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.

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.