Must Do List

I’ve tried a thousand times to have a consistent, useful To Do list.

I’ve written them by hand in notebooks. I’ve tried fancy project management apps like Trello and Asana. I even almost settled on various paired-down “it’s just a list and nothing else” softwares like Teux Deux, Remember the Milk or Wunderlist.

But eventually, each of my To Do lists fails, and I end up abandoning it.

The problem, I realized, isn’t the interface, it’s the list itself. My To Do lists do a terrible job distinguishing between important and urgent, and between simple and complex. In the end, some combination of three things ends up happening:

  1. I prioritize small things that are easier to check off the list, at the expense of the “real stuff.”
  2. The important things languish…
  3. …or they get so big that they don’t make sense on the To Do list

The result is a doubly whammy of decreased output: a persistent pull towards the simpler, less-important tasks; and a growing To Do list that is either stale (stuff that rolled over week after week for months) or overwhelming (long lists of complex, insurmountable tasks).

Eventually I give up on the list, and the software, revert back to a hodgepodge of solutions.

Lately I realized that what I need isn’t better software, it’s a better list. I need a Must Do List: a things-that-absolutely-must-happen-this-week list.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Find a window at the start of your week, either on Sunday night or, better, Monday morning when you’re fresh and thinking clearly and broadly. Jot down the first 1-3 things that come to mind that feel like they’re going to be most important in the coming week.
  2. Look at your calendar for last week and for the coming week, as well as whatever communication tool (email, Slack, etc.) you use, to orient yourself to the flow of meetings, deadlines, and communication.
  3. Write your Must Do list, a short list of important things that really, truly, must get done this week. You’re allowed an absolute maximum of 10 items on the list.

Use the list all week, and return to it on Friday afternoon to see how you did.

Here’s the important bit: your Friday afternoon job isn’t simply to look over the list and roll things over to the following week. Your job is to evaluate what did and didn’t get done, and then, seriously and intentionally, figure out what happened: was your judgment off on Monday morning about your must-do’s, or did your execution and time management slip during the week?

Now do it again for the following week.

The result of all this isn’t just more efficiency. It’s creating a practice through which you improve both at identifying and executing the things that must happen to move your important work forward.

 

Pomp, circumstance, or access

The strangest thing happened to me the other day. I wasn’t feeling well and I emailed my doctor early in the morning.

And.

He.

Emailed.

Right.

Back.

Not just once, but twice, all in less than an hour.

It got me thinking about other places where there are mismatches between what we really want (a responsive doctor who we can occasionally hear from without making an appointment) and what we get.

If you were an alien visiting from another planet, sent to understand the relationship between funders and social sector organizations, what would you tell your superiors on the Mother Ship? You’d likely explain that people who give away their hard-earned money are mostly interested in fancy meals in expensive settings, supplemented by the occasional, sorta boring glossy report.

We throw resources at the wrong solution because it is safe: no one will get fired for putting on next years’ Gala that raises $75,000 more than this year’s, or for publishing an annual report that is good enough and mostly looks like everyone else’s.

So, you can keep playing that game, and come in neither last nor first.

Or you can decide to win at a completely different offering.

It’s the offer of permeability. The offer of the quick response. The offer that makes available useful and relevant access to your team that’s doing the work. The offer to open up the gritty, imperfect details, and the hard-earned insight and experience: things that are easy for you to share but priceless for the person on the other end of the line.

My doctor’s day is more productive when he spends more time with more people who can only be helped by a visit to his office. My day is better when I have a first-line plan of action right away, not after four hours waiting at urgent care or a week waiting for an appointment.

Providing the right kind of access is better for everyone.

Top 10 Slack tips for new users

After a couple of failed attempts, I’ve finally migrated to Slack for all communication at work. It’s not perfect, but I’m confident that it’s an improvement on email.

The benefits are significant. I spend much less time in my inbox –  it’s no longer the center of my work life, no longer a weed I have to hack back to submission.This is the main shift I’ve experienced, and it’s a big one.

It’s also cleaner to have email be for external correspondence, separate from Slack, which is internal. This makes it easier to track things and easier to know why I’m going into my Inbox.

Plus, Slack, in addition to feeling lighter and more responsive, has huge benefits in terms of transparency (easy to ‘see’ what is going on in channels even if you’re not the recipient of a message) and for new team members (who can see and search history).

This is my second attempt at Slack. After failing the first time, I’d been intending to shift over for more than a year but couldn’t muster the courage. I ended up following some braver folks at Acumen, and I’m very happy with the results.

In case you’re about to jump in, or thinking about it but not sure if it will work, here are my suggestions about how to achieve Slack success.

  1. All or nothing: this is the most important one. On the day (after you’ve set up Slack, channels, etc.) move your entire team to Slack. You can start with one team, not with your whole organization. But it won’t work if half of your team is on Slack and the other half is on email.
  2. No more email for internal communication: this is connected to #1. You have to agree that, for a period of time, everyone is going to use Slack for everything. Here’s a cue: if you find yourself sending someone an email and a Slack message because you’re not sure which tool to use, something’s wrong.
  3. Three month trial period: when we started, I hoped a two week trial period would be long enough. I was told I actually needed to give it three months. That was good advice.
  4. Set up the channels right: Have someone on your team/in your organization set up the right channels at the outset, a person who is detail-oriented and likes that sort of thing.
  5. Create a Learn Slack channel: Create an #all-learn-slack channel where folks can ask questions and your super-users can answer them. This eases the onboarding and empowers your super-users to do an important job
  6. Use the Google Docs or Dropbox integration: Slack has a million add-on tools. If you’re using Google Docs or Dropbox for shared files, integrate them into Slack. This allows you to see GDocs comments directly in slack, upload links to Dropbox files instead of the whole files, and a bunch of other magical things.
  7. Download the app: Slack is good on desktop but feels optimized for iPhone/Android. You definitely want both the desktop app and the phone app for the best experience.
  8. Be ready to ‘tether’ your laptop more: Slack doesn’t work offline. This is a bummer and the one major drawback. If, like me, you have a chunk of time each day when you’re offline but on your laptop (say, on a train), you’ll want some way to get online. I’ve been using the Personal Hotspot on my iPhone through AT&T nearly every day. It’s intermittent, but workable, you just need a cellphone plan with this option. Same thing goes for flights – you will want to pay for wifi more often.
  9. Use the ‘star’ ‘reminder’ ‘mark unread’ or ‘pin’ tools: the biggest adjustment I’ve had in Slack is the (bad) email habit of reading emails when I don’t have time to respond to them. I find it a bit harder to re-find things after I’ve read them in Slack, and am using the Star a lot to keep a running list of things that I have to go back to. I’m guessing that a combination of all four of these tools will work for me once I master them.
  10. Use Slack help: one of the best things about Slack, which is completely counter-intuitive if you’ve been living in Windows land, is that (nearly) every question you might has an easy-to-find answer. Start with the Slack Help Center and go from there.

All of this has made for a smooth transition to Slack, better communication, and time and energy freed up for the important stuff.

As a bonus, here’s the Masters of Scale podcast about Slack: The big pivot – Stewart Butterfield, Co-founder & CEO of Slack. It’s a good one.

Here’s How I Intend to Make You Feel

For the longest time I was blinded by my own good intentions.

I’d focus too much on what I’d meant others to feel and see, asking them to carry the weight of any miscommunication, misunderstanding, or misinterpretation. They should be open to honest feedback, and not caught up in the specifics of how the message was delivered. They must know that we all value their hard work, never mind that it wasn’t as well-received as they’d hoped in that big meeting. And certainly they are filling in the blanks just the way I’d expect, even though we’ve not been in touch for a few weeks or months.

Well no, actually.

Good intentions are nice enough. They are certainly better than bad intentions. But, to quote that old saw, all you need is good intentions and a token (OK, a Metrocard swipe) to get a ride on the NYC subway.

The skill of leadership is the skill of mobilizing others to action. This starts with consistently, intentionally, and skillfully translating our right intentions to everyone else’s right experience.

If our message doesn’t land in the right way for different people – people who process information differently, people who show up differently, people who have different relationships to power and autonomy and to themselves – then that’s on us.

TGIM

Oh good, it’s Monday.

Another chance to try my hand at that important problem we are trying to solve.

An opportunity to interact with our customers and bring a bit of joy into their lives.

A chance to see my co-workers, people I like and respect who treat me with kindness and generosity.

A day in which I will learn something, challenge myself, dance on the edge.

A day to commit to do some thing, even just one, that matters.

This isn’t what people normally think. Most of us don’t like our jobs.

On countless elevators I hear people greet each other with a knowing “it’s almost Friday” followed by a nod and a smile. Yet counting days until the temporary, illusory break of the weekend is no way to live.

It’s true, sometimes we get stuck. It’s happened to all of us: we find ourselves in the wrong place, in the wrong job, with the wrong people, and each day can be difficult.

But nowadays there are so many ways to learn something new, so many ways to connect with people who care about the same things we do, that there’s no reason to let ourselves slip into dividing our lives between the suffering of the week and the temporary respite of the weekend.

At a minimum, if you do feel stuck, don’t use your weekends just to “do nothing” because you believe you need that break before the week hits you again. Use the time that is fully yours to put a bit of energy towards something meaningful, something that brings a bit of a spark back into your day, something that’s a step towards the next thing.

Each day is your chance to do so much more than count the minutes until it’s over.

Because one day it will be, and that’s a game you don’t actually want to win.

I Know That I Am…

While on the road last week, I did a pretty good job of meditating each night. I’ve found this is the best way to overcome both jetlag and the buzzing distraction of being on the road.

Most nights, I did one of the guided mediations on my Insight Timer app. Near the end of my trip I found a guided meditation by Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn.

“OK,” I thought, “this is going to be some serious meditation!”

The foundation of this meditation, in the words of Thich Nhat Hahn, is the breath, and is paying attention to it by thinking, “When you breathe in, know that you are breathing in. When you breathe out, know that you are breathing out.” He must have said that fifty times in the meditation.

Really? I’ve done lots of meditations where I count my breaths, or focus on a thought or an emotion or an object. But “I know that I am breathing in?” Something about that from the great Zen master wasn’t what I was expecting. Still, I went with it, and the meditation turned out to be quite nice in its simplicity.

I didn’t think much more about it until today. I was walking from my parked car into the supermarket, needing to grab one last-minute item quickly for some houseguests that were coming over for Memorial Day. Conscious of time, I had a moment when I thought, “I know that I am putting the parking ticket into my back left pocket.”

Now, this may not seem like a big deal unless I say out loud that the supermarket parking ticket is the bane of my existence. Between getting my kids out of the car and making sure that they’re not endangering themselves in the parking lot, half the time I seem to misplace that ticket or find it in a pocket despite having no recollection that I’d put it there.

And today, while I wasn’t trying to do anything different, I knew exactly where it was because I was fully present to what I was doing in the moment I put it into my pocket.

When we lose a parking ticket, it’s pretty clear that we weren’t paying attention to where we put it when we got out of the car. In most other situations the feedback is a lot less obvious – how often have I thought, “what went wrong in that conversation was that I wasn’t paying attention to what was being said to me while it was being said?” How often do we actually notice that what’s missing isn’t the right analysis or people being aligned to the same goals, it’s simply that we, or the people around us, aren’t present to the conversation that is happening right at that moment?

I for one almost never notice it. I also am almost never just doing the dishes when I’m doing the dishes, I’m almost never just walking down the street when I walk down the street, I almost never am just saying hello when I meet someone.

Almost never, but not never. And that’s a start.

My ask of you today isn’t that you’ll share this blog post or talk about it. It is that you, before jumping to the next post or email, stop for a second and, for five (just five!) breaths, know that you are breathing in, and know that you are breathing out.

If it helps, imagine that you are joining thousands of other people who, right about now, have also reached the end of this post.

Please, begin.

First, balance

The way we used to teach kids to ride bikes is all wrong. The trick is to get them, from a very young age, onto a balance bike so they can spend a year or two wooshing around by pushing the ground and, in the process, they slowly learn balance.

Image by Burley Bike

Then, when they’re ready, “learning to ride a bike” is just about being comfortable with a higher seat and learning to pedal.

Think how much harder we make it with training wheels: kids learn to ride and pedal, and, mile after mile, it’s reinforced that balance doesn’t matter at all. Then one day we take off the wheels and say, “keep riding this bike you’ve been on for years, you’ve just got to unlearn the not-balancing part.”

This kind of misdiagnosis happens every day in our grown-up life, only this time “balance”—the core skills we expect you to develop by unlearning all sorts of bad habits–are the long list of “soft” skills that are devalued by the very label.

Here’s a  starting list of the grown-up-skills equivalents of ‘balance’: a good attitude, not getting ruffled easily, apologizing in a genuine way, being deeply curious, willingness to hear and adjust to feedback, knowing how to consistently write in a professional but human way, being straight with people, caring, responsiveness, honesty, being in touch with your emotions at work, learning to say what you really think, demonstrating respect, disagreeing constructively, not overreacting to criticism, actually believing that, sometimes (even when you were positive you were right), it will turn out you were totally wrong and someone else was totally right, saying ‘let’s go for it’ even when you’re not sure it will work out.

Going Through the Motions

If all you do, each and every day, is go through the motions, then something’s not quite right.

But going through the motions also gets a bad rap.

Each time I start a run, or stand at the side of the pool before swimming laps, or contemplate an at-home yoga or meditation practice, the only way I’m able to start is by going through the motions.

Just start running, slowly.

Just jump into that too-cold water and go.

Just stand, or sit, and breathe a few times.

Before starting, I have lots of ideas about what my experience will be. It turns out that these ideas are terrible predictors of what ends up happening. It’s the act of going through those motions that creates my experience – at times powerful, energizing, or transformative, at times just as plodding and heavy as I feared it would be.

The consistent choice, day after day, to start even if we don’t feel like it, to willingly and deliberately go through the motions, is the embodiment of our persistence. We persist when we ignore the voice that says, “Not this time, not right now, not yet. Today I really can’t.”

It turns out that the story about how terrible it’s going to be doesn’t represent any sort of profound truth. Nor is it a story that’s going to help you to reach your goals.

Rough Draft Packing

I find packing for work trips onerous and unduly stressful.

I think it’s the mental exercise of trying to anticipate the details of the trip (including weather, any free time, etc.) and the associated things to bring, coupled with my unrelenting desire never to check a bag (which is helped by having my One Bag to Rule Them All).

One thing that has helped is a checklist that I consult before international trips. I’ve built it up over the years and included stuff I might otherwise forget (international currency, water bottle, Oyster card, plug adapters) as well as things I need to do (set up international data plan). I don’t always remember to check this list, but every time I do I find a few things I might have forgotten.

My new addition is to do “rough draft packing.” The goal is to decouple the gathering of the things I know I will need from the mental work of making sure I’ve got every last thing.

The idea is borrowed from how I now write blog posts: instead of doing them all in one sitting, now, when an idea hits me, I just sit and write, unedited, to get the bulk of the post down on paper. I write until I run out of steam, which is hopefully near the end of the post, and then I leave the post alone for a day or two. When I come back to it, my job is to be a finisher and editor, not an author. This decreases stress and leads to a better finished product, since I’m almost never looking at both a blank sheet of paper and a deadline.

So too with rough draft packing: no stress about getting it just right, no running mental checklist in the background while folding shirts or counting socks.  I know the main categories (work clothes, sleep clothes, exercise clothes, toiletries, etc.) so I just run through these categories and make a pile of folded stuff all in one place. Then, I return to that pile later, see it with fresh eyes, and start to make any obvious cuts (“am I actually going to swim on this trip?”), and find the things from my checklist that I’ve not gathered up.

Somehow this approach takes the stress out while also helping me pack right.

For more advanced tips (almost half of which, to my surprise, I seem to use), here’s a useful list from T+L.

Einstein’s Intuition

Famously, Albert Einstein wrote the special theory of relativity while working full-time at the Swiss patent office. Prior to taking that job, Einstein had tried and failed for years to get a job as a professor. In fact, he’d even been turned down for a job as a high school physics teacher.

This tidbit is often shared as a curious anomaly, reinforcing the image of Einstein as an iconoclast who was an underachiever early in his life.

But there’s another version of the story, one in which Einstein never would have achieved what he did but for his anomalous surroundings. Quoting Walter Isaacson’s Einstein, His Life and Universe:

The most important and obvious [source of Einstein’s insight] was his deep understanding and knowledge of theoretical physics. He was also helped by his ability to visualize thought experiments, which been encouraged by his education in Aarau. Also there was his grounding in philosophy: from Hume and Mache he had developed a skepticism about things that could not be observed. And this skepticism was enhanced by his innate rebellious tendency to question authority.

Also part of the mix—and probably reinforcing his ability to both visualize physical situations and to cut to the heart of concepts—was the technological backdrop of his life: helping his uncle Jakob to refine the moving coils and magnets in a generator; working in a patent office that was being flooded with applications for new methods of coordinating clocks; having a boss who encouraged him to apply his skepticism; living near the clock tower and train station and just above the telegraph office in Bern just as Europe was using electrical signals to synchronize clocks within time zones; and having as a sounding board his engineer friend Michele Besso, who worked with him at the patent office.

It seems little coincidence that the formulation of Einstein’s breakthrough theory of special relativity—the theory that stated that the speed of light is constant regardless of the speed of the observer— was grounded in a thought experiment of a person observing a beam of light from a stationary position and from a train traveling at 2,000 mph.

As Einstein himself observed, “A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way. But intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience.”

Intellectual experience, yes. And also how we spend our days, the stimuli we take in, the people around us, the type of thought that our work requires.

Cue: Instagram, Facebook, Candy Crush.

Or ask if this weekend might be the time to create a useless invention or start journaling or finally learn what the blockchain is.

While we cannot predict or fully control our future intuitive breakthroughs, we have the choice to see our days as an ongoing chance to assemble the ingredients of that future intuition.