Photography makes past experiences more memorable

Have you seen Matt Cutts’ TED Talk on trying something new for 30 days? Cutts is an engineer at Google – a self-described ordinary guy who uses 30-day challenges to supercharge his life. In this short and cheery talk, Cutts argues that setting 30-day goals is an effective way to achieve powerful results in life. One of the selling points of doing these challenges is that 30 days is short enough to be doable, yet long enough to form a new routine. [In reality, there is no magic number for how long it takes for a new habit to form. Depending on the behaviour you want to adopt, it could take anywhere from a few weeks to the better part of a year. On average, a good rule of thumb is to stick with a new activity for two months to make it habitual.]

One of Cutts’ 30-day challenges was to take a picture every day. As an avid fan of photography, this challenge resonated with me. I especially liked his observation that photography helps to make time more memorable. Cutts contends that a picture lets you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing on a particular day. A photograph is a simple, yet powerful way to reconnect with a past experience.

While I like to think of myself as an enthusiastic shutterbug, the truth is my Nikon spends most of its days collecting dust bunnies at the back of my bedroom closet. So, to help rekindle my interests in photography, I challenged myself to take a picture everyday this past February. Okay, first a disclaimer: February has only 28 days. I readily admit this isn’t technically a 30-day challenge. Close enough, I’m not going to split hairs.

I chose February, in part, because I was going to be on the road for a big portion of the month. With trips planned to Seattle for Super Bowl weekend and to Providence to participate in a conference, I anticipated a lot of good photo ops during my travels. [I also planned to bookend my trip to Providence with short stays in Boston and New York.]

Here’s one small story from Boston. One morning, pining for a java fix, I decided to search Yelp for the “best coffee shop” in the city. Up sprang Polcari’s Coffee on Salem Street, earning an astonishing five stars. Sold! So, in the midst of a minor blizzard, we set off to find this mysterious caffeine mecca. After zigzagging through the streets of Boston for well over an hour, we finally reached our destination in the heart of the city’s historic Italian neighbourhood. Waltzing through the front door of the quaint shop, we were surprised to find not a single espresso machine on site, but rather a vast assortment of coffee beans, tea, spices, as well as deli meats, candy, pasta and nuts. I’m such an airhead. Polcari’s is a coffee store, not a coffee shop (darn semantics). After browsing the wares for a few minutes, we walked down the block to find a more run-of-the-mill café. Once we got our brew, I took out my camera and snapped this shot from the doorway:

February 15: Exploring the historic Italian part of Boston, Massachusetts
February 15: Exploring the historic Italian part of Boston, Massachusetts


One thing I love about this photo is how it picks up the falling snowflakes, reminding me of the beautiful snowy streets we explored on our quest to find the perfect cup of coffee. Sure, we never did find that elusive five-star cappuccino, but the photo reminds me of one of life’s important lessons. To quote author, Greg Anderson: “Focus on the journey not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.” May all my bungled adventures – both big and small – bring so much joy.

How to make your New Year’s resolutions stick: The power of setting concrete goals

Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution, only to give it up a few weeks later? If so, don’t worry, you aren’t alone. According to research from the University of Scranton, an estimated 92% of Americans who made a New Year’s resolution for 2012 failed to realize their goal. This raises a question: what did the other 8% do right?

Usually you can count me with the 92% of folks who fall short in achieving their resolutions. In most years, my garden-variety oaths to exercise more or drink less fall by the wayside well before the start of spring. In spite of my poor track record, somehow in 2012 I found myself part of the 8% who succeed. That year, my resolution was to read 20 new books by year’s end – a goal that I surpassed by mid-September. So what did I do right, when so many past attempts had failed?

In the book, Switch, Chip Heath and Dan Heath discuss the best ways to make a change in behaviour stick. Amongst other factors, one way to ensure that change lasts is to set a goal which gives you a clear direction to follow. To be most effective, this goal should be simple, concrete, and actionable.

Let’s say you want to start eating a healthier diet, and so you make a resolution to “eat healthier” in the coming year. Despite your best intentions, you fall back to your old ways a mere two weeks later. Sound familiar? According to the Heath brothers, the main reason for faltering isn’t laziness, but a lack of clear direction. Your goal to “eat healthier” is just too sweeping and ambiguous to execute in your day-to-day life. Ambiguity, it turns out, is why many of our New Year’s resolutions fail.

Your chances of success will be much greater if you make a resolution that’s clear and concrete – something you can easily take action on and doesn’t leave any wiggle room for digression. For example, you’re more likely to create a lasting change in your eating habits if you set a simple goal to change one specific behaviour, such as “switching from whole milk to skim or 1% milk,” rather than trying to overhaul all your eating habits in one fell swoop. A goal like “only drink skim milk” works because it’s laser-focused, unambiguous, and easy to follow.

This helps to explain why I was able to achieve my goal of reading 20 new books in a year. What I didn’t do is make a vague resolution to “read more books” in the new year. Instead, I was specific about the number of books I’d read and the time frame in which I’d read them. Clear as crystal.

Originally, I thought 20 books in a year would be a stretch – doable, but ambitious. However, as often is the case with big goals, they can appear less daunting if you break them down into bite-sized chunks. Case in point: to read 20 books in one year means finishing a book every two and a half weeks, on average. That works out to reading 20 pages a day, assuming a typical book has roughly 350 pages. Only 20 pages a day, now that’s workable.

In retrospect, my resolution wasn’t so far-fetched after all. Just by reading a little every day, I was able to finish my 20th book by the middle of September and, by the end of the year, I read 27 books in all.

Buoyed by this success, I decided to set a new goal for 2013: to read at least 23 new books to bring my two-year total to an even 50. I’m happy to say I hit the mark and, as in 2012, I finished a total of 27 books by year’s end.

So this year, if you want to create a New Year’s resolution with staying power, make sure to frame it in simple and specific terms. For instance, instead of resolving to “save more money” or “lose weight” in the new year, challenge yourself to “make your morning coffee at home” or “take the stairs at work.” Be clear and concrete if you want to make your resolutions stick.

As for me, I’ve set a new goal to reach 100 books by the end of 2015 – to stay on pace, that’s 23 new books in each of 2014 and 2015. Do you have suggestions for good reads? Please leave a comment below.

Update: I finished my 100th book, Finding Your Element by Ken Robinson, on October 28, 2015. It took me three years and 301 days (1,397 days in all) to complete this goal.

A yearlong experiment in inner growth through outer change

How can you make the world a better place? This isn’t a question that normally comes to mind when taking an elevator. Yet, for me, it led to my “Aha” moment.

Personally, I consider myself to be socially conscious and environmentally concerned. As much as possible, I try to “walk the talk” by living with compassion for people and the planet. In fact, I teach and consult in the sustainability field. I help to empower people and organizations to take action on environmental and social issues.

Despite my values, a few years ago I had formed the embarrassing habit of taking the elevator three floors to get to my office on campus. I had always silently cursed low-floor elevator users in the past. Now, I had become one of them.

Given my self-professed concern for the environment, I found it quite troubling that I had failed the simple task of choosing the stairs. How could I authentically convey the importance of sustainability to others, if I couldn’t even take a few flights of stairs to get to my office?

However, research has shown there is often a discrepancy between a person’s level of concern for environmental or social issues and their propensity to act accordingly. People who say they are concerned for the environment will frequently make contradictory choices, like using plastic bags for their groceries or disposable cups for their morning coffee. Convenience often trumps altruism.

If a high level of environmental concern isn’t sufficient, how could I ditch the convenience of the elevator for the planet-saving choice of the stairs?

It struck me that I needed to reframe the question. Rather than thinking in terms of “How can I make the world a better place?” it made more sense to ask “Why should I want to make the world a better place?” Why should I want to take the stairs? Or, more bluntly, what’s in it for me?

The obvious answer is it’s good for me, but I personally find these types of motherhood claims don’t help change behaviour. I required concrete results. So, I decided to start a one-month challenge to only take the stairs while on campus and to count how many flights of stairs I actually climbed and descended.

After one month I had lugged myself up and down 240 flights of stairs. Using a simple online calculator I learned that I burned roughly 510 Calories, or 0.15 lbs of fat, over the course of the month. This is equivalent to two coffee Frappuccinos (240 Calories each) but without the guilt.

One month is a good time frame for a new challenge because it is short enough to be doable, but long enough to form a new routine. Fast forward to today, and I’m proud to say I have continued to take the stairs day in and day out. This one small change is not only good for the environment but helps me burn approximately 4,080 Calories, or 1.2 lbs of fat, a year. Now, that’s a change worth making.

Changing anything in life is hard. It involves a combination of knowledge, skills and desire. All three ingredients are necessary for making a permanent change. Consider the example of weight loss. Making the necessary changes in your life requires a good diet and exercise program (knowledge), the ability to cook healthy meals and exercise properly (skills), and a good reason to lose weight, say, to perform better in a sport, to reduce the risks of serious health problems, or simply to feel better about yourself (desire).

For many of us, the major barrier for making a lasting change is desire. We often possess the knowledge and skills to make a change, but without sufficient desire it simply won’t stick. Changing a routine behaviour requires a carrot to entice us. The bigger the carrot, the more likely you will put in the work to make a new habit stick. For me, the carrot of burning 1.2 lbs of fat a year (or two guilt-free Frappuccinos a month) makes it easy to keep using the stairs. The warm and fuzzy feeling that I’m helping the planet is a bonus.

To change the world, it makes sense to focus on the carrot. To continually ask what’s in it for you? Making the world a better place should lead to a better life, not just in a big picture kind of way but it should actually make your life better – one that is more fulfilled, healthier and happier.

To test this hypothesis, I decided to embark on a yearlong experiment: I set myself a different challenge every month, each designed to improve the state of the world, either by contributing to the planet or to the community. Through these challenges, I explored a central question: Could outer contribution help me to get closer to inner fulfillment?

Follow my blog as I share my opinions and adventures in creating change in the world. Please get in touch with any questions or comments, or to share your own stories about creating change.