My Head Hurts


My neurons have gone from coach potato to Cross Fit. After working on the questions from my last post, they are shouting “STOP!” Hopefully, they don’t take matters into their own dendrites or I’m in trouble.

What about you? The people have spoken in response to the post on brain teasers from William Poundstone’s book Are You Smart Enough To Work at Google? In a light turnout, the majority voted to warm up their grey matter on grey days and work on the three puzzles posted.

There is more than one way to solve each puzzle. This point succinctly sums up the value of Poundstone’s work.  The benefit is in flexing our intellect and creativity to figure out a solution with the ability to explain it. If you’re done with your mental workout and want to know potential answers, keep reading!  If you just want an open book test and get the answers, keep reading! The best answers posted from the book are posted first. My answers are listed next. Note the distinction.

Hint: Have pencil and paper handy to diagram the first two solutions. It helps.

1. Using only a 4- minute hourglass and a 7-minute hourglass, measure exactly 9 minutes.

 Best answer:  Assume both hourglasses start at 0 minutes.  Start both hourglasses.

When the 4 minute hourglass runs out, turn it over. (Potential for 8 minutes)

When the 7 minute hourglass runs out, the 4 minute hour glass will have have 1 minute left on its second run.  (8-7)

Turn over the 7 minute hour glass for the second time. When the 4 minute hourglass runs out for the second time, there will be 1 minute left in the bottom of the 7 minute hourglass. So far, you’ve measured 8 minutes. ( 7+1)

Turn over the 7 minute hourglass and let the last 1 minute roll back into the top of the hourglass. 7+1+1= equals 9 minutes.

Susan’s answer: Turn over the 7 minute hourglass. As it runs out, start the 4 minute hourglass. When the 4 minute hourglass is half way through ( 2 minutes) stop it by turning it on it’s side. Voila – 9 minutes.

2. There are three men and three lions on one side of the river. You need to carry them all to the other side, using a single boat that can carry only two entities at a time. You can’t let the lions outnumber the men on either bank of the river because they’d eat them. How do you get them across?

Diagram this answer as you read it. It’s the shortest way to “Ah-Ha!”

Best answer: Assume that lions cannot maneuver boats. You need to keep a man onboard to drive the boat.

First trip: One man and one lion cross. The lion stays, the man returns. One lion on one side; two lions and three men on the other still need to cross.

Second trip: One man and one lion cross. Man pushes lion out. Two lions remain, the man returns. Two lions on one side, two men on the other still need to cross.

Third trip: Two men cross. Two men and two lions on one side,  one man and one lion on the other still need to cross. Return one man and a lion in the boat. ( You have to bring the lion in the boat  on the return trip or you would leave one man and two lions).

Fourth trip: Leave the returned lion. Two men cross.  Three men and one lion on one side, two lions remain on the other still need to cross.

Fifth trip: Send a man to get a lion. He’s supposed to “coax” it into the boat. Three men and two lions on one side, one lion still needs to cross.

Sixth trip: Send a man to get the remaining lion. ( I guess the one who knows how to coax a lion into a boat.) All are happily now on the other side.

Susan’s answer:  Didn’t get it. If the lion eats the man in the boat on the first trip, the whole thing blows up.

3.  A man pushed his car to a hotel and lost his fortune. Share what happened in a single sentence.

Best answer: He was playing Monopoly.

Susan’s answer: Ah-Ha. Caught myself over thinking again.

Now that I’ve subjected you to this mid winter mental workout, I’ll let you in on a secret. I hate brain teasers and puzzles.  They push my comfort zone. They make me work when I want to be lazy. They force me to confront many possibilities when one is just fine. Like challenging other  muscles in a workout, they make my head hurt.

After scanning Poundstone’s book, I conclude that “Do brainteasers” is the “Eat my spinach”  advice of  mental agility. They build stronger muscles for reasoning and creativity, whether I like it or not.

 Reference: Poundstone, W. (2012). Are You Smart Enough To Work At Google? New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Come Out of Hibernation!



Cold starts on gloomy mornings. A few hours of brightness following by early dimness. Cranky starts and slow acceleration. This is your brain on winter!

Shake those neurons out of hibernation with a few brainteasers. Try these puzzles from William Poundstone’s book Are You Smart Enough to Work At Google?

1. Using only a 4- minute hourglass and a 7-minute hourglass, measure exactly 9 minutes.

2. There are three men and three lions on one side of the river. You need to carry them all to the other side, using a single boat that can carry only two entities at a time. You can’t let the lions outnumber the men on either bank of the river because they’d eat them. How do you get them across?

3.  A man pushed his car to a hotel and lost his fortune. Share what happened in a single sentence.

You, dear readers, will decide whether or not I post potential answers. Vote using the poll below. Whether or not you get to work at Google is up to someone else.

Reference: Poundstone, W. (2012). Are You Smart Enough To Work At Google? New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Five Sure Ways To Blow Your Performance Review


Photo Courtesy of istock

It’s performance review season in many organizations. Yes, the time to stop thinking about 2012 goals and to start reflecting upon 2012 results. It’s the time to complete the process you believe is too long, too complicated and too restrictive to showcase your real talent. It’s time for the feedback you say that you want. All set?

Photo Courtesy of istock

If you are a boss or employee who hates the process anyway, here are five sure ways to ensure that you get nothing out of it.

1.  Don’t Do It

Your boss is busy. You’re busy.  Who has the time? So, when you get the review from your boss, just sign it. When you are asked why you didn’t have a review discussion, just explain that your boss made you skip it. If you are the boss, explain that you didn’t have time. Yep, in both cases, that’s the kind of leadership everyone is looking for.

2.  Don’t Prepare

Just put something down. Your peers, managers and subordinates already know everything you’ve put into this year. Be sure to show your unfamiliarity with the written word, or even Spell-Check.  Do not give a second thought to the decision makers who read your final performance review throughout the year when they look for talent to fill new roles or opportunities. Don’t worry about what they think of the manager who approved a review that looks like a middle school report. Surely, they will understand that it was the damn process.

3. Surprise

By all means, save the best for last. You’ve been hoarding important feedback, client evaluations, extraordinary obstacles, changed standards or revised goals that affect this evaluation. Drop that baby right in there during the performance review discussion. Insist that it be the basis for the evaluation.

4. Blame

Of course, any missed goals were due to the new process, the new standards, the new timeline, the new employee, the new boss or the new team. Don’t forget to throw in old tools and no resources while you are at it. If you are the boss, blame your boss or someone else for the evaluation you give. Just explain that someone is  making you do this.

5. Take all the credit

You are the contemporary Sisyphus; nothing gets done around here without you. Sharing credit diminishes your brilliance. There is nothing left to learn, nothing left to improve upon.  The ball got over the line and that’s all that matters.

Your Bottom Line

You believe that your performance review system is broken anyway; you’re just giving it the attention it deserves.

Don’t worry about your peers who take the time to look beyond process, forms and deadlines to get  value out of performance reviews. They are way too hung up on making this year better than last. They spend far too much time on reflection, feedback and considering possibilities.  For the estimated 2, 088 working hours put in last year, they invest in and thoughtfully prepare for a one hour conversation about what happened. They actually think that they learn something useful!

You know that your performance review process sucks. And you’re going to make it happen.

Never Too Old For New Habits


This is the third and final post on the theme of habits (at least for now.) To read the first two posts, click here and here.

one new shoe and one worn out shoe

All the pieces are in place. I have goals, some left over from 2012. I know what habits to change to reach them. I selected one keystone habit to change to instill positive momentum. All of this, and two weeks into 2013, I’m stuck.

Easy To Imagine. Hard to Do.
My experience in changing habits may be like yours. We know what we want to change. We know at a conscious level how to do it. But the deeply imprinted routes in our brain that direct our behavior about “what to do when” easily overwhelm our intentions. It’s one of many paradoxes about changing habits. It’s easy to imagine. It’s hard to do.

The good news is that while habits are powerful, they are not our destiny. We often hear habits described as “good” or “bad.” In fact, they are neither. Our brains can’t tell the difference between a good habit and a bad one. We are just wired to see a clue, automate a response, and get a reward. The outcomes may be good or bad, but that depends on the habits we develop, not the process.

The Key to Changing Old Habits is Creating New Ones
If we’re going to have habits (and we are), and we want good outcomes (and we do), then our challenge is to create new habits if the old ones don’t get us what we want.  Our habits never go away. Researchers who reprogram mice to run a maze by putting the reward in a different place find that when they remove the reward, the mice run the old pattern. Think you’re smarter than the mice? Change the reward of being able to fit into your clothes and see how quickly you’ll go back to your version of after school milk and cookies on the couch watching television.

Old habits will always be with us. But for new outcomes, we need new habits.
Charles Duhigg (2012) in The Power of Habit, describes how we can make them. It’s sort of like this:


1. We experience some triggering event. It reminds us of a previous experience. The alarm is sent.
2. We retrieve our automated response. To change a habit, change the response.
3. We get a reward. To reinforce the response, reward it.

My Plan to Get Unstuck
So, if I am going to get my momentum back to reach leftover 2012 goals, I still need to change habits. I need to change them starting with the one key habit that will give me the greatest momentum: getting up one hour earlier.

Starting tomorrow, I’ll have the same trigger. Night will turn to day. (And, if that doesn’t happen, I have bigger problems.) But I will manage my clue differently. I will force myself to get out of bed to get the coffee I want.  (Note to dearest husband: No more whispering Are you ready for coffee yet? as I rest, eyes closed, curled around my pillow. Ignore my pleas. Forgive my reaction when you do.) Reward myself for getting up with a half hour of Italian lessons over cappuccino. (Now that’s worth getting out of bed for. Seriously.) The day after tomorrow, I’ll do the same. Soon, my new habit will be my old habit. That’s how it works.

The Work
Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom – and the responsibility – to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.

Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit (2012)

What about you? How will you leverage the power of habits? It’s not too late, and you’re not too old, to get to work.


Duhigg, Charles (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and in Business.  New York: Random House.

Make Your Habits Your Allies


What would you do if you were unemployed, nearly broke and an emotional wreck? Where would you start to turn your life around? What would you do if you were named as an outsider head of a struggling company with employee upheaval, manager disengagement and on the verge of a stakeholder revolt? In both situations, there is not one thing wrong- there are many things wrong. And all are big things. Any one of these challenges left unattended could lead to your complete unraveling. Where would you start? If you were like people profiled in The Power of Habit (Duhigg, 2012), you would start by changing one cornerstone habit.

Your Personal Search Engine

Habits are like our brain’s search engine. Our subconscious doesn’t evaluate whether a habit is good or bad, it just gets the stimulus and offers up the response. Like Google, put in the stimulus and get back your top responses in behavior. This pattern is ubiquitous. Duhigg cites a Duke study that suggests 40% of our actions during a day are a result of habit. If true, it means that nearly half of the things we do each day are not a result of conscious, in the moment decisions, but pre programmed responses to stimulus.

Get Your MoJo Going

Habits also build momentum. Good habits generate behavior that gets positive responses, generating more positive stimulus. This explains what happened to one of the people profiled in The Power of Habit. Duhigg describes a woman at the end of her rope after a very bad patch in life. She was overweight, unemployed and nearly broke. In an attempt to motivate change, she set a goal to make the trip of a lifetime, which required her to be in good physical shape. She targeted one habit to start toward this goal: stop smoking. By focusing on changing one bad habit, she taught herself to reprogram other habits, too. When she stopped smoking, she had more ability to get in shape. She took up jogging. To keep up jogging, she had to positively change her eating, sleeping and time habits. She had more money so she changed her savings habits. The woman not only took her dream trip, but she had the confidence, and ability, to override old bad habits to go back to school and get a new job.

The same principle worked for Paul O’Neill when he was named the new CEO of Alcoa. He walked into a list of changes needed to restore employee relationships, customer relationships and profitability. What did he do? He focused on safety.  He set a goal of zero injuries and instilled one habit: all accidents must be reported within 24 hours with a plan to make sure the injury never happened again. What were the results? The union was encouraged because worker safety had been a critical issue they felt had been ignored. Leaders had to review lines of communication with their facilities.  Floor leaders had to be alert for safety issues and ask workers for ideas on better environments. By changing one habit, O’Neil set in force the mechanism to change a culture. What happened? Injuries declined, but so did costs because people needed to talk to each other about molten metal waste  (a leading cause of injuries) and faulty equipment that broke down and slowed production. Quality improved, along with customer satisfaction.

O’Neil  leveraged the power of habit by picking one thing that required everyone to re program bad habits into good ones. He summarized his strategy in a few words we could all take to heart:

“ I knew I had to change Alcoa. But you can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could disrupt habits around one thing, it would spread through the entire company.”

Paul O’Neil, former CEO of Alcoa, as quoted in the Power of Habit

Picking The Little Thing That Could Be A Big Thing

I reflected in my last blog post that I was going to keep old resolutions but change habits.  For me, 2013 starts with unmet goals related to my business, my development and my personal life. The one thing they all have in common is the need for more time. So, the cornerstone habit I’m going to focus on changing for 2013 is my use of time. I am going to change a habit to get up one hour earlier each day. That gives me 7 hours per week and 28 hours a month that can be devoted to achieving goals. Who knows what an extra 28 hours a week will do for my momentum?

You may think this is small. But that’s the thing about habits. It’s the small things that set the momentum for bigger things. The woman who stopped smoking found the secret to changing habits that changed her life. Paul O’Neil used a change of habits to convince a bunch of skeptics that they could work together.  The secret strength of habits is going for big outcomes, not big inputs.

What about you? What are the one or two habits you could change that could give you the momentum needed to achieve those dusty resolutions? Think of them and get ready. In the next post, you’ll read how habits can be changed.


References: Duhigg, Charles ( 2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and In Business. New York: Random House.

Change Habits, Keep Resolutions


I‘m not going to make new resolutions for 2013. There are enough old ones still relevant to dust off and try again.  In fact, if anyone is looking for a resolution, I have enough lying around that I could give you a few.  Lose weight? Got that one. Get a better job?  Several options to chose from. Be Better Organized?  I can set you up. These are just a few of my many past resolutions available to be recycled.

It’s not that I fail to see the value in resolutions. In fact, setting goals (aka resolutions) is a critical part of the change process.  They provide a picture of success, set the boundaries for choices, and allow us to measure success.  Resolutions are so important that I’ll change my focus from making them to keeping them. This year, I’ll keep the same resolutions but change my habits

The Invisible Force

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. The older fish nods at them and says, ‘Morning boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit. Eventually, one of them looks over at the other and asks ‘What the hell is water?’ ”

David Foster Wallace as quoted in The Power of Habit 

The passage above is one of the best descriptions of the power of habits I’ve read.  Our habits, the automatic, subconscious decisions we make routinely, are our water. Frequently unexamined and often invisible to us, habits set the agenda for our behavior and ultimately our results. So, if we want change, start with habits.

How Habits Happen

The first step in changing habits is to understand how we create them in the first place. Charles Duhigg (2012) in The Power of Habit provides an excellent description in a book that makes very interesting reading.

Habits are created because our brain looks for ways to save effort. When we do things routinely, our brain stores the steps into “chunks.” Try to remember learning something for the first time, like your commute to work. The first few times, you paid great attention to the directions, the traffic patterns or the train schedule. It required attention and energy you didn’t have later for other things. Reflect on how quickly your commute became routine. The next time you go to work, you won’t even think about it. You’ll know the time to leave, the route to take, or where you sit on the train with little conscious thought. Your commute has become your water.

Your brain has turned your commute routine into a habit, without you making a conscious decision about whether you wanted this habit or not. This is a good thing.  Mental energy every day is finite. Once it’s depleted, it’s gone until restored.  Do you want to use it figuring out what roads you take to work or on new challenges once you get there? Probably the latter. So, our brains are wired to help us out by being efficient.  This efficiency becomes a habit.

The paradox about habits is that they are easy to create but hard to change. Old habits won’t get me, or you, to new places, no matter how staunch the resolutions. My 2013 resolution is to start new habits to help me reach old goals. Intrigued? Follow me to see how I do.


Duhigg, Charles (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House.