How To Make Everyone Jealous of How Awesome You Are

Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/viccastelo/2582562265/sizes/m/in/photostream/So here’s the thing – I hate running in January. Nope, it’s got nothing to do with the weather – Singapore has only one climate all-year round: Hot and sweaty. Like the title of a porn movie. And it’s not because I don’t like exercising in general.

I hate running in January because there are way Too. Many. People.

Every time January 1st  rolls around, the track I usually frequent actually looks like a porn movie: filled with panting, sweaty people doing laps.

Most of these folks got up on January 1st and decided that they would change their lives just because the earth completed another orbit around the sun.

But like clockwork, the track gets pretty damn empty by the third week of January, leaving behind the same bunch of regulars. It’s like all the people who so spiritedly decided 2 weeks ago that they were “Gonna get a six pack!!!” suddenly got together and decided to go on strike. (Oh wait, it’s illegal to go on strike in Singapore…)

Resolutions are stupid.

Lots of people got up on the first day of 2013, got hit by a bolt of inspiration, and wrote down a bunch of resolutions: Get fitter, get richer, get promoted, be a better husband… etc etc.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that people want to improve themselves. I blog all year round about living a rich life, and part of that rich life involves us being happier, healthier, and more productive.

But the sad truth is, very few people who make resolutions actually manage to keep them. That’s how gyms make money: they sell year-long gym memberships to people who make resolutions to “get fitter”, and then never actually show up after January.

Why are we so bad at keeping our resolutions?

Because resolutions are simply codewords for “wishes”. We envision this ideal, perfect person that we’d like to be, and believe that if we could only visualize it hard enough, we’d become that person. But wishes never got anyone anywhere.

Goals, not resolutions

Screw resolutions. Very few people actually benefit from them anyway.

Instead, let’s talk about something way more effective; something which I hinted at in part 1 of this series on annual reviews. Let’s talk about goals.

Okay, I know, “goals, not resolutions” sounds like some management B.S they teach you at MBA programs. But hear me out for a second here. Here’s the difference between a resolution and a goal:

Resolution: Get fitter

Goal: Run at least 2.4km every Wednesday, do at least 100 crunches on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and swim at least 40 laps on Saturday morning from 9-11 am. Track progress on weekly basis.

See the difference? A resolution is a wish. “I wish I was fitter.”

A goal is targeted, specific, and measurable. You either ran 2.4km or you didn’t. You either did 100 crunches or you didn’t. (nope, 99.5 doesn’t count either).

Goals hold you PERSONALLY responsible if you don’t complete them.

Resolution: Find a new programming job.

Goal: Get certified in C++ programming, schedule networking meetings with employees in software companies, source for 2 recommendations, apply to 2 jobs a month

It’s true that completing your goal may still mean that you don’t find another job. But who do you think is more likely to get hired: the guy who systematically works through his job hunt and networking checklist, or the guy who sits around thinking that he “should” start sending out resumes?

Most people don’t set goals for themselves. They prefer resolutions. Resolutions are easy, and resolutions won’t hold you accountable. But sadly, resolutions won’t help you move towards a rich life either.

But goals will.

How to set some kick-ass goals for 2013

Okay, let’s figure out how to set some awesome goals for 2013. I got this idea off Chris Gulliebeau’s blogpost on annual reviews, which I highly recommend to anyone who’s serious about doing anything awesome this year. You can read about his framework here, and download his goal-setting template here.

Essentially, good goals have 3 essential characteristics

  1. They focus on a specific behavior or action, not an outcome – So “focus more at work” isn’t a goal, but “sleep at least 7 hours a day” is.
  2. They have a deadline – I usually set a specific date (usually the end of a quarter) for mine
  3. They’re measurable – great goals have metrics that you can define and review regularly to determine if you’re succeeding.

So if you’ve already made the mistake of setting up some resolutions for yourself, do yourself a favor and turn them into goals instead. You’ll be more likely to complete them.

You can follow Chris’ framework on how to set your own goals, but in a nutshell, the steps are:

1. Define a few categories to split your goals into.

My categories this year are: Cheerfulegg, Health, Personal Finance, Career, Relationships, Spirituality and Learning. Some people, like Paula from Afford Anything find that having a long list of categories may cause them to lose focus. If that’s you, then feel free to limit it to just 2-3 categories. But I’ve personally found that it’s best to set goals for all aspects of life – striving towards one area while sacrificing the others has made me miserable in the past, so I’ve learnt that balance is usually the best formula.

2. While thinking of each category, think about 3-5 measurable goals for each.

For example, some of my goals under Cheerfulegg are:

  1. Create a free mini-product for loyal readers
  2. Convert cheerfulegg.com into a self-hosted domain
  3. Write book proposal and source for publishers

 3. Come up with a set of sub-actions 

This doesn’t have to be extremely detailed. For example, under the goal of “write a book proposal” I might include “ideate, organize, write first draft, share for feedback, edit, write second draft, etc”

4. Set a deadline for the completion of the project.

This should be a specific date. If you’re not sure, pick the end of a particular month.

 5. Finally, pick a set of metrics that you can use to track your progress.

For example, I might pick something like “number of pages written” or “number of peer reviews”

Dominate Your Goals In 2013

That’s it! If you think that this sounds like a helluva lot of work, well, it is. It took me a couple of days of reflection before I could come up with a list I was happy with, but it was definitely worth the effort.

Writing everything down will give you a clarity and focus that will be crucial to completing your goals, especially in the face of temptation. And hopefully, with a bit of luck, perseverance, and hard work, you’d be dominating your goals and kicking some ass in 2013. Good luck!

Image credit: kidgrifter

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3 Lessons From A Pair of Leaky Goggles

So last week, I decided to go swimming after like a 5-year hiatus. Yeah, I blame my ever-increasing waistline.

I’m the kind of guy who needs to wear goggles – I don’t get how people can open their eyes underwater and not get blinded by all the crap that’s in there. Anyways, I couldn’t find my old pair of goggles, so I decided to pick up a pair from this ratty little store (which was inexplicably blasting Flo-Rida songs at 10 in the morning) before driving to the pool.

The goggles were cheap, somewhere to the tune of 2 bucks. I drove away from the store feeling like I got a helluva bargain.

The first thing I noticed was that the straps were ridiculously hard to adjust. Describing them as “tight” was an understatement – it would’ve taken a brain surgeon with tweezers and a microscope to undo them. Also, they were really low-quality. I would have been able to make a better goggle strap with a pair of rubber bands.

I decided to just screw it and force them onto my head, making my skull feel like it was slowly being crushed by a boa constrictor. Also, the goggles were leakier than the Titanic. By the time I’d done half a lap, there was a complete ecosystem of coral life in front of my eyes. On the bright side, I was learning how to open my eyes in water.

After about 2 laps of swimming with a constricted head and water-filled eyes, I felt dizzy so I stopped and pulled the goggles off. And then one side of the goggles just COMPLETELY FELL OFF. I couldn’t believe it – my goggles were disintegrating before my very eyes.

I had enough. I got out of the pool, threw my goggles in the bin, and went home in disgust. I’d done a grand total of 2 laps.

Three lessons I’ve learnt from this episode:

  1. Never trust any store that plays Flo-Rida songs at 10 in the morning.
  2. Cheap doesn’t necessarily mean good. Always do your research before you buy, and opt for long-lasting and high-quality even if it costs a little more. (However, some people may misread this and automatically assume that “expensive = good”. This isn’t necessarily true either especially when it comes to unit trusts, mutual funds, financial advisers and ETFs).

But really, the most important lesson would be:

3. Always strive for high-quality.

It’s often tempting for me to rush through a to-do list by doing the bare minimum for each task. But I’ve always found that it’s usually a bad idea – the work gets compromised, my boss tells me to do it again, and it becomes the equivalent of a pair of crappy rubber-band-boa-constrictor-leaky goggles.

Instead, I’ve come to approach work in a totally different manner these days by just focusing on just three important tasks a day: two tasks in the morning, a slot to answer emails after lunch, and then one last task till the end of the day.

That really helps me to zero in my focus on what’s truly important, allowing me to really kick ass to produce the highest quality work I can offer. I do this even if it takes a little longer to accomplish ’em. The downside is that I don’t get to complete a lot of my other, less important, tasks, but I’ve found that they usually take care of themselves after awhile 😉

It doesn’t just apply to work – I’m trying to approach the blog and the book in the same way too. That’s why I take a whole week to write a blog post. That’s why I’m spending hours and hours researching on nuances just to write one paragraph in the book. That’s why I have hour-long conversations with friends to test ideas out. My goal is to make it so absolutely freakin’ awesome that it would easily trump the pants off any other personal finance book out there.

So I encourage you to do the same. If you’re going to do something – a report for your boss, a product for your customers, or a gift for a friend, make it high-quality. Don’t worry if it takes a little longer – that extra hour you take to craft it will be totally worth it. Start forming the habit to NEVER settle for mediocrity.

As Faith Jegede proclaims in this awesome TED talk, “The pursuit of normality is the ultimate sacrifice of potential. The chance for greatness, for progress, and for change, dies the moment we try to be like someone else.”

Never settle for “normal”. Get out there, and create something amazing.

Using Systems to Dominate Learning (And Anything Else)

The MIT Challenge

Recently read a guest post by blogger Scott Young, who stunned the world by doing the impossible. Scott completed MIT’s notoriously difficult Computer Science curriculum, which usually takes bright MIT students four years to finish, in one year. Watch the TED talk on his MIT Challenge here:

To do this, Scott adopted a carefully constructed learning system that let him compress the concepts of a 4-year education into a short span of time. This wasn’t simply a matter of cramming for exams. Scott not only passed all the exams but also completed all the programming projects, which require a deep understanding of the material. How did he do it?

First, he watched all the lectures online to get a birds-eye view of the material. By watching the video lectures at 1.5x-2x the normal speed, he managed to go through a semester’s worth of lectures in a couple of days.

Next, he spent a lot more time developing insight and drawing connections. He’d first take a piece of paper and write the concept that he was trying to understand at the top. He then wrote out his own explanation, as if he was teaching it to someone else. When he came to a gap in his knowledge, he’d go back to the textbook or find it online. In this way, he systematically filled in all the knowledge gaps until he had a deep, complete, understanding of the material.

Third, he went through practice problems with the solution key in hand. He’d check his work question-by-question, getting immediate feedback for every question he did. Compared to other students who might have to wait weeks before they got back their graded assignments, Scott’s system gave him a tight feedback loop which dramatically improved his effectiveness.

As Scott wrote in a guest post describing his journey: “…the method you use to learn matters a lot. Deeper levels of processing and spaced repetition can, in some cases, double your efficiency (emphasis mine). Indeed, the research in deliberate practice shows us that without the right method, learning can plateau forever.”

In short, Scott wasn’t studying harder; he was using a system to study smarter.

The Power Of Systems

Scott’s MIT Challenge forms the premise of the book I’m currently working on: That adopting the right systems can help you to achieve much, much more than the average individual.

You can use systems to create a desirable habit, deliver happiness to people, get fitter, be more productive, negotiate better.. pretty much anything you want to achieve in life.

Most people don’t know how to improve their own lives because they rely solely on “trying harder”. How many of us make New Years resolutions to go to the gym more often, only to fail miserably before February comes around? How many of us resolve to be more productive at work, but end up online shopping and Facebook stalking before lunchtime? And how many of us resolve to saving and investing more this year, only to have all our extra cash wiped out by a year-end vacation?

Instead of trying harder, applying systems is infinitely more effective. Here’s why:

1. Systems remove the need for “willpower”

The trouble with willpower is that it’s easy to lose steam. We burn out. John Tierney, coauthor of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, describes willpower as a finite resource that runs out just as easily as a fuel in your car tank. Systems, on the other hand, take control away from you. They force you onto a certain path so that you don’t have to use willpower. It sounds counterintuitive, but we’re more likely to be successful at something when we are willing to hand over control to a system.

2. Systems are much simpler to follow 

If you’re trying to lose weight, think about the barrage of information out there on weight management. Hundreds of articles and blogs give handy “tips” and nuggets of advice, but they’re often conflicting and confusing. A system, on the other hand, is based on rules. Step 1, 2, 3. Go to a personal trainer and he’ll tell you exactly what you need to eat, how to exercise, and all that jazz. You don’t have to think – all you need to do is stick to the system, and you’ll succeed.

3. Systems are smarter

Think about Scott Young’s system for accelerated learning. It’s a simple formula, but it’ll save you a lot of time and effort when it comes to studying. Think about how much easier it is to set up a GIRO standing instruction that automatically helps you to save every month, instead of putting in time and effort to “save harder”. Finding the right system can help you to do things a lot more efficiently and effectively than most people.

Viewing the world from a systems perspective

Systems are effective, more so than many of us realize. That’s the premise of this blog, as well as the upcoming book. So far, I’ve showed you how to use systems to improve your savings and investments, find the right types of insurance, and spend more efficiently on the things you love. The book will delve a little more deeply into the psychology of saving, spending and investing, and will describe more detail on the systems that will help you tackle your personal finances.

You start to see things differently once you look at life from a systems perspective. Large challenges suddenly don’t seem so daunting anymore, and possibilities start to open up.  Are there any problems that you’re currently stumped by, but could possibly be solved by applying a system? I’d love to hear from you, even if you haven’t found a solution yet. Leave a comment, or send me an email at cheerfulegg@gmail.com.

Cheers 🙂

Wake Up in the Morning Feelin’ Like P Diddy

Okay, you’re not the only one who has no freakin idea what those lyrics are supposed to mean (This intellectual forum discussion doesn’t really give me any clue). Oh Ke$ha, you have such impenetrable philosophies.

Of course, not many of us get up on a mattress made of cash and surrounded by hot chicks, so I guess it must be really hard to relate. Instead, the alarm clock jolts us out of an uneasy sleep on a Monday morning, we stumble out of bed, hit the shower, and commute to work surrounded by other sleepy, smelly people who are just as depressed as we are.

There’s a better way to live our mornings. Ever had those couple of things you always wanted to do but never had the time? I’m not talking about the billion things in your work to-do list; I’m talking about things that are actually awesome: Reading that book you always wanted to, exercising, watching that TED talk, spending more time with the kids, or if you’re nerdy like me: researching your investments and optimizing your credit cards.

Laura Vanderkam recently wrote an article on what the most successful people do before breakfast. It turns out that mornings are the perfect time for you to get things done – you’re more rested, more alert, have more willpower, and are less likely to be interrupted. She talks through 5 steps to getting the most out of your mornings: 1. Track your time, 2. Picture the perfect morning, 3. Think through the logistics, 4. Build the habit, 5. Tune up as necessary. Essentially, it’s pretty similar to what I’ve blogged about building up effective habits – start tiny, and then tune upwards as you get more successful.

I decided to try it out. My office is literally located in one of the most remote, desolate, and depressing parts of Singapore. Yes, it’s true. Don’t ask me why. However, one of the advantages of working at the end of the world is that I have an 1 to 1.5 hour-long commute every morning. While most people see it as a pain in the ass, I’m using it as a perfect opportunity to read, pray, meditate, or work on other projects. (Here’s a little secret – I’m currently using my mornings to work on a special project on the side, which you’ll hear about in the coming months!) I don’t try to accomplish too much – usually a couple of pages of reading, or baby steps in my special project, or one TED talk. But do them every weekday, and they start to add up. And I get to the office refreshed, inspired, and cheerful that I’m doing something meaningful in my life other than working for the man.

The number one reason why I’m able to accomplish my morning ritual: SLEEP. I try to get at least 7 hours of sleep every day so I don’t end up feeling exhausted during my commute.  (Okay, admittedly, I fail at getting my requite hours of sleep 2 days out of 5, but it’s all good as long as I fix it the following night)

So – try it out. See if it works. You never know – your morning ritual could let you wake up feeling like P Diddy after all 🙂

Freshly Pressed Ping

freshly pressed

So last night, in my sleep-deprived, mentally frustrated state, I dashed off a post – Revenge of the Ping – about how the Ping totally ruined my plans for yesterday. I totally didn’t expect it to get featured on the Freshly Pressed section of WordPress.com, generating more than 5,000 hits, 74 comments and 79 followers (and counting!) in a single day! Woweeee!

Ironically, today was my biggest Ping day ever with my WordPress app buzzing every other minute and my inbox flooding with WordPress notifications. Lots of people also commented that the only way to stumble across my post was to submit to… the Ping. Oh, the irony of it all 😀

Something struck me while I was reading through the comments: We could be from anywhere in the world, but we’re all pretty much the same when it comes to situations like these. EVERYONE’S been hit by the Ping before and screwed up their plans, so don’t feel too bad about it if it happens to you. Take a breather, then switch off your phone and your chats and your email client, work on that to-do list, and hunker down and work your way through it. Guilt never got anyone anywhere.

(Pretty much everyone also agrees that the phone stack is an awesome idea, and quite a few people share my distaste for Justin Bieber’s single “Boyfriend”. So that totally made my day.)

So anyways, I just wanted to say thank you. Really. It’s superduper encouraging to know that there are actually people who appreciate the stuff I write about here. (When I first started blogging I got kinda worried that the only people who would be reading this blog is some drunk college kid trying to google how to fry an egg at 4am.) A friend told me that sometimes people just need to get reminded about the painfully obvious things that we forget – which are sometimes the ones that would help us the most.

So thank you for the encouragement and the love! I’ll keep blogging as much as I can. Leave a comment if there are any personal finance / rich life topics you’d like me to write about – I read every one 🙂

Revenge of the Ping

I’ll make this quick – today, I planned for a totally productive night of getting shit done. I was gonna review my budget, research some investments, blog a little bit, and organize my articles. Yeah, I can tell that you’re totally jealous of my ridiculously awesome life of sex, drugs and alcohol.

But it all started going downhill from work – First, I was given a big task to do in the morning. Instead of focusing on that, I spent my day answering emails, attending discussions, customizing templates, and intermittently going back to that task. And then my colleagues mucked around at the snack corner so of course I had to join them for that. And so I had to work late, and I decided to reward myself with a Swensen’s dinner (come here you, chicken baked rice and US fries and dips, you!), and then I decided to read a few chapters of my book, and check out a few other blogs at the same time… and before I knew it, it was bedtime. Dang!

So hey, if I couldn’t do any of that other stuff, the least I could do was squeeze in a blogpost, right? So much love for you, dear reader, so much love.

Saying “no”

So I thought I was being awesome my multitasking my ass off (generating Pivot Tables while shooting off emails? pssshhttt. No problem.), but I was actually unknowingly falling prey to the insidious monster known as the Ping. The Ping creeps up on you, often disguised as activities like “multitasking” or “urgent priority”, but really, it just pulls you away from the most important things you’ve gotta get done today.

This article from HBR talks about staying focused on only the most important things. It sounds cliched as hell, but we don’t realize how crucial it really is to prevent us from crashing and burning:

“Never before has it been so important to say “No.” No, I’m not going to read that article. No, I’m not going to read that email. No, I’m not going to take that phone call. No, I’m not going to sit through that meeting.

It’s hard to do because maybe, just maybe, that next piece of information will be the key to our success. But our success actually hinges on the opposite: on our willingness to risk missing some information. Because trying to focus on it all is a risk in itself. We’ll exhaust ourselves. We’ll get confused, nervous, and irritable. And we’ll miss the CEO standing next to us in the elevator.”

More data = more noise

At the risk of sounding like I’m writing a General Paper essay for junior college, we live in a hyperconnected world. Breaking news, stock prices, tweets, and drunk photos of you last Friday night on Facebook are literally at our fingertips. (Of course, I could do with some types of media being not so easily accessible – such as Justin Bieber’s latest single Boyfriend. Shudder.) But as Nassim Taleb shares in this article, having more data makes it even more likely for you to make mistakes. More data generates more noise, which makes the likelihood of finding what you need – the signal – even lower.

Keeping up with the flurry of information is a loser’s game. In fact, it is very likely that all that information could screw you over. Or kill you. (statistics show that in 80% of car crashes, the driver was distracted during the three seconds preceding the incident.)

Staying focused, #likeaboss

So make your to-do list before you start anything in your work day, and stick to it. Turn off your email alerts and your instant messaging chats. Leave your phone in a place where you cant reach it. And do just ONE THING at a time. You’ll be way more effective than trying to “multitask” everything away.

Something non-work related: When you’re having lunch with friends, try putting your phones in a phone stack. I tried it last week and it was one of the most enjoyable lunches I’ve had in awhile 🙂

And the next time you hear the siren call of the Ping, tell it to go screw itself.

Work Like a Sprinter

The Big Picture had a great post yesterday on how to increase productivity by working like a sprinter. Several studies show that people are way more effective when they work in short bursts of 90 mins and take short breaks in between, as compared to forcing themselves to do tasks for long hours at a stretch. I started trying this out when I read a similar blog post on Study Hacks, which cited a 1993 study that showed that elite violin players had the same pattern of practising: in the morning, in three increments of no more than 90 minutes each, with a break between each one. Similar patterns were found among the top performers in other professions: musicians, artists, athletes and chess players.

Most of us tend to romanticize, or at least look favorably on, the notion of the hard worker who dutifully plods through his assigned tasks through the day (and night). I’m all for hard work, but hard work without thinking is just plain dumb. Imagine this scenario: First thing in the morning, you power up your laptop and the RED SEA OF DEATH (a nickname I give to my emails because all unread mails are highlighted in red) washes over you, causing you to get stressed and hyperventilate. You try clearing them, but it’s like a frickin’ hydra – every time you answer one, four more come pouring in. Soon, it’s 10am, you’ve barely made a dent in your inbox and you need to get that other report out asap, so you start on that. You work through the rest of the day, intermittently checking your email to stem the Sea of Red (which now looks at large as Russia), yet your report is going frustratingly slow and the end is nowhere in sight. Sound familiar?

Just breathe. In for three seconds and out for six.

The key isn’t to play the game of futile catch-up, the key is to slow down before taking off like a rocket. Your mind can only stay focused on a task for a maximum of 90 mins before it starts to wander. As Schwartz (the author of the study) mentions: “Paradoxically, the most effective way to operate at work is like a sprinter, working with single-minded focus for periods of no longer than 90 minutes, and then taking a break. That way when you’re working, you’re really working, and when you’re recovering, you’re truly refueling the tank.”

I now work in stretches of 60 – 90 mins on one single task at a time. For example, I may answer emails for 60 mins, or work on that one important task I tell myself to accomplish for that day, broken up into 2 sets of 90-minute blocks. While I’m working, I don’t do anything else – I don’t stop to chat with colleagues, I close my email client so I don’t get distracted by incoming mail, and I don’t answer my office phone. (the only exception to this is calls to my cellphone – because they’re usually urgent. If it turns out not to be urgent, I tell the person to call me later or drop me an email) If my office is noisy, I retreat to a conference room. The key is to get in the zone when you’re working on something, and to not think about anything else except getting that particular task done. I set a timer for 90 mins because time usually flies when you’re entirely, completely focused on a task.

Then I take a break for 15 – 20 mins, away from my desk. I usually walk around or get a drink. Sometimes I might go annoy another colleague. Or check out my Twitter feed. Or if there’s a secluded spot available, I take a power nap. But I don’t think about work.

I’ve tried this for about two months now, and it really works. I think I’ve managed to complete literally twice the amount of work than I would usually have been able to. The breaks are key: they help you to recharge and refocus on what’s important, so that when the next 90-min sprint comes along, you’re able completely zero in on the task, taking over your other colleagues who’re just chugging along, wondering why they can’t seem to focus and what they’re gonna have for lunch. Admittedly, there have been some days when I’ve been so overwhelmed with work and pressure that I’ve skipped out on those crucial breaks. Paradoxically, for those days where I worked longer hours, I ended up accomplishing less.

Study Hacks sums up the issue pretty well: If you’re busy, you’re doing something wrong. Instead of spreading your work haphazardly throughout the day and feeling a constant strain of busyness and stress, concentrate your energy into focused periods of peak performance – and then take a break. You’ll feel more relaxed, less stressed, and end up accomplishing way more than you thought possible.