When I used my strategist brain to plan my wife’s birthday, the result was exemplary.

Ever wonder what would happen if you worked as hard at home as you do at…work?

I don’t hang on to surprises for very long. Whether it’s giving gifts early or revealing the destination before we get in the car, I’m not great at building anticipation. But, this time my wife turned 30 and absolutely begged me to surprise her…somehow.

Complicating the matter is that I threw my business partner a surprise party last June and it turned out great. I wouldn’t say I shot myself in the foot but the bar was definitely higher than normal. To execute a meaningful, memorable birthday for the love of my life I needed to bring my A-game, the same level of focus I take to work every day at Bush Smarts.

The weekend before the birthday, we were at the Renegade Craft Fair in Brooklyn.

The weekend before the birthday, we were at the Renegade Craft Fair in Brooklyn.

I attacked the birthday with three prongs of surprises: a bar night #1, a bakery party #2 and an overnight getaway without our little tyke #3. It felt just like a marketing campaign; her birthday would be “everywhere.” The result was absolutely spectacular, and we reaped the benefits for weeks after (wink, wink).

Timing is Everything

If you plan too early you increase the chance that she’s going to find out. We have lots of friends in our neighborhood that we see all the time. Someone would talk. I did my research, picked my locations and sent invites about 1.5 weeks out via Facebook and Paperless Post.

There’s No I in Team

My wife knows that I’m a creature of habit and if I deviate from the norm then something is up. I employed her friends to help execute the plan. One friend acted as the invitation to the bakery (#2) and another as the overnight babysitting for our son (#3). Other friends bought the cakes and smaller distractions to keep her on her toes.

War is a Game of Deception

The bar night (#1) was a red herring. She knew that she would have some kind of surprise, so I gave her that one early. On the night that we usually hang out with neighborhood friends she arrived to find a note saying everyone migrated to a bar. That was a giveaway, but that’s fine – it was supposed to be that way.

In the spirit of secrecy, I made sure to log out of social media accounts (notifications), didn’t let her see my phone and even skirted around booking the getaway with AirBnB – because we share that account. The easy alibi for “why can’t I see your phone?” is “some of your friends may have a surprise, and you don’t want to ruin it.”

Don’t Punish the Market

My wife is a stay-at-home Mom, so many of her friends can’t go out at night very easily. The solution was simple: the second surprise party for her and all of the other Moms at her favorite pie shop. Friends who couldn’t make the bar night were also invited.

Overall I wanted #2 to be an acknowledgement that I understand how socially isolating it can be to work an odd schedule and it was also a way for our son to celebrate with his Mom. It’s essential to listen to your market, right?

Buncha Moms partying hard at Blue Stove.

Buncha Moms partying hard at Blue Stove.

Be Willing to Sacrifice

Because I had three tricks up my sleeve (plan for the worst) I knew that if she discovered one of the surprises it could work to my benefit, because she would let her guard down about the others.

I almost had to spoil the bakery surprise, because she was running extremely late getting there. My son was throwing a fit that morning and that delayed meeting the decoy friend. I was waiting around the block so that I could dash in and grab my son’s overnight things. It took forever for her to leave!

Dictate the Tempo

Control when and how the experience unveils .

On the day of her birthday my wife thought that I went to work, per usual. When I knew she was on the way to Surprise #2, I texted her saying to be in a certain place at a certain time, in certain attire–also that someone would be at our house to watch our son. That was another red herring; she expected us to go somewhere that night.

Her friends texted me at the end of the party and I arrived behind her out of nowhere with a bag packed for the coup de grâce…

Paint the Picture

The main event was an overnight in Montauk, NY without our little guy. Because I’m a small business owner and the family breadwinner, we don’t get a lot of time alone together.

Checkout: Should a soon-to-be Dad start a business?

I wanted the trip to be reminiscent of our honeymoon (3+ years ago) where we drove across the Spanish countryside eating ham and cheese sandwiches on baguettes, enjoying carefree time.

Weeks prior I booked a small cottage a short walk from the beach. It had a BBQ on the deck and a wood stove inside. As strange as it sounds to non-Brooklynites, having a BBQ is an incredible feature for us. Earlier in the morning I picked up steaks, directly from the butcher and luckily had just collected our CSA the day prior for some potatoes and vegetables. Shoutout to Tim Ferriss / The Four Hour Chef for the recipe on Cooking the Perfect Steak.

Montauk in September: no traffic, beautiful weather and you get the whole place to yourself.

Montauk in September: no traffic, beautiful weather and you get the whole place to yourself.

Normally you would think cooking dinner and doing the dishes would be arduous for a birthday, but again it was a glimpse of our romance before we had our son and like most parents by the end of the trip we were missing the little guy. Variety is the spice of life.

Followup

Needless to say the triple-threat of surprises led my wife to call this her best birthday ever. I enjoyed telling her how things were planned along the way and it was an underhanded encouragement for her to be on-time in the future (so she doesn’t miss surprise parties)!

Going into the plan, I had the same anxiousness as a product launch, but as it unfolded the same joy and sense of accomplishment.

My high-performance business mind transferred perfectly into the ideal surprise planner for my wife, but that’s the problem.

It was sobering to realize how “on point” my thinking is when I’m working but how relaxed I can be (mentally) when going home to my wife and son.

They deserve my best too, so my takeaway is to save a bit more of myself for not just birthdays but the everyday joys that make marriage and kids so rewarding.

If you’re interested in more stories of performance strategy mixed with family life, I invite you to subscribe to my book updates. It outlines great advice in the “big steps” of adulthood and how to keep smiling when you fall down (again and again).

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Hack Your Spouse

If you come home and see the New York Times Sunday Style section taped to your floor, do not finish this article – RUN for the authorities (unless you have a ChowChow). This isn’t that kind of spouse hacking.

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It’s a touchy subject. Though it’s possible to brainwash and reprogram a human, you’re married and hopefully “all-in” with the person you put your head next to at night. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t intervene as the observant and interested party to help optimize the day-to-day life of your other half. After all, why keep all that life-hacking knowledge to yourself when you can use it to drastically improve the life of your favorite person on the planet?

I’m am an entrepreneur Dad, so my work is a combination of at-home, at-the-studio and around the country. My wife is a stay-at-home Mom; quite the oddity for the average Brooklynite. Our time together is limited, so when we do have it – I want it optimized!

Diet

This is the foundation. Healthy diets make healthy, happy people. Wherever your spouse is at a baseline, nutrition is the first line of defense in changing mood, demeanor, outlook, you name it.

My wife suffers from what we now know is Red Skin Syndrome (RSS), which is essentially a withdrawal from years of topical steroid use. In her case it translates to, at times, extreme to mild eczema symptoms. She used to joke that her skin was fine until she met me.

After some time, we realized that my granola habits influenced her to stop using the topical steroids (starting full-on withdrawal) and my Weston A. Price diet wreaked havoc on her histamines (all those fermented foods).

After extensive testing, elimination, thousands of dollars spent on oils, creams, lotions, dermatologists, etc., my wife dialed in a diet (somewhere between Paleo and Slow Carb) that works great for the whole family. Eliminating the food triggers that caused her skin to flare (coupled with a handful of natural healing aids) has made her happier and more excited for life. It was a tough couple of years getting through that.

Sleep

It’s not uncommon for you and your spouse to be on different sleep schedules, but the difficulty is when you want to go to bed at the same time at night–which can be a great, simple way to get in quality bonding. I’m a morning person and typically don’t need much sleep, whereas my wife needs a lot of sleep – largely because her body has been working overtime to heal the RSS.

I suggest creating a consistent sleep schedule and doing your best to control the sleep environment. I always make a point to go to bed at the same time as my wife and we keep our bedroom temperature consistent (68 degrees) to ensure quality time and a good night’s rest. This seems to work well despite outside factors beyond our control (we live on a noisy truck route).

It’s currently on pre-order, but I’m excited to try out the Sense sleep device to pursue a quantifiable approach to our sleep performance. If you want more in-depth research on how to hack your sleep, Dave Asprey’s work is wonderful.

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Workflow

There’s no manual for being a SAHM (stay-at-home-Mom), so I leaned in with my managerial mind to optimize my wife’s workflow.

Last summer I noticed that when I came home from work, it would be hours until my wife and I could have any quality time together. There was dinner, putting our son to sleep and then dishes upon dishes to finish the kitchen. This hack was a simple fix outside of my wife’s paradigm.

My company is bootstrapped and I’m the breadwinner, so there’s not a lot of extra cash flying around – she is excellent at making do with what we have. However, gaining an hour or more of time together each night is invaluable to both of us. The solution was a small, tabletop dishwasher that, if nothing else, would handle a day’s worth of dish ware, cups and utensils.

Over time you should take note of the things that your spouse isn’t willing to ask for (for whatever reason) and preemptively give or buy that thing if it’s really going to make his or her life easier. In this focus, think of yourself as the “facilitator of happiness.” You don’t create it, you just help pull down the road blocks that lead to it.

Romance

Confession: I didn’t read a single marriage book before getting married. My Mother-in-Law gave us The 5 Love Languages and as a lover of lists, I read the overview page and nothing more. Until my book comes out, I think it’s the only book the Life Hacking demographic needs. If you are dialed in to what makes your spouse feel loved, you’re golden.

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My wife loves quality time which, as an entrepreneur, is the hardest thing for me to give. But what I can dial in is the intensity of that quality time. To define the QT, I continually dive deep into what she really loves and cares about and give that to her as best I can.

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The goal of hacking your spouse is not to manipulate or derail their autonomy, but to offer your greatest insight as a conduit for you both to have a better life together. Like most social hacks, there are some shades of gray as to how this plays out in your life, but each principle is tested and sound. You may find, as I did, that by focusing on the happiness of the person you truly love the most, your own joy is fulfilled.

The Psychology of Apology

Last year I was in the thick of Bush Smarts. We launched on November 28, 2012, late and scraping what we could from the holiday season, and started the year in a roller coaster of getting hammered by (good) press and learning how to scale.  

I was busy and shouldn’t have taken on extra projects, but I had already agreed (in mid-2012) to help the National Eagle Scout Association with their social media for the National Jamboree (July 2013).

Yes, I'm an Eagle Scout. 2nd Generation in Fact. Credit: Hales Studio

Yes, I’m an Eagle Scout. 2nd Generation in fact. Credit: Hales Studio

Long story short, the process was slow going. I didn’t really know what I was doing, couldn’t fit into the very corporatized (not a criticism) organizational framework and backed out of being there, opting instead to run things remotely. They had decent results but it could’ve been much, much better. For one thing, this was my life before Gary Vaynerchuk. My leadership was weak and non-existent, not very Eagle Scout-like.

Last weekend I went to a best friend’s engagement party that turned into a surprise wedding. He asked me before the party to run the attendance sheet for the shuttle bus and I saw that the guy who ran the Scout event was going to be on the bus. We spoke on a quarterly interval prior to the scouting fallout, but not really after.

I wanted to offer an apology to “bury the hatchet.”

Here’s what I wrote:

Don’t take this as me being weird in a “harmful stalker kind of way” (great intro), but I wanted to let you know I’ve thought of you a lot over the past year and have really grown an admiration for you being such a hero career guy, Dad to many, husband to one and inspirational leader in Scouts and your community…

Looking back, I feel like a completely different person than I was last year – and that’s probably the 3rd year in a row I can say that. Particularly I’ve thought a lot about my involvement in the jamboree and how differently that could’ve gone (knowing what I know now). You were always very graceful through the whole process, and I appreciate that…

…If you hold any resentment towards me for falling short, I want you to know that I’m sorry and I hope you can forgive me. I’m really looking forward to catching up and celebrating together.

He wrote back very quickly, saying there was no bad blood and he totally “gets it.” Before he was a high-octane corporate lawyer, he had flaked out of many scouting opportunities to pursue internships, jobs, etc.

 I was glad to have the relationship reconciled and even invited him to visit Bush Smarts HQ before we left to go to the wedding. All was right with the world.

I think that genuine apology, forgiveness and grace are too often overlooked as valid exchanges in the business world. They matter. 

By showing some humility and seeking reconciliation I regained a valuable advisor and have one less thing weighing me down on the inside.

In the second story, I was apologized to for no reason.

The same day that I delivered my apology, I got an email from one of our drop shipping partners that we needed to send a Game Kit to a customer. I was on the way out of town, completely forgot to tell John, and it stayed on my to-do list all week until Thursday when we got an email from our partner that the woman hadn’t received the order (for obvious reasons).

 

That's a Game Kit. If you live in my neighborhood I'll deliver to you too.

That’s a Game Kit. If you live in my neighborhood I’ll deliver to you too.

 

Luck would have it that out of the entire United States, she lives in Brooklyn, off of my subway stop. I wrote the customer directly, cc’ing the partner, that I was dearly sorry for my mistake and would hand deliver it to her apartment. This was the interesting part.

The customer wrote back apologetically saying not only how unnecessary it was for me to do that, but also how sorry she was for not ordering the gift sooner. She was even willing to have it be late for her sister’s birthday if it meant me not having to deliver.

After work that night we coordinated delivery via text, and she apologized again and again that I had to do that – even though it was on my way home. As I walked away she texted to thank me again for doing it and gave another apology. I was quite fascinated by this, noticing two patterns:

#1. Women apologize too much.

This idea came to light in the media back in June when Pantene released a brilliant campaign encouraging women to #ShineStrong. I don’t feel qualified enough to prescribe why some women apologize too much, but it is a highly-measurable phenomenon and worth exploring.

#2. Favor-Debt

The normal dynamic surrounding favors is that when you ask someone to do you a favor, the person who does the favor feels indebted to the person who asked. Doesn’t seem to make sense right?

This phenomenon was most famously discovered and utilized by Ben Franklin who used it to gain favor with an opposing Pennsylvania politician. I just read about it in The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday and also this Forbes article.

Ultimately Bush Smarts gained a big win with that customer and I even got a followup thank you from our drop ship partner saying how above-and-beyond that was – all after I had made a huge oversight! This is not to say at all that you should orchestrate failures to create these silver-lining situations, but rather that in any situation you should focus on finding the upside.

© Copyright 2013 WORK.LIFE.DAD