Reducing Stress in the New Normal with Pareto

I remember a period in 2000 when I was stressed beyond belief, I was getting little sleep and I had lost 15 pounds. As my portfolio plummeted downward with all others, I envisioned myself working as an evening janitor in some office building. I wrote a post a couple of years ago, Resilience in the Storm, in which I laid out the a number of key lessons learned from VC vets like Roger McNamee on how to manage through downturns.

Timothy Ferris, in his book,
The 4-Hour Work Week, hits a couple of these lessons spot on. I will preface all of this by saying that I liked Ferris's book but it is loaded with hyperbole. Its goal is to make oversized claims, with the hope of moving the reader from the middle. A couple of his comments that caught my attention were around:

W4W: Work for work…you do excessive work because you feel you need to or should work. If you are in perpetual motion, you must be advancing the ball and managing through the crisis. Unfortunately, this is usually not the case. You are most likely burning yourself out, fraying relationships with family & friends, trying to solve issues that are macro, not micro, in nature. You also worry and extrapolate consequences well beyond where they would ever go. "If I don't get this sale (from the customer with no budget & limited appreciation for your product), I will miss my quarter for which I'll get fired and be unable to support my family, resulting in my wife leaving me…." (or a more modest, but equally disproportional response). So, you increase emails and visits to the customer and fixate on making the sale. The reality is that it is not a good prospect and you should move on to better candidates.

Pareto & the 80/20 rule: 20% of your sources are causing 80% of your problems & unhappiness AND 20% of your sources are resulting in 80% of your desired outcomes and happiness. So, while logic would say to focus on the latter, we somehow focus disproportionally on the former.  Ferris suggests doing a "truth-baring analysis" to look through your activities, customers, associates, responsibilities and such to determine which fall into the former and into the latter categories. Eliminate your inefficiencies and multiply your strengths. You'll notice that there are some very productive sources of customer leads, for example, that you don't have time to fully mine because you have filled your day with meetings or unproductive prospecting activities. Some strategic initiatives feel important or look good, but produce little yet you persevere to save face or because of inertia.

Parkinson Rule: the more time you give something, the more complex and the more activity you will use to fill it up. By intentionally curtailing activities and giving yourself short time windows, Ferris challenges that you will eliminate the busy work and focus on the essential. He has a couple of exercises including assume you leave work at 4:30 and skip Friday's, how would you manage your work load & day. What & who would you say "No" to that don't? Do this again but only with half a day. You will begin to see where the fluff or non-core elements of your day are.

In closing, as I wrote two years ago in the post above:

"He(McNamee) said that in times of massive macro change, there is little you can do as an individual to change your environment. You can respond by, like Homer, lashing yourself to the mast, and screaming at the on-coming storm. Or, you can use the time to truly understand what is important in your life…family and friends. In fact, he advocated that you will have limited influence on outcomes during macro setbacks, and that these are prime times to increase the amount of time you spend with your spouse and kids."

So, starting categorizing what is working & what is not, what is causing stress & what is creating contentment and where you seem to be advancing the ball & where you keep hitting brick walls. Compress your day and see what falls out. Take the time to prune and re-prioritize. Often you are so overworked that you stop asking "what am I doing this activity for?". Time to ask…

Becoming An Email Ninja

While I am on a productivity tear here, I will also recommend another of Merlin’s post at 43Folders called "Becoming An Email Ninja". It has a series of links to his classic email productivity posts for both receiving and composing emails. One of his most emphatic suggestions is to turn your "check for new email" preference to an hour. This helps to prevent you from living continually in your inbox with messages hitting you every minute. Email has truly become a ball and chain from a time management perspective since people can generate and fire off emails with little effort and, since it is so easy, don’t truly think through things like brevity, need for even sending it, replying to "all", and such. As usual, a good post from Merlin, which explains why he has over 100,000 daily readers of his feed.

Building a Smarter To Do List

If time be of all things the most precious, wasting time must be the greatest prodigality.
      — Benjamin Franklin

Like with the weather, everyone talks about productivity & time management but few do anything about it. Over the past year, I have found that I have increasingly less control over my day and seem to achieve less of my "bigger" goals than in the past. It has been a gradual erosion. Unfortunately, I am not alone in this experience. In coming across several interesting blogs on "productivity" and "quality of life", I have decided to add another category to my blog, "Productivity", and will torture my poor reader base with an occassional gem when I come across it. One of the great sites for this is 43Folders.

One of Merlin Mann’s most popular posts in 43Folders is Building a Smarter To Do List which I highly recommend you click on if this is of interest to any of you. He pulls many of his ideas from the book Getting Things Done which you can get at Amazon (link on title). One of the key points he starts off with is that we all fail to differentiate between tasks and mini-projects. His definition of what consistitutes a task (and hence should be on the list) is:

  • it’s a physical action
  • it can be accomplished at a sitting
  • it supports valuable progress toward a recognized goal
  • it’s something for which you are the most appropriate person for the job
  • (more on this in his post "Does this next action belong"

I have found my to do list getting bigger and bigger as I have a growing number of to do’s that are so monumental in scope (do due diligence on ethanol) that I procrastinate and do the shorter items. At the end of the day, I still see these items on my to do list (and their number is growing) and I feel that pressure that I failed to accomplish my to do’s that day and have that much more anxiety the next morning when I have to face this "undefeatable" list.

I have now pushed these larger "mini-projects" over to Omnioutliner (you can use Word or any other application) where I have each project and have broken each into specific clear tasks. Each morning, I pull specific tasks over to my main to do list. Ironically, my to do list has shrunk and I end each day having gotten through most of the items…a pseudo victory.

There are a host of additional insightful recommendations and thoughts in these posts (he has Part I and Part II) which capture how to decide how to filter items to reduce both the Project and To Do lists.