4000 Weeks

It is easy to think that with enough time we will be able to accomplish anything we want. However, the truth is that our days on this earth is limited. Some of it is restricted by commitments that others put upon us, but most comes from those we place on ourselves. With limited time, most of the items on our Someday/Maybe list will never be completed. This may seem grim, but it also serves as the inspiration to do great things.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, reporter Joe Pinsker shares an interview with author Oliver Burkeman about his new book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. In the book, Burkeman states that the average life span of a person lasts around 4000 weeks, roughly to about the age of 80. With this finite perspective in place, a person can tackle the challenge of determining what is most important to them.

“The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short,” he writes. Given this limitation, it makes sense that the typical approach to time management is to seek ways to cram ever more into our finite number of days.

But Burkeman argues that this is the wrong way to manage time. Rather than looking outward to productivity strategies and hacks, Four Thousand Weeks encourages an inner shift in perspective. It confronts a series of comforting illusions that many of us hold onto instead of internalizing colder truths: that we will die not having done a tremendous number of things we care about; that every commitment we make to a person, place, or line of work rules out countless others that may fulfill us; that our lives are already ticking away.

Later in the article, Burkeman makes a statement that seems to sum up his philosophy.

The only way to get around to the important things is: Instead of trying to eradicate all the other stuff, [make progress] on the important stuff first. You just have to let the other chips fall where they will.

Read the full interview on The Atlantic web site.

Think Like a Scientist

The world is full of disagreement. Throughout our lives we encounter people who have different views from us on a wide range of topics. In some cases, these views may be held very intensely, leading to arguments, conflict, and at worst violence. If you have ever tried to change people’s minds, it can appear to be a futile process. Why is that so?

According to Adam Grant, part of the reason that disagreements are rarely resolved is because people don’t know how to engage in thoughtful debate. He argues in his new book, Think Again, that most people fall to one of three default modes of persuasion. In a recent article in Inc. magazine, contributor Jessica Stillman describes these modes this way:

Adam Grant

Preacher: “When we’re in preacher mode, we’re convinced we’re right,” explained Grant. From the salesman to the clergyman, this is the style you use when you’re trying to persuade others to your way of thinking.

Prosecutor: “When we’re in prosecutor mode, we’re trying to prove someone else wrong,” he continued.

Politician: It’s no shock that “when we’re in politician mode, we’re trying to win the approval of our audience.”

The problem with all three of these modes is that they rarely succeed in changing other person’s mind. In fact, they often create more resistance. Instead, Grant identifies a different approach to resolving disagreements.

Scientist: When you think like a scientist, “you favor humility over pride and curiosity over conviction,” Grant explained. “You look for reasons why you might be wrong; not just reasons why you must be right.”

This mode is challenging because it requires the maturity to accept that their position could be wrong. This vulnerability can become a bridge to connect people in a way that allows for understanding. To learn more, I invite you read Stillman’s article. If you want to dive deeper, please read Grant’s book, Think Again.

Critical Thinking – The Smart Thing to Do

Have you ever known someone who was very intelligent, yet made dumb mistakes? Take the story of Jonah Lehrer. He was an up and coming New York Times journalist whose career collapsed after a plagiarism scandal. Then it was discovered he fabricated quotes he attributed to Bob Dylan then lied about the source. All around the world smart people fall for scams, conspiracies, and tricks. It seems that having a PhD, membership in Mensa, or honored credentials from prestigious organizations does not prevent foolishness.

Scientific American journalist Heather A. Butler explored the intersection of intelligence and decision making in an article titled Why Do Smart People Do Foolish Things? In it, she points out that intelligence is not about being wise.

The most widely known measure of intelligence is the intelligence quotient, more commonly known as the IQ test, which includes visuospatial puzzles, math problems, pattern recognition, vocabulary questions and visual searches.

Image from Pixabay.com

Butler contrasts it to the skill of critical thinking.

Though often confused with intelligence, critical thinking is not intelligence. Critical thinking is a collection of cognitive skills that allow us to think rationally in a goal-orientated fashion and a disposition to use those skills when appropriate. Critical thinkers are amiable skeptics. They are flexible thinkers who require evidence to support their beliefs and recognize fallacious attempts to persuade them. Critical thinking means overcoming all kinds of cognitive biases (for instance, hindsight bias or confirmation bias).

Butler goes on to share why it is important to understand the difference since it is hard to increase intelligence, but one can train to improve critical thinking skills. Read her article to learn more.

Is Productivity just is a Phase?

When did you decide to seek out personal productivity practices?

Many people do so when they feel overwhelmed by their work. Perhaps they have been given more and bigger projects or received a promotion with lots of responsibility. Others might have changes in their home life, such as a new child, that prevent them from putting in overtime. For these reasons and more they must become more efficient. Either way, personal productivity practices often make a huge impact on our work, but are they an end in themselves or a means to another end?

According to Tiago Forte of Forte Labs, learning personal productivity practices is only one step on a person’s journey. In fact it is an early stage. In a recent post on his web site he states:

I’ve begun to realize that the concept of “personal productivity” is just a season in people’s lives. It is a temporary phase that we each pass through on our way to other things.

Productivity as we know it is largely an entry-level concept. It caters to people just beginning their careers, starting their first professional jobs, or moving to new roles that demand a higher level of personal output.

Why is it attractive to people in an early stage of their professional life? Tiago believes it is due to leverage.

The reason productivity is just a phase is that it is relatively low leverage. “Leverage” refers to the ability to do more with less, such as using a lever to lift a boulder that you’d never be able to lift on your own strength.

You do need to reach a certain level of proficiency in your personal productivity. But once you do, you can go beyond it to greater sources of leverage. And you must, if you want to accomplish more while working less.

What are those other sources of leverage? There are many options.

Learn about these other sources of leverage by reading the rest of his posting.

Shortcuts are the Long Way Round

Let’s face it, work can be hard. Faced with the burden of putting in long hours to perfect a skill many of us search for ways to shorten the time. Some of these approaches are useful. From my own experience learning GTD was a great shortcut to being more productive and it helped clear my head to make better decisions. However, not all shortcuts are created equal. In fact, some are a waste of time.

In an article on his web site titled Focus On Your Skills—Not On Finding Hacks, Darius Foroux shares from his experience how searching for shortcuts to success can never replace building building skill in a discipline.

Look, one thing I can share from personal experience is that building a business or career is HARD. It takes a lot of time and energy to learn new skills so you can provide value

And trust me, I’ve tried to look for shortcuts and hacks over the past ten years. Maybe I’m missing something those geniuses are selling, but I can’t find it. To be sure, I’ve connected with many successful entrepreneurs over time.

I’ve been very lucky with my father, who’s a successful businessman himself. Through him, I met many people who’ve done well for themselves and their communities.

And every single one of them said the same thing. There’s no way around hard work.

He goes on to share what he claims is the least exciting advice in the world.

Keep yourself to a very high standard. Ask yourself: “Am I proud of the work I’m delivering?” 

Whether that’s in your creative or professional work, don’t settle for “meh” work. It doesn’t have to be the best in the world. It just has to be your best. That will do two things for you.

It will help you to improve. And it will help you to value your own work. 

Read the full article on Foroux’s web site.

Have Less to Do

Our society values more. We are constantly pushed in our careers to gain more responsibility. Commercials continually encourage us to buy more stuff. Having more to do than can be ever be done is seen as a sign of success. However, having more is only good up to a point. After that, having more is actually an impediment to happy and productive life.

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founders of Basecamp, wrote about this in their book, It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work. They set out to make their company the opposite of how most technology companies operate. No 60-80 hour weeks; no endless meetings; no pressure to perform every day. One of their fundamental operating principles is that having less to do is better than more. As they wrote on page 172-3 of their book:

Management scholar Peter Drucker nailed it decades ago when he said, “There is thing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all!” Bam!

At Basecamp we’ve become ruthless about eliminating either work that doesn’t need to be done or work we don’t want to do.

I have recently appreciated that eliminating extra items from my work life is the best way to become productive. Just as it is easier to juggle one ball instead of ten, having only a few top projects is easier to manage than dozens of low value projects. I often think back to a conversation with Pat Losinski, CEO of the Columbus Metropolitan Library. When I asked him for advice on being a Library Director, one thing he shared was, “Focus only on what the Director can do.” By that he meant don’t get caught up doing work that other people could perform. Do only the things that are your own responsibility, then delegate or eliminate everything else.

To that end, how can you find ways to purge your workload? After all, the less you have to do, the better you will do what you are doing.

Important vs. Urgent: The Presidential Edition

Have you ever had one of those days where you were busy non-stop, but afterwards you felt like nothing got done? Most of us spend our days in a reactive mode as different people assign us work that is vital for them, but not for you. However, when we are caught in the busy trap it is easy to forget our own priorities. Is there a way to keep your own goals front and center in the face of worldly demands?

President Dwight D. Eisenhower understood this challenge. As the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II and then a successful two term President of the United States, Eisenhower had lots of urgent items brought to his desk. The difference for him was to make sure that the urgent never eclipsed the important. To ensure that he accomplished his goals he created a decision matrix now known as the Eisenhower Box. It was based on this line of thinking that he shared in a 1954 speech.

“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

The Eisenhower Box (or Matrix) is a simple four square grid. A visual of this box can be found here. Whenever any item came across his desk Eisenhower would decide whether it was important (aka aligned with his primary goals) and/or urgent (aka time constrained). His choice of what to do next was based on the answer to those two questions.

  • Important and Urgent = Do it immediately
  • Important, but not Urgent = Defer it (aka place on calendar)
  • Not Important, but Urgent = Delegate to someone else
  • Not Important nor Urgent = Drop it immediately

For a more detailed explanation of the Eisenhower Box, please review this article at the Todoist web site authored by Laura Scroggs. Then go ahead and put it into practice yourself. After all, if it worked for President chances are it will work for you!

Windows of Opportunity

The game show Jeopardy has been in the news this past year for several reasons, the most tragic of which was the passing of longtime host Alex Trebeck. Another reason was their all-time champion competition which crowed Ken Jennings as the show’s greatest winner. This was due in part to him being fast on the buzzer, having a wide range of knowledge, and good game board strategy. Recently Jennings stood in as the first post-Trebeck host. Despite his skills at the game, he is very humble about the streak of 74 games in a row that made him famous. In a recent article on SI profile, Jennings highlighted an important decision that helped him win that first game during final Jeopardy. The answer to the last question (or is the question to the last answer) was Marion Jones. Jennings only wrote “Who is Jones?” which might not have been enough information for the judges to consider it correct. As he says in the SI profile:

“That’s the moment it all hinges on,” says Jennings of the split-second decision to accept a Marion-free Jones. “It’s comforting to think of the world as a meritocracy, that the right people succeed, but that’s not always true. My whole life hinges on whether or not I put a first name down and whether the judge nods right there. I feel extremely fortunate and I think about it literally every day, because I love what I do.”

One of the great mysteries is why some people achieve enormous success while others doing the same thing get very little. Those who thrive usually credit it to their determination, hard work, intelligence, or skill. A few honest people also point to luck as Jennings does above, but it is also more than that. In 2003, Jeopardy eliminated a rule that forced champions to retire after winning five games. When he went on the show in 2004, this rule change allowed him to go on his record winning streak. Compete two years earlier and he would have finished as another anonymous five time champion. Ken Jennings took advantage of a Window of Opportunity.

In a recent blog post, Tiago Forte wrote about how our opportunities are not unlimited. They come in specific Windows of Opportunity, an idea he learned from Space Adventures founder Eric Anderson. As Tiago writes:

A Window of Opportunity, according to Eric, is “A rare set of circumstances and a brief moment of time in which an otherwise impossible outcome is potentially achievable.”

He then shows how understanding this idea can change the perspective on timing when crafting goals.

Windows of Opportunity is a revolutionary way to think about goal-setting, because it recognizes that there is now one factor that is decisive in your ability to reach your goals: timing. Timing has become even more important than vision, hard work, or planning. That “T” at the end of SMART, which stands for “Time-bound,” is no longer an afterthought tacked on at the end – it is the most important element of your goals.

Read the rest of Tiago’s article on the Forte Labs website.

Basecamp’s Written Approach to Communication

It is a cliché nowadays to say how much people hate meetings. However, very few organizations have found a way to successfully avoid having them on a regular basis. It would seem there is a natural tendency for people to come together in a real or virtual room to discuss issues or advance projects. However, some organizations have tried to eliminate meetings by crafting a different priority straight into their DNA.

Basecamp, a company that produces project management and internal communication software, has decided that the company works best when its employees focus on written communication. According to their Guide to Internal Communication:

You can not not communicate. Not discussing the elephant in the room is communicating. Few things are as important to study, practice, and perfect as clear communication. Real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time. Internal communication based on long-form writing, rather than a verbal tradition of meetings, speaking, and chatting, leads to a welcomed reduction in meetings, video conferences, calls, or other real-time opportunities to interrupt and be interrupted.

Basecamp Press Resources

Why do they believe long form writing is the better way? It has to do with an understanding that most communication is asynchronous.

Communication shouldn’t require schedule synchronization. Calendars have nothing to do with communication. Writing, rather than speaking or meeting, is independent of schedule and far more direct.

Read the entire Guide to Internal Communication to learn more about how Basecamp encourages employees to keep each other updated on their projects.