4 Secrets to Improve Your Workday: How to Build Career Success

#1 Routine, Not Willpower, is the Key to a Successful Workday

It was as if the first few times a rat explored the maze, its brain had to work at full power to make sense of all the new information. But after a few days of running the same route, the rat didn’t need to scratch the walls or smell the air anymore, and so the brain activity associated with scratching and smelling ceased. It didn’t need to choose which direction to turn, and so decision-making centers of the brain went quiet. All it had to do was recall the quickest path to the chocolate. Within a week, even the brain structures related to memory had quieted. The rat had internalized how to sprint through the maze to such a degree that it hardly needed to think at all. The key to a successful workday is to replace manual effort with habits and routines. Habits allow us to process more work without using extra energy that drains us by mid-afternoon. The attitude of hard work is great, but hard work has a downside because it depletes our energy levels when focused on low-value activities. We can’t produce quality work. -The Power of Habit, Duhigg

In his book, Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains how to channel habits into powerful assets to improve our lives.

How can we use these lessons to improve our workday?

The key to a productive workday is to substitute much of our “conscious” hard work into subconscious or automated habits that are less taxing on our energy systems.

Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. -The Power of Habit, Duhigg

What type of work should become an automatic routine? Any repetitive and predictable activity. Emails. Office organization. Regular reports. Mundane transactions. Anything that has low variability is a good candidate for a habit.

What should not become habit? Any task that has high unpredictability or complexity. Because of the inherent variation in these tasks, automation will often lead to incomplete action and the wrong outcome. For example, hiring is a complex process that takes significant deliberate thought. It should not be automatic given the consequences of a bad hire and the variation of prospective employees.

Conserving mental effort is tricky, because if our brains power down at the wrong moment, we might fail to notice something important, such as a predator hiding in the bushes or a speeding car as we pull onto the street. -The Power of Habit, Duhigg

As mentioned above, we can’t power down our brains in high impact situations. It’s up to us to separate our day into routine habits and deliberate action, and not mix the two.

#2 Take a Step Back Before Judging Other’s Behavior

How do you react when a colleague makes a mistake that seems indefensible? Do you assume the person is just plain stupid? Do you assume they don’t care? Do you blame their work ethic or attention to detail?

Executives determined that, in some ways, they had been thinking about willpower all wrong. Employees with willpower lapses, it turned out, had no difficulty doing their jobs most of the time. On the average day, a willpower-challenged worker was no different from anyone else. But sometimes, particularly when faced with unexpected stresses or uncertainties, those employees would snap and their self-control would evaporate. A customer might begin yelling, for instance, and a normally calm employee would lose her composure. An impatient crowd might overwhelm a barista, and suddenly he was on the edge of tears. -The Power of Habit, Duhigg

There is constant tension between the effects of our environment and our ability to influence and control those effects. When we see other’s behavior, we often attribute 100% of that behavior to the person and completely neglect the role of environment. Seldom do we let the person off the hook and blame the environment. It *seems* to make intuitive sense that we are in 100% in control of our actions. Numerous studies have rebuked that belief, but it still persists in managerial behavior.

When we make a mistake, we are likely to blame outside factors instead of looking inward at ourselves. And when something goes right, we often take all the credit and assume the environment had nothing to do with it. We accept all praise and deflect all blame. It’s hard to overcome.

But when dealing with colleagues, hold your initial impression since you likely underestimate the power of the situation.

#3 Use a Crisis to Shake Things Up

After Barack Obama’s election, Rahm Emanuel said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

You may not agree with his politics, but he had a powerful point.

All those leaders seized the possibilities created by a crisis. During turmoil, organizational habits become malleable enough to both assign responsibility and create a more equitable balance of power. Crises are so valuable, in fact, that sometimes it’s worth stirring up a sense of looming catastrophe rather than letting it die down. -The Power of Habit, Duhigg

Although a crisis is not a pleasant thing, many organizations waste the opportunity to improve their habits by learning from the crisis. The initial reaction is often hysteria and an ultra-short-term focus on the immediacy of the crisis, rather than improving long-term behavior.

Employees often follow the cues of their leaders. If leaders can’t separate the crisis from the learning, why should they expect employees to do the same? It takes a certain stoic mindset to compartmentalize the urgent crisis from the long-term lessons.

One a crisis has occurred, it’s a sunk cost and no amount of ruminating and stressing will undue the past. The best we can do is learn to modify our routines to ensure the same crisis doesn’t happen again.

#4 Corporate and Employee Behavior is Shaped by Social Convention

Your behavior mimics those around you.

Have you considered your behavior is significantly influenced by those around you? Do you believe you are 100% in control of your actions and habits?

…firms are guided by long-held organizational habits, patterns that often emerge from thousands of employees’ independent decisions. And these habits have more profound impacts than anyone previously understood. -The Power of Habit, Duhigg

It’s likely you have less control than you think. Unless you deliberately engage and understand your habits, you are bound to repeat the same patterns and actions. Your day to day activities are a consequence of the cues and expectations of those around you.

Many behaviors are not a result of deliberate thought but rather an evolving collection of haphazard and unexamined beliefs.

For example, companies often want employees to engage in deep thinking on breakthrough or revolutionary projects. However, they also expect constant and immediate email responses. Studies have shown that by interrupting deliberate effort, it takes 20-40 minutes to re-engage in deep learning.

While the company is hoping for one thing (deep thinking) they are getting something else (distracted workers handicapped by email). The actions of the company must match the words spoken by management. When there is conflict, the actions always win.

If you want to change behavior, don’t expect more information to alter deep-seated organization behavior. It’s not an information problem. It’s a habit and expectations problem.

A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances. It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together. And it endures because a movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership. Usually, only when all three parts of this process are fulfilled can a movement become self-propelling and reach a critical mass. -The Power of Habit, Duhigg

Your focus should first start with company-wide behavior, then re-train organization behavior with systematic training, and finally reinforce with social proof.

A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances. It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together. And it endures because a movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership. Usually, only when all three parts of this process are fulfilled can a movement become self-propelling and reach a critical mass. There are other recipes for successful social change and hundreds of details that differ between eras and struggles. -The Power of Habit, Duhigg

To Summarize:

#1 Routine, not willpower, is the key to a successful workday – Quit trying to force your way through bad habits. Re-train and eliminate them instead.

#2 Take a step back before judging other’s behavior – Before rushing to judgment, step back and reflect on situational factors that have shaped people’s behavior.

#3 Use a crisis to shake things up – Rise above the day-to-day challenges of a crisis and learn to modify behaviors instead of ruminating on past mistakes.

#4 Corporate and employee behavior is shaped by social convention – Employee behavior is often shaped by social factors, not rules and logic. If you want to change behavior, alter social expectations.

How Deep Work Can Transform Your Life: 7 Powerful Principles

Becoming exceptional is hard. The professional world is competitive, full of intelligent and ambitious people vying for the same top positions.

To make things more complicated, there isn’t one exact set of rules we can follow that guarantees success. Hundreds, if not thousands of books are published every year promoting magic formulas for success. But how many of these books create lasting change?

How many of us really achieve the success we expect?

Where do we go wrong?

What do we need to change if we don’t like the path we are on?

Do we practice becoming exceptional like we practice golf, triathlons, or public speaking?

No. We assume mastery is something that just happens. We go about it in a haphazard way while our frustration and struggles build when we don’t progress. We don’t treat mastery as a skill that can be improved. We just work hard and hope it happens.

Here’s the good news. There is a way to change your habits and behaviors that create lasting success and builds exceptional talent. The bad news is we must overcome significant mental and societal pressures to cultivate deep work.

If you are looking to make this shift from mediocre to exceptional, one of the best resources on creating success is Cal Newport. His blog, studyhacks.com, is a must read if interested in practical principles to achieve success. His latest book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, is my best recommendation to create permanent changes to do great things. (Note: All italicized quotes in this article are from Newport’s book, Deep Work)

The following 7 Principles, based on Cal’s book, can be used by anyone to improve the odds of becoming truly exceptional.

Principle 1: Identify Shallow vs. Deep Work

A lot can be explained by another type of effort, which provides a counterpart to the idea of deep work: Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate…To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work.

To set the stage for this discussion, we need to define what deep work is. Here’s Cal’s definition:

 “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

Why is this important? Ask Cal mentioned, to remain valuable in this economy, master the art of quickly learning complicated things. Mastery comes from deep, deliberate work applied in a consistent and focused manner. We erroneously assume mastery will just come to us if we show up regularly or get enough experience. Certainly, we will gain some knowledge that way. But to become truly exceptional and stand above the rest, apply deep work principles.

Distinguish between shallow and deep work. If we can’t, we will never be able to properly transition into deep work. By minimizing or compartmentalizing shallow work, we create a maximum focus on deep work.

This compressed schedule is possible because I’ve invested significant effort to minimize the shallow in my life while making sure I get the most out of the time this frees up. I build my days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities I absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule. Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.

Shallow work is inevitable. As much as we hate busywork, there is a certain amount we must manage. So how do we manage through? As Cal advises, we batch our shallow work into blocks where we do nothing else but get through as much as possible. Think of this like a sprint – as soon as we start, we embrace the distracted nature and work to accomplish as much shallow work as possible. As soon as the sprint is over, we stop the shallow work and re-engage in deep work.

Principle 2: Produce Good Work

The second reason that deep work is valuable is because the impacts of the digital network revolution cut both ways. If you can create something useful, its reachable audience (e.g., employers or customers) is essentially limitless—which greatly magnifies your reward. On the other hand, if what you’re producing is mediocre, then you’re in trouble, as it’s too easy for your audience to find a better alternative online.

Because of social media and the internet, anything we do can be quickly disseminated throughout the world. This is the key to building our brand and reputation as a rare and exceptional talent. When we create valuable writing, advice, art, etc, we can share the work with the world. The more people that benefit from what we do, the more valuable we become and the more we control our destiny.

The flipside is also important. Our competition – especially people vying for your job, have the same opportunity to share valuable work. Competition has become meritocratic. We are judged on our actual ability rather than where we went to school or who we know. Anyone in the world can compete with us. There are no geographical or physical boundaries that apply. The brutal competitive environment just got tougher and wont get any easier for us.

The longer you wait to accept this the further back you will put yourself. Eventually, competition will arrive and we will be separated by who can deliver and prove their value and who can’t.

In a seminal 1981 paper, the economist Sherwin Rosen worked out the mathematics behind these “winner-take-all” markets. One of his key insights was to explicitly model talent—labeled, innocuously, with the variable q in his formulas—as a factor with “imperfect substitution,” which Rosen explains as follows: “Hearing a succession of mediocre singers does not add up to a single outstanding performance.” In other words, talent is not a commodity you can buy in bulk and combine to reach the needed levels: There’s a premium to being the best.

There really is a benefit to becoming exceptional at one thing. You don’t have to master every field or become an expert in everything. That’s impossible. The world will reward you if you are exceptional at one thing.

Just being “good enough” doesn’t set you apart. You are still a commodity and are expendable.

Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy

1. The ability to quickly master hard things.

2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

As Cal states, once we master hard things, we then have to prove our mastery. If we keep our mastery inside our head and never tell anyone, no one will ever know. It’s our responsibility to show the world our talents and value. No one else will make sure we get what we deserve.

We see this with college graduates. Just because they have a degree, graduates assume the world will recognize their genius and reward them appropriately. But degrees are becoming totally irrelevant. 20 years ago, it was safe to assume that a college degree led to differentiated skills. It was so much rarer then as it is now. With the proliferation of colleges and the ease of getting a degree, employers are rightfully skeptical of new graduates providing value from day one.

It doesn’t matter where you are in your career. We must take the initiative and prove to world what we can do.

Once you do the hard work of becoming exceptional, don’t neglect to share your work.

Now consider the second core ability from the list shown earlier: producing at an elite level. If you want to become a superstar, mastering the relevant skills is necessary, but not sufficient. You must then transform that latent potential into tangible results that people value.

Principle 3: Utilize Deep Work to Magnify Results

This brings us to the question of what deliberate practice actually requires. Its core components are usually identified as follows:

(1) your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master;

(2) you receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.

Most people understand the first requirement, even though it’s often hard to put into practice. Deep work requires undivided and sustained attention to your skill. It’s an unnatural habit and mindset that doesn’t come easy. If you struggle at first to maintain focus, don’t give up. Today’s environment doesn’t favor deep work. You are not alone in this struggle. If needed, start with 15 minutes of focused activity, and then aim to increase that by 5 minutes the next time you study. Track your progress on your calendar. Tracking provides a solid record of your progress and provides valuable feedback on your progression.

Don’t think you can switch focus every 5 minutes over the course of a couple hours. This effort needs to be concentrated in one time period. As Cal stated, “…though Grant’s productivity depends on many factors, there’s one idea in particular that seems central to his method: the batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches.”

It takes time to get into the flow with deliberate practice. It’s almost like we need a mental warmup like we would with a physical workout. If we only work for 5 or 10 minutes at a time and then switch our focus, we have to keep starting over every time we re-engage. So make it a habit to start once and continue for 30-60 minutes.

The second requirement is typically missed. We assume by showing up and working hard we will achieve success. But attaining mastery requires a different approach. This approach includes objective and unbiased feedback. Feedback delivers guidance and suggestion and what needs improvement and how to adjust. Without feedback, you are operating blind – you are just showing up and hoping that your actions are leading to improvement. Feedback connects the actions you take with the results you get. If there is no link, you can’t be sure how much success you are achieving and the source of that success.

If you remember one formula, remember this from Cal:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

We need to clarify one possible point of confusion. We haven’t said anything about increasing the quantity of hours worked; we have focused just on quality. Quality is reflected in the intensity, focus, and deliberate nature of our practice. While we may need to allocate more time to our skill, first look to optimize the time we already invest. That alone should vault us to the top echelons of our skill. Afterwards, we can add in more time if necessary. But given our competing schedules, it’s not always possible to add more time. So remember, it’s always quality over quantity - focus on improving the time you already spend (quality) before thinking about adding more time (quantity). As Cal mentions below, top students don’t become best just by working longer, they work smarter.

The best students understood the role intensity plays in productivity and therefore went out of their way to maximize their concentration—radically reducing the time required to prepare for tests or write papers, without diminishing the quality of their results.

Principle 4: Design Your Environment to Enable Deep Work

The Principle of Least Resistance: In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.

Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

Cal’s two principles highlight a major roadblock against deep work. Our environments, especially professionally, are poorly designed to enable deep work. It’s a constant barrage of emails, interruptions, and scattered meetings. When we show up to work and attempt to “willpower” our way into deep work, we may find some short-term success, but will ultimately succumb to behaviors and actions that are the easiest and offer the least resistance. Instead of toughing this out, we need to rethink how we design our work environment to enable deep work, and not shallow work, to be the default mode of action.

As Cal stated, without clear feedback, we can’t separate deep work from shallow busywork. When we deliberately set up practice that delivers immediate feedback and results in clear, unambiguous progress indicators, we have begun engaging in deep work. There is an easy test to determine if work is shallow or deep:

Does our work:

1)     provide feedback?

2)     provide verified, measurable progress?

For example, email provides no feedback and no measurement of getting better at anything.

However, writing and publishing an article through an email list does – people will respond with comments and feedback. You can track open rates and other metrics to judge readership progress. The goal is to always engage in some project that allows you to receive feedback and measurable results.

Testing is another great example. For example, if you are studying for your CPA exam, practice tests provide both feedback (you’re able to compare your answer to the correct answer, often with explanations showing where you went wrong) and measurement (you can track your scores over time and see an unbiased measurement of your progress.

If you believe in the value of depth, this reality spells bad news for businesses in general, as it’s leading them to miss out on potentially massive increases in their value production. But for you, as an individual, good news lurks. The myopia of your peers and employers uncovers a great personal advantage. Assuming the trends outlined here continue, depth will become increasingly rare and therefore increasingly valuable.

Not only does deep work provide better engagement, it provides a huge advantage over your competition. The benefits are double. Deep work provides more long-term satisfaction on a personal level, and provides a sustainable competitive advantage in your career.

As Cal states, “Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.”

Principle 5: Schedule Your Day

Seinfeld began his advice to Isaac with some common sense, noting “the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes,” and then explaining that the way to create better jokes was to write every day. Seinfeld continued by describing a specific technique he used to help maintain this discipline. He keeps a calendar on his wall. Every day that he writes jokes he crosses out the date on the calendar with a big red X. “After a few days you’ll have a chain,” Seinfeld said. “Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

As the Seinfeld lesson shows, showing up every day, in a consistent manner, can produce incredible results. But how can you ensure that you show up every day? We’ve all resolved to stick to a diet or workout plan, but most of us fail after only a few days. How can we approach this differently?

One idea is to schedule out your day hour by hour. This may sound extreme, but top performers use specific schedules to thoroughly plan their day. Without an exact schedule, you simply fill in your day with whatever is convenient. Sure, there might be good days where you engage in deep work. But most days end up like we described in lesson 6. You fill your day with the activities that are the most painless, not the most productive. Deep work can be painful because it’s intense and focused. It takes a certain amount of dedication to commit the energy to focus. It doesn’t appear naturally or easily, which is why we must schedule our deep work sessions.

I should admit that I’m not pure in my application of the journalist philosophy. I don’t, for example, make all my deep work decisions on a moment-to-moment basis. I instead tend to map out when I’ll work deeply during each week at the beginning of the week, and then refine these decisions, as needed, at the beginning of each day (see Rule #4 for more details on my scheduling routines). By reducing the need to make decisions about deep work moment by moment, I can preserve more mental energy for the deep thinking itself.

At the beginning of each week, we map out our Monday through Friday hour by hour. This won’t be perfect. Changes are to be expected as the week won’t unfold exactly like we planned it. But this schedule gives us the best chance to prioritize deep work time instead of trying to fit it in. 

There is a popular notion that artists work from inspiration—that there is some strike or bolt or bubbling up of creative mojo from who knows where… but I hope [my work] makes clear that waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration. In a New York Times column on the topic, David Brooks summarizes this reality more bluntly: “[Great creative minds] think like artists but work like accountants.”

Scheduling doesn’t reduce our creativity or spontaneity. Scheduling deep work and creativity reinforce one another. By blocking off time for deep work, we stop worrying about how we will get everything done. Instead, we build contentment by actively choosing our schedule and not letting life choose our priorities.  

[J.K] Rowling’s decision to check into a luxurious hotel suite near Edinburgh Castle is an example of a curious but effective strategy in the world of deep work: the grand gesture. The concept is simple: By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task. This boost in importance reduces your mind’s instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy.

Copy Rowling’s habit of using a grand gesture – any environment or ritual that gets you in the right mindset to create deep work. Simplicity is key. A separate, dedicated room just for deep work. A sacred time, off limits to other activities. It can be working in the same coffee shop or library. Any activity or environment that triggers the mental state of deep work is fine. Don’t overthink this.

Principle 6: The 4 Disciplines of Deep Work

Cal referenced the book, The 4 Disciplines of Execution, which provided 4 disciplines to enhance deep work. Implement these immediately in your routines.

Discipline #1: Focus on the Wildly Important

As the authors of The 4 Disciplines of Execution explain, “The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish.” They elaborate that execution should be aimed at a small number of “wildly important goals.”

If you try to do everything you will end up doing nothing. It’s hard to cutoff of choices and not do certain things. To become exceptional, you must focus your activities on the elite few.

Warren Buffet’s Advice

Warren Buffet once discussed career objectives with his personal pilot, Mike Flint. Flint wrote down his 25 top goals and Buffet had him circle his top 5. Flint described how he would begin working on his top 5 right away, but would work on the other 20 when he found time.

Buffet quickly admonished Flint, saying, “No, you’ve got it all wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”1

As Buffet makes clear, avoid spreading your attention to wide. You can’t do everything and attempting to do so will ensure failure.

Discipline #2: Act on the Lead Measures

Lead measures, on the other hand, “measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures.” In the bakery example, a good lead measure might be the number of customers who receive free samples…In other words, lead measures turn your attention to improving the behaviors you directly control in the near future that will then have a positive impact on your long-term goals…For an individual focused on deep work, it’s easy to identify the relevant lead measure: time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goal.

Always measure the most direct actions you are taking towards your goal. If you are writing, it is time spend in deep writing. If it’s sports, it’s time spent in deep practice. These are the lead measures that will produce exceptional results. Focus on consistent progress on your lead measures, and you won’t have any trouble reaching your long-term goals.

Discipline #3: Keep a Compelling Scoreboard

As each week progressed, I kept track of the hours spent in deep work that week with a simple tally of tick marks in that week’s row. To maximize the motivation generated by this scoreboard, whenever I reached an important milestone in an academic paper (e.g., solving a key proof), I would circle the tally mark corresponding to the hour where I finished the result.* This served two purposes. First, it allowed me to connect, at a visceral level, accumulated deep work hours and tangible results. Second, it helped calibrate my expectations for how many hours of deep work were needed per result. This reality (which was larger than I first assumed) helped spur me to squeeze more such hours into each week.

A scorecard keeps an accurate tally of your deep work hours and tracks your major milestones. You never want to keep this in your head. A written record of your effort and progress is powerful. It forces you to track and analyze how well you are really doing. If you don’t write it down, it doesn’t count.

Discipline #4: Create a Cadence of Accountability

The 4DX [The 4 Disciplines of Execution] authors elaborate that the final step to help maintain a focus on lead measure is to put in place “a rhythm of regular and frequent meetings of any team that owns a wildly important goal.” During these meetings, the team members must confront their scorecard, commit to specific actions to help improve the score before the next meeting, and describe what happened with the commitments they made at the last meeting.

Your own personal accountability should be measured weekly by diligently assessing your progress and noting the success and failures. This exercise is meant to inform you of repeated, consistent roadblocks that hinder your progress. It’s not a judgment, it’s a reflection. It’s not meant to be personal, just to keep you unbiased and objective.

Principle 7: The Difference Between “What” vs. “How” (or why so much advice is worthless)

There is, however, a lesser-known piece to this story. As Christensen recalls, Grove asked him during a break in this meeting, “How do I do this?” Christensen responded with a discussion of business strategy, explaining how Grove could set up a new business unit and so on. Grove cut him off with a gruff reply: “You are such a naïve academic. I asked you how to do it, and you told me what I should do. I know what I need to do. I just don’t know how to do it.” As Christensen later explained, this division between what and how is crucial but is overlooked in the professional world. It’s often straightforward to identify a strategy needed to achieve a goal, but what trips up companies is figuring out how to execute the strategy once identified.

My biggest critique of self-help and management books is the focus on the “what” instead of the “how”. We all know we should be better leaders, more effective managers, more inspirational, more forward-looking, and so on. The challenge is how to actually do that in real life. Most advice never advises you on how to actually become a better leader or a master of your skill. They are full of clichés and vague one-liners. They never give you step-by-step instructions on practical steps. They seem to think by knowing what you need to do, you will just figure out how to do it. That’s exactly where progress stops. Most of the time, we know exactly what we need to do. It’s how to do it that’s the problem.

The goal of this article was to convert the “what” (7 principles) into the “how” (practical implementation steps). Here’s a quick summary of the 7 Principles:

Principle 1: Must Identify Shallow vs. Deep Work

Principle 2: Produce Good Work

Principle 3: Utilize Deep Work to Magnify Results

Principle 4: Design Your Environment to Enable Deep Work

Principle 5: Schedule Your Day

Principle 6: The 4 Disciplines of Deep Work

Principle 7: The Difference Between “What” vs. “How” (or why most advice is worthless)

1Story from http://jamesclear.com/buffett-focus.

Parkinson's Law: How To Get More Done With Less Time

We say time is our most precious resource, yet our behavior and actions suggest otherwise. We waste time with haphazard and unfocused behavior but complain about how busy we are. We agonize over losing a few dollars but disregard the immense cost of poor time management. Only when we face an impending time crunch do we realize the cost of our wastefulness. Parkinson’s Law helps explain why we are so ineffective at allocating our time.

Cyril Parkinson, a British naval historian, first mentioned Parkinson’s Law in The Economist magazine in 1955. Parkinson’s Law states – “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” As Parkinson stated, “It is the busiest man who has time to spare.” (1) Parkinson extensively researched the growth of bureaucracies in Great Britain. Parkinson found that just as the growth of bureaucrats had little relationship to the increase in the actual amount of government work, the time allocated to a project had little relationship to the actual work necessary to complete the project.

As Parkinson describes -

Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and dispatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spend finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half an hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the nearest mailbox in the next street. The total effort that would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety, and toil. (1)

We’ve experienced the effect of this law in our own lives. If given 4 weeks to finish a project, we’ll take the full 4 weeks to finish the project. We’ll spend the first 3 weeks going through superficial tasks and then spend the last week in a hyper-focused sprint to meet our deadline. Ultimately, the work required one week’s time, yet it expanded to four. So why didn’t we get the work done in that first week? Parkinson’s Law highlights a few uncomfortable observations about our behavior and habits.

First, our behavior is often on autopilot – we do what we are accustomed to doing without ever challenging the reasons why. We don’t examine our actions because we don’t receive adequate feedback to reveal our inefficiencies. We don’t engage in deliberate thought to decide if what we are doing really makes logical sense. We need to create feedback and strategically choose what we do.

Second, we rely too much on willpower. Those who struggle with time management often blame themselves and resolve to “work harder” next time. However, this reaction is shortsighted. We believe we can “willpower” our way to efficient performance, but studies show that willpower is unreliable and exhaustible. It’s rarely there when we need it.

Third, we neglect the role of our environment on our actions. Most people assume the outside environment has no effect on what you do. Once again, our intuition is incorrect. For example, the ease of access to our phone and Internet delays hard, focused activity by substituting frivolous and mindless media consumption. In addition, we fail to create deadlines and schedules for our critical activities. We assume we’ll just get to our major projects, but instead allow ourselves to be dominated by emails and emergencies. The rule is - if we don’t schedule it, it won’t get done. 

Deadlines improve our performance. They provide external motivation and a necessary goal to direct our effort. It’s hard to engage in focused work if we don’t know where we want to end up. Also, if we don’t have urgent deadlines, we lack a sense of urgency to get things done. We allow urgent, but unimportant tasks, to fill our time. Our brain is always looking for the easiest path. If a project requires significant strategic thought, our brain will want to shift to an easier task, such as mindless internet use. This tendency stalls any progress on meaningful projects. Deadlines and definitive schedules nudge our behavior in the right direction.

How do you use Parkinson’s Law to your advantage?

The goal of understanding Parkinson’s Law is not to dwell on our mistakes but to understand how our mind and environment can lead us astray. How can we use Parkinson’s Law to improve our own life? What internal bureaucracies hinder our development and how can we remove them?

We create our own personal inefficiencies because we revert to activities that provide no value in achieving our goals. And more importantly, we don’t realize we are doing it. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has shown, we rarely understand what makes us happy, even though that seems obvious to most of us. For example, we think unscheduled free time makes us happier than at work, but we are more fulfilled while working than with free time. As he stated in his book, Finding Flow, “Having leisure at one’s disposal does not improve the quality of life unless one knows how to use it effectively, and it is by no means something one learns automatically.” (2)

We live on autopilot and rarely examine the rationale for our actions. It’s always easy to identify other’s mistakes, but let’s make sure we fix our own inept behavior first.

Use Artificial Deadlines

The most effective practical change I recommend is to set aggressive deadlines for your critical activities. Shrink the available time to force focus and effectiveness. Aggressive deadlines also challenge your assumptions of what it takes to complete a project. If something is usually done in 2 hours, are you sure it can’t be done an hour? You may dismiss that possibility, but have you ever proved it? Remember how much activity and behavior goes unchallenged and unexamined. Your behavior, habits, and expectations aren’t grounded in evidence but in routine and complacency. We don’t think enough about our habits. We do things because it’s the way it’s always been done.

Aggressive deadlines force yourself to find leverage points – the point where a given amount of effort has a large and outsized effect on production. It’s a version of Pareto’s 80/20 law – 80% of the value is driven by 20% of the activity. Narrow down your actions to the core 20% and you will dramatically increase your output. Aggressive deadlines cut away the frivolous actions, sharpening your focus on what matters.

Imagine if all the 1-hour meetings you attended were cut in half to 30 minutes. All 30-minute meetings cut down to 15 minutes. How much substance would really be lost? Shorter times would force efficient preparation and concise presentations. Aggressive deadlines cut away the dead weight by focusing on what matters. It’s a gentle behavioral nudge to focus on what matters.

Some will argue that certain topics need long meetings. While I agree, I remind readers that the point is to force yourself to prove that meetings need the full time. If you have never tested the meeting length, you should do so instead of assuming its efficiency. Create a testable condition and see if you pass. I think you’ll find even the most important meetings have a lot of misdirected activity ready for elimination.

One of Parkinson’s notable observations is that the time spent in a meeting on an item is inversely proportional to its value.1 Attendees have a propensity to vehemently debate the minutia. Most of us have first-hand experience with meeting being sidetracked by irrelevant debates.

Unfortunately, we also do this to ourselves with our own behavior. We set a major goal, but we get lost in the irrelevant details. If our goal is to increase our workouts, we tend to spend less time working out and more time on superficial tasks - building the ultimate music playlist or assembling the best workout outfit. Our mind loves to substitute easy, fun tasks in place of the demanding real work. I’d remember this rule of thumb – if your activity isn’t demanding or stressful, it’s likely to be part of the irrelevant minutia. The more challenging your effort, the more likely you are engaged in valuable, rewarding activity.

(1)   http://sas2.elte.hu/tg/ptorv/Parkinson-s-Law.pdf

(2)   From the book Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Making Better Decisions: When Information Leads to Bad Outcomes

“The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” -The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli

We all make hundreds of decisions every day. They range from the predictable – what to eat for breakfast, to the complex – making a significant investment in the market. For the straightforward, repeatable tasks, we’ve developed routines and habits to automate those decisions. This automation serves us well. We’ve freed up our mental capacity to shift from debating non-essential decisions to focusing on major, life-changing decisions.

When we debate any high value decision, most of us follow a predictable pattern. We figure out the desired outcome, gather as much information as possible, and weigh all the information as logically as we can to come up with the right choice.

Of course, there are problems that occur along the way. First, we may not define our goals well enough to know what we want. This leads to good decisions that solve the wrong problem. We come to a logical conclusion, but the conclusion doesn’t deliver a meaningful outcome because we didn’t specify our goal in advance.

Or the problem can occur at decision time. We have all the evidence we need, but we incorrectly weigh the evidence. Perhaps we overweight a salient piece of evidence that actually has little predictive value. For example, when deciding to travel, some people avoid flying because they recall graphic, high profile plane crashes. Now the evidence is clear - air travel is extremely safe. However, we tend to ignore the uneventful, yet valid evidence and keep the few vivid crashes overrepresented in your mind. So there are always mistakes in how we balance and interpret the evidence we have.

The one problem I believe is the most counterintuitive is how we gather our information. How do we screw up the step? Don’t we just gather up the information we need and move on? Isn’t more information better? How tough can it be to sift through all the evidence and separate the useless from the valuable? It’s never a simple data collection process - there’s quite a few errors we make when deciding how to choose the information we consume.

The goal is not always about finding more information, it’s about using the information we have, better.

Principle #1: Focus on disconfirming evidence

There is a natural tendency to seek and agree with evidence that already support your view. Our minds instinctively gravitate towards information that confirms what we believe. It’s nice to feel that reassurance. It’s uncomfortable to think about how we might be wrong. While facing our flaws isn’t easy, ignoring them is disastrous.

Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong, explains why we need to keep our information and views as testable hypotheses, ready to be overturned by falsification and disconfirming evidence.

From Being Wrong:

 As an ideal of intellectual inquiry and a strategy for the advancement of knowledge, the scientific method is essentially a monument to the utility of error. Most of us gravitate toward trying to verify our beliefs, to the extent that we bother investigating their validity at all. But scientists gravitate toward falsification; as a community if not as individuals, they seek to disprove their beliefs. Thus, the defining feature of a hypothesis is that it has the potential to be proven wrong (which is why it must be both testable and tested), and the defining feature of a theory is that it hasn’t been proven wrong yet. But the important part is that it can be—no matter how much evidence appears to confirm it, no matter how many experts endorse it, no matter how much popular support it enjoys.

When gathering information, focus on information that disagrees with your initial assumption. In investments, if you are bullish on a stock, find analysts and investors that are short the stock. Use their perspective to challenge your beliefs and identify flaws in your reasoning. It’s easy to become defensive. You must overcome this tendency.

The goal is to make it hard to fall in love with your own ideas. If we were perfect, we wouldn’t need this step. Our flaws in decision making is well documented by research. The more you challenge your cherished beliefs, the better decision maker you will become. 

Principle #2: Your ego is a bigger concern than more information

Sometimes the goal shouldn’t be making smarter decisions, but removing our dumb mistakes. It’s a different perspective because we tend to think about adding more intelligence, when instead we should be removing our bad mistakes. Our ego convinces us that we don’t ever make dumb decisions. However, we still do dumb things, especially when making decisions.

The biggest challenge to removing our faults is our ego. As mentioned before, we don’t like to deliberate about our shortcomings and mistakes. Most people bury their head in the sand and hope the mistakes go away. Unfortunately, not only does the mistake not go away, it grows and compounds until it becomes catastrophic. The story below, from Being Wrong, illustrates the strength of our ego in defending our bad decisions.

In 1977, the psychologists Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson set up shop in a department store in Michigan, where they asked people to compare what they claimed were four different varieties of pantyhose. In reality, all the hose were the same, but that didn’t prevent shoppers from showing a preference for one of them. Moreover, it didn’t stop them from explaining their preference, by claiming that (for instance) this color was just a little more appealing or that fabric was a little less scratchy…

 It’s weird enough that these shoppers chose between identical pantyhose in the first place, but it is even weirder that they generated explanations for those choices. After all, they could have just shrugged and declined to explain their decisions. We are expected to be able to justify our beliefs, but not so our taste. “I just like that one; I couldn’t tell you why” is a perfectly acceptable explanation for why we’re attracted to a particular pair of pantyhose. Since there were no differences among the pantyhose, these accounts couldn’t have been the real reasons behind the shoppers’ choices; they could only be post-hoc justifications.

At first, this experiment seems to demonstrate a strange but basically benign quirk of human cognition: we like to explain things, even when the real explanation eludes us. But it has a sobering epilogue. When Nisbett and Wilson revealed the nature of the experiment to its unwitting subjects, many of them refused to believe that the pantyhose were identical. They argued that they could detect differences, and they stuck by their original preferences.

The problem is never in the errors we make, it’s the after-the-fact rationalizations we create to justify and cover up our mistakes. Imagine how much we could improve if we acknowledged our incompetence and used feedback to learn and improve our beliefs? We need to defeat our sense of entitlement. While we have the right to believe anything we want, it doesn’t mean we should. It’s a poor way to live our lives.

“Many people seem to feel that their opinions are somehow sacred, so that everyone else is obliged to handle them with great care. When confronted with counterarguments, they do not pause and wonder if they might be wrong after all. They take offense.” -Jamie Whyte, author of Crimes Against Logic

Principle #3 Neglecting the outside view

Another information flaw is neglecting the outside view. When we make a decision, we need to distinguish between the inside and outside view. Respected investor Michael Mauboussin has written extensively on the use of the inside/outside views. The excerpts below are from Mauboussin’s report, The Base Rate Book: Integrating the Past to Better Anticipate the Future

The Inside View

As Mauboussin states,

“There is a natural and intuitive approach to creating a forecast of any kind. We focus on an issue, gather information, search for evidence based on our experience, and extrapolate with some adjustment. Psychologists call this approach the “inside view.”

The Outside View

In contrast, Mauboussin states,

“The 'outside view' considers a specific forecast in the context of a larger reference class. Rather than emphasizing differences, as the inside view does, the outside view relies on similarity. The outside view asks, ‘What happened when others were in this situation?’ This approach is also called ‘reference class forecasting.’”

Why is it necessary to separate the inside and outside views? There are two general ways to approach a decision. First, we can think about our problem using the current information we have. If we are thinking about the likelihood of success for an investment, we can think about today’s information – the fundamentals of the company, the current economic environment, etc. This is the inside view.

The outside view uses information from a larger class, that is, the investment history of comparable investments. The outside view shows how comparable investments, made under similar conditions, performed in the past. Are there common historical attributes that can inform the current decision? We might ask, how have past investments done at a similar valuation level? Using historical information gives us a base rate to judge the current opportunity. If these investments have typically struggled, we should think harder about whether the current opportunity is likely to succeed.

Those who rely solely on the inside view often overweight anecdotal evidence that provides little value in predicting success. We’re more tempted to fall for seductive narratives and stories rather than a larger body of past evidence. The inside view gives a one-sided, biased view because it’s a small sample size – a sample size of one. The outside view provides a larger sample size and more predictive power than you can derive just from looking at the current investment.

We run into problems when we overweight the specifics of a current situation and neglect the outside view. Current information is always much more salient and persuasive – it’s fresh in our minds and seems to be more relevant. But outside views are more powerful because they bring in thousands, if not millions, of past data points that have a higher likelihood of prediction success.


In a perfect world, how would we go about evaluating all this evidence? As it turns out, we have fairly strong and uniform opinions about this. By rough consensus, the ideal thinker approaches a subject with a neutral mind, gathers as much evidence as possible, assesses it coolly, and draws conclusions accordingly. - From Being Wrong

The goal is not to know everything. The goal is to know where your knowledge ends, because then you can compensate and adjust for the things you don’t know. But if you don’t know you don’t know, you repeatedly fall into the same traps. When you repeat the same mistakes, you can’t grow and improve your life.