Give Thinking Its Space

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In an interview I watched a while back, Bill Gates talked about what he learned from Warren Buffett in regards to time management. When Gates was still learning the ropes of leading, he took pride in scheduling every single minute of his calendar. It was packed, and he carried his busy-ness like a badge of honor. Buffett, on the other hand, gave Gates a hard time about this because he was slow to learn the problems with this style. To prove their polar opposite habits, they opened up Buffett’s paper calendar during the interview. For that particular week, Buffett had only one appointment, and there were days and days left in the month with absolutely nothing scheduled in it, and it wasn’t vacation.

Buffet shared that when a CEO packs every minute of their calendar, they leave no room for the very thing they need to be doing: thinking. How is a leader suppose to strategize and solve problems successfully if they don’t give themselves space to think, to reflect, to plan? People wanting your time comes in endless supply, but you are in control of your time. Buffett emphasizes that while he has lots of money, he still cannot buy himself more time.

The next time your day is booked with meetings, calls, and emails, ask yourself if they were really worth attending to? Did you even talk to your team today to see how their work is doing, what problems need to be solved in the trenches? Were you able to discover differences between important and urgent tasks?

Or, perhaps, would it have been of better value to utilize that time strategizing, planning, and leading with 100% focus and commitment? There are no excuses, just choices.

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Less is More

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I’ve been hooked on reading an autobiography of my favorite soccer player Michelle Akers called The Game and the Glory. I can’t put it down. I wrote more about it in a previous post that you can read here. I can resonate so much with her willpower and determination, and this keep-going attitude. Nothing stops her, not even the Chronic Fatigue Immune Deficiency Syndrome (CFIDS) she was battling.

There is one story that really stuck out to me indirectly as I struggle with it all the time—and that’s the need to pace yourself, to care for yourself and rest. In the book, Akers describes how her trainer had a very specific program to follow in order to help prep her for the World Cup tournament. This training was specific and took into consideration the effect that CFIDS had on her body. Week after week, Akers’ performance numbers were going down. Thinking that Akers was perhaps slacking, the trainer was puzzled and frustrated and confronted her about it.

As it turns out Akers was training the 2 hours per session as instructed, but slacking was far from the truth. The trainer didn’t know that after training with him, Akers was putting in another 2 hours of practice. There was a thinking that if she put in double the time, she would output faster results. It didn’t work that way. Her extra training beyond scope actually hurt her body double time, and it took longer to recover from that extra strain.

This story sticks out because I do this all the time. I’ll cram in a 48 hour day into the 24 hour template and then pay the consequences of tiredness for days after. Or I’ll push through anyway and weeks later it all catches up to me. Push more, work harder, work faster…it doesn’t always output the results you intend. Often times, I deeply burn out. For whatever reason, I keep relearning this lesson again and again and again—and again. It’s a habit that is so hard to kick.

As Shauna Niequist writes in her awesome book, Present Over Perfect:

“I want less of everything. Less stuff. Less rushing. Less proving and pushing. Less hustle. Less consumption. […] I’ll come back around this block a thousand times in my lifetime, probably. I hope I’m getting better at it.”

And I want to get better at this too.

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Track Successes Too

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Some habits go the extreme and become rituals. Not that all rituals are bad, but some become a rigid obsession for better or for worse. One of my favorite things to read about are the lives of people and their habitual rituals, which made the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey a fascinating read.

Benjamin Franklin had a strong obsession to habitualize “moral perfection” and practiced perfecting one virtue per week. It seemed quite philosophical of a habit. He went to the extreme of tracking his offenses with a black dot on his calendar daily. This of course is quite unrealistic, but I admire him trying to be so moral. You can read more about the thirteen virtues Franklin studied and his paper tracking system across the internet.

What I would reverse if I practiced this ritual in hopes of forming a habit is to track my successes rather than my offenses. Our society is so big on tracking failures, but we rarely track the good things we do, the wins. It’s important to recognize your failures in order to learn from them, but the successes are important too, even the small ones. When you do good, you want to continue. When you track an offense, you are more willing to quit.

As it turns out, Franklin’s habit tracking here didn’t last long.

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Learn to See

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When I studied art, I always thought drawing in realistic was difficult because it required acute attention to shadows, light, and shapes as well as the stories they tell. I could exaggerate these truths with my preferred cartoon style. Ed Catmull, Co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and President of Walt Disney Animation Studios, points out that “Art is about learning to see, not drawing.”

He goes on to explain that learning to see can be hard. Sometimes it involves failure, and failure can have emotional aspects to it. He stresses that leaders need to make sure it is safe to fail so your team can progress faster. Don’t punish or give embarrassment. To further progress their team, Pixar strives on learning new things. They take research trips to discover something they don’t know anything about, which fulfills knowledge. Then they also take silent retreats to take care of their souls and be better at being themselves, which fulfills emotional wellbeing. Both of these qualities contribute to Pixar’s creative success. Other leaders, such as Bill and Melinda Gates, follow this same soul-searching practice.

Encouraging curiosity and well-being: I think every organization can learn from this style of leadership and teamwork.

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Accelerate Your Learning in 20 Hours

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I have an obsession with learning. I really have a hard time going one day without opening a book, reading an article, or listening to a podcast. I deeply love learning new things and building up skills to achieve my goals. However, one of the things you discover about yourself while you learn is that there is SO much that you don’t know! I mean, it’s great that I’m ambitious about studying something a bit each day, but it’s also overwhelming to know how much I still want to learn. I start reading something, and then I think ooo I want to learn that! I start coding something, and then I think ooo I need to learn that! Pretty soon I have a list a mile long about everything I want to learn, and this can sometimes lead to paralysis.

The truth of the matter is though we cannot be masters of everything—and this is okay! In the podcast called Good Life Project, Jonathan Fields talks with Josh Kaufman, learning hacker and author, about accelerated learning: how to get good at anything in 20 hours. Twenty hours beats the 100 I’ve been spending, so I was intrigued to listen. In the discussion, Kaufman provided some great tips, and I left with a few aha’s:

1. You don’t need to be a master.

Can we all breathe a sigh of relief on this one? I am a bit of a perfectionist at times, and when this gets in the way of my learning I can be studying subjects forever trying to master every detail of foundation skills before continuing. This is a great reason why I struggled in some of my school classes—because I’m learning the “terms” and “foundation” of computer programming or statistics or whatever, but I’m not putting the pieces together to create a larger picture. There is a lot of foundation and terms involved when learning subjects, but you don’t need to know all 925,994 of them at one time before continuing on to apply the knowledge and create something…which leads me to the next point.

2. Learn by achieving a goal.

The desire-to-learn itch first starts with interest, some sort of passion to learn the thing you are trying to learn. Often times, this passion is attached to a goal—Stay on track with your goal! If your goal is to learn how to build a to-do-list android app, don’t be learning how to build a shopping app in xcode because you think this will teach you the “foundation of all app development”. I’ve made the mistake here too often trying to learn “all of programming” to complete my project only to find myself getting frustrated, bored, and going nowhere. If you have a specific goal, you are better able to narrow down your focus to learn only the subject areas required to achieve your goal. This will save you time in the process, and you’ll be more passionate about it because this learning will directly impact your goal. When you see results, you are more likely to continue.

We are often not trying to learn something in order to be a master at it. We’re trying to learn just enough to accomplish a goal, complete a project, finish a task, or do some sort of action.

3. Sleep on it.

Kaufman shares a tip supported by research about how you can better learn material when you interrupt it with sleep. He suggests learning in the 4-hour window before you go to sleep, then wake up in the morning and revisit your learning first thing. That sleep interruption does something to help you absorb what you just studied. It can be overwhelming to learn something new, and this sleep break is good. When you wake up, you are refreshed, and the repetition of revisiting what you learned helps promote clarity and understanding of the material. It’s like a reflection exercise to review what you learned.

In summary, in order to learn something quickly, we need to set a goal we are passionate about (and be specific here!), learn only the skills needed to reach this specific goal, and get a good nights sleep surrounded by some study-time bookends. Sounds pretty doable.

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Podcast: Accelerated Learning: Get Good at Anything in 20 Hours, Good Life Project


Unplug at Night and with Distance

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On an episode of MarieTV, Arianna Huffington shared her tips for improving sleep. She is a big advocate for sleep after passing out from exhaustion during her startup years. She suggested to not place your phone next to your bedside at night. You should place it across the room or outside of it to steer you away from viewing your screen at night and really wind down from internet noise.

After some practice, I did end up developing this habit over a month ago now; and I must say it’s a small change that has been very beneficial. I charge my phone across my bedroom now, and when I set this up each night, it gives me permission to really shut off distractions like email and social media browsing while laying in bed. Because my phone is my alarm clock, this walk across the room to shut off my alarm gets me up right away each morning without hesitation or the easy opportunity to hit snooze. Of all the habits I have been trying lately, this one has stuck with me quite well.

There are holes, however; though it’s not directly related to the habit. For example, staying off my phone at night doesn’t necessarily make me have a better night’s sleep. Just because I’m off my phone doesn’t mean my mind completely shuts off. I’m still an avid thinker being the night owl that I am. However, the permission to stop electronics at night is great, and the immediate walk to turn off my alarm in the morning is even better—in fact that is my favorite benefit.

If you keep your phone at arms reach from your bed at night, I encourage you to give this habit a try. It may at least help you better define your start and end sleep times.

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Podcast: Arianna Huffington on Redefining Success, MarieTV


The Proactive Model

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Stephen Covey describes the difference between proactive and reactive people. Perhaps is easy for us to identify others as being proactive or reactive, but how about yourself? I thought Covey introduces the concept nicely by breaking down the word responsibility—which breaks down to “response-ability”. How do you choose to respond to scenarios? This is important because your response impacts your ability to succeed. In summary, Covey says:

“Proactive people are still influenced by external stimuli, whether physical, social, or psychological. But their response to the stimuli, conscious or unconscious, is a value-based choice or response.”

Value-based decisions resonate so well with me because I feel it’s the uncommon route for many. How wonderful the world would be if this type of decision-making process was at the core. It’s hard to stick to your values when the external stimuli is trying to influence you otherwise generally for someone else’s hidden agenda.

You do have the ability to choose your response, and this proactive response will get you ahead.

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Get Things Done

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Your brain is not a storing device. It is a thinking tool.

David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done, provides a good outline for managing the many to-do’s everyone has on their plate. He emphasizes that “Your brain is not a storing device. It is a thinking tool.” As of such, it is best to create a productivity system that gives room for your brain to think. Allen recommends the following to-do-list system which encompasses 5 to-do-lists and a tickler system.

Projects List: (Review weekly): If something has more than one action task, it is considered a project. Capture the project name and its goal in this list.

Next Actions List: (Review daily): This list is the main list of concrete actions to take. Ensure every project finds its way to this list. Don’t be vague here. Write literal tasks with action verbs.

Calendar Appointment: (Review daily): All your meetings and events should be captured in your calendar, separate from your next actions list.

Waiting For… List: (Review via tickler): If you are waiting for someone else or another item that your action depends on, write it in this list, and get it off your mind.

Someday/Maybe List: (Review monthly): These are a group of miscellaneous lists such as trips you want to take, music you want to listen to, books you want to read.

Tickler System: (Review daily): For things that don’t require your immediate or upcoming attention, the tickler system is a way to store future tasks so you can clear your mind of them when not needed. When the timing is right, you move the items to your “next actions” list and be on your way.

Additional Tips

  1. Make your productivity system mobile. This way you can knock out your “next actions” list at unexpected times on the go.
  2. Only practical, concrete tasks should go on your “next actions” list. This list is telling you what needs to be done. There is not much else thought into it other than knocking these tasks off your list. Ensure the tasks are actionable in language, using verbs and a clear understanding of what to do.
  3. When you are reviewing your lists, remove anything unimportant. Really, if it’s not worth doing, remove it right away.
  4. Take care of small things immediately. If a task in your “next actions” list takes two minutes or less, just do it, and kick it off the list right away.
  5. Appointments and deadlines do not belong in your “next actions” list because they are not tasks. Hold these items in your calendar only.

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