How to ACE Your Next Big Project

This post pulls together several separate threads that I’ve experienced over the past few days. First, I’ve been working on a new speech about healthy sales cultures for a new client, and I’ve found that what seemed to be a straightforward and routine undertaking has gotten much deeper than I expected. Second, I  listened in on a podcast by Tim Hurson on The Sales Experts Channel, in which he introduced me to the concept of the “third third”. Finally, in a conversation with a new client this weekend, he told me that he had begun working on his first book, but abandoned the project when he got negative feedback on his first chapter.

These three separate incidents helped me to spot—or maybe just clarify—a pattern that seems to apply when you take on a difficult project that requires both deep understanding and creativity. I examined similar situations that I’ve been in before, including writing three books, creating new courses, and—of  course—major speeches. I can’t say for sure whether it applies to anyone besides me, but I’m not that different from you, so you might find it helpful.

I noticed that these undertakings seem to go through three phases if they are to succeed:

  1. Ambition
  2. Concern/Crap
  3. Excitement

Ambition: The project has to be ambitious, with just a slight whiff of “fake it ‘til you make it”, for the next two stages to kick in. If the project is comfortably within your current capabilities, the good news is that you won’t go through the concern/crap stage, but the bad news is that you won’t produce anything to get excited about either. On the other hand, it has to be close enough within reach that you have to have some sense of confidence that you can rise to the occasion. For example, for my project I knew that my experience and wide reading have given me a good grasp of the topic, although I’ve never put it together into a coherent package.

It has to be big enough and worthwhile enough to stimulate your interest and sustain it during the inevitable next stage. Even better, make a commitment so you don’t have the option of backing out when the going gets tough, because it will.

Concern/crap: This is by far the hardest but the most productive phase of the entire project. As you get deeper into the topic, you generate concern and inevitably produce crap. The concern arises because as you dig into the nuance and detail of the points you’re trying to make, you realize that you have to learn far more than you thought—and the more you learn, the more you figure out how much more there is still left to know. You discover that others have more expertise than you do, so you begin to doubt your own abilities, maybe even your right to talk about it.

The crap comes out as you start regurgitating everything you know onto the paper or your slide deck, because your concern causes you to overcompensate, and you haven’t thought through the patterns and linkages carefully enough. The less you understand something, the more words you use trying to show otherwise.

But there’s value in just getting stuff on paper, regardless of how bad it is. It builds momentum and helps you think out loud. Plus, as long as you allow yourself enough time, you’ll find that your mind is somehow working on the problem in the background. In my own case, I inevitably wake up in the middle of the night with new insights or a clearer idea of how everything fits together.

The most important thing is to keep going. As Tim Hurson says, we stop thinking before the good stuff comes. So, when my friend quit writing his book because he found out it wasn’t as good as he thought it was, he forfeited his chances of working through to the good stuff. During the concern and crap stage, remember to keep pounding the rock, because frustration can mask the real progress that’s going on underneath.

The crap stage can easily frustrate and discourage you, but here’s where your ambition comes to the rescue. If you’ve committed in some way, you can’t get out of it, so there is no way out but to keep plowing forward to produce something that won’t embarrass you and will truly add value to your audience. With a customer it’s one thing, but if it’s a personal project such as writing a book you might need to go for some type of public commitment to raise the cost of failure.

Excitement: When you break through the concern and crap stage, the glittering prize at the end is the incredible excitement you will feel knowing you’ve produced something fresh and worthwhile. As your key ideas crystallize in your mind, you start cutting out the crap and clutter—chipping off the rough edges and additional polishing makes the hard diamond sparkle through, and you can’t help but be charged up to deliver it.

You know you’re going to deliver something that others will value, and you’re going to look good in the process. You get to the point where your only thought is, like Jack Welch: “I can’t wait to get out there and do this!”

What if you get through the first two stages and you’re still not excited? Repeat steps 1 and 2.

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Going Deep

minerForty miles from Johannesburg SA is a vast gold mine called Mponeng, and it’s the deepest manmade hole on earth, according to a fascinating article in last month’s WSJ. It is so deep that one elevator does not reach to the bottom, because the steel suspension cable gets heavier with every foot descended. It is so deep that the cold winter temperature at the surface increases to 140 degrees at the bottom. The entire three mile journey  to the bottom takes an hour. But it’s the only way to get to where the gold is.

I’ve learned that with some tasks, it takes about that long to get deep enough to where the gold is. In my case, it’s usually writing an article or working on my book, but it also applies to solving problems, strategizing, or just about any task that requires quality thinking. It’s why I’ve learned to schedule my writing in time blocks of 90 minutes; it takes that long to get deep enough to where the good thoughts come.

I often begin an article with an idea that I want to flesh out, and frequently the first outline comes quickly enough. Filling in the words and choosing the right metaphors and stories takes a little longer. But all told, I can often churn out an average article in 30-45 minutes.

Yep, average.

But who wants to be that? The rich veins of gold lie much deeper. It’s easy to skim the surface of the trite and true in the first couple of passes through an idea, but it takes time to go deeper. Deeper is where the new ideas come from. Deeper is where your mind starts freeing up some half-buried memories that suddenly seem to be exactly the right analogy you’re looking for. Deeper is where just the right word or turn of phrase presents itself, like an old friend who turns up unannounced at your door. Deeper is where the hidden connections between seemingly unrelated ideas reveal themselves. Deeper is where insight lurks.

In fact, as I’ve thought deeper about it for this article, I’ve realized that there are generally four layers to a deep session:

  1. The first layer is the Distraction Zone, where you still haven’t cleared your head of other thoughts or your previous tasks. Plenty of research[1] has shown that there is a cost involved in switching between tasks because our minds have trouble quickly locking in to a task after an interruption.
  2. The second layer is the Cliché Zone, where all the easy thoughts are found. Some ideas come quickly to mind, but they come up first precisely because they are the most common, so you haven’t really created anything new or worthwhile.
  3. The third layer is the Struggle Zone, and it’s where most of the real work gets done. When you realize that the clichés are not good enough, you struggle to think of better ideas. You may stare at the screen for minutes on end trying to come up with just the right word, spend time re-writing sentences or rearranging paragraphs, or deleting entire blocks of text—sometimes you delete the whole thing and start over. It’s hard, frustrating, very discouraging, and absolutely necessary, because this is where you stretch. You’re not just dredging up old ideas, you’re creating new ones.
  4. The fourth layer is the Flow Zone, where you break through to the gold beneath, and the ideas start coming fast enough that you’re not always sure you can keep up, and you eventually look up and realize that an hour has gone by and you’ve actually produced something you’re not entirely embarrassed to show to the world.
  5. Actually, there’s an unofficial fifth layer, and it’s a free added bonus. After your deep session, your subconscious mind keeps working, and new ideas or refinements will pop into your mind at the oddest times.

(Of course, this is totally unscientific, being based on a sample size of one and recorded by a biased observer. But Cal Newport, who has studied this more deeply than I have, tells us that that notable creative people spent an average of 5.25 hours per day in deep work.)

Going deep is not easy, but I suppose that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? Here are some suggestions to get more deep work done:

  • Cultivate a ritual. Rituals are a great way to prime your mind and get through the Distraction Zone.
  • Set time blocks. Make an appointment with yourself and keep it. Just make sure you have buffer times set up between blocks to deal with all the unplanned stuff that will come up. I find that 90 minutes works for me, although I’m planning on increasing that.
  • Use the nothing alternative. If you don’t feel like it, you don’t have to write, or plan or think about your problem during your time block, but you’re not allowed to do anything else during that time.
  • Record your sessions and time. It will keep you honest, and especially works well if you’re competitive with yourself.

One final note of encouragement: like training for a marathon, it gets easier over time. But you have to start.

[1] Worker, Interrupted: The Cost of Task Switching, Kermit Pattison, Fast Company

No Task Left Behind? Examining the Nature of Fragmented Work, Gloria Mark, Victor M. Gonzalez, Justin Harris


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Testing Yourself

testingI read an average of two books a week, and have done so all my adult life. (Before then, I read even more.) Not only that, but when I really relate to a topic, I write notes in the margins and highlight important parts, and because most of what I read is non-fiction, one would think that I have filled my head with close to 3,000 books worth of information, knowledge, and maybe even some accidentally accumulated bits of wisdom.

The problem is that apparently my mind has been like a river, with a torrent of information flowing through it but very little staying behind in deep pools of knowledge. To give you an example of how bad it can be, on a recent trip I read Roy Baumeister’s book, Willpower. I found the book fascinating and full of good sense, but I also had the strange feeling that some of the stories were vaguely familiar. When I returned home I checked my bookshelves and discovered that I already owned a copy of the book which I had read a couple of years before and filled with highlights—many of them the same exact ones that I highlighted this time!

So, while it’s great to constantly refresh your stocks of knowledge, I’ve learned that there is a huge difference between lifelong learning and lifelong reading.

It’s an illusion of learning. When I read a book and the ideas make sense, it’s easy to fool myself into thinking that just because I get it now, I will still have it when I need it. You probably remember your school days when everything seemed so clear while you were studying but you could not bring it to mind when you needed it for the test.

Like so much in life, things seem easy until you actually put them to the test. That’s when you find the gaps and weaknesses in your understanding, when you realize how little of what you have read or heard has actually stuck in your mind. If you can’t remember it or apply it when you need it, the time you have invested in learning it the first time has been wasted.

Just like a wild river needs to be dammed to capture the benefit of its power, the secret to retention and understanding is testing. Don’t wait for others to test you, or for life to test you, test yourself. Test yourself by trying to explain it aloud, either to someone else or just to yourself. You can also write down a summary of the ideas, and then go back and check yourself.

Researchers have compared various learning strategies, including highlighting, or reading the same material several times, and have found that the single most effective method of really learning is testing. That’s because when we pull something out of memory, it’s not like opening that drawer in our minds where we stuffed the information—the memory is reconstructed each time we need it. The more we reconstruct it, the easier it is. Testing yourself strips away the illusion of learning and exposes what you do or don’t know.

But testing doesn’t just test—it teaches. It teaches in the same way that lifting a heavy weight several times to failure makes you stronger. You have to find your limits in order to exceed them which is why when testing yourself, the best thing you can do is fail. If you haven’t failed you haven’t found your limits. Failure doesn’t cost you anything, except a little extra time—but that time makes all the difference.

How would you apply this? After you read a page or a chapter or even a whole book (depending on the density and difficulty of the information), set aside a few minutes and try to explain the key ideas out loud or on paper. Explain does not mean a bullet-point listing of the key points. It’s an actual description using full sentences that links the ideas together in narrative or causal links. If you have trouble remembering a key piece of information, resist the temptation to check back—really test yourself by trying to fill in the missing pieces to make complete sense. Then, go back and check yourself. When you find you’ve left out a key point, try again.

It can be devilishly hard to do the first few times, but it does get easier. After you’ve done it enough times, you’ll find that the nature of your reading or listening will also change. You will begin mentally organizing the information in ways that will be easier to retain and call to mind when you need them.

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Productivity - Success

The Nothing Alternative

I’m writing this article right now because I’m not allowed to do anything else.

It’s a simple and powerful productivity trick called the Nothing Alternative. You can use it when you:

  • Have an unpleasant but important task
  • Are trying to establish a new  habit
  • Are prone to procrastination
  • Are easily distracted

There are only two rules. First, you have to set aside time in your schedule for the activity. Second, you don’t have to do the activity if you don’t feel like it, but you can’t do anything else during that time.

I learned about the Nothing Alternative from Roy Baumeister, in his book, Willpower. He cites the example of mystery writer Raymond Chandler, who recommended that the aspiring writer had to set aside four hours a day, during which,

“He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try. He can look out the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor, but he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks.” (p. 254)

The beauty of the Nothing Alternative is that it’s low stress and it’s binary. Since you’re not forced to write (or prospect, or take that online course you’ve been talking about forever, etc.), your brain does not automatically resist. Second, since there’s no gray area, you can’t rationalize your way out of the activity by pretending that just looking at email for a minute or two is OK, or that scanning a couple of blog posts might give you inspiration. (Although refilling the coffee mug is not only acceptable but obligatory.)

When I determined about a month ago to write daily posts and to finally finish my next book, I figured it would  take 90 minutes a day, which I’ve scheduled in my calendar from 7:30 to 9:00 every workday morning that I’m not traveling. Although I haven’t writhed on the floor yet, I have looked out the window a few times, or stared blankly at a flashing cursor on a white screen for a while. But the mind needs activity, and even if I can’t think of what to write, a few minutes of boredom is enough to build up pressure that begins to express itself through the keyboard.

In my own case, I find that the Nothing Alternative is useful during the first few minutes until I get cranked up, and then sometimes after about an hour when I start to lose a bit of steam.

The immediate benefit is a dramatic increase in my writing output. But in addition, I find that crank-up time is decreasing and I can go longer without losing focus.

Incidentally, I wrote this post at 38,000 feet early on a Sunday morning, so it works anywhere. Only the view out the window is different.

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