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Tag: Productivity

Deviation From Expected

Someone sitting at a distance asks for the water bottle near me. I pick up the bottle and throw it at that person. Surprisingly, the cap is not screwed. Water splashes all over. When a bottle has its cap on, we usually expect it to be tightly screwed. When something deviates from the expected, unless there is an indication saying so, it creates trouble and confusion.

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The same principle applies to systems and application design. For example, let us say that you have a development server where someone is running a production cron job. Since this is a development server, someone might take it down for experimentation. No one expects the non-availability of a development server to have untoward consequence.

Whenever you deviate from the expected, ensure you scream from the top of your voice so that no one misses it. Documentation, common conventions and putting in the right processes are some of the ways to mitigate this. The best is not to do it. Whatever you are doing, it always helps to ask, is this a deviation from the expected? If I am not part of the inner circle, would I expect it to be like this?

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Resolving Disagreements

When you disagree with something, either you do it because you think your idea is better or you want to keep your ego intact. Let us ignore the latter and focus on the former where the intention is to let the best idea win. When a group of people sit down and try to resolve disagreements, many a time, it goes nowhere. Sometimes you get this strange feeling of things going around in a circle. This is due to whataboutery and shifting goal posts. You start with an objective, as the discussion progresses, statements lead to counter statements and at the end, no one knows what they are trying to resolve.

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One simple hack to keep discussions on track is to write things down. Project a shared document where you note the objective and the point of contention. Whenever matters go awry, point people to the shared document. This helps everyone involved to stay focused and not to shift goal post as the discussion progresses.

Irrespective of how rational and mature one is, when someone disagrees with something that one believes to be true, one tends to become defensive and shift goal post without truly being aware of it. Writing things down makes one aware of this and helps course correct.

My View

I was looking at Jimi wallets online. Someone peeked at my laptop and asked what is it? I explained it is a rugged waterproof wallet. The other person’s immediate reaction was – Why would anyone need this? This person has never faced the fury of rain while cycling outside.

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Whenever I explain startups spending marketing dollars to acquire users even when they are not generating any profit, I get a dazed look from people coming from a traditional business background. It is difficult for them to grasp the concept of betting on explosive future growth at the expense of today.

Phil Knight, in his book Shoe Dog, writes a lot about how his bank was asking him to preserve capital when all he wanted to do was grow Nike at all costs during its fledgling years.

A lot of prolific US citizens opinionated that Trump had a naught chance at US presidency. The same goes for Brexit.

What is common in all these situations is a difficulty in viewing the world from a lens not tarred by our own experiences. Even if you want to do this, it is extremely difficult to implement because you do not know where to draw the line. Tomorrow, if someone tells you that she has invented the perpetual motion machine, what do you do? Do you dismiss it outright or be skeptical of this person’s claim?

In all these scenarios you have to do suspend your rational mind and view things from a radically incongruent perspective. It is easy to write this but extremely difficult to implement.

Micro Versus Macro Solutions

Imagine a person who walks from her home to office. Frequently she is late to work as she takes time to cover the distance. She wants to improve her pace. She goes to a walking expert to get tips on increasing her walking speed.

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One solution to the problem is to use some other means of transportation instead of walking. If you go to a walking expert, you are going to get tips on improving your walking speed. The expert is not going to ask you to forego walking and use a different mode of transportation. Also, if you are deeply attached to the idea of walking, you might not think of a solution beyond walking. Improving your walking speed is a micro solution whereas using some other means of transportation is a macro solution.

The above is a contrived example but something we come across in our professional and personal lives, both as solution givers as well as ones facing a problem. Programmers sometimes try to optimize the hell out of a piece of code while the right approach might be to chuck the code and use something else. Organisations try to nail down a process to the last mile while a sensible solution might be to completely do away with the process.

We lean towards micro solutions when we are either deeply entwined in a problem or are the domain expert in that particular area. In these situations, we tend to think within the bounds of a problem and not outside.

When you come up with a solution, bracket it as micro or macro. Being aware is the first step towards becoming better at anything. Also, outside view helps. Find someone who is not an expert in the domain or one who is not acutely aware of the problem. Run your solution through them. They might lead you to a macro solution or make you aware that what you have is a micro solution. Taking time and mind off a problem helps too like how Archimedes had his eureka moment.

Last but not the least, take a walk.

Process Introduction

Whenever a new process is introduced, there is always going to be some discomfort. The cause can be categorized into:
1. Uneasiness due to newness.
2. There is a problem with the process itself.

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Category one is due to human nature. Deviation from an established routine causes queasiness and a yearning for the old way. It takes over-communication, repetition and sometimes “just giving it time” to tide over this initial phase. This is usually a short-lived phenomenon.

Category two is the troublesome one. When someone complains about a newly introduced process, it is extremely important to get to the source of this discomfort. Prod as to whether the reason for disapproval falls into category one or two.

A good process has to roughly follow the Libertarian Paternalism idea popularised by Behavioural Economist Richard Thaler. The process should be a nudge towards better behavior rather than a dictatorial dictum. A process whose intention is to police people does not end up well.

A new process introduces some amount of friction but this friction has to be local, not global. This friction should not slow down the task at a global level, instead, it should aid speed, agility, and stability.

Take the checklist process as an example. It nudges people towards being more aware and aids better behavior. It does introduce friction at the local level but on the whole, globally, the task speeds up with a much better result on an average.

It always helps to think along these lines to figure out whether a new process is worth its salt. Instead of introducing a new process and then reneging, put in the effort to evaluate the efficacy of a process beforehand.

Checklist

Checklists have been in vogue for quite some time now. Probably Atul Gawde’s book The Checklist Manifesto kickstarted this. I have been late to the party but once I arrived, I never left. A checklist is an amazing tool to organize personal as well as professional life.

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Hospitals have figured out that by following simple checklists they can reduce the surgical mortality rate by a big percentage. The airline industry, which is an epitome of the highest possible standard in safety and training, relies on checklists for fail-safeness.

Who does not forget daily chores? Who has not kicked themselves for being late on bill payments? A to-do list solves this problem. There are tons of to-do apps out there, just pick one to start with. Apart from solving daily trivial problems, a checklist is a great way to keep track of long-term goals too, be it saving more, losing weight or adopting a healthier lifestyle.

Professional life requires one to regularly follow-up. A checklist is a great way to list down the follow-ups needed. On the flip side, no one likes doing follow-ups. If you want to be one of those rare people who respond without requiring to follow up, use a timebound to-do app to keep track.

Checklist brings efficiency to project management. Having a checklist of all the tasks to be accomplished before taking a project live leaves little room for ambiguity, misses and last minute scurrying.

A short-term or throw away project may not justify the time spent in automating disparate tasks related to the project. In this scenario, a checklist is a great substitute.

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All organizations have an onboarding process. Make a checklist out of it and hand it over to employees on the day of joining. All software projects have some common alerts and metrics needed. Checklist them. Once you do this, you do not have to bother about this for every new project. View checklist as a temporary substitute while you scout for software to automate these.

In short, a checklist can be used as a Swiss Army knife to organize and automate life. A checklist institutes repeatability eliminates ambiguity and improves efficiency.

PS: Link for the above comic from XKCD.

Self-infliction

I recently watched the movie Hichki. The Plot of the movie revolves around a group of kids from less privileged strata of society who get a chance to attend an elite school. During the course of time, these kids feel that the school and the more privileged students there do not give them the respect they deserve. They rebel against this by not studying, causing nuisance and failing grades.

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Kids can be excused when they exhibit self-inflicting behavior but sadly, a lot of adults too manifest this. One common adult refrain is – The organization is not treating me well, so I am not putting my best into the job. Keeping aside morality and call of duty, who loses due to this behavior? It is you. When you do not put your best into anything, you do not improve. If you do not improve, you do not progress.

It is in your best interest to put 100% into your job irrespective of how your organization treats you. If you feel you are not treated well, talk to your higher up and see if you can change this. If not, move on. Slacking is not an answer. You are harming yourself by exhibiting this sort of behavior.

Solving Problems

When faced with a problem, the way we should think is:
1. What is the quick and dirty solution?
2. What is the long-term solution?

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Most of the time, one tends to do only one conveniently ignoring the other. Our mind goes into overdrive and quickly implements a hacky solution and then we forget the problem only to find it re-occurring. Or, we languish to implement a long-term solution while the problem drags on.

One of the reasons why we might find it difficult to implement both is that they require a fundamentally different kind of thinking. The quick and dirty solution involves hustling and running around to get things done. Somehow by hook or crook, one wants to plug the hole. A long-term solution requires one to analyze the problem from all angles, think deeply about it and figure out a well-rounded solution. A vague comparison would be system 1 thinking versus system 2.

Both are equally important – neglecting either is a recipe for disaster.

Pay The Price

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Obstacle racer Amelia Boone says that she is not able to devote enough time to friends and family due to the demands of her tough training regime. That is the price she pays for being on top of her sports.

In the movie HEAT, Robert De Niro says – “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” That is the price he pays for being a master thief.

Michael Mauboussin says his quest for knowledge means he misses out on latest series like Game Of Thrones. That is the price he pays for being a crème de la crème investor.

I feel one of the reasons why people give up something too soon or midway is they have not figured out the price they have to pay for doing it.

Everything that one does has a price. Sometimes it is implicit, sometimes not. Better to figure it out beforehand.

Oops, I did it again

It is a packed elevator. Occupants are rubbing shoulders. Stops at a floor. Door opens. A lady wants to get in but there is no room. Annoyance plays on her face. Elevator moves on.

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We all know that worrying over things that we cannot control is a pointless exercise. We are aware of the many cognitive biases that we have, we still fall prey to them. Why does this happen? There is a huge difference between knowing something and internalizing it.

Daniel Kahneman says that in spite of studying biases throughout his life, he is no better at avoiding them compared to others. Dan Ariely believes Kahneman was playing to the audience with that quote and we do get better at recognizing cognitive biases and sidestepping them.

Two simple practices that I find useful in becoming more aware of my emotions and biases:
1. Carrying out a daily audit. Every night, I go over circumstances that day where I believe I could have reacted better. Along with this, I also ruminate situations where my cognitive biases one-upped me.
2. Whenever I know that I am getting into an unpleasant situation, I keenly observe my emotions. This might be something as mundane as getting stuck in a traffic jam to dealing with an unpleasant situation.

I am not sure whether anyone will be able to completely eliminate these but I believe we can get incrementally better at it. Minuscule daily improvements compound to mammoth changes over a long time.