How this one simple chart made me happier in 6 weeks

My first Happiness Resolutions chartJust six weeks. I’m still amazed.

I’d been actively trying to be happier for the better part of a decade – researching, experimenting, wanting. Yet it’s only recently that I found something that worked, something that’s simple, effective, and free. Now I want to tell everyone about it.

Here’s the story of my personal Happiness Project.

Happiness science

How of HappinessThere’s been a lot of research into what make people happy, particularly in the past two decades following the positive psychology movement. We now know some people have a genetic predisposition to be happier than others. Some simply have better circumstances, too. Yet, as Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky describes in The How of Happiness, there’s about 40% of our happiness that’s not explained by these factors. Even people with the exact same genes and circumstances would vary as to how happy they were.

The difference is in behavior – what we do and how we think. You might think that’s good news since we can control these things. But in fact most of what we do is unthinking.

In Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson writes that while our brains can take in eleven million pieces of information at any given moment, we’re only consciously aware of forty. It’s a dramatic statistic that shows just how little attention we have. It also shows us why change is so hard. Acquiring a new skill or behavior requires that we focus our precious attention over a period of time and, since attention is scarce, we have a natural aversion to expending it. As the neurologist Daniel Kahneman writes, “Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

How to change the 40%

The Happiness ProjectThis May, I started reading The Happiness Project in which Gretchen Rubin, a writer in NYC, chronicled her yearlong journey to become happier. Through her research and experiments on herself and her family (which are charming, funny, and easy to relate to), she came across her Splendid Truth: “I need to look at my life and think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.”

The key, as the research showed, was to change her habits – what she did and how she thought. To do that, she borrowed an idea from Benjamin Franklin, who early on in his life identified 13 values he wanted to cultivate and would keep track of his progress every day. Gretchen felt that, more than anything, this made her happier.

“The single most effective step for me had been to keep my Resolutions Chart…By providing an opportunity for constant review and accountability, the Resolutions Chart kept me plugging away.”

My Happiness Project

This week's Happiness Resolutions chartI had discovered the power of charting my progress in writing the book and then as part of changing any habit. So I took a sheet of paper and listed things according to Gretchen’s Splendid Truth, resolving to do more of what made me feel good, less of what made me feel bad, more that made me feel right, and more that created an atmosphere of growth.

I added a few things as the first few weeks went by, and now my Resolutions Chart includes these things:

Feeling good

  • Friends/family – Time with extended family and friends I don’t often see.
  • 6-second hugs – Physical contact releases oxytocin, increasing bonding, trust, and feelings of happiness.

Feeling bad

  • No alcohol – Not abstinence but balance.
  • No anger – Eliminating overreactions to small irritations.
  • Admin – Getting little things done instead of procrastinating.
  • Honest Day’s Work – Putting in a solid effort at work.
  • No negative talk – Less sarcasm, snapping, or gossip.
  • No phone overuse – Limiting time spent checking things on my phone.

Feeling right

Atmosphere of growth

  • Book/Circles – Investing in my learning, network, and career opportunities.
  • Yoga/gym – Training my body to be healthier.
  • Meditation – Training my mind to be calmer and more focused.

Some things, like working on the book or with working out loud circles, are fulfilling and meaningful. Smaller things, like being on my phone less and taking care of administrative tasks, simply make me less irritable.

The results 

Every day, in the morning and the evening, I looked at my chart for a few minutes. There were no great epiphanies. No single one of these things made me happier.

What happened is I became mindful of my happiness. Put together, all the resolutions on my chart made for a powerful shift in what I did and how I thought. Instead of thinking of happiness as something I would find, it has become a state I am actively trying to create. In a few minutes each day, the chart reminds me of what I need to do to maintain balance in my life and, when I’m out of balance, what adjustments I might make the following day. I gradually became happier after a few weeks. By 6 weeks, it was clear this I might maintain a resolutions chart for the rest of my life, just like Ben Franklin.

The thing I learned was this: You shouldn’t wait for a happy life. By taking small steps towards it now and charting your progress, you can gradually build habits that can make each day a happier one.

 

“Holy ****. That is awesome.”

Working Out Loud CirclesThat’s a reaction from someone in one of our working out loud circles. It’s an unconventional testimonial, perhaps, but captures both the surprise and joy people feel when a circle member is successful in building a network, taking control of their career and their life.

Here’s the short story behind that reaction that demonstrates how circles work in practice.

We were in week 6

Circles usually form for 12 weeks and this was our sixth meeting. At the beginning of each meeting, before talking about a set of slightly more advanced techniques and exercises, we quickly recap the progress each person made with their plan from the week before. One woman described an event she attended and some of the influential people there who could help her grow her business. Our circle helped her choose the specific people she should add to her relationship list.

“What should I say?” she asked us, and we spent a few minutes suggesting ways to frame an email about the event as a contribution. We wanted her to start with appreciation but to also reference her own work in a way that would be helpful to the person receiving the note. It was a short practice in email empathy that Dale Carnegie would have approved of.

At the end of the circle meeting, we all described the steps we would take before the next session and encouraged each other to reach out if we needed help. Our friend said she would send that email.

“Oh my god. What now?”

Two days later, we all got forwarded an email with a short question from our friend: “Oh my god. What now?” The influential person she was nervous about reaching out to had already responded – thanking her for such a nice note, showing an interest in her work, and alluding to possible collaborations.

The people in our circle quickly offered suggestions for a reply, and the rest of the mail thread was a virtual high-fiving, celebrating our friend’s new connection. She sent the reply that day.

The really important thing that happened

Our friend has been working her lists for a few weeks now and has read a draft of the book. So she knows how to make her work visible, how to frame it as a contribution, how to build a network and be empathetic in her communications. But she still doesn’t have the habit of doing all of it.

So the important thing that happened this week wasn’t that our friend sent an email, made a connection with an influential person, or even that she created a possibility for collaboration where none existed before.

The important thing was that she practiced. She exercised the techniques she has learned so far, got positive reinforcement from both her network and our group, and is more prepared – and more likely – to take the next step and practice again. Gradually, she’s developing the habit of working in an open, generous, connected way.

The working out loud circle gives her emotional support, coaching, advice, and a sense of shared accountability that helps her develop her new habits. Over our remaining time together, as that habit grows stronger, she’ll be equipped to work out loud towards any goal.

How working out loud circles could transform your organization

There’s a growing chasm between what executives say they want for their organizations and the experience of their employees.

If you interview management at any large company, for example, they’ll talk about their desire for building an open, collaborative culture, the importance of being a learning organization, and the need to develop talent. Now talk to individuals working in that organization and you’ll discover a competitive environment, an inability to find even basic information, and a vast number of people who simply don’t care enough to get better at what they do.

It’s not that the executives are disingenuous. It’s just that the expensive, top-down change programs they roll out – for cultural change, collaboration, talent management – simply don’t work.

So here’s a different approach, one that’s employee-centered, self-organizing, and free.

How it would work

Working Out Loud CirclesI first described working out loud circles a few months ago. They’re groups of 4-5 people who meet over 12 weeks to help each other accomplish a personal goal by working out loud. Over that time, through actual practice, circle members learn specific ways to make their work visible, frame what they do as contributions, and build a richer, more purposeful social network.

Our experience with the first few circles has been extremely positive and that’s led to the idea of having entire organizations embrace them. To do that, here are the five most important things you would need to know about implementing circles in your organization:

  • Circles are employee-driven. It’s key that employees choose to participate, work on a goal that’s important to them, and trust that what happens inside the circle is confidential. If you impose manager approval or reporting requirements, you won’t realize the benefits.
  • Circles are open to anyone. Since circle members will be practicing basic 21st-century skills, access should not be restricted to only those with a certain title or those deemed to have potential. The most important criterion is the willingness to make an effort to learn.
  • Circles meet 12 times for one hour. These meetings could be outside normal business hours if necessary, depending on the organization. Individuals will also need to do work related to their goal in between meetings.
  • Instructions are provided in Circle Kits. The kits are concise guides for running each of the 12 meetings, including simple exercises complete with worksheets and examples.
  • All support for the circles is online and free. We’re developing a site that will host a rich FAQ and a range of other resources for developing specific skills. The site will also host stories and feedback from individuals and other circles.

How management could help

People could form circles outside of their company, of course. Between the Working Out Loud book due this September and the Circle Kits being released soon, independent groups would have the necessary resources to be successful.

But forming circles inside a company would have a number of advantages. The people there already have much in common, making it easier to form connections and even exchange their circle experiences. Also, if the organization uses an enterprise social network like Jive, Yammer, IBM Connections, Socialcast, Podio or similar offering, people will have a convenient platform to work out loud. Employees who work out loud at work are personally more effective, help the firm capture knowledge, and make it easier for others to access that knowledge.

While the circles are employee-centered and the resources I mentioned are free, there are still things that management could do to help. For example, by endorsing circles as an employee development offering or promoting them at employee networking events, they’d remove any doubts about whether employees are allowed to form them. They could provide time to participate in them, reducing possible interference from middle managers. They could motivate more people to participate by sharing stories of individuals and teams that are working out loud for their own benefit and that of the company.

The benefits: collaboration, learning, and engagement 

Working out loud combines the age-old principles for building meaningful relationships with the modern abilities to share your work, get feedback, and interact with others who share your interests. It wraps all of this in a mindset of generosity. You share and connect not to show off or create a personal brand but to genuinely help other people. If you were to describe someone who worked out loud, you might say she’s visible, connected, generous, curious, and purposeful.

The circles would help your employees to feel like that, to be like that. The practice over time and the peer support would enable people to finally break free of old ways of working and of thinking about work. They could finally develop new habits at work that tap into the intrinsic motivators of autonomy, purpose, mastery, and relatedness. Doing so in a visible way, together with the support of the firm, would accelerate the spread of these positive behaviors across the organization, changing the culture.

At a minimum, some circle members might learn to more readily search for people and content related to their work. Many will build a larger set of more meaningful relationships at work, enabling them to collaborate more effectively. Still others will feel, like Barbara from last week’s story, that “working out loud changed my life.” Combined, all that learning would fundamentally change how people relate to each other and to the organization.

“Working Out Loud changed my life”

Those could be my words but they’re not. They’re from Barbara in Germany, one of the first people to go through the 12-week coaching program for working out loud.

Barbara and I first met via an enterprise social network we use at our firm. Only after we started coaching via telephone did we get the chance to meet in person and become good friends. Working with her shaped the ideas in the book and led to forming working out loud circles.

Here’s her working out loud story.

Her purpose

BarbaraBarbara grew up near the Baltic Sea in Lübeck, Germany. One of four kids, she was the one with the traveling bug, spending nine months at a university in Texas and taking jobs in places like Milan and Brussels. When I met her, she was working in a group responsible for the firm’s books and records where she spent a lot of time analyzing large, complicated spreadsheets.

In our first session we tried to figure out what her purpose would be. More money or recognition at work? A different job in finance? She mentioned she enjoyed helping people with taxes. Could exploring that be her purpose? None of these were appealing. It turned out that Barbara didn’t consider herself a finance person. She was good at it, particularly the detailed analysis, but it wasn’t her. After university, she sort of stumbled into a finance track and didn’t know how or when to change.

After some deliberation, she decided her purpose was simply “to see what else is out there.”

Exploring & connecting

That’s when we started to talk about her other interests, and the one she was most animated about was genealogy. While I think of genealogy as simply charting a family tree, Barbara took it much further. Both for her own family and for historical figures and dates, she would pore through old church and government records. If she hit a dead end, she would call archivists for possible leads. She was also writing about it regularly.

Her first step was to look for other people like her, including other bloggers, people who organized genealogy conferences, and firms that specialized in family tree research. She followed them online and exchanged tweets and email. Within a few weeks, she had her content featured on major genealogy sites, including a lovely profile story focused on her.

That’s when she discovered something. She found that people did genealogy for companies too. She learned that people made a living producing corporate histories – books, documentaries, online content. Her favorite example was a beautiful online history for a company in her hometown so she connected with the person in charge. She discovered our own firm had a corporate historical society too.

Discovering possibilities

The more she looked, the more she found. It was like discovering a whole new world. For the first time, she started wondering if she could somehow connect her passion for genealogy to her work inside a large firm. Maybe, for example, she could help the firm’s corporate historical society engage more people inside the company. She reached out to them via email, describing her appreciation for their work. That led to other interactions including organizing a corporate history event and working to promote their content on our firm’s enterprise social network.

Just had my call from the historical society. And it was amazing! Again I have this huge grin on my face ;) He directly asked me for my opinions regarding the examples he sent me and if I have other ideas…

The results

Before she started working out loud, Barbara was already smart, charming, and articulate. Working out loud just amplified her positive qualities and increased the chances she’d come into contact with interesting people and work she might find fulfilling. She achieved her near-term goal of “seeing what else is out there.” Here’s how she described her results:

I’m more visible because of my blog. I’m often asked to provide input for other bloggers. I got profiled by myheritage. I found a new topic of interest which is corporate history. I have a regular exchange with historians (inside and outside of my company). I started the history group on our internal collaboration platform to bring my whole self to work.

 

I don’t want to sound too pathetic, but WOL really changed my life. How I approach work and life. How I do things. I’ve always been a connector of people and topics. But this coaching took me to the next level. Now I do it with a purpose…not only for me, but for others too. I think even more about “who could participate in this” or “who could benefit out of it.

Barbara’s story is an example of job crafting. That’s where you make adjustments to both your job and your approach so you tap into intrinsic motivators: autonomy, control, purpose, connectedness. It’s how you can make almost any job fulfilling and meaningful.

Barbara’s still at the same firm but now she has greater control of her learning and her network. She’s routinely discovering other people, ideas, and possibilities. She feels, as she wrote, like she can bring her whole self to work.

Imagine if everyone felt that way.

How to discover a job you’ll love: the story of Sandi Ball

Musical Note nails by cute polishMaybe you know someone who’s bored, frustrated, or angry at work. Maybe they feel like a monkey trapped in some experiment. Maybe that someone is you.

The good news is that the world of work has splintered into an ever-expanding set of opportunities. The bad news is that the traditional steps for finding work are  designed for matching you to traditional jobs, not for connecting you to opportunities you’ll love.

To make the most of the wider range of possibilities, you can learn a lot from a 25 year-old woman in Canada who has a passion for nail polish.

Jobs from Abbot to Zymurgist 

You used to be able to name all the occupations. Farmer, doctor, lawyer. It was only in the 1930s that the concept of a white-collar worker even arose. Knowledge worker came about in the late 1950s. But since then, the sheer diversity of what people call work has changed dramatically.

In an in-depth study called The Changing Nature of Work, the National Research Council described the increasing heterogeneity of workers, work, and the workplace:

  1. there is increased diversity in the workforce and within occupations
  2. traditional occupational boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred, 
  3. the range of choices open to human resources managers and other decision makers about how to structure work appears to be increasing

It’s not a small change. In the 1950 US Census, for example, there were only 287 kinds of jobs. By the year 2000, before many of the Internet tools we use today even existed, that number nearly doubled to 543 and it continues to rise.

As the number of different kinds of jobs increases, so do the odds that you can find works that suits your particular aptitudes and passions. But how would you find those jobs? How would they find you?

The story of cutepolish

As a young girl growing up in Alberta, Canada, Sandi Ball was fascinated with nail polish. Her mother would often help her decorate her nails. Then, when Sandi turned 12, her mother gave her a collection of 50 different bottles of polish. Sandi was hooked. Ten years later when she was a 22 year old student and part-time teacher, people would frequently compliment her on the way her nails looked. They also said it looked too difficult for them to ever do.

So Sandi started a YouTube channel. Wanting to keep work and her hobby separate, she didn’t reveal her name and called the channel cutepolish. Originally she saw it as a creative outlet. She could combine her “passions in art, technology, and teaching…to film and edit instructional videos to show girls all over the world how fun and easy nail art could be.”

She could have worked in a salon, or become a teacher or videographer. All fine jobs with familiar labels. Instead, she started making contributions that combined her different passions and might lead to more interesting possibilities.

Now, four years later, her videos have been viewed more than 240 million times and her channel has more than two million subscribers. She connects with thousands of fans on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and her popularity led to an invitation to appear at VidCon, “the world’s premier gathering of people who make online video” where over 12,000 people attended to meet and learn from successful video makers like Sandi. There, the audience included YouTube producers and other influencers who could open doors she’d never have dreamed about growing up in Alberta, Canada.

Last month, as if finally embracing her success, she revealed her name in this charming Q&A video.

What you can do

Was Sandi Ball lucky? My mother would say she made her own luck.

Her first video was a simple 4-minute video with a combination of still shots, text, and bits of video overlaid with low background music. More than fours years and hundreds of videos later, her latest contribution is professional and stylish, including her own narration and product placements from the cosmetics company Sephora. As one fan commented on the original video: “she has come a LONG LONG LONG LONG LONG way.”

Sandi never heard of working out loud but that’s exactly what she has been doing. She made her work visible, framed it as a contribution, built a purposeful network, and increased her chances of finding meaning and fulfillment.