Have you ever wondered why the U.S. flag on the right shoulder of a military uniform has the union (the stars) on the right side? It looks backward if you’re not used to it.
The proper display of the U.S. flag puts the star field at the position of highest honor. On a stationary display (like mounted on a wall), it’s the top-left corner as you’re looking at it. (Usually—there are exceptions.)
When displayed on a moving object, the position of highest honor is on the leading side, so star field is positioned at the front. This gives the appearance that the flag is waving in the breeze as the object moves forward. (Picture the flags mounted on the front of a diplomatic limousine.)
This is why the flag on a soldier’s shoulder might seem backwards—it’s how the flag would fly if the soldier were running forward, into battle. It’s also why the bison on the Wyoming state flag faces left. It faces into the storm.
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When my children are watching a movie and we need them to take care of something outside of the room, they have one request: pause it.
It’s a fair request—they don’t want to miss Elsa building her snow castle. They know the words better than Idina Menzel, but they’re still as engaged as the first time they watched it.
I’m not sure this is something we ever really outgrow. We like results. We like progress. We like setting up goals and projects and ticking off little boxes and relish that sense of satisfaction at the end. Ah, dopamine!
Being productive is good. It’s how we create value. But there are times where we need to step back and push pause so we can take care of something else.
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Some decisions take forever to make. We agonize over them. We weigh our options, list the pros and cons, and do 10–10–10 analyses. Finally, we’re out of time, and we default into whatever outcome we last vacillated to.
And then there are decisions that are so clear, the question hasn’t had time to make it all the way across our minds and we’ve already acted. The decision isn’t any easier to reach. It’s just that we’ve already spent time thinking about the desired outcomes we want in principle. When the choice is placed before us, we find that we’ve already decided what we’re going to do. Now it’s time to act.
There are five levels of what I’m going to call Peak Productivity. It’s a mountain we all climb every day. Some busily run up and down the foothills all day. Some stay on the lofty peaks and never come down. If we want to get the most out of life—day-to-day and over the years—we need to spend time at all levels.
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Feedback helps us grow and get better. Needs lead to actions, actions lead to results. Feedback tells us how well the actions are creating results that meet our needs. Then we can adjust—or continue—our actions as appropriate.
Some feedback is nice and objective. If the cake tastes good, we remember the recipe. If it’s too dry, we make a note to not bake it for so long next time.
Feedback that comes from another human can be extremely subjective. Even when there are clear performance-based outcomes you can measure objectively, the methods can be open to subjective interpretation and projection. The best feedback focuses on how you can build on your strengths and overcome your weaknesses.
Not everybody knows how to give feedback correctly. Instead of praising and encouraging, they criticize and discourage. They probably aren’t doing it intentionally and there may still be something actionable behind their sentiments. The highest-performers learn to hear what they were trying to say without letting their words get in the way.
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I have half a dozen tubes of toothpaste in my shaving kit. It’s not because I’m some sort of toothpaste connoisseur. The problem developed gradually.
I use the shaving kit when traveling. I don’t want to have a full-size tube in there; that would be too big. Instead, I use the little trial size tubes the dentist hands out on every visit. They’re small. Sometimes, when I’m checking the kit before a trip, they hide. So I throw another one in. Or I figure I’ve got to be getting close to finishing up the one that’s in there, so I throw another one in. Or I don’t like the specific variety that’s in there, but my wife does, so I leave that one for her to use and I add one for me that isn’t so ghastly.
As small as they are, they seem to never run out. They’re in their own separate pocket, and when I need toothpaste, I grab one. It’s a different one each time. A little here, a little there. I know I’m using toothpaste, but it seems like I never manage to actually finish one up before another one gets added.
If we aren’t careful, we can do the same thing with tasks, projects, and goals. If we work a little here and a little there, we’re never going to make the meaningful progress necessary to finish something before we need, have, or want to take on more.
Photo courtesy of © Adobe Stock / Konstantin Kulikov
High-performance cars have a special mode called launch control. When launch control is turned on, the car takes over the details of accelerating from a standstill (usually at the start of a race or timed trial, but sometimes when you just want to feel the G-force pushing you back into your seat). The brakes, accelerator, and clutch are all controlled automatically to ensure that the car launches with the maximum possible acceleration under the conditions.
Many cars limit the number of times you can use launch control, requiring a cool-down period between launches and/or limiting the number of launches you can make over the lifetime of the vehicle. That kind of performance takes its toll on the car. Even Teslas with their simplified drivetrain will pull back so you don’t cause permanent damage to the car.
High-performance individuals like you and me have a launch mode, too. When we’re starting a project or a goal, we start off strong. We lay out a plan, identify a bunch of next actions, and schedule milestones. We want to go from zero (where we’re starting) to sixty (goal achieved) as fast as possible.
Like a high-performance car, we, too, need a cooling down period after we launch to preserve our performance. Otherwise, that kind of performance takes its toll on us. If we push ourselves too hard, it can damage our capacity to get work done.
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One of the greatest enemies of productivity is perfectionism, not procrastination. (Procrastination can be a good thing if you do it right.)
Perfectionism hits us in two ways:
- We’re afraid to get started.
- We’re afraid to finish.
Great one-two punch, no? Perfectionism gets you both ways. We’re afraid to start because we don’t want to make mistakes. We’re afraid to finish because it’s not perfect yet.
The point of being productive isn’t to be perfect. There is no right time to start; there is only now. There is no perfect outcome; once it’s good enough you’re wasting your time. Waiting for everything to be perfect before we move (or move on) is a guaranteed way to set yourself up to fail. If you want to start a change, you do just that: you start.
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We are all connected. No matter how independent we are, we still interact with coworkers, family members, friends, neighbors, and complete strangers. These relationships range from outright pleasant to downright obnoxious.
Any given relationship can vary. We’re emotional. We have good days. We have bad days. So does everybody else. When the relationship account balance is high, it feels like the good times stretch on and on. Things are clicking. You’re getting along great. Life is grand.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. When the balance is low, it feels like an ordeal that’s never going to end. Transactions that would have been neutral or a minor thing start getting amplified and everything starts feeling like a huge withdrawal. Pretty soon, the account is overdrawn.
It’s easy (and extremely seductive) to put all the blame on them. “They’re so difficult to work with!” “He’s such a jerk!” “If only she’d see things my way.” The truth is, it’s a lot more nuanced than that. Relationships are two-sided. You are proactive. You can choose whether you’re going to handle the situation with grace or make things worse.
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When the lenses in a telescope aren’t properly aligned, it’s not worth much. The images are distorted and blurry. When they’re properly aligned—or collimated, to use the vernacular—you get beautiful images of comets and nebulae. Everything is in crisp focus.
Even when we have checked off all the boxes, we might end the day no closer to where we want to be than we started. The best way to kill our productivity isn’t to spend the day slacking off—it’s to be so busy dealing with gravel that we don’t have time for the big rocks.
The problem is that we aren’t focused. Our day-to-day actions aren’t aligned with our goals, dreams, and deepest values. Big changes don’t happen all at once. The small actions we take (or should be taking) every day add up.
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If you were alive in the 80s, then you know The Karate Kid. Our hero, Daniel, moves across the country, doesn’t quite fit in with the new crowd, and after spending countless hours doing chores for the gardener—Wax on! Wax off! Paint the fence!—he wins the day.
My friends and I spent countless hours that summer knocking soda cans off of fences with awkward crane kicks. Occasionally, we managed to hit the can more than we hit the ground.
Daniel didn’t understand the importance of mastering wax on, wax off. He thought Miyagi was stalling or even a fraud. He felt the pressure of the deadline. He was scared. He wanted immediate results without paying the price.
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