Self Improvement

GTD, Management Thinking, Self Improvement

6 Reasons Planning Is a Pain (and Why You Should Do It Anyway)

qtq80-WsNgkaSmart, capable people often struggle with one crucial aspect of knowledge work: planning. In my experience, clients resist planning for a number of reasons. Here are some of the most common.

Planning causes mental pain, at least at first. Planning is taxing work. If you haven’t done it recently or it’s not a habit, it will literally cause pain when you do it. My university students helped me define this pain; it is the feeling of frustration. “It’s too hard.” “I’m just not good at this.” So, we give up too easily, avoiding the frustration of learning how to plan and developing the habit of planning.

Planning takes time. On average, your weekly planning will take 45 minutes or so. That’s for a routine week. If your upcoming week is challenging, planning may take twice that long. Daily planning will take 10-15 minutes. As with many activities, it feels easier to just jump in and start work. Doing so makes us feel that we are, at least, making progress. So we skip planning and just get started.

Planning is deep work. Some people think that planning is merely running over their to-do list. But real planning is the difficult exercise of estimating how long tasks will take and a thoughtful look at our tasks versus our constraints. It forces us to clearly define our commitments and deliverables. Most of us prefer to avoid this deep work, so we substitute a shallow, watered down version. We leave our commitments murky and don’t clarify through planning.

Planning forces us to say “No”. We don’t like to say no to others. Good planning shows conflicting commitments and when our capacity is full. Thus, planning forces us to make choices that likely result in difficult conversations. This brings us face to face with our priorities, which may not be clear. It is much easier, in the short run, to play hero and worry about the consequences later, so we don’t plan.

Planning shows hard truths. When you plan, you realize your limitations and understand your constraints. This is much more challenging than just believing everything will work out. Over time, planning also shows you how long it actually takes to get your tasks accomplished. This can challenge your mental image of how good you are at some of your tasks. These challenges are uncomfortable; we avoid planning so we don’t have to face them.

Planning is inexact. Even the most experienced planners and project managers cannot predict the future. Things happen. Key resources take a sick day. A supplier’s truck breaks down. In addition, we are predictably bad estimators, typically underestimating both the time it takes to do something and how much discretionary time we will have in a given day or week. Our plans don’t work out, so we abandon planning.

So, we resist planning because it is painful, time-consuming deep work, that doesn’t work perfectly and forces us to confront an uncomfortable reality. But I would like to show two essential parameters that planning produces: The first is time boxes that show us how much time we can allocate to any given task. The second is milestones, which show where we should be on a multi-step project. Clarity on these two parameters is our responsibility in managing our schedule and tasks.

Time boxes force us to deliver even when the level of quality is unclear. We can be perfectionists and let deadlines slip chasing perfection. Remember that the quality of knowledge work is notoriously difficult to define. Challenge yourself to work hard for the duration, but, when the time is up, ship the result. It is probably at least good enough. Time boxes help give us the courage to “just ship it” on the deadline.

But, even if it is not good enough, you probably don’t know how to fix it. My experience as a writer shows this challenge. I invariably think part X is bad while part Y is good. However, my reviewers and editors think the opposite. So, rather than continuing to perfect part X, I should have been working on part Y. The same holds true for much of our work: presentations, reports, and communication. The parts we think need additional work are actually OK, but we overlook parts that need shoring up. So, instead of exceeding our time boxes and blowing our schedule by chasing our view of perfection, we should set shorter time boxes and use the additional time to get feedback on what needs attention.

In addition, using time boxes gives good historical data on how long a task actually takes. Working on a deliverable in short spurts is inefficient and makes it difficult to tell how much work we actually did. We need to know how long the task took last time in order to guess better how long it will take this time. Disciplined work during time boxes shows us that.

Milestones are advance warning signs that a project may not turn out well. Milestones give us time to renegotiate our commitments while our stakeholders still have time to adjust. In my experience as a project manager, people are usually reasonable when they know of a problem in advance. They are less reasonable when they find out today that we don’t have something they expected to get yesterday. Some of our work is speculative; we guess, in advance, how long a task will take. Sometimes those guesses are wrong. Maybe our stakeholders can do without a piece of the work. Maybe we misunderstood their deadline. Maybe they’re happier with a blue one on time than a green one that is late. But, we only find out by having the conversation. Milestones help us do that earlier.

Planning is challenging and can be painful. But, good planning produces time boxes and milestones. These parameters help us face reality, rather than living in an imaginary, but happy, world of false bravado and superheros who can overcome any constraint. They parameters help us keep our time under control and give us the best chance to make our stakeholders happy. Planning is imperfect, but, when it comes to executing our work, an imperfect view of reality beats a 20/20 view of a fantasy every time. So, overcome the pain and challenges and plan your work.

Question: What is your biggest pain point when keeping on track with your daily and weekly planning sessions? How much does it interfere with creating the habit?

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Self Improvement

Summary of “Learning to Learn” (HBR)

The March 2016 issue of HBR includes an article titled Learning to Learn by Erika Anderson.

As the business and technological environment continues to change at increasingly high rates, it requires us (as knowledge workers, particularly) to adapt. Sometimes adapting involves learning new topics. This HBR article discusses the underpinnings of the ability to succeed in learning.  We have to resist our biases against novelty and acquiring new and difficult competencies. Such competencies will make us more valuable in our current jobs and the overall marketplace. Read on for a summary of how to identify and grow those underpinnings.

Aspiration Embracing change requires some desire to adapt, which can be difficult to muster. The author suggests boosting our desire to accomplish a change or learn by clearly identifying how the new thing will benefit us directly. We should link the change to something we already aspire to, such as a higher level of income or another skill that we would like to achieve. In this way, we can avoid our “not invented here” bias, by focusing on the positive aspects of a change.

Self-awareness We are typically terrible at knowing our skill level on many tasks. This article cites a study in which 94% of professors surveyed indicated that they were better than average. Many studies have replicated this result (look for a future post). This lack of self-awareness pushes us to think “I’m already pretty good; why do I need to get better?” Anderson recommends changing your self talk. As an example, she suggests we replace a thought like “I’m already pretty good at this” with something like “What facts do I have that show how good I am?” Such a thought will lead to greater openness to new ideas.

Curiosity Sometimes, we defend against learning a new skill because we think it is not interesting. But, most likely, there are people who currently exercise the skill – they must find something interesting, fulfilling, or valuable in it. If we can be curious, we can dig in and find out – read an article or talk to someone with the skill. It is likely that you can find something interesting or something more to be curious about.

Vulnerability It is tough for adults to admit that they need improvement. When we are beginners in the new skill, we feel inadequate. While this is frustrating and somewhat embarrassing, it is simply part of the territory. It is likely that people who already have the skill remember when they were learning and made novice mistakes. If so, they are equally likely to have patience with your naive questions and poor skill level. We might as well adopt a novice mindset and recognize at the outset that we will stumble around for a little while, and that we will get better over time.

Think through some of these ideas, get your mindset shifted, and get in and start learning.

Question: How are you maintaining your learning mindset?

Let us know in the comments.
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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?

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Management Thinking, Productivity, Self Improvement

Noise and Attention

In previous posts, I’ve talked about Urgent vs. Important and using the Eisenhower Matrix.  I wrote these to introduce a mental model of how to mange our attention and be more productive, both personally and professionally. I want to consider another topic in this vein: Noise. (Note: much of this thinking was triggered by a post on A Life of Productivity by Chris Bailey, check it out. The core thoughts come from Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.)

As knowledge workers, our attention is our most important productive tool. In my attempt to manage my own attention, I try to evaluate how I’ve used my attention in the past. In one instance several years ago, I recognized that listening to talk radio during my afternoon commute (politics, in particular) frittered away my attention. So, I stopped listening to it. I’ll lay out the logic of my decision after I outline the definition of information as noise.

Bailey cites four traits of noise from Before Happiness, by Shawn Achor (which I have not read):

It is unusable, or not actionable.

It is untimely, and will likely change before it can be acted upon.

It is hypothetical, rumors or opinions with an unknowable level of truth.

It is distracting, diverting attention from information that may actually be actionable.

  • Let’s look at my drive time political talk shows through this lens:
    The information I consumed was unusable, partly because it’s scope was national, but mostly because it was repetitive and merely reinforced opinions I already held.
  • Outside of an election cycle, the opinions and positions expressed were untimely.
  • Since the information was solely based on individuals’ opinions it was highly hypothetical.
  • It felt like I was using my attention in a good way, but I wasn’t. My attention was distracted from acquiring other information that may have been actionable for me.

After I changed my listening habits to books on tape and music, I found that I was consuming actionable information, or at least calming, cheerful, enjoyable music – clearly a better way of using my scarce attention.

When we consume noise, we lose attention that could be focused on gathering actionable information. Take a minute and think about how you are using your attention.

Question: Can you eliminate some of the information noise around you and use that attention to improve your mind or your mood?

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Time According to Drucker’s Watch
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Management Thinking, Productivity, Self Improvement

Time Stealers

Sometimes, in order to discuss a problem, we need common terms – a vocabulary. The problem I would like to discuss is efficient use of time. Which activities should I engage in to meet my goals? Which activities (time stealers) should I avoid. I’ll try to start a discussion of the problem by contributing and defining a couple of applicable terms: urgent and important.

We commonly get confused by the similarity of these terms, so I’ll start by defining them (per An activity is urgent when it demands your attention; it makes you feel that you need to deal with it now. An activity is important when it leads to meeting your goals, including your goals for and with others. The confusion arises because these two separate notions are often true about the same activity. Many activities are important and urgent, but many activities lack one or both qualities.

Let’s consider some examples: a ringing phone or a crying baby are both urgent. They demand our attention. But are they important? It is hard to tell without more information. The ringing phone may be your spouse calling to tell you that the car is broken down (important), or it may be a salesperson trying to talk to you about a “special deal” on a cruise package (not important). The crying baby may be your child who has fallen down and skinned her knee (important), or it may be someone else’s child being fussy about too much time at the mall (not important).

In this sense, we can think about activities in a matrix as follows:


(Stephen Covey: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, via

For our purposes, time stealers are those activities in the bottom half of the matrix.

I hope you can think more clearly about the activities you engage using these definitions. You’re probably thinking “Great, now all I have to do is figure out what is important. How would I do that?” Stay tuned, this thinking has broad implications on how we plan and best utilize our time. In the near term, I will post in more detail on how to manage time based on these definitions, including how to identify important information and tasks.

Question: How do you currently differentiate between important and not important?