Archives for August 2009
My wife has been enjoying the book The Paradox of Choice and I’m looking forward to reading it as well. The concept is simple: having more choices doesn’t always lead to more happiness. Often, it leads to paralyzed decision-making and discontent.
Here is the author’s presentation recently at TED, which gives a great summary of his key concepts:
I have one disagreement with Barry Schwartz in the video. He states at the beginning that maximizing individual freedom is a central tenet of western civilization, and that “the way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice. The more choice that they have, the more freedom they have, and the more freedom they have, the more welfare they have.”
I agree that maximizing individual freedom is a central tenet of Western civilization, but I think he has slightly misstated things thing when he says that this entails the idea that “the way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice.”
Many people believe that, probably. But that kind of freedom is not at the heart of Western civilization.
For example, the founders of this nation serve as a good representation, I would contend, of what the tenet of freedom means when it comes to the guiding principles of Western thought. And I don’t think that they saw the essence of freedom as maximizing choice.
The essence of freedom that was captured in the American Revolution and which, I would argue, is at the heart of Western society is rather the right to make your own decisions. The number of choices that you have is not ultimately relevant here. The main idea is that you get to choose, not the government or someone else.
You don’t need someone to provide you with a lot of options in order to be “free” in this sense. It’s about choosing your own path and making your own decision — and, if you think you don’t have enough options, finding a way and possibly creating more options yourself.
That’s the view of freedom that is at the heart of Western society. Schwartz is taking aim at another view of freedom — a very common one, and perhaps one that is pervasive and dominant at this current juncture in history and going back a generation or two, but not one that should be characterized as central to Western civilization per se.
The view of freedom that Schwartz is taking aim at here, which so values maximizing options, is in part behind a recent mutation of the original Western view of freedom. This mutation holds that if you don’t have health care, you aren’t free, or that if you don’t earn a “living wage,” you aren’t free, because both things limit your options. It is then implied that the government ought to provide these things for people, “in the name of freedom.”
Schwartz of course isn’t discussing that mutation on the concept of freedom. But I think it goes to show the importance of getting this term correct.
To conclude: I’m not against having lots of options; I just want to point out that the value of maximizing individual freedom does not depend upon the number of options you have. And it certain does not entail that we have a duty to maximize people’s options. Rather, it simply entails that we let people make their own decisions. This includes, of course, the decision to generate more options — as well as the decision, which Schwartz does a good job contending for, not to always seek out a wide range of options.
A few years ago I heard someone say: “Every hour of sleep before midnight is worth two, and every hour of work before noon is worth two.”
That’s a pretty good principle in general. It would need to be nuanced, of course, when it comes to those who are naturally most productive late at night. But as a general statement, it points to the high productive value of making the most of the morning.
Although maybe you could have the best of both worlds. If you went to bed at 9 pm, you’d have six hours of sleep by midnight and could then get up, ready to attack the day…
Seth Godin had an excellent post a few days ago on tactics drowning out strategy. I find it especially relevant because (1) my role is “director of strategy” and (2) I’m spending the entire day today on strategy (which, at this point at least, I try to do every Thursday — and as a result have to say no to a lot of good tactical stuff.)
New media creates a blizzard of tactical opportunities for marketers, and many of them cost nothing but time, which means you don’t need as much approval and support to launch them.
As a result, marketers are like kids at Rita’s candy shoppe, gazing at all the pretty opportunities.
Most of us are afraid of strategy, because we don’t feel confident outlining one unless we’re sure it’s going to work. And the ‘work’ part is all tactical, so we focus on that. (Tactics are easy to outline, because we say, “I’m going to post this.” If we post it, we succeed. Strategy is scary to outline, because we describe results, not actions, and that means opportunity for failure.)
“Building a permission asset so we can grow our influence with our best customers over time” is a strategy. Using email, twitter or RSS along with newsletters, contests and a human voice are all tactics. In my experience, people get obsessed about tactical detail before they embrace a strategy… and as a result, when a tactic fails, they begin to question the strategy that they never really embraced in the first place.
The next time you find yourself spending 8 hours on tactics and five minutes refining your strategy, you’ll understand what’s going on.
A lot of people don’t get this. The pressure is to simply “perform,” and time spent on strategy is looked at as slowing you down and wasting your time.
Others think that strategy just comes naturally if there are smart people on your team, so it should never take more than a few minutes of thought. Whenever someone says “why can’t you see that? It’s obvious!” it’s often an indication that, no matter how smart they are, they don’t have a clue. There’s always a twist. Almost always, that is.
Perhaps most significantly, there is the false idea out there that thinking you should have a strategy somehow implies that you also think you can somehow know the future. But it doesn’t imply that. In large measure, you are strategizing for the unknown. Strategizing because of the unknown.
An interesting dilemma in blogging (at least for me) is the balance between posts that reflect a more settled position on things and posts that capture my in-process, very-much-in-development, top-of-mind reflections on various things. I think most of my posts fall into the former category.
This one falls into the latter category: a few random thoughts on daily to-do lists that aren’t necessarily settled positions, but reflect some tentative observations. So, take it in that light.
Here’s the issue: In Getting Things Done, David Allen says that GTD means “no more daily to-do lists.” (Since these are just rough thoughts, I won’t look up the page number.) Instead, you manage your day from an inventory of all of your next actions, most of which have “as soon as possible” status but which also includes “even the most time-sensitive actions.”
An inventory of non-scheduled, “as soon as possible” stuff is fine. But I have found that not having a daily list in addition to that is fantastically frustrating and unworkable for me. (I’d like to put that in stronger terms, but might regret it.)
As you know, I highly recommend Getting Things Done and find Allen’s approach very helpful and worthwhile. But I do think that some aspects of the approach need to be tweaked a bit, at least for me (and I think, probably, others).
Allen’s mindset on these things seems to be “if that works for you, go for it.” So, while there is an important core to GTD, it is also very adaptable and flexible. Thus, although my thoughts here are probably outside of conventional GTD wisdom, I don’t think that they are contrary to the spirit of the approach.
With that in mind: Some reasons I find it unworkable not to have some type of a daily to-do list are as follows.
I find it impossible to pace myself without some version of a daily to-do list. I have found that there is no way to know when I am “done” for the day without some type of daily list, given that there are always more actions you can do.
I find it more complicated than it needs to be to keep up with deadlines without some version of a daily-to-do list. This is a corollary to not being able to pace myself without one.
The fact is that if I have 4 larger projects that need to be done over the next two weeks, I will not be able to focus my progress on those projects if I just let their next actions remain in a set of “as soon as possible” next actions. Keeping them in that kind of list gives them equal weight with the less time-sensitive actions. But they don’t have equal weight.
And the reality is that my intuition does not function to make me always pick those time-sensitive actions out of the mix of all the others at the right time. Instead, I find that my tendency is to want to get rid of the smaller actions because they feel like they are “clogging things up.” Then more smaller things come up (I think Merlin Mann calls these “mosquito tasks”), creating a cycle of frustration.
Hence, because of the role that systems play in influencing behavior even contrary to the best intentions, I’ve found that I need to bake it right into my productivity system to focus my attention on the most important and/or time-sensitive actions.
The Ambiguity in Truly Defining What Must Be Done Today
David Allen writes that “if there’s something on a daily to-do list that doesn’t absolutely have to get done that day, it will dilute the emphasis on the things that truly do.”
It seems to me this concept, however, very quickly runs into unhelpful ambiguity: How do you define what truly has to be done today?
Is it defined by what your boss tells you that you have to do? By deadlines others have set and want you to comply with? By contextual realities (Fred is going out of town Saturday, so you have to call him on Friday)?
I think the reality is that there are very few things that absolutely have to be done on any given day. But there are many things which, if not done this week, will simply make your life a lot more complicated and put you behind on your projects. Hence, if you only put on your calendar (or a daily to-do list) things that absolutely have to get done that day, you will get out of step with things. And you might find that all of a sudden, you have a large number of actions that “suddenly” need to get done today — but now you don’t have enough space in the day to do them.
Further, if it is OK to regard action A as something that has to be done today because someone else (such as your boss or manager) said it needs to be done by that time, why isn’t the fact that you yourself simply want something done today enough of a reason as well?
In other words, I think that more important than deadlines other people give us are the time frames that we want to meet simply because we want to. Or, to put it differently, the mere fact that you think it will work best to get action A done today is sufficient reason to make it a “have to do today” item. And without a daily section of your next action list, the decision to do that item today will not be reflected in your list, and so it will be easy to end up overlooking.
List, Not Calendar
Some people block off time on their calendar to do very important tasks. I think that is a great practice. It does not scale to every important or time sensitive action you have, however.
The reason it doesn’t scale is that there may be, for example, five 10-minute actions that you need to get done today. Add those to your calendar would be cumbersome. Slotting them into specific times would assume greater precision than is likely possible. But creating them as “all day events” in your calendar program also quickly gets cumbersome as well. Calendar programs are not designed for holding a bunch of all-day events — it quickly starts to feel cluttered.
Hence, while I do recommend blocking off time on your calendar for sizable tasks, an actual list is still necessary when you have multiple smaller actions that you need to accomplish in a day.
But What About Re-Writing?
The idea that those who create daily to-do lists always end up having to recopy a ton of items that they didn’t get done to the next day is, in my view, an incorrect stereotype. Sure, that may be the case for some people. But it doesn’t have to be the case.
First, many people have the discipline to actually do what they decide they will do. You can develop this discipline. Second, it’s really a matter of being realistic with yourself and not over-scheduling. Third, in the age of copy and paste, it is not hard if you do have to revise things every day, even significantly.
Fourth, if you do find yourself having to carry over a bunch of items from one day to the next, regard that as a learning process. That is showing you that you are over estimating what you are able to do. So stop planning so many things for your day. This realization is one of the central uses of doing this — it forces you to start being realistic about what you can get done, so that you can then become more selective in deciding what you really will do, and what should be eliminated because, while nice, it’s less important and needs to give way.
At the end of the day, this concept is not as foreign to GTD as may at first seem. For Allen does say in Getting Things Done that “having a working game plan as a reference point is always useful, but it must be able to be renegotiated at any moment.”
That’s really what I’m advocating here: creating a working game plan for your day. I just see this as implying a bit more than what seems to be contemplated in the standard GTD approach.
A key to making this work is to remain flexible. This doesn’t mean regarding the items on the list as mere “hopes” of what you will do that day. Rather, it means not outlining literally everything you will do that day. Keep it as basic as possible and to the most important things. Two hours of work is probably enough. Preserve lots of time for being able to do things not on your list that fit the flow of the day, and for being able to meet the needs of others that arise.
A lot of productivity books give advice like this: “If cleaning out your garage (or closet, or some other organizing task) seems overwhelming to you, just do it for ten minutes a day. That way it’s not overwhelming, and since small things add up, after a few weeks it will be all done.”
It’s not likely that I’ll give that kind of advice very often.
I agree very much that small things add up. We should absolutely maximize that concept in our lives. For example, exercising just 30 minutes a day adds up and pretty soon you’re in shape and maintaining pretty good health. Reading 30 minutes every night before bed adds up and pretty soon you’ll find that you’re getting through almost two books a month. Being a decent person, day after day, makes a difference.
So small things, done consistently, make a big difference.
But you have to be very selective in applying that idea to things like organizing your garage or getting that closet cleaned out.
The reason is that things like trying to clean out your garage a little each day create a productivity complexity. When are you going to do it? How are you going to remember to do it? It’s hard enough to protect sufficient time to play with the kids after work. And you’re going to remember to spend 10 minutes cleaning out the garage every day as well. Really?
Maybe you would. The problem is this: Small things add up, and you can only have so many small things going on at once.
Many of the productivity books fail to take the second part of that truth into account, and as a result they start suggesting that you apply this principle to all sorts of non-routine projects. Are your files disorganized? Purge a little every day. Hate that closet? Do something to improve it every day. Desk cluttered? Find ways to improve the organization every day. Sock drawer messy? Fix it a bit every day. Pretty soon, you’ve got a thousand “small things” that you are trying to do every day.
That’s why I don’t give advice like that. If your sock drawer needs organized, do it in one shot. If your garage needs organized, the mental gear-shifting it would take to do a little every day would be extremely inefficient, given all the factors involved. So block off 2 hours and do that in one shot.
I think, when it comes to organizational tasks like these, the reason they seem overwhelming is not that they are large, but because we don’t know how. If you don’t have any idea how to organize your garage, you won’t want to do it. So a better approach than doing a little bit every day when you still don’t know what you’re really doing is to first learn how (by looking at a book like Organizing for Dummies) and then block off the time to do it in one shot. And I would apply this to all those other projects that the organization books recommend doing “a little at a time.”
The result will be that you have less “moving parts” going on in your life, and you can then truly apply the “small things done consistently” principle to the things that matter most. Be gracious to people, every day, in the small things as well as the large. Exercise every day. Read at least 30 minutes every day.
And, once that garage is picked up, keep it from getting disorganized again by putting things back where they belong right away and straightening it up as soon as you notice something out of order.
Don’t confuse busyness with efficiency. An organization’s best people sometimes spend their most productive time seemingly daydreaming.
Busyness may, in fact, be counterproductive. “It is necessary to be slightly underemployed if you are to do something significant,” says James D. Watson. He is a Nobel laureate who shared the prize with Francis Crick for successfully discovering the genetic code of DNA. The story of how underemployed they were — the stories of their meanderings and long weekends, parties, visits, and other diversions — is told delightfully in The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, a human-side-of-science classic.
Watson and Crick had the luxury of being able to study all sorts of ideas, interact with scientists in many fields, attend conferences all over the world. But most of all, Watson and Crick had time to think about what they were reading and hearing and seeing. That’s what Watson means when he praises underemployment.
If these two researchers had not received generous research grants, if they had needed to hold down two jobs in order to make ends meet, they probably would not have made the discovery that revolutionized biological research. Thanks to generous support plus the British university tradition that emphasizes contemplation, Watson and Crick were sufficiently underemployed to do something significant.
People on treadmills don’t get very far [emphasis added]. If you’re so busy working that you have no time to think about what you’re working at, you’ll be unable to make full use of your accomplishments.
Underemployment provides the time between activities to reflect on what you’ve just finished and think, “What does this mean?” “How can I exploit what I have done?” Underemployment provides the time to figure out other ways than the obvious to use what you’re producing. And it provides time to consider how what you’ve done fits with what’s already been done.
From What Would Google Do? (pp. 32ff):
Networks are built atop platforms. The internet is a platform, as is Google, as are services such as photo site Flickr, blogging service WordPress.com, payment service PayPal, self-publishing company Lulu.com and business software company Salesforce.com A platform enables. It helps others build value.
Any company can be a platform. Home Depot is a platform for contractors and Continental Airlines is a platform for book tours. Platforms help users create products, businesses, communities, and networks of their own. If it is open and collaborative, those users may in turn add value to the platforms — as IBM does when it shares the improvements it makes in the open-source Linux operating system.
In the old architecture and language of centralized, controlling businesses, Google Maps would be a product that consumers may use, generating an audience that Google could sell to advertisers. That’s if Google wanted to stay in control.
Instead, Google handed over control to anyone. It opened up maps so others could build atop them. This openness has spawned no end of new applications known as “mashups.”
Opening Google Maps as a platform spawned not just neat applications but entire businesses. Mobile phone companies are building Google maps into their devices, which gets maps into the hands of new customers. Platial.com built an elegant user interface atop Google Maps that lets users place pins at any locations, showing the world anyone’s favorite restaurants or a family’s stops on vacation. Neighbors can collaborate and create a map pinpointing all the potholes in town. That map could, turn, be embedded on a blog or a newspaper page. News sites have used maps to have readers pinpoint their photos during big stories, such as floods in the U.K.
Thinking in terms of how to make your company a platform is a key to success in the new economy. So, some questions to ask yourself:
How can you act as a platform? What can others build on top of it? How can you add value? How little value can you extract? How big can the network atop your platform grow? How can the platform get better learning from users? How can you create open standards so even competitors will use and contribute to the network and you get a share of their value? It’s time to make your own virtuous circle.
This is instructive on the difference between old media and new media. From What Would Google Do?, by Jeff Jarvis:
[Old media companies] all want to control the internet because that is how they view their worlds. Listen to the rhetoric of corporate value: Companies own customers, control distribution, make exclusive deals, lock out competitors, keep trade secrets. The internet explodes all those points of control. It abhors centralization. It loves sea level and tears down barriers to entry. It despises secrecy and rewards openness. It favors collaboration over ownership. The once-powerful approach the internet with dread when they realize they cannot control it.
If Google thought like an old-media company — like, say, Time Inc. or Yahoo — it would have controlled content, built a wall around it, and tried to keep us inside. Instead, it opened up and put its ads anywhere, building an advertising network so vast and powerful that it is overtaking both the media and advertising industries even as it collaborates with and powers them online. There’s Google’s next virtuous circle: The more Google sends traffic to sites with its ads, the more money it makes; the more money those sites make the more content they can create for Google to organize. Google also helps those sites by giving them content and functionality: maps, widgets, search pages, YouTube videos. Google feeds the network to make the network grow.
I am surprised that old media companies have not tried to copy Google’s model — that is, creating open networks.
In sum, it comes down to create closed networks you try to control (old media), or creating and feeding open networks you don’t try to control.