Organization – when it is useful and when it isn’t

Here are 3 things to know about organization.

First, the return-on-investment on organization is higher when the sheer volume of activity involved exceeds a certain threshold. Put differently, organization is useless as low volumes of activity. The relationship looks something like this.

 So, the busier/the more overwhelmed you feel, the more important it is that you spend time getting organized. This is counter intuitive when things are extremely busy. But, the extra time spent thinking about how to get work done (and perhaps ask for help) goes a long way.

Second, organization isn’t the same as prioritization. Organization helps ensure you are tackling things in the most efficient manner. Spending time becoming organized will not help ensure you’re spending time on the right things (focus). Organization, thus, is most helpful when it accompanies focus.

Finally, it is probably normal to require extra organization time every once a while. But, if you’re always feeling overwhelmed, it is a focus and “saying yes to too many things” problem rather than an organization problem. You’ll get more mileage working on the root cause.

Thank you, Murphy

Edward A Murphy Jr was an Air Force captain and reliability engineer. He once visited the Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California to deliver some gauges for a mission to determine the amount of force a human body could sustain during a crash.

The gauges malfunctioned. And, Murphy reportedly said grumbled – “If there’s any way they can do it wrong, they will.”

This line became known to us as Murphy’s law that came to be known as “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

Murphy inadvertently inspired areas like auto safety that worked hard to identify every possibility of failure and, in that process, saved millions of lives.

The spirit of Murphy’s law is one that both inspiring and applicable to us in our lives – especially for those of us who tend to be look at situations from an optimist’s point of view. Take the time to think about what might go wrong and prepare ourselves to deal with issues. Or, as a lovely alternate version of the saying goes – “Expect problems, and eat them for breakfast.”

Thank you, Murphy, for the inspiration.

Hopes and expectations

Hopes are important. A hope is simply a desire that something may happen in the future. It gives us the energy to build for the long term.

An expectation, on the other hand, is a strong belief that something will happen. It sounds like a fine line as an expectation seems to just be a stronger version of hope. And, it often is a fine line.

But, the fine line changes everything. It is possible to hope for something and not be disappointed or unhappy. Expectations, on the other hand, muck with our happiness and our ability to continue plugging away.

And, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it is the importance of optimizing toward plugging away.

The ability to hope but not expect is the go to skill of a professional.

In praise of incremental

Incremental is passe in a world obsessed with disruption and big changes.

But, you can’t really plan for disruption. You can create an environment which brings in talented people and allows them to ship new and interesting ideas. But, you can’t expect them to create something disruptive.

Similarly, you can invest in a new course or in learning a new skill. But, you can’t go in expecting it to change your life. It might. But, it likely won’t.

The challenge with disruption is that it is only easy to spot with hindsight.

What we can count on instead is incremental change. Every day, we can make our products a little better than they were yesterday. Every day, we can make ourselves a little better than we were yesterday. These incremental changes compound when consistently done over time.

We regularly overestimate what we can get done in a year and underestimate what we can get done in a decade. That’s because we greatly underestimate the power of consistent, incremental change.

In the long run, there are few forces as powerful as that.

9 years

Yesterday’s post was the culmination of 9 years of writing on this blog. During my first year of attempting to write something every day, I came across a story called “The Daffodil Principle.”

It was the story of a mother whose daughter badgered her to go see the daffodils. She finally did it. Here’s the rest of the story.

Then, as we turned a corner, I looked up and gasped. Before me, lay the most glorious sight.

It looked as though someone had taken a great vat of gold and poured it over the mountain peak and its surrounding slopes. The flowers were planted in majestic, swirling patterns, great ribbons and swaths of deep orange, creamy white, lemon yellow, salmon pink, saffron and butter yellow. Each different-colored variety was planted in large groups so that it swirled and flowed like its own river with its own unique hue. There were five acres of flowers.

‘Who did this?’ I asked Carolyn.

‘Just one woman,’ Carolyn answered. ‘She lives on the property. That’s her home.’ Carolyn pointed to a well-kept A-frame house, small and modestly sitting in the midst of all that glory. We walked up to the house.

On the patio, we saw a poster. ‘Answers to the Questions I Know You Are Asking’, was the headline.

The first answer was- ‘50,000 bulbs,’ it read.

The second answer was, ‘One at a time, by one woman. Two hands, two feet, and one brain.’

The third answer was, ‘Began in 1958.’

For me, that moment was a life-changing experience. I thought of this woman whom I had never met, who, more than forty years before, had begun, one bulb at a time, to bring her vision of beauty and joy to an obscure mountaintop. Planting one bulb at a time, year after year, this unknown woman had forever changed the world in which she lived. One day at a time, she had created something of extraordinary magnificence, beauty, and inspiration. The principle her daffodil garden taught is one of the greatest principles of celebration. And she created not for others, but for herself, for the nature, for her surroundings.

That is, learning to move toward implementing our vision and dreams – one step at a time, often just one baby-step at a time and learning to love the doing, learning to use the accumulation of time. When we multiply tiny pieces of time with small increments of daily effort, we too will find we can accomplish magnificent things.

‘It makes me sad in a way,’ I admitted to Carolyn. ‘ What might I have accomplished if I had thought of a wonderful goal thirty five or forty years ago and had worked away at it ‘one! bulb at a time’ through all those years? ‘Just think what I might have been able to achieve!’

My daughter summed up the message of the day in her usual direct way. ‘Start tomorrow,’ she said.

There is no better time than right now to be happy. Happiness is a journey, not a destination.

The story nicely illustrates what I set out to do.

9 years done. 31 to go (hopefully!). 🙂

The hardest thing about gratitude

The hardest thing about gratitude is remembering to be grateful.

I took our car to the service center yesterday to fix a problem that we thought had already been fixed. I learnt that we needed to replace a part. But, the part was in stock. So, it just took a few hours to complete the job. And, a little bit of inconvenience aside, I was able to drive home at the end of the day.

As I reflected on that this morning, I realized that I almost never thought about it. A whole host of things could have easily gone wrong. The part could have not been in stock. Or, the repair could have taken a few days. And, had that been the case, I would most likely have been thinking about it and perhaps even cursing my luck.

But, since all had worked great, I simply moved on.

Simply moved on. 

How many such things do we simply move on from? And, how many of those things are deserving of our gratitude?

Often, the things we barely notice are the things we need to be paying more attention to.

The content creation consumption balance

I’ve noticed that there’s a fixed upper limit in the amount of content I deal with. This upper limit is split between creation and consumption. It looks something like this –

A practical example – I read about 4 books in January, another couple in February and made progress on a few more. My content consumption level was high. But, once I started the “Notes by Ada” project, I’ve found myself reading very slowly. Writing an in-depth weekly article on technology takes time, energy and requires me to flex a new muscle. So, the amount of bandwidth I have to absorbing new content has gone down significantly. Part of it also ties to the fact that writing requires me to absorb different kinds of content in a deeper way – e.g. a deeper look into technology news than before. But, part of it is just the amount of mental energy I have left.

There are a few interesting lessons from this observation. Here are my top 3 –

  1. It is important to not set goals in isolation. Many of these work together. And, I think there are other such pairs of behaviors or actions that have a fixed upper limit. One such pair is the amount of time you spend on the content of your work versus marketing it. That’s a topic for another day. But, I think there are more.
  2. I learn a ton more when I create content than when I simply consume it – even if I’m taking notes. The difference lies in synthesis.
  3. We learn a lot more when we observe why we do things a certain way rather than simply beat ourselves up for not doing enough.