Some days my normal task list doesn’t cut it. To easy to be distracted, and not stick to the task at hand with 100% focus. At its worst, the more pressure I feel, the slower I seem to move. The end of the day looms with zero progress on important projects.
Wouldn’t I rather just get things done? GTD. Yes, ideally I’d move everything even a tiny bit ahead.
On the most productive and successful days I look back to see that I’ve advanced 8-10 tracks forward. This is positive for two reasons: 1) I want to spend time in more than one area, and 2) I’d like to start something in each track to unblock and gain momentum.
To systemize the day I often throw out my GTD software (closing the Things app) and go back to simple paper tools plus a timer.
Index cards or a printed list. Write one task per card, or one task per line on the big paper. Start the timer. When it ends, flip to the next card or list item. Repeat.
A timer. Could be the Clock app on the phone, or something like BreakTime.
The use of time intervals to organize work is commonly known as the Pomodoro Technique (Wikipedia).
I alternate between 20 minutes on, 5 minutes off — or longer intervals of 50 minutes on, 10 minutes off. The length depends on criteria such as urgency, amount of items to get moving, and other obligations and distractions.
In short: I turn to simple paper tools plus a timer to systemize the day when I need to focus. To get many tasks moving, I close my task manager and other apps to remove distractions. Maybe mute or turn off the phone. Bring out the paper tools, start the timer, and get to work.
Decision journals are designed to create a log of the decisions you’ve made and why you made them. To both capture a snapshot of your thinking at the start, then use the notes to improve your decision making process when you review it later.
I haven’t made this a standard practice yet, probably because it feels like too much overhead. These days when reviewing success and failure I find myself reflecting back without a full picture of where my mind was at the start. What have a I learned in between? Will I repeat the same mistakes? How can I repeat the top bets that paid off?
For example, for a given decision, what do I expect to change? What am I betting on, and how will I know if I’m right or wrong?
In 2018 I hope to be better at stating my intentions ahead — taking the time to create the snapshot of my thinking at the start. Blogging this publicly to keep myself accountable for journaling the decisions at the start.
Bonus: Two recent mental models for framing your decisions as “bets” that I’ve come across, in case you find them helpful.
Ray Dalio’s expected value calculation in Principles (see my book review):
Make your decisions as expected value calculations. Think of every decision as a bet with a probability and a reward for being right and a probability and a penalty for being wrong. Suppose something that has only a one-in-five chance (20%) of succeeding will return ten times (e.g., $1,000) the amount that it will cost you if it fails ($100). Its expected value is positive ($120), so it’s probably a smart decision, even though the odds are against you, as long as you can also cover the loss.
I first heard the concept of uncovering competing commitments in a talk by Rich Sheridan of Menlo Innovations. On the topic of embracing change he pointed to the act of uncovering as a key activity when teams are blocked. And when addressing low performance.
In the Q & A of this session I asked:
When someone isn’t performing well, how do you motivate them to change in the positive direction — without using fear-based tactics around losing their job, if they don’t turn things around?
For general performance issues, always check in with them as a person first. What are their other commitments? [He then referenced the HBR article about reasons for people’s resistance to change]. If it’s truly a performance issue that needs addressing, and the fear is no longer artificial, communicate that clearly as you kick it off.
Curious to dig in more, I thought: what are other possible causes of low performance, and how am I doing in my assessment of those cases to separate the perception from the truth?
Competing commitments are detailed in the article Rich shared: The Real Reason People Won’t Change. The authors describe concealed commitments that block change where people hold on to and hide their assumptions. To get to the truth, they suggest an exercise is to turn the questions or complaints around — rephrasing them — to find out what they are worried about and how it’s preventing their success. And more important, which part they play in resolving it.
At the team level this exercise often takes a deeper dive over a long period of time. Something I haven’t found on my teams that we take time to do, especially with large groups of people, many moving parts, and urgent deadlines. Partly because taking the time derails progress; the abstraction of examining complaints and gathering enough data to find the source of low performance. That takes precious time away from shipping continuous product iterations for customers, which is our primary mission.
One pattern I’ve seen with projects that go on too long, the responsible parties in the end often admit they didn’t know quite how to solve the problem. Or, they ran into a blocker that needed help outside the team. But they didn’t feel comfortable openly admitting it.
Based on this research, I can now say that disagreements passively held are often indistinguishable from poor performance.
A lack of passion or drive — which in turn blocks progress to follow up or complete something — could indicate someone isn’t connecting personally to the goal, or to our company culture, or their team.
Which helps answer the questions: 1) Why does someone “go dark?” and 2) Why does a team underperform?
A key point from my experience is that when you uncover the assumptions behind the low performance, you might find out that the underlying fear or disagreement is real. By pointing to something real — together — you can discover the missing alignment. The commitments made after that discovery shine the light on the truth and guide the next steps. Steps toward clarity and alignment.
This book is now a “daily devotional” for me; less holy scripture and more mindset for effectiveness in business, life, relationships. The improvement on my thought patterns was immediate: I noticed the ideas and principles coming up in daily work and life conversations, the mindset for effective time tracking and outward focus on contributions accelerated my career growth, and I deepened my understanding of business and how best to run an organization.
My all-time favorite — now well-worn and bookmarked — is September 4, “Practices of Effective Executives.” A distilled summary from his bestselling book of the same name.
The September 4 “Daily Drucker” reading details the five practices for effectiveness: 1) know where your time goes 2) focus on outward contributions 3) build on strengths 4) concentrate on superior performance and 5) make effective decisions.
Which ties perfectly into Ray Dalio’s masterpiece where decision making is a key theme.
As I said in the beginning, this book hit me with a wall of new insights. I’m still processing it after 3 reads! Hat tip, Matt.
Top highlights of the book for me:
A winning formula: meaningful work + meaningful relationships + making a living. This ties in well with the freedom and mission that WordPress and Automattic stand for—a livelihood for anyone in the world with a website, blog, or shop.
Good principles are effective ways of dealing with reality.
Beware ego block by remembering that you’re looking for the best answer, not simply the best answer that you can come up with yourself.
Use pain to trigger quality reflections, learn what causes your pain and what you can do about it. This is the most effective habit Ray developed over 40 years.
Practice being open-minded and assertive at the same time, and think about your and others’ believability when deciding what to do. Find the most believable people possible who disagree with you and try to understand their reasoning.
Ideas versus decisions. Meritocracy is for hearing everyone’s voice — not for everyone making the decision.
You’ll find much, much more in the book; see also the book’s website: principles.com and social media. On LinkedIn Ray’s been sharing the most popular principles as readers give him feedback — with short audio clips.
I suggest buying both electronic and the hard copy. In 2018 I’ll share more thoughts and insights from the book, plus share experiences and learnings from putting the principles into practice.
What were your top books from 2017? Did anything become a must-read or daily habit?
My word of the year for 2017 seems to be energy — some days I have, some days I have not. With clear results depending on the day and my energy level.
The following thought comes to my mind each day as I face the first decision of the morning: get out of bed and exercise, meditate, and read — or sleep in and feel more rested?
Use energy to get energy. George Leonard in Mastery
In the past my decision hinged on whether I thought one choice or the other would lead to a better Lance-at-work or Lance-at-home. Of course the right answer is both (chuckle).
Here’s the full quote.
The long road of always learning trumps a quick-fix mentality. To avoid burnout use energy to get energy, maintain physical fitness, tell the truth, set priorities, and stay on the daily path. Find joy in goalless practice itself. The plateau isn’t something to avoid; in fact, it’s one of the most important parts of the journey, and where you’ll be the happiest.
Like skipping meals, missing key rituals I’ve set up to start each day — habits that provide me with energy — means that I don’t perform at my highest level. High as measured by my presence and output at work. Not to mention the negative effect on my relationships and mood and self-esteem resulting from a lack of energy.
I’ve deepened my understanding of what this “energy” means. Leonard’s Mastery taught me about giving energy to get energy. How to Think About Exercise by Damon Young reminded me that fitness can bring much more than just bodily pride: it leads to intellectual and spiritual results: “We shouldn’t exercise only for health.”
Extensive research in sports science has confirmed that the capacity to mobilize energy on demand is the foundation of IPS [ideal performance state].
The sports metaphor is appropriate. As knowledge workers we also train, exercise, and grow. Here are my takeaways from the research:
Energy is defined most simply as “the capacity to do work.” Training starts with the physical level because the body is the primary source of energy and “the foundation of the performance pyramid.”
The enemy is not stress but linearity: the failure to oscillate between energy expenditure and recover. And stress can be a motivator and positive thing. I recommend looking up eustress if you want to learn more. “The problem is not so much that their lives are increasingly stressful as that they are so relentlessly linear.”
Physical stress can be a source of greater endurance as well as emotional and mental recovery: work fewer hours and get more done. In one case a manager saw success by increasing the good kind of stress in her life. “Because [Clark] no longer feels chronically overburdened, she believes that she has become a better boss.”
View the full article for the visual description of the “High Performance Pyramid” — for now, here’s how I understand it:
The performance pyramid is a mental model of energy, starting at physical and moving to cognitive, and finally to spiritual. Connecting everything with a higher purpose.
The calm and quiet at the end of year is a great time to evaluate progress, see what’s working well, and what’s not working. I love that Cate posted her Habits that Helped in 2017.
Her words reminded me of a lovely message I received from a Top Performer survey:
Microsteps, eh? Mmmkay.
One small yet impactful change I’ve made successfully in the last several years is focusing more on my health and wellness as a foundation for focus and energy at work. “Use energy to get energy” as George Leonard says in his book Mastery. [I’ll share more thoughts on energy — and that quote — in another post.]