Frameworks For Being Effective
The Flywheel Of Effectiveness
We live in a world of social networks, smartphone applications, and the ever-increasing set of notifications from them. Furthermore, coupling them with the messiness of our everyday lives, the vagaries of the pandemic, weather, health, etc., life starts to feel overwhelming. Our daily work schedules are filled with many different meetings, interviews, and one-off conversations, and yet our output remains relatively low.
In this article, I describe the framework that has helped me over the years to become much more effective in the work that I do. Note, that this article is highly influenced by two books. These are as follows:
Hopefully, it will help you schedule your work-life better and get the better of every moment you spend on work. Furthermore, this will also help you find time to focus on your personal life other than your professional life.
This is a four-step framework that can help you become efficient at managing your time and controlling your schedule. The four different steps within this framework are:
Prioritize: The first step before starting a day should be to prioritize one clear task during that day. This is the planning phase and is done at the start of the day.
Focus: The second step in the cycle is to ensure that you can effectively execute the task that you have prioritized for the day. This is the execution phase and lasts throughout the day.
Retrospect: The third step in the cycle is to reflect on the day. This is done at the end of the day.
Feedback: The last step in the cycle is to take feedback from the day and incorporate one improvement into the next day.
We describe each of these steps in detail in the following sections.
Step 1: Prioritise Your Tasks
Parkinson’s law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. This means that given any problem, we tend to take as much time that is allocated to it to complete it. If we allocate less time to work, we tend to complete it by applying more effort to it. However, if we allocate more time to it, we tend to reduce the effort and thus take more time to get it done. Figure 1. shows the curve for Effort vs. Time Allocated for the completion of a given effort.
However, we have too many different issues to resolve and very little time to tackle each of them. This happens quite often with executives, leaders, entrepreneurs, working moms, etc. While many of us struggle to prioritize the work that comes our way and therefore fail to work on the right problems, some are efficient enough to navigate the complexities and focus on the correct issues. This section will touch upon three frameworks that help me focus on the right issues.
Some of the frameworks that I have found helpful in the past that I use to prioritize my work are as follows:
Principle — 1: The Pareto Principle
The Pareto principle or the 80/20 rule was coined after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto while at the University of Lausanne in 1869. This rule states that 80 percent of the value of our work lies within 20 percent of the work we do.
Application: Here is my modus operandi as to how I apply the principle in my life:
Before starting your day, make a list of all the tasks on your plate.
Prioritize them with the amount of impact that they will have.
Once you have done that, take the top 1 or 2 tasks and de-prioritize all the others.
Focus on the selected tasks and do them exceptionally well.
Principle-2: The Delegation Principle
Many of us tend to do the work given to us by ourselves. This model leads to many inefficiencies and doesn’t scale up that well. Ideally, we should follow the following principle:
If the work is a high risk, own it and do it ourselves.
If the work is low risk and requires low skill, we should delegate.
If the work is low risk and requires high skill, we should train + delegate.
The principle above will help us scale our work and ensure that the work output risk is well controlled.
Principle 3: The Batching Principle
Many times we get work that is similar and can be categorized together. These include making breakfast + lunch before we head off to the office, doing the morning exercise with meditation, analyzing some data for our managers, and preparing a report. I often use a common technique to make a batch of similarly occurring work items together and batch them into similar buckets. The modus operandi I follow is as follows:
Make a list of all the tasks that I have for a given day
Bucketize them by labeling what areas do they belong to
Prioritize each bucket and decide on one bucket to tackle for the day
Go deep in that bucket and solve all the relevant problems
The technique helps me in the following way:
Avoiding context switches by forcing me to focus on a single task at a time.
Reaching a meaningful outcome from a bucket given a lot of items are done together.
This article describes a set of frameworks that anyone can use to prioritize their work.
To ensure that you can prioritize and select one task as the main Highlight of the day, you can use the following methods:
Calendar block: Set aside a time on your calendar for 15 minutes. This can be done before your workday officially begins. During this period, you can make a list of all the tasks on top of your head and write them down. Using the frameworks mentioned above, prioritize the tasks.
Impact analysis: At times, finding the task that needs the most attention gets difficult. One of the techniques that I use most often is to measure the Priority of any task that needs to be done. One way to measure the Priority of a work is by estimating the following:
Effort Estimated: The effort is a relative measure of the number of hours that would be required to finish the task.
Impact Estimated: The impact is a relative measure of the overall value that the task creates. An example of Impact Analysis is covered in this sheet.
The overall impact is calculated as follows:
Impact (Estimated) = Impact (Estimated) / Effort (Estimated)
Building a focus theme: Another technique that helps keep my mind focused on a specific task is to ensure that I have set up a single theme for focusing for a given week.
Step 2: Focus
Having decided on a single goal for the day, it often gets hard to focus on the set task in light of the incoming stream of tasks. We get many emails, pings on Slack, phone calls, etc., throughout the day. Often, our mind deviates and starts to get bored of the task that we set out to do. However, to create an impact, it is necessary to focus on a single task for a considerable period. The human mind is not designed to perform many context switches. Each context switch has a significant cost associated with it. Those who context switch often experience a 40% decrease in productivity overall, leading to stress and errors that cost the global economy $450 billion a year. (Reference).
Figure 2, The Curse Of Context Switches, shows how a person's focus dwindles and drops due to every context switch. In the figure, the Y-Axis denotes the focus of an individual, and the X-Axis denotes the period. It shows a significant drop in the focus with every context switch, and the individual has to restart after every such event.
Two of the most common forms of distraction in our modern-day lifestyle tend to be emails and smartphone applications. As soon as we turn them off or lose connection with the internet, we feel FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). However, we cannot completely switch them off as well as we require some of these applications for running our businesses, connecting to friends, etc. Some techniques that may be useful to people are as follows:
Checking email only twice a day: You can set a dedicated time at 11 am and 6 pm to check your email and reply to them together in a batch.
Shut off notifications from your phone: I follow the practice of shutting off notifications from all my social media applications. If there is an emergency, the person can call me on the phone. I do ensure that I reply to phone calls during work hours. This helps me spend long periods (undistracted) on tasks that matter the most to me.
Controlling your calendar
The Maker’s Schedule: Paul Graham coins the term Maker’s schedule in his blog post as a schedule where you can get a big chunk of continuous time for doing some creative work. Consider the daily schedule of famed novelist Haruki Murakami. He starts his days at 4 am and writes for five or six continuous hours while working on a novel. Once the writing is done, he spends his afternoons running or swimming and his evenings reading or listening to music before a 9 pm bedtime. Murakami is known for his strict adherence to this schedule. (Reference).
Reject unnecessary meetings: Reduce attending calls where you are not an active participant or do not see significant benefits from it. It would be better to watch the call or skim through the notes asynchronously.
Taking planned breaks: No human can work continuously without taking breaks in between. Breaks help you to freshen up and keep your mind sharp. The modern-day knowledge worker should work as an athlete. They should work in sprints and then take a rest. One way to achieve this is to keep a small part of your calendar blocked for a forced break in the day. This break can be a short stroll for coffee, an evening run, a water cooler break, etc. Keeping a necessary, forced break is the key.
Asynchronous communication is a mode wherein you can send and reply to messages at different times. This ensures that there are not many breaks in your work. Besides, this will help ensure that you can reply to multiple messages together in a single block of time. Some of the companies that have used these successfully are Automatic, Gitlab, etc. Here is a list of useful references:
Some of the tools that are useful and can help in improving focus are as follows:
Pomodoro: The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s.The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. Each interval is known as a Pomodoro, from the Italian word for ‘tomato,’ after Cirillo's tomato-shaped kitchen timer as a university student. A reference to the best available applications that help you use the Pomodoro Technique. A reference to the book on Pomodoro written by Francesco Cirillo.
Meditation: Meditation is an effective technique that Buddhists have practiced for thousands of years. There have been many scientific studies outlining why meditation is effective. (Reference).
Momentum: Momentum is one of my favorite applications that I have started using recently. It is available as a Chrome Plugin. Every time you open a new tab on Chrome, the plugin shows a new, randomly selected image. Besides, it also reminds you what the day's primary focus is for you. This makes it easy for you to focus on the task if you get distracted away from it.
Step 3: Retrospect
We live in a chaotic, unpredictable environment. It becomes difficult to plan every detail to perfection. Every environment we work in is different, and therefore the lessons learned from one environment may not be applicable in another environment. Furthermore, humans tend to live with many biases in our daily lives. To plan well and overcome the biases, we need to continuously look at data and execute well, using it as a guiding post. One of the best ways to do it is by doing regular retrospections and understanding where you are making mistakes as a team.
The SCRUM Model: Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka introduced the term scrum in product development in their 1986 Harvard Business Review article, “The New Product Development Game.” One of the critical components of the Scrum Model is to retrospect after every Sprint. Usually, a Sprint is run for two weeks. In this model, the team executing the project tracks the tasks they are working on using Story Points, an estimate of their work. In every retrospection meeting, the team answers the following three questions:
Things that went well in the last Sprint.
Things that didn’t go well during the last Sprint.
Things that you can improve in your next Sprint.
Calendar Block: You can set up the last task of your workday as a retrospection task. For this, you can put a 15-minute window on your calendar before you close out the day. This can be your own time of the day, where you reflect on the day and write down the following:
One thing that went well
One thing that didn’t go well
One that you can improve on the following day
Journaling: Some of us get a lot of clarity of thought when we write. Maintaining a journal is a highly effective way of retrospection. Retrospection doesn't need to be a part of our closing task. The retrospection can be embedded in different parts of your tasks.
Step 4: Feedback
While it is necessary to understand and assess the areas of improvement, the exercise becomes more fruitful if we assimilate the feedback into our next cycle. The feedback source can be internal (from ourselves through self-retrospection) or external (from external members of the team). Assimilation of feedback can be hard at times since it requires facing the harsh truth of life. Sometimes, the feedback we get is not favorable, and we tend to become disappointed in our performance.
This section talks about the standard techniques we can use to build a growth and learning mindset.
Carol Dweck is an American psychologist. She is the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. She has popularized the idea of a Growth Mindset in her book Mindset. In her book, she describes the two mindsets as follows:
The everyday expert symbolizes a Fixed Mindset. “In a Fixed Mindset, people believe their basic abilities, intelligence, and talents are fixed traits. They have a certain amount, and that’s that, and then their goal is to look smart and never look dumb.”
The everyday learner symbolizes a Growth Mindset. “In a Growth Mindset, people understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”
To be able to assimilate feedback, learn, and adapt is, therefore, necessary to cultivate and adopt a growth mindset in your daily life.
Kaizen is a concept referring to business activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees, from the CEO to the assembly line workers. Kaizen (改善)（かいぜん）is the Sino-Japanese word for “improvement.” Kaizen also applies to processes, such as purchasing and logistics, that cross organizational boundaries into the supply chain. (Reference).
The key takeaway from the technique is to pick one improvement in every cycle and ensure that the improvement is then assimilated and then applied in the next cycle. This will help remove inefficiencies from the process and make the execution machinery efficient.
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