Take a Thinking Day

“Airplane Days – A couple of years ago I noticed that I got some of my best work done on long intercontinental flights. No Internet access, no distractions, just churning through high priority to-do items. I would finish the flights not only at Inbox 0 but also having completed some “creative” tasks that had long lingered on my list due to lack of contiguous time to complete them: drafting new presentations/documents or deep quantitative analysis of some data/spreadsheet, for example.

When I made the joke that I should start flying internationally more often for productivity reasons, the light bulb went off. Now, at the beginning of each week, I carefully look at my schedule and declare one day (or two half days) to be Airplane Time. I block it out on my shared calendar and treat it as if I were in the air: working out of the office, disabling my phone, and shutting off network connections on my laptop. The rest of the days are for meetings, etc. but this blocked out time each week is my most productive by far.”  – Quora

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Sometime back, I wrote about the Long Walks. The key idea was that you need to have contiguous, uninterrupted blocks of time where you focus on a single project or task to be most productive. Having ‘long enough’ time for an activity helps you coalesce all the different data pieces hanging around your head and outside and bring out aspects and issues that simply is not possible if you are in a short-burst mode. That is why I called it the Long Walk model.

This is exactly what is being quoted above as an excellent tool to achieve the same goal.

John Donahoe, CEO eBay, takes what he calls a ‘Thinking Day’ every six months to ‘beat the chaos’. John wrote:

“I have found that one of the simplest tools for learning and enhancing my performance is to regularly reflect on how to spend my time. Every six months I go through a process where I step back, contemplate what I have learned over the previous six months, and then adjust my focus to ensure I am spending my time and energy in ways where I can create the greatest impact.”

It is essentially a process of zooming out from the current reality, rising above the daily fires and chaos and reflect on what is happening. It is like a military commander climbing the most strategic height of a battlefield to see what is happening. The visibility, perspective and insight that he will get from that vantage point is invaluable. We all need to such visibility and insights.

“I just finished one of my thinking days last month. I filled a white board with my assessment of the external market and how we were doing against our priorities for the first six months of this year. As frequently happens, once I had written everything out in one place, I found it useful to step back and look at things from a holistic perspective. I emerged with new insights and with greater clarity about what’s most important. To remind myself of these insights, I wrote them out, as I always do, into my personal priorities file and now carry this file with me everywhere I go.”

This is one of the best productivity and effectiveness tools. It helps dodge off the daily fires we have to fight. It makes you think deep and long enough to get the best use of your time. As Drucker said that an executive has just about 25% of his time in his control.

Taking a regular thinking day out is the best use of that time!

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Happy Birthday Thinking Spirits!

So, finally it’s a year of blogging. Happy Birthday to all of you!

My first real post was It Depends. It shows I was confused from the start. I had to even write a It Depends – 2 the following week.

And interestingly, this post is the 50th on the blog – almost 1 post per week. Good, but can be better.

And though Change Sucks, but change is good – so you can see a new theme for the blog!

In the spirit of last two posts on value of measurements, I decide to do some measurements of my own for the blog. And since Appearance Matters, I put them into infographics.

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I have managed to consolidate all writings into 5 core themes – Knowledge Work, Leadership, Communication, Productivity and Time Management. The 50 posts are distributed like:

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Know Thy Time

“Time is what we want most,but what we use worst.” 
         ― William Penn

Earlier, I wrote about the importance of measurement and data that represents reality. The main idea was that any improvement, personally or professionally, can only be effective if it is based on fact based measurements. In God we trust; all others bring data.

ImageThe article used the Global Slavery Index report as an example for defining the process of measurement.

That’s useful – but how about a measurement example that can be applied personally and has value? How if we measure where our time goes.

Our daily discourse is filled with clichés about time:

  • Time is money
  • Time is our greatest asset
  • Time is a great leveler

Yet, we abuse this great asset with impunity. We become unproductive at the very core asset that makes us productive and effective.

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10,000 Hours of Practice

Outliers is a classic book on what makes up success by Malcolm Gladwell. He argues that highly successful people – the outliers – do not succeed just by simply working harder. Being there at the right place at the right time, among other factors, is critical too.

Gladwell describes the “Rule of 10,000” which says that it takes about 10,000 hours of practicing a task for someone to achieve mastery in it. It can be music, computer programming, writing, sports – anything (and certainly for knowledge work!).

“… ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert — in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”  — “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell

ImageDoing the maths, practicing for 40-hours in a week and 180 hours in a month, it takes about 5 years to achieve mastery in it. Obviously, what it means to be a master and what the world of mastery is can vary, but in general the rule models the effort required to become really good at something. Gladwell gives examples of The Beatles, Bill Gates and Paul Allen to prove the theory. All of them put in 10,000 of practicing music or programming before they really became masters at it.

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Date Yourself

Stop reading this post and open up your calendar. Take a look at what it had for the last three weeks and what it holds for the next three.

Anything interesting?

Well, probably it looks booked and you very busy (which is true!).

However, what you probably did not notice was that your calendar is filled with meetings and commitments that are either:

1.  Added by others through an invitation
2.  Added by you by invitation to others

In essence, your calendar is most likely a journal of your commitments with others. It is a document which you refer to, to find out whom you have to meet or talk to next. It chronicles how and where your time is owned by others.

So, what’s wrong?

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Pomodoro is not just a tomato …

Earlier I wrote that an effective way to manage our time is using the model of long walks. The core idea was that we just do not need time free of distractions but we also need it long enough to be effective on a particular task. Smaller chunks of time here and there can never be as effective as a single contiguous block of time.

ImageA technique to achieve this is ‘Pomodoro’. Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato but the name of the technique is motivated by a kitchen timer.

What Pomodoro suggests is to work in chunks of 30 minutes. Every 30 minute ‘Pomodoro’ is divided into 25 minutes of actual work and 5 minutes to reflect and reenergize. The key is that in each of such 30 minutes, you should just work on a ‘single’ task. All distractions and deviations should be eliminated.

For example, if I am writing this article, I can dedicate 30 minutes to come up with the first draft. I make sure that I do not check email, attend a phone call or wander in my thoughts to the upcoming vacations. I need to laser-focus on the task I defined before I started.

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My Weekly GTD Review

Earlier I argued why GTD is valuable for knowledge workers and what my GTD system is. Here is how I do my Weekly Review – a critical piece of the GTD system.

All processes in life run forward. Good processes also have intermediary checkpoints where progress is analyzed and adjustments are made. (e.g. A Scrum project team does retrospectives at the end of every work iteration – where the good, the bad and the potential pitfalls ahead are reviewed and course corrected).

Weekly Review is just that. It is an explicit weekly checkpoint in our GTD life where we deliberately stop doing the regular stuff, rise up from the life’s battlefield, take a stock of all the stuff around us, analyze the previous week and look ahead the next. We adjust, tweak and re-prioritize and take away or add stuff in our lives. It’s an ‘inspect and adapt’ activity – and is immensely powerful.

As important as the review, is the fact that it is weekly. A week is the optimal work and planning unit. Give someone two weeks for a task and it will be most likely addressed in the second week. Hence, most planning and reporting is done on a weekly basis.

My Weekly Reviews are on Friday afternoons. It’s scheduled for 30 minutes on my calendar. Friday is a good time with work traffic slowing down and I have better visibility into the weekend and next week.

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