The Usefulness of an Authorised Projects List

April 28, 2016

Parse_NOb

Mark Forster has written a number of books on time management and productivity. I’ve recently read his latest, Secrets of Productive People. I particularly like the way he challenges some of the myths or at least sayings that you often hear on these matters. One rather simple but key point is that it’s often tempting to take on more than you can actually expect to do. One suggestion he makes for handling this is coming up with an Authorised Projects List.

There are basically two reasons for the list, one a positive one, and one a negative one

The positive is to keep you aware of all the calls on your time so that you can ensure that each project receives adequate attention.

The negative is that a project is as much about what you are not going to do as about what you are going to do. The list therefore keeps you focused on the projects on the list and stops you from deviating onto other “bright ideas”. You should not allow yourself to put any task on your to-do list which doesn’t relate to one of these projects.

The Authorised Projects list also helps you to avoid over-committing yourself. If you want to introduce a new project you need to be able to demonstrate what projects have ceased or have been weeded out in order to make room for the new project.

I’ve found this quite helpful. Firstly it forces you to think through what your major projects actually are (a useful exercise in it’s own right) and then, when a new idea pops up, to cross check whether it’s on the list.

This is related to the powerful concept of firmly and clearly saying ‘no’ to opportunities, which crops up in many different business circumstances. See, for example, ‘Saying No Effectively‘.


Listening Completely

April 27, 2016

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“When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice.” – Ernest Hemingway

Well I did try that for practice and found it incredibly hard! On the topic of listening better, and from a previous post:

“Very few people are good listeners. A good listener listens slowly to what is being said. He does not jump ahead nor does he rush to judge nor does he sit there formulating his own reply. He focuses directly on what is being said. He listens to more than is being said. He extracts the maximum information from what he hears by looking between the words used and wondering why something has been expressed in a particular way. It is active listening because the listener’s imagination is full of ‘could be’ and ‘may be’ elaborations.” – Edward de Bono

It’s pretty clear why only a few people are particularly good listeners, it’s quite an art and, along the way, requires a lot of practice (or perhaps even a natural inclination).

As a very modest indication of progress, I now occasionally ask myself during conversations ‘am I really listening or just waiting for a chance to speak?’. It does actually make a difference!


Corporate and Personal Amnesia

April 15, 2016

From the BBC Business News site:

Britons today change job more frequently than workers in much of the rest of Europe and, as the economy improves, that churn rate increases. Young workers move jobs much often than older workers did.

But there’s a hidden cost.

Each time someone leaves their job, a chunk of the organisation’s memory leaves too. How, then, do you run complex systems, see through long-term projects, or avoid past mistakes?

Short-term contracts and outsourcing reduce the appetite for learning company or product history. And when job losses land, even more knowledge is lost.

This is a problem that has always existed of course but perhaps, with higher churn rates, it’s more serious than previously or perhaps the consequences are potentially more far reaching (global). I remember there was much talk on this subject over 15 years ago, when I was involved the the relatively new field of ‘knowledge management’.

The article gives some interesting and quite varied examples, including:

  • City firms – in 20012 the churn rate for one was 28%, higher than McDonalds.
  • Her Majesty’s Treasury – “the vast majority of Treasury staff had never been through even a recession, let alone a banking crisis.”
  • Nuclear weapons – “for years after the end of the Cold War, policy and expertise became less of a priority; collective memory leeched away as more and more people retired.”

Then there’s the problem of “preserving the institutional memory in the age of email and texts”.

Last year an official review of government digital records concluded that existing systems had not worked well. Most departments, it said, “have a mass of digital data stored on shared drives that is poorly organised and indexed”.

Historian Prof Sir David Cannadine, who was involved in the 2009 review of the “30-year rule” on the release of official papers, goes further.

Speaking at the British Academy in March, he said poor preservation of electronic records from the late 1980s to the early 2000s meant that often, when you looked for documents, “there’s nothing there”.

This latter point applies to my personal information as well. It’s dotted around in emails (in addition, I don’t always systematically save attachments), various databases (Evernote, Devonthink etc) as well as different types of notes/documents (Scrivener, Tinderbox etc) and mind maps (iThoughtsX etc). I could always try to interconnect them but you have to be careful that the time taken to do this (and keep things updated) may easily outweigh any advantages.

I think I’ll try and get back into the habit of writing one page monthly personal reviews. These won’t obviously capture everything (sometimes small events turn out to lead to bigger than anticipated consequences) and lots will remain in my head but the very process of just thinking about things is likely worth the time invested and hopefully provide a helpful and useful ‘memory’.


Handling Email

April 14, 2016

I recently sent a message to someone and got this interesting automatic reply (I have omitted details for obvious reasons):

Thank you for your email.

I am currently away from the (omitted) until the (omitted).

If you would like to make a booking please email (omitted).

To ensure that I’m not overloaded with emails on my return I have chosen to have all emails I receive whilst I’m away deleted. If it is important can I suggest that you resend it on my return. Many thanks for your understanding.

Surprising but probably quite efficient!


Gore Vidal and the People’s Airplane

March 27, 2016

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Vidal with President Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline, 1961 (credit Everett/Rex)

I recently skimmed through a biography of Gore Vidal after seeing it on display at the local library.

An intimate, authorized yet frank biography of Gore Vidal (1925-2012), one of the most accomplished, visible and controversial American novelists and cultural figures of the past century.

At a similar time, I also happened to see a good documentary on him on Sky Arts.

As is often the case, the childhood of these exceptional people is also quite exceptional (I’m always hoping they’ll be mundane, they rarely are).

Here’s a revealing example (see video above):

In November 1933, Gene Vidal announced the Bureau’s plan to make owning a personal aircraft as commonplace as owning a Model-T Ford. The Bureau invited aircraft manufacturers to design a simple, safe vehicle that would sell for a target price of $700. Unfortunately, the manufacturers never thought that was feasible, even though at least one of the innovations that came out of the contest—tricycle landing gear with a steerable nose wheel—did end up influencing future designs.

In 1936, Vidal and 10-year-old Gore were filmed at Washington D.C.’s Bolling Field, demonstrating how easy it was to control one of the competition winners, the two-seat Hammond Model Y (a later version of which is in the Smithsonian collection).

As they say, “supremely confident at an early age”.

Some memorable Vidal quotes:

“I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television.”

“It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

“A narcissist is someone better looking than you are.”

“Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”

“The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country — and we haven’t seen them since.”

“Andy Warhol is the only genius I’ve ever known with an IQ of 60.”

“A good deed never goes unpunished.”

“All children alarm their parents, if only because you are forever expecting to encounter yourself.”

“Fifty percent of people won’t vote, and fifty percent don’t read newspapers. I hope it’s the same fifty percent.”

“The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so.”


The Journey and the Destination

March 19, 2016

Journey Bowie

Towards the end of last year I decided to do some planning and when in this frame of mind I came across this quote (there are many variations on it):

“It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters in the end.” – Ursula LeGuin

This made me think that, independently of however much you plan, even schematically, things happen along the way that change you and the way you think about things. A few weeks ago I came across the Bowie quote above which I thought gave another interesting viewpoint!

Photo credit: here.


Writing Novels

March 19, 2016

Amusing snippet from an article on the highly prolific Georges Simenon:

Frequently able to write a novel in 11 days, by the age of 29 Simenon was simultaneously defending and proclaiming the rate at which he churned out his fiction. ‘I haven’t written that much,’ he said. ‘I’ve only published 277 books.’

Nor did he slow down much in later years: his biographer Pierre Assouline writes how, in the twilight of his life, Alfred Hitchcock telephoned to speak to Simenon only to be told by his secretary he couldn’t be disturbed because he was writing a new novel. ‘That’s all right, I’ll wait,’ he replied.


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