The Stopping-Off Point

November 22, 2014

I’m quite keen on reading posts on productivity, even though I rarely come across anything startlingly new. The principles seem timeless, it’s their disciplined implementation that’s hard, or at least very challenging.

One such post, recently seen in the The Chronicle of Higher Education lists ‘The Habits of Highly Productive Writers’. One point did however grab me:

“They leave off at a point where it will be easy to start again. Some writers quit a session in the middle of a sentence; it’s always easier to continue than to begin. If you know where you’re headed the next time you sit down, you’ll get there faster. There’s an activation-energy cost to get things brewing. Lower it however you can.”

I realised that when I write I usually split items into tasks and aim to finish them off, one after another. Consequently I start each one from scratch, which usually means there is an obligatory period of procrastination or prevarication before I get into the flow (especially when tasks span days).

Bearing the above advice in mind, once I’ve finished a task (say, reviewed and published a blog post), I’ll now try sketching out the main aspects of the next one or two so that when I approach them I’m not starting cold i.e. I’ll be changing my stopping-off point. Alternatively I might even go so far as to write the first few sentences.

It’ll be interesting to see if this becomes overall a better process. The approach is not limited to just writing of course, it can apply to nearly any task.

On the same day as reading the above article, I read a couple of related ones (although very different in slant) but which also discuss overcoming barriers to writing and publishing (or most things actually).

One, by James Clear, discusses the clash between Goals and Systems. It’s a good read and here’s an extract:

“As an example, I just added up the total word count for the articles I’ve written this year. (You can see them all here.) In the last 12 months, I’ve written over 115,000 words. The typical book is about 50,000 to 60,000 words, so I have written enough to fill two books this year.

All of this is such a surprise because I never set a goal for my writing. I didn’t measure my progress in relation to some benchmark. I never set a word count goal for any particular article. I never said, “I want to write two books this year.”

What I did focus on was writing one article every Monday and Thursday. And after sticking to that schedule for 11 months, the result was 115,000 words. I focused on my system and the process of doing the work. In the end, I enjoyed the same (or perhaps better) results.

Let’s talk about three more reasons why you should focus on systems instead of goals.”

The other, which sounded a bit too detailed for me personally, but which had some good points to think about was the software product Vitamin-R (Mac only, but there should be lots of Windows alternatives). This emphasises the habit of time-slicing and monitoring tasks, something I’ve often found quite effective in the past.

You can read about the philosophy behind the product (which is the important part anyway) in the User Manual, which is a free download. You can then try to adapt it to any system you use, or else you can trial or buy the software directly if you prefer (a recent review of it is here).

See also: Start The Day With An Unfinished Sentence.


Teaching To Learn

November 9, 2014

how-we-learn-slideshow-1-728

In this context it’s also invaluable to remember that:

“You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” – Albert Einstein

Doing the latter is actually not common or easy as people often take lots of things for granted eg jargon. This is related to the so-called ‘curse of knowledge‘.

See also a previous post on the role of collaborative conversation in education.

Topic first spotted on the blog of Nick Milton.

Picture credit here.


Saying No Effectively

October 30, 2014

Parse_NOb

I’ve written a number of times (see below) on the importance of saying ’no’ to certain business situations even if they sound quite enticing. It’s obviously easier written about than actually done so it was interesting to read how some very successful people handle this.

On his blog, Dan Martell, a Canadian entrepreneur, gives some principles:

I do have some “non-negotiables” for my replies:

  • I never lie
  • I always respond (as long as it doesn’t look like mass spam)
  • I always give a yes or a no

together with some sample responses, including:

Take a meeting

Thanks for reaching out. Unfortunately, scheduling a meeting is tough, lets start with an email. How can I help?

Attend an event

Thanks for the opportunity, but I’m already committed that day. Appreciate the invite.

Read a long email

Thanks for reaching out, but unfortunately I won’t be able to process your full email. How can I help?

Involvement in a new project

Thanks for thinking of me, but unfortunately I’m over committed with Clarity (his company) + a growing family. I’m going to have to pass this time.

I keep a fairly detailed journal on what I do every day (initially I was curious where all my time was going…). However, in spite of blogging about it, I’ve realised that I don’t particularly write about things that I decide not to do or to follow up.

This is a bit more than having vague ideas and noting them down for further thought but rather definite decisions that are made (some will, with hindsight, be mistakes of course!).

In the examples above, it’s illuminating that whilst the answer is ‘no’ a hand is held out to do something smaller and more manageable (‘how can I help?’).

The skill then becomes to keep involvement at this practical level and for this not to be misinterpreted as the first step in agreeing something more time-consuming.

Related:

Saying No To New Ideas

The Power Of Yes And No Journals (I obviously didn’t decide to implement this on a regular basis!)

Never Say No Immediately


Cultivating Collaborative Conversations

October 20, 2014

I sometimes visit Bill Gates’ blog, GatesNotes, to see what books he’s reading as well as for his occasional and interesting reviews eg here. The leading header on the blog a while ago was an interview he had with a Teacher of the Year (Washington State, 2014).

Although education is not a primary interest of mine, I watched the video above and quickly became fascinated.

From the blog post:

Katie had an insight that really struck me: She said we’ve known for a long time that most students won’t learn if you just stick them in a classroom and make them listen to a lecture. They have to put the learning to use and make it relevant to their own lives. And yet most teachers still get their professional development at seminars and conferences, where they sit listening to lectures. “We would never do that with kids,” Katie said, “but we still do it with teachers.”

This extract relates to quite a few posts on this blog on different ways of sharing knowledge (see knowledge management category on the rhs).

The main points from the short video above are:

  • Time – the school principal is heroic enough to give the teachers time to learn through mutual collaboration (as opposed to cramming yet another task into an already busy schedule; in other words, something else is given a lesser priority!). I can imagine that just doing this one thing sends out a very powerful message. The example given is that the in the monthly 45 minute staff meeting, 30 minutes is spent on discussing ‘instruction’ (how can we all teach better?).
  • Large group collaboration – this is for generating the big picture and is typically not hands-on.
  • Small group collaboration – this is for applying the big picture insights to specific areas, say physics or French and is hands-on.
  • Visits – a group of teachers go around the school to see how well the ideas are working out, taking the whole working environment into account (for example the use of graphics on the walls might be very effective and this approach could be used elsewhere).

An example discussion question is: How do we develop strategies for better student dialogue, how do we help kids have more constructive conversations in class?

This question sounded pretty impressive to me!

I have no experience of teaching in high school although I have taught at various universities during my time in academia. However, in common with many other lecturers, I had no formal training for this, let alone (planned) collaborative discussions about good methods that worked.

I was curious if any of this could be transferred to a business setting, even in an approximate way.

For example, replace the above school discussion question by: How do we develop strategies for better business dialogue, how do we help people have more constructive conversations in their work environments, leading to better understanding, motivation and results?

The first thing that came to mind was a partial overlap with the idea of ‘knowledge cafes’ that are already being successfully used in various organisations eg see here. Typically they start with a question for a whole group which is then discussed in detail via small groups. The full group then gets together again to see what personal insights or actions the discussions may have lead to.

The school approach above could be thought of as a type of ‘cafe’ which roles on month after month and where the questions are collaboratively developed. Importantly it also includes the facility of seeing how insights are realised in particular settings through visits e.g. to working offices. In a business setting, such a ‘cafe’ (based on collaborative conversations) would become an integral way of working rather than a separate activity.


Making Your Own Road

October 9, 2014

01998_routetocastlemountain_1920x1200

Castle Mountain in the Canadian Rockies

A great way of procrastinating is looking for and trying out different (screen) wallpapers. As a consequence of this I have loads of them. I was wondering the other day why some appeal to me more than others. One theme I like is ‘roads’ although admittedly this doesn’t immediately sound very exhilarating.

An example is given above. In some ways it makes me think of a target/goal (lofty, in the distance, although seemingly achievable) and a path to get there. It also makes me feel that the target is drawing me towards it (but maybe that’s just me).

Of course, the real world is rarely so neat, and last weekend I came across the stunning image below which reminded me of the fact that you often have to make your own road and a clear target may be nowhere in sight!

Go Your Own Road by Erik Johansson.

Go Your Own Road, 2008, by Erik Johansson

A bit more on following the ‘indirect path’ in life and work can be found here (examples) and here (the theory).

PS If you feel like a diversion, some outstanding (free) wallpapers, such as the one at the top, can be found at InterfaceLIFT. A wide variety of resolutions and screen sizes are readily available…enjoy!

Photo credits: top and bottom.


Speaking To Oneself

September 25, 2014

“Most conversations are simply monologues delivered in the presence of witnesses.” – Margaret Millar

Thinking about it, so are some emails!

See also here (on the quality of feedback in conversations).

Originally spotted as a ‘quote tweet’ from David Gurteen.


A Cascade Of Outcomes

August 24, 2014

I’m just back from a short holiday in Italy and I always find these breaks are good for seeing things in a new (or least a slightly different) light. Often this results in changing the amount of time I allocate to my different personal (or collaborative) projects. Some in actuality I haven’t even started and others have meandered so an honest review is always handy anyway.

Part of this is figuring out what activities really matter. I recently came across this thought-provoking quote:

“Good strategy works by focusing energy and resources on one or a very few pivotal objectives, whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favourable outcomes.” – Richard Rumelt

Not just a highly favourable outcome, a cascade of outcomes! This puts things in quite a different light. So, in part, it means saying ‘no’ to things (and being comfortable and disciplined in this) but also to imaginatively think through the possible consequences of a ‘yes’. The use of the word ‘cascade’ emphasises anticipating not just one (major) jump ahead but (loosely) a few more.

The author of the quote is the Professor of Business & Society at UCLA Anderson and he’s written a well reviewed book on this topic: Good Strategy/Bad Strategy. Here are some sample extracts:

Good strategy is rare. Many organizations which claim to have a strategy do not. Instead, they have a set of performance goals. Or, worse, a set of vague aspirations. It is rare because there are strong forces resisting the concentration of action and resources. Good strategy gathers power from its very rareness.

Competitors do not always respond quickly, nor do customers always see the value of an offering. Good strategy anticipates and exploits inertia.

Organizations experience significant entropy—the continual drift towards disorganization. Much of the useful work of managers and consultants is maintenance—the constant battle against entropy. Strategists must battle this never-ending drift towards disarray within their own organization. And they must try to exploit the disarray of their rivals.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.