Math Class

In most of my math classes growing up, you’d get partial credit for showing your work. This was a boon for me because I was sometimes prone to careless errors.

Giving credit for the work makes good sense in grade school math: the concepts matter more than getting the arithmetic 100% right.

Along these lines, working hard each and every day—what used to be face time in the office—can also be a way to show that you care, that you’re trying your best.

On the other hand, this can go too far.

As we get grooved into the habit of hard work, we start to measure ourselves in terms of hours spent rather than results achieved.

The hours, once a means to an end, become an end in and of themselves: look how hard I’m working (you say to yourself and others).

The problem is, this can become a negative spiral: we can slip into the bad habit of being less disciplined with how we spend our time, lose sight of the difference between urgent and important tasks, and (ironically, despite all the time we’re spending working) give short shrift to the best things we have to offer.

Letting your work stand there, to speak for itself, is an act of bravery.

Running for the Train

As everyone in my family knows, I have a persistent, daily, absurd issue with running for the train.

Each morning, to get to work, I walk a half mile from my house to the train station. At a relaxed pace, that walk takes 12 to 14. Walking briskly, you can do it in 10-12 minutes. Most mornings I do it in 8-9 minutes, and when things get bad, I sprint to the train in 6 minutes.

Mind you, this is all while fully dressed for work. And it’s not because I’ve overslept: I wake up at least 75 minutes before the train, and often I’ve been up for as much as two and a half hours (to exercise).

But here we are in January, and, like any period after a proper vacation, I find that on the first day back I  leave the house “early” and stroll casually to the train. While walking, I inevitably remark to myself how enjoyable this is, not just because I’m not huffing and puffing but also because I’m not starting my day with stress and rush.

Yet, most of the time, by Friday of that first week I’m back to rushing.

There’s a quality that all our days acquire when we get pulled back into the thick of things. For me, that quality is “rushed.” You will have, I suspect, a different default vice than I do.

Of course, it’s obvious that my vice isn’t serving me in a productive way.

Though, strictly speaking, that’s not true—since I engage in this behavior day in and day out, it has to be serving some need. This need seems to be the belief in the importance of the few extra things I do before dashing out of the house, or maybe there’s a bigger story I’m telling myself about how cramming activity into every last minute will sum up to a more productive day or week.

And yet, just imagine if they changed the schedule and moved the train five minutes earlier. I’d adjust, instantly.

While I continue to ponder my own foibles, here’s a question for you: what qualities do you let creep in to your days that don’t serve you—things that cause stress or worry or simply the theater of busyness? What trade-offs are you making that you could let go of? What things about how “busy” feels might be open to questioning? What mindset shift would make that sort of change easy and lasting?

What would be your equivalent of “if they changed the train schedule…”?

Here’s to a great start to your near year and new decade.

Stretch Assignments

I may be looking at Ye Olden Days through rose colored glasses…

…but I can’t help but notice a difference in attitudes about work today compared to when I had my first jobs 25 years ago.

Back then, my colleagues and I would talk actively about whether our responsibilities would ever extend beyond making copies, sending faxes, and answering the phone. There was enough clerical work and hierarchy that “entry level” was truly menial. When a superior asked us to do anything that involved thinking, we jumped at it. Non-clerical work was a perk, and when it came our way, it was our job to find time to make it happen: do all our menial work, and do this too. These projects were a chance to demonstrate that we could do something other than stand by the fax machine, and each mini-assignment served as a testing-ground of whether we should be given another useful thing to do.

While there are countless flaws in that old system, the mindset around how to approach “stretch assignments” stands the test of time.

A great stretch assignment is a chance to do something new, challenging, and exciting. By definition it’s beyond our current levels of mastery, so it requires additional time on our part to learn and to get it right.

Often, though, I’m hearing just the opposite (including from job applicants): I can only take on that new thing if there’s a 1-for-1 trade of getting rid of this existing thing.

I don’t think it works that way, at least not in environments that are moving fast and trying to grow: the organization only grows its reach, its scale, and its revenues profits and impact, if the things that make up that organization—software, systems, processes and people—can stretch and grow.

Whether it’s a one-off project or an expansion of our role, the best way to take on stretch assignments is, literally, to stretch: our mental capacity, our willingness to be uncomfortable, the number of hours we put in to make the “stretch” possible on top of everything else that’s on our plate. That means finding time around the edges, whether early in the morning, late in the evening or on a weekend, to get that job done. Hopefully the opportunity and learning are more than worth the trade.

(Better yet, in the process of adjusting to this fuller plate, we often discover a bunch of non-essential things that we were spending time on that don’t require nearly as much polishing).

The reality is, the path to leverage in our job requires us to constantly shift, adjusting to new opportunities and new sets of responsibilities.

Learning the skill of sprinting, and getting adept at shifting and stretching time, is the way that we discover what our maximum output really is. It’s also how we discover where it is that we really shine.

How many times?

I can’t help wondering: will there ever come a day when we skip all the hemming and hawing and just get on with our important, daily work?

Will we ever, finally, manage to completely ignore all our excellent excuses:

The setting isn’t right.

I have less time than I thought.

I didn’t sleep well last night.

A very important other problem is raging through my head, unresolved.

Something aches–my head, my heel, my heart–and there’s no way I can do my best work today.

The pain of noticing how bad this paragraph seems, of how loud the “stop!” in my head seems, of how far away I feel from “the zone, is real.

That familiar mantra, “this isn’t working this time, why bother?!” is running on repeat at top volume. I could just put this off until tomorrow, couldn’t I?

On and on and on and on.

How many times until this all fades away?

I couldn’t tell you.

I’ve not gotten there yet.

But I suspect that the noise never disappears, nor is it my job to un-see it.

Instead, over time and with enough practice, while that noise remains, it becomes something that IS while I continue to DO.

The real secret is this: the IS and the DO exist on different planes. That’s why they don’t need to fight it out, because they can coexist if we just put our heads down and get on with it.

Nothing needs to be vanquished for us to do important work today.

Seth Godin and Tim Ferris: What’s Your Job?

“What I do for a living is notice things.”

That one sentence is the most remarkable statement in the wonderful two-hour conversation Seth Godin has with Tim Ferris in a recent episode of Tim’s podcast.

Seth Godin, the many-times best-selling author, entrepreneur, speaker, teacher, iconoclast, and blogger. His job, in his words, is “to notice things.”

We should all have such a distilled version of the job that we really do (at work, in our families, in our lives).

If you had to boil it all down, like Seth does (“I notice things”), what’s your job?

In addition to answering that question for yourself, you could ask each person in your company to answer, then share those answers and discuss. It would be a great conversation.

(Bonus points for three words or less, but definitely no more than 10.)

 

How to avoid hiring a consultant for the wrong reasons

Before spending money on a consultant to solve an important problem, ask yourself what would happen if:

Everyone on your team set aside 8 hours to work on this problem.

You all agreed that this work is more important than the other urgent things going on, so you’ll honor that time commitment.

You empowered someone on your team to be the ‘consultant.’ This person has free rein to use the allotted 8 hours of each person’s time as she sees fit.

Those 8 hours can be used for prep time, for meeting time, for brainstorming time.

Those 8 hours have a new set of ground rules, some of which push against the established culture of your team or organization. Cultural boundary-pushing looks like: asking un-askable questions, naming established assumptions, noticing the many elephants plodding around the room.

It’s expected that some of those 8 hours are spent generously reaching out to smart, helpful people at just the right moment to see if 15 to 30 minutes of their wisdom could get you unstuck.

Once those 8 hours are used up, the results will be shared, along with no more than three recommendations for what to do next.

At an agreed-upon date, those recommendations will be discussed, decisions will be made, actions will be taken and resources re-allocated based on that decision.

I’d bet that in 90% of the cases the above exercise gets you better results faster, for much less money, than hiring a consultant. And, better, yet, if you still decide that you need a consultant it will be for one of the only two good reasons to hire one:

  1. The consultant is a scalable resource: the amount of time required to do this work really is more than what your team can spare.
  2. The consultant has unique skills or resources not possessed by your team, and you need those skills to get the job done. These skills could be creativity or design. They could be skills in managing group dynamics and creating space for important conversations. They could be the skill of teaching things your team needs to learn.
  3. There is no third reason, because most of the time you’re hiring a consultant so they can bring the discipline to focus on an important problem. But you don’t need to pay a consultant to do that, do you?

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.

No windup

I do four kinds of exercise: play squash, run, swim, and do yoga. A more accurate portrayal is that I mostly play squash, and do the other three every so often. This week, though, because of the warmer weather, earlier sunrise, and jetlag, I’ve run four times in 8 days.

One of the things that’s beautiful about running is that there’s almost no windup and wind-down: no place to drive to, no plan to make, no excess anything on either side. In 45 minutes set aside for a run, 40 of those minutes are spent running. Get dressed, lace up your shoes, and go.

Early yesterday morning, tired and cranky, I was wondering why I had dragged myself out of bed to run two days in a row. I had finished tying my shoes and I was standing at my back door looking for some way to stall (what I would have given for a fifteen minute drive to the gym!) It felt like there was a physical barrier I had to push through to get myself up and out the door. I walked out of my house, walked onto the street, kept walking for one more block, started the music on my phone, and finally had no choice but to start jogging slowly.

Similarly, earlier this week a colleague and I found ourselves with only 35 minutes at the end of a long day in which to get some important work done. Neither of us seemed up for it and I almost suggested we not bother. We chatted and stalled for a little, and we nearly got pulled into email on our open laptops. But then we began.

In both cases – the run and the 30 minute conversation that should have taken two hours – it was easy to be fooled that I needed more windup, more buffer, more something between me and the work.

Then I get out there and reconfirm what I seem to need to relearn each and every time: that the windup is nothing more than stalling; and that the correlation between how I feel beforehand and how the work goes is nearly zero.

The sprint at the end

The sprint at the end of a project does get you there.  It focuses your and your team’s energy, keeps the pressure on, and is an occasion for heroic efforts.  It can work.

Except.

Except it only really works when you guess right about where that finish line is.  It only really works when you time everything just right, so that you cross the finish line just at the moment when your and your team’s energy is about to run out.

Meaning that, once you hit maximum velocity you’ve closed yourself off to discovery, closed yourself off to noticing, a good ways down the path, that you need to make a turn, you need to double down, you need to shore up for a longer haul.

That tortoise was on to something.

The Tyranny of Outlook

Last week, as I rushed, apologetically, to start a meeting five minutes late, the person with whom I was meeting nodded knowingly and said, “hey, it’s OK.  That’s the tyranny of Outlook.”

Thank goodness for a bit of perspective.

As I reflect on the ineffectiveness of trying to transition from one meeting to the next in a matter of seconds, I’m contemplating a different approach.  One idea is to schedule all of my meetings to start at 10 past the hour.  (I think this would work better than scheduling them to end 10 minutes before the hour, because then they’d just run over).  10 minutes to shift gears, or to prepare, to take a step back, and also not to run late.

Manually retooling each outlook meeting would create more work, and it would probably take a while to explain to everyone that I’m serious that I really want to start at 10:10 (or, more importantly, 4:10).  Most important would be my holding up my end of the bargain by being on time for 95% of the meetings.

Has anyone out there tried these sorts of scheduling hacks?  What have you learned?