Do More vs Do Less

Remember the good old college days when doing more was the norm. I am not talking about just more work – I am talking about doing more number of things. Half a dozen courses in a semester, multiple projects, assignments, sororities, fraternities, science club, that extra research work, volunteering for the local school – all this in addition to working part-time jobs to make ends meet. At any point of time, there were a dozen things that you had on your mind.

And it made sense. There was so much to learn and do. The only possible way was to do more. Some of it was mandated for you (by the college rules), the other a result of your passion and eagerness to learn. You wanted to get your hands in many pies. You liked to brag about all the stuff that you were juggling and doing well.

The same continued as you started your first job (even worse if you started up your own shop). Although work was more streamlined, specially if you joined a larger organization, but still as a newbie you wanted to do tidbits of everything from doing your work to helping others to volunteering to peeking to see how others do their jobs. Doing so much – and so diverse of it – made you feel cool. Your learning was on fast track.

And still it all made sense. After all, life still has a heap to offer and you just did not know enough. The only way to fill that gap was to do lots of things.

This do more approach worked well – until it stopped working anymore!

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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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Process or Situation?

It’s late Friday afternoon. You are sitting in your office, exhausted and frustrated. The week could not have been worse. The project is a mess, the team is in disarray and the VP is breathing down your neck. You have fought off about a dozen fires since morning. You almost had a fist-fight with that marketing ‘dude’. You are not even thinking about the upcoming conversation with the VP. The weekend is ruined. The best you can do to soothe yourself is by believing that its just one of those days (though you think there have been too many of them lately).

There was a knock at the door.

It’s Neville (hint: inspiration from Harry Potter series).

Gosh, no. With Neville, you know its trouble. The expressions on his face do not suggest otherwise.

“Boss, we have a problem”.

Sigh.

“I am listening”.

Image“I have been trying to get this fixed by myself for past 3 days, hoping it will go away. I fear that we have hit a hard rock. Our credit card processing system for the upcoming launch is completely broken. We do not have a solution.”

Ouch.

So only when you thought your day could not get worse, Neville proved you wrong.

What would you do?

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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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How I manage my GTD Stuff

Last time I talked about GTD and why it helps a knowledge worker. Today, I’ll describe how I personally manage the GTD system – the tools, habits and the quirks.

Disclaimer: How I manage is what works for me. It may not be the same for you. The intent is to give you example of an implementation. The process is more important than the content. Had there been a one-size-fits-all implementation, GTD probably would have prescribed it.  

I use electronic tools and external (cloud) storage of data (tasks, emails, documents etc.) for efficient access. My system has the following pieces:

– My Capture Lists
– Calendars
Evernote

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Why I use GTD?

Once asked for his telephone number, Einstein looked it up in the directory. He replied to the curious requester that why should he waste his brain in storing something when he can easily retrieve it when required. 

This is the essence of Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology – which I and million others use to organize our lives.

GTD is not a productivity tool. It is a methodology to manage stuff entering in our lives and how we manage it.  

Most of what we call organizing consists of creating to-do lists and reminders. We are typically creating these artifacts with no process to manage and use them. The result is often “we forgot”, “it fell through the cracks” or “I never got around to doing it”. There is stress, inefficiency and lost opportunities.  

Our brain is for processing, not storing stuff. We cannot depend on our memory to generate reminders or organize large information. At best, we can hold a few items in our brain at anytime. Enter a new input and an existing item may drop off. Our psyche cannot be our system.  

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Communicating in Chaos – The Gongs and Banners Model

On the field of battle, the spoken word does not carry far enough: hence the institution of gongs and drums. Nor can ordinary objects be seen clearly enough: hence the institution of banners and flags.

Gongs and drums, banners and flags, are means whereby the ears and eyes of the host may be focused on one particular point.

In night-fighting, then, make much use of signal-fires and drums, and in fighting by day, of flags and banners, as a means of influencing the ears and eyes of your army.
      — Sun Tzu (The Art of War)

ImageThis has to be one of the most profound lessons from the great book – not only militarily but also for managers in knowledge organizations. Simply put: you cannot communicate by ordinary means in extra-ordinary circumstances. You have to use stronger and more forceful tools to get your message across the battle chaos. 

In theatre in front of live audience, the gestures and motions of the actors on stage are louder and exaggerated – for example, they will move their hands in a wider area around their body. They will speak louder too. Even their facial makeups are more pronounced. This is to ensure that their emotions, gestures and words communicate effectively to the audience in a setting which is more challenging and demanding. 

Remember, Communication is what the listener does

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The Testing Specialist

This is a guest post I wrote for Knowledge Tester blog – an excellent repository of insights into today’s knowledge tester world. The author, Majd is a close friend and ex-colleague. We both had the privilege to work together for a great group of knowledge workers. The article appeared here and I am reproducing it for Thinking Spirits audience.

In early days, life was simple. If you got sick, you would simply go to the ‘doctor’ who could treat your eyes, fix your stomach, amputate your leg and give you a diet plan. Specialization was unheard of. The patients, their diseases and expectations were simple. The medical knowledge was limited.

With time and progress, as man and his endeavors became complex, so did the medical profession. Specialists sprouted and the knowledge base expanded. The poor old doctor was replaced with hordes of specialists.

Software evolved in a similar way, albeit in a shorter span. Early software would be written by the engineer who could do everything from designing, coding, testing and deploying. There was neither need nor capacity for specialization. Time and progress, however, demanded specialization – the architect, programmer, usability designer, tester, deployment engineer and so forth. The process is recursive. In a tester’s world, automation, performance testing, penetration testing, usability testing and many others are becoming specializations of their own.

This progressive specializations has flourished – and complicated – the “Knowledge Testing” world.

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Writing resume is like real estate development …

A resume is probably the single most important document for your hiring plans. A good resume cannot land you a job by itself but a bad one can certainly deny you one. Resume evaluation is the first filter applied by potential employers and it works like Darwin’s principle of survival of the fittest. That is, the fittest of the resumes – not the person. Investing in this document is critical to passing the first hiring hurdle – specially for the young graduates who unfortunately treat their resume just like another assignment to be submitted.

I tend to treat developing resume as planning and developing your personal real estate – like your home or farmhouse.

ImageDeveloping your personal real estate – with limited space and resources – requires specific skills and mindset. You focus on both style and substance. You plan where to put what. You choose your best items and put them in limelight. You focus on the entry points so the first impressions are good. You make sure its well-kept. You clean, tweak, prune and tend it to regularly – it would go stale if you don’t. You also make it practical and efficient. The driveways are clear. The doors are locked. The entire premises is secured. You also ensure that no space goes waste. You make your name board prominent. Also, the stylistic impressions do not interfere with the basic premise of efficient and comfortable living. You tend to hide away the not-so-presentable. Finally, while you make your small world look stylistic, you are wise enough to not give any wrong impressions – things that put you in a wrong light or give a false impression. You do not try to come off richer or different than what you are.

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The Fish-Pond way of career planning

I sometimes envy military or civil service for their complete ownership of career planning of its people. All the folks have to do is to perform. This seems a great convenience when those in the so-called open and free work-world have to make career choices and decisions frequently. They need to plan their career themselves. Left to itself, it goes nowhere. 

Make no mistake: making one’s career is one’s own responsibility. The military or civil bureaucracy do so for their own sake. Planning and executing careers of its men is required to achieve their objectives in their gigantic systems. They don’t really love you for nothing. 

So what’s for us – the lonely warriors. Hopping from working at a startup to giant multinational to starting our own shop which fails and takes us back to safety of a ‘job’. 

I always like to use models to give context and structure to a problem. Well, here is one – what I call the “Fish-Pond” model to analyze and plan your career. It’s a 30,000 feet view – so don’t consider it prescriptive. It’s a framework to think, not set of instructions to follow. 

ImageA pond of water has fish. Big fish, small fish, fish in-between. Big fish eat small fish. Fish eat weeds. Fish grow within the pond as they eat and move around. Sometimes the pond grows bigger. Sometimes it shrinks. At others, it disappears. A smaller pond can get intruded on by outsiders. It can get dried up. The fish are of a variety. The fish can outgrow the pond. The pond can get overly populated. All fish in a small pond know each other. Fish in a big pond may never have crossed each other. While the fish can move everywhere in a small pond, fish in a big pond have territories. Generally, big fish have more say than small fish (they can eat them, remember!). There may be alligators and turtles too, but consider them as minorities. 

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