A thread from the Patagonia blog led me to discover Alastair Humphreys last weekend.  He is a Brit who has had some typically outrageous adventures (biking around the world, walking across the Empty Quarter desert, rowing the Atlantic), but, more interestingly, is now a vocal advocate for the awesome concept of“microadventures” – “small, local trips that began and ended at his doorstep.”  National Geographic recognized him as an Adventurer of the Year in 2012 for his idea and attempt to inspire many others to follow in his footsteps.  It is a great concept particularly for the life stage I am now in, where blocks of time for adventuring usually come in the duration of hours (or the time it takes my daughter to nap) rather than days or weeks or months!  I want to reflect on and experiment with the concept this year, both for myself (note to self – get bike tires fixed!) and with the whole family.

The Power of Checklists

My wife finds it amusing that I subscribe to a e-newsletter called The Art of Manliness (AOM). While I haven’t asked, I’m sure her amusement comes from a belief that I am such a manly man what could I possible need from a newsletter titled The Art of Manliness. (Of course if you know my wife, I’m sure you are ROLF right about now).

Anyway, I love of AOM because of gems like this:

The crux of this problem is while the world around us is becoming more and more complex, we’re still stuck with a brain that hasn’t changed much in 100,000 years. Sure, we’ve figured out ways to off-load memory storage to books and computers so we can know more; we just haven’t figured out a good way to overcome our evolved biases, cognitive flaws, and intrinsic forgetfulness. And so, despite owning a brain brimming with ever more knowledge, we continue to make stupid mistakes.

But what if there was a tool that could help us avoid misapplying knowledge and overcome cognitive flaws the same way data storage has helped us be more informed?

Well, there is one, and you’ve probably used it today.

The humble checklist.

* * *

Everyone knows why to-do checklists are so useful: they help you get things done. But there are also particular benefits to routine checklists that have made them an effective tool for navigating complex systems. Here are 4 of them:

1. Checklists verify that the necessary minimum gets done. With increasing complexity comes the temptation to skip over the stupid simple stuff and instead focus on the “sexy” parts of one’s work and life. Because the stupid simple stuff is so stupid and simple, we often fool ourselves that it’s not important in the grand scheme of things. But as we’ve seen, it’s often our most basic tasks that can spell the difference between success and disaster.

Checklists act as a check against our ego, and remind us to make sure the stupid, simple, but absolutely necessary stuff gets done.

2. Checklists free up mental RAM. People often bristle at using a checklist because it feels constraining. They want to be flexible and creative, and the checklist seems to take away their autonomy. For this reason, implementing checklists among surgeons has proven difficult, even though studies show checklists dramatically reduce the number of preventable, life-threatening errors. Surgeons feel that their work requires an intuitive judgment that’s born from years of training and experience and can’t be reduced to a simple checklist.

What these stubborn surgeons fail to see is that checklists provide them more freedom to exercise their professional judgment. They don’t have to think about remembering to do the stupid simple stuff because there’s a checklist for that. Offloading the need to remember basic tasks frees up the brain to concentrate on the important stuff. For surgeons, this means they’re left with more mental RAM to focus on handling unforeseen problems that often come up when you’re slicing someone open.

Checklists don’t replace judgment, they enhance it.

3. Checklists instill discipline. Checklists continue to play a vital role in aviation. Every time pilots and co-pilots take off and land, they verbally go through a checklist. A lot of what they review is of course the stupid simple stuff, but it’s important stupid simple stuff. When you’re responsible for the lives of 120 passengers, you have to have the discipline to make sure you do even the small things right. If there’s ever an incident in air, investigators will go back to see if the pilot and co-pilot went through the checklist. There’s no fudging with it. You either did it or you didn’t.

Because checklists provide a binary yes/no answer, they instill discipline in the person that uses it. Research shows that giving someone a checklist for a task increases his or her chances of completing it. There’s something about having a checklist that spurs people to get stuff done. Perhaps it’s the dopamine rush that comes with checking something off, or the concreteness checklists provide, or a combination of the two.

4. Checklists save time. A common complaint about checklists is they take too much time to go through. But running through a checklist need not take very long, and research shows that doing so will actually save you time in the long run. Because checklists can prevent errors caused by skipping basic steps, you spend less time fixing mistakes and more time doing constructive work.

I am a loyal user of checklists. I have a checklist for my morning routines. I have one for the process I follow to write blog posts. I have a list that is an inventory of “next actions”(GTD-style). I create a “next action” list every morning of things I should do during spare moments throughout the day (again GTD-style).

Checklists allow me to be hyper-efficient while minimizing ego depletion. 

Recent Reads

I’m always on the look out for useful productivity advice and/or reminders of good practice. Here are a few recent reads I found helpful:

  1. Running quick mental calculations is the currency of the consultant trade. Here are a few useful math hacks they didn’t teach you in grade school (or maybe they did…they’re useful regardless).
  2. Goal setting in your personal life may sound cheesy, but there is no better attention filter than clear short, medium, and long-term goals (GTD-style if you like). This is especially true for those of us suffering from severe attention disorder.
  3. Information overload is something I think about a lot. Way I see it, information is like a dangerous drug. I’ve struggled to get my addiction under control over the past many years. I find these tips helpful.

Optimal Cognitive Performance

I used to think working 15-16 hours a day was the way to achieve optimal performance at work. I used to think that I was a night person — that I did my best work between 11pm and 2am. I used to think that *unless* my calendar was packed from 8am until 7pm, I was being unproductive. I used to think…well you get the picture. What happened?

First, I discovered sleep:

“…when you sleep your brain removes toxic proteins from its neurons that are by-products of neural activity when you’re awake. Unfortunately, your brain can remove them adequately only while you’re asleep. So when you don’t get enough sleep, the toxic proteins remain in your brain cells, wreaking havoc by impairing your ability to think—something no amount of caffeine can fix.”

Then, I discovered exercise and the importance of doing it regularly.

Part of the reason exercise enhances cognition has to do with blood flow. Research shows that when we exercise, blood pressure and blood flow increase everywhere in the body, including the brain. More blood means more energy and oxygen, which makes our brain perform better.

After that, I discovered fueling up properly.

[The] brain is a hungry little organ. Weighing in at only 3 pounds, it uses 20% of your daily calorie intake.

And then, finally, I had an epiphany: my brain is like a machine. It requires careful and proper management for optimal cognitive performance. And it has become my obsession. (Yes, for you excel geeks the Circular Reference Warning is probably flashing right about now.)

Larry Kanarek on burnout

Larry Kanarek is a legendary senior partner in McKinsey’s DC office, and I liked a lot this anecdote that Sheryl Sandberg shares in Lean In:

[Larry] explained that since he was running the office, employees came to him when they wanted to quit. Over time, he noticed that people quit for one reason only: they were burnt out, tired of working long hours and traveling. Larry said he could understand the complaint, but what he could not understand was that all the people who quit – every single one – had unused vacation time. Up until the day they left, they did everything McKinsey asked of them before deciding that is was too much.

Larry implored us to exert more control over our careers. He said McKinsey would never stop making demands on our time, so it was up to us to decide what we were willing to do. It was our responsibility to draw the line. We needed to determine how many hours we were willing to work in a day and how many nights we were willing to travel. If later on, the job did not work out, we would know that we had tried on our own terms.

Counterintuitively, long-term success at work often depends on not trying to meet every demand placed on us.

I think this is particularly difficult above the manager level, since client service is more continuous than discrete engagements, and the more projects you have going, the rarer it is to be between them all. And hardest for associate partners and partners in a promotion window, since every day away feels like a missed opportunity to build your track record of impact. Which is why it’s so important to keep Larry’s wisdom in mind…

Don’t email, call

Focusing on efficiency frequently guides me into the trap of emailing rather than calling when I want to know or get something.

Email is seductive.  It seems so much faster – it can take 10 seconds to dash off and send a quick email, whereas a call inevitably takes longer, and you don’t necessarily get through the first time you call either.   And email is less intrusive on the other person as well – being asynchronous, they can respond at their convenience.

There are a few reasons to call, though.  First, it does 10x more to create and build personal rapport and relationship – and while we can’t build meaningful relationships with literally everyone we interact with, I suspect most of us err on the side of being too transactional too often.  The richness of vocal tones are lost over email as well – much less info is communicated with our conversation partner.

Second, a call is 10x more likely to lead to an open conversation which touches on unanticipated topics and teaches you things you didn’t know you didn’t know.  I had a great example of this recently where I had a conversation with a client head of investor relations regarding the analyst reaction to their latest earnings call, and unexpectedly came away with a number of interesting insights and ideas for our ongoing strategy engagement with the same client.

Of course, in person is even better than by phone.  So if you are co-located with a colleague or client, walk down the hall and poke your head in.  “Walking the halls” is well-recognized as something most of us should do more of.

One final thought – you don’t need to have an excuse to call.  As a mentor of mine once told me, “NOT calling is transactional.”  He meant that if you wait to call until you want something from someone, then it’s about that ask rather than the relationship.  So, pick up the phone.

GTD: Foundational, and not enough

“I embrace GTD for organizing shallow work. It is, as many will attest, devastatingly effective for this purpose. But I think of deep work as something different altogether. A philosophy of life that requires its own strategies.” – Cal Newport

On the MBTI, I test approximately 100% J, and I’ve always been a fairly organized guy.  But when I finally read David Allen’s Getting Things Done an attended a GTD training at McKinsey around June 2011, it blew my mind.  It was exactly the sort of system I had organically evolved myself over the years, but much better thought through and structured in many key respects.[Ironically, I actually bought GTD the book in 2009 at the same time as I bought The Four-hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss.  I started to read the latter and hated it, and didn’t circle back to GTD until two years later.]

Converts make the most zealous proselytizers, and I implemented GTD with fervor and preached the GTD gospel with equal passion to anyone who would listen.  In December 2011, a Business Analyst on my team asked me to teach him my email system, and I figured it would be easiest just to write it out in PowerPoint in 16 point font… so I wrote a document that went internally viral and has been downloaded over 1,000 times.

GTD has its limits, though, as Cal so eloquently describes on his Study Hacks blog.  It can become a game of constantly getting your inbox and checklists to zero and focusing on the easiest things to do, rather than the most important.  And it can make it easy to be stay busy (so busy!) and feel productive without getting the hardest and most important things done.

The transition from Engagement Manager to Associate Principal exposed this weakness for me.  EM is essentially an execution role – you have a scope and a constellation of stakeholders, and you optimize for client impact, building client relationships and giving your team a great experience.  Entrepreneurship and opportunity creation are by nature vaguer and hard to break down into a string of next steps that can be accomplished in bite-sized chunks of time.  This is “deep work’ in our context (for another time: I think it requires much different techniques to succeed than what works for Cal as an academic).

This post is already long and there is much more to explore, so I’ll stop for now with this advice.  Learn GTD and use it – it will help you be a great Associate or EM and not get tripped up on tactical process stuff.  But there is much, much more to achieving personal peak productivity… and I’m excited to piece that together bit by bit in a way that is specific to our work context.