Playing it Safe is a Trap

Michael Gilbert had a helpful article last spring in Nonprofit Online News called Playing it Safe is a Trap: Five Syndromes in Online Marketing.

That’s a great title, and I’d say the concept applies to much of work and life — not just nonprofits and online marketing.

His five points in the article are:

  1. Seeking safety in best practices
  2. Seeking safety in the wrong metrics
  3. Seeking safety in self-promotion
  4. Seeking safety in cautious language
  5. Seeking safety in control

Here are a few helpful excerpts:

When it comes to communicating with their current and prospective stakeholders online, nonprofits will often choose the path that feels the safest to them. They do this in regard to their methods, their metrics, their language, their content, and their management practices. I argue that such a choice is anything but safe and indeed is responsible for some of the most serious and common mistakes that a nonprofit can make.


Ultimately, we seek to control things that needn’t be controlled, in our desire to avoid the uncertainties that come with the kind of communication practices that truly light a fire in people. Indeed, we are simply afraid to light that fire because at some point it will no longer be in our control. We set up time consuming approval processes, elaborate branding requirements, and many other mechanisms to ensure that the communication of our staff and our stakeholders all remains firmly managed. Even our notion of “viral marketing” tends to involve setting things up to encourage our stakeholders to do exactly what we tell them to do.

This is not the place to describe the alternatives to these fear avoidance tactics. (Indeed, I sometimes feel like all our other work is about such alternatives.) But it’s important to note that the alternative isn’t just random risk taking. That’s a straw man that we set up to justify our actions. The overarching alternative is simply to practice letting go, a bit at a time. The more we allow anxiety and fear to guide our decisions, the more power we give them and the harder it is to break free. Breaking these five patterns is a good place to start.

False Solutions and Real Problems

Thomas Sowell has a great column from the other day on the housing crisis. Here are the first two paragraphs:

Someone once said that Senator Hubert Humphrey, liberal icon of an earlier generation, had more solutions than there were problems.

Senator Humphrey was not unique in that respect. In fact, our present economic crisis has developed out of politicians providing solutions to problems that did not exist– and, as a result, producing a problem whose existence is all too real and all too painful.

Read the whole thing.

The Analogy Between Organizing Time and Organizing Space

Why can it be such a challenge to manage time? In her book Time Management from the Inside Out, Julie Morgenstern points out that it comes from the way we view time.

Most people think of time as intangible. In the journey from chaos to order, it is often easier to organize space than time, because space is something you can actually see. Time, on the other hand, is completely invisible. You can’t see it or hold it in your hands. It’s not something that piles up or that you can physically move around. (p. 9)

When you are organizing a closet, for example, you can see how much stuff you are dealing with, and therefore whether it will all fit. But when it comes to time, it is hard to conceptualize since time is invisible. Yet as long as your time remains elusive and hard to conceptualize, “you will have difficulty managing your days.”

So what is the solution?

Change your perception of time and develop a more tangible view of it. You need to learn to see time in more visual, measurable terms.

But how do we do this? We recognize the analogy between organizing time and organizing space.

Just as a closet is a limited space into which you must fit a certain number of objects, a schedule is a limited space into which you must fit a certain number of tasks. Your days are not infinite and endless. When you think of it this way, time is not so intangible and elusive. In fact, each day is simply a container, a storage unit that has a definite capacity you can reach.

Once you understand that time has boundaries, you begin to look at your to-dos much differently. Tasks are the objects that you must fit into your space. Each one has a size, and arranging them in your day becomes a mathematical equation. As you evaluate what you need to do, you begin to calculate the size of each task and whether you can fit it into the space.

When you start seeing time as having borders, just as space does, you will become much more realistic about what you can accomplish, and much more motivated to master various time-management tools and techniques to help you make the most of your time. (p. 11)

The 3 Obstacles to Productivity and Time Management

If time management feels like a continual challenge, it can be easy to think that this must simply be the way things are for you. Even those who are pretty good at time management often run into snags and challenges that create drag, and it can be tempting to think that this also is the way that some things just have to be.

But the good news is that there is hope. I think the main reason good time management can feel elusive is because we simply haven’t sat back to identify the causes of time management ineffectiveness.

When you bring clear definition to what causes your time management challenges, you can actually see a way forward in addressing them.

Julie Morgenstern, in her book Time Management from the Inside Out, helps us here by providing a “three-level diagnostic” that helps you zero in on the causes of your time management problems.

The Value of Identifying What’s Holding You Back

Here is how she introduces her diagnostic:

When people struggle to manage their time, they very often jump to the conclusion that they are internally flawed somehow, that they are born incompetent in this area of life. Or they throw their hands up in resignation, convinced that “out of control” is just how life is supposed to be in the modern world. Both of these perceptions are totally inaccurate and self-defeating.

Once you learn the skill of diagnosing time-management problems [emphasis mine], you will stop wasting time and energy beating yourself up or working yourself to exhaustion. You will simply run the problem through the following three-level diagnostic, accurately zero in on the cause, and get to work on the proper solution. Swift, clear, accurate. Now, that’s a time saver! (p. 19)

The Three-Level Diagnostic for Time Management Challenges

Morgenstern explains that there are actually three possible causes to our time management problems. Sometimes, of course, more than one are at play. But having these categories in mind helps us diagnose the cause so that we can actually see hope for a solution.

The three levels are (pp. 20 – 21):

  1. Technical errors
  2. External realities
  3. Psychological obstacles

By knowing these three levels, we can then know better where any inefficiencies are coming from and thus how to effectively address them.

Technical Errors

Morgenstern writes:

These are easily resolved mechanical mistakes. You need a skill or a technique you don’t have… Once you understand these errors, you simply make the appropriate adjustments to your approach and you’re all set. Problem solved.

Technical mistakes are not always so easy to resolve — I think that there are a few involved right in the basic GTD methodology which I’ve been trying to resolve for years, and the path to identifying solutions was challenging.

But most of the time it is easy to make a few tweaks to our mechanical errors or inefficiencies. Often, the case is simply that we don’t know the process for managing a certain type of task or input most effectively. Once we learn that, the problem is solved. That is one of the things that this blog exists to help out with. And even the technical snags where solutions don’t come easy at least have the hope that there is a solution out there to be figured out.

External Realities

External realities are “environmental factors that are actually beyond your control. You didn’t create them, and they put a limit on how organized you can be.”

It is nice to realize that some challenges, indeed, originate from outside of us! When it comes to external factors, we need to first stop blaming ourselves and then find a way to mitigate them through tactical system approaches and strategic mindsets (like “first things first,” and so forth) as effectively as we can.

Psychological Obstacles

Psychological obstacles are

hidden, internal forces that prevent you from achieving the life you desire. If you have conquered all of your technical errors and external realities and are still feeling out of control, it’s likely that you have a psychological force working against you.

In other words, sometimes we are our own worst enemies! But there is still hope here: “When you realize what’s causing certain self-sabotaging habits, you can begin to break free of their control.”

Applying the Three Levels

Applying this diagnostic is simple. “Each time you look at one of your time-management problems, as yourself, ‘Is my problem technical or external or psychological?'” You can then begin to address it based on the actual cause and come up with an appropriate solution.

Since it’s often a “combination of forces that create time management problems,” note that you need to “consider all three levels of errors and obstacles when diagnosing what is going wrong.” If you don’t do this, we might end up with a partial fix — for example, “you will remove the external reality that’s preventing you from accomplishing certain tasks but the psychological obstacles will remain.”

In sum, when you encounter obstacles in your time management — both persistent and occassional — don’t just accept it or immediately jump to a solution. First, identify the cause — is it technical, external, or psychological (or a combination)? Then, half the work of creating an effective solution will have been done, and the rest of the path will often illuminate itself.

The Pros and Cons of Writing Things Down, and the Six Blog Posts that Won't Happen (Probably)

One key GTD principle is that if you have a thought that you want to act on, but which you can’t act on right away, you write it down. You then process it later along with the rest of the stuff in your inbox (or capture tool).

I am a big believer in that principle. And I also see that it has a slight down side: the more ideas you write down, the more time you have to spend processing them — thus taking time away from literally doing things (or just doing nothing).

As a result, sometimes I try to have a very tight filter over what I actually write down when it comes to actionable ideas. But this also has a trade-off: some of those ideas don’t come back, and if they are good, that means they won’t happen.

Maybe in some way or another the best of them end up coming back (though it is interesting that David Allen observed once that “if you have to have the same thought twice, that’s inefficient”).

However, I think that there are at least six such ideas that probably won’t. For over the weekend I had about six really good (in my opinion!) ideas for blog posts which, in my desire to save time and not overwhelm myself with input, I didn’t write down. (Plus, I was also outside — although that’s no excuse, because I am now using Jott for iPhone as my capture tool.)

Now, they are gone — I cannot remember them at all. The one thing I do remember about them is that they pertained to current, ad hoc observations on certain things — examples of productivity problems and how to deal with them, and so forth. Their ad hoc nature is probably one of the main reasons that I can’t remember what they are anymore. There is one other thing I remember about them, I guess — I found them interesting (though maybe I forgot them becasuse you wouldn’t have!).

Regardless, here we see an immediate, real-life example of the pros and cons of writing things down (or not)!

Why Knowledge Work Can be So Hard

In the last post (actually, two posts ago now), we saw that it can be very helpful and clarifying to define the deliverables on your projects.

This leads to the reason knowledge work can be so hard. Not hard in the sense of heavy lifting, but in the sense of — for lack of a better word — “mystifying.”

The challenge of knowledge work is that, usually, we have to define our own projects and deliverables. I often find myself looking back fondly to when I was in school, and all of the “deliverables” were handed to me on a silver platter (= syllabus).

You didn’t even really need to keep a project list — all of your “projects” were defined for you, with detail, right there in the syllabus. (Although if I had it to do over, I would keep a project list now.)

I didn’t know about David Allen back then. Yet, “knowing what you were not doing” was simple. I kept on top of things by simply saying to myself every once in a while “Hmm, I wonder what I’m supposed to be doing? Better look at the syllabi from my classes.” (That’s very GTD-ish, by the way.) This worked very well, and I actually think that there are some lessons to be learned from this (more on that down the road, hopefully).

The challenge in the world of work (and business of life, even if you are in school) is that you don’t have people defining all your projects for you. You do have people assigning you things, such as your boss. But you also have people “requesting” things. And then, for the most part, you are responsible to know what you need to do in order to accomplish the purpose of your position (or life at home — parenting, keeping up the house, etc.).

There is variation here, of course. For example, some positions might indeed largely consist of work that is defined very clearly and assigned by a boss or customer workflow or etc.

But regardless, my point is that we all have an ever-changing “syllabus,” most of which we have to create. And we have to create it in real-time.

The result is that, in addition to being skilled in actually doing our work, we also have to be skilled in defining our work. And there are some interesting trade-offs there: define your work poorly or inadequately, and the doing of your work will suffer. Additionally, time spent defining your work takes away time from doing it. On the other hand, define your work well, and that will pay off rich dividends in the doing of your work, in terms of both time savings and quality improvements.

Figuring this all out is, possibly, one of the greatest opportunities for increasing knowledge worker productivity on a large scale — and bringing more sanity to life at the individual level as well.

The Science of the Spring Equinox

My kids are very excited about the first day of spring (today). They are celebrating with ice cream and just plain enthusiasm.

Fox News has an interesting article today on the science of the equinoxes and solstices. Here’s one interesting piece:

At the North Pole, the sun rises only once a year — at the start of spring. It gets higher in the sky each day until the summer solstice, then sinks but does not truly set until late September, at the autumn equinox.

Define the Deliverables on Your Projects

Here is a practice that is very simple, but very powerful.

Whenever you have a new project (either created/identified by you or assigned to you), one of the first things you should do is define the deliverables for the project.

The deliverables on a project are the specific work products that you have to produce in order to complete the project.

For example, if the project is to create a new policy on this or that, the deliverables might be (1) collected research of the various policy options and then (2) a completed policy document. If the project is to set up a new room in your house, the deliverables might be (1) furniture (2) stuff for the walls and (3) a room that is arranged and put together.

Defining the deliverables is really just a component of asking “what’s the intended outcome?” It helps to clarify what the project means and, therefore, how to complete it.

Now, here’s the most important thing about this: Defining the deliverables directs your attention to outcomes rather than activities.

Activities are not necessarily productive. Many of the activities we do are not necessary. When you think about your projects, if you think first in terms of “doing activities” to get them done, your mind will probably create a lot of unnecessary work. This is only natural — if you think that doing a project means doing activities, that’s where your focus will go and your mind will have no shortage of ideas.

On the other hand, if you think first of deliverables, your mind is directed right away to outcomes instead. This will immediately filter out a whole bunch of activities and cause you to identify and focus in on only the activities that are actually essential to the project.

This will save you time and provide you with better results.

Six Thinking Hats

Mindtools has a good overview of a decision-making tool called the Six Thinking Hats. This tool helps improve your decision making by enabling you to look at a decision from all angles.

“Six Thinking Hats” is a powerful technique that helps you look at important decisions from a number of different perspectives. It helps you make better decisions by pushing you to move outside your habitual ways of thinking. As such, it helps you understand the full complexity of a decision, and spot issues and opportunities which you might otherwise not notice.

The hats are:

  • White hat: focus on the data available.
  • Red hat: look at the decision using intuition and emotion.
  • Black hat: look at things pessimistically [my least favorite! — but it will help make your plans tougher].
  • Yellow hat: look at things optimistically.
  • Green hat: look at things creatively.
  • Blue hat: this stands for control, which means directing attention to the most needed hat when circumstances require. For example, if ideas run dry, directing focus to the green hat, or directing focus to the black hat when it’s time to create contingency plans.

For more details and examples, read the whole thing.