Archive for the 'Productivity' Category

The Challenge with Choices

In a world of near-infinite volumes of digital bits and bytes, there’s something to be said for the physical.

With a smartphone, I can access virtually any piece of data ever discovered, or any song ever recorded, or any photo ever taken.

Still, at times, I want a hardback book or a vinyl record.

My family bought a retro record player not long ago. Since then, an extended family member has given us a stream of vinyls: The Beatles, Elvis, U2, Norah Jones, to name a few.

We now have about fifteen to choose from. It makes choosing music simpler, and the music is actually richer than listening on a digital device. Little known fact: Digital music squashes sound quality to make songs stream faster.

For the same reason I go with vinyl at home, I’ve been popping in old CDs in my old Land Cruiser rather than fiddling with a digital playlist on my phone. Limiting my options increases my focus and creates a more enjoyable experience.

I may have unlimited options in this information age, but I don’t have unlimited time, energy and knowledge to filter those options.

Hence, there is a diminishing return to expanding choices. Having too many choices can be debilitating.

In the mid-1990s, Columbia University professor Sheena Iyengar conducted a study in a gourmet grocery.

She set out twenty-four choices of jams. Sixty per cent of people stopped for a sample.

Then, she set out just six choices of jams. Only forty per cent of shoppers stopped.

However, thirty per cent of people who stopped for the smaller assortment ended up purchasing, compared to only three per cent of those who stopped for the larger display.

Fewer options drove greater sales.

In “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,” psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that an increased volume of consumer choices causes anxiety in shoppers. Too many options causes paralysis, not liberation.

Schwartz cites a study that revealed a two per cent decrease in participation in an employer-matched retirement plan for every ten mutual funds added to the plan.

An expanding selection scared participants off, or at least prompted procrastination that resulted in inactivity.

Schwartz says that even if a person makes a choice from a large slate of options, he or she is less satisfied with it because of the regret that comes from contemplating the options not chosen.

This explains why a meal of Cane’s chicken tenders can be more enjoyable than dinner at The Cheesecake Factory. The latter’s menu is a tome. I’ve seen shorter textbooks.

At a family camp out last fall, a mom organized a taste test. She distributed about fifteen different flavors of Oreo cookies that Nabisco now makes. They included lemon, cinnamon roll and red velvet cake. Suffice it to say, some of them were a far cry from the original.

Unable to leave well enough alone and driven by Wall Street growth expectations, Nabisco is simply trying to expand its Oreo “franchise.”

In the meantime, milk’s favorite cookie falls victim to the fallacy that having more choices always delivers more happiness.

Don’t put off reading this!

If you’re reading this, you’ll know I relapsed. I’m likely on a first name basis at a meeting of Procrastinators Anonymous.

This is the chapter my editor keeps on file for when I wait to the last minute and then that minute gets interrupted by a case of pinkeye.

Or maybe I just couldn’t resist checking my bank account and sports scores and online garage sales. Maybe I needed just the right cup of coffee to get started, but the Keurig spit out only grinds. Whatever the reason(s), I procrastinated.

Procrastination occupies the punch line of plenty of jokes and quips.

“Procrastinators are the leaders of tomorrow.”

“Never put off to tomorrow what you can put off to the day after tomorrow.”

In Latin, “pro” means “forward” and “crastinare” means “of tomorrow”. The two combine to stockpile many good intentions. We all know the roots of the disease, but, for therapy’s sake, let’s review.

  1. Fear of failure. Whether I’m apprehensive about trying something for the first time or I’ve done something a hundred times but fear this one might not measure up, fear of getting it wrong can slow me to a crawl.
  2. Perfectionism. If I can’t do something precisely right, I often would rather not do it at all. So time slips away while I think about how to accomplish a task perfectly, forgetting that it’s only in practicing a task that my performance actually improves.
  3. Urgent vs. important. Small fires burn so uncomfortably hot that I think I must address them immediately. I think they will only take a second, but they can smoke out priorities for hours and days.

Procrastinating is not necessarily irrational. Work generally expands to fill time. So, it makes sense to compress a project into a window that closes right at a deadline. Deadlines force action.

But this is the rationale of someone who can’t leave well enough alone, someone who obsesses over a project to the bitter end, someone addicted to the adrenaline that comes from squeaking under a wire.

Some possible cures for procrastin-addicts:

  1. Let it go. If you let a project go when it is reasonably done, it will be easier to start the next one. You may need a reasonable third party to help define what “reasonably done” looks like. Your OCD won’t necessarily know.
  2. Care less about what others think. All you can do is all you can do. If it’s your best effort at that point in time, it shouldn’t matter what other people think. Remember: most people are neither for you nor against you. They are only thinking about themselves.
  3. Visualize. This is the most cliche of my recommendations, but it really does help to imagine what it will be like to get something done. Think the thoughts, feel the feelings of relief and satisfaction. Or, conversely, imagine the consequences of inaction.

If all else fails, perendinate (verb – to put off until the day after tomorrow).

If all else fails, add a word to your vocabulary: perendinate – v. to put off until the day after tomorrow!


Follow Kevin Thompson at

When ambition becomes ambiguous

Doris Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” profiles the political brilliance of Abraham Lincoln. In the book she references a French aristocrat who visited a burgeoning America in 1831.

Alexis de Tocqueville was sent on a royal mission to examine America’s prisons. But after touring the United States for two years, he published a broader work in 1835 entitled “Democracy in America.” Its insights are timeless and its warnings are timely.

As Goodwin notes, Tocqueville captures the spirit of the age in which Lincoln and his contemporaries rose to leadership. As children of the American experiment, these men recognized the experiment’s distinction from European aristocracy and its value for social mobility.

Tocqueville writes:

“When both the privileges and the disqualifications of class have been abolished and men have shattered the bonds which once held them immobile, the idea of progress comes naturally into each man’s mind.

“Ambition becomes a universal feeling… Every American is eaten up with a longing to rise.”

Lurching forward 175 years: Is ambition a universal feeling in America today? Does every American have a longing to rise?

A handful of factors makes me think not.

First, the post-modern culture ridicules ambition. Take the latest McDonald’s commercial in which a high school freshman scans extra-curricular options: debate team, math team, chess team and then this innovation: “The Chill Out with a McCafe Iced Coffee Team.”

Two less-than-eager team members lure recruits by leaning coolly back in their chairs and sipping on sugary, caffeinated bevs.

Second, the consumer culture levies high finance costs. Consumer lusts leverage future income and limit financial flexibility. Committing tomorrow’s money today makes the present look brighter than the future. It’s tough to see the way up when one is paying the minimum $86 payment on a $8,000 credit card balance.

Third, government benefits neutralize ambition. When taxing authorities provide more and more goods and services, people get complacent. When basics are met apart from a person’s hard work and determination, it zaps his/her drive to ascend. Poor decisions then beget poor decisions.

Fourth, government regulation postpones or eliminates the rewards of ambition. When a business owner has to spend more time complying with laws and regs, the payoff of risk-taking makes less sense. Heavy government intrusion squelches the drivers of growth and mobility, namely, entrepreneurship and innovation.

Fifth, relational inadequacies are growing. In Lincoln’s day, young people served as apprentices and proteges. They built the trust of older generations. They needed these connections in order to survive and they wanted them in order to advance.

Today, TV, movies, video games and Internet browsing often interrupt relationship-building. They can diminish ambition. Very little of modern media is productive or creative. Most is consumptive and reactive.

Not everyone is made to be an entrepreneur. However, everyone is made to create in some way. Media consumption crowds out creativity, and, without creativity, there is no ambition.

Elsewhere in “Democracy in America,” Tocqueville warns against a democracy of unambitious citizens.

In their ignorance and materialism, they are susceptible to a despotic government that “does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born.”


Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star. Follow him online at

Protocol for awkward moments

An etiquette expert came to my city’s chamber of commerce recently to help us with our “awkward moments.” I’m pretty sure my fly was down. By the end of her presentation, I was convinced again of something I’ve long believed but don’t always remember: most communication is non-verbal.

At one point, she had us make circles with each thumb and index finger while holding our other fingers straight out. She pointed out that the “b” on the left hand stands for bread; the “d” stands for drink. Formal dinner stuff.

(I actually prefer “BMW”: bread, meal, water. But then again, I’ve never been on The Today Show talking about how to hug your boss’s wife.)

Then, she said, “Hold your ‘d’ above your head. Now, bring it down to your chin.” I brought mine to my temple. Most of us did. Why? Because that’s what she did with her hand. The non-verbal trumped the verbal.

I sat up straighter. I just knew this protocol princess was reading me like a book. She’s about to turn my hereditary awkwardness into a teachable moment for the group.

Somehow, I nodded and smiled just enough to fend off her inclinations to expose. Then she asked us to think of a word that summarized who we’re trying to be. Her examples: powerful, authentic, confident. The only word I could think of was “less-awkward.” (Powerful people hyphenate, by the way.)

She went on talking about greetings (use “hello,” not “hi”) and hand shakes with the opposite sex (men, no limp fish; women, no tourniquets). She covered hand placement (not over privates), feet placement (obtuse angle) and name tag placement (right side).

People who don’t speak at a meeting are more noticed than those who do, she said. When you smile, show your teeth – even if you don’t have any. When you interact, first be interested, then be interesting. In a business meeting, keep your hands above the table most of the time.

I noticed a tension at play. On one hand, we should elevate non-verbals, pay attention to them. They’re saying (1) more than we think and (2) more than our mouths.

On the other hand, we should minimize non-verbals. Get them out of the way as much as possible so that our words mean something. Don’t let non-verbals distract.

As in much of life, the goal is unity. Let the words your mind conceives match your bodily actions. And let your body act according to what your mind has decided you want to be.

And, as in much of life, this union occurs only with practice. The way to overcome uncomfortable moments is to be willing to be uncomfortable for a time.

For example, when I feel awkward, I put my hands in my pockets, subconsciously seeking protection. Instead, the protocol princess wants me to rest my hands at my side or clasp them gently above my waist. Doing so feels awkward but I can see how it communicates greater ease and confidence.

Feeling awkward to overcome awkwardness. I do love paradoxes.

The protocol princess was Diane Gottsman of The Protocol School of Texas. She addressed the graduating class of Leadership Boerne, a program of the Greater Boerne Chamber.

Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star in the Texas hill country. Follow him at

Things are not what they seem

What do you call two physicians with no opinions? A paradox.

I hope that was worth it. My wait just got twice as long.

Paradox. Defined by Merriam-Webster as “a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true.”

I have had a secret love affair with such statements for many years.

Things like “The most important years of a person’s life are the ones he or she won’t remember” (i.e., early childhood).

Perhaps it’s my backwards personality or my twisted sense of humor, but I’ve always loved when things aren’t what they seem.

Paradoxes first popped out at me in early Bible readings: The last shall be first. The “foolish” will shame the wise. Death brings life. Whoever wants to save his life must lose it. The Lord disciplines those he loves. Field laborers sleep better than the rich.

Then I saw them throughout the created world: The burning of a forest can make it more healthy. The tiniest acorn becomes the biggest oak. Eskimos stay warm inside of ice. You can die of thirst in an ocean of saltwater. The sun that makes life possible can burn you miserably.

And soon I saw them in every part of life:

In school. The least attractive 7th graders make the most attractive 21-year-olds. Street-smart C students land better jobs than book-smart A students. How does a sharp teacher get students quiet? By whispering, not yelling.

In sports. The advent of armor-like football padding has brought more injuries, not fewer. With tennis, baseball and soccer, the line is in; with basketball and football, the line is out. Games are won or lost in practice, not in games.

In relationships. We are most drawn to those who let us go. Living together before marrying makes divorce more likely, not less. The shortest marriages come from the world’s prettiest people. The more selfish you are, the worse yourself feels.

In government. Lower tax rates generate greater total revenues because there is stronger economic activity across the board.

In business. The biggest company in the country is based in Bentonville, Arkansas. Sales are best made by asking questions, not making statements. Paying more in employee benefits can lower total personnel costs over time.

In technology. Third world countries have the best wireless networks because they skipped the “legacy” wireline phase. Apple has been successful because it cannibalized its own products. Only a fool would argue now that Apple should never have made the iPhone because it would eat into iPod sales.

Steve Jobs was as much brilliant for what he left out of products as for what he put in them (RIP floppy disk drives and removable batteries).

In everyday life. If you write it down, you’ll remember it without the paper. Fatigue through exercise gives you energy. Scarcity makes things valuable. All-you-can-eat is not very satisfying.

Finally, and most compellingly, in country music. How do you get the most out of life? Live like you were dying.


Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star in the Texas hill country. Follow him at

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