Meri Williams sets her sights on self improvement in 2017 with a guide to personal development. Like a good Christmas dinner, you can set a beautiful table, but unless you get the turkey prepared and into the oven, it’s never going to be ready to serve.
Once we’ve eaten our way through the holiday season, people will start to think about new year’s resolutions. We tend to focus on things that we want to change… and often things that we don’t like about ourselves to “fix”. We set rules for ourselves, or try to start new habits or stop bad ones. We focus in on things we will or won’t do.
For many of us the list of things we “ought” to be spending time on is just plain overwhelming – family, charity/community, career, money, health, relationships, personal development.
It’s kinda scary even just listing it out, isn’t it? I want to encourage you to think differently about next year.
The ever-brilliant Kathy Sierra articulates a better approach really well when talking about the attitude we should have to building great products. She tells us to think not about what the user will do with our product, but about what they are trying to achieve in the real world and how our product helps them to be badass1.
When we help the user be badass, then we are really making a difference.
I suppose this is one way of saying: focus not on what you will do, focus on what it will help you achieve. How will it help you be awesome?
In what ways do you want to be more badass next year?
Though of course you might want to focus in on health or family or charity or community or another area next year, many people will want to become more badass in their chosen career.
So let’s talk about a scaffold to help you figure out your professional / career development next year.
First up, an assumption: everyone wants to be awesome. Nobody gets up in the morning aiming to be crap at their job. Nobody thinks to themselves “Today I am aiming for just south of mediocre, and if I can mess up everybody else’s ability to do good work then that will be just perfect2”.
Ergo, you want to be awesome. So what does awesome look like?
The big trap that people fall into when think about their professional development is to immediately focus on the things that they aren’t good at. When you ask people “what do you want to work on getting better at next year?” they frequently gravitate to the things that they believe they are bad at.
Why is this a trap? Because if you focus all your time and energy on improving the areas that you suck at, you are going to end up middling at everything. Going from bad ? mediocre at a given skill / behaviour takes a bunch of time and energy. So if you spend all your time going from bad ? mediocre at things, what do you think you end up? That’s right, mediocre.
Mediocrity is not a great career goal, kids.
The much better investment of time and energy is to go from good ? awesome. It often takes the same amount of relative time and energy, but wow the end result is better! So first, ask yourself and those who know you well what you are already pretty damn good at. Combat imposter syndrome by asking others.
Then figure out how to double down on those things. What does brilliant look like for a given skill? What’s the knowledge or practice that you need to level yourself up even further in that thing?
Admittedly, sometimes something you suck at really is holding you back. But it’s important to separate out weaknesses (just something you suck at) from controlling weaknesses (something you suck at that actually matters for your chosen career).
If skill x is just not an important thing for you to be good at, you may never need to care that you aren’t good at it. If your current role or the one you aspire to next really really requires you to be great at x, then it’s worth investing your time and energy (and possibly money too) getting better at it.
So when you look at the things that you aren’t good at, which of those are actually essential for success?
A good rule of thumb is to pick three things you are already good at to work on becoming awesome at and limit yourself to one weakness that you are trying to improve on. That way you are making sure that you get to awesome in areas where you already have an advantage, and limit the amount of time you are spending on going from bad ? mediocre.
So once you’ve figured out your areas you want to focus on next year, what do you actually decide to do?
Most of all, you should try to design your day-to-day work in a way that it is also an effective learning experience. This means making sure you have a good feedback loop – you get to try something, see if it works, learn from it, rinse and repeat.
It’s also about balance: you want to be challenged enough for work to be interesting, without it being so hard it’s frustrating. You want to do similar / the same things often enough that you get to learn and improve, without it being so repetitive that it’s boring.
Continuously getting better at things you are already good at is actually both easier and harder than it sounds. The advantage is that it’s pretty easy to add the feedback loop to make sure that you are improving; the disadvantage is that you’re already good at these skills so you could easily just “do” without ever stopping to reflect and improve. Build in time for personal retrospectives (“What went well? What didn’t? What one thing will I choose to change next time?”) and find a way of getting feedback from outside sources as well.
As for the new skills, it’s worth knowing that skill development follows a particular pattern:
We all start out unconsciously incompetent (we don’t know what to do and if we tried we’d unwittingly get it wrong), progress on to conscious incompetence (we now know we’re doing it wrong) then conscious competence (we’re doing it right but wow it takes effort and attention) and eventually get to unconscious competence (automatically getting it right).
Your past experiences and knowledge might let you move faster through these stages, but no one gets to skip them. Invest the time and remember you need the feedback loop to really improve.
Everything changes very fast in our industry. We need to invest in not falling behind, in keeping on top of what great looks like. There are a bunch of ways to do this, from reading blog posts, following links on Twitter, reading books to attending conferences or workshops, or just finding time to build things in new ways or with new technologies.
Which will work best for you depends on how you best learn. Do you prefer to swallow a book? Do you learn most by building or experimenting?
Whatever your learning style though, remember that there are three real needs:
When you remember that you need all three of these things it can help you get more of what you do.
For me personally, I use a combination of conferences and blogs / Twitter to scan the landscape. Half of what I want out of a conference is just a list of things to have on my radar that might become important. I then pick a couple of things to go read up on more (I personally learn most effectively by swallowing a book or spec or similar). And then I pick one thing at a time to actually apply in real life, to embed the skill / knowledge.
Meri is a geek, a manager, and a manager of geeks. She’s a CTO (these days at @MOO) and also runs micro-consultancy ChromeRose, helping digital & technical teams be brilliant. An alumna of Procter & Gamble and the Government Digital Service, she has had a career spanning development, project, programme & product management and more recently engineering & operations leadership. She’s led teams ranging in size from 30 to 300, mostly with folks spread across the world.
Christopher Murphy puts distractions to one side to discuss the issue of time management and procrastination. Whether you’re trying to finish up projects for Christmas, or are yet to buy your final gifts before the holidays, this could prove some well timed advice to take you into the New Year.
Time is valuable. It’s a precious commodity that, if we’re not too careful, can slip effortlessly through our fingers. When we think about the resources at our disposal we’re often guilty of forgetting the most valuable resource we have to hand: time.
We are all given an allocation of time from the time bank. 86,400 seconds a day to be precise, not a second more, not a second less.
It doesn’t matter if we’re rich or we’re poor, no one can buy more time (and no one can save it). We are all, in this regard, equals. We all have the same opportunity to spend our time and use it to maximum effect. As such, we need to use our time wisely.
I believe we can ‘stretch’ time, ensuring we make the most of every second and maximising the opportunities that time affords us.
Through a combination of ‘Structured Procrastination’ and ‘Focused Finishing’ we can open our eyes to all of the opportunities in the world around us, whilst ensuring that we deliver our best work precisely when it’s required. A win win, I’m sure you’ll agree.
I’m a terrible procrastinator. I used to think that was a curse – “Why didn’t I just get started earlier?” – over time, however, I’ve started to see procrastination as a valuable tool if it is used in a structured manner.
Don Norman refers to procrastination as ‘late binding’ (a term I’ve happily hijacked). As he argues, in Why Procrastination Is Good, late binding (delay, or procrastination) offers many benefits:
Delaying decisions until the time for action is beneficial… it provides the maximum amount of time to think, plan, and determine alternatives.
We live in a world that is constantly changing and evolving, as such the best time to execute is often ‘just in time’. By delaying decisions until the last possible moment we can arrive at solutions that address the current reality more effectively, resulting in better outcomes.
Procrastination isn’t just useful from a project management perspective, however. It can also be useful for allowing your mind the space to wander, make new discoveries and find creative connections. By embracing structured procrastination we can ‘prime the brain’.
As James Webb Young argues, in A Technique for Producing Ideas, all ideas are made of other ideas and the more we fill our minds with other stimuli, the greater the number of creative opportunities we can uncover and bring to life.
By late binding, and availing of a lack of time pressure, you allow the mind space to breathe, enabling you to uncover elements that are important to the problem you’re working on and, perhaps, discover other elements that will serve you well in future tasks.
When setting forth upon the process of writing this article I consciously set aside time to explore. I allowed myself the opportunity to read, taking in new material, safe in the knowledge that what I discovered – if not useful for this article – would serve me well in the future.
Ron Burgundy summarises this neatly:
Procrastinator? No. I just wait until the last second to do my work because I will be older, therefore wiser.
An ‘older, therefore wiser’ mind is a good thing. We’re incredibly fortunate to live in a world where we have a wealth of information at our fingertips. Don’t waste the opportunity to learn, rather embrace that opportunity. Make the most of every second to fill your mind with new material, the rewards will be ample.
Deadlines are deadlines, however, and deadlines offer us the opportunity to focus our minds, bringing together the pieces of the puzzle we found during our structured procrastination.
Like everyone I’ll hear a tiny, but insistent voice in my head that starts to rise when the deadline is approaching. The older you get, the closer to the deadline that voice starts to chirp up.
At this point we need to focus.
We live in an age of constant distraction. Smartphones are both a blessing and a curse, they keep us connected, but if we’re not careful the constant connection they provide can interrupt our flow.
When a deadline is accelerating towards us it’s important to set aside the distractions and carve out a space where we can work in a clear and focused manner.
When it’s time to finish, it’s important to avoid context switching and focus. All those micro-interactions throughout the day – triaging your emails, checking social media and browsing the web – can get in the way of you hitting your deadline. At this point, they’re distractions.
Chunking tasks and managing when they’re scheduled can improve your productivity by a surprising order of magnitude. At this point it’s important to remove distractions which result in ‘attention residue’, where your mind is unable to focus on the current task, due to the mental residue of other, unrelated tasks.
By focusing on a single task in a focused manner, it’s possible to minimise the negative impact of attention residue, allowing you to maximise your performance on the task at hand.
Cal Newport explores this in his excellent book, Deep Work, which I would highly recommend reading. As he puts it:
Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.
To help you focus on finishing it’s helpful to set up a work-focused environment that is purposefully free from distractions. There’s a time and a place for structured procrastination, but – equally – there’s a time and a place for focused finishing.
The French term ‘mise en place’ is drawn from the world of fine cuisine – I discovered it when I was procrastinating – and it’s applicable in this context. The term translates as ‘putting in place’ or ‘everything in its place’ and it refers to the process of getting the workplace ready before cooking.
Just like a professional chef organises their utensils and arranges their ingredients, so too can you.
Thanks to the magic of multiple users on computers, it’s possible to create a separate user on your computer – without access to email and other social tools – so that you can switch to that account when you need to focus and hit the deadline.
Another, less technical way of achieving the same result – depending, of course, upon your line of work – is to close your computer and find some non-digital, unconnected space to work in.
The goal is to carve out time to focus so you can finish. As Newport states:
If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive – no matter how skilled or talented you are.
Procrastination is fine, but only if it’s accompanied by finishing. Create the space to finish and you’ll enjoy the best of both worlds.
There is a time and a place for everything: there is a time to procrastinate, and a time to focus. To truly reap the rewards of time, the mind needs both.
By combining the processes of ‘Structured Procrastination’ and ‘Focused Finishing’ we can make the most of our 86,400 seconds a day, ensuring we are constantly primed to make new discoveries, but just as importantly, ensuring we hit the all-important deadlines.
Make the most of your time, you only get so much. Use every second productively and you’ll be thankful that you did. Don’t waste your time, once it’s gone, it’s gone… and you can never get it back.
A writer, speaker and designer based in Belfast, Christopher has founded a number of successful digital startups. A passionate educator and mentor to many young entrepreneurs, Christopher leads Interaction Design provision at The Belfast School of Art.
The author of many books, he is currently hard at work on Tiny Books, which publishes short, sharp books for creative entrepreneurs that explore the design of business and the business of design.
If you’ve ever dreamed of running a business you might enjoy his first book, Start! Stop Procrastinating and Pursue Your Passion. Drawn from over two decades of teaching experience, ‘Start!’ will help you turn your idea for a business into a reality.