Saying No: How Successful People Stay Productive

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This upcoming weekend is the first online seminar that I’ve ever offered on increasing your productivity. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen out there today and I think it has the potential to change how you invest your time. The seminar is going to be fast-paced and full of ideas that you can immediately put into action.

One of the things we’re going to talk about is why to-do lists are rarely as effective as scheduling time. “Scheduling,” says Cal Newport, “forces you to confront the reality of how much time you actually have and how long things will take.”

It’s really easy to add things to a to-do list. Because it’s so simple, these lists tend to grow and grow. Even worse they encourage us to say yes to almost everything because, well, we can just add it to our list. This means we’re not discriminating and we’re not as conscious about controlling our time as we should be. As Steve Jobs said, it’s easy to say yes but the real value comes from saying no. Warren Buffett agrees: “You’ve got to keep control of your time, and you can’t unless you say no. You can’t let people set your agenda in life.”

Most people have the default of saying yes to everything. Personal relationships aside, the default, however, should be no.

When you schedule things, you are forced to deal with the fact that there are only so many hours in a week. You’re forced to make choices rather than add something to a never ending to-do list that only becomes a source of anxiety. And you can’t just schedule important work and creative stuff. You need to schedule time for rest and recovery and mundane things like email. Scheduling things also creates a visual feedback mechanism for how you actually spend your time — something we’re intentionally blind to because we won’t like what we see.

Just as important you need to think about your energy levels and when you schedule these tasks.

A lot of people I’ve offered productivity advice to spend hours a day on email. It’s not uncommon for people to tell me their job is moving email around. That’s how the modern office works right? While many of these people hate email, it’s not within their control (or mine) to change how the organization works. Instead I help them look at what is within their control — the time of day they invest in email. I’ve discovered most people use some of their most productive and high-energy time on … email. That means that some of our best mental energy is being used on the low value add task of email. A simple change to schedule “doing email” for times when we have less energy makes a world of difference to both productivity and happiness.

Being more productive isn’t always about doing more, it’s about being more conscious about what you work on and putting your energy into the two or three things that will really make a difference.

There is still time to register and pay the early bird rate for the productivity seminar.

David Foster Wallace on The Moral Clarity of the Immature

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David Foster Wallace, who has brought us gems such as This is Water and insights into ambition and perfectionism, was the guest editor of the 2007 edition of Best American Essays.

His introduction explores why pre-formed positions are so appealing and how the role of having people decide for us has no clear alternative.

Commenting on how essays and other pre-packaged models of thinking help us deal with information and stimuli overload, Wallace writes:

Part of our emergency is that it’s so tempting to do this sort of thing now, to retreat to narrow arrogance, pre-formed positions, rigid filters, the “moral clarity” of the immature.

The alternative is dealing with massive, high-entropy amounts of info and ambiguity and conflict and flux; it’s continually discovering new areas of personal ignorance and delusion. In sum, to really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time and to need help.

That’s about as clearly as I can put it … That last one’s of especial value, I think. As exquisite verbal art, yes, but also as a model for what free, informed adulthood might look like in the context of Total Noise: not just the intelligence to discern one’s own error or stupidity, but the humility to address it, absorb it, and move on and out therefrom, bravely, toward the next revealed error.

This is probably the sincerest, most biased account of “best” your decider can give: these pieces are models — not templates, but models — of ways I wish I could think and live in what seems to me this world.

And commenting on the role of Google and curators alike as deciders for us Wallace writes:

I suspect that part of why ‘bias’ is so loaded and dicey a word just now — and why it’s so much-invoked and potent in cultural disputes — is that we are starting to become more aware of just how much subcontracting and outsourcing and submitting to other Deciders we’re all now forced to do, which is threatening (the inchoate awareness is) to our sense of ourselves as intelligent free agents. And yet there is no clear alternative to this outsourcing and submission. It may possibly be that acuity and taste in choosing which Deciders one submits to is now the real measure of informed adulthood. Since I was raised with more traditional, Enlightenment-era criteria, this possibility strikes me as consumerist and scary … to which the counterargument would be, again, that the alternatives are literally abysmal.

Still Curious? Check out the best book on the art of writing.

The Books That Influenced Harvard Professor Michael J. Sandel

Michael J. Sandel

American political philosopher and a professor at Harvard University, Michael J. Sandel is no stranger to Farnam Streeters. He’s argued why we shouldn’t buy presents and the limits of what money can buy.

And now, thanks to The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking, we know which books have influenced him the most and why.

These seem to be among the books that can help us reflect on the moral and political conditions of liberal democracy in contemporary America.

The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt

Arendt offers the most compelling modern case for the ancient claim that politics is essential to the good life, not merely instrumental to the pursuit of private interests and ends.

Four Essays on Liberty by Sir Isaiah Berlin

Berlin grounds liberalism in the idea that the human good is ultimately plural, that there is no single, overarching value that orders all the rest. To acknowledge the tragic possibility that inheres in moral and political life is to respect above all people’s freedom to pursue their own ends, to negotiate their own moral circumstance.

Outlines of the Philosophy of the Right by G. W. F. Hegel

Hegel contrasts the idea of a civil society, where people cooperate to further their interests, with the idea of a political community as an ethical life that enlarges the self-knowledge of the participants.

Social Limits to Growth by Fred Hirsch

Hirsch recasts economics as political economy, and political economy as moral economy. Cost-benefit analysis to the contrary, he shows that the market is not a neutral way of evaluating goods. Not all values can be translated without loss into commodity values, nor does all economic growth produce greater welfare.

Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays by Michael J. Oakeshott

Oakeshott’s romantic conservatism contrasts powerfully (and eloquently) with more familiar libertarian versions. Against a philosophy of abstract principles and natural rights, he conceives politics “as the pursuit of intimations.”

A Theory of Justice by John Rawls

Rawls provides the most important philosophical defense of liberalism in our time. Individual rights cannot be overridden by utilitarian considerations, he argues, and the principles of justice that specify our rights do not presuppose any particular conception of the good life.

For more in this series check out the books that influenced E. O. Wilson, B. F. Skinner, and Thomas C. Shelling.

Seymour Schulich on Deals, Business, Decisions and Life

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Seymour Schulich, one of Canada’s most successful businessmen and author of Get Smarter: Life and Business Lessons offers some indispensable business wisdom.

  1. Business is a means to an end not an end in itself. Nobody on his or her deathbed says, “I wish I had spent more time in the office.”
  2. Never quit a job unless you have another job. My father taught me this great truth. You are perceived as more valuable if you are working than if you’re unemployed. You may feel staying employed doesn’t give you the time or latitude to seek a better job. This is a dangerous delusion—don’t succumb to it.
  3. Always ask the question “If this decision is wrong, is it going to be painful or fatal?” Company builders and business leaders keep away from “bet the company” investments.
  4. Keep away from advisors/consultants. If they knew how to make money, they would. These folks are like the fellow who knows a thousand ways to make love but doesn’t know any women.
  5. The best test of a deal’s true attraction is to ask your partners, employees, directors, family, and so on, “Would you put your own money in this deal?” It’s amazing how often the answer to this question is, “No! This is good for the company, but I’ll take a pass.” These deals are invariably losers.
  6. Always have at least two people from your side present at any negotiating or deal-making sessions. This gives you time to think, plus an ally with whom to compare perceptions.
  7. Never confront or threaten people or institutions who have more power than you. Examples: police, customs agents, the sec, Ontario Securities Commission, tax agents of the government, or politicians.
  8. In dealing with the media, never forget to qualify your statements with “not for attribution” and “off the record” where appropriate. Journalists value their contacts and will usually respect a source’s desires.
  9. In negotiations, always try to get the other party to name its asking price. It may often be far lower than your maximum offer. If the other party won’t name a price, start very low. You can always go up.
  10. Almost everything in life is easier to get into than get out of.
  11. Never bid against yourself. Only raise your bid to top a real counter bid, not an imaginary one.

(Image source)

Six Strategy Traps

Strategy could be the most over-used word since leadership. How many strategies can one organization have? A lot of people say “strategy” when they really mean goal or objective.

One of the best books on Strategy is Roger Martin and A. G. Lafley’s Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works.

In this excerpt they comment on the signals that a company has a worrisome strategy.

There is no perfect strategy—no algorithm that can guarantee sustainable competitive advantage in a given industry or business. But there are signals that a company has a particularly worrisome strategy. Here are six of the most common strategy traps:

  1. The do-it-all strategy: failing to make choices, and making everything a priority. Remember, strategy is choice.
  2. The Don Quixote strategy: attacking competitive “walled cities” or taking on the strongest competitor first, head-to-head. Remember, where to play is your choice. Pick somewhere you can have a chance to win.
  3. The Waterloo strategy: starting wars on multiple fronts with multiple competitors at the same time. No company can do everything well. If you try to do so, you will do everything weakly.
  4. The something-for-everyone strategy: attempting to capture all consumer or channel or geographic or category segments at once. Remember, to create real value, you have to choose to serve some constituents really well and not worry about the others.
  5. The dreams-that-never-come-true strategy: developing high-level aspirations and mission statements that never get translated into concrete where-to-play and how-to-win choices, core capabilities, and management systems. Remember that aspirations are not strategy. Strategy is the answer to all five questions in the choice cascade.
  6. The program-of-the-month strategy: settling for generic industry strategies, in which all competitors are chasing the same customers, geographies, and segments in the same way. The choice cascade and activity system that supports these choices should be distinctive. The more your choices look like those of your competitors, the less likely you will ever win.

These are strategic traps to be aware of as you craft a strategy.

Playing to Win is right up there with Good Strategy Bad Strategy on my list of must reads for anyone seeking an understanding of strategy as it relates to business.

Andy Warhol: Don’t Make a Problem of your Problems, How a Person Gets Disciplined, and The Value of Time on Values

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In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), Warhol advises us not to make a problem of our problems.

Everybody has problems, but the thing is to not make a problem about your Problem. For example, if you have no money and you worry about it all the time, you’ll get an ulcer and have a real problem and you still won’t have any money because people sense when you’re desperate and nobody wants anything to do with a desperate person. But if you don’t care about having no money, then people will give you money because you don’t care and they’ll think it’s nothing and give it away—make you take it. But if you have a problem about having no money and taking money and think you can’t take it and get guilty and want to be “independent,” then it’s a problem. Whereas if you just take the money and act spoiled and spend it like it’s nothing, then it’s not a problem and people keep wanting to give you more.

How does a person get disciplined? More importantly Warhol comments on why it takes a while sometimes to see that we have the wrong values.

The telephone rang.

B answered it. “Pronto.”

It was my art dealer in Torino, calling to invite us to lunch. I tried to motion to B that I wanted to go someplace where they’d have cherries.

When B got off the phone he said that we were meeting our dealer for lunch, and then he asked me, “How do you get disciplined?”

“How does a person get disciplined?”

Right. I want to know how you’re supposed to pick up good habits. It’s very easy to pick up bad ones. You always want to go after the bad habits. Say you eat ravioli one day and you like it so you eat it the next day and the next day and before you know it you have a ravioli habit or a pasta habit or a drug habit or a sex habit or a smoking habit or a cocaine habit . . .”

Was he trying to make me feel guilty about the cherries? “You’re asking me how you get out of the bad habits?” I asked him. No, he said he didn’t want to know how you get out of the bad ones—just how you get into the good ones.

Everybody has their good habits,” he said, “that they do automatically that maybe they learned when they were little—brushing your teeth, not talking with your mouth full, saying excuse me—but other good habits—like writing a chapter a day or jogging every morning—are harder to get into. That’s what I mean by ‘discipline’—how do you get new, good habits? I’m asking you because you’re so disciplined.”

“No, I’m not disciplined, really,” I said. “It just looks that way because I do what people tell me to do and I don’t complain about it while it’s happening.” That’s a three-part rule of mine: (1) never complain about a situation while the situation is still going on; (2) if you can’t believe it’s happening, pretend it’s a movie; and (3) after it’s over, find somebody to pin the blame on and never let them forget it. If the person you pin the blame on is smart they’ll turn it into a running joke so whenever you bring it up you can both laugh about it, and that way the horrible situation can turn out to be fun in retrospect. (But it all depends on how mercilessly you hound the person you’re blaming, because they’ll only make a joke out of it when they’re desperate, and the more desperate you make them by hounding them, the better the joke they’ll make out of it.)

“It’s not discipline, B,” I repeated. “It’s knowing what you really want.” Anything a person really wants is okay with me.

“All right. But let’s take champagne. All my life I wanted as much champagne as I could drink, but now that I’m getting all the champagne I ever wanted and more, look what I’m getting—a double chin!”

“You’re also finding out that champagne isn’t what you really want, since you don’t want a double chin. You’re finding out that champagne isn’t what you want, it’s beer you want.”

“Then I’d get a beer belly.” B laughed at the idea of a champagne chin and a beer belly.

“Then beer isn’t what you want, either.”

“But that’s not hard to figure out—nobody wants beer.”

“Yes they do,” I told him. “You’re the one who told the joke about an Irish seven-course dinner being a boiled potato and a six-pack.”

“Yes, I suppose … But it’s not the thing I want so much as the idea of the thing.”

“Then that’s just advertising,” I reminded him.

“Right, but it works because the reason I want champagne, the reason most people want champagne, is they’re impressed with the idea—Champagne!—like they’re impressed with the idea of caviar. Champagne and caviar is status.”

That was not completely true. In some society shit is status. “Look,” I told him, “you realized when you ended up with a double chin that your values were misplaced. Right? It takes time to find out, but you’re finding out. Even today you put your nose up in the air if you don’t have dinner with the Afghanellis, the Cuchinellis, the Pickinellis, the Mount- bottoms, the Van Tissens—”