Check out the new article in BBC Capital about Why We Should All Give Up on Goals Already. The title is a bit sensationalistic, but the article seriously asks when do goals hinder, rather than help, achievement.
Here are articles on Focus
Targeted Ads are the Worst of all Possible Worlds
The justification used for the incredible invasions of privacy on the part of the internet marketers of the world is that they want to serve us “targeted” ads. Targeted ads are ads that relate to what we’re doing at the moment. Theoretically, if I’m having a discussion about how my child is dying from kidney failure, that’s exactly the moment when I’ll feet eternally grateful to be shown an ad for how to overcome that embarrassing middle aged male incontinence issue.
All joking aside, targeted ads seem worse to me than random ads, even aside from the privacy violations. I am online to get things done (sometimes work things, sometimes social). I am rarely online to buy things, and when I am, I know it.
A “targeted” ad has a much higher probability of successfully distracting me into a purchase experience and completely derailing what I’m trying to do. An untargeted ad, though distracting, is much easier to ignore and far less of a drain on my productivity.
Perhaps if I intrinsically valued purchasing things, I’d welcome targeted ads. But I don’t intrinsically value buying things.
So on the very rare occasions I’m in buying mode, targeted ads are a good thing. But in the rest of my life, which is 99% of the time, targeted ads are downright destructive.
Efficiency Might Be Bad
I’m a huge fan of system dynamics and the understanding of complex systems that has come from the field that Jay Forrester invented.
This is a superb article by the late Donella Meadows about the leverage points in complex systems, in ascending order of effectiveness.
Alas, most of the things we do to try to change our social and economic systems use only the least effective levers.
Tonight I’m especially struck by #9, delays in systems. Delays of information and material movement can throw a system into or out of sync in ways that utterly change the system’s characteristics.
For many years, we’ve been operating as a society under the implicit assumption that speed = efficiency. The faster things are, the fewer delays, the better off we are.
But this isn’t necessarily true. Increasing the efficiency of communication decreases the time between communication we have to understand and respond. We end up in reactive mode, rather than thoughtful mode. That’s one of the pernicious effects of email. Many people take action on email as it comes in, rather than taking action only on what’s important. That can make the difference between overload and achievement.
Removing communication delays also seems to reduce our tendency to prepare. When you can make changes to your presentation all the way until the night before it’s due, then you will. In prior years, when you had no choice but to finish early enough to send your slides to be duplicated, you actually had time you could then use to rehearse and concentrate on delivery, rather than on making last-minute changes.
Read the article. Let me know your thoughts, if you still have enough attention span to make it through, after all the years we’ve spent training ourselves to operate in a purely reactive—but oh, so efficient–mode.
Is texting in meetings rude?
Do you think it’s rude to text/email during a meeting?
Some say it’s multitasking. An article I read celebrated “the skill of following along in person while simultaneously [doing other stuff]” Alas, that skill simply doesn’t exist. Our brains are not wired to multitask, and splitting attention vastly decreases the quality of thought we bring to the individual activities.
Furthermore, even though you may not consider it rude, it can have very real negative effects for you. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely discusses this in his book The Upside of Irrationality. When someone took a quick cell phone call in the midst of an interaction, the person they were interacting with was quick to retaliate by not returning a cash overpayment. (He then showed that an explicit apology offset that effect. So perhaps texting then apologizing is fine behavior.)
If the text or email is relevant to the task at hand, perhaps we can adopt the same policy we did in elementary school: let the team leader see the notes being passed back and forth. Next time someone texts in a meeting, they have to show everyone the text sent and the response. Then the group can decide whether it’s worthwhile
Want to Change a Habit? Enlist People!
As much as you can adopt systems to help point your life and job in the direction you want, systems fail if you don’t use them. And if you’re like me, that promise to work out 3 days a week has a way of taking back seat to dinner invitations, long hours at work, and dessert-eating contests. Good intentions aren’t enough.
The only thing I have found that consistently helps me change behavior is to set up accountability structures that involve other people. As much as I’m sacrifice my promises to myself on an altar of Oreo ice cream cake, I am much better at keeping promises to others.
Right now I am helping a client make daily progress on an important project just by calling daily to hear one to-do item a day. He feels compelled to choose an item that he can tell me, and our talk is the trigger to get him to take the action.
Do-It-Days are another example–they use group accountability every hour to keep you moving on a single productive day.
If you want to change a behavior, develop a skill, or change a habit, enlist someone else–a co-worker, family member, or friend–to be your accountability partner. Share your goals and progress with them, and have established regular contact around your goals. You’ll find that, in the words of the Beatles, you’ll get by with a little help from your friends.
Are You Forgetting The Big Picture?
The Big Picture
A client asked me to facilitate her senior team’s big picture, strategic planning retreat. It was a $200 million company. They listed important issues on the whiteboard. Item #1? Replace the refrigerated water fountain with a ‘green’ ground-cooled fountain, to show commitment to the environment. Worthwhile? Maybe. But… strategy? big picture? Not even remotely.
We do this in our daily lives, too. A friend tied himself up in court for a year to win a few hundred dollars damages from a fender bender. Was he right? Sure. Was that a good use of his time? No way.
The Big Picture Guides Decisions
“The big picture” matters because it tells you how to spend your time. It guides decision making. If you’re starting a business to build a world-changing empire, that’s one thing. Creating a comfortable business that runs on four hours’ effort a day so you can have free time for friends and family is something different. Even when doing the same activity—building a business—a different big picture leads you to make different decisions in the day-to-day.
If you lose the big picture, you can go very far afield. I once had a client who had 60 employees. The company was bringing in a couple million a year, but it all went to salary for the employees. My client was sleeping on friends’ couches because he wasn’t paying himself a salary. He was living the “build an empire” big picture when what he wanted was a comfortable life. Linking his big picture and his day-to-day transformed his life. By closing his company and becoming a sole practitioner, his income and lifestyle became everything he wanted.
The big picture also gives you important information. If someone makes a bad decision, how you judge it depends on the big picture. If a money manager loses money after representing themselves as a knowledgable professional who manages risk, that mistake may be very bad, indeed. But if someone is carefully investing calculated amounts with the goal of teaching themselves investing, that same loss may be a very good thing. It’s a chance to learn that will help them make good decisions later. A big picture of “I’m guaranteeing your security” versus “I’m learning my craft” changes how we treat the outcomes.
Revisit Your Own Big Picture
Are you paying enough attention to the big pictures in your life? Next time you make a decision or form a judgment, stop and pause. Consider the big picture. If you’re making a decision, what is the reason for making that particular decision? Is there a big picture point of view that will make the decision easier or more obvious? “Should I take out a loan to buy this car?” It’s easy to believe this is a real decision … until you consider that you take the subway to work, you have no need to drive, and you just like the mental image of how you’d look in a cool, sporty convertible. At least in my life, a big picture of “I want to be cool” versus “I need a car to survive in my daily life” makes the decision obvious: no loan, on any terms.
When you make a snap judgment, it’s also a good time to revisit the big picture. “She’s a poor employee because she missed three days of work last week.” If your big picture is “I want compliant workers,” you’d be tempted to give her a pink slip. But if your big picture is “I want skilled employees who do a great job,” you might dig deeper to find out she’s completing her masters degree, coping with finals, and her extra skills are already showing up in the form of high-quality work.
Spend time on a regular basis to revisit your big picture. You may find it guides you towards not only towards a better decision, but towards a wise decision as well.
Our Intuitive Knowledge Isn’t Always Right!
I was recently listening to a lecturer discuss how risk-taking is an integral part of “the entrepreneurial mindset.” He was very inspirational. Unfortunately, he was also flat-out wrong. There has been a lot of research into the psychological qualities of entrepreneurs. What has it concluded? There is no “entrepreneurial mindset”–entrepreneurs are a very diverse group. But especially among lifelong entrepreneurs who have experienced multiple successes, there is no evidence that they are any more risk-taking than anyone else. In fact, they do everything they can to mitigate risk.
My point, however, has nothing to do with entrepreneurs. It has to do with conventional wisdom. We intuitively (or culturally) want to believe that entrepreneurs are a special breed of person. That way, we have an excuse to be an entrepreneur if we deem ourselves “that breed.” Or we have an excuse *not* to be an entrepreneur if we aren’t “that breed.” Either way, we get to shift the responsibility for the decision to our personality type, rather than our decisions and efforts. That makes the very notion of an “entrepreneurial mindset” attractive, as a flexible rationale we can use for all kinds of stuff.
A lot of conventional wisdom is similar. The American myth that CEOs are somehow to credit for the entire performance of their companies, for example, is unsupported by any data whatsoever. W. Edwards Deming, the statistician who created the Total Quality movement, said that no more than 10% of a company’s performance could be attributed statistically to the CEO, and then only in highly unusual cases.
The problem is that our minds aren’t very good at understanding complex things. For 100,000 years, our minds weren’t able to do much beyond farm. Then we invented the scientific method, which was the first time we had a rigorous way to separate our intuitive-but-wrong ideas from the nonintuitive-but-accurate ways the world really works.
There is a lot of poorly-done science in the works. There is also a lot of excellent science, which is why we live 2x as long as our ancestors, in comfort, with electric lights and polar fleece.
Especially in the human potential fields–self-help, business leadership, etc.–there is a substantial body of research about how people and human systems actually work. Much of that research has even been popularized and published in books accessible to everyday people.
Before jumping on the pleasant, inspirational stories propagated in our cultural myths, take the time to read some of the research-based books on the topics. You can even go further and read the studies the books are based on. Some of the science (or the way it is being interpreted) may be ‘iffy,’ but some may be solid. And you may learn how the world *really* works, which will only make it easier for you to create the life you want.
(*) this is what I did for the Get-It-Done Guy episodes on visualizing for results. “The Secret” doesn’t work. They’ve done controlled experiments to find out. But some slight tweaks in the visualization technique *has* been shown to boost results. Not because of a deep spiritual principle, but because the right visualization gets people motivated and moving to make their dreams come true.
Learning to learn: How to get better at what you do
I’ve been reading the book Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. In it, he describes the kind of deliberate practice you have to do to get good at something. This is extremely important! If you’re doing anything new with a learning curve, you can vastly accelerate that learning curve with the right kind of practice.
I’m learning to sight-sing (sing directly from a musical score) despite playing no instruments and having no musical background. Not only do I have to learn to sing, but I must learn to read music, to hear pitches, to match pitches, etc. It’s a very difficult learning curve for me, at a time in my life when I’m many years away from the last time I tried to learn an entire skill set from scratch. Here’s how I’m using deliberate practice to accelerate my learning.
First of all, I have to deal with the fact that sight-singing is skill-based. No amount of intellectual understanding can help me get it any faster. I need to drill. I drill every day. It is very clear that daily drilling separated by sleep cycles builds capability. There’s a measurable improvement every day in my skills. That’s neat. It’s frustrating only because there doesn’t seem to be any shortcut. The results only show up when I put in practice time during the day with sleep in between.
When I notice a chronic problem in my practice, I design an exercise for that particular problem. For example, there are certain intervals I just can’t remember. So I plunked out little made-up songs (with words and imagery) 30-seconds long on my keyboard that emphasized the troublesome intervals. Then I listen to them for 20 minutes each day until my brain starts to memorize them.
Learning to sing intervals is trickier because I have no outside source of feedback to know if I’m doing it right. Often, I’m not. To the extent possible, I use a piano for feedback. I sing slowly with a piano keyboard, and concentrate on listening to the external sound of the keyboard and of my voice, rather than my internal imagination of what the note *should* sound like. I’m gradually becoming able to sing most intervals.
One intermediary skill in learning to sing intervals has been to explicitly develop comfort singing a note when it sounds dissonant. If a note is playing and I’m supposed to sing a major 7th above it, I have to hold that note even if it sounds a bit jarring to my ear. So paradoxically, I’ve had to develop the skill of singing a note even when my ear tells me it’s out of tune. Because it’s in tune, it’s just a dissonant harmony.
My next step is to work on stretching the range where I can hear and sing intervals. I’ve discovered that I’m essentially tone deaf below G. I never noticed before, but I can’t even tell which notes are higher or lower in that part of the keyboard. Unfortunately, drilling that one seems to require an external keyboard. For reasons I don’t understand, my iPod keyboard doesn’t produce the same confusion that an external keyboard does. When I get my hands on the right equipment, my next set of self-drills will all be around developing that part of my range.
Next time you are learning something new, don’t just practice; practice deliberately. Design exercises to stretch yourself where you’re having trouble. You’ll find if you stick with it, it’s possible to learn much more quickly than you ever though possible. (And no, it doesn’t feel any easier. You just make faster progress through the uncomfortable parts.)
Why I Like Paper
A reader wrote in:
I read your suggestion about the 3×5 pad and it sucks! That’s because I hate paper and pen note-taking. I want something that I can carry with me anywhere on my handheld and which will also prompt me, just like a personal assistant, not something which will load me with the extra work of transcribing to a master list! As if I am not burdened enough already! Look, I need something to help me gain lost time each day. Something to boost my productivity and tidily organise my intended activities in a manner that enables me to take action on them!
The reason I like paper is that the transcribing *forces me* to confront whether or not a particular task is important enough to copy by hand. If it isn’t, that’s a sign that it probably isn’t important enough to keep on my list. The key to freeing up time, ultimately, is saying “No” to commitments and then vigorously protecting the time you’ve freed up.
If time is getting lost, you need to stop doing the things that you define as “losing” it. Smartphones are often big time losers. Yes, the phone is a fun toy, and yes it can do cool stuff, but measured *in terms of my getting my important work done* (as opposed to my unimportant, imagined work), it’s probably doesn’t make me that much more productive.
The problem is that it speeds up some things, but it slows down others. For example, I type about 1/3 the speed on my smartphone as I do on my desktop. I may find it convenient to respond to email on my smartphone, but it’s actually making me *less* productive. And even if I could answer email at the same rate, the moment I click on a link and spend 5 minutes web browsing or playing a game, any email productivity gains get lost as I waste time goofing off.
If you’re brave enough, try keeping a log for a couple of days. Note what you get done on your smartphone and what you get done at your desk, and how much time each takes. You may find your smartphone boosts your productivity. Or you may find it doesn’t. For looking up phone numbers and addresses, my smartphone is awesome. But does it really save time? I used to clip someone’s business card into my rolodex and I’d memorize it after 2-3 calls. Now I have to retype or scan-plus-double-check each card to get it into my address book (or pay someone to do it, which means earning the money to pay them). And then I *always* have to look them up, because I no longer memorize.
Assuming I make 5-6 calls a day, am I really more productive with an electronic address book when you take all that into account? I suspect yes, but I probably save a few minutes a month, *not* hours.
In short, I like paper because it forces me to think. I like technology because it’s fun and sometimes convenient. But I never assume that paper is automatically bad, nor do I assume technology is good. Like any tool, test it out and be careful that adopting a new, faster tool in one area doesn’t slow you down in another.
Give Yourself Some Slack Time
One of the most important things that I’ve learned is that you can only be up to 100% efficient – you can’t get 25 hours of work done in a day. How do you know when you’re at the point of diminishing returns?
We all want to believe we can add one more thing to our plate without it being a problem. But there’s only so much time in a day, and that tiny one-more-thing can be what tips the balance. Have you seen the last scene in the Meaning of Life by Monty Python? A huge man is eating a gigantic meal. At the end, he’s offered a tiny, wafer-thin mint. He eats it and explodes.
The two indicators I look at are my stress level and my slack space. If I have so much on my plate that I’m constantly thinking about the next thing and always rushing to get stuff done, that’s an indicator that my time is pretty much full. I’m at that point a lot at the moment, actually.
You can also consider whether you have enough slack time in your schedule. You need slack to handle unexpected work and personal things that crop up. If a single slipped schedule or car breakdown throws your whole life into chaos, you probably have too much on your plate and need to drop something.
Becoming more productive at what you currently do can, of course, free up some time. But even that isn’t a panacea. It takes time and effort to find alternate ways of doing your work, and then more time and effort to implement those. At some point, it takes more time and effort to improve your performance than the time and effort you actually save from improving. When you’ve reached that point, you’re doing as well as you can. If you’re still overloaded, it’s time to remove things from your plate so you once again have room to breathe, relax, and cope.