Cross-train your brain to do four things really well

A condensed version of this post originally appeared in the Accenture Careers blog.


Do you want to excel in your career, today and in our uncertain future? Below are the four not-so-simple areas of focus.

But first a cliché warning: Smarter people than I have tread this terrain and stepped in a few. I’m thinking specifically about this from David Foster Wallace, from his famous commencement speech This is Water, where he began by talking about how higher learning should be about “teaching you how to think” …

If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted … The fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think … [but this] cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.

Not that long ago you could graduate with many types of degrees, having absorbed facts and their interrelation, and expect to build a nice career. Naturally you would continue learning after graduation, but in that pre-digital era, when access to knowledge was constrained, learning was primarily absorbing new facts. Here I’m imagining my dad’s career …

Adopting Learning Skills For Today’s Work Environment

My late father was co-founder of a small-town accounting firm. As a CPA, he and his partners would turn to an imposing set of heavy, beige tax law books that filled to bursting the bookshelves his firm had built for them. To me, as a child, they reached so wide and high they appeared to hold the whole business up.

I wasn’t that far off. In that analog world, the folks closest to the facts got the job done. And got the raises. And the promotions.

What’s changed? For one, digitization – a democratization of knowledge. With sites like Google, Wikipedia, plus more specialized sites like The Markup, the world of information is in all of our pockets. What else has changed is complexity, and mass disruption. Our world is many factors more complex than my father’s, or yours.

It’s also clear that the pace of change will continue to accelerate.

How to cope? Here’s a comprehensive list. It’s the “Four Cs.” I discovered them in Yaval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (originally sourced from this NEA white paper). They are 1.) Critical Thinking, 2.) Creativity, 3.) Collaboration and 4.) Communication.

1. Critical Thinking

Consider Accenture’s Problem-Solution Mapping (PSM). It’s a hybrid of several mental models, including the thinking processes of Eliyahu Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints. Here’s a video introduction:

It’s no accident that the first part of PSM is about stepping back and looking objectively at what we want to accomplish and why. It’s also about looking deeply into the problems identified to find root causes. Only once this is done do we construct hypotheses to test in pursuit of solutions.

Or consider the advice of Charlie Munger, someone best known as the behind-the-scenes member, with Warren Buffett, of the duad that built Berkshire Hathaway. In a speech Munger put it this way:

You can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.

You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience — both vicarious and direct — on this latticework of models.

Or finally, consider the words of my friend from a conversation I had with him this weekend. He’s a leader in a multi-billion-dollar e-retailer. He told me, “I’m advising my daughter to learn Python as a way to put her data science degree to work. In fact, we’re going to learn it together. But I’m also stressing the importance of learning how to define the right problems to solve, and finding a framework for their solution.” She’s got a smart father.

2. Creativity

Once you’ve identified the best problems to solve, it often takes creativity to solve them. In their new book Pivot to the Future, Accenture colleagues Larry Downes, Omar Abbosh, and Paul Nunes remind us that automation will place greater intellectual demands on all of us (emphasis below is mine):

We are not among those who think AI [artificial intelligence] will displace knowledge workers to a significant extent. We do, however, believe they will substantially alter the nature of work and in a positive way. Today, too many jobs are boring and repetitive leaving workers unmotivated or Worse. AI Technologies offer an opportunity to redesign work away from the mundane and toward tasks that require human reasoning, empathy, and creativity.

I agree with their belief that AI is not to be feared. We need to look at it as another tool for getting work done, and try not to listen to what scholars call “moral panic” over new technology. What it means is we need to develop the qualities that machines will be less effective at “learning.” Human creativity is at the top of my list.

3. Collaboration

In her TED Talk and best-selling book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, game developer Jane McGonigal makes a case for how multi-player video games develop crucial learning skills.

Arguably, the highest on her list is collaboration. She reminds us how these games are rehearsals for the modern work world, where delegating, co-creating and supporting each other are crucial keys to team success.

At Accenture, collaboration is priced into every project. What’s more, our commitment to inclusion and diversity helps ensure a working environment of psychological safety – something that Google’s research has found to be one of the keys to a winning team.

4. Communication

Of the four, this may be the easiest to practice – but the hardest to get right! In their excellent book on business communication, Weekend Language, authors Andy Craig and Dave Yewma describe what happens to our storytelling abilities when the weekend is over and we’re back at the office:

We’re full of feature lists and ten-point plans, ‘high level’ terms and nonsense. As if that wasn’t bad enough, we beat the snot out of our audiences with 118-slide PowerPoint presentations chock-full of text.

Audience members typically don’t remember anything.

Their book trains readers to tell stories instead, and to tell them effectively to achieve business goals. If you’ve read their book, you may have noticed some of their recommendations here. I’ve peppered this with anecdotes, metaphors, and other ways to (hopeful) bring my content to life for you.

How important is storytelling to Accenture careers? Consider this:

I work out of the Digital Hub in Chicago’s Accenture offices. And every month our Storytelling Club meets to isolate and strengthen these communication “muscles” in front of a live audience. It’s an invaluable resource.

Focus Your Thinking On the Four Cs

Now that you’ve learned “what to learn,” know that Accenture can help you. Consider joining us, learning from and working with some of the industry’s best and brightest. Find your fit with Accenture.

In praise of brownie charts

This week I presented a data visualization talk, and had the excuse to discuss the world’s most poorly named chart: The tree map.

I say excuse because I frankly think what I did was wonderful. A decade ago I named the tree map what it was always meant to be: The brownie chart. I’ve regretted many things in the time since, but I never regretted that scrappy act of rebranding. Consider the tree map:

Example brownie chart, with a legend for the heatmap

Does that look like a tree to you? Of course not. But a pan of multi-colored brownies? You bet. And Yes please.

I explained to my audience that calling it a brownie chart adds it to the small but growing pantheon of carb-based area charts.

When you want to express areas as parts of a whole, before the tree map you had two choices: the pie chart and doughnut chart. Each has a problem, and I’m not alone in pointing this out. Neither is good at efficiently comparing many different areas. So now, instead, I give you the brownie chart:

The brownie chart shown with its cousins, the pie chart and doughnut chart

And by efficiently, I’m specifically referring to the fact that the circular office break-room staples force readers to repeatedly leap back-and-forth from the chart and the legend. Or, for instances where the “slices” are labeled, just making sense of all of them!

The brownie chart fills a rectangular space, which gives far more information — literal real estate — in rectangular computer monitors, cell phones, and most rarely today, printed pages. The brownie chart also gives readers another dimension of information. In the example above, I was able to express conversion levels using a heat map.

So when your colleagues suggest a pie chart or doughnut chart, present to them an oven-fresh brownie chart!

When librarians experienced a moral panic about digitization

This post originally appeared behind the firewall of my workplace.
Chip Conley is the singular member of AirBnB leadership who is older than 50. He’s called a “modern elder.” In a Harvard Business Review Conley talks about what his experience in a decades-long career can bring to his much-younger teams. I totally get it. If business cards were still a thing I’d be half-tempted to have Modern Elder on mine. Perhaps printed in Souvenir, a font ubiquitous in the 1970s.

An unexpected benefit of my lengthy career is I can remember reading things that to my younger peers would overlook as mere footnotes — dusty artifacts from before they were born. I was listening to a recent episode of the outstanding podcast 99% Invisible, and an account of a battle in the mid-90s between the author Nicholson Baker and public libraries. I distinctly recall reading his essay in the New Yorker Magazine cited on the podcast. It was so persuasive at the time that I debated its contents with a neighbor of mine at the time, who was a Milwaukee librarian.

The thesis of the piece was that the digitization of library card catalogs was leading to the degradation and destruction of the single most important document a library holds … Namely the reverently annotated and cross-referenced cards in the physical catalog.

You should really listen to 99% Invisible in general, but especially this episode.

TL;DL [too long; didn’t listen]

Baker admits he wasn’t taking into account the internet, and the ability of library systems to use other means to track and curate their collections — including the use of AI.

But I do hope you give it a listen. It includes an account of a clash of cultures within the San Francisco Library System, including a band of rogue librarians returning to their workplace in the dead of night to rescue books they felt were too precious to cull from the shelves, and an education in the acronym libraries use for the protocol of weeding out books, called MUSTY:

M — for Misleading, or factually inaccurate
U — for Ugly
S — for Superseded by a new edition or a much better book
T — for Trivial
Y — for Your-collection-has-no-use-for-this-book

That last letter is of course irrelevant, but any library habitue will understand why the opportunity of using MUSTY for getting rid of old books is too delicious to resist.

Happy listening — and reading!

An Aural Alchemy

The nineties had some exciting music. I could say the same for right now, but the difference is today you can experience that excitement at almost zero cost. As I type this I’m listening to something on Spotify, a cut from a Philip Glass album released thirty years ago. Thanks to streaming music services, my cost-per-minute-of-enjoyment is just pennies.

Not so back then. And because of the steep cost of owning music CDs before Napster kicked off a music distribution revolution, and also because of a personal lack of friends into neo-classical music — and also because I was a pretty broke small business owner with a tiny music-buying budget — I went through the early nineties completely ignorant of Mr. Glass’s work.

Ignorant of him — until that night.

I was living in Milwaukee, trudging through a gentle, sloppy snowstorm, heading to an East Side grocery store. My Walkman was keeping me company, set to FM radio mode, and tuned into WMSE. You need to know that back then WMSE was a college radio station that was particularly … er … college radio.

This meant you were listening not only for the music and news, but for the gaffes of student volunteers learning as they went along. Chaos could break out at any moment.

This was New Music Night. Every college radio station back then received boxes of sample LPs they could play at will, without royalty. The young man spinning vinyl that night must have grabbed the Glass album and plopped it on the turntable knowing as little about the composer as I did.

The excerpt below was recorded in the mid-seventies, but in my memory the sound that night resembled this:

What followed was some of the most repetitive, profoundly annoying music I had ever heard. It was also casting some kind of a spell on me. I almost walked past my destination. Instead I stood outside, eager for what happened next.

I didn’t have to wait long. The young man stopped the song mid-drone. No needle-scratch, but just as abrupt.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

A new song — by a different artist — filled the silence.

Mind you, I had heard New Music Night cuts over the years that were real doozies. One example: a PIL “song” that sounded like a buzz saw over the screams of the band’s leader, Johnny Rotten. And yet this night was the first and last time I heard a song abruptly stopped, and an apology extended.

Now I’m listening to a Philip Glass cut that could easily have been what disturbed the snowy peace. How interesting that new music, like a new clothing fashion, soon becomes familiar and even welcome!

I hope, Dear reader, you too experience the pleasure of hearing with new ears the things that once confounded you. It’s a gift of our extremely flexible brains, an alchemy that can turn a lump of aural coal into a diamond.

Right brain, meet left brain

This post originally appeared in the Accenture Careers blog.

As a Senior Manager in the Interactive Personalization Practice, I use my creative side to help design the best possible customer experiences. I use the analytical side to base these changes on data. The work is tricky but worth it; It leads to happier, more loyal customers for my clients.

Infinite possibilities

I’ve always been fascinated with how people work—and Accenture Interactive feeds my curiosity and sense of infinite possibilities. We’re using technology that didn’t even exist 10 years ago. We’re constantly learning. I lead a team of people from both “sides of the brain,” the creative and analytical. It makes for a fascinating workday.

Doing cool work with friends

One of the things I love best about working at Accenture is the company really “walks the talk” regarding inclusion and diversity. Our teams include people from many backgrounds and cultures, bringing different ways of thinking and communicating — all working together to produce something really cool.

And while Accenture is a global company, it feels oddly small to me — like an extended family. This is especially true in the personalization practice.

Doing cool work with your friends—what could be better?

Does your path have a heart?

A college writing teacher once returned a book I had loaned her with an index card in its pages, as a bookmark. She had written on it a quote from Carlos Castaneda: “Does this path have a heart?”

It’s a great question, and many years later, I can answer yes.

Now, here’s my career advice: Be prepared to learn your entire career. And if you don’t have a hunger and passion for learning new things, now is the time to start.

Bring your big ideas to life. Find your fit with the Accenture Interactive team.

My trivial life

Below is an account of my time in Learned League, a surprisingly robust site and community, where people who like trivia compete with each other daily, six question-and write-in-answers at a time. But first, you need to know a little of my home life growing up.

I love to learn new things. When I was a kid, at the dinner table, I would monologue about this fact or that, while my ever-suffering parents and brothers would quietly eat their food. Well, except for one time, when my father lost it. He interrupted to tell me I was “The world’s largest repository of useless information.”

That stung, but I was impressed he remembered a recent vocabulary lesson about the long and storied history of the word repository.

Useless information then perhaps, but not for long.

Revenge of the Nerd

Until recently, and for more than a decade, Thanksgiving evenings in my hometown included a round or two of Trivial Pursuit. My extended family has since switched to other board games. That’s a pity, because my grasp of trivia made me a family celebrity.

I’d always be on the “boy’s” team, of course, in “boys v girls.” And I’d consistently be their MVP — providing Science, Arts & Literature, History and other rarefied pockets of knowledge.

No bother that I’m clueless in Sports & Leisure. That was my teammates’ domain. My deep complementary knowledge was a capstone to a winning strategy. We were unstoppable.

At about the time when we were switching to other holiday board games, I joined Learned League. A client recruited me. I was honored, and also delighted to play in a formal setting.

I was also almost immediately humbled. Man! Those questions were hard!

Do you think you have what it takes to play? Here are sample questions. Take your time. I’ll wait.

Not easy, huh?

Take a look at the results of my latest 25-question rundle, below:

There I am, dead center, with a perfect record of equal wins and losses … as well as 5 ties!

Do you see the shaded area at the top? Those five players were the best of our rundle. They will be promoted to a harder group (harder rundles are A, B, C, and D leagues). Promotion is an important aspect in this competitive field. (A relevant piece of trivia: rundle is a mostly antiquated term for a step in a ladder.)

I was promoted this way twice, and was both times reminded of Lawrence J. Peter’s adage about business promotions. His Peter Principle states that if you do well, in a strict business hierarchy, you’ll eventually be promoted to your level of incompetence.

Needless to say, both times that I was promoted to Rundle D, I failed miserably and was promptly returned to my E compatriots.

Although my dad passed away last year, before his dementia became too bad I was able to point to my mediocre Learned League scores as proof that he was wrong. I am measurably not the world’s largest repository. Not by a long shot!

Referrals are open!

Do you think this sounds like a fun way to spend 20 minutes daily? Find me on Twitter (@thelarch). I’ll fill you in, perhaps refer you, and maybe even give you the sage advice I wish I’d had when I first joined.

The strength of the workplace duad

An abridged version of this post can be found on the Accenture Careers blog.

Standing in the café located in Accenture’s Chicago Digital Hub, I was scanning an email on my phone. It described what Accenture experts consider their secret sauce for finding and growing talent. To summarize:

  1. People Our people are the best and brightest in the industry, top innovators of today—and tomorrow.
  2. Culture We’re a literal global collective of diverse talent and personalities, combining to innovate and iterate.
  3. Purpose Innovating together to improve “the way the world works and lives.”

If I listed the first item without including the second, you’d think Accenture hires top people and finds them a desk where they can be privately brilliant. But as I witnessed the clusters of people at assorted tables and booths that day in the café, and the buzz of conversations, I knew better. “Innovating together” means organizing teams to address whatever the specific purpose is at hand.

Strength in small numbers

In my long career, elsewhere but especially at Accenture, I’ve experienced one extremely powerful team configuration: the duad. That’s my coinage for the deep and powerful collaborations where just two people come together to solve a problem. It was described in a recent New Yorker piece about Jeff Dean and Sanjay Ghemawat, of Google. Their unlikely co-working created a machine learning system that you probably used in the last 24 hours in one form or another, without ever knowing it. Jeff and Sanjay literally “changed the Internet.”

This type of collaboration is more common than you’d think, as the article explains (emphasis my own):

François Jacob, who, with Jacques Monod, pioneered the study of gene regulation, noted that by the mid-twentieth century most research in the growing field of molecular biology was the result of twosomes. … In the past thirty-five years, about half of the Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine have gone to scientific partnerships.

In my eight years at Accenture, I’ve been the lucky half of several duads. I believe one of the reasons Accenture is such fertile ground for this type of collaboration is its emphasis on diversity. Not just diversity of experience, or place of origin, or some other aspect that sets humans apart from the pack, but a diversity of strengths.

Tools such as online personal strength assessments help Accenture bring together teams of people whose personal skills and strengths complement each other for the most successful outcome. An unexpected value for me through one of these assessments was that it showed what I can best bring to a team and helped me seek out those whose strengths most fully complement my own.

Yin, meet yang

More than in other team configurations, complementary skills are key to excellent duads. In fact, the best duads can seem grossly mismatched.

Consider Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. As Michael Lewis describes in his enthralling The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, they were as different in temperament as chocolate and peanut butter. Lewis writes that Kahneman is “an introvert whose questing self-doubt was the seedbed of his ideas,” while Tversky was “a brilliant, self-confident [veteran Israeli] warrior and extrovert.” Their unlikely pairing all but invented the discipline of behavioral economics (Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for it in 2002; Tversky had passed away by then so could not share in the honor).

My own two-person collaborations are similarly yin/yang. For instance, you’d peg me on more of the Kahneman end of the spectrum. Additionally, a firm grasp of minutia can be difficult for me (if I were in school today I would be diagnosed as mildly dyslexic). So it’s no surprise that my partners in collaboration are typically detail-oriented extraverts.

Early in my career, I thought finding an amazing teammate was like lightning striking. “Don’t hold your breath,” I’d think, “because it’s rare.” Since joining Accenture, I’ve learned better. Great teams are more a product of a workplace design than happenstance.

Work with the industry’s best and brightest and do work that makes a difference every day. Find your fit with Accenture.

FilmStruck: Can you ever forgive me?

Friend, Romans, cinephiles, lend me your ears. I am here not to praise FilmStruck but to bury it. This is not a popular opinion. The near consensus after the announced plans to shutter the movie streaming service, three weeks ago, was one of mourning. For good reason: It’s an exclusive source for many foreign, classic and independent films, including The Criterion Collection.

And since the announcement I’m reminded of how sad I’ll be if I never see many of its films, or see them again. Because that truly is the power of great films. You want to see them more than once.

Two examples: I was saddened to realize that most of the wonderfully innovative films by auteur Mike Leagh, including my favorite, Life Is Sweet, are not available for streaming elsewhere. Nor is the film that introduced me to writer / director Nichole Hoffcenner, Walking and Talking (and also to the performances of two fresh-faced unknowns whose names you may recognize, Catherine Keener and Liev Schreiber).

And — Oh no! — There goes my chance to rewatch the wonderful performances and grungy farce that made Withnail and I an art house masterpiece. I’m especially grateful to that film for introducing me to Richard E. Grant (left in the still, with a Trumpian-length necktie).

I’m tormented by these losses, and the FOMO of all the other classics in the archive. When I subscribed to FilmStruck (and I did subscribe, for a full year, twice), those films I listed were just three in my watchlist of over 100.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Now, I simply have to relish new performances by these actors, including a film I cannot wait to check out. It has Richard E. Grant doing what he does best — playing a slimy reprobate — and from what I’ve heard does it so well he’ll assuredly be nominated for a long overdue Oscar nomination:

(And, Hooray! Nicole Holofcener co-wrote the film!)

So I’m grieving. But why haven’t I joined the chorus of people chiding FilmStruck’s owners for making a terrible decision? Because I think, although preventable, this service’s money losses led to a logical decision.

Not that they’re off the hook. Far from it.

I subscribed and cancelled twice to this service because it was terrible. Here’s how I responded to an article in Slate about its demise:

I handed FilmStruck a stack of ones (well, virtually … over 100 of them), twice, yet I never got to stream a single film of theirs to conclusion.

Also, when I would return, to see if I could complete a film that was cut short due to the dreaded buffering “progress wheel,” the film would start at the beginning.

It’s simplistic to say that the owners of FilmStruck, Turner Classic Movies, are being mean. It’s more accurate to say they have been, since the beginning, extremely negligent, which has led to the red ink they’re now using as their excuse to close the project.

By refusing to upgrade their streaming service when they received my — and I’m sure many other — detailed emails explaining how I was cancelling because they needed to fix their technology, they proved themselves not so much art-haters as tech-newbies.

FilmStruck, for its retrograde user experience, deserves to be in the same ash heap of tech history as Blockbuster and MySpace. We can only hope the films can one day rise phoenix-like, so I can get my Withnail fix.

Civil is down but not out: A blockchain failure to launch

I learned about Civil through a podcast. If you know me well this will not shock you. I make a steady diet of podcasts, and many are about emerging technologies. The ZigZag podcast series, by Jen Poyant and Manoush Zomorodi, is one of the most entertaining and educational in my playlist. A bit of a spoiler if you just started the podcast: The Civil launch that they chronicle has not gone smoothly. In fact, Alas, the Blockchain Will Not Save Journalism just appeared in the New York Times. I posted a rebuttal, but first, about ZigZag …

Here’s a sample episode to get you hooked:

I posted this rebuttal on Facebook but wanted to share it beyond that closed — and deeply flawed — social network:

“I disagree with this article about the death of a blockchain-authenticated newsroom. The TL;DR of it is it can’t work because it needs ordinary people to buy tokens, not to make money but to participate in fact-based journalism — and — people don’t understand it. Although it is hard to grasp, that doesn’t make the concept flawed.

“A dozen years ago I read about this new thing called Twitter. It predates the social medium within which I’m typing these words. I investigated it with curiosity and healthy skepticism. My conclusion? It will never scale because it’s too hard to grasp.

“I was wrong about Twitter, and this author is wrong about an actual antidote to Twitter and Facebook. That is, Civil’s mission is to take away the lies and the ads that, respectively, muddy political and social discourse and mine our behavior for profit.

“The Civil token sale did not succeed, to a great extent, because it was the very first widely-promoted public launch of a non-currency blockchain application. Like many of the first rockets we built in our efforts to walk on the moon, at the end of the countdown it sputtered and failed. That in no way clouds the virtue of the mission, or the viability of the technology.

“It just means these brave, hopeful defenders of good journalism need to go back to the drawing board.”

Time management for the career-minded

This post was originally appeared on the Accenture Careers blog.

TL;DR Choose a time management system that’s built to last, integrate work / life balance into your system and prioritize tasks strategically. Ultimately, keep the promises you make to yourself and your community.

What qualifies me, you might ask, to tell you about time management? After all, the topic has been covered ad nauseum, becoming a defacto publishing category. Well, my two bona fides:

  1. I’ve researched and studied probably a dozen systems over the years of my lengthy career and found tips you can follow to extract the most out of whatever system you’d care to try
  2. It’s working! I’m as surprised as anyone that the nuggets of wisdom I’ve gleaned have made me pretty darned effective in my work and personal life

Let’s start with a cliché: The secret to career success is working smarter, not harder. Don’t we all have a trusted family member or friend who told us this? I know I had one, and I was deeply skeptical. Wasn’t this country founded on grit and long hours? For a recent example, the musical “Hamilton” talks about how that Founding Father worked “non-stop” — “All I have is my honor, a tolerance for pain / A couple of college credits and my top notch brain.” Actually, Alexander Hamilton may be the poster child for what can happen to you if you aren’t circumspect about time. He did not work smarter!

Hamilton died in relative obscurity, which is exactly the opposite of what he wanted.

He was known for working tirelessly. One example is his contributions to The Federalist Papers — written with his characteristic eloquence and application of rigorous logic. This contribution alone should have made him a revered historical figure. The Papers became a blueprint for our new country. But Hamilton appears to have thought his cleverness and work ethic were precisely enough to bring him the fame he craved. Nope. He was efficient but not effective and his reputation paid the price.

My mentor was right: You really should work smarter, not harder. We have a limited amount of attention and energy, and more ways to sap both exist today than for any generation before us. We can easily become unmoored, and drift away from what’s truly important. That’s why this is essential:

Regardless of the time management system you settle in with, be sure it starts with a liveable strategy to direct your energies toward the right goals. Only then allow the method to govern how you manage time.

Whither Life Balance?

My studies have been far-reaching, covering both the expected — David Allen’s Getting Things Done and Seven Habits of Highly Effective People — and the obscure: The 90-minute Hour (don’t bother — this could have been written by Alexander Hamilton, it is so fanatical about productivity at all costs), and The Pomodoro Technique (worth considering for the right type of professional). I even tried, circa 2005, an app called Life Balance, a smart approach that never made the jump to iOS, and died with the Palm OS.

My research even includes the mid-century wisdom of — Go figure — our 34th president, Dwight Eisenhower.

I’ve earnestly tried them all, for a while tethering myself to alphabetized folders, both physical and virtual. I’ve tried working in the mini-sprints of Pomodoro — resting every 25 minutes for five, before starting another. I’ve tried the more agile-like week long sprints prescribed by Covey, categorizing everything by the roles I play in life (employee, professional, brother, friend, servant, etc.).

After my travels through these far-flung lands, I’m back to tell you what’s really important in the system you choose, and how you can immediately become more productive and less stressed-out. Here are my five highly subjective tips, borne of trial and error:

  1. Start with your values. I have to say Covey’s Seven Habits describes this step best. Read how he describes finding your “true north,” and commit to it. And by commit, I mean give it a year or two and see how things go. And if you really like where it’s taking you, also read Covey’s First Things First. That book goes deeper into values, and it finally got me to write a personal Mission Statement. What I wound up with is something that is as resonant for me today as it was when I first wrote it.
  2. Pick a system. Don’t leave time management to chance. Don’t wing it. It’s no coincidence Covey called them “habits.” He prescribes actions effective people must take that shouldn’t require conscious thought; They should become second nature. And many aren’t intuitive. So get a system and make it yours.
  3. Keep to-do lists. Recently a co-worker confessed he was getting overwhelmed. We talked about it, and I asked him how he managed his tasks. He wordlessly brought me to his computer monitor. It was papered with Post-Its, resembling the windshield of a car left under a tree on a wet autumn day. Imagine: He would start each day with more than a dozen yellow reminders screaming at him! Always in his line of vision, the tasks reduced his ability to complete them, and clouded his vision of which ones he could or should delegate! They became his master.
  4. Hide your list. My colleague’s story reminded me how valuable it is that when I capture a new to-do item, I immediately hide it from view. I’m rarely overwhelmed, even when I have a rolling list of 20 or more items per day — most non-urgent ones carried forward to be tackled tomorrow. Although you can rely on paper lists and hide them out of sight, I strongly recommend automated systems: While allowing you to turn away from them, automation keeps them ready for review at any time, wherever you are. That list is the first thing I look at each morning. My online system, Remember the Milk, is installed on all my electronic devices — two computers (one for work, one for personal stuff), my Android work phone and my Apple iPod touch music and podcast player. My tasks follow me everywhere but never overtake me. I am their master, not the other way around!
  5. Prioritize and refine your lists. For this last tip I need to talk about good ole’ late President Eisenhower. He came up with an enduring approach to prioritizing tasks. It is wisdom that Covey also explores in his books, but here’s a summary:

Draw an X/Y graph, with the vertical axis being level of importance, and the horizontal being urgency. Then rank each of your tasks into one of the quadrants. Here’s how that looks:

From there, how to proceed becomes clear:

  • Important / Urgent tasks are done immediately and personally.
  • Important / Not Urgent get deadlines (which can be ultimately moved) and are done personally. This quadrant is in yellow because it’s the area most of us fall down on, and it’s the most important to our success. We need to spend the most time in this quadrant.
  • Unimportant / Urgent task are politely delegated.
  • Unimportant / Not Urgent tasks are tactfully dropped.

When you divvy up your work this way, you discover many tasks disappear, which is liberating, and others are delegated — byproducts of which are collaboration and interdependence, qualities that help deepen work and personal relationships (Bonus!).

Drop, Delegate, Do Now or Do Later

Some tasks disappear because they are neither important nor urgent. Example: Does it really benefit you — or your employer — to attend that annual conference, or is it driven by ego … or FOMO? If in doubt, drop it and save yourself the paperwork and the time away from important tasks. You can always find out from others what you might have missed. Start skipping these things and you’ll soon be surprised at how often you hear there was nothing new covered!

Other tasks get delegated. Example: Next time, verbally ask a coworker to respond for the both of you to that group email asking who is bringing what to the potluck. (Promise to return the favor next time, of course. Don’t take advantage of work relationships!). In my experience group emails are often — but not always — the domain of the urgent but non-important. They can quickly become Reply All time-wasters.

Want to know if I deem something unimportant? When you ask me to weigh in on choosing an option, I smile and cheerfully respond “Surprise me.” By saying those words I’ve given both of us a little time back we can devote to other, important decisions. Oh, and another bonus: I’m often genuinely surprised by your choices!

This leaves only important work on your list — except for tasks such as “Follow up with so-and-so on what you delegated.” So what’s truly important? Don’t believe what you’re told. Refuse to let others impose on you what’s truly important. Instead, consult your values and goals. See Tip #1 above.

You Are Your Word

Time management is important because the best employees, the extraordinary parents, the cherished friends — they all have something in common: They do what they tell us they will do. And with every kept commitment, trust — and social and professional esteem — grows.

Here is how I handle a new request: If it’s important and I can do it, I’ll commit to it, and I’ll set a deadline. Then I’ll add it to my to-do list with a deadline well before it’s actually expected. (If it’s urgent and it’s due by 5 PM, I’ll promise that time but shoot for 3:00 and usually complete it by 4:00).

So what have I done? I’ve promised something to my boss, employee, friend or relative. But the task I wrote down in my to-do list was actually a different promise. It was one to my future self. It was a small withdrawal I made against my self-esteem “bank account.”

Once written down, the task is hidden while I tackle other things. I trust myself to do it. When I’m ready to review what’s up next, I will see that task and if it’s time, it tackle it.

When I’m done two things happen:

  1. I check it off my list and feel great! I’ve once again behaved honorably with myself. The amount I withdrew from my self-esteem account was returned — plus interest!
  2. I’ve followed through with the original promise. The person I committed to has an opinion of me as well, and I just helped that opinion grow a little.

To both that person and to myself, I have become someone who can be counted on to keep my commitments. One definition of living in integrity is having the same opinion of yourself as those held by your friends, family and coworkers. Good time management moves you closer to that ideal.

Have I missed any good tips? Let me know!

Creative Commons image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MerrillCoveyMatrix.png