Notes on reading, book reviews, and book lists

Books, Management Thinking, Productivity

Time According to Drucker’s Watch

qtq80-KJjZNvI just finished reading The Essential Drucker. If you don’t know who Peter Drucker was, you probably should, because he was a leading thinker on organizations and management. He also coined the term knowledge worker more than fifty years ago. He wrote about how the advent of the knowledge worker would change the nature of executive and managerial work, along with the structure of organizations. Drucker – Wikipedia

I find all of his writing instructive. The Effective Executive (for example) is a 50-year-old treatise on the job of an executive in the modern corporation and one of the handful of nonfiction books that I reread occasionally.

Essential includes a chapter titled “Know Your Time,” which describes practices for time management. While decades old, it is particularly useful. In this post, I’ll summarize the main points.


Time is a unique resource. It is completely perishable. In the “accomplishment” process, there is no substitute for time as an input. It takes an instant to have the “aha” solution to a problem, but it takes time to get to the point of understanding the problem well enough to have the “aha”.

We are terrible judges of how we have used time in the past. Invariably, we need a time log, an audit, to tell us how we have spent our time over the last few weeks or months.

The time demands

Much of what we spend time on is unproductive, even if it is work. Our organizations require communication, which is rarely done efficiently. We must build relationships with each other, which cannot be done in an urgent manner.

However, knowledge work requires large chunks of time. Creating a presentation from scratch needs a fairly large chunk to get started, then editing can be done in smaller time increments. Strategic thinking and problem solving need large chunks. Getting work done through other people, the primary task of an executive, requires chunks. Any deep work, by definition, needs sizable chunks.

Time diagnosis

While we have been recording time for manual work since the start of the 20th century, we do not normally record time for knowledge work. But time is more important for the knowledge worker than it is for the manual worker. It is simply easier to record for manual workers.

So, effective knowledge workers track their time. The details of the method are not important, but the act of recording time is the first essential step in analyzing how we use it. Time tracking needs to be done for fairly long periods, weeks or a month, in order to account for daily and weekly variation. And our time drifts toward trivia, so tracking needs to be done routinely, at least a couple of times per year. Once we have recorded our time use, we analyze it for three areas of time use:

  1. Identify and eliminate things that don’t need to be done at all. There are probably more of these things than your memory will let you see. Some thought is usually required as our default is to be lazy and simply declare that things “have to be done”. It is fairly easy to test the assumption – stop doing it for a while and see if anyone notices.
  2. Identify and assign things that could be done by others. This is not exactly delegation, but a complete giving over of authority to another person. Again, we have to be tough on ourselves here as the lazy way out is to default to “I have to do it”. Perhaps the task needs to be tweaked or better automated before we completely hand it off.
  3. Identify and eliminate things that we do that waste others’ time. The only way to do this is to ask the honest question of our peers and direct reports. As leaders, when we ask for reports and status meetings, we must be ruthless with ourselves about the need for them. Again, our default is the enemy here. People likely need less oversight than we think and will ask for it if we don’t offer.

Pruning the time wasters

Having dealt with the things we have individual authority over, we now turn to those things that are organizational in nature. Organizational misalignment and poor structure waste everyone’s time, but primarily the time of leadership. Now we analyze our time record for four areas of concern:

  1. Identify the “routine crises”. These represent a lack of system or a lack of foresight. After the second occurrence of a crisis, we should assume that it will become routine if we don’t do something systemic to prevent it. Budget cycles, seasonal sales, release cycles, and recurring external events, such as employee turnover may trigger these broken processes that need to be fixed. Well-designed work and organizations should normally lack drama.
  2. Over-staffing wastes time. In an overstaffed organization people collide with each other too often. This results in jurisdictional disputes, politics, and other signs that people are in each others’ way. Knowledge workers need to be able to do their work with a minimum of explaining to others and asking permission. If the leadership of the organization spends more than a small fraction, say 10%, of their time on these kinds of issues, overstaffing may be the cause.
  3. Poor organization shows up in excess meetings. Meetings are caused by a need to exchange information. In a perfect world, everyone would know what they need to know to get their job done. However, we live in an imperfect world. Nevertheless, good meeting discipline requires severely limiting the number of meetings. I would add that some meetings may be caused by having hired staff that are unequal to their task and consistently require the help or advice of others to get anything done.
  4. Poor distribution of information wastes time. Routine calls for information and “bystanding” in meetings to see if there’s “something I need to know” can be eliminated by setting up proper distribution channels and creating meeting discipline.

Solutions to these seven kinds of problems may be obvious once they are noticed. Or they may require a long, disciplined effort. But the result of this work is useful for the entire organization, especially in terms of time recovered.

Consolidating discretionary time

The key to consolidation is to move things around to create the needed chunks of time. The problem is that this is a perpetual need. Non-discretionary time expands; new meetings are called; new crises pop up. Therefore, effective knowledge workers need to be consistently vigilant over their schedules.

Finally, it is difficult to know when knowledge work tasks, done during the chunks of discretionary time, are finished. We all have perfectionist tendencies and overdo. If we create 10 hours of discretionary time per week, but use it poorly, we are really no better off. Think in terms of deadlines for discretionary projects. Time box efforts and stick to the time allotted. Understand what is the minimum effective product and move on when it has been achieved.

I would add that attention management is a requisite skill in time management. If we can’t stay focused on tasks we set ourselves during discretionary time, we are not using it well. After, perhaps, decades of fragmented attention use, our ability to focus intently for periods of time may be weak. Don’t forget to defend your attention when entering into periods of discretionary time.

Time is more scarce than any other commodity. So it should be used more carefully than any other. The first step is a time audit.

Question: Have you ever audited your time? If so, let us know one key insight you gleaned. If not, perhaps now would be a good time to start. If you do, come back and share your insights.

Related posts
Getting Knowledge Work to Done
May 6, 2017
6 Reasons Planning Is a Pain (and Why You Should Do It Anyway)
November 9, 2016
Were You Trained as a Knowledge Worker?
October 1, 2016
Books, Productivity

Deep Work by Cal Newport

qtq80-VjzbQmI have followed Cal Newport for several years now. He earned a Ph.D. in computer science at MIT and is now a tenured professor at Georgetown. He was doing his doctoral work at the same time I was and seemed to have good advice on how to go about earning a degree without going completely insane. He has since published a pair of great books: So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. I’ll post on So Good later, but my thinking about attention management is closely tied to his notion of deep work, so I wanted to cover the topic and the book for my readers’ reference.

Deep Work explains one way in which work is changing. With the rise of knowledge work, Newport sees a division of labor among knowledge workers. Much of knowledge work is what he calls shallow work. Shallow work is the administrative side of knowledge work, including managing email and other communication, organizing, editing, and non-directed surfing on the internet.

In contrast, deep work is the work knowledge workers produce when they are at their best. This is the demanding problem solving, strategizing, proving-new-things kind of work that produces value. It is valuable in the economy because it is hard to replicate and to the worker because it improves the worker’s skills. Deep work occurs in relatively isolated extended chunks of time. We work to get our heads around the entire problem, chapter, or situation and, when we finally do, make progress on the really difficult part of our work. It is the kind of work that, if interrupted, takes a significant amount of time to restart because we have to regain the mental state that was lost due to the interruption.

Newport argues that, in order to produce value, we need to spend more time in deep work.

The problem is that social and technological forces move us toward shallow work. Three prevailing, but questionable, ideas push us toward shallow work: We can multitask and still produce our best work (we can’t). We have to be available for communication at all times (probably not). Social sites and most of the internet produce valuable information (they don’t usually). Newport acknowledges that exceptions exist, but generally argues that these three ideas are not true. Finally, he notes another force toward shallow work – our brains favor shallow work because it is cognitively easier, requiring less mental effort and concentration.

Newport argues that deep work is valuable, increasingly rare, and more meaningful than shallow work.

The value of deep work is based on two of its properties: it allows us to quickly master hard things and it allows us to produce more output of higher quality. It is increasingly important to do these things as we face cognitive computing and the automation of manual and some craft work.

The rarity of deep work is based on cultural arguments. 1) Workplaces are trending toward open offices, instant messaging use, and increased insistence on social media presence, each of which hampers deep work efforts. 2) Particularly in large organizations, it is difficult to directly measure the contribution of deep work; this supports the cult of busyness, in which visible, but shallow, contributions are often rewarded. 3) The cult of the internet believes that something is irrelevant if it is not visible.

In support of the meaningfulness of deep work, Newport makes three different arguments, backed by research.

  1. Neurology – Managing our attention through engaging in deep work keeps us focused away from the traps (e.g. the comparison trap) that tend to make us discontent.
  2. Psychology – Our minds prefer to be engaged in deep work; we like to be challenged and get bored quickly with routine tasks and what currently passes for leisure.
  3. Philosophy – Deep work promotes a sense of craftsmanship (the technical version is elegance) which endows our work with meaning far beyond simply earning money.

Newport finds that, in order to engage in deep work, we need to be in relatively distraction free environments. He cites many examples of authors, academics, and scientists who produced world-changing work, in part, because they removed themselves from distraction rich environments. In part 2, Newport lays out four rules that help us determine what is deep work in our context and help us focus on it. This is the point where my work connects to his – attention management. Much of part 2 relates to thinking on this site.

Rule 1 covers methods of entering into deep work periods. We need to defend our attention while we are trying to work deeply.

Rule 2 shows ways that we can improve our deep work stamina. We need to train ourselves to focus and concentrate, particularly since if we have been engaging in shallow work for years.

Rule 3 is about our communication tools. We need to be more selective about what we engage with on the internet through recognizing that not all tools are of equal value.

Rule 4 considers removing shallow work. We need to identify shallow work in our lives and work to eliminate it; Newport gives a couple dozen tips and practices to try in our work lives.

The book concludes with a short description of how development and application of deep work principles have fueled Newport’s quite successful academic career to date. That evidence alone should be sufficient motivation to bring some deep work into our lives.

Cal continues to elaborate on these ideas on his blog. In addition, Brett McKay interviewed Cal on the Art of Manliness podcast, here.

Related posts
Getting Knowledge Work to Done
May 6, 2017
Time According to Drucker’s Watch
November 19, 2016
6 Reasons Planning Is a Pain (and Why You Should Do It Anyway)
November 9, 2016
Books, Management Thinking, Self Improvement

The Challenge of Receiving Feedback

Feedback is merely other peoples’ opinions of our work. Yet, we struggle both to give it and to receive it. We should welcome it as there are few other ways to determine whether the work we did was good or needs improvement. We should be able to recognize the gift that someone gives us when they take the time to let us know how our work affected them, even if it’s not perfect.

In Thanks for the Feedback, authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen take a fresh look at the subject of feedback. Their opinion is that, at least in the corporate world, we have had some coaching on giving feedback to members of our organizations. On the other hand, there is little or no coaching on how to receive feedback. Being a good receiver of feedback allows us to take fuller advantage of this important growth and improvement tool.  The book is training in how to receive feedback well.

Stone and Heen find that receiving feedback is difficult because it can trigger one of at least three kinds of reactions that block, or allow us to dismiss, feedback. The reaction categories are: truth, relationship, and identity. After defining these categories, they propose strategies for each type of reaction. Stone and Heen use the reaction categories to frame a discussion of the feedback conversation and show how the feedback receiver can act to improve the quality of that conversation as it is happening. I’ll summarize each category and the related strategies and conclude with a summary of the conversation best practices.

Three kinds of reactions to feedback

When we see the feedback as wrong, unfair, or unhelpful, it has triggered our truth reaction. In this case, our giver has likely confused the three purposes of good feedback, or omitted one of them: appreciation, coaching, and evaluation. Givers often skip appreciation and combine the evaluation and coaching steps, or worse, start and end with coaching: “Next time do it this way.” A skillful coach/giver might say “Good effort on this play (appreciation). But you were in the wrong place; you should be over here (evaluation). Let’s talk about how to get to the right place (coaching).” Regardless, the worst thing we can do is let an unskilled delivery cause us to lose the value of the feedback. When we feel our truth reaction being triggered, we need to take a deep breath and get curious. Our giver saw or experienced something and is trying to relate it, not making things up to hurt us. We need to ask our giver to tell us what they liked about what we did, what what they didn’t like about what we did, and how they suggest we take advantage of the things we did right (from their perspective) while correcting the things we did wrong.

When we respond to feedback with discussion of our relationship with the giver (e.g. “You’re the problem, not me.” or “Who are you to say?” or “After all I’ve done for you…”), the feedback has triggered our relationship reaction. In this case, our giver likely has a deeper, relationship-based issue with what we’ve done and is giving us feedback on both our actions and how it has influenced the relationship. When we are tempted to give these kinds of responses, we need to do our best to separate the relationship from the feedback, without losing track of either. One way to do this is to get the feedback about our action off the table for a minute, perhaps by temporarily accepting it. Say something like, “I can see that you didn’t like my action and I’d like to hear more about that in a minute. For now, tell me how my action made you feel.” Once we understand that, at least to some degree, we can discuss how to do the action differently next time, possibly using the techniques in the previous paragraph.

When we internalize the feedback too much (e.g. “I screw up everything”, “I’m a bad person”), the feedback has triggered our identity reaction. This case is different in that it may not have been triggered by the manner in which the feedback was given. When we feel ourselves reacting in these ways, we need to look closely at why we are putting so much weight on the feedback. We may have been trained to receive feedback in a bad way; we may be “magnifying” the feedback out of proportion; or we may not have a growth mindset. Either way, we likely need to work on understanding that we always have opportunities to grow and get better, and that feedback is a valuable tool in our improvement. Further, we need to understand that our actions are not who we are, completely. Gifted people often make bad plays, so learn to see the feedback as an indication of an area in which you need further practice, more experience, or different tactics. If the feedback is especially damaging, we can ask for a delay before discussing it further.

Managing the feedback conversation

These ideas work together to show a set of tools to manage feedback conversations. First, know that we don’t have to actually do anything with the feedback. While there may be consequences of not changing the behavior or fixing the problem, no one can normally force us to accept feedback. Conversely, we cannot force our giver to change the way they give feedback. However, if we decide to accept the feedback, we can usually improve the quality of the conversation and get value from the giver.

Here’s how to have the conversation. The first step is to react calmly, without excuses or defensiveness. The second is to understand what the giver saw and understand the impact on them. The third, if appropriate, is to get advice on what they think we should have done instead. Finally, again if appropriate, get some free coaching; perhaps the giver has had a similar experience, or learned some lesson that may help us progress in our understanding. Remember that the giver would likely prefer that you accept their feedback, and it may be important to let them know you have. Strong relationships can be built in this way.

At 300+ pages, the book has more detail, explanation, and tips. If this summary has resonated with you, you will likely want to take the time to read it in full. Here is the Google books link.

I’ll relate a personal story. For a few years now, my wife has been helping me by proofreading some of my writing. We now work well together as a team, but at first, we would get into heated discussions about some of her suggested edits. You can imagine how that went. We would get into a grammar argument and storm off to Google to prove who was right. Finally, and after I had read this book, we sat down and had a conversation. We decided that her comments were suggestions, not requirements. I was free to make the changes she suggested, or not. After all, it is my work, so I’m the decision maker. In addition, I didn’t have to explain the changes I didn’t want to make and she didn’t have to suggest a correction if she didn’t want to. She could simply say “this part doesn’t sound right.” This mindset change has extended out to other kinds of feedback and to writing feedback from other people. I’m not going to say that I now love negative feedback, but viewing it differently has helped me react more effectively.

Question: what are your tips for dealing with feedback?

Related posts
Time According to Drucker’s Watch
November 19, 2016
Summary of “Learning to Learn” (HBR)
July 22, 2016
Deep Work by Cal Newport
July 10, 2016
Books, Management Thinking

Thinking for a Living


The term “knowledge worker” was coined by Peter Drucker in the 50’s, but didn’t come into its own until Thomas Davenport started talking about it in the early 00’s. The term refers to someone who uses their knowledge to be productive rather than their physical effort. Davenport’s book Thinking for a Living (Google books link) covers both the definition of the term and his thinking on how to deal with knowledge workers. Note that this is an immense change for managers and how management works, for one main reason…

It is immensely difficult to observe someone doing knowledge work and thus equally difficult to manage when and where they do it.

While much of the book is devoted to defining and describing knowledge work, Davenport also covers managerial topics and more. This discussion makes for an interesting read on a topic that any modern manager would likely need to understand.

Question: How does knowledge work figure into your life as an employee or a manager?

1 Comment
Related posts
Time According to Drucker’s Watch
November 19, 2016
Deep Work by Cal Newport
July 10, 2016
What Consumes Your Attention Controls Your Life
March 23, 2016