Create New Year’s Systems, Not Goals

create systems not goals for New Year's

It’s that time of year again: the end of the old year, and the beginning of the new. It’s a time of renewed motivation, effort, and focus. It’s a time to reflect and review the past year and get excited about the possibilities of the upcoming year. For me it’s a time of learning and optimism. Last year I learned a very important lesson. It is that we often incorrectly focus on goals, to achieve our resolutions, instead of systems.

Goals are the end result. As such they’re important to set and be aware of, but they have little to do with the process of achieving them. Systems are the things that occur daily, weekly, and monthly, to get us to those goals.

As James Clear, author of the article that taught me this concept, puts it:

  • If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.
  • If you’re a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week.
  • If you’re a runner, your goal is to run a marathon. Your system is your training schedule for the month.
  • If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal is to build a million dollar business. Your system is your sales and marketing process.

Now for the really interesting question:

If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still get results?

The answer, for most things, is “YES.” If you watch the bowl games the next few days, pay attention to the interview of the coach of the team that’s loosing at half-time. You’ll hear them say “our team didn’t execute well,” or “our team didn’t cover well,” or “our defense didn’t stick to their assignments.” In other words, our team didn’t do the fundamentals well. Our team was too focused on the abstract concept of “the win” or being champions, or all the fun they’ve been having before the game. They weren’t playing focused, systematic football the way we practiced. Practice and execution are a few of the systems that get teams to the goals of big wins and championships. And you could probably toss the goals aside and focus purely on the systems, and still have the same, or possibly better results.

As Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert put it:

Going to the gym 3-4 times a week is a goal. And it can be a hard one to accomplish for people who don’t enjoy exercise. Exercising 3-4 times a week can feel like punishment – especially if you overdo it because you’re impatient to get results. When you associate discomfort with exercise you inadvertently train yourself to stop doing it. Eventually you will find yourself “too busy” to keep up your 3-4 days of exercise. The real reason will be because it just hurts and you don’t want to do it anymore. …

Compare [that] with a system of being active every day at a level that feels good, while continuously learning about the best methods of exercise. Before long your body will be trained, like Pavlov’s dogs, to crave the psychological lift you get from being active every day. It will soon become easier to exercise than to skip it – no willpower required. And your natural inclination for challenge and variety will gently nudge you toward higher levels of daily activity while at the same time you are learning in your spare time how to exercise in the most effective way. That’s a system.

James Clear even goes as far as to spell out some specific problems with goals, that are remedied by just focusing on systems:

  1. Goals reduce your current happiness.
  2. Goals are strangely at odds with long-term progress.
  3. Goals suggest that you can control things that you have no control over.

Rather than rehash his points here, I encourage you to read that excellent article. But I will give you the 3 corresponding points that fix those problems, when you focus on systems:

  1. Commit to a process, not a goal – When you focus on the practice instead of the performance, you can enjoy the present moment and improve at the same time.
  2. Release the need for immediate results – Systems-based thinking is never about hitting a particular number, it’s about sticking to the process….
  3. Build feedback loops – Forget about predicting the future and build a system that can signal when you need to make adjustments.

Finally, when you design your systems, make sure they’re behaviorally sound. What does that mean? It means they still work the next day or the next week, when your will-power has run out. You can read our New Year post from last year for more information.

2-Day Tithing Settlement: How it Went

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Last year I posted a method Patrick Lynch shared with me, to do Tithing Settlement in 2 days. After posting, I presented the idea to my Bishopric (I was the Executive Secretary). They were all for it, especially the Bishop. A few days later, that Bishopric was released and a new one called, retaining me as Executive Secretary and the Ward Clerk as well. The new Bishop was unsure of this idea at first. He wanted time to get to know people in the ward. Ultimately he decided–with almost no prompting from me–to go ahead with the “2-day method.”

The post received lots of great discussion, including many people telling how their ward had done something similar and how well it had gone. I wanted to follow up with a report on how it went in our ward with a brand-new Bishop and Bishopric. If something doesn’t make sense, please see the original post, for context. Also, I discussed some of this in a recent podcast on LeadingLDS, with 5 former or current bishops.

Scheduling The Ward

We never posted a signup sheet on the Bishop’s door (I know, “heresy!” right?). Instead I setup a Google Calendar that was synced with the excellent YouCanBook.me webapp. It took a little testing to get the settings all correct, but once I was done, I could add blocks of time to the Google calendar, and it would show those blocks as available time for Tithing Settlement at the special YCBM URL (something like myward.youcanbook.me). I initially set it so only the first 3 or 4 hours of the first day were available. It lets people click a block of time they’d like to schedule then enter their name and email to schedule it. It’s very simple, and about as frictionless as possible.

I then went to the online version of MLS and exported the entire ward’s contact information as a CSV file. I edited that as a Google Spreadsheet (Excel works too) and removed all the columns except names and email addresses. I imported that into my Gmail account, making sure to import them to a new group, so I could remove them later. I also imported a email list the previous bishop sent me, and then did a “find and merge duplicates.”

Next I composed and email to that new group (the ward) and sent them all an email with the custom YouCanBook.me link and an explanation that this year they could signup online. Pretty quickly, the first half of our first day was filled, and I adjusted the calendar to open up the rest of that day. Once that was mostly full, I added the 1st part of Sunday, and so on. This helped to make sure there were very few gaps in the schedule.

YouCanBook.me on Mobile

I also made up some quick signup sheets before church, making sure to block out any times previously scheduled on YCBM. I also removed any available time on YCBM for the duration of Church meetings, so there would be no double-booking. I then went around to the various classes and auxiliaries and passed around the signup sheets, taking a minute to explain (if I could without disrupting class) that this was their chance to signup if they hadn’t received the email or didn’t feel comfortable signing up online. I then put those into YCBM myself, so they’d show up on the calendar. I also hung-out outside the Bishop’s office after church, and just put people’s info right in to YouCanBook.me as they requested to schedule Tithing Settlement.

Preparation

As the first day approached, I sent out reminders to everyone to signup if they hadn’t already, and copy/pasted the schedule (from Google Calendar) into the email, to remind all who had signed up, of when their times was. I politely asked people to try and be on time and reassured them that waits would not be long. I think the novelty of signing up online, made them believe things were going to be different this year.

On the 1st Sat. morning, I grabbed a table from a classroom and put it outside the Bishop’s office and put my laptop on it, with an incognito window of Chrome open to LDS.org to get get people signed up. I didn’t get a phone/tablet attachment for a tripod, so I didn’t bother even trying to set one up.

I printed out the day’s schedule from Google Calendar, and brought 5 copies with me for the Bishop, his 2 counselors, the Clerk, etc. I’d shared it with each of them previously, so they could view it on their phones/tablets, as well. It gave the Bishop some warning of who to expect next, and help him greet them by name, even in cases where he might have been unsure.

The 10 Minute Schedule

This part went swimmingly. People were largely on-time, and I rarely had to knock on the Bishop’s door to remind them their time was almost up. Most came out at 8 or 9 minutes. Since we forced people to fill each block of 3-4 hrs before opening more, there were rarely any waits, except during the last 10 mins of each hour, when we often found ourselves still on schedule and free to stretch or get to know each other a little better.

Station 1: Information Confirmation or Correction

The Clerk & Counselors would look at the schedule and print people’s records before they arrived. When they did walk in, would just hand a copy to them when they arrived, and another copy to the Bishop when he came out of the previous appointment.

Station 2: LDS.org Account Setup

Most people in our ward seemed to have done this. There were lots of people who’d done FamilySearch.org, indexing, etc. So we quit asking after the 1st day.

LDS Tools iOSStation 3: Photos

This became station #1. I found that if I caught them before they sat down, they were a lot less resistant. So I just found a section of wall with no outlets or pictures, and would intercept people at that point, with my tablet in hand, as they came down toward the Bishop’s office. I used the LDS Tools Android app and just took/uploaded their picture right to the app. So it was on MLS within minutes. For those that protested, I found that the following dialogue worked really great:

Me: “Do you have an LDS.org account?”

Them: “Yes.”

Me: “We’ll take your picture now, and if you don’t like it, just go home and login to your LDS.org account and upload one that you do like.”

I only had 1 person who absolutely refused. Everyone else let me take the picture, and by the end of Tithing Settlement, we had pictures of 90% of the active members of the ward which was very helpful to a lot of people in the ward, especially those who were newer, but had callings that require them to communicate with lots of people in the ward.

Station 4: Meeting With The Bishop

As mentioned, this went very well. The Bishop remarked that “I’m just not that chatty,” implying that 10 minutes was usually plenty. In a few cases where I had to actually knock on the door, the knock usually made the people there hurry to wrap up. In those cases sometimes the Bishop would tell them to talk with me and schedule another meeting with him. In other cases, he’d just whisper to me after they left, that I needed to call and schedule them to meet with him again.

Final Thoughts

As said, we made a few adjustments. The main things were eliminating the LDS.org account setup, since it wasn’t really needed in that particular ward, and doing photos 1st. I think doing photos 1st is really important and will work better for most wards. Our stations were:

  1. Photos
  2. Records Information
  3. Meeting with the Bishop

Ultimately, we had to do a few followup “sessions” of a couple hours, to get everyone completed. But the majority were done in 3 days, in-spite of an unusual snow storm that made everything crazy and even got church canceled, since the UDOT isn’t equipped with snowplows in St George.

St George snow storm of 2013

I think this system is awesome. And so did the Bishopric. Though new in that particular Bishopric, the entire bishopric had all been involved in Tithing Settlement in previous Bishopric callings. They all paid me many compliments saying they’d “never seen tithing settlement run so smoothly,” and that it was the “most enjoyable and least stressful” they’d ever experienced. It wasn’t me, it’s just a brilliant system and I’m super glad Patrick Lynch shared it with me. It was a blessing, and allowed me to spend a lot more time with my family last Christmas.

I’d love to hear other adjustments, ideas, or feedback on how this works.

Use Screenwriting Tricks to Make Your NaNoWriMo Novel Awesome

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Editor’s Note: this is a very-lightly edited repost of an article originally posted in 2012.

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), where people around the world try to write a novel in one month, is going to start in a few days. Here’s some ideas that Screenwriters (both film and TV) use. They have to write within very tight constraints, and therefore have refined storycraft in awesome ways. So here are a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up from my studies of (and attempts at) screenwriting that also work incredibly well for novel writing.

Set Limitations

Decide how long your novel is going to be (word count) and when you’ll have the first draft completed. Most NaNoWriMo participants set this at 50k words, which is a short novel, but a lot for one month. Decide what’s the longest each chapter can be within that. Decide what genre it will fit into (or which it will cross-over between). Learn the rules of that genre, and do your research to make sure you really know the rules! Finally, learn the rules of good writing (read the rest of this), and stick to them. You are not the exception. Good writing, is good writing, is good writing. If you want people to read it, you have to know the rules inside and out, and practice them over and over and over. Then, once you’ve published a dozen books that obey the rules, you can pull a James Joyce and try breaking them in very purposeful ways. Creativity thrives within limitations and rules, not without them.

Outline Your Story

Outline your plot before you begin! If you don’t know where you’re going, how are you going to get there? It also provides a guide to you as you write to make sure your pacing is correct and that you don’t include needless ideas and events. Your story should be one continuous crescendo to the climax, followed by a relief (the the resolution or denouement). Then break your book into scenes. Just like a movie. Construct each scene to have it’s own climax and relief, making sure the relief is less and smaller than the climax, so that the overall tension continues to increase till the final climax.

Make sure your outline includes all of this, though you can begin writing with blank spaces in your outline that you’ll fill as you write and get a clearer idea of what should go where. Just be sure of what needs to happen to follow this structure. For another way of looking at it see “How to Structure a Novel’s Plot” by my brother and editor of this post, Travis Washburn.

Become Intimately Familiar With Your Characters

Characters will always seem flat and unpredictable if you, yourself don’t know who they are as you write them. A great way to create characters is to outline them somewhere. Give each major character (and some minor) a background: family, childhood, teen years, etc. Then give them a personality: who do they remind you of in real life? Based on their background what kind of accent do they have? What quirks do they have? Are they stubborn, loud, feisty, or quiet, reserved, and passive? What are their biases?

Most importantly, what are their flaws, weaknesses, and fallacies of thinking, contradictions of living, and paradox’s of action? These make your characters feel real. We’re all imperfect, weak, and walking paradoxes in our beliefs, ways of living, etc. Making your characters the same will make them feel real. Write all this down somewhere. Make a note for each character in Evernote, or use notecards, and give each character their own. Refer back to these frequently as you write about them.

Make Your Protagonist CHANGE

As a part of this, your main character or protagonist, needs to change in some fundamental ways. If the overall story is a happy one, that probably means they’ll overcome some of those weaknesses you outlined, or change their views and actions in some fundamental way. Batman Begins is a great example. Toward the beginning Bruce is ready to take a gun and murder for revenge. By the end of the film, he won’t even purposefully kill the villan responsible for attempting to engineer the collapse of western civilization.

Another good (but not necessary) technique is to make your antagonist very similar to your protagonist, at least at the beginning. Then by contrast (aka a foil), she/he emphasizes the protagonist’s change, by representing what they used to be.  Batman Begins is once again a great example.

Keep Your Reader In Mind

The very best screenwriters and film directors always have their audience in mind. Often they pick somebody they know and write/direct the movie just for that person. When your audience is that real to you, you have clarity on how to convey your message and make them laugh, cry, rage, or stress along the way.

Create Conflict

Often people use terms like “rising action” and “falling action” to describe the structure of a scene. I feel like this is misleading. Conflict is what creates the rising and falling rhythms of a great story. Adding shooting, jumping from helicopters, etc isn’t the kind of “action” or conflict they’re talking about. But conflict is the key. Yes, two people trying to kill each other is conflict in the “war” sense, but to make it conflict the reader cares about, you need to make sure you’re clear about the reason behind it: why are they trying to kill each other? Is it really worth trying to kill over, or just something your reader will laugh at?

Great screenwriters live by the rule “never put two characters in the same scene that agree with each other.” That’s the definition of conflict. Always put people at odds with each other, at least in some small way. That creates the tension that makes it interesting. Watch some great films, you’ll suddenly notice this is the case.

Avoid Abstractions Like They’re a Zombie Plague

Abstractions are any abstract concept from “food” to “feelings.” What kind of food? What does it taste like? Give me details! What ‘feelings’ are you talking about? The reader needs specific details to understand what’s going on. Otherwise they may imagine something totally different from your concept of food, feelings, or any other abstract concept you use. Plus details draw your audience in. You force them to see, hear, feel, smell, and taste what is going on (more on that in a sec). Often this is referred to as “concrete detail.”

Concrete detail (and sense detail, below) are summed up in the old phrase that most amateurs ignore: “Show, don’t tell.” Don’t tell your reader the character is in pain, and don’t have the character say something completely obvious, telling the reader they’re in pain. Instead have the character show it by wincing, sitting down, trying to stop the bleeding with their hand! Here’s a couple of excellent articles on concrete detail at Copyblogger that go into more detail. You must understand this if you want to write a good (or great) novel.

nanowrimo typing up novel

Include Frequent Sense Detail

The four senses are how we experience the world. When you write concrete details, you should describe the coarse and porous feel of concrete on the pad of your fingers. Tell your audience what concrete dust smells like, how it burns your nose hairs as you inhale and seems to coat your nostrils as you exhale. Talk about how the dust settles on your tongue and reminds you of when you ate chalk dust as a kid, but with more grit and crunch to it. Let them hear how the jackhammer sounds a lot like a helicopter hovering 10 feet over your head, when you’re the one operating it, but feels like it’s smashing your bones together at the joints, squeezing the cartilage out of them. The language you use should make your reader hear, feel, smell, and even taste what’s going on. One renowned novelist (who’s name I can’t remember) said she always included all 5 senses within the first page of each of her novels to pull the reader in, make them feel as if they were there with the characters in that scene.

Force Yourself to Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite

James Michener once said, “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” Unlike the process often portrayed in both film and books, writing is never some stroke of inspiration where you sit down and crank out a novel as fast as your fingers can keep up with your thoughts. It just doesn’t work that way! There may be instances of that, but it’s usually one small part of a scene or a piece of your outline. When it happens, go with it. But overall, your story gets better the more familiar you become with it. Therefore, rewriting is where good and great novels are created.

Some authors even go as far as completely throwing away their first draft and re-writing the entire book from scratch. Only it’s not entirely scratch, the first draft made them intimately familiar with the story, its characters, and structure. Robert Louis Stevenson did this with The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. From my own experience, anything from emails to essays and even short stories are often better when I follow this practice.

Cut the Fat

When you revise and rewrite, “cut the fat.” This means you cut anything and every thing that doesn’t contribute to the overall point of your story. This should be done at a high level (outline) as well as molecular level (make your sentences shorter, more concise). Less is more.

You gotta identify with your characters

Learn Pixar’s Rules for Great Story

Finally, as you outline, write, and rewrite, it helps to be familiar with the 22 rules of a great storytelling that came out of Pixar. Also check out this awesome visual representation of these points from BuzzFeed, using LEGOs and including more explanation of what each means.

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

What is your NaNoWriMo novel about? And what’s it’s genre?

Home Teaching by Priority, Based on Need

home-teaching-based-on-need

I was recently listening to the excellent LeadingLDS podcast. Kurt (contributes here), interviewed the mysterious person known only as @ldseqpres on Twitter.

@ldseqpres is known for his usually humorous, sometimes snarky, tweets. But he’s a real-life Elder’s Quorum President, with all the problems and issues that come with that calling. And he had some great insights on how to handle some of those problems.

One that really stood out to me was a priority-based approach to home teaching. And he got the idea for it, straight from the handbook! Handbook 2: 7.4.2 states:

Quorum and group leaders assign the most effective home teachers to members who need them most. When assigning home teachers, leaders give highest priority to new members, less-active members who may be the most receptive, and others who have the greatest need for home teachers, such as single parents, widows, and widowers.

7.4.3 adds:

In some locations, visiting every home each month may not be possible for a time because of insufficient numbers of active priesthood holders or other challenges. In these circumstances, leaders give priority to visiting new members, less-active members who are most likely to respond to invitations to return to Church activity, and members with serious needs.

@ldseqpres’ solution was to create a spreadsheet with everyone that their Elder’s Quorum was responsible to teach. Next they added columns for each of the items that the Handbook says are priorities:

  • new members
  • less-active members (likely to respond)
  • members with serious needs
  • single parents
  • widows/widowers

They would then go through the list, and place an “X” in any the columns that apply to each person/family. Then they setup a 6th column that would add the number of X’s in the previous columns, and produce a numerical total. For example, a less-active widow with children at home would get a 3, or a 4, if there were serious needs.

Once that was done, they could sort the list by the 6th column. That put the people with the greatest need need (according to the handbook) at the top. They could then look at how many active companionships they could form, and assign them to those with the most need.

There’s some brilliance in this approach. Obviously you should still ask for, and follow, the Spirit in creating home teaching assignments. But this gives an excellent baseline or standard to start from. It also allows a ward or quorum to make sure that those who need it most, actually get home taught. It also means you can potentially cut down on the number of families assigned to each companionship, so you don’t overwhelm them, with too much to do.

The podcast episode has many great life-hacking tips for leadership positions throughout the church. Make sure and listen to the whole episode. Image from LDS.org.

Never Forget to Renew Your Temple Recommend Again

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On a recent Saturday morning, my wife and I dropped the kids off at my parents house. Dressed in our Sunday clothes and with our temple bags in the car, we were going to the Temple. As I was walking out of my parent’s house, I had the thought “when does my Temple Recommend expire?” I think you know what happened next: I pulled it out, and it had expired the end of May, exactly one week prior. :(

I ended up working on my laptop, in the Stake Center nextdoor to the Temple, while my wife participated in intiatory work.

Here’s the problem: neither email nor calendars were designed to help you both remember and accomplish things. Calendars keep your schedule, and can be used to remind you to do certain things at certain times, but they’re not good at helping you get them done, or scheduling based on when you completed something.

For example, if I set my calendar to remind me on May 15th to renew my recommend, but didn’t get in to see a member of the Stake Presidency until June 2nd, then my reminder event would need to be moved to June for the next year. Great solutions get out of your way, and don’t require that kind of management.

It’s no secret we’re big fans of Asana around here, we’ve posted about how to use it for Bishoprics and Ward Councils, as well as talked about the same usage in a Live Hangout. Asana is an ideal solution for managing your personal tasks, and reminding you to do things. It works great to remind yourself to renew your recommend. Just set a task to renew your temple recomend, that reccurs every 730 days (2 years) after completion of the task.

Asana recurring task

A task that is scheduled based on the last time it was completed, will be more accurate. When you get your recommend from a member of the Stake Presidency, complete the task. Now, Asana will remind you to do it again in 730 days. That will be June, in 2 years. And with the mobile app on your phone, you’ll get a reminder at that time.

Why Mormons Should Actively Support Net Neutrality

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Every morning on the way to work, I use the LDS Gospel Library app to listen to a couple chapters of the Book of Mormon. This morning it wouldn’t work for the 1st part of the drive. Since I’m streaming them, it’s dependent on the the 3G coverage in the area to get that data to my phone. The thought occured to me: “what if Sprint is blocking traffic to LDS.org?” It was one of those random, crazy thoughts that had no seriousness behind it… at least at 1st. Because the streaming audio had not yet begun, the thought lingered and birthed others: “what if they could throttle or block traffic from LDS.org?” And then the realization: “oh, yeah, they can throttle or block traffic from anywhere they please.”

What is Net Neutrality?

That’s what “net neutrality” is all about. Can the internet provider (this instance Sprint, since my phone’s on Republic Wireless) throttle or even block certain websites, types of traffic, etc? In the past the answer was “No! The internet is neutral. All traffic, regardless of source, content, etc, must be treated the same, unless it is illegal.” But that changed not too long ago, when the US Supreme Court told the FCC that they could no longer use the rules that had enforced this policy of “net neutrality” in the past. As Mormon’s, we have a long history of persecution. We’ve seen a resurgence of it in the wake of Mitt Romney running for President, and the gay-marriage issue. The lessons of our own history shows that it’s not a good idea to give any group of people power over another. Internet providers being able to selectively throttle, or even block traffic, is one such power.

no-lds-mormon-websitesHypothetically, What Could Happen?

Imagine this: you wake up one morning and you can’t access LDS.org. Or even worse, you can’t access MormonLifeHacker.com! This Week in Mormons? Nope. Mormon.org? Crickets. LeadingLDS? No way. FamilySearch.org? Nada. Mormon Mommy Blogs? Nothin’ doin’. Your internet isn’t down. You can visit Facebook, and Google, watch videos on YouTube and Netflix, but for some reason no LDS sites seem to work for you. You can’t get your phone to synch the updated ward list in the LDS Tools app, or download the conference report in Gospel Library. Finally you give up and pull up Twitter. You notice a tweet that says something about “Mormon Church” and “Your ISP”. You tap through and find out that Your ISP has decided to block all traffic to LDS and Mormon themed sites. That’s not fair! you think. Then read on, to find out that anti-Mormon sites are not blocked, only official sites, and ones friendly to the church. Why? Well, I’ll let you pick from any number of recent reasons the Church has been unpopular in the “popular” news of late. Whichever you pick, the CEO of “Your ISP” is outspokenly against the Church’s position on the issue, and had decided to use his company’s strangle-hold on the internet in your area, to put pressure on the Church and help all of us “blind followers” to realize the error of our ways.

Could This Happen?

Do I think this will happen? No, I don’t. But could it? Yes, absolutely. And it would be legal, too. The mere fact that it could happen is enough that we should fight against it. What if, in another 2 decades, Mormons and Mormonism have been moved into that category reserved for biggots and racists? In today’s society, it’s not okay to hate anyone, except biggots, racists, and Wetboro Baptists (and maybe Jews, depending on where you are). What if slowly the world moves so far away from the things we know are right, that we get stuck in that category? A place where it’s okay to hate Mormons, and nobody cares to defend our rights. A world where the majority cheers on Your ISP’s actions. We’ve been in that category before. Joseph Smith met with Martin Van Buren, President of the United States, asking him to help the the Saints. They’d been persecuted to the extreme, including members of the Church being murdered, merely for being Mormon. The President told Joseph:

“Your cause is just, but I cannot help you. If I help you I will lose the vote of the state of Missouri.”

What if we were in that category again? Where nobody else cared about how we were treated? Would you want ISP’s to have that power to limit what you can access?

The Free Market vs Regulation

I’m a big supporter of freedom and the free market, including businesses deciding what kind of service they want to provide, and even the right to refuse service to anyone. But there has to be legal limits to protect the minorities and the unpopular. Look at the pre-1960’s, when black people were refused service by businesses, or forced to use “separate but equal” facilities. In this case, ISP’s could be abusive in their use of it, and there is usually only 1 or 2 good alternative providers in a given market. So there’s no real free market in this space anyway. If there were more competition, then it wouldn’t be an issue. We’d all just switch to the provider who will treat all traffic equally, and pretty soon the $$$$ would convince all ISP’s to treat all traffic the same. Unfortunately that’s not the case. So we need laws or policies that force ISP’s to treat all traffic equally. We need Net Neutrality.

What to Do About It

Right now the FCC has a period where they’re taking feedback, via their website. You can add your voice there, by clicking the “14-28″ link pictured here: FCC website Net Neutrality comment link You can call or email your congressperson. When elections come around, let candidates know you’ll only vote for those that support Net Neutrality. You can also share this article, or other information about the dangers of not having Net Neutrality, on Facebook, Twitter, your blog, or other channels. Net neutrality, is incredibly popular right now. But, there’s a lot of big money pushing the opposite direction. We need to continue to spread the work, if we’re going to get this protection reinstated, and further protected. Please do a little something, today.

How to Make an Animated Google+ Cover Photo in Photoshop

Tevya's animated G+ profile

I recently decided I wanted to do something I’d seen a few months back: make an animated Google+ cover photo. I created one I really like (pictured), and thought I’d share my methods with all of you.

Some Ground Rules

The person who’s demo video I watched initially to get some insight on this, did it wrong. Her animated GIF file was 5-6MB, depending on what screen resolution you were viewing it at (Google+ loads alternate versions based on browser width, etc). That’s waaaaay too large for the web, and can take several seconds on a really fast internet connection, and 3-5 minutes on 3G mobile internet. Additionally it had way too much information and “prettiness” in it, making it hard to discern it’s purpose or the information it was intended to convey. So here’s the keys to doing it right:

  • Keep the message simple.
  • Keep the information presented to a minimum.
  • The resulting GIF file needs to be under 250k, preferably under 100k.
  • Use as few colors as possible.
  • Use as few frames as possible.

Keep the Message Simple & Info to a Minimum

First you need to decide what you want in it. You need a few simple items you want to promote. Don’t make it complicated or crowded. Why? Well for one, to keep the GIF file small; but also to make it easy for the visitor to get the message you want to send. If it’s crowded and has too much info, well, they can get that from your G+ bio. In all reality if it’s complicated, they probably won’t pay much attention and it’ll do you no good. tevya-empty-inbox-productivity-wordpress

Few Colors + Few Frames = Small File Size

Luckily for us, clean, flat design is “in” right now. So it’s not only prudent to make it simple and clean, with few colors; it’s also cool. The way GIF file format works, the fewer colors you have, the smaller each frame will be. Each frame is essentially a separate image, included in the same file, so the less frames you have, the better. As you can see from mine, it does a great job of conveying the messages I felt were important, but does it with only 3 frames, and a very few colors:

A Template For You

Here’s an example one I did, and you can download my PSD template, as a good starting point. This is the resulting GIF, which is only 18k, in spite of having dimensions of 1091 × 614 pixels (click on it to see it larger). It’s so small, if Google+ were smarter, it would just use this same image at all resolutions. google-plus-MLH-animated-cover-photo

Making Your Own

As for the technical details of how to do it in Photoshop, well, it’s just a lot easier to show you. So here’s a video tutorial (fullscreen it to see details):

I’d love it if you shared your Google+ profiles, with shiny new animated cover photos, in the comments! Also let me know if this was helpful.

Keep MLH’s New Look? Or Back to the Previous One? [Poll]

old-mlh

Hi, we recently had some issues with an update to the WordPress theme we’re using on MLH. In an effort to keep the site online and working, I changed themes. I really like the new one, but also miss the previous, which had some cool features. So I figured I’d let you all decide (now that the issues with the previous theme are worked out): keep this theme? Or go back to the previous one? There’s a screenshot of the site as it looked before, for those who can’t remember (sorry we’ve been a little slow with the posts of late).

Click here to view a large version of the previous design

VOTE HERE

Get Free Amazon Instant Movie & TV Rentals with Hitbliss

hitbliss-watch-ads-get-amazon-instant-video-credit

UPDATE: HitBliss has announced that they’re shutting down the Beta while they revamp the product. I haven’t tried it so let me know if you have any luck using it. But I did receive my earned credit as an Amazon gift code. Seems like a bad move as it kills any momentum they have. We’ll update you if we ever hear that they’ve come back.

It takes most people at least 10 minutes to get in their car, drive to the nearest Redbox and drive home. What if I told you there’s an easier (and probably qiucker in most cases) way?

There is! It’s called Hitbliss. You install a video player on your computer or mobile device. You then watch ads and they give you Amazon Instant or Pandora One credit to use for movies, TV, or music. The cool thing is, you only have to watch 10-15 minutes of ads on Hitbliss, in order to get enough credit to rent a movie. My family and I watched Saving Mr Banks (and enjoyed it a lot) last night. It cost me about as much time as it would have cost to run to the Redbox.

Hitbliss - watch ads, get free Amazon Instant credit

The way Hitbliss can pay you so well for a little of your time, is that they can provide advertisers with both demographically targeted ads, and “focused” viewers. TV, streaming, YouTube, etc, cannot provide the same guarantees of “focused” views, and possibly not the same level of demographic targeting. They do it by having you “personalize” how fast you want to earn credit. I did the maximum. To do that, the Hitbliss app looks at my browser’s history, my search history, my location, and then asks me some demographic questions about age and income. That way they can deliver demographics other platforms can’t.

personalize your Hitbliss settings for maximum earnings

They couple that with “focused” viewing. In order to earn credit, you have to click a button or hit enter when it pops up a little message, asking you to confirm you’re still watching. As you do it, you earn points and your “trust level” goes up, meaning it will ask you less. By clicking those quickly, and at the highest earning level. I was able to get $6 of credit after only about 15minutes of watching. For right now, you can also share your referal link (mine’s used throughout this article) and get $3 for each person who uses your link, signs up, and redeems some credits.

Rent Amazon Instant Movies after earning credit on Hitbliss

You have to redeem your credits through the Hitbliss software. But it’s a simple process, includes the entire Amazon Instant library, and the rental shows up on your Amazon account just like any normal Amazon rental. So you’ll be able to watch via computer, Roku, Amazon Kindle Fire, Amazon Fire TV, or other Amazon Instant compatible devices like smart TV’s.

Get Hitbliss

Here’s a quick walkthrough of Hitbliss and how to maximize your earnings:

Family Before Phone – Behaviorally-Sound New Years Resolutions

a guide to behaviorally-sound resolutions goals

I’ve read a lot of posts and seen a lot of videos and other things encouraging people to get off their phones and live in the “real world.” I even know people who talk about divorcing their smartphone altogether, going back to a dumb phone, or even no mobile phone at all. I think that’s admirable: to want to put people and family above technology.

Here’s my personal problem with it: I DON’T WANT TO GO BACKWARD! I don’t want to go back to carrying those large bricks we call scriptures, around in a case with a handle. I don’t want to have to be at my computer to listen to a podcast; or look up driving directions and print them off, before driving somewhere; or have to stop and ask for directions; or wonder what a word means, then forget about looking it up, when I’m on my computer next; or have to buy and carry a separate MP3 player so I can listen to my music when I run, or drive; or have to try to remember to pack the book I’m reading around with me everywhere I go, or carry around a camera, in case my kids do something cute and I want a photo or video; or take hand-written notes again. In short: I don’t want to carry a backpack everywhere I go, to hold all the stuff that my smart phone does for me in a pocket-sized device.

But, I also don’t want to take away time and valuable interaction with my family, nor do I want to set a bad example for my kids.

Family Before Phone

So here’s the reality of it: I’m not one of those people who’s on his phone when out with friends or in other social situations. I might check it briefly on occasion, or look something up as needed, but generally I’m present and engaged… except with my wife and children. At home, every day, that’s when I tend to get distracted reading an interesting article somebody shared on Google+, or following up my latest post, that’s receiving lots of comments. It’s the same for Jill, my wife. Only for her it’s more Instagram and Facebook. We get caught up in “social” media, and don’t interact with each other and our kids the way we should (sometimes).

Fortunately the solution is pretty simple: behaviorally-sound solutions to help you stop using your phone for things that aren’t that important. And that’s one of my key New Year’s resolutions: put “family before phone.”

family-before-phone-graphic-only

Behaviorally-Sound

Now, how do I do that? That’s the real question. Too often people’s resolutions are a generalized concept, like putting “family before phone” or “divorce your smartphone.” A short phrase like that can be very helpful to conceptualize and remember the goal. However, if you don’t set those behaviorally-sound practices into place, your resolutions are going to last all-of a few days.

“Behaviorally-sound” means putting things in place and in-motion that will help you accomplish your goals, in-spite of your worst self. For example, lots of people resolve to “save money.” If they leave it at that, they’ve already failed. But many go further and say, “I’ll just take 10% of each paycheck and put it in my savings account,” guess what happens? They do it once, or twice. Then there’s that emergency expense, or that new smartphone they really wanted. Instead of putting the savings aside, the money goes elsewhere. Next, the amount they’d previously saved follows it. Soon the savings account is back to $0, and they give up entirely. This is not behaviorally-sound, because you simply won’t do it.

Behaviorally-sound is setting up an automatic transfer of $1/day or $25/week from your checking to your savings account. And, if you know that seeing your savings account balance will create a temptation to spend it, behaviorally sound also means having that savings account at a different bank, or having your bank block it from your online banking and the mobile app. Without being able to see it—and with just a slow trickle—you don’t notice it’s gone, and you’re not tempted to spend it. This is behaviorally-sound.

A Behaviorally-Sound Smartphone

What are “behaviorally-sound” practices for getting off your phone? Well, here’s what I’m going to do: I took the Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest (I never used it much anyway), and Twitter apps off of my phone. I also turned off all notifications in my Google+ app, and removed it from my home screen, putting the LDS Scriptures app icon in the place where the G+ icon used to be. I would have removed the app entirely, but really like the “auto-backup” for photos feature, as well as some other integrations it has on my Android phone.

So now I can get to G+, but it takes some extra effort and helps me pause and think if my wife or kids are around and if I should be interacting with them instead. By removing the other apps entirely, it’s no longer a temptation. In the short week since I’ve implemented this, I already spend a lot less time on my phone. And when I do, it’s doing something productive, like work, or reading a book, or listening to an instructive podcast. For me, this is behaviorally sound.

Email and other things aren’t too much of a problem for me. But if they are for you, that’s the next step: change your notifications so that you don’t get email notifications on your phone. Or if you need to receive them, use a tool like Inbox Pause to make sure you only receive messages at certain times of the day, and not during time with your family.

A Behaviorally-Sound Computer

Or, if you’ll just go to the computer and spend time there, use a browser extension like StayFocusd, to limit the amount of time you spend on Facebook.com or other sites. Or if the computer in general is a problem, here’s an even better idea: setup your computer on the top of a dresser or other cabinet so that it’s a standing workstation. If you’re not used to standing a lot, your feet will limit your computer time for you.

Buttressing Behaviors with Reminders, Rewards, & Punishments

You can do the same with pro-active goals. For example, if you know that you react to notifications on your phone, setup reminders or other notifications to help you accomplish pro-active goals. One example is getting a daily email to remind you to write in your journal.

Another way is to setup rewards and penalties for accomplishing or failing your goals. One example might be giving your spouse $200 and saying “you put this cash somewhere. If I loose 10lbs in the next 3 months and reach my goal, you have to give it back and I can spend it on whatever I want. If I don’t loose 10lbs in that time, you get to keep it and spend it on whatever you want.” That’s actually a bad idea, because it incentivises them to work against you, so they can get the money. But you get the idea. The key is making sure a 3rd party manages and judges these for you. If you say you’re going to reward yourself, you’ll probably cave and give yourself the reward early. We all do, and it defeats the purpose.

StickK Can Help

A great option for this is StickK.com. I don’t like it’s interface very much, but it’s still a great tool. You set a goal and then the “stakes” for accomplishing or failing it. For example, you can set it so that $50 will be donated to a charity you like, if you achieve your goal; and the same $50 will be donated to a political group that promotes a cause you oppose, if you don’t achieve your goal. Now that’s motivation! I’d do a lot to avoid donating money to some causes I’m very against. But you can also make it more personal as well: simply donate $50 to a friend, if you don’t accomplish your goal. If you’d really like to keep that $50, that can be motivation enough.

Finally, you choose a referee. This is someone who will check your progress and verify that you’re doing what you say you’re doing. For example, maybe you say you will record everything you eat each day. If you put it in a Google Drive Spreadsheet and share it with your referee, they can quickly look at it each week, when StickK asks them to verify your progress. As long as you report you are accomplishing (or have completed) your goal, and your referee verifies it, then you receive any reward setup. If not, then whatever punishment you’ve set will kick in.

The New Year’s Spirit All Year Round

In the LDS Church (and most Christian churches I assume), we talk and pray a lot about keeping the Christmas spirit with us all year round. It’s a great concept: trying to be as giving, serving, and conscious of other people’s hardships all year, as we are at Christmas time. The same thing should probably apply to New Years. Set new goals every month. Make the 1st of every month like New Year’s Day by setting new goals. If you did your goals the previous month, they should be habit by now. If you failed at them, take the opportunity to re-set them, perhaps with some modifications to make them more realistic.

Re-committing to goals and resolutions will help you make actual progress, rather than waiting 11 months for another new year, to give it another shot.