J.D. Meier's Blog

Software Engineering, Project Management, and Effectiveness

The Secret of Results

The Secret of Results

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“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” -- Aristotle

You can master your time management only to spend your time on the wrong things. You can master task management and miss windows of opportunity. What are the real secrets to great results?

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I’ve found that there are 3 keys to effective results:

  1. Time
  2. Energy
  3. Technique

As I explain this, it should become obvious why.

Time
When you don’t put in your time, you don’t get the results.  It’s that simple.  The treadmill isn’t going to walk itself.  The project isn’t going to finish itself.  As one of my marathon runner friends says, “You have to put in your hours.”

Whenever I’m not getting effective results in an area, I have to ask myself, am I actually putting in the time?   Putting in time is one of the keys to deliberate practice.  To give you the quick generalized idea of deliberate practice, it’s one great hour of time spent mastering your craft, using a technique that you can improve, refine, and get better over time.  It’s living the idea that practice makes perfect.

However, just throwing time at things isn’t the whole answer.  Especially, in a knowledge worker world and information age where what you do or why you do it, is as important as how you do it, and sometimes even more important.

Know the minimum time you need to spend to get meaningful results.

Some good sanity checks for time are:

  • Are you putting in your hours?
  • Are you spending your time on the right things?
  • What’s the minimum you can spend to get the results you need?
  • What are the time windows that really matter?
  • Are you spending $20 on a $5 problem?
  • When are you done?
  • Are you setting up the right time boundaries and timeboxes?

Time is just a piece of the puzzle though.  Another key is …

Energy
Have you ever spent 40, 60, 80 hours or more in a week, only to wonder what you actually accomplished?  Have you ever accomplished more in a day, than you have in a week?  Have you ever accomplished more in an hour than you have in a day?  This is the stuff that power hours are made of.  This is the secret of productive artists. 

This is also the secret of changing the game when it comes to time.

Energy is the secret of time management.  Whether you live by the 80/20 rule (the pareto principle), or read The 4-Hour Work Week, or The Power of Full Engagement, the simple pattern or principle at play here is that you’re more productive when your energy is strong.

If you want to spin circles and move mountains, then before your throw more time at problems, first fix your energy.  Whether you feel like The Little Engine that Could, or you feel like The Little Engine That Can’t … makes all the difference in getting results.

I’ve interviewed many people across Microsoft at all levels to find the keys to energy management.  Here’s the surprise.  The surprise is that it’s simple:

Fix time for eating, sleeping, and working out.

Yes, that really is the pattern across all the Softies I interviewed.  The ones that mastered their energy, got more power hours in their week, and accomplished more, by doing less, fixed time for eating, sleeping, and working out.  Their day worked around these 3 things, not the other way around (as a tangent, a surprise for me was how many people’s best sleep pattern was 11pm – 7am.  I haven’t figured out why yet or if it’s just correlation.)

So if you want to get more done, by spending less time, while improving results, improve your energy.  Add power hours to your week and add creative hours to your week.

But that’s not the whole secret.  There’s more.  If you really want to drive your energy, you need to know another secret:

Spend more time in your strengths, and less time in your weaknesses.

Marcus Buckingham, Martin Seligman, and countless others taught us that.  Spending time in your strengths gives you energy.  It feeds on itself.  Spending time in your weaknesses drains you.  It sucks your life force.  If you know the game Gauntlet, you know what I’m talking about (“warrior is about to die …”)

Your strengths are not simply what you’re good at, just like weaknesses aren’t what you are bad at.   They aren’t your skills.  If anything, strengths are your natural talents.  A good way to figure out your strengths is to look at your week and find the things you can do all day.  The way to find your weaknesses is to find the things you can’t do for more than a short-burst without getting drained.  In fact, just thinking about it drains you.

Some good checks for energy are:

  • Have you fixed time for eating, sleeping, and working out?
  • Can you add more power hours to your week? (and take more draining hours away?)
  • Can you add more creative hours to your week?
  • Are you spending your best power hours and creative hours on your most important results?
  • Where can you spend more time in your strengths, and less time in your weaknesses?
  • Do you have the right boundaries in place? (know your limits in terms of when you need to sleep, when you need to eat, when you are mentally drained … etc.)
  • What are your catalysts and drains? (What tasks drain you?  What people drain you?  What tasks catalyze you?  What people catalyze you?)

If this doesn’t open your eyes to endless possibilities for improving every day of your life, please see me.  It’s a first.

Technique
This is the skills game.   It’s where strategies and tactics make all the difference in the world.  This is also where you experience and wisdom can truly pay off.

You can throw time and energy at things, but if you use the wrong technique, this is why you can churn and burn.   A lot of people come to me for email best practices.  They spend too much time in email, but email is part of their core job.  They’re always curious how I spend no more than 30 minutes a day in mail, yet deal with a couple hundred mails a day, and always keep a zero inbox.  It’s technique.   Seriously.

Sure I could use the Force or will my way through it.  But that’s either lucking into success or success through heroic effort … if it even works.  That’s not repeatable or sustainable.  Instead, it’s better to find and master the proven practices.

I will say that I’ve learned to value the ROI of proven practices.  I’ve spent 10+ years of deliberate practice in finding and sharing proven practices on the patterns & practices team.  It’s an art and skill to find the practices, methods, and techniques that actually work.  But when you do, it’s gold.

The problem is, there’s no silver bullet.  Instead, it’s about exploring and adding arrows to your quiver, more tools to your your mental toolbox, and more skills to your tool belt.  It’s also about using mentors – mentors are the short-cut.  It’s also about looking for patterns and testing what works for you.  Context matters.  It’s also about knowing how to measure and test success.  It’s also about continuously innovating in your approach.   This is how you take advantage of the latest science, and leap frog ahead.

The beauty is that working on your technique is an integral part of deliberate practice.  It’s also how you can find your flow and be fully engaged in what you do.  It’s also how you can get amazing impact with less effort … and less time.  It’s part of mastering your craft, and getting the system on your side.

So putting it all together …

… the foundation for achieving great results is the masterful blending of time, energy, and technique. 

If you want to amplify your impact or improve your results, look to each of these areas, but remember that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

If you like this secret, there are plenty more where that came from in my first non-technical book, Getting Results the Agile Way.

  • Great--my experience, too, using scheduled sleep, eat, exercise.  Friends often comment on how much I get done, but doesn't seem difficult to me, probably because of using your strategy for 30 work years.  Sent this to my friends, thanks.

  • @ Jeff -- Thanks for the endorsement :)

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