Thriving in Uncertainty

With all the rapid changes happening around us, it seems like the only certainty is more uncertainty. While some enjoy the chaos, the everchanging landscape makes it hard to set worthwhile goals that can be realistically achieved. Rather than give up, is there a way to cope with uncertainty?

Tiago Forte explores this question in a recent post on this website titled How to Thrive in a World of Uncertainty. It is part of his exploration of the concept of 12 Favorite Problems. In this piece, he shares an important shift to our thinking that makes all the difference.

Goal-setting was once central to our conception of what it means to navigate the future successfully. But goals can no longer serve as guides to an unfolding future that we have so little control over.

But this doesn’t mean that we have to throw up our hands in defeat. It doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do to influence our fate. It just requires us to make a shift from leading with goals to leading with questions

What does he mean by this? In essence, he proposes a way to embrace the uncertainty and use it as a force for creativity and accomplishment.

Questions ask you to start with what you don’t know but would like to discover. They draw in others to pitch in and make their own contributions. They serve as open invitations to collaborative projects, versus the solitary path of individualistic achievement envisioned by goals.

In a world of uncertainty, questions are more powerful than answers. Answers serve you for a season, but a question lasts forever.

Read the posting to learn more about this shift in perspective, including three values proposed by physicist Richard Feynman that can make the transition smoother and more enjoyable.

The Key to Mastery Is Not What You Expect

Many coaches instruct their clients that the best way to be good at something is to practice it over and over again. It is thought that narrow repetition of a specific move, skill, or technique will lead to mastery. However, it seems there is a better approach that will generate lasting benefit.

In an article on Scott H, Young’s web site, he points to recent research that supports the idea that variability is even more important than straight repetition. This is due to the idea of contextual interference. Young explains:

Contextual interference occurs when you practice the same skill, but vary the situations in which it is called for.

For instance, you could practice your tennis backhand by being served backhand shots repeatedly. Alternatively, your coach could mix things up: serve you backhand shots interspersed with balls that require a forehand shot.

Or imagine preparing for a calculus exam: you could study all the questions that require the chain rule, then all the questions that use the quotient rule. Instead, you might shuffle these questions together so you can’t be sure which technique is needed.

Young goes on to point out why contextual interference improves mastery. One of the reasons is:

Identifying problems correctly and ensuring the correct technique is associated with the problem. A major difficulty in learning isn’t getting knowledge into your head—but getting it out at the right time. Practice that repeats the same technique in narrow situations may result in skills that aren’t accessible when you need them.

Learn more about the advantages of variability in your training by reading the rest of the article.

12 Grand Challenges

What is the future of Local Government?

This past weekend fifty-one delegates from across the country came together in Omaha to shape that future. The event was the Local Government 2030 National Convening. With a purpose to discern the lessons from the future, the group worked over two days to find ways to break down silos and create the groundwork for change. I was honored to serve as a Super Delegate to help guide the work and keep everyone thinking big and bold.

A starting point for the Convening was provided by the National Academy of Public Administration. As a way to set out the problems facing government and inspire answers, they devised the Twelve Grand Challenges in Public Administration. These challenges are part of an agenda for change. As the Academy states on its website:

As the world moves quickly from the industrial age into the information age, new challenges have arisen and demands on government have increased. But the public sector has often been in a reactive mode—struggling to adapt to a rapidly evolving international, economic, social, technological, and cultural environment. Over the next decade, all sectors of society must work together to address the critical issues of protecting and advancing democracy, strengthening social and economic development, ensuring environmental sustainability, and managing technological changes. And governments at all levels must improve their operations so that they can tackle problems in new ways and earn the public’s trust.

Each of the twelve challenges focuses on a specific goal. For example, one of challenges is to “Modernize and Reinvigorate the Public Service.”

Federal, state, and local governments deliver vitally important services to the American people each and every day. If it is an important need, public agencies at one or more levels of government are likely to have an important role in meeting it.

Learn about all the Twelve Grand Challenges in Public Administration and more about the Local Government 2030 National Convening through the links provided.

Five Meeting Rules from Ray Dalio

Bad meetings are inevitable. Good meetings are fortunate. Great meetings are designed.

Meetings are a core component of knowledge work. However, very few people are trained on how to run them effectively. A focused, structured meeting benefits all the participants and moves everyone closer to their goals. Therefore, it is important to understand how to run a successful meeting.

Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, has thought very deeply about the workplace. In addition to the unique methods that comprise the Bridgewater culture, Dalio has set out specific rules for productive meetings. A recent article in INC magazine focused on five of them. The first is very simple yet often overlooked: clarify the meeting’s purpose.

Dalio says that you should emphasize a meeting’s purpose well before it begins. That way, everyone can walk into the meeting prepared and the group can be intentional with their time. He also adds that “Meetings without someone clearly responsible run a high risk of being directionless and unproductive.”

Another rule of successful meetings is to avoid “topic slip”:

Topic slip, as defined by Dalio, is the “random drifting from topic to topic without achieving completion on any of them.” If you’ve ever left a meeting feeling more confused than when you walked in, topic slip is a likely culprit.

To dive deeper into these two rules and then learn the other three, visit the article on the Inc website.

From Hope to Trust

How confident are you that all your priorities have been captured outside your head?

For most people, their regular practice is to keep their responsibilities and duties saved only in brain cells. Storing these things in our fallible minds makes it hard to be confident about our next actions. Once people discover this problem, they often try to create elaborate systems to remember. However, this may prove just as problematic. GTD founder David Allen explored this problem in a recent blog post:

It’s natural to want to create a system for priority coding (like “A, B, C” or the flagging feature in many apps) to tell you the most important things to do. But it’s a short-term insurance policy that won’t give you the trust you need when the time comes to take action.

If these complex approaches don’t work, is there a better way? David certainly believes so as he adds:

People would often love to be able to give up the non-stop accountability for their intuitive judgment calls about the moment-to-moment allocation of their resources. That’s why the ABC-priority and daily-to-do-list structures have often seemed so attractive as a way to “get a grip.” But reality has a way of requiring us to be more on our toes than that.

So how can we really know for sure what action to take? Prepare for the worst, imagine the best, and shoot down the middle.

Dive deeper into this philosophy by reading the rest of the post.

Projects vs Areas

Do you have something that is lingering on your to-do list? If so, it could because you have confused a project with an area.

David Allen has often said that the major challenge for knowledge workers is defining their work. Unlike task workers whose duties are given to them by others, the knowledge worker must figure out how to complete their assignments. In many cases they have to determine the specific tasks that needs to be done.

One stumble that knowledge workers encounter is mixing up projects and areas. Failure to differentiate between these two can lead to frustration. In a recent blog post, Tiago Forte clearly identifies the difference between the two.

project is any endeavor that has 1) a desired outcome that will enable you to mark it “complete,” and 2) a deadline or timeframe by which you’d like it done.

An area of responsibility has 1) a standard to be maintained that 2) is continuous over time.

In short, projects end, while areas continue indefinitely.

Understanding this can help clear up a lot of confusion. To explain further, Tiago provides examples:

  • Running a marathon is a project, whereas Health is an area
  • Publishing a book is a project, whereas Writing is an area
  • Saving 3 months’ worth of expenses is a project, whereas Finances is an area
  • A vacation to Thailand is a project, whereas Travel is an area
  • Planning an anniversary dinner is a project, whereas Spouse is an area

Learn more about how to approach projects and areas by reading through Tiago’s post.

Get It Out of Your Head

Even though I have taught productivity practices for over ten years, I still find myself being human and slipping back into old ways. Recently I forgot where I placed something important. It happened weeks ago and I have no clear memory in my head about where it could be. It is very frustrating!

Has that ever happened to you?

This incident reminded me of a central tenet of GTD that should be written on my brain. It is the simple practice of getting stuff out your head and into a trusted system.

David Allen, creator of GTD, has often said that our mind is a crappy office space. It is designed for having ideas, not holding them. Despite our remarkable ability to remember lots of things, the mundane details of life can easily escape our memory at any point. This doesn’t take long to happen. For example, have you ever misplaced the keys that were in your hand five minutes ago? How about the promise you made to your boss about meeting a deadline that sailed out of your head the moment you left her office? And how do we ever forget those big events that one should always remember, like a family birthday or anniversary?

Thankfully, the solution to all this is very simple. Keep lists of important items in a trusted place. For me I use the reminder app and calendar on the iPhone for personal items and my Outlook calendar and its reminder functions for work items. The trick is to overcome the inherent human laziness to put off work to another day. The best practice is to put these reminders into your system immediately to ensure they are captured.

When a system like this is set up, it becomes automatic to complete anything. One example from my life is an end of day list that pops up at 8 pm. This includes items such as ensuring the cars are locked up for the night, that the dog gets her pill, and that my daughter has her school laptop on the charger. It is all simple stuff, but easy to forget when tired brain takes over at the end of a busy day.

Therefore, I invite you to recommit to the practice of getting stuff out of your head and into a trusted system. It is the best way to go to bed with a clear head.

The Theory of Constraints

Tiago Forte recently opened up the members only posts on his web site to all readers. Now his hidden gems can be explored by productivity enthusiasts across the world. In honor of this event, I want to highlight an early set of postings that really drew me into his work. It is an eleven-part series breaking down the key points in The Theory of Constraints. Each part in the series is a short read for quick understanding.

What is the Theory of Constraints? I’ll let Tiago describe it:

The Theory of Constraints is deceptively simple. It starts out proposing a series of “obvious” statements. Common sense really. And then before you know it, you find yourself questioning the fundamental tenets of modern business and society.

Eliyahu Goldratt laid out the theory in his 1984 best-selling book The Goal. It was an unusual book for its time — a “business novel” — telling the story of a factory manager in the post-industrial Midwest struggling with his plant. The problems this manager faces are universal, of course, and not only for manufacturing. For 30 years now, readers have recognized their own situation in this fictional story. This flash of recognition is the hook drawing you deeper into the TOC world.

In the first posting Tiago introduces the central concepts of the Theory that are truly paradigm changing.

The first statement that TOC makes is that every system has one bottleneck tighter than all the others, in the same way a chain has only one weakest link.

This is followed by another key statement.

The second statement is that the performance of the system as a whole is limited by the output of the tightest bottleneck or most limiting constraint.

Read the first posting to learn more about this celebrated system improvement process. The entire series is posted here.

Leading Your Team to Productivity

Back at this year’s Florida Library Association annual conference, the FLA Professional Development Committee released a video highlighting productivity practices, tips and tricks from three leaders in the library field. I was included along with Dr. Leo Lo, Dean and Professor of the College of University Libraries and Learning Services and Dr. Vanessa Reyes, Assistant Professor for the School of Information at the University of South Florida.

I was interviewed by Amy Harris, Instruction & Assessment Librarian at Saint Leo University. During my portion of the presentation, I discussed the basic principle of GTD and how to apply them in the workplace.

The full video can be found on YouTube.