The best To Do list approach (and app) won’t work if we also keep, sort of, using our Inbox to track our tasks tasks.
Our Inbox Zero dreams will be dashed if we don’t consistently act on each and every email. Not most of them, all of them.
Our time for deep thinking will evaporate if we make exceptions for “really important” meetings on our supposedly-open day.
We won’t become skilled at giving and receiving effective feedback if we fail to walk towards that discomfort regularly, or if we’re afraid of the awkwardness of structuring our feedback using the Situation-Behavior-Impact framework that might be new to us.
And on and on to our writing, our coaching, and, yes, our, diet, sleep, and exercise.
The doorway from where we are to where we want to be isn’t knowledge or even motivation.
And in most cases, halfway is none of the way there.
Every day, every moment, we’re engaged in a dance with ourselves that revolves around three questions:
What’s the best way to do this?
What speed do I go?
How do I know when it’s finished?
1. What’s the best way to do this?
There’s the way I’ve always done this, the way I did this yesterday, the way I know will work well enough.
Then there’s my ongoing tracking of whether this way is good enough, a dialogue with myself about whether it’s time to upgrade. This conversation is an outgrowth of my intuition, knowledge and research.
Every day, I can ask an answer a simple but important question: is today the day I start learning one small part of a better way to do what I do?
2. What speed do I go?
I know I shouldn’t be rushing; I can’t be if I’m going to do my best work.
At the same time, like a runner, I can, over time, get comfortable with faster, get comfortable with leaning a little more forward, get comfortable with a new pace.
While it might be hard to see our own progress in individual tasks, we also know that there are things we do in a minute today that took us five before. This means that there is a pace we can go tomorrow that feels risky, even dangerous today.
The trick here is to decouple the speed itself—the actual pace we’re going, the essential interplay between quality and throughput—and our experience of speed.
If we feel uncomfortable, that might mean we’re going too fast. Or it might be a barometer of our fear.
If our pace feels “just right” all the time, that might mean we’re not pushing hard enough.
3. How do I know it’s done?
This is hardest one of all, because we could always make it a little bit better, because that last finishing touch might be the difference between good and great.
Or it might be where we hide.
Hide from the fear of putting our work out there in front of a colleague or a client.
Hide from the moment when we say, “I did this, and I stand by this.”
Hide in the safety of knowing that “I’m just making it a little bit better” will rarely be criticized, even though the time I’m taking on this thing is taking away from time on the next thing.
How do I track my progress?
By remembering to ask myself these questions: Is there a better way? Could I go faster? When is it done?
By learning to switch between the dance floor and the balcony: to be in the action, and to see myself in the action. This is how we gain perspective.
But most of all, by regularly asking honest questions of our colleagues:
“This is my approach, how do you do it? Who’s the best at this? Could you, or they, teach me? Can I find a better answer online, in a course, in a community of practice?”
“Do you feel like I generally go the right pace, too fast, or too slow? Can you give me an example?”
“How good am I at following the 80/20 rule? When you get something from me, does it feel ‘good enough’ or ‘perfected’? This is how long the last 20% took me—does that seem like a good use of my time?”
We never get better in a vacuum.
Oh, and if learning to work in this way interests you, you might want to become part of our amazing team at 60 Decibels. I’m hiring an Inside Sales Associate to work closely with me, based in New York. The job posting just went up today, so spread the word!
This whole section, all 64 notes, goes by in less than four seconds if played at tempo. The question is: how to practice this section, or the rest of the piece for that matter, when you’re just getting started?
The natural, and most common, approach is to play each note one at a time at a reasonable tempo and, over time, increase that tempo.
My dad argues that this is a road to nowhere: there’s no way to play note by note by note and ultimately hit the fast tempo.
Instead, he suggests: play fast, slowly.
This means picking out very small sections, playing them at full tempo, then pausing, and doing the same for the next section. Like this:
In this way, you’re teaching your hand, and your brain, to play at full tempo, and using the pauses to give yourself enough space and time to set up for the next group of notes.
Over time, then, your job is not “play faster.”
Instead, your job is to “shorten the pauses” until they disappear.
This works for four reasons:
You’re exposing and teaching your body the physical sensation of playing at speed. So much of what we learn—in piano, surely, but everywhere else as well—is learned in the body and not just in the mind.
You’re transforming groups of 6 or 12 individual notes—each of which had to be thought of, processed, and remembered individually—into blocks. It’s easy for the mind to think of a 6- or 12-note block as ‘one thing’ after a bit of practice. And since playing the piano is mostly about your mind keeping up with the torrent of notes your hands have to play, any ‘chunking’ you can do of this overwhelming amount of information allows you to speed up.
The breaks, at the beginning, are much longer than the time you spend playing. When doing something new and difficult, we need extra time to recover and reset.
You’re taking something that’s dangerous—in the sense of “if I play this at full speed, it will fall apart”—and making it safe, thereby building confidence and competence. “I can’t play the whole passage at speed (yet). But I can play these six notes at speed, with full confidence that I won’t mess this little bit up.” And then, over time, the little bit grows, as does your confidence.
What’s powerful about this isn’t only the counterintuitive approach to solving the problem. It’s the conjecture that our standard approach must always have a view towards what it will ultimately become.
Is this an approach, or a process, that both works for where I am today and will get me to tomorrow?
The experience is familiar: we’re interacting with a piece of software, and it’s clear that the developer didn’t contemplate a wide-enough set of use cases. The result is that the thing we’re trying to get done is hard/impossible to do, and we end up frustrated.
This same thing happens to us as we try to develop new skills and responses: when these new approaches and aptitudes are nascent, we can, at best, deploy them only under ideal conditions.
For example, we may be working on listening harder and responding more slowly and less defensively in the face of criticism.
At the outset, we’ll succeed in doing this only with our coach or our most sensitive and constructive colleague. When someone shows up with too little care, or even aggressively, we’ll revert to our old behaviors
This example help us to add an axis to how we think about skill development.
The more obvious axis describes our overall skillfulness, and it ranges from:
(Self) awareness: we can clearly see the gap between our current behavior / skill and our desired behavior / skill
Nascent: we show the first signs of being able to deploy the skill
The additional axis contemplates the situations in which we can deploy the skill, which is a window into our skill resilience:
None: we can never deploy the skill
Highly curated: we can only deploy the skill in ideal circumstances
Most: we can often deploy the skill
All: we can always deploy the skill
The first axis is the axis of skill development, and the second is of skill resilience.
While they are naturally correlated, they are not one and the same thing. Most important, it is easy to confuse lack of skill resilience with lack of skill development: for example, we might have strong skills but not be adept yet at deploying them in varied contexts, and we might mistakenly use this data to mis-diagnose ourselves as having made too-little progress.
Often, the resilience axis has roots in the things that trigger us — a trigger is something that gets us off our game. Exploring our triggers for any set of skills/situations often leads to more universal insights, and is the first step towards moving us from Ideal Conditions to All Conditions across the board.
We all know we’re supposed to be OK with mistakes, that they happen.
And yet, if you’re like me, you hate mistakes. You hate making them. And, sometimes, you can’t help being frustrated when those around you make them as well.
Which, of course, is both right and wrong.
Some mistakes really are a problem.
Careless mistakes—a term I mean literally, a lack of care taken for something important—really must be avoided. The discipline of a professional requires us to do our work with care and attention. This is the promise we make to ourselves, to our colleagues, and to our customers, and it’s our job to honor it each and every day.
Repeated mistakes are also a problem. They mean we’re not learning.
But no mistakes…that’s not OK.
It’s our job is to move at a certain pace, with a certain sense of forward motion, and with a willingness to walk out on limbs we’ve never stepped out on before. If we are doing all these things, we will have to get some things wrong some of the time–either because we moved too fast, or because we are trying things that are truly new to us, things that we’re not yet good at specifically because they are new.
If this seems counterintuitive, think of it this way: if we are getting nothing wrong all the time, that has to mean that we’re either absurdly lucky or that we’re not moving fast enough, not moving forward quickly enough, and we’re not walking out on limbs in the way we’d like to think we are.
Viewed in this light, mistakes aren’t just “not a problem,” they are valuable. They are the data that tell us: look at that, we are moving fast enough, we are being brave, we are taking enough risk.
We might still reflectively dislike mistakes in the moment, but it’s our job to praise the right kind of mistakes, and to praise the mistake-maker (whether ourselves or someone else) for their courage and bravery.
They (or we) are moving in the right way, taking the right risks, walking out on enough limbs, and, naturally, sometimes mis-stepping.
A few weeks ago, on a Friday afternoon, a colleague of mine sent around a great TEDx talk, Shawn Achor’s The Happy Secret to Better Work, which has been viewed more than 23 million times.
I took 12 minutes out of a busy day to watch it. I enjoyed it, and connected to our team’s conversation about it. One takeaway that rose to the top was that to increase our positivity and happiness, we should engage in one random act of kindness each day. What’s not to like?
The following Monday, I came across that same thread in Slack.
I wanted to jump back into the conversation, but I immediately discovered that, outside of the “let’s do more random act of kindness” takeaway, I remembered virtually nothing about the talk.
I watched the talk again, this time taking some simple notes. Here they are.
The talk is about positive psychology
When we focus averages–in education, in economics, in life–we fail to design and plan for the extra-ordinary. This is a mistake.
Our happiness is not objectively determined. If Shawn could look only at your externally-observable world (job, income, family life) he could only determine 10% of your happiness.
IQ does not determine job success. 75% of job success is determined by optimism levels, social support, and seeing stress as a challenge not a threat.
We need to reverse our mental model of happiness and success.
The wrong model is: Work leads to Success which leads to Happiness.
The problem with this model is that whenever we succeed, we move the goal posts (expect a higher level of performance), so we never get to Happiness, which we’ve put out on the horizon past Success.
Instead, our job is to raise our own positivity in the present.
Five things we can do to raise our positivity are:
Practice being grateful for three things a day for 21 days;
Journal about one positive experience per day;
Engage in random acts of kindness by praising on person in our social support network each day.
Now, you should absolutely watch the talk. It’s a thousand times better than my notes, full of wonderful humor, sibling rivalries, and an actual unicorn story.
But if you’re like me, the talk, and this blog post, no matter how much you enjoy it, will slip through your fingers if you don’t take active steps to process it. I, for one, remembered less than 5% of the content.
I’ve always been terrible at setting long-term career goals. To start, I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up (outside of maybe a veterinarian, because I loved animals). That felt like a profound shortcoming to my 10-year old and 20-year-old selves.
Partially this was because the list of “grown up jobs” that I’d heard of was absurdly short: teacher, doctor, lawyer, fireman, policeman, musician…maybe architect on a good day.
But the real problem was the half-baked notion that this process works from the outside in.
Done properly, it’s the other way around.
I know I’m in the right job if I’m thriving and learning, if I’m creating things of substance that I believe in, and if I’m working with great people. That’s the whole enchilada.
If you’re finding it hard to find all those things at once, that’s OK. Start with great people and find a way to work with them. The rest will follow.
And, if you’re wondering what I mean by “thriving and learning:”
Thriving is doing your best work. Work that makes you stand out, work you get lost in because you’re in the zone when you’re doing it, work that people keep noticing—whether in how you show up or what you delivered. Pay attention to this praise, especially if it’s for things that come easily to you. That is the kernel of you at your best.
And learning? It’s self-explanatory, and it should be non-negotiable. It is, and always will be, the only path to growth.
It took my youngest daughter longer than her friends to be able to do the monkey bars.
Seeing her now, doing them joyfully, I often wonder why exactly she persisted. How was it that seeing other kids ahead of her was motivating rather than discouraging?
More than most things, the monkey bars are binary. Before you can do them, you’re stuck on one side, hanging and falling, and not really improving. Then, one day, you cross a chasm—from not doing to doing. Once on the other side, it’s deeply self-reinforcing: you’re having a blast with your friends, and you’re getting stronger and stronger.
There are two lessons here:
Most things are like monkey bars: the act of doing the activity itself is the source of improvement, so the best thing you can do is start.
One of the most valuable things we can do is to encourage people who are just shy of the starting line, and help them to believe in themselves.
One of the reasons we don’t acquire new skills in the way we’d like is because, ironically, we take on too much.
It goes like this. We decide one day that we’re motivated to learn something new. Armed with a vague and imprecise understanding of the new skill we’d like to develop, we engage in an (often haphazard) mimicry of that vision. Then, after trying for a bit and seeing few tangible signs of progress, we give up, falling back on a familiar internal chorus of “change is hard” and “I’m never going to be good at this.”
That’s patently untrue. You could be great at this with a different approach.
One way to rewire our ability to learn and grow comes through a clearer understanding of the What, the How and the How Long of mastery:
What to focus on.
How that focus will manifest.
How Long it will take to master the skill.
What to Focus On?
“What” is a massive point of leverage. The most important “what to focus on” rule is to stick to very small things. These are the types of things that, lacking the skill we aim to acquire, we can still learn and master.
This feels counter-intuitive, because we’ve been wired to think about big changes and big skills. Naturally, we fight against the notion of committing to something small, believing it won’t add up to anything. Yet we take for granted that the flawless abilities of any master—musicians, athletes, writers, public speakers—are comprised of thousands of micro-skills brought together seamlessly. Why would it be any different for great people managers, great listeners, great analysts?
The truth is, the only way we learn is with tiny, incremental changes in small things, coupled with enough follow-through to have these small changes accumulate over time. The specific small things we focus on will depend on the skill we aim to master, but a good rule of thumb is to find the foundational skills that have the most connection to the other pieces of the puzzle and go from there.
How to Focus?
The “How” of successful skill acquisition is marked by consistency, concentration and presence.
Consistency is the most important: each and every day, in very small doses, is a far more powerful approach to transformation than once a week on Saturdays for two hours.
This can seem obvious, but we rarely sign up for 15 minutes a day for 30 days straight. We think “that’s not enough time to (write a book, learn to swim better, become more creative),” when, in reality, this sort of daily commitment is transformational.
We should spend these 15 minutes with full concentration and presence, sweeping away both obvious external distractions and the more pernicious internal (mental) ones that hurt us more.
We do this by cultivating the skill of deep mental focus, learning to redirect our attention, every time it gets pulled away, to the task at hand. In this act of re-direction, we can remind ourselves to maintain an attitude of curiosity and good humor, rather than one of self-criticism. Think of it like a moving meditation, and gently bring your wandering mind back to the micro-skill you are working on.
“How Long” is the doozy.
Early on in my yoga practice there was a pose I simply couldn’t do, called Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana: standing up, you grab your big toe of one foot, lift your leg and straighten it in front of your hip.
It was the second year of my yoga practice, and, in the midst of a yoga retreat in which, thanks to 4+ hours a day of practice, I could nearly do the pose, I quietly predicted that I would be able to do that pose in another year’s time.
That was 18 years ago, and I still haven’t pulled it off. While some of this mis-estimation was a failure of the right kind of commitment on my part, mostly I grossly underestimated how much further I had to walk on that journey.
“How long” is the silent killer of improvement: the gap between our expected and actual progress creates a cycle of self-criticism, reinforcing our original, fixed story of ourselves. “This is impossible, for me,” is untrue, but it taunts us daily as we soak in small failures.
Each of us needs to find our own way to banish this demon, but it helps to remember that these things truly take time (18 years!!), and to remind ourselves that the journey is the whole point.
With this in mind, today, we commit again. We find our 15 minutes. We focus on the one thing we’ve committed to. We remember that working on this one thing, today, is the only way to be sure that we are moving forward.
Today marks the start of a next chapter for me professionally: I’m launching a new social enterprise, called 60 Decibels, that I’ve co-founded with Tom Adams. Our goal is to reboot social impact measurement, to make it useful for people who are doing the work of building social businesses and NGOs. We want to help them serve customers better and, in so doing, create more social impact.
Our thesis is simple: understanding social impact should be based on listening directly to people.
60 Decibels will take forward the Lean Data approach, which was first built at Acumen to solve our own impact measurement challenge and has already been used by more than 200 non-profits and social businesses in 34 countries.
Imagine if we truly held ourselves accountable to the people that impact capital and philanthropy are meant to help, by systematically including their voices in how we assess impact.
(And, for those of you who don’t work in this sector, it’s worth articulating the counter-factual: yes, it’s true, today, when we ‘measure’ impact in impact investing, most of the time we don’t actually talk to the people whose lives we aim to improve. Crazy, huh?).
My belief is that if we can get this right, we have the potential to make a massive shift in the world.
Everywhere, the cracks in capitalism are being exposed. That’s leading to backlash against “plutocrats,” it’s creating waves of populism, and it’s generating calls, in some circles, for a new model of capitalism: one that creates wealth without being so extractive, one that balances the needs of shareholders, customers, suppliers, employees, and the planet.
But how are we going to put the needs of customers, suppliers, employees and the planet on more equal footing?
Our bet, with 60 Decibels, is that it starts with voice: that by listening better, and by amplifying voices that are currently left at the margins, we can create a system that’s more in balance.
The in’s and out’s of how I think we get from here to there is a longer conversation. (You can get a sneak peek here at the 60 Decibels website, where we’ve written a white paper that’s equal parts manifesto and social impact data). The short version is that 60 Decibels helps companies that are in the business of creating social change listen to their customers. We leverage the power of technology and mobile phones to make it easy to listen to anyone, anywhere, and hear from them about their lived experience. And we move fast, getting results in weeks (not months or years), because that’s the only way we’ll be relevant to the people doing the real work.
So, if you’re in the business of social change and have found social impact measurement to be challenging, burdensome, complex, or frustrating, let me know, maybe we can help.
And, if you’re wondering, 60 Decibels is the volume of human conversation.
So far, it’s been a lot of fun, it’s really challenging, and we’re just getting started. We have a team of 30 amazing people in the US, UK, Kenya and India and we’re working with customers all over the world.
And, in terms of this blog, I’ll still be here every week sharing what’s on my mind. I expect that, gradually, the content of the posts I write will shift slightly. That’s nothing new—it’s been happening since I started blogging in 2008, as my bullseye has moved from fundraising and sales, to generosity, to leadership and the work we all need to do to be grounded, effective agents of change.
A closing thought: in many ways, this blog is a chance for me to think out loud about the issues I find most important, most challenging and most meaningful. That exploration is an important part of my own evolution and growth. To the extent that I’m ready to take on this next challenge, that is due in no small part to what I’ve been able to figure out, week in and week out, through the dialogue that unfolds here on this blog.
None of that would be possible without you showing up and continuing to read and respond. So thank you.
Here’s to the next chapter. Thanks for continuing this journey with me.