[Note: I shared this mental model with my email subscribers on Nov 13, 2016. If you want to receive a new mental model every week, join the club.]
What it is:
We’re always looking for short cuts. Whether the latest fad diet, get-rich-quick schemes, or clever growth hacks, we’re all looking for that easy way out.
But to get what we want, we do have to do the hard part. We have to, as the metaphor goes, eat the broccoli.
This is especially relevant in nutrition / dieting. There’s a new fad diet every week. But nothing works unless you eat the broccoli (or give up sugary foods).
Examples in business:
Marketing: Growth hacks and Dropbox style incentives to acquire users are fine. But they’re ultimately useless if you don’t build something users want, and would pay for. Similarly, you can have the latest Material Design for your app, but it’s useless if there’s no reason to use the app.
Content: You (I) can try all kinds of content marketing SEO tricks to get traffic to your website, but the most important thing is – write to be helpful. To be useful. That’s the hard, but necessary, part.
People Management: Many of us hate giving negative feedback. We hope people take a hint, when we are brusque / don’t give positive feedback. We hope they can read our minds. Instead, the simplest way is through. Have the candid conversation. Your team and your relationships will be the better for it.
Rules to follow:
All things that are worth doing have some broccoli to be eaten. Identify the broccoli – the painful, necessary, non-scalable first step – and you’re already ahead of the others.
Instead of ways around the broccoli, identify ways to make it easier to eat it. If it’s a feedback chat, prepare a script for it if required. If it’s understanding what customers want, do structured interviews.
Now, an analogy can only go so far. But in summary, as Seth Godin says, when you’re looking for the trick, remember: it often turns out that the trick-free approach is the best trick of all.
Simple. But not easy.
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Regular readers of this blog and my newsletter (subscribe here if you haven’t!) know that I’m an avid reader. 2015, for me, was a year of quantity. I read 60+ books, and at least ten times as many articles.
Some of these were bad, some good, and some changed my perspective on work and life.
I could list the top 5 books I read in the year. But instead, let me present the top 5 ideas that transformed my thinking, and the books I found them in.
1. Keystone Habit – One Habit to Rule Them All (The Power of Habit)
I’ve written before about Thinking, Fast and Slow, and the difference between System 1 and System 2 thinking. The former is rapid, automatic, instinctive and judgmental. The latter is slower, more considered and analytical, and more effortful.
In most situations, we tend to use the quick-and-dirty System 1. The more methodical System 2 is quite lazy.
This proclivity to use System 1 underlines the importance of habits. Such sequential, repetitive tasks are so ingrained that we do them without thinking. The essence of System 1.
For instance, do you think when you’re brushing your teeth in the morning? More likely you’re so woozy you can’t walk straight. Still, your teeth are sparkling clean by the end of it.
That’s the power of habits – you can do certain tasks without thinking.
To understand more about habits, I read two books this year – Hooked and The Power of Habit. They talk a lot about the structure of habits, how to build good habits, how to break bad habits, etc.
But the most powerful concept to me was that of the keystone habit. Keystone habits are small, narrow habits in one area of your life that impact several other areas in a significant manner.
As Charles Duhigg says in The Power of Habit:
Some habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move through an organization. Some habits, in other words, matter more than others in remaking businesses and lives. These are “keystone habits,” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.
A few examples of this are:
Exercise. When you start exercising, even if only once a week, it triggers changes in various other areas. You start eating better. You become more productive and confident at work. You show more patience towards your family and colleagues. All because of a few push-ups once a week. That’s a keystone habit.
Making your bed every morning. It’s a tiny, almost irrelevant change. But studies show that this correlates with better productivity, greater well-being, and more willpower.
Willpower. This is the most important keystone habit. Studies show that willpower in children is the most accurate indicator of academic performance throughout their student lives. Even more accurate than IQ.
At an organizational level as well, keystone habits can have transformative impact. The book cites an example of how a worker safety program at Alcoa ended up not only improving safety, but also turning Alcoa into a profit machine.
How do these small, unrelated habits have such widespread impact? In Duhigg’s own words:
Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.
So what are your keystone habits at life and work?
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2. Rewards and their Unintended Consequences (Drive)
Incentives are strange, powerful beasts. Whether it’s pocket money we give children for doing household tasks or bonuses our bosses give us for exceeding sales targets, incentives play a key role in driving us to perform.
I think I’ve been in the top five percent of my age cohort almost all my adult life in understanding the power of incentives, and yet I’ve always underestimated that power. Never a year passes but I get some surprise that pushes a little further my appreciation of incentive superpower.
Given the immense power of incentives, it becomes all the more important to design them right. If they’re even slightly misaligned, they can “damage civilization” (Munger’s words, a tad hyperbolic).
I read Drive earlier this year – an insightful book on the powers of rewards. The book also talks about the negative influences of incentives, if not designed well.
Incentives can drown out intrinsic motivation, even when you’re doing a task you enjoy. If you receive an incentive for doing something, you also receive a subliminal message that the task is not worth doing without the incentive. End result: incentives transform an interesting task into a drudge, and play into work.
[Tweet “Incentives transform an interesting task into a drudge, and play into work.”]
Incentives can only give a short-term boost. Like caffeine, they’re useful when a deadline looms. But beware the energy crash that will inevitably follow.
Rewards can become addictive. As Daniel Pink, the author, says – Yes, rewards motivate people. To get more rewards.
Incentives do have their uses, but only for process-oriented tasks. In fact, incentives for creative tasks can impede progress. They narrow your focus at the exact moment when you need broad thinking.
The book captures many more interesting and significant implications of an innocuous, innocent incentive.
3. Your MVP can be more “minimum” than you think (Lean Startup)
Most people working in the startup ecosystem are familiar with the Minimum Viable Product. The MVP is the most basic version of your product that still delivers your core offering.
It’s an important concept to keep in mind as you build a product. You don’t want to spend too much time building the first version, before realizing customers don’t want it.
I thought I’d understood the concept well. I congratulated myself as I built my first product in three months, found that people didn’t need it, and junked it. And again when I built my next product in four months, tested it with customers for three, and then pivoted it to its current form.
Then I read Lean Startup.
I realized then that I’d taken far too long to build my MVP. What’s more – so had everyone else I know. Why do we all take so damn long to build an MVP?
The reason is that we’ve got the concept wrong. You don’t need to ‘build’ an MVP. You just need to put it together.
What does that mean?
Let’s say you want to create a website offering fashion tips. You can launch in one day or less.
Buy a domain. 3 hours (the actual purchase will take 2 min. But I know you’ll agonize over names for the remaining 2 hours 58. And no, the name won’t matter.)
Build a landing page with Unbounce where people can ask questions or upload photos. 1 hour.
Run a small Facebook campaign publicizing the site. Or tell 10 friends, and tell them to tell 10 more each. That’s your test audience. 2 hours.
Thus, you can be up and running tomorrow! Even if you’re slow because this is your first time.
[Tweet “Your Minimum Viable Product can be more “minimum” than you think.”]
Many popular products of today hacked together such makeshift MVPs when they started. Check out the article in Further Reading for examples.
4. Pareto Principle & the Minimum Effective Dose (Four Hour Work Week)
Four Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferriss, is THE book to read on personal and business productivity. Unlike most productivity books and blogs, he eschews all the standard life-hacking methods (of the “shake your hips while you brush your teeth, to get some exercise” variety).
All he has to say about traditional time management is, “Forget all about it.”
[Tweet “All you need to know about traditional time management is, “Forget all about it.””]
Instead, he focuses on using the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule. He uses this to introduce the concept of the Minimum Effective Dose – the smallest amount of effort for the most impact.
Whether your customers, your vendors, books you read, anything – choose the few that give you the most value, and forget about the rest.
He should know. He puts the Pareto principle on steroids. Sample this:
In his nutrition products business, he “fired” the least profitable 97% (!) of his customers, to instead focus on the 3% most promising ones and double his income.
He eliminated 70% of his advertising costs and almost doubled his direct sales income.
He discontinued over 99% of his online affiliates.
Eliminating the least value tasks and business relationships helped him free up his time to do more productive tasks. And achieve the Holy Grail of less work but more profit. That’s how you do productivity!
Side note: In his follow up book, The Four Hour Body, Ferriss uses the concept of the Minimum Effective Dose to illustrate how to become more healthy. Check that out too.
One skill I tried to build last year was negotiation and persuasion. I read three great books on the subject. I’m still to have the investor conversations where I’ll use this skill, so I don’t know how much they’ve helped!
But one concept that has stuck is that of the BATNA – the Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. In simple terms, the BATNA is your fall-back option in case talks fall through.
Your BATNA is tantamount to your leverage in the negotiation. It works in two ways.
1. The better your BATNA, the more leverage you have.
Let’s say you’re negotiating the sale of your house with a prospective buyer. Your alternative to this is to (a) rent it out; (b) sell it to a land developer to make a parking lot, and (c) live there yourself. If option (b), say, is the most attractive of these, then that’s your BATNA. The value the land developer offers you should form the baseline for the negotiation.
As long as the buyer’s offer is higher than this, you can reduce your price (after making a big deal of it, of course).
Far more important though, is that if the buyer pushes you below this BATNA, you can and should refuse. This is difficult. We tend to over-invest emotionally in a long negotiation. But with this hard stop in mind, you can overrule your emotions and walk away.
2. The worse you make your opponent’s BATNA, the more leverage you have.
Improving your BATNA gives you leverage. Straightforward. But there’s a more interesting insight here. You can improve your leverage by worsening your opponent’s BATNA.
Let’s say you’re the prospective buyer in the above transaction. You know that your seller is holding out because of the safety net of the land developer.
So, you remove that safety net. For example, you could sell one of your own other properties to the land developer, so he’s no longer making an offer to your seller.
By removing the most promising alternative your seller has, you’re weakening his leverage. And strengthening your own considerably.
[Tweet “Show your opponent he has a lot to lose from breaking talks, and he’ll be surprisingly pliable.”]
6. [BONUS] Focus on strengths, not lack of weaknesses (The Hard Thing about Hard Things)
By default, we are all risk averse. In fact, Loss Aversion is one of the strongest, most deep-rooted cognitive biases there is, squirming deep inside our brain’s reptilian core.
This loss aversion manifests itself in several ways. Holding on to bad-performing stocks in the hope of a turnaround. Not making bets because of high risk, even if the reward is much higher.
In the corporate environment, this results in a preference for well-rounded candidates. We tend to choose such people over others who are spiky in some areas, but middling in others. We choose average programmers with great communication skills over 10x programmers who are introverts. We reject uber-salesmen just because they don’t know much about tech.
As Ben Horowitz says in this book, that’s the exact wrong approach. That’s not how great organizations work. Instead, such organizations look for excellent candidates, who are in the top 1 percentile of their roles. Never mind that they’re not good at other things.
“Identify the strengths you want, and the weaknesses you’re willing to tolerate.”
Your Product team should have the best programmers. Even if their communication skills could be better. For sales, hire the best salesmen out there, even if they’ve not worked in your industry before.
We also tend to paper over the weaknesses and focus on repairing them. Again, not the most optimal approach. Instead, focus on honing your employees’ strengths. Plug the weaknesses (If they’re important. They often aren’t.) by hiring superstars in those areas.
[Tweet “Identify the strengths you want, and the weaknesses you’re willing to tolerate.”]
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So, those were the books and ideas that captivated my thinking in the last year. Here’s to many more brilliant ideas and books in the new year. Of course, you’ll be the first to know of any great books I find (sign up here to receive regular updates!).
Shilpa (the wife): So, what did you do at work today? Me: Quite busy today. You know, emailing.
A standard exchange for me at the end of a workday, till recently. And I’m sure it’s commonplace – the average professional today sends or receives over 120 emails a day. At even 2 minutes an email (assuming you don’t take breaks), that’s four hours of your workday! Vanished, lost, gone, hacking away at your keyboard fighting the insidious email monster, while the rest of the world moves on. Wait, scratch that. Everyone is hacking away at their keyboards, emailing each other.
But email is not really work, at least for most of us. And if something that isn’t work is taking up such a large part of your workday, guess what – you’ll have to work longer hours.
Over the last few months, I’ve made a number of changes that have helped me manage my inbox better (rather than the other way round). If you’re like I was before – where work equals emailing – here are 7 things you can do to reclaim your life.
1. Email only at specific times
Back in the days of snail mail, did you hang out near your mailbox and wait for the postman? Then why check your inbox all the time? People aren’t expecting you to respond 5 seconds after they email you.
So here’s a plan:
Check your inbox first thing in the morning when you wake up (not good, but I know you’re going to do it, so why stop you). Decide which emails you’re going to respond to, when. If there’s work required to respond to any of it, fit it into your schedule.
Don’t check again till about 11 am. Spend half an hour if necessary, clearing a bunch of emails.
After that, check again at 2pm, and then once more at 5pm to triage any pending emails
At all other times, don’t check your inbox. And no cheating – log out and close your browser, close Outlook / Thunderbird, and turn off email notifications on your phone as well (got you! I’m nothing if not meticulous).
[Tweet “Do you hang out at your mailbox and wait for the postman? Then why check your inbox all the time?”]
2. Schedule less time for email than you need
If you read my previous post on productivity and are trying some of my tips, you would see the merit in actually scheduling time for email, rather than checking it whenever you’re bored.
The other little hack is to schedule less time for email than you need. Email, like work and play, balloons to take up the time you give it. There’s nothing like some urgency to plow through your inbox – your emails can get done in less time than you think.
[Tweet “Email, like work and play, balloons to take up the time you give it.”]
3. When you’re done with an email, archive it
Using the mailbox analogy again, once you’ve read a letter, do you put it back in the mailbox? Similarly, when you’re done with an email, don’t keep it in the inbox. Archive it (or better still, delete it. If you dare).
Archiving takes emails out of your face once you’re done with them. Your inbox now includes only the emails that you have to work on – much simpler to decide what to do. Otherwise, it can become difficult to find emails that you have to act on, amidst the barrage of less-important emails, newsletters you don’t remember ever signing up for, promotions and spam. Not to mention how a full inbox tires you each time you look at it.
Sure, you can change your Inbox settings to keep unread emails on top. But those other emails that you see will continue to distract you.
Avoid all these complications – archive emails that you’re done with (if you use Gmail, it’s the first button that comes up in the header when you select an email). If an email is in your Inbox, it means you have to act on it. And you can always go back to your Archive (it’s the All Mail folder in Gmail) whenever you want to access an old email, and search works too.
But this is not enough. Which brings me to the 4th hack.
4. Triage your email with Google Inbox / Mailbox
The freedom that you feel when you first archive your inbox is great. But it won’t last – it still doesn’t solve the problem of your pending emails, which can quickly pile up. Let’s say there’s an email task that you need to get to two days later. It’ll sit in your inbox till then, serving as a constant reminder (and distractor), till you actually do it and archive it with a victorious flourish (before flopping down in your chair in sheer exhaustion).
People solve this problem by ‘starring’ emails they need to take care of, but can’t or don’t need to do today. If you’ve tried this, you’ll know (and if you’re going to, you’ll find out) that this can quickly get out of hand. Very soon, you’ll visibly cringe whenever you hear the word ‘star’ – a painful reminder of the toxic underbelly of your inbox that the Starred folder has become. But you’ll have to go back there soon, with full knowledge of the tsunami of to-reads that will deluge you.
Waxing poetic aside, there’s an easier way. What if emails show up in your inbox only when you need to act on them, and not a moment sooner? Don’t have time to respond to a data request today – wouldn’t it be nice if it came tomorrow after your big presentation, instead of staring at your face till then? If you use Gmail, you can do just this with Google Inbox / Mailbox. Using these, whenever you check email (hint: do this at specific time slots only), you can first triage all your new email:
Respond if it will take 2 min or less. Once it’s done, click on Archive / Done.
If it’ll take longer, schedule the email for whenever you’ll work on it (make sure you block time for it!). The email will disappear from your inbox, and automagically reappear when you’re ready for it.
Similarly, if it needs to be done later (like an email follow-up), schedule it to reappear on the day and time when you’ll act on it.
With these tools, your inbox will be nice and sparse at all times, easy to navigate. And hey, if you’re lucky, you may even read the much-fabled Inbox Zero at end-of-day. Enjoy it while it lasts, my friend. The battle may have been won, but the war will rage again tomorrow.
Quick note – If you work out of Gmail and want to try Google Inbox, let me know in the comments / over email. I have a bunch of invites. But if you use Outlook, such plugins aren’t available yet. You can try this Getting Things Done method though.
5. Manage your subscriptions better with Unroll.me
You know that ‘Quirky News of the Day’ newsletter you thought was fun and subscribed to yesterday? In two months, your inbox is going to drown in unread editions of the newsletter. And this is saying nothing about the newsletter you subscribed to a year ago that you find useless today. But you won’t unsubscribe because who knows, you might need it again next year.
Unroll.me is one of those miracle services you don’t realize you need till you hear about it. When you first register, it scans your inbox and lists all the emails you’re subscribed to. You can then unsubscribe with one click. And Unroll.me retains a record of these, so you can re-subscribe anytime.
But you don’t have to unsubscribe from everything (especially my newsletter. Please?). The service removes newsletter emails from your inbox automatically, and puts them in a separate Unroll.me folder. So you can check them whenever you want to do some leisure reading.
6. Make less email
The reason you receive so much email is because someone else is writing them. So be a dear and stop contributing. No need to brightly respond, “Welcome”, whenever someone sends you a thank you email. And please, please – don’t acknowledge receipt. Reply when you have a response / answer / update ready. This is important enough to be a Golden Rule of Emailing:
[Tweet “Send only emails to others that you would have them send to you.”]
7. But, be nice and manage expectations
At the same time, it is good form to reply and manage expectations. If you’re going to respond to an email today or tomorrow, it’s fine. But if you’ll need more time to get to it, dropping a short email saying when you’ll look at it is a nice touch. And people don’t mind nice guys writing in (nudge nudge).
That’s it! Do some or all of these, and you’ll be well on your way to email nirvana. I actually had 3 more tips, but I’ve got to run. Got some… err… emails to write.
I would love your feedback in the comments – do these work for you, are there any other ways you manage email, etc. And if I can help in any way, don’t hesitate to comment here / email me at email@example.com / tweet at @jithamithra.
Retailers try many tactics, some obvious and others devious, to take advantage of our buying habits and maximize how much we purchase. They also use purchase data and buyer demographics to identify their most valuable customers, and make them purchase more. Nothing surprising there. But what’s interesting is that across retailers, one customer archetype is consistently the most valuable – pregnant and new mothers.
I recently read The Power of Habit, which outlines the process by which we form habits and explains how we can modify them or create new, more constructive habits. It’s a fascinating and insightful read, and I’m going to try changing some of my habits using this framework (no more candy for me!). But this post is not about the habit process (read the book, lazy people!). The book had a very interesting chapter on retail habits, and how retailers take advantage of them.
Some of these retailers’ tactics are pretty obvious – think of how you have to walk all the way across the mall in search of a staircase. Studies have found that over 50% of your purchases are impulse buys – and this is if you made a list beforehand! So, making you walk across the mall, seeing more products than you would otherwise, will make you purchase more. Slightly more devious is how supermarkets keep fruits and vegetables right near the entrance. If we stock up on healthy stuff right at the start of a shopping trip, we feel great about ourselves and are much more likely to stock up on chocolates, biscuits, chips, ice creams, etc. when we encounter them later. There are many more such tactics employed by retailers to take advantage of our habits – you can see a few more here.
These habits – buying what we see, weakening after buying healthy products, etc. – are ingrained, as are our choices for where we buy specific products. Tactics to take advantage of these habits are now table stakes. But where retailers can make the most impact is when habits change. And even ingrained habits change – typically during some major life change or emotional upheaval.
For example, when people get married, they’re more likely to start buying a new brand of coffee. When they get divorced, there’s a higher chance of them trying different kinds of beer (and of course, more beer). And what’s the most major life change there is? No prizes for guessing (especially since I let the cat out of the bag in the title) – it’s the birth of a child.
Given the sea change in lifestyle that occurs with the birth of a child, new or expecting parents are particularly flexible to changing their buying behavior – more than any other consumer segment. As a result, they are a gold mine for retailers.
[Tweet “Pregnant and new mothers are the holy grail for retailers”]
They’re less price sensitive: New parents are highly price insensitive; they’re less likely to cringe at high prices. When you’re heavily deprived of time and sleep, you want to make quick decisions on baby purchases – you’re going to buy a lot of them! Therefore, retailers always manage to sell such products at a hefty profit.
They prefer buying everything in one place: Being sleep-deprived also means that you value ease and convenience over anything else. Therefore, new parents tend to buy everything they need in one place. If they come to a particular store to buy diapers, they’re more likely to buy juices, snacks, groceries, clothes, etc. there as well.
And given that these new habits will also quickly get ingrained, they will remain loyal and valuable customers for years (till their next child, at least).
Given these factors, new mothers are the most valuable customer segment there is. Getting one into your store to buy just diapers today can have significant revenue and profit impact for years to come. Retailers, therefore, try a lot of different tactics to catch these customers in time. It’s easy to find new mothers – just go to a maternity hospital! The book talks about how P&G, Disney, and others have giveaways for new mothers at hospitals.
But if everyone is targeting new mothers, you need to target them even earlier to capture them – when the woman is pregnant. As a retailer, one can mine purchase data for different customers to know what people who are buying diapers today were buying six months earlier. Using these correlations, one can then start tracking families where the wife is pregnant, in real time. Of course, finding out that you know this can creep families out quite a bit. It can also lead to very sticky situations, like this one!
This is just one interesting tidbit from an excellent book. Do give it a read. Would love your feedback on this post – do comment here / email me at firstname.lastname@example.org / tweet to @jithamithra. And yes, subscribe – I write about startups, books, consumer behavior, etc. once a week, and I promise not to spam you.