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!

My reply:

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.

Google destroys productivity

Google is trying to “organize the world’s information,” presumably to help us be more productive. But they make their money selling advertising. By definition, ads are things that distract us from what we’re trying to do and entice us to go shopping, instead. Whether or not the thing we’re shopping for is related to what we were doing is irrelevant; ads knock us out of the Zone in favor of shopping.

Even if we don’t click on the ads, if you’re like me, their mere presence is a bit of a distraction. Especially if they are animated or flashy or move.

As I discuss in chapter 4 of my book, restore focus by eliminating distractions. Use a plug-in like Firefox AdBlock Plus to eliminate as many ads as possible. And while I appreciate the convenience of Google products, if you find yourself getting distracted because you’re living in your Web browser, close the browser and use desktop applications that don’t pull you away from your task at hand.

How to Set Boundaries at Work

A critical part of getting work done is getting the rest of your life done, too! If you aren’t playing, having fun, and enjoying life, you won’t be able to get things done when you need to. You’ll just go through the motions, waiting for a freedom that never arrives.

This week’s Get-it-Done Guy podcast is all about how to set boundaries at work. Listen and enjoy!