Plan Your Own War

In the mid-2000s I became obsessed with productivity blogs and systems. I followed 43 folders (dead since 2011), Lifehacker (turned into listicles and clickbait), and read article after article on the “Getting Things Done” (GTD) system. Over the ensuing decade (+), I’ve built a monster of a system for organzing my life and things I’m trying to do – both personally and professionally.

This system consists of:

  • A daily review (about 5 minutes total, split up between morning/evening)
  • A weekly review (normally done on Sunday mornings – takes 30-45 minutes of focused work)
  • A monthly review (normally done on the closest weekend to the 1st of the month, takes 30-45 minutes of focused work)
  • A yearly review (I start thinking about it on 1 December and capturing notes, and I usually complete the review during the week between Christmas and New Years – multiple sessions of reflection and work)

I’m not going to go into the details of what is in each review (if you’re actually interested, let me know). It is a system that I continually improve and massage (thanks John). However, when I look back at the reviews I did a decade ago versus today, it’s really incredible how much I’ve tacked on over the years. The process has grown and become much more focused and professional. Just about every year though, I have to prune it so it doesn’t get out of control.

At its core, the whole thing is a goal setting / reflection exercise that answers the following questions:

1) What is it that I’m trying to accomplish?
2) How am I doing?
3) What do I need to do to get better?

I know others go through a similar process, but my sense is that this is something most people don’t really do at all. It’s way beyond just making a to-do list and scheduling things on a calendar. And I’m aware that this process takes a lot of work and time – sometimes I’ll wonder if I’m spending more time planning when I should be executing.

But aren’t you worth it?

We spend so much time planning other people’s wars or projects – isn’t it worth putting some time into your own life?

As an aside, after more than a decade, I’ve stopped using Evernote. Until now, I’ve used Evernote exclusively to do this planning, capture articles, and even build my digital “I love me book.” Recently, and without warning, Evernote stopped providing the ability to maintain “local” notebooks, meaning everything would have to live “in the cloud.” It was an abrupt change and other note apps have come a long way, so I made the migration to Apple’s native Notes app – which works just fine.

Anyway, if you’re interested in going deeper on reviews, check these out:

The Art of Non (Yearly Review).  Another site I follow that talks about the annual review. I lifted the concept of assigning a “theme” to your year. An overarching organizing principle. Remember, good artists copy, great artists steal.

Who moved my brain? I revisit this video from Merlin Mann every couple of years to remind me that the two things that really matter are time and attention. The video is long and meandering, but if you stick with it you ingest a really important message. And this is one of those videos where I think you have to soak in the whole thing to really get it. You can’t just stick to the punchline.

The scary – but true quote – that sticks with me:

“If I just grabbed you on the street, and I said ‘what’s the most important thing in your life?’ you would say something like your family, or your church group, or you know, maybe your career, maybe your kid or your pet or whatever. And the thing is, in some part of your heart, that’s absolutely true. 

But do you have a sense of the extent to which your time and attention tracks to actually doing good stuff for that thing that you claim is really important? Do you have an internal barometer that tells you how well that’s going? In fact, is the thing that you claim is important really important? 

Because if a lot of people actually looked at where there time and attention went – the parts that they do have control over – it would look like the most important thing in their life was Facebook.” 

Oof.


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The Pomodoro Technique

I’m writing more lately, and that requires focus and attention. It’s easy to get distracted.

I had to dust off this old technique I learned in graduate school – the Pomodoro technique.

It’s very simple. Set a timer (I do 50 minutes) and then work until the timer goes off. Then, take a break and do whatever you want (I do 10 minutes).

I find that once I set the timer, I’m more inclined to sit and do the work, and often I can get into the flow.

There are lots of apps out there that have this feature built-in. Or you can do it manually.

I also like to have “do not disturb” on while I’m working to eliminate notifications.


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Optimal Ignorance: Information You Don’t Need

war room from wargames lots of screens

One of the best articles I’ve seen on FTGN for awhile.

“Optimal ignorance,” a deliberately contrarian term, “refers to the importance of knowing what it is not worth knowing. It requires great courage to implement. It is far, far easier to demand more and more information than it is to abstain from demanding it.”  In other words, seeking optimal ignorance requires deliberately going about not wasting energy or time on information that distracts from the primary inquiry. 

Optimal Ignorance: A Filter for Intent-Based Leadership Above the Tactical Level – From the Green Notebook

We have been trained to pay attention to detail and ‘check small things.’ And these days, we have the technology and the means to keep constant tabs on everything and everyone.

The information is all there and available.

To be truly effective, though, we don’t need all of that information. In fact, too much information becomes paralyzing.

It takes maturity and confidence to realize you don’t need to know. You don’t have to have input or an opinion, either.

This is especially true for senior leaders. Every time a senior leader speaks, there’s a good chance those words are going to get scribbled down into a book and transformed into an order, tasking, or inquiry.

Even a simple request for clarification can turn into a multi-day goose chase for obscure information.

Of course, buying into optimal ignorance requires a great deal of trust within an organization. One of those things that briefs well, but might be hard to implement.

Related to this is the concept of “just-in-time” information. To squeeze the most out of a day, your system needs to be optimized to not saddle you down with information you don’t need right now. It should arrive precisely when you need it.

I, for one, choose to be just in time and optimally ignorant.


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Against ‘threads’

colored threads

I don’t like threads on Twitter.

Even the good ones.

Don’t get me wrong – they’re often entertaining, interesting, and educational.

And I do enjoy them.

But I don’t like them because they’re so ephemeral.

A lot of works goes into them, they’re fun to poke through, but then they’re gone. And there’s not really a good way to save them.

You can bookmark them, but then you’re stuck with a list of bookmarks. I tend to use bookmarks for things to check out later, and then I clear them out.

There is definitely a place for them, and I get their utility. And I understand how they are engaging.

But some of them are so engaging I want them to live somewhere that I can easily return to for reference.

You know, like a blog.

A few weeks ago I started building a thread on what ‘winning’ looks like in Great Power Competition. I had a good vision for it and I know it would be engaging. It was full of video clips, gifs, pictures, and smart copy.

I stopped building it because I knew that it would be a great thread that would quickly be pushed aside and forgotten.

Instead, I’ll turn it into an article where it can survive.


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“Just In Time” Information Management

sniper team on top of a humvee
Army photo by Spc. Andrew McNeil (link)

You may be familiar with “Just In Time” inventory or manufacturing. This is the business strategy that aims at reducing the amount of time product is in storage or on a shelf. This is done by working towards hyper-efficiency across all aspects of a business. Parts, material, and labor are right where they are at precisely the time they need to be.

On at least one occasion, I’ve heard this concept used in the context of knowledge workers – and we’re all pretty much knowledge workers these days.

Instead of manufacturing, we apply the same idea to information. Our management systems allow us to delay accumulating more information until the precise moment it is needed, and we can be reasonably sure that it will be there when we need to retrieve it.

Calendars, task trackers, productivity apps, and management systems allows us to move through a day more efficiently. When we come to a point where we need to make a decision, we can retrieve the infromation we need, usually pretty quickly.

If we are comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, we can focus our attention on the things that matter right now and delay work on future problems until we absolutely must.

Have you ever scheduled a meeting and then reviewed your notes a couple of minutes immediately prior? Then you have already put this idea into practice.

This system allows us to do more (and better), but it also depends heavily on flawless execution from a living person. The technology will rarely fail – but there still needs to be a person there to pull the lever or hit the button at just the right time.

When running effectively, ‘just in time’ systems can supercharge productivity. But without constant attention, they can fail spectacularly.

Time, attention, and energy are all finite resources.

My personal management system has slowly been creeping towards a ‘just in time’ one. I actually really like it – it does allow for more. It’s a way to squeeze just a little bit more out of a productivity system.

In fairness, it comes at the cost of a near-constant low hum of anxiety, as there is always something coming on the horizon that is unsettled.

If this stuff interests you, I’d recommend signing up for the monthly newsletter. I tend to pontificate about planning from time to time.


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In getting things done, time and attention are the only two things that matter

If I just grabbed you on the street and said:

“WHAT’S THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN YOUR LIFE?”

You would probably say something like your family, or your church group, or maybe your career, or maybe your kid or your pet, or whatever. And the thing is, in some part of your heart, that’s absolutely true. But do you have a sense in which your time and attention tracks to actually doing good stuff for that thing that you claimed is really important? Do you have an internal barometer that tells you how well that’s going?

In fact is the thing that you claim is important really important?

Because, if a lot of people actually looked at where their time and attention went, the parts that they do have control over, it would look like the most important thing in their life is Facebook.

It’s been over a month since I’ve written anything.

I’ve been in a recalibration period, and as part of that, I revisited a great talk by Merlin Mann that he delivered at Rutgers University in 2010. It’s titled “Who moved my brain?” and it’s about time and attention.

When I was enlisted, I spent a lot of time after work researching productivity and ways to be more effective. That brought me to Merlin’s old website, 43 Folders. I started reading Merlin’s articles and listening to his talks. I was simply looking for tips on how to be more productive, the specific things I was supposed to do – like make a “Hipster PDA,” which I used until the iPhone came out. Merlin has a way of speaking philosophically about the topic of productivity, time, and attention, often to the annoyance of a listener who just wants to know how exactly to be more effective.

What are the specific things I’m supposed to do?

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate his more indirect approach. In this talk, he opens up with “The more time I spend thinking about this stuff, the less interested I am in the relatively superficial problems of things like e-mail.” He describes the anxiety and frustration that we have with email, social media, time, and attention as the “top layer” of our problems.

If you pay attention, what he’s usually getting at is that the things we’re seeking to fix are often really easy, but they suggest much deeper problems underneath that we haven’t addressed.

Thanks to the gentle nudge from friend of the blog Andrew Steadman at The Military Leader, I’ve been listening to podcasts again and I get the sense that the field of cognitive optimal performance is surging in a way I’m not sure that it was ten or even five years ago. It’s for that reason that I’m sharing this talk, because it’s still relevant and potentially pretty illuminating for someone trying to grapple with managing their own time and attention better.

The talk is worth listening to in its entirety and will be especially useful for anyone interested in understanding how they use and manage all things digital (email and social media especially) and optimizing workplace performance.

If you’re wondering what my biggest take away from the talk was, it’s this: I turned off notifications on my iPhone. In the talk, Merlin discusses how we allow our time and attention to be captured by literally anyone in the world with an internet connection. If someone in Zaire emails me and it pops up on my screen, for that second that my eyes diverted from whatever they were looking at to see that I got an email from some guy in Zaire. I’ve lost control of my time and attention. No matter what I was doing, by allowing myself to be interrupted, I am tacitly saying that nothing that I am currently doing is more important than what anyone on the internet wants me to pay attention to.

When you think about it in those terms, when you keep your notifications on, or the email “bubble” that pops up when you get a new email, or whatever other form this takes, you’re relinquishing an incredible power -really the only power you have.

Doing something as simple as turning off notifications might not seem like a big deal for some people, but I’m a compulsive checker. If they’re on, and I see them on the screen, I’m compelled to investigate further.

“What did he say in that comment?”

“What’s in that email?

Turning off notifications is in the “tips and tricks” category of productivity. It’s a small thing that you can do right now to reclaim some time and attention, but it is indicative of a bigger problem in how habits are formed and managed, hence the recalibration period I mentioned in the beginning.


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