“Be More Productive.” Work/Life Balance (And Grinding).

When it comes to video games, the Role Playing Game (RPG) genre has always held a special place in my heart. In an RPG, you play the role of a character on an adventure in some sort of immersive world. Part of the fun is watching your character grow and develop as you explore new frontiers and work toward some greater goal or quest. Games like Pokemon, EarthBound, and Chrono Trigger are good examples. If you’re engaging in random turn-based battles with monsters, getting experience points and gold and “leveling up” in the process, chances are you’re playing an RPG (and I’m jealous).

And I can’t think of a better way to get acquainted with the genre than the first RPG I ever played: Final Fantasy.  I was maybe 12 or 13 at the time, and I’ll always remember the first time I encountered Ogres:

Image result for final fantasy 1 ogres

That’s how I first got introduced to grinding. Not the type of grinding one might do at a club (which, having attended a few middle school dances, I was unfortunately all too familiar with). I’m talking about video game grinding. Techopedia provides a great definition:

Grinding refers to the playing time spent doing repetitive tasks within a game to unlock a particular game item or to build the experience needed to progress smoothly through the gameGrinding most commonly involves killing the same set of opponents over and over in order to gain experience points or gold.

When I first encountered these Ogres, they were tough. My party took a lot of damage and barely survived the battle; however, when we won the day I was pleasantly surprised to see that defeating the Ogres yielded a ton of experience points and they were loaded with gold. Punching above my weight was worth it – enough fights with these guys and I could quickly level up my party, then stroll into a nearby town with enough gold to arm my team with the best equipment on the market before continuing on with my adventure. And so I stuck around, wandering around the forest killing Ogres, again and again and again. That’s grinding.

And I did it for hours.

Any gamer worth his salt has done something like this. Maybe you mastered all the mini-games in Ocarina of Time, getting all your quiver upgrades and your heart pieces and your rupees before storming Ganon’s Castle. Maybe you played the same Mega Man level again and again because you knew it had multiple Energy Tanks and you wanted to max them out before going after Dr. Wiley. Or perhaps you simply took the time to stumble around in the darkness of the Caverns in Goldeneye, dutifully destroying every box in the arms cache to load up on ammunition.

At some point, you postponed the adventure and engaged in some sort repetitive, perhaps even tedious, activity, either for your later benefit or out of some intrinsic need for “completeness.” And at that point, you had to ask yourself:

Is this work, or is this fun?

Some genres blur the lines even more. Simulators such as Sim City and Harvest Moon involve performing tasks that people actually get paid to do in real life. My favorite example is from The Office where Dwight Schrute creates a Second Life character who is also a paper salesman named Dwight.

I bring this up because people talk a lot about work/life balance, and I don’t really like the concept. It frames “work” as this tedious thing that, unfortunately, I have to do in order to support “life,” which is the fun thing I get to do after hours with my family and friends.

But if grinding in video games is so tedious, why do we tolerate it?

I think it’s because, on some level, it is fun. It’s fun to see progress. It’s fun to identify opportunities for efficiency and competitive advantage and leverage the hell out of them. And it’s fun to think about how all this work is going to pay off when you go into your next battle, over-prepared and ready for anything. And all these fun activities are things I can, and should, be enjoying at the office.

Sometimes what I do at the office feels like fun. And sometimes what I do at home feels like work. And that’s OK.

At the end of the day, there is no work/life balance. There’s just life, and so the best you can ask of yourself is to be present in the activity you’re doing, regardless of how you label it.

“Be More Productive.” Should I Plan My Weekends?

It’s Saturday afternoon, and my one-year-old woke up from her nap early. The plan was to write during this time, and so now I’m trying to draft this post and watch Pinocchio at the same time.  But I’m not complaining – she seems to be enjoying the movie, and it feels like I’m watching it for the first time because I’ve forgotten everything about it (like the terrifying “donkey transformation” scene, for example).

Sometimes it’s nice when plans go off-track. In my interview with Scott we talked about how uncertainty and spontaneity aren’t just fun, they’re essential to the human experience. We can’t control everything, and that’s OK. Some of the best moments are the ones where things go sideways.

Still, I’m a big advocate of planning. Last year my goal was to plan my day 183 times (over 50% of the year). I came up a bit short, only planning 171 days. But I was happy with the results, and wanted to set an even loftier goal this year of 300 days. That’s almost twice as many days as I did before, but I have some plans for closing the gap.

For one thing, like any other habit it got easier the more I did it, so towards the end of the year I was doing it a lot more. But still, even if I kept the pace I had in Q4 2019, I wouldn’t get to 300 unless I made one, big change: I would need to start planning on the weekends.

In 2019 I viewed my planning exercise as a “work” thing. It started as soon as I got in the office, and helped me plan, prioritize and execute my tasks for the day. But when the weekend came, no more planning. Planning is so rigid, so restrained – it makes the weekend sound like work. And after all,

work

But as I look back on what I did in 2019 and what I hope to do in 2020 I have to ask myself: is planning my weekend really such a bad thing? Does applying plans to my “time-off” take all the fun out of it? I think about when my wife and I went to Italy and how we took pride in the fact that we didn’t have “plans.” A good chunk of our time was just spent wandering, and some of our best memories stemmed from completely unexpected events (like getting robbed).

But still… we had plans. We booked flights which established a time-frame, identified cities that we wanted to see and planned to visit them in a logical order. We determined how long we wanted to spend in each city based on things we wanted do and how long we thought those things would take and we booked accommodations. We got advice from friends and family which resulted in two guided tours both of which were highlights of the trip.

We stopped there, but we could have gone further. We could have picked a few restaurants beforehand, established specific routes for site-seeing. If we really wanted to, we could have planned every single step of the trip. Is that “doing it wrong?” What if we’d taken the opposite approach? What if when we first came up with the idea, drinking jalapeno pale ales beneath the low lights at the bar in Alexander Michael’s restaurant, we’d just bought one-way tickets and taken an Uber to the airport?

When it comes to your free time, what’s the “right” way to do it?

I think the answer is that it’s different for everybody. For me personally, I like a little structure. The balance we struck in Italy was just about perfect for me, so why not take the same approach with my weekends?

I’ve been experimenting with this; I’ve planned 28 days through February 8th, and three of them have been Saturdays or Sundays. Weekend plans might not be terribly detailed, but they do help. Today for example our girls had swim lessons in the morning and I was meeting someone for lunch after. As we were leaving for swim Liz got a client call she needed to take. Aware of both our commitments, I simply texted Liz that I was going to go ahead and put the girls in the car and take them. She could drive separately, meet us there and I could just leave from swim directly to meet my friend for lunch. No rush, no stress.

And everything was fine until I started driving and the car’s Bluetooth picked up Liz’s call and suddenly she couldn’t hear the client and all her client could hear was me giving my girls a pep-talk about keeping their goggles on.

The best experiences might be the ones where things go sideways – but paradoxically, having a little structure can actually give you the freedom to have those experiences in the first place.

Podcast Episode 1: “Servant Leadership.” Interview with Scott Wurtzbacher, Team Leader at W Realty Group

In this (first ever!) episode of the New Year’s Revolutionary podcast, I had the privilege of interviewing Scott Wurtzbacher, Team Leader at W Realty Group here in Charlotte, North Carolina.

To listen to the episode, click here.

Scott and his wife Maria have sold over 1,000 houses and grown their business from a small husband and wife operation to one of Charlotte’s top selling real estate companies as recognized by Charlotte Business Journal. My wife works at W Realty Group, and ever since I met Scott I’ve been impressed with his insights, work ethic, and dedication to client service.

I always wanted to know the story about how it all got started. During this conversation we get into that, along with a wide range of other topics including:

  • How W Realty Group got their first listing [7:45]
  • Scott’s transition from his job as a management consultant at PwC to W Realty Group full-time [10:17]
  • How Brian Buffini’s coaching program helped W Realty Group navigated the Great Recession [16:13]
  • What W Realty Group looks like now, and what differentiates their team from a traditional real estate brokerage [22:16]
  • Differences between the listing agent role and the buying agent role [24:30]
  • How technology has changed the realtor role [28:55]
  • Scott’s approach to leadership and team management [32:02]
  • How the “W Realty Group Book Club” got started, and Scott’s approach to internam meetings and development of their team’s core values [33:49]
  • Getting Things Done by David Allen, how Scott has used the system to get to “inbox zero” [39:38]
  • Scotts philosophy on “follow up” including a great definition for leverage he picked up at a Tony Robbins event [44:11]
  •  Scott’s approach to consuming nonfiction [47:57]
  • Scott’s Q&A with Brian Buffini the day before our interview, and the one question he asked Brian after being a part of his program for over a decade [55:25]
  • Scott’s experience at Tony Robbins’s Unleash The Power Within event [59:31]
  • Personal productivity, morning routines. [1:02:03]
  • Running, dealing with injuries, training at Elite Functional Performance (EFP), and completing a marathon [1:09:33]
  • Opportunities and challenges of working with your spouse [1:16:18]
  • Parenting, getting one-on-one time with your kids and being spontanious [1:22:18]
  • How Scott plans to do better this year [1:29:00]

References

Working Out: How Many Pullups Can I Do?

When I was in high school we had a summer strength training regimen for football, a three day rotation with each day focusing on a different power lift. There was squat day, clean day, and bench day. I remember our coach explaining to us the importance of each lift:

  • You have to do squats to develop speed and strength.
  • You have to do cleans to develop explosiveness and coordination.
  • And you have to bench so you can tell other guys how much you bench (you can tell girls too, but in my experience they don’t usually care as much as the guys).

I guess that’s why it seems like every day is chest day and there always seems to be a line for the bench.

But there’s never a line for the pull up bar.

I find pullups to be the most psychologically demanding exercise I perform. No other exercise am I more likely to quit early, to cheat, or come up with an excuse for underperformance. I’m not entirely sure why, but I have a few ideas:

  • With pullups, you don’t really have time to think. Granted, in most exercises you’re maintaining some sort of tension throughout the motion, but with pullups you are always dangling your entire bodyweight. So once that inner monologue starts, you’re done. On days when I go as fast as I can I usually do more, but is that the safest approach?
  • You can cheat, and it’s very hard to see when I cheat. I shorten the range of motion ever so slightly, and it usually happens towards the late-middle of my set as I’m approaching my last reps. I don’t usually cheat on the last rep, making sure to go all the way down and get my chin above the bar. But the ones leading up to it… it happens. I guess I’m trying to get my pullup count up and conserve energy.
  • External factors like my mental state and rest intervals really matter for some reason. I’m not an expert in this but it seems like just an additional 30 seconds or so of waiting gets me significantly more reps, a bigger difference than with other workouts. I check my watch and see my 1:30 is up then see somebody else eyeing the bar, and say something like “Oh hey, want to work in? Be my guest. Take your time.” I go get some water. And if I’m just in a bad mood, I do less. No great explanation for that.

The thing is none of this should matter. I should be going in and doing pullups for one purpose – to strengthen the muscles involved in doing pullups. But I’ve been tracking my workouts for years now, and that can really mess with your head.

My brother runs marathons, and one day he and I were talking about his workout plan. Marathon plans tend to be very structured as you work your way up to longer and longer distances. Having run a marathon before, he still had his notes from the previous workout plan. And he talked about how, as he reviewed them, he could see exactly what he was able to do last time. He described it as “chasing a ghost” and drew a perfect comparison to Mario Kart 64.

In Mario Kart Time Trials, you can actually race against your “ghost”, an image of yourself running the race before demonstrated below (with Yoshi in the center racing against Ghost Yoshi on the bottom left):

Image result for mario kart 64 time trial ghost

It’s amazing how easily you can improve if you can see exactly what you did before . You can shave off a corner here, pick-up a little more speed on a straightaway there, despite feeling like you did a really good job the first time. And it’s incredibly frustrating when, despite your best efforts, you can’t seem to catch the ghost.

And when it comes to working out, maybe it’s not fair to race the ghost. The ghost is younger than me, after all. Being alive is great, but the big catch is that you get older the longer you do it. But that excuse is based on two assumptions:

  1. My body is deteriorating at such a rate that I physically can’t do what I could do a year ago, and
  2. A year ago, I was pushing my body to its absolute limits.

The first one I’m hoping isn’t true and the second one I know isn’t true. I’m pretty sure there’s still a huge gap between what I’m doing and what I can do, in pullups and in life.

How many pullups can I do?

More.

Working Out: What Counts As A “Workout?”

This week I decided to sit down and try to come up with some basic contingency planning to keep myself on track to complete 300 workouts when life gets in the way. For example:

  • What if I’m traveling for a work and the hotel gym doesn’t have the equipment I need?
  • What if I’m sick and have to stay home?
  • What if something comes up in the morning and I have to workout late at night when my gym is closed?
  • What if I get injured?

Back when I first wrote about going to the gym this time last year, my buddy Phil commented on one of my posts and made a very good point: the gym isn’t the only place to be active. But as I tried to come up with some contingency plans, I kept running into the same question:

What counts as a “workout?”

I’ve structured an entire goal around a workout count, so it stands to reason that I should havea clear definition of what a “workout” actually is. If the family decides to go for a hike, is that a workout? If I get down and do 100 pushups, does that “count” as much as running six miles? What about 50 pushups? What about taking the stairs at work instead of the elevator? What about a single pushup?

I’m relying heavily on this workout count number, both for motivation and for accountability. So I need to protect the integrity of what I’m measuring. At the same time, if I’m in a situation where I literally can’t do any of the pre-defined workouts I have available to me, I still want to do something. Even though putting something in my spreadsheet can be very motivating, it can be just as demotivating when I consider the prospect of doing something physically demanding that I’m not going to get “credit” for. If it’s not going to make it into the spreadsheet, what’s the point?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, yet. Even if I did have them for myself, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be the same for everybody. Nope, as usual you’re watching me in the process of trying to figure it out. I have come up with a few thoughts:

  • All of my workouts involve at least 20 minutes of physical activity, so that’s probably a good benchmark for making something “count.”
  • Running probably has the fewest barriers to entry – I can run any time, anywhere (weather permitting).
  • One of the kettlebell/burpee workouts I do regularly can actually be performed at home if the gym is closed or if I’m sick.
  • Swimming is a good option if I miss the morning workout – there’s a gym with a pool between my office and the bus stop, and I can swim/shower after work before heading home for the day.
  • I’m a member at the Y, and I’ve never gotten any pushback signing in as a guest at a facility in a different city for no charge (for example, working out while visiting Liz’s family in West Virginia).
  • With a little bit of research, I can probably identify several “at home” workouts which target the same muscles I’m scheduled to target using the gym equipment I’m acustomed to using.
  • If I have an injury, I can ask my doctor for guidance on what exercises I can do, and have those workouts “count” until I’m back to full strength.

As I write these out, I can feel the excuses losing their grip on me. If I’m going to care about the number of workouts I do, I expect I’ll always be trying to strike a balance when deciding what “counts.” But giving myself some outs to navigate challenging times will hopefully help keep me on track.

Working Out: “Rehab.”

Last year, my goal was to workout 150 times over the course of six months. This year, my goal is to workout 300 times over the course of a year. As I’m writing this I’ve worked out 9 times in 10 days, averaging 6.3 workouts per week, which means I’m ahead of schedule.

I’m feeling strong.

But come on, it’s only Week 2! It’s easy to feel strong in January. I haven’t been traveling, I’m healthy (aside from this dry cough that I’ve pretty much accepted is part of my life now), and the gym is full of patrons as optimistic about the future as I am. The problem is I’ve seen this movie before, and I know how it ends. In February 2018 it was a back injury. In July 2019 it was my shoulder. So what’s the setback going to be in 2020, and is there anything I can do to stop it?

Since starting the blog, I’ve gotten tons of book recommendations from readers. However, the most recommended book by far was The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, which I’m reading now:

image-119Biggest takeaway: most of the activities we do in our day-to-day life are simply habits we’ve formed over the years, and habits are developed based on a three-step loop. From the book:

First, there is a  cue, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering in the future.

So for example, my cue is putting on my running shoes. I only wear them for running and going to the gym, and so everything about them – how they look, how it feels to put them on, the sound they make when I’m stumbling around in the dark of our condo trying not to wake anybody up while I sneak out in the morning – I associate all of these sensations with one thing: working out.

Working out is the routine. This is the positive habit I’ve worked to cultivate by consistently applying the cue and the reward.

The reward is the act of putting my workout results in the spreadsheet. There are lots of other benefits to working out, but the immediate gratification that comes from putting the stats in the spreadsheet and seeing my workout count autopopulate gives me a nice little hit of dopamine.

But eventually something happens that jams up the loop – the cue, the routine, or the reward gets compromised, and I start to get off track. It can be something innocous like traveling, or something more serious like an injury. Is there anything I can do to stop this from happening?

At one point in the book, Duhigg references an experiment conducted by a British psychologist involving orthopedic hospital patients who had recently undergone hip or knee replacement surgeries. The purpose of the experiment was to better understand why some patients stuck with rehab while others gave up. Back to the book:

“Recovering from a hip or knee surgery is incredibly arduous. The operation involves severing joint muscles and sawing through bones. While recovering, the smallest movements – shifting in bed or flexing a joint – can be excruciating. However, it is essential that patients begin exercising almost as soon as they wake from surgery. They must begin moving their legs and hips before the muscles and skin have healed, or scar tisue will clog the joint, destroying its flexibility. In addition, if patients don’t start exercising, they risk developing blood clots. But the agony is so extreme that it’s not unusal for people to skip out on rehab sessions.”

The psychologist then split the patients into two groups. After three months, the second group had started walking almost twice as fast as the first group. That’s a huge deal! So what was the difference?

She had the second group write out their plans.

She included 13 blank pages in the back of their rehab schedule for patient in the second group to detail their goals for the week. How can 13 blank pages be so effective? Back to the book:

As the psychologist scrutinized the booklets, she saw that many of the plans had something in common: They focused on how patients would handle a specific moment of anticipated pain. The man who exercised on the way to the bathroom, for instance, knew that each time he stood up from the couch, the ache was excruciating. So he wrote out a plan for dealing with it: Automatically take the first step, right away, so he wouldn’t be tempted to sit down again.

It’s contingency planning, and it sounds like it works. So that’s what I’m going to work on this week. While I’m feeling strong, I’m going to try and come up with some concrete plans for what I’m going to do when I’m not feeling so strong, and hopefully avoid getting completely derailed in the future when life throws me a curveball.

Working Out: “The Disney Incident.”

Let me start by saying that Disney World is, without a doubt, the most magical place on earth (even if my selfie skills don’t quite capture it).

image-116

And when I tell this story, there are times when I might sound like I’m complaining about Disney. But the truth is Disney delivered in all respects. That said, even Disney couldn’t protect a stumbling buffoon of a father from, well… himself.

I had the opportunity to attend a work conference in Orlando in 2019. I brought the family, and we stayed an extra two days for a short vacation. The story starts Wednesday night, the last day of the conference and the night before our only “full day” at the park. That evening was amazing – we were staying at the Disney Yacht Club Resort which is immediately adjacent to Epcot, it was literally a 10 minute walk from our hotel door to entering the World Showcase (hands down, my favorite part of Disney World). We checked out Anna and Elsa in Norway, watched the Reflections of Earth show, and went to bed.

Quick note about the beds at Yacht Club – our unit had two queens, and the mattresses were both noticeably high off of the hardwood floors. I remember putting Lucy, my oldest, down in one of the queens and worrying about her falling out. My youngest Lottie was in a pack ‘n play between the beds. Liz and I laid down, exhausted but happy.

Then Lottie started crying.

She cried and cried – it was my shift, so after going through the usual troubleshooting checklist I started bouncing and shushing her for about 45 minutes. She was clearly uncomfortable, and at that point I started thinking I was kind of uncomfortable, too. It was hot – I went and checked the thermostat and saw it was like 80 degrees. Annoyed, I tried to adjust it and got an error message: “door ajar.”

It took a few minutes of staring blinkingly at the blue LED screen to realize what happened.

Someone had left the door to our balcony slightly open, and the AC wouldn’t engage while the door was ajar. I don’t know who left it open; it was either me, my wife, my two year old, or my one year old. I’m not going to do any more research into who did it – to quote Rafiki, “it doesn’t matter, it’s in the past.” I closed the door and immediately heard the AC turn on. A few minutes later Lottie was out and I went to bed, drifting to sleep beneath the cool air.

Then I woke up – I’d felt something.

My eyes focused and, to my horror, I saw Lottie at my feet, about to crawl off the edge of the bed which, as I mentioned before, was noticeably high.

I sprang into action, flipping away the sheets and jumping toward the front of the bed like a goalie, trying to keep her from falling onto the hardwood floor. My arm swiped at nothing, and I landed with all of my weight on my shoulder.

It felt like it was dislocated, but all I was thinking about was my sweet little girl falling off the bed. I did a quick pushup and winced as my shoulder seemed to squeeze back into place. I didn’t see her on the floor and moaned to my wife, holding my throbbing shoulder.

“Where’s Lottie? Is she ok?!”

“What the hell are you talking about???” Liz asked, using that very specific combination of whispering and snapping that adults learn how to do when they become parents.

I looked around. Liz was sitting up in bed staring at me, bewildered. Lucy was clutching her toy duck in the queen bed, dead to the world. And there was Lottie, snuggled up in the corner of the pack n’ play, right where I’d left her. It had all been a dream.

Except the “me falling out of bed” part, that happened. It sounds funny, but guys my shoulder REALLY hurt. And I was facing an entire day at Disney World. Not Epcot, mind you. We were going deep into the belly of the beast – we were going to the Magic Kingdom. It was 90 degrees in July, we would be pushing a double stroller, and we had a fast pass for It’s A Small World After All that expired at noon.

This was a challenge.

After the ride (which they loved) we decided enough was enough and took our screaming girls to the First Aid area for water, diaper changes and to get some Tylenol before we retreated to our hotel. It was a low point. This was the best picture we got:

image-117

Our new hotel also had noticeably high mattresses, and now I was paranoid (over an incident which, if you’ll remember, didn’t actually happen) so I spent 15 minutes trying to put together these toddler rails on Lucy’s bed before finally giving up and just stacking throw pillows on either side of her and laying down to try and nap while we all watched Puppy Dog Pals which I’d never seen before and sorry to all you fans out there (including Lucy) but it’s just not the strongest show in the Disney queue. But I couldn’t sleep anyway, because I knew what was coming. After just a few hours it would be 5:00… and we had to return to the Kingdom.

Because we had dinner reservations at Tony’s Town Square Restaurant. So we powered through what ended up being a 2 hour dinner full of shenanigans. This was the best picture we got:

image-118

Then we stepped out into the cool of the evening and watched the fireworks, and I danced with Lucy in the street. It was magical again.

We flew home the next day, and after dropping off the family I drove straight to OrthoCarolina to have someone look at my shoulder, where I got to tell the story several times. The receptionist was indifferent. The x-ray technician thought it was hilarious. The doctor nodded patiently, took out the x-ray results and put them on a screen. It looked bad. I prepared for the news, that I was going to have to spend the next few weeks with my arm in a sling, explaining to everyone how I fell out of bed trying to save my daughter who wasn’t actually there.

“Your shoulder is fine.”

“What?” I replied.

“I don’t see anything wrong here, and your mobility appears to be normal.”

“Oh… so it didn’t dislocate or… anything?”

Good doctors are perceptive, and this was a good doctor. From the tone of my question he could tell – I’d just spent the last 48 hours complaining about this damn shoulder to my wife and I needed something, anything. I couldn’t go back and face her with a clean bill of health.

“Well um… there could be some inflammation that the x-ray isn’t picking up, I guess it could have popped out and popped back in,” he said mercifully. “If you’d like I can perscribe you a mild anti-inflammatory? Just try not to put too much strain on it for the rest of the month.”

That was all I needed. I went home and promptly told my wife that my shoulder most likely dislocated from the fall but I managed to pop it back in, and that I can power through it without a sling as long as I take my prescribed medication and don’t go to the gym.

So why am I starting out this the year writing about this story?

Well, I wanted to start the year off talking about Working Out. And the reality is that I was doing pretty well last summer, right up until this trip. I’d worked out an average of six days a week for 6 months and was performing at the highest level I’d ever experienced in all areas of fitness. But after The Disney Incident, I didn’t just take off the rest of July. I took off about four months. Because “my shoulder hurt.”

But again, to quote Rafiki, “The past can hurt… but the way I see it, you can either run from it, or learn from it.”

Let’s try to learn from it. Let’s talk about setbacks next week, and how we can try to avoid them, work through them, and get past them.