As someone who’s spent the better part of three decades working as both an operator and adviser to some very successful ventures, I’ve come to understand that certain individual habits contribute greatly to the overall performance of a business. What’s more, winning teams and profitable companies tend to exhibit many of these same traits.

Steven Covey outlines a number of these traits in his award winning book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” Specifically, Covey highlights the following:

  1. Being Proactive – take responsibility for your actions / be accountable
  2. Beginning With The End in Mind – build a blueprint for your future / visualize
  3. Putting First Things First – prioritize and don’t be afraid to say “No”
  4. Thinking “Win-Win” – look to collaborate and build lasting relationships
  5. Make Listening to and Understanding the Other Side a Priority
  6. Synergizing – now a punchline in Silicon Valley, this is really just a fancy way to of saying that you need to look for creative ways to cooperate and partner
  7. Sharpening the Saw – improve yourself / learn and evolve individually

There’s little question that such traits form a solid foundation for personal growth and professional advancement. However, I can say with some certainty that, despite the obvious benefits, few people actually display any of these habits in the workplace.

Habits are little more than “learned behavior, amplified and enforced through repetition” – meaning anyone can develop such traits over time. As an employer, I’ve often wondered why more people don’t leverage such behaviors to advance their careers and to gain an advantage in the professional marketplace.

The answer is actually pretty simple – it’s just not that fun. Like so many things worth doing, it requires hard work and dedication.

In fact, it’s a lot like dieting and exercise. We all know we should eat right and stay active, but it’s hard to stick with it over time. More often than not, life gets in the way. We’re on the go, or we’re on the road, or we’re simply trying to balance work and family. As a result, we often find ourselves sacrificing healthy choices in the interest of time.

The good news is that there are some simple “life hacks” that anyone can implement that take almost no time and require very little sacrifice. Whether you want to improve your diet, or you want to develop better habits, a few simple tweaks is all it takes to get started.

As an example, simply eliminating all sodas from your diet can save anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 calories each year. Taking the stairs can help as well, burning 1.5 calories for every ten steps up and about 1 calorie for every 20 steps down. These two simple changes can make a big impact, and they require very little effort.

What’s more, the same principal can be applied to the development of good professional habits. It simply requires that you add a few simple “hacks” to your daily routine.

One that I’ve found useful over the years is the practice of keeping a journal. In fact, the simple act of journaling will address 4 of the 7 items on Covey’s list, providing regular reinforcement of items one (accountability), two (visualization), three (prioritization), and seven (self-improvement).

What follows is a system I’ve been using with my managers and employees for about the last 20 years. It’s something I’ve built into just about every training session I’ve ever run and I’ve seen it yield almost immediate results in terms of improved team interaction and communication.

Here’s how it works. Go to your calendar and set a recurring daily reminder for a 15 minute meeting. The purpose of the meeting is to reflect on the events of the last 24 hours, but you’ll want to name the meeting so it won’t simply get blown off or overlooked by anyone else with access to your calendar – mine is named Accountability Audit, but you should pick a title that works for you and your business / role.

Schedule the meeting for a time somewhere in the late afternoon. In my case, I schedule it at the very end of my workday. Once you have it set, look at your schedule for the next few months and check for any conflicts, vacations, or other times you might be out of the office. On those days, you may want to adjust the meeting accordingly.

OK, so you’ve set up a meeting – now what? Well now you need to develop a template that a) simplifies the daily exercise, b) can be completed in roughly 15 minutes, c) allows you to be honest with yourself, d) touches on areas of desired personal and professional growth, and e) provides a consistent record which can be reviewed at any time.

What your template looks like is purely a matter of personal choice. My journaling template was largely shaped by my experience as an entrepreneur launching a variety of successful startups, and as turnaround specialist repairing other “broken” ventures on behalf of large institutional investors.

Through those efforts I quickly came to recognize the importance of a positive corporate culture. In fact, if you’ve ever been part of a successful launch, then you’ve probably witnessed this first-hand, and the same can often be found in reverse for broken, failing or dysfunctional entities.

Given the above, I made a conscious decision to get myself, my employees and my teams journaling about positive personal change and improvement. Specific areas of focus I wanted to key on included:

  • Character Building
  • Personal Knowledge & Introspection
  • A Focus on Excellence
  • Understanding Personal Value, and
  • Physical and Psychological Health and Wellbeing

With that in mind, I created a list of five simple questions to address each of these key areas of development. I use the questions as prompts that allow me to reflect on the events of the day and to focus on specific items for review and study. I rarely write about all five items. In fact, I usually only cover a couple questions – it depends on several factors (what happened, what’s my mood, how much time am I willing to invest, etc.) The key is just making sure I contribute to the process every single day. I rarely go over fifteen minutes. In fact, I try to avoid it as the whole point is to keep it simple. On some days, I hardly write at all – instead using the time to review a past entry that might help with a current issue, and jotting notes for myself to use going forward. Those are actually my favorite entries, as they really hammer home the benefits of journaling.

Here are the five questions I use, along with my rationale:

1.  What am I thankful for today?

Why is it important to be thankful? Character includes being honest, honorable, and appreciative. It is giving fair return for what you receive and not taking what isn’t yours.

Appreciating all that you have and all that you receive enlightens your spirit and forces you to view things in a positive light. I firmly believe that positive energy is far more likely to yield positive results, and it is critical to building good corporate culture (just behind communication and accountability).

2.  What did I learn today?

Why is it important to learn something new? This is more an exercise in observation. Open your eyes and your mind. You should be able to learn something every day, no matter your age, education, or experience. Observe and be curious. There is much to learn in life.

This will also force you to interact and communicate with other team members – and, more importantly, actually listen and pay attention to what they have to say. This action, in itself, will improve team communication and interaction.

3.  Where did I do a good job?

Why is important to focus on a job well done? Doing high quality work in what you do is important to you and to others in your organization. It builds a lasting web of trust and serves as daily affirmation of one’s value within an organization.

Personally, I use this question as a visualization tool. When confronted with challenges I look back on completed projects and apply the lessons learned – visualizing successful completion of the task at hand. I also use this question to consider areas and ways that I might improve in the future.

4.  Who was I valuable to today?

Why should I consider my value? Because whether you like it or not, everyone else is. You are being evaluated each day. One surefire way to advance is to align your output with the expectations others have of you.

The best way I’ve found is to consider the value you bring to the organization. Helping others get what they want makes you valuable. This includes taking an interest in what someone has to say, being flexible, and being considerate. This exercise also has the benefit of forcing you to consider your own actions and accountability within the organization, and to see things from someone else’s perspective.

5.  How did I take care of myself today?

Why take care of yourself? All other aspects of performance are tied to health. Healthy individuals are generally more productive – they also tend to have lower levels of stress. Taking care of yourself means that you made an effort to be healthy. You may have eaten healthy foods, exercised, taken time out to reflect and relax, or maybe you just engaged in some healthy, open dialogue with your peers.

You’re value is diminished if you are not operating at 100%. Your efficiency and performance will suffer, and your mood will suffer, bringing down the overall spirit of the organization. It is important that you be your best. This will also force you to consider whether the organization itself is bringing you down. If so, then you may need to consider a more drastic change, as it is virtually impossible to excel in an environment like that.

The key to this process is consistency. You have to make sure you carve out some time each day – even if it’s just five minutes.

These five questions help to summarize what life is about. By answering them honestly and regularly you will improve your life and your career (and, by extension, your business).

They are reminders – a form of affirmation. They let you realize that you’re doing well and feeling better about yourself (and if not, they allow you to make changes to do so). This exercise is not for everyone. Some will find it too cumbersome. Others will simply forget to do it. Others will say – “it’s too obvious.” Perhaps – but it has certainly worked for me and my teams.

As for where this exercise originates. I read about it while doing some research on Thomas Edison. Edison used some derivative of this exercise every day of his adult life.

I am a big believer in history. Those that shaped this World rose to success not by accident but by effort. Many lessons can be learned through the study of their lives.

As for Edison – one could say he “did alright.”  Consider the following

With little formal education, Edison gained experience as a telegraph operator and then went on to invent the phonograph, the incandescent light bulb, and a forerunner of the movie projector. He also created the world’s first industrial research laboratory, where he employed dozens of workers to systematically investigate a given subject. However, perhaps his greatest contribution to the modern industrial world came from his work in electricity. He developed a complete electrical distribution system for light and power, set up the world’s first power plant in New York City, and invented the alkaline battery, the first electric railroad, and a host of other inventions that laid the basis for the modern electric world. He continued to work into his eighties, and acquired a record 1,093 patents in his lifetime.

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