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Lessons Learned for 2009. Unfinished Business, Only the Best, and You Never Know


For the last few years I've done an end-of-the-year exercise where I review the lessons I've learned over the year, and reflect on how I've (hopefully!) improved as a result. I humbly submit a few you might like. Related posts: Personal Lessons Learned In 2008 - The Intersection Of Past, Present, And Future, Some Thoughts From Tracking "lessons Learned" For A Year, and Did, Doing, To Do: Why Your Past, Present, And Future Selves Need To Chat. (An aside: I suggest every experiment you try - I mentioned our Edison tool for tracking them - should end with a list of what you learned.)

Questions for you

  • Which lessons did you learn in 2009?

  • Do you explicitly track your lessons? If so, how?

  • What process/tools help remind you to apply them?

Some Personal Lessons From 2009

  • Work: Don't be afraid to experiment. The idea has negative connotations for some people, but I use it in the positive "What the hell, let's just give it a try" sense. In my consulting I readily admit to bringing new ideas into play. It's one of the reasons people come to me - to get a broader set of ideas around productivity, instead of "one size fits all." In addition, when a group wants help with fire-fighting, motivation, or delegation, it can be more successful to try small, non-threatening changes instead of overarching ones.

  • Productivity: Work the checklist! Like many folks, I make liberal use of the venerable idea of a listing out standard steps you repeat for certain activities. Ones for travel are common, for example: things to pack, utilities to check, pets to take care of, agendas and files to bring, etc. Almost worse than having no checklist, however, is having one and forgetting to use it. I've found myself doing this a few times this year on a trip and a proposal. Fortunately they were small things that didn't impact success (I was able to borrow deodorant :-), but they were a wake-up call.

  • Consulting: Network effectively. In consulting, forming strong win-win connections is valuable. Here are some tips: 1) Put yourself out there. While obvious, it can take an effort to overcome stay-at-home inertia. Make a monthly goal (two events, say) that you review weekly. In my case I searched for Boston-area events, started attending, and got up my courage to say a few words to the group when the opportunity came up. As a result, I met someone who's become a valuable acquaintance. 2) Be curious. This requires great listening skills and a willingness to do some detective work to figure out what they're excited about. (My theory is everyone has something that gets them going, but some are closer to it than others.) Don't overdo it, though - feeling like you're being quizzed is uncomfortable. 3) Practice "you never know." Both in my life and my consulting I've been open to meeting folks I might not have thought would be interesting, with plenty of surprises. This reminds me of a quote attributed to Warren Buffett: When asked what his strategy was, answered "Answer the phone. The best deals are the ones you don't plan for." 4) Finally, put your energy into meeting the right people. Is this in conflict with #3? No, but use balance - you have limited resources for meeting folks. (There's also Dunbar's Number to consider - the theoretical limit on the number of individuals whom you can follow closely, pegged at ~150.)

  • Health: Get enough sleep. This is mentioned regularly in productivity circles, but until recently I hadn't appreciated it enough. However, when I experimented with melatonin and started getting more rest (maybe they're related) I found wide-ranging improvements, including mental performance and mood. I still use other tricks, including night-time capture of ideas (see A Few Thoughts On Capture), avoiding alcohol and caffeine, and hitting the sack as soon as I feel tired instead of pushing through it. (Side note: Jerry Seinfeld has a great bit about the finger on your remote control being the last part of your body to fall asleep see Jerry Seinfeld Live on Broadway: I'm Telling You for the Last Time ;-)

  • Living: Be generous with your "I love you's." It's something we might feel uncomfortable saying, but I put it in the "healthy impulse" category. If you feel like saying it, take the risk.

  • Presentations: Try some technology. I (finally) experimented with using PowerPoint's presenter view feature instead of working from a printed version, and I loved it! However, I got a rude suprise at one venue when I found the cable was too short to reach my laptop. I considered carrying a long cable, but instead I added it to the facility requirements document I send to clients. (Related: The short comment thread at Lisa's Using notes pages in PowerPoint.) A wireless control is a really good idea too.

  • Living: Eat only the best. I'm always conscious of what I eat, for both health and weight. But, like everyone, I enjoy the occassional cake or ice cream. However, when visiting home recently I found myself eating low quality ice cream, then regretting it later. So, New rule: For luxury foods, Only Eat The Good Stuff. A key is having been exposed to a wide range of quality, in this case some superior locally-made stuff. Importantly, don't be afraid to throw it away if you don't like it. This can be tricky when you're a guest for dinner, but the solution is also health: Take a tiny portion. If you like it, ask for more - hosts always appreciate compliments. This assumes you're in the right quality-vs-quantity 2x2 matrix, though. Related: What GTD And Weight Watchers Have In Common.

  • Productivity: Always ask "When do you need this by?" I learned this because of a miscommunication where I made an assumption about someone's timeline that turned out to be incorrect. This resulted in my having to scramble to make a surprise deadline. It worked out OK, thankfully, but was a rude reminder of something I've done in the past. In execution, clarity is king.

  • Living: Leave well enough alone. Also known as "Let Sleeping Dogs Lie" or "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", I've been bit a few times when I might have known better. For example, my mountain bike's brake lever was a bit soft but still working, and the perfectionist engineer in me couldn't live with it. After I took it in to be repaired the symptom was better, but now it pulled much closer to the bar - which was more bothersome to me than the original problem! To give myself credit, I didn't know this would be the outcome, but I'll be more thoughtful next time. More generally, this relates to perfectionism, where you spend significant additional effort for very little improvement. Just remember, "Good enough" ain't bad.

  • Productivity: No last-minute emails. I once had a client cancel a face-to-face meeting about 45 minutes beforehand, which wouldn't have been terrible (the client's always right, right?) except that, instead of calling he sent an email. I was en route and didn't check my inbox, so I wasted time and experienced the usual stress during the trip.

  • Living: Maybe you're not ready. I'm forming the base concepts for our Think, Try, Learn work, and have been wanting to get started writing my book since the year's start, but was unmotivated and stuck. In typical Matt fashion I criticized myself for it, and assumed that it was lack of discipline. Fortunately, an experienced colleague and writer of mine suggested the possibility that I might not be ready to write it. Aha! What a liberating thought. Following my ideas in Sometimes Laser, Sometimes Blind: How Natural Converge/diverge Cycles Explain Progress, I figured out that the material still needed gestation. In the meantime I'm collecting stories and experience through our on-line projects, which feels right. For now.

  • Productivity: Don't zone out. I had at least three time zone miscommunications this year, which were irritating, but not catastrophic (I ended up calling early instead of late, thank god). My rule is now the nuclear option: list both their and my time zone, e.g., "I'll call you at 10a CT (11a ET my time) at 407-..." It's a bit more work for me to spell it out, but the clarity is worth it.

  • Living: It's important to not leave personal business unfinished with the ones you love. You never know when you'll lose them, and you'll regret it when they're gone. In the case of my mom's recent death, I was grateful I had nothing important that went unsaid before she went.

  • Work: Finally, a riddle: What do you call a project that generated lots of lessons learned? "Experience."

Reader Comments (6)

Thank you for sharing your personal lessons this 2009. I definitely picked up a few that I could and should apply to my own life. Among them are:

> Don't be afraid to experiment. (I need to explore this more, at work and in life.)
> Work the checklist! (I’m already doing this but I need to be more specific and orderly.)
> Get enough sleep. (I always end up abusing my need for sleep, since I don’t always get enough. I definitely have to work on this more next year.)
> Be generous with your "I love you's." (It sounds cheesy for most and slightly embarrassing for me, but at the end of the day I believe I need to be more open about it.)
> Eat only the best. ( I could pair this with “Eat right.” And maybe I could finally lose all these excess pounds!)
> Always ask "When do you need this by? (At work, this definitely helps me plan how my day will go.)
> Leave well enough alone. (I’ve always believed in the sayings, “To each his own.” and “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.” Had a few setbacks with these philosophies this year, but will try to be more conscious of it next year.)

I learned a lot about myself this 2009. I believe I’ve also had a lot of meaningful experiences and went through quite a few changes. I did not explicitly track these realizations or lessons, because they mostly just come to me at certain moments. :-) However, I try to reflect on things as often as I can, to help me focus and find out where I am and how I am at a particular time. Here’s to a more meaningful and successful 2010!

For more stories on how to improve your life and business in 2010, check out www.makemorelivemoregivemore.com.

December 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTeresa

Hi Matthew,
really enjoying some of your entries on this site; alongside Scott Young and Cal Newport, this is fast becoming one of my major ports-of-call. In regards to powerpoint- when I used to work as a lecturer in a community college, there was a big push to go fully digital, and a worship of powerpoint, but I remember running into technical hurdles when trying to plug my mac into the 'pc only' projector hardware installed in the rooms, and then having to wing a 3 hour class. I've seen an awful lot of poor powerpoint presentations, and some great chalk and talkers; I guess the moral of the story is that if you don't have it down as a speaker, no amount of technology and flashy visuals will help you out. Which, on reflection, I'm sure you know already :) Oh, I'm actually a student myself again, back at medical school, but if and when I get into the teaching game again I think I'm going to ditch powerpoint and use mindmapping software through a projector; that way, the class and I can make the lecture up as we go along. Which is quite a scary thought (not a very fast typer) but you've got to try these things...

Loving your 'Edison' site as well, although the thought of posting my own weight loss goals up there frightens the life out of me...

January 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterECM

Hi, Teresa. Thanks very much for the comments. I'm delighted that some spoke to you; that's a major reason I write. Keep on reflecting and growing!

January 6, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I love that idea, and would love to see how it could work.

Just like any tool, though, it has limitations. As a fan of image-based PowerPoint, props, toys, and group work, I believe that the audience needs several kinds of stimulation, especially when you're talking about lengthy workshops. Mindmapping as you go along is a great way to engage the audience and include their contributions, but you still have a presentation to give and material to convey.

Would be very interested to see how that turns out!

January 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Braithwaite

Thanks, Lisa! I was wondering if you'd seen the idea in practice before, say with one of your clients or in your research. Sounds like it's relatively novel.

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell
[Mind maps: presentations, public Edison weight loss experiment]

Hi EOM, thanks for writing. Including me with Scott http://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/ and Cal http://www.calnewport.com/blog/ is high praise - kind words, indeed.

> re: powerpoint ... if you don't have it down as a speaker, no amount of technology and flashy visuals will help you out

Exactly! It's like productivity and tools - without a solid system, tools won't save you.

> back at medical school

Neat! I'd love to hear more as you go through it, though I know how little time you'll probably have :-)

> ... use mindmapping software through a projector; that way, the class and I can make the lecture up as we go along. Which is quite a scary thought (not a very fast typer) but you've got to try these things...

That's a HUGE idea - it'd be an excellent experiment that I'd love to see in Edison http://edison.thinktrylearn.com/ . Would take knowledge, talent, and experience, plus, for me, a huge helping of courage. Maybe start small with a friendly audience? Some related links: Use Mind Mapping for Presentations: easy to prepare and present, and communicate effectively, Using Mind Mapping Software for Presentations, and 8 tips for effective presentations with mind mapping software.

> Loving your 'Edison' site as well, although the thought of posting my own weight loss goals up there frightens the life out of me...

I know what you mean. A public experiment is ... a leap. Some advantages from doing one are via commitment (you're more likely to follow through if you tell others of your intention) and support (fellow commenters might know a lot about the topic, and be able to share helpful knowledge). I encourage you to try. Losing weight is a common goal, and there's already good help out there.

Cheers, and a happy new year to you too.
October 3, 2010 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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