Push or Pull

How’s your willpower?

Is it healthy and mighty?

If it is, I’m very happy for you.

Mine has always been weak.

I was the kind of kid whose parents are told by teachers that “he is smart, but he doesn’t work hard enough”.

I still remember the guilt for not having enough will to do more, to do better.

Add to this that my father was a strong-will man. When he wanted something, he always made it happen.

I was not like him.

First of all, because I never knew what I wanted with enough clarity. And second, because even when I thought I knew what I wanted, I lacked the willpower to do the work to get it.

I was lazy, and I felt weak and wrong.

Though, results were telling a different story.

Growing up, my results at school were above average, sometimes even excellent. As soon as I graduated, I found a good job that started a successful career by all measures.

I’m delighted with the life I had.

Delighted but not as much proud.

Because of my lack of willpower, I always thought I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

It wasn’t my doing. I was just a lazy lucky guy.

A few weeks ago I decided it was time to dig deep into this with my coach.

We took a look back at all my previous successes. Analysing the reasons that made me succeed I realised that there were always some external elements determining my results; a supporting team or partner, the right location, an accountability structure and so on.

So, apparently, I was right; I was not the master behind my achievements.

I have to thank the circumstances.

Then one of those revealing questions emerged; “Who or what created those external elements?”

That was indeed an AHA moment.

Because it was me.

I choose to work in that company, with that team. I decided to move to that place. I created that space in my house. I developed that accountability structure.

It was my doing. So maybe I did more than I thought.

Here’s what I’ve learned from this inquiry into my lack of willpower.

Push vs Pull

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

I know people who push through things to get what they want. Their commitment, resilience and grit are admirable. No matter the obstacles they find on their path, they keep pushing.

And the more they push, the more they are energised and motivated. It is as if their willpower is fueled by the resistance they encounter. My father was one of them.

I am not like that.

My willpower runs out as soon as I start whatever I want. So, when I try to push myself into doing something, most of the time I fail. And, believe me, I can be very good at finding excuses and procrastinate.

In the past, I used to push myself even when the results were not coming. I thought it was the only way to do something and own the achievement. But that attitude led only to failure, shame and guilt.

No, pushing doesn’t fuel my willpower.

I am a pull type of person.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

I am like water.

You can try to push the water towards something, but most likely it won’t work. In particular, if the direction is upward.

Instead, if you create an empty space before the water, it will flow into it, naturally.

I need to be in an environment that pulls me in the direction of what I want to achieve.

I need to be pulled into the results. Like water.

Master the Environment.

“The addict only needs to change one thing… their whole damn life.” — Ben Hill, PhD

To make it very simple, you can think of your environment as the sum of everything existing outside of your head. The physical space in which you live and work, the people and relationships, the tools you use, the clothes you wear, the car you drive, the routines you have, everything outside your mind contributes to your environment.

If you also are a pull type of person, the first step is to accept that the environment is more powerful than your willpower. Like water, you will always adapt to the situations you are living and working in.

The key is to transform this apparent weakness in strength.

If your environment controls you, then use your willpower only to steer the environment in your favour. Then you can save your willpower for other tasks and let the environment pull you towards your goals.

I know, the amount of things you can control or influence in your life, is limited. But the good news is that most of the time, you don’t have to do much. Just some little tweaks to turn your environment in your favour.

Last week I experienced the power of a small change in my environment.

Lately, I found myself wasting too much time on youtube. It’s like an addiction, a single video to relax my mind easily slip into a series of meaningless videos that eat big chunks of my time and undermine my focus.

The problem is that the computer is my primary working tool. I cannot just stay away from youtube.

The solution was simpler than I thought.

One day I went to work in my usual café, and when I got there, I realised that I had forgotten my earplugs.

Without them, I couldn’t watch any video in a public space without disturbing all the clients. So, no youtube that day and I ended up writing for three hours without distractions.

If you are a pull type of person, you should learn to master your environment.

And the great thing about shaping the environment is that you need to do it only once. At the very beginning, when your willpower is still strong enough. And then let the environment you just shaped pull you towards your goal.

If you are struggling to push through the things you want to do, you may be a pull type of person. So, stop pushing so hard for a moment and check your environment.

Are the people around you supporting your goal? Is your space helping you to focus or is it a source of distractions? Do you have an accountability partner or structure?

The key to a better you may be just around you.

You can’t blow out a fire

“You can blow out a candle
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher”
— from Biko by Peter Gabriel

Through the course of our lives, we occasionally experience moments that light up a candle in our hearts.

It can be a journey, a retreat, a book, a random encounter, a moment with friends, a walk in nature, a concert, a speech, a workshop or something else.

Once that candle is lit, its flame allows us to see the extraordinary beauty that we hold inside.

Sometimes we share that moment with others, and the combined light from all the candles gives us an opportunity to see more.

More of our beauty and more of others’ beauty.

To lit a candle we need at least three elements.

First of all, we need the candle, obviously.
As human beings, the candle is our potential to shine.
A potential that, like a candle, won’t shed any light if we don’t light it up.

Then we need a spark to kindle the flame.
Sparks are everywhere around us, and they can take any form; people, places, words, images, silence, animals, elements of nature, objects.
Anything can become the spark we need in order to light our candle.

Then, there is the final element.
A vital one that is often overlooked.

Space.

Like all living beings, a flame needs to breathe.
We can’t lit a candle without oxygen.
To ignite the flame, we must create the space for the wick to burn.

It is amazing what happens when we create and hold a safe space for others.
They open up, surrendering to the space, and they kindle the candles within allowing their inner light to radiate.

When the space is created and nurtured by a sacred circle of people, the light becomes brighter.
It makes everyone shine.

And it is in that moment when we allow ourselves to shine that our fears show up.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” — Marianne Williamson

The flame of a candle is feeble.
A small breeze can kill it and bring us back to darkness.

So, we want to protect it.

Protect it from our limiting beliefs, the naysayers, the struggle of our daily lives, the small difficulties we encounter every day. We start worrying that someone may want to blow out our candle, for fear of the greatness they may discover if they lit their own.

To protect our burning candle, we hide it inside.

Someplace where nobody and nothing can blow it out and take that light from us.

Until, without air and space that same flame we want to protect, slowly dies.

But here is the good news.

You may blow out a candle. But you can’t blow out a fire.

Once the flames have started then the wind will only blow it, higher and higher.

Before a fire nobody can hide, they will all feel the warm power of liberating their inner light.

Anytime someone or something light up a candle in our heart, instead of thinking about how to protect it, we should ask ourselves a much more powerful question.

How can I use my candle’s flame to start a fire?

Photo by Joris Voeten on Unsplash

Don’t fear the cracks if you want to innovate

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
— Leonard Cohen

I am excited when I discover a crack on something.
Ok, maybe not so much when it’s on the wall of my house.
But when it is on something intangible such as an organisation, a process, a software, a methodology, an idea, a thought, an argument, a relation.

Then, I am thrilled.

And not because it’s an opportunity to use my skills to fix it.

Cracks are created by stress and tensions; the typical symptoms of a change or growth pushing to happen. And because innovation is about changing something to create something new and different, I see in any crack an opportunity to innovate.

When I found a crack on something, I ask myself “Is there anything that wants to emerge here?”.

Maybe, the best option is not to fix it. At all.
On the contrary, it may be better to widen it.
As lobsters do.

Image from University of Washington [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A lesson on innovation from the life of a lobster

Lobsters are invertebrates with a hard protective exoskeleton. In other words, they don’t have an internal skeleton but an external one, a shell, that supports and protects their body. The shell of a lobster is hard and inelastic, so it doesn’t grow over time.

But the lobster does, and while it keeps growing, its shell becomes smaller and smaller. At some point it gets so painful to stay in the shell that the lobster has only one option; to shed the old shell, get out and create a new one. This process is called moulting, and a lobster does it multiple times during its life. During the moulting process, the lobster, with its new softshell, becomes vulnerable and must hide from predators for at least a week or two.

Lobsters take stress and pain as signals that it is time to grow.

So they crack their shell to build a new one.

In doing so, they accept the risk of being vulnerable for a while.

What can we learn, from the lobsters?

When we find a crack in our life or in our organisation, we are presented with various options.

  • We can ignore the crack in the hope it will disappear, or at least that it won’t get bigger. Unfortunately, the tension that created the fissure won’t go away just ignoring it. It will keep working until, one day, everything will crumble, and we will be left only with some rubble. I did it in one of my previous jobs, and it didn’t end well. I moved with the feeling of having lost a great opportunity.
  • We can fix the crack using the best tools and products. Unfortunately, mending the breach doesn’t eliminate the tension that generated it. The crack may appear again in the future, maybe even bigger and impossible to fix. I also tried this, with my marriage. When the fracture came back, it was too big to deal with. We couldn’t do anything but parting away.
  • Or, we can open up the crack and deal with the tension beneath. What wants to emerge? What is pushing behind that crack?

The problem with opening up a crack is that we don’t know what we may find. And, even more scary, in doing so we will have to expose ourselves.
Like for the lobsters, we will become vulnerable.

But, we will also connect with the tension that generates that crack. A tension that we could transform in new energy to innovate and grow.

In the end, the choice is ours.

My coach helped me understand that for me, being vulnerable is an act of strength. This is why I now look at cracks with excitement. They are opportunities to innovate

What about you?

What are your going to do, next time you’ll find a crack in your shell?

Are you going to take some pills and live in the painful, cramped space of your limiting shell, or are you going to act like a lobster and take your chance of being vulnerable to innovate?

Self-awareness is my best productivity tool

I grew up in the North-East of Italy, one of the most productive areas of the country. When I was a student, I remember that the adults around me were all working a lot and hard. My father worked 10 hours a day, five days a week, plus Saturday morning. Everyone used to measure the health of a factory with the number of extra hours that the workers were able to do in a week. Then the crisis hit Italy. I remember people talking about the companies having issues saying “it’s bad, they had to stop working on Saturday”.

That working culture is an example of the “Religion of Hustle” that Mark Manson excellently describes in this post. I found the same working culture when I started working in the digital industry. Both startups and agencies were, and still are, celebrating the hustle. Yes, everyone talks about work/life balance, but then the employees that sacrifice the weekend for a project are praised. It’s the competition baby. Do you want results? You need to work hard. More and better than your competitors. And it may work, sometimes. But most of the time, it generates stress, exhausted people that have to take a sabbatical year to recover, and average results.

The problem is that work is not a linear function; productivity does not increase linearly adding more work. As Manson explains, most of the works produce diminishing or even negative returns over time. If you push hard, for a long time, you will reach a point when your brain tires out. After that the incremental gain is marginal, you will start making bad choices that can even have adverse effects on the final results.

In his book “The 4-Hour Body”, Timothy Ferris explains the concept of the Minimum Effective Dose. The MED is the smallest dose of something that will produce the desired outcome. Anything beyond the MED is wasteful. The MED to boil water is 100º at standard air pressure. Higher temperatures will not make it more boiled. They will just consume more resources.
For you to be productive, it’s important to know which is the desired outcome of your work and what is your MED of work needed to produce it. As every productivity expert says; you need to work better, not more.

And you are lucky. There are plenty of books, website, classes and tools that propose strategies to increase your productivity. They teach you how to work better rather than more. So, it is easy. You just have to pick a strategy, learn it, apply it, and you will get the results.
My experience is that it’s not so simple. I’ve seen teams go through a painful process to adopt new tools and strategies without any measurable results. As part of my growing journey, I tried a few tools myself. Some worked, others not at all.
Why is that? All these strategies are proven to work. They have plenty of testimonials from people and companies that have achieved remarkable results. If it works for them, it should work for me. Or not?

“Because see, this may surprise you, but not all work is created equal.” — Mark Manson

Not all work is created equal. And I would add, not all workers are created equals.
Picking a strategy or a tool is not enough to get the results you want. Every work has its specifics. What is effective to manage the creation of furniture may not work if you’re trying to write a book. Even when jobs are similar, the workers are most likely different. Circumstances can be comparable, but we are all unique. You have only one way to choose the right tools and strategies; to know yourself better.

Before anything else, the first tool you need is self-awareness. You must understand your limits, your weaknesses and your strengths. You must find the leverages to increase your productivity. Once you increase your self-awareness, you will be able to make the right choices to improve your productivity.

“Awareness precedes choice and choice precedes results.” — Robin Sharma.

Inspired by the words of my friend Sujith of Being At Full Potential, I understood that I was looking at productivity from the wrong angle. I was focusing on the things I was doing while forgetting to nurture who I am. My uniqueness.

When the BEING comes alive, the DOING thrives.

In the last months, I put aside most of the tools and the strategies I used to manage my time and productivity, and I turned into listening mode. I pay more attention to my emotions, when I’m productive and when I’m not. Every morning I download my thoughts on a journal. Writing is my way of listening to myself. I keep a “good time activity log” — inspired by Designing your life — to track the moments of the day in which I’m engaged. And the more I know myself, the more I can tap into my strengths, and I can use my energy and time efficiently.

Self-awareness is my best productivity tool. What about yours?

 

Photo by Calum MacAulay on Unsplash

Article originally published on medium on May 29, 2017