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Pick-Up Sticks and Next Actions

Pick-Up Sticks and Next Actions
Pick-up Sticks

    Pick-up sticks. You know the game. You drop 33 colored sticks in a pile and take turns trying to pick them up, one at a time, without disturbing any of the other sticks in the process. If you pick-up a stick successfully, you get another turn.

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    It sounds like a simple game. Pick up the most sticks, and you win. But there’s a twist, and the twist makes the game a perfect metaphor for how to approach your “next action” list. You see, all the different-colored sticks have different point values. And a few of the
    sticks are worth more than all the others combined. So the number of sticks you end up with actually means a lot less than does the value of the sticks you
    successfully pick up.

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    My sons (ages 7 and 5) are competitive, and the first time they played pick-up sticks, they immediately “got it.” After I dropped the 33 sticks in a pile, they went right after the three blue sticks (worth 400 points) and the sole black stick (worth 1,000 points), even though there were sixteen yellow sticks (2 points), eight red sticks (4 points), and five green
    sticks (40 points) that were easier to grab. Their strategy was simple and effective: go after the big fish first; get those blue and black sticks; score the most points; win!

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    Neither of my sons is a genius, yet both of them understand intuitively that victory depends upon snagging the scarce blue and black sticks first.

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    And achievement principles are devilishly similar. In our own game of “pick-up sticks” (where the sticks are “next actions” on our daily to-do lists), we are seduced by the temptation to spend time and energy trying to pick up numerous yellow and red sticks. We
    find it’s easier to stay busy with the yellows and reds and it feels good to be successful over and over again, even though “winning” might actually require completing a single, challenging, important next-action and not necessarily completing lots of next actions. Following through on a single important phone call at 8:45am is often worth more than all the
    emails, meetings, and calls that are made the rest of the day!

    Of course, all of us do need to “pick-up” the yellows and the reds on our next action lists when we’re in the right context to do so. These represent commitments that must be fulfilled, regardless of their apparent “point values.” However, we must learn from the way my two young sons play pick-up sticks and remember that, in the end, winning the game of
    achievement hinges on identifying and “picking-up” the blue and black sticks on your next action list, not putting them off until another day in favor of the busy-trap’s yellows and reds.

    Rob Crawford, a school administrator who loves baseball and acoustic guitars, writes on productivity, impact, and happiness at Crawdaddy Cove.

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    Last Updated on August 16, 2018

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    The power of habit

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to make a reminder works for you

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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