How To Start The Day

January 20, 2014


I started planning my new work regime for 2014 in mid-December last year. Unfortunately, probably like a lot of other people, it’s still not started! However I came across an infographic recently (see above) which helpfully reminded me of a few basics plus adding some new viewpoints.

My comments, from left to right:

(Twain) Worst/hardest thing first – I can still clearly remember a Japanese collaborator telling me to always start the day with the task you’re least looking forward to – this is surprising as this was over 30 years ago! I do this sporadically but it’s excellent advice. In the infographic above it’s the hardest thing first, which is a bit different but similar.

(Robbins) Visualising the day – I’ve never actually done this, so something to try. I’ve tried visualising my future (in five years time and so on) but have never found that very compelling. Perhaps a shorter term period, like a day or week, might work?

(Obama) Working out – when I started to work freelance one of the first things I did was to buy myself an exercise bike. I’ve found that using it at the start of the day certainly made a big (positive) impact. However, in hindsight, my exercise expectations were too unrealistic to make it stick, so I’ll aim for more modest aspirations in the next few weeks. Hopefully it’ll become a habit.

(Karp) Real work versus email/feeds/twitter – looking at info is the the first thing I do most days and, one way and another, it seems to take at least an hour and then it’s throughout the day. I’ve attempted to delay looking but have always failed. However I’m now going to try this for a week to see if I can manage it.

(Newmark) Customers first – currently, for me, this is something rather indirect as I’m (in the main) spending my time writing a book. However it’ll be interesting and hopefully motivating to start to think this way – see also here.

(Jobs) Why are you doing any of this anyway? That’s a hard one! I guess, even if it’s a seemingly small step, like finishing a book section, it’s still leading to something worthwhile and fulfilling when browsing emails and news feeds (and procrastinating in general) isn’t.

The overall feel I get from the advice above is that it’s important to dictate the pace of the day rather than having it determined for you and this is best done by taking a step away from it several times during the day. Tools and systems are secondary and can often be a distraction in themselves.

As an aside, you often read that habits take 21 days to establish. Not unsurprisingly giving any date for this is questionable, although a daunting 66 days seems to be the current best estimate – see here:

The bottom line is: stay strong. 21 days is a myth; habit formation typically takes longer than that. The best estimate is 66 days, but it’s unwise to attempt to assign a number to this process. The duration of habit formation is likely to differ depending on who you are and what you are trying to do. As long as you continue doing your new healthy behaviour consistently in a given situation, a habit will form. But you will probably have to persevere beyond January 21st.

Picture credit: here.

Goals And Key Conversations

January 13, 2014


“Set a goal so big that you can’t achieve it until you grow into the person who can.” – Unknown

I came across this quote a couple days ago and it got me thinking, especially as I’m doing an annual review of sorts. The quote is helpful as it emphasises that goals and personal development (for want of a better phrase) can be strongly interlinked. Doing one can change the other and vice versa, it’s an evolving system.

There’s a lot of discussion on whether you should even set goals at all of course, whether they are just too confining and mechanical. In practice I guess I go through phases of having a concrete goal and then, almost as a reaction, to being more free-form just to ‘see what happens’. It may not be the most efficient approach but it does allow me to produce as well as to feel like I’m having fun. For instance, I’ve written over 80 posts on this blog this year plus about a quarter more as draft ideas that I decided not to publish plus a load of other book-related material.

For the first time, I’ve also been keeping a personal journal so I can better understand where my time and effort goes. I’ve tried various approaches but the most natural so far seems to be a ‘stream of consciousness’ method where ideas, web links, tasks etc all get captured and noted simply as they occur. I don’t tag or categorise as so far I haven’t found either helpful (I found I spent more time fiddling with my system that actually gaining any benefit from it). That’s probably because the outliner software I’m using (although excellent in it’s own way) doesn’t quite match my work/research flow (see aside below).

Looking through the journal entries for last year, it becomes quickly apparent that I tried to do too many things and conversely, there are an infinite number of interesting thing to try! Thank you internet.

To get good at anything takes time and discipline and to get even better takes even more time and discipline. So you have to make some hard choices on what you’re (mainly) going to focus on. Having some flexibility is important though as it allows for serendipity and the ability to change plans, sometimes in big ways.

However, apart from these generalities, perhaps the biggest insight I got was the importance of key conversations. All the best ideas got going through them, I can even remember each one quite clearly.

A conversation with a friend on something that really interests you, when perhaps you’re feeling a bit fed up or unsure, can be worth it’s weight in gold. A couple of minutes of positive and/or imaginative conversation can easily exceed hours of surfing for inspiration or ideas. You need both but, in hindsight, I spent too much time researching/thinking and not enough conversing! I expect this is fairly common.

Even though I wanted to talk on specialised topics (which I thought would not necessarily be of great interest), I found that:

  • People like to help and to feel that they can help (in their own, special individual way).
  • Some things are so obvious you need someone else to point them out to you (wood for the trees syndrome). Don’t worry when they’re astounded that you hadn’t realised the blindingly obvious as it usually works both ways.
  • Some ideas take ages to incubate, that’s just how it is, so don’t fight it. Friends might be surprised at the apparent lack of progress, but just feel lucky that change is happening at all!

From this, one novel ‘goal’ for 2014 would be to have more conversations with an ever wider group of acquaintances and friends on topics that are important to me.

I’ve never had this as a goal before so it’ll be interesting to see how this turns out. I’ll also write up details of the conversations in my journal, something I don’t usually do.

For a bit more on the role of conversation in business and research, especially the role of knowledge cafes and similar, see here.

Aside on note-taking:

There’s an innovative piece of software that might offer a more natural alignment to my work methods as it is designed to handle emergent structures. It’s mac-only and is called Tinderbox (an exciting new version is just around the corner, Tinderbox 6). One of my goals for 2014 is to get to know this software better.

Independently, the person responsible for Tinderbox, Mark Bernstein, has a really interesting blog – it’s worth a look, he certainly has a wide variety of interests (mainly books, cooking, politics and software)! There’s a good practical overview of the current version of Tinderbox here.

Whisper, Don’t Shout

December 4, 2013

Previously in my career, when I had a research position at IBM, I worked on chaos theory, more specifically, visualising the transition to chaos. It wasn’t straightforward as the system considered was multidimensional so you could only get glimpses of it’s behaviour by using 3D projections.

The approach I adopted, using texture mappings, was fairly original and lead to some useful additional insights (a summary of the joint project got published in the New Scientist Guide to Chaos).

After my research phase, I moved on to technical and finally business management (with other companies). However I’ve always been interested in how ideas taken from one (science) area can be used in another (e.g. business) and have previously written about this eg here.

One major example is the subject of ‘complexity’ where lots of people have tried using it’s ideas in many fascinating ways. A few years ago I thought I’d brush up on this and bought the book ‘Complexity: A Guided Tour’ by Melanie Mitchell as it had a good review in a technical journal.

It wasn’t quite what I was expecting and before starting I thought I’d read a few reviews on Amazon. Some of these were quite negative so in the end I decided to put it on hold. This was in 2009!

Recently, spurred on by some interesting tweets about complexity from colleagues, I decided to take another look. I managed to find the book in the ‘chaos’ that is my library/study and wondered a bit more about what had put me off originally. I went back to Amazon and there are now over 60 comments (far fewer on the UK site).

I browsed around and here’s an extract from a rather thoughtful one (my emphasis in bold):

As Dr. Mitchell points out in one of the chapters, there is little agreement on what “complexity” actually entails. In such a field of emergence, it is very helpful to have a broad, rather than narrow, view. Yes, this is not a textbook to be used in a graduate class on complexity, yet that is not its purpose. However, it is my guess that even the most accomplished practitioner of one particular aspect of complexity will learn something from reading this. We are all reductionists at heart, even those who profess to be an “expert” in complexity. We would be well-served to take the recommendations of Warren Weaver who suggested that if we descend from the tower of our own experience into a common basement, we can impart information by whispering and not shouting.

I quite like the last sentence – I’ll bear all this in mind when I next look at reviews!

NB There’s a free online course linked to the book if you’re interested: Complexity Explorer.

Be Clear About Your Destination

November 1, 2013

“Don’t tell me what you invented. Tell me about who you changed.” – Seth Godin

From here.

I’ve just realised – there’s no point in my telling friends “I’m writing a book about X”, I need to say “I’m planning to change people’s views on X”, and believe it too. The book is the vehicle not the destination.

Thinking Through Your Fingers

October 27, 2013

“Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.” – Isaac Asimov

Quite an interesting quote.

It’s usually easy to talk about new ideas and this is often helpful and sometimes crucial in the early, formative stages but I’ve often found that writing them down really helps to see how solid they are. Any gaps in reasoning (eg arising from the ‘we’ll sort that out later’ type of approach) become immediately and painfully apparent when you put pen to paper. Waffling on the page is so blindingly obvious!

At the same time, I’ve been surprised at how many people are quite reluctant to do this. My guess is that it’s partly because writing clearly and concisely is not a common skill and also because of the fear of the likely situation. Really, it should be viewed the opposite way round, an opportunity to appreciate and face up to problems a long time before they might appear and when they are easier (but still awkward) to handle.

A sort of low-key risk management, but far less formal.

On this general theme, see also here.

Writing Books

October 13, 2013

I’m currently attempting to write a non-fiction book but taking creative ideas used in the writing of fiction to spice things up a bit. I’ve written lots of technical articles for over 30 years and have also written for this blog for five but I’ve never written a self-contained book before. It’s really interesting learning about a whole new area!

With this in mind, yesterday I spent a pleasant hour browsing in a local book store as low-key market research. I ended up skimming through a few books in the ‘advice to aspiring authors’ section and came across loads of great ideas – it was really quite inspiring!

Bringing me back to reality, I also found this amusing remark

If all else fails remind yourself that lots of people want to write a novel but few do, and even fewer are published. As Peter Cook used to say when people told him they were writing a novel: ‘Really? Neither am I.’

Of the books on view, two that caught my attention were:

The Writer’s Little Helper by James Smith (not as basic as it sounds)

365 Ways To Get You Writing by Jane Cooper

Both are 5 stars on Amazon UK, albeit with a small number of reviews.

Pitching Creative Ideas

October 8, 2013


I’m in the process of writing a book. Well, more precisely, I’m in the process of researching and making notes for a book!

As part of this I’m reading various articles on the writing process. This covers not just the book itself but also pitching it as well as hopefully making it a success.

In a recent newsletter by the writing coach Jurgen Wolff, I came across this interesting extract:

Considering all the lip service paid to creativity you’d think the world is clamouring for new ideas. Well, actually it is – in theory. But if you come up with something new, more often than not you’ll find tremendous resistance.

I suspect this is true of all fields. I can certainly attest to it within the film and TV industry. More than once I’ve heard “We want something new, fresh and edgy!”

You pitch them a new, fresh, and edgy idea…

Here’s what’s going through their heads:

  • “This thing could fail. I’ll get blamed. Better play it safe.”
  • “If this is so great, why hasn’t somebody done it already?”
  • “I get it, but the people in marketing won’t.”
  • “I get it, but the audience/reader/average person won’t.”
  • “If we make it more like that thing that was a success last year it’s more likely to succeed, too.”
  • “I’ll leave in this little fragment of edgy, that’ll show I’m a creative thinker but I don’t go overboard.”

This raised a smile as it reminded me of the time when I was a bid manager. These bids (in leading-edge scitech areas) varied from the small and specialised to some very big and complex ones. However in nearly all cases the customer (often a government department) was adamant that he/she was looking for ‘innovative solutions’. Ideally they should have little or no risk and yet deliver high rewards!

Helpfully, in the context of books, Wolff goes on to suggest the following approaches to overcoming these difficulties (which could also be useful in other areas, the following is an extract):

How can you disarm these idea-killers?

You can avoid some of these traps if you follow these strategies in your pitch:

GO HIGH: Deal with the highest person on the decision-making ladder that you can.

RELATE: Compare it to something that has been successful.

INVOLVE: Try to get the other person to buy into the idea early.

ANTICIPATE: Think about what objections they might have and defuse them with the “some people might think” strategy.

REASSURE: If possible, show that somebody else already likes this idea or was willing to take a chance on it.

ACTION: If you are passionate about a project that has not found the necessary approval in the past, consider whether one or more of these strategies might lead to a different result.

Quite a useful checklist.

Picture credit: here.

How Determined Are You To Succeed?

September 30, 2013

I recently noticed a fascinating article on the research carried out by Angela Duckworth in clarifying the role that grit and self-control can play in attaining goals, particularly in the realm of educational achievement. Grit is a term used in psychology and is defined by ‘perseverance and passion for long-term goals’.

It provoked my interest as I’ve written about the topic of ‘determination’ in the context of business success a while ago. This is a different setting of course but some of the insights of the research may still be broadly relevant or at least promote interesting questions.

From my previous posts, here are some typical quotes (see here):

“Starting things is easy – a business; a novel; a war; a baby. Keeping them going is a lot harder. I have a feeling doggedness is quite as important as imagination.” – Pru Leith

“Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” Zig Ziglar

“What I’ve learned from running is that the time to push hard is when you’re hurting like crazy and you want to give up. The moment you should accelerate is the moment you’re the most tired. The beginning of the final lap is the testing point, and so I found that to be in life. Success is often just around the corner. You might make a discovery. You might call it obstinacy or determination.

It almost made me sort of relish that moment. I see it as an opportunity, that point where if you know you can get through that bit, you’re going to make an important discovery that someone else might have made except they gave up, because they couldn’t get through the difficulties. I got that from running.” – James Dyson

In particular, I wrote:

As I mentioned then, often in business there is a focus on the sexy topics of creativity, imagination, knowledge, innovation, strategy and so on but sometimes the key to success can lie in persistence and determination. In other words, an attitude of mind, and oddly something which is rarely discussed in courses and workshops even though it appears it’s something that can be learned and developed (as in Dyson’s running story above).

Going back to the article, Duckworth says (my use of boldface):

The problem, I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves. Here’s why: learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.

From the statement of research that Duckworth is currently carrying out:

The language we use to describe grit and self-control – words like “character” or “personality trait” — may connote to some immutability. However, it is now well-established that traits change across the life course. So, while there is enough stability to traits to sensibly describe one individual as grittier than another, it is also true that children and adults change their habitual patterns of interacting with the world as they accumulate additional life experience.

In terms of intentional change, one promising direction for research is the correction of maladaptive, incorrect beliefs. For instance, individuals who believe that frustration and confusion are signs that they should quit what they are doing may be taught that these emotions are common during the learning process. Likewise, individuals who believe that mistakes are to be avoided at all costs may be taught that the most effective form of practice entails tackling challenges beyond one’s current skill level.

There’s more info on The Duckworth Lab website here. It’s geared to education but it would be fascinating if, in time, some of the ideas can be applied to other areas, such as business, by providing strategies for better personal success. Here’s a video summary:

The original motivation is interesting as well:

Duckworth began her graduate work by studying self-discipline. But when she completed her first-year thesis, based on a group of 164 eighth-graders from a Philadelphia middle school, she arrived at a startling discovery that would shape the course of her career: She found that the students’ self-discipline scores were far better predictors of their academic performance than their IQ scores. So she became intensely interested in what strategies and tricks we might develop to maximize our self-control, and whether those strategies can be taught.

Feynman’s Legendary Lectures

September 24, 2013


I started out in life as a physicist (in particle physics to be precise).  In hindsight, I was very lucky to be doing research during an extraordinarily productive period (see here and here) – it was an exciting time!

One aspect of this was helping give undergraduate courses as well as taking problem sessions. Courses usually had a standard textbook to go with them, and there was a good selection. At the same time, there was also the famous Feynman Lectures on Physics (FLP) which were a very individualistic take on broadly the same material.

Rather remarkably, the first volume of the Feynman lectures is now available free online with the other two volumes in preparation. They’ve done a really excellent job, it’s worth taking a look, even if there’s only a passing interest. There’s some interesting background on the development of the online version here, including:

Mike Gottlieb has now devoted 13 years of his life to enhancing FLP and bringing the lectures to a broader audience, receiving little monetary compensation. I asked him yesterday about his motivation, and his answer surprised me somewhat. Mike wants to be able to look back at his life feeling that he has made a bigger contribution to the world than merely writing code and making money.

Finally, it’s revealing to read Feynman’s preface to these lectures (written in 1963):

I think, however, that there isn’t any solution to this problem of education other than to realize that the best teaching can be done only when there is a direct individual relationship between a student and a good teacher—a situation in which the student discusses the ideas, thinks about the things, and talks about the things. It’s impossible to learn very much by simply sitting in a lecture, or even by simply doing problems that are assigned. But in our modern times we have so many students to teach that we have to try to find some substitute for the ideal. Perhaps my lectures can make some contribution. Perhaps in some small place where there are individual teachers and students, they may get some inspiration or some ideas from the lectures. Perhaps they will have fun thinking them through—or going on to develop some of the ideas further.

The above lectures are at an undergraduate level and some are quite advanced. If you’re interested in his lectures at a more general level, take a look instead at the his Messenger Lectures or else the videos produced by Christopher Sykes.

Feynman was quite a remarkable man and it’s very impressive that his legacy lives on in so many ways.

Picture credit: here.

Thriving Through Stories And Myths

September 22, 2013

Whilst reading a book on marketing the other day, I came across this quote:

“We are in the twilight of a society based on data. As information and intelligence becomes the domain of computers, society will place more value on the one human ability that cannot be automated: emotion.

Imagination, myth, ritual — the rich language of emotion — will affect everything from our purchasing decisions to how we work with others. Companies will thrive on the basis of their stories and myths.

Companies will need to understand that their products are less important than their stories.”

- Rolf Jensen (Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies, author of The Dream Society).

It’s interesting to see the touching video The Power Of Words in this light. The first advert focuses on understanding information whilst the second evokes a deeper and more powerful response.

What are your (compelling) stories?


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