Time Allocation Goals vs. Output Goals

When people set goals they usually define clear, measurable outputs. E.g.: “Today I’m going to write 1,000 words” or “This afternoon I’m going to finish QA testing this version release.”

But this approach doesn’t work as well for tasks of considerable complexity where what’s required of you is uncertain. Projects where there’s a clear end-goal but it’s in the distant future. The specific intervening steps, and the time required for each step, are unknown.

I’m involved in such a project right now. When I work on it I set goals around how many hours I want / need to spend. My daily goal might be: “Spend four hours working on [specific thing related to general project].” Then I’ll put my head down and make progress. And if I spend four solid hours, I consider the goal met. I am very disciplined about making sure I only count time that’s real work — if my mind wanders or if I get distracted, I turn off the clock.

As I’ve set time-allocation goals I’ve figured out the maximum amount of time I can realistically apply toward different types of tasks in a given day. I can usually do at most 4-5 hours of “hard focus work” and 4-5 hours of “light focus work” (email, blogging, Skyping) per day. A big variable for people is whether meetings fall into “hard focus” of “light focus.”

Bottom Line: The right kind of goal setting depends on the person and projects involved. For long-term projects where the specific steps and time necessary for each step are uncertain, setting short-term time allocation goals works well for me.

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All inbound email to me is now automatically marked as “read.” No more bold messages that scream to be opened. I would find myself opening the bold messages even before I had finished dealing with an older email. Thanks to Cal for this idea. I reccomend trying it.

The Two Schools of Strategy

…the history of strategy as a struggle between two definitions, strategy as positioning and strategy as organizational learning. The positioning school, led by Harvard’s Porter, sees strategy making as the choice of where you want to compete, in what industry and from what spot within that industry, and how—on price, with distinctive products, or by finding a niche. The organizational-learning school, by contrast, maintains that no company that’s already up and running can choose its strategy as if it had a blank slate. Almost gleeful in its derision of the positionists—at least its leading spokesman, McGill’s Henry Mintzberg is—the learning school also argues that virtually no strategy ever works as originally planned. The point, they say, is for the company to set off in one direction, learn from the response it gets from markets and competitors, and then adjust accordingly.

That’s from The Lords of Strategy by Walter Kiechel. Full review forthcoming. Here is Mintzberg’s book The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning.

Robert Solow on Markets and Their Limitations

His review of Cassidy’s book How Markets Fail in the New Republic a couple months ago is superb. He clearly describes basic economics, what a free market can do, and where it falls short.

Excerpt:

…in the course of producing and distributing goods and services, market outcomes generate incomes, wealth, status, and power. Any modification of market outcomes modifies the allocation of incomes, wealth, status, and power. So it is no wonder that the discussion has become thickly encrusted with ideology. And one convenient way to turn subtle argument into ideology is to create dichotomies where there are originally fine gradations of more and less. For example: are you for or against “the free market”?

He also touches in passing on the issue I’m sure the more introspective workers in the finance industry must ponder: How much good am I doing in the world?

I have read that a firm such as Goldman Sachs has made very large profits from having devised ways to spot and carry out favorable transactions minutes or even seconds before the next most clever competitor can make a move. Deep pockets in a large market can make a lot of money out of tiny advantages…A lot of high-class intellectual effort naturally goes into trying to invent ways to find those tiny advantages a few seconds before anyone else.

Now ask yourself: can it make any serious difference to the real economy whether one of those profitable anomalies is discovered now or a half-minute from now? It can be enormously profitable to the financial services industry, but that may represent just a transfer of wealth from one person or group to another. It remains hard to believe that it all adds anything much to the efficiency with which the real economy generates and improves our standard of living.

And so: “…our poorly regulated financial system is not only dangerously unstable, but also too big and too complex, absorbing talent and resources that could be better used doing something else.”

Imagine a world with 50% fewer bankers / brokers and 50% more entrepreneurs.

The Difference Between Banality and Profundity

Generally a few billion dollars, Daniel Gross says, in a short Slate piece:

The real alchemy of finance is to endow those skilled at finance to wield authority in adjacent or even unrelated areas. That's the general theory of Davos, bankers sharing their theories about nonbanking subjects. Stick around and you'll hear a lot of conventional wisdom on globalization, climate change, poverty reduction, financial crisis, but it somehow sounds deeper and more weighty because it's delivered by an extraordinarily wealthy CEO, a private equity executive, or hedge fund manager rather than by a journalist.

His case-in-point is George Soros, who we listen to on topics ranging from U.S. politics to philosophy, even though his views in these areas may not be unusually insightful.

The truth is we listen to rich people on a range of issues not for their insights but because a billionaire is in a position to actually implement the conventional wisdom. Is Bill Gates the most original voice on education reform in America? No, but whatever he does believe, banal or not, matters, because if he wants to make a difference he can.

Still, Gross's point is well taken: expertise is context-specific, and billionaires rarely have the most interesting things to say.

The “It” Quality

In the business world investors are looking for TheGuy, according to Randall Stross:

The guy. No special emphasis on either the or guy, but no intervening pause, either. TheGuy. That’s the person needed to head a start-up once it has grown beyond a seed. To wit, a stud, ideally, a big honkin’ stud or a total fuckin’ stud. He (or yes, she) will not lack for balls, at least in one sense, but in another will work his nuts off, or his ass off. A high-hustle guy. A total can-do guy. A winner. Smart. Someone with integrity off the charts. Scrappy. A kick-ass dude, a nail-eatin’, nut-crushin’ decision maker, a competitor with killer instincts. Someone who attracts and hires A’s, unafraid to hire above himself. A player. A hitter.

You can abbreviate it: They’re looking for an entrepreneur who has “it.”

When businesspeople don’t have “it,” you can tell. From the Vanity Fair profile of Arthur Sulzberger:

Here, in a nutshell, in the words of a veteran Times staffer, is what is supposedly wrong with Arthur: “He has no rays”—rays, as in the lines cartoonists draw around a character to suggest radiance, or power. In the comics trade these lines are called “emanata.” The emanata deficit is a standard insider lament about Arthur, although most Times people need a few more words to make the point.

“It” means more than “very smart.” Besides suffering from word inflation, “smart” doesn’t capture energy, zest for life, incredible get-shit-done capabilities, and general radiance that seem to accompany these people. It’s the total package.

In the sports world, elite athletes who always take care of business often earn the “it” label. I once watched a football game and heard the announcers say the quarterback has “it.” They went on to say, He is a baller, He is a player, He is a competitor, He is hyper talented. But none of these things seemed sufficient. At a loss, they said again, “He just has ‘it.'”

Finally, the “it” quality lives large in the world of beauty. Supermodels seem just normally beautiful at first. Why do the cameras never tire of them, then? Supermodel beauty involves, among other things, “uncanny symmetry and harmony to their features so that once you start looking at them it becomes difficult to stop.” It’s regular high ranking beauty plus this other harder-to-describe stuff (“harmony to their features”?) that make it work.

You know it when you see it.

The “Easy Out” Email Technique

Life is a sales call. Every day we're trying to sell something to somebody — from as little as convincing someone to join you for dinner to as big as selling a potential employer on your credentials. That's why it pays to study sales and psychology.

Most sales activity these days happens over email. So it's important to think through how you can craft emails that get the response you're looking for.

My friend David Cohen, executive director of TechStars (apply to Boulder now!), blogged about a good technique to use that he calls "the easy out." If you've been emailing someone who is not responding and you've followed up by phone and still are not getting an answer, try this:

You can send an email that says something like “It’s been some time and after several attempts, I haven’t received a response from you about my proposal. I realize this may not be a fit for you, but I was hoping you could just let me know for sure with a quick reply so that I can cross you off my list.”…

Magically, you’ll find that providing the easy out sometimes triggers action. Psychologically, it feels like a last chance to the recipient. I’ve noticed that the easy out is generally effective at separating the “maybes” into “No” and “I really am interested – I’ve just been busy.” Most people won’t ignore the easy out (if they receive the message), and their reaction can be telling of their true intentions.

I'll be writing about this topic more later in the year. Let me know if there are other situations where you are interested in how to get the attention of a busy person.

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  • Imagine if the SAT lasted two days, covered everything you've ever studied, and decided your future. Welcome to China.
  • When things go wrong or when your expectations are not met, the first words out of your mouth should be: "Hmmm. Interesting."
  • Cool time lapse video of a guy who drove from Los Angeles to New York.
  • What's the difference between liberals and libertarians? Arnold Kling outlines the key points.
  • Long piece on Dave Eggers. "I need eight hours to get 20 minutes of work done…and seven hours of self-loathing."

The Myth of Efficiency

James Kwak's excellent post The Myth of Efficiency is rooted in the idea that for most professionals "the length of their workday isn’t set by a clock, but by their sense of when they’ve done enough for the day."

I’ve become very skeptical of the simple argument for efficiency studies….The idea is that time has a monetary value (say, the per-hour employment costs of each employee), and if you save time, you save money. One example that LeBlanc mentions is moving printers. It seems to make sense on its face. You spend time walking to and from the printer. Therefore, printers should be located to minimize the total time people spend in transit, which could mean moving the printer closer to the heavy users of printing. Then those people can spend more time at their desks being productive.

But there is a serious fallacy in this argument: the assumption that the constraint on productivity is time at your desk. Let’s leave aside the issue of whether you are productive walking to the printer. The more serious issue is that you aren’t equally productive the whole time you sit at your desk. What if you spend your extra two minutes (in reduced time picking up printouts) at I Can Has Cheezburger?

In other words, doing X may save you time, but that doesn't necessarily mean you'll then fill that time with productive work. This seems simple but many efficiency-obsessed people forget it.

Here are few random, current thoughts on the topic:

1. Each morning I write down the 4-5 things I want to accomplish in the day. I try to make it realistic. The idea is to define "done." Otherwise, I will always feel like there's more work I should do before going to bed. Here's a related HBS post titled An 18 Minute Plan to Managing Your Day.

2. My guess is even talented and productive people can do only a few hours of hard, real focus work per day and a few more hours of medium-focus per day. The rest is time wasting.

3. I use Toggl to track my time. It's excellent. I turn on the virtual stopwatch when I work on certain projects and turn off the moment I do something else, so I get an accurate look at how much time I'm investing in certain projects. It also puts me in a state of mind: when the stopwatch goes on, email goes off, and so does random web browsing. Eventually, perhaps I can be like Jim Collins and carry around a real stopwatch with me. Toli Galanis uses this stopwatch.

4. I get little to no value out of RescueTime.

5. Alain de Botton is one of the best Twitterers out there, and I agree wholeheratedly with this missive: "One of the greater problems of the age: how to concentrate…"

14 Thoughts on Advice Giving and Receiving

Tyler Cowen discusses the economics of advice and makes two interesting claims:

You don't know what a person really thinks until you hear his or her advice. Along these lines, if you really want to know what a person thinks, ask for advice and he or she will open up.

and

Often we do not trust people until we hear their advice.  We suspect in any case that they wish to control us, and until we know what they have in mind, we remain wary.  Sometimes it is necessary to give advice — even pointless advice — to establish trust.

I have thought a great deal about giving and receiving advice. Below are 14 thoughts to add to the mix. I believe #12 is the most insightful (it comes from Chris Yeh).

1. Sometimes people ask for advice but really just want your attention. People like talking things through. Though it might appear they want explicit advice ("So I'm thinking about taking this new job, but I'm torn about the benefits package") what they actually want is someone to hear them out, and perhaps probe a bit, but not prescribe a solution. Books on gender say men usually try to play Mr. Fix-It right away while women are better listeners.

2. We overvalue advice on difficult decisions and undervalue advice on easy ones. So say some studies. During the college admissions process, kids get a million opinions on an admittedly important and difficult situation, but in the end receive so many contradictory thoughts that they end up confused. On the other hand, when faced with where to go for lunch, people would do better to ask around a bit for a recommendation.

3. "Just get started" is the most popular advice dished to aspiring entrepreneurs. But it's a debatable point.

4. Advice is a form of nostalgia. For this reason, we should view advice from others primarily as an opportunity for greater insight into the mind of the advice-giver, rather than as something useful to be acted upon ourselves.

5. "Passion" and "Voice" are two of the most frequent and most vague pieces of advice. Career counselors tell young people to follow their passion and writing coaches tell writers to find their voice. Both are horribly misunderstood.

6. Beware of advice from meta-careerists. That is, beware of advice from someone who is a professional advice-giver (a full-time self-help author, say), rather than someone in the trenches.

7. When giving advice, include the word "because." It increases eventual absorption, regardless of what you say after the word "because."

8. When you give advice, give the person options, and let them choose the best path. People hate to be told what to do — need to make them feel empowered to make the decision for themselves.

9. When you seek advice, should you consult the domain expert or someone who knows you best? Your mother may know you best but she may not know your industry. The domain expert knows the market but doesn't know your individual preferences or history. Conclusion: Get advice first from the domain expert to get a model and assess your choices. Then consult the person who really knows you to understand which choice makes most sense for you.

10. People who are "unconsciously competent" are not the best people to ask for advice. True experts often can't explain what they're doing and why.

11. Actionable advice is best advice. Saying "speak up more" to someone who doesn't talk in meetings is not actionable; saying "say at least three things in the meeting" is more clearly actionable.

12. When you give advice, it's easy to fan the embers but hard to strike a new fire. So listen carefully to their situation and find some aspect of it that you can build upon and emphasize. This will result in best outcome, rather than trying to instill an entirely new idea or some concept that's not already part of their framework.

13. Even if you know the other person is biased, studies show you still don't discount that bias enough. Your car mechanic wants to sell you more parts, and you know that he wants to do that, but we still don't discount his advice as much as we should.

14. Bottom Line: It's fruitful to think about advice on the meta level before engaging in the critical business of asking for advice, or the tricky business of dishing it out.

Peter Thiel on Baby Boomers and Bailouts

Peter Thiel did a 25 minute video interview on Big Think, a wonderful site if you're looking for video brain food. He answered questions from Scott Summers, Will Wilkinson, Arnold Kling, and others. Embedded below. Full text transcript is available on the page. Some excerpts:

On a decreasing appetite for bailouts:

With respect to Dubai, the basic mistake people made was they assumed that it was all part of the United Arab Emirates. Everybody was in the same boat, Abu Dhabi had lots of money, and they would help Dubai out. In reality, Abu Dhabi was probably quite resentful of the shiny and glittering and fake city known as Dubai and when push came to shove didn't really want to give them more money. And I think that kind of emotional or political or social phenomenon is going to be much more widespread and the question that will come to the fore in the next few years is will Germany bail out Greece or Spain, or Italy, or Eastern Europe? Will the responsible people bailout those they deem to be less responsible? If General Motors goes bankrupt again, will it get a second bailout? Will there be a second bailout for the banks? Will there be a second stimulus bill? I think the answer to all of these things is, no.

On thinking about what the world will look like in 20 years rather than six months:

There have been many people ask many questions about whether the recession will end with the 'U' or 'L' or a 'V' shaped recovery and sort of a lot about the tactical questions, you know, how high is the employment rate going to go, is it ticking down, is things turning a corner. I tend to think the really important questions are not about the next six months, but are about the next 20 years. The next six months is driven by the financial system liquidity, what central banks do, what they don't do. The next 20 years are driven by science, technology, a set of questions that are very different from the ones people are focused on.

On his least favorite economist:

My villain in economics is clearer. I believe the villain is Keynes and there was a Keynes line that in the long run we are all dead. Whether or not that is true, I believe that in the long run Keynesianism will be dead and that the problem with never thinking about the long run is that in the long run, the short run becomes the long run. And I wonder whether the crisis of 2008-2009 was not just a crisis about finance or about technology, but also a crisis about short run thinking and it was a point in time where short run thinking had run out and there was no more time to think about the short term and that actually a lot of long term problems we have been putting off and deferring had finally come home to roost.

On his favorite thinker overall:

My favorite thinker remains a French philosopher named Rene Girard. He developed an account of human nature in which one thinks very hard about the question of imitation and the role it plays in the ways in which culture and societies form.

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Here are my past posts on Thiel. Here's my post of icons / heroes.

Reason is the Steering Wheel. Emotion is the Gas Pedal.

Good decisions require a mix of dispassionate, rational analysis and emotion.

Though we often hear of emotion and passion clouding the decision making process, research shows that feelings help us make better decisions. Specifically, emotions aid decisiveness. Humans who have suffered damage to the part of their brain responsible for emotions are prone to crippling indecisiveness.

Here's a metaphor I came up with that conveys the mix: reason is the steering wheel, emotion is the gas and brake pedal.

When you get in a car, you first need to decide where to go. You need to think clearly and objectively about the best route. Once you've decided on a route, you need to press the gas pedal at different intervals to move forward, to go faster, or to slow down and come to a stop.

Suppose you brainstorm a new business idea. You want to think about the idea clearly and assess honestly the pros and cons, market size, competitive landscape, etc. You don't necessarily want your emotional side to dominate this assessment process. Once you've decided you want to pursue an idea, dreams of success and emotional excitement enable you to press the gas pedal and put in 12 hour days.

If the business is headed for the gutter, and you need to take immediate action to right the ship, emotions such as fear of failure and embarrassment will accelerate the actions prescribed by a rational cost-benefit analysis.

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I frequently have to remind myself that good decisions can have bad outcomes. Also, I'm still unsure of the role of intuition in good decision making, but I agree with Auren that it's better to trust your gut when it tells you not to do something.