Maybe your to-do list isn’t ambitious enough

There’s a lot written about to-do lists. How to do them better, why you shouldn’t do them at all, ideas for taking stuff off them, ideas for adding things to them and so on. It’s a popular topic in the productivity literature.

I’ll admit, I’m a little obsessed with these articles and generally click on lots of them.

So, I couldn’t resist an article titled Leonardo’s To-Do List is Much Cooler Than Yours. It’s a fun read. And I think the takeaway is that the issue is not how much is on your list, but WHAT is on your list. Is your to-do list interesting enough? Do you look at it and think “Yeah, I can’t wait to do these things” or do you look at it and sigh?

Before you spend a lot of time writing down what you HAVE to do, think about what you want to do. Really, really want to do. Then write those things down. Now you will have a to-do list as cool, as interesting, as ambitious as Da Vinci. Try it.

Forget Resolutions: Focus on Habits and Projects

No matter how many articles get written about how resolutions don’t work, come January, everyone is making resolutions. And they keep making resolutions the same way, year after year.

This year I am going to try something different. I broke down what I want for myself in 2017 into two buckets — habits and projects.

Habits: I imagine you know what a habit is and these are what, for many people, would be traditional resolutions. Get to the gym, eat better — that sort of thing. For me, in 2017, I’ve decided to focus on a few habits that I want to cultivate this year. I have set goals for myself for each of them, but I’ve also decided that my real goal is to track myself against these habits. The idea is to figure out what works and what doesn’t so that it can really become a habit — something I no longer need to think about and track because it just works. I’ve picked 5 habits that I want to track, which is probably too many. But since I’ve only committed to tracking them, at least for January, I think it’s okay. Also, they are habits across a few different dimensions that are aimed at, yes, getting me to the gym, but also reading more books, getting more massages (!), making more connections and planning better weekends with my family.

Projects: These are anything that have an end. Unlike habits, projects are not about making an ongoing change. Certain projects have a tendency to languish on my task lists forever. Generally projects that would be good to do (paint the apartment, declutter my wardrobe) but aren’t a must-do. Right now I have a list of seven projects, but that will change over the course of the year as I complete some, add others and choose to ditch some.

Next I need to set some timelines around the projects so they don’t just languish again. Some are timebound (my sister is getting married in June!) so those will happen. The ones I need to think about a bit are the ones that aren’t — like revamping my home office and seeing a dermatologist.

I’ll report back at the end of January on how it’s going, especially on the habits.

Must Reads from the New York Times

The Times has had a bunch of goodies recently, two from someone I know, which is a thrill in itself.

How Some Men Fake an 80-Hour Workweek, and Why It Matters: This piece, which ran in the Upshot, is fascinating and something I’ve noticed, in different forms, for a long time. People (who are usually women) who ask for flexibility and other family-friendly accommodations get punished with lower performances reviews. Those who figure out how to get flexibility without asking for it (who tend to be men) are rewarded with flexibility AND higher performance scores. There’s lessons here for people who want to be high performers AND good parents, but I think there are business lessons here, too. Face time doesn’t count: say it with me. Yes, it’s actually harder to measure results than hours, but it’s better for everyone. And leads to overall higher performance.

80-Hour Work Week? This is How She (or He) Does It: KJ Dell’Antonia takes the Upshot piece and builds on it, connecting it to the upcoming book I Know How She Does It by Laura Vanderkam. This book comes out on June 9 and it’s at the top of my dying-to-read list.

My friend Taffy Brodesser-Akner is an extraordinary talent. If you love great writing, follow her. Everything she writes is magical.

Two cases-in-point:

With Drybar, a Curly-Haired Girl Wages a Global War on Frizz: A really fun feature (and one of the few decent business stories I’ve seen in the Times in a LONG time) about the blowout-bar trend. Full of many delicious lines that I won’t ruin for you, but there’s also a great marketing lesson. The founder of Drybar aptly notes that she is NOT selling blowouts (the feature) but is actually selling “happiness and confidence” (the benefit). Genius.

Meanwhile, her profile of Kris Jenner in this weekend’s Magazine is just awesome. And a great lesson about looking around you, figuring out what your resources are and working them.

Make a fabulous introduction

Everyone knows that networking is the way to get ahead in the world. This truth only gets more true in our increasingly connected, but also unequal, world.

Everyone also knows that networking, for most of us, kind of sucks.

There is a ton of great advice out there about how to network without networking. It’s worth seeking out. But one tactic that has worked for me is making fabulous introductions.

So let’s start with a basic principle: connecting begets connections. When you connect two people for their mutual benefit you become known as the connector. People will often return the favor, either when asked or even unprompted. Also, connecting people you know actually expands your network in all kinds of interesting ways.

That’s the why. Let’s now move to the how. Because let’s face it, anyone can send an email that says “Jen, please meet Jason. Jason, please meet Jennifer” and maybe include a few lines about how you think each will benefit the other.

I take a different approach that both ensures that both people want to meet each other and that both people are super happy they know me.

My introductions go something like this:

“Jen, please meet Jason who is one of the most fabulously talented designers I’ve ever met. He and I worked on a research study together and the way he used graphics to help tell our story was compelling, understandable and beautiful.

Jason, please meet Jen who is a diva of event management. Jen and I were colleagues at Acme, Corp. and she put on a customer symposium that absolutely wowed our biggest clients. She’s looking for some new designs for her next great event and I immediately thought of you.”

I think you can probably see, instantly, why this works. Who wouldn’t want to be introduced this way? It’s specific, it’s actionable (I know why I’m meeting this person), it’s true (it goes without saying, but I’ll say it, that bullshit gets you nowhere in this world). And you’ve left a fabulous impression on both of the people you are introducing – of each other and of you!

By the way, if you are reading this and thinking “No way can I pull that off, I would sound fake” let me assure you that the adjectives are optional. This is my style – it fits me and people who know me well know I only say it when I mean it. I’ve actually decided this is part of my personal brand – I can’t worry about people who will read it wrong because I am focused on people who love this about me. I’m a little over the top, but I don’t lie.

But the fact is the same type of introduction could work, even toned down to match a more reserved style. The point is to focus on exactly what you think makes these two people want to meet – what do you like about each of them and what do you think they bring to the table? Write that – clearly and specifically – and you will make a great impression, whatever your style.

Look Out The Window: Write the Press Release First

Talk about a great way to look out the window! According to this article from Wired, the way to pitch an idea to Jeff Bezos at Amazon was to write a press release. (You only need to read the first three grafs of the Wired piece — the rest is about Amazon’s foray into cloud computing.)

What a brilliant idea this is. Not because press releases are so important (they aren’t, and sometimes aren’t even needed at all.) It’s that the exercise of writing the press release first is the epitome of looking out — rather than in — when evaluating a new idea. It forces you to answer the question: Is this interesting to anyone but us?

I’d love to try this.

Look Out The Window

I believe one of the key roles that any marketing and communications professional needs to play is representing the view from outside the four walls of the company. I think people on the agency side fulfill this role rather naturally, but it’s also an crucial role for those of us on the client side.

What do I mean, exactly? My former colleague Leah Holzman had a great expression for this idea that I use to this day — you need to “look out the window.” If you only focus on what your business needs, you will have a much harder time moving your message into the marketplace. That’s because the people you need to leverage to spread the word — journalists, clients, conference organizers — don’t care about your business. They care about their audiences and their business objectives.

Some of this is about business empathy — the ability to think about the needs and wants of the people you interact with instead of only focusing on your own needs and wants. But it’s also about a few specific habits that can help you fulfill your role to look out the window:

1. Read a lot. You need to read as much as you can within your industry, but get beyond that, too. My regular media diet includes the NYT, the WSJ, the New Yorker, AVC, Feld Thoughts, and Seth Godin. I also pick stuff up from my Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook feeds.

2. Share what you learn. Part of your role of “looking out the window” is to point out the view to others in your organization. When you see a story on a trend that is related to your business, but in a slightly off-beat way, send that around. I’m not talking about the really obvious stuff — people should pick that up on their own. But, for example, I recently shared two stories — one from Morning Edition and another from AdAge — about the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) as the new place where marketers learn about consumer trends. This isn’t directly related to our business — we sell email intelligence solutions to marketers. But it’s indirectly related and gives a sense of what some of our clients and prospects are thinking about.

3. GOOTO (Get Out Of The Office). If you spend all your time talking to people inside your organization it’s hard to figure out what matters to people outside your organization. If you are in PR you should have a natural role in speaking with media, a great source of outside information. But anyone in marketing should be talking to clients, prospects, partners and prominent people within your industry.

What your your tricks for “looking out the window”?

Why I have a “hooray” file and you need one too

There’s a lot of bad career advice in the world. But early in my career I read an article with this tip: Any time you get significant praise, drop it into a file marked “Hooray.” Then, when you have a bad day, pull out your hooray file and flip through it. It will remind you of all the great things you’ve done and all the great people you work with.

I’ve been doing this for well over a decade and it really works. Not only does it help life my mood on a tough day (and, as a PR pro I’m likely to have a lot of those) but it also comes in handy at performance review time.

Your hooray file can be paper or electronic — I actually have both. I have an email folder since most praise comes that way now, and then a paper folder for notes and such. I actually recently started putting some of the physical notes up on the wall over my desk. That’s been a real mood and confidence booster.

What are you waiting for? Start a hooray file today. You’ll be glad you did.

Better Than Resolutions

My friend Charlie has a blog and a newsletter that are must-reads for anyone working in tech in New York City.

Before the holidays he blogged a list of things to do in 2013. I like this way better than resolutions.

Here’s some of Charlie’s list:

  • Three people I’m actually friends with that I would like to be better friends with.
  • Ten people I should know, but don’t.
  • Five people I’d like to help be successful.
  • Three things I’d like to learn.

Check out the rest of Charlie’s list here. And sign up for Charlie’s newsletter here. It’s full of all kinds of great events in New York for people working in tech. Which might inspire you to add “Go to more tech events” to your list of to-dos in 2013.

J.D. Falk

Last night my colleague and friend J.D. Falk died after a year-long battle with cancer. My company’s CEO wrote a post on our company’s site that gives more insight into J.D. and his work in the email industry. This is my personal memory of him.

I think it’s appropriate that my first real interaction with J.D. was over email. We were trading emails in the weeks leading up to him leaving Yahoo! to join Return Path about how we were going to announce his appointment. In one of his emails I noticed a line of type at the top of the email that said MY FROGS ARE ON FIRE. It struck me as very odd because it was in a place that I had never noticed any text before. I was so fascinated that I spent several minutes figuring out how he’d done it. (It was the “flag” field in Outlook which can, as I learned, be customized.)

I was so proud of myself for figuring it out that I replied to his email and changed the custom text to say AND MY SNAKES ARE DROWNING. I can’t remember his exact response but I do recall that I got his trademark *grin*.

In in the spring of 2010 he and I embarked on a large project to launch a second company blog at Return Path called Received:. It was a project that he was very passionate about. We had already solidified our collaborative relationship through my editing of his writing, but this took us to a new level. He was moving from being simply a writer (though that was a very important contribution) to becoming an editor as well. Over the course of that summer, through to launch and for several months after we had bi-weekly “editorial chats” via phone or, when technology cooperated, Skype. In many ways those chats were like recess for me — a half hour to just talk to someone smart about the things were both passionate about. What an absolute treat.

It was also a treat to serve, as humbly as I often felt I did, as his editor. J.D. was an amazing writer (he confessed to me once that if it paid a decent living he’d have become a professional writer — and he certainly had the talent to do so) and he always wanted to be better. He enjoyed the collaboration of the editing process. I am a better editor today because of my work with him.

I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to work with J.D. and I will miss him terribly.

You can read much more about J.D. on the memorial site that has been set up to celebrate his life and record the amazing impact he had on the world.

J.D. Falk

The Year in Ideas

This week’s NY Times Magazine is the annual Year in Ideas Issue.  This is my favorite issue of the whole year. And this one is the tenth anniversary.

The whole thing is worth a read, but I’ve done the work so you don’t have to.  Here’s my picks for stuff that is most relevant to us:

Cybercom:  (What the Pentagon is — and is not — doing to secure the internet.)

The Long-Life-Span Smartphone:  (Interesting as smartphones get more and more ubiquitous.)

Emotional Spell Check: (Fascinating idea that you could have something to check your email for “tone.” Posits that some companies could prevent you from sending a message that violates their “tone policy.” Ugh.)

Social Network as Social Index:  (Interesting all around, especially the quote about using social networks for market research.)

Lebron James’s “Decision”:  (While noting that James screwed this up, it just shows the ongoing erosion of establishment media. We all own the printing presses now.)

The making of the cover with a QR code made out of balloons: (I confess I still don’t understand what the heck these codes do and I just figured out how to read them, but the cover is very cool.)

Virginia Heffernan’s Medium Column is on Tor, a system for sharing information anonymously: (Very interesting and very cool.)

In Pursuit of the Perfect Brainstorm: (Thinking about thinking. Plus, watch consultants who get up to $500,000 per month! Oh, and this one contains a good media relations lesson. Never, never, never ask a journalist not to write about something. Not only will that guarantee that they will write about it, but will also guarantee that you will be quoted asking them not to write about.)

A Physicist Solves the City: (Fascinating anyway, but mostly interesting for the part at the end where the physicist applies some of what he has learned about cities to corporations.