The three main things

Before we wade into that ocean of email/messages on other communication tools and start working away on everyone else’s priority list, the first question for Monday morning is – are we clear about the three main things that will help us move the needle this week? 

It is okay if the three things evolve as we receive new information over the course of the week. It is also okay if we decide someone else’s main thing is more important than ours. It is just not okay to not have given our list of three things thought and definitely not okay to not have them written down someplace where they can be tracked.

In a workday with more communication tools than people we need to actually communicate with, the main challenge with getting things done remains the main thing. The main thing, it turns out, is to keep the main thing the main thing.

In the long run, everything else is gravy.

All the noise

There’s all this noise. The news, the chatter about others we know, the chatter from others we know, the plaudits about the movers and shakers of the day, and everything else that we think we need to keep up with.

The default setting for the noise in our lives at this time is “on.” And, it is easy to forget that none of it matters unless we earn our livelihood by writing about the noise.

For most of the rest of us, all that counts is just what we do with what we control and how thoughtfully we do it.

The more time we can spend with the noise turned off, the more we’ll ship, the better we’ll get at shipping what we want to ship, and, if we’re thoughtful about it, we might learn a thing or two about living these days better.

So, let’s put those proverbial headphones and get to work.

The law of unattraction and problem solving

The law of attraction implies that when you really want something the universe conspires to make it happen. The law of unattraction (an ALearningaDay creation) offers the counter point – “The universe makes something happen when you have put in your best effort and are ready to walk away.” 

The law of unattraction was born out of personal experience. For the longest time, I used to struggle with pushing a result through to no avail resulting in plenty of frustration. And, often, just as I’d resolve to walk away or actually distance myself, it’d come through. Why waste time in all the angst and frustration then?

I’ve been thinking about the law of unattraction again of late and its applicability to problem solving. We don’t have breakthroughs-on-demand on problems we want solved. Instead, they pop up when we’re in the gym, in the shower, or on a walk. The key, then, is to identify the problems we want to solve and give ourselves enough space for our subconscious to do the work.

So, take those breaks in the middle of the day, go for walks, and disconnect from the email flow in the evening to create more space. If the law of attraction isn’t helping you often enough, create opportunities for the law of unattraction to work its magic.

Post smartphone era weekends – a way to measure success

A way to measure success in post smartphone era weekends is to ask – how many times did you forget where your smartphone was? 

I found myself forgetting about my phone for hours at a time on memorable weekends. So, I’ve begun starting weekends by leaving my phone in obscure places within the home (e.g. under the pillow). The more obscure the location, the less I check it, and the better the weekend.

Principles of Focus

Focus is the continuous, iterative process of keeping the main thing the main thing.

The verb and noun forms of “Focus” mean different things. For simplicity, I’m going to call the the noun form “intensity.” So, intensity is the ability to be 100% engaged in what you are doing at any given time.

Focus and intensity are analogous to effectiveness and efficiency or leadership and management. The former is about doing the right things and the latter is about doing things right.

As a result, the whole point of focus is to ensure that we’re optimizing for the entire-ity of the main thing or goal or how we will measure our life. It is easier to understand this with a manufacturing analogy. It is useless for a car manufacturer to produce more doors than a chassis requires. Similarly, it is pointless to optimize on one part of our goal (say, our career) if all else is suffering. Making progress on the main thing in its entire-ity is productivity. Everything else is activity.

So, focus is how we stay productive. That’s exactly why the process of doing so is continuous and iterative – it is hard to stay productive as life happens.

Finally, it is helpful to think of focus as we think of balance in our lives. We are always in the act of balancing, never completely balanced. Focus is no different.

People leverage and System leverage

Leverage means using something to maximum advantage outside of the financial world. It is often used to describe human capital. For example, new hires in a company ideally provide leverage to their managers. And, supporting functions provide leverage to their sales teams.

I find two kinds of leverage in organizations – people leverage and system leverage. The underlying concept is similar. Leverage provides for a stronger support system for execution. However, while people leverage focuses on people to provide the support system, system leverage relies on processes and systems.

Imagine you are the one woman customer service center specialist. Your company is growing quickly and you decide to hire someone. The guy you just hired provides you immediate leverage. He takes all the basic stuff off your plate and allows you to focus on more strategic stuff. Soon, you could expand this to a team of three. This is a classic example of people leverage.

However, let’s assume your first hire does a little more than you asked him to do and creates a really good FAQ resource for your customers. All of a sudden, you may not need to hire three people. That resource has helped provide system leverage. It allows you to operate at a higher level without adding people to the organization to solve the problem.

There are a couple of important takeaways once we understand this difference. First, most organizations intuitively understand people leverage. However, there aren’t enough that get system leverage. The best organizations and teams have fantastic processes and systems that enable their people to perform at a high level. This is often what makes large corporations tick. There are many large corporations whose human capital potential are definitely not being utilized. However, thanks to the strength of their systems, they still deliver impressive results. Of course, the truly great corporations have both.

Second, when you and I are hired to a new job, we provide automatic human leverage. We might even provide our manager the leverage created by two hires if we were very good. However, there is no better multiplier than when we build systems. Looking for inefficiencies in how we operate and solving them by putting systems, tools and processes in place is among the highest impact things we will do.

Redefine deep work

Cal Newport defines deep work as uninterrupted periods with full concentration on a single task free of distraction. Let me start by saying – I love Cal’s work. I just thought I’d offer a counter point to his notes on productivity while adhering to similar principles. I think the principle of intensity that governs the deep work idea as spot on. However, I’ve long contended that the deep work idea is less applicable in many roles in the modern workplace. My push is that we must all think about and redefine deep work for ourselves.

There are two principles we need to keep in mind as we redefine deep work for ourselves –

1. Our productivity = Focus x Intensity x Time 
The focus referred to here is focus as a verb. It is the continuous prioritization process we use to pick the best thing to do with our time. While deep work does focus on focus (there’s an idea), it is biased to increasing intensity over increasing focus. The idea emphasizes the act of full concentration on one task over picking the task itself.

2. There are two kinds of work – research work and connection work. The difference between the two is the number of coordination required with other human beings.
If you are a researcher in a university, you don’t need to coordinate with more than a few people – your research associates and collaborators. For maybe 3 months in a year, you add students to the list. If you are working in most “matrixed” organizations, however, you are dealing with at least 10 stakeholders on any given day. This may not apply as much if you are a programmer or a brand researcher but certainly applies if you are an Engineering manager or Brand manager. The difference in the nature of the work is that your days have a large number of small tasks – typically proportional to the number of co-workers with whom you need to coordinate. And, a big part of your effectiveness is your ability to focus on the most important small task at that point of time. This doesn’t mean you don’t have a large task for the week. It is just likely that it won’t be as important a component of how your success will be measured. Intense focus on just one task is likely to hurt you more than it’ll help you on most days.

This, then, brings with it a big associated challenge – how do you keep up intensity? The third principle that makes connection work hard is the principle of attention residue. Every time we switch tasks, we reduce our ability to be intense. We are more prone, as a result, to let our minds wander and be distracted by social media. However, going back to basic principles, intensity is still incredibly valuable.

Here are 3 ideas that might help –

1. Start the day and week with your top priority items for your day and week. On most weeks, this will be a fairly long list. Most coordination jobs have 2-3 key components (tracking numbers, coordinating with people, thinking about the longer term, etc.) and it is normal to have a few things to get done across all components on the list. The act of writing it down enables us to keep committing to focusing on them.

2. Be proactive about managing your time – schedule “deep work” days and batch process meetings. If you are part of a couple of recurring larger team meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday, batch most of your other meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday. Keep large swathes of time open for you to dive in to the chunkier tasks. As you take control of your calendar, I’d also suggest committing to a time when you get out of the office. A little bit of pressure brings out the best in us.

3. Redefine deep work based on the nature of your job. My job has a much higher connection component now than it did in most projects as a junior management consultant. My “job” as a graduate student attempting to learn, on the other hand, was largely research work. Each of these required me to redefine deep work. As I see it in my job now, deep work is the ability to work for large swathes of time without interruptions. No interruptions = no social media, no notifications, no checking personal email. The difference is that I don’t penalize myself for switching tasks. If I get 5 important small things done within an hour, then that’s great. If that involves writing 3 thoughtful emails, then that works too. The most important thing is keeping a focus on what is important. Deep work should still push you – it will just push your ability to focus over your ability to be intense a lot of the time.

As I do this, I’ve also learnt to keep an eye out for other variables that effect my ability to both focus and be intense – sleep, food, exercise, work location, etc. The way I design my life directly affects my ability to work deeply.

My belief is that – if there’s one thing that we must all take away from the deep work idea, it is that we must purposefully and intentionally design our lives for maximum productivity. We won’t be able to get there without the necessary mindfulness that the deep work idea requires. However, productivity is the act of moving toward a goal. And, for our goals, we must redefine our deep work as necessary.