This is going to be one of those posts where I recommend doing things that I don’t necessarily do all the time. However, I really want to do these things. It’s just hard.
Focus at work sounds so easy. Just work on one thing at a time. Easy, right? Well…no.
First of all, we all have to deal with distractions. Life is full of distractions. Everything and everyone is vying for our attention. Trillions of dollars are spent marketing everything from video games to pizza to getaway vacations.
Second, for most people there are things that are more important than work (ex. family). Since work is not the single most important thing in your life, it will get pushed to the side from time to time.
Finally, even when we just talk about focus at work (i.e. not including external distractions or more important family matters), most people are hard pressed to truly stick to one thing. Sometimes this is a result of our desire to please others, but the really tricky situation is when there are multiple good options.
Most startups don’t die from starving (i.e. lack of opportunity). They die from drowning (i.e. trying to do too much).
In short, you don’t know focus until you have multiple really good opportunities and you figure out a way to ignore one so you can put 100% of your focus on the other. I struggle with this all the time, but at least I am somewhat self aware about this and try to take a step back to evaluate where I am at on a regular basis. Think about it this way:
What if you had two great options and you could succeed if you placed 100% of your focus in either one, but you will fail if you try to do both at the same time?
Work stress for me doesn’t come from the quantity of work. I’ve got plenty to do and most of it needs to be done yesterday. A fact of life these days.
No, bad work stress for me comes from when I don’t have a plan. I can handle when I have a bit ToDo list, but I get super anxious when I don’t have a list regardless of how many things I need to do.
For this reason, I usually try to make sure I spend at least 10 minutes in the morning or the night before coming up with my daily plan. I usually already have some sort of list, but I need to go through that and adjust as appropriate. Here is an example of what my list looks like:
- 1/11 – Patent || Waiting on lawyers to respond to our questions
- 1/12 – Boston AI Meetup location || Waiting on response from Facebook
- 1/12 – Peter || Gave him criteria for query; waiting to get data
- (family) Book flight to Cancun
- (family) Call Sprint to get refund
- (swish) Publis education video
- (swish) Create plan for Budgeting Survey
- Update certificate
- Security research
- Paint family room
- Clean basement
Yes, I could put all of this in some sort of task management tool, but this list is more flexible than most tools and is meant for only the most immediate tasks you are working on. The larger backlog of tasks can live in Trello, Jira or some other formal task management tool. During those 10 minutes every morning when I am working on my daily plan, here is what I do:
- First, check the “Pending” section to see if there are any items with a date of today which need action. If action is needed, do it. Otherwise, ignore all the rest. Add new pending reminders here as appropriate.
- Then delete anything from “Current ToDo” or any of the backlogs that no longer apply.
- Finally update the “Current ToDo” list with items (in order of priority) that I will try to accomplish today. This list should be reasonable, but slightly more than what I likely could accomplish in one day.
There is a natural tendency to overthink strategy.
The term “strategy” means a plan to achieve one or more goals. In many cases, coming up with goals is the easy part. We do it naturally on a daily basis with our never-ending stream of whims, desires, dreams and aspirations. The hard part for any non-trivial goal is coming up with a strategy that motivates us to immediate action and keeps pushing us along until the goal is achieved. All too often we make plans and may even start to take some actions, but then our progress stalls. Perhaps you may even try out a few alternate strategies, but they likewise stall and you don’t get any closer to your goals. Then you give up and/or stop trying.
The problem in most cases isn’t one of strategic skill but rather our inability to perceive certain types of progress. Painfully slow progress is still progress. Failure is still progress. Literally anything that keeps us moving and active engaged in good faith (i.e. we aren’t trying to make ourselves fail) IS PROGRESS regardless of the results.
The key is consistent action.
As long as your goal isn’t physically impossible and you don’t run out of time, consistent action in good faith will eventually lead to success.
I know it can be really discouraging when, for example, you go to the gym every day to lose weight but don’t see any results after a month of hard work. Or, you work yourself to the bone at a startup for a year only for it to fail. It can be really tempting in those situations to give up.
Don’t give up.
As long as your original goal remains a priority in your life, you need to just keep plugging away and working hard. That doesn’t mean to keep doing the same thing. Consistent action doesn’t mean the same exact action. It just means taking some sort of action. Learning from previous failures and making adjustments is part of the process.
- Stop overthinking strategy and just start doing something
- If your current strategy isn’t working, change it quickly and then keep going
- Don’t stop working toward your goal until either:
- Your goal is achieved
- The goal is no long relevant/important
- You are dead
Consistency is power.
There is a disturbing and (unfortunately) growing trend to embrace deceit, distort truth and avoid accountability. Make no mistake that this trend will die and those that go down this dark path will forever regret it. In many ways it does remind me of the dark side in Star Wars. There are often ways to trick and scheme your way to gain some level of success, but it is never sustainable. Sure, some people may even get really lucky and manage to skate on a razors edge all the way to the top. But…it won’t last.
The reason is quite simple. Accountability (or the lack thereof) is infectious.
For example, let’s say you work at a company where everyone is really good about getting their work done on time but then a new person joins who ignores deadlines and never works hard. That person may be a junior employee, but if the organization allows him or her to continue for some time, other people in the organization will inevitable start slacking as well.
“Eh, I don’t have to get this done by tomorrow. Bob is always a week late with his stuff and no one seems to care.”
And that is just for an entry level employee. Obviously the situation would be much worse if the leaders in the organization did not hold themselves accountable.
But…it happens. Too often, unfortunately. And once it starts, it can become a cancer that spreads quickly and could eventually destroy the organization.
That is why it is extremely important to do the following:
- Heavily promote and encourage accountability throughout your organization. In particular, ensure all leaders are shining examples for everyone else.
- Set up a system that creates transparency so there is no question about what actually happened.
- When someone makes a mistake (as is normal), ensure that they have a chance to hold themselves accountable and take the appropriate actions.
- If someone doesn’t take the appropriate actions after a mistake, ensure that they have the right coaching structure so that team members can help hold each other accountable.
- If someone proves after some time that they are unwilling or unable to be accountable, then it is time to part ways since they clearly do not belong.
Yes, this is hard and it takes work. But a focus on accountability is how an organization continues to grow and thrive.
After watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi two times this past weekend, I am thinking a lot about the underlying themes of the Star Wars universe. One of those is balance. It seems like an appropriate discussion topic in so many ways.
- Our diet needs a balance between different types of foods with different nutritional values
- Our bodies need a balance between heavy activity and rest
- Our minds need to be engaged and stressed at times, but relaxed at other times
- Our relationships are usually a mix of different types of relationships which serve different purposes in our lives
When we are out of balance (regardless of which way out of balance), there are typically negative consequences. For example, if I am stressed about work unable to focus at home, then my loved ones may become stressed about my stress…which perhaps even cycles back to me and creates even more stress.
So, the key is finding ways to achieve and maintain balance. This is hard. Really hard. But, as hard as it is to do ourselves, it is even harder to help others achieve balance. Here are a few things I have been thinking about that you can use yourself or you can use to help those around you:
- Bring it back to basics. What are were trying to achieve here? What are your goals in life? Forget about all the specific things going on right now and let’s think about the long term.
- Look outside yourself. Forget about your own personal feelings, thoughts and desires. What do my closest friends and family think? How are my actions affecting them?
- What, when and how are you getting out of balance? Stop being reactionary to the events in your life and proactively control those things that adversely impact your ability to achieve balance.
We all experience stress to some degree. Sometimes stress can be good (i.e. short term stress that propels you to accomplish a goal such as a deadline, a test, giving a speech, etc.). I personally like this type of stress and thrive off of it. Working at a startup, good stress is par for the course.
Unfortunately there is also bad stress which often occurs when you feel helpless, trapped and/or have lost control. When we experience this type of stress, it can be damaging to ourselves and the people around us. However, there are way to mitigate and manage bad stress such that you avoid it in many cases or are at the very least able to quickly get past it. The specifics end up being different for different people, but the one thing I have noticed is that in most cases the key is knowing yourself.
One simple thing you can do is identify different situations that create a lot of stress in your life and simply avoid them. Sometimes this is difficult to do (ex. source of stress is family member), but other times it can be quite easy (ex. source of stress is Twitter). Try taking out a piece of paper and just write down a list of ten things that cause you stress. If you can avoid anything on your list without any negative repercussions, do it.
Of course, it is likely that a lot of the stuff on your list can’t be avoided for one reason or another. In that case, it comes down to setting up tripwires for yourself and having a few coping mechanisms. Some examples of tripwires may include things like:
- Your sleep pattern drastically changes
- You lose/gain weight
- You lash out at a loved one
The more you can be self aware of what you naturally do when you are stressed, the easier it will be to do something about it. In terms of coping mechanisms, each person is going to be different but one really strong suggestion I have is to extract yourself from the situation and sleep. Now, in full disclosure, I will admit that I am absolutely terrible about this. I know how much sleep helps alleviate stress and reset your brain, but I continue to have a hard time doing it on a regular basis. Typically my wife is the one who hits my upside the head and forces me to rest. That said, once I actually get 8 hours of sleep (which is very rare for me these days) it is like magic.
Creating a new habit is super hard. If you manage to do something consistently every day for at least two weeks however, they say that it is much more likely that thing will become a lasting habit. They trick is to just focus on making one habit at a time.
For the next 2 – 4 weeks, my one new thing is going to be writing.
I love to write. I really do. I actually had an old version of this blog on Ghost.org that I ended up deleting at one point. I currently write (on occasion) on my medium blog and I even wrote a chapter in a book at one point. The problem is that it takes me A LONG time to write. I am a super perfectionist and often end up completely re-writing any content at least 3 or 4 times. That approach is a major problem now that my time is so limited these days.
So, I have decided to write for 10 minutes every day on my resurrected personal blog. Little to no editing. No pre-planning. Just pick the top subject on my mind and write. My hope is that after doing this for a month or so it will become easier to get into the flow and I can potentially churn out the larger more involved posts more efficiently.
I am super excited about this. Thanks to my wonderful wife, Carolyn, for the idea.