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Most of us deal with the little things first. We check texts and emails; we try to respond to the urgent requests others send us; we set about tidying up, clearing the decks, in the vain hope of creating some physical, mental and digital space in which we can one day address the really important and creative projects that matter to us.

Mark McGuinness explains why this doesn’t work.

The trouble with this approach is that you end up spending the best part of the day on other people’s priorities, running their errands, and giving them what they need. By the time you finally settle down to your own work, it could be mid-afternoon, when your energy has dipped and it’s hard to focus on anything properly. “Oh well, maybe tomorrow will be better,” you tell yourself.

But when tomorrow comes round there’s another pile of emails, phone messages, and to-do list items. If you carry on like this you will spend most of your time on reactive work, responding to incoming demands and answering questions framed by other people. It’s a never-ending hamster wheel. And it will never lead to remarkable work, in Seth Godin‘s sense, “worthy of being remarked on.” We don’t find it remarkable when our expectations are met – only when they are exceeded, or when we are surprised by something completely unexpected.

So what does McGuinness do instead?

The single most important change I’ve made in my own working habits has been to start doing things the other way round – i.e. begin the day with creative work on my own top priorities, with the phone and email switched off. And I never schedule meetings in the morning, if there’s any way of avoiding it. This means that whatever else happens, I get my most important work done – and looking back, all of my biggest successes have been the result of making this simple change.

It wasn’t easy, and still isn’t, particularly when I get phone messages beginning “I sent you an email two hours ago…!”

By definition, taking this approach goes against the grain of others’ expectations, and the pressures they put on you. It can take an act of willpower to switch off the world, even for an hour, during the working day. For some strange reason, it feels “unprofessional” to be knuckling down to work in this way.

The thing is, if you want to create something truly remarkable, it won’t be built in a day. A great novel, a stunning design, a game-changing software application, a revolutionary company – this kind of thing takes time, thought, craft, and persistence. And on any given day, it will never appear as “urgent” as those four emails (in the last half-hour) from Client X or Colleague Y, asking for things you’ve already given them or which they probably don’t really need.

So if you’re going to prioritize this kind of work – your real work – you may have to go through a wall of anxiety in order to get it done. And you’ll probably have to put up with complaints and reproaches from people who have no idea what you’re trying to achieve, and can’t understand what could be more important than their needs.

Yes, it feels uncomfortable, and sometimes people get upset, but it’s much better to disappoint a few people over small things, than to sacrifice the big things for an empty inbox. Otherwise you’re sacrificing real productivity for the illusion of professionalism.

McGuinness finishes with some practical tips:

1. Creative work first, reactive work second.
Either start the day on your creative work, or make sure you block out time for it later in the day – preferably at a time when you typically feel energized and productive.

2. Tune out distractions.
You know the drill – email off, phone off, work from home if you can, stick your headphones on if you can’t.

3. Make exceptions for VIPs.
Don’t be reckless. If you’re working with a client to a deadline, or your boss needs something urgently, treat them like VIPs and give them special access – e.g. leave the phone on and answer if they ring (everyone else gets the voicemail).

4. Be really efficient at reactive work.
You can’t ignore everybody all the time. The better your productivity systems, the more promptly you’ll be able to respond to their requests – and the more time you’ll have free for your own work.

I don’t do this, but I think it’s worth trying.

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There are some moments of Olympic glory that could never be caught on camera. Not because they are too quick (the photo-finish shots from the velodrome were at 1/1000th of a second intervals), or too peripheral (nothing seemed to be outside the purview of the journalists and their camera teams), but because they take place in the innermost sanctuary of a competitor’s conscience.

There was a defining moment for Timo Boll in the table tennis. His opponent hit the ball; it seemed to everyone to have missed the table on Boll’s side; the umpire was about the give the point to Boll; but Boll heard the faintest sound as it narrowly struck the side of the table, or saw the slightest movement as it glanced away, and relinquished the point. He went on to lose the match.

What a moment of high drama, what a moment of true Olympic glory: that someone would choose truth over victory, integrity over success. Something so apparently small; unnoticed and perhaps unnoticeable to anyone but Boll himself.

Perhaps I am romanticising. Perhaps he was afraid that the slow motion replays would reveal the truth and expose his complicit silence; perhaps he was more afraid of being caught than losing.

The reality is that these split seconds decisions, when there is hardly any time to deliberate, usually reflect the character of the person – formed over a lifetime of more considered decisions – rather than the impulse of the moment. Nevertheless, he made the decision, and he made the right one – and in my mind his glory is far greater than if he had gone on to win the gold. There must be many other moments like this, completely hidden from view.

This was reported in the Times on Saturday – I’ve lost the paper now so I can’t credit the author. Nor can I find the match on YouTube, so here is an older match against Jun Mizutani just to show you that he is a serious table tennis player as well as a man of honour!

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Most of us treat failure as something to be avoided. We do all we can to succeed in whatever we have started, and to avoid getting involved in any projects that might expose us to failure.

One of my bedside books at the moment is The Little Big Things: 163 Ways to Pursue Excellence by Tom Peters. He presents a Theory of Failure in chapter 19 which is a real challenge to people of a more cautious nature like myself.

Here is my summary: To succeed in any area, you have to try a lot of stuff – quickly. If you try lots of stuff in a hurry, you will make lots of mistakes – always. Hence, making mistakes often is a very good sign of progress; perhaps the only sure sign. So moving forward is not about just tolerating mistakes, it’s about being open to them, learning from them, maximising them, celebrating them, even encouraging them.

He quotes Phil Daniels:

Reward excellent failures. Punish mediocre successes.

And at the end of the chapter he has his own list of favourite ‘failure’ quotations:

  • “Fail. Forward. Fast.” (High-tech exec)
  • “Fail faster. Succeed sooner.” (David Kelly, founder IDEO)
  • “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.” (Samuel Beckett)
  • “Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” (Winston Churchill)
  • “Whoever makes the most mistakes wins.” (Book by Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes)
  • “If people…tell me they skied all day and never fell down, I tell them to try a different mountain.” (Michael Bloomberg)
  • “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” (Michael Jordan)

Maybe this is all a bit too ‘Management-Guru-Self-Help-Book’ for you – but I found it very thought-provoking!

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