Haiku: BRANCH

Behind me, the fork.
I chose the wrong branch and found
Civilization…

(I thought today I would participate in The Daily Post challenge word of the day. I submit my humble attempt at haiku, which is a reference to the Robert Frost poem about two roads diverging in a yellow wood. Unfortunately in my poem I chose the wrong branch in the road and found not trees – and branches – shading me from the sun, but the streets and buildings I tried to leave behind.)

Haiku: BRANCH

Book Review: Team of Teams

Written by General Stanley McChrystal, this book describes the challenges faced by the US Military in the conflict with Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) after 2003.

McChrystal provides a good history to illustrate why the US Military looks, sounds, walks, and talks the way it did at that time. The countless changes to everything the military did over 200 years had created a behemoth that was very efficient at doing its job, however it wasn’t able to adapt to the rapidly changing environment that AQI had created and in which they were thriving. Though ruthlessly efficient, they were not effective.

McChrystal defines the changes that he felt were necessary to allow them to reach the point where they could adapt quickly to unexpected changes in the fight against AQI and therefore become more effective.

First he started by building relationships between teams. He points out that most elite teams like to compete against each other for bragging rights if nothing else, which eventually creates teams that aren’t really working together toward the same goal. He wanted to have teams that broke down some of that mentality and worked with all the other teams involved in the conflict – in the field, in the command center, in the intelligence teams, in the embassies around the world, and all the rest.

McChrystal began embedding talent from one team in another team for six months at a time. He made his leaders choose the best soldiers for these posts. He wanted the best possible soldiers to be the face of his strategy. This was the first step in building stronger connections between teams, and therefore building trust between them.

Next, he pushed decision-making downward to his subordinates to increase the speed of operations. He simply removed himself as a bottleneck from the flow of information and decisions. Where he felt he asked a few basic questions about the situation then gave his approval, he allowed his subordinates to simply make the decision and then update him to the logistics and details. He pushed this approach down further so teams in the field of battle could make faster decisions as well. This eliminated time spent requesting approval potentially through several layers of leadership. Minutes counted and they needed speed most of all. Surprisingly, where he thought there would be a degradation in the quality of decisions, he found that decision-making actually improved. Soldiers take it seriously when so many lives are on the line.

Finally, rather than acting as a strategist telling troops where to go or what to do, he made himself a “gardener” by simply nurturing the environment he had created and allowed the machine to function more like a complex organism. The speed of actions increased dramatically, and the fight against AQI turned in the favor of the US Military for the first time.

The book would have been an exciting and enjoyable read from start to finish, but the countless examples McChrystal used to illustrate ideas became monotonous and it hurt the book in the end. He borrows extensively from the histories of business, politics, manufacturing, military successes and failures, leadership decisions, etc. Though it’s a well-established approach to make a point (or many points) in a book of this nature, it became tiresome very quickly and lengthened the book needlessly.

The examples were so numerous and, to be honest, distracting that I skipped through several portions of the book to get back to his personal story which is where he should have stayed 95% of the time. Perhaps this is a bit harsh on McChrystal, but perhaps it’s also bad advice given by his publisher because it’s become the established formula in books of this nature… Which sort of goes against everything McChrystal says in the book about breaking down entrenched processes, routines and traditions to become more effective…

Book Review: Team of Teams

The Importance of Documenting Everything You Do

You have probably been in the situation at some point in your work life where you simply feel overwhelmed by your duties. Perhaps you’re on a team and everyone feels the same way. After speaking with your supervisor or manager about it your take-away task is to document what you do during your day to show your workload. You probably felt as though the sky was falling because on top of the crushing weight of your duties and your panicked efforts to simply keep up, you now have to take the time to write down everything you’re doing. That sinking feeling just got worse.

This is known as “the whirlwind” in 4DX (Four Disciplines of Execution) and represents all the urgent tasks that you are expected to complete throughout the day. 4DX is a complete system to help chip away at the important items you want to accomplish while dealing with the whirlwind. And there is a difference between urgent and important tasks. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President, said, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” I recommend reading his thoughts in more detail as this is an important concept in prioritizing and executing work.

There are other, similar systems, like Getting Things Done by David Allen, and many books like Essentialism, by Greg McKeown or The One Thing, by Gary Keller with Jay Papasan or Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy that attack the same idea in their own ways. However, what they all have in common is increased productivity as a goal. From my own personal experience, documenting what I did during my day is one of the most important things that made more time for myself. It is counterintuitive but it really works.

The first step is to simply use a tracker of some sort. Use pen and paper, a spreadsheet, a calendar, a text document, or all of them, or anything with which you feel comfortable, and stick with it. Evernote and OneNote are both great for this type of thing. Both have the ability to create and use checkboxes, which are tremendously helpful when you have daily to do lists, or a list of tasks to complete to reach your weekly goals.

Keep in mind that this isn’t necessarily a log of each action you took during your day, written down the minute you did it. Depending on your job, you can probably fill in some things ahead of time and write in the extras as you go, or at the end of the day. I strongly recommend writing down ahead of time all the things you know you will be doing through the day just to relieve some of the pressure of documenting your chores.

Also, set goals. Start by scheduling everything you want to accomplish for the next week ahead of time. Once you have three goals written down, write down what you need to do each day of the week to reach those goals. Be detailed, but not too wordy. Brevity in this area is a plus. As you complete the daily tasks you scheduled, just check them off the list.

One of the main tenets of 4DX to combat the whirlwind is to define “X to Y by WHEN.” I like this idea very much. Break it down. If you are currently at X location in your project, you want to be at Y by the end of the week. Set a due date to keep yourself focused.

However, if the unexpected arises and something or someone interrupts your work flow don’t be afraid to adapt and evolve with the situation. Move or change the “X to Y by WHEN” to accommodate the new details. Also write down why you had to move or change the details of your goal so you can explain yourself. You probably won’t remember three days later why you did that when your boss asks about it, let alone six months later when you’re doing your self-assessment.

As you work through your week update the tasks you prepared ahead of time. Keep checking off those completed items. You should also document meetings, conversations, note significant information from emails received etc. After a few weeks or months have passed you can look back at all the notes and see the progress in your tracker at what you have accomplished. You can identify bottlenecks or repeated interruptions, and can plan ahead accordingly. If one particular person or meeting or event seems to be causing problems with your productivity you can approach your boss about it to get help finding a solution.

At the end of the year you can look back at your notes and you have a tremendous amount of material to use when writing out your self-assessment, and this is the reason you started writing down everything you do in the first place. This is the make or break moment. Rely on those notes to show your boss exactly what you did during the year with specifics. The next step is to put a dollar figure to as much of it as possible. Since you already have the time involved in most tasks, you can attach a dollar amount as well. If you made a change in one of your processes that shaved 5 minutes per day off that process, you have saved X dollars over the course of the year.

Once I started using this method to track myself I found that my actual job description took perhaps an hour of my day, while the rest of my time was spent on the “above and beyond” projects, and that is where promotions hide. There’s no need for long days! Stay focused and you can get done with everything in the eight hours provided, and then go home to enjoy your family and friends.

The Importance of Documenting Everything You Do

Identifying Personal Baggage

Some benefits of getting older might be the wisdom and patience learned through trial and tribulation, failure and success, and learning to roll with the unpredictable nature of life itself. I firmly believe that wisdom comes with experience, which really just means age. Younger people haven’t had as many life experiences yet, so their wisdom hasn’t yet been refined by life’s challenges and unpredictability as someone in their 50’s or 60’s. But it’s just a matter of time for them to learn their lessons too.

A personal example of what this looks like in real life occurred a few years ago at the company for which I currently work. A new program was implemented and everyone was expected to participate. A book was passed around called “Strengths Finder 2.0.” The idea was to take a test that resembled a personality profile test, but was formulated toward personal skills rather than personality traits.

I immediately felt the bile in the back of my throat and thought to myself, “Oh crap. What a waste of everyone’s time (especially mine). This will not lead to someone (me) getting a different job, or a raise, or make any real difference to the company other than lost productivity while we take this stupid test.” I made myself heard to a few people around me too, though I knew not to be too vocal for my own good.

After a while though I heard other people talking about it and how they felt like it was really a great tool. They had learned a little about themselves that they didn’t know. I was dumbfounded! Who could think this was a good thing? Well, the answer turned out to be not only younger folks but also many of the managers over some of the larger teams. Those managers were especially grateful for the results because it gave them a little better insight into the overall make-up of the their teams’ skill set.

I then felt humbled because I realized I had been spouting my opinion about it that was based only on my past negative experiences. I had baggage, and I had to get rid of it. I realized that my past negative experiences shouldn’t poison someone else’s current experiences. I learned to keep my mouth shut about these types of things because I was simply bringing out my baggage and exposing the contents to those around me needlessly. I vowed to try and not let that happen again. Essentially I was consciously evolving toward a more supportive employee working toward the goals of the company rather than my next paycheck.

And that’s something that isn’t in Strengths Finder.

Identifying Personal Baggage

Book Review: The Shallows, What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains

This is a book about the human brain and how it works. At times it’s heavy reading, deep reading, which is very much the point. The author looks at how the brains of humans have developed over the millennia, not so much from an evolutionary perspective in terms of the shape of or newly formed regions in the brain but from the perspective of intellectual evolution. In other words, the brain itself hasn’t changed physically as much as it has changed in how it works based on two human developments that are actually quite recent in human history – maps and books.

Maps gave humans the ability to think in a more abstract way about the world around them. Books gave humans the ability to amass knowledge and to think more deeply than ever before. Books evolved from the cuneiform tablets of Mesopotamia and the Hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt, to the creation of papyrus documents, connecting papyrus documents together to make scrolls, to the invention of the actual book as we know it around 1400, and then to the evolution of the written word and how sentences are formed. As books became more available, writing styles developed and evolved and deep reading was more possible than ever before, which led to deep thinking.

At a broad level, writing and deep reading allowed humans to think about specific ideas and concepts rather than spending our time scanning our environments looking for enemies or game to feed ourselves – a very distracted state. Other inventions also contributed to human advancement, like clocks, but they didn’t have as great an impact on our cultural evolution as maps and books from the author’s perspective.

One of the more interesting things covered is neuroplasticity, or how the brain actually works. The human brain is capable of rewiring itself throughout our lives either through training or through recovery from injury. For example, when someone suddenly goes blind from injury or illness, the brain can rewire the areas devoted to processing visual stimuli and redirect those areas toward improving touch or smell or sound. There are numerous studies that support neuroplasticity.

However this flexibility can be both a strength and a weakness. While it  can rewire itself as mentioned to allow other senses to develop when one sense is damaged, neuroplasticity can also cause problems when this rewiring doesn’t go quite right leading to obsessive-compulsive disorders, bipolar depression, or others.

How does the Internet affect the development humans have achieved over the last 500 years or more? We don’t have the capacity for deep reading or deep thinking on the Internet. Corey Doctorow, writer and tech guru, is quoted as saying we are plunged into an “ecosystem of interruption technologies” when reading on the Internet limiting our ability for deep reading, and therefore deep thinking. The backlit computer monitor delivers competing rapid-fire stimuli through the numerous alerts and distractions that come along with the Internet.

Michael Merzenich, neurosurgeon and author, writes “As we multitask online we are ‘training our brains to pay attention to the crap.’

But I have to wonder if the author stopped too soon. He focused on our collective intellectual journey primarily over the last 500 years, and now that it’s changing because of the Internet it is for the worse. My first problem with that is the assumption that everything leading up to the Internet was in the right direction. Though I can point to no alternate direction humans could have taken, it’s still an assumption that how we developed was along the correct path. My second problem is that the Internet can only be a bad influence though it promises so much more.

What if our brains are being rewired in a way that is positive, but we’re not able to see the end result yet? Perhaps we’re in transition to a new state of enlightenment. If deep reading is focusing narrowly and deeply on a topic and the Internet scatters our attention shallowly and broadly, is there a point at which the breadth of the “knowledge pool” we’re wading in becomes in itself a positive thing? Maybe we haven’t yet reached that breadth of knowledge required to attain this new, different intellectual state of awareness.

Though the Internet may be making our thinking shallower, perhaps the multitude of associations that can be made through this theoretical breadth of knowledge can more than make up for the narrowness and deepness of the specialized knowledge of our recent past. In other words, the Subject Matter Expert may be replaced by the Renaissance Man, the Jack Of All Trades, the handyman…

Also, it makes the assumption that everyone was a “deep reader” and therefore a “deep thinker” prior to the Internet. Before the Internet MOST people listened to Top 40, not Mozart. They read tabloids, not The Iliad. MOST were watching Friends or Roseanne or The Nanny, not enjoying Shakespeare at the theater. At least in the USA…

Though I don’t disagree with the basic premise of this book (the Internet can be bad for us) I absolutely have to question the scale of the problem it brings to light, namely that the Internet is turning everyone into distracted neurotics…

I gave it two stars because I did learn from the book, but I have reservations that everything human society achieved prior to the Internet was in a linear direction toward positive or “correct” evolution.

 

 

Book Review: The Shallows, What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains

Time Management versus Detail Management

Time Management

For several years I had a relatively easy method of tracking my efforts because my job required me to do specific things at specific times of the day, every day. I simply created a checklist to manage the items I absolutely needed to get done. There were some things that could get done at any time of the day, and other items on the list that had to be completed at specific times. This is time management.

My job also required a mastery of “multi-tasking,” a concept that many people are currently writing negatively about. Their contention is that multi-tasking is A) impossible because no one can do more than one thing at a time, and B) even if it were possible it would probably do more harm than good to one’s productivity… I agree with both of those views, but I think both are also misplaced.

There’s really no such thing as multi-tasking in the purest sense of the word, but my experiences taught me that what we refer to as multi-tasking has a place in the work force that is valuable in some positions, though not for all positions. I would also define it as constantly prioritizing a rapidly changing task list to make sure the most important items remain at the top of the list.

In addition to my static list of daily to-do items “fires” would spring up that I had to put out – constant interruptions that forced repeatedly prioritizing the list. There may be 10 things on the static list, and as I worked through them any number of other things could happen; “hot” requests from a state government agency or a boss, computer or network malfunctions, co-workers asking for help, meetings, processes that broke and needed fixing, more meetings, distractions from other departments and people, fire alarm drills, even more meetings, tornado drills, etc…

In this environment I made sure the boxes on my checklist were getting checked off and those things that absolutely must be done at a particular time were getting done on time. I’m not a perfectionist or obsessive-compulsive, but I do watch the details and I sweat the little things. That’s why I was good at the job. In the end, my job description, what I was hired to do, only took up around 30 minutes of my day. The rest of my time could be used for special projects thanks to effective time management.

Detail Management

My current job is very different and requires documenting and managing nearly countless details for hundreds of requests and small projects. When I was promoted to this position I inherited a list of items on four different spreadsheets that had been passed around the company for over a year. It was my job to drive these requests forward to completion. They may be as simple as finding the answer to a question, or as complicated as documenting a large software enhancement and working with the developers to implement it. It was and still is overwhelming in many ways due to the sheer number of the requests (100 when I was given the list, 175 at this time). I had to learn new systems at least at a conversational level, processes in parts of the company with which I was completely unfamiliar, the people who managed these systems and processes, the people who managed the hardware that drove the software, etc. This is detail management.

I went from tracking a list of to-do’s on an hourly basis to tracking different items on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. I still track everything that I do daily, but I’m organizing my days and tracking both what I want to accomplish and also what gets done, as well as setting goals on a monthly and weekly basis (see my previous post for an example).

I do it this way for two primary reasons. First, it’s simple productivity tracking. I can keep my days more organized ahead of time. I’ve learned that I also need to give myself deadlines on the requests on my task list. That helps keep me focused. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by 175 requests and projects that have to be organized and completed, which is the second reason I organize my days like this… I don’t like the feeling of being overwhelmed. This system helps me keep things in perspective.

To track the details of each of the 175 requests on my list I use Microsoft OneNote. I have a page for each request, and another one for tracking my time on a monthly/weekly/daily basis. I break it down that way to keep the big picture in view, in addition to tracking all those details. Of course, I also have a spreadsheet that acts as an index for all of those requests and I keep that updated as well so I can see the overall status of each item in a summary view.

By doing it this way I can keep my boss and all the other stakeholders updated as to the progress I’m making on these items.

Conclusion

Each person has to justify his or her position in a company. It’s just a fact of life in today’s work force. In larger corporations it is increasingly important to distinguish one’s self from co-workers as a dependable, reliable employee to not only sustain employment, but also to earn higher pay, to be rewarded with higher bonuses, promotions, etc. Determine if your job requires time management or detail management and build a system to track it all for yourself. Yes, it actually takes time to do it that you feel you don’t have, but by organizing properly it will free up even more time than tracking it will use. Work smart! And good luck!

Time Management versus Detail Management

Book Review: Eat That Frog!

Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time. By Brian Tracy. (Second edition)

In mid-2015 I set a goal for myself. It was one of the first goals that I created for myself in my pursuit to become a better, smarter, higher paid, and happier employee. My goal was to read 25 books within a year that were related to productivity, procrastination, time management, management, or anything else that could help me evolve into a better employee and person. “Eat That Frog” was one of the first books I read on my journey.

It’s a simple read. Brian Tracy doesn’t waste time on flowery language and doesn’t spend five pages writing about something that can be covered in one. He gets to the point quickly and moves on. Other books have helped me improve in many ways, but I think it’s one of the best books available to help get organized and be more productive.

Of the 21 ways he writes about getting more done, the ideas that made the most important impact on me were A) getting organized (planning, prioritizing, focusing on the most important tasks), B) determining my most important skills and improving them, C) scheduling my work time to block out times for productivity (and also for breaks), and D) NOT becoming a slave to technology and/or social media. Two years later I still feel like these are just as important, if not more.

The one thing that made the most significant impact though was mentioned in my previous post. I keep a list of tasks to keep me focused. The book mentions having separate lists for daily/weekly/monthly tasks and keeping them updated all the time, but that system didn’t work well for me. I didn’t like multiple lists that all needed attention so I combined everything into one basic list. I still use it constantly, all day, every day, and not only did I stop forgetting to do things, I learned to set and track goals and deadlines and my bosses saw an immediate improvement in my work.

Two years later I’m in a very different position than when I started using task lists and I have very different duties, but I still use my tracker. It has evolved significantly since I started using a list at all, and now it is indispensable.

Below is a week of my current daily/weekly/monthly planner and checklist for December, 2017 in Microsoft OneNote 2016. I put the monthly goals at the top, above the calendar, then separate the month into weekly chunks with their own goals based on the monthly goals, and finally the daily goals based on the weekly goals. Though I show only three goals in each section below, I actually have many more in my working list.

 

tasklist

 

This system has helped my productivity and organization reach new levels that I never thought possible for me. I’m now tracking the daily chores related to 150+ requests and projects simultaneously.

As the book says, there are 21 ways suggested to stop procrastinating and get more done in less time. I suggest everyone read the book (it will take very little time) and adopt a few recommendations and see if they help. I’m sure everyone can find at least one or two items in the book that will help them evolve into a better, more productive, and happier person and employee.

Book Review: Eat That Frog!