Be Your Own Guru

The next time you want to ask someone a question, first ask yourself these two questions:

  • Why is this important to me?
  • What am I going to do with the answer?

If you don’t have satisfying answers to those to questions, don’t ask.

If you do have satisfying answers, a third question is:

  • Why aren’t I working out my own answer to this question?

And then:

  • What smaller questions can I ask to help answer this big one?

It’s great to use subject experts, mentors and gurus to add to your stock of knowledge and contribute to a work in progress.

But often we use them to save us the work of thinking for ourselves, or worse, because we don’t really intend to do anything with their answers.

Bottleneck: little jobs and emotional friction

Thanks to JG.

A particularly troublesome breed of little job are things left undone that hold up the work of other people – a decision that needs your input (or for you to decide), a design that needs your approval, feedback to your team from a key meeting, or a training you need to hold before your team starts a new project.

We usually want to empower our teams to make decisions and get on with things – but we’re also afraid of what happens if something gets rushed, or isn’t fully checked before being launched… and of course it’s important that we’re thoughtful in our answers to colleagues questions, and that we give their the attention it needs or deserves.

But however honourable our excuses, being a bottleneck causes all sorts of problems:

  • It slows everyone down while they wait for you;
  • Knowing that people are waiting for us doubles the burden of the mental overhead and nameless dread that the undone tasks often bring us anyway;
  • It also creates frustration and emotional friction for team members who are waiting for us to get our act together and do what they need us to do – that is to say, the negative consequences of being

Some things that may help

  • As JG suggested, getting these little jobs out of the way early in your day can make you feel lighter and more empowered as you get into the important stuff – although this can backfire if your answers generate emails with further questions;
  • It’s often the case that the email you’ve been avoiding is a quick job after all;
  • Finding the right people to join your team enables parallel processing in your organisation – removing yourself as the bottleneck;
  • Helping your team become the right people is just as important. This will need training, which itself will need you to have…
  • Clear, well formulated and well communicated principles and policy about what to do in certain situations – as simple as an FAQ list, or a blanket decision like allowing all staff to spend a certain amount to fix a customer’s problem without checking with anyone – can help your team do their good work without waiting for you, making it easier tomorrow for everyone;
  • Recognising the problem, apologising and talking about bottlenecks – and asking for ideas to fix or mitigate them – is never a bad thing;
  • Giving away authority is often the right thing to do, as long as (1) you share key principles clearly (see above); (2) you keep an eye on what’s going on; (3) doing so will take less time than doing the job yourself, even if at the cost of additional short-term effort; (4) the cost of failure isn’t catastrophic (really, it rarely is).
  • It often comes down to trust – trusting that your colleagues can do it; trusting that their ‘good enough’ now is better than your ‘perfect’ later; trusting that the more you trust them and the more they get on with things, the better they’ll get.
  • Go back and read the one about Who’s Got the Monkey.

Postbox: good info

Crikey, it’s a very long photo of a postbox – read on for some thoughts about information architecture and the Royal Mail.

From a distance

  • Everyone knows what a postbox looks like – if you’re looking for one, they’re easy to find
  • Anyone who isn’t looking for a postbox can ignore the postbox at no cost to their time and attention
  • Most local people will remember where this one is even if they’ve never used it – so they know where to go when they do need it, or when others do. (Top British Question: “Excuse me, but do you know if there’s a postbox nearby?”)

Close up

When you want it, when you’ve found it, it’s got all the info in the right place, in the order you’ll ask for it:

  • Is this postbox in use? (answer implied)
  • When’s the next collection?
  • What’s the latest I can drop my letter today and have it collected? (If I’m happy with this, I can stop reading straight away).
  • If I’m in a hurry, where’s the nearest place I can go for an earlier collection?
  • If I’ve missed that too, what’s my last chance at a collection?
  • If I have other questions, where can I find answers or who can I call?*

*With apologies that I was in too much of a hurry to architect the second photo well enough to include everything!

Refunds, discounts

Sometimes it’s right to complain: an injustice has been done or a minor fraud committed, and it’s important to make a point.

And there’s a pleasure to be had in getting a good deal.

But often the time and energy we spend on hunting refunds and discounts costs us more than they’re worth. A good rule of thumb is to imagine that the equivalent amount of cash is lying on the ground outside, and ask how far you’d be prepared to walk down the street and how many confrontations you’d be prepared to have along the way in order to pick it up.

You might be willing to go further to right a wrong, or if you know you’ll enjoy the walk – just be clear about which one it is, and whether what you’re hoping to gain is really worth it.

Questions (2): what you do with the answer

You asked the question…

  • Are you going to listen to the answer?
  • What are you prepared to change if the it’s not what you’re expecting?
  • How are you going to put the answer to work?

If you’re not ready to do any of these things, it’s probably better not to ask until you are.

Questions (1): who’s it for?

A questions about questions:

Who is it for?

Always, our questions are self motivated:

  • We’re looking for answers.
  • We just want to know.
  • The answer will help us in some way.

We also ask questions for other people:

  • We ask on behalf of others who can’t or won’t ask – because we want their question to be heard by others, or because we want them to have an answer they need.
  • We want an answer so that we can make something better for someone else.
  • We ask to show the person we’re asking that we’re engaged.
  • We ask to give the person we’re asking the chance to talk about something that’s important to them.
  • We ask to invite the person we’re asking to go in a new direction or consider something more deeply.

These are all fine reasons. What we need to watch out for are the questions we ask for other reasons:

  • We ask to get attention, so that we look smart to the other people in the room.
  • We ask to make the person we’re talking to look small, or foolish, or unprepared.
  • We ask to score points in private arguments.
  • We don’t really ask at all – we take the opportunity of asking a question to make our own point to the room.
  • We ask to avoid thinking things through for ourselves.

Not all of these are bad all the time – there’s a time and a place for pointing out the flaws in another person’s thinking. But we’ll rarely win friends or influence by attention seeking or point scoring, and we get the best value of all when we do the harder work of answering our own questions.

Old buildings

I love old buildings , and I usually feel a strange sort of curiosity mixed with nostalgia for the people and cultures that made them. Just in the UK I’d love to see the castle garrisoned by knights and squires, the barn full of hay and animals, the old mill humming, the Tudor pub in its heyday, the telephone exchange building at its historical cutting edge, the cathedral decked out in coloured paint, the rows of clerks in the bank, the WW2 airfield lined with Spitfires and Glen Miller on the gramophone…

Dead buildings – either ruins, or frozen-in-time museums and country houses – seem that much more evocative than the ones that manage to stay in use for centuries, which end up watered down and bastardised…

But that’s probably because we’re paying attention to the wrong things. We fixate on a neat snapshot of a culture at a moment in time, forgetting that these places grew out of a messy and dynamic culture just like ours, were disruptive (and probably disturbing) when they were built, and were evolving from the moment they were finished. We’ve always been leaving the village behind, and we couldn’t stay, and we couldn’t go back – even way back then.

Buildings stay alive and socially profitable when they stay relevant – when we keep them alive by changing them and use the old spaces in new ways – often new ways to achieve old purposes.

The alternative is a building’s slow and expensive death as the network of life around them shifts and ceases to nourish them, at which point they decay and disappear until those that survive become old enough and scarce enough to become interesting again, and the past that they represent is far enough away from us to be the subject of nostalgia and museums.

And all of this is true of our organisations, too.

*See also: How Buildings Learn (wikipedia) and Youtube

Friction (4): mental overhead and nameless dread

Mental Overhead

Another type of friction we experience is from the ongoing mental overhead of having too many balls in the air. Unfinished projects, unanswered emails, half-read books, unresolved decisions – all take a sliver of attention and emotional energy. This constant mental overhead acts a drag on our attention. reducing our ability to concentrate and – especially when we’re tired – making us feel overwhelmed and unable to decide.

Nameless dread

Nameless dread is the emotional friction that comes with excessive mental overhead. it’s the lurking fear that we’re failing, letting people down, about to drown in jobs undone. It’s often a product of excessive mental overhead, or at least of the same root cause: too much on our plates, falling behind, living in fear that we’re about to be found out.

Things that help with managing mental overhead and nameless dread

  • Keepy uppies and little jobs can help you with feeling on the ball.
  • Some kind of amazing to-do list system might capture everything, but I’m still waiting for something that works consistently for me… look out for a post from Sharky on the latest in workflow management.
  • Talking about things really helps with nameless dread – either with teammates (who might even work some kind of miracle to help you out) or friends who’ll hopefully help by giving you some perspective.
  • Hire someone to do some of the routine stuff – at work or at home.
  • A bit physical danger helps to put most of our fears in perspective: ‘worst possible outcome’ of the things that we dread rarely involve injury, death or dismemberment. Try contact, motor or extreme sports.
  • See Tim Ferriss on Fear Setting
  • Good old fashioned getting things done – finishing things off, tying up loose ends, drawing lines under things (writing things off if necessary) helps a lot too.
  • Try this breakfast recipe.
  • When in doubt, exercise more and avoid eating crap.
  • Work out what you think you can do – and commit to doing 20% less. Allow slack in your system.
  • Pause and seek peace. Pray.

Little jobs

There’s a lot to be said for batching – saving up similar jobs and then working through them efficiently in one go.

But doing little jobs in free moments – in checking-the-news moments, social media moments, junky youtube moments – has its benefits too:

  1. Doing little jobs can act like a form of mental keepy-uppy, keeping your head in the game and saving time when you come back to the larger job that the small job is part of;
  2. Ticking off small jobs makes you feel good – which helps you do better work;
  3. It may be less efficient than batching, but it reduces the cognitive and emotional friction that comes from carrying around a list of undone jobs – so the job might take a bit longer, but you’re faster once its done;
  4. If you’re a bottleneck for other peoples’ work, your little job can unlock a lot of productivity;
  5. Doing a job in the space between other stuff can create space for doing them in a new way, or for new connections between unrelated things – one of the benefits of having a little slack in the system.

You might even get a blog post out of it.

Time on our hands: la durée

The idea is really just this: time on a watch is not the same as time in your head. An hour can fly by or seemingly drag for eternity. Time as we actually experience it, rather than as we measure it, is subjective.

We all know this intuitively, and our culture has idioms for it (“time flies when…”) but it’s helpful to remember that this phenomena occurs on both sides of a many of our interaction at the same time, and in opposite directions.

The rule seem to be that the more urgent, important, personal something is to us, the less comfortable waiting becomes, and the more slowly time seems to pass (i.e. the longer a given amount of time seems). Conversely, time goes faster and a given amount of time seems shorter when the opposite conditions are true. Quality of relationship – levels of trust, how positive our disposition towards the other, the history of the current “waiting” – plays into things, and cultural norms will shape our feelings too.

Note that none of this is “reasonable” – it’s just how we seem to work.

Conclusions and applications

  1. A reply to a message probably needs to go a bit earlier than you think to seem courteous and pronpt. In my case this means that the extra day’s delay in replying to messages that “can wait” is less okay than I think it is.
  2. The flip side of 1: you should take longer to assume you’ve been disregarded or snubbed.
  3. Remember that people reading novels exist in different time zones. “Reasonable response time” is twice as long as is usual… which will stretch to at least four times as long as seems reasonable to you if you’re looking after children and waiting for relief.
  4. Get off the phone / out of the bathroom faster than seems reasonable – especially if someone is waiting to use it.

This is all a long way of saying that it probably behooves us (and will almost certainly benefit us) a to be a little more attentive to others and respond a little faster, and to be a little more patient and forgiving.