Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence

FocusFocus by Daniel Goleman is about awareness. There are three levels of awareness and if you can master each and master switching between them appropriately then excellence will be yours. Assuming that’s what you want.

The three levels are: awareness of your inner state; awareness of what’s going on between you and other people; and awareness of the wider world. Lots of this happens in your subconscious because your brain isn’t under your control. You are the narrator for the adventure your body is having. But if you can manage to stop distracting yourself with sensation and pesky emotions and actually pay attention to what you’re doing/experiencing in the moment, you’ll be happier, more productive and achieve all your goals.

There’s a lot of good stuff in here, although not much that’s new. Goleman spends quite a bit of time talking about emotional resilience and the importance of learning to distract and soothe yourself. He also talks about the need to scan and take information in so that your subconscious can do the heavy lifting of making connections between unrelated things that is key to creativity. There’s a difference between focussing narrowly on a task at hand to get it done, and a more wide-ranging focus on gathering data, and how both are necessary. Goleman also talks about when it’s helpful to be unfocussed, because that too is important in creativity. Mindful daydreaming, if you will.

I wasn’t keen on the tone. According to Goleman, the world is going to hell in a handbasket due to the pernicious effect of modern technology. And climate change, and obesity, and lack of wholesome outdoor pursuits. Everything was all better in the past when people had real conversations without texting someone else. There’s a lot of assumptions masquerading as evidence and a lot of nostalgia for a never-was golden era. Which rather spoilt it for me.

Getting Things Done

Getting_Things_DoneI love this book: Getting Things Done: How to achieve stress-free productivity by David Allen. The review will be long. The TLDR version is: This book will help you organise your work and life so you can handle all your commitments without getting stressed. It gives you principles that let you arrange things in your own way so that you’ll stick to the programme. The system is simple and powerful and frees your brain from worry. Getting Things Done is the best book I’ve ever read on time management, project management or productivity.

Allen’s proposition is that the brain can only cope with a limited amount of complexity. It can’t tell the difference in importance between reminding you to draft a position paper and reminding you to buy toothpaste. And it’ll give you both reminders at the most inappropriate times, reminding you about toothpaste during a meeting and about the paper when you’re in the bath.

When we feel like we have too much to do, or we don’t know what to do about the things we have to do, we tend to go numb. I call it brain fog. It’s the sense that there’s lots of things you should be doing but somehow you can’t get your brain to fasten on to anything. What happens to me is that I waste time doing easy but low value work at the expense of getting my priority work done. The important work doesn’t get done because I have to dig out all the relevant emails and scraps of notes or think about what I want to do about it. I might have 30 minutes on my hands but that doesn’t feel like long enough.

I like this system because it doesn’t tie you into doing it in a specific way. There are four stages: collect, process, file and do. The first step is that you have to collect all the things that come in to you for working on so you need buckets. An in-tray or inbox can be a bucket. A notepad or post its can be a bucket. An app on a tablet or phone can be a bucket. So long as, one way or another, you can be sure you have everything collected it doesn’t matter how many buckets you have or what they look like.

The next step is that you have to process all that stuff and capture it for when you have the opportunity to do something about it. Allen recommends calendars and to-do lists, but you can use what you want. The important part of this stage is to decide what to do with something and write it down. The brain can be more efficient if you are specific about what the next action is on any given project. If you’ve got a list of next actions, you can do them whenever you have ten or fifteen minutes spare because you’ve already done the decision making. The last piece of this incredibly simple system is to write everything down. Getting Things Done works with the brain’s natural inclinations and emphasises getting everything out of your head on to a list. If you’ve done that then the brain turns its attention to thinking up new things rather than constantly reminding you about the old things.

The principle about filing is to make sure the system you use is to hand. If you’re working at your desk and the file you need is not within reach you won’t get up to get it, you’ll put the thing you were doing to one side and move on to something else. This results in lots of mess. But it is true. Humans are lazy and genetically predisposed to conserve energy. So make it easy on yourself by rearranging your environment to work for you not against you. Finally, you have to do your stuff. And if your next actions list is comprehensive and your reference materials are to hand, then you’ll fly through your work.

I first read this book about eight years ago. I spent a whole Saturday in the office setting up a new filing system. It can take a lot of upfront investment in getting on top of everything but it’s worth it in the long run. The pay off in stress reduction and increased productivity is worth it. I’ve kept up a lot of the systems and I thought re-reading it would help me tighten up a little. What I realised was that my personal commitments have mushroomed and now I need to apply the same system to everything. I have a ridiculous amount of stuff to do and I’m not stressed about any of it anymore.

First, Break all the Rules

I have a sort-of-new job at work and so I have had a spate of reading business books. First, Break all the Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman is about how great managers get the best out of people. I’m a manager and I think I’m pretty good at it, but I can do better and lately I know I’ve not given my team as much attention as I would like.

First_Break_All_Rules_cover_imageFirst, Break all the Rules is based on identifying great managers and studying what they do, both within organizations and between organizations. It distinguishes between good and great. The book doesn’t just look at what average (good) managers do, it looks at the people who are exceptional. What is interesting is that what great managers do is defy conventional wisdom.

For example, most performance management is based on helping people identify their weaknesses and overcome them. Great managers focus on strengths and getting people into situations/roles that enable them to capitalize on what they do best. Weaknesses are worked around. I realised I’m tired of working on weaknesses and I’m inspired by the idea of building on strengths.

It also talks about how competencies tend to reduce everyone to averages rather than helping people to be their best. We’ve just introduced competencies at work, lol.

It was published in 1999 and some of the examples feel a bit dated. I liked it and found a lot useful. Part of the reason I liked it is because I’m already doing some of the things it says great managers do, so clearly the book is amazing. Some of those things aren’t supported by my peers and managers and I’m liking the reassurance that I’m on the right track. But also, I’m inspired by new-to-me suggestions.