The importance of having an “organizing principle”

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I’ve noticed that I perform best when I have an organizing principle. That is, the thing in my life from which all other things branch off. Having an organizing principle – a guiding north star – helps steer my thinking and decision making. It doesn’t remove the need for critical thought, but rather serves as a reminder of what I’m ultimately trying to accomplish.

I’ve found it best to use something specific, some specific short-to-medium-term goal or process. Saying that your “job” or “family” is the organizing principle isn’t specific enough and hurts more than it helps.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed the same to be true for good military units, from the platoon to battalion level. Those that had an organizing principle and whose subordinate formations nested that principle tended to perform better. It could be something simple like “physical fitness” or more targeted like “success at NTC.” As long as it makes sense and people believe in it, it is helpful.

Of course, simply having an organizing principle doesn’t achieve the result. It’s a reminder that you have to actually organize things towards accomplishing that goal. It seems so simple, but most of us – people and organizations alike – go through our days and weeks without a real end goal. We’re just grinding along. There’s nothing wrong with hard work, but what is it headed towards?

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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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Time Hacks and Parkinson’s Law

Patrol Base

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion

I stood in the middle of the patrol base. It was completely dark, and I was giving orders to my team leaders. I told them to have the men pair up, and one at a time, pull off the line. One would clean his weapon while the other maintained security.

They dutifully nodded and made it happen, tired soldiers crawling a few meters back from their position to lazily wipe carbon and oil out of the guts of their rifles. They droned on.

I sat in the middle of the patrol base and worked on a sector sketch, feeling good about having given out orders.

The military trainer approached me and kneeled. I could barely see his face in the darkness.

He asked, “What are you doing?”

“I’m working on my sector sketch,” I responded.

“No, what are your guys doing?”

“Oh, they’re cleaning weapons,” I said, looking over my shoulder at dark figures, barely moving.

“How long have they been doing that for?”

“Uh, about thirty minutes,” I responded.

“Listen, when you give out orders you need to give a task, condition, standard, and a time hack. Otherwise, they’ll just go on doing whatever it is you told them to do forever.”

This small piece of advice would be forever etched in my mind. I was 19 years old in the the woods of Fort Bragg, North Carolina and it was right there that I learned the importance of giving clear orders with an associated time hack. In this case, instead of simply telling the guys to to “clean their weapons” I should have said something like “pull out the bolt, wipe off the oil and carbon, dump some oil on it, put the bolt back in and then swap out with your buddy. You have five minutes to have both rifles clean. Go.”

The “time hack” is a leadership technique used to great effect by both small unit military leaders and field grade officers. If you tell a soldier to do something – whatever it is – without giving specific guidance on how to do it and more importantly, when to do it (or when to have it completed), you are leaving the task to the individual leisure of that soldier. If he or she is motivated and a go-getter, they may tackle it immediately with fantastic results. If he or she is a shammer, it will always be the task that they are right about to get to, as soon as they finish this other thing.

Years later, after I left the Army, I became really interested in “lifehack” blogs and “GTD” articles. Somewhere along the way, I came across “Parkinson’s Law,” which states “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” That is, if you give someone a big chunk of time in which to accomplish a task, it is likely that they will use that time to its fullest. This is related to procrastination, in the way a student can knock out a paper they were assigned a month ago on the night before it is due, simply out of necessity.

The original essay was meant to be humorous and a jab at the British Civil Service – specifically, the British Colonial Service, which incidentally I recently mentioned in another post. Funny as it is, Parkinson’s law makes sense, and can be applied to both organizations who duplicate jobs and create “busy” work as well as individuals, for whom, as Gretchen Rubin recently posted about – nothing is more exhausting than the task that is never started.

Parkinson’s article is worth reading in its entirety. The manner and style is outdated, which is why I think boiling down the law to assigning “time hacks” is more digestible. Schedule a task and limit the amount of time you give yourself (or someone else) for completion, and you are more likely to see it to completion. Leave it floating out there in the ether to be completed at leisure, and it will never get done, becoming an exhausting nag that stares at you for days and weeks and months on end.

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Life Lesson: Have a “Capture Device”

During our initial inbrief at IBOLC, the battalion commander read off a list of ten things (I think it was ten) that would help us be successful officers in the Army. Some of them were pretty basic, like be in good physical shape and try to get enough sleep. I dutifully copied down the notes, but became particularly interested when he said “Number 8, always have a ‘capture device.'”

I straightened up and craned my neck to listen.

Around the time I was getting out of the Army in 2006 and starting college, I became super-interested in all things “productivity.” I read all the blogs and articles and theories. I created my own monster of a “getting things done” system that I still follow and tweak today (a post for another time).

So when he mentioned something that sounded like it might fall into that realm, I found myself listening intently.

He went on to talk about how good ideas often present themselves at random and inopportune times, and without a “capture device” they will simply disappear.

A capture device can be anything, from a simple pen and pad to an App on your iPhone (I use Things, and to a lesser degree, Evernote).

It is some of the best advice I ever heard, and my feeling is that it was lost on most the young Lieutenants sitting in the room.

Did you ever notice that you’ll often have fantastic ideas while in the shower or during exercise? There’s a bunch of scientific reasons why that happens. When Don Draper is stumped on an idea, he goes to the movies and lets his brain rest.

By the time he leaves, the idea is there waiting for him.

Only in real life, if you don’t have a place to “capture” that idea, you’ll find yourself stopping in your tracks hours later, staring at the floor with an outstretched index finger and scrunched face, trying to remember what it was you wanted to do.

When I get an idea for work, social life, a gift, this blog – anything – I will stop what I’m doing and go to my “capture device,” in this case, my iPhone, and capture it quickly, usually in just a couple of words, and then revisit it later. The idea for this blog post came after I got an idea for another blog post and went to my phone, realizing that it would also be interesting to write about that in the first place!

Those “good ideas” only last a few moments before I forget them, usually because I’m caught up in something I’m enjoying, like watching a movie or exercising. Without capturing them, I am essentially letting them pass, hoping they’ll return at a later time when I’m not so engaged – unlikely, says science.

Over time, I’ve collected lots of great ideas for ‘things,’ most of which amount to nothing, or sit in an ever-growing list of things that I may one day do. Others, though, have been fantastic and lead me down paths or allowed me to do things that I never thought I would do. That is why I almost always have my iPhone with me.

It is my capture device.

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