Author Archives: AJ Kumar

Practicing Gratitude: Earn More by Giving Thanks

Regardless of your race, religion or personal credo, I believe it’s important to use the holiday season as an opportunity to be thankful for all the different blessings in our lives.

No matter how much we may struggle from time to time, we’re all blessed in one way or another – whether due to the skills and aptitudes we’re fortunate to have been granted, the support we receive from our loved ones or the simple fact that living in a country like the United States means that we’re free to pursue our hopes and dreams without the imminent threat of war, famine or extreme poverty.

But, as the saying goes, “silent gratitude helps nobody.”  Letting the people in our lives know how thankful we are for their support doesn’t just help everybody to feel good – it’s also an important part of strengthening the relationships we’ll continue to rely on throughout our lives.

When we take the time to say thank you for something – no matter how small – we pull the people in our lives closer to us.  As these bonds form, we’re more likely to remember those who have thanked us for our efforts and more likely to seek out future opportunities to connect, based on this mutual appreciation.

If that sounds a little selfish, know that that’s not my intention.  I’m certainly not saying that you should practice gratitude with the sole intention of getting what you want or securing future favors from the people in your life.

That said, it’s impossible to deny the potential for financial benefit that exists when gratitude is freely expressed.  Telling a boss that you appreciate the effort he’s put into mentoring you may put you in line for an earlier promotion than a colleague who’s perceived as being ungrateful.  Similarly, treating the customer service workers you encounter throughout your daily errands with gratitude and appreciate can get you plenty of extra perks – simply because you’re a more pleasant customer than the jerks these workers frequently encounter.

But even though practicing gratitude is a “win-win” situation for most people, the hardest part is just getting started!  If you aren’t accustomed to expressing your thanks on a regular basis, try any of the following different opportunities for practicing gratitude within your life:

  • Recognize the business mentors who have helped you get where you are in your career.  A handwritten thank you card, a personal email or even a small gift can help to express your gratitude for the people who have contributed to your professional success in some way, as well as ensure that these relationships continue to be strong in the future.
  • Say thank you to your friends and family members for supporting you in both your personal and professional endeavors.   Too often, we assume that these people understand how much we care about them – even as we recognize in our own lives that it’s nice to hear these sentiments expressed explicitly from time to time.
  • Tell customer service workers who go above and beyond to help you resolve issues how much you appreciate their efforts.  Working with the public is incredibly challenging, which makes “stand out” service all the more rare.  When you see exceptional work happening, be sure to recognize it with an appropriate thank you.
  • Send cards to former teachers or other educators who played a positive role in your formative years.  Many successful people can point to a single teacher who inspired a life-long love of some specific topic, yet many of these same people express this gratitude to everyone but the teacher himself.  Remember – these great mentors won’t be around forever, so take the time to recognize their impact on your life while they’re still around!
  • Donate your time to organizations that have supported you or your family in the past.  Anyone can send in a check, but what many charities actually need is support in the form of working hours.  If you have the time and have a particular cause that’s near and dear to your heart for any reason, actively contributing to the organization’s success through the use of your time can be an incredibly rewarding way to practice more gratitude in your life.

Really, it doesn’t matter what you do – just that you recognize those who have helped you to become the person you are today in a way that’s meaningful for everyone involved.  While the potential for personal benefit through the practice of gratitude exists, this shouldn’t be your primary purpose.  Taking the time to say thank you to the people in your life who deserve it is often rewarding in and of itself!

With this in mind, how do you intend to practice gratitude as we roll into the New Year?  Who in your life deserves a thank you for the impact he or she has had on your life?  Share your thoughts in the comments section below:

Stop Playing It Safe and Start Taking Risks!

For me, one of the saddest things about the economic downturn we’re currently experiencing is that it’s made us afraid to take risks.  When jobs are scarce, we buckle down and accept less than we deserve – all because we’re afraid of losing what little we do have in the pursuit of something better.

Now, I don’t say this to diminish the struggle that some people are going through.  Certainly, it’s reasonable to expect mindsets and mentalities to be shaped by massive unemployment, expiring jobless benefits and the increased expectations heaped upon workers who do remain employed.  My heart goes out to all the people that have been negatively affected by these circumstances, and I continue to hope for a recovery that helps people to return to the workforce as quickly as possible.

But that said, I’m afraid of the impact that this economic uncertainty has had on today’s workforce.  Because we know that employment is tenuous at best, we’re willing to compromise the “sure” thing of an existing job for the benefits we’d gain by taking more risks in our career decisions.

Taking risks sounds scary, but the thing is that it’s incredibly difficult to advance our personal and professional objectives without them.  It’s through taking risks that we achieve more than standard levels of incremental career growth, and it’s through risk-taking behaviors that we form the necessary skills and contacts that lead to further success down the road.

To see the difference, imagine a worker who stays in a single corporate job for the duration of his working life – simply because of the stable benefits and steady pay it provides.  Now, compare that with a worker who jumps between companies to take advantage of exciting opportunities – improving both his skill set, job satisfaction and compensation levels at the same time.

Sure, there’s something to be said for having a job that pays the bills.  And I’m definitely not suggesting that you take risks just to take risks.  Ideally, any risky moves you make in your personal and professional life should be carefully calculated to ensure the highest possible chances of success.  However, adopting a mindset that prioritizes security over satisfaction isn’t a great choice for your career advancement – or for overall happiness in general.

Now, if you’ve been reticent to take risks in the past, don’t worry.  Although many people think of “riskiness” as an inborn trait, I believe it’s a valuable skill that can be learned in the same manner as riding a bicycle or learning to drive.  Here’s how to do it:

Step #1 – Start small

If you’re a naturally risk-averse person, you don’t need to start off with some grand gesture, like quitting your job, moving to a new country or marrying the girlfriend you’ve only been dating for a few weeks.

Instead, start small.  Step outside your comfort zone by trying a new restaurant for lunch or by taking a weekend trip on your own to a new destination.  Try talking to a stranger while waiting in line for something or trying a menu item you don’t usually indulge in.

Again, your gestures don’t have to be large.  The idea is to get comfortable with the sensation of risk-taking so that, over time, you feel better about jumping into larger – and more beneficial – risks.

Step #2 – Envision worst case scenarios

As the risks you take become larger, the stakes that are pinned on your success grow higher as well.  If you want to achieve something big, you usually need to take a proportionately large risk – but because you’ve got more on the line, this can be scary enough to prevent you from jumping at all.

To get over the potential loss these risks involve, make it a habit to fully explore the worst case scenario you’re envisioning in your head.

Say, for example, you’re thinking about quitting your job to pursue a career as an entrepreneur.  It’s a scary proposition, as leaving a steady paycheck can conjure up fears of imminent homelessness and poverty.  But instead of indulging in this self-sustaining fear, explore the limits of your worst case scenario.

In this example, the worst thing that could happen is that your entrepreneurial venture fails, you’re no longer able to afford food, rent or utilities and you’re kicked out onto the street.  The cardboard box you’re living in gets peed on by a stray dog, causing it to lose structural integrity and fall apart in the middle of a storm – leaving you hungry, wet and homeless on the street.  Eventually, you succumb to a case of storm-triggered pneumonia, which could have been easily treated with the benefits you would have had if you hadn’t left your steady job.

Step #3 – Weigh the good against the bad

Once you’ve reached the end of this vision, give yourself a reality check.  Even if your entrepreneurial venture failed, do you have family or friends who would help you get back on your feet?  Could you go back and get another job at a similar pay rate as before?  Or, even if neither of these situations apply to you, are there social services in your area that would provide a safety net to people in the exact situation you’re so worried about?

In nearly all cases, the scenarios we’re envisioning are those that are so remotely unlikely that we risk trading potential future fulfillment and happiness for something that will almost assuredly never come to pass.  And if you ask me, that’s a pretty bad tradeoff to make!

To help balance your visions of imminent disaster and ruin, envision how different your life could be if you take a risk and wind up succeeding.  Suppose, instead, that your entrepreneurial venture is a success.  Not only will this be personally and professionally fulfilling, the financial rewards could be significant – finally giving you the life of comfort and class you’ve always dreamed of having.

Now, weigh these two possible outcomes against one another.  Sure, the odds that you’ll be 100% successful in every risk you take are slim, but so are the chances that your worst case scenario will come to pass.  You’ll likely wind up somewhere in the middle, but by taking a risk and giving yourself the chance to succeed, your eventual outcome is much more likely to lean towards the good than the bad.

So stop convincing yourself that you’ll fail before you even give yourself a chance to succeed.  Taking risks is a skill that can be learned, and it’s one that will serve you well throughout your life.  You never know how much you have to gain until you try!


Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist?

When faced with a major business challenge, do you approach it with a “can do” attitude or with a mentality that prepares for the worst?

In fact, both optimists and pessimists (and everybody in between) exist in the business world – but really, there’s no right or wrong way to approach career projects and decisions.  Both optimists and pessimists have their own advantages and challenges in dealing with the business environment, so don’t let anyone tell you that your mental outlook is somehow “wrong” and must be changed.

That said, it’s important for both optimists and pessimists to be aware of the implications of their in-born mindsets, as identifying either way presents a unique set of considerations that must be made with an eye towards business interactions.  Both optimists and pessimists need to be aware of the limitations their mindsets present, as well as how each outlook can be used to maximize career success.

So, in order to get the most out of your work environment – based on your internal mindset – consider the following guidelines for handling business challenges:

If you’re an optimist…

Being an optimist can be a tremendous asset in business, as you’re generally able to see more potential in new projects and opportunities, compared to someone who takes a more negative approach.  Optimists can be incredibly fun to work with, as their enthusiasm for new endeavors is contagious and their positive outlook makes them able to find the up-side in any task.

Therefore, if you’re an optimist, play to these strengths.  Take on leadership roles that allow you to influence others with your positive attitude, as you’ll likely be an inspirational leader that others will choose to get behind.  When possible, bring your unique perspective to projects that seem stalled or to situations that have been unresolved for lengthy periods of time.

Of course, optimists have their own challenges as well.  Approaching projects from a “glass half full” mindset may cause optimists to pursue risky propositions as the result of their rosy outlook, putting entire projects and teams in jeopardy.

As a result, there are a few things that optimists will want to keep in mind when approaching business deals:

  • No matter how exciting a project may seem, it’s important to look before you leap.  Having a positive mindset doesn’t mean making rash decisions or believing that things will turn out fine (even when the data suggests otherwise).  Be cautious not to let your positive nature blind you to a project’s true challenges.
  • Back up your positive thinking with concrete strategies.  Plenty of people tune out perpetual optimists based on the impression that they’re overly-positive, empty-headed workers with the personality of a “can do” Disney character.  To dispel this notion, be sure to pair your outwardly positive outlook with actual plans of action that will help you to make measurable progress towards the rosy end result you envision.

Above all, don’t let people discourage you for having an optimistic mindset.  There’s nothing wrong with looking towards the bright side of things – especially considering all the different advantages this attitude can bring to a business environment.

If you’re a pessimist…

Pessimists sometimes get a bad rap as being the “Eeyores” of the corporate world, but the reality is that there’s as much value in this outlook as is offered by optimists.

Pessimists, as the result of their more negative outlook, tend to be more cautious in moving forward with new projects and priorities.  Because of this, they’re able to identify and eliminate potential pitfalls before they occur – contributing to higher success rates and more realistic expectations.

That said, pessimists may find themselves in situations where they need to worry less and jump more.  Specifically, pessimists need to keep the following guidelines in mind:

  • Don’t let pessimism prevent you from taking action.  If you’re concerned that things will turn out poorly, you’ll be less likely to take the career risks that allow you to distinguish yourself from your colleagues.  Use your negative mindset to weed out bad opportunities, but don’t allow this attitude to hold you back from jumping on projects and promotions with a smaller downside.
  • Don’t voice negative attitudes without offering alternative solutions.  Don’t be that guy who’s perpetually putting down team members and dismissing team objectives as unrealistic.  Nobody wants to work with him, and he’s unlikely to advance at all throughout his career.  If you simply must voice a negative opinion, do so only when offering concrete alternatives and solutions.

Now, it’s pretty unlikely that you’re either 100% optimistic or 100% pessimistic, as few of us fall at either end of this spectrum.  Because of this, it’s important to use the guidelines above to learn how to identify when you’re behaving in an optimistic or pessimistic manner.  Learning to compensate for the strengths and weaknesses each of these mindsets presents in your business life will enable you to make more progress and avoid the pitfalls that are commonly associated with optimistic and pessimistic attitudes.

The Myth of the Work/Life Balance

I’m going to let you in a little secret here…  There is no such thing as a “work/life balance” – no matter how much all the pseudo-psychologists out there like to throw the term around in their self-help books and web articles!

Really, there are two problems with this notion.  First, it’s important to recognize that time is finite and that it’s impossible to work on both business and personal priorities at the same time.  You can’t simultaneously work late and attend a child’s soccer game – you’re either doing one or the other, at the expense of the other.  That isn’t balance – it’s consciously choosing one priority over another.

At the same time, pursuing work/life balance on the organizational level isn’t an effective approach either, as one person who chooses to focus more on the “life” part of the equation naturally creates a greater “work” burden on other members of the team.  Even if a company is committed to offering flexible hours to give employees more freedom, the same amount of work must be done – and that means that somebody’s picking up the slack (usually resentfully).

So why do we continue to press forward with this nonsense notion of a work/life balance – even when it’s obvious that there’s little in the way of rational reasoning to back it up?

In part, it’s out of guilt.  We’re all torn between work and competing responsibilities, whether those include growing children, aging parents or hobbies that occupy our interests.  However, there are plenty of different ways to balance these competing demands without doing so under the guise of the false work/life balance approach.

Consider the following approach for making changes in your life and managing competing priorities, without frustrating yourself over the unattainable myth of work/life balance:

Identify 3-5 top priorities

First of all, let’s get one thing straight – you can’t actually have it all.  There are only 24 hours in the day, so it’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll have a great career, a growing family, a booming social life, great relationships with your family members and hobbies that you’re passionate about (at least, you can’t have all of these things at the same time).

But what you can do is to determine which of these priorities are most important to you and to protect the place they hold in your daily life.  For example, if you decide to balance both a career and young children, be aware that your social life or hobbies may need to suffer in order to give these dual aspirations your full attention.  If, on the other hand, your passion is travel, focusing on this priority will likely mean investing less time into relationships with family and friends.

There’s nothing wrong with recognizing that you can’t do it all.  Instead, by taking the time to choose the few priorities that you’ll focus on at the expense of others, you’ll free up more of your time and energy to invest in the things you do care about.

Define limits on how you’ll protect these priorities

Now, once you’ve identified your top life priorities, it’s up to you to defend these pursuits from other demands on your time.  As an example, if you’ve chosen to focus on your family over your career, setting a rule that you’ll leave the office by 5:00pm every night will help you keep yourself honest about the priorities you’ve set for yourself.

Obviously, any limits you set on your career will be influenced in part by the requirements of your job.  If you don’t have access to flexible scheduling, you may not be able to leave early enough to take part in all of your family’s activities.  Or, if your career is particularly demanding, you may run up against the expectation that you’ll work longer hours than everybody else in the office.

At the same time, though, you can set limits in other ways.  You can turn down projects or business dinner invitations that don’t require your specific involvement in order to focus on your other priorities.  Or, you can clear out time in your evening and weekend schedules in order to give your family your full, undivided attention (rather than sitting around with your face buried in your phone or laptop).

It isn’t always easy to align your daily activities with your defined priorities, but it’s the only way to ensure that you’re living your life in accordance with the principles that are most important to you.

Ensure your personal pursuits don’t infringe on others’ rights

Finally, as you go through the process of determining where your limits lie, pay close attention to how your decisions affect others.  Nobody has the right to pursue his own happiness at the direct expense of others, so it’s important that any limits you set still allow you to contribute your fair share to both your work and personal expectations.

If you plan to take advantage of flex scheduling at work, make sure that your tasks are completed on time and that you reciprocate by allowing others the same courtesy of leaving early on different days.  Or, if your pursuit of a personal hobby will take you away from your family, find a way to help with the burden of household responsibilities left on your partner.

Finding a balance between your work priorities and personal interests isn’t always easy, but with a little foresight and planning, it is possible to come up with a workable solution that allows you to live a more fulfilling and more meaningful life.

Who’s On Your Team?

They say that a man is only as good as the people he surrounds himself with.  So with the New Year approaching, it’s time to take a look at all of the people on your team in order to determine whether or not the relationships you’ve built up to this point are strong enough to help you achieve your personal and professional goals.

Specifically, consider all of the following different relationship types, as well as how effectively they’re serving your personal mission:

Your family

While we can’t always choose the members of our family, we can make an effort to ensure that these relationships aren’t actively working against our chances of achieving success within our lives.

If your familial relationships tend to be positive, ask yourself whether or not you’re investing enough time into these bonds in order to keep them strong.  Often, it’s easy to let these connections fall to the wayside when we get busy – but doing so risks family ties weakening when we need them the most.  To prevent this from occurring, make an effort to connect with the family members you care about on a regular basis.

On the other hand, if your family members have been less-than-supportive throughout the years, there’s nothing wrong with protecting yourself by cutting ties with toxic relatives.  If the relationships you have with your family members bring nothing positive to your life, remove yourself from them in order to prevent this stress and anger from interfering with your chances of accomplishing your life goals.

Your personal acquaintances

It’s often said that friends are the family members we can actually choose – so take a few minutes to determine whether or not you’ve chosen wisely!

Friends can play a number of different roles within our lives.  They can be people who build us up and provide the encouragement needed to grow personally and professionally.  Or, they can be relationships that have long outlived their usefulness, comprised of people who don’t have your best interests at heart.

If you’ve got great friends, make it a priority not to lose these people by committing time to keeping in contact with them.  And if you don’t, consider a New Year’s Resolution to end relationships that aren’t serving your needs and to find better friends who can support you in the way you deserve.

Your professional network

As 2013 starts to roll around, take a close look at the people you interact with in a professional capacity – including your direct reports, colleagues, managers and mentors.  Can you see yourself achieving your business goals with the support of these people, or do you feel stymied by a professional network that doesn’t match up with your expectations?

If, upon closer inspection, you find that your current professional position won’t likely allow for the type of growth you’d like to experience in 2013, do your best to change your circumstances!  Seek out new mentors, look into transferring to a new department or leave your job entirely if the situation can’t be resolved – just don’t let the people surrounding you currently prevent you from achieving your professional goals.

Your advisors

Depending on your personal situation, your team of advisors may include attorneys, estate planners, accountants, financial managers, insurance agents or other professionals who provide invaluable advice to manage areas of your life where you lack specific knowledge.

As a general rule, it’s better to have these relationships in place before you need them – rather than rushing around to find qualified advisors in the wake of an emergency situation.  So even if you don’t have an immediate need for any of the different types of professionals at this point in your life, it won’t hurt to start researching contacts and soliciting recommendations from others in your life so that you’ll have access to this information when you do need it.

On the other hand, if you have existing relationships with these professionals, it’s also important to check in regularly to determine whether or not their performance is up to par.  If, for example, your financial manager hasn’t delivered the rates of return he promised, use the New Year to start shopping around for new financial support for your personal team.

Your health support system

Finally, pay close attention to the people who help manage your health, as your overall well-being is one of your most important assets.  Specifically, examine the relationships you hold with your:

  • Doctor or holistic medical practitioner
  • Dentist
  • Eye doctor
  • Personal trainer
  • Massage therapist/chiropractor/acupuncturist
  • Therapist

All of these different professionals play a major role in the overall quality of your life, so it’s important that the relationships you have with them be as strong as possible.  After all, you’re a heck of a lot more likely to seek out the health care you need if you like the people you work with!

If you don’t like one of your support system members, but have been continually booking appointments out of habit – stop!  Ask around or search for reviews online in order to find the health support team members who will keep you healthy and happy as we head into 2013!

What Science Says About Motivation, Willpower and Burnout

We all know that making major lifestyle changes is difficult, but what’s interesting about this isn’t the fact that these shifts are so hard to make.  What’s much more interesting is the science lurking behind our common misconceptions about motivation, willpower and burnout…

Think about how you feel when you first start out with a new self-improvement plan.  Say you decide to lose 50 pounds over the next year, using a number of different strategies you put in place to curb cravings and minimize temptations.  At first, you’re excited about your daily walk and increased servings of vegetables, because they’re all going to help you get to the end result you so desire.

But over time, it becomes harder and harder to stick to your new habits.  Yes, the thought of being ready for next year’s swimsuit season is still appealing, but you simply can’t summon up the motivation to keep your unhealthy desires at bay.  You beat yourself up and get frustrated at your perceived lack of willpower – though if you understood the science behind this concept, you’d understand that you’ve set yourself up for failure.

According to an interesting meta-analysis study conducted by researchers at Case Western Reserve University, which reviewed hundreds of smaller self-control trials carried out over the past few decades:

Exerting self-control may consume self-control strength, reducing the amount of strength available for subsequent self-control efforts.  Coping with stress, regulating negative affect, and resisting temptations all require self-control, and after such self-control efforts, subsequent attempts at self-control are more likely to fail.

In other words, self-control is like a muscle.  If you work it to death, you risk failure – just as you’d be unable to bench press a set weight after going over the maximum numbers of reps your body can handle.  At the same time, with repeated practice, the muscle of willpower can grow stronger, enabling you to handle increased self-control demands without failure.

So, if you go back to our earlier example of the failed weight loss attempt, it’s obvious that the hypothetical subject didn’t fail because he’s destined to be fat or because he doesn’t “deserve” to lose weight – he simply exceeded his personal capacity for self-control.

Knowing this, there are a number of different actions that can be taken in order to build willpower over time:

Step #1 – Tackle a single habit at a time

In my previous article on how to “Make Major Life Changes by Altering Your Habits,” I discussed how important it is to focus on a single habit at a time.  However, in light of this scientific evidence on the formation of personal willpower, this point bears repeating.

Tackling a major problem – like weight loss, career change or wealth accumulation – at once stresses our bodies’ self-control reserves, simply because so many habits must be changed.  Following with our weight loss example, you won’t lose weight by dropping Cheetos alone – instead, you need to pair dietary changes with new exercise routines, improvements to your sleeping habits and more.  Each of these individual habit changes requires a piece of your finite amount of internal self-control, limiting the amount that will be available for the next effort.

Instead, it’s vitally important that you hone in on a single habit to change at first.  As your self-control muscle strengthens, you may be able to add more changes to your daily routines.  But at the start of any self-improvement plan, focusing on a single habit will prevent your willpower reserves from failing when you need them most.

Step #2 – Start with habits that can’t fail

If you’ve never made an effort to improve your capacity for self-control, you may also find it helpful to start changing habits that are so small in scope that they’re nearly impossible to fail.

For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, cutting out one can of soda each day (even if you tend to drink several in one sitting) is one habit that could be changed in order to provide momentum for your self-improvement plan.  Sure, it’s not likely to result in major weight changes on its own, but successfully completing this habit – which can be done without much effort – will build your confidence and improve your ability to tackle more challenging habits in the future.

Step #3 – Plan major life changes around your calendar

Another thing to keep in mind is that there are good times and bad times to pursue self-improvement plans.  Energy is cumulative, so if you’re burning your available willpower on a major professional initiative, you may not have enough resources left over to commit to making changes within your personal life.

So before undertaking any major lifestyle changes, look at your calendar to identify times when the demands on your energy will be at their lowest.  Scheduling your self-improvement goals during these windows of opportunity will increase the availability of self-control energy needed to maintain motivation and avoid burnout throughout your habit changes.


3 Easy Tricks that Make You a Better Public Speaker

It’s no secret that the fear of public speaking is one of the most often cited phobias on the planet.  Getting up in front of an audience and giving a presentation is often deemed scarier than the highest of heights, the largest of spiders and the darkest of dark rooms.  Really, it’s no wonder that, given the chance, most of us would trade away our life’s savings for a world without public speaking!

Of course, it doesn’t matter how scary public speaking might seem.  All of us will be called on to give public presentations at some point or another in our lives, so it’s worth figuring out how to make the process more comfortable for everyone involved before you’re actually up on stage.

And although simple practice and repetition are the best ways to get over this phobia, the thought of actively seeking out additional public speaking opportunities may sound prohibitively overwhelming to people who are afraid of giving even a single presentation.  So, to bring about the same results without the hours of misery spent forcing yourself to give speech after speech, check out the following tricks that’ll make you a better public speaker right away:

Trick #1 – Speak to a larger crowd

It sounds counterintuitive, but if you’re afraid of getting up in front of people and speaking, look for even more people to give your presentation to!  Here’s why…

When you speak to a small crowd (like a board of directors or small group of potential investors), it’s nearly impossible to avoid making eye contact with every person in the room.  It doesn’t just feel like every set of eyes in the room is boring into you – they are, because you’re the only focal point in a small presentation!  As a result, it’s difficult to determine where to rest your own gaze in a small group, leading to discomfort and anxiety.

In larger settings, you can casually glance over the shoulders of your listeners – creating the impression that you’re making eye contact with others in the room when you’re actually doing anything but.  This makes the speech-giving process 100 times more comfortable, dramatically increasing your likelihood of presentation success.

So, whenever possible, try to expand the size of the crowd to which you’re speaking.  If you’re giving a single-department presentation, ask if others can be invited.  Or, if you’re presenting to a local networking group, hype up your forthcoming speech in order to build up the turnout.  While it won’t be possible to put together a large crowd for every public speaking event you encounter, the times that you’re able to do so will go a long way towards boosting your confidence.

Trick #2 – Tell a personal story

The best public speakers are those who are able to access a range of facial expressions, vocal intonations and physical movements in order to create a dynamic presentation.  But this ease doesn’t often come naturally – especially to people who are terrified of being flung into public speaking situations.

If you find yourself delivering your speech in a monotone voice with a wooden physical demeanor, one thing you can do to access your looser side is to tell your audience a personal story.  By calling up personal memories, you’ll remove yourself from the fear and anxiety – allowing you to convey information in a way that’s more natural and easy-going.

Trick #3 – Remember that everyone’s afraid of public speaking

When you’re speaking to a group of people, it’s natural to feel as if your viewers are judging your every mistake.  Certainly, you’re being hard enough on yourself for every single misstep you perceive – so why wouldn’t your audience members be judging you just as harshly?

Of course, anyone who’s ever sat through a speech given by a clearly-nervous speaker knows that it’s actually the opposite that’s true.  Most presentation attendees aren’t judging you – they’re really on your side and want you to succeed.  Since we can all clearly call up memories of our own disastrous speaking engagements, it’s natural for us to want others to avoid similar discomfort.

So if you’re struggling with nerves before your presentation, look at your audience with a fresh set of eyes and remind yourself that the people in the crowd aren’t there to judge you.  They’ve come to hear your speech with the best of intentions, and they’re all rooting for your success.  Simply reminding yourself that your audience members aren’t out to get you may be enough to allow you to mentally reframe your fears, turning the process of public speaking into something much more comfortable.

Do you have any other tricks that have helped you to get over the anxiety of speaking in public?  If so, share your recommendations with fellow readers by posting your advice in the comments section below!

Make Major Life Changes by Altering Your Habits

Deep down, we’ve all got grandiose visions about how different our lives could be.  Maybe you see yourself several steps up the corporate ladder – enjoying the spoils a higher salary and greater prestige will bring – or maybe you envision a future where you’ve finally lost your spare tire and love handles after years of trying to lose weight.

But here’s the issue…  Tackling major life changes like these often seems so overwhelmingly stressful that we fail to make any progress at all!  As an example, losing 50 pounds might seem like such a daunting process that it’s just easier to go back to eating donuts and never get started in the first place.

As the saying goes, though, if you want to eat an elephant, you’ve got to start with one bite at a time!

In the case of making major life changes, these bites are the individual habits you can change in order to bring about a cumulatively large effect without being overwhelmed by the enormity of your goal.  In the example above, losing 50 pounds might sound too scary to even think about moving forward, but adding 10 minutes of exercise or cutting out a soda each day comes across as much more reasonable to hesitant goal-setters.

Here’s how to use the process of habit-forming to make major changes within your own life:

Step #1 – Set your major goals

As you might expect, the first part of setting habits in order to promote life changes is to determine what types of life changes you’d like to make in the first place!

Though your own goals will be unique, possible major changes to work towards include:

  • Reaching a healthy goal weight
  • Getting a promotion or industry award
  • Saving enough money for a down payment on a house
  • Running a marathon
  • Meeting the love of your life

Don’t limit yourself here or think that the goals that are important to you are either too silly to waste time on or too large to ever fully accomplish.  With the process of proper habit-forming, you truly can achieve anything you put your mind to!

Step #2 – Break major goals down into habits

Once you’ve got a major goal or two in mind, brainstorm a list of possible habits that could contribute towards your overall success in this arena.  Taking our weight loss example from before, any of the following habits could help get you one step closer to your future life-changing success:

  • Cutting out soda
  • Dropping fast food
  • Limiting desserts to one time each week
  • Substituting fruit for dessert three times each week
  • Not eating after 7:00pm
  • Eliminating processed starches from meals
  • Walking for 30 minutes a day
  • Adding 10 minutes of weight training a week

Obviously, some of these habits will have a bigger impact on your overall success in reaching your goal than others.  Adding a few sets of push-ups into your weekly routine, for example, is likely to have a much smaller impact on your overall weight than cutting out sugar will.  However, because the process of setting and following good habits isn’t necessarily a linear path, it’s a good idea to have both easy and more challenging habits at your disposal.

Step #3 – Tackle a single habit at a time

After you’ve compiled as many different habits as you can think of that will help bring you closer to your goal, choose one and start working on it exclusively – keeping everything else in your life the same.

Now, here’s where the variability in your habits’ relative difficulty becomes important.  If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the thought of making any life changes, start with an easy habit and celebrate every day you complete it successfully.  On the other hand, if you’re feeling excited about starting the life-changing process, try starting with a more difficult habit in order to bring about results more quickly.

Whichever option you choose, focus on this single goal for at least three weeks before adding another habit into the mix (and even then, add new habits only if you feel confident in your ability to maintain your original goal).  Yes, this makes the process of making major changes to your life much slower, but it also makes it substantially more likely that you’ll successfully reach your final destination.

Step #4 – Use habit tracking tools to stay on track

As you go through this process of tackling a single habit at a time, you might find it helpful to use a habit tracking tool that allows you to record and monitor your progress.  A few of my favorite tools for this purpose include:

You might also find it helpful to establish rewards for yourself for completing a given habit for a set number of days.  Knowing that there’s a special treat waiting for you at the end of a three-week long habit-forming road makes the entire process much easier to stick with!

Do you have any suggestions on how to set or stick with the types of habits that will help you to achieve major life goals?  If so, share your recommendations in the comments section below!

Say “No” In Order to Say “Yes” More Often

There’s a reason that so many of us wind up tired, stressed, burned out and overcommitted.  Although we’re taught throughout our lives how to make others happy through our words and actions, that same type of education rarely extends to helping us take care of our own needs.

As a result, we say “Yes” to taking on extra assignments at work – even when we’re swamped with other deadlines.  We say “Yes” to volunteering at a PTA event, simply because we can’t bear to disappoint committee organizers.  We even say “Yes” to family obligations that do nothing besides tax our limited resources and cause undue stress – all because we haven’t figured out how to say “No” effectively!

Well, I’m putting my foot down!  From here on out, I give you permission to say “No” when you need to.  In fact, what you’ll usually find is that saying “No” when you need to allows you to say “Yes” to the right things – freeing up your time and energy to fall into alignment with your desired goals.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as just starting to say “No” after a lifetime of people-pleasing.  It can take some practice to figure out how to decline situations and expectations gracefully.  So if the thought of saying “No” more often makes you feel more than a little uncomfortable, take the following steps in order to learn how to bow out effectively:

Step #1 – Identify your top values

Before we look at how to say “No” more often, it’s important to understand why this is an issue in the first place, as well as what it indicates about our internal priorities.

The problem with saying “Yes” to everything is that it takes up time that could be better allocated to top priorities.  For example, take a situation where you’re repeatedly invited to participate in fundraisers or charity events at your office.  If you have a particular cause that you care about supporting, saying “Yes” to these other opportunities means saying “No” to the one mission you truly believe in.  As a result, your actions fall out of line with your values, leading to discomfort overall.

Really, any time you commit to something, you’re doing it at the expense of another opportunity.  Hanging out with the guys means spending time away from your wife.  Choosing to travel with your immediate family over the holidays might mean missing out on celebrations with extended relatives you rarely see.  Even taking on new projects at work might mean losing steam on initiatives that are more important to the company’s overall success.

This concept is called the “opportunity cost” of missed experiences, and it’s an important component in understanding why it’s important to say “No” in certain situations in order to free up time for higher priorities.

To do learn how to use opportunity costs to your advantage, start by making a list of your top values and priorities (for example, your career, your financial situation, your relationship with your spouse, your friendships, etc.).  Then, choose the top 3-5 values from this list that matter most to you.  In the future, weigh any requests for your time or money against these top priorities and consider saying “No” if they don’t support your most important values.

Step #2 – Identify areas where you’re over-stressed

At the same time, try to pinpoint any sources of excess stress in your life, as feelings of stress can often help clue you in to the situations that aren’t serving your top values.

As an example, suppose you take an inventory of your current life and find that the amount of travel required by your job is pulling you away from your friends and family members – two priorities you’ve identified as higher values in your life than your career.  The amount of stress you’re feeling because of this scenario is indicative of areas you’ve said “Yes” when you should have said “No.”

Of course, your stress points don’t need to be quite that large.  Even something as simple as a cocktail party you feel obligated to attend when you don’t want to could indicate priorities out of whack.  Don’t panic about finding these instances of out-of-order values in your life – simply use them as learning opportunities to pursue future activities and events that are closer in-line with the priorities you’ve established for yourself.

Step #3 – Say “No” to low investment situations

Steps #1 and #2 in this process covered ways to identify situations that are causing undue stress in your life as the result of their disproportionate opportunity cost.  Unfortunately, this investigative work was the easy part – now you’ve got to actually do something about it!

If the thought of telling your boss that you’d like to travel less (or making other major changes to the things you’ve made priorities in your life) is overwhelming, start by saying “No” in low investment situations in order to build up your confidence in this area.

Saying “No” to a PTA event you don’t want to attend, for example, will be much easier than telling your parents you aren’t coming home for the holidays.  Try to rack up at least a couple of “No” wins under your belt before tackling the bigger issues in your life.  Over time and with practice, you’ll find it much easier to say “No” to the things that are sucking time away from your top values and to say “Yes” to the priorities you truly care about.

How to Give Better Compliments

The practice of giving compliments is something of a lost art.  In fact, even the idea of consciously improving your compliment giving skills calls up thoughts of the charm schools and finishing programs found in eras gone by.  However, giving compliments isn’t just for debutantes and overly-indulgent flatterers – it actually builds rapport with the people around you, creating relationship equity that can be cashed in when you need it most.

Of course, if you want to use the art of complimenting to grow your business and personal relationships, you’ve got to brush up your skills in this arena.  Giving a compliment isn’t something that comes naturally to most people, so you’ll want to pay attention to the following guidelines as you polish this necessary skill:

Be specific with your compliments (…but not weirdly so)

The best compliments we receive are those that are specific to ourselves.  Think about it for a second…  Which of the following compliments would you rather receive after giving a presentation to your company’s sales department?

“Great work today!”


“You really nailed it in your presentation today – great job researching all that information!”

The first version comes off as generic and bland, while the second option speaks to a specific achievement on your part.  If you’ve busted your ass to come up with unique and compelling statistics for your sales presentation, you’ll be much more appreciative of a compliment that reflects this effort than one that makes no mention of your hard work.

Whenever possible, try to tailor your compliments to something specific.  Instead of saying, “You look good today,” say, “That’s a great tie.”  Or, instead of telling a date, “I had fun tonight,” try something like, “I really enjoyed the movie you picked out tonight.”  Just don’t be too specific.  Complimenting a first date on how much you love the little mole on the backside of her knee only comes off as creepy!

Watch out for comparative compliments

Another caveat when it comes to compliment giving is to be wary of any messages that can be taken the wrong way.  As an example, saying, “You look good – have you lost weight?” could be taken to mean that the recipient of your compliment didn’t look good the day before (even if that’s not at all what you mean).

Realistically, you’re going to fall into this trap sometimes, and you can’t be responsible for people who overanalyze and take things too far.  Instead, what you can do is to minimize the risk of comparative compliments being taken poorly by following a specific complimenting formula…

Follow a compliment construction formula

If you struggle to make your compliments sound natural, one way to avoid discomfort is to have a formula in mind that you can use to put together future compliments.  For example, try something like this:

[how you feel] + [about something specific] + [why you feel that way]

Let’s take a look at how this works in person.  Suppose you want to compliment a colleague on her assistance pulling the data you needed for a big report.  Following the formula above, you might say:

“I really appreciate your help pulling the data for my report.  I couldn’t have made my deadline without your support.”

Altogether, you’ve got a feeling, something specific that you appreciate and a reason you feel that way.  Try this formula in a few different settings (or come up with a different variation that feels more natural to you) and before you know it, giving valuable, appreciated compliments will become second nature to you.

Choose your moment

One final consideration to keep in mind when it comes to giving compliments is to choose your moment carefully.  Even the best of compliments can go wrong when delivered at an inappropriate time!

For starters, try to give compliments when you’re alone with the person you’re complimenting (or, at least, when you’re sharing a private conversation with him or her).  Giving a compliment to a person who’s surrounded by friends or coworkers puts him on the spot, and puts you at a serious disadvantage should your compliment come out poorly.

At the same time, try to give your compliment as closely in time as possible to the actual event you’re complimenting.  Saying something like, “I loved that shirt you wore last month,” or “Great job on the presentation you gave a few weeks ago,” comes across as either absent-minded or intentionally manipulative – both of which you want to avoid!

Obviously, you won’t always be in a position to get someone alone immediately after something you’d like to compliment him on.  In these cases, let the compliment go, as you don’t actually need to give out a compliment every time that you could.  By simply making it a priority to engage in this practice more throughout your life, you’ll increase your odds of sharing the type of meaningful praise that helps to grow your personal and professional relationships.