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How does marketing fit in with deep work?

Internet companies have taken the original idea behind blogs and amplified it into a set of tools that anyone can use to tighten a tribe.

With Twitter, tiny driplike updates reach the thousands of people who are waiting to hear from you and follow your lead.

Facebook goes in the opposite direction of Twitter. Instead of forcing you to use just a few characters, it enables a huge range of images, text, and connections to be created. – Tribes

As one who is working to get my ideas spread, I love the social media and marketing tools currently available. I don’t have to spend big on paper or magazine ads only to realize that my ‘big spend’ was pocket change compared to the cost of the ads that dwarfed mine, rendering it irrelevant.

I love that I can go to a new city and hang out with someone I’ve interacted with online for years. Getting to expand that friendship into the real world is something amazing that we often pass off as mundane.

The problem is that much of ’social networking’ would be defined as ‘shallow work’.

Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate. – Deep Work

That’s not what most of us want to do though. We want to have an impact of some fashion on some scale. We want to do ‘deep work’.

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate. – Deep Work

The problem is that as we write, design, and create, people will not just come to our online spaces just because we publish our content. Online, the good does not always rise to the top. Look at the really smart kids in school. Many who come from ‘less advantaged’ schools won’t ever get that scholarship they’re eligible for because we try to find them way too late in their academic lives. By the time colleges start looking, those talented kids have been trained by their peers that sticking out and being smart is a bad thing. (listen to this for more background)

That leaves us knowing we should be spending time without distraction and diving into our work while also wrestling with the need to tell people about our work so it can actually help them and we can turn it into something that matters.

Here are four rules that help me stay focused on deep work, while still working to market my business and spread my ideas.

1. Schedule time.

The first step in using social media as an effective tool for your business is to schedule time to use it. Not so that you remember, but so that you don’t use it when it’s not scheduled.

I will check in on Twitter and Facebook in the morning, briefly, and then I don’t check in again until the next morning. All the content I put out during the day on both platforms is from Buffer or from the Instagram app on my phone.

Staying away from the distractions for the rest of the day means that I can focus on the real work at hand like writing or coding or…whatever else is actually important in moving my business forward.

2. Use something to block you.

If self control is hard for you (and it is for me) then you will likely need to look at an application like Self Control. If I don’t turn this on just after my social media time I will check back in any second I’m bored, or any time I want a distraction from whatever I’m currently doing.

Be honest with yourself. If you can’t just stay off social media channels then make them inaccessible so you can get down to the work you should be doing.

3. Use bad devices.

Smart phones and tables are great, and at the same time terrible. They can double as your book reading device by using the Kindle software, but there is a detriment hiding in that dual functionality. These devices can, and do, pull you away from that reading you wanted to do by providing instant gratification options with a simple tap or swipe. Stuff like Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or whatever game is currently popular.

I’ve given up my iPad as my reading device and moved all my reading of books to a Kindle Paperwhite. I take my notes on the books in paper notebooks and transfer them to Evernote later, in batches.

Using a read-only device with no social media options means that I get down to the task of reading. Make sure your device choices and what applications you put on your devices are done with care.

My phone has no Twitter and no Facebook on it. If I could cut out Instagram or find an application that would let me post only on Instagram, without being able to check what other people have put up, I’d use it.

If you plan to use your iPad as a writing tool, install nothing but what you need for writing. Sure you could check your site stats, but don’t install that crap so it doesn’t present distractions.

4. Be picky about where you use your devices.

Getting into deep work is not just a list of rules you can follow effortlessly. It’s a matter of training your brain to not need the distractions that you’ve trained it to pay attention to. Even with Self Control installed and running I find myself trying to open Twitter a few times a day.

We’ve all had the experience of an idle second at home so we pull out our phone just to check in on something for a second. That second stretches into minutes so easily because we’re not careful about where we take our devices with us.

I generally (and have been failing huge at lately) put my phone on top of the fridge when I get home. I’ll tell my kids to scold me if they see me with my phone in my hand for more than a few seconds. Are you going to have a few minutes of boredom? Yup, but remember that boredom is so good for you.

The point to learning and creating is to train yourself to do it. No one is instantly creative all the time from a dead stop. Those that seem to always have something creative on their minds have trained their brains for that. Those that focus and do amazing work have cultivated the practice of focus.

If you want to be that person who is focused and doing good work then make sure you follow these rules above. Use social media and marketing to your advantage. Just remember that without you creating the awesome stuff you create, there is nothing to tell people about.

photo credit: mshipp cc

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How to embrace new ideas

The whole point of learning is to embrace new ideas and use them in our lives/business. The problem is that most times we may get excited about a new idea, and then we become more afraid of the risks than excited about the benefits.

We fear what we may lose by implementing a new idea rather than embracing the the things we stand to gain. This is especially prevalent in the face of truly new ideas. It’s easy to jump on the band wagon of something popular, because if others have already forged the path, our risk is small. Yet often the reward is also small, and will get smaller as more people go ahead of us.

So we stick with ideas we already believe (confirmation bias) and ignore ideas contrary to what we think is safe.

I had, also, during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from memory than favorable ones. – Charles Darwin

I know this doesn’t sound like the business you want to run. Nor does it sound like the life most people want to live. Most people want to have some sort of impact on the world around them. Even if it’s not on the national level, they want to be seen as someone contributing in their group of peers.

If that sounds like you, then here are four ways that can help you embrace new ideas.

1. Investigate contrary ideas.

Start like Charles Darwin did. When you see something that is contrary to your established beliefs, dig deeper into it. Make sure that what you believe is true holds up to some scrutiny.

Resilient people aren’t afraid of a challenge; they want to learn the truth. They want to expend mental energy to investigate the world around them.

In our experience, resilient people tend to be lifelong learners, continually seeking opportunities to become more mentally fit. – Resilience

2. Be realistic about the risks.

While we are much more likely to give extra weight to the risks in any idea, we need to check that tendency. The first step is to recognize that this is our general mode of operation, assuming there is more risk than there actually is.

Instead of this, be realistic about the risk inherent in any idea. The old pro/con list may be helpful here, or leveraging that mastermind group you’re a part of. The mastermind group cares about your business, without being emotionally involved in it, and because of the level of detachment, your fellow mastermind members can more objectively evaluate the risk.

This is not a blanket statement encouraging you to forget about the risk an a new endeavour. It’s a call to be realistic about the possible risks. Just because everyone has jumped onto the newest technology or the new social media platform doesn’t mean that it’s not a risky endeavour. Make sure you weigh the risks of those fads appropriately and don’t get caught up in that push for something new.

3. Plan some time for experimentation.

Just like you plan time for learning, plan some time for experimentation. I recently spent a month trying out Linux again, and while I didn’t choose to stick with it as an operating system, I did come away with a bunch of new thoughts about how software should be built. I came away with new tools I liked better than what I was using on OSX previously.

None of those changes would have been made without a bit of pain up front in getting Linux set up on my computer.

Set aside a few weeks a year to try out those risky ideas, or choose a project a quarter where you’ll try something new. Expect that there will be some pain in the transition and stick it out. Work around the issues and at the end see if the new idea/technology is better than what you were using before.

4. Support disruption.

If you’ve been in business for a few years and haven’t had any risky ideas come along, it’s time to start asking what’s wrong with your business. If you’re not interested enough in the business to keep pushing to the outer edges of what’s working, then why are you running the business anyway?

Your business should have ideas come along that challenge the way you’ve always done things. Without that disruption you’re going to be stuck sailing along as an average business in a sea of average.

Start embracing new ideas. Start investigating things that are contrary to your beliefs. Start planning times to experiment, and be ready to live with some failures.

Taking those steps are going to help you have a business that’s truly amazing.

photo credit: legofenris cc

Why you’re not done once you’ve read the book

Yes reading a book is good. You’re going to gain some entertainment from good books and if you read effectively, you’ll also improve yourself and possibly your business. Just reading a book isn’t enough though.

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What is Essential in your life?

Quick question: Do you want to be scattered, running around like a chicken with your head cut off or do you want to be able to focus on the most fun, Essential parts of your work?

Yeah that’s a softball — pretty much everyone is going to choose to focus on work that’s Essential.

With that out of the way we’re going to look at Essentialism by Greg McKeown. The subtitle of this book is ‘The Disciplined Pursuit of Less’ which may not, on the face of it, remind you about the book Deep Work I wrote about a while ago, but once you dig into Essentialism you’ll see that both books revolve around the same concepts.

Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.

This pursuit of less and the need we have for it is what McKeown is stressing throughout the book. It’s his purpose for writing it. By the end of the book we should agree with his basic premise, that doing more is not the goal. That simply doing less just to do less is not the goal. We should be striving for doing the right things.

I always think about this as being effective, not productive. Productive has come to mean doing more things where effective means doing the right things. Doing that which is the best use of your time and skills and produces the most effect in your work.

McKeown breaks his book up into four broad sections starting with a definition of the core mindset of an Essentialist. From there, in the next section, he tries to present tools to find what really matters. Once you have learned to find what really matters, McKeown starts to give you some tools to eliminate that which does not matter. He finishes up by providing ideas on how to automate the doing of the Essential things, which he calls ‘the vital few’ things.

Here are my three big takeaways from Essentialism.

Play More

Play, which I would define as anything we do simply for the joy of doing rather than as a means to an end — whether it’s flying a kite or listening to music or throwing around a baseball – might seem like a nonessential activity. Often it is treated this way.

Years ago I worked for a web development agency that said it valued creativity and learning. It also said it valued eight-hour days for clients, which is what it tracked. If you’ve ever really tried to put in eight-hour days for clients — where every minute of that eight hours is billed to clients — you realize that you’re going to put in a 12-hour day at the office.

Despite saying they wanted us to be creative and learn new things, they really were saying that they wanted us to be creative and learn on our own time, not on their time at all. Sure we could bring the new stuff to the table and use it for their clients, but we had better learn it all some other time, because what we were accountable for was the eight hours billed a day to clients.

True, some companies and executives give lip service to the value of play in sparking creativity, yet most still fail to create the kind of playful culture that sparks true exploration.

The business values are conveyed by how employees are urged/allowed to spend their time. You show what you value by where you spend your time. If you value learning, then make sure you schedule time to learn. If you value time with your kids, then make sure you give them that time.

Don’t be the person that lets themselves say they value one thing, and then never follow through on it. That person is destined for an unhappy, unsuccessful life.

Choose the important

Many capable people are kept from getting to the next level of contribution because they can’t let go of the belief that everything is important.

You’ve heard the old saying that ‘when everything is important nothing is’. The Incredibles illustrates this in the scene where Dash tells his mother that if ‘everyone is special then no one is’.

Rarely do we actually put that mantra into practice in our work though. Some new idea comes along and we pursue it with the same gusto that we pursue everything. Many times we even pursue it to the detriment of other projects on our plate. Then months later we sit back and wonder why some projects are failing while others succeed.

True focus on a single important project does not guarantee it will be successful. It does mean that you’re more likely to finish it, and with your singular focus on that item that matters, you’re likely to do a better job than if you were splitting your focus.

Survey the projects you have and decide what you’re truly going to do. Leave off the stuff that doesn’t matter, the stuff you haven’t gotten to in months. Put all your focus on the projects that matter, that inspire you.

With that focus you’re going to go much further.

The reality of trade-offs: We can’t have it all or do it all. If we could, there would be no reason to evaluate or eliminate options. Once we accept the reality of trade-offs we stop asking, “How can I make it all work?” and start asking the more honest question “Which problem do I want to solve?”

Don’t work

…for a type A personality, it is not hard to push oneself hard. Pushing oneself to the limit is easy! The real challenge for the person who thrives on challenges is not to work hard.

While many of us don’t remember school with much fondness, it set a great rhythm for our lives. We spent a season working on the work of school then had some enforced time off at Christmas and some time off in the spring. Then came summer, where we got two (or three) months to do what we wanted.

Sure some of us worked full-time, or part-time, but even with that I remember my later high school summers being filled with mountain biking and hanging out with friends. It was a break from much of the responsibility I had at that time in my life.

Now we work every day, every week, every month, every year for years. While some of us may take the four weeks’ vacation we are offered in a year, many of us don’t. We go full speed ahead for years with no rest and wonder where our creativity goes.

I plan at least a month off around Christmas. This year we welcomed our third child into the family and I planned four weeks off to help get everyone acclimated to the new life joining us.

Even after that, my time in the office is about half of my normal office hours. My summer is a season of lighter work, less responsibility, and rest.

In your work, plan times of rest. Plan seasons of recharging so that when you have the season of long days, you’ve got the energy for it. Don’t plan to work 100% year round for decades — that’s planning to burn out.

Recommendation?

I mentioned Deep Work at the beginning of this look at Essentialism, and that’s because I was continually reminded of Deep Work as I read Essentialism. The thing is, where Deep Work feels well researched and interesting, Essentialism feels more like the opinion of the author.

Even more than that, Essentialism doesn’t feel very essential in the content it covers. Many times during the book I was struck by the overlap of content across the chapters. I’d flip back and forth reading slightly different sentences that seemed to say the same thing.

If you’re looking at a further exploration of the ideas in Essentialism, I’d read Deep Work. In fact, just read Deep Work. Be Essential and only read Deep Work, since it covers the same ideas better.

Get Essentialism on Amazon

photo credit: mliu92 cc

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How to get the most out of the books you read

The cheapest and best resource at your disposal to learn new things is the age-old book. For very little money or effort, you get access to the thoughts of people you look up to. Even if you were able to buy a bit of their time for a one-on-one consult, it would cost you ten times more than the book.

However, simply purchasing the book does you no good. Even reading the book may yield little in terms of real-world, actionable items you can use to move your business forward. That’s because most people have no idea how to read a book…effectively.

It’s not just letting your eyes skim across the page taking in the words — at least not for the good books that can help you grow your business into something awesome. Today we’re going to cover four ways you can read a book to get the most out of it.

I learned these ways from How to Read a Book. For a much more detailed look than I can give it here, you should read that book.

Reading is hard

Let’s start by saying that, much like any endeavour worth doing, reading well to increase our knowledge is hard work.

To pass from understanding less to understanding more by your own intellectual effort in reading is something like pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. It certainly feels that way. It is a major exertion. – How to Read a Book

Far too many people tell me they don’t read, or they at least don’t read anything outside of fiction because they don’t enjoy it. Most of the time with a bit of probing we come to the realization that reading is simply an activity they’ve never really practiced, and thus it’s hard.

The effectiveness with which he reads is determined by the amount of effort and skill he puts into reading. In general, the rule is: the more effort the better… – How to Read a Book

If you want to be a good reader, then you need to start reading deep. You can start to gain more understanding of the books you read once you understand the best ways to read the books you’re presented with.

1. Basic Comprehension or Elementary Reading

This is what we’re all taught in school. You can read and understand the words on the page. You can fit them into the sentences the author used. This is what we do through almost all of school — reading to take information in so that we can spew it back out on a test.

Unfortunately most people stop here because school rarely forces them to take anything a step further. They never need to move past spewing information back out onto a page or into some presentation, so they never learn (and are never taught) any of the next levels of reading.

One big thing that trips up many people here is that this level of reading easily succumbs to confirmation bias. Because one only knows to read for information-gathering purposes, they typically only read that which confirms the opinions they already hold. Reading contrary opinions would mean you need to know how to read at a deeper level, and since most of us are never taught to read deeper, we simply avoid that hard work and sit smugly in confirmation of the beliefs we already hold.

2. Inspectional Reading

This can be thought of as skimming or pre-reading and the purpose isn’t to get everything out of the book that there is inside. For most books you should give yourself no more than 15 minutes to inspect the book and by the end of that 15 minutes you should have a good handle on:

  1. What the book is about.
  2. The structure of the book.
  3. Whether the book is worth reading more deeply.

Not every book that looks interesting is worth reading from cover to cover. There is no badge for reading books that have no utility to you simply because you started them. Before you read any book you should engage in an inspectional read to make sure the book is worth focusing your attention on and moving to the next level of reading.

Yes, most of the books that you read analytically should go through an Inspectional read to confirm they are indeed worth the effort before you commit yourself to that deeper reading.

Here is the method I use to do an Inspectional Reading which was adapted from How to Read a Book.

  1. Look at the title page and read the preface, if it has one. Here you should be able to gain the aim of the book and the subjects it will cover. You should be able to identify any other books that may be of similar content that you’ve already read.
  2. Look at the table of contents. This will give you a good understanding of the overall structure of the book. It’s like looking at a map before you embark on a journey.
  3. Check the index of the book if it has one. This is going to give you another look at what the author and editor(s) considered to be important topics in the book. If some of the terms seem crucial to the core of the book look up the relevant passages and give them a quick read.
  4. Go back to the table of contents, and now that you’ve identified some of the key terms choose a chapter (maybe two) which seem to contain the core arguments of the book and look for the summary opening/closing statements at the beginning and end of the chapters.
  5. Flip through some of the chunks of the book and dip into small sections to get an idea of the content. You may only read a sentence, or a paragraph, or at times a few pages. Your goal is to look for the threads of the main content and how they relate to the specific section you’re currently looking at.

With this done, you should have a few notes on the book and a solid idea if it is worth moving to the next level of reading. Or if you’ve heard the arguments before and can safely put it aside in favour of some other book that is more worth your time.

If for some reason you’re still not sure, there is an additional level of reading that may be done to see if the book in hand is worth putting considerable effort into. This is most often the case with difficult books that are going to stretch your understanding. With the second level of Inspectional Reading you simply sit down and read the book as fast as possible. You don’t take notes. You don’t look up words you don’t understand. You don’t go back and read passages a second time if you missed their point.

You just read the whole book, cover to cover, quickly. At the end of this exercise you’ll certainly have a solid idea if the parts you don’t understand are worth puzzling out and with a first quick read done, you’re on much better footing to move on to the next level of reading.

3. Analytical Reading

Enlightenment is achieved only when, in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it. – How to Read a Book

Analytical Reading is the deepest form of reading despite there being two more levels of deep reading to go. (When we address Syntopical Reading, you’ll understand why it is not the deepest level of reading.)

While How to Read a Book covers many more questions and techniques for Analytical Reading (most of the book is devoted to Analytical Reading) there are really only a few key questions to answer to start getting much more out of the books. The key questions are:

  1. What is the purpose of the book?
  2. What is its structure?
  3. What is the author trying to say in detail and how are they saying it?
  4. Does it achieve its purpose and is what the author is saying true?
  5. What does it matter?

As you can see, some of those questions will already be answered during your Inspectional Reading, specifically the first two questions and part of the third question.

I feel the most crucial questions to help you get more from a book are the last two questions. Did the author actually achieve communicating what they sought out to communicate and why does it matter to you?

To answer Question 4, you must spend time reading and analyzing the arguments made by the author. You must define their purpose in writing the book and weigh the truth of their assertions against what you know and have read already.

Finally, Question 5 forces some introspection — does it matter that you’ve read the book? Many books you read analytically will have some impact on your thinking. If you keep finding that the answer to the final question is that the book you just read doesn’t matter, then you’re doing a poor job of Inspectional Reading and the book should never have been given the Analytical Reading you just finished.

Of course it’s also possible that you did a poor job with your analytical reading, and you can’t answer the questions because you didn’t devote the time required to understand the author’s arguments. Far from being shy about admitting this, you should be honest with yourself so that you can decide if you should be heading back to give the book a proper reading.

4. Syntopical Reading

The final level of reading is Syntopical Reading. This is where you look at a whole subject and put together a list of the books in the field that are possibly relevant.

From there you filter out those books (maybe a list of 100 or more) that are the core books in the field. You do this by reading them Inspectionally and making notes on them.

Once you’ve got your list of relevant books down to a manageable level you take those few that are worth reading Analytically and read them in depth. Out of the hundreds you started with you may end up with 30 that are relevant and only 10 that warrant a full Analytical Reading.

Many of the other books in your list of 30 will get an Inspectional Reading where you simply read through quickly. Your goal here is to pull out the points that are relevant to your task at hand. Maybe you’re reading through everything to write a paper or a book, so you’re hunting for quotes that will support the arguments you think you’ll be making. Remember that the point here is not to use everything the way the author intended; the point is to get the utility you need from the book and put its contents to use for your own purpose.

One of the big things you’ll do with a Syntopical Reading is to normalize the vocabulary in the books. As an example, in his book Start with WHY, Simon Sinek says that you must have your WHY to really excel in life. Jeff Goins calls this purpose in his book The Art of Work. They are essentially the same concept with only nuance separating them, so as you read through them you’d normalize the vocabulary they use to describe the same topic.

You’re not done yet

I’ll talk about this more on Friday, but you’re not done with a book just because you’ve given it a good read. The next step is doing something about it or analyzing what you have learned from the book. The best way I’ve found to really dig into what a book has taught me is to take the time to write a short review of it.

Friday, I’ll give you my book review formula. If you want to dig much deeper into what it means to read a book then you must get How to Read a Book.

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What is commander’s intent, and why does your team need it?

In July 2015 I was in Mexico, working with a team building a house for a local church leader. This is not the ‘nice’ part of Mexico where there are big hotels with slides and pools. This is the part of Mexico where they pick the fruit you eat out of a can. This is the part of Mexico where walking left down the street instead of right will get you mugged at gunpoint. The part where at night seeing a truck carrying a bunch of men with guns is a real possibility.

The sweet pastor that we were building for was very concerned about the building supplies we had to leave out at night. Concerned enough that this 60-year-old lady was going to sleep in her car next to the building supplies to make sure they didn’t get stolen. My friend and I couldn’t bear that thought, so we went out and slept in the team van next to the building supplies.

One comment was made as we went to sleep that really stuck out to me.

Our ultimate goal is to make it home to see our kids, right?

That lone sentence — and its affirmation — uttered into the night set the tone. If that truck with men shows up to steal the lumber and our presence getting out of the van doesn’t stop them, we help them load the wood and then offer them the keys to the van. We both knew that less than $800 in lumber was something we could replace with cash the next day if it came to it, and that our lives were not.

We knew what the ultimate goal was.

Commanders Intent

In Episode 206 of the Art of Manliness Podcast we get the treat of talking to Jocko Willink about what it means to be a leader in all circumstances. He tells us a great story about understanding the commander’s ‘intent’ and how knowing the intent is crucial to executing plans.

Imagine your instructions are to storm a building, clear it of hostiles, then go secure the roof to make sure that it’s all safe. You storm the building and then head up to the roof. But, you have no cover. You’re fully exposed to any of the baddies that may be lurking around. But you follow orders and put your team in danger.

Now imagine the same scenario, but add the intent of the commander. You are told to set up on the roof so you can watch the north road to ensure that no one comes in on it. Knowing this and then seeing the roof with zero cover, you can make the decision to head down one floor to a room with the windows facing north. From this room you can watch the road (achieve the intent of the order) and keep your team out of obvious sight from everyone in the area.

How much freedom do you give your team?

On every project you have going you have some final intent. You’re generating content to build leads. You’re building a new site for a client to increase sales.

There is always an end reason for an action, but how often do you let your team know what the end goal is? How often do you let them know what their role is in the wider picture of the project? If you don’t work on a team, have you and your client made it clear what the final intent of the project is, and how each phase fits in, as well as the intent of that phase?

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. – Helmuth von Moltke

Every project you work on is going to have problems. Something won’t go as planned and you’ll have to adapt. If you’ve nailed down your commander’s intent, then you can make a decision on how you proceed, given the new issues, to achieve the desired outcomes.

Far too many business owners keep their teams in the dark about projects, expecting their teams to just follow orders. Far too many business owners aren’t even clear on the final intent of the project at hand.

And then when things don’t go as planned they wonder why the project failed. It failed because they were never clear on the final intent of the project. They couldn’t adapt their plan in the midst of difficulty to deal with the new constraints. So they made guesses about what the project should be, and in the end the project was a failure.

Develop a habit of writing down the final intent of every project. Write down the intent of each phase of a project and how it fits into the overall intent. Then give your team freedom to make changes to the plan as long as they achieve the desired outcome.

Once you start doing this, you’re going to have more successful projects, with less management required, and more profit.

Sounds like the intent of any business. One might even call it the commander’s intent.

photo credit: legofenris cc

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Why I keep a paper notebook and you should to

In a world with so many awesome digital tools, and in a life where I love Evernote despite its issues, I still carry a paper pocket notebook every day and fill all 48 pages in about a week and a half. I also carry a large notebook in my bag that I use to take notes on whatever book I’m ‘deep’ reading. Without these two analog tools I know my days would be more scattered and my learning would be hampered.

If you want to retain more information, connect deeper with clients at meetings and do your job better, you need to start using a notebook as well.

Benefits of a notebook

Any time you have a thought you want to revisit you need to capture it. This capture phase is an important part of pretty much any productivity system and while we have many digital tools that can do this, so many things don’t fit with a digital capture space.

Take that diagram you see in a conference or meeting. While you could take a picture of the diagram, you need to first decide what your goal is. Is the goal to have an exact reproduction of it? If so, email the presenter and ask for it or look at the slides online later and capture it. If the goal is to retain why the diagram is important, then a quick sketch is going to accomplish this much better than a picture.

Any task you accomplish is all about the desired outcome. In a class is the goal to gain knowledge or capture a transcript of the topic being discussed? A number of studies have shown that writing things down by hand means you learn more, and since I’m going to assume your goal is to understand why information is important, handwritten notes will help you accomplish that goal more effectively.

The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. – The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard

Notebooks are great for capturing fragments of ideas as well. Our big thoughts don’t show up fully formed. Charles Darwin first thought of his theory of natural selection around 1838. He didn’t publish The Origin of Species until 1859, more than 20 years later. While we have a tendency to think of ideas jumping to the page fully formed, that’s not what happens. By using a paper notebook and then reviewing older ones regularly we can see the seeds of our ideas and keep revisiting the important ones, or appending new thoughts to those that are still intriguing.

Is this possible with digital tools? Of course it is but it rarely seems to happen. When I talk to coaching clients about reviewing their ideas, those with a paper notebook have some practice of reviewing the notebook from the same time last year, or from last month, or … something. Those using digital tools always figure they will simply ‘find it when they need it’ but rarely can provide an example of that actually happening.

Notebooks also take distraction of the equation. When we put our phones away and simply get bored in a line we’re doing good work building our brain for success. When reading a book, choosing a real physical book, or a bad device, is going to help you accomplish your goal of reading that book. Your notebook goes well with this since it can’t do anything but wait to be written in. Where your phone has many features — like email — which can pull your focus away from reading that book, the notebook sits content, waiting for your important ideas.

Can you use your willpower to stay away from the distractions? Sure it’s possible, just like it’s possible for me to not eat cookies in great quantities if they’re in the house. It’s just unlikely, and if you are able to succeed in saying ‘no’ to the myriad distractions on your device, you’ve now used up some of your willpower. Willpower is a finite resource. The more often you use it in a day to deflect distractions, the more likely it is that next time you’re faced with a distraction you’ll choose to be distracted instead of staying focused. Just like an overworked muscle, your willpower will fatigue and fail you.

To pocket or not?

When you’re looking for a notebook you’re going to need to decide if you want a pocket notebook or something with more writing space. Over the years I’ve used both, but my main notebook has been some brand of pocket notebook.

While larger size notebooks provide more writing space and work better for sketches, they’re not always practical to carry. If I have an idea or want to remember a highlight of the day while I’m at the park with my kids I can pull my notebook out of my pocket and write something down. If I have an idea when I’m riding my bike, I can stop and pull out the notebook to capture it.

Those larger notebooks simply can’t be everywhere we are without becoming an obstruction at some point. Sitting with a friend who recommends a movie over dinner, it’s easy to pull out the pocket notebook and write it down in the midst of getting second helpings for the various children that inhabit our lives. A larger notebook can rarely be stored on your person, and then good luck finding space for it on a full table with children (whose space requirements far exceed what their small size would suggest they need).

How I use it

No matter what profession you find yourself in, the most essential function of the pocket notebook is to provide a place to capture the ideas that spring to mind throughout the day. – Art of Manliness

I’ve talked about many ‘grand ideas’ and the ability to capture those in a notebook so I can combine the threads later. I’d love to give you some romantic notion which suggests every idea I have in my notebook is grand and just waiting to be turned into the next best seller. That is not the truth.

The first use of my notebook each day is to get some thoughts out of my head first thing in the morning. I sit down and write a bit about the day and how I feel, and really just anything.

Second, I record my workouts in it. The sets/reps I did with weights and how I felt. It’s likely I’ll add some notes about the class and the interactions with the people as well. I find that writing down a new person’s name helps me remember it.

Third, it’s a running commentary on my day. If I’m feeling frustrated with my wife or a client I write it down. Looking at the words written on a page has an amazing cathartic effect, and I always try to write down how the other person probably feels in the same situation. Once I’m through this exercise I’m almost never as worked up as I was and I’m ready to go on with the day and respond to any issues in a calmer, objective manner.

Fourth, when I’m stuck on something I start to sketch it. Maybe it’s how some data should be stored in a client project. Usually with 10 seconds of sketching with some points about what we need to do, I have a great idea of how to build what previously baffled me. No, I can’t draw well and when I say sketch, that may be anything from a typical ‘sketch’ of an interface, to a brainstorm, to a set of bullet points. The point is that the idea is getting its first pass on paper before I dive in.

Fifth, as I read, my notebook becomes a repository of the ideas that are sparked. These are the things I think will turn into the ‘big thoughts’ later, though I’m not sure which ones will be those thoughts. I’ll take a few minutes to write down a quote or a book that was referenced and then write about why I thought it was important at the time. This article started that way, as a quote and a few thoughts about why it would be good content to publish. This fifth way is also where my larger notebook may come into play. When I’m reading at a coffee shop or sitting at home I’ll often pull out a larger format book and keep taking notes in larger context of the book I’m reading and planning to review. I just don’t get beholden to the larger format. If it’s not readily available then the quotes go in my smaller pocket notebook.

Sixth, it holds running lists of ‘stuff’. Maybe it’s a quick grocery list or the three tasks I want to get done today or some list that needs to end up in my task management system later. These lists are easy to capture and reference during the day without needing yet another piece of software open on my computer vying for my attention.

Processing that notebook

While there is benefit in simply keeping a notebook, you’re going to exponentially increase this benefit if you actually do something with all the notes you’ve taken.

One of my first tasks every day is to go through my notebook and pull out any tasks, quotes, random bits, or profound ideas and put them where they belong. Quotes go in Evernote and are tagged so they can be resurfaced in many categories. For articles I plan on writing, I head into Ulysses as an idea with some bullet points. Bigger tasks get put into OmniFocus.

When I’ve pulled out all the things that need some action I take pictures of each day and put them in a single note in my ‘journal’ notebook in Evernote. This journal also contains pictures I took of my kids and other personal tidbits, in addition to my regular handwritten ramblings.

Processing doesn’t just stop at getting pertinent content out of my notebook, though. When I’m done with a pocket notebook I take a few minutes to read back through it to see what was important. At the very least I’ll smile or frown at a day that went good or bad — either way it’s a great reality check for my overall state for the previous two weeks.

Then I grab an older notebook and read through its contents just to see where I was at and what I was thinking about. Often good quotes or ideas I had forgotten about will resurface. I’ll look them up and make some more comments on them based on my thoughts of the current day.

On the Common Place Book

Some of you may have heard of a ‘Common Place Book’ and realized that what I’m building in Evernote is exactly the same thing. In fact I call the ‘stack’ of Quotes and Research and Stories ‘cpb’ which stands for Common Place Book and is simpler to type when I’m using the advanced search options in Evernote.

Others have said that you shouldn’t be using a digital tool for your Common Place Book and I agree with them in many ways. The ease of capture in digital tools makes it pretty much zero cost to add random bits of everything to your Common Place Book. I’d like to think I short circuit this and only pull out the good stuff by writing things down first in my pocket notebooks then moving them to a digital tool at a later time. I’m forced to only write down what is truly useful or truly interesting at the time due to the format of handwriting, and yet still gain the ability to search my notes and carry them with me everywhere as I travel.

I turn to my Common Place book as I look for quotes to go in posts or stories or when I’m looking to get specific on the fact of some research study I read once. The more I go back into it the more I see relationships between disparate ideas and quotes. I randomly go through sections of it every week as well, just so that I keep seeing the ideas and thinking about them.

My recommended notebooks

I have two preferred notebooks. For a larger notebook I prefer the  Leuchtturm 1917 Ruled Notebook. For a pocket notebook I prefer the Field Notes graph notebooks. A great second place is the Field Notes Expedition notebook. The drawback to the Expedition is that the paper has a very ‘plastic’ texture which means that many pens just wipe right off it. I always use an ultra fine Sharpie when I have an Expedition notebook. I use the Expedition on every trip I go on to record things since I’ve found it lasts much better than any other ‘waterproof’ notebook I’ve owned. If the Expedition would work with any pen I had around, I’d use it as my all-the-time notebook and never have one that couldn’t go out on hiking trips.

My pocket notebooks sit inside a Recycled Firefighter notebook case which makes them look a bit sexier and provides some protection in the rain to any style of notebook I’m currently using.

photo credit: thebetterday4u cc

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Curtis McHale

Helping business owners not work all the time