Category Archives for "Ideas"

The Key to a Bigger Impact is Micro-Action

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn – Alvin Toffler, Futurist

I had a dog named Bella who came home one night covered in porcupine quills. When we brought Bella to the Vet he was able to get all the quills out and we learned that she was lucky.

The Vet started to tell us about all the other dogs who get quilled. All kinds of terrible things happen – they can have trouble eating, or lose vision as the most common place for a dog to get quilled is in the face or mouth.

But here is the fact that really stuck (pun intended!).

The Vet said there are some dogs that just get quilled once. That’s it. Then they learn to stay away from that particularly poky creature.

Other dogs, though, go back again and again. And again.

No matter how many times the quills dig into these dogs, they just can’t stop themselves from chasing the porcupine.

It seems crazy.

But then I started to think about it more.

People repeat behaviors that cause them pain and suffering all the time.

While I can let dogs off the hook on the principle that it’s instinct or they haven’t been trained well, it’s harder with people.

Why do we repeatedly choose to encounter a painful experience over and over after?

Why don’t we learn?

On the face of it, it doesn’t make sense.

But actually there is a lawful logic to this cycle.

If we understand the principles at work, we can work with the brain to help us change.

Optimizing the Brain

How our brain helps us, and how it hurts us

The brain has developed over millennia to automate what it can.

The more it automates, the more space that leaves to respond to new situations.

In many situations this works to our advantage.

For example, if every day we had to relearn to drive, there wouldn’t be a lot of time left for other pursuits.

Here’s how the cognitive Psychologist Dr. Art Markman of the University of Texas, Austin explains it:

Your brain is optimized to continue doing what you did last time without having to think about it. So, when you decide you want to change a behavior, you are fighting against millions of years of evolution that have created mechanisms that want you to maintain your behaviors. The hardest part about these behaviors is that they are habits, and so they are done mindlessly.

In short, it takes less effort to repeat what you’ve already done many times then it does to learn and do something new.

Your brain has evolved in response to ever changing circumstances over MILLIONS of years of evolution, often somewhat haphazardly.

Usually, when you want to change a habit, you fail to recognize that this is the scale that you are dealing with.

At most, you might think back to your early conditioning and education. Certainly these are at play, but it is the very nature of our brain as it has evolved that is most relevant.

When you only take into account the smaller frame of our own lives, or even recent events, it’s easy to tend toward believing that it is a lack of willpower or personal failure that keeps us in a bad habit loop.

Some habits – even ones you consider negative – don’t have a fundamental impact on your life or work. Taken together though your habits have a huge effect on your results, personally and professionally.

“We are what we repeatedly do.”

Our habits determine our success, or failure

Aristotle famously said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Our habits, bundled together become our personal system, and that system produces our results, scattered and ineffective or streamlined and full of impact. Your path to impact then, lies in understanding how your habits form your systems and tweaking the individual habits until you get the results you want.

Individual Habits

Take this scenario:

You are sitting at your desk. On your computer screen multiple windows are open – one with dozens of e-mails that need to be written or responded to, another has a half-finished presentation. 

The phone is ringing. 

Someone pops in your door for “a quick question” that ends up taking 27 minutes (you were looking at the clock so you know). 

On top of that, you got only 5 hours of sleep due to a restless little one last night and have had two cups of coffee.

Each detail in this scenario – from where you are sitting, to what is open on your computer, how you respond to your colleague and of course your sleep and coffee – is likely driven by habit.

Together they are forming your “system”, which in this case is producing varied and mostly unpleasant results for your emotional state (you’re likely feeling frustrated) and for what your results.

To rework this system, you’d break it down to it’s component habits and transform them one at a time to create a new system with higher impact.

The Anti-Epiphany

Why epiphany isn’t the way to go

A common reaction when people start to understand the Path to Impact is that they want to overhaul their whole way of doing things.

Immediately. And entirely.

Unfortunately, there is a huge problem with that approach: most of the time, it doesn’t work.

Instead, you’ll be back where you began only more frustrated by the lack of improvement.

It is true that occasionally people have epiphanies.

The lightbulb goes on. They have a moment of deep realization that a habit or even entire system is not working as they wish and are able to make a sudden and lasting change.

However, this is very rare.

Even when life and death is on the line people have tremendous trouble changing behaviors they know could make a difference.

Here’s Dr. Edward Miller, the Dean of the Medical School and CEO of the hospital at Johns Hopkins University quoted in Fast Company:

If you look at people after coronary-artery bypass grafting two years later, 90% of them have not changed their lifestyle. And that’s been studied over and over and over again. And so we’re missing some link in there. Even though they know they have a very bad disease and they know they should change their lifestyle, for whatever reason, they can’t.

These are people who recently had a major surgery. The lifestyle changes they need to make are generally very well known (more on that shortly). Yet they can’t make simple changes that would take little or no time or money.

Epiphanies are not your best option. There is hope in another direction. We’ll get to that soon.

First, let’s understand why most advice out there just won’t help you create better habits.

“I want to reduce stress”

Why most advice won’t help you

Short of an Epiphany, your next step might logically be to explore specific positive behaviors you could adopt.

Let’s take reducing stress as a common example.

If you google “I want to reduce stress” you will get, literally, hundreds of thousands of hits with titles like “101 Ways to Reduce Stress” “10 Simple Ways to Relieve Stress That You Can Start Today” and “20 Easy Stress Reduction Techniques”

The stay-at-home humorist Ann Imig pokes fun of these tactical lists (and actually offers some more useful advice) in her piece “How I combat burn-out in 10,000 easy steps! Staying semi-sane during intense busy times.

Do some of these sites contain tactics that could be helpful to you at a certain moment? Of course. And likely all are well intentioned.

There’s just one problem, and it’s a big one.

They are almost guaranteed not to help you.

Why? They are not:

  • well matched to the specific context that you are currently experiencing
  • customized for the stage of change you are in
  • communicated for multiple learning styles
  • focused enough to help you identify and take a first micro-step

This is why advice like “Turn on some music” or “Be faithful to your workout routines” while well-intentioned, often don’t get that far.

By and large, people already know what kinds of behaviors are most likely to produce positive results.

Take one recent study including men who adopted five straightforward health habits – moderate drinking, no smoking, and healthy diet, exercise and weight maintenance. Probably you are familiar with all of these behaviors and know that they are positive.

The men in the study who adopted them all were 86% less likely to have heart attacks.

So, how many of the 20,700 men in the study do you think kept these habits up for the 11 years of research?

Only 212, or just 1%.

You often know what we’d like to do or could do to increase positive outcomes and decrease negative ones.

You just don’t do it.

All is not lost

The Change Process

Luckily, though, there is a way to change a problematic habit.

In order to change, you don’t have to understand the larger process you go through. If you want you can skip straight to what to do to change a habit.

If you do value a bigger picture view of  the specific process people go through when considering a habit change, here it is, on the seminal work of the researchers Prochaska & DiClemente introduced in the early 80s, and has been built on ever since:

  1. Pre-contemplation: You have not consciously acknowledged any problem with your behavior (even if you sense it unconsciously), nor are your consciously considering alternatives.
  2. Contemplation:  You are asking yourself “should I stay with these habits and attitudes or should I try changing?”
  3. Preparation: You are convinced that you want to change. You know you want to take action, and are getting ready to do so soon.
  4. Action: You take action in line with your desired change.
  5. Retrain: You keep taking action in your new, desired way, retraining yourself.
  6. Relapse (likely but not inevitable): You go back to your previous (less desirable) behavior probably because of a familiar trigger or trying to take too big a step at once. If this happens you will likely need go back to step 3 and repeat.

Of course, this leaves aside the question of what motivates us to move through these stages, or causes relapses. However, it is a strong overview of how we function and the stages a person generally goes through to create change.

If you’re already motivated and clear on the very specific habit you want to try to change (that is, if you are in the preparation stage), here’s exactly what you can do to take action for lasting change.


What to do to change a habit

Get started with a Micro-action

In Stanford Professor BJ Fogg‘s summary Lasting Change, based on decades of research on the subject, he postulates that there are two, and only two, effective ways to create long term change:

-Environmental changes
-Baby Steps (which I call Micro-Actions )

There are two types of micro-actions. You can either:

  • use a scaled down version of the new habit. For example, if you want to write everyday, rather then committing to 3 hours of writing a day, commit to writing at least a 3 sentences a day


  • take a starter step that is on the right path. Staying with the writing example, you might go to a meet-up of a local writer’s group
  • for a bonus, pair this with environmental changes, like putting only a pen and paper out on your desk every evening.

That’s it.

The hard part is being ready and motivated to change, clear on what habit you want to adopt and why, and identifying your Micro-action.

Today, my wish for you is that you will identify one positive micro-action and take it, as soon as possible to create a more productive and meaningful life.

What is the micro-action you took? 



Key References:

Low-Risk Diet and Lifestyle Habits in the Primary Prevention of Myocardial Infarction in Men: A Population-Based Prospective Cohort Study Agneta Åkesson, PhD, Susanna C. Larsson, PhD, Andrea Discacciati, MSc and Alicja Wolk, DMSc
J Am Coll Cardiol. 2014;64(13):1299-1306. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2014.06.1190.

Prochaska JO and DiClemente CC ( 1984 ) The Transtheoretical Approach: Towards a Systematic Eclectic Framework . Dow Jones Irwin , Homewood, IL, USA

Fogg, BJ “Lasting Change” Online. Available: Accessed: September 22, 2014.

The Underground Railroad Was One of America’s First Co-ops: A Black History Tour of Cooperative Economics

Cooperative economics and civil rights don’t often appear together in history books, but they should. From the mutual aid societies that bought enslaved people’s freedom to the underground railroad network that brought endangered blacks to the north, cooperative structures were key to evading white supremacy. And there was vicious backlash when black co-ops threatened the status quo.

“The white economic structure depended on all of these blacks having to buy from the white store, rent from the white landowner. They were going to lose out if you did something alternatively,” Jessica Gordon Nembhard, author of Collective Courage: A History of African-American Economic Thought and Practice, told Commonomics correspondent Laura Flanders this week.

For more on co-ops in the black community, read our latest piece on late Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba’s vision.

Laura Flanders headshotLaura is YES! Magazine’s 2014 Local Economies Reporting Fellow and is executive producer and founder and host of “GRITtv with Laura Flanders.” Follow her on Twitter @GRITlaura.

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The first need of Practical Idealists

Future tense

I want to change the world.

If you’re a Practical Idealist, you do too.

Here’s what I often forget: you already have.

More importantly, you even are right now.

It’s so easy to get caught up. Caught up in the categories that other’s put you in. The need for “key terms” on LinkedIn. Or the right way to pitch potential partners. How to frame your aims, or your accomplishments.

In these demands, it’s easy to lose yourself: more particularly, who you are right now. Who you are with all your past accomplishments and failures (you’ve learned from both). With your dreams and desires for more (whatever you’ve already done). With the specific experiences and sensations you are having right now.

As Elizabeth Gilbert so eloquently reminds us in her TED talk, it is not our job to swallow the sun. As creatives (and world-changing is a creative act) we need something different.

We need to listen.

We need to heed the call for change right now. Whether that call is to take a kinder tone – or explore a new idea, one that just might change the world for the better.

Our first need is to listen.

To listen to the specific possibility that is appearing. Rather then writing, try to hear what needs to be written. Rather then speaking, try hearing the words that need to be said. Rather then thinking, try hearing what needs to be thought.

Let what is already here surprise you. It just might be the change you are seeking.


Photo: Creative Commons License Kevin Dooley via Compfight

Forget Work/Life Balance. Go for Blend.

Salad-flickr-300x182This post originally appeared on Unsectored

I often like to mix tastes – raisins in a kale salad, sea salt on chocolate – which may explain why I have such an issue with the idea of Work/Life Balance.

Work/Life balance implies that you have two big pulls on your time that just can’t overlap (there’s even a slash in between!).

So many world changers have told me that Work/Life balance is one of our biggest challenges.

As a new mother and the Founder of GatherWell, the Think + Do Tank for Practical Idealists, I can relate – raisins aside.

Like you, I’m motivated by suffering in the world, my wish to help others and my belief in the possibility of a better, more just and equal society. I’m also deeply motivated by my wish to be a good Mom and keep my marriage healthy.

At times my stress level has been out of control. It’s compromised my ability to be who I wish to be.

Having worked through those times, I’ve come to believe that a deep reframe of the work/life balance question is in order.

What if, instead of constantly trying to share between two buckets of “work” and “life”, you could swim in one big bath? What if you reclaimed your work as part of your life, instead of a competitor with it?

Stop endlessly breaking down your day into smaller and smaller bits of time and trying to cram as much as possible into each. Experiment with finding a natural flow between the different pieces of your life. Look for overlaps. Look for blend instead of balance.

Here are my top two practical ways to start creating blend right now:

Method #1. Make Your Salad: Look for opportunities to intentionally mix what you need to feel rejuvenated with your passion for creating change in the world.

Have a meeting? Why not do it while going for a walk.

Need new partners? Look for people you’d actually enjoy hanging out with in your free time. Working with people you genuinely enjoy will not only mean you feel more relaxed, it’s also likely to make you more effective.

Method #2. Find your “Gold Star” Activities: Focus not just on what issues you are working on, but the kind of work you are doing. Even if you are really passionate, if you aren’t well matched to the task at hand it will drag you down. Too often passionate people feel like we have to be all and do all for our cause. The truth is, just like everyone, there are some tasks you are better suited to then others.

The more you are working not only on what you love, but in the way you love, the more blended you’ll feel.

Try these methods. Invent your own. Find ways to feel so alive when you’re pursuing your passion that the work itself rejuvenates you.

Photo Credit: Seth Anderson

Can the Stuck-in-Place Economy Help Us Face Climate Change?

Airport ghosts by Oleg Shpyrko.

After I finished high school in the flat, square corn country of central Illinois, I fled—along with many of my fellow classmates. We chased jobs or graduate school in places like San Francisco, New York, or Washington, D.C. I settled in Seattle. It wasn’t until I hit my 30s that I became aware of the social costs of this mobility.

Sense of place, community, and rootedness aren’t just poetic ideas. They are survival mechanisms.

It’s about more than mere hand-wringing over the ton of carbon I am dumping into the atmosphere this Christmas as I fly east or the psychic toll of separation from my parents, my brother, and my four-year-old niece. I am somehow ungrounded. I have limited history in this gray and watery city: Even after 10 years I don’t have the same sense of belonging as people who grew up here, and that sometimes feels disquieting.

According to recent environmental research, this could also mean that I am less equipped to cope—if, say, an emergency strikes—than someone who’s better connected to Seattle. Sense of place, community, and rootedness aren’t just poetic ideas. They are survival mechanisms.

Social scientists call it “place attachment”: “the bonding that occurs between individuals and their meaningful environments,” according to psychologists Leila Scannell and Robert Gifford. Based on several studies released in the last couple of years, place attachment is one of several factors that can help a community recover from, and individuals cope with, the kinds of social and environmental crises that are becoming ever more common—like climate change-related disasters, large-scale job layoffs, or political turmoil.

In two separate studies, for instance, individuals who reported higher levels of concern about place were more likely to take steps to prepare for wildfires (in the United States) or floods (in a monsoon-prone region of India). The damage caused by a disaster can be more stressful for individuals who were attached to that place, but those feelings can also motivate people to put the broken place back together, according to a recent book by social workers Michael John Zakour and David F. Gillespie.

These findings don’t bode well for many Americans, who have never been good at putting down roots. According to the Economist, people in the United States move twice as often as Canadians. “Americans always on the move developed no attachments to place and thus no sense of historical connection with the land,” wrote historian David Glassberg in the book Sense of History. Cultural historian William R. Leach blamed, in part, the globalized economy, which has created a “vast landscape of the temporary … with thousands of floating executives and countless numbers of part-time and temporary workers, all unable or unwilling to make long-term connections to their communities.”

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Some of the factors that lead us to move are self-reinforcing: The more frequently young professionals depart the struggling Rust Belt cities and farm towns of the Midwest, the less capacity is left in those places to build new kinds of economies that would entice workers to stay. However, the highest number of moves happens below the poverty line, among people whose lives, relationships, and finances are rarely stable: Those moves exact different social costs, as kids from poor families bounce from one school to another and miss out on forming relationships in one neighborhood.

But in the last couple of years, Americans have begun to change their itinerant ways. Since the mid-1980s, an ever-smaller percentage of people are changing locations. The number of Americans who relocated hit an all-time low in 2011, though relocation went up slightly the following year. More significantly, today’s 20-somethings (historically one of the most mobile age brackets) are less often moving out of the family house. A record number of those under the age of 31 still live with their parents, says a report from Pew Research.

some communities might endure precisely because people have dug in, rooted themselves

The fact that Americans are now more geographically anchored may or may not be a positive sign for the economy in the traditional sense. The still-slumped housing market might be keeping some of us glued to one place, and the Brookings Institution’s William Frey calls the increasing tendency to be stationary a “foreboding trend for national economic recovery.” But of course, that depends on what kind of economy we are trying to create.

And some of the unintended consequences of staying put may be positive. More than 80 percent of people living in multigenerational households (such as ones where young adults stay with parents and grandparents) say the situation has “enhanced … relationships among family members.”

To stay put requires that you keep your relationship to one place, whether by default or choice. It can mean restitching the social fabric of families. It can mean forgetting any shame associated with lingering in or contributing to the town you grew up in.

This is not to say that Americans will soon stop traveling over the holidays. (Or that I’ll ever be able to settle my whole family in one location—in just a few years, my mother’s household has moved from New England to the Plains and back to the central Midwest, and my husband’s brother, from the Midwest to South America to Kentucky.)

The most foreboding trends now and in the decades ahead may stem from climate change—disasters like drought and flooding that devastate some places and force people to move. As we face this kind of world, some communities might endure precisely because people have dug in, rooted themselves, and developed the kinds of generosity, adaptiveness, and foresight that come from knowing where they are.

Madeline Ostrander.Madeline Ostrander wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Madeline is a freelance writer and editor who focuses on issues of climate change and climate adaptation.

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