How to approach some problems

If you face a problem in a domain you do not know about or have never encountered before. You can solve it. Many issues follow a similar path toward solutions, whether with systems, processes or people.

Before you touch anything, you should ensure that the problem is not something supposed to be like its current state. Also, who is telling you that there is a problem? Is somebody part of the problem, or do they have nothing to do with it?

The easiest way to ‘solve’ a problem is when you can qualify it as not a problem. The second most straightforward approach is finding an expert who can help you. If you are slightly less lucky, there are still some standard approaches you can follow.

Turning it off and on again?

Can you (and should you) turn it off and on again? In some cases, this is literal, as a system or bringing a process back to a neutral state. Or, when it comes to people, is there a way you can start with a clean slate?

Is the problem unique?

Is this a one-of-a-kind problem? Or can you reproduce the problem, and when you reproduce it, can it be replicated elsewhere in a different environment? If the problem is not unique, you can likely do a proper analysis and comparison. If it is more erratic, solutions might be more challenging to find. However, you might look at a one-off occurrence that should make the problem smaller (hopefully).

Step by Step

Can you break the problem into smaller pieces where you can review each step’s input and output? With people, it can be validating decisions and statements. With processes, you can check what data is coming in and going out.

Use this whenever there is a manual or process description that you could guide through this process. There is no need to rely on your memory or assumptions. Just follow that guide and see if it delivers the results it promises.

It still does not work?

No worries, you did not know the solution in the first place, so do not feel wrong about this. At least you learned something about it while you were working on it. Maybe if you start again, you see the problem in a different context.

Though perhaps it was not your problem to solve. That happens. Of course, you can stick with it for longer to make it work, though sometimes the best thing you can do is share your findings and share it with somebody else who wants to look at it.

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How to keep it simple

The easiest thing to do is to make things complex. There is no skill required to make something difficult to understand and handle. Many illustrious people of the past have said they would have created a better or shorter letter, sermon or paper if they had more time since simplifying cost time.

If you don’t have that time, how can you keep things as simple as possible? Besides accepting that ideas do not have to be great, they should not suck.

Think and keep it concrete

Concrete language helps people, especially novices, understand new concepts. Abstraction is the luxury of the expert. If you’ve got to teach an idea to a room full of people, and you aren’t certain what they know, concreteness is the only safe language.

Chip Heath

Always spend more time understanding the problem than working on it when your time is limited. If you don’t know what you are working on and why you are working on it, the chances of keeping it simple (and valuable) are slim.

Ockham’s razor

The explanation that requires the fewest assumptions is usually correct. When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. Keep it obvious and simple, do not overthink or over-engineer and do not make unnecessary assumptions.

Create constraints

One value [from Amazon], frugality, is defined as Accomplish more with less. Constraints breed resourcefulness, self-sufficiency, and invention. There are no extra points for growing head count, budget size, or fixed expenses.

Ben Horowitz

If you have less time, money, and resources, you cannot afford to make things complex since you cannot maintain them. Not giving yourself the tools to complicate things and constraining yourself might be the most effortless protection from complexity.

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Enough is a beautiful thing

Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.

Epicurus

Did you do enough? Are you enough? Do you have enough? What is enough? Knowing what is enough for you is a beautiful thing. It gives you peace of mind, and in some cases, it helps you to focus.

How to define enough

It can be simple. Enough could be a number. If only you had 4 million euros, that would be enough for you to retire, or wouldn’t it? The issue with numbers is that, in this case, if 4 million is enough, is 3,999 million also enough? It is known as the Sorites Paradox:

This ancient Greek parable talks about the effect one small action can have when repeated repeatedly. One formulation of the paradox goes as follows: Can one coin make a person rich? If you give a person a pile of ten coins, you wouldn’t claim that they are rich. But what if you add another? And another? And another? You must admit that no one can be rich unless one coin can make them so.

What is enough?

Instead of focusing on a number, focus on what you can do (or have done) or how the world looks differently—the more specific, the better. If enough money means you can retire and go on holiday twice a year to your favourite destinations, the number becomes less important. Of course, it is still there, but it is not the focal point.

Were you productive enough today? What does it mean for you? Does it mean you cleaned your to-do list (doing and replanning)? Does it mean you picked your number 1 thing and moved it further? Or did you help a colleague with one of their challenges? Pick something, though do not make it a number (I need to do X tasks).

Define your enough level as something meaningful for yourself and appreciate what you have.

You can’t do it

Nobody should tell anybody they cannot pursue their dreams or that their dreams are a bad idea. How many dreams have those nay-sayers killed that way? A perfect excuse for not changing anything in anybody’s life is being “realistic”.

“Those that say it can’t be done should get out of the way of those doing it”

Chinese Proverb

Withhold judgement

Whenever somebody shares a certain level of ambition or goal with you, do not criticise them for it. Being realistic is not the best start to achieving original outcomes, so why would you?

Why wouldn’t you be more of a cheerleader and a supporter? To start with, they thought it was important to share it with you. And being a cheerleader doesn’t cost you anything.

Of course, you can add some criticism and ask some questions. However, judging and telling anybody to stop following their dreams is not up to you; it is not your dream.

Be the cheerleader

Always support people with ambition, you might be the only one supporting them, and you might be the person they need to get them where they want to be. And if even if they do not make 100%, they had a great ride and achieved progress. That is something they learn from and use in the future.

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The Goldilocks level of email attention

Everybody has a different way of handling email. There are the inbox-zero people who strive for an empty inbox every day. There is also the opposite of the spectrum, individuals with hundreds or thousands of unread emails.

Independent on which end of the spectrum you are, you are very likely not to be effective with the time you spend on your email. You spend either too much time or not enough time handling emails.

The Goldilocks principle is named by analogy to the children’s story “The Three Bears”, in which a young girl named Goldilocks tastes three different bowls of porridge and finds she prefers porridge that is neither too hot nor too cold, but has just the right temperature. The concept of “just the right amount” is easily understood and applied to a wide range of disciplines […]

Wikipedia

What is the Goldilocks level of email attention?

If you did not commit to a deadline to respond to your emails, then take some time. There is no reason to hurry since if it were urgent, the sender would have used a more urgent channel (such as the phone, for example). Email is asynchronous. Therefore people should not expect an instant response, nor should you create that expectation.

A lot of problems solve themselves

“Napoleon directed Bourrienne (his secretary) to leave all letters unopened for three weeks, and then observed with satisfaction how large a part of the correspondence had thus disposed of itself and no longer required an answer.”

I would not recommend leaving your email unopened for three weeks. But we have all seen it happen during a more extended break: urgent emails arrive in your inbox while you are out of the office, and once you are back, you see in a follow-up message that all is fine. Reason more to let email rest for a while. Before you know it, you are doing other people’s work.

The proper response time to your email should not be too fast or too slow. The faster you respond to emails, the more you will receive. The slower you are, the less likely anybody will rely on you getting back to them right away.

Do not worry if you take 24 or 48 hours to reply to emails (or take more time if that fits your style). What is most important is to be reliable and to be consistent.

And, of course, you can still respond sometimes within five seconds, but you don’t have to.

Vacations are not for recharging

“What are you going to do on holiday?”

“Well, the first few days, I will use it to recharge my battery.”

or this one:

“You earned a vacation.”

Unfortunately, these types of conversations are standard. Maybe because they happen in an office environment and we try to be polite. Or, worse, we think that holidays are for recharging and that we must work hard to deserve it.

Holidays are there to have fun, relax, do the things you want to do more of, and go places you cannot do every day. Holidays are there for you to enjoy yourself.

Stress + Rest = Growth

If you only spend time recharging, you are not resting. You are recovering. And if you are not resting, you will not progress. Whether this is about sports or work, rest is crucial to making progress.

Balance your efforts. You can excel at work, health, friends and family. However, you can pick only three at a time. Your holiday break is not your backup plan to compensate for fitness, friends or family. Your holiday is an opportunity to spend time on health, friends, and family without compromising your work efforts.

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets … it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

Cal Newport

Be kind to yourself. You need your idleness, your downtime, not because you earned it, but because you need it. The only way to grow is to include rest and take your rest. Not doing work and not having to recover from work is the best way to become better at work and stay healthy.

You don’t have to be 100% sure

“Are you sure?” you have received this question, and you have asked this question numerous times. There is only a yes or no answer, and either you agree or disagree with the answer. There is little space for discussion.

How sure are you?

Instead of asking if somebody is sure, ask them how confident they are.

We would be better served as communicators and decision-makers if we thought less about whether we are confident in our beliefs and more about how confident we are. Instead of thinking of confidence as all-or-nothing (“I’m confident” or “I’m not confident”), our expression of our confidence would then capture all the shades of grey in between.

Annie Duke

From a black and white answer, the answer changes into a range: I am 60 to 80% sure. And with that, you can have a meaningful discussion on why the level of confidence is on that level and, more importantly, how you can move further up in confidence level.

Improve your decisions

A good decision combines how incomplete your information is and luck. When you make confidence into a range, you give uncertainty an explicit position in your decision making. It will allow you to measure it and work towards complete information.

Furthermore, instead of two competing views (0% sure or 100%), there is now a view on which you can collaborate to close the gap.

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Ulysses pacts instead of discipline

“I will just watch one more video / Instagram story/tweet and get back to work”. And after you said it and look at your clock again, it is 1 hour later, and your work is still there.

“disciplined” people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control.

James Clear

We have all been there or are still there. Do not torture yourself by thinking you have the most extraordinary willpower in the world and enormous self-control. And even if you have, wouldn’t it be great if you could use it for something different than keeping yourself in check with your phone?

What is a Ulysses pact?

The term refers to the pact that Ulysses (Greek name Ὀδυσσεύς, Odysseus) made with his men as they approached the Sirens. Ulysses wanted to hear the Sirens’ song although he knew that doing so would render him incapable of rational thought. He put wax in his men’s ears so that they could not hear and had them tie him to the mast so that he could not jump into the sea. He ordered them not to change course under any circumstances and to keep their swords upon him and to attack him if he should break free of his bonds.

Upon hearing the Sirens’ song, Ulysses was driven temporarily insane and struggled with all of his might to break free so that he might join the Sirens, which would have meant his death. However, his men kept their promise, and refused to release him.

Wikipedia

You are not better than Ulysses

Tieing yourself up to increase productivity might be somewhat counterproductive. However, you can tie up your distractors. Some examples:

  • Put your phone out of sight (in your bag, in a drawer). Or you can buy one of those boxes with a timelock if it has to be like this.
  • Consider limiting screentime for specific apps. You can still extend your time in the app, depending on the settings, but every time it will make you think if you need to spend more time.
  • Disable notifications. Yes, you will still get the email, also without notifications. If you are so anxious, you can also temporarily disable your notifications.
  • Adopt the Pomodoro technique in which you decide to focus for 25 minutes to work on a single task. Since you committed to the job for 25 minutes doing anything else might make you feel guilty enough not to do it.

You do not have to be better than Ulysses

Be kind and not overly strict with yourself. There is no need for you to expect you will be that superhuman who is super productive from day one. You try this. Monitor your progress, take notes, learn what works for you and improve over time.

The key is over time. Success is built sequentially. It’s one thing at a time.

Gary Keller

Even though you are a strong person, don’t rely on willpower and self-control alone. Make it easy for yourself and figure out what your Ulysses pact is that makes productivity easy and enjoyable for you.

Morning rituals

You do not have to get up at 0300 and run a marathon in the morning to be successful. There are many other ways to get started with your days (or do it later in the day, whatever is best for you).

Consider these four elements when crafting your day:

Set your day with intention

Our intention creates our reality

Wayne Dyer

Decide for you what this day will be about. Will you finish a big piece of work, or will you attend meetings the whole day? Be intentional about what you will do and accept that you are not always in control of how your day will go.

It is not about achieving your intention. It is about working towards it.

Focus on you

Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.

Spend enough time with the most crucial person in your life: you. Do not touch your phone. For example, walk (or run that marathon) for a reasonable amount of time.

Be alone with only your thoughts.

Practice mindfulness

A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open

Frank Zappa

Observe where you are, what you are doing and what is going on around you. Mindfulness is not an exercise to see if you are in the right place and if the right things are going. It is observing without judgement. Some people like to write this down in a journal. For some others, just the thinking is enough.

Practice gratitude

Feel compliments as deeply as you feel insults.

James Clear

It is easy to focus on what you need to do and what could be better. Though press pause and look around. What are the things you can be grateful for? Take your time for it and enjoy it. Also, is there anything you are thankful for that you can share with others?

Keep in mind: how you start your day and when you start your day is up to you. Pick something that works for you and that you enjoy. Remember that it is consistency that drives your progress.

You have to find your own rainbow to follow. There is no gold at the end of somebody else’s rainbow.

Bill Grundfest

Play according to the rules

Whatever you do and wherever you are, you need to know the rules. Not just the rules others set for you, but also the rules you set for others.

If you must play, decide on three things at the start: the rules of the game, the stakes and the quitting time

Chinese Proverb

Use the rules to your advantage

One of the best usages of rules to somebody’s advantage was one of the first project managers I was reporting to. Whenever there was a request to add or change something in the project, he always had the same answer:

Of course, we can do this. Though tell me, are we getting more money?
[….]
Or are you okay that we will delay the project by a couple of days?
[…]
Though, of course, we can also not do some other things?
[…]
Just let me know what you want to do.

The sheer enjoyment on his face was radiant, and to be honest, it was spreading to everybody in this project. Sometimes a little bit less for the person who requested the change.

What he did so brilliantly was using the rules that everybody agreed upon before to his advantage to ensure the project was in a stable state. Because everybody decided upon the rules, there might have been a bit of friction, but still, everybody knows that this is what they signed up for.

Be clear on the rules

Rules only exist in-game (and at work) when the players agree on them. If there is no agreement, there are no rules, and when there are no rules, do you want to participate? Make the implicit explicit and define the rules together, and share this with all participants for agreement. The rules are there to protect them and protect the overall game’s (or work’s) integrity and, of course, protect you.

Furthermore, have you noticed that it is a lot easier to push back when you can say: Sorry, there is a rule for that. Instead of: No, I cannot do this.

Rules can make decisions easier, do not shy away from them. Make the implicit explicit to make your life easier.

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