endeavor and found precious time for the other important things in life.

Hobbies can teach many important lessons, including dedication, time management and decision making. Keep everything in balance, including hobbies. Don’t let an opportunity to learn a little discipline pass by.

Mar 142012

I have spent a lot of time studying physics. I was especially fascinated by the ability of predicting the behavior of planetary bodies through mathematics. One of the first topics we studied included Newton’s laws of universal gravitation. It describes the attraction of two bodies depends upon their mass and the distance between them. This means that everything with any weight is pulling every other body toward it at some level. Yes, you are exerting a force, be it very, very small, on the sun, just as it is pulling you toward it. What keeps us from flying off into space towards the sun is that we are much, much closer to another body, albeit smaller, called the Earth. It is the very close proximity to the Earth that keeps us stuck here on its surface. Our bodies even exert a very small force on each other. We call that force Gravity.

So why talk about gravity in a discussion of habits? We are drawn to actions much like we are physically drawn toward other bodies of mass. The “mass” of an action is our need or desire to perform it. The distance between us and the action is the frequency in which we perform it. The force generated between the two is called “habit”.

For example, I have a strong habit of eating every day. I do it several times each day and that frequency is so close and regular that I am very attached to it. The force of that habit is very high. So, when I miss a couple meals, for force of my habit kicks in and I start seeking food everywhere. The longer I go without food, the more that attraction pulls me in. Let’s say I wanted to give up food completely. Like a rocket trying to escape the Earth for orbit, I would have to exert an incredible amount of effort to break that habit. Ask anyone who is trying to give up smoking just how hard it can be. No matter the distance between the last cigarette and the current day, that force of habit is tugging gently, much like a comet is pulled by the Sun, even though it is billions and billions of miles away. If an effort is not constantly exerted, the attractive force can cause us to revert to that action, even after a distance of years.

Understanding this force of attraction can help us break habits and create new ones. The frequency in which we perform the desired action will create stronger forces of habit. When forming a new desired habit, it takes awhile of regular repetition to bring that action close enough to make it a constant orbit of our behavior. Our desire for that action increases its mass in the equation of the habit. The greater the desire, the less impact the distance of repetition has on the habit. My desire to stay out of jail helps me perform my annual tax return with perfect frequency. And that deadline of April 15th helps quite a bit, too.

When trying to make a new habit, determine how much the new action is desired. Then, increase the frequency until the action is brought into the orbit of behavior. Push the undesired actions away by decreasing their frequency, realizing the struggle will be in direct proportion to the force of the habit already created. If you’re a closet physicist like me, perhaps this analogy will help you capture the actions you want into your personal orbit of habit.

Mar 072012

I recently reviewed the book Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck–Why Some Thrive Despite Them All by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen. While written about making businesses great, I believe they have perhaps inadvertently written one of the best books on improving oneself. I am taking the next few posts to lay the case of how we can ourselves be Great By Choice.

The companies studied in Great by Choice had a not-so-secret recipe for successful operational practice. What is an operational practice? It is guidelines or even a checklist that will provide repeatable and consistent results. When Howard Putnam was putting Southwest Airlines together in 1979, he developed 10 rules for their operational excellence. Some of those rules included remaining a short haul carrier with no segment over two hours, only flying 737s, staying out of food service, and staying passenger focused – no freight or mail. These principles have served the company well and over the last quarter century, Southwest has changed only 20% of the original ten. Progressive Insurance had a list of nine, changing only two in over 30 years (and those two have not been changed in the last twenty years).

What’s the recipe for great operational practice? SMaC: Simple, Methodical, and Consistent. What does a SMaC recipe look like for those of us who aren’t flying jets, insuring cars or developing medical devices? John Wooden, perhaps the greatest basketball coach of all time, started the first practice of every season of the UCLA team the same way. “We will begin by learning how to tie our shoes.” By teaching his star athletes the simple, methodical and consistent way to put on their socks and shoes, a remarkable number of injuries were avoided every year, allowing the team to be more consistent in what they wanted to do, win games. Another example of a personal SMaC recipe are the Twelve Personal Commandments as explained in Gretchen Rubin’s popular blog The Happiness Project.

This is an area I have been working on this year. In an attempt to accomplish more consistent work, I have decided one of my “operational practices” to be “Get up at 5:00 and accomplish the most important tasks first.” The results have been incredible so far. The progress I have made in scripture study and writing is something I never really thought I could achieve. Another practice I have adopted is to plan in advance the books I will read this year. Having a list has kept me motivated and consistent in my reading. Today I finished my eleventh book of the year.

Developing the list of personal SMaC recipe takes time. These are rules that should be able to stand up for twenty years without change. Care must be taken to not create something that changes with the season or situation. These are governing principles that can guide in bad times as well as good. The success I have enjoyed so far with my first two candidates is making me very excited to try others. Developing a set of personal operational practices is definitely worth the effort. Take some time to lay out a personal SMaC recipe. I am going to post mine above my desk both at home and at work to help remind me until they become engrained into my life. I just have to remember to keep it Simple, Methodical and Consistent. SMaC me!

Great By Choice Personal Improvement Series

Great By Choice: Personal Success In Reach
Great By Choice: The 20 Mile March
Great By Choice: Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs
Great By Choice: Leading Above the Death Line
Great By Choice: SMaC

Great By Choice: Return On Luck