The risk of being a bull

Time is the scarcest of all professional resources, yet we never seem to get enough of it.  A recent conversation with a friend and advisor helped me understand that one of my greatest professional strengths and joys might be exacerbating my time problem.

Earlier in my career, success was doing the right thing in a challenging situation.  Then later on success becam: me, my team, or my organization doing the right thing.

As my span of responsibility has grown, I cannot do everything and I can’t be – and shouldn’t be – involved in every step from here to there.  Obvious enough.  So, outside of work that’s on my plate, I focus my energies on helping those around me solve problems.  I love doing this and I’m generally pretty good at it, which makes it both is intellectually and emotionally rewarding.  I get to problem-solve (fun!) and help a colleague (fun! fun!).  Bingo!

The helpful but very sobering insight is that my enjoyment and capacity at this kind of problem-solving might not be the right end-game.  Because it is so rewarding and because the outcomes are (often) positive – both practically and emotionally – have I created a learned response and, like the proverbial bull seeing a waving red cloth, do I, when presented with a situation in which I might be helpful, just jump in and help?

Why might this be a bad thing?

The suggestion was that consistently helping to solve a set of problems keeps me in the business (forever) of being involved in helping solve those sorts of problems – without ever asking the question: what sort of problems do I want, in the long run, to be in the business of solving?  For example, it could be that I always want to have a role to play in key hiring decisions or important strategic choices, but is there another set of situations that other people are better equipped and better positioned to resolve in the long term?

If so, when I’m presented with a cool, fun, challenging and interesting situation, the first question I should ask myself isn’t “what should we do here?” but rather “is this the kind of problem I should be in the business of helping solve in the long term?”  If it is, great.  If not, how would I act differently?

Whenever I’m looking for advice about a tough situation, working through the solution with a respected colleague teaches me something.  But that process of osmosis could be accelerated by a much more explicit, meta-conversation about how I’m engaging with the problem and how my more experienced colleague is coming up with different and better approaches and solutions to that same problem.

That’s the conversation I suspect I need to be having more often.

Harder, requiring different muscles, and, toughest of all, forcing me to look at all that great short-term feedback I’m getting and say: this thing that I love doing might just be part of the reason I have too little time on my hands.

Meeting math

Not so long ago I strong-armed a bunch of my co-workers into reading one of the Domino books,  Read This Before our Next Meeting (free for Amazon Prime members).  The book is a diatribe against the meeting culture and all the associated time that’s wasted in poorly designed, poorly conceived, poorly run meetings.

It’s a book that you don’t necessarily enjoy reading, because the author, Al Pittampalli doesn’t care much if you like what he has to say, spending most of his energy hitting you over the head with anti-meeting diatribes without making the medicine go down too easily.

That said, the conclusions are hard to ignore: most meetings are inefficient, we are lazy about them, and we could be drastically more productive if we approached them differently.

My starting point is that we underestimate meeting time the way we underestimate the impact of copying 10 people on an email: it doesn’t feel like having 6 people in a 30 minute meeting is three hours of productive work that’s we’re using up.   But it is – so shouldn’t the organizer be obliged to spend at least a half hour of prep time each and every time he proposes to use 2.5 hours of his colleagues time?

The most aggressive suggestion in the book is that we should not use meetings to make decisions, we should use meetings to ratify decisions that have already been made.

The building blocks underneath that recommendation are: no meetings without prior agendas, no meetings without significant work done in advance by the meeting organizer, and no meetings without a proposed decision for the group to ratify.

Easy to say, but how often do we get a group together and someone says, “OK, we’re here to talk about…..”  That’s not the same as, “We’re planning to do _____, and this meeting is being called to ratify that decision.”

If that is the bar, you get a lot fewer meetings, a lot more preparation, a lot more time to do real work rather than sit in a room and talk.

(Bonus: the next time you get 20 people in the room for a 30 minute meeting, make sure you’re getting 10 hours’ worth of organizational impact out of that half an hour).

Labor versus work

I’ve been reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World for that last couple of weeks.  It is providing context and depth to my intuitive understanding of generosity and gift-giving, helping me to appreciate the rich history of gift-giving, which, I had forgotten, forms the social underpinning of most societies throughout history (except for today, of course).

Hyde is very specific with his language, and in his chapter on The Labor of Gratitude he is quick to clarify the difference between “labor” and “work.”  There’s enough great stuff here that the right approach seems to be to quote liberally:

Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will.  A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor.   Beyond that, labor has its own schedule.  Things get done, but we often have the odd sense that we didn’t do them.  Paul Goodman wrote in a journal once, “I have recently written a few good poems.  But I have no feeling that I wrote them.”  That is the declaration of a laborer…

…One of the first problems the modern world faced with the rise of industrialism was the exclusion of labor by the expansion of work.”

Labor isn’t better than work, but it is characteristically different, its product is different, the conditions for creating it are different.

The simple question for reflection is: will your success (short and long-term) and happiness require you to labor or just to work?  And if labor is part of the equation, do you create the conditions in your life that will allow you to labor?  Are you not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor?”  Has your work grown so much that it has essentially crowded out every last moment you had to labor?

This is one of the big fights of the modern era.  Email, meetings, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, jokes from your buddies, news and TV and, of course, all the actual work you have to do….these mountains are big and growing, and we’ll never finish scaling them.

I for one feel like I’m in the trenches every day, fighting to labor.  Some days I win, a lot of days I lose.  But I’m positive that I have to keep on fighting.

You?

Shorten your backswing

It was time today to sit down and write a blog post.

I keep track, by email, of blog post ideas when they happen, and was just about to go into that email account when I saw an interesting tweet….that led me to a clever article about Occupy Wall Street, that….  wait a minute, what was I planning to do?

There’s the real work we need to do, and there’s all the muss and fuss that we do as part of our process of starting our real work.

This can happen a lot in sports.  In racquet sports there was a whole move-my-racquet-forward-before-hitting-a-backhand thing that I used to do.  I have the same problem (never fixed) when throwing a frisbee.  If you ever go to a yoga class, watch how much hair-fixing and water drinking happens at the exact moment the instructor calls out a challenging pose.

It feels minor, but think about all the wasted motion I was doing for the 500 backhands I hit in a one hour squash game – energy spent, speed reduced, extra steps taken for absolutely no reason other than that I’d built up a bad habit.

This isn’t just about not getting distracted by social media and your inbox (though those are particularly dangerous because they pretend to be work).  It’s about shortening the distance between “I’m going to start working” and “I’m working.”

Project leader or project doer

There’s a lot of confusion about this one, because you can “do” all the work and not lead, and you can effectively “lead” something without doing all the work.

So sometimes someone is asked to “lead” a project and what they hear is “please do all the work.”  And sometimes the fact that someone is asked to “do all the work” is confused with a leadership opportunity – it is a step towards leading, but it’s not the same thing.

“Leading” means: I’m ultimately accountable for the success of this thing.  If I’m successful at leading, it will be done better and faster than expected and all the people doing it will feel great about what they accomplished together.  They may not even notice that I “led” anything – in fact it could be a great sign if they didn’t.

The most interesting, underappreciated opportunities are leadership opportunities when you’re not in charge.  It’s important because it’s the top-LEFT quadrant in this 2×2 (lead but not doing) that has the most leverage, not the top right (leading and doing).

The upper right has you working as hard as is humanly possible and feeling in control, but there’s a limit to how much this quadrant scales.

 

Proactive vs reactive

In today’s ping-pong world of global teams and connections, zillions of emails, Twitter feeds and Facebook updates, just keeping from falling off the treadmill can feel like success.

It might be worth checking, every now and again, how much time you spend being reactive or proactive, meaning:

REACTIVE

  • Reading things you’re copied on
  • Responding to email threads
  • Attending standing meetings
  • Reading something “interesting” (article, etc) someone sent you
  • Doing something your boss asked you to do
  • Anything you do on Facebook or Twitter if you’re not there for a very specific reason (e.g. communicating with your customers)

PROACTIVE

  • Initiating a conversation
  • Reaching out to a customer
  • Tweaking something to make it better
  • Taking a mundane task and doing something surprising, or even beautiful, with it
  • Sharing a crazy idea, and then get to work on it

The surprising thing isn’t that reactive outweighs proactive, the surprising thing is that we can go through a whole day doing nothing proactive at all and still feel like we’re working.

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Bonus: fun feature from The Atlantic Wire on Maria Popova’s (@brainpicker) media diet, with other links to the likes of Ann Coulter, Chris Matthews, Malcolm Gladwell, David Brooks, Chris Anderson, and many more.

All of them read like crazy, and all of them are very deliberate about delineating between what/when they read and what/when they produce.

Work really hard

All the most incredible people I know work hard.  Really hard.  Crazily hard.

My first job out of college was as a management consultant.  The deal in those jobs is that you sign away your life for a few years in exchange for a professional experience that gives you a lot more exposure and learning than you really deserve, given what you know.

That was my experience.  In the first two months on the job I worked 7 days a week, 12-14 hours a day.  It was pretty miserable.  And that was a close approximation of the next four years.  Of course, I also learned a lot.

I also figured that working that hard had to be temporary.  It had to be, I figured, since the distinction between “work” and “my life” was a bright line.  Work wasn’t terrible, but it was definitely work = something I had to do.  Not working = fun.  Over time, the more I worked the less I felt I was living.  For me, that was exhausting.

That’s why I think passion and loving what you do win every time – because you want to be there.  Your mind is always churning with the next idea, not because your boss tells you to but because you’re doing your life’s work.

Of course you’re not going to love every job every day starting today for the rest of your life.  It takes some time to get there, since it’s a combination of self-discovery, trial-and-error, and chance.

If you’re not working at your dream job today, what do you do?

The easier, but ultimately limiting, option is to slog away at the job you don’t love, and steal every last minute you can for “free time.”

The other option is to make finding and living your passion a big part of what you do, starting today.  You don’t do this by quitting your job (assuming that’s not an option) but by taking the time you have when not at “work” to keep on working, not on your day job but at discovering and learning your craft and your passion.

Jump into your dreams today.  Find the 15 most influential/inspirational people doing/writing about the work you hope to do, and read them religiously.  Add in a few people who are going to give you a daily dose of kick-in-the-pants inspiration.  Get involved in conversations that will lead to opportunities for real-life interaction and opportunity. Learn the skills that will serve you in your life’s work – by setting aside the time today, rolling up your sleeves, and doing the work.

Stephen King famously said that step 1 in writing is “Put butt in chair.” That chair isn’t placed in front of a TV or a computer that’s browsing Facebook, it’s not a barstool and when you sit in it you’re not reading a trashy novel.

It’s placed squarely in front of the tools of your trade, the ones you hope, someday, to master.

The mutual interview

There are two things you’re aiming to accomplish every time you have a job interview:

  1. Figure out whether you want the job
  2. (assuming yes to question #1) Show the person interviewing you that you want the job and should get the job

This is delicate dance, since spending too much energy and time on either question can make a mess of the thing.

At one end of the spectrum, in the past few years I’ve occasionally “interviewed” folks who literally spent all of our time together grilling me, which didn’t feel right at all – and made it virtually impossible for me to consider them for the job.  Conversely, I’ve also made the mistake (and seen others do the same) of getting a job offer after multiple interviews and not knowing if I really wanted it.

As you get more senior, it’s generally understood that the pendulum will start to swing more towards the middle – that the job interview is more matchmaking than a test (though in truth, ALL job interviews are matchmaking and anyone who tells you otherwise is either deluded or putting you on).  But no matter who you are and what job you’re signing up for, you owe it to yourself to figure out whether the fit is right AND you have to find a way to do this without giving up the opportunity to convince your interviewer that you’re passionate about and qualified for the job.

Lifetimes ago (it feels) I was in college and had what I was understood to be an informational interview at an investment bank.  It became an interview interview.

When it got to my one question at the end of the interview, I asked, “When it’s after midnight and you get that phone call from a Partner that means you’ll have to work until the next morning, what motivates you to do it?”

My interviewer, sensing weakness (I suspect), replied, “That’s a great question, and I’d like to turn that back around at you and ask how you’d answer that question.”

At this point, I proceeded to show all my cards, and I blabbered on about how I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to go into banking, etc. etc. etc.  Shockingly, I didn’t get called back for a follow-up conversation.

I’m glad that job interview didn’t work out for me – it wasn’t right for me.  But I learned that day that it was up to me to decide why I was interviewing: to get a job, or to figure out if I wanted a job.

Two different objective, two different sets of strategies, both are equally valid, you just have to decide.

PowerPoint 2007 trick – customize menu

(this post is an aside, but I was happy to discover this and thought you might be too.  HT to Jan Schultink, who has taught me a LOT more about effective presentations than this….but this little nugget will make me happy for a long time.)

Admittedly, I should have figured this out myself a long time ago.  But I migrated to PowerPoint 2007 recently and use PowerPoint just infrequently enough that I’m not investing time to figure out how it works.

Generally I find this software infuriating and counterintuitive.  Microsoft undoubtedly knows what functions most people use most of the time, yet somehow it takes more and more clicks to find these useful functions.

The good news is you can very easily take your favorite buttons and put them permanently on the bar across the top.  Not by dragging (which would be easier and much more intuitive), but it is just two steps if you know where to look.

Right click on the Start Menu and click on “Customize QuickAccess Toolbar”


STEP 2: Find the icons for things you do all the time, and move them to the list on the right.  Organize the list to your liking, and voila, you’re finished.

While this is trivial, I suspect it will save me about 40 hours over the course of the next year.  Thanks, Jan!

90% or 5%

I recently heard a speaker who suggested, to a roomful of hyper-productive multitaskers, a radical reorientation of how to spend time.  This speaker, a successful investor and investment adviser, doesn’t write emails, doesn’t multi-task, and doesn’t have a Pavlovian response to a Blackberry’s red blinking light.   Based on his own experience, he suggested that successful decisions come when we create space for deep contemplation and reflection – when we create the time that allows us to we walk around and look at our problems with the curiosity and reflection of a poet who studies a rock, or a beach, or the morning sky.

A lovely idea that is easy to dismiss, to be sure – and many in the audience had just that reaction.  One person went so far as to give an impassioned argument in favor of the efficiency of multi-tasking (while conceding that he agrees with Clifford Nass’ research showing that multi-tasking doesn’t work).

Why are we all so defensive?  Perhaps because we kid ourselves into think that we’re almost getting done 100% of what we need to get done.  We’re super-busy, but, we tell ourselves, we’re probably completing 90% of what we absolutely must get done, and the other 10% probably isn’t all that important anyway, right?  And if we’re getting 90% done, then cutting out half of our meetings or not responding to half our emails sounds impossible.  It feels like a move from 90% to 60%.  Imagine the impact!

But I wonder if the 90% is an illusion.  What if I’m doing 15% of what I could do, or even 5%?  What if I’m nowhere near doing everything I could do that would be productive, because “everything” has gotten so big that I’m never anywhere but the tip of the iceberg.

If I’m only doing 5% of what I “could” do, then a radical shift becomes easier.  By acknowledging that I’m the one deciding how I spend the time, and by recognizing that my criteria might be really good or really bad, I just might create the space for that radical reorientation.

Am I ready to make a big change?  Not yet.  But I do think that doing away with the notion that I’m doing “almost everything” will allow more space for doing what I really need to do.

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