Some of the best tools are the simplest ones.
Easy to remember, easy to use. Effective in multiple situations. Powerful beyond expectation.
Like the chef who needs just one good knife and discards all one-purpose gimmicky kitchen
gadgets, you too can have such a tool and toss out lesser devices. This 3-to-1 practice is it for freelancers, creators, and other solopreneurs.
The Magic Ratio
The magic ratio I refer to is a reflective tool that can be used as often as you like in almost any situation related to your work. It’s useful when you’re learning and building and it’s useful with maintenance, polish, and ongoing incremental improvements. It’s this: When evaluating your performance, your attitude, your technique, your systems, a relationship, or any other aspect of your enterprise, note three things you did well/work well and one thing that could use more work. That’s it.
Why It Works
This three plus one is so effective because:
It limits agonizing analysis, unproductive rumination, and worries about covering everything at once.
Identifying what comes to mind first is sufficient for progress.
Its regular use will get everything that matters recognized and addressed.
It gets the proportion of positive to negative right.
Its practice and the insights it generates mesh realistically with running a business day-to-day.
Consider that the three positive items carry more weight for your business success. Naming three things that went well (e.g., in a meeting or client session) helps in three critical areas:
cultivating awareness, tending to your mindset, and boosting your mood;
understanding the value you offer, your competitive advantages, your market differentiation, and how that supports business development; and
solidifying learning by recognizing it and maintaining a growth mindset.
By noticing only one thing in each review that needs improvement, you can better:
focus on what most needs improvement;
keep your weaknesses in perspective relative to your strengths;
build and focus on your strengths, which are more energizing and more conducive to business development; and
sustain learning, growth, and results in a way needed for long-term business stability and success.
The practice in action
What does this look like in real life? Here are rough composite examples from three different areas of my business.
Reviewing a single coaching session:
Positive: I’m starting to recognize what works best for each particular client.
Positive: It’s getting easier for me to serve a client best by just being myself.
Positive: Focusing on the prefect questions to ask is distracting; asking naturally from curiosity in the conversation gets better results.
Work on: Remember to ask clients what they got out of each session.
Note: I feel encouraged by realizing what’s working for me as a coach, validating my progress, and solidifying this information for next time while taking note of just one thing at a time I can do better in future sessions.
Evaluating my writing as a whole on Medium:
Positive: It’s quite easy to write articles based on the actual questions people repeatedly ask me.
Positive: I’ve now written enough articles on Medium to have real data on what topics and approaches I write about that people respond to best.
Positive: I now have a system for capturing good ideas for future articles and outlining them as I am inspired.
Work on: Think more about how to keep readers engaged throughout the entire article, start to finish.
Note: Upon realizing that my efforts are paying off and steering me in a solid direction, I have space to take on the next challenge.
Considering my recent client interactions:
Positive: I’ve been managing publishing projects for so long that I have supportive systems in place that work as they should again and again.
Positive: My contractors and I have figured out how to work together effectively with minimal stress, good communication, and high-quality output for clients.
Positive: I’m getting more client referrals from my LinkedIn contacts since I started re-posting my top articles there once a week.
Work on: I’ve been slipping on some follow-ups because I just forget. Re-commit to the habit of adding follow-up reminders to my task list.
Note: This review shows me how easy, solid, profitable my project management work has become after more than 25 years but reminds me not to get complacent or lose track of important outreach and niceties. The LinkedIn observation is important because although it appears the posts are getting ho-hum engagement, they are leading to increased referrals from those who know me well.
The ratio helps combat ANTS
Neuroscientist and wellness expert Dr. Daniel Amen thinks learning to prevent and combat the infestation of ANTS (automatic negative thoughts) may be the number one route to more positive feelings and a more positive life. Automatic negative thoughts can be challenging for any human being, maybe even more so for those of us facing the difficulties and uncertainties of self-employment. When we can’t control external circumstances we may turn on ourselves instead. When the business that bears our personal stamp of self-expression and cumulative efforts struggles, our brains take it personally. The three to one ratio diminishes ANTS by guiding our evaluations and creating a reasonable template for managing self-review.
Parallels with effective communication
The relationship and communication research of John Gottman and others provides insight into why this practice may be so effective and sustaining. Our own self-talk and evaluation is communication and how we relate to ourselves is a relationship.
Gottman discovered that a ratio of at least 5 to 1 positive to negative interactions in marriages predicted long-term stability, happiness, and enduring commitment. Lower ratios of positive to negative interactions or more negative interactions than positive ones were predictors of divorce and relationship dissatisfaction.
Extrapolating from the overall body of research in this area we get: Having more positive interactions than negative ones is associated with happiness, contentment, stability, health, well-being, and thriving. An equal number of positive and negative interactions may be associated with struggles, anxiety, and confusion. A greater number of negative interactions than positive ones is associated with dysfunction, unhappiness, poorer mental and physical health, and demoralized, low-energy attitudes.
What this tells me is that this simple tool and basic practice does not rest on empty promises of feel-good platitudes. It is not unrealistic or unreasonable to weight things towards strengths, positives, and what works. Rather, it is absolutely necessary to tilt our thinking in this way for elevated moods; a realistic sense of learning, growing, and improving over time; sustaining ourselves and our business; and remaining mentally and physically healthy and thriving.
Research backs up positively weighted interaction ratios for relationship vitality and my own experience validates three-to-one for positive business outcomes. But don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself for a week or two and report your observations in the comments. Thank you!