Priorities, lists, and focus

There are many books written about productivity in any given year. The essence of most of these books is as follows –

1. Start with your priorities – the easiest way to get to these is to work backward from what you are seeking to accomplish.

2. Make a list of things you’d like to get done and ensure these are ordered in alignment with your priorities.

3. Block out distractions and focus to get everything you want done as efficiently as possible.

Rinse and repeat.

The 48 hour break

In his book “Ready for Anything,” David Allen shares a story about being stuck at a certain level learning Karate. Try as he might, he wasn’t able to break through to the next level. Out of frustration, he decided to take a break for a few weeks.

When he came back, he found himself breaking previous barriers with ease.

The lesson he shared in the book was one on the power of re-entry – “When you most feel you don’t need/can’t take a break is often when you most need one.”

Despite reading this book nearly a decade ago, this story is one that has stuck. Over the years, I’ve made an effort to be deliberate about breaks and re-entry. While these efforts have taken different flavors, the flavor I’m thinking about today is the weekend break.

Thanks to this story, I’ve experimented with various kinds of weekend breaks over the years. I have tried 24-36 hour technology black outs, no email Saturdays, and other such flavors. The current version that I’m liking a lot is the 48 hour break from work email. This means no looking at work email between Friday evening and Sunday evening.

I’ve implemented this over the past 18 months and have found that it gives me the space to re-evaluate how I’m approaching my work week while gaining much needed perspective on the challenging puzzle-of-the-moment. Most importantly, it provides the downtime to wholeheartedly connect with people that matter.

And, as I re-learn every week, re-entry is a powerful thing.

Channeling Zeigarnik

You know you have a project coming in 6 weeks. You don’t have the time to give it thought now. So, you wait.. until you realize there’s only a week left. At that point, you are stuck burning the midnight oil in a race to the finish line.

There is a better approach.

As soon as you know you have a project coming, open up the “Notes” app or its equivalent on your phone, title it with the project and add the first 2 or 3 thoughts that come to mind. Then, shut it down and move on to other things.

The effect of doing so – called the “Zeigarnik effect” – is that our brains consider the project as “incomplete” and will subconsciously look for ways to add to it/finish it over the next few weeks. Every time we get prodded, we just need to go back to that note and keep adding.

This approach works for a packing list for a future trip, for the slides for that big meeting, and even for that strategy doc you are thinking about. It bypasses the need for the last minute rush to the finish line and enables us to create better quality work.

Start early. Channel Zeigarnik.

PS: The Zeigarnik effect is why songs that we haven’t completed get stuck in our heads.

Maniacal prioritization

I’ve been mulling the the idea of “maniacal prioritization” recently.

When you’re the type who tends to have more you’d like to get done than the amount of time required to get all of it done, the only way I know to get through the experience with a semblance of sanity and satisfaction is maniacal prioritization.

Maniacal prioritization = Always push to have 1-3 clear priorities. Write them down when possible. Execute against them – ideally in order.

In the absence of clear priorities, I find myself flailing about in a flurry of activity with that niggling feeling that I’m going to be disappointed at myself for doing the wrong thing.

As an example, maniacal prioritization (for me) often involves clarifying that – as important as getting something done on a weekend might sound – rest and time with the family are more important. Doing this consciously guides the trade-offs that help with daily decision making.

“Engaging with engagement” was a new year theme for 2017 and the early part of 2018. My lesson from observing my ability to be present was that any failure in this regard came to a lack of clarity about what I was optimizing for. If I wasn’t clear that I was doing what was most important, it was impossible to be present. When I wasn’t present, I was less effective and I definitely wasn’t seeking to understand.

The solution?

You guessed it.

Maniacal prioritization.

3 lists of 3

3 lists of 3 that I find helpful as I start a week –

(1) What are the top 3 priorities for the week – across work and home?

(2) What are the top 3 priorities for the week – at work?

(3) What are the top 3 priorities for the day today?

I typically set (1) on Sunday, (2) on Friday before I finish up, and (3) at end of the previous day or at the start of the day. Maintaining consistency doing this has been a boon simply because it helps to know what I’m optimizing for as the week progress.

The principle – progress toward a goal is productivity. Everything else is activity. A simple productivity check at random points during the week, then, is – “are we aware of what goal we’re optimizing toward?”

Technique and force

In sports as in life, a focus on technique is way more effective than a focus on force.

Put in the context of this week, we’ll likely get more done by spending a few minutes reflecting on and refining how we approach our week than by squeezing in a few extra hours.

Brute force hits diminishing returns very quickly.

The 3 laws of effective breaks

The 3 laws of effective breaks –

1. The effectiveness of a break is directly proportional to the presence of natural objects (trees, natural food, even people we like) and inversely proportional to the presence of to man-made objects (laptops, phones, tall buildings).

2. The more effective the break, the more productive the rebound. Put differently, the more we disconnect today, the more productive we’ll be tomorrow.

3. The relationship between work and breaks/rest is best represented by a fractal – they need to work together at every level to be effective. (H/T Dustin Moskovitz)

Working in our job vs. working on our job

We spend a majority of our days working in our job. This involves doing what we are, at least on the surface, hired to do. For many of us who have the privilege to work in offices, it is some mix of problem finding and problem solving, bringing people together to solve those problems, and selling – lots of selling.

Working on our jobs, on the other hand, is all about taking the time to get direction right. Are we investing in the right products? Are we developing the right skills to operate in our workplaces, build and sell these products? Are we set up to work on the stuff that matters? Are we building the relationships that help us working “in” our job better? Are we making directional progress in our careers?

Working in our jobs vs. working on our jobs is analogous to efficiency vs. effectiveness and managing vs. leading. Our natural bias tends to favor a focus on activity, busy-ness, and efficiency. That’s why it matters that we force ourselves to carve out time every week to ask ourselves the effectiveness questions.

As Peter Drucker wisely reminded us, there is nothing as useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

The three main things

Before we wade into that ocean of email/messages on other communication tools and start working away on everyone else’s priority list, the first question for Monday morning is – are we clear about the three main things that will help us move the needle this week?¬†

It is okay if the three things evolve as we receive new information over the course of the week. It is also okay if we decide someone else’s main thing is more important than ours. It is just not okay to not have given our list of three things thought and definitely not okay to not have them written down someplace where they can be tracked.

In a workday with more communication tools than people we need to actually communicate with, the main challenge with getting things done remains the main thing. The main thing, it turns out, is to keep the main thing the main thing.

In the long run, everything else is gravy.