What’s Holding You Back?

A senior Partner at Bain, who I used to work with often, maintained that decision-making ability was the best way to assess the long-term potential and effectiveness of an organization.

According to their research, good decision-making boils down to: speed, effort, quality, and yield. The best organizations make decisions that tend to be the right ones (quality), quickly (speed), with relatively low effort, and that they nearly always turn into actions (yield).

The thinking behind this is: you might do everything else well, but if your organization is bad at making decisions, that’s going to hold you back in a fundamental way.

We can apply this thinking across multiple elements of our organizational DNA, and reflect on things like our:

Decision making

Internal communications

External communications

Who we listen to

How well we hire

How well we fire


Time management

Quality and number of meetings

Management skills



How much we are focused internally

How much we are focused externally

Strength and resilience of our external relationships

Risk management


Each of our organizations is all over the map for this list of attributes—good at some, great at a few, OK at a handful. But, most of the time, one of them is the most important, rate limiting factor for us. One of them is the cultural elephant in the room, the biggest thing weighing us down and sapping the momentum we garner from so much other good work that we do.

As you lay out plans for the coming year, remember: culture eats strategy for breakfast  (meaning: the best laid plans will fall flat if our culture doesn’t support them.)

What’s the one thing that, if you could change it, would change everything? And what are you going to do about that?

25 Keyboard Shortcuts that Save You 5 Hours a Week

Since last week’s post was such a hit, I thought I’d follow it up with a very practical How To on getting faster using your computer.

If you’re a knowledge worker, these 25 shortcuts, once mastered, will save you five of the 10 hours per week that I promised you last week.

But first, a bit of backstory.

This topic has been on my mind because I got a fancy new keyboard a couple of weeks ago. The Keyboard.io is a split, ergonomic keyboard, similar in many ways to the very funky Kenesis Advantage I bought 20 years ago.

I bought the Kenesis because I was struggling with the early signs of carpal tunnel syndrome, and, having had a friend sidelined from typing for years by her crippling symptoms, I was not going to mess around. The Kenesis, combined with a trackball mouse that I learned to use with my left hand, solved my carpel tunnel problems, and I’ve been using both ever since.

The only problem with the original Kenesis is that it’s exceptionally ugly…as in, everyone who sees it stops and says “woah, what’s that?!”

Kenesis has, finally, upgraded the color scheme from the original Apple IIe beige, and you can now get an Advantage in a sleeker gray. Still, I was intrigued by the Keyboard.io when I saw it on Kickstarter two years ago, so I backed it and was eager to upgrade.

Out of the box, the Keyboard.io looked and felt amazing: it was the souped-up version of my old Kenesis, in burled wood, of all things!

But, while the Keyboard.io looked familiar, I discovered something terrifying when I plugged it in. While all the letters are in their normal place, everything else (the space bar, the Enter key, Control, Option, Command, all directional arrows, Page Up, Page Down, Esc and Tab) had been moved!

This might not seem like a huge deal…maybe it would impact me every now and then. But since I’m a relentless user of keyboard shortcuts, the new location of this set of keys ground my workday to a halt: while I could immediately type at a decent clip, I couldn’t do a single one of my keyboard shortcuts.

The result was that, for the first day with the Keyboard.io, I felt like I was operating at 20% speed when working. I was unable to use keystrokes to switch between apps. I couldn’t easily jump the cursor around, or highlight text, or switch channels in Slack. I was doing everything with my mouse instead, and it was tragically slow.

It occurred to me that this new pace is the pace that anyone who doesn’t use keystrokes has to work at. Terrible!

I was so frustrated, and also so unwilling to give up on my new keyboard, that I resolved to figure out and re-learn the essential keystrokes I use every day.

I’m happy to report that, four weeks in, I’m at about 90% of my original speed, and I’m loving the new Keyboard.io so much that I’m going to get myself another one (as soon as they are available.)

So that my pain and frustration don’t go to waste, I thought I’d share my list for anyone looking for more (free) throughput in their workday.

Master these (and, I’m sure, many many more that I don’t currently use but your friends/colleagues might) and you’ll be recapturing loads free time throughout your workday.

And yes, there are plenty of websites with lists of ALL the shortcuts for a given app, but you don’t want all of them, you just want the essential, must-use ones…these.

Managing Text / Cursor movement / Basics

Action Mac Keystroke PC Keystroke
Copy Cmd+C Ctrl+C
Paste Cmd+V Ctrl+V
Undo Cmd+Z Ctrl+Z
Select All Cmd+A Ctrl+A
Underline / Bold / Italic Option + U / B / I Option + U / B / I
Move to next cell in a table Tab Tab
Move to previous cell in a table Shift + Tab Shift + Tab
Move cursor to next word Option + Arrow (R or L) Ctrl + Arrow (R or L)
Move cursor to the end of the line (Word) Cmd + Arrow (R or L) Ctrl + Arrow (R or L)
Highlight next word Shift + Option + Arrow (R or L) Shift + Ctrl + Arrow (R or L)
Highlight full line Shift + Up/Down Arrow Shift + Up/Down Arrow
Close a dialogue box Esc Esc


Moving between Apps

Action Mac Keystroke PC Keystroke
Switch between apps (forward) Cmd+Tab Alt+Tab
Switch between apps (backwards) Cmd+Shift+Tab Alt+Shift+Tab


Gmail (full list here)

Action Mac Keystroke PC Keystroke
Send email Tab, then Enter Tab, then Enter
Add someone to Cc: Line Cmd+Shift+C Ctrl+Shift+C
Add someone to Bcc: Line Cmd+Shift+B Ctrl+Shift+B
Mark an email as read Shift + I Shift + I
Mark an email as unread Shift + U Shift + U
Return to Inbox from msg U U
Add a hyperlink Highlight the word, then Cmd+K, then paste in the URL Highlight the word, then Cmd+K, then paste in the URL


Slack (full list here)

Action Mac Keystroke PC Keystroke
Search channels Cmd+K, then type Ctrl+K, then type
Line break in a message Shift+Enter Shift+Enter
Close a preview file Esc Esc
Add a hyperlink Highlight the word, then paste (Cmd+V) Highlight the word, then paste (Ctrl+V)


I Hate the Ivy League

I dropped my eldest son off at college on Friday, which was bittersweet.

Lucky for him, he is focused and passionate in a way I could not have imagined when I was his age.  He’s found his way to a small, specialized school that is uniquely suited to his talents, and I’m hoping that it turns out to be the perfect place for him.

On the drive there and back, my wife and I listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s 9-podcast compilation, “I Hate the Ivy League.”

The thesis is that the U.S. higher ed system is failing miserably at being the great equalizer in a country that calls itself it is a meritocracy. Instead of a higher-ed system that is evolving towards more access for more students for better results, we instead have one that is driving inexorably towards exorbitantly-priced exclusivity…a hyper-capitalist version of education.

I don’t know which episode I liked the best.

It could be the one where Justice Antonin Scalia boasts that he only considers Supreme Court Clerk candidates from the T14 (“top 14”) U.S. law schools, and then goes on to say that the single best Clerk he ever had went to none of those schools. And he fails to see the irony in that.

I also liked the one where Gladwell takes on Stanford’s president and almost blows a gasket explaining why a $400 million gift to a college with a multi-billion dollar endowment is just plain wrong.

But probably the best of all was the one that talks about the U.S. News and World Report college ranking system. While I knew it was flawed, I never fully appreciated how each and every element that drives up college ranking is correlated with exclusion, wealth, and privilege.

I listened from the edge of my seat to Gladwell’s exposition on what it would take for Dillard, an historically black college and university (HBCU) in Louisiana, to climb the US News and World Report rankings: admit fewer students with Pell grants, fewer students who are first-time college-goers, recruit more rich white students, etc. etc. etc. (Oh, and if you’re wondering which college, Harvard or Dillard, graduated more Black physics majors last year, it’s not even close: Dillard wins in a landslide.)

This all got me thinking, again, about the power of data to shape (or mis-shape) a system. While the U.S. News rankings are not the only cause of the perversion of higher education in the U.S., they are a major catalyst that reinforces and accelerates a fundamentally flawed status quo.

I’m sure we can all think of other areas where bad or nonexistent data are either accelerating us towards a bad outcome or holding us back from facing the real, tough questions.

If you’re looking for better data, real data, data from the source, let’s talk.

A Different Walk Every Day

My 2-year-old dog, Birdie, needs to walk at least five miles a day to be calm, relaxed and happy.

My wife and I have concluded that the best way to make this work is with lots of walking first thing in the morning. I’ve been taking her 3 miles right when I wake up, and my wife takes her another mile or so when she walks our youngest daughter to school.

I’ve chosen to walk the same route nearly every day. This makes the timing predictable, and it also helps for training purposes (especially if I let her off leash).

A lot of days, the walk/run is great: the air is cool, dew is on the grass, it’s quiet and beautiful, and I feel lucky to be out.

And some days it feels like drudgery. Not only the same walk as yesterday, but the same walk I’ll do tomorrow, and the day after that, until forever. And then I’m bummed and a little overwhelmed.

The good news is that this thought—“am I really going to be doing this same walk every morning for the next decade?”—gets obliterated immediately when I find myself, say, in some high grass with Birdie, and I start watching her: nose twitching like crazy, tail wagging, searching each tuft of grass and thicket of plants for a squirrel, chipmunk, bunny, or turtle—or just to figure out what that great smell is.

We walked through this high grass yesterday, and we will tomorrow, of course.

But this smell, right here and right now, is new and fascinating.

Where I’m getting things totally wrong is my “this walk” construct: an artificial mental shorthand that incorrectly equates today’s walk with yesterday’s and with tomorrow’s.

This is nothing less than lazy thinking by my lazy mind. In my effort to simplify the world, I completely disconnect from the present, and completely miss what is really going on.

This mistake is easy to make, and it’s the reason why we lose momentum and enthusiasm around the work we set out to do.

You can see the conundrum: there is literally no task that we can master without long-term, repeated work.

This means that we need a mindset that will allow us to walk the path of mastery.

This mindset doesn’t begin with commitment or work ethic.

It begins with remembering to stay present and curious.

When we are present, when we are curious, we can see our reality anew. We are constantly in a new moment and always exploring. We are forever on the cusp of discovering what is different about this specific thing at this moment of this day.

Even, and especially, if that different thing is us.

A little bit every day

More often than not, we’re comfortable with “a lot,” and we’re comfortable with “nothing.”

It’s easy to make a big push for something when we’re feeling inspired: a New Year’s resolution; after reading a great article on the benefits (or drawbacks) of coffee; while on vacation.

Often, that big push either overshoots (we overdo it and get tired), or our inspiration wanes.

Which is why “a little bit every day” is tougher, and more valuable, than it appears.

It requires us to find out what “a little bit” for this new thing means to us: the smallest possible dosage that will make a difference.

And it requires us to do this meaningful thing each and every day.

My natural inclination is get inspired, overdo things, fall short/get injured, and then get frustrated. Then I give up.

The biggest changes I’ve made have happen when I’ve made small, consistent, long term commitments to things that really matter: from generosity to running to listening to recovering from injury.

This isn’t a conceptual point or a conceptual blog post. I encourage you to pick something that matters to you, figure out what “a little bit” would be, and commit to doing that for 30 days. You can even use Austin Kleon’s 30-day challenge printout to keep track.

A little bit every day adds up to a lot. And it’s rarer than it appears.

The problem with skipping Tuesday

Hopefully you noticed by now that I publish this blog once a week every Tuesday.

Except for last week: I got back from my first big international trip post-COVID, and returned to such a mountain of work + jetlag that I didn’t put up the post that I’d written. I wanted to give it another turn, and I was shot by the end of the day on Monday.

Of course the week stayed busy, and then it was a holiday in the US yesterday, so again, no post. And, since I schedule all my meetings on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, I’ve got very limited quiet time until the end of the week.

From where I’m standing, I can see how easy it would be to let another week go by.

And, in the tradition of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, pretty soon one thing leads to another…

I think people often confused routine and discipline, and the role that they play in long term projects and how we structure our days.

Discipline by itself is awfully hard: doing all the mental work of deciding to do a difficult task, prioritizing that task, fighting through the resistance, and getting the job done.


Whereas routine is a lot easier: discipline is involved, but it is simply the discipline of walking a well-worn path.

That’s much, much easier.

Until next Tuesday.


The Invisible Fence

We have an invisible fence set up around our yard for our dog. To mark it, we’ve put up little white flags and taught her not to cross them. Since we live on a busy street, it’s doubly important that my dog understands and respects these boundaries.

Of course, she needs to get out of the yard a few times a day for her walks. Any time I walk her, the first thing I do is take off her Invisible Fence collar. This means she could easily cross the line without our help.

But, because she’s a dog and I want to keep things simple for her, I never walk her across the line. Instead, for each and every walk, I carry her across the line.

It’s quite a sight, me or a family member lifting up our long-legged, muscly, 55-pound dog to cross a line that won’t shock her because she’s not wearing her Invisible Fence collar.

The message: it’s only safe to cross the line when in our arms.

Now, my elaborate charade exists because she’s a dog and I can’t explain the whole fence / safety / car situation in another way that she can understand.

But charades exist all around us: elaborate dances designed to reinforce boundaries and to create the mirage that we must rely on certain people to cross them.

I’m confident that my charade is keeping my dog safe. And other charades may be equally well-intentioned.

But, most of the time, these rituals get so grooved that everyone involved forgets where and why they began, and loses sight of whether they’re real or imagined.

Often, the first step to breaking through is seeing clearly: we’re being kept in by story told by others, one that we’ve repeated to ourselves enough times that it’s indistinguishable from reality.




Seeing the Problem Clearly

We waste a lot of time because we misunderstand the problem.

Our poor diagnosis leads to the wrong mental models. We then waste energy focused on addressing things that aren’t really a priority.

Worse, we incorrectly assume that “correct diagnosis” is binary: either we see things the wrong way or the right way.

In reality, we don’t flip from not seeing to seeing.

Rather, we have a first glimpse of true understanding, and we sharpen what we see over time.

If, tomorrow, you finally figure out what the problem is, in your enthusiasm you might rush to turn that eureka moment into a plan for action.

Let me suggest, instead, spending some time sitting with your new understanding.

Keep doing things the way you’ve been doing, while all the while keeping your hypothesis about what needs to change in the back of your mind.

Letting this gap persist—the gap between today’s practice and your (new) view of what things should look like tomorrow—will automatically force your diagnosis to sharpen. As your understanding deepens, you will have:

  1. A more complete understanding of what you need to do differently
  2. Much more conviction behind starting down that new path

The clarity of understanding will itself be hugely valuable.

The strength of your conviction will make it much more likely that you’ll successfully lead those around you to rally around the changes you want to make.

Terror/Freedom, Calm/Structure

I was talking with a colleague about what makes us most productive, and we came up with this fun 2-by-2.

We were discussing whether he was, in fact, most productive in the top-right corner: namely, when he’s got as much Freedom as possible, and has massive, important goals that are so big that they’re Terror-inducing.

We had a chuckle about this—it’s a caricature, to be sure—but it did get me thinking that this simple 2×2 might be a great shortcut for getting to know each others’ work styles.

For example, I’m also at peak productivity (though not sustainably) when I’m somewhere in the middle of the ‘Terror’ quadrant. A bit of fear leads me to crank out a ton of good work, whereas if things are too calm for too long they feel flat to me.

That said, Terror for too long does wear me down. What’s best for me is hanging out somewhere between Calm and Terror, with enough Calm for predictability and self-care and enough Terror to keep me motivated.

Similarly, I’m comfortable with, and like, a strong foundation of structure; and I find too much structure stifling. I need to be in the middle of that axis to thrive: structure as a jumping-off point for the freedom to dream about and create new things.

I find this 2×2 diagnostically helpful. For example, when I think about work groups that have trouble, the four that jump out are:

  • (Usually) One high-Structure person and one high-Freedom person. The exception is if this high-structure person is an awesome, self-aware supervisor who knows how to give their freedom-seeking team member tons of white space and motivation, while not constraining her too much. Conversely, a high-freedom person managing a high-structure person seems particularly hard to pull off. The high-structure junior person often ends up confused, stressed out or frustrated.
  • (Always) One strongly Structure/Calm person with another strongly Freedom/Terror person unless both are super-self-aware. These two environments are so different that these pairs struggle to find common ground.
  • Too many high-freedom people working together without someone to create structure. Also known as “chaos.”
  • High-freedom people who have been forced into high-structure roles. This is a tricky one because we naturally associate seniority with more management responsibility. That’s why we give management job to successful high-Freedom folks, and then get confused when they (and their teams) struggle.
  • Finally, I wonder if the High Structure / High Terror profile exists and, if it does, what makes that person thrive.

A parting thought, lest we lose the nuance here: maximum productivity does not equate to maximum well-being.

I expect everyone wilts eventually when they feel too much terror for too long. However, I do believe there are folks who have higher ‘terror’ thresholds and who find low-to-medium levels of terror exhilarating rather than off-putting.

We all surely inhabit parts of the framework in different settings and moments. The useful point for introspection is to explore our emotional reaction to each of the four quadrants, and unpack how that reaction impacts our energy levels, our focus, and our productivity.

Stop / Start / Keep

I was first introduced to the concept of After Action Reviews by Colonel Patrick Tierney, a retired U.S. Army officer who I got to know in my time at Acumen.

An After Action Review (AAR) is a review of a completed operation, typically run by the commanding officer and with all members of the operation present.

In an AAR, your job is to answer four questions:

  • What was expected to happen?
  • What actually occurred?
  • What went well and why?
  • What can be improved and how?

My sense, from talking to Col. Tierney, is that there’s a level of (harsh) objectivity in an AAR that serves two purposes: surfacing the truths about what happened and building a culture of transparent accountability. Col. Tierney would describe going into an AAR as, “you have to strap on your thick skin before heading into that room.” The feeling was that any and all critiques would come out in the AAR, and then, afterwards, you were done and would put the AAR behind you.

While there’s a full AAR process that is itself very powerful, at a practical level I’ve often found our teams boiling AAR’s down to a simple start / stop / keep rubric: What do we need to start doing? What should we stop doing? What should we keep doing?

To operationalize this, create a table in a Google Doc and have all team members spend the first 5-10 minutes of the meeting filling in the document (or, better, do this before the meeting). In addition to writing, anyone can also +1 another team member’s entry to show they agree with it. For example:

Start Stop Keep
Sharing all spec details at the start of the project ++++
More clear pushback to the client when requests are out of scope +++++
Adding requirements late in the process +++++
Parallel conversations ++
Having daily standups ++++
Clear decision-making +
Raising hands to support each other +++

As I head into 2022, I’ve found myself switching gears more slowly than in the past, likely the result of the Groundhog Day that it we’re living through: cancelled trips, postponed back-to-office plans, tons of emails from schools about new protocols and Zoom options, and global uncertainty.

That said, I know the beginning of the year is an invaluable time for reflection, planning and intention-setting, one that we shouldn’t miss.

With that in mind, I’m planning to start my year with both a personal and an organizational start / stop / keep list.

On the personal front, the list will focus on how I manage my time and my energy, the structure of my days, and any adjustments I might make to keep myself more grounded while still getting everything that I need to get done done.

And, for our company, I’ll use this as a conversation-starter across multiple teams and geographies, a chance for everyone to share what we need more of, less of, and the things that went really well in 2021 that we need to keep.

You might want to try it too.

Happy new year, and here’s to a great start to 2022.